Wednesday, August 31, 2011

R.E.M. 6: Document

Right on schedule, back when bands put a new album every twelve months, R.E.M. emerged with a closer bid for superstardom, while preserving a love for wacky sounds. Document is a progression like everything else, with a bright and accessible rock sound, slightly more confident vocals and tantalizing lyrics, when you could understand them.

Their determination is established on “Finest Worksong”, which manages to rock on a single chord for most of the verses. Then it’s a dip into politics for “Welcome To The Occupation”, which likely escaped understanding even more than “Exhuming McCarthy”, complete with the legendary testimony mixed into the bridge. “Disturbance At The Heron House” isn’t the first song to compare humans to animals. A little comic relief comes on a cover of Wire’s “Strange”, another song that could be one of their own. The album’s most unlikely hit remains “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, still a great title and a great performance.

Then again, “The One I Love” shouldn’t have been as successful as it was, given to its repetition and easily confused sentiment. “Fireplace” is an off-kilter waltz, but not as jarring as “Lightnin’ Hopkins”, which could be described as U2’s October filtered through Georgia. “King Of Birds”, lush with exotic acoustic touches, is a lovely song, before the feedback and doom of “Oddfellows Local 151”, which gives Stipe another reason to work “fire” into a lyric.

Document doesn’t sound as unique today, given its familiarity and rash of imitators. In many ways, this is where some of their fickle fans began to think of them as sellouts. (They were still great in concert, as demonstrated by the Dutch performance included in the 25th Anniversary package, pointedly devoid of any heretofore-unrecorded songs or covers, despite “So. Central Rain” having previously been included in the “Time After Time Etc.” medley on a few compilations.) But it’s easy to be spoiled when your favorite band puts out an album every year. All these years later, with plenty of hindsight, it truly does evoke the fall of ’87, as the psychedelic nostalgia of the summer gave way to nervousness about the Reagan administration. For all of its volume, its anger is filtered through its weirdness.

R.E.M. Document (1987)—
2012 25th Anniversary Edition: same as 1987, plus 20 extra tracks

Monday, August 29, 2011

Ben Folds 5: Rockin’ The Suburbs

The Five had disbanded a year earlier (though you could tell on their last album they were getting bored) so fans anxiously awaited Ben’s grand statement of independence. In its place we got Rockin’ The Suburbs, an album full of tracks that could well have been recorded by the band. Tellingly, he plays the bulk of the instruments, including drums, distorto bass and some guitar.

If there was anything new in his approach since the band stopped, it was a preponderance of songs written in the third person starting from the titles. “Annie Waits” is a lonely spinster of the “Eleanor Rigby”/“Another Day” school, but “Zak And Sara” takes a wacky trip in time to predict the musical horrors that will follow. The first great song comes in “Still Fighting It”, an imagined conversation between father and son that remains both effective and futile. “Gone” is another rousing kiss-off to a former paramour. “Fred Jones Part 2” is an amazingly touching portrait of a reluctant retiree, and fans would have recognized this particular character from a song on Whatever And Ever Amen. The flipside comes on “The Ascent Of Stan”, a look at a person who hasn’t aged as gracefully.

With each track his musical depth grows and grows, as evidenced on “Losing Lisa”, a remarkably insightful glimpse at the end of a relationship that’s eclipsed by the song that follows. “Carrying Cathy” takes a couple of verses to paint a picture of a somewhat needy person, before detouring into an impressionistic bridge colored by just enough strings over a wordless chorus. The song expertly drops out to accompany a vivid image of people “carrying a box through the rain”, fulfilling the threat of the song’s title. Then it’s a trip (pun intended) to the aftermath of a party in “Not The Same”, which would provide some of the world’s better audience participation over the years. The title track nicely skewers the current state of white rap, and we’d like to think it’s one reason why Fred Durst doesn’t sell anymore. “Fired” is an odd one; it appears to be a rant from an angry boss, but ends as if it was merely an excuse to write a song based around the final twelve-letter obscenity. But in keeping with his M.O., he gives the last word to tenderness in “The Luckiest”, a wedding song for the 21st century.

Arguably, the best songs on Rockin’ The Suburbs are the depressing ones, much to the dismay of those who liked the funny ones better. He gave himself a tough line to walk, stuck between the role of a compelling songwriter with a musical comedian. But as ever, no matter what his songs make you think, they also tap your toes.

Ben Folds Rockin’ The Suburbs (2001)—

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lou Reed 8: Rock And Roll Heart

The rock ‘n roll animal had become a serious liability to his label, and it says a lot about how your career’s going when even RCA dumps you. Still, Lou was still a name, and got an immediate lift from Arista, currently making millions on the back of Barry Manilow, but also taking chances with the likes of Patti Smith. They would indulge him for a series of iffy albums, starting with Rock And Roll Heart.

This was his chance to make a splash, and he missed the pool by about ten feet. The trouble is apparent from the start, as “I Believe In Love” extols the virtues of “good time music and good time rock ‘n roll” over a completely sterile backing borrowed from any contemporary TV variety show. While “Banging On My Drum” does feature his trademark rhythm guitar, the lyrics consist of the title, which is supposed to rhyme with “having lots of fun.” “Follow The Leader” might as well be disco, though his stuttering delivery is all speed, with little to add than to namecheck New York City. We finally have a glimmer of hope on “You Wear It So Well”, a minor-key piano-based ballad on par with similar tracks on his first three solo albums. “Ladies Pay” follows the same format, but has even less to say, and fewer chords to say it over. As poetry it doesn’t need music, and as a guitar solo, it needs a better place to wail. Yet somehow, for all its basicness, the title track works.

