Monday, April 30, 2012

Crosby & Nash 1: Graham Nash/David Crosby

While Stills stayed off sulking on his own, Crosby and Nash decided to pool their talents by doing shows together, usually fried on some kind of herb. One such show can be heard on Another Stoney Evening, where the unplugged atmosphere presents a comfy setting for the music and the obvious affection these two have for each other’s gifts. However, that wouldn’t be released for 27 years, as the two were more concerning with finishing the songs in the studio.

Graham Nash/David Crosby has somehow managed to sneak out of the public eye over time, having fallen out of print by the ‘80s and not even being released on CD in the US ever. It’s too bad, really, because the album combines the best elements of each of their solo albums, while remaining as “separate” as Déjà Vu was. But of the four CSNYs, Crosby and Nash had the best vocal blend, so they use that to the fullest. (The usual suspects make up the backing, with guest appearances by half of the Grateful Dead, Dave Mason, and the soon-to-be ubiquitous Danny Kortchmar, Craig Doerge and Russ Kunkel.)

In true democratic fashion, the album is set up as a dialogue, alternating between each member. Graham Nash was the most concise pop writer, so it makes sense that his easy-to-recall songs bookend the album. “Southbound Train” is a sad waltz suggesting the decline of the American Dream. “Blacknotes” is a concert snapshot of Graham futzing around on the piano, killing time waiting for Crosby to get ready. The joke is brief, before his typically plodding piano style brings in “Stranger’s Room”, another regretful look back at his breakup with Joni Mitchell. “Frozen Smiles” is said to be a slap at Stills, while “Girl To Be On My Mind” provides a glimmer of hope that he will one day love again. “Immigration Man” gets plenty of electricity from the band, working around that single angry bass note from the piano.

Crosby’s music takes a little more to appreciate, especially in this context. “Whole Cloth” is brooding, much as “Games” does in the same position on side two. “The Wall Song” pairs him with the Dead again, and their loping mix has one wishing they could have collaborated more. But the highlight arguably comes in the pairing at the end of side one. “Where Will I Be?” is a solo meditation fleshed out by Gregorian harmonies, followed by the obvious (non-)answer of “Page 43”. A wonderful sequence.

Again, we don’t know why this album has slipped through the cracks over the years. Four of the songs were included on the CSN box set, but the CD was only available as a pricey import. Luckily, iTunes and other streaming services do offer it, so it’s not a completely lost cause. It fits neatly in one’s rack alongside the other CSN releases to date.

Graham Nash/David Crosby Graham Nash/David Crosby (1972)—

Friday, April 27, 2012

Frank Zappa 5: Cruising With Ruben & The Jets

Despite his insistence on pushing the musical envelope, Frank Zappa was notoriously dismissive of most of his contemporary recording artists attempting to do the same. We’re Only In It For The Money made clear how little he appreciated psychedelia, and a different type of album grew out of those sessions, recorded concurrently with what would be their next studio album.

If Cruising With Ruben & The Jets really was, as the cover states, “a last ditch attempt to get their cruddy music on the radio”, chances are it would only have been by stations already hip to the Mothers, as Fifties nostalgia was still a few years off. And despite a few buried references, this was the first Zappa-related album that didn’t sport any “offensive” lyrics; he was more concerned with referencing other music, be they doo-wop or classical. Some were songs originally dating back to his earliest recording experiments, and four songs are repeated from Freak Out!—not the last time Frank would remodel his music. Here the doo-wop dressing doesn’t make them any superior to the first versions, especially as they’re slowed down so much.

Arguably, the best songs are the ones that would never have been mistaken for authentic Fifties doo-wop. “Cheap Thrills” (“in the back of my car”, specifically) begins with a prelude, then tramples the same chord into the floor with a slightly sped-up vocal. A similar approach is applied to “No. No. No.” (which includes the quotation marks in the title), reviving some of the more parodic approaches from the first Mothers album. “Stuff Up The Cracks” is an overt threat of suicide should the narrator’s one true love decide to leave him, concluding with Frank letting loose on an extended wah-wah solo. An acoustic guitar is used as dressing throughout, and many of the songs feature “redundant piano triplets”, which Frank felt was a key part of the genre.

