Friday, May 29, 2009

David Bowie 10: Young Americans

In love with Philly soul, Bowie’s next album was recorded rather quickly, and largely in the center of the action at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound. David Sanborn came over from the tour, but the key addition to the band was guitarist Carlos Alomar, who would be the silent weapon on many Bowie albums and tours henceforth.

Young Americans was a popular album, thanks to its breathless title track. The rest of the first side explores different soul styles of one word each: “Win” is smooth and silky; “Fascination” is fat and funky; and “Right” gets into the groove with a minimalist contrast to the patter utilized throughout.

That’s a good start, but side two is pretty schizophrenic. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is another long one that tries but doesn’t always hold. His love of obscure covers is further demonstrated by “Across The Universe”, which John Lennon himself endorsed, but it doesn’t really go anywhere until the end once he switches the croon to a shout. “Can You Hear Me” slows things down to distraction, and “Fame” became another unlikely #1 hit. Lennon got credit for the riff, and the lyrics (when you can decipher them) are pretty pointed. The song takes the soul we’ve been hearing upside down, leaving a clue to his next stop.

Bowie was so excited by the two Lennon-oriented tracks that he bumped three originals from the album; all would appear as bonus tracks in the CD age. Two of them are lost Bowie classics; “Who Can I Be Now?” would have been a welcome highlight, and “It’s Gonna Be Me” is another effective torch song. (An alternate mix took its place this century.) However, the pointless disco retread “John I’m Only Dancing (Again) 1975” had originally sat in the can for a few years, came out on a single once he was two styles past the original recording, and took up space on the otherwise worthy Changestwobowie compilation. Those not familiar with the original would have been confused. But Bowie had certainly succeeded in confounding expectations more than once, and each time, no sooner had he found a hit style, he turned on it.

A previous version of this review rated the album half a star lower than it is now; maybe it’s nostalgia, or maybe it really isn’t as disappointing as we recalled. But for further perspective on Young Americans, 2016’s retrospective Who Can I Be Now? box set included the album alongside its original Lennon-free sequence, when it was known as The Gouster. This version begins with “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)”, continuing side one with “Somebody Up There” and “It’s Gonna Be Me”; side two has “Who Can I Be Now?”, “Can You Hear Me”, “Young Americans” and “Right”. All of the songs that made the eventual album, save the title track, appear in earlier mixes. It doesn’t replace the album we’ve known all these years, but is informative.

David Bowie Young Americans (1975)—3
1991 Rykodisc: same as 1975, plus 3 extra tracks
2007 Collector’s Edition: same as 1991, plus DVD

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bob Dylan 12: New Morning

This was a little more like it. At the time people thought it was a white flag due to the bad reaction to Self Portrait but the studio logs say otherwise. Dylan went into this album intending to cut even more covers he wanted to play—along with a voice halfway between rasp and croon—but managed to come up with an album’s worth of originals before too long. (Some of those covers would surface soon enough, unfortunately.)

“If Not For You” starts us off with a nice idea, but George Harrison’s version, out a few months later, is still the best. “Day Of The Locusts” introduces the piano to the proceedings, on a song taken from his own recent headlines. “Time Passes Slowly” is very pleasant, and a hidden classic. “Went To See The Gypsy” seems to continue from the fables of John Wesley Harding, while “Winterlude” goes back to the Nashville Skyline sound. The side ends with the all-out hep-cat jazz of “If Dogs Run Free”. You’ll either hate this one or find it pretty funny.

The title track starts side two with one of the better ones, but “Sign On The Window” is the most telling song, with his overt wish for the simplicity of family life. As slight as it is “One More Weekend” would have also fit on Skyline, but “The Man In Me” takes a more mature view of the situation. (This song was basically ignored until The Big Lebowski brought it to the mainstream, or somewhere on one of its sidestreets.) “Three Angels” seems to want to be about something, and then “Father Of Night” ends it all on an unsettling note—a prayer almost.

