Friday, April 30, 2010

Brian Eno 12: Wrong Way Up

One of the most surprisingly accessible collaborations to emerge at the cusp of the ‘90s was that of Brian Eno and John Cale. Eno had been busy producing U2, and Cale had just come off the press junket for a tribute to Andy Warhol he and old sparring partner Lou Reed had completed the year before. While not the first time these two had worked together, Wrong Way Up was the most “poppy” either had sounded in years, and the first lyrically-oriented songs from Eno since Before And After Science.

The songs are true collaborations, although the notes are very careful to say who did what, and all but three of the songs were written (and mostly sung) by one or the other. Most are built around a simple synthesized rhythm pattern, with pulsating keyboards and guitars. And it wouldn’t be Cale without a viola, so that turns up here and there.

Of course, even though there are actual lyrics here, that’s not to say we have any idea what the songs are about, these guys being as obtuse as ever. But tracks like “One Word”, “Lay My Love” and especially “Spinning Away” (which has the same chord structure as “The Big Ship” from Another Green World) are undeniably catchy. “Empty Frame” uses the cheesiest fake horns in its rendition of doo-wop as performed on Neptune. “Footsteps” and “Been There, Done That” will remind anyone why they hated the ‘80s, but “Crime In The Desert” makes up for it with some tasty Cale piano.

Although Wrong Way Up wasn’t a hit—and supposedly both Eno and Cale vowed never to work with the other again—it kept both guys current, and gave latecomers to their work something to get excited about. In Eno’s case, it was the beginning of a busy decade. Unfortunately, this album seemed to satisfy his pop interests, turning instead back to ambient experiments.

When the album was reissued as part of an Eno catalog overhaul in 2005, it acquired a slightly different cover and offered different bonus tracks depending on where you were in the world. Along with “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, most famous in the rock era by the Byrds, and a collaboration with Daniel Lanois for the Married To The Mob soundtrack of all things, the US got “Palanquin”, a gorgeous piano piece likely composed by Cale that had only been on a European CD single, while Europe got the enigmatic “Grandfather’s House”, which had been on several CD singles. Fifteen years after that, a so-called 30th Anniversary Edition added only the latter two, for some reason. Meanwhile, several remixes and whatnot remained uncollected.

Eno/Cale Wrong Way Up (1990)—3
2005 expanded CD: same as 1990, plus 2 extra tracks
2020 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1990, plus 2 extra tracks

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Who 20: Thirty Years Of Maximum R&B

Plenty of big acts had received the box set treatment by 1994, when Who freaks finally got one devoted to their favorite band. Thirty Years Of Maximum R&B—more accurately summed up as 15 years with a lot of years sitting around—is one of the better career retrospective sets in that it includes all the hits, a pile of rarities and bootlegged nuggets, and effectively promotes the catalog, with better sound to boot.

The journey begins, fittingly, with the sound of Pete Townshend yelling at an audience. We get three tracks from their days as the High Numbers, then it’s into the Shel Talmy era and pertinent singles, which sound really good. A little license is taken by using the Leeds version of “Substitute”, and then it’s into the pop art/pirate radio era.

“A Quick One While He’s Away” is a mix of the intro from Rock And Roll Circus and the album track, ending in 1968 again. To further develop the compliers’ affection for the Sell Out approach, dialogue and studio snippets frame the first appearances of “Early Morning Cold Taxi”, one of the “Coke” jingles and “Girl’s Eyes”.

The second disc strikes gold with “Rael 2”, a kickass take of “Melancholia”, “Jaguar” and “Fortune Teller”. Tommy is oddly distilled, with only half of the “Overture” and a mislabeled “Underture” from Woodstock (it’s actually “Sparks”, as heard on The Kids Are Alright), coming out of the famous “Abbie Hoffman Incident”. Half of “See Me Feel Me” from Leeds is stuck onto the studio version. In fact, the box includes all of side one of Leeds, albeit with the clicks from before the tape was fixed.

Disc three covers the Who’s Next period, with live tracks and the contemporary singles, ending with only a few songs from Quadrophenia. And for some reason, an odd rehearsal/audition/disco version of “The Real Me” with Kenney Jones sits here. The fourth disc spends a little too much with Keith’s “hilarious” antics, and the crossfades really begin to take over, since there’s only so much space left. Key tracks from By Numbers and Who Are You are interspersed with Keith comedy bits before screeches to a near halt with the inexcusable inclusion of “Guitar And Pen” and only one track from each of the Warner albums. John yells “Twist And Shout” from 1982, “I’m A Man” tries our patience from 1989, and it all closes with the phoned-in studio reunion for Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s All Right (For Fighting)”.

Thirty Years Of Maximum R&B is not perfect; in their zeal to get everything in the compliers made some weird edits and crossfades. But it accomplishes exactly what it set out to do, and best of all, set us up for the flood of reissues.

