Friday, July 29, 2011

Velvet Underground 6: 1969 Live

In response to Lou’s growing fame as a glam solo act, their original label decided to cash in on whatever they had left, compiling a two-record set from location tapes recorded at shows in Dallas and San Francisco. Taking care to highlight Lou’s name on the (hideous) cover art, at least the album generally known as 1969 could boast Maureen Tucker on drums, unlike the bootleg-quality live album from a couple years before.

What made 1969 more interesting, and essential to fans, was the inclusion of several unreleased songs exclusive to the set. “Lisa Says” and “Ocean” had been heard by a select few on Lou’s first solo album, but here were full-fledged band versions, the former with a jaunty bridge and the latter stretched to ten fascinating minutes. “Over You” and the odd “Sweet Bonnie Brown/It’s Just Too Much” medley are curious on their own, but “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together” crackles with energy. Many of the tracks are extended to jam length, and the key discovery to latecomers came in “New Age” and “Sweet Jane”, both in their original versions before being re-jigged for Loaded. (It was this version of “Sweet Jane” that the Cowboy Junkies covered in 1989, leading to their own success and an endorsement by a genuinely flattered Uncle Lou.)

The 1969 album was eventually reissued on CD, but separated into two budget-priced volumes, with an extra track on each. A proper rehaul is long overdue, but there have been two sequels of sorts. Come the turn of the century, when the archival boom helped boost sales in a dying industry, the Velvet Underground became the latest act to find themselves with an authorized “Bootleg Series”. The inaugural — and to date, only — volume in the series was culled from various safeties of cassettes recorded by guitarist (and eventual Reed sidekick) Robert Quine with his own personal tape recorder at a dozen shows from the same era as 1969. The Quine Tapes offers three discs chock full of the Velvets playing their little hearts out, complete with Maureen singing both “After Hours” and “I’m Sticking With You”, and three renditions of “Sister Ray” ranging from 24 to 38 minutes. One key rarity is “Follow The Leader”, otherwise known only from a mid-‘70s Lou solo album.

When the third album received its 45th anniversary treatment, the deluxe package included two discs of material from the San Francisco shows mined for 1969. A year later, The Complete Matrix Tapes presented all four sets sourced from the original tapes, for the best-yet sound of these odd but enjoyable recordings. Everything was familiar to fans by now, and songs are repeated, and but none of them sound identical. Well, maybe “There She Goes Again”, but that’s allowed.

The Velvet Underground 1969: The Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed (1974)—4
1988 CD: same as 1974, plus 2 extra tracks
The Velvet Underground Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes (2001)—3
The Velvet Underground
The Complete Matrix Tapes (2015)—

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Joe Jackson 8: Live 1980/86

Despite not being the most lucrative artist on their label, A&M was still willing to bankroll any ideas Joe Jackson had. First, 1987’s Will Power was an original, strictly symphonic work that combined orchestral instruments with guitar, saxophone, and electronic keyboards and challenged most listeners, with the exception of the exquisite “Nocturne” piano instrumental.

Much of the next year was dedicated to writing and recording the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s latest flop. Tucker: The Man And His Dream was also predominantly instrumental, based around forties swing, alternating between mood music and upbeat fanfares like “Toast Of The Town”. He’d certainly improved since Mike’s Murder.

But in the middle came the surprising release of a double live album. What makes Live 1980/86 so entertaining is given in the title—a side each from four different tours covering six years on the road. Each of the bands is different in some way, but all are tight as can be.

The first side is dedicated to the final show by the original Joe Jackson band, beginning with a tentative “One To One” before introducing the band and revving it up. An amazing performance of “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” (one of three here) spirals up into an extended vamp on the opening chords that manages to morph into a blistering “Don’t Wanna Be Like That”.

Sides two and three, recorded little over a year apart, are acknowledged in the excellent liner notes as being similar, but even the more contemporary pop sounds he’d developed manage to transform songs like “On Your Radio” and “Fools In Love”. The version of “A Slow Song”, which closes side three, is absolutely overflowing with emotion—again, described in the liner notes—the sax solo nicely replacing the calmer organ of the album version. (The crowd reaction provides a nice contrast to the included photo of the audience at a 1982 gig opening up for the Who, taken from the viewpoint of the singer, looking out over a stadium floor full of raised middle fingers.)

