Monday, May 31, 2010

Rolling Stones 20: Goats Head Soup

Goats Head Soup seems like a hangover, the dark side of the decadence so celebrated on the last couple of Stones albums. There’s an evil undercurrent here, and it doesn’t make for easy listening. Perhaps it’s the shrouded cover art; perhaps it’s the insistence that the album was recorded in Jamaica but there’s hardly any influence to be detected. That incongruousness is no more blatant than in “Winter”, which conjures mental images of snow, Christmas trees and harsh winds—hardly the stuff of a week spent recording in Kingston.

The darkness is apparent from the start, as “Dancing With Mr. D” takes place in a graveyard. “100 Years Ago” is a little schizophrenic, starting with a funky clavinet and changing gears halfway through with a slower section before delving back into the darkness. The tender “Coming Down Again” is a showcase for Keith and Nicky Hopkins, a lament over either infidelity, drug abuse or both. “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” turns it back up, bringing in the funk, heavy on the keyboards and full of anger. Not content to let Keith tug the heartstrings all by himself, Mick delivers “Angie”, all tenderness and strings, with a whispered section that gets creepier every year.

“Silver Train” brings back the boogie, but “Hide Your Love” sounds like it was recorded on the spot. “Winter” takes over the center of the album, just as “Coming Down Again” did on side one; it transcends its few chords and perfectly captures an ache better than “Angie”. Even the strings work. “Can You Hear The Music?” was probably the only way to follow this, with its finger cymbals and faux-mystical lyrics. And just to prove they could still push buttons, “Star Star” relies on a certain four-letter word repeated about 97 times over a standard Chuck Berry riff to cause controversy.

Ultimately, Goats Head Soup is something of a disappointment, since it had to follow the stellar track record of all the amazing albums that have gone before. It’s still good, and highly recommended, but we can start to see the laziness that would be the brand’s trademark going forward.

With their usual strange idea of when albums should be upgraded, the 47th birthday of Goats Head Soup was commemorated with a new stereo mix by Giles Martin, seemingly on a break from all his work on Beatles box sets. A disc of “rarities and alternate mixes” in the Deluxe Edition delivered exactly that, including instrumental runthroughs and negligible alternates of “Dancing With Mr. D” and “Heartbreaker”, alternates of “Silver Train” and “Hide Your Love”, and a demo of “100 Years Ago”. Two of the best outtakes had long been part of Tattoo You, so only three unreleased songs are added to the program. Naturally “Scarlet”, featuring Jimmy Page on lead guitar, is of wide interest, but it was recorded by only Mick and Keith with Ric Grech on bass and another drummer in late 1974, nearly two years after the original Goats Head Soup album sessions, and over a year after the album had been released. “All The Rage” is a decent rocker with obviously brand-new vocals, and while Mick says he didn’t touch “Criss Cross”, it appears to have new percussion from Jim Keltner. (The pricey Super Deluxe Edition also offered, among artwork and a thick book, another CD containing Brussels Affair, the official bootleg of a 1973 concert previously only available via download or in an even more expensive box set.)

The Rolling Stones Goats Head Soup (1973)—
2020 Deluxe Edition: same as 1973, plus 10 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 15 tracks plus Blu-ray)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Rolling Stones 19: More Hot Rocks

The success of Hot Rocks—along with the Stones’ continued commercial viability—paved the way for its inevitable sequel a year later. More Hot Rocks took a different approach to the catalog, and not just by digging deeper. This is the set that separates the men from the boys, if you will. Casual fans may be happy with Hot Rocks in their racks, but when you see this one in someone’s collection, you know you’re dealing with an absolute Stones fanatic.

It starts out pretty straightforward. Side one features five singles that had already been included on Big Hits but left off Hot Rocks, anchored by “I’m Free”, which the band was still playing on tour in 1969. Side two is where the fun starts. “Out Of Time” gives way to “Lady Jane”, “Sittin’ On A Fence” and “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby”. Granted, these were all on Flowers, but they’re still some of the most underrated songs from their middle period. The side closes with the back-to-back psychedelic punch of “Dandelion” and the absolutely diabolical “We Love You”.

Back in the days of the record changer, sides one and four were on the same disc, paired with sides two and three. That made it easy to keep flipping back and forth between the middle of the More Hot Rocks program, for a non-stop trip. “She’s A Rainbow” and “2,000 Light Years From Home” continue the nightmare, but the absolute peak of the set is “Child Of The Moon”, previously banished to a B-side. “No Expectations” and “Let It Bleed” close the circle acoustically. Andrew Loog Oldham’s obtuse liner notes somewhat explain side four, which consists of eight early tracks making their first US LP appearances. This is likely left over from the original idea to release an album of unreleased material. (Some forty years later, we’re still waiting for more unreleased material of any vintage.) Most are from the very early days, and a few are very odd covers.

More Hot Rocks is pointedly not a hits compilation, but still a worthy addition to a Stones collection. The current CD sounds great, and even adds three further rarities, but if you want to enjoy that continuous flow from side two to three, you’ll have to burn your own.