Critics haven’t been as kind to New Morning over the years, but as with many things, if you’re not expecting much, you can be pleasantly surprised. (Even after the in-joke painting on the previous album, the cover for this one is just as startling, with its almost come-hither leer. In other photos of the time he almost looks like Richard Dreyfuss.) Taken all together the album does seem to be something of a cross between John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, which is meant in a good way. Four decades would pass before we could better understand where he was at. And it would be a long time before he’d depend so much on the piano. But was he really “back”? Time would tell.

Bob Dylan New Morning (1970)—

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bob Dylan 11: Self Portrait

They dealt with John Wesley Harding. They endured Nashville Skyline. Now, with Self Portrait, diehard Dylan fans were at the end of their collective ropes. Roughly four years after one of the greatest double albums ever issued, here was another two-record set, filled not with that thin, wild mercury music and advanced prose worthy of the Summer of Love, but rather a cross between some old folk tunes and other tracks that sat squarely in the middle of the road.

That’s not to say that what was contained within wasn’t pleasant. But whether or not you liked the smooth sound of Nashville Skyline, chances are you weren’t ready for what came next. If you haven’t been prepared, strap yourself in for this one.
Some of the tracks came from the “crooner” aftermath of Nashville Skyline, a few were included from his appearance (with The Band) at the British version of Woodstock in the Isle of Wight, and others came from further sessions from the new decade. In many cases, he recorded basic tracks, and let the producer embellish them at will and at length.

Even though it’s probably the best song in the set, “All The Tired Horses” consists of the same two lines repeated by a bunch of women over a gentle acoustic and string backing. No Dylan nowhere. “Alberta #1” is a lazy rendition of a blues song, then “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” ladles on the syrup. “Days Of 49” is a little raspier, but you’re allowed to be confused. (Oh my goodness indeed.) “Early Mornin’ Rain” is a Gordon Lightfoot song, and would have been fine if he’d written it himself. But then “In Search Of Little Sadie” loses her trail through every key imaginable, which should be proof enough he was doing it all on purpose.

“Let It Be Me” sucks the life out of the Everly Brothers song, then he pulls out the mandolins for a straight rendition of “Little Sadie” that somehow isn’t as much fun as the first side’s closer. “Woogie Boogie” is another instrumental that can’t have taken too much time to write. “Belle Isle” tries very hard to stay pretty, but “Living The Blues” is a boring Skyline refugee. The worst is yet to come: a lousy take of “Like A Rolling Stone” from the Isle of Wight, complete with flubbed words. The crowd cheers, amazingly.

“Copper Kettle” is a sweet moonshine ballad, but “Gotta Travel On” sounds too much like Elvis trying to be hip. To prove the point, “Blue Moon” sends the song back to Bing Crosby. “The Boxer” is a daring experiment, with its dueling vocals—the crooner with the raspy, not at all like Garfunkel and Garfunkel—and proof he could turn on that voice whenever he felt like it. “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)” is his nod to the Manfred Mann hit version of his own song; too bad the Band couldn’t remember how to play it. “Take Me As I Am” ends side three with a tempting dare.

“Take A Message To Mary” relies too much on the women singing backup. In a foreboding of the 21st century, “It Hurts Me Too” is basically the old Elmore James song, but he takes full credit. “Minstrel Boy” is another experiment from the Isle Of Wight, and he hasn’t played it since. “She Belongs To Me” is the rousing opener from that set, the one that nearly got him killed by the crowd. “Wigwam” has a melody he didn’t bother to write words for, and it all comes screeching home with “Alberta #2”, only marginally better than the first all those sides ago.

So what’s it all about? Self Portrait endures as the first major middle finger from a major artist, except that it’s obvious that the perpetrator actually gave a crap about what he was laying down on tape. Given what else emerged at the time, Dylan was obviously amidst some kind of writers’ block. At the same time, it appeared he wanted to put something out to keep atop of the marketplace. By this time what would soon be known as “bootlegs” had become commonplace, complete with the same lack of chronological thematics as demonstrated here.

