Friday, December 30, 2011

Police 3: Zenyatta Mondatta

The boys recorded their third album very quickly, and Zenyatta Mondatta was both surprisingly good and a surprise hit. While still retaining the white reggae of the first two, they finally began to stretch, bringing in synthesizers for a few tracks.

An automated hum is the first thing we hear as “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” creeps in, along with its famous lyric about a schoolteacher beset by temptation. (At least they appeared to be having fun in the video.) “Driven To Tears” provides something of a political statement, with an amazingly discordant solo and a tense instrumental section before the final resolution. “When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What's Still Around” immediately follows, giving something of an answer to the questions asked. The reggae reaches ska speed for “Canary In A Coalmine”, a song with high-pitched vocals, thick lyrics and a demand to pogo. “Voices Inside My Head” is virtually a one-chord jam, and we finally hear from another band member on “Bombs Away”, and we notice that Sting tends to overemphasize Stewart Copeland’s melodies.

People often point to “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” as a stupid lyric, but that was the point. As simple as it is, at least it’s got a cool bridge. “Behind My Camel” is a gratingly repetitive instrumental tinged with horror that actually won a Grammy. The beat comes back for “Man In A Suitcase”, but slows way, way down for “Shadows In The Rain”. And it all ends with another confusing instrumental, “The Other Way Of Stopping”.

Though it runs out of steam at the end, there’s a enough good in Zenyatta Mondatta to make it worthy of repeat listens. The band were never quite happy with it, however, and would return to a few of the songs in the future, as we shall soon see.

The Police Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)—3

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Byrds 7: Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde

Somehow The Byrds were still a band with a record deal, and Roger McGuinn felt responsible for keeping the brand going, even after he was the only original member left. Having convinced session pal Clarence White to stick around, they recruited a rhythm section schooled in country music and equally adept at singing harmonies.

As indicated by the schizophrenia in its title, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde shows Roger McGuinn at a crossroads, trying to find a direction out of the several that interested him, from rock to country to space. But with an eye on safe commercialism, he took all the lead vocals on the album. (After all, what’s the point of keeping the store open if customers don’t recognize the guy behind the counter?)

Another sure stab at preserving the brand came with the opening track, a fuzz-tinged cover of “This Wheel’s On Fire”, yet another Dylan song from the Basement Tapes that consumers would certainly have recognized from the Band’s version the previous year (or even the UK hit by Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, later redone for the theme song to Absolutely Fabulous, but we’re getting WAY off track here). Whatever menace they’ve laid down is pushed aside for “Old Blue”, the ancient folk song about a dead dog. “Your Gentle Way Of Loving Me” is about as straight Nashville as one can get, though we could do without the constant harmonica in the back. Pushed along by a booming tympani, “Child Of The Universe” was also the closing theme to the hideous Candy, known to most as Ringo Starr’s first film appearance without the other Beatles and to everyone else as one of the worst star-studded movies ever foisted upon the public. The main verse section is interesting in a psychedelic way, but the chorus is held hostage to the booming. (The unused title song sits in the middle of side two, and it’s not much better.) “Nashville West” is an instrumental showcase for Clarence White, which is just fine until somebody yells “YEE-HOO!” and it becomes a parody.

One of the last legacies Gram Parsons left the band was “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”, a middle finger to everyone in Nashville who’d rejected Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. “King Apathy III” straddles a couple of meters, not sure if it wants to rock or swing, and the sections don’t even fit; maybe that’s supposed to illustrate apathy. “Bad Night At The Whiskey” succeed by standing relatively still, letting its heavy rock beat churn beneath multi-layered harmonies. Unfortunately, they couldn’t leave well enough alone; the closing “medley” crams a verse from “My Back Pages” up against a stiff blues jam ending with “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, concluding with a set-ending “we’ll be right back”.

Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde has its moments, but they simply don’t string together well. If anything, it serves as a statement of determination and perseverance, and Clarence White shines throughout, despite the material. Apparently not much was left over from the album sessions, as the 1997 upgrade sports two tracks from the box set and three negligible alternate takes to those on the album.

The Byrds Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969)—2
1997 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 5 extra tracks

Monday, December 26, 2011

Big Star 6: In Space

After a decade of sporadic gigs (fueling continued interest in their tiny catalog) the reconstituted Big Star put out a new album in the middle of the second Bush administration. In Space is a Big Star album in name only, in that the players are the two Posies who joined Alex and Jody in 1993. In fact, Alex does not dominate the proceedings, and on the handful of songs that are certainly his, the sound is more like the schizophrenic R&B of his post-‘70s solo work. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you like that sort of thing.)

