Tuesday, July 31, 2012

King Crimson 9: USA

1972’s live Earthbound album signified what Robert Fripp thought was the end of King Crimson, since he hadn’t come across the musicians that would carry the band through Red. Now that the band had once again reached a conclusion, another live album became a bookend.

In sharp contrast to Earthbound, USA—recorded at the end of the tour immediately preceding the recording of Red—sports much better sound overall. With John Wetton and Bill Bruford, this was arguably the best Crimson lineup that didn’t include Tony Levin. Also, given Fripp’s insistence on audio-vérité, some tracks were enhanced in the studio by prog figure Eddie Jobson, who wasn’t even in the band. Still while his contributions are noted, they are well blended into the mix, with David Cross’s original contributions still audible.

After a snippet from “The Heavenly Music Corporation” over the PA, the band crashes in with “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II”. Somehow the finale from that album becomes just as effective an opener here. “Lament” and “Exiles” are ably tackled, also showing how well the Mellotron stayed in tune. “Asbury Park”—like “Providence” on Red—gets its title from the city where it was recorded, and is an improv certainly worthy of inclusion. “Easy Money” follows shortly, although it fades before whatever the actual ending was, and the band is brought full circle with an excellent take on “Schizoid Man”, complete with requisite distortion on the vocal. (To preserve the listening experience of the original LP, two tracks from the same show were added for the 30th Anniversary Edition: “Fracture” and a wonderful “Starless” that predates the Red version. The album closes with nearly two minutes of applause.)

By this time Fripp had been sure to record as many of the band’s shows as possible, so there was a lot more where this came from, as would be revealed one day. Despite the overdubbing, USA is still a tight album, and an excellent souvenir of this period of the band, certainly for the time being. In other words, mission accomplished.

King Crimson USA (1975)—4
2002 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1975, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, July 30, 2012

Frank Zappa 8: Hot Rats

The Mothers weren’t exactly rolling in the dough, and Frank was getting the itch to play with more schooled musicians than the buddies he’d collected since high school. So off he went, guitar in hand, studios booked.

For those unimpressed by bathroom humor or avant-garde, Hot Rats makes an excellent case for Zappa as a musician. Culled from sessions with select musicians outside of the Mothers as a touring unit, it was a surprise commercial success, too. The album is predominantly instrumental, and the few lyrics are neither topical nor provocative, unless you have a problem with the word “pimp”.

Side one is terrific, beginning with a grand fanfare in “Peaches En Regalia”. Not only is it one of his most melodic pieces to date, each segment is unique and melodic on its own. “Willie The Pimp” rides the same riff for nine minutes, begun on the electric violin, supporting the vocal by Captain Beefheart, then making way for the lengthy wah-wah guitar solo. Nearly as long, and even more majestic, is “Son Of Mr. Green Genes”. Here the melody from the Uncle Meat track is sped up and dressed up by multiple keyboards and saxes. (Frank should really have considered giving Ian Underwood equal billing, considering all the excellent work he did on the whole album.)

Side two gets a little more out there, approaching a sound that would one day be called jazz fusion. “Little Umbrellas” has a mildly Arabic melody, which always confuses us with the last song on the side. “The Gumbo Variations” is a 13-minute groove (extended to 17 on some CDs) featuring the whole ensemble, giving plenty of room for Ian to honk away and Sugarcane Harris to saw. “It Must Be A Camel” ends the side as it began, a little slower, a little unresolved.

If you’re going to dive into Zappa, Hot Rats is highly recommended. However, besides being very good, there’s not a lot like it in his catalog, so your next step won’t be as easy. It’s still the one album just about everyone can agree on, and even though the Rykodisc CDs’ mix was different from the vinyl (now in standard circulation with the 2012 catalog overhaul) it’s still pretty damn good.

The album’s stature was such that it got a vault release all its own for its golden anniversary. The Hot Rats Sessions presented working and full takes of every one of the tracks on the album, as well as future cuts like “Twenty Small Cigars” and “Lemme Take You To The Beach”, key chunks of the Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh albums, and even the fabled “Bognor Regis”. To further supplement the album itself, the 1987 mix is accompanied by single mixes, early mixes, promo spots, an ancient acetate of “Little Umbrellas” from the early ‘60s, and even Captain Beefheart’s isolated vocal for “Willie The Pimp”. Pretty damn amazing for a just a few days’ work. And again, Ian Underwood is a genius.

Frank Zappa Hot Rats (1969)—4
Frank Zappa
The Hot Rats Sessions (2019)—

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jimi Hendrix 2: Axis: Bold As Love

In the ‘60s, bands had to put out two albums a year, and if the first one was remotely successful, the pressure was even more intense. Add a full touring schedule, and many follow-ups did not deliver.

