Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Frank Zappa 3: We’re Only In It For The Money

This album is probably most recognizable for its cover, a direct parody of Sgt. Pepper inside and out. Literally, even—the yellow-backed panorama of the current band (in dresses) served as the outside, while the gatefold included the lyrics-on-red and crowd scene inside the gatefold. (Frank got around the likeness permission by putting black bars over the eyes of half of the people.)

However, the music on We’re Only In It For The Money doesn’t parody the Beatles directly. Rather, it takes on the Summer Of Love in general. Frank hated hippies almost as much as he hated the “establishment”, but mostly he saw the Flower Power scene as supplanting his beloved freaks by making California so trendy, thereby ruining a good thing. (And remember, this was a guy whose drug intake was limited to coffee and tobacco.)

The album takes another step from away from the standard “song” format of the modern rock album, with several tracks existing as sound collages or spoken interludes. The very first thing we hear is Eric Clapton asking “Are You Hung Up?” while the engineer whispers and drummer Jimmy Carl Black introduces himself. “Who Needs The Peace Corps?” directly mocks lazy hippies, envisioning them being imprisoned in “Concentration Moon” and, in an about-face, lamenting those unfortunate ones who were killed by the police after being abandoned by “Mom & Dad”. A mysterious “Telephone Conversation” leads into the vaudeville-style “Bow Tie Daddy”. (We’re not even halfway through side one yet.) A gorgeous piano flourish introduces “Harry, You’re A Beast”, which manages to insult feminists and guys who shoot too quick in less than a minute. In a harbinger of things to come, “What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?” fuses a doo-wop arrangement to a rant against “ignorance”. Another lovely piano flourish introduces “Absolutely Free” (yes, the title of his last album), which uses big words and silly references to deflate the “poetry” of psychedelic music, taken to a further extreme on “Flower Punk”, based around the music of “Hey Joe” with references to “Wild Thing” and the suspended A-chord from several Byrds songs. The liner notes helpfully explain that the “STP ingested by the Flower Punk” coalesce in his head in the form of two conversations in each speaker and a party in the middle.

The wonderfully titled “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” combines sped-up tape with more Clapton and a brief trip to the beach, suggesting nostalgia for the eccentric high school buddies depicted in “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black” and “The Idiot Bastard Son”. “Lonely Little Girl” is about as straight rock as we get here; in fact, an earlier mix edited with “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” (which follows on the album) was issued as a single. There’s a further throwback in a reprise of “What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?” which quickly degenerates into chaos. “Mother People” (which arguably got its widest exposure on the penultimate episode of The Monkees) pits a few time signatures against each other under something of a theme song, then a record scratches to take us to an orchestral scene from another album. Here it serves to set up the finale in “The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny”, a musique concrète depiction of a Kafka short story.

We’re Only In It For The Money was allegedly edited by the record label against his wishes prior to release, excising some language and reinserting it backwards elsewhere. The sonic result doesn’t seem all that out of place, but Zappa was furious at the intrusion (although the edits sound much too expert to be by anyone but him). He presented the album in its original unexpurgated state when it appeared on CD—as a two-fer with Lumpy Gravy—but with another twist. Claiming that the original tapes had deteriorated, he “had to” re-dub new bass and drum parts, making for a tinny, odd-sounding program that more often sounds like a rhythm machine than actual people playing, and obliterating its “vintage” sound. (While he was one of the first musicians to embrace digital technology, he wasn’t around for the backlash that insisted that analog sounded better.)

When Rykodisc relaunched the Zappa catalog in 1995, the album was made available on its own in the original albeit censored 1968 stereo mix. Even hardcore Zappaphiles will begrudgingly concede that given the choice, this is the preferred way to hear the album. As one might surmise, it’s very chaotic, its plusses revealing themselves with repeated listening.

Its importance in the pantheon is further represented by The Lumpy Money Project/Object triple-CD package, which includes the 1968 mono mix, the 1984 rerecorded mix and a whole pile of backing tracks and alternate takes, alongside artifacts involved with the Lumpy Gravy album (which we’ll discuss soon enough). The instrumentals are extremely illuminating, exposing the excellent compositions hidden underneath the sped-up vocals and tape effects.