The album is frontloaded with a handful of songs that do conjure the spirit of the band as people would like to remember them. “Dony” has a ragged edge and is catchy despite itself. “Lady Sweet” is the Posies version of the sound they’d like to hear. They harmonize with Jody on “Best Chance We’ve Ever Had”, and do a Beach Boys homage for “Turn My Back On The Sun”. Then Alex takes over for six minutes of silly funk in “Love Revolution”, a re-write of “Tighten Up” complete with calls to his “brothers and sisters” and a horn section. Thankfully, the old sound returns to Jody for “February’s Quiet”.

Alex wants the crowd to dance, which is obvious on his delivery of “Mine Exclusively”, a song that pre-dates even the Box Tops. The sound (and attitude) continues of “A Whole New Thing”, which pushes the irony in its beat-combo arrangement. “Aria, Largo” is hamfisted arrangement of a 400-year-old classical piece played on stiff guitar and bored drums. “Hung Up With Summer” sounds like it was recorded immediately afterwards, with a lot of the same guitar tones. “Do You Wanna Make It” is lyrically minimalist, conjuring memories of the Wonders as they toured the country’s finest state fairs. And it all comes to a sloppy end on “Makeover”, a jam with rambling “lyrics” cribbed from beauty ads. (It’s probably Paul Westerberg’s favorite track.)

In Space is not going to satisfy anyone’s dream of a fourth Big Star album, and the jury’s out as to whether anyone would care if not for the brand name on the label. At less than forty minutes, it delivers for about half. The Posies sound thrilled to be involved, but the real joy of the album comes from Jody Stephens, an exceptional and highly underrated rock drummer. His fills never fail to raise an eyebrow.

Big Star In Space (2005)—

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Beach Boys 1: Christmas Album

Like any red-blooded American boy, Brian Wilson loved Christmas. Likely influenced by Phil Spector’s album as well as their own “Little Saint Nick” from the year before (think a thematic cross between a little Deuce Coupe and a certain sleigh), The Beach Boys' Christmas Album was released a month after their live album, Capitol having zero qualms about loading up the shelves with their artists.

Five of the songs are Brian Wilson originals, played (most likely) by the band themselves. “Little Saint Nick” is still the best meld of the holiday spirit and the band’s brand. “The Man With All The Toys” has a jarring hiccup of a supporting part, “Santa’s Beard” and “Merry Christmas Baby” present Mike at his most nasal, while Al is credited with lead on “Christmas Day”. Outside of the occasional quote in a guitar solo, these are pop tunes with specific lyrics. Based on these it’s just as well that Brian didn’t try to write a whole album of Christmas songs, else his nervous breakdown might’ve been sooner or more severe.

To complete the album, the rest of the program consists of holiday favorites given lush, Four Freshman-style arrangements, much more typical of Johnny Mathis. Brian sings a couple of the prettier ones alone, but they all come together for the likes of “Frosty The Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, the latter with an unfortunate “circus” motif in between verses. They give their best blend to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, and bury some a cappella gymnastics under brother Dennis’s “special” spoken message over “Auld Lang Syne”.

Despite the promise of side one, this is not a rockin’ Christmas album, yet it does provide an interesting transition to the more advanced music Brian would create in 1965. The album never really went out of print, and even appeared on CD a few times with varying bonus tracks. At the end of the ‘90s, Ultimate Christmas more than doubled the original lineup with further extras, most notably “Child Of Winter”, a standalone single from 1974, and selections from the band’s aborted 1977 Christmas album. One of these, “Santa’s Got An Airplane”, updated the mode of travel with help of the unfinished late-‘60s track “Loop De Loop”. “Winter Symphony” is a promising Brian Wilson track that could stand to be slower and not as busy. There’s even a rare Dennis recording for that cult base. As with most Beach Boys music post-Endless Summer, these later tracks are simply not as strong as the prime material from the original era. (Their a cappella rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”, the B-side to “Little Saint Nick”, hasn’t been included on any of these CDs since 1991, but has turned up elsewhere.)

The Beach Boys The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (1964)—3

Friday, December 23, 2011

Frank Zappa 1: Freak Out!

Something to consider about Frank Zappa’s first album is how much of his eventual career can be traced to it. It’s all here: influences from classical and avant-garde to doo-wop, extended guitar solos, “shocking” subject matter, and contempt for his audience, based on the assumption that they only care about commercial fluff and teenage heartbreak. Freak Out! was an incredibly bold debut for its time, as double albums were not common in 1966, even for established artists, and certainly not for a rock band’s debut.

