Friday, July 29, 2016

Cat Stevens 6: Foreigner

The sensitive folkie from the hit albums seemed to have disappeared, for now Cat Stevens played a lot more keyboards, delivering his words in a more urgent, soulful bark. Things are lot more complicated, and that makes Foreigner one tough listen.

How tough? Side one is devoted to “Foreigner Suite”, 18 minutes of continuous music that can’t decide if it wants to be prog or disco. There are several sections devoted to lyrics, so it seems like a transcription of a long letter, maybe a dream? More than anything it comes off like unfinished fragments, strung together to seem more profound. Some of it is quite nice, like the breakdown following the solos after the “freedom calling” segment, and his revisiting of the “there are no words” theme from the opening. But what stands out today more than anything is the final section, which we’ll call “heaven must’ve programmed you”. A unique sentiment, to be sure, but the melody is most recognizable as the title track from Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, and you’ll still be humming after the song’s faded away.

The shorter songs on side two are cut from the same cloth. “The Hurt” is breezy R&B, but any sensitivity is cancelled out by the growl in his vocal. “How Many Times” could pass for a Van Morrison track of the same era if you let it. “Later” burbles along like an outtake from Superfly, but the verses take much different directions, with lyrics that come off as parodic (“I want to feel your body close/From your head down to your toes/Maybe help you fold your clothes”). Whatever “100 I Dream” is supposed to be about, it sounds closest to the acoustic affirmations that made us like the guy in the first place.

While Foreigner fails as a departure from the norm, and as difficult as it is, it just earns a positive rating. In some ways it’s preferable to Catch Bull At Four, since it’s not as dense, the suite aside. But it rivals his ‘60s pop recordings as the most uncomfortably dated album of his career to date.

Cat Stevens Foreigner (1973)—3

Friday, July 22, 2016

Morphine 3: Yes

Where Cure For Pain captured the music of late night, Morphine’s third album begins earlier in the evening. Rather than lure the listener in, the first notes on Yes are an insistent sax trill, going right into the dirty groove of “Honey White”. Thanks to the magic of cinema, the song is used perfectly for a five-second scene in Beautiful Girls; don’t do a Google search for it unless you want to go down a wormhole of porn.

It’s a great tune, and possibly their best, and a great way to kick off the album, particularly when followed by the familiar stroll of “Scratch” and “Radar”. A little more late-night, “Whisper” is a direct descendant of the previous album, with a very subtle chromatic descent if its own before and after the sax solo. The title track does a lot with only a few words, and the slide bass comes to the fore on “All Your Way”.

“Super Sex” manages to infuse the Peter Gunn with funk, then the sound reverts to the moodier template. “I Had My Chance”, recorded for a radio show, finds that Cure For Pain groove, and then “The Jury” goes way out over an aimless groove for a metaphoric monologue. A similar, but better beat detour dominates the breaks on “Sharks”, which positively swings the rest of the time. “Free Love” is about as menacing as a band with this lineup can get, used here as a setup for the sole albeit obligatory solo Mark Sandman track, the so-soft-you-might-miss-it “Gone For Good”.

Yes didn’t propel the band to superstardom, but it did lead to major-label interest. Better than all of that, it shows that Cure For Pain didn’t use up all the mojo. They fit nicely on both sides of a Maxell 90—or these days, squeezed onto one CD-R.

Morphine Yes (1995)—4

Friday, July 15, 2016

Elton John 2: Elton John

Fittingly, on an album with an eponymous title, Elton John is where the man’s sound was established. According to one source, it was released on April 10, 1970, which is also the day “Beatles Break Up” headlines appeared around the world. Considering how Elton John was about to dominate the new decade, that coincidence seems quite notable.

This is the album that begins with “Your Song”, his first big hit, and one of the sweetest songs ever written. A harpsichord drives “I Need You To Turn To”, something of a step back to his first album, but “Take Me To The Pilot”, which even the authors profess ignorance as to the meaning, is the template for Elton’s rock sound. “No Shoe Strings On Louise” is about as convincing country as Mick Jagger’s attempts, but it’s got a catchy chorus begging for a singalong. By sharp contrast, “First Episode At Heinton” pits an extra-poetic lyric against a near-classical melody, with a string arrangement setting it squarely in another era, but for the occasional touches of an electric guitar through a Leslie speaker.

