Sunday, September 30, 2012

Art Garfunkel: Angel Clare

One has to feel a little sorry for Art Garfunkel, having been the second banana in a successful duo, albeit one who arguably made them so palatable to a wide audience. But left on his own, without an in-house genius to craft songs for him to lay magic upon, what was he to do?

Well, first he made a couple of movies, and he even taught high school math. But the man was born to sing, sing, sing, and so he tapped Roy Halee and a sea of musicians to help craft his first solo album. Angel Clare is credited to his surname only, and gathers a truly odd assortment of traditionals and songs by contemporary writers, like Paul Williams, Jimmy Webb, Van Morrison and Randy Newman.

This is a pop album, despite the presence of Jerry Garcia, J.J. Cale, two of Derek’s Dominos, and even his erstwhile partner on one track. But his choices are downright bizarre—the murder ballad “Down In The Willow Garden”, the less obscure “Barbara Allen”, Van’s reggae outtake “I Shall Sing”, and “Feuilles-Oh”, a folk song that helped break up the duo, strapped to a Bach chorale given truly spacey lyrics. He does try to experiment with different sounds and instruments, on “Mary Was An Only Child” and “Woyaya”.

But we’re here for the voice, which always manages to find those twists that bring tears to your eyes. “Traveling Boy” is a typically creepy Paul Williams tune that tries to cover a kiss-off to last night’s groupie with fake tenderness—the flip side of Leon Russell’s “Superstar”, if you will—but good luck not swooning at the breakdown and buildup for the last minute. The smash hit “All I Know” is best known for its own hook, which disguises the malice in the relationship the rest of the song describes. Even in the slap at the “Old Man” is a pretty song with a highly mean sentiment. (He would admit that he chose songs for their melodies before reading the lyrics.) Nudged along by the arrangements, those little moments crop up to generate such an ache that it’s hard not to wallow in them.

Surprisingly, Angel Clare hasn’t gained a reputation as a fractured masterpiece, likely because Artie never battled an addiction to anything stronger than weed. There’s almost something diabolical about that angelic (sorry) voice coming out of that cherubic face delivering the words of disturbed people. The album title comes from a less-than-savory character in English literature, so maybe he’s more clever than we think. But move aside some of the weirder songs, and you can almost hear the coming of Barry Manilow. (They would have been a good match, but Barry didn’t need someone to sing his songs, and then where would Darius Rucker have learned his phrasing?) The liner notes would have us believe the whole thing was recorded in a church, but that doesn’t excuse the appearance of the boys’ choir on side two. Put the three tearjerkers on a constant loop and forget the rest, and cry until you can cry no more.

Garfunkel Angel Clare (1973)—

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Paul Simon 3: There Goes Rhymin’ Simon

In one of the fastest follow-ups of his career—at a pace he’s yet to beat—Paul Simon surfaced with his second solo album since leaving Artie all his lonesome. With cover art to match its playful title, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon follows the auteur to Muscle Shoals and back, trying out different styles of music, with an even larger selection of studio cats than before.

The first, obvious single was “Kodachrome”, a snapshot (ha!) of a time when cameras had film and copyright laws required the cover to inform us that “KODACHROME® is a registered trademark for color film.” More than anything, its wonderful opening couplet (“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/It’s a wonder I can think at all”) still resonates long after the last Fotomat closed. “Tenderness” is one of the more esoteric doo-wop songs ever recorded, helped out by the Dixie Hummingbirds. One of their members gets a featured vocal on “Take Me To The Mardi Gras”, which is nice and doesn’t evokes that festival until the fade. With its Quincy Jones strings, “Something So Right” became something of a standard, gaining several covers almost immediately, but he puts a lot of unexpected bite into “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor”.

“American Tune” has become one of his signature songs, even if he did borrow it from Bach, who’d borrowed it from somebody else. It probably had a different meaning during the Nixon administration, but needless to say he’s since learned to perform it with a gentler hand than the rhythm ‘n strings here. “Was A Sunny Day” serves almost the same purpose of comic relief as “Why Don’t You Write Me” had; there’s a puzzling reference to the doo-wop classic “Mr. Earl” and backing vocals by two of the then-unknown Roches. The platitude closing side one wasn’t enough, because now he tells us we must “Learn How To Fall” before we must fly, and it’s matched with a daring, almost psychedelic backing (or as far as a Hammond organ and fuzzy steel guitar can go). “St. Judy’s Comet” is the sound of a man trying desperately to sing his young son to sleep, and it’s just plain charming without being cloying. And we end sort of when we came in, for “Loves Me Like A Rock” is about as meaningless as the hits from the previous album, but boy, is it catchy (Dixie Hummingbirds again).

