Friday, September 30, 2011

Byrds 2: Turn! Turn! Turn!

Back when bands used to put out two albums a year—the luxury! Can you imagine?—it wasn’t common for said bands to screw with the formula too much. That’s how the Byrds’ second album gave the kids what they wanted: 12-string guitars, pristine harmonies and a couple of Dylan covers.

But they were smart guys, so Turn! Turn! Turn! wasn’t a complete retread of their debut. It helped that the title track was a huge hit, borrowed from a Pete Seeger arrangement of some Bible verses. “It Won’t Be Wrong” was left over from their earliest days trying to get a record deal, but “Set You Free This Time” stands out with Gene Clark’s rugged yet right lament on lost love. Listen for his mournful harmonica on the fade. It’s to the band’s credit that they managed to cover a previously unheard Bob Dylan song, the majestic ode to music of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. The boys do a nice job finding harmonies for it, and somebody thought it was a good idea to bring Chris Hillman’s bass all the way up in the mix. Another stretch comes with the updated adaptation of the old folk song “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, which directly references the Kennedy assassination.

Another Gene Clark classic starts off side two in “The World Turns All Around Her”, framed by all those interlocking 12-strings. There’s a detour into a cover of another folk chestnut, “Satisfied Mind”, before we go back way left field for “If You’re Gone”. This song is, yes, another masterpiece by Gene Clark, a sad goodbye over unresolved harmonies that add an other-worldly air to the Eastern-sounding guitar. Unfortunately the effect is killed by a rather tepid run through “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and “Wait And See”, the first David Crosby song credit on a Byrds album, is just okay. In keeping with tradition, they end with a gag: this time it’s a folk-rock rendition of “Oh! Susannah”.

Turn! Turn! Turn! is still a good album, and shows off their progress as a tight band, but it still amounts to some water-treading. What was missing is apparent on the upgraded CD. First, there’s “The Day Walk”, occasionally subtitled “Never Before”, an incredible song surpassed in its untimely sophistication by the wondrous “She Don’t Care About Time”, which had been relegated to a B-side. It should come as no surprise by now that both of these songs were written by Gene Clark, whose quality of work was obviously starting to intimidate the more headstrong full-time guitar players in the band. It’s a matter of taste whether McGuinn’s Bach-flavored solo on the latter song was a good idea or just him trying to steal some limelight. A different arrangement of “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, an unreleased take of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, a couple of alternate takes and a song that never got vocals, “Stranger In A Strange Land”, round out the bonuses, bringing up the disc’s value greatly.

The Byrds Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965)—3
1996 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus 7 extra tracks

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lou Reed 17: New Sensations

There’s something so joyous about an incredibly stupid song, particularly when it comes from someone with loftier ambitions. (Think “Happy Jack” and “Bang On The Drum All Day”.) That’s why, after years of preaching to a small choir, Lou Reed suddenly had a huge radio hit with a three-chord trifle called “I Love You, Suzanne”, with an opening couplet that stole the hook from “Do You Love Me” by the Contours and even spawned a music video complete with stunt double.

The tune opened New Sensations, a somewhat modern-sounding album that actually charted. Backup singers, some part of Jim Steinman’s go-to crew, add touches, making it sound a little too modern. The production is bright, as are the guitars, all but a few of which are played by Lou. The rhythm section of Fernando Saunders and Fred Maher remain in place, but Robert Quine was long gone.

The simplicity of the band keeps the album fresh, even if it doesn’t break much ground. “Endlessly Jealous” follows “Suzanne”, making up in chords what it repeats in the lyrics. “My Red Joystick” ties in with his strange pose on the cover, though it doesn’t mesh in the kiss-off to an ex-lover and various postulations about Adam and Eve; better to concentrate on the continual soloing over the single chord. “Turn To Me” is built on an archetypical Lou riff, and stacks a series of odd verses pledging devotion to unnamed individuals going through all kinds of unfortunate events. The title track ends up an homage to his motorcycle, which was also reflected in his endorsement deal for Honda scooters all over TV that year.

L. Shankar’s violin provides an exotic bent to “Doin’ The Things That We Want To”, which forces rhymes out of his appreciation for Sam Shepard plays and Martin Scorsese movies. The New York theme continues on “What Becomes A Legend Most”, pairing the tagline from a well-known pro-fur coat campaign with the type of chamber pop recalled from Transformer and Berlin. “Fly Into The Sun” embraces nihilism, while “My Friend George” discusses a friend who apparently did the same to violent ends. “High In The City” goes back to celebrating the simple pleasures of Manhattan, as does “Down At The Arcade” (or “The Great Defender”, depending on which pressing you have) in its own way. We can get Lou being fascinated by video games, but the delivery here comes off as pointedly cartoonish.

So while “I Love You, Suzanne” is definitely the high point to which the other songs fail to match, New Sensations still sounds like he put some effort into it. Again, not a classic, but not embarrassing.

Lou Reed New Sensations (1984)—3

Monday, September 26, 2011

Robert Plant 10: Raising Sand

To the astonishment of everyone, Robert Plant managed his biggest critical success in years—if not ever—for his collaboration with Alison Krauss on Raising Sand. Much of the success can be attributed to hip roots music producer T Bone Burnett, who’d already sold millions and got a Grammy for his work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. The sound sits somewhere between that, a Daniel Lanois production and a Tom Waits album, and not just from using some of the same musicians.

Alison Krauss has one of the sweetest, clearest voices in music, not to mention that she’s a cute as a box full of buttons. She’s also a great fiddle player, which takes a back seat to the songs. The selections run the gamut from bluegrass standards to newer folk nuggets. One exception, amazingly, is “Please Read The Letter”, a song first heard on the Page/Plant album and here taken at a much more contemplative pace. “Trampled Rose” is a more recent Waits tune, and “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” sounds like one, but it was written by Sam Phillips, the former Mrs. Burnett. (Alison nails both.) Her gender-bent take on “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson” shows a hot R&B streak.

