Monday, January 30, 2012

Velvet Underground 8: Live MCMXCIII

Following Lou and John’s collaboration on the Andy Warhol tribute, one of the more improbable reunions occurred in 1993 when the original band, including Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, got together for a tour. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long enough to make it out of Europe intact. (John blamed Lou, Lou blamed everyone else, and the other two had the class to keep their mouths shut about it all.)

Thankfully for those of us who missed out, their shows at L’Olympia in Paris were recorded by Lou’s team, and released later that year as a double-disc set (and a single disc distillation, also available in a limited edition covered in tiny peelable bananas). Their set pretty much stuck to the “hits”, with Cale taking the lead on two songs generally associated with Nico, as well as “I’m Waiting For The Man” and a giddy recitation of “The Gift”. Ever the professional, he even gamely learned the parts for the later songs they’d recorded without him. Maureen gets the spotlight for her two showpieces, to raves from the crowd, but the two new songs—the jokey “Velvet Nursery Rhyme” to introduce the band and the closing “Coyote”—don’t impress. In reflection of his career renaissance, Lou dominates Sterling on guitar, and peppers several of the songs with his more current vocal inflections. Still, the band sounded pretty good. “Hey Mr. Rain”, which hadn’t been played since they recorded in 1968, and had only resurfaced in 1986, gets a lengthy workout, beginning with nine minutes of Reed and Cale playing at each other, while Moe keeps the beat going like nobody else on the planet.

Live MCMXCIII also had a video counterpart, which is perhaps the best way to experience these four older, craggier figures interacting like jazz virtuosi. They’re very tight, if occasionally stiff, and we can be happy this particular moment was captured.

Sterling Morrison died two years later, and given Lou’s hamfisted control of the band’s legacy, as well as Cale and Maureen’s exasperation with him, the band was basically, finally over. But interest in the Velvets would continue to grow, just as it had in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and there would be more product to follow.

The Velvet Underground Live MCMXCIII (1993)—3

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Paul Simon 1: The Paul Simon Songbook

This album was always a curio, recorded completely solo in London between the first two Simon & Garfunkel albums, and unavailable for the better part of thirty years on the directive of the artiste. He eventually got over it, and now we can wonder what the problem was. After all, hasn’t Paul Simon spent most of his career downplaying his partner’s superior voice and its importance to his songs?

Besides providing alternate versions of what would become several established Simon & Garfunkel favorites, The Paul Simon Songbook presents what was likely his repertoire whilst pounding the cobblestoned streets of London. Two songs had already appeared on the duo’s debut, five would be re-recorded for their second album, and four others would appear in some form on their third. For the pop music student, these are fascinating unplugged demos, and even works in progress.

The actual performances aside, it’s the truly rare material that makes this album so enticing. “A Church Is Burning” is an original protest song, and a good one, not to be confused with “The Sun Is Burning” on the S&G debut. They would perform it in occasional concerts, but for many years this was the only recording ever. “The Side Of A Hill” is mostly unknown, except that several lines would be reworked and used as a counterpoint to the main melody of “Scarborough Fair”. Similarly, “A Simple Desultory Philippic” here substitutes Lyndon Johnson for Robert McNamara in the spoken intro, and sports a markedly different accompaniment, mostly based on “Wake Up Little Susie” with a little “It’s Alright Ma” thrown in. The bridge still apes Dylan, but most of the people throughout the song would be replaced by other, dare we say better, and certainly more recognizable references.

It’s tempting to give The Paul Simon Songbook a higher rating, but only for the novelty of it. Each of the songs are arguably better in their more familiar, arranged incarnations; now that it’s universally available, even in the US of A, complete with two alternate takes, listeners can judge for themselves.

Paul Simon The Paul Simon Songbook (1965)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, January 27, 2012

Frank Zappa 2: Absolutely Free

The Mothers had already changed since Freak Out!, having gained dedicated players in the sax and keyboard departments, and bolstering Jimmy Carl Black on drums with the more seasoned Billy Mundi. Absolutely Free was recorded over a four-day stretch, with its release delayed by arguments over the artwork. Frank felt the libretto was necessary to explain each of the elements in the album, each side of which was designated its own “oratorio”. At the very least, being able to read along would not only help people get all the words, but mostly be able to figure out where one song started and another ended without staring at their turntables.

