Friday, November 30, 2012

Robyn Hitchcock 19: Luxor

The direct approach suited Robyn, and continued with the next installment in his discography. Originally distributed to attendees of his 50th birthday concert, Luxor begins with promise, being completely solo and mostly acoustic, just like the best albums of his heyday.

Indeed, “The Sound Of Sound” crawls along at a lovely slow pace, but is pushed aside by “One L”, a tribute to his wife that’s a little too personal to succeed. “Penelope’s Angles” follows a plucked pattern similar to “Autumn Is Your Last Chance”, but wanders off to repeatedly insist that “I am not a yam.” There’s something of a juxtaposition in the not-quite-there-ness of “The Idea Of You” and the much superior “You Remind Me Of You”. The title track is instrumental, and happily doesn’t evoke mental images of Vegas casinos, Egyptian relics or computer games. “Keep Finding Me” beings with an enticing melody that unfortunately loses its way in the bridges (“Be true to your drum/be true to your drummer/this summer is gonna be hot—hot!”).

“Maria Lyn” has some excellent lyrics, but the one-chord blues style has never been his most comfortable approach, no matter how many times he tries it (though “Solpadeine”, which closes the program does much better in the format, mostly because it offers more chords). “Round Song” is an improvement, its ringing 12-string and vocal effects sounding very much like the English psychedelic folk we imagine him loving without having heard it ourselves. The jumpy “Ant Corridor” seems more like a demo than anything else here, making little sense. The same could be said of “Idonia”, but somehow this particular mix of sea shanty and 1966 Dylan clicks. “The Wolf House” is another pretty instrumental staying just this side of revealing its structure.

Presented with little fanfare, Luxor re-establishes the trend of Robyn Hitchcock albums that are pleasant but not very exciting. Because of the perfection of I Often Dream Of Trains and Eye—not to mention the sheer entertainment his solo shows always provided—we desperately want to like this album more than we do. The rating should therefore be taken well within context, and we’d be surprised, albeit pleasantly, if anyone fell in love with his work based on this particular album.

Robyn Hitchcock Luxor (2003)—

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Van Morrison 11: Wavelength

Right off the bat, Wavelength seems to be a step in the right direction. Only a year after his return to the business, Van seems to have come to grips with the expectation of the marketplace. Even the cover was stylish, giving the consumer another crotch shot below an almost relaxed, confident stare captured in soft focus by the same guy who’d photographed Joni for the Hejira cover.

Of course, what translated as current in 1978 doesn’t always work after the fact, and it’s been said that Wavelength is just a little too slick; whatever anyone’s opinion, the overall sound is an improvement over A Period In Transition. For one, it’s longer. Also, the use of a larger band more suited to his own whims lends a consistency that keeps it together. (Even if the synthesizer sounds out of place, but then again, Garth Hudson was always more effective when he used more organic tones.)

The album isn’t immediately memorable. “Kingdom Hall” might suggest a conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but overall it’s just a simple celebration of dancing and having fun. “Checkin’ It Out” sounds a bit muffled, but with only three chords it’s not supposed to stand out much. We’re not sure who “Natalia” is, but she should be pleased Van wrote such a happy song for her. “Venice U.S.A.” is much better if you don’t read the lyric sheet (with the chorus “Dum derra dum dum diddy diddy dah dah” repeated six times each, and Lester Bangs called it first). “Lifelines” has potential, but suffers from underdeveloped keyboard effects; one wonders how it would sound with just Van’s electric piano, as listed in the credits.

What makes the album worth the price of purchase is the title track, another joyous celebration of the spirit of radio. Here the keyboards don’t get in the way, instead conveying the idea of radio waves shimmering through the air, and the guitar solo, not a common touch on a Van album, is perfect. (This wasn’t included on either of his early-‘90s hits collections, a crime not rectified until 2007 with the release of a fourth.) “Santa Fe” isn’t much, but in a premonition of the future, it morphs into “Beautiful Obsession”, which would appear to be an extemporaneous composition in the studio, with a few exhortations near the fade that perhaps influenced Bob Seger on “Against The Wind”. “Hungry For Your Love” doesn’t generate enough energy to make the sentiment convincing, leaving “Take It Where You Find It” as the last stab at an epic, but a sleepy one.

It seems that Van is more into it on Wavelength, but outside of that title track, the album just seems a little bland. It was hoped he would do better going forward. (He could still bring it onstage, however, as evidenced by the performances of “Kingdom Hall” and “Wavelength” included on a later CD expansion.)

