Friday, March 25, 2016

Smiths 8: Rank

Something of an official epitaph, Rank presents selections from a concert on the Smiths’ last tour, in support of The Queen Is Dead and the singles that followed. Various live performances had appeared as B-sides over the years, but this is the closest thing to a full Smiths concert, before or since.

For the most part, the songs are pretty close to the standard studio versions, save Morrissey’s occasional outbursts and introductions. “Rusholme Ruffians” begins with a verse of “Marie’s The Name (His Latest Flame)”, paying back that musical debt, and “What She Said” is rearranged, using “Rubber Ring” as its frame. The big difference is the addition of Craig Gannon on guitar, to take some of the pressure off Johnny Marr. Above all, Rank shows off the band as a band, and is a testament to that rhythm section, despite all the reports of the bass player still detoxing from heroin in those days.

The setlist is upbeat for dancing, and while “I Know It’s Over” seems to slow things down when it arrives, the power of the song and the performance keep the emotional impact high. It’s even followed by “The Draize Train”, an instrumental otherwise only available as a B-side.

Rank certainly presents the band at an apex; they only played six more shows together as a band, and had even just cut short their American tour due to “exhaustion”. The complete show had been broadcast on the BBC and subsequently bootlegged, making this album ripe for expansion. Don’t bet on it.

The Smiths Rank (1988)—3

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Cat Stevens 5: Catch Bull At Four

It’s odd to use the term “one-two punch” for albums as gentle as Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser And The Firecat, but commercially, that’s what they were. And with a little more cash coming in, Cat Stevens could spend more time in the studio recording bigger music (plus getting custom labels for his next record). Catch Bull At Four was a hit, of course, but it doesn’t have the brilliant consistency of that one-two punch.

Where the last few albums began with an acoustic guitar, a strident piano opens “Sitting”, another wonderful song about searching, propelled by drums and an electric mandolin. “Boy With A Moon & Star On His Head” is a cross between a fable and a folk song, going a long way toward a simple message about the reward in responsibility. “Angelsea” gets pretty repetitive after a while, the same three chords, wordless chanting and rumbling synth effects. But “Silent Sunlight” is a pretty hymn, and “Can’t Keep It In” a fairly catchy pop song, albeit with some challenging meter changes.

Side two is a more ambitious, and ultimately denser. “18th Avenue”, subtitled “Kansas City Nightmare” in the lyrics, seems to detail a less-than-pleasant experience passing through the town of the same name, and could the house of “Freezing Steel” with its cold lamb and potatoes be an airline joke? “O Caritas” pits lyrics in Latin against a bouzouki-heavy arrangement, diluting the message. “Sweet Scarlet”, sung solo at the piano, is said to be about Carly Simon, and can you blame him, but rather than end the album that quietly, “Ruins” follows a welcome strum until the drums illustrate the tension of visiting a place left behind.

Taken on its own, Catch Bull At Four is good, but not great. He would be increasingly uncomfortable with the life he’d taken on, but not so much that he refused to be photographed with a shirt open to the navel.

Cat Stevens Catch Bull At Four (1972)—3

Friday, March 18, 2016

Morphine 2: Cure For Pain

Everything that made Good so good is taken to the next level on Cure For Pain. The music is tighter and looser as the situations demand, the songs more cinematic and the playing just plain better. And it’s still just sax, drums, slide bass and vocal.

A smoky sax-and-organ piece called “Dawna” creeps out of an alley and back again, and “Buena” sets the basic off-kilter template for the band to follow for the next 35 minutes. “I’m Free Now” sways back and forth as well, through a couple of modulations, before “All Wrong” injects the funk, with a wah-wah sax solo. The years have brought even more songs about a girl named Candy, and Morphine’s is one of the better ones, leading well into the unique “Head With Wings”. But they break from the pattern on “In Spite Of Me”, a gorgeous detour with no sax nor drums, just mandolin, muted guitar and Mark Sandman’s voice through a speaker.

“Thursday” puts us back in familiar territory, gaining power with every break. The title track has all the hallmarks of a radio hit but for the band’s instrumentation and a lyric begging to be misunderstood. The mood continues in order—“Mary Won’t You Call My Name” frenetic and pleading, “Let’s Take A Trip Together” creepy and anti-seductive, “Sheila” just plain wacky. And with perfect pacing, another sad instrumental closes the set. “Miles Davis’ Funeral” is a piece for guitars and percussion, and a fitting title.

Cure For Pain is excellent, but works best at night, on overcast days, or in the middle of a snowstorm. Summertime and sun only get in the way. It’s still one of the best albums of the ‘90s.

