Monday, September 30, 2013

Frank Zappa 21: Bongo Fury

Frank and Captain Beefheart had a complicated relationship going back to high school, and thanks to their work making Trout Mask Replica a reality, the latter would often find himself as a footnote to the former. Halfway through the ‘70s, following several incarnations of the Magic Band and a few albums, the Captain wound up on tour with the Mothers, and a couple of the shows were the source of the Bongo Fury album.

For the most part, the album “rocks” more than the last few, the Captain being such a blues belter and harmonica blower. But he was also a poet, so “Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top” and “Man With The Woman Head” are accompanied by beatnik jazz, or an approximation thereof. A neat little boogie riff (fitting for the Austin locale) kicks off “Debra Kedabra”, but soon gives way to a very complicated construction for the Captain’s outbursts, finding its way to a nifty riff under a repeated quote from “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Napoleon Murphy Brock was still in the band, thankfully, and he sings a great co-lead on “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy”. “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead” is a country spoof that brings to mind Jimmy Carl Black from 200 Motels; this and “200 Years Old” refer to the upcoming Bicentennial.

The city of Cucamonga looms large in Zappa history, but the song of the same title is more of a typical midtempo tune with wacky voices and a harmonica processed to sound like an accordion. It leads right into the lengthy “Advance Romance”, which is dirty in a musical way (only alluded to in the lyrics) with an extended solo section, beginning with slide guitarist Denny Walley and eventually moving to Frank. For whatever reason (most likely the metaphors) “Muffin Man” is the song that gets played on the radio, so people know it; it’s basically a spoken intro over a silent-movie piano, followed by a single riff beneath a solo, acknowledgment of the band, and the final goodbye.

What’s impressive about the album, and the others leading up to it, is that it was pretty much recorded live; even with the in-studio sweetening that likely followed, there’s no question that these bands were well-rehearsed and tight to the point of snapping. Bongo Fury is a harmless album, more a snapshot than a grand statement, and apparently not at all indicative of Captain Beefheart’s oeuvre as a whole.

Zappa/Beefheart/Mothers Bongo Fury (1975)—3

Sunday, September 29, 2013

David Crosby 2: Oh Yes I Can

After pulling the best survival stunt next to that of Keith Richards, one wants to truly root for David Crosby. The least prolific partner in the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young law firm, his comparatively miniscule output can be put down partially to years of drug addiction and subsequent incarceration. Giving only two songs to the American Dream project, one hoped that he was holding out the really good stuff for his own solo album, which arrived only 17 years after his previous one.

Unfortunately, most of the music on Oh Yes I Can would have the superfan saying, “Oh, no you don’t.” The arrangements, performed by the usual suspects, still reek of the worst ‘80s adult contemporary touches. “Drive My Car”, which had been sitting around since the previous decade, has average lyrics and showcases David Lindley in an uncharacteristic shredding frame. “Melody” sounds like a Star Search audition, but at least “Monkey And The Underdog” has some decent metaphors along the lines of “Cowboy Movie”. “In The Wide Ruin” is a pretty piano piece written by Craig Doerge and Judy Henske with nice harmonies, but hits an awful cliché when the drums kick in. (Bette Midler would have nailed this one.) Finally, “Tracks In The Dust”, a simple, slow strum performed with virtuoso “new edge” guitarist Michael Hedges and Graham Nash, is exactly what we want, and right in his wheelhouse.

Such a beautiful moment is splashed away by “Drop Down Mama”, a prime example of white man blues hollered badly. Bonnie Raitt does not contribute the dirty slide guitar to that, but she does harmonize on “Lady Of The Harbor”, a love song to the Statue of Liberty that very much predicts the sound with which she would soon take VH-1 by storm. “Distances” begins with some of those lovely wordless melodies, and while it would be better without lyrics, it does follow some of those unpredictable changes we’d been waiting for. “Flying Man” is one of those “songs with no words”, but it’s sung over a generic pop-jazz track led by Larry Carlton, making the vocals practically inconsequential. The title track does have some potential, going through inspired tempo changes, but singing “I’m sitting at my piano” while that instrument plays is just a little lazy. It’s not much better in the next verse where he’s literally sitting in his kitchen, especially considering that it’s supposed to be a declaration of commitment to his one true love. (And in case you didn’t know, “fire and ice makes water.”)

The album closes with a striking re-arrangement of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” by Michael Hedges, possibly the most political moment next to “Tracks In The Dust”, and again, underscoring just what this album could have been. Sadly, Oh Yes I Can is not a demonstration of his grand return to form.

