Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Lou Reed 20: Songs For Drella

Lou was on a career high with New York from the year before, so a reunion with John Cale was certain to get attention. The excuse was a piece commissioned to celebrate the life of Andy Warhol, so they jumped at it. Songs For Drella got excellent reviews from the usual arty quarters, but would it translate to an album? More to the point, how would it be received as a Lou album, since Cale wasn’t exactly a sales magnet?

The album is a song cycle, mostly sung from “Andy’s” point of view. He starts out trying to escape his “Small Town”, then going to The Big City to establish an “Open House” policy. “Style It Takes” is sung by John, with sympathetic vocals from Lou at the very end, and it’s one of the more successful descriptions of Andy’s approach. The two of them battle on guitar and piano to demonstrate “Work”, wherein Lou recounts some of their conversations. “Trouble With Classicists” frames a quiet rant, and Lou follows it with the more obvious “Starlight”, wherein he delivers an intensity we wouldn’t expect from Andy. “Faces And Names” is much quieter, and we’re starting to think John understood Andy better than Lou.

Indeed, “Images” is relentless, to express the idea of repetition, but “Slip Away” (helpfully subtitled “A Warning”) demonstrates the foreboding that is explained away in “It Wasn’t Me”, where the blame is pushed to others. Something of a plot arrives in “I Believe”, a fairly frank description of Andy getting shot (an event overshadowed in the news by the same thing happening to Bobby Kennedy). This is also where Lou’s guilt over not visiting him in the hospital begins to dominate the lyrics. “Nobody But You” features Lou on acoustic for the first time in a long while, but it’s a three-chord song with Cale playing a percolating bassline on the keyboard. The abrupt ending is an excellent a setup for “A Dream”, a monologue composed by Lou and recited by John in an emulation of Andy’s infamous diaries. This piece is mesmerizing, as the longer it goes the more it perfectly expresses his perceived loneliness, particularly in his anger at Lou. The despair intensifies as the piece comes to a close, so it’s a jarring switch to “Forever Changed”, based around the metaphor of a train, one that actually appears to slow down at the song’s end. After all that, “Hello It’s Me” seems more like the kind of song that would sit by itself on an album. Some of the rhymes seem a little forced, but the closing “goodbye Andy” never fails to catch in your throat.

The idea of these two guys working together for the first time in over twenty years was very enticing, and Songs For Drella delivers very stark listening, with a few great songs amidst some real cringers. But if you’re expecting a Velvet Underground album, you’ll be disappointed. It really is an art piece, conceived as a theater presentation. It’s the sound of a guy with a guitar looking at a guy on keyboards talking about a guy they knew. Lou gets to shred here and there, but even he knows that his chops are merely window dressing to Cale’s fingers. It’s a curio, not likely to be appreciated outside the fan base. (To appeal to them a limited edition was packaged like a jewel case-sized book with a fuzzy cover. Like velvet. Get it?) At least Lou lost the mullet in the process.

Lou Reed & John Cale Songs For Drella (1990)—

Monday, November 28, 2011

Flying Burrito Bros 1: The Gilded Palace Of Sin

Gram Parsons was only in the “new” Byrds long enough to spearhead the recording of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Even before that album was released, he had left the band, soon to be followed by Chris Hillman, and together they formed the Flying Burrito Brothers.

This outfit expanded on the country tendencies of the Byrds by infusing it with a distinct rock sound, best summed up by the fuzz tone used by pedal steel guitarist “Sneeky Pete” Kleinow, which cuts through even the corniest tracks like a saw. On top of it all, Parsons and Hillman croon like the Everly Brothers. This blend appears at the top of The Gilded Palace Of Sin on “Christine’s Tune” (later retitled “Devil In Disguise”).

