Thursday, February 28, 2013

Paul Simon 6: Greatest Hits, Etc.

Having begun to work more slowly than ever, Paul Simon went for the standard contract-ending maneuver. Greatest Hits, Etc. compiled tracks (hits and otherwise) from his four solo albums of the decade, sweetened by two new songs to suck in those who’d already bought the albums. “Slip Slidin’ Away” has since become one of his more popular standards, an easygoing meditation on good people trying to do good things, with a clip-clopping rhythm and the Oak Ridge Boys harmonizing along. “Stranded In A Limousine” is a funky, jazzy parable that’s probably about something more profound, or at least designed to sound that way.

There’s no denying the worthiness of the hits in this package (“Me And Julio”, “Mother And Child Reunion”, “50 Ways…”) but some of the choices to fulfill the “etc.” label are up to personal taste. “Have A Good Time” mars side one, but is redeemed by the live version of “Duncan” that follows, and “I Do It For Your Love” on side two. “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” is simply an odd way to end the album, particularly coming after the raucous “Loves Me Like A Rock”. What’s more, “My Little Town” is glaringly absent.

With the snail’s pace that would follow, it would be a long time before he had any worthy contenders to add to his roster of “hits”. By the time that happened—in a big way—Greatest Hits, Etc. no longer sufficed, and was replaced with a more comprehensive set on another label. “Slip Slidin’ Away” would remain in the pantheon, but “Stranded In A Limousine” would revert to rarity status, not returning to general availability until the new century.

Paul Simon Greatest Hits, Etc. (1977)—
Current CD availability: none

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Frank Zappa 14: Just Another Band From L.A.

Frank kept the latest version of the Mothers busy on the road, performing against mounting odds and rigorously rehearsing new material with which he could astound audiences. Just Another Band From L.A. was recorded a whole two months after (and across the continent from) the Fillmore album, capturing a (mostly) new set of music.

The centerpiece is “Billy The Mountain”, a side-long operetta designed to showcase for Flo & Eddie’s capacity for inside jokes designed to please Frank, but what’s staggering is the band’s ability to stay so tight despite the seemingly improvised structure. The jokes that succeed best are the musical ones, from the repeated quote from the Johnny Carson theme to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”. As ever, Flo & Eddie are fine when they’re harmonizing straight, but have two incredibly obnoxious voices at other times (particularly when they’re trying to out-snark each other). There are even some nice melodies framing the piece, which would have been nice to enjoy unadorned. Unfortunately, this would not be the last time Frank would attempt a lengthy narrative piece.

Side two is a little more structured, bookended by two older Mothers tunes (“Call Any Vegetable” and “Dog Breath”) that were good choices to be tackled by the new lineup (and something of a thumbed nose to the discarded Mothers who’d originally recorded them). “Eddie, Are You Kidding?” would seem to be a parody of a local guy hawking suits off the rack, while “Magdalena” is a more blatant in its content, that of a man attempting to rape his presumably hot teenage daughter. (Pretty hilarious, right?)

When the music is allowed to breathe—and Frank stopping his “directing” long enough to rip a wah-wah solo—it’s fairly impressive. But overall, Just Another Band From L.A. is another assault, a dare to those not “with it enough to get it” and another cheap thrill for those who wished the Fillmore album wasn’t so short. In the real world, a variety of mishaps caused Frank to disband this version of the Mothers as well, effectively putting Flo & Eddie out of work. Proving that with most things in life, we must take the good with the bad.

Las Mothers Just Another Band From L.A. (1972)—2

Monday, February 25, 2013

Traffic 2: Traffic

Traffic was barely out of the gate (sorry) before Dave Mason left the band. He was soon coaxed back for their second album, where he would play a more prominent role. Traffic bears little of the psychedelia that defined their first album and singles, so maybe that’s why it got the simple title.

The jaunty “You Can All Join” is a celebration of the communal spirit still prevalent in 1968, a happy little singalong to start the side. “Pearly Queen” manages to get a good groove out of a blues riff, with plenty of organ. “Don’t Be Sad” is a nearly sweet pop song with clever rhythms and sustains, while “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring” would be improved a year later as “Shanghai Noodle Factory”. Hidden at the end of side one is a song that would soon become something of a standard from the throat of Joe Cocker, but here, “Feelin’ Alright?” shows its roots as a more unsettled tune, albeit with two chords.

