Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Frank Zappa 22: Zoot Allures

Hindsight shows us that this was a transitional period for Frank. Henceforth all of his albums would be under his name, as opposed to rotating with some permutation of the Mothers. He was also suing his managers and record companies, so that put a lot of projects, already vulnerable to that day’s X-acto knife, in continual change.

The cover of Zoot Allures is misleading, since it depicts Frank and newest drummer Terry Bozzio alongside two guys who aren’t even on the album. The tracks themselves come from a small handful of sources; unfortunately, some incredible music is crammed between (or beneath) some vocals that are truly uncomfortable to endure.

“Wind Up Workin’ In A Gas Station” is a silly song, with that conceptual continuity to make it appear significant. The vocals are split between a falsetto and a “German” accent for added mystery. Luckily, it soon fades for “Black Napkins”, one of Frank’s best solos. It’s only four minutes long, which is too bad, since the next track is more than twice that. From a studious standpoint, “The Torture Never Stops” could be taken as another piece of social commentary, delivered in the up close ‘n personal voice he’d debuted on Over-Nite Sensation, over a slowwwww Bozzio beat and Frank on everything else (guitars, electric piano, bass). As a track it’s mesmerizing, and somewhere out there must be a mix of the song without the prominent female moans (allegedly recorded during a threesome, and used here to blur the line between pleasure and pain). When critics call Frank a misogynist with a sadistic streak, this is their ammunition. It doesn’t help that he follows it up with “Ms. Pinky”, a tribute to a sex doll that both the Police and Roxy Music did way better.

“Find Her Finer” is a fairly generic stroll in the same vein, driven by what was probably (for the time) a unique synth bass effect. This meanders along until the tentative introduction for “Friendly Little Finger”, in which a guitar solo is synchronized with an altogether different drum track. A brass arrangement of “Bringing In The Sheaves” sets up “Wonderful Wino”, which had loomed in the background for about six years; while folks might like that guitar tone, this is not the best version of the song. However, the instrumental title track is a truly marvelous piece of mystery, sadly fading into “Disco Boy”, built around a rhythm box and a “doody” motif. (It was something of a hit, naturally.)

It’s becoming tiresome to say—and it’s not going to be a popular opinion in this case—but Zoot Allures is another of those Zappa albums that just misses being worthwhile. With more instrumental tracks like “Black Napkins”, “Friendly Little Finger” and “Zoot Allures” in place of the vocals, it could have been another Hot Rats or Waka/Jawaka. Archeologically, it did point Frank toward the possibilities of generating product out of guitar solos, and showed him a new way to create something from other somethings.

Frank Zappa Zoot Allures (1976)—

Monday, October 28, 2013

Traffic 4: John Barleycorn Must Die

Steve Winwood is often associated with keyboards, but those who paid enough attention to Traffic and Blind Faith would have heard him on guitar as well. So it wasn’t altogether surprising that after Blind Faith stopped, he would start recording all by himself. (After all, Paul McCartney was doing it around the same time.)

Halfway through the process he decided that the songs needed a little something extra, so he called his old colleagues Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood to add drums and winds. That was all it took to turn John Barleycorn Must Die into a full-fledged Traffic album, less than two years after they’d split. Even without the psychedelia that cloaked their earlier work, it still evokes an aural image of guys playing in a room somewhere, probably in a house.

Side one is a contender for the title of Perfect Album Side. “Glad” lands on the front step with a thud, the piano dancing over its riff for eight bars, then stepping for the sax, coming back eight bars later. And back and forth they go, the sax even finding a wah-wah pedal along the way. The last two minutes are a little exploratory, a harbinger of the future if you will. All the time the song always seems on the verge of having lyrics, but that doesn’t happen until after “Freedom Rider” and its glum saxophone kicks in. The words are beyond our comprehension, but that doesn’t keep you from trying to sing along. A neat little transition quotes from “Glad”, giving way to a dual flute solo that brings to mind a more restrained Jethro Tull. Steve’s piano pounds away over the coda, and it all tumbles down into “Empty Pages”. This happy-sounding song is apparently about writer’s block, disguised as a love song. Or something.

The second side has a lot to live up to. “Stranger To Himself” is Winwood alone, except for a few bars of Capaldi harmony. It shows his able skills at arranging, playing the guitar off the piano, as well as the drums. There’s even a pretty dirty lead guitar all the way through. Then things slow way, way down. “John Barleycorn”, as explained on the cover, is an extended interpretation of an old English folk song about alcohol. Played on a high-capoed acoustic, its verses circle and circle under a flute, to the point where the story gets denser and denser. Finally, “Every Mother’s Son” has just enough Hammond to supply the “majestic” tag. It’s another mostly one-man performance, and our favorite part is when the drums forget to keep playing during the organ solo.

