Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fripp & Eno 1: No Pussyfooting

In 1972, on breaks from their respective bands, Robert Fripp brought his guitar and pedals over to Brian Eno’s house to see what kind of music they could make. Eno showed Fripp his technique of looping live music in real-time via two tape recorders. Fripp played with himself, so to speak, on a piece eventually dubbed “The Heavenly Music Corporation”, and thus, Frippertronics was born.

A year later, they met up again at an actual studio with the same brief. This time Eno manipulated his VCS3 synthesizer for Fripp’s fretting benefit, and called the result “Swastika Girls”. The completed works, equal to two sides of an LP, were released as (No Pussyfooting).

While the genesis of this project may sound a lot like how John & Yoko’s Two Virgins came about, the difference is that both Fripp and Eno were much more adept at making something musical come out of tape experiments, and their project certainly would not have gone further than their own ears had it not possessed any musical value. Indeed, one of the most striking things about (No Pussyfooting) is how it manages to sound different with every listen.

As a tribute to its notorious BBC radio debut, where the album was played off reel-to-reel tape threaded backwards, the double-CD reissue includes bonuses of a sort. In addition to being separated into indexed sections for “easier access”, both pieces are presented in reverse, and “Heavenly Music” also appears a third time at half-speed. Only those familiar with the music would otherwise know which was which given a sampling.

Fripp & Eno (No Pussyfooting) (1973)—3
2008 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, October 30, 2009

Neil Young 35: Greendale

Greendale had a lot to overcome, from the disappointment of Are You Passionate? to the way Neil presented it to the world. It’s a song cycle that apparently came through him as we hear it, complete with background on each character and plot to fill the spaces in between the songs (at least until the movie came out). He played it acoustic with narration for a while, then brought Crazy Horse on tour on the eve of its release, and braved a pile of bad reviews and poor audience response for ignoring the hits. (Neil felt so strongly about the significance of the album that he released it the same day four of the Missing 6 appeared.)

Quite simply, it tells the story of an extended family on a farm in a small town, and how a single tragic incident leads to further tragedy, culminating in one character’s efforts to make the world a better place. The plot proceeds at a matter-of-fact pace, with compassion between each line.

“Falling From Above” sets the scene, with interlocking conversations between some of the characters, followed by more back story in “Double E”. “Devil’s Sidewalk” goes across town for another point of view over the first of several simple yet spellbinding riffs. “Leave The Driving” sets the plot in motion, followed by the effective storytelling of “Carmichael”, a song that really gets inside the head of real people. “Bandit” is achingly pretty, with a hopeful chorus that would have worked better as the title. It’s also the only song that works outside of the plot. “Grandpa’s Interview” moves the story along, and as long as it is, it’s not boring. Neil’s pump organ returns in the delicate “Bringin’ Down Dinner”, followed by the one-two indictment in “Sun Green” and “Be The Rain”. Whew.

Of course, the album takes longer than that simple synopsis. It works best heard in a single setting, and not piecemeal. This is his most overtly cinematic album, and coincidentally the most penetrable plotwise, though it doesn’t really have an ending. Given the simplistic arrangements and the politics, it’s clear why a lot of people didn’t like it. But they also didn’t give it a chance. Soundwise it’s a logical extension from the two previous Crazy Horse albums, even if Poncho wasn’t included on the sessions.

As he worked to get his message out, Neil took advantage of his website to provide visitors with a multimedia Greendale experience. Starting with a map, various pieces were filled in, including locations, family trees and even a recording of Pegi singing “Don’t Fence Me In”. The initial version of the CD came with a bonus DVD of a live acoustic performance of the songs, filmed in Dublin earlier in the year (which had already been available for streaming on the site). Then, a “second edition” followed a few months later, with a different DVD, this one covering the recording sessions. Whether it helped sales any is not known; what is known is that the fan base didn’t want to buy the album twice, no matter how much they liked it or didn’t.

Neil obviously had affection for the project, as he would eventually release a live version of the album as part of the Performance Series in his sprawling Archives. Return To Greendale finds Crazy Horse stomping through the album in order in Toronto a month after it came out, stretching it just past the capacity for a single CD. Sadly for fans, the extra time on the second disc was not given over to any of the other songs played at the concert, but the booklet did include the songs’ lyrics for the first time. (The deluxe edition of the album offered the album on two CDs and two LPs, plus a Blu-ray of the concert film and the DVD from the second edition of the original album.)

Greendale remains a polarizing album among critics and fans today. Detractors didn’t care about the ecological theme or thought the music was too simple; supporters felt Neil was exercising his art to the fullest, and that the Horse were the perfect vehicle for the tunes. Chances are it will remain overlooked.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse Greendale (2003)—
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Return To Greendale (2020)—3

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Neil Young 34: Are You Passionate?

Neil kept something of a high profile in the post-9/11 environment, with his unique live performance of “Imagine” for a televised benefit and the advance release of “Let’s Roll”. Based on the story of the flight that crash-landed in Pennsylvania, the song rumbles in with an unsettling cell phone ring, then rides a “Fame”-like riff underneath the pointed lyrics. Reviewers inevitably compared it to “Ohio”; naturally, it was the one track on Are You Passionate? that would get any attention outside his fan base.

