Friday, November 28, 2014

Waterboys 1: The Waterboys

The brain child of one Mike Scott, an earnest young man equally obsessed with romantic poetry and pop music, the band known as The Waterboys went through a variety of styles and even more permutations in a relatively short time without ever truly catching on in the States outside of what used to be considered alternative radio. For the first few albums anyway, there was a consistency, best described by the eventual song title “The Big Music”. In the early ‘80s, this was a style comparable to that of U2 and Big Country, suggesting that the smaller countries in the British Isles were about to take over music. (They didn’t, but it was nice while it lasted.)

The Waterboys is pretty solid for a mostly one-man band effort recorded across different sessions. The trilling “December” is an unlikely Christmas song, so much so that it needn’t be limited to just one time of year. “A Girl Called Johnny” was the first single, sporting the distinctive sax of the even more distinctively named Anthony Thistlethwaite, fresh from Robyn Hitchcock sessions, and who would be the most consistent Waterboy through most of their career. “It Should Have Been You” is the most traditionally constructed song, if a bit overwrought vocally. “The Girl In The Swing” isn’t much, but its 6/8 time nicely matches the image of the title.

His piano playing is a lot more interesting than the plodding style from later albums, as demonstrated on the meandering yet mesmerizing “Gala”, which any other producer would have edited severely. From time to time the drum machine gets a little robotic, as on “The Three Day Man”, yet the one track with a full band, the pointedly defiant “I Will Not Follow”, not exactly a riposte to those Irish boys, sounds the most like vintage ‘80s. Speaking of which, “Savage Earth Heart” isn’t too far removed from Dublin either; while another long solo performance, one can hear the potential to sound bigger and better with a full band.

The Waterboys appeared in North America first as a five-song mini-album, before becoming standard worldwide with eight songs. With the rejigging of the catalog, it’s since been expanded with a few B-sides, unreleased tracks, and “Gala” extended to its full 9½-minute length. It remains an impressive debut.

The Waterboys The Waterboys (1983)—3
2002 CD remaster: same as 1983, plus 7 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Byrds 10: Byrdmaniax

Still going, the Byrds kept the same lineup together to record another album. The striking cover of molten silver faces and wacky title Byrdmaniax don’t really represent the music contained within, but then again, the band hadn’t been predictable since David Crosby was still around.

Studio veteran Larry Knechtel’s strident piano opens “Glory, Glory”, another gospel adaptation; musically it’s joyful, which is the point, but Roger’s vocal doesn’t really stir, which also keeps “Pale Blue” from catching fire. “I Trust” is a little better, but more of the same. Skip Battin takes over for the rest of side one, first on “Tunnel Of Love”, which is decorated by too many horns and female choir, then on the kitschy “Citizen Kane”, featuring a Betty Boop-styled muted trumpet and incessant woodblocks.

While based in the same novelty territory, “I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician” has the right mix of satire and folk to go in the plus column. Skip returns to sing “Absolute Happiness”, which succeeds without a gimmick. “Green Apple Quick Step” is another Clarence White flat-picking showcase, and we could swear there’s an accordion in there; he also sings “My Destiny”, which slows things down again. “Kathleen’s Song” is a pretty McGuinn strum, unfortunately buried under orchestral swells. Clarence gets the last word with “Jamaica Say You Will”, which predates Jackson Browne’s own version by a year, and damn if Clarence doesn’t sound like the song’s author.

Byrdmaniax wasn’t a hit, and the band would soon complain that the orchestrations had happened without their consent. That doesn’t excuse their own performances, but then again they were under a lot of pressure to create product, having lost the clout that might have enabled them to buy some time. The expanded CD that came out in the shadow of (Untitled) didn’t offer much in the way of extras, just a tepid cover of “Just Like A Woman”, a gentle alternate of “Pale Blue” and another forced vocal by Clarence on a Gene Clark song, of all things. Per tradition there’s an instrumental hidden track, this time an alternate of “Green Apple Quick Step” as a better tribute to Clarence.

