Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mick Jagger 5: Alfie

While it’s easy to forget that there was something of a remake of the film Alfie with Jude Law in the title role, it’s even easier to overlook that the soundtrack was mostly a collaboration between David A. Stewart and Mick Jagger. But there was, and there is, and we listen so you might not have to.

Most of the album centers around two songs: “Old Habits Die Hard” and “Blind Leading The Blind”, both decent mid-tempo tracks that appear in multiple versions. They’re good, but a bit generic, so even the songs that aren’t those two sound pretty much like them. “Let’s Make It Up” mostly limps along, and “Lonely Without You (This Christmas)”, a duet with Joss Stone, is hardly going to top anyone’s go-to yuletide playlist. (She also contributes a remake of the original Bacharach and David title song.) There are a few instrumental grooves over which Mick either doo-doos or blows a harmonica, so perhaps we can be thankful he didn’t try to write words for them.

Alfie is not Primitive Cool II, which is good. To Mick’s credit, there’s nothing very embarrassing about this album, and he wisely steers far away from the one hip-hop track. Ultimately, it’s recommended for any connoisseur of rom-coms starring Jude Law.

Music From The Motion Picture Alfie (2004)—3

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

John Cale 4: Paris 1919

His last two vinyl excursions may have been difficult listening for those expecting the comparatively more mainstream pop of Vintage Violence, which only made John Cale’s next “rock” album more striking. Paris 1919 is an overdue collection of straightforward songs, recorded largely with Lowell George and Richie Hayward of Little Feat with the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder as the house band, giving the proceedings a slicker, L.A. feel. That’s not to say it could be mistaken for anything else on the radio at the time.

The opening “Child’s Christmas In Wales” shares its title with the wonderful Dylan Thomas piece, though its typically obscure lyrics that barely rhyme make it an unlikely Yuletide classic. The lush soundscape in “Hanky Panky Nohow” distracts from the words, which probably mean something to someone, unless they don’t. One track we’ve come to like is “The Endless Plain Of Fortune”, which hearkens to some of the more somber moments of Vintage Violence, and melds the orchestra with the band nicely. “Andalucia” begins with a truly lazy rhyme, but finishes as a sweet love song, whereas “Macbeth” is a driving rocker that directly references the Shakespeare play.

With its stately orchestration, the title track is the highlight of the album, with a hell of a hook in a chorus Robert Pollard has stolen at least once. One might have to be versed in the works of Graham Greene to catch all the references in the herky-jerky song of the same title, but luckily it’s moved aside by the thoughts of the train passenger moving “Half Past France”. Unfortunately, his near-whispered-but-still-sung delivery on “Antarctica Starts Here” states the decay of the “paranoid great movie queen” too clearly for comfort.

Despite the dressing, Paris 1919 is a dark album, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise for anyone following along, but it’s still an unexpected listening experience. The better songs have endured, and rightly so. (In the UK, an expanded CD in 2006 bolstered the original short program with alternates or rehearsals of each of the album tracks, plus the outtake “Burned Out Affair”. Oddly missing is “Dixieland And Dixie”, the jaunty single issued after the first sessions with the Feat.)

John Cale Paris 1919 (1973)—3

Monday, June 27, 2011

U2 16: No Line On The Horizon

Outside of two new songs on 2006’s U218 Singles compilation—one of which was a collaboration with Green Day; neither of which were very exciting—it was another five-year wait to the next U2 album. In the meantime there was the usual talk about how they’d finally got their old sound back, despite being more experimental. When it finally emerged, there were enough echoes of their early albums on No Line On The Horizon to make it sound like, well, U2.

The title track explodes with a heavy beat and Mideastern touches, under Bono’s yell. “Magnificent” manages to cross the classic sound with the Achtung Baby era for a decent single. Despite all the accolades for its “universal” lyrical content, “Moment Of Surrender” simply takes too long to achieve the chorus. Much more effective, and working on the same theme, but still too long, “Unknown Caller” nicely works in response vocals like the better parts of Zooropa; the extremely familiar Edge guitar sound helps too, and there’s a surprising appearance by a French horn. “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is a dumb pop song written for arena shows, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it could’ve been bigger and dumber. Also, the title arrives too soon in the lyrics.