Rolling Stones More Hot Rocks (Big Hits & Fazed Cookies) (1972)—4
2002 SACD remaster: same as 1972, plus 3 extra tracks

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

David Bowie 25: Tin Machine II

What little momentum Tin Machine had—and really, there wasn’t much, commercially anyway—was derailed by two factors: EMI dumped him for decreasing sales, and somehow he got talked into a tour under his own name to “promote” the Ryko rollout.

Tin Machine II emerged the following year on a Polygram subsidiary. It’s not as consistent as the first album, with tracks that go all over the place and two songs sung by the drummer. But it’s still not as bad as everyone said.

“Baby Universal” kicks everything off with shouted call-and-response vocals that don’t match. It’s a good start, but “One Shot” was the first single, and not a wise choice for promotional purposes. “You Belong In Rock ‘N Roll” brings back the classic brooding Bowie sound. He uses his voice to his advantage on “If There Was Something”, a strangely timed cover of a Roxy Music song. “Amlapura” is on the dreamy side, but doesn’t sink in; neither does “Betty Wrong”. Both sound more like ‘80s Bowie than the first Tin Machine album.

“You Can’t Talk” starts the second side, but is forgotten when “Stateside” kicks in. Sung by drummer Hunt Sales, it’s been lambasted for its inclusion, but its continual chord changes and Reeves’ surprisingly understated soloing (compared to the rest of the album, where he uses a marital aid) keep it interesting. “Shopping For Girls” adds some mystery, but “A Big Hurt” is just loud, and has nothing to do with Frank Thomas. “Sorry” is the other Hunt Sales song here, which most people hated even more than “Stateside”. “Goodbye Mr. Ed” is a very enigmatic end, not counting the instrumental burst after the song fades.

Tin Machine II was barely given a chance by critics or consumers. It wasn’t a great album by non-Bowie standards, but at least it made an attempt to rock. The band was on its last legs anyway, and limped through a final tour to promote an album nobody wanted. The largely pointless but still enjoyable Oy Vey, Baby live album followed a year later to universal apathy, not helped when the label went out of business. (If anything, it shows how well the other three navigated Hunt’s tempo issues.) And that was the end of Tin Machine—sad, really, considering the promise they once showed.

Tin Machine Tin Machine II (1991)—3
Tin Machine
Live: Oy Vey, Baby (1992)—3

Monday, May 24, 2010

Todd Rundgren 6: Todd Rundgren’s Utopia

Being a student of popular music, Todd noticed that for all its bombast and pretension, prog-rock had structure. After all, it wasn’t enough that ELP, Genesis, Yes and their ilk had to play those songs for hours on end; somebody had to write them first, right?At any rate, he’d already indulged in LSD during the writing/recording of his last three solo albums, and in doing that he saw a vision of a perfect world—a Utopia, if you will. He proceeded to recruit a regular backing band, with three keyboard players (although one, the improbably named M. Frog Labat, didn’t seem to do much more than add Eno-esque whoops and hollers to the proceedings) and a tight rhythm section for a project he named after his vision.

In true Todd fashion their first album ran over an hour on two sides. Todd Rundgren’s Utopia—the title made sure rack jobbers knew what they were selling—is tough going, but there are melodies to be found within the interminable movements.

“Utopia” begins part-way through a live performance and soon escalates into a jazzy shuffle with lots of wah-wah keyboards and guitar flourishes. And just when you think they’re going to wank themselves into a crescendo, a vocal section comes in, a lovely song within a song with a guitar solo to match. A return to the original theme closes the piece, complete with more wanking. “Freak Parade” is tightly constructed, with a stop-time intro and Zappa-style vocal punctuation, followed by a “pretty” section, a return to the intro and more verses that sound like Zappa distilled through, well, Todd Rundgren. “Freedom Fighters” is the most straightforward (read: radio-friendly) song here, and the one that sounds most like what people would expect—and come to expect—from him.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a prog album without a sidelong track, and “The Ikon” delivers thirty minutes crammed onto side two. Many of the same styles exhibited in “Freak Parade” are repeated here, with several rotating solos before the words begin. While the lyrical content is a bit obtuse, there’s no questioning the tightness of this band. A long jam turns into a jazz-funk extension not too far removed from Steely Dan, and there’s even a short burst played on woodblocks that Neil Peart must have heard before recording “Xanadu” with Rush.

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia isn’t a bad album, but it requires a lot of time and several listens to appreciate. He was at least providing lots of value for his fans’ money; only a certain breed would be willing to stick it out.

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (1974)—

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rolling Stones 18: Exile On Main St.

For all the eternal debate among vinyl vs. CD, there’s no denying the convenience factor that the digital medium has brought us. An album like Exile On Main St. may sound better on a turntable, some say, but on a CD, you can leave it in for just over an hour’s worth of entertainment. On vinyl, you have to change or replay the sides every 15 minutes or so. Mick Jagger has suggested this was on purpose, that it’s not supposed to be digested all at once. It’s not the first time we’ve disagreed with him.