The Byrds Byrdmaniax (1971)—2
2000 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, November 21, 2014

Pink Floyd 17: The Endless River

And you thought seven years was a long time between albums? Try twenty. That’s how many had gone by since the last Pink Floyd studio album, and with the passing of Rick Wright it looked like the band was finally done. Sure, Roger Waters took his improved multimedia upgrade of The Wall on the road, and managed to convince Nick Mason and even David Gilmour to show up for a few dates, but new music appeared out of the question.

That changed when Gilmour put off work on a solo album to “finish up” some jams left over from the early stages of the Division Bell sessions. With Nick Mason in tow, The Endless River is a tribute to Wright, an ambient experiment, and likely the last thing ever to be remotely labeled a Pink Floyd album.

Designed as a four-part suite, it’s largely instrumental, many tracks less than two minutes, and moody little pieces they are. “Things Left Unsaid” begins with snippets of conversation in proper Queen’s English, over a few minutes of atmospherics along the lines of “Cluster One”. The aptly titled “It’s What We Do” is built around sounds familiar from Wish You Were Here; a little “Welcome To The Machine” here, some “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” there. “Ebb And Flow” finishes the first section with some heavily panned electric piano and acoustic.

“Sum” conjures images of the racecars Gilmour and Mason adore; that track and “Skins” feature some of the most energetic drumming Nick Mason’s done in decades. The hand of co-producer Youth is noticeable here. The brief “Unsaid”, set up the more majestic “Anisina”, combining the piano bass of “Us And Them” with the swirling strings of “Comfortably Numb” underneath slide guitar, saxophone and hearty “ooh”s.

A lot of the titles seem tossed off; calling one track “The Lost Art Of Conversation” continues the communication theme of the last album but rings weirdly on an album with no vocals. Similarly, “On Noodle Street” sounds just what it is, a smooth jazz riff. “Night Light” is another nondescript interlude before the ‘80s sound (think more “Blue Light” than “Run Like Hell”) of “Allons-Y”. This piece is bisected by “Autumn ‘68”, a vintage recording of Rick Wright on the glorious Royal Albert Hall organ we wish was longer and less adorned. We didn’t really need more soundbites from Stephen Hawking, but there he is, inevitably, halfway through “Talkin’ Hawkin’”, which is at least musically different from “Keep Talking”. Is that a howl from Dark Side buried in there?

Some of the guitar-less moments resemble sci-fi movie soundtracks, and “Calling”, “Eyes To Pearls” and “Surfacing” don’t always catch. Then the chimes of Big Ben reappear at the start of “Louder Than Words”, the only song with a vocal on the album and something of a weary summation until the closing solo, ending the album in a minor key. Not much at first, it improves with familiarity. (Despite the insistence that the album was to be treated like a four-sided LP, the deluxe DVD and Blu-ray packages included some extra music, dominated by extended jams on “Wearing The Inside Out” and one rocking track called “Nervana”.)

So while The Endless River isn’t a grand finale, it is something of a conclusion, and a fitting one. In many ways it recalls Rick’s long-forgotten Wet Dream, with its own nautical mood and down tempos. People can and will argue whether this would be more or less valuable in a deluxe anniversary edition of The Division Bell—one of which had appeared earlier in the year, boasting a surround sound mix and a double LP pressing that matched the CD, unlike the original edited LP—but it sure was nice to hear the guys again.

Pink Floyd The Endless River (2014)—3

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Neil Young 49: Storytone

A Letter Home proved to be not much more than a snapshot of an experiment, as Neil’s next real album was much more substantial. Storytone was presented as an orchestral album with Neil’s voice and occasional harmonica, but also made available with a Solo Storytone disc of Neil accompanying himself on piano or guitar. To confuse things even more, he went back to the editing suite to combine elements of the tracks for yet another permutation of the songs, called Mixed Pages Of Storytone, so whichever is the “real” version remains up in the air.

In the orchestral setting his voice sounds more vulnerable than ever, bringing to mind recent Brian Wilson. The strings recall Comes A Time, and particularly the lonesome cowboy sweep of Prairie Wind, while even evoking Gordon Jenkins’ work with Frank Sinatra. The songs are presented as a suite, some seeming to follow on from the one before, whether she’s sleeping or he’s still driving.