By the same token, the lead single, “Get On Your Boots”, fills the same role as “Vertigo” did on the previous album, a catchy stomper designed to grab, and it does. They get almost funky on “Stand Up Comedy”, but complicate it with several changes that reduce it to not much. We get just a hint of experimentation on the moody intro of “Fez—Being Born”, which should have been chopped; the main part of the song succeeds by concentrating less on lyrics and more on sound. “White As Snow” takes its melody from a Christmas carol for an effective meditation on a soldier’s death. The mood is jarred by the hip rap speak in “Breathe”, another wise decent rocker, before going quiet yet again on “Cedars Of Lebanon”, another reflection on war.

U2 come in like a lion and go out like a lamb on No Line On The Horizon, making for a slightly underwhelming listen. For the first time, Brian Eno and Daniel (listed as “Danny”) Lanois are credited here and there for writing music and/or lyrics instead of being limited only to production and performance; Steve Lillywhite is on hand again for a few songs as well. Admittedly, our hopes were higher, but we can’t condemn them yet. The band also insisted that they had another album’s worth of material they’d be putting out almost immediately, which unsurprisingly did not happen. Instead, they toured and toured, and toured some more.

U2 No Line On The Horizon (2009)—3

Friday, June 24, 2011

Lou Reed 2: Transformer

Although his first solo album didn’t sell, Lou had support within the business, not least from his disciple David Bowie, who took it upon himself to produce his next album, with additional help on both sides of the glass from Mick Ronson. The combination immediately made Transformer better than its predecessor.

Right away “Vicious” applies another “Sweet Jane” variation to a provocative lyric suggested by Andy Warhol, who’s also the inspiration behind the highly ambiguous “Andy’s Chest”. One song that’s managed to become a standard of sorts is “Perfect Day”, though chances are the people who’ve come to love it and its covers haven’t considered that this is not your ordinary romantic walk in the park. “Hangin’ ‘Round” brings back the New York rock of the first album with a rewrite of “Wild Child”. Some of those streets are better celebrated in “Walk On The Wild Side”, the classic unlikely hit single with enough innuendo to excite generations of suburban punks.

The low-key “Make Up” begins with a detailed description of a “slick little girl” doing up her face, then slides into suggestions of transvestism, punctuated by a tuba, of all things. “Satellite Of Love” doesn’t have many lyrics, but they appear to be about a guy who likes to watch television while ruminating on somebody’s alleged promiscuity. Mick Ronson’s stately piano works well to counter Bowie’s backing vocals. Another slice of the streets comes in “Wagon Wheel”, which mostly rocks except for an odd midsection that brings everything to complete standstill. “New York Telephone Conversation” is basically an interlude, delivered in his thickest, sharpest Long Island accent. Some welcome rock returns in “I’m So Free”, before the tuba returns on “Goodnight Ladies”, another trip to the cabaret. (Of course, he’d already written its prototype as “Afterhours”, and while this one talks more about TV dinners than late night bars, it didn’t stop him from using the same changes for the bridge.)

Four decades on, Transformer is more notorious than excellent, but it was a hit, and with its success, Lou Reed became the new poster boy for decadence. It would prove to be something of a burden, but in the meantime, at least he could draw an audience for his songs.

Lou Reed Transformer (1972)—3
2002 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1972, plus 3 extra tracks

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Velvet Underground 5: Max’s Kansas City

While their LPs weren’t huge sellers, many people who spoke fondly of the Velvet Underground over the years did so on the basis of their live performances. But without much label interest in a professional recording of their shows, it is therefore not surprising but fitting that the few that have been released officially are essentially bootleg quality, with one exception, which will be discussed eventually.

The first live release was both historic and contractual. The band kept busy during the New York Loaded sessions by playing a residency at Max’s Kansas City. While Maureen Tucker had to sit out due to her pregnancy, Doug Yule’s kid brother Billy played drums. One show was captured on a portable cassette recorder by a friend of the band, and as chance would have it, it was also Lou Reed’s last show before quitting. Scene hanger-on Danny Fields pounced on the tape and managed to sell it to the Cotillion label, who suddenly had a defunct band on their roster.

Hence, Live At Max’s Kansas City became something of an official farewell album, touching on all aspects of the band’s work, including such surprising inclusions as “Sunday Morning” and “After Hours”, punctuated by Lou’s wistful introductions and the sound of poet rocker Jim Carroll ordering drinks between songs. It’s more historic than definitive, since the only original members were Lou and Sterling Morrison, and Doug Yule was under the impression he was in just another rock ‘n roll band instead of one of the more seminal entities in the pantheon.