The Who Thirty Years Of Maximum R&B (1994)—4

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pete Townshend 10: Psychoderelict

Having already written a novel, a book of short stories, a musical and a Broadway version of Tommy, Pete continued his quest to be king of all media with Psychoderelict, which emerged as a radio play of sorts. The script—complete with soap opera-level acting and one voice who sounded just enough like Roger Daltrey speaking—buried the music, while reviving ideas stemming from Lifehouse. (The advent of the Internet and virtual reality showed that Pete’s ideas were not only ahead of their time, but right on target and ready for mass consumption—almost.) There are some great musical moments scattered throughout the album, but the real fun came via a variety of instrumental demos with a 1971 copyright, serving to illustrate the concept album within the concept, which only whet our appetites for more of the same vintage.

“English Boy” was the lead track and only real hit, sidelined by the jazzy midsection, but those final guitar slashes moving into the piano truly show how much thought he’d put into it. It’s followed up by “Meher Baba M3”, one of three similarly-titled tracks from 1970 or so, albeit with modern-sounding drums added. “Let’s Get Pretentious” is somewhat self-defeating, but even casual listeners will recognize the core of “Who Are You” in “Meher Baba M4 (Signal Box)”. “Early Morning Dreams” is something of an advertisement for the grid discussed in the story, redeemed by wonderful Beach Boys-inspired bridges. “I Want That Thing” is a better rocker around the usual four chords, while “Outlive The Dinosaur” is right in line with the solo sound we’d come to expect from him, and a better statement of purpose than “Let’s Get Pretentious”. A link called “Flame (Demo)” doesn’t bode well for the complete version appearing later.

“Now And Then”, “I Am Afraid” and “Don’t Try To Make Me Real” are an excellent trio of songs sadly interrupted by the constant dialogue. Things go downhill on “Predictable” (which is, unfortunately) and “Flame”, included as the “smash hit” performed by one of the characters and not featuring Pete at all. (This time the actors’ sniping is welcome.) “Meher Baba M5 (Vivaldi)” serves as a pleasant distraction, and “Fake It” is about half of another great song; the other half just doesn’t work. A reprise of “Now And Then” is used to further the plot, and a teaser of the “Baba O’Riley” demo coincides with the climax of Lifehouse, devilishly interrupted by a seven-minute reprise of “English Boy” as the credits roll.

Perhaps Psychoderelict aimed too high, Pete’s ideas still not quite able to translate to the album format. A “music only” version, which had already been sent to radio, helped a bit by slicing out all the dialogue and voiceovers—with a much-easier-to-read booklet—but the damage was done. While it gives you a chance to hear how the album might have appeared before he came onto the concept, once you’ve heard the so-called story, it’s hard to separate it from the songs. At least he started performing live again.

Pete Townshend Psychoderelict (1993)—2
2006 remaster: same as 1993, plus 1 extra track
Pete Townshend Psychoderelict (Music Only) (1993)—

Friday, April 23, 2010

Paul McCartney 26: Driving Rain

Having decided that working fast worked best, Paul jumped into the studio with a group of unknowns and producer David Kahne, who was known for his work way back with the Bangles and more recently with Sugar Ray. The resulting Driving Rain was indeed recorded quickly, with the framework of a band that would prove to serve him well over the next decade. (His other catalyst this time was his insistence on playing the bass for each basic track.)

“Lonely Road” has a sneaky shuffle and great guitars, making for a strong rocking opener. “From A Lover To A Friend” hits the brakes immediately with words that may or may not be about an ended relationship, but it’s a pretty tune. “She’s Given Up Talking” was an early contender for the skip button, but is redeemed by a middle section that recalls Pink Floyd’s “Welcome To The Machine” and John’s “Steel And Glass”, of all things. The title track is torpedoed by the “12345” lyrics—he should know better not to count unless all good children are going to Heaven. “I Do” hearkens back to the Off The Ground sound, which itself hearkened back to Red Rose Wings. “Tiny Bubble” has a soul element, and could have been a moderate hit single 25 years earlier. It’s easy to assume that “Magic” was about meeting his new bride, but no! It’s about meeting Linda. The classical bit at the end adds to the reverie, echoing the Pepperland string quartet in Yellow Submarine.

