Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tom Petty 9: Full Moon Fever

The simpler approach to Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) prompted Petty to go even more basic by recording his next album all by himself in Mike Campbell’s garage. Before too long he’d invited various bandmates to contribute here and there, and let the proceedings be guided by a new figure on the scene. The resulting Full Moon Fever was a phenomenal success, finally making him a household name.

It was impossible to escape this album in the summer of ‘89. There was definitely a fresh, driving-with-the-windows-open appeal to “Free Fallin’” the first twelve times you heard it, “I Won’t Back Down” remains a statement of purpose, and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” still works as an insistent rocker. “Yer So Bad” and the incredibly faithful cover of the Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better” inject a nice ‘60s feel. “Love Is A Long Road” and “A Face In The Crowd” mix up the sound too.

Up through “Depending On You”, “The Apartment Song”, and the extremely gentle “Alright For Now”, it could pass for a Heartbreakers album. Things run out of steam by the end of the second side: “A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own” contributes nothing except telling us his middle name (spoiler alert: it’s Earl) and “Zombie Zoo” is just plain annoying. Of course, the notion of album sides wasn’t as noticeable for CD buyers, who found their own secret message hidden between tracks five and six, where the rest of us had to turn over either our records or tapes to keep listening.

Beyond the radio saturation, albeit highly deserved, what grates today the most is the sound. Outside of Mike, Howie Epstein sings on two tracks, and Benmont Tench adds piano to another; Stan Lynch was obvious in his absence. Most of the instrumental touches come from co-producer Jeff Lynne, fresh off his success with George Harrison and Roy Orbison, and of course the Traveling Wilburys itself was a tangent from these sessions. In addition to being one of the luckiest guys in the business, this man has the uncanny ability to make some of the greatest rock drummers—including but not limited to Ringo and Jim Keltner—sound like the same anonymous machine. After a while that unrelenting “boom-thwack” can wear on one’s nerves. But if you’d come this far in the story, it wasn’t going away anytime soon.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because Full Moon Fever sold millions, made Tom the star he would henceforth be, and is ingrained in constant radio rotation today. If you’re not sick of it yet, it’s another good one when the mood strikes.

Tom Petty Full Moon Fever (1989)—3

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bob Dylan 33: Dylan & The Dead

In the late ‘80s, the Grateful Dead had achieved a certain level of commercial success, thanks mostly to a generation of kids with dirty feet who had only just been born when the band had originally started, and wanted to indulge in the same drugs. Bob had some history with the band, and after playing some shows in 1986, both embarked on a sizable tour in 1987. Dozens of songs were rehearsed and performed, but when a cash-in album was released—likely in the wake of the Wilburys, certainly spurred by the Dead’s own commercial resurgence—only seven rather pedestrian tracks were selected. (The Dead supposedly suggested six additional tracks during the course of mixing the album, which were ignored.)

The set begins promisingly enough with a spirited “Slow Train”, and a case could be made for the vocal performance on “I Want You”; in fact, Bob does sing, rather than shout, on this album. He mumbles most of “Gotta Serve Somebody”, but somehow manages to keep “Queen Jane Approximately” in pitch despite the Dead’s reputation. But there’s simply no reason for a full nine-minute version of “Joey”, “All Along The Watchtower” is energetic but ordinary, and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” hardly rousing.

In fact, there’s little reason at all for Dylan & The Dead, except that it was easy money. The cover art is mildly inspired, but give or take some of the backing vocals and Jerry Garcia’s guitar, the band isn’t distinctive. That’s understandable, since they’re used here simply for hire, and not in the position to do any of the epic stretching they would do with their own material. What’s more frustrating is that even besides the other songs these guys played on this particular tour, the Dead, and particularly Garcia in his various solo and side bands, had been deconstructing and reinterpreting Dylan material for some time on their own. In time, vault excavations would explore the possibilities deeper. But this album, coming when it did, didn’t give Dylan fans much hope for the future.