Their approach to country was anything but orthodox, as even the straighter sounding songs can be deceptive. The wonderfully melodic “Sin City” skewers the LA music scene, while the jaunty “My Uncle” concerns draft evasion while a mandolin trills away. “Wheels” and “Juanita” celebrate, respectively, the open road and the redemption of a teenage girl. “Do You Know How It Feels?” is relatively straight, setting us up for the closing, slightly surreal monologue about a “Hippie Boy”, complete with a chorus of “Peace In The Valley”.

Each side gets its own unique centerpiece as well. On the first, there’s a pair of Memphis R&B covers, “Do Right Woman” and “The Dark End Of The Street”, which had been hits just a few years before and would later feature in The Commitments. Side two has two songs that were apparently written so fast that they barely got titles. “Hot Burrito #1” is a lovelorn lament later claimed by Elvis Costello as “I’m Your Toy”. “Hot Burrito #2” isn’t as easy to sum up except for the insistence on love and the exasperated “Jesus Christ!” at the end of each chorus.

The Gilded Palace Of Sin is one of those albums that gets better with each listen, coming across as so effortless and easy. And as with most things involving Gram Parsons, it wouldn’t last.

The Flying Burrito Bros The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)—4

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gene Clark 2: Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark

Having seen zero success with his solo debut, Columbia dropped Gene Clark, who found his way over to A&M Records, which would pick up on another Byrds offshoot ere long. This time he hooked up with another country iconoclast. Doug Dillard had been part of a family-based bluegrass band that were semi-regulars on The Andy Griffith Show before he started doing sessions, playing banjo for the likes of the Monkees. Having shared management with the Byrds, he and Gene teamed up as Dillard & Clark, eventually recording another short yet worthy album.

The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark is an intriguing stew of traditional country, without drums, and mild psychedelia, thanks to an occasionally prominent electric harpsichord. Chris Hillman adds mandolin to two tracks, but the most prominent contributor outside of Dillard & Clark themselves is one Bernie Leadon, who added banjo and guitar and co-wrote several of the songs.

Gene comes off strong with another hidden gem, the mildly brooding “Out On The Side”, then “She Darked The Sun” is pure porch music, at least up until the mildly atonal finish. His honking harmonica opens “Don’t Come Rollin’”, which tumbles into stacked rhymes and warnings, while “Train Leaves Here This Morning” would one day feature on the debut Eagles album, but once again we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

“With Care For Someone” is stuck between a hoedown and descending minor key mystery, but the upbeat chorus wins the battle. Not so for “The Radio Song”, which has a dusty lyric but is beholden to that harpsichord, providing an out-of-body experience. The hoedown returns on a cover of Lester Flatt’s “Git It On Brother” and “In The Plan”, and “Something’s Wrong” nicely bookends the set.

Coming so soon after Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark got decent reviews from critics who still remembered who they were, but once again didn’t move any copies (Gene still not into touring by airplane). It’s gone in and out of print over the years, but the version to find adds three non-album singles, including the lost masterpiece “Why Not Your Baby”.

Dillard & Clark The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark (1968)—3

Friday, November 25, 2011

Big Star 5: Columbia

Thanks largely to Rykodisc—and the rest of the world catching up—Big Star was suddenly a big deal. Just in time to ride the nostalgic wave, some enterprising organizers of a college “springfest” in Missouri managed to convince the touring Alex Chilton to bring drummer Jody Stephens in for a gig, supplemented by two of the Posies, who were one of the grunge era’s most devout Big Star disciples. Released within six months of this “reunion show”, which took place in the afternoon and in a tent, Columbia is nearly as sloppy as the other live album, but the energy coming from the Posies (who likely knew the songs backwards and forwards) makes for one hot recording.

It’s hard to tell which guitar is which, since both go awry at one point or another, but Jody is positively solid behind his kit, as well as on the two songs he sings. The Posies handle some of the tougher vocals, along with a reverent “I Am The Cosmos” in honor of Chris. A couple of songs from Third add variety, as do a couple of standby covers from the old days, T.Rex’s “Baby Strange” and Todd Rundgren’s “Slut”. Still, the focus is on the most rockin’, toe-tappin’ crowd-pleasers. This was not the time or place to drag Alex through “Big Black Car”.

