Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Frank Zappa 19: Roxy & Elsewhere

By now Frank had assembled another crack band that was both versatile enough to handle the scores thrown at him, as well as shift gears in and out of improvisation. The band followed the usual formula—horn section, dual drummers and keyboards—but offered some new secret weapons. First, there was Ruth Underwood on percussion. While that might suggest she banged tambourines and shook maracas, her forte was mallets, which struck any number of vibraphones, marimbas and such. Then there was Napoleon Murphy Brock, proficient on sax and vocals. Both shine on Roxy & Elsewhere, a mostly live double album. (George Duke wasn’t such a secret weapon, but he’s key to the quality, as are drummers Ralph Humphrey and future Genesis go-to Chester Thompson.)

Of course, Frank’s in charge, so he’s the one setting up each new song. “Penguin In Bondage” gets a typically suggestive setup to slightly illuminate the arcane references within the lyrics. “Pygmy Twylyte” is a funky setup for the lengthy “Dummy Up” routine, featuring the return of Jeff Simmons, who’d notoriously quit amidst 200 Motels. In all, a long way to go to make fun of people who’d smoke anything for a kick. He gets downright nostalgic on “Village Of The Sun”, a look back at a dive he used to play in the early ‘60s, set to a “Hey Love” groove. “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” is a wildly intricate instrumental piece, sliding right into “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?”, reminiscent of the big-band sound of the Waka/Jawaka and Grand Wazoo albums. The stops and starts seem designed for Frank’s introduction of Ruth’s amazing dexterity.

By now his affection for bad ‘50s monster movies was renowned, and it could be said that his two-minute setup for “Cheepnis” is more entertaining than the song itself, but it is one of the band’s better routines. (The brains behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it imperative to work as many Zappa references as possible into episodes through the entire series run.) It’s a good thematic bridge to “Son Of Orange County”, which slows down that theme to a crawl, and incorporates a then-current reference to Nixon. And just to show how things haven’t changed, “More Trouble Every Day” reprises the “riot song” from the first Mothers album.

For years now, the Zappa estate has been dangling the possibility of an expanded Roxy & Elsewhere, with even more music from the shows, and most excitedly for fans, a DVD with the visuals. This would undoubtedly help with one’s enjoyment of “Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzman’s Church)”. Another challenging instrumental, it took up side four of the original album. While not exactly reminiscent of what the layman might recognize as a tango, it presents more musical pyrotechnics until getting derailed by scatting and ridicule of jazz improv, which is to set up the audience participation portion of the show. Zappa concerts often thrived (throve?) on audience participation, but in this case audience members are invited to dance in accompaniment to the improvised music. You read that right—we’re supposed to listen to people dancing, and enjoy it.

With a little editing, Roxy & Elsewhere could be excellent; as it is, it’s merely good, but one of the better Zappa releases, and another good place for newbies to start. The title was apt, as the original live performances were overdubbed and augmented with music from other locations—one reason why the legend persisted of the original run. The shows were filmed, but it took four decades for sync problems to be worked out. As the film neared completion, Roxy By Proxy presented a raw mix of performances from the shows, and in some ways it’s superior, with more music, minimal comedy, early versions of “Inca Roads”, “T’Mershi D’Ween”, “RDNZL”, and “Dupree’s Paradise”, and a medley of “King Kong”, “Chunga’s Revenge”, and “Mr. Green Genes”. Roxy—The Movie finally came out as DVD or Blu-ray bundled with a soundtrack CD, and eventually The Roxy Performances delivered all four shows, complete, on seven CDs, with rehearsal, soundcheck, and studio recordings, including the basic tracks of the “Yellow Snow” suite (through “Father O’Blivion”) on Apostrophe. (If that wasn’t enough to experience this band, Halloween 73 presented two entire shows from Chicago plus rehearsals from about six weeks earlier on four discs, and also condensed to one “highlights” disc.)

Zappa/Mothers Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)—
Roxy By Proxy (2014)—4
The Roxy Performances (2018)—

Monday, July 29, 2013

Big Star 8: Nothing Can Hurt Me

In 2012, every rock snob’s favorite power pop band got the feature-length documentary treatment. Advance promotion was helped by the soundtrack album, released first as a double-vinyl Record Store Day exclusive before the CD version came out.

Nothing Can Hurt Me is something of a Big Star sampler, representing all three albums, with the twist that all the tracks are previously unreleased versions. In some cases, they’re alternate or rough mixes from the original sessions; in others, songs are labeled “movie mix, 2012”, prepared specifically for the film by the band’s original engineer. Just to make things even more interesting, some studio chatter is included, along with a “demo” of “O My Soul”, a pedal steel-heavy take of “Try Again” credited to Rock City (aka Big Star before they were Big Star) and a couple of solo Alex Chilton and Chris Bell tracks.