The album itself is the illegitimate child of This Note’s For You—albeit with none of the legendary leftovers from that project—and his 1993 tours with Booker T, whose MGs back him up on some Stax-flavored tunes, with wife Pegi and sister Astrid chirping along and Poncho Sampedro somehow sitting in for Steve Cropper. In hindsight, it’s a genre exercise that might have made sense after that Booker T tour, but here seems out of place. (And for good reason—some of the songs were originally recorded with Crazy Horse, until Neil decided to start from scratch on all the recordings save one.)

“You’re My Girl” opens with a variation on “Time Is Tight”, and appears to be about his grown daughter. It’s also the most off-pitch he’s been since “Mellow My Mind”. “Mr. Disappointment” features a different, raspier vocal, almost like a character of sorts, which makes it intriguing. But from there the rest of the songs are mostly long, pretty similar and fairly ordinary, and seem to exist solely give Neil a smooth groove over which he can solo here and there. “Differently” percolates with Duck Dunn’s bass, but the man-done-wrong pose isn’t any more effective on “Quit (Don’t Say You Love Me)”. After “Let’s Roll”, the title track mixes things up a bit, with a more comfortable melody and lyrics rather than leaning on a groove.

“Goin’ Home”, the sole survivor from that aborted Crazy Horse session, is easily the highlight of the album. While an eight-minute-long Horse track may seem like a calculated move, here it’s refreshing. It even ends abruptly, just like it should, then it’s back to the soul. “When I Hold You In My Arms” begins like a love song, then laments changing times and whoever’s on his lawn. “Be With You” kinda works, being a cousin of “Sunny Inside”, but “Two Old Friends” is a strange little parable, a rare spiritual plea that references The Band’s Rock Of Ages, of all things. “She’s A Healer” runs nine minutes over an relentless groove that only lets up occasionally, with Bluenote Tom Bray adding some trumpet.

Overall the lyrics make a good read, but Are You Passionate? simply doesn’t lend itself to back-to-back listenings. To make matters worse, Neil’s vocals, which are admittedly an acquired taste, sound very off-pitch and out of place amidst such a tight outfit. Maybe he shouldn’t have the backing of a “good” band? It was moot anyway; by the time it came out, he’d been on another CSNY tour, and only played a few shows to promote the album. And then he had something else on his mind.

Neil Young Are You Passionate? (2002)—2

Monday, October 26, 2009

Buffalo Springfield 4: Box Set

Buffalo Springfield was only around long enough to put out three albums, followed a year later by the Retrospective collection. Once Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, and Neil Young had become successful with their further adventures, the label dug deeper into each of the albums for a two-record set that has since become a collector’s item due to the inclusion of an extended version of “Bluebird”, which eschews the banjo section for an lengthy electric jam that manages to incorporate “Leave”.

Fast-forward to this century, and something of the first fruits of Neil’s long-awaited Archives project became reality with the Buffalo Springfield Box Set (after a few years of teasing and delays of its own). First of all, it sounds great — Neil being such a stickler for authentic fidelity, giving that as his main excuse for waiting so long. The first three discs follow the band’s evolution from the first demo recordings through the last sessions. Not counting bootlegs, there’s about 90 minutes of what falls into the category of “never-heard-before” material from Neil, Stephen, and Richie.

Handfuls of guitar-and-vocal demos abound, some of which turned into later classics for the Springfield, CSN (and Y) and Poco, and some of which weren’t explored further. The first disc is loaded with these, some with harmonies, heavy on Stephen and Neil, but Richie’s “Sad Memory” predates the debut and is the best by far of his other tentative drafts. Stephen’s “We’ll See” and “Neighbor Don’t You Worry” both appear as demos as well as decent band takes, while “So You’ve Got A Lover” is a heartbreaking little tune heard nowhere else, and “My Angel” would evolve quite a bit before it made it to an album. “Four Days Gone” is sung slowly and quietly with just piano.

Neil’s songs don’t show any of the shyness he professed to have had before he found his way. His own take on “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” is a treat, but “Your Kind Of Guy” is a vaudeville tune that should have stayed undiscovered. “Down, Down, Down” appears twice—once with just Neil and another time in an appealing full band take, and both strengthen the line from “Broken Arrow” to “Country Girl”. “One More Sign” is a gentle surprise, as is “The Rent Is Always Due”, which mutated melodically into “I Am A Child”. Then there’s “Whatever Happened To Saturday Night?”, which is full of big production and sung by Richie, but Neil wrote it all by himself. “Falcon Lake (Ash On The Floor)”, with Buddy Miles, sounds very much like his first solo album, and even has a nod to “Here We Are In The Years” in the bridge, as well as an echo of “One More Sign”.

Long-booted outtakes, including the instrumentals “Kahuna Sunset” and “Buffalo Stomp” and Stephen’s vocal on “Down To The Wire”, make their official appearances, although the extended “Bluebird”, which both Neil and Stephen had long denounced as crap, was omitted. Stephen also takes the lead vocal on the future Poco track “What A Day”. In a unique example of using outside writers, the frothy “No Sun Today” was contributed by one Eric Eisner.

However, the fourth disc consists of Buffalo Springfield in mono and Buffalo Springfield Again in stereo. As some of these tracks are represented elsewhere in the full-priced four-disc set, one is justified in crying foul at the value for the money. But it’s obvious from everything here, from the packaging and the booklet to the overall sound, that Neil spearheaded this box set out of respect, reverence and real love for the guys in the band who put him on the map. That he gave more of his own vault jewels to this project than he had for the CSN box ten years earlier shows how much the Springfield means to him.