Alex would continue to release the occasional quirky solo album, and reunite with the Box Tops a few times. Jody Stephens went back to managing Ardent Studios and playing the occasional session for the likes of Matthew Sweet (signed to the same label that released Columbia) and Golden Smog. And from time to time, they’d call the guys from the Posies and play a few shows as Big Star. (One of these, from October 1994, was professionally filmed, recorded, and vaulted for 20 years. Captured at the end of a tour, Live In Memphis is a better-performed version of the Missouri show, with the addition of “Jesus Christ”, “The Girl From Ipanema”, and even “Big Black Car”.)

So although it wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event, Columbia made for a neat souvenir. But it didn’t present the entire show, as evidenced by the photo of the set list inside the packaging. Dumber still, BMG Special Products put out a CD with five of the released tracks as part of their “Extended Versions” bargain bin series. When Record Store Day became a thing, some bright bulb decided to press the complete concert on vinyl as Complete Columbia, as well as make it available for streaming. Now fans whose parents hadn’t even met at time of the show could truly hear it all, from the stumble through “Thirteen” to the ramshackle encores of “Jeepster”, “Kansas City” and “Duke Of Earl”.

Big Star Columbia: Live At Missouri University 4/25/93 (1993)—
2016 Complete Columbia vinyl reissue: same as 1993, plus 7 extra tracks
Big Star Live In Memphis (2014)—3

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Brian Eno 19: Small Craft On A Milk Sea

If anyone understands the power of branding in packaging modern music, it’s Brian Eno. Case in point: Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams were already busy musicians in the electronic field before meeting Eno, and worked with him on various projects throughout the first decade of the century, for such artists as Paul Simon and Coldplay. Yet when their first full-length collaboration was released as Small Craft On A Milk Sea, Eno’s name came first. Meanwhile, the liner notes show the other two as contributing keyboards and guitars, while Eno is credited with “computers”. Granted, that’s not to suggest he didn’t do anything musical with said machines, but still.

This would be more of a big deal if the album was wholly somebody else’s work, or worse, not very good. But somehow these relatively short pieces, designed with the familiar idea of creating imaginary soundtracks, hang together very well. Some cuts, such as “Complex Heaven”, “Calcium Needles”, and the title track, recall the spacescapes of Apollo; others, like “Flint March”, “Bone Jump”, and “Dust Shuffle”, bring to mind the “juju space jazz” of The Drop, but with more purpose than noodling. A guitar finally shows up in “Horse”, which sounds like a remix of certain Music For Films and the Passengers project, while “2 Forms Of Anger” bashes out a single chord right out of Joy Division.

Overall, there’s enough variety in between that makes it easy to sink into it as ambient music, or even put on shuffle and enjoy from a completely random standpoint. Again, the brevity and purpose of each of the tracks on Small Craft On A Milk Sea combine for success. (The Japanese pressing got an extra track in the closing, near-ambient “Invisible”, while a pricey limited collector’s edition added a bonus disc with four more tracks, plus an exclusive silkscreen print. All these, save the print, were eventually made available for streaming.)

Brian Eno with Jon Hopkins & Leo Abrahams Small Craft On A Milk Sea (2010)—3

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Police 1: Outlandos d’Amour

The Police were an odd lot, even for a power trio. American drummer Stewart Copeland and a singer/bassist named Sting seemed to stand much taller than guitarist Andy Summers, who’s about ten years older than the other two. All three came from jazz fusion backgrounds, but the times dictated a punk attitude and approach. That’s one reason why Outlandos d’Amour has something of a DIY vibe, in the cover art anyway.

The music isn’t that complicated either, even given the members’ prog-rock credentials. “Next To You” is tailor-made for pogoing, before “So Lonely” veers between a reggae verse and double-time chorus. With Sting’s high-pitched vocal and those odd guitar chords, “Roxanne” was likely most people’s introduction to the band. “Hole In My Life” and “Can’t Stand Losing You” became anthems for lovelorn kids everywhere.