Some 32 years later Rhino reissued an upgrade of the album, including all of both sets from that night in their original sequence. While the squeak of Billy Yule’s kickdrum pedal is even more pronounced in the digital format, the kid wasn’t a bad drummer, and certainly knew the tunes, even the more obscure ones. There’s even more emphasis on the slow tunes, though to this day we can’t hear an augmented chord anywhere in “Femme Fatale”, no matter what Lou says. (Stay tuned at the end of the second disc for a hilarious Atlantic promo ad for the album.) About a decade later a slightly truncated sequence of the expanded album was included in the “Re-Loaded” anniversary edition of Loaded, and was released on its own a year later for no reason except to offer it in a cardboard sleeve.

The Velvet Underground Live At Max’s Kansas City (1972)—3
2004 Deluxe Edition: same as 1972, plus 8 extra tracks
2016 expanded version: same as 2004, minus 3 tracks

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Robyn Hitchcock 17: Jewels For Sophia and A Star For Bram

1999 brought a new album, with the promise of a CD of leftovers (just like last time), which did indeed arrive in the new year. The trouble is, neither the “official” album nor the outtakes is very good on its own.

Jewels For Sophia begins with “Mexican God”, a two-chord song that sounds too much like the other two-chord songs here. “The Cheese Alarm” might appeal to Monty Python fans, but it comes across as forced whimsy, with a proto-Indian backing that tries but fails. “Viva! Sea-Tac” was about eight years late, but it’s the first rocker on the album and the line about computers, coffee and smack is pretty good. “I Feel Beautiful” and “You’ve Got A Sweet Mouth On You, Baby” could probably have been combined into one underwhelming song. And despite the heralded return of Soft Boy Kimberley Rew to a Robyn album, “NASA Clapping” is really annoying.

He also appears on “Sally Was A Legend”, the first decent song on the album, but “Antwoman” is an exercise in clutter and “Elizabeth Jade” is too close to “Sea-Tac” to stand out. “No, I Don’t Remember Guildford”, first heard on Storefront Hitchcock, reappears here in a version even lovelier, with brushed drums and piano. “Dark Princess” would have been an excellent dramatic ending, but the title track insists on adding some pep, complete with dotty piano. Then there are the hidden tracks—a silly phone message about the movie Goodfellas, the wonderfully dissonant “Mr. Tongs” and the hilarious “Gene Hackman”. Even with that, it’s his least enjoyable album since Groovy Decoy.

Nobody bought the album except for the fans, who also snapped up the fan club-only A Star For Bram, which has some better songs. “Daisy Bomb” is pretty simple, but the female backing makes it enjoyable, as is timely name-drop of “I Saw Nick Drake”. “Adoration Of The City” mostly beats its riff into the ground, but “1974” is very well expanded upon here, showing it’s not such a bad thing to have a rhythm section. “I Wish I Liked You” is an unforgettable blues. “Nietzsche’s Way” is a sly tribute to Spirit, but “The Philosophers’ Stone” doesn’t sink in. Slightly better are “The Green Boy” and “Judas Sings (Jesus & Me)” (written for a movie nobody saw), followed by an unnecessary “dub” version of “Antwoman”. The gorgeous “I Used To Love You” comes too soon after a similar title. Luckily, “We Are The Underneath” ends it all with a good groove and wacky timing.

Of the two, A Star For Bram gets a slight edge over Jewels For Sophia by not trying to be as, well, edgy. But not being in a regular band and releasing what appear to be enhanced demos don’t help his case at all. The big problem with these albums is the schizophrenic production. Jon Brion and his keyboards are used here and there, but results sound like other people’s records. In the past, Robyn didn’t sound like anyone else. By combining most of Bram with the better songs on Sophia, he might have ended up with something worth keeping. But he didn’t, and we were wondering if he truly had the magic anymore.

Robyn Hitchcock Jewels For Sophia (1999)—2
Robyn Hitchcock A Star For Bram (2000)—3

Monday, June 20, 2011

Monkees 1: The Monkees

While there’s no denying that the Monkees were a manufactured pop group, what detractors seem to forget is that some of the music created in the process of fulfilling contractual obligations was pretty good. From the start the people behind the scenes gathered songs from already successful contemporary songwriters, and got to work creating the backing tracks using the cream of LA’s session musicians, the same people who’d been busy playing on records by the likes of Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas & The Papas and countless others.