The Mothers Of Invention We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)—
1986 Rykodisc CD: “same” as 1968, plus Lumpy Gravy album
1995 Rykodisc CD: same as 1968

Monday, February 27, 2012

Van Morrison 6: Saint Dominic’s Preview

So Van cut his hair, shaved and got divorced. (Maybe he just couldn’t take someone named “Janet Planet” seriously.) He also started to split his pants, as shown on the cover of Saint Dominic’s Preview. This album follows evenly along his post-Moondance path, mixing horn-heavy soul and acoustic ruminations.

As has become tradition, the opening track is what George Martin would call a potboiler. Here it’s “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)”, wherein he takes joy in a song on the radio and scats along to another place. Others will disagree, but the overdramatic “Gypsy” with its predominant flute is a little grating. Likewise, “I Will Be There” isn’t as effective as some of his other jazz homages. As eleven-minute songs go, “Listen To The Lion” threatens to be tedious, but manages to hypnotize. The comparisons to Astral Weeks are well placed, and even the middle section where he starts growling (like, ahem, a lion) can be excused. It’s an excellent conclusion to the side.

The title track nicely combines R&B (in the horns) and country (in the steel guitar), seesawing between two chords until the slight minor modulation mid-verse, culminating in the chorus, which merely repeats the title. The impressionistic lyrics give plenty of opportunity for interpretation, and voice seems a little sped up, making it higher than usual. A slow horn refrain prefaces “Redwood Tree”, a brief reminiscence of a boy (and his dog). Then there’s another ten-minute opus. “Almost Independence Day” begins with Van duetting with his off-key 12-string, then the band comes in, led by a droning synthesizer, over two chords. It’s another nod back to Astral Weeks, but isn’t as effective as “Listen To The Lion”. Still, the band’s excellent dynamic response makes you want to enjoy it.

Saint Dominic’s Preview is half of a great album, but we must give him credit for not repeating himself. He truly was developing a body of work designed to be taken as a whole, a story that would evolve over time.

Van Morrison Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)—3

Friday, February 24, 2012

Simon & Garfunkel 4: Bookends

After only three albums, the duo had somehow managed to circumvent the usual demands made on recording artists of the time. Rather than constantly pushing out product, they were able to take their sweet time between albums. A few well-spaced singles kept fans interested in the meantime. By the time Bookends came out, eighteen months since their last album, it was technically competing with their music on the soundtrack to The Graduate (which often gets included in official discographies, but outside of a few alternate takes, it’s not really a Simon & Garfunkel album but a Dave Grusin project).

Now that it was standard for artists of their stature, the lyrics (many of which didn’t seem to bother to rhyme) were printed in full on the back cover. Side one attempts to be something of a concept, portraying the modern journey from youth to old age, but it moves much to fast to really register. The lovely piece called “Bookends Theme” exists long enough to linger before “Save The Life Of My Child” blares in. The arrangement favors sound effects and atmosphere over musicality, but once you hear the snatch of “The Sound Of Silence” in the middle, good luck ignoring it. The piece is very evocative of a film or TV news report. Apparently the boy makes it off the ledge in time to get on a bus and travel across “America”, full of highway imagery and observation. But apparently “Kathy” wasn’t enough to keep his interest, so he lights a cigarette and considers dumping her in “Overs”. Art’s compilation of “Voices Of Old People” comes off as a long commercial break, until you realize that the words could just as well have come from people that age today as in 1967. The image of the elderly is more delicately if less harrowingly portrayed in “Old Friends”, which would become an unwitting theme song for the duo. After an overwrought string section the “Bookends Theme” returns, this time with a verse, and it’s lovely.

Maybe they knew they were taking too long, because side two ignores any concept outside of collecting the singles that had been released since the last album. “Fakin’ It” begins with a blast not unlike a bagpipe over heavy drums, traveling through some vague verses and an infectious chorus before a trip to a previous life and fading on the same drone. “Punky’s Dilemma” was previewed in their Monterey Pop set, with Paul Simon apparently so gonged on weed that he adopted an English accent. We still don’t know what the hell the song is about, nor why Barbra Streisand would eventually cover it. (Then again, it’s no worse than her version of “Life On Mars”.) “Mrs. Robinson” certainly helped sell the album, and once again we must remind people that while “I Am The Walrus” says “goo goo g’joob”, this song says “koo koo ka-choo”; there’s a difference, so please don’t confuse them. “A Hazy Shade Of Winter” sports a lively baroque arrangement and a killer riff, ending on a breathless pant. As a result, “At The Zoo” is anticlimactic.