That is not the case with Axis: Bold As Love. While not as strong as Are You Experienced (which had some padding in the form of hit singles) it still shows a progression in sound and vision. Much of the credit should go to Eddie Kramer, who worked very closely with Jimi to translate the sounds in his head to tape.

Jimi hated convention, particularly those imposed on him by pop management, and so determined to do things his way. The first track on the album is a giant middle finger to anyone not ready to be experienced. “EXP” begins as a mock radio talk show about extraterrestrials and becomes an excuse to put a minute’s worth of the most distorted feedback ever on a mainstream LP. It really is painful, making the jazzy “Up From The Skies” that much more of a relief. “Spanish Castle Magic” is a seeming paean to a mysterious place up to par with anything from the first album. “Wait Until Tomorrow” is a silly little song with a joke ending, and a riff that likely inspired “Free Ride” by the Edgar Winter Group. At just under two minutes, “Ain’t No Telling” sounds like it took about that long to write, but that can’t be said of “Little Wing”, one of his best-loved songs. It ends much too quickly, which is why nearly every cover of it is twice as long. “If 6 Was 9” occupies the “I Don’t Live Today” spot at the end of side one, a personal statement wrapped up in tightly executed free-form leaps.

“You Got Me Floatin’” comes from the same page as “Ain’t No Telling”, complete with backing vocals, beginning with a cool effect skittering across the stereo spectrum. That panning effect also colors “Castles Made Of Sand”, so complicated on the surface, but excellent in simplicity. Noel gets thrown a bone for “She’s So Fine”, suggesting that maybe Jimi was short on material; he still gives an excellent performance here. “One Rainy Wish” continues the search for the underwater sound, while “Little Miss Lover” is an early clue to his funk direction. “Bold As Love” provides something of a title track as finale, and a good one, whatever the hell it’s about.

The moderate rating below notwithstanding, Axis: Bold As Love is a worthy volume in the Hendrix story. It’s not the first one we reach for, but he was just getting started. As for the cover art, he wasn’t thrilled with it either, but it is what it is. (The 1993 reissue used a completely different idea, which for consistency’s sake didn’t carry over to later editions, thankfully.)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience Axis: Bold As Love (1968)—

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Television 3: The Blow-Up and The Old Waldorf

Television initially only existed long enough to put out two albums, but played regularly on the punk club circuit in New York City and elsewhere. Here Tom Verlaine’s capabilities as a guitarist were put on best display riding the wave of dynamics of the band underneath. Songs that were already mesmerizing on vinyl were given plenty of space to stretch without restraint.

For the longest time, the only evidence of how they sounded came from a bootleg-quality compilation called The Blow-Up. Issued by the tiny ROIR cassette-only label, it was put together by Verlaine himself, giving something of an approximation of gig in 85 minutes. While some of the track info has been clarified over the years, it’s still unknown where these songs were recorded. Whatever the source, the crowd’s having a ball.

The album gets its title from the opening song, which is actually a 13th Floor Elevators tune called “Fire Engine”. Several tracks from the two albums are performed faithfully, and then it gets interesting. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was an unlikely cover in 1978, and here they take the opportunity to take it apart. “Little Johnny Jewel” and “Marquee Moon” are given epic readings, and it all ends with, of all things, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.

Another official live album finally came out in 2003, in conjunction with the two Elektra albums’ reissues. Live At The Old Waldorf was recorded at that San Francisco club, and released by Rhino’s Handmade limited edition imprint. While it doesn’t have the breadth or length of The Blow-Up, it gets the edge thanks to its superior sound, taken from a radio broadcast, complete with DJ patter. “The Dream’s Dream” is a surprising opener, and while it doesn’t exactly grab the crowd by the throat, at least it sucks them in.

Television The Blow-Up (1982)—3
Live At The Old Waldorf (2003)—

Monday, July 23, 2012

King Crimson 8: Red

And then there were three? The latest incarnation of King Crimson had already lost a percussionist, and the violin player left. On Red, the constant unit was reduced to that of a power trio. As depicted by the needle in the VU meter on the back cover pinned to the right, plenty of volume and, yes, power comes from the guitar, bass and drums, so much that the vocal has to fight to be heard.

The title track plows out of the speakers with a Frippian scale, and a main section with a dominant flatted fifth and some suspended fourths to bring in light. Is that a backwards guitar at the start of “Fallen Angel”? That should be enough of a sign that the gentle verses don’t provide much hope for the city kids in the story, as demonstrated by the alarm-like bursts in the choruses. “One More Red Nightmare” is its most interesting in the non-vocal sections, which describe a man dreaming he’s in a plane about to crash. The middle part and coda tack another mirror onto the piece, with a sax solo and sheet metal-type percussion, ending abruptly like the air being sucked out of the room.

