Monday, November 29, 2010

David Bowie 30: Hours

Bowie was certainly one of the first artists to embrace the Internet as a social tool as well as a promotional one. His next stunt was to have a contest wherein one of his subscribers would write lyrics for a song he’d then record for his next album. He made good on the offer, too.

‘hours…’ was hailed by some as a return to the Hunky Dory era, but don’t let that fool you. While the overall sound is more low-key and reflective, and his shaggy haircut was impressive for a guy his age, was he happy? For the most part he sounds pensive, a little melancholy, and the tempo isn’t anywhere as frenetic as his last two albums.

The immediate low-key sound of “Thursday’s Child” heralds the return of the Bowie croon, and if only there were less Holly Palmer cooing in the mix. While his take on the Thunderclap Newman song would probably be welcome, this particular song with the title “Something In The Air” isn’t, tethered to his wobbly vocal. Worse, it drags. “Survive”, the mildly grungy “If I’m Dreaming My Life” with its double-time shift, and “Seven” all mine the same depressed territory, though the latter track, for all its simplicity, has the melody that sticks.

Things pick up a bit in the second half, starting with “What’s Really Happening?”, written by the aforementioned contest winner. It does give the album the kick it needs, as furthered in “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell”, a nod to an old Iggy Pop song. “New Angels Of Promise” and “The Dreamers” stay upbeat, but in between comes “Brilliant Adventure”, an instrumental cut from the same cloth as side two of “Heroes” and tracks like “Crystal Japan”.

‘hours…’ isn’t very exciting, but it’s not awful. But after three full decades in the business, it would have been nice if Bowie still wowed us. As it turns out, many of these songs were originally written for the soundtrack of a video game, which shows where his head was at. (Some of those versions appear on the bonus disc of the reissue, alongside demos, remixes and outtakes. Clearly, he was full of ideas, some but not all of them good.)

David Bowie ‘hours…’ (1999)—
2005 limited 2CD edition: same as 1999, plus 17 extra tracks

Friday, November 26, 2010

Velvet Underground 2: White Light/White Heat

Nico was gone, and the band carried on. To make up for her absence, they turned the volume up to 11 and didn’t hardly let up at all on White Light/White Heat.

The title track is an amphetamine onslaught, all distorted with quasi-doo-wop vocals up until the big blast of a finish in two minutes fifty—just right for Top 40 radio! The full-on promise of “Waiting For The Man” and “European Son” gets multiplied here. “The Gift” provides a much different listening experience entirely, split into extreme stereo with the two-chord jam on one side, and John Cale’s recitation of Lou’s short story of the rise and fall of Waldo and Marsha in the other. Best of all, it doesn’t get stale on repeat listens. A less penetrable tale is told in “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, where the vocals and vocalizations swap over a near-baroque backing, an approach that continues on “Here She Comes Now”, the quietest song on the album.

Which isn’t saying much, because side two isn’t quiet at all. “I Heard Her Call My Name” is a mere prelude of constantly soloing guitars over a relentless beat and lyrics that almost seem like an afterthought. You can just barely hear the chord changes beneath the guitar. But it’s only a setup for “Sister Ray”. These seventeen minutes of three chords have influenced more than their share of bands, but few can match the steady metronomic beat under the battle between the organ and guitars. It’s not easy listening, and it’s either loved or hated. But if you’ve gotten this far, you’ll want more.

White Light/White Heat can be seen as the antidote to the Summer of Love, starting off a tumultuous year with an assault to the senses. It would be the last true collaboration between Reed and Cale for twenty years, which is too bad, because they work together so well here. In only two albums, this band managed to create a sound that has been so influential in the over forty years since it happened. So much so that the participants have been trying to live up to it ever since.

With impeccable timing, Lou Reed left the planet just after approving the expanded editions of the album, giving the project a publicity boost. The Deluxe Edition added the five songs featuring Cale familiar from VU and Another View, an alternate “I Heard Her Call My Name” and a never-before-heard early take of “Beginning To See The Light”. The legendary April 1967 concert at the Gymnasium is included as well, rather than appearing as part of their stillborn “Bootleg Series”. (The Super Deluxe Edition had all that plus a big book, and a third disc with mono mixes, single mixes and new vocal- and instrument-only mixes of “The Gift”.)

The Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat (1968)—4
2013 Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 14 extra tracks (45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition adds another 10 tracks)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pink Floyd 10: Wish You Were Here

So Pink Floyd were officially worldwide superstars. Now what? Certainly that’s what their new American label wanted to know, and luckily for everyone involved, the band found their way into another exploration of the concepts they’d successfully mined on their big hit. Wish You Were Here is a return to the fabric of the sidelong composition balanced with shorter tracks, but here the idea of an eternal loop is accomplished by splitting the magnum opus in half, with the shorter songs in between.

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is that opus, listed as being in nine parts that are pretty easy to identify if you’re paying attention. It begins with some thick synthesizers, eventually joined by a bluesy guitar. Then a four-note phrase appears to stand the hairs on your neck. Another instrumental section eventually leads into the vocal, which takes two verses before giving way to a sax solo. The overwhelming feeling of futility is underscored by the mechanized pulse that drives “Welcome To The Machine”, which for some reason turns into a spaceship landing at a cocktail party.