Bookends will likely cause arguments over whether the whole is greater than the parts or vice versa. Certainly side one works as a suite, though “America” and “Overs” certainly shine on their own. The singles on side two all stood alone originally anyway. An interesting exercise might be to rearrange the album so the “ages of man” concept runs throughout, like this:
         Bookends Theme – At The Zoo – Punky’s Dilemma – Save The Life Of My Child – America –
         Mrs. Robinson – Overs – Fakin’ It – A Hazy Shade Of Winter – Voices Of Old People – Old
         Friends – Bookends Theme
It could work. Couldn’t it?

Simon & Garfunkel Bookends (1968)—
2001 CD reissue: same as 1968, plus 2 extra tracks

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Todd Rundgren 10: Ra

Utopia was down to a solid four-piece, dedicated to exploring Todd’s spiritual interests. With Ra, these appeared to have taken a strictly Egyptian bent, from the costumes glimpsed on the back cover to the insert with the cut-out-and-assemble pyramid. Despite Todd’s name prominent in the packaging, and the use of the font from the Initiation album, Utopia was still presented as democratic, with all four members contributing to the writing and vocalizing.

After an overture borrowed from Bernard Herrmann, “Communion With The Sun” delivers a heavy amalgam of guitar and synth. “Magic Dragon Theatre” evokes something of a big Broadway production number, with hallucinating lyrics and wacky breaks obscuring a fantastically pounding piano. “Jealousy” returns to straight rock sung by drummer Willie, and Todd delivers a great solo. The newest Utopian, teenage heartthrob Kasim Sulton, sings lead on another Broadway-style number, “Eternal Love”, and has some trouble with the high notes on the choruses. “Sunburst Finish” isn’t about a guitar, but rotates vocals and near-classical flourishes for another demonstration of the Utopian philosophy.

“Hiroshima” attempts to elicit sympathy for the survivors of the atom bomb, but some of the lyrical choices come off as mild ridiculing instead of indignant. Mildly Oriental melodies recall Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, and unfortunately, the inevitable explosion indeed ends the track. That’s an odd setup for “Singring And The Glass Guitar”, an otherwise side-long fairy tale that had gone out of vogue years before. A sped-up narrator with a mild Scottish brogue tells the story of how a muse in a land called Harmony was imprisoned, and could only be rescued by four intrepid souls battling the elements, represented musically by instrumental solos. (Really. No points for guessing whether they succeed.)

As with the rest of the album, there are snatches of melody that could have easily made pleasant songs on their own, but that just didn’t interest Todd, who preferred to display his latest album with a big elaborate stage show designed to bedazzle. Maybe you’ve gotta be a prog fan, or at least a Toddhead, to dig this. (Also, thanks to the groove cramming over 25 minutes on each side, the LP sounds a little thin. Hopefully the CD version provides more fidelity to those who care.)

Utopia Ra (1977)—2

Monday, February 20, 2012

Crowded House 3: Woodface

On a break from Crowded House, Neil Finn began recording a few songs with his brother (and former bandmate in Split Enz) Tim. When the time came to do another Crowded House album, those sessions didn’t go as well, so some of the Finn Brothers songs were brought into the sequence. Tim came along for the ride, so the House was very Crowded indeed.

Woodface sports fourteen tracks and runs for 48 minutes, for something of an overstuffed listening experience. The splendor of such potential classics as “It’s Only Natural” and “Weather With You” has to compete with the brothers’ harmonizing. It’s toned back a bit on “Fall At Your Feet” and “Four Seasons In One Day”, giving the songs more room to breathe. “Tall Trees” and “There Goes God” feature a prominent canned harmonica, and the dated lyrical references in “Chocolate Cake” prove that this is one band that needn’t be topical.

