Saturday, June 30, 2012

King Crimson 5: Earthbound

Using a live album to say farewell to a disbanded band (and possibly fulfill contract obligations) is not a rare practice, and even King Crimson, who were so bent on challenging the norm, are part of the litany. In fact, they did it twice in their pre-digital era.

That’s not to say there wasn’t resistance from within. Robert Fripp has long insisted that the magic of a live performance can only be appreciated in person, and that no recorded artifact, where audio or visual, can do it justice. That attitude is evident all over Earthbound, collected from the last concerts with the Islands lineup of the band and originally mastered from a cassette, with sound quality to match. (Adding to the tension was the fact that the rest of the band had already quit, and were merely playing the tour due to contractual obligation.)

“21st Century Schizoid Man” is more distorted than it should be, and Boz Burrell doesn’t do the vocal justice. He’s not much better on “Peoria”, the boogie improv named after the town where it was recorded. With honking and shrieking sax from Mel Collins, Fripp on the wah-wah pedal, and Boz’s sub-Buddy Miles scatting (as well as on the title track), it’s hard to believe it’s the same band. “The Sailors Tale” [sic] is merely a four-minute snippet that fades out before it gets good. Slightly more interesting is a 15-minute expansion on “Groon”, the free-jazz B-side from 1970, complete with processed drums.

Earthbound wasn’t even released in America until this century, and only got bonus tracks—of equally fuzzy sound quality—45 years after it was originally released. (As it was part of the ongoing 40th Anniversary reissue program, the year got muddled.) A much more flattering portrait of the era emerged on 2002’s Ladies Of The Road compilation, which presents the band in better form and better sound. Something of a sampler of previous archival “Collector’s Club” releases, it’s a better overview of this incarnation of the band, and how it tackled some of the more difficult material, like “Cirkus”. The first disc concludes with a hilarious bluesy snippet of “In The Court Of The Crimson King”; clearly everybody but Fripp wanted to boogie their bums off. The second disc consists of a 46-minute version of “Schizoid Man”, compiled from 13 different performances.

King Crimson Earthbound (1972)—
2017 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1972, plus 3 extra tracks
King Crimson Ladies Of The Road (2002)—3

Friday, June 29, 2012

Frank Zappa 7: Uncle Meat

It had been a whole three years since his last double album, and Frank pulled out all the stops for Uncle Meat. This sprawling collection covers every trick in his bag thus far, including intricate instrumental compositions, doo-wop, social commentary, field recordings and extended jamming. The Mothers had expanded over the years, now employing two drummers, two keyboard players (one of whom doubled on horns), three other horn players, a bass player and the occasional extra guitarist and percussionist.

“Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme” is a piece that would surface throughout Zappa’s lifelong “classical” experiments; here it gets much of its sound from the vibraphone driving the melody, matched by a snare for the first minute or so. An abrupt departure for harpsichord sets up the first spoken piece, one of many under the moniker of Susie Creamcheese. “Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution” shows his love of all drums while he solos for six minutes on top. The brief “Zolar Czakl” sounds like the “Main Title Theme” given the Lumpy Gravy treatment, before the first actual song arrives in the form of “Dog Breath”, presenting the same verse sung three times and three ways before the tightly edited and overdubbed section described in the liner notes. (Fans of Prince’s Parade album will recognize some elements here.) “The Legend Of The Golden Arches” is a melody that will appear again. Suzy sets up a snapshot of the Mothers playing “Louie Louie (At The Royal Albert Hall)”. As that descends into chaos, “The Dog Breath Variations” presents a more placid reading of that tune.

“Sleeping In A Jar” is extremely brief, despite being a popular concert inclusion. “The Uncle Meat Variations” seems to continue the title theme with sped-up vocals, then shifts to a surf instrumental borrowing from Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse”. “Electric Aunt Jemima” is another warped doo-wop song over before we know it. Two versions of “King Kong”—one a “Prelude”, the other an illustration of Ian Underwood’s debut with the band—frame “A Pound For A Brown On The Bus”, a sped-up take of that melody heard on side one.

“Mr. Green Genes” puns on the Captain Kangaroo character with more skewering of organic hippie culture. Its majesty will be revealed in due time. “We Can Shoot You” is a mysterious mix of percussion and horns, leading into a secret recording of a band argument, answered by the nasty doo-wop of “The Air”. “Project X” is another mysterious instrumental, with a simple acoustic guitar figure underneath dueling marimbas and horns, switching halfway to a keyboard-heavy ramble that could be soundtrack music. “Cruising For Burgers” ends the side with another poke at teenage good times.

After being hinted at earlier in the album, a lengthy “King Kong” takes up all of side four, beginning with the theme as shown in the booklet, and continuing under solos on electric piano and two saxophones, edited onto a live performance. As with the album as a whole, there’s a lot going on, and if you have the patience for it, it will grow on you. Like hair.