David Crosby Oh Yes I Can (1989)—2

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Graham Nash 4: Innocent Eyes

Graham was so starved for collaboration in the mid-‘80s that he participated in a Hollies reunion, then defied all the lessons he should have learned from Stephen Stills’ recent monstrosity. The cover of Innocent Eyes may have qualified as cutting-edge computer graphics in 1986, but now it’s just a blurry mess. Speaking of which…

Take away his voice and every track sounds like it was written and recorded for an action/comedy movie soundtrack, probably on MCA. There are guitars, but they’re fighting for space with the Yamaha DX7s and Linn drums. You can hear that third world conch blowing sound that was all the rage, best associated with the opening seconds of “Sledgehammer”. And when there’s a deviation in rhythm, he relies on reggae. (Beats Latin, but still.)

There is no point in doing a track-by-track rundown, since they’re all fairly hideous. He went on the record to say that the sound was his own doing, that he hadn’t been coerced by anything other than his own desire to stay contemporary and rely on other songwriters for help. For the most part, the lyrics don’t say anything particularly profound, though “Chippin’ Away” would be revived by CSN when the Berlin Wall came down. “Glass And Steel” is a welcome departure in tempo and content, another song written in sympathy for David Crosby’s struggles of the time.

Then “I Got A Rock” steps all over everything, and we’re reminded how bad Innocent Eyes is. As ever, stripped-down arrangements might help illuminate whatever assets are in the tunes, but why bother?

Graham Nash Innocent Eyes (1986)—

Friday, September 27, 2013

Dennis Wilson: Pacific Ocean Blue

Initially hailed more for his looks than his musical ability, Dennis Wilson was nonetheless a talented individual, overshadowed by his more gifted brothers and loudmouth cousin. He was never the greatest drummer, but Brian always included him in the harmonious vocal blend of whatever he was working on. Before the end of the ‘60s, he’d even started writing songs; to everyone’s surprise, even the spottiest albums had something worth hearing from Dennis.

The boy also loved to party, and before long his voice had taken on a marked rasp; this, however, only made it seem more “soulful” (and not that different from the change Brian’s own voice started to make). During the ‘70s, when all of the official Beach Boys, touring players and all of their friends were fighting for space on the albums, Dennis often saw his songs overlooked for inclusion. So when he completed his solo album, it was as inevitable as it was surprising, seeing as none of the other Beach Boys had tried it first. More to the point, Pacific Ocean Blue holds up much better than what the band was doing around the same time.

Being the decade that it was (and the drugs he was taking) some of the songs venture dangerously near funk. Instead, he’s at his best when he’s found a decent chord sequence, the slower the better. The lyrics aren’t going to be mistaken for the great American novel, but one leaves feeling that his repeated statements of devotion are heartfelt.

“River Song” is a good opener, with some themes his big brother would appreciate. “What’s Wrong” is fairly dopey, but “Moonshine” is lush and loving. Here, as on much of the album, Dennis plays most of the instruments, as he does on the spacey intro to “Friday Night”. “Dreamer” is another “big” production, unfortunately sitting somewhere between “Rock On” and “I’m Alright” from Caddyshack, except for the middle section that channels Brian again. “Thoughts Of You” likely has a lot to why people love this album, a gorgeous meditation over major-sevenths and major-ninths with a stirring minor-key middle.

“Time” floats in on the same musical ideas that drove “Thoughts Of You” until an extended coda right off of a Chicago album. That sound could also apply to “You And I”, a single that may have been just a little too mellow for Top 40. “Pacific Ocean Blues” brings back the funk, but that’s wiped away by “Farewell My Friend”, a eulogy sadly colored by wacky synth effects, and would one day be played at his own funeral. The sadness gives way to the banjos and mandolins of “Rainbows”, leaving “End Of The Show” as an ambiguous closer.

There is a school of thought that considers Pacific Ocean Blue to be some kind of cracked masterpiece, along the lines of Berlin, Skip Spence’s Oar or other weirdo projects. As anyone who’s read thus far should be able to tell, the masterpiece tag, cracked or otherwise, isn’t readily thrown about here. (If anything, it conjures comparisons with Duff McKagan’s solo album, and that’s not meant to be complimentary to either.) But legends persist and the album was given a couple of new leases on life, first in 1991 with the rollout of the Beach Boys’ ‘70s catalog on CD, then again in 2008 with a deluxe version. In addition to outtakes, a second disc was devoted to the sessions for his unfinished follow-up, one of the songs now enhanced with vocals by Taylor Hawkins, aka the Foo Fighters drummer that wasn’t Dave Grohl.

