Monday, August 31, 2009

Bob Dylan 29: Empire Burlesque

For some reason Bob decided he needed to sound “contemporary”, which in 1985 translated to a slick sheen over painstakingly constructed backing tracks. (And a shiny Miami Vice jacket too, though he’d been rocking the two-day stubble look for years.) Forget the fact that he worked best on the fly; the songs on Empire Burlesque were repeatedly tweaked so that by the time he got around to finishing the vocals they just didn’t fit. The result was a major letdown.

With a Bob-less intro that lasts an interminable twenty full seconds, “Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” was an odd choice for a single, and a worse video. “Seeing The Real You At Last” isn’t much better, as it features too many horns and his “soulful” phrasing doesn’t convince. Strip it down to just guitars and we might have something. A near-duet with Madelyn Quebec, “I’ll Remember You” is very sweet, but the noisy if well-intentioned “Clean Cut Kid” kills it, with Ron Wood doing his Keith Richards impressions all the way through. Another attempt at tenderness, “Never Gonna Be The Same Again”, simply tries too hard, with the vocalists mixed too far up front.

Side two is equally frustrating. “Trust Yourself” is something of a riposte to his own “Gotta Serve Somebody”, but “Emotionally Yours” is another hidden gem. The best of the ballads here, it would be a lot better if he’d canned the fake strings, as they distract from the other musicians. (The O’Jays covered this a few years later and gave it a much better reading.) “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky” got a lot of press for its apocalyptic vision — another epic! the critics raved — but there’s just nothing there save too many instruments shackled to a production familiar from “It’s Raining Men”. (And to make matters worse, it was also picked for a video, and one that would have us believe Dave Stewart of Eurythmics—who happened to be the “director”—was the genius behind the song, as if he came up with the sub-“Watchtower” riff.) “Something’s Burning, Baby” continues the poor use of that epithet in song titles, and mostly staggers along over one chord. Thankfully, the purely unadorned “Dark Eyes” ends the proceedings in best afterthought mode.

While Empire Burlesque got some praise for its embrace of modern production techniques, even back then it sounded dated. Bruce Springsteen was to comment that if anyone else had written those lyrics (which are reproduced in full on the inner sleeve) they would have been hailed as the next Dylan, but coming from the pen of the original they came off as water treading. Popular dance remixer Arthur Baker is supposedly responsible for the overall sound, but ultimately Dylan should have had the last word. Thirty different names are credited as playing on the sessions, and it’s hard to appreciate these songs for all the extra decorations. With a tighter, smaller set of players in the studio (such as limiting them to Jim Keltner and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, hint, hint) these songs could have gotten better care.

Bob Dylan Empire Burlesque (1985)—

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tom Petty 6: Southern Accents

Tom Petty had gained carte blanche to do anything he wanted, and since it was unlikely he’d stray too far from the basic mold he’d set for himself, his label was content to let him create at his own pace. By the time his next album came out, he had gone through the proverbial wringer, from three producers in addition to himself and Mike Campbell, a promising but ultimately aborted double album concept, and most notoriously, a broken hand that nearly removed him from any guitar-playing duties.

Southern Accents retains some of that original spirit, of encapsulating the South that (most of) the band knew from growing up in Florida. From the start, the narrator of “Rebels” proclaims his drunkenness while asserting his pride in his heritage. But the camera turns temporarily away from this shady character to go on a trip with Dave Stewart, then riding high with Eurythmics on his own shift from techno-pop to ‘60s soul. “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” is a great song, but it hardly sounds like the Heartbreakers had much to do with it. (Indeed, one wonders how they really felt about it.) But there’s no mistaking the appeal of “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, a hypnotic trip through the same three chords with the title repeated at different tempos, forever linked to that amazing video that put the band right down the rabbit hole. (And since it was a hit, the band had more fun playing it onstage for years afterward, while their leader donned the Mad Hatter’s hat and shadowy figures masked with the faces of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush ran around a tree only to be repelled by a giant peace sign.) As the psychedelia fades away, the title track comes gently in, and we join our rebellious hero from earlier in the side on one of Petty’s best songs.