A longtime live staple, “Plastic People” is far removed from its origins as “Louie Louie” with new lyrics. The track is, well, orchestrated, with the kinds of stops and starts (and seemingly improvised interjections) that would become a hallmark of his concerts. (The opening LBJ imitation came a full year before the Electric Flag used it on their first album.) Once that’s out of the way “The Duke Of Prunes” suite comes from an early orchestral composition, here given lyrics that skewer whatever romance might have been conjured by the melody. (To drive it home further, Frank insists on singing along with and thereby goading Ray Collins, who he considered an excellent R&B singer, into self-mockery.) The “Call Any Vegetable” suite follows, twice as long with an even more extended freak-out section pitting Frank’s guitar against Bunk Gardner’s soprano sax. Both contain buried references to Stravinsky, Holst and other composers.

After a side worth of songs about food, side two continues the derision as stated in “Plastic People”. “America Drinks” goes out of its way to be melodic and fight it simultaneously. “Status Back Baby” revives the pimply teenage subject matter from the first album, with some excellent changes, quotes from a pep rally, and a truly fantastic guitar solo. There’s a smooth transition into “Uncle Bernie’s Farm”, the ugliness of the “plasticity” disguised by the vocal delivery. Some overt “conceptual continuity” (the idea put forth that everything Frank Zappa did was connected somehow) appears with “Son Of Suzy Creamcheese”, a rhythmically intricate number. But the one that gets all the attention is “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”. A horror movie disguised as a novelty song, it runs the musical gamut through vaudeville and TV commercials, nailing suburban hypocrisy and suggesting that every so-called pillar of the community harbors unclean thoughts about his daughters. Orchestral instruments play extremely modern music (not unlike what Brian Wilson was trying to do across town with Smile) and everybody gets a chance to weigh in. “America Drinks & Goes Home” presents a catchier version of the song that opened the side, a cocktail piano (and a cash register) tinkling away underneath a vo-de-oh-doh delivery sliding back and forth across the stereo picture as a brawl slowly escalates in the background. (The Stones would end up their next two albums this way, mimicking a band saying good night at the end of a gig.)

Absolutely Free is something of a transitional album; not as directly catchy as Freak Out!, it takes time for the challenging music to take hold. And before too long, he’d moved on to his next big ideas anyway. Of his earliest work, it’s possibly the most overlooked.

In an interesting move that unfortunately didn’t become standard, the CD version of Absolutely Free included the original single versions of “Big Leg Emma” and “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right?” Both pretty harmless, silly songs—though the latter sports a tasty distorto riff towards the end—they provide a break between what used to be sides one and two. It’s one of the few Zappa singles that got appended as bonus tracks.

The Mothers Of Invention Absolutely Free (1967)—
1989 Rykodisc CD: same as 1967, plus 2 extra tracks

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Byrds 8: Ballad Of Easy Rider

Somehow or another—although it’s fairly well documented on Wikipedia—the Byrds had another top 40 hit, this time in their latest evolution as country rockers. It happened to be the theme from a hit movie about a couple of bikers, so their label made sure to use it as the band’s next album’s title as well. (We still think the guy on the cover looks more like Teddy Roosevelt than either Dennis Hopper or Peter Fonda, but that’s just us.)

Ballad Of Easy Rider opens with that song, a two-minute snatch of melody stemming from a single line originally scribbled on a napkin by Bob Dylan. (Roger McGuinn tried to give him writing credit, but Bob refused.) It makes for a good start, but the promise doesn’t last.

Having carried the same lineup for two albums in a row, the song selection is more democratic in who sings what. As with the last album, the second song is about a dog, this time named “Fido”, and the music is a direct copy of the Manfred Mann version of “Quinn The Eskimo”. The bass player sings that, but at least Clarence White gets to sing and blaze on “Oil In My Lamp”. McGuinn’s quivering voice all over “Jack Tarr The Sailor” seems more like a spoof, and “Jesus Is Just Alright” isn’t more than a sketch that the Doobie Brothers would eventually fill out.

The very slow, mournful take on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”—after all, it wouldn’t be a Byrds album without several Dylan covers, would it?—is pointless for the most part, but there is something in the way “it’s all over now” is repeated every chorus that makes the song so sad. The mood is continued on the even mournful “There Must Be Someone”, and Gene Parsons emerges as a strong singer. “Gunga Din” is pretty and simple, but one needs the liner notes to know what the hell it’s about (touring and prejudice, in case you were really interested). You can just hear Clarence revving up his picking on the fade. McGuinn revives a Woody Guthrie song for “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)” and wastes valuable plastic on “Armstrong, Aldrin And Collins”, which consists of a countdown and a brief folk-style stanza celebrating the men on the moon.

Since they were the Byrds in name only, maybe it’s not fair to be so rough on them. As it is, Ballad Of Easy Rider is harmless country-rock, but not very notable. The album still has its defenders today, and the expanded CD added a few extras, in addition to some repeats from the box set. The most interesting ones show off the prowess of the players, but there’s yet another Moog experiment that was right to stay in the vaults.

