Friday, October 31, 2014

Who 25: Hits 50

The Who already had too many compilations clogging up shelves, but just like their brethren in the Rolling Stones, a 50th anniversary was apparently enough reason to make another one. Sporting a much more fitting cover (and title) than what the Stones did, The Who Hits 50! was also available in multiple editions, thankfully limited to two CD versions, plus vinyl and Blu-Ray for those with money to burn.

Both begin with “Zoot Suit”, when they were still the High Numbers, and move steadily through the singles. Once they hit the ‘70s, or disc two if you have the double, the selections have to balance between actual singles and key album tracks. Needless to say, the opportunity to simply replicate Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy has been ignored, with not even all of those tracks represented.

The double disc takes the idea of “hits” to the extreme, seeming to think that anything released on a 45 counts. That’s why their version of “The Last Time” appears, as do “Dogs”, “Call Me Lightning”, “Postcard”, “Trick Of The Light”, “It’s Not Enough” (the non-hit from Endless Wire) and the pointless, clumsy edit of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. (Kudos for including the long version of “Magic Bus” in glorious mono, and equal demerits for not including the longer, alternate “I’m A Boy”.)

The single disc isn’t too different from the other 37 single-disc CDs that have come out, except for how it finishes. Even though nobody liked it before, and it wasn’t even a hit, “Real Good Looking Boy” (the new song unleashed for their 40th anniversary) appears again, but the big selling point, so they say, is the first new Who track in eight years. “Be Lucky” is either an anthem of empowerment or a snide indictment of modern pop music, complete with an auto-tuned phrase; hardly a classic, but mostly harmless.

That one new track is the only reason why we’ve bothered giving this collection its own post. As good as the majority of the music is, The Who Hits 50! is docked half a point for redundancy. 2002’s The Ultimate Collection is still the best overview of their full career.

The Who The Who Hits 50! (2014)—

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Smiths 3: Meat Is Murder

The Smiths seemed to save their most refined pop for their singles, making their albums a platform for grand statements less likely to hit the charts. And in those “Frankie Say Relax” times, could there have been a more bold attitude than Meat Is Murder?

“The Headmaster Ritual” is a strong opener, an excellent mix of groove and subtle changes, upon which Morrissey’s tale of schoolboy woe sits within a five-note range. “Rusholme Ruffians” is a rockabilly shuffle, a carefree decoration for a song filled with even more violence and fear. It’s not easy to follow the free-verse of the vocal, but we can assume that sound effect at the end is some kind of carnival game shutting down. There’s a similar retro-twang to “I Want The One I Can’t Have”; the band are credited with the album’s production, so the instruments are mixed better, but Morrissey still sounds like he’s singing in a closet, and we don’t mean that metaphorically. Just as muddy is “What She Said” with some near-metal bursts from Johnny Marr. The high-point is “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, which lives up to its archetypically lengthy title, and sports a fake fade.

In the US, “How Soon Is Now?” was added to the top of side two—a wise choice, since it not only made this stellar track more available, but improved the album as a whole. “Nowhere Fast” is the best rockabilly raveup here, with excellent, surprising rhymes to boot. While seductively sad, “Well I Wonder” is one of their least successful mopes, and the atmospheric rain over the end makes it even more maudlin than it needs to be. (Especially since the effect always ends up sounding like a toilet running or somebody filling same.) “Barbarism Begins At Home” isn’t much more than a groove that goes on for seven minutes; excellent as it is, and particularly that bass, it would have been better served as a B-side or an extended dance mix. And since the first album ended with a somber elegy for innocent victims, the title track uses buzzsaw sound effects and plaintive moos and bleats to illustrate Morrissey’s vegetarian stance.

Violence certainly pervades Meat Is Murder, whether perpetuated on students or farm animals, by teachers and parents, or between society classes. The Smiths certainly weren’t shy about confrontation, but they’d yet to learn how to really seduce their audience.