If Paul Simon was tentative, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon is a lot more confident, and a justified hit. The four demos included on the reissue, while very gentle compared to their eventual recorded versions, exude just as much confidence, even “American Tune” with incomplete lyrics.

Paul Simon There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, September 28, 2012

Frank Zappa 9: Burnt Weeny Sandwich

After the original Mothers were dismissed, Frank talked of releasing a multi-disc set of records culled from the hours of live and studio performances he’d managed to capture on tape. Such an endeavor would take about twenty more years to accomplish, but at the time, he did manage to put together a couple of albums from disparate sources of all-new material that worked as both an acknowledgement of what the band could do, and to show the world what they missed.

The first of these had the wonderful title of Burnt Weeny Sandwich. The moniker has a few possible meanings; whatever the truth, it’s nicely complemented by the two doo-wop covers that bookend the program—incidentally, the only tracks with vocals. Those of us living in the New York metropolitan area will be surprised that a certain radio station selected its call letters after hearing “WPLJ”, which otherwise extols the virtues of mixing white port with lemon juice. Another sandwich exists in the way of the two short horn-played “phases” of “Igor’s Boogie”. The first is followed by “Overture To A Holiday In Berlin”, a melodic instrumental with a mild Oktoberfest motif, which segues into a more intricate melody along the lines of his other classical pieces. An abrupt stop via a few percussion swipes leads to “Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich”, a four-minute wah-wah guitar solo over two chords, soon enveloped by even more percussion. The second snippet of “Igor’s Boogie” (this time with bicycle horns) heralds “Holiday In Berlin, Full-Blown”, expanding on the suggestion heard earlier to show off both the horns and another guitar solo. After he’s done, you can just barely discern Frank saying “ABC”, which brings in the elegant sea chantey duet with Ian Underwood’s piano, cleverly titled “Aybe Sea”.

That’s a nice setup for the piano solo that begins “The Little House I Used To Live In”. This fascinating piece takes up most of side two, consisting of several themes and ideas, some of which would reappear down the road, covering all the Zappa trademarks and blending into an amazing display of tightness. The horns dance their melody atop the dual drums, with the occasional “MOO-AH” interjection, working with and against the guitars. Suddenly Sugarcane Harris—whom intrepid fans would remember from his appearance on Hot Rats—arrives to deliver an incredible electric violin solo for what doesn’t feel like eight minute, stepping back in the middle for Don Preston’s piano. The rhythm changes a couple of times, then an almost pastoral section leads into a frantic drum workout with the “Aybe Sea” melody fighting for attention with an organ solo. When it all stops, a British audience cheers until Frank offers to play “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” if the crowd complies with the hall security. Some guy is shouting about uniforms; Frank tells him, “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform, and don't kid yourself” in an attempt to keep the guy from getting beat up. The crowd applauds this, but the guy’s still hollering. Finally Frank says, “You'll hurt your throat, stop it!” and the crowd laughs. This provides a nice setup for “Valarie”, is the closing slice of doo-wop, and we highly recommend the original recording by Jackie & The Starlites, with its completely over the top sobbing lead vocal.

With its reliance on musicianship over shock value, Burnt Weeny Sandwich is one of the more enjoyable Zappa albums. The whole thing flows very well as a single piece, despite being cobbled together from at least four separate pieces of scored music, and who knows how many edits and performances. It’s highly recommended for newcomers, as it provides a nice stepping stone to his more challenging material.

The Mothers Of Invention Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970)—

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Television 4: Television

Nobody’s quite sure how (or why) it happened, but the classic Television lineup reunited fourteen years after the fact for a new album, plus tour. This shouldn’t have been that big a deal, since the guys had worked together in various combinations over the years. Richard Lloyd had even courted airplay due to his work with Matthew Sweet.

Simply titled Television, it came with minimalist artwork and little fanfare. Those seeking a return to the sound of their Elektra albums will be disappointed. Over time, Tom Verlaine’s voice has become less shriek; the album as a whole has a slight layer of reverb, taking an edge off the bass. The guitars still intertwine, so at least it sounds like an approximation of what one would expect from Television. Overall, however, it’s more of an extension of Verlaine’s recent solo work, which came off as soundtracks to film-noir or spy movies.

“1880 Or So” makes a strong opener, with shades of “See No Evil” with less of an attack, and they up the tension with “Shane, She Wrote This”. “In World” would have been a shoo-in for 120 Minutes or PostModern MTV if a younger band had recorded it. “Call Mr. Lee” pushes the spy feel.

