Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bob Dylan 61: Fallen Angels

Having had something of a success with Shadows In The Night, Bob did something he’s rarely done: put out a sequel. By all accounts Fallen Angels is the balance of the tracks from the same sessions, played the same subdued style by his excellent touring band. Lest anyone say it’s another Sinatra tribute, the joke’s on them, because Frank never recorded “Skylark”, so there.

Most of these songs are more upbeat and less torchy than the last one, and comparisons are inevitable. It proves, somewhat in reverse, that he still knows how to put an album together, since Shadows certainly used the best songs from the batch. These are all good, but we’ve been spoiled.

“Young At Heart” is a great place to start, even if he does miss a few notes here and there. He has some trouble on the lonesome “Maybe You’ll Be There” and “All The Way”, too. “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” begins with a lengthy instrumental intro, giving us a chance to enjoy the band before the key changes and Bob wheezes in. There is a good balance of low-tempo and uptempo here, such as the switch from “Nevertheless” to the almost jaunty “All Or Nothing At All”; of course, those who bought it on vinyl will have to change side one to side two.

“On A Little Street In Singapore” is fairly obscure, with another long intro that sets up the exotic setting. Meanwhile, most casual music listeners would be familiar with “It Had To Be You”; Bob, historian that he is, sings the entire prelude section usually lopped off most other recordings of it. “Melancholy Mood” is another that plays before he begins singing, deftly navigating the pendulum from minor to major and back. You can almost hear him chuckling all the way through “That Old Black Magic”, the first-ever samba in his catalog. “Come Rain Or Come Shine” doesn’t provide a grand ending to compare to “That Lucky Old Sun”—or, for that matter, any of his other legendary closing tracks—but it does, seemingly, close this chapter of Bob’s music, ending on a minor chord.

If there’s a theme to Fallen Angels, it’s not as obvious as the last one. Nor is it obvious why the album has its title, or what the cover art has to do with any of it. Maybe these are simply the rest of the songs from those sessions. Maybe the novelty’s worn off, and these songs might have sounded better if they had been on the other album. But at a time when many of his contemporaries are leaving the planet, we’re lucky to still have Bob.

Bob Dylan Fallen Angels (2016)—3

Friday, May 27, 2016

Mark Knopfler 7: All The Roadrunning

Emmylou Harris has the ability to create truly original harmonies for any occasion, making her a popular choice for any singer-songwriter seeking counterpoint. These days she’s generally used as a special guest, so it’s a big deal when somebody like Mark Knopfler taps her for a full, co-credited album.

All The Roadrunning was recorded in bits and pieces over the course of seven years, and includes ten new Knopfler tracks plus two Emmylou contributed. His music has fit into the country slot since before the last Dire Straits album, but it’s been decades since he last wrote a truly catchy melody. And as wonderful as she is, their voices simply don’t always blend. When they do, it works fine. “Beachcombing” opens the set with some promise, before the same sleepy tempo takes over on “I Dug Up A Diamond”. “This Is Us” captures an old married couple looking through old photographs, and is just plain charming. “Red Staggerwing”, which follows, is loaded with hackneyed clichés, and is not charming at all. “Rollin’ On” does just that, before her own “Love And Happiness” shows him how it’s done.

She dominates “Right Now”, capturing the literal and metaphorical feeling of a stranded marriage, but “Donkey Town” mines the same territory for too long, baby, too long. “Belle Starr” is fairly standard, as is “Beyond My Wildest Dreams”, but it’s better. The title track doesn’t do much, but “If This Is Goodbye” does have a stirring blend, even without knowledge of the inspiration (spoiler: cell phone calls on 9/11).

Because the album’s not pointedly bad, it’s still worth the listen, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t sink in. A slightly better option is Real Live Roadrunning a CD/DVD combo recorded at the end of their joint month-long tour. The live setting inserts a little more punch into the proceedings, and each singer contributes a few songs from their own catalogs. Emmylou’s “Red Dirt Girl” gets applause of recognition, while strangely one of her signature songs, “Boulder To Birmingham”, does not. (They go nuts for “So Far Away”.) She escalates “All That Matters” and “Why Worry”, but doesn’t appear on “Romeo And Juliet”, stretched here to nine minutes.