Exile On Main St. is testimony that Charlie Watts should be knighted. Even for the songs he didn’t play on. (It also reminds us to pester the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about inducting Nicky Hopkins already.) It’s also the album that gets mentioned as a hallmark whenever the Stones put out a new album that’s supposed to recapture their old classic sound. It’s not necessarily their last “good” album (for instance, Tattoo You still holds up) but it certainly closes out a series that began four years earlier. Until the digital era it was their only double album, and while it may be a lot to take in at once, there isn’t much filler. Each of the sides are sequenced just right, even if that’s lost in the CD experience.

“Rocks Off” appropriately opens side one with a bang, which continues on “Rip This Joint”. The dirty blues take over for a cover of “Shake Your Hips” and “Casino Boogie”, before closing with “Tumbling Dice”. Linda Ronstadt’s version may cloud your opinion of the song, but the way the drums come back in for the fadeout is one of the most exhilarating moments on wax. (We had hoped it was Charlie, but sources insist it was producer Jimmy Miller, no slouch on the skins, he.) Side two is more or less country, starting with the acoustic “Sweet Virginia”. “Torn And Frayed” picks it up, “Sweet Black Angel” is an unnecessary tribute to Angela Davis, and “Loving Cup” brings Nicky up front where he should be.

Side three is the one to leave on the turntable for the most consecutive plays. Keith yells “Happy” (Jimmy Miller on the kit again), “Turd On The Run” and “Ventilator Blues” are incomprehensible, “I Just Want To See His Face” is a voodoo chant, and it all comes down to “Let It Loose”, possibly the most underrated Stones track. You’d think side four would be anticlimactic after all that, but “All Down The Line” brings another quintessential Stones riff to the table. “Stop Breaking Down” is one of the better Robert Johnson interpretations out there. “Shine A Light” swaps Billy Preston for Nicky and we’ll allow it, as the gospel feel truly benefits from his touch. (Supposedly this was written in memory of Brian Jones, which is a very sweet gesture, but the music was supposedly written by the uncredited Leon Russell, the omission of which tarnishes it.) “Soul Survivor” slams the door on the proceedings with a backwards riff.

The album’s 38th (?) anniversary was celebrated with a deluxe reissue, including ten unreleased tracks. Some were merely alternate takes—“Loving Cup” is slower, “Soul Survivor” is sung by Keith and “Good Time Women” is an early stab at “Tumbling Dice”—but the rest were vintage takes newly finished. The concept of Mick singing over old tracks is a little jarring, and none of the tracks are likely to supplant anyone’s least favorites from the original LP, but the spirit of the original sessions comes through, thanks mostly to Charlie and good old Nicky. “Pass The Wine” sounds just a little too new, but the horns help. “Plundered My Soul” captures the “Tumbling Dice” vibe nicely; it includes new parts by both Micks, yet “I’m Not Signifying” may well have been left untouched. “Following The River” is a nice piano tune derailed by strings. The flat vocals on “Dancing In The Light” pretty much prove they’re new, but we almost wish they’d been Auto-Tuned. We also can’t decide if the “Paint It Black” intro to “So Divine” should be excused, but the vibes and phased drums make it work. And it all ends with a brief instrumental featuring just Keith, Bill and Charlie, just the way it should be. (Except that most reports say it dates from 1967, so…)

At any rate, Exile On Main St. falls just short of five stars, but just writing about it makes us want to throw it on. It really is that good. Mick Taylor would stick around for two more albums, and then Ron Wood came in and never left. They’ve had their moments here and there since then, but rarely have they clicked so well. These days they’re a cash cow, and eccentric as ever. They’ll certainly never tour as a five-piece again, without all the horns and backup singers and big expensive sets, but for once, this album benefits from all the other people who helped out.

The Rolling Stones Exile On Main St. (1972)—
2010 Deluxe Edition: same as 1972, plus 10 extra tracks

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock 6: Element Of Light

Element Of Light was Robyn’s most accessible album yet. The Egyptians still numbered four, but Andy Metcalfe was taking on a growing role by providing both production and the type of keyboards that Robyn liked.

“If You Were A Priest” starts off with a bang; this one got a bit of play on the alternative college stations. “Winchester” shows off a lot of the fluid bass sound on the album—some by Robyn, some by Andy. “Somewhere Apart” brings back the driving piano—this time bummed from John Lennon’s “Remember”, and vocally, it’s fairly Beatly too. “Ted, Woody And Junior” is one the most sympathetic portraits of the love that dare not speak its name. “The President” is an angry indictment of Reagan, and politicians in general.

“Raymond Chandler Evening” harkens back to the acoustic experiments on Trains and stays short before it gets tedious. “Bass” celebrates, not for the last time, fish (as opposed to the instrument). It fits nicely with “Airscape”, which uses a chord sequence that’s right at home on his Rickenbacker. “Never Stop Bleeding” has some clumsy lines, particularly the one about the sailor lashed before the mast. But he follows that with a modern interpretation of an Olde English folk song, the epic “Lady Waters And The Hooded One”.