Bob Dylan & The Grateful Dead Dylan & The Dead (1989)—

Friday, September 25, 2009

Traveling Wilburys 1: Volume One

Supergroups have usually sounded so exciting on paper that in these cynical times you have to check the source of info to gather whether the latest superstar meeting is a rumor or a gag. No one—not even George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan or Roy Orbison—could have predicted the quality of the first Traveling Wilburys album, especially when “Handle With Care” was so good. The single, originally recorded as a one-off, is three-and-a-half minutes of fun that showcases the best of what each have to offer. And when Bob and Roy get to harmonize on the bridge, it’s a beautiful moment. (This listener practically fell on the floor laughing so hard at how well they made the combination work.)

That was the catalyst, and the boys managed to stretch that sense of fun into nine other tracks for a full LP’s worth of tunes. For the most part, the tracks on Volume One highlight individuals: “Dirty World” is mostly Bob trying to be Prince, with interjections at the end that hint at substance; “Rattled” is mostly Jeff; “Last Night” features Tom; “Not Alone Anymore” is a showcase for Roy that would have fit fine on his upcoming (Lynne-produced) album.

“Congratulations” is all Bob, and better than most of his last couple of albums. “Heading For The Light” is as good as anything George had written, and a really happy tune. The weird “Margarita” features everyone, and that may be the only point of the song. “Tweeter & The Monkey Man” is an odd Springsteen pastiche, again more geared towards Bob. “End Of The Line” conjures images of the video, made after Roy died, and shows George still getting all kinds of mileage out of a D chord.

Volume One is much better than it deserves to be, and still refreshing to hear today. What endures is the sense of warmth, silliness and fun that made the album so special. It sold by the bucket, even to younger listeners who weren’t aware that these guys were in other bands before. It boosted the careers of both Roy and Tom, made Dylan relevant again and gave Jeff license to plaster that drum sound everywhere. (Jim Keltner must be an absolute gentleman for not punching him out.)

Strangely, but not surprising considering all the record companies that had a stake in these five pseudonyms, the album was out of print for quite a while. When it was finally reissued in 2007 as part of a two-CD-plus-DVD set, it included two unreleased bonus tracks from the sessions for the second album: George’s “Maxine” and Bob’s “Like A Ship”.

Traveling Wilburys Volume One (1988)—4
2007 rerelease: same as 1988, plus 2 extra tracks

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bob Dylan 32: Down In The Groove

Now it seemed he was just being cruel. After the false promise of Knocked Out Loaded—and two postponed release dates, following his starring role in the hideous film Hearts Of FireDown In The Groove offered more of the same. It’s another odd collection of (mostly newish) tracks already a year old, with only a few songs he wrote himself.

The covers wouldn’t be so bad if he actually did them well. “Let’s Stick Together”, for instance, has been done better by lots of other people. “When Did You Leave Heaven?” sports odd synths and plodding drums, and appears to be in three tempos at once. “Sally Sue Brown” is an odd pick out of all the other similar songs about bad girls he could have chosen. Madelyn Quebec’s vocals make one long for Clydie King. (Then again, she was his mother-in-law, so maybe he didn’t have much choice.) “Death Is Not The End” is probably the worst song left off Infidels, and it really didn’t need Full Force on extra vocals. “Had A Dream About You Baby” is a mistake from the Hearts Of Fire debacle, and features the only appearance by Kip Winger on a Dylan album. (“The Usual”, a John Hiatt cover from the same sad soundtrack, would have been a better choice. The film’s other Dylan original, “Night After Night”, deserves to stay buried.)

Co-written with Robert Hunter, “Ugliest Girl In The World” was a target for feminists, and it shouldn’t make Dead fans happy either, but the album’s other Hunter collaboration, “Silvio”, has stayed in the setlists over the years. It’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, all three chords of it, and at least the live performances don’t include those wacky backing vocals. “Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)” is a great title, but not much else, since the song never really starts. However, a very pleasant take on “Shenandoah” gives the hint that maybe he should stick with folk songs, an idea supported by the even quieter “Rank Strangers To Me”.

