Friday, February 26, 2016

Kinks 5: Kontroversy

While it was released a full four months later in the US than it was in the UK, and used different cover art, The Kink Kontroversy had the same track sequence everywhere, putting the band in the same company of the few contemporaries that cared about such things. And even though it was banged out in just about a week in the studio, the songs show the further maturation of Ray as a songwriter and the band as a band.

That said, their grungy take on “Milk Cow Blues” is something of a warmup, before the ultra-gentle “Ring The Bells”. “Gotta Get The First Plane Home” beats a basic riff into the ground, and teases us with the same note before “When I See That Girl Of Mine” bursts forth. Dave’s writing improves as well on “I Am Free”, a song his brother would be proud to write. (Name another song of the era that uses the word “convalesce”.) “Till The End Of The Day” revives the classic “Really Got Me” chording approach.

Side two begins with another terrific run of songs, beginning with the weariness of “The World Keeps Going Round”, followed by the goofy “I’m On An Island”. “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” has the distinction of being covered by both David Bowie and Van Halen, and if you listen carefully, quotes recent lyrics from Beatles and Stones tunes. The tempo of “It’s Too Late” perhaps reveals their exhaustion of having to work so fast, and elevates Dave’s performance on “What’s In Store For Me” and the brothers’ blend on “You Can’t Win”.

Being a Shel Talmy production, the drums rattle like biscuit tins and the guitars are distorted. But the band sounds tight, thanks to Nicky Hopkins on piano and, apparently, Clem Cattini filling in for Mick Avory on the kit. The Kink Kontroversy was the band’s best album yet, and notable for not leaning solely on singles to drive sales. In fact, future reissues and Deluxe Editions only had to add one contemporary single to the picture, along with other B-sides, demos and BBC recordings.

The Kinks The Kink Kontroversy (1966)—

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Doors 4: The Soft Parade

The Doors’ fourth album is generally considered to be their worst, but it’s not awful. The Soft Parade has its moments, but it’s also a victim of what passed for accepted production styles of the time.

With an opening blast of brass not so much Stax as the type of thing used by the Monkees or Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, “Tell All The People” puts Jim Morrison in the role of a benevolent prophet, leading the loving multitudes to a better world, which sounds less convincing than it reads. “Touch Me” is the song everybody knows, a single released a few months before the album was completed. We daresay the pop approach works here, despite the bad grammar, maybe because the sax solo is dirty enough to balance out. (It’s also featured in a clip from the Smothers Brothers show aired countless times since then, featuring Jim blowing his cue but recovering, Ray Manzarek “conducting” the horns and strings, and Robbie Kreiger’s glorious black eye.) On “Shaman’s Blues” the band finally sounds like themselves, a rolling waltz with all the classic elements of the previous albums. But then there’s the curious pair of underdeveloped tracks that finish the side. “Do It” begs us to listen to the children and please him all night, and “Easy Ride” can’t decide if it’s poetry or blues.

“Wild Child” gets things back on track with another tribal-based piece, though it ends awfully abruptly. “Running Blue” is a mess; a promising intro chant turns into another horn-heavy verse before a square dance chorus “sung” by Robbie. If this is what inspired Blood, Sweat & Tears, then the blame can be squarely placed. “Wishful Sinful” is a vast improvement, meshing melody, a chamber-pop arrangement and a convincing vocal, but it’s not until the long title track that we get an “epic” along the lines of “The End” or “When The Music’s Over”. Jim first takes on the role of a preacher, asks for sanctuary over classical keyboards, goes to a go-go for a psychedelic parody, skips through a nursery, and finally arrives at the best part of the trip. The main body of the track is both a tight jam and the good kind of jazz, and Jim’s layered vocals are very precise. Though we can’t figure out why anybody would want to whip a horse’s eyes.

As unfocused as The Soft Parade is, those pieces fit together to keep it from being an embarrassment. (We can’t say the same for the gatefold portrait, unfortunately.) The album’s 40th Anniversary Edition gives even more examples of their confusion, in the plodding B-side “Who Scared You”, two versions of “Whisky, Mystics And Men” (both using what sounds like an accordion) and the interminable “Push Push” jam, which is essentially a ripoff of a song by Joe Cuba, “the father of Latin boogaloo”.

