Friday, August 31, 2012

Captain Beefheart: Trout Mask Replica

Music is a subjective experience; ultimately one’s enjoyment or lack thereof gleaned from an album cannot be directed by any external source. Granted, that truth puts sites like the one you’re reading in jeopardy, but if we can shed just the slightest bit of light on something, we’ll feel as if we’re helping somehow, and perhaps we’ll endure.

See what we did there? Within the space of two sentences we took a profound statement and turned it into a disclaimer of sorts. This is the influence the Internet has had on the act of writing: the author, expecting to be criticized, insulted, or worse for stating an opinion, girds himself in advance as protection.

While the statements above could easily be applied to each and any of the 700 and counting entries on this blog, it seems particularly apropos given the album at hand. Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band is lots of people’s favorite album of all time. Considering that those people have included Lester Bangs, Matt Groening, David Lynch, Tom Waits, and even John Lydon, it should be obvious that it is not for everyone.

We’re compelled to discuss it here because of its place in the context of Frank Zappa, a man who for the most part did not have a high success rate when it came to producing music he himself did not create or perform. The one Grand Funk Railroad album he produced isn’t notable for much more than that fact, the GTO’s were predominantly occupied as “groupies” when they weren’t babysitting his kids, and we don’t even know where to begin with Wild Man Fischer. Frank had known the Captain since high school, and they found their way into the major-label music biz independently of each other. Their music is only occasionally similar, so even if you’ve digested the Zappa albums discussed thus far, your first exposure to Trout Mask Replica will result in raised eyebrows, whether you enjoy it or not.

Captain Beefheart had a husky blues shout, tempered by a humorous announcer’s voice. His obvious musical contributions were via saxophones and other wind instruments, blown free-style. His lyrics were alternately poetic or derived from blues and folk songs; presumably, he was the one who christened his band members such names as Antennae Jimmy Semens and The Mascara Snake. His lack of formal musical education resulted in songs that seem to lack any kind of structure, with everyone seemingly playing different songs at the same time. That would be a false assumption, as evidenced by the melodies and grooves that emerge from out of nowhere, either within a track or in one’s subconscious with ongoing exposure.

As with anything in the avant-garde, free jazz or progressive rock genres, an album like Trout Mask Replica requires patience, and not just because it fills four sides. The recording itself is very clean, except for the elements recorded from “field” sources. The cymbals are crisp and clear, but the rest of the drums often sound like oatmeal boxes. A song-by-song summary will not do it justice, and certainly not at this point in our education.

So basically, we can understand why some people love it, as well as why anyone else can consider it noise or a cruel joke (as a frame of reference, that’s pretty much how we feel about Sonic Youth). Its defenders can speak better to how it’s changed their lives and the world around them for good. Trout Mask Replica has the power to ruin dinner parties and wreck marriages, and should therefore be wielded with care. But, just like a pizza with anchovies, it’s up to the individual to try it out for him or herself. It just might be your thing.

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band Trout Mask Replica (1969)—3

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ben Folds 11: The Best Imitation Of Myself

A busy fifteen years in the music business brought Ben Folds to a place where either he or his erstwhile label decided to put together a compilation of hits and favorites. The Best Imitation Of Myself is packed with some of the more obvious choices from his solo career, while being sure to include key signpoints from Ben Folds Five. To make it more interesting, a few oddities provide a different perspective. “Brick”—track one, fittingly—appears in its “radio edit”, and “Landed” includes a lush string arrangement by Paul Buckmaster to cement its debt to Elton John. “Smoke” is a performance with the West Australia Symphony Orchestra. “Gracie”, his song for his daughter, is nicely positioned next to an extended-intro mix of “Still Fighting It”, his song for his son. But then there’s “You Don’t Know Me”, his one hit that everybody seems to like except us. The big news was a brand new Ben Folds Five track, the moody and melancholy “House”. It’s hardly brilliant, but its internal theme of not going back into the past would backfire once they decided to keep going.

Of course, one disc of hits wasn’t going to be enough for this guy, or his fans. Therefore, The Best Imitation Of Myself appeared as both a single disc and as an expanded package containing a disc each devoted to live tracks and rarities. Everything is nicely annotated with liner notes and key information for us geeks who like reading such things while we listen.

The live disc is arranged chronologically, which is nice, as it provides an aural glimpse of what the Five was like on stage. As wacky as they could be on their albums, their concerts gave each of their songs a shot of chaotic energy (or energetic chaos, take your pick). Piano stools would be thrown, songs would be made up, and anything went. It’s a noticeable difference when the switch to “a man and a piano” takes over for the solo years, and you can hear how the addition of a band eventually pushed him back toward the gimmicks that keep his shows interesting. Most of the songs stay close to the album versions without being redundant, but there’s also his boy-band knockoff “Girl” and a performance of “Not The Same” with the audience singing the three-part choral harmony. And we’d love to know what George Michael thinks of the duet with Rufus Wainwright on “Careless Whisper”.

The rarities disc includes unreleased demos and tracks, as well as a couple of soundtrack contributions, a track from the never-released fourth Ben Folds Five album and two more new songs from the reunited Five. The focus is predominantly on his songwriting process, with such comedic departures as the wonderfully crude “The Secret Life Of Morgan Davis” and covers like “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and Ke$ha’s “Sleazy”.

There’s a lot to take in here, but that was just the beginning. With so many things having piled up over the years, he concurrently offered up Fifty Five Vault for digital download, with 32 of the 56 tracks (no, that’s not a misprint) previously unreleased. Three hours of potentially new music is daunting on its own, but consider this: what if your favorite artist began offering up music this way?

Ben Folds The Best Imitation Of Myself: A Retrospective (2011)—

Monday, August 27, 2012

Soft Boys 4: Nextdoorland

His solo career had turned out less lucrative than ever, but at least Robyn Hitchcock had the distraction of reissuing Underwater Moonlight (everybody’s favorite Soft Boys album) on the trendy Matador label. In a move as unexpected as it was obvious, the band reunited for a tour, which led to a new album.

