Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock 2: Groovy Decay

Just when he was off to something of a good start, Robyn immediately derailed his momentum with his next album. He’s gone on the record as saying that the ordeal of completing it sent him into a self-imposed two-year exile.

So is Groovy Decay that bad? Well, it certainly isn’t very good. The album is harsh and cold, heavy on saxophones. Being the early ‘80s, it seems designed for dancing by the types of people sporting Robyn’s haircut and polka-dot shirts. Some songs stand out, particularly “Fifty Two Stations”, “America” and “The Cars She Used To Drive”. “Night Ride To Trinidad” is an inferior copy of “Grooving On An Inner Plane”, but at least “St. Petersburg” provides quieter contrast.

Three years later, once he’d got his bearings back, he released a rejigged version of the album. Now called Groovy Decoy, it not only changed the track order, but substituted five of the tracks with earlier demo versions produced by Soft Boy Matthew Seligman. It added two old B-sides into the mix—“It Was The Night” and the wacky “How Do You Work This Thing?” It still wasn’t an improvement on the earlier version. We’d almost say the best songs are the ones which weren’t recorded twice, but that’s not always the case.

Rhino, being the good completists that they are, convinced him to combine the two Groovy albums on one jam-packed disc. Gravy Deco brought everything together under the same roof (with the exception of the alternate “Grooving On A Inner Plane”, which had been put back in the context of Black Snake Diamond Role) and added two more obscure mixes. Which was nice of them, but no matter how you slice it, these recordings simply aren’t very enjoyable.

Robyn’s hatred of the album continued to this century, where following the Yep Roc reissue program it’s only available as a download—naturally, missing one song from the canon (the demo of “Midnight Fish” from Decoy) and in its place, the decent “Falling Leaves”, which had been a highlight of an earlier rarities collection. So if you really want Groovy Decay, you can get it. But once you’ve had it, you may well wonder if it was worth the bother.

Robyn Hitchcock Groovy Decay (1982)—2
Robyn Hitchcock
Groovy Decoy (1985)—2
Robyn Hitchcock
Gravy Deco (1995)—2
Current CD equivalent: none; download only

Monday, March 29, 2010

Todd Rundgren 2: The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren

While it starts out with a midtempo rocker of sorts, Runt: The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren has much more of an emphasis on slower, piano-based songs, as one would expect to come from the guy on the cover with the noose around his neck.

It’s those pretty piano tunes, inspired again by his current fave Laura Nyro, that stick in your brain and won’t get out. “The Ballad (Denny & Jean)” is a tearjerking, heartbreaking tale of love torn apart by success, while “Boat On The Charles” looks at lost love from another angle altogether. “Be Nice To Me” and “Hope I’m Around” are wonderful additions to the kiss-off canon. “A Long Time, A Long Way To Go” is a trifle on par with the first McCartney album, and “Remember Me” is a brief grovel for posterity. But as good as the pretty songs are, the highlight of the album might be “Chain Letter”, which begins “Don’t take yourself so seriously” and goes on to describe the writing of the song itself in real time, building to an exhilarating conclusion.

Given the Runt in the title, it’s still unclear who or what exactly it is. Only Tony Sales appears on the bulk of the album, with N.D. Smart replacing Hunt on most tracks, and Jerry Scheff and John Guerin on two others. And of course, Todd plays everything else, an idea he’d take to a further extreme on his next album, along with journeys in other directions.

Todd Rundgren Runt: The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren (1971)—

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tom Petty 16: Highway Companion

By now it should be clear that a Tom Petty solo album isn’t going to sound radically different from a Heartbreakers album, but we should still notice that they’re not around. His third such release, Highway Companion, at least restricts the guests to just Mike Campbell on lead guitar (naturally) and returns the producer credit to Jeff Lynne.

Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like a Jeff Lynne production, though with the drums handled by Petty himself—the jury’s still out on if they’re canned or live—it’s a moot point. “Flirting With Time” and “Ankle Deep” are the closest to that hit sound, though our hero’s voice is more off-pitch than ever. The homemade feel of the album is best displayed on “Jack”, which sounds like it took longer to play than to write, but it does have an excellent nod to Love’s “Bummer In The Summer” where the choruses should go. “Night Driver” has an intriguing mood, but it happens two tracks after he’d already threatened to “Turn This Car Around”.

Tom hasn’t been as prolific as he gets older, and we’re starting to think he either works better faster or has run out of new ideas. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that really leaps above the rest. There aren’t any home runs of the like that distinguished even such so-so albums as Long After Dark and Echo. To make matters worse, he’s even recycling his own songs; “Big Weekend” is “Yer So Bad” meets “To Find A Friend”, and “Damaged By Love”, pretty as it is, uses a Byrds song title as an opening line to disguise that he’s rewritten “Walls”.

Highway Companion could have been a lot worse, but it just isn’t memorable. It also wasn’t much of a hit, making the release a year later of a so-called “Special Edition”—two new songs plus demos of two album tracks—more insulting to diehard fans than anything else.