There is an attempt to be democratic; Tim’s solo take of “All I Ask” is given a lush Sinatra arrangement, and Paul Hester’s “Italian Plastic” would soon become a live favorite. (He also gets credit for the hidden track “I’m Still Here”, deflating the yearning of “How Will You Go”.) But we miss the simple charm of the boys working as a unit, as they reach beyond producer Mitchell Froom to ten other listed “additional musicians”.

Woodface is best taken in small pieces, as there’s just something redundant about the album. It was a worldwide smash, except in the US, where it still got decent reviews, with the apparent exception of this one. Therefore it is with full expectation of charges of blasphemy, treason and worse that we say it’s just okay, and we have never played it twice in a row. (The Deluxe Edition will be lots of fun for those who do adore this album, the demos run the gamut from the Finn brothers’ sessions to the Tim-less band. They also get two more songs from the pre-Tim sessions, the “complete” version of “I’m Still Here”, and the legendary B-side “The Burglar’s Song”, co-written the then-seven-year-old Liam Finn, which goes into a medley of House songs and a Ramones cover.)

Crowded House Woodface (1991)—3
2016 Deluxe Edition: same as 1991, plus 21 extra tracks

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sting 1: The Dream Of The Blue Turtles

The fanfare was pretty elaborate; not only was Sting putting out his first solo album, but it was a whole two years since the last Police album (and we didn’t know then that it would be The Last Police Album). On top of that, he was working with contemporary jazz musicians—and he was playing guitar, not bass! The fabric of the universe felt a tug.

After all that, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles turned out to be pretty likable. He did the smart thing and starts side one with the hit single, the grammatically challenging “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”. “Love Is The Seventh Wave” isn’t too far removed from the white reggae his previous band used to shill, and the fadeout even features a gentle tweak of “Every Breath You Take”. “Russians” takes a fairly elementary stance on world policy, lashed to a lugubrious arrangement. “Children’s Crusade” is a haunting study of abuse through the centuries, though the final verse’s depiction of heroin addicts comes off as forced after the extended instrumental middle. The side ends with a strikingly different arrangement of “Shadows In The Rain”. While the original Police track was a plodding offbeat dub exercise, this new version ups the urgency about 300%. (Also, the track begins with Branford Marsalis asking about the key, but the drums start their gallop despite his protests and they take off without him. Hysterical.)

Side two is slightly less energetic. “We Work The Black Seam” wanders around a verse that’s not as hypnotic as it intends, breaking through the gloom only just before each chorus. “Consider Me Gone” sounds like a kiss-off left over from the divorce proceedings on side two of Synchronicity, and the mood is broken by the short free jazz instrumental title track that somehow got nominated for a jazz Grammy. “Moon Over Bourbon Street” brings Anne Rice to the mainstream in a piece that wouldn’t have been out of place on Police albums either. And it all comes home with the thundercrack that opens “Fortress Around Your Heart”, which could well be his best song.

For all its potential for pretension (it was around this time some of us started referring to him not as Sting but Smug) The Dream Of The Blue Turtles is an enjoyable album that shouldn’t have pissed off too many Police fans, while exposing them to some of the better players on the jazz scene. This is, after all, where most people first heard of Wynton’s brother Branford, and Darryl Jones went from being The Guy Playing Bass Who’s Not Sting to Bill Wyman’s replacement in the Rolling Stones within ten years’ time.

Sting The Dream Of The Blue Turtles (1985)—

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Rolling Stones 43: Rarities

Allegedly, following the success of the Beatles’ Anthology multimedia franchise, the Rolling Stones attempted to tell their own, similar story, but the self-interview process became such a hassle that they only went as far as publishing a coffee-table book. This was disappointing for fans, who hoped that the Stones would finally open the vaults and compile their own Anthology-style series of CDs chock full of outtakes and rarities.

However, that’s not how the Stones roll. (Sorry.) They’ve always looked to older, unfinished tracks when completing an album, as demonstrated by certain selections on Sticky Fingers and the whole of Tattoo You. Only more recently have they chosen to beef up a deluxe reissue of one of their albums with newly completed tracks from the same sessions, Exile On Main Street and Some Girls having received such treatment.