“Vagabond Virgin” mostly lopes along, sounding for all the work like a precursor for Crosby, Stills & Nash. “40,000 Headmen” brings us back to the mythology of the house in the country, a mysterious little song, nicely followed by “Crying To Be Heard”, with its subtle harpsichord matching the “sail across the ocean with the wind against your back” sentiment. A ghostly soprano sax heralds “No Time To Live”, one of those “who am I” songs that succeeds despite itself, thanks to the descending piano chords and Winwood’s excellent R&B delivery. “Means To An End” isn’t the best finale, but it will have to do.

Traffic has a lot of stops and starts (sorry), and overall it’s very disjointed—mostly because Dave Mason worked on his own, while Winwood and Capaldi collaborated very well with Chris Wood. It’s an odd little album, still good, but missing something.

Traffic Traffic (1968)—3
2001 CD reissue: same as 1968, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, February 22, 2013

Jimi Hendrix 9: The Alan Douglas Albums

The legend of Jimi Hendrix only grew as the seventies progressed, doubtless helped by such documentaries as Woodstock and Monterey Pop, plus of course his popularity on AOR FM stations. Having seemingly done all they could with whatever he’d left finished, producer Alan Douglas decided the next best thing to a new Hendrix album was to grab some working tapes, wipe off everything but Jimi’s parts, and have a bunch of jazz-funk studio musicians—none of whom were involved with the original sessions—overdub fresh arrangements. And not just bass and drums, either—percussion, backing vocals and even another guitarist were involved.

While the results were certainly listenable, every year of hindsight only raises more questions as to whether the albums should be considered the equivalent of either colorized films or just mashups. While technology has made it easier to create things like Natalie Cole’s duet with her father and the Threetles “completion” of a couple of Lennon demos, Hendrix students would ultimately prefer to hear the untampered recordings, many of which have surfaced on a variety of archival releases. For the duration of the Reprise era, however, these albums were considered part of the catalog, and they have their defenders.

Crash Landing was the first volley, albeit short at less than 30 minutes. Three of the songs would have been moderately familiar, studio versions of the Band Of Gypsys tracks “Message Of Love” and “Power Of Soul” (here called “With The Power”) and a remake of “Stone Free”. The mis-titled “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is not the Wizard Of Oz tune, but it is a half-decent piece of slow stank. The title track is something of an anti-drug message, though his concern for his lady’s health is overshadowed by his horniness. “Come Down Hard On Me Baby” is a pedestrian blues shuffle, not one of his best. “Peace In Mississippi” is a burning solo hampered by the too-slick additions, while “Captain Coconut” is a strange montage of various solo experiments.

Douglas struck again by year’s end with Midnight Lightning, following the same idea. A couple of songs were repeated from War Heroes: “Trashman” being an expansion of “Midnight”; “Beginnings” doesn’t even include Mitch Mitchell, who wrote it. The title track is torpedoed by the additional backing vocals, which merely repeat the title over and over. A half-decent studio take on “Hear My Train A Comin” doesn’t quite match the excellence of the live versions, nor could it, but it tries, and the same could be said for “Machine Gun”. “Gypsy Boy” is a tentative sketch filled out to the point where the new parts nearly overwhelm the basic track. A cover of “Blue Suede Shoes” applies an original riff that should have been spun off into an original. And although it’s over five minutes, “Once I Had A Woman” ends just as it starts to burn.

Seeing as the two albums are cut from the same reconstituted cloth, a single CD could cover both albums; however, even though Crash Landing was reissued CD in the US once upon a time, the Hendrix Estate has decreed that these albums stay deleted. They’ve done the same to Nine To The Universe, another Douglas product that simply presented edits of five separate jam sessions, with no embellishment. Of the three albums, it’s the jazziest and purest, and therefore preferred.

Jimi Hendrix Crash Landing (1975)—3
Jimi Hendrix
Midnight Lightning (1975)—3
Jimi Hendrix
Nine To The Universe (1980)—
Current CD equivalent(s): none

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Jam 3: All Mod Cons

A whopping twelve months passed between Jam albums, and it was worth the wait. Appetites were whetted with two excellent singles—first, a faithful cover of the Kinks’ “David Watts”, which helped in that band’s New Wave revival, while the B-side spoke of an “‘A’ Bomb In Wardour Street”, continuing the link to the Mod generation while staying firmly in the present (spelling out the word “apocalypse” and ending with an explosion). It was their next single that grabbed the attention. “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight”, quite simply, is a first-person real-time account of a mugging in the London Underground. The sound effects aside, it’s a harrowingly edgy song, from the jagged guitar slashes to the funk-noise bass. The verses extend the tension, and each chorus shows the victim more helpless than the last, up to the final realization that his wife may not be safe.