That’s not to suggest that The Monkees is a pop masterpiece; rather to consider just how awful the music written to order for a sitcom designed to capitalize on the Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night could have been. Instead, the producers found four guys who had more than a little charm, and decent singing voices. While some episodes of the TV show can be excruciating to watch today, the album provides a nice snapshot of the times.

Most of the singing is split between the two Monkees with acting experience, Micky Dolenz (who fit the role of the funny guy) and Davy Jones (resident British heartthrob and maraca shaker). Peter Tork (the dumb one who looked like Stephen Stills) didn’t have much to do besides gyrate and emote whilst pretending to play the bass, but in a foreshadowing of what was around the corner, Michael Nesmith (the serious musician, albeit with a ski cap) exerts a certain amount of power, writing and producing two country-influenced songs. One of those was a collaboration with Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who contributed other songs as well.

The bulk of the remainder were written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, a duo who’d slowly been making their way through the pop industry. What they came up with for the Monkees could have been performed by anyone of the time who’d been influenced by the Beatles. “Last Train To Clarksville” combines a great riff with layered harmonies over seventh chords, and a deserved #1 hit. “I Wanna Be Free” was also tried in an electric version for the TV show, but the acoustic album cut was slathered in strings for Davy to sing, in the footsteps of “Yesterday” and “As Tears Go By”. “Gonna Buy Me A Dog” is included in a jokey take that actually improved the song. “Let’s Dance On” manages to cram in several references to obsolete dance moves, and today sounds like a selection from That Thing You Do!

The Rhino label now owns the trademark to the Monkees name, and has never missed an opportunity to cash in on their investment. Their first expanded CD reissue of The Monkees added only a few tracks, but the later two-disc version included the album in both mono and stereo, with various alternate takes and songs that had been heard on the show, but not included on the album. To make things even more annoying for the collector, the eventual Super Deluxe Edition didn’t include all of the extras on each of the previous editions, choosing instead to load up one disc with session outtakes. Perhaps to balance those backing tracks with zero Monkee input, the third disc offers Davy’s 1965 solo album in mono and stereo, plus six early “Michael Blessing” tracks. Proceed with caution, or not.

The Monkees The Monkees (1966)—3
1994 reissue CD: same as 1966, plus 3 extra tracks
2006 Deluxe Edition: same as 1994, plus 25 extra tracks
2014 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 1966, plus 88 extra tracks

Friday, June 17, 2011

Neil Young 44: A Treasure

For a couple of years in the ‘80s, Neil had insisted that he would only be playing strict country music henceforth. He changed his mind of course, and hindsight has shown that his stance was more down to his defiant nature than anything else—basically, the more his label told him not to, the more hokey he got. This resulted in the Old Ways album, which gestated over two years into a bland listen that has clouded the popular perspective of where he was at.

The release of A Treasure, a collection of live recordings from that two-year period, should change all that. Only two songs from Old Ways appear here—thankfully, “Get Back To The Country” did not employ a jawbone onstage—giving us a chance to appreciate that Neil was up to a lot more than the album would suggest. The overall sound is closer to, say, side two of Hawks & Doves, using many of that album’s musicians.

What also makes it preferable is the handful of songs that were performed multiple times on the road—and on the Austin City Limits TV show—but didn’t make it to Old Ways. The very first track, “Amber Jean”, is a love song to his newborn daughter. “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking” is a journey into a Nashville pun, but luckily without the syrup it would have received in the studio. “Soul Of A Woman” had been tried out in his Trans and Shocking Pinks guises, and would also appear during the Bluenotes era; here it’s middling R&B. “Nothing Is Perfect” comes straight from the mid-‘80s Farm Aid mentality, but “Grey Riders” absolutely cooks.

A few older songs are given new coats of paint. “It Might Have Been” is an old standard performed as far back as 1970 with Crazy Horse (and included on Archives Vol. 1). There’s a stunning take on “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong”, which some reviewers have compared to Poco or the Flying Burrito Brothers. “Are You Ready For The Country?” doesn’t have any of the sloppy charm of the original. Proof that country was always in his blood is reinforced with “Motor City” and “Southern Pacific”, both originally heard on the acerbic Re-ac-tor album, and here transformed to good old-fashioned stompers.