The spine may have credited the album to The Mothers Of Invention, but a glance at the credits make it all too clear that Frank was in charge, especially from his “helpful” liner notes. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” should have been proof that this wasn’t your average band, even when followed by the kiss-off in “I Ain’t Got No Heart”. “Who Are The Brain Police?” ushers in the weird, questioning authority and fixating on plastic and chrome. “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder” is greasy doo-wop, and “How Could I Be Such A Fool” less so. “Motherly Love” is a more catchy come-on from the band.

“Wowie Zowie” goes out of its way to be dumb, complete with xylophone. Another trio of “safe songs” attempts to appeal to the masses: “You Didn't Try To Call Me”, “Any Way The Wind Blows” and “I’m Not Satisfied” would have easily made it on radio. But “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” deflates it all with a smirk.

The first two sides on their own straddled the way-in and the way-out, but the second disc in the set makes a solid left turn. “Trouble Every Day” is his first major political work, as well as a chance to stretch on the guitar. Then he calls in the rest of the band to get crazy for “Help, I’m A Rock” (and its virtual coda, “It Can’t Happen Here”). The craziness continues for the entirety of side four with a free jam (which Frank always maintained was unfinished) called “Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet”.

Zappa freaks may not agree on everything, but they probably like Freak Out! It’s generally everyone’s introduction, whether they bought it in 1966 or came across it later. And since Frank was so concerned with continuity and historical context, it’s still a good place to start.

The album’s importance to his estate (a rather controlling outfit called the Zappa Family Trust, or ZFT) was underscored by the release of an archival entity called The MOFO Project/Object, “MOFO” being a handy acronym for “Making Of Freak Out”. Typical of the ZFT, it was available in two configurations, both featuring music not heard on the other, forcing fans to buy both (or procure them by nefarious means). The big one had four discs, while the one subtitled fazedooh was whittled to two.

Both featured the “original stereo vinyl mix” of the album on disc one, and filled the balance of space with a variety of basic tracks and vocal takes that illuminate some elements of the instruments and utterances hidden after the original fades. His ability with an Xacto knife shows in the various mixes and edits of “Help I’m A Rock” and “Monster Magnet”, but the outtake “Groupie Bang Bang” would never have passed muster back then; besides being a fairly pedestrian Bo Diddley homage, the lyrics are a little too pointed, but for conceptual continuity purposes, they point the way to both the Flo & Eddie era and one of the subplots of Joe’s Garage. Interview snippets and later mixes fulfill the promise of being an “audio documentary”, while segments of a live performance at the Fillmore Auditorium the week the album came out prove that despite the use of studio musicians, including Carol Kaye on 12-string and various horns and strings on the album proper, the Mothers were actually a decent R&B combo.

The Mothers Of Invention Freak Out! (1966)—4
Frank Zappa
The MOFO Project/Object (fazedooh) (2006)—
Frank Zappa
The MOFO Project/Object (2006)—

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lou Reed 21: Magic And Loss

Following on from the elegy for Andy Warhol, Lou began to be more consumed by thoughts of death. This was nothing new to a man who chronicled drug disasters his entire career, but now people he loved were succumbing to the vagaries of age. The main impetuses for Magic And Loss were songwriter Doc Pomus and someone named Rita. (It has been suggested that the latter was Rotten Rita, one of the Warhol crowd, except that she was still alive; more likely it was actually Rachel, the transgender woman who was Lou’s partner for much of the ‘70s, who even graced some of his album covers.) Rob Wasserman (bass) and Mike Rathke (guitar) return from New York, but here the drums are supplied by Michael Blair, who’s better known as a percussionist and a noisy one at that, as evidenced by his work with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. Still, that minimal approach keeps the sound clean and direct.

“Dorita” provides something of an overture before “What’s Good” provides a litany of observations of life and the lack thereof. “Power And Glory” appears twice—first as a lowkey track featuring the voice of the Legendary Little Jimmy Scott, and again as an out-and-out rocker. Both songs provide strange allegories and the horror at watching the effects of chemotherapy. “Magician” provides something of a contrast, sung from the point of view of the patient. Lou’s perspective returns on “Sword Of Damocles”, but he didn’t figure out what the melody was supposed to be before singing it, which is probably why Billy Corgan thought he could steal it for “Disarm”. “Goodby Mass” is pretty straightforward, capturing the sadness and futility one might feel at a funeral, while “Cremation” reiterates the usual metaphors about death.

