Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bob Dylan 46: No Direction Home

Since his last new album, our cups had overflowed with archival titles. The so-called soundtrack to the excellent PBS/Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home offered two CDs worth of stuff from the vaults. (Like the film, the cutoff was July 1966; following the numbering scheme set up by the box set, technically this release should have been considered volumes seven and eight.)

It’s not strictly a soundtrack to the film, but it does try to follow a chronological thread and include pieces of historic value. Two early “pre-professional” recordings show the sound of the kid before he discovered Woody Guthrie, underscored by a live performance of “This Land Is Your Land” and his own “Song To Woody”, taken from the debut. A variety of live performances and demos follow, plus such key outtakes as “Sally Gal” from Freewheelin’ and the first recording of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, sung as an out-of-tune duet with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot from the wine-soaked Another Side sessions. What stands out are the live acoustic performances, which sit alongside the recorded catalog to demonstrate why he was such a Big Deal.

With a few exceptions, the selections on the second disc underscore that Bob was right to use the established takes on the original albums. Some of those nuggets include the alternate “Desolation Row” with electric guitar, another early take of “Visions Of Johanna”, a slow stomp through “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and the blast of “Maggie’s Farm” from Newport that may or may not have pissed everybody off. The disc ends appropriately with two live performances with the Hawks—“Ballad Of A Thin Man” from Edinburgh, and the famous “Judas” performance of “Like A Rolling Stone”, which of course closed Live 1966.

No Direction Home offers some diversion here and there, but it wasn’t exactly the most revelatory of the Bootleg Series. But the home office wasn’t done yet, as they served up two additional titles the same week. Live At The Gaslight 1962 gave people a reason to find a nearby Starbucks, as the coffee chain had the exclusive rights to it for the first year. As a collection of coffeehouse recordings from the folkie days, it got more repeat plays, as did Live At Carnegie Hall 1963, available only as a promo freebie and soon ubiquitous on eBay. Both offer lovely versions of both familiar songs and folk standards, in tighter a snapshot.

Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series Vol. 7—No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (2005)—
Bob Dylan
Live At The Gaslight 1962 (2005)—4

Monday, September 27, 2010

Neil Young 40: Sugar Mountain

By now the continual teasing about the Archives had become maddening. Things weren’t helped by Neil’s insistence that the two installments in the “Performance Series” (Volumes 2 and 3 out of at least 12) that had already come out would be included in the Archives box when it finally, supposedly, would appear. To make things even more confusing, an installment dubbed Volume 0 (as in zero) was released with the explanation that it was not going to be part of the box set. (As it turned out, it was included in the DVD and Blu-ray versions of the box.)

Sugar Mountain was recorded over two nights in November 1968, from which the classic B-side that gave this collection its title had been recorded. It’s a fascinating document, captured at a point in his career where he was known (if at all) as the guy from Buffalo Springfield who had yet to release his first solo album. He mixes songs from the Springfield with his new originals deftly, interspersed with somewhat stoney commentary between songs. Each of the “raps”, some of which go on for a few minutes, is given its own track, which can be convenient. It’s a small room, so the performance is intimate, almost conversational. He manages to keep the crowd rapt for all eight minutes of “The Last Trip To Tulsa”. There’s even an early performance of “Birds”, which wouldn’t make an album for two years, and a demonstration of the melody for “Winterlong”, which was nine years away from record stores. And of course, the classic “Sugar Mountain” fits fine in its initial context.

Later eras would be heavily mined for release, which has managed to elevate Sugar Mountain in stature, but the selection from a repertoire that would only balloon exponentially is special. He wasn’t truly famous yet, making it a nice snapshot indeed. Even if the cover photo was from the year before.

Neil Young Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968 (2008)—

Friday, September 24, 2010

Led Zeppelin 12: BBC Sessions

In the ‘90s it had become de rigueur for bands—particularly those from the ‘60s—to dig up tapes of their old BBC radio appearances for a cash cow CD. They were always live performances, less polished than album sessions, and often sported unique songs that weren’t available otherwise. Starting after the success of the Beatles’ BBC set, there was talk in the industry that other similar sets would be released through a single distributor. Luckily, in the more popular cases (the Beatles, The Who, David Bowie) the artists themselves, along with their own labels, got directly involved, generally resulting in a better produced, more personal package.

Several existing hours of Zeppelin’s appearances on the BBC have floated around on illicit collections; two-and-a-half of those hours were included on this collection. All of the first disc comes from various 1969 sessions, some of which occurred within a few weeks or even days of each other. Several songs from their debut are replayed and extended, showing more debt to various blues artists. The rarities stand out: “The Girl I Love She Got Long Wavy Hair” features the riff that was later used to bookend “Moby Dick” and some howling lyrics, while “Somethin’ Else” is a chaotic piano-driven version of the Eddie Cochran classic, and is tons of fun. The disc closes with the majority of the excellent Playhouse Theater show whence “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” on the first box set came.

