Monday, April 29, 2013

Frank Zappa 16: The Grand Wazoo

Mere months after Waka/Jawaka, its sibling appeared. The Grand Wazoo offers even more jazz fusion with many of the same musicians, but even more horns and woodwinds. While credited to The Mothers, it’s still part of the Hot Rats genre, with a minimum of lyrics. The lengthy liner notes and cover art suggest some kind of concept behind the album (helped by appearance of the Uncle Meat character), but as with most of his stabs at this genre, there’s no real story to follow.

“For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers)” is a slower number in the tradition of “Twenty Small Cigars”, but with mysterious vocals and a lot of random blowing. The title track presents a good argument for letting his music speak for itself—just ask yourself if you could sit through all 13 minutes as easily if Flo & Eddie had been allowed to sing over it. Its multiple themes are presented very well, with plenty of soloing and a decent three-note riff that’s so simple it’s perfect. (On all CD versions, these two tracks are swapped, making for preferable listening.)

“Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus” hearkens back slightly to “Peaches En Regalia”, with a jangly piano and wacky solo by legendary sax man Ernie Watts, but scatted vocals where another horn part should be. “Eat That Question” begins with a lengthy electric piano exploration by George Duke, then Frank joins for a heavily-wahed riff and solo. The festivities turn chaotic, then slow to a halt, before reviving the riff again. (Maybe it is supposed to illustrate something in the story after all.) The very title “Blessed Relief” suggests something of a finale, but in this case it’s just a lot of frilly sounding flutes and electric piano over a lazy jazz beat.

The concept aside, there are enough similarities between The Grand Wazoo and Waka/Jawaka to make the differences almost arbitrary. It could be said that the best of both albums could have been combined into one excellent collection, but that would likely be considered blasphemy so we’ll just leave it there.

The Mothers The Grand Wazoo (1972)—3

Friday, April 26, 2013

Beach Boys 10: 20/20

Not that anyone cared, but the Beach Boys were already up to their twentieth album—including three Best Of collections issued against their will and the notorious Stack-O-Tracks album, which was only about thirty years ahead of the karaoke craze. (Really, if you’re into the non-vocal portions of Beach Boys album, it’s a terrific set.)

For 20/20, the Boys tried to present something for everyone. “Do It Again” is an excellent retro single, with the upside-down drums leading into a “classic” chorale. “I Can Hear Music” is also a wonderful track, but it’s a cover of a Phil Spector composition and production. Then there’s “Bluebirds Over The Mountain”, which tries to marry a calypso song to something more contemporary (as noted in the nightmare strings). It’s an approach better suited to “Be With Me”, another line drive from Dennis. His newly found magic touch doesn’t quite carry to “All I Want To Do”, which is mixed so badly that you can’t make out the lyrics or the chords, but is probably the first recording by a mainstream band to include a field recording of coitus, simulated or not. “The Nearest Faraway Place” is a Brian Wilson instrumental—except that it’s contributed by Bruce Johnston, his onstage replacement.

Perhaps in the spirit of “Sloop John B”, they go all out for “Cotton Fields”, a Leadbelly song that wasn’t any better when Creedence did it a year later. (Personally, we like the rendition John Lennon did on the radio a year before, when he sang of how his mama used to “smash [him] in the cradle”. “I Went To Sleep” is another list in the style of “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”; it’s mostly a setup for “Time To Get Alone”, which Carl gets to sing, giving it a little boost. The jaw-dropper on the album is “Never Learn Not To Love”, of which the liner notes neglect to mention began as a song by Dennis houseguest Charles Manson. (For what it’s worth, Axl picked a better song for “The Spaghetti Incident?”) As elaborate as that is, the big finish is given over to a couple of Smile refugees. First, there’s “Our Prayer”, a gorgeous Gregorian-style fugue for voice. That is given as a lead-in to “Cabinessence”, possibly the prettiest song from the ill-fated project, leaving another teaser for what could have been.

So there’s a strong start and a strong finish, but everything else in the middle of 20/20 only reveals just how unfocused the band was. Undeterred, they carried on, but not with any less struggle. Proof comes in the bonus tracks to the original, then deleted, then restored two-fer disc of the album (which also included Friends; as with that album, in 2018 I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions provided a digital-only deep dive with 40 tracks’ worth of alternates and outtakes, including several increasingly shaky Dennis demos, and even a cameo from the Wilsons’ mother). “Break Away” was another flop single that might have done better at another time than the summer of ’69. One clue could be that it was written by their dad. (The 4 Seasons would have nailed this in ’64.) They hoped to begin the ‘70s with a fresh start.

