Friday, January 31, 2014

Robyn Hitchcock 24: Shadow Cat

Robyn’s leftovers don’t necessarily guarantee buried treasure, You & Oblivion notwithstanding. Therefore fans have grown to be wary when such a collection surfaces. Shadow Cat lists its sources as being from the mid- to late ‘90s, which wasn’t his most fertile period, but luckily the gems overshadow the clunkers.

“For Debbie Reynolds” is a sketch along the lines of “Queen Elvis”, cut short by a ringing phone, and presumably left there. “Never Have To See You Again” is driven by electric chords, and punctuated by silly horns, this time in a good way. “Love Affair” shimmers like an orphan from I Often Dream Of Trains. Anybody who bought this would already be familiar with his rendition of “The Wind Cries Mary”; this demo adds an organ part for color. The exceedingly gentle “High On Yourself” is the highlight for any fans of Trains or Eye, with the priceless line “Let’s go shopping on painkillers”. “Because You’re Over” is a cappella with layered harmonies, but sent through a vocoder or something; as distracting as that is, at least it’s tuneful (which can’t be said about “Real Dot” four tracks later). “The Cat Walks Her Kind Of Line” is an intricate, descriptive instrumental.

Two songs had been available in slightly different forms already; “Statue With A Walkman” is a wonderful find, while a rough version of “The Green Boy” doesn’t grate too much. “Nothing But Time” is intricately picked and mixed with just the right amount of echo, so that even the sillier lines fade into the ether. He’s already written plenty of songs with the word in the title, and “Beautiful Shock” gets a boost from its suggested and literal “electricity”. “Baby-Doll” is mysterious and romantic, but the title track gets to close the program, something of a relative of “Trilobite”.

Shadow Cat didn’t get the widest distribution, even from his latest label. That’s too bad, because it’s one of the better ones from a lengthening period that doesn’t always have high points. Definitely recommended to those inclined.

Robyn Hitchcock Shadow Cat (2008)—

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bruce Springsteen 13: The Ghost Of Tom Joad

Lest anyone think he was going back to his classic sound, Bruce threw the industry another curve ball. While The Ghost Of Tom Joad was a return to form of sorts, that form was the introspective approach of Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love. These songs are quiet and intimate, demanding attention and not always getting them, portraits of broken men and shattered dreams. You know, the usual happy stuff.

He wisely begins the program with the title track, a blatant reference to the hero of The Grapes Of Wrath, already celebrated by the likes of Woody Guthrie. Starting with a blast of harmonica and swelling to a musical backing not unlike Dire Straits, it eases the listener in. However, even this low-key track is one of the louder songs on the album. A pair of doomed individuals revive the Nebraska connection; the narrator of “Straight Time” struggles with life outside prison, and the difference in occupation makes it clear he’s not the wayward shoe salesman on “Highway 29”. “Youngstown” is whispered in much the same mood until the band joins in after the first chorus, and nobody noticed that it follows the melody and structure of Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page”. That tale of hard times in Ohio is balanced against the sad plight of Mexican immigrants seeking their fortune cooking meth in “Sinaloa Cowboys”; somehow they evaded the border guard who narrates “The Line”, most likely because they weren’t a raven-haired beauty named Louisa.

One of those immigrants might have ended up smuggling cocaine to “Balboa Park”, and while the lyrics of “Dry Lightning” don’t suggest it, there’s still a south-of-the-border lilt to the accompaniment (and the vivid image of the “piss-yellow sun”). “The New Timer” exists to prove that there is no romance to riding the rails, with every “sir” aside bringing us back to Nebraska. Its bleakness enhances the hope running through “Across The Border”, and even its arrangement would make it a good place to end. But Bruce had more to say, with the lengthy anticlimax of “Galveston Bay” and the much shorter “My Best Was Never Good Enough”—a wonderful title, but unfortunately just a string of pointed clichés delivered in a cartoony voice.

The Ghost Of Tom Joad is not the kind of album that gets blasted from car stereos, or would even get rotation in a record store. It took a lot of balls to release it at the height of the holiday buying season. That it’s not as pointedly bad as Human Touch keeps it from failing; we give him credit for creating music on his own terms, and remembering to keep it simple. His rhymes don’t always deliver on the stories he’s telling, but that can get worked out on the road. And it would, first on a solo tour, then later with a band. (Soozie Tyrell features prominently on the violin here, and would continue to do so.) In all, probably the worst thing we can say about the album is the cover art. And maybe the goatee. (Well, it was the ’90s.)