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris All The Roadrunning (2006)—3
Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris
Real Live Roadrunning (2006)—3

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tom Petty 21: Mudcrutch 2

In a nearly 40-year career, Tom Petty has released only three so-called solo albums. All three had plenty of input from Mike Campbell, and less so from Benmont Tench, the only Heartbreakers to appear in every version of that band. So what of Mudcrutch, the earlier version of the same guys, now “reunited” for the second time? They’re still no that different from the Heartbreakers, except that there’s another lead guitarist, and Petty makes up half of the rhythm section with a different drummer. Even the handful of songs sung by other people doesn’t make 2 any less of a Tom Petty album.

To begin with, “Trailer” was one of the catalysts that led to the Southern Accents album before he let it go the way of psychedelics and horn sections. It did make it out as a B-side, and was included on the Playback box; 31 years later it’s gained an extra verse, but it’s still the same song, and a good one. “Dreams Of Flying” is classic Heartbreakers except that Randall Marsh doesn’t play fills either. Is that a backwards solo at the end? Slow and mysterious, “Beautiful Blue” gets gentle slide guitar touches and even a nice piano solo during one of the breaks. Something of an unspoken rule is broken by following it with a similar title. At this late date, a band on a major label should also never open a song with “woke up this morning”, but that’s why most bands don’t let the drummer write songs. That lyric aside, “Beautiful World” is undeniably catchy. Tom comes back to sing “I Forgive It All”, one of the prettiest, softest songs he’s done in a while.

The second half of the album alternates between songwriters, and some tracks even segue. Tom Leadon offers up “The Other Side Of The Mountain”, a near-hoedown, with rough harmonies and banjo from bluegrass legend Herb Pedersen. For a switch, “Hope” is a snotty garage rock song, complete with cheesy organ and fuzz guitar. Benmont contributes “Welcome To Hell”, which seesaws between barrelhouse piano and a mildly psychedelic bridge. “Save Your Water” is kinda wordy for Tom, attached to a very Byrdsy backing. Mike Campbell has sung lead on only one album, and now he’s got another in “Victim Of Circumstance”; once again, it might as well be a Petty tune. After an atmospheric transition, “Hungry No More” is the other big number, stretched to over six minutes, but with good harmonies (Herb Pedersen again) and a killer Campbell solo.

2 sounds much more planned than the first Mudcrutch album, and it’s better. It’s also shorter, which helps. Mostly it’s great to hear Petty write and sing breezy songs again.

Mudcrutch 2 (2016)—

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Smithereens 5: A Date With The Smithereens

By the ‘90s, RCA Records long since figured out how to break bands, and tried to stay solvent by offering contracts to bands whose heydays were past. So it was that the Smithereens, who likely felt honored to be a part of the label that once distributed Elvis Presley, ended up with the Record Cemetery of America. A Date With The Smithereens alluded to one of the King’s album titles, touted “Living Stereo” on the front cover, and was even available as a set of 45s, but failed to do much for the band’s fortunes.

Part of the problem was the times, and Pat DiNizio’s mood. Lovelorn is one thing, but here he’s just inconsolable. “War For My Mind” and “Everything I Have Is Blue” aren’t exactly grunge, yet even at a fast tempo they plod. “Miles From Nowhere” was the single, and a good one, but “Afternoon Tea” doesn’t meet its potential by the same chord played on every beat despite the actual modulations in the song. At least “Point Of No Return” and “Sleep The Night Away” (a rewrite of “Cigarette” from the first album) finally provide some of their trademark bite.

“Love Is Gone” and “Long Way Back Again” keep up the energy, and then we come to the misfire of the album, if not the band’s career. The overt Revolver-style arrangement and production belie the misguided op-ed statement of “Gotti”. Their fans don’t listen to the Smithereens for politics, and if the band really felt this way about the situation, you’d think they’d have the balls to extend the title to encompass the message of “free John Gotti”. This isn’t Bob Dylan painting Joey Gallo as a modern-day Western outlaw. While it might’ve made a swell B-side, “Sick Of Seattle” is too clever for its own good, besides repeating the meter from “Sleep The Night Away”. “Can’t Go Home Anymore” drags the proceedings back to normal with a snotty harmonica to boot, which keeps wheezing on “Life Is So Beautiful”.

