Monday, December 31, 2012

Frank Zappa 12: Fillmore East

Having reconstituted a new version of the Mothers, Frank got closer than ever to finally making a film starring them. While that waited to be finished, he took the band on tour, being careful to record their new, exceedingly improvised repertoire. The first product to show off the band was Fillmore East—June 1971, recorded during the last month the venue was open, and released by the end of the summer.

This is an album people either love or hate, and it can be summed up in three words: Flo & Eddie. While framed by two of his more popular instrumental workouts (“Little House I Used To Live In” and “Willie The Pimp”, the latter of which fades at the end) the first half of the album revolves around the legend of “The Mud Shark” and its relationship with groupies in general. It’s a shame too, because the band is so tight, staying on top of things no matter how overexcited the singers get. “What Kind Of Girl Do You Think We Are?” and “Bwana Dik” are annoying enough, and by “Latex Solar Beef” the topic of choice appears to be hemorrhoids.

Another performance of “Willie The Pimp” begins the second half, switching abruptly into more groupie “dialogue” acted out by Flo & Eddie in “Do You Like My New Car?” This goes on interminably—you can practically feel the spittle hitting the microphone—until the reference to a pop star’s “bullet” is revealed to be a setup for a straight cover of “Happy Together”, which Eddie took to #1 with the Turtles with Flo on tambourine. A fade seems to signify the break before the encore, here consisting of “Lonesome Electric Turkey” (Don Preston’s solo from a performance of “King Kong”), a half-decent “Peaches En Regalia” marred by Flo & Eddie singing the sax parts as nasally as possible, and an otherwise straight pop song called “Tears Began To Fall”.

There’s about a side’s worth of decent music here, but the attitude exuded by the band is best summed up by the bootleg-quality cover art. A few other tracks from the shows would emerge in time, most notoriously on side four of John & Yoko’s Some Time In New York City, which takes the obnoxiousness to a whole new level.

Those who do enjoy this album will be thrilled to know that the 2012 CD finally replicates the original album, complete with “Willie The Pimp Part Two”, which was left off previous CDs. Then, 2022’s The Mothers 1971 box set greatly expanded the album by devoting five and a half of its eight discs to all four Fillmore shows, including the full John & Yoko set restored from the Lennon Estate’s copy. Four shows means you get four different versions of the same songs, which results in over two hours of the content herein dedicated to four performances of “Billy The Mountain”, as well as another version cobbled from two shows later in the set. (They were kind enough to include the single mix of “Tears Began To Fall” and its mega-rare B-side, “Junior Mintz Boogie”.)

The Mothers Fillmore East—June 1971 (1971)—2

Friday, December 28, 2012

Finn Brothers 2: Everyone Is Here

After Crowded House disbanded, Neil Finn hadn’t disappeared, but neither had he made much of a dent in a music industry not very interested in his brand of pop perfection. It also didn’t help that the albums he recorded under his own name weren’t immediately as catchy as what had made him rich (assuming he was).

Since he still had something of a cult following, they were likely very excited indeed when his next project turned out to be a Finn Brothers album. And rightfully so. Following the okay results of Woodface and Finn a decade earlier, Everyone Is Here wisely avoided the “two guys in a room” approach and instead incorporated studio musicians and actual producers (one of whom was Mitchell Froom, which wasn’t obvious from the sound, thankfully). It’s a straightforward pop album, without any real experimentations, if a little somber at times, but that’s okay too.

It comes off nice and strong from the start, with the close harmonies of “Won’t Give In” and the “don’t give up” message of “Nothing Wrong With You”. The album flows right along, with melodies that seem like they’ve been in the air forever; they’re that comfortable. “Luckiest Man Alive” is a little mawkish lyrically, but boy, is it catchy.The messages in the lyrics aren’t always clear, as in “Edible Flowers” and “All God’s Children”, but the more upbeat tracks, like “Part Of Me, Part Of You”, “Anything Can Happen”, and even “Homesick”, will stick in your head.

Everyone Is Here may have been a safe move, but it was also the most satisfying new album from Neil Finn in about ten years. Naturally, it didn’t dent too many American charts, despite a few songs being played on a few episodes of Scrubs. Because it was the style at the time, it was reissued only a few months later in a so-called “special edition” with a bonus DVD and extra tracks—some of which were relics from the original version of the album, produced by Tony Visconti and subsequently rejigged—and the boys faithfully toured to support it. However, any momentum built up was threatened that March, when Crowded House drummer Paul Hester took his own life.

The Finn Brothers Everyone Is Here (2004)—3

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

They Might Be Giants 6: Why Does The Sun Shine?

TMBG aren’t just geek musicians—they’re actual geeks. This would have become more apparent given the “Mammal” science lesson on their last album, and it was taken to a further extreme on an EP presenting three cover songs and one original.

While it shares the EP title Why Does The Sun Shine?, the lead track is better known by the subtitle “The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas”. The song is instantly memorable and so quirky, it’s hard to believe it existed decades before the band did. Another trip through the past is “Jessica”, the Allman Brothers song here taken at a slightly slower speed, presumably so the guitar can best double the accordion, and kept to about a third of the original’s seven-minute length. “Whirlpool” was a recent track by the Meat Puppets, the proto-grunge band about to be championed by Kurt Cobain, delivered in a horn arrangement. Finally, “Spy” is a TMBG composition, heavy on the horns again with a full band backing.

At only ten minutes, Why Does The Sun Shine? may seem slight, but it was only ever considered a single, and should be priced accordingly. It’s still a lot of fun, and a nice bookend to the first four albums. If you’re a fan, you need it. (Though you probably already have it.)

They Might Be Giants Why Does The Sun Shine? (1993)—

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Holiday Special #4: Festival Of Carols In Brass

A holiday tradition in the New York Metropolitan area for many years was The Yule Log. Every night on Christmas Eve (and again on Christmas morning) channel 11 would show a looped film of a fireplace with brass fixtures, while a seamless program of what used to be called “beautiful music” played in accompaniment. (The music was simulcast in FM stereo on the station’s radio affiliate—pretty high-tech sh-t in those days.) Even though our house had a working fireplace throughout my youth, stoked to perfection by my dad, we still had the TV tuned in to The Yule Log, with the music blaring from every radio available. A Google search reports that the artists supplied were usually along the lines of the Boston Pops and Percy Faith; we recall a few select vocal pieces, like “The Little Drummer Boy”.

As with many mainstays of one’s childhood, we don’t truly appreciate certain things until they’ve gone missing, and there was an outcry when certain local TV affiliates removed it from their programming. By the ‘90s, enough homes had VCRs anyway, and could easily buy a cheap tape of a fireplace for kitsch purposes, the show having been originally designed for Manhattan apartment dwellers without hearths of their own. But the original was still the best, and after a decade of mismanagement at the station—during which even Beavis and Butt-Head referred to it on one of their holiday episodes—The Yule Log officially returned to the airwaves where it’s remained, albeit only on Christmas morning.

That dark period when it was nowhere to be found didn’t have the convenience of the Internet and digital technology, much less YouTube, so us sentimental types had to rely on our own mind movies to experience The Yule Log and become a kid again. The Mantovani qualities of those old records didn’t always hold up, but one vintage album always managed to set the mood. A Festival Of Carols In Brass by the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble is a perfect soundtrack for a roaring fire above which stockings are hung with care. The epitome of simplicity, it stayed in print through the digital era on a “Nice Price” CD with basic artwork and no credits outside the 25 tracks. The selections are crisp and not at all overbearing, and like any good instrumental collection, just as satisfying to have in the background as for close listening. It always seems to end too quickly, but that’s why CD players have a repeat function.

The Philadelphia Brass Ensemble A Festival Of Carols In Brass (1967)—5

Monday, December 24, 2012

George Winston: December

New Age music gets a bad rap, and often for good reason. One of our correspondents used to refer to it as “wine coolers for your ears”, back in the early ‘90s when it was at its arguable commercial peak. Some of it, as displayed by the Narada and Hearts Of Space labels, can indeed seem a little fruity. But there have been some enduring examples over the years.

The album that established the genre came from an unlikely place. The 25th release on the Windham Hill label—designed in 1976 in the mold of ECM Records, with its stark instrumental content matched by equally stark artwork—was the third album by so-called “folk pianist” George Winston. A balding, bearded man who dressed for his concerts in turtlenecks and corduroys, playing the piano in his stocking feet, his music was inspired equally by his environment as the instrumental music that used to be a part of Top 40 radio. The story goes that he was originally signed to Windham Hill to record an acoustic guitar album, but once label owner William Ackerman heard him playing the piano “for fun”, that plan went out the window. Autumn was Winston’s debut, featuring lengthy improvisations on fall themes, followed by Winter Into Spring, a more challenging distillation of those seasons.

