Friday, June 28, 2013

Frank Zappa 18: Apostrophe

At this point, whether an album was credited to Zappa alone or some permutation of the word “Mothers” was moot. For whatever reason, Apostrophe—or more accurately, Apostrophe (’)—features a big up-close photo of the man and his name alone on the cover and spine, despite the presence of several of the players who’d contributed to Over-Nite Sensation right around the same time. (Such conjecture may seem pointless, except that Zappaphiles spend a good deal of time pondering such questions, since everything is significant, somehow. Isn’t it?)

Apostrophe is one of the better Zappa albums for newcomers, since it features a palatable mix of humor and proficiency, with a lot of the innuendo not becoming apparent until the umpteenth listen. The first ten minutes encompasses four tracks, strung together as a suite. “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” sets up the confrontation between the Eskimo and a fur trapper (“Nanook Rubs It”). The trapper runs off to “St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast”, presumably presided over by “Father O’Blivion”. Another Dr. Demento favorite, “Cosmik Debris”, finishes the side.

Side two, for the most part, highlights some pretty tasty sparring. “Excentrifugal Forz” allegedly began in the Hot Rats era, shifting wildly into the title track, a fuzzy jam with Jack Bruce and Jim Gordon. The hidden gem of the album is “Uncle Remus”, based around a terrific George Duke melody, with a compact solo and pointed lyrics about lawn jockeys. Unfortunately that splendor is overtaken by “Stink-Foot”, which is about what you think it is, complete with more wacky voices, poodle abuse, and a loping shuffle a la “Stuff Up The Cracks” for Frank to wah-wah another solo.

Apostrophe is short and sweet, not too challenging nor annoying. Since it goes by so quickly, the modern-day listener will lunge for the play button after each go-through, which is the sign of a keeper. And after wading through the morass of LPs that he’d put out since the dawn on the decade, it’s nice to have something consistent again.

Four decades later, the Zappa Family Trust released a companion disc of sorts, along the lines of the “Project/Object” explorations of Freak Out! and Ruben & The Jets. The Crux Of The Biscuit offers an early sequence for side one of the album, including longer alternate mixes of “Cosmik Debris” and “Uncle Remus”, plus different segments of what would turn into “Excentrifugal Forz”, “Apostrophe”, and “Down In De Dew”, other session excerpts, and a 20-minute live performance of the “Yellow Snow/Pancake Breakfast” suite. Again, more testimony to his skill with a razor blade.

Frank Zappa Apostrophe (’) (1974)—4
Frank Zappa
The Crux Of The Biscuit (2016)—

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ben Folds 12: The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind

It remains to be explained what exactly differentiates a Ben Folds Five album from a Ben Folds solo album, other than the rhythm section. Each of his “solo” albums has been based around the piano with snarky lyrics, snappy drums, distorto bass and harmonies aplenty. So perhaps it’s a good thing that The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is not a complete retread back to the juvenile wisecracks that irritated haters so much about the Five. This album is slightly more contemplative—dare we say “mature”—to match the growth over the last decade (Way To Normal notwithstanding). Every now and then he leaps on the opportunity to use a naughty word, but it’s more of a rarity than a rule.

The album was initially funded via crowdsourcing; hence the packaging includes two booklets full of the names of everyone who apparently helped contribute to the cause. These take the place of lyrics, forcing the listener to decipher the lyrics without prompting. That’s not always easy to do, since not everything is as blatant as “Erase Me”, which blasts out of the speakers with full power, and uses some clever metaphors to describe a breakup, which should be fairly familiar ground for the guy by now. “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” would appear to be one of those direct-hit character assassinations, but unlike earlier exercises, it doesn’t seem like the subject is meant to be ridiculed. The first great song comes from drummer Darren Jessee; “Sky High” wafts in on a layer of wordless harmonies, and is a perfect example of their softer side. The title track is a leftover from the project Ben did with novelist Nick Hornby, and it sounds like that album (even if it is a portrait of writer and occasional voice artiste Sarah Vowell). It gets a big heavy attack of an arrangement, balanced by the monologue by Frank Sinatra’s valet in “On Being Frank” (we hear a few hints of “Wandering”, from those EPs and one Kevin Smith movie).