The somber mood hangs over into side two, with the nightmarish strings that open “Sixty Years On”, giving way to a plucked harp and a Spanish guitar that accompanies the verses. It’s a depressing song, a lament for an almost certain lonely future, even more so when the strings return to dominate the instrumental break. Constructed with a similar ear for classical but with a gospel, almost hymnal influence, “Border Song” was mostly neglected until its inclusion on Elton’s first hits album, but since then it’s been appreciated for the classic it is. The pomp returns for “The Greatest Discovery”, as it must much the very, very serious lyric, that in the end reveals… a toddler viewing his newborn brother for the first time. If anything, the best part of the track is the faded-in-and-out coda of piano and wordless singing. “The Cage” isn’t Elton’s most convincing rocker yet, and the fake horn synth break is an odd choice, as if they couldn’t get the real thing. “The King Must Die” almost seems a better development of the musical themes of “Sixty Years On”, with more of a rock backing, and a lyric that can’t decide it it’s allegory, metaphor, or literal.

While Elton John is more in line with what hindsight has told us to expect from him, he’s still trying to figure it out himself. Not quite rock, not quite pop, certainly not prog but not without its influence; eventually the sound would be all his own.

The initial revamp of the catalog added three contemporary singles: the B-side “Bad Side Of The Moon”; the flop single “Rock And Roll Madonna”, which used canned applause a few years before a better song would; and its flip, the first recording of “Grey Seal” that only hints at the track it would one day become. If not for the drums and orchestra, it could be considered a demo. (Speaking of which, no less than 13 piano demos were included on the album’s eventual Deluxe Edition, including a few others that didn’t make the album, and three songs from a BBC session.)

Elton John Elton John (1970)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 3 extra tracks
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 17 extra tracks

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Robbie Robertson 2: Storyville

While his first solo album was an immediate hit, it wasn’t recorded overnight, and it took Robbie Robertson another four years to complete a follow-up. Robbie Robertson set the bar pretty high, and he wasn’t working with Daniel Lanois this time around. Storyville shares none of its predecessor’s big-name guests, save Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, but boasts a bunch of other well-known singers, Jerry Marotta (familiar from Peter Gabriel) on some of the drums, and four different horn sections. Naturally, an album inspired by New Orleans demands the presence of various Neville Brothers and Meters, but oddly, there’s no Dr. John.

“Night Parade” sets up the tone of the album, sounding enough like the one before but with some Nola touches. On “Hold Back The Dawn” it’s clear that Robbie has enough confidence in his own voice, but it’s always nice to hear Rick in the mix. The funk picks up for “Go Back To Your Woods”, written with Bruce Hornsby but not overly indicative of his touch. A couple of bona fide Indian chiefs provide something of a closing commentary, to which Robbie’s heritage propels him to moan along. “Soap Box Preacher” is a duet with Neil Young, of all people, Neil softly singing his lines while Robbie rasps his. The mystery returns on “Day Of Reckoning (Burnin’ For You)”, written with the other guy from David + David. (You’re forgiven for punctuating any of the pauses with “Wait—did you hear that?”)

Ivan Neville co-wrote the seductive “What About Now” and helps sing it too, along with dad Aaron, making it all sound almost romantic. “Shake This Town” is an excuse for another parade of sorts, but the highlight for some of us is “Breakin’ The Rules”, Robbie’s version of a Blue Nile heartbreaker, complete with that band performing and Paul Buchanan singing. “Resurrection” sounds mostly like similarly paced songs on the album, but the chorus chord out of left field is a good touch. “Sign Of The Rainbow” seems like a personal song; it builds slowly, gains strength from the drums and vocals, and fades away.

Taken all together, Storyville sounds like a congruous second chapter, even if the stories he’s trying to tell don’t always ring. It’s a long album, too, so some shuffling is required to fit with its brother on a Maxell for convenient looping. (Years later they were paired in an expanded package, this album regaining its lost title track, wisely left off the album the first time, and the moody B-side “The Far, Lonely Cry Of Trains”, which is good until he starts singing.)