Van Morrison Wavelength (1978)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1978, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, November 26, 2012

They Might Be Giants 4: Miscellaneous T and Then

To cash in on the marginal success TMBG had with Flood, their old distributor collected a bunch of tracks from the EPs originally released to promote the singles from the debut and Lincoln. With the somewhat inspired title of Miscellaneous T, it presented in more or less a reverse chronological order to that of the original EPs.

As with most B-sides and whatnot, they’re not all zingers, else one would think they’d’ve made it to the albums proper. Highlights include “We’re The Replacements”, a silly tribute to the Minnesota band (no matter what the fatter John says), “The Famous Polka”, the original version of “Kiss Me, Son Of God”, “It’s Not My Birthday”, the scandalous commentary in “Hey Mr. DJ I Thought You Said We Had A Deal” and, possibly, the so-called “Joshua Fried Remix” of “The World’s Address”. Beyond that, well, you gotta be a fan.

Some years later, after the band had returned to obscurity, the quest to remaster and reissue things led to Then, a repackaging of the first two albums, bolstered by the various EP tracks, along with another 19 tracks heard only on Dial-A-Song or before shows. All the EP tracks had of course been reissued once on Miscellaneous T, so fans old and new could marvel at those extras. The “intros” are fairly entertaining, and earlier versions of “Don’t Let’s Start”, “Which Describes How You’re Feeling” and “Hope That I Get Old Before I Die” contrast how those songs began with how they started out. “Number Three” sung entirely in Greek will scratch a few heads, but the track titled “Schoolchildren Singing ‘Particle Man’” offers just that, and is just plain charming.

Then, therefore, is the way to go if you don’t have anything prior to Flood. But if you do, you might as well upgrade.

They Might Be Giants Miscellaneous T (1991)—
They Might Be Giants
Then: The Earlier Years (1997)—4

Friday, November 23, 2012

Frank Zappa 11: Chunga’s Revenge

With only his name and gaping maw on the cover, one might assume that Chunga’s Revenge would be another “solo” album and therefore not at all like the same year’s Mothers output. That assumption would not be entirely correct.

By the time he recorded this album, he’d put together a new Mothers, retaining only Ian Underwood from the old band, but adding more seasoned players, including British drummer Aynsley Dunbar (who would one day anchor Journey) and jazzman George Duke on keys. This gave him a more solid base upon which he could do his thing, as demonstrated on “Transylvania Boogie”, “Twenty Small Cigars” (a Hot Rats outtake, previewed on Jean-Luc Ponty’s album of Zappa interpretations earlier that year), and the title track. Arguably, the highlight of the album is “Sharleena”, one of his best songs from both a lyrical and musical standpoint.

However—and this is a big, big however—he also recruited two singers from the Turtles to sing and add harmonies. These would be Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, a.k.a. Flo & Eddie. While only in the Zappa employ for eighteen months, their sycophantic stain would be felt on every album and concert tour for the balance of his career. From here on out, instrumental virtuosity would be pitted against or alongside scatological lyrical content.

Luckily for Chunga’s Revenge, they’re more of a decoration than the focal point, really only taking over on side two. They’re first heard helping out with “Road Ladies”, an actually enjoyable blues until one of them gets to mewl a verse on their own. “Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink” is another novelty in-joke that wouldn’t have been out of place on Absolutely Free. “Tell Me You Love Me” is a loud parody of contemporary rock, while “Would You Go All The Way?” makes odd references to both the U.S.O. and the U.S.A.

Even when they’re not singing, Frank’s fascination with groupies and “bands on the road” is still pretty obvious. (Some say this is a key example of “conceptual continuity”, or maybe it’s proof of a one-track mind.) The album was, as he was wont to do, presented as a “preview” of music from an in-progress film—in this case, 200 Motels. We might assume that “The Nancy & Mary Music”, a live improvisation, was supposed to accompany something featuring groupie characters. Even “The Clap”, otherwise a multi-tracked percussion piece (the drums being his first musical love) edited next to the title track, refers to a social disease common to touring bands.

Taken on its own, Chunga’s Revenge is a perfectly harmless album. It is, however, the fine line after which one’s tolerance for shock value will be tested. Proceed accordingly. 1970 was a transitional year for Zappa, and obviously neither he nor anyone could envision the events that would follow.