As part of the great late-‘80s catalog overhaul, Ruben & The Jets was notoriously overdubbed with new bass and drum tracks—not because the original masters were beyond repair, as Frank said was the case with WOIIFTM, but because he simply felt like it. Granted, the original sessions had two drummers, with the bass barely audible, but again, the anachronistic sound ruined the album for most Zappa freaks. This mix was the one also used in the 1995 Rykodisc rollout, as well as in 2012, even though WOIIFTM had been preserved to its original state. Fans resorted to bootlegging needle-drops of their old vinyl copies until 2010 with the release of the next installment in the Family’s “audio documentary” series, Greasy Love Songs. Along with the original 1968 mix of the album, a few alternate mixes and vault nuggets make it the superior choice to the ‘80s remix.

The Mothers Of Invention Cruising With Ruben & The Jets (1968)—3
1987 Rykodisc CD: “same” as 1968
Frank Zappa Greasy Love Songs (2010)—

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Joe Jackson 10: Laughter & Lust

For the first time in his ten-year career, Joe was on a new label. One would have thought they’d’ve put their all into touting their new signee, especially when he presented them with an album full of the type of catchy pop A&M hoped he’d return to. Laughter & Lust gathered several of his reliable supporting players for a collection of just plain songs with no blatant concept, for once—even despite the title.

“Obvious Song” rises from cacophony for a catchy rant about the state of the world. “Goin’ Downtown”, despite being a theme he’s come close to too many times, is unfortunately married to a horn part that suggest the theme to your local evening news. “Stranger Than Fiction” channels early-‘80s Graham Parker, with prominent cowbell and conga to drive its rhymes. His cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” relies too much on synthesizers and percussion, but at least he paid tribute with the right touch of slap echo on his vocal. “Jamie G.” would have fit just fine on his first album, and manages to charm its way through the heavy Latin arrangement. In a nod to the sequencing of Blaze Of Glory, a quick drum break slows down to welcome in the wonderfully nasal Farfisa organ that frames the equally snotty “Hit Single”. While not exactly a slice of “pure pop heaven”, “It’s All Too Much” revives his distaste of saturation in the media.

“When You’re Not Around” and “The Other Me” provide adult ruminations on romance that could be hit singles for anyone who wanted to cover them. The moody “Trying To Cry” manages to stay interesting over six minutes of the same repeated unresolved chord, only modulating for a quasi-operatic section following the familiar subject matter (men forced into stereotypical masculine roles). The narrator of “My House” seems a little on the edge, while the guy blaming “The Old Songs” for his problems gets to do that over another homage of an arrangement. The best is saved for last, however. Despite its resemblance to a certain Barry Manilow song based on a Chopin prelude, its lush yet quiet arrangement carries like a boat on the ocean, fading away to the sound of waves.

Enough people must have heard that Laughter & Lust was just okay. It’s not even pointedly bad; it simply isn’t very exciting. The dated sound of the production doesn’t help. Maybe his depiction as prisoner with ball-and-chain was supposed to be symbolic of the role he felt forced to play. But the songs are catchy without being too crafted—he still plays a few of them while out on tour—so it gets a rating just a hair on the positive side.

Joe Jackson Laughter & Lust (1991)—3

Monday, April 23, 2012

Beach Boys 2: Endless Summer

Much like Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys were already a caricature by the time the post baby-boom generation knew who they were. And like Elvis, they deserve better than to be written off in that way.

Those youngsters who’d study the history of rock ‘n roll would learn about how Pet Sounds was their best album, and how the follow-up, Smile, was never completed despite its destiny as music that rivaled the Beatles’ best moments. They undoubtedly would also have found it odd that a band known best from Sunkist orange soda commercials could be spoken of so reverently. This could be reinforced by the popularity of Endless Summer, a well-sequenced compilation of songs about girls, cars, surfing and the beach.

It was a timely set; the band was gaining some of their old acclaim back as an excellent touring outfit, and with the trend started by Sha Na Na, American Graffiti, Grease (the Broadway version) and Happy Days, nostalgia was okay, particularly if it was back to a time of on-the-surface innocence. So it was that one of the most successful albums of 1974 was a compilation of previously released material that was about ten years old at the time. While the Beach Boys may not have been burning up the charts with their current work, their old label, never shy about cashing in, hit pay dirt with Endless Summer.