Nextdoorland turned out to be one of his better albums in a while, certainly helped by a consistent, reliable unit throughout the album, as opposed to the pick-and-choose sequencing of his Warners output. There’s little of the chaos so prevalent on their albums, instead relying on tight playing, excellent guitar interplay, and Robyn’s choice of words. It would also appear that all of the songs were written or at least developed with the Soft Boys in mind.

“I Love Lucy” is perhaps one of the better illustrations of their strengths, being mostly instrumental. “Pulse Of My Heart”, “Mr. Kennedy” and “Unprotected Love” all teem with hooks, while “My Mind Is Connected To Your Dreams” recalls some of the moodier Egyptians tracks from the ‘90s.

“Sudden Town” has a riff that flirts with “Kingdom Of Love”, breaking out of its straitjacket in time for the chorus. “Strings” goes for over six minutes, mostly due to a few psychedelic trips here and there. “Japanese Captain” tries a little too hard to be odd, so “La Cherité” is a better use of evasive meaning. “Lions And Tigers” is kinda silly, but it works.

As good as Nextdoorland is, something’s still missing. Over the years, what had once seemed to come so easily to Robyn was now seeming more contrived. Plus, spending 25 years in the business not likely too careful with his throat was starting to result in a rasp.

But at least he was making music, and letting it be heard. As was becoming common for him, another handful of songs was made available via direct mail order. The aptly titled Side Three offered another twenty minutes of catchy tunes, before disappearing. Of the six tracks, one is a remake of “Each Of Her Silver Wands” from an earlier offhand release, and “Evil Guy” had been a legendary Egyptians outtake. It’s out of print, but new and used copies abound on the e-tail sites.

The Soft Boys Nextdoorland (2002)—3
The Soft Boys
Side Three (2002)—3

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Robert Fripp 3: The League Of Gentlemen

At a brisk pace to realize his musical vision in his self-imposed “Drive To 1981”, Robert Fripp’s next trick was to get funky. Well, not really; to his mind the natural extension of discotronics would be music that would move your body as well as your mind, and you needed a rhythm section for that. He’d already shared some of this vision on the Under Heavy Manners half of his last album, so he found Barry Andrews, fresh from XTC, to play organ, plus Sara Lee on bass and Jonny Toobad on drums, and thus the League of Gentlemen was formed.

Four months of work on and off the road resulted in something of a repertoire that would make up their one and only album, except that the drummer turned out to have substance abuse issues, so he only played on two tracks of what would be released as The League Of Gentlemen. The other tracks were handled by Kevin Wilkinson, who’d played in the band that had opened up for the League, which is how he learned the songs. To flesh out what he already deemed less than an accurate representation of what the band could do, Fripp took a nod from Exposure and inserted various spoken word sections, some taken from lectures by his spiritual guide J.G. Bennett, some from various Roches, some of a woman in ecstasy, and some lifted from the radio a la My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. The effect is very much like Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy, and just as strange.

One of these collages opens the album, with “Inductive Resonance” providing relief in an actual musical composition. “Minor Man” is another groove of sorts, but with Danielle Dax mewling over the top. While likely impossible to request by name, “Heptaparaparshinokh” is a bopping little number named after a “cosmic law of seven”, as is the easier-to-pronounce “Dislocated”. “Pareto Optimum I” appears to be synth-based, building slowly on repeated notes, almost Frippertronic-style, while “Eye Needles” is back to the whole combo again. Another collage appears to discuss Fripp’s prowess in non-musical areas, ending side one.

“Pareto Optimum II” continues the experiment of the first, and then “Cognitive Dissonance” is another band track overlaid with Bennett lecturing. The grooves in “H.G. Wells” and “Trap” are also marred, frankly, by voices and moaning where they didn’t need any, but if you listen closely you can hear predictions of the next King Crimson album. That’s it for the band; “Ochre” is a more melodic exploration on the “Pareto Optimum” ideas, and another collage closes us out.

Fripp has maintained that the album was a compromise to meet a contractual obligation, so The League Of Gentlemen has never been reissued in any form; the seven tracks that featured the whole band were included, with extraneous commentary mixed out, on 1985’s God Save The King compilation, which also sampled rejigged tracks from Under Heavy Manners. This limited availability only underscored the original album’s shortcomings.

Besides, the band was at its best live. Years later, once his own DGM label began plundering his archives, Thrang Thrang Gozinbulx presented a compilation of performances by the original combo from club shows in the months before they attempted to put together the album proper. It’s accurately dubbed an “official bootleg”, as the source cassettes were from the back of the venues, with lots of crowd noise competing with the band. Unfortunately, the crowd sounds so rapturous and the size of a stadium crowd, almost comically, to the point of sounding canned.

That said, the music cooks. Besides demonstrating a lot of energy—somewhere between the B-52’s and Metal Box PiL—they seem more like they’re playing together, displaying dynamics missing in the studio. We also get to hear pieces that didn’t make the original album, including three variations of the title track, the more measured “Boy At Piano”; the deceptively titled “Christian Children Marching, Singing”; “Ooh! Mr. Fripp”, which predicts the type of thing he’d play in his next band; and the much slower but still groovy “Farewell Johnny Brill”. Hidden all the way at the end of the disc, following a lengthy silence, are various onstage announcements by Fripp beseeching the band to party and the audience to dance. (Other gigs from the original Gents are available in decent-for-bootleg quality for download at Fripp’s website, as well as in the Exposures box. There we can hear the crowd was certainly receptive, but more engaged beyond mere cheering. Steven Wilson’s modern mixes of the studio tracks, including the God Save The King selections and some unreleased, are also in the set.)

Robert Fripp The League Of Gentlemen (1981)—
Robert Fripp/The League Of Gentlemen
God Save The King (1985)—
The League Of Gentlemen
Thrang Thrang Gozinbulx (1996)—3

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Robert Fripp 2: Frippertronics

Once finally released, Exposure returned Robert Fripp to the music industry, kind of, and he sought to find his way through it on his own terms. His Frippertronics experiments of improvising over prerecorded loops saw him performing in small, non-standard venues, from record stores to pizza parlors, with the audience up close. This was how he chose to compose, and while making an album out of them wouldn’t be easy, he managed to get two.