“Plastic Flowers” recalls the piano version of “Living With War”; it’s unknown if giving the flowers of the title to Mother Nature’s daughter is supposed to be a good thing. “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” is the one he likely hopes to will get the most attention. With its urgent riff and choir, it’s not as much of a departure. The end is overly melodramatic, ending with a “Day In The Life”-type stop and a surprise coda. The grumpy “I Want To Drive My Car” is more This Note’s For You than Fork In The Road, with a big-band backing and even an electric solo, probably courtesy of Waddy Wachtel. The joy of the open road doesn’t seem to pervade in “Glimmer”, where he’s left alone behind the wheel with only his thoughts and choked memories. Here’s a place where the Sinatra echo is most obvious, particularly when followed by “Say Hello To Chicago”, arranged in a style that will sound to most under-40 ears like Brian Setzer. Seeing as Neil doesn’t croon, it sounds very out of place.

“Tumbleweed” is more lush yet gentle, a lullaby suggesting the plant itself. “Like You Used To Do” is another Bluenotes cousin, a woman-done-me-wrong song, before the grand sweep of the final songs. Insisting that he’s not different from anyone else, “I’m Glad I Found You” offers a hushed, repeated ending in a naked love song. “When I Watch You Sleeping” sounds like it has a pedal steel, asking the unanswerable question as to how the late Ben Keith might have shaped this album. She’s still sleeping in “All Those Dreams”, while Neil rides off into the sunset, burning not a drop of gasoline.

The horn-driven blues songs break up any threat of monotony, but they don’t really fit in; in many ways the solo versions, each just as unique and just as considered as the arranged versions, allow the listener to get in deeper. “Plastic Flowers” and “I’m Glad I Found You” are pretty on the piano, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” stark, “Glimmer” less mournful. “I Want To Drive My Car” and “Like You Used To Do” are more subdued strums, and “Say Hello To Chicago” a boozy late-night reverie right off a Tom Waits album. “Tumbleweed” is given a ukulele arrangement similar to how Paul McCartney’s been playing “Something” of late. “When I Watch You Sleeping” and “All Those Dreams” finish things up, quiet and acoustic.

Coming so soon after the shocking revelation that he was divorcing Pegi (and taking up with Daryl Hannah), it’s not easy to keep the lyrics separate from diary entries. In fact, the mood and content of Storytone can be compared with Elvis Costello’s North, another love-lost-and-found album that divided listeners. Time will tell whether this will be a substantial chapter or just another tangent.

Neil Young Storytone (2014)—3

Friday, November 14, 2014

Coldplay 5: Mylo Xyloto

The biggest band on the planet kept going, comfortable with the knowledge that anything they did would be multi-platinum. And so it was with Mylo Xyloto. This time, there’s a concept, something having to do with a futuristic struggle of good vs. evil, not that you’d be able to tell from listening to the album, decoding the lyrics or flipping through the CD booklet.

For the most part, they embrace modern pop, using machine-driven drums and the by-now familiar Chris Martin “whoa-oh-oh” hooks. They seem to have left the circular piano of “Clocks” and its clones behind, in favor of that solitary bass drum that drove “Viva La Vida”. To be arty, a few brief tracks exist only as interludes or introductions, while other tracks end with similar detours.

A key turnoff for anyone not otherwise into current music would be “Princess Of China”, which features the “vocal” stylings of Rihanna. She doesn’t get too much in the way, but after a while, one expects the auto-tune queen, part-time punching bag and lingerie model to show up all over the album, particularly on “Paradise” and “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall”, or within the canned chipmunk voices on “Charlie Brown”.

But those songs are undeniably catchy, and the listener vacillates between wanting to hate the album and hoping it will become comfortable. “Us Against The World” is played so delicately you’re not convinced of the actual meter, while “Major Minus” is just a little too jarring and clattery. “U.F.O.” sounds like it could be from the first album; it almost comes off as a finale, as does “Up In Flames”, but instead they bookend the Rihanna track. And indeed, the pounding “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart” does work as a sewing-together of whatever’s gone before, more so than “Up With The Birds”.

Mylo Xyloto soars when it wants to, but doesn’t get too experimental. It’s also not as long as it seems. The band seems compelled to make their audience think; for them, it’s not enough to put addresses of human rights organizations and such in the liner notes. At the same time, they make it hard for that same audience (and all the haters) to get lost in the music.