“Draw A Crowd” sums up his career somewhat (“if you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall”) in an acknowledgement that his talent is often heard or ignored through his cleverness. For the most annoying track on the album, “Do It Anyway” is something of a motivational speech about personal choice, and how it changes over time. “Hold That Thought” presents another relationship in doubt, nicely colored by an organ at all the right moments. What sounds like a frank admission of disappointment in dead parent in “Away When You Were Here” is tempered by the fact that Ben’s dad is still alive, but it only shows his capabilities at crafting characters. “Thank You For Breaking My Heart” is predominantly quiet piano, with a couple of well-timed bursts of rhythm, but it mostly presents a haunting melody only a few steps away from “Still” from the Over The Hedge soundtrack. It does fill a similar role to the closers of previous BFF albums, so there’s that.

The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind doesn’t so much pick up where The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner left off as it continues the Ben Folds story in general. If the other two guys are happy to follow the guy whose name is in the title, maybe this won’t be the last we hear from the Five. Considering that every other rhythm section he’s had has done what they did, what’s the problem?

Ben Folds Five The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (2012)—3

Monday, June 24, 2013

Rolling Stones 48: GRRR!

With their usual impeccable timing, the Stones took the easy bait of celebrating fifty years as a commercial commodity by commencing a variety of anniversary celebrations. Only ten years after their previous career retrospective—with just one studio album in between to add to the pantheon, unless you count the completed songs added to Exile and Some Girls, which we don’t—the band’s catalog was anthologized again in the form of GRRR! We still can’t decide what’s worse, the title or the cover, though we’re tempted to call it ZZZZ… instead.

Of course, it was made available in several configurations—a double-disc with 40 tracks, a triple-disc with 50, and a super deluxe version with 80 tracks on four discs, plus a bonus disc with the five songs from their first demo session, sounding identical to the bootleg that’s been out there, complete with pops and speed fluctuations. (And because it was considered the cool thing to do, a vinyl EP offered four songs from a BBC session. Here’s a stupid idea—why not offer the two new tracks, the demo tracks and the BBC tracks on their own as a single disc? Anyone?)

Because Forty Licks did a pretty decent job of summarizing the band already, it’s our duty to inform that the two-disc version lacks eight songs, the three-disc five, and the five-disc three from that collection, the common three being the three of the four 2002 songs. Of course, GRRR! in all its permutations offers two, count ‘em, two new songs. “Doom And Gloom” makes some clumsy rhymes and references to foreign wars, but it’s tough to worry over Mick “eating dirt [and] living on the side of the road” when you’ve shelled out $125 for the super deluxe edition of his band’s eleventh hits collection. “One More Shot” is a little better, since it sounds more like a stock Keith riff and you can actually hear Charlie’s drums.

GRRR! rates as high as it does because of the quality of the music, some of the best rock ‘n roll, really, of the last fifty years. Any of the three versions should satisfy anyone looking to add a pile of Stones to their CD racks if they don’t have any yet. But the mind reels as to what might happen come 2022…

…And as it turned out, they did release a few more archival live albums that year, one of which was excellent. Maybe that’s why they chose to wait a year to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 50th anniversary tour with GRRR Live!, which presented the audio (and DVD or Blu-ray if you bought one of the CD versions but not the vinyl) of a show originally broadcast on pay-per-view. It’s no better or worse than any of the seemingly endless live souvenirs from this century, except that the focus seems to be on various celebrity guests. Lady Gaga mewls all over “Gimme Shelter”, John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. muddy up an already sludgy version of Freddie King’s “Going Down” (the only song here not on any other live Stones album, unless you count “Doom And Gloom” and “One More Shot”), the Black Keys join on “Who Do You Love”, and Bruce Springsteen happily growls his way through “Tumbling Dice”. Unless you’re a big fan of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, which augments “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, the highlight would be Mick Taylor coming back for a 12-minute “Midnight Rambler”, except that he’s competing with two other guitarists in the mix and Jagger enjoys baiting the crowd on the slow break too much.