Those already sick of Dave Stewart would not be pleased with “Make It Better (Forget About Me)”, another misplaced soul track. Instead, they’d be best advised to skip ahead to “Spike”, a cool mix of swamp and jazz that tells a tale of another misfit from the point of view of a redneck holding up his end of the bar. This would also work best onstage where Petty extrapolated some on the song’s influence, and it would seem that right when the onstage story reached the moment of uttered profanity, the song on the record switches back to the intro, fading on the sound of a dog panting. That’s where “Dogs On The Run” comes in, delivering a song worthy of the band’s reputation, with just enough soul to make it derivative. After this pinnacle the album slows down, first through the somewhat experimental (read: insubstantial) “Mary’s New Car” and the big finish, “The Best Of Everything”. Produced by Robbie Robertson and featuring other alumni of The Band, it seems like it’s supposed to be some kind of finale, but given the detours we’ve endured, it will have to be just a song.

Southern Accents is a good album despite what it tried and failed to be. At the very least, it gave Petty a reason to wear wacky sunglasses, top hats and paisley shirts while his band held down the fort behind him. They had another hit, and would go on another journey as soon as they finished their own tour.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Southern Accents (1985)—

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bob Dylan 28: Real Live

Recorded on his 1984 European tour—accompanied by the likes of Mick Taylor, Carlos Santana and Joan Baez—Real Live looks okay on paper, but not a lot stands out. Despite contributions from a talented band, the album suffers from muddy sound (surprising from someone with the reputation of Glyn Johns) and Bob’s by-now omnipresent whine taking the place of the melodies.

To be fair, the band is tight, and we’ll credit Ian McLagan in the corner on keyboard for holding things together. But it’s still Bob’s show, so songs rumble into gear with intros that sound different from what ends up being played, to the point where our attention wavers. “I And I” and “License To Kill” are decent versions of tunes from the new album. But keep an ear open on “Masters Of War”: it’s virtually the same arrangement lambasted as “unidentifiable” at the 1991 Grammy Awards.

The big news here is the third-person rewrite of “Tangled Up In Blue” that had folks marveling at the implications. He’d been tinkering with the lyrics for years, of course, but this version isn’t the best (despite his own protests) and his pauses for effect don’t help either. The other acoustic performances—“It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Girl From The North Country”—are nearly drowned out by audiences singing along or whooping it up for any harmonica solo. “Ballad Of A Thin Man” is raced through to come out half the length of the studio original, and good luck finding Carlos Santana amidst the murk of “Tombstone Blues”.

On his fourth try, Bob still hadn’t put out a decent live album. At least there were two songs from Infidels to keep it from being too much of an oldies revue, but this was hardly a fair representation of the best parts of this particular tour—and that, after all, is the point of a live album, isn’t it?

Bob Dylan Real Live (1984)—

Monday, August 24, 2009

David Bowie 14: “Heroes”

Coming very quickly on the heels of its predecessor (as well as two Iggy Pop albums and a tour playing keyboards in that band), “Heroes” has Bowie following a similar template to Low, split predominantly between vocal and instrumental sides. But this isn’t a straight copy; overall as well as in hindsight it sounds more like a Bowie album than an Eno album, plus occasional Eno-pal Robert Fripp adds his distinctive guitar all over the mix. He’s that clarion you hear on the title track, which is still a hypnotic tune even if it’s worn out its welcome via classic rock radio and some ill-advised cover versions.

Most of the other vocal tracks seem to follow the same Burroughsian lyrical cut-up technique first used on Diamond Dogs. Yet, even if we know the inspiration behind or beneath “Beauty And The Beast”, which opens the album on a discordant, hesitant note, what it comes down to is whether the songs work or not. And for the most part, they do. “Joe The Lion” and “Sons Of The Silent Age” are two other songs that would occasionally turn up onstage, each sporting a memorable bridge that distracts from the impenetrable lyrics. That can’t be said for “Blackout”, which closes the side around a great riff and danceable beat.

As before, side two is predominantly instrumental but sometimes more upbeat, beginning with “V-2 Schneider”, a more overt Kraftwerk reference. The centerpiece is three connected tracks that each sound like their titles, and are all gloomy in their own ways. “Sense Of Doubt” sports a blatant descending bass line on the piano, “Moss Garden” is built around the koto for a Japanese ambience, and “Neükoln” gets its name from a district of Berlin, dominated by a bleak saxophone. “The Secret Life Of Arabia” is memorable simply for diffusing the dread by ending the album in the disco.