Robbie Robertson Storyville (1991)—3

Friday, July 8, 2016

Van Morrison 31: The Philosopher’s Stone

An artist as contrarian as Van isn’t about to give any people what they want, so news of a double-disc collection of unreleased material was surprising, and dubious once it was delayed. But two years after its original announcement, The Philosopher’s Stone arrived mostly as originally described. Basically his Bootleg Series, covering twenty years of recordings, it is alternately fascinating and frustrating, and not just because the sparse liner notes are misleading.

The first disc is chock full of worthy leftovers from his best early-‘70s work, starting with the simple blues of “Really Don’t Know” and “Ordinary People”. But then we have the original recording of “Wonderful Remark”, ten years before the recording that would be released first, and about half the speed, running eight minutes with a prominent flute and backing vocals from Ronnie Montrose. It kicks off an album’s worth of tracks that are just as good as (if not better than) what came out on Hard Nose The Highway. “Not Supposed To Break Down” and “Contemplation Rose” are just plain lovely, “Laughing In The Wind” a spirited duet with Jackie DeShannon, and “Lover’s Prayer” simple but catchy, despite the Johnny Carson reference. Not easily deciphered is “Madame Joy”, a much more carefree tune than its cousin on Astral Weeks. “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Tomorrow” is back to the blues, with a moment of the harmonica getting intentionally stuck in his mouth. “Try For Sleep” and “Twilight Zone” utilize the falsetto that stuck out like a sore thumb on Veedon Fleece, the latter even showing some humor by the end. Then there’s “Drumshambo Hustle”, a nasty tale about The Business, always lurching toward the hilarious couplet: “You were puking up your guts/When you read the contract you just signed.” “Foggy Mountain Top” and “There There Child” would have been familiar from his shows of the period, so it’s interesting to finally hear how they might have made it to albums had he so chosen. “Naked In The Jungle” provides a transition of sorts, its heavy percussion and insistent delivery way different from the rest of the disc.

The second disc is as spotty as the later albums that spawned from these sessions, though there are some nice moments here and there. We can almost imagine how his abandoned 1975 album might have sounded. Leading off the disc is a gem from this period that got its first airing in an inferior later take. The original “The Street Only Knew Your Name” is one of the best recordings in his catalog, the entire track falling together perfectly. Unremarkable versions of “John Henry” and “Western Plain”, both blues standards, suggest he was more interested in other music than his own, though “Joyous Sound” and “Flamingos Fly” appear in more palatable arrangements than first released. “I Have Finally Come To Realize” oozes with ‘70s smoothness, wisely left aside. We get a fascinating extension of “Stepping Out Queen” from after its fade on Into The Music, but a less exciting “Bright Side Of The Road”. “Street Theory” and “Real Real Gone” provide more upbeat insight into the Common One sessions; again, the released version of the latter is the keeper. By now we’re in the ‘80s, and it’s rough going. “Showbusiness” is another rant about one of his obsessions, but meanders for nine minutes; “For Mr. Thomas” is a duet with himself on a cover of a Robin Williamson song. “Crazy Jane On God” is the Yeats poem notoriously deleted at the last minute from A Sense Of Wonder, while “Song Of Being A Child” is a poem made famous by the film Wings Of Desire; Van’s version is delivered in a rapid-fire call-and-response with singer June Boyce. Finally, while “High Spirits” is a collaboration with the Chieftains, it does not approach even the lesser moments of Irish Heartbeat.

The Philosopher’s Stone is recommended for the first disc alone, and while the second doesn’t reach those heights, there’s nothing really terrible there. As a pricey double-disc, it should be approached on those terms. Tellingly, while the inner liner labels it “Unreleased Tapes Volume One”, there has been no sequel following this template.