Considering that the Rhino box set served up a whole pile of alternates to justify duplicating song titles, it really is something of a stretch to do it yet again. That said, Big Star fans are fervent, and very likely musicians themselves, so the chance to hear alternate mixes of songs they’ve memorized—maybe to decipher a mumbled lyric or pick apart how the instruments were layered in the studio—is always welcome. Some of us can’t hear enough variations on “I Am The Cosmos” anyway.

If you’re a Big Star fan and you’ve yet to see Nothing Can Hurt Me, either get the DVD now or put it in your Netflix queue. You’ll be glad you did, and don’t be ashamed to wipe your eyes here and there.

Big Star Nothing Can Hurt Me: Original Soundtrack (2013)—3

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Graham Nash 3: Earth & Sky

The momentum that led up to 1977’s decent Crosby, Stills & Nash studio reunion didn’t carry over for Crosby, who was too wasted to create, or for Stills, who recorded despite himself. Graham Nash remained the sanest of the three, newly married and fathered, and worked on pet projects like fighting unsafe nuclear energy.

He also corralled various veterans of recent CSN-related bands to record Earth & Sky, an album that has all but vanished from the face of the planet save used record stores and YouTube. It’s not a horrible album, but’s it’s not very exciting either. Given the usual crew—David Lindley, Russ Kunkel, Craig Doerge, Joe Vitale, Danny Kortchmar—the music is typical Southern California via Miami; lots of Hawaiian shirts and Colombian sky candy. Crosby is credited but all but inaudible.

The title track is catchy, but “Love Has Come”, which follows, is practically identical. “Out On The Island” is a recasting of “Another Sleep Song” until the chorus. “Barrel Of Pain (Half-Life)” is a successful attempt to rock, and a surprising high point is “T.V. Guide”, with ambitious piano and dramatic strings, and less than two minutes. Elsewhere it’s sensitive songs about beautiful children, care for the environment, and misplace hope for the new decade. In other words, this is what people did between Jackson Browne albums.

One wants to like Earth & Sky on the sole basis that it’s not hideous, but it only provides more strength for the argument of CSN’s sum being greater than the parts. Yet at 35 minutes, this was Graham’s longest solo album yet.

Graham Nash Earth & Sky (1980)—

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Stephen Stills 8: Thoroughfare Gap

Compelled to keep making records, Stephen Stills followed the success of the CSN reunion with an album as disappointing as Illegal Stills and his lackluster half of Long May You Run. Apparently three albums in two years’ time wasn’t enough to convince him to slow down, as Thoroughfare Gap should have been allowed to bake a little longer (no pun intended, but we’ll take it anyway).

People flock to Stills for his prowess on the fretboard, so “You Can’t Dance Alone” is proof that he spent too much time hanging around the studios where the Bee Gees made their disco comeback; in fact, young Andy Gibb sings here, and elsewhere. The title track is a welcome detour back to the laidback country of the Manassas era, and based on some of the musicians listed it might even be of that vintage. “We Will Go On” begins with some “Dark Star”-type promise, but disco takes over and makes it tough to enjoy. “Beaucoup Yumbo” almost works despite itself, thought the N’awlins vibe is overseasoned by the strings. There’s a decent song hidden beneath the slick gloss of “What’s The Game”, but only if you like cowbells and guiros.

A fairly straight cover of the Allmans’ “Midnight Rider” doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but at least it delayed his annual insistence in singing a song written in Spanish until side two. From the title, “Woman Lleva” is sloppy; any high school student would know it should be “Mujer Lleva”, but that wouldn’t fit the meter. “Lowdown” has some dirty guitar over a dull groove and too big a choir, and it sounds like the limp cover of “Not Fade Away” was recorded immediately after. And though “Can’t Get No Booty” is likely meant as a joke, this kind of throwaway track is so unlike Stills that it simply reeks.

He may have been the main architect of the CSN sound, but left to his own devices, Stephen Stills simply couldn’t be trusted. Thoroughfare Gap didn’t even get reissued on CD until nearly 30 years later, crammed into a package with the previous two solo albums. It has not been missed.

Stephen Stills Thoroughfare Gap (1978)—2

Friday, July 26, 2013

Cars 6: Door To Door

The Cars were still coasting (sorry) on the success of Heartbeat City when their first compilation appeared. Greatest Hits pretty much delivered what it promised, each of the songs having actually been in the Billboard Top 40. The big attraction was “Tonight She Comes”, a quintessential Cars single; a remix of “I’m Not The One” was also included and issued as a single. For some reason the CD and cassette added “Heartbeat City”, which was never a hit, while “Hello Again” was ignored.

