Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Smithereens 4: Blow Up

Derivative retro-pop isn’t an easy genre to sustain, even when a band has the chops of the Smithereens. Blow Up (the title another nod to an old movie, with artwork by the legendary Saul Bass) finds the band mining the same territory, which is fine, except that Pat DiNizio started repeating himself, and hadn’t learned his lesson about rewriting his own songs on the previous album.

Maybe he knew his limitations after all, since he doesn’t monopolize the songwriting. “Get A Hold Of My Heart” was written with the matron of the hit single herself, Diane Warren, and outside of a prominent Rickenbacker 12-string, is probably the least exciting song on the album. The “J. Lennon” credited on “If You Want The Sun To Shine” is Julian, whom we would hope had mixed feelings about an arrangement owing months’ worth of debt to “I Am The Walrus”. Guitarist Jim Babjak contributes the best song; “Now And Then” finally gets the recipe correct.

Every track has something going for it, and every track is compromised by something. It starts strong with “Top Of The Pops”, and the Motown soul of “Too Much Passion” is a nice change but goes too long. (Smokey would’ve faded it by 2:50, of course.) “Tell Me When Did Things Go Wrong” finally ups the tempo, but recycles the I-III-V riff from “Yesterday’s Girl”. “Evening Dress” is sweet, and Beatlesque in all the right places, but good luck getting past the tune of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. Truly odd is “Indigo Blues”, featuring a honking sax and Hammond organ, but the words quote from the middle section of “Shout” and the “here we go [fill in the blank] here we go” chant from every American sporting event ever.

That’s a lot of “buts”, and it would have helped if the guys had been kicked in theirs. For a band that used to have so much energy, the album doesn’t go much faster than “Girl In Room 12”, which fans might recognize as “Blues Before And After”. “Anywhere You Are” distills every hit by the Zombies into a cool little samba, and “Over And Over Again” could easily be sped up for better effect, but “It’s Alright” is just plain confused lyrically.

Blow Up is the least essential Smithereens album yet, and also the longest. Editing, or at least faster arrangements would have been a big help. Despite the shortcomings, it manages to be competent, listenable and even enjoyable if you don’t scrutinize it too much. The sound is big, thanks to producer Ed Stasium, but being released on the cusp of grunge didn’t do it any favors, and their label dropped them after the hits didn’t happen.

The Smithereens Blow Up (1991)—3

Friday, December 25, 2015

Replacements 4: Let It Be

While we’re hardly qualified to make such a diagnosis, Paul Westerberg is probably bipolar, with each aspect of his personality constantly clashing with the other. This dichotomy is perfectly expressed on the Replacements’ first great album. The front cover of Let It Be shows the band relaxing on the roof of the Stinson family household—a sly reference to a certain lunchtime performance by another band who used the title first—and of all the members, Westerberg is the only one not facing the camera. The graffiti on the back cover only underscores their ambivalence towards playing nice.

With few exceptions, the songs are well-crafted and tuneful, beginning with “I Will Dare”, simple in its delivery (and Peter Buck’s phoned-in solo) but complex in the inclusion of a mandolin, of all things. “Favorite Thing” threatens to reel out of control, but always comes together for hook before the choruses. Similarly, “We’re Comin’ Out” comes closest to their earlier thrash experiments, except that it slows down in the middle for a piano-led snap-along reiteration of the theme before speeding up again. “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” continues the hospital theme from the last album, suggested here by a children’s record. The piano comes back to drive “Androgynous”, which would win points solely on the basis of one astute observation (“He might be a father but he sure ain’t a dad”). After the song stumbles to a finish, a cover of “Black Diamond” by Kiss is played straight, but stops before the interminable detuned section.

As good as side one is, side two is nearly perfect. First there’s “Unsatisfied”, an anthem for youth of any decade, shimmering with a 12-string acoustic and inspired bursts of lead guitar. Paul screams “I’m so” over and over, running out of steam before the fade, and in a just world the song never actually ended. “Seen Your Video” is instrumental, and a tight one, before the breakdown and snotty asides about MTV give the band an excuse to burst through again. “Gary’s Got A Boner” is a barely finished rip on the “Cat Scratch Fever” riff, redeemed immeasurably by “Sixteen Blue”. Supposedly written in honor of their bass player, it’s yet another note of sympathy for angst-ridden teens anywhere, with crisp drumming by Chris Mars and another glorious solo over a slow fade. Finally, “Answering Machine” is Paul solo again, railing in favor of old-fashioned communication over a tense guitar and chorus pedals.

Let It Be was even favorably reviewed in Rolling Stone, which likely got the band some more notice. It’s miles ahead of their earlier albums, and as a template for the rest of the decade, remains an excellent place to dive in. When Rhino expanded the album for a reissue, covers ranging from T.Rex’s “20th Century Boy” to “Heartbeat—It’s A Lovebeat” by the DeFranco Family alternated with a couple of alternate takes and the otherwise unreleased “Perfectly Lethal”, which would have fit just fine on the original LP.