Coldplay Mylo Xyloto (2011)—3

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Gregg Allman: Laid Back

While the rest of his band (or what was left of it) was putting together Brothers And Sisters, Gregg Allman was hopping between there and another set of players for his own solo album. True to its title, Laid Back presents music more suited towards the end of the party as opposed to trying to get one going.

In a truly odd move, he begins with a version of “Midnight Rider” that downplays the defiance of the original with a more haunted, hunted feel. Without a hotshot guitar to take over, a new bridge sports unobtrusive horns. The horns stick around for “Queen Of Hearts”, a terrific torchy number that touches on jazz, its instrumental breaks jumping between 6/8 and 5/8. By contrast, “Please Call Home” is made over with a bigger arrangement, even a female choir, but still remains the same song. After three moody tracks, “Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing” is an oddly timed dose of boogie.

Jackson Browne’s “These Days” was not yet a standard, but this version had a lot to do with how it became one. Gregg’s voice is perfect for the melancholy of the song, particularly the final couplet (“please don’t confront me with my failures/I’m aware of them”). “Multi-Colored Lady” comes the closest to a true Allman Brothers Band candidate, a mildly sleepy tune bettered by “All My Friends”, which sounds familiar until you realize the initial melody was used by Neil Young for “Comes A Time”. The little switch in the key at the end of each verse is very effective. Finally, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” is the gospel standard, played with fervor and passion.

Particularly for those less enamored with Southern rock, Laid Back is a surprisingly fresh change of pace from the established Allman Brothers brand. The strings and horns have a lot to do with the smooth sound, without straying too far into Adult Contemporary territory, and we can thank Chuck Leavell’s touch on the piano. The cover art is hideous, courtesy of the same guy who did Bitches Brew and Abraxas, but that was the ‘70s for you. (Many years later, the album was given the Deluxe Edition treatment, with the original sequence bolstered on one disc with “early mixes” of the tracks, plus a second disc loaded with demos, even more alternate mixes, another version of “Wasted Words”, and a live performance of “Melissa”, recorded a year later and dedicated to Brother Duane.)

Gregg Allman Laid Back (1973)—
2019 Deluxe Edition: same as 1973, plus 26 extra tracks

Friday, November 7, 2014

Band 6: Moondog Matinee

They may have been out of new ideas, but they still wanted to play, so in the same year that David Bowie and John Lennon embarked on oldies projects, The Band eschewed an album of new songs for a grab-bag of early rock ‘n roll and R&B. (Besides, everybody was PO’d at Robbie for elbowing aside the collaboration that made their first albums so good, or so Levon would have us believe.)

Moondog Matinee is an attempt to recreate the feel of the “jook joints” where they’d started out. But just as other oldies projects transplanted the music to the current decade, The Band drag their musical selections firmly into the seventies. The biggest culprit is Garth Hudson’s arsenal of decidedly modern keyboards. That said, his saxophones, when heard, come closer to making the façade real, especially on tracks where Robbie’s not stomping on the wah-wah.

Overall, it’s a fun album, as the boys certainly sound like they’re enjoying themselves, and the songs aren’t the typical hackneyed touchstones. Levon tackles “I’m Ready” and Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home” with glee, tackling the frog voice on the latter but thankfully avoiding the girl part. Except for the gospel parody “Saved”, Richard sings most of the slow ones, filling “Share Your Love” and “The Great Pretender” with the appropriate emotion, while Rick takes center stage on “A Change Is Gonna Come”. And all three revel in the swamp of “Holy Cow”.

Not content to leave well enough alone, “Mystery Train” isn’t just an extended jam but includes new verses. It’s followed up by the instrumental “Third Man Theme”, which even the early Beatles used to kill time, providing a silly end to what was side one.

While certainly a placeholder for their career as a whole, Moondog Matinee is recommended to the listener who’s not expecting much. The reissue adds a few more recordings from the sessions, including Chuck Berry’s “Back To Memphis” and The Band’s own “Endless Highway”, both of which had been doctored and passed off as live recordings on earlier reissues.

The Band Moondog Matinee (1973)—3
2000 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Modest Proposal

[The following is a letter I have sent to Tony Bennett's management. I'd love to see this happen.]

