Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Doors 5: Morrison Hotel

After the relative mess that was The Soft Parade, The Doors remembered what it was like to rock, and the next album came together comparatively quickly. Their mixed feelings about focusing on the most charismatic yet least reliable member of the band is confused further by the title Morrison Hotel used for both side two as well as the whole package. Side one is called “Hard Rock Café”, but such notations seem arbitrary.

Still, “Roadhouse Blues” is a far cry from the pop horns of the last album, and has inspired generations of kids to wake up in the morning and get themselves beer. “Waiting For The Sun” is the delayed title song of that album, and worth the wait. “You Make Me Real” has power, but it’s not very convincing, and it doesn’t help that we hear Jim singing “roll baby roll” over one of the solos. It’s out of the way quickly enough for “Peace Frog”, a rare case where one of Jim’s poems is adapted to a song successfully. This one’s always popular on New Haven classic rock stations, which usually let the song go right into “Blue Sunday”, something of a tender ode. “Ship Of Fools” revives some of the jamming that defined the first album, and the boys can be credited for kicking off this particular song title trend.

The nautical theme continues, somewhat more literally, on “Land Ho!” We’re not the only ones to call this song jaunty, and Jim almost sounds happy on this track. “The Spy”, while a little slow, is also worthy of the first album, musically anyway, and much bluesier. “Queen Of The Highway” provides a bit of a departure, being unconventionally constructed, while “Indian Summer” is apparently a bona fide outtake from that first album, and fits right in. However, “Maggie M’Gill” isn’t much more than a rewrite of “Back Door Man”, and just kinda peters out.

Those classic rock stations haven’t made it any easier, but Morrison Hotel is easily the band’s best work since that debut. Maybe they just had to find the best place to put the so-called recycled material, and a good thing too, because while the 40th Anniversary Edition of the album serves up a lot of extra music, over a half hour of that is devoted to working on “Roadhouse Blues”. (Much more interesting are the lounge jazz takes on “The Spy” and “Queen Of The Highway”; another hour of discarded album takes were included on the bonus disc of the 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition. Rhino also felt compelled to add the vinyl to that package and jack up the price.) Clearly, there wasn’t a lot in the tank, but they got pretty far on it.

The Doors Morrison Hotel (1970)—
2007 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1970, plus 10 extra tracks
2020 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 19 extra tracks

Friday, June 24, 2016

Faces 1: First Step

So the guys in Small Faces who didn’t join Humble Pie managed to hook up with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, fresh from the Jeff Beck Group, and since the new guys were taller than the one guy they replaced, they decided to call the new configuration simply Faces. This would be confusing on the first album, where some countries still had the band credited as Small Faces, and their new album as The First Step. (Much as we’re sticklers for detail, we’re going to keep it simple from here.)

Even though Rod was making his name as a frontman, he was up against big personalities in the way of Ian McLagan and Ronnie Lane, who would still do his share of the singing. Therefore First Step shouldn’t be considered a Rod Stewart solo album with a loud band, but it’s certainly in keeping with the album he’d released only a few months before.

In fact, the first song is a nasty electrified arrangement of Dylan’s “Wicked Messenger”, an echo of how Rod’s album opened with “Street Fighting Man”. But the dirt is brushed away by the slow gospel in “Devotion”, taken to a higher level with Ronnie comes into sing with Rod. “Shake, Shudder, Shiver” sounds more like the band playing behind Rod, though Woody must not have known there was a vocal track. Ronnie’s “Stone” might be better known to Who freaks, seeing as an acoustic duet of it appeared on Pete Townshend’s Who Came First after already having been on a Meher Baba tribute album. It’s even more of a jugband piece here, not necessarily “better”. Along similar lines, “Around The Plynth” comes from the same lyrical source as “Plynth” from the second Beck album, and goes on too long.