“Chooser And The Chosen” has a nice moody beginning, but it must have been too complicated to get lyrics, resulting in an instrumental with sax solo. He did manage to conjure two verses for both chords in “Senselessly Cruel”, and drawls some obnoxious subterranean homesick lines for “Claim To Fame”. Maybe he wouldn’t want to admit it, but “Vicious Circle” could well be a memo to himself, “surrounded by [his] so-called friends.” “A Sheltered Life” is twisted vaudeville, with opposing sax tracks, an odd leftover from a decade before. But just like the other side, this one ends strong with the role-playing in “Temporary Thing”, something of a follow-on from “Kicks”. He’d go back to this novel again, too.

Lou was starting to be reliable only in that he could be counted on for every other album. It’s hard to believe he approved the master of Rock And Roll Heart thinking it was worthy of his talent and intellect, but he did, and there it is. And his new label was stuck with him.

Lou Reed Rock And Roll Heart (1976)—2

Friday, August 26, 2011

Monkees 5: The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees

The TV show was all but finished, but the Monkees still had the time and the clout to keep recording for albums. The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, which was released the month after the last episode aired, is incredibly disjointed, both in concept and history. Each of the members worked alone, and in increasingly opposite directions. And Peter, the one who loved being in a band most of all, isn’t heard anywhere, despite using the likes of Stephen Stills and Buddy Miles on his sessions.

Davy is prominent on the first side. “Dream World” has a decent rock backing, but is unfortunately dated by brass and strings. “We Were Made For Each Other” is more typical syrup with too much harpsichord. In between, “Auntie’s Municipal Court” is a simple three-chord country lope with inexplicable Nesmith lyrics to match the nonsensical title, but being sung by Micky, it’s not that far out at all. “Tapioca Tundra” is just plain odd, signaled by pointedly off-key whistling before escalating into another Nesmith attempt at poetry over a Latin beat. First heard as a B-side (where it belonged), it still managed to hit the top 40. “Daydream Believer”, recorded for the previous album but released as a single instead, finally appears, complete with the jokey slate opening. It’s still a great single, even if those trumpets do sound too much like the Partridge Family. Then there’s “Writing Wrongs”, which begins with a big studio sound anchored by a promising piano part, then takes a two-minute detour into a pointless jam over the same chord, with a couple of flatted-fifths thrown in at random for an attempt at jazz.

Side two offers a few carrots for longtime fans. “I’ll Be Back Upon My Feet” and “Valleri” had both been featured on the TV show, so new re-recordings are used here. Davy’s “The Poster” is a questionable rewrite of “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!”, but without the menace. Similarly, “P.O. Box 9847” uses Beatlesque production technique for a song written as a personal ad. Nez tries again to defy conventional record making with “Magnolia Simms”, which managed to predict “Honey Pie”, complete with surface noise, but McCartney wouldn’t have included a skipping or scratching effect, or put it only in one channel. Micky gets the last word with the anti-war “Zor And Zam”, which was also prominent in the last episode of the TV show, which he happened to direct.

Considering the disparate sounds here, it’s amazing that The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees was remotely good, or even successful. They were, however, able to choose from dozens of songs attempted throughout the sessions. (So much so that when Rhino released a limited deluxe expansion of the album, it stretched to three full CDs, including both the stereo and mono versions of the LP plus tons of alternates and outtakes, not least of which are a bunch of Mike’s countryish tunes, three versions of Peter’s mysterious “Merry-Go-Round” and FOUR stabs of his never-completed “Lady’s Baby”.) Sadly, there were even some songs recorded during the sessions that would have made the album better, but they were being held over for the soundtrack of their upcoming feature film.

The Monkees The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees (1968)—3
1994 reissue CD: same as 1968, plus 5 extra tracks
2010 Deluxe Edition: same as 1994, plus 71 extra tracks

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

R.E.M. 5: Dead Letter Office

R.E.M.’s fans could have easily contained their first four albums on two Maxell 90-minute tapes, with room for the various other songs that had crept out on B-sides. All of a sudden, the band made their searches a lot easier with Dead Letter Office, a collection of such rarities. Such a thing wasn’t as common for an active band, but this group, record store geeks all, would have certainly been familiar with similar compilations by Elvis Costello and The Clash. And despite Peter Buck’s self-deprecating liner notes, it’s a highly cohesive album.

Said liner notes make the point that a B-side tends to be a dumping ground for half-assed performances captured on tape that wouldn’t fit on an album. So like any other band, R.E.M. recorded their share of covers in the early days. Three of them were Velvet Underground songs, and their mostly acoustic takes on “There She Goes Again”, “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale” might have turned the unsuspecting on to that band. “Crazy” was borrowed from the Athens band Pylon, though it could easily have been an original. Their take on Aerosmith’s “Toys In The Attic” is a hoot, but in a different way from the drunken stab at “King Of The Road”, which apparently none of the band knew all the way through.

Of the songs they did write, perhaps they might not have fit onto the albums, but they still are of quality. Especially entertaining is “Voice Of Harold”, a legendary early take of “Seven Chinese Brothers” sung using the words from the back cover of an obscure gospel album. “Burning Down” and “Ages Of You” may be rewrites of the same song, but each would be fun to hear live. “Burning Hell” matches a plodding riff with a strangled vocal that spews such gems as “women got legs, men got pants/you got the picnic, I got the ants”. A few instrumentals show off the band’s tightness, and even “Bandwagon”, another reaction to constant touring, manages to charm.

