Friday, January 29, 2016

David Bowie 38: Blackstar

First of all, this is not an obituary. If you want one, look elsewhere.

Second of all, forget all the noise about Blackstar being a jazz album. Bowie played sax before he played guitar, and that instrument has featured on practically every album he’s ever made, whether he’s played it or got somebody else to. This is a Bowie album, and can be classified as rock if you need a genre to label it. (In fact, two songs, “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” and its B-side, “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”, have been re-recorded to sound less like free jazz.)

Third of all, even though the actual title is ★, Blackstar is a lot easier to type, just like we’d alternately refer to Led Zeppelin IV as Zoso and The Artist Who’s Once Again Known As Prince is called just that.

While we’re at it, death has been one of Bowie’s go-to subject matters for practically every album he’s made, going back as far as “Please Mr. Gravedigger”, through obvious songs like “Rock ‘N Roll Suicide”, deep cuts like “Time”, covers like “My Death”, and so forth. To say he predicted his own demise down to the day is a bit of a stretch, but a sense of his own mortality likely had a lot to do with why he laid low for the better part of this century.

Blackstar is a daring release, sticking with the minimalistic graphics approach from The Next Day (which still seems like a “new” album, which just goes to show what three years can mean in a career like Bowie’s). Musically, it’s most reminiscent of that album, and Heathen, but good luck figuring out what the words really “mean”. Best of all, with its seven songs totaling 41 minutes, it’s easy to ingest, and hear again.

The title track, which comes in at a whopping ten minutes, fades in to introduce a clattering of electronic drums and a Mideastern melody speaking of some foreign village wherein lies, in “the center of it all,” not the Milford Plaza but “your eyes”. There are a few big accents, and a digital scramble brings us to another location on the planet where the title becomes a main motif in the form a grand ballad that Bowie could write in his sleep, and has. After a few minutes of that, the opening section is repeated over the new tempo until then end. Following a few odd inhales, “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is upbeat, with a not-quite-jungle arrangement. Easily the most striking song on the album, “Lazarus” was also the best choice to promote the album upon release. Considering that the song shares a title with a Bowie-sanctioned Broadway musical based on The Man Who Fell To Earth, the lyrics can be taken both in and out of that context.

“Sue” had already been used to promote the most recent hits collection, but sounds better here among her siblings. “Girl Loves Me” seems designed to provoke, from its parental advisory-baiting hook and lyrics that sound like Alex and his droogs. Opening with a slow piano and sax, “Dollar Days” switches from latter-day Pink Floyd to a more recognizable Bowie lament once the voice kicks in. It carries on in that vein until a provocative crossfade into “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, the upbeat conclusion, complete with echoes of the harmonica from “A New Career In A New Town” and other sounds that touch on so many stages of his catalog. Its final seconds seem both resolved and unresolved.

Blackstar will never considered as another mere chapter in Bowie’s catalog, which is too bad, since it already showed promise in the 48 or so hours people had to experience it without time’s definitive stamp. Again, its relatively short length invites multiple repeat plays, and thus more opportunity for the elements to reveal themselves. Too many of the lyrics seem foreboding, but that can’t be helped. As far as he was concerned, his next musical adventure would happen whenever it did.

David Bowie (2016)—4

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Robyn Hitchcock 30: The Man Upstairs

Here’s something different from Robyn Hitchcock: an album that’s half covers, familiar and not so, and half originals. The big eyebrow-raiser is that it was produced by Joe Boyd, who these days tends to avoid anything that’s not considered “world music”. Nor does it mine the catalog of artists most associated with Boyd; the choice of songs is all the artist’s.

Most versions of the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You” have been reverent, and while this isn’t Robyn’s first recording of it, the muffled bass, strings piano and high harmonies give it a quiet elegance. Similarly, he’s long admired Roxy Music’s Avalon album, and “To Turn You On” sticks to their arrangement, even the key change in the middle. The Doors’ “Crystal Ship” isn’t a big stretch for him either, with a pianist filling in some of the holes; enjoyment of any of these will be enhanced by familiarity. Occasional touring buddy Grant Lee Phillips gets a nod with “Don’t Look Down”, while “Ferries” is a cover of a song by a Norwegian band called I Was A King, with the song’s own writer providing harmonies (as she does throughout the album).

His own songs are a mixed bag. “San Francisco Patrol” is one of the loveliest and therefore unlikely songs to be inspired by a Dirty Harry movie. “Comme Toujours” seesaws between French and English and is a nicer version of a song he’s recorded already. “Trouble In Your Blood” is also quite slow and pretty, but not dull. “Recalling The Truth” isn’t as pretty, but brings everything to an unresolved end. Unfortunately, “Somebody To Break Your Heart” completely breaks from the mood, and is the album’s sore thumb.