A Treasure confirms—and this was the point—that Neil wasn’t necessarily lost during the ‘80s; he just put out some bad albums. As an official installment in the Archives Performance Series, it only has us wondering if the others will be just as illuminating. (A Blu-Ray edition of the album features highest-quality audio synched to whatever video footage was available; in some cases, the song might be the same but the players are different.)

Neil Young/International Harvesters A Treasure (2011)—3

Monday, June 13, 2011

Joni Mitchell 7: Miles Of Aisles

A hit album enabled a concert tour with a dedicated road band, and Joni thought enough of the performances to make a double live album out of them. (It was, after all, the ‘70s.)

Most of Miles Of Aisles was recorded over four nights in L.A., to a crowd appreciative both of their old favorites along with some of the updated interpretations of same. For example, “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio” goes a little further to give her a chance to scat along with Robben Ford’s steel-like lead guitar. “Big Yellow Taxi” becomes contemporary pop, but while the lite-FM version of “Rainy Night House” may have sounded good in her head, it only makes us reach for the original piano-based track. And chances are CSNY’s hit arrangement of “Woodstock” influenced her heavier take here.

But some things should be left alone, and her performance of “Cactus Tree” is lovely. (She even delays the second line so people can finish clapping.) “Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire” and “Woman Of Heart And Mind” are also left close to the album versions. After commenting on the difference between artists and singers, “The Circle Game” tests the intimacy of the Universal Amphitheatre. Oddly, “People’s Parties” is the only song performed from Court And Spark, then her most recent album.

While she (wisely) doesn’t mess with Blue classics “A Case Of You” and “All I Want”, “Carey” is transformed into a fun-in-the-sun number that wouldn’t be out of place at a Jimmy Buffett show. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” gets only slightly embellished, but her impression of the waitress in the second verse is awkward.

There are two new songs to entice collectors, and she even provides lyrics her own hand. The moody “Jericho” would be rerecorded three albums down the road, but “Love Or Money” simply sounds too disco for these ears.

Miles Of Aisles remains a nice souvenir for those who like this particular Joni era—and lots of people do—but it’s not going to make our list of great live albums.

Joni Mitchell Miles Of Aisles (1974)—3

Friday, June 10, 2011

R.E.M. 2: Reckoning

Like all good bands hoping to overcome the sophomore jinx, R.E.M. went back to work with the same team (Mitch Easer and Don Dixon) who’d recorded Murmur. As striking as that album was, in many ways, Reckoning is better.

To further their mystique, they got a little artier, too; the sides were labeled “L” and “R”, the spine of the sleeve suggested listeners “file under water”, and the song titles played havoc with the traditions of capitalization. (For simplicity’s sake, we’ll not replicate those here.)

“Harborcoat” tumbles onto side one with strident guitar and Bill Berry’s trademark half-time drumming, effectively burying most of the words (up until Michael Stipe’s “react” spelling lesson). A simple riff drives “Seven Chinese Brothers”, which is only slightly related to the children’s story of a similar name. The closest thing to a hit single is “So. Central Rain”, better known by its unofficial subtitle “I’m Sorry”. It’s a beautiful melody, with a great vocal. If that wasn’t enough impetus, lots of college kids sought out Rickenbackers to better capture the intro of “Pretty Persuasion”. After four amazing rockers in a row, “Time After Time (AnnElise)” has a more baroque, almost medieval sound, providing more depth to the band.

It’s back to the rock on side two. “Second Guessing” has some clearer lyrics and nicely layered harmonies, while “Letter Never Sent” is a little less urgent. Then there’s a big switch to the moody “Camera”, a lengthy (for them) song of loss that rivals “Perfect Circle” for beauty. For the bulk of the verses, the bass is the backing, with slight color from a Leslie’d guitar, and for the chorus, hints of an organ help to confuse the listener whether Stipe is singing about a simple breakup or death. The simplest of guitar solos keeps the effect powerful. After another brief jam, then it’s a big switch to a country sound for “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”, another wonderful singalong (for the chorus anyway; the rest would be all guesswork for some time). “Little America” is a not-so-enigmatic reflection on the touring life, punctuated by the repeated reference to their manager (“Jefferson, I think we’re lost”).