One thing that comes to mind listening to the album after all these years—after Sting spent all that time being concerned about rainforests and whatnot—was that the Police once recorded “silly” songs. The Sting we know today would never have a song like “Peanuts” on one of his solo albums, much less sing it. In that light, songs like “Truth Hits Everybody” and even “Born In The 50s” gave them the image of a smart band. Such a label is hard to stick in light of “Be My Girl – Sally”, in which a simple pop chant frames the nursery rhyme-style ode to a blowup doll. (The novelty gets thinner considering that Roxy Music had already covered that subject five years earlier, but at least this ode is happier.)

While the band would evolve over time, much of their typical sound is in place on Outlandos d’Amour, almost encapsulated by “Masoko Tanga”, a near-instrumental jam for slashing guitar, melodic bass, reggae-tinged drums and nonsense vocals. Because of its quality and simplicity, it’s still a fine debut, and a nice diversion from some of the comparatively heavier things to come from the band.

The Police Outlandos d’Amour (1978)—

Friday, November 18, 2011

Badfinger 3: Straight Up

Perhaps it’s because he didn’t live long enough for people to say otherwise, but the general consensus is that Pete Ham was a pretty nice guy. Maybe too nice, since history has shown that you’ve pretty much gotta be something of a prick to make it in the music business.

His image has always been that of an extremely talented man who loved making music, and loyal to a fault. These qualities are best exhibited by the opening track on Straight Up, “Take It All”. The song came about after the Concert for Bangla Desh; Badfinger was part of the onstage band, strumming along on acoustics and percussion. Then, when George Harrison stepped forward to play “Here Comes The Sun”, he asked Pete to play the song alongside him. Apparently Tom and Joey (incidentally, both Liverpudlians) were extremely jealous that Pete got his own moment in the spotlight, and gave him crap for it. Pete’s response was “Take It All”, an absolutely gracious statement, free of ego. It’s a wonderful song, and just another moment that makes his story so heartbreaking.

It’s also a great opener for a fantastic album. Straight Up had a difficult birth, starting with a pile of scrapped sessions, continuing with George Harrison as producer. When the Concert for Bangla Desh took up his time, the album was completed with Todd Rundgren. There’s not a clunker in the set. It goes right from “Take It All” to the power pop classic “Baby Blue” and its wonderful interlocking guitars. A mini-suite of “Money” and “Flying” displays their talent for piecing together fragments into a cohesive production. “I’d Die Babe” is sneakily Beatlesque, and the majestic “Name Of The Game” gets a big sound out of only a few instruments, with Pete’s simple piano solo buried in the mix before the fade.

Joey dominates the credits on side two with three excellent songs, depicting life on the road in “Suitcase”, fingerpicking folk on “Sweet Tuesday Morning” and straight up (sorry) rock on “Sometimes”. Pete’s “Perfection” and Tommy’s “It’s Over” show off the band’s versatility, but the real centerpiece is “Day After Day”, another Pete Ham masterpiece, right down to the angelic harmonies, twin slide leads and nice piano touches from Leon Russell.

Reviews of Straight Up were mixed at the time, which is astounding considering that the same album led several wish lists until its eventual CD release in the ‘90s. The new power pop generation could finally hear the roots of Teenage Fanclub and Jellyfish in pristine quality, and the band gained even more overdue praise. Even the requisite bonus tracks were interesting, including some early alternate takes and the shimmering single mix of “Baby Blue”. Some of those bonuses were carried over to the next CD, while others were relegated to download-only status in favor of other outtakes. Taken all together, it’s now possible to compile the earlier version of the album, and it’s clear that redoing it was the smart move. Straight Up was a four-star album when we began typing this, but has since been upgraded. Justifiably.

