Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Beach Boys 17: Made In California

By the 21st century, Brian Wilson had managed to outlive both of his brothers, and kept his distance while two and sometimes three competing acts toured the summer circuit to revive the sound of the Beach Boys. Meanwhile, every few years brought another permutation of the “Good Vibrations” single (in stereo! 5.1 surround! karaoke-style!) or some other anniversary package with rare or new mixes, backing tracks, a cappella mixes and “newly discovered” outtakes. The laughably titled Endless Harmony single disc and the later Hawthorne, CA double-disc set were undoubtedly inspired by the Beatles’ Anthology project, except for the random sequencing and arbitrary inclusion of material from well after the band’s heyday. (Of course, in the time before The Smile Sessions the occasional bone from that era only tantalized and infuriated collectors further.) Then there were the themed packages—Sounds Of Summer, Warmth Of The Sun, Summer Love Songs, Classics Selected By Brian Wilson, ad nauseam—that merely raked through the same patch of sand.

But a fiftieth anniversary is a big deal—just ask the Stones—so only twenty years after their thirtieth anniversary box set, the Beach Boys issued 50 Big Ones on two CDs, and put out a new box set with six CDs, which you’ll notice is one higher than the last one. As they’d recorded precious little material in those two intervening decades, that means the balance is made up of “60 unreleased tracks”. (No points for guessing that this total includes live versions and alternate mixes, some contemporary, some from this century.)

Yet Made In California doesn’t merely inflate the sequence of the previous box. That format has been ignored, they’ve started from scratch, included some songs that weren’t on the first and ignored some that were. So yes, you have to have both, and that’s the law.

The story is still chronological through the first four discs and part of the fifth. Naturally we start with songs about surfing and cars (thanks for “Surfers Rule”, no thanks for “Ballad Of Ole Betsy”), complete with session chatter, and that means Murry Wilson haranguing the kids on how to craft a hit. By the end of the first disc, Brian has started to run the show and write more “mature” music with lyrics to match, and that develops on the disc two; however, the splendor of “California Girls” and “Let Him Run Wild” has to distract from the likes of “Salt Lake City” and “Amusement Parks U.S.A.” Five of the best songs from Pet Sounds set up “Good Vibrations” and a smattering of Smile material, including “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”, but using the Smiley Smile version of “Wonderful”.

From there, the value is solely in the ears of the listener, and how one feels about the rest of their career. Disc three starts well with “Darlin’”, to take out the rest of the ‘60s, moving through various album tracks and shoulda-beens unearthed in the ‘90s (“Sail Plane Song”, “Soulful Old Man Sunshine”, f’rinstance) up through “‘Til I Die” and “Surf’s Up”. Disc four covers the ‘70s, and like disc three, also pays more attention to Dennis and Carl than the other box did, but where the hell is “Long Promised Road”?

The first ten tracks on disc five cover 1980 through the present, including two decent outtakes from an unfinished 1995 album and, yes, “Kokomo”. Then it’s a wild stretch through live recordings spanning three decades (nothing from the ‘80s) proving that they could always put on a decent show. And just to stay with the pattern, disc six (“From The Vaults”) offers up even more alternate takes, backing tracks, a cappella mixes, etc. Some of this could be considered historic, like “Where Is She” and the backing track for Glen Campbell’s “Guess I’m Dumb”, and some of it is sad, like “Sherry She Needs Me”, a 1965 backing given an raspy 1976 Brian vocal, or “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”. And since they amazingly hadn’t exploited it yet, there are even a few BBC sessions.

There are enough “new” things on Made In California to entice the Wilson obsessive, but one wonders whether such a package would be better served as a standalone collection of goodies as opposed to yet another grab-the-newbies-too career-spanning box with all the hits everybody should have already. And if you’re nervous as to what they’ll do for the 75th anniversary, maybe CDs won’t exist in 2038.

The Beach Boys Made In California (2013)—

Friday, March 27, 2015

Bob Dylan 59: Shadows In The Night

Just when we think we’ve reached saturation on established artists reinterpreting the Great American Songbook, here comes another. The easy go-to concept for Shadows In The Night is that it’s Bob Dylan singing Frank Sinatra. While these songs are certainly associated with Frank, it’s safe to assume Bob’s familiar with other versions. However, a comparison to Frank’s recordings proves that those arrangements are the ones that Bob’s band labored to replicate to scale.