Maybe it’s the economy of the tracks; Reckoning has ten while its predecessor had twelve. They do pack a lot of greatness into what’s there, coming in just under forty minutes. Or, it could be that the songs are just better. Whatever the reason, trying to justify a top rating isn’t always an easy thing to do. But Reckoning is simply a great album, ensuring that anything they did from here on out would be gobbled up by the fans. (As with Murmur, the 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition includes a contemporary concert, with an eclectic setlist. It also restores the long-lost instrumental snippet that followed “Little America” on the original vinyl.)

R.E.M. Reckoning (1984)—5
2009 Deluxe Edition: same as 1984, plus 16 extra tracks

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Joe Jackson 4: Jumpin’ Jive

As long as he was being ignored on the pop charts, Joe’s next move was to break away from his touring band (saving only Graham Maby) and put together a swing revue. Both band and album were christened Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, and both album and setlist contained nothing but songs associated with the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan.

Despite his own prowess at the piano, he lets somebody else handle the keys, limiting himself to vibes, scatting and singing, although he does use a couple of cartoony voices on the parenthetical masterpieces “You Run Your Mouth (And I’ll Run My Business)” and “What’s The Use Of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again)”. The three-man horn section doesn’t get too much in the way, and everyone gets to shout along.

Chances are that anyone but jazz aficionados would be familiar with any of these tunes, with the possible exception of “Tuxedo Junction”, the Glenn Miller standard, and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”, which a certain generation would have beloved from a Tom & Jerry cartoon. “San Francisco Fan” is a nice slice of hi-de-ho, and if you don’t get a twitch of a smile at “Jack, You’re Dead” and “Five Guys Named Moe”, then there’s something wrong with you.

Okay, so maybe a swing album from an Angry Young Man wasn’t the best idea for the time, but once you get into the mood for it, Jumpin’ Jive is just plain fun. Amazingly, it even charted. (And, not that anyone was keeping score, but it also beat Elvis Costello’s country jaunt into stores by about six months.) Fast forward to the end of the century, when films like Swingers and The Brian Setzer Orchestra got the kids interested in the swing genre, the album was reissued with a new cover that aimed to be stylish but missed by using an anachronistic photo of the artiste. Nonetheless, it has remined essential.

Joe Jackson Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive (1981)—4

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lou Reed 1: Lou Reed

After a couple of years off, Lou Reed finally emerged with his first album after leaving the Velvet Underground. His self-titled debut was about as successful as his previous albums had been (read: barely a ripple) but becomes more interesting down the road when taken as part of the whole picture.

“I Can’t Stand It” has a nice fuzzy rhythm guitar, but the immediate switch to sensitive singer-songwriter in “Going Down” is jarring, considering how badly suited his voice is for the soft arrangement. Still, it’s a nice song, even if someone should have told the guitarist to take it easy. “Walk And Talk It” borrows the riff from “Brown Sugar” for another rocker. “Lisa Says” sounds like a VU song—because it was, having been played onstage throughout 1969. In addition to building nice dynamics for the bridge, it also features one of Lou’s occasional ragtime detours. A bigger departure happens in “Berlin”, which indeed sports something of a continental flair. It’s one of his more musically sophisticated tracks, and would itself become more important in a couple of years.

“I Love You” is fairly pedestrian, but “Wild Child” revives his interest in Dylanesque wordplay and wacky street characters. One of the more complicated songs is “Love Makes You Feel”, which goes through a variety of unresolved chords before settling into the incongruous chorus. “Ride Into The Sun” begins heavily before settling into a more straightforward backing. “Ocean” was always envisioned to be a magnum opus, with the rolling percussion and chords designed to emulate the sound of the sea. It’s unknown if it ever lived up to the vision in his head.

For all his conflicting emotions about “going commercial” for Loaded, it’s clear that he got over it by the time he finished recording Lou Reed. Every song features stylish female backing vocals, and very little of the album could be considered edgy. Even the presence of Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman in the band doesn’t venture far from the mainstream. In the long run the album should only be of interest to aficionados of the man’s career, considering that seven of the songs were recorded by the Velvets, and would eventually be available in multiple versions for archival study.

Lou Reed Lou Reed (1972)—

Friday, June 3, 2011

John Cale 3: The Academy In Peril

Somehow John Cale got a job as an A&R exec for the Reprise label, and his first album for them came loaded with lots of arty cachet. The very clever cut-out cover design via Andy Warhol is based on those good old Kodak slides, which don’t hint in the slightest at the predominantly classical contents, with only slight detours.