Still, rabid students of rock history have at the very least read about how this band, along with the Byrds, was responsible for a lot of what came after it, for good or bad. It only makes sense that the first two albums should be heard back-to-back and in order. (Besides, there’s all that unreleased stuff. They didn’t have to include any, you know.)

A couple of decades later, once his own archives had become an online entity, Neil took the opportunity to remaster and repackage the original albums yet again. On five discs, What’s That Sound? offered the debut in mono (with “For What It’s Worth” stuck on the end), the revised version in stereo, Again in mono and again in stereo, and Last Time Around in stereo. Even with all the extra space, none of the rarities from the first box were included, nor was the extended “Bluebird”.

Buffalo Springfield Retrospective: The Best Of Buffalo Springfield (1969)—
Buffalo Springfield
Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Jim Messina, Bruce Palmer, Dewey Martin (1973)—
Buffalo Springfield
Box Set (2001)—4
Buffalo Springfield
What’s That Sound? Complete Albums Collection (2018)—

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rolling Stones 2: 12 x 5

While a somewhat imaginative title, 12 x 5 came a few months after a British EP called Five By Five, recorded at the historic Chess Studios in Chicago. Those five tracks, steeped in the electric blues they adored, would represent the better half of this American concoction.

Right off the bat the album gets points for kicking off with “Around And Around”, one of their best Chuck Berry covers. “Confessin’ The Blues” is a much slower blues, Mick blowing harp better and Ian Stewart running all over the 88s, while “Empty Heart” is basically “Fortune Teller”, albeit it a decent lift. The version of “Time Is On My Side” here was the first one and the single, with way too much organ compared to the remake. “Good Times, Bad Times” is a Jagger/Richards original, built around a 12-string and kick-drum, and nothing like the Zeppelin song of the same name. “It’s All Over Now” was a hit single the summer before, and an excellent, original arrangement of a song they didn’t write.

“2120 South Michigan Avenue” was the address of the Chess studios, yet this organ-based instrumental sounds more like the Memphis or Stax sound of Booker T and the MG’s. “Under The Boardwalk” proves these guys shouldn’t croon, but Keith obviously loved playing that 12-string, and would do so on “Congratulations”, another song whose title would be given to much better songs. “Grown Up Wrong” is another original recorded before they knew how to arrange such things. “If You Need Me” is a brief but excellent version of the Solomon Burke staple, and it all comes down to a revved-up take on “Susie Q”.

An album in name only, 12 x 5 has more good than bad, but it’s not of classic caliber. But they were recording almost as often as they were gigging, so they would have more for the label to exploit soon enough.

The Rolling Stones 12 x 5 (1964)—3

Friday, October 23, 2009

Paul McCartney 20: Unplugged and Choba B CCCP

While his live album was stumbling about the charts, Paul did an MTV Unplugged show with new drummer Blair Cunningham (who had been in a later incarnation of the Pretenders with guitarist Robbie McIntosh). Since he knew bootlegs would be immediately circulating, he decided to release the soundtrack of the broadcast version as a limited edition, numbered release worldwide. Subtitled The Official Bootleg, it was an immediate sellout as fanatics tried to get their copies before they couldn’t.

This is a charming performance, with much more of a natural feel throughout than his other live albums. He does a pile of ‘50s country/rockabilly favorites, plus some more Beatle songs he’d ignored for years. The three songs from 1970’s McCartney are actually the newest compositions included. Hamish Stuart sings “Ain’t No Sunshine” while Paul plays the brushes, and while he doesn’t play the piano, he does sit down to play “Blackbird”. Linda stays to one side with her harmonium, offending no one.

Unplugged isn’t easy to find, as most people hoarded their copies and bought extras to keep sealed. It can occasionally be found as a moderately priced import. (The original LP release was manufactured in Spain, of all places.) The packaging is similar to a certain so-called Russian album, which conveniently comes into our story right about here.

Back in 1987, while in the process of finding his musical and commercial feet, Paul began hosting rock ‘n roll jams with invited session guys. Everything was recorded, and he decided to release an album from the sessions. But there was a catch: it would only be available in the Soviet Union in the spirit of glasnost (or something like that). It’s still unknown what those citizens thought of it, as copies were immediately smuggled and bootlegged in the West.

Although it’s not Paul’s fault, Choba B CCCP (translating roughly to “Back In The USSR”) was immediately compared to John’s Rock ‘N Roll album (which wasn’t his best overall performance either). Besides, they even have two songs in common. All the songs are fairly straightforward and faithful, not unlike a wedding band. “Ain’t That A Shame”, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Crackin’ Up” all have Paul on guitar, and they’re interesting for not being as routine as the rest. Other standouts include “Summertime” and various Fats Domino covers.

The album was finally released worldwide in the fall of 1991, at the tail end of an incredibly visible period alongside the debut of Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio. Despite his name cemented in the title, this foray into classical music doesn’t sound like a typical McCartney work, which was probably the point. Trying to imagine Paulie singing the words doesn’t suggest it could be any better if he did. A commercial if not critical success, parts are pleasant but it’s not exactly essential, unless you really like operatic voices.