Seeing as Frank co-wrote “I’m A Fool To Want You”—and it’s still considered to be an ode to Ava Gardner—there’s no escaping the connotation. Here, with the barest echo of brass in the back of the mix, it’s a close cousin to the lovelorn music of Time Out Of Mind. The same goes for the weariness in “The Night We Called It A Day”, but the theme switches for “Stay With Me”, which, despite the assumption of the title, is actually something of a hymn. He sounds shakiest here, but still believable. “Autumn Leaves” is one of the shorter tracks, the bulk of it devoted to the intro, and you can just hear the guitar mimicking the wind in between the lines of the first verse. “Why Try To Change Me Now” effectively sums up his entire career, delivered with more of a shrug than a sob.

Familiarity with such oft-heard chestnuts can only inspire comparisons, so it’s hard to approach tracks like “Some Enchanted Evening” and “What’ll I Do” with complete objectivity. Let’s just say that the middle-eight of the latter should have been phrased a little tighter than he has. “Full Moon And Empty Arms” is the oldest song here, adapted from a Rachmaninoff melody, and some of those off notes are actually part of the original, proving his ear is spot on. “Where Are You?” was the title track of a Sinatra album that included three others of the songs here, and again, Bob nails it. Saving the best for last, “That Lucky Old Sun” is more associated with Ray Charles, or at least is was when Bob first started playing it three decades ago with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Without the Queens of Rhythm, it’s even better here.

As noted, the band is terrific throughout Shadows In The Night, and Bob wisely doesn’t strain his voice past the point of tolerance. Recorded at Capitol Studios (the host, coincidentally or not, of such recent albums as Paul McCartney’s standards set, Neil Young’s orchestral experiment, and those updated Basement Tapes) with just a few mikes, you can hear his wheezy breath between the occasional verses. Most reports agreed that these weren’t the only songs recorded during the sessions, suggesting—dare we dream—the possibility of a sequel. One should always expect a curveball when Dylan’s on the mound.

Bob Dylan Shadows In The Night (2015)—

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Doors 1: The Doors

Depending on whom you ask, The Doors were either one of the most unique bands of the second half of the ‘60s or an overrated band whose inexplicable posthumous success warped reality to support the first half of the sentence. How you feel about it will be dictated by whether you consider Jim Morrison to be a true poet, visionary and modern-day shaman or a drunken blowhard whose “poetry” was about as deep as your bathtub, and if you’re not bothered by Ray Manzarek seemingly never changing the tone settings on his organ.

We could go on, and we might, but whatever your opinion, that’s the sound, and any deep bass croon accompanied by staccato organ will invite comparisons to The Doors. It helps if the singer is good-looking, as Jim undoubtedly was at the time of the first album. Created after a solid year of gigging in the clubs, the songs on The Doors, for good or bad, present the band in if not its best then its purest light. A few hit singles helped, too.

So many of the songs have become radio staples that it’s hard to believe something like “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” was a flop when it debuted. All these years later the band’s riding of the “I Wish You Would” riff for two and a half minutes is part of the national fabric. “Soul Kitchen” and “Twentieth Century Fox” are pretty much the same song, though the latter gets points for the title and guitar solo. In between is “The Crystal Ship”, one of Jim’s better attempts at singing a melody on an album full of shouting over a small handful of notes. Ray’s piano nicely overpowers the organ here. “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)” transports us to Oktoberfest before the big one, the inescapable “Light My Fire”. (Meanwhile, it’s interesting how nobody ever seems to complain about drummer John Densmore or guitarist Robbie Krieger. While we’re at it, it’s not all Ray’s left hand on bass; an actual Fender is played here and there by Larry Knechtel, and kudos to him, as ever.)