“Rhyme” has a cool, meandering feel, with a mostly spoken vocal. A similar approach is taken on “The Rocket”, which these days has us hankering for Tracy Morgan as Astronaut Jones. The guitars on “No Glamour For Willi” are processed to sound like they’re underwater, matching the impenetrable lyrics. “Beauty Trip” even works in a hokey heartbeat rhythm to punctuate each verse. “This Tune” seems like an overt attempt to write a “Television” song, and fails as a result. Then there’s “Mars”, basically a comic book come to life.

Television is one of those albums where you think, “Gee, I should listen to this more often,” but you forget to, staring instead at the rest of your rack trying to find something you really want to hear as opposed to just play. Therefore, it becomes a nice surprise when you do get around to throwing it on.

Television Television (1992)—3

Monday, September 24, 2012

Cars 2: Candy-O

Another year meant another album, which meant Ric Ocasek had to deliver a set of songs as strong as the first. He did okay with Candy-O, considering the possibilities.

“Let’s Go” is historic on a few levels, starting with that horribly dated synth sound, and continuing with a handclap-chant combination still heard at every major sports exhibition today. “Since I Held You” melds some fairly used-up lyrics to chord changes that are anything but predictable. Ben Orr comes back to sing “It’s All I Can Do”, one of their more underappreciated radio hits. “Double Life” is based around a rhythm machine, a foreshadowing of the drum sound that would soon dominate their records. There’s a crossfade to “Shoo Be Doo”, an annoying little segue before the title track, which better expresses Ric’s fondess for weirdness.

“Nightspots” teems with neon and traffic lights, giving way to the straight pop-rock riff of “You Can’t Hold On Too Long”. The song goes a bunch of other directions, but at least Elliot Easton gets to layer a bunch of different guitars. “Lust For Kicks” sounds like a continuation of the same song, but “Got A Lot On My Head” sports a wonderfully cheesy organ part to wash it away. The best might be saved for last: “Dangerous Type” begins with a “Bang A Gong” beat, elevating slowly until the extended fade, with nearly classical decoration from the synths.

We’re going to go ahead and award Candy-O the extra half-star above three for effort. While it’s not as strong as that debut, it’s still very good, and downright catchy. And their marketing skills were just as sharp as their musical prowess. After all, they were smart enough to put hot women on their covers, while their own personal views on fashion and cool were a tad suspect. (The belated expanded edition added a few alternate mixes and takes, one “unreleased” song that had already appeared on the Deluxe Edition of the first album, and the B-side “That’s It”.)

The Cars Candy-O (1979)—
2017 expanded edition: same as 1979, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, September 21, 2012

Tom Waits 17: Mule Variations

Just in time for the end of the century, Tom Waits came back from too long an absence with the sixteen new songs that comprise Mule Variations. The tunes run the gamut from the grating clatter of his early-‘90s work to the heartbreaking piano balladry that always gets him mention as a great American songwriter. Such reliable Waits sidemen as Marc Ribot, Ralph Carney and Greg Cohen appear, alongside Primus, John Hammond, Smokey Hormel, and Charlie Musselwhite.

The album seems to pick up where Bone Machine left off, with the noise and rumble of “Big In Japan” and “Lowside Of The Road”. Then “Hold On” enters with a gentle set of strummed and picked guitars, seeming to be a conversation between a man and a woman, with a simple yet adhesive chorus. “Get Behind The Mule” is a lengthy blues that doesn’t ever drag. The piano emerges on “House Where Nobody Lives”, a melody worthy of his ‘70s stuff without the gravel in the rasp. “Cold Water” slows the blues down even further and dirtier, and “Pony” pairs a pump organ with a dobro for a lonesome lyrics about wanting to get back home. The song everybody talked about is “What’s He Building?”, a spooky monologue about a Boo Radley-type neighbor that could well be used to describe himself.

That’s a full album right there, but this was the ‘90s, so there’s plenty more to go. “Black Market Baby” is a painfully slow love song, picked up by the twisted sideshow of the “Eyeball Kid”, a freak whose physical attributes consist of just that. “Picture In A Frame” says a lot with very little, a sweet valentine over a pretty piano. “Chocolate Jesus” takes an entrepreneurial slant on gospel, covered over by the sad lament of “Georgia Lee”. “Filipino Box Spring Hog” originally appeared on a various artists collection as an outtake from the last album; here it’s just as raucous and silly. The two best songs are saved for last—the positively beautiful “Take It With Me” and the more inspirational “Come On Up To The House” (sample lyric: “Come down off the cross, we can use the wood”; good advice any day of the week).

