Friday, February 27, 2015

Band 7: Northern Lights—Southern Cross

One of the things that made The Band so good was their ability to just play. Thrown into the most daunting of settings, be it hostile audiences or converted basements, they were never too slick to seem like sellouts. But by the mid’70s, it seemed everybody had moved out to Malibu, and that’s where even the Woodstock boys ended up, in their own 24-track home studio. Here they could craft their work in a more comfortable atmosphere.

Northern Lights—Southern Cross was the product of their first work there, and their first album of original material in four years. Robbie Robertson takes sole writing credit for all eight songs, just as he sits a little higher than the others, right there in the middle of the front cover. If he really did come up with all the lyrics, then he’d better take credit for the clunkers too. They may not have been sellouts, but now they were trying to be slick.

All over “Forbidden Fruit” (“that’s the fruit that you better not taste”, the chorus clarifies for those without a grasp of basic English) Garth Hudson fills seemingly every available track with more and more keyboards and synthesizers—likely groundbreaking in 1975, but excessively dated now—while Robbie pinches lines out for six minutes. Richard’s lonesome vocals on “Hobo Jungle” immediately provide a nice respite, and some needed restraint. Some may call it sacrilege, but we’ve never had much use for “Ophelia”. It does revive the New Orleans sound, with Garth providing real and fake horns, but still sounds like an imitation of a Band song. “Acadian Driftwood” is a little better, nicely melding the three lead singers throughout the verses. To continue the Louisiana feel (“Cajun” being colloquial for “Acadian”) the guest fiddle fights for space with the accordion.

“Ring Your Bell” is the closest the band ever got to disco, swinging the same plaid slacks one day heard on the Dead’s “Shakedown Street”, and the farting synth doesn’t help. It’s too bad, because there’s a good song buried in there. If one track redeems the album, that would be “It Makes No Difference”, an epic love-lost lament given the proper level of heartbreak by Rick Danko. Once again there’s a wonderful vocal blend on a few lines near the end of each verse, especially supporting Rick’s final statement. The solos taking out the song may be gratuitous, but just when Robbie gets too close to spew mode, Garth pulls him back with tasteful sax, just as the keyboards aren’t overdone either. “Jupiter Hollow” is kinda wacky, considering that Robbie’s playing clavinet and not guitar and both drummers compete with a drum machine. One of Garth’s keyboards sounds like a mosquito stuck in your ear, or one of your speakers on the fritz. All of this distracts from whatever story is in there. Finally, “Rags And Bones” has some lovely lyrical touches suggesting turn-of-the-century New York City—think the DeNiro parts of the second Godfather movie—but the modern production is, again, a distraction.

Northern Lights—Southern Cross divides fans to this day, but there’s no arguing that the rough-hewn qualities that made their first couple of albums so special have been smoothed out here. It just misses being worth the trouble, and we can’t say enough about “It Makes No Difference”, which is a contender for their best ever recording. (The upgraded CD boasts only two bonus tracks, both early versions of songs that would be redone later.)

The Band Northern Lights—Southern Cross (1975)—
2001 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bruce Springsteen 16: Essential

Maybe the record industry knew their glory days were long past, as the new century saw a proliferation of hits collections, particularly for people who’d already had several. While not as cheaply executed as Unigram’s “20th Century Masters—The Millennium Collection” series, Sony’s line of “Essential” compilations usually aimed to load up two CDs, with some true rarities to entice repeat buyers.

Bruce had managed to avoid exploitation throughout his career, but come 2003, with audiences still swooning from The Rising, his catalog was ripe for the hits treatment. The Essential Bruce Springsteen isn’t merely an expanded Greatest Hits, nor does it even duplicate that collection. But it does kick off with five radio favorites from his first two albums, and giving more love to most everything after. The title tracks of Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad provide bleak perspectives in between the anthems; meanwhile Born In The U.S.A. is underrepresented, and you’ve got to look elsewhere for “Secret Garden”. (Really? They had to make room for “Mary’s Place”?) The second disc closes with the two new songs from 2001’s Live In New York City, “American Skin (41 Shots)” and “Land Of Hope And Dreams”.

A couple of odd choices aside, this set wouldn’t be worth more than a paragraph’s mention except for the third, “bonus” disc. This sequel to Tracks collects some extraneous soundtrack songs from the ‘90s, such as “Missing”, “Dead Man Walkin’” and “Lift Me Up”. There’s only one B-side (“The Big Payback” from the Nebraska era) but two songs from charity collections—“Trapped”, a live cover of the Jimmy Cliff song previously stuck on the USA For Africa album, and Elvis’s “Viva Las Vegas”.