The Smiths Meat Is Murder (1985)—3

Friday, October 24, 2014

Joy Division 4: Substance

By the mid-‘80s, as New Order’s status in what used to be called college alternative grew, the legend of Joy Division grew with it. Their three albums were reissued, and a year after a New Order compilation of the same name, Substance collected many of the singles, 12-inch and EP tracks (more so if you got the CD, or certain countries’ edition of the cassette, which most consumers in 1988 were buying anyway) that hadn’t made it to Still.

Singles, by their very nature, had to be more immediate to make an impact, so most of the tracks sampled here are more upbeat, direct and gloom-free compared to much of Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Even more striking are the earliest songs, recorded with punk fervor while the band was still learning their instruments and Ian Curtis had yet to develop the lower-register croon that would become his signature. Listen to “Warsaw” and “Leaders Of Men” and try to convince yourself it’s the same guy on “Transmission” and the later 12-inch version of “She’s Lost Control”. However, the key selling point for the album is “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, the iconic single released just weeks after Ian hung himself. With near-jangling guitars, a bass line matching the synth note for note, the high-hat work coming this close to collapsing and Ian’s vocal blending gloom with pop, it was and remains a hell of a way to say goodbye.

Substance certainly fills in the Joy Division story, but it doesn’t close the book. Shortly after a New Order best-of came out in the ‘90s, so did one for the original band. Permanent offered a mostly chronological mix of single and album tracks, bookended by two different mixes of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. For an even wider picture, the Heart And Soul box set presented “their entire studio output” on the first two discs, a third disc of further studio tracks, outtakes and BBC sessions, and a fourth disc sampling four live shows. (This pricey import was reissued, four years after its initial appearance, by Rhino.) Other compilations followed, one cramming songs from both bands onto one disc, others offering alternate mixes and more BBC material, but the choices remain the same as ever: 1) the two albums and the two compilations, 2) Permanent for the most succinct overview, or 3) the box set for virtually everything.

Joy Division Substance (1988)—
2015 remaster: same as 1988, plus 2 extra tracks
Joy Division Permanent (1995)—4
Joy Division
Heart And Soul (1997)—

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Jimi Hendrix 20: People, Hell And Angels

Out of nowhere came People, Hell And Angels, another Hendrix vault compilation. Something of a counterpart to Valleys Of Neptune, it served up more studio takes that might have made up his fourth album, recorded in 1969 post-Noel and touching on the Band of Gypsys.

As should be clear by now, Jimi recorded several takes and arrangements of his works in progress, depending on his mood and who was around. So here’s another “Bleeding Heart” (this one slow), another “Hear My Train A Comin’” (more like the more familiar live versions), a decent “Earth Blues” with the Gypsys and an early stab at “Izabella” with the expanded Woodstock band. Of the unfamiliar material, “Inside Out” comes from mid-1968, pre-Ladyland, a duet with Mitch embellished by Jimi’s own bass part and more guitar. Sadly too short is “Villanova Junction Blues”, otherwise recorded only in jams and at Woodstock.

The album also attempts to further “right” some of the liberties taken by Alan Douglas forty some years earlier. Along with a longer excerpt of “Easy Blues”, last heard on Nine To The Universe, “Somewhere” is rescued somewhat from Crash Landing, in a take featuring Stephen Stills on bass. (That album’s title track also appears in a different but unaltered take, while what used to be known as “Captain Coconut” is added as a bonus on the Target stores edition of the album, in all of its twenty-minute splendor.) “Hey Gypsy Boy” was first heard on Midnight Lightning, supposedly recorded the same day as “Let Me Move You”; while funky and fiery, it’s basically a showcase for vocalist/saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood, and therefore belongs on a collection of Hendrix session work. Similarly, “Mojo Man” is a completed track by sometime backup singer Arthur Allen to which Jimi added a lead part.

The Estate stated that People, Hell And Angels would be their final archival release of studio material; time would prove it wasn’t. We can recommend it as a worthy installment, along with most of the studio releases of the last two decades, but that doesn’t excuse the anachronistic cover art. Really, a pile of songs from 1969 and the best they could do was a shot from two years earlier?