The Beach Boys 20/20 (1969)—
1990 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus Friends album and 5 extra tracks

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Jam 6: The Gift

Their longest gap yet between albums was interrupted by a couple of singles, the latter of which included prominent horns. Not yet 24 years old, Paul Weller was moving away from the punk/mod sound that brought so many fans to his band, and was now writing songs to be performed in a funk/soul style.

That wouldn’t be a bad thing if he had a more convincing voice to carry it. While his throat had developed a huskiness, the kid we hear testifying all over The Gift seems more like a poser. And despite some excellent songs, it’s their least successful album.

“Happy Together” (announced as being “in technicolor”) begins with a dub-style toast, then settles into an urgent groove. “Ghosts” ticks gently under a nicely picked theme, with canned handclaps and some trumpets. Things go immediately wrong on “Precious”, an interminable funk jam one would expect from, say, Culture Club. When that finally ends, “Just Who Is The 5 O’Clock Hero?” celebrates the man who comes home every day “covered in sh-t and aches and pains”. Then it’s back to jamming—“Trans-Global Express” gave the tour a name, but buried Weller’s words under an echo- and delay-heavy mix. Yet another “one two free four” calls up “Running On The Spot”, another decent tune fighting against a bad mix.

The noisy instrumental “Circus” sets up “The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong”, a faux-calypso tale. Thankfully, the rest of the album is a major improvement. “Carnation” is classic Jam, tuneful and cohesive. “Town Called Malice” was the big hit, a Motown experiment that actually works. And the title track conjures up some of the punk spirit for something of “In The Midnight Hour” turned on its head.

Some people adore The Gift, to the point where the 30th anniversary deluxe edition just released in the UK was very well received. However, we agree with the band’s own rhythm section, who were very disappointed with the direction the music was going, and were equally frustrated when Weller broke up the band in favor of the slicker Style Council.

The Jam The Gift (1982)—

Monday, April 22, 2013

Steely Dan 5: The Royal Scam

At this point it’s become difficult to categorize Steely Dan—too sneaky for pop, too proficient for rock, too pop for jazz. That’s probably they way they like it, but at the same time, it makes it difficult to voice how or why the band can rub people the wrong way.

The Royal Scam has all the usual hallmarks—pristine sound, jazzy keyboards, nasal vocals and snide lyrics that seem to be about something and nothing, except when they’re almost too obvious. The hero of “Kid Charlemagne” would appear to be a high-rolling drug dealer, while the narrator of “The Caves Of Altamira” ponders his measly existence while reflecting on prehistoric paintings. Sometimes a song is at odds with itself—such as in the case of “Don’t Take Me Alive”, which begins with a fuzzy diminished arpeggio, then saunters through a boogie with a lyric of the type usually associated with Warren Zevon. “Sign In Stranger” could also take place in another country, with repeated references to zombies, and a wonderful piano part by Paul Griffin. And then there’s “The Fez”, which is about as ‘70s as you can get for a song that may simply be an emphatic endorsement of prophylactics. (Griffin got co-writing credit for this, justifiably.)

“Green Earrings” presents another jazz riff that seems to modulate a half-step at a time for the chorus. Meanwhile, Peter Frampton wasn’t the only guy working a talk box in 1976, as demonstrated in “Haitian Divorce”. “Everything You Did” is now notable for indirectly inspiring “Hotel California”. The title track oozes with a menace, somehow matching the mood of the cover art and capping a generally pessimistic album.

Does this do the album justice? Do the paragraphs manage to present an endorsement or dismissal? Somehow we feel it’s lacking, but that’s why we set it up as above. The Royal Scam is recommended for fans, and neither astounds nor annoys.

Steely Dan The Royal Scam (1976)—3

Friday, April 19, 2013

Rutles 1: The Rutles

Beatle parodies are often tributes at heart, and vice versa. Whether you’re Todd Rundgren or Oasis, the more successful attempts have qualities of their own, without resting solely on the novelty of aping the familiar. And it’s not always easy to write/record a Beatlesque song/record without coming dangerously close to copyright infringement.

