Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Rush 4: 2112

As has become part of the band’s lore, Rush’s fourth album was make-or-break. Told not to do another concept album, they did anyway, and they did it right.

2112 is both the name of the album and the suite that fills side one. Righting the mistakes they made with “The Fountain Of Lamneth”, this time the guys provide a back story, as well as context for each of the seven sections, helpfully printed on the gatefold and banded for clarity on the vinyl itself. They may not be the only guys to envision a world without music, or a futuristic society seemingly reserving technology for those in power, but using an Ayn Rand novella as inspiration, Rush manages to create a piece that celebrates music and its importance to the suburban kids who discover and play it.

Neil Peart’s narrative is fairly basic: in a repressed society, the protagonist finds a guitar, attempts to impress the elders with it but is rejected, and takes his life. Or something. It’s best appreciated in context, in the time it takes to hear the side. An “Overture” wisely demonstrates various themes to be heard, and is catchy as heck. The priests in “The Temples Of Syrinx” have their story and purpose shouted by Geddy Lee over heavy metal riffing, until an acoustic motif brings in silence. “Discovery” is an effective sound painting, beginning with water effects as a guitar is picked up and brought into tune in real time, leading to patterns that form the song itself. A progression into “Presentation” plays both sides of the conversation with the priests, alternating strumminess with heavy responses, including a reprise of the “Syrinx” theme. “Oracle: A Dream” begins gently but escalates in volume and dynamics to match the amazing journey, real or imagined. It’s the shortest segment, structured similarly to “Soliloquy”, which illustrates the narrator’s despair via Geddy’s histrionic delivery. “The Grand Finale” plays around with some of the themes before marching to Armageddon and the announcement from some authority that “we have assumed control”. Does this mean that the priests have effectively quashed the rebellion, or have they themselves been vanquished by some intergalactic opponent? Whatever the ending, it’s still the band’s best narrative.

The second side is all songs, unconnected but mostly good. Despite a corny Oriental quote, “A Passage To Bangkok” is one of the most vague celebrations of cannabis on record, disguised as a travelogue. “The Twilight Zone” is an overt tribute to Rod Serling’s series, and not very exciting. “Lessons” was written solely by Alex Lifeson, and provides some decent platitudes to be excerpted for high school yearbooks, while “Tears” is a Geddy composition and a rarity in that it's a lament for a failed romance, accented by Mellotron strings and flute. In case that’s too wimpy for you, “Something For Nothing” ends the album with another statement of individual philosophy, balancing acoustic picking and heavy riffing for a strong finale.

2112 was the first Rush album all fans, past, present and future, could agree on, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that it was one of the first Rush albums to be given special treatment. The Deluxe Edition featured updated artwork, and was available with either a DVD or Blu-ray with a 5.1 surround mix, a graphic novel interpretation, and three live bonus tracks from five years later. Two of those are “Overture” and “Temples Of Syrinx”, which have never left their set. (Once 40th Anniversary Editions became A Thing, 2112 got expanded yet again, with alternate live versions of the suite, “Something For Nothing”, and “Twilight Zone” from the subsequent tour, five modern covers by the likes of Steven Wilson and Foo Fighters, and a DVD with vintage footage. Oh, and new artwork.)

Rush 2112 (1976)—
2012 Deluxe Edition: same as 1976, plus 3 extra tracks
2016 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1976, plus 13 extra tracks (and DVD)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Smiths 6: Louder Than Bombs

As good as it is, The World Won’t Listen doesn’t quite provide the breadth of Louder Than Bombs, the Smiths compilation released in the US only a month later. This two-record set (or single cassette/CD) served basically the same purpose of mopping up extra tracks, but had the advantage of adding a few more recent recordings, and further muddied the shelves by including several songs already on Hatful Of Hollow.

Designed as a listening experience rather than a definitive history, Louder Than Bombs is chronologically jumbled, but sequenced very well—side one presents the most recent recordings, while side four is an exercise in dynamics, starting from “Hand In Glove” again down to “Asleep”. The 13 or so songs repeated from The World Won’t Listen are scattered throughout, in between earlier singles and B-sides not on any US albums (“William”, “Please Please Please”, “Heaven Knows”, “Girl Afraid”, to name a few).