Side four—the only one not to feature the stalwart Graham Maby on bass—was the most recent tour captured at the time, and it’s the best side. Several songs are reworked here: “Be My Number Two” merges very nicely into “Breaking Us In Two” with a subdued nylon-string solo; “It’s Different For Girls” is transformed into an acoustic strum; “You Can’t Get What You Want” loses the horns without the energy; “Jumpin’ Jive” gets a rockin’ workout that must have been memorized by Brian Setzer; and “Steppin’ Out” becomes an atmospheric meditation as filtered through side two of Big World.

With almost two hours of music, Live 1980/86 is riveting and hardly tedious. Yes, there are actually three different versions of “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” on this album, and while the so-called “acoustic” and “a cappella” renditions are enjoyable in their own ways, the best is still the tense burner from 1980. As it should, Joe’s prowess on the piano is slowly revealed through the four sides.

Joe Jackson Will Power (1987)—2
Joe Jackson
Live 1980/86 (1988)—4
Joe Jackson
“Tucker: The Man And His Dream” The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1988)—3

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hannah Cranna: Better Lonely Days

For a few brief, shining years, the city of New Haven appeared to be on the verge of becoming the next Athens or Minneapolis in terms of a breeding ground for rock music. Its relative proximity to New York City as well as Boston made it a thriving scene for punk bands in the late ‘70s, which continued through the ‘80s with such bands as Miracle Legion and Those Melvins coming this close to capturing national attention.

As grunge became mainstream nationwide, some of the more cerebral musicians turned to power pop and for inspiration. That melodic equation is apparent all over Hannah Cranna’s Better Lonely Days. These songs, mostly of a romantic bent, are so crisp and catchy that you wonder why they hadn’t been written already. Strident rhythm guitars and tasteful leads drive most of the tracks, glued together by Beatlesque “ooh-la-la-la” harmonies.

The influences are fairly upfront—one song is even titled “Paul McCartney And Wings”, for crying out loud—but you’d be hard pressed to pinpoint any blatant steals. Nor will you notice that most of the songs are in G. Even with that, the sources are unexpected; “In The Sky” is adapted from an Emily Dickinson poem, while a modified arrangement of the Kinks classic “Waterloo Sunset” gives over a verse in favor of a thick solo.

The high point of the album is the stellar should’ve-been-a-smash “Hello”, which even gets away with a spoken interlude. Other standouts, like “Angeline”, “She Loves Me” and the title track, will also perk up weary ears.

They simply don’t make albums like Better Lonely Days anymore, and it would be awfully nice if someone did. As for the band itself, their self-titled follow-up sported some terrific songs and production by Badfinger’s Joey Molland, but unfortunately didn’t propel them much further than New Haven. After the turn of the century it seems they mutated into a variety of side projects, and the word on the street is that they’re recording again. If the new songs are anything like the ones on their debut, that would indeed be good news.

Hannah Cranna Better Lonely Days (1995)—4

Friday, July 22, 2011

Lou Reed 4: Rock ‘N Roll Animal

By now Lou was getting a reputation as the epitome of decadence, and he milked it for all it was worth. Onstage he abandoned the guitar, choosing to concentrate on singing and indulging in performance art. We haven’t found an exact date, but halfway through 1973 he morphed from the curls and whiteface—soon to be immortalized, and probably not coincidentally, by Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show—in favor of a buzz cut, lipstick and studded leather.

This is the image associated with Rock ‘N Roll Animal, a live album culled from a Christmastime show in New York City. Here the primitive sound of the Velvet Underground is nearly transformed into arena rock, beginning with the overblown (but still wonderful) extended intro to “Sweet Jane”. Guitars, played by a couple of guys who’d soon join Alice Cooper, intertwine over funky bass and keyboards before finally finding their way down to that immortal four-chord change as the singer walks on stage and the crowd goes nuts. A lengthy “Heroin” apes the dynamics of the original, but the guitar harmonies and fake Bach organ fugues have us wondering if the band bothered listening to the lyrics. “White Light/White Heat” delivers a nice, nasty crunch, with Steve Hunter doing his best Mick Ronson impression. “Lady Day” is fairly faithful to the album version (though Lou does scream his way through the lyrics, showing more emotion than he did on Berlin), but the extra funky “Rock And Roll” takes the song a little too far from its inspiration.