The question remains: how much did Dylan care about these tracks? As time went on, he insisted that it was all a ploy to get the fanatics off his trail (“Why was it a double album?” Kurt Loder asked; “If you’re gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!” replied Dylan), but there’s no mistaking the passion that he actually puts into (some of) these performances, especially considering that he’d still be performing a few of them twenty, thirty and forty years on. If you’re not expecting much, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re expecting something truly lackluster, you won’t be disappointed either. Here in the modern CD age, some of these songs might be best served as bonus tracks on other albums, but it is what it is, and Bob wanted to it to stand. So he did. And it does. So much so that of all the albums he would go on to release over the next forty-plus years, this was the first to get an archeological treatment all its own. That actually helped the cause, but it’s another story for later.

Bob Dylan Self Portrait (1970)—

Friday, May 22, 2009

John Lennon 11: Milk And Honey

As far back as the autumn of 1980, upon the release of Double Fantasy, we heard that there would shortly be another album from John and Yoko, to be called Milk And Honey. Was this it? We’ll never know. Still, it’s intriguing to see that the songs John left off of Double Fantasy weren’t any worse than the ones he did choose.

With the fun kablam of “I’m Stepping Out”, you’re nodding your head and enjoying the ride. This is slowed down by Yoko’s herky-jerky “Sleepless Night”, as the album is also sequenced with the call-and-response that defined its predecessor. The lackluster “I Don’t Wanna Face It” is another hint that perhaps househusbandry wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and “Don’t Be Scared” does little to diffuse that. But man, “Nobody Told Me” was great on the radio, and still cool today. (We heard “there’s nappies in the bathroom” instead of the British pronunciation of “Nazis”, which still makes more sense.) “O’ Sanity” is inoffensive, and luckily stops short.

“Borrowed Time” was the third single, and the one everybody pounced on as “prophetic”. (John sure liked reggae, even if he couldn’t play it.) “Your Hands” is a Japanese lesson, and we’re still not sure whose hands Yoko’s singing about. John comes crawling back with the hideous “Forgive Me (My Little Flower Princess)”, which does nothing to erase any stereotypes. “Let Me Count The Ways” may or may not have been written in 1980; nonetheless “Grow Old With Me” is very much the wedding song John wanted it to be. Since he didn’t have the chance to record it all big and lush like he heard it in his head, this voice-piano-and-rhythm-box demo will have to do. The spooky “You’re The One” ends the album with a mournful sigh for what might have been.

While it’s nice to have these John songs, they work much better on their own rather than interrupted by Yoko. There is still some question whether Milk And Honey would have been released in this form had he lived; additionally, were Yoko’s songs also left over from 1980 or added on to make this as close to Double Fantasy as possible? Either way, this was the first tantalizing peek into the vaults, which would continue in spurts from time to time and illuminate much better material. (The 2002 CD reissue included an increasingly common mix of Yoko’s “Every Man Has A Woman” with John’s harmony brought to the front, along with home demos of “I’m Stepping Out”, “I’m Moving On” and several minutes from a December 8th interview.)

John Lennon & Yoko Ono Milk And Honey (1984)—3
2002 reissue: same as 1984, plus 4 extra tracks

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Neil Young 29: Mirror Ball

With the ghost of Kurt Cobain hovering, Neil spent a bit of time playing with Pearl Jam for one-offs and eventually a full-fledged tour. Mirror Ball was recorded quickly in two short spurts, and was released less than a year after Sleeps With Angels. He wanted the band to be credited on the spine but record companies got in the way. But the kids knew who the band was, and as a result it was one of his highest charting albums in a while.

“Song X” gets us rolling with a mysterious sea-chantey feel, dripping with foreboding. “Act Of Love” refers to either an abortion or a prostitute; it isn’t clear. “I’m The Ocean” shouldn’t be as good as it is, but it truly churns along like waves in a storm. Both piano (not played by Neil) and pump organ figure prominently in the mix. “Big Green Country” has a tumbling change, with a vivid portrait of a “cancer cowboy”. “Truth Be Known” is the slowest tune yet, and doesn’t really go anywhere.