December takes the best elements of both albums and presents them as a wonderful evocation of snowy landscapes and nights dotted by tiny lights of many colors. Because of its reliance on melodies familiar to the season, it is somewhat restricted to play at the end of the calendar year, but in this age of digital shuffling, that doesn’t have to be the case. It’s unlikely that his exploration on “Carol Of The Bells” would go over well in the summer without raising a few eyebrows, but “The Holly And The Ivy” is an excellent example of where he can take a basic theme. Its simple melody is played through a few times before he finds a rolling set of changes to improvise upon, creating a wonderful wall of sound from just two hands. Likewise, arrangements of “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” (here titled just “Joy”) and the well-worn “Variations On The Kanon By Johann Pachelbel” do suggest the holidays, but don’t have to.

Lesser-known melodies are given welcome exposure, such as the Appalachian carol “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head” and “Some Children See Him”, the first of many carols by the jazz musician Alfred Burt that Winston would revive over the years. Of his own compositions, “Peace” is as stark as the photo on the cover and the three-part “Night” makes for vivid mind movies, but it’s the opening “Thanksgiving” that is a triumph in simplicity.

Such was the impact or success of December that George Winston didn’t put out a new album for nine years. Some have been worth the wait, particularly Forest, and his album-long tributes to the likes of Vince Guaraldi and The Doors (no, really) are very educational. It’s to his credit that he never went back to the well, choosing to follow his muse rather than inundate the market with further Christmas albums that would have little chance of replicating the beauty of this one.

George Winston December (1982)—4

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Holiday Special #3: The Little Drummer Boy

When the LP gained prominence in the ‘50s, it was largely due the idea of a larger theme. Frank Sinatra had already been programming sets of songs for specific moods, and original Broadway cast became big sellers. So it only made sense that a 12-inch record (played at 33⅓) of Christmas music would convince the American consumer to part with two dollars. Sinatra did his part, as older 78s by Bing Crosby were transferred to the new format, and crooners like Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Mathis laid down their stamp.

People were still writing new holiday numbers back then; it’s not an easy concept to get one’s head around, especially if the first songs you memorized as soon as you could talk were the tales of Rudolph, Frosty and Santa Claus. But somebody had to write those songs, and sat in smoky offices in the big city to do so. That’s how “The Little Drummer Boy”, an apocryphal retelling of a visit from three kings, came to be arranged and recorded by Harry Simeone and his hastily assembled chorale. (It would be another ten years before rock ‘n roll bands would try, and fail, to convert the idea of a drummer boy to the modern sound. And of course, ten years after that, David Bowie’s aversion to the song would force a team of TV writers to add an alternate descant to the melody.)

The song was a hit single, and included on an album called Sing We Now Of Christmas. After a few changes of distribution, somebody had the bright idea to change the title of the album to reflect the hit. As it turns out, outside of the title and cover art, the copy we grew up with has a back cover identical to the original release, from the blurb about the reason for the season and the complete lyrics to each of the songs on the album. It’s still in print today, with yet another cover from its tenure on the Casablanca label. Evidence of its first incarnation still exists on track six of the CD, where the “Sing We Now Of Christmas” theme appears again to set up what was side two.

What makes The Little Drummer Boy such an excellent Christmas album is its design: 31 different songs spread over the two sides, most consisting only of the first verse or so, giving the young music fan an easy way to become familiar with a wide variety of holiday music, from carols to hymns and spirituals and a few pop songs along the way. (This music fan loved the album so much that he’d attempt to listen to it all year round, a wish only granted when he got a record player of his very own, with a speaker small enough that it wouldn’t bother others in the house had he decided to play the album in July.)

Considering all the other Christmas albums that have been remastered and reissued over the years, it’s surprising (to us, anyway) that The Little Drummer Boy or whatever you want to call it hasn’t gotten the same love. The CD hasn’t been upgraded since its appearance in the late ‘80s, and even that sounds like it’s been transferred from a record. But it still set a high mark for other albums to follow, as demonstrated by Christmas Chorale. Given the choice, it’s the one we like to play on Christmas morning while opening the stockings and waiting for the coffee to brew.

Harry Simeone Chorale Sing We Now Of Christmas (1958)—
1963 LP reissue: same as 1958, with new title The Little Drummer Boy
1987 CD reissue: same as 1963

Friday, December 21, 2012

Kingston Trio: The Last Month Of The Year

Some of us who happened to be born when we did were forced to learn about much of the music on this blog well after the fact. We heard about the Beatles, Stones, Who and so forth on the radio, as our parents were too busy raising kids to experience the ‘60s. There was music in the house, to be sure, but their record collections were stuck in an earlier era—lots of Frank Sinatra and Henry Mancini, but also Christmas albums and, at their most radical, the Kingston Trio.

Compared with some of the other folksingers of the time, the Trio was fairly inoffensive—well-scrubbed young men with buzzcuts and matching shirts, looking for all the world like they’d met at a fraternity party at some small university. Their harmonies and pop sensibility made them safe for listeners of all ages, usually avoiding controversy and overt protest. (Though a single listen to “The Merry Minuet” will dispel any notions that they had their heads in the sand.)

There’s no doubt that they were talented, and each of the fellows were avid researchers of music from around the world to add to their repertoire. When they recorded what was basically a Christmas album, they naturally eschewed the type of songs that had been pop hits, presenting a selection of more obscure folk songs related not to Santa Claus but to December, The Last Month Of The Year. The theme of Christmas does run through the album, even on the lullabies “All Through The Night” and “Bye Bye Thou Little Tiny Child” (a.k.a. the Coventry Carol). “Goodnight My Baby” is a tad too upbeat to be a lullaby, but it does mention Saint Nick. The liner notes say that “Go Where I Send Thee” had its roots in Jewish and Christian traditions, but their version is definitely spiritual. “Mary Mild” is an odd little song about the boy Jesus being shunned by the neighbor kids for being born in a stable, masking the part of the story where the kids drown. “The White Snows Of Winter” is a gorgeous love song we’re surprised hasn’t been revived of late.

There are two songs we’ve only heard one other place—“Sing We Noel” and “Follow Now, Oh Shepherds” both appeared on the Harry Simone Chorale album a few years earlier. Other songs get unique treatments, such as “Sommerset Gloucestershire Wassail”. “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” is delivered round-style, matching the other side’s “A Round About Christmas”, which is the one about the goose getting fat and ha’pennies.

The album was apparently a sizable flop upon release, illustrated by its absence from the aforementioned record collection heavy on both Kingston Trio and Christmas albums. It stayed out of print for over thirty years, until Capitol rereleased the Trio catalog. After many of those were deleted, an oldie boutique label had it for a while. We must acknowledge the colleague that brought it to our attention during its limbo years, and we’re pleased to report that The Last Month Of The Year is available via the usual download outlets. Not quite the same as holding the LP/CD in your hands and reading/squinting at the liner notes while it plays, but at least the music can be heard. Which is good, because it’s wonderful.

The Kingston Trio The Last Month Of The Year (1960)—4
Current CD availability: none; download only

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Holiday Special #2: The Bells Of Dublin

The Chieftains are one of those mainstream outfits peddling their own brand of traditional Irish music, found once upon a time at most big box stores in the “Celtic” section next to the Clancy Brothers. After having something of a boost from Van Morrison, they released a series of albums that featured collaborations with a variety of established artists, all singing to their accompaniment. One of their nicer projects—surpassed only by The Long Black Veil a couple of years later, teaming them with the likes of Tom Jones and the Rolling Stones—was a Christmas album based around The Bells Of Dublin.

Besides presenting a pleasant selection of airs and graces (if you like that sort of thing), the collaborations were unexpected. Honorary Dubliner Elvis Costello contributes the gory tale of a family dinner gone wrong (not for the first or last time) in “St. Stephen’s Day Murders”. The McGarrigle sisters offer a medley of French carols, then Burgess Meredith sets up a Gaelic shepherds’ tale. Marianne Faithfull adds her sweet rasp for “I Saw Three Ships”—contrast that with Rickie Lee Jones, who sounds like she’s either on the verge of tears or a sneeze for “O Holy Night”. Jackson Browne had been quiet for a few years when he came up with “The Rebel Jesus”.