Mule Variations has everything: slow stank, heartbreak and banging on the heat pipes. By covering such a wide swath of styles, it’s an excellent introduction along the lines of Small Change and Rain Dogs. It might not convert the unconvinced, but those of us who enjoy it hoped it wouldn’t be another six years before the next one. (Unless that’s what it takes for him to create something of this quality.)

Tom Waits Mule Variations (1999)—4

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Suzanne Vega 3: Days Of Open Hand

For her third album, Suzanne stuck with the formula, working mostly with her touring band and using Shawn Colvin for the occasional harmony. Days Of Open Hand has too many keyboards and electric elements to be called folk, but it’s not quite pop either. It was, however, worth the wait.

For the most part, the songs seem to be positive, beginning with the determination of “Tired Of Sleeping”. That emotion continues on “Men In A War”, which does a whole lot with two chords. “Rusted Pipe” revives some of the quirky feeling from the first two albums, while “Book Of Dreams” is straight pop; she herself admits she was going for an XTC sound. “Institution Green” is the first political tune on the album, alluding at something terminal that turns out to be the mundane process of voting.

“Those Whole Girls (Run In Grace)” is an interesting exercise on brevity, spoken in three syllables at a time, conjuring up a twisted jump-rope melody, a city observation reinforced on “Room Off The Street”. “Big Space” sports an annoyingly dated keyboard sound, but otherwise hearkens back to the debut. “Predictions” doesn’t really go anywhere, being mostly a litany of arcane and current methods of prognostication, so it’s interesting on that level. A tense Philip Glass string arrangement drives “Fifty-Fifty Chance”, about a suicide attempt, presenting a dynamic pause before “Pilgrimage”, which ends the album with something of a grand finale.

She’d never really have a “hit” again, but at least Days Of Open Hand would satisfy her fans. It’s a nice album to have on in the background while drinking coffee or tea in the privacy of your home, if you have one.

Suzanne Vega Days Of Open Hand (1990)—3

Monday, September 17, 2012

King Crimson 12: Beat

Less than a year after their official return, King Crimson was back. Again. Beat follows much of the framework of Discipline—similar typeface, same four guys, minimal artwork. The album was intended as a nod to the Beat generation, but that’s only suggested in the lyrics and song titles; the music itself is post-modern with New Wave influences.

“Neal And Jack And Me” makes direct reference to the people behind On The Road. “Heartbeat” barely sounds like Fripp’s involved at all, being a mellow pop song that seems to foretell the construction of “Janie’s Got A Gun”. “Sartori In Tangier” is instrumental, beginning with a moody Chapman stick part and continuing with a nice Arabic groove. “Waiting Man” provides a couple of verses as a frame for an extended Fripp solo, which keeps it from being a Talking Heads track.

Finally there’s a blast of Crimson chaos on “Neurotica”, Bruford exploding all over his kit while the frets get pounded. A suitably nervous vocal babbles until the observer gets a chance to take things in, with the music calming down beside him. “Two Hands” is slow and pretty, likely a Belew composition with Fripp adding the solos, and most of the percussion seeming to come from bongos. “The Howler” fades in, constantly off-kilter musically and rhythmically, and it can’t help but suggest the Allen Ginsburg poem of similar name. “Requiem” would appear to be all Fripp—an organ plays a minor triad in back while he solos on top, Frippertronics-style—until the drums come in and the other guys can be heard pushing him along, and the scene gets uglier by the second, eventually ending on Tony Levin’s bass.

With what seems like more of an emphasis on accessibility, Beat doesn’t quite succeed. Adrian Belew’s a little more restrained vocally on this album, but overall it fails to capture one’s attention. Of course, when it does, it sounds like nothing else. (The eventual expansion nearly doubled the length of “Requiem” with even more Frippertronics, and added a bonus in the way of “Absent Lovers”, an instrumental outtake from the album sessions.)

King Crimson Beat (1982)—
2016 40th Anniversary Edition: “same” as 1982, plus 1 extra track (plus DVD)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Jeffrey Gaines 3: Galore

The music scene in the ‘90s was all about survival of the fittest. Major labels no longer had the patience to nurture artists like they used to, so if you didn’t sell, you were dropped. Jeffrey Gaines had the good fortune to be noticed by the music fans at Rykodisc, who gave him a second chance by signing him.

Four years might have passed since his last album, but Galore picks up where he’d left off, even keeping his standard typeface. His style hasn’t changed, balancing the light and heavier approaches of his previous albums, and he even managed to get a few names to help out (including then-recent Bowie veterans Reeves Gabrels, Zachary Alford, and Gail Ann Dorsey, plus David Sancious on piano).