It doesn’t have every single classic from the early days, but certainly covers most of the period before Brian Wilson took over the studio and the band’s albums became solo projects with the guys singing. There’s a mild progression in chronology, but not so you’d notice. Side one is mostly about surfing, as evidenced in the song titles, including a couple of slow numbers. Side two covers driving and high school, with “In My Room” providing an excellent portrait of the American teenager. Side three gets a touch more sophisticated musically, particularly by the inclusion of “Let Him Run Wild” and “Don’t Worry Baby”, two of Brian’s best productions. Side four is all upbeat singalongs, from “California Girls” to the closing throwback of “All Summer Long”.

Probably the worst thing we can say about the album is the artwork, as we doubt even the band members themselves would be able to clarify who was who. It evokes a mental image of too much time in the sun, right about the middle of August when the humidity has become unbearable, your skin blistered from sunburn and the pungent stench of Noxzema and Caladryl. Luckily, that goes away when the music starts. Endless Summer follows through on its premise, with 20 songs in under an hour. The CD version would add “Good Vibrations” to the lineup, but by then the racks were glutted with redundant compilations, including the 1975 follow-up Spirit Of America. The album is now out of print, and while there are several “summer”-related Beach Boys titles that include many of the same tracks, the original 2-LP set has proven impossible to beat.

The Beach Boys Endless Summer (1974)—4
1988 CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 1 extra tracks
Current CD equivalent: none

Friday, April 20, 2012

David Bowie 34: iSelect, Santa Monica, Storytellers

While he’d shown up here and there on stage and screen, the first decade of the 21st century had turned quiet for David Bowie. Still, a few new collections of older material kept him on the shelves while we waited for something new.

With its retro photo and Changesonebowie typeface, iSelect was sure to draw attention, even after it was given away with a Sunday paper in the U.K. This was a handpicked compilation of his own favorites, mostly from the ‘70s and generally deep cuts, complete with his own commentary on the inspiration and/or recording for each in the liner notes. He’s not above self-deprecation, and is also careful to praise several of the musicians who contributed, including Mick Ronson and Mike Garson.

Any collection taken from such a wide source is guaranteed not to please everyone, but we find it hard to fault a mix tape that begins with “Life On Mars?” and “The Bewlay Brothers” from Hunky Dory with the “Sweet Thing/Candidate” suite in between. As for rarities, “Some Are” was included from the out-of-print Rykodisc version of Low, while “Time Will Crawl” was upgraded with real drums and strings replacing the machines on the original. The radio introduction and “Hang On To Yourself” from Santa Monica in 1972 cap the set.

That particular recording had been a legendary bootleg for years, and got wider distribution in the mid-‘90s via a label set up by Bowie’s old management, to the artist’s irritation. An official Bowie-approved release, with improved sound and packaging, was something of a surprise in 2008 after such a stretch of time. It’s an essential snapshot of the era; the band was only ten shows into the American tour, and they’re still working on their swagger. Terrific performances of “The Supermen”, “Life On Mars?”, “Waiting For The Man”, and a preview of “The Jean Genie” are just some of the highlights, and Bowie’s brief but affectionate liner notes praise Ronson and Garson again.

Such candor wasn’t exactly rare for Bowie when the mood struck him. He was particularly effusive for his appearance on VH1 Storytellers as part of the advance promotion of ‘hours…’ Along with anecdotes (and occasional imitations) of Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, and Steve Marriott, he delivered two songs from the album, plus low-key renditions of a few deep cuts and a few familiar ones. “China Girl” got a lovely introduction courtesy of Mike Garson, and a revved-up remake of his oldie “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” would lead to a shelved album of similar remakes. (When made available for purchase ten years later, the CD merely replicated the original broadcast, but it was packaged with a DVD that added four further songs, which have since become available via streaming and a vinyl release. These included two more new songs, plus his recent deconstruction of “I Can’t Read” and a striking “Always Crashing In The Same Car”.)