Disc two delivers the bulk of a 1971 show from the Paris Theater, just before the release of Zoso. Right away you can hear how their set had changed in two years. This was one of the first-ever live performances of “Stairway”; non-collectors will notice that “Black Dog” uses its live intro taken from “Out On The Tiles”. There’s a lovely acoustic pairing of “Going To California” and “That’s The Way”, “Dazed And Confused” is now over 18 minutes with a bow section, and an extended “Whole Lotta Love” touches on several blues and rockabilly tunes.

On its initial release, BBC Sessions was an essential if long-overdue addition to the Zeppelin canon, providing an excellent glimpse of their earlier live shows. Of course there were some exclusions that some people complained over, but both discs were packed pretty full, and the compilers were pretty sure five versions of “Communication Breakdown” would have been more redundant than the three they did include. They still felt fine about repeating “Traveling Riverside Blues” from the 1990 box, but not “White Summer”. But such quibbles pale while the album’s playing.

Much of this was rectified when, after the rapid-fire expansion of the entire Zeppelin catalog, The Complete BBC Sessions added a third disc to the original two. Now the title was truly accurate, save a few snippets from some of the longer medleys shaved to keep from having to pay too much on royalties outside the band. These additions complete both the Playhouse Theater and Paris Theater shows, adding those missing versions of “Communication Breakdown”, two more of “What Is And What Should Never Be”, an 11-minute “Dazed And Confused”, and yes, even “White Summer”. Just to prove they weren’t kidding, there’s even a “missing” 1969 session only preserved on a crappy tape that features the otherwise unreleased “Sunshine Woman”, a neat piano-driven prototype of “The Girl I Love” and “Travelling Riverside Blues”. Due to a noticeable static whine, those tracks end the set for maximum overall listenability; with a little creativity, the home user can create a truly chronological set that puts the first four sessions on one disc, the complete Playhouse Theater on the next, and the Paris Theater show spread across two more. Or you just can be happy Jimmy put it out at all.

Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions (1997)—4
2016 The Complete BBC Sessions: same as 1997, plus 9 extra tracks

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jimmy Page & Robert Plant 1: No Quarter

Jimmy’s recent musical gamble paid off big time. Basically, Plant gave in to the stalemate, taking Page’s actions to mean that if Robert didn’t sing with him again, Page would just keep recording with David Coverdale. Still, it was a surprise to hear that the two were teaming up for an MTV unplugged show, and it wouldn’t be just a one-off gig.

Being 1994, of course, it wasn’t strictly unplugged anymore. No Quarter: Unledded took the songs the two liked most and extended them to include more overt Celtic and Arabic touches. While having Jimmy around was certainly a plus, Plant was definitely calling the shots. The musicians consisted of his touring band, plus a variety of symphonic and Egyptian players. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is transformed from a heavy blues to a hurdy-gurdy driven lament, and the “title track” is purely acoustic, devoid of any of John Paul Jones’s influence. “The Battle Of Evermore”, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “Kashmir” get full orchestral treatments, while “Four Sticks” and “Friends” are expanded to the Eastern sound both envisioned.

A couple of new tunes were recorded live on location in the streets of Marrakesh; “City Don’t Cry” makes the most of traditional Moroccan instruments, and Page turns it up to 11 for “Yallah” while the locals scratch their heads. The best new song, “Wonderful One”, was a descendant of “The Rain Song” and the DADGAD tuning, and left one hoping for more new music like it.

No Quarter: Unledded was a success, but was released the same day as another long-awaited reunion, that of the Eagles, whose own album ended up selling about eight million more copies. One person who might have gotten a kick out of such competition would be John Paul Jones, who famously thanked the other two for remembering his phone number when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame the following year.

Ten years after its original release, the show appeared on DVD, accompanied by a rejigged version of the album. The track previously known as “Yallah” was retitled “The Truth Explodes”, while the international-only track “Wah Wah” was included, as was “The Rain Song” for the first time. Several tracks were edited from their original length, and “Thank You” was removed completely. (The DVD also includes the onetime B-sides “What Is And What Should Never Be” and “When The Levee Breaks”, neither of which had been on either CD.)

Jimmy Page & Robert Plant No Quarter: Unledded (1994)—
2004 reissue: same as 1994, plus 2 extra tracks (and minus 1 track)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Robert Plant 6: Fate Of Nations

While Jimmy Page was off playing with David Coverdale, Robert Plant was busy treading his own path. Because of the timing, Fate Of Nations does offer something of a response to that project. But this was already Robert’s sixth full-length solo album, and repeats the cycle already established: put together a band, record and tour behind two albums, then fracture it on the third. Most of his recent recruits are here, but fight for space with other collaborators, while the production is shared with Chris Hughes, best known for his work with Adam And The Ants and Tears For Fears.