The first was given the unwieldy title God Save The Queen/Under Heavy Manners, which suggested they were condensed from what could have been two separate albums. Each half of the title referred to a different side of the record or tape, each built on Frippertronics loops. The first (called “Side A”) offers three performances of increasing lengths, bleeping, and intensity, all sounding very much like No Pussyfooting but without any Eno input. The other (called “Side One”) adds a rhythm section, including Eno and Talking Heads favorite Busta Jones, to the loops, which was Fripp’s idea of “discotronics”. “Under Heavy Manners” begins much like the rest of the track until overdubbed band kicks in, and a pseudonymed David Byrne bleats a raspy vocal. After coming to a halt, Fripp instructs the proceedings to “continue,” and “The Zero Of The Signified” presents a more relentless beat, which eventually fades for the Frippertronics to dominate as they too fade.

A year later, Let The Power Fall presented another full album of Frippertronics from the same 1979 performances that begat the previous set; this time there was no added rhythm section. Three longer pieces alternate with three shorter ones, all similar in structure but differing in intensity. From time to time a melody emerges, and they can be quite lovely, but they come and go, as is the fleeting nature of the music.

These albums are interesting for filling in the blanks between ‘70s Crimson and ‘80s Crimson, but they are not easy listening. Fripp has always preferred live performance to a static media format to express himself musically, so these pieces may well have been more exciting for those who witnessed them take shape out of seemingly nowhere. In fact, 2022’s Exposures box set collected further hours’ worth of Fripp performances from this period on five CDs, and even more on Blu-ray, so the selections that made up these two albums had to have stood out somehow.

When some of his back catalog was first prepared for CD in the mid-‘80s, Fripp couldn’t help “revising” (his term) some of the music. 1985’s God Save The King compilation augmented the Under Heavy Manners half with music from 1981’s dance-oriented The League of Gentlemen. The “title track” was a rejigged “The Zero Of The Signified” with a new, more furious solo overdubbed throughout. This track, along with the previously unreleased jam “Music On Hold”, was included as a bonus on the first-ever CD reissue of Queen/Manners, following their inclusion in Exposures. Meanwhile, Let The Power Fall got a “Definitive Edition” CD release in 1989 alongside other King Crimson albums; its reissue in the wake of Exposures sported extras consisting of a single edit and two alternate mixes, all of the “1984” track.

Also hidden within the multitude of discs in the Exposures doorstop was one little surprise, and deemed of such importance that it was also released on its own. Washington Square Church was recorded during a residency at the New York City venue of the same name in the summer of 1981. What makes this collection of Frippertronics stand out is that not only do we hear the loops used for the performances, but for the first time, they are synchronized with his live improvised solos—a facet that made each Frippertronics concert a unique and intimate experience. At times pastoral and at others frenzied, this is probably the best way to hear Frippertronics without being there.

As technology evolved, so did Fripp’s approach to Frippertronics. By the ‘90s they had evolved into “soundscapes”, and resulted in a series of self-published CDs and downloads. Possibly their widest exposure came during 2020’s Covid lockdown, when a weekly “Music For Quiet Moments” was plucked from the archives and distributed via YouTube and streaming sites, eventually collected as a box set. Now numbering in the dozens, these will not be explored in this forum.

Robert Fripp God Save The Queen/Under Heavy Manners (1980)—2
2022 reissue: same as 1980, plus 2 extra tracks
Robert Fripp Let The Power Fall (1981)—2
2022 reissue: same as 1981, plus 3 extra tracks
Robert Fripp Washington Square Church (2022)—3

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sting 7: Mercury Falling

This far into his solo career, it seemed that Sting’s “good” albums would alternate with the ones that sold. Mercury Falling echoes the heavier sound of The Soul Cages, while adding some of the country-western touches hinted at on Ten Summoner’s Tales. For the most part, he stuck to the same unit, with Dominic Miller on guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, with Kenny Kirkland returning on keyboards. And of course, Branford Marsalis contributes some saxophone.

A drum roll introduces “The Hounds Of Winter”, a toe-tapper despite its dour title and lyric lamenting the loss of a woman. The same description could also apply to the next track. Yes, “I Hung My Head” is in 9/8 and no, you can’t dance to it. Instead, the inside-out meter forces the listener to consider the story of a man who literally plays with a gun and has to deal with the aftermath. “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot” is the obvious single for adult contemporary radio, the “soul” horns in the music playing off the word in the title. “I Was Brought To My Senses” has a lengthy intro in the vein of such English folk tunes as “She Moved Through The Fair”, before shifting to a slightly, lightly Latin beat in seven, redeemed by its chorus. The Stax vibe returns on “You Still Touch Me”, though the single-note verse melody reminds us of a John Lennon melody we can’t quite place. “Mind Games” maybe?

The second half of the album offers another country-style tune, and indeed, Toby Keith would record a hit cover of “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying”. While it starts on the melancholy side, the pedal steel both complements the narrator’s tears and pulls him out of his post-divorce funk (adding the excellent advice, “everybody’s got to leave the darkness sometime”). “All Four Seasons” is a strong bid to write a soul standard, and we’re convinced he wrote “La Belle Dame Sans Regrets” entirely in French just because he’d woken up that morning and thought, “I’m going to write a song in French today.” At the same time, we’d like to think “Valparaiso” is an ode to the Indiana university’s basketball team, but it’s more likely about the Chilean coast. The Northumbrian pipes and reference to the dog star, again, recall the sea-based songs of two albums previous. And indeed, it does evoke an ocean voyage. “Lithium Sunset” is the shortest song on the album, and a fitting end, complete with a reference to the album title to mirror the one at the start of track one.

It’s easy to pick on Sting, because after all, he’s Sting. But Mercury Falling is one of his better efforts, the kind where you find yourself reaching for the play button after each time it finishes. What’s unknown is why the world outside North America got an extra song stuck in the middle of the second half, except that it’s another horn-heavy number in seven, with cliché lyrics about a train.