Beyond the “star” aspect, the traditional selections are the glue of the album. The Voice Squad lends support to several carols, as well as the extended dance demonstration of “The Wren” (even if singer Kevin Conneff sounds a little like Popeye on some of his scatting). The final section of blends three carols into a big finish on “O Come All Ye Faithful”, with the organist from a Belfast cathedral playing into those bells.

The Bells Of Dublin will likely irritate those who aren’t fond of Irish music, but we find it awfully soothing. As various CDs (and LPs) have gone in and out of our holiday stack over the years, this one is a constant.

The Chieftains The Bells Of Dublin (1991)—

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Phil Spector: A Christmas Gift For You

While his name today generally is associated with a murder conviction or how he ruined “The Long And Winding Road”, Phil Spector really did make an impact on rock ‘n roll in his time. His “wall of sound” made dozens of instruments sound terrific on AM radio (in glorious mono) no matter who was singing. Brian Wilson used the same musicians and studio for his albums, and even Bruce Springsteen knew that he needed the Spector approach to make “Born To Run” the anthem that it is (which indirectly led to Meat Loaf and Bat Out Of Hell). But if Phil Spector did nothing else, he put together one hell of a Christmas album.

A Christmas Gift For You follows on the formula that drove “Be My Baby”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, and dozens of other hits. Spector knew what worked and he did it to death (sorry), relying on repeated rhythms and musical motifs. This album is just like those singles; even though there’s a prominent sleigh bell in the percussion, it’s mixed just as high as the castanets and tambourine. On every track, all secular pop standards, you can hear Teenage Steve Douglas honking away on sax, Leon Russell’s piano octaves, and Hal Blaine’s thundering drums (and we assume it’s him doing the clippity-clop effects on “March Of The Wooden Soldiers” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”). Jack Nitzsche is credited with the arrangements, so thank him for such touches as the 12-string that opens “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, the “Heat Wave” vibe on “Sleigh Ride”, and even “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”, which begins with a sweet intro culminating in a loud smooch before barreling through the song, ending with a quote from “Rock-A-Bye Baby”. (“Winter Wonderland” ends with “Jingle Bells”, “Marshmallow World” with “Deck The Halls” and so on.)

Partially because of the tight rein Spector had on his roster, his main milieu was the single, not the album. So rather than have one artist carry the whole thing, A Christmas Gift For You rotates between Darlene Love, the Crystals, the Ronettes and the unfortunately named Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans. Darlene leads off the program with “White Christmas”; already tackled doo-wop style by the Drifters, this adds a spoken bridge acknowledging what the holidays are like in “sunny L.A.”, far from the snow witnessed by many of the album’s listeners. She sings a total of four numbers, the winner being “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, the only “original” song on the album, thankfully revived by U2’s version 25 years later.

While Darlene had arguably the best voice, Phil Spector was obsessed with Ronnie Bennett; without a doubt, her beehived, eyelinered delivery of “Fwawsty Da Snow Ming” (to the best of our phonetics) is guaranteed to stir the red blood of any teenage male. The other Ronettes provide the delicious “dinga-linga-linga-ding dong ding” on “Sleigh Ride”. The Crystals hold their own (“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is the arrangement Springsteen made standard, and we’re still wondering what “elephant boats” are) and Mr. Soxx doesn’t stick around long enough to bother anybody.

A lot of the intros are interchangeable, but so what? If you don’t like this album, you’re a Communist. There’s no need to describe every track since you’ve heard them already. Several songs appear in Goodfellas, which is probably playing on Spike, FX, or AMC right now. Apparently it was not a huge hit in its time, but it’s stayed in print all through the years, first on the Beatles’ Apple label, then through Rhino, ABKCO, and now on Sony. It’s still 35 minutes long, and it’s still in mono. The way it should be.

A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963)—4

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Holiday Special #1: Christmas Chorale

This is easily the most bizarre traditional Christmas recording we have ever heard. First heard on cassette circa 1989—one of those things you’d buy at a gas station for three bucks—the case had no production notes or credits, just a badly spelled track listing to go with the title and distributor (“Special Music”, and who are we to argue?). Starting with a bunch of people harrumphing amongst themselves with the occasional "Tell it on the mountain!" interjection, Christmas Chorale sounds like a small adult choir singing truly unique arrangements of hymns and carols to the occasional accompaniment of a spirited piano.

It’s not easy to express just how odd some of these renditions are. Beyond the performance art aspects of “Go Tell It On The Mountain”, there’s the logjam of “God Bless The Master/Joy To The World”, which does indeed combine those songs, with “Ding! Dong! Merrily On High” sung at the same time, but not necessarily in the same key. “Ding! Dong!” is reprised later in the program, with doorbell impressions woven into the arrangement. “Good King Wenceslas” appears to change time signature with every other measure, just as other familiar melodies are stretched and chopped to the point where it’s impossible to sing along.

A friend originally brought this album to the attention of your humble correspondent, and as far as we know, we are the only two people on the planet who have spent money on it and actually enjoy it. Over the years the mystery has only grown; who are the voices coming through the speakers? Did they snag any royalties from our purchase? Do they even know this album exists?

As often happens in the public domain, the contents have been repackaged and re-sold over the years, which might make our CD version a collectors’ item. (Stop laughing. Christmas is a time for wild wishes and outlandish dreams, after all.) The latest version of iTunes offers something of a clue, crediting a few of the tracks to Neville Garvey and the Los Angeles Chorale. A subsequent Google search only brings up various e-tail sites with what appears to be yet another permutation of the program. Some listings for Christmas Chorale credit the performance to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which doesn’t make sense since the only instrument heard is that piano. Unless the choir is really the orchestra members singing. That would be something!

The closest we can figure out is that it might be the Los Angeles Master Chorale, who have had recordings released on a bunch of actual classical labels of merit, which takes away from our dream of some unknown community group that gather weekly somewhere in the Midwest to rehearse for sparsely attended concerts in front of retirees and bored children, while the best piano player in town dreams of playing on a real stage. Maybe some things are best left to the imagination. But what we wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall at these rehearsals, the recording session, and the moment when the first box lot arrived with Christmas Chorale all shrinkwrapped and clean, poised to take its place in the pantheon of holiday music.

Christmas Chorale (1988?)—3

Monday, December 17, 2012

John Tesh: A Romantic Christmas

Well before VH-1 and “I Love The ‘80s” made snarkiness cool, there were a handful of cultural icons whose existence encouraged ridicule, and those of us of a certain generation remember our whipping boys fondly.

Sometime after John Tesh had established himself on the mass media map as the co-host of Entertainment Tonight, wacky ideas entered his oversized head. First, he asked New Age schlockmeister Yanni if he could join his touring band as a backup keyboardist. Then he started issuing a series of albums of his own, inspired by the Tour de France and such other exciting events. Finally, he stole TV’s Connie Sellecca away from Buck Rogers (TV’s Gil Gerard), a match made in Burbank.

The fruits of this domino effect were thrust upon the unsuspecting public with his seventh CD, a tribute to both the institution of holiday cash cow as well as the Neopolitan minx by his side. A Romantic Christmas was designed to simultaneously tug the heartstrings of America’s Hallmark shopper and yank the chains of those of us who zeroed in on the back cover photo of somebody’s lacy black undergarments (Connie’s, we hope) strewn about (but not too near) the hearth. Beyond that enticing image—since scrubbed, so don’t look for it—the album is lush, but not syrupy, consisting predominantly of hymns and carols performed without the melismatic passion of the average Kenny G album. While Tesh’s name is on the spine, and he’s credited with acoustic piano, the bulk of the program is supplied by the army of musicians in “his” orchestra, mostly supporting a prominent “classical guitar”. When that guy lays out, a boy’s choir sings just off pitch on three tracks.

The man gets kudos as early as track two, an arrangement of “Gesu Bambino” that the average consumer would know best from Luciano Pavarotti’s Christmas album, and a tune that hasn’t been overdone by everyone who thinks it’s a good idea to do a Christmas album. The rest are the usual pre-industrial yuletide chestnuts, designed to evoke memories of what we’ve been told the holiday must have been like in Victorian times, only with a little digital reverb. Tesh doesn’t really leave a hefty mark from his meaty paws until the two original tracks near the end of the hour-long program, both of which feature violinist Charlie Bisharat and both of which sound a little alike. The closing rendition of “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire” is the closest we get to the expected Kenny G territory, given the soprano sax and fake electric piano accompaniment.

