Monday, May 30, 2011

The Strokes: Angles

When the Strokes debuted in 2001, they were hailed as saviours of rock, or more specifically the type of rock once pioneered by CBGB bands like Television, The Ramones and The New York Dolls. Their grimy appearance—tight T-shirts, torn jeans, Chuck Taylor high-tops and frizzy hair—belied their roots as the progeny of models, captains of industry and, in one case, a hit songwriter, and who’d all been to some of the finest private schools in New York City. The album still rocks a decade later, thanks to their tight riffing and frontman Julian Casablanca’s vocal style, best described as “a pizza delivery guy screaming into a broken intercom”.

But as has become sadly common in the modern day, they’ve only managed to put out three albums in the ten years since Is This It, each one a departure from the previous sound and none as exciting. Angles, one of the more anticipated albums of 2011, had a difficult birth, not least because none of the band members felt like working with one another. While such tension has led to amazing pieces of art in the past, that’s not the case here.

The first bad sign arrives with the new wave disco of “Machu Picchu”, which might please people who thought that sound was cool thirty years ago. There are a few good songs, like the near-power pop of “Gratisfaction”. “Under Cover Of Darkness” and the chorus of “Taken For A Fool” come close to capturing the wonderful vibe of such first album cuts as “Last Nite” and “Someday”. But along with the rinky-dink Casio keyboard sounds, most of the drums sound like they’ve come out of the same machine. Sometimes the combination of tentative guitar and mewling vocal suggest that they want to be Radiohead, and they’re not.

Coming in at less than 35 minutes, Angles is at least over quickly. It remains to be seen if The Strokes will ever be “great” again. But as long as their record company keeps throwing money at them, they don’t have to work very hard at all.

The Strokes Angles (2011)—2

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The over-500 mark

Last week Everybody’s Dummy passed 500 posts. We didn’t feel like counting how many actual albums were covered, but we know it’s more than 500. Thanks to those who’ve read any of them.

While we’ve “finished off” the catalogs of various artists covered here, rest assured that there’s plenty others on the way, some of which we’ll be tackling for the first time. Some can even be considered contemporary, if that’s at all possible or believeable.

We do still occasionally go back into the archives to check grammar and to see if any jokes have been used already; if anything, we don’t want to become redundant. Some posts deserved to be called out, as they have been expanded to reflect recent re-releases: the controversial upgrade of Exile On Main St. from the Stones, Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedoes, David Bowie’s Station To Station, John & Yoko’s Double Fantasy and Paul McCartney’s Band On The Run.

The fact that these titles have been reissued (in some cases, for the third or fourth time) gives us reason to discuss a wearying trend in what’s left of the record industry. It’s annoying enough when a fan feels compelled to re-buy an album any number of times whenever “new” tracks are included, but it’s made even worse when the consumer is presented by what the labels insultingly consider a choice.

When the Zappa Family Trust puts out two versions of a massive documentary of the Freak Out! album, perhaps they can be excused for including a track exclusive to the two-disc edition, that’s not on the four-disc edition, since all the money’s going to them. (Apparently they’ve learned their lesson from the backlash, as subsequent archival digs have been simpler.)

But lately vinyl has had a resurgence, so labels have been reissuing so-called classic albums as high-quality LPs for the same list price as a full-length CD. In some cases, such as with Station To Station and last year’s Live At Leeds re-re-reissue from the Who, a “Super Deluxe” version of an album includes a vinyl pressing alongside extra CDs and/or DVDs, usually going for about $100.

The aftermath of the 2009 Beatle remasters (and iTunes availability) has opened the doors for the solo albums to be reconsidered. The latest versions of the Lennon catalog use the original mixes, but none of the extras included on the remixed CDs Yoko approved ten years ago. Any extras this time were only available in the “complete” box set. Similarly, when various Apple artists like Badfinger and Mary Hopkin were reissued last year, the bonus tracks were different from the early-‘90s CDs, with other rare tracks only available via digital download.