“Have A Cigar” (a.k.a. the one that goes “Oh by the way which one’s Pink?”) delivers a similar funk feel as “Money” on the last album, but this particular slap at the music biz is sung by folkie Roy Harper. Another whooshing effect gives way to the title track, coming first from a radio speaker before springing to full stereo splendor with the acoustic guitar. The wind returns to blow the song away, leaving the remainder of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” in its place. A slide guitar picks up the pace, skidding all over before bringing us back to the verse and a chorus, followed by a longer exploration of the forlorn arpeggios heard near the end of the first half. An altogether different theme closes the piece, resolving on a major chord.

Thanks to Classic Rock radio, Wish You Were Here is another Pink Floyd album that has suffered from over-saturation, as the three shorter songs are still in heavy rotation. But the brilliance of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” holds everything together, and makes it worth hearing the “hits” again.

Naturally, thanks to the album’s commercial popularity, it too was blessed with expansion in the screw-the-economy-let’s-rerelease-everything-a-third-or-fourth-time climate of the 21st century. The Experience Edition adds an interesting selection of music. Three more songs from the Wembley show already mined for the 2011 Dark Side sets appear, including “Raving And Drooling” and “You’ve Gotta Be Crazy”, which would be retooled for Animals. The balance is given over to three embryonic tracks: a snippet from the abandoned “Household Objects” project, an early mix of “Have A Cigar” before Roy Harper walked in, and a lengthy “Wish You Were Here” with a clean intro and the famous buried violin solo by Stéphane Grappelli. (Those who sprung for the Immersion Edition got all that plus quad mixes, surround mixes and concert background films on two DVDs. And a book. And a scarf. And a bag of marbles. And some beer coasters. And other stuff.)

Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here (1975)—4
2011 Experience Edition: same as 1975, plus 6 extra tracks
2011 Immersion Edition: same as Experience, plus 2 DVDs and 1 Blu-Ray

Monday, November 22, 2010

Todd Rundgren 7: Initiation

Utopia may have been an outlet for some of Todd Rundgren’s more ambitious musical experiments, but he was still considering himself as a solo entity on its own. Initiation offers a typical grab bag of styles, yet just as determined to test the endurance of his rabid fan base.

“Real Man” is a pop song and obvious single, heavy on keyboards with plenty of soul. However, “Born To Synthesize” takes its soul a little too seriously, an a cappella performance treated with echo and phasing that distracts from the “message”. Before anyone took him to be too far above tangible matters, “The Death Of Rock And Roll” turns up the guitar to complain about critics who complain about him, who “get [their] records for nothin’ and call each other names”. The questioning continues in “Eastern Intrigue”, which namechecks almost as many deity candidates as it does tempos and meters. It still makes a smooth transition to the title track, which hearkens back to the Utopia album, despite a saxophone solo by David Sanborn. “Fair Warning” brings back the Philly sound with a near-Hey Love Soul Classics arrangement, complete with a fake Barry White monologue at the top and a reprise of “Real Man” for the fade.

The fair warning and goodbye stated on side one becomes particularly prophetic on side two, a 35-minute instrumental simply titled “A Treatise On Cosmic Fire”. Mostly performed on synthesizers, it comes in three parts (played out of order) with an intro and outro and pretty heavy sounding subtitles with seemingly Hindu connotations about the seven chakras, until you notice that section two of part one is subtitled “Bam, Bham, Mam, Yam, Ram, Lam, Thank You, Mahm”. It’s all very well constructed, with a few catchy sections and themes that seem to recur, but somehow we get the feeling that it was composed to give him something to meditate to.

With Initiation, Todd’s still determined to see who’ll keep with him; clearly he didn’t have time for people seeking catchy hits. The sound of the album didn’t help; with over half an hour crammed onto each side, the sleeve came with a warning that if you had a less-than-pristine needle the output would suffer. He even suggested taping the album and listening to that instead (horrors!). Maybe he needed to edit himself, because more doesn’t necessarily equal more here.

Todd Rundgren Initiation (1975)—2

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mark Knopfler 1: Notting Hillbillies and Chet Atkins

While the world, or at least part of it, wondered what was up with Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler emerged as part of an outfit dubbed the Notting Hillbillies, with a very Dire Straits-like single in “Your Own Sweet Way”. Unfortunately for listeners, that was Knopfler’s only lead vocal on an album mostly made up of traditional songs and country covers. Missing… Presumed Having A Good Time was presented as a collaboration with British pickers Steve Phillips and Brendan Croker, with Dire Straits keyboardist Guy Fletcher, future Dire Straits member Paul Franklin on pedal steel, and the band’s manager Ed Bicknell credited on drums.

The album does provide a breadth of material made for coffee bars and bookstores of the next decade. With its insistent anvil effect, “Railroad Worksong” is better known as “Take This Hammer”, while “Bewildered” is much toned down from James Brown’s version. “Run Me Down” follows the pattern of “Setting Me Up” and “Sound Bound Again” until the vocals start, though “One Way Gal” has a distinct Caribbean feel, or even reminiscent of a luau. You can almost hear Mark harmonizing on “Blues Stay Away From Me” and “Please Baby”, but only barely. “Will You Miss Me?” and “That’s Where I Belong” bring songwriting royalties to Phillips and Croker respectively, and we presume they’re duetting on the Louvin Brothers’ “Weapon Of Prayer”. Outside of the single, the album’s highlight is Charlie Rich’s immortal “Feel Like Going Home”.

