Friday, December 29, 2017

Frank Zappa 33: The Man From Utopia

Right around this time Frank started (over)using a vocal technique he called “meltdown”, which was really just him singing in an overly smarmy lounge-jazz voice, which is funny for about half a minute. The only possibly interesting aspect of the technique was that whiz-kid guitarist Steve Vai would listen to the tapes of Frank thus emoting onstage, then painstakingly transcribe the notes so he could double the vocalizing via overdub on the track. Frank, naturally, was so proud of his extemporaneous brilliance that his vocal on the completed track (and subsequent album product) remained mixed just as high, while the more impressive guitar work (again, not his, but he “wrote” it) takes the aural back seat.

This is important to know, because The Man From Utopia suffers for it. It starts okay with “Cocaine Decisions”, a rather well-thought-out diatribe against young urban professionals who spent much of their salaries on Columbian sky candy, to the point where their jobs might be affected. Then the meltdown takes over “The Dangerous Kitchen”, an otherwise clever portrait of what the facilities at the Zappa household looked like when various musicians, employees, progeny and assorted friends went in search for sustenance. “Tink Walks Amok” is a multi-layered, multi-bass solo performed by Arthur Barrow, peppered occasionally by the “My Sharona” riff Frank was so fond of quoting. Unfortunately it’s elbowed aside by “The Radio Is Broken”, wherein Frank and Roy Estrada both use the meltdown voice to crack each other up whilst describing old sci-fi horror movies. Roy does throw in his falsetto briefly, with an original Mothers throwback reference. A good old snork opens “Mōggio”, a welcome instrumental.

“The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou” combines two R&B sides from the mid-‘50s, sung in style, but losing something with the modern instrumental sheen. “Stick Together” is another diatribe, this time against American unions, delivered over a reggae beat and the same two chords, salvaged slightly by the asides from Ray White and Ike Willis. As it doesn’t say anything new, “SEX” is puerile by even Frank’s standards, relying on a couplet that Spinal Tap would use to much better (and funnier) effect. The respite from the meltdown is broken by “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats”, yet another summary of the sexual-scatological exploits involving the band and crew. Finally, “We Are Not Alone” is a fairly rocking instrumental, heavy on saxophones, with a couple of intriguing changes in tempo and use of mandolin.

In another case of post-partum tampering, the first authorized CD issue of The Man From Utopia was not only remixed, but re-edited and re-sequenced. This breaks up the meltdown selections a little better, but the albums isn’t improved as a whole. The side-ending instrumentals are swapped, so the disc now ends with “Mōggio”, but first one must endure (or skip) “Luigi & The Wise Guys”, a doo-wop harmony piece that doesn’t say much more than “you’re a dork”. After which, the listener may either agree or feel insulted. Especially coming after “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats”.

Frank Zappa The Man From Utopia (1983)—2
1993 Barking Pumpkin CD: “same” as 1983, plus 1 extra track

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Robyn Hitchcock 31: Robyn Hitchcock

Another one of those heritage artists we find ourselves paying attention to more as a custom than out of continued wonder, Robyn Hitchcock keeps putting out albums that occasionally recall his ‘80s heyday with a single band, but don’t always carry through every second. It took him nearly four decades in the business before he released an eponymous album, a move that always suggests A Major Statement.

He always does better when he records with a dedicated band, and Robyn Hitchcock indeed gets a boost from a cohesive sound. It also helps that the album rocks. “I Want To Tell You About What I Want” gets out of its one-chord groove in time, and while “Virginia Woolf” spends less time on her than Sylvia Plath, it follows right along with terrific guitar leads. “I Pray When I’m Drunk” is a something of a Johnny-Cash-meets-the-Byrds pastiche that works by being brief. “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” opens the same way as the first track, but opens up with a terrific chorus. Things finally slow down for the lengthy “Sayonara Judge”.

“Detective Mindhorn” seems to be connected with the fictional star of a recent British film; catchy as it is, it’s too long to be a theme song. The country sound resurfaces on “1970 In Aspic”, another curious look back at a year from his youth, a theme he continues on “Raymond And The Wires”, another tribute to his father. Another slower song goes longer on “Autumn Sunglasses”, with plenty of Rickenbacker 12-string and a lyric that doesn’t sound too labored. Finally, “Time Coast” ends the set with toe-tapping garage rock.

Robyn Hitchcock is another one of those albums that sounds great when it’s playing, and will likely continue to. But by the time we get around to listening to it again, he’ll have another one out.