A half-century later, once the industry had fallen in love with anniversary repackages and the Zappa Family Trust started issuing comprehensive expansions of various albums, more of the music from the year would be revealed. The Super Deluxe Edition of the 200 Motels soundtrack included further music from the Chunga sessions that would end up in the film, but more interesting musically was the hour’s worth of music from Trident Studios in London that made up the first disc of The Mothers 1970. Highlights include Frank’s original vocal on “Wonderful Wino”, a few instrumentals with just Frank and Aynsley Dunbar, and an early run through “Envelopes”. Three further discs in the set are dedicated to live performances featuring Flo & Eddie, which gradually devolve from renditions of Mothers catalog tunes on a Dutch TV show to the “routines” the group would undertake mere months later, interspersed with various field recordings of conversations Frank captured to fuel his inspiration.

Much of this fatuous material is presented in sub-bootleg sound quality, adding insult to injury, but does lift anytime the vocalists stick to their tambourines while Frank rips off a solo, as on the otherwise unknown “Portuguese Fenders” and an early draft of “Easy Meat”, or for any of the renditions of “King Kong”, each of which includes a detour through “Igor’s Boogie”. The band, for all the hijinks, was tight. (In fact, a few years earlier the third installment in the Estate’s occasional Road Tapes series of low-fidelity shows presented two from July 1970, one of which was the source of “The Nancy & Mary Music” on Chunga’s Revenge—turns out it was mostly from “King Kong”, which in those days had an “Igor’s Boogie” interlude.)

Frank Zappa Chunga’s Revenge (1970)—3
Frank Zappa
Road Tapes, Venue #3 (2016)—
The Mothers
The Mothers 1970 (2020)—

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Kate Rusby: Hourglass

Back in the ‘90s, I managed a CD store where the only other employee was the owner. While our musical tastes would occasionally clash in the no man’s land between hair metal and Bob Dylan, we did our best to remain open-minded, and even learned a few things in the process.

Being an independent store, one of the only ways we could fend off competition from the chains was by maintaining a “lean but choice” inventory of music that wasn’t always representative of that week’s copy of Billboard. Even The Artist One Day Known As John Mayer would credit us, begrudgingly, for widening his peripheral vision past Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dave Matthews. (We tried, anyway.)

Such hands-on customer service went both ways, and often we’d heed the advice of our patrons, and discover an obscure treasure. This was the case with Hourglass by Kate Rusby, which apparently was a huge hit in England a full year before a customer asked about it in time for its American distribution. Figuring she must be on to something, we ordered a copy for her and one for the store.

When it arrived, and with not much else released that particular Tuesday in August, we opened a copy and put it on. We were immediately entranced, and even misty-eyed, from beginning to end. It’s an absolutely lovely collection of traditional Celtic songs and adaptations framed by Ms. Rusby’s angelic voice and gentle acoustic guitar, plus other accompaniment.

It really does wow on first listen—the cheerful “fa la lanky down dilly” of “Sir Eglamore” leads into the hardly hackneyed “As I Roved Out”. “Jolly Ploughboys” gains momentum as any good work song should, and the sea tale of “Annan Waters” uses pipes and piano to mask the sadness beneath. “Stananivy” is a charming jig paired with a dancing lyric about “Jack & Jill”.

The centerpiece of the album is an original, the heartbreaking “A Rose In April”. Delivered as a dialogue-style ballad, the tragedy unfolds slowly and vividly. As moving as it is, the happier portrait of “Radio Sweethearts” provides a nice lift. If there’s a clunker on the album, it would be “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”, a traditional song given a new melody but partially credited to Sinead O’Connor. “Old Man Time” is another original, and a striking observation from someone so young. “Drowned Lovers” begins with the unmistakable sound of someone tuning their E-string, neatly folded into the rest of the tune. An accordion, not usually our favorite instrument, accompanies “Bold Riley” to the end of the album.

It’s probably not possible to convey just what a pleasant surprise this album was at the time, but even years later it still has the power to move. Hourglass is simply lovely, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I will always be indebted to that customer—whoever she was—who’d special-ordered this.

Kate Rusby Hourglass (1997)—

Monday, November 19, 2012

R.E.M. 19: Live At The Olympia

It’s fairly odd that only two years after their first-ever live album—with only one studio album in between—that R.E.M. would release another. Lest we think they were turning into the Rolling Stones, Live At The Olympia isn’t your typical post-tour souvenir. These two CDs are culled from the series of “live rehearsals” the boys—the three main members, plus drums and another guitar—played in Dublin as they were preparing for the album that would become Accelerate.