Ultimately, A Date With The Smithereens turned out to be a one-shot deal; the label didn’t stick with them, and a year later their original label marketed a best-of collection that covered everything they’d done to date, including only “Miles From Nowhere” from this album, and rarities in the way of “Beauty And Sadness” and a cover of “Time Won’t Let Me”. Blown To Smithereens became a perennial catalog piece, both selling the band to newbies and reminding longtime fans of what once was. (For the real geeks out there, Attack Of The Smithereens was loaded with rarities, covers, B-sides and demos, while a decade later, From Jersey It Came! tried to accomplish both hits and rarities in a two-disc package.)

The Smithereens A Date With The Smithereens (1994)—
The Smithereens
Blown To Smithereens: The Best Of The Smithereens (1995)—
The Smithereens
Attack Of The Smithereens (1995)—3
The Smithereens
From Jersey It Came! The Smithereens Anthology (2004)—

Friday, May 13, 2016

Pretenders 5: The Singles

Chrissie Hynde was a student of pop music first and foremost, and in the decade in which she finally made her mark on the music business, singles were still important in the UK, and had made something of a resurgence in the US. So even after the debacle that was Get Close, the brand still had legs, so a hits album made sense.

The Singles offers just that, a chronological ride through the band’s most recognizable songs, starting with “Stop Your Sobbing” before the first album, moving through the run-up to the second, the intermediate statement of “Back On The Chain Gang” before the return of the third, and finally the most worthy selections from the fourth. As an added bonus for those who already owned these songs in some format, “Day After Day” appears in its single mix (with a fade instead of the plane-crash ending) and Chrissie’s recent duet on UB40’s cover of “I Got You Babe” closes the set.

Taken together, all of the songs on The Singles flow well, from ballad to rocker to punk to soul, despite being played by different bands. And anything that gives the consumer reason to avoid Get Close is a good thing.

Pretenders The Singles (1987)—4

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Jethro Tull 9: Minstrel In The Gallery

Clearly, the sound that defines Jethro Tull is the rapidly strummed acoustic, powerful bursts of electric, that flute and that voice, with heavy strings and keyboards. It worked on Aqualung and Thick As A Brick, and nobody else was doing it to such commercial success, so the albums that followed those will always be compared, and dare we say, fall short.

Minstrel In The Gallery sports a wonderful cover, and even sets up the title track to suggest we’re in some castle some centuries back. For the first verses, all we hear are Ian Anderson’s voice(s), guitar and flute, all at once, leaving us to wonder where the rest of the band is. But they do arrive, following a flourish, providing all the pow the kids demand. “Cold Wind To Valhalla” begins the same way, building and impressing, with some scary strings and well-syncopated intervals. “Black Satin Dancer” is doubtlessly set in this century, its descending riff of doom escalating the unease until its prettier coda. The sensitive “Requiem” is nicely closes the side, sad strumming and sympathetic strings.

Side two is dominated by a 16-minute suite, but is bookended by two tracks that might as well be part of it. Despite its redundant math, “One White Duck/010=Nothing At All” is another song of lovelorn depression before we get to “Baker St. Muse” proper, which follows the narrator through his day in labeled sections. That’s nothing new to this band, nor is putting Elizabethan folk touches to a lyrical setting that is certainly present-day. When the singer gets out of the way for Martin Barre to lay down a solo, or another section introduces itself, ears prick up. After he’s seemingly locked in the studio, “Grace” is a 37-second coda given lush ornamentation that might have gone better unlisted or left off.

It’s a dangerous business, navigating a dense catalog by a band with such a fervent fan base. If you’re not normally inclined to prog, there simply isn’t enough time in the day to play catch-up forty years after the fact, so while Tull (or more specifically, Ian) obviously put in a lot of time creating and crafting their albums, Minstrel In The Gallery is like much of their catalog in that it won’t get the same amount of play as their earlier albums. “Accessible” doesn’t have to mean “pandering”, and more bands should try it sometime. (The first expanded CD added five tracks previously available on a now-deleted box set; the deluxe 40th anniversary version included three of those, plus other outtakes, a July 1975 concert, and DVDs of the audiophile material.)

Jethro Tull Minstrel In The Gallery (1975)—3
2002 remastered CD: same as 1975, plus 5 extra tracks
2015 La Grande Edition: same as 1975, plus 18 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Joni Mitchell 13: Wild Things Run Fast

With few exceptions, any major artist’s “Geffen years” have since been considered not their best. Some of this had to do with musical trends in the early ‘80s, compounded in Elton John’s and Neil Young’s cases by personal turmoil. (John Lennon is another matter altogether.) Don Henley started okay, but would sue David Geffen (again) in time, and most of the label’s acts would move on the first chance they got.