“Dreamin’” sports one of his better developed melodies, to the point where the simple chorus doesn’t deflate the emotion of the memories within the words. Using all three chords, “No Chance” is another song from the hospital waiting room, but “Warrior King” needs only two chords to wish for the power to choose who lives and who dies. The most striking track is “Harry’s Circumcision”, a black monologue in the vein of “The Gift”, this one detailing a failed suicide. “Gassed And Stoked” takes the music down to one chord with the quickest change to A, only the title doesn’t match with the idea in the lyrics. By the time the title track closes the program, we’re just a little weary.

Lou saw Magic And Loss as a major work, giving each song title a descriptive literary subtitle (“The Thesis”, “Regret”, “Revenge” etc.) and promoting the album with performances of the songs in order. It’s not as catchy as New York, which is understandable considering the subject matter, nor is it a go-to party album, but at the cusp of the grunge era, it stands out as a cerebral effort in an otherwise non-cerebral field.

Lou Reed Magic And Loss (1992)—3

Monday, December 19, 2011

Badfinger 6: Wish You Were Here

For any other band, the prospect of creating three full-length albums to be released within a twelve-month period would be daunting, if not impossible, but most bands weren’t Badfinger. What’s even more amazing is that not only did they accomplish this Sisyphean feat, but they got better with each new LP.

Wish You Were Here is the peak of a busy period, an album where all cylinders were firing at maximum. It delivers on the power-pop promise of No Dice and Straight Up, without getting too sentimental, and letting Joey Molland shred on lead throughout.

“Just A Chance” is classic Pete Ham, and “Your So Fine” (just one example of their grammatical anarchy) is a catchy Mike Gibbins song sung by Joey, with excellent harmonies. Joey’s concerns with the future of the band drive “Got To Get Out Of Here”. But the one-two punch of shimmering gem “Know One Knows” and the multi-layered “Dennis”—the closest thing to an emotional piano ballad here, sung to a mischievous child—proves that Pete Ham was the living amalgam of Lennon and McCartney. (The final minute-and-a-half is exhilarating, in the way the bass walks over the piano, and subtly mixed harmonies support the lead vocal.)

The band’s skill at combining ideas frames the second side of the album, with a pair of “medleys” unfairly compared to those on Abbey Road. True, “In The Meantime/Some Other Time” does fade in on a discordant orchestra, but soon develops into a driving minor-key rocker. (Credit producer Chris Thomas for the fantastic sound throughout the album.) “Love Time” is a little on the wimpy side for Joey, but at least it’s heartfelt. Tommy’s only real contribution is “King Of The Load (T)”, which sounds like another song we can’t place, is firmly entrenched in the ‘70s by the electric piano, and doesn’t explain what the letter T is for, unless that’s the first initial of the roadie in question. “Meanwhile Back At The Ranch/Should I Smoke” is constructed as a grand finale, with frustrations over the state of the band still managing to convey a sense of triumph over adversity.

So as great as it is, how has this album managed to be so overlooked all these years? Well, not only was it released a full eight months before the Pink Floyd album of the same name, Wish You Were Here was also pulled from distribution before said Floyd album came out. The wheeling and dealing that had brought the band to Warner Bros. caught up with their crooked management, leaving the boys in the middle with the most to lose. They were already rushed back into the studio to record yet another album, to be titled Head First. And that April, at the magical age of 27, Pete Ham hung himself.

The prospect of an expanded edition of Wish You Were Here in 2018 faded a little once the bonuses were revealed to be an unreleased version of Tommy’s “Queen Of Darkness” followed by “alternate” mixes of eight of the nine album tracks. Most of these exposed horn parts and orchestral flourishes left out of the final product, which only underscore how solid the album was in the first place.

Badfinger Wish You Were Here (1974)—4
2018 expanded edition: same as 1974, plus 9 extra tracks

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tom Verlaine 1: Tom Verlaine

Given that he was Television’s main songwriter and lead singer, it should be no surprise that Tom Verlaine bounced back from the demise of that band with a solo album. For the most part, the songs on Tom Verlaine follow right along where they left off on Adventure—tuneful, more along the lines of constructed pop songs than intricate guitar duels, mostly because he’s the only guitar player. (Fred Smith is the main bassist, however, and Jay Dee Daugherty from the Patti Smith Group drums on most tracks.)