The cover states that the Uncle Meat album was supposed to accompany a film left incomplete because they ran out of money, and it wasn’t until 1987 that he made a version available on VHS. The concurrent Rykodisc CD presented a slightly remixed version of the album, with the added distraction of what Zappa fans have come to call “penalty tracks” (as opposed to “bonus tracks”). These include two excerpts of dialogue from the film totaling 40 minutes, split up by a 1982 composition “sung” by an Italian journalist in his native language. Only after all that does “King Kong” appear, indexed between each of the parts as listed on the cover. It’s a shame, too, because the original album could easily fit on a single CD. (The 1995 and 2012 revamps kept the same order, with sides one through three on one disc, and the penalty tracks plus “King Kong” on the other.)

The original vinyl mix didn’t make it to an official CD until 2016, as the fifth release of the ongoing Project/Object series. Meat Light indeed presents the album all on one disc, along with what purports to be its “original sequence” on a second disc and the first part of a third. Besides having most of the tracks in a different order, some of them are in different edits, along with previously unheard live jams, some more spoken sections, and six minutes of Frank and crew getting yelled at by police for excessive noise. The remainder of the third disc is filled with further outtakes, alternate mixes, and even a live version of the title track.

The Mothers Of Invention Uncle Meat (1969)—
1987 Rykodisc CD: same as 1969, plus 3 extra tracks
Zappa/Mothers Meat Light (2016)—

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

R.E.M. 15: Around The Sun

Michael Stipe has always been the most arty member of R.E.M., so it was likely his idea to take the bold step of streaming their next album on a social media site before it hit stores—not something that many mainstream bands were doing at the time. It brought the band some publicity, but it probably also had to do with why Around The Sun was not a big seller. Not because people were stealing it online, but because the album isn’t very good.

If anything, the album is just plain ordinary. The very first two tracks are incredibly similar to the point of identity theft; “Leaving New York” got the push in a post-9/11 world, though “Electron Blue” has more bursts from Peter Buck. “The Outsiders”, aka the one with the unnecessary rap by Q-Tip, stands out for that reason alone, and that’s not meant in a good way. There’s no denying how pretty “Make It All Okay” is, and “Final Straw” revives the autumnal acoustic sound for a not-so-subtle political statement, which continues on the very sleepy “I Wanted To Be Wrong”.

“Wanderlust”, with its jaunty British music hall-type of rhythm, has potential to wake things up, but they confuse your toes with a dropped-beat meter. “Boy In The Well” and “High Speed Train” are slow and similar songs both in dire need of bite, but each containing a killer chorus; surely they could have been combined. In between is “Aftermath”, a decent tune washed with those strings they’ve used too much already. “The Worst Joke Ever” stretches a metaphor way too far, befitting the title, but preventing the album from picking up any speed. “The Ascent Of Man” doesn’t either, but somehow the “yeah yeah” chorus works. Then an already too-long album coasts to a close with the title track.

Around The Sun is of a creature with most of their post-Automatic For The People output, in that we desperately want to like it more than we do, but we can’t. Although they’d certainly started to lose their way before Bill Berry left, it was beginning to seem as if he made the wise move. Once upon a time a new R.E.M. was a cause for celebration, and every fan remembers not only the first one they didn’t buy on street date, but the mixed emotions at that tradition having been broken. Why had they been so important to us, anyway?

R.E.M. Around The Sun (2004)—2

Monday, June 25, 2012

Beach Boys 7: Smiley Smile

After 45 years, the legend of Smile, the unreleased follow-up to Pet Sounds, has grown into something larger than its creator. One thing that can’t be expressed is the context of the time, so we won’t do that. But suffice it to say that once upon a time, it wasn’t as easy as it is today to hear recordings that haven’t been officially sanctioned by a distribution channel, so for the longest time, fanatics had to rely on rumor and secondhand accounts.

Basically, several months of recording a seemingly bottomless pool of ideas had no unforeseeable end, so in order to stay commercially viable, the rest of the Beach Boys corralled Brian long enough to get him to complete something, anything that could be their next album. (Meanwhile, Capitol had already put out two greatest hits albums, each less than half an hour, to make up for the time since as well as the low sales of Pet Sounds.)

They never pretended that Smiley Smile was a worthy replacement for Smile, which is good, because it’s not. While each of the songs—save one, but we’re getting to that—had their roots in that project, the released album consisted nearly entirely of new recordings, with no outside musicians involved, captured at Brian’s home studio.

The album begins with “Heroes And Villains”, the big production number that was always going to be the next single. An extremely complicated song, it was much too adventurous for Top 40 radio. “Vegetables”, about the joy of eating them, has minimal accompaniment other than a quietly pulsing bass pedal and “crunching” percussion that may or may not include Paul McCartney. The instrumental “Fall Breaks And Back To Winter”—subtitled “W. Woodpecker Symphony” for the familiar cartoon theme played at the end of each phrase—seems out of place in the middle of the side, until you hear the two truly odd tracks that come after. “She’s Goin’ Bald” is an attempt at comedy, with wacky sped-up voice effects, while “Little Pad” seems to be an attempt to demonstrate how cool they were by getting high and releasing the results.

The label insisted on including “Good Vibrations”, the big hit single from the summer before, and it’s possible that it may have actually helped sales, but its inclusion here still underscores how far away the Beach Boys had traveled from fun and sun, before and since. “With Me Tonight” is a pleasant yet unfinished idea, showing off the harmonies, pretty as ever. “Wind Chimes” and “Wonderful” were both Smile songs, but appear here in eerie, stoned renditions, stripped of all innocence. In the middle is “Gettin’ Hungry”, a collaboration with Mike Love, who was still happy singing songs about the sun. The chorus should have been reserved for a better song than the one with these verses. “Whistle In” is yet another unfinished chant that sounds like the other ones on the album.