The Rolling Stones GRRR! (2012)—4
The Rolling Stones
GRRR Live! (2023)—3

Friday, June 21, 2013

Beach Boys 13: Carl And The Passions

Maybe as a recognition that that they weren’t the same band, the next Beach Boys album sported the unwieldy title of Carl And The Passions – “So Tough”—Carl of course being the most stable of the Wilson brothers. Bruce Johnston was ousted, and they brought in Blondie Chaplin and future Rutle Rikki Fataar to boost the guitar and drums respectively. They happened to be decent singers and songwriters to boot, which would help them on record as well as on stage. But their label clearly showed they weren’t completely behind the album by packaging it as a double, with Pet Sounds in the same jacket. It’s too bad, because the album is good enough to stand on its own.

Speaking of which, “You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” is an unwieldy title that unfortunately fits in the long line of “therapeutic” songs that Brian was obsessed with from about 1967 on, whether it be raw vegetables or jogging, when all he had to do was cut out the pot, pills and cheeseburgers. It’s got something of a “Wild Honey” feel, serving the same purpose to kick off side one. The new guys take over with “Here She Comes”, a generic title of its own, but decent ‘70s rock nonetheless. “He Come Down” has a terrific production, with plenty of soulful piano, Hammond organ and harmonies, but is ultimately another Mike Love advertisement for the Maharishi. But the “classic” Beach Boys sound returns on “Marcella”. This is the one people tend to cite as the best on the album, and while that’s a matter of taste, it does sound the most like a Brian Wilson creation.

The new guys emerge again on “Hold On Dear Brother”, with its prominent pedal steel and confusing time signature taking it far from the brand. Then there’s “Make It Good”, the return of Dennis, his voice already cracked and aged, full of the character for which he’d become a cult figure. It’s more like a lengthy interlude, rising up from nowhere and hanging in the air until it’s over, suddenly. It makes a nice setup for “All This Is That”, another mildly spacey number trading lead vocals between Carl and Mike, then returns the spotlight to Dennis for “Cuddle Up”, a lengthy ballad largely the product of the guy who would one day gain fame as half of Captain & Tennille.

So Carl And The Passions isn’t a bad album at all, since it doesn’t really sound like the stereotypical Beach Boys. It wasn’t an easy album to make, considering that each track sports different producers, eventually giving most of the credit to Carl. (And if eight songs seems short, the eventual session peek proved they didn’t have a lot of other ideas lying around.) Since we hadn’t expected much by now, and having been burned by the unfulfilled hype of its predecessors, it’s a recommended listen. Imagine that.

The Beach Boys Carl And The Passions – “So Tough” (1972)—3

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Billy Joel 7: Glass Houses

Now that he had graduated to the level of superstar, Billy Joel chafed at every non-complimentary review, many of which insisted that he didn’t “rock”. Naturally, the more he complained, the dumber he sounded, which didn’t help his case any. And as long as his albums and songs were keyboard-inspired and driven, he had a steep climb ahead of him.

So there was some suggestion that Glass Houses was a response to those detractors, with its provocative cover of the leather-clad artiste poised to toss a rock at what some assumed was his own expansive Long Island manse. On the back, broken glass frames his portrait in skinny tie. Inside, the handwritten lyrics and credits suggested a DIY ethic, carried over onto the band photo. (It was a nice try; a couple of the guys can’t help but look slick, but the lead guitarist has a Clem Burke vibe with his hair and loose tie, and Liberty DeVitto has removed his Buddy Holly specs but has his wristwatch around his ankle! What a crazy nut!)