Paul McCartney Unplugged—The Official Bootleg (1991)—4
Paul McCartney
Choba B CCCP (1991)—3

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tom Petty 10: Into The Great Wide Open

As Full Moon Fever was a solo album in name only, Tom Petty’s experience working with Jeff Lynne on that and on two Traveling Wilburys albums obviously led him to think he could bring his new buddy into the studio with the Heartbreakers to write and produce and come out with musical gold. He didn’t realize how crowded those booths could get.

Into The Great Wide Open doesn’t sound enough like a Heartbreakers album to come off all that different from Full Moon Fever, but this could be forgiven if the songs were up to snuff. “Learning To Fly” and “All The Wrong Reasons” are too close to “Free Fallin’” (right down to repeating the same chords throughout) to stand out. The title track commits two big sins: in addition to an ugly star-studded big-budget video that overwhelmed the ugly song, its most clever hook (“a rebel without a clue”) was stolen from Paul Westerberg, who at least had the taste not to use it in a chorus. Then, three tracks later, “All Or Nothin’” repeats the tempo and tone, while using a backwards sequence of the chords.

There are a few bright spots, like the sunny “Kings Highway” (copied three tracks later on “Dark Of The Sun”) and the not-at-all-maudlin “Two Gunslingers”, which rises far above its concept with that catchy break. “Too Good To Be True” is about half of a great song. “You And I Will Meet Again” channels the Byrds through Rubber Soul. “Out In The Cold” is the best rocker, giving Mike Campbell plenty of room to stretch his fingers, but “Makin’ Some Noise” is an unnecessary returning to the “rockin’” songs from his first album. The closer “Built To Last” should get some points for having a unique sound compared to the rest of the album, as throughout, the trademark boxy drum sound the producer insisted on plastering everywhere makes us long for some kind of variety. (Stan Lynch, clearly in the minority here, has never been the gentleman Jim Keltner is, so it’s a wonder Jeff Lynne still has two working legs.)

Into The Great Wide Open was Petty’s last studio album for MCA; now that he was a superstar, he was about to leave them behind for Warner Bros. But his new celebrity status clouded his judgement, both for the production of this album as well as its marketing: while only ten years earlier he wanted to keep record prices down, with this album he consented to have its list price a full dollar above the norm, as befit an artist of his stature. (Then again, he was simply part of the problem. The record business was the only American industry to raise its prices as a result of the ‘90s recession.)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Into The Great Wide Open (1991)—2

Monday, October 19, 2009

U2 4: Under A Blood Red Sky

U2 was growing a reputation as a captivating live act, no doubt helped by footage of Bono climbing the scaffolding while waving a white flag in the driving rain in Colorado. So when they put out a live album, it was marketed—and priced—as an EP, with only eight songs. But considering that it ran over 35 minutes, it was worth the investment.

Culled from three different concerts, including the (in)famous Red Rocks show, Under A Blood Red Sky offers a smattering of the hits—“Gloria”, “New Year’s Day”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “I Will Follow”, naturally—among some less well-known songs that were staples of the live show. “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” was one of the band’s first singles, complete with those trademark fret harmonics. The increasingly popular “Party Girl” was originally the B-side to “A Celebration” (a song the band immediately disavowed), extended here to much enjoyment. “The Electric Co.” includes the familiar intro used on “Is That All?”, and a mesmerizing middle section wherein Bono interweaves some lines from “Send In The Clowns” (as well as “America” from West Side Story, both Stephen Sondheim songs), which has since been unfortunately excised, and not very seamlessly at all, from all but the initial pressings per the composer’s demand. The album closes with “40”, played gently enough to get the crowd singing the chorus long after the band has left the stage, one by one.

Under A Blood Red Sky provides a great snapshot in time for old and new U2 fans, and effectively sets up their next chapter as a band. These days it seems short, but oh well. In fact, 25 years after its original release, it was reissued in tandem with the full-length DVD of the famous Red Rocks concert. However, neither the remastered CD nor the film includes “Send In The Clowns”, sadly.

U2 Under A Blood Red Sky (1983)—4

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rolling Stones 1: England’s Newest Hit Makers

The Rolling Stones are unique among their generation for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that over three decades into the digital era, their catalog is a complete mess. For starters, unlike many of their contemporaries, their CD standard is based not on the original British albums but the American ones. Perhaps we can thank Allen Klein for that; the Stones catalog came out on CD before the Beatles’ did, and it’s remained the same ever since, with few exceptions. (Admittedly, those late-‘80s CDs were a sonic improvement on the “electronically reprocessed for stereo” mixes on the original LPs.) In the new century, the ABKCO-owned catalog was revamped again, with various British albums added to the racks alongside the American ones. Then, when the mono mixes of their ‘60s studio output were boxed up in a set, the five British albums were interspersed with six American albums, which means a couple dozen songs are repeated here and there.

Not that the band itself hasn’t always put the fans first. Since their inception, in America alone they’ve put out exactly 25 studio albums, plus 13 compilations and 10 live albums; that last number doesn’t include the “official bootlegs” they’ve made available for download in recent years. 1980 was the last time a studio album was preceded by another; after that every studio album has been followed by either a live album, a collection, or both. The greed of ABKCO is surpassed only by that of Mick Jagger.