There’s definitely something missing from Smiley Smile. Mostly it’s a real drumkit, which is hardly heard anywhere except for mostly tapped percussion. And while it was recorded in Brian’s house, it sounds more like it was recorded in a closet, with everyone singing and playing quietly so as not to disturb any babies napping upstairs. It all combined for an album that was incredibly hard to like, but you kept trying anyway.

The 1990 reissue campaign paired the album with Wild Honey from later the same year, with liner notes that hinted more tantalizingly at what could have been. With room to spare alongside two short albums, the bonus tracks included alternate takes of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes And Villains”, along with another seven minutes of “Good Vibrations” session excerpts that would eventually turn up on the Pet Sounds Sessions box and the B-side “You’re Welcome”.

The Beach Boys Smiley Smile (1967)—
1990 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus Wild Honey album and 6 extra tracks

Friday, June 22, 2012

King Crimson 4: Islands

Despite overwhelming oddities, King Crimson soldiered on with their fourth album in three years. Islands takes a big leap away from the well-traveled roads thus far, with better results. New vocalist Boz Burrell could actually carry a tune, and Fripp figured as long as he was singing, he might as well learn to play the bass, too. (This was enough to land him a subsequent gig as the least prominent member of Bad Company.) Mel Collins is still around to play flute and horns, and there’s a powerful new drummer in the form of Ian Wallace.

“Formentera Lady” begins with a lengthy string bass solo (played with a bow). We hear saxophone noodlings, soon joined by more bowed stringed instruments that eventually find common ground, as a woman moans wordlessly above, occasionally sounding like Peter Gabriel from one of his ‘80s soundtracks. There’s a seamless transition to “Sailor’s Tale”, which would appear to be a musical portrait of a storm at sea. The sax and guitar wander about before finding a part to play in unison, then separate. The 6/8 time gets less frenetic, giving Fripp a chance to explore another guitar tone. The rhythm picks up again, heralding the return of the Mellotron. Things turn particularly sinister, before everything gets swallowed up by a rapidly strummed guitar, slowly decelerating to resolve on a major chord, though the final fade is given over to a minor-key drone. Unfortunately “The Letters” is particularly melodramatic lyrically and musically, and taken at such a slow speed it’s clear the two elements aren’t matched at all well. If you’re a fan of skronky sax for three straight tracks, you’ll love this.

Having ended side one with the sad tale of women involved with the same man, side two begins rather strangely with—and don’t say you saw this coming—an ode to The Groupie. “Ladies Of The Road” follows a fairly standard rock path with little subtlety, complete with a sax and drums combo right out of a typical movie scene in a striptease club. Only the chorus, decorated with what sounds like a backwards guitar, sounds unlike a parody. Luckily, the rest of the album rises above this. “Prelude: Song Of The Gulls” is a lovely chamber music piece for strings and oboe. Sure, it’s fairly basic, but it’s a nice setup for the title track, which begins with a mournful piano and vocal, ending with seven minutes of soft harmonium underneath trumpet, piano and sax solos, occasionally finding a slightly more major key.

Islands is a better listen than Lizard, and even the second album, but still not quite up to the standard of the debut. The fact that they were on their fourth lineup after four albums is probably the easiest culprit. Still, the better parts of the album outshine the lesser elements, making it a worthy representation of the band. The advent of digital technology theoretically makes it easier to skip those below-par segments, depending on the version available, apart from the different covers for the US and UK. One of the first CDs, despite being labeled “THE DEFINITIVE EDITION”, starts “Sailor’s Tale” five minutes early (in the middle of “Formentera Lady”) and doesn’t include the hidden studio glimpse at the end of the title track; that’s since been rectified. The 40th Anniversary Edition of the album sported a new stereo mix with proper indexing, plus bonus tracks in the form of alternate takes of some tracks, and a snippet titled “A Peacemaking Stint Unrolls”, which is basically an early incarnation of the title track to their next album.

King Crimson Islands (1971)—3
2010 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1971, plus 6 extra tracks (plus DVD)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Jeff Buckley 1: Live At Sin-é

Jeff Buckley was the son of ‘60s folk singer Tim Buckley. Although he said he never knew his father, he’d certainly inherited the gift of a unique, keening voice and an esoteric, original songwriting style. Both Buckleys had talent, but it was Jeff who arguably made the biggest impression, and in a shorter amount of time.

The sound he became known for was developed over a couple of years bouncing around quirkier downtown hangouts of New York City, so it was wise of whatever A&R guy that agreed to it to make his first Columbia Records release a simple snapshot of a performance during what Jeff would later refer to as his “café days”.