Presumably “Tonight She Comes” was all they completed, as the next year saw solo albums from Ric Ocasek, Elliot Easton and Ben Orr (who had a hit of his own with “Stay The Night”). Unfortunately all that time off didn’t rejuvenate the band, as displayed on the lackluster Door To Door.

The album begins with “Leave Or Stay”, which comes loaded with hooks and even that old burping synth sound from the first two albums. As it turns out, the song was left over from that first album. That might suggest the album is a return to their roots, so to speak, but then “You Are The Girl”, the first single, was such an inferior rewrite of “Tonight She Comes” that it worked against the album’s potential. With its slow beat and heavy fuzz, “Double Trouble” could almost pass for hair-metal, except for the synth solo, while the moody “Fine Line” barely sounds like them. “Everything You Say” is all Ben Orr pop, a minor key tune with a country-western gallop, and they get back to themselves for “Ta Ta Wayo Wayo”, another old song finally recorded.

“Strap Me In” improves on the “Double Trouble” formula for a classic Cars track, providing a welcome start to side two, a rush immediately capsized by the back-to-back naps of “Coming Up You” (left over from Shake It Up) and “Wound Up On You”. “Go Away” is inoffensive pop, making us wonder why Ben didn’t have a more successful solo career. The title track revs up the tempo for the last time, and the proceedings end with the actual sound of a door slamming shut, fittingly.

By the time Door To Door came out, the band (and consumers alike) seemed to have lost interest, and they disbanded as soon as the obligatory tour finished. Up until the end of the century their legacy didn’t always get the respect it might have deserved; of course, dull Ocasek solo albums didn’t help. The others went on to session work and other gigs—Elliot even doing time in Creedence Clearwater Revisited—while Ocasek kept busy producing bands like Weezer and Guided By Voices. Even after every other ‘80s band reunited for various reasons, VH-1 or otherwise, the Cars held out, and hopes were dashed forever when Ben died in 2000.

The Cars Greatest Hits (1985)—4
The Cars
Door To Door (1987)—2

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sting 9: Sacred Love

It wasn’t a transition to vanilla as Phil Collins made in the same amount of time, but those of us who had enjoyed Sting’s earlier work, both on his own and with the Police, could only shrug with indifference when he deigned to make another album—his first in the new century. Not that we expected the yellow-haired punk from Outlandos to return, but then again, Sacred Love wasn’t designed to please us anyway. His crowd had become what used to be called adult contemporary, and they got just what they wanted.

The opener, “Inside”, is more of a litany than a lyric, but he does put a lot of energy into the vocal, and without laughing. Since it worked so well on the last album, “Send Your Love” expands on that Mideastern electro-pop sound, less so on the remix tacked onto the end of the CD, which is amazingly the shortest track on the album. “Whenever I Call Your Name” combines the litany gimmick of “Inside” (this time leaning heavily on the word “whenever”) with a duet sung with Mary J. Blige. Something of a return to a earlier sound comes in “Dead Man’s Rope”, with its Olde English guitar and feel—and then the reference to “Walking In Your Footsteps” seems almost obvious. There’s an intriguing story in “Never Coming Home”, of the end of a relationship; perhaps the arrangement was sped up to keep it from dragging, but the pace makes it hard to follow, and the effects are equally distracting.

If he’s going for style over substance, that’s fine; he makes beautiful wallpaper for his fans’ car stereos, and they’ll have been sucked in by now. But he insists on crafting stories, and they don’t always balance well. “Stolen Car (Take Me Dancing)” appears to be sung from the point of view of a private detective spying on a wayward husband—probably not any of the characters from the previous track—yet doesn’t quite make the transition to the chorus, which would have been better paired to other verses. “Forget About The Future” moves another apologetic lyric through another funky groove; this time the effect involves a scratchy 78, sent back to the present day via an actual harp flourish (the kind with strings, not the one you blow). There’s a crossfade into “This War”, an anti-Bush et al rant that actually rocks. That’s not Clapton on guitar, but it’s the effect he wanted, and it works. Unfortunately, that’s it for the rock, as “The Book Of My Life” (featuring Anoushka Shankar on sitar, as Ravi must not have been available) and the title track (with a reference to a “river in flood”) meander through the same rhythms.

We want to like Sacred Love, since history had previously shown that every less-than-stellar Sting album was followed by a better one. Instead, we can recommend it for fans of those albums, and shrug our shoulders along with those who gave up on him already.

