Sunday, October 31, 2010

Soft Boys 3: 1976-81

Being the champions of the unknown that they were, Rykodisc gamely attempted to further the reputation of the Soft Boys by reissuing A Can of Bees and Underwater Moonlight on slightly expanded but still definitive CD. (They also did the same for Invisible Hits, a posthumous collection of singles and alternates from 1983.)

A bolder step was the compilation of a double-disc anthology of the band. 1976-81 kindly presented the band’s history in chronological order, alternating tracks from singles, EPs and LPs with unreleased material. Easily half of the contents would have been new to collectors, making it both essential and repetitive.

For newcomers, however, it provides an excellent view of the band’s trajectory, akin to being shot out of a cannon into a brick wall. The earliest tracks show their debt to the organized chaos of Captain Beefheart, before more melodic things like “I Want To Be An Anglepoise Lamp” emerge. What truly sets them apart are the live recordings, where they took on such unlikely covers as “Heartbreak Hotel” as filtered through John Cale and Lou Reed’s “Caroline Says”. “We Like Bananas” is an old vaudeville tune just made for Robyn Hitchcock, while their acoustic takes on “That’s Where Your Heartaches Begin” and “Book Of Love” are hilarious.

Most of the second disc is given over to selections from the albums, with appropriate alternate takes slotted in here and there (including both versions of “Have A Heart Betty (I’m Not Fireproof)”, which is just fun to type). More live songs fill up that disc, including covers of Syd Barrett’s “Gigolo Aunt” and the Velvet Underground’s “Train Round The Bend”, bringing us right up to the moment where Robyn went solo.

It really is a well put-together set, and of course, it’s out of print. As many of the tracks are only available here, the curious will have to find used copies. Or borrow it from a friend.

The Soft Boys 1976-81 (1993)—
Current CD availability: none

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rolling Stones 32: Singles Collection

If you kept your Stones albums in chronological release order in your record rack, you’d’ve noticed the studio albums were slowly being overtaken by live albums and compilations. Even though it had been three years since their last album, word on the street was that a new one was on the way. And that’s when ABKCO decided to cash in on both their catalog and the box set trend. They’d already reissued the American albums on CD, but as there were several extraneous tracks floating around, a collection of singles covering the London years (read: ‘60s) made some sense—particularly when they included some of the British Decca tracks too.

For the most part, it’s a well-paced set, with every single presented in order. This causes some eyebrow raising later on, however, when “Street Fighting Man” is followed by its American B-side “No Expectations” and the British choice, “Surprise, Surprise”, a Chicago blues session from 1964. Because the emphasis is on the singles here, many of the tracks are in mono and sound different from their LP counterparts. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, for instance, opens at the acoustic guitar and not with the choir.

Still, collectors could be excited about getting such early classics as “I Wanna Be Your Man” and “Stoned” and middle-period Dylan takeoffs like “Sad Day” and “Who’s Driving Your Plane?” Mick’s solo single “Memo From Turner” is a nice touch, while the failed singles from Metamorphosis don’t add much outside making sure the set was complete. And of course, since you only have them five times already, it also has “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”.

As a “hits” album, Singles Collection is hardly a replacement for Hot Rocks, and since it only covers the sixties, it’s hardly complete. Therefore, it’s not the best place for newbies to start. But as a package, it is worth the bucks if you want to dig deeper. To get full value for your money, search out the original three-CD set in the LP-sized box, which includes a thick booklet of lyrics, recording notes and photos from the picture sleeves, printed in monochrome black on multicolored construction paper.

The Rolling Stones Singles Collection: The London Years (1989)—

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dire Straits 4: Love Over Gold

Mark Knopfler’s storytelling, as mastered on Making Movies, needed a bigger sound, so the band added a full-time keyboard player and additional rhythm guitarist to the trio. With synthesizers and digital technology at his disposal, Love Over Gold adds even more depth to the aural picture underneath the narratives.

The album begins with his most ambitious composition to date. “Telegraph Road” is heralded by a single synth note like the sun creeping over the horizon. It soon gives way, almost cinematically, to a piano and guitar duet introducing the main theme of the piece, and after about two minutes the vocals enter. A microcosm of progress and failure is shaped by aching lyrics, a neo-classical interlude and a few variations before the main theme returns, setting up another trademark galloping Knopfler solo, much like a stampede disappearing over the opposite horizon. The rest of side one is devoted to “Private Investigations”, an effective portrait of the lonesome gumshoe pondering life between the shadow of the lamppost and the bottle in his drawer.

Fans ready to rock are rewarded on side two. “Industrial Disease” sports that familiar burping Strat, with a Dylanesque rant (complete with cheesy organ) about, once again, the downside of progress. The title track brings back the ache in an absolutely gorgeous composition that’s something of the flipside of the similar “Private Dancer”, which he soon donated to Tina Turner. Here the desire and drive for integrity is suggested to be worth the inevitable disappointment. The grand finale in “It Never Rains” is also something of a Dylanesque kiss-off. After a relatively laid-back beginning, the second appearance of the bridge ushers in a coda that repeats and builds as the lead guitar rises and stabs its way to the fade.