Bruce Springsteen The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)—3

Friday, January 24, 2014

Joe Jackson 15: Night And Day II

After a decade of relative commercial failure, it was just as uncomfortable to watch Joe Jackson begin the millennium with an album that pointedly referenced his last real hit. It’s always a ballsy move to revisit old glories, even more so when you give it a title like Night And Day II. On his own website he questions whether the title was a good idea, so maybe it’s best to think of it on its own, rather than a sequel—much like Harvest Moon only suggested a connection to Harvest.

In fact, anyone who has affection for the first Night And Day would do well not to look for a connection, because while the first album had its moments of brightness, most of the observations in Night And Day II are pretty dismal. One wonders why he insists on living in a city as ugly as the one he describes for 47 minutes—and this was a full year before 9/11.

With the exception of a string quartet, occasional bass, some percussion and some guest vocalists—which by now is a major red flag on any Joe Jackson album—this is a one-man operation. That means he also programmed all the drums himself. Where the earlier album utilized segues, here all the tracks are connected by the same high-hat pattern, no matter the tempo of the song. It starts in the “Prelude” and continues through “Hell Of A Town”, which references a catchphrase from Midnight Cowboy, begins to quote “Chinatown” and even talks about “steppin’ out” (not for the only time). “Stranger Than You” is the closest thing to a single, being the most upbeat track with the catchiest chorus. Any optimism suggested is smothered by the foreboding “Why”, with its fractured English sung by Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim. “Glamour And Pain” features vocals by the mysterious Dale De Vere, who looks strikingly familiar. (Based on the provided photo in the booklet, she would appear to be the artiste’s alter ego.) This lament of a “Superwhore” goes on a little long, broken up by occasional references to “Steppin’ Out”.

With a recurrent electric piano that resembles a busy signal, “Dear Mom” chases somebody’s sister around the city to eventual success but not much hope. Only three years after her appearance on a Metallica album, everybody’s favorite cracked chanteuse Marianne Faithfull takes her turn on “Love Got Lost”, which is one of the better tracks on the album, particularly in the chorus. “Just Because” begins with an extremely tense appearance by the string quartet, demonstrating the paranoid message of the already clichéd lyrical hook. The high-hat lets some Latin percussion come in for “Happyland”. A very pretty, very sad song about a notorious nightclub fire that killed 87 people in the Bronx ten years earlier, the line about “the hottest club in town” is just plain bad taste. The “Steppin’ Out” motif returns again throughout “Stay”, while slow chords and words bring him to settle on doing just that.

In the end, Night And Day II is another album made for a subdued setting, right along with most of his recent work. However, much like someone who’s been prescribed medication to temper a bipolar disorder, the mood never swings wide enough to make you want to spend any more time around the guy.

Joe Jackson Night And Day II (2000)—

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tom Waits 20: Real Gone

Well, here was something different. Tom Waits had already gained renown for making music out of “found sounds”, and since his eldest son had already started experimenting with turntables, his next album would feature loops built on sounds created by his own throat. The human beatbox is in charge most of the time, and there’s not a piano or any kind of keyboard to be found.

Real Gone is a long album, over an hour. There are songs here, but many of their potential charms are buried under heavy percussion. Even talented stalwarts such as Les Claypool and Marc Ribot struggle to be heard above the din. From time to time, a “song” does emerge; “Sins Of My Father” is the first one in the program, three songs in, but at over ten minutes, it too is easy to shake interest. The cacophony of the track that follows (“Shake It”, if you’re interested) slaps all the dust particles back into the air, with a voice so distorted that it’s impossible to follow with the lyrics (which are not necessarily in order in the CD booklet). That happens a few times on this album.

Another case in point: “The Day After Tomorrow” is a lovely lament, most likely written from the point of view of a soldier stuck in the Gulf. It comes at the end, with a mood not unlike Bob Dylan’s “Restless Farewell”. Then there’s 30 seconds of silence, and another minute’s worth of beatboxing in “Chickaboom”.

There are other wonderful moments on Real Gone, should you have the gumption to wade through an awful lot to get there. “Don’t Go Into That Barn” has clear antecedents on the Bone Machine and Mule Variations albums, leaving the concept to sound a little worn out. “How’s It Gonna End” is quiet and spooky enough to keep you asking the question in the title; the same goes for “Dead And Lovely”. “Trampled Rose” would go on to be part of the wildly popular collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, following this original closely. “Green Grass” has an exquisite guitar intro that sadly doesn’t last through the rest of the song.

Such is the way with Real Gone. It’s not the best place to start, and he’s got plenty of other, better albums. Some people think this is one of his best, so maybe they’re right and we’re wrong.