Sting Sacred Love (2003)—

Monday, July 22, 2013

Beach Boys 14: Holland

Still trying to be relevant and chart-worthy, off the Beach Boys went to the Netherlands to do their first-ever studio recordings outside of California. Holland is another one of those Beach Boys albums held up as a forgotten masterpiece. Well, if they’re going to hold it up, we’re going to take aim at it.

Part of the problem is that they were still trying to wring blood from Brian’s stone. “Sail On Sailor” is worthy of his pen, even with the other hands in its composition. Blondie Chaplin takes the lead vocal on a truly great single. “Steamboat” is apparently a Dennis melody given lyrics by their manager, and is a plodding setup for the three-song “California Saga”. Here is an attempt to evoke the same Americana left abandoned on Smile, and an unlikely collaboration between Mike Love and Al Jardine. “Big Sur” sports a steel guitar and harmonica in waltz time, predicting “Piano Man” somewhat, and is most interesting in its minor sections. That segues into “The Beaks Of Eagles”, a lengthy poem recited over Al’s music, which would be a lot more enjoyable if they’d stuck to the choruses. Finally, “California” provides a more uptempo celebration of their home, with some overt references to “California Girls” and Pet Sounds, and baffling evocations of John Steinbeck and Country Joe & The Fish.

“Trader” is another decent, intricate backing with a dense Jack Rieley lyric foisted upon it; too bad Carl couldn’t have done more with this. A big surprise is “Leaving This Town”, wherein Blondie rises to the occasion again, this time over chords predicting “The Great Gig In The Sky”, split by a middle eight descended from “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys”. “Only With You” is a romantic Dennis tune sung by Carl, and it should be no surprise that the very basic lyrics come from Mike. (Well, better him than Rieley, who’d probably choose to mourn a lost falcon or something.) Brian’s final contribution—almost—was “Funky Pretty”, another good track sunk by wince-inducing lyrics mixing astrology and fairy tales.

Something of an explanation for this comes on the six-part suite, “Mount Vernon And Fairway”, included as a bonus 45, and now appended to the end of all CD versions of Holland. Apparently Brian wanted this to be the centerpiece of the album, but he was overruled, and it’s easy to see why. This really is a fairy tale, narrated by Rieley, about a magical kingdom where a lonely prince is both elated and devastated by the music he hears from a magical transistor radio. The music suggests another symphony, as Brian overlays pianos, organs and other keyboards, but Rieley’s delivery is worse than the story he’s narrating, and knowing what we know about Brian now, it comes off as a major cry for psychological help. “Better Get Back In Bed”, indeed.

So Holland’s highlights are provided by the non-Wilsons, seemingly. That’s probably why the ringers they brought in on Carl And The Passions left after the next tour. (More of what they brought to the table would one day be revealed on a comprehensive archival set.) Capitol, their original label, soon released Endless Summer, which helped sell the band as a nostalgia act, keeping them on the road and out of the studio (for the most) part for a few years. Going forward, their albums would have little to recommend them, with what few hits coming from odd places. Except, of course, anytime a new compilation reminded listeners of fun in the sun.

The Beach Boys Holland (1973)—

Friday, July 19, 2013

Traffic 3: Last Exit

Despite a lot of activity in a short time, Traffic was suddenly no more—Dave Mason left again, followed by Steve Winwood, who was already on his way to another project. Last Exit provided an odd collection of leftovers under a half-baked title. (The US/UK differences returned again, with a different front cover depending on the country. The same photo of Winwood eating an apple was used for all back covers, along with an admittedly clever depiction of their now “broken” logo.)

The clear highlights are “Shanghai Noodle Factory” and “Medicated Goo”, both sides of the same single, with excellent guitar work by Winwood. Both are funky in their own ways, if a little nonsensical. “Withering Tree” has a nice autumnal quality in their folk mode. “Just For You” was a B-side from a Dave Mason solo single the rest of the band played on, and “Something’s Got A Hold Of My Toe”, excellent title aside, appears to be an unfinished jam.

However, side two doesn’t catch fire, consisting of two lengthy covers, recorded live, that give Chris Wood a chance to wander, and Steve to wail in his R&B voice. The organ/woodwinds/drums combo has its moments, coming off more jazzy than ever, but they aren’t well represented here.

Clearly a grasp for profits from the record label, Last Exit has remained in print, though its best songs (mentioned above) can be found on any number of compilations. In other words, it can be overlooked. (In fact, only six months later Best Of Traffic included them, along with about half of the American version of the first album, some of which were singles in the UK anyway.)

