Monday, August 30, 2010

Pink Floyd 6: Relics

Something of a stopgap release appeared before the Floyd completed their next album, with the intention of promoting their earlier, less commercial work. Relics combined old singles and album tracks without any real attempt at completeness. Its subtitle, “A Bizarre Collection of Antiques and Curios”, couldn’t have been more apt.

Syd gets plenty of exposure here, with his classic singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, plus “Bike” and all ten minutes of “Interstellar Overdrive”. “Remember A Day” represents A Saucerful Of Secrets, and Rick gets another vocal with the B-side “Paintbox”. Roger’s “Julia Dream” and “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” (a studio version, with a great scream) were both B-sides as well. The opening and contrasting one-two from More nearly brings us up to date, and there is a true rarity with the inclusion of “Biding My Time”, which had been a centerpiece of various live performances but makes its only album appearance here.

Relics offered the same track listing on both sides of the pond, but while the British got an intricately handsome cover drawing by Nick Mason, Americans were treated to hideous photos of two four-eyed bottle openers. (At least there was helpful recording information on the back cover, for those of us who care about such things.)

When Relics was grandly unveiled on CD in 1996—with new artwork—it missed a perfect opportunity by not including four singles that would certainly have added value, if only to accompany their flipsides. As it is, “Candy And A Currant Bun” and “Apples And Oranges” are currently available on the 40th Anniversary Edition of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, while “It Would Be So Nice” and “Point Me At The Sky”, briefly available in the Shine On box, are now accessible in the Early Years sets.

Pink Floyd Relics (1971)—3

Friday, August 27, 2010

Pete Townshend 11: Lifehouse Chronicles

In the midst of the high Who profile during the reissue period, Pete closed out his dormant solo deal with a hits CD. The collection, which sported a very long official title, offered a wide selection, a new mix of “Let My Love Open The Door” that soon made a ton of movie soundtracks and a pleasant outtake from Psychoderelict.

Then, having predicted the Internet as far back as 1970, he leaped into the murky fray in 1999 with his own official website, which promised to offer regular interaction by way of what might eventually be called a blog, along with an online shop selling his solo work and various pending exclusive products. The first of these to be announced was a tantalizing one.

The story of Lifehouse had been retold and re-evaluated (even by the author) since its inception thirty years earlier. It started as a film, the futuristic story of a society ruined by pollution and tethered to technology to the point where personal interaction had all but disappeared. A way out of this hell was to be a concert (performed by the Who, naturally) where the few faithful who believed in the power of music as communion could be set free from the chains.

However, Pete’s ideas couldn’t always translate to the band and their management, but the music was incredible, eventually resulting in Who’s Next, one of the greatest albums of all time. Over the years, as the legend of Lifehouse as a great lost album grew, some attempts to complete the project were made and abandoned, surfacing in songs on The Who By Numbers and Who Are You, and much later alluded to on Psychoderelict. He never did make a movie out of it—why he didn’t just do an animated version seems a no-brainer today—but he did complete another revision of the script, incorporating ideas and allegories from such mutated concepts as White City (which included the protagonist’s conversations with a young version of himself) for a rather depressing radio play on the BBC.

To bring the project full circle, he also unveiled Lifehouse Chronicles, a six-CD box set containing the radio play on two discs, one disc of baroque orchestral pieces, another of remixes and experiments from the ‘90s, and the holy grail—two discs of his original demos of the songs dating back to 1970. Some had appeared on the Baba and Scoop albums, and others had snuck out on bootlegs. But there were some true surprises. “Teenage Wasteland” began as a song of its own before it evolved into what we now know as “Baba O’Riley”. That first version began slow and piano-based with a completely different melody before sliding into the familiar three-chord vamp when Sally takes his hand. “Love Ain’t For Keeping” is a harder rock version the Who would try to emulate before turning it into the acoustic version. “Greyhound Girl” is very pretty, whatever it has to do with the plot. “Mary” and “Pure And Easy”, like most of his demos, are longer than the version previously released. The ten-minute version of the “Baba O’Riley” backing track is simply intoxicating.

