Friday, August 28, 2015

Journey 4: Departure

In the tradition of one-word titles that meant nothing, Departure continued the successful Journey formula, even retaining the same lineup (for now anyway).

“Any Way You Want It” will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Caddyshack more than once; its arena bombast is taken down by “Walks Like A Lady”, a much more subdued track in an R&B shuffle, Neal Schon playing tastier licks than his usual high-speed flurries. Lest anybody forgot about him, Gregg Rolie sings lead on “Someday Soon”, with Steve Perry providing the counterpart, just like on Infinity. It’s a better mix than “People And Places”, where Neal takes the verse against Steve, while the Hammond organ conjures memories of Joe Cocker and Led Zeppelin. “Precious Time” pits “Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” guitar against harmonica, and nearly redeems the side.

Just as side one exploded from the first second, side two gets a great boost from the power-hitting “Where Were You”, which is needed before “I’m Crying”, an overwrought stomping weeper nicely elbowed out of the way by “Line Of Fire”. Here, all the instruments play the same melody as the vocal, in unison, but without sounding ponderous. The bridge still reminds us of “Lido Shuffle”, and we could do without the gunshot effect. The only real departure on the album is the title track, 38 seconds of ambient guitar layers in a different key to the similarly brief track it sets up, the orchestrated after-the-lovin’ plaint of “Good Morning Girl”. Presumably she heard this and determined to take off without eating breakfast, as it’s followed by “Stay Awhile”, shouted from the balcony of his pad at the back of her screeching car. Maybe she came back or he got over her long enough to string together the uncomfortable food metaphors in “Homemade Love”.

Despite having only one real hit single, Departure delivers equal doses of boogie and crooning to please the fans, with plenty of songs they’d take on tour. For its third CD reissue, there were two bonus tracks: “Natural Thing”, a wonderful leftover from the sessions featuring Steve’s best Sam Cooke impression later used as a B-side, and “Little Girl”, the most accessible song from Dream, After Dream, a 1980 soundtrack to a Japanese film nobody has ever seen, ever. Both had appeared on other compilations, but they fit very well here, both contextually and chronologically.

Journey Departure (1980)—3
2006 CD reissue: same as 1980, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Grateful Dead 2: Anthem Of The Sun

As the Dead gained notoriety for their free-form live performances, they faced the challenge of translating that energy to albums. Apparently they didn’t have the pull at the label to just release a live album, nor the technical ability to record something of releasable quality. Therefore, Anthem Of The Sun consisted of various live recordings edited and embellished in the studio, with all the locations dutifully listed on the back cover.

While the album can seem random at points, there is structure within. “That’s It For The Other One” begins with a plaintive Garcia melody, eventually exploding into a jam that leads into another melody led by Bob Weir, back to the Garcia part and ending with a very avant-garde collage of prepared piano and percussion. Because the track is listed as having four parts, the listener can have fun trying to guess where each one lies. The seamless transition to “New Potato Caboose”, another lengthy jam, might be hard to spot, while the shorter “Born Cross-Eyed” had been a single. Either way, without clear breaks between tracks, the listener might be surprised when the side ends.

Side two lists only two tracks, which were often played together anyway. “Alligator” sports a prominent kazoo at the start, which is gratefully retired not to far into the song. Piano from new member Tom Constanten better fills out the first half of the song, before the switch to a live performance, exhortations for audience members to clap their hands, instrumental solos and more consolidated boogie. Sharp ears will recognize the melody from Donovan’s “There Is A Mountain”, soon to be appropriated by the Allman Brothers. Despite its title, “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)” is possibly closest to the blues influences on the first album, being an extensive exploration on the single idea of something a gypsy woman said. It ends the album with extensive feedback, which would be a feature of future live albums, often listed as a separate track.

While ramshackle, Anthem Of The Sun does hold together as an album, hinting at how they really sounded in their true element. These songs would only develop further in performance, as the bonus tracks on the expanded CD demonstrate. None of those were included on the inevitable 50th anniversary set, which combined the album’s original mix with its early ‘70s remix, along with a previously unreleased Winterland show from October 1967, and the earliest known recording with Mickey Hart known to date. (For those seeking the original shows that were used to make up the album, some of those have become officially available, and are listed below.)