And now Paul McCartney’s muddying the waters as well. People who’d had previous versions of Band On The Run could be content with the CDs and DVD in the new Deluxe Edition for about $30 if they didn’t want to shell out for the Super Deluxe Edition, packaged as a hardcover book. But for the upcoming rejigs of McCartney and McCartney II, the pricey Deluxe Editions are the only place to get the DVDs; even worse, there’s a whole extra CD in the Deluxe McCartney II. With gasoline at $4 a gallon, just who do the labels think will be able to shell out for these $60 (or more) products?

On that happy note, we do hope you’ll keep coming back here to read about music you like, love, hate or have yet to hear. You’ll also notice that we’ve started a Twitter feed, which will not only alert you to new blog posts, but also have the occasional music-related link of interest. We live, after all, to give.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fripp & Eno 5: Beyond Even

Robert Fripp had already pioneered a system of releasing seemingly random selections from the deep King Crimson archives by the 21st century, and his Discipline Global Mobile operation would soon make further economic inroads by offering direct downloads. These extended to various of his non-Crimson ensembles and activities, so a 2006 compilation titled The Cotswold Gnomes, credited to Fripp & Eno, was an intriguing tease.

Described as “a sequence of sketches, out-takes, work in progress and alternative mixes,” its genesis was made clearer when the music was released on CD a year later as Beyond Even (1992-2006). Those who’d found The Equatorial Stars to be less than thrilling might have been more pleased with the breadth of styles undertaken here. Most of the pieces have percussion, so it doesn’t belong to the strictly ambient pile. The first few tracks burble along, then for the aptly titled “Sneering Loop” Fripp lets loose with a nasty riff. “Timean Sparkles” benefits from no percussion, and is closest to the quieter parts of Evening Star; “Hopeful Timean” sports contributions from bassist Tim Harries and is even quieter yet spookier. From time to time we hear some atmospherics reminiscent of Fripp’s albums with Andy Summers, blurring the lines further as to who did what on those particular albums. “The Idea Of Decline” recalls the “juju space jazz” of Nerve Net, but the latter half of the album leans to the spacey. Even the occasional energy of the first half is no match for the closer, the utterly explosive “Cross Crisis In Lust Storm”, which features ‘90s Crimso Trey Gunn on what we’ll assume is his trusty Chapman Stick. (Fripp rated his own contribution to this track very highly.)

Modern technology had of course made it much easier for people who were neither Fripp nor Eno to create automated loops and textures; still, these veterans get the benefit of being old hands at experimenting. Beyond Even is a nice peek for fans into their workshop. (A limited edition package offered the music two ways: one disc separated into individual tracks, with a few seconds of silence between each, and the other as a segued yet still indexed suite of continuous music. Even the artists’ own sites disagree as to what “disc one” is, but the streaming version is continuous, so there you go.)

Fripp & Eno Beyond Even (1992-2006) (2007)—

Friday, May 27, 2011

R.E.M. 1: Murmur

Once upon a time, a band would come along that obviously had its influences, but still sounded like nothing else. R.E.M. landed on mainstream FM radio with a tentative yet insistent single that also kicked off their first full-length album, beginning a love affair with its fans.

The album was Murmur, an apt title for a set of songs sung by a gruff vocalist more concerned with feel and emotion than being understood. The abstract lyrics of “Radio Free Europe” dance over a backing full of jangly Rickenbackers, melodic bass runs and steady drumming. “Pilgrimage” is a study in dynamics, adding some piano to an arrangement mostly following the bass. The bass also sets up “Laughing”, which meanders, apparently, around Laocoön and his two sons. “Talk About The Passion” opens with a catchy riff; the mumbled lyrics are even more impenetrable when they include fractured French. “Moral Kiosk” provides some edgy punk, but the big surprise is “Perfect Circle”. Beginning with twin pianos, this absolutely gorgeous melody is supported by gentle guitars and nicely muted drums. It even manages to end before the fade completes.

Side two gets off to a rocking start with “Catapult”, and continues with “Sitting Still”, giving bedroom guitarists a chance to play around with open E chords. “9-9” is a little cacophonous, but things get back to a high level on “Shaking Through”, which again features infectious guitar arpeggios, a strong piano and a great singalong chorus. After a short moody instrumental that sounds like an off-the-cuff jam, “We Walk” thunders in with a near-nursery rhyme, and “West Of The Fields” finishes things off with some urgent mystery.

