Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Frank Zappa 6: Mothermania

Mothermania was an officially approved compilation prepared by Frank as part of his deal to leave Verve Records for Reprise. Consisting of tracks from the first three Mothers albums, it’s notable for including some exclusive alternate mixes, often preserving the song form without any of the editing effects. It’s not for us to say whether or not these would have been considered “hits” per se, but its likely that the casual music enthusiast would have at least heard of some of the song titles (which are only revealed inside the gatefold; the back cover sports a newspaper article in German and a teaser for the upcoming Mothers movie, which didn’t happen).

Because of the man’s skill with the razor blade, there really is an excellent flow from track to track, even between those featuring different Mothers. The program begins with “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”, sounding even more schizophrenic outside the context of Absolutely Free. “Mother People” appears without any censorship, in its most complete version anywhere. “Duke Of Prunes” is the complete suite, but “Call Any Vegetable” is edited to remove most of the “Invocation And Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin”. “The Idiot Bastard Son” gains an intro and loses some edits. “It Can’t Happen Here” is basically the end section from “Help, I’m A Rock”, but with one piece of dialogue snuck in at the end. “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here”, “Who Are The Brain Police?” and “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” mingle nicely with “Plastic People” and “America Drinks And Goes Home”, in new stereo mixes according to websites that track such things. (The guitar solo on “Hungry Freaks” sounds especially tasty here.)

Partially because Frank hated any attempt to repackage his work out of context, Mothermania was only ever released on vinyl, and ignored by most reissue programs, even by Rykodisc. Collectors were pleased, somewhat, when the Zappa Family Trust made it available as a download (in both MP3 and lossless FLAC) in 2009; we haven’t been able to determine whether said download includes either the German newspaper article or the gatefold photos of the noses and mouths of “The Mothers Today”. This was made moot when the ZFT put out a bona fide CD version of the thing in 2012.

The Mothers Of Invention Mothermania: The Best Of The Mothers (1969)—3

Monday, May 28, 2012

Finn Brothers 1: Finn

An album that nobody noticed when it came out was the first real debut of the Finn Brothers. Despite having worked together in Split Enz, it was a long time before they were allowed to be left on their own to create. (Their previous attempt to do so ended up mutating into the third Crowded House album, with mixed results.)

For Finn, the two of them worked together and only together. With the exception of the bass on one track, every noise we hear comes from them, be it guitar, keyboard or drum. It’s the drums that stand out, since neither of the Brothers is about to get tapped to fill in on the kit for any band needing same any time soon.

Finn is the sound of them in a room, bouncing ideas off one another. For the most part it sounds exactly like that, one guy playing and the other reacting. Neil, with the sweeter voice, takes most of the leads, while Tim is right behind in well-mixed harmony. The sound is a little too consistent, so many of the songs sound very similar production-wise, though “Only Talking Sense”, “Eyes Of The World”, and “Mood Swinging Man” are undeniably ca. The first real departure is “Last Day In June”, credited to Neil alone, based around a piano and not sounding too far away from early mournful Elton John. “Suffer Never”, which follows, sports a mean lead guitar line borrowed from Daniel Lanois. “Angels Heap” is exactly the kind of tunesmithing we’ve come to expect from these boys, and that lasts even through less comforting tracks like “Where Is My Soul”. Every now and then what sounds like island percussion sneaks in, making the album even more of an ode to New Zealand than Together Alone. The lilting “Paradise (Wherever You Are)” bleeds into “Kiss The Road Of Rarotonga”, which sounds like it was partially recorded at a small club, with bad drums to match.

Until its US release (under the title Finn Brothers) the album was only here available as a pricey import. Still, it’s nice and quirky enough to please fans of Crowded House, and put a few pennies in the pockets of brother Tim, who hadn’t seen anything approaching his little brother’s success.

Finn Finn (1995)—3

Friday, May 25, 2012

King Crimson 1: In The Court Of The Crimson King

King Crimson has been an on-and-off-again entity for over forty years, with multiple lineup changes and exactly one constant: guitarist Robert Fripp. The band often gets lumped in with the genre known both reverently and derisively as prog-rock, and that’s just one assumption Mr. Fripp himself does not appreciate. Then again, considering that the band took its name from another word for Satan’s chief minion, and even Fripp has stated that King Crimson music is a nearly tangible presence, maybe it’s best not to question anything lest we rankle any demons who can do some serious damage and not have the courtesy to grant us a quick death.