Dear Ms. Weiner:

I'm hoping you can get this idea in front of either Tony or Danny Bennett, as I think it's got some incredible potential.

Tony Bennett's legacy has now spanned two centuries, and he continually gains new generations of fans. He's a respected interpreter of some great American songwriters, but I've noticed that even on his newest album, he's still going back to the well from the pre-rock era. There is, however, one American songwriter that I don't believe he's ever covered, and that's Tom Waits.

Just the first two Waits albums, Closing Time (1973) and The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974), are full of songs that would be a tremendous fit for Mr. Bennett's voice, from saloon songs to snappy jazz. And further into the Waits catalog are even more songs that would do justice to his talent, and vice versa; "Tom Traubert's Blues", "Foreign Affair", "Kentucky Avenue", "Ruby's Arms", "Take It With Me" and "Time" are just the first handful that come to mind. (Hey, if he even wants to tackle the likes of "Cemetery Polka", "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six" or "Pasties & A G-String", more power to him.)

I am not a salesman or an entrepreneur, just a music fan and writer. This idea came to me from a discussion years ago with a friend, and as time goes on I'm amazed that nobody else has suggested it. I'm sure that if you asked his friend Elvis Costello, even he would agree that "Bennett Sings Waits" would be a hit. (Just don't let him take credit for the idea, unless he's already suggested it, in which case what are we waiting for?)

Thank you for your time and consideration. I'd love to hear even one song in this vein, and certainly before Barry Manilow does it first.

Everybody's Dummy

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Journey 1: In The Beginning

To admit any fondness for Journey is to risk ridicule, vandalism or ever being allowed near a jukebox again. Men of a certain age will associate the band with the first time they had their hearts handed to them without thanks or apology by the first girl they really, really liked in high school, and is only one reason why The Last American Virgin remains the most realistic teen sex comedy ever produced. Yet we digress, naturally.

The people who dismiss Journey would be even more contemptuous should they hear the band’s first, Steve Perry-less albums. Here’s another case where a band’s first recordings don’t completely resemble what truly made them famous. Journey was formed around the afro of teenage guitar whiz kid Neal Schon and vocalist/organist Gregg Rolie, both recently of Santana. They teamed up with bass player Ross Valory and a rhythm guitarist, and convinced drummer Aynsley Dunbar to leave steady British session work for a shot at stardom.

For the most part, Journey straddles the line between what used to be called fusion and what we still call cock rock. Gregg could sing, but his strength lay more in the keys than what he sang. Neal plays incredibly clean for such a fast guitarist, but is also consistently, constantly showy. Two lengthy instrumentals are almost comical in their gravitas, while “To Play Some Music” sports an eructating vocoder, not yet perfected by Peter Frampton.

Look Into The Future shed the rhythm guitarist and attempts to deliver more hooks, but at this juncture Gregg is still writing and singing lyrics that would make the ear wince if they came out of Paul Rodgers’ mouth. There are several anachronistic Beatlesque references, most pointedly in their mild rearrangement of “It’s All Too Much” (complete with backwards ending!) and the nod toward “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” in “You’re On Your Own”. And the main riff of “I’m Gonna Leave You” will remind you of “Carry On Wayward Son”.

The songs on Next aren’t as long, but are a little slower and tend to meander. “Here We Are” has an unexpected synth intro before the song takes over with Gregg still attempting a Lennon imitation. “Hustler” proves why Aynsley isn’t known for his lyrics. “Nickel & Dime” gets its title from the 5/4 and 10/4 meters, and still sounds like Rush, while two songs have Neal trying to sing as well as play like Hendrix. There are some nice moments in “Spaceman”, except that it’s an ode to hang-gliding. (We did not make this up.)

Neal’s voice wasn’t enough to carry the band either, so they went off to find a singer. Once they did and started to get popular, a double album called In The Beginning sampled each of the first three albums, leaning more heavily on the first two, with no real logic to the sequencing. It had a brief availability as an import CD; even the three albums themselves have never gotten the reissue fanfare of the later (hit) albums. They remain recommended for those who love the band for their instrumental prowess, and not at all for anyone looking for ear candy.

Journey Journey (1975)—3
Look Into The Future (1976)—
Next (1977)—2
In The Beginning (1979)—3