“Downtown” seems to be a perversely affectionate song of praise for kids who weren’t born during the Woodstock era yet embraced the heroes of that time. Hendrix and Jimmy Page get name-checked, and it sounds almost like he’s describing a place where he’d actually like to hang out. “What Happened Yesterday” is only 45 seconds long, and uses the same melody as the bridge in “Big Green Country” but with just the organ. By the time the ambiguous “Peace And Love” starts, a lot of these songs have starts to sound too much alike. Eddie Vedder sings his own lyrics here, and John Lennon is mentioned, but why? “Throw Your Hatred Down” has that piano again, and sounds automatic at first, but manages to emerge in the choruses. “Scenery” continues the vague theme with a slow, plodding change over repetitions about the land of the free and the home of the brave, and tells us the album’s almost over. “Fallen Angel” is another organ snippet, this time sung to the tune of “I’m The Ocean”.

Mirror Ball is basically a faster Crazy Horse album, and gave the world a chance to hear Pearl Jam without Eddie singing (though he did turn up all right). It’s a decent album, but something’s missing; it doesn’t excite like others of his albums with the same attitudes. The first handful of songs has promise, but that’s about it. Luckily for us, though, he was on a roll, and there was more music on the way.

Neil Young Mirror Ball (1995)—3

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bob Dylan 10: Nashville Skyline

Even those who’d been patient with John Wesley Harding had to admit this was pretty weird. The cover of Nashville Skyline suggested something of a three card monte con, and then that voice: a sweet croon unlike anything heard to date on an official album. Was this the same guy who wished horrible things on masters of war and predicted hard rain?

The only excuse he’d give for the voice was that he’d quit smoking. Considering how he’s sounded since then it’s safe to say the American Heart Association wouldn’t be using him as a sponsor anytime soon. But not only did The Voice provide a character of sorts for the album, but it brought him his first hit single in a good while.

The cover shot seemed like enough of a gag (check one of the props on the front cover of Bringing It All Back Home while you’re at it) but from the first minute of the album you know there will be no thin wild mercury here. A remake of “Girl From The North Country” shows off that sweet voice, complete with Johnny Cash trading verses. They sound a little tentative, yet made for each other. “Nashville Skyline Rag” is an instrumental that began five years earlier as “Suze”, and everyone in the room gets to take a lead. “To Be Alone With You” is the first real song, starting from “is it rolling, Bob?”; it’s not much, but it will have to do. “I Threw It All Away” is a lament, and a sad one, then “Peggy Day” takes the worst Tin Pan Alley clichés and runs them into the ground.

Side two starts out strong with “Lay Lady Lay”—still a classic, and it still doesn’t sound like him at all. “One More Night” could have been written by anyone hanging around Music Row. “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” is something of a companion to “I Threw It All Away”, made better by the Hee Haw-hokiness of “Country Pie”. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” is the grand finale, and worthy of the town where it was recorded.

Dylan going country caused about as much of a stir as it did when he went electric. Most people found reason to enjoy this album, and those who didn’t only lost 27 minutes off their lives. There’s still something charming about Nashville Skyline forty years on; Jakob Dylan describes it as the sound of his parents falling in love. And what’s not to like about that?

Bob Dylan Nashville Skyline (1969)—

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bob Dylan 9: John Wesley Harding

If you’re reading this you’re probably aware that 1967 was the year of psychedelia, when even bands who should have known better took the example set by Sgt. Pepper and experimented with new sounds to see who could sound the most out there. And with Dylan staying quiet most of the year, whatever he had to say when he got around to it would be really out there, right?

Not quite. Unbeknownst to the public for some time yet, he’d been quietly raising his family, reading the Bible and jamming with the band soon to be known as The Band at their house while the kids were at school. Finally, at year’s end he emerged with his first new statement since the groundbreaking Blonde On Blonde. The short story on the back cover gently poked fun at his messianic status, and the twelve songs on John Wesley Harding—none of which had been tested in the Band’s basement over the summer, as far as we can tell—were as understated as anything he’d ever put out.