Because of that mystery, it’s never easy to put R.E.M.’s abstract appeal into words. People get it or they don’t, and the band has experienced plenty of critical backlash. Yet for better or worse, they provided a different soundtrack for a generation not impressed with Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper and other video icons in bright pastels.

Murmur was not the band’s first release; that honor was shared by a self-produced 45 and a five-song EP that hip college kids already treasured; we’ll get to those soon enough. But for a debut, it remains a strong one. (The 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, approved by the band, includes a second disc of a Toronto concert from the tour following the album’s release. Nine of the album’s songs are mixed with a couple from the EP, and songs that would eventually appear on other albums.)

R.E.M. Murmur (1983)—4
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1983, plus 16 extra tracks

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Joe Jackson 2: I’m The Man

Joe’s second album came hot on the heels of his first, and while it wasn’t as big a hit, it delivered songs nearly as good. The sound on I’m The Man is almost identical to that of Look Sharp!—edgy guitar, upfront bass and solid drums, but somewhere in the past six months he’d bought a melodica.

The opening salvo is an angry geek’s revenge on those who wronged him, now that he can be heard “On Your Radio”. Proof that he’s not just another new waver comes with the sophisticated storytelling of “Geraldine And John”, but he’s not above such simple popcraft as “Kinda Kute”. The second great song of his career is “It’s Different For Girls”, from the great opening line (“What the hell is wrong with you tonight?”) to the round of vocals at the end. The title track is a great punk stomper about, once again, commercialism.

“The Band Wore Blue Shirts” is an interesting look back at the days he spent toiling in clubs playing with any number of bands (much more detailed, again, in his memoir A Cure For Gravity). The portrait he paints seems even more quaint with each passing year. The contrast is even sharper with the infectious “Don’t Wanna Be Like That”, which crams his complaints about fashion, trendiness and sexuality into four minutes. Things slow down for “Amateur Hour”, a lament for an ambiguous subject. There’s another catchy “pop song” (it says so on the lyric sheet) in “Get That Girl”, and the band gets to show off again in the frenetic “Friday”.

Though the math tells otherwise, I’m The Man seems short, but it’s pretty simple—if you liked Look Sharp!, you’ll like this, despite the ugly cover photo. It even came with a gimmick; similar to the first album, which was available as a double 10-inch vinyl package, this one was also released as a box set of five singles. (Not included was a live cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On”, a contemporary B-side and now added to the latest version of the CD.)

Joe Jackson I’m The Man (1979)—
2001 CD reissue: same as 1979, plus 1 extra track

Monday, May 23, 2011

Joe Jackson 1: Look Sharp!

Joe Jackson was the last of the three angry young men to be attached with the skinny tie/new wave label, and just like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, he did all he could to avoid such simple pigeon-holing. But a glance at the cover of Look Sharp!, his excellent debut, could excuse anyone for assuming he was just another lovelorn geek. That was only part of the story.

While he started out in the British pub-rock scene—see his excellent autobiography A Cure For Gravity for keen insights into this period—his influences were more, dare we say, esoteric than his contemporaries. For instance, Elvis Costello would soon betray a love for pop standards and country music, but Joe was more musical in his arrangements, not least because he was primarily a pianist. With a great interest in jazz and classical music (both of which he’d explore on record within ten years’ time) as well as prog-rock (which, thankfully, he’s avoided), his albums tended to be more engaging than confrontational. Still, Look Sharp! remains a New Wave classic, right down to the stylish packaging and edgy song selection.

“One More Time” kicks off with a slashing guitar and trebly bass, before a stop-time verse and harmonic pre-chorus about romance. Like all good punk rockers, he delivers a protest song (complete with harmonica solo) about the press in “Sunday Papers”, set conveniently in a household. The big hit was—and should be—“Is She Really Going Out With Him?”, designed for audiences to shout “where?” at the right moments while maneuvering past the eleventh chords. “Happy Loving Couples” continues the complaints about women (or the lack thereof) before getting cut off in the control room in favor of the pogo-tastic “Throw It Away”.