“Flying” brings all the pieces back together, Woody’s guitar playing well off Mac’s Hammond, and there’s even a hushed mass vocal over the bridge. “Pineapple And The Monkey” might pass off as a Booker T. & The MG’s instrumental, except that these guys have zero Stax chops. Rod and Ronnie duet again on “Nobody Knows”, which really shouldn’t continue past its fake ending, but then we’d miss Mac’s piano solo. Kenney Jones somehow gets co-writing credit on “Looking Out The Window”, another instrumental; maybe because he was playing with the tempo whilst acting out the title? Finally, “Three Button Hand Me Down” demonstrates the band at their rockin’ best, even via a rewrite of “Some Kind Of Wonderful”. It even ends sloppily, something they could do like nobody else.

Some of the songs are too long, and others could have been skipped altogether, but it was, after all, their First Step. The good outweighs the not, and they would pack a lot of playing and drinking into the next few years, together and apart.

Faces First Step (1970)—3

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Humble Pie 2: Town And Country

With its cover photos of two of the band in a front room and the other two out in nature, one might think Town And Country is Humble Pie’s play on the idea behind the first Traffic album—to wit, guys getting together away from civilization, living communally and making music. The album doesn’t immediately display the same power as the first album, but don’t be deceived by the acoustic guitars.

All this time later it’s easy to forget the legacy that put Peter Frampton on the map. Barely 19 years old when the album came out, his guitar, vocals and songwriting deserves discovery, beginning with “Take Me Back”, “The Sad Bag Of Shaky Jake” is another Steve Marriott Western pastiche, but “Down Home Again” at the end of side one delivers the boogie much more effectively, if generically. “The Light Of Love” begins with sitar droning and tablas, a sensitive tune from Greg Ridley, while Jerry Shirley’s “Cold Lady” begins moodily before diverting into a boogie climax. (A banded, copyrighted snippet called “Ollie, Ollie” is credited to the full band and the engineer, for no apparent reason.)

“Every Mother’s Son” is a curious little strum, starting as a country lament, moving into the travails of a rock star on the road (and would also be the title of a Traffic song a year later, oddly enough). There’s a terrific cover of Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat”, recorded right around the same time Blind Faith did “Well All Right”, the song’s original B-side. “Only You Can Say” begins like one of David Crosby’s latter-day Byrds songs, but when the bass comes in, it’s all Pie. “Silver Tongue” is probably the “heaviest” song on the album, just ‘cos it’s mixed so densely. It’s all Marriott, so Frampton’s and Ridley’s combined input on “Home And Away” makes a big difference. Stick around for a coda of sorts, a slow variation on the same theme, and what sounds like a warning from the engineer.

Thanks to their inept label, it would be a few years before the album was properly released in the U.S. When it was, it was as the first disc of a two-record set with a truly ugly cover; at least it made the first two Humble Pie albums available for re-evaluation. Put in the same package, both As Safe As Yesterday Is and Town And Country sound better in each other’s company. They just might fit on a single CD, but then there wouldn’t be room for singles, B-sides and bonus tracks. Both albums deserve better exposure.

Humble Pie Town And Country (1969)—3

Friday, June 17, 2016

World Party 4: Egyptology

One of the bigger movie soundtracks of 1994 was the one for Reality Bites, which mostly put Lisa Loeb on the map. But tucked away in the first half was a new song by World Party. Casual listeners might have overlooked it, because “When You Come Back To Me” is very much a sonic homage to David Bowie’s “Young Americans”. (A piano-driven cover of “All The Young Dudes” was on the Clueless soundtrack the following year.)

Karl Wallinger hadn’t overtly aped Bowie before, or at least not to this level, and the song was not included on the next World Party album. Still mostly a one-man-band affair, Egyptology was put together over a four-year period, during which Wallinger’s mother died and he was dropped from his label. The label that did pick him up was folded into another shortly after the album’s release, so it never really got a chance to succeed on its own.

The usual sounds are here: Jagger-style vocals, Dylanesque rhymes, Beatlesque arrangements, a little funk. A live drummer is used on most of the album, which is a big help; the ones he plays himself have improved, as have the machines used to make the rest. More than anything, however, the songs are strong, and not merely experiments in genre.