David Bowie iSelect (2008)—
David Bowie
Live Santa Monica ’72 (2008)—
David Bowie
VH1 Storytellers (2009)—3

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sting 3: Nothing Like The Sun

Sting further established himself as a solo performer with …Nothing Like The Sun, which ironed out the jazz pretensions of his last album into a more smooth approach. He carried over a few people from his last project (Kenny Kirkland, Branford Marsalis, the backing vocalists) but handled the bass himself this time out. While the first single was awful—and come to think of it, most of the first singles from his albums haven’t been the greatest—there’s enough good stuff here to make it worth several spins.

This still being the vinyl era, its 54 minutes split up into four thematic sides, yet the record company took this to justify charging an extra buck for it. (This could also have something to do with its high sales numbers, since the RIAA credits each element of a multidisc set individually.) His liner notes attempt to illuminate those themes, but it’s not always clear where he’s at. First off, side one has “The Lazarus Heart”, an allegorical rumination on his mother’s death, and a romantic song in “Be Still My Beating Heart”. Both are catchy (and also boast Andy Summers on guitar) but the “whoop” effect running through the portrait of an “Englishman In New York” gets a little grating, and the big drum break in the middle is just silly. Side two, then, would be the political side, with “History Will Teach Us Nothing”, the moving tribute to the mothers of the Chilean disappeared in “They Dance Alone” (featuring a monologue by Ruben Blades and three lead guitarists) and the gentle “Fragile”.

Side three appears to be all mindless pop, starting with the irritating “We’ll Be Together”, noted for the quote from “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” at the end and his continuous Ricky Ricardo-style pronunciation of “things” (which comes out as “thins”). At least the video was entertaining, and we’d love to get or hands on his embroidered Tintin sweater. “Straight To My Heart” may be a companion to the similarly titled songs on side one, but here the busted meter doesn’t help. “Rock Steady” retells the story of Noah’s Ark with little uniqueness. The fourth side is where he pulls out the stops: the slightly jazzy “Sister Moon”, an excellent cover of Hendrix’s “Little Wing” arranged by Gil Evans, and “The Secret Marriage”, which added new lyrics to an obscure East German piano composition.

Taken all together, the album is nice sonic wallpaper, just substantial enough to keep from sinking out of earshot. The all-digital production and accessible content made …Nothing Like The Sun a big hit, a strong fourth-quarter item and steady seller through the next year. His activism with Amnesty International (along with the release of an EP of five of the album’s songs sung in Spanish and Portuguese) made him even more of a public figure, to which he responded by growing out his hair. (Many years later, for the album’s 35th anniversary, an expanded edition was released on digital platforms containing five period B-sides—including the strangely edited instrumental “Ghost In The Strand”, an unnecessarily extended voice-and-piano cover of “Someone To Watch Over Me”, and Hendrix’s “Up From The Skies” in a lengthy, audacious Gil Evans arrangement—as well as various remixes and alternates of three album tracks that were singles.)

Sting …Nothing Like The Sun (1987)—3

Monday, April 16, 2012

Stephen Stills 2: Stephen Stills 2

Following in the tradition of Chicago and Led Zeppelin, Stills’ second album chose a simple title. And like his first solo album, Stephen Stills 2 presented the auteur in a variety of musical situations, dabbling in folk, blues, rock, and even R&B.

The lilting “Change Partners” waltzes over a crisp acoustic strum, decorated by a pedal steel supposedly played by Jerry Garcia, before switching to 4/4 for the choruses. “Nothin’ To Do But Today” stutters along into another guitar duel with Eric Clapton, but the mysterious “Fishes And Scorpions” is a particularly striking departure. “Sugar Babe” is sunk by its lyrics, which is too bad, but the arrangement is excellent. “Know You Got To Run” would appear to be an early version of what mutated into “Everybody I Love You”. Its stark presentation contrasts with the big production of “Open Secret”, with a horn section that veers dangerously close to Blood Sweat & Tears territory, switching gears at the end for a piano workout that gives way to a minute long conga solo.