All three of these songs were included on All Mod Cons, a title that combined with the cover art for a clever British pun. They certainly enhance the program, just as the writing and musicianship has gained sophistication.

It would appear that the tribulations of fame are top of mind, with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it title track questioning the motives of fairweather friends, and “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have A Nice Time)” already looking back at success that has passed. In both cases, the words are spit out and garbled under catchy chords and riffs. “Mr. Clean” looks at success from another angle; this time the object would appear to an upwardly mobile businessman, a subject not alien to Kinks fans, but here the singer threatens to topple him at first chance. The Kinks connection is underscored by the placing of “David Watts” next, but what follows is another departure. “English Rose” fades in on the sound of foghorns and lapping waves, before a gently picked acoustic helps sing to the “one true love” of the title. (Paul Weller was apparently so embarrassed by the words that he purposely left them off the lyric sheet.) The excellent “In The Crowd” ends the side, an ambivalent ode to the comforts and trappings of conformity. It’s shows the effect age has on the teenage drive, recalled over the second half of the song, an extended one-chord Who homage incorporating backwards guitars masking the transition from the repeat of “in the crowd” to “away from the numbers”. A tour de force.

“Billy Hunt” would appear to be the name of the young lout complaining about his job, showing his immaturity with revenge fantasies based on Superman, James Bond and even Steve Austin. “It’s Too Bad” is a decent pop song nicely influenced by The Who’s “So Sad About Us”, which The Jam had covered quite well for the “Tube Station” B-side. “Fly” is cut from similar cloth as “English Rose”, but with an electric coating on the acoustic base. “The Place I Love” is a Weller (read: defiant) interpretation of the “In My Room”/“There’s A Place” lyrical theme. The ending segues well as a setup for “‘A’ Bomb In Wardour Street”, itself leading well to “Tube Station”, which couldn’t really go anywhere else on the album but the end.

All Mod Cons is an excellent progression for this young band, with the slower songs just as strong as the fast ones. Hearing different guitars adds dimension, as does the subtle touches of piano and organ here and there. It seemed they’d finally found “their” sound.

The Jam All Mod Cons (1978)—

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monkees 8: Present and Changes

Granted that “fan” is short for fanatic, it’s understandable there are people rabid for anything the Monkees have done. While some of their albums have merit, our main complaint about the Pre-Fab Four is that their post-TV show albums make it all too clear that they weren’t really a band. Onstage they may have supported the singers okay (and Nesmith insisted to his dying days that, if anything, they were Davy’s backup band) but their separate work in the studio left no possibility for unity. They didn’t merely work separately—they practically partitioned themselves from each other. Their individual idiosyncrasies blended somewhat in the early days, but once Peter left—taking his classical training and folk tendencies with him—Davy always sounded like Davy, Nez was increasingly obsessed with straight country instrumentation, and Micky seesawed between pot-fueled social commentary and bubblegum pop.

However, even after the show had transitioned to Saturday morning reruns, the boys still had keys to the shop, and were still allowed to record to their hearts’ content, fuelling the hubris that nearly led to a double album with each side spotlighting an individual member. Since they were down to a trio anyway, The Monkees Present was limited to a single LP totaling half an hour, barely worth the plastic it was cut upon.

Some of the digging that filled up the last three albums remained in place, with two 1966 recordings spruced up to no real pleasure. “Looking For The Good Times” is practically a backwards version of “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone”, while “Ladies Aid Society” was a hideous idea that Ray Davies would have done better. Both of these songs were sung by Davy, where Micky and Peter would have been better suited for them—that is, if they weren’t so awful. Mike offered more cuts from his trip to Nashville the previous summer; “Listen To The Band” and “Good Clean Fun” were both singles, and are arguably the best of those sessions.

As for the “newer” songs, they’re nothing special. Micky’s “Little Girl” is a gentle song performed way too fast. “Bye Bye Baby Bye Bye” is a barely expanded riff on the chant at the center of “Mommy And Daddy”, his truly scathing indictment of middle-class hypocrisy. (Unsettling as it is, the alternate lyrics in the version on the Rhino reissue are even further from acceptable teenybopper fare.) Then there’s “Pillow Time”, a lullaby written by his mother, which gives him the opportunity to close the album yet again. (Some 20 years later he’d market a collection of lullabies called Micky Dolenz Puts You To Sleep.) Davy attempts to tug heartstrings with “If I Knew” and “French Song”. Mike continues his country explorations with the music hall/saloon delivery of “Oklahoma Backroom Dancer” and “Never Tell A Woman Yes” (which predicts Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider” by a few years).