The album wasn’t a huge commercial hit, but it was never meant to be. But in a very smart move, the CD version included as a bonus the entire Chronic Town EP from 1982, which to date was only available on LP or cassette. It makes a nice inclusion, and really does enhance the collection. The five songs are a little more tentative than what would comprise Murmur, the standout being “Gardening At Night”. While overlooked in the band’s 25th Anniversary archival program, Chronic Town could certainly anchor a strong second disc for an update of Dead Letter Office, with the addition of the remaining handful of live takes and other rarities from those early days. But they didn’t, and phooey on them for leaving money on the table.

R.E.M. Dead Letter Office (1987)—4
1987 CD: same as above, plus 5 extra tracks

Monday, August 22, 2011

Van Morrison 2: Astral Weeks

While he’d been a recording artist for a while, and even been on the pop charts as a solo artist, Astral Weeks was Van Morrison’s first real album, and that’s where anyone should really start.

It’s not the kind of album that grabs you immediately; like many of the great ones, it slowly sinks into your brain until you simply have to have it. It’s a late-night narcotic that evokes autumn. As a statement of art, it’s divided not in sides, but into “Part One: In The Beginning” and “Part Two: Afterwards”. Most of the accompanists are jazz guys, adding to the mood.

The title track begins with a simple bass run over two chords, setting the stage for Van to rap a stream of consciousness that barely rhymes, like a train traveling over the green hills before coming to the stop where he gets off. “Beside You” begins very quietly and stays there, a rambling acoustic guitar strummed beneath seemingly disconnected verses. It’s a very seductive sound, especially when compared to the earlier, more rocking version that would emerge after Van got big. After those, “Sweet Thing” is almost conventional, with its easy-to-follow structure and penetrable lyric. It’s a misleading setup for “Cyprus Avenue”, one of dozens of reveries of his hometown he’d record over his career. It’s a simple twelve-bar blues, but presented in such a unique way, with his voice changing on every line. (The jury’s still out on whether the narrator is a pedophile or not.)

“The Way Young Lovers Do” sounds a little too much of its era, but succeeds thanks to the wonderful bridge heard twice and the first mention of gardens wet with rain. He’d learn to arrange horns better before long. To this day the most discussed song on the album is “Madame George”, a song Van has refused to explain adequately. It begins, again, on Cyprus Avenue, following a simple I-IV-V chord sequence through observations of a party, ruminations on the noun and verb form of love, and finally taking the train away from it all. The love song to a “Ballerina” is achingly gentle and sweet, another simple structure enhanced by an amazing performance. “Slim Slow Slider” follows the blues pattern even further with death imagery and blatant acknowledgement, before ending abruptly with a saxophone flourish that fades.

Astral Weeks is a slow burner, one that once you “get”, you understand that it truly is all good. This is where the legend of Caledonia soul, the Belfast Cowboy all began—gardens wet with rain, tree-lined streets, thinking back to simpler days and immersing oneself in literature and music.
The mystery of the album would only grow in with each passing year, particularly as new converts came aboard. So it was with some excitement and trepidation that an “Expanded & Remastered” edition—its first such upgrade since its first appearance on CD back in the late ‘80s—would include four bonus tracks from the sessions. Take 1 of “Beside You” is close to the one used on the album, as is take four of “Madame George”, though particularly stark without the orchestration. “Ballerina” is extended by a minute without revealing much, but the 94 seconds added to “Slim Slow Slider” prove the longtime rumor that the song went past the fade used on the LP. Most musical Holy Grails are better on paper than they are to the ears, and this one will likely divide the faithful. (Spoiler alert: it picks up after the familiar fade, and consists of freeform vamping between the acoustic guitar, bass and sax, before Van starts singing “glory be to Him” to the tune of what would emerge as the verse from “Everyone”. Another reason why they probably lopped it off would be the guitar being out of tune.)

Van Morrison Astral Weeks (1968)—
2015 Expanded & Remastered CD: same as 1968, plus 4 extra tracks

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lou Reed 7: Coney Island Baby

As the ‘70s dragged on, glam split into punk and disco, and decadence took on new forms. And while he may not have been commercially viable, Lou Reed still confounded the expectations of his record label and challenged fans to keep up with him. In the magazines, he might have even had a nemesis in the form of Lester Bangs, whose continued attempts to corner him might have been considered malicious if he wasn’t such a huge (albeit frustrated) fan.

In a way—and this is a stretch—Metal Machine Music did expand upon some aspects of the Velvet Underground legacy, but those who’d followed Lou since before Transformer also knew him to be a sentimental fool, heavily influenced by doo-wop and Dion and the Belmonts. This was more apparent on Coney Island Baby, an odd collection of softer songs with flashes of sleaze. Acoustic guitars and backing vocals abound, with clean leads darting here and there.

Right off the bat he’s got a “Crazy Feeling”, which can only be love. Granted, the object of his affection has just walked into a bar pursued by “suit-and-tie johns”, but hey, the heart wants what it wants. (Note the “queen, such a queen” aside, undoubtedly a nod to Bowie’s “Queen Bitch”, itself a Reed homage.) On the surface, “Charley’s Girl” seems right out of the girl group era, but the cowbell places it square in the ‘70s, and “you gotta watch out” for her because she’s a narc. “She’s My Best Friend” was left over from the latter days of the Velvets, and is better musically than it is lyrically. Then we get to “Kicks”, something of a structural sequel to “The Gift” or “Sister Ray” in that it’s a two-chord jam, over which Lou talks about seducing and murdering the unexpecting, while two different party conversations go on behind, occasionally bursting through the mix.