The sound of breaking glass, already a punk staple, opens “You May Be Right”, a competent relationship song in his established vein. “Sometimes A Fantasy” begins with the mod effect of a touch-tone phone, a good setup for an early ode to phone sex, which is kinda edgy, even for 1980. However, the trilling acoustics and island sound of “Don’t Ask Me Why” returns us to the middle of the road, only to have the stuttering near-rockabilly of “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” restate his case. That’s four hit singles right there; the side ends with “All For Leyna”, a track we remember being a lot more edgy then than it sounds now, but it’s still pretty good.

The songs on the second side aren’t as well known because, again, they weren’t singles. “I Don’t Want To Be Alone” is a mild pastiche of Southside Johnny, presented as a conversation with an opportunistic woman, while “Sleeping With The Television On” presents something of a riposte to that situation, complete with cheesy organ solo. “C’Etait Toi (You Were The One)” also wasn’t about to confuse anyone into thinking Billy Joel personified street cred, but perhaps his insistence on splitting the verses between French and English inspired Sting to do the same again and again. “Close To The Borderline” is a lyric-heavy rant possibly influenced by Elvis Costello subject matter-wise, and something of a harbinger for a future hit single. Along the same lines, “Through The Long Night” is a mellow closer with tons of layered harmonies right out of McCartney’s Wings arsenal.

Glass Houses had everything his audience wanted; after all, they didn’t care if their boy rocked as long as he kept putting out albums and touring behind them. But of his catalog to date, this one’s songs lost their luster soonest.

Billy Joel Glass Houses (1980)—3

Monday, June 17, 2013

Joe Jackson 12: Heaven & Hell

Another three years passed before Joe resurfaced, and he wasn’t any closer to compromising his musical path for anybody. Now he was on Sony Classical, and after the trend of “symphonic” reinterpretations of classic rock staples had somewhat plateaued, he was still determined to meld classical music with rock elements. This would be no mere orchestration, however; being Joe Jackson, his big project would be an exploration of the seven deadly sins.

Thus, Heaven & Hell was cast with a variety of singers to support his work. Onetime labelmate Suzanne Vega appears as the voice of the “fallen angel” seducing Joe’s “soul in torment” on “Angel”, while acclaimed soprano Dawn Upshaw provides the Latin counterpoint. Upshaw appears again on the next track, “Tuzla”, to trade lines with Joe and his occasional singing partner Joe Askew. Later on, Jane Siberry decorates “The Bridge”, with a nice jazzy string arrangement.

There are some fine instrumental moments, such as in the “Prelude” and the “Passacaglia” portion of “A Bud And A Slice” (until the bassoon is taken over by the guy from Crash Test Dummies, well past his expiration date). But because the subject matter is “dark” by nature, that almost dictates that the music be ugly. This culminates in “Right”, illustrating the “anger” portion of the program, wherein our hero shouts a litany of four-letter words and phrase over fists pounding on the piano, while three drummers (one in each speaker, plus another playing plastic buckets) pound away.

Most of the tracks on Heaven & Hell are on the lengthy side, and demand a lot of attention. One wishes he had either done a completely instrumental album, letting the music speak for itself, or maybe toned down the gravitas of the vocal portions and sung them himself. Catchy melodies used to come so easy for him, so it’s a shame that he overworks his ideas to the point of dullness. It didn’t work on Night Music, and it doesn’t work here.

Joe Jackson & Friends Heaven & Hell (1997)—2

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 6: Nebraska

To plan for his next album, Bruce began the practice of preparing demos of his new songs for the E Street Band to study from, rather than teaching them to the guys in the studio while the meter ticked. This time, however, the songs he wrote demanded to be heard as stark sketches rather than big productions, and that’s how Nebraska happened.