Two Gene Clark songs come from the second Dillard & Clark album, and they’re exceptional, though we can do without yet another version of “Fortune Teller”. The track that got the most exposure was the chugging “Gone Gone Gone (Done Me Wrong)”, which sounded the most like something like Robert might have sung earlier in his solo career. Most of the songs are duets, starting with “Rich Woman”, and they blend nicely. “Stick With Me Baby” is another tender one.

What’s especially impressive is the development of Robert’s voice as he’s aged. For a tangential comparison, consider the recent sounds of Bob Dylan, who finally stopped yelling like he did through most of the ‘80s and got more comfortable in the lower register. That kept his voice from getting worse until just recently. Robert’s done that too; he doesn’t go for the high notes at all, and instead has made the most of the notes he can reach. His near-whispered take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’”, for instance, is well matched to the stark horror of the arrangement.

Raising Sand is the culmination of his work since the turn of the century, immersing himself in older folk and country songs and reinterpreting them in fresh ways. Not only did it win five Grammys, but it kept him interested in doing absolutely anything besides heeding the inevitable calls for a Zeppelin reunion. It’s a special album; not about to replace the band that spawned him, and far from embarrassment.

Robert Plant | Alison Krauss Raising Sand (2007)—4

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lou Reed 16: Live In Italy

RCA Records had history on its side, but promotion and art direction weren’t always their strengths. Their budget reissues looked cheaper than the cardboard they came in, and annotations tended to be at a minimum. Yet for all the ways they’ve repackaged Lou Reed’s catalog over the decades, it’s odd that one of his most acclaimed albums worldwide has never been properly released in the U.S.

Live In Italy captures the band that had just recorded Legendary Hearts, a straightforward, tight combo with Robert Quine on guitar alongside the boss, Fernando Saunders on bass, and Fred Maher on drums. The set leans heavily on the standards, from “Sweet Jane” to “Walk On The Wild Side”—most of which had already been on one or two previous live Lou albums—with songs from the new album and The Blue Mask, and even a few from Sally Can’t Dance. Quine apparently insisted that they play more obscure (for the time) Velvet Underground material, and since he was still in Lou’s good graces, that’s how we get a lengthy amalgamation of “Some Kinda Love” and “Sister Ray”. The band’s tight and Lou’s in good voice; he even manages throw in a couple of lines from Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” at the end of “Rock & Roll”.

The album did make it over here as an import, under different covers and alternate titles that sometimes came off like bootlegs. But even when the digital era dug all kinds of things out of the backs of closets, and Lou became even more of a commercial icon, Live In Italy remained a foreign pressing only. It can now be streamed from the usual places, which is how we finally got around to hearing it, just as all Lou fans should.

Lou Reed Live In Italy (1983)—3

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Lou Reed 15: Legendary Hearts

Having apparently remembered less is more, Lou kept to mostly the same formula on Legendary Hearts, but with two key changes. Fred Maher joined on drums, and would go on to anchor several of Lou’s better albums going forward. Also, while Robert Quine is credited on guitar, he would go to his grave insisting that much of his lead work was minimized out of spite, jealousy, or some unforgivable indiscretion. Whatever the truth, the album is missing an edge, forcing us (once again) to focus on the auteur’s words, vocals, and melodies, mostly concerned with sobriety and marital bliss.

An atmospheric wash belies the basic combo backing on the title track, a strong meditation at the wonder of the glory of love with an original view on what might have befallen Romeo. The rant “Don’t Talk To Me About Work” may be defended as a monologue in character, but it only works when one considers that Lou actually did have a few office jobs in his time. “Make Up My Mind” (spoiler alert: he can’t) wanders along, a decent set of changes seeking a better subject. Another character emerges in “Martial Law”, a mildly funky track that brings something of an ironic solution to domestic violence. “The Last Shot” refers mostly to drink, but could also be drugs or a metaphor in general. The chords, though simple and familiar, make the song memorable. (Likewise, “Bottoming Out” on the other side uses the old I-vi-ii-V change and doubles the title in terms of both drink and motorcycles.) With a simple sleepy groove, “Turn Out The Light” has a welcome change in delivery, closer to his ‘70s slur but more assured somehow.

While the main message is “I wanna dance with you,” “Powwow” is just plain strange, lyrically. Only years after he skewered racial stereotypes in “I Wanna Be Black”, what we to make of a romantic song that references fire water, teepees, arrows and scalping? “Betrayed” could use a little more development, seeming to portray a man in a relationship with a woman with severe daddy issues, unless we’re missing something really obvious. “Home Of The Brave” is long and slow, a tribute to various friends who’ve either settled down or died as he contemplates his own happy life. While it comes to a grand close, and would be a fine ending, the slight “Rooftop Garden” is seemingly tacked on to underscore the point.

At this point in an arduous career, Lou could be commended for releasing an album that wasn’t pointedly bad, and Legendary Hearts can’t be called that. It’s not as strong as The Blue Mask, but it remains one of his better unknown albums.

Lou Reed Legendary Hearts (1983)—3

Friday, September 23, 2011

R.E.M. 8: Out Of Time

After their longest absence yet, Out Of Time sent R.E.M. thoroughly in to the stratosphere. It still had its weird moments, but concentrated more on straight pop with lighter touches—like chamber string arrangements—to truly appeal to the masses.

That’s not to suggest it would be confused with anything else on the pop charts. The very first sound we hear is KRS-One’s spoken intro to “Radio Song”, which blasts the current state of the broadcast medium. The song alternates between a standard arpeggiated section and a funky organ-based rant, with more KRS-One. The striking first single was “Losing My Religion”, and it’s easier to maintain one’s interest by continually embellishing it with different lyrics (“It’s bigger than you and you’re not that big… that’s me in the bathroom, that’s me in the driveway… consider this, consider this a divorce… every waking hour I’m flossing my bicuspids, brushing my incisors… I thought I heard you sing, I tawt I taw a puddy tat…”) “Low” provides the old swampy R.E.M. sound, though we still scratch our heads to the repeated lines about “love”. Contemporary interviews said this was their first album that dealt with the topic of romantic relationships, but if that’s the case, what the hell was Reckoning about? Anyway, “Near Wild Heaven” brings back the sunshine on a song led by Mike Mills; one can’t see Stipe contributing much to this beyond the “ba-ba-ba-bah-bah-bah” chorus. The nearly instrumental “Endgame” resembles nothing too far removed from “please stand by” music on PBS.