Faithful readers have marveled at how we can stay interested in an artist whose most provocative work was decades ago. Part of it comes from an unspoken agreement with a man we’ve never met; as long as he keeps making albums that aren’t horrible, we’ll listen. And maybe, just maybe, one day something will come out of him that absolutely stuns.

Robyn Hitchcock The Man Upstairs (2014)—3

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Mott The Hoople 1: Mott The Hoople

While they’re best known for a song David Bowie gave them, Mott The Hoople had already recorded four albums and disbanded before that happened. Going back to those early albums for perspective, it’s easy to hear what Bowie heard in them, even if they weren’t for everybody.

Their self-titled debut begins with a raucous instrumental cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, with Mick Ralphs’ wah-wah taking the lead. That gives an idea of their power and volume, but it’s the next track (another cover) that demonstrates the template. “At The Crossroads” was originally recorded a few months earlier by the Sir Douglas Quintet, and Mott’s version uses the same template of guitar, bass, drums, piano and organ, with Ian Hunter’s drawl giving away shades of Dylan. It’s even more apparent on “Laugh At Me”, which had been Sonny Bono’s first solo hit; it starts tentatively and builds to a two-chord frenzy over six minutes, with voices chanting the band’s name a la the “woo-woo”s on “Sympathy For The Devil”. “Backsliding Fearlessly”, the first original song here, solidifies what we’re hearing: Blonde On Blonde crossed with Jimmy Miller’s Stones productions.

The Stones sound comes forward on “Rock And Roll Queen”, and may well have been an influence on “Bitch”. “Rabbit Foot And Toby Time” is a basic two-minute jam that bursts into “Half Moon Bay”, another lengthy variation on side one’s themes (piano arpeggios in 6/8) until about halfway through where it turns into a pseudo-classical fugue. This is why some say the band’s dual keyboards are more reminiscent of Procol Harum, another band named by producer Guy Stevens. Once that’s out of the way, it’s back to the original theme, played eternally through the fade. Finally, “Wrath And Roll” presents the last two minutes of the jam begun in “You Really Got Me”, ending with glorious cacophony.

Mott The Hoople doesn’t have a lot of variety, but sometimes rock ‘n roll has to be boneheadedly simple. If you need something complex, stare all you like at the Escher print used on the cover.

Mott The Hoople Mott The Hoople (1969)—

Friday, January 15, 2016

Bob Dylan 60: The Cutting Edge

Nearly a generation after it began, Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series continued to answer the dreams of fans, while adding to their nightmares. For the third year in a row, the compilers confounded all expectations, upping the ante each time.

In the annals of rock, the 18 months of creativity that resulted in Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde (as well as, by extension, the performance still referred to as the Albert Hall concert) are paralleled by few other artists. Outtakes from those albums have already been highlights of previous Bootleg Series installments, but now, in an astounding prequel to the complete Basement Tapes, and following three different “anniversary” or “copyright extension” collections, only with a lot more fanfare and easier availability, every recorded note of Dylan’s studio sessions in 1965 and 1966 has been presented to any discerning fan with six hundred bucks to spare. (Knowing full well that 18 CDs of multiple takes are too much for lots of people, there’s a six-CD distillation that still includes the complete evolution of “Like A Rolling Stone”, and a two-CD sampler that whittles 19 hours of tape down to two and a half.)

Unlike the Beatles, or Brian Wilson, who were busy pioneering their own recording techniques on different continents and coasts, Bob viewed the studio as another performance. Every song was recorded live, whether by himself or a room full of musicians. The lyrics would even change slightly, sometimes to match the dynamics of the song in progress. Overdubs or inserts were minimal, so whenever a take broke down, they started from the top. It becomes apparent why many takes were passed over for the ones that made the final cut, and the listener is often frustrated by hearing musicians from fifty years ago not quite getting the sound Bob hears in his head, and we’ve had imprinted on our brains.

That said, when the pistons were firing, Bob could work quickly. Bringing It All Back Home was recorded in three days, most of the first scrapped for later takes, often because they sound too much like Another Side Of Bob Dylan, which he was trying to get past. Two fine outtakes reappear here—“I’ll Keep It With Mine” and “Farewell Angelina”—and we hear his growing impatience with producer Tom Wilson. Amazingly, the false start of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” comes from day one, and tacked onto a band take from a day later. (And while Bob does laugh, the hooting we hear is Wilson.) He was also coming to grips with having a band trying to keep up with him; earlier stabs at “Mr. Tambourine Man” involve a drummer. Much time was spent on “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” in a bid for a pop hit, wisely left off the album.