While it may not be as consistent as Low, Bowie seemed a little more confident on “Heroes”—staying off the cocaine probably helped—and the album remains fascinating today. It’s the one album of the Berlin trilogy that was actually recorded there in total. Plus, it sports one of his cooler album covers. (Ryko’s bonus tracks numbered only two this time: an unnecessary remix of “Joe The Lion” that boosted the snare drum, and an era instrumental called “Abdulmajid”, which also happened to be future wife Iman’s surname. Oddly, they didn’t bother to include the French- and German-language versions of the title track, but those would end up on other repackages down the road.)

David Bowie “Heroes” (1977)—
1991 Rykodisc: same as 1977, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, August 21, 2009

Jack Grace 1: The Martini Cowboy

Don’t be fooled by the song titles, nor by the headgear: this is not a straight country album. To pigeonhole it so would do a grave injustice to the wide variety of musical styles encompassed within.

The Martini Cowboy runs the gamut from blues to swing to jazz, shaken and stirred with a smooth finish. “Try Not To Cry” has a near-bossa nova feel, and there are echoes of Louis Armstrong in “Sugar Bear” (though truth be told, the live version kicks the album track’s butt). “Spike Down” is a blazing stomper any bluesman would be proud to cover. If you’re looking for a chaser, the “Sapphire Martini” interludes more than satisfy.

Of course, those in the mood for classic country will feel right at home with “What I Drink And Who I Meet At The Track”. Jack Grace is a man who’s shared stages and bills with the likes of Merle Haggard, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Junior Brown (as well as Jerry Lee Lewis and Norah Jones), so he’s definitely got his feet planted in a certain tradition. After all, without songs about drinkin’ and love lost or found, what is country music about?

That tradition comes through with songs like “Rotary Phone” and the defiant acknowledgement of sides one and two in the CD booklet. His voice has a pleasing rumble and twang, with clever turns of phrase and sweet decorations from a pedal steel guitar played by the late, great Drew Glackin. The whole band is tight, anchored by Daria Grace’s solid bass work and her pristine harmonies wafting through just right. Each of the songs are distinct and catchy, shot through with a distinctly New York City attitude. Downtown is generally where you can catch him, but in addition to his regular residencies at the Rodeo Bar and Barbe’s in Brooklyn, he’s also huge in Ireland.

Jack Grace is a true original who exudes absolute joy in what he does. And he still would have been a better choice for Walk The Line than that Phoenix character.

Jack Grace Band The Martini Cowboy (2006)—

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bob Dylan 27: Infidels

An atypical (for Bob) year-long break followed the so-called “Christian trilogy”. When Infidels appeared, it was hailed as a return to form; however, it’s very close to Shot Of Love both thematically and musically. (The record company obviously liked what they heard; for some reason the inner sleeve advertised “other Dylan albums you might enjoy”.)

The big difference this time was the production by Mark Knopfler, with support from fellow Dire Strait Alan Clark, onetime Stone Mick Taylor, and the reggae rhythm section of Sly & Robbie. This overall sound perhaps created a distraction at first listen, obscuring the lyrical content. It may not have been overtly Christian, but Bob was still very much concerned that we were approaching Armageddon.

“Jokerman” comes out of the gate strong, a lengthy portrait of a mysterious figure who deserves either our praise, sympathy or ire. We go even slower with the sneaky “Sweetheart Like You”, which starts out like a clichéd come-on but takes some sharp turns into Biblical imagery and proverbs. The Dire Straits sound is noticeable on “Neighborhood Bully”, which got a lot of attention for its seemingly pro-Israel stance (“He’s back to Judaism!” cried the critics). Whatever the message, it’s a tough one and a toe-tapper. “License To Kill” takes us down again, with a nice piece of moralizing.

Side two isn’t as strong, though it’s louder. He starts to yell in “Man Of Peace”, which is too bad because the words are pretty clever. The anger continues on “Union Sundown”, a diatribe against commercialism that also suffers from an annoying echo effect on the vocals. “I And I” features the rhythm section nicely through a sinewy tale (not his first) that begins by leaving a sleeping woman’s bed. It all comes home with “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”, following his tendency to end albums with love songs that include “night” in their titles.