They started out as an R&B band, and it would be several years before they successfully mastered the album format (unlike the Beatles, who defined it, and the Who, who thrived in it, both during the same period). Thanks to record company miscomprehension, the first Stones albums were marketed to the teenybopper crowd, and why not. With the super-hyped title England’s Newest Hit Makers, their American debut was pretty close to their first, self-titled British LP, and therefore nicely shows what they had to offer this early.

Their own writing was neither up to snuff nor particularly encouraged. But as modern blues machines they were turning out quality, if not definitive, versions of “Not Fade Away”, “Route 66” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You” among their covers. That would be young Brian Jones blowing away on most of the harmonica (since Mick hadn’t learned it that well yet) and playing the more complicated slide guitar; it was his band in the first place, as is most obvious here. Of course, the better lifts from Chuck Berry would be Keith the Human Riff himself, and that’s the sound that would be most consistent over the next fifty years. (The wheezy organ on “Now I’ve Got A Witness” is courtesy of Ian Stewart, who always sounded better on piano, and never played anything but major chords.)

Outside of a couple of group-credited tunes, the only Jagger/Richards original here is “Tell Me”, driven by Keith’s 12-string as he mewls along with Mick on the choruses. Even for an album just over half an hour long, this one lasts over four minutes. (Another prize moment: Charlie Watts’ fills following “knock on my door”.) Lovelorn Mick doesn’t sound quite as natural as the horny toad in “I’m A King Bee” and “Walking The Dog”, while the latter does provide stereophonic proof as to why Brian Jones was usually prevented from singing.

Having been (mostly) conceived as an album (as opposed to a bunch of singles or stopgap EPs), England’s Newest Hit Makers is a strong debut, suffering from little record company interference. The production was a little primitive, but Charlie’s drums crackle, and even Bill Wyman knew how to make his bass heard. A good start, and who knew how long they’d last?

The Rolling Stones England’s Newest Hit Makers (1964)—4

Saturday, October 17, 2009

David Bowie 15: Stage

Satisfied with the sounds that comprised Low and “Heroes”, Bowie felt empowered enough to tour with a band tasked with recreating them onstage. This time out the flash guitarist was Adrian Belew, with two keyboard players—one of whom was Roger Powell from Utopia—and an electric violin further augmenting his usual rhythm section. Then, for the second time in four years, he issued a double live album from said tour.

Unfortunately, as a live album, Stage might have gotten more respect if it hadn’t seemed so careless. The packaging was half-assed, and the most effort seemed to have been put into resequencing the setlist into thematic, chronologic sides. Five songs from Ziggy Stardust are shuffled and moved to take up side one; side two stays upbeat with “Station To Station”, “Fame”, and “TVC 15”. Instrumental pieces and songs with vocals from the last two albums fill up sides three and four respectively.

Maybe this worked for people who tended to listen to the same side repeatedly without flipping it over or changing discs, but it distracts from the “you are there” experience. It’s too bad, since some of the performances and recreations of rather elaborate studio tracks are to be commended. He seemed in a pretty good mood, too. While it didn’t have the dramatic rearrangements of David Live—outside of an extended “Breaking Glass” and a plodding “What In The World”—neither did Stage transform the original recordings much.

Ryko’s expansion of the album added his wacky re-arragement of “Alabama Song” as an afterthought, but still stretched it to two CDs when it all would have fit on one. The 2005 remaster finally rejigged the tracklist to reflect the actual show, and added two more tracks, justifying a two-disc set. Then, 2017’s A New Career In A New Town box set presented the original album sequence alongside a new mix by Tony Visconti reflecting the true setlist—returning the Ziggy suite to its spot following the intermission, for one—with another two new tracks, more crowd response, and no fades between songs.

Stage (2017) was eventually released on its own, and is the preferred version, and not just because it’s 20 minutes longer. Just as with David Live, an alternate view from the same tour became available for comparison soon after. Recorded only two months later and a continent away, Welcome To The Blackout was mixed in 1979 for possible film release, but stayed on the shelf until 2018’s Record Store Day, with a CD version following. While very similar to Stage, it’s got a little more life, and there’s even more music, with a mid-set performance of “Sound And Vision”, plus “Rebel Rebel” as the closer.

David Bowie Stage (1978)—3
1991 Rykodisc: same as 1978, plus 1 extra track
2005 rerelease: same as 1991, plus 2 extra tracks
2018 Stage (2017): same as 2005, plus 2 extra tracks
David Bowie Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78) (2018)—3

Friday, October 16, 2009

Paul McCartney 19: Tripping The Live Fantastic

Another tour, another three-record set. Paul’s world tour was a huge success everywhere it went, and Tripping The Live Fantastic was a natural souvenir for everyone who saw it. Like Wings Over America, it includes nearly every song performed on the tour, including some never performed before onstage, plus bonus soundcheck material of varying interest.

The band was basically set up like Wings—Paul plus two guitar players, a drummer and Linda, plus another keyboard player to help her out—so the songs are tight and professional. Surprisingly, few Wings or solo songs were performed, putting the emphasis on Beatle material and Flowers In The Dirt. As some of those Beatle songs were making their live debut, comparisons with the originals were inevitable. “The Fool On The Hill” is a nice surprise, even if the ending goes too long. “Back In The USSR” reminds us that he can rock. “Sgt. Pepper” is extended to include both versions and a three-way guitar solo. “Let It Be”, the final Abbey Road medley and “Hey Jude” grab the crowd by the heartstrings and don’t let go.