Badfinger Straight Up (1972)—
1993 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 6 extra tracks
2010 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rolling Stones 41: Live Licks

In an amazing turn of events, the Stones broke pattern somewhat by issuing a live album as a follow-up to a hits collection, which itself had followed a live album! They’re nothing if not innovative.

Live Licks gets its title from the tour supporting the Forty Licks collection, and it’s to their credit that it’s not simply all the songs from that album played live. That would be silly, of course. They only pulled that trick for the first disc, which serves up eleven of their Classic Rock radio staples, the newest of which was over twenty years old, with the key addition of Sheryl Crow on “Honky Tonk Women”. (We’ll pause while you try to contain your excitement.) And the man who said he wouldn’t be singing “Satisfaction” in his forties is doing it at 60.

The second disc is slightly more interesting, with three—three!—solo vocals by Keith, some deeper catalog selections, a few choice covers and a guest appearance by gargantuan legend Solomon Burke on “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”, to which most people will respond, “Hey, they’re doing a Blues Brothers song.” It’s still the more surprising, if anything, of the two discs.

Live Licks sounds good, of course, with technology helping Chuck Leavell and Bobby Keys replicate the sounds of the records. The boys sound great and the band is tight. But by now we’ve been used to seeing the “post-production” credit in the liner notes of a live Stones album, so who knows how much tweaking happened between the performances and the CD pressing? It remains just another souvenir, and one that certainly wasn’t purchased by everyone who’d bought a ticket on this crazy 14-month tour. If you were there, you probably had a great time. If not, the excitement doesn’t likely surface.

And what’s a Stones album without a little controversy? To ensure their stature as the world’s favorite dirty old men next to Hugh Hefner, Live Licks was released in some of the more liberated countries worldwide with an uncensored cover, showing the lovely lady riding the tongue topless. In the US we were left to wonder what was under the bikini. Hot-cha!

This wasn’t the only souvenir of this particular jaunt, as a year before a DVD box set called Four Flicks sold exclusively through the Best Buy chain contained three different concerts in three separate venues—an arena, a stadium, and a theatre, which was the other gimmick of the tour. Two decades on, after they’d begun regularly repackaging concert video from the post-Wyman years as live albums, Licked Live In NYC offered the audio from the set’s Madison Square Garden portion, as originally broadcast on HBO, which also happens to include the aforementioned Sheryl Crow cameo. Coming soon after the very welcome release of the El Mocambo set from 1977, this was not only overkill, but a big step back in the creativity department. Even more maddening is that it’s pretty good, set-wise and performance-wise.

Two years after that, Live At The Wiltern presented a theater-sized show from a couple months before that had also been sourced for Live Licks. The thrust of this selection from the vaults was that it sported deeper dives into the catalog, which was one of the more unique aspects of the tour. Some of these so-called rarities included “Live With Me”, “Hand Of Fate”, “Dance Part 1”, “Stray Cat Blues”, “No Expectations”, “Going To A Go-Go” by a thin margin, and others that were already represented on the other two albums above. (Solomon Burke’s guest appearance is here as well.) Being a more intimate venue, with excellent separation of Woody’s guitar on the left and Keith on the right—albeit with backup singers and a full horn section—it might be the keeper of the three.

Rolling Stones Live Licks (2004)—3
Rolling Stones
Licked Live In NYC (2022)—3
The Rolling Stones
Live At The Wiltern (2024)—3

Monday, November 14, 2011

Willis Alan Ramsey: Willis Alan Ramsey

Considering the billions of albums that have been released over the years, it’s safe to say that the ones that have endured and sustained the artists’ careers are in the minority, while the rest have languished in obscurity since their release. Of that majority are performers that came and went, sometimes achieving one-hit wonder status and currently residing in the “where are they now” file.

Some of those one-hit wonders are due to external circumstances; Jeff Buckley only had one album out before he drowned, while Robert Johnson was already dead before anyone had heard of him. There’s the hypothesis that if Elvis Presley had disappeared after only recording the Sun sessions, we’d be talking of him in much different tones today.