Allegedly the band tried full arrangements of all the songs, and all would be performed on future tours. “Open All Night” is a breathless rockabilly tune begging for a rhythm section, and “Johnny 99” chugs along amiably. “Atlantic City” got some local airplay and even a Bruce-less video; beyond those, it’s easy to see the appeal in these simple recordings with their simple acoustics and subtle overdubs. (Also, being first drafts, the lyrics have yet to get the polish they’d likely gain from multiple studio takes.)

Many of the songs are character-driven, an extension of the stories he began to tell on The River. As has come to be expected, a lot of the narrators are driving, from the serial killer in the title track to the unhinged individual trying to avoid the “State Trooper”. That song follows the tale narrated by a “Highway Patrolman”, caught between family honor and civic duty.

Some of the more interesting songs suggest a look back at his childhood. The starry-eyed vision of the “Mansion On The Hill” makes an excellent balance for “My Father’s House”, where things apparently aren’t so opulent. The dichotomy of the class system portrayed in “Used Cars” gives some perspective on where his automotive fascination may have stemmed.

While each of his albums thus far boasted some kind of “epic”, here we only have “Reason To Believe” to sum up the program. Its suggestion of a rhythm supports snapshots of struggling individuals, giving a more universal spin to a title borrowed from Tim Hardin by way of Rod Stewart and countless others. (In a pointed example of programming, the sides aren’t balanced time-wise; the first six songs make side one 25 minutes long, while the last four equal 15 minutes.)

Nebraska wasn’t a huge hit, seeing as the songs weren’t exactly radio-friendly. It’s an album that demands attention, sometimes getting so quiet you can barely hear it, only to leap out of the speakers with a whoop and scare you to death. It’s tempting to give it a higher rating for its daring step outside what was then considered his standard sound. But it certainly helped him gain some credibility as a guy who put art before commerce, and boy, would he need it going forward.

Bruce Springsteen Nebraska (1982)—

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Who 24: Live At Hull

On the assumption that readers are tired of incessant complaints about commerce-driven repackagings, we’re going to try the constructive criticism angle. Certainly, we enjoy peeking into the vaults of our favorite performers and falling in sway to the buried treasure therein. But surely they don’t need to charge a premium for the first gullible wave of fanatics to view it through a keyhole, only to throw the door wide open later?

Recorded the day after the performance that resulted in Live At Leeds, the band’s similarly sequenced concert in Hull was left unreleased for decades due to what was assumed to be a faulty tape. Those intervening decades saw advances in technology that made the concert listenable without completely compromising its authenticity (namely, bass tracks transposed from the Leeds show on a few songs, plus other sections used to eliminate other gaps). The restored show was first made available in the 40th anniversary limited edition Leeds box set, which originally listed for $80 and now changes hands at three to four times that amount. So there was much gnashing of teeth and throwing up of hands when Live At Hull 1970 was released on its own for a lot less than before.

While it has the same setlist as Leeds with the exception of “Magic Bus”, it’s not an identical concert. Some songs are tighter than the day before (i.e. “Fortune Teller”) and some are sloppier (“Do You Think It’s Alright”). Pete’s improvisations on the likes of “Young Man Blues” and “My Generation” aren’t carbon copies either; we can even detect a nod to “I Can See For Miles” at the 15-minute mark of “Generation”. Between-song patter is at a minimum, so we can concentrate on the music; still, Pete’s prediction that this would be the last time they’d play “Summertime Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over” is pretty hilarious seeing as how it didn’t happen, and Keith always enjoyed yelling at the audience to shut up and have a little respect for their “fookin’ opera”. “Spoonful” makes an appearance in “Shakin’ All Over”, an aside that usually gets deleted from other releases for copyright reasons.

The packaging isn’t all that exciting, but it is to be commended for not simply aping its twin, going instead for the tape box approach to show off the historical value. Apparently nobody took pictures at these shows, as the photos used here are the same ones used for every modern incarnation of Leeds.