“Your Way” sounds a lot like “Bip Bop”, which in this context sounds like early Neil Young. “Spinning On An Axis” is one of two collaborations with his son James, and sports a lot of wah-wah electric piano and guitar effects. “About You” and “Back In The Sunshine Again” (also written with James) could have been left off this long album, as they sound too much like other songs here to really stand out. But in between is the absolutely lovely “Heather”, a song he literally made up and originally captured for posterity on a Dictaphone. The completed recording has added band instrumentation, strings and a short verse that applies to anyone in love. Listen for the drums forget to slow down right away after the first chorus. “Your Loving Flame” also sounds like old Wings, even though the guitar solo should be longer and replace one of the verses. It’s another gem. Many people forget that Paul met the Maharishi too (that’s where he got his first taste of vegetarianism) but “Riding Into Jaipur” is a surprisingly pleasant detour, suggesting he might want to explore Indian rhythms now that George can’t anymore. As nice as that is, it sets you up for the grand finale: “Rinse The Raindrops” is a ten-minute jam that actually works. He repeats the same two verses innumerable times and ways, only changing the tempo once. The band is good enough to keep up with him without monotony, and for the icing on the cake, he lets out an amazing scream near the end. This was supposed to close the set, but he quickly wrote “Freedom” after the September 11 attacks and premiered it at his Live Aid-styled Concert for New York. This take was embellished in the studio and rushed onto the album in time for the release.

Did you know he’d fallen in love with a woman young enough to be his daughter? While not the only reason, Paul’s general outlook on life made Driving Rain another top-notch album amid a quality streak we hadn’t seen for years. Each of the songs here has classic McCartney moments that surpass the groaners. Pretty impressive for a guy pushing sixty. And no, we don’t know if he’s really taking a leak on the cover.

Paul McCartney Driving Rain (2001)—

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pretenders 2: Pretenders II

With few exceptions, most sequels are doomed to be letdowns in comparisons with what came before. The Pretenders had a tall order to fill for their second album, which they kept simple by titling it Pretenders II and going out of the way to make Chrissie Hynde look almost pretty on the cover.

The album is just as tough as the first, blistering with heavy guitars and angry songwriting. And like the first, it was anchored by a couple of great singles. “Message Of Love” is so simple, yet so perfect, and “Talk Of The Town” brings back the pop influences that made her first singles so good. (Both of these had appeared in the U.S. on a maxi-single suitably titled Extended Play, which also included their B-sides “Cuban Slide” and “Porcelain”, plus a killer live version of “Precious”.)

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Pretenders album without a Kinks cover, and “I Go To Sleep” did more for Ray Davies than anyone else could at the time. (And it wasn’t even a hit! The only Kinks version exists as a demo, yet Chrissie is the reason why anybody thinks of the song today. Their romance may not have lasted past the birth of their daughter, but Ray can thank the Pretenders for at least one sizable figure on his royalty checks.)

There’s a certain standard to be followed, and they do their best to keep up with it. “The Adultress” [sic] and “Bad Boys Get Spanked” continue the sado-masochistic overtones, while a cod-reggae track, “Waste Not Want Not”, shows up right where it’s supposed to on side two. Meanwhile, “Pack It Up” and “Day After Day” plow through the speakers with excellent construction. The big question mark is “Louie Louie”, which seems to strive to update the original with quotes from “In The Midnight Hour” and “All The Young Dudes”, resulting in a chaotic, horn-driven mess issued as a single.

Still, with all that, the Pretenders had so much to live up to so that Pretenders II is an anticlimax, and it’s nobody’s fault. The expanded Rhino CD might have had even less to work with, a few of the B-sides already having appeared on the expanded debut. But the label managed to find a few nuggets from the vault, which capped a bonus disc filled out with the contents of another contemporary promo-only live disc. The 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition added even more music from that gig, along with further music from the show that begat the live “Precious” from Extended Play, which also finally made it to digital.

Even though the album paled in comparison the debut, the extra material proves just how tight this band was. As Chrissie said at her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, if it weren’t for Jimmy and Pete, “we wouldn’t be here. And on the other hand, without us, they might have been here.” Within two years’ time, both would be dead. Listening to the blistering performances here—many of which improve on the album versions—it’s absolutely clear that their demise dealt a devastating blow to rock ‘n roll.

Pretenders Extended Play (1981)—4
Pretenders II (1981)—
2006 expanded, remastered CD: same as 1980, plus 18 extra tracks
2021 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1981, plus 12 extra tracks

Monday, April 19, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock 4: Fegmania!

So it was time for a band. Who better but a couple of Soft Boys? And once you’ve got a band, you must record an album. That’s the law, after all.

Fegmania! is Robyn’s first album with the so-called Egyptians, two of whom—drummer Morris Windsor and bassist/keyboardist Andy Metcalfe—were indeed former Soft Boys. For a while there was a fourth Egyptian on keyboards, mostly of the DX7 variety, and for that reason the album itself suffers from a distinct mid-‘80s sheen. But for better or worse this is where Robyn’s jangle started, and it would only make sense that he’d occasionally get support from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. And now that he learned how to make albums again, he avoided the pitfalls that affected his first two.