Even the band never wants to hear “Shiny Happy People” again. This album’s equivalent to “Stand”, it has been only slightly redeemed by Sesame Street’s revision. “Belong” is an extended jam started on the last tour, a distant cousin of “Superman” giving Stipe a reason to think he could recite his poetry without having to worry about melody. “Half A World Away” reprises the organ and mandolins in something of a retread of “Losing My Religion”. Mike Mills takes the lead again on “Texarkana”, which sports a strong resemblance to latter-day Moody Blues. “Country Feedback” is one of those songs that divides people, and rightfully so. It’s a simple four-chord sequence, repeated with distortion and feedback, layered with pedal steel guitar and Stipe’s stream-of-consciousness vocals, the latter of which would become a growing trend. Our favorite is still “Me In Honey”, a simple strum with a catchy beat, Kate Pierson’s moaning counterpart and an unresolved lyric about a life choice. With all their talk of “progression”, this song is classic R.E.M. just like we want them: guitar, bass and drums with vocals.

As with anything that became hugely popular in the early ‘90s, familiarity has lessened Out Of Time’s excitement over the past two decades (good Lord), but boy, did it sound great when it came out. The boys also didn’t tour behind it, so we were left to scramble to watch any TV appearances, which probably heightened the excitement. These days it seems a little too sunny, and we can forgive that. It didn’t emerge in the friendliest of atmospheres.

It was another one of those albums that made us feel very old once its 25th Anniversary Edition came out. The bonus disc was filled up with what the packaging called demos, but are better described as early versions, mostly without lyrics. That means two more versions of “Losing My Religion”, “Shiny Happy People”, “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana” (one of which has Stipe singing a completely different set of lyrics) and three of “Radio Song” (one of which has Bill Berry singing the other parts). There is one otherwise unfinished “rocker”, but slightly more interesting, and less tedious, is the expensive package, which adds most of their appearance on the Mountain Stage radio show plus the obligatory 5.1 surround mixes and video artifacts.

R.E.M. Out Of Time (1991)—
2016 25th Anniversary Edition: same as 1991, plus 19 extra tracks (Deluxe adds another 15 tracks and Blu-ray)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Byrds 1: Mr. Tambourine Man

In hindsight, it was highly improbable that the Byrds would have left such an indelible stamp on rock history. They were basically a bunch of folkies who, after seeing A Hard Day’s Night, realized they could make more money by emulating the sounds of the British Invasion. Jim McGuinn (as he was then known) took a shine to the 12-string Rickenbacker he saw George Harrison playing in the movie, so that was different. David Crosby got himself a 12-string too, but chose to concentrate on rhythm and high harmonies. Gene Clark wrote a bunch of songs but was relegated to tambourine onstage. Chris Hillman, previously a mandolinist, learned the bass quickly enough, and Michael Clarke’s haircut got him in the band as long as he learned his way around a drumkit.

Another marketing angle that would have backfired on anyone else was their access and interpretation of Bob Dylan’s songs. While the Byrds weren’t explicitly responsible for his going electric, their amplified renditions certainly proved that his appeal went far beyond the coffeehouse. As a result, folk-rock was invented.

In addition to the title track—which artfully chopped the song down from its four verses into a simple, catchy chorus-verse-chorus format—Mr. Tambourine Man offers three other Dylan classics previously known in their acoustic renditions on Another Side Of Bob Dylan. “Chimes Of Freedom”, “All I Really Want To Do” and “Spanish Harlem Incident” each gain a little something from the blend of electricity and harmonies.

To prove they were more than a jukebox, half of the album was devoted to the boy-meets-girl-loses-girl songs written by Gene Clark. The most famous is still probably “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”, noticeable from its opening suspended-A strum and its carbon-copy cover by Tom Petty. That said, “Here Without You”, “It’s No Use” and the others prove that he (and the band) were capable of creating commercial pop. Another nod to their folk routes came in their stellar arrangement of Pete Seeger’s “The Bells Of Rhymney”, which itself foreshadowed a later hit. And for another strike for the counterculture, the set closes with a cover of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”, riding the irony of its status as a wartime lament.

If there’s a clunker on the album, it’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe”, which they didn’t write but cheerfully recorded as a favor. But thanks to those great singles, the chiming Rickenbacker and those stellar harmonies, Mr. Tambourine Man remains a solid album. When their catalog was revamped in the mid-‘90s, there wasn’t much to add outside a few alternate takes. But Gene Clark’s “She Has A Way” deserved better than to be left in the vault, and to prove that these guys could play (despite the studio musicians used on the single) the updated CD now ends with an instrumental backing track to a song never finished.

The Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)—
1996 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus 6 extra tracks

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lou Reed 14: The Blue Mask

The ‘80s brought some changes in music, while others ignored them. Lou Reed was more concerned with getting sober than anything else, but in the process worked to make his albums more literary. (We’ll leave it to others to say whether they’re poetic.)

For whatever reason—and it couldn’t have been blockbuster record sales—he went back to RCA for The Blue Mask, which works as both a new beginning as well as a continuation of his life’s work. He sounds like he’s trying to bring it back to basics, from the borrowing of the cover photo from Transformer to the basic two guitars, bass and drums (you know, just like the Velvet Underground).

Lou saw each of his albums as chapters in his ongoing Great American Novel, often blurring the line between fiction and autobiography, and here the album is bookended by odes to his then wife Sylvia. “My House” references both his recent marriage and his attempts to contact the spirit of his mentor Delmore Schwartz. The problem is his attempt to apply a melody to his lyrics, almost as an afterthought. “Heavenly Arms” is a doo-wop song in all but arrangement, complete with the use of his wife’s name as the chorus.