The album finds him looking back to the Arabian influences he’d skirted since Zeppelin, while lyrical concerns about the state of the planet (reflected in the artwork) hearken back to the “hippie music” he’d sung before them. It’s a more introspective album than we’d come to expect, but that’s not immediately apparent. “Calling To You” distills “Kashmir” into a 6/4 stomp, and a distinctive violin solo from Nigel Kennedy. “Down To The Sea” is a little more mystical, and “Come Into My Life” only catches fire when Richard Thompson takes one of his iconic solos. And there’s “I Believe”, a movingly intense song that’s an unspoken tribute to his son Karac, who died at the height of Zeppelin’s fame (and quite possibly the biggest reason why he’s always been on the fence about reviving the band). “29 Palms” is an actual radio-friendly love song, of all things, his first and last one for a while. “Memory Song (Hello Hello)” returns to the Mideast for three pounding minutes until an actual modulation occurs.

The most striking departure is a cover of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter”, with vintage string arrangement, Coral sitars and other echoes of the time. If anything, it foreshadows his work in the next century. That mood is blasted away by “Promised Land”, a pale rejig of “When The Levee Breaks”. “The Greatest Gift” is another moody love song, with a prominent string arrangement and a chorus that sounds familiar. “Great Spirit” wanders along, just as “Network News” ends the program with a lot of clatter. These songs were obviously very important to him, as they’re the only ones that had lyrics in the packaging, but social commentary is not why we listen to Robert Plant.

But while there’s nothing wrong with Fate Of Nations, it just didn’t excite. It was also likely the first album he made with CDs in mind, without considering where the sides might start and end. Therefore many of the songs are way too long, so pruning it down from an hour to a more concise 40-45 minutes would have been a big help. (The eventual bonus tracks were a mixed bag. “Colours Of A Shade” was originally unique to the UK, and welcome here, while a Delta blues-style “acoustic mix” of “Great Spirit” is as revealing as the “Dark Moon” collaboration with Ranier Ptacek. “Rollercoaster” sports the Manchester beat, but it’s still catchy, and “8:05” is an acoustic cover of a Moby Grape tune.)

If there’s a lesson to be learned from his post-Zeppelin career, it’s the value of a foil, or a steady collaboratorIf there’s a lesson to be learned from his post-Zeppelin career, it’s the value of a foil, or a steady collaborator, who can provide the right levels of camaraderie and contrast. Fans could be forgiven for hoping Page and Plant would just get it over with and do something together already.

Robert Plant Fate Of Nations (1993)—
2007 remastered CD: same as 1993, plus 5 extra tracks

Monday, September 20, 2010

Jimmy Page 3: Coverdale Page

Things were quiet on the Zeppelin front for a few years, until what sounded like a really bad rumor came true: Page had recorded an entire album with David Coverdale of Whitesnake. Even more frightening was the result that Coverdale•Page turned out to be pretty good. Coverdale took a rougher, more “Axl” approach for his singing, and Page came up with new riffs in a production style that hadn’t aged yet.

We need to say this again—the album’s pretty good. “Shake My Tree” and “Pride And Joy” sport classic Page riffs and solos. “Take Me For A Little While” may veer close to power balladry, but the guitars more than make up for it. Throughout, Jimmy plays more “sober” than ever, if that’s a fair description. A decent solo rises from the mix here and there; “Absolution Blues”, despite having the most tenuous connection to the blues, gives him a good couple of minutes to layer on some “scary sounds” for the intro. “Easy Does It”, “Over Now” and about half of the over-long “Don’t Leave Me This Way” also balance their contrasts well.

It’s easy to forget that Coverdale was already a veteran, having sung with Deep Purple in the mid-‘70s. Whitesnake wasn’t much more than an obscure joke until the hair metal era posed the singer as another Plant clone. Besides, it’s not like Page hooked up with Bret Michaels or the guy from Kingdom Come. Both singer and guitarist get equal billing in the writing credits, but it’s easy to blame David for some of the rhymes. “Feeling Hot” is a little silly and “Waiting On You” admittedly “classic” Whitesnake; “Take A Look At Yourself” isn’t too far removed from the type of thing Aerosmith had been doing of late. Such a thing might be expected when the “John Kalodner: John Kalodner” credit appears in the booklet. “Whisper A Prayer For The Dying” would have really pissed off Robert Plant, with all the yelling over lifts from “Kashmir”.