Tom Waits Real Gone (2004)—

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jim Capaldi: Oh How We Danced

Because Steve Winwood was so dominant throughout every incarnation of the band, it can be easy to overlook Jim Capaldi’s contribution to Traffic, particularly in the years when he ceded the drumkit and limited himself to tambourine and the rarest lead vocal. But a simple glance at the song credits from each of their albums sees him listed as co-composer throughout. Obviously he was important enough to Steve to have him in the band, even when he was just banging a tambourine.

His first solo album apparently came about due to a Traffic stop (sorry, not sorry) due to Steve’s health issues, but Oh How We Danced is key to the larger story because much of it was recorded in Muscle Shoals, with lots of input from that band’s rhythm section, plus plenty of contributions from the rest of Traffic and consistent but not overly showy guitar work from Free’s Paul Kossoff. Musically it’s not very adventurous, but it is entertaining, and that’s the point.

“Eve” (pronounced “ee-vee”) is a sweet and simple love song that builds nicely from the quiet beginning, encompassing a guitar solo and before you know it there’s a horn section. “Big Thirst” has a co-write credit for Dave Mason, and foreshadows some of the moodier Traffic pieces to come. Along with moody strings, there’s a nice counterpoint with Sunny Leslie harmonizing on the choruses. While intended to boogie, “Love Is All You Can Try” deserves a better backing than what it gets, particularly with the track-length guitar solo fighting for space in the mix with Barry Beckett’s piano. “Last Day Of Dawn” is proto-disco, but redeems itself with the self-harmony on the choruses, and boy, is it catchy.

“Don’t Be A Hero” stays down and somber until Dave Mason’s guitar solo breaks in some harsh light, something of an extension of “Big Thirst”. The overly cheery “Open Your Heart” is a Traffic track wisely left over from Low Spark, but it fits well here, and Steve’s harmony is welcome. “How Much Can A Man Really Take?” features a much different band, including former members of Spooky Tooth and The Move, but Chris Wood and Reebop help keep it of a piece with the rest of the album, with Kossoff finally let loose. Finally, “Anniversary Song” is the Al Jolson number that gives the album its title, done here in the Muscle Shoals style, with another blast from Kossoff.

Oh How We Danced provides a nice bridge between Traffic albums, and not just because the rhythm section would soon become part of the fold. Best of all showcases Capaldi’s voice, all too overshadowed in his main gig. (The European reissue CD, in addition to using the cover art that was standard worldwide, includes the B-side “Going Down Slow All The Way” as a bonus track. It’s a simple recording, not much more than a piano and vocal demo with a bass drum and tambourine, but it’s effective.)

Jim Capaldi Oh How We Danced (1972)—3

Friday, January 17, 2014

Genesis 1: From Genesis To Revelation

Say the name “Genesis” in the context of music, and the reaction you get will depend on whom you ask. But positive or negative, the reasons will vary even further.

They started out as a teenage combo formed at a posh college puddin’ private school outside of London. Back then, they had a different guitarist, and were years away from meeting Phil Collins. With the exception of Peter Gabriel’s voice and the occasional Tony Banks piano flourish, From Genesis To Revelation doesn’t sound like the band they’d become. If anything, they sound a lot like the Bee Gees from the same period, with pretty string and horn arrangements tarting up the space.

The music is adventurous pop, and such tracks as “Where The Sour Turns To Sweet”, “The Silent Sun” and particularly “In The Wilderness” (with its “music, all I hear is music” chorus) are nothing to be ashamed of. Only the distorted introduction of “In The Beginning” gives a hint at the experimentation to follow; the rest of the tune is fairly straight, with phased effects on the acoustic. Their manager apparently had the idea to link the tracks and repeat themes, so there’s a hint at some of their hallmarks down the road.

Overall, it’s a nice album, fairly unobtrusive and not at all embarrassing. But it’s also a little ordinary. Nobody bought it when it was first issued, and only after key stages of the band’s worldwide success (as well as that of its lead singers) did it get wider exposure, getting its first release in the US in 1974, and eventually under different titles (such as In The Beginning and And The Word Was) and in different sequences, usually involving some of the contemporary singles. Pointedly, none of these have ever been sanctioned by the band.