Given all that, A Romantic Christmas is actually pretty nice. If there’s anyone out there who can actually get it on with their lady to the strains of “Bring A Torch, Jeannette, Isabella”, we don’t want to know about it, even if they’re as photogenic as the Teshes. What makes the album worthy of a slot in your CD arsenal is its effectiveness as pleasant tree-trimming music—just as nice to have in the background while you’re trying to get in the spirit as it is should you decide to actually listen to it. Given all the potential of being an overwrought mess, it offers a soothing program, instead of something that inspires ridicule, which would be expected. Granted, we haven’t been able to build up the grapes strong enough to check out any of his other work—not least Sax On The Beach, Sax By The Fire, and Sax All Night. But even decades later, as ET still tries to pass itself off as news and his syndicated radio show attempts to inspire the typical Lite-FM listener on those evenings stuck in traffic after working late, A Romantic Christmas is a great way to win a bet. (As in, “Nice album, isn’t it? You won’t believe what it is when I show you the jewel case.”)

John Tesh A Romantic Christmas (1992)—

Friday, December 14, 2012

King Crimson 19: The ConstruKction Of Light

By the end of the century, King Crimson had evolved yet again. The “double trio” of Thrak was back down to a quartet along the lines of the ‘80s version of the band, with Adrian Belew on vocals and other guitar, Trey Gunn on the bass equivalent and Pat Mastelotto on predominantly electronic drums. The nature of that percussion pervades throughout The ConstruKction Of Light (the title being something of a nod to the interim “ProjeKcts” Fripp had encouraged among the double trio members, and the extra letter changing anything it can to “Kc”—cute, huh?). Unless we’re mistaken, and that’s not an impossibility, there’s no Mellotron to be heard anywhere.

The first track, “ProzaKc Blues”, has an excellent groove (and, as Crimheads like to point out, a standard chord progression) but it’s almost immediately undermined by a heavily processed vocal brought down about three octaves for comedic effect. While it’s nice to see that Fripp has a sense of humor—there’s even a nod to the longtime online mailing list dedicated to the band and their offshoots—what could have been a great opener instead dares the listener to continue. The title track is a big improvement. Split into two parts, intricate guitars answer each other in opposite speakers, and when the vocals enter in the second half, it’s more like the sound we’d normally associate with the Belew period. An appropriately sizzling effect starts off “Into The Frying Pan”, and there’s something about the wobbly vocals and guitars that sounds like psychedelic Beatles. Speaking of which, “The World’s My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum” follows the type of free-association exercise that John Lennon indulged in during his househusband years—with some nods to the ilk of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”—with less than hilarious results. (Do you really want to hear the phrase “get jiggy with it” on a Crimson album?) While there’s no credit for keyboards, the last minute or so is dominated by an anarchic piano solo.

Belew’s lyrics being hit or miss, it’s more tempting to concentrate on the instrumental segments, which are lengthy. “FraKctured” is something of an update of the closing track from Starless And Bible Black, alternating extremely precise and urgent soloing with less edgy bridges. Even more provocative is “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part IV”, picking up the mantle of the title last revisited in 1984. Here the familiar stabbing theme is played with the aggression of Thrak. Indexed as three sections on your CD player, it segues neatly into “Coda: I Have A Dream” a la a similar postscript to “VROOOM”. The guitar is a little more mainstream, but the lyric little more than an update of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” with a sadder melody. (As a bonus/advertisement, “Heaven And Earth” is a glimpse into ProjeKct X, and the title track of an album excerpted from rehearsals and featuring the players on the album using a different approach. We’re guessing the title refers to the framing of the synth strings around the more aggressive middle.)

The ConstruKction Of Light didn’t kick down any doors, but still offered proof that Fripp hadn’t lost any of his edge over the years. If anything, the side projects, solo improv performances and vault explorations spurred him to always find something new. If you have everything else up to this point, it’s a worthy addition, but it’s not the place to start.

Two decades later, as part of the massive Heaven & Earth box set covering the band’s musical output in the early ‘00s (including that of various ProjeKcts), the album wasn’t just remastered and remixed, but rerecorded, as many of the digital masters had gone missing. Pat Mastelotto took the opportunity to redo his drum parts on a predominantly acoustic kit in place of many of the electronic parts on the original album. As a result, The ReconstruKction Of Light is that much more organic a listen, and a little less than two minutes longer. A cheaper option to hear the music in a more natural environment is Heavy ConstruKction, three discs of recordings from the band’s European tour supporting the album, one of which contains nothing but improvisations, two of those interrupted by the band stopping because audience members were taking flash photographs after being told not to.

King Crimson The ConstruKction Of Light (2000)—3
King Crimson
Heavy ConstruKction (2000)—3

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Traffic 1: Mr. Fantasy

Steve Winwood has a classic voice and undeniable talent on several instruments. Unfortunately, because he wasted those talents on pop for the better part of fifteen years, a lot of people may only think of him as the “Higher Love” or “Roll With It” guy. Then again, they might not know what to make of Traffic.

Traffic began as something of a British counterpart to The Band—four guys living in a house deep in the countryside, concocting their own brand of music. It was something of a departure for Winwood, whose R&B belt was now used to decorate more trippy fare. The singles “Paper Sun” and “Hole In My Shoe” are truly psychedelic, built around Dave Mason’s prominent sitar.

The Indian influence is mostly toned down on the band’s first album, which existed in four formats—Mr. Fantasy in the UK, and (initially) Heaven Is In Your Mind in the US, both in unique mono and stereo mixes. The American version gets points for including both of those singles, along with the B-side “Smiling Phases”, among a jumble of tracks from the British LP. The final track, cleverly titled “We’re A Fade, You Missed This”, is merely a reprised snippet from “Paper Sun”. While Everybody’s Dummy tends to concentrate on US releases, in this case, it’s the UK lineup that was not only standard from the ‘80s on, but is actually preferred.

“Heaven Is In Your Mind” opens side one with drastic panning thanks to producer Jimmy Miller. The vocals and drums swap channels with the piano and saxes throughout the track, a groovy little tune. The last minute or so is a jam, with lots of vocal contributions from everyone. That mood continues on “Berkshire Poppies”, which rotates between a nursery piano waltz, a speedy chorus and slower resolve, while the other guys try to distract Winwood’s vocal with raspberries and shouted asides. “House For Everyone” is truly odd, beginning with a wind-up effect edited perfectly into the intro, and a daffy lyric fitting the times. Things finally slow down for the exquisite “No Face, No Name, No Number”, a positively gorgeous ode to a mystery woman, gently played. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is the song everybody knows, its three-chord structure sparking endless jams in bars around the world.

Jim Capaldi finally takes a lead vocal on “Dealer”, which suggests a drug connection but isn’t. The Indian sound comes back with a vengeance on “Utterly Simple”, complete with a ringing phone in the middle to usher in the obligatory philosophy lesson. “Coloured Rain” gets a churning treatment from the organ, guitar and sax, but “Hope I Never Find Me There” is another Dave Mason nursery rhyme. “Giving To You” is a jazz jam in a march tempo, bookended by loops of Chris Wood babbling. (The mono B-side version actually has an opening verse without the babbling.)

Mr. Fantasy provides at least one classic album side, though the second half does have something to recommend it as well. Overall there’s a cloud of mystery, given that the players likely switched instruments as the mood struck, and what some of us wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall in that house.

Unfortunately, thanks to the shuffling way back when, no single package currently encompasses everything that was ever part of the album. A relatively recent British CD reissue offered the British stereo with the American mono, while in America, two CDs came out—one that added the singles to the British version, and one that simply added the two songs left off the US stereo, with a couple of rarities. Given the brevity of the original LPs, a double-disc Deluxe Edition—which their current label has done for just about everybody else—could easily contain all four versions, plus extraneous singles from the same period. And of course, if it turns out that some songs had identical mixes, there’s no need to have it four times.

Traffic Mr. Fantasy (1967)—4
2000 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus 5 extra tracks
Traffic Heaven Is In Your Mind (1968)—4
2000 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus 4 extra tracks

Monday, December 10, 2012

Van Morrison 12: Into The Music

It took a few false starts, but Van managed to close the decade with a masterpiece. Like all his greats, Into The Music takes a while to get into. And like all his greats, it’s full of romance and religion beneath the surface. It’s true Caledonia soul, mixing Irish folk touches with R&B, along with such instruments as harmonica, banjo and Dobro, Appalachian influences that reflect just how huge American country-western is in Ireland. Some prominent musicians appear in support: Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, Pee Wee Ellis from the James Brown band, and a couple of refugees from ECM Records and John McLaughlin. None seem extraneous. Even the ladies’ voices don’t get in the way.