Dennis Wilson Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)—3
2008 Legacy Edition: same as 1977, plus 21 extra tracks

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Blind Faith: Blind Faith

Weary of playing in a so-called supergroup, Clapton left Cream to form another one. But Blind Faith wasn’t a complete about-face, as Ginger Baker came along. Thus, two-thirds of Cream hooked up with Steve Winwood, late of Traffic, and Ric Grech (who played the violin on the Stones’ “Factory Girl”) to pursue Clapton’s vision of the Band, with not a little influence from Traffic. Their self-titled album was recorded fairly quickly, by today’s standards anyway.

“Had To Cry Today” beats a riff into the ground for nearly nine minutes, with lots of overlaid guitars and a nicely phased freak-out section that’s not even that freaky. However, “Can’t Find My Way Home” would become many people’s favorite campfire song, with its descending D shapes, acoustic guitars and haunting vocal. Winwood had already mastered the second-verse-same-as-the-first method on “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, making it easy for budding folksingers to memorize it. His piano finally emerges on “Well All Right”, which put some money into Buddy Holly’s estate; it would not be the last time a Clapton version would put a definite stamp on somebody else’s song. Eric himself only wrote one song on the album, but following the single-verse method of “Can’t Find My Way Home”, “Presence Of The Lord” was given to Stevie to sing, and he does, nicely. (Notably, Clapton does not take a lead vocal on the album.)

Side two starts of well with “Sea Of Joy”, a multi-part song that nicely mixes psychedelia with folk, with equal doses of guitar and organ, and even a violin solo. “Do What You Like” is much more trying; credited solely to Ginger Baker, mostly likely for the 5/4 meter, it has a couple of verses, then lets Stevie, Eric, Ric and Ginger each solo for a while. This indulgence would be said to be sadly indicative of what was wrong with the album, and would likely be skipped by most listeners not already grooving or on chemicals. The last minute of subtle cacophony, however, is about as fitting as any grand “finale”.

Blind Faith was a supergroup in a time when commercialism was considered bad form in the music business, and the album was only in stores for about a month before the band dissolved. These days it’s arguably notable for its garish cover; we much prefer the silly band photo that actually identifies the members, used on a later pressing, as shown here.

Because there was never a follow-up, collectors and fans have grasped at whatever bonus straws they could find. One of the first CDs (manufactured in Europe) had two unreleased tracks that have since been exposed as outtakes from a Ric Grech solo project, and not by Blind Faith at all. A later expanded edition proved that there wasn’t much for the band past the six songs recorded and released, and by the time they might have, they had already splintered back to their own ideas. Of those outtakes, the faster take of “Sleeping On The Ground” is of the caliber of the LP, or at least a B-side, while the electric “Can’t Find My Way Home” shows they were right to go with what they chose. (Fans of guitar improvisation and cowbell would likely drool over the four lengthy, Grech-less jams that make up the second disc.)

Blind Faith Blind Faith (1969)—4
2001 Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 9 extra tracks

Monday, September 23, 2013

Robyn Hitchcock 22: While Thatcher Mauled Britain

Yep Roc’s joy at having Robyn Hitchcock on their label came equally from having mild critical and commercial success with his new work as it did from finagling yet another revamp of his thorny catalog. Already patronized by customers into digital downloads to go with new pristine vinyl, they and he took direct aim at people resigned to buying things they already had with two box sets devoted to Robyn’s seminal (there’s that word again) ‘80s work.

The first of these, I Wanna Go Backwards, was built around three key solo albums: Black Snake Dîamond Röle, I Often Dream Of Trains and Eye. Each got new booklets and bonus tracks, some familiar, some not. But the real attraction was the two discs of demos from the ‘80s, some familiar, some not, collected under the new title While Thatcher Mauled Britain.

One of our favorite since-deleted bloggers was kind enough to break out what makes this set essential in comparison to the Rhino program of a decade earlier, but essentially the discs shuffle a bunch of selections already beloved from Invisible Hitchcock and You & Oblivion with some of the Rhino discoveries for an even more chaotic listening experience. One’s enjoyment of these depends on the listener (and how many copies they already had) but chances are everyone went straight for the never-before heard stuff. Not all of it would have been better off unheard.