Robyn Hitchcock Robyn Hitchcock (2017)—3

Friday, December 22, 2017

Smithereens 8: Christmas With The Smithereens

Only a handful of rock (as opposed to pop) bands have attempted to devote an entire album to Christmas music, so it makes sense that one of the few to try, much less succeed, would be a combo with an overt retro sound. One of the more clever novelty projects of the Smithereens’ continued career, Christmas With The Smithereens finds the band bashing their way through a variety of Yuletide-related rock ‘n roll songs.

Their choices avoid the obvious ones, and their arrangements are fresh, for the most part. “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me” is best known as a swaggering Elvis tune, yet these guys put a distinct Merseybeat bent on it, complete with harmonica. “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and “Run Rudolph Run” aren’t carbon copies either. Rather than retread “Little Saint Nick”, resident Beach Boys nut Dennis Diken sings lead on Brian Wilson’s “Merry Christmas Baby”, and the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” is reinforced as a modern classic. The three originals work too, working in references to It’s A Wonderful Life being on TV, and finding albums like Shut Down Vol. 2 and Rubber Soul under the tree.

There is some filler, like the recitation of A Visit From St. Nicholas over a swing drum solo, and a four-minute expansion on the single verse of Beatles’ “Christmas Time Is Here Again!”. Even “Christmas” by the Who is an odd choice, except for foreshadowing their Tommy tribute two years down the road. But again, considering the empty field of competitors, Christmas With The Smithereens is enjoyable both as a holiday album, as well as part of their catalog.

The Smithereens Christmas With The Smithereens (2007)—

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Neil Young 55: The Visitor and Paradox

During the promotional period following the release of Living With War, Neil was asked why he wrote an album full of protest songs. He responded that nobody else was writing them, so he felt he had to do it himself. Apparently not having heard any since, and despite once acknowledging that “just singing a song won’t change the world”, the genre has nonetheless dominated his mindset.

That wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that for a protest song to be effective, it must be as catchy as it is precise, while also demonstrating a universal appeal. Although The Visitor, recorded with his new pals Promise Of The Real, isn’t as monotonous as The Monsanto Years, he still struggles with getting his message across without sounding like a cranky old man. (In case it’s not obvious, the obsession this time is saving the planet from Donald Trump.)

Another barrier would be the overall sound. The band has been praised for their ease in accompanying Neil on a level beloved by fans of the Crazy Horse collaborations. But while that trio was sloppy to begin with, Promise Of The Real adds another guitar player, conga percussion, and sometimes keyboards to the soup, making everything sound like it was recorded from the other end of a theater. And in addition to his pump organ, many of the songs prominently feature what sounds like a toy piano. As for his voice, he continually works outside what’s left of his range.

The protest songs tend to follow the Greendale approach of chanted vocals with Neil barking over the top, usually around a catchphrase that would be below Graham Nash. “Already Great” isn’t too bad, but should be faded before the “whose street” chant dubbed onto the end. “Fly By Night Deal” doesn’t add much, but at least it’s over quickly. Sporting classic Neil solos, “Stand Tall” is a direct descendant, musically and thematically, of “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” and “Let’s Impeach The President”, so it sounds familiar, but the soundbites of talking heads on the news channels mar the track. “Diggin’ A Hole” and “When Bad Got Good” (basically a “lock him up” chant) are a pair of plodding trash-rockers that make “T-Bone” seem like a work of genius, but if anything, they elevate “Children Of Destiny”. When premiered the previous Independence Day, it seemed alternately overblown and treacly, but it’s more cohesive, and welcome, in this context.

At least he varies the program somewhat. “Almost Always” is built around the main riff from “Unknown Legend”, and more gently airs his concerns about everything. “Change Of Heart” is even more gentle, with almost stream of consciousness words, and ending on a note of hope. The strangest track by far is “Carnival”, in which he channels Tom Waits via a mariachi backdrop in a demented vision, every now and then returning to his own voice for three bridges. At over ten minutes, “Forever” takes patience, particularly when he strains for the high notes, but it spreads a sense of calm that ties the album together at the end.

Few people in his employ would be reckless enough to challenge him, and Promise Of The Real certainly don’t. Neil doesn’t care what anybody else thinks, and it’s not his fault that some of his most reliable collaborators have gone to that recording studio in the sky. Still, it’s inevitable that The Visitor will be unfavorably compared to his earlier, classic work—especially given that the long-promised Archives was transformed from a physical format to an streaming Internet model the same day this album was released.