John Barleycorn Must Die arrived right about when English folk was getting an electric renaissance, and fits well alongside other Island artists of the time. But despite those rustic touches, there’s a thick coat of jazz, combining for one excellent rock album. The band was off to a fresh new start.

As with many classic albums, what they put out was what they had, and reissues haven’t brought forth anything forgotten from the sessions. The first (UK-only) upgrade added some live tracks and two brief session outtakes; the US version included only the outtakes. The Deluxe Edition had neither outtake, and used different live tracks, filling up the space with alternate mixes. It’s a good argument for preserving the original as it was.

Traffic John Barleycorn Must Die (1970)—
2001 remastered CD: same as 1970, plus 2 extra tracks
2011 Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 10 extra tracks

Friday, October 25, 2013

Jimi Hendrix 15: BBC Sessions

Like most hungry London-based performers, The Jimi Hendrix Experience made multiple appearances on the BBC’s handful of radio shows that focused on current pop music. And like most people who went on to be world-famous, many of those performances were spread around via bootlegs until legitimate releases happened.

The first such release occurred during Rykodisc’s brief affiliation with the Estate. Radio One presented 17 tracks, split between hits and more unique performances. Ten years later, once the “family” gained control, an expanded double-disc set more directly titled BBC Sessions presented virtually everything he recorded for the station, presented in a not-quite-chronological order to cut down on repetition.

As with most BBC collections, the fanatics will have lots to pick apart, while the more casual fan will gravitate towards markedly alternate versions of songs they know, along with those that are, well, new. Of those rarities, how about his one-time-only cover of Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” That comes from a show hosted by British blues legend Alexis Korner, who also plays slide with the band on “Hoochie Coochie Man”. “Driving South” was an excuse to jam, and three versions appear here. The blues chestnut “Catfish Blues” appears in its first known performance, complete with a nod to “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, as does “Hear My Train A-Comin’”, in two takes (one with “party” noises, the other with “support” vocals). He even composed a “Radio One Theme”. Of course, one must take the good with the bad, so while his funky arrangement of “Hound Dog” has merit, the overdubbed barking makes it one to skip. Better backing vocals are on their cover of “Day Tripper”, which does not include John Lennon, no matter what anybody tells you. However, that is Stevie Wonder playing drums on the extended jam that leads into his own “I Was Made To Love Her”.

Most tracks come from a very busy 1967, when the band played a lot of shows and had the tightness to prove their worth. Jimi was able to create his own pyrotechnics without the multitracking that would soon dominate his regular studio work. Thus “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp” is a simpler trio version, without all the decorations the single/album track got.

Of historical importance, the set ends with the band’s notorious performance on the Lulu TV show, when they cut short “Hey Joe” (which had been requested by the hostess herself) to go into “Sunshine Of Your Love” in “tribute” to the recently disbanded Cream, who’d written the song with Jimi in mind in the first place. And it’s just as well, since there are two other, similar takes on “Hey Joe” elsewhere in the set.

Because the BBC never saved anything, the sound quality is a little muddy, and the tweaking modern-day producers took to make the set less mono doesn’t help. But as a companion to the three true Experience albums, and in balance with the post-Experience recordings we’ll get to soon enough, BBC Sessions is a worthy addition to the Hendrix pile.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience Radio One (1988)—
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
BBC Sessions (1998)—4
2010 reissue: same as 1998, plus 1 extra track

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ginger Baker: Air Force

After Blind Faith imploded, Eric Clapton took solace by sitting in with the Plastic Ono Band and then Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. Ginger Baker saw no reason to stop, and convinced Steve Winwood and Ric Grech to stick around for an even bigger supergroup. Denny Laine, who hadn’t really done anything since singing “Go Now” with the Moody Blues, was brought along to support Winwood on vocals and guitar. Chris Wood from Traffic, Baker’s old boss Graham Bond, and Donovan sideman Harold McNair made up the horn section, while Nigerian drummer Remi Kabaka and Baker’s instructor Phil Seamen filled in the back line. Jeanette Jacobs of the girl group the Cake, who happened to be married to Chris Wood, provided helpful harmonies. The conglomerate was dubbed Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and shows were immediately booked.

The band’s second gig, at the Royal Albert Hall, was recorded by producer Jimmy Miller, and released mere months later as a double album with cover art resembling an inside-out Wheels Of Fire. (The American labels kindly credited vocals and instrumental solos where applicable.) Ginger opens the proceedings by warning the audience that they are about to hear some “very strange numbers.” The first of these is “Da Da Man”, credited to McNair, that stirs up an almost Santana-like frenzy over seven minutes. Winwood leads the singing on “Early In The Morning”, which seems to predict Traffic’s future. He also provides the vocals (with Jeanette) for the meter-challenged “Don’t Care”, which seems to go off the rails anytime the horns try a key change. “Toad” isn’t immediately recognizable as the players start it in a minor key and don’t really follow the original melody, but since we’re here for the drums, that becomes moot.