“Melting Arthur” does a lot with a simple melody, and “Parachutes & Jellyfish” is one of his better Syd Barrett impressions. “Lightplug” is something of an ancestor to “Wafflehead”, and “You’re So Repulsive” has better verses than the chorus of the title. As for the more familiar stuff, a jaunty acoustic “Flesh Number 1” has no Glenn Tilbrook but does boast Peter Buck. There’s even a live version of “Dr. Sticky”. An earlier, more primitive performance of “The Abandoned Brain” helps keep things different; the same keyboard is used for “Opiatrescence”, which is worth the wait. Likewise, it’s surprising that he never did anything else with “Lovely Golden Villians” or “Toadboy”. And after a couple of hours’ worth of spooky acoustic music, “I Wanna Go Backwards” provides some electricity to close the set.

So there’s a lot of music crammed into this set, and hardcore Hitchcock fans need it all (again). Still, one can’t help wishing the all-new stuff could have been made available in their own tidy little package, because really, did they expect a whole crop of new fans to discover him for the first time here?

Robyn Hitchcock I Wanna Go Backwards (2007)—

Friday, September 20, 2013

Billy Joel 10: An Innocent Man

So Billy Joel managed to fall in requited love with supermodel Christie Brinkley, giving hope to short dog-faced guys everywhere. His happiness spurred his next genre experiment; where The Nylon Curtain was rightfully called Beatlesque, An Innocent Man was anything but, taking inspiration from the R&B and soul music that dominated the charts before the British Invasion.

His joy was infectious, as six of the album’s ten tracks were hit singles. At the risk of playing out a game of Spot the Influence, not everything on the album was as overt as “Uptown Girl”, which aped the Four Seasons, or “The Longest Time”, which brought a cappella doo-wop back to the radio. It helped that the songs could stand on their own. “Tell Her About It” was the first hit, spurred by a cute video complete with an Ed Sullivan impersonator and a cameo by Rodney Dangerfield (right around the time when his movie Easy Money came out, the title song of which happened to be the opening track on the album at hand). “Leave A Tender Moment Alone” helped revive the popularity of Toots Thielemans, whose harmonica would find its way to another Phil Ramone production a year later when Julian Lennon had a hit with “Too Late For Goodbyes”. Even the title track, a smooth pastiche of the Drifters that ran over five minutes, got airplay.

The woman who started it all got only one namecheck on the album, though “Christie Lee” is not exactly a highlight. “This Night” uses the vintage gimmick of borrowing from the classics—in this case, Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique—for the chorus, rendering that melody impervious to any other connotation. “Careless Talk” gets closer to the Sam Cooke style, but unfortunately, Billy is no Steve Perry. The one song that comes off the most contemporary is “Keeping The Faith”, which limits the nostalgia references to the lyrics, and effectively closes the album.

An Innocent Man had a lot of legs, with those hit singles carrying the album well into the following year. Being more pop than rock, it didn’t help his standing on the AOR stations, but Top 40 ate it up. And of course, being able to show off his girlfriend in his videos ensured that even the kids listening to Rush and Def Leppard looked forward to seeing him on MTV.

Billy Joel An Innocent Man (1983)—

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 9: Tunnel Of Love

People who’d jumped on the red, white and blue bandwagon in the wake of Born In The U.S.A. might have been surprised by Bruce’s next album. While he swore up and down that it was not autobiographical, Tunnel Of Love was certainly influenced by his recent marriage. Even though the lyrical matter was still arguably about the trials and tribulations of the workin’ man, these dealt more with emotional matters last heard on The River.

The songs were composed and recorded in the same fashion as Nebraska, but access to better equipment made it easy to imagine that whatever he crafted in his garage might suffice as product one day. The E Street Band made the roll call on the sleeve, but their contributions to the album were minimal; in fact, there wasn’t even a Clarence Clemons solo anywhere.

Those fearing another stark Son of Nebraska would have been calmed by “Ain’t Got You”, a one-chord Bo Diddley knock-off that shakes the cobwebs off pretty well. “Tougher Than The Rest” introduces the keyboards that bed most of the tracks, and along with “All That Heaven Will Allow” provides a pair of would-be classics. Then, as several besotted critics noted at the time, the roof falls in. While “The River” famously included a plot twist that would be too racy for prime time TV, “Spare Parts” is even more explicit about Bobby and Janey’s situation. Despite the production, it’s a very bleak song, though the chorus, which provides the title, is little more than a placeholder. “Cautious Man” could well be a character from Nebraska, only this fellow’s demons are far from psychotic. And if it ever becomes tradition for a groom to dance with his own father at a wedding reception, “Walk Like A Man” would be the ideal choice for the song.