Morphine Cure For Pain (1993)—

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Peter Gabriel 2: Scratch

Peter gave his second solo album the same title as his first, with the idea that each new album would be akin to the latest issue of a magazine. Whatever the reason, this particular Peter Gabriel is usually referred to as Scratch or Fingernails, due to—you guessed it—the cover art. (You could even be clever and call it Atlantic to differentiate it from the first one, which was technically on Atco. Yet we digress.)

He kept a few friends from the first album, such as Tony Levin on bass and Larry Fast on synthesizer, but handed the production and collaboration duties over to Robert Fripp (who considered it to be part of a trilogy with his own solo album and a project he was concurrently pursuing with Daryl Hall of all people. And we’re digressing again). Even with the addition of such surprising names as Roy Bittan and Sid McGinnis, Fripp’s influence is pretty apparent throughout, spurring Peter into new areas.

“On The Air” tinkles in on a synth line before exploding into a rocking stomper. An excerpt from a never-realized longform piece, the lyrics effectively express the simultaneous feeling of power and futility of a lone broadcaster. Suddenly “D.I.Y.” interrupts, with its dropped beats and anthem for either punk rock or self-abuse. A swarm of insects introduces “Mother Of Violence”, co-written with his then-wife and delicately sung over tinkling piano and plucked acoustic. “A Wonderful Day In A One-Way World” is just a little too silly, incongruous in the wordplay and steel guitar, the latter of which fits better in the next song. With a mesmerizing mix of menace and lust, “White Shadow” succeeds despite some awful rhymes (“died” and “Kentucky Fried”? Ugh). Beginning with a similar synth wash as “On The Air”, the song travels through slowly rising inflections, anchored by Tony Levin’s wonderfully thudding bass, a few fake horn fanfares and finally a glorious Fripp solo.

Side two starts gently with “Indigo” (transformed from its original live incarnation as “Song Without Words” featuring wacky high-pitched voices), an alternatively melancholy and jaunty meditation on death. It’s followed by “Animal Magic”, which unfortunately demonstrates that he’s just not made for arena rock. Some trademark Frippertronics drive “Exposure”, over a pseudo-disco jam, which manages to stay interesting before “Flotsam And Jetsam” regurgitates some of the feel of “Indigo”, but with some nice Lennon slap-back echo. There’s another stab at a radio sound with the unfortunately dated “Perspective”, but the honking sax is nicely balanced by a completely out-of-place Fripp solo over the bridge. As before, the album closes on a sad note with the heartbreaking “Home Sweet Home”. Here a sax-heavy arrangement reminiscent of a Billy Joel album matches a suburban London lyric bleaker than any Kinks song, leading up to the ironic ending.

This edition of Peter Gabriel is probably best viewed as the parts being greater than the sum. Many of the tracks soar, but as a whole something’s missing. Still, while not as consistent as his first, the album does have, again, charms that reveal themselves with patience, and reward in the process. He would never again work at this speed.

Peter Gabriel Peter Gabriel (1978)—

Friday, March 11, 2016

Elton John 1: Empty Sky

Before the sequined glasses, before the feathers, before the unconvincing hats and worse wigs, before the motorcar, before the wheel, and yes, before the duchess-faced horse, Elton John was a piano player who’d recently changed his name and hooked up with a lyricist. That’s how it worked in those days; two guys sat in a room, one played the piano while the other thought up words. This was the pop tradition, and within a few years Elton John and Bernie Taupin would transcend pop into rock and further.

However, Empty Sky, their first album-length collaboration, is more in keeping with the type of adventurous album rock that was being produced in late 1968. The title track rumbles in on congas, and eventually a crunchy guitar and piano begin the song proper. But as soon as that first line is sung, there’s no question who that voice belongs to. Besides being over eight minutes long, with a flute that reminds us of contemporary Traffic albums and a fake fade with vocalizations inspired by the Stones, the title track is a hidden gem. Being adept at one kind of keyboard, Elton tried to cover all the bases, so “Val-Hala” sports a prominent harpsichord and Hammond organ, and we detect a Dylanesque drawl in his voice. “Western Ford Gateway” predicts a country influence that will become more prominent in time, but what’s most striking is the double-tracked vocal with a strong hint of Lennon. “Hymn 2000” is another case of a decent track buried under a busy arrangement, in this case a flute and organ following the vocal melody too closely, in a strange prediction of Jethro Tull.

While it starts off with that familiar piano touch, “Lady What’s Tomorrow” should have been left simple. An electric piano emerges on “Sails”, driving another crunchy rocker with just as crunchy guitar chords, but “The Scaffold” is just as hesitant as what came before. Then there’s “Skyline Pigeon”, presented here in extreme stereo: Elton’s voice in one channel, and an intricate harpsichord in the other, before the voice moves to the middle on the second verse so an organ can fill in. This one has potential, and he knew it. Everybody says the strangest track is the last, and they’re right. “Gulliver” is a sad tribute to a recently departed pet, escalating to a crescendo of “ah-ah”s, overly flanged and cut off by the jazzy instrumental “Hay Chewed”, and ending with a montage of all the tracks we’ve heard so far.

