Friday, December 31, 2010

Pink Floyd 12: The Wall

In another about-face, the next Pink Floyd album was their most ambitious yet, a two-record set made up of 26 relatively short (for the band) tracks documenting the life and neuroses of a rock star named Pink Floyd who shuts himself off from the world. But rather than getting shocked into isolation early on like Tommy, the protagonist of The Wall builds his defenses slowly over the first two sides.

The story itself is relatively easy to follow, despite the scribbled lyrics on the inner sleeves, but luckily the music makes up for any shortcomings. “In The Flesh?” blasts out with some of the heaviest rock they’d ever played, providing something of an overture. “The Thin Ice” sets up the main “Another Brick In The Wall” suite, lamenting the loss of Pink’s father and lambasting the educational system via a maddening disco beat. The side ends deceptively sweetly with a conversation with his “Mother”.

“Goodbye Blue Sky” reinforces the war theme over a sad acoustic backing. “Empty Spaces” practically stops before it starts, made more confusing by the extra lyrics (and a complete song) not included on the album. The band gets heavy on “Young Lust” (aka “Ooh I Need A Dirty Woman”) before the phone call that sets up the nightmarish mind movie of “One Of My Turns”. Pink’s remorse is displayed in the woefully dissonant “Don’t Leave Me Now”, giving way to the anger of the final “Another Brick” segment and the resignation in “Goodbye Cruel World”.

The wall now complete, side three takes place almost entirely inside Pink’s head with the TV on. “Hey You” and “Is There Anybody Out There?” reflect his immediate regret at shutting himself off, taking inventory in “Nobody Home”, which combines references to Syd Barrett with soundbites from Gomer Pyle. Perhaps that is supposed to set up the World War II sentiments of “Vera” and “Bring The Boys Back Home”; nonetheless they’re soon forgotten as “Comfortably Numb” brings him back to the present while Gilmour plays two masterful solos.

Having been more or less revived, Pink imagines the Beach Boys singing “The Show Must Go On” and he takes the stage “In The Flesh”, with alternate lyrics baiting the crowd whose chant of “Pink Floyd!” soon turns to “Hammer!” The ensuing riot supposedly takes place in “Run Like Hell”, but the lyrics don’t seem to add much to the plot. “Waiting For The Worms” continues the menace despite some doo-wop interludes, and then, apparently having had enough, Pink decides to “Stop”, subjecting himself to the degradation of “The Trial”. Colored like a Gilbert & Sullivan song, it expertly delivers the testimony of the schoolmaster, wife and mother before the judge gives his verdict over the “Another Brick” melody. And finally, the clarinets come in for life “Outside The Wall”, and the cycle begins anew.

The Wall soon became somewhat of a rite of passage for suburban white kids. Early adopters could knowingly wink at each other, watching when someone heard it for the first time then let it stay in constant rotation in their tape deck. After all, the first thing you hear on the album is the second part of the sentence that’s cut off at the end of the album—an endless cycle, a mobius loop, a Geordian knot, a dog chasing its tail. Images from the film also play into one’s perspective when the songs go by, which isn’t always a good thing.

The tour, which was so huge it could only visit five cities, was perhaps a better presentation of the story, and was finally represented by a live album two decades later. Is There Anybody Out There? combined music from two London shows recorded ten months apart, which included extra music in “What Shall We Do Now?”, discarded from side two, and “The Last Few Bricks”, a suite designed to kill time while the stagehands finished stacking the objects of the title into place, obscuring the band completely. This would be better experienced visually, of course, yet to date no footage of the shows has been released.

Still, it’s something of a testament to the writers that despite the content, a handful of the tracks became so popular on Classic Rock radio, and no coincidence that most of those were sung by David Gilmour. In the end, The Wall is something one grows out of, but could lead you to pick up the rest of their albums, and therefore discover some less obvious treasure.

When the catalog was revamped for a new decade, The Wall got the deluxe treatment alongside Dark Side and Wish You Were Here. The Experience Edition got a disc of demos, but the Immersion Edition went all out with two discs of demos, plus the Is There Anybody Out There set and a DVD including a documentary. The demos themselves show how far Roger was from the final presentation before others helped him put it all into shape. A few alternate band recordings, such as what would turn into “Young Lust” and “Comfortably Numb”, as well as tracks from The Final Cut and Roger’s eventual solo debut, are fascinating. The program ends, fittingly, with David’s instrumental sketches for “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell”. After all, Roger couldn’t have done it without him.

Pink Floyd The Wall (1979)—4
2012 Experience Edition: same as 1979, plus 27 extra tracks
2012 Immersion Edition: same as Experience, plus 67 extra tracks and DVD
Pink Floyd Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live 1980–81 (2000)—3

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Velvet Underground 4: Loaded

By the time of their contract with the Atlantic offshoot Cotillion, Lou and the band decided to make a conscious effort to achieve mass appeal. Hence, their next album was designed to be Loaded with radio-friendly hits.

And for the most part, it is. This of course is the album with both “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” on it, both songs that became staples of Classic Rock radio long before the format had been finalized.

But whether by Lou’s growing indifference or his decision to let Doug Yule sing some of the songs, it doesn’t have the edge that made the Velvet Underground so… well, edgy. “Who Loves The Sun” is a catchy opener, but here the arrangement makes it sound like the Monkees. (How could Lou have approved that fey a cappella break in the middle?) “Cool It Down” exudes a New York swagger, with Lou harmonizing with himself. The potentially epic “New Age” could have been one of his better story songs had he only sang it himself. (And indeed, he used to, with different lyrics, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.)

It’s been said that the album was completed without Lou’s input, and the snippet of vocal that leads into “Head Held High” would suggest that it was supposed to follow “I Found A Reason”, which ends on the same note two tracks later. Both are half-decent songs, “Head Held High” a good rocker and “I Found A Reason” nice doo-wop. In the middle is “Lonesome Cowboy Bill”, which doesn’t fit at all. “Train Round The Bend” is an excuse to write a song around a tremolo guitar, while “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” is a long song similar to the end of side one, with a guitar sounding more like Dave Mason.

Loaded was a nice try, but ultimately it pales in comparison to their other studio albums. Besides, with Moe Tucker out on maternity leave, the drums just sound wrong when played by anyone else. Nonetheless, critics have raved over it since its release, and its legend grew when compared to live recordings from the same period. After the band’s 1995 box set included some outtakes from the sessions, Rhino (which had gained access to the LP through their association with Atlantic) unveiled a “Fully Loaded Edition” to flesh out the story. “Sweet Jane”, “Rock & Roll” and “New Age” were restored to their original lengths, alongside several alternate mixes, demos and rehearsals of the songs. It also included full band versions of such later Lou solo classics as “Satellite Of Love”, “Sad Song” and “Oh Gin”, plus further attempts at “Ocean”, “Ride Into The Sun” and other “lost” VU favorites. (Admittedly it’s nitpicking, but as we’d gotten so used to the edited version of “Sweet Jane” over the years, it would have been nice to include that somewhere in the package. After all, Lou himself has barely sung that lost verse since 1969.)

All but one of those extras were included as part of the band’s 45th Anniversary Edition series. The other three discs consisted of a promotional mono mix of the album (including the “short” versions of “Sweet Jane” and “New Age”), single mixes, an abridged selection of music from the final Max’s Kansas City show, and a fascinating if frustrating bootleg of a May 1970 Philadelphia gig. Fascinating because the band played as a trio, without Moe, though Doug played drums on three songs; frustrating because the sound is atrocious.

The Velvet Underground Loaded (1970)—3
1997 Fully Loaded Edition: same as 1970, plus 22 extra tracks
2015 Re-Loaded 45th Anniversary Edition: same as 1970, plus 65 extra tracks (and DVD)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

John Cale 1: Vintage Violence

After leaving the Velvet Underground in 1968, John Cale—arguably the band’s most accomplished musician—dabbled in production and session work, before finally putting out his first solo album in 1970. Vintage Violence actually beat Loaded into the stores by about six months, but was even less of a hit.

It’s an oddity of an album, consisting mostly of straightforward rock songs based around his pounding piano, colored by country-styled electric guitar and crisp drums. The lyrics don’t always click, but the songs are so catchy the meanings don’t matter. His voice is generally double-tracked, and not always in sync. Throughout, the then-unknown Garland Jeffreys wails along in harmony. (His band Grinderswitch, or maybe it was Penguin, was tapped for the sessions, including the legendary Harvey Brooks on bass, onetime Dylan drummer Sandy Konikoff, and erstwhile Band member Stan Szelest. Co-producer was Lewis Merenstein, right between Astral Weeks and Moondance.)

“Hello, There” is the obvious choice for an opener, though it pits an incongruous verse against a rather pedestrian chorus. “Gideon’s Bible” is equally inscrutable lyrically, but the soaring chorus incorporates pedal steel and Cale’s viola for a lovely mix. Punctuated throughout by a honking harmonica with occasional vocal interjections, “Adelaide” starts out as a yearning for the city, but seems to be about a woman by the end. “Big White Cloud” creeps in with sweeping “Expecting To Fly” strings for a big production, while “Cleo” harkens back to ’50s-style pop, complete with a female backing vocal. “Please” sports a lovely melody despite the outlandish rhymes (“Won’t you help me please, I’m growing old” followed by “Won’t you help me sneeze, I’ve caught a cold”). Clearly, he’s not going for profundity.

Side two is equally all over the map; “Charlemagne” brings back the pedal steel for a more expansive sound, but it mostly lopes along the plains like a lonesome cowboy, even with the reference to his uncle being a “vicar”. “Bring It On Up” is pure chugging boogie, though you can just barely hear the viola sawing away beneath the mix. The three-song juxtaposition of the solo acoustic “Amsterdam” (only two major-seventh chords throughout), the fittingly nightmarish “Ghost Story”, and the simple “Fairweather Friend”, which Jeffreys wrote, demonstrates his refusal to be pigeonholed.

Possibly because it’s one of his more accessible albums, Vintage Violence was treated to a slight expansion come the 21st century. Liner notes give just a little more info on how and why the album came together, and exactly two bonus tracks are included: a nearly identical alternate take of “Fairweather Friend” plus six minutes of layered, droning violas called “Wall”, which becomes something of a preview of his next album.

John Cale Vintage Violence (1970)—3
2001 remastered CD: same as 1970, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, December 27, 2010

Tom Waits 2: The Heart Of Saturday Night

For his second album, Tom Waits moved deeper into cool-cat jazz territory, for a distinctly anachronistic sound. The Heart Of Saturday Night is a mix of finger-snapping riffs and a few slower standards that would help establish his growing reputation as a premier American songwriter.

The “jazz” on this album isn’t the fusion that had become popular around this time, nor was it even bebop. The sound here is more like the type of forties throwbacks Bette Midler would popularize (in fact, hers and Tom’s paths would cross from time to time). Piano and upright bass anchor most of the songs, with a few horns and strings added for color.

“New Coat Of Paint” begins our evening on the town, a mood interrupted by the pensive paradoxes in “San Diego Serenade”, then it’s back to the established sound with “Semi Suite”, the first of many tributes to the long-distance truck driver. If you came in at the back end of his catalog, you could be forgiven for expecting “Shiver Me Timbers” to sound like Popeye; here it’s a simple wish to sail away from one’s troubles. “Diamonds On My Windshield” puts him back on the highway, but the title track keeps it all local.

Side two takes a turn towards feeling sorry for oneself in bars. First he’s “Fumbling With The Blues”, begging “Please Call Me, Baby”. Then he’s stuck in a “Depot, Depot”, and “Drunk On The Moon”. There are some nice moments here to be sure, particularly on the two slower laments, but he’d’ve been better off sticking to two songs instead of stretching them into four. But all is redeemed at the end of the night, watching “The Ghosts Of Saturday Night” from the point of view of its subtitle, “After Hours At Napoleone’s Pizza House”. It’s a poetic perspective that would be even more pronounced on his next album.

While The Heart Of Saturday Night has its moments, it does suffer from second album syndrome, in that he used the best items from his backlog on his first. He’s still finding his way here, and would continue to do so.

Tom Waits The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974)—

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Keith Richards 2: Main Offender

Another Stones lull made way for the return of the X-Pensive Winos. While Main Offender offered more of the same formula as Keith’s first, and best solo album — plus or minus some reggae and R&B — for some reason it just doesn’t have the breadth, excitement and enjoyability as Talk Is Cheap.

Not to say it’s bad, in the least. Mick’s desire to keep the Stones hip and contemporary only kept Keith true to his roots and the guitar. The first three tracks alone are excellent; “999” is nice and dirty, “Wicked As It Seems” would be reworked as the opener of the next Stones album, and “Eileen” makes for one peppy love song in the mode of “She’s So Cold”. But things slow down big time on “Words Of Wonder”, six-and-a-half minutes of lazy reggae, and “Yap Yap” doesn’t quite catch either.

What we’d call side two is competent, but not stellar. “Bodytalks” compiles some stray riffs, and is mostly notable for Sarah Dash’s sultry cooing just under the mix. “Hate It When You Leave” extends the soul feel of “Make No Mistake” with some vintage-sounding horns and winds, just as “Runnin’ Too Deep” and “Will But You Won’t” are from the same cloth as “Take It So Hard”. “Demon” limps along to a close.

Main Offender was not a big seller, and while Keith would always get a song or three to sing on future Stones albums, for the next couple decades he limited his solo work to the occasional guest appearance. Because these things had become common, the album’s 30th anniversary would be commemorated with a deluxe set including the album on vinyl and CD, as well as two records (and one CD) devoted to Winos Live In London ‘92, newly supervised by Steve Jordan, plus a leather-bound book and various paraphernalia. (A simpler two-CD version of just the album and the bonus live disc sufficed for those of us without Keith’s money. Fun fact: the discs aren’t silver, but black.) The live album—culled from two consecutive nights, one of which was both Keith’s and Bobby Keys’ birthday—gives the band the chance to stretch in a club-sized venue. Plus, it’s got a slightly plodding “Gimme Shelter” but a strong version of “Before They Make Me Run”, which weren’t included on the Hollywood Palladium set from 1988.

Keith Richards Main Offender (1992)—3
2022 Deluxe Edition: same as 1992, plus 11 extra tracks

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bob Dylan 50: Christmas In The Heart

The second quickie release from Bob Dylan in the same calendar year was even more surprising than Together Through Life. Early word that Dylan, of all people, was doing a Christmas album fueled skeptics on its own, but with a title like Christmas In The Heart and a cover right out of Currier & Ives, it had to be a hoax, right?

It wasn’t. Christmas In The Heart really is a full-fledged collection of Bob’s takes on tried-and-true holiday favorites, just like they used to make, full of odes to Santa and sleigh riding, as well as bona fide hymns and carols. Its release was greeted with equal amounts of surprise, derision and fawning, and if you’ve got nothing better to do, you can scour the interwebs for all the pros and cons about the album. But here’s the deal: he obviously knows these songs inside and out, having already devoted two full hours to the genre on his radio show. Each of the tracks brings to mind such classic Christmas LPs by the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. That’s not to say he sounds like those people; it’s the spirit that pervades. (After all, Jesus came from a Jewish family too.)

Of course, any hope for a smooth listen disappears halfway through the second line of “Here Comes Santa Claus” where Our Hero stumbles on a note you’d think he’d be able to hit. Likewise, “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” deserve much better deliveries than Bob seems able to here. He also must have decided that “The Little Drummer Boy” wasn’t supposed to provide actual rhythm, choosing instead to run all over the timing.

Still, these red flags shouldn’t dissuade fans from picking up the album. He’s perfectly suited for “Christmas Island” and “The Christmas Blues”, and “Must Be Santa”, where he rhymes the names of four reindeer with those of eight recent presidents, is an absolute riot. (Better yet, watch the video, which should make even the screwiest Scrooge crack a smile.)

All the songs on Christmas In The Heart are played straightforward, and were probably recorded very quickly with little thought given to whether any should be tried in a key more suited to Bob’s current, extremely limited range. The accordion is kept to a minimum, and the “mixed voices” add a nice counterpoint throughout. Best of all, there’s nothing of the pretension you hear on, for instance, Sting’s yuletide album, which came out the same season. It’s just supposed to be fun. And it is. Besides, all proceeds of sales from are intended to feed the hungry, which is a pretty nice move in these troubled times. So don’t expect much and enjoy it while you can. After all, it’s only once a year.

Bob Dylan Christmas In The Heart (2009)—3

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bob Dylan 49: Together Through Life

Bob’s next new album came as something of a surprise, recorded and released very quickly, and with a relatively short break since the last new one. Together Through Life is a compositional collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who’d previously blessed Bob with “Silvio” (fair enough) and “The Ugliest Girl In The World” (not a good sign). With a lot of accordion, courtesy of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, the album has something of a Tex-Mex feel, but somehow just doesn’t stick.

“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” sets the tone with an unfortunate prophecy, as much of what follows lopes along the same dusty territory, song after song. “Life Is Hard” seems like an attempt to croon, but “My Wife’s Home Town” merely puts new words to a Willie Dixon blues, redeemed only by the cackle near the end. Similarly, “If You Ever Go To Houston” is a lazy rewrite of “Midnight Special”. “Forgetful Heart” shows some signs of life, bringing back some of the regret of Time Out Of Mind and some excellent imagery for a change.

“Jolene” isn’t the Dolly Parton song, but merely gives him an excuse to rhyme the name with “I’m the king and you’re my queen,” which we suppose puts it in line with some of the eyebrow raisers on Nashville Skyline. “This Dream Of You” is the only track credited to Dylan alone, and it’s a little better, but just goes on too long. “Shake Shake Mama” is average blues played for decades, but the slightly optimistic “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” could very well have been influenced by the previous fall’s presidential election. (Bob endorsed Obama, in case you were wondering.) However, that feeling doesn’t last with the litany of woes in “It’s All Good”, which chugs down the track, taking him away again.

Ultimately, Together Through Life is a disappointment. It’s not as bad as his mid-‘80s work, but there’s just not a lot of excitement here. Plus, his voice is more cracked than ever, and the incessant accordion doesn’t help break up the monotony any. It remains to be seen just how much of the words are Hunter’s and how much are Dylan’s, but the math would suggest that not a lot of thought was put into any of these. At the very least, he had new songs he could play live, at any of his hundred-plus shows every year. However, if you’re looking for a grand statement, this ain’t it.

Bob Dylan Together Through Life (2009)—

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bob Dylan 48: Tell Tale Signs

Having experienced something of a critical renaissance, the eighth volume in Bob’s Bootleg Series took a more recent look back. While not arranged even remotely chronologically, Tell Tale Signs picks up roughly where the first Bootleg Series box set left off, covering embryonic takes and unreleased songs from the better Dylan albums of the previous twenty years, plus a few soundtrack items here and there. This reassessment of his progress shows that for the most part, he’s still got talents to tap, particularly if he keeps his touring band around.

Many of the studio takes come from the two albums produced by Daniel Lanois. Oh Mercy is represented by six tracks, including a simple acoustic-with-harmonica demo of “Most Of The Time”. What sounds like a rehearsal of “Can’t Wait” has a great vocal and live room sound. “Born In Time” is nicer than the inferior take recorded a year later for Under The Red Sky and it’s equally interesting to hear early stabs on “Dignity” and “Series Of Dreams”, songs which were drastically remixed before their eventual release down the road.

Two versions of “Mississippi” from the Time Out Of Mind period show how much the song changed over time. “Dreamin’ Of You”, despite a good band performance, sports lyrics that were later spun off into such superior songs as “Standing In The Doorway” and “Not Dark Yet”. The same can be said for “Marchin’ To The City”, which starts out in church but turns into “’Till I Fell In Love With You”. The lovely “Red River Shore” would have only added to an already long album, but you can hear a foreboding of his Tex-Mex style.

Interestingly, there’s nothing from the “Love And Theft” era, suggesting that everything already appeared worth having. Instead, we get a burning live version of “High Water” that’s miles away from the back porch original, and a staticky take on “Lonesome Day Blues”. He must have been similarly pleased with Modern Times, as only “Someday Baby” is featured, in a take that sounds less like “Trouble No More” and more like a Lanois production, plus an earlier version of “Ain’t Talkin’” with different lyrics.

As he was able to spin the occasional odd track onto a movie soundtrack, a few of those (but not all) are collected here. “Tell Ol’ Bill” bubbles with a menace, while “Can’t Escape From You”, listed as “written for a film that was never made”, boasts an amazing twist on his usual gravel. “‘Cross The Green Mountain” is a long but pretty relic of the Civil War.

Coming on the heels of the redundant DYLAN compilation, which covered the same old ground as pretty much every other hits collection put together, Tell Tale Signs was mostly a nice collection to have. But in a truly annoying move by some sadist at either the label or his office, a third disc of outtakes was made available as part of a very pricey limited-edition package, creating the potential for bootlegs of bootlegs. Among the gems included here are a fascinating live rearrangement of “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, further alternates of “Most Of The Time”, “Born In Time” and, oddly, “Marchin’ To The City”, and a third version of “Mississippi”. Fifteen years later, some of these would be included in the deluxe version of the set devoted to Time Out Of Mind, for further gnashing of teeth.

Bob Dylan Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8—Rare And Unreleased 1989-2006 (2008)—

Friday, December 17, 2010

Beatles 30: Love

One of the last things George apparently did before he died was to get the Cirque du Soleil on board for a Beatles extravaganza in Vegas, and convince the other two plus Yoko it was a good idea. Eventually called Love, the show debuted in 2006 to the full endorsement of Paul, Ringo and the widows. More interesting to attendees were the liberal use of music extracted from the original multitrack tapes by George Martin (in what he said yet again would be his final production job) and his son Giles. These weren’t simple remixes along the lines of Rock ‘N’ Roll Music or the Yellow Submarine Songtrack—these were bona fide 21st-century mashups, the like of which had been keeping copyright lawyers busy for most of the decade. The album listed 36 titles within 26 tracks, yet the Martins said they mixed elements from over a hundred songs; we will not attempt to identify them all here. After all, the fun is finding them all yourself.

Bird noises introduce a vocals-only mix of “Because”, followed by key elements from “A Day In The Life”, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The End”. “Glass Onion” includes some acoustic guitar from “Things We Said Today”. “I Am The Walrus” gets a new stereo remix including the orchestral count-in heard for the first time ever. One of the more successful experiments combines “Drive My Car” with “What You’re Doing”, along with “Savoy Truffle” saxes and various segments of “The Word” weaved in and out. Since it is a circus show, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” gets a new mix with the guitars (and more organ) from “She’s So Heavy” over the closing waltz section, plus some “Helter Skelter” vocals at the end. The intro of “Blackbird” is shoehorned less than successfully onto “Yesterday”.

After another previously unheard count-in by John, “Strawberry Fields Forever” gets a fascinating treatment that seems to emulate his demo plus each of the completed takes in turn, then combines a variety of elements all over the end drums. “Within You Without You” gets a great new face by simply adding the drums and effects from “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and goes nicely into a “star-like” effect chopping up the opening of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. The strings from “Good Night” are added almost tearjerkingly to the first verse of “Octopus’s Garden”, with sound effects from “Yellow Submarine” bubbling underneath, even after the song proper continues. “Lady Madonna” replaces the sax solo with the riff from “Hey Bulldog”, Clapton’s solo from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Billy’s organ (again) from “She’s So Heavy”.

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” takes the demo from Anthology 3 and adds a new George Martin string arrangement. Thankfully, “Hey Jude” isn’t the full seven minutes, but they do kill some of the orchestra to pull out a buried McCartney bassline for a more prominent ending. The true finale is “All You Need Is Love”, with two Christmas presents on the fade: the “Johnny Rhythm” sign-off from the 1965 flexi, and laughter and applause from the 1966 flexi. Which only makes us angry that they’re still not available officially. (The streaming version of the album, which became available in February 2011, added exclusive versions of “Fool On The Hill” and “Girl”, both of which lean heavily on the same tamboura drone.)

While it’s easy to cry foul at messing with history, some of the juxtapositions were pretty cool. And it’s always nice to find a new Beatles album under the Christmas tree.

The Beatles Love (2006)—4

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Richard Wright 1: Wet Dream

In the early days of Pink Floyd, Richard Wright was a key contributor to the sound, not just via his distinctive keyboard parts, but in songwriting and even singing. As Roger Waters took more control over the band’s direction, Rick was pushed further and further to the sidelines.

Just as David Gilmour took advantage of time off to do his own album, Rick did first, even using the same studio that Gilmour would record in. (Gilmour’s came out first.) Featuring occasional Floyd sideman Snowy White on guitars and Mel Collins on sax, the resultant Wet Dream was a low-key collection of mostly slow tracks, and like Gilmour’s album, not all had vocals. The ones that did reek of despair.

“Mediterranean C” is slow and dreamy, just like its title, and something of an extension of the last segment of “Shine On Crazy Diamond”. But whatever joy this jaunt is supposed to bring is dashed by the minor-key “Against The Odds”, with its dying-marriage lyrics. The moody “Cat Cruise” manages to provide a change of pace, with its arpeggiated part and near-fusion tone. “Summer Elegy” begins somewhat in the “Great Gig In The Sky” vein, but instead of a histrionic vocal showcase, he sings another sad lyric seemingly about a dead relationship. It’s redeemed by another stellar Snowy solo. “Waves” has prominent guitars as well, fitting nicely with the Gilmour album and predicting some of the textures that wouldn’t be heard again until The Endless River.

“Holiday” sports a chorus and arrangement that almost seem upbeat, but the story in the verses proves it’s mere escapism. Despite the title, “Mad Yannis Dance” is a relatively brief sketch that teeters more than prances, fading into the jazzier “Drop In From The Top”, with its more recognizable Hammond organ. Most curious is “Pink’s Song”, with its contrite lyric about a lost or abandoned “quiet, smiling friend” that could easily be interpreted as Syd Barrett, but was supposedly an apology to the family’s nanny, written by the artist’s then-wife. Whatever the truth, it makes “Funky Deux”, another instrumental that sounds of a piece with the Gilmour album despite a burbling bass, a curious conclusion.

As might be expected from his earlier compositions, his weedy voice isn’t the strongest, and the melodies stray to the slow side. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Along with its brother, Wet Dream fills a space between Floyd albums that were almost totally dominated by Roger, and is recommended for deep listeners.

The album was mostly ignored on release—the title certainly didn’t help—and only made it to CD via Sony’s budget line in 1993. Thirty years after that, and in time for his 80th birthday (but 15 years after his death), it was reissued with new packaging and a new mix by the omnipresent Steven Wilson. The album certain benefits from a wider stereo spectrum, and while most tracks have a few extra seconds of “previously unheard passages”, “Cat Cruise” is 30 seconds longer, and “Waves” is extended by a minute to include more Mel Collins. (The Blu-ray version included a drop of the original album mix alongside the Dolby Atmos for comparison, and instrumental mixes of the four “vocal” songs.)

Richard Wright Wet Dream (1978)—3

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

David Gilmour 1: David Gilmour

While Roger Waters stewed over the pitfalls of stadium rock and labored over two very personal potential concept albums, David Gilmour took off with a couple of friends to record his first solo album. Using a core rhythm section along with his own instrumental contributions, the result was a lean, satisfying listen.

David Gilmour sports vocals on six of the nine tunes, with the others showcasing the guitar sound kids have come to love. The opening instrumental “Mihalis” and “Short And Sweet” (written with Roy Harper of “Have A Cigar” fame to Floyd fans) use the same delayed D-strums that would eventually anchor “Run Like Hell”. The best, and most Floydian song, the radio hit “There’s No Way Out Of Here”, wasn’t even written by him, but it’s still pretty killer. “Cry From The Street” is mostly a groove that gives him a chance to stretch outside a Waters lyric—when you can understand what he’s singing—while “So Far Away”, anchored by a piano, is just lovely. The instrumentals “Raise My Rent” and “It’s Deafinitely” [sic] bookend “No Way” to deliver some tougher sounds, while “I Can’t Breathe Anymore” begins quietly enough before exploding into a big finish.

It would be a long time before he considered himself anything of a worthy lyricist, and most of his efforts here aren’t very exciting. That only makes the guitar work more welcome, and on David Gilmour he certainly lets the music do the talking. Without a concept to tie all the tracks together, it’s an underrated album that provides some respite from the more ponderous entries in the Floyd-related catalog. (Also, the current remastered CD and streaming version feature longer edits for most songs, increasing the total playing time by about two minutes.)

David Gilmour David Gilmour (1978)—

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bob Dylan 47: Modern Times

While Modern Times sounds fine upon first listen, it hasn’t achieved the stature alongside Bob’s previous two. There’s a warmth to the performance, and in his piano playing, and a near-swagger in his delivery. He sounds very confident without being arrogant. The production is more like “Love And Theft” than Time Out Of Mind, but that’s fine; there’s still a progression. Melodies abound, amid more lifting from standard blues songs and other sources. (Apparently having gotten away with plagiarizing from obscure Japanese novels, he decided to go all out and replicate the folk tradition of “borrowing”.)

Much of the album is based on the blues. “Thunder On The Mountain” is a nice shuffle that mentions Alicia Keys in the second verse for some reason, but “Someday Baby” is a rewrite of “Trouble No More”. Similarly, “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” doesn’t even bother changing the title. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” seems a little redundant in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, since he’d already written the definitive response four years early with “High Water” on his last album.

What are more successful are the songs that sound like they could have been sung by Bing Crosby, particularly the lovely “When The Deal Goes Down”. “Spirit On The Water” and “Beyond The Horizon” suggest a sleepy lope in the days of the pioneers, while “Nettie Moore”, with its seemingly shifting meter, could have come from the Civil War era. “Ain’t Talkin’” gets singled out as a grand epic, but the one-note delivery keeps it from sinking in properly.

He’s definitely learned to work with his voice, and it fits the stuff he’s singing. Too many classic rock singers destroy their voices early on and sound like a shell of what they used to be, and can’t sing their old material. In Bob’s case, he stopped yelling like he did through most of the ‘80s, and has gotten more comfortable in the lower register. That’s kept his voice from getting worse over the past twenty years. (Then again, it couldn’t get much worse anyway.)

Here’s something else to consider—the albums in the “trilogy” of Time Out Of Mind, “Love And Theft” and Modern Times were all released over a nine-year period. That’s roughly the same difference between Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks, and between Desire and Infidels. Except that this time, he made each installment worth something. He’s waited until he has something to say, and records on his own terms. And that will likely be his M.O. until he goes down under the ground.

Bob Dylan Modern Times (2006)—3

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tom Waits 1: Closing Time

He arrived in the wave of early-‘70s singer-songwriters who critics pounced upon as candidates for “the new Dylan”. Instead of the hyper-sensitive breed as demonstrated by James Taylor and Jackson Browne, these were loners with a gift for wordplay sounding way older than their years. The first album cover by Tom Waits, aptly titled Closing Time, depicts a barroom troubadour sporting a wild head of hair and jazzman’s Van Dyke. But unlike a certain fellow from New Jersey, who emerged around the same time, his journey would be along a decidedly less beaten path, well away from stadiums and hockey arenas.

“Ol’ ‘55”, which kicks off the album, would also kick off his career via a cover by labelmates The Eagles. It’s very simple on the surface, just a song about driving a car (like that guy from Jersey), but go a little deeper and it would seem the singer has just gotten laid. However, there’s a melancholy in the delivery, which will become more evident on “Grapefruit Moon” and “Rosie”, and undercuts the kiss-off in “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)”. “Lonely” is a minimalist rumination over some tearjerking chords, but the triumph of his songwriting comes in “Martha”, a phone call from a senior citizen to the girl he left behind forty years before.

Clearly his influences are not exactly contemporary. “Ice Cream Man” takes its cue from a jump-blues number, despite its celeste intro, and “Midnight Lullabye” evokes nursery rhyme imagery. The title track, an instrumental, needs no words to convey the emotion.

Indeed, most of the songs on Closing Time all sound like they could take place at 3 a.m. somewhere, where the bartenders, patrons and the piano player are all tired but not sleepy, knowing they don’t have to go home (if they have one) but they can’t stay here. “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” comes directly from the barstool, staring at a pretty face across a crowded room through each round of drinks. “Virginia Avenue” is just as glum, but “Little Trip To Heaven (On The Wings Of Your Love)” is one of the sweetest bride-and-groom-first-dance candidates we’ve ever heard.

Closing Time is great late-night listening as a whole, and individual songs work any time of day. However, it sounds very little like the man Tom Waits would become, though the elements on which he’d base his career are all in place.

Tom Waits Closing Time (1973)—4

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dire Straits 8: On Every Street

Having conquered the world’s stadiums and arenas, Mark Knopfler put Dire Straits out to pasture for six years while he worked on soundtracks and vanity projects. The echo of these endeavors would eventually add new color to a bona fide Dire Straits album that finally appeared in 1991, when we least expected it.

On Every Street strives to tame the big sound of Brothers In Arms, but updated for the new decade. The most obvious addition is Paul Franklin on steel guitar, brought forth from the Notting Hillbillies album; contemporary country is very much part of this album’s sound. Toto’s Jeff Porcaro handles most of the drums, a year away from dying in a bizarre gardening incident. But John Illsley is still around, as are Alan Clark and Guy Fletcher, so it’s still a Dire Straits album.

In a few cases, Knopfler’s lyrical skills seem to have returned, but having had such success with the likes of “Money For Nothing”, he’s content to limit the scope to catchphrases and thin jokes. Hence “Calling Elvis”, which parrots various Presley song titles, tackling televangelism in “Ticket To Heaven”, the ode to indulgence in “Heavy Fuel”, and “My Parties”, an obnoxious spoof of a supposedly typical super-rich guy oblivious to world issues.

Sometimes the music works: the title track is fairly subdued before a wonderful guitar coda takes over for the big finish—exactly what we want. And even some of the more overtly country numbers, like “The Bug” and “When It Comes To You”, would go on to become hits for other people. But for the most part, such as on “Fade To Black” and “Planet Of New Orleans”, the sound is very adult contemporary, not even approaching rock. “You And Your Friend” and “Iron Hand” have lots of tasty guitar, but they’re supported by thick synth beds that sound alike and occasionally date them. That was fine for those who came on board in 1985, but disappointing for us fans of the first four. Once “How Long” provides the conclusion, it’s been a very long hour, and not one we necessarily want to sit through again.

Dire Straits On Every Street (1991)—

Monday, December 6, 2010

Velvet Underground 3: The Velvet Underground

As loud as their second album was, their third went into the other direction. Perhaps to reassert themselves, having shed two of the people that made their first album so unique, they went the self-titled route. (Or maybe it was an homage to the actual title of the White Album. Who knows?)

The other big change was that John Cale was out of the band, replaced by one Doug Yule who, in addition to playing bass and piano and singing, provided a more malleable foil for Lou to push to do his bidding.

Both of these changes are apparent from the first notes heard on The Velvet Underground. “Candy Says” is a melancholy doo-wop number about a drag queen, sung by Doug, who gives the subject a sweeter delivery than Lou could. “What Goes On” brings on the drums, a good jam over three or four chords, with plenty of room for a stinging lead and a bed of Hammond organ. The lyrical twists and poetry in “Some Kinda Love” still fascinate, despite the metronomic cowbell driving it. The tender classic “Pale Blue Eyes” is something of a love song, sung by Lou, asserting himself as the voice of the band. When combined with the prayer that is “Jesus”, it’s hard to believe this is the same band from the first two albums.

Side two continues to play with our expectations. “Beginning To See The Light” jangles along through three distinct sections—typical of the “boogie” songs Lou was writing at the time—that could have been songs all their own, but combined successfully here. One of the albums lesser-known tracks, but one of the best, is “I’m Set Free”, which alternates elation with an uncomfortable sense of futility over a wonderful strum. “That’s The Story Of My Life” is very brief, stopping only long enough for a quick solo, before letting “The Murder Mystery” take over. This challenging track features all four Velvets on dueling vocals, Lou and Sterling spitting out their parts, and then Doug and Moe crooning their own. You can spend hours trying to figure out all the words and how they alternate, but nine minutes is usually enough for anyone. The jaunty “After Hours”, sung by Moe, provides a respite and a finale.

The Velvet Underground doesn’t deliver the same decadence as its predecessors, but goes to show that they were much more than simple noisemakers doing Andy Warhol’s bidding. In fact, they were even starting to sound like a real band.

Two stereo mixes of the album were issued; the one supervised by Lou and favoring his vocal and guitar was dubbed “the closet mix”. While it takes a keen ear to tell the difference, the standard version of the album does have some longer edits, particularly on “What Goes On” and “Some Kinda Love”. The 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of the album included both, plus a third, mono mix, a disc of later 1969 recordings already sampled on the VU and Another View albums in different mixes, and two discs of live recordings from the Matrix in San Francisco, some of which had been tapped for 1969 Live and The Quine Tapes, and would eventually emerge, in toto, on their own. (A two-disc Deluxe Edition offered the standard, non-“closet” mix and a disc of “highlights” from the Matrix shows, but c’mon, who’d settle for that?)

The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground (1969)—
2014 Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 12 extra tracks (45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition adds another 43 tracks)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pink Floyd 11: Animals

With each album and tour, Roger Waters had started to assert himself as the brains behind Pink Floyd, pushing himself as the lyricist and conceptual genius. His heavy hand becomes especially dominant on Animals, an album inspired by, ironically, the indictment of totalitarianism in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. While that novel portrayed various species in differing roles, in Roger’s view, we’re all either dogs, sheep or pigs.

Much like their last album, the music is bookended by a single theme, but in the reverse; here the bookends are brief, while the real songs are longer, yet still compelling. After the simple introduction of “Pigs On The Wing (Part 1)”, “Dogs” runs for seventeen fascinating minutes, from the opening acoustic flourishes through David Gilmour’s vocal and heavy solos. After the slower middle section, you can hear the dogs barking, but it takes a trained ear to tell when Roger takes over the verses. Even the use of yet another list—something Roger would resort to for the rest of his career—to close the track can’t kill the power of this one.

While the title of “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” suggests that each verse describes someone unique, it’s not apparent how they stand out, outside of Roger’s disdain. The spooky organ leads through the verses into a grooving middle section, with plenty of guitar-as-pig effects. “Sheep” begins with the nearly pastoral sounds of bleating underneath a ping-ponging electric piano, before the beat gets more insistent and the music more scary. A mid-section featuring a buried parody of the 23rd Psalm gives way to another verse, before a triumphant coda anchored by a descending guitar riff that David would recycle a few times on other albums. The album comes full circle with the affectionate sentiment of “Pigs On The Wing (Part 2)”.

Because of the heavy preaching and longer tracks, Animals doesn’t get as much attention as other Floyd albums. When it finally joined its brothers with 21st-century mixes, no extra material (alternate mixes, live versions, not even the extended “Pigs On The Wing” with a guitar solo between the sections prepared for the 8-track) was included, unlike every other major album in their catalog. However, that also means it hasn’t been overplayed on the radio except at three in the morning on those stations that still have deejays. But despite what might have been happening inside the band, the Floyd certainly clicked musically here, making Animals a continually rewarding listen.

Pink Floyd Animals (1977)—4

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Todd Rundgren 8: Another Live

Todd’s concerts with Utopia were incredibly ambitious affairs, utilizing as many as three keyboard players who could also juggle other instruments as needed. But they were also fun, interspersing some of his “hits” in between lengthy prog workouts while adorned in feathers. Another Live offers a sampler of sorts, looking back while striving forward.

As was not uncommon at the time, the album contains live recordings of songs that had not been released in any other form, so the listener gets a fresh perspective alongside the audience at the shows (save those who may have been following the tour from stop to stop). “Another Life”, as one might expect, considers reincarnation, amidst a complicated arrangement that incorporates a trumpet for some reason. “The Wheel” is an acoustic departure, offering a respite from the frenetic sounds we’ve come to expect from Utopia. The band gets loud again for “The Seven Rays”, which seem to have replaced (or evolved from) his interest in chakras.

Side two fades in mid-performance during a sinister introduction to the instrumental “Mister Triscuits”. Then the real fun starts. A faithful version of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story melds into a smoking take of “Heavy Metal Kids”. Particularly striking is the cover of the trash-rock classic “Do Ya”, three years after it had been a B-side by the Move, but a full year before Jeff Lynne re-recorded it in ELO. And of course, “Just One Victory”, the grand finale on A Wizard, A True Star, serves the same purpose here.

With most of the tracks relatively short and the whole album totaling only 45 minutes—compared to the hour-long slabs of plastic that had been his norm—Another Live certainly provides a slightly more digestible glimpse of Todd’s latest incarnation. At the same time, it seems like the end of a chapter. Or was it?

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Another Live (1975)—

Monday, November 29, 2010

David Bowie 30: Hours

Bowie was certainly one of the first artists to embrace the Internet as a social tool as well as a promotional one. His next stunt was to have a contest wherein one of his subscribers would write lyrics for a song he’d then record for his next album. He made good on the offer, too.

‘hours…’ was hailed by some as a return to the Hunky Dory era, but don’t let that fool you. While the overall sound is more low-key and reflective, and his shaggy haircut was impressive for a guy his age, was he happy? For the most part he sounds pensive, a little melancholy, and the tempo isn’t anywhere as frenetic as his last two albums.

The immediate low-key sound of “Thursday’s Child” heralds the return of the Bowie croon, and if only there were less Holly Palmer cooing in the mix. While his take on the Thunderclap Newman song would probably be welcome, this particular song with the title “Something In The Air” isn’t, tethered to his wobbly vocal. Worse, it drags. “Survive”, the mildly grungy “If I’m Dreaming My Life” with its double-time shift, and “Seven” all mine the same depressed territory, though the latter track, for all its simplicity, has the melody that sticks.

Things pick up a bit in the second half, starting with “What’s Really Happening?”, written by the aforementioned contest winner. It does give the album the kick it needs, as furthered in “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell”, a nod to an old Iggy Pop song. “New Angels Of Promise” and “The Dreamers” stay upbeat, but in between comes “Brilliant Adventure”, an instrumental cut from the same cloth as side two of “Heroes” and tracks like “Crystal Japan”.

‘hours…’ isn’t very exciting, but it’s not awful. But after three full decades in the business, it would have been nice if Bowie still wowed us. As it turns out, many of these songs were originally written for the soundtrack of a video game, which shows where his head was at. (Some of those versions appear on the bonus disc of the reissue, alongside demos, remixes and outtakes. Clearly, he was full of ideas, some but not all of them good.)

David Bowie ‘hours…’ (1999)—
2005 limited 2CD edition: same as 1999, plus 17 extra tracks

Friday, November 26, 2010

Velvet Underground 2: White Light/White Heat

Nico was gone, and the band carried on. To make up for her absence, they turned the volume up to 11 and didn’t hardly let up at all on White Light/White Heat.

The title track is an amphetamine onslaught, all distorted with quasi-doo-wop vocals up until the big blast of a finish in two minutes fifty—just right for Top 40 radio! The full-on promise of “Waiting For The Man” and “European Son” gets multiplied here. “The Gift” provides a much different listening experience entirely, split into extreme stereo with the two-chord jam on one side, and John Cale’s recitation of Lou’s short story of the rise and fall of Waldo and Marsha in the other. Best of all, it doesn’t get stale on repeat listens. A less penetrable tale is told in “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, where the vocals and vocalizations swap over a near-baroque backing, an approach that continues on “Here She Comes Now”, the quietest song on the album.

Which isn’t saying much, because side two isn’t quiet at all. “I Heard Her Call My Name” is a mere prelude of constantly soloing guitars over a relentless beat and lyrics that almost seem like an afterthought. You can just barely hear the chord changes beneath the guitar. But it’s only a setup for “Sister Ray”. These seventeen minutes of three chords have influenced more than their share of bands, but few can match the steady metronomic beat under the battle between the organ and guitars. It’s not easy listening, and it’s either loved or hated. But if you’ve gotten this far, you’ll want more.

White Light/White Heat can be seen as the antidote to the Summer of Love, starting off a tumultuous year with an assault to the senses. It would be the last true collaboration between Reed and Cale for twenty years, which is too bad, because they work together so well here. In only two albums, this band managed to create a sound that has been so influential in the over forty years since it happened. So much so that the participants have been trying to live up to it ever since.

With impeccable timing, Lou Reed left the planet just after approving the expanded editions of the album, giving the project a publicity boost. The Deluxe Edition added the five songs featuring Cale familiar from VU and Another View, an alternate “I Heard Her Call My Name” and a never-before-heard early take of “Beginning To See The Light”. The legendary April 1967 concert at the Gymnasium is included as well, rather than appearing as part of their stillborn “Bootleg Series”. (The Super Deluxe Edition had all that plus a big book, and a third disc with mono mixes, single mixes and new vocal- and instrument-only mixes of “The Gift”.)

The Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat (1968)—4
2013 Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 14 extra tracks (45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition adds another 10 tracks)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pink Floyd 10: Wish You Were Here

So Pink Floyd were officially worldwide superstars. Now what? Certainly that’s what their new American label wanted to know, and luckily for everyone involved, the band found their way into another exploration of the concepts they’d successfully mined on their big hit. Wish You Were Here is a return to the fabric of the sidelong composition balanced with shorter tracks, but here the idea of an eternal loop is accomplished by splitting the magnum opus in half, with the shorter songs in between.

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is that opus, listed as being in nine parts that are pretty easy to identify if you’re paying attention. It begins with some thick synthesizers, eventually joined by a bluesy guitar. Then a four-note phrase appears to stand the hairs on your neck. Another instrumental section eventually leads into the vocal, which takes two verses before giving way to a sax solo. The overwhelming feeling of futility is underscored by the mechanized pulse that drives “Welcome To The Machine”, which for some reason turns into a spaceship landing at a cocktail party.

“Have A Cigar” (a.k.a. the one that goes “Oh by the way which one’s Pink?”) delivers a similar funk feel as “Money” on the last album, but this particular slap at the music biz is sung by folkie Roy Harper. Another whooshing effect gives way to the title track, coming first from a radio speaker before springing to full stereo splendor with the acoustic guitar. The wind returns to blow the song away, leaving the remainder of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” in its place. A slide guitar picks up the pace, skidding all over before bringing us back to the verse and a chorus, followed by a longer exploration of the forlorn arpeggios heard near the end of the first half. An altogether different theme closes the piece, resolving on a major chord.

Thanks to Classic Rock radio, Wish You Were Here is another Pink Floyd album that has suffered from over-saturation, as the three shorter songs are still in heavy rotation. But the brilliance of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” holds everything together, and makes it worth hearing the “hits” again.

Naturally, thanks to the album’s commercial popularity, it too was blessed with expansion in the screw-the-economy-let’s-rerelease-everything-a-third-or-fourth-time climate of the 21st century. The Experience Edition adds an interesting selection of music. Three more songs from the Wembley show already mined for the 2011 Dark Side sets appear, including “Raving And Drooling” and “You’ve Gotta Be Crazy”, which would be retooled for Animals. The balance is given over to three embryonic tracks: a snippet from the abandoned “Household Objects” project, an early mix of “Have A Cigar” before Roy Harper walked in, and a lengthy “Wish You Were Here” with a clean intro and the famous buried violin solo by Stéphane Grappelli. (Those who sprung for the Immersion Edition got all that plus quad mixes, surround mixes and concert background films on two DVDs. And a book. And a scarf. And a bag of marbles. And some beer coasters. And other stuff.)

Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here (1975)—4
2011 Experience Edition: same as 1975, plus 6 extra tracks
2011 Immersion Edition: same as Experience, plus 2 DVDs and 1 Blu-Ray

Monday, November 22, 2010

Todd Rundgren 7: Initiation

Utopia may have been an outlet for some of Todd Rundgren’s more ambitious musical experiments, but he was still considering himself as a solo entity on its own. Initiation offers a typical grab bag of styles, yet just as determined to test the endurance of his rabid fan base.

“Real Man” is a pop song and obvious single, heavy on keyboards with plenty of soul. However, “Born To Synthesize” takes its soul a little too seriously, an a cappella performance treated with echo and phasing that distracts from the “message”. Before anyone took him to be too far above tangible matters, “The Death Of Rock And Roll” turns up the guitar to complain about critics who complain about him, who “get [their] records for nothin’ and call each other names”. The questioning continues in “Eastern Intrigue”, which namechecks almost as many deity candidates as it does tempos and meters. It still makes a smooth transition to the title track, which hearkens back to the Utopia album, despite a saxophone solo by David Sanborn. “Fair Warning” brings back the Philly sound with a near-Hey Love Soul Classics arrangement, complete with a fake Barry White monologue at the top and a reprise of “Real Man” for the fade.

The fair warning and goodbye stated on side one becomes particularly prophetic on side two, a 35-minute instrumental simply titled “A Treatise On Cosmic Fire”. Mostly performed on synthesizers, it comes in three parts (played out of order) with an intro and outro and pretty heavy sounding subtitles with seemingly Hindu connotations about the seven chakras, until you notice that section two of part one is subtitled “Bam, Bham, Mam, Yam, Ram, Lam, Thank You, Mahm”. It’s all very well constructed, with a few catchy sections and themes that seem to recur, but somehow we get the feeling that it was composed to give him something to meditate to.

With Initiation, Todd’s still determined to see who’ll keep with him; clearly he didn’t have time for people seeking catchy hits. The sound of the album didn’t help; with over half an hour crammed onto each side, the sleeve came with a warning that if you had a less-than-pristine needle the output would suffer. He even suggested taping the album and listening to that instead (horrors!). Maybe he needed to edit himself, because more doesn’t necessarily equal more here.

Todd Rundgren Initiation (1975)—2

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mark Knopfler 1: Notting Hillbillies and Chet Atkins

While the world, or at least part of it, wondered what was up with Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler emerged as part of an outfit dubbed the Notting Hillbillies, with a very Dire Straits-like single in “Your Own Sweet Way”. Unfortunately for listeners, that was Knopfler’s only lead vocal on an album mostly made up of traditional songs and country covers. Missing… Presumed Having A Good Time was presented as a collaboration with British pickers Steve Phillips and Brendan Croker, with Dire Straits keyboardist Guy Fletcher, future Dire Straits member Paul Franklin on pedal steel, and the band’s manager Ed Bicknell credited on drums.

The album does provide a breadth of material made for coffee bars and bookstores of the next decade. With its insistent anvil effect, “Railroad Worksong” is better known as “Take This Hammer”, while “Bewildered” is much toned down from James Brown’s version. “Run Me Down” follows the pattern of “Setting Me Up” and “Sound Bound Again” until the vocals start, though “One Way Gal” has a distinct Caribbean feel, or even reminiscent of a luau. You can almost hear Mark harmonizing on “Blues Stay Away From Me” and “Please Baby”, but only barely. “Will You Miss Me?” and “That’s Where I Belong” bring songwriting royalties to Phillips and Croker respectively, and we presume they’re duetting on the Louvin Brothers’ “Weapon Of Prayer”. Outside of the single, the album’s highlight is Charlie Rich’s immortal “Feel Like Going Home”.

The soft, smooth tone of the album was mirrored a few months later on an album billed as a Knopfler collaboration with the legendary Chet Atkins. Neck And Neck offered more adult contemporary country music played by twenty agile fingers supported by such Nashville legends as Steve Warinier, Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, and Vince Gill. Roughly half the album is vocal; the modern updates of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” and “Yakety Axe” are cute, if a little cringey today. The balance is made up of more cinematic vocal-less pieces, such as “So Soft, Your Goodbye” and “Tears” by Grappelli and Reinhardt. “Tahitian Skies” is something of a cross between “Why Worry” and “Waterloo Sunset”, while “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is taken at a jaunty pace. Don Gibson is covered twice, in an instrumental of “Sweet Dreams”, and a Knopfler vocal on “Just One Time”. “Poor Boy Blues” and “The Next Time I’m In Town” are templates for the solo career he’d start in earnest one day.

While not exactly what fans wanted, these two albums fit well together, both conceptually as well as time-wise on a Maxell 90-minute tape. They kept Mark Knopfler’s name in the trades while the rest of Dire Straits waited for the phone to ring, and were more commercial than his occasional soundtracks. Although the Notting Hillbillies didn’t line the pockets of its “other” members with gold, Neck And Neck brought Chet Atkins back into favor in the ‘90s.

The Notting Hillbillies Missing… Presumed Having A Good Time (1990)—3
Chet Atkins/Mark Knopfler
Neck And Neck (1990)—3

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dire Straits 7: Money For Nothing

While it wasn’t revealed in a major press release or even mentioned at the time—despite what Wikipedia says, because we would’ve remembered—Dire Straits had broken up following their lengthy tour promoting Brothers In Arms. The band was exhausted, and Mark Knopfler was happy to concentrate on scoring films.

With even less fanfare, an album called Money For Nothing snuck out toward the end of 1988; this turned out to be something of a hits collection, not that the title nor the video-inspired artwork made that clear. The tracklist ran mostly chronologically through their handful of albums, beginning naturally with “Sultans Of Swing” and “Down To The Waterline”. Then we’re surprised with a live version of “Portobello Belle”, which is dated June 1983 in the briefest of album notes, making it something of an outtake from Alchemy. (In fact, it would have been played right before that little jig that segues into the first introduction to “Tunnel Of Love”.) Just to mess with us, a “remix” of “Twisting By The Pool” comes next, and only after that do we jump back to “Tunnel Of Love” and “Romeo & Juliet”. Then, for no reason we’ve been able to establish, it’s an alternate take of “Where Do You Think You’re Going”.

For a jolt, except for those who just flipped their record or cassette, “Walk Of Life” wheezes in, followed by a slightly edited “Private Investigations”. What’s called a “remix” of “Telegraph Road” from Alchemy runs only 12 minutes, followed by shorter versions of the default title track and “Brothers In Arms”.

As nutty as that all is, it’s still a good way to spend an hour, even given the fact that most of the people who bought the album would have already owned the three songs from Brothers In Arms. Those consumers weren’t part of the marketing plan ten years later when the more pointedly titled Sultans Of Swing: The Very Best Of Dire Straits replaced Money For Nothing as their official compilation. This time the sequence was strictly chronological and filled to capacity, dropping the two alternates representing Communiqué for “Lady Writer” and swapping the live “Telegraph Road” for the live “Love Over Gold”. “So Far Away” joined its brothers, as did three songs from On Every Street and two more later live versions. At least they kept “Twisting By The Pool”. That song was a glaring omission from 2005’s Private Investigations: The Best Of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler, which was made available in single-disc and double-disc versions, both leaning on Knopfler’s solo work. A duet with Emmylou Harris was the only real carrot, at least until their collaborative album came out the following year.

All this has only made the original Money For Nothing album grow in stature, considering that it’s now been out of print for decades, and some of its highlights remain elusive. The band didn’t have a lot of official rarities, but it sure would be nice if they could be revived.

Dire Straits Money For Nothing (1988)—4
Current CD availability: none
Dire Straits Sultans Of Swing: The Very Best Of Dire Straits (1998)—
Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler
Private Investigations: The Best Of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler (2005)—3

Friday, November 19, 2010

David Bowie 29: Earthling

In a demonstration of the philosophy that fast work equals better results, Earthling appeared with little warning. Recorded very quickly (for Bowie) with his touring band—now including the incredible Gail Ann Dorsey on bass—it was released within a month of his 50th birthday. Apparently the new sound he liked was called “jungle”. While still steeped in modern dance culture, by sticking to songs he ended up with an album that didn’t need a lot of attention to enjoy.

“Little Wonder” was a striking first single, driven by all that speedy percussion, a great Cockney vocal and lyrics that mention all seven dwarves. “Looking For Satellites” doesn’t have much in the way of words, but it moves along with a typically out-there Reeves Gabrels guitar solo. More sped-up percussion drives “Battle For Britain (The Letter)”—there’s that good ol’ Cockney voice again—with a great chorus to match and a trademark Mike Garson interlude. (Our favorite part is the high-speed digital scanning before the track catches up with the chorus.) “Seven Years In Tibet” finally gives us a slowish song, with elements of his past in the saxophone and a Farfisa organ emulating a Stylophone.

With that driving F-to-G riff, “Dead Man Walking” is hypnotic as it is, but particularly worth seeking out is the acoustic version as performed on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Unfortunately, “Telling Lies”, despite having been released early as an Internet-only single, sounds a little too much like some of the other jungle tracks. Similarly, “The Last Thing You Should Do” comes off as more of a groove than a song. “I’m Afraid Of Americans” got all the attention thanks to Trent Reznor’s appearance in the video (as well as his remixes of the song, some of which are naturally included on the expanded reissue). And yes, it’s a pretty catchy tune. The album ends strangely with the dated synths on “Law (Earthling On Fire)”, which does nothing so much as remind us of some of the less horrible moments on Black Tie White Noise.

Between recording, touring and running his own interactive website, Bowie was having the time of his life. His creativity is obvious on Earthling, leading back to that age-old question, “What’ll he do next?” Even if you didn’t like all the stops on his journey, at least he was keeping it interesting. (The eventual expanded version added a disc full of remixes and alternate versions of varying interest, including “Seven Years In Tibet” sung in Mandarin.)

David Bowie Earthling (1997)—3
2005 limited 2CD edition: same as 1997, plus 13 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

David Bowie 28: Outside

A common misconception is that Brian Eno produced the albums in Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy. He didn’t; he merely co-wrote and performed on them. Therefore it was A Big Deal when Outside was announced, as he and Bowie were indeed the producers. The first of three projected collaborations between the two (the rest of the alleged trilogy never materialized), it was supposed to be a projection into the future with a story about “art-crime”; instead it came off as an elaborate inside joke. For the most part it’s a harsh, jarring muddle, without a lot of memorable melody amidst all the texture and spoken interludes in accents attributed to various characters. The homemade artwork, most likely created on Bowie’s Power Mac and incorporating several actual paintings, didn’t help explain anything, least of all the plot.

In addition to Eno, the album brought together a handful of names from Bowie’s past, from Carlos Alomar to Tin Machine’s Reeves Gabrels, along with more recent collaborator Erdil Kizilcay. Pianist Mike Garson gets to do his thing as well. Apparently those present jammed for several hours, after which Bowie got around to writing the songs. Those, however, seemed beside the point.

“Leon Takes Us Outside” is basically an atmospheric intro with mumbled voices, before the title track bursts through to frequently insist that “it’s happening outside.” “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” was the first single, and a decent teaser for the better, more contemporary elements of the album. “A Small Plot Of Land” features a compelling vocal unfortunately fighting against three different jazzy accompaniments for an extreme challenge of patience. After an unsettling spoken segue from the plot’s murder victim, “Hallo Spaceboy” is an excellent meld of power and melody. “The Motel” gradually builds over six minutes from a moody Garson piece to a full-fledged song with a slow yet driving beat under his Scott Walker impersonation. “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” seems to want to push the story along, with some catchy choruses, but it just goes too long without really going anywhere.

“No Control” isn’t much more than a groove, until he starts to channel Scott Walker on the bridges. A two-minute monologue by one Algeria Touchshriek leads to “The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)”, where the seemingly incongruous vocal eventually finds its way to the backing, ending the track well. Another segue with an annoyingly manipulated voice subjects us to the thoughts of Ramona A. Stone, coupled without indexing with the equally irritating “I Am With Name”. “Wishful Beginnings” sports beats and keyboards very typical of Eno in the ‘90s, so it would be nice to hear the track with the vocals. The high-speed robotic “We Prick You” stands on its own as a song despite the voice effects, then a brief commentary by Nathan Adler takes up space before the croony “I’m Deranged”, halfway through which Mike Garson falls on the piano a few times. “Thru’ These Architect’s Eyes” in another strong track sadly shackled to whatever the plot is, followed by another interjection from Nathan Adler. Perhaps hedging his bets, “Strangers When We Meet” is a complete remake of the Buddha Of Suburbia track and the album’s closer.

There’s probably a good album buried inside Outside, but it’s just not that easy to hear. Whatever the grand concept was is simply not easy to follow, even with the narration on a disc crammed to capacity. But Bowie seemed happy to let the Eno hype and his association with yet another record label drive the initial promotional push, and was able to ride the back of Nine Inch Nails, whose abrasive style seemed to resonate with self-flagellating goth posers in the nineties. (Naturally, Trent Reznor loved the album, and his remix of “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” was among other remixes on the two-CD reissue, along with the lesser leftover “Nothing To Be Desired” and the anachronistic “Get Real”.)

David Bowie Outside (1995)—2
2004 limited 2CD edition: same as 1995, plus 14 extra tracks

Monday, November 15, 2010

Neil Young 42: Archives Vol. I

Pigs flew, hell froze over, and the first set of Neil’s Archives finally came out, looking not all that different than from what had been rumored. A true multimedia experience, the hoopla centered around the most deluxe version, that being the Blu-Ray edition, wherein the listener could scroll through the information on each disc while any track played. This version—as well as the DVD edition, with all the content but not the ease-of-access—was also chock full of extra video and audio files, photos, and memorabilia, with a thick book and even the Journey Through The Past film on its own disc.

As a gesture to those fans who couldn’t swing the two hundred plus dollars for the Blu-Ray or DVD version (plus whatever it cost for a player to hear it on), Neil also made Archives Vol. I available as an eight-CD set—just the music, no visuals, outside of a slim booklet detailing track info. (The DVD and Blu-ray sets did include the Sugar Mountain installment, which was nice of them.)

The set begins appropriately with a few tracks by his first band The Squires, who apparently thought of themselves as a surf outfit. Once he started writing and singing his own songs, it’s clear that the Beatles were a big influence. We get to hear early versions of songs, such as “I Wonder” (which would become “Don’t Cry No Tears” on Zuma). A failed audition for Elektra includes some melodies we recognize from elsewhere, and before we know it he’s in Buffalo Springfield. A few repeats from their box set, album tracks and outtakes alike, are bolstered by the long-lost “Slowly Burning” and “Sell Out”. By the end of the disc he’s exponentially progressed as a songwriter.

The second disc (Topanga 1) covers the sessions for his first solo album, including alternate mixes and early versions of “Birds” and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”. Then he meets Crazy Horse and starts working on that album. But first he does a club tour, which provides the basis for the Live From The Riverboat disc. Recorded three months after the Canterbury House show, his mood here seems a little cranky. Perhaps it’s the presence of Springfield bass player Bruce Palmer in the crowd? Whatever the case, he does a few different songs from his debut, plus an unfinished song called “1956 Bubblegum Disaster” and the “Whisky Boot Hill” section of what would become “Country Girl”.

Topanga 2 finishes Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and begins After The Gold Rush, but with a detour into Déjà Vu. Here we get the legendary outtakes “Everybody’s Alone” and “Dance Dance Dance”, the live rarity “It Might Have Been”, and “Sea Of Madness” with CSN. The Fillmore East and Massey Hall discs bookend Topanga 3, wherein Neil finishes After The Gold Rush (but leaves “Wonderin’” in the can) and tours (again) with CSN.

He’s truly hit his stride by the North Country disc, which covers the widespread recording sessions for Harvest. Highlights include “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” and “Journey Through The Past” with the Stray Gators, the first release of “War Song” since 1972, and an alternate mix of “Soldier”. (We also get the 15-minute version of “Words” that took up one side of Journey Through The Past.)

It’s an ambitious project, and one can be happy for Neil that he was finally able to see it come to fruition in a form he approved. It is, however, far from perfect. For starters, not all of the CDs are filled to capacity; this is likely to mirror the contents of the Blu-Ray or DVD, which would be full of all the extras. While outtakes abound, it doesn’t include every song from each of his solo albums up to 1972. Chronologically, “Love In Mind” from Time Fades Away belongs on disc eight, but as Neil has disowned that album, the version of the song on the Massey Hall disc should suffice. And of course, those who’d already bought the recent Fillmore East and Massey Hall CDs would be irritated that they’re here again. But hey, we’d been warned. And he didn’t owe us a damn thing. Meanwhile, the interminable countdown began for Volume II.

Neil Young Archives Vol. I: 1963-1972 (2009)—4

Friday, November 12, 2010

Velvet Underground 1: The Velvet Underground & Nico

The going cliché was that while the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many copies of their albums, everyone who did went out and formed their own band. While this has yet to be proven, it is safe to say that for the better part of two decades, all anyone knew about the band’s music came from Lou Reed albums, the occasional cover and the raves of critics.

A good deal of that changed in 1985, when PolyGram vault guru Bill Levenson pushed for the reissue of the band’s first three (long out-of-print) LPs, along with a collection of outtakes. All four albums were hyped by the usual critics (Kurt Loder going so far as to contribute liner notes to the common inner sleeve) but the overwhelming favorite was the debut, credited as always to the band plus the extra singer they’d picked up along the way.

The Velvet Underground & Nico treads a line between catchy ‘60s pop and what would eventually be called punk. Despite being hailed as a decadent band, “Sunday Morning” begins with a celeste, of all things, before an especially breathy Lou Reed vocal takes over. (It was, after all, his band.) Things get a little gritty with “I’m Waiting For The Man”, a fairly overt description of scoring dope. Nico finally shows up on “Femme Fatale”, something of a German doo-wop number, and a lovely song despite the attack on its subject. It’s a brief respite before “Venus In Furs”, featuring John Cale’s viola in full scrape over sado-masochistic references. More drugs turn up in “Run Run Run”, a perfectly snotty song just this side of melodic. Nico returns for the elegant yet foreboding “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, one of their most mesmerizing numbers.

Just in case you thought they were just another garage band, side two kicks off with the extremely blatant “Heroin”, which goes out of its way to describe the rush of the drug via the tempo and viola. But the pop returns for “There She Goes Again”, which could have been a hit single, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, which couldn’t have been since they let Nico sing it. The last two songs are certainly non-commercial, straight out of the art world. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” puts rapid-fire lyrics under a seesawing viola, and the band finally gets to replicate their live sound with the full-on assault of “European Son”.

As with many things he put his name to, The Velvet Underground & Nico gained most of its notoriety over the years due to Andy Warhol’s cover design and blatant production credit, emblazoned below the banana that peeled Colorforms-style. He may have designed the cover, but the actual producer was Tom Wilson, who’d recently worked with Frank Zappa after having been bounced from Bob Dylan’s sessions. Whoever was behind the desk, the overall sound comes straight from the heads and hands of the band itself, with all the grime in place. It was an astounding debut, and certainly ahead of its time.

The album was an excellent candidate for a Deluxe Edition when the Universal label started doing those, and it doesn’t disappoint. It appears in both its original stereo and mono mixes, having been recorded at a time when mono was still a common seller. Because the label considered the possibility of having hits, four tracks also appear in their single mixes, alongside five VU-related tracks from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album, released later in 1967 to even fewer sales.

Ten years later, Universal continued their “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” policy by issuing a so-called “Super Deluxe” six-disc version of the album. This time the Chelsea Girl tracks on the stereo disc have been replaced by alternate takes, so that the entire Chelsea Girl album is included as the third disc. An early acetate of working mixes is bolstered by a much-booted rehearsal excerpt (including the band playing Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” while Lou recites the lyrics of “Venus In Furs” to Nico, who also sings lead on a take of “There She Goes Again”), and a complete concert from November 1966 is spread across the fifth and sixth discs (beginning with the 28-minute “Melody Laughter”, edited down to ten minutes for the Peel Slowly And See box). Essential for fanatics, certainly, but even they would object to having to purchase half of the contents for the third or fourth time.

The Velvet Underground & Nico The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)—
2002 Deluxe Edition: same as 1967, plus 20 extra tracks
2012 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition: same as Deluxe Edition, plus 34 extra tracks