Here’s another juxtaposition: unlike the similar title of one song and chords borrowed from “Satellite Of Love”, now Lou would have us believe he’s “A Gift” “to the women of this world” while background singers whisper and coo. The liner notes would have us he’s playing the pounding piano on “Ooohhh Baby”, which dominates over the lyrics about the usual downtown characters. “Nobody’s Business” begins with the rolling percussion from “Ocean” and a guitar part borrowed from “The Bed”, but turns into just another bluesy shuffle. The highlight is still the title track, a doo-wop influenced look back at his teenage years, complete with a dedication to his old school and someone named Rachel. Even that raised eyebrows — did he really want to “play football for the coach”? Over six minutes there is only the occasional deviation from the two-chord strum. After talking of impressing said coach, he finds a melody to illustrate being “all alone and lonely”, then a minor chord comes in when remembering “the princess who lived on the hill, who loved you even though she knew you was wrong” and hope that “the glory of love might see you through”. The “two-bit friends” are part of the soup too, but despite what they say, his delivery on throughout the song and especially the closing tag suggest that he just might be a human being.

Despite the similarities, Coney Island Baby manages to be an improvement on Sally Can’t Dance, simply because it seems more natural. Of course, what seems natural for Lou on one album will only be wiped away by his opinion on the next.

This is also one of the few Lou albums to be expanded in this century. The so-called 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition added six tracks: including two previously released outtakes, a contemporary B-side, and three alternates. “Crazy Feeling” is a little snappier, with no bells; “She’s My Best Friend” is twice as loud and twice as fast. The rejected take of the title track has a little more bite, with (we’re guessing) a drunker vocal along with a few lyrical variations. It’s interesting, but not as stirring.

Lou Reed Coney Island Baby (1976)—3
2006 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1976, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tom Waits 10: Rain Dogs

Tom moved his new family to New York City, where he fell in with a set of unique musicians and recorded Rain Dogs. The album is nearly flawless, running the gamut from old ballads to rock songs, infused with the new carnival sound he’d started developing on Swordfishtrombones. Loaded with nineteen tracks, it’s one of his best.

“Singapore” stumbles in to immediately show off the latest weapons in his arsenal: guitarist Marc Ribot and percussionist Michael Blair, the latter of whom utilized hubcaps and industrial pipe over the usual congas and tambourines. “Clap Hands” is something of a fractured nursery rhyme, taken to an even further extreme on “Cemetery Polka”, with its litany of creepy uncles and their unappreciative offspring. “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” is a swampy little rhumba, a perfect match for its use in the film Down By Law. The broken-finger piano returns for “Tango Till They’re Sore”, something of a farewell speech in the middle of side one. “Big Black Mariah” sounds a little more standard, thanks in part to Keith Richards on guitar, before giving way to the spooky lullaby cadence of “Diamonds & Gold”. “Hang Down Your Head” is rocking yet mournful, just as “Time” is tender and sweet.

An accordion opens side two before bringing in the clatter of the title track. The minute-long instrumental “Midtown” perfectly captures the sound of the city in this or any decade. “9th and Hennepin” is a spoken visit to a donut shop somewhere in Minneapolis, before we go deep into the woods for “Gun Street Girl”. Keith returns to add guitar to “Union Square”, but he’s used to much better effect on “Blind Love”, as straight a country song as you’ll find here. “Walking Spanish” is a little on the ordinary side (for him) but who could have predicted that “Downtown Train” would become such a huge hit for so many other people? “Bride Of Rain Dog” is another instrumental interlude before we get the real farewell speech, New Orleans funeral-style, in “Anywhere I Lay My Head”.

With over 53 minutes of music, Rain Dogs offers a lot at once, but for the Waits newcomer, it’s an excellent place to start. Without the slightest hint of his drunken troubadour image, it sounds like nothing he’d done in the ‘70s, yet as ever, he wasn’t about to follow any recent trends. Best of all, the album hangs together very well as an album, making it a pleasure from start to finish.

Tom Waits Rain Dogs (1985)—5

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Monkees 4: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.

The Monkees had managed to stay a viable commercial product even after the Summer of Love, which they embraced with nutty anarchy on TV. And having established their autonomy as a self-contained that could write, perform and record their own songs on Headquarters, what did they do? They started working as solo artists within the group context, before the Beatles even, augmenting their own sessions with handpicked professional musicians. From this anarchic setup came Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., helped by songs recently heard on the show as well as a couple of hit singles.

Mike dominates the proceedings on the album, beginning with the not-so-ambiguous “Salesman”. “The Door Into Summer” is a nice folky lope, with its fairy tale imagery and great high harmonies from Micky. He’d go further towards country with “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round”, which he didn’t write, nor are the Byrds playing on it. “Love Is Only Sleeping” simmers with a bit of psychedelia, while “Don’t Call On Me” predicts the MOR sound of 1968.

Despite Micky’s competent drumming on Headquarters, here he’s content to let somebody else handle it, and sing whatever’s given him. “Words” is a re-recording of a Boyce/Hart song from the first season, the lead vocals shared with Peter, who only otherwise appears on a spoken piece shortly before the phenomenal “Pleasant Valley Sunday”. (Mike’s playing that infectious riff, by the way.) Micky’s biggest contribution to the album is the debut of the Moog synthesizer, which chirps all over “Daily Nightly” up against his own histrionic vocal. He also added another, more musical embellishment to “Star Collector”.

Despite such strides, the band would always be seen as a teenybopper group. Truth be told, it wasn’t their own musicianship (or lack thereof) that denied them respect from their peers; rather, it was Davy. The songs he chose as his showpieces tended to be so corny they’d make Paul McCartney blush. “She Hangs Out” is a rerecording (again) of another leftover from the Kirshner days, but “Hard To Believe” came from the little guy’s own pen. “Cuddly Toy”, a Harry Nilsson composition, has something of a vaudeville approach, but at least all four Monkees play on it.