There are a few clunkers; “Ebony And Ivory” is torpedoed with Stevie’s part being sung by Hamish Stuart. (Even when he was in the Average White Band he didn’t profess to be funky.) “Coming Up” was done best with Wings. The excitement of hearing “Birthday” in a live setting depends on one’s opinion of the original. Some unique oldies are interspersed, like “Twenty Flight Rock” and the Ray Charles chestnut “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying”; all the selections are immaculately and lovingly performed to ecstatic audience response.

For those who saw the tour, the fun of actually being in the same room with a Beatle outweighed the music and talent. Much of the patter and “spontaneous” moments were clearly scripted, as all are reproduced here; one’s tolerance of Paul’s charm and cuteness varies from fan to fan. The packaging was especially nice if you bought the vinyl, with the CD photo booklet blown up to full size. (A single-CD distillation subtitled Highlights! was also made available shortly afterwards for those who didn’t want to spring for the double; most likely it only sold to collectors who had to have both.)

Paul McCartney Tripping The Live Fantastic (1990)—3
Paul McCartney Tripping The Live Fantastic: Highlights! (1990)—3

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

John Lennon 14: Imagine Soundtrack and Lennon

Part of Yoko’s continued re-establishing her husband’s legacy included authorizing a syndicated radio show that served up hours of unreleased music and interviews with people willing to chime in about it. It also coincided with a feature-length documentary, right around the time of Albert Goldman’s hachet job.

The Imagine soundtrack was the obvious tie-in to that film, and the marketing folks most likely wanted to make it as accessible as possible for neophytes. While it’s admittedly convenient to have a nice pile of Beatle classics alongside John’s solo hits, collectors didn’t really need another version of “Help!” or “In My Life” in their racks. But it does present a nice round musical look at John, and going through his recorded history chronologically tells volumes more than the idea that his life started in May of 1968.

As for the alternate tracks, this was the first official appearance of “A Day In The Life” with a clean intro. The live take of “Mother” is also a clever change of pace. The quick run-through of “Imagine” to the session guys who’d never heard it before nor imagined (sorry) that it would become such a famous song is charming. Even the unfinished quality of “Real Love” was obvious to the Threetles when they embellished it in 1995. Again, the album is a good introduction, especially if it leads the listener to the original albums. Which was the idea anyway.

By the time the film was gathering dust in video stores, the box set had become a big deal in music retail. Consumers expected great packaging with a well-rounded overview; collectors wanted this plus better sound and rare stuff. The Lennon box set sits on the fence between complete and holy grail, while being neither.

It starts naturally with “Give Peace A Chance”, then gives what was the first CD appearance of four tracks from Live Peace in Toronto. All of Plastic Ono Band is represented. And that’s just the first disc. Disc 2 has all of the Imagine LP save “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier”, a dip into Some Time In New York City and a couple of tracks from the One-to-One shows, ending with a smattering of the more notable tracks from Mind Games.

Disc 3 has most of Walls And Bridges, plus a sampling of both the Spector and non-Spector sessions for Rock ‘N Roll, but sadly includes “Angel Baby” over the then-unreleased “Be My Baby”. The three live tracks from the Elton John concert fittingly close out the disc. Disc 4 is an idea that should have existed on its own: all John’s Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey tracks, plus the “solo” remix of “Every Man Has A Woman”, without Yoko’s songs to interrupt them. This is the preferred way to take these in.

With all the space on these discs, there could have been more album tracks, or at least more rare or unreleased stuff, but they’d also promised that an official Lost Lennon Tapes box would be out shortly. (It took eight years.) The booklet keeps it simple with all the lyrics but no other annotations. Therefore the music stands for itself, and while we can argue all day about the songs that were left off, it’s still a pretty listenable box set. And a rare one too, as it was never widely available.

John Lennon Imagine: Music From The Original Motion Picture (1988)—3
John Lennon
Lennon (1990)—4

Monday, October 12, 2009

Traveling Wilburys 2: Vol. 3

Even though Roy Orbison was gone too soon, the remaining Wilburys were determined to carry on, and they did. The joke here is that rather than trying to follow the success of Volume One with a second installment, they skipped right to the third. (Cue rim shot.) The songs are largely Dylan-centric compositions, and better than the album he’d released a month earlier.

“She’s My Baby” hits the ground running, with over-the-top guitar injections by “bluesman” Gary Moore. “Inside Out” and “The Devil’s Been Busy”—complete with sitar!—are ecological numbers, sandwiching the too-short “If You Belonged To Me”. “7 Deadly Sins” is the only doo-wop number in Dylan’s oeuvre, and it’s a scream. “Poor House” is standard inconsequential Jeff Lynne rockabilly redeemed by George’s guitar.

“Where Were You Last Night?” is more Bob, who steps aside long enough for Tom to recite the wry musical inventory in “Cool Dry Place”. (It, of course, being the natural sequel to “Handle With Care”.) “New Blue Moon” fits the same weird pocket as “Margarita” on the other album, but this one’s funnier. “You Took My Breath Away” is better Petty, and the whole thing comes crashing down with “Wilbury Twist”.