But as the contents of dozens of bootlegs can attest, the Stones have plenty of stuff in the vaults, and the band is just like the Beatles in wanting to preserve their version of their legacy. The reluctance to unveil anything from the ‘60s may be ascribed to the fact that they don’t own the publishing; most of the B-sides from the London years have already been collected elsewhere. For years, a handful of obscurities from the ‘70s and ‘80s stayed unalbumized, with the exception of those that had surfaced on the ultra-rare Collectibles disc in the limited-edition Flashpoint package.

This made the appearance of Rarities (1971-2003), mere weeks after A Bigger Bang came out, so surprising. The title is debatable, especially considering all the more obvious candidates that were left off. Someone had the good taste to include the live “Let It Rock” and “Through The Lonely Nights”, two excellent B-sides, on an album for the first time. But that doesn’t make up for the exclusion of “Think I’m Going Mad”, “The Storm”, “So Young”, “Jump On Top Of Me” and “I Wanna Drive”. “Everything Is Turning To Gold” had already appeared on both Sucking In The Seventies and the Collectibles disc, but was left off here. Even “Cook Cook Blues” had been included on Collectibles. Any of those would have been preferred to repeats from Stripped and any number of remixes.

The point behind a “rarities” collection is to entice the consumer by filling in the blanks, and Rarities (1971-2003) fails to do that. (In an extremely petty move, Bill Wyman was cropped out of the Some Girls-era photos in the package, despite having performed on half of the tracks.) Musically the disc has its moments, but it hardly fulfills any fan’s dream.

Rolling Stones Rarities (1971-2003) (2005)—

Monday, February 13, 2012

Simon & Garfunkel 3: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme

Helped along by well-timed singles, Simon & Garfunkel reached a level of excellence on their third album. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme exists in a private world of chamber pop, wherein traditional folk melodies mesh with suburban angst and wry commentary. If there’s anything negative to be said about it, it’s that it’s so short. But there’s a lot of quality crammed into those quickly played songs.

“Scarborough Fair/Canticle” is possibly the most famous version of this old English folk song, already borrowed heavily by Bob Dylan for “Girl From The North Country”. Here the haunting melody is juxtaposed against an original Simon anti-war lyric. “Patterns” interrupts with percussive guitar, insistent bongos and spooky organ, and the music finally lifts on “Cloudy”, despite its uncertain mood. “Homeward Bound” was already a hit single, recorded during the sessions for the second album, a vivid portrait of the lonely modern troubadour that doesn’t seem false in the least. Taking a step away from soul-searching, “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” skewers commercialism (such as that which might even sell a few LPs). And “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” was embraced by pot-smokers and pre-schoolers alike, possibly due to Simon’s second use, in a title even, of that archaic word.

“The Dangling Conversation” gets knocked for its pretentious tone, but that’s to be expected from the characters in the song. It’s still a lovely, sad song. The equally well-constructed “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Monkees album, but it was actually recorded the previous year alongside “Homeward Bound”. A title like “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” already sounds like a Dylan parody, which it is. Some of the pop-culture rhymes are very clever, and the impression is so pointed that Simon comes off of as just a little envious of his labelmate. It’s only fitting that this piece is followed by “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her”, an excellent candidate for Art Garfunkel’s greatest performance and an ode to the ultimate imaginary woman. The guitar strums faster and faster to an unresolved end, only to give way to a portrait of a graffitist in “A Poem On The Underground Wall”. And lest anyone get too comfortable, “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” pits a typically harrowing modern news broadcast against a pastoral reading of the Christmas carol.

Its generally down atmosphere notwithstanding, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme is an enticing album, a work of art. Despite the rock combo heard on the songs that require one, the overall sound comes from the voices and acoustic guitar, with the barest embellishments, putting Simon & Garfunkel on a tier all by themselves. They knew they had something special, and the album’s importance in the biz was underscored by Ralph Gleason’s small-print liner notes, which may help illuminate some of the references.

Simon and Garfunkel Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (1966)—4
2001 CD reissue: same as 1966, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, February 10, 2012

Pete Townshend 13: Quadrophenia Demos

Following the overblown and heavily expensive Live At Leeds Super Deluxe Edition, Pete revived another old project for a similar expansion. Unlike the Lifehouse Chronicles box, which he sold through his own e-commerce site, Quadrophenia got the full support of one of the last remaining major labels. A Deluxe Edition presented the album bolstered by eleven of Pete’s demos, but real fans would be tempted to skip that for the so-called “Director’s Cut” version, which retailed for about $150. This doorstop of a box included the 1996 remaster of the album, a DVD of some 5.1 surround sound tracks to emulate how the original quadraphonic mix might have sounded, a 45 of the “5:15”/“Water” single with the French picture sleeve, a poster and a packet of replica documents (a la Leeds). Oh, and there was also an inch-thick LP-sized book of liner notes by Pete, and two CDs of original demos.