“The Grip Of Love” sounds like recent Television, with its strangulated riff and stop-start rhythm, and it turns out to be a tune going back to the early days. “Souvenir From A Dream” has a little new wave mystery, but the additional piano after the choruses makes the track stand out. “Kingdom Come” would get wider exposure a year later when David Bowie covered it in a near carbon copy, so familiarity with that will fuel its enjoyment here. Outside a reason to stretch on the guitar, “Mr. Bingo” is on the goofy side, but it’s got nothing on “Yonki Time”, which sounds like it was made up on the spot and overdubbed immediately afterwards.

The poppy “Flash Lightning” gets things mostly back to normal, while “Red Leaves” gets an odd boost via breathy vocals credited to “Deerfrance”, who turns out to be a woman connected with Zelig-like frequency to Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s, John Cale, and other movers and shakers of the time. (Those in the know will likely scoff at this brief summation, but there you are.) “Last Night” is nice and moody with a prominent piano by Bruce Brody and Mark Abel on chiming 12-string. Finally, the chugging “Breakin’ In My Heart” is another old TV song finally committed to vinyl, with extra rhythm guitar from Ricky Wilson of the B-52’s in that tuning of his.

Just like Television, Tom Verlaine grows on the listener, especially if one is already a fan. His voice is still an acquired taste, and the heavy reverb in the mix is relic of the era, but it all holds together well.

Tom Verlaine Tom Verlaine (1979)—3

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tom Waits 13: The Early Years

There had been something of a lull since “the Island trilogy”, during which Our Hero made a few movies and started some lawsuits but produced precious little music. Meanwhile, his first manager reactivated his old Bizarre label and started licensing things via Rhino Records. That’s how two CDs of early recordings by Tom Waits, which predated even Closing Time, managed to sneak into reputable shops before the artist turned his attorneys on the case like so many rabid dogs. (It may well have been one of the few cases he’s lost, as the music is still in print today.)

These are not all demos, as might be imagined. There’s a band on some of the tracks, but time has lost their names. At this point (1971), he’s sticking to guitar half the time and staying within the confines of the real folk blues. That’s where otherwise lost-to-the ages songs like “Goin’ Down Slow”, “Rockin’ Chair” and “Poncho’s Lament” fit. “Had Me A Girl” was obviously designed to make people in the coffeehouses chuckle, as would the more pointed “I’m Your Late Night Evening Prostitute”, a fairly accurate portrait of the average entertainer.

For familiar fans, it’s interesting to hear “Ice Cream Man” taken at its slower pace, while “Virginia Ave.” and “Midnight Lullabye” come fully formed. The version of “Little Trip To Heaven” is even lovelier than the “official” take, even considering the whistled solo. Historians will gravitate towards the first appearance of a protagonist named Frank, but this is more than likely coincidental. And proof that he was ahead of his time comes in the form of “Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again”.

Whoever compiled these collections put the best tracks on the first volume, as the follow-up, while obviously dictated by sales, grasps at straws. This is illustrated by the preponderance of more familiar song titles. That said, it’s doubtful anyone will gravitate towards these versions of “Ol’ ‘55” or “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”. “Shiver Me Timbers” hasn’t yet gained the melancholy so heavy. “Mockin’ Bird” has promise, but can’t get past the first two lines. But “So It Goes” puts him firmly in the realm of other New Dylans of the John Prine cloth, and “Diamonds On My Windshield” shows his grasp of beatnik music at this primitive phase. And the appearance of a solo acoustic “Blue Skies” only makes us wish the lush B-side was more readily available.

Taken together, the two volumes of The Early Years provide an alternate view of Tom Waits, showing where he came from. Perhaps he finds these preliminary sketches to be embarrassing—neither are listed on his official website—but really, there’s been a lot worse stuff magnetted to refrigerators over the years.

Tom Waits The Early Years Volume One (1991)—3
Tom Waits
The Early Years Vol. 2 (1993)—

Monday, December 12, 2011

R.E.M. 11: New Adventures In Hi-Fi

The band undertook a massive tour in support of their worst album to date, during which three of the four members had to be hospitalized, none of whom were Peter Buck. Still, having enjoyed a long absence for a once heavy-traveled combo, they made the most of their time by recording new songs in dressing rooms and at soundchecks. This method had been deployed in the past to some success by Jackson Browne and Lou Reed, but for New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which arrived just short of a year after Monster, the band was quick to cite hipper references like Radiohead and Neil Young’s Time Fades Away.