Then there’s Willis Alan Ramsey, a Texas singer-songwriter who recorded exactly one eponymous album nearly forty years ago, and hasn’t been in much of a rush to do another one, despite continual rumors and pleas. (Allegedly anytime anyone asks him when he’s gonna put out a second, he replies, “What was wrong with the first one?”) The album straddles the lines between country, folk and bluegrass; you can hear Leon Russell (who plays on the album and signed him to his Shelter label) in his twangy croon, and Lyle Lovett (who idolized him and eventually collaborated with him) in his alternately wry and tender songwriting.

“Ballad Of Spider John” follows the tradition of “young guy writing as an old man” while staying original. “Muskrat Candlelight” likely kept him flush for several years, thanks to the hit versions by America and Captain & Tennille. It doesn’t induce as much wincing here, with a nice touch on the vibraphone. The jaunty “Geraldine And The Honeybee” and “Wishbone” simmer with Okie charm, followed up by “Satin Sheets”, sly and ironic considering his eventual shunning of the spotlight (best line: “Praise the Lord and pass the mescaline”). But “Goodbye Old Missoula” is the one you’ll be humming long after the side ends.

Side two is more overtly country, with the fiddle sawing through “Painted Lady”, the swampy “Watermelon Man” and the tribute to Woody Guthrie in “Boy From Oklahoma”. The super-sweet “Angel Eyes” is probably the best song ever written with that title, and to leave things on a high note, “Northeast Texas Women” puts you amidst a front porch hoe-down.

A track-by-track synopsis doesn’t suffice here, mostly because we feel we haven’t been able to do them justice. Each of the songs are striking in their own way, and Willis Alan Ramsey remains an album that any singer-songwriter would be proud of were it the only physical evidence of their work.

Willis Alan Ramsey Willis Alan Ramsey (1972)—4

Friday, November 11, 2011

Byrds 6: Sweetheart Of The Rodeo

The original Byrds were now down to two: McGuinn and Hillman. Still saddled with a record contract, they regrouped with a couple of new members and some grand ideas. Instead, they followed the post-psychedelic hangover of 1968 by going back to basics. Anchored by multi-instrumentalist trust fund brat Gram Parsons, the band more or less invented country-rock with Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.

Neither veteran brought an original composition to the album, but being the Byrds, they do frame the set with two Bob Dylan songs (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered”) recently unearthed from the Basement Tapes. The rest are straight arrangements of traditional songs, bluegrass favorites and even an R&B cover, a wonderfully pretty “You Don’t Miss Your Water”. Throughout, the songs are colored by rolling piano, banjo, pedal steel guitar and not a single Rickenbacker. McGuinn still took center stage as the leader, and even without his old granny glasses he could still carry a tune—so much so that for either legal or personal reasons he overdubbed his lead vocal on a few tracks that were originally cut with Gram Parsons singing.

That Parsons guy tended to make a pretty big impression on everyone he met; supposedly he was the one who turned the Byrds ship into this particular harbor. “You’re Still On My Mind” is a good drinkin’ song, and “Life In Prison” fits the same stereotype. His best moments on the album are on his own songs; “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now” (even sung by McGuinn) became immediate genre classics. And although mostly relegated to bass and mandolin duties, Hillman indulges his bluegrass roots with strongly sung performances of “I Am A Pilgrim” and “Blue Canadian Rockies”.

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was not an immediate hit, but became a touchstone once more rock musicians began incorporating country sounds into their work. Its importance in the history of the Byrds was underscored by the inclusion of the original Gram Parsons vocals on the three songs McGuinn tinkered with on the band’s 1990 box set. It’s also the only one of their albums to be given its own “deluxe” expansion past a single CD. The Legacy Edition includes the three Parsons vocals originally featured on the box set, along with the standard outtakes, a bunch of early Parsons tracks and a whole pile of rehearsal takes on a second disc, but ignores five of the bonus rehearsals on the 1997 CD, so completists have to have both.