If Self Portrait really was designed to make fans ignore him, Down In The Groove seemed determined to finish the job. Yet a close, honest, open-minded listen shows that there’s potential here. Had he stuck with the folky covers, or even the basic combo backing him on “Let’s Stick Together”, he could have found some inspiration. (Time has proved that much better leftovers were waiting to be revealed, with or without polish.) But he didn’t and the question remains: what groove did he mean exactly?

Bob Dylan Down In The Groove (1988)—2

Monday, September 21, 2009

Beatles 24: Past Masters

Possibly because of the ongoing lawsuit between Apple and EMI—not to mention everyone against Paul—all was quiet on the archival front until the 1986 announcement that the original British LPs would soon become the worldwide standard, whereupon such US creations as Beatles ‘65 and Yesterday And Today would be deleted. Once the official Beatles CDs began appearing in 1987, newcomers to the music and older fans alike were forced into accepting the albums as originally intended. (In actuality, the advent of the compact disc and increasing popularity of cassettes hurried the end of vinyl as a major mover anyway. Many of the American versions remained in print on cassette well into the ‘90s. And then EMI went ahead and reissued limited boxes of some of the US versions in 2004 and 2006, and then all of them in a mass unveiling in 2014. But back to our story, see?)

Because music buyers and collectors alike tend to look gift horses in the mouth, the Beatles-on-CD rollout was criticized from the start. The first four albums were issued in mono, while Help! and Rubber Soul were subject to new stereo remixes by George Martin. Apple/EMI also didn’t add extra music, such as stereo to match the mono and vice versa or single-only tracks. At the time, compact discs held up to 75 minutes of music, and most Beatles albums averaged half that. Subsequently, many alternate mixes, oddities and unique bits that had found their way onto the American versions were all missing in action. At least the booklets reproduced liner notes were where applicable and included some of the back-cover graphics. (Needless to say, EMI saved their entire art budget for the 20th anniversary unveiling of Sgt. Pepper in June of ‘87.)

After all the albums had made it to CD, Apple/EMI finally came up with a solution for all the orphaned tracks that hadn’t been on original albums. Past Masters—issued as two separate CDs and later as a two-record set—included every leftover that had already appeared on an official Capitol, Parlophone, or Apple release. Volume One covers all of the extraneous singles and Long Tall Sally EP songs, including “Love Me Do” with Ringo on drums and the German versions of “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, up through “I’m Down”. Volume Two starts with “Day Tripper”, “We Can Work It Out”, “Paperback Writer”, and “Rain”, then jumps ahead to “Lady Madonna”. Since these last three songs had appeared in this exact order on Hey Jude, it’s not that big of a deal, but is a jarring leap in this context, and opens the discussion for another way to approach the concept (which we’ll get to shortly). The remainder consists of the rest of the singles, including the alternate versions of “Get Back”, “Let It Be”, and “Across The Universe”. The disc ends, appropriately, with the happy absurdity of “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”.

Considering that Magical Mystery Tour was a double EP and Yellow Submarine was essentially an expanded one, it might have made more sense not to issue them as official CDs, but to include the songs within the context of Past Masters. Conveniently enough, each disc would then total approximately 72 minutes. If Apple/EMI didn’t want to be that generous, they could have made three volumes, with the first covering up to 1966, the middle one (called Volume Half for our purposes) for all the Magical Mystery Tour/Yellow Submarine material, and the third containing the remainder. Each of those would total 45 to 50 minutes each.

But it’s all moot. After two decades of letting this sleeping dog lie, Apple finally sanctioned upgraded CDs with better packaging and beefed-up sound, but identical track listings to the initial batch. The only cosmetic change was combining both Past Masters volumes into one package, just like the original LP. Unfortunately, Mark Lewisohn’s original liner notes were also replaced by new ones written by Kevin Howlett, who also annotated the new CDs of the original albums. Meanwhile, those who sprung for the Beatles In Mono package might have appreciated the improved context of the set called Mono Masters, which included rare mono mixes of the Yellow Submarine tracks inserted in relation to when they were originally released. In the end, the music will simply speak for itself.