If you have the vinyl, it’s just as easy to drop the needle back on the beginning of side one as many times as deemed necessary. That will not likely be the case with side two. Despite a tasty opening lick, “Relaxing Town” is an obnoxious plea to “get away from it all.” “Singin’ Call” is a more palatable modal acoustic tune, then the horns blare in for more preaching on “Ecology Song”. There may be those who enjoy horn sections, particularly those where the trumpets are played so forcefully that the notes are always a little off, but we’re not among them. He rants some more on “Word Game”, distracting from the fingerpicking, and we can’t empathize when he complains of the rich getting richer. “Marianne” is a leap in the absolute opposite direction, a mindless pop tune. Another throwback comes in the grand production of “Bluebird Revisited”. With a dramatic organ intro, mopey lyrics, a choir and, of course, the horns, it unfortunately removes what made the Buffalo Springfield original so cool.

In the time since the splintering of CSNY, Stills was the most prolific, but quantity did not equal quality. Still, he never relied on others to help him make studio decisions, so he continued on his own way. It’s too bad, because some variety as brought out by some of his fellow travelers could have helped improve Stephen Stills 2. It’s the consistency in side one that keeps this album from being rated lower.

Stephen Stills Stephen Stills 2 (1971)—3

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Keith Richards 3: Vintage Vinos

One of the more enjoyable rock ‘n roll memoirs of any era was Life by Keith Richards, wherein he frankly rambled about all the years most people were surprised he could remember so well, much less at all. Alternately defiant and humble, it reminded everyone who already agreed that he was and would always be cooler than Mick.

A retrospective album was released as a tie-in, but rather than simply collect all his lead vocals from various Stones album, Vintage Vinos concentrates on the two studio albums by his X-Pensive Winos side band, with a few from the live album to split the program. To say the set leans heavily on Talk Is Cheap is putting it mildly, with all but one song from side one, and one from side two. By contrast, three songs come from Main Offender, and the live songs provide a sideways nod to the Stones via “Too Rude”, “Time Is On My Side”, “Happy”, and “Connection”. The big draw and only rarity is “Hurricane”, a short acoustic tune credited to Jagger/Richards and performed with Ron Wood, supposedly from the Forty Licks era, previously available as a giveaway.

Musically, of course, it’s solid; the photos are nice and the booklet even includes lyrics. Still, it’s a missed opportunity. By now diehard fans have compiled their own “Keith Sings” mix tapes and CDs covering his best lead vocals on Stones albums, but certainly any “best of Keith” should include his cover of Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run”, as well as its B-sides “Pressure Drop” and “The Harder They Come”. Then there’s “Key To The Highway”, which was a Japanese bonus track for Main Offender and B-side elsewhere, and “Oh Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me” from a Charles Mingus tribute. Operators are standing by.

Keith Richards Vintage Vinos (2010)—

Friday, April 13, 2012

Tom Waits 14: Bone Machine

The so-called Island trilogy of the mid-‘80s arguably brought Tom Waits the widest notoriety of his career to date. Then he took another break from music, acted in a few films, won a couple of lawsuits and presumably raised his children. The gap was finally broken by the soundtrack to a Jim Jarmusch film. Night On Earth juxtaposed taxi rides in five different cities around the world, with suitable accompaniment from Tom’s chosen carnies and roustabouts evoking a smoky late-night feel. Most of the “moods” and “themes” are variations of each other, and therefore fairly repetitive. As with many soundtracks, the tracks fade into the background pretty quickly. (We do like the bellowed “two, three, four” in the middle of “Los Angeles Theme”.) Of more interest were the handful of vocals. “Good Old World” is a prettier version of “Back In The Good Old World”, which is only slightly different from “On The Other Side Of The World”.

Thankfully, a “real” album emerged later in the same year. Bone Machine presented the latest evolution of his Beefheart-influenced approach, heavy on percussion that sounded like, well, bones being struck together, right off the bat in “Earth Died Screaming”. “Dirt In The Ground” continues the uplifting trend, on a piece for falsetto, piano and sax. “Such A Scream” provides the debut of the elusive Eyeball Kid, before sliding into “All Stripped Down”. “Who Are You” finally delivers a song, but just as you’re lulled into place, “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me” presents the monologue of a woman considering drowning herself. Still, that makes a cool segue into “Jesus Gonna Be Here”, another fake gospel song sung in a high falsetto.