The Grateful Dead Anthem Of The Sun (1968)—3
2003 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus 4 extra tracks
2018 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 12 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Dick's Picks Volume Twenty-Two (2001)
     • Download Series Vol. 6 (2005)
     • Road Trips Vol. 2, No. 2 (2009)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Rush 5: All The World’s A Stage

In the ‘70s, bands released double live albums. It was the law, and we can count on one hand the bands that didn’t conform.

For all their individual philosophies, Rush followed rules, and so All The World’s A Stage captures them in the wake of 2112 in front of an appreciative hometown crowd. They wisely begin with some of their more compact radio hits—“Fly By Night” somehow melding into “In The Mood”, complete with cowbell. The dynamics within “Lakeside Park” make a good transition to the abbreviated performance of the “2112” suite (which is just as well, since it’s unlikely they would have allowed Alex Lifeson to tune his guitar at length to approximate the “Discovery” section). Besides, they had to make way for twelve minutes’ worth of “By-Tor And The Snow Dog”. A medley of “Working Man” and “Finding My Way” sets up a five-minute drum solo by Neil Peart, introduced by Geddy Lee as “The Professor”. Throughout, the sound is clean, Geddy’s Rickenbacker punching through the mix and the crowd’s cheering and whistling. If there’s an embarrassing moment on the album, it would only be the final seconds where we can hear the band “congratulating” each other for a great show, and slamming a door.

The band viewed All The World’s A Stage as a transition to their next chapter, which would likely be revealed soon enough. For now, they seemed to have found their way.

Rush All The World’s A Stage (1976)—3

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Paul Buchanan: Mid Air

Blue Nile fans have learned to take any crumb from the band whenever they can get it, since one never knows when we’ll hear from them again. But most songwriters insist that when the muse deigns to strike, it’s best to do what she says.

Paul Buchanan has long been the face and voice of the band, both musically and promotionally, so a solo album is a surprising move. Mid Air is a expectedly quiet set of sad songs, mostly based on the piano with very little ornamentation. Many of the songs sound alike, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. His lyrics have always been about mood more than meaning, and since there’s usually some sort of ache involved, the meaning becomes the mood.

The title track, “Half A World” and “Cars In The Garden” would have been welcome interludes on any Blue Nile album, while “Newsroom”, the shortest of these short songs, shows the first derivation from the same octave. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the percussion that isn’t on “Buy A Motor Car”, and “Two Children” manages to shift focus and delivery in each verse. “Tuesday” begins with a melody familiar from several Lionel Richie ballads, but he finds his own by the end of the first verse. The pretty instrumental “Fin De Siècle” provides a break from the spoken heartbreak, and “After Dark”, which tops out at a whopping four minutes, ends with a hint of his trademark “yeah yeah” and a touch of trumpet.

Mid Air seems like a set of demos, and that’s fine. That alone keeps it from falling victim to the comparatively heavy-handed production that made the last two Blue Nile albums less than perfect. If the fourteen tracks here aren’t enough, one can always seek out the double-disc version, which adds another ten variations and exclusives. And if eight years is all we have to wait for another album from Paul Buchanan, so be it. Hopefully he’ll still be around.

Paul Buchanan Mid Air (2012)—3

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bruce Springsteen 17: Devils & Dust

After thirty years in the business, Bruce Springsteen seemed to finally have the confidence to follow his own path, wherever it took him. While predominantly solo and acoustic, Devils & Dust isn’t as easily shoehorned into the same category as Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad, but it would likely feel that way for anybody who jumped back on the bandwagon after The Rising. Chances are, however, they’d get into this album faster.

What helps is the sequencing, so that there’s never danger of getting stuck in a rut. The title track builds from a quiet strum to a fleshed-out track, leading well into the driving rock in “All The Way Home”. It’s a startling switch to the dusty landscape and blatant sex in “Reno”, and back to the more conventional “Long Time Comin’” (wherein he still intends to “get buck naked”). “Black Cowboys” and “Maria’s Bed” stay on the quiet side, until the latter bursts its seams with mandolins, chanted backup vocals and a country echo of “Mary’s Place”.