For starters, he was writing songs that were as catchy as they were clever. “Egyptian Cream” is a nice tune about pregnancy. “Insect Mother” has a snaky riff in an odd time signature, which sounds a lot like his other snake riffs in odd time signatures. “Strawberry Mind” sports an accordion, albeit synthed, and is not to be confused with “The Cars She Used To Drive” and “Out Of The Picture”, starting as it does with “she wants to know about”.

“The Man With The Lightbulb Head” and “My Wife & My Dead Wife” add to the other Hitchcockian overtures of the album—many of Robyn’s songs have a macabre twist about them. (Although truth be told, the latter one is more Noel Coward than Alfred.) “Goodnight I Say” wears more influences on its polka-dotted sleeve—in this case, the Velvet Underground. It’s also one of the only occasions we can think of where a “good night” song is used to end side one instead of side two or side four. Instead, “Heaven” is a rousing album closer.

When Fegmania! first appeared on CD, it had bonus tracks, added from contemporary singles. “Bells Of Rhymney” is quite faithful to the Byrds version, while “Dwarfbeat” and “Some Body” are less exciting. The Rhino edition included these, along with a few demos and live tracks of dubious vintage that provide other perspectives on “Heaven”, “Egyptian Cream” and “Insect Mother”. Yep Roc’s reissue started fresh again by dropping “Dwarfbeat” (no loss there) and adding a few negligible demos to a couple of the rescued Rhino tracks. The Rhino version has the edge, but as long as the original album is preserved, you’re good.

Robyn Hitchcock and The Egyptians Fegmania! (1985)—
1986 CD: same as 1985, plus 3 extra tracks
1995 Rhino reissue: same as 1986 CD, plus 5 extra tracks
2008 Yep Roc: same as 1985, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, April 16, 2010

Neil Young 36: Prairie Wind

Things were suddenly quiet on the Neil front halfway through the new decade. Another step toward a possible Archives realization came with the release of Greatest Hits. Eleven of the 16 songs came from the fertile two-year period from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to Harvest, and only one song each from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Meanwhile, in the real world, he had just completed recording a country album when he had an aneurysm. Plus, his father died.

Prairie Wind is more easy listening in the mode of Comes A Time, Harvest Moon and Silver & Gold. Recorded entirely in Nashville, the sound is predominantly acoustic, with the occasional fuzzy steel guitar and and the Memphis Horns adding more soul than was on Are You Passionate?

“The Painter” opens the proceedings with a portrait of an artist utterly devoted to her craft. Is he singing about Joni, his daughter Amber, or himself? “No Wonder” sports a classic plucked acoustic intro before a lyric influenced by current events gets swept away by a truly picturesque soundscape underpinned by organ and slide. “Falling Off The Face Of The Earth” is a timely reminder to tell your loved ones how you feel, just in case you leave them first. “Far From Home” is one of the jauntiest celebrations of youth and death we can think of. The mood turns to sweeter reverie on “It’s A Dream”, which may or may not be real.

The title track rumbles across the same three chords for six minutes, with an acknowledgement that his father was about to die. “Here For You” brings us back to Harvest Moon territory, followed by a tribute to “This Old Guitar”. Elvis Presley is eulogized in one-liners for “He Was The King”, and just when you think this trip has gone off the map, it ends with a prayer of sorts. “When God Made Me” is a perfect distillation of “Imagine” and “Blowin’ In The Wind”, and while it might not become a standard, it is a bold yet obvious statement of the role of the individual in an increasingly uncertain world.

Prairie Wind didn’t break down any doors, but is the sound of a man determined to keep doing what he does, when he wants to, how he wants to. Neil knew he wouldn’t be around forever, and perhaps having glimpsed his own mortality, he also threatened to start putting out the long-promised Archives the following year. That didn’t exactly happen.

Neil Young Prairie Wind (2005)—3

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tax Day Special!

Here at Everybody’s Dummy we strive for quality and accuracy. Also, our narcissism requires us to review our output over the past two-plus years and 300+ reviews, and not just to see how many times the word “pleasant” has appeared. From time to time we’ll fix a typo or broken image, and the occasional rating has been adjusted, as has been threatened on the sidebar. Such changes aren’t usually advertised, as they’re mostly cosmetic. But sometimes there’s been new information requiring a larger revision of text, such as when Elvis Costello’s Taking Liberties and Out Of Our Idiot collections became available for download only, or when Past Masters was upgraded in last year’s Beatles rollout.

Our quest for consistency paid off when we noticed that the review of Wings At The Speed Of Sound didn’t quite match that of its brethren. What was more exciting was being able to update the review of The Who Sell Out when its Deluxe Edition appeared in 2009. (There was a similar upgrade to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, but we haven’t heard it yet. [UPDATE: it only took six years, but you can read all about that at the link.])