While Pete contended that this would be the definitive representation of the concept, it’s not. For one, the original Lifehouse screenplay from 1970 has never been revealed, so it’s unknown if it’s anywhere near as bleak as the eventual radio revision. It also makes it tough to figure out what the songs have to do with the plot, as they’re not presented in a thematic order, except for the beginning and the end. Completists looking for documentation as to, at the very least, what years Pete’s demos were recorded still had to guess what things like “Slip Kid” and “Sister Disco” had to do with the plot. (And while it wasn’t available in stores, an abridged version called Lifehouse Elements was, including the demo for “New Song”, which wasn’t on the box.)

But such quibbles are moot when presented with the sheer quality of the music in those demos. Perhaps the songs would be transformed into classics by the Who, but there’s something in the ache of Pete’s voice that makes the songs different from Roger’s bravado. On top of that, he’s a pretty decent drummer. The classical disc, if a bit pompous, makes for nice rainy day listening, complete with a new orchestral arrangement of that ten-minute “Baba O’Riley” demo.

With such an auspicious start for his website, fans were itching for more selections from his vaults, and for a time, he complied. But soon his attentions turned to other things, and his hope for a bright future via technology was tainted by the dangerous playground of the real Internet. Today, Lifehouse Chronicles is out of print, but the whole process was revisited in 2023 for the Super Deluxe Edition of Who’s Next, which included 15 of the demos heard here—some extended—and then some.

Pete Townshend The Best Of Pete Townshend: Coolwalkingsmoothtalkingstraightsmokingfirestoking (1996)—4
Pete Townshend
Lifehouse Chronicles (2000)—4

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dire Straits 2: Communiqué

It’s said that a band puts a lifetime into their first album, and a month into their second. Communiqué wasn’t as big of a hit as Dire Straits’ debut (in the US, anyway) but while it follows some of the patterns of that album, it’s hardly a retread. And in some ways, it’s more satisfying, proving to whomever was paying attention that they weren’t just a flash in the pan.

Naturally, it starts with an epic—in this case, “Once Upon A Time In The West”, conjuring not a single vision of cowboys, but leaning on more than a hint of reggae over a broken time signature. “News” opens on melancholy guitar figure, repeated under verses and leading into the tension of the bridges, reinforced by the simplicity and repetition in the lyrics. A similar effect drives “Where Do You Think You’re Going?”, but is given space to expand and rev up with a solo over the fade. The mood lifts somewhat with the title track, which doesn’t seem like much lyrically but keeps a rhythm going long enough to keep things moving.

Just as before, the single starts side two. “Lady Writer” is directly descended musically from “Sultans Of Swing”, complete with a variation of that same guitar solo. “Angel Of Mercy” and particularly “Portobello Belle” are very tender singalongs perfect for any pub or football match, but “Single Handed Sailor” overstays his welcome with a generally annoying riff. Virtually dominated by ocean sound effects and a lumbering groove, the overlong “Follow Me Home” is an oddly quiet conclusion. In fact, several seconds go by before you might realize that the album’s over, so you can either put something else on or listen to it again. (Probably the latter.)

Like most Dire Straits albums, Communiqué sounds good, thanks to the legendary team of Barry Beckett and Jerry Wexler, mere months before they brought Mark Knopfler in for Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. The variety of the music makes it an appealing mirror to the debut, so the future looked promising. On the pop charts, however, disco was still king, so the band was still considered a one-hit wonder.

Dire Straits Communiqué (1979)—

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rolling Stones 30: Undercover

Undercover is another odd one in the Stones pantheon. It came out at the height of the music video trajectory, and it’s evident that Mick’s desire to stay current was at odds with Keith’s keep-it-simple approach.

Even with its heavy percussion and open invitation to remix, “Undercover Of The Night” is an excellent single, with great guitars and various stop-times to keep your feet thinking. “She Was Hot” starts out like a typical Chuck Berry rewrite, but the tension in the chorus and digital piano bring it up to date. (The emotional flip of “She’s So Cold”, if you will.) Mick must have been proud of “Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)” enough to give it a subtitle, but not enough to make it possible to understand the words. Keith’s solo spot is “Wanna Hold You”, built around harmonies and a fast beat, but not much else. Keith was also enough of a reggae fan to endorse “Feel On Baby”, which is just too cluttered with percussion.