In order to keep their boy on the charts, only six months after the commercially successful Sally Can’t Dance, his label issued another six songs from the show as Lou Reed Live. Three songs from Transformer are set against two from Berlin and “I’m Waiting For The Man”, and while it’s always nice to hear “Sad Song”, the album doesn’t quite have the fire of the first installment. When, at the turn of the century, Rock ‘N Roll Animal was reissued with two bonus tracks, it merely begged the still-unanswered question: why don’t they just repackage the entire show and put the whole thing out in sequence? (Perhaps, at 87 minutes, it’s not economical to have on a double CD? Nonetheless, anyone wishing to compile a homemade version can do so, and find it preferable to hearing the albums separately.)

Lou Reed Rock ‘N Roll Animal (1974)—
2000 reissue: same as 1974, plus 2 extra tracks
Lou Reed Lou Reed Live (1975)—

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ben Folds 1: Ben Folds Five

Ben Folds is a strangely divisive performer—it seems people either love or hate him. His particular brand of geek-rock can be grating to naysayers, but his supporters are positively devoted to his pop craftsmanship in the tradition of early Elton John and Billy Joel through Joe Jackson and even Todd Rundgren.

He first got notice as the leader of the Ben Folds Five, a trio consisting of simply piano, distorted bass and drums with vocals and killer harmonies. (The joke in the band name was enough to either pull in or repel the curious.) Those who delved into their eponymous debut found a stellar pop gem with more hooks than your grandfather’s tackle box.

“Jackson Cannery” leads the pounding charge through a few dynamic changes to show the band’s chops, taken to an even higher level on “Philosophy”. The headbanging “Julianne” is one of the funnier songs to namecheck Axl Rose, nicely punctuated by flying dishes. “Where’s Summer B?” and “Alice Childress” are vivid portraits of the people in your neighborhood, particularly if you’re a twentysomething. His trademark sarcasm and skewering of pop culture first rears its head on “Underground”, which predicted the emo scene by about five years. At the same time, hearing “Video” today only shows how much MTV has changed.

Further eccentric characters emerge on “Sports & Wine” and particularly “Uncle Walter”; surely everybody knows an old codger who holds forth from the comfort of his easy chair? The best song on the album is “Best Imitation Of Myself”, with its poetic lyric and fantastic arrangement, and its sentiment is taken to a nastier level on “The Last Polka”, a blistering look at the end of a relationship, soon to be another Ben Folds trademark. But the most surprising moment is saved for last. It’s not until the repeat of the chorus of “Boxing” that the song is revealed to be an imaginary conversation between a former pugilist and Howard Cosell, and with the simple statement “boxing’s been good to me, Howard”, it’s not difficult to think of the shell of Muhammed Ali.

Ben Folds Five was released on an offshoot of the “indie” Caroline label, and it got enough attention to leapfrog them to a major label. But they were already paying their dues on the road, whipping sparse audiences into laughter while throwing piano stools at the keys.

Ben Folds Five Ben Folds Five (1995)—4

Monday, July 18, 2011

R.E.M. 3: Fables Of The Reconstruction

For their third album, the boys from Athens hooked up with legendary producer Joe Boyd (who’d worked with Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and the like) in London to record an album still infused with the mythology of the American South. The metallic jangle of the first two albums was a little blurred on Fables Of The Reconstruction, but in the process they managed to both satisfy their rabid fan base and grab a few new acolytes along the way.

A dissonant riff peals through throughout “Feeling Gravitys Pull”, which simmers with dread even after the strings come in. Also in a minor key, but providing the majestic feel common to the album is “Maps And Legends”, another one of those songs that’s just on the verge of meaning something. “Driver 8” was a moderate hit, with a jaunty video about trains to match. “Life And How To Live It” is as catchy as any song with buried vocals can be, while “Old Man Kensey” slows everything down for a tribute to a local oddball.

Even those who always hated R.E.M. can get behind the almost funky “Cant Get There From Here”, with words one can almost figure out, a catchy chorus and even a horn section that doesn’t get in the way. “Green Grow The Rushes” takes a folk melody to (supposedly) talk about Latin American foreign policy, and “Kohoutek” not only buries the lyric, but spells the title any number of ways. The claustrophobia returns on the tense “Auctioneer (Another Engine)”, which considers more trains. “Good Advices” provides a gentle respite (and good advice besides), and an ode to “Wendell Gee” brings it all home sweetly.