Even with all the repetition, several songs can be considered “new”. The big production of the suggestive “Sheila Take A Bow” was the most recent single; its B-sides, both taken from a BBC session, were the only recordings of “Is It Really So Strange?”, a comical Morrissey travelogue, and the unfortunate “Sweet And Tender Hooligan”, whose lyric strains to keep up with the music. “Back To The Old House” and “These Things Take Time” appear in their studio, non-BBC incarnations; the former pales while the latter prevails. Slightly different mixes of “Stretch Out And Wait” and “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” further ensured purchase on both sides of the pond.

As a more comprehensive overview of non-album tracks covering the Smiths’ career to date, Louder Than Bombs does somewhat negate the need for The World Won't Listen, and makes Hatful Of Hollow more for absolute completists, but then those people would miss out on the BBC versions of “Reel Around The Fountain” and “Back To The Old House”. Now that all three albums are considered part of the canon, there’s no easy answer, and future Smiths collections wouldn't help streamline things any. Nevertheless, with 24 songs in 73 minutes, Louder Than Bombs is as enjoyable for longtime fans as it is for newcomers.

The Smiths Louder Than Bombs (1987)—4

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Smiths 5: The World Won't Listen

With two fingers up to those who either had all the band’s singles or didn’t like the band anyway, The Smiths compiled another music-crammed LP of hits and otherwise. The World Won’t Listen was basically a sequel to Hatful Of Hollow, but while that album at least offered alternate tracks in the form of BBC performances, this one stuck to the band’s own releases, and ended up repeating four album tracks that were also singles, so fans now had at least three versions of the same song(s) in their racks.

But, as we’ve asserted, the band’s singles were as good as (if not better than) the albums, so this is hardly a mopping-up of leftovers. Two terrific singles from the previous summer start off the collection. “Panic” urges the populace to “burn down the disco” while making sure to “hang the DJ”, and “Ask” is a simple, sunny song with shimmering acoustic guitars and even backing vocals by Kirsty Maccoll. “London” is a surprising blast of punk, while “Shakespeare’s Sister” gallops along under a frenetic piano. “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” repeats the Bo Diddley beat of “How Soon Is Now?” with little of the excitement. In between, “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” and “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”, all from The Queen Is Dead, keep the quality high.

Side two is nearly all B-sides, and somewhat subdued musically. “Asleep” is a solid departure, a waltz on piano with wind effects and a music box coda of “Auld Lang Syne”, lying just this side of a suicide note. “Unloveable” is a typical Morrissey lyric, heavy on repetition and short on subtlety, but as quotable as it is lovable (“I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside”, for instance). “Half A Person” is a bit more toe-tapping but just as mopey. “Stretch Out And Wait” is another predominantly acoustic strum that pales as a close copy of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, from Meat Is Murder. But instead of the fake ending, it’s followed by “Oscillate Wildly”, a striking piano-led instrumental that ups the tempo to meet “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”, a completely new song that was this close to being their newest single. A reggae rhythm begins “Rubber Ring”, but luckily abandoned for a more straightforward arrangement to match a lyric that tries to bridge (and meld) singer and fan. (Later reissues included the rare instrumental “Money Changes Everything”, which likely caught Bryan Ferry’s ear, and the hideous cover of a song called “Golden Lights”, in a most un-Smiths-like arrangement that sounds exactly like the kind of insipid ‘80s pop we thought the band was actively trying to eradicate.)

For kids who’d been immersed in The Queen Is Dead since June, here were more songs to save their lives. Being a Smiths release with heretofore unavailable tracks in the US, The World Won’t Listen did brisk business as an import, until another release stirred the pot further.

The Smiths The World Won’t Listen (1987)—4

Friday, April 17, 2015

Cat Stevens 2: Mona Bone Jakon

After a mild ripple on the pop scene, medical issues forced Cat Stevens to lay low for a while, and he wouldn’t emerge until the new decade. When he did, the sensitive singer-songwriter of the ‘70s and all the alliteration that went with it had emerged, and his next work left behind the ornate trimmings of his first two albums. Mona Bone Jakon presented a new Cat Stevens, decidedly acoustic, but occasionally rocking with a piano leading the combo. When strings appear, they are very sympathetic. Best of all, his gruff voice fits the format much better. (Shall we thank producer Paul Samwell-Smith, formerly of the Yardbirds?)