After 13 spellbinding minutes of Kabaka’s “Aiko Biaye”, Denny leads a horribly out-of-tune slog through “Man Of Constant Sorrow” that’s thankfully under four minutes. “Do What You Like” is well received; the horns attempt a few key changes and Ginger soon leaves behind the other percussionists to solo completely alone to the crowd’s delight. Ginger introduces the band members, and they go out with a jam called “Doin’ It”, credited to Baker and Grech, which ends with a reprise of “Do What You Like”.

Given the number of people and instruments on the stage, Ginger Baker’s Air Force is understandably muddy in places, but holds together well. This is especially astounding considering the pharmaceutical habits of certain band members, several of whom would be dead within a few years.

Winwood wasn’t planning on sticking around after the Albert Hall anyway, and by the time Ginger Baker’s Air Force 2 was recorded—this time in the studio—most of the band was different. The other drummers were gone, replaced by “Speedy” Acquaye on “African percussion”. Grech and Laine were on some tracks, as was Harold McNair, but two other horn and flute players dominated, as did two or three females who sang in unison. While it also featured a backwards cover, just like the live album, it simply doesn’t keep the momentum going, even over two sides.

Graham Bond is still here, and he bellows the songs that bookend the set: Pops Staples’ “Let Me Ride” and his own “12 Gates Of The City”. The ladies dominate a cover of Cream’s “Sweet Wine”, which opens like a Christmas song, “Do U No Hu Yor Phrenz R?”, which cruelly fades out and back in, and “We Free Kings”, which sports a laundry list of strange imagery in Ginger’s accent but not his voice. Denny revives “I Don’t Want To Go On Without You” from his Moody days, while “Toady” is a retread of the drum solo with insipid lyrics added. (Some countries sported an alternate track order with different tracks from the same sessions, including an unnecessary cover of “Sunshine Of Your Love”, the island lilt of Harold McNair’s “Caribbean Soup”, another song each from Laine and Grech, and an alternate of “We Free Kings” that more directly copies the Xmas song. These can be heard on the currently streaming version of the album, if you must.)

Both Air Force albums have been in and out of print over the years, but this was slightly rectified by 1998’s Do What You Like compilation, which augmented the standard versions of the two with two singles plus Baker’s 1972 album Stratavarious, which took his African interests even further via collaboration with Fela Kuti. (The tracks from the “other” version of the second album were not included.) The first album is still easier to digest.

Ginger Baker’s Air Force Ginger Baker’s Air Force (1970)—3
Ginger Baker’s Air Force
Ginger Baker’s Air Force 2 (1970)—2

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Allman Brothers 1: The Allman Brothers Band

A common misconception, which we admit to holding for some time, is that the Allman Brothers Band fit into the category of “Southern rock”. The truth is that bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, and the Marshall Tucker Band took the basic template of swamp living, dirt roads, and Confederate flags to another level, spawning any number of rednecks equally defensive of the Stars & Stripes as they are the flag atop the General Lee. Somehow, Kid Rock became a beacon of authenticity, turning his failed white rap identity into that of a yokel pimp unable to wash his hair, grow a full beard, or stay away from a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner. But we digress.

While there are a few songs in their catalog that fit easily alongside “Free Bird”, “Can’t You See”, and other pickup truck anthems, the Allman Brothers Band were foremost a blues outfit that used jazz and psychedelia to color and expand the twelve-bar, three-chord format. Their self-titled debut demonstrates this ably on song after song.

The opening blast of “Don’t Want You No More” works as something of an overture, beginning with one door-slamming theme into another groove, and just when you think the vocals might kick in, it slows and shifts into the next track. “It’s Not My Cross To Bear” introduces the growl of Gregg Allman, not yet 22 but already spinning reels of sound from both the Hammond organ and his own throat. (Duane Allman gets most of the accolades for his slide guitar work, but some of the most exciting parts of the album are when he and Dickie Betts combine for harmonic riffs and solos.) “Black Hearted Woman” is another basic blues, except that the intro’s in 7/4 and most of the chords are complicated ninths. The Muddy Waters classic “Trouble No More” gets a definitive reading, with even an acoustic guitar expertly mixed in the sound picture.

“Every Hungry Woman” begins side two with a funky riff, before getting dangerously close to generic blues. Thankfully, it’s also a decent demonstration of the two drummers, and the next two songs lift the band above boring anybody. “Dreams” is a psychedelic shuffle in waltz time, spinning over the simplest ideas like the stream the boys are shown posing nekkid in on the gatefold. But the true climax is “Whipping Post”. Berry Oakley’s bass establishes the riff in 11/8 for the band to follow. The verses follow a standard meter, but it’s the instrumental parts, the real architecture, that make this such a mesmerizing performance that would only grow onstage.