And then there are the completely new songs outside of bootlegs. “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” was a River outtake made a hit by Dave Edmunds, followed by “Held Up Without A Gun”, a great live raveup barely longer than a minute. “None But The Brave” was earmarked for Born In The U.S.A. but likely cut for sounding too much like his last two E Street albums, whereas “County Fair” is beloved by collectors who also love “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”. “Code Of Silence” is another rarity from the “reunion” tour, while “Countin’ On A Miracle” is an acoustic alternate played over the PA at the end of the Rising shows.

Given when most of these songs were recorded, they could have easily been slotted into Tracks and still kept under four discs. Why he sat on them for five years is anyone’s guess, but fans can be happy to finally have them. That is, if they acted fast enough; twelve years and five studio albums later, the set was overhauled, replacing a dozen tracks from the first set with nineteen others. Some of the older substitutions were negligible, but not all of the newer ones made up the difference. Also, this time there was no bonus disc.

Bruce Springsteen The Essential Bruce Springsteen (2003)—4
Bruce Springsteen
The Essential Bruce Springsteen (2015)—

Friday, February 20, 2015

Tears For Fears 1: The Hurting

Synth-pop was huge in the early ‘80s, and even bands that didn’t have any real songwriting talent could fall back on production to stand out from the pack. Tears For Fears straddled that territory very well by matching modern sounds to mopey lyrics about the pain of childhood. Much of The Hurting covers that theme, with song titles taken from the works of Arthur Janov, the inventor of primal scream therapy.

But even with that source, the album is catchy. Its three hit singles still stand out in particular: “Mad World”, with its robotic drums and taunting fake trumpets; “Pale Shelter”, built on a straight rock beat and acoustic major-sevenths; and “Change”, driven by edgy marimbas. All were sung by bass player Curt Smith, who was the prettier of the two boys featured on the record sleeves. (The other one, Roland Orzabal, did all the writing, channeling his angst through a series of unfortunate haircuts.) Peter Gabriel’s influence looms large, particularly on “Ideas As Opiates”, which begins sounding a lot like “Biko”, and spending a minute chasing correct pitch at the end. “Start Of The Breakdown” utilizes a Yamaha electric piano familiar from Gabriel records as well. Mel Collins, once of King Crimson and lately with Dire Straits, adds saxophone when asked.

Despite the overwrought “Memories Fade” and “Watch Me Bleed”, gloom does not rule the day here. “Suffer The Children” is a lot cheerier than one might expect, especially in comparison to the Smiths song of a similar title. Even the title track builds into textbook early ‘80s ear candy. That said, “The Prisoner” is extremely abrasive, and would have made a better B-side (which it was, and is included with plenty more variations, remixes and BBC recordings of the album’s songs in the latest Super Deluxe Edition reissue).

A lot of The Hurting sounds dated, but again, take those three singles and they’re even better out of context. And there was no indication they’d ever progress beyond this.

Tears For Fears The Hurting (1983)—3
1999 remastered CD: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks
2013 Super Deluxe 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1983, plus 26 extra tracks and DVD

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Replacements 1: Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash

The story goes that Paul Westerberg wandered past a basement window from which emanated the sound of a band. Given his skill at songwriting, fueled by years listening to AM radio, and the volatile nature of the Stinson brothers (brilliant but damaged lead guitarist Bob and 14-year-old Tommy on bass), Westerberg took over the operation. Thus began the saga of The Replacements, tied for the bronze position as the most notorious musicians to come from Minnesota.

The band’s first full-length album, released on the local Minneapolis label Twin/Tone, bore the classic title Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, and crammed 18 songs into 36 minutes. While taken at top speed, the songs aren’t exactly dissonant punk either. “Otto” gamely attempts dynamics and style shift within the same two minutes. Only two songs are longer than three minutes; one of them, the moody “Johnny’s Gonna Die”, predicted the demise of Mr. Thunders by about ten years (musically it sounds like a rip on Fleetwood Mac) while “Kick Your Door Down” belabors what little point it has. Titles like “Shiftless When Idle” and “I Bought A Headache” point to Westerberg’s future as the most cunning linguist of his generation. They’re not all zingers; “I’m In Trouble” (as in “you’re in love and”) might as well be a Ramones track, while “Something To Du” is an ode to crosstown rivals Hüsker Dü.