Because they’ve had so many incarnations, most of their albums don’t remotely sound alike. The best place for anyone to start would be their debut, as it features the majority of the music more likely to have been played on mainstream FM radio. In The Court Of The Crimson King (helpfully qualified as “an observation by King Crimson”) isn’t really prog, though many of the elements within would eventually be adopted en masse by the genre. There are the woodwinds, prevalent in so many Moody Blues records. There’s Greg Lake, soon to join Emerson and Palmer. The Mellotron had a fairly busy life in the Beatles, before being adopted later by Genesis. And there are the multiple time signatures with poetic attempts at lyrics written by a guy who doesn’t otherwise play or sing a note. (Though apparently he was also responsible for working the lights at the band’s gigs; hence his credit on the album for “words and illumination”.)

Whatever one’s opinion of prog—and this album provides a good barometer—it can be agreed that the music works best when the song supports it. For the most part, that’s the case here. “Moonchild” is the exception, with a truncated main section that turns out to be longer than it seems, followed by nine minutes of badly mixed improvisation that becomes background music to be ignored. (No wonder Fripp and Eno got along so well.)

But this departure is framed by some striking compositions. “21st Century Schizoid Man” begins with a sound suggesting a robot meandering through a desolate wasteland, before a truly nasty riff sets up the distorted vocal. After two verses, the same instruments play a jazzier version of the riff, and the precision is tight. It all winds up in organized cacophony, giving way to the pastoral “I Talk To The Wind”, an anomaly on the album both in presentation and its lack of subtitles for the implicit elements within the track. “Epitaph” is more of a grand statement, heavy with arpeggiated acoustic guitar, Mellotron strings, an anguished vocal and saxes blasting a car horn symphony over the fade.

All the best elements come together on the last track. After a few snare hits, “The Court Of The Crimson King” blares in with a four-note, three-chord fanfare and a more sinister variation on the sound of “Epitaph” with the evil nursery rhyme approach of “Whiter Shade Of Pale”. Just when you think it’s over (leaving the characters in the song to carry on with whatever they’re up to, most likely a human sacrifice) a few cymbal taps allow a wind-up toy to play the theme, which soon comes back in (in a different key, but still) to ensure that there is no escape, swallowing up the sound into silence.

That song is probably the one thing most people associate with the band, outside of the album cover, which was allegedly often displayed proudly on a T-shirt by Fripp’s mother on her walks to the market. In The Court Of The Crimson King is a remarkable album for its time, a slab of hard rock to rival such big guns as Tommy and Led Zeppelin II. They even got to play at the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert that summer.

The album casts a long shadow over the band’s legacy, for better or worse, and has been personally remastered and reissued by Fripp three times. The 40th anniversary version was available with a bonus DVD of alternate mixes, a two-CD set with some of those bonus mixes, or a mega-box including all that plus more alternate tracks, B-sides, and contemporary live recordings. This was supplanted ten years later by yet another new mix of the album, plus instrumental mixes, early takes, isolated vocals, and a Blu-ray loaded up with all that and then some. Meanwhile, the current streaming version boasts only three extras: a “radio version” of “21st Century Schizoid Man”, a “duo” instrumental version of “I Talk To The Wind”, and a live version of “A Man, A City”, which would morph into something else on their next album. (If that wasn’t enough, The Complete 1969 Recordings covered every recorded note by the band that year, in the studio and on stage, on 20 CDs, two DVDs, and four Blu-rays. Some of this had already appeared in the Epitaph set and online, but now boasted best-ever sound, particularly for the live content. In fact, the KC live legacy is something so daunting we’re not even sure we should approach it. Time will tell.)

King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)—4
2009 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1969, plus 15 extra tracks (DVD version adds only 5 extra tracks plus DVD; limited edition box set adds 27 tracks plus DVD)
2019 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1969 plus 24 extra tracks (plus Blu-ray)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Giles, Giles & Fripp: Cheerful Insanity

As he’s hardly discouraged a reputation as a sour crank, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Robert Fripp has a sense of humor. A glance at the British cover of The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles And Fripp, depicting the band members grinning idiotically, should be enough to cause shaking of heads among fans seeking out anything related to King Crimson.

The band consisted of brothers Michael and Peter Giles on bass and drums (and vocals), with Fripp on guitar. The album credits list Nicky Hopkins among the session musicians. The album sounds somewhere between early Moody Blues, later Zombies, a little Syd Barrett, the Bonzo Dog Band and, especially, the whimsy of side two of Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. Much of this comes from the interspersing throughout side one of “The Saga Of Rodney Toady”, a spoken word piece from Fripp, who sounds like he either has a mild stutter or he can’t read his own handwriting. Side two is glued together by “Just George”, wherein the same two couplets are repeated in a variety of Monty Python-type voices. Silly as they are, the inserts do provide something of a sorbet in between the albums tracks proper. Fripp’s high-speed jazz guitar is featured throughout, with precious little of the distortion, sustain, or feedback that would be most associated with him, save on the closing “Erudite Eyes”, the closest thing to a freakout. There is the occasional Mellotron, but possibly the most interesting portion to Crimson fans would be the middle section of “Suite No. 1”, which predicts “Prelude: Song Of The Gulls”.