The pretty piano returns on “A Little Rain”, with a touch of pedal steel coloring the corners, then gives way to “In The Colosseum”, a noisy dirge not far removed from his notorious “seven dwarves on strike” version of “Heigh-Ho”. “Goin’ Out West” is also noisy, but offers something of a groove with some excellent lyrics (“Tony Franciosa used to date my ma”; “I look good without a shirt”) and spaghetti-Western guitar. “Murder In The Red Barn” uses a squeaky chair for the rhythm, telling an even starker story than coliseum two tracks earlier. There’s another tale hidden within “Black Wings”, with an overall sound that conjures the spooky image implied in the title. “Whistle Down The Wind” is a cousin to “A Little Rain”, with a lonesome pair of fiddles soloing over the bridge. The other “rock” song on the album, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, has a wonderfully distorted guitar to match the voice of a rather perceptive kid, and you might not notice that there’s no drums until the third play through. A 55-second distillation of the “Such A Scream”/“All Stripped Down” approach sets “That Feel” off on its own. Everyone’s favorite song on the album, it features Keith Richards wailing along in a near duet.

Bone Machine isn’t as consistent as its predecessors, choosing instead to present a variety of styles with no other overlying concept. As it turns out, he was up to something, but that’s a story for later. For now, it was just nice to have something new from the guy.

Tom Waits Night On Earth (1992)—2
Tom Waits
Bone Machine (1992)—3

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

R.E.M. 13: Reveal

In the ‘80s R.E.M. could be counted on for a new album every 12 months or so. Then they started taking their sweet time, and frankly, it’s just not satisfying to wait two-plus years for an album that’s not very good. That, unfortunately, was the case with Reveal, their second album without longtime drummer Bill Berry. Here they continue the sonic experimentation of Up, but the novelty’s worn thin.

Keyboards and drum machines abound, particularly on “The Lifting”, “All The Way To Reno” and “Beachball”, with kitschy instrumental and percussion effects right out of the Burt Bacharach playbook. Stipe’s ignorance of pop music history prevented him from realized he’d lifted the melody of “She Just Wants To Be” from a Turtles song.

Still, there are a few tracks with potential, and they come right in the middle of the album. “Saturn Return” would stand out with a little more dynamics on either side of it (and if No Doubt hadn’t referenced the same concept in an album title a year earlier). “Beat A Drum” comes from the same basic mold of “At My Most Beautiful”, resting on a pretty melody and good ol’ Mike Mills on piano. “Imitation Of Life” was the first single, dressed up with a classic strum and mumbled lyrics. “Chorus And The Ring” features enough of the old mystery until the synths overpower it. “I’ll Take The Rain” has a wonderful chorus, but uses up too much of its six minutes to get there.

A lot of work certainly went into Reveal. But too many of the songs sound alike to be distinguished from one another, falling right into a longtime complaint of their detractors. It also makes two albums in a row that don’t rock for the most part, something else we used to be able to rely on. Perhaps, just like their counterparts in U2, they’d become accustomed to selling records to people who bought them out of habit.

R.E.M. Reveal (2001)—

Monday, April 9, 2012

Elvis Costello 30: Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook

His albums have become increasingly diverse and far between, and his concerts supporting them tend to attract only the devoted few. A man’s gotta pay the bills and support his family, but when you’re Elvis Costello, you will also go out of your way to keep from being accused of living off the past, even in the slightest.

Despite all the people he’s worked with over the years, the most consistent has been the band now known as the Imposters. For the past ten years (as well as a few combinations in the decades before that) they’ve provided the reliable backbeat for his rock ‘n roll tendencies, and can just as capably follow his dynamics down to a whisper. Their ability to think on their feet means they can handle pretty much whatever’s thrown at them, even when decided by a gigantic roulette wheel festooned with forty different song titles and wild cards.

The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!! is a document of the highlights of just two shows from their 2011 Revolver tour, which revived that legendary wheel of fortune 25 years after it was first rolled out. The wide variety of songs and possibilities played throughout the tour couldn’t possibly be contained on a single CD; the companion DVD presents a single concert with all the visuals necessary to convey the moment. For the most part, the edits are seamless; only the transition from “Lipstick Vogue” to “Man Out Of Time” is obvious.