Side one has its moments, for certain, but side two is stacked with the hits that make the album a keeper. The title track, supposedly the last song recorded for the project, sums up the theme of the album with an excellent metaphor, along with an excellent swirling arrangement and a terrific wordless bridge. (As a further portent, Patti Scialfa howls along with the rides in the background.) “Two Faces” addresses the dichotomy hinted at in “Cautious Man”, but in a more creative way, culminating in a gloriously cheesy organ solo. And while those same suspended chords that started in “My Hometown” and popped up whenever he touched a synthesizer are still here, “Brilliant Disguise” is one of his best, most concise songs, with an excellent hook and garbled lyrics that inspire all kinds of interpretation (not least of which, “the wee wee hours” still suggests what gets every man with an aging prostate out of bed in the middle of the night). “One Step Up” builds from blues clichés (“woke up this morning”, “bird on a wire”) and uses another as its hook, but it’s still a haunting little tune, and one of his more understated singles. After all the doubt that has gone before, “When You’re Alone” comes off as something of a threat, but the devotion of “Valentine’s Day” leaves us thinking that this marriage can yet be saved.

In the tri-state area, anything he did was news, and frankly, this was the first album of his non-believers like us actually enjoyed—mostly because it didn’t sound like Born In The U.S.A., and because so many of the bandwagon jumpers seemed to be averse to it. Still, it was a hit, helped along by the usual videos. A decent drum machine (for the time) made the songs radio-friendly, but those same drums and keyboards unfortunately box some of the tracks into an ‘80s straightjacket. That aside, the songs are excellent, and go a long way to proving that he wasn’t just the denim-clad cartoon with a bandana that had captured the world’s attention just a short time before.

Bruce Springsteen Tunnel Of Love (1987)—4

Monday, September 16, 2013

Van Morrison 19: Poetic Champions Compose

And on he went, like clockwork. Poetic Champions Compose expands on the dreamy feel of the last album, but edging closer toward what was being called New Age. There’s another prominent touch—sax. Van plays a lot of alto sax here, particularly on the three instrumentals that start each side and end the second. (Bryter Layter anyone?)

The opener, “Spanish Steps”, is absolutely stunning, even if you didn’t know it was him playing. Basically a lush slow jazz in a minor key, it’s very melodic, even through the sped-up section in the middle. “The Mystery” picks up that familiar melody from “Country Fair”, adding a swirling string arrangement for an Irish feel. Even better is “Queen Of The Slipstream”, whoever that is. Once again the strings threaten to take over the track, which probably kept it off radio, but it follows the tradition of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, and even gives the album its title. “I Forgot That Love Existed” is built around a bubbling bass line, with the synthesizers making the band sound larger than it is. That and a new arrangement of the traditional spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” take up space, but the former is redeemed by, again, his sax.

“Celtic Excavation” begins side two with a vaguely Oriental melody, but soon follows into another lush instrumental, setting up “Someone Like You”, a song that launched a million rom-com soundtracks. “Alan Watts Blues” more than namechecks that modern philosopher, and is catchy enough to overcome the obscurity in the lyrics. Just as snappy and obscure is “Give Me My Rapture”. A little sax noodling leads into “Did Ye Get Healed”, soon slathered in a Bacharach-style arrangement with horns and ladies’ vocals. It twirls around into another well-placed sax solo, then quiets itself to the end where a woman with a distinct brogue asks the musical question of the title. Finally, “Allow Me” gives the spotlight to trumpet and piano to follow Van’s own theme.

Normally we’re not big fans of saxophones, but when it’s used well, as it is all over Poetic Champions Compose, it does serve to add color rather than ketchup. While it’s not as consistent as his previous album was wonderful, it’s still a nice, inoffensive album. And of course, the cover photo of the grumpiest man in the world is just plain priceless.

Van Morrison Poetic Champions Compose (1987)—

Friday, September 13, 2013

Cream 4: Goodbye

While not as obvious a moniker as the totally fake The Beatles Break Up in Mark Shipper’s revisionist history of that band (which, sadly, we can’t find a web link to demonstrate), Goodbye’s title and matching artwork (silly suits on the front, song titles on tombstones in the gatefold) didn’t leave any conjecture about the band’s future in the wind, having done a farewell tour the previous fall. Three songs from that tour make up two thirds of the album—a lengthy “I’m So Glad”, and so-so explorations on two songs from the album before.

