Friday, October 28, 2016

Mark Knopfler 8: Kill To Get Crimson

When one is a fan of a particular performer, new albums are bought more out of habit, and with a lot of finger-crossing that something will even approach said performer’s best work. Mark Knopfler wandered through the new century dropping crumbs here and there, and Kill To Get Crimson would appear to be another one in a lengthening series of temporary diversions until the next change of wallpaper.

He’s not about to change his style, or his approach. This much is obvious on “True Love Will Never Fade”, and in case that sentiment comes off as vague, he’ll repeat the title about 47 times before the track ends. But then “The Scaffolder’s Wife” matches flute and vibes for a more cinematic angle.

The album proceeds like that, with mystery on “The Fizzy And The Still” and the familiar romantic dobro on “Heart Full Of Holes”. “We Can Get Wild” doesn’t, but “The Secondary Waltz” is charming. “Punish The Monkey” is a meaningless groove, “Let It All Go” and “Behind With The Rent” songs in character, “The Fish And The Bird” and “Madame Geneva’s” descended from arcane English folk. Finally, “In The Sky” floats along for over seven minutes, and is probably still up there.

Kill To Get Crimson just slides over the thumbs-up finish, but—and we’re getting really tired of saying this—would be a lot better if it weren’t so long. Yes, it’s nice when musicians use the capacity of the compact disc to provide value, but it’s nicer when you actually want to devote an hour to an album.

Mark Knopfler Kill To Get Crimson (2007)—3

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Morrissey 2: Bona Drag

Just as he had as a member of the Smiths, Morrissey forged his solo career not on albums, but singles, releasing four new songs (plus B-sides) in the space of the calendar year following his debut. And just as with the Smiths, his second album was a simply a compilation of those singles and some, but not all, of the B-sides. Convenient for non-collectors, for sure, but maddening for anyone who already had “Suedehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday” on Viva Hate, wonderful as they are.

All of the singles are decent, as a matter of fact, and while most of the B-sides are on the second half of the set, Bona Drag is still sequenced to enhance listening, not to provide a chronology. “Piccadilly Palare”, “Interesting Drug” and “November Spawned A Monster” are all Smith-worthy (though Mary Margaret O’Hara’s vocal interjections over the instrumental break of the latter are a little unsettling). “Will Never Marry” is a little slower, based around keyboards, one of the better B-sides, in contrast with “Such A Little Thing Makes Such A Big Difference”, the title itself a knowing acknowledgement of inferiority. “The Last Of The Famous International Playboys” finds him developing his sound, despite having the Smiths rhythm section on hand, though “Ouija Board, Ouija Board” is another step back.

Side two is dominated by B-sides, luckily elevated by the repeats mentioned above. “Hairdresser On Fire” wasn’t on the British version of the first album anyway, so it’s nice to have it here. “He Knows I’d Love To See Him” is mopey even for him, and “Yes, I Am Blind” only piles it on, but is redeemed by the guitars; this would have been a fabulous Smiths track. “Lucky Lisp” appears to be another occasional benediction to Johnny Marr, and a clumsy one, but still vague. “Disappointed” has a satisfying stomp very much in the “How Soon Is Now?” pattern without being self-plagiaristic. It’s even got a funny ending.

Taken all together, Bona Drag shows he at least had a solid work ethic, and the effort makes up for some of the less-than-stellar output. The current version of the album is mostly cosmetically different, with an altered cover, though a few of the tracks have been remixed or edited. More amazingly, he added six outtakes of the era, including the very decent “Happy Lovers At Last United” and “Let The Right One Slip In”, the less successful “Lifeguard On Duty”, and “Please Help The Cause Against Loneliness”, previously given to Moz idol Sandie Shaw and a musical ripoff of “You Can’t Hurry Love”.

Morrissey Bona Drag (1990)—3
2010 20th Anniversary Edition: “same” as 1990, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, October 21, 2016

Toad The Wet Sprocket 1: Bread And Circus

As R.E.M. slowly emerged from college alternative darlings to mainstream success, several young bands formed in their buttoned-up wake, dominated by jangly and/or arpeggiated guitars and earnest yet enigmatic frontmen. Most of these bands had the hubris of youth, where everything was important, especially the aches caused by an unjust world.