Side two kicks off in the dance club for “Baby Stick Around”, a wonderful Merseybeat pastiche. The title track is another snide swipe at fashion, even if structurally it’s dangerously close to Steely Dan’s “Josie”. Since most of London was in love with reggae in those days, that’s the sound that drives “Fools In Love”, a wonderful cross between “Watching The Detectives” and “Nature Boy” with a jazzy piano solo. “(Do The) Instant Mash” doesn’t quite live up to its title, but “Pretty Girls” manages to update “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” without copying it. “Got The Time” chugs along for a great closer, and gained some thrash metal-cred in the ‘90s after it was covered by Anthrax, of all people.

As good as Look Sharp! still is today, it could have easily been a one-hit wonder. His resistance to categorization would keep new fans on their toes, while his excellent band—anchored by the incomparable Graham Maby on bass—were keen to keep up with him. But for now, he could say he recorded one fine album. (A later CD reissue, which hardly anyone noticed, added two B-sides to the program.)

Joe Jackson Look Sharp! (1979)—4
2001 CD reissue: same as 1979, plus 2 extra tracks

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tom Waits 9: Swordfishtrombones

With a couple of years off, during which he married the love of his life, Tom Waits also found time to change labels and rethink his approach to record-making. When Swordfishtrombones finally appeared, it would have been a shock to those who were expecting another album of saloon laments. But for those paying attention, despite the change in general sound, it was a logical progression.

What would become revered as his “Island trilogy” was marked by a left turn into what could be disparagingly categorized as circus music. This wasn’t such a stretch, since anyone who’d listened to any of his albums might have guessed that when it came to the carnival, Our Hero would be more entranced by the freaks in the sideshow than by the girl on the high wire. (Well, maybe just a little.)

His voice, as raspy as ever, carries these songs as well as they’ve carried anything in his catalog. The difference from here, however, is that he found his new inspiration in the guttural blues of Captain Beefheart, taking his inspiration from that band’s primitive approach and reveling in the wonder of “found sounds”. This is apparent from the beginning, as “Underground” lays a foundation for his career going forward, with Fred Tackett’s guitar poking its way through the barest of arrangements. “Shore Leave” places a shaggy story up against a surprising chorus, just like he always did. The wacky “Dave The Butcher” instrumental is an odd prelude to the torch song of “Johnsburg, Illinois”, the first of many Valentines to his wife. “16 Shells From A 30-6” establishes the junkyard sound that would dominate the trilogy, with barely a chord to hang its melody on. The lament of Australian sobriety in “Town With No Cheer”, nice as it is, seems little more than a continuation of his alcoholic wanderings, but what truly wins is the portrait of desolate suburbia as depicted “In The Neighborhood”.

“Just Another Sucker On The Vine” is a classic Waits melody, here transferred to the harmonium where previously the piano would have been the vehicle. A foreshadowing of sorts is held within the monologue about “Frank’s Wild Years”, proof that there are few storytellers of his ilk. That can get buried within the wordplay of “Swordfishtrombone”, but the relentless boogie of “Down, Down, Down” shows his ability to get a new song out of the same word. “Soldier’s Things” is a potentially heartbreaking peek at a tag sale, made even more surreal when it was covered by Paul Young. The bitter “Gin Soaked Boy” is the last look back at his old sound, a simple plod through accusation. “Trouble’s Braids” is an experimental monologue within a tone poem, while the closing “Rainbirds” manages to foreshadow his next step while delivering one of the prettiest instrumental performances of his career to date.

Swordfishtrombones was definitely a departure for those who’d tried to keep up with Tom thus far, but more than that, it was an exciting introduction for those coming in late. For anyone who’d discovered Tom Waits with this album, the selections on Closing Time and Small Change would have seemed almost quaint and pedestrian. Starting here, he’d embarked on a journey guaranteed to entice as well as it would confound.

Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones (1983)—

Monday, May 16, 2011

Robyn Hitchcock 16: Storefront Hitchcock

Robyn had befriended Oscar®-winning director and music fan Jonathan Demme, who decided to film him singing and playing in a vacant Manhattan shop, with passersby and vehicles seen through the window onto the street as background. It hardly made a splash on par with Stop Making Sense, Demme’s acclaimed concert documentary that pretty much put him on the map, but naturally, there was a soundtrack album.