Genesis From Genesis To Revelation (1969)—3

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Jimi Hendrix 16: The Jimi Hendrix Experience

By the turn of the century, Jimi Hendrix had already been best-ofed and anthologized in a few handfuls of hits collections. The current trend was to tell an artist’s (or artists’) story via a box full of alternate, live and/or otherwise unreleased material. Despite having already seen two box sets of such material in the CD era, both had been deleted, so now there was another.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience wasn’t the best title for it, since the band of that name only appeared on about two-thirds of the contents. Still, there was something of an attempt to be chronological, though the first disc does jump around a bit. Rather beginning with the two songs from a concert in Paris—from October 1966, the earliest recordings of the Experience as a band—an alternate mix of “Purple Haze” comes first to entice the non-fanatics, among several outtakes from the debut. Among the more fascinating pieces are the spoken word section used for “Third Stone From The Sun”, isolated and extended for clarity and context, and an early take of “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp”, showing Jimi’s prowess on the harpsichord.

The other three discs proceed from there, with some of the more tantalizing tracks being restored mixes from Crash Landing, plus otherwise orphaned selections from some of the other posthumous albums. “It’s Too Bad” is a lengthy blues jam with Buddy Miles and organist Larry Young that’s a lot better than it reads. By the time you get to the fourth disc, you’re astounded by all the alternate versions of things that might or might not have become part of the fourth studio album.

The live material isn’t all new, coming from the Monterey Pop Festival show, the Stages box, Hendrix In The West, the Isle of Wight and some of the “official bootlegs” sold via mail order directly by the estate; still, it does a nice job of presenting the whole picture. In the end, The Jimi Hendrix Experience demonstrates just how easy it is to put together a set of rare Hendrix material. Indeed, thirteen years later, after Sony/Legacy had unleashed a whole pile of old and new material, the set re-appeared, with four extra songs of varying rarity mixed into the original sequence. You know, so everybody that cared had to buy it again.

Jimi Hendrix The Jimi Hendrix Experience (2000)—3
2013 reissue: same as 2000, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, January 10, 2014

CSN 10: After The Storm

Even though nobody was asking for a new CSN album, they did one anyway. What was surprising was that they paid some attention to the backlash the greeted their last new set and, save one cut, kept the writing strictly in-house on After The Storm. Everybody sings on everyone’s tunes, too.

Stills is in relatively decent voice, but his tracks are hit or miss. Two Latin-tinged numbers bookend the album; “Only Waiting For You” leans too close to adult contemporary, while the excruciating “Panama” makes one even more squeamish as he recalls how a local girl made him a man. “It Won’t Go Away” and “Bad Boyz” are returns to social commentary, somewhat, though the former is too funky, and the latter, while rocking, shouldn’t be spelled that way by anyone over 30.

Nash comes off the best, mostly. “Find A Dream” and “These Empty Days” are both lifted by the harmonies—Stills being prominent, rare for Nash songs—whereas the simple, affecting “Unequal Love” sports some nice Stills leads straight out of Buffalo Springfield. When those are added to the title track, one wonders if everything is all right at home.

Having written very little for his own album the year before, Crosby kept up with the others by contributing a nearly equal pile of songs—in quantity, anyway. “Camera” has some decent imagery, but is slathered with cowbell and other Latin percussion; Stills gets co-writing credit so we’ll blame him. “Till It Shines” also gives Stills plenty of room to wail, up against Mike Finnegan’s organ. He does his own bit to decry social issues on “Street To Lean On”, which supposedly has Michael Hedges on guitar, but we can’t hear him.

Possibly the best track is their harmony-rich cover of “In My Life”, which Stills had done on his last solo album. Wisely, they stick to the chords, let a harmonica play the main riff, and leave it at that.

While mostly an improvement, that eternal blend that captured the world is only hinted at on After The Storm. They’ll always be able to lean on their old albums, which is just as well, since this one didn’t sell.

Crosby, Stills & Nash After The Storm (1994)—

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Traffic 6: The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys

Having recently expanded (everyone from Welcome To The Canteen except Dave Mason, again), Traffic was again able to meander into extended jamming, on an album that came out within months. With a dedicated rhythm section—Jim Capaldi having reduced his role to lyricist, harmonies and tambourine, though he does sing lead on two songs here—The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys sounds more than ever like a straight rock band, though there are some jazz and folk touches that got them this far. Outside of Chris Wood’s sax and flute, the predominant lead instruments are guitar and keyboards, all from—you guessed it—Steve Winwood, so overdubs were still necessary.