Once paired with new producer Bob Johnston for Highway 61 Revisited, he was a little more productive, and that album was recorded in three chunks of sessions. He never did figure out what to do with “Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence”, which always sounded like a pale copy of “Outlaw Blues”, but at least he found the germs of other lyrics in it. It’s nice to hear “Queen Jane Approximately” before the guitar went out of tune, and fun to hear everybody crack up at the first use of the police whistle on “Highway 61 Revisited”. We get to experience “Desolation Row” as it passes through several rock arrangements, any of which are worthy of the final product.

The guys soon known as The Band were part of the first sessions for Blonde On Blonde, where things like “Jet Pilot” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” were begun and abandoned. A couple of rocky “Visions Of Johanna” attempts still have promise, but a frustrating day spent on “She’s Your Lover Now” pretty much guaranteed why Bob never went back to it (though a few piano-based rehearsals predict the arrangement of “Dear Landlord”). Only Robbie Robertson was brought to Nashville, where local guys (directed by Al Kooper, or so he’d have us believe) helped whip the rest into place. Even that wasn’t easy going, as too many misfires on “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” prove, particularly the ones with the knock-knock-car horn-“who’s there” intro. Even “I’ll Keep It With Mine” was still in the running at this point, but ignored once “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” arose. Amazingly, six of the album’s 14 songs were nailed in the final 25-hour session.

The final disc of the massive set is devoted to hotel room recordings, as depicted in D.A. Pennebaker films of the time; the segments from 1966 are fascinating, with Bob finding his way through song ideas with Robbie. And those who bought the big package got an added bonus via download: 50th Anniversary Collection 1965 presented another 15 hours of music in the form of ten acoustic concerts, four partially electric concerts (including Levon Helm on drums before he bailed) and other performances. The two-CD “best of” will leave you wanting more, so the six-CD set just might fill the average appetite.

Bob Dylan The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 (2015)—4

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tears For Fears 4: Tears Roll Down

It’s a little presumptuous for a band with only three albums to put out a hits collection, and even more so when one of the songs on said collection is brand new, not having even earned its stripes as a hit. But in the case of Tears For Fears, the hits from those three albums were so good that they sound great together.

Tears Roll Down (Greatest Hits 82-92) shuffles five songs from Songs From The Big Chair and three from the other two very well. The earliest songs don’t arrive until halfway through, but they fit just fine. “Mother’s Talk” is our least favorite single here, and ending with “Advice For The Young At Heart” makes it all kinda depressing, but “Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)”, that one new song, gives lyrics to an earlier, instrumental B-side, and provides something of a link to the band’s future.

This was not the only hits collection, as the band’s association with PolyGram worldwide meant that the millennium would ensure several repackagings of the same pile of songs at budget prices and higher. Tears Roll Down itself reappeared in other ways overseas: in tandem with a DVD of their videos plus another disc of lesser hit singles, and in a two-disc version that added eleven remixes. But in summing up the fruits of the band’s first decade, this simple hour of ‘80s pop is satisfying.

Tears For Fears Tears Roll Down (Greatest Hits 82-92) (1992)—4

Friday, January 8, 2016

Genesis 10: And Then There Were Three

Down to a trio—in the studio, anyway—Genesis went right back to work on an album, their determination illustrated by the simple title …And Then There Were Three… Right away they appear to be trying to prove themselves, given the unorthodox meter of “Down And Out”, as well as all the layered guitar parts, all coming from the fingers of lonesome Mike Rutherford.

From there the sound is less progressive than before, much closer to pop, and very little like Peter Gabriel was ever in the band. In other words, more like the Genesis that filled stadia in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and where most people heard them first. But that doesn’t make it easier to ingest, and dense music doesn’t make for easy listening.

“Undertow” mildly resembles the “old” Genesis sound, with some nice passages, but “Ballad Of Big” pits a couple arena rock riffs against each other and Phil’s falsetto in a way that doesn’t match the Old West theme. “Snowbound” sounds like it could have come from the previous studio albums, a strangely haunting portrait of a snowman on the surface, but even more eerie and sinister underneath. (Thanks, guys.) Lengthy but ultimately satisfying is “Burning Rope”, for reasons we can’t pinpoint, which is fine.

As if one 19th-century American influence wasn’t enough, “Deep In The Motherlode” talks of the Nevada gold rush, though the music is better. “Many Too Many” is a lush romantic lament, a little too heavy for the pop charts, while “Scenes From A Night’s Dream” tries too hard for the same. “Say It’s Alright Joe” seesaws between an alcoholic’s plea and a revved-up comeback in a poor example of misguided dynamics. More “epic” is “The Lady Lies”, which sounds equally prog and modern, and very busy.

After all that, “Follow You Follow Me” is very welcome, but champions of the album remain split as to whether the song belongs. For a single, it put keisters in seats, and that’s another reason why …And Then There Were Three… is a defiant statement. It’s a long way to that song, and not a clean path.