Such was the case of The Rutles, which grew out of a sketch on Eric Idle’s first series after Monty Python. After a couple of teasers on Saturday Night Live, their “mockumentary” was aired on a Wednesday night at 9:30 to a miniscule audience (including this correspondent, who didn’t get most of the jokes). Hindsight has brought forward most of the sources of the humor—hailed by George Harrison as highly accurate—especially when viewed in conjunction with the Anthology episodes.

The songs came from Neil Innes, who had already bridged the musical and comedy fields by appearing with the Bonzo Dog Band in Magical Mystery Tour and then on his own in Monty Python & The Holy Grail. Besides having a knack for writing catchy pop, he could pull off an excellent Lennon impression (such as “world” pronounced “weld”, and “girl” rhyming with “yell”). The George equivalent (“Stig”) was visually portrayed by Rikki Fatarr, who was and is predominantly a drummer, while the Ringo role went to the comically non-telegenic John Halsey. (Idle appeared on-screen as the Paul replicant Dirk McQuickly, gamely playing a Hofner bass left-handed, but using his fingers instead of a pick.)

The soundtrack LP included 14 of the 20 songs used in the film. Part of the fun of the album is spotting all the references, so we’re not going to reveal all of them here, but some are just too priceless to hide. “Hold My Hand” (with the “yeah yeah” tag in its chorus) is fairly obvious, while the call-and-response in “Ouch!” perfectly apes that of “Help!” “I Must Be In Love” is just great pop, with a guitar part that sounds a lot like The Searchers’ “When You Walk In The Room”. “Love Life” manages to stumble around like its inspiration, and “Piggy In The Middle” has some wonderful surprises in the mix. The best track is “Cheese And Onions”, which originally aped “Imagine” (right down to the headphones and gum) but gets a big surprise ending here. John himself didn’t object to “Let’s Be Natural” in the face of “Dear Prudence”, but allegedly said “Get Up And Go” sounded too much like “Get Back” to appear on the album (it does appear on the CD, with the other missing songs from the film). And having a song titled “Another Day” in the lineup is just plain cheeky.

Beatle fanatics and Python fans combine for a fairly voracious personality type—the sort that will actually collect Rutles bootlegs. They’d also want to find every international edition of the Archaeology follow-up in 1996, despite its lack of the charm the original still sports.

The Rutles The Rutles (1978)—4
1990 CD reissue, same as 1978, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Crosby & Nash 3: Whistling Down The Wire

Less than a year after the relatively successful Wind On The Water, Crosby & Nash were back, but it wasn’t necessarily because they had tons of terrific tunes. The story goes that they were briefly part of yet another CSNY reunion. The immediate end product of that was the Stills-Young Band tour and album, neither of which included Crosby or Nash, so they went off and did Whistling Down The Wire with the same guys from the year before. Which left us with two less-than-stellar albums by people we really, really want to like.

“Spotlight” is pretty ordinary (okay, bland) for a mid-‘70s L.A. production, but “Broken Bird” at least has harmonies throughout and a nice “Helplessly Hoping”-style guitar part. “Time After Time” is very brief, over almost before it can sink in. “Dancer” begins like a typically pleasant Crosby strum, but goes way off course when he gets “heavy”. It has the potential to be one of those wonderful wordless Crosby epic, but it’s exactly the type of song that doesn’t need an electric piano. Graham closes the side with “Mutiny”; despite the title, it’s about a sailboat (what is it with these guys and sailboats?) and not about Stills and/or Young.

“J.B.’s Blues” is not a blues per se, but rather appears to be something of a Nash apology to longtime CSNY groupie/cohort Joel Bernstein. A little better is “Marguerita”, which describes a bar encounter in the barest of terms. The best song is “Taken At All”, which is the only song that appears on the box set, but in a full CSNY version that’s even better. Hearing Crosby bemoan his plight as a “Foolish Man” is a little comical considering all the trouble he got himself into over the next decade, although a glimmer of hope is offered in “Out Of The Darkness”, written with go-to keyboard guy Craig Doerge. It’s actually a nice ending to the set.

Whistling Down The Wire is a pleasant Southern California album, impeccably played and kinda dull. Because it doesn’t really have any of the high points as witnessed the year before, it’s docked half a point. If only they weren’t so mad at Stills and Young that they refused to work with them again.