Just as side one started with danceable social commentary, so does side two. “Too Much Blood” would barely sound like the Stones if Mick wasn’t singing. There is something of a melody in the verses, but he decides to go on a couple of lengthy raps about mass murderers, in a Cockney accent that only underscores how middle-class he always was. The word on the street is that “Pretty Beat Up” was mostly written by Ron Wood, likely included because of the title. “Too Tough” has promise, but doesn’t come near to fulfilling it. “All The Way Down” does nothing more than remind the listener of Emotional Rescue, and not in a good way. One last bit of reportage on the state of the world comes in “It Must Be Hell”, built around a riff most recognizable as “Soul Survivor”, the closer from Exile.

Undercover simply isn’t a memorable album, outside of the singles and the simple recall of the violence in the song titles. That, along with the strategically placed red-herring stickers on the cover, show their pathological need to be shocking, even in their forties. The band didn’t tour behind it, and instead waited nearly an eternity before they followed it up.

The Rolling Stones Undercover (1983)—2

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bob Dylan 44: Live 1975

In what looked to be a nice trend, a hit Dylan album was followed by a release from the vaults. And happily, somebody in charge of these things realized that something like the Bootleg Series could be as educational and revelatory as it could be lucrative. The so-called fifth installment (and third actual release) is a textbook case of its high potential.

Outside of illicit bootlegs and eyewitness accounts, all the casual observer might have known about the Rolling Thunder Revue would have been from the generally overlooked Hard Rain album from 1976, which presented a sampling of recordings from the end of a tour when Bob and the band were pretty burnt out. If you were equally underwhelmed by Desire, it could have been tough to tell what the big deal was about concerning this era. The two CDs (and one brief DVD) in Live 1975 go a long way to change that opinion, presenting some fantastic performances from the beginning of a ramshackle traveling circus of a tour.

The recordings are taken from five professionally taped shows from the first leg of the Revue, right around when the surreal Renaldo And Clara was being filmed. The performances are certainly superior to his previous tour, and most of the rearrangements are successful. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, complete with new words, is an excellent start for the set. (The usual opener for each night, “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, isn’t included anywhere.) “It Ain’t Me Babe” is too much of a gallop, but “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” get an extra charge from the upbeat blues backing. “Romance In Durango” and “Isis” are similar here to the versions on Biograph, but again, context goes a long way. An acoustic set includes a rewritten “Simple Twist Of Fate” and an excellent “Tangled Up In Blue”, which had yet to change much except for some of the perspective, before bringing out Joan Baez for some duets—always an acquired taste.

Because of the variety of songs played throughout the tour, as well as contributions from some of the other performers, Live 1975 is not a definitive document of a typical show. But by presenting such a strong program, it does a valuable service in restoring this period in a better light, so much so that it illuminates Hard Rain and even Desire. A little, anyway.

Dylanologists still want everything, of course. Sure enough, to coincide with another film with Martin Scorsese’s name attached, a 14-CD box set offered those five shows in toto (save any of the stuff the other musicians played before he walked onstage), plus three discs of rehearsals and another of oddities from the same period. Overall, this set’s a little more accessible, and the material more diverse than on The 1966 Live Recordings—five similar but not identical setlists being a little more palatable than 18.

The rehearsals, some complete, some fragments, are interesting in places, as we hear Bob trying his own stuff out (with musicians asking for songs based on first line, not the actual title), often with different lyrics, either because he forgot them or he really was “evolving”. He hits on a few covers, too; “People Get Ready” is one, having been a promo item since Renaldo And Clara first hit theaters, and apparently, knowing there’d be a box set one day, he had to try “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”. Some traditional folk pieces would make it to the regular sets, like “Dark As A Dungeon” and “The Water Is Wide”, but “Slow And Easy” is only heard during the rehearsals, and it’s lovely. Stick around till disc 14 for a hotel jam on “The Tracks Of My Tears” and a lounge-style “Simple Twist Of Fate” performed at a mah-jongg parlor.

Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue—The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 (2002)—4
Bob Dylan
The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings (2019)—

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bob Dylan 43: Love And Theft

Some albums define their times; others are defined by them. For the first daylight hours of a certain Tuesday in September, the day was marked only by the knowledge that there would be a brand new Dylan album available as soon as the record stores opened. The sky was blue, the air was crisp. But suddenly, the world we knew had changed.

“Love And Theft” (quotes intentional) was Bob’s first state-of-the-union address since Time Out Of Mind four years earlier, fully vested in his new creed of only recording when he had something to record. There was no way he could have predicted the events of September 11, yet uncannily, occasional lyrics would stand out as all too fitting: “Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down”; “Today has been a sad and lonesome day”, “It’s bad out there”, “I’m stranded in the city that never sleeps”, and on and on.