Many will insist that Infidels is half-baked considering the quality of the tracks that were left off of it, but that gives short shrift to the eight that made it. Again, the production is one of the stars here, and one of the elements that still makes Infidels a very satisfying listen, and an album fans would go back to when underwhelmed by some of his less-than-stellar ‘80s releases. As time went on, that would be a very important thing indeed.

Bob Dylan Infidels (1983)—

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tom Petty 5: Long After Dark

Having established themselves as major players on the scene—both as a band and as hired session players—one would think Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers could have rested easy. Unfortunately, they couldn’t. First, they had to find a new bass player to replace Ron Blair, who’d tired of the rock ‘n roll circus. Thus it was Howie Epstein whose face showed up in the big-budget (for the time) video for the first single from Long After Dark. (Ron is thanked with “love” for bass on one track.)

“Dark” is something of an underlying theme for this album, on which every track is negative. From the beginning Petty laments being “lost in a one-story town [where] the same sh-t goes down”. “You Got Lucky” was that big-budget video, and listeners could be excused for thinking it was the Cars; these days it’s become something of a standard. “Deliver Me” suggests similar dissatisfied emotions in a catchy vein, but any remorse noted in “A Change Of Heart” is smoothed out by the simple joy of that “Sweet Jane” variation in the chords.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album treads water without much to help it. “Finding Out” loudly closes side one, and “We Stand A Chance” has such an obnoxious hook it defeats the purpose of the title. The exception is “Straight Into Darkness”, which rivals the best of the story songs he’d concocted thus far. Benmont had a lot to do with it too, and his keyboards also give a little life to “Between Two Worlds”, which starts well but goes on too long. In between there’s “The Same Old You”, with a snotty vocal over a basic riff, and “A Wasted Life” isn’t much of a comfort as the credits roll.

On the whole the album sounds harsh and edgy, almost cutting, and not very inviting. While Long After Dark was a hit and the band continued to be a concert draw, it was clear Petty wanted to try something different. And he would, but not without some more drama.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Long After Dark (1982)—2

Friday, August 14, 2009

David Bowie 13: Low

His experiences in film and onstage had left him feeling more claustrophobic than ever, so just like that, Bowie packed off to Europe to dry out and record the first of three albums influenced by Brian Eno. “Influence” is an important word to emphasize here, because while the so-called “Berlin trilogy” looms large in Eno’s biography, he was never the producer per se, but a collaborator and catalyst. Eno had been busy of late recording his own “music for films”, and a partnership with Bowie seemed almost inevitable.

To add another ingredient to the mix, Low also sports the influence of Iggy Pop, whose albums The Idiot and Lust For Life were recorded immediately before and after, and using many of the same musicians. (Both are highly recommended for Bowie enthusiasts.) The result was one of Bowie’s most experimental albums to date, and one of his most successful, if not commercially then critically.

Side one is immediately striking, with the in-your-face rhythm section dominating nearly every track without drowning them out. “Speed Of Life” spurts in with something of an opening-credits theme-song motif, and don’t bother waiting for the vocals since there aren’t any. “Breaking Glass” is over before it gets started, while “What In The World” burps along with crazy synth percolations. “Sound And Vision” is of the same cloth as “Speed Of Life”, but puts some vocals on halfway through. (Listen for Mary Hopkin’s cameo!) “Always Crashing In The Same Car” drives home the despair, which is lifted for a moment in “Be My Wife”. The vocal-less “A New Career In A New Town” closes the side on a transitory note—a little traveling music if you please.

The second side is called the instrumental side, which is accurate since the only vocals are wordless. Here is where Eno’s influence seems most pronounced, starting with “Warszawa”, which sets the tone with its portrait of the bleak capital of Poland. The grey is only slightly dissipated a bit with the changes in “Art Decade”, but “Weeping Wall” brings back the despair in the vibraphone, dancing underneath a minor-key variation on “Scarborough Fair”. “Subterraneans” is one track that is said to have derived from the soundtrack to The Man Who Fell To Earth, which Bowie had just filmed in his mainstream acting debut, and it really lends a mysterious, otherworldly end to the proceedings.