Of course, the performances didn’t consist solely of all-new, untried material; the bulk of the CD—two-thirds from the Bill Berry years—provides fresh takes on some of the deeper recesses of their catalog. Ecstatic fans in the audience (and now, listening on their player of choice) are treated to six songs from Reckoning, five from Fables and all but one from the Chronic Town EP. Only Green, Out Of Time and Up go unrepresented. But they’re not carbon copies either—there’s energy behind each song, whether introduced by Stipe with an anecdote or described lovingly in Peter Buck’s liner notes. The sharp-eared will notice a changed family dynamic, with “Gardening At Night” played at the request of longtime advisor Bertis Downs, while all references to “Jefferson” have been removed from “Little America”.

Of course, it’s an album for fans, so while there’s no need to into detail for each old song, a few other details are worth mentioning. “Harborcoat” makes it most of the way unscathed, until the tuneless harmonica sets up a purposely sloppy ending. “Circus Envy” is even a lot of fun, more so than surrounded by all the noise on Monster. And whose idea was it to revive “Romance”?

Considering the songs that did end up on Accelerate, it’s interesting to consider the other surviving contenders. “Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance”, fine as it is, wouldn’t have added anything to the album, and “Disguised” turns out to be a an early version of “Supernatural Superserious”, somehow not as tight as the recorded version. The slow and sad “On The Fly” comes from the same cloth as “Country Feedback”, but a little more melodic. There’s a middle interlude that threatens to go somewhere else entirely, but instead folds back to the song. It’s a hidden gem all right, but would have been out of place on the album they completed.

Live At The Olympia ends up a nice little surprise, with 39 songs filling up two-and-a-half hours of music, it’s a preferred listen to the other live album. It also provides a nice setup for the live recordings they’d begun including in the anniversary editions of their back catalog.

R.E.M. Live At The Olympia (2009)—

Friday, November 16, 2012

They Might Be Giants 3: Flood

By the advent of the CD era, Elektra Records had developed into one of those labels that wisely kept releases to a minimum, maintaining a lean roster that kept an eye on the past while taking a few chances on what could be considered college rock (before it evolved into adult alternative). Having seen success with 10,000 Maniacs, the Cure and Tracy Chapman, they signed They Might Be Giants and gave a big push to their third album.

That big-budget backing made Flood something of a hit, a deserved result considering the quality therein. Despite some production assistance and even the use of—gasp!—a real drummer, it’s still a quirky TMBG album, slathered in accordion and wacky samples. Just the way we like it.

After the brief fanfare of an actual theme song, “Birdhouse In Your Soul” is a simple song sung by a nightlight. Some discord occurs in the bridge, but it’s redeemed by the lyrical comparison to a picture of a lighthouse (“I’d be fired if that were my job/After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts”). “Lucky Ball & Chain” is related to Led Zeppelin’s “Hot Dog” both thematically and musically, another lost love song, countered by “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, a combination cover and history lesson, here given a very appropriate Eastern accompaniment. “Dead” is another favorite, a rumination on reincarnation or the lack thereof loaded with great rhymes. “Your Racist Friend” is a fairly straight narrative, with any tension deflated by “Particle Man”, a hilarious comparison of fictional superheroes. “Twisting” takes its title from the suggestion in the Farfisa organ riff, and is probably the only end-of-romance song to reference the dBs and the Young Fresh Fellows. The title of “We Want A Rock” would appear to be a pun on a certain Twisted Sister song, but instead becomes a universal yearning for pieces of string and prosthetic foreheads.

“Someone Keeps Moving My Chair” remains an enigma, but no more so than “Hearing Aid”, the longest track at three-and-a-half minutes and a continuation of some of the more experimental moments on their first two albums. “Minimum Wage” provides an interlude and a sorbet in its silliness, and the rest of the album follows suit. “Letterbox” is sung at top speed and in close harmony. “Whistling In The Dark” has something of a martial feel with a touch of motivational speaking. “Hot Cha” goes by quickly enough to make way for the twisted sea chantey of “Women & Men”. “Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love” turns out to share a title with a song by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and also gets out of the way for the almost closing theme of “They Might Be Giants”. Instead, the final scene of the audio movie is “Road Movie To Berlin”, starting nice and quiet, going through a big middle section, and ending anticlimactically.

Flood has become so popular over the years that TMBG has occasionally performed it in concert in order, to the delight of fans. And even though it was “a brand new record for 1990”, it still sounds fresh and fun today. While Lincoln is still the better album, Flood deserves the rating below.

They Might Be Giants Flood (1990)—4

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Suzanne Vega 5: Nine Objects Of Desire

Suzanne must have enjoyed working with Mitchell Froom so much on her previous album that she ended up marrying him and bearing his child. So it was that four years passed until the release of her next album. However, married life and motherhood didn’t result in a quality album—or at least not of the standard we’d come to expect.