At only 33 minutes, The Allman Brothers Band can seem occasionally slight, but each of the tracks succeeds, as if they’d been playing together for years. The album has a vibrant, live sound that has us thinking that it was recorded that way. We sure hope it was, as that would only add to the mystique.

The Allman Brothers Band The Allman Brothers Band (1969)—4

Monday, October 21, 2013

Jack Bruce: Songs For A Tailor and Things We Like

While Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker ran off to form Blind Faith, Jack Bruce got down to work on his own, recording with a jazzy horn section, as well as utilizing Cream lyricist Peter Brown and producer Felix Pappalardi. As a multi-instrumentalist, he could have easily recorded a one-man band album. Instead, Songs For A Tailor presented a grab bag of songs with a rotating supporting cast, including a young Chris Spedding, nodding to his earlier work with the jazz-influenced R&B band the Graham Bond Organisation.

Beatle fans would be curious to hear “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out Of Tune”, as it credits George Harrison (under a pseudonym) with guitar; good luck hearing it. Mostly it’s an upbeat soul song without much depth, and horns bringing to mind a high school pep rally. Much better is “Theme For An Imaginary Western”, later made famous in Mountain’s heavier version, but still sounding just as grand. “Tickets To Waterfalls” is driven by an elaborate piano and organ arrangement, but the “poetic” lyrics, matched by his typically over-reaching voice, make it tough to really enjoy. A little better again is “Weird Of Hermiston”, first tried for Disraeli Gears but making its debut here. “Rope Ladder To The Moon”, with its percussive acoustic guitar and cellos, brings to mind “As You Said” somewhat.

Side two starts much the same as side one, with “The Ministry Of Bag” offering boogie and not much else. “He The Richmond” extends the 12-bar blues format with a little more strumming. “Boston Ball Game 1967” is just plain odd, with two sets of dueling lyrics sung virtually simultaneously over increasingly atonal horns. Luckily it’s short, making the Tolkien homage “To Isengard” all the more welcome—at least until the song switches to freakout mode. “The Clearout” was another discarded Cream idea, and is much too busy for its own good.

One wants to like this album, but maybe Jack’s ideas weren’t going to have as much mass appeal as Cream’s other singer. The album does have its defenders, who would likely enjoy the alternate mixes and one demo added to the remastered CD. But if you’re looking for a companion to Blind Faith, Songs For A Tailor ain’t it.

Still, it’s more accessible than the first solo album he’d recorded, back in 1968 in the last days of Cream but not released for another two years. Things We Like was a free jazz session, with Jack playing the double bass against Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax and Jon Hiseman on drums, both veterans of Graham Bond and John Mayall, and just starting out with Colosseum. John McLaughlin played on a few tracks as well, apparently so he could make enough in session fees to join Tony Williams in Lifetime; he makes a difference when he’s present. With the exception of Mel Tormé’s “Born To Be Blue”, this pet project sounds even more thousands of miles away from Cream, and is recommended only for jazz connoisseurs.

Jack Bruce Songs For A Tailor (1969)—
2003 remaster: same as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks
Jack Bruce Things We Like (1971)—2
2003 remaster: same as 1971, plus 1 extra track

Friday, October 18, 2013

CSN 9: CSN Box

While Neil Young had gone through his own ups and downs in the ‘80s, Crosby, Stills & Nash had an even worse ride. Crosby hit rock bottom, went to prison, and emerged clean and sober. Meanwhile, the other two kept their noses clean, more or less, and failed to excite anyone with their solo efforts. American Dream, which had Neil’s full involvement, was less than stellar but sold; 1990’s Live It Up was even worse.

But being a legacy act with a strong catalog, Atlantic was fully behind the idea of a CSN box set, particularly after the success of a similar Led Zeppelin package. Outside of the usual rarities and album cuts, the CSN set boldly incorporated solo and duet work by each of the members (save Neil, who was keeping his best stuff on ice for his own archival brick). The trio took extra care to sequence the wide-ranging tracks into a logical and somewhat chronological order.

Of course, the bulk of the first two discs comes from the extremely fertile cusp of the ‘70s, when all three were positively teeming with tunes. Most of the first album is here, some in mildly different takes or mixes. By the middle of the second disc, they’ve all started their actual solo albums, so the set practically creates an imaginary 1971 album by the trio. The best of everyone’s work from the mid- to late ‘70s also provides a nice reminder as to why we still cared. As is the case with many such sets, the excitement tails off at disc four, where such hits as “Southern Cross” and “Wasted On The Way” share space with some uninspiring ‘80s solo and group work, including a dull remake of “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, ending with the 1970 B-side version of “Find The Cost Of Freedom” to close the circle.