David Crosby/Graham Nash Whistling Down The Wire (1976)—

Monday, April 15, 2013

Beach Boys 9: Friends

Despite a dwindling fan base, the Beach Boys were still enough of a legacy outfit to stay on the record company’s schedule. (Besides, said company was still hoping Smile would be finished.) In the meantime, Mike Love discovered the Maharishi, and got to hang out with the Beatles in India studying meditation. When he came back, he joined the other Boys and completed the surprisingly brief Friends album.

Brian was more involved this time out, and it shows, particularly in the mostly instrumental “Passing By”. He has a writing credit on nearly every track, with the exception of those written by Dennis, of all people. Unfortunately, the drums still sound they’re coming from a speaker in a box, as they do throughout the entire album.

“Meant For You” is something of a prelude, leading right into the lazy loping title track. “Wake The World” has a similar hammock-swaying feel, punctuated by a tuba on the chorus. The under-produced sound of “Be Here In The Morning”, along with the strained falsetto, makes it sound like a demo, but then the Leslie effect on the last chorus shows that they had a decent grasp on experimenting with effects. “When A Man Needs A Woman” is an uninspired title for a song about having kids—a good-sized leap from the heroes and villains and columnated ruins of the year before.

“Anna Lee, The Healer” gets a much more elaborate vocal arrangement than it deserves, but soon our attention turns to Dennis. “Little Bird” sounds like he distilled what he remembered of the Smile sessions into a single track—and indeed, some of “Child Is Father Of The Man” makes it into the mix—but “Be Still” hints at the “dark genius” that he’d be hailed as in the decades after his death. Whatever his demons, they’re not yet as unsettling as the laundry list of distractions Brian details in “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”. Then they pull out all the effects out o the closet to paint a sound picture of Hawaii on “Diamond Head” (for the surfers still listening). Finally, “Transcendental Meditation” ends the program with an actual drumset accompaniment and fuzzy horns.

Even habitual stoners must have been scratching their heads over Friends, just as their longtime fans would have been confused over whether their heroes were still clean-cut and spiffy. There are some excellent moments here, but they’re fleeting, and most of the songs are so short that the better ideas don’t have the space to blossom. It makes it difficult to root for them. 1990’s two-fer CD paired Friends with 20/20, but the only bonus tracks came from sessions for the next album. This was rectified somewhat in 2018 with the digital-only release of Wake The World: The Friends Sessions, which offered a disc’s worth of alternate versions, backing tracks, a cappella mixes, and castoffs, including Brian’s unique solo take on “My Little Red Book” and an instrumental stab at “Rock & Roll Woman”. Even if the songs weren’t there, the boys could play.)

The Beach Boys Friends (1968)—2
1990 CD reissue: same as 1968, plus 20/20 album and 5 extra tracks

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Paul Simon 8: Hearts And Bones

A professional reunion with Art Garfunkel didn’t last long enough to result in a new Simon & Garfunkel album, so the album that did come out was credited to Paul Simon alone. Hearts And Bones was well-received critically, but its quality didn’t ring too many cash registers.

These days it’s easy to see why, as the tunes weren’t exactly radio-friendly, and after an exhausting tour with Artie he wasn’t about to go back on the road. Even his voice sounds weary on these tracks. Plus, his never-ending quest for inspiration via non-traditional sounds meant an unfortunate reliance on the trends of the time. “When Numbers Get Serious” and “Cars Are Cars” would both benefit from less busy, non-contemporary arrangements. Neither version of “Think Too Much” is very appealing, though the one labeled “(b)”, which comes first is less irritating, its calypso arrangement notwithstanding, than the faster “(a)” take.

However, the good outweighs the bad here. “Allergies” has a vocoder-type effect and electronic handclaps that still complement the fretful lyrics, as does the high-speed guitar solo from Al DiMeola. The title track and “Train In The Distance” are both pretty, understated reflections on his then-current wife and his first wife, respectively, both delivered with universal sentiments that make them gems in the catalog. “Song About The Moon” is something of a grower, with a “Slip Slidin’ Away”-style lope and a simple lyric espousing simplicity. On the other hand, “Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” is supposed to be a cipher, stretching to connect the surreal painter with classic doo-wop combo references. It could go nowhere else on the album, so closing with “The Late Great Johnny Ace” (debuted two years earlier in Central Park) is not only reverent, but gains a mournful coda for strings with winds composed by Philip Glass, ending abruptly for optimal effect.