That right there was the kicker. We’d heard teasers from his tape cache on the Scoop albums, but a glimpse into the evolution of his last true masterpiece hadn’t gone beyond a couple of tracks, and only a smattering had made it out on bootleg. While marketed as a Who album, Quadrophenia: Director’s Cut offers up 25 of Pete’s demos chronicling the development of the concept, including several ideas that, in the long run, were wisely abandoned.

The sequence mirrors the final album, with some of those alternate threads placed within an approximate context. What’s more, many of the Who’s completed versions were built from Pete’s demos, so we can hear how much was in place to start with. As expected, many of the intricate synthesizer parts were carried over, while John and Keith were able to lend their respective bass and drums stamps in place of Pete’s guides. Similarly, John’s multiple horn parts are only hinted at on the demos.

As mentioned, Quadrophenia is more of a portrait than a story with plot, but that didn’t prevent Pete from trying to give Jimmy the Mod some history. Many of the discarded songs were intended to flesh him out somewhat, and they certainly would have slowed the album down had they stayed. Interestingly, the three “new songs” included on the film soundtrack LP made up that back story: “Get Out And Stay Out” is a simple sketch sung by Jimmy’s parents, “Four Faces” explores the split personality angle, and “Joker James” (written years before) showed his failure with women. Another romantic song, “You Came Back”, had been on Scoop with no info on when it was recorded, so this context gives it and entirely new perspective. “Get Inside” and “We Close Tonight” (the latter included on the expanded Odds & Sods with vocals by Keith and John) were supposed to depict Jimmy as a frustrated musician; luckily this was replaced by the confrontation of “The Punk And The Godfather”, which here is sung as a dialogue simply titled “Punk”.

The remaining “three sides” worth of songs follow as we’re used to them, with a few exceptions. “Anymore” is a soul-searching ballad replaced by the already-completed “Is It In My Head?”, and two unreleased instrumentals fill the spot where we’d expect to hear “5:15”. (There was never a demo for that song, as it evolved from a studio jam.) The book reveals “I’ve Had Enough” to be a dialogue between Jimmy and his father. Another dialogue comes in “Is It Me?”, which concerns the Ace Face turned “Bell Boy” and his father; the Broadway delivery doesn’t do justice to the theme, which was eventually only presented as part of “Doctor Jimmy”. “Drowned” appears fully formed from a March 1970 demo session. (In another revelation, “The Rock” was originally supposed to end the album, swapping places with “Love Reign O’er Me”, the loud finale of which was spliced from the original band take of “The Rock”.)

If there’s a quibble about these discs, it’s that several pieces are missing. Two tracks that appeared on Scoop aren’t here, and his liner notes make references to additional demos that would be available on Q-Cloud, an online repository of photos and documents related to the project. As of this writing, a message on the site declares that those extra demos “have had to be omitted.” (Pete always did have trouble talking before thinking.)

Quadrophenia was never a happy album, though generations of confused teenagers have been able to take strength from it. Listening to the elements of the Director’s Cut, we’re left feeling even more sorry for Jimmy, with so many of his conflicts spelled out instead of merely mentioned. Indeed, the process of writing and completing the album took its toll on Pete’s sanity and threatened the future of the band. But overriding all that is the wonder that a guy in his late-20s, armed only with instrumental ingenuity, a fertile imagination and the latest technology he could cram into a room in his house, could create something so universal all on his own.