Coverdale•Page is one of the more satisfying offshoots in the Zeppelin canon, if people could just overlook the simple fact that David Coverdale was singing over a rhythm section featuring the drummer from Heart (and Montrose) and the bass player from Miami Sound Machine. The lyrics are printed in full in the booklet, unfortunately, but the tunes are just plain catchy so we don’t pay attention to those anyway. Even today.

Coverdale•Page Coverdale•Page (1993)—3

Friday, September 17, 2010

Paul McCartney 28: Chaos And Creation In The Backyard

Ever since he established himself as the chief surviving Beatle, news of any new McCartney album has always brought a mix of anticipation and dread. Such was the case with Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. The first disturbing sign was the title, accompanied by a cover based on a photo brother Michael took some 45 years previously. Then came the news that not only was it produced by the guy who worked with Radiohead and Beck, but the crackerjack band he was soon to tour with were not used; rather he played most everything himself, leading to the obvious comparisons to his first album (but none to the less-heralded McCartney II or Flaming Pie).

Our fear was unfounded. Each of the tracks here was honed to near-perfection, and nothing sounds like it was tossed off in a few minutes. Rather than the homemade sound of the McCartneys or the slap-dash but pleasant Pie, here he went into a room with a young producer who had the cojones to goad him into completing tracks worthy of the McCartney brand.

“Fine Line” is probably the best place to start the program, since it’s the most overtly McCartneyesque song here. Musically it’s a cross between “Flaming Pie” (the song) and “Keep Under Cover” (from Pipes Of Peace), and it’s a toe-tapper. “How Kind Of You” is based around a series of loops, mostly of wine glasses. It’s a mysterious one, and sits there until the buildup in the last half, which really takes hold. “Jenny Wren” is very reminiscent of early Wings stuff, and comparing it to “Blackbird”, as so many did, sells it short; it’s very original, and takes what could have been a lazy rewrite to another level. We’ve yet to figure out what “At The Mercy” sounds like. “Friends To Go” was said to have been written in George’s style, and it shows particularly in the chords and harmonies. George might have even liked it. While “English Tea” may come too close to “Cups And Cakes” by Spinal Tap, at least it’s short, with a flute solo from “Happiness Runs” off Mary Hopkin’s first album. At the same time, “Too Much Rain” is a little too close to “Young Boy”, but there’s a Wings feel on this, and a good ending too.

“A Certain Softness” is one of the few that features other players, so maybe that’s why it sounds out of place. “Riding To Vanity Fair” starts out with the same vibe as heard on World Party’s song with a similar title; no word yet on what Karl Wallinger thinks about it. It’s a rare mood for Paul, spooky and genuinely pissed off. “Follow Me” isn’t great, except for the middle bit. Fats Domino meets the Beach Boys in “Promise To You Girl”. He sounds decades younger, particularly in that guitar solo, but unfortunately it ends too quickly. Except for that bass, the first 30 seconds or so of the atmospheric “This Never Happened Before” don’t sound at all like him. The grand closer “Anyway” is a perfect example of what makes him so good. Like “Only Love Remains” or “Beautiful Night”, it would stand out on one of his not-so-stellar albums, except here it’s on an album full of more worthy companions. The steal from “People Get Ready” wears off soon enough, making way for a nod to “Little Willow”. (Apparently the hidden track, a hodgepodge not unlike “Rinse The Raindrops”, is called “I’ve Only Got Two Hands”. It definitely runs rings around “Ou Est Le Soleil”.)

The album divided a lot of people, which is too bad; overall it’s very strong, very focused and very mature. “Fine Line” may be the only one he tossed off quickly; the rest definitely sound like they were worked on and honed to satisfaction. Sonically it could even be compared to the White Album, in that there’s almost a claustrophobic feeling to the tracks.

If the sober-sounding Chaos And Creation In The Backyard was to be Paul’s last statement as a songwriter, it would have been an amazing one. Luckily, he hasn’t planned on checking out anytime soon. He went on tour soon afterwards, and any of the hype about the album was lost in the tabloids under news of his impending divorce from Heather.

Paul McCartney Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (2005)—

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pete Townshend 12: Scoop 3

Pete was really getting into the whole online retail/direct marketing thing, putting out occasional live recordings from the late ‘90s along with other merchandise. He also used his website to post occasional audio and video files, sometimes as premieres and other times just there. In late 2001 he began posting a song-from-the-vaults a week that would be sold as a standalone CD called Twenty, but in the final week he abruptly reneged, and told us to enjoy them while we could. The site was soon shuttered for six months while he planned a Who tour and wrote a book. (Also, the behavior in the chat room bugged him.) But his Eel Pie site continued to distribute his music, eventually following through with the long-awaited appearance of the third official Scoop collection.