“Hidden Treasure” begins with a low-key acoustic strum and a flute duet, suggesting an extension of the John Barleycorn formula. But chances are, if you bought this album you’re going to skip right to the title track. On paper, there’s no way it should work: nearly twelve minutes, mostly vamping on one note. However, there’s enough mystery in the verses to give a release in the choruses. (That fuzzy sound that sounds like a processed sax, by the way, is just a Hammond organ through a distortion pedal. You can tell by that wonderful blast in the key of X right at the fade.) And it fades away just as enticingly as it came in. Something of a sorbet, “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone” is another way for someone to request that his mellow not be harshed, though the lyrics are more incidental for the soloing in between and on the fade.

The sentiments of that song get a different frame of reference when heard next to “Rock & Roll Stew”, a life-on-the-road slice courtesy of the Ric Grech-Jim Gordon rhythm section. It’s another one of those FM radio staples you’ve heard a million times that you may be surprised to find it on this album. “Many A Mile To Freedom” will appeal to anyone who likes the electric piano, but it doesn’t take too many listens to realize that the lyrics don’t vary much, and the culmination of each verse uses the same chords as the superior title track. Finally, “Rainmaker” returns to the folk sound of “Hidden Treasure”, complete with a violin solo from Grech. It follows that pattern until shifting to a more jammy jazz fade.

Perhaps an illustration of less is more, the extra people on Low Spark means it’s something of a letdown as might be expected from a supergroup. Overdubbing keyboards and guitars are impressive when it’s a solo album, but in a group context, it comes off as narcissism. Also, the blandness that would dog Winwood in later decades shows up here.

But it’s not a bad album, just a little dull at times. The title track is just plain stellar. And it featured a unique hexagonal design that just doesn’t look the same in anything smaller than an LP. (One mystery over the years has been the sequencing. The LP played in the order above, while some back covers and several CDs have since had “Rock & Roll Stew” ending side one, with “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone” in the middle of side two, shifting everything else back accordingly. Winwood’s own website uses the order above, so we’re sticking with that. Yet this would not be the last instance of multiple track listings. Meanwhile, the current CD uses the order above, with the six minute “Rock & Roll Stew Parts 1 & 2” single versions as a bonus.)

Traffic The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys (1971)—3
2002 remastered CD: same as 1971, plus 1 extra track

Friday, January 3, 2014

Bad Company 5: Desolation Angels

In 1979, bands with swaggering lead singers and guitar heroes had already been dubbed “boring old farts” by the protagonists of punk. However, punk had already given way to new wave, and the bands they’d tried to destroy were still doing brisk business in arenas. The likes of Foreigner, Kansas, Boston, and Journey managed to hold off the threat, and Bad Company proudly rode beside them.

Desolation Angels arrived a full two years after the undercooked Burnin’ Sky, led off by the effects-ridden “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy”. To give any song this title is to begin behind the count, but it supplied enough boogie to make it an FM radio staple, so their reputation stayed intact. From there, the rest of the album delivers in ways that its predecessor didn’t. “Crazy Circles” takes a basic strum but adds enough complimentary sections to keep it from becoming dull, and “Gone, Gone, Gone” is reason enough to keep Boz Burrell as a songwriter, staying just this side of cliché. Despite its ordinariness (and more synthesized drums), “Evil Wind” keeps the momentum going, thanks to a decent bridge, and “Early In The Morning” nicely provides a lengthy side-closer that doesn’t strive to be “epic”.

“Lonely For Your Love” is a barely disguised carbon copy of “Can’t Get Enough”, but it’s immediately wiped away by the better pastiche of “Oh, Atlanta”. Outside of some of the lyrics, the harmonica and chicken-pickin’ guitar, there’s nothing truly Southern about the song, but it’s still a good one. The rest doesn’t match that apex; “Take The Time” is Badco by numbers, and the discofied “Rhythm Machine”, one of the blandest tributes to the blues, doesn’t do Boz Burrell any favors in the songwriting category. “She Brings Me Love” fades in on an extended three-chord motif, and adds backing vocals (credited to The Bones, whoever they were) and fake strings to simulate a Big Ending.

Beyond that, the worst thing we can say about the album is the arbitrary cover art, typical of Hipgnosis, their workload being unhampered by Pink Floyd, 10cc, or even Wings. Desolation Angels is a good case of the whole bettering the parts; it kept the band afloat, and secured them a further stay on the otherwise desolate Swan Song label. (While it just missed the 40th anniversary, the expanded version of the album came loaded with a disc’s worth of extras and then some, including alternate versions of all the songs on the album—multiple in some cases—plus two more versions of “Smokin’ 45”, two extended jams, and an a cappella rendition of “Amen” for some reason.)

Bad Company Desolation Angels (1979)—3
2020 Deluxe Edition: same as 1979, plus 19 extra tracks