Traffic Last Exit (1969)—
Best Of Traffic (1969)—4

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Van Morrison 17: A Sense Of Wonder

Was Van Morrison still relevant in the ‘80s? It’s a question only his fans can answer, and if you really want to trip them up, start with the cover photo of A Sense Of Wonder, depicting the Belfast Cowboy peeking through a tunnel of leaves, and smiling, which doesn’t lend comfort so much as make one nervous. (Elsewhere he poses somberly in an outfit that resembles that of a bullfighter, so maybe he should let the music do the talking.)

The album wanders closer to his Celtic roots, with still more references to writers and poets. To wit, “Tore Down A La Rimbaud” was a daring choice for a single, mostly because people knew neither how to pronounce it nor what it meant. Catchy as it is, the backing continues on “Ancient Of Days” in a forced 6/4 meter, rubbing it in too much. The instrumental “Evening Meditation” follows the same template as “Scandinavia”, with Van humming along on top for a nice change. “The Master’s Eyes” begins with a neat guitar part that’s not at all as smooth as the rest of the album, giving something of an R&B touch to set up the cover of Ray Charles’ “What Would I Do”.

The second side almost suggests that it began as a suite. The title track (with its “didn’t I come to give you a sense of wonder” recalling “didn’t I blow your mind this time”) is a lengthy wander through mystical territory, and he seems to have finally found his coat. The monologue near the end incorporates some references in the prose included as part of the liner notes, which have something to do with the Irish-flavored instrumental “Boffyflow And Spike”. Another cover, this time of Mose Allison’s “If You Only Knew”, was allegedly included because a musical interpretation of a Yeats poem was blocked by that estate. Which is too bad, because “Let The Slave”, a musical interpretation of a Blake poem, is fascinating. (Things must’ve been cleared up eventually, as a version of Yeats’ “Crazy Jane On God” dominated by the backing vocalists was included on the expanded CD, along with an alternate of the title track.) Finally, “A New Kind Of Man” brings the program to a close with a soulful, could’ve-been-a-hit-single if it were a different decade.

A Sense Of Wonder is a nice, inoffensive album, just on the verge of breaking through to more. Maybe he’d get the recipe right the next time. After all, he was probably going to keep making albums, right?

Van Morrison A Sense Of Wonder (1985)—3
2008 CD reissue: same as 1985, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Crosby & Nash 4: Live and Another Stoney Evening

Presumably to cash in on the reunited CSN’s success, the mustachioed majority of the triad found themselves on a live album to cash in on their time away. Crosby-Nash Live appeared only months after CSN, offering a grab bag of performances from two tours backed by the same guys keeping busy until James Taylor or Jackson Browne called. While the album does offer glimpses of a Crosby yet to be completely derailed by drugs, this duo really weren’t meant to rock. (Well, maybe Crosby, but certainly not Nash.) The best moments are the quietest ones—“Simple Man”, “Page 43”, for example—than the revved-up renditions of “I Used To Be A King”, “Lee Shore” and “Déjà Vu”, the latter of which sounds like they were trying to emulate Miles Davis (whose Bitches Brew-era recording of “Guinnevere” was still in the vaults at that time).

The best live albums show performers in their best element, or at least enhance the songs known inside and out from their studio albums. While not a complete waste of vinyl, Crosby-Nash Live doesn’t fulfill either goal.

Many years later, after their other ABC albums got the digital treatment, Crosby-Nash Live was duly remixed and remastered, and bolstered by two more Crosby performances: a welcome “Bittersweet” and the mega-rare “King Of The Mountain”, which begins with an exploratory, occasionally atonal piano solo, and continues to fight against it.

Before that, however, proof for why we should care about these guys—and why their shows were widely bootlegged in the good old days—arrived via a surprising source. Released in the late ‘90s on the Grateful Dead label, of all things, Another Stoney Evening presented a show similar but not identical to a notorious 1971 bootleg. This is “wooden music” start to finish, the boys strumming songs together and apart, some of which the crowd knew from the CSN albums and their solo albums, and some that hadn’t made it to an album yet. Therefore we here virtual premieres of “Where Will I Be”, “Stranger’s Room”, “Southbound Train” and “Immigration Man”. In-jokes aside, it’s a very intimate show, with none of the sterility of that other live album.

David Crosby/Graham Nash Crosby-Nash Live (1977)—2
2000 remastered CD: same as 1977, plus 2 extra tracks
Crosby-Nash Another Stoney Evening (1998)—

Monday, July 15, 2013


Barely a year after a Stills-Young collaboration took on Crosby and Nash, then let them go, resulting in an album apiece by each duo, as well as solo albums from Stills and Young, three of the protagonists managed to forget all that ugliness, with the speed and productivity unique to recreational cocaine users, and give the world CSN. This was only the second album proper by Crosby, Stills & Nash, and while it isn’t remotely as excellent as their modest little debut, each of the boys rises to the occasion.