Storefront Hitchcock attempts to bring one of his live performances to posterity—a futile exercise since each of his concerts are so different from one another—and the question remains: why now? Some of the songs are from the last album, some go back a few years, and some had yet to be released on a studio album. Some of the new songs are good, and some aren’t. (Also, and a nice bonus for those compiling mix tapes, the spoken intros are treated as separate tracks. Including the last one, which appears to be an audio-verité conversation over a hotel meal.)

“1974” has some great lyrics about that particular year, and “I Something You”, which had been out as a small-label single, uses better wordplay. “Let’s Go Thundering” is pretty dull, almost like a parody of a Robyn Hitchcock song, and “Where Do You Go When You Die?” serves little purpose beyond fodder for a monologue. There’s a very pleasant folkie version of “Wind Cries Mary”, which shows off its structural influence on the Soft Boys’ “Have A Heart Betty”. With an enigmatic introduction, “No, I Don’t Remember Guildford” is a sad, hypnotizing goodbye.

His choices from his own catalog seem almost random. He must be proud of “The Yip Song” and “Alright Yeah”, since here they are again. “I’m Only You” has an extended guitar section—as does “Freeze”, which is not too intolerable here—and goes nicely into “Glass Hotel”. “Beautiful Queen” is used as a finale, seeing as it was likely the song from the last album that would have gotten the most airplay.

The performance is predominantly acoustic, with some echo and fuzz effects here and there and a second guitarist and violinist helping out from time to time, so it’s fairly representative of his current live show. Unfortunately, Storefront Hitchcock is just not very exciting, leading to the question whether other songs should have been selected for the album, since entirely different ones appear in the film.

Robyn Hitchcock Storefront Hitchcock (1998)—

Friday, May 13, 2011

Love 3: Forever Changes

The dark side of the Summer of Love is fittingly exposed on Love’s third album. Universally accepted as their masterpiece, Forever Changes shows the band continuing to evolve even further. Having dropped Snoopy and the sax player, they were back down to a five-piece, but as various liner notes detail, they were hardly an efficient unit. The non-traditional song titles give one indication of the unrest, while the lyrics bemoan the Vietnam War, and betray the singer’s conviction that he himself is not long for the world.

As ever, Arthur Lee was thoroughly in charge, pushing his bandmates with an iron fist and crooning in a lower register. Perhaps it helped that he played acoustic guitar on most of the tracks, giving the other guys something to follow. He even let Bryan MacLean contribute two songs, the first being the incredible “Alone Again Or”. Beginning with a gentle acoustic picking, it soon alternates with more driving verses, complete with strings and a trumpet straight out of a Tijuana Brass album.

It’s a good way to start the album, since most of the songs that follow are challenging, to say the least, beginning from their titles. “A House Is Not A Motel” is similarly driven by a frantically strummed acoustic, but Johnny Echols gets to add a few leads over lyrics that decry the horror of the war as seen on TV. The deceptively sweet “Andmoreagain” provides something of a respite, its title embellished from the closing track on the debut. Here the image of the girl of the title alternates between saviour and demon. A change comes in “The Daily Planet”, one of the first tracks recorded for the album, and once you hear that drummer supreme Hal Blaine played on this track, it’s nearly impossible to listen without concentrating on him. If, as legend says, the band wasn’t capable of recording this track, it’s a testament to Arthur Lee that he was able to get the arrangement over to the studio cats. He steps aside for Bryan to sing his ode to the “Old Man”, before coming back to paint the picture of chaos in “The Red Telephone”. Here the most vivid lines come at the end: “They’re locking them up today/They’re throwing away the key/I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me”; “We’re all normal and we want our freedom”; “all-a God’s chilluns gotta have their freedom”.

For requesting songs on the radio, it couldn’t have been much tougher than asking the deejay to throw on “Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale”. It’s a very catchy tune, swathed in trumpets and sporting a unique rhyme scheme where the last word of each verse is implied, only to appear as the first word of the next. “Live And Let Live” is a benign title for a song that starts with the declaration “Oh, the snot has caked against my pants.” Johnny Echols’ closing solo is suitably tense. Much easier listening is “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This”, with its plucked strings and progressions reminiscent of side one of Da Capo (indeed, the song was started as far back as that). The tranquil mood is jarred by the tape editing at the very end. “Bummer In The Summer” is the shortest song on the album, and one of the straightest, coming just before the grand finale of “You Set The Scene”. Beginning with a sound not unlike the Moody Blues (again), this suite goes through a few distinct sections before slowing down for the meat of the song, wherein despite all the ugliness he’s chronicled for the previous 35 minutes, Arthur finds beauty in living for the moment, and wishing nothing but the best for his fellow travelers.