Love Over Gold takes a certain amount of patience, for its charms aren’t immediately apparent. It has a softer sound on the surface, with plenty of substance to keep it from being musical wallpaper. There’s an elegance to this album, which ultimately makes it very special. It was also the apex of the band’s career.

Dire Straits Love Over Gold (1982)—

Monday, October 25, 2010

Keith Richards 1: Talk Is Cheap

While Mick went off to do another solo album, Keith stewed for a while, and decided to do his own. Talk Is Cheap reminded the world how good the Stones had been, on an album where the only other Stone present was Mick Taylor. Several other guests appear, from Buckwheat Zydeco to Johnnie Johnson, but the nucleus is a band of session veterans dubbed the X-Pensive Winos. These guys managed to mesh so well together you can practically hear Keith smiling on every track.

Much of the credit should go to Steve Jordan, the onetime drummer for the band on Late Night With David Letterman, who co-produced and co-wrote the entire album with Keith. Most of the bass comes from Charley Drayton, who could ably switch spots with Steve Jordan at the drop of a dime; no other rhythm section can do that. Keyboards, mostly in the form of clavinets and electric pianos, are handled by young Ivan Neville, while Waddy Wachtel, known mostly for his work with the likes of Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Stevie Nicks, is Keith’s six-string foil. (He had no misconceptions of his place in this particular pantheon; when asked which guitars on the album were his, Wachtel replied, “The other ones.”) Several notable musicians stopped by, including Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, the legendary Johnnie Johnson, Bobby Keys, and in a massive middle finger to a certain lead singer, Mick Taylor even showed up. (Several jams featuring this crew would appear on the bonus disc to the belated 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, along with two further unreleased originals.)

What made the album so satisfying wasn’t just the guitar work, though “Struggle”, “How I Wish” and “Whip It Up” certainly delivered the goods. Quite simply, the songs were all there. “Big Enough” is James Brown funk (think “Hot Stuff”), “Make No Mistake” brings back the sound of sexy soul with Sarah Dash cooing alongside him, “Locked Away” is a sneaky slow burner, and “I Could Have Stood You Up” is all early Chuck Berry. A lot of critics drooled over “You Don’t Move Me”, an attack on Mick so obvious it could be used as a windshield. But the clear winner is “Take It So Hard”, which some also took as a swipe; it’s just terrific.

Obviously empowered, Keith took the Winos on a theater tour, filling his sets with tracks from the album and well-chosen Stones classics. One of the gigs was filmed, recorded and released three years later (after making the rounds as a popular bootleg, naturally). Live At The Hollywood Palladium survives as an artifact of a time when, even though we might never see the Stones again, at least we’d have Keith, and he’d be just fine. (This too was reissued three decades after the fact, but only the box set edition included three extra tracks and the companion video on DVD.)

Keith Richards Talk Is Cheap (1988)—4
2019 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1988, plus 6 extra tracks
Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos Live At The Hollywood Palladium (1991)—3
2020 Super Deluxe Box Set: same as 1991, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, October 22, 2010

Robert Plant 7: Dreamland

While his old partner cashed in on his legacy with the help of the Black Crowes and the “artist” then known as Puff Daddy, Robert Plant took a different look back. He put together an evolving group of musicians, first dubbed the Priory of Brion, then renamed The Strange Sensation. With a basic rock sound embellished by a hurdy-gurdy and other exotic instruments, they played a few small shows consisting primarily of covers—basically, Plant’s favorite songs from his hippie days, by such writers as Tim Buckley, Arthur Lee, Moby Grape and Jesse Colin Young, with a few blues numbers thrown in for good measure.

He had so much fun singing these psychedelic folk songs—a genre he clearly adores, as demonstrated by his version of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter” on his last solo album—that his next album would eventually evolve. Dreamland is again, mostly covers, but taken in such a way that they are unique. It also helped that they were mostly obscure. For example, of all the Dylan songs people would pick up, would you expect “One More Cup Of Coffee”? Jesse Colin Young’s “Get Together” is probably on an oldies station right now, but “Darkness, Darkness” isn’t as well known except to White Stripes fans. Tim Rose’s “Morning Dew” was a staple of the coffeehouses and big with Deadheads, though Tim Buckley’s “Song To The Siren” would most likely be familiar to fans of The Monkees and/or tangentially via Jeff Buckley. (Robert’s version is as lovely as they get.)

The few original songs are credited to the entire band, and follow the folk blues tradition of recycling songs like “Fixin’ To Die” and “Win My Train Fare Home”. “Last Time I Saw Her” and “Red Dress” are about as “out there” as this album approaches, with the musicians getting a chance to let loose and experiment. The only real dud is “Hey Joe”, which goes out of its way not to sound like Hendrix, Love, The Byrds or even The Leaves, except for the two times the familiar chromatic riff is played. It helps that it’s followed by the finale of “Skip’s Song”, a lesser-known Moby Grape track with welcome female backing vocals in the middle. (Overseas, the album added the original “Dirt In A Hole”, which was included on the remaster along with an annoying remix of “Last Time I Saw Her”.)