At Sin-é, an East Village coffeehouse and bar started by a couple of Irish guys, he would set up in the corner with a Telecaster, amp and microphone, and proceed to sing and play for a few hours. Eventually, a couple of sets were professionally recorded. The four-song Live At Sin-é EP contains performances of two songs destined for his soon-to-be-recorded studio album debut, and two unique covers—one an Edith Piaf song, sung in French and English, and the other, a ten-minute exploration of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do”, with a lengthy a cappella scatted midsection showing off his multi-octave vocal range.

It’s an authentic artifact, showing the listener where Jeff Buckley was at. It didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, nor did it rock the world, but a substantial article by Bill Flanagan in the February 1994 issue of Musician magazine helped spread the word, and stoke anticipation for the full-length album. (To this writer, the idea of an edgy walking jukebox with a Telecaster was very appealing.)

Ten years later, his estate conspired with Columbia to release an expanded Live At Sin-é, offering two full CDs (plus a DVD of interviews and clips). Geared specifically at fanatics, these two-and-a-half hours present a wider picture of where he was at, playing only a few originals (“Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” before he finished the lyrics, and an early draft of what would become “Last Goodbye”), leaning heavily on covers associated with Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and more Van Morrison. As a guitarist he was encyclopedic; as a vocalist he was stunning. It takes a lot for a snotty white kid to cover “Strange Fruit”, and follow it with a faithful run through Zeppelin’s “Night Flight”. The between-song patter is indexed separately, but gives excellent context for how and why he performs a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan song. Bum notes and bad jokes are left intact.

And this is just what happened to be captured on two summer nights. Stories abound of the dozens of other songs he’d pull of out of the notes in his head, and the mind reels at the possibilities were he still around to dazzle tiny crowds in his own special way.

Jeff Buckley Live At Sin-é (1993)—3
2003 Legacy Edition: same as 1993, plus 30 extra tracks and DVD

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sting 5: Ten Summoner’s Tales

A fairly quick turnaround for Sting resulted in Ten Summoner’s Tales, a title designed to sound deeper than it is. The formula has fallen into place at this point—well-played songs, with just a touch of jazz experimentation and Celtic influences, nicely produced for listening closely or playing during cocktail parties, for the people who still have them.

The opening track was the first single, and “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” is catchy without being too deep. Then, “Love Is Stronger Than Justice” tells a fairly predictable story over a distracting 7/4 beat (hence the subtitle “The Munificent Seven”) with in incongruous chorus with pedal steel. “Fields Of Gold” was an even bigger hit, and two decades on we’re still confused on what the fields of barley have to do with the ones with gold. “Heavy Cloud No Rain” doesn’t bother with many chord changes until after the guitar solo, making it something of a revision of “We’ll Be Together”. A similar approach is taken on “She’s Too Good For Me”, which also takes a detour mid-track. Perhaps it would have been too obvious to put “Seven Days” in 7/4 as well; instead, it’s in 5/8, and sails along smoothly, though for some reason he opts to quote from “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” (again).

To confound all expectations, the 7/4 meter returns for “Saint Augustine In Hell”, another highly catchy tune interrupted by a “break”. “It’s Probably Me” was first heard in a recording with Eric Clapton and David Sanborn for a Lethal Weapon movie; the version here is a different recording in a smooth jazz mood. Guitarist Dominic Miller gets co-writing credit for “Shape Of My Heart”, which is a musical cousin to “Fragile”. The sea-faring theme of the previous album pervades “Something The Boy Said”, another tale of a mysterious journey. To fit in with the album title, “Nothin’ ‘Bout Me” is called the epilogue; meanwhile, everybody but North America got a twelfth song, “Everybody Laughed But You”, which was added to the streaming version of the album several years after everyone bought it already. (In time for the album’s 30th anniversary, an “expanded edition” was made available digitally, which included that tune plus seven remixes slash radio edits, three live versions, the original soundtrack version of “It’s Probably Me”, live covers of “Purple Haze” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”, plus a remake of “We Work The Black Seam” and the B-side “January Stars” aka “Everybody Laughed But You” with different lyrics.)

Ten Summoner’s Tales is a little repetitive, relying too much on the same rhythms and keyboards, but it’s never really annoying. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of substance under the decorations, elaborate as they are. He did have a hand in bringing the chromatic harmonica back into vogue, so there’s that.

Sting Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993)—3

Friday, June 15, 2012

Spinal Tap: This Is Spinal Tap

Thirty years ago, who would have guessed that a movie about a fake British metal band would have been so enduring? More to the point, who would have guessed that of any collaboration between Meathead from All In The Family, Lenny from Laverne & Shirley, a guy who quit halfway through a replacement season of Saturday Night Live (a feat he’d repeat in 1985, making him the only guy to leave the show twice) and some other guy we’d never heard of?

If there’s anyone who doesn’t enjoy the mock-“rockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap, we haven’t met them. Even given the propensity of the “musicians” to revive the characters every now and again, the film is still pretty funny, and arguably, only Christopher Guest has created something as original since. (And he doesn’t get enough credit for copping Jeff Beck’s hairstyle.)

It was either Michael McKean or Harry Shearer (we can’t remember which) who said that they never considered Spinal Tap to be untalented, just that they weren’t blessed with good taste. It’s for that reason that much of the “soundtrack” album could easily be mistaken for other hard rock bands of the early ‘80s.