At just over an hour, it’s too long for a single album, and too short for a double, suggesting that it should have been trimmed by about a third. The opening track, “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us” doesn’t live up to its title, and how could it? “The Wake-Up Bomb” returns to the glam sound of Monster, “New Test Leper” doesn’t catch hold, and “Undertow” is a noisy jam with lyrics. “E-Bow The Letter” gets its title from the gizmo Peter Buck uses to get the drone sound on his guitar, and a big deal was made by having their idol Patti Smith bleat over the chorus. Despite its melancholy intro, “Leave” is driven by a persistent siren that wears out its welcome as soon as the vocal starts. Unfortunately, it goes for another six minutes, until you’re sick of the riff too.

Things improve slightly on the second half of the album, beginning with “Departure”. One of the first good tracks, it’s also one of the few songs on the album that evokes the feeling of a band on tour, with its expansive riffing and backing vocals taken from “Me In Honey”, and a chorus not too far removed from one of the extended hooks in ELO’s “Do Ya”. “Bittersweet Me” is also very well developed, and made for a good single, even though people weren’t buying those anymore. Like everything else here, “Be Mine” ends up going a little too long, but rumbles around its basic format with enough muffled vocals to be enticing. “Binky The Doormat” has something of a circus sound to it, fitting for a song supposedly inspired by the movie Shakes The Clown. The “choruses” get louder, with a nice balance of Stipe mumbling his words and Mills repeating “go away”. They’d had some decent instrumentals on their albums in the past, but “Zither” should have been left as a B-side. “So Fast, So Numb” seems to be more finger-pointing at either the slacker generation or celebrity casualties, and “Low Desert” brings us back to the water-treading of the first part of the album. At least we end on a high point, with the familiar piano sound of “Electrolite”.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi was a valiant effort to start and finish an album quickly, but it’s hardly a triumph. Besides being too long as a whole, half of the tracks break the five-minute mark. Many of the songs sound unfinished, as if Stipe spewed a bunch of lyrics on top of existing jams after the fact. That might have worked for R.E.M. at one time, but it doesn’t always here. However, they were starting to remember how they used to make records, but we had no way of knowing we’d suspect their best work was behind them.

Since much of the album was recorded live anyway, the eventual expanded edition simply added every track that had been what we still call B-sides from the CD singles, including the surf instrumental “Tricycle”, covers of “Wichita Lineman”, Richard Thompson’s “Wall Of Death”, and the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” (a perennial Mike Mills favorite), alternate versions of some album tracks, and a few songs that had been parsed out for movie soundtracks. (A more expensive version was housed in a book-style package with a Blu-ray featuring audio-visual extras.)

R.E.M. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)—
2021 25th Anniversary Edition: same as 1996, plus 13 extra tracks (Deluxe adds Blu-ray)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Badfinger 5: Badfinger

Having said goodbye to Apple, the label that introduced them to the world at large, Badfinger found themselves shackled to a punishing recording schedule on a new label. While they were eager to do whatever it took to “make it”, they were in the position of having to come up with a brand new album mere months after completing Ass.

Given this background, it’s surprising that Badfinger is as good as it is. It’s evenly balanced between the three main singers, all of whom contribute superior, tuneful tracks. Pete Ham is back in his element, and his songs here are as good as any in his arsenal. “I Miss You” borders on the too sweet, but “Shine On” evokes a Wellie-shod ride through the green hills of the UK. Joey’s “Love Is Easy” fulfills the boogie quotient, and he’s supposedly the subject of “Song For A Lost Friend”, a title that can’t help but be suggestive. A minute of audio-verité bridges “Why Don’t We Talk?”, and the first side closes with “Island”, a toughly played love song from Joey.

Maybe it was because they were trying for a fresh start, but there’s something completely alien about “Matted Spam”, from the title to the prominent horn section. Tommy continues his questioning in “Where Do We Go From Here?”, and with Mike’s excellent “My Heart Goes Out”, it’s obvious that the band was obsessed with the uncertainty in their lives, and justifiably so. But leave it to Pete Ham to take that knotted brow and turn it into something as genuinely loving as “Lonely You”. Joey’s frustration closes the album, first with the slow-burning “Give It Up”, then with the frenetic snapshot of “Andy Norris”.

As good as Badfinger is, it wasn’t going to change their fortunes any. Which is too bad, since it was a decent album. Its limited availability over the years was certainly a hindrance, and even CD versions have been rare, but it became available as a legal download in time from the usual sources, and finally got an expansion in 2018. Outside of an unreleased Tom Evans song, the additions are rough mixes of album tracks with mostly mild differences, but at least it’s easier to find.