By now it was customary for side two of a Crimson album to begin with an instrumental improvisation and end with a lengthy yet grand (in every sense of the word) finale. In this case, “Providence” was recorded in that Rhode Island city at their penultimate concert, and is hardly aimless at all, considering how it grew from nothing. But it’s easily forgetten when the last track starts. While titled simply “Starless” to set it apart from the previous album, the lyrics are tied together by that album’s title. A lonesome Mellotron lays a bed of chords, helped along by gently ticking drums. Soon a melancholy melody emerges as a theme, balanced against an equally sad vocal. Then something truly obstinate happens—the piece slows down for a bass riff built to support Fripp’s single-note solo, likely played on two strings, generally only changing the note after every second bar of 13/8. The higher he gets, the more agitated the percussion becomes. Then everything stops to set up a “Schizoid Man”-style sax solo, which then revives the verse themes, played with more intensity. The single-note guitar finds its way back in, and the opening theme is repeated for an exhausting finish.

Red is an excellent culmination of the period begun by Larks’ Tongues In Aspic. What puts it above the other albums of the period is the beauty (and thus, dare we say, accessibility) of the music. However, Fripp had already decided the band had gone as far as it could go, and dismantled the outfit without so much as a tour. Thus, with some former members and contributors joining the festivities, the album is something of a culmination.

As with most everything in the catalog, Red has been revisited on various anniversaries. The initial 40th Anniversary Edition (celebrating the birth of the band, not this particular album) added early mixes of two tracks plus the complete “Providence” improvisation to the original 1974 mix; a DVD included a new surround mix of the album by Steven Wilson. 2013 brought another expansion of the album, this time adding a second CD with a new stereo mix and a bootleg quality “Starless” from the show that begat the live USA album, but no DVD; those miffed about that would be assuaged if not overwhelmed by another option. The Road To Red served up 16 mostly professionally recorded concerts—some of which had already appeared in whole or in part on USA, the Great Deceiver box set, and other digital releases—from the tour that immediately preceded the recording of Red. If that’s not enough, there are vintage and new mixes of the album itself, plus a DVD, two Blu-ray discs and the usual ephemera. In other words, flabbergasting. (The streaming version adds only the live “Starless”, the complete “Providence”, and another improv from the same show.)

King Crimson Red (1974)—4
2009 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1974, plus 3 extra tracks (plus DVD)
2013 reissue: same as 2009, plus 6 extra tracks (minus DVD)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tom Waits 16: Bounced Checks and Beautiful Maladies

Besides being a very private man, Tom Waits is incredibly protective of his legacy. The lawsuits he’s won against advertisers that have borrowed his perceived style have financed his children’s college educations, and enabled him to record whenever he wants to, rather than according to the demands of a record company.

He also doesn’t like to be pigeonholed, and while he still performs some of his “oldies” from time to time, he generally avoids any connection to the barfly poet that graced most of his ‘70s work. That management contract ended around the time he married his wife, so there’s a pretty big dividing line between that Tom Waits and the one who emerged afterwards.

Various arms of Asylum Records anthologized that period in different ways. The US got the Anthology Of Tom Waits grab bag, while overseas markets got either the two-LP Asylum Years compilation or its truncated, resequenced CD version. In this century, Rhino used their access to the WEA catalog to issue Used Songs, which is more of a Hal Willner mix tape than an educational overview. Worth seeking out is the Bounced Checks import, which sported lesser-known album cuts, a few alternate mixes, a hilarious live exploration on “The Piano Has Been Drinking” and, best of all, an unreleased rarity in “Mr. Henry”, a classic portrait of a man stumbling home around dawn.

A lengthy sabbatical seemed to follow his somewhat high profile in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. In a move that screamed “contract obligation”, Island released Beautiful Maladies, a compilation of 23 tracks from his stint on the label. It’s a good introduction to that segment of his career, focusing on the rinky-dink orchestrations and vocals by way of a busted megaphone.

As the many one-off appearances, soundtracks and bootlegs can attest, there’s a whole pile of material not currently available. While some of the Island rarities and later nuggets have been collected, as we shall see soon enough, the Asylum period is likely to stay limited to those original albums. But we can dream, can’t we?