Tom Petty Highway Companion (2006)—2
2007 Special Edition: same as 2006, plus 4 extra tracks

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock 1: Black Snake Diamond Role

Robyn Hitchcock is the very model of a cult artist. He’s either loved or ignored, with a 35-year career that’s required a lot of patience on the part of his fans. Luckily, some of those fans work for record companies, so the curious newcomer hasn’t had to look too far to catch up on his best work. However, being the eccentric figure that he is, Robyn hasn’t made it easy to be a completist, taking back nearly as much as he gives. The bulk of his ‘80s catalog has now been reissued twice; the third time around wasn’t necessarily an improvement on the second, as we shall see.

Coming off the formative years with the Soft Boys, Black Snake Diamond Role sounds more like where he’d go than where he’d been. The songs are gentler, if still forced, but for the most part he’d found a style that would suit him for a while.

The piano-driven “Man Who Invented Himself” may or may not be about Syd Barrett, but it sure has a neat beat to it. Very singalongable. “Brenda’s Iron Sledge” has a wonderful snaky punk riff and a beat that sounds like drums being hit with wooden spoons. “Acid Bird” is his first real classic, a microcosm of that unique Hitchcock sound in both title and content.

Unfortunately, not everything else matches those highlights. “Do Policemen Sing?” and “Meat” try too hard to be bizarre, while “City Of Shame” isn’t much more than a poem with secondary music and an unfulfilled melody. “I Watch The Cars” has some promise, but again, he was still finding his way, though the line about eating Weetabix in “Love” (wherein the sound of the ocean is provided by one Tom Dolby) is a good clue where he’d wander.

Rhino’s version of the album was just fine, with such relevant B-sides as the short-story-set-to-music “Happy The Golden Prince”, which isn’t as clever once you’ve solved the allegory. The Yep Roc version repeats four of those bonuses save “Dancing On God’s Thumb” (which is odd, as it was included on the original 1987 CD version of the album) and adds four more tracks from an earlier rarities collection. Both versions start with an alternate mix of “The Man Who Invented Himself” without saxophones, which brings the piano out more.

Robyn Hitchcock Black Snake Diamond Röle (1981)—3
1995 Rhino reissue: same as 1981, plus 5 extra tracks
2007 Yep Roc reissue: same as 1981, plus 8 extra tracks

Monday, March 22, 2010

Big Star 3: Third

The phrase “fractured masterpiece” doesn’t get thrown around a lot, but it aptly describes the album commonly credited to Big Star as either Third or Sister Lovers but usually both. While drummer Jody Stephens is the only other member of the band to appear on the album—even contributing vocals to one of his own compositions—it’s largely an Alex Chilton solo record, recorded in 1974 but not released for four years. And even when it did come out, it appeared on various tiny labels with different track listings. The 1992 version on Rykodisc is considered to be the artist-approved version, with a whopping 19 tracks. (To be precise, it was the sequence the producer decided upon that year, and Alex didn’t say no.)

The left turns Alex took on Radio City are even more extreme on Third/Sister Lovers, going right off the road and into the woods. Instead of tight trio arrangements, the songs exist in ragged, reverb-heavy spaces, played by various session musicians and friends, and some even sporting full string arrangements.

The opening “Kizza Me” sets the mood pretty well. A guitar starts, then wavers, and a vocal struggles to make its point while a piano and bass try to find their way through the murk. (The drums, of course, are spot on.) “Thank You Friends” can be taken either as sincere or sarcastic, depending on your mood. It too ends without certainty. “Big Black Car” is the emotional antithesis of the previous album’s car song—or any car song, for that matter. The song’s pace and delivery belie any possible joy of driving the open road. And then we have a bona fide Christmas song: “Jesus Christ” is the only modern pop song we can think of that would pass muster in a hymnal. A sleepy cover of Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale” features Steve Cropper on lead guitar, before things pick up a tad on “O, Dana”, which would have incredible hit potential if not for the inscrutable lyrics (example: “I’d rather shoot a woman than a man”) and sloppy playing. But just as we’re starting to cheer up, “Holocaust” closes the first half with one of the darkest songs ever committed to tape.

“Kangaroo” always seems on the verge of falling apart but manages to hold itself long enough to reach an actual conclusion amid the chaos. Another possible hit was torpedoed when Alex changed his lyrics to “Stroke It Noel”, but luckily Jody comes next with the warm and straightforward “For You”. “You Can’t Have Me” brings back some of the angry power pop from #1 Record, setting up a similar closing suite of three songs filled with beauty. “Nightime” wanders the streets of Memphis in innocence (“Caught a glance in your eyes and fell through the skies”) and melancholy (“Get me out of here, get me out of here/I hate it here, get me out of here”). “Blue Moon” is a prayer for affection, then “Take Care” bids a sad adieu.