In a sign of things to come, his voice already sounds different, with less whine and more croon. And instead of the swirling chaotic imagery of late, he delivered a set of simple three-verse songs that could almost be hymns, most of which have their first line as the title. The eponymous track sets the tone fairly quickly, a tribute to a misunderstood outlaw. “As I Went Out One Morning” tells an apocryphal tale of Thomas Paine, with a suitably mysterious ending. “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” seems to be Biblical, except that the saint in question lived centuries after the Bible was written. The original version “All Along The Watchtower” is a nice change for those sick of the Hendrix take, which really is the definitive one. It’s a circular tale, beginning in the third verse. “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” tells a tale almost as misleading as the parable on the back cover. Once again he leads us to a seemingly profound message that turns out to be as paradoxical as “Nothing is revealed.” “Drifter’s Escape” is far too charming for a one-chord song; this would also be covered by Hendrix.

“Dear Landlord” is the best track, based around the piano and his own circumstances. It’s a nice change of pace, especially when followed by “I Pity The Poor Immigrant”, which is pretty, and “I Am A Lonesome Hobo”, which is too nondescript. Things pick up with “The Wicked Messenger”, a sharp tune that sports some lines that seem to mean more than they say. The hymns are over by the time “Down Along The Cove” comes around (there’s that piano again), and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is a wonderful send-off, and an early clue to the new direction.

John Wesley Harding is understated but excellent. He recorded the songs accompanied only by bass and drums, leading us to wonder if he’d completely ruled out a bigger sound that the Band might have been able to provide. Perhaps he was content to let the songs speak for themselves, and give the “experts” plenty of material to work with, to see where he was at.

Bob Dylan John Wesley Harding (1967)—4

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Firm 2: Mean Business

A tour followed the release of The Firm, with the rest of the set filled in with selections from Death Wish II and Paul Rodgers’ solo album. Amazingly enough, less than a year later, they had a second album, some of which developed out of the songs performed on tour. The packaging on Mean Business was even simpler than the first album, a foreshadowing of the whimper with which the band would end.

“Fortune Hunter” comes crashing through the wall with all the subtlety of a runaway pickup truck, a ferocious rhythm and unintelligible lyrics. Jimmy tries to keep up with the solo and fails, then it switches and changes into another, slower song that seems completely unrelated, only to build back into the original tune. “Cadillac” got most of the potshots upon release, a lumbering stink with too much fretless bass and misplaced bowing effects. It’s also much too long. For ‘80s cheese it’s tough to beat “All The King’s Horses”. The keyboards are canned, the chorus probably took two minutes to steal and the declaration “This ivory tower was built on rock, not sand.” You tell ‘em, Paul. “Live In Peace” fades up from that, a remake of a song from the Rodgers solo album. It’s got the piano to keep Bad Company fans happy, an amazing solo that’s one of Page’s best, and an anti-Cold War sentiment that goes completely against the American mindset at the time.

“Tear Down The Walls” has an offbeat riff that’s hard to follow from the start, with only the drums and bass slap to make it at all outstanding. “Dreaming” is apparently bassist Tony Franklin’s first recorded composition, and the other guys rise to fill it in admirably. “Free To Live” is just a stepping stone to the grand finale, the feel-good anthem to end all anthems: “Spirit Of Love”. If this song doesn’t make you raise both your arms and scream along with the chorus, then there’s no help for you.

They did another tour and that was that. Paul Rodgers went on his own and eventually joined Queen, the bass player ended up in Blue Murder, and the drummer did a stint in AC/DC. So are these albums really any good? Nobody else seems to think so. But they go together very well. When the day arrives that Everybody’s Dummy receives the Pulitzer Prize for Why The Firm Is The Most Underrated Band Of The 20th Century, we hope there will be a quote from Jimmy Page himself for the flyleaf, something along the lines of “I was actually in this band, and even I thought we stank.”

The Firm Mean Business (1986)—

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Firm 1: The Firm

The band known as The Firm was born from a chance collaboration between Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers, lead vocalist from Free and Swan Song labelmates Bad Company. The quartet stuck around long enough to record two albums that combine to fill up a 90-minute Maxell tape, the gold standard for so many years. (There’s something to be said about a musical entity whose output can be so neatly contained.) The eponymous debut was the bigger hit, and for good reason.