Such lyrics are scattered throughout an eclectic set of songs running the gamut of musical styles. “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” rumbles in from a reverse fade, its organ and spiraling guitars echoing the last album (not to mention the nursery rhymes from Under The Red Sky, but in a good way). Thankfully he reclaims “Mississippi” from Sheryl Crow, who he’d let record it first. The three long verses fit his cracked voice perfectly.

“Summer Days” and “Honest With Me” are some real rave-ups, with great riffs circling cracking drums over lyrics alternately repetitive, hilarious and cryptic. He goes even further back in time to the crooner era on “Bye And Bye” and “Moonlight”, with the especially startling “Floater (Too Much To Ask)” delivered via Western swing. In between, it’s back across the tracks with “Po’ Boy” (not about a sandwich), “Lonesome Day Blues” and the prophetic “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, with its recycled blues phrases, and lines taken from even more arcane sources.

“Cry A While” is an audible slowdown, like a freight train approaching the end of the line, and like all good Dylan albums—and even some of the bad ones—the last word is delivered slowly, wondering about a future nobody can predict. “Sugar Baby” is about as fitting a conclusion as any.

“Love And Theft” is a strong, highly satisfying album, chock full of quality wordplay and compatible backing. Even the packaging was fun, with Bob showing off his new Cesar Romero mustache and shown reading a Spanish newspaper, which only would have been funnier if he was holding it upside down. Such touches would be appreciated anytime the album reminds us of an awful day that had started out so pleasantly.

Bob Dylan “Love And Theft” (2001)—5

Monday, August 16, 2010

Neil Young 39: Chrome Dreams II

His recent one-two live releases were accompanied by more teases about the long-promised Archives box to be released in the fall. Surprise: it didn’t happen. Instead we got a brand new Neil album, knee-slappingly titled Chrome Dreams II in an homage to a cancelled album from thirty years earlier.

Like its namesake, this album is a mishmash of old and new songs newly recorded (and at least one that had been in the can for two decades)—kinda like Freedom presented a selection of songs with disparate backgrounds. “Beautiful Bluebird” was left over from the Old Ways period, and lulls people into thinking they’ve got another country album on their hands. (They’d be wrong.) “Boxcar” was from the Bluenotes era, then was recorded for an album allegedly called Times Square (which, neatly enough, evolved into Freedom) but wasn’t as heavy as the rest of those tracks, which is also why it didn’t make it for Ragged Glory. This version is based around the banjo, so it sounds more like “Southern Pacific”; go figure. “Ordinary People” finally makes its official debut at a full 18 minutes, complete with horn section, though fans wondered why he rearranged the verses from the live versions they’d memorized. “Shining Light” has a doo-wop/R&B feel, though the pedal steel takes it somewhere else. “The Believer”, while acoustic, feels a little too similar to the previous track, and sounds like it could have been left over from Are You Passionate?

“Spirit Road” is closer to the Volume Dealers sound with a Crazy Horse crunch, which continues on “Dirty Old Man”, complete with sloppy drum fills and could be left over from the Ragged Glory period. “Ever After” has a broken-leg waltz that would fit well on American Stars ‘N Bars or Hawks & Doves. “No Hidden Path” takes up 14½ minutes, and echoes lyrics from the previous and next song while channeling one of the lengthy “Love” songs from Ragged Glory, only it doesn’t end in a wash of feedback. (It doesn’t help that Ralphie slows the beat down over the last three minutes.) And it all ends with “The Way”, which frighteningly enough includes a children’s choir from the get-go but fits the role of that tender piano closer we’ve come to expect.

Hardly a bold statement (despite what critics said and the presence of “Ordinary People”), Chrome Dreams II still offers something for everyone. And that, he said, was the point. It’s good but not great, competent but not essential, with big points for including those long-unreleased songs. (It was also available as a CD/DVD combo, the video content consisting mostly of close-up photomontages of rusty cars and the occasional tree, accompanied by the songs on the album in high resolution.)

Neil Young Chrome Dreams II (2007)—3

Friday, August 13, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock 10: Eye

Perhaps because it didn’t involve the Egyptians, Eye was released not on A&M but on Twin-Tone, the Minneapolis label best known for introducing the world to the likes of the Replacements, the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum. As we’d come to expect from an album with predominantly dark green artwork, it’s largely solo and acoustic—just like I Often Dream Of Trains—and practically flawless.