The Beatles Past Masters Volume One (1988)—4
The Beatles
Past Masters Volume Two (1988)—4

Friday, September 18, 2009

Paul McCartney 17: All The Best!

By 1987 the compact disc format had become a big deal, but in those days, CDs weren’t longer than 75 minutes. Since we’d gotten used to LPs that totaled 45 minutes, the labels decided they could make more cash (and pay less in royalties) with 75-minute two-LP counterparts to CDs, rather than two CDs totaling 90 minutes put together. So when All The Best! came out, it seemed a little chintzy. More to the point, this McCartney hits collection was not as generous in the US as it was in the UK, where they got different hits and rarer tracks.

Maybe Capitol was so thrilled to have their golden boy back that they didn’t notice 11 of the songs on the US version were also on Wings Greatest. Plus, only three songs were making their first LP appearances: “Goodnight Tonight” was the ready-for-the-disco hit that had people scratching their heads upon hearing Back To The Egg; “Coming Up (Live At Glasgow)” made sense since few American stations played the studio version (which was played in the UK, and was thus included on the British edition of this album); and “C Moon” was the flip of “Hi Hi Hi”, an enjoyable foray into reggae and a worthy hit on its own.

While the UK edition juggled a few songs, it also includes the sublime “Once Upon A Long Ago”, which got the old McCartney recipe right for once. The gorgeous if repetitive changes more than make up for the pointless lyrics. The production is exquisite—there’s a great moment where the sax dovetails into the violin near the end. Not only was it excluded from the US album, the single was never released here at all. To add insult to injury, the flip side was Paul’s first released collaboration with Elvis Costello, “Back On My Feet”—another favorite by either writer. Whenever you hear him repeat “I’ll be back” over the fade, you can almost believe him. These tracks would have been more than welcome on these shores.

Was All The Best! worth $12.98 in 1987? It’s still an excellent overview covering his entire solo career (complete with hits from the Columbia era) and something could be said for including the earlier hits for first-timers. For those of us in it for the long haul, this was another of what would be many times we’d have to buy the same songs and albums more than once for miniscule reasons.

Paul McCartney All The Best! (1987)—4

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

George Harrison 11: Cloud Nine

Nowadays, five years between albums isn’t that big a stretch; in the ‘80s, it seemed like an eternity. But in the year of the first Beatle CDs, twenty years after Sgt. Pepper, surprise! George was recording again, with the guy from ELO, of all people. Suddenly he was everywhere, sporting fashionable stubble and snazzy shirts and jackets.

Given his ‘80s track record, we worried about how the album would sound, but we needn’t have. The very first note of the title track is the slide guitar that we’d been missing, over a slow groove with pseudo-philosophical lyrics. Ringo’s probably playing the drums, which are buried under Jeff Lynne’s production. “That’s What It Takes” is fairly ordinary, but already our toes are tapping, and there’s a definite joy in his voice that continues over the rest of the album. “Fish On The Sand” is a poppy one, with a twangy retro 12-string pushing it along. “Just For Today” is the only remotely religious song, albeit filtered through AA, nice on the first listen, but plodding afterwards. “This Is Love” was co-written with the co-producer, and sounds like it, inoffensive as it is. “When We Was Fab” got all the attention the first time, and rightfully so; it’s still a wonderful homage to the Pepper era and all the nostalgic rage at the time. Jeff finally has an excuse to use Ringo’s “Walrus” drum sound, and George matches his wistful recollections with well-placed Pythonesque humor. New things are revealed on each listen, such as the sitar at the fade and the backing vocals throughout. This one truly redeems the side.