Sting Mercury Falling (1996)—

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Suzanne Vega 2: Solitude Standing

Folk-rockers are nothing if not socially conscious, so perhaps it wasn’t that surprising that 1987 saw not one but two songs about child abuse hit the airwaves. 10,000 Maniacs asked the musical question “What’s The Matter Here?”, while the more enduring song, for better or worse, was Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”. Set over a lilting E major sequence, the song alternated plaintive picking with a pair of rock guitar solos, and soon took hold of the nation’s collective conscience.

Some have pointed to its success as proof that she was a one-hit wonder, which would almost make sense had she disappeared from the music scene, which she hasn’t. Still, the song led to tons of copies of Solitude Standing flying off the shelves, and indirectly helped Shawn Colvin get a record deal, as she sang backing vocals on the track.

The album complements her debut, with similar production and songwriting, and offers more consistency in the way of her touring band appearing throughout. But just to show she’s original, the first thing we hear is “Tom’s Diner”, a view of the street sung a cappella. “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry” presents another urban portrait, the two sections working together to underscore the “selling” of body parts. “In The Eye” would appear to be written either from the point of view of a crime victim or jilted lover, but somehow her delivery isn’t convincing. (Maybe that was the point.) “Night Vision” is a slightly unsettled lullaby.

The title track a moderately adventurous attempt to personify solitude, was released as a single, but didn’t really take hold. “Calypso” is sung from the point of view of the nymph who imprisoned Odysseus, and according to the notes on the sleeve, was as old as “Gypsy”, a tender little love song from a different angle. “Language” comes in between, and probably works better as a poem than a song. The last big production is “Wooden Horse (Caspar Hauser’s Song)”, the subtitle referencing the mystery surrounding a German youth from the early part of the 19th century, the length slowly building interest in his story. A wind-up instrumental version of “Tom’s Diner” closes the set.

Synthesizers being what they were in those days, Solitude Standing does suffer from its dated production, which is probably one reason why she’s been re-recording most of her catalog with more basic arrangements lately. The album is still her biggest hit, which is understandable.

An amusing footnote came a few years later when an indie producer started circulating a bootleg remix of the “Tom’s Diner” vocal enhanced by a trendy dance beat. Such a jarring juxtaposition actually worked, and A&M released it as a single. After becoming something of a viral phenomenon (before that term was common), a collection of similar remakes was issued with Suzanne’s consent. Tom’s Album featured both versions from Solitude Standing as well as the remix, another remix by the same people of a different Vega song, a few foreign-language attempts, and a couple of rap versions. The best track was a toss-up between a parody based on I Dream Of Jeannie and a live pseudonymous improv by R.E.M. with Billy Bragg.

Suzanne Vega Solitude Standing (1987)—3

Monday, August 20, 2012

Jimi Hendrix 4: Band Of Gypsys

Just like that, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was no more, mostly because Noel Redding was tired of being overlooked. Reprise put out the Smash Hits collection, offering a smattering of hit singles and the three “British” songs left off of Are You Experienced, with some hideous photos of the band dressed as banditos on the back. (The Brits’ own version of the album came out a year earlier, with different tracks and more rarities.)

An attempt at a larger group for the Woodstock festival had potential, but for a touring outfit, it made more sense to keep things simple. Also, with the resolution of a contract dispute dictating an exclusive recording, Jimi convened Band of Gypsys, featuring old Army buddy Billy Cox on bass and singer/drummer Buddy Miles, formerly of Electric Flag. The band played four shows at the Fillmore East over the New Year’s holiday, and six songs from the two January 1st shows would appear as Band Of Gypsys that spring.

At the risk of expressing political incorrectness, the sound is “blacker” than any of his albums to date, and something of a departure. While it’s a showcase for his guitar throughout, the songs aren’t as flashy or gimmicky as his psychedelic era had suggested. He’s simply playing, and playing well.

The band hadn’t prepared a lot of new material, and indeed, the opening and closing songs come off more like jams than compositions. “Who Knows” has a cool off-beat riff, played on one chord for nine minutes, while Buddy scats away in the middle. A similar approach drives “Machine Gun”, a mesmerizing performance, with the eponymous guitar effects never becoming tacky. A highly personal anti-war song, with a stunning harmony part, with a few post-song comments left in before the needle hits the inner groove.

“Changes” (or “Them Changes”, depending on which label you’re reading) is a Buddy Miles song, also pounding a couple of riffs into the ground, but with a few modulations to keep it unpredictable. The starts and stops of “Power Of Soul” (mistitled “Power To Love” on the LP) show just how tight this band was, continued on “Message Of Love” (also referred to as “Message To Love” from time to time), which had the potential to be a highlight of whatever album he’d record next. “We Gotta Live Together” fades in from a longer performance, Buddy singing unintelligible words while the crowd dutifully claps its hands.

Band Of Gypsys takes some getting used to if you only know Jimi from the hits. Given time, it sinks in as an excellent demonstration of his musical capabilities. Again, it was only one snapshot of that two-day residency. Occasional reissues of the album—again, complicated by label rights—purported to offer additional songs from the concerts. There was even a Band Of Gypsys 2, although half of that album featured a different band. The situation was somewhat rectified with 1999’s double-disc Live At The Fillmore East, which offered nearly two hours of additional material from those performances, with something of a chronically haphazard sequence. A complete performance was eventually released on its own in 2016 as Machine Gun: The Fillmore East First Show, in terrific sound that got fans hoping for a box containing all four shows. They only had to wait another three years, when Songs For Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts delivered all the goods. While they may not have been Jimi’s ultimate dream band, thankfully the tapes were rolling when lightning struck.

Jimi Hendrix Band Of Gypsys (1970)—4

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cars 1: The Cars

One of the most willfully odd bands dedicated to perfecting the pop song, the Cars made a sizable stamp on the music scene in the time they were with us. Mostly run by Ric Ocasek’s iron fist, they boasted not one but two lead singers—him, and the much handsomer and easier-on-the-ears Ben Orr, who was used less. Greg Hawkes epitomized the potential of nerds and geeks alike, adding wacky synth color everywhere. Elliot Easton was a left-handed riff and solo machine, with a great mop of hair. And even though most of his output would end up being delivered by a succession of processed drums, David Robinson provided a bridge to the past, having done time in the “seminal” Modern Lovers.