Not for the last time, he comments on his chosen vocation halfway through side one; “Pop Star” is a repetitive blues that shows just how ill-suited he was for that life, between the litanies of ritual tasks and scatting a horn riff for actual instruments to repeat. Much better are the songs that, well, sound like Cat Stevens. “Lady D’Arbanville” is a little over-dramatic, and today steers to close to a Gipsy Kings arrangement, but “Maybe You’re Right” and “Trouble” are thoughtful strums, and “I Think I See The Light” is based around a rolling and rocking piano.

However, the kid was still finding his way. The title track doesn’t last long or do much, and today is not the time to ask if it’s about his genitalia. “I Wish, I Wish” is forceful in its doubt, while “Katmandu” provides a mystical landscape to fit his image as a global troubadour. (And yes, that’s the Peter Gabriel on flute.) “Time” amounts to a relatively brief sonic experiment, a profound interlude before the gentler “Fill My Eyes” and finale of “Lilywhite”. An extended coda of strings wafts gently away towards the center to the label.

This is the real Cat Stevens debut, though what the dented, seemingly tearful trash can on the cover has to do with anything is beyond the scope of this forum. Rather, Mona Bone Jakon is a pleasant collection of songs, and a better place to start.

For its 50th anniversary, the album was reissued in a deluxe edition with a bonus disc with five demos—including the otherwise unknown “I Want Some Sun”—plus a BBC appearance and live recordings. The Super Deluxe Edition went even further, with the original album on one disc, a new mix of the album on another, the aforementioned demos plus four more on a third, and even more live material, including audio from TV appearances on a fourth. Plus all of the above on a Blu-ray, the new mix and some of the live stuff on vinyl, and a book.

Cat Stevens Mona Bone Jakon (1970)—3
2020 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 10 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 25 tracks plus Blu-ray)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Kinks 2: Kinks-Size

This early on, the Kinks were more reliable on singles than albums. That was fine for their American record company, which followed in the practice of releasing more but shorter albums. Kinks-Size got its title from a British EP, included in full here, along with two of the leftover tracks from the first British LP and both sides of their last two singles.

Those singles included “All Day And All Of The Night” (an excellent rewrite of “You Really Got Me”) and the more sophisticated “Tired Of Waiting For You”, which tempers the chunky rhythm with excellent dynamics for the bridges. Together they form the backbone of an LP that dips and rises.

The first dip is “Louie Louie”—yes, that “Louie Louie”—taken at a slightly sluggish pace and not offering anything not on the Kingsmen version. “I’ve Got That Feeling” deserves better lyrics (and vocal) than its piano-driven backing track. “Revenge” is a brief instrumental that’s out of the way before “I Gotta Move”, a B-side with heavy use of 12-string acoustic. “Things Are Getting Better” is a hopeful title for another Bo Diddley pastiche, while “I Gotta Go Now” sports nice echo on the vocal, despite spending too much time making the point of the song clear. Dave’s lead vocal is restricted to “I’m A Lover Not A Fighter” and “Come On Now”, his voice that much better on the latter, which also includes Ray’s wife singing backup over an infectious riff.

The Kinks weren’t quite there yet, but they can’t be blamed for this one. Two decades later, Rhino acknowledged the hodgepodge origin of Kinks-Size by swapping some stray tracks for the LP, and adding some others from another American-only set for the CD, which took care of most of the balance of the tracks not on the first two British albums proper. Today they’re all included on the expanded versions of those.

The Kinks Kinks-Size (1965)—
Current CD equivalent: Kinks and Kinda Kinks

Friday, April 10, 2015

Jorma Kaukonen 1: Quah

Jefferson Airplane wasn’t for everybody, but one of the bright spots of their shall we say seminal album Surrealistic Pillow is still “Embryonic Journey”, a gorgeous fingerpicked acoustic instrumental by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. As the Sixties dwindled into chaos and the band got more political, Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady put their energy into a side project called Hot Tuna, which interpreted traditional blues and similar material. By the time of their fourth album, and the demise of the Airplane, they had progressively become more electric and less traditional.

So it was considered another departure, if not a throwback, when Jorma released his first solo album. However, Quah was originally envisioned as a collaboration with another acoustic picker named Tom Hobson. While he only appears on three tracks (reportedly at the demand of the label), he’s still credited as “with” on the spine and the label itself.