The Byrds Ballad Of Easy Rider (1969)—2
1997 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 7 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gene Clark 3: Through The Morning, Through The Night

The Dillard & Clark duo kept the momentum going somewhat for a second album, though the songwriting collaboration between Gene Clark and Doug Dillard seemed to have dried up. Just to twist the branches of the family tree, drummer Jon Corneal came over from the Flying Burrito Brothers, which is where Bernie Leadon headed. (Former Byrd Chris Hillman and Sneaky Pete Kleinow wandered over from the Burritos as “special pickers” for the sessions.)

The drums make Through The Morning, Through The Night more country than bluegrass, and most of the program is devoted to covers as opposed to originals. “No Longer A Sweetheart Of Mine”, “I Bowed My Head And Cried Holy”, and “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” are fairly generic, while “Rocky Top”, while then only a couple years old, is sung by harmony singer Donna Washburn evoking a Hee Haw caricature. However, Gene’s take on the Everly Brothers’ “So Sad” is heartbreaking, and he does a passable Jim Reeves impression on “Four Walls”. The most surprising choice is the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”, utterly transformed into Gram Parsons’ vision of “Cosmic American Music”.

As for the handful of songs he actually wrote, the title track and “Polly” are up there with his best. (T Bone Burnett agreed, and had both recorded by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss for their smash collaboration Raising Sand.) “Kansas City Southern” is decent for a train song, but “Corner Street Bar” is unfortunately delivered in a corny ragtime style. We’re hoping that’s Doug singing, but the truth remains elusive.

We want to give it a better rating, but the seesawing in quality puts Through The Morning, Through The Night at a disadvantage to its predecessor. Gene must’ve thought so too, since he left Doug to run the expedition on his own soon after. The album is best heard in conjunction with the album before; Mobile Fidelity was the first label to combine them on a single disc, and a European-only reissue on A&M interspersed three rare single sides. Worth seeking out.

Dillard & Clark Through The Morning, Through The Night (1969)—

Monday, January 23, 2012

Simon & Garfunkel 1: Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

But for an odd whim by a hip producer, people may never have heard of Simon & Garfunkel, nor might the artists have recorded anything past this first album. They had had a few prior hits, in the late-‘50s as Tom and Jerry, even getting to appear on American Bandstand. A few years at college kept them busy when stardom failed to happen, and then when the folk music boom hit, the boys were right on top of it.

Armed with an acoustic guitar and sweet harmonies, the Mutt and Jeff of Forest Hills recorded their debut LP over a few weeks in March of 1964, in defiance of the British Invasion threatening the business. Of the twelve songs on Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., five come from the pen of Paul Simon. “Bleecker Street” paints a portrait of that iconic avenue. “Sparrow” is an allegory of some sort, but “He Was My Brother” is more direct, a timely elegy for a Freedom Rider. The title track is the striking departure of the set, a monologue from a cheap apartment, made all the more pretentious by the reference to “pieces of silver”. But it would be “The Sound Of Silence” that would endure, an incredibly poetic piece of work striking for its imagery, Garfunkel’s sweet voice, and Simon’s monotonic bleat.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag that mostly comes across as folk-lite, and it’s no wonder that the album didn’t sell. Perhaps there weren’t a lot of songs for affluent Jewish kids to make commercial, which would explain why such spirituals as “You Can Tell The World” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain” appear, along with an arrangement from a Catholic mass. More direct, if naïve, are “The Sun Is Burning” and “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream”, the latter sporting an ill-advised banjo. And in tribute to the kid from Minnesota, the boys harmonize on “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and even take a stab at “Peggy-O”, which Dylan had included on his first album.

So Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. is a very earnest collection of music that wasn’t about to change the world, but taken in context with what they would eventually achieve, it’s a nice snapshot. It’s certainly pleasant, and in places pretty. Given the dozens of similar records coming out at the time, we’ll leave it to the experts to rule whether these actually were “exciting new sounds in the folk tradition”.

Simon & Garfunkel Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. (1964)—3
2001 CD reissue: same as 1964, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, January 20, 2012

Crowded House 2: Temple Of Low Men

The first album by Crowded House deservedly brought singer/songwriter Neil Finn more sales and airplay than anything he’d done with Split Enz. The pressure was on for their follow-up, and the demands common to The Difficult Second Album tower over Temple Of Low Men. He gets right to the heart of the matter on “Mansion In The Slums”, ruminating on the double-edged sword of “success” and its enticements.

The songs fall generally in a minor key, suggesting personal turmoil, particularly on “I Feel Possessed” and “Into Temptation”. (While Neil has now been married to his wife Sharon going on thirty years, perhaps there was some “straying”, shall we say, during his trips around the globe.) Similarly, the sample of someone whispering “I need you… forgive me” at the start of “Kill Eye” only adds to the aural freakshow in the song.