Side two seems slight at first. “Back Door Man” puts a twist on standard blues with a suggestive lyric that still makes junior high school boys snicker. “I Looked At You” is the one track that never gets played on the radio, because it’s not very good, and “End Of The Night” leans on lots of vibrato to convey spookiness. “Take It As It Comes” isn’t Jim’s best use of poetry, but he was saving that for “The End”. Possibly the most ridiculed song in their catalog, it’s still an excellent example of the band’s dynamic capabilities, and a thorn in the side of labelmate Arthur Lee. Once you get over the “shock” of the Oedipal section, feel free to read meaning into the imagery of the blue bus, the west being the best, riding the snake to the lake and so forth. Then you can wonder whether being the son of one of the highest ranking officials in the U.S. Navy had any bearing on Jim’s poetry. (Likely not.)

One of this writer’s dear friends served a tour of duty in Vietnam, and says that unlike what various movies would have you believe, nobody in the jungle liked the Doors. Nobody. So he really didn’t get how the band got as big as they did ten to fifteen years after the fact, and would likely agree that the first album has everything you’ll love and hate about the band. The version of The Doors you can buy (or stream) today not only adds three outtakes of two songs that would eventually make their way to future albums, but sports uncensored versions of two songs. The bridge of “Break On Through” no longer repeats “she get” but “she gets high”, and various F-bombs have been restored to “The End”. Hooray. (The original edits were used for the album’s 50th Anniversary Edition, which included both the stereo and mono mixes of the album, plus a disc containing live versions of eight of the album’s songs from a performance at San Francisco’s Matrix club from 1967, in better quality than the official bootleg version of the show released ten years earlier.)

The Doors The Doors (1967)—4
2007 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1967, plus 3 extra tracks
2017 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1967, plus 19 extra tracks

Friday, March 20, 2015

Waterboys 2: A Pagan Place

If Mike Scott’s liner notes are to be believed, the second album credited to The Waterboys came out of sessions that spawned the debut, as well as later collaborations with new, prospective Waterboys. The most prominent addition heard on A Pagan Place is Roddy Lorimer on trumpet, who provides a touch of pageantry to Anthony Thistlethwaite’s blaring sax. (Another addition, Karl Wallinger on keyboards, is more blended into the mix.)

That trumpet plays a big role in “Church Not Made With Hands”, a nice rollicking opener with a quote from C.S. Lewis. Through no fault of its own, “All The Things She Gave Me” sounds today like Simple Minds, who were trying to make their way around the same time. “The Thrill Is Gone”, while pretty in places, comes off as little more than an exploration of Van Morrison’s “And The Healing Has Begun” (particularly on the extended version on the upgraded CD), and Mike does get a tad overemotional. “Rags” is a better demonstration of dynamics, hushed here, soaring there, with excellent drumwork all around.

“Somebody Might Wave Back” would be a good showcase for Karl Wallinger on piano, and a respite for his boss’s “galloping” style, except that Mike loads up the mix with guitars and other effects. “The Big Music” provides something of a statement of purpose, both literally and aurally. The original LP had the next song listed as “Red Army ★ Blues”, though that symbol has since fallen off (probably because of modern word processors). Whatever the reason or actual title, this eight-minute dirge sung from the point of view of a Russian soldier during World War II had already appeared on a 12-inch single. After a while it’s as rough a slog as a hike through Siberia, and maybe that was the intention. Finally, the title track, like the opener, uses few chords to do a lot, leaving us in a sense of wonder.

A Pagan Place shows the band still developing, and hindsight shows that it fits in the larger picture. If he could keep it going, and didn’t drown in his own emoting, even better music might follow. (The expanded CD doesn’t hint at that; despite extending a few tracks, somebody made the right decision to delete “Some Of My Best Friends Are Trains” from the original running order, despite the clever reference to Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine.)

The Waterboys A Pagan Place (1984)—3
2002 CD remaster: same as 1984, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Robyn Hitchcock 28: Tromsø, Kaptein

Another year, another album from Robyn Hitchcock. This time, however, the gimmick was that Tromsø, Kaptein was initially released physically only in Norway, but eventually downloadable or streamable anywhere. It’s a predominantly acoustic album, with the addition of a few strings, muted rhythm section and female backing vocals.