While it is something of an “oldies” show, he’s careful to stack the crowd-pleasing raveups at either end of the set, with plenty of space in the middle to handle the spins of the wheel, any oddball requests and some otherwise little-heard surprises. That’s how we get some incredible renditions of Nick Lowe’s “Heart Of The City” and the Stones’ “Out Of Time”. Special guests The Bangles take the lead and harmonies on “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)”. “National Ransom” is translated from its Sugarcanes incarnation into a rousing rock tune. “All Grown Up”, originally recorded without any Attractions or Imposters, gets a lovely voice and piano treatment, courtesy of Steve Nieve. And the whole band shines on extended workouts of “Watching The Detectives”, “I Want You”, “Everyday I Write The Book” and “Peace, Love And Understanding”.

The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook was first made available as a pricey collectors’ edition denounced by the man himself, so its appearance as a standard-priced CD (as well as DVD and reasonable CD/DVD combo) gives the 99% a chance to experience it. Granted, it’s only one snapshot; only those who follow Elvis with the dedication of Deadheads—and those people do exist—could possibly get the whole picture. For the rest of us, this will do.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!! (2011)—3

Friday, April 6, 2012

Lou Reed 23: Set The Twilight Reeling

What with the Velvet Underground reunion, subsequent implosion, box set and hall of fame induction, Lou managed to keep busy. It was another relatively long stretch before he did an album on his own again, and when he did, it was something of a departure in that unlike his previous three, there wasn’t much of a theme. Instead, Set The Twilight Reeling has songs about about egg creams, dead underrated guitarists and patriphilia (if that’s a real word). Foul language abounds. Oh, and having also divorced his wife, the much-celebrated Sylvia, he fell headlong into a romance with performance artist and occasional musician Laurie Anderson.

A lovely hum of amp heralds that first two-chord ode to the “Egg Cream”, the chocolate soda with milk indigenous to Brooklyn. (Note the sly reference to “White Light/White Heat” on the final chords.) “NYC Man” could be a love letter to either the city or the citizen who took his heart, but the horns are a nice subtle touch throughout, and don’t overpower even when they get louder near the end. “Finish Line” is pointedly dedicated to the departed Sterling Morrison, and crams a lot of obscure references into the two-chord motif. He reserves one of the more complicated chord sequences (for him, anyway) for “Trade In”, an overt declaration of love that somehow manages to come off as sincere, perhaps because of the shaky grasp of what little melody there is, and within such unlikely rhymes as “book” and “schnook”. The woman in question turns up to add vocoded vocals to “Hang On To Your Emotions”, which otherwise hangs on the bassline. The tenderness is punctured by “Sex With Your Parents”, a tirade against Republicans whom, he suspects, have fulfilled a Oedipal precedent, resulting in the literal translation of a certain twelve-letter epithet.

On the CD, it’s an immediate jump to “Hookywooky”, a joyous stupid song in the vein of “I Love You Suzanne” that manages to hold on even through his tenuous hold on the concept not throwing an ex-boyfriend “off a roof… to die under the wheels of a car on Canal Street.” (He’s just a big softie after all.) “The Proposition” has an intriguing riff that the song struggles to live up to, while “Adventurer” follows a tasty 12-string intro to reveal itself as a distant cousin of “Fly By Night” by Rush. The volume goes up again for “Riptide”, about as close as Lou will ever get to Hendrix, with a portrait of a woman “out of her mind” suffering from some affliction or condition. The title track is another slowish poetic meditation, before building up at the end.

The liner notes say the album was recorded live with a power trio (presumably with overdubs on the basic tracks) so many of the vocals are sloppy, rushed and screaming for polish. But he’s all about the moment, so to suggest that he try to clean things up would go against his ethos, particularly when, like most of his albums, he spent the press junket crowing about how this time he finally was able to achieve the optimal guitar sound.

As a Lou album, Set The Twilight Reeling is catchy and memorable, right down the packaging, which utilized a dark blue jewel case and different typography throughout. In a career riddled with so-so albums, it’s one of the better ones.

Lou Reed Set The Twilight Reeling (1996)—

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mark Knopfler 3: Golden Heart

A seeming eternity went by before Mark Knopfler started making actual albums again. Golden Heart follows from where he left off with the last Dire Straits album, mixing country and Celtic folk with what had become adult-contemporary rock.