The “bonus tracks” work within the context of all that has gone before. There are covers—a chaotic “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, the Kinks’ “Till The End Of The Day” and a haunting “Nature Boy”—and two key originals: the atonal “Downs”, which sounds like three songs playing at once, and the slower than slow “Dream Lover”, wherein our hero nearly falls off the piano while the strings reach for the heights.

Third/Sister Lovers is not for everyone, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that it’s waved around for hipster cred more than it’s enjoyed. But it truly does offer something different with each listen. If one order doesn’t work for you, try another; that’s what shuffle play is for.

The myth of the album only increased once it gained wider distribution, and future archival releases would continue to tease cultists with further sounds and suggestions about how the album came together. 2016 brought forth what could be considered the final word on the album with Complete Third. This three-CD set purports to include every one of Alex’s studio demos for the album, every extant rough mix, ending in the final sequence as dictated by the first test pressing, bolstered by any other tracks on the Ryko set that hadn’t been on said test pressing. Owning the set means having those once-rare tracks for a second or third time, and there’s a whole lotta repetition, but there’s also better perspective for us archivists. To wit, we hear a lot more of Alex’s girlfriend Lesa, who was involved with much of the sessions, and their bombed duet on the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired” provides a good template for what would eventually follow. Moreover, a five-minute track called “Pre-Downs” is only an excerpt of a night’s full of noodling and chaos that ended up on “Downs” proper. It’s worth skipping.

Big Star Third/Sister Lovers (1992)—4
Big Star Complete Third (2016)—

Friday, March 19, 2010

Big Star 2: Radio City

With their first album finding little commercial success, Big Star kinda fell apart, but reconvened as a three-piece without Chris Bell once Alex Chilton started writing and recording a few more songs. Consequently, the sound of Radio City is harder, and more unified by one voice.

“O My Soul” is a compact symphony, well-constructed and powerfully sung in basically a guitar-and-drums showcase overdubbed with a wheezy synth. (It’s also pointedly in mono, very much odd for 1974.) Followed by “Life Is White”, which sports a wheezing harmonica over a stumbling rhythm, we have a harbinger of the fractured sound that would dominate the next Chilton project. Andy Hummel’s “Way Out West” (sung by drummer Jody Stephens) and the hobbling “What’s Going Ahn” (one of three songs recorded with a different rhythm section before becoming a Big Star project) are nicely sequenced for balance. “You Get What You Deserve” is a sharp finger-pointing song Ray Davies would have been proud to pen.

“Mod Lang” is fairly dirty sounding, but for power pop greatness, it’s hard to beat “Back Of A Car”, and dig those galloping drum fills. “Daisy Glaze” is another multipart wonder, with mood swings indiscernible lyrically and open to misunderstanding. Credited to all three members, it’s quite the accomplishment. “She’s A Mover” is fairly ordinary boogie, but “September Gurls” is another well-loved power pop nugget, and no, we don’t know what’s up with all the creative spelling throughout these titles. Two basically solo Chilton performances, “Morpha Too” and “I’m In Love With A Girl” seem to come out of nowhere but cap the album perfectly.

Radio City was as much of a commercial dud as the debut was, and the band was pretty much done, though the musicians would continue to create, as we shall soon see. Luckily for those of us who weren’t there the first time, enough bands and critics kept the spirit of Big Star afloat that, in time, the band finally received the acclaim it deserved. Best of all, the first two albums enhance each other so well that their continued existence paired on a single CD makes it an absolute bargain.

Big Star Radio City (1974)—

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Big Star 1: #1 Record

Hailing from Memphis, Big Star was another one of those bands who seemed to make barely a ripple of a splash at the time, but years later had people falling over themselves in appreciation. In this case, the appreciation is warranted.

In many ways, the hopefully titled #1 Record is the template for what is considered power pop. At a time when Beatlesque songwriting was considered passé, it was left to a few standard bearers raised on the British Invasion to keep it going.

While the first name associated with the band is Alex Chilton, previously known as the gravel-voiced kid in the Box Tops singing “The Letter”, equal if not greater credit should go to Chris Bell, who started the band and wrote a chunk of the songs. (Most every tune is credited “Bell/Chilton”, a la Lennon/McCartney.) His is the first voice we hear, on the edgy yet arena-ready “Feel”. His voice drives “In The Street”, best known in its permutation as the theme from That ‘70s Show, and the equally rocking “Don’t Lie To Me” is just plain fun to yell along to. “My Life Is Right” was written with an earlier collaborator named Tom Eubanks, boosted by some wonderful rolls and fills from drummer Jody Stephens. “Try Again” is a nearly spiritual plea, while “ST 100/6” is a brief if mysterious closer.

Alternated with these throughout are Chilton’s contributions, all just as strong, and surprisingly gentler. “The Ballad Of El Goodo” is another statement of purpose, and provides a balance of sound early on, as does the super-sweet, uncanny ode to being “Thirteen”. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” turns it up for that wonderful anachronistic balance of ‘60s and ‘70s, while “Watch The Sunrise” and “Give Me Another Chance” deliver smart counterparts to Bell’s yearning, the latter complete with Mellotron. The smirk of bassist Andy Hummel’s “The India Song” is stuck right in the middle of the album, and provides a more irreverent nod to their influences.