More sentimentality is upfront on “The Day John Kennedy Died”, a surprising recount of that event, balanced with an expression of hope for good in a dark world. “Women” opens with a beautifully gentle guitar piece, before turning into an ode to the gender that rides the line between sarcasm and apology for much of his earlier misogynistic work.

His alcoholic ways are explored in “Underneath The Bottle”, but one would hope that the scarier imagery in “The Gun” isn’t from personal experience. “Waves Of Fear” has a great band sound, and while “Average Guy” tries to rise above its jokey punk vocal, its snotty portrait is best left to actual comedians. A little better is “The Heroine”, a solo performance that has only a cosmetic lyrical relation to “Heroin” from the first VU album. The blistering title track is a journey back to the depths of decadence.

If anything, The Blue Mask is a very cohesive album, helped by the band and anchored by the fretless bass of Fernando Saunders (an acquired taste to be sure) and featuring Reed disciple Robert Quine of the Voidoids on the other guitar. It was better than most of his recent work, hardly a masterpiece, but a welcome reaffirmation of his worth.

Lou Reed The Blue Mask (1982)—3

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lou Reed 13: Growing Up In Public

Something very odd happened on the cusp of the new decade: Lou Reed sobered up, fell in love. With a woman. Whom he married. With his parents in attendance. These events affected his life affected his life and writing, possibly leading to the honest (on the surface, anyway) monologues throughout Growing Up In Public.

He still sounds desperate and gargling on “How Do You Speak To An Angel”, to the effect that he’s almost tongue-tied, while the tight New York backing adds some doo-wop echoes. He’s a little more in control but still tense on “My Old Man”, wherein he accuses his father of continually beating his mother. “Keep Away” is a mildly humorous look at a dysfunctional relationship with some terrific rhymes. For the title track he relies on the same basic chords, repeated, with an annoying fretless bass part that resembles an elephant, while “Standing On Ceremony” is pure new wave, with menacing verses and an incongruous chorus that merely repeats the title awkwardly.

While not exactly an epic, “So Alone” is a one-sided conversation well illustrated by the accompaniment, with a “get up and dance” section that’s actually funny. By contrast, “Love Is Here To Stay” has potential, but the he-said-she-said content of the verses is underdeveloped. The momentum slides further on “The Power Of Positive Drinking”, something of a novelty track, complete with a dopey faux-reggae beat and a quote from “Please Please Me”, of all things. In “Smiles”, he blames his permanently sour puss on his mother, with so many lyrics crammed in they’d make a better poem than a song, even with an odd reference to “Walk On The Wild Side” at the end. We seem to be a fly on the wall for his marriage proposal in “Think It Over”, a surprisingly tender and effective song. That would be a great place to end the album, but instead we close with a plea to “Teach The Gifted Children” that quotes from “Take Me To The River” for some reason; whether this is a nod to Al Green or Talking Heads is unknown.

Growing Up In Public would appear to be an accurate description of the overall thematic effect. That’s not to say, as he’d mocked a couple of years earlier, “Lou Reed’s mellowed, he’s older,” but all the conflicting references to his parents come off like notes taken after an hour on the shrink’s couch. He may have been maddening, but at least he was interesting.

Lou Reed Growing Up In Public (1980)—

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lou Reed 12: The Bells

In an anomaly for his catalog, The Bells found Lou Reed sharing songwriting credits. While the lyrics were all his, the music was developed with band members, jazzman Don Cherry, and Nils Lofgren of all people. Like his last two albums, it was recorded in that German binaural system that was supposed to be the most authentic you-are-there reproduction. That may have been necessary considering his continued reliance on a guitar synthesizer that created sheets of sound, which might even have been just fine if Lou didn’t go out of his way to make it such a chore to listen to not what he had to say, but how he said it.

On “Stupid Man”, he crams a whole lot of lyrics into a decent template that goes too fast for him to get the words out. By contrast, the perverted three-word groove of “Disco Mystic” even makes it into his published anthology of complete lyrics. The dense doo-wop of “I Wanna Boogie With You” seems to successfully match mood and message, but then he’s back to the obnoxious bleating in “With You”, not even bothering to separate the tracks. “Looking For Love” has an insistent catchy melody over the pounding rhythm section and piano—plus Marty Fogel, who honks a sax that would be in place on a Graham Parker album—that Lou barely attempts to match. A shame, because not only is it the only song he wrote alone, but it could’ve been a decent hit if performed right. “City Lights” returns him to a deep bass near-croon, over a track smothered in whistles, bells, and similar noisemakers.

The longest songs take up side two, and while each is challenging, they’re superior. “All Through The Night” works a lyric about futility and desperation over a simple boogie groove while (just like in “Kicks”) drinks rattle, dishes clinks, and conversations go on in the background, occasionally rising to drown out the band—a clever audio effect, but frustrating. Despite its strange samba rhythm, “Families” is the most arresting lyric, depicting a conversation between a grown man estranged from his home, studying how the disconnection that causes teens to leave home continues into adulthood, and underscores it. Finally, there’s the title track, a long dirge of an improvisation that pits sax against Don Cherry’s trumpet while Lou mumbles indiscernibly for five minutes. After several threats, the voice finally comes to dominate, in a lyric Lou swears he made up on the spot. Ultimately, it’s hypnotic.

While it was his hallmark, Lou’s seeming insistence on spending the least amount of time perfecting his vocals often worked against his obsession with getting the words and accompaniment absolutely perfect. If he didn’t have a melody, he didn’t bother trying to find one, and that makes The Bells, for all its unique offerings, frustratingly inconsistent.

Lou Reed The Bells (1979)—

Friday, September 16, 2011

Ben Folds 6: Ben Folds Live

Whether he’s playing with a band or on his own, every Ben Folds concert offers something different from the previous performance. His encyclopedic knowledge of his own catalog, as well as others, means every setlist is a coin toss, and his love for new and old cheese can lead to any number of improvisations.