Who freaks will have to have this, of course. Now if they’d only put it out this way first, instead of fanning the complaints over that Super Deluxe Edition…

The Who Live At Hull 1970 (2012)—3

Monday, June 10, 2013

Van Morrison 16: Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast

Van Morrison’s first album with his new label was an odd move—a live album, which would inevitably raise comparisons with the lauded It’s Too Late To Stop Now, recorded in the city of his birth, suggesting that it was a grand homecoming. It wasn’t.

Van always considered himself a performer in the tradition of his jazz and blues heroes, and Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast presents the latest incarnation of his show band and revue. It fades in on an instrumental overture of “Into The Mystic”, shifting abruptly into “Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 2”, and then even more abruptly into “Dweller On The Threshold”, which is presumably where the star of the evening makes his entrance. The extrapolation of “It’s All The Game”, part of the grand finale of Into The Music, comes next, slowing things down right away, but feature some truly clumsy electric piano playing from the guy whose name is on the marquee. That contribution also colors “Vanlose Stairway”, which otherwise gets an excellent vocal. Luckily he sticks to the saxophone, to which he’s much better suited, in the middle of a nine-minute “Rave On John Donne”. The rest of the album is pretty faithful to the records, though “Full Force Gale” tones back the horns, and Chris Michie leans a little heavy on the whammy bar for “Beautiful Vision”.

As a representation of where he was at, it’s good. He was never about the hits, preferring to embrace the moment; therefore the set is heavy on recent songs. He does give plenty of solo time to the players in the band, and the backing vocals are well rehearsed. That said, whether Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast succeeds as a snapshot of that moment is up to the listener, whether or not he or she was there.

Van Morrison Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast (1984)—3

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Lou Reed 26: The Raven

The idea that Lou Reed might be a fan of the work of Edgar Allen Poe isn’t such a stretch. Whether or not Lou saw himself in the same caliber as a writer is open to debate, but when occasional collaborator Robert Wilson approached him with the idea of a theater piece based on Poe’s work, he took the bold step of adapting some of it to music, rewriting other pieces, adding his own scatological touches, and even weaving in two of his own songs. Just to be extreme, The Raven was an ambitious double-CD set, released simultaneously as a single-CD condensation that’s heavier on the musical portions. It is not a fun listen in either incarnation.

It’s recorded well, of course, with support from trusty sidekicks Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders, and Tony “Thunder” Smith, with a beefy horn section and Jane Scarpantoni on cello. Much of the program is spoken, sometimes effectively, usually overacted, from such stereotypical creepy voices as Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth Ashley, and Amanda Plummer, among others. Various famous musicians turn up too. (Incidentally, co-producer Hal Willner had spearheaded a similar star-studded tribute to Poe a few years earlier.)

Musically, it’s so-so. The “Overture” is a blast of guitar and drums a la “Dorita” from Magic And Loss, but “Edgar Allan Poe” (said to be “not exactly the boy next do’”) sounds like a parody. “A Thousand Departed Friends” pits a distorted guitar against a honking sax over a martial drumbeat for five minutes, which is approximately when a melody surfaces. “Change” is barked from the point of view of Death, while “Blind Rage” is used to illustrate the old man in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. “Balloon” is an a cappella duet by the McGarrigle Sisters, though if you wanted to hear Steve Buscemi do a Sinatra impression, listen no further than “Broadway Song”. Lou himself unwisely changes his voice to take on a character in “Burning Embers”; a version sung straight might actually be worth it. After the unsettling dialogue of “Guilty”, Lou sings it again while Ornette Coleman improvises. “I Wanna Know” is supposed to illustrate “The Pit And The Pendulum”, but merely has Lou emoting a monologue with the Blind Boys of Alabama. The too-brief “Hop-Frog” barely delivers the promise of another collaboration with David Bowie, but the feedback and electronics that illustrate “Fire Music” are frighteningly vivid.