Some would say these revisions are small, and barely worth mentioning. But if you’ve been hanging on our dainty prose this long, we figure it would be a crime if you were missing out on something. So today, when so many people in this great nation feel they’ve given till it hurt, isn’t it nice to get a little surprise?

Thanks, as always, for reading and spreading the word. There’s plenty more to come.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Paul McCartney 25: Working Classical and Wingspan

He’d interspersed his last few regular album releases with out-of-genre side projects, such as the experimental Fireman techno collaborations, but it was his serious classical compositions that naturally got the most publicity. Liverpool Oratorio and Standing Stone both demand a lot of the listener, and certainly wouldn’t be given any notice by the experts if they were written by anyone else (except maybe Ringo).

By contrast, Working Classical is a mixture of some of Paul’s shorter, post-magnum opus pieces, plus some string quartet arrangements of some of his solo songs. (Most of these had been prepared for performance during Linda’s memorial services.) The blue notes in “Maybe I’m Amazed” raise an eyebrow, and the more impressionistic pieces are unobtrusive if unremarkable. The album gains points for illuminating songs like “Warm And Beautiful”, and shows big balls for orchestrating “The Lovely Linda”. It makes for quaint rainy day and Sunday morning listening, and no worse than any other “classical interpretations” of McCartney music.

Just as the Beatles Anthology CD and video series got him inspired to do Flaming Pie, Paul’s next project was nudged along by Life After Linda, and qualified by the amazingly huge success of the Beatles 1 compilation. Wingspan was a video and a book, but most of all, it was music.

The two-CD package is, per usual, teeth-gnashing fuel for the collector on a budget, but is still a great starting point for those who don’t have any of the old albums or either of the hits packages. (Disc one, the Hits disc, includes all of Wings Greatest, and most of both editions of All The Best!) The sound is fine, and just to make things interesting some of the tracks (“Junior’s Farm”, “With A Little Luck”, “Venus And Mars/Rockshow”, “Waterfalls”) are radio edits, which can make for a jumpy listening experience but helps to include more selections—over 2½ hours worth of music. “Coming Up” is the live version, while “Maybe I’m Amazed” is the studio non-Wings version. “Daytime Nightime Suffering”, while a bonus track on the Back To The Egg CD, fits nicely on the History disc with other lesser-known favorites. The only real rarity on the set is the audio of “Bip Bop/Hey Diddle” from a 1971 film with the kids and Martha running around while Mum and Dad harmonize; “Bip Bop” is much less offensive in this down-home rendition. Both versions of “No More Lonely Nights” are used to end each disc, and the “playout version” is less irritating here than on Broad Street. “Pipes Of Peace” is more appealing here too, out of its original misguided context.

Overall Wingspan is a fantastic collection, unless you don’t need it, and many don’t. It’s been pointed out that it’s supposed to be a look back at Wings, yet we still get a lot of tracks from McCartney and Ram, five tracks recorded post-Japan and numerous tracks that have just Paul on them. A more apt title for the entire project would have been How Linda Kept Me Making Music After The Beatles, but that just wasn’t as marketable. It’s incredibly listenable, whets appetites for the original albums and, more than anything, shows off why Wings was so successful and popular, and deservedly so. So where’s the box set of unreleased tracks?

Paul McCartney Working Classical (1999)—
Paul McCartney
Wingspan: Hits And History (2001)—

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Beatles 29: 1

Just in time for what someone termed the “Beatle-lennium”, most of the year 2000 was spent building up to the overdue release of the official Anthology book, followed by the band’s first hits collection compiled specifically for CD. Simply titled 1, it collected 27 newly remastered songs that had hit the top spot on the pop charts in either the UK or the US, from “Love Me Do” through “The Long And Winding Road”. Naturally, some favorites were left off—like “Please Please Me” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, to name two—which annoyed some people no end. The booklet contained a testimonial from George Martin, plus depictions of various 45 sleeves from around the world and some chart info. The annotation for each track was brief, but perhaps the timely launch of the website was intended to hold all the extras. (It didn’t.)

As a distillation of the Red and Blue albums, the album did cover a lot of the bases, even if “Eight Days A Week” and “Yesterday” weren’t singles in the UK back then. Amazingly, considering how many times these songs had been packaged and repackaged, it was a huge seller worldwide. By this time even the children of people who weren’t alive when these songs were recorded were as entranced by the music as anyone. Given the current proliferation of boy bands and other teenybopper sensations, it provided a nice antidote for those parents. After all, the music was really, really good.

The bright red artwork reminded one of the Red album, and left our mouths watering for a blue-theme 2 follow-up—which never happened—or at least a companion DVD with all the promo videos. That only took fifteen years, when the set was repackaged with a DVD (or Blu-ray) that included videos for each of the 27 tracks. A more deluxe version, called 1+, added a second DVD (or Blu-ray) containing another 23 promo videos, some vintage and some created more recently. Some even included commentary tracks from Paul and Ringo, though not together. In all cases, the music was also freshly remixed for stereo (except for the first three songs) by Giles Martin, son of George, and someone who would loom large in future Beatle projects. (The videos for “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love” also included new remixed audio, which not only smoothed out some of the imperfections left over from John’s demos, but lessened the overall Jeff Lynne effect.) The packaging also included lots more photos, and info about the original recordings as well as the filmings.