The descriptions above notwithstanding, #1 Record is expertly sequenced, with production rich with layered guitars both acoustic and electric, plus harmonies galore. They had every right to be proud of it, and would be understandably disappointed when it didn’t sell by the bucketful—Chris Bell particularly.

Big Star #1 Record (1972)—

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Paul McCartney 24: Run Devil Run

Paul’s main excuse for laying low in the mid-‘90s started with the activities surrounding the Beatles Anthology project, but the bigger issue around the McCartney household was Linda’s battle with breast cancer, which she lost in 1998. And just as he’d used the music of his youth to find his way in the past, he did the same on Run Devil Run.

But this isn’t an indulgent goof-off exercise—this is rock ‘n roll as healing and redemption. The band consists of guys close to his age of varying experience, like David Gilmour and even Ian Paice from Deep Purple, which no one saw coming. And for a guy who’d just buried his closest companion of thirty years, he sounds pretty together.

While his previous stroll through the jukebox, Choba B CCCP, didn’t take too many chances, this album digs deeper into his record collection to find songs that weren’t exactly standards, with a couple of originals added for variety. “Blue Jean Bop” is a good enough place to start, a little sweet Gene Vincent, then wham! He lets loose with fantastic vocal on “She Said Yeah”. Although John always sang the Larry Williams songs in the old days, Paul does even better with this one than the Stones did. It’s over to Elvis with a twist on “All Shook Up”, followed by an original, the burning title track. “No Other Baby” is especially poignant considering his personal life at the time, and a sweet tribute. It’s supported by a great take on “Lonesome Town”, which gets some soaring harmonies from David Gilmour. “Try Not To Cry” is another one Paul wrote, and fits in real well with the rest. “Movie Magg” is a Sun-styled Carl Perkins shuffle with knee slapping percussion. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is the only real clunker here, with an unnecessary Cajun treatment. “What It Is” is the last original, followed nicely by the obscure “Coquette” by Fats Domino, complete with a dead-on impression of the Fat Man. The rest of the album just burns—“I Got Stung”, “Honey Hush”, “Shake A Hand” especially (fantastic singing all the way through this one), ending up with “Party”. Whew.

My goodness, but this is a fun, fun, fun album. He’d been leaning on the oldies a lot lately, so previous experience shouldn’t be considered. Run Devil Run runs rings around the Russian album, and he hadn’t rocked this hard since Back To The Egg. Anyone who says he can’t sing, play the bass, or kick ass is just being difficult. (It bears mentioning that this album followed two other low-key but still notable releases. Rushes was the second album released under the Fireman moniker, and a pleasant excursion into ambient trance music, whereas Wide Prairie was a compilation of various songs Linda had written and/or sang over the years, most of which featured Paul on various instruments along with occasional Wings alumni as well.)

Paul McCartney Run Devil Run (1999)—4

Monday, March 15, 2010

Todd Rundgren 1: Runt

The cover reads simply Runt, lending the listener to believe that’s either the name of the skinny long-haired kid on the cover or the name of the band on most of the cuts. The album is definitively the work of Todd Rundgren, who’d cut his teeth in the psychedelic garage band Nazz, and who’d already produced one album by The Band. While Levon Helm and Rick Danko appear on one track, the bulk of the remainder is handled by the rhythm section of Tony and Hunt Sales (both sons of Soupy, and destined to play with both Iggy Pop and David Bowie one day) and Todd himself, on guitars, keyboards, vocals and even sax.

No stranger to the arithmetic of the album side, Todd loads the first half of the album with straightforward melodic songs, from bluesy guitar parts to pop confections like “We Gotta Get You A Woman” and “Believe In Me”. “Once Burned”, that one song with Rick and Levon, is unfortunately derailed by a jokey soul vocal; before long he’d learn how to perform such material without trying to be funny.

Side two is a little more experimental. “I’m In The Clique” mixes free jazz a computerized voice (something of a harbinger) before going into a wordless interlude. An odd medley combines three decent Laura Nyro-inspired songs into one rushed track, while “Birthday Carol” is a journey in itself, from a Beatlesque orchestral piece to a Blood, Sweat & Tears-flavored workout.

Runt is full of the hooks that would endear Todd to his fans, from catchy tunes to smart leads. It’s also full of the left field moves that would mark his entire career. Vocally, he doesn’t always sound that strong. But then again, he was just getting started.

Todd Rundgren Runt (1970)—3

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Soft Boys 2: Underwater Moonlight

Underwater Moonlight is one of those albums that gets called a lost classic, mostly because it barely sold when it was first released. But there were enough record store geeks who championed it, and these were likely the same ones who enabled Robyn Hitchcock to maintain a solo career in the first place. For the rest of us, who got into his career from the other end, it’s an essential purchase.