For true rarities, there’s their lush arrangement of McCartney’s “Blackbird” for three voices and guitar, an earlier “Song With No Words”, a true Déjà Vu outtake in “Horses Through A Rainstorm”, and the full nine-minute take of “Almost Cut My Hair” faded on the LP. One of the more daring experiments that works is a studio take of “The Lee Shore”, but with vocals that weren’t added until the ‘90s. Crosby & Nash duet on a nice version of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge For Going”, and all four come together for alternates of “See The Changes”, “Taken At All” and “Homeward Through The Haze”, for those CSNY albums that never happened.

Taken all together, it’s a fine set, complete with detailed notes for each track. Neil’s contributions, while scattered, are pretty essential for his diehard fans too. What still baffles after all these years is what to call the thing; the spines of the disc and the box itself read Crosby, Stills & Nash, while a stylized CSN on the cover, booklet and jewel cases suggests that’s the title. Both, of course, had already been used as album titles. Meanwhile, a two-disc distillation of the set called Carry On appeared in Europe, so it’s too bad they just couldn’t go with that.

Crosby, Stills & Nash Crosby, Stills & Nash (1991)—

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Jam 9: Extras

As evidenced by Snap!, The Jam had racked up a pile of standalone singles and B-sides that weren’t included on their albums. One would think that a collection of those “extra” tracks would mop everything up nicely. Despite the moniker, Extras does not fulfill that requirement. Instead, it follows through on its title by serving up a grab bag of B-sides, rarities and demos, making it as essential for the Jam fan as it frustrating.

Case in point: “Liza Radley” was a lovely chamber pop pastiche tucked on the B-side of “Start!” But the version included here is a raspy demo, with little of the charm of the band version. Still, some of the B-sides that are included—“Dreams Of Children”, “Tales From The Riverbank”, “Smithers-Jones”, “The Butterfly Collector”—are minor masterpieces on their own. They also covered the Who twice, first with an excellent “So Sad About Us” and later with the noisy “Disguises”, but later soul-heavy covers like “Move On Up” and “Stoned Out Of My Mind” become interchangeable with Weller’s originals on the way to the Style Council (“Shopping”, “The Great Depression”, “Pity Poor Alfie”).

Variously interesting are the unheard tracks. A demo of “A Solid Bond In Your Heart”, in contention for their final single, provides further comparison of what could have been, while James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” is a better showcase for the whole band, as are demos of the Small Faces’ “Get Yourself Together” and the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing”, proving that only George Harrison could nail that riff. Digging a little deeper, an alternate “Boy About Town” and the half-spoken “Pop Art Poem” were fan club exclusives. To see how Weller’s ideas developed, “No One In The World” and “Hey Mister” are spare, pleasant songs that evolved otherwise. A quartet of guitar-and-voice demos of songs destined for Setting Sons show those in mostly finished state, but the most surprising revelation is “We’ve Only Started”, which shares an arrangement with “Tales From The Riverbank”.

While a few of the songs were already on Snap! (or even Compact Snap!), Extras was designed as more of a companion to 1991’s shorter Greatest Hits CD. A few years later, likely to cash in on both Paul Weller’s solo success and the emergence of Britpop, the UK got The Jam Collection, which collected some of the better album tracks and B-sides with the first-ever appearance of “Liza Radley” in full digital splendor.

The Jam Extras (1992)—

Monday, October 14, 2013

Robyn Hitchcock 23: Bad Case Of History

The second retrospective Robyn box from Yep Roc was devoted to his mid-‘80s work with the Egyptians, from before their stint on A&M (now only available illegally or on eBay). Luminous Groove presented Fegmania!, Gotta Let This Hen Out! and Element Of Light! (okay, we added the exclamation point to that one) rijigged for the third time, with the usual suspect bonus tracks and positively hideous photos. But that wasn’t all.

This time, the carrot was another two-CD set of rarities, all featuring the Egyptians, most of which had never, ever been heard before. Bad Case Of History is split between studio and live tracks, providing a wealth of new music for fans hoarding their muddy dubs. The studio half is especially intriguing, as it presents a half hour’s worth of music that could have gone onto Globe Of Frogs or Queen Elvis, including the “title track”, a full band version of “Agony Of Pleasure” and the live favorite “Evil Guy”. Much of the balance comes from after Respect, providing a glimpse into the last sessions before the band stopped, including such future solo cuts as “I Am Not Me”, “Beautiful Queen” and “Zipper In My Spine”, rounded out by the holy grail among Hitchcock heads, “Surfer Ghost”.

The live disc is equally wonderful, again compiled from the A&M years, showing what a trio perfectly in sync could accomplish given the space to try it out. Along with a pile of songs from that limbo period, there are covers of “Eight Miles High” and “Chimes Of Freedom”, plus an otherwise unavailable song called “The Living Years” one place in the packaging and “The Live-In Years” elsewhere. (Either way, it’s not the Mike + The Mechanics song.)

While it does mess with the chronology somewhat, and forces completists to hold onto their Rhino reissues, Luminous Groove does deliver a wealth of new music for those of us who consider the Egyptians to be his best band—certainly inventive, and whimsically patient, at least on the surface. And it was already a long time ago.

Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians Luminous Groove (2008)—4

Sunday, October 13, 2013

CSN 8: Live It Up

Just when you thought they couldn’t get any worse, Crosby, Stills & Nash managed to underperform to the least of their senses, if not their abilities. The embarrassment of Live It Up begins with the cover art, depicting giant hot dogs being roasted on the moon. That should be enough to keep the album far from the cash register, but people bought it anyway. Whether they enjoyed the noisy, unsuited production values remains an equal mystery.

The liner notes helpfully pinpoint the dates each of the songs were committed to posterity; for the most part the recordings came immediately in the wake of the underwhelming release of American Dream, proving that they didn’t pay attention to their own bad reviews. The hideous title track was contributed by constant sideman Joe Vitale and recorded as far back as 1986, which is only part of the problem, but it’s followed “If Anybody Had A Heart”, penned by buddies J.D. Souther and Danny Kortchmar, supposedly featuring Roger McGuinn on 12-string, and first heard over the closing credits of that same year’s About Last Night (aka Demi Moore’s finest nude scenes before the implants). Stills steps forward with two polar opposites. “Tomboy” is another Latin-tinged drag, while “Haven’t We Lost Enough” is a very appealing and welcome acoustic tune, even though it was written with the singer from REO Speedwagon. Crosby and Nash team up on “Yours And Mine”, which pleads for someone, someone to think of the children. (Guest star: Branford Marsalis on sax, what else?)

After that downer, Stills and Nash bring back the “carnivále!” atmosphere for the unnecessarily parenthesed “(Got To Keep) Open”, with Bruce Hornsby on piano and accordion somewhere in there. Nash thought well enough of the drummer from Go West to spearhead the inclusion of “Straight Line” (guest star: Peter Frampton!), followed by his own “House Of Broken Dreams”. “Arrows” is a Crosby collaboration with buddy Michael Hedges, who plays keyboards and not guitar on the track, perhaps to make room for Branford Marsalis again. This tune would have been a low light on any Hedges album, which might explain how it got here instead. Finally, there’s “After The Dolphin”, which is not about the endangered mammal for once, but refers to a pub destroyed during World War I. A different angle for an anti-war statement, but badly tied to a synth program that jars with the canned radio reports.

So that’s one decent song out of ten, and surprisingly, the best thing Stills did all decade. The rest of Live It Up is beyond defense, and deserves to be buried.

Crosby, Stills & Nash Live It Up (1990)—1

Friday, October 11, 2013

Brian Wilson 1: Brian Wilson

At a time when some veterans were stepping out with new material, one of the least likely was Brian Wilson. While he’d contributed, albeit minimally, to the increasingly sporadic Beach Boys albums of recent years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame school of fandom was coming around to hail him as a forgotten genius, and one who’d managed to not only survive but overcome the pharmaceutical dependencies that had derailed him. So it was that his first solo album—if you don’t count Pet Sounds, of course—was something of an event, accompanied by a PR push featuring photos of a trim, tan, rested and ready Brian.

Much of Brian Wilson’s success—and the fact that it was even completed—is due to Andy Paley, who did so much work to craft completed tracks around Brian’s ideas. Key producers Russ Titleman and Lenny Waronker helped ensure that the label (Sire, and by extension Warner Bros.) was getting their money’s worth. The original pressing also gave a lot of credit to Eugene Landy, the since-discredited psychologist who exploited his doctor-patient privilege to turn Brian into a petrified kept boy.

Modern recording trends (and Brian’s own attention span) didn’t allow for the contracting of the Wrecking Crew at Gold Star Studios, which had burned down anyway. Instead, Brian was encouraged to create his pocket symphonies using synthesizers and other machines. These days, the pinging effects distract from the melodies, which is too bad, because most of the songs are really good.

“Love And Mercy” would be Brian’s salutation for many years, and it’s a wonderful summation of his fragile innocence and sensitivity to the suffering of others. From that sublime beginning we go to “Walkin’ The Line”, a little throwaway mysteriously co-written with the guy from The Dream Academy and featuring not only the sound of marching feet (get it?) but Terence Trent D’Arby on backing vocals. Much better is “Melt Away”, which melds a sweet melody to an arrangement where every other note is a different chord, both tune and lyrics recalling the low self-esteem of Pet Sounds. Speaking of which, “Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long” updates “Caroline No” with a central message that, as several have pointed out, could be a pep talk to himself. “Little Children” introduces two kids whom the world would soon know as two-thirds of Wilson Phillips, and is over pretty quickly. Another overt family reference is “One For The Boys”, all amazing a cappella, demonstrating that nobody arranges voices like Brian Wilson. “There’s So Many” is a little underdeveloped, more of a record than a song, with too many “spacey” effects covering up what’s missing.