They also made a fantastic debut, with every song a gem. Side one alone kicks off with the one-two-three punch of “Good Times Roll” (with its nod to “Good Day Sunshine” on the chorus), “My Best Friend's Girl” (with its “Words Of Love” homage in between the verses) and “Just What I Needed”. Lyrically these tracks would be dull if not for Ric Ocasek’s inimitable phrasing, but having Ben sing the latter track provides a change-up. “I’m In Touch With Your World” is usually where most people get off, with its robotic wind-up arrangement, but “Don’t Cha Stop” picks up the pace nicely.

Side two is something of a suite, with no breather between the tracks. “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” puts it in motion, building and building till it just stops. Ben takes over the lead mike from here, beginning with “Bye Bye Love”, a wonderful showcase for keyboards and guitars. “You think you’re so illustrious you call yourself intense” indeed. Another buildup to a dead halt leads into “Moving In Stereo”, which will always evoke the famous Phoebe Cates scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. That crossfades with the dynamic “All Mixed Up”, all tension in a bottle that’s finally released on the “leave it to me” fade. Whew.

One of our record store cohorts from back in the day insisted that the only way you could have a Cars greatest hits album would have to include all of these tracks in order before moving on to things like “Shake It Up”, “Magic” and so on. We have to agree. The Cars is just plain toe-tapping fun. (It was also the first of the band’s albums to get the Deluxe Edition treatment from Rhino, well ahead of the others, in a fold-out package bolstered by a bonus disc of demos that sound pretty close to the sleek finished product.)

The Cars The Cars (1978)—4
1999 Deluxe Edition: same as 1978, plus 14 extra tracks

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

R.E.M. 17: Live

R.E.M.’s commercial status was at its lowest since the band began, and maybe they were okay with that. Like Pearl Jam, whose own bell curve of success was pretty swift, world domination wasn’t as important as making records on their own terms, confident that the “true fans” would stick around.

That said, there’s something just a little defiant about R.E.M. Live. A fairly straight reproduction of the final show from a tour leg promoting their most recent dud of an album two years earlier, it’s unique for being their first by-the-book live album. (It was also recorded in Dublin, where, at the time of Live’s release, they had just finished a few shows trying out new material. Obviously, the city holds a special place for them.)

Since Bill Berry’s retirement, the other three took to touring with a drummer and two additional members who could swap guitars and keyboards, allowing Mike Mills to concentrate on bass and harmonies. But besides being strict hired guns and not full-fledged band members, they don’t get in the way, merely filling out the sound where necessary. That’s demonstrated very well on the songs from Around The Sun, which are performed better onstage than they were for the album.

Two decades’ worth of material means they could cherry-pick from throughout their career. Oddly only one song each appears from Up and Reveal. Everything is played fairly straight, even “Drive”, here in its album arrangement as opposed to the heavier “road” version. Even if you’re sick of “Everybody Hurts”, which runs over six minutes here, it’s still pretty cool to hear the crowd singing along with every note. They do the same for “The Great Beyond”, proving just how loyal that fan base was. Mike Mills’ lead vocal on “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” shows that his strengths lie in harmony. The one rarity for the time was “I’m Gonna DJ”, exuding tons of fun.

R.E.M. Live is for fans only, but packaged for value with a DVD of the same show. The second disc is shorter than the first, but research shows that it consists of (most of) the encore portion, and thus leans on the hits. People not fond of the band will have a field day mocking the Stipe image on the cover, but that merely reinforces the defiant attitude the band came to exhibit.

R.E.M. R.E.M. Live (2007)—3

Monday, August 13, 2012

Robert Fripp 1: Exposure

Something of a sabbatical followed Robert Fripp’s most recent disbanding of King Crimson. He immersed himself in a spiritual philosophy, to which he adheres and practices to this day. Musically, he explored the possibilities of Frippertronics, the guitar/tape loop method he’d first developed with Brian Eno. He also spent time in the Greenwich Village punk scene, producing the Roches and working with Daryl Hall, adding his touches to David Bowie’s “Heroes” album, and even accompanying Peter Gabriel on his first solo tour. That experience led him to produce Gabriel’s second album, which features the piece that also is the title of the album at hand.

Exposure is presented as a suite, incorporating eavesdropped conversations, interviews old and new, and Fripp’s own compositions. Easily the most striking thing about the album is the appearance of Daryl Hall, singing in the voice that sold bazillions of Top 40 records, yet fitting very well into the album.

Other, more learned “Fripp scholars” have delved deeply into the evolution of this album, and on paper (or screen) it reads a lot more out there than it actually is. What stands out is just how accessible it is. “Preface” is akin to an orchestra tuning up, jostled by the straight rock of “You Burn Me Up I’m A Cigarette”, which features the most basic chord changes in Fripp’s catalog under Daryl Hall’s pounding piano and vocal. That said, “Breathless” sounds the most like Crimson (the Red era, at least). “Disengage” starts quietly before what sounds like Daryl Hall again but is really Peter Hammill shrieking his way through the jam. Hall’s more at home on “North Star”, while Hammill sounds downright vampiric on “Chicago”. “NY3” pits a furious fusion jam against a shouting match from Fripp’s neighbors, so that the much softer “Mary”, with its pretty vocal, plucked guitar and Frippertronics, provides welcome relief.

The title track is basically an alternate mix of the Gabriel version, but augmented by Terre Roche singing and screaming the title to the point of distress while Fripp and Eno spell it. Another series of aphorisms punctuates “Häaden Two”, the mild cacophony giving way to the bleak “Urban Landscape”. Suddenly “I May Not Have Had Enough Of Me But I’ve Had Enough Of You” crashes through with a more “melodic” lovers’ spat. An allegedly condensed lecture provides a burst (worthy of John & Yoko) before the sequence that ends the album. “Water Music I” presents Frippertronics accompanied by another lecture, segueing into a lovely Peter Gabriel piano-and-vocal rendition of his own “Here Comes The Flood”, followed by a moment of silence and the evocative sound painting of “Water Music II”. The “Postscript” echoes “Preface”.