The original Element Of Light CD included extra tracks, as was the style at the time. Of the four, “Tell Me About Your Drugs” is the best, with its shifting of band members on instruments. The Rhino reissue included all these, plus some demos and the hilarious four-part spoken-word piece “The Can Opener”; Yep Roc kept the four bonus tracks but substituted a new set of demos for the Rhino additions. It’s still a pretty solid album, but his best was still in him.

Robyn Hitchcock and The Egyptians Element Of Light (1986)—
1986 CD: same as above, plus 4 extra tracks
1995 Rhino reissue: same as 1986 CD, plus 5 extra tracks
2008 Yep Roc: same as 1986 CD, plus 6 extra tracks

Monday, May 17, 2010

U2 10: Passengers

Following on from the idea of creating music for imagined films, this U2 side project could just as well be filed under Brian Eno, depending on the personal opinions of the handful of people who still own it. Instead of the more thematic title Music For Films 4, this highly experimental album was given the hopeful moniker of Original Soundtracks 1 and credited to a collective called Passengers. In reality it’s a full-on collaboration of Eno and U2, with the band appearing on all tracks and Bono singing wherever there are vocals, or just under half of the album.

“United Colors” bubbles in, an extended piece punctuated by turntable/tape effects and the occasional guitar. Bono’s voice emerges on “Slug”, and dominates on “Your Blue Room”—complete with the second-ever vocal appearance by Adam Clayton!—which would have been perfectly at home on Zooropa. “Always Forever Now” isn’t much lyrically, but luckily builds enough to surpass its similarity to Steve Miller’s “Swingtown”. “A Different Kind Of Blue” is a mostly Eno interlude before the almost romantic “Beach Sequence”.

Bono even gets out of the way to let Luciano Pavarotti to put his inimitable stamp on “Miss Sarajevo”. The song builds and builds to perfection, and the moment when the maestro takes over is just plain exhilarating. But from here, it’s a slow decline. “Ito Okashi” and “Two Minute Warning” sound more like Eno experiments, complete with Japanese vocals. Edge takes over for the plodding “Corpse”, which otherwise nicely evokes spy TV shows of the sixties. Then we come to possibly the most annoying track in their catalog: “Elvis Ate America”, something of a rapped duet with a guy named Howie B, and we’ll hear from him again, unfortunately. The three instrumentals that close the album seem almost unfinished, though “Plot 180” sounds like a Daniel Lanois track, “Theme From The Swan” could have come from Eno in Berlin, and listeners will spend most of “Theme From Let’s Go Native” waiting for the vocals to kick in.

To date there has not been a sequel to Original Soundtracks 1. While it was nice to have some new U2 material to ponder, fans looking for the next blockbuster were confused. They shouldn’t have been, unless they took the liner notes seriously.

Passengers Original Soundtracks 1 (1995)—

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fripp & Eno 3: The Essential Fripp And Eno

Through a variety of backroom shenanigans that rankle Robert Fripp to this day, the back catalogs of certain artists on the EG label ended up being distributed by Virgin. So while Fripp curated a couple of box sets dedicated to King Crimson, and Brian Eno oversaw two box sets of his own, an interesting little compilation snuck out of interest to followers of both.

The Essential Fripp And Eno is a highly subjective title for an album that consists of (No Pussyfooting) in its entirety, followed by the first two tracks from Evening Star. While we consider the rest of that album to be just as essential as its older brother, the compilers wanted to be sure there was room to include four previously unreleased collaborations by the dynamic duo. Naturally this would be cause for celebration and interest, until the music kicks in.

“Healthy Colours” was recorded around 1979, when both Fripp and Eno were based in New York City and exploring the potential of funk beats and found atmospheres—very much like the experiments that would appear on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. The same basic track, just over five and half minutes, appears four times, each with different embellishments, helpfully subtitled with respective Roman numerals. “Healthy Colours I” is the most straightforward, with a watery bass groove and just the slightest Fripp strumming. “Healthy Colours II” brings in grating samples from a 911 call, “III” adds highly abrasive guitar, and “IV” layers soundbites from talk radio. It doesn’t encourage repeated listening, but seeing as it takes up only a third of the total playing time, the rest of the set doesn’t suffer too much. Newcomers would be better off springing for those first two albums on their own.

Robert Fripp/Brian Eno The Essential Fripp And Eno (1994)—3

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tom Petty 18: The Live Anthology

“The Heartbreakers have always been a live band first,” states Tom at the start of his notes for this ambitious brick of a set. And it’s true—while their records have been toss-ups, as a functioning, working band, they’re one of the greatest. He may record with other people, or even by himself from time to time, but anytime he’s gone out on the road to promote his latest piece of plastic, he’s always brought the Heartbreakers. Granted, he did tour with Mudcrutch in 2008, but since that had Benmont and Mike, it’s a moot point, since those guys anchor every one of the tracks here. Anyone who saw them back up Bob Dylan in the mid-‘80s knows how well they can handle what’s thrown at them.

The Live Anthology celebrates their thirty-plus years on the road with about four hours’ worth of recordings from all over the place, pointedly out of chronological order. There’s plenty from the early ‘80s with Ron Blair, and nothing from the tour that produced Pack Up The Plantation. (Stevie Nicks does appear, singing backup on a subdued “Learning To Fly”.) The notes in the booklet insist there are no overdubs, and the booklet gives detailed credits for each track, so you know when that’s Stan Lynch drumming or singing backup, or when it’s Steve Ferrone.