The Beatles 1 (2000)—5

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bob Dylan 40: Greatest Hits Vol. 3 and Unplugged

He wasn’t exactly in a career renaissance, but Bob was a little more top of mind in the mid-‘90s, between aging fans who followed him from tour stop to tour stop and younger fans looking for a reason to smoke pot in public and cheer every harmonica solo.

Since it had been over twenty years, Columbia decided they could finally put together a third greatest hits album. We wonder if they’d even tried to find a recent photo to match the blue-tinted ones of the covers of the previous two, but that’s a petty concern considering that he really hadn’t had many “hits” since the last installment. Granted, the obvious ones are here—“Tangled Up In Blue”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Hurricane”, “Forever Young”, and “Silvio” (to appease the Deadheads)—but the set is also bolstered by some more clever additions. “Changing Of The Guards”, “Jokerman”, and “Series Of Dreams” are all excellent, but again, not exactly hits. “Ring Them Bells” was hardly one of the more played songs from Oh Mercy, but the inclusion of “Under The Red Sky” and all eleven minutes of “Brownsville Girl” are just plain bizarre. (At least they didn’t try to squeeze “Joey” on there.) “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” is always welcome. For collectors there was one new song, “Dignity”, left over from the Oh Mercy sessions and all but rerecorded by producer du jour Brendan O’Brien.

By the end of the decade, when things had changed (foreshadowing!) for him, Sony would put out a number of “best of” collections that attempted to cover his entire career, but none would include each and every one of the songs previously deemed his greatest hits. 2007’s deluxe DYLAN came closest, though 2000’s The Essential Bob Dylan does a better job with only two discs. But back to our story.

To promote the album, Bob consented to an official MTV Unplugged performance, naturally followed by an album and home video. The program itself is pleasant enough—twelve songs, some familiar, some not so—featuring not only a performance of his latest so-called hit “Dignity”, plus the first-ever album appearance of the protest-era nugget “John Brown”.

As a Dylan concert it’s okay; some would insist that his similar shows recorded a year earlier at New York City’s Supper Club deserve wider exposure. What’s ridiculous is that his most recent “new” albums both featured bona fide unplugged accompaniment, unlike the Hammond organ and pedal steel-fueled performances here.

For keeping Bob’s image in front of new listeners, these albums did the trick. However, fans old and new would have much rather had something truly substantial to ingest, and not half-baked rehashes.

Bob Dylan Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1994)—
Bob Dylan
MTV Unplugged (1995)—

Friday, April 9, 2010

Todd Rundgren 5: Todd

What do you do when you’re a critic’s darling with a rabid fan base and multicolored hair? Put out another two-record set, your second in two years, loaded with a baffling combination of power pop, pretty ballads and total mindwarps. Todd is certainly overindulgent (67 minutes on four sides, but there’s still muddy sound and sure, some of the instrumentals could have been edited) but with a little more variety than A Wizard, A True Star. His synthesizer use is much more advanced, and as something of a thank you to those who met the challenge “I just want to see if you’ll put up with me”, not only does the closing track sport full audience participation, but thousands of people who sent in postcards included in the previous album could find their names on the enclosed poster. What a guy.

“How About A Little Fanfare?” is just that—a brief intro to the next song, with synth and the plane effects from “International Feel”. “I Think You Know” is a spacey song on a lot of levels, with nods to Electric Ladyland, going right into “The Spark Of Life”, a long but worthy instrumental that works, especially in the Hendrix context. The lead instrument seems to be a combination of a synth, a guitar and a voice, a sound soon to be appropriated by Prince. Some call “An Elpee’s Worth Of Toons” a Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche; we compare it to “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”, and unfortunately any redeeming qualities are sunk by the “what’s the problem sonny” section. “A Dream Goes On Forever” is the token pop song people were hoping for right in the middle of side one, while the overdramatic “Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song” is a bona fide Gilbert & Sullivan song.

Side two begins with “Drunken Blue Rooster”, another classical-inspired instrumental that doesn’t seem like much, but gains points compared to some of the experiments to come. “The Last Ride” is an actual song, slow and pretty with a big epic sound. “Everybody’s Going to Heaven/King Kong Reggae” is a multi-part rocker with lots of guitar, punctured by the stupid ending.