The occasional wince nonetheless, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. still qualifies as a “good” Monkees album, but the schizophrenia that would soon dominate their recording sessions has already begun to emerge. Each of the Rhino reissues was bolstered mostly by alternate mixes of the songs, with the only really welcome extra being Micky’s breathless James Brown-styled showpiece “Goin’ Down”, a contemporary B-side.

The Monkees Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (1967)—
1995 reissue CD: same as 1967, plus 6 extra tracks
2007 Deluxe Edition: same as 1967, plus 25 extra tracks

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ben Folds 4: The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner

It’s always tough when a band that’s built its reputation on wackiness puts out material that’s anything less than hilarious. The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner certainly sounded like the Five all the way through, but its grandiose presentation suggested they were trying to tell some kind of dark, impenetrable story that flew right over our heads.

“Narcolepsy” opens with a fanfare lasting nearly a minute and a half, before paring back to the basic melody for the song to actually start. “Don’t Change Your Plans” allegedly had a lengthy intro of its own that was lopped off at the mixing stage. If that’s the case it would be great to hear what we’re missing, because the song that’s left is a sadly exquisite look at (again) the end of a relationship, complete with another Bacharachian bridge. By the time “Mess” comes in, the protagonist of this particular rock opera is coming off as somewhat of a jerk, despite the tasty electric piano bridge. “Magic”, written by drummer Darren Jessee, is a melancholy farewell to either an ex or the recently deceased, juxtaposed by the interior monologue in “Hospital Song”.

Things finally pick up with “Army”, an easy crowd favorite due to its snotty, cursing lyrics and do-it-yourself horn section. A reference to a redneck past provides a strange foreshadowing of the song of the same name, wherein more skewering of modern pop culture is shackled to a noisy, pounding arrangement. “Your Most Valuable Possession” sets an answering machine tape to a jazz backing. More reminiscences from an unreliable narrator make up “Regrets”, which rotates around the same changes until the three-minute mark where Wings meets the Flaming Lips. Speaking of odd influences, “Jane” owes a little something to Steely Dan before turning into another mellow Ben Folds Five song. The finale comes in “Lullabye”, a dream constructed so well you can almost see the credits rolling on the imaginary screen.

The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner is certainly a daring album, and it has its moments, but it falls off halfway on its journey to becoming something truly important. As the band’s last album, it wasn’t the best swan song either.

Ben Folds Five The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner (1999)—3

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lou Reed 6: Metal Machine Music

Speed and alcohol are a dangerous mix, so we’re told, and perhaps it took a well-read individual like Lou Reed, who purported to keep a copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference around to consult on what he was ingesting, to survive such fuel and maintain a career. Being a staunch contrarian, he also seemed determined to deflect any false praise that came his way.

Metal Machine Music helped to accomplish that. Over an hour of multi-tracked guitar feedback filling four sides of vinyl, this album was either a middle finger to his label and the unsuspecting public, an advanced musical experiment that said public was too stupid to comprehend, or an expensive joke. (Actually, considering that the recording costs amounted to whatever the master tape cost plus the electricity consumed, it was easily his cheapest album to produce.) At various times, both upon release and in retrospect, Lou insisted that classical motifs were hidden within the frequencies, and that he wanted it to be released on Red Seal, RCA’s classical arm.

Despite the rock star pose, the cover proclaims it to be “an electronic instrumental composition”, and lists the equipment involved on the back. But make no mistake: this is an album of feedback, recorded at various speeds and mixed in stereo. Of all the people on the planet who have claimed to have listened to the whole thing—and your humble correspondent has, if only to complete this review (thanks, Spotify!), and we did notice something like a classical melody seven minutes into side three—the only two claims that cannot be refuted are those of Lou himself, though he could’ve left the room at any time whilst recording or mixing, and Bob Ludwig, who had the privileged task of mastering it for release.

There are much more palatable recordings that incorporate feedback than Metal Machine Music, and noise rock remains a viable genre today. Just ask any fans of Sonic Youth or Limp Bizkit. The album has its fans, not least of them Lester Bangs, and it was even given an official CD release on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Sadly, digital technology could not replicate the original fourth side’s locked groove, which kept the sound going ad infinitum, or until the needle was lifted.

Lou Reed Metal Machine Music (1975)—1

Friday, August 12, 2011

Joni Mitchell 9: Hejira

Depending on what source you read, a hejira is defined as a “migration” or “flight from danger”. Both can be similarly described as “escape”, which itself can be taken as running for one’s life or just getting away from it all. Much conjecture has been made of what exactly inspired this collection of weary road songs; the facts are that she had spent some time on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, she’d done a brief tour supporting her last album, she started and ended a variety of love affairs, and she took a cross-country car trip.

That feeling of movement, of being conveyed somewhere is apparent throughout Hejira. Some of the L.A. Express are still here, but there’s more Larry Carlton on lead guitar in the mix (a counter to Joni’s own electric rhythm, still in tunings of her own design). The biggest contribution comes from Jaco Pastorius on bass, giving the album as a whole—and particularly the phenomenal title track—a distinct ECM feel.

“Coyote” might be most familiar to people who’ve seen her perform it in The Last Waltz, a teasing tribute to another rugged man who’s stolen her heart. It takes a few listens before understanding that “Amelia” celebrates Amelia Earhart, another female pioneer who left a trail few could attempt to follow. Next stop is Memphis, where an encounter with a blues musician inspires “Furry Sings The Blues” and Neil Young adds an atonal harmonica. Yet she still finds herself drawn to “A Strange Boy”, despite his immaturity. The title track, again, is an absolute masterpiece, ringing with her retuned guitar and Jaco’s bass wandering this way and that.