“Cynthia Mask” starts out prettily enough with just a guitar, then the voice, then the piano, setting the tone for what is to follow over the next hour or so. The first couple of verses could be described as political, but the chorus sends it all somewhere else. “Certainly Clickot” isn’t the best follow-up, though the instrumental interludes are quite nice. “Queen Elvis”, the title track that never was, appears twice (on the CD, anyway); the first is more straightforward, giving plenty of room for the vocal. “Flesh Cartoons” is a wonder in three chords, right up to the “looney-oh” ending. “Chinese Water Python” was his first instrumental in a long time and very pleasant at that. “Executioner” shows his amazing skill at holding those long high notes. It’s an angry one, and he wasn’t even at Live Aid. “Linctus House” is a comforting change, following a windy narrative through chisels and flesh hotels. (The CD added three tracks here: “Sweet Ghost Of Light” is a spooky little number sung in a higher register, while “College Of Ice” is a baroque duet for piano and electric guitar, and goes nicely into “Transparent Lover”.)

Things start to pick up with “Beautiful Girl”, much better than it deserves to be, simple as it is start to finish. The harmonies are killer. “Raining Twilight Coast” is another Lennonesque rant with the great line “just one thing, baby, you forgot my heart”; the rest of the lines probably keep it from becoming a standard. “Clean Steve” is a mineral man, obviously, another wacky, winding, namedropping song with the piano playing bass. “Agony Of Pleasure” is about a picnic or sex or both, and somehow he manages to get his vocal around those chords. “Glass Hotel” provides another respite from the shouting in the previous three. “Satellite” is more Lennon and Barrett with just the right amount of piano and the back of a guitar for percussion. “Aquarium” starts out mysteriously enough, then goes somewhere entirely different for the middle, and ends up somewhere else. The spidery guitar lines make the song. The spookier electric take of “Queen Elvis” closes the CD, different enough from the first version, and makes for a nice bookend.

The above may seem a pretty brief rundown, but here, the music speaks for itself. Each of the tracks deserves a paragraph on its own, and we just haven’t enough space at the moment. Eye sits together nicely and is a great way to kill an hour—or more, if you leave it in the player. It is perhaps Robyn’s most underrated album, and one of the most underrated albums of 1990. (In addition to those extra tracks not on the vinyl or cassette, Rhino’s reissue also added some demo versions of the songs, none of which were included on the Yep Roc reissue, which instead included some more acoustic songs of dubious origin. At least they fit sonically with the album proper.)

Robyn Hitchcock Eye (1990)—5
1990 CD: same as 1990, plus 4 extra tracks
1995 Rhino reissue: same as 1990 CD, plus 3 extra tracks
2007 Yep Roc: same as 1990, plus 7 extra tracks

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Rolling Stones 29: Still Life

Another tour, another live album. With Still Life—culled from the wildly successful tour in support of Tattoo You—the rejuvenated Stones established themselves as businessmen for the ‘80s, putting style over substance. Running a mere forty minutes, the album captures neither the excitement of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! nor the breadth of even Love You Live.

For the most part the album sticks to upbeat rockers, starting with “Under My Thumb”, and only slowing down for a half-decent revival of “Time Is On My Side”. Four of the songs are covers, including two not otherwise released by the Stones: “Going To A Go-Go”, originally made famous by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and which was a single, and Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock”, taken at top speed.

The overall sound is good, and it should be, considering that Bob Clearmountain mixed it and Mick spent two months with him in the studio performing edits and overdubs. The bass leaps out of the mix, as do the occasional keyboards (sometimes Ian Stewart, but usually Ian McLagan). The opening snatch of “Take The ‘A’ Train” and closing fade on Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” are an attempt to emulate the actual concert experience, along with having the sequence mirror the songs’ places in the setlist. But in the end, Still Life is simply product in an increasingly predictable pattern.