Right from the beginning, “Hell Hole” sports a nicely fuzzy riff and an organ part straight off a Deep Purple album. Only when the lyrics of the chorus kick in is there a suggestion of comedy. Similarly, “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight”, redundancy aside, stays fairly subtle in the same pattern. “Heavy Duty” is played for a few more laughs, but is best known for Nigel’s Boccherini quote at the end, just as “Rock And Roll Creation” will mostly remind listeners of the pod sequence of the film (including the finger-in-the-ear harmony section). The rarity of the album is “America”, heard for only a few moments in the studio argument scene, while “Cups And Cakes” is happily rescued from the where-are-they-now file.

Side two goes straight for the obvious, with some of the more quoted songs from the movie. “Big Bottom” and “Sex Farm” need little explanation, while “Stonehenge” continues for another verse past the mandolin solo. “Gimme Some Money” and “(Listen To The) Flower People” appear in their throwback versions; sadly, the live soundcheck runthrough of “GSM” is absent. (A short album to begin with, the current CD includes both mixes of the rare “Christmas With The Devil” single.)

Besides writing the music, the creators put a lot of care to the production. For example, “Gimme Some Money” is presented in extreme stereo, with the drums panned far left, just as they would have been in 1965. “Cups And Cakes” has full orchestration despite its brevity, and all the songs are filled with sonic details worthy of a professional multitrack recording.

The original LP was packaged just like the legendary Smell The Glove, with an all-black cover and minimal legal copy. The gatefold helpfully showed some “other Spinal Tap albums you may have missed”, alongside hilariously inconsistent track info and a page from the Rocklopedia Brittanicus. As ever, its grandeur is exponentially reduced in the CD packaging.

Spinal Tap The Original Soundtrack Recording From The Motion Picture “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984)—
2000 CD reissue: same as 1984, plus 2 extra tracks

Thursday, June 14, 2012

McDonald And Giles: McDonald And Giles

While Robert Fripp tried to keep King Crimson going despite a revolving door of players, two original band members made a stab at continuing on their own. Ian McDonald, who’d provided the saxes and keyboards, and drummer Michael Giles made one self-titled album together, which snuck out on the marketplace in mild competition with their old band’s latest.

McDonald And Giles does carry on slightly from Crimson, down to labeling parts of songs; the biggest difference of course would be the absence of a prominent electric guitar. While it avoided the “demonic” character of the first Crimson album, the music was still elaborate, not quite prog, not quite pastoral, but still kinda jazzy. It provides something of a different perspective to the second and third Crimson albums, while never being harsh at all, and even predicts some sounds on the fourth, which hadn’t been written yet.

“Suite In C” runs all over the place through musical styles for eleven minutes, even including a cameo appearance by Steve Winwood on piano and organ. The much more pleasant “Flight Of The Ibis” sports lyrics by hip hype man B.P. Fallon, while the music itself is very close to “Cadence And Cascade” from the second Crimson album. “Is She Waiting?” is even quieter and prettier, and “Tomorrow’s People—The Children Of Today” is even more of a continuation of the mild whimsy of the Giles, Giles And Fripp, from the traffic jam horns to the flute-led boogie in the middle.

All of side two is given over to “Birdman”, a conceptual tribute to the first British aviator. (In a further connection to the larger Crimson history, the lyrics are supplied by Peter Sinfield.) This too is all over the place stylistically, the music occasionally intended to evoke action, such as the cacophonous machinery in the “Inventor’s Dream” section. The sadly brief “Wishbone Ascension” sequence is noted on the sleeve as having been once part of a larger Crimson piece, but “Birdman Flies!” builds nicely, leading into the chorale of “Wings In The Sunset”, the melody continued instrumentally on “The Reflection”.

There’s enough on McDonald And Giles to make it worth hearing, though it doesn’t latch on immediately. The boys didn’t tour, seemingly happy to stay home with their old ladies, as lovingly displayed on the album sleeve, and who could blame them. Michael Giles didn’t do much more musically, but not to worry about Ian McDonald; within a few years he’d be a key member of Foreigner.

McDonald And Giles McDonald And Giles (1971)—3

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

King Crimson 3: Lizard

Despite an unsteady lineup, Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield went back to work on the third King Crimson album. Lizard tries to get away from the formula of the first two, toning down the Mellotron a tad and beefing up the horns and experimenting, but still stuck in pseudo-Arthurian fantasy. The guy who sang “Cadence And Cascade” on the last album was promoted to full-time vocalist and bass player; it’s just a shame that his voice isn’t that good, much less comparable to Greg Lake’s.

“Cirkus” goes right to the “Epitaph” mode with Mellotron strings, Mellotron horns from “The Devil’s Triangle”, and a theme already used on the coda of “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, but listen closely for some truly masterful acoustic guitar soloing. It even has a fake ending. “Indoor Games” has a nearly traditional structure, except for the band’s penchant for odd meters and free jazz. “Happy Family” is a commentary on the Beatles’ breakup—lest there be any doubt, there they are on the front cover, which is just plain gorgeous—veiled about as thin as a Kleenex, but only if you read the lyrics, which are nearly impossible to hear. The music is set to a jazz jam not unlike “Cat Food”, with processed, tuneless vocals. It’s not until the end of the side that any dynamics arrive in the way of “Lady Of The Dancing Water”, in which Gordon Haskell’s throaty voice is pitted against acoustic guitar, flute and trombone. It’s the first pleasant section of music on the album, and brief.