While the band was just on the edge to gaining mainstream success, Fables Of The Reconstruction managed to sound like nothing else that year, and increase the band’s mystique, to the point where it still remains a favorite. The 25th Anniversary Edition arrived right on time, and while it could have been packaged similar to the previous Deluxe Editions, it was from a different label, and R.E.M. isn’t about to make things easy for anybody. Instead of a concert recording, here they treat us to some demos of the candidates for the album before they flew to London to record. The demos appear in alphabetical order, which is almost certainly not the order in which they were captured; if we’re wrong, we’d be delighted. Peter Buck’s (brief) liner notes talk about how unprepared they were for this, the difficult third album. He doth protest too much, but far be it from him to let the truth get in the way of a good story. What’s truly amazing about these demos is how much of the album is already in place—guitar parts and lyrics alike. Bill beats a tattoo on “Feeling Gravitys Pull”, which someone (probably Joe Boyd) pulled into check by the time the album proper was recorded. And we do get “Throw Those Trolls Away”, which likely turned into “When I Was Young”, listed on the album’s original inner sleeve, but didn’t appear until the next album as the much-improved “I Believe”.

R.E.M. Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985)—
2010 25th Anniversary Edition: same as 1985, plus 14 extra tracks

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Joe Jackson 7: Big World

After a few years of genre-jumping, Joe Jackson returned to something resembling the rock of his first album, but with a twist. In a departure for the ultra-processing of the decade, he recorded the songs for Big World over a period of three days in front of an audience at a theater in New York City, using a compact band and four backup singers, Joe himself switching from piano to melodica to accordion as the songs dictate. He carefully edited out any crowd noise, but the result is an album that definitely sparkles with the energy of a live performance, rendering the experiment a success.

And if that wasn’t all, the original vinyl contained the songs on three sides of two records; the label on the fourth side reads “THERE IS NO MUSIC ON THIS SIDE.” (We played it anyway to make sure; there isn’t.) This effectively divides the album into three parts, which doesn’t always translate to the cassette or CD format.

Part One fades in with “Wild West”, complete with Clint Eastwood flute, but goes right for the throat in its questioning of The American Way. The theme continues in “Right And Wrong”, complete with timely baseball commentary for the local crowd. “(It’s A) Big World” aims for something grand, but meanders around an ersatz Arabian riff without actually going anywhere. “Precious Time” is a breathless cipher, but all is well with the driving, yearning “Tonight And Forever”, another song that should have been a smash hit single.

Part Two takes it down a notch or so, with four songs on the dreamier side. “Shanghai Sky” is a gorgeous meditation on the piano, repeating the theme to ask “how the world got so small”, and playing it again as it started. “Fifty Dollar Love Affair” puts us in the middle of a film noir scene, yet the action is contemporary. “We Can’t Live Together” starts low and sultry but winds up with the angst of the choruses and guitar solo. Then it’s back to politics with a stately study of the previous “Forty Years” and the evolving state of the world.

After that, Part Three seems slight, but its charms emerge. “Survival” pounds a riff into the floor with not a lot of substance to back it up, followed by “Soul Kiss”, which decries the dearth of substance in pop culture over nice piano work. “The Jet Set” is a humorous narrative by a typical ugly tourist, then “Tango Atlantico” uses the dance metaphor to ridicule Reagan and Thatcher. The nostalgia of “Home Town” has certainly added to its appeal over the years, plus it’s got a fantastic opening line: “Of all the stupid things I could have thought, this was the worst.” “Man In The Street” brings it all home by unleashing the Rock; strangely enough, it was recorded during rehearsals, with no audience present.

Despite peaking at #34 on the Billboard album chart, Big World was hardly the commercial or critical success it should have been. Today it endures as an authentic, BS-free artifact from the ‘80s, unknown to many. And to add insult to injury, it was out of print for years, making it a steal for anyone who found it in the used bin, but is currently available for streaming.