In the ‘90s, when the labels were digging up anything worth reissuing, The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles And Fripp made its official CD debut worldwide, with standardized cover art, liner notes, and additional tracks in the form of single mixes plus two unreleased tracks from a final session. These last are of great interest as they feature Ian McDonald, who would play a larger role in the next Fripp and Giles project. (The streaming version includes all these, but none of the spoken links.)

Normally that would be that, but for those who have to have everything, a collection called The Brondesbury Tapes has gone in and out of print over the years, and presents a hodgepodge of home recordings and multi-tracking experiments by the three, plus McDonald. Further Frippery is to be beheld here, with a few more solo pieces and early sketches of what would become standard Crimson fare, including “Drop In”. Some lyrics are contributed by one Peter Sinfield. “I Talk To The Wind” is one of several tunes featuring the vocals of Judy Dyble, recently of Fairport Convention; this track had already appeared as far back as 1976, on the prematurely posthumous A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson double LP.

Giles, Giles And Fripp The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles And Fripp (1968)—2
1992 CD reissue: same as 1968, plus 6 extra tracks
Giles, Giles And Fripp The Brondesbury Tapes (2001)—

Monday, May 21, 2012

Beach Boys 6: Pet Sounds

Pet Sounds is one of those albums that’s regularly shown up on “best-ever” lists for the last twenty years or so, and not always with evidence to back it up. Consequently people are of two minds about it—either it’s a masterpiece or it’s overrated. Much of the praise has been since its heralded CD debut in 1990, and many who bought it based on the hype might not have understood what the big deal was. Also, in a time when we’d been brainwashed into thinking CDs were the greatest technology ever, Pet Sounds was pointedly released in monophonic sound, just as its creator only ever heard it.

What we have here is a choral symphony for high school marching band with guitars. Brian is essentially a modern classical composer, and those are his predominant instruments of choice. It sounded just “Beach Boys” enough like what came before to sell a few copies when it came out, but not a lot. The label didn’t know what to do with it, and the band was confused but went on the road with it anyway. It was huge in England, spurring at least Paul McCartney to get the Beatles to push the envelope even further. (Which was only fair, since Brian said that Pet Sounds was inspired by the leaps and strides he’d heard on Rubber Soul—the American version, mind you.)

Okay, you say, so it’s a cultural touchstone, but what about the tunes? Most of them really are classics. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” opens side one with a fairly adult sentiment, and the themes of commitment and maturity continue for most of the side. “You Still Believe In Me” slows it down some, then it’s back up for “That’s Not Me”. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”, like many of the songs here, could pass as classical music with the way it’s structured. “I’m Waiting For The Day” satisfies the pop crowd, and the side ends with the daring “Let’s Go Away For Awhile”, an instrumental that sounds like “please stand by” music on first listen but emerges as a hypnotic track that’s impossible to hum.

The rest of the album has more concessions for the beach crowd, starting with “Sloop John B”, which seems out place for the era (except for the eyebrow-raising line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”). “God Only Knows” seems simple enough until you pay attention to the lyrics; also this was the first pop song to mention God in the title. “I Know There’s An Answer” and “Here Today” never did it for me, but try not being floored by “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, a three-minute anthem for any sensitive types who have ever felt remotely out of place. The title track is a catchy instrumental (and one you can actually hum) and is followed by the regretful “Caroline No”, an elegy for lost innocence.

That recap may not satisfy anyone, whether they’ve heard the album or not. Ultimately, Pet Sounds is a personal experience, more so than most albums. Luckily for the uninitiated, it’s easy enough to find. Since its first CD release, with three bonus tracks, it’s been reissued a variety of ways. Most notable was the Pet Sounds Sessions box set, a textbook lesson on how to record a classic album, complete with first-time-ever stereo mixes, rehearsal takes, music-only and vocals-only mixes and other trivia. That was the gold standard for 20 years, until yet another anniversary release repackaged the contents in a different order, added a whopping three further studio outtakes, and various live performances of the songs from as early as 1966 and as late as 1993. Oh, and a 5.1 surround mixes on Blu-ray. And another book.

For pretty cheap you can get a single CD with both stereo and mono mixes, or shell out more for a deluxe edition. But no matter the dressing, it’s up to you if the songs speak to you. If you’ve read this far, chances are they might.