Pete Townshend Quadrophenia: Director’s Cut—The Demos (2011)—4

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Velvet Underground 9: Peel Slowly And See

The catalog department at PolyGram was especially fond of the Velvet Underground, and just in time for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came the box set. Peel Slowly And See attempts to present the most complete portrait possible of the band, and does a pretty good job at it. Each of their four albums are included in their entirety—the third album in its alternate “closet” mix, and Loaded, licensed from Atlantic and featuring, for the first time, the full-length takes of “Sweet Jane” and “New Age”. A few of the more important selections from VU and Another View appear in context, as do two tracks from Nico’s Chelsea Girl.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be a box set without unreleased rarities. Of immediate historical significance is the entire first disc, a distillation of a recorded rehearsal held around 1965 by Lou, Sterling and Cale. It consists of several takes each of “Venus In Furs”, “Heroin”, “Waiting For The Man” and a hootenanny-style “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, along with the tedious “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” (later given to Nico) and the Dylanesque “Prominent Men”. It’s not exactly fascinating, but gives an idea of what they sounded like before meeting Maureen and Andy Warhol.

Other demos scattered throughout the set include “Here She Comes Now”, “Countess From Hong Kong” and a few pre-White Light songs that sound downright folky. Seven outtakes from Loaded were a big deal (until Rhino’s expanded version of the album went even deeper), being mostly songs Lou would later rerecord on his own.

The set also includes a few live recordings, such as the experimental “Melody Laughter” and “Booker T”, both edited from longer improvisations and both of which led to “Sister Ray”. “What Goes On” comes from Doug Yule’s first appearance with the band.

While it’s not absolutely complete, Peel Slowly And See is an excellent, comprehensive overview of the band. By including all four albums, it saves the trouble of having to buy each of the albums on their own. (Unless, of course, you need all the alternate versions on the expanded Nico and Loaded CDs.) It even featured a peelable banana on the box top. Hence the name.

The Velvet Underground Peel Slowly And See (1995)—4

Monday, February 6, 2012

Flying Burrito Bros 2: Burrito Deluxe

For a while there it looked like the Flying Burrito Brothers would be around for a while. They even played at Altamont, thanks to Gram Parsons’ friendship with Keith Richards. (They can be seen for about two minutes in the Gimme Shelter film, right after the naked fat guy, playing “Six Days On The Road” before fights start in the crowd.)

As tight as the first album was, Burrito Deluxe is not as focused, and a little disappointing. Despite Chris Hillman moving back to bass and introducing future Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar, Parsons didn’t do as much, and the lousy mix obscures the novelty of having fellow former Byrd Michael Clarke on lackluster drums.

There are some okay moments, like the stellar cover of the Stones’ “Wild Horses” released before their version. The other covers are more rote country songs, except for the chaotic stab at “If You Gotta Go”, an obscure Dylan song people started covering around then. At just over a half hour of music, one is left feeling unsatisfied. What made the debut so striking—the originals, the odd R&B transformations—is absent here, so everything sounds very ordinary.

Some people worship every note that Gram Parsons played, so this album is fine for them. True to form, he barely stuck around for the Burritos either; they fired him after Burrito Deluxe, which gave him more time to do smack with Keith Richards, and eventually recorded two of his own albums before succumbing to alcohol and morphine. As for the Burritos, they had two more albums that most notably added a guy who would eventually start Firefall, before sputtering out, then reforming without Hillman and revolving through several other members, including the occasional latter-day Byrd. Nitpickers will likely only care about the first two albums, which are nicely compiled in toto on Sin City: The Very Best Of The Flying Burrito Brothers, alongside three other tracks from the original band.

The Flying Burrito Bros Burrito Deluxe (1970)—2

Friday, February 3, 2012

Police 5: Synchronicity

“Every Breath You Take”, “King Of Pain”, and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” were the soundtrack of the summer of ’83. Or at least that’s how it seemed in the northeast corner of America. Three songs about troubled relationships provided something an antidote for the music from Flashdance otherwise stinking up the airwaves. And they all came from the pen of one man, who considered himself the face of The Police.

Stingy had a pretty strong hold on the band at this point, even considering his high-profile acting gigs, so it’s likely out of weariness to argue that that other two let him drive the direction of Synchronicity. A photo of him perusing the theory was prominent in the packaging, though even people who’d heard of Carl Jung before might have wondered what all the hubbub was.