With nearly two hours of material—and twenty years of experiments to choose from—Scoop 3 has much more of an emphasis on his post-Who work than the earlier installments, though there are a couple of exceptions. “Can You See The Real Me” had been bootlegged for years, but his demo of “Sea & Sand” (also from Quadrophenia) is revelatory. “How Can You Do It Alone” is pretty close to the final version on Face Dances, but there’s absolutely no need to have the sketch of “Did You Steal My Money”. “It’s In Ya”, “Teresa” and an early version of “However Much I Booze” will interest Who fans, while his early-‘80s solo period is nicely complemented by a song still called “Tough Boys” and a pretty syrupy attempt at “All Lovers Are Deranged” that proves David Gilmour had the right idea about rocking it out.

The experiments from the White City period, such as “Commonwealth Boys” and the radio-friendly “Lonely Words”, are much more satisfying than the ideas from The Iron Man, and demonstrate that while he had an ear for commercialism, he ran from it. Many of the keyboard pieces unfortunately sound alike, though such acoustic guitar snippets as “Collings”, “Wistful” and “Marty Robbins” are all very satisfying. Other nice highlights include the orchestral heartbreaker “I Like It The Way It Is”, “I Am Afraid” on banjo that sounds identical to “This Land Is Your Land”, and an absolutely charming song for his son, “Squirm Squirm”.

Ultimately, Scoop 3 is for fanatics only. With so much music there’s a lot to get through, and a shame that it’s not all great. Also, the Twenty songs made for a more listenable set. Soon buried, they emerged on various bootlegs, and finally turned up back on the site for easy download in 2005. But by that time he had gotten repeatedly burned by putting himself so nakedly on display, proving again that the future he envisioned in Lifehouse wasn’t a rosy one. (A double-disc set called Scooped was released to mainstream retail around the same time, compiled various tracks from all three Scoop sets, along with a multimedia portion featuring an unreleased video for “Ask Yourself”, probably filmed in 1985.)

Pete Townshend Scoop 3 (2001)—3

Monday, September 13, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock 12: Respect

Now that college alternative was mainstream, it wasn’t easy for some of the old guard to keep up. Depeche Mode and the Cure did okay for a while, but XTC and Siouxsie & The Banshees were just two bands who fought against commercial apathy around this time, despite having been darlings of 120 Minutes not long before. Robyn was going to most likely stay a cult hero, and that was probably fine with him. Meanwhile, he had some new songs, and ended up recording Respect in his kitchen using predominantly acoustic instruments and percussive samples.

The wackiness begins immediately on “The Yip Song”. With that onomatopoetic word repeated about 300 times, it has a lot going against it, until you consider the context: it’s about his dying father. “The Arms Of Love” starts, as a lot of these songs do, with weird keyboards and kitchen percussion, and the song bursts forth melodically. However, “The Moon Inside”, which follows, is a worse version of the same song. But “Railway Shoes” is real nice, with the drums clip-clopping along through the “take the train” part. A typical romp through the macabre, “When I Was Dead” might be better and less forced without the Arabian keyboards.

The second half is much stronger right off the bat with “The Wreck Of The Arthur Lee”. A cross between a sea chanty and a tribute to the leader of Love, it’s just gorgeous, complete with a trumpet and strings section to make the musical reference more direct. If only it were longer. The ingredients mix well on “Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)”, a lot of nonsense people either love or hate, slathered in harmonies. “Serpent At The Gates Of Wisdom” sounds like something we’ve heard before; with just those few chords, the simple harmonica, acoustic guitar and piano with organ under the vocal, surely someone else could have written it already? The momentum diminishes for “Then You’re Dust”, which is just too quiet, and “Wafflehead” isn’t likely to win any doubters over. As a production it’s certainly interesting, with found sound, mouth noises and loops (right out of Pink Floyd’s early cookbook) but as a grand seducer, Robyn is no Barry White.

Respect is an odd one. It was his last new album for A&M, and the last appearance of the Egyptians. Mathematically it shouldn’t be that good and it’s kinda short, but the highs more than compensate for the lows. For that, it’s an improvement on Perspex Island.

Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians Respect (1993)—
Current CD availability: none

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dire Straits 3: Making Movies

For their make-or-break third album, Dire Straits was down to a trio; Mark Knopfler handled all the guitars, and John Illsley and Pick Withers stuck around to provide the rhythm. But the album they made was hardly stripped down. Recorded at the Power Station in New York City, with Jimmy Iovine (recently hot from Springsteen and Tom Petty) behind the desk and keyboardist Roy Bittan from the E Street Band, Making Movies was a majestic production, cinematic in scope and infinitely satisfying.