Side two is given over to the multi-part title suite, though we’ve yet to figure out what a medieval battle has to do with a lizard. “Prince Rupert Awakes”, sung by Jon Anderson of Yes, for crying out loud, alternates between ominous whispers over keyboard bleats and truly melodic chorus, complete with handclaps. “Bolero—The Peacock’s Tale” begins with a very MOR trumpet solo, followed by a processed oboe. Just when you think they’re getting too soft, the trombone and a sax join in, and everyone starts soloing at once. Things eventually coalesce nicely while the snare attempts a bolero beat. The section called “The Battle Of Glass Tears” has its own sub-sections, confusingly starting with “Dawn Song” and going right to “Last Skirmish”, which doesn’t explain what happened at any previous skirmishes. There’s an ominous sax-driven riff while a flute flutters wildly about and the Mellotron paints a picture of tragedy. It’s not clear who wins, but since the last section is called “Prince Rupert’s Lament”, maybe it wasn’t him. (Or maybe it expresses the sorrow at Jon Anderson going back to record The Yes Album, which is much more consistent than this album.) Fripp’s heavy-sustain tone gets a lot of use here. A minute-long section titled “Big Top” skitters across the stereo landscape to suggest a nightmarish carnival. (Kinda like the opening track.) It’s actually pleasant, in a way.

Even diehard Frippheads hate Lizard, and truly, it’s not easy to like. Several of its ideas would eventually be used in much better frames; Fripp just needed to learn how to wait until the songs finished writing themselves. And find a better vocalist. (The 40th Anniversary Edition of the album added some alternate mixes from the sessions, plus an altered version of “Bolero” with a new bass part overdubbed by Tony Levin 20 years after the fact, along with a DVD including a new surround mix by Steven Wilson that even Fripp appreciated. Arguably the best way to hear the album now is as part of the massive Sailors’ Tales box, which included vastly upgraded mixes of this album, as well as the ones immediately before and after, along with ten live shows, four Blu-ray discs, two DVDs, and three CDs’ worth of “auditions” and “rehearsals”. And the usual ephemera.)

King Crimson Lizard (1970)—2
2009 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1970, plus 3 extra tracks (plus DVD)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Stephen Stills 3: Manassas

It should be no surprise that someone of Stephen Stills’ ego would arrive so quickly at the double album. While his name was the biggest, there were several key players collaborating, including Chris Hillman, confusing the Byrds-Buffalo Springfield family tree even further. But he’s definitely in charge, from his name twice on the front cover to his handwritten lyrics on the gigantic poster and the dreamy silhouette on the inner sleeves.

Manassas is the name of the album, as well as a catch-all moniker for the group. Basically Stills combined some of his favorite sidemen and created an album that’s much more in the spirit of playing than production. It’s a large ensemble, all credited on the cover, with several guitarists, two guys who came in with Hillman from the latter-day Flying Burrito Brothers, and the clattery percussion of Joe Lala smacking away. Now Stills could truly embrace all the music he loved, from blues to bluegrass, rock to soul.

Being a double album, each side is denoted as a specific suite. Side one, or “The Raven”, connects five songs without a break, mostly Southern California rockin’ boogie. Something of a departure arrives at the end of the side with “Both Of Us (Bound To Lose)”, sung by Hillman and Stills over a melody borrowed from Neil Young’s “The Loner”, ending with a salsa jam. With its country touches, the side dubbed “The Wilderness” must have thrilled Hillman no end, beginning with the bluegrass “Fallen Eagle” hiding an anti-war lyric. “Jesus Gave Love Away For Free” sounds like one of CSN’s better moments, while “So Begins The Task” should have been.

Side three, or “Consider”, is the strongest, beginning with “It Doesn’t Matter”, sung in close harmony and sporting a tasty Stills solo over vibes. “Johnny’s Garden” is a simple appreciation of the simple life, while Hillman had been trying to record the tricky “Bound To Fall” for years. Even the appearance of a Moog here and on “Move Around” works as color without crowding. Bill Wyman appears on “The Love Gangster”, and gets co-writing credit. Side four insists that “Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay”, and who are we to argue? At eight minutes, “The Treasure” (pointedly subtitled “Take One”) has all the potential to be overblown, but manages to keep churning without flagging. And on the closing “Blues Man”, Stills doesn’t dare put himself on the same level of those to whom he’s paying tribute.

As long as it is (over seventy minutes) Manassas provides quite a bit of quality, while cramming in each of Stills’ pet styles. It’s also a nice throwback to a time when an album could be experienced as a set of sides, rather than in one big chunk. On CD (or via stream) the listener isn’t as tasked with flipping and swapping discs, but that’s not to say it rivals, say, Exile On Main St. for an enhanced experience when listening to it all straight through without pause. It could easily have been reduced for a really tight single LP, but excess ruled the day.