At this juncture they’re more like their nickname the ‘Mats, short for Placemats, bestowed on them after most shows that began with a couple of actual rehearsed songs and degenerated into drunken, barely remembered covers, instrument swapping and general chaos. Westerberg had a tendency to yell more than sing; he can’t decide whether to speed-spit his way through “Customer” or articulate his come-on lines, and “Shutup” is about as obnoxious as you’d expect. That said, his self-deprecating liner notes equally match the tone for the band’s rise and fall.

Sorry Ma would sell better over time, but with its thin drum sound and reliance on a chorus pedal, it’s not as likely to get played as much as later albums. That said, the updated CD version sounds pretty good, loaded up with about a half-hour’s worth of live tracks, outtakes, and the hilarious countrified solo B-side “If Only You Were Lonely”, arguably Westerberg’s best song of the Twin/Tone era.

That song was amended at the end of the album sequence when the 40th Anniversary expansion happened. As had been Rhino’s MO, the album was remastered and reissued with three extra discs filled with alternates and live tracks, as well as a vinyl compilation of some of those extras to approximate an “alternate” album. All of the extras from the previous expansion were included, which was nice of them. Much of the second disc is believed to have originated in the Stinson family basement, and come off more rockin’ than the speedier punk approach of the album proper. Some of are less-than-stellar sound quality, included for their “historical” nature, but that’s the only way we get to hear rarities like “Lie About Your Age” and “Don’t Turn Me Down”. The third disc delves into the actual recording sessions for the album; these also vary in sound quality, but the more successful tracks show off the band better, and Bob in particular. His “A Toe Needs A Shoe” is a snappy instrumental, and a highlight of the included outtakes, which also include two versions of “Get Lost” and a studio take of “We’ll Get Drunk”. Four solo Westerberg demos with lots of coughing cap the disc, including a couple that had been bonus tracks elsewhere.

The fourth disc is the gem, as it preserves a board cassette of a gig at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis in January 1981, during the gestation of the album. The bass is way loud, and Tommy’s voice has barely changed, but the kid could play. The band hasn’t devolved into drunken, forgotten covers yet; their Slade and Johnny Thunders selections are fairly straight, but “All Day And All Of The Night” is a mess. They also had yet to notice that “Careless” and “Takin A Ride” had the exact same riff. Overall, it’s an essential document of their power, speed, and ability, and puts the debut album in context. They could be really good at times. Especially Bob.

The Replacements Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash (1981)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1981, plus 13 extra tracks
2021 Deluxe Edition: same as 2008, plus 69 extra tracks

Friday, February 13, 2015

Cat Stevens 1: Cat’s Cradle

Navigating the history of Cat Stevens is a tricky prospect, considering that there are at least three stages of his career, even if people only know of one, and many have since written him off as a Muslim extremist. And even though he’s known as Yusuf now, once upon a time he was a Swinging London kid of Greek and Swedish descent who changed his name to the catchier Cat Stevens and wrote his own songs. Clad in a velvet jacket and ruffled shirt, his first album is chock full of dated chamber pop, the like of which had been foisted upon records by David Bowie, Genesis, the Bee Gees, and dozens of others.

The title track of Matthew & Son is a catchy tirade against the corporate culture, notable today for a middle eight borrowed by Tears For Fears on “Mad World”. Something of a chauvinistic novelty song, “I Love My Dog” was his first single, bettered by the pure pop of “Here Comes My Baby”, which gained new life thirty years ahead on the Rushmore soundtrack. That’s three decent songs in a row, to which the rest of the album pales, starting with the cringing bossa nova of “Bring Another Bottle”. The simple sentiment of “I Found A Love” is tarnished by the corny music hall of “I See A Road”.

His latest single starts side two, and the revenge fantasy “I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun” is one reason why Yusuf wouldn’t play his old songs for a while. The B-side, “School Is Out”, is just too literal; “Baby Get Your Head Screwed On” is always good advice, but that’s going to be tough as she “kissed [her] psychiatrist”. “When I Speak To The Flowers” doesn’t get far past its hippie position, and is about as repetitive as “Hummingbird”. While a little naïve, “Lady” is at least a sweet paean. (Naturally, the American version wasn’t identical to the British original, but the CD era has brought all the disparate contents together, including “Portobello Road”, which sounds most like the ‘70s troubadour we’d come to appreciate.)

The music machine required singers to deliver product on schedule, and his next album arrived at the end of the year. New Masters beefed up the arrangements and made them even more heavy-handed. It didn’t work, as besides being short of decent material (with one major exception), his voice is simply too harsh and bleating to pass him off as a pop idol.

