Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Smithereens 4: Blow Up

Derivative retro-pop isn’t an easy genre to sustain, even when a band has the chops of the Smithereens. Blow Up (the title another nod to an old movie, with artwork by the legendary Saul Bass) finds the band mining the same territory, which is fine, except that Pat DiNizio started repeating himself, and hadn’t learned his lesson about rewriting his own songs on the previous album.

Maybe he knew his limitations after all, since he doesn’t monopolize the songwriting. “Get A Hold Of My Heart” was written with the matron of the hit single herself, Diane Warren, and outside of a prominent Rickenbacker 12-string, is probably the least exciting song on the album. The “J. Lennon” credited on “If You Want The Sun To Shine” is Julian, whom we would hope had mixed feelings about an arrangement owing months’ worth of debt to “I Am The Walrus”. Guitarist Jim Babjak contributes the best song; “Now And Then” finally gets the recipe correct.

Every track has something going for it, and every track is compromised by something. It starts strong with “Top Of The Pops”, and the Motown soul of “Too Much Passion” is a nice change but goes too long. (Smokey would’ve faded it by 2:50, of course.) “Tell Me When Did Things Go Wrong” finally ups the tempo, but recycles the I-III-V riff from “Yesterday’s Girl”. “Evening Dress” is sweet, and Beatlesque in all the right places, but good luck getting past the tune of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. Truly odd is “Indigo Blues”, featuring a honking sax and Hammond organ, but the words quote from the middle section of “Shout” and the “here we go [fill in the blank] here we go” chant from every American sporting event ever.

That’s a lot of “buts”, and it would have helped if the guys had been kicked in theirs. For a band that used to have so much energy, the album doesn’t go much faster than “Girl In Room 12”, which fans might recognize as “Blues Before And After”. “Anywhere You Are” distills every hit by the Zombies into a cool little samba, and “Over And Over Again” could easily be sped up for better effect, but “It’s Alright” is just plain confused lyrically.

Blow Up is the least essential Smithereens album yet, and also the longest. Editing, or at least faster arrangements would have been a big help. Despite the shortcomings, it manages to be competent, listenable and even enjoyable if you don’t scrutinize it too much. The sound is big, thanks to producer Ed Stasium, but being released on the cusp of grunge didn’t do it any favors, and their label dropped them after the hits didn’t happen.

The Smithereens Blow Up (1991)—3

Friday, December 25, 2015

Replacements 4: Let It Be

While we’re hardly qualified to make such a diagnosis, Paul Westerberg is probably bipolar, with each aspect of his personality constantly clashing with the other. This dichotomy is perfectly expressed on the Replacements’ first great album. The front cover of Let It Be shows the band relaxing on the roof of the Stinson family household—a sly reference to a certain lunchtime performance by another band who used the title first—and of all the members, Westerberg is the only one not facing the camera. The graffiti on the back cover only underscores their ambivalence towards playing nice.

With few exceptions, the songs are well-crafted and tuneful, beginning with “I Will Dare”, simple in its delivery (and Peter Buck’s phoned-in solo) but complex in the inclusion of a mandolin, of all things. “Favorite Thing” threatens to reel out of control, but always comes together for hook before the choruses. Similarly, “We’re Comin’ Out” comes closest to their earlier thrash experiments, except that it slows down in the middle for a piano-led snap-along reiteration of the theme before speeding up again. “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” continues the hospital theme from the last album, suggested here by a children’s record. The piano comes back to drive “Androgynous”, which would win points solely on the basis of one astute observation (“He might be a father but he sure ain’t a dad”). After the song stumbles to a finish, a cover of “Black Diamond” by Kiss is played straight, but stops before the interminable detuned section.

As good as side one is, side two is nearly perfect. First there’s “Unsatisfied”, an anthem for youth of any decade, shimmering with a 12-string acoustic and inspired bursts of lead guitar. Paul screams “I’m so” over and over, running out of steam before the fade, and in a just world the song never actually ended. “Seen Your Video” is instrumental, and a tight one, before the breakdown and snotty asides about MTV give the band an excuse to burst through again. “Gary’s Got A Boner” is a barely finished rip on the “Cat Scratch Fever” riff, redeemed immeasurably by “Sixteen Blue”. Supposedly written in honor of their bass player, it’s yet another note of sympathy for angst-ridden teens anywhere, with crisp drumming by Chris Mars and another glorious solo over a slow fade. Finally, “Answering Machine” is Paul solo again, railing in favor of old-fashioned communication over a tense guitar and chorus pedals.

Let It Be was even favorably reviewed in Rolling Stone, which likely got the band some more notice. It’s miles ahead of their earlier albums, and as a template for the rest of the decade, remains an excellent place to dive in. When Rhino expanded the album for a reissue, covers ranging from T.Rex’s “20th Century Boy” to “Heartbeat—It’s A Lovebeat” by the DeFranco Family alternated with a couple of alternate takes and the otherwise unreleased “Perfectly Lethal”, which would have fit just fine on the original LP.

The Replacements Let It Be (1984)—4
2008 CD reissue: same as 1984, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Journey 5: Captured

Having made their bones as a popular arena concert attraction, the double live album was a natural step for Journey. Plus, they took the opportunity to further the cleverness in their album titles; they made a Departure and were promptly Captured.

With “Majestic” from Evolution piped through the PA as a fanfare, the boys plow into “Where Were You” and they’re off. Gregg Rolie’s affectations on “Just The Same Way” are ill-advised, but this was Steve Perry’s show by now anyway. They take it down for “Lights”, which segues nicely into “Stay Awhile”.

Since the band didn’t really have any hits yet, familiar songs are mixed with what we now call deep cuts. Steve makes a point of praising Gregg and Neal Schon as premier blues musicians, but “Walks Like A Lady” is a hardly a vehicle to demonstrate their alleged prowess. However, it does end in a flurry of guitar notes that eventually leads to “La Do Da”, which gives way to both a bass solo and a drum solo.

It’s always a treat when live albums provide something new for the fan, and technically “Dixie Highway” is such a rarity, seeing as it doesn’t appear on any other album. But the real enticement is “Hopelessly In Love (The Party’s Over)”, a studio cut tacked onto the end of side four. This catchy pop song is based around a circular piano riff, played either by Geoff Workman or Tim Gorman, depending on which liner notes you read. The player is certainly not Gregg Rolie, as he left the band before the album was released.

At several intervals, Steve nicely informs or reminds the audience that they are being recorded for the album, though he neglects to mention how much time they’ll spend in the studio sweetening the tracks. At little over an hour, Captured doesn’t deliver their entire set, but the album does serve the purpose of providing a transition to their next phase. (Fans could also drool over the photos in the gatefold, inner sleeves and massive poster. Those were the days.)

Journey Captured (1981)—3

Friday, December 18, 2015

Grateful Dead 3: Aoxomoxoa

Advances in technology gave the Dead more confidence to create in the studio, and Aoxomoxoa shows how that worked both for and against them. With full-time lyricist Robert Hunter contributing to every track, there’s more of a focus on songs, but experimentation takes over too. And if you think Jerry Garcia’s voice is the highlight of the Dead, this is the album for you, since he sings every song.

A precise chord progression is played very deliberately to open “St. Stephen”, which soon explodes into a song that incorporates all the players into an FM radio staple. “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” is an odd bluegrass hodgepodge, with 12-string guitar, banjo, organ and bells fighting for their place in the mix. It sounds underdeveloped, which can’t be said for “Rosemary”, a pretty duet for acoustic guitars over which Jerry’s vocal is put through a Leslie speaker or underwater effect. It’s back to a more conventional Dead sound on “Doin’ That Rag”, which makes “Mountains Of The Moon”, with its harpsichord, all the more unique.

“China Cat Sunflower” is another good jam, particularly with the organ to the fore and all those backup harmonies, but good luck getting through “What’s Become Of The Baby” without lunging for the “next” button. While the lyric itself may be somebody’s idea of art, pairing it to a more extreme underwater echo effect than on “Rosemary”, with no discernable accompaniment, is sure to result in one bad dose. Much better is “Cosmic Charlie”, which would improve in a live setting, but here is a sleepy lope with slide guitar.