Stephen Stills Manassas (1972)—3

Friday, June 8, 2012

Neil Young 45: Americana

Somebody, we’re not sure who, made the point that Neil plays with Crazy Horse because their inherent lack of chops make him sound good. That’s not the fairest thing to say. They’re obviously guys he enjoys hanging out with; otherwise, it’s doubtful he would have kept sending them checks for over forty years.

Still, one doesn’t listen to a Neil and Crazy Horse album for technical brilliance. They deliver a consistent feel, loose but not out of tune. The rhythm may rush here and there, and they may play wrong chords, but they’re always in pitch. And when Neil wants to work quickly, sometimes they’re the men for the job.

Who knows if Americana, a collection of folk songs and covers, was a concept he had before calling the boys in to record? Whatever the story, what sounds like a joke on paper turns out to sound exactly like you’d expect: Neil Young and Crazy Horse stomping their way through the likes of “Oh Susannah”, “Clementine” and “This Land Is Your Land”. His Harry Smith-like liner notes carefully describe the history of each song, as well as who came up with the arrangement. The sound sits somewhere between the incessant drive of Ragged Glory and the country stomp of American Stars ‘N Bars.

Neil being Neil, Americana is both a celebration of history, as well as a protest album. “Travel On” gets a sly reference to war, while “This Land Is Your Land” includes some of the more defiant, lesser-known verses (plus cameo appearances by Pegi Young and Stephen Stills). The closing “God Save The Queen”—just in time for her sixtieth jubilee celebration!—becomes a medley of the original anthem every Canadian schoolboy would know with a verse from “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”.

Except for a mildly unobtrusive choir added later, it’s performed live, with mistakes intact, and a few seconds of studio chatter between tracks. The most successful songs are those not as widely known, like “High Flyin’ Bird” and the acoustic “Wayfarin’ Stranger”. “Tom Dula” is supposedly played in the same arrangement as Neil’s first band, while “Jesus’ Chariot”, based on “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain”, is also drastically overhauled while still recognizable. Either the best or worst song on the album is “Get A Job”, the doo-wop classic that explains how Crazy Horse never made it as a vocal harmony group before Neil found them.

Americana is not a major statement, and will likely never be revered as a high point of the pantheon. Nor should it be. But it’s still proof that there’s life left in the old bastard, and he will just keep playing until he drops. We hope.

Neil Young with Crazy Horse Americana (2012)—3

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pretenders 4: Get Close

Learning To Crawl celebrated Chrissie Hynde’s determination to rock alongside life as a mother. Within a year’s time she married Jim Kerr of Simple Minds, and had a child with him (her second). His band had its biggest-ever success with a song thrust upon them for a John Hughes film, before releasing an album that rode that hit’s coattails. Once Upon A Time sported a slick, synthy sound, thanks to producers Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain. That same team could get the bulk of the blame for the prettified Get Close, but as Chrissie seemed to think it okay, it really is her fault.

For starters, the tight unit that propelled most of Learning To Crawl only appears on the closing track, a synth-heavy cover of Hendrix’s “Room Full Of Mirrors”. The ten songs prior to that deliver edgeless pop from a revolving set of musicians, anchored by guitarist Robbie McIntosh and the drummer from Haircut 100.

Only the first single, “Don’t Get Me Wrong”, can remotely be called catchy. The other radio hits were “My Baby” (dripping with sentimentality and including a rather obvious sound effect in a cheering audience) and “Hymn To Her”, a celebration of (take your pick) the Goddess, womynhood, somebody’s mother or all of the above. If not for her wavering voice, there’s little connection to the bite of the first two albums. “Chill Factor” tries to speak for the gender as well, but is a pale copy of her own version of “Thin Line Between Love And Hate”.

Particularly painful are the slightly political rants “Dance!” and “How Much Did You Get For Your Soul?”, which pit ordinary R&B riffs to ill-advised club beats, complete with dated keyboards and vocal modulations. “I Remember You” and “Tradition Of Love” beg to be skipped, but the biggest head-scratcher is “Light Of The Moon”, written by Bowie cohort Carlos Alomar and two modern jazz performers, one of whom can’t even spell Chrissie’s name right on the credits section of his website.

Chrissie is the only Pretender shown on the front cover of Get Close, and when the 1990 model arrived, the name of the “band” was its own joke. Martin Chambers would eventually return to the fold, and every couple of years she’ll put out a new album under the Pretenders name. (Malcolm Foster, who played bass on Learning To Crawl, hasn’t been heard from since.) Still, Chrissie remains an icon and a legend, one of the best voices in rock. And for that, she doesn’t have to do anything else. But sometimes we wish she wouldn’t bother.

The Pretenders Get Close (1986)—
2007 expanded, remastered CD: same as 1986, plus 6 extra tracks

Monday, June 4, 2012

King Crimson 2: In The Wake Of Poseidon

Almost as soon as they began, King Crimson was already fractured. Ian McDonald, who contributed the signature horns and keyboards to the first album, took off, and would eventually lure drummer Michael Giles away with him. Greg Lake was in the process of forming ELP, but deigned to contribute vocals to the follow-up. Bass duties were handled by Peter Giles, called back from the pre-KC combo he’d formed with his brother and Robert Fripp, while the saxes were played by Mel Collins, whom most people might know today from his work with Dire Straits. Fripp dominated the composing—as well as the Mellotron—with the help of lyricist and co-producer Peter Sinfield.