Low is a fascinating album, full of pop songs that would never get played on the radio and longer songs that would influence a generation of punks with synthesizers. Bowie may not have been actively looking to fill the role of resident alien, but there was no question that he was creating music that seemed to come from the future. (As they did with the rest of the so-called Berlin Trilogy, the Ryko bonus tracks include some mostly-instrumentals of inexact vintage, as well as some unnecessary remakes and remixes. In this case, “Sound And Vision” took all the life out of the drums and added modern synth effects while extending the track another couple minutes, while the spooky “Some Are” and the Kraftwerk influence on “All Saints” complemented the rest of Low nicely.)

David Bowie Low (1977)—
1991 Rykodisc: same as 1977, plus 3 extra tracks

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tom Petty 4: Hard Promises

A funny thing happened to Tom Petty on the way to his fourth album. For one, his growing fame turned his band into reliable hired guns for Stevie Nicks, who was recording her first solo album. And since he’d been cultivating a faithful fan base, MCA wanted to put his next album out at a $9.98 list price. Not wanting to saddle those fans with the extra dollar, Petty held his ground and eventually won that game of chicken. (Apparently he threatened to change the album title from Hard Promises to $8.98, and you can just barely make out that price on a cardboard box on the album’s cover.)

“The Waiting” is another in a growing line of fantastic Petty album openers, rife with singalong interjections and a compact but perfect Mike Campbell solo. And he delivers another one-two punch with “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)”, an exercise in dynamics. (It also helped that the fledgling MTV network kept these songs in heavy rotation back when they didn’t have many other clips to show.) “Nightwatchman” throws a little funk into the mix, but it’s far surpassed by “Something Big”, a short story that hints at a much larger situation over a drop-D tuning. From there, “Kings Road” serves much the same purpose as “Century City” on the last album.

“Letting You Go” is a slight song not helped by a self-conscious video, but “A Thing About You” has such a joyous sound, as summed up by the note on the lyric sheet: “raise both arms and repeat chorus”. “Insider” was supposed to be the album’s centerpiece, being a duet with Stevie Nicks, except that her recording of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” confused consumers as to which album had which song. “The Criminal Kind” is another tough showcase for Mike Campbell’s slide under a Dylanesque vocal, and the album ends tentatively with “You Can Still Change Your Mind”, which is something of a tribute in itself to Brian Wilson’s “Caroline No”. A great way to finish.

With Hard Promises, Tom Petty started the ‘80s just as strong as he left the ‘70s, and his band looked like they were here to stay. But as shouldn’t be too surprising, the truth was not as perceived. For the time being, though, he could coast with another great album under his skinny belt.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Hard Promises (1981)—4

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tom Petty 3: Damn The Torpedoes

Having been shuffled against his will around a couple of record companies, Tom Petty was under pressure to produce something of substance. With Damn The Torpedoes, he succeeded.

He found something of a kindred spirit in producer Jimmy Iovine, who’d cut his teeth engineering for John Lennon and would soon become a major mover and shaker in the business. Together they created a bond that would last through several albums, beginning with this fantastic collection of hit singles, should’ve-been-hits and downright great songs.

Starting off with “Refugee”, the band sounds tougher than ever, and Petty’s voice has finally found a palatable range. “Here Comes My Girl” sports a droning undercurrent supporting the Rickenbackers that would be heard as a trademark sound, while the vocals go from spoken to shouted to harmonic. “Even The Losers” is something of a statement of purpose, while “Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid)” manages to encompass both the Drifters and Bob Dylan. That’s four strong songs right there, to the point where the somewhat slight “Century City” can be forgiven. “Don’t Do Me Like That” crashes open side two, and while it’s the best song on the side, it carries “You Tell Me” and “What Are You Doing To My Life?” through the snippets of ambient noise and studio sounds to “Louisiana Rain”, a pleasant stab at a Big Number.

Damn The Torpedoes was a breath of fresh air at the end of the ‘70s, going up against the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd while Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor held reign on the charts. With a couple of hit singles and strong radio support, his label wouldn’t try dumping him now.