The soft, smooth tone of the album was mirrored a few months later on an album billed as a Knopfler collaboration with the legendary Chet Atkins. Neck And Neck offered more adult contemporary country music played by twenty agile fingers supported by such Nashville legends as Steve Warinier, Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, and Vince Gill. Roughly half the album is vocal; the modern updates of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” and “Yakety Axe” are cute, if a little cringey today. The balance is made up of more cinematic vocal-less pieces, such as “So Soft, Your Goodbye” and “Tears” by Grappelli and Reinhardt. “Tahitian Skies” is something of a cross between “Why Worry” and “Waterloo Sunset”, while “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is taken at a jaunty pace. Don Gibson is covered twice, in an instrumental of “Sweet Dreams”, and a Knopfler vocal on “Just One Time”. “Poor Boy Blues” and “The Next Time I’m In Town” are templates for the solo career he’d start in earnest one day.

While not exactly what fans wanted, these two albums fit well together, both conceptually as well as time-wise on a Maxell 90-minute tape. They kept Mark Knopfler’s name in the trades while the rest of Dire Straits waited for the phone to ring, and were more commercial than his occasional soundtracks. Although the Notting Hillbillies didn’t line the pockets of its “other” members with gold, Neck And Neck brought Chet Atkins back into favor in the ‘90s.

The Notting Hillbillies Missing… Presumed Having A Good Time (1990)—3
Chet Atkins/Mark Knopfler
Neck And Neck (1990)—3

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dire Straits 7: Money For Nothing

While it wasn’t revealed in a major press release or even mentioned at the time—despite what Wikipedia says, because we would’ve remembered—Dire Straits had broken up following their lengthy tour promoting Brothers In Arms. The band was exhausted, and Mark Knopfler was happy to concentrate on scoring films.

With even less fanfare, an album called Money For Nothing snuck out toward the end of 1988; this turned out to be something of a hits collection, not that the title nor the video-inspired artwork made that clear. The tracklist ran mostly chronologically through their handful of albums, beginning naturally with “Sultans Of Swing” and “Down To The Waterline”. Then we’re surprised with a live version of “Portobello Belle”, which is dated June 1983 in the briefest of album notes, making it something of an outtake from Alchemy. (In fact, it would have been played right before that little jig that segues into the first introduction to “Tunnel Of Love”.) Just to mess with us, a “remix” of “Twisting By The Pool” comes next, and only after that do we jump back to “Tunnel Of Love” and “Romeo & Juliet”. Then, for no reason we’ve been able to establish, it’s an alternate take of “Where Do You Think You’re Going”.

For a jolt, except for those who just flipped their record or cassette, “Walk Of Life” wheezes in, followed by a slightly edited “Private Investigations”. What’s called a “remix” of “Telegraph Road” from Alchemy runs only 12 minutes, followed by shorter versions of the default title track and “Brothers In Arms”.

As nutty as that all is, it’s still a good way to spend an hour, even given the fact that most of the people who bought the album would have already owned the three songs from Brothers In Arms. Those consumers weren’t part of the marketing plan ten years later when the more pointedly titled Sultans Of Swing: The Very Best Of Dire Straits replaced Money For Nothing as their official compilation. This time the sequence was strictly chronological and filled to capacity, dropping the two alternates representing Communiqué for “Lady Writer” and swapping the live “Telegraph Road” for the live “Love Over Gold”. “So Far Away” joined its brothers, as did three songs from On Every Street and two more later live versions. At least they kept “Twisting By The Pool”. That song was a glaring omission from 2005’s Private Investigations: The Best Of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler, which was made available in single-disc and double-disc versions, both leaning on Knopfler’s solo work. A duet with Emmylou Harris was the only real carrot, at least until their collaborative album came out the following year.

All this has only made the original Money For Nothing album grow in stature, considering that it’s now been out of print for decades, and some of its highlights remain elusive. The band didn’t have a lot of official rarities, but it sure would be nice if they could be revived.

Dire Straits Money For Nothing (1988)—4
Current CD availability: none
Dire Straits Sultans Of Swing: The Very Best Of Dire Straits (1998)—
Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler
Private Investigations: The Best Of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler (2005)—3

Friday, November 19, 2010

David Bowie 29: Earthling

In a demonstration of the philosophy that fast work equals better results, Earthling appeared with little warning. Recorded very quickly (for Bowie) with his touring band—now including the incredible Gail Ann Dorsey on bass—it was released within a month of his 50th birthday. Apparently the new sound he liked was called “jungle”. While still steeped in modern dance culture, by sticking to songs he ended up with an album that didn’t need a lot of attention to enjoy.