In The Wake Of Poseidon suffers by comparison with its predecessor, not only because it’s not as good, but because it follows much of the same formula. Despite the bookends of a recurring theme called “Peace” (complete with instrumental version in the middle) the five songs mirror those on the debut. “Pictures Of A City” has a slightly jazzy feel, with snotty vocals and an anarchic guitar ending. “Cadence And Cascade” (the only song here not sung by Lake) offers a pastoral respite that instead is just plain wimpy. The title track has promise, but is a pale imitation of “Epitaph”, complete with the Mellotron strings and car-horn sax ending, to the point of almost being self-plagiarism. These guys weren’t exactly gobbling acid or smoking weed nonstop; didn’t they notice the similarities? Or they didn’t have as many ideas as they’d hoped without McDonald?

“Peace – A Theme” provides a nice acoustic break, kicked aside by the snide social commentary in “Cat Food”, most notable for Keith Tippett’s piano in the right speaker that sounds like several cats are indeed pouncing on the keys for most of the track. (When released as a single, the B-side “Groon” was even more exploratory jazz; it’s since been included on the 30th and 40th Anniversary Edition CDs of the album.) “The Devil’s Triangle” takes about a minute and a half to fade in on a march rhythm before the Mellotron takes over in tribute to the “Mars” section of Holst’s The Planets. While their live renditions of “Mars” were stunning highlights of their early gigs, it just doesn’t translate to the studio. About four minutes in the march stops for a foghorn, then picks up with relentless determination. This might be where the next section takes over, and we’re guessing that the next part occurs after the windstorm in the middle of minute eight. Once that dies down, a few taps give way to more scary Mellotron on a slightly faster death march, whereupon a few other keyboards stumble in as the Mellotron sputters out for a truly chaotic end, complete with a sample of “The Court Of The Crimson King”. But just so you don’t think they’re all doom and gloom, the closing “Peace” installment has a vocal accompaniment to the acoustic.

There are those who will insist that In The Wake Of Poseidon delivers an astounding combination of jazz and prog unlike any other. They can have it. We’ll go back to the first album until we hear something unique, and by that we don’t mean free-from improv. (As mentioned above, the first expanded version of the album added both sides of the “Cat Food” single; for the 40th Anniversary these were accompanied by just “Groon”, plus an alternate of “Peace—An End” and a version of “Cadence And Cascade” with Greg Lake singing lead, as well as a whole pile of extras on a DVD. The eventual streaming version went with both “Cat Food” and “Groon”, plus the Lake “Cadence”.)

King Crimson In The Wake Of Poseidon (1970)—
2005 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1970, plus 2 extra tracks
2010 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1970, plus 3 extra tracks (plus DVD)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Tom Waits 15: The Black Rider

It’s entirely possible that his last album avoided an overlying concept for the simple reason that he was working on something else entirely for the last few years. That something was The Black Rider, a collaboration with playwright Robert Wilson with a little help from William S. Burroughs. Presented as a play with music (a la Franks Wild Years), it places Tom happily within one of his happiest environments—the nightmarish German carnival. The opening “Lucky Day Overture” features him hawking the alleged performers through a bullhorn, continued in the title track, sung with an accent that can’t decide if it’s French or German. The promise of a “gay old time” jars with the accompaniment.

While the story is detailed in the liner notes, and full lyrics are provided, one is still hard-pressed to figure out what is going on—something about a hunter aspiring to win the hand of a woman, who he ends up shooting instead, to which Burroughs could certainly relate.

The bulk of the album seesaws between unsettling circus sounds and more developed ballads. In the spirit of Night On Earth, several songs are represented in separate instrumental and vocal forms, and often with dramatic results. For instance, “Gospel Train” appears first as a loping incline, then as a more frenetic track with an incongruous vocal and a wheezing sound effect. “Russian Dance” stomps along (indeed, as there’s a credit for five people on “boots”) and the “Boners” return for “Oily Night”, a song guaranteed to clear a room.

The actual songs stand out too. “I’ll Shoot The Moon” is nice and romantic, complete with a spoken monologue begging the object of his desire to call him; he even gives the phone number. “November” aptly sums up the crueler aspects of that month, while “The Briar And The Rose” is a love song that deserves better than the strangled delivery it gets here. Burroughs himself “sings” an oldie called “T’ain’t No Sin” (as in “to take off your skin and dance around in your bones”, while a marimba bops happily along), while Waits recites the man’s litany in “That’s The Way”. “Crossroads” pushes the plot again, Burroughs’ words equating the doomed hero’s destiny to that of a junkie. Something of a grand finale (if not an “Innocent When You Dream”-style singalong) is “Lucky Day”, with its schoolyard reminiscences and the sound advice in the middle: “when you get blue and you’ve lost all your dreams/There’s nothing like a campfire and a can of beans.”

Despite its eccentricities, The Black Rider is one of the more consistent Waits listens, in that it’s uniform in its weirdness. It’s not as repetitive as Night On Earth, while more distinct than Bone Machine. It succeeds, almost despite itself.

Tom Waits The Black Rider (1993)—3