The Replacements Let It Be (1984)—4
2008 CD reissue: same as 1984, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Journey 5: Captured

Having made their bones as a popular arena concert attraction, the double live album was a natural step for Journey. Plus, they took the opportunity to further the cleverness in their album titles; they made a Departure and were promptly Captured.

With “Majestic” from Evolution piped through the PA as a fanfare, the boys plow into “Where Were You” and they’re off. Gregg Rolie’s affectations on “Just The Same Way” are ill-advised, but this was Steve Perry’s show by now anyway. They take it down for “Lights”, which segues nicely into “Stay Awhile”.

Since the band didn’t really have any hits yet, familiar songs are mixed with what we now call deep cuts. Steve makes a point of praising Gregg and Neal Schon as premier blues musicians, but “Walks Like A Lady” is a hardly a vehicle to demonstrate their alleged prowess. However, it does end in a flurry of guitar notes that eventually leads to “La Do Da”, which gives way to both a bass solo and a drum solo.

It’s always a treat when live albums provide something new for the fan, and technically “Dixie Highway” is such a rarity, seeing as it doesn’t appear on any other album. But the real enticement is “Hopelessly In Love (The Party’s Over)”, a studio cut tacked onto the end of side four. This catchy pop song is based around a circular piano riff, played either by Geoff Workman or Tim Gorman, depending on which liner notes you read. The player is certainly not Gregg Rolie, as he left the band before the album was released.

At several intervals, Steve nicely informs or reminds the audience that they are being recorded for the album, though he neglects to mention how much time they’ll spend in the studio sweetening the tracks. At little over an hour, Captured doesn’t deliver their entire set, but the album does serve the purpose of providing a transition to their next phase. (Fans could also drool over the photos in the gatefold, inner sleeves and massive poster. Those were the days.)

Journey Captured (1981)—3

Friday, December 18, 2015

Grateful Dead 3: Aoxomoxoa

Advances in technology gave the Dead more confidence to create in the studio, and Aoxomoxoa shows how that worked both for and against them. With full-time lyricist Robert Hunter contributing to every track, there’s more of a focus on songs, but experimentation takes over too. And if you think Jerry Garcia’s voice is the highlight of the Dead, this is the album for you, since he sings every song.

A precise chord progression is played very deliberately to open “St. Stephen”, which soon explodes into a song that incorporates all the players into an FM radio staple. “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” is an odd bluegrass hodgepodge, with 12-string guitar, banjo, organ and bells fighting for their place in the mix. It sounds underdeveloped, which can’t be said for “Rosemary”, a pretty duet for acoustic guitars over which Jerry’s vocal is put through a Leslie speaker or underwater effect. It’s back to a more conventional Dead sound on “Doin’ That Rag”, which makes “Mountains Of The Moon”, with its harpsichord, all the more unique.

“China Cat Sunflower” is another good jam, particularly with the organ to the fore and all those backup harmonies, but good luck getting through “What’s Become Of The Baby” without lunging for the “next” button. While the lyric itself may be somebody’s idea of art, pairing it to a more extreme underwater echo effect than on “Rosemary”, with no discernable accompaniment, is sure to result in one bad dose. Much better is “Cosmic Charlie”, which would improve in a live setting, but here is a sleepy lope with slide guitar.

Unfortunately for anyone picking up the story in this century, the band remixed Aoxomoxoa a few years after its initial release, and that’s the version of the album that has endured on cassette, CD, box sets and downloads. The original LP does sound different in several places, mostly in some extreme instrument placement across the stereo landscape, but also in the way of some vocal passages and asides that were removed in the remix. Arguably, the remix improved “Rosemary”, and “Mountains Of The Moon” is much prettier without the ethereal choir. The biggest difference is in “What’s Become Of The Baby”, which is just as jarring, but gains more context when you can hear the instrumental backing.

Anyway, the album just makes it above the acceptable threshold, particularly in its expanded incarnations, the first of which added three jams and one live track. These would be more palatable to new converts, since the focus is on playing instruments and not the mixing board. The eventual 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition nicely included both mixes of the album, along with selections from a January 1969 run in Frisco, which would also spawn music for their next album.

The Grateful Dead Aoxomoxoa (1969)—3
2003 CD reissue: “same” as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks
2019 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 17 extra tracks

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Rush 6: A Farewell To Kings

Every year Rush gained confidences, and every year they put out an album to prove it. A Farewell To Kings builds on their strengths, with improved sound to help them along. Another big addition: synthesizers, and lots of them, but not at the mercy of the guitar.