It’s not all horrible. “The Bed” from Berlin is used to comment on “The Fall Of The House Of Usher”, while “Perfect Day” (sung by Anohni, when she was still known as Antony Hegarty) sets up his rewrite of “The Raven”. “Call On Me” is a very pretty dialogue of sorts, Lou singing a mournful part and Laurie Anderson responding in prose before adding her own unaccompanied melody at the end. “Vanishing Act” is a lovely reverie set over the barest piano followed by beautiful strings, and “Science Of The Mind” is even more stark, with Anohni harmonizing just right. “Who Am I? (Tripetina’s Song)” builds from a simple set of chords to a wonderfully orchestrated epic, and “Guardian Angel” manages to quietly close the proceedings with something akin to peace. Taken together, these highlights present more of Lou’s softer, more vulnerable side.

If The Raven brings the work of Poe to modern audiences, then that mostly fulfills Lou’s hope for it. As an album, it’s a vanity project and should be approached with caution. The better musical moments are on the single disc, if that helps.

Lou Reed The Raven (2003)—2

Friday, June 7, 2013

Jimi Hendrix 14: South Saturn Delta

While First Rays Of The New Rising Sun attempted to present the final word on Jimi’s last work, that wasn’t to say the family was finished with theirs. As had happened in the previous decades, a handful of albums presented rare or unreleased material, culled from a multitude of sessions with all of his bands, in order to portray him as a well-rounded musician.

The first of these was South Saturn Delta, taking its name from a jazzy instrumental, complete with horn section. It’s a bold choice to make it a centerpiece, but apt when taken alongside the odd selection of alternates and outtakes. “Angel” appears twice, once in a studio jam with Mitch Mitchell labeled “Little Wing”, and then again in a more precise home demo. An alternate mix of “All Along The Watchtower” supposedly features Brian Jones more prominently, but nothing stands out as being revelatory.

That said, “Here He Comes (Lover Man)” is an expansion of his amped-up arrangement of “Rock Me Baby” as heard at Monterey, and while it’s apparently a composite of four takes, it’s still six minutes of fun. “Power Of Soul” and “Message To The Universe” present studio versions of Band Of Gypsys tunes, the former rescued from its Crash Landing alteration. Even more surprising is “Midnight Lightning”, a completely solo take.

At its best, South Saturn Delta helps to mop up some of the stray tracks from the ‘70s posthumous albums, providing a new home for such nuggets as “Look Over Yonder”, “Pali Gap”, “Tax Free”, “Midnight” and “The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam’s Dice”. So it’s a decent companion to First Rays, which had only come out six months before. And half of the album is basically the original Experience, adding to the diversity. While schizophrenic, it’s nice to have, and stayed in print when the distribution rights changed yet again.

Jimi Hendrix South Saturn Delta (1997)—4

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Jimi Hendrix 13: First Rays Of The New Rising Sun

Jimi’s aging father and the stepsister he never knew wrested control of the Hendrix catalog away from the record labels, and took over distribution of same. Thus began a lengthy and lucrative campaign to preserve his legacy via repackagings, archival digs and tchotchkes.

Their determination to rectify all wrongs meant that the catalogs were pared back to the basics: the original three Experience albums, newly remastered (again) and supervised by Jimi’s preferred engineer Eddie Kramer. Band Of Gypsys would remain in print, having been approved by Jimi in his lifetime, but anything released after that (with the exception of the excellent Blues compilation) was deleted so the Estate could start fresh. Their first strike was replacing the controversial Voodoo Soup with what is now the final accepted version of his fourth album.

Based on a handwritten sketch of three possible album sides out of four, First Rays Of The New Rising Sun reverts for the most part to the original Cry Of Love concept, using all of that album’s songs and mixes. Interspersed are four tracks from Rainbow Bridge and three from War Heroes, making for a more inclusive view of those leftovers.

Still, just as with Cry Of Love, the similarity of a lot of these songs makes it tough to tell them apart at first, especially when tracks like “Freedom” and “Izabella” are placed back to back. Likewise, “Room Full Of Mirrors”, “Dolly Dagger” and “Ezy Ryder” should satisfy anyone seeking more cowbell. It’s nice when things like “Angel”, “Drifting” and “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” shift the tempo, and ending with “Belly Button Window” is the smart move.