The inevitable 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition presented a remastered version of the album with “Who Scared You” tacked on at the end. The survivors took the bold move of presenting it on its own disc in a “Doors only” mix, with none of the strings or horns. Three tracks include parts recorded by Robbie in this century, but thankfully those are in addition to the stripped-down versions, and not instead. Folks who think Ray Manzarek was a woefully unappreciated blues belter (yes, we know, you can put those hands down now) will likely drool over his takes on “Roadhouse Blues”, “You Need Meat”, and “I’m Your Doctor”, all featuring new parts from the bass player in Stone Temple Pilots. Along with stabs at the “Seminary School” intro for the title track and the “I Am Troubled” prelude added to the 2007 mix, over an hour of the third disc is devoted to the oft-bootlegged epic ramble “Rock Is Dead”, wherein Jim teeters between self-parody and blues clichés while the band jams on the same, with the occasional sound of a Mellotron to add gravitas. There are a few repeated motifs that might have led to something more developed, but here it’s mostly tedious.

The Doors The Soft Parade (1969)—3
2007 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1969, plus 6 extra tracks
2019 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 16 extra tracks

Friday, February 19, 2016

Rod Stewart 1: The Rod Stewart Album

There was a time when bands and artists would be expected to release more than one album within a calendar year. This undoubtedly put pressure on such individuals, not all of whom had the talent or grapes to produce quality at such a rate. Rod Stewart, however, knew how to surround himself with musicians that spurred creativity, not just for his own albums, but for a band he’d happened to join. (We’ll get to them soon enough.)

As titled in America, The Rod Stewart Album is split between covers and originals, electric and acoustic. The overall feel is of a band playing in a small room. Ron Wood and Mick Waller came over from the Jeff Beck Group, Woody liberated to contribute all of the lead guitar. His bottleneck is prominent on a rearranged cover of the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” which switches to the recognizable chords by the end, and Ian McLagan even throws in Nicky Hopkins’ part from “We Love You” over the end. “Man Of Constant Sorrow” is the folk song, here given more of a blues angle, while “Blind Prayer” is dark and dirty. That makes “Handbags And Gladrags”, featuring the song’s composer, Mike D’Abo, on piano, all the more sad and pretty. Familiar today to viewers of the original British Office series, that oboe and flute counterpoint will haunt long after the false ending fades. And that’s one perfect album side.

“An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down” was the title given to the British version of the album; the song itself is a midtempo boogie showing off Woody’s tendency to play a lead right alongside the vocals. Another change of pace comes with “I Wouldn’t Ever Change A Thing”, showcasing Keith Emerson’s classical organ and producer Lou Reizner trading lines over one of the sections. The Hammond being the instrument of the day, “Cindy’s Lament” plows through a basic blues riff and a few key changes, and Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town” gets distilled through the album’s instrumental combinations.

Barely a decade later, after he’d become his own caricature, it wasn’t easy to think of Rod Stewart as having any kind of balls. One listen to The Rod Stewart Album goes a long way to restoring his reputation. It’s short but solid.

Rod Stewart The Rod Stewart Album (1969)—

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Humble Pie 1: As Safe As Yesterday Is

After Steve Marriott left the Small Faces to themselves, he horned in on a new project started by teenage heartthrob Peter Frampton, teenage drummer Jerry Shirley, and non-teenage bassist Greg Ridley of Spooky Tooth, and thus began Humble Pie. At a time when several “supergroups” were coming together (Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith, etc.), the band was pigeonholed upon formation, but they responded by immediately jamming and recording. From the start, the guitar players dominated the songwriting, and both were highly adept at coaxing sheets of sound from a Hammond organ. For the most part, their dense mix and heavy approach defines As Safe As Yesterday Is, the band’s first album.

Most new bands build both repertoire and mutual comfort by jamming on songs everybody knows, which could be the reason for opening the album with the pounding rock waltz of “Desperation”, a Steppenwolf cover, of all things. (Those Brits really had a knack for digging out obscurities, didn’t they?) The singers harmonize and swap lines, as they do throughout the album. Frampton dominates “Stick Shift”, a driving tune of a different tempo, and in case you hadn’t had enough Steppenwolf, “Buttermilk Boy” begins just like “Born To Be Wild”, but improves greatly as the guitars pile on and the three guys in front swap lines of the lyrics. On the British LP, a predominantly acoustic tune with prominent flute and bongos called “Growing Closer” (written by Marriott’s old bandmate Ian McLagan) came next, but in America, it was replaced by the generic “Natural Born Woman”, which was already known as a single called “Natural Born Bugie”, and frankly inferior to the rest of the album. Luckily, Frampton’s title track, with its constructed sections and transitions, balances the rock with some of the acoustic touches.