The title track begins with a wistful classical guitar piece, eventually crashed away by the full band. Full of big ringing chords familiar from 2112 and a foreshadowing in the lyric of a song on side two, it’s a strong opener and a good start. But they hadn’t been cured of long songs, and both sides of the album conclude with ten-minute epics. First, the plundering of ancient texts continues on “Xanadu”, after about two minutes of dreamy synth landscapes and volume pedal work, and several more of syncopated hammering. As with most songs based on somebody else’s poems, the music is much better than the lyrics or the melody, and not just because Geddy’s voice is still stuck in that upper range.

For an example of what makes Rush loved or hated, look no further than “Closer To The Heart”. Made for arenas full of kids to shout, its unique riff begins plaintively on acoustic, only to be repeated at full volume later on, while Neil Peart tries out a room full of bells and chimes. It’s got all the hallmarks of a hit single, in a band that didn’t have any. “Cinderella Man” repeats more of the musical motifs from the last album, from quickly strummed acoustics to a nearly funky middle break. “Madrigal” is something of a clunker, with both synth and bass taking lead throughout, and a lyric setting a love song in the realm of gallant knights laying down swords. Lest you think they were getting all medieval and predicting the mainstream appeal of Dungeons & Dragons, out comes “Cygnus X-1”, subtitled “Book I: The Voyage”, which details a lone explorer’s journey via spaceship into (and beyond!) the black hole of the title. Naturally there’s a spoken prologue, mixed in with tolling bells and sci-fi humming, and eventually the band comes in. First it’s simple riffing, then the chords become edgier yet tight, stomping through the galaxies. The chaos becomes more urgent as the narrator is sucked into the vortex, with only a “to be continued” in the liner notes to suggest his fate has yet to be decided.

Rush didn’t exactly bite off more than they could chew, and A Farewell To Kings has its moments. They had certainly figured out how to write catchy hooks, as the front end of the album is pretty well stacked with them. The cover art is pretty cool, too.

In keeping with the new tradition of 40th Anniversary Editions, the album received a sizable upgrade, with the addition of two additional CDs, containing a complete show from 1978, four modern covers by the likes of Dream Theater and Big Wreck, and a selection of sound effects from the original sessions cheekily titled “Cygnus X-2, Eh”. And of course, new artwork. (A Super Deluxe Edition added all that on four LPs plus a Blu-ray and a pile of memorabilia.)

Rush A Farewell To Kings (1977)—3
2017 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1977, plus 20 extra tracks

Friday, December 11, 2015

Bruce Springsteen 18: The Seeger Sessions

Despite his affinity for rock ‘n roll and motorcycle jackets, Bruce Springsteen has longed to emulate dusty folksingers. Whereas Bob Dylan never shied away from his debt to Woody Guthrie, the Boss chose Pete Seeger for inspiration on one of his more surprising projects. Suggested by a late-‘90s diversion, and likely pushed along by his political activism in the Bush II era, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions collects several folk songs, performed in what sounds like a barn with fiddles and Salvation Army horns. The result is a lot of fun despite the occasionally dour subject matter.

True folk songs have become part of America’s fabric, and these tunes would be recognizable, even if the titles aren’t. Kids of a certain age will recall “Old Dan Tucker”, “John Henry” and “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” from elementary school, while more scholarly types will nod at “Erie Canal”, “Pay Me My Money Down” and “Shenandoah”. “Eyes On The Prize” and “My Oklahoma Home” gain more gravity in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which also gives “We Shall Overcome” more depth if not edge.

The album was released as a DualDisc, with bonus audio mixed in with DVD content. As has been all too common in this century, it was rereleased six months later as an expanded CD, adding three live tracks to the two earlier extras. The subtitle American Land Edition was suggested by the sole original composition in the set.

To prove that it wasn’t just a whim, Bruce took 17 people on the road on both sides of the pond, playing songs from the album, other public domain songs, and even new arrangements of his own songs. Three nights were the source of Live In Dublin, which presents a very boisterous crowd reacting positively to the folk songs they knew as well as such reworked nuggets as “Atlantic City”, “If I Should Fall Behind”, “Blinded By The Light” and even a jump swing extension of “Open All Night”. Of particular note is a raucous “American Land”, which sounds even more like a Pogues song. With several singers taking turns at the mic, the virtual concert is even more of a hootenanny than the album that inspired it all.

Bruce Springsteen We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)—
American Land Edition: same as 2006, plus 5 extra tracks
Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band Live In Dublin (2007)—3

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Morrissey 1: Viva Hate

With alacrity if not tenacity, Morrissey emerged as a solo artist hot on the heels of the last Smiths album. Obviously, a voice like his is going to be recognizable, and by drafting Stephen Street, who’d worked the knobs on several Smiths albums, he did manage something of a seamless transition with Viva Hate.