Joe Jackson Big World (1986)—4

Friday, July 15, 2011

Joe Jackson 6: Body And Soul

Staying in New York City for the nonce, Joe’s next move was to make an album that embraced digital technology while staying true to the more organic elements of the instruments. Simultaneously looking forward and back, Body And Soul was even packaged like an old Blue Note album, complete with vintage typography and heady liner notes (most likely penned by the Artist).

“The Verdict” crashes out of the speakers with a grand horn theme; while it’s only tangentially related to the film of the same name, there’s a grandeur of sorts that infuses the narrator. “Cha Cha Loco” rehashes the Latin experiments of the last album over a piano line that doesn’t do much, but a nice big ballad comes in “Not Here, Not Now”. Over a sad melody, the lyrics detail a crumbling relationship kept afloat by a desire to not to “make a scene” amongst friends—the narcissism of the ‘80s made clear. With the unwieldy title “You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)”, that song wasn’t the most likely candidate for a hit single, but once you get past the horns and enjoy the bridge, even the bass and guitar solos start to make sense. The optimism continues on “Go For It”, an oddly encouraging sentiment coming from his mouth. Or maybe he was being ironic?

His fascination with the metropolitan melting pot culminates on “Loisaida”, its title a phonetic translation of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It’s designed to be an impressionistic journey through the neighborhood, something of a cousin to “Harlem Nocturne”, and at that level it works, even if the sax part reminds us of “No Anchovies, Please” by the J. Geils Band. The liner notes helpfully point out the harmonic juxtapositions of “Happy Ending”; while the “Be My Baby” drum part is always welcome, the Night Court fan in us wishes backup singer Ellen Foley could have sung the female half of the duet. There’s time for another big ballad, the wondrous “Be My Number Two” that manages to sound romantic despite its undercurrent of selfishness. Predominantly voice and piano, it breaks through at the end by adding drums, violin and horns. Another tone poem of sorts, “Heart Of Ice”, is used to bookend the album. For the first part of it, it almost sounds like a Pat Metheny album, and that’s not meant as a slam.

Body And Soul was not a huge hit, but when heard back to back with Night And Day, it emerges as the superior album. The steps taken to provide optimal sound comes through on the vinyl, while the breadth of musical styles makes it excellent pop.

Joe Jackson Body And Soul (1984)—

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Monkees 3: Headquarters

Following a successful tour of England, where they got to hang out with the real Fab Four, the Monkees managed to stage a coup, ousting Don Kirshner as supervisor of their music. Now they were determined to make their next album on their own, choosing the songs themselves and playing all the instruments. While it had all the potential of a massive train wreck, Headquarters turned out great, giving them the respect they felt they’d more than earned.

They didn’t just try to duplicate their on-screen image, either. While Micky proved to be a competent drummer, Mike expanded his expertise to learning pedal steel guitar. And Peter relinquished the bass duties to producer Chip Douglas, choosing instead to add a variety of tasteful keyboards throughout. (Davy, of course, played the hell of out his maracas.)

With a jokey count-in, “You Told Me” gallops in, complete with banjo, setting up what would soon be called country rock, continued on “I’ll Spend My Life With You” (a Tommy Boyce-Bobby Hart song, and an excellent choice). Their producer offered up “Forget That Girl”, Davy’s first vocal on the LP and a nice one. “Band 6” was probably not the best choice of a track to show off their instrumental prowess, but if you listen closely you can just hear Nesmith find his way through the Looney Toons theme. Another song first heard on the TV show, “You Just May Be The One”, is here given a better vocal and tighter all-around performance. “Shades Of Gray” is something of a serious song, splitting the vocal between Davy, Micky, and even Peter. And Davy does a tapdance routine on the still charming “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind”.

Peter was definitely on a roll here, as “For Pete’s Sake” predicted the spirit of the Summer of Love, and was even tapped to be the closing theme of the TV show. Another Boyce-Hart song, the eerie “Mr. Webster”, takes a page from the Kinks, complete with surprise ending. Mike’s last and best contribution to the album proper is “Sunny Girlfriend”, so simple yet so catchy. As with side one, the middle position is taken by a novelty, in this case the superior round “Zilch”. The band gets to rock (and Micky gets to scat) on “No Time”, before the chilly suburban vibe of “Early Morning Blues And Greens”, a surprisingly cynical Davy vocal over Peter’s layered keyboards. Micky’s tympani drives “Randy Scouse Git”, a response to their British tour, as infectious as it is inscrutable.