Therefore we approached Joni Mitchell’s Geffen years with some trepidation. She released four albums for the label in the space of ten years, each defined by the sub-era in which they appeared. A common thread is bassist, co-producer and then-husband Larry Klein, so maybe these albums should be considered more the Klein years than the Geffen years.

Some familiar names grace the credits of Wild Things Run Fast, like John Guerin, Larry Carlton and Wayne Shorter, alongside newer, younger guns like Steve Lukather and Vinnie Colaiuta. Add the painted self-portrait, and the listener might expect an easier ride after the experiments of her last couple of albums. But this is the ‘80s, so drums will sound more processed, synthesizers will abound, and the mix will be very, very clean. Thankfully, Joni has never been trendy, so technology does not rule the day.

Just as she once mixed “Centerpiece” into one of her own songs, “Chinese Café” works “Unchained Melody” into the plot as well as the music, making for a lush, minor classic. The most aggressive guitar yet on any of her albums defines the title track, somewhat distracting while she’s harmonizing with herself. “Ladies’ Man” is, as its own title might suggest, more subtle, fitting in with the contemporary jazz of the time. Larry Klein is no Jaco Pastorius, but his bass style on this album, and especially “Moon At The Window”, will remind one’s ear of Hejira. History will also tell us that he’s the inspiration behind “Solid Love”, one of the happiest love songs she’s ever written and recorded.

“Be Cool” sounds like one expects it should, missing only finger snaps in the place of the drums. The big misstep is a cover of “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” that sounds as processed as it can be, with a guitar part designed to appeal to Van Halen fans. The only redeeming factor is the major-seventh chords over the fade. The loud guitars continue on “You Dream Flat Tires”, still a strange sound on a Joni album; the other voice on the track is Lionel Richie, who also isn’t normally associated with fusion. “Man To Man” has many guitar and synth touches similar to the Police influences she said went into the album, and maybe they’re also in “Underneath The Streetlight”. This track’s repeated hook (“Yes I do I love you!”, the exclamation point printed in the lyrics every time) and “Love”, adapted from Corinthians, seal the album’s portrait of Little Joni, happy at last.

Indeed, one must forget about the girl with the guitar and the piano beloved from those first albums, just as she’d demand you would. Wild Things Run Fast takes time, and an open mind to appreciate.

Joni Mitchell Wild Things Run Fast (1982)—3

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Mott The Hoople 2: Mad Shadows

Producer Guy Stevens was still in charge on Mott The Hoople’s second album, beginning with a title already rejected by Steve Winwood. The cover—something of a cross between a Rorschach and an X-ray—hints at the darkness within, and indeed, Mad Shadows is an unsettling listen at points.

If the spooky beginning of “Thunderbuck Ram” sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the sound Mick Ralphs would bring to Bad Company four years later. Here, he shows why he wasn’t the lead singer in that band either. “No Wheels To Ride” begins as another lengthy, directionless Ian Hunter lament, but when the “chorus” kicks in, the song gains purpose and power. “You Are One Of Us” gets to the point a lot faster, and sets up the stomp of “Walking With A Mountain”. Mick alternates Chuck Berry riffs with Keith Richard copies while the track pounds away, and they even go so far as to chant the tag from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” over the end.

Slow and sad, “I Can Feel” is more Ian feeling sorry for himself, but it’s still pretty, with a gospel choir counterpart and a flute effect that might be a guitar, we can’t tell. On “Threads Of Iron”, Ian sings the verses, while Mick takes the darker choruses, soloing like Ron Wood all the way. After two passes, the band beats the riff into the ground for another three minutes. Just when you think they’re going to calm down to a resolved ending, they pick it back up and beat it harder into hamburger and chaos, Ian screaming like he’s been stabbed. Maybe it sounded too much like the end of the first album, so Guy sent Ian back to the piano and told him to play something or else. The result was “When My Mind’s Gone”, a simple (there’s that word again) mediation for block chords with organ and bass underneath. If it really was as spontaneous as legend says, it’s an even more impressive summation of the turmoil Ian sang over the rest of the album.

Most sophomore aren’t as good as debuts, and Mad Shadows does seem like both a retread and a reaction. But given a little time, songs emerge from the murk.

Mott The Hoople Mad Shadows (1970)—3