Normally, “It Is Time” would be another argument for the prosecution that a list is not a song, but it’s just so catchy. “Beautiful Dream” balances two hooks very well, and while “Call Me Up” sounds like it was mostly written while the tape rolled, the detour about “those bits in the middle” is very clever. “Vanity Fair” seems to evoke mid-‘60s chamber pop in a cautionary tale about who knows what, but the big production is pulled out for “She’s The One”. It may or may not have been intended for the movie that ended up with a Tom Petty soundtrack, but it sure comes off like a big anthem. Amazingly, Robbie Williams made it into a hit a few years later, which is likely how Andy Williams came to hear of it. A layered “Swingle Singers” vocal arrangement sets up “Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb”, a torrent of angry rhymes over almost as angry soloing, and a requiem for the late Mrs. Wallinger. The anger gives over to sorrow in “Hercules”, faded up in progress, more soloing over major-sevenths and minor-sevenths on piano and string synth and appropriately sloppy drums.

The balance of the album doesn’t seem to be designed as deep, but still delivers. “Love Is Best” continues the melancholy mood, and “Rolling Off A Log” continues the faux-baroque stylings of “Vanity Fair” with a reprise of the earlier vocal interlude. “Strange Groove” was likely the title of the track before it got lyrics, and while slight, doesn’t get too dull. “The Whole Of The Night” takes an idea from the Bowie textbook, that of welcoming aliens to our planet, but we can’t place the musical influence. “Piece Of Mind” is another excuse for a jam, just as “This World” revives ‘80s synth horns and aspects of “Love Street” from Goodbye Jumbo, which is fine with us. The album has to end with “Always”, another groove but one that repeatedly insists “I gotta go”.

Egyptology is an hour well spent with solid, enjoyable tunes and a lot of hooks. Besides being one of Wallinger’s better albums, it was also one of the better albums in a year full of good ones. Grab it if you can find it.

World Party Egyptology (1997)—4

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Marshall Crenshaw 3: Downtown

Here’s another perfectly harmless album that was ignored upon release. Only three years on from his debut, Marshall Crenshaw hitched his wagon to T-Bone Burnett, then gaining ground as a producer. Even the players are different on Downtown, dominated by such Burnett go-tos as Rick Marotta, Mickey Curry, David Miner and Mitchell Froom, plus Tony Levin on a lot of bass, Mitch Easter and Faye Hunter from Let’s Active on one track and even the rhythm section from NRBQ on another.

These days the sound could be considered Americana; back then it was retro-rockabilly, completely out of step with everything that sold in 1985. Even the covers were off-beat—one namechecks Brenda Lee, while the other was first recorded by Gene Vincent. His own tunes are carved from similar wood, “Little Wild One”, “Yvonne” and “(We’re Gonna) Shake Up Their Minds” all galloping along gamely. “Blues Is King” is a welcome departure from that sound, produced in tandem with Mitch Easter, following several esoteric chords with a yearning melody. The electric sitar that dominates “Terrifying Love” would become a stock sound in both Burnett and Froom playbooks. Each side ends with a country-style lament, and both “Like A Vague Memory” and “Lesson Number One” are superior to “The Distance Between”, another tune in the same vein.

Overall, Downtown seems kinda down, and again, nobody bought it despite its few reviews, most of which were positive. He just wasn’t made for those times.

Marshall Crenshaw Downtown (1985)—3

Friday, June 10, 2016

Frank Zappa 29: Tinseltown Rebellion

Another double album, mostly live, Tinseltown Rebellion brings Zappa into the ‘80s with a curious mix of new songs, reworked catalog favorites and you-had-to-be-there onstage tomfoolery. Like most of what follows, the good is mixed in with, and sometimes dominated by, the puerile.