Things begin promisingly with “Light Blue Afternoon” and its timely tempo changes, but it ends abruptly. Two tracks are remakes: “Raining Twilight Coast”, with prominent cello and vocal touches similar to the demo, and “Godnatt Oslo”, a version of the title track of the second Venus 3 album, sung in Norwegian. “Savannah” fades in, clomps along for five and a half minutes, then fades out, leaving one’s mind to wander.

And that’s why the album fails to triumph. Part of it is because most tracks hover within the four- to five-minute window, and cycle through even fewer chords. And a lot of them sound alike, making it difficult to separate one title from another verse after the fact. Every now and then a melody leaps out, as in the choruses of “The Abyss”, or within the jaunty music-hall march of “Dismal City”. “Old Man Weather” sports a nice instrumental bridge, amid lots of cello. “Erasing Your Life” is an interesting hook, though “August In Hammersmith” doesn’t sound very thought through (at least until the chanting of the region’s postal code over the end).

In the end, Tromsø, Kaptein is pleasant, harmless and not immediately memorable. His level of quality prevents him from making a “bad” album, but somehow still feels like we’re not saying anything different about him.

Robyn Hitchcock Tromsø, Kaptein (2011)—3

Friday, March 13, 2015

Frank Zappa 25: Sleep Dirt

This album has gotten a bad rap over the years, mostly due to the post-operative work Frank did once the masters reverted to him. (Seems to be a trend there.) Also, being one of those late-‘70s albums that he may or may not have approved, with a crappy cover to match, one approaches Sleep Dirt with some trepidation.

That approach is awarded, as the original LP, now available for purchase or streaming, has been restored in all its instrumental glory. As befits an album that some sources say had a working title of Hot Rats III, the music does the talking, with no lyrics or even wordless vocalizing to distract. Some of it came from the same period that begat Studio Tan, while two tracks would have been welcome on Zoot Allures.

Strains of feedback and backwards guitar open “Filthy Habits”, helped along by a plodding 10/4 riff not far removed from Black Sabbath. Frank’s also credited with keyboards for this, and a nice job he does too. A lengthy cocktail piano intro via George Duke begins “Flambay”, before Ruth Underwood takes over the melody on vibraphone. (We checked major Zappa sites, and even they didn’t notice the quote from “Fly Me To The Moon”.) There’s a quick segue to “Spider Of Destiny”, a just as grandiose melody played in neat unison by Duke, Ruth and Zappa. (Here we also found a link, equally unnoted, to “Cruising For Burgers”.) “Regyptian Strut” is a big, big theme along the lines of his previous “classical for rock” attempts, this time featuring an entire horn section overdubbed by Bruce Fowler; think the best parts of 200 Motels mixed with Waka/Jawaka.

In the big picture, “Time Is Money” ends up being another transitional piece overshadowed by the title track, a rare acoustic guitar duo (which ends when the other guy, the inimitably named James “Birdlegs” Youmans, gets his fingers stuck between the strings). This, combined with “The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution”, puts the album a different spin on the album entirely. Over the 13 minutes of the last track, a heavily treated guitar fights for fusion space against two basses (overdubbed) and drums. Add the high-speed solo and the unsuspecting listener might think it’s an ECM production.

The first two CD versions sported altered versions of four tracks, three of which were given vocals. These featured lyrics left over from a Broadway musical he never finished (as if the Great White Way could handle a monster-movie takeoff about an alien and a spider trying to conquer Earth). So it could be argued that the album was now the way Frank “really wanted it”. As we’ve seen in a few cases, his opinions on post-production didn’t always make an album better. Thana Harris has a decent voice for music supposedly written for the stage, but she’s not missed on the restored version of Sleep Dirt. Having been wiped clean, it’s a better album for it, a nice surprise, and recommended.

Frank Zappa Sleep Dirt (1979)—

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Genesis 7: A Trick Of The Tail

Given the thankless task of proceeding without Peter Gabriel as the visual and vocal foci of the band, Genesis eventually (and ultimately, wisely) kept things in-house by turning the mike over to the drummer. Phil Collins’ voice was already familiar from parts of the earlier albums, and while he’s not a clone, his approach on A Trick Of The Tail is passable, even trying to mimic some of Peter’s “funny” voices. Still, anyone hearing this album today will recognize the voice as pure Phil. Synthesizers encroach on the space formerly dominated by organs and Mellotrons, contributing to a softer sound overall, but the guitar proves it’s still Genesis.