Those 12 songs only scratched the surface of the studio time spent to come up with this hunk of plastic, and true to Rhino form, three discs were crammed full of alternate mixes, outtakes and other tests of fandom as part of a so-called Deluxe Edition in 2013. To mirror the original album, these include further spruced-up rejects from 1966 and more Nashville tracks by the itchy Nesmith. Some songs only heard on the reruns now appear in context, like the bafflingly popular “Steam Engine” and even their Kool-Aid commercial. While a few songs were repeated from other Deluxe Editions, at least the set stuck to the one period.

There would be one more album under the moniker, 1970’s exceedingly bland Changes. By now the “band” was down to Davy and Micky, and like good little soldiers they added vocals to a pile of generic tracks hurriedly recorded by people clearly inspired by the Partridge Family (as evidenced by the backing vocals). To ensure a connection to the past, they also dredged up a couple of tracks from a pre-Headquarters session, and let Micky include his own “Midnight Train” (which appears in a much more palatable demo elsewhere in the catalog). In all, a dull end to a career that had already ended.

The Monkees The Monkees Present (1969)—
1994 Rhino CD: same as 1969, plus 5 extra tracks
2013 Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 68 extra tracks
The Monkees Changes (1970)—1
1994 Rhino CD: same as 1970, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, February 15, 2013

R.E.M. 21: Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage

The somewhat surprising announcement of R.E.M.’s pending disbandment was met with a variety of reactions from people who thrive on such things. In general, it was viewed as understandable, if not exactly inevitable. It had been years, decades since they’d been that self-contained unit of four guys battling against the mainstream. Even without their original drummer, the three remaining founders had flung themselves to opposite parts of the country, so that getting together to record, much less tour, took a lot of logistics.

But there had been clues, so we couldn’t say it was a complete surprise. Their last album was the first since Fables Of The Reconstruction to include any photographic representation of the band members on the front cover, and more to the point, Stipe was depicted as waving goodbye. They also didn’t tour behind the album, and waited six months to announce the end of the band in conjunction with a career-spanning double-CD hits collection. (They were, after all, businessmen.)

Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage 1982-2011 attempts to cover all the bases, giving more or less equal time to each of their albums. The liner notes graphically detail the sources of each track (complete with the typography from said sources) with brief gushing paragraphs from various members about why they love the songs so much. Some of the selections are obvious, having already appeared on one or two previous compilations, but where the hell are “Cant Get There From Here” and “Drive”? Surely “New Test Leper”, “Get Up”, or one of the Collapse Into Now songs could have been moved for those.

There isn’t much in the way of rarities, with the exception of the three new tracks, none of which are very exciting. “A Month Of Sundays” is said to be in the style of Pylon, but it’s no “Crazy”. “We All Go Back To Where We Belong” has something of a late-‘60s pop arrangement with Bacharach horns, while “Hallelujah” is even more lush, adding scary strings, making a weird end to their career.

As an in-depth overview, Part Lies Part Heart delivers, but it’s highly unlikely that anybody who cares about the band wouldn’t have the catalog already. They never had casual fans; you were all in or all out. Future generations will likely rip songs for their own mixes, or download a track at a time.

R.E.M. Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage 1982-2011 (2011)—4

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 3: Born To Run

Then there was the breakthrough. Born To Run puts all the key Springsteen elements in place with the addition of Max Weinberg on drums and, more prominently, Roy Bittan on tinkling, heavy-on-the-arpeggios piano. From the day of its release, you could pretty much bet on hearing at least one song from this album on a certain New York radio station, up until their format was changed, scattering all the DJs across the dial.

Some will call it a concept album, which is incorrect. It does, however sport two very well-sequenced sides that neatly mirror each other. In order, four songs detail the quest for freedom, a joyful celebration of the moment, a glimpse of what the evening might bring, and an epic lament at dreams that have died.