The opening strains of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel Waltz” crash into “Tunnel Of Love”, where the familiar “Sultans Of Swing” chugalong is turned inside out and given room to breathe outside the pub. The chorus sends us out into the fairway, amidst excellent metaphors about romance and amusement parks. Things turn a corner for the bridge, which is a mere interlude for the “girl you look so pretty” section, which dominates the rest of the song. A drum-heavy break gives way to a brief solo, then we return to the verse and chorus. But then the lights go out for a repeat of the bridge and the pretty girl section, slowly building over a beautifully constructed solo that plays and plays off the neck, and we fade away over trademark Bittan arpeggios.

“Romeo And Juliet” puts the familiar characters into a more modern setting, with possibly a more realistic twist: what if they didn’t die, and just drifted apart—like many young lovers—after she got sick of him? Besides being incredibly evocative for anyone who’s ever been dumped, the appeal of this song is punctuated by a sly quote from West Side Story. Then, for people of a certain generation, “Skateaway” will bring to mind the music video starring a rollerskater wearing a Walkman. It’s a pretty literal image, transcended by the lyric celebrating rock ‘n roll radio and a chorus right out of New Jersey.

“Expresso Love” sputters to life at the start of side two, its backwards “Layla” riff taking off like a motorcycle, especially over those “Be My Baby” fills in the chorus. By the time the solo happens, there are several guitars vying for space in the mix, and none of them are out of place. The overall effect is, admittedly, stimulating. Things get quiet again on “Hand In Hand”, which mirrors “Romeo And Juliet” both in mood and subject matter, only here the ache isn’t hidden behind a literary allusion, going for a more adult approach. Now that you’re completely depressed, let’s crank it up. “Solid Rock” is one of the greatest records Bob Dylan never made. It absolutely cascades with clever rhymes over a galloping beat, held together by soaring guitar over piano and organ.

The weakest song is saved for last. “Les Boys” takes the movie concept literally, putting the band in the middle of a Teutonic caricature where “glad to be gay” is repeated for shock value. It’s the aural equivalent of the second song you hear over the closing credits, after most people have left the theater.

But that’s okay—it’s not enough of a departure to taint any of that which has gone before. Making Movies is an absolute masterpiece of an album, simple yet complex, and not at all dated.

Dire Straits Making Movies (1980)—5

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mick Jagger 1: She’s The Boss

With the strength of the Rolling Stones Records label behind him, Bill Wyman released two solo albums in the ‘70s, both of which sold on the strength of his name, neither of which were that exciting, mostly because Bill can’t sing. (He did a little better in the early ‘80s with “Je Suis Un Rock Star”, being something of a novelty song with a cheesy synth part to match his weedy voice.)

It’s understandable that Bill would need to stretch his creativity, having been demoted to the least respected Stone once Ron Wood became Keith’s fulltime pal. But the idea of a Mick Jagger solo album, after over two decades of being both the voice and key creative consultant of the band, made even less sense. What could he do on his own that he couldn’t accomplish with the band he ran with an iron fist?

The answer lies in a Latin phrase we don’t feel like looking up, but roughly translates to “the question answers itself.” Mick was always interested in contemporary beats, while Keith and Woody were happy to play the same Chuck Berry riffs in between drinks and snorts. Each of the Stones albums so far had something “danceable” on it, but only so much. The new worldwide deal with CBS had the key provision that Mick would be given the opportunity to do solo albums; crafty as he always was, he figured his name would be enough to sell units, and possibly unshackle himself from the band that was becoming an albatross. Attaching his voice to a song credited to the Jacksons, in an attempt to cash in on the phenomenal success of Thriller (not coincidentally, another solo project by someone previously associated publicly with a band he no longer needed) gave him something of a test shot.

Hence, She’s The Boss, which accomplishes the feat of sounding nothing like the Stones save a few lines here and there, since he didn’t change his voice at all. He produced the album with Bill Laswell and Nile Rodgers (who also supplies the loudest guitars not already played by Jeff Beck), both of whom knew a thing a two about being contemporary as well as commercial. Keith gets writing credit on “Lonely At The Top”, one of dozens of songs out at the time that sounded exactly like “Footloose”, but no other Stones are involved at all. “½ A Loaf” tramples a metaphor with dated keyboards, while “Running Out Of Luck” and “Turn The Girl Loose” would have been lesser tracks on any Stones album, the latter particularly with its angry “ladies’ rap” over the fade. “Secrets” and the title track each labor over the same riff with a lot of yelling.

All this time later, the most palatable songs are the ones chosen as singles, and both are on side two. “Just Another Night” and “Lucky In Love” (which is about two minutes too long) could almost pass as Stones songs, if a little poppy. “Hard Woman” is the token ballad, with pretty Paul Buckmaster strings, although it’s not easy to buy Mick as a lovelorn, heartbroken sap this late in his tabloid career.