He’s not really breaking any new ground at first listen. “Bright Side Of The Road” (which directly namechecks its relation to the modern R&B classic “Dark End Of The Street”) is a snappy starter, with the equally upbeat “Full Force Gale” following right along in an overt statement of thanksgiving. “Stepping Out Queen” is in the same punchy vein, with the addition of a violin sawing away in a premonition of several Waterboys albums a decade down the road. (The song seems to go somewhere else just before the fade, and one day it would be revealed that a second half of equal length was lopped off, which included a musical theme that would be used as both an instrumental and a melody within a few albums. An alternate take issued on a later expanded CD demonstrates the transition even better.) “Troubadours” removes us from the present, suitably, right up through the sharply constructed instrumental section, spotlighting pennywhistle, trumpet, and sax in that order, though the sax does drip of Adult Contemporary. (This is absent on the alternate on the aforementioned expansion, but it’s still not as good.) “Rolling Hills” goes deep into English folk country, the pounding drums notwithstanding, the side ends with the soulful goodtime “You Make Me Feel So Free”, which is a vast improvement on the framework of James Taylor’s recent hit “Your Smiling Face”.

Solid as side one is, the flip is a trip to the stratosphere and back. “Angeliou” starts out folky, repeating its lilting intro several times. For a full minute the only lyrics are the title, repeated melodically until pushing the song through rising changes under a meditation about “the month of May in the city of Paris”. His memories begin to wander, and his reverie becomes mostly spoken in hushed tones, just nudging the piece along. There’s a return to the title refrain, and more hints at something tantalizing that he’s not quite telling us. The song fades, but each piece that follows seems to lend some illumination. “And The Healing Has Begun” begins with the same progression as “Madame George”, and indeed takes us back to his hometown. Here is the genesis of the “yeah” asides that would permeate the ‘80s. Once he stops the band for a monologue it’s clear just what kind of healing he’s talking about, after a gig while the dirty old Van tries to get some. Our eavesdropping on his seduction technique is blocked by another fade, and diverted by a surprising cover. “It’s All In The Game” is a dramatic interpretation of the oldie, slowing down the tempo to a gentle 12/8 and ignoring the melody that came first. As he studies on the lyrics, he quiets the band and pulls the song into a glorious expression of ecstasy brought on by a simple love song, in a section of his own called “You Know What They’re Writing About”. (His repeated demand to “meet [him] down by the pylons” is another reference to his teenage days.)

Into The Music was easily his best album since the early ‘70s. It exudes joy and confidence without being pushy, and at fifty minutes, is a good length, too. Above all, it was a reminder of what made him such a legend in the first place.

Van Morrison Into The Music (1979)—5
2008 CD reissue: same as 1979, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, December 7, 2012

Cars 4: Shake It Up

Another year, another album, and the Cars were more or less on schedule. Having done it their (or Ric’s) own way on Panorama, Shake It Up was much more obvious in its quest for chart success. They even went back to putting a hot girl on the cover.

There was another wrinkle in their marketing scheme. A month before the album’s release, MTV debuted in a handful of markets across the United States. Being the good design students that they were, the band quickly got up to speed by accompanying their singles with eye-catching visuals. And if they could include more of the women they featured on their album covers, they were only enforcing their brand image.

The album is front-loaded with a pretty solid set of radio-friendly tunes. “Since You’re Gone” would gain a memorable video that played off the off-beat percussion at the start. The song covers familiar territory, and sports a strikingly distorto solo from Elliot in the break. The title track was about as dopey as they could get, so it’s no wonder it was a hit. While “I’m Not The One” wasn’t a single, it still was added to their greatest hits album a few years later, and used as humorous counterpoint in an Adam Sandler movie a decade or so after that. “Victim Of Love” is a title that pretty much everybody has used at one point or another; here Elliot gets to color the landscape with his Buddy Holly stylings. A huge radio hit where we grew up was “Cruiser”, a somewhat robotic song that still manages to sound like a band playing instead of a sequencer being programmed.

The second side only has four longish songs, each the epitome of cutting-edge New Wave, whatever that is. Fine as they are, neither “A Dream Away”, “This Could Be Love” nor “Think It Over” really stand out, but at least the just as generically titled “Maybe Baby” adds some galloping drums to prevent the album from ending on a thud.

The quality of the pop and the ubiquity of the videos helped make Shake It Up a hit, and deservedly so. The kids loved the band and knew what to expect, but in hindsight, it appeared as if things had become a little too routine. (The eventual expanded CD was packed to capacity, with the addition of “early” versions and demos, the unreleased “Midnight Dancer”, the remix of “I’m Not The One” that would grace their hits album, and a cover of “The Little Black Egg” recorded as a template for Bebe Buell.)

The Cars Shake It Up (1981)—
2018 expanded edition: same as 1981, plus 8 extra tracks

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

They Might Be Giants 5: Apollo 18

The public being as fickle as they are, TMBG’s fifth album didn’t exactly burn up the charts. It could be that the band had already converted their maximum density, and would have to rely on their cult audience. But that didn’t mean they were about to coast. Apollo 18 may not have as many memorable tracks as previous albums, but they pulled one gimmick to present something that literally hadn’t been done before.

“Dig My Grave” is a nice trashy opener, and while “I Palindrome I” isn’t as direct as “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Bob”, it still has some memorable lines (beginning with “Someday Mother will die and I’ll get the money”). “She’s Actual Size” and “My Evil Twin” would appear to be opposing Johns talking about people they know, and neither really register in the wake of “Mammal”, a straightforward science lesson. “The Statue Got Me High” was a single, and sounded like one, but “Spider” is thoroughly wacky, and therefore more satisfying. This is particularly apparent when followed by “The Guitar”, an interminable track that shares so much with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” that they were forced to add that title to the track and apply royalties accordingly. (R.E.M. would do the same later in the year for a much better song.) Much more entertaining is “Dinner Bell”, a dizzying litany of food and competing vocals over a jaunty piano.

“Narrow Your Eyes” provides an overdue return to the lost-love-with-alcohol song, which isn’t so obvious at first. “Hall Of Heads” would appear to be instrumental until a minute in with a shift to an entirely different melody. The brief “Which Describes How You’re Feeling” sounds like their old sound, which would make sense since it was one of their earliest songs. “See The Constellation” is upbeat and stupid, and while the intro suggests otherwise, “If I Wasn’t Shy” is pretty calm. It moves seamlessly into the hilarious situational horror of “Turn Around”. “Hypnotist Of Ladies” isn’t that exciting, but it doesn’t matter compared to what comes next.

The keen-eyed would have noticed that track 17 is called “Fingertips”, followed by track 38, the instrumental “Space Suit”. As it turns out, “Fingertips” is the overall title given to a series of 21 short songs, most only consisting of a single sentence or phrase, each a different melody. In today’s iTunes environment, each has its own title, but according to the original liner notes, they were designed to show up at random whenever the CD was played in shuffle mode. Therefore, it makes one wish such tracks as “I Hear The Wind Blow”, “Come On And Wreck My Car”, “Aren’t You The Guy Who Hit Me In The Eye?”, “Please Pass The Milk”, “Leave Me Alone”, “I Don’t Understand You”, “Mysterious Whisper”, “The Day That Love Came To Play” and “I’m Having A Heart Attack” were more than a few seconds long.

Using strict mathematics, it might be assumed that Apollo 18 is less than good. But as the highlights overshadow the lowlights, and the brevity of each of the “Fingertips” is so misleading, it becomes a worthy installment in their catalog.

They Might Be Giants Apollo 18 (1992)—

Monday, December 3, 2012

Suzanne Vega 6: Songs In Red And Gray

While it’s never nice to take pleasure in someone’s pain, this is a perfect example of a performer’s personal turmoil resulting in superior art. Songs In Red And Gray is her Blood On The Tracks—not that it’s even close to the excellence of that album—in that the songs seem to be directly related to her divorce from Mitchell Froom. To take the attitude of finding good in anything, once he took up with blowsy blonde Ally McBeal fixture Vonda Shepard, at least we could take solace that his muddled approach wouldn’t be ruining her albums anymore.