The album mixes originals and old blues tracks, all fingerpicked and occasionally accompanied by strings. Side one is perfect, alternating Jorma’s contemplative “Genesis”, “Song For The North Star” and “Flying Clouds” with the covers “I’ll Be All Right” and “Another Man Done Gone” plus “I’ll Let You Know Before I Leave”, a jaunty instrumental duet. The overall feel is relaxed, ideal for the first nice day of spring, and you don’t have to be high to enjoy it either.

Side two is more quirky, beginning with the traditional “I Am The Light Of This World” and “Police Dog Blues”. Hobson sings the next two, a cover of Gordon Jenkins’ “Blue Prelude” with heavy delay and his own “Sweet Hawaiian Sunshine”, which might as well predict Leon Redbone’s entire career. Studio effects return on “Hamar Promenade”, and edgy but effective closer.

While apparently not a smash hit when first released, Quah has gone in an out of print over the years, usually resurfacing whenever there’s renewed interest in anything remotely connected to psychedelic San Francisco. One of these reissues included liner notes from Airplane expert Jeff Tamarkin, along with four outtakes, two of which have vocals by the long-lost Mr. Hobson. Had these appeared on the original LP they would have been fine, but would have likely edged aside some of Jorma’s, and then we’d’ve missed them.

Jorma Kaukonen with Tom Hobson Quah (1974)—4

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Blue Nile 4: High

Five years, seven years… having to wait only eight years for a new Blue Nile album was almost bucking the trend. But it doesn’t matter when High is as good as it is, and certainly better than Peace At Last. Here we finally have a real Blue Nile album, combining the minimalist pop if the first album, the lushness of Hats, and even the better acoustic moments of the previous one. Paul Buchanan dominates, as ever, but the other guys are still credited.

Stabby piano chords sustain “The Days Of Our Lives”, which slowly builds on the verge of becoming something but never resolving. It becomes a mere introduction for “I Would Never”, a classic ballad with just the right amount of Buchanan ache. Those stabby chords return on “Broken Loves”, but work around a bass part to give it more shape. Wisely, the effect of the spoken part repeated by a sung one doesn’t continue through the whole thing. With excellent balance, “Because Of Toledo” returns to plaintive acoustic regret, tough it’s not clear what it was about Toledo (pronounced like the Ohio city, and not the Spanish one) that seemingly pushed him to rehab. And then it’s back to the edgier, upbeat portrait in “She Saw The World”.

The title track is another sumptuous piano ballad, with a hint of fake strings and just the right amount of fake percussion — in other words, quintessential Blue Nile. That makes “Soul Boy” something of a retreat to the last album, musically and lyrically (“no more fight and no more leave” hearkens back to “Family Life”) but it’s still effective. The way it slows to a halt suggests the end of the album, but “Everybody Else” gathers enough momentum to keep things rolling before “Stay Close” provides another subdued’ lengthy conclusion.

High doesn’t sustain its strength throughout the program; after all, there could never be another Hats, could there? Still, for those of us who weren’t expecting much, it contributed a wonderful next chapter in the Blue Nile story, and we knew enough not to expect anything else for a while.

In fact, the rest of the catalog had been upgraded with bonus tracks well before they got to this one. Along with remixes of two songs, four unreleased tracks added to the bounty. “Wasted” could stand to have its drum machine mixed back sooner, but the melody is as nice as that in “i” (lowercase intentional). “Big Town” is a little busy, and despite the trappings of suburbia, “Here Come The Bluebirds” provides a low-key conclusion.

The Blue Nile High (2004)—
2020 Remastered Collector's Edition: same as 2004, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, April 3, 2015

Coldplay 6: Ghost Stories

Lots of great albums have been recorded in the wake of a writer’s divorce, but this is the first time an album has appeared following a conscious uncoupling. Whether or not they meant it that way, every song on Ghost Stories reads like a guy who’s been dumped. Even if you don’t give a fig about Chris Martin or Gwyneth Paltrow, after a few listens, you begin to understand why she left. A dreamy sound permeates, with a reliance on programmed as opposed to acoustic drums. If we’re going to keep the U2 comparison going, think Zooropa crossed with the Passengers side project, but without the energy; outside of U2, we hear echoes of Tears For Fears and even the voice of Shawn Smith of Brad and Satchel.