The tour’s stature was preserved eventually, when Hampton Coliseum (Live 1981) became the band’s second official bootleg. This initially download-only release serves up a complete show from the end of the American leg, a performance original broadcast as a pay-per-view TV event, with a couple of the songs included on Still Life. It’s a more authentic representation of the tour, and a pretty good show to boot (sorry), with no edits or overdubs. The wheels don’t start to come off until “Satisfaction”, and that’s only the last song. After two hours non-stop, it can be forgiven. (It was soon followed by a show recorded seven months later, at their last gig of the European leg, their last concert for seven years, and the final appearance of Ian Stewart. Despite having a nearly identical setlist to Hampton Coliseum, this one approaches blasphemy by daring to call itself Live At Leeds. Both were eventually released in stores, coupled with the video content on DVD; the latter's title was wisely adjusted to Live In Leeds.)

The Rolling Stones Still Life (American Concert 1981) (1982)—
Rolling Stones
Hampton Coliseum (Live 1981) (2012)—
Rolling Stones
Live At Leeds—Roundhay Park 1982 (2012)—3

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pink Floyd 5: Atom Heart Mother

Pink Floyd certainly couldn’t be faulted for trying. Much of their earlier work had stretched on stage, and now they were ready for something even more daring. How about an extended work with orchestra and choir to fill up an album side? Sounds great, right? That was indeed the piece that gave Atom Heart Mother its title, if not the cover photo.

The suite is divided into six parts, mostly based around a basic theme for brass. The piece builds and calms, with solos on organ and cello, melding seamlessly into a wordless choral section. Ten minutes in, a typical Floyd “funk jam” takes over for five minutes, augmented by choir, and tumbling into another four minutes of electronic effects and much stumbling about in the studio. The piece culminates with a restatement of the main theme, bringing everything full circle.

For those with less patience, the second side is mostly simpler songs, something of an extension of the “solo” work on Ummagumma. “If” is another Roger Waters folk song, gentle on the surface but disturbed underneath. “Summer ‘68” is a pop song from Rick Wright, beginning pleasantly but also fraught with tension and punctuated by brass. David Gilmour is still trying to find his quiet voice on “Fat Old Sun”, his nerves redeemed by a great slow fade under his guitar solo. Most critics (and some fans) howled with derision at “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, wherein one of the band’s roadies can be heard preparing and eating bacon and cereal, gulping some kind of beverage, chewing with his mouth open and adding occasional commentary. Underneath, the band plays a few variations on some pleasant Floydian melodies.

Atom Heart Mother doesn’t get a lot of respect, for many of the reasons listed above. With the exception of the three songs on side two, it’s not an easy listen, and takes a lot of patience. But if you can dig through the experiments, which few other bands would consider attempting (and why would they?), you’ll be rewarded with some excellent music.

Pink Floyd Atom Heart Mother (1970)—

Friday, August 6, 2010

Syd Barrett: Crazy Diamond

Whether or not he was really truly an acid casualty, Syd Barrett’s stilted potential has been the cause of much debate since his virtual disappearance from the music scene. He left a fairly finite set of completed (read: recorded) songs behind, and it’s likely that if anything else of value were out there, it would have been discovered by now. As it is, his body of work is a matter of personal taste, and in some cases needs to be taken within a certain context.

Despite having kicked him out of the band, the other members of Pink Floyd felt a certain responsibility for Syd, not least making sure his royalty checks kept arriving. When he went back to the studio to record his own albums, they were on hand to help out, along with some other musical friends.

The Madcap Laughs contains some catchy songs mixed with more chaotic tracks and some mesmerizing if sad acoustic performances of demo quality. In most cases, Syd played and sang by himself, and the tracks were augmented by the likes of David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Jerry Shirley of Humble Pie and three guys from Soft Machine, who did their best to accompany Syd’s prerecorded idiosyncrasies.

The opening “Terrapin” is the slowest song he’d put his name to yet, an easy lope that doesn’t predict the more chaotic “No Good Trying”. “Love You” is catchier but still nutty, as is the rhythmically challenged “No Man’s Land”. “Dark Globe” is good enough to leave simple, while “Here I Go” is utterly charming. Even with the acoustic guitar driving it, “Octopus” is a decent Floyd coulda-been, and his casting of the rare James Joyce poem “Golden Hair” is very inspired. The mild menace of “Long Gone” leads into the stretch from “She Took A Long Cold Look” through “Feel” and “If It’s In You”, depicting the sounds of a man barely able to keep up with himself. That leaves only “Late Night” to spin towards an uncertain end.

Soon after the release of The Madcap Laughs, Syd was back in the studio, this time with Gilmour and Rick Wright, plus Jerry Shirley on drums. Together they tried to work more quickly and cohesively, and sometimes it works. As a whole Barrett is a bit heavier, but some of the whimsy has been lost in the process.