The soaring “When You Come” (despite the suggestive title) and “Never Be The Same” boast aching hooks and fantastic harmonies, taken to an even greater level on the beaten determination to “Love This Life”. The mildly rockabilly “Sister Madly” sports a guitar solo by Richard Thompson in between wordplay designed to confound (“Sister madly waking up the dead/Systematically stepping on my head”). “In The Lowlands” seems to rise out of a rainstorm, with the narrator trying to reach a safe haven from wherever he is. All of which dovetails nicely with “Better Be Home Soon”, rewarding the patient listener with a melody, harmony and organ solo that earn the label “Classic Crowded House”.

With its explorations on temptation, guilt and insecurity, Temple Of Lo Mein (as we like to call it) has a much darker mood all around than the sunny singles from the debut, and could easily repel the casual listener. But that’s unfortunate, as they’d miss out on some great material. At ten tracks and only the slightest extra color from producer Mitchell Froom, it’s a compact gem. The album was not a commercial success, save perhaps “Better Be Home Soon”, and it didn’t help when the band had to make videos for the likes of “Into Temptation”, which pitted Neil’s earnest lyrics against Paul and Nick clowning in the background.

The Deluxe Edition includes a variety of demos of songs-in-progress (this time the sneak peek is for “Whispers And Moans”, which would transform somewhat before showing up on the next album). Half of the disc is devoted to live recordings, some of which had made onto B-sides. Three Byrds classics performed with Roger McGuinn put the band in a much more complimentary light than the guy they’re backing; the interplay amongst the trio, during and between songs, show just how much fun they must have been to see onstage.

Crowded House Temple Of Low Men (1988)—4
2016 Deluxe Edition: same as 1988, plus 21 extra tracks

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Rolling Stones 42: A Bigger Bang

The last really solid Stones album was the hodgepodge of Tattoo You, from the days when they put out a new album every year or two. Wavering quality can be forgiven in a tight release schedule, so when eight years—that’s right, eight, the equivalent of two presidential terms—go by between studio albums, one hopes those geezers have something worth hearing. Of course, every album since their mid-‘80s hiatus had been heralded with PR to the effect that they’ve “got the old classic sound back”. Each of their last few has admittedly had their moments, while having to sit alongside with Mick’s regular attempts to sound “contemporary”.

On A Bigger Bang, the old bastards do keep it simple, mostly by not being afraid to sound like themselves. Most tracks were supposedly started by the trio of Mick, Keith and Charlie; Ronnie added some guitar after the fact, and any bass not later provided by Darryl Jones was handled by Mick or Keith. For the most part, the album does rock, without any clutter. “Rough Justice”, all two chords of it, was the best choice for a single. “Let Me Down Slow” and “It Won’t Take Long” are just as straightforward, and when they bring in the funk for “Rain Fall Down”, it’s a nice change of pace, despite some of the lyrics (“the bankers are wankers every Thursday night/They just vomit on the ground”. Huh?).

The obligatory ballad comes in “Streets Of Love”, and it’s not as bad as it threatens to be. “Back Of My Hand” is an interminable Delta blues number that according to the credits is mostly Mick. Luckily, “She Saw Me Coming” sounds like it was a long of fun to play in the studio. But the lovelorn lyrics of “Biggest Mistake” don’t ring true coming out of Mick’s mouth.

Keith finally sings lead on “This Place Is Empty”; it’s amazing how his voice has improved by taking it easy, though we’d love to know if anyone feels well and truly seduced when he coos “bare your breasts”. “Oh No, Not You Again” (which Charlie joked should have been the album’s title) gives Mick a chance to yell some of the dirty words censored off of earlier albums, but at this late date the shock value is nonexistent. Outside of rocking, “Dangerous Beauty” could either be about a romantic conquest or a public figure. “Laugh, I Nearly Died” slows things down to a sinuous groove that, dare we say, could be right out of 1978.

“Sweet Neo Con” got all the attention at the time, with its anti-Bush lyrics. The song itself is decent, with some nice twists, but the recently dubbed Sir Mick really shouldn’t try to be political. (And someone should have mixed out the harmonica soloing through half the song.) The wordy “Look What The Cat Dragged In” pulls out all the rhythmic stops they last touched on “Undercover Of The Night”. It’s odd to hear a man who once extolled the virtues of teenage girls now berating the same; I guess it’s different when they’re your own kids. “Driving Too Fast” keeps up the pace, and Keith gets the last word again on the underwhelming “Infamy” (as in “you got it in for me”; get it?) and there’s that harmonica again.