The Beach Boys Pet Sounds (1966)—
1990 CD reissue: same as 1966, plus 3 extra tracks
1997 The Pet Sounds Sessions box set: same as 1990, plus 59 extra tracks
1999 CD reissue: same as 1966, plus 14 extra tracks
2006 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1999, plus DVD
2016 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1997, plus 14 extra tracks (and Blu-ray)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Beach Boys 5: Party!

Just as the Beatles were beginning to take more time with their albums, so was Brian Wilson. In need of a stopgap while he labored over the band’s next real album, Beach Boys’ Party! was hurriedly recorded and released in time for Christmas. (It also extended the trend of the exclamation point to three consecutive albums.)

The concept was simple: the Beach Boys hanging out with their friends and girlfriends slash wives, drinking pop and eating potato chips, strumming their guitars for a low-key singalong. Percussion comes from a set of bongos, a tambourine, and whoever wants to clap along (plus, according to the liner notes, Al Jardine on ashtray). A few years earlier, this would be called a hootenanny; a generation later, MTV would make a mint on the idea, save the pop and chips.

Save two tracks, the songs on Party! aren’t busked renditions of their greatest hits, but lean toward songs that they loved as teenagers—or would love if they still were teenagers. That’s how “Hully Gully” is followed by joyfully reverent takes of labelmates the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” and “Tell Me Why”. “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” is the first nod to their own catalog, having already been on the previous year’s live album, while “Mountain Of Love” was obviously a favorite, as Brian Wilson would lift the bridge for his own “Little Children” two decades later. Dennis does his best on another Beatles song, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, while the rest of the party giggles. Some of the chatter between songs is a little cringey in retrospect, with Brian and Mike Love taking different tacks on crowd control, but they come together nicely on “Devoted To You”.

“Alley Oop” picks up the pace, and while it’s slower, the gang harmonies on the Crystals’ “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” keep it going. That’s the cue for Mike to goof on “I Get Around” and “Little Deuce Coupe”, which is a dangerous setup for Al’s appropriately nasal “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, which prompts all kinds of jeering from the gang. The best is truly saved for last, as “Barbara Ann”, led by (Jan &) Dean Torrence, would become one of their biggest hits. (In fact, it was rushed out as a single in the wake of the failure of “The Little Girl I Once Knew”.) The album version goes on another minute, with false endings and further wackiness.

Beach Boys’ Party! does perpetuate the myth of sun and fun that was present from their first singles and albums, complete with lots of photos of the boys and their girls. Surely more than one record-buyer wished he or she was invited to the party itself, rather than looking in from the outside.

Nothing is what it seems, of course, and history has shown that despite the final presentation, each of the Party tracks was recorded and mixed first, with the chatter and whatnot added in during final mastering. For the album’s fiftieth anniversary, after the band’s curators had begun various archeological restorations of the band’s oeuvre, Beach Boys’ Party!: Uncovered And Unplugged presented the songs on the album without the extra party effects, alongside excerpts of other songs and chatter attempted at the album’s sessions, filling up two CDs.

Despite coming from four of five different recording dates, the “uncovered” mix of the album still sounds as fun as the final product, like they actually were enjoying themselves, with minimal ribbing but still lots of goofing around. The sessions give a glimpse of the other dozen songs attempted in the process, including two further Bob Dylan songs, the Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride”, the Stones’ “Satisfaction”, Sonny Bono’s “Laugh At Me” (with parodic lyrics by Mike), several Lieber-Stoller tunes (including several attempts at “Ruby Baby”), “Twist And Shout”, “Long Tall Sally”, and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”. “Riot In Cell Block #9” predicts a song on a future album, and it’s somewhat fitting to see that the project did indeed conclude with “Barbara Ann”.

Footnote: The album was not ignored in the 1990 two-fer rollout of the Beach Boys catalog. Since it was such an anomaly to begin with, the caretakers chose to pair it with 1969’s oddball Stack-O-Tracks, which presented 15 Beach Boys classics in classic duophonic sound (upgraded to true stereo for the CD) but no vocals, giving the budding Beach Boy or Girl the chance to sing along thanks to the included lyrics and chords booklet (which was not included with the CD).

The Beach Boys Beach Boys’ Party! (1965)—3
1990 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus Stack-O-Tracks album and 3 extra tracks
2015 Uncovered And Unplugged: “same” as 1965, plus 69 extra tracks

Friday, May 18, 2012

Rolling Stones 45: Brussels Affair

At this late date, fifty years after their emergence under the name, the only pressure the Rolling Stones answer to is their own. The gap between new albums grows longer, and why shouldn’t it, since they can gussy up unfinished tracks to bolster reissued classic albums.