The main thing about it is that the concentration seems to be more on “straight” rock, leaving the absurdities of earlier Soft Boys records to the lyrics and titles. For starters, “I Wanna Destroy You” is a powerful opener, all major chords and harmonies and fantastic bass until the disembodied ending. “Kingdom Of Love” is a fairly standard boogie song, and one that would resurface again and again throughout the following decade. There’s even a sitar on “Positive Vibrations”, which predicts the psychedelic throwback phase of the mid-‘80s. “I Got The Hots” alternates between a creepy verse and a much more tuneful other section, relying on wacky rhymes. His singing has become very confident on “Insanely Jealous”, even when he’s trying to keep up with all the words he’s written himself.

“Tonight” isn’t much on the surface, but it’s still a toe-tapper, right up to the phlanged effect on the fade. The “angular” sound returns on “You’ll Have To Go Sideways”, a speedy exercise in riffing over an odd meter with conflicting voices in the keyboards. Followed by “Old Pervert”, the side has taken a distinctively twisted turn. Luckily, “Queen Of Eyes” sounds just like the Byrds. The title track borrows its melody from “First There Was A Mountain”, and is about either a couple of statues who go for a swim, or two human lovers that drown themselves. Whatever it is, it gives Robyn a chance to talk about fish again.

Its charms aren’t immediately apparent, but of the two official Soft Boys albums, Underwater Moonlight is closest to the Egyptians sound, and not because it involves the same people. As with everything else Robyn’s done, it has been reissued, with different add-ons, every decade or so, making it more widely available to people who wanted to hear what all the music snobs were going on about. Rykodisc added eight bonus tracks, and then Matador added a ninth, plus a disc of rehearsals called …And How It Got There. The current Yep Roc edition pares it back to the original LP sequence, but also offers a download access to all 30 tracks that had appeared in previous reissues.

The Soft Boys Underwater Moonlight (1980)—
1992 Rykodisc reissue: same as 1980, plus 8 extra tracks
2001 …And How It Got There edition: same as 1992, plus 18 extra tracks

Friday, March 12, 2010

David Bowie 23: Tin Machine

Despite having destroyed his mainstream appeal with his last couple of bombs, Bowie seemed determined to keep working wherever his muse took him. So he teamed up with the Sales brothers (best known from their work with Todd Rundgren and, you guessed it, Iggy Pop) and an experimental guitarist named Reeves Gabrels for a project dubbed Tin Machine. This was a band concept, with Bowie insisting he was merely the vocalist. The new look involved dark suits and stubble, with musical content that was downright confrontational. Most people hated it. Everybody’s Dummy was among the approximately ten people worldwide who loved it.

“Heaven’s In Here” sets the tone of Tin Machine from the start, with a live sound and a repeated riff over several minutes, split up by pounding drums and chaotic solos. The title track plows through until the slightly gentler “Prisoner Of Love” comes in, much closer to the classic Bowie sound. “Crack City” really got under people’s skin, with its four-letter lyrics and use of half of the “Wild Thing” chords. “I Can’t Read” continues the feeling of desperation; skeptics thought the line “I can’t read sh-t” sounded more like “I can’t reach it”. The side ends with the relentless “Under The God”, its riff familiar from “I Wish You Would”, which Bowie fans knew from Pin Ups. If you can’t smile when he rails against “right-wing dicks in their boiler suits”, don’t bother with side two.

“Amazing” is something of a love song, then it’s off to unpredictable cover territory with a stomp through John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”, most likely included for its bad language. “Bus Stop” is fairly short (a tongue-in-cheek live “country version” is added to the reissue) before the noise assault of “Pretty Thing” and the chaos of “Video Crime”. “Run” and “Sacrifice Yourself” weren’t included on the LP (probably due to space considerations) but luckily “Baby Can Dance” is the excellent closer for all versions.

Those of us who didn’t write it off as noise thought Tin Machine was Bowie’s best album in years—certainly of the decade—and not just because he swore a blue streak over those heavy chords. There were no gimmicks or dated synthesizers, just cut-up lyrics and relentless guitar. Of course, he insisted that the band was here to stay. And of course, things would change.

Tin Machine Tin Machine (1989)—4
1995 CD reissue: same as 1989 cassette/CD, plus 1 extra track

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bob Dylan 39: World Gone Wrong

While he’d only put out a similar solo acoustic recording of ancient folk blues songs a year before, Bob got the recipe right the second time around.

World Gone Wrong wins on several levels. First, the songs are better, more dirty blues than arcane folk. Next, while the sound on Good As I Been To You was muffled and distant, here it’s more in your face with even some distortion, making the album hard to ignore. He’s also working within the limits of his voice, rather than trying to yell his way out of it. His guitar playing is studied and precise, exploring all the dimensions of the neck. And while he didn’t write any of the songs, he does include a rambling yet straightforward set of liner notes describing to some extent either who did write each song, or at least recorded the version or versions that inspired him. (Just to throw in a trademark curve, he takes time to tweak the mythology of the Never-Ending Tour.)