Beginning with voices from an astral choir, “Always In My Head” is a melancholy midtempo number, and we only mention that now because most of the tracks will follow that template. It ends abruptly, and switches to the bong-rattling bass in “Magic”, which finally introduces some guitar but mostly sounds like “Numb”. “Ink” pushes the tattoo metaphor way too far in another robotic-sounding track. Despite having an actual melody and chord changes, “True Love” moves along like any other lovelorn ballad with a lyrical steal from “Hallelujah”, until the intentionally dissonant guitar solo throws it off. “Midnight” puts the vocal through a vocoder, sounding more like an Eno effect than a song.

“Another’s Arms” revives the guitar as riff, with a sample of an operatic voice (another idea stolen from U2). On “Oceans” a constant beep likely is used for a sonar effect, but instead suggests a phone not being picked up. Maybe that was the point? With an acoustic guitar it does appear a throwback to the first album, but buries the idea with a lengthy atmospheric collage including canned church bells over the end. That sets up “A Sky Full Of Stars”, which sounds like every cliché dance-floor anthem of the last 20 years. (Thankfully, Rihanna’s not on this album.) Halfway through the beats and effects drop out to heighten the acoustic, and then it flanges back to remix territory. Those not longing for a night at the Roxbury will at least welcome such an upbeat detour. “O” would stand out as a highlight if it weren’t the same tempo and feel of everything else here. It’s admittedly satisfying in its gradual build from a simple piano tinkle (apparently an unlisted title called “Fly On”) to a bigger sound, and easing up just before it threatens to explode. And as has become custom with these guys, there’s a pause and a reprise of the sound heard at the top of Track 1.

Rather than pushing the limits of compact disc technology, Ghost Stories goes by fairly quickly, though Target did get dibs on the “bonus tracks”, two of which are actually uptempo, along with a “Reprise” of “O”. With Chris Martin as their frontman, the other guys are not only anonymous but generic, adding very little to what he’s spewing. Surely one of them would have pointed out that it all sounds alike. Given the rapturous response heard on Ghost Stories Live 2014 released at year’s end, their fans don’t care. They got to hear the album played exactly as released, with no spontaneity or surprises.

Coldplay Ghost Stories (2014)—2

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Flying Burrito Bros 4: Last Of The Red Hot Burritos

The Burritos may have been done, but they still had contractual obligations. For a final tour, Chris Hillman brought in Al Perkins on pedal steel and Kenny Wertz on guitar and banjo to replace the departed Sneaky Pete and Bernie Leadon respectively, plus a couple of Wertz’s earlier bandmates, Byron Berline on fiddle and Roger Bush on upright bass. These two would be incremental in the band’s set, as heard on Last Of The Red Hot Burritos.

Released as last gasp after Hillman ran off to Stephen Stills’ Manassas project (bringing Al Perkins with him), the album presents possibly the closest thing to the original spirit of the band, melding country and rock and with a healthy supply of Hillman’s beloved bluegrass. Beginning with a sprightly romp through “Devil In Disguise”, “Six Days On The Road”, and “My Uncle”, they were facing a highly appreciative, raucous crowd. The acoustic, overtly bluegrass portion of the set includes “Dixie Breakdown”, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”, and “Orange Blossom Special”, and is just as well received.

The band rocks again on “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love” and “Don’t Fight It”, which fit right in with the Memphis tracks on their first album, while a swampy take on “High Fashion Queen” is a nice diversion. Chris does a nice job singing “Hot Burrito #2”, to which Perkins thankfully adds some fuzz, and the set ends with the obscure James Carr tune “Losing Game”, which features piano that wasn’t onstage.

Last Of The Red Hot Burritos was elsewhere sweetened before release in the studio, with additional piano as well as guitar to “Orange Blossom Special”. Rick Roberts is a decent singer, but doesn’t have the same harmonic blend with Hillman as Gram Parsons had. The packaging was odd, with a gatefold that features photos of everyone who was ever in the band, and liner notes based around interviews with Gram and Sneaky Pete. It’s still a nice bookend to the band, especially if you ignore the revamped version of the group that would stumble around the late ‘70s and on. (Over the years the Burritos’ legend has only grown, but it would be another four decades before further live documents officially emerged—most notably an “authorized bootleg” from a year before Last Of The Red Hot Burritos when Bernie and Sneaky Pete were still in the band.)

The Flying Burrito Bros. Last Of The Red Hot Burritos (1972)—3
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Authorized Bootleg/Fillmore East, New York, N.Y. – Late Show, November 7, 1970 (2011)—3