George goes back to his grouchy mode for “Devil’s Radio”, but it’s dressed up in such a rocking sound that he doesn’t seem at all preachy. “Someplace Else” provides a nice change of pace, with a sweet lyric and great guitar lines. “Wreck Of The Hesperus” is the obligatory “I’m not old and washed up” statement, but wrapped in obscure references that don’t intrude on the fun. “Breath Away From Heaven” was a refugee from the previous year’s cinematic adventure with Mr. and Mrs. Sean Penn, and has nice, what-we-used-to-call-Oriental touches to make it interesting. The album closes with “Got My Mind Set On You”, an obscure, maddeningly repetitive cover that amazingly went to #1 on the pop charts. (To these ears, it still sounds like he’s singing, “Look out, I might sit on you.”) Maybe it was the two videos that helped; we preferred the one where “George” puts down his guitar and does a backflip off of his chair.

Like any good icon, George waited until he had something to say before saying it. Cloud Nine was such a nice surprise at the time, especially since we didn’t expect much. As with other albums from that year, some of the production touches have not aged well, but when you tune them out and concentrate on his voice, it’s still worth it. And in a big Beatle year, it was great to know he still cared. It sure was nice to have him around again. Little did we know how much more we’d be hearing from that Jeff Lynne character. (The album got extra-special treatment when reissued in the Dark Horse Years box set, gaining not one but two bonus tracks—the theme tune from Shanghai Surprise and the mostly instrumental “Zig Zag” from the same film.)

George Harrison Cloud Nine (1987)—
2004 Dark Horse Years reissue: same as 1987, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, September 14, 2009

Tom Petty 8: Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)

Touring with Bob Dylan must have inspired Petty and band to keep it simple in the studio for their next album. (Too bad Bob couldn’t have done the same.) Sure enough, the credits for Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) read “all instruments and voices by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers”. No horns or female vocalists here, just the band. The concepts and experiments of Southern Accents are left behind. There are even a few odd interludes and snippets, just like on the equally straight Damn The Torpedoes.

The album does indeed rock. “Jammin’ Me” (co-written with Dylan) is the only song we know that mentions Joe Piscopo, while “Runaway Trains” seems to be cut from the same cloth musically and lyrically as Don Henley’s “The Boys Of Summer” (a huge hit that originated in Mike Campbell’s garage studio). “The Damage You’ve Done” and “How Many More Days” fade in out of what seem to be extended jams, and just to keep the dynamics fresh, “It’ll All Work Out” is a sighing lament based around mandolins and acoustics. It’s a good palette cleanser for “My Life/Your World”, which gets by on a robotic drum track and outmoded keyboards but what now sound like astute observations on baby boomers and what had yet to be called Generation X. (By the way, the acoustic part indexed at the start of the track would later be named as “Mike’s Life/Mike’s World”.)

“Think About Me” and “A Self-Made Man” are just plain fun rockers taken from two different directions, just as “Ain’t Love Strange” is decent pop; all improvements on the tense rock of Long After Dark. “All Mixed Up” might have been a decent soul track if they used better canned horns, but it’s possibly the only clunker here. Finally, the title track is a great lost outtake from Exile On Main St.

The album wasn’t a huge commercial hit, and deserved better. While certain aspects of the production haven’t aged well, Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) remains a straightforward blast of gutbucket rock ‘n roll—highly welcome at a time when such a sound had all been but lost.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)—

Friday, September 11, 2009

John Lennon 13: Menlove Ave.

When this album appeared in the fall of 1986, it was unclear at first glance just what we were getting. Side one seemed to consist of Rock ‘N Roll outtakes, but what was with all those Walls And Bridges retreads on side two? Obviously these were all originally recorded outside of Yoko’s immediate sphere of influence; did she even know what these tracks were? (And the packaging: a clear plastic inner bag, no lyrics, limited notes, the same basic Warhol art on front and back covers…)

Looking back, she did us all a favor by putting these tracks out, and whetted the appetites of the uninitiated to the many marvelous Lost Lennon Tapes to be discovered. As it turned out, the second side is quite simply the 1974 precursor to Unplugged. These are fascinating, stripped-down run-throughs of five Walls songs, with minimal accompaniment by the cream of his post-Beatles cohorts: Jesse Ed Davis, Jim Keltner, and Klaus Voormann. The experience is intimate and stunning. “Steel And Glass” is even more cutting here, with some vocal ad-libs that’ll curl your hair. The alternate “Bless You” is even more achingly tender, and “Scared”, “Nobody Loves You”, and “Old Dirt Road” are just as interesting.