In further democratic fashion, each of the remaining three tracks was contributed by each member, of varying quality. The first is the best—the classic “Badge”, co-written by Clapton and George Harrison, coming in under two minutes fifty like a good single should. It’s got everything: tension in the verses, an infectious bridge, distinct but pointless lyrics, and just enough piano and Mellotron to give it color. Even Jack Bruce keeps it simple on that intro. Jack then puts on a truly cartoonish voice for “Doing That Scrapyard Thing”, complete with a vaudeville piano fighting for space against the Leslie guitar. The music for “What A Bringdown” is credited to Ginger Baker—a rhythm that will reappear soon enough—while the track itself is a self-fulfilling prophecy, with vocals traded by the other two guys.

If they wanted to add more value, whoever was in charge could have included the previous fall’s flop single “Anyone For Tennis”, a strange little trifle that would have weighed the album too much on Eric (or maybe he was already embarrassed by it). It has shown up on the occasional CD reissue, but it really doesn’t add much. It pains us to rate this album so low, but as great as “Badge” is, the rest of Goodbye hints that they just couldn’t be bothered. It’s too bad, because when they were good, they were very, very good.

Cream Goodbye (1969)—2

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Crash Test Dummies: The Ghosts That Haunt Me

Before they wore out their welcome with a hit about a bunch of kids overcoming physical deformities and other discomforts, Crash Test Dummies were a quirky Canadian folk band, driven by acoustic guitars and colored by banjos, mandolins, violins, accordions, pennywhistles and harmonicas. They were also led by Brad Roberts, a singer with an extremely deep voice that could rattle a storm window, and offset by the sweeter alto harmonies of Ellen Reid.

While that hit (with the radio-friendly title of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”) drove sales of their second album, their debut paved the way with a sad little song about comic book heroes. “Superman’s Song” lineated the differences between the titular character and Tarzan, proving that everybody has their place, and we should appreciate them for what they are. Kinda like the children in that later hit.

If you can get past his voice, and most can’t, there are some fine songs on The Ghosts That Haunt Me. “Winter Song”, “The Country Life” and “The Voyage” express a desire to get back to basics, with or without his sweetheart by his side, while “Here On Earth (I’ll Have My Cake)” and the title track concern themselves with existential musings on life versus death—all delivered in toe-tapping style, with the exception of “At My Funeral”, which wisely takes a slower pace.

The other tracks fit well; “Thick-Necked Man” even rocks, with plenty of electric guitar and a snotty chorus. A clever version of the Replacements’ “Androgynous” is hardly the obvious choice for a cover, but the winner of the album is easily “The Bereft Man’s Song (Comin’ Back Soon)” and its classic couplet: “I can’t stand her goddamned friends/But I will tolerate them, even though I hate them.”

Produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos for a fresh, timeless sound, The Ghosts That Haunt Me was easily overlooked when it came out, and likely to be shunned by association today. But it still manages to exude a charm that can only be done so by people who have yet to grate on the public at large. In fact, take out Ellen Reid, add louder guitars and a couple of whiny fat guys, and they might as well have been Barenaked Ladies.

Crash Test Dummies The Ghosts That Haunt Me (1991)—

Monday, September 9, 2013

Bad Company 2: Straight Shooter

Smart guys with smarter management, Bad Company’s second album is mostly a reiteration of the first, lacking only, believe it or not, variety. Straight Shooter doesn’t screw around with experimentation, going right to the wallets of the kids lucky enough to drive to school with 8-track players in their dashboards.

Because it’s the law, the rocker starts off the first side. “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad” has all the ingredients of “Can’t Get Enough”, from the catchy riff, strict verse-chorus-repeat format and hanging ending. Unfortunately, side one also features two of the most tediously inane songs ever, probably playing on some Clear Channel station before lunch. If somebody can figure out a decent mashup of this particular “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and the Roberta Flack song, the planet may yet be saved. Simon Kirke gets credit for “Weep No More”, which sounds shorter than it is, using strings to add drama. It’s a nice surprise the first time, since up next is the cautionary tale of Johnny, the one and only “Shooting Star”. We’d like to think these rock veterans knew just how fleeting and fickle fame could be, but that’s suggesting they were thinking about it. If the song has a saving grace, it’s the last couple of minutes where Paul Rodgers veers from the lyrics to wail along with the solo. (As dumb as the song is, it didn’t stop Joe Jackson from writing his own story of Johnny, followed a year later by Jon Bon Jovi using the same title.)