The plaintive harmonica begins “Thunder Road”, a cinematic achievement of a song. You can see the screen door slam, and the song gains momentum as the singer achieves his goal of getting away. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is more successful theme song for the E Street Band than the previous album’s shuffle, from the goofy pub-rock piano and horn arrangement to the shout-out to the “Big Man” amid the otherwise cryptic lyrics. (And a theme song it is, now that Clarence Clemons is dead. In current performances, the song stops for several minutes mid-bar so the crowd and Bruce may pay tribute.) “Night” isn’t as successful, at attempt at an anthem that instead comes off as too eager. The song that does connect is “Backstreets”, beginning with the piano variations over the same two chords. The ambiguity of “Terry” obscures the facts, but that doesn’t kill the feeling in the song.

The title track is part of the national fabric, and rightfully so. It was an easy song to hate when it was jammed down your throat, but time has managed to show the excellence of its construction (recorded, incidentally, before the arrival of Weinberg and Bittan), particularly in the rising keys before the solos, the obvious descent afterwards, the visible gear change in the third verse, and the dynamics of the repeated chorus. “She’s The One” has its roots in the Bo Diddley beat and “Magic Bus”, making a perfect excuse for another sax solo. “Meeting Across The River” is as quiet as we expected “Night” to be, and another cousin of Tom Waits. At the end of it all is “Jungleland”. As lyrically dense as anything he’d done so far, it basically comes down to a rumble between rival gangs, while carnal pursuit colors the edges. But the arrangement is more than that: the violin joining the piano for a duet before disappearing completely; the build in the verses hiding the key changes; the expertly constructed guitar parts (all Bruce); the two-minute Clemons solo that might be the greatest saxophone performance of all time, and this is coming from a guy who hates saxophones; the eternal piano trawl back into the song; and the dizzying minute-long finale.

Bruce has said that his intention on Born To Run was to write like Bob Dylan, produce like Phil Spector, and sing like Roy Orbison; but every “HWAAWW” he lets out on this song proves he ain’t no Orbison no how. Still, one out of three is considered successful in baseball, and he learned that all he had to do was make his music his way (or at least whatever Jon Landau and Dave Marsh told him) and the world would beat a path to his door. (For example, Jim Steinman scraped the ingredients for what made Meat Loaf so unbearable off this very placemat, even going so far as to use some of the E Street Band.)

Naturally, it was a prime candidate for a 30th Anniversary repackage, which arrived on time and with two DVDs, one a making-of documentary and the other a previously unreleased concert from London’s Hammersmith Odeon. That show was eventually released as a standalone two-CD set, and presents two hours of the E Street Band in its prime.

Bruce Springsteen Born To Run (1975)—4
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Hammersmith Odeon, London ‘75 (2006)—

Monday, February 11, 2013

Led Zeppelin 14: Celebration Day

It took a concert in tribute to Ahmet Ertegun for the unthinkable to happen: a live reunion of Led Zeppelin. Despite the teasers over the years—Live Aid, the hideous Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary performance, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction—this was the first and, most likely, only time the surviving members played a full set since John Bonham’s death.

Perhaps not to compete with Robert Plant’s solo career, then riding high on his Alison Krauss collaboration, it only took five years to prepare the release of Celebration Day—which sadly, doesn’t include a performance of the song of that title—on CD, DVD and Blu-Ray. The audio version only includes a few edits of dialogue; some overdubbing supposedly took place, and there is a ProTools credit in the booklet, but considering all the mistakes Jimmy left in, it’s hard to call foul. Most of the songs are taken down a full step to accommodate Robert’s voice, so while they do sound different, they still sound like them—particularly when he goes for one of those high notes and hits it. Besides, it’s not like he’d been sitting in a box since the last Page/Plant tour, as the moderate success and general quality of his albums since then have shown.

Beginning appropriately with “Good Times Bad Times”, the band plows through the tune, Jason Bonham adding a few backing vocals here and there. “Ramble On” follows, a song never played in its entirety by the band before, and here incorporating a quote from “What Is And What Should Never Be” at the end. The solo intro to “Black Dog” gets a huge roar from the crowd, as does Plant’s “good evening” at the end. “In My Time Of Dying” is played to nearly the length of the album version, right down to the “oh my Jesus” pleas, starting low and gaining power. Another surprise comes with “For Your Life”, never played live either. “Trampled Under Foot” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” continue the blues trawl, and “No Quarter” turns the spotlight somewhat to John Paul Jones, the quietest, most patient and musically accomplished band member—the glue, if you will.