Jimi Hendrix People, Hell And Angels (2013)—3

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tori Amos 2: Under The Pink

Riding high on the success of her real debut, playing songs to adoring young females as well as frat boy jocks who thought she was pretty hot, Tori Amos had a ready-made audience for her next album. Under The Pink arrived while her debut still had legs; her confidence showed in her experimentation with different keyboards and rhythms, but everything sounded enough like Little Earthquakes without being a retread.

Accurate or not, “Pretty Good Year” is an apt way to start, a piano-and-vocal piece exploding with drums and strings for the bridge. The familiar setting is knocked askew with the offbeat meter and guitar squeals under “God”, the provocative first single. A heavily “prepared” piano is the only accompaniment for “Bells For Her”, and it does indeed suggest distant, ancient church bells. After that drifts off, “Past The Mission” starts as a jaunty song, turning to a more somber chorus with hints of murder in the lyrics and doom in the voice of Trent Reznor in the harmonies. “Baker Baker” is a mournful twist on the nursery rhyme, pleading to be made “whole again”. She can tug heart strings when she wants to, so while “The Wrong Band” and “The Waitress” provide dark humor, they’re not as effective.

Of course, trying to decode her lyrics can take up a lot of time, so the power of a tune like “Cornflake Girl” makes up for what you haven’t figured out yet. The second half of the song, devoted to an extended piano solo and a soulful choir of women, still stands neck hairs. (As for her assertion that she’d “never been a cornflake girl”, YouTube says otherwise.) The balance of the album is devoted to lengthier epics, beginning with the remembrance of sexual awakening in “Icicle”. It’s in the same spot as “Mother” from the first album, from its occasionally solo to a distinct Kate Bush moment every time she sings “I should have”. “Cloud On My Tongue” is almost as hushed, but a little shorter and more stirring. Something in the “doot-doot-DOO” rhythm of “Space Dog” always reminded us of Otto singing along to his headphones on The Simpsons, so the other musical motif works better (even with yet another shout-out to Neil Gaiman). Finally, “Yes, Anastasia” is a nine-and-a-half-minute epic touching on the life of the titular tsarina, but probably violence in general.

So in this case, more of the same was a comfort. Under The Pink made an excellent follow-up, and to her credit, her next albums would go further away from the “girl and her piano” stereotype. She would retain a strong following, but never really sounded like this again. (The backlog of extras from the sessions wasn’t as deep as those for the first album, but the eventual expanded version of the album added seven rarities, one remix, and a handful of live performances cheered on by her faithful.)

Tori Amos Under The Pink (1994)—4
2015 Deluxe Edition: same as 1994, plus 15 extra tracks

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Genesis 5: Selling England By The Pound

While working on their next opus, Genesis prepared a live LP to tide over fans. Live offered faithful, well-recorded renditions of five lengthy fan favorites, including an excellent take of “The Knife” with Phil Collins and Steve Hackett, neither of whom played on the original album track, which this supersedes. (“Supper’s Ready” was destined for the album but ultimately excluded, as the band had yet to figure out how to configure a three-sided live album.) The UK got the album first, while Americans had to wait until the following year, by which time their most accessible album to date had been released.

By “accessible”, we’re not suggesting that Selling England By The Pound sounds like their ‘80s blockbusters, but because there’s less emphasis on dark mythology and bizarre sexual encounters—at least not on the surface, anyway—what leaps from the speakers (or earbuds, or what have you) are the melodies, the songs, the hooks, demonstrated with the first three songs on the album. There is mythology of a sort, but as suggested by the album title, the songs present images of Britain that seem both archaic and modern. “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” presents the first of many Anglo puns in its title, proceeding through lilting melodies and pastoral imagery to more violent passages, all suggesting some triumphant tale but disguising a seething indictment of commercialism. A menacing hum turns out to be an aural representation of a lawnmower, as the narrator of “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” sings his defense of his simple life in the band’s first great, unlikely pop hit. (In another case of conceptual continuity, the phrase “the way I walk” will return in the Genesis saga.) It’s incredibly catchy, marching away to the sound of the lawnmower. “Firth Of Fifth” sports a gorgeous solo piano introduction, leading nearly seamlessly into the song proper, with driving drums, thick Hammond organ and fuzz guitar in unison with the bass. There’s a brief verse and what appears to be a bridge, but the meat of the song is in the instrumental sections. When the intro returns following the flute solo, check out Phil’s rolls, and the way Hackett ends up playing the same solo the flute played on guitar. Throughout, Tony Banks shows his deftness at the Mellotron. After a slight ritard, the verse returns for the song to fade on the piano. Those three tracks form such a majestic core that “More Fool Me” is easily overlooked. Its overall sound (and lovelorn content, odd for this band at the time) points towards the latter half of the decade, and not just because, as the sleeve pointed out, helpfully, “vocals: Phil”.