“First Chapter’s Last Page” has one of those melodies that sounds so familiar, with a lyrics about someone who needs some kind of help. “Right My Wrongs” has a good dose of soul without saying much, but “A Simple Prayer” overcomes the danger of being too maudlin with a nicely evolving melody and string arrangement. “Step By Step” expresses a determination to help somebody, a little on the plodding side, which contrasts with the chromatic descent on the slightly psychedelic “Belle De Jour”. The phased vocals on “Everything” bring an unfortunate comparison to Lenny Kravitz, who was much more successful without being as original. “Praise Or Blame” seems to take on the American history of destroying cultures of color; political commentary doesn’t really suit him, and the chorus needs work.

Things get back on track—or more specifically, to singing about relationships—for “Toast And Tea”, from the first-person perspective, “Goodbye”, a warning to a less-than-appreciative spouse, and “To Love Her Inside”, which might as well give a description of the woman scorned. “Anything New” unfortunately doesn’t offer much of the sort, though “Alone” appropriately has him playing all the instruments. “Leave Her To Me” offers a more personal variation on the message in “Goodbye”, demonstrating that that song should have been left off in favor of the superior closer.

Rykodisc really did want Galore to sell, and even offered a bonus in the first pressing. More Galore consisted of five covers, starting with the popular 1992 live recording of “In Your Eyes”. “Villier’s Terrace”, “Win” and “Riot Act” show his debts to Echo & The Bunnymen, David Bowie and Elvis Costello respectively. “Make Him Believe” sends some royalties the way of a friend, though it might as well be his own song.

Galore is good, but not enough to surpass either the debut or the expectations of the new label. Next time we heard from him, he was on another indie imprint, re-recording “In Your Eyes” and “Hero In Me”, and covering “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. He’s still out there doing shows, as proved by the two live albums that have appeared since his last studio album a decade ago.

Jeffrey Gaines Galore (1998)—3
Current CD availability: none, download only

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Jeffrey Gaines 2: Somewhat Slightly Dazed

The role of acoustic troubadour was a convenient and cheap was to spread the word, but deep down, Jeffrey Gaines wanted to rock. The first suggestion came with a re-recorded version of “Headmasters Of Mine” featuring the Boston band The Neighborhoods. (The CD single included a live acoustic performance of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”, of which he’s probably received the most notoriety.)

He turns up the volume for the bulk of Somewhat Slightly Dazed, not just layering more guitars but having the drummer hit harder. Luckily, that approach doesn’t crush the potential of the opening three songs, each of which had featured in his sets for a few years. “I Like You” is a wonderfully happy valentine; “Sweet Janine” brings to mind classic ‘60s psychedelia; and “I Know A Man” sympathizes for a victim of an unspecified accident, without specifying who exactly that man is who would “know what to do”. “Safety In Self” takes a folkie direction, with a waltz tempo and uilleann pipes. There’s a quick transition to “You Believe In Me”, which returns to the solo format. Things get edgier on “All The Will In The World”, another portrait of someone fighting some kind of burden.

The second half of the album isn’t as striking, but still holds up its end of the bargain. “Nursery Rhyme” is an infectious little number about the end of a relationship without being at all bitter. The chorus sports a descending vocal, leading right into the musical twist at the end. “Elliot” could be about AIDS or an unwanted pregnancy; he’s typically vague. We hear more echoes of Elvis Costello in the arrangement of “Talent For Surrender”, particularly in the “and you would/said you could” section. “What Can I Do” is more morality on the lines of the debut, and he harmonizes with himself again, nicely, on “Just One Thing”. “In Her Mind” and “Wish It Away” are overwrought and aggressive, making the unlisted alternate mix of “I Like You” something of a reprieve.

Outside of the appearance of guitarist Reeves Gabrels, we can’t find a more blatant Bowie connection for Somewhat Slightly Dazed outside of the nod in the album title. The album should have been huge, but the world wasn’t really interested. Used copies abound on eBay, or it can be downloaded à la carte.

Jeffrey Gaines Somewhat Slightly Dazed (1994)—
Current CD availability: none, download only

Monday, September 10, 2012

Jeffrey Gaines 1: Jeffrey Gaines

The singer-songwriter had his work cut out for him (or her) in the early ‘90s—write songs that cut to the heart of the matter, and be sincere about it. Jeffrey Gaines supposedly gave up a chance to front any of a handful of bands to pursue his own dreams, which he’s still doing today.