The album has been rejigged more times than necessary, mostly because Fripp’s original plan to have more Daryl Hall was not approved by the singer’s label before it was even released in the first place. (Nor did they like the solo album Fripp produced for him.) He remixed Exposure for digital in the mid-‘80s, and a so-called “Definitive Edition” was the only way to get it on CD, although here “Water Music II” ran a few minutes longer. In this century, the album was reissued in a set with its original mix on one disc, with a “Third Edition” on a second, which presented the remix with Daryl Hall’s vocal tracks (and occasionally, alternate lyrics) reinstated where applicable. In this context, not only is it easier to see a bridge to the Adrian Belew era of King Crimson, but makes one ponder a bizarro world those early ‘80s Hall & Oates hits didn’t exist, given Hall’s continued collaboration with Fripp. (A later “Fourth Edition” paired a new remix by Stephen Wilson on a CD with a DVD containing a surround mix of same, a remaster of the Third Edition, and an early sequence when the album was to be called Last Of The Great New York Heartthrobs and featuring all of Hall’s original vocals. All editions were part of the 2022’s massive Exposures box set, which—to oversimplify it—culled the majority of the music Fripp created in the years between the 1974 and 1980s Crimson lineups, on CD and again in higher definition on DVD and/or Blu-ray. A fifth version of Exposure, titled Breathless, Or How I Gradually Internalised The Social Reality Of Manhattan Until It Seemed To Be A Very Reasonable Way Of Life, was exclusive to the box, and included Wilson remixes of the Heartthrobs sequence.)

Because of its disparate musical styles, even Crimson fans might find Exposure less than satisfying. It was obviously a big deal to Fripp, and thirty years of hindsight better show where it fits into the story at large. (As for the Daryl Hall album, Sacred Songs was finally released a year later, and mixed standard Hall & Oates blue-eyed soul with Frippertronics, most notably halfway through side two in the middle of “Babs And Babs”, leading to “Urban Landscape” and “NYCNY”, which was “I May Have Had Enough Of Me” with different lyrics and melody from Hall. The rest of the players include three guys from the Hall & Oates band who’d most recently been in Elton John’s band. How this album and the Peter Gabriel album fit into Fripp’s grand trilogy concept remains elusive.)

Robert Fripp Exposure (1979)—3
2006 CD reissue: same as 1979, plus 22 extra tracks

Friday, August 10, 2012

Jimi Hendrix 3: Electric Ladyland

Jimi had become fascinated with studio recording, spending much of his time there when he wasn’t touring incessantly. And given his magnetic personality, it was easy for hangers-on to access him in the studio, where jam sessions would inevitably take place. He was teeming with ideas, and wanted to get them all out.

Electric Ladyland was a double album in a time when the concept was evolving from an indulgence to elite artistic expression. Unlike Cream, who put out a half-studio/half-live set that year, or the Beatles, who had three very prolific writers vying for space, Electric Ladyland is all Jimi, credited as “producer” and “director”, with barely any filler.

Similarly to the last album, a fanfare of sorts begins the proceedings. But while “EXP” assaults the listener, “…And The Gods Made Love” is a sound painting of phased effects and slowed-down tapes. After it whooshes by, “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” provides a breath of Curtis Mayfield in an almost one-man band. “Crosstown Traffic” careens from speaker to speaker, with a pounding piano, wacky kazoo and infectious chorus. Just when you think pop it taking over, up bubbles the opening notes of “Voodoo Chile”. Not to be confused with the track of a similar title, this is a 15-minute blues exploration backed by Mitch, Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane on bass, and Steve Winwood on organ. Jimi and Stevie play off each other amazingly, and the only distraction is the nightclub ambience added after the fact.

Things get a little more conventional on side two, beginning with Noel Redding’s “Little Miss Strange”, nicely decorated by Jimi. “Long Hot Summer Night” is more complicated, but the straight-ahead R&B of “Come On (Part I)” picks up the pace. On “Gypsy Eyes”, another forecast of his funk style, he matches the vocal with guitar, while another guitar stutters a rhythm and a third slides. The previous summer’s UK single “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp” is one of the best examples of psychedelia, with the wah-wah doubled on harpsichord and heavenly harmonies aah-ing over the lyrics.

Side three is as misleading as side one, given the number of curveballs throughout. “Rainy Day, Dream Away” begins as a jazz groove, while a couple of stoned individuals bemoan then embrace having to stay inside. A few hits off a joint bring in the vocal, which shifts gears a few times before another groove establishes itself, only to fade away into the underwater journey of “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”. This epic begins with a simple riff over three chords while Mitch plays a martial beat. The verse simply follows a descending chromatic sequence into the riff. The bridge, if it can be called that, gets a bit more intense, the vocals phased and echoed, and punctuated by his trademark asides. The intensity elevates until it stops for another verse and riff. Mitch plays with his cymbals for seven minutes while Jimi explores his neck, adding bubbly bass parts and Chris Wood from Traffic on flute, all swirling around the spectrum. The song reaches another apex to usher in a final verse, fading into a final phased sound painting indexed as “Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently Gently Away”.

The suite concludes at the start of side four, with “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” picking up where “Rainy Day” left off on side three, continuing for a three-minute jam featuring Buddy Miles on drums, in something of a premonition. “House Burning Down” is something of a political commentary about urban unrest in a dangerous year. His guitar parts manage to emulate the sound of fire and chaos brilliantly. Speaking of brilliant, his version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” transformed that simple tune into an anthem of sorts, to the point where Dylan’s been doing it the Hendrix way ever since. And finally, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” takes up the gauntlet from side one to present a more compact, hypnotic variation.