While the album is certainly folkier than the last couple, some of the production touches she picked up over the past decade are still in evidence. Much of that might be ascribed to producer Rupert Hine, best known in the ‘80s for his work with Tina Turner, The Fixx and Howard Jones. Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like any of them.

“Penitent” is a good starting point, suggesting displacement at a crossroads. The rhythm continues on “Widow’s Walk”, which expertly combines the traditional ballad stance of the widow on the shore with well-placed nautical metaphors. A more obvious touchstone is addressed in “(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May”, wherein our heroine insists that any young suitor would be better off chasing somebody else (with most of her male fans likely willing to take a chance on her anyway). Such an affair is picked apart in with surprising sexual reference in the extremely catchy “It Makes Me Wonder”. Irritation turns to sadness for “Soap And Water”, a heartbreaking lullaby of sorts for her daughter (“Daddy's a dark riddle/Mama's a headful of bees/You are my little kite/Carried away in the wayward breeze”). What happened in “Song In Red And Gray” isn’t as clear, but the unsettlement is tangible.

The lesser half of the album is set up by “Last Year’s Troubles”; unfortunately the techno beats in the mix distract from the cleverness in the words. “Priscilla” is a story that means more to her than us, but at least the sonics don’t irritate. That can’t be said of “If I Were A Weapon” (besides being titularly (?) similar to “(If You Were) In My Movie”, a song that wasn’t that good in the first place). The mystery of the sea returns somewhat with “Harbor Song”, describing an enigmatic dream. “Machine Ballerina” sports two basic melodic themes, one of which sounds like a typical Froom keyboard, the other barely displaying the bitterness in the accusation. “Solitaire” is a little too literal, and again, the scratchy mix is a tired gimmick. The album closes with a cover of a song by a Village fixture who ran a songwriting circle; her delivery makes it seem like one of her own.

Songs In Red And Gray is definitely a return to form, albeit tinged with the mixed emotions that inevitably follow a divorce and custody arrangements. Overall there are enough high points to keep the handful of misses from derailing it.

Suzanne Vega Songs In Red And Gray (2001)—

Sunday, December 2, 2012

King Crimson 18: Absent Lovers

Having already looked at both ends of the ‘70s version of the band, the next archival release from King Crimson covered the ‘80s version. Absent Lovers presents the final show of the tour supporting Three Of A Perfect Pair, which was also the last time these four musicians would play together for ten years. The show was originally recorded for radio broadcast, and promptly bootlegged, and while this official version is mixed from the original multitracks, some odd fades suggest that a boot might have been the source.

It’s no big deal, because the recording is crisp. After three albums and tours in this incarnation, they had the set pretty much down. After a lengthy introductory improv titled “Entry Of The Crims”, the disparate pieces come together into “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part III”, and off they go. As the vocalist, Adrian Belew takes the opportunity to engage the crowd in between songs, and his vocals are still a matter of personal taste. He even takes time at the end to individually acknowledge everyone on the tour crew. Outside of excellent versions of “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II” (both of which originally recorded in the ‘70s, so Bill Bruford gets to show how well he remembered them), the set leans heaviest on what was the new album and Discipline, with a few things from Beat, shuffling the pile and juxtaposing more familiar (read: better) songs with ones we overlooked.

And that right there is what makes the album worth it. While the three ‘80s albums sound very cold—partially because of the emphasis on electronics—onstage the pieces have a lot more room to breathe, which Robert Fripp insists is always better anyway. (He has even more to say, about prog and the music industry in general, in the booklet.)

Absent Lovers is a highly recommended introduction to that version of King Crimson, shedding some light onto that section of the catalog and the history. If one really wants to immerse oneself into the era, the On (And Off) The Road box set presents eleven CDs containing remastered versions of the three albums (with bonus tracks), live recordings, and outtakes, as well as Absent Lovers, along with DVDs and Blu-rays loaded with surround mixes and video content.

King Crimson Absent Lovers—Live In Montreal 1984 (1998)—

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Paul Simon 4: Live Rhymin’

As affirmation that he was to be accepted as an artist on his own, and not just the shorter guy in a duo, Paul Simon’s tour supporting There Goes Rhymin’ Simon was commemorated with a live album. Its barely inspired title of Live Rhymin’, by which it’s generally known, can be excused considering all the words crammed onto the label for the credits.

The first three songs are solo acoustic performances of already-classics, then he brings out the Urubamba combo to support him for “El Condor Pasa” and “Duncan”, ably presenting the unique sounds of those recordings onstage. Their embellishments on “The Boxer” are a matter of personal taste, but we hear his extra verse for the song the first time here. The Jessy Dixon Singers were the other guests on the tour, and they come out to support “Mother And Child Reunion” and “Loves Me Like A Rock”, which they do well, and better than on “The Sound Of Silence”. Simon must have known he couldn’t do vocal justice for “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, so they help there too, though that didn’t stop him from emoting over the lengthy repeated coda. (He leaves them alone for “Jesus Is The Answer”, providing a bathroom break right in the middle of side two. Presumably they also supply the drums and organ on this part of the album; no issue has ever identified the players on each track.)

These days, Live Rhymin’ is seen as a stopgap commercial ploy, to fill the racks between the hit album and the next presumed masterpiece. Indeed, considering the success he’s had with big concert tours, it’s a harbinger, but still an intriguing snapshot of a time when his presentation was simpler. (It would be many years before the album was expanded, and well after his other solo albums got similar treatment, but rather than presenting a complete concert or equivalent sequence, the updated CD only added two tracks.)

Paul Simon with Urubamba and the Jessy Dixon Singers Paul Simon In Concert: Live Rhymin' (1974)—3
2011 CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, November 30, 2012

Robyn Hitchcock 19: Luxor

The direct approach suited Robyn, and continued with the next installment in his discography. Originally distributed to attendees of his 50th birthday concert, Luxor begins with promise, being completely solo and mostly acoustic, just like the best albums of his heyday.

Indeed, “The Sound Of Sound” crawls along at a lovely slow pace, but is pushed aside by “One L”, a tribute to his wife that’s a little too personal to succeed. “Penelope’s Angles” follows a plucked pattern similar to “Autumn Is Your Last Chance”, but wanders off to repeatedly insist that “I am not a yam.” There’s something of a juxtaposition in the not-quite-there-ness of “The Idea Of You” and the much superior “You Remind Me Of You”. The title track is instrumental, and happily doesn’t evoke mental images of Vegas casinos, Egyptian relics or computer games. “Keep Finding Me” beings with an enticing melody that unfortunately loses its way in the bridges (“Be true to your drum/be true to your drummer/this summer is gonna be hot—hot!”).

“Maria Lyn” has some excellent lyrics, but the one-chord blues style has never been his most comfortable approach, no matter how many times he tries it (though “Solpadeine”, which closes the program does much better in the format, mostly because it offers more chords). “Round Song” is an improvement, its ringing 12-string and vocal effects sounding very much like the English psychedelic folk we imagine him loving without having heard it ourselves. The jumpy “Ant Corridor” seems more like a demo than anything else here, making little sense. The same could be said of “Idonia”, but somehow this particular mix of sea shanty and 1966 Dylan clicks. “The Wolf House” is another pretty instrumental staying just this side of revealing its structure.

Presented with little fanfare, Luxor re-establishes the trend of Robyn Hitchcock albums that are pleasant but not very exciting. Because of the perfection of I Often Dream Of Trains and Eye—not to mention the sheer entertainment his solo shows always provided—we desperately want to like this album more than we do. The rating should therefore be taken well within context, and we’d be surprised, albeit pleasantly, if anyone fell in love with his work based on this particular album.

Robyn Hitchcock Luxor (2003)—

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Van Morrison 11: Wavelength

Right off the bat, Wavelength seems to be a step in the right direction. Only a year after his return to the business, Van seems to have come to grips with the expectation of the marketplace. Even the cover was stylish, giving the consumer another crotch shot below an almost relaxed, confident stare captured in soft focus by the same guy who’d photographed Joni for the Hejira cover.

Of course, what translated as current in 1978 doesn’t always work after the fact, and it’s been said that Wavelength is just a little too slick; whatever anyone’s opinion, the overall sound is an improvement over A Period In Transition. For one, it’s longer. Also, the use of a larger band more suited to his own whims lends a consistency that keeps it together. (Even if the synthesizer sounds out of place, but then again, Garth Hudson was always more effective when he used more organic tones.)