Tom Waits Bounced Checks (1981)—
Tom Waits
Anthology Of Tom Waits (1984)—
Tom Waits
Asylum Years (1984)—4
Tom Waits
Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years (1998)—4
Tom Waits
Used Songs 1973-1980 (2001)—3

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Jeff Buckley 4: Mystery White Boy

The only known performance by Jeff Buckley in Connecticut was at Toad’s Place in New Haven in 1995. He and his three-piece band played most of Grace, along with spirited covers like “Kick Out The Jams” by the MC5, “Kanga Roo”, an absolutely gorgeous medley of “Hallelujah” and Bob Dylan’s “Mama You Been On My Mind”, and even a brief, silly stab at “Christine Sixteen” by Kiss. One professional reviewer seemed to think he phoned it in, but that wasn’t obvious to this observer, who felt Jeff seemed to really enjoy himself and wasn’t at all irritated by the a-hole who yelled "YEAH!" at a really quiet moment. (This is why we don’t get invited to nice places.)

With his studio archives fairly limited, it made sense for the estate to go through the dozens of tapes that had piled up from Jeff’s live performances in the wake of promoting Grace. Rather than concentrate on a single show (although a concurrently released DVD presented a Chicago show performed four days before New Haven), Mystery White Boy compiles twelve songs from a year’s worth of gigs, edited seamlessly and cohesively. A handful of Grace songs are interspersed with rare material, such as the otherwise unrecorded “I Woke Up In A Strange Place”, “Moodswing Whiskey” and the phenomenal “What Will You Say”. As a demonstration of his re-interpretation skills, we get covers of “The Man That Got Away”, a ten-minute “Kanga Roo” and a medley of “Hallelujah” with the Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over”. (In Australia, where many of these tracks were recorded, his mesmerizing interpretation of Nina Simone’s “That’s All I Ask” was included as a bonus track; it’s since been added to the streaming version.)

It’s a well-paced set, if a little muddy in places. There was talk for a while of making individual shows available on a subscription basis, but to date the estate appears to have decided that fan-shared bootlegs are just too prevalent to stop. It would be another two decades before four full shows from the first Grace promotional tour would be released on digital platforms, including the audio from the Chicago DVD.

Instead, they pushed a handful of further releases, some more appealing than others. The import-only Live À L'Olympia, recorded at that Parisian theater, is definitely the best, and well worth seeking out. The Grace EPs box set collected some promotional and international singles with rare tracks (some of which would appear on the Grace Legacy Edition), with some repetition. The tenth anniversary of his death was commemorated by the So Real “hits collection”, which offered further rare live performances depending on which online version you downloaded, while Grace Around The World stitched together various live performances of all the songs on the album on DVD and companion CD. All of which only underscores what a shame it is that he didn’t have the chance to chase his muse much further than one album and ideas for a follow-up.

Jeff Buckley Mystery White Boy (2000)—3
Jeff Buckley
Live À L'Olympia (2001)—
Jeff Buckley
So Real: Songs From Jeff Buckley (2007)—

Monday, July 16, 2012

King Crimson 7: Starless And Bible Black

Having found a style that worked, King Crimson managed to barely hold a lineup together for two straight albums, and more or less picked up where they left off with Starless And Bible Black.

They’re even much more aggressive out of the gate, with the pounding opener, “The Great Deceiver”. There are vocals early on, too, along with various time signatures, while still staying catchy. “Lament” begins as a soft gentle song as befits its title, but gets more frantic within minutes. And here’s where it gets interesting—the remainder of the album is built onto live improvisations on their previous tour, showing their telepathy in following each other from nothing into something. “We’ll Let You Know” is the first example, slowly emerging from tentative contributions. “The Night Watch” begins in a similar way, before evolving into one of the more gentle yet uptempo songs in their catalog. The Mellotron appears here, and also features heavily on “Trio” alongside the violin and gently picked guitar. A more sinister sound returns for “The Mincer”, which others have noted ends as if the tape ran out mid-performance. (In fact, it did, as will be explained.)

Side two is all instrumental, beginning with the title track, making something out of nothing. Notice how patient drummer Bill Bruford is, content to stay back and listen in between bursts of percussion, rather than playing all over the place. “Fracture” has more of a structure, and features the only wah-wah violin we’ve yet to hear anywhere. This incredibly constructed piece wanders about an intricate pattern for a while, then finally explodes into a final pummeling riff that may or may or not modulate, but stays steady over an amazing meter change.

Starless And Bible Black proves that the texture of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic was no fluke. This music is challenging but ultimately rewarding, if that’s your thing. And after the wandering that followed the first album, it finally starts to make sense how this band gained such a fanatical following.

As with the previous album, megafans had a choice in the way of expansions. The 40th Anniversary Edition added a new edit that placed “The Mincer” back within the context of its original improvisation, a lengthy piece called “The Law Of Maximum Distress”. Two further songs from the setup tour showed that the band knew how to edit themselves for the studio. “Doctor Diamond” sports garbled lyrics in its verses, while “Guts On My Side” was only performed once, and not remembered fondly, if at all, by any of the players. A DVD added further mix variations and video content. Those with the big money would gladly shell out for the box simply titled Starless, which tracked the album’s development through 18 shows, extracts from others, plus two DVDs and two Blu-rays.