However, side one still seems half-baked today. “Here We Go Again” is listed as a songwriting collaboration with Phil Spector, but it doesn’t live up to the hype. “Rock ‘N Roll People” is cut from the same pointless boogie cloth as “Move Over Ms. L”, with even less clever wordplay. (It was obvious John couldn’t find direction in his originals, which was another excuse to go to LA.) “Angel Baby” was on the Roots version of the Rock ‘N Roll album; he sounds drunk singing this, and he probably was. “Since My Baby Left Me” tries to get a party going and fails. Yet it’s “To Know Her Is To Love Her”, in Spector’s drastically slowed-down style (typical of his work at the time), that gives John a chance to pour out his heart, proving that perhaps he had learned something from Janov after all. This experiment, and leads perfectly into those performances on side two.

Coming the same year as the official release from the One-to-One concerts, we fans began to get spoiled. But the bounty would be limited, for Menlove Ave. was slightly ahead of its time; had they remained on the shelf in 1986, these tracks would all be prime cuts on the Lennon Anthology when it finally arrived in twelve years’ time. Or failing that, in the remastered CD era, they could have been bonus tracks for the albums themselves. (And indeed, some, but not all, were.)

John Lennon Menlove Ave. (1986)—3
Current CD availability: none

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bob Dylan 31: Knocked Out Loaded

After playing Farm Aid with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and taking that band on a tour of the Far East, we hoped Bob would capitalize on the momentum and put out an album sure to deliver the same punch and wild mercury of Blonde On Blonde. In fact, based on a Rolling Stone article written by Mikal Gilmore and published shortly before the album’s release, Bob and the Heartbreakers were busy in the studio, recording hours of inspired material, bursting with promise and potential—a view Mr. Gilmore maintains to this day.

Despite all that, Bob apparently hadn’t written any songs worth keeping, and instead cobbled together Knocked Out Loaded, a hodgepodge of recordings from the recent past and present, making for something of a cross between Self Portrait and Dylan. (That’s not meant in a good way.) The only cohesiveness comes from the Queens of Rhythm, consisting of four to six female vocalists, slathered over each track, along with way too much reverb.

The opener “You Wanna Ramble” isn’t that adventurous for R&B. “They Killed Him” is a Kris Kristofferson cover (not a good sign), something of a rewrite of “Abraham, Martin & John”, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, it includes a children’s choir. “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” is a cheesy remix of a synth track left off the previous album, “Precious Memories” is an old hymn that might have been a nice idea, but it’s torpedoed by a steel drum solo, and “Maybe Someday” is another noisy synth track that takes too long to end.

The second side would seem to show some promise, as it consists of three songwriting collaborations with three distinct collaborators, in order: playwright Sam Shepard, rocker Tom Petty, and MOR legend Carole Bayer Sager. At eleven minutes, “Brownsville Girl” is the long-awaited, highly touted epic, but you’re likely to get stuck trying to follow along with the story amidst all the slushy echo and Queens of Rhythm. (We wondered if Gregory Peck himself had ever sat through it; apparently he did, and wrote that he was both “pleased” and “honored”.) “Got My Mind Made Up” is the only true Heartbreakers track here, and a letdown; it’s too bad he couldn’t have included “Band Of The Hand”, released earlier that year for the movie of the same name nobody saw. The album finally ends with the comparatively pleasant “Under Your Spell”, but it only succeeds in the face of everything that has gone before.