Thirty years on, the people who decided such things put together an expanded version of the album for a Deluxe Edition. Rather than putting everything on a single disc, the bonus material was put on its own to jack up the list price. Two B-sides are repeated from the Playback box, along with a live B-side and two more songs from the same show. Much more interesting are the legendary outtake “Surrender” and an early take of “Refugee” that demonstrates how much it’s missing without Jim Keltner’s shaker.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Damn The Torpedoes (1979)—4
2010 Deluxe Edition: same as 1979, plus 9 extra tracks

Friday, August 7, 2009

Tom Petty 2: You’re Gonna Get It

Rather than a quick follow-up, the second album from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took a while. You’re Gonna Get It! followed much of the same mold as the debut, with the added menace of the entire band staring down the listener on the front cover. There was only one song about “rockin’” this time, and a little more variety in the styles of the songs, which gives it the slightest edge over the debut.

“When The Time Comes” sets a blueprint for success, getting an awful lot out of three chords, then the title track gives Benmont Tench chance to add color in between the vocals, which teeter between menacing and longing. “Hurt” suggests a kind of deliverance from whatever misdeeds transpired in the first two songs. “Magnolia” is a template for a song he’d rewrite again and again, and better, while “Too Much Ain’t Enough” is built around a snaky riff pummeled into the wall.

Two big radio hits, “I Need To Know” and “Listen To Her Heart”, start off side two. The latter is another blatant Byrds homage—save the line about cocaine—while “No Second Thoughts” takes its influence from “Factory Girl” off Beggars Banquet, of all things. “Restless” makes the mildest dalliance with funk, and “Baby’s A Rock ‘n’ Roller” is really the only wince-inducing track here.

You’re Gonna Get It! is even shorter than the first album, so if somebody wanted to do us a big favor, they would put both albums on a single CD, as they really do go together. But record company shenanigans loom large throughout Petty’s story, and while the band was off to a good start, they couldn’t afford a third strike.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers You’re Gonna Get It! (1978)—3

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tom Petty 1: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Few performers have been more successful and consistent with minimal chords as Tom Petty. After spending the first part of the ‘70s trying to get signed out of Florida—up against the typical “Southern rock” fare in the area—he emerged on the national scene with a decidedly anachronistic sound and look for the time. With a band dubbed the Heartbreakers (not to be confused with Johnny Thunders’ group), he blazed a path of simple rock ‘n roll influenced equally by the ‘50s and the ‘60s. Petty’s songwriting made him the face and voice of the group, but without the support of the Heartbreakers it’s doubtful his career would have been so lucrative. Just ask Dwight Twilley, a contemporary of Petty’s just as interested in making a splash with a power pop sound, but without the gang of support Petty had. (He and buddy Phil Seymour will cross paths with Petty’s band repeatedly.)

Again, the band made the sound—Mike Campbell, one of rock’s best guitarists and Petty’s right-hand man; Benmont Tench, whose keyboards usually consisted solely of piano and organ, and that was all that was needed; Stan Lynch, with the killer touch on the drums and deft harmonies, at odds with his gruff antagonism to get Petty to rock harder; and Ron Blair, who had the unenviable position of playing bass in a band that had three others with experience on the instrument (everybody except Stan). But despite all that charisma, the skinny guy with thinning hair, spindly fingers and a strangulated voice was their frontman.

Their debut album made their mission pretty clear, with not one but two songs about “rockin’”. Songs like “Strangered In The Night” and “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” add some dynamics, particularly when put up against such slower, soulful tracks as “The Wild One, Forever”, “Mystery Man”, and “Luna”. The mushmouthed “Hometown Blues” has something of a party atmosphere but goes by pretty quickly. But if the album is remembered for anything, it would be for “Breakdown” and the Bo Diddley-meets-the Byrds pastiche of “American Girl” (which Roger McGuinn said he heard on the radio and wondered when he’d recorded it). Either song will probably be played on an FM station near you sometime in the next hour.

It’s a short album, with ten songs totaling a half-hour. Here’s a case where sequencing is key, as the cassette version completely jumbles the lineup, with only the side-starters constant and ending with “American Girl”. As with most MCA cassettes, avoid that one.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976)—3

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Paul McCartney 16: Press To Play

It had been less than two years since his last album, yet it seemed like eons since we’d heard from Paul McCartney. When the abysmal “Spies Like Us” single was released on Capitol, there was hope that the Columbia years were the result of a temporary jinx, even if the song itself didn’t take away our dread. Naturally, there was the usual talk that this new album would be a return to form. Press To Play didn’t exactly take the world by storm, but at least it was encouraging.