King Crimson Starless And Bible Black (1974)—
2011 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1974, plus 5 extra tracks (plus DVD)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Jimi Hendrix 1: Are You Experienced

One of the recurring themes in rock history is that of “what-if?” We’ll never know what John Lennon might have created in the ‘80s, how Jeff Buckley’s second album would have ended up sounding, or if Woody had gone right to the police, this would never have happened.

The brevity of Jimi Hendrix’s career is all the more stunning when one considers the quality and quantity he put forth in the space of four years. His success didn’t exactly happen overnight, but he really was something of a firework, and not in the Katy Perry sense. He burst upon the scene, dazzled everyone around him, and left embers burning and scattered far and wide.

His prowess and technique on the guitar needed a framework to best show it off, as well as songs to heave at the pop charts, and thus laid the foundation for the power trio. Noel Redding was a guitar player relegated to bass, and Mitch Mitchell played drums in a demonstrative yet hardly chaotic style. Both permed their hair to match Jimi’s afro. Together, they really did change the world.

Are You Experienced delivers that package, mixing three-minute pop songs with more non-standard material to demonstrate his incendiary effects. “Purple Haze” manages to combine both, a bent riff under easily misunderstood lyrics. The broken-leg waltz of “Manic Depression” provides another kind of blues, and even worked nicely on an episode of Moonlighting. His “Hey Joe”, which every band covered in those days, is still the best version. “Love Or Confusion” and “May This Be Love” offer pretty sentiments between the fretwork, the latter an early example of his attempt to find that “underwater sound”. “I Don’t Live Today” would become a springboard for drum solos and feedback demonstrations in concert.

Like a lot of his peers, Hendrix loved Dylan, and “The Wind Cries Mary” is one of the less overt imitations of that style. “Fire” and “Foxey Lady” get an extra boost from the band, split up by the extended jazz and tape explorations on “Third Stone From The Sun”. The title track is suitably psychedelic, managing to mix drums and guitars going both forwards and backwards, with that single piano octave clanging away.

Are You Experienced might not be his greatest album, but it’s still pretty amazing, despite how many times you’ve heard “Purple Haze”, “Foxey Lady” and “Fire”. Since it wasn’t recorded that well to begin with, no amount of knob-twiddling will improve its muddy sound. It’s only been remastered about twelve times, making it that much easier to hear him toking on a joint during the guitar solo on “Foxey Lady”.

This is another of those albums that was different in sequence and cover depending on which side of the pond you’re on. The American LP described here replaced three tracks with some of the singles, but luckily the CDs available since 1993 include all the songs from both versions. “Can You See Me” and “Remember” might have been easily forgotten, but “Red House” is an undisputable classic. The picture is completed by three B-sides, the negligible “Highway Chile” and “51st Anniversary”, and the stellar “Stone Free”.

His catalog has undergone some questionable treatment over the decades, but for the most part, Are You Experienced hasn’t been tampered with too much. When the rights were transferred to MCA Records in 1993, it got a brand new cover, with the three singles and B-sides programmed before the British track lineup. Only four years later the family took over the catalog, restoring both album cover and the American sequence followed by the extras (in the US, that is; the one for sale in the UK has the British sequence with the singles at the end).

The Jimi Hendrix Experience Are You Experienced (1967)—4
1993 and Experience Hendrix reissues: same as 1967, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

R.E.M. 16: And I Feel Fine

It’s not clear why it happened when it did, but another R.E.M. collection appeared in 2006. With the bulky title And I Feel Fine… The Best Of The I.R.S. Years 1982-1987, it appeared to be something of a part one to the Warner-era set from 2003. Like that set, it was available two ways. The single-disc version is basically an expansion of Eponymous, adding some deep cuts to the standard versions of all the tracks (and dropping “Romance”).

Naturally, the fans had to spring for the double-disc version, heavy on rarities, with a few genuine outtakes and live versions. Alternates of “Gardening At Night”, “Just A Touch”, “Hyena” and “Swan Swan H” had already floated in and out of circulation, while vintage takes of “Bad Day” and “All The Right Friends” appear to contrast the later Berry-less recordings on the Warner set. “Mystery To Me” was likely never finished due to its resemblance to both “Radio Free Europe” and The Jam’s “All Mod Cons”. Both sides of the original “Radio Free Europe”/“Sitting Still” single add additional perspective. Each of the boys also chose a personal favorite from their catalog: “Pilgrimage” (Mike), “These Days” (Bill), “Disturbance At The Heron House” (Peter) and “Time After Time” (Stipe), plus “King Of Birds”, apparently a strong contender for disc one. Each is annotated with liner notes by all four original band members, and much more enlightening than the gushy paragraphs contributed by “legendary” critic Anthony DeCurtis.