Forever Changes is not easy listening, and the trumpets and strings place it squarely within the late sixties. But given the chance to sink in, all the different textures start to reveal themselves to combine for a remarkable listening experience. Not bad for a guy yet to see the age of 24. (And while the cover was suitably psychedelic, it’s interesting to note that a proposed alternative would have continued the trend of the first two Love albums.)

Rhino has avidly supported Love since their early days as a label, and they’ve made sure to keep Forever Changes in print to this day. Their expanded CD added a few outtakes and alternate mixes, as well as both sides of the original lineup’s last flop single. Later, the two-disc Collector’s Edition included most of those, plus more tracking sessions and a complete alternate mix of the original album; it’s interesting, in places. For its semi-centennial anniversary, yet another reissue added the mono mix, a few more alternate mixes, a DVD with a high-resolution, and, of course, a vinyl version.

Love Forever Changes (1967)—
2001 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus 7 extra tracks
2008 Collector’s Edition: same as 2001, plus 14 extra tracks
2018 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 2008, plus 17 extra tracks

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Love 2: Da Capo

By the time they recorded their second album, mere months after the release of their first album, Love had already started to evolve. The five-piece was now seven, having added a new drummer and a woodwind player, and moving the man known as “Snoopy” over to keyboards. Even the cover of Da Capo reflected the transformation in its restaging of the first album’s photo.

Their sound had more jazz and classical effects, beginning with the harpsichord and sax all over the chaotic “Stephanie Knows Who”. Arthur Lee sings all the songs on the album, even on “Orange Skies”, demonstrating Bryan MacLean’s propensity to write songs about ice cream. “¡Que Vida!” is wonderfully poetic, matching the Latin beat and an infectious finger-picked guitar. The mood is immediately destroyed by the marvelous “Seven And Seven Is”, released earlier as a single that amazingly charted. Its galloping beat manages to stay steady all the way through the atomic explosion at the end. The challenges continue on “The Castle”, an extremely complicated yet mesmerizing composition. Slightly more straightforward is the should-have-been hit single “She Comes In Colors”, the title of which would in time be stolen by the Stones for “She’s A Rainbow”, while the main flute section would be stolen by Madonna for “Beautiful Stranger”.

While side one is a nearly perfect album side, the same cannot be said for side two. “Revelation” is a nineteen-minute jam framed by a harpsichord solo, otherwise consisting mostly of harmonica blasts and Arthur yelling over a boogie beat. (Oh, and there’s a drum solo too.) It may have been groundbreaking to have a single song take up an album side; after all, Dylan and Zappa did it, but those were at least double albums, and it also helps if the song is, you know, good. “Revelation” is not. Maybe one must be high to appreciate it?

Still, the quality of the six songs on side one makes Da Capo a worthy follow-up. (In fact, all of side one was included on Rhino’s excellent 1995 Love Story anthology, which would be essential had it also included all of the first album.) Today the album is, again, only available as a download but, also again, the 2002 Elektra Classic import CD has it in both mono and stereo, with excerpts from the recording sessions for “Seven And Seven Is”. Of course, that also means it includes “Revelation” twice.

Love Da Capo (1967)—
Current CD availability: none; download only

Monday, May 9, 2011

Love 1: Love

Hindsight has been very kind to the band known as Love, more so than when they started out. Despite being one of the best live bands on the Sunset Strip, various coincidences led them to be overshadowed by the likes of the Byrds and even their own labelmates, the Doors. It’s too bad, because for the time they were pretty unique, boasting a racially integrated lineup capable of swapping instruments. In the decades since, the band has achieved cult status, giving the original members a last moment in the spotlight.

None of their albums boasted a consistent lineup, but the first three come close. Love is a wonderful collection of garage rock, a mix of Byrds jangle and proto-punk, driven by slightly out-of-tune guitars and a prominent bass (this being the era when engineers were still trying to figure out how to record the instrument properly). While Johnny Echols plays lead and rhythm guitarist Bryan MacLean sings one of his own songs, from the beginning it’s Arthur Lee who’s clearly in charge, writing and singing the bulk of the material, and only adding harmonica here and there.