An open letter to a childhood friend who supposedly has the life Joni thought she’d lead provides the basis for “Song For Sharon”, a lengthy, time-hopping reflection. The most experimental track is “Black Crow”, with very jagged rhythm guitar providing the rhythm while Jaco and Larry Carlton dance amid her vocal. With “Blue Motel Room” she’s finally written her own Annie Ross torch song. Listen for how her voice perfectly imitates a group of muted trumpets on the instrumental break. “Refuge Of The Roads” is a wonderful conclusion, wherein she almost seems to accept her position, if not her fate.

Throughout the album she sounds more tired than ever, and that’s much of the point of Hejira. As stated so perfectly in “All I Want”, she is, after all, always going to be on a lonely road, traveling, traveling, traveling.

Joni Mitchell Hejira (1976)—4

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

R.E.M. 4: Lifes Rich Pageant

Having employed a more subtle approach on their previous album, the band went into the other direction for their fourth album in four years. Lifes Rich Pageant was produced by Don Gehman, who got most of his notoriety for his best-selling work with The Artist Then Known As John Cougar Mellencamp. Despite the assumptions of that sound, the result was a logical progression in the band’s career.

The big sound is apparent from the start, thanks to another great riff on the chugging “Begin The Begin”. Even Stipe’s vocals are more upfront, more assured, if no more explicable. “These Days” continues the assault with an anthem made for arenas. They mix their greatest acoustic and electric strengths for “Fall On Me”, the perfect first single. The three different vocal parts complement each other perfectly. “Cuyahoga” is another song addressing environmental concerns—not exactly in vogue in 1986—though it’s not exactly clear what the hell “Hyena” is about, outside of the opening sound effect and the title yelled as a chorus. Just to show they weren’t all serious, the side ends with the wacky “Underneath The Bunker”, a quasi-Greek surf instrumental with bullhorn vocals at the end.

Side two is a little more subdued, at first anyway. “The Flowers Of Guatemala” might be political, or it might not, but it definitely sounds like The Velvet Underground. “I Believe” starts with a jaunty banjo before exploding into another great arena-rocker. “What If We Give It Away?” is more midtempo before they turn it up to thrash speed for “Just A Touch”. “Swan Swan H” gives them a chance to reflect on the folkier sound of the last album, giving budding acoustic players more fodder for their campus hootenannies. And what sounds like a toy wound up too fast provides the lead-in for “Superman”, borrowed from an obscure ‘60s B-side and made into their own.

Lifes Rich Pageant truly brought R.E.M. a little closer to nationwide favor, but it still didn’t set the world on fire. That wouldn’t happen until their next album, leading many longtime fans to insist that this one was their last good album, fulfilling the prophecy of The First Four.

As with the Fables reissue, the album was given the grandiose 25th anniversary repackage in a little box with a poster, postcards, new liner notes and a bonus disc of “Athens Demos”. Every song that ended up on the album save “Superman” was tried out ahead of time, and it’s clear how prepared the band, if not Stipe, was before heading into the studio proper. Mike Mills already has many of his harmonies in place, and Peter Buck only gets lost once per instrumental take. Along with early stabs at “King Of Birds” and “Bad Day”, they even run through some older original songs that display both their garage band roots and their strengths as an actual band.

R.E.M. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)—
2011 25th Anniversary Edition: same as 1986, plus 19 extra tracks

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ben Folds 3: Naked Baby Photos

The band’s original label decided to cash in as best they could on the sudden if moderate success of Whatever And Ever Amen with what amounted to a rarities collection. Granted, there were various live tracks and B-sides already stockpiled, but the timing was about as questionable as the dance remix albums earlier in the decade from Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli. Chances are, though, the band would have loved to be in such company. (Ben even went so far as to write up some notes for the package.)

Naked Baby Photos is split between studio and live material, and both angles run from the sublime to the ridiculous. Three outtakes from the first album—the poignant “Eddie Walker”, the jaunty “Tom And Mary” and the acoustic guitar-driven “Emaline”, which is what kept it in the can—sit alongside the homemade single version of “Jackson Cannery” that got them signed. Then there’s “For Those Of Ya’ll Who Wear Fanny Packs”, a six-minute jam that skewers funk and hip-hop, and is only slightly funny the first time through.

The live half offers straight covers from the debut, plus a version of the ever-evolving “Song For The Dumped” and a lovely cover of “Twin Falls” by Built To Spill. But there are also two near-metal pastiches that were, again, probably more fun at the time for the people involved.

That said, Naked Baby Photos served as a decent stopgap while the band prepared their next real album. And their increasingly rabid fan base was happy to buy anything they put out. Anyone else would be advised to stay away. (Footnote: Recorded around the same time was a band performance on the PBS series Sessions At West 54th, which was subsequently released in full on DVD, and finally appearing twenty years later as a standalone CD. The first two albums are liberally sampled, along with “Theme From ‘Dr. Pyser’” and the Flaming Lips’ “She Don’t Use Jelly”.)

Ben Folds Five Naked Baby Photos (1998)—3
Ben Folds Five
The Complete Sessions At West 54th (2018)—

Sunday, August 7, 2011

John Cale 5: Fear

A switch to Island Records put him John Cale touch with some like-minded individuals who, like and with him, recorded a series of albums that predicted both punk and New Wave, both in sound and subject matter. Fear is consistent with his earlier song-based albums, while also being a departure. (Brian Eno is credited as contributing “Eno”; he and Cale also worked on Nico’s album that year.)