Many call Electric Ladyland Hendrix’s best album, and we’d have to agree. It works best as a whole, or even as individual sides. It also represents the final statement by the original Experience, while clearly showing that Jimi would be taking his music other places, even if the destination or even the pit stops weren’t clear.

While the contents of the album were uniform worldwide, the cover was not. Although the American version has become a classic image, it wasn’t what Jimi had in mind at all, preferring a photo of the band surrounded by children on the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, taken by the future Linda McCartney. The UK spread a photo of 19 nude women across the front and back, which Jimi himself hated.

The variations continued in the digital era, naturally. The first CD had the album on two discs, reduced to one once the industry standard for CD lengths was increased, albeit with a noise. The 1993 CD version used yet another unrelated photo for the cover, which was thankfully restored to the American original in 1997, with shots from the Alice session and even a letter from Jimi about his ideas for the cover inside the booklet.

Since every other album released in 1968 seemed to get one, Electric Ladyland underwent the 50th anniversary treatment with an upgraded mastering, a disc of home demos and outtakes, a decent (but distorted near the point of discomfort) Hollywood Bowl show from that September on another, plus the requisite Blu-ray with surround mixes and a previously released documentary. Some of the demos have made the rounds before, and will make many itchy to hear Jimi plugged in and wailing. Eventually we get a couple of variations on “1983” and a few jams. Noel Redding gets some love on an instrumental bash through “Little Miss Strange”, with him on electric 12-string and Buddy Miles and Stephen Stills as his rhythm section. Al Kooper fans will love the two stabs at “Long Hot Summer Night”. It would have been nice to have more “making-of” takes—the complete “Rainy Day” sequence, anyone?—but at least the family used the cover he wanted.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland (1968)—
50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 31 extra tracks

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sting 6: Fields Of Gold

Having become possibly more popular than when he was in the Police, Sting (or somebody) decided to sum up a rough decade of solo work with a hits album. Named after the huge single from his last album, Fields Of Gold offered the usual assortment of radio favorites, along with the customary brand new tracks. Of the two, the romantic “When We Dance” was the most obvious hit. “This Cowboy Song” is stuck at the end, and nowhere near as successful, except to wonder why he kept writing songs with a fake Western theme.

Each of his four studio albums to date is represented, with a couple of variations to keep it interesting. “Fortress Around Your Heart” and “Why Should I Cry For You” are alternately mixed, while “We’ll Be Together” is completely different, and likely the take with Eric Clapton on guitar. It’s still a pretty annoying song.

Compilers of sets such as these often use the “best of” heading rather than “greatest hits”, which is why “They Dance Alone” and “Russians” make the cut and things like “All For Love” (a movie theme sung with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart) don’t. The previous year’s remake of “Demolition Man” for another film also goes ignored, although the EP of that is worth seeking out for his live cover of “A Day In The Life”. To confound the collector even further, it was released with a different sequence in the world outside the U.S., dropping a couple of songs and adding even more in their place, such as the soundtrack version of “It’s Probably Me” and “Fragile” in Spanish.

It doesn’t do more than hint at the jazz influences that sparked his solo career, choosing instead to stay mainstream; after all, that’s what led to his pile of platinum records. But Fields Of Gold is still a good sampler for those not ready to pull the trigger on the individual albums.

Sting Fields Of Gold: The Best Of Sting 1984-1994 (1994)—

Monday, August 6, 2012

Suzanne Vega 1: Suzanne Vega

There was something of a Greenwich Village folk revival in the early ‘80s, which started to gain a little attention with the advent of hippie nostalgia. But before that kicked in, Suzanne Vega put out her self-titled debut on the then-respected A&M label.

Her voice isn’t striking so much as pleasant, a slightly breathy alto with an occasional streetwise cool. What brought her attention was her simple guitar picking and somewhat poetic lyrics, which abound on Suzanne Vega.

“Cracking” begins with a simple, pretty picked guitar line, soon backed by synths. The verses are mostly spoken in rhythm without much melody, until the very last verse, where it just begins to soar. “Freeze Tag” continues the edgy, wintry feeling, lifted just a bit by “Marlene On The Wall”. With its energetic backing, it was a moderate hit, a clever portrayal of various failed relationships as observed by a photograph. The vulnerability re-emerges on “Small Blue Thing”, riding the line between literal and figurative. “Straight Lines” sports jagged motifs to match the image of a woman cutting her own hair, and may or may not be a self-portrait.

“Undertow” begins gently, then soon becomes a rather disturbing picture of obsession. (Sarah McLachlan must’ve loved this one.) The standout track is “Some Journey”, from its opening stridently strummed to the accompaniment of Mark Isham’s keyboards and Darol Anger’s violin (both Windham Hill artists at the time). The arc of the song is expert, starting with imagining another time and place before being deposited firmly in the disappointing present. “The Queen And The Soldier” would appear to be the most “folk” song on the album, considering its structure and medieval subject matter. The dénouement isn’t very satisfying, but it’s still memorable. The image of a queen has a very different meaning in “Knight Moves”, where a relationship is viewed in the context of a chess match. And another overheard conversation drives “Neighborhood Girls”, very influenced by the New York City of Lou Reed, chasing a tangent to an extreme before being reeled back to the start. (She performed this once with the Grateful Dead, and the fit was perfect.)

We first discovered this album in the wake of her second, which was a much bigger hit. It happened as September finally decided to turn to fall, and the yellowing leaves and graying skies were an excellent backdrop to these sensitive, thoughtful songs. Some of the production (keyboards and slap bass mostly) doesn’t work, but for a first effort, it was exciting.

Suzanne Vega Suzanne Vega (1985)—4

Sunday, August 5, 2012

King Crimson 10: A Young Person’s Guide

While King Crimson was considered strictly past tense in 1976, Robert Fripp wasn’t about to let anyone forget what they were, or could have been. A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson may well have been a contractual obligation, but this two-record compilation, packaged with a booklet crammed with photos, clippings, and a timeline, offered even the converted fan something special. More importantly, it provided a primer for newcomers.