Cling as they might to their collective and individual integrity, these guys (and a few girls) still longed to be rock stars, and the sooner they expressed that desire over saving any specific rainforest, the less likely they were to rocket to success with one unlikely album, plummet back to earth with the next, and be accused of selling out. In the ‘90s, one such band was Live, and while Soul Asylum was never lumped into the post-R.E.M. wave, their career arc is worth scoffing at here.

A sense of humor helped, and that’s one reason why Toad The Wet Sprocket didn’t follow the same self-destructive path. They started mostly together in high school, and weren’t exactly pinup material; some may have found the singer cute, but the guitarist and bass player sported anachronistic beards common to guys in the drama club. Following the classic template, their first album was self-released before being picked up by Columbia. Most of Bread And Circus is in the same vague setting: elongated, unintelligible syllables, harmonized for emphasis, washed in reverb, with a rhythm section that is both competent and dynamic. A few songs stand out, such as the strong opener “Way Away”, followed by “Scenes From A Vinyl Recliner”. “Know Me” lets the angst push past furrowed eyebrows, and while “One Little Girl” is far from the best track, at least they were trying to stretch out with something the kids could dance to. “Always Changing Probably” even has a saxophone, for crying out loud.

Bread And Circus still sounds like a demo, because it was. They would get better, but it remains something of a harbinger.

Toad The Wet Sprocket Bread And Circus (1989)—3

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

King Crimson 21: A Scarcity Of Miracles

Despite being subtitled “A King Crimson ProjeKct”, A Scarcity Of Miracles should not be mistaken for a 21st century Crimson album. Rather, it was built up from a collaboration between Robert Fripp and one Jakko Jakszyk, who’d fronted a group of reunited Crimson alumni, including Mel Collins, who added some saxophone parts to the works in progress. Tony Levin and Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison (who’d played with Crimson in 2008) added a rhythm section and that was the album.

Most of the pieces are on the long side, with melancholy melodies and soundscape-style atmospheres. Each track has a vocal and lyrics, and Jakko harmonizes with himself. In this and other ways it’s similar to Fripp’s collaboration with David Sylvian, not as dance-heavy, but still rhythmic in places. Collins is prominent, but guitars provide the main structures, in different styles and electricity; a Chinese zither features occasionally. Some familiar-sounding riffs appear before the higher-energy segment of “The Other Man”, which is the most frenetic and welcome portion of the album. (Those who bought the DVD package got alternate mixes of the album’s tracks, as well as two improvs, which would eventually be offered for download.)

While more historic for what was to follow for the principals—and the appearance of two of the songs in future setlistsA Scarcity Of Miracles remains mostly a curio, not astounding, but not awful. It chronicles a new beginning for these principals. And because of said principals, it’s catalogued here thusly.

Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins A Scarcity Of Miracles (2011)—3

Friday, October 14, 2016

Frank Zappa 30: Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar

A few albums earlier Frank had stumbled on an easy way to copyright new compositions: merely extracting a guitar solo from a live performance of an established song. A few examples dotted those records, and now he put together three complete albums of assorted instrumental excerpts, separated by Lumpy Gravy-style dialogue. Originally sold individually via mail order, they soon found their way into a nationally distributed collective box. With the exception of a mid-‘90s release that replicated the set on three CDs, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar can be usually found as a two-disc package, all the original music intact.

The package deal is best, since no one “album” is better than another. Given the unifying effect of the contents, and considering that many of the solos come from different performances of a small handful of stage favorites—“Inca Roads” being the most common catalyst—recorded during a four-show London run in February 1979, a track-by-track dissection is futile for our purposes, but we must call out some highlights.

Frank never said he was the greatest guitarist on the planet, but insisted he played his own stuff very well. Many of the solos here are distinctively toned, usually over a two-chord vamp, so he never had to worry much about changing keys or memorizing scales and modes. Things do get interesting when there’s a tricky time signature, as on “five-five-FIVE”, based on 5/8, 5/8 and 5/4. This is particularly refreshing when the band gets stuck in a reggae groove, again on two chords. “Treacherous Cretins” begins with an intriguing electric sitar arpeggio, threatens reggae but luckily gives way to Vinnie Colaiuta’s better drumming. “The Deathless Horsie” follows an extended meter similar to “Watermelon In Easter Hay”, but the real keeper is “Ship Ahoy”, taken from an Osaka performance of “Zoot Allures” a few years earlier. Here his guitar is put through an effect that’s somewhere between a wah-wah and a synth filter, for a terrific sound.