“Little Wonder” was a striking first single, driven by all that speedy percussion, a great Cockney vocal and lyrics that mention all seven dwarves. “Looking For Satellites” doesn’t have much in the way of words, but it moves along with a typically out-there Reeves Gabrels guitar solo. More sped-up percussion drives “Battle For Britain (The Letter)”—there’s that good ol’ Cockney voice again—with a great chorus to match and a trademark Mike Garson interlude. (Our favorite part is the high-speed digital scanning before the track catches up with the chorus.) “Seven Years In Tibet” finally gives us a slowish song, with elements of his past in the saxophone and a Farfisa organ emulating a Stylophone.

With that driving F-to-G riff, “Dead Man Walking” is hypnotic as it is, but particularly worth seeking out is the acoustic version as performed on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Unfortunately, “Telling Lies”, despite having been released early as an Internet-only single, sounds a little too much like some of the other jungle tracks. Similarly, “The Last Thing You Should Do” comes off as more of a groove than a song. “I’m Afraid Of Americans” got all the attention thanks to Trent Reznor’s appearance in the video (as well as his remixes of the song, some of which are naturally included on the expanded reissue). And yes, it’s a pretty catchy tune. The album ends strangely with the dated synths on “Law (Earthling On Fire)”, which does nothing so much as remind us of some of the less horrible moments on Black Tie White Noise.

Between recording, touring and running his own interactive website, Bowie was having the time of his life. His creativity is obvious on Earthling, leading back to that age-old question, “What’ll he do next?” Even if you didn’t like all the stops on his journey, at least he was keeping it interesting. (The eventual expanded version added a disc full of remixes and alternate versions of varying interest, including “Seven Years In Tibet” sung in Mandarin.)

David Bowie Earthling (1997)—3
2005 limited 2CD edition: same as 1997, plus 13 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

David Bowie 28: Outside

A common misconception is that Brian Eno produced the albums in Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy. He didn’t; he merely co-wrote and performed on them. Therefore it was A Big Deal when Outside was announced, as he and Bowie were indeed the producers. The first of three projected collaborations between the two (the rest of the alleged trilogy never materialized), it was supposed to be a projection into the future with a story about “art-crime”; instead it came off as an elaborate inside joke. For the most part it’s a harsh, jarring muddle, without a lot of memorable melody amidst all the texture and spoken interludes in accents attributed to various characters. The homemade artwork, most likely created on Bowie’s Power Mac and incorporating several actual paintings, didn’t help explain anything, least of all the plot.

In addition to Eno, the album brought together a handful of names from Bowie’s past, from Carlos Alomar to Tin Machine’s Reeves Gabrels, along with more recent collaborator Erdil Kizilcay. Pianist Mike Garson gets to do his thing as well. Apparently those present jammed for several hours, after which Bowie got around to writing the songs. Those, however, seemed beside the point.

“Leon Takes Us Outside” is basically an atmospheric intro with mumbled voices, before the title track bursts through to frequently insist that “it’s happening outside.” “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” was the first single, and a decent teaser for the better, more contemporary elements of the album. “A Small Plot Of Land” features a compelling vocal unfortunately fighting against three different jazzy accompaniments for an extreme challenge of patience. After an unsettling spoken segue from the plot’s murder victim, “Hallo Spaceboy” is an excellent meld of power and melody. “The Motel” gradually builds over six minutes from a moody Garson piece to a full-fledged song with a slow yet driving beat. “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” seems to want to push the story along, with some catchy choruses, but it just goes too long without really going anywhere.

“No Control” isn’t much more than a groove, until he starts to channel Scott Walker on the bridges. A two-minute monologue by one Algeria Touchshriek leads to “The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)”, where the seemingly incongruous vocal eventually finds its way to the backing, ending the track well. Another seque with an annoyingly manipulated voice subjects us to the thoughts of Ramona A. Stone, coupled without indexing with the equally irritating “I Am With Name”. “Wishful Beginnings” sports beats and keyboards very typical of Eno in the ‘90s, so it would be nice to hear the track with the vocals. The high-speed robotic “We Prick You” stands on its own as a song despite the voice effects, then a brief commentary by Nathan Adler takes up space before the croony “I’m Deranged”, halfway through which Mike Garson falls on the piano a few times. “Thru’ These Architect’s Eyes” in another strong track sadly shackled to whatever the plot is, followed by another interjection from Nathan Adler. Perhaps hedging his bets, “Strangers When We Meet” is a complete remake of the Buddha Of Suburbia track and the album’s closer.

There’s probably a good album buried inside Outside, but it’s just not that easy to hear. Whatever the grand concept was is simply not easy to follow, even with the narration on a disc crammed to capacity. But Bowie seemed happy to let the Eno hype and his association with yet another record label drive the initial promotional push, and was able to ride the back of Nine Inch Nails, whose abrasive style seemed to resonate with self-flagellating goth posers in the nineties. (Naturally, Trent Reznor loved the album, and his remix of “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” was among other remixes on the two-CD reissue, along with the lesser leftover “Nothing To Be Desired” and the anachronistic “Get Real”.)

David Bowie Outside (1995)—2
2004 limited 2CD edition: same as 1995, plus 14 extra tracks

Monday, November 15, 2010

Neil Young 42: Archives Vol. I

Pigs flew, hell froze over, and the first set of Neil’s Archives finally came out, looking not all that different than from what had been rumored. A true multimedia experience, the hoopla centered around the most deluxe version, that being the Blu-Ray edition, wherein the listener could scroll through the information on each disc while any track played. This version—as well as the DVD edition, with all the content but not the ease-of-access—was also chock full of extra video and audio files, photos, and memorabilia, with a thick book and even the Journey Through The Past film on its own disc.