Everybody has to start with a self-titled album, and Jeffrey Gaines pretty much presents what he had to offer. His live shows at the time were showcases for his songwriting, with a song or two that weren’t on the album, and a certain arrangement of a cover that would stick him in a slot for the duration.

Not all of the album is a lament for failed relationships, but those are the songs that stand out. “Love Disappears” is as vivid as it gets, expressing the doubt in a relationship described in “What It Is” and ends with “No, I Don’t Think So”. What does emerge from the program is the pro-choice debate, as spelled out in “Didn’t Wanna Be Daddy” and “Choices”. The fatherhood conundrum is explored even deeper in “Sorry The Next Day”.

Jeffrey Gaines has a husky, full voice that owes an acknowledged debt to Elvis Costello and other singer-songwriters, balanced with a delicate acoustic touch around the usual chords but with fingerpicked variations. That’s what songs like “Hero In Me”—his own theme song, if he has one—“Scares Me More” and “Headmasters Of Mine” have to make them so memorable: emotion, passion and expertise.

His approach was mostly acoustic, so thankfully there’s not much in the production that gets in the way of the songs. There is a rhythm section on most tracks, with some coloration, but the most elaborate embellishments come from his own harmonies. That’s what’s made his live performances so engaging—he simply plays the songs, chats up the crowd, and finds levels upon which he can expand. He’s managed to do it for twenty years, and if anything, success hasn’t come close to spoiling him.

Jeffrey Gaines Jeffrey Gaines (1992)—
Current CD availability: none, download only

Friday, September 7, 2012

Robyn Hitchcock 18: Robyn Sings

Selling self-manufactured discs via his website seemed to be a good option for somebody like Robyn Hitchcock, who had things to say but shrinking outlets by which he could say them. And even when he wasn’t saying anything new, he could put out an album anyway.

Robyn Sings consists entirely of Bob Dylan covers. His straightforward (for him) liner notes explain how he was transfixed by “Desolation Row” at an impressionable age, sending him on his path as a singer-songwriter. The set is split into two LP-length discs, denoted “Stripes” and “Dots” in honor of Dylan’s mid-‘60s onstage choice of shirt.

Most of the Stripes disc is made up from live acoustic performances, with only the barest augmentation here and there, as shown on the versions of “Visions Of Johanna” that bookend the disc. And it’s not just the “classic” period he shows love for—“Dignity” and “Not Dark Yet” are hardly staples of Dylan tributes.

The Dots disc presents the electric half of his heavily bootlegged recreation of the “Albert Hall” bootleg on its thirtieth anniversary, recorded in a London club. The band and audience knows the songs (and performances) as well as he does, right down to the sneered twixt-song comments and muttering.

For the most part his renditions are faithful—he is, as he admits, performing a kind of karaoke to songs he’s committed to memory—but every now and then he throws in a surreal rhyme. There’s a wonderful moment in “4th Time Around” where he loses his place, then backtracks through events of the previous verses to find his way back.

Ultimately, Robyn Sings is a curio, an option for those not into file-sharing or tired of trawling eBay for the promo that offered songs for a limited time. It’s a labor of love, a worthwhile listen for fans of both gentlemen, but hardly essential.

Robyn Hitchcock Robyn Sings (2002)—3

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sting 8: Brand New Day

In 1997, a convicted crack dealer turned hip-hop artist was shot and killed, inspiring his producer to record a tribute in the form of the melody and riff from “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, with new “lyrics” rapped on top, the dead man’s widow singing a new chorus, and a video wherein the producer “danced” (compared by SNL comedian Tracy Morgan to a guy looking like he needed to find a bathroom).

Death sells, so it was a huge hit, dominating the airwaves, and sending Sting enough royalties to put his kids and any grandchildren he might one day have through college. He also had no qualms about appearing onstage with the featured performers at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. It seems he was perfectly happy being considered current, especially since his last flirtation with R&B culture was when Eddie Murphy’s character sang “Roxanne” in 48 Hrs.

When he finally completed his next solo album, it fit the pattern of following a more serious statement with a blatant stab at contemporary pop. Brand New Day is another melding of grooves with world music influences, but although some of his stalwart studio companions appear, much of the sound is shaped by keyboards and electronics (almost as if someone had been enjoying Seal a whole lot) supplied by a guy named Kipper. There are trademark hooks under all the dressing, but one has to really listen for them.