While it’s been decades since anyone’s called the Stones “cutting-edge”, they have attempted to stay with current marketing trends, even building up Twitter and Facebook presences. Their official website gets the occasional overhaul, though the on-site record reviews are still pretty skewed. An even more daring move began with an online marketplace where they sold memorabilia, apparel and, amazingly, authorized bootlegs of classic live shows, newly remastered by sonic wizard Bob Clearmountain, and downloadable for less than ten bucks.

The first such release, Brussels Affair (Live 1973), takes its name from several vinyl boots recorded on that 1973 tour; thankfully, we can enjoy it without seeing Mick ride the inflatable phallus that decorated “Star Star”. This authorized version does not replicate any of those, opting to offer most of the late show in that Belgian city, with a few substitutes from the early show, to provide a complete set. With four years and three albums under their belts since Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, the band is tight and confident, giving Mick Taylor plenty of space to show off from his corner. The sound gets an additional boost from Billy Preston and a two-man horn section, none of whom get in the way.

“Brown Sugar” is strong opener, followed by a snaky “Gimme Shelter”. Amazingly, Mick steps aside for Keith to yell “Happy” only three songs in. “Tumbling Dice” is well-played, and we never thought we’d miss the chick singers. A mini-set from Goats Head Soup begins with “Star Star” (introduced by its actual title), keeping going with “Dancing With Mr. D” and “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”. Mick consistently exhorts the crowd in French, who go nuts for “Angie”, delivered electric but just as slow.

As long as they’re staying mellow, an eleven-minute “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” never drags, thanks to the stretched-out solos in the middle. Similarly, nearly thirteen minutes of “Midnight Rambler” is an exercise in dynamics. And from there it’s all about the rock and/or the hits: “Honky Tonk Women”, “All Down The Line”, “Rip This Joint”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man”.

Had Brussels Affair been released on the heels of the original tour, we would have lambasted them for their laziness. Presented this way, marketed to fans at a bargain price—though there are the expected complaints about lossy sound formats and distribution—it boded well for a lucrative and enlightening series, had it continued past the first handful. This far on, it’s still preferable to the CD version of Ladies & Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, the soundtrack to the 1974 concert film from the 1972 tour that snuck out to the market in 2017.

While other entries in the Stones Archive series were made widely available on physical media, Brussels Affair remained elusive, probably because there was no visual artifact. It was included in a pricey Japanese box set, but had to wait until 2020 for a more accessible release, as part of the upgrade of Goats Head Soup, via streaming or as part of the Super Deluxe Edition on CD and vinyl. A good place for it.

The Rolling Stones Brussels Affair (Live 1973) (2011)—
CD availability: Goats Head Soup Super Deluxe Edition

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

R.E.M. 14: In Time

Halfway through recording their next album, somebody must have noticed that R.E.M. had been around for twenty years, fifteen of which were spent on the label where they enjoyed their biggest success. So why not compile a hits collection covering those seven albums, with a few extras thrown in?

In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003 contains all the obvious favorites from that period, sequenced for feel instead of chronology, so that some of the less omnipresent hits get as much attention. To underscore this, “Shiny Happy People” is not included, to nobody’s chagrin. “The Great Beyond”, the single from their soundtrack to the Andy Kaufman biopic, appears as the second track, right after “Man In The Moon”, which gave that film its title. “Bad Day” (the original blueprint for “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”) is revived and refined, given a new level of meaning in the wake of the War on Terror. “All The Right Friends” was another decades-old song, newly recorded for a questionable Tom Cruise movie. “Animal” is completely new, sounding like a distillation of the Monster album through the synth effects of Up and Reveal. The closing grouping of “Everybody Hurts”, “At My Most Beautiful” and “Nightswimming” presents the band at their most gentle.

Of course, any self-respecting R.E.M. fans would only justify picking up this hits collection if they went for the limited-edition double disc, which added an hour’s worth of B-sides and rarities. Some of these are welcome, like the acoustic take of “Pop Song 89”, a live electric “Drive” and the haunting “Fretless”, an Out Of Time outtake featuring Kate Pierson on harmonies. Of the latter (and the less exciting “It’s A Free World, Baby”, which is half a good song), Peter Buck says in the liner notes that he can’t imagine how it was left aside. “Revolution” got a lot of stage time when they wrote it, but was ultimately excluded from New Adventures In Hi-Fi, while a strikingly different arrangement of “Leave” is miles away from the noisy one on that album. A lengthy live take of “Country Feedback” will please fans of the song as much as it will irritate detractors.

As odds ‘n sods collections go, it’s no Dead Letter Office, which is understandable considering the period whence these castoffs emerged. As for the hits portion of In Time, it’s a decent overview, but unfortunately underscores the band’s increasing lack of importance, paradoxically enough.