“Since I’ve Been Loving You” gets a good reading, followed by a nicely experimental “Dazed And Confused”, complete with violin bow. Probably because they couldn’t get away without doing it, the doubleneck is strapped on for a somewhat restrained “Stairway To Heaven” (thankfully, the audience is not asked if they remember laughter) and stays for “The Song Remains The Same”. A nod to Jason Bonham leads into “Misty Mountain Hop”, and “Kashmir” is reclaimed from Puff Daddy, though we kinda wish they’d used a real Mellotron. The first encore is “Whole Lotta Love”, then thanks and appreciation for Ahmet set up “Rock And Roll”, one of their simplest songs, but probably the one “obvious” one they’d yet to do. There’s an excellent tease at the end to set up that final drum solo.

It’s a great finish, because throughout the two-hour show, Jason Bonham pounds away. He was, after all, the biggest Zeppelin fan on that stage, having studied his dad’s technique through the albums and bootlegs, and a long way from the mulleted lout that surfaced in the hair metal era. He’d played in previous Zep reunions, but this was the first time he did a complete show, and he’s flawless. As is obvious from the film, the other three adore the kid.

Anybody who’s into the show might as well spring for the video, as it includes some of the inter-song chat cut out of the CD version. Jones hasn’t aged a day, Plant should have tied his hair back, and Page stopped dyeing his (Paul McCartney, take note), looking like a wizened master. Because they played so well—and it’s an occasion highly unlikely to happen again—Celebration Day is a worthy bookend to the Zeppelin saga. They played as well as ever, with no gimmicks; just fingers, feet, arms and voice.

Led Zeppelin Celebration Day (2012)—4

Friday, February 8, 2013

Jam 2: This Is The Modern World

Ah, the good old days when you’d only have to wait six months for a band’s next album, and with a single or two in the midst as well. This Is The Modern World was considered by some as a step back, and while it doesn’t have the high-speed energy of In The City, there are still some excellent songs.

For starters, there’s the near-title track, with its Townshend scrape and two-finger retort in the final bridge (on the single, Paul Weller doesn’t give “a damn”, but on the album, he’s more specific). More defiance surfaces in “Standards”, a nice rearrangement of the “I Can’t Explain” riff. “The Combine” continues the questioning of “Away From The Numbers”, ending appropriately with an unresolved chord sequence.

The big difference was that Weller had a steady girlfriend, which colored his approach and the energetic commentary in “In The Street Today” and “London Girl”. Now he was writing songs like “Life From A Window” and “I Need You (For Someone)”, which hinted at sensitivity, while “Here Comes The Weekend” is a pop song disguised as mod disgust. Then there’s “Tonight At Noon”, with its jokey beginning, prominent acoustic guitar and poetic exploration of the “In The Midnight Hour” theme. To make the point obvious, the song is followed by their version of that very soul classic.

Doing a cover wasn’t a big deal, but allegations of Weller’s lack of productivity are supported by the two songs written by bassist Bruce Foxton, but only if you paid attention to such things. “London Traffic” and “Don’t Tell Them You’re Sane” sound enough like Weller songs to not stand out like sore thumbs. (In the US, the order was shuffled, and the otherwise non-album single “All Around The World” followed the single version of “The Modern World” that still opened the album.)

So even if it doesn’t make leaps and bounds, This Is The Modern World still delivers enough bite in its 31 (or 34) minutes, making it recommended. Dig that homemade mod sweater on the cover, too.

The Jam This Is The Modern World (1977)—

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Elvis Costello 31: In Motion Pictures

We’d lost count of how many times Elvis Costello has “retired”, citing public apathy and industry misbehavior. Yet again, in the midst of his most recent recording hiatus, came a Costello release with little more about it than a surefire way to simultaneously take his most fervent supporters’ money and draw their ire. Having accomplished both with this correspondent, we report herewith on In Motion Pictures, an alleged celebration of his appearance on movie soundtracks.

If it collected every extraneous song written for films without repeating songs already available, then we might have something. Instead, in a clear attempt to seduce a crowd outside of the usual Costello diehards, it opens with “Accidents Will Happen”, already collected on every one of his hits collections (not to mention the Armed Forces album) and included here solely because a character can be heard self-consciously singing it in E.T. Likewise “Miracle Man”, “Lovers Walk”, and “I Want You”—all album tracks borrowed decades after their initial appearances.

Other songs hadn’t exactly been rare for years. “Crawling To The U.S.A.” and “Seven Day Weekend” each appeared on B-sides compilations and expanded album reissues, just as “Days” and “Oh Well” have been available for some time. “God Give Me Strength” went on to spur a whole album. Only “A Town Called Big Nothing”, ignored in the Rhino years, can be considered a fresh find, though EC fans have it already.