The third side kicks off with “No. 1 Lowest Common Denominator”, an overblown Hendrix-style song about sex, with a stupid “poem” section, but again, we hear hints of Prince’s psychedelic period. Luckily it’s redeemed by the suite from the pretty “Useless Begging” through “Sidewalk Café”, an unnecessary but effective instrumental link to “Izzat Love?”, a bouncy pop song that sounds like it’s speeding up and slowing down within each bar. A glorious tape effect ends the track to go into “Heavy Metal Kids”, a snotty cross between “Little Red Lights” and “Slut”, and not far from “Cat Scratch Fever”.

Side four truly tries your patience with a long Moog experiment, with indecipherable vocals halfway through, before an intro right out of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway heralds “Don’t You Ever Learn?” (We hear foreshadowings of Prince here too.) If you’re looking for a beautiful song about karma slash reincarnation, look no further. But wait! The grand finale “Sons Of 1984” was recorded mostly live with one audience singing along in one speaker, and another audience overdubbed in another speaker. An inspirational album closer on par with “Just One Victory”.

Once again, with just a little objective editing, Todd could have been an amazing single LP, but the guy just had too many ideas he needed to get out. Perhaps those less-than-satisfying moments help us appreciate those moments of musical gold all the more. Soon enough he’d find other outlets on which his expanding mind could splatter itself, yet he’d still continue to blur the line of expectation.

Todd Rundgren Todd (1974)—3

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Todd Rundgren 4: A Wizard, A True Star

In 1973, Todd released the follow-up to the previous year’s wildly successful Something/Anything? While that album—two records’ worth of pop perfection, three sides of which were performed all by himself, via copious overdubbing—appealed to a wide segment of the population, people expecting A Wizard, A True Star to deliver more of the same would have been gravely disappointed.

AWATS (as the Toddheads call it) begins promisingly enough with the anthemic “International Feel”, yet soon descends into a series of short mindwarps, a sort of bizarro version of side two of Abbey Road. If he wanted to alienate the teenyboppers, this was the way to do it.
We’ve tried to figure out if there really is a difference between the two sides, and we’re not so sure there is. There are still enough moments that rank up there with the best parts of S/A? (as the Toddheads call it), and even the stranger songs have some incredible chord changes that stick in your brain. Some pet parts:
• the grand opening of “International Feel” (mentioned above), which soon develops into a faithful cover of “Never Never Land”, from Disney’s Peter Pan
• the mysterious yet soaring “Zen Archer”, which winds up with a David Sanborn sax solo and bow-and-arrow effects that have not a hint of novelty
• the reprise of the opening track, for some reason titled “Le Feel Internacionale” this time, that closes side one and ends abruptly (just like Abbey Road, oddly enough)
• “Sometimes I Don’t Know What To Feel”, which would have tricked listeners into thinking side two might be an easier ride
• the passionate performances of three sexy soul covers, which spin up into a completely undanceable “Cool Jerk” in 7/4 time
• “I Don’t Want To Tie You Down”, which puts us back into S/A? territory, before throwing some more “demonic” fretwork at us (that would be “Is It My Name”)
• and the rousing anthemic (there’s that word again) closer, “Just One Victory”, which winds up the album on a crowd-pleasing mainstream note, complete with football cheers in the chorus that don’t seem hokey at all.

A Wizard, A True Star is still a very odd album. Part of it might be down to the fact that each side has nearly 30 minutes crammed into the grooves, making for a compressed, cramped listen. Maybe it’s because the sumbitch probably did half of it by himself again, before he turned 25. But don’t be surprised if you keep going back to it.

Todd Rundgren A Wizard, A True Star (1973)—

Monday, April 5, 2010

Todd Rundgren 3: Something/Anything?

Todd spent his first two albums proving his versatility, both as a songwriter and as a producer. So the logical next step was to do an album all by himself. Why? Because he could.

Actually, that’s not completely accurate. Something/Anything? is split between three sides played all by his painstakingly overdubbed self, and one side of full band performances captured absolutely live in the studio. The result is two records containing some of the tastiest ear candy known to man.

So yes, that’s track after track of concise pop, fully arranged to sound like a band, starting with the Beatlesque “I Saw The Light” and followed by the low-key “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”. “Wolfman Jack” is a tribute of sorts to the onetime DJ and eventual B-lister. “Cold Morning Light” and “It Takes Two To Tango” follow the path of the sensitive singer-songwriter, but “Sweeter Memories” takes us closer to FM territory with a thicker guitar sound.

Side two (or “the cerebral side” according to his indispensable liner notes) is playfully experimental, starting with a spoken sound effects section and an instrumental that’s been used for countless radio beds over the years. “The Night The Carousel Burnt Down” is built around various keyboard effects, rescued by the pure pop of “Saving Grace”. “Marlene” is one of the sweetest love songs ever; notice how it always sounds like it’s increasing in pitch by the end, but it’s not. “Song Of The Viking” deserves to be sung by more high school choral groups, but “I Went To The Mirror” is the culmination of too many drugs in isolation.