In the tradition of the Beatles, no singles were released from the album, but those who bought the 45 of “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” might have flipped it to experience “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”, their greatest song and performance. When Rhino released their expanded CD, however, an earlier take was included, along with other full band performances of lesser musical quality. The later Deluxe Edition did include the single, but unfortunately also gives too much attention to the pile of dreck that Davy, ever the company man, added vocals to in the last days before the Kirshner era ended.

These are most likely of interest only to the collectors who’d rued their exclusion from Headquarters Sessions, a bold step taken back at the turn of the century by Rhino’s Handmade division, which specialized in limited editions of albums that even Rhino geeks would consider extreme. Following in the pattern of the similar treatment of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds box, these three CDs follow the album’s (and the band’s) progression as the tracks developed from first takes to final mixes, with lots of time given to session outtakes and backing tracks, to demonstrate how well these guys actually managed to play together.

With that title available at hefty resale prices but also streaming, the album finally received a Super Deluxe Edition along the lines of the Monkees’ other megaboxes in the year of its 55th anniversary, albeit in ultra-limited quantities. This time compiler Andrew Sandoval attempted to tell the whole story, giving equal time to the tracks created without the foursome as well as those created with. The first disc is devoted to yet another new stereo mix of the album plus various singles and other completed tracks already known from reissues and compilations. Then we proceed chronologically, starting with the boys’ first attempts at a single, then going through a couple dozen backing tracks for the insipid songs Don Kirshner and Jeff Barry pushed. Even without vocals it’s staggering to think just how awful their third album could have been, as proven by the tracks Davy (and Micky, down the road) actually sang on. Halfway through the third disc the boys take over, with handpicked selections from the Sessions set alternating with previously unreleased takes, finally ending disc four with further mixes of some of the Jeff Barry tracks and two mixes of the TV theme song sung in Italian, which still sound like someone keeps bumping the turntable.

The Monkees Headquarters (1967)—4
1995 reissue CD: same as 1967, plus 6 extra tracks
2007 Deluxe Edition: same as 1994, plus 30 extra tracks
2022 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 2007, plus 65 extra tracks
The Monkees Headquarters Sessions (2000)—3

Monday, July 11, 2011

Lou Reed 3: Berlin

It’s trendy among rock snobs to champion Berlin as a masterpiece, and while we’re not about to go that far, we will attempt to defend it somewhat. Granted, we probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to the album if it weren’t for a certain anthology of the work of Lester Bangs, but even he wasn’t infallible.

Berlin is a vague song cycle about a doomed relationship in the then-divided city, marred by violence and drug addiction, pieced together from a variety of disparate songs, some of which had been germinating since the Velvet Underground days. Featuring an all-star cast and a grandiose Bob Ezrin production, it’s the source of Lou’s stereotypical laconic image, the barbiturate downside to his established amphetamine rush.

Beginning with a wobbly recording of a birthday party, the title track takes only a few elements of the original, sticking to the basic theme played on a cocktail piano. Suddenly “Lady Day” crashes in, with Steve Winwood’s nightmarish organ underpinning the unspoken dread in the lyrics. Likewise, “Men Of Good Fortune” is pinned by Jack Bruce’s overpowering bass. “Caroline Says I” is almost upbeat, complete with a closing string arrangement right off of any number of chamber-pop records, shifting abruptly into the swaggering “How Do You Think It Feels”. “Oh Jim”, grafted from two VU outtakes, provides a little more plot before descending into a basic doo-wop tune without the harmonies.

Side two is where things get really interesting, and it’s worth pointing out that the man known for his “metal machine music” exclusively plays acoustic guitar on this album. “Caroline Says II” is another VU outtake, taken heartbreakingly slow in its depiction of the fall of the relationship. The most notorious track remains “The Kids”, which begins like an Irish reel, but is given over to a long vamp punctuated by the actual sounds of children crying for their mother. It’s not easy to say that “The Bed” provides any respite with its deceptive gentleness. A chorus of disembodied voices ushers in the grandiose “Sad Song”, transformed from a so-so Loaded outtake into a biting dismissal of the leading lady, thanks to one of Lou’s greatest couplets (“I’m gonna stop wasting my time/Somebody else would have broken both of her arms”) and summed up by the matter-of-fact repetition of the song’s title.