Much can be blamed on her husband’s penchant for noisy, percussive production. Where her earlier albums presented her voice and music clear and unencumbered, Nine Objects Of Desire is slathered with trendy lounge keyboards and other effects. The overall tone is more harsh than smooth, to the point where the singer takes a back seat to the mix (proof positive that having both Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas from the Attractions as your rhythm section doesn’t always guarantee success).

There are a few moments that work. “Stockings” presents a trademark tale of a mysterious woman, anchored by a smart guitar pattern and colored with a contrasting chorus, but ultimately sunk by an Arabian string section. Similarly, one wonders how much better “No Cheap Thrill” would be in a simpler arrangement without the underwater guitar. “World Before Columbus” is possibly the best track, a love song to her baby daughter treated unobtrusively by the mix. “Honeymoon Suite” is similarly understated, but the autobiographical aspects are a bit loud.

Many of the songs blend together into a generic, jazzy hum—“lounge” being the kitschy trend of the time—as demonstrated on “Caramel”, “Lolita” and “Thin Man”. “Headshots” would appear to tell another intriguing story, and “Casual Match” also sports a catchy self-harmonized chorus, but much of the potential is lost within the effects. While there’s something fetching about the way she sings the chorus for “Birth-Day (Love Made Real)”, it’s so distorted that she’s barely heard. “Tombstone” features an extreme mix, with a cool vocal, but again, it’s interchangeable with any number of Crowded House tracks.

Therefore, Nine Objects Of Desire comes off more as a Mitchell Froom album than a Suzanne Vega album. Maybe she wanted it that way, but one wishes she could have let her songs breathe without all the dressing.

Suzanne Vega Nine Objects Of Desire (1996)—2

Monday, November 12, 2012

Van Morrison 10: A Period Of Transition

It was three years between Veedon Fleece and the next Van Morrison album—an eternity in the ‘70s. There is proof that he did record in that period, and played more than a handful of live shows featuring new material. But for whatever reason, when he finally got around to making another album, much of that new material was left to one side, or drained of its potential. Instead, the decision was made to lay down some generic tracks with Dr. John (credited under his given name of Mac Rebennack) as key collaborator and co-producer. Given the all-too obvious title A Period Of Transition, the album doesn’t really please. Especially after a three-year gap.

“You Gotta Make It Through The World” and “It Fills You Up” don’t come off as much more than jams with the most basic of preparation, so that the delayed opening of “The Eternal Kansas City” seems almost groundbreaking. Considering that it consists of a couple of minutes of women singing “excuse me do you know the way to Kansas City” unaccompanied (shades of “All The Tired Horses”), followed by another couple of minutes of arranged tedium, side one doesn’t thrill. It’s too bad, since it might have been a decent track.

Side two begins with “Joyous Sound”, which doesn’t live up to its potential. Seeing “Flamingos Fly” on the cover next might have made diehard fans catch their breath, but instead of the extended meditations tried out live, here it’s a middling boogie. “Heavy Connection” finally brings something interesting, at least in the form of well-arranged horns along the lines of “And It Stoned Me”. It’s far and away the best track on the album, until the last. “Cold Wind In August” is a masterpiece played over standard chords. Besides coming closest to the classic sound, it sports the right balance of splendor and melancholy, foreshadowing a certain collaboration with Robbie Robertson down the road. It really is a terrific song, but as it comes at the end of the album, it’s a shame that he couldn’t have used it as a springboard instead.

On A Period Of Transition, the ‘70s have sunk in, where a record is merely commerce and nothing like the free-standing works of art Van had pioneered so shortly before. This album could be almost anyone, and just about everything about it (save those last two songs) suggests that he was merely marking time. The cover didn’t help, presenting a whole pile of grumpy head shots that would only pigeonhole him as exactly that.

Van Morrison A Period Of Transition (1977)—2

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Neil Finn 3: 7 Worlds Collide

To promote the all-but-U.S. release of his second solo album, Neil Finn played a weeklong residency at a theater in Auckland, New Zealand with a band that included two members of Radiohead and other special guests, sometimes trading each other’s songs. The highlights were compiled on 7 Worlds Collide. (The DVD version added even more selections, and provides key visual clues to what’s going on.)