While there may be those who find Vol. 3 as enjoyable as the first, the boys just couldn’t capture lightning in the same bottle. It was too much to expect the same surprising fun, but it didn’t merit the near commercial ignorance the public served it. At least the band had the decency not to try and replace Roy. They even picked new pseudonyms. (The 2007 reissue adds “Nobody’s Child”, which was originally available only on Olivia Harrison’s Romanian Angel Appeal charity album, and a sadly reworked version of “Runaway”, which wasn’t so close to the original Del Shannon version when first released as a B-side. Thanks a lot, Jeff.)

And that was that. While George professed to be a Wilbury till he died, no further recordings by the group have surfaced or much less been rumored.

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (1990)—3
2007 rerelease: same as 1990, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, October 9, 2009

Bob Dylan 35: Under The Red Sky

Ringo Starr once said that one of the worst jam sessions he ever played in included himself, Ron Wood, Eric Clapton, and a whole bunch of other people said to be among the best players around. His point was that just putting such people together doesn’t guarantee quality.

Such is the case with Under The Red Sky. With all the promise of Oh Mercy, and despite the inspired fluke that was the Traveling Wilburys, Bob came back a year later with another water-treading collection of songs dominated by big names. (Empire Burlesque anyone?) Here’s proof that all the stars and a hot producer—in this case, Don Was, then riding high on the wave of the B-52s, Bonnie Raitt and, of course, Was (Not Was)—don’t equal success. The luminaries dotting the credits run the gamut from George Harrison, David Lindley, the Vaughan brothers, Bruce Hornsby, David Crosby, Elton John and Slash to Kenny Aronoff on drums, Randy Jackson on bass (in the wilderness years between Journey and American Idol) and Al Kooper, who was probably happy to tell the same old stories to anyone who’d listen.

The slow thuds that start “Wiggle Wiggle” should be the first sign that something’s wrong. The title track makes little sense, unless it’s taken as a kids’ song. “Unbelievable” was the only choice for a single and lead video, but it didn’t help sales. “Born In Time” is just too syrupy; it’s a shame, since takes exist of this from the Oh Mercy sessions, and you can almost hear a decent track in there. “T.V. Talkin’ Song” just makes him sound like a cranky old man.

“10,000 Men” is another nursery rhyme, with a great windup opening, which “2 X 2” lacks. While the former seems to hint at a future direction, the latter squanders any of its potential. “God Knows”—another Oh Mercy refugee—has some potential, but “Handy Dandy” is a direct musical ripoff of “Like A Rolling Stone”. “Cat’s In The Well” is okay for an ending, and still figures in his setlists today, but do you really feel like playing this album again?

Maybe these are just good songs recorded badly. But the songs on Under The Red Sky simply weren’t there. Most seem to be repetitive lists and litanies, without any of the wordplay and insight central to the brand. Granted, he was also busy with another Wilburys album while all this was happening, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It fits in the pantheon below Desire as a Dylan album that some people love but we just don’t get.

The album’s defenders maintain that it should be heard as Bob intended: as a children’s album. It turns out that he did have a toddler around, so that could well be the inspiration. But if there’s anyone out there who sings their kids to sleep at night with lines like “wiggle till you vomit fire,” “ten thousand men on a hill… some of ‘em gonna get killed,” “let me eat his head off so you can really see,” “how much poison did they inhale?” or “the drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war,” start saving up for therapy, just in case.

Bob Dylan Under The Red Sky (1990)—2

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

George Harrison 12: Best Of Dark Horse

Cloud Nine had been a moderate hit, and likely carried in the wake of the other Wilburys’ solo successes that year, that this contractual obligation managed to chart. With a straightforward title, Best Of Dark Horse picks up where George’s other hits album left off, more or less. The selections from the five albums in the period are as obvious as they are head-scratching. (Three songs from Gone Troppo? Granted, one of those was only on the CD, but no “Dream Away”? And no “This Song”?)

No Wilburys tracks were included, but as something of an enticement, the album does include three new songs. Of the new songs, “Poor Little Girl” is pretty ordinary, wrapped around a honking sax, and probably a leftover from Cloud Nine. Some of the words over the chorus section deserve a better fate than this. “Cockamamie Business”, another complaint about the music industry, is grumpy without being clever or pertinent. The surprise is “Cheer Down”, co-written with Tom Petty and first heard over the closing credits of Lethal Weapon 2, of all things. It’s a treat. And it would be the last real new song from him for many years.

Best Of Dark Horse was a nice enough collection of some of the better songs from albums that weren’t worth it for the most part, but a little redundant for those of us who already had them. At least the lyric sheet clarified some of the lines in “When We Was Fab”. Within a few years it was out of print along with the rest of the Dark Horse catalog, and has stayed that way, leaving “Poor Little Girl” and “Cockamamie Business” all but forgotten to the mists of time.

George Harrison Best Of Dark Horse 1976-1989 (1989)—
Current CD availability: none

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bob Dylan 34: Oh Mercy

Wonder of wonders, and in a massive reward for long-suffering fans, a new Bob Dylan album appeared that most agreed this was more like it. Oh Mercy—the title, perhaps, a tribute to the recently departed Roy Orbison?—was produced by Daniel Lanois, fresh off his success with U2, Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson. His “swampy” approach to the sound complements the lyrics, which travel throughout between introspective and foreboding. The atmosphere is also perfect match for Bob’s voice, thankfully simplified and melodic without straining. The performances are simple, with a lot of emphasis on texture; he also plays a lot of piano for the first time since New Morning.