Their defiant deconstruction of Burt Bacharach’s “My Little Red Book” gives only an indication of what the band can do, matching an atonal riff to the straighter chorus. “Can’t Explain” crosses the Who with the Byrds, with a hint of the doomed lyrics soon to become Arthur’s trademark. One of his better tunes is “A Message To Pretty”, a deceptively sweet kiss-off, the last chord of which hangs in for the setup of “My Flash On You”, itself a foreshadowing of their version of “Hey Joe” on side two. Bryan MacLean’s “Softly To Me” provides a tender contrast, working well in the dialogue before Arthur’s less angry “No Matter What You Do”. The band gets a few moments to jam on “Emotions”, a half-speed surf instrumental that functions as intermission music.

“You I’ll Be Following” brings us back to the garage, with its wordplay and inside references. “Gazing” is textbook folk-rock, their attempt at writing a Dylan song as covered by the Byrds. Possibly the most striking track is “Signed D.C.”, a harrowing portrait of an acid casualty, and one wonders if the Moody Blues heard this before recording “Nights In White Satin”. “Colored Balls Falling” barely gets started before fading after the guitar solo, giving more time to the gentle yet apocalyptic “Mushroom Clouds”. “And More” sums up the album’s sound with more suspended chords.

The similarity between several of the songs notwithstanding, Love remains an engaging listen. Fourteen tracks are a lot for a new band, and they deliver on each. These days it’s only available as an iTunes download, which includes two bonus tracks: the silly B-side “No. Fourteen” and an alternate take of “Signed D.C.” Both are also included on the excellent 2001 Elektra Classic import CD, alongside the complete album in mono and stereo.

Love Love (1966)—4
Current CD availability: none; download only

Friday, May 6, 2011

Joni Mitchell 6: Court And Spark

Blasphemy alert: as much as Everybody’s Dummy loves Joni, we’ve never had much use for this album. Yet Court And Spark is constantly hailed in other circles as her towering achievement. The simple folk stylings of her first four are long gone, replaced with a pop-jazz approach that depends on the L.A. Express, the Tom Scott-led outfit that also managed to beguile George Harrison that year. (Such are the ramifications of cocaine.)

The opening title track begins enticingly with piano, and her voice has become even lower. But just as that settles in, albeit with drums and electric guitars, the real sound of the album takes over on “Help Me”, the hit single that seemingly defies structure to the point where it almost seems improvised. Its near-twin “Free Man In Paris” follows, sporting more scooped notes but with a catchier tag after each chorus. The strum in “People’s Parties” recalls some of the better moments on For The Roses, and the observational lyric melds into a lament over a relationship almost as immediately as the segue into “The Same Situation”, colored sweetly by some strings and ending a rather short album side.

With modern CD sequencing, the one-man horn section starting up “Car On A Hill” is a little too jarring, but the interlude following the first verse takes the song to a more interesting place. The sad girl at the piano returns on “Down To You”, which quickly turns into an ambitious production, complete with orchestra and even some clavinet coloring the scenery. On any other album, it would be the grand finale, but here it’s stuck in the middle of side two. “Just Like This Train” overcomes the woodwinds (again) for another lament over a broken heart, but the biggest departure comes next. “Raised On Robbery” opens with another clavinet and a set of voices right off an Annie Ross record (more on that in a bit), setting up a scene in a cocktail lounge that must be read to be appreciated best. The old-style jazz mixes well with the acoustic strums and Robbie Robertson’s gurgling leads over a tight rhythm section. “Trouble Child” doesn’t sink in very well, and wouldn’t anyway since it’s overtaken by “Twisted”, the acrobatic Annie Ross song about a visit to a shrink, unfortunately including a cameo by Cheech & Chong.

It must be a matter of personal taste, because for many, this album firmly established Joni as her generation’s official cool chick, one who may have been hurt but wasn’t about to be under any man’s thumb. But given her catalog to this point, there are other albums we’ll put on the turntable before Court And Spark.

Joni Mitchell Court And Spark (1974)—3