The album isn’t immediately memorable. “Kingdom Hall” might suggest a conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but overall it’s just a simple celebration of dancing and having fun. “Checkin’ It Out” sounds a bit muffled, but with only three chords it’s not supposed to stand out much. We’re not sure who “Natalia” is, but she should be pleased Van wrote such a happy song for her. “Venice U.S.A.” is much better if you don’t read the lyric sheet (with the chorus “Dum derra dum dum diddy diddy dah dah” repeated six times each, and Lester Bangs called it first). “Lifelines” has potential, but suffers from underdeveloped keyboard effects; one wonders how it would sound with just Van’s electric piano, as listed in the credits.

What makes the album worth the price of purchase is the title track, another joyous celebration of the spirit of radio. Here the keyboards don’t get in the way, instead conveying the idea of radio waves shimmering through the air, and the guitar solo, not a common touch on a Van album, is perfect. (This wasn’t included on either of his early-‘90s hits collections, a crime not rectified until 2007 with the release of a fourth.) “Santa Fe” isn’t much, but in a premonition of the future, it morphs into “Beautiful Obsession”, which would appear to be an extemporaneous composition in the studio, with a few exhortations near the fade that perhaps influenced Bob Seger on “Against The Wind”. “Hungry For Your Love” doesn’t generate enough energy to make the sentiment convincing, leaving “Take It Where You Find It” as the last stab at an epic, but a sleepy one.

It seems that Van is more into it on Wavelength, but outside of that title track, the album just seems a little bland. It was hoped he would do better going forward. (He could still bring it onstage, however, as evidenced by the performances of “Kingdom Hall” and “Wavelength” included on a later CD expansion.)

Van Morrison Wavelength (1978)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1978, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, November 26, 2012

They Might Be Giants 4: Miscellaneous T and Then

To cash in on the marginal success TMBG had with Flood, their old distributor collected a bunch of tracks from the EPs originally released to promote the singles from the debut and Lincoln. With the somewhat inspired title of Miscellaneous T, it presented in more or less a reverse chronological order to that of the original EPs.

As with most B-sides and whatnot, they’re not all zingers, else one would think they’d’ve made it to the albums proper. Highlights include “We’re The Replacements”, a silly tribute to the Minnesota band (no matter what the fatter John says), “The Famous Polka”, the original version of “Kiss Me, Son Of God”, “It’s Not My Birthday”, the scandalous commentary in “Hey Mr. DJ I Thought You Said We Had A Deal” and, possibly, the so-called “Joshua Fried Remix” of “The World’s Address”. Beyond that, well, you gotta be a fan.

Some years later, after the band had returned to obscurity, the quest to remaster and reissue things led to Then, a repackaging of the first two albums, bolstered by the various EP tracks, along with another 19 tracks heard only on Dial-A-Song or before shows. All the EP tracks had of course been reissued once on Miscellaneous T, so fans old and new could marvel at those extras. The “intros” are fairly entertaining, and earlier versions of “Don’t Let’s Start”, “Which Describes How You’re Feeling” and “Hope That I Get Old Before I Die” contrast how those songs began with how they started out. “Number Three” sung entirely in Greek will scratch a few heads, but the track titled “Schoolchildren Singing ‘Particle Man’” offers just that, and is just plain charming.

Then, therefore, is the way to go if you don’t have anything prior to Flood. But if you do, you might as well upgrade.

They Might Be Giants Miscellaneous T (1991)—
They Might Be Giants
Then: The Earlier Years (1997)—4

Friday, November 23, 2012

Frank Zappa 11: Chunga’s Revenge

With only his name and gaping maw on the cover, one might assume that Chunga’s Revenge would be another “solo” album and therefore not at all like the same year’s Mothers output. That assumption would not be entirely correct.

By the time he recorded this album, he’d put together a new Mothers, retaining only Ian Underwood from the old band, but adding more seasoned players, including British drummer Aynsley Dunbar (who would one day anchor Journey) and jazzman George Duke on keys. This gave him a more solid base upon which he could do his thing, as demonstrated on “Transylvania Boogie”, “Twenty Small Cigars” (a Hot Rats outtake, previewed on Jean-Luc Ponty’s album of Zappa interpretations earlier that year), and the title track. Arguably, the highlight of the album is “Sharleena”, one of his best songs from both a lyrical and musical standpoint.

However—and this is a big, big however—he also recruited two singers from the Turtles to sing and add harmonies. These would be Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, a.k.a. Flo & Eddie. While only in the Zappa employ for eighteen months, their sycophantic stain would be felt on every album and concert tour for the balance of his career. From here on out, instrumental virtuosity would be pitted against or alongside scatological lyrical content.

Luckily for Chunga’s Revenge, they’re more of a decoration than the focal point, really only taking over on side two. They’re first heard helping out with “Road Ladies”, an actually enjoyable blues until one of them gets to mewl a verse on their own. “Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink” is another novelty in-joke that wouldn’t have been out of place on Absolutely Free. “Tell Me You Love Me” is a loud parody of contemporary rock, while “Would You Go All The Way?” makes odd references to both the U.S.O. and the U.S.A.

Even when they’re not singing, Frank’s fascination with groupies and “bands on the road” is still pretty obvious. (Some say this is a key example of “conceptual continuity”, or maybe it’s proof of a one-track mind.) The album was, as he was wont to do, presented as a “preview” of music from an in-progress film—in this case, 200 Motels. We might assume that “The Nancy & Mary Music”, a live improvisation, was supposed to accompany something featuring groupie characters. Even “The Clap”, otherwise a multi-tracked percussion piece (the drums being his first musical love) edited next to the title track, refers to a social disease common to touring bands.

Taken on its own, Chunga’s Revenge is a perfectly harmless album. It is, however, the fine line after which one’s tolerance for shock value will be tested. Proceed accordingly. 1970 was a transitional year for Zappa, and obviously neither he nor anyone could envision the events that would follow.

A half-century later, once the industry had fallen in love with anniversary repackages and the Zappa Family Trust started issuing comprehensive expansions of various albums, more of the music from the year would be revealed. The Super Deluxe Edition of the 200 Motels soundtrack included further music from the Chunga sessions that would end up in the film, but more interesting musically was the hour’s worth of music from Trident Studios in London that made up the first disc of The Mothers 1970. Highlights include Frank’s original vocal on “Wonderful Wino”, a few instrumentals with just Frank and Aynsley Dunbar, and an early run through “Envelopes”. Three further discs in the set are dedicated to live performances featuring Flo & Eddie, which gradually devolve from renditions of Mothers catalog tunes on a Dutch TV show to the “routines” the group would undertake mere months later, interspersed with various field recordings of conversations Frank captured to fuel his inspiration.

Much of this fatuous material is presented in sub-bootleg sound quality, adding insult to injury, but does lift anytime the vocalists stick to their tambourines while Frank rips off a solo, as on the otherwise unknown “Portuguese Fenders” and an early draft of “Easy Meat”, or for any of the renditions of “King Kong”, each of which includes a detour through “Igor’s Boogie”. The band, for all the hijinks, was tight. (In fact, a few years earlier the third installment in the Estate’s occasional Road Tapes series of low-fidelity shows presented two from July 1970, one of which was the source of “The Nancy & Mary Music” on Chunga’s Revenge—turns out it was mostly from “King Kong”, which in those days had an “Igor’s Boogie” interlude.)

Frank Zappa Chunga’s Revenge (1970)—3
Frank Zappa
Road Tapes, Venue #3 (2016)—
The Mothers
The Mothers 1970 (2020)—

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Kate Rusby: Hourglass

Back in the ‘90s, I managed a CD store where the only other employee was the owner. While our musical tastes would occasionally clash in the no man’s land between hair metal and Bob Dylan, we did our best to remain open-minded, and even learned a few things in the process.

Being an independent store, one of the only ways we could fend off competition from the chains was by maintaining a “lean but choice” inventory of music that wasn’t always representative of that week’s copy of Billboard. Even The Artist One Day Known As John Mayer would credit us, begrudgingly, for widening his peripheral vision past Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dave Matthews. (We tried, anyway.)

Such hands-on customer service went both ways, and often we’d heed the advice of our patrons, and discover an obscure treasure. This was the case with Hourglass by Kate Rusby, which apparently was a huge hit in England a full year before a customer asked about it in time for its American distribution. Figuring she must be on to something, we ordered a copy for her and one for the store.