We state all this in full recognition that the learned Hendrix scholar can’t fathom how anybody could confuse these songs with each other. To counter, we also doubt that anyone would prefer any permutation of a possible fourth album over any of the three Experience albums. The point is, it’s all conjecture, and anything Jimi might have finished, had he got around to it instead of filling up tape after tape, would likely trump anyone else’s best guess, however educated.

Unlike its stepsibling of two years before, there’s nothing “new” on First Rays Of The New Rising Sun; rather, it’s yet again somebody’s mix tape version of the best of the official leftovers. Everyone’s version would be different, and we’ve yet to see a decent defense of “My Friend”. Since they used all of it anyway, a simple two-fer of Cry Of Love and Rainbow Bridge would have been ideal, but wouldn’t fit on a single CD, so that solution doesn’t work for the industry. With the Estate firmly in control, they decreed that this sequence would become the accepted standard into this century—though even their speculation would continue in other ways.

Jimi Hendrix First Rays Of The New Rising Sun (1997)—

Monday, June 3, 2013

Jimi Hendrix 12: Voodoo Soup

Because Jimi never finished his fourth studio album, anything purporting to be exactly that is subject to speculation. Therefore, the possibilities are endless. But because The Cry Of Love had been around for over twenty years, for good or bad it was something of an accepted standard. It took that long for something else to be presented as a possible alternative, and sparks flew.

Once again the culprit was Alan Douglas, who’d already “tampered” with the archives. Now he attempted to present another possible sequence for a fourth Hendrix album, with the wacky title of Voodoo Soup and anachronistic cover art to match. Seven songs from Cry Of Love join two each from Rainbow Bridge and War Heroes, plus three other “new” tracks.

Naturally, being the ‘90s, the songs had slightly different mixes from the originals, with two glaring exceptions. On “Stepping Stone” and “Room Full Of Mirrors”, Buddy Miles’ original drum tracks were replaced by a new accompaniment supplied personally by one of the album’s coordinators, whose previous claim to fame is that he also was the drummer for The Knack. Whether or not he was competent is moot, of course; once you know he’s there it’s tough to ignore the fact.

The album seems to want to turn Cry Of Love on its head, beginning with something of an overture in “The New Rising Sun”, a three-minute instrumental segment of a larger unfinished piece. It’s pretty dreamy, in the positive sense of the word, but fades into “Belly Button Window”, the song that previously closed Cry Of Love. The altered “Stepping Stone” comes next, adding another alternate to the pile of mixes Jimi discarded in his lifetime; the new, galloping drums threaten to run away with the track. “Freedom” is fairly similar, but “Angel” has a less processed vocal than before, and doesn’t fade, making for a nice variation. “Room Full Of Mirrors” already had a dizzying mix, and this new version (with 1995 drums) provides another trip through the fun house. While “Midnight” and “Peace In Mississippi” are great jams, being earlier Experience recordings puts them somewhat outside of that “fourth album” idea.

“Night Bird Flying”, “Drifting” and “Ezy Ryder” each tone down the congas that were so prominent on the earlier mixes; “Pali Gap” is slightly edited to sound less like the improv’d jam it was. “Message To Love” is a studio take of the song familiar from Band Of Gypsys, and somehow sounds out of sync mixwise with the rest of the era. “In From The Storm” was the penultimate track on Cry Of Love, and here it’s allowed to close the set.

Except that it’s a purely speculative compilation, there really isn’t anything “wrong” with Voodoo Soup, making it a fairly enjoyable mix tape, and a worthy candidate for whatever his next album might have been. Still, enough people couldn’t get past the whole Knack connection, and since several previously released contenders were excluded from the hour-long sequence, nobody was happy. Least of all the Estate, which deleted it as soon as they could, thus guaranteeing Voodoo Soup collector’s item status.

Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Soup (1995)—4
Current CD equivalent: none