Ultimately, the effect of the album was summed up by the cover art, with the listener identifying with either the bandito or the guy being strangled. Knocked Out Loaded was product, plain and simple, put out while Bob and the Heartbreakers (and the Queens of Rhythm, naturally) toured America. (Only two of the album’s songs were tried on the tour, and only once each.) It was hard to feel spoiled by such traffic on the shelves when the albums weren’t worth the plastic they were printed on. For all the pre-hype of recordings with the Heartbreakers, this one just plain hurt.

Bob Dylan Knocked Out Loaded (1986)—

Monday, September 7, 2009

Tom Petty 7: Pack Up The Plantation

Tom Petty’s career was pointing to “the obligatory live album”, and that’s where Pack Up The Plantation came in. Like any good rocker he had years of tapes to choose from, but the majority of this two-record set came from a show at LA’s Wiltern Theater (which also was the source of an accompanying home video, with a different song selection). Some tracks came from earlier tours, which likely sent some royalties the way of retired bass player Ron Blair.

For the most part, the album gives a good idea of a Heartbreakers show, by including the hits and some well-placed covers, highlights being the opening “So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘N Roll Star”, with a guitar solo drenched in “Eight Miles High”, and “Needles And Pins” featuring Stevie Nicks on harmonies. The Animals’ “Don’t Bring Me Down” comes from a 1978 theater date, but “Shout” goes on far too long and makes one long for Otis Day & The Knights. A better use of audience participation comes on “Breakdown”, wherein Petty steps back to let the crowd sing the verses.

“The Waiting” is another nice departure, played mostly solo until the band plows in after the bridge. “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” translates okay to the stage, helped out by the three-person horn section and pair of female vocalists along for the tour. (Luckily, they wouldn’t stay; for the most part, the band would not use such live augmentations going forward.)

For fans and newbies alike, Pack Up The Plantation did the job. In a demonstration of either Petty’s affinity for vinyl or the record company’s theory of value, the compact disc version sported two fewer tracks (“I Need To Know” and “You Got Lucky”) than the better-selling LP and cassette versions.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Pack Up The Plantation Live! (1985)—
Current CD: same as 1985, minus 2 tracks

Friday, September 4, 2009

Bob Dylan 30: Biograph

In 1985, Bob was known as a cultural icon, though many Americans wouldn’t have exactly been able to say why. He started the year as the odd voice out on “We Are The World”, then showed up as the penultimate closing act at Live Aid, playing a brief acoustic set with two inebriated Rolling Stones. (He used the occasion to inspire Farm Aid, but the few people who actually understood his mumbled comments thought it was a crass distraction from the poor Ethiopians we were patting our backs to save.) Empire Burlesque got lots of press, but it didn’t wow.

So it was a little surprising when Biograph came out that November, an unprecedented five-record set featuring Dylan’s biggest radio hits plus album cuts and some fabled unreleased tracks (about four sides’ worth of true rarities; collectors were just as intrigued by the fabled unreleased tracks it didn’t include). When you want to understand where the concept of the box set started, have no doubt that it started here. Eric Clapton’s Crossroads, long considered the benchmark, wouldn’t have happened without Biograph, but had the advantage of CD-length programming. Because it was 1985, most households (much less radio stations) hadn’t considered owning a compact disc player; thus Biograph was sequenced as ten separate LP sides and themes, which is exactly how it’s supposed to be heard.

Side one is dedicated to the tender love song; these are the songs the leader of the Wallflowers hears when he thinks of his parents in love. The rarity here is a nice piano take of “I’ll Keep It With Mine”. Side two is made up of protest songs; oddly enough, given his reputation, his legacy as the conscience of the ‘60s is neatly wrapped up in four songs from his second and third albums, plus the wistful “Percy’s Song”.

Side three features rock ‘n roll, a side that had confused his folkie followers but was a good audition for those about to watch him tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. One version of “Mixed-Up Confusion” starts the side, followed by “Tombstone Blues”, “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”, the Before The Flood version of “Most Likely You Go Your Way” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, with 51 seconds or so of “Jet Pilot”. Side four explores imagery and wordplay, from the near-religious wonder of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “Every Grain Of Sand” to the level of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Visions Of Johanna”, included here in a gorgeous live version from 1966 (with a stomping “I Don’t Believe You” with the Hawks right in the middle). His genius can be demonstrated nearly as with the Beatles: you can play the songs in alphabetical order and they’d fit just fine.