That’s not apparent right away, as guitarist Vini Reilly displays none of the finesse or taste of Johnny Marr; witness the insect infestations all over “Alsatian Cousin” and “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me”. However, the first singles, “Suedehead” and especially “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, rank with the best moments of his former band. “Bengali In Platforms” and “Dial-A-Cliché” are gentle if obscure, while “Margaret On The Guillotine” is one of the most tender-sounding pieces of hate mail ever, right up to the closing sound effect.

Every track sounds different, which adds variety. Even though “Little Man, What Now?”, “Late Night, Maudlin Street” and “Break Up The Family” have all the percussive elements of demos, they do display a good deal of melody and emotion. Just as melodic and emotional is “Angel, Angel Down We Go Together”, a brief track accompanied by a very tense string arrangement.

Viva Hate kept Moz-heads happy, though Johnny Marr and even the Smiths rhythm section are sorely missed. But even the album isn’t the same as it once was. In this century, Morrissey has seen fit to take reissues and repackages to their furthest potential, changing not only his albums’ covers but also their sequences. In this case, the gorgeous track “The Ordinary Boys” has been replaced by the outtake “Treat Me Like A Human Being”, and “Hairdresser On Fire”, which was only on the American version of the album anyway, is not included. For a man from whom the word “stubborn” is an understatement, it’s just one example of his pathological need to finesse his own legacy and image.

Morrissey Viva Hate (1988)—3
2012 Remastered Special Edition: “same” as 1988, plus 1 extra track (and minus 2 tracks)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Jethro Tull 8: War Child

By now, Ian Anderson had given up stretching a concept across two sides and one “song”, not that he didn’t try. War Child would appear to be merely an album of songs, written by him and performed by Jethro Tull, but given all the time he put into the words, there’s got to be some kind of theme here, right?

Unfortunately, the music doesn’t invite the ear to find it. The title track is a mess of sound effects, to underscore what it meant to come of age after the second world war, and too many saxophones. In “Queen And Country”, saxophones, strings and even accordion fight for space in the arrangement; the brief but effective guitar solo hints at how much better the song could be with less ornamentation. English folk (and flute) come to the fore on “Ladies”, floating along until the incongruous ending. “Back-Door Angels” is full of stops and starts, and underscores the band’s reputation to the uninitiated as sinister. The closing section, with its reference to a court jester, is a thematic setup for “Sealion”, which mocks the human race and performers of any kind with equal disdain.

Side two presumably finds Ian enjoying the cup of tea he was offered at the top and bottom of side one, going into a strum that will conjure comparisons to “Thick As A Brick”. “Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of A New Day” is not merely a rewrite, but an actually memorable song that builds and builds. Unfortunately, just as memorable is “Bungle In The Jungle”, which despite a hook of a melody suffers from a contemporary Philly soul arrangement and, frankly, a dopey lyric. This complaint is likely the inspiration for “Only Solitaire”, a brief acoustic piece that skewers rock critics. “The Third Hoorah” is directly related to the title track, but places the action in a switched-on-Elizabethan setting. Finally, “Two Fingers” has some variety, with some terrific guitar parts, but again, we could really do without the sax and accordion.

Each Jethro Tull album demands more patience than the last, and these ears just don’t have it. War Child has its fans and defenders, but there are other places to go if you want the hits. (By now it should be no surprise that the album as released came after failed attempts at a larger project, which was to include a film; some of the outtakes, including “unreleased” carrots from earlier compilations, were included on one remastered CD, and the 40th anniversary brought a whole extra disc with more outtakes, and two DVDs with further archival stuff.)

Jethro Tull War Child (1974)—2
2002 remastered CD: same as 1974, plus 7 extra tracks
2014 Theatre Edition: same as 2002, plus 14 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Morphine 1: Good

If you listened to certain radio stations in 1988, you might have heard a smoky blues tune called “I Think She Likes Me” by a band called Treat Her Right. Their self-titled album didn’t catch much fire, and listening it today one can only occasionally hear hints of where singer/songwriter Mark Sandman would end up. Once he developed a style of playing a two-stringed bass with a slide and hooked up with saxophone player Dana Colley, there emerged a sound perfectly described by their moniker: Morphine.

Where Treat Her Right also had two singers, guitars and harmonica, Morphine stripped everything down to bass, sax and drums. Sandman was also the only singer, giving the project a more unified sound, as demonstrated on their first album, Good. Each song sneaks along a groove, simple yet full, and certainly toe-tapping, while the lyrics stay stark and fitting the setting. Even “The Saddest Song” sounds upbeat for music of this level. The raucous voodoo stomp of “You Speak My Language” moves through gibberish into the noir atmosphere of “You Look Like Rain”, the latter a cool stroll worthy of early Tom Waits. Dana Colley even gets an instrumental all to himself.

Good isn’t Morphine’s best album, but it’s a fine start. They would only improve from here.

Morphine Good (1992)—3