The second half of the album isn’t as well-paced, staying mostly within the same tempo and intensity. “Silver Palomino” continues the country theme, and there’s something in “Jesus Was An Only Son” that sounds like Tom Waits. “Leah” is a simple love song, and “The Hitter” seems most like a descendant of Nebraska, with the boxer talking to his ma. One song with a lot of potential is “All I’m Thinkin’ About”, another love song but sung in a near-falsetto with a hushed backing. Just as hushed, but more complicated, is “Metamoros Banks”, following a traveler’s journey backwards, so Bruce says, from his demise to the hope that made him set out.

Devils & Dust succeeds as a departure from the Springsteen norm. Only one E Streeter is here, and it isn’t Clarence, while his main foil is co-producer Brendan O’Brien. Steve Jordan plays whatever drums are heard, and of course Patti’s everywhere. It takes a while to sink in, but ultimately satisfies.

Bruce Springsteen Devils & Dust (2005)—3

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Smiths 7: Strangeways, Here We Come

Lots of bands break up for stupid reasons, and most of them involve lack of communication, miscommunication, or somebody’s ego. While the end of the Smiths wasn’t as dramatic as that of the Beatles, which had lots of factors, or even Aerosmith, who really did argue over spilt milk, if Morrissey had only let Johnny Marr take some (very much earned) time off, they might have had a better epitaph than Strangeways, Here We Come.

The songwriters consider it their best work, and it’s pointless to dispute an opinion, but it’s not one we share. The best songs are in the middle, so before you get there you must navigate the baroqueness of “A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours”, which has no guitars on it. They do return on “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”, which also repeats a growling “rrr” from the track before. “Death Of A Disco Dancer” starts well, with a White Album groove and even a developed Morrissey melody, but the last three minutes escalate into a pointless jam that could have been faded earlier. But on an already short album, the two-minute perfection of “Girlfriend In A Coma” stands out, particularly because the narrator is not the usual Morrissey fop. That guy returns on “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”, another classic should’ve-been-the-first-single with great guitars and slightly, only slightly dated keyboard tinkles.

While it wasn’t their longest title, “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” is just begging to be ridiculed, but that would show ignorance of its magnitude. Beginning with a lengthy piano dirge over what sounds like a soccer riot, it gives way to an even more sweeping main section, showing Marr at his orchestral best. For wordplay, “Unhappy Birthday” doesn’t quite live up to its title, but it’s an awfully sour lyric against a sprightly 12-string gallop. That’s good, because the bile is not spared on “Paint A Vulgar Picture”, a diatribe against the continual exploitation of pop idols, though the “Reissue! Repackage!” lines are hollow considering the compilations the band released in its lifetime and since. Besides repeating a motif from side one, “Death At One’s Elbow” is an undercooked rockabilly strum that should have waited to be a B-side, but since most of their B-sides were better than their album tracks… well, never mind. The fitting finale, and their best album ender save compilations, is “I Won’t Share You”, which says much more about the Morrissey-Marr relationship than either would admit.

While it wasn’t planned that way, Strangeways, Here We Come was indeed the last Smiths album, and they were over almost as soon as they began. It’s too bad, because it didn’t have to end like this, and although the experimentation here doesn’t always work, it does show promise for whatever they might have done next. Or not. The momentum they’d built over the past couple of years had to run out sometime.

The Smiths Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)—

Friday, August 7, 2015

Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell

In between his own albums and touring behind them, Todd Rundgren got quite a bit of work producing other people’s albums. Wide-ranging examples from a five-year period include The Band, Badfinger, Hall & Oates, New York Dolls and Grand Funk Railroad. But if the money was there, it can be assumed that he’d work with anyone, which is how he ended up with a guy whose claim to fame thus far had been in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a songwriter with designs to be the rock version of Richard Wagner. Though he says he doesn’t get royalties for it anymore, Bat Out Of Hell is easily the most successful album Todd ever produced.

Meat Loaf’s persona was that of a sweaty fat guy with long hair in a ruffled tux without a tie, clutching a handkerchief. His size and voice were about as overblown as Jim Steinman’s music and ego; therefore they were made for each other. Steinman’s hair was about as long, and his propensity for mirrored shades shouldn’t be construed as a desire to stay in the background. While not as prominent as that of the artist, his name does feature on the cover, directly above the fantasy porn image of a motorcycle emerging from a grave.