“Bang!” (or “Bang?”, depending on the label or back cover) continues the onslaught, with syncopated riffs and an insistent piano. “Alabama ‘69” provides variety via a jokey acoustic country blues (particularly in the US sequence), with some terrific vocal blends, but even more striking is an unlisted instrumental that combines sitar, tablas, flute and both acoustic and electric guitars. Any other album would use this as a coda, but here it leads into “I’ll Go Alone”, which recycles one of Frampton’s pet chord changes but not until they borrow the riff from “Communication Breakdown”. And yes, that’s a harpsichord buried under there. As with the rest of the album, the vocals and lyrics are particularly buried on “A Nifty Little Number Like You”, but the focus is on the playing, even the drum solo. The slower modulations of “What You Will” make for a smooth conclusion.

As Safe As Yesterday Is has gone in and out of print countless times over the years, mostly because the band’s original label was so badly run, and most CD versions have been pressed with a minimum of budget. However, those that have come out use the British sequence, tacking the “Natural Born Bugie” single and “Wrist Job” B-side onto the end. That provides both a wider picture, and a better balance of music.

Humble Pie As Safe As Yesterday Is (1969)—

Friday, February 12, 2016

World Party 3: Bang!

With the third album under the World Party moniker, Karl Wallinger would have you believe they grew into a real live band, with a dedicated drummer and a multi-instrumentalist on board. However, much of Bang! sounds less like a band in a room than a guy layering canned instruments and effects within a mix.

A shuffling rhythm that sounds an awful lot like recent Waterboys albums drives “Kingdom Come”, but with more of a country influence and a stumbling transition when the chords finally change. While a pleasant single, “Is It Like Today?” is about as repetitive as the first track, and its best hook was already used in “Put The Message In The Box”. “What Is Love All About?” melds too much of a Prince influence with silly sound effects, while the operatic “And God Said…” interlude picks the wrong place to make an ecological statement. Some purple echoes return on “Give It All Away”, which is otherwise a decent jam with lots of guitar, and “Sooner Or Later” continues the funk with a groove crossed between Steely Dan and, yes, the Beatles.

Generic dance beats rule the balance of the album, which hides the potential of the songs. “Hollywood” actually has good hooks in both the verses and the chorus, but “Radio Days” merely weaves spoken snippets in between the beats and seemingly inconsequential lyrics. If not for his own voice, “Rescue Me” could be mistaken for any number of new jack swing tracks of the era. Just in time, “Sunshine” provides relief and variety with an acoustic strum crossing “Wild Horses” with “You’re A Big Girl Now” and a bridge that borrows liberally from “Getting In Tune” (the first overt Who steal in his catalog). “All I Gave” is another excellent track that sounds like “classic” World Party before a reprise of “Give It All Away”, and, on the CD, the obligatory twenty-minute gap of silence that was all the rage in the ‘90s before a hidden track called “Kuwait City” that thinly disguises a Gulf War protest in the form of a Beach Boys parody.

Anything would be a letdown after Goodbye Jumbo, but even now, just as then, Bang!’s effect is more like a thud. Many years later it would be rereleased with a new cover, and combined the two halves of “Give It All Away” into one track while lopping off “Kuwait City” from the end, but didn’t do much to change the fact that there’s not enough substance holding up the songs.

World Party Bang! (1993)—

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Waterboys 5: Room To Roam

Following the surprise success of Fisherman’s Blues, Mike Scott bolstered the Waterboys with some other traditional Celtic folk players for live shows, and recorded the follow-up fairly quickly. On Room To Roam, the electronic piano dominates, as does the co-production by the legendary Barry Beckett, but it’s very much in the same vein as its predecessor. For the most part, the emphasis remains on the jigs and reels, with only two songs longer than three or so minutes.

The first handful of tracks tumbles by quickly. “In Search Of A Rose” is pretty but brief, rudely interrupted by “Song From The End Of The World”, which also ends with a burst of seagulls when you think another verse should be happening. “A Man Is In Love” gets a little more room to settle in, ending with an upbeat instrumental portion called “Kalliope House” that is occasionally indexed on its own depending on what version of the album you’re playing. “Bigger Picture” continues the strum before being nudged aside by the traditional “Natural Bridge Blues”. Just as we think it’s all folk dances, “Something That Is Gone” brings the mood way down, with the man who’s in love lamenting his loss, and mournful saxes and violins convey the sadness. A brief interlude about “The Star And The Sea” is misplaced, particularly before the grand rock sound of “A Life Of Sundays”. Plowing away at one chord for the most of it, it still provides a wonderful catharsis and is the album’s only epic, ending with a spoken quote and even a chorus of “Yellow Submarine”. If the first side of the album is designed to lead up to this, the journey has been worth it.