“Kitty” begins pleasantly sounding like the streets of Paris, but the chorus is just a little too urgent, with a backing that undoubtedly inspired “Sky High” by Jigsaw. “I’m So Sleepy” will likely inspire same, and the churning rhythm of “Northern Wind” isn’t the most inviting sea voyage. “The Laughing Apple” is an attempt at a fairy tale worthy of Leonard Nimoy’s singing career. “Smash Your Heart” is comparatively restrained, but don’t be fooled by the title of “Moonstone”, overtaken as it is by horns-a-go-go.

The one song that redeems the album is “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, as good a pop song as any, as Rod Stewart, Sheryl Crow and others would prove. It’s more convincing than the tinkling harpsichord in “I’m Gonna Be King” or the trifling “Ceylon City” and its mysterious duet partner. One would think “Blackness Of The Night” wouldn’t be as jaunty as it is, just as the rustic setting of “Come On Baby (Shift That Log)” (he’d also like her to “wash that dog”) doesn’t invite the horn section that barges in anyway. And as before, “I Love Them All” is a snappy ending with a vague message. (This sequence was the same on both sides of the pond, but later reissues added some failed singles from the same period to complete the picture, some more overwrought than others.)

One almost wonders whether the albums would sound better without the decorations. Both would be repeatedly repackaged in the decade to follow, most notoriously on Cat’s Cradle (cue rimshot), which selected five songs from both albums, seemingly at random, except for beginning with the first three tracks from Matthew & Son and putting “First Cut” at the start of side two. Likely they seduced the odd unsuspecting fan, who would only recognize the voice the label hoped to exploit. More than likely, it’s one reason why so many Internet lyric sites mistakenly credit him for “Cat’s In The Cradle” by Harry Chapin.

Cat Stevens Matthew & Son (1967)—2
Cat Stevens
New Masters (1967)—2

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Smithereens 1: Especially For You

A band that presented power equal to their pop, the Smithereens were around a long time before becoming mainstream. Their debut EP, 1980’s Girls About Town, presented four songs with “girl” in the title—three originals, plus a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Girl Don’t Tell Me”. It’s bouncy, jangly pop, though Pat DiNizio had yet to develop his mopey baritone, sounding a lot like Joe Jackson on the title track. 1983’s Beauty And Sadness, reissued after the band got big, has a different gimmick; this title track’s drums are right out of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Some Other Guy” shares its title with an early Beatles cover, while “Much Too Much” is also the name of a Who song, but here sounds like the Stray Cats. “Tracey’s World” is an upbeat lovelorn lament in the spirit of the girl groups.

By the time of their first album, DiNizio learned to write songs in different styles, while the band found their ideal sound by running their Rickenbackers through Marshall amps. Especially For You straddles bona fide ‘60s pop with the brooding jangle recently popularized by R.E.M. and other college rock bands. “Strangers When We Meet” is a crackling opener, with harmonies equal parts Beach Boys and Hollies, and a title like “Groovy Tuesday” could only have come from a mind stuck to the radio. That’s how “Listen To Me Girl” is a cousin of The Who’s “Circles” with harmonica replacing the French horn, “I Don’t Want To Lose You” ends with the solo from “Feel A Whole Lot Better”, “Time And Time Again” turns on a riff everybody’s fudged, and “Crazy Mixed-Up Kid” is pure Beatles ‘65.

But you’ll be hard pressed to find a ‘60s equivalent to the menace in “Blood And Roses”. Name-drops of Bill Wyman and Jean Shrimpton are the only retro features of “Behind The Wall Of Sleep”. “Cigarette” features a prominent accordion, while “In A Lonely Place” uses vibraphone and Suzanne Vega to exude coffeehouse cool. “Hand Of Glory” sounds different, probably because it was written by little-known musician Jimmy Silva. “Alone At Midnight” is a bit of a downer, but it fits the image. (Later CDs added two bonus tracks: the trashy encore “White Castle Blues” and Dick Dale’s “Mr. Eliminator”.)

Especially For You still appeals on several levels, from rock ‘n roll to alternative, and the reason is the songwriting. That it was anachronistic in the ‘80s makes it just as enjoyable today.

The Smithereens Especially For You (1986)—4

Friday, February 6, 2015

Journey 2: Infinity

Here’s where Journey became the Journey some love and others hate. In Steve Perry, the band had a photogenic frontman with a wide vocal range that would be ably supported by Gregg Rolie, still on the keys. Perry wasn’t a blues-based rooster, but came from the pop school, and tended to emulate Sam Cooke’s phrasing whenever possible.