Right there we finally realized what had been missing from the puzzle for going on 20 years: Steve doesn’t play fills. Ever. Stan used to, constantly, and while singing harmonies. That’s one reason why those earlier tracks crackle.

While it’s got a few of the hits, most of those are extended versions; the concentration is much heavier on the songs. There are a lot of deep album cuts here, and a few really good originals not available anywhere else—like “Drivin’ Down To Georgia”, which segues right into the moody “Lost Without You”. And to prove his point about their versatility, covers abound, from the Dave Clark Five’s “Anyway You Want It” and Peter Green’s “Oh Well” to “Green Onions” and even “Goldfinger”. Other highlights include the “Hit The Road, Jack” interlude in “Breakdown”, Benmont’s elegant intro to “A Woman In Love”, and an extended version of “Spike” (from one of their tours backing up Dylan) that includes the entertaining background of the song.

In an act of mind-blowing generosity, The Live Anthology lists for about 25 bucks. Or you can splurge for the $100 deluxe version with an extra CD, a DVD and an LP, which truly benefits from the larger packaging and retro-woodcut graphics. Either way, there’s an awful lot to take in. But you’ll leave feeling happy these guys are still around. After all, the Heartbreakers are truly one of the greatest backing bands in the world (runner-up: the Attractions).

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers The Live Anthology (2009)—4

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brian Eno 15: Box Sets

Now that Eno was about as close to a household name as he would ever be, two three-CD boxes catalogued his best work, separated into “vocal” and “instrumental” halves, each in more or less chronological order. The music enclosed is alternately beautiful and unsettling, and truly gets under one’s skin.

The first two discs in the vocal box (which came out first) contain the majority of his first four “rock” albums, originally recorded and released between 1973 and 1977, with a couple of rarities thrown in (as well as a few instrumentals not included on the other box). The third disc brings together a sampling of the more infrequent “songs” Eno issued over the period from 1977 to 1993. Several of these tracks are from his unreleased My Squelchy Life, and are much less distracting than the more experimental Nerve Net, which was released instead. By that time, so-called electronic and industrial music had caught up with and surpassed the groundwork Eno laid out, and Nerve Net was left to compete with the monster it had helped to create. The Squelchy tracks show that he was still quite capable of making music like he used to, even if he chose not to share it with the world at large.

The instrumental box showcases much of his less commercially successful work created since those first four albums. Herein the listener will find a variety of textures that much of what was considered “new age” music failed to emulate. Without lyrics to decipher, it’s easier to discern how he created his sounds and atmospheres in speakers. People who know his work only through the artists he’s produced will find themselves hearing them in new ways; likewise, those not familiar with that production work will see just how much he had to do with shaping a performer’s song into the sound heard through the speakers.

The first disc covers a variety of his “music for films”, many of which had never appeared on CD. The second disc predominantly consists of instrumental collaborations with the likes of David Bowie, Cluster, and Robert Fripp. The third disc is almost totally ambient, seven tracks mostly edited from lengthy pieces.

For the neophyte, the Eno boxes were eye-opening. For the consummate Enophile, the exponentially improved sound along with various out-of-print selections made it all a worthy investment. (Now that both are out of print, you’re stuck with paying exorbitant used prices, or sticking with the albums that are still available.) The packaging is unique, though the essays that accompany each box are alternatively self-absorbed and non-illuminating. Only Eno himself could possibly verbalize the creative process that went into the development of this music, much of which happened by chance. Few other places in the catalog of popular music will one find such a high success rate.

Brian Eno Box II: Vocal (1993)—4
Brian Eno Box I: Instrumental (1994)—4

Monday, May 10, 2010

David Bowie 24: Sound + Vision

Rykodisc scored a major coup when they acquired the rights to reissue Bowie’s RCA catalog, a rollout that was prefaced by a box set. Sound + Vision was fairly advanced for its time, being one of the first superstar box sets and one that included a visual element, both in the packaging and the inclusion of a disc with video content. The sound was hailed as “better” than the earlier RCA CDs, but somehow it seemed incomplete. Looking back, it’s obvious that this was not destined to be a hits collection, as many of the hits were included in alternate renditions. It served as a good teaser for the individual reissues, most of which had bonus tracks, none of which repeated rarities from the box. (Moreover, many of the rare tracks included here have yet to be reissued as part of the box set campaign in the next century.)

The approach is obvious from the start, with a demo of “Space Oddity” followed by some early singles. Two songs each appear from The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane, interspersed with more B-sides and outtakes. The disc ends with three tracks from the final Ziggy concert.

Things get more interesting for casual fans on the second disc, starting with three tracks from Pin Ups, a couple of rarities from Diamond Dogs and three inexcusable selections from David Live. Young Americans is represented by the two tracks plus one of its outtakes; they were saving the better ones for the CD itself. Two tracks from Station To Station are prefaced by an unreleased cover of Springsteen’s “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City”.