“Closer” starts with a grungy guitar part—kind of like a backwards Keith Richards riff. There’s even horns blasting through from time to time. Soon enough the vocal kicks in, then we hear the soon-to-be omnipresent fretless bass. (If that sound bugs you, get out now. You will not be able to handle another 85 minutes of it.) Page’s guitar sound is a touch more indicative of his ‘80s style, played through a Telecaster copy with modern effects. “Make Or Break” is stolen from “Rock Steady” from the first Bad Co album. A lot of wah-wah beats the riff into the ground, then the drumbeat keeps going at the end to lead into “Someone To Love”, the worthy second single, complete with fake ending. “Together” doesn’t have much going for it, and was the B-side for the first single, “Radioactive”, which took about ten listens to catch on. The lyrics are pretty average, and the solo doesn’t sound at all like Page. (And for good reason, too—Paul Rodgers says he played it.) But just try to avoid that fade: “RADIO, RADIO, RADIO, RADIOACTIVE.”

Side two presents a gruesome rendition of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”, which wasn’t good for Hall & Oates to do either (and makes about as much sense as the stupid remake of “Stairway To Heaven” that actually charted the following year, but let’s stay on topic). The sneaky “Money Can’t Buy” follows, with a subtle riff from “Hell’s Bells” and weird keyboards that crop up at strange moments, setting us up for the finale. “Satisfaction Guaranteed” is simple but great, the next radio hit FM-wise, and deservedly so. “Midnight Moonlight” is a musical descendent of “Kashmir”, a nine-minute semi-acoustic exploration with extemporaneous lyrics and plenty of fretless bass, female backing vocals, and another meter-ignorant hook. Critics are split as to whether it’s the best or worst thing Jimmy Page had ever done.

Two and a half decades on, both the band and the album called The Firm get unfairly slammed as overindulgent sludge, even by Zeppelin fans who can spell their favorite band’s name correctly. Perhaps it’s a nostalgia thing, but the album still holds up today, and sounds very good in the car with the windows open on the first nice day of spring.

The Firm The Firm (1985)—

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bob Dylan 8: Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits

With their cash cow laid up in Woodstock, either a brain-damaged vegetable or on the verge of signing with MGM, Columbia made sure to keep Dylan on the charts with that old standby, the greatest hits album. At least this time they came up with something listenable, which wouldn’t always be the rule.

All but three of the songs chosen for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits had actually been released as singles in the US, so the title wasn’t totally misleading. But in many of the cases, the average radio listener would have been more familiar with the more commercial versions by the likes of the Byrds, the Turtles and Peter, Paul & Mary. (To this day it’s not uncommon to hear people say they like Dylan songs when sung by anyone but their author.)

Even so, each of the ten tracks has passed into the general vernacular. Protest anthems like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” sit comfortably alongside such electric hits as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone”. The stark “It Ain’t Me Babe” contrasts nicely with “I Want You” and “Just Like A Woman”. And besides being a very well-sequenced compilation, with songs collected from six different records, it also includes the first album appearance of “Positively 4th Street”, another stinging putdown disguised by a relatively pleasant keyboard accompaniment.

For the mildly curious, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits is a great place to start. But once you’ve worn it out and moved on to the albums proper, this one may not get pulled out of the rack as often. But it will, and it will be enjoyed.

Bob Dylan Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (1967)—4

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bob Dylan 7: Blonde On Blonde

Blonde On Blonde was the first major double LP by an established rock artist, and also one of the best. It was the pinnacle of Dylan’s electric period, taking the New York white blues influence to Nashville for a change of scenery, ending up with a mix he later dubbed “that thin, wild mercury sound”.

Right off the bat it offers something different. Punctuated by a drunken brass band encouraging choruses of “everybody must get stoned”, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is still a great recording, and one that doesn’t sound right any other way. “Pledging My Time” is a plodding rewrite of “It Hurts Me Too”, featuring lots of harmonica. One of his absolute best, “Visions Of Johanna” is a wonderful late night portrait. While still something of a journey into the absurd, it seems more real than most somehow. “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)” is a single that sounds like it was recorded with most of what would become The Band, and winds the side down to nothing.