So is there anything here for people who try to limit the Costello section of their CD racks to jewel boxes with his name on the spines? Well, kinda. “You Stole My Bell” comes from the pre-When I Was Cruel period, and “My Mood Swings” will be familiar to Big Lebowski fans. (Both also credit co-writing to ex-wife Cait O’Riordan, which is nice of him.) The newest song is “Sparkling Day”, from an Anne Hathaway movie nobody saw, with a string arrangement that links well to the next track. The inclusion of “She”, from Notting Hill, makes a little sense, since it was pretty big hit, and gives some of us a chance to remove the 1999 best-of from the rack.

The album also has him squarely straddling the pop and “alternative” worlds, with none of the country or bluegrass shades from his last two real albums. The hard part is assigning a rating. From a musical standpoint, In Motion Pictures is palatable. On the whole, it’s inessential. The biggest value will most likely be the thinly veiled “ghostwritten” liner notes, which make clear reference to all the songs that weren’t included—many of which would have been welcome over the retreads.

Elvis Costello In Motion Pictures (2012)—3

Monday, February 4, 2013

R.E.M. 20: Collapse Into Now

Accelerate was such a refreshing return to form—and a surprising one—that it was hoped R.E.M. could keep it up for their next album. For the most part, Collapse Into Now does continue the quality, even if some of the tracks sound too familiar from certain elements of their catalog.

“Discoverer” is a strong opener, a churning rocker along the lines of “Turn You Inside Out”. “All The Best” follows the Lifes Rich Pageant/Green pattern of having a heavy rocker for track two. Lines like “It’s just like me to overstay my welcome” still raise an eyebrow. With its acoustic backing and “hey” lyrics, “Überlin” begins like a retread of “Drive”, but surpasses that supposition by the time the bird noises kick in. Speaking of similarities, “Oh My Heart” seems like something of sequel to “Houston” filtered through “Swan Swan H”. Much was made of Eddie Vedder’s contribution to “It Happened Today”, but he’s easy to miss, unless you’re listening really closely to the second half of the song, a wordless singalong that’s more stirring than the first half. (The band made the song available for free amateur remixing via such software as Garage Band, which provided interesting insight into how they built the sounds of the track.) “Every Day Is Yours To Win” is nice and dreamy for a change.

“Mine Smell Like Honey” is a great driving track, but the title still has us convinced he's talking about his farts. Another welcome lull comes with “Walk It Back”, before things turn up again on “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter”. This is a toetapper despite the hideous title and vocal-heavy mix, plus unnecessary special guest Peaches. “That Someone Is You” brings back the classic sound from their first albums, albeit with much more direct lyrics, but unfortunately ends before it has time to sink in. Anything called “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I” is going to remind music snobs of Neil Young’s “Pocahontas”, but the song itself is much better than that, another haunting meditation. “Blue”—the only track without its lyrics printed—is mostly a rewrite of “Country Feedback”, and featuring Stipe heroine Patti Smith serving the same function she did on “E-Bow The Letter”, but manages to be even more in the way. However, the reprise of “Discoverer” tacked at the end makes for a wonderful finish, giving the suggestion of a closed circle.

R.E.M. seemed more interesting when you couldn’t understand the words; now that they’re up front and printed on the sleeve, their shortcomings are immediately obvious. But if it only took thirty years for them to start repeating themselves, they were at least ahead of the game. While it doesn’t quite hold together, Collapse Into Now isn’t bad, even for them. And while their best work still seemed to be behind them, that they could manage to tease their fans is a testament to their talent. It almost gave us hope that they would do it again.

R.E.M. Collapse Into Now (2011)—3

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Paul Simon 5: Still Crazy After All These Years

A common theme in the mid-‘70s was the so-called divorce album, wherein confessional singer-songwriters lamented the passing of the relationship with whatever dew-eyed muse that had inspired their most beloved songs of romantic devotion. John Lennon spilled his troubles on Walls And Bridges, and Bob Dylan arguably set the standard with Blood On The Tracks, but Paul Simon’s way with cryptic words kept Still Crazy After All These Years from being merely dirty laundry. It even won Grammys. (He limited the expression of his inner turmoil to a cheesy mustache and a cheesier hat.)