Ever since Hearts And Bones came out, fans have wondered how the songs would have sounded with Artie singing on them. (A few had been tried on their tour, but any Garfunkel contributions to the sessions were left aside during the final mix.) Much as we’d like to hear those for history’s sake, we’re just as interested in hearing stripped-down versions of the more trying songs. The eventual reissue included four bonus tracks along those lines; outside of “Shelter Of Your Arms”, which shares some lyrics with “When Numbers Get Serious”, the demos of “Train In The Distance” and “Rene And Georgette” sound pretty close to the final cuts, while “Johnny Ace” has a resolved ending on guitar. And it’s still a sad song.

Paul Simon Hearts And Bones (1983)—3
2004 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, April 12, 2013

Stephen Stills 7: Illegal Stills

Enough already. Stephen Stills’ Latin tendencies became more prominent on each successive album since his first solo effort, so that on Illegal Stills, it’s impossible to escape the timbales. But then again, he was never known for moderation.

And another thing. While it’s his name on the spine, his photo on the cover and his pun in the title, it might as well be co-credited to Donnie Dacus, a young guitarist and singer a few years away from joining Chicago. He doesn’t make an impression until after “Buyin’ Time”, social commentary buried under the rhythm from “Love The One You’re With”. “Midnight In Paris” was written by Dacus and Stills’ then-wife, Stephen choosing to sing the French verses himself. The instrumentation is more reminiscent of midnight in Rio, just for the record. “Different Tongues” has promise, but 1976 meant there had to be synth strings in the mix. “Soldier” is not a Neil Young cover, and if Stills wanted to comfort any scarred veterans, he should have eased off on the percussion. The highlight of the album might be “The Loner”, which really is a remake of a Neil Young song, decorated naturally with Latin percussion but a more precise riff than Neil’s original.

“Stateline Blues” finally offers a simple acoustic strum, a cross between Mike Nesmith and Willis Alan Ramsey, and it’s over too fast. Vocals are split on “Closer To You”, and Dacus is credited with the 12-string guitar, which we’d’ve guessed was Stills; maybe that was the appeal. “No Me Nieges” appears to be misspelled Spanish, at least fitting its cha-cha-cha tempo. Dacus begins “Ring Of Love” a cappella, but of course the cowbell’s gotta kick in to transform it into a pleasant slice of yacht rock. “Circlin’” finally injects some life into the proceedings, but not enough to redeem anything.

For its time, Illegal Stills would be appreciated by fans of the Little River Band, Ambrosia and the like, but if you’re looking for fiery Stills guitar, it’s not here. And as soon as the album came out, the Stills-Young Band had taken shape, only to disappear almost as quickly.

Stephen Stills Illegal Stills (1976)—2

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Brian Eno 21: Lux

Brian Eno’s musical adventures in the new century have predominantly been ambient collaborations, or background music designed to accompany various art installations. That’s nothing new for the guy, except to lower the level of excitement whenever there’s news of a new album from such a project. While ambient music by definition is designed to be ignored, if we’re going to spend upwards of fifteen bucks on a CD of the stuff, we’d like it to capture our attention more than not.

And he is capable of that. For example, Music For Airports, Apollo and The Plateaux Of Mirror are very listenable when your immediate plan is to stay awake; the same can’t always be said for the likes of Neroli, The Drop and even Thursday Afternoon. With Lux, however, he’s managed to illustrate “the light of day” with a full CD’s worth of content that echo the better examples above. The instrumentation is mostly keyboards, a softly pinging piano, and strings that sound both real and computerized. Split into four 19-minute sections—the equivalent of a two-record set—it’s a soft and soothing program, though there is a shift to a minor key about halfway through, and a more melancholy mood by the fourth part. If you’re going to pick and choose from the man’s catalog, this is definitely one to grab.

Brian Eno Lux (2012)—3

Monday, April 8, 2013

Van Morrison 14: Beautiful Vision

This was more like it. Beautiful Vision presents another version of the Van Morrison recipe, setting up his general ‘80s style with soft pop and a few smooth jazz touches. Mark Isham is still on board for tootling via trumpet and synth.