The third disc begins appropriately with the Berlin era, and includes three songs from each of the remaining albums in the RCA deal. It’s a great way to get acquainted with some of his more challenging material, although the inclusion of the German version of “‘Heroes’” is maddening if you don’t speak German.

The first edition of the box set included a disc in the CD-video format, which included three live recordings from 1972, and the video for “Ashes To Ashes”. That particular format never took off, so a later edition of the box included a CD-ROM in its place. When Rykodisc redid the box again in 2003, they not only added a fourth disc, but maximized the capacity of the first three discs by pushing everything back, so there was a total of 100 minutes of material not on the first edition. (By this time, the live tracks on the original fourth disc had ended up on the expanded Aladdin Sane anyway.)

David Bowie Sound + Vision (1989)—4
2003 reissue: same as 1990, plus 24 extra tracks (and minus 4 tracks)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Brian Eno 14: Shutov Assembly and Neroli

Despite his recent re-emergence into the vocal field, Eno was still entranced by his own experiments in multimedia art installations, many of which were accompanied by what we’ll still call ambient music. Originally issued two months after Nerve Net, The Shutov Assembly offered ten instrumental pieces, each with titles nine letters long, enabling him to list them on the cover word-search style. The cover also revealed that the music had been created over a period from the mid- to late ‘80s; indeed, most of it picks up where On Land (save the frogs) and Apollo left off.

Taken for background music—for which it was apparently designed, Shutov being the name of a Russian artist who had trouble acquiring Eno albums in the Soviet era, leading the man himself to prepare this compilation—it’s sufficient. Overall it’s more spooky than soothing, whereas the tracks included on the bonus disc with the 2014 reissue, while apparently from the same era, are more in line with the discordant and jarring rhythmic tracks on Nerve Net, and could even pass for further Music For Films.

That said, “soothing” was more what he intended to express with Neroli. In possibly his wackiest concept yet, this hour-long piece was supposedly inspired by an essential oil common to aromatherapy, suggesting that Eno was about to enter the fragrance market. According to the liner notes (ascribed to one C.S.J. Bofop, one of Eno’s more common pseudonyms) it is further suggested that the piece had already been successfully used as an aural salve in certain maternity wards. Adding to our confusion, “Neroli” is subtitled “Thinking Music Part IV”, leaving us to wonder what the first three parts were.

The music is very quiet, a low-end keyboard slowly wandering through what musical experts tell us is a modal scale. To these ears it’s just a minor key improvisation played by a piano in the same muted frequency as a bass guitar, with plenty of sustain. And just when you think it’s over, it starts up again. Like “Discreet Music” and “Thursday Afternoon”, the piece could be considered to be indefinite, though the technology for him to create something like that for people to consume on their own had yet to be invented. (Neroli’s own bonus disc in 2014 contained another single hour-long track. “New Space Music” further extends the Apollo connection, presenting a drone in a major key that’s frankly a lot more interesting than the main program.)

Brian Eno The Shutov Assembly (1992)—3
2014 expanded edition: same as 1992, plus 7 extra tracks
Brian Eno Neroli (1993)—3
2014 expanded edition: same as 1993, plus I extra track

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Brian Eno 13: Nerve Net and My Squelchy Life

If there’s a holy grail in the Eno catalog, My Squelchy Life was it. Said to be a pop album, his first real solo vocal release since the late ‘70s, it was announced, delayed, and disappeared. In its place arrived Nerve Net, an edgy, off-putting set that didn’t so much break new ground as walk over what his disciples had done in his absence. Neither industrial nor techno, it struggled to catch fire with new fans and old alike.

For most of the album, vocals are used more for atmosphere than lyrical content. “Wire Shock” is designed for the dance floor, as is “What Actually Happened?”, wherein the vocoder disguises a narrative of sexual assault. “Fractal Zoom” and “Ali Click” were each subject to multiple remixes, the latter likely due to its use of the “Manchester beat” via EMF.

And therein lies part of our problem with the album, and the time in which it appeared: the remix. All of a sudden there wasn’t a definite version of anything. Every track with any kind of beat was given over to some engineer who would rejig it into something different yet the same. It made an expensive hobby even more so when a fan was driven to track down everything. It also made for a confusing listening experience when an album would include another version of a track, as Nerve Net does. After “Distributed Being” featuring Robert Fripp and John Paul Jones, the album ends with not just “Web”, a six-minute drone, but an even longer alternate mix, together pushing the program needlessly over an hour.

But in this century, when everything old is new again, the world can re-assess Nerve Net in the form of a deluxe expanded CD that includes—ta-da!—My Squelchy Life as the bonus disc. The album wasn’t completely lost, of course; three of the tracks made it to Nerve Net (one under a different title), others were on CD singles and the occasional soundtrack, while a further five were a selling point for 1993’s Vocal box. And now, dare we say, it’s easier to appreciate Nerve Net as part of the bigger picture—well, sort of. “My Squelchy Life” and “Juju Space Jazz” are just as off-kilter here, while “The Roil, The Choke” emerges better from a weird spoken piece into a lush, harmonic treat. “I Fall Up”, with its insistent “more volts! I’m sucking the juice from the generator!” hook is a great opener, and “The Harness” is an extremely melodic follower. The “moon piano” solo piece called “Decentre”, labeled “Appendix” on the Nerve Net sleeve, turns out to have been “Little Apricot” on Squelchy. Still, tracks like “Tutti Forgetti” and “Everybody’s Mother” are just as jarring as what did come out on Nerve Net.