Those wacky space noises are all over “Night Time”, which gets pretty annoying, except during the sections between the incessant choruses. “Let It Shine” gets far enough away from Jeff Lynne’s production for a near-Dion/doo-wop pastiche. It’s a wonderful song, even despite rhyming “fire” with “desire”. With an opening like a music box lullaby, “Meet Me In My Dreams Tonight” is possibly the greatest ripoff of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” ever attempted. To prove that he wasn’t all pop of circumstance, the daring “Rio Grande” was the closest we’d get to Smile for some time, with little fragments poking through here and there. It’s not his best extended work, but boy, is it picturesque, particularly in hindsight, evoking images of the old America in his mind.

As good as the album was, it just didn’t fit with what was happening on either AM or FM radio. To add further insult to injury, the band he left behind managed to get their first #1 hit in decades with the truly hideous “Kokomo”, released right around the same time. As the years have gone by, this little album has risked being forgotten, even as interest in the man’s classic creations has been stoked by continual reissues and further solo albums. Thankfully, Rhino gave Brian Wilson the expanded treatment at the turn of the century, adding timely B-sides and even demos, and removing all songwriting credits for Landy.

Brian Wilson Brian Wilson (1988)—4
2000 CD reissue: same as 1988, plus 15 extra tracks

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Billy Joel 11: Greatest Hits

Firmly established as a superstar, the time was ripe for a bona fide Billy best-of. The helpfully titled Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II reflected its existence as a two-record set, arranged in rough chronological order, each volume helpfully subtitled with the relevant years.

Beginning with “Piano Man”, it pretty much has everything the casual top 40 radio fan would have heard already. A whopping five songs from The Stranger dominate the first record, with only three hits from the still-recent An Innocent Man on the second. (“Goodnight Saigon” anchors side three, suggesting his own input into the sequencing.)

To entice fans who already had all the albums already, two brand new songs were included, both designed to be counted among their brothers as true greatest hits. “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” is a jarringly bouncy track assuring the listener that it’s okay to make mistakes, since they’re part of life and everything—and just to prove it, he even flubs one of the choruses! What a silly goose. If this song actually helped prevent a suicide, that’s a good thing, but the knee-jerk critic’s response is to suggest that it probably drove more people nuts. All the way into the top ten.

The other new song was more of a production, and wasn’t as big of a hit. But “The Night Is Still Young” is a much more palatable track, with a vocal approach that echoes the Righteous Brothers, and gently layered keyboards that nudge the melody along. It’s one of those songs that’s rarely played anymore, but is welcome when it is.

The release history of the album has become somewhat confusing over the years. First, overseas markets swapped “Honesty” for “Don’t Ask Me Why”, while some tracks were the shorter (or live) single versions. The compact disc medium was a relatively new novelty, and the CD version of Greatest Hits took advantage of the extended capacity to add more songs (and long ones, too, including “Captain Jack” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”). The current CD you can buy or download now has everything in their full lengths.

Billy Joel Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II (1985)—4
1985 CD: same as LP, plus 4 extra tracks

Monday, October 7, 2013

Bad Company 3: Run With The Pack

The good thing about Bad Company is that they provided a healthy dose of stupid when you just didn’t want to think. That would have been pretty obvious on their last album, but if you’re gonna be stupid, it’s best to disguise it within an album that might suggest there’s more under that surface. If that’s the formula, and why wouldn’t it be, Run With The Pack delivers, and mostly bounces back from the sophomore slump.

For whatever deepness they wanted to portray, “Live For The Music” states the purpose pretty well, explaining the recipe that just might “rock and roll” one’s blues away, complete with a prominent Boz Burrell bass line that underscores (or at least suggests) his importance to the equation. Still, while The Music was key to what made them what they were, “Simple Man” takes a familiar theme and marries it to a nice drop-D motif, so Paul Rodgers can declare that “freedom is the only thing that means a damn to me.” Well, it was the ‘70s. Such freedom would allow him to sidle up next to “Honey Child”, who had driven him wild since she was only 17. She must not have bought it, since the simple piano exercise of “Love Me Somebody” sets us up for the pounding title track. There have been some rockers so far, but that piano is tough to beat. Its relentless pace must have been tough on the band, as it moves into an extended coda that does not fail to stir.

In case you didn’t get enough piano, “Silver Blue & Gold” is another departure, a midtempo pop song that makes good use of harmony vocals. Lest you think they’re getting too full of themselves, it’s followed by a nice romp though “Young Blood”. This one might have been familiar to any young kids who’d seen (or heard) the Concert for Bangla Desh, but the distinctly British response vocals are hysterical. “Do Right By Your Woman” is a lovely sentiment over a campfire strum, but the real emotion is clear in “Sweet Lil’ Sister”, which cranks it up a couple of notches. Finally, “Fade Away” marries a mournful piano to a suitable string arrangement, providing a somber finale to the record.