Van Morrison The Philosopher’s Stone (1998)—

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Neil Young 52: Earth

Unless it was recorded from a single microphone and presented in mono, any live album that has been mixed prior to release does not present what somebody in the audience heard. A “warning” on the cover of Earth declares that the album contains modified content. That’s not just Neil Young’s comment on GMOs; each of the tracks have been augmented well after the original concert recordings by a choir (again) and copious sound effects—crickets chirping, frogs croaking, ducks quacking, a swarm of bees that might be a chainsaw, car horns—that sometimes seem less ambient than “Weird Al”-inspired. He even throws AutoTune into the mix on a few hilarious occasions. It can be a little distracting while driving, particularly the horns, but it supports Brian Eno’s ambient thesis.

Neil’s thesis, in case you missed it, is that we’re wrecking the planet, and in some ways, Earth presents the arguments better than The Monsanto Years, the album that spawned the tour from which these recordings were taken. Regardless one’s opinion of the sloganeering of that album, the songs got tighter on the road, and were performed better, as displayed by four of the songs included here. (The one new song, “Seed Justice”, is played so angrily and quickly that it unfortunately doesn’t make an immediate impression.)

More than just pummeling his point, in Promise Of The Real, he found a band willing to dig deep into his catalog for some long-neglected tracks rescued from decades-old albums. (Granted, there are countless Neil nuts worldwide who’d be willing to take on that task; this particular rhythm and bass guitarist with harmony capabilities is still standing by.) “My Country Home” gains a possessive pronoun but still sounds like Crazy Horse; “Vampire Blues” predicted his obsession with biofuels and electric cars by about 35 years; “Hippie Dream” emerges from possibly his worst album with a lot of guts. “Mother Earth” provides something of an overture for the suite, and “Western Hero” is revealed as a close cousin of “After The Gold Rush” and “Human Highway”, both included.

Editing, or lack thereof, has been a growing concern in the land of Neil since Psychedelic Pill, and Earth is pushed to double-CD capacity by a performance of “Love And Only Love” indexed at 28 minutes. Already ten minutes long in its original incarnation, here it runs to about 15 minutes of exploratory jamming, then devolves into a sizable coda like a less dissonant Arc. (Listen for those four notes from “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.)

Amazingly, Neil has become less predictable in recent years. He hasn’t talked about being clean and sober since before divorcing Pegi; maybe Willie’s boys provide too much access to their dad’s private stock. In the big picture, this particular live album is an inessential snapshot. (Disclaimer: We don’t have a Pono player, so this summation might well be considered pointless by the auteur. Neil’s second choice for sound reproduction is vinyl, but once records started getting more expensive than CDs, convenience and fear of rendering an album unplayable with use became more important for those of us on a budget. As he well knows, it’s not a perfect world.)

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real Earth (2016)—

Friday, July 1, 2016

Kinks 6: Greatest Hits!

Since it had been a few months since their last LP, and another one wasn’t due until the end of the year, Reprise took it upon themselves to compile a Kinks hits collection. It was fairly easy to do; just pull together all their A-sides, right? Well, they didn’t exactly do that, and the emphatically if incorrectly titled Greatest Hits! collected nine songs that had already been on US LPs, plus their latest hit.

One sound was common to their most popular songs, and that guitar kicks off several of those hits in a row—“You Really Got Me”, “Tired Of Waiting For You”, “Set Me Free”—before the less obvious selections of “Something Better Beginning” and “Who’ll Be The Next In Line”. “Till The End Of The Day” is the potboiler kicking off side two, before we come to the one song that hadn’t been on an album yet. With a slow distorted strum, “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion” is another one of Ray’s satiric portraits of current styles, camped up in the vocals and responses, and underscored by “A Well Respected Man” coming next. “Ev’rybody’s Gonna Be Happy” kicks up the party, ending with “All Day And All Of The Night”.

It’s tough to quibble with the quality of the songs, and since Reprise had already collected most of the extraneous tracks on previous albums, there weren’t a lot of rarities left. As it was, Greatest Hits! totaled 24 minutes upon original release. Rhino’s 1989 album of a similar title used a different sequence for their LP, though their CD did include all of the songs from the Reprise set, in glorious mono, with eight more tracks of the same period. But by then, the band’s legacy had gone far beyond the pre-psychedelic era, and any compilation had to take that in mind.

The Kinks Greatest Hits! (1966)—4