Genesis …And Then There Were Three… (1978)—

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Todd Rundgren 12: Hermit Of Mink Hollow

After several albums of increasing complexity, Hermit Of Mink Hollow was considered a return to form for patient Toddheads. While a collection of straightforward pop songs written and performed all by himself, that didn’t stop the record company from resequencing it into what they deemed “easy” and “difficult” sides.

Despite this tampering, it’s a very accessible album along the lines of his first three solo albums. However, Todd being a technophile, modern keyboards and effects dominate, where once a piano sufficed. At the time, these sounds were considered progressive, as were the video graphics used in the cover art. These days, such nuances make the album more dated than those first three solo albums. And that’s just the kind of attitude Todd hated.

After “All The Children Sing” is out of the way, the best songs on side one are true ear candy, especially the hit single “Can We Still Be Friends”, “Determination” and “Hurting For You”. “Onomatopoeia” is the token joke, a mercifully brief novelty of funny noises. Side two is the keeper, with arguably more substantial material. The social commentary of “Bread” and particularly “Bag Lady” takes a little patience, but “You Cried Wolf” is a direct cousin of “Wolfman Jack” that goes right to your toes and “Lucky Guy” is a welcome piano ballad.

We mentioned that he played all the instruments on Hermit Of Mink Hollow, which is easy to forget when everything sounds so full. His drums are competent as ever, and even the saxophone is used sparsely, while trademark background vocals and the occasional heavy guitar solo help propel it to success. From here, the line between his solo work and those credited to Utopia would only blur.

Todd Rundgren Hermit Of Mink Hollow (1978)—3

Friday, January 1, 2016

Jam 10: Box Sets

The rise of Britpop in the ‘90s got some people thinking about The Jam, at least in the UK, where Paul Weller was still somewhat popular. This was also an era when box sets abounded, and one arrived just in time for the band’s 20th anniversary.

Direction Reaction Creation crams their entire studio output onto four discs, with a fifth CD full of unreleased material. The first four discs are sequenced in rough chronological order by release date, so any singles released ahead of time throws off the flow of some of the albums proper. Still, the set just has to begin with both sides of the “In The City” single, and you can’t complain when their first two albums fit onto the first disc, along with the rare “Carnaby Street” B-side.

Disc two presents the build-up and aftermath of All Mod Cons. We can hear the growing pains in the B-sides “Aunties And Uncles (Impulsive Youths)”, “Innocent Man” and “The Night”, before they hit their stride with a string of excellent singles. This disc ends with “The Eton Rifles” (and its B-side, “See-Saw”), which takes something away from disc three, devoted to the remainder of Setting Sons and Sound Affects—plus, hello hooray, “Liza Radley”. That’s three strong discs in a row, and since we’re one of those who didn’t love The Gift, disc four doesn’t get as much play, particularly with the 12-inch single version of “Precious” taking up six precious minutes, and the un-Jam-like covers issued as B-sides.

All of disc five is previously unreleased, so you still have to hold onto Extras. Most of this disc are studio demos of songs recorded better later, though a “So Sad About Us” that predated the first album is pretty tight. “Worlds Apart” and “Walking In Heaven’s Sunshine” are otherwise unheard tracks, “Rain” a carbon copy of the Beatles’ track, “Dead End Street” a piano rendition of the Kinks song, and another demo of “A Solid Bond In Your Heart” provides an up conclusion.

Being limited to studio material, Direction Reaction Creation does miss out on a few alternate single mixes, as well as a few of the live tracks issued as B-sides. Some of the off compilations included these, but it was 18 years before the other half of the picture was filled in. Fire And Skill presented six complete concert appearance, from each of the years from 1977 through 1982—four in London, one in Reading, and one all the way up in Newcastle.

Some of the tracks have already appeared on Dig The New Breed or Live Jam, but such canonical repetition can be forgiven. Three B-sides came from the 1977 show, so it’s good to have “Bricks And Mortar” (pronounced “moe-uh” each of the three times it appears in the set, one of which segues into “Batman Theme”) and their covers of “Back In My Arms Again” and “Sweet Soul Music” in context.

The first voice you hear is that of John Weller, Paul’s dear departed dad who roadied for the band and introduced every gig. Particularly through the first five shows, the band is tight, democratic and gracious. A horn section creeps in on the fifth, providing a transition to the keyboards and backup singers added for their final shows. The Wembley gig, one of several from the last days of the band, was recorded well, but the guitar and bass are off pitch with each other—one of the pitfalls of playing arenas instead of theaters or clubs.

Sure, some songs appear in multiple renditions (some as many as three and two in four), and the title had already been used in the ‘90s for a tribute album, but Fire And Skill is a worthy, and long overdue bookend to this terrific band’s career. In the absence of a reunion, it will stand.

The Jam Direction Reaction Creation (1997)—4
The Jam
Fire And Skill (2015)—4