Run With The Pack gets the recipe right, as long as you skip track one. There’s enough variety to keep it from being as much of a carbon copy as Straight Shooter was to the debut, making it more of an album you’d want to play again. And the band must have known it was worth something, since they had to pay all that money to have Bugs Bunny in the gatefold. (The eventual expanded edition presented most of the album in early mixes, showing how much the string arrangements added to the songs that had them. The acoustic B-side version of “Do Right By Your Woman” is nice to have in context, though the otherwise unreleased “Let There Be Love” and the jam on “(I Know) I’m Losing You” aren’t any great shakes.)

Bad Company Run With The Pack (1976)—
2017 Deluxe Edition: same as 1976, plus 14 extra tracks

Friday, October 4, 2013

Tom Waits 19: Blood Money

While it hadn’t been waiting as long as Alice, Blood Money came from the same general source: a pre-industrial tale dramatized by Robert Wilson with songs by Tom Waits, with yet another complicated plot. At first it seems like a more challenging listen than its counterpart, but that’s not to elevate Alice any higher than it deserves.

“Misery’s The River Of The World” sports a lovely chromatic descent and return to accompany his Beefheart bark, and “Everything Goes To Hell” is just as bleak a message. “Coney Island Baby” brings a piano ballad just in time; not the Lou Reed song, but still has some allusions to “Innocent When You Dream” at the end. The marimbas and clarinets return for “All The World Is Green”, but then we go back to the demented circus for “God’s Away On Business”. “Another Man’s Vine” should appeal to fans of Bone Machine, reminiscent as it is of “Dirt In The Ground”. But the true antecedent here is The Black Rider, as demonstrated by the instrumental “Knife Chase”.

A very tender “Lullaby” provides a nice break, again, but then it’s back to nightmare territory with “Starving In The Belly Of A Whale”. “The Part You Throw Away” has the potential to be something profound, but the understated delivery and Night On Earth arrangement make it seem more of a passing phase. “Woe” is a brief, bronchial song of devotion swallowed up by the more dissonant “Calliope”, which brings to mind some of the interludes from the earlier Island years. An old 78 winds up for “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, which plays over the credits of the imaginary movie.

Just like Alice, there are a lot of interesting textures on Blood Money, but it’s unlikely that Waits would be comfortable with this becoming background music, in the way that another artist famous for his textures (i.e. Brian Eno) would be. The music is striking, for certain, but without an outside producer to edit him (and the writing co-credited to his wife) one wonders what could have been whittled down to something simple and thus even more striking.

Tom Waits Blood Money (2002)—2

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tom Waits 18: Alice

He’d come back in such a resounding way with Mule Variations, so it was with relative speed that Tom Waits resurfaced yet again with not one but two albums released on the same day. Both were derived from stage productions he’d mounted with Robert Wilson, the playwright behind The Black Rider. Alice comes first alphabetically, so we’ll deal with that one here.

It’s also a good place to start, because the title track is a smoky lounge piano ballad that sounds equally at home on a Waits album from the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s. It would be a wonderful torch song if it weren’t written from the point of view of an opiated adult towards an adolescent. A canned train whistle heralds the death march of “Everything You Can Think”, but while the nightmare seems to pass for “Flower’s Grave” and “No One Knows I’m Gone”, the mournful lyrics say otherwise. The CD booklet provides no lyrics for “Kommienezuspadt”, an exercise in gutteral fake German, but one might assume they would tie into the freaks the populate the next songs. “Poor Edward” is somehow afflicted with a woman’s face (“or a young girl”) on the back of his head, but perhaps he wasn’t as bad off as “Tabletop Joe”, a distant relation of the Eyeball Kid, “born without a body” but still possessing hands, so he could make music.

But “Lost In The Harbour” is the last gasp of a dying man, illustrated by what sounds like the water in the harmonium about to swallow him up, but he surfaces long enough for another verse. “We’re All Mad Here” turns the nightmare back on, followed by the monologue in “Watch Her Disappear”. One would think there’s some kind of connection to Germany, since the next track takes place in the “Reeperbahn”, unless he’s referring to the more literal translation of “rope walk”. Another respite emerges in “I’m Still Here”, which could qualify as a reconciliation, and “Fish & Bird” and “Barcarolle” are just as pretty (though the latter threatens to descend into discord in the instrumental middle). “Fawn” is a closing instrumental with a violin that sounds more like a saw.

Unlike The Black Rider, no synopsis is supplied to help us discern whatever story these songs on Alice are supposed to illustrate. The songs had sat around for ten years before this official recording was released, so fanatics already had something for comparison. For those of us entering the party with this invitation, we were less inclined to sample the food laid out. Chances are others that happened to wander in might not have stayed to see what the fuss was about, but no matter; there was the other album to consider while this one marinated.

Tom Waits Alice (2002)—