The album is front-loaded with some of his best songs, beginning with the resigned title track, its cool electric piano and offbeat strings that perfectly frame the inevitable sax solo. One big draw is “My Little Town”, a reunion on tape with Art Garfunkel (also included on his own concurrently released album). Easily one of their spookier tracks, it nails the feeling of being trapped by one’s origins, heritage, family, society, etc.; in other words, everything that made Simon & Garfunkel spokesmen for their disaffected generation. “I Do It For Your Love” is an extremely melancholy reverie on the ended marriage, finding a metaphor in an odd place, but countered by the jive-rhyme in “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, something of a spin on “Love Potion #9”. After four solid tracks, “Night Game” is just plain odd, taking some common baseball expressions literally. It seems out of place here, being more in line with his proper solo debut.

For a big-time mood swing, “Gone At Last” is a gospel raveup sung as a duet with Phoebe Snow and the now-familiar Jessy Dixon Singers whooping it up in back. From there, “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy” seems to be way too slow, but manages to keep up with itself, and our warped ears hear influences on and of Van Morrison and Tom Waits of the same period. We don’t have much use for “Have A Good Time”, between the cutesy delivery, broken-legs meter shifts, and particularly the out-of-place sax solo appearing at the end like a busker around a corner in a subway tunnel. “You’re Kind” is much better, by being simple and offering up a twist ending that’s very real. A final mood swing arrives in “Silent Eyes”, a slow, poetic creation, not exactly a prayer, but still establishes a mood of night and sleep. (In an odd bit of foreshadowing, the piano here is played by Leon Pendarvis, whom most casual TV viewers would recognize as a longtime member of the Saturday Night Live band. Thanks in part to his friendship with producer Lorne Michaels, Paul Simon would go on to appear on the show in various capacities many times over the coming decades.)

Such a strong closing track makes Still Crazy After All These Years Paul Simon’s best work since splitting with Artie, and easily on par with the better Simon & Garfunkel albums. (Bonus tracks on the eventual reissue include a demo of a future hit single and a very alternate arrangement of “Gone At Last”.) It must have taken a lot out of him, since his output would be less prolific going forward.

Paul Simon Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 2: The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle

His second album to be released within a calendar year, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle leaves behind the acoustic troubadour with the rhyming dictionary. Now more confident in his words, Bruce is now stretching his tales, giving his characters room to breathe. No less than four songs are longer than seven minutes, which is tough to do without boring your audience to death.

That said, this album represents a lot of what some people don’t like about the guy. These are the songs that first made the Jersey shore a proud icon for its fans. From the start, “The E Street Shuffle” presents something of a theme song for the band, but it’s “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” that hoists the most lighters above a stadium crowd, a near-whispered love song on the boardwalk. (Any hours spent stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike should help diffuse any of the “romance” of the Garden State.) We’ve never much liked the accordion anyway. A welcome departure arrives with “Kitty’s Back”, from its slow-burning intro through the improve section, nicely balanced by the tightly arranged horns, but “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” loses points for having a tuba—a tuba? Really?—and sounds the most like a refugee from the debut.

With three epics, side two presents a suite of songs with Latino and/or urban connotations. “Incident On 57th Street” invents some characters that might turn up on the next album; the melody seems to be descended from “Sandy”, but with better dynamics. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” is where everything gels, and the sound of the E Street Band is established once and for all—piano and organ fighting for space, saxophones trilling all the way. The self-referential lyrics guarantee a cheer from any audience. The song spins away like a Ferris wheel, setting up the startling introduction to “New York City Serenade”. First there’s a strumming of piano strings, then some runs akin to “Love, Reign O’er Me” turn into equal parts classical and cocktail. It’s nearly two minutes before another instrument comes in, just in time for the vocal. Congas and bass help the verse along, and strings do too, stopping only for an edgy break in the middle. It’s a template that he’d soon improve.

People forget that Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits are roughly the same age, and hit the bigs around the same time. While their paths wouldn’t officially cross for a few more years, the shaggy storytelling on The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle does veer into Waits territory here and there (and there’s a good chance Rickie Lee Jones came across this album in her formative years too). We also detect a nod to Van Morrison in the title, definitely all over side two, and we should also mention that the acoustic guitar on the last track is just as much Van as it is Robbie Robertson. And that’s what’s most impressive about this album—all the guitars are played by Bruce, and there’s a lot of them. He knows what his songs need, and he has the chops to deliver. He just wasn’t there yet.

Bruce Springsteen The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (1973)—3