R.E.M. In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003 (2003)—

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lou Reed 24: Perfect Night

It’s safe to say that the ‘90s were going pretty well for Lou Reed, coming off a series of well-received albums. His appearance at 1997’s Meltdown Festival in London, backed by his stalwart combo of Mike Rathke on the other guitar, Fernando Saunders on bass and Tony “Thunder” Smith on drums, was recorded and released the following year as Perfect Night: Live In London. (Of course, it helped that that year’s event was curated by Laurie Anderson, Lou’s significant other.)

The set is fairly low-key, traveling through Lou’s entire catalog, starting with “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. “Perfect Day” follows, having recently been featured in Trainspotting. “The Kids” is played straight, with a little extra emotion on the choruses, but no screaming children. “Vicious” is very low-key, hanging mostly on one chord a la “Kicks” (which follows directly from “Busload Of Faith”, which comes next). “Riptide” is given a much calmer setting than its album version, while “Sex With Your Parents” is just as effective, particularly after a surprising top-speed delivery of “The Original Wrapper”. Three songs from Time Rocker, a little-seen collaboration with playwright Robert Wilson, make their debut here. “Talking Book” is pensive and wistful; “Into The Divine” is a little heavier love song of sorts, on two chords; “Why Do You Talk” is stark and accusatory.

As usual, the publicity for the album centered on his latest “perfect” guitar sound, in this case an acoustic that didn’t feed back. Perfect Night doesn’t have the ferocity of Rock ‘N Roll Animal or the comedy of Take No Prisoners, so for that reason it’s a nice alternative. But it still rocks.

Lou Reed Perfect Night: Live In London (1998)—3

Friday, May 11, 2012

Beach Boys 4: Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)

Despite the leaps and bounds taken on their last album, the Beach Boys were still obligated to make hit records. Therefore Brian, as the band’s architect, had to gradually introduce his new production ideas while the other Beach Boys spread the gospel of the California dream to arenas full of screaming kids.

Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) arrived on schedule with optimistic packaging belying some of the content. And again, Brian’s progression as a record-maker isn’t immediately obvious, since they take a step back with a side full of pop.

Despite its charms, “Girl From New York City” is a blatant ripoff of “Boy From New York City”. “Amusement Parks U.S.A.” is exactly the type of song they should have left behind by now, particularly the spoken sections. “Then I Kissed Her” is a straight cover of the Ronettes song, albeit with a gender switch, yet stays pretty close to the original. “Salt Lake City” is musically interesting, but is basically pandering to the fans in that town. Teenage Carl takes the lead on “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, a song that sounds a little unfinished, but that’s probably because it didn’t use any session guys. The single rerecording of “Help Me Rhonda” uses a different spelling and a tighter arrangement with no fades.

As with Today!, the best is saved for side two. The stately opening of “California Girls” is practically symphonic, and no amount of David Lee Roth can destroy the perfection of this production. It’s an even bigger leap with “Let Him Run Wild”, which pits a fairly ordinary plotline against a truly masterful backing of minor-sevenths and diminished chords, predicting the craftsmanship of Brian’s next real project. “You’re So Good To Me” lifts the mood and the beat with another song that could have been made for Ronnie Spector. “Summer Means New Love” offers a romantic instrumental, a surf guitar playing the melody, but then “I’m Bugged At My Ol’ Man” provides a joke in the form of a novelty song that should have been left for a B-side. The last word goes to the lovely a cappella “And Your Dream Comes True” for a happy ending.

The pairing of Summer Days with Today! made an excellent two-fer, even if it underscored some of the less successful tendencies. (After all, they were just kids.) Still, the best aspects of both albums emerge to prove why they’ve remained so fresh. One key bonus track is “The Little Girl I Once Knew”, a majestic flop that showed that not only was radio not ready for such elaborate production, but neither was Brian.

The Beach Boys Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965)—
1990 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus The Beach Boys Today! album and 5 extra tracks

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

George Harrison 16: Early Takes

George Harrison’s estate has been relatively protective of his musical legacy, slowly and carefully going through the catalog and keeping bonuses to a minimum. Even his first-ever solo career-spanning compilation, Let It Roll: Songs By George Harrison, wasn’t exactly exhaustive, leaving out key singles in favor of songs from Brainwashed and live versions of Beatle tunes from the Concert For Bangla Desh. (Hence the subtitle “Songs By” as opposed to “Best Of”. It did, however, rescue “I Don’t Want To Do It” and “Cheer Down” from obscurity. And iTunes purchasers were able to download the “earliest demo version” of “Isn’t It A Pity”, dating from early 1969.)