Berlin is a truly depressing album, and therefore not for everyone. Legend has it that the album, already bursting the grooves at 49 minutes, was originally over an hour long, and various sections had to be edited so it would fit on two sides of vinyl without losing sound quality. However, neither of the album’s two reissues in the CD era has restored any of this lost music. Even 33 years later, when the album was performed in its entirety onstage for the first time, the arrangements stuck to the album as memorized by the faithful. It remains a powerful work of art, and nobody said every work of art had to be pretty.

Lou Reed Berlin (1973)—4

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Joe Jackson 5: Night And Day

A move to New York City invigorated Joe, and he recorded his next album of original material with a small group of players, not one of whom added a guitar to the recordings. On vinyl, Night And Day had two sides—“night” and “day”, naturally—but the designations didn’t necessarily apply to the music within, which could have easily taken place anywhere within a 24-hour cycle in the Big Apple.

From the beginning, he embraces the diverse ethnic culture of the city, with the Latin touches and percussion on “Another World”, followed by a search for “Chinatown”. There are no silences between the songs on this side; each fades into one another, just like the radio. But at least it’s not as abrupt as changing television channels, which would make “T.V. Age” even more irritating. “Target” wanders over the same Latin piano line for too long, but the side is redeemed by the hit single “Steppin’ Out”. Still catchy as ever, it was several years before we realized it, remarkably, has the same bass line throughout, except for the verses.

Ever a student of pop music history, “Breaking Us In Two” begins identically to Badfinger’s “Day After Day”, but he uses it to base a wonderful lovers’ lament. “Cancer” might be the best of the songs on the album with a Latin theme lambasting modern society; while that’s not saying much, at least the piano solo is more exploratory. The success of the album was such that the label even bankrolled a video for “Real Men”, which got lots of MTV airplay despite its easily misunderstood lyrics about machismo, racism, homosexuality and other stereotypes. It’s still a gorgeously sad song, an idea he expands on for the epic “A Slow Song”. This masterwork may as well be his theme song—indeed, he still closes his shows with it—a bold plea to cut through the disposable trends so that “real” music can transform our lives.

With its pop sound and attitude, exemplified by the cartoon on the front cover, Night And Day wasn’t about to please anyone who missed the edgy punk of his debut. But he was determined to be a working musician and composer, and enough people bought the album to keep his publisher happy. (It still cracks us up that drummer Larry Tolfree has the same look on his face as he did on Jumpin’ Jive. At least Graham Maby lost the beard.)

The album got a boost from its videos and a lengthy tour, yet Joe still found time to compose the music for the film Mike’s Murder. Despite starring Debra Winger at the peak of her popularity, the film had a lot of problems getting released, which meant the soundtrack album didn’t find much traction. Probably just as well, as one side of tepid vocal tracks was remarkable only for “Memphis”, which ripped off the hook from the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” (over the bass line from “Steppin’ Out”), and side two’s instrumentals were just dull.

Commercially, Joe had also peaked, yet Night And Day has remained popular since its release. The 2003 Deluxe Edition seemed promising—at the very least, to show that his old label still thought highly enough of him to bother. Six solo demos demonstrate how mapped out the songs were before the band was brought in, and the five vocals from side one of Mike’s Murder kept that music in circulation, for better or worse. While the inclusion of the entirety of side two of Live 1980/86 was all good and well in context, it took the idea of recycling a tad far.

Joe Jackson Night And Day (1982)—3
2003 Deluxe Edition: same as 1982, plus 16 extra tracks
Joe Jackson Mike’s Murder Soundtrack (1983)—2

Monday, July 4, 2011

Joni Mitchell 8: The Hissing Of Summer Lawns

She was enjoying her greatest commercial success to date, but for many consumers, this is where Joni seemed to go off the rails. With 35 years of hindsight, it seems the only beef people can have with The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is the use of synthesizers, which admittedly, stick out like two sore thumbs. Except for that, it’s a clear progression from the contemporary jazz she’d gotten such accolades for on Court And Spark, right down to yet another Annie Ross cover.