It’s okay to start with; “A Thousand Years” simmers in with a hint of Arabic influences, taken to an extreme on “Desert Rose”, based around an Algerian vocalist and featuring a melody that ably straddles both major and minor keys. “Big Lie Small World” sports a delicate nylon string guitar plucked in 9/4, but mostly wanders for five minutes. The beats are getting a little tired by “After The Rain Has Fallen”, though it does have a classic Sting chorus to keep it snappy. But “Perfect Love… Gone Wrong” only offers variety in the French rap sections. (Yup, you read that correctly.) “Tomorrow We’ll See” has an introduction right out of a ‘50s Sinatra torch album, undermined by a faux-noir delivery.

A 20-second prelude to a song not on the album leads into “Fill Her Up”, another country-style morality tale. Something of a Lyle Lovett pastiche, with an appearance by James Taylor for no apparent reason, it detours into gospel for the plot twist, ending with a jazz solo and leaving the listener wondering what the hell just happened. “Ghost Story” contains enough mystery before becoming sadly overwhelmed by the electronics. Finally, the title track has become sadly overplayed thanks to the CBS Early Show. The use of Stevie Wonder on harmonica is fitting, considering that the song is a blatant ripoff of “I Was Made To Love Her”.

For those seeking musical wallpaper—and there sure are a lot of people who were, in view of the two Grammys it won—Brand New Day is the perfect solution. For those of us struggling to stay interested in Sting, we should have gotten off at the last stop.

Sting Brand New Day (1999)—

Monday, September 3, 2012

King Crimson 11: Discipline

The ‘80s actually did bring a lot of changes to music, which weren’t immediately apparent at the time. With the continued irrelevance of Yes and the softening of the Moody Blues and Genesis, the prog genre seemed to be classified as one of the excesses of the ‘70s. The smarter guys simply changed the rulebook. Or, if you were Robert Fripp, you reformed King Crimson, but only after other attempts at band projects fizzled.

The ‘80s lineup of the band was somewhat related to the one that split up after Red, in that Bill Bruford was still on drums. Tony Levin, fresh from playing on John Lennon’s last sessions, seemed a no-brainer on bass, thanks to his work with Peter Gabriel. But instead of a singing bass player, Fripp took a left turn with the addition of Adrian Belew on vocals and guitar, having recently helped out people as varied as Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Talking Heads. According to Fripp, the band came together first, and it was only after they’d played a few shows that they realized it was King Crimson music. The original name for the quartet became the title of their first album, Discipline.

A tapped bass or Chapman stick sets the program spinning like a top, evolving into a funky figure for Belew to shout words over. “Elephant Talk” is upbeat without being assaultive, and the same can be said for “Frame By Frame”, all spiky chords and dizzying picking. “Matte Kudasai” is nice and dreamy, with a strong melody, but “Indiscipline” returns to the edgy delivery of “Elephant Talk”.

Side two has only one song with a vocal, and that’s “Thela Hun Gingeet”, which maintains the tension with a frenetic African rhythm beating away underneath the chanted melody and a monologue about a street encounter. The rest of the side is instrumental—“The Sheltering Sky” is moody and Arabian, almost like the Police, with strikingly processed guitars, and the title track uses countless polyrhythms, building and building and then just stopping.

It’s Fripp’s band, so he can call it anything he wants. It seems odd for a King Crimson album to not have a Mellotron, and that’s one thing that keeps it from being prog, which Fripp insists they never were to begin with. Discipline does show a progression when viewed in the context of his solo album and other late-‘70s projects. Clearly, he wanted to be in a band.) And if you can stand Adrian Belew’s voice, which does sound a bit like David Byrne’s, then you’ll be fine.

The first expansion of the album added an alternate take of “Matte Kudasai”; this was only included on the DVD portion of the next expansion, alongside several audiophile curios. That CD added two other alternate mixes, plus snippets of “Adrian’s vocal loops”. For more confusion, the streaming version of the album does include the alternate “Matte Kudesai”, along with an 11-minute montage of further alternate mixes and “The Terrifying Tale Of Thela Hun Gingeet”, which combines Fripp’s commentary, Adrian’s original recap, and a live version of the song from 1982.

King Crimson Discipline (1981)—
2001 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1981, plus 1 extra track
2011 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1981, plus 4 extra tracks (plus DVD)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Yardbirds 1: For Your Love

As with most of the British blues boom bands, balancing integrity with teenybopper appeal, the Yardbirds catalog is a mess. At one time or another one could find all their “classic” songs on one collection or another, but often they’re mixed with multiple takes of various blues covers. Their main consistency through all the changes was singer Keith Relf, he of the bleach-blonde bowl cut and surprisingly nasal voice. He’s the one singing on the hits, no matter which of the legendary guitarists—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and of course, Top Topham—who passed through the organization is playing. Chances are, if it gets airplay today, Beck is playing lead. (The drummer is always Jim McCarty, but good luck picking him out.)