To underscore the unity, every track credits vocals to “Crosby, Stills, Nash”, as if there was any doubt. Beyond that, each man contributes instrumentally to his own compositions, with Stills more often than not playing lead guitar wherever one calls for it. The rest of the backing is courtesy of various regulars from their work apart, such as Russ Kunkel, Craig Doerge, George Perry and Joe Vitale—Miami meets L.A., if you will.

Crosby was still pulling his weight at this stage, as the excellent “Shadow Captain” demonstrates atop side one. “Anything At All” seems a tad dramatic, but “In My Dreams” is more along the lines of his ruminations. Nash’s high harmony is everywhere, and his songs vary from tedious to striking. “Carried Away”, with its piano and harmonica, almost suggests Neil Young. Like “Cold Rain”, it’s slow and depressing; the same could almost be said of “Cathedral”, but here he manages to nail the dynamics and near-psychedelia. The one everybody remembers is “Just A Song Before I Go”, famously written in ten minutes.

There were five slots open for the rest of the LP, and Stills comes through fairly well. “See The Changes” was left over from three CSNY attempts previous, and has the simplest performance. “Fair Game” and “Dark Star” have just enough of those Latin touches he was starting to put on everything, but both stand out—the former for rhyming “watch” with “crotch”, and the latter for its chorus. “Run From Tears” sports a guitar intro right out of a Neil Young album, with a simple riff that sticks. Finally, “I Give You Give Blind” is stuck underneath a way-too-tense string arrangement.

CSN is a demonstration of the sum being greater than the parts, which they already kind of knew anyway. More so than anything any of them had done in a while, it’s a good album, worth revisiting.

Crosby, Stills & Nash CSN (1977)—

Friday, July 12, 2013

Ben Folds 13: Live

Not long after their reunion failed to set anything outside the hearts of diehard fans afire, Ben Folds Five continued their tradition of stopgap souvenirs with their (but not his) first live album. Live is taken from the tour supporting The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind; four of that album’s songs appear here, fitting well with the grab bag of older songs. (“Do It Anyway”, for example, transcends its irritating studio version by revealing itself as an expansion of the opening number from Jesus Christ Superstar.)

The album is compiled from several different shows, leaning heavily on San Francisco’s Warfield Theater, so the track selection seems almost random. Songs from their ‘90s heyday get plenty of response, and the boys play all with enthusiasm (“Narcolepsy” is extended to nine and a half minutes with a lengthy jazz odyssey). If there’s a dud, that would be “One Chord Blues/Billie’s Bounce”, yet another variation on “Rock This Bitch”. However, “Landed”, the only original here from the “solo” years, is a wonderful performance.

Mostly it’s a straight trio performance, with only one discernable appearance of a non-piano keyboard. And the piano isn’t so much attacked, as before (except on the closing “Song For The Dumped”); instead Ben throws his energy into wildly inventive explorations, proving that they’re more than a potty-mouthed novelty act. Or so it would seem from the performances sampled here.

Ben Folds Five Live (2013)—3

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Calexico: Spiritoso

In this day and age, there is just so much music out there that it’s nearly impossible to hear it all, making it a full-time task to stay current. Besides the handful of “artists” who are actively funded by the major labels, who are the ones pushing their product to the dwindling shelves at your local Target store, there are those performers who rely on their devoted fan bases to purchase enough of their product and see their shows to keep them stocked up on Starbucks and lentils. Their overhead is lower, so their product is manufactured in smaller quantities. (Which is then shared over the Internet anyway.)

But because they usually have, at the very least, a modicum of integrity, critics love them, so if you’re one of those people who thrives on hearing the latest best-kept secret, you’re probably not reading this blog, but you can easily find your way to a band that hasn’t been spoiled yet.

Calexico sounds like nobody else we can imagine. They’re what used to be called alternative, with strong Tex-Mex overtones, and usually accompanied by mariachi horns. Being well-rounded musicians, they’re adept at several instruments, so the horns are often swapped with various keyboards and stringed instruments. The songs are well-written and melodic, passionately sung, so while they could easily be played in other styles, but their mariachi sound is so fitting that these are probably the best way to hear them.