Psychedelia continues on “Islandman”, which melds a didgeridoo with Scott’s declaration of oneness with most regions of the UK, then “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy” goes back to traditional folk and “How Long Will I Love You?” slides over into near pop. A wonderful unlisted snippet with the words “she’s all that I need” fades in and out before Steve Wickham intones the almost as brief “Upon The Wind And Waves”. “Spring Comes To Spiddal” melds folk with Dixieland brass because they hadn’t gotten to that genre yet. A button accordion solo on “A Trip To Broadford” is quite soothing, while “Further Up, Further In” finally takes an idea to something of a conclusion over a Scottish dance. Just one ocean voyage wasn’t enough, as the dizzying backing to the title track approximates seasickness. Just to keep it all together, the upbeat jig of “The Kings Of Kerry” closes out the set.

Room To Roam crams a lot of music into a short space, and we wish some of those snippets were better developed so as to nudge aside the less effective tracks. The eventual Collector’s Edition added another album’s worth of tracks, some of them alternates. (A highlight is “Three Ships”, an extended jam on the “she’s all that I need” snippet, sadly without any lyrics.) If that wasn’t enough, 2021’s The Magnificent Seven box included a remaster of the album along with four discs of live recordings, demos, and outtakes, plus a DVD.

Even with that bigger picture, Room To Roam isn’t as good as Fisherman’s Blues, nor was it anywhere near as successful. The band’s label most the most of it by quickly re-releasing “Whole Of The Moon” as a single to promote a hits collection. The Best Of The Waterboys ‘81-‘90 summed up the band’s history, adding rarities in the form of a live version of “Old England” and “Killing My Heart”, an inferior alternate version of “When Ye Go Away”.

The Waterboys Room To Roam (1990)—3
2008 Collector’s Edition: same as 1990, plus 17 extra tracks

Friday, February 5, 2016

Frank Zappa 28: Joe's Garage

Like many of Frank’s grand statements, Joe’s Garage has a lot to say, but its message is spoiled by his overall delivery. It didn’t take too much of a stretch of his own imagination to take the seed idea of a garage band playing simple music into a dystopian future where music was banned, and record executives sodomized each other as well as anyone or anything in the vicinity of the internment camp where they were housed. And Frank’s view was that if you couldn’t handle the story, then you’re part of the problem.

Anyone who reads this blog will likely agree with Frank that music is the best, just as they would agree that suppression of music is a tragedy, particularly when enforced by so-called elected officials. We also use music to escape reality, and you can’t always do that when listening to the vocalization of “a cross between an industrial vacuum cleaner and a chrome piggy bank with marital aids stuck all over its body” subjected to urophilia. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, as that doesn’t happen until Act II. Huh? Let us explain.

Joe’s Garage was issued in two parts: Act I, a single disc followed a few months later by a double album, Acts II & III. Since the dawn of the digital era, they’ve been packaged in a two-CD set, with the only notation of where successive acts begin found in the liner notes, so the story can be ingested all at once.

“The Central Scrutinizer” makes his entrance in something of an overture, delivering the first of many commentaries in a loud accented whisper through a megaphone. The title track stands very well on its own, not just for the wonderful illustration of the repetitive limitations of a garage band, but for the debut of Ike Willis, who would voice many of Frank’s lyrics for the rest of the man’s life, and quite soulfully, too. Speaking of which, Dale Bozzio (later of Missing Persons) makes her tuneless debut on “Catholic Girls”, a dirty joke that would have fit in the context of Sheik Yerbouti, musically even. Here, it’s a setup for “Crew Slut”, essentially an update of “Road Ladies” but with more descriptive directions and a lot nastier overall. It’s an ordinary blues shuffle, contrasted with the disco pop of “Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt”, featuring Frank at his most lecherous. (In case you were wondering about the plot, Joe’s girlfriend Mary stood him up at the CYO dance, ended up with the roadies of a band in town, who used her up and left her at a bar where a wet T-shirt contest could potentially earn her money to get “home”. Because, in Frank’s world, that’s what girls do.) What was originally called “Toad-O-Line” on the LP has been changed to “On The Bus” since, though the first three notes of this extended solo still seem to quote “Hold The Line” by Toto. The Scrutinizer informs us that news of Mary’s adventures upset Joe so much that he responded in kind, his experience leading him to ask the immortal question, “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”, which otherwise taints a decent backing. This gave Frank an excuse to finally include “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” on an album, albeit in an inferior reggae version.