A few of the One Nil tracks make the program, while “Loose Tongue” from his first solo album is nicely translated to the stage. Johnny Marr emerges from years of session work to sing his own “Down On The Corner”, and Neil returns the favor by ably tackling The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. Multi-instrumentalist Lisa Germano takes a rare spotlight on the transfixing “Paper Doll” before harmonizing nicely on “Turn And Run”. It wouldn’t be a show without Tim Finn, and the two perform not only a few from their one collaboration album to date, but preview “Edible Flowers” from the next one. Eddie Vedder reveals himself to be a huge Split Enz fan, taking lead vocals on “Take A Walk”, “Stuff And Nonsense”, and “I See Red”, the latter yelled over a band fronted by Neil’s son Liam (more on him later). The band also backs him on “Parting Ways” from the most recent Pearl Jam album. For Crowded House fans, “Weather With You” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over” close the set.

7 Worlds Collide isn’t the last time Neil would collaborate with surprisingly likeminded musicians, but it is an unexpected surprise. One suspects it may have helped pave the way for the emergence of One All in the U.S. the following year.

Neil Finn & Friends 7 Worlds Collide (2001)—

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Neil Finn 2: One Nil

It’s always sad when an established artist can’t get his or her records distributed in America, but that’s what happened to Neil Finn’s One Nil, despite the presence in the studio of Sheryl Crow, as well as Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, who also co-wrote some of the songs. The album isn’t as experimental as Try Whistling This, but it’s still not enough for him to merely write the songs; he’s just as concerned with making records, so production peppers the aural landscape.

“The Climber” is a cheerful little number seemingly sung from the point of view of a man stranded in an avalanche, going seamlessly via drum machine into the much more homey “Rest Of The Day Off”. “Hole In The Ice” starts out abrasively, but has another wonderful Neil Finn chorus to redeem it. “Wherever You Are” also appears to be built up from a home demo, and it rolls along inoffensively. “Last To Know” is a nice little strum, but “Don’t Ask Why” is noisy and fairly obnoxious, sticking out of the middle.

The mild prayer “Secret God” is a step in the right direction, sounding more like a band, with those underwater guitars leading to a mysterious ending, but “Turn And Run” is a standout, with Sheryl Crow actually on pitch and suitably mixed. “Elastic Heart” is too muddy and irritating for these ears, redeemed by the superior mix of “Anytime”. With its accordion, “Driving Me Mad” could almost be a Crowded House tune, as could, for that matter, “Into The Sunset”, another chance for the song to exist without too much fuss.

As mentioned, One Nil wasn’t released in the U.S. for over a full year, and when it was, it sported a rejigged lineup and had been retitled One All. Songs were remixed, some gaining a few seconds and others shaved, while “Don’t Ask Why” and “Elastic Heart” were dropped to no great loss, and two new songs were inserted. “Lullaby Requiem” is lovely, though it’s at an odd place in the middle of the album, while “Human Kindness” is more clattery, which we’d blame on the influence of Mitchell Froom. The album still starts and ends with the same tracks, so the new sequence doesn’t enhance or detract from the listening experience; it takes time to grow, and least more people have a chance to hear it.

Neil Finn One Nil (2001)—3
Neil Finn
One All (2002)—3

Friday, November 9, 2012

Cars 3: Panorama

Around the time of his first solo album, which we’re not going to discuss here, Ric Ocasek said that the ideal situation for him would be a “three-record deal”—but not the one you’d think. For him, that would be the ability to make an album only three people would like. It’s not exactly the easiest way to make a living, but it shows the perpetual contrast between commercial appeal and creative freedom.

Back in the land of the Cars, Panorama wasn’t that album only three people would like, but it was the so-called difficult third album, following the success of the debut and the reaction in the follow-up. From the start, it’s not chock full of hits. The title track is predominantly computerized and cold, hardly tuneful and very dated. After the better part of six minutes, “Touch And Go” is particularly welcome, a terrific tune that still spend most of its time in 5/4. “Gimme Some Slack” is also pretty catchy, even if does resemble “She’s So Cold” by the Rolling Stones, which had only come out a couple of months earlier. Ben Orr finally sings on “Don’t Tell Me No”, albeit in a snotty voice, but “Getting Through” gets silly again, complete with what would now be called video game noises.

Side two is a little more straight, even if there’s nothing as excellent as “Touch And Go”. “Misfit Kid” might have made some geeks feel a little less alone. Another digital explosion bridges “Down Boys” (NOT the Warrant song) and the softer “You Wear Those Eyes”, and Ben’s suite finishes with “Running To You”, which might have made the charts had it been a single. “Up And Down” is dominated by drums sounding akin to someone beating a bat against a metal trash can, bringing the album somewhat full circle.