With big, sweeping arrangements, they’ve got a sound that could be described as “cinematic”. This is very well demonstrated on Spiritoso, a live album recorded with two different orchestras, in front of very German enthusiastic audiences. Its release was extremely limited—originally only on vinyl for the most recent Record Store Day, followed two months later with a digital download. Despite that, it’s an excellent overview of what the band does, working well within its mood. Superior samples include “Frontera/Trigger”, “The News About William”, “Quattro” and “The Vanishing Mind”; if you like those, definitely seek out others from their catalog.

Calexico Spiritoso (2013)—
Current CD availability: none; vinyl and download only

Monday, July 8, 2013

Jam 7: Dig The New Breed and Live Jam

Paul Weller finished The Jam with a farewell tour of sorts, accompanied by a live compilation. Dig The New Breed begins in 1977 with a tight version of “In The City”, then jumps to December 1979 for a trio of songs from their stint at London’s Rainbow. The bulk of the balance comes from shows in late ’81 and early ’82, when they had a horn section onstage with them.

Still, even with all the different venues and eras in their short five years, it holds together as an album. It is sequenced somewhat chronologically, but the emphasis is on songs as opposed to “live greatest hits”. While a few singles are played, many of the songs are deep album tracks, with the exception of the cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Big Bird”, an obscure Stax cut.

The original LP issue of Dig The New Breed had a unique design, with a hole in the cover to show off the special labels. It was a decent gesture, but hardly compensation for fans who were mourning the loss of their favorite band. At least the horn section doesn’t get too much in the way.

Ten years later, after Weller started releasing albums under his own name in a more guitar-based style, Polydor dug into the vaults for a few archival releases. One of these was Live Jam, not to be confused with the “Pearl” version then fascinating American youth. Half again as long as Dig The New Breed, it also doesn’t duplicate any of that album. The Rainbow in 1979 is again the source for several tracks, providing a relentless sampling from the Setting Sons era. Most of the second half includes that later horn section (and female backup singers), though Bruce gets to sing “David Watts” and they gamely inject some life into the usually robotic “Precious”. The set closes with their arrangement of “Heat Wave”, providing a nice compromise between their soul influences and the direction Weller was about to take without them.

Both albums are essential for the fan, and educational for those wondering what all the fuss about. Thankfully, the BBC had saved a few of the band’s performances, so the now-hard-to-find The Jam At The BBC delivers three discs worth of radio performances, including lengthy sets from 1978 and 1981, plus a full hour-long show from—where else?—the Rainbow in 1979.

The Jam Dig The New Breed (1982)—
The Jam
Live Jam (1993)—
The Jam
The Jam At The BBC (2002)—

Friday, July 5, 2013

Billy Joel 8: Songs In The Attic

Here was an excellent idea—a live album of pre-Stranger songs performed by his loyal band. With eleven songs chosen from concerts in clubs and hockey arenas, Songs In The Attic provides cohesion to some unwieldy tracks and illuminates some otherwise lost gems.

These aren’t drastic reinterpretations, but simply “better” versions of songs that had, for the most part, originally been comprised of studio musician contributions. His full-time band had been beating the crap out of these songs for several tours now; Phil Ramone’s production, of course, brings out the best in each of them. And by sticking with the original arrangements, curious concert-goers wouldn’t be disappointed when they went back and bought up the albums with the songs they hadn’t heard before the show. (It’s good to have catalog, although Cold Spring Harbor wasn’t widely available at the time.)

“Say Goodbye To Hollywood” certainly sounds better here, but even with that extra push, he still sings with a Ronnie Spector vibrato. Songs like “Miami 2017” and “Captain Jack” (with a nice new intro) always worked well in the concert environment, so it’s surprising for something as comparatively intricate as “Streetlife Serenader” to succeed as well as it does. Wisely, the chosen performances of “She’s Got A Way” and “You’re My Home” come from smaller clubs, but then again, so do “Everybody Loves You Now” and “Summer, Highland Falls”.

Being a live album and a quasi-hits collection, Songs In The Attic is something of a transitional stopgap, even though there was no indication he was about to change anything. As an improvement on the albums it sampled, it provides value. The original LP was a nice package, too—plenty of old photos in the gatefold, along with lyrics and extensive liner notes, paying lengthy tribute to all the guys on the road crew. Maybe he was a nice guy after all.

Billy Joel Songs In The Attic (1981)—

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 7: Born In The USA

More than a couple of years in the making, Born In The U.S.A. was an album designed to please, with each side front-loaded with upbeat rockers, only letting up for the moodier pieces that close them. Even though lyrics were included, even in the cassette that was most likely the format purchased most that year, their miniscule size made them easy to ignore, so the less-than-rosy message of such clapalongs as “Darlington County”, “Working On The Highway” and “Downbound Train” was obscured. The title track was notoriously misinterpreted, helped along by a bagpipe-like arrangement that made the words seem more defiant than the defeated tone of the demo’s Vietnam vet narrator.