There is humor on the album, and not just what he called each album. “Variations On The Secret Carlos Santana Chord Progression” is an apt title for a vamp on what sounds like “Evil Ways” (or “Oye Como Va”, or “She’s Not There”), and you can’t help but smile at titles like “Gee, I Like Your Pants”, “Pinocchio’s Furniture” and “Soup ‘N Old Clothes”. Sometimes the song title comes from the dialogue snippets, but they’re still very random.

The set arguably drags towards the end, with a full side’s worth of slower music taken from studio improvisations, but taken as a whole, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar goes solidly in the plus column, and should offend absolutely nobody.

Frank Zappa Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (1981)—
Frank Zappa
Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More (1981)—
Frank Zappa
Return Of The Son Of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (1981)—3

Friday, October 7, 2016

Pat DiNizio: Songs And Sounds

Given the declining excitement about anything new from the Smithereens, Pat DiNizio made a surprising detour into solo territory. Its faux-jazz packaging, complete with pretentious liner notes, didn’t help any, but those who looked closer could see that Songs And Sounds was recorded with the bass player from the Stranglers, a drummer who’d worked with Jeff Beck and Lou Reed, and a horn player for extra color.

The opening “Where Am I Going?” comes from an old Bernard Herrmann movie score, and its lugubrious sound would confound listeners into thinking he’d turned into Mark Eitzel from American Music Club. But it’s a false alarm, as the next track, and most everything that follows, could easily be a Smithereens track. It’s all there: melody, chord changes, toe-tapping beats. Perhaps some different faces in the studio were just the shot in the arm he needed.

The lyrics are still what we’d expect from the sad sack of Scotch Plains, given the lovelorn content of “No Love Lost” and “A World Apart”. “124 MPH” has a boomy demo quality for a difference, while “Today It’s You” is almost nasty. Contemporary reviews compared his delivery to the mature Elvis Costello, and similarities can be heard on that track and even the lullaby for “Liza” (though she’d probably sleep better if he strummed the acoustic a little more quietly).

Most of Songs And Sounds is slower than punk speed, which isn’t that big a deal, except that it makes the closing cover of “I’d Rather Have The Blues” more of a downer, the studio-verité excerpt hidden at the end notwithstanding. Naturally, the album made no impact on the charts, but it’s still worth discovering.

Pat DiNizio Songs And Sounds (1997)—3

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Jethro Tull 10: M.U.

Even if their concepts weren’t grasped by everybody, Jethro Tull had amassed enough familiar songs to fill a hits collection, and that’s exactly what M.U. is. The letters supposedly stand for “musician’s union”, and other letters are used in the back cover’s detailed credits as to who played what and when.

Each of the band’s albums, save the debut and the most recent, is represented, almost all in radio edits, to spotlight the riffing, and taking everything completely out of their album contexts. Side one especially plays just like one of those themed “lunch blocks” deejays used to do, consisting of a handful of songs by a single band. “Thick As A Brick Edit #1” helpfully presents the first three minutes of that album, going right into the animal sounds of “Bungle In The Jungle”.

Side two has a little more variety, with the exotic touches of “Fat Man” hitting the jazzed-up “Living In The Past”. Then “A Passion Play Edit #8” drops us into the middle of the second side of that album, towards the end of Act III, also known as “Overseer Overture”. Years before it became standard for best-of albums, there’s a brand-new track in “Rainbow Blues”, a decent outtake from War Child.

M.U. wouldn’t be Tull’s only hits collection, but it set the benchmark for the rest, and has stayed in print most of these years. Perfectly listenable and immediately recognizable, it says almost nothing about their bigger ideas, and features all the qualities listeners either love or hate about them.

Jethro Tull M.U.—The Best Of Jethro Tull (1976)—