“Dance On A Volcano” wisely begins with a lengthy intro before Phil starts singing. Being the first track, the listener will wonder “how would Peter have tackled this?”; the effect at 4:17 on “let the dance begin” is reassuring. “Entangled” is very much like Phil’s spotlights in the past, a deceptive lullaby in waltz time with a sinister undertone. In the end it appears to be nothing more than a portrait of an aged hospital resident. “Squonk” is the first great song on the album, nicely bridging the two “eras” by celebrating the mythology of the titular creature. It’s recorded best, too, with the bass pedal underpinning the chiming guitars nicely. “Mad Man Moon” recalls the ballads from the Trespass era, but is a leap forward, Tony Banks having learned how to suspend chords for emotional pull. The upbeat middle section, unfortunately, is recalled in the next track.

“Robbery, Assault And Battery” follows in the tradition of Epping Forest, but while Peter could do several characters, and did, Phil only has the Cockney voice at his disposal for more than a line at a time. It now forebodes of some of the more unfortunate “character” songs the band would perpetuate a decade on. Thankfully, the rest of this already long album is better. “Ripples” has a yearning chorus only slightly derailed by, again, a seemingly unrelated mid-section, and its eight-minute length can be daunting, but ultimately, it’s wonderful. The title track is another seemingly straightforward track with a shifty meter, and a fable with a sympathetic hero of sorts. “Los Endos” preserves the band as a unit, as opposed to people backing up the ego of a singer. Phil stays behind the kit to anchor several themes, some familiar from earlier in the album, before everything winds up on a reprise of “Sqounk”. And from the back of the room, there’s a hint of a melody taken to be a benediction for their former frontman.

Without Gabriel’s surreal touch the songs aren’t as vivid, and the vocals are often mixed so low as to be unintelligible—a nice way to protect the “new guy”—but overall A Trick Of The Tail is a lot better than it could have been. Those who missed Peter would have been pleased, and pop fans working backwards wouldn’t necessarily be scared off. (Those yearning for more of an adventurous prog album, complete with flute, are advised to seek out Voyage Of The Acolyte, Steve Hackett’s first solo album with contributions from Collins and Rutherford, which arrived a few months earlier.)

Genesis A Trick Of The Tail (1976)—

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Byrds 11: Farther Along

Undaunted and still tied to a contract, The Byrds made another stab at a decent album almost immediately after releasing the disappointing Byrdmaniax. Farther Along is nowhere near as labored as their most recent work but, as should be obvious by now, it bears little resemblance to the band of only a few years before.

While “Tiffany Queen” puts Roger’s drawl front and center while spinning Chuck Berry riffs on his 12-string Rick, the other guys fill in most of the rest. Gene Parsons contributes “Get Down Your Life”, which has a good loping verse but unwisely goes double-time for the choruses. Clarence White sings proud and clear on the title track—which Byrd watchers probably recognized from the second Burritos album the year before—then Gene yells the truly obnoxious “B.B. Class Road”, an anthem about the crew co-written with one of their roadies. Clarence reclaims the side with “Bugler”, another pretty tearjerker about a dog.

Speaking of obnoxious, Skip Battin’s “America’s Great National Pastime” was inexplicably chosen as the album’s single. Roger returns for “Antique Sandy”, which is marred by the spacey effects on the choruses. He does a better job on “Precious Kate”, and good for Skip for letting him sing it. A plodding country arrangement of the ‘50s song “So Fine” takes up space, lifted by Skip’s decent reading of “Lazy Waters”. A brief album ends with another instrumental bluegrass workout, “Bristol Steam Convention Blues”.

The latter-day Byrds had (and have) their fans, so for them, Farther Along is a decent closure to that period. The band would stumble along for a year or so (even recording some tracks that would be added to the CD’s reissue) until McGuinn finally pulled the plug. Everyone soon found work, whether on their own or with the Flying Burrito Brothers, but Clarence’s story ended way too soon. Loading up after a pickup gig in July of 1973, he was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

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