Dreamland is a sneaky little album, and not recommended if you’re looking for the bombast commonly associated with Led Zeppelin or even Plant’s first few solo albums. If it gets people to explore some of the sources of the material, then his job his done. Best of all, it gave him confidence for how he wanted his career to continue. By looking back, he still found a way to look forward.

Robert Plant Dreamland (2002)—
2007 remastered CD: same as 2002, plus 2 extra tracks

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Neil Young 41: Fork In The Road

For most of his career, and certainly since he started having health problems, Neil has been determined to do what he wants, when he wants, whenever a mood takes control. He sees his albums as part of one long story, so he’s more concerned with the moment than the future, which he’ll figure out when he gets there.

That’s why, amidst much of the anticipation over the unveiling of his first volume of Archives, he hurriedly recorded and released Fork In The Road, most of which seemed to be an advertisement for his biofuel hybrid electric car company.

Actually, that’s not a fair assessment. Of the album’s ten songs, only “Johnny Magic” and “Fuel Line” make blatant references to the Linc-Volt project, but the theme runs through “When Worlds Collide”, “Off The Road”, and “Hit The Road”. With the Beach Boys a non-entity and Springsteen playing Pete Seeger music, maybe Neil decided he wanted to be the king of the car song. “Get Behind The Wheel” might work on its own, but it’s uncomfortably close to a certain Tom Waits song about a mule.

A lot of the songs sound alike, so when he throws a few left turns into the mix, they stand out. “Cough Up The Bucks” threatens to be about as plodding as “T-Bone”, but redeems itself with decent guitar and verses colored by a Hammond B-3. He acknowledges the futility of protest songs on “Just Singing A Song”, and quietly sings of the same determination on “Light A Candle”.
Nothing really stands out as a classic, with the exception of the title track, which was previewed with a video that seemed to be filmed by a webcam depicting Neil as a grizzled old codger playing air guitar and plugging his iPod earbuds into an actual apple. Even with one chord, he manages to sound like he’s playing something new and different.

Fork In The Road is fairly brief and mostly loud, recorded with his latest touring band. It’s just an album, the latest chapter in his life, until he writes another.

Neil Young Fork In The Road (2009)—

Monday, October 18, 2010

Daniel Lanois 3: Shine

In the ten years between his second and third solo albums, Daniel Lanois kept doing what he did best: producing other people’s records. He achieved some acclaim working with Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, and even shared a Grammy for Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind. He also produced the soundtrack to Sling Blade, where his own compositions and selections of covers worked very well both on the screen and in your CD player.

Shine was distributed by the Anti label, then riding high as the new home for Tom Waits. Whatever sales they hoped to get from Lanois are unknown; thematically sits somewhere between his first two albums. The best song is the first track. “I Love You” has exactly two chords, and includes harmonies from Emmylou over a typically swampy sound. Bono shows up on “Falling At Your Feet”, which was likely the focus cut. “As Tears Roll By” gets its rhythm from an old Charley Patton record, and builds sonically on that.

Many of the tracks are instrumental, giving him a chance to show off his proficiency at the pedal steel guitar, pointedly outside of a country & western frame. As with most instrumentals, some provide soothing atmosphere, while others, such as the highly Eno-like “Matador”, suggest doom and gloom.

Shine doesn’t stand out so much as exist, and that’s fine. For all his occasional steps into the spotlight, Daniel Lanois is simply not a frontman. His voice doesn’t need to be as up in the mix as it is, and the hubris that kept For The Beauty Of Wynona from being great is still in evidence. But it’s always nice to hear what he’s got “cooking in the kitchen”, as his liner notes say.

Daniel Lanois Shine (2003)—3

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mick Jagger 2: Primitive Cool

While there are those who defend Dirty Work, the last Stones album before their lengthiest hiatus to date, Mick Jagger’s own opinion spoke volumes when he passed on touring to promote it to work on his next, contract-stipulated solo album instead. Primitive Cool appeared in that strange, Stones-less era, and made little commercial or artistic impact.

This time one of the name producers was David A. Stewart of Eurythmics, who was always better in small doses than taking over an entire album (witness Tom Petty’s Southern Accents, Daryl Hall’s 1986 solo album, and the resounding thud of Bob Geldof’s first album after Live Aid). A laundry list of session people fills the credits, including two future members of Living Colour. In a smart move, Jeff Beck handled a lot of the lead guitar, which helps with overall unity. (Mick toured the album down under and in Japan, with up-and-coming guitarist Joe Satriani on board.)

Musically, it’s a step up from She’s The Boss, with more emphasis on guitars and lyrics than funk and grooves. Despite a few slick touches, “Throwaway” is a catchy single, much more than the ill-advised “Let’s Work”. Maybe we can blame Dave Stewart for this one, but Mick should have known better, at a time when the yuppie-greed-is-good ethic was starting to fade. Likewise, he should have recognized that the main riff of “Radio Control” is very similar to Free’s “All Right Now”. “Say You Will” isn’t that complicated (Dave Stewart again) but is still very catchy. The title track comes off much more dramatic than it needs to be, partially due to the arrangement, but it does approach the concept of an aging Mick explaining himself to his much-younger children, some of whom today are old enough to be the parents of his most recent offspring.

Side two is dominated by three songs. Considering how the album was ignored at the time, it’s striking to listen now and discover that he may well have thrown the musical first punches at Keith, with songs like “Kow Tow”, “Shoot Off Your Mouth”, and “Party Doll” painting respectively hurt, nasty, and resigned portraits of a paramour who let him down (Paddy Moloney’s pipes and whistle providing a lovely counterpoint on the latter). In the middle is “Peace For The Wicked”, a baffling dance song with a rock mix that can’t decide what it’s about. The most ambitious track on the album—and again, while Mick’s financial acumen can be described as ambitious, we wouldn’t necessarily say that about his musical contributions—would be the lengthy last track. Beginning with now-dated synths and continuing with those pipes and whistle, “War Baby” would appear to be some kind of cry for world peace. The melody’s okay, but the sound effects kill any good it could do.

Despite its worst efforts, it’s a very listenable album. Yet while it wasn’t obvious that the Stones were virtually done, Primitive Cool didn’t do much to suggest Mick would be just fine on his own. He needed Keith to spur him on, much like Paul McCartney needed someone like John Lennon to keep him in check (and vice versa). And the fans wanted to hear the Stones.

And the cover art? Good Lord, but that’s just awful.

Mick Jagger Primitive Cool (1987)—3

Saturday, October 16, 2010

John Paul Jones: Zooma and Thunderthief

He was the quietest member of Led Zeppelin, but arguably the most talented. John Paul Jones had already spent the first part of his career as a session rat when he joined Zeppelin on bass and keyboards, and having spent much of that band’s tenure in the shadows of the other three, it wasn’t all that surprising that he didn’t pursue a high-profile solo “career” after the band was finished. Some session work here, some arranging there, but it seems he got the most notice anytime Page and Plant did something together, with or without him.

It wasn’t until the turn of the century that he finally released proper albums under his own name. By then he had hooked up with Robert Fripp’s Discipline Global Mobile operation, which still strives to put the composer and performer first. Indeed, the first two tracks on 1999’s Zooma sound very much in line with that decade’s version of King Crimson, and not just because Trey Gunn is in the credits. The majority of the instrumentation comes from the man whose name is on the spine, via basses of multiple string quantities, lap steel guitars, mandolas and keyboards. (Of the two credited drummers, one is modern session rat Denny Fongheiser, and the other is Pete Thomas, best known from Elvis Costello’s Attractions.) Of the nine tracks, most could qualify as prog, all extremely toe-tapping, with some quieter atmospherics for variety. He even brings in members of the London Symphony Orchestra for one track. The listener will find him or herself looking at the credits to discover that more often than not, it’s Jonesy himself playing the screaming lead.

A tour supporting Zooma (opening up for Crimson) meant he needed to find a band, so he hooked with the rhythm section of a Celtic prog band, including the bass player from Kajagoogoo. They contributed somewhat to The Thunderthief, which begins very much in the Zooma mode, even featuring a guitar solo from Robert Fripp. The first sign that it’s not the same album comes on the title track, where he actually sings. (News flash: this is not a talent kept criminally under wraps all these years.) He also chooses to warble the lyric on “Ice Fishing At Night”, which sometimes overpowers the otherwise haunting “No Quarter”-like piano. Similarly the toothless soccer hooligan delivery on “Angry Angry” is worth skipping, particularly as it leads to a lovely interpretation of the Appalachian standard “Down The River To Pray”. He plays a lot more mandolin in general on this album, providing a wider palette of sound.

For whatever reason, he hasn’t released a third album, seemingly content to collaborate with others, in different genres. As it is, Zooma and The Thunderthief remain enjoyable listens for diehard Zeppelin fans—and certainly Crimson fans—and are at least as enjoyable as some of the stuff Page and Plant did on their own.

John Paul Jones Zooma (1999)—3
John Paul Jones
The Thunderthief (2001)—3

Friday, October 15, 2010

Who 23: Endless Wire

As the new century moved along, Pete continued to explore the possibilities of the Web by releasing official bootlegs of Who shows, as well as the very-well-received The Blues To The Bush, which captured the last tour before John Entwistle died. The survivors’ determination to continue added more fat to the critical fire.

First, there were two new songs on yet another hits collection. Then & Now featured “Real Good Looking Boy”, which might have been better had it not interpolated an old Elvis song, and “Old Red Wine”, a bittersweet tribute to John, alongside another permutation of songs fans owned already. Then came the sporadic mentions of a brand new Who album, prefaced in the UK by an EP of a “mini-opera”. Not an April Fool’s joke, the Wire & Glass EP really did have six shortish songs stuck together—just like “A Quick One While He’s Away”! That’s the extent of the similarity, and fans tried not to hold their breath for the whole album.

Was Endless Wire an instant classic? No. Is it better than It’s Hard, their last “new” album? Oh God yes. Is it nice to hear Roger singing new songs by Pete? Undoubtedly. Will you listen to this album again? Hard to say. It’s not all good, and the ideas in the mini-opera are pretty stumbly, but the spark is definitely there. (Plus, for $10 at Best Buy—the album with extended versions of two tracks, plus a bonus live CD, and a bonus live DVD—it was tough to pass up.)

The opening “Fragments” was developed from Pete’s recent Lifehouse revival, and is no “Baba O’Riley”. “Man In A Purple Dress” is an immediate improvement, a Dylanesque tirade against the hypocrisy of modern religion.

From there, the album is just okay, and only occasionally embarrassing. Pete’s rarely had an idea as badly developed as “Mike Post Theme”, where he tries to justify the use of Who classics on TV shows, and then “In The Ether” is delivered in a raspy character’s voice that sounds like a bad Tom Waits impression. “Black Widow’s Eyes” and “Two Thousand Years” cover recent events, while “God Speaks Of Marty Robbins” gives lyrics to an instrumental recently released on Scoop 3. “It’s Not Enough” and “You Stand By Me” look at devotion from opposite sides of a relationship.

The mini-opera takes up the rest of the album, and even expanded from the EP, it’s just not easy to navigate. Much of it was inspired by his equally impenetrable novella The Boy Who Heard Music, which was something of a sequel to Psychoderelict, if that helps. “Sound Round” and “Pick Up The Peace” evoke Lifehouse, but “Unholy Trinity”, “Trilby’s Piano” and “They Made My Dream Come True” are simply too literal to be appreciated. (“We Got A Hit” should have been kept as short as some of the links on Tommy.) Things improve a bit with the title track, although “Mirror Door” is a swing and a miss. The finale of “Tea And Theater”, at least, provides a moment that can be appreciated outside of its context.

It’s not easy to get excited about a band calling themselves the Who that doesn’t include John Entwistle and Keith Moon. However, in Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son) they finally have a touring drummer that plays enough like Keith without being a complete mimic. (Unfortunately, he was touring with Oasis so he’s not on the album.) Pino Palladino is a competent and unobtrusive bass player, even if he did do an album with John Mayer.

Ultimately, Endless Wire is a gift from Pete to Roger, who wanted to sing his music, and supported him through the turmoil of the past few years. It’s an acknowledgment of their history, knowing that life is short and time is precious. And it is a blessing for the fans, because if this is indeed their last joint musical statement, it’s a much better epitaph than It’s Hard (their last album with John) or even Who Are You (their last album with Keith). Roger and Pete, now both in their 60s, exude such life in what they do, whenever they do it, that they are an inspiration. We should all be so lucky to display such vitality when we get there.

The Who Endless Wire (2006)—3

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pink Floyd 8: Obscured By Clouds

One of the more unfairly overlooked albums in the Floyd canon is this little gem, a soundtrack recorded on a break during the sessions for their next real album. Obscured By Clouds is supposed to accompany a little-seen film about hippies in the jungle called The Valley; chances are the only people who’ve seen it are the few who already own the album, which likely cuts its numbers down a bit.

Unlike their last half-baked attempt at film scoring, Obscured By Clouds includes several decent songs, a few themes, and nothing really embarrassing. The title track is a simple drone with slide over drums, extended into more of a melody on “When You’re In”. “Burning Bridges” is a gentle seesaw of a melody shared by David Gilmour and Rick Wright, which fades just as it’s settling in. “The Gold It’s In The…” provides a good rock stomp, most likely to match some kind of carefree romp in the film, before “Wot’s…Uh The Deal” turns more contemplative. “Mudmen” is an extended instrumental interpolation of “Burning Bridges”, and a good showcase for Hammond organ and lead guitar.

“Childhood’s End” begins with another tenuous fade-in, before emerging as a trademark Floydian beat. Something of a surprise hit comes with “Free Four”, a jaunty acoustic number (punctuated nicely by Gilmour, naturally) that approaches such soon-to-be common subjects as death, war and the music business. “Stay” doesn’t seem to fit in here, being a little too slick for the band, amidst lyrics about a one-night stand that would be better suited for almost any other band from the ‘70s but this one. It’s not the best lead-in for the finale, another rumbling instrumental cut into by some tribal chanting.

Despite the few drawbacks mentioned above, Obscured By Clouds should prove a nice surprise for anyone seeking a decent Floyd album without fear that the songs are being overplayed on the radio. It seemed to be a good exercise for the band, who were able to get back to the matter at hand of completing their newest big thing.

Pink Floyd Obscured By Clouds (1972)—4

Monday, October 11, 2010

Jimmy Page & Robert Plant 2: Walking Into Clarksdale

A mere three years after their “unplugged” show Page and Plant went into Abbey Road Studio, of all places, with Plant’s rhythm section and came out with twelve songs—recorded by hardcore legend Steve Albini, a man who never allowed himself to be credited as “producer”—that were as good as anything either had done since Bonham died. Walking Into Clarksdale has a nice dry sound, delivered by voice, guitar, bass and drums, with only occasional strings. Just as it should be. (In an odd coincidence, the bass player’s surname happens to be Jones.)

“Shining In The Light” starts with a nice sloppy acoustic flourish (more of a slashing, actually) then kicks in with drums and a Mellotron. Add a few electric touches and it’s a good start. “When The World Was Young” has all kinds of light and shade touches and a good driving beat. “Upon A Golden Horse” offers the first Arabic influence, in the vocals and the strings. Anything called “Blue Train” will always have Coltrane connections, but this is an excellent collaboration of colors, complete with a fantastic solo wherein Page gets his fingers stuck between the strings but manages to fight his way out in time. “Please Read The Letter” uses the low end of Plant’s range very well; he even harmonizes expertly with himself, but could he have imagined redoing it with Alison Krauss ten years later? The first single, “Most High”, ends the first half and is one of the weaker tracks, likely included to remind the skeptics of “Kashmir”.

The rest of the album covers ground just as wide, without ever sounding like a retread. “Heart In Your Hand” is a moody one, with a well-paced guitar solo followed by the broken leg shuffle of the title track. “Burning Up” should further please fans of Physical Graffiti. “When I Was A Child” takes the mood down again, building tension and breaking it up through repeated references to being a soldier. Before things get too quiet, “House Of Love” and “Sons Of Freedom” bring on the boogie and keep it loud. (Japan got a bonus track, the derivative “Whiskey From The Glass”, while another excellent song, the spooky “The Window”, was only issued as a B-side and may now be lost forever.)

To their credit, Walking Into Clarksdale was never marketed as a Zeppelin album, and presented as a collaboration between the two stars and the two supporters. They sound really into it, Plant discovering new places to take his voice and Page working well off his friend’s influence. They toured behind the album, and promptly went their separate ways, again. (And what did Jimmy do with the open schedule? First he went on tour with the Black Crowes as his Karaoke band, then took Puff Daddy’s money so the “rap genius” could write new words to the “Kashmir” backing track for a movie soundtrack. Appalling.)

Jimmy Page & Robert Plant Walking Into Clarksdale (1998)—4

Friday, October 8, 2010

Pink Floyd 7: Meddle

This is about where the casual listener should be feeling more comfortable. Meddle is more or less where the classic Pink Floyd sound (as heard on Classic Rock radio) begins. It’s all here: slow thudding bass, spacey guitar made to fill stadiums and otherworldly sounds known only to them.

“One Of These Days” fades out of the mist foretelling doom with that burping bass and a few nightmarish chords, before a middle section that supposedly quotes the Doctor Who theme before Nick Mason recites the full title. Once the drums kick in and the slide solo starts, you forget that it’s only two chords. More slide appears on “A Pillow Of Winds”, a much gentler song to provide a respite. “Fearless” is another song that confounds the listener request lines, with lyrics so quiet as to be indiscernible under a classic rising acoustic riff, before fading away to the sound of the fans at a Liverpool soccer game singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. A pair of mildly silly songs closes the side: the jazzy, summery “San Tropez”, and the stupid blues “Seamus”, named after the dog who howls on it.

As with their previous album, they dedicate a full side to a single composition, and “Echoes” is arguably one of the absolute few 23-minute rock songs that isn’t boring. From the opening ping effect through the verses, each capped by a dramatic descending/ascending riff. True to form, a funky section follows, with Gilmour exploring the limits of his foot pedals, setting us up for the truly frightening centerpiece, a mind movie wherein a frightened bird soars around rocky cliffs against a red sky. Whether it escapes or approaches its peril is unknown, as the ping returns and the band explodes into a cathartic burst of arpeggios, before returning to the verse and resolution, fading away again.

Roughly four years into their recording career and three years after losing Syd, Pink Floyd finally found their own signature sound. In addition, Meddle gave them a new long piece to play in stadiums. America in particular was starting to really take notice.

Pink Floyd Meddle (1971)—4

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Rolling Stones 31: Dirty Work

The Stones signed a multi-million dollar deal with CBS, so their old label responded the only way they could: with a hits album. Rewind went all the way back to “Brown Sugar” up to “Undercover Of The Night”, and was great if you didn’t have all the albums already. (More to the point, it included a lyric sheet and repeated only half of Made In The Shade.)

When Mick put out his first solo album in 1985, we hoped that he got all his desire to dance, dance, dance out of his skinny system, and that the reports of the new Stones album being more of a “Keith project” were accurate. Those hopes were dashed by Dirty Work.

The first bad sign was the cover: even under the red shrinkwrap it was horribly garish, with pastel outfits on the boys (why the hell is Mick sitting that way?) and scribbled lyrics on a neon background on the inside. Another clue that all was not well could be found in the credits. Jimmy Page was an odd choice for guest guitarist, but when no less than three drummers appear on an album that one would assume includes Charlie Watts, it’s not going to be a good ride.

And while we should be used to the Stones including an R&B cover on their albums, “Harlem Shuffle” was a lousy choice for the first preview single. “One Hit (To The Body)” would have introduced it to the world better, and starts off side one well. But then we get more of the same clichés: Mick wants you to “Fight” but “Hold Back”. A pleasant surprise comes with “Too Rude”, wherein Keith gets nice and buried within a dub setting.

Side two is mostly trapped by the times, with synthesized horns and a much-too-funky bassline all over “Winning Ugly”, and the social commentary of “Back To Zero” just doesn’t work. The title track at least brings back the guitars, which also drive “Had It With You”, a toe-tapper that also sports a nicely slowed-down “Midnight Rambler” nod. Keith nearly gets the last word on “Sleep Tonight”, a slow burner that suggest he should write more of Mick’s lyrics. But the album at least ends on a touch of class, with a snippet of recently departed confidant, pianist and tour manager Ian Stewart playing “Key To The Highway”.

Despite the hype, or perhaps because of it, Dirty Work sank like… well, like a stone. With no tour, mixed reviews and Mick and Keith avoiding each other when necessary, it was looking like the last Stones album. Which would have been a disgusting way to go out, and an insult to their legacy.

The Rolling Stones Rewind (1971-1984) (1984)—4
Current CD equivalent: none
Rolling Stones Dirty Work (1986)—2

Monday, October 4, 2010

U2 12: Best Of 1980-1990

While the band kept up their profile as one of the biggest concert attractions worldwide who waited longer and longer between albums, they and/or their label decided to take the occasional look back. The Best Of 1980-1990, released in the lull following the Pop Mart tour, delivered just that, offering all the hit singles and live staples (save “Gloria”) in no real order, editing some here and there, and cramming all the Rattle And Hum tracks at the end. In keeping with the new tradition, there was one new track, a nice reworking of the Joshua Tree B-side “Sweetest Thing”. You know all the songs already, but as a collection of that first decade, it’s really got everything, even the surprise addition of “October” hidden after “All I Want Is You”. (One big quibble: since the boy from Boy was shown a few years older on War, wouldn’t it have been at the very least intriguing to have a current photo on the cover, instead of another old shot for the pederasts?)

For fans, of course, the real fun was to be had with the supposedly limited edition of the album, which included an hour’s worth of B-sides. Rather than digging up pricey imported singles, fans could now enjoy a seamless run through such buried nuggets as “Luminous Times”, “Spanish Eyes” and the original “Trash, Trampoline And The Party Girl”, and marvel at the instrumentals “Bass Trap” and “Endless Deep”. Of course, they also had to sit through lesser cuts like “Walk To The Water” and the five uninspired covers and two-chord sketches from the Rattle And Hum era. (To date, those five are the only ones yet to have been collected on a Deluxe Edition.)

Such quibbles are moot when the quality of the hits is considered. And since the years in the title only touched on U2’s first ten years, the chances were pretty good that there would be a similarly stacked sequel ere long. Stay tuned.

U2 The Best Of 1980-1990 (1998)—4

Friday, October 1, 2010

Who 22: What’s Left

With the BBC set, The Who’s catalog revamp was basically complete from the labels’ standpoint, and probably Pete’s too. There would be some surprises to be had on the various two-disc Deluxe Editions of My Generation, Live At Leeds, Who’s Next, Tommy, and Sell Out (this being the order in which they emerged), but to this day a pile of once-available rarities are still buried, and some aren’t available at all. Here’s a look at some of those, many of which are certainly worthy of wider renown, and some of which deserve easier access than pricey boxes.

  • “Substitute”: The American single mix had a different vocal to cover the possibly offensive (to racists) line describing the singer’s heritage. It appeared on a bonus EP included with the first edition of 2002’s Ultimate Collection, along with a rare mix of “I’m A Boy”, an alternate “Happy Jack” and another rare mix of “Magic Bus” that wasn’t the one people really wanted.
  • “Circles”: The Who recorded this twice—once with Shel Talmy as included on the My Generation Deluxe Edition, and again for the Ready Steady Who EP. All the other tracks from that EP were included on the A Quick One CD, but this was left off. It was even left off the stereo upgrade that snuck out in 2002. Both are now available on the five-CD Maximum As & Bs box.
  • “I’m A Boy”: The longer version included on Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy is a different recording than the single, complete with an additional verse. It also could have been included on the Quick One CDs.
  • “Run Run Run”: When A Quick One appeared on CD in 1995, this was the only album track included in stereo, the rest of the album being in mono. The aforementioned stereo upgrade kept the mono “Run Run Run” unavailable. All of which makes us wonder why they haven’t put out a Deluxe Edition of A Quick One, with the stereo album on one disc and the mono on the other, with whatever other nuggets they can find.
  • “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”: This John Entwistle classic, a thinly veiled tribute to his road roommate Keith, was released in two separate but distinctly different versions—one on an American B-side and later included on the Magic Bus album, and the other as a British B-side. The British mix was finally made available on Maximum As & Bs; both were included in the massive Super Deluxe Edition of Sell Out.
  • “Magic Bus”: The absence of the long version of this song is another reason why Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy should have been included as is in the catalog rollout. Eventually some Japanese CDs offered it, before it was finally included on 2014’s The Who Hits 50! (and then again in the Super Deluxe Sell Out).
  • “Eyesight To The Blind”: A version with a lower-pitched vocal from Roger appeared on the Mobile Fidelity gold CD of Tommy. It certainly could have been included on the Deluxe Edition of Tommy, along with the other Mose Allison covers allegedly recorded at the time.
  • “Here For More”: The second of exactly two Roger Daltrey compositions in the canon was the B-side of “The Seeker”, and could have been included on either of the first two Who’s Next reissues, but was probably left off due to its lack of connection with the Lifehouse concept. This was rectified with the 2023 Super Deluxe Edition, after finally appearing on Maximum As & Bs.
  • “When I Was A Boy”: This excellent Entwistle song was recorded during the Who’s Next sessions but relegated to a B-side. It should not have been left off any upgrade of that album, but also had to wait until the Super Deluxe, with the same detour through Maximum As & Bs.
  • “Pinball Wizard”-“See Me Feel Me”-“Baby Don’t You Do It”: Most of a performance from the Young Vic Theater in London was included on the Who’s Next Deluxe Edition, with the exception of four songs. (“Bony Moronie” from this show, which had snuck out on an obscure British single in 1988, was on the Thirty Years Of Maximum R&B box set, as well as in Maximum As & Bs.) The full concert was included in the Super Deluxe, but even before that this entry was admittedly nitpicky.
  • “Baby Don’t You Do It”: Several concerts from late 1971 were recorded but only slightly plundered over the years. This blistering track, different from the version above, was the B-side of the “Join Together” single, and had to wait until Maximum As & Bs to be widely available again, then included, unedited, with the rest of this particular San Francisco show on the Who’s Next Super Deluxe.
  • “Goin’ Down”: Among the obscurities on Two’s Missing—along with “My Wife”—was this live trainwreck of a Freddie King cover, from the same Frisco show. John’s liner notes say it all: “It was obviously something Roger and Pete heard but I hadn’t.” It too was finally included on the Who’s Next Super Deluxe. (As was “My Wife”, plus “Bargain” from this show, which was on Who’s Missing, and excerpted on the Thirty Years box.)
  • “Join Together”: Legend had the original mix of this song running over seven minutes. The “unedited remix” that appeared on the Who’s Next Super Deluxe is just over six, so maybe that’s it.
  • “Wasp Man”: This Keith Moon opus features the same three chords repeated over “hilarious” vocals and rhythmic sniffing. It escaped as a B-side, presumably to get Keith some extra royalties. The updated Odds & Sods would have been the most obvious home for this; if you must have it, it’s on Maximum As & Bs, and still a cheaper option than—you guessed it—the Who’s Next Super Deluxe.
  • “Can’t You See I’m Easy”-“Ladies In The Female Jail”: The Who recorded an album’s worth of material in 1972 before Pete decided it sounded too much like Who’s Next and morphed some of the songs into the Quadrophenia concept. Some tracks came out as singles, and others appeared on Odds & Sods; these two were apparently recorded but have only been heard as bootlegged Pete demos.
  • “Dancing In The Street”: This Motown cover was recorded live in 1979 and later released as a B-side. It has not been heard from since.

    If some of the songs above had been included on the CDs as suggested, that only leaves a handful of leftovers that, given some shuffling to eliminate repetition, should have been on the 1998 upgrade of Odds & Sods. And we can’t state enough that Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy should have been upgraded in the ‘90s too.

    Whether these would ever again appear officially was impossible to say considering how oddly their catalog has been handled even since the attempt to consolidate in the ‘90s. Meanwhile, no less than four official hits collections appeared over the first decade of the 21st century, with only slight variations in their track sequences amid the occasional single edit. (Even the genuinely exciting From A Backstage Pass, a Keith-era live retrospective available only as an expensive premium from their fan club, got plundered for the retail-available Greatest Hits Live, which sported a disc full of inferior highlights from Join Together and more recent recordings, at the expense of several superior 1971 performances.)

    Indeed, the reissue trend has leaned heavily toward the Super Deluxe Edition and vinyl reproductions, all at great expenses to the average consumer, and trying for the dedicated fan. Any true rarities to be found will be scattered among yet further remasters of songs we have already, repeatedly.