Granted, a lot of these songs weren’t the ones selling the album. A whopping seven of the album’s dozen tracks were released as singles, all reaching the Billboard top ten. (In fact, if you bought each of the 45s from this album, you could have bought the album twice for the same money, but then you’d’ve missed out on the B-sides, ranging from the radio favorites “Pink Cadillac” and “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” to the live covers of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl”.)

The first of those singles was “Dancing In The Dark”, the last song written (under protest) for the album, and drenched in the synthesizers that threatened to replace the piano and organ on the other album tracks. “Cover Me” followed, accompanied by a (gasp!) dance remix. The title track sold itself, while “I’m On Fire” had the help of a moody video to match the edgy desire in the lyrics. “Glory Days” and “I’m Goin’ Down” came from the less covert second side, a couple of bar-friendly rockers, though only the former got a video. By the time “My Hometown” was released—amid a wave of singles that celebrated a “Small Town” and “Life In A Northern Town”, even though “We Built This City” and “You Belong To The City”—the album had pretty much reached saturation. The album’s low-key closer, it sounds the closest to the tone of Nebraska, which of course was the album that happened in the process of recording this one.

Of course, stations like WNEW-FM in New York City had already spent several years serving up your weekly double dose of Bruce Juice every Two-for-Tuesday, so it was inevitable that they’d wear Born In The U.S.A. out. And boy, did they. The singles and B-sides weren’t enough, so it wasn’t common to pick up “No Surrender” in their rotation. But the album’s true home run is “Bobby Jean”, one of the best send-offs to a former lover or bandmate, take your pick. (Clarence’s closing sax solo is a particular favorite.)

Today much of the album betrays that ‘80s sheen so common to mixes in those days, but it should surprise no listener that Born In The U.S.A. was massively popular, not just within driving distance of the Jersey shore, but all the way across the country and then some. It was packaged to sell, just as America was surfing a wave of patriotism of a height not seen since, arguably, the end of World War II. Its cover screamed red, white and blue, with the camera focused on Springsteen’s denim-clad ass, a red ball cap stuffed in a pocket and a white T-shirt roughly stuffed under his belt, with the stripes of Old Glory in the background. Gung-ho Reaganites didn’t even wonder if his hand was posed to suggest he might have been urinating on the flag.

Bruce Springsteen Born In The U.S.A. (1984)—

Monday, July 1, 2013

Robyn Hitchcock 20: Spooked

Having basically ceased to matter in the business outside of his miniscule fan base, Robyn found a new home on Yep Roc, a label that specialized in indie rock perpetuated by such older codgers as Nick Lowe, The Reverend Horton Heat and the guy from the Blasters. For his first missive on the label, Robyn hooked up with David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, darlings of the movement. Their influence isn’t immediately overt, but they prove to be inspired collaborators.

Spooked is another acoustic album with a green cover, mostly, many of the songs coming across as demos. “Television” is sadly not about the band but the appliance, yet rates a devoted vocal. “If You Know Time” is based around what sounds like a dulcimer, evoking something like a more tuneful Incredible String Band. But around where “Everybody Needs Love” comes in, the album threatens to sound like endless variations on “The Cheese Alarm”.

People who’ve followed Robyn this long want desperately to like him, and therefore ache for an album to thrill as much as its older siblings did in earlier decades. We wanted to root for Spooked, and display it as proof that he’s just as inventive as ever. Yet songs like “Creeped Out” come across as something he’s making up on the spot, with the barest of chords, the immediate effect is that of forced whimsy, where once he sounded more natural. Meanwhile, the lengthy cover of Dylan’s “Trying To Get To Heaven”, here given its full title with the tag “Before They Close The Door”, seems like a Major Statement, coming only a couple of years after his double-Dylan tribute set, and in full acknowledgement of his mortality. (Of course, the unique modification referring to “the dinosaur’s waiting room” shows he just has to be him.)

There are enough moments throughout, like the first couple of tracks and a few near the end (like “Full Moon In My Soul” and “Flanagan’s Song”) that actually possess melodies capable of adhering to your brain. It’s hard to imagine how Spooked might have developed from first idea through composition, refinement and recording. It seems a very arbitrary album, especially considering that the two-song bonus CD that accompanied initial orders is as good as the album it accompanied. We didn’t come around ourselves for over a decade, but when heard within the context of a decade’s worth of a lot of one-shots, the album does emerge as recommendable.

Robyn Hitchcock Spooked (2004)—3