And I Feel Fine appeared on Capitol Records, but this wasn’t their first stab at an R.E.M. compilation. Back in 1997, after they acquired the rights to the I.R.S. catalog, the label put out a series of odd digipack artist collections to celebrate EMI’s centennial. In The Attic was incorrectly subtitled “Alternative Recordings 1985-1989”, and served up a smattering of B-sides and sundry. Two had already appeared on Dead Letter Office, and another two were on Eponymous; the rest were live versions, the pointless “radio edit” of “Cant Get There From Here”, a true rarity in “Tired Of Singing Trouble” and a wonderful “medley” of “Time After Time” and “So. Central Rain”, with a few lines from Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain”. As many of these were not included on And I Feel Fine, the R.E.M. catalog begins to get a tad unwieldy. An expanded Dead Letter Office would be an excellent place to stash these, but that’s not likely to happen.

R.E.M. And I Feel Fine… The Best Of The I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 (2006)—4

Monday, July 9, 2012

Jeff Buckley 3: Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk

In the last week of May 1997, the entertainment world was reacting to the news that Bob Dylan had been hospitalized with a potentially fatal heart condition. Our relief at his full recovery turned out to be a distraction, for while we were gazing furtively in Bob’s direction, Jeff Buckley was reported missing, and then dead, having drowned during a moonlight swim in the Mississippi River. He was 30 years old.

He had gone to Memphis on a quest to jumpstart ideas for his second album; in fact, his band had arrived that night to rehearse some of his new material. Unfortunately, nothing was ever recorded past the demos he’d made in his rented Memphis house, and the aborted sessions from the previous fall, produced by Television’s Tom Verlaine, which, again, had been deemed sub-par by the artiste.

It was inevitable, but not a given, that his last recordings would be distributed, and both estate and record label were wise to make it happen before bootleggers did. They also made sure not to make it anything it wasn’t, such as finished. Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk presents two discs worth of those studio tracks and home demos of the songs attempted for the album he never completed.

The album is, in the end, something of a disappointment; how could it not be otherwise? The studio sessions sound pretty complete to these ears, though one can see that he might have found them not quite worthy of release; after all, he had set the bar pretty high with Grace. “The Sky Is A Landfill” makes an excellent opener, musically gripping if a bit thick on lyrics. The slow and sultry “Everybody Here Wants You” was pushed as a single, with the hope it would become a slow jam classic. “Opened Once” is even quieter, and more effective. The edgy “Nightmares By The Sea” has an infectious pulse, while “Yard Of Blonde Girls” (a cover) is nice and trashy.

“Witches’ Rave” doesn’t quite catch fire despite a pretty opening melody, but leads well into “New Year’s Prayer”, something of a chant. “Morning Theft” fills the “Hallelujah” role here, a softly sung ballad with lightly strummed electric guitar until some keyboards add atmosphere. “Vancouver” had been played instrumentally by the band at a few gigs already; here the sinister 12-string riff gets a set of lyrics. “You & I”, a long, vocal-only meditation, closes the first disc.

The second disc is a little more, well, sketchy. Alternate mixes of “Nightmares By The Sea” and “New Year’s Prayer” set up a final band recording, “Haven’t You Heard”, which shows some potential. From there, the bulk of the disc is devoted to the demos he was hoping to flesh out with the band. Most teeter between dissonance and polish, and it’s difficult to imagine how the band might have changed them. A one-man-band recreation of “Back In N.Y.C.” by Genesis is fascinating if only for his reproductive ability. A 1992 radio performance of “Satisfied Mind” ends the program. (Two other demos appeared on various international versions of the album; “Thousand Fold”, which the Japanese got, is better than everything on disc two. These are now included on the streaming version of the album.)

Every death is sad, no matter how long the person was alive. In this age of hyperbole and mangled language, it’s common to put labels where they don’t belong, like referring to all movie stars as actors. The loss of Jeff Buckley, however, when he was teeming with creativity, was and remains a tragedy.