Empty Sky was not a hit, and wouldn’t even be released in the U.S. until 1975, after his first greatest hits album cashed in on all the songs and albums that actually were hits. MCA somehow chose a new cover even worse than the original. Once all his albums were collected onto the same label for worldwide CD distribution, it was restored in its proper place as the man’s debut, fleshed out by both sides of his second and third singles, which only underscore just how scattered his focus was. But the music is still strong, even making up for Bernie’s lyrics; he’d get there eventually.

Elton John Empty Sky (1969)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Elvis Costello 33: Unfaithful Music

Fans who’ve devoured his liner notes, interviews and magazine articles over the years know that Elvis Costello doesn’t always let the truth get in the way of a good story. For example, the manor of opulent decadence depicted in “Man Out Of Time” has been said to have been inspired by the stand-in for Buckingham Palace in the Beatles’ Help!, the house where the Profumo affair occurred, and in Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, his official autobiography, the location where he filmed the promo clip for “Good Year For The Roses”. He admits such embellishment elsewhere, such as how his anecdote about himself, his parents, and the cat all took notice the first time “Penny Lane” played on the radio. (His parents had already split up by then, and they no longer had a cat.)

Still, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is an engrossing read, diverting from chronology just when you think it’s going to stay linear. Moving around from era to era actually works, using stories about his father’s musical career and his grandparents’ wartime travails to spur other memories and accounts. While he insists that he was never a confessional songwriter, and he doesn’t explain the genesis of all of his most famous songs, key lines do pop up in unexpected places, and when he explains how a cashier at a grocery store inspired “Alison”, you believe it.

The author himself narrates the unabridged audiobook, breaking into accents or impersonations when the text calls for it. While often accused of being pretentious or glib, even by his own fans, it is sometimes heartbreaking to hear him recount his own infidelities, weaknesses, and failures, as well as those of his father, just as his excitement over discovering a wonderful record in his youth and encountering musical heroes in his adulthood is real. Much of his early image is ascribed to a character he found himself playing, thinking that “bad” behavior would cause people to leave him alone to do his work. In the end, only the sales charts left him alone, and he spent the second decade or so of his fame immersed in self-loathing and recrimination for the damage he did to his first wife and their son. Having survived all that and still allowed to make music, he seems grateful for his family and friends, and slings very few arrows at any remaining grudges.

A narrative that references so many songs demands a musical companion, and some stalwart individuals have gone so far as to curate Spotify playlists that cover every band and artist mentioned. The author wisely compiled a two-CD set, Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack Album, that touches on many of the compositions discussed in the book. As it includes most of those hit songs from earlier best-ofs, it could be considered a rehash of Girls Girls Girls, the Costello-curated double disc from 1989 that pulled in tracks from his first decade with the Attractions. This one isn’t quite as random chronologically, but it does sample nearly every one of his albums, with only a few alternates to deviate from the typical. Those of us purchasing yet another disc with “Alison” and “Watching The Detectives” will shoot right to the end of the second disc for “April 5th”, a surprising collaboration with Roseanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson, and “I Can’t Turn It Off”, a demo from 1975 with lyrics that would end up in “Watch Your Step” and “Sulky Girl”. A hidden track features so-called “Sketches” from the memoir, anecdotes about Paul McCartney, Lou Adler, and the Royal Albert Hall left out of the manuscript. But as Costello compilations go, this one has more purpose than most others. And of the songs chosen, there’s nary a clunker to be skipped.

Elvis Costello Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack Album (2015)—4

Friday, March 4, 2016

Robbie Robertson 1: Robbie Robertson

For the first few years after he left The Band and seeing himself on the big screen, Robbie Robertson plunged whole-heartedly into the world of cinema. While he failed to become a matinee idol, his friendship with Martin Scorsese meant he was tapped to organize the music for films like Raging Bull, The Color Of Money and King Of Comedy, featuring Van Morrison’s excellent delivery of “Wonderful Remark”. His former Band-mates, save Levon, often helped with these recordings, so hearing Rick and Richard’s voices plus Garth’s keyboards made them special. (“The Best Of Everything”, from Tom Petty’s Southern Accents, was another notable production in this period.)

Robbie wouldn’t have been any band’s choice for a lead vocalist, so the idea of a solo album on which he sang all the songs raised eyebrows everywhere. But in a masterstroke of timing, he hooked up with Daniel Lanois, and his eponymous solo debut arrived in the wake of the multiplatinum success of Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree. Robbie Robertson also tapped most of the musicians—and the two singers—involved with both albums, making the listening experience familiar.