The second side is more challenging. Given the medieval red herrings on side one, it shouldn’t be too much of a shock that the participants in “The Battle Of Epping Forest” aren’t kilted, bearded warriors but London street gangs (think the Krays and their contemporaries). It gives Peter a chance to try out some more of his wacky voices, and indulge in the rapid rhymes that would take over his next opus. A title like “After The Ordeal” would tend to suggest some kind of continuity with the previous track, but is just an instrumental, mostly following a mandolin-like riff suggesting yet another ocean voyage, and a verse that was never written. It provides a sorbet before the final epic. (You know it’s going to be a big deal because of its plucked intro, similar to “Supper’s Ready”.) The story within “Cinema Show” isn’t much—Romeo and Juliet meeting up at the movies, with Romeo hoping for a matinee of their own afterwards—but the music develops and builds to again, something majestic. If you’re not paying close enough attention, the brief “Aisle Of Plenty” moves neatly from “Cinema Show” into a reprise of “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight.” (Clever boys, they.)

Genesis hadn’t figured out how to be consistent yet, but Selling England By The Pound will reward those who have stuck around this long. When combined with the previous two, the truly great pieces overshadow the less successful ones, and only improve with familiarity.

Genesis Live (1973)—3
Selling England By The Pound (1973)—

Friday, October 10, 2014

Van Morrison 26: Too Long In Exile

Those who thought the last, double album was too damn long will be only slightly relieved with this single disc, except that, at 77-plus minutes, it’s the equivalent of a two-record set. Too Long In Exile is another case of Van throwing all his ideas at one bucket, from the new songs complaining about the music business to the covers of jazz and blues standards and, most astonishingly, remakes of his own music. (Well, just one, but still.)

The sound for much of the album continues from the last one, with Georgie Fame, Candy Dulfer and the rest of his usual suspects. The title track is lyrically vague but catchy, followed by the paranoid “Bigtime Operators”, a subject he’s not about to abandon anytime soon. “Lonely Avenue” is a terrific version of the Ray Charles classic, up until where he sneers the word “you” approximately 73 times (we counted) in eight out of twelve bars. “Ball & Chain” is a backhanded compliment, nicely arranged with a developed melody and tossed-off lyrics. Other Van experts have pointed out that “In The Forest” takes its melody from “Orangefield” and its content from similar evocations of his imagination. Meanwhile, “Till We Get The Healing Done” takes the changes from “Oh The Warm Feeling”, but its attack is a little too relentless over eight minutes to affect any actual healing.

While it undoubtedly helped sell the album, there’s no other excuse for this tepid rendition of “Gloria”, outside a John Lee Hooker album wherein the blues legend sings a pile of songs with modern ones. Meanwhile, the CD booklet helpfully offers a transcription of all the words, to emphasize every spelling of the name. After a half-decent take of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” (making, surprisingly, its first-ever appearance on any Van album), John Lee comes back to offer extemporaneous counterpoint to “Wasted Years”, which fades out while they’re still discussing them. And from here, the album actually gets better. “The Lonesome Road” and “Moody’s Mood For Love” are two excellent renditions of jazz standards, though we could do without the other singers taking a verse on the latter. “Close Enough For Jazz” is a sprightly instrumental featuring Van’s own deft acoustic guitar, while the equally toe-tapping “Before The World Was Made” sets a Yeats poem to somebody else’s music. The most interesting stretch on the album is reminiscent of the climax of Into The Music: here, he begins with “I’ll Take Care Of You” by Brook Benton, leads it via key change into an “Instrumental” with his own alto sax, then tells the band to go back to the first part, which he copyrights as “Tell Me What You Want”.