When it arrived, and with not much else released that particular Tuesday in August, we opened a copy and put it on. We were immediately entranced, and even misty-eyed, from beginning to end. It’s an absolutely lovely collection of traditional Celtic songs and adaptations framed by Ms. Rusby’s angelic voice and gentle acoustic guitar, plus other accompaniment.

It really does wow on first listen—the cheerful “fa la lanky down dilly” of “Sir Eglamore” leads into the hardly hackneyed “As I Roved Out”. “Jolly Ploughboys” gains momentum as any good work song should, and the sea tale of “Annan Waters” uses pipes and piano to mask the sadness beneath. “Stananivy” is a charming jig paired with a dancing lyric about “Jack & Jill”.

The centerpiece of the album is an original, the heartbreaking “A Rose In April”. Delivered as a dialogue-style ballad, the tragedy unfolds slowly and vividly. As moving as it is, the happier portrait of “Radio Sweethearts” provides a nice lift. If there’s a clunker on the album, it would be “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”, a traditional song given a new melody but partially credited to Sinead O’Connor. “Old Man Time” is another original, and a striking observation from someone so young. “Drowned Lovers” begins with the unmistakable sound of someone tuning their E-string, neatly folded into the rest of the tune. An accordion, not usually our favorite instrument, accompanies “Bold Riley” to the end of the album.

It’s probably not possible to convey just what a pleasant surprise this album was at the time, but even years later it still has the power to move. Hourglass is simply lovely, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I will always be indebted to that customer—whoever she was—who’d special-ordered this.

Kate Rusby Hourglass (1997)—

Monday, November 19, 2012

R.E.M. 19: Live At The Olympia

It’s fairly odd that only two years after their first-ever live album—with only one studio album in between—that R.E.M. would release another. Lest we think they were turning into the Rolling Stones, Live At The Olympia isn’t your typical post-tour souvenir. These two CDs are culled from the series of “live rehearsals” the boys—the three main members, plus drums and another guitar—played in Dublin as they were preparing for the album that would become Accelerate.

Of course, the performances didn’t consist solely of all-new, untried material; the bulk of the CD—two-thirds from the Bill Berry years—provides fresh takes on some of the deeper recesses of their catalog. Ecstatic fans in the audience (and now, listening on their player of choice) are treated to six songs from Reckoning, five from Fables and all but one from the Chronic Town EP. Only Green, Out Of Time and Up go unrepresented. But they’re not carbon copies either—there’s energy behind each song, whether introduced by Stipe with an anecdote or described lovingly in Peter Buck’s liner notes. The sharp-eared will notice a changed family dynamic, with “Gardening At Night” played at the request of longtime advisor Bertis Downs, while all references to “Jefferson” have been removed from “Little America”.

Of course, it’s an album for fans, so while there’s no need to into detail for each old song, a few other details are worth mentioning. “Harborcoat” makes it most of the way unscathed, until the tuneless harmonica sets up a purposely sloppy ending. “Circus Envy” is even a lot of fun, more so than surrounded by all the noise on Monster. And whose idea was it to revive “Romance”?

Considering the songs that did end up on Accelerate, it’s interesting to consider the other surviving contenders. “Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance”, fine as it is, wouldn’t have added anything to the album, and “Disguised” turns out to be a an early version of “Supernatural Superserious”, somehow not as tight as the recorded version. The slow and sad “On The Fly” comes from the same cloth as “Country Feedback”, but a little more melodic. There’s a middle interlude that threatens to go somewhere else entirely, but instead folds back to the song. It’s a hidden gem all right, but would have been out of place on the album they completed.

Live At The Olympia ends up a nice little surprise, with 39 songs filling up two-and-a-half hours of music, it’s a preferred listen to the other live album. It also provides a nice setup for the live recordings they’d begun including in the anniversary editions of their back catalog.

R.E.M. Live At The Olympia (2009)—

Friday, November 16, 2012

They Might Be Giants 3: Flood

By the advent of the CD era, Elektra Records had developed into one of those labels that wisely kept releases to a minimum, maintaining a lean roster that kept an eye on the past while taking a few chances on what could be considered college rock (before it evolved into adult alternative). Having seen success with 10,000 Maniacs, the Cure and Tracy Chapman, they signed They Might Be Giants and gave a big push to their third album.

That big-budget backing made Flood something of a hit, a deserved result considering the quality therein. Despite some production assistance and even the use of—gasp!—a real drummer, it’s still a quirky TMBG album, slathered in accordion and wacky samples. Just the way we like it.

After the brief fanfare of an actual theme song, “Birdhouse In Your Soul” is a simple song sung by a nightlight. Some discord occurs in the bridge, but it’s redeemed by the lyrical comparison to a picture of a lighthouse (“I’d be fired if that were my job/After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts”). “Lucky Ball & Chain” is related to Led Zeppelin’s “Hot Dog” both thematically and musically, another lost love song, countered by “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, a combination cover and history lesson, here given a very appropriate Eastern accompaniment. “Dead” is another favorite, a rumination on reincarnation or the lack thereof loaded with great rhymes. “Your Racist Friend” is a fairly straight narrative, with any tension deflated by “Particle Man”, a hilarious comparison of fictional superheroes. “Twisting” takes its title from the suggestion in the Farfisa organ riff, and is probably the only end-of-romance song to reference the dBs and the Young Fresh Fellows. The title of “We Want A Rock” would appear to be a pun on a certain Twisted Sister song, but instead becomes a universal yearning for pieces of string and prosthetic foreheads.

“Someone Keeps Moving My Chair” remains an enigma, but no more so than “Hearing Aid”, the longest track at three-and-a-half minutes and a continuation of some of the more experimental moments on their first two albums. “Minimum Wage” provides an interlude and a sorbet in its silliness, and the rest of the album follows suit. “Letterbox” is sung at top speed and in close harmony. “Whistling In The Dark” has something of a martial feel with a touch of motivational speaking. “Hot Cha” goes by quickly enough to make way for the twisted sea chantey of “Women & Men”. “Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love” turns out to share a title with a song by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and also gets out of the way for the almost closing theme of “They Might Be Giants”. Instead, the final scene of the audio movie is “Road Movie To Berlin”, starting nice and quiet, going through a big middle section, and ending anticlimactically.

Flood has become so popular over the years that TMBG has occasionally performed it in concert in order, to the delight of fans. And even though it was “a brand new record for 1990”, it still sounds fresh and fun today. While Lincoln is still the better album, Flood deserves the rating below.

They Might Be Giants Flood (1990)—4

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Suzanne Vega 5: Nine Objects Of Desire

Suzanne must have enjoyed working with Mitchell Froom so much on her previous album that she ended up marrying him and bearing his child. So it was that four years passed until the release of her next album. However, married life and motherhood didn’t result in a quality album—or at least not of the standard we’d come to expect.

Much can be blamed on her husband’s penchant for noisy, percussive production. Where her earlier albums presented her voice and music clear and unencumbered, Nine Objects Of Desire is slathered with trendy lounge keyboards and other effects. The overall tone is more harsh than smooth, to the point where the singer takes a back seat to the mix (proof positive that having both Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas from the Attractions as your rhythm section doesn’t always guarantee success).

There are a few moments that work. “Stockings” presents a trademark tale of a mysterious woman, anchored by a smart guitar pattern and colored with a contrasting chorus, but ultimately sunk by an Arabian string section. Similarly, one wonders how much better “No Cheap Thrill” would be in a simpler arrangement without the underwater guitar. “World Before Columbus” is possibly the best track, a love song to her baby daughter treated unobtrusively by the mix. “Honeymoon Suite” is similarly understated, but the autobiographical aspects are a bit loud.

Many of the songs blend together into a generic, jazzy hum—“lounge” being the kitschy trend of the time—as demonstrated on “Caramel”, “Lolita” and “Thin Man”. “Headshots” would appear to tell another intriguing story, and “Casual Match” also sports a catchy self-harmonized chorus, but much of the potential is lost within the effects. While there’s something fetching about the way she sings the chorus for “Birth-Day (Love Made Real)”, it’s so distorted that she’s barely heard. “Tombstone” features an extreme mix, with a cool vocal, but again, it’s interchangeable with any number of Crowded House tracks.

Therefore, Nine Objects Of Desire comes off more as a Mitchell Froom album than a Suzanne Vega album. Maybe she wanted it that way, but one wishes she could have let her songs breathe without all the dressing.

Suzanne Vega Nine Objects Of Desire (1996)—2