The album does show something of a progression through their first five, and while the Byrds continued as a band for another five years, they really weren’t the same band. Only Roger McGuinn was left, and he built a new unit around the amazing speedy picking of a kid named Clarence White. There would be some definite highlights over the next handful of albums—“Ballad Of Easy Rider” and “Chestnut Mare” to name two—and they still maintained a rabid fan base, but people seeking the jingle-jangle sound of the original band would be disappointed. (Besides, David Crosby was doing pretty well with his new friends anyway.)

The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)—4
1997 CD reissue: same as 1968, plus 8 extra tracks
2003 Legacy Edition: same as 1968, plus 28 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Badfinger 2: No Dice

Having added the photogenic Joey Molland on lead guitar, Badfinger became a rock band (as opposed to a pop group). They weren’t able to escape the Beatle comparisons, especially being the only rock band on the Apple label, which had to promote No Dice alongside the other five Beatle solo projects that had been released in 1970. It also didn’t help when one of their songs was called “Love Me Do”, and another is a dead ringer for “Oh! Darling”.

But they do benefit from the jolt of electricity, with “I Can’t Take It” leaping from the speakers, and the stellar power pop of “No Matter What”, one of the greatest rock songs of all time, as the first single. “Better Days” chugs along amid an excellent guitar frame, and “Watford John” is a rollicking boogie-woogie.

Pete Ham starts to emerge as the hidden genius in the band, thanks to the sentimental “Midnight Caller” and the verse portion of “Without You”; the chorus was added by Tom Evans, and soon became a worldwide hit in a syrupy arrangement under Harry Nilsson’s added ache. “Blodwyn” is a nice dose of Welsh folk, and “We’re For The Dark” gets a touch of strings to help it along. Not to be outdone, drummer Mike Gibbins was responsible for the riveting “It Had To Be”.

No Dice is a decent album, and holds together as one, which is why it gets an edge in its rating. It was a moderate hit as well, partially from the Beatle connection and mostly because of “No Matter What”, and was one of the most anticipated reissues of the initial CD era. Of course, only one of the bonus tracks on that ended up on the 2010 CD, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the 12-track album proper.

Badfinger No Dice (1970)—
1992 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 5 extra tracks
2010 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 5 extra tracks

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ben Folds 7: Songs For Silverman

It was a longish time before his second solo album. There had been a few EPs (which we’ll get to soon enough), a live album and a project for William Shatner, but a real Ben Folds album gained the stature of a grand statement in its absence. To make things even wackier, there was a core band of bass and drums on every track. So why had the Five disbanded if that was Ben’s preferred sound?

Most of the Songs For Silverman veer towards the more serious side, as opposed to the snarky geek rock that had been his hallmark for the previous decade. He gets most of the comedy out of the way early; “Bastard” might have been a self-portrait, if not a more biting portrait of Stan from the last album. Its trips through various time signatures keep you guessing. “You To Thank” is another biting portrait, this time of a marriage that perhaps shouldn’t have been celebrated. A trip through America’s heartland inspired “Jesusland”, which he soon performed with an “arena rock” arrangement on tour, but that only distracted from the song’s message, as wonderful as the sound was. The Elton John homage “Landed” is a good barometer for the sound of this album; it even had a mix with Paul Buckmaster strings to support the “Levon”-style piano approach. One of his best songs, it’s basically a phone call from someone who’s just escaped a stifling relationship. Before things get too heavy, he sings “Gracie” for his daughter, a charming lullabye with a childlike hook.

The anti-love songs continue with “Trusted”, a blunt portrait of division, and “Give Judy My Notice”, a gorgeous kiss-off. “Late” is a tribute to recently deceased songwriter Elliot Smith, and works only because of that knowledge. The remainder of the album is dedicated to some very vague songs, thick with possibility of interpretation. “Sentimental Guy” is a slight self-portrait (maybe) and “Time” gets a boost from lovely harmonies, including the voice of one Al Yankovic. The big enigma is “Prison Food”, with lyrics presumably about another impending breakup without illuminating the title; here the harmonies on the bridge resemble those of Pink Floyd (thanks to his British drummer).