A cycling synth and short phrases reels off “Synchronicity I”, which manages to rock despite a minimum of chord changes. “Walking In Your Footsteps” isn’t much more than a drum pattern with guitar effects and a basic melody about dinosaurs. The whole thing sounds pretty prehistoric. “O My God” at least sounds like a decent jam, with a reference to “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” at the fade. Despite its intricate backing, the awful vocal on “Mother” is guaranteed to clear any room anywhere within five miles, to the point where the deceptively short yet catchy “Miss Gradenko” sounds like the band of old. “Synchronicity II” matches a suburban nightmare with a mysterious beast signifying doom. It’s an excellent performance from the whole band, the drums and particular that buried guitar flourish on the fade offsetting Sting’s vocal.

“Every Breath You Take” follows a I-vi-IV-V sequence, proving once again that the simplest ideas will endure. And yes, it’s about stalking, and not at all romantic, but that melody is just so pure and so sweet, it’s no wonder this got to be so huge. “King Of Pain” takes a long time to get rolling; was it that important to repeat the entire first verse? And why does he pronounce “thing” like Ricky Ricardo would? Luckily the choruses provide relief, and the brief guitar solo mirrors the melody nicely. Bookended by another lengthy atmosphere, “Wrapped Around Your Finger” mines additional literary territory, with a cool, menacing lyrical twist at the end and another killer chorus. Those three songs are so strong that “Tea In The Sahara” seems barely there. Predominantly a bass-and-vocal song, if the other guys added anything, it’s mostly been mixed out except for Stewart’s hi-hat work.

Released with seemingly infinite artwork variations, Synchronicity was a huge hit, driven by a high-profile tour. (The warm-up act for seven dates? R.E.M.) It truly works as an album, with even the most jarring segments fitting within the flow. People who bought the cassette—or the CD, if they were early adopters—got a surprise ending in “Murder By Numbers”, a nicely macabre B-side that profoundly changes the album’s frame. It was certainly a long way from the punky trio of Outlandos d’Amour. Synchronicity showed how the band had truly developed. However, they’d had it with each other.

The Police Synchronicity (1983)—

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Simon & Garfunkel 2: Sounds Of Silence

Since Dylan had successfully made the leap from acoustic to electric, producer Tom Wilson experimented with a song from the first Simon & Garfunkel album that was getting some airplay. By adding electric guitar, bass and drums to the song in question, all of a sudden the duo had a number-one hit with “The Sound Of Silence”. Which meant it was time to make another album.

Luckily for the new folk-rockers, Simon had been busy busking around London and writing new material (as displayed on his UK-only solo album released that fall, and subsequently mined back in America). So Sounds Of Silence came together in time for the new year, with the hit single version of “The Sound Of Silence” and its B-side, the dated “We’ve Got A Groovey Thing Goin’”, and “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me”, itself a rewrite of the title track of the first album, recorded earlier in the year and initially shelved. There is some further repetition within those; the “Anji” theme is previewed on “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me”, and adds the riff from “Groovey Thing” towards the end. Additionally, Simon seems to have a fixation on suicide: “Richard Cory” (based on a 19th-century poem) shoots himself, while “A Most Peculiar Man” succumbs to self-inflicted natural gas poisoning.

Nitpicking aside, Paul Simon was turning into an excellent songwriter. “Kathy’s Song” is a hypnotic love letter, while “Leaves That Are Green” and “April Come She Will” are stellar in their simplicity. “Blessed” is a little too dissonant for our tastes, but “I Am A Rock”, another hit single, is a catchy and telling in its defiance.

Sounds Of Silence rises past the certain curse of the quick cash-in. Not every tune is a gem, but the homework Paul had done busking in London pays off with excellent songwriting that strays from folk into the type of social commentary that would be his hallmark. (His only contemporary at the time was Ray Davies, whose tongue was much further into his own cheek. Where Simon saw despair and desolation, Davies suggested that a retreat to the old days would solve everything.) It’s also easy to see that the pair, now forced by commerce to work together, had already started to follow their own paths. Some songs are sung by one or the other, and many times Artie’s harmony seems like an afterthought. Because of the rushed nature of the album, the expanded CD from 2001 adds exactly one outtake from the main album sessions (a lovely reading of “Blues Run The Game”), padding the rest with three traditional songs recorded at their very last recording session in 1970.

Simon & Garfunkel Sounds Of Silence (1966)—3
2001 CD reissue: same as 1966, plus 4 extra tracks