So when he puts out a live album culled from a variety of concerts, the selection can almost seem arbitrary, leading one to suspect such a move as being merely financial while he takes his sweet time between new studio albums. But fans should have plenty to appreciate with the simply titled Ben Folds Live, beginning with the sly distortion of his first band’s first album title in the artwork, and continuing with the cover photo itself (documented in a hilarious clip on the accompanying DVD).

It’s just him and a piano, but such is his style that he’s still able to make the rockier songs move. And since the audiences are all devoted fans, it’s easy enough for them to pick up his instructions to emulate some of the arrangements, like the horns on “Army” and the harmonies on “Not The Same”. (The guy from Cake even walks on to add his part to “Fred Jones Part 2”, just like on the album.)

A few rarities are included, like the rarely heard “Silver Street” and the jokey B-side about B-sides, “One Down”. His debt to Elton John is paid on a faithful “Tiny Dancer”, while “Philosophy” is extended to incorporate all kinds of themes for the coda, including Dick Dale’s surf classic “Miserlou”, which the crowd likely knew from watching Pulp Fiction.

As enjoyable as it is for fans, there’s still something incomplete about Ben Folds Live. It’s best illustrated by the inclusion of “Rock This Bitch”, which is kind of his own “Drums In Space” improvisation, and which has been different every time he’s done it. So how could he possibly pick one?

Ben Folds Ben Folds Live (2002)—3

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lou Reed 11: Take No Prisoners

Arista knew that Lou’s live albums sold the best, so a residency at the Bottom Line led to Take No Prisoners, a two-record set with a fairly apt title. This album presents Lou as his generation’s Don Rickles, paying the barest attention to the songs, choosing instead to bark at or about whoever’s pissing him off at any given moment.

The biggest nose-thumb is “Walk On The Wild Side”. Rather than the snappy beat poetry that was a radio staple, here he begins by complaining about the sound crew, club management and promoter, moving on to his critics, and finally starting the song before distracting himself (and the crowd) with the intention to go into further details about how the song came to be and the people inside it. Even that’s barely accomplished, and for sixteen minutes he talks and talks, occasionally punctuated by an actual chorus. Like the best comedy albums, it’s actually pretty entertaining.

But in between the crowd-baiting and general ranting you can hear a patient band keeping up with him, and pulling out some truly amazing performances. He does inhabit each of the monologues on “Street Hassle” for a performance that rivals the original. (We could be wrong, but the band vamping around the six-minute mark does seem to be killing time while Lou beseeches Bruce Springsteen to come up and recite his part. A voice like Bruce’s guffaws nervously, to which Lou replies, “Damn! Close but no [intelligible].” Since Bruce is called out in the audience during “Walk On The Wild Side”, this may be what actually happened.) “Coney Island Baby”, so pretty in its gentle studio cut, is stretched even further here, complete with a few more lines taking about his high school intramural sports experience, getting completely worked up for each lead-in to “the glory of love”, and letting the band drive him for a slamming end. “Berlin” is patterned after the version on his debut, using the chorus but also tapping into the anger of the album the song inspired. And he slows “Satellite Of Love” down to a more leisurely pace, even strapping on a guitar for the distorted chords at the end. (Those last three tracks would comprise one side of 1985’s Arista “hits” collection City Lights, while “Coney Island Baby” was featured on the career-spanning Rock And Roll Diary a few years earlier.)

Take No Prisoners should only appeal to diehard fans, or at least those who like their Lou snarling. Even the packaging played up this side of him, with collages of “shocking” articles about the boy decorating the inner sleeves. If anything, looking at the actual vinyl makes for an interesting comparison with, say, Barry Manilow Live. (Addendum: one of our faithful readers informed us, in a comment since deleted, that the cover itself caused a bit of controversy, being stolen from the work of a Spanish comic book artist.)

Lou Reed Take No Prisoners (1978)—3

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Lou Reed 10: Street Hassle

One of Lou’s constant obsessions was trying to translate his live sound onto a replayable medium. It became a given that each new album’s PR push would include his chirping about the latest technology that made this album his best sounding one yet, dashing all previous attempts to shame, and repeat.

Street Hassle was originally recorded live on tour in Germany, using a “binaural” system involving microphones placed inside a Styrofoam mannequin’s head. When Clive Davis supposedly balked at the result, Lou went ahead and overdubbed on top of the backing tracks, rendering the mix muddy, jarring, and a little sluggish. Compounding the effect was his latest vocal styling, a strangulated bleat used to illustrate both of his main emotions. Even with the standard rock combo, plus backing vocals and continual sax, the results were far from slick, occasionally vulgar, and fit well with the times.

“Gimme Some Good Times” begins with the first verse from “Sweet Jane” turned inside out, complete with Lou answering himself as a heckler, providing foreshadowing for his next truly live album. “Dirt” had been threatened for a few years; by now he was angry enough at his former manager to include it here, complete with discordant piano stabs and gunshot drums in between his bile, scatological accusations and Bobby Fuller reference. But smack dab in the middle of the album is the cinematic three-part title track, based around insistent bowed cellos. Here is proof positive that Lou Reed really was one of the literary greats of the century. “Waltzing Matilda” manages to make an encounter with a gigolo sound romantic, capped by angelic harmonies leading into the next section. “Street Hassle” is an in-character monologue by a lowlife giving advice on body disposal and ending with the perfect definition of “bad luck”. “Slip Away” is brought in by a bass solo played by the auteur(!) and upstaged by a vocal cameo by none other than Bruce Springsteen. When Lou returns to end the piece, he actually sounds vulnerable. Throughout it all, the same cello part weaves in and out of earshot, sometimes replicated on guitars, harmonium, and jangle piano.

Literary greatness is not something commonly ascribed to “I Wanna Be Black”, which attempts to torpedo the hypocrisy of stereotypes, but just becomes uncomfortable. As with most of the tracks on the album, we can just barely hear an audience cheering over the fade; perhaps it was best English wasn’t their first language. “Real Good Time Together” is the old Velvets tune, familiar to fans from 1969 Live, delivered here over a heavy tremolo, and with a vocal that doesn’t convey the sentiment of the lyric in the slightest. “Shooting Star” is delivered at a palatable pace, with a simple yet straightforward chorus, while “Leave Me Alone” states its demand with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Finally, “Wait” is something of a dopey pop song, an exercise to see how many words rhyme with the title, and girl group vocals pushing him along.