Side two starts with another hit single in “I Want You”, which spits out a lot of lines before resting on the repetition of the title. “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” is another lengthy trip to Desolation Row, but with more humor and first-person involvement. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” picks on Miss Lonely some more, and doesn’t let her get away with anything. (The sleeve credits Bob with lead guitar, and it must have been him, since it’s not very good.) “Just Like A Woman” is a deceptively kinder sounding reflection, but we’re convinced he shortened the line from “takes drugs”, which rhymes with “makes love”, to the less controversial “takes”.

That’s a lot of great music already, but side three is just as strong. “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” brings a trumpet back alongside the harmonica. “Temporary Like Achilles” is another sleepy tune with some subtle dynamics, while its sister “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is more of a country song with an equally effective bridge. “4th Time Around” is something of a hash of “Norwegian Wood” sans sitar, only funnier. (The repartee is nastier, and instead of being abandoned, the singer gets kicked out, though he has to go back for his shirt.) “Obviously 5 Believers” probably didn’t take long to write, but it’s still a great side-closer with a driving arrangement.

Side four is pointedly devoted to a single song, “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”. Exactly two seconds longer than the previous album’s 11-minute closer, it probably didn’t need to take up all of one side, but it’s still a good one, and must have meant a lot to its author. Now we can look back and realize that the bulk of the album has to do with women, either goddess figures or spent jet-trash. At any rate, that’s where he was spending his language.

Released in the midst of Dylan’s tumultuous British tour, Blonde On Blonde is an undisputed classic, and some of its fans are still waiting for him to get that magical sound back. The record company thought well enough of it to keep releasing singles from it, particularly after the motorcycle accident that put him onto the sabbatical that probably saved his life.

Bob Dylan Blonde On Blonde (1966)—5

Monday, May 4, 2009

Who 18: Who’s Missing and Two’s Missing

A few months after The Who played what they said was their final show, MCA cobbled together a slapdash Who’s Greatest Hits, mostly notable for including the inferior edited single versions of “Love Reign O’er Me” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, but a longer “Relay”. Meanwhile, in the UK Polydor complied two LPs of rare singles and B-sides, simply titled Rarities Volume I 1966-1968 and Rarities Volume II 1970-1973. While neither set was strictly chronological, both did a good job of mopping up several non-album tracks. Of course, since it wasn’t released in the U.S., imports were pricey. MCA could have used the excuse that some of the songs were already available on Magic Bus and Hooligans, but that assumed someone was paying attention to such things. The disappointment of Who’s Last only added insult to injury.

A couple of years later, Who’s Missing arrived with little fanfare, but actually did collectors a favor. Most of the songs had not been released in the US, and the rest were truly rare. A quarter of so-so songs from the earliest Shel Talmy sessions start it off, followed by “Barbara Ann” and the original single versions of “I’m A Boy” and “Mary Anne With The Shakey Hand”. Side two is the keeper, with four key B-sides from the Who’s Next period—two of which (“When I Was A Boy” and “Here For More”) shamefully did not appear anywhere in the ‘90s reissue program—and a blistering live “Bargain”. Pete Townshend’s notes were typically pensive, though not exactly illuminating.

Two’s Missing followed with even less fanfare within 18 months. Where its predecessor was somewhat chronological, this was in more of a crazy order, but boasted more in-depth and humorous notes, this time from John Entwistle. More tracks from the Shel Talmy sessions are balanced by such nuggets as the Stones covers “Under My Thumb” and “The Last Time”, the rare singles “Dogs” and its “Part Two”, and a couple more B-sides. Some ponderous live tracks made for weird listening, but it still rated a spot in the rack. (Like its predecessor, it arrived in the wake of a Townshend solo release. MCA may have been dumb, but they weren’t stupid.)