Something else to consider, as acknowledged in the liner notes, is that her words had become more poetic than lyrical, sometimes completely ignoring rhyme schemes for a pattern, like her guitar tunings, that make sense to only her. That’s not to say she stopped writing catchy songs. “In France They Kiss On Main Street” kicks it off with a straight jazz-rock backing and a few old boyfriends singing backup. “The Jungle Line” likely turned a lot of people off, driven by pounding African drums and dominated by a Moog synthesizer. (At the time such an instrument was still groundbreaking; these days it brings to mind the occasional video game.) More conventional sounds return for “Edith And The Kingpin”, an enigmatic film noir that gives a hint of her developing sound. “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” seems more abstract until you realize that it actually rhymes. A portrait of a Southern post-feminist is painted by piano and strings on “Shades Of Scarlet Conquering”.

Similarly, the title song was viewed by some as an indictment of a woman choosing to be symbolically imprisoned by an affluent husband, but as we’ve learned about suburbia, there seems to be a lot more going on than we can see. Another side of this theme is “The Boho Dance”, a somewhat guarded look (back) at compromises people make for their success. What sounds like a passing car horn ushers in “Harry’s House”, which juxtaposes the increasingly separate activities of a married couple with a memory illustrated by “Centerpiece”, a jazz standard shoehorned into the middle of the arrangement. “Sweet Bird” returns to the sound of For The Roses with slowly strummed yet slightly jittery guitars colored by piano. “Shadows And Light” is a daring closer, sung by layered voices and accompanied by a primitive string synthesizer.

The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is a little challenging, so while the public may not have been quick to embrace it, it does get namechecked by some of music’s snobbier figures, like Prince and Elvis Costello. Maybe the cover art didn’t help; the gatefold shows a bikini-clad Joni floating in a swimming pool, which may not be the same one tucked behind the mansion on the back cover, several hills and a continent away from the bungalows and skyscrapers on the front, while dark figures help a snake through the grass.

Joni Mitchell The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)—3

Friday, July 1, 2011

Monkees 2: More Of The Monkees

No matter what the actors themselves may have believed, the Monkees were a product first and foremost, and any responsible music organization in the mid-‘60s knew how essential it was to keep fresh merchandise on the shelves. So it was that, four months after the debut’s release and with half of a TV season still to be broadcast, More Of The Monkees was unleashed, to be undoubtedly snatched up by rabid teenyboppers.

Just as rabid, but for a different reason, was the band itself, who allegedly only heard of the album’s existence when they saw it advertised for sale. They hated the cover, and they especially hated the liner notes that gave all credit to the people behind the scenes, rather than the four boys being chased from hotel to stage to limo.

Their anger is a little misplaced, since it wasn’t like they hadn’t spent any time in the studio recording vocals for (and in Mike Nesmith’s case, writing and producing) a few albums’ worth of songs. A handful stretched back to the earliest sessions, while some were more recent, in search of their next hit single.

Still, despite the inclusion of some of those hits and TV favorites, there’s a distinct leftover feeling throughout the album. Peter finally gets to “sing” on “Your Auntie Grizelda”, but the absolute nadir is Davy’s wretched spoken performance on “The Day We Fall In Love”. (He pulled the same trick on the bridge of “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)”, so obviously some genius thought it was a good idea.)

The inclusion of such head-scratchers makes it hard to fathom this is the same album that gave us “I’m A Believer” and “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”. “Mary, Mary” had already been recorded by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but one hidden highlight is “Sometime In The Morning”, a Goffin-King nugget delivered nicely by Micky.

More Of The Monkees hasn’t aged as well as the first album, with its reliance on fuzztone guitars and harpsichords. But it didn’t have to be good, it just had to sell, which it did, by the bucketful. (As with the debut, Rhino’s first CD reissue was only slightly expanded, while the Deluxe Edition is loaded with timely outtakes, TV hits and alternate versions. And just because they could, the inevitable Super Deluxe Edition added plenty more mixes of songs not good enough to make the album in the first place, plus ten songs from a January 1967 concert.)

The Monkees More Of The Monkees (1967)—3
1994 reissue CD: same as 1967, plus 5 extra tracks
2006 Deluxe Edition: same as 1994, plus 25 extra tracks
2017 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 1994, plus 74 extra tracks