“Fallen Angel” burbles up slowly, a lovely tribute to he recently departed Richard Manuel. Peter Gabriel sings the harmony parts on the chorus that Richard himself might have sung had he lived to do so. The first single was “Showdown At Big Sky”, with all-star contributions only on the level of the BoDeans, but enough of an apocalyptic echo of “Red Rain” to sound great on the radio. “Broken Arrow” could’ve been another Richard song, and would soon be covered by Rod Stewart. But a lot of kids likely bought the album on the basis of “Sweet Fire Of Love”, wherein Robbie trades vocal lines with Bono over a U2 backing.

One track that wore out its novelty pretty quickly was “American Roulette”, which references the demises of James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe with clumsy metaphors and references. “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” is also an acquired taste, with its overly dramatic narration, counterpoints from Sammy BoDean, and a video in which Robbie got to paw Maria McKee. “Hell’s Half Acre” is lyrically slight but a good rocker, while the noir-storytelling “Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight” is redeemed by Rick Danko. And U2 returns to help him bang out “Testimony” with a Gil Evans horn section for a rousing conclusion.

As we’ve seen and heard too many times, an all-star cast doesn’t always guarantee quality, but somehow Robbie’s ragged voice matched the lyrics he certainly wrote himself without dispute, and the swampy production on Robbie Robertson still sounds fitting all this time later. Back then, it seemed like quite a comeback. (A later repackage added two tracks—his own remake of “Christmas Must Be Tonight” for the Scrooged soundtrack and an overly gospel remix of “Testimony”.)

Robbie Robertson Robbie Robertson (1987)—4

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Van Morrison 30: The Healing Game

Nobody was expecting Van Morrison to take any big leaps outside his comfort zone, and people barely had time to learn to love one of his ‘90s albums until another one came out. The first few seconds of The Healing Game show promise; midtempo music in the easy jazz/new-age style he’d been treading in for years. His usual rotating set of supporting players help deliver more meditations on youth and God disguised as songs about ancient highways and golden autumn days.

“Rough God Goes Riding” is that first track, with good lyrics, backup singers that don’t overwhelm, and a well-constructed horn chart. But halfway through “Fire In The Belly” comes the sinker, in the form of Brian Kennedy, who either wasn’t allowed to read the lyrics before the take or figured to stick with his approach on echoing Van’s words a phrase behind. “This Weight” stays in the same smooth area, with that melodic hook in the chorus borrowed from “Here Comes The Knight”, “Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 1” and “Stepping Out Queen”. While not at long as the first two songs, there really wasn’t any need to repeat the one chorus line a cappella anywhere that’s not in front of an audience. Speaking of one-track minds, “Waiting Game” is a better duet with Kennedy, but this time Katie Kissoon is tasked with repeating each line. There’s even a moment where he forgets to take the harmonica out of his mouth before singing. “Piper At The Gates Of Dawn” is the first real keeper, nicely colored by Paddy Moloney on pipes and flute (and for all you Floyd fans, it too takes inspiration from The Wind In The Willows).

It’s not until “Burning Ground” that the drummer’s allowed to use the whole kit again, but lest you think it’s another “Wavelength”, you’ve got to endure repetitive verses and a spoken section as baffling as it is convincing. It’s too bad, because the chorus, simple as it is, is catchy. “It Once Was My Life” has some of his old bark, but if you’ve ever heard the vocal arrangement on Iggy Pop’s “Success”, you’d rather take this off and put that on. It’s too bad, because this has potential, and with a tweaked arrangement (and fewer party noises) it could be one of his more memorable tunes. The same can be said for “Sometimes We Cry”, on par with his late-‘80s love songs, “If You Love Me”, which is awfully close to doo-wop, and the title track, which even incorporates “shoo-be-doo-wop” accents before a big, grand ending; all need to lose those backing vocals.

Van obviously put a lot of time into this album, and certainly the lyrics, and his voice is particularly engaged, so it can’t be completely written off. But while there may be people who adore The Healing Game, these ears can’t treat it as wallpaper, since too many moments refuse to be ignored.

Those adorers would be pleased about the eventual Deluxe Edition, which adds five B-sides to the main album, as well as a disc of “sessions and collaborations”—the former mostly absent of Brian Kennedy, and the latter with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Carl Perkins, and Lonnie Donegan, some of which had been out before. A third disc presents all it can fit of his 1997 appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, including Brian Kennedy.

Van Morrison The Healing Game (1997)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1997, plus 1 extra track
2019 Deluxe Edition: same as 2008, plus 33 extra tracks