“Baby Lemonade” is another excellent opener, and “Love Song” has a lot of Wright’s fingerprints on it, just as “Dominoes” benefits from the jam. But “It Is Obvious”, “Rats”, and “Maisie” are aimless, each of the latter using just a single chord. “Gigolo Aunt” has gained enough status to become a deserving favorite, then “Waving My Arms In The Air” and “I Never Lied To You” repeat the wandering of “It Is Obvious”. “Wined And Dined” isn’t quite finished, and “Wolfpack” is another challenging listen, leaving only “Effervescing Elephant” and its tuba to make us smile.

Despite occasional sightings and attempts, Syd’s musical career had all but finished before the band that left him behind achieved worldwide superstardom. But they were always quick to credit his influence, and the rerelease of his two solo albums in a single two-record set in 1974 kept his work on the shelves. The albums were duly issued on CD in the late ‘80s, and the new trend of vault-digging resulted in more product. His one solo BBC session—all five songs of it—was reissued several times, but Capitol, who owned the studio tapes, did their best to offer quantity and quality with Opel, an LP’s worth of alternates and even some outtakes, anchored by the soaring title track, which is one of his best. The other “new” songs range from early experiments (“Swan Lee” and “Lanky”) to acoustic studio demos (“Dolly Rocker”, “Word Song”, “Birdie Hop”, “Let’s Split”, “Milky Way”) which are mostly frustrating because they’re just not quite there. Still, it’s essential for the story, and sequenced well, ending with an early instrumental sketch of “Golden Hair”.

Since everybody got their own box set soon enough, Crazy Diamond offered The Madcap Laughs, Barrett, and Opel, each bolstered by several extras, mostly first takes with no overdubs. For more casual fans, the single-disc compilation Wouldn’t You Miss Me? delivered the cream of his solo work, plus “Two Of A Kind” from the BBC session and the long-rumored “Bob Dylan Blues”. To play it even safer, 2010’s An Introduction To Syd Barrett added six Floyd tracks, including an alternate of “Matilda Mother”, to a dozen remastered solo selections—some of which included new bass overdubs by Gilmour—plus a download of the unreleased twenty-minute “Rhamadan” jam.

Syd Barrett The Madcap Laughs (1970)—
Syd Barrett
Barrett (1970)—
Syd Barrett
Opel (1988)—3
Syd Barrett
Crazy Diamond (1993)—3
Syd Barrett
The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn’t You Miss Me? (2001)—4
Syd Barrett
An Introduction To Syd Barrett (2010)—4

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Robert Plant 5: Manic Nirvana

Having enjoyed touring with his new young guns, Robert set to work on a follow-up using the same formula. Manic Nirvana tried to prolong the appeal of Now And Zen, but he was starting to sound like a caricature. Which was exactly what he’d been trying to avoid all decade.

The first single, “Hurting Kind (I’ve Got My Eyes On You)” is an unfortunate cross between “Tall Cool One” and “The Look” by Roxette. “Big Love” and “SSS&Q” are just too boomy, the former sunk by the not-so-subtle references to the Mile-High Club. “I Cried” is a step in the right direction, layered with acoustic guitars and multiple “ah” vocals. But “Nirvana” goes a million places at once without finding its center.

Aging hippies were equally confused by the Wavy Gravy samples on “Tie Die On The Highway”, which otherwise takes its melody from “Slow Dancer” off Pictures At Eleven. Plant’s growing fascination with the music of his youth continues in “Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night”, complete with sampled vinyl surface noise and lyrics from “Black Dog”. “Anniversary” could be a better song if it were redone without the synthesizers, but it works as a setup for the exceptional “Liars Dance”, a showcase for vocal and acoustic, the way it should be. But then the pounding drums of “Anniversary” continue on “Watching You”. And that’s it.

Generally Manic Nirvana rocked harder, but was less exciting than Now And Zen. (Like that album, the CD originally had an extra track in the middle of what was side one, while the current CD has three more—two originals, plus a cover of “Don’t Look Back” by the Remains, none very exciting.) Meanwhile, Jimmy Page was happy to join his old friend for some onstage photo-ops at that summer’s Knebworth festival, where they reclaimed “Wearing And Tearing” from obscurity—a nice setup for the box set in the fall, which would more than make up for the lackluster performance of Plant’s album.