She’s The Boss isn’t a bad album for a piece of product, but fails as an out-of-expected-genre experiment by not being adventurous enough. However, it wasn’t the most embarrassing thing he released that year. That honor still belongs to his duet with David Bowie on “Dancing In The Street”, thrown together for the Live Aid concert. The song was bad enough; the video made it excruciating.

Mick Jagger She’s The Boss (1985)—2

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bob Dylan 45: Live 1964

With this release it seemed as if the Bootleg Series was getting serious, and truly trying to become an entity on its own outside of throwing fans a bone every couple of hits. Live 1964 gets points for its general content over brilliance. It’s an important show, one of the few from the period smack dab between Another Side Of Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home. To boot, many songs are performed for the first time, along with a few that never made it onto records otherwise.

Recorded on Halloween night (“I’ve got my Bob Dylan mask on,” sez our hero before adding, “I’m masquerading!”), the mood overall is warm and friendly. It’s apparent that he’s fairly stoned, laughing in between most of the songs, and even during some.

He’s at an odd juncture in his career; still singing so-called protest songs, but already adding some more poetic songs, not just from his most recent album, but from one yet to be recorded. Here we have the first airings of such classics as “Gates Of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, introduced under alternate titles amidst much giggling. “Mr. Tambourine Man” already has enough street cred to be appreciated. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” gets a few laughs from the crowd, but that’s nothing compared to “I Don’t Believe You”, wherein he starts the song but can’t remember the first verse, leaving it to a few astute, heavily accented New Yorkers in the front row to remind him.

It’s plain he’s very much into his new material, which makes the choice of songs after the intermission so strange. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” plays to the crowd and “Hattie Carroll” pulls the right heartstrings, but his delivery of “Don’t Think Twice” is truly bizarre. The song is mostly played straight, but notable for the way he builds each line up to an atonal yelling of the word “babe”. Joan Baez joins him for a few on the encore, and doesn’t add much, except to underline how out of place she is duetting on such lyrics as “Mama, You Been On My Mind” (which certainly wasn’t written for her) and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (which may well have been, making her obliviousness just plain unsettling).

Live 1964 was an obvious choice for a Bootleg Series installment, being that it was well recorded and had been a heavily pirated set for some time. Now that Bob was taking his sweet time between new albums, if he was willing to let stuff like this out, all the better.

Bob Dylan Live 1964: Concert At Philharmonic Hall—The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (2004)—4

Monday, September 6, 2010

John Lennon 16: Acoustic

Starting around 2000, Yoko starting authorizing and releasing remastered versions of John’s solo CDs, many of which had appeared without much fanfare in the late ‘80s. The reissues came at odd intervals, and raised more than a few eyebrows over both sound and packaging. For the most part, there were extra tracks here and there, but nothing incredibly revealing from the vast vaults.

That changed with Acoustic, an odd little sampler released concurrently with the 2004 update of Rock ‘N Roll. While that album was supposed to be about his ’50s roots, Acoustic presents John unadorned, with only his acoustic guitar, on a variety of familiar songs pulled from home demos, studio runthroughs and even some live performances.

It’s a nice idea, and gets most of its points for thoughtfulness, even if the selection is on the chintzy side. Most of the tracks are repeated from the Anthology box, though others make their first “official” appearances. “Well Well Well” is an early-stage demo with only half the lyrics, while “God” contains the spoken prelude as heard on the Lost Lennon Tapes radio series. “My Mummy’s Dead” uses the full sequence that was excerpted for Plastic Ono Band. “Cold Turkey” is the earliest track, a very jittery performance. After jumping ahead to a couple of songs from the Nixon years, “What You Got” is a more complete demo of the song than heard on the box. “Dear Yoko” comes from Bermuda, while “Real Love” is a longer version of the segment used to open the Imagine soundtrack album.

Knowing how much she’s sitting on, it’s easy to fault Yoko for practically throwing this together. But her dedication to future guitarists seems heartfelt, and including chord symbols and charts to the packaging is a very nice touch.

For some time, this had been the last “new” collection of Lennon material, though there would be yet another rollout of the catalog to celebrate his 70th birthday. Over thirty years—thirty years!—since his murder it’s heartbreaking to think of all the untapped potential, the songs he hadn’t thought of yet. He could have made several more albums, or he could have given it up after Milk And Honey. We’ll never know. Instead, we clutch at every straw, every glimmer of something new and different that we haven’t heard a million times and committed to memory. And that’s why there will always be a market for albums like Acoustic.