Badfinger Badfinger (1974)—
2018 expanded edition: same as 1974, plus 10 extra tracks

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ben Folds 8: Supersunnyspeedgraphic

Way back in the lull following the live album, Ben started issuing a series of five-song CD EPs available via direct mail order or digital download, in the spirit of how bands used to put out singles. These were said to be contenders for what would eventually be his next album, but while a few would soon get regular rotation on stage, only one would turn up on his next real album.

Of the three, the first EP is still the most satisfying. Speed Graphic kicks off with a fantastic cover of “In Between Days”, to the point where we think an whole album’s worth of “Ben Plays The Cure” could make that band’s catalog more palatable. “Give Judy My Notice” appears in a piano-and-voice version that’s just as nice as the one that made it to Songs For Silverman. “Protection” has a jazzy, Steely Dan feel; this escalates for “Dog”, mostly notable for the phone conversation with his wife at the end of the song. And “Wandering” is likely to be on anyone’s list of sappy Folds favorites.

Sunny 16 arrived on schedule a few months later. This time the cover was “Songs Of Love” by the Divine Comedy, and the other songs were, well, okay. “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You” is the upbeat snide song; “You’ve Got To Learn To Live With What You Are” goes for Elton John territory; “All You Can Eat” puts a four-letter word in the chorus for shock effect; and “Rock Star” combines elements of all three.

It was almost a year before Super D completed the trilogy, and it’s the weakest of the series. Maybe the extra time convinced him to save the good stuff for the album proper, so this was merely the leftovers? Two covers frame the set: a faithful recreation of “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” by glam-rockers The Darkness, and a two-year-old live version of “Them That Got” by Ray Charles. “Kalamazoo” wanders along until a “disco string section” interrupts the middle, “Adelaide” seems an odd tribute to the city, while “Rent A Cop” is an obvious joke song.

After finishing the promotion for Silverman, it was time for another stopgap. He did come through somewhat on the original promise by compiling a sampler from the EPs, with the incentive that most were remixed and/or augmented slightly. From the fifteen contenders, Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP includes two songs from Speed Graphic, four from Sunny 16 and three from Super D. In addition, one song from his collaboration with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller, a track from his soundtrack to Over The Hedge and best of all, his uniquely melodic cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” round out the set. (He did not, however, include anything from 2005’s Songs For Goldfish, a collection of live tracks and oddities released via the same channels as the EPs.) It’s still geared towards diehard fans anyway, most of whom were more excited about a real followup album. And then they could tread water while the next distraction came along.

Footnote: Supersunnyspeedgraphic was “promoted” by the first live concert streamed on the Myspace social network, released the following year on DVD and a dozen years later as a CD. Much of the humor is lost without the visuals, and he triggers the same effect from his new old-school synth far too many times. An interlude by cross-dressing comedian Titler is a distraction, but the all-request format does dig deep into his repertoire. (Five songs from an iTunes-exclusive performance fill up the space.)

Ben Folds Speed Graphic (2003)—4
Ben Folds
Sunny 16 (2003)—3
Ben Folds
Super D (2004)—
Ben Folds
Songs For Goldfish (2005)—3
Ben Folds
Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP (2006)—3
Ben Folds
Live At Myspace (2019)—3

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Frank Zappa: General Disclaimer

In the coming weeks, Everybody’s Dummy will begin a series of reviews involving the music of Frank Zappa. In the interests of full disclosure, we submit the following.

We are not Zappa-expert, nor do we pretend to be, nor do we plan to be. There are lots of places on the Interwebs where people can argue about which touring band did the best version of “Pound For A Brown” or whether Scott Thunes isn’t fit to tie Arthur Barrow’s shoes or that the Flo & Eddie years were the best. Prior to his death, our knowledge of the man was limited to:

• a few Saturday Night Live performances;
• the rare occasions when FM radio played a track but it was usually “Valley Girl”, “Dancin’ Fool”, “Joe’s Garage”, “Montana”, or “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”;
• his testimony in Congress during the PMRC hearings; and
The Real Frank Zappa Book. That said...
We have listened to every commercially-available-through-the-year-2000 Zappa album at least once, and some way more than that. These include everything from Freak Out! past The Yellow Shark up to the Rykodisc releases of Läther and Mystery Disc. Such things became possible when one managed a CD store in a suburban town with a rabid Zappa fan base even before the sad events of December 1993, after which, in an attempt to educate ourself, so began the journey. In the process we heard a lot of music we came to love, and a lot that just plain irritated us. Not all of his best stuff is limited to the early stuff, just as not all of it takes overt detours into shock value and songs about oral and/or anal sex. Some of it is obnoxious crap. Much of it is original and inimitable.