As a gesture to those fans who couldn’t swing the two hundred plus dollars for the Blu-Ray or DVD version (plus whatever it cost for a player to hear it on), Neil also made Archives Vol. I available as an eight-CD set—just the music, no visuals, outside of a slim booklet detailing track info. (The DVD and Blu-ray sets did include the Sugar Mountain installment, which was nice of them.)

The set begins appropriately with a few tracks by his first band The Squires, who apparently thought of themselves as a surf outfit. Once he started writing and singing his own songs, it’s clear that the Beatles were a big influence. We get to hear early versions of songs, such as “I Wonder” (which would become “Don’t Cry No Tears” on Zuma). A failed audition for Elektra includes some melodies we recognize from elsewhere, and before we know it he’s in Buffalo Springfield. A few repeats from their box set, album tracks and outtakes alike, are bolstered by the long-lost “Slowly Burning” and “Sell Out”. By the end of the disc he’s exponentially progressed as a songwriter.

The second disc (Topanga 1) covers the sessions for his first solo album, including alternate mixes and early versions of “Birds” and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”. Then he meets Crazy Horse and starts working on that album. But first he does a club tour, which provides the basis for the Live From The Riverboat disc. Recorded three months after the Canterbury House show, his mood here seems a little cranky. Perhaps it’s the presence of Springfield bass player Bruce Palmer in the crowd? Whatever the case, he does a few different songs from his debut, plus an unfinished song called “1956 Bubblegum Disaster” and the “Whisky Boot Hill” section of what would become “Country Girl”.

Topanga 2 finishes Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and begins After The Gold Rush, but with a detour into Déjà Vu. Here we get the legendary outtakes “Everybody’s Alone” and “Dance Dance Dance”, the live rarity “It Might Have Been”, and “Sea Of Madness” with CSN. The Fillmore East and Massey Hall discs bookend Topanga 3, wherein Neil finishes After The Gold Rush (but leaves “Wonderin’” in the can) and tours (again) with CSN.

He’s truly hit his stride by the North Country disc, which covers the widespread recording sessions for Harvest. Highlights include “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” and “Journey Through The Past” with the Stray Gators, the first release of “War Song” since 1972, and an alternate mix of “Soldier”. (We also get the 15-minute version of “Words” that took up one side of Journey Through The Past.)

It’s an ambitious project, and one can be happy for Neil that he was finally able to see it come to fruition in a form he approved. It is, however, far from perfect. For starters, not all of the CDs are filled to capacity; this is likely to mirror the contents of the Blu-Ray or DVD, which would be full of all the extras. While outtakes abound, it doesn’t include every song from each of his solo albums up to 1972. Chronologically, “Love In Mind” from Time Fades Away belongs on disc eight, but as Neil has disowned that album, the version of the song on the Massey Hall disc should suffice. And of course, those who’d already bought the recent Fillmore East and Massey Hall CDs would be irritated that they’re here again. But hey, we’d been warned. And he didn’t owe us a damn thing. Meanwhile, the interminable countdown began for Volume II.

Neil Young Archives Vol. I: 1963-1972 (2009)—4

Friday, November 12, 2010

Velvet Underground 1: The Velvet Underground & Nico

The going cliché was that while the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many copies of their albums, everyone who did went out and formed their own band. While this has yet to be proven, it is safe to say that for the better part of two decades, all anyone knew about the band’s music came from Lou Reed albums, the occasional cover and the raves of critics.

A good deal of that changed in 1985, when PolyGram vault guru Bill Levenson pushed for the reissue of the band’s first three (long out-of-print) LPs, along with a collection of outtakes. All four albums were hyped by the usual critics (Kurt Loder going so far as to contribute liner notes to the common inner sleeve) but the overwhelming favorite was the debut, credited as always to the band plus the extra singer they’d picked up along the way.

The Velvet Underground & Nico treads a line between catchy ‘60s pop and what would eventually be called punk. Despite being hailed as a decadent band, “Sunday Morning” begins with a celeste, of all things, before an especially breathy Lou Reed vocal takes over. (It was, after all, his band.) Things get a little gritty with “I’m Waiting For The Man”, a fairly overt description of scoring dope. Nico finally shows up on “Femme Fatale”, something of a German doo-wop number, and a lovely song despite the attack on its subject. It’s a brief respite before “Venus In Furs”, featuring John Cale’s viola in full scrape over sado-masochistic references. More drugs turn up in “Run Run Run”, a perfectly snotty song just this side of melodic. Nico returns for the elegant yet foreboding “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, one of their most mesmerizing numbers.

Just in case you thought they were just another garage band, side two kicks off with the extremely blatant “Heroin”, which goes out of its way to describe the rush of the drug via the tempo and viola. But the pop returns for “There She Goes Again”, which could have been a hit single, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, which couldn’t have been since they let Nico sing it. The last two songs are certainly non-commercial, straight out of the art world. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” puts rapid-fire lyrics under a seesawing viola, and the band finally gets to replicate their live sound with the full-on assault of “European Son”.

As with many things he put his name to, The Velvet Underground & Nico gained most of its notoriety over the years due to Andy Warhol’s cover design and blatant production credit, emblazoned below the banana that peeled Colorforms-style. He may have designed the cover, but the actual producer was Tom Wilson, who’d recently worked with Frank Zappa after having been bounced from Bob Dylan’s sessions. Whoever was behind the desk, the overall sound comes straight from the heads and hands of the band itself, with all the grime in place. It was an astounding debut, and certainly ahead of its time.

The album was an excellent candidate for a Deluxe Edition when the Universal label started doing those, and it doesn’t disappoint. It appears in both its original stereo and mono mixes, having been recorded at a time when mono was still a common seller. Because the label considered the possibility of having hits, four tracks also appear in their single mixes, alongside five VU-related tracks from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album, released later in 1967 to even fewer sales.

Ten years later, Universal continued their “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” policy by issuing a so-called “Super Deluxe” six-disc version of the album. This time the Chelsea Girl tracks on the stereo disc have been replaced by alternate takes, so that the entire Chelsea Girl album is included as the third disc. An early acetate of working mixes is bolstered by a much-booted rehearsal excerpt (including the band playing Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” while Lou recites the lyrics of “Venus In Furs” to Nico, who also sings lead on a take of “There She Goes Again”), and a complete concert from November 1966 is spread across the fifth and sixth discs (beginning with the 28-minute “Melody Laughter”, edited down to ten minutes for the Peel Slowly And See box). Essential for fanatics, certainly, but even they would object to having to purchase half of the contents for the third or fourth time.

The Velvet Underground & Nico The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)—
2002 Deluxe Edition: same as 1967, plus 20 extra tracks
2012 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition: same as Deluxe Edition, plus 34 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pink Floyd 9: The Dark Side Of The Moon

Having pioneered space rock and songs that took up a whole album side, it was almost odd for Pink Floyd to deliver a record with tracks of digestible size. But The Dark Side Of The Moon is no ordinary album. Here the band found inspiration in a variety of moods and ideas, loosely connected around the concept of madness, but without making the concept so overt they couldn’t be enjoyed on their own.

As with the rest of their work going forward, the album is something of a loop, where the “beginning” can be considered a continuation on the “end”, as the cycle continues eternally. Here, “Speak To Me” provides something of an overture, mixing a heartbeat with snippets of clocks, cash registers and laughter, before giving way to the dreamy jam in “Breathe”. “On The Run” follows a claustrophobic chase through airports and down highways, over a maddening synthesizer sequence into a terrific explosion. The pealing of bells beginning “Time” are jarring no matter how many times you’ve heard them. This track features David Gilmour at his best vocally and on lead guitar, right to the reprise of “Breathe”. “The Great Gig In The Sky” manages to balance a minor-key piano-led jam with the otherworldly wordless screams of some poor woman.

Side two also brings five songs together in a unified whole. “Money” manages to be funky in 7/4, complete with one of the better sax solos in rock history. “Us And Them” is a tour de force for Rick Wright, with its layers of organ, piano and harmonies about the futility of war. It goes abruptly into “Any Colour You Like”, another minor-seventh to seventh jam as heard in “Breathe” and “Great Gig In The Sky”. A brief interlude resolves itself into “Brain Damage”, which will always be heard in conjunction with “Eclipse”, the first of many examples of Roger Waters turning a random list into a song.

The Dark Side Of The Moon has become such a ubiquitous entity that it almost doesn’t need a review. It was famously a fixture on the Billboard album charts for fifteen years—pretty impressive in the pre-computerized charting era. Even audiophiles whose tastes ran strictly to classical and show tunes had this album simply for the aural experience, which is pretty incredible. One of its songs is likely playing on your local Classic Rock radio station as you read this. If for whatever reason you don’t own it yet, and don’t feel like waiting another hour to hear it on the radio, it tends to get reissued every five years or so, depending on the anniversary or latest trend in sound quality, so you’ll have plenty of chances to pick it up.

Such an occasion happened with yet another rollout of their catalog in 2011, projected to treat each album three ways: Discovery, which is a straight remaster; Experience, which adds an extra disc; and Immersion, which adds even more material, plus books, video and ephemera. Dark Side got the first upgrade, adding a 1974 performance of the album at Wembley Empire Pool to the Experience Edition. The Immersion Edition included a third CD with the earlier 1972 Alan Parsons mix, before all the sound effects had been added, and a variety of demos and early live versions. It also included DVDs with the surround-sound and quad mixes, documentaries, concert background films, souvenirs and even a Blu-Ray disc with everything on it.

When the 50th anniversary rolled around, a deluxe box set presented the album and the Wembley show—in other words, the Experience Edition—on their own remastered CDs and LPs, plus Blu-rays and a DVD of the album in various resolutions, and two replica 45s. For everyone who didn’t have it already, The Dark Side Of The Moon—Live At Wembley 1974 was also available separately for the first time, making fans wonder why they didn’t just put out the full show instead of having it spread across three expensive releases.

Pink Floyd The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)—4
2011 Experience Edition: same as 1973, plus 10 extra tracks
2011 Immersion Edition: same as Experience, plus 16 extra tracks, 2 DVDs and 1 Blu-Ray
Pink Floyd The Dark Side Of The Moon—Live At Wembley 1974 (2023)—4

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rolling Stones 34: Flashpoint

To confirm their position as a major cash cow, the Stones completed their CBS contract with a live album as a souvenir of their recent tours. Of the forty odd songs they played around the world, only twelve are included on Flashpoint. (The CD included two more and various singles had others; unfortunately, “2000 Light Years From Home”, which was pretty cool when they played it at Shea Stadium, was only issued as a B-side.)

As mentioned, the tours were fairly elaborate. Along with inflatable props and tons of scaffolding, the five Stones were accompanied by two keyboard players, backup singers and a full horn section. Despite all the preparation and shows to choose from, like many live albums it was sweetened in the studio during the mixing process.

The hits are here of course, like “Start Me Up” and “Satisfaction”, but there are some surprises, such as “Ruby Tuesday” and “Factory Girl”. “Paint It Black” is predicted by the inclusion of some chatter about the song (right before “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) lifted from side two of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, and Eric Clapton joins on a version of “Little Red Rooster”. For the most part, the songs sound like the records, which was the point of having all those people onstage.
Surprisingly, the band included two brand new studio songs on the album. “Highwire” was a very timely if futile commentary on the Gulf War as it started, while “Sex Drive” is another stupid James Brown takeoff that gave Mick another excuse to put out dance remixes.

Flashpoint was a moderate hit, and about as exciting as Still Life. Even more maddening was the limited red leather-bound edition that included a disc called Collectibles, sporting some of the better recent B-sides and a few remixes. But the most striking aspect of the album is the photo of the band taken at the end of one show: all five are grinning, except for Bill Wyman, whose sad smile and wave foretells his departure from the band. This album represents the last time he would play with the Rolling Stones.

Two decades later, the Stones released one of the tour’s complete shows as part of their official bootleg download series, eventually followed by a physical release. Live At The Tokyo Dome had been a Japanese television broadcast, and the source of “Sympathy For The Devil” on Flashpoint, and provides a slightly better reflection of a so-so tour, with Chuck Leavell’s keyboards and the backup singers high in the mix. Eight years after that, Steel Wheels Live presented the Atlantic City show from two months earlier that spawned “Sad Sad Sad” and “Little Red Rooster” from Flashpoint, with Clapton sticking around for “Boogie Chillen” with special guest John Lee Hooker, as well as Axl and Izzy from Guns N’ Roses on “Salt Of The Earth”. This particular two-CD set came with either a DVD or Blu-ray of the show, or you could get both video versions with a bonus DVD of the Tokyo show, with a CD of five extra songs. Or you could shell out the big bucks for the four-LP version. (With the exception of the guest appearances, the only real setlist differences between Atlantic City and Tokyo are the addition of “Undercover Of The Night”, and “Terrifying” in place of “Almost Hear You Sigh”.)

Rolling Stones Flashpoint (1991)—
Rolling Stones
Live At The Tokyo Dome (2012)—3
Rolling Stones
Steel Wheels Live: Atlantic City New Jersey (2020)—3

Friday, November 5, 2010

Dire Straits 6: Brothers In Arms

The previous two Dire Straits albums sport a sublime mix of storytelling and atmospherics, and were much bigger overseas than in America. Whether or not it was a conscious decision, Brothers In Arms tells few stories and buries the few melodies in contemporary mush from a pile of session cats augmenting what used to be a tight little combo. And the lyrics, previously worthy of the pen of a former English teacher, sound dashed off. Where he used to edit for quality, henceforth Knopfler songs will simply run long.

Despite all this, it sold by the bucketful for the next two years, usually to people with new CD players needing something familiar to show off. Even the words “A FULL DIGITAL RECORDING” were emblazoned on the cover in the same typeface and weight as the artist and title. This was also one of the first albums to take advantage of the extended CD playing time, with four tracks on what we still call side one longer on cassette and disc than the record. (That’s not always a good thing.)

“So Far Away” is mostly inoffensive, if a bit simple, but “Money For Nothing” got all the attention, thanks to its recognizable riff, Sting vocal and early anti-MTV stance. “Walk Of Life” took that grating accordion phrase to endless ESPN highlights reels. “Your Latest Trick” expands on the smooth jazz leanings of the previous album with too much saxophone, underscored by the sappy trumpet in the lounge intro lopped off the LP version. “Why Worry” would have been one of the slighter songs on the earlier albums, but here it stands out for its unobtrusiveness; this one runs over three minutes longer on the non-vinyl program.

Side two is concerned with world events and social commentary, but at least it’s comparatively shorter. “Ride Across The River” uses keyboards to evoke some far-off jungle, with that ubiquitous flute effect and, of course, crickets, but distinctly mariachi trumpets. “The Man’s Too Strong” is predominantly acoustic-based, and that’s intriguing enough, but “One World” kills the mood with its dopey arrangement and dopier words (or lack thereof). Of the four songs on the side, the title track is by far the strongest and most eloquent statement, but still a pretty depressing way to finish it off.