There’s an album’s worth of music here that would be considered good, even by his own standards. But putting “too long” in the title turns out to be somewhat ominous. Too Long In Exile instead becomes too much to take at once. Take all the covers—basically, “Lonely Avenue”, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and everything from “The Lonesome Road” on—and you have a pretty solid set. Here they prove how ordinary the rest of the songs are.

Van Morrison Too Long In Exile (1993)—3

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tom Waits 23: Bad As Me

As with each of the albums Tom Waits has put out over the last 20 years, critics fell all over Bad As Me, starting with superlatives like “tour de force” and working up from there. We won’t go that far, but to say that unlike his more conceptual work of late, it’s more in keeping with Bone Machine and Mule Variations in being just a collection of songs (though we do miss the piano ballads that still stand out from the latter, and still don’t subscribe to the fawning over the former).

There’s no gimmick this time, save what he swears was his wife’s request that he do some short songs for a change. And he does, beginning with the sputtering “Chicago”. “Raised Right Men” has a decent message and even chord changes, but both are camouflaged by the maddening tabla Tom taps for most of the track. After the meandering falsetto of “Talking At The Same Time”, “Get Lost” is a welcome slice of rockabilly, especially given the lazy feel of “Face To The Highway”. “Pay Me” is a pretty accordion-based ballad, with a nice piano coda, setting up the tropical croon in “Back In The Crowd”.

The title track mixes metaphors and dirty blues, which get even dirtier in “Kiss Me”, with the effects of a scratchy record decorating this cousin of “Blue Valentines”. “Satisfied” got the most attention upon release, due to its shout-outs to “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards”, and the appearance of the latter himself on the track. Keith sings harmony on “Last Leaf”, the weeper that follows. Despite its military imagery, “Hell Broke Luce” follows well on from similarly barked nursery rhymes on Rain Dogs. “New Year’s Eve” ends the album on with a waltz, but the inclusion of a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”—not once but twice—is a tad gratuitous.

For no real reason other than to get fans to buy a copy of the album that wouldn’t fit in their racks too well, Bad As Me was also made available in a limited edition with the dimensions of a hardcover book and a “bonus” disc with three more songs. “She Stole The Blush” would have been welcome on the main album; the same could be said of “Tell Me”, which fits the “tropical” mode of “Back In The Crowd”. Seashore noises also appear on “After You Die”, more metaphors that don’t say much, in possibly a rough draft for “Face To The Highway”.

The good thing about Tom Waits music is that some of the better songs reveal themselves over time, and maybe that will happen with these. Either way, it’s nice to have a Waits album that doesn’t require a lot of attention, and for that, Bad As Me gets the job done.

Tom Waits Bad As Me (2011)—3

Friday, October 3, 2014

Traffic 8: When The Eagle Flies

Of all the Traffic albums, When The Eagle Flies has always been the most obscure. Coming as it did at the end of their tenure, and with no real standout track, it’s often been overlooked. It’s a depressing, even spooky album, partially due to the line drawings, reminiscent of children’s illustrator Garth Williams. And as with every one of their other releases of the decade, there was another lineup, stripped to a quartet. Jim Capaldi went back to the drumkit, turning in an excellent performance, while band newcomer Rosko Gee took over on bass. Reebop plays a few of his congas, but wouldn’t make the cover art.

It gets off to a snappy start with “Something New”, which sounds a lot bigger than it is thanks to all the overdubbed guitars and horns. Lest we get too comfortable, “Dream Gerrard” is eleven minutes of noodling under a repeated sax riff, Mellotron off a King Crimson record, and some very primitive synth bloops and bleeps. The extended jazzy end is quite Crim-like as well. The bloops continue on “Graveyard People”, which probably made for a nice effect in 1974, but now only distract from the funk.