Again, the songs will win you over. The run from the title track to the heartbreaking performance of “Delia” is six solid tracks, each an incredible performance. “Blood In My Eyes” is particularly compelling in its simple conversation between a man and a potential date. “Broke Down Engine” is more dirty blues, complete with sound effects. “Stack A Lee” and “Jack-A-Roe” would have been familiar to Deadheads, but “Two Soldiers” is another story song that piques your interest.

If we could truly put our finger on why this album is better than its predecessor, we’d be delighted. All we know is that it works, and still satisfies. Of course, as good as World Gone Wrong is, it seemed very odd to have gone so long without an album with original material. Perhaps he’d run out of things to say? Perhaps he was content to let someone else’s songs do the talking? Or maybe he didn’t think it was anywhere near as big a deal as we thought it was?

Bob Dylan World Gone Wrong (1993)—

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bob Dylan 38: 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration

Good As I Been To You got a major promotional push by arriving three weeks after Columbia’s mightily hyped star-studded concert event of the season. Officially titled The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, today it’s best known as Bobfest, as dubbed by Neil Young halfway through his solo spot.

It was a nice idea: bring a bunch of old and new artists together to pay tribute to the old bastard, and if they were already Sony artists, all the better. The eventual VHS included most of the pay-per-view feed, but for the LP and CD versions, some moments weren’t included, like George Thorogood doing “Wanted Man”, Sophie B Hawkins’ pointless cover of “I Want You”, and a tune each from Eric Clapton and George Harrison, likely to squeeze it all onto two discs. (We also don’t get to hear Sinead O’Connor being booed offstage into the arms of Kris Kristofferson, adding further insult to her injury.)

The show had its ups and downs, beginning well with John Mellencamp with Al Kooper for “Like A Rolling Stone”, then putting his own Appalachian spin on “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat”. Stevie Wonder prefaces “Blowin’ In The Wind” with a spoken intro about the current election, Eddie and Mike from Sony golden boys Pearl Jam do “Masters Of War”, and Tracy Chapman (remember her?) is allowed “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.

The backup band for most of the night was Booker T and the MG’s, augmented by Jim Keltner and G.E. Smith, providing both consistency and familiarity, even when people chose less-than-familiar tunes. Lou Reed’s spit-fueled take on “Foot Of Pride” makes one think the song was written just for him, and Willie Nelson does a nice job on “What Was It You Wanted”. That sets up a string of guys with questionable voices—Kristofferson, Johnny Winter, Ron Wood—before Richie Havens and the Clancy Brothers raise the bar. The heavenly Sony trio of Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Rosanne Cash are placed out of original sequence.

They saved most of the big guns for the second half, and that’s where most of the chills come from. Neil gets more attention for “All Along The Watchtower”, but it’s his version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that really shines. Clapton’s version of “Don’t Think Twice” has a phenomenal solo and George does a terrific “Absolutely Sweet Marie”. The O’Jays manage to trump what’s left of The Band, and then Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers come out to dominate. The gentleness of “License To Kill” gives way to the crowd-baiting of “Rainy Day Women”, and who else could back Roger McGuinn for “Mr. Tambourine Man”?

The man of the hour came out alone for “Song To Woody”, which apparently had sound problems, causing its exclusion. But we do get “It’s Alright, Ma”, and then an astounding “My Back Pages”, where the verses are handled in order by McGuinn, Petty, Neil, Bob, Clapton, and George. An obligatory mass chorus of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was to end the night, but Bob got the last word by himself with “Girl From The North Country”.

As with most of these affairs, Bobfest has endured as more novelty than notable, particularly considering how he filled the decades since. An upgraded edition for Blu-ray coincided with a reissue of the CD, adding two songs from rehearsals: another blazing Clapton take on “Don’t Think Twice”, and Sinead O’Connor doing the song she was scheduled to do. “I Believe In You” sounds even more fitting today, the lyrics mirroring her own public image.

Bob Dylan The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993)—3
2014 Remastered Deluxe Edition: same as 1993, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, March 8, 2010

Bob Dylan 37: Good As I Been To You

The poet of his generation had turned fifty, and what did he have to show for himself? How about an album of mostly folk songs? Good As I Been To You is wholly acoustic with vocals, just like his first four albums thirty years previous. But for the first time since his first time, these unaccompanied songs were all traditional folk, and a couple of pop standards, not a one written by the man himself.

The first, most striking thing about the collection was that the guitar parts were all and only Bob. He hadn’t let himself be this exposed for such a long stretch for a while, and while his fretwork is certainly intricate and the strings are fresh out of the package, the mix has them right up front, so there’s a lot of scraping. They have good intentions, but it takes work to get past his (even for him) nasal delivery to invest in the stories he tells.