Tasteful use of uilleann pipes help “Celtic Ray” and “Northern Muse (Solid Ground)” along, both upbeat enough to kick the side into gear. “Dweller On The Threshold” is a whirling dervish of a song, and luckily the horns don’t get in the way. The title track and “She Gives Me Religion” sound a little alike until their choruses.

The chugging rhythm of Mark Knopfler drives “Cleaning Windows”, a look back at his youth, but somebody else is playing those leads. It’s a very catchy song, evoking the music and books that he read in between his day job and gigs. He calls out several numbers in between verses, whether they’re supposed to signify the houses he’s working on or something deeper is not clear. “Vanlose Stairway”, despite the coincidence of the title, gets its name from a place in Copenhagen. He gets back into the growls from the ‘70s, but unfortunately it fades just as it seems to be going somewhere, only to be replaced by the relatively dull “Aryan Mist”, then it’s “Across The Bridge Where Angels Dwell”, where children play and not much else happens. The final moments of the album are given over to “Scandinavia”, an instrumental that somehow got nominated for a Grammy. Heavy on synthesizers and heavy-fisted on piano, it gives a good hint about what was to follow—good and bad.

It still manages to sum up Beautiful Vision—a nice album, with all the pluses and minuses that connotes. It floats along, something equally as nice in the background as it is inoffensive when you pay attention. There’s enough good on it to put it in the “good” column, so that’s where it is.

Van Morrison Beautiful Vision (1982)—3

Friday, April 5, 2013

Jimi Hendrix 10: Jimi Plays Monterey

The occasional vault plundering of the Hendrix legacy continued somewhat randomly into the ‘80s. Following the two-volume, three-record Essential series, there was The Jimi Hendrix Concerts in 1982, a double album mixing tracks from six different concerts over three years, something of a sequel to Hendrix In The West. Then somebody decided that “digital remastering” would be a big deal, which led to the first of several stabs at definitive CD versions of the original studio LPs, plus the Kiss The Sky compilation. But the smartest move in years was an expansion of something that had already been out, kind of.

Just before he died, Reprise split an LP of so-called Historic Performances Recorded At The Monterey International Pop Festival between a side of Jimi backed with Otis Redding’s set—both being highlights of that particular festival. It only took another 16 years for Jimi’s complete set to appear in its entirety. Jimi Plays Monterey was billed as a soundtrack, accompanying the commercial video tape of the same show. The visuals are recommended to illustrate the sounds, since some of the aural and physical pyrotechnics can get lost in the mix.

It helps that it’s an excellent set. He hadn’t released so much as a single in the States yet, and only offered a few songs that would appear here on Are You Experienced. Of his own songs, “Foxy Lady”, “Hey Joe”, “Wind Cries Mary” and “Purple Haze” would be standards soon enough, while “Can You See Me” was only on the British version of the album. Instead, he opens with a burning take on “Killing Floor”, does a detour with “Like A Rolling Stone”, re-arranges “Rock Me Baby”, and sacrifices his guitar to “Wild Thing” (following a detour through “Strangers In The Night”). Throughout the set, he banters with the audience and plays up to his now-assumed spacey reputation.

In the pantheon, Jimi Plays Monterey made a logical bookend opposite Band Of Gypsys with the three studio albums in the middle. When Rhino put out their 25th anniversary Monterey Pop Festival box set, all nine songs were included. Fifteen years after that, the Estate reissued the album again, this time crediting it to The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and reinstating not only some of the dialogue, but Brian Jones’s complete introduction.

Jimi Hendrix Jimi Plays Monterey Original Motion Picture Sound Track (1986)—4

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Jam 5: Sound Affects

Five albums in four years’ time is a lot, particularly when one calculates any in-between singles and B-sides. The Jam were still putting out inspired work, but they were evolving. The songs on Sound Affects are far away from the mod and punk influences of their earlier work (with one exception, which we’ll get to), and part of that distance comes from the implementation of more keyboards and horns.

One overt influence that gets mentioned with the album constantly is the Beatles’ Revolver—underscored in the US release, which begins with “Start!”, a fairly liberal musical theft of “Taxman”, from the bass line to the guitar solo. Likewise, it’s been pointed out that “But I’m Different Now”, the only song that sounds like 1977, is built around the two-chord hook from “Dr. Robert”. Original or not, they’re still two catchy tracks, and the parts Paul Weller did come up with on his own are excellent.