Perhaps it’s because the previous albums had been so spotty, these songs are very strong and durable. “Political World” fades in with the Lanois sound, and kicks in with a nasty vocal. There are few one-chord songs that make it, and this one does. “Where Teardrops Fall” picks up the pace a bit, with an influence of the town where it was recorded. “Everything Is Broken” takes an old Creedence riff and strangles it, underneath a near litany of things that are simply broken. “Ring Them Bells” takes the tempo down, where the album will stay. This wouldn’t have been out of place on the so-called Christian albums, and that’s meant in a good way. And whoever the “Man In The Long Black Coat” is, he’s still a pretty spooky character.

“Most Of The Time” makes good on the promise of all his recent songs of heartbreak and loneliness. “What Good Am I?” is a wonderful piece of soul-searching, followed by the sermonizing of “Disease Of Conceit”. These are very gentle songs, and truly invite the ears to listen as closely as possible. But things turn around for “What Was It You Wanted”, an incredible one-fingered salute to his fans, then “Shooting Star” delivers another great closer in the tradition of “Restless Farewell”, “Dark Eyes” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.

If those descriptions seem too brief, so be it. 1989 saw a lot of established artists return to form after pissing away most of the decade. Oh Mercy nicely followed the surprise of the Wilburys, and it was reassuring to hear Bob still so capable of something truly marvelous. We could even overlook the damp shirtless photo on the back cover.

Bob Dylan Oh Mercy (1989)—5

Friday, October 2, 2009

Paul McCartney 18: Flowers In The Dirt

Right in the middle of the hair metal revolution came the announcement that Paul was going to tour the world, including America. Oh, and there’d also be a new album. Flowers In The Dirt arrived amidst an exhaustive media blitz wherein Paul told the same stories with the same eyebrow raises and subtle nudges we knew by heart. (To his credit, Paul is oblivious to the sad fact that thousands of us know his history better than he does.) He was also sure to show off his old Hofner bass with the setlist still taped to it, as if he was picking up where he left off in 1966.

“My Brave Face” was upbeat enough to be a strong first single, if a little skewed; the late afternoon counterpart to “For No One”. It was the most successful of four included projects with Elvis Costello, who didn’t ignore the classic McCartney style and helped him to write what came naturally. “Rough Ride” starts out interestingly enough, but when performed live became background music while everybody headed to the john. It deserved better. “You Want Her Too” is a harsh sounding cartoon, and brought out the worst in both Macca and EC. (He’d point to this as a comparison to writing head-to-head with John—not a wise move.) “Distractions” is a half-asleep little number, and a step in the right direction. Then we go two steps back with the obvious “We Got Married”, the oldest recording in the set, produced by MOR yawnmeister David Foster; even he said it wasn’t a good song. “Put It There” ends the side pleasantly enough, with a “Blackbird”-type accompaniment and inoffensive lyrics about fatherly advice.

The second side begins with a possible future classic, “Figure Of Eight”. It would be reworked the following year when released as a single; that version seems better rounded, but this original still shows off all the hooks. “This One” is almost as good, even when the words get clumsy (“if I never did it”—thud). But it’s also the last above-average song here. Neither of the other two Elvis songs flow well; “Don’t Be Careless Love” is written in too high a key for either of them, and while “That Day Is Done” would be much better served eight years later when performed by the Fairfield Four in a gospel harmony setting, this rendition has only the briefest glimpse of its potential. “How Many People” is very well intentioned, but Paul never learned not to write protest songs. “Motor Of Love” is slathered in Cars keyboards and a Tears For Fears mix to the point where the bare framework of the song is camouflaged. (That’s how the LP ends—the CD finishes with “Ou Est Le Soleil?”, which is worse than even the instrumentals left off of McCartney II. He liked it so much he sanctioned numerous extended remixes of it. It’s safe to say the vast majority of the consumers who bought all those versions didn’t listen to each more than once, if at all. The same could be said for the disposable “Party Party”, included as a single with a re-release of the album in certain territories to promote the tour.)

With all the different producers credited on all the songs, it’s only natural that Flowers In The Dirt is a schizophrenic listening experience. It retains its late ‘80s glaze, but at least the musicians who would accompany him around the stages of the world are credited and pictured. It’s certainly better than most of what he spent the decade doing. But just as in 1976, we didn’t care about the new songs—we were gonna see him on stage again.

Nearly three decades later, when the album was reissued after many delays as part of his ongoing Archive Collection series, Paulie made the smart move of including all of the much-bootlegged demos recorded with Costello on the two-disc expansion, making it essential for EC fans. In the more expensive Deluxe Edition, a third disc contained full band demos of the same Costello co-writes, giving an intriguing glimpse into the album’s early incarnation as a full Costello collaboration, including songs that would eventually make it to future albums by both guys. However, most (but not all) of the pertinent B-sides and remixes were offered as downloads only, along with three further rare Costello demos that also saw separate release as a limited-edition cassette. (Yes, a cassette. In 2017.) While much could be said of the improved fidelity—and making it easy to delete over half an hour dedicated to variations on “Ou Est Le Soleil?” and “Party Party” from one’s hard drive—McCartney’s ongoing indifference to what his fans really want, not to mention the whole point of an “archive”, continues to disturb.

Paul McCartney Flowers In The Dirt (1989)—3
2017 Archive Collection: same as 1989, plus 9 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 9 tracks plus DVD and downloads)