Infinity presents the new blueprint for the band, arena-ready songs loaded with hooks and melodies, some of which came from a guy they tapped to be their singer before Perry came along. (Not to worry, though; the less attractively monikered Robert Fleischman got songwriting credits for what he did, and would one day front the Vinnie Vincent Invasion before being elbowed aside for Mark Slaughter.) Roy Thomas Baker, who’d produced a bunch of Queen albums and was about to work with The Cars, helped streamline the sound.

Right away it’s clear that they’re no longer a fusion band. “Lights” is a safe beginner, cueing cigarette lighters held aloft all over San Francisco. “Feeling That Way” begins with Gregg singing to his piano, then turns into a duet alternating with Perry, soothing the fears of anyone who’d enjoyed the first three albums. A tight edit brings “Anytime” in immediately, just as it would on FM stations everywhere. Not able to come up with lyrics for the chorus, “Lă Do Dā” sports accents in the title as extraneous as Neal Schon’s jackhammer intro. “Patiently” is another play for the audience hidden inside a love song.

The metaphor of “Wheel In The Sky” can be blamed on Robert Fleischman or Ross Valory’s wife, both of whom are credited with the lyrics, but Perry takes to them and we have another crowd-pleasing anthem. A hidden highlight of the album is “Somethin’ To Hide”, heavy on the triplets and culminating in an impossible falsetto. It’s another quick cut to “Winds Of March”, which hides melodic similarities to “Rainy Night House” by Joni Mitchell, of all things. “Can Do” toughens things up a bit with a crunch worthy of Jimmy Page, then “Opened The Door” takes its sweet time to thank the unnamed girl for doing just that. Neal’s solo gets the last word.

Compact and catchy, Infinity succeeds where the previous albums couldn’t. The band still displayed the chops to counter any accusations of selling out, but since selling out was exactly what they wanted to do, everybody was fine with that. And in an era dominated by such one-named bands as Foreigner, Kansas, Boston and the like, all Journey had to do was tour, promote, record and repeat.

Journey Infinity (1978)—

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Rush 3: Caress Of Steel

By their third album, the members of Rush were familiar with each other and their respective strengths, but they’d yet to figure out how to bridge power-trio riffage with prog-rock. Caress Of Steel includes not one, but two multipart epics, neither very well put together so much as lengthy.

In a smart move, they begin with shorter, unconnected tracks. “Bastille Day” is about the French Revolution, which may well have been a big deal in the Canadian equivalent of high school; it even ends with a pomp-and-circumstance variation on the chorus, which would be rewritten to better use down the road. Several incongruences mar “I Think I’m Going Bald”. First, the title makes it seem like a joke; second, the lyrics are played straight; third, the lyrics are actually kinda deep for a song about aging; fourth, it’s all packaged in a riff equal parts “Gimme Three Steps” and “Woman From Tokyo”. The only thing missing is a cowbell. “Lakeside Park” is nothing more mystical than memories of an Ontario attraction on another national holiday, which is good, because they’re gonna need all that hocus-pocus for the rest of the side. “The Necromancer” takes lots of liberties with The Lord Of The Rings, following a trio of travelers (gee, who could they be?) and reviving By-Tor from the last album. Each of its three listed sections begins with a speed-altered narration, marching lugubriously to what must be the battle since it’s played faster, culminating in a “triumphant” theme that sounds like “Baba O’Riley” filtered through “Sweet Jane”.

Taking up all of side two, “The Fountain Of Lamneth” presents a man’s journey from birth to death, seeking the elusive treasure of the title. It seems the band couldn’t decide if it should be a suite or separate songs stuck together. One recurring musical motif appears early but doesn’t get to take hold, especially when the drum solo appears about four minutes in. Some nice picking begins the “No One At The Bridge” and “Panacea” parts, but Geddy soon steps in to mewl the protagonist’s angst. “Bacchus Plateau” has the makings of a good song on its own; in fact, it’s the best part of the whole album. The motif returns, the quest is over, and that’s that.

The biggest problem with Caress Of Steel is that it’s pretty dull, but there are just enough segments with potential, albeit scattered far apart from each other. It wasn’t enough to be adventurous in the ‘70s; you had to put keisters in the seats too, and Rush needed a good album to do that.

Rush Caress Of Steel (1975)—2