Martin Scorsese’s documentary about George was released on DVD in the UK first, with a bonus CD of unreleased recordings that promptly surfaced on all the file-sharing sites for rabid American fans. When the DVD finally came in the US, the companion CD was made available separately, with the hopeful title of Early Takes Volume 1. At thirty minutes, in a cardboard sleeve with no recording info, it’s a bit chintzy, but at least the ten-dollar price point reflected that.

Seven tracks are embryonic versions of songs from the All Things Must Pass period, only one of which had been bootlegged. Most tantalizing is an acoustic take of “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me”, complete with jawbone, six years before its appearance on Thirty-Three & 1/3. (It’s also odd how some tracks are subtitled “demo” as opposed to “early take”, since many of the “demos” have a band backing. “Behind That Locked Door” is described as a demo, but with the pedal-steel in place, it could be they just stripped down the completed take to acoustic and vocal.) Two covers, Dylan’s “Mama You Been On My Mind” and the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me”, would appear to be of a mid-‘80s vintage, and the final track is a solo demo of “The Light That Has Lighted The World” played lightly on a 12-string.

While we’re not about to attempt to tell Olivia and Dhani Harrison what to do—except strongly recommend they keep Jeff Lynne far away from the tape vault—we’d really hope that if there are further installments following this one, ideally they would be more comprehensive, and annotated. (Heck, we’d handle that last part ourselves for next to nothing.) As it is, Early Takes Volume 1 provides a mere toe in the water, when we know there’s lots more where this came from. George fans are happy to have anything, so keep it coming, please.

George Harrison Let It Roll: Songs By George Harrison (2009)—4
George Harrison
Early Takes Volume 1 (2012)—3

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sting 4: The Soul Cages

It was mentioned, but not belabored over, that Sting’s mother died during the gestation of his last album. So The Soul Cages emerged from the succession and aftermath of his father’s death. Much of the album takes place in Newcastle, where he grew up near the shipyards. Most of his peers would have ended up working there, but not Sting, who likely incurred his father’s contempt by dallying with jazz groups and pop combos.

Even though the references are overt, Stingy makes sure to hide the narrative behind references to “Billy”, who watches his father toil on the docks with little hope of reward, dreaming of salvation for the both of them on the “Island Of Souls”. “All This Time” was a catchy single, with enough of a commercial sound to make it a hit, while wishing he could “bury the old man at sea”. “Mad About You” is an obsessive love song on the surface, but there’s an awful lot of wordiness to make you think there’s something else going on. It ends before you can belabor it too much, for the toe-tapping boogie of “Jeremiah Blues (Part 1)”, an apocalyptic tale emitting sound and fury but signifying nothing past a great groove. “Why Should I Cry For You?” is an elegant eulogy.

While he takes sole writing credit, the instrumental “Saint Agnes And The Burning Train” is an acoustic Spanish guitar instrumental played by Dominic Miller that kills a few minutes in its pleasant way. It’s not clear if the title refers to a person or a town, and maybe we’ll never know. “The Wild Wild Sea” does continue the allegorical story somewhat, moving you along with the gentle rocking of waves. The Northumbrian pipes re-appear at the fade, making a nice segue to the title track. To begin with, this tune absolutely rocks, which Sting hadn’t done for a while. The beat positively cooks, through some surprising pre-choruses and other sections. But the triumph comes about two-thirds of the way through, where he reprises the melody from “Island Of Souls” (“And he dreamed of a ship on the sea”) for an incredible release that will stand the hair on your neck. It’s not clear whether “Billy” wins the bet with the fisher king, but the gentleness of “Where The Angels Fall” suggests that everything has worked out for the best. A crescendo enforces a resolution, with a suggestion from “All This Time”, a sung wish for “peace on earth”, and even a closing “good night”.

The Soul Cages arrived in the dead of winter, delivering a little more rock than the smooth jazzy stuff he’d done before or since. It boasts a stripped-down sound, consisting of guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. Even Branford Marsalis, who most people thought of as his foil, is heard sparingly. The nice use of English folk instruments keeps it stark and simple. It seems to be over before you know it, but boy, is it subtle. Maybe it took sadness to pull it out of him, but so far, he was three for three. (Thirty years later the album was expanded for digital and streaming, adding some nice B-sides of the period, including the instrumental “I Miss You Kate”, a live cover of Squeeze’s “Tempted”, and “Come Down In Time” for an Elton John tribute album, followed by various remixes and edits of the album’s singles.)

Sting The Soul Cages (1991)—

Friday, May 4, 2012

Paul Simon 2: Paul Simon

After Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel went their own ways, their fans could be forgiven for expecting to get double the great music. The first problem with that theory was that each of the men, who’d already taken lots of time between albums, only continued to work just as slowly. Besides, now Garfunkel had to rely on other people to write songs for him.