Brothers In Arms was an unlikely candidate for the arena-rock champion of the year, and we’re still not sure how it happened. It has not aged well—mostly because of the DX7 synth effects everywhere and canned drums—and the hits tend to get lumped in with the usual “hey, remember the ‘80s?” suspects. It’s really too bad, considering how above-average Dire Straits used to be, and so recently in hindsight. They were never the same again.

Appendix: The album also fits into our flimsy theory of The First Four, in which a band’s initial four albums follow this pattern:
1) the striking debut, catching all the attention and putting the pressure on;
2) the forced follow-up, usually written on the fly and criticized as a retread;
3) the make-or-break statement of purpose, which takes them into the stratosphere;
4) “we’ve been to the mountaintop, and this is what we saw there”
And after that, the fifth album can confound or please the listener. It’s not a perfect system, but possible demonstrations include R.E.M, U2, Coldplay, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin and Toad The Wet Sprocket. (One day we’ll have it all worked out.)

Dire Straits Brothers In Arms (1985)—

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dire Straits 5: Twisting By The Pool and Alchemy

Perhaps in response to the heavy work that went into Love Over Gold, Mark Knopfler and the band quickly tossed off a few tracks for an EP that emphasized dancing. “Twisting By The Pool” is a fun number worthy of some of Ray Davies’ similar early-‘80s singles, while “Badges, Posters, Stickers, T-Shirts” neatly evokes the trad-jazz pub era; this was a B-side left over from the Love Over Gold sessions, nicely included here in the U.S. “Two Young Lovers” and “If I Had You” are simple yet toe-tapping. Which, of course, was the point. (With the exception of the title track on a few compilations, the EP is MIA in the digital era, but was finally made available for streaming in 2021.)

Meanwhile, with former Rockpile drummer Terry Williams behind the skins, the band took their show to stadiums. Having reached the part of their career that demanded a double live album, Alchemy ably delivered the hits and album cuts, extended in some cases as befit the concert format. “Once Upon A Time In The West” is brought out for thirteen minutes, and the crowd goes wild. There’s the teaser of the final notes from a performance of “Industrial Disease” (reinstated in full on 2024’s Live 1978-1992 box set) just before an excellent “Expresso Love”, while “Romeo And Juliet” seamlessly flows into “Love Over Gold”, but only on the CD. “Private Investigations” isn’t that different from the album version, but “Sultans Of Swing” brings people back to their seats for ten full minutes. “Two Young Lovers” and the theme from the soundtrack of Local Hero provide smiles for the diehards, but perhaps the best performance is “Tunnel Of Love”, which gains a majestic four-minute intro before the Carousel quote, before the song takes over with fantastic grace. (In addition to “Industrial Disease”, the expanded edition for the box set also added “Twisting By The Pool” and “Portobello Belle”, which had been excerpted on the Money For Nothing compilation.)

These albums, plus his recent soundtrack work, kept Mark Knopfler’s name in circulation as one of the more sophisticated musicians in an era that, frankly, didn’t have a lot of them. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the EP and the big sound of the live album would soon combine in a way that would be a little surprising, and not completely welcome.

Dire Straits Twisting By The Pool (1983)—3
Current CD availability: none
Dire Straits Alchemy (1984)—
CD version: same as 1984, plus 1 extra track

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rolling Stones 33: Steel Wheels

Miracles do happen, even in the land of the Stones. The boys managed to patch things up, record an album and embark on an ambitious, expensive tour. Some concessions were obviously made: Keith would call the shots for the music, while Mick could handle the promotion. This arrangement was set in place on Steel Wheels.

Right away it’s an improvement over the last couple of albums. “Sad Sad Sad” opens with a blast of guitar, and doesn’t let up on “Mick’s Emotions” (sorry, “Mixed Emotions”), an excellent choice for the first single. They get a little funky without embarrassing themselves on “Terrifying”, but turn it up again on the blazing “Hold On To Your Hat”. “Hearts For Sale” isn’t very memorable, but “Blinded By Love” stands out despite the stupid history lesson, thanks to its gentler sound, reminiscent of their country experiments.

More social commentary appears on “Rock And A Hard Place”, which at least has plenty of guitars but also spawned about 25 dance remixes. “Can’t Be Seen” begins with one of the least Keith-like intros in their catalog, but at least he gets to yell his heart out fresh off his solo tour. Speaking of which, the co-writing credit for Steve Jordan on “Almost Hear You Sigh” suggests that it was a leftover from Talk Is Cheap. Whatever its history, it’s still an excellent slow jam in line with “Beast Of Burden”. A belated nod to Brian Jones comes on “Continental Drift”, a “world music” track where the boys are accompanied by the Master Musicians of Jajouka. It’s an ambitious experiment, and luckily “Break The Spell” does just that with a Chicago blues beat. Once again Keith gets the last word on “Slipping Away”, another in a long series of classics in the spirit of “All About You”, “Coming Down Again” and “Sleep Tonight”.

The excitement over Steel Wheels didn’t last past the tour, but at least they were trying. The album didn’t stink, and doesn’t sound ‘80s-dated two decades on. For that alone, fans could breathe a sigh of relief while selling their kidneys to cover the cost of concert seats.

Rolling Stones Steel Wheels (1989)—3