Street Hassle is a messy yet ultimately satisfying album, a return to form without retreading, notwithstanding the mild recycling. In his case, one great song can make a big difference, and “Street Hassle” does that.

Lou Reed Street Hassle (1978)—3

Monday, September 12, 2011

R.E.M. 7: Green

It was a fleeting, fascinating time when your favorite band would put out a new album, an eternal year after the last one, and full of anticipation at “what’ll they sound like this time?” you’d sit listening to it over and over again, digesting it, trying to figure where it fit in the pantheon of all that had gone before.

Particularly after the water-treading that was U2’s Rattle & Hum, this was what it was like to experience Green, the new R.E.M. album, released on Election Day 1988 on the verge of the third term of the Reagan administration. It was a big deal for the band, having graduated to Warner Bros. while retaining the producer from their last album. (Not to be outdone, their previous label put out the Eponymous “hits” collection a month in advance, complete with such rarities as the original indie single version of “Radio Free Europe”, a couple of alternate takes and a song used in a movie nobody saw but this commentator, though he’d be happy to be proved otherwise.)

Despite their growing accessibility, there was still a mystery about R.E.M., and as it was becoming easier to understand the words coming out of Stipe’s mouth, it was also easier to concoct wacky theories about their meaning. For the first few months of owning Green we were convinced that it was a concept album sung from the point of view of a disabled and/or retarded child, which only sounded dumber the more we expounded on it. But think about it: “Pop Song 89” is a collection of simple statements, followed by “Get Up”, an escape from dreaming complete with a musical box interlude. “You Are The Everything”—the first overt use of mandolin on an R.E.M. album—looks back to simpler times when you could stretch out in the back seat of a car. The near-nursery rhyme “Stand” would soon become everyone’s least favorite song. Stipe held “World Leader Pretend”, a view of war from a little green army men perspective, to be so important that he actually printed the lyrics in the packaging. And once you get to the competing vocals in “The Wrong Child”, it’s a little unsettling.

“Orange Crush” wasn’t the best choice for lead single, and its title doesn’t help; basically it’s a more mercenary approach to “World Leader Pretend”. Things get really loud on “Turn You Inside Out”, with Mike Mills yelling his harmony in the background. The real standout is “Hairshirt”, one of the band’s prettiest and simplest yet most baffling songs. “I Remember California” follows a doom-laden riff through a foreboding premonition of the end times. It’s the last song listed on the back of the CD case, but wait! Didn’t we see the number 11 on the disc itself, next to a blank space and a time listing? Why yes, there’s another song on the album. Based around the most basic of drum beats—played by Peter Buck, as Bill Berry insisted that it was impossible “to play that stupidly for that long”—the song is listed at the band’s website as “Untitled”, but copyrighted as “11”. It incorporates more intertwined lyrics, and one of the most tender benedictions ever, suitable for all formal occasions: “I made a list of things to say/But all I want to say/All I really want to say is/Hold her and keep him strong/While I’m away from here.”

Familiarity ate away at Green’s luster over time, and the ubiquity of the hits tends to keep it on the shelf. But when taken down for a spin, the better parts still emerge, and it’s hard to believe that it was so long ago. At the same time, it’s easy to see where they’d take themselves over the next few years.

First, however, they toured, and most of a concert from Greensboro—conveniently enough for the packaging—makes up the bonus disc in the 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (a further five issued as a Record Store Day vinyl exclusive). The band is tight and driven, showing that the new songs were made for the stage, but maybe it’s the months on the road that make some of the backing vocals a little rusty. He’s not credited anywhere, but Peter Holsapple did add some voice and instrumentation on that tour, so maybe we can blame him. Still, his presence makes it possible for them to play “Perfect Circle”. Also, to show they hadn’t been resting, we even get sneak previews in the form of “Belong” and “Low”.

R.E.M. Eponymous (1988)—4
Green (1988)—
2013 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1988, plus 21 extra tracks

Friday, September 9, 2011

Asia: Asia and Alpha

It’s fairly inarguable that Americans and Europeans love cheese. Whether it’s cheddar, Brie, Camembert or Gouda, somebody somewhere is sinking his or her teeth into it and feeling immediate satisfaction. And when it comes to musical cheese of the ‘80s, few morsels are as tasty as Asia.

Based on the ingredients, they might have been considered prog-rock, but a cursory listen to the music they created put paid to that fairly quickly. This was arena-rock plain and simple, and a welcome infusion into the music scene at a time when disco was dead and metal hadn’t become mainstream. It’s very possible that the eponymous debut “saved” the record industry, giving boys in high school parking lots something to talk about until Led Zeppelin’s Coda snuck out that fall.

But it had its roots in prog, causing those family trees to become even more entangled. On bass and lead vocals was John Wetton, who’d made his name with one of the mid-‘70s King Crimson lineups. On drums was Carl Palmer, having shed the albatrosses of Emerson and Lake. The other two guys came from Yes—Steve Howe, who’d been their lead guitarist for all of the ‘70s, and Geoff Downes, who’d been on exactly one Yes album (without Jon Anderson) fresh from the “success” of the Buggles. (The other Buggle, Trevor Horn, kept himself busy producing the band still known as Yes, along with ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and others.)

Asia is masterfully sequenced, putting the first two singles at the top. Anyone who remembers when “Heat Of The Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell” were on constant MTV rotation will have trouble refraining from singing along. Both songs are chock full of fast guitar, keyboard beds and dramatic shifts, and are pure pop. Past that, there’s still high comedy in the way John Wetton never quite hits the high notes on “Sole Survivor” and “One Step Closer”. “Time Again” begins with a painfully plodding riff, speeding up and slowing down before going to full gallop in the song proper.