At over an hour, A Bigger Bang qualifies as another double album that with just the right pruning could have been a solid forty-minute program. It starts well, and it’s not a waste of plastic, but they’ve yet to experience the late-career renaissance that some of their peers have enjoyed. One wonders if they can, or will.

The Rolling Stones A Bigger Bang (2005)—3

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lou Reed 22: Between Thought And Expression

Now that Lou was making money for another label, his former homes took the opportunity to cash in. Conveniently, RCA and Arista were both under the same corporate umbrella, so compiling a box set was a fairly complication-free process, as long as they only went up to 1986.

Between Thought And Expression gets its title from a Velvet Underground song, and was also the title of a recent collection of Lou’s lyrics in book form. Here it simply traces his solo career from the first album up through Mistrial, with a sampling from each album along the way. This was a big deal in 1992, because many of his lesser-selling albums wouldn’t make it to CD for some time. Even Metal Machine Music is represented, in a 90-second snippet.

Most of the “hits” are here—“Walk On The Wild Side”, “Coney Island Baby”, the live “Sweet Jane”—though such singles as “I Love You Suzanne” and “No Money Down” aren’t. As for rarities, there are only a few: a live version of “Heroin” with Don Cherry on trumpet; a dull rave-up of the national anthem; a couple of early versions of later songs.

Lou was actually involved with compiling the set, and his reticence to open the vaults never jibes with his complaints about how the labels tampered with his work over the years. Here was a perfect opportunity to reveal his original intentions, and he passed.

As an introduction, Between Thought And Expression does the job of most box sets, so it succeeds on that level. But in an era when everybody was getting boxed, its usefulness would soon wane. Those seeking an introduction to the man’s work would have even more compilations to ponder in the racks as time went on.

Lou Reed Between Thought And Expression: The Lou Reed Anthology (1992)—

Friday, January 13, 2012

Police 4: Ghost In The Machine

The Police began to break out of a rut, somewhat, on Ghost In The Machine. For one thing, it had a pronounceable title that wasn’t remotely gibberish. The cover itself was a stark subtle portrait of the band in LED—apparently Sting is the poofy digit in the middle, and the advent of MTV helped perpetuate the idea that his ego was in charge.

But while he may have been running the show, that wasn’t successful for the whole album. Many of the songs are nothing more than one-chord jams based around saxophone riffs. Apparently he’d just taught himself the instrument, so he toots incessantly, all over the album.

Synthesizers play a big role as well, starting with the jumpy “Spirits In The Material World”. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was a huge hit, and it’s still an incredibly happy song with just a hint of Caribbean influence. “Invisible Sun” meanders against its meter, but at least we finally hear a guitar. “Hungry For You” has a French subtitle, which is fitting since the song is yelled in that language. “Demolition Man” is a loud jam that was probably more fun to play than it is to listen to, even for six minutes.

Side two starts with another jam, and “Too Much Information” is fittingly crammed with too many saxophones. The same could be said for “Rehumanize Yourself”, but at least the lyrics are clever. “One World (Not Three)” beats the same idea into the ground over a reggae beat. By the time “Ωmegaman” (written by Andy Summers) arrives halfway though the side we’re aching to hear an actual song, with dynamics and everything, and it delivers. “Secret Journey” is something of a throwback to Zenyatta Mondatta, being prefaced by a full minute of guitar synthesizer. Stewart Copeland’s melancholy “Darkness” still manages to keep the album from ending dull.

Outside of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, the best songs on the album are the two Sting didn’t write. Taken as a whole, Ghost In The Machine is fairly boring, but that didn’t keep it from becoming a huge hit. Perhaps the tropical climate of the sessions permeated the cold exterior of the album for the majority of consumers.

The Police Ghost In The Machine (1981)—

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

R.E.M. 12: Up

The boys of R.E.M. didn’t quite make it to their alleged goal of breaking up at the stroke of midnight on the millennium, as drummer Bill Berry quit before they got there. He left on the condition that doing so wouldn’t break up the band, so it was with heavy hearts and not a small amount of pressure that the remaining trio forged ahead with the recording of a new album. And when it’s time to change, you’ve got to rearrange, so they parted with co-producer Scott Litt after ten years and six albums. They even tried to simplify, going back to the one-word title. The packaging also included full lyrics for the first time ever on an R.E.M. album. (Up also arrived with the blessing of Peter Gabriel, who was planning to use the same title for his own album, which wouldn’t surface for another four years.)