Dramatic piano chords open “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend” before a more stately figure with guitar accompaniment carries the song proper. Things wind up in the choruses, and Cale ends the song nearly screaming as the arrangement falls apart. This makes “Buffalo Ballet” even prettier, despite the sad lyrics about the transformation of the Old West (admittedly, the auteur says, from a Welsh point of view). “Barracuda” is a little more rock ‘n roll, with dark poetry and a demented viola solo, all while reminding us that “the ocean will have us all.” This in turn makes the near seaside lullaby of “Emily” that much more perverse. Continuing the nautical theme, “Ship Of Fools” nicely varies between major figures and major-seventh figures for another nice-sounding track that’s fairly inscrutable.

“Gun” brings back the nasty rock, with a stark narrative, a tasty riff and an extended guitar solo from Phil Manzanera that more than fits the mood for over eight minutes. Softer, and not how you think, is “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy”, which American listeners will be confused to hear rhymed with “porky”. Eno pal Judy Nylon coos throughout and amazingly, this was a single. We would have gone with the more straightforward but just as tuneful “You Know More Than I Know”. Besides, his delivery of “what crap” is wonderful. “Momamma Scuba” manages to combine the menace of “Gun” with the nautical imagery of side one over a band featuring Richard Thompson.

Thanks to the players, Fear has an edge over Paris 1919, and therefore sounds more natural. It was almost like he was getting used to being a frontman.

John Cale Fear (1974)—3

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lou Reed 5: Sally Can’t Dance

Throughout Lou’s solo career, his most divisive albums upon release continue to do so decades on. His fourth studio album came about in the wake of the glam favorites Transformer and Rock ‘N Roll Animal, and such was his momentum and the fixability of the Billboard charts that Sally Can’t Dance remains his only top ten album.

Of course, just because something’s a hit doesn’t mean it’s good. Take the most commercial aspects of Berlin, and mix them with lyrics designed to provoke more than inspire, and that’s Sally Can’t Dance. There’s even less of a story here, despite the recurrence of one woman’s name. “Ride Sally Ride” continues somewhat musically from the last album, with its piano and horn opening, diminished chords and attempt at melody, but the chorus has nothing to do with Wilson Pickett. “Animal Language” begins with barking and uses both “bow-wow” and “meow” in its choruses. (We are not kidding.) Like a twisted nursery rhyme, a dog and cat meet unfortunate demises, and attempt to get high in the afterworld. A little more palatable is “Baby Face”, a five-minute slow jam for electric piano and jazz guitar, but instead of “Lady Day”, he’s saying “no no no” to this title character. If you want more cowbell, “NY Stars” should hold you over, percolating with a clavinet.

The one song that does stand out is “Kill Your Sons”, and not just because it’s the least sterile. Possibly the most honest song here, it’s an indictment of the shock treatment he underwent as a teenager, and a defense of the drugs he’d done since them. “Ennui” is pretty, but way over the top, with a choir of voices singing the bass line and that lead guitar chiming all the way through. The title track is too funky for anyone’s good, though it does explain why Sally had trouble riding, dancing, or doing most things. Finally, “Billy” is a sympathetic portrait of a high school acquaintance whose life turned out different than Lou’s own, and might be more palatable and affecting if it weren’t for a sax honking its way throughout.

Sally Can’t Dance is only awful in hindsight, when compared to Lou’s best work. Its notoriety precedes itself, and while we can’t recommend it, he would do a lot worse down the road. These days it’s hard to believe he really stood behind the sound of the album, competent as it is. It could almost be anybody’s album, except for Lou’s drowsy vocals.

Lou Reed Sally Can’t Dance (1974)—

Friday, August 5, 2011

Joe Jackson 9: Blaze Of Glory

Joe’s fascination with the LP as an entity continued on his next real album, a look back at his generation’s progress. Although he insisted it wasn’t a concept album (“it’s not the f—king Wall, for f—k’s sake,” he would tell impatient audiences), Blaze Of Glory is a song cycle, programmed in such a way that each track, while different than the next, has a built-in segue that sets up the sound of its successor. The use of lead vocalists other than himself also makes it more of a Big Production than the average rock album.

As had become his approach, the album ranges from rock to lush pop, sometimes within the same track. “Tomorrow’s World” fades in with an expression of wonder at what technology can bring, with pointed references to what didn’t come to fruition. “Me And You (Against The World)” gives a glimpse at the first brush with romance, followed by the determination of success in the big city espoused in “Down To London”, which features one of the better fake harmonicas as played on a synthesizer. The dreams, however, are already tarnished with the regret in “Sentimental Thing” (not sung by Joe, and its melody already used on the Tucker soundtrack). We’re not sure where the instrumental “Acropolis Now” fits into the story, except that one of its themes sounds borrowed from the title track of another concept album. “Blaze Of Glory” has a great backing track, but the words are basically a rewrite of Bad Company’s “Shooting Star”, right down to the metaphor and protagonist’s name. A not-so-subtle nod to “On Broadway” closes out the side.

While he may not have intended to allude to so many songs known in the common vernacular, there’s no escaping the similarity of “Rant And Rave” to “Footloose”, despite its 6/4 meter and detours into sleazy jazz. The relentless drums segue nicely into the intro of “Nineteen Forever”, one of his greatest and most unjustifiably ignored singles. It’s a wonderful ‘60s pop pastiche, with just the right amount of horns, exuberant vocals and even a Coral electric sitar. The determination to stay eternally young is exemplified in the extended fake live ending, complete with shouts of “one more time”. Instead, a lone trumpet leads into “The Best I Can Do”, another trademark vague love song with a vocal that still reminds us of Steve Martin. “Evil Empire” is a not-so-subtle slap at American policy at a time when Reagan was still seemingly universally beloved, and for those not impressed with the album thus far, “Discipline” is sure to seal its fate. Based on an intentionally annoying drum and bass loop, it weaves in horns, spoken excerpts and vintage keyboards into a maddening display of automation, broken only by a smooth jazz interlude. Those listening on CD would be rewarded by skipping ahead to the closing “Human Touch”, another aching piano ballad with a heartbreaking violin and a vocal arrangement reminiscent of the Righteous Brothers.