Side five starts out about such characters as “Quinn The Eskimo”, “Dear Landlord” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”, but what does “It Ain’t Me Babe” have to do with that? It doesn’t really matter, because the songs are so good, especially when you get to side six, which is the best of set. These are some of his best odes to unrealized love: “To Ramona”; the heartbreaking original New York version of “You’re A Big Girl Now”; “Abandoned Love”, which would have been the best song on Desire had he included it; “Tangled Up In Blue”; and a transcendent live “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.

From there the themes jumble again. Side seven, with its rare tracks, seems to be dedicated to his best songs never included on an album simply because they were the ninth or tenth best songs he’d recorded that day: “Can Your Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, which segues nicely into “Positively 4th Street”, a live “Isis” from the Rolling Thunder tour, one incarnation of “Caribbean Wind” and “Up To Me” from the New York Blood On The Tracks sessions. Side eight seems to play on the more playful side of his love songs. “Baby, I’m In The Mood For You” has some hilarious rollercoaster whoops, but “I Wanna Be Your Lover” makes us wish they’d included “She’s Your Lover Now” instead. A possibly live version of “Heart Of Mine” is the other rare track.

Side nine is entrenched in the late-‘70s, with a couple of his born-again anthems amidst songs that got unfairly overlooked, starting with “Romance In Durango” from Rolling Thunder. Side ten is devoted to the rest of his “anthems”, many best known either in cover versions or plagiarism by others, closing with a short publishing demo of “Forever Young” (the fast version).

There’s a lot to take in here, but any newbie who took the time to digest them those years ago has probably gone ahead and explored each of the lesser-known albums that spawned these. If you can program your CD player to digest these songs in the prescribed chunks, they’ll be even more revelatory.

Bob Dylan Biograph (1985)—4

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Neil Young 33: Road Rock

With his name on two albums within a short span after a long (for him) break, Neil undertook not one but two tours. The first was the cleverly titled CSNY2K, which screamed for the inevitable live album. Instead, for some reason, Road Rock Vol. 1 surfaced at year’s end, a single-disc souvenir of the “Friends & Relatives” tour with the Silver & Gold band, plus his wife and half-sister on vocals.

Unlike the crisp acoustic sound of the album the tour was promoting, Road Rock is muddy and even sloppy sounding—amazingly for a live album that doesn’t involve any of Crazy Horse. For many of the tracks the audience noise is mixed at the same level as the band, so maybe it is just like being there. The song selection is random, only scratching the surface of the dozens of songs they did throughout the tour. To his credit, these are mostly songs that had yet to appear on any of his other live albums, but they truly do not improve on any of the versions we already love. “Cowgirl In The Sand” stumbles along for 18 minutes, with the normally solid Jim Keltner contributing his own paradiddles and Donald “Duck” Dunn all but inaudible on the bass. The backing vocals are the aural equivalent of too much ketchup on your hamburger, and why must we have another “Tonight’s The Night”? While “Walk On” and “Peace Of Mind” are nice diversions, “Words” runs for 11 minutes, and we didn’t care much for “Motorcycle Mama” in the first place. Of the first-timers, “All Along The Watchtower” with Chrissie Hynde is about as thrilling as the Stones backing up Dave Matthews, and “Fool For Your Love” is hardly worth the $18.

While the title suggested that more volumes were to come, to date none have. This is most likely not due to Road Rock’s poor sales, but rather that Neil got sidetracked into other things (like the Archives, fans hoped against hope). Those wanting more could splurge for the concurrently released Live At Red Rocks video, which includes a complete concert performed in a torrential downpour.

Neil Young, Friends & Relatives Road Rock Vol. 1 (2000)—2