“Deal With The Preacher” is a welcome return to locomotive rock, filtering the style of “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad” to come up with another ready-made hit, but that’s about it for the true toe-tappers. “Wild Fire Woman” is fine while it’s one, but is just too generic to stick. “Anna” is another slow one from Simon Kirke, and nobody told him that the opening rips off Joe Cocker’s version of “With A Little Help From My Friends”. Somehow “Call On Me” deserved six minutes of time to close out the side.

We shouldn’t be too tough on the album, as it was recorded only months after the first one. Straight Shooter delivers bona fide stupid rock, and sometimes that’s just what one needs. And there are people out there who still get a thrill from hearing “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Shooting Star”. But the band was capable of more than that, or so it would seem.

Forty years later, the album was remastered, which brought out some nuances otherwise lost on the radio. The Deluxe Edition provided alternate mixes and/or takes of every song on the album—“Call On Me” and the slower “Weep No More” are surprisingly good—plus such outtakes as yet another stab at “Easy On My Soul” and two otherwise unreleased songs. “See The Sunlight” is heavy on organ, Leslie guitar and slide, while “All Night Long” is a little too generic, with a riff used better in “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad”. For completeness’ sake, the B-side “Whiskey Bottle” closes the package.

Bad Company Straight Shooter (1975)—3
2015 Deluxe Edition: same as 1975, plus 15 extra tracks

Friday, September 6, 2013

Bob Dylan 55: Another Self Portrait

Early on in his career, engineers on Bob Dylan sessions learned to just keep the tape rolling and catch everything, which has only fueled the hobbies of people who have spent a lifetime tracking down any and all Dylan recordings they can find. So when something turns up that nobody has ever, and we mean ever, heard before, that’s a big deal.

For the most part, each of the installments in his official, ongoing Bootleg Series have been illuminating, and once again, the compilers have come up with music that’s never actually been bootlegged. Another Self Portrait takes on a contentious period in history; specifically, the “lost years” that began with the surprising Nashville Skyline, continued with the confounding Self Portrait, followed by the misleading New Morning, and capped by the improperly named Greatest Hits Vol. II. The easy thing would have been to follow the “naked” trend and do a rejigged Self Portrait, stripped of all the overdubs, along with the tracks from the even worse Dylan. Instead, they’ve gone back to the original sessions to present a clearer picture of what was really going on when the album came together: Bob, accompanied by David Bromberg and Al Kooper, going through a bunch of folk songs, and occasionally trying out the few originals he’d piled up of late.

While those originals were few, he still put his all into the covers that did spring from his mouth. He apparently adored a song called “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”, a third variation appearing here (the only only tie-in to the Dylan album, which speaks volumes). The unadorned takes of “Wigwam”, “Days Of 49”, “Copper Kettle” and “Belle Isle” bring out further charms, while the same treatment given both “Little Sadie”s is subjective. There’s even a third “Alberta”, but sadly, “All The Tired Horses” is still just acoustic guitar with women singing. Simple songs like “Pretty Saro” and “Thirsty Boots”, unheard until now, give weight to the revisionist view that Self Portrait was both an extension of the Americana explorations of The Basement Tapes as well as a precursor to Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong (and indeed, Dylan did some sessions with Bromberg in the same era as those albums, as heard on Tell Tale Signs). But even if he’d released the unadorned cuts back then, the album still would have been panned as being “unrepresentative”, so there.

At the same time, we can still think he chose to make New Morning an all-original antidote, given the evidence in more ornate and/or heavier mixes of “Time Passes Slowly”, “New Morning”, and “Sign On The Window”, all wisely left aside then but welcome today. Neither of the two songs included from the day George Harrison spent in the studio with him are very revealing, except from a novelty point of view; at least they sound like they’re having fun. But demos of “Went To See The Gypsy” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” sport lyrical variations, while a solo-piano-with-violin version of “If Not For You” might be his best one of all. And who knew “If Dogs Run Free” once had a chorus? (Seven years later, the all-original theory was punctured by another catalog excavation of sorts, proving we know nothing.)

To fill in some of the space, “Only A Hobo” is the only other song re-recorded with the Basement batch for the 1971 hits album. Not only are there two more songs from the Isle of Wight and two alternate takes from Nashville Skyline, but a never-before-heard “Minstrel Boy”, purportedly from Big Pink itself, had us drooling for more unheard Basement Tapes.