Unfortunately for anyone picking up the story in this century, the band remixed Aoxomoxoa a few years after its initial release, and that’s the version of the album that has endured on cassette, CD, box sets and downloads. The original LP does sound different in several places, mostly in some extreme instrument placement across the stereo landscape, but also in the way of some vocal passages and asides that were removed in the remix. Arguably, the remix improved “Rosemary”, and “Mountains Of The Moon” is much prettier without the ethereal choir. The biggest difference is in “What’s Become Of The Baby”, which is just as jarring, but gains more context when you can hear the instrumental backing.

Anyway, the album just makes it above the acceptable threshold, particularly in its expanded incarnations, the first of which added three jams and one live track. These would be more palatable to new converts, since the focus is on playing instruments and not the mixing board. The eventual 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition nicely included both mixes of the album, along with selections from a January 1969 run in Frisco, which would also spawn music for their next album.

The Grateful Dead Aoxomoxoa (1969)—3
2003 CD reissue: “same” as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks
2019 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 17 extra tracks

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Rush 6: A Farewell To Kings

Every year Rush gained confidences, and every year they put out an album to prove it. A Farewell To Kings builds on their strengths, with improved sound to help them along. Another big addition: synthesizers, and lots of them, but not at the mercy of the guitar.

The title track begins with a wistful classical guitar piece, eventually crashed away by the full band. Full of big ringing chords familiar from 2112 and a foreshadowing in the lyric of a song on side two, it’s a strong opener and a good start. But they hadn’t been cured of long songs, and both sides of the album conclude with ten-minute epics. First, the plundering of ancient texts continues on “Xanadu”, after about two minutes of dreamy synth landscapes and volume pedal work, and several more of syncopated hammering. As with most songs based on somebody else’s poems, the music is much better than the lyrics or the melody, and not just because Geddy’s voice is still stuck in that upper range.

For an example of what makes Rush loved or hated, look no further than “Closer To The Heart”. Made for arenas full of kids to shout, its unique riff begins plaintively on acoustic, only to be repeated at full volume later on, while Neil Peart tries out a room full of bells and chimes. It’s got all the hallmarks of a hit single, in a band that didn’t have any. “Cinderella Man” repeats more of the musical motifs from the last album, from quickly strummed acoustics to a nearly funky middle break. “Madrigal” is something of a clunker, with both synth and bass taking lead throughout, and a lyric setting a love song in the realm of gallant knights laying down swords. Lest you think they were getting all medieval and predicting the mainstream appeal of Dungeons & Dragons, out comes “Cygnus X-1”, subtitled “Book I: The Voyage”, which details a lone explorer’s journey via spaceship into (and beyond!) the black hole of the title. Naturally there’s a spoken prologue, mixed in with tolling bells and sci-fi humming, and eventually the band comes in. First it’s simple riffing, then the chords become edgier yet tight, stomping through the galaxies. The chaos becomes more urgent as the narrator is sucked into the vortex, with only a “to be continued” in the liner notes to suggest his fate has yet to be decided.

Rush didn’t exactly bite off more than they could chew, and A Farewell To Kings has its moments. They had certainly figured out how to write catchy hooks, as the front end of the album is pretty well stacked with them. The cover art is pretty cool, too.

In keeping with the new tradition of 40th Anniversary Editions, the album received a sizable upgrade, with the addition of two additional CDs, containing a complete show from 1978, four modern covers by the likes of Dream Theater and Big Wreck, and a selection of sound effects from the original sessions cheekily titled “Cygnus X-2, Eh”. And of course, new artwork. (A Super Deluxe Edition added all that on four LPs plus a Blu-ray and a pile of memorabilia.)

Rush A Farewell To Kings (1977)—3
2017 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1977, plus 20 extra tracks

Friday, December 11, 2015

Bruce Springsteen 18: The Seeger Sessions

Despite his affinity for rock ‘n roll and motorcycle jackets, Bruce Springsteen has longed to emulate dusty folksingers. Whereas Bob Dylan never shied away from his debt to Woody Guthrie, the Boss chose Pete Seeger for inspiration on one of his more surprising projects. Suggested by a late-‘90s diversion, and likely pushed along by his political activism in the Bush II era, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions collects several folk songs, performed in what sounds like a barn with fiddles and Salvation Army horns. The result is a lot of fun despite the occasionally dour subject matter.

True folk songs have become part of America’s fabric, and these tunes would be recognizable, even if the titles aren’t. Kids of a certain age will recall “Old Dan Tucker”, “John Henry” and “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” from elementary school, while more scholarly types will nod at “Erie Canal”, “Pay Me My Money Down” and “Shenandoah”. “Eyes On The Prize” and “My Oklahoma Home” gain more gravity in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which also gives “We Shall Overcome” more depth if not edge.

The album was released as a DualDisc, with bonus audio mixed in with DVD content. As has been all too common in this century, it was rereleased six months later as an expanded CD, adding three live tracks to the two earlier extras. The subtitle American Land Edition was suggested by the sole original composition in the set.

To prove that it wasn’t just a whim, Bruce took 17 people on the road on both sides of the pond, playing songs from the album, other public domain songs, and even new arrangements of his own songs. Three nights were the source of Live In Dublin, which presents a very boisterous crowd reacting positively to the folk songs they knew as well as such reworked nuggets as “Atlantic City”, “If I Should Fall Behind”, “Blinded By The Light” and even a jump swing extension of “Open All Night”. Of particular note is a raucous “American Land”, which sounds even more like a Pogues song. With several singers taking turns at the mic, the virtual concert is even more of a hootenanny than the album that inspired it all.

Bruce Springsteen We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)—
American Land Edition: same as 2006, plus 5 extra tracks
Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band Live In Dublin (2007)—3

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Morrissey 1: Viva Hate

With alacrity if not tenacity, Morrissey emerged as a solo artist hot on the heels of the last Smiths album. Obviously, a voice like his is going to be recognizable, and by drafting Stephen Street, who’d worked the knobs on several Smiths albums, he did manage something of a seamless transition with Viva Hate.

That’s not apparent right away, as guitarist Vini Reilly displays none of the finesse or taste of Johnny Marr; witness the insect infestations all over “Alsatian Cousin” and “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me”. However, the first singles, “Suedehead” and especially “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, rank with the best moments of his former band. “Bengali In Platforms” and “Dial-A-Cliché” are gentle if obscure, while “Margaret On The Guillotine” is one of the most tender-sounding pieces of hate mail ever, right up to the closing sound effect.

Every track sounds different, which adds variety. Even though “Little Man, What Now?”, “Late Night, Maudlin Street” and “Break Up The Family” have all the percussive elements of demos, they do display a good deal of melody and emotion. Just as melodic and emotional is “Angel, Angel Down We Go Together”, a brief track accompanied by a very tense string arrangement.

Viva Hate kept Moz-heads happy, though Johnny Marr and even the Smiths rhythm section are sorely missed. But even the album isn’t the same as it once was. In this century, Morrissey has seen fit to take reissues and repackages to their furthest potential, changing not only his albums’ covers but also their sequences. In this case, the gorgeous track “The Ordinary Boys” has been replaced by the outtake “Treat Me Like A Human Being”, and “Hairdresser On Fire”, which was only on the American version of the album anyway, is not included. For a man from whom the word “stubborn” is an understatement, it’s just one example of his pathological need to finesse his own legacy and image.

Morrissey Viva Hate (1988)—3
2012 Remastered Special Edition: “same” as 1988, plus 1 extra track (and minus 2 tracks)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Jethro Tull 8: War Child

By now, Ian Anderson had given up stretching a concept across two sides and one “song”, not that he didn’t try. War Child would appear to be merely an album of songs, written by him and performed by Jethro Tull, but given all the time he put into the words, there’s got to be some kind of theme here, right?

Unfortunately, the music doesn’t invite the ear to find it. The title track is a mess of sound effects, to underscore what it meant to come of age after the second world war, and too many saxophones. In “Queen And Country”, saxophones, strings and even accordion fight for space in the arrangement; the brief but effective guitar solo hints at how much better the song could be with less ornamentation. English folk (and flute) come to the fore on “Ladies”, floating along until the incongruous ending. “Back-Door Angels” is full of stops and starts, and underscores the band’s reputation to the uninitiated as sinister. The closing section, with its reference to a court jester, is a thematic setup for “Sealion”, which mocks the human race and performers of any kind with equal disdain.