If anyone knows any song from this album, it’s probably “Walking In The Wind”, which fades in on obvious effects to a catchy bass and piano duo; therefore sounding more like the band we’d come to know. “Memories Of A Rock N’ Rolla” is another lament of the traveling lifestyle, tackled better by other songs. This one lopes along glumly until shifting abruptly into an upbeat groove reminiscent of Chicago. It’s been said that the basic tracks of the album were recorded live on a short tour before being embellished in the studio; this is most apparent on “Love”, which meanders amid questions about the key before finding its way to an actual tune and disappearing. Finally, the agitated title track doubles the piano with the organ for an ecological lament, mixing in what sounds like radio transmission and fading away.

When The Eagle Flies didn’t make much of a splash, and the band—or what was left of it this time—split soon after. Capaldi and Winwood would collaborate on each other’s albums, Stevie eventually having more success than anyone else. Chris Wood died in 1983, not long after Reebop. There would be another Traffic album in 1994, but we shan’t speak of that other to say that it was Traffic in name only. Various compilations over the years attempted to distill the band to a single set, Smiling Phases and Gold arguably the most successful, being double CDs, but aren’t identical, and skew either side of early and late. Their legacy shouldn’t end here, but their constantly evolving nature always made them seem fleeting anyway.

Traffic When The Eagle Flies (1974)—

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Blue Nile 2: Hats

A Walk Across The Rooftops was intriguing, but not immediately stunning. When their second album came out at the end of the decade, that did the trick.

Hats follows the template of the first album closely: seven tracks, mostly around the five- to six-minute range, alternating upbeat tracks with slower numbers. All feature yearning lyrics and aching melodies, and it’s really hard to put into words the emotions they convey. The basic instrumentation consists of synthesizers, guitar, bass, trumpet, percussion and the soaring vocals of Paul Buchanan.

“Over The Hillside” creeps in with electronic drums and (fake?) strings, but the effect isn’t as cold as on their first album. By the time the song winds up you’ve got the sensation of riding a train going home (more on that later). “The Downtown Lights” was a moderate hit in the UK, and got even more notice when covered by Annie Lennox and Rod Stewart, both of whom followed the impressionistic arrangement to the letter. Just when the song seems to be winding down, an extended coda kicks in with incredibly picturesque imagery. “Let’s Go Out Tonight” closes what was once considered side one on a melancholy note, with a slow, ticking beat and stairstep guitar over sad piano accents. There’s an undercurrent of tension, accented by the repeat of the first verse an octave higher.

“Headlights On The Parade” has elements of the techno-pop sound that was all the rage in the ‘80s, but transcends it (again) with the vocal. While all these songs are stunners, “From A Late Night Train” is probably the album’s high point. It’s quite evocative of the scenery one could see south of Boston from the window of the Amtrak—to suggest just one mind movie of the thousands of candidates available worldwide—the streetlights shining on waterways and wet pavements. The entire lyric bleeds regret, leading right up to the breakdown of the last line. The switch from the minor to the major-seventh at the end is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but they pull it off.

After all that, “Seven A.M.” is a little monotonous; they must have known this when sequencing the album, as there’s several seconds of silence before it stumbles in. And while “Saturday Night” doesn’t live up to the potential of what has come before, the last minute or so, while repetitive, always leaves one wanting more.

Hats is truly one of the hidden gems of the ‘80s, arriving in what turned out to be a pretty good year for albums that have endured. It’s also another wonderful album for quiet evenings and rainy mornings, and it can be enjoyed even if one hasn’t been wallowing in self-pity. As with many classic albums, the eventual expanded remaster didn’t uncover any real gold, save a few alternate takes, one unreleased song (the underwhelming “Christmas”), a live version of “Headlights” and the okay B-side “The Wires Are Down”.

The Blue Nile Hats (1989)—
2012 Remastered Collector's Edition: same as 1989, plus 6 extra tracks