Taken together, these albums now present a more satisfying follow-up to the collaboration with John Cale of only a few years before. But it also shows that in the ‘90s, Eno was more content working with sounds, not songs, and would rather let the likes of U2 and James use his talents for theirs.

Brian Eno Nerve Net (1992)—
2014 expanded edition: same as 1992, plus 11 extra tracks

Friday, May 7, 2010

George Harrison 14: Brainwashed

Suddenly we were living in a world with only two Beatles, and one of them was Ringo. While we hadn’t had any new music from George in over ten years, at least he’d been somewhat active. He had performed some of the better numbers at 1992’s Bobfest, and got completely involved with the whole Anthology project. He beat cancer, won an embezzlement suit and even survived a stabbing. And then cancer came back and took him, and he went happily. Thankfully, he was nice enough to prepare an album that said goodbye to us.

He calls for more guitar, and “Any Road” carries us off. This song was previewed on VH1, on an interview they’d sat on until after he’d died, and it’s a gem. “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night)” takes a few stabs at organized religion amidst some cryptic lyrics. “Pisces Fish” is really smooth, with a wonderful reference to “Canadian geese crap”. “Looking For My Life” seems like a reaction to the attack, but is actually an affirmation of faith. “Rising Sun” is similar musically to “Pisces Fish” but different enough to be just as good. “Marwa Blues” is a beautiful (and even Grammy-winning) instrumental with lots of weeping guitars and a nod towards “Strawberry Fields” in the middle.

“Stuck Inside A Cloud” was an odd choice for the first single, very reminiscent of his early-’80s sound with lots of electric piano played by son Dhani. “(Can Only) Run So Far” had appeared on an earlier Eric Clapton album, and is probably the weakest track here. “Never Get Over You” hearkens back to the love songs on Extra Texture crossed with the production of Somewhere In England, but stands head and shoulders above those songs. We know George loved the ukulele and old standards, which makes his version of “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” so charming. “Rocking Chair In Hawaii” is something of a surprise to ccollectors, considering that its seeds came from the All Things Must Pass sessions. All this leads up to the grand finale of the title track, an angry litany of the evils of the 21st century, much like “Save The World” was twenty odd years earlier. There’s a midsection with a reading from some ancient text, then back to the driving verses. What sounds like another detour turns out to be the big finish, a hypnotic chant performed by father and son. And that’s the end.

Brainwashed would be a good album even if George had lived to promote it. Dhani gets most of the kudos for learning from his dad, and he even manages to keep Jeff Lynne in check. All sorts of friends helped out, and it sounds like the sessions, however long a period they covered, were a lot of fun. We can only hope we’ll get more buried gems one day.

George Harrison Brainwashed (2002)—4

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Neil Young 37: Living With War

Neil had barely begun promoting the previous autumn’s Prairie Wind (and accompanying Heart Of Gold concert film) when he quickly recorded and released Living With War. These nine spontaneous, angry songs immediately divided fans and critics over both the quality of the music and the subject matter. It wasn’t the first time he’d reacted to a situation with a protest song, as demonstrated by “Ohio”, “War Song” and “Let’s Roll”. Now, however, he had the Internet and social networking to help do his publicity. The songs were recorded in the space of a week, and released to radio, streaming and stores a month later. Amazingly, his label was behind it, and the occasion of its debut to corporate made it to CNN.

It’s not like he set out to piss anyone off; if someone else had written these songs, he said, he wouldn’t have had to, but as nobody was stepping up, he did. Which brings us to the big question: how are the songs, anyway?

Anyone expecting the next “We Shall Overcome”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, or even “Ohio” will be disappointed. Most of the songs use the same chord sequences on a virtual loop, and many of the lyrics fall back on “don’t need no” lists. To his credit, many of the songs are less knee-jerk rants against the Bush administration, but actually trying to get in the heads of veterans, current soldiers and the families left behind.

“After The Garden” is a strong start, with a decent chorus and intricate (for Neil) guitar interlude. The title track displays the shortcomings of the album via the trumpet and choir accompaniment that demonstrate his thin voice and elementary-school approach. “The Restless Consumer” is the third song in a row built around “don’t need no” lyrics, and unfortunately leaves him too angry to sing properly. A similar relentless tempo and vocal anchors “Shock And Awe”, which attempts to put recent history in perspective. “Families” keeps the same pace, but at least provides a major key and a more hopeful lyric.