Jeff Buckley Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk (1998)—3

Friday, July 6, 2012

King Crimson 6: Larks’ Tongues In Aspic

The band had changed yet again, more radically than ever. Larks’ Tongues In Aspic was another departure, being the first Crimson album without any input from lyricist Peter Sinfield. They boasted a new bass-playing vocalist in John Wetton, who only had pitch problems at the upper end of his range. (He’s still going to remind newcomers of Asia, sorry to say.) Drummer Bill Bruford, fresh from Yes, makes all the difference, as the rest of the band plays to him. He can handle the difficulties the music presents, just as Wetton has the capabilities on the bass to keep up. A violin—courtesy of David Cross—replaces the saxophone as the main melodic counterpart to Robert Fripp’s guitar (and the occasional Mellotron), while inimitable percussionist Jamie Muir adds whole spectra of color throughout. But they arrived at the sound that would define their future.

“Part One” of the title track begins with three minutes of mysterious percussion, before a fuzzy guitar and frantic violin introduce the first of several demonic riffs. The violin plays alone for several minutes in the middle, accompanied only by what sounds like a pencil bouncing on the strings of either a guitar or a piano. The ever-ascending theme (like the lark, get it?) returns to obscure whispered voices for the finale. “Book Of Saturday” is very gentle, restricted to mostly guitar and voice, but it still seems like they forgot to write words for the first verse. Despite beginning with two minutes of dolphin impressions, “Exiles” is even prettier, and not at all assaultive. The Mellotron is just heard in the mix, and we wait for a chorus that never arrives, instead recalling the chords from the flute solo section in “Court Of The Crimson King”.

“Easy Money” is much heavier, sporting a wordless but harmonized scat over a dirge rhythm. The song itself doesn’t really take off until the vocals stop, with Bruford and Fripp playing off each other masterfully. “The Talking Drum” likely gets its title from the hand-played percussion beneath the jam overhead, which itself takes two minutes to emerge. (Somebody else describes this as “the music you'd hear on the elevator down to hell,” and we’ll agree.) The jam intensifies into an abrupt shriek of violin, whereupon “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part Two” takes over with another infectious riff, a sly variation over something hinted at in Part One, atop multiple time signatures. There’s a long sustained end major chord, played furiously over all harmonics, left for the ensemble to fade naturally.

Much of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic seesaws between the nearly silent to loud grooves, to the point where it can be hard to hear the music at all. Therefore it takes several listens, with close attention paid, for it to emerge as a musical whole, rather than what seem like random sounds. It’s not for everyone, but what is?

Those who were for it had two options when the 40th Anniversary Edition came around. The basic expansion added three alternate takes to a new Steven Wilson mix on one disc, and an earlier remaster of the original mix on the other with a radio ad and a promo edit. (Another version had the same first disc, plus a DVD loaded with even more variations.) The Complete Recordings box aimed to track the evolution of this incarnation of the band, adding seven live shows (some of which had already been made available, including their Beat Club appearance for German television), a disc full of early takes crammed into a single track, plus a DVD and a Blu-ray. (The streaming version merely adds two ten-minute tracks labeled “Recording Session Extract”, parts one and two.)

King Crimson Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (1973)—
2012 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1973, plus 11 extra tracks

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Beach Boys 8: Wild Honey

Having seen their credibility plummet in the wake of commercial failure and professional stagnation, the Beach Boys gathered forces and stopped trying to be hip. From here on their albums would be self-produced and performed, incorporating contributions from every band member, always with the hope that Brian would pitch in with some slab of genius. Each would have one or two decent songs, but usually never more than that, and often surrounded by just plain dull music.

Wild Honey was predominantly composed by Brian with Mike Love, and was a valiant attempt to make a simple rock ‘n roll album. It was a nice try, but still sounds very cramped. At least there are more drums.

The title track is a cacophony of keyboards, while Carl shouts the lyrics overhead. (He uses the same approach on the otherwise straight cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her”.) “Aren’t You Glad” and “Country Air” seem to cover the same musical ground, while “A Thing Or Two” (inexplicably described in the liner notes as “jazzy”) is just forced.

The best song is “Darlin’”, a decent hit song for once, despite Carl’s trouble hitting some of the high notes. The first instance of Brian writing a song describing his activities in real time comes in “I’d Love Just Once To See You”, with a musical arrangement that deserves better lyrics, even with the joke ending. “Here Comes The Night” is not the Them classic, but is catchy at least. “Let The Wind Blow” seems to have developed from various discarded Smile ideas, but the Leslie effect on the piano is already becoming tiresome. “How She Boogalooed It” brings back the feeling of their first albums, and two minutes later, “Mama Says” revives the tag from “Vegetables”.

A cult of Beach Boys fanatics will praise Wild Honey for its simple greatness, but that overlooks how insubstantial it is. One of the CD bonus tracks, a compilation of various attempts at a track called “Can’t Wait Too Long”, shows just how close yet out of grasp their potential had gone from them. Hence, the cult would be very excited when a CD set and accompanying digital releases would one day expand on this album even further.