Knowing full well that whatever they did next would be under intense scrutiny, they went out of their way not to sound like themselves, relying on lots of wacky sounding (for R.E.M.) keyboards, using primitive old-school synthesizers and programmed drums. Up is full of contradictions, from the hopeful yet unfulfilled prophecy of the album title to the reliance on “old” sounds in order to sound “new”. This is immediately evident on the opener, the very Eno-esque “Airportman”. “Lotus” sounds more like standard R.E.M., with an electric piano for a New Adventures In Hi-Fi vibe. “Suspicion” is long but not boring, which is a plus. One of the most talked about songs was “Hope”, built around a distorted riff that could be described as Eno-esque (we really are going to try to stop using that term) and a lyrical/melodic structure borrowed from Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”. The subject matter seems to take place in a hospital. The highlight of the album is “At My Most Beautiful”, their first and best Beach Boys homage, built around a lovely Mike Mills piano piece. The melody isn’t much—another cousin of “Hairshirt”, “Radio Song”, and “Nightswimming”—but the moment where the harmonies make their chromatic lift proves that they have indeed found a way to make us smile.

Unfortunately the album starts to slide from there. The Apologist” sports an okay organ part and a nice Coral sitar effect, but the “I’m sorry/so sorry” chorus was done better on Reckoning, and the closing “goodbye” just sounds wrong in the middle of the album. “Sad Professor” adds more guitar for something of a step up and “You’re In The Air” has a nice string part, but by now listeners would be excused for falling asleep. “Walk Unafraid” is a rewrite of both “The Apologist” and “Bang And Blame”, and should have been honed into one better track.

However, “Why Not Smile” gains momentum nicely over harpsichord, and Peter gets to layer a bunch of guitars, for a better display of the album’s potential. “Daysleeper” is a slow “Midnight Cowboy”, but Stipe’s lyrics work best when they’re not so literal. “Diminished” seems a more developed “Country Feedback”, but that’s probably just the pedal steel. A fragment of Stipe singing “I’m Not Over You” on acoustic is unlisted but included in the lyrics. The unsettling “Parakeet” snakes around a haunting prepared piano, and “Falls To Climb” returns the canned Eno-esque synth sound, very sterile and cold. (We really did try, honest.)

Up was a step in the right direction, with their most memorable melodies in a good while. At first listen it seemed an improvement over the autopilot of the last couple of albums, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly. (It’s tough when your first four albums are great, because when you put out something that’s merely “good”, that translates as “not great”.) Low-key but not as autumnal as Automatic For The People, it ultimately makes you want to go back and try to decipher what Bill brought to the table, because he is missed. Maybe he might have helped them cut it down to under an hour, for instance. We recommend chopping out the middle four songs, for a shorter, if not necessarily superior listen.

The 25th Anniversary Edition included a bonus CD containing a live performance, presented as a rehearsal, recorded for an appearance on the onetime hit TV show Party Of Five with the expanded six-man lineup and a very chatty Stipe. Oddly, the performance of “At My Most Beautiful” used on the show is not included, but he does stumble through a solo performance of “I’m Not Over You”, explaining how he kinda stole it from Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm”. (A pricier edition added a Blu-ray disc with the requisite hi-res audio, plus some videos.)

R.E.M. Up (1998)—3
2023 25th Anniversary Edition: same as 1998, plus 12 extra tracks (Deluxe adds Blu-ray)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Crowded House 1: Crowded House

As ABBA was to Sweden, so Split Enz was to New Zealand, but without the multi-millions. Most Americans would have heard of the band thanks to MTV, when such songs as “I Got You”, “One Step Ahead” and “History Never Repeats” were in heavy rotation. (In fact, the honors for first-ever MTV world premiere video went to the band’s “Six Months In A Leaky Boat”.) These songs were written and sung by the band’s junior member Neil Finn, and when the band finally split, he formed a new one with a couple of Australians. That was Crowded House, who saw even greater success than their quirkier forefathers, but precious little in the US of A past their first album.

Neil’s pop sensibilities came across as tuneful as McCartney’s, if slightly more neurotic. Crowded House was arguably his show, but he fully relied on the harmonies and humor of Nick Seymour and Paul Hester in the rhythm section. Those who saw the band live insist that their concerts were just plain fun.

Their albums were another matter. With producer Mitchell Froom adding his brand of keyboards to the mix, the band’s style always seemed just a little outside what sold records in America. Their eponymous debut didn’t sell at all until the fourth single release, the exquisite ballad “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. Its simple chords and “hey now” hook gave them a #2 single, and finally convinced people to check out the whole album.