Act II begins in the Church of Appliantology, led by L. Ron Hoover, which is still pretty clever. Hoover and Joe’s dialogue makes up the lyrics of “A Token Of My Extreme”, which had been an instrumental piece for about five years. While he’s at it, Frank revives “Stick It Out”, an old Flo & Eddie routine sung in German, then in English, and just as obscene in both languages. He also introduces Sy Borg, the appliance mentioned in the second paragraph above, whose demise comes at the end of a nine-minute jazz-reggae groove. Slightly less excruciating is “Dong Work For Yuda”, an inside joke about a Zappa roadie who mangled the English language. Here it’s used to illustrate the type of deviants Joe met in the prison where he was sent for destroying Sy, and sets up “Keep It Greasey”, the furthest thing from vague, but ending in a fantastic five-minute solo. In the realm of Joe’s story, these guitar solos are the only things that keep him going while he finishes his sentence, looking forward to life “Outside Now”.

Act III is arguably the best portion, consisting of four long tracks and a lot of soloing. “He Used To Cut The Grass” informs us that Joe is out of prison, but music is now illegal so he can only continue imagining the sounds in his head. Luckily for us, not only are the solos worthy of posterity, but the band, which now included Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, could keep with Frank. They get a lot of room to stretch on “Packard Goose”, an angry diatribe against journalists (with a couple of birds flipped to “Joe” and “Mo”, who we read as two of the executives who’d signed him to Reprise Records way back when). Now we have arrived at perhaps the greatest nine minutes in Frank’s career, the positively gorgeous “Watermelon In Easter Hay”. Over a sleepy 9/4 rhythm, trilling vibraphones, sitar-like guitar and strolling bass, Frank bends his strings in a way that’s alternately crying and triumphant. The album could have ended there, but he needs a “stupid song” for the closing credits; hence “A Little Green Rosetta” is the literal icing on this cake.

Obviously, Joe’s story was very important to Frank, who felt sodomized (symbolically, anyway) by a cruel world where his music was misunderstood and censored. What sinks Joe’s Garage and keeps it from regular rotation are the lyrics. Most of his guitar solos were transferred in via xenochrony, which helps boost the second half of the program considerably, were it not for the story. If he had only let the songs he had stand alone, without stringing them together with a theme and narration, there’s a chance it would have been better than it is, and worthy of the praise people heap on it.

Still, we do crack up every time that canned police siren appears in the mix.

Frank Zappa Joe’s Garage Act I (1979)—2
Frank Zappa
Joe’s Garage Acts II & III (1979)—2

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Marshall Crenshaw 2: Field Day

His first album being such a fresh kick, there was a lot of pressure for Marshall Crenshaw’s follow-up. Field Day keeps most of the recipe without being a carbon copy.

Smart students of rock ‘n roll know you’re supposed to start the album with the lead single, and that’s why “Whenever You’re On My Mind” is such a great opener. There’s the opening riff, which is vocalized in the verses and along with the solo, and the classic chorus. “Our Town” and “One More Reason” gallop along, though the words get a little lost in Steve Lillywhite’s boomy production. (Then again, the engineer was Scott Litt, just a few years away from dealing with Michael Stipe’s mumbling for R.E.M.) “Try” doesn’t really sink in, but pay attention to the litany of impossible tasks he’ll undergo for “One Day With You”.

Remember how great the first side began? Side two does the same with “For Her Love”, with another infectious riff and a tasty lick that forms both the middle eight and the coda. “Monday Morning Rock” is a mildly salacious sentiment from such a clean-cut kid, someone we associate more with the lovelorn fella in “All I Know Right Now”. While it’s no “Soldier Of Love”, “What Time Is It?” revives a little-known early-‘60s doo-wop side via a nice baritone guitar. And somehow the processed drum echoes at the end of “Hold It” provide a nice conclusion.

One doubts that the artiste would ever strip some of the echo from Field Day given the chance—there is something of a precedent for that, of course—given that he’s repeatedly defended Lillywhite’s work. In fact, three of the album’s songs were released on a British EP called U.S. Remix against his wishes. These were included in a 2019 vinyl-only reissue that altered the original cover art which he always hated. When he got the rights back, his expanded version included only the live version of “Little Sister” from that EP, a B-side cover of “Jungle Rock”, and four session outtakes. (He also changed the cover again.) At any rate, the songs are still pretty good, and at least he didn’t take a complete dive on his sophomore effort.

Marshall Crenshaw Field Day (1983)—3
2023 40th Anniversary Expanded Edition: same as 1982, plus 6 extra tracks