Blaze Of Glory is not immediately accessible, taking a few listens to catch hold. Some of it could easily be shaved in favor of the songs as opposed to holding up the story. Unfortunately for him, it was not a huge success outside his fan base, and the label that had supported him for so long dropped him in the next music industry consolidation. (In a cut in the running for the unkindest, Jon Bon Jovi put out an album the following year with the same title and sold more than a few more copies.)

Joe Jackson Blaze Of Glory (1989)—3

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Television 1: Marquee Moon

Not every band that came out of the CBGB’s scene during the advent of punk was as easy to describe as just that. For example, the band Television, despite having a distinct edgy sound covered in New York City grime, weren’t about loud and fast. Their songs were intricate, and particularly in the construction of the guitar parts, as played by main songwriter Tom Verlaine and musical foil Richard Lloyd on a variety of Fenders. Their sound was closer to Talking Heads than the Ramones, but never enjoyed the commercial success of those bands. Still, they managed to leave us with a classic debut, the wondrous Marquee Moon. These eight songs fill up 45 minutes so well—just right for one side, or both, of a 90-minute Maxell—and haven’t dated in the least.

“See No Evil” is a perfect starter, balancing a chugging rhythm in one channel and a spiraling riff in the other. Verlaine’s strangled voice is an acquired taste, but he gets so much joy out of the words he sings. The shouted backing vocals help too, as they do on “Venus”, with the striking image “I fell into the arms of Venus de Milo”. “Friction” is a great garage band song, using basic chords, a wonderful dissonant main riff and an equally chaotic solo. The masterpiece of the album is the title track, which features three existential verses bookended by the simplest of riffs. After the third chorus, the riff starts again to support a majestic solo, as the band follows, matching the dynamics note by note. An incredibly primitive attack explodes into a reverie with almost birdlike sounds, then it all starts again with a repeat of the first verse. (On the original LP the song faded at the ten-minute mark, so it was a discovery akin to a holy grail when the first and all subsequent CDs extended the song for another minute to a full ending.)

Another simple rhythm part starts “Elevation”, a minor-key marvel with a fascinatingly interrupted meter. The band allows themselves one pretty song with “Guiding Light”, which somehow manages to sound like some of the slower songs by the Rolling Stones. A reggae strum underpins “Prove It”, and after a while you notice the wonderful bassline Fred Smith concocted. (It bears mentioning that drummer Billy Ficca holds down the fort expertly.) The weakest song is the last, the lengthy and tortured “Torn Curtain”, but just because it’s not up to the level of the rest doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.

Marquee Moon is not an easy album to sum up, nor is it easy to convince others of its splendor. People raised on Clapton, Stevie Ray and other guitar heroes may not appreciate it right away, but you can hear its influence in U2, the White Stripes and Radiohead. Too edgy for radio, too polite for punk, it’s not yet new wave, but it is rock ‘n roll. (One of Rhino’s better reissues was the expanded version of this album, which added three alternate takes, an unfinished instrumental, and the complete seven-minute version of “Little Johnny Jewel”, their first indie single.)

Television Marquee Moon (1977)—5
2003 expanded CD: same as 1977, plus 5 extra tracks

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ben Folds 2: Whatever And Ever Amen

Major-label support meant that the second album from the Ben Folds Five got a little more attention, but the music scene wasn’t about to embrace a piano-driven trio no matter how fuzzy the bass was. Still, the boys stepped up to the plate with Whatever And Ever Amen. The album boasted even more intellectually biting lyrics alongside some quieter moments, and even managed a hit with “Brick”, a song that gives chills on the first listen, and will still do so even after one realizes that the song’s about accompanying your girlfriend to an abortion clinic.

“One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces” is a wonderful riposte of a one-time bullied geek enjoying his “fame”. Unfortunately, “Fair” takes a little too much time with the same chords and lyrics to highlight the boys’ harmonies. The somber “Brick” is defused by “Song For The Dumped” with its adamant “give me my money back” chorus. “Selfless, Cold And Composed” has a jazzy Bacharach feel and nice string accents, but again, takes too long. But all is well when the ode to “Kate” gallops into the speakers.

The second half of the album straddles heaviness and silliness. “Smoke” wanders around a 3/4 meter under a melodica, while the unrelated “Cigarette” is almost a Tom Waits pastiche, with its lonesome barroom piano and ironic plotline. “Steven’s Last Night In Town” is a hilarious portrait of a guest who stays too long, embellished by members of the Klezmatics. The attitude continues on with “Battle Of Who Could Care Less”, sealing his status as spokesman for jaded twentysomethings. The final two songs—“Missing The War” and “Evaporated”—get very quiet and a little sad, despite occasional dynamic punctuations from the band.

Alternately hilarious and poignant, Whatever And Ever Amen was a strong follow-up that took a while to catch on to the masses. When it did, it would become the band’s biggest hit. A later expanded version restored some of the audio-verité elements that had disappeared from all but the first pressings, along with a hilarious hidden track. And of course, there were a few bonuses in the form of B-sides like the instrumental “Theme From ‘Dr. Pyser’”, a faithful cover of “Video Killed The Radio Star” and the wonderful “Air”, written for the inexplicable big-budget Godzilla movie.

Ben Folds Five Whatever And Ever Amen (1997)—
2005 expanded, remastered CD: same as 1997, plus 7 extra tracks