Side two presumably finds Ian enjoying the cup of tea he was offered at the top and bottom of side one, going into a strum that will conjure comparisons to “Thick As A Brick”. “Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of A New Day” is not merely a rewrite, but an actually memorable song that builds and builds. Unfortunately, just as memorable is “Bungle In The Jungle”, which despite a hook of a melody suffers from a contemporary Philly soul arrangement and, frankly, a dopey lyric. This complaint is likely the inspiration for “Only Solitaire”, a brief acoustic piece that skewers rock critics. “The Third Hoorah” is directly related to the title track, but places the action in a switched-on-Elizabethan setting. Finally, “Two Fingers” has some variety, with some terrific guitar parts, but again, we could really do without the sax and accordion.

Each Jethro Tull album demands more patience than the last, and these ears just don’t have it. War Child has its fans and defenders, but there are other places to go if you want the hits. (By now it should be no surprise that the album as released came after failed attempts at a larger project, which was to include a film; some of the outtakes, including “unreleased” carrots from earlier compilations, were included on one remastered CD, and the 40th anniversary brought a whole extra disc with more outtakes, and two DVDs with further archival stuff.)

Jethro Tull War Child (1974)—2
2002 remastered CD: same as 1974, plus 7 extra tracks
2014 Theatre Edition: same as 2002, plus 14 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Morphine 1: Good

If you listened to certain radio stations in 1988, you might have heard a smoky blues tune called “I Think She Likes Me” by a band called Treat Her Right. Their self-titled album didn’t catch much fire, and listening it today one can only occasionally hear hints of where singer/songwriter Mark Sandman would end up. Once he developed a style of playing a two-stringed bass with a slide and hooked up with saxophone player Dana Colley, there emerged a sound perfectly described by their moniker: Morphine.

Where Treat Her Right also had two singers, guitars and harmonica, Morphine stripped everything down to bass, sax and drums. Sandman was also the only singer, giving the project a more unified sound, as demonstrated on their first album, Good. Each song sneaks along a groove, simple yet full, and certainly toe-tapping, while the lyrics stay stark and fitting the setting. Even “The Saddest Song” sounds upbeat for music of this level. The raucous voodoo stomp of “You Speak My Language” moves through gibberish into the noir atmosphere of “You Look Like Rain”, the latter a cool stroll worthy of early Tom Waits. Dana Colley even gets an instrumental all to himself.

Good isn’t Morphine’s best album, but it’s a fine start. They would only improve from here.

Morphine Good (1992)—3

Friday, November 27, 2015

Band 9: The Last Waltz

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that The Last Waltz is one of the better rockumentaries in the genre. Much of the credit belongs to Martin Scorsese’s direction, which alternates staged interviews and performances with “you are there” footage from The Band’s star-studded farewell concert. The editing is particularly masterful; rather than presenting the concert as it was, many of the performances are shuffled. The film even opens with “Don’t Do It”, which was actually the night’s final encore.

Such suspensions of time are sometimes necessary to elevate a film that’s not designed to be a fly-on-the-wall cinema verité portrait. And when you add Robbie Robertson, with his fancy new haircut, telling his new best friend about “eight years of concerts, stadiums and arenas”, a simple glance at their actual activity between 1968 and 1976 will have the scholar wondering how empty itineraries in 1972 and all but one date in 1975 made their job so grueling.

All our nitpicking aside, the film is still fun to watch, and the music is terrific. The album, originally a three-record set, is paced well, with Band classics alternating with vocal spots by their very special guests, augmented by a horn section. Their old boss Ronnie Hawkins comes out for “Who Do You Love”, and Neil Young manages to overcome the ball of coke he snorted before his still sleepy rendition of “Helpless”. Joni Mitchell’s voice appears from backstage during that number, and then she comes out for an excellent performance of “Coyote”.

Robbie had recently produced an album for Neil Diamond, and despite Levon Helm’s protestations, was given a spot singing “Dry Your Eyes”. It’s a fine song, but nothing compared to Rick Danko’s excellent job on “It Makes No Difference”, not to mention Garth Hudson’s beautiful sax solo. Dr. John closes side two with “Such A Night”, a good setup for the blues sequence on side three. Paul Butterfield blows harp on their arrangement of “Mystery Train”, Muddy Waters burns the place down with “Mannish Boy”, and Eric Clapton duels with Robbie on “Further On Up The Road”.

Poor Richard Manuel doesn’t get a chance to sing until “The Shape I’m In” on side four, followed by their friend Bobby Charles coming out for “Down South In New Orleans”. Van Morrison emerges from his mid-decade hiatus to sing “Tura-Lura-Lura” with Richard, before completely demolishing the place on “Caravan”. Bob Dylan was an expected guest, but shocks with his nearly shoulder-length hair stuffed under a hat. All but one of his songs from the show appeared on the original album; 1966 is visited via “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and “I Don’t Believe You”, and a tender “Forever Young” manages to turn into a reprise of the first track. Then everybody crowds the stage for a mass chorus on “I Shall Be Released”, Richard somewhere back there on his piano.

Side six presents “The Last Waltz Suite”, a loose set of songs recorded on a soundstage, and some inserted in the film. In addition to “The Weight” performed with some of the Staples Singers and “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris, Robbie gets a solo vocal on “Out Of The Blue”, while Richard barks “The Well” and duets “The Last Waltz Refrain” with Robbie. “The Last Waltz Theme”, which appears at the top of side one, closes the set with an orchestra. While not stellar, they’re easily better than most of Islands.

Several songs in the album aren’t in the film, and vice versa. Even the four-CD box set, which adds much more from the concert and rehearsals, doesn’t include the complete show as performed. But of all their live releases, The Last Waltz is the best, and not just for their own songs. In the end it’s the music that makes it a nice finale for whatever was actually over; Levon would insist that the whole deal was Robbie’s ego trip, and the other guys would play together, in dives even smaller than the ones where they started out, up until and beyond Richard’s suicide in 1986, and continuing in various combinations until Rick died in 1999.

The Band The Last Waltz (1978)—4
2002 box set: same as 1978, plus 24 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Rick Danko: Rick Danko

Cast adrift by Robbie’s decision to publicly end The Band, bassist and co-lead vocalist Rick Danko immediately got back to work. His eponymous solo album even beat an anticipated farewell extravaganza to the racks. Unfortunately, Rick Danko didn’t make a big enough splash, and remains hard to find today.

Each of the Band appears here and there, as do Ron Wood, Eric Clapton, Doug Sahm and whoever else was wandering through Malibu that year. Horn arrangements abound, as do guitarists subconsciously emulating Robbie. There’s no clunker here, even with the contemporary arrangements that get in the way of “Brainwash” and “Tired Of Waiting”. “Java Blues” is a fairly vehement defense of coffee, the reference to Bolivia notwithstanding. “What A Town” burbles with New Orleans funk and while “Sweet Romance” and “Once Upon A Time” come close, “Sip The Wine” is easily the highlight, particularly for anyone who enjoys the teaser included in a certain film.

Those aren’t quite “classics” along the lines of “Ophelia” or “It Makes No Difference”, but Rick Danko is certainly on par with the better parts of those later albums, and a worthy chapter in the canon of The Band—especially since it would be several years before any of them did anything, much less anything worth hearing. In a just world, it’ll get reissued, and give Rick his due.

Rick Danko Rick Danko (1977)—3

Friday, November 20, 2015

Neil Young 51: Bluenote Café

The ‘80s are usually dismissed as Neil Young’s lost years, in which he spent much of his musical time chasing trends or avoiding them, while still immersed in technology. Most of the resulting albums were underwhelming, with otherwise decent songs at the mercy of questionable production.

The Bluenotes phase confused people, and not only because he chose a band name that was both affiliated with somebody else, and not exactly a somebody known for guitar-based blues with slick horns. Neil changed the band’s name to Ten Men Workin’, after the first song on This Note’s For You, and while the rhythm section would return a few times in the future, the album remains unique in the catalog.

But as he’s proven before, it’s all one song, and hindsight has been very kind to some of his less successful experiments. In a rare case of revisionism, the band now called Bluenote Café is celebrated with its own installment in his Archives Performance Series, and a double disc to boot. Where the album was a challenge, Bluenote Café presents two and a half hours of music in two sets, giving plenty of room for the band to stretch, and the songs to breathe.

The music comes from three stages of the Bluenotes era—a couple of shows when Crazy Horse was augmented with a horn section, a club tour with the established band on the album’s release, and then a shed tour later in the summer. In addition to most of This Note’s For You, several songs make their first album appearance, and a few other rarities help round out the picture. “Welcome To The Big Room” is something of a theme song, in a band that had several. “Don't Take Your Love Away From Me” translates well from the Shocking Pinks, “Hello Lonely Woman” is given a jolt of energy compared the pre-fame demo, and “Soul Of A Woman” is otherwise similar to the one on A Treasure but for the horns. A true highlight of the first set is “Bad News Comes To Town”, a terrific soul burner that uses the extra players as part of the dressing.

“I’m Goin’” was buried on the B-side of “Ten Men Workin’”; though this is a later recording, it’s still a one-chord song with the same horn parts, but plenty of guitar. “Ordinary People” sounds much better in this context, with Ben (or Poncho) yelling along instead of Neil’s overdubbed asides. “Crime In The City” (not to be confused with “Life In the City”) adds a little more edge than the one that made it to Freedom, with different but not all of the verses from the song’s original epic length. Here’s it’s followed by “Crime Of The Heart”, a fairly simple idea with more complicated chords than Neil usually plays. “Doghouse” is pretty stupid, but that didn’t stop Pegi from covering it a few years ago. “Fool For Your Love” is tighter than the Road Rock version, yet still sterile.

In the encore section, exactly two songs come from previous albums: “On The Way Home”, with the horns playing the arrangement from the Buffalo Springfield recording, and “Tonight’s The Night”, stretched to 20 minutes but still managing to be the best performance of the song above the rest.

People who chronicle this stuff will tell you that there is more music from this era to be heard, and maybe the Archives box dedicated to the ‘80s will have more. For now, Bluenote Café helps to prove that Neil’s best work of the decade was on stage. Just as with A Treasure, it helps whet the appetite for further installments.

Neil Young and Bluenote Café Bluenote Café (2015)—

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Les McCann & Eddie Harris: Swiss Movement

Jazz is usually far outside the purview of this blog, mostly because we can’t begin to pretend to be anything of an expert. We know what we like, and try to ignore what we don’t. Plus, there’s an awful lot of it, and navigating the billions of existing albums, reissues, repackagings and such can be daunting for anyone on a limited budget or overwhelmed by the near-century’s worth of recordings waiting to be discovered. It won’t be easy to find needles in that particular haystack, and besides, if you start with Kind Of Blue, as we did, where the hell do you go from there?

Like all music, jazz is a mathematical code, whether strictly mapped out in chords or as a launch pad for more avant-garde explorations. Jazz musicians are defined by their work ethic, constantly playing and constantly evolving. While some people in that genre have boldly pursued stardom, most of those who have eked out a career playing music have done it for the love of the art. They are compelled to play, and a gig is a gig, whether it’s a small club, recording session or chance jam session. These people flat out work, and do it as long as their fingers and/or lips can function.

When pianist Les McCann and sax player Eddie Harris brought their respective combos to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969, somebody suggested these two leaders play a set together, and they did, with little preparation. Their set was preserved on tape, and became the Swiss Movement album. (There’s another constant in the jazz world: clever titles.) So many summits hope to catch lightning in a bottle, and we should be thankful that this one exists. This is toe-tapping music, not at all esoteric, and very accessible to new ears. Piano, trumpet, sax, upright bass and drums interlock in front a crowd truly into it.

That’s enough to make for an enjoyable listen, but what’s made Swiss Movement such a grower is the first track, and the only one with a vocal. It starts with an insistent piano bass part, and the band kicks in right away, following McCann through some impressionistic chords. He finds a root to follow, moves up a half step at a time while Harris trills along, and eventually lands on F for the vamp that drives the rest of the song. Then he begins to sing.
Written and performed in the shadow of the Vietnam War, civil unrest and revolving presidents, “Compared To What” could be considered a protest song, even in its original R&B take by Roberta Flack. Once Les McCann got hold of it, Roberta had to find another song to make famous.

His voice grabs the words, shakes them around and spits them out, and with the push of a glorious snare hit, ends each verse with the same frustration: “Tryin’ to make it real—compared to what?” Solos fill the spaces between the verses, split and shared by Harris and Benny Bailey on trumpet, underscoring the attitude, particularly one outburst that has gotten DJs kicked off college radio stations for playing it.

Enjoyment of music is a personal thing, but it can also be communal. Most music lovers we know get a huge kick out of turning somebody else on to something new to the ears, which is almost as exciting as discovering a common bond in a beloved recording. That’s probably the best way to learn about jazz—listen to what other people love, and that will help you find your own note. This mind vividly remembers hearing “Compared To What” for the first time, and finding others just as thrilled by it is always exhilarating. Just as music should be.

Les McCann & Eddie Harris Swiss Movement (1969)—4

Friday, November 13, 2015

David Bowie 37: Five Years

Every couple of years it seemed somebody would come up with another reason to remaster some element of the David Bowie catalog, sometimes as part of an anniversary, or sometimes just because. This time, it appears the people in charge wanted to streamline things somewhat, and thus began the third major overhaul of what we’ll call the RCA catalog.

Five Years is a handy title for a set that covers the initial trajectory of Bowie stardom, starting from the Space Oddity album through Pin Ups, which bade farewell to the Spiders From Mars. Six albums are presented in their original sleeves and sequences, complete with replica labels and inner sleeves, with all but Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane getting modern sonic overhauls. A nice book includes new notes and reproductions of contemporary reviews and ads, and somebody felt it necessary to include the Ziggy Stardust album a second time, in its 2003 mix by original co-producer Ken Scott, which most fans apparently hated. (The alternate cover art nicely credits Rick Wakeman and Dana Gillespie for their contributions to “It Ain’t Easy” for the first time.)

Because they were both official albums, Live Santa Monica ‘72 and the Ziggy concert soundtrack fill in the picture further. While similar in setlist, they show the difference nine months made; the earlier show leaned more on Hunky Dory since Aladdin Sane was still in progress, while by the time he got to the Hammersmith Odeon, he’d become a sensation. (Personally, the earlier show is a little more intimate, and less flashy, but just as powerful when the band is playing full speed.)

Because the albums didn’t tell the whole story, two extra discs dubbed Re:Call 1 helped to mop up many of the period’s standalone singles, B-sides, and single edits. They’re in chronological order, making it easy to track the progress from “Space Oddity” through such alternates as “The Prettiest Star” with Marc Bolan, the Arnold Corns versions of two Ziggy songs, and both versions of “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Holy Holy”. Nothing recorded before 1969 is included, and a handful of songs from the same period that had been bonus tracks on the Ryko CDs and/or other anniversary reissues are MIA, to more gnashing of teeth.

What helps, of course, is that these albums were so good to begin with. This era is one that most Bowie fans agree brought out some incredible music, and that fact becomes even more astonishing when it’s all heard together. Unless one has everything already, it’s a great place to start.

David Bowie Five Years 1969-1973 (2015)—4

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cat Stevens 4: Teaser And The Firecat

Keeping it simple as ever, Cat Stevens’ finest album is an exercise in less-is-more. Teaser And The Firecat is even better than its predecessor, with ten singable, strummable songs and a minimum of decoration. In fact, with so many of these songs being so well known, a review of our usual depth seems moot, but we’ll try.

“The Wind” sets the tone, two verses for two guitars, and just like that it’s over. “Rubylove” floats in, almost as simple, with trilling bouzoukis and even a verse in Greek. “If I Laugh” is a little sensitive, but wins for the intricate picking on the bridge. One wonders if there were three earlier attempts before he got to “Changes IV”, and if they were as noisy, but few songs are as gentle or, again, as simple as “How Can I Tell You”.

Something of a calypso feel permeates both “Tuesday’s Dead” and “Bitterblue”, but for variety, they’re separated by an actual hymn. He didn’t write “Morning Has Broken”, nor did he play the piano that punctuates it, but it’s easily one of his most recognizable songs. The same can be said for the litany of optimism that is “Moonshadow”. “Peace Train” would cause a lot of misery for 10,000 Maniacs in the late ‘80s, but for now it’s just a simple plea and nice metaphor with a hint of strings. And make sure you’re listening to the album version, which has a subdued coda featuring a faded strum.

Others may prefer Tea For The Tillerman over Teaser And The Firecat, but since they’re short, you can get ‘em both. They easily fit on a 90-minute Maxell tape with room to spare, or can even be burned to the same CD-R. (Of course, the eventual Deluxe Edition presented an alternate, shuffled version of the album, comprising five demos and five live recordings from as early as 1971 and as late as 2007. Four of those demos were included on the bonus disc of the 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, along with three previously unreleased demos, an extended mix of “Peace Train”, new re-recordings of “The Wind” and “Bitterblue”, a 1975 rehearsal of “Morning Has Broken”, two BBC recordings, and the “I Want To Live In A Wigwam” B-side. The Super Deluxe Edition added even more BBC recordings, a 1971 concert, and a Blu-ray.)

Cat Stevens Teaser And The Firecat (1971)—4
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 10 extra tracks
2021 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 13 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 37 tracks plus Blu-ray)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Van Morrison 29: How Long… and Tell Me Something

As demonstrated on his most recent live album, and the two doubles before it, Van Morrison seemed happiest when in the midst of a rhythm and blues show band and revue. Every now and then he calls his music jazz, which is how the Verve label marketed his next two albums. Such was one of the perks of being signed to a major corporate entity with several specialty labels; another perk would be the ability to release two novelty projects to help fulfill said contract.

How Long Has This Been Going On was recorded live without an audience at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, and features mostly covers from the pre-rock era. Aside from Georgie Fame, who gets spine billing, Annie Ross shows up to sing along on “Centerpiece”, which she helped make famous once upon a time. Just to show his own ties to the music. A different arrangement of “I Will Be There” opens the set and there’s a repeat of “All Saints Day” from a few years past, but the big draw is “Heathrow Shuffle”, performed many times in the ‘70s but unreleased until here. A seven-minute rendition of “Moondance” reels in those whose knowledge of jazz is limited to that song.

Appearing halfway through the album is “Your Mind Is On Vacation”, written by Mose Allison, which was a clue to the album that appeared not too long afterwards. Tell Me Something is in some ways more satisfying, as it consists of 13 songs written by the man Pete Townshend called a “jazz sage”, and who sings two of them here. Van is only one of the billed performers, which means the balance of the tracks are sung by either Georgie Fame or Ben Sidran, best known to hippies as an early member of the Steve Miller Band, and to a few Gen Xers as the host of a VH-1 show. Those guys have certainly picked up their vocal styles from Mose, while Van only sounds like Van. Taken all together, it’s a good introduction to Mose Allison; hits collections on the Prestige and Atlantic labels are highly recommended.

Van Morrison with Georgie Fame & Friends How Long Has This Been Going On (1995)—3
Van Morrison, Georgie Fame, Mose Allison, Ben Sidran
Tell Me Something: The Songs Of Mose Allison (1996)—3

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Keith Richards 4: Crosseyed Heart

Decades after the mid-‘80s derailment and subsequent realigning of the Stones, both Mick and Keith have kept their solo output minimal. But on the four studio albums plus the handful of new songs stuck onto anniversary compilations, Keith’s lead vocals have generally been the standouts, and the songs that have endured. Being allowed a regular outlet likely tempered his need to record on his own, but perhaps the Stones’ reliance on older material played live to cash in on whatever anniversary they were celebrating inspired him to call Steve Jordan and reunite the X-Pensive Winos.

However, while a Keith vocal is generally a welcome respite from Mick, Crosseyed Heart doesn’t prove that all Keith, all the time is the answer. Cut down to maybe ten songs, the album would be much stronger.

The title track is an engaging snippet of acoustic blues, right down to its charming conclusion. “Heartstopper” and “Trouble” pile in like you hoped they would. “Robbed Blind” is something of a country weeper, complete with pedal steel and Keith himself on piano. (We checked the credits, thinking it just had to be somebody else.) “Nothing On Me” could be a single in another era, though the lead guitar going throughout should have been pulled back a bit. He goes all out reggae on a cover of “Love Overdue”, giving up a lyrical influence for “All About You” in the process. Late saxman Bobby Keys is featured on “Blues In The Morning”, a great blast of Chuck Berry via Chicago, while “Illusion” gets a surprise lift from Norah Jones. Towards the end of the album, “Substantial Damage” bubbles with funk and “Lover’s Plea” melds reggae and soul.

That leaves “Amnesia”, “Suspicious” and “Something For Nothing”—good, but not up to the level of their brothers. Likewise, “Just A Gift” is one slow song too many. While he avoids the cliché of closing with “Goodnight Irene”, this albeit pleasant rendition doesn’t add much to the song’s history.

Again, most of Crosseyed Heart is enjoyable, and if it scares Mick into rocking out again, then maybe we haven’t heard the last of the Stones. And since there’s no better place to mention it, even a casual listen to what passes for country music these days reveals a debt to Keith’s riffs. Whether it’s a guy with a twang or a blonde with a yodel, today’s country sounds like either a Stones ripoff or pancakes and sausage.

Keith Richards Crosseyed Heart (2015)—3

Friday, October 30, 2015

Kinks 4: Kinkdom

Once again, the Kinks’ American record company saw fit to cobble another album together from heretofore uncollected tracks, and spent about five minutes deciding on a title. Kinkdom was built upon the British Kwyet Kinks EP (now there’s a great title for you), adding the one leftover from the British Kinda Kinks LP, five more singles and B-sides, and for some reason, repeating “Louie Louie” from Kinks-Size.

Considering that their singles were increasingly improving, the album is comparatively strong. “A Well Respected Man” is notable for being the first Ray Davies song that addressed society and class, changing his voice as required, giving him a template to fill out for years to come. “See My Friends” was especially daring for the time, with a raga influence months ahead of “Norwegian Wood” and a lyric lamenting death disguised as love lost. “Who’ll Be The Next In Line” was one of the times Reprise got it right, making this British B-side the A-side here. A masterpiece of sloppy chord blocking, “I Need You” leaves the Stones as the only major British Invasion band that didn’t release a song of that title.

They’d already recorded and released several songs that sounded like each other, but “Never Met A Girl Like You Before” blatantly begins with a quote from “Tired Of Waiting For You” before turning into a simple dance number complete with a dotty toy piano instrumental section. (While we’re at it, “Such A Shame” sports accents played better on “Set Me Free”.) “Wait Till The Summer Comes Along” is a cool strum for Dave to sing, and he does well, while “Naggin’ Woman” shows him to be one of the least convincing bluesmen ever to play the Crawdaddy Club. “Don't You Fret” shows longing for home and hearth before and after a single-chord jam, showing their skill in the studio—in hindsight, interesting to compare to the simplicity of “It's Alright”, the B-side of “You Really Got Me” included here.

For all of its flaws, Kinkdom put some of the Kinks’ newer, better songs in one place, more or less catching up both sides of the pond. Going forward, all their albums would be identical, a level neither the Beatles, Stones nor Who would achieve for some time.

The Kinks Kinkdom (1965)—3
Current CD equivalent: Kinks and Kinda Kinks

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Doors 3: Waiting For The Sun

Most of the music on the first two Doors albums had been in the band’s repertoire for a couple of years, so when it came time to record their third, they were tasked with coming up with new material. Consequently, Waiting For The Sun is stuck between pop and the experimental, with varying results.

They did save one ringer from the old days, and despite its similarity to any number of Kinks songs, “Hello I Love You” was an obvious hit. “Love Street” is a lazy, poppy stroll through Laurel Canyon, and something of a red herring for what comes next. Having included an eleven-minute epic on each of the previous albums, Jim Morrison’s next feat was to be the sidelong “Celebration Of The Lizard” suite of poems, as illustrated by the libretto on the inner gatefold. At the time, however, only the section called “Not To Touch The Earth” was completed for the album. The track, which wasn’t worth the trouble, fights against the loopy slide and buzzing organ up until the final declaration, “I am the lizard king”, which is why people talk about it today. “Summer’s Almost Gone” restores the pop sensibility, having been written years before and probably left aside due to its similarity to “The Crystal Ship”. “Wintertime Love” sounds really out of place, and should have been arranged slower and without a harpsichord. While the big epic didn’t happen, “The Unknown Soldier” is a mostly successful attempt at a sound picture, though you’d think they could’ve found a better sound to approximate a gunshot.

Robbie Krieger steps up with a flamenco flourish to begin “Spanish Caravan”, and the rest of the song follows a respectful pace, with a nice fuzzy inversion of the opening theme. “My Wild Love” is a chant destined to try anybody’s patience, making “We Could Be So Good Together” seem an improvement. (Maybe nobody told Robbie his fuzz tone sounded like a kazoo.) “Yes, The River Knows” begins like a lounge ballad, but Jim actually puts some emotion into it. “Five To One” redeems the side, and the album proper; here the dynamics of their lengthy epics are reduced to under five minutes, and shows a respect for economy. Plus, it’s loaded with some of Jim’s better one-liners.

Waiting For The Sun doesn’t have the legs of its predecessors, but they weren’t completely running on fumes yet. (The title track would have to wait to be hatched.) As a hint at what might have been, the expanded CD includes some early stabs at “Not To Touch The Earth”, and two tracks siphoned from various compilations. “Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor” is a surprisingly faithful interpretation of the baroque piece, while a “work in progress” mix of “Celebration Of The Lizard” runs for 17 minutes, and gives an idea of the music the band concocted for the poems. If anything, Jim’s delivery illustrates why he’s either adored or despised. None of these were included on the so-called 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, which merely added a second disc of nine of the album’s tracks in rough mix state, plus five songs from a 1968 Copenhagen concert in questionable sound quality. The early version of “The WASP (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)” is historically interesting, however.

The Doors Waiting For The Sun (1968)—3
2007 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1968, plus 5 extra tracks
2018 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 14 extra tracks

Friday, October 23, 2015

Joe Jackson 19: Fast Forward

Never too far from a concept, Fast Forward presents Joe Jackson in four different cities, represented by four songs each, recorded by a unique band in each, originally envisioned as four EPs but approximating four sides. For the most part, the location is moot, since there’s only the occasional arrangement unique to Amsterdam or Berlin that wouldn’t work in New Orleans or New York.

New York was the birthplace of Night And Day and Body And Soul, and echoes of those albums can be detected in this section. Bill Frisell and the great Graham Maby feature in here, the title track and “If It Wasn’t For You” both nice examples of pop-rock. Something of a departure comes in his reworking of Television’s “See No Evil”, which turns the riff on itself and gives Frisell a chance to stretch. “Kings Of The City” brings it back to a cool Steely Dan vibe.

It’s a seamless jump to Amsterdam, where he’s joined by a drummer, a keyboard player and some strings. “A Little Smile” is excellent pop, but a 14-year-old kid sings the first verse on “Far Away”, presumably due to Joe’s addiction to guest vocalists, making an already unsettling song more uncomfortable. “So You Say” doesn’t provide much uplift, but moments of “Poor Thing” in between the horns.

Berlin brought us Rain, so luckily the only track suggesting oom-pah music and Joel Grey is his translation of “Good Bye Jonny”. Or maybe the ECM-flavored intro of “If I Could See Your Face” counts too, but that goes on to a more sinister rock sound complete with F-bomb. “Junkie Diva” suggests the death of Amy Winehouse, without mentioning her directly, while “The Blue Time” is a pretty, seductive ballad.

Rock drums resurface in New Orleans, right away on the alternately galloping and driving “Neon Rain”. “Satellite” seems to stop and start, while “Keep On Dreaming” sports horns, mostly sounding like side three of Big World. And it takes a lot of grapes to end an album with a song called “Ode To Joy”, much less quote the melody, but as far as his finales go, it’s a good one.

Fast Forward is a long album, and there are certainly tracks over which one might feel compelled to fast-forward. But better he writes straightforward songs (for him) than laboring over a Broadway show, pseudo or otherwise.

Joe Jackson Fast Forward (2015)—3

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

David Gilmour 4: Rattle That Lock

Having put the band to bed, anything David Gilmour does under his own name will likely never enjoy any wider audience than Pink Floyd fans. That’s probably fine with him, as evidence by most of his quotes in the interviews given to promote Rattle That Lock. However, those concerned that he got all the Floyd out of his system with The Endless River needn’t be concerned.

Now that he’s truly on his own, he relies on wife Polly Samson for most of his lyrics, but he also knows people come to hear his guitar. “5 A.M.” is something of an instrumental overture, just like every album he’s put out since 1987. It sets a classic mood, unfortunately jarred awake by the title track, which bases its hook on a jingle used in the French railway system. (No, really.) It’s a little too funky for this album, but no worse than “Blue Light”. “Faces Of Stone” revives the Dylanesque strum that Roger Waters used all over his solo albums, and that unfortunate calliope that always sounds like a scary carnival came to town. “A Boat Lies Waiting” is something of a tribute to Richard Wright, using what sounds like one of his piano themes, and a snippet of his own voice before the song proper begins. Harmonies by David Crosby and Graham Nash add to the etherealness, if that’s a word. A tempo returns for “Dancing Right In Front Of Me”, not quite jazzy enough to be jazz, and too gloomy to be jaunty. An inspection of the credits reveals the man himself on piano, and a nice job too.

His son plays piano on “In Any Tongue”, another near dirge elevated by every chorus. “Beauty” continues the general tone with an upbeat instrumental featuring his trademark slide guitar, and very different from what comes next. After the hint of jazz in the first half, “The Girl In The Yellow Dress” is the sound of a small combo in a smoky club, with Jools Holland on piano and Robert Wyatt on cornet. A churchy organ and a choir open “Today”, but a groove interrupts and provides a more rocking tune. Finally, “And Then…” brings the album full circle, with a different arrangement of the opening track, ending with the sound of a crackling fire.

As might be expected, Rattle That Lock improves with familiarity, but that also shows what time has done to his voice. It’s not just the high notes he can’t hit; the rasp suggests a melancholy only hinted at on his last solo album. It’s not a masterpiece, and far from, but at 69 years old, we should be so lucky to still have him.

Just as he did a decade before, a massive tour followed the release of the album, and then a live CD/DVD or Blu-ray combo followed in several permutations. The big gimmick this time was a live performance in Pompeii, in front of an actual audience as opposed to the empty theater, where Pink Floyd had filmed a concert 45 years before. Once again the set leans on the newest album, with the usual Floyd epics; people who care about such things will note the inclusion of hired guns Greg Phillinganes and Chuck Leavell on keyboards.

David Gilmour Rattle That Lock (2015)—3
David Gilmour
Live At Pompeii (2017)—3

Friday, October 16, 2015

Jeff Beck 2: Beck-Ola

Still under the managerial thumb of Mickie Most, Jeff Beck wanted his next album to be “heavier” than that last; it’s also possible that he felt threatened by Led Zeppelin’s debut. So he and his Group (with new drummer Tony Newman) went into the studio and banged out a follow-up, which emerged as Beck-Ola.

With two Elvis Presley covers and totaling 30 minutes, the listener cannot be faulted for feeling shortchanged. Luckily, the music makes up for it. Those two Presley songs aren’t straight renditions; “All Shook Up” is turned inside out, while “Jailhouse Rock” packs quite a punch. In between, “Spanish Boots” shows off Rod Stewart as a premier shouter, and “Girl From Mill Valley” is a gorgeous tune by Nicky Hopkins that doesn’t need any words.

Side two is all heavy, with only the slightest shift in dynamics. “Plynth (Water Down The Drain)” beats a riff into the blues, and “The Hangman’s Knee” is a slow stomp through the familiar folk image. More of a marathon is “Rice Pudding”, a collection of riffs and jams on same in and out of 4/4 and 3/4, under several overdubbed guitars, cascading up into a glorious frenzy that cuts out abruptly, as if the tape ran out.

Such an ending only underscores how short the album is, how quickly it was recorded and how little material they had. (Of the bonus tracks on the latest CD, two are alternates of the Presley songs, one is another one of those interminable blues standards everyone did in those days, and “Throw Down A Line” is an attempt at a single, foisted upon them by their manager, with a verse that to these ears sounds like Steve Marriott singing with Dave Mason-era Traffic.) Nonetheless, Beck-Ola is great as long as it’s around. The band itself didn’t last much longer, Rod and Ron Wood heading for drunker pastures and Beck chasing his own ideas of progress. In the heyday of the Maxell tape, this album and its predecessor made a perfect pair, capturing lightning in a bottle before everyone’s catalogs became more complicated.

The Jeff Beck Group Beck-Ola (1969)—

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Beach Boys 18: Love & Mercy

One of the better musical films of recent years was Love & Mercy, which purported to tell of the romance between Brian Wilson and his current wife, against the backdrop of the power struggle between Brian’s demons and Dr. Eugene Landy (played with typically bewigged yelling by Paul Giamatti, who’s made a career out of wearing wigs and yelling), juxtaposed with flashbacks to the Pet Sounds era.

The role of Brian was split between young Paul Dano, whose bowl cut helped accentuate the fragility, and John Cusack, who doesn’t really look like Brian but manages to command attention. (We predict that one day he’ll get all the quirky roles that Bill Murray is mastering now.) Much like I’m Not There, which split seven perceived facets of Bob Dylan’s personality between seven actors, it’s best to appreciate the film for capturing the mood and setting of the ‘60s and ‘80s. Besides, most people going into the theater likely knew the ending anyway.

To that end, the recreations of the studio sessions were said to be highly accurate, and the actors chosen to play the other Beach Boys were also believable, both in their befuddlement over Brian’s condition and Mike Love’s frustration at his cousin’s quirkiness. And we have no trouble watching Elizabeth Banks do anything.

So while it’s not really a Beach Boys movie, the eventual soundtrack album had to include music originally credited to them, and it does, but there’s more. The score can be best described as an ambient mashup; composer Atticus Ross weaves in elements of dozens of Beach Boys tracks sourced from the original master tapes to paint a sonic mural of Brian’s head. While often illustrating edgy scenes, the effect is more hypnotic than unsettling (except when some dialogue creeps in).

If anything, the inclusion of the well-known recordings of “Don’t Worry Baby”, “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” distract from the effect of the score. However, Paul Dano’s hesitant rendition of “God Only Knows” and the live recording of the real Brian Wilson singing the song from which the film took its title (both depicted in the film) provide context and closure, respectively. We don’t even mind “One Kind Of Love”, a song from Brian’s most recent solo album, which works as accompaniment to the closing credits.

Just as most viewers were already Beach Boys fans, they probably also have the music that the film shows being created. This album makes a nice bonus feature on the music’s history, and the magic of programmable CD players and iTunes playlists can isolate the new montages.

Atticus Ross Music From Love & Mercy: The Life, Love And Genius Of Brian Wilson (2015)—3

Friday, October 9, 2015

World Party 2: Goodbye Jumbo

Karl Wallinger spent a couple of years improving his instrumental dexterity, polishing his recording skills and upgrading his equipment. Along the way, he recorded the excellent songs that make up Goodbye Jumbo, the second album by World Party.

He’s still technically a one-man band, but was wise enough to get real drummers to play real parts, and better guitarists that surpassed his limitations as an upside-down leftie. Nonetheless, “Is It Too Late?” sounds very much like an enhanced demo, from the programmed percussion to the slow addition and reduction of instruments. “Way Down Now” was the first single, an uptempo rocker fading out with “woo-hoo” accents that will remind anyone of “Sympathy For The Devil”. It’s another fade-in for the catchy “When The Rainbow Comes”, similar in feel to “Put The Message In The Box”, which is even better constructed with a well-designed bridge. “Ain’t Gonna Come Till I’m Ready” is a dark R&B piece with a falsetto lead that doesn’t explain the title at all. Even more impressive is “And I Fell Back Alone”, an exquisite heartbreaker for acoustic guitar, piano and fake strings.

The second half of the album is just as solid, at first, anyway. “Take It Up” is in a now-familiar tempo, full of layered keyboard parts and featuring a clever nod to “Here Comes The Sun” at the end of the instrumental break. “God On My Side” manages to cram influences from Beatles to Stones and Dylan into a single track, and doing a good job of fitting the vocals together. Though hinted at on side one, “Show Me To The Top” is a full-fledged Prince tribute, from the drums and synth effects to the sped-up vocal and spelling of “L-O-V-E”. (Interestingly, the liner notes list Prince’s former managers as World Party’s current managers.) A train rattles down the tracks towards a tantalizing snippet of a White Album-style strum, which pulls over on “Love Street”. This inscrutable gem builds from a lilting waltz to an urgent bridge, with those jungle synths from the last track, into a screaming guitar solo and an impeccably soft ending. “Sweet Soul Dream” is something of a trifle after all that setup, though it does feature Sinead O’Connor, again, then doing well with her second album. “Thank You World” crashes in for a noisy finale. (This was also the album’s third and least successful single, despite being available as a maxi-single with various unreleased tracks, including a note-for-note cover of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”.)

These days there are more blatant appropriators of psychedelic rock and funk, but Lenny Kravitz was just starting out. Goodbye Jumbo’s influences move seamlessly, but more reverent without stealing, mostly. It remains a solid album, and one of that year’s best.

World Party Goodbye Jumbo (1990)—4

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Waterboys 4: Fisherman's Blues

Ever changing and constantly evolving, the fourth Waterboys album shared only a few components to what went before. Recorded over a period of two years, Fisherman’s Blues was built around the core group of Mike Scott, Anthony Thistlethwaite on sax and Steve Wickham on violin, abetted by traditional instruments picked up while immersed in rural Ireland. The combination was inspiring as it is toe-tapping, and it’s gone on to match “The Whole Of The Moon” as the Waterboys’ best work.

The difference is apparent right away, as we’re treated to an acoustic strum, mandolin trill and fiddle pull, in short order, before Scott whoops his way through the title track. Sometimes the simplest songs can be as mesmerizing as any. The fiddle saws frenetically throughout “We Will Not Be Lovers” for a seven-minute attack, given some relief by the quieter Irish blues of “Strange Boat”. Karl Wallinger’s name appears in the writing credits for “World Party”, bridging the connection to his own project. A cover that shouldn’t work but does is what they did to Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing”, given an appropriate homegrown lilt, the drummer keeping a clockwork pace even through the quotes from “Blackbird”.

Side two is even more Gaelic, beginning with a jig or reel called “Jimmy Hickey’s Waltz” on the CD, and moving to the charming romantic reverie of “And A Bang On The Ear”. “Has Anybody Here Seen Hank” is a better title before it’s learned to be about Hank Williams, though the pairing of the traditional “When Will We Be Married” and “When Ye Go Away”, with its sinewy slide guitar, gets things back on track. After a minute or so of “Dunford’s Fancy”, “The Stolen Child” pairs a recited Yeats poem with Scott’s percussive piano for a stirring finish, via a busked epilogue of “This Land Is Your Land”.

Fisherman’s Blues set a bar that Mike Scott would never really attain again. This was acknowledged in 2001 with the release of Too Close To Heaven, containing ten more songs from the sessions, augmented by a further five when it was released as Fisherman’s Blues Part Two in the US. These tracks are more reminiscent of the Big Music than the Celtic mix, and thus a companion in name only. Still, the 12½-minute title track lives up to the moniker of “epic”. (The original album was bolstered with more folky-sounding tracks on a “Collector’s Edition”, only to be outdone for the album’s 25th anniversary by the seven-disc Fisherman’s Box, collecting all of the sessions in chronological order.)

The Waterboys Fisherman’s Blues (1988)—4
2006 Collector’s Edition: same as 1988, plus 14 extra tracks
The Waterboys Fisherman’s Blues Part Two (2001)—3

Friday, October 2, 2015

Gene Clark 6: No Other

Following the fleeting Byrds reunion, the Asylum label held onto Gene Clark, still trying to establish himself as a lucrative singer-songwriter. No Other received the red carpet treatment for its recording, relying on plenty of session cats—Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar, Joe Lala, even the Allman Brothers’ Butch Trucks—and unlimited studio time, and was promptly ignored upon release, most likely because it didn’t sound like anything else at the time. (The glam portrait on the back cover surely didn’t help.)

It’s a wide-ranging album, beginning with the country of “Life’s Greatest Fool”, which could have fallen off of any of his other solo albums, but is soon overtaken by the backing vocals of the Blackberries. The mysterious “Silver Raven” is too long to be a hit single, but could have been nicely tackled by, say, labelmates the Eagles for some welcome radio exposure. The funky title track rumbles into the frame like the soundtrack of a blaxploitation film; the verse even bears a mild melodic similarity to Sly Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”, while the overall spirit of later Traffic pervades. “Strength Of Strings” takes even longer to formulate, beginning with a riff that becomes something of a tribal chant that seems independent of the song itself, until it’s revealed as the bridge.

But for the clavinet, “From A Silver Phial” is more country-rock, ending in a terrific wah-wah solo by Jesse Ed Davis. “Some Misunderstanding” runs for an epic eight minutes, fulfilling the “cosmic American music” espoused by Gram Parsons, especially after the fuzz-tone violin comes in. Speaking of which, “The True One” sports a melody and picking evocative of “One Hundred Years From Now”. It’s a relatively upbeat palate cleanser for the more introspective “Lady Of The North”, which melds all the styles heard so far.

All good songs, as might be expected, with lyrics that are anything but hokey, the constant is his lonesome voice, which maintains the same welcome, weary tone no matter the backing. Fast forward 45 years, and No Other had gained a reputation as one of those lost masterpieces certain obsessives like to revere. This time, the British 4AD label—which made its bones on such icons as This Mortal Coil and the Pixies—oversaw a remastered expansion of the album, with arty packaging to match and, in the deluxe vinyl version for those with the shekels to spare, even more session outtakes on SACDs (which we didn’t know they still made) and a Blu-ray with multiple mixes including 5.1 surround. Additional tracks included alternate versions of every song on the album, plus a remake of “Train Leaves Here This Morning” from the first Dillard & Clark album, which had been also covered on the debut album by—no kidding—the Eagles a couple years before.

Gene Clark No Other (1974)—
2019 Expanded Edition: same as 1974, plus 9 extra tracks (Limited Deluxe Boxset adds another 11 tracks)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Frank Zappa 27: Orchestral Favorites

Throughout his lifetime, and towards the end of it, Zappa often went on at length about all the problems he had with “real” musicians, and how people in the classical field ignored him, ripped him off, or otherwise disrespected him. (Can’t imagine why they didn’t hit it off right away.) Insult added to injury anytime he financed an orchestral performance himself, paying for the copying, rehearsing and sundry. But that was usually the only way he could get the dots on the paper to be played.

The final album of music owed to his old label, Orchestral Favorites presents most of the rest of the material originally recorded in 1975 for a larger project, then siphoned off, re-edited and shelved. Timing being everything, it was seemingly rush-released in the wake of Sheik Yerbouti; those looking for more of the same humor would have been disappointed. Instead, they’d get a well-recorded representation of Zappa’s composing abilities.

As the title suggests, this is an orchestral album, with no vocals, which alone makes it an improvement on his last released orchestral experiment, 200 Motels, even repeating some themes. “Strictly Genteel” and “Bogus Pomp” bookend the set and take up the most space, striking a balance between grand themes and avant-garde expressionism. “Pedro’s Dowry” was written specifically for the project, and recalls elements of Lumpy Gravy and “Holiday In Berlin”. “Naval Aviation In Art?” is a brief, suspenseful violin piece, and the old standby “Duke Of Prunes” reappears with a ‘70s shuffle and overdubbed guitar solo.

Throughout Orchestral Favorites, horns and strings rub up against percussion, a standard drum kit, harmonicas, electric violins and electronic keyboards. Together, it provides an alternative to the standard menu of filthiness.

As was common throughout his career, the album as released didn’t sound right to Frank’s ears, and four decades went by before the technology (and tapes) appeared to rectify this. Orchestral Favorites: 40th Anniversary presented the new and improved original sequence on one disc, bolstered by an unused version of “Strictly Genteel” with jaunty keyboard overdubs. Two further discs presented one of the concerts staged for the project in its entirety. In addition to including Frank’s narration of the pieces performed, it turns out there were several other contenders for the original album. Highlights include the rare “Rollo” as well as the first performance of “Black Napkins” actually taught to the players on the spot since he hadn’t transcribed it yet, both with live guitar solos, a sizable chunk of “Greggary Peccary”, and suites of music derived from themes heard on Lumpy Gravy and Uncle Meat.

Frank Zappa Orchestral Favorites (1979)—3
2019 40th Anniversary: same as 1979, plus 21 extra tracks

Friday, September 25, 2015

Joni Mitchell 12: Shadows And Light

Live albums can preserve a key moment in time, or serve to sum up a chapter of an artist’s career. Or sometimes it’s just a way to fulfill contractual obligations. Shadows And Light, Joni’s second double live set, puts her in front of a tight jazz combo, featuring no less than Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Michael Brecker and Don Alias—a long way from that lovelorn folksinger.

The concert was also a video production at the time, evidenced by the introduction, which melds the title track with sound bites from Rebel Without A Cause and Frankie Lymon. Then it’s right into songs from Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira and Mingus, but only one from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. She’s clearly about the band here, letting “Pat’s Solo” bridge “Amelia” and “Hejira”, just as “Don’s Solo” connects “Black Crow” and “Dreamland”. (You’ll have to get the DVD for “Jaco’s Solo”.) A capella group The Persuasions were on the tour as well, and back her up on “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, hinted at in the intro. The only early “hits” here are “Free Man In Paris” and the closing, moody arrangement of “Woodstock”.

The songs benefit from the unified context, and the sound is clean and full, as befits the players and their concern for tone. Shadows And Light ends up being a good entrée into Joni’s less commercial work, capping off a busy decade and setting the stage for one with less activity.

Joni Mitchell Shadows And Light (1980)—

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Robyn Hitchcock 29: Love From London

After thirty years as a solo artist, with a catalog that has sold well into the dozens, Robyn Hitchcock doesn’t inspire more than a raised eyebrow from most people, least of all those who wonder why he gets so much attention from this blog. Admittedly, his heyday is well in the past, but for those still longing for the consistency he supplied in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, Love From Londøn comes the closest yet.

First of all, a circular piano part drives “Harry’s Song”, a mysterious number and oddly foreboding opener. “Be Still” is more upbeat, harmonious and pinned by an insistent cello part, while “Stupefied” combines a tabla effect with handclaps and dotty piano. It takes bollocks to write a song called “I Love You” at this late date, and he marries it to a pretty obnoxious backing. More successful is “Devil On A String”, with its college-rock guitar and canned sax.

Besides having a very Hitchcockian title, “Strawberries Dress” could have easily been lifted from an Egyptians album. “Death & Love” are topics he’s covered fully, but here don’t really figure past the title. “Fix You” takes the lyrical hook from the Coldplay song and turns it into a commentary on capitalism (“Now that you’re broke, who’s gonna fix you?”) with a suitably tense backing. “My Rain” is very intricate acoustically and electrically, and matches “Harry’s Song” for the gem of the album. Just to keep things constant, “End Of Time” is a happy sounding song about death, with seashore effects that recall his first solo album and a reprise of what is presumably the album’s title track.

The credits would have us believe that any drums heard on Love From Londøn are computerized, yet the album sounds just as lively as any of his recent work with a human percussionist. We hesitate to give it a higher rating than what we have, but it really is one of his better albums of this century.

Robyn Hitchcock Love From Londøn (2013)—3

Friday, September 18, 2015

Ben Folds 14: So There

String accompaniments have been features of every Ben Folds album, going back to his first with the Five. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that each of the new songs on So There are all accompanied by an ensemble called yMusic, who provide strings, wind and brass accordingly.

With one exception, most of the songs are opaque lyrically, with an overlying effect of melancholy, even on the upbeat ones. “Capable Of Anything” can’t decide if it’s an apology, a rejoinder or a pep talk, and we’re dying to know who inspired the molasses-slow “Not A Fan”. The title track is the most complex, with its lightning piano runs and extended bridge. “Long Way To Go” is a completed version of a snippet dating back to the fake leak of Way To Normal, and the backing to “Phone In A Pool” sounds like something he’s written before. There’s an odd juxtaposition of references in “Yes Man”, which mentions both “click and drag” and a Fotomat; something the amateur photographer in Ben likely meant intentionally. Of course, Mr. Locker Room returns for “F10-D-A” (“with a big fat D… C what it’s like to B”), which is musically interesting, but the joke doesn’t survive the first verse. “I’m Not The Man”, written with actress and former paramour Alicia Witt, is another sad song in a string of several.

That’s just half of the album, and a setup for his very first completed “Concerto For Piano & Orchestra”. Commissioned and performed by the Nashville Symphony, this three-movement piece sounds very American to these ears, and anything with a prominent piano is going to be compared to “Rhapsody In Blue” anyway. Unlike other “rockers do classical” pieces, such as by Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson, this piece doesn’t try to marry the genre, nor is it obvious that it’s written by someone without a classical background. So for that, it works.

The listener is left thinking of such low-key conclusions as “Boxing”, “Evaporated” and “The Luckiest”—all nice songs, but an album full of them needs variety. So There lacks a really standout hook, but at least he’s not repeating himself. Too much.

Ben Folds So There (2015)—3