First there’s “Fine Girl”, designed as a possible single for radio play, any chances eradicated by the sexist, borderline racist lyrics. But it’s immediately overshadowed by “Easy Meat”, which is two separate performances sandwiching an orchestral snippet from 1975. The lyrics aren’t much, but the neo-classical instrumental sections (independent of the orchestral snippet) are majestic. “For The Young Sophisticate” is a snappy shuffle, with even a mildly positive message about true love.

It’s a big leap back to the early days of the original Mothers, with straight cops on “Love Of My Life” (featuring some impossibly shrill falsetto vocals) and “Ain’t Got No Heart”. The ubiquitous reggae rhythm returns on a track copyrighted as “Panty Rap”, over which Frank pleads for offerings from the crowd, enticing them with tales of previous entrants, before introducing the band and plowing through “Tell Me You Love Me”. Then we get “Now You See It—Now You Don’t”, five minutes of soloing over another reggae beat, eventually revealed as “King Kong”.

Having not realized the futility of such an exercise on Roxy & Elsewhere, “Dance Contest” presents that particular show’s prospective contestants. Besides wasting space, it presents the average Zappa audience member as a drunken louts, and that’s putting it kindly. “The Blue Light” is a diatribe against empty consumerism, alternately delivered via his lounge croon and his nasal cartoon voice. The title track does much the same, but’s a much more successful rant, this time about punk rock and the emerging new wave genre (mostly because they sold more records than he did). “Pick Me I’m Clean” is another in-joke about groupies, but at least it’s got a solid solo, and Ike Willis is still one of Zappa’s best singers.

Ike also sings “Bamboozled By Love”, a great title with a nasty “Willie The Pimp”-style riff, but ordinary lyrics. Then, because he had a band that could actually play it, “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”, nearly note for note, line for line. “Peaches III” (so titled because it’s the third released version of “Peaches En Regalia”) isn’t as bizarre as Frank describes in the liner notes, but it does provide a wacky end-of-show goodbye for the album.

Tinseltown Rebellion does hold together as a unit, despite the fact that it was culled from recordings spanning two years, with only some of the same players. (Gearheads take note: Steve Vai makes his debut on this album.) Take out some of the remakes, and the two audience participation segments, and it might be even tighter.

Frank Zappa Tinseltown Rebellion (1981)—3

Friday, June 3, 2016

Tears For Fears 5: Elemental

Seeing just one guy on the cover where there used to be two leads to the obvious joke that this album should be credited to Tear For Fear. But since Roland Orzabal was the more dominant character in the group anyway, it should be no surprise to hear the longtime brand on Elemental.

The title track offers elements (sorry) familiar from their early synth-pop days, and less of the adult contemporary sheen from The Seeds Of Love. “Cold” is straight-ahead rock, as “Break It Down Again”. Its mock-pomp intro is purposely silly, and only helps the song succeed as a terrific single. “Mr. Pessimist” rambles a bit long, but has some tasty piano work, while “Dog’s A Best Friend’s Dog” lacks focus, besides rocking out.

With its pointed references to “primal scream” and “adolescent dream”, “Fish Out Of Water” seems to be a swipe at his onetime partner, complete with very Curt-sounding counterpart vocals in the choruses. “Gas Giants” is predominantly instrumental, hearkening back to similar experiments of the band’s from the ‘80s, and works well as a lead-in to “Power”, which, but for its length, could also have been a radio hit in that earlier time. “Brian Wilson Said” (a clever title) is an overt homage to the Smile era, but builds on those ingredients using more contemporary touches, going into an extended jazzy guitar exploration. And while a title like “Goodnight Song” belongs at the end of any album, this toetapper is hardly a lullaby.

There’s much to enjoy on Elemental, particularly since not much was expected. Labored as it is, the listener must be patient and open-minded to be rewarded. (More so than to “the other guy”, as Curt Smith quietly released Soul On Board, a collection of competent but antiseptic dance pop, later that year to resounding silence.)

Tears For Fears Elemental (1993)—3