Paul Simon’s eponymous album might have satisfied those seeking a logical follow-up to Bridge Over Troubled Water. His fascination with world music continued, starting with the Jamaican rhythms of “Mother And Child Reunion” and the Incan pipes in “Duncan”. “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” seems to have been written solely to start a song with the word “paraphernalia”. These ears hear echoes of “I’m Only Sleeping” in “Run That Body Down”, except there’s no backwards guitar, and the meter jumps around. “Armistice Day” is particularly sneaky, starting almost formlessly, but building power and a beat, with some horn touches and electric scratching.

If “Mother And Child Reunion” was vague, it had nothing on “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”, one of the greatest stupid songs ever recorded. “Peace Like A River” is the album’s hidden gem, with some tempting wordless “ah”s that you wish somebody else contributed. Now follows three songs linked by their titles: “Papa Hobo” with its bass harmonica, “Hobo’s Blues” with Stephane Grapelli’s gypsy violin, and “Paranoia Blues” with its unexpected bottleneck guitar and another reference to Chinese food. Larry Knechtel’s electric piano on “Congratulations” provides some foreshadowing for the music Paul would release throughout the decade.

Art’s harmonies are sorely missed, but outside of the more exotic touches, Paul Simon is hardly overproduced. Acoustic guitars abound, and the album is notable for a general theme of stress and anxiety, as opposed to the lovelorn hedonism common to his peers of the time. (Current CDs include early demos of “Me And Julio” and “Duncan” with slight lyrical differences, plus an alternate take of “Paranoia Blues”.)

Paul Simon Paul Simon (1972)—3
2004 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 3 extra tracks

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Beach Boys 3: Today!

For the first three years of their career, the Beach Boys were on a punishing schedule (typical of the time) requiring lots of time in the studio in between live performances. This period saw the release of a whopping eight albums—the first three explicitly referenced surfing, followed by two about cars—including a live album and even a Christmas album, half of which consisted of original Brian Wilson compositions.

Despite suffering a nervous breakdown, whereupon he would retire from the road, the time spent in the studio crafting all that music only gave Brian a desire to concentrate on only that, working with the best session rats in the best studios, with minimal label interference. (They were happy to oblige, seeing as the Beach Boys were about as lucrative as the Beatles in those days.)

It was their ninth(!) LP that can truly be said to be the first real Beach Boys album, as opposed to a collection of singles. While there’s enough of a “fun ‘n sun” influence, overall the songs on The Beach Boys Today! begin to explore the more mature subjects that would set Brian apart from his contemporaries.

That doesn’t happen right away, beginning as it does with Dennis singing “Do You Wanna Dance”. The production is slightly Spectorized, and it’s infectious. Equally excellent is “Good To My Baby”, with nicely traded lines and a doo-wop tag. “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” sports a repeated 12-string riff, with a slightly anemic threat coming from a family of brothers. “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” takes a big leap, based as it is around a prominent harpsichord. The lyrical content only points out how young these guys were (Mike Love’s hairline notwithstanding). Al Jardine shows how well his voice fits in, despite not sharing any genetics, with “Help Me, Ronda”, which you’ll note is spelled differently than the single. This earlier version is a little longer, with some odd fade effects, and would be the one included on Endless Summer. “Dance, Dance, Dance” ends a very energetic side with some intricate changes amid otherwise ordinary subject matter.

Things get more intimate on side two; the songs are a little slower, and just a little sadder. “Please Let Me Wonder” is something of a musical sequel to “Don’t Worry Baby”, but infused with regret. “I’m So Young” is another cover of a fifties harmony hit, improved upon with their own “Kiss Me, Baby”. “She Knows Me Too Well” sports Brian’s soaring falsetto over the Boys’ excellent support. Perhaps Brian wasn’t ready to lay his soul so bare, so Dennis the heartthrob emotes his way through “In The Back Of My Mind”; there’s a little too much syrup in the arrangement. The pathos is ruined by “Bull Session With The ‘Big Daddy’”, wherein a local DJ attempts to interview the guys while they’re eating burgers, for the sole purpose of filling space at the end of the side.

The album was a highlight of Capitol’s excellent 1990 “two-fer” reissue program, which paired up consecutive Beach Boys albums (all running less than 30 minutes) with appropriate bonus tracks and exhaustive liner notes. A change of regime at the label a few years later resulted in the deletion of those two-fers in favor of the albums reissued individually without any extras at all. A subsequent corporate reshuffling copped to the idiotic decision, and the two-fers were put into circulation again. Of course, we should be grateful that this album is still available at all, and its splendor can be easily obtained for optimal context.

The Beach Boys The Beach Boys Today! (1965)—
1990 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) album and 5 extra tracks