With the advent of Classic Rock radio in the ‘80s, the Who were still a commercial entity, and while these mopping-up efforts were convenient, they also underscored how confusing the catalog had been all along. Meanwhile, fans old and new who started purchasing the MCA albums on shiny new compact discs weren’t very impressed by the sound quality. The Who’s legacy deserved better—and, some would argue, so did the fans.

The Who Who’s Missing (1985)—3
The Who
Two’s Missing (1987)—

Friday, May 1, 2009

Pretenders 1: Pretenders

This is one of the best debut albums of all time. From start to finish Pretenders delivers on the promise of Chrissie Hynde, who’d left Akron to be a rock critic in London and formed the Pretenders as an outlet for her unique energy and Kinks fixation. These songs are alternatively angry and tender, giving girl guitar players an icon to emulate, and giving the guys reason to keep up their chops. From Mariah to Sheryl to Shania and even Madonna and Gwen, today’s so-called divas and artists need to appreciate the doors Chrissie kicked down for them. She’s as important a female rock influence as Joni Mitchell.

The band was incredible. James Honeyman-Scott was an incredibly lyrical, inventive guitarist and songwriter, taking the best elements of English punk and Townshend windmilling. Plus, he wore great cowboy shirts.

Pete Farndon kept the bottom on a Rickenbacker (or Fender) bass, throwing in a melody here and there to work right off the other guys. Plus, he had a pompadour to put the Stray Cats to shame, and he’d probably glass you in a pub brawl.

Martin Chambers was—and still is—capable of playing everything from rimshot ballads to careening locomotives, and few other drummers could keep up with Chrissie’s 7/4 and 9/4 changes. Plus, he had great sideburns. (Note the use of past tense with the exception of the drummer; after only the second album Farndon would be kicked out for his heroin use, and Honeyman-Scott died two days later from his own. Farndon lived another ten months.)

And the songs: “Precious” is a classic kick-off (and kiss-off), and there’s barely a moment to breathe before “The Phone Call”, one of several songs with garbled words and stumbly meter. “Up The Neck” seems to be about bondage or an overdose, but “Tattooed Love Boys” is almost definitely about bondage. “Space Invader” is an instrumental complete with Atari effects at the end, crashing right into “The Wait”. “Stop Your Sobbing” was their first single, and the definitive version of the Kinks song.

After all that side two is almost relaxing. “Kid” will forever be linked with the video clip on the merry-go-round, to go along with the low guitar line that anchors the song and the daring key change in the middle. “Private Life” is pretty good spooky reggae for a bunch of white kids. “Brass In Pocket” is probably their most famous song, and if you don’t think you know it, that’s because you think it’s called “I’m Special”. “Lovers Of Today” seems tame at first, but those guitars at the end paint on several layers of ache. The big payoff comes at the end, with the pounding drums, driving bass, machine gun guitars and echoey vocals on “Mystery Achievement”.

Some of these songs had already been issued as singles, and it’s another testament to the power of Pretenders that it holds together nonetheless. While they had their moments, none of the later albums lived up to the promise of the first. Once Chrissie was the only Pretender left, the band’s name became all too apt. Though she did the right thing by getting Martin back behind the kit in the ‘90s, the debut is still the reason why you care in the first place.

Rhino kindly remastered and expanded the album to two discs in the 21st century, with a pile of demos, live tracks and such key B-sides as “Cuban Slide” and “Porcelain”. Most but not all of these extras made to the deluxe three-disc expansion fifteen years later. This time the five B-sides were added to first disc after the album proper, while the second disc was loaded with demos, including some previously unreleased songs, and the performances from two BBC appearances. (One surprise is “Do I Love You”, a pre-Pretenders Ronettes cover recorded with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols.) A live BBC performance kicks off the third disc, followed by a more complete recording of a Boston show that had been a promo disc and Record Store Day extra. All in all, a stellar album made that much better. Unless this was your third or fourth time buying it.

Pretenders Pretenders (1980)—5
2006 expanded, remastered CD: same as 1980, plus 16 extra tracks
2021 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1980, plus 43 extra tracks