John Lennon Acoustic (2004)—

Friday, September 3, 2010

Led Zeppelin 11: Box Sets

One of the most commercially successful box sets of the era was released to great fanfare in the fall of 1990, simply titled Led Zeppelin. Rather than being a chronological overview loaded with rarities, the four CDs included 54 songs, only four of which could be considered rare.

Recorded for the BBC around the same time as the second album, “Traveling Riverside Blues” is pretty faithful to the Robert Johnson original, even though it pulls lyrics from others of his songs. “White Summer/Black Mountain Side”, recorded a few days later, is a live performance of Page solo on his Danelectro with some help in the middle from Bonham. (“White Summer” was originally recorded for the Yardbirds, and is an uncredited arrangement of the traditional “She Moved Through The Fair” in his special DADGAD tuning, which was also used in “Kashmir” and “Midnight Moonlight”.) “Hey Hey What Can I Do” should have been included on Coda, since it was actually a band-approved B-side for “Immigrant Song”, loaded with acoustic guitars and mandolins and sporting a happy singalong chorus. Before being overplayed on the radio, it was a fun rarity. “Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreux” is a special edit that rather deftly combines the two tracks, and is actually pretty entertaining listening.

Jimmy had, however, remastered the music, having been unsatisfied with the initial 1987 CD versions of the albums, which were done without his involvement. So while the box didn’t exactly break any ground, it did give fans a reason to get a CD player.

The balance of the tracks not included in the first box were included on the two-CD Boxed Set 2, which appeared in 1993 with one new track. “Baby Come On Home” was a long lost outtake from the first album, originally titled “Tribute To Bert Berns”, with lots of piano, organ and Leslie guitar under layered harmonies. It would have been a worthy inclusion to that album, or at least a B-side, yet was obviously left off to better emphasize the band’s particular brand of light and shade.

The CDs were sequenced completely out of any order, but still make for a good shuffled listen, even with “Moby Dick” and “Bonzo’s Montreux” included in their original guises. With such Classic Rock radio hits as “Good Times Bad Times” and “Living Loving Maid” here, it’s clear the songs are good enough to avoid being considered sub-par simply because they weren’t on the first box. (Around the same time, another box appeared. The Complete Studio Recordings offered all the albums in their original sequencing on ten discs, with the bonuses from the other two Box Sets added onto the end of the Coda disc. Nice of them.)

Despite insistence that it would never happen, two “best-of” collections finally appeared late in the century. Early Days and Latter Days included all the hits on a CD each, with pleasant packaging, nice photos and multimedia content. (While neither is definitive, they do a nice job and are handy for novices who should probably buy all the albums anyway.) They were eventually packaged together to give consumers a more complete set. And a decade later, another double-disc set appeared, to coincide with the band’s iTunes debut. With a few different tracks from the previous collection, Mothership merely underscores that if you like the band, you might as well spring for the whole catalog.

Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin (1990)—
Led Zeppelin Boxed Set 2 (1993)—
Led Zeppelin
Early Days: The Best Of Led Zeppelin Volume One (1999)—4
Led Zeppelin
Latter Days: The Best Of Led Zeppelin Volume Two (2000)—4
Led Zeppelin
Mothership (2007)—4

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock 11: Perspex Island

Eye was such a strong album that Robyn’s next project with the Egyptians was much reason for excitement. Unfortunately, the ingredients just weren’t there.

Perspex Island begins promisingly enough with a pair of excellent, driving tracks. “Oceanside” does a lot with a little, and “So You Think You’re In Love” is a nice relation to “Flesh Number One”. But from there, a lot doesn’t add up. “Birds In Perspex” and “Ultra Unbelievable Love” are mildly redeemed only by the backing vocals, so kudos to Andy and Morris. “Vegetation And Dimes” doesn’t mean anything, though we’re getting close to the programmed acoustic style of the next album. It’s unclear who “Lysander” is or why he’s got a song about him (and actually it’s not a song so much as a spiral riff).

“Child Of The Universe” has the same title as an obscure Byrds song, but if we’re going to ask Mark Isham to play trumpet, can’t he play something less like a car horn? “She Doesn’t Exist” tries to be sensitive and everything, but with Michael Stipe la-la-ing everywhere it’s distracting. (This was right around Out Of Time.) “Ride” uses one chord for a very long time, not unlike “Love” from Black Snake Diamond Role in feel. “If You Go Away” fills the mysterious role (as did “Vegetation” on side one) but the tension it sets up is let down by “My Earthly Paradise”, which just drags on and on until the end, although there is an attempt to lift the album to an up note on the last verse.

Perspex Island has its moments, but just doesn’t reach the highs of the Egyptians’ better work. It was disappointing to think that the good eggs had all gone into Eye’s basket.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians Perspex Island (1991)—3
Current CD availability: none