Soundwise, it might as well be a Dire Straits album. “Darling Pretty” opens with a slow rendition of what could be a traditional melody, before the big drums kick in to make it heavier. The title track and “A Night In Summer Long Ago” are particularly lovely. “Vic And Ray” and particularly the portrait of the obsessive fan “Rudiger” indulge his knack for distinctive character. “I’m The Fool”, “Nobody’s Got The Gun” and “Are We In Trouble Now” revive the sound of classic ‘70s country. “Je Suis Desole” puts a neat twist on a Cajun rhythm, and the French touch of the accordion colors “Done With Bonaparte”.

In fact, there are a lot of nice sounds here, but as the above examples show, there’s just too much of it, so that any sense of variety disappears. “No Can Do” burps along with a raspy vocal and a mix of dobro and electric, but sounds too much like “Don’t You Get It” two tracks later. “Cannibals” is another rewrite of “Walk Of Life”, as if we needed one. “Imelda” seems an odd reference point a full decade after the end of the Marcos regime, but at least the guitar’s tasty.

At 70 minutes, Golden Heart is mostly too long. With a little editing, it had the potential to be excellent. Instead, it works as pleasant musical wallpaper, soothing to those seeking the familiar Knopfler sound. And if he was writing again, maybe he wouldn’t be so keen to fill a CD to capacity just because he could.

Mark Knopfler Golden Heart (1996)—3

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sting 2: Bring On The Night

Around the same time as the Police hits album came out, Sting worked to promote a rockumentary about how his solo album came together. Bring On The Night, in his words, wasn’t designed to document the end of a band, like Let It Be or This Is Spinal Tap, but to celebrate the beginning of one, namely his. The fact that his “band” wasn’t intact past the tour behind the album they recorded was moot; he still took the opportunity to issue a companion album—A&M never too shy about the double live record—overseas. (It appeared on CD in the US ere long, which is why we’re covering it here.)

Culled from a handful of shows in Paris, Rome and Arnhem, Bring On The Night presents his new band—plucked nearly wholesale from Wynton Marsalis—playing his music with plenty of room to stretch. Selections from The Dream Of The Blue Turtles sit alongside recognizable Police favorites as well as some “rarities”. The title track gets a nice expansive treatment before sliding into a workout on “When The World Is Running Down”, with an excellent solo by Kenny Kirkland and a pointless “rap” from Branford Marsalis. “Consider Me Gone” fills time before a clean take on “Low Life”, an obscure Police B-side. “We Work The Black Seam” fades in mid-groove, making you wonder how long the band was vamping on it before the side kicks in. “Driven To Tears” starts out a little more subdued than the Police version, underscoring the futility in the lyrics in the wake of Live Aid, but soon kicks into a nice jam for Branford. “The Dream Of The Blue Turtles” is given a straight reading to show its complicated structure, but gives way to a lengthy jam on the one chord of “Demolition Man”; this too fades before we hear the conclusion.

It’s not enough to hire a bunch of professionals to do your bidding; they need to sound cohesive, and that comes through on the medley of “One World” and “Love Is The Seventh Wave”. (Clearly he’d picked up on Zappa’s theory of conceptual continuity.) “Moon Over Bourbon Street” wanders along to its inevitable finish, but it's soon forgotten in the wake of an amazing performance of “I Burn For You”. Hypnotic enough when The Police did it for that hideous soundtrack, here it’s given the tension and ambience worthy of its potential. “Another Day” was the little heard B-side to “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”; either the crowd was coached or they really did know how to sing along. “Children’s Crusade” and “Tea In The Sahara” aren’t pushed far past their known versions, but a blast of 12-bar blues, in this case “Down So Long”, makes a nice excuse to introduce the band.

Bring On The Night chalked up some nice import sales in the interminable days between missives from Sting. Looking back it was only about two years, and he had hardly disappeared, but perspective can sure illuminate where your mind has played tricks on you. Still, while the music world was beginning to wander the netherland between pop and hair metal, it was nice to hear guys that could, you know, play.

Sting Bring On The Night (1986)—3