Songs For Silverman takes a while to sink in, and as good as some of the individual tracks are, it does work best as a whole. Hindsight has explained a lot, as despite the loving dedication and photos of the woman, Ben was on the verge of divorcing his third(!) wife. This knowledge only makes the subject matter more uncomfortable to consider, but it’s doubtful he was trying to make his own Blood On The Tracks or Here, My Dear.

Ben Folds Songs For Silverman (2005)—

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tom Waits 12: Big Time

Despite the theatrical genesis of Franks Wild Years, it was never made into a narrative movie. Instead, Tom’s tour behind the album was filmed and cut with a few performance art pieces, and released as Big Time. With the band basically crowded around the industrial light bulb hung from his mike stand, it makes for a straining watch.

At least the music is entertaining. A smattering of selections were included on the companion soundtrack album, and provides a nice sampler of songs culled mostly from his Island tenure. In the live format, Tom’s able to emote a little more, giving some life to things like “Way Down In The Hole”, while infusing “Cold Cold Ground” and “Time” with the tenderness they deserve. Even with its jokey non sequitur prelude, “Train Song” is just as sad as its album version.

There are some departures to keep things interesting. “Red Shoes” is rescued from ‘70s obscurity, and “Strange Weather” makes its Waits debut, having already been covered by Marianne Faithfull, deep into her own Kurt Weill phase. “Falling Down” is a studio recording; nearly a pop song, we can’t help wondering if the demolished hotel mentioned in the lyrics is a reference to his old home in the Tropicana. “Telephone Call From Istanbul” is sped up, and runs away from the chorus to quote “Chantilly Lace”. Throughout, his crackerjack junkyard ensemble keeps up with his every spit and gargle.

It’s not the best representation of a Waits concert, but given that he was about to take a ten-year sabbatical from the stage, Big Time had to suffice.

Tom Waits Big Time (1988)—3
1988 CD version: same as LP, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Van Morrison 5: Tupelo Honey

Life in the sticks was certainly agreeing with Van, based on the sunny, bucolic photos adorning the sleeve of Tupelo Honey. Here we see the country squire, long-haired, bearded and developing a gut, wandering along wooded lanes with horses, his lady and a cat.

His R&B approach gets a little country color, thanks to the occasional appearance of a pedal steel guitar, but it still has to cut through the Caledonia soul. “Wild Night” was the big hit, with its percolating bass line, but it’s “Straight To Your Heart (Like A Cannonball)” that grabs your ears. “Old Old Woodstock” and “Starting A New Life” celebrate home and family, and “You’re My Woman” is an overt love song, building from basic verses to the repetitive cadences that would pepper his live performances.

The lovely title track is a high point, and it’s a credit to its simplicity that we only just noticed that it’s melodically identical to “Crazy Love” from Moondance (Van’s “conceptual continuity” rivaling that of Frank Zappa). “I Wanna Roo You (Scottish Derivative)” is even happier still, while “When That Evening Sun Goes Down” manages to distill Nashville Skyline into three minutes. There’s even something of an epic finale in “Moonshine Whiskey”, which alternates between a barn dance waltz and an uptempo jig, revving up for the big finish.

Listening to the album, one doesn’t hear any echoes of the discomfort that began to set in following the end of the Sixties. Instead, life seemed pretty good. As happy as Tupelo Honey is, Van apparently didn’t enjoy making the album, as he had just moved to Marin County, leaving Old Old Woodstock to the hippies who didn’t have a map to Max Yasgur’s farm. He doth protest too much, because he certainly sounds in the mood for love here, even more so on the alternate of “Wild Night” and a rollicking version of “Down By The Riverside” that emerged on an expanded CD.

Van Morrison Tupelo Honey (1971)—3
2008 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks