Friday, January 30, 2015

Smiths 4: The Queen Is Dead

The third LP (not counting compilations) by The Smiths has grown in such stature over the years that it hasn’t only topped the best-of lists of 1986, or even the whole decade. Some pundits have gone as far to declare that The Queen Is Dead is the greatest album of all time. While it’s clear those people haven’t heard Mean Business, opinion is one thing and fact altogether another. It’s a good album, but not great, and it should soon be clear why.

The title track is a terrific way to start, with a snippet from some little-known film Morrissey fetishized, cut off by galloping drums and a strong band performance driving the cutting lyrics. Here the guitar is more part of the sound than dominating it. “Frankly. Mr. Shankly” is something of an ‘80s version of “Take This Job And Shove It”, but with the knowing, parodic angle of the narrator. Any chance of “I Know It’s Over” being just another gloomy lament of unrequited love is dashed by beginning (and repeating) “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.” In between, he does manage to stir some sympathy as well as empathy. The album’s clunker is “Never Had No One Ever”: it sounds too much like the song that precedes it, retreads the same territory, and is about three times as long as it needs to be. Here are some options: either incorporate some of the lyrics into other songs, or move it to the end of the side, change the arrangement, and make it only as long as it needs to recite the lyrics once, and done. To their credit, the side ends instead with “Cemetry Gates”, a jaunty stroll through said territory, where Our Hero sees the graves of people who’ve died and it seems so unfair that he wants to cry.

Side two, however, is enough to suggest that all those best-album-ever claims might be on to something. Two of their best singles dominate: “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, with its relentless attack and sped-up counterpart; and “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”, a gorgeous lament decorated by Johnny Marr’s deft orchestration. “Vicar In A Tutu” returns to the rockabilly shuffle that dominated the previous album, and a much better pastiche too. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, Mozzer’s own “My Way”, would have been a fine closer, that place is instead bestowed upon the one-liner of “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”. While countless songs utilize the fake ending, this one sports a fake beginning.

The Queen Is Dead was easily the band’s best album to date, and they knew it. Their confidence extended to the artwork, which challenged their apostles to squint at the tiny pink lettering on a dark green background. In many ways, it epitomizes what people both love and hate about the band today. Thus it made sense for a reissued, repackaged edition to appear a year after the album’s 30th anniversary. The double-disc expansion added a pile of demos slash early takes plus familiar B-sides. The seven-minute version of the title track is a joy, though the demo of “Never Had No One Never” is marred by a crazy trumpet solo and Morrissey’s laughing over the extended fade. Naturally any fanatic would want the Deluxe Edition, which added a DVD with a high-resolution mix of the album plus a short film, and a third CD touted as “live in Boston”. While actually recorded some thirty miles outside that city’s limits, and not the complete show, it sports a different setlist from the gig recorded two and a half months later and eventually released on Rank.

The Smiths The Queen Is Dead (1986)—4
2017 expanded edition: same as 1986, plus 13 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 13 tracks plus DVD)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kinks 1: You Really Got Me

Often considered one of the best bands of the British Invasion, the Kinks began as just another London-based white R&B outfit. Then Ray Davies started writing songs for the band, and thus began a career and a rabid cult following. (We considered writing “kult”, but it’s too easy to overdo it on the letter K, so we’ll try to avoid that.)

By the end of the ‘60s, Ray (and the Kinks) would redefine the concept album, and continue to chase the perfect story through the ’70. But that was all in the future. Like everybody else who arrived in 1964, they have a discography that’s not easy to navigate. At home, their singles and LPs didn’t always overlap, and EPs were frequent. Here in the US, their label (Reprise) did their best to soak all they could out of what was available.

Their first American LP wisely took its name from their first hit single, and the resultant You Really Got Me merely presented the first British LP less three tracks. That hit single, one of the greatest rock ‘n roll tracks ever, is the best thing on the album, which leans more heavily on covers than Ray’s originals. And those are pretty good. While catchy, “So Mystifying” is a rewrite of “It’s All Over Now”, while “Just Can’t Go To Sleep” is a little better, despite its structural similarity to the more enduring “Stop Your Sobbing” on side two.

Dave Davies was a better guitar player than a singer, his fretwork giving Keith Richards a run for his money. “Beautiful Delilah”, “Long Tall Shorty” and “I’ve Been Driving On Bald Mountain” (the latter sporting a nice acoustic guitar, but coming two tracks after “Bald Headed Woman”, also foisted by producer and copyright holder Shel Talmy on the Who) spotlight his nasal, breathless yell. But Ray wasn’t much better on the covers; witness Bo Diddley’s “Cadillac”, “Too Much Monkey Business” and particularly the anemic take on “Got Love If You Want It”.

Obviously pushed into doing an album before they were ready, You Really Got Me is not a stellar debut on par with those of their countrymen. As London art school types go, at this juncture the Stones were a better band, with better material.

When Rhino reissued a handful of early Kinks albums in 1988, You Really Got Me retained its title, but replicated the British LP lineup, and added three early single tracks (including “Long Tall Sally”, which both precedes and pales to the Beatles’ version) to the CD. These days, all the bases are covered by the deluxe version of Kinks, which expands on the British update from 1998, with both mono and stereo versions of the album, timely singles and EP tracks, and a handful of BBC sessions. Taken all together, it’s a better representation of what the band, and especially Ray, could do.

The Kinks You Really Got Me (1964)—
Current CD equivalent: Kinks

Friday, January 23, 2015

Van Morrison 27: A Night In San Francisco

Right on schedule, another decade meant another live album from Van Morrison. A Night In San Francisco returns to the “show band and revue” mold of It’s Too Late To Stop Now, replacing the sweat with polish. His big band is bolstered by special guests, and each song tends to meander into quotes from other songs, some listed on the back cover, others buried within the individual credits. Georgie Fame is still prominent in the mix, as is a young vocalist named Brian Kennedy. More on him later.

Beginning with a sprightly “Did Ye Get Healed?”, he runs roughshod through “It’s All In The Game” before introducing special guest Candy Dulfer for “I’ve Been Working” and “I Forgot That Love Existed”, the latter quoting from “All Along The Watchtower” just at the end. “Vanlose Stairway” gets an excellent reading, despite too many backup singers echoing his every word. One of those is Brian Kennedy, who gets to sing most of “You Make Me Feel So Free” by himself, and duets with Van’s daughter Shana on “Beautiful Vision”. Van comes back and somehow takes “See Me Through” into a repetitive segment about soldiers of fortune and chain gangs, and into a decidedly funk-free “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”. A cover of “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby” makes up for it. A couple of blues medleys are an excuse to drag Jimmy Witherspoon and Junior Wells out, before Brian Kennedy sings most of “Tupelo Honey” by himself. “Moondance” is played straight, with plenty of soloing, and wandering through “My Funny Valentine”.

That would be enough for one album, but there’s still another disc to go. Georgie Fame leads the band through “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” before Van pulls “It Fills You Up” out of mothballs. “I’ll Take Care Of You” (which closed the last album) is stretched out to 16 minutes via “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”. The emcee baits the crowd at the end, and the virtual encore is another long track using “Lonely Avenue” as a launch pad, quoting from other songs by Sly Stone, Roy Orbison and Van himself along the way, plus another appearance by Jimmy Witherspoon. “So Quiet In Here” makes a rough switch to Sam Cooke’s “That’s Where It’s At”. “In The Garden” is taken at about twice the original speed, wanders into “Real Real Gone” and has Brian Kennedy singing “You Send Me”. He also sings most of “Have I Told You Lately”, the crowd cheering Van when he returns to finish it. Finally, “Shakin’ All Over” moves into “Gloria” by way of a minute-long cameo by John Lee Hooker. (Because they could, a later upgrade of the album added a funky mesh of “Cleaning Windows” and “The Street Only Knew Your Name”.)

There is an awful lot of music here, and they would seem to have captured a good night, except that A Night In San Francisco is sourced from three shows. But it’s an exhausting listen, particularly if you’re not a fan of Brian Kennedy, and would much rather hear Van sing his own songs. Moreover, it’s not the type of thing you’ll play often, just because of how long it takes to get through it all.

Van Morrison A Night In San Francisco (1994)—3
2008 CD reissue: same as 1994, plus 1 extra track

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Gene Clark 4: White Light

While he wasn’t as prolific as his previous bandmates, it seems that whenever Gene Clark had enough songs written, they were worth recording. That’s certainly the case with White Light, often referred to as Gene Clark due the title only appearing on the labels. Produced by Jesse Davis (temporarily shedding the “Ed”), it’s a lowkey volume of understated artistry, the highly poetic songs mostly speaking for themselves without any gratuitous embellishment or kowtowing to production tricks.

The album works best when it’s just his acoustic guitar and voice, as in “With Tomorrow” and “For A Spanish Guitar”. These alternate with more country-rock fare, like “The Virgin” and the title track, where most of the solos come from his own harmonica rather than the producer’s lead guitar. The unabashed love songs “Because Of You” and “Where My Love Lies Asleep” find a happy medium, the latter very much indebted to the Stones’ “No Expectations”. One surprise is his cover of “Tears Of Rage”, the Basement Tape tune that famously opened the Band’s first album. It’s followed in the same key, tempo, and instrumentation as “1975”, which must mean something.

White Light is worth hearing if you can find it. The Sundazed label, as well as A&M, has kept it in print, and the current streaming version adds five bonus tracks from a 2002 European CD, including an alternate mix of “Because Of You” and the most staid cover of “Stand By Me” you’ll ever hear.

Gene Clark White Light (1971)—3

Monday, January 19, 2015

Housekeeping Alert

In our constant quest to be all things to all people, we finally addressed David Bowie’s true debut album, which we didn’t bother covering six (!) years ago; it can be found in its proper chronological place in the archives. Also, we’ve gazed closer at several albums previously doubled up, and given each its own entry, as befits a comprehensive overview. If you don’t want to read those, here’s one of the greatest rare Bowie songs, courtesy of Ricky Gervais.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Frank Zappa 24: Studio Tan

The next album either released against Frank’s will or sequenced as heard, Studio Tan presented a sophisticated program of music primarily recorded roughly four years earlier, during several sessions involving large ensembles, one of which was credited the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra, a name last heard on Lumpy Gravy. (For those who like conceptual continuity, this album consists of sides eight and three, respectively, of Läther. For those who don’t know what this means, we’ll try to explain it in due time.)

“The Adventures Of Greggary Peccary” is something of a sequel to “Billy The Mountain”, and not just because it mentions that character or even because it takes up a whole side. No, Greggary is an actual peccary (look it up) who runs a company with a stenographer pool and invents the calendar. The story is distracting enough, given Frank’s own smug narration alternating with his voice sped up to play Greggary’s part. Musically, it’s reminiscent of parts of Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, and covers all kinds of themes that had been worked on over the years. It’s certainly designed to tell a story, even if the story itself defeats its own purpose.

“Lemme Take You To The Beach” is dominated by another sped-up voice, returning to the teen spoofs of the old days over a surf parody, featuring none other than Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer on bongos. Thankfully, the vocals end there. “Revised Music For Guitar & Low Budget Orchestra” is a shorter version of a piece originally heard way back on the Jean-Luc Ponty album. Finally, “RDNZL” (think a cross between “redundant” and “Rapunzel”) begins with some intricacy, before developing into another two-chord vamp over which Frank can play his guitar. Ruth Underwood shines on the vibes, as always, and George Duke gets to take a tasty solo.

Studio Tan is not the best place to start with Zappa, and even the cover art (not commissioned by him, but eventually approved) should be an indication that this is something different. It likely makes more sense in a different context.

Frank Zappa Studio Tan (1978)—

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Joni Mitchell 10: Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter

As if her contemporary jazz leanings weren’t enough of a challenge, now Joni unfurled a double album of music more experimental than anything she’d yet done. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter tore apart song structure even more than Hissing Of Summer Lawns did, almost daring listeners to try and keep up.

All double albums need to start with a fanfare of sorts, and this one does too. Beginning with the atmospheric guitars and wordless vocals of the “Overture”, there’s a sharp segue into “Cotton Avenue”, a fairly straightforward, snappy jazz lope. Jaco Pastorius plays bass throughout the album, and his approach dominates “Talk To Me”, which recalls parts of Hejira and includes an ill-advised chicken impression. “Jericho” is reprised from its debut on Miles Of Aisles, given a more cohesive arrangement away from the LA Express.

Because it takes up all of side two, “Paprika Plains” is the centerpiece, a sixteen-minute piano improvisation with lyrics and painstakingly arranged orchestra. The first few minutes are wonderful, since we always love hearing Joni and her piano, but the final three minutes or so are the best, when a rhythm section plus Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax joins in. Ambitious as it is, it still belongs here.

“Otis And Marlena” is more welcoming, more like the accessible Joni strums of recent albums, taking a sudden shift at the end to set up “The Tenth World”, several minutes of Latin percussion featuring vocals from Manolo Badrena of Weather Report. The percussion continues on “Dreamland”, but this time supports a better vocal arrangement from Joni herself.

Things get back to normal somewhat on the final side. The title track sports a guitar rhythm and counterpoints very close to that of “Coyote”, so much so that it almost seems like the same song. “Off Night Backstreet” does evoke a slightly urban atmosphere, and “The Silky Veils Of Ardor” is just Joni and her guitar (more than one, actually) in the same mood as the “Overture” an hour earlier.

Initial reaction to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was less than kind, but just as with her previous “failure”, Hissing Of Summer Lawns, there is some excellent music below the ornate wrapping. Some trimming here and there might have made it a better single album, but Joni always played by her own rules.

Joni Mitchell Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977)—3

Friday, January 9, 2015

Blue Nile 3: Peace At Last

In the wake of Hats’ success, singer Paul Buchanan worked on albums by such people as Robbie Robertson and Julian Lennon and was even seen in the company of Rosanna Arquette (which would have made for some interesting conversation when he got to work with Peter Gabriel, but there we go getting ahead of ourselves again). Back in the land of The Blue Nile, their attention to detail meant that their third album, the more naturally acoustic Peace At Last, didn’t arrive for another seven years.

This is all on the assumption that the album was indeed a band project, because while all three members are listed in the notes, most of the songwriting is credited solely to Buchanan, and he’s the only guy pictured anywhere in the artwork. What also makes it different is the prominent acoustic guitar and real drums used throughout the first half.

After a trademark swell of synth, “Happiness” tiptoes in with a prayer to Jesus, complete with gospel choir belting out the title near the end. “Tomorrow Morning” has a little more pep, working better to sell the album. “Sentimental Man” builds canvas-style, but so do “Love Come Down” and “Body And Soul”, leading us to think that all should have been combined for one stellar track instead of three middling ones.

In the second half, the percussion reverts to electronic, making “Holy Love” little more than a demo. And it wouldn’t be a Blue Nile album without a tearjerker, and Buchanan pulls out all the stops for “Family Life”. Here a simple piano and high, swelling strings are the only accompaniment for another prayer of sorts, this time from the scene of a lonesome Christmas Eve. It’s not clear what’s got the narrator so upset, but you just want to give him a hug, with your own eyes burning by the time the little trumpet motif decorates the arrangement before the coda. The electronics come back to underscore the maxim that “War Is Love”, whatever that means. Just as befuddling is “God Bless You Kid”, until the chorus takes over and we return to classic Blue Nile territory. The ending goes on a little long, and “Soon” doesn’t make an impact until the bridge.

We’re tempted to demote the album below passing, except that Peace At Last isn’t necessarily bad. Utilizing the editing suggested above would go a long way to improving the overall listen. The “Happiness” CD singles overseas had three otherwise unreleased “B-sides”, two of which were easily as good if not better than what made the album, and none of which made it to the eventual expanded reissue. Instead we get three new, alternate mixes of songs from the album, two never-before-heard tracks and one demo, none very illuminating.

The Blue Nile Peace At Last (1996)—3
2014 Remastered Collector's Edition: same as 1996, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Billy Joel 17: Fantasies & Delusions

This is one of those albums we hesitate to discuss at any length, mostly because, since it’s a classical experiment, we’re in no way schooled enough in the genre to be authoritative. But music means different things to different people, and it helps that Fantasies & Delusions isn’t awful.

This is a suite of solo piano music composed by Billy Joel, apparently so complex that even he himself didn’t feel up to performing it himself. It’s packaged studiously, resembling the cover of sheet music, with only his name in big letters to make it easy to find on shelves, and a photo of himself with pianist Richard Joo on the back.

As solo piano music, it fits nicely in the background, less obtrusive than most classical dabblings by the likes of Paul McCartney or Joe Jackson. It’s very melodic, not at all atonal or avant-garde. Listed as Opuses (Opi?) 1 through 10, presented out of order, most tracks are between seven and eleven minutes, so something like the minute-long “Invention In C Minor” stands out easily. “Air (Dublinesque)”, which closes the album, recalls “And So It Goes” to an extent, before losing itself in an approximation of a jig. Still, considering his knack for a melody, and his tried-and-true method of building songs from simple piano themes, it’s a shame that there aren’t more hummable passages. Of course, were he to release an album of his hits performed a la George Winston, paring the familiar songs back to their roots, he’d likely get slammed for retreading.

So while it’s harmless, Fantasies & Delusions is worthy of any collection that also includes recordings by any of the other masters of classical piano performing pieces by any great dead composer. If this provides a gateway to Artur Rubenstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Mitsuko Uchida (the list goes on), then the listener is in for a journey and a half.

Billy Joel Fantasies & Delusions (2001)—3

Friday, January 2, 2015

Genesis 6: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway

Of all of the mysteries that have plagued man since the dawn of recorded sound, one of the most baffling by far would have to be the simple question: “What the hell is The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway about”? Somehow the briefest answer (“94 minutes”) doesn’t satisfy those seeking a succinct plot summary.

Those already familiar with Genesis albums to date would already know that the band’s songs rarely followed any clear-cut scenario, being fantastically surreal and multi-dimensional. Still, this being the band’s first double LP, with all the suggestion of a concept album about an individual’s personal and/or allegorical quest (Tommy, Quadrophenia, etc.), the listener really wants to know what’s happening over the course of 23 shorter tracks (by Genesis standards). Peter Gabriel was always more of a poetic writer than the narrative Pete Townshend, so wordplay adds further dimension and distraction. The original album featured a lengthy essay inside the gatefold, which needed to be ingested concurrently with the lyrics printed on each disc’s inner sleeve. (Those who bought the cassette or 8-track were even further up a creek.)

The Interwebs provide lots and lots of interpretations, and all make sense in their own ways, no matter how outlandish or comical. The story within The Lamb is moot if the music isn’t any good, but it is. The title track opens with cascading piano figures that will continue most of the track, structured in best verse-chorus-bridge format, providing something of a grand opening number to this particular Broadway show, pun intended. Introducing the hero, a street rat named Rael (coincidentally, a name previously used for an aborted Townshend “opera”), we can see him roaming the Manhattan streets as the opening credits roll, pausing to contemplate the titular lamb in its repose. A quote from “On Broadway” (less than a year after Bowie’s use of it) winds down into “Fly On A Windshield”, wherein “the wall of death” threatens Rael, its pastoral melody giving way to a crashing march, and “Broadway Melody Of 1974”’s litany of pop culture and historical collisions. “Cuckoo Cocoon” is another lilting air, with flute solo, depicting Rael in whatever state of animation he’s found, before he ends up “In The Cage”. Here we find the first appearance of Rael’s brother John, who appears to be even more narcissistic than Rael himself. John leaves him spinning in said cage, and Rael wakes up to observe “The Grand Parade Of Lifeless Packaging”, humanity reduced to objects on a factory conveyor belt. One such object is, whaddya know, John.

Rael retreats to memories of life “Back In NYC”, via another infectious 7/4 meter, and the time a porcupine compelled him to shave his heart clean of hair (no, really), accompanied by the gorgeous instrumental “Hairless Heart” (told you), which brings upon the next memory of “Counting Out Time”, or navigating his first carnal encounter by way of a sex manual. It’s a silly but fun song, highlighted by the wobbly treated guitar solo and falsetto descants. The music from the bridge of the title track heralds “The Carpet Crawlers”, another wonderful track that through a combination of vocal pitch and mixing builds so well from quiet to immersive. Said crawlers are searching throughout “The Chamber Of 32 Doors”, only one of which (supposedly) won’t lead back inside said chamber. The song itself does seem to sum up the main theme of the album (the search for enlightenment), and the major resolution of the very last chord nicely cues the curtain, intermission, change the record, tape or CD.

Act two crashes in with “Lilywhite Lilith”, an old blind woman who asks Rael to help her through the chamber. She directs him to “The Waiting Room”, illustrated by a scary collage of noises through keyboards and guitars, finding release into an instrumental jam. “Anyway” features more cascading piano arpeggios, with some musical theater overtones, as Rael waits for death to arrive in the form of “The Supernatural Anaesthetist”, who comes and dances around to another precise instrumental. Having seemingly survived, Rael enters another cave to find “The Lamia”, three serpents with female head and torso, summoning him from a pool, and we have another patented Gabriel multisexual encounter, accompanied by a beautiful piano. The serpents bite Rael and promptly die, whereupon he, heartbroken, eats them. (No, really.) A stirring ambient instrumental, “Silent Sorrow In Empty Boats”, gets its title from a line in “The Lamia”.

Rael gets another punishment for his sensual indulgences when he finds himself in “The Colony Of Slippermen”, grotesque creatures transformed into their current bulbous state by encounters with those very same Lamia. He finds John there too, and the only way they can transform back from Slipperman form to human appearance is to have their tallywackers removed. (No, really.) And they do, getting to keep them as a souvenir in a tube. Sadly, a raven swoops down and steals Rael’s, he asks John to help him catch it, but John refuses and abandons him again. Rael searches for the bird along a “Ravine”, another vivid, impressionistic instrumental, only to watch the raven drop the tube in the water below. Suddenly, he catches a glimpse, through the rocks, of home, as “The Light Dies Down On Broadway”. He moves to go there, but what’s this? John is drowning in the river! Rael goes to rescue him to the funky sounds of “Riding The Scree”, and struggles to save him “In The Rapids”, first floating quietly then building as he manages to grab his brother and pull him to safety. He looks down to see not John’s face but his own. (Yes, really.) A siren heralds “It”, italics intentional, the big finale, explaining everything and nothing.

Whew. The Lamb is a lot to take in, and despite all its annotation, is best experienced tangentially rather than directly. The best songs stand on their own outside the album—the title track, “It”, all of side two, most of side three—and musical themes do recur—the title track, the end of “Back In NYC”, the chorus of “The Lamia”—tying things together like a concept album should. Although Gabriel is center stage, the band’s contributions are not to be ignored; we can’t say enough about Phil Collins’ drumming. Another key contributor was Brian Eno, credited with “Enossification”, likely treating some of the sonics in his own special way. And with that, an era came to a close, both in the band and prog in general.

Genesis The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)—4