True to his insistence that King Crimson music could not be solely defined by the players, the music is not chronological, nor is “21st Century Schizoid Man” included at all. Side one manages to encompass “Epitaph”, an “abridged” “Cadence And Cascade”, and “Ladies Of The Road”, ending with the ultra-rare Giles, Giles And Fripp take of “I Talk To The Wind”, featuring Fairport Convention’s Judy Dyble on vocals—the only woman ever to perform on a Crimson album. Side two consists of exactly two songs: the title track from Red and that album’s stellar “Starless”.

Side three juggles two different lineups, going from “Book Of Saturday” and “The Night Watch” back to “Peace” and the single version of “Cat Food” from the second album, and tossing in the rare “Groon” B-side before picking up the last two minutes of “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part One”. Side four offers the first two minutes of “Moonchild” (a.k.a. the song portion) and the Bruford-less “Trio” before closing with “The Court Of The Crimson King”, unabridged.

Fripp would go on to use the Young Person’s Guide nomenclature for similar archival digs in the decades to come, and most of these tracks would continue to feature on same. As it is, A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson itself has never been reissued on CD outside of Japan, where seemingly everything emerges sometime, though the music is readily available numerous places, and cheaper.

King Crimson A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson (1976)—4
Current CD availability: none

Friday, August 3, 2012

Beatles 31: Tomorrow Never Knows

Those individuals special enough to be called “Beatle insiders” likely stay that way due to their ability to keep a secret, as well as that of creating media buzz over a non-event. Every now and then something does appear to excite fans old and new; the last of these were arguably the catalog overhaul in 2009, and the iTunes deal a year later that made the 14-album canon available for individual (and legal) download.

Since then there had been the occasional iTunes expansion, such as the Red and Blue albums, all three Anthology sets, Love, 1, and even Yellow Submarine Songtrack. They’ve yet to recreate digital versions of such themed compilations as Rock ‘N’ Roll Music, Love Songs, or Reel Music, but what diehards really want are more things from the vaults, like the once-available Hollywood Bowl concerts and Christmas messages, or any of the multitudinous outtakes and live performances. (See the recent Rolling Stones Archive downloads, or even Paul McCartney’s own catalog expansions, for reference.)

Instead, Apple and Apple made a move right down the middle. Tomorrow Never Knows followed the path of the themed compilations that present one alleged facet of the band. This time the focus was on “their most influential rock songs”. This particular, all-new sequence was download only—no vinyl or CD counterpart—and at eight bucks, cheaper than buying the songs individually. (Also, the re-edited promo clip for “Hey Bulldog” was offered for download, making the second time that song and video have been used to promote a collection of previously released music.)

Rock ‘N’ Roll Music is a viable comparison, as six of those songs are repeated here. But while that set leant heavily on their earlier material, Tomorrow Never Knows takes the other end of the seesaw, picking tracks from Revolver, the White Album and even Yellow Submarine. It’s heavy on John, with two songs by George. Only two tracks are “non-canon”—the 2003 remix of “I’ve Got A Feeling” from Let It Be… Naked and the wackier Anthology 3 remix of “The End” that incorporates the final chord from “A Day In The Life”. (And yes, “It’s All Too Much” is still the standard album track, and not the full-length version.)

The music’s great, of course, and all are the 2009 masters, so the sound is terrific. “I’m Down” and “You Can’t Do That” are a little jarring up against the later period tunes, and it all has the air of somebody’s mix tape. There are plenty of other rockin’ songs that are missing, so it’s hardly a definitive collection.

Nor is it an essential one. Tomorrow Never Knows is designed for completists and anyone whose opinion of the band can only be swayed by the likes of Dave Grohl or the members of Linkin Park and Maroon 5 who contributed blurbs to the iTunes sale page. The minimalist artwork doesn’t help; even the iTunes LP element, designed to add multimedia to the package, is the bare minimum. Thus it will be very interesting to see what, if anything, follows this little experiment to the virtual record rack.

The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows (2012)—
Current CD equivalent: none; download only

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Graham Nash 2: Wild Tales

Graham Nash’s first solo album was a pleasant slice of sensitive pop, and worth going back to, or at least alternating with the album he split a year later with Crosby. That’s a good thing, because Wild Tales, his second solo effort, is pretty dull. Some of the songs are allegedly includes refugees from some recent aborted CSNY sessions, but taken together, they don’t really amount to anything. It’s also painfully short.

The title track has a decent groove, introducing David Lindley’s distinctive slide guitar. But it speeds through two verses, and is done. The wheeze of his harmonica ushers in “Hey You (Looking At The Moon)”, and will be heard again on “Prison Song”, a topical attempt designed to rally pot smokers. “You’ll Never Be The Same” lopes along, like it’s trying to be a kiss-off, but we’re guessing the object of the song is glad to be rid of him and his nagging. (Unless that’s the point, which would be kinda clever.) “And So It Goes” is too close to the arrangement of “Southern Man” to rise above the chorus, which is pretty good for four bars.

“Grave Concern” picks up the pace a bit (thanks to the same rhythm section anchoring Neil Young’s Time Fades Away). The lyrics aren’t much, but probably relate to what sounds like a Nixon soundbite bubbling underneath the solo. American war crimes in Vietnam are the subject of “Oh! Camil (The Winter Soldier)”, delivered in the protest style of Dylan filtered through Donovan. It’s surprising that this one hasn’t been revived, but perhaps rhyming “Camil” with “how do you feel” wasn’t the wisest choice for an opening couplet. “I Miss You” is a showcase for his plodding piano, but “On The Line” is successful despite himself. “Another Sleep Song” isn’t really a sequel, but his discomfort is getting tough to sit through.

Wild Tales proves the assertion that as a songwriter, Graham Nash was a terrific high harmony singer. Then again, the activities around this time of the members of CSNY who weren’t Neil suggested that maybe they’d shot their loads early on, each coming up with sub-standard material, or none at all, in Crosby’s case. This album fails to make much of an impression, and it also doesn’t help that the back cover and sleeve use that typeface that’s the ‘70s equivalent of Comic Sans.

Graham Nash Wild Tales (1973)—2