“Stranglehold”—not the Ted Nugent song, but that would have been interesting—is a strong, subtle start, but “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun” is his latest feeble attempt to stick two songs together. “Talk More Talk” has various spoken word segments going in and out of it in an attempt to be surreal and is predictably annoying as a result, “Footprints” is a pretty folk tune that would have fit right in on Back To The Egg. (This, like the bulk of the album, was written with Eric Stewart, who’d been hanging around since Tug Of War and was under the mistaken impression that he’d fill Denny Laine’s old role.) The side is redeemed with “Only Love Remains”, the album’s big ballad. Had it come out when he was still the king of the Top 40 single it would have been huge.

Instead, “Press” was the first single, and it still isn’t very good, though this could be because we still remember the video wherein Paul rides the Tube to appear inconspicuous while singing the song at his fellow travelers. “Pretty Little Head” is another strange experiment (Hillmen? Ursa major?) that pulls together various disparate parts for no discernable reason. Luckily, “Move Over Busker” and “Angry” take us back to the Rock before it’s too late. The big finale “However Absurd” is supposed to bring Sgt. Pepper psychedelia to mind, but it tries too hard to be obscure. (George would do it much better with “When We Was Fab”, but thumbs up to Paul for anticipating the following year’s Sixties nostalgia.)

As a unit Press To Play isn’t as awful as it sounds, and certainly was a step up from his recent worst, but it just doesn’t gel like it should. The packaging was uninformative but made the most of the gatefold sleeve, with Paul’s drawings showing the stereo spectrum for each track so you can listen to the album through headphones and follow along with the mix. (The CD has some extra tracks—”It’s Not True”, “Write Away”, and “Tough On A Tightrope”—that only make it worth buying over the LP version for completeness’ sake.)

He was about to take his longest sabbatical yet. By the time his next album came out, Neil Finn (with Crowded House) had released two albums that both out-McCartneyed the man himself.

Paul McCartney Press To Play (1986)—3

Monday, August 3, 2009

U2 3: War

Ah yes, the third album. The album where a band who made such an impact with their debut only to stumble on the follow-up has to really stretch to ensure that they’ll be allowed to make a fourth, fifth, tenth and so on. With War, U2 were under a lot of pressure, and luckily for them—and their fans—they succeeded.

There’s still plenty of so-called “Christian” content here, but it takes a back seat to the local and world politics with which Bono (mostly) would be known for stirring up. Twenty years after John Lennon wrote about “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, this band made it a household phrase, under a tattoo of drums and a riff so simple it’s amazing nobody else had come up with it first. “Seconds” is another anti-war tune, sung by The Edge in a voice that still sounds like Bono. “New Year’s Day” was suitably released as the album’s first single that January, and it still evokes images of the boys standing shivering in the snow from the video. While it’s the piano most people remember, the bassline shows Adam Clayton to be the band’s most consistently underappreciated member. Speaking of which, “Like A Song…” is a buried anthem that doesn’t get as much exposure. The side, while not quite perfect, ends with the much gentler “Drowning Man”.

On CD, the mood is killed by the tribal plodding of “The Refugee”, the one track on the album not produced by Steve Lillywhite, but rather a guy whose claim to fame would be unleashing Riverdance on pop culture. Luckily, “Two Hearts Beat As One” stabilizes the equilibrium with an actual love song. The female voices that start “Red Light” also seem out of place, but don’t they sound hot? “Surrender” is longer than it should be, but nods to the types of pyrotechnics The Edge would explore on future albums. And it all fades down with “40”, a reinterpretation of an actual Psalm that audiences would continue singing long after the band finished their final encores.

War resonated with fans old and new, some of whom actually took the time to study some of the political issues Bono was yelling about. Almost 30 years later it doesn’t sound dated, but retains a cohesive sound that we’d forgotten had been so influential. Now U2 had gained the clout to explore new sounds and ideas, but first they had tours to complete. (The bonus disc on the deluxe edition is unfortunately a disappointment, with too many remixes of the same two songs taking up two-thirds of the program. But at least the remainder included some elusive B-sides, including the moody “Endless Deep” and some live versions that tax Bono’s throat. “Angels Too Tied To The Ground” is an unfinished outtake from the album sessions, and welcome.)

U2 War (1983)—
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1983, plus 12 extra tracks