He was a fairly observant young man, concerned with the question of politics and social problems, even if he couldn’t offer any solutions of his own. “Pretty Green” is about money, whether it’s used to buy sustenance or empty entertainment. “Monday” offers a little respite in a hopeful love song, albeit one from someone who says he’s not “special”. That makes a good lead in to “But I’m Different Now”, which itself doesn’t prepare for the insistent riffing and anger of “Set The House Ablaze”—something of a conversation between those one-time friends on Setting Sons now on the opposite sides of the system. A solution is suggested by two minutes of communication in “Start!” Already a wordy album, a poem without rhymes is set to an acoustic strum in “That’s Entertainment” (except for the addition of a backwards guitar, and guess what album they got that idea from).

That’s a pretty strong album side, which can’t be said about the other. “Dream Time” begins with several seconds of muffled effects, and the structure of the tune itself isn’t any help either, instead forcing three different musical ideas together. (This strangeness is repeated two tracks later for the instrumental “Music For The Last Couple”, probably designed to drive them out of the building.) “Man In The Corner Shop” is an astute comparison of class perception over what sounds like several key changes, always going back to that wordless “la-la” hook. There’s another “la-la” break in “Boy About Town”, another should-have-been hit (maybe it’s the trumpets). Finally, there’s “Scrape Away”, built on the same complicated riff design as “Set The House Ablaze” and covering much of the same territory.

Sound Affects is not an easy album to “get into”; the overall tension and uncertainty illustrate the frustration Weller was starting to feel with his band’s capabilities. But that would only be seen in hindsight. The better songs stand out—and if you were one of the five people who bought it in America, you got a bonus 45 of “Going Underground” and “Dreams Of Children”, their excellent stopgap single from earlier in the year.

The Jam Sound Affects (1980)—3

Monday, April 1, 2013

Billy Joel 4: Turnstiles

While one usually has to go to California to make it big in the music business, that’s not to say that talent and potential will help you along, as Billy Joel learned. He simply is not a West Coast guy, so he went back to Long Island to re-establish himself as a native New Yorker. It was the smart move, as the quality of Turnstiles—chock full of songs about starting over and fading dreams—can attest, even if it didn’t pay off right away.

The “Be My Baby” intro, percussion and warble makes “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” something of a Spector homage (and indeed, Ronnie Spector would cover it) but the song itself is better than the recording here. His lyrics have definitely improved, as shown on the reflective “Summer, Highland Falls” (a.k.a. “sadness or euphoria”). That progress, however is hampered by the ever-so-slight “All You Wanna Do Is Dance”, which meanders around a Latin beat to no real purpose. It’s forgotten as soon as “New York State Of Mind” comes in. This song has become something of a standard, and for good reason. Even before the city in question became a focal point for benefit concerts, this little Ray Charles homage managed to hit all the right notes and scale the right chords to be a song that you’d figure some Tin Pan Alley guy had to write already, but they didn’t, and it’s little Billy Joel who had to hire the sax player to help him nail the ending. And he does, and they do.

“James” is a one-sided letter to a childhood friend; fictional or not, it’s a little too close to “Daniel”. The rest of the album more than compensates. “Angry Young Man” begins with the famous “Prelude” that recycles all the Copland touches he’d used in “Ballad Of Billy The Kid”, then nicely punctures the egos of so many of his misguided contemporaries. “I’ve Loved These Days” begins as another slightly classical piece, and is another big farewell to the good times he may have once known. It’s not the album’s finale, however. That place of pride goes to “Miami 2017”, better known by the subtitle “Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway”. It’s a very clever science fiction scenario, written from the point of view of a retiree in the year of the title. What’s remarkable about the song is not that we’re only four years away at this writing, but there was no way he could have known how frightening the images would be after a certain September. Still, it’s got enough local references to make audiences cheer.

If anything (outside of moving back home) helped make this album as strong as it is, that would be the band. In LA he relied on hired guns to translate his ideas. But on Turnstiles, he stuck with his touring band, and found the glue he’s been missing thus far. These aren’t the best versions of these songs; that would happen eventually, and for posterity. In the meantime, it was good that he learned a little humility.

Billy Joel Turnstiles (1976)—