“Wildest Dreams” begins the second side with the type of suspended chords favored by old Genesis, before finding its base in the electric piano couplets that shortly would be stolen by Bon Jovi on “Runaway”. “Without You” is the requisite sensitive lost love song, while “Cutting It Fine” begins with a tasty acoustic trill soon picked up by the keyboards, then trampled into the relative minor key. More strained high notes carry the song through to its extended dreamy ending. They pull out all the stops for “Here Comes The Feeling”, lifted nearly wholesale from The Who’s “Had Enough”, throwing in several key changes at the end and finishing on a pointedly stupid flourish.

The album was so successful that a follow-up was in order. However, just like Men At Work alongside them, all of the best eggs had seemingly gone in the first basket. Despite the catchiness of “Don’t Cry”, the aching splendor of “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” and the boneheaded determinism of “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want)”, there wasn’t enough quality, real or perceived, to sustain interest in the rest of Alpha. There were two songs based around the metaphor of eyes, and “The Heat Goes On” tries too hard to evoke a connection to “Heat Of The Moment” without being as good. (Though it does have a pretty decent Hammond B-3 solo.)

They were barely out of the gate before having to replace Wetton on the “Asia in Asia” tour with Greg Lake, of all people, who apparently wasn’t thrilled enough with his old comrade to keep his next band from turning into Emerson, Lake and Powell. A very long two years went by before Wetton was back for Astra, but now Steve Howe had gone off to another prog supergroup (the hilarious GTR, which was produced by Geoff Downes) only to be replaced by a guy from Krokus.

Anytime you see Asia these days, you can bet on having Geoff Downes scowling behind his keyboards, but it’s anyone’s guess whether any of the original other three will be along for the ride. Or, you can look for a guy named John Payne, who was the band’s singer in the ‘90s and has managed to ride that rocket this far into the 21st century. But those of us who remember will pull out our copies of the first two albums, once the pride of the fledgling Geffen label, and smile, and then laugh and laugh and laugh.

Asia Asia (1982)—
Alpha (1983)—

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Van Morrison 3: Moondance

Having found a way to make the music he heard in his head, Van proceeded to record a collection of songs that covered all his interests: jazz, folk, country and even pop. Of all his records—and he’s got a lot—Moondance is still the best place for newbies to start.

In a departure from the esoteric jazz sound of Astral Weeks, the album is overtly catchy, with memorable choruses and hooks aplenty. None so more than “And It Stoned Me”, which seemingly describes a journey to a fishing hole with a stop off at a guy who offers the narrator and his friends a welcome drink of water or something stronger. Whether that something is to be considered sinister is moot for our purposes here; the singer is just happy to reveling in the day and what the moment has to offer. Maybe they’ll even catch something. A pointedly more adult journey is taken on the title track, still one of the most unique tracks ever recorded in the rock era, layered by a jazzy bassline, piano and flute backing. “Crazy Love” is an overt love song, complete with the Sweet Inspirations helping out, just like they would have had he stayed in the “Brown Eyed Girl” mode forever. “Caravan” manages to convey images of a gypsy troupe in the countryside along with the wonder of hearing amazing new and old sounds on American radio. But it’s “Into The Mystic” that crowns it all, a wondrous song about something and nothing, taking joy in whatever it is that’s rocking Van’s gypsy soul. These songs are perfect, and give another reason why the art of the album side must be preserved.

Side two is slightly straighter pop, less deep but still catchy. “Come Running” works in the saxophones that supported the songs on side one, but they were so unobtrusive that they didn’t overwhelm. They continue on “These Dreams Of You”, a nice loping fable that begins in Canada. The Sweet Inspirations return for “Brand New Day”, a wonderful celebration of the same. “Everyone” was famously used for the closing credits of The Royal Tenenbaums, and hearkens back again to his earlier image while hinting at the depth he’d decided to plumb. (That sure is a prominent harpsichord, isn’t it?) Which only makes the jumping bass of “Glad Tidings”, an early clue to the new direction, all the more welcome.

Again, Moondance is a solid pop album. If anything, its relationship with its predecessor can be compared to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, wherein the latter softened the delivery to make the message more palatable. Even if that was his intention, he wouldn’t admit it, but he would rarely attempt to be so universally accessible going forward. (And if you’re looking for further distraction from his longtime image, take a gander at the liner notes, written by his then-wife with the alliterative hippie name. It’s quite a leap from the Van who’s best known for being grumpy and lonesome.)

A good 43 years after its original release, with virtually no warning or seeming tie-in, Warner Bros. created something of a Moondance Sessions set, adding 50 tracks on three discs to the original LP (plus a surround mix). Along with multiple working takes of half of the album’s songs, there are also lengthy, raucous takes of “I’ve Been Working”, 13 takes of the ultimately unreleased Van-goes-to-Rio “I Shall Sing” eventually pawned off on Art Garfunkel, and alternate mixes aplenty. (A cheaper two-disc option offered 11 of these. Van, who did not authorize the project, condemned it in all formats.)

As with any jazz performer, Van constantly modified arrangements until he was satisfied with them, so hearing the directions these songs might have taken is fascinating. While the band is certainly tight on “Caravan”, we can be grateful he dropped the “buttercup” rhyme for the album version. “Glad Tidings” began in the tempo we know, but was also tried and abandoned in slower takes. (Take 9 is a keeper, however.) Sadly, he did not end “Into The Mystic” with “it’s too late to stop now” every time.

Van Morrison Moondance (1970)—4
2013 Expanded Edition: same as 1970, plus 11 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 39 tracks and Blu-ray disc)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Television 2: Adventure

Once upon a time, record labels weren’t as quick to dump people from their rosters if they hadn’t sold millions of copies of their records. This was certainly the case of a smaller label like Elektra, which, despite having the distribution power of the Warner conglomerate, still maintained a lean but choice stable of performers. So it was that Television recorded and released their second album to even less of a ripple than their first.