Thinking back to an earlier war, “Flags Of Freedom” namechecks Bob Dylan, and could have been written forty years earlier, except for the part about headphones and flat-screen TVs. The song that naturally got the most attention was “Let’s Impeach The President”, which pretty much spells out the indictment, complete with juxtaposed soundbites right out of the Michael Moore school of editing. “Lookin’ For A Leader” attempts to offer another solution, reminding us that government isn’t just about politics, and even predicting the ascent of Barack Obama. A imaginary conversation between the living and the dead, “Roger And Out” is one of the few songs that sits easily outside the concept. Except for one instrumental bridge, it sounds a little too much like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. Finally, an a cappella “America The Beautiful”, performed by the choir, pointedly closes the program.

Sonically, it’s dripping with aggravation, Neil’s corrosive guitar illustrating the carnage. True to a Volume Dealers production, the simple rhythm section consists of Rick Rosas and Chad Cromwell, playing a lot louder than they did on Prairie Wind. (Living With War: In The Beginning appeared at year’s end, featuring the pre-choral mixes of the album—minus, of course, “America The Beautiful”—and a companion DVD consisting of many of the clips that had been streaming at his Living With War Today website.)

Neil felt strongly enough about the songs and the cause to convince Crosby, Stills & Nash to join him for a tour, documented in the CSNY/Déjà Vu documentary and accompanying album. They were probably glad to have the work, and Graham happily sang along with all of Neil’s angry lyrics. Stills and Crosby sound more ragged than ever, and interestingly are shown on the cover in ‘60s photos as opposed to the current shots of the other two. The mood of the tour is accurately displayed by the ramshackle take on “Military Madness” and the boos following “Let’s Impeach The President”. (For Neil’s part, he never did quite figure out how to pronounce “steroids”.) A piano version of “Living With War” bookends the set, unfortunately dressed up with synth strings.

Neil Young Living With War (2006)—3
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
CSNY/Déjà Vu Live (2008)—

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tom Petty 17: Mudcrutch

Long story short: Mudcrutch presents a “reunion” of the band that got Tom Petty et al to Hollywood in the first place, leading to the formation of the Heartbreakers. The 21st century version of the band was poised as a democracy, but for all intents and purposes, this is still a Tom Petty album. It’s even got Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench along to entice the wary. (It’s unknown whether any of the original Petty compositions on this album date from those early days; the covers were probably regular set fixtures.)

The overall feel is “loose”, a sound directly connected to Clarence White-era Byrds—complete with a faithful cover of “Lover Of The Bayou” and an Appalachian take on “Shady Grove”—and The Flying Burrito Brothers, who famously covered “Six Days On The Road” and for a time featured Bernie Leadon, later of the Eagles and the brother of Tom Leadon, the other guitarist featured here. Two covers, one an instrumental, showcase playing over lyrics, and Benmont even gets to sing one of his own. “Scare Easy” and “The Wrong Thing To Do” could have fit on any Petty album, and “Orphan Of The Storm” is a subtle nod to the Katrina situation. In a pleasant surprise, the most successful track is the nine-minute “Crystal River”, which somehow never drags.

It’s more relaxed than his previous album, a one-man-band project and one of the more underwhelming albums of 2006. Unfortunately, Petty’s voice, which has always been an acquired taste, seems more nasal and tired than ever. Its redneck tone works on some of the character songs, but the yell that carried such classics as Damn The Torpedoes and Hard Promises is sorely missed. What a drag it is getting old. While Petty’s best work may be behind him, he’s still a master of getting so much out of the usual chords, and therefore worth the attention.

Mudcrutch Mudcrutch (2008)—3

Monday, May 3, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock 5: Gotta Let This Hen Out!

The Egyptians became a real live band on Gotta Let This Hen Out!, recorded (and filmed) live at London’s famous Marquee Club. From the start the band is tight and Robyn sounds confident, reveling in his growing role as Syd Barrett’s heir.

For the most part, the songs are equal to their studio versions, and in some cases are even improved upon. “Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl” works well in the electric setting (although now he’s wrecking himself in the shower instead of just looking). “Acid Bird” is excellent, while “America” and “The Cars She Used To Drive” take big steps up from Groovy Decay. “Brenda’s Iron Sledge” is just as fun, with different lyrics; Robyn tends to change his words live a lot, so pay attention.

From the new album, “The Fly” goes far too long, but “My Wife And My Dead Wife”, “Egyptian Cream” and the glorious “Heaven” more than compensate. For Soft Boys fans, “Kingdom Of Love”, “Only The Stones Remain”, “Leppo And The Jooves” and “The Face Of Death” get revived and attract new listeners. The boys even swap instruments for “Listening To The Higsons”, another dumb singalong and that’s meant in a good way.

Gotta Let This Hen Out! is an very enjoyable live album, and mostly because the band is so good, especially on the songs they hadn’t recorded. After all this time, we want to know: did they only play for less than an hour? Apparently so, because the Yep Roc version, while faithful to the previous CDs, added a whopping five songs, but from a show recorded three years later in another country. They give Robyn a chance to stretch on the guitar, but don’t quite match the heat of the main program.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians Gotta Let This Hen Out! (1985)—4
1986 CD: same as 1985, plus 3 extra tracks
1995 Rhino reissue: same as 1986 CD
2008 Yep Roc: same as Rhino, plus 5 extra tracks