Everybody’s Dummy will not commit to chronicling each of the 62 or so albums he saw released, nor all 29 and counting of the posthumous vault dispatches thus far. We will, as ever, simply try to put some of these albums and/or collections into perspective for those who, maybe like us back in the mid-‘90s, simply wanted to know what the fuss was about. How far we’ll get is yet to be known.

So if you’re a Zappa expert (translated: anyone who knows these albums better than we do, which isn’t tough to achieve) and you think we’re full of it, consider the above. And by all means, please comment or complain about any of the posts where you see fit. We are eager to learn.

If that doesn’t work for you, then consider this dialogue exchange from Uncle Meat:

“I can’t tell when you’re telling the truth—”
“I’m not.”
“How do I know anything you’ve said to me is—”
“You don’t.”
As always, thanks for reading. Hopefully you’ll find it to be an interesting ride. And don’t forget: Music is the best.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Police 2: Reggatta de Blanc

In keeping with the brand image, the second album by the Police didn’t deviate much from their established standard. However, as often happens with a second album, it’s clear that Reggatta de Blanc required a little more work to be complete. Circumstances dictated that the band be fairly democratic, with several compositions credited to Stewart Copeland and the one-in-all disclaimer “all noises by the Police”.

Despite trawling the clichéd theme of an isolated individual following some kind of disaster, “Message In A Bottle” was catchy enough to be a bit, and added another guitar riff to be passed along like a cherished secret code among listeners. The title track—another made-up foreign-sounding phrase meaning “white reggae” but still conveying a seabound image—is another excellent distillation of the band’s sound, complete with wordless vocals. “It’s Alright For You” retains some of the snottiness from the first album, just as “Bring On The Night” expresses a level of nihilism. Unfortunately, “Deathwish” doesn’t really take off at all.

The promise of the album title is reinforced on side two. “Walking On The Moon” provides another singalong, much more cheerful than “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”. In between there’s “On Any Other Day”, written and sung by the band’s monotonic drummer, and not the last time the band would present a suburban nightmare. He’s also responsible for “Contact”, which is nearly as musically interesting as “Does Everyone Stare”, a truly hidden gem based around a broken-finger piano part. The mix changes in time for a repeat of the first verse, expanding the sound without doubling it. However, the closing “No Time This Time”, while a good tune, deserves a better vocal than it got.

There’s enough quality on Reggatta de Blanc to make it worthwhile as a whole, but the Police were basically treading water. Some stretching would be necessary for the band to keep from repeating themselves.

The Police Reggatta de Blanc (1979)—3

Friday, December 2, 2011

Badfinger 4: Ass

Outside of the former Beatles (and Yoko Ono), Badfinger stayed on Apple Records longer than anyone else. Their loyalty even extended to recording at the Apple Studio in the basement of 3 Savile Row, something only George bothered to do in the ‘70s.

Of the band, Pete Ham was always the most loyal, and he wears his emotion on the sleeve of “Apple Of My Eye”, the sweetly sad farewell that opens Ass and would be the last non-Beatle single on the label. It’s a promising start to an ultimately disjointed album, pulled together from several sessions and one where Joey Molland dominates. The most rockin’ member of the group, his contributions lean toward heavier sounds and plenty of lead guitars, right out front on “Constitution”. “Get Away” and “The Winner” are rather pedestrian boogie numbers with lazy lyrics, but “Icicles” stands out with its infectious melody and anachronistic backwards guitar. Oddly, “I Can Love You” sounds more like the type of song Pete Ham would write; Pete’s only other contribution is the moody “Timeless”, which builds slowly from a piano piece to a grand finale along the lines of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”.

Tom Evans is equally quiet on the album, but his two contributions are gems. “Blind Owl” is a toe-tapping rocker made for the stage, while “When I Say” is as sweet as any of his love songs. Somehow Mike Gibbins got to add a song, but any chance “Cowboy” had is sunk by the annoying wobble-board sound effect in the front of the mix, and the square-dance asides in the break.

Led away by the giant carrot on the cover, Badfinger would resurface soon enough. But that’s another chapter in their sad story. Ass is merely adequate, overlooked upon release and usually only mentioned in passing. It only got limited release on CD in the ‘90s, with only one bonus track but thorough liner notes. (The 2010 reissue included more outtakes, plus others made available for download-only.)

Badfinger Ass (1973)—3
1996 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 1 extra track
2010 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 5 extra tracks