Most of the songs defy classification; “Sitting On Top Of The World” and “Tomorrow Night” would have been known to fans of Cream and Elvis Presley respectively, while few would have guessed they’d ever hear “Froggie Went A-Courtin’”, much less six minutes of it, on a Dylan album. “Frankie & Albert”, “Jim Jones”, “Blackjack Davey”, “Canadee-I-O”, “Little Maggie” and “Diamond Joe” are all in the folk tradition of the Harry Smith anthology; most are public domain but previously documented arrangements, such as “Arthur McBride”. “Step It Up And Go” and “You’re Gonna Quit Me” are more blues than folk, but cut from the same cloth. “Hard Times” was written by Stephen Foster before the Civil War, but Bob manages to nail it.

Back then, Good As I Been To You screamed contract obligation; seeing as these were the types of songs he played for an acoustic set on the now Never-Ending Tour, these seemingly random choices could have been put together in his sleep. The same could be said for the packaging, which consisted of one recent crusty photo plus a shot from the 1986 run with the Heartbreakers. Yet time has been kinder to the album, especially taken within the big picture. After all, there’s nothing random about Bob. Even if we didn’t know what the hell he was doing, he would do better next time.

Bob Dylan Good As I Been To You (1992)—3

Friday, March 5, 2010

Rolling Stones 17: Hot Rocks

Not even a decade into their career, the Stones had already fallen into something of a trend by following a studio album with a live album or compilation. In the case of Hot Rocks, at least, the motivation came not from the band but from their former manager, the always philanthropic Allen Klein.

Hot Rocks is two records’ full of great Stones tracks, arranged chronologically and conveniently. All the hits you know and love are here, from singles to album tracks, all the way up to “Brown Sugar” (making its first but far from its last appearance on a Stones compilation) and “Wild Horses”. The Ya-Ya’s version of “Midnight Rambler” mixes it up. Most of the songs had already been on Big Hits or Through The Past, Darkly, and both “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend The Night Together” were making their fourth American LP appearance, but again, how can you complain with such a lineup? As solid as Big Hits and Through The Past, Darkly are, the novice can’t go wrong with Hot Rocks, which is why it’s always sold incredibly well. In fact, the only bad thing we can say about it is the back cover photo.

Of course, it opened the floodgates for other cash-in opportunities. In the UK, the Decca label put out a series of strange collections of catalog clippings, none of them very well thought out nor appreciated by the band. Most collected odd singles or US-only tracks, but the most notorious was Gimme Shelter, which was not a soundtrack in any way.

The Stones themselves weren’t above a little plundering. Jamming With Edward! was credited collectively to Nicky Hopkins, Ry Cooder, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, and consisted of six loose jams from the Let It Bleed sessions. While an official release on Rolling Stones Records, it was sold at a budget price in anticipation of the scathing reviews it was sure to get. Truth be told, it’s not all that bad, and would have been a highly sought bootleg had they not put it out. It’s still an excellent showcase for Nicky’s piano, and while “It Hurts Me Too” is correctly credited to Elmore James, you don’t have to listen that closely to hear Mick include a verse from Dylan’s “Pledging My Time”.

The Rolling Stones Hot Rocks (1964-1971) (1971)—5
Nicky Hopkins, Ry Cooder, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts
Jamming With Edward! (1972)—3

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Brian Eno 11: Apollo

A project that made perfect sense on paper culminated in another exceptional ambient album. Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks collects various tracks commissioned for a film about the Apollo space missions, performed by Eno with his brother Roger, plus new collaborator Daniel Lanois. As the liner notes suggest, this music is designed to accompany images of “the vastness of space” on a big screen, compared to the grainy images people had seen on their tiny television screens.

Often the music is dark and brooding, but not so unsettling as to cause discomfort. Even without the visuals, one can picture space capsules floating by, with closeup shots of the moon’s surface and our own planet seen from miles away. Some tracks, like “Matta” and the “Under Stars” variations, evoke the machinery and isolation, while more melodic pieces of beauty emerge here and there. “An Ending (Ascent)”, “Drift”, and “Always Returning” present pretty chord cycles that never quite resolve, which is fine with us. “Weightless” manages to sound like a lazy afternoon on a tropical island, while “Silver Morning” is an excellent showcase for Daniel Lanois alone on several guitars.

Apollo sits comfortably between Eno’s ambient brand and his music for films, providing a listening experience that sounds just as good in the background as it does up close. Better still, it works outside the space motif; “Deep Blue Day” was later used as a humorous counterpoint in the film Trainspotting. In a catalog that grew to be increasingly unwieldy over time, Apollo stands out as a worthy Eno purchase.

Years later, just in time for the 50th anniversary of man’s walk on the moon, Brian gathered his cohorts to create more music inspired by the project. This time, he solicited files from the other guys, dug through his own pile of recent ideas, and “treated” everything per his usual manner. The results were compiled on a disc titled For All Mankind (after the film that started it all), which was included in a remastered, expanded reissue of the Apollo album. Again, these are not outtakes or leftovers from the original sessions, so they don’t have the same flow, but the mood is there, so the album has been truly extended in a successful repackage for both old and new fans. Working with others’ ideas helps Eno from sinking into monotony, particularly since many pieces boast hints of rhythm rather than running on simple drones. Still probably not the best thing to play while driving, though.

Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (1983)—
2019 Extended Edition: same as 1983, plus 11 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Brian Eno 10: On Land and Thursday Afternoon

Eno’s extracurricular production work was often presented as collaboration, so that it had been some time before he has something for the record rack with his own name on the spine. The third album in the Ambient series was credited solely to Laraaji, the taken pseudonym of a street musician specializing in zither and hammer dulcimer. Day Of Radiance. A more hypnotic album, it features those layered instruments in a continual cascade of shimmering notes and harmonics, pretty much left alone on side one, and more obviously treated by the man at the mixing board on side two.

Co-credited with avant-garde trumpet player Jon Hassell, Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics was released around the same time, appeared to inaugurate another series a la the Ambient experiment. That didn’t exactly happen, but the album does present a heavily treated trumpet sounding nothing like the instrument we’d recognize, augmented by synthesizers and exotic percussion. While not exactly ambient, it still provides a similar backdrop to whatever you’re doing.

The fourth and apparently final Ambient volume was credited to Eno alone, though it was not a strictly “solo” project. On Land was recorded over a three-year period, during which he’d spent and increasing amount of time around people equally fascinated with tribal percussion and so-called “found sounds”. While many of the tracks are designed to evoke certain geographical areas, the overall effect isn’t exactly soothing. More along the lines of the short experiments on Music For Films, these pieces alternately create a mood of impending doom at worst, and sitting near a swamp listening to frogs farting at best. All after dark, of course. The last two tracks (“A Clearing” and “Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960”) finally approach something pretty. Peter Gabriel would put some of these ideas to better use on his own soundtrack work, but then Eno never claimed to be a musician.

A few years after On Land—and following another collaboration discussed elsewhere—a further volume in what could be considered the Ambient series emerged in the form of Thursday Afternoon. This was an hour-long piece of music intended to be the companion soundtrack to one of his video paintings: in this case, a study of a reclining nude, presented in such a way that your television screen needed to be turned on its side to appreciate it properly. As for the music, it includes some of the cricket sounds and bird noises of On Land, with a wandering piano on top of a synth base, never tense, hardly hinting at melody. And for that, it’s effective mood music.

Brian Eno Ambient 4: On Land (1982)—2
Brian Eno
Thursday Afternoon (1985)—3

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tom Petty 15: The Last DJ

By the end of the ‘90s, Tom Petty had become an artist of stature, such that he could take his sweet time between releases, to the point where each new album would be inevitably anticlimactic. The Last DJ is called a concept album, a not entirely accurate categorization, due to the suite formed by the first four songs. The title track is self-explanatory and, with a few exceptions in scattered stations across the country, a sad truth. “Money Becomes King” takes a scary trip through a time warp, contrasting the old hippie ideals with today’s concert experience. “Dreamville” goes into the head of the performer, a melancholy reverie jarred by the ugly nightmare of “Joe”, an amalgam of every record executive who considers artists as objects, and thinks of notes not as musical elements but as financial deals. The rest of the album flows like radio used to, even when switching between stations that fade in and out as you drive from state to state.

Being something of an elegy for AOR, it’s not out of line to say this is Tom Petty’s Abbey Road (or, if that’s too blasphemous, his Blind Faith), given the approach and sophistication. Listen to tracks like “Lost Children” and “When A Kid Goes Bad” and see if you’re not thinking of 1969. The understated orchestrations by Jon Brion help too.

The album’s true finale is “Have Love Will Travel”, a song much better than its title, but he pushes the point with “Can’t Stop The Sun” to remind us that regardless of the apocalypse he describes in that opening suite, he’s going to keep on punching.

As an effect of both his age and the subject matter, his tired voice consistently scoops the notes. The only real clunker is “The Man Who Loves Women”, an uncharacteristic music hall-style trifle. To wash that out of your ears, you can always skip back to the lovely “Like A Diamond”, which indeed shines thanks to Mike Campbell’s leads and Benmont Tench’s gentle keys.

With both a darker yet more focused sound than the previous album, The Last DJ wasn’t a big hit. Critics hated it, claiming Petty was biting the hand that fed him, but that wasn’t the point. Despite his fame and wealth, Tom Petty remains a music fan first and foremost, one who cherishes the history that led him to pursue his career. He knows he’d be nothing without it, and that he’d likely be nothing without the Heartbreakers. Or at least Mike and Benmont. Howie Epstein isn’t mentioned anywhere; he had been fired for chemical issues and would be dead within the year. Bass duties are handled by Tom and Mike, with a reappearance by original Heartbreaker Ron Blair.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers The Last DJ (2002)—3