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

Monday, July 2, 2012

Jeff Buckley 2: Grace

He wasn’t easy to label: folk, rock, metal, alternative, jazz? In the era of Hootie and Pearl Jam and Green Day, the only way one might describe Jeff Buckley was “male vocal”, comparable only to someone as singular as Freddie Mercury. And what a voice he had. Not being able to pigeonhole him so easily was a strong sign that this was a talent whose further development would be something to watch.

Grace begins as tentatively as the Sin-é EP, with “Mojo Pin”, expanded here to incorporate drums and multiple guitar parts. The title track is nearly as long but a little more uptempo, supplemented by an Arabic melody and string parts. The last minute or so, where anyone else would have put a guitar solo, is devoted to his own vocal acrobatics, which astound more than grate. “Last Goodbye” would be a wise choice for a single, with an emotion and delivery threatening to make him a heartthrob. His cover of Nina Simone’s version of “Lilac Wine” is soft and seductive, and the dreamy mood is wiped away by “So Real”, a complicated little tune involving odd meters and chordings, with a wonderful mid-song freakout featuring the chainsaw effect of acoustic guitar feedback.

One of the unlikeliest draws of the album is his solo arrangement of John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, which has certainly made it one of the most-covered songs in TV talent competitions and worse. His performance sounds perfectly live, beginning with a diminished variation on the chorus, before the song falls into place capoed high on the neck. For nearly seven minutes he follows the verses through Biblical and sexual imagery, ending softly and sweetly. A harmonium brings in the masterful “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”, built mostly around a D-Em9 pattern, and vivid in its portrait of a room on a rainy day. The dynamic build in the second pre-chorus and delayed resolution of the final chorus still cause goosebumps. The last “cover” on the album is a gorgeous rendition of “Corpus Christie Carol” as arranged by Benjamin Britten. Delivered in the same style as the other two covers, it has a few embellishments for a gentle recording. “Eternal Life” gets a decent rock backing to improve on the solo EP take; others have called it a Zeppelin homage, which is plausible. The final seconds of debris lead seamlessly into “Dream Brother”, a positively hypnotic finale that just hints at anger towards the father he never knew.

An album like Grace is tough to describe in words; therefore it must be experienced directly by the listener. That’s pretty much what happened, too—it didn't sell that much nationwide at first, but world-of-mouth and in-store play made it a success. At the time, it was truly different, and refreshing, and it will get under your skin.

A decade later, the album was given the deluxe Legacy Edition treatment. The bonus CD sheds a little more light onto the sessions, beginning with “Forget Her”, a highly personal song removed from the album at the last minute. A few alternate takes of “Dream Brother” and “Eternal Life” show how those songs grew, both before and after the album’s release. A handful of covers continue the café vibe from the Sin-é set, capped by the epic 14-minute jam on Alex Chilton’s “Kanga-Roo”. (A stab at “Strawberry Street” with a different rhythm section predating the album sessions was included in some overseas copies; it’s since been added to the streaming version.) The DVD offers his videos, plus a 28-minute documentary expanded from the original EPK. All of which is nice, but it doesn’t trump being able to listen to the original album sequence on a loop, as the last hums of “Dream Brother” become the first strains of “Mojo Pin” all over again, mixing with the ambient sounds of a warm summer night.

Jeff Buckley Grace (1994)—4
2004 Legacy Edition: same as 1994, plus 12 extra tracks and DVD

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Stephen Stills 4: Down The Road

The first album under the Manassas name was teeming with music; their follow-up barely cracked a half-hour, putting the eggs-in-one-basket theory to test.

This album has been slammed over the years, and a lot of that has probably been due to Stills being everybody’s least favorite CSNY and the fact that Down The Road wasn’t Manassas (the album, not the band). While Stills continued to be the name on top and the spine, it was still a collaborative effort, with Chris Hillman a key foil, but most of the other guys pushed to the back.

Brief as it is, they can be commended for restraint, as most of the songs aren’t long enough to wear out any welcome, with the possible exception of the two Latin numbers, “Pensamiento” and “Guaguancó de Veró”. Stills’ tendency to emote in Spanish reached maximum tolerance back on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, but he would not be dissuaded.

“Isn’t It About Time” and “Lies” provide a good one-two punch from Stills and Hillman respectively. The first Latin excursion gives way to a nice duet on “So Many Times”, and things don’t come back to that level until “City Junkies” in the middle of side two, despite its misleading title and off-time tambourine near the end.

The best parts of both Manassas albums would easily combine for a solid four-star collection. Instead, Down The Road was a comparative flop and the group split, Hillman taking half the band with him and Stills hovering around the possibility of another CSNY album. Or not.

Stephen Stills — Manassas Down The Road (1973)—3