There’s certainly enough on Another Self Portrait to keep the mildly obsessive Dylan fan busy. In some ways it does an equal disservice to the original album, as we’d like to hear the rest of the songs without all the overdubs. Those who shelled out the extra bucks for the deluxe version got a remastered Self Portrait disc to contrast and compare where applicable, plus more enticingly, the complete Isle of Wight show, in excellent sound. His voice slips back and forth between the new croon and the raspier shout, but he’s already started to play with the arrangements of his best-known songs, such as the curious wander through “It Ain’t Me Babe” and an almost honky-tonk “One Too Many Mornings”. We get to hear how John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline might have sounded with the Band, but the highlight is his lovely solo rendition of “Wild Mountain Thyme”.

Bob Dylan Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (2013)—

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Stephen Stills 9: Right By You

The cover of Stephen Stills’ only solo album of the ‘80s depicts what appears to be some kind of crazy angled rocket, alongside futuristic lettering. Those who took the time to flip it and see the back cover will see that it’s actually some kind of racing boat. Right By You is a nearly perfect representation of his misguided narcissism, every note a gem, every song a masterpiece. Of course, one has to be Stephen Stills to buy that.

We don’t know anyone who’s heard this album, much less owns it, so we have no idea whether the electronic drums that saturate all but the last two tracks sounded this awful in 1984. It should go without saying, yet we’ll say it anyway, that the percussion combines with the period keyboards and Latin rhythms for a truly aggravating listening experience. Lionel Richie could get away with these arrangements, and we’re not saying that in a bad way.

The same accomplices appear, like George Perry and Joe Lala, alongside other unrecognizable names. Graham Nash sings prominent harmonies, most frustratingly on a reworking of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” that didn’t really need another verse from Stephen’s hand. Mike Finnegan’s synth and soulful vocals on “Can’t Let Go” make an odd duet better suited to a female partner or a soap opera tie-in. Chris Hillman appears with cohort Herb Pedersen on a bluegrass version of an antiwar folk song. But the most striking guest is Jimmy Page, whose processed sound distracts from the horror on three tracks.

There just might be a good album buried under Right By You, which actually marked his return to Atlantic Records. In the absence of a reunited, rejuvenated CSN, maybe they figured it was an easy tax write-off.

Stephen Stills Right By You (1984)—

Monday, September 2, 2013

Cream 3: Wheels Of Fire

Rock was getting excessive, and while it was only their third album, Cream decided to make it a double, with two sides of studio recordings and two others of live performances. Wheels Of Fire continues their explorations of psychedelia and blues, with striking results.

Jack Bruce takes lead vocals on nearly every song on the studio half, with Eric Clapton mostly limited to guitar. Still, the two of them leave their mark on “White Room”, a showcase for descending riffs and wah-wah, though what makes the song stand out are the violas on the intro, played by producer Felix Pappalardi. “Sitting On Top Of The World” was a blues standard played pretty much by everybody, including the Grateful Dead. Things start to get weird on “Passing The Time”; the intro doesn’t reappear in the track, the verse suggests a sinister nursery rhyme, and the chorus is about as fuzzy as can be. Jack completely takes over on “As You Said”, playing all the acoustic guitar and string bass, following his own Eastern vocal through a Leslie speaker.

Side two picks up the challenge with “Pressed Rat And Warthog”, another goofy children’s verse recited by Ginger Baker, heralded by trumpet and flute. (We’ve yet to clarify whether the closed-down shop selling atonal apples and amplified heat is a Beatles reference.) The blues come back for “Politician”, a twisted variation on “Born Under A Bad Sign”, which had only been recorded for the first time a few months earlier by Albert King. In between, “Those Were The Days” revives some of the mythological whimsy of Disraeli Gears, all the while defying a straight meter. “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” is a driving track, with more furious acoustic strumming and a nice counterpoint in the interludes.

Clapton finally takes a lead vocal on the live disc, and it’s not a stretch to say that the four minutes of “Crossroads” are the highlight of what’s already a pretty decent album, and excellent in its economy. Following that, it’s easy to lose focus for the 16 minutes of “Spoonful”, since it would appear both Clapton and Bruce are soloing simultaneously. “Traintime” is fine if you like a guy accompanying himself on harmonica, but Ginger manages to keep up. If you think that’s indulgent, you might not want to sit through “Toad”, but as drum solos go, it’s one of the more palatable ones, even at 16 minutes.

There’s a lot of music on Wheels Of Fire, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that the studio half plus “Crossroads” would have been sufficient on their own. But apparently the band was already thinking about moving on, so just as The Beatles decided to load up their albums to satisfy contractual obligations, Cream’s time wasn’t long.

Cream Wheels Of Fire (1968)—