To this day it’s easy to recognize a Jim Steinman song on first listen: the title is either lengthy, a corrupted expression or both; the lyrics include at least one repeated phrase that could well be the song title but isn’t; each line of the verse is about 35 syllables and painstakingly rhymed; the musicians feature singer Rory Dodd and members of the E Street Band and Utopia. These elements aren’t limited to this album; “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”, “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”, “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” and the two gems from Streets Of Fire (“Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” and “Nowhere Fast”) all have different singers but might as well have the voice of Meat, who would end up recording some of them anyway.

Nearly forty years on, Bat Out Of Hell reminds us of rainy days during the very hot summer of ’78 at camp, where we failed to learn to swim. In time we’ve learned to appreciate it for its camp value; part of this was helped by the early days of MTV, where the limited playlist included promo clips for this album, featuring backup singer Karla DeVito in that tight white halter top (even though it was Night Court’s Ellen Foley on the recordings themselves). That likely kept boys interested through the ‘80s, and the album’s continual budget pricing meant you could get the cassette for about five bucks and the inevitable CD for as low as ten.

Rundgren’s touch is all over, particularly in the guitars and layered harmonies. On the biggest and longest numbers, the songs ape Bruce Springsteen, from the arpeggiated piano to the saxophone. Did we mention that the songs are long? The title track is nearly ten minutes, with a lengthy overture-like intro and guitars that sound like motorcycles and their eventual crashes. “You Took The Words Right Out Of Mouth” uses the “Be My Baby” beat and Spector percussion, but only after a goofy spoken prologue. “Heaven Can Wait” is a string-soaked clunker that sounds nothing like Springsteen, unlike “All Revved Up With No Place To Go”, which oozes Asbury Park.

What sold the album on AM radio was “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad”, a ballad that gets more depressing the more you hear it, but FM was all over “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. The cleverest track on the album by far, this three-part epic sports named sections and the pushed metaphor of Phil Rizzuto (of The Money Store) calling the action. The “let me sleep on it” section is well balanced, and the turnaround where he’s “praying for the end of time” is hilarious. The album should have ended there, leaving off the nearly nine minutes of “For Crying Out Loud”, where all the orchestral stops are pulled out.

One of the managers at the first record store where we worked took offense at our scoffing about this album. We said we had no problem with anyone enjoying it, but rather with anyone championing it. When its “sequel” arrived in 1993, consisting mostly of older Steinman songs yet to be recorded by Meat Loaf, its success was not entirely unexpected, while the initial sales of the second sequel only speak to the state of the record industry in 2006. As long as the perpetrators were around to flog it, Bat Out Of Hell would not be limited to a mere trilogy.

Meat Loaf Bat Out Of Hell (1977)—3

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Todd Rundgren 11: Oops! Wrong Planet

Except for the held-over pyramid motif on the front cover and suggestion of sci-fi in the (albeit clever) title, Utopia stepped further away from prog on Oops! Wrong Planet. However, the quartet remained intact, and remained an equal partnership, though Todd, who produced, took the lion’s share of the songwriting credits.

For the most part, it’s contemporary pop-rock, with the latest synthesizers filling out the arrangements. It works best on the bids for the singles chart: the rocking “Love In Action” and the more sensitive “Love Is The Answer”, which England Dan and John Ford Coley took to the top ten two years later. “Crazy Lady Blue”, written and sung by Willie Wilcox but otherwise reminiscent of another project on the burner, gets a boost from Todd’s guitar solo, while “The Martyr” begins with wonderfully crisp acoustic chords, and it helps that Kasim Sulton has a decent voice. Elsewhere, there seems to be a concern about environmental issues and the corruption of power, particularly on “Back On The Streets”, “Gangrene”, “Rape Of The Young” and “The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell”. If there’s a concept, that’s it, and all around only four minutes.

Oops! Wrong Planet is a harmless late-‘70s rock album, with few of the mental demands of the last few Rundgren projects, and therefore worthwhile if not exactly stunning. It does bear mentioning that the individual musician portraits on the back cover are among the least flattering of anyone ever.

Utopia Oops! Wrong Planet (1977)—3