Chances are, even the handful of people who were excited to have another Television album might have been disappointed at first, as Adventure doesn’t seem as groundbreaking as Marquee Moon. And how could it be? Instead, Tom Verlaine concocted some relatively tame compositions, yet still loaded with melody and interlocking guitar parts. “Glory” is a rocking opener, but things immediately get softer for “Days”. “Foxhole” follows along in the tradition of “Friction”, a little harder and loaded with war metaphors. “Careful” is a misleading title for a song whose main motif is “I don’t care”; likewise, the production buffs a lot of potential edge off it. The shimmering “Carried Away” adds piano and organ into the mix, and one suspects the Patti Smith Group might have enjoyed this one.

The second side is dominated by two “epics”, with a classic in the middle. “The Fire” sports a whistling intro right out of a horror movie, which both accentuates and deflates the drama of the song. The chords of the chorus elevate the song past the rather ordinary verses. “Ain’t That Nothin’” is the album’s masterpiece, a compact distillation of the best parts of Marquee Moon, with a great lyric on top. (It was also the album’s single, which nobody bought either.) “The Dream’s Dream” fades in on a flourish, plays without vocals for a couple of minutes, then turns left for the verse before continuing on the theme prior for the last half of the track, building and building, then hushing again for a more meditative vamp through the fade. (It took hundreds of listens before we realized Verlaine is playing the music from the intro of “The Fire” here.)

There’s nothing wrong with Adventure; it simply doesn’t deliver the excitement of its predecessor. Still, for anyone who loves Marquee Moon—and you know who you are—the album deserves a place in the rack next to its brother. And with Rhino’s upgraded version of the album, you get liner notes and bonus tracks, such as the long-lost title track, an early take of “Glory” and two alternates of “Ain’t That Nothin’”—the single mix and a nearly ten-minute instrumental take not listed in the packaging.

Television Adventure (1978)—
2003 expanded CD: same as 1978, plus 4 extra tracks

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Lou Reed 9: Walk On The Wild Side

RCA had their faults as a label, but had pioneered the concept of repackaging via their association with Elvis Presley. So even after they dropped Lou Reed from their roster, they made sure to get him to curate a compilation. Wisely again, the set subtitled “The Best Of Lou Reed” was called Walk On The Wild Side after the most famous song, and the one likely to attract newcomers in the bin. (Rachel, Lou’s stubbled soulmate, appears among the Polaroids strewn about the cover art.)

Of course, “best of” is an objective opinion, and Walk On The Wild Side goes all over the place. Each of his RCA albums is sampled save Metal Machine Music. “Sweet Jane” from Rock ‘N Roll Animal is severely truncated to remove the intro and fade early (to make room for “White Light/White Heat”, which doesn’t belong here?) and it’s not even the single version. Maybe “How Do You Think It Feels” was the most commercial track from Berlin, but just to force even established fans to buy it, there is one “new” track, the trashy “Nowhere At All” B-side from the Coney Island Baby sessions.

As an introduction, the album works, and there are probably many people who still revere the album for that reason. Two decades later, when he’d had a career renaissance and was making decent albums on another label, RCA dipped into the same pile for a similar but different compilation, in disregard of the fact that the first disc of the box set from five years before would have sufficed. Different Times: Lou Reed In The ‘70s shares only four tracks with Walk On The Wild Side, but takes advantage of CD capacity to include the complete live “Sweet Jane” and more songs from each of the albums sampled. By then, “Perfect Day” had become a cult favorite, more so than “New York Telephone Conversation”, so that made sense, and Berlin maybe wasn’t quite so scary anymore. Even for a cash-in, Different Times ably displaces its much older brother, and nobody missed “Nowhere At All”.

Lou Reed Walk On The Wild Side: The Best Of Lou Reed (1977)—3
Lou Reed
Different Times: Lou Reed In The ‘70s (1996)—

Friday, September 2, 2011

Monkees 6: Head

The Monkees’ feature film Head was designed to explode and obliterate their image, and on that level it was successful. Throughout its 85 minutes the Pre-Fab Four skewer their caricatures, get sucked into a giant vacuum cleaner, are trapped in a variety of boxes, get torn limb from limb, and even attempt suicide off a bridge. Despite having no real plot, it can be considered an extended version of the TV show, right down to the same lettering on the credits. But there are teenage musical interludes, just like on the show, and because it was the law, there was a soundtrack album.

Head can be considered the last real Monkees album, as it was the last to feature all four members for the better part of thirty years. However, it’s a stretch to call it a Monkees album at all, since the handful of actual songs are interspersed with incidental music, dialogue, and effects from the film (sometimes repeated), making for a very disjointed listening experience even if you had watched the film ahead of time.

Like said film, the album starts promisingly enough with a montage leading into the exquisite “Porpoise Song”, with its majestic psychedelic swirl, about something and nothing all at the same time. A spoken nursery rhyme parodies the “hey hey we’re the Monkees” theme song, before giving way to Mike’s “Circle Sky”. While it was performed live by the Monkees themselves for the movie, the studio version was recorded with session guys, and it’s a little tighter, as can be imagined.

Unfortunately, this is where the good part ends. “As We Go Along” is a Goffin/King composition chirped by Micky, while Davy gets to tap-dance all over “Daddy’s Song”, another uncomfortably personal Nilsson song. (To be fair, this sequence in the film is mesmerizing, provided you can ignore his mugging in the closeups.) Peter finally gets two songs on an album, but they’re the quasi-mystical “Can You Dig It?” (accompanied by an embarrassing sequence in the film featuring Micky as a sheik) and the fitting “Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?”, both leftovers from the sessions for the album before. Neil Young’s buried in there somewhere, too.

Peter would leave the band soon after filming the band’s phenomenally hideous 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee TV spectacular, leaving the other three (and then, just two) to continue making albums and touring. It’s a shame that Head is the end of the line, considering the promise they showed only a year before. Still, Monkeemaniacs hold their entire catalog in high esteem, and likely are still drooling about Rhino’s Deluxe Edition, expanded to three CDs, and possibly the most elaborate re-packaging of seven songs that weren’t that good to begin with.

The Monkees Head (1968)—
1994 reissue CD: same as 1966, plus 6 extra tracks
2010 Deluxe Edition: same as 1994, plus 38 extra tracks