Side one is terrific. “World Where You Live” and “Mean To Me” eventually got airplay, while “Now We’re Getting Somewhere” and “Love You ‘Til The Day I Die” offered two sides of romance with some humor. (We’re pretty sure that’s Paul shrieking the count-in to the latter.) Side two begins with “Something So Strong”, the next big single supported by another wacky video, but the rest of the album isn’t quite as, well, strong. Part of its effectiveness can be ascribed to the times, when glossy synths and horn sections were used to decorate scenery that could have better stood on its own. We’re still not sure why someone’s aunt lies in a “Hole In The River”, though we’re pretty sure that’s not why we should roll back the “Tombstone”. “That’s What I Call Love” has a lot of production for something that would have been a B-side in another time.

But money talks, and the album sold enough copies to keep their record label interested for a follow-up. However, as an album, Crowded House may not be their best. But as a collection of singles, it more than delivers. (The current 11-song CD is slightly different from the original 10-track American release, which for some reason moved “Mean To Me” down to the fourth song on the first side; it was the opener elsewhere. Also, a remake of “I Walk Away” from the last Enz album appeared in place of “Can’t Carry On”.)

Three decades later, the Deluxe Edition of the album proved just how well crafted the songs were by the time the record was mastered, by including a bonus disc full of writing demos and band demos, both detailing how some of those hooks found their way to other songs, and just how wincingly ‘80s the album might have turned out. (To wit, the wacky arrangement of “Walking On The Spot”, a gorgeous song from their fourth album, truly jars the time-space continuum.) There even a few live recordings from the era before they decided on the band name, of songs that never made it to albums proper.

Crowded House Crowded House (1986)—3
2016 Deluxe Edition: same as 1986, plus 17 extra tracks

Friday, January 6, 2012

CSN 1: Crosby, Stills & Nash

The unlikeliest supergroup in an era full of them hit the ground running, and what a wonderful blend it was. David Crosby had been bounced from the Byrds, Stephen Stills stood in the debris of Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash left the Hollies back in England. Despite the equal-ish billing on Crosby, Stills & Nash, it was Stills who ran the show by producing, playing multiple guitars, bass and organ, and writing half of the songs. Luckily he also knew when to let the other two shine on their own.

“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is still their quintessential performance, a basic drop-D strum with harmonies aplenty, tension bolstered by the multiple sections, and not even the Ricky Ricardo detour can deflate it. “Marrakesh Express” could pass for a Simon & Garfunkel song, but “Guinnevere” is pure Crosby, mysterious and spooky. The trio’s blend shines on “You Don’t Have To Cry”, despite consisting of the same verse sung twice. (Crosby oddly calls it “In The Morning When You Rise” in his first autobiography.) Backwards guitar was still in vogue in 1969, so that’s what we hear all over “Pre-Road Downs”. Be sure to hide the roaches indeed.

The band finally, truly rocks on “Wooden Ships”, a vivid apocalyptic vision and excellent dialogue. Nash turns things way, way down for “Lady Of The Island”, and we’re not the first to note the resemblance to Joni Mitchell. “Helplessly Hoping” is a high school poem set to music, an exercise in alliteration that rises above the obvious “one, two, three” effect on the chorus. “Long Time Gone” recaptures the gloomy rock sound, and Crosby finds his inner yodel. That vocal effect appears briefly before “49 Bye-Byes”, one of Stills’ better tracks, building in an excellent crescendo for a fine ending.

Crosby, Stills & Nash has become such a part of the fabric that any summation seems redundant. The fact of the matter is that they got it right, and seemed capable of just about anything. However, the band would struggle to balance the harmonic blend of their music with the ego struggle behind the scenes. We should be happy that they were able to create this. (An expanded version adds four demos slash outtakes, songs which would end up on future albums, with the exception of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”.)

Crosby, Stills & Nash Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)—4
2006 remastered CD: same as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Badfinger 7: After Pete

The tragedy of Badfinger has been only slightly redeemed by the recognition that has multiplied in the years since Pete Ham took his own life. For most of the ‘70s and ‘80s, one could still hear at least “No Matter What” and “Come And Get It” on the right radio stations, and even AM radio continued to embrace Nilsson’s version of “Without You”. But thanks to the “businessman” who arguably sent Pete to his early grave, the people responsible for creating that music saw barely a penny for their talent.

The surviving members attempted to carry on in a variety of combinations; Joey Molland and Tom Evans even put out a couple of albums under the Badfinger moniker, but even they couldn’t get along. In 1983, apparently never having gotten over what happened to Pete, Tommy also chose suicide via hanging.