Side three takes us completely from AM to FM with the heavy “Black Maria”, the impenetrable “One More Day” and the direct power of “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”. “Torch Song” ventures back to schmaltz, torpedoed by the car effects (later exploited by Meat Loaf) on “Little Red Lights”.

Every sound you’ve heard so far, from the guitars and keyboards to the drums and horns, has come from the deft fingers of this skinny wunderkind. To prove that he could play well with others, side four is loaded with session help to get those sounds down just right, complete with studio banter and starting with a trip through the archives. Most of the songs on this side are jokey—the success of “Piss Aaron”, “Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me”, “You Left Me Sore” (a PSA for VD prevention), or “Slut” depends on your mood. “Dust In The Wind” was written by his keyboard player and is not the Kansas song, but “Hello It’s Me”, itself a remake of an earlier Nazz single, is every bit the tour-de-force he anticipated.

Maybe it’s because side four sounds just a tad dated, but we lean towards the other three sides, fascinated as we are by someone who can transfer all those arrangements from his head to tape—and play decent drums, too. Something/Anything? is an impressive achievement, although as with many double albums, there is what those in the industry have come to call “filler”. Even if you skip past the ones you’re not too keen on, you’ve still got a solid 45 minutes: I Saw The Light - It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference - Sweeter Memories - Intro/Breathless - Saving Grace - Marlene; Song Of The Viking - Black Maria - Couldn’t I Just Tell You - Torch Song - Dust In The Wind - Hello It’s Me. (Okay, so it’s not as exciting an exercise as compiling a single-disc White Album, but what is?)

Todd Rundgren Something/Anything? (1972)—4

Friday, April 2, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock 3: I Often Dream Of Trains

Robyn took his time off to take everything back to basics, and we’re glad he did. The resulting I Often Dream Of Trains is predominantly acoustic, with absolutely zero modern production tricks.

A simple “Nocturne” on piano, which opens and closes the album proper as a “Prelude” and “Demise”, is quite haunting, and in time one could make an enjoyable compilation of his instrumentals. Then “Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl” comes crashing in, and is more relaxed surrealism than “Do Policemen Sing?” while very logical at the same time. There aren’t really any bad ones here—“Cathedral” is nice, the multi-tracked a cappella “Uncorrected Personality Traits” is still hilarious, and “Sounds Great When You’re Dead” only pushes it slightly. “Flavour Of Night” is very Lennonesque—the album as a whole brings to mind the spooky Plastic Ono Band vibe—with a gorgeous piano line, unobtrusive saxophone and that echoey vocal. “Ye Sleeping Nights Of Jesus” is a happy “Far Away Eyes”-type singalong, kinda country.

“This Could Be The Day” is one of the earliest songs we can think of that mentions Nubians. “Trams Of Old London” is a pleasant reverie on various London locations, many of which are still accessible by tube. “Furry Green Atom Bowl” is the flip of “Uncorrected Personality Traits”, both in performance and subject matter. “Heart Full Of Leaves” is another gorgeous instrumental, going nicely into “Autumn Is Your Last Chance”—wait for the ethereal “ah” at the end. The title song starts out with all its electricity, fitting for a song about trains. Then the demise of “Nocturne” fades in and ends.

The simplicity of I Often Dream Of Trains was a stark and welcome contrast to his first two albums, and to his credit, he stuck with it for a while. As it turned out, he even stuck pretty close to his demos for the final outcome, having learned not to screw with them too much. (It also set a tone for his best albums having green covers, but more on that later.)

The 1986 CD sported five extra tracks inserted between the sides, which is where they belong. We would not be at all surprised if Neil from The Young Ones was the inspiration for “Mellow Together”. “Winter Love” doesn’t really go anywhere but “Bones In The Ground” and “My Favorite Buildings” are successful examples of unlikely rhymes fitting well. “I Used To Say I Love You” is a very sneaky meditation on the end of romance.

The Rhino CD wisely replicated the 1986 sequence, but due to form, added five demos as bonus tracks at the end that merely illustrated how fully formed the album was before its proper recording. When Yep Roc got a hold of it, none of the Rhino bonus demos were included, in favor of two other demos and three different tracks that don’t really fit the feel of the original album except for being acoustic. What’s worse, the current CD also doesn’t include “Mellow Together”, in either its proper or demo form; the other four songs added to the 1986 CD were placed after “Nocturne (Demise)” in the program. Stick with either the original or the Rhino CD.

Robyn Hitchcock I Often Dream Of Trains (1984)—4
1986 CD: same as 1984, plus 5 extra tracks
1995 Rhino reissue: same as 1986 CD, plus 5 extra tracks
2007 Yep Roc: same as 1984, plus 10 extra tracks