Robert Plant Manic Nirvana (1990)—
2007 remastered CD: same as 1990 CD, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jimmy Page 2: Outrider

Right around the time of Zeppelin’s disastrous appearance at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert, Jimmy Page released a solo album, his first such release if you don’t count the handful of singles from the mid-‘60s or the Death Wish II soundtrack.

Not about to start singing himself, Jimmy used Outrider as an opportunity to work with a hand-picked group of revolving musicians. Young Jason Bonham was one of those, and subsequently signed on for the tour. Of the vocalists, Robert Plant sang and co-wrote the best track, a rave-up called “The Only One”. But to get there, one must endure two songs howled by one John Miles (who also joined the tour). “Wasting My Time” has a decent riff, but the sound is tired by the time “Wanna Make Love” comes in. A pair of instrumentals, “Writes Of Winter” and “Liquid Mercury” bookend the Plant tune, wherein Jimmy shows his aptitude around time signatures.

Side two features the overblown vocal stylings of Page favorite Chris Farlowe. His “technique” takes most of the enjoyment out of Leon Russell’s “Hummingbird”, and “Prison Blues” is about as clichéd as you can get, making Jimmy’s fingered responses even more desperate. “Blues Anthem (If I Cannot Have Your Love…)” is more restrained, but colored by bad fake strings. Thankfully, the instrumental “Emerald Eyes” is nicely balanced between Page’s acoustic and electric strumming.

As with much of 1988, much of Outrider sounds bombastic and hurried, and while Jimmy’s timing was astute, his statement was inevitably overshadowed by Plant’s effort earlier that year. It was especially disappointing to hear that Jimmy’s original tapes, supposedly filled with two records’ worth of acoustic and blues tunes, went missing, leaving only what remained. Supposedly. As time goes on, it’s clear just how lost Jimmy was without Zeppelin, and without Robert, who’d joined that band as a novice, but would hold the keys after it was all done.

Jimmy Page Outrider (1988)—2

Monday, August 2, 2010

Robert Plant 4: Now And Zen

By 1988, hair metal had started to rear its ugly head and many young bands were unabashedly either proclaiming their love for Led Zeppelin or copping their sound outright. One of the key players in this was Whitesnake, whose leader David Coverdale would soon play a part in the Zeppelin story. Robert Plant took no flattery from Coverdale’s imitation, and said so in the various interviews he gave supporting his first album in almost three years.

Now And Zen was a hair better (sorry) than his last album. For one, he’d started writing actual songs again. He also picked up a young, hungry band willing to cross technique and technology, going so far as to digitally sample some of his old band’s riffs with finesse and affection on “Tall Call One”. A quarter-century later it just seems silly (and the uninitiated should avoid the video) but hearing those samples collide all over the ending is still pretty funny.

A few of the tunes even rock. The first single was the album opener; “Heaven Knows” was brought to Robert by the writers, and was the catalyst at getting the album rolling. “The Way I Feel” is a good driving song, with tasty Strat leads that sound like former bandmaster Robbie Blunt but aren’t. The inscrutable “Helen Of Troy” doesn’t offend, while “Ship Of Fools” is quiet enough for crowds to get out their lighters.

Not everything in between holds up. One of the better tracks is “Why”, which might have been a pop radio hit for anyone else, but here it just doesn’t sound like him. “Billy’s Revenge” is a rockabilly concoction that needs to go one way or the other instead of too long. “White, Clean And Neat” is failed attempt to evoke early-‘50s nostalgia via modern sounds, but personal enough for Robert to close the LP with it; the CD added the B-side “Walking Towards Paradise”. (The current CD adds three live “bootleg” tracks, recorded on subsequent tours. “Billy’s Revenge” and “Tall Cool One” are fairly straight, but the 1993 performance of “Ship Of Fools” is longer and moodier, showing his return to more exotic sounds.)

Now And Zen was a lot of fun at the time, and sales were helped by Jimmy Page on two tracks, prompting some anticipation for Jimmy’s own solo album later that year. And in addition to the Zeppelin references on the album, Robert even added some of his old band’s songs—and not even the obvious ones—to his repertoire on his tour.

Robert Plant Now And Zen (1988)—3
2007 remastered CD: same as 1988 CD, plus 3 extra tracks