From time to time an act called Badfinger could be found playing a state fair or amusement park; most likely the only original member was Joey (oddly, the last to join the band and first to walk). The Apple catalog remained in legal limbo, but the Warner Bros. material was mined in the CD reissue era. The UK-only Shine On offered eight songs from Badfinger and four from Wish You Were Here, while in the US, Rhino Records went even deeper on the hopefully titled (for 1990) The Best Of Badfinger Volume II, with a more balanced sampling from the two Warner albums, bolstered by four unreleased tracks and two songs from one of the Joey-and-Tommy albums. Joey also spearheaded the audio sweetening and release of Day After Day, a vintage 1974 concert, on Rykodisc.

Once EMI and Apple settled their litigation, Badfinger’s albums were finally made available on CD, along with the requisite bonus material. Meanwhile, an enterprising engineer named Dan Motavina wrote a book about the band, and ingratiated himself so much to the surviving members and estates to include CDs of demos and whatnot with each printing. Rykodisc got into the act with two CDs of Pete Ham demos, shepherded by Motavina, but including dubious (again) overdubs by original Ivey Ron Griffiths and latter-day Badfinger keyboardist Bob Jackson in an attempt to be contemporary yet “authentic”. (Of the two, 7 Park Avenue is more listenable, though Golders Green boasts sketches of songs people would recognize.)

Motavina was also responsible for the 2000 release of Head First, which presented the band’s final recordings with Pete but without Joey. It’s not a happy album; the pressure of having to create so much material had finally taken its toll, and with the exception of the four songs that had already appeared on the Rhino collection, it’s a disappointing epilogue. (The extra CD of demos doesn’t help either.) VH-1’s Behind The Music special appeared the same year, along with a new compilation. The Very Best Of Badfinger gets points for including tracks from the two Warner Bros. albums, but at the expense of some of the better songs on the more solid 1995 compilation simply titled The Best Of Badfinger.

The Apple albums were made available again with the digital relaunch of the catalog in 2010, and the two Warner titles followed some time later. Today, only Joey Molland is left to reap any rewards. Yet the fact that these albums are in circulation is triumph enough.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Ben Folds 9: Way To Normal

Ben Folds’ detractors have easy targets for their criticism. He’s either too snarky or wimpy for their tastes; yet at the same time, anyone who hoped he’d do more “funny songs” as he did on the first album by the Five would have a field day with Way To Normal. And those detractors would have plenty of reasons to say “I told you so.”

The opening track, “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)” gets its genesis from an actual falling-down-onstage incident, and outside of the obvious Elton John reference in the title and arrangement, it’s also musically close to “Landed”, which is a better song, and less of a made-up novelty like this. Maybe “Dr. Yang” was the guy who tended to him after the fact, but it’s hard to follow without lyrics. “The Frown Song” makes two wacky sounding songs in a row (because someone bought a Moog) and we’re still waiting for the album to start. The first single, “You Don’t Know Me”, is something of a duet with sensitive breathy female artist du jour Regina Spektor, with an annoying video to match. The “Before Cologne” interlude, however, is just lovely, and we wish there was both more of it, and more like it. “Cologne” itself is sad and pretty.

“Errant Dog” pretty much deflates the somber mood, though it does sounds like a Ben Folds Five outtake. “Free Coffee” is based around the sound of Altoids on piano strings, and that’s the most interesting thing to say about it. There’s an annoying spoken “prelude” to the next track, which only conjures images of The Love Guru. Luckily it’s indexed before the song proper, which explains how the “Bitch Went Nuts”. The high-school vocabulary notwithstanding, the choruses are great. Similarly, “Brainwascht” is a little better than the other “wacky” songs thus far. “Effington” would inspire an album full of college a cappella songs, stemming from the “Please Please Me” cop at the start. The final word comes in “Kylie From Connecticut”, a vague portrait of a failed marriage and a pretty depressing way to go out.

Maybe this was a defiant riposte to the news that he was on his third divorce and fourth wife, but that only put the Songs For Silverman in sharper hindsight. As it is, he takes much too long between albums than fans would prefer, and with Way To Normal he should have worked a little longer on the quality. Most of the songs seem jokey for the sake of being vulgar, and while we like cheap laffs as much as anyone, these don’t work. Coming on the heels of Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP, it was even more of a disappointment. What made matters worse is that he purposely leaked “fake” versions of some of the songs before the album’s proper release, most of which were better than the real thing. (Of course, that only torpedoes the argument that he needs time to ensure better output.)

Perhaps to boost interest in the album—or even an acknowledgement that it wasn’t that good—the following year Ben put out an expanded version under the title Stems And Seeds. One disc featured downloadable files of the Way To Normal songs for people to remix in such programs as GarageBand, while the other included an already rejigged version of the album, plus the leaked fakes. If you don’t mind buying the album twice, that’s the way to go, if only because it’s easier than trying to dig up the tracks online.

Ben Folds Way To Normal (2008)—2
Ben Folds
Stems And Seeds (2009)—3