Panorama certainly offers more of the Cars brand, but again, it was almost as if they were daring their audience to keep up with them. To that extent, they succeeded, but it doesn’t tend to get as many plays as their previous work to date. Maybe if they’d put a hot girl on the cover… (Decades later, three previously unreleased tracks would be added to the CD, one of which is an earlier version of a song from their next album, along with the twice-used B-side “Don’t Go To Pieces”.)

The Cars Panorama (1980)—3
2017 expanded edition: same as 1980, plus 4 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jimi Hendrix 8: War Heroes

Jimi was barely in the ground two years before management put together another scrape through the vaults—the fourth posthumous release in the US alone. War Heroes (whatever that means; another title we can’t figure out) was an odd combination of instrumental jams, alternate versions of a single nobody could find, and an old B-side, not really arranged in any order.

Did somebody say “more cowbell”? Well, “Bleeding Heart” is a funkified arrangement of an Elmore James tune, sitting uncomfortably in style and production next to “Highway Chile”, a B-side from 1967. The Experience would occasionally perform “Tax Free”, a jazzy Swedish instrumental, in concert; with a guitar sounding like a Hammond B-3, it hints at yet another direction he might have followed. “Peter Gunn/Catastrophe” is a stumble of a joke jam in between recording actual takes of something else, or maybe he was out of ideas that day. Whatever the story, it’s doubtful he would have released this himself. “Stepping Stone” was tried several times toward the end, and this version is pretty close to excellent, but it needs more adjustment.

“Midnight” is a fairly loud groove by the Experience that’s either loved or hated. (We like it ourselves.) But it’s followed by the purely novelty “3 Little Bears”, which even Jimi sounds embarrassed playing, even begging the engineer to stop him. “Beginnings” is a jazzy stop-time experiment, credited to Mitch Mitchell on the original album, but since revealed to be a variation on “Jam Back At The House”, first played as far back as Woodstock. “Izabella” is another funk song with potential, but it’s just not making it here.

There are enough moments on War Heroes to make it interesting, but then you’ve only got about a side’s worth of material, which begs the assumption that the best leftovers had already come out on Cry Of Love or Rainbow Bridge. That didn’t keep the European labels from compiling the pointedly titled Loose Ends, an album so negligible it hasn’t been completely cannibalized in this century. As for the album at hand, its contents are spread across three CDs, plus a box set and a CD single with two mixes of the same instrumental Christmas medley.

Jimi Hendrix War Heroes (1972)—3
Current CD availability: none

Monday, November 5, 2012

King Crimson 17: Epitaph

Robert Fripp is easily King Crimson’s biggest fan. Long insistent that they’re not “his” band, he has consistently championed the contributions of every player who traveled under that name, and, in the wake of years of mismanagement and exploitation by the record industry, he has spent much of his spare time preserving, archiving and sharing every document of the band (and his own history) that he can find.

Fripp was the first major artist to set up a Web-based distribution system for his product, a move that has been both welcomed and criticized by rabid fans (a term, he will happily remind you, is short for “fanatic”, and he’s nothing if not precise). Several compilations and box sets had already appeared, but the first major release in the era of the Bootleg Series and Dick’s Picks was Epitaph, which served to document the live adventures of the unit that recorded the first King Crimson album.

Most Crimheads give high praise to In The Court Of The Crimson King; however, that band splintered at the conclusion of their first American tour, and the follow-up suffered as a result. Epitaph documents their concerts, from their earliest BBC radio recordings to performances at Fillmores East and West. The performances are presented as is yet show the band at its best, between faithful reproductions of songs from the album and extended improvisations, two of which would be recorded for In The Wake Of Poseidon. Other experiments would inspire KC songs even further down the line, though we note that parts of “Mantra”, otherwise unfinished, are reminiscent of one of the pieces from Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert. Throughout, they sound less prog than jazz.

A two-disc version of Epitaph was sold in stores, while the most rabid fans could send away for two further discs for the set, both taken from bootlegs and described by the compilers as “wretched”, thus explaining the existence of the two-disc version. (Indeed, the inaugural release a year later from the King Crimson Collector’s Club documented a set from their summer residency at London’s Marquee Club, and while it’s fascinating for its power and volume, its audio quality is atrocious.) Since the set’s release further recordings have come to light, and have been made available as CDs and/or downloads from the official site, culminating in 2019’s The Complete 1969 Recordings, containing 20 CDs of live material, recording sessions, and multiple mixes of the first album, plus four Blu-Rays and two DVDs.