“The Philosopher” opens with a bluesy acoustic slide guitar while percussion thumps, an organ bleats, and horns blare, then a viola arrives. Ron Wood is thanked in the notes for the next track, but we suspect he’s playing the slide on this, because “Brahms” is simply solo piano in the classical style. Maybe he came up with the title? “Legs Larry At Television Centre” is named after the titular narrator, the drummer from the Bonzo Dog Band, here in the role of a director in an imaginary control room guiding the cameras supposedly filming the string quartet. Frankly, he’s distracting. The title track returns to the piano, starting quietly and eventually getting more frantic.

Layers of swirling piano make up the “Intro” to “Days Of Steam”, the most conventional track here, missing only a vocal and lyrics. The viola takes the melody, with a piano and vibraphone mostly doubling each other, before a recorder right out of “Ruby Tuesday” and a trumpet playing chromatic scales takes us out. The next “3 Orchestral Pieces” are banded as one track, and could be film soundtracks: “Faust” is lovely and haunting, “The Balance” begins regally and goes off-balance, and “Capt. Morgan’s Lament” is more stately. “King Harry” returns to the style of “The Philosopher” and “Days Of Steam” with percussion, plus demonic hissed vocals by Cale. Finally, “John Milton” is another piano piece with orchestral touches, and it’s quite moving.

One wonders how Reprise thought they were supposed to market this album. It’s not radio-friendly in the least, but when the guy whose name is on the cover works for the label, maybe that was enough for them. It’s tough to recommend The Academy In Peril, but for all its lovely moments, it still deserves to be heard.

John Cale The Academy In Peril (1972)—

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Joe Jackson 3: Beat Crazy

Barely a year after people first heard him on the radio, Joe was disillusioned with the music business. Three albums in two years was a tall order for anyone, but he could barely contain his disgust with a note on the inner sleeve of Beat Crazy that literally questioned why he bothered.

The album was a quest to “make some sense of rock and roll”, and for the most part, it’s a departure from the pogo-happy sound of his previous albums, embracing the more moody, piano-based pieces. The title track doesn’t fit into that category, beginning with a scream and placing the complaints of the previous generation squarely in the present. Bassist Graham Maby sings the verses, and Joe responds with the edgy choruses. There’s a split second before “One To One” takes over, a pretty lament about a modern relationship. Here the piano and organ answer each other nicely. This in turn switches to the moody dub of “In Every Dream Home (A Nightmare)”, a peek behind the curtains of a city neighborhood. “The Evil Eye” is closer what people wanted, continuing almost seamlessly in “Mad At You”, which at over six minutes almost seems like an extended remix. (The video features, along with a wonderful use of baked beans, the first-ever glimpse of Joe in drag.)

As evidenced on side one, part of Joe’s lyrical arsenal included studies of juxtapositions and paradoxes, where things aren’t what they seem and double standards are exposed. “Crime Don’t Pay”, which only includes about a minute of singing between its lengthy intro and outro, demonstrates one example of the unfairness of modern society, while “Biology” questions the loose fidelity of bands on the road versus the women they left at home. “Someone Up There” updates the old idea of boy-meets-girl-loses-girl. “Pretty Boys” is not an answer to “Pretty Girls” from his first album, but a rant against pop idols and talking heads on TV. Most people probably skipped over “Battleground”, a blatant imitation of Jamaican “dub poet” Linton Kwesi Johnson, but hopefully they stuck around for “Fit”, the best song on the album. For not the last time, Joe questions what makes a man a man, throwing in some racial issues, over a fantastic band performance that makes for a fine finale. (And not for the last time, his own sexuality would be subject to conjecture.) This would be the perfect soundtrack for a scene in an ‘80s coming-of-age film where the protagonist storms out of a house, slamming the screen door in time to the opening drum beat, and driving his car all night pondering his predicament.

Inevitably, Beat Crazy doesn’t quite satisfy, and much of this can probably be put down to having such a full recording and touring schedule. A change was in order, and he would soon make a striking one. (This album has been ignored in this century, after others were expanded. Should anyone decide to, it would behoove them to add the B-side “Enough Is Not Enough”, as well as the standalone “The Harder They Come” single—yes, the Jimmy Cliff song—and its B-sides, “Out Of Style” and “Tilt”. Each has made it to CD over the years, but they belong here, and would be welcome.)

Joe Jackson Band Beat Crazy (1980)—2