Their first American LP had no British equivalent, and by the time it came out, Clapton had already left, replaced by Jeff Beck. He appears on the cover of For Your Love, despite only playing on three of the songs, and depicted in front of a piano, which he did not play. The album was put together by their manager, Giorgio Gomelsky, to capitalize on the eponymous hit single that was Clapton’s last straw. Having already missed out on the money the Rolling Stones were making, Gomelsky was determined to make the most of the Yardbirds.

That single was dominated by a harpsichord and bongos also not played by any official band member, with guitar only appearing on the bluesy middle section. Since the band hadn’t started writing their own material yet, the rest of the album is dominated by blues and jazz covers, most already released on British singles. Some of these are definitive, like Mose Allison’s “I’m Not Talkin’” (which has a lot of Beck bending), Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You”, and the venerable “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”. Even “A Certain Girl” has charm in its call-and-response vocals.

They aren’t all winners. “Putty (In Your Hands)” was first recorded by the Shirelles, and probably appealed because of its “Money”-style riff. Clapton dominates the Chess-influenced “Got To Hurry” instrumental, which putters to a halt. “I Ain’t Done Wrong” is another studio jam on old tropes mostly notable for Beck’s wah pedal and heavy chording. “Sweet Music” stands out, partially because it’s a botched attempt to croon, and mostly because the overall sound is different, having been produced by contemporary scene fixture Manfred Mann. And “My Girl Sloopy” has been done better by lots of other people.

Still, as albums go, For Your Love delivers a lot of what made the Yardbirds popular over here, with enough of the blues sound to keep purists happy. It’s been out of print in the States for a long time, but overseas labels have reissued it multiple times, with and without bonus tracks. Something else to remember—most of the band’s early stuff was recorded quickly and cheaply, and therefore sounds awful today. The goofy liner notes must also be read to be appreciated.

The Yardbirds For Your Love (1965)—3

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Lou Reed 25: Ecstasy

Capping a decade that basically returned him to more actual than mythical status, Lou hit the studio with the same team that been in place for the last album and tours. Ecstasy combines new songs about troubled relationships with ideas left over from the Time Rocker project for a difficult listen, dark even for him.

The mood isn’t immediately obvious. “Paranoia Key Of E” is based on a catchy riff, and just about when the words start to ramble, horns kick in and he begins to have fun with the different keys of emotions. The same two chords drive “Mystic Child”, and he didn’t write a melody past the title. At first “Mad” would seem like a slower version of the same structure, except that he actually changes chords and takes the character of an a-hole pissed off that his partner was caught cheating. The horns come back for a nice counterpoint. Jazzy chords provide inspiration for the title track, though Fernando Saunders’ bass is more intriguing than the lyrics.

Things start to go off the rails in “Modern Dance”, wherein he actually rhymes moon and June in a litany of a love letter despite the decent backing. “Tatters” is in the same melancholy mood, but doesn’t feel like you’re reading somebody’s mail. So it’s a big jolt to switch over to “Future Farmers Of America”, a novel, shall we say, view of slavery in American history, before going back to the conversational “Turning Time Around”. “White Prism” (rhymes with “jism”) starts furiously, but then settles back into the same basic beat, cramming “indentured servant” into a lyric alternate submissive and domineering.

The final stretch is a test of endurance. “Rock Minuet” has promise, a lilting waltz of imagery out of Burroughs and the opening section of “Street Hassle”, while Lou overdubs dissonant guitar and Laurie Anderson adds more musically sympathetic violin. Driven by an acoustic guitar for a change, “Baton Rouge” concocts an apocryphal autobiography of one (or both) of his divorces, redeemed by the “so helpless” chorus. Then there’s “Like A Possum”, eighteen minutes of the same two chords as slow as anything on the album while Lou repeats the same “shocking” lyrics. Critics compared it to “Sister Ray”, but at least that evolved and stayed interesting due to the interplay. This one builds too, but only in terms of the drums; many will reach for the skip button, while others will opt for eject. However, they’d miss out on “Rouge”, a brief instrumental interlude for electric violin (guess who) and the almost triumphant closer “Big Sky”.

That tune especially recalls the similar summation on The Blue Mask, which dealt with similar themes and balanced tender moods with assault. But even without “Like A Possum”, Ecstasy is way too long and way too monotonous. Every writer needs an editor, and woe betide anyone who dares to tell Lou what to change.

Lou Reed Ecstasy (2000)—