Bolstered later in the year by The Nightwatch, these albums are mostly designed for those seeking a wider picture than those offered by the band’s studio discography, and are not intended to act as replacements. Along with the moments of musical superiority, each are heavily annotated by the participants, and exhaustively by Mr. Fripp, who uses the forum to put forth various of his learned aphorisms, including “The history of the music industry is a history of exploitation and theft” and “Tuning a Mellotron doesn’t.”

King Crimson Epitaph (1997)—3

Friday, November 2, 2012

They Might Be Giants 2: Lincoln

TMBG’s second album continued along the same path as their debut—two guys with a drum machine too clever for most people to follow—but manages to improve on that blueprint. For one, there’s less reliance on wordplay for its own sake, making the subjects of the songs much more direct. That, plus a continued variety of song styles, makes Lincoln the superior album.

For starters, one might assume that one or both Johns had suffered a romantic breakup. “Ana Ng” displays a longing for an unattainable partner, complete with an excellent “broken record” effect built directly into the arrangement. “I’ve Got A Match” is as straight a pop song as they’ve ever written, about two people who can barely stand each other, underscored when followed by the twist of “Santa’s Beard”, wherein Mommy seems to be doing much more than kissing Santa Claus. “You’ll Miss Me” is fairly chaotic but clear once the lyrics come through, and the otherwise catchy “They’ll Need A Crane” details the end of a romance.

Lest anyone think they’re too serious, other topics are explored. “Purple Toupee” presents a wonderful distortion of ‘60s turmoil from the point of view of someone who just didn’t get it. “Shoehorn With Teeth”, with an instrumental backing consisting solely of saxophones, accordion and three glockenspiel notes, always seems to be “about” something but probably isn’t. “Snowball In Hell”, however, stands a bunch of clichés on their heads to bemoan the horror of menial labor. “Kiss Me, Son Of God” is a hilarious portrait of a egotist responsible for much pain and suffering (“I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage called the blood of the exploited working class… I destroyed a bond of friendship and respect between the only people left who’d even look me in the eye”) to the snappy accompaniment of violins.

Not everything has to have deep meaning, of course. “Cowtown” is best remembered for the wonderful scream sample on each break, while “Cage & Aquarium” seems to be an excuse to make fun of a certain song from Hair. “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go” sports a dizzying spiral format, a pointedly anti-melodic chorus (“You’re free to come and go, or talk like Kurtis Blow”) and a terrific guitar solo repeated over the fade. “Pencil Rain” also has a big guitar solo, and marches along in a suggestion of reaching something more than it does. “Mr. Me” is just plain fun, a first in string of unique cartoon characters in TMBG tunes.

With only 18 songs under 40 minutes this time, and the high potential to fall victim to a limited scope, Lincoln still manages to cover a wide range of territory. The album would become a beloved classic among the Comic-Con crowd, and set the dynamic duo up for that coveted major-label cash.

They Might Be Giants Lincoln (1988)—4

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Brian Eno 20: Drums Between The Bells

Suddenly busy, Brian Eno hooked up with another collaborator out of nowhere, this time English poet Rick Holland. Drums Between The Bells was billed to “Brian Eno and the words of Rick Holland”, and that’s exactly what it is—Eno music with abstract minimalist poetry recited over it, usually by a female, sometimes by himself.

Poetry readings aren’t for everyone, but then again, neither is Eno. Personally, we’d rather do without the voices, since some of the music is so nice, and some of it very familiar. “Dreambirds” and “Pour It Out” are particularly lovely piano-based pieces, and “The Real” meshes Apollo with the backwards pianos of side two of Low. “Sounds Alien” features Eno harmonizing with what a woman is reciting, but then there’s a horn break right out of an ‘80s TV cop drama. “Cloud 4” and the spooky “Breath Of Crows” involve more musical vocals as well. Leo Abrahams adds a distorted guitar to the opening “Bless This Place”, and Eno stalwart Nell Catchpole does her violin thing here and there.

The initial pressing was made available in book-like packaging that included a bonus disc of the music in a different sequence and without voices, but it cost more, naturally. A few months later, the Panic Of Looking EP presented another six tracks from the same sessions. One track, “Watch A Single Swallow In A Thermal Sky, And Try To Fit Its Motion, Or Figure Why It Flies”, is purely instrumental with treated piano. Outside of that, one cameo from his daughter and another from Bronagh Gallagher (best known from The Commitments and Pulp Fiction) it’s only for completists.

Brian Eno and Rick Holland Drums Between The Bells (2011)—3
Brian Eno and Rick Holland
Panic Of Looking (2011)—3