Meanwhile, a short film directed by Daryl Hannah and starring Neil and the band was completed in time for the following spring’s SXSW convention. Paradox was either an ecological parable, impenetrable fantasy in the spirit of Journey From The Past, or inside joke (take your pick). The accompanying soundtrack album—dubbed “Special Release 10” in Neil’s unique catalog nomenclature—was streamed on the Archives site and other major online services well in advance of its release, giving the curious plenty of time to decide if they just had to own it. Most of the music is improvised or seems that way, but not always similar or even as engrossing as the electric meanderings of Dead Man. “Diggin’ In The Dirt” is a simple fireside strum with the POTR boys. We’d be excited about a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”, except that Willie’s son Lukas sings it. Time is also devoted to a couple of blues covers, and the Nelson brothers warbling 45 half-remembered seconds of the Turtles’ “Happy Together”. Neil even carefully copyrighted the lyric (singular) of “Hey”, despite being little more than a jam on “Love And Only Love”.

As for more familiar fare, the album is bookended by an edit of “Show Me” from Peace Trail and an alternate mix of “Tumbleweed” from Storytone. The most interesting tracks are right in the middle: a live version of “Peace Trail” with the kids, a 10-minute wordless jam on “Cowgirl In The Sand”, and a solo “Pocahontas” with his trusty pump organ. Basically, an album side’s worth.

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real The Visitor (2017)—
Neil Young + Promise Of The Real
Paradox (Original Music From The Film) (2018)—2

Friday, December 15, 2017

Bob Dylan 63: Trouble No More

After he publicly embraced Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and began using his stage and albums to tell everyone about it, it took some time for fans to “get it”. The common belief is that Bob Dylan got Jesus out of his system after three albums, but close perusal of the songs he’s written over the last four decades prove that he’s still concerned about the end times, holy wrath and judgement, and other mysteries of faith. His approach changed, but he really didn’t.

Anyway, Bob’s so-called “born again” years continue to perplex longtime fans as well as newcomers, so a Bootleg Series volume devoted to the period makes sense from a marketing standpoint. While the recordings on those three albums vary from a quality standpoint, he also toured constantly with a stellar band backing him up—anchored by Jim Keltner, Tim Drummond, Fred Tackett, and sometimes Spooner Oldham—which gave the songs room to breathe and grow. Trouble No More, in all its incarnations, consists largely of live recordings in terrific sound, most of which are sourced from cassettes right off the board.

And here’s where it gets a little annoying for the consumer. As they’ve done lately, the volume is available as a two-CD set, as well as an eight-CD box with a DVD and books. The cheap set is all live, taken from concerts covering three calendar years, with a few duplicates of songs from different shows, and a small handful of songs that never made it to albums. The larger set includes those discs, plus two more discs of “rare and unreleased” studio outtakes, rehearsals, and live performances, including even more new-to-the-official-canon songs. There’s also two discs’ worth of selections from an April 1980 residency in Toronto, plus a full show from July 1981 in London on two more CDs. (And if you bought the set through Bob’s website, you got another concert from November 1979 on another two CDs.) Taken all together you have six versions each of “Slow Train” and “Gotta Serve Somebody”, four of “Solid Rock”, and two or three versions of several others of the period.

Of the new material on the two-CD version, “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody” is nice to hear in decent quality. As a song it’s preferable to “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One”, which struggles under its New Orleans groove. “Blessed Is The Name” is actually better when the ladies sing. And we get earlier versions of “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” and “Caribbean Wind” before he heavily revised the lyrics.

The big box does indeed provide some real gems, like the live versions of “Slow Train” and “Do Right To Me Baby” from early in his conversion. The virtual concerts nicely show not only how well the band rode the dynamics, but we also get to hear appreciative audiences, despite the legend. The alternate studio takes are occasionally illuminating, like the passionate first reading of “Pressing On”. Some of the unreleased songs aren’t very exciting lyrically, though “I Will Love Him” and “Jesus Is The One” are a little overt but well played, and “Thief On The Cross”, “Yonder Comes Sin”, and “Cover Down, Pray Through” just plain rock. Rather than the take issued as a B-side and available nowhere else, we get take one of “Trouble In Mind”, and “Ye Shall Be Changed” is repeated from the first Bootleg Series box. The 1981 concert is interesting for how he mixed earlier material with the Christian material, but some of it is still in the ill-advised Budokan arrangements, and frankly, doesn’t have the fire and passion of the religious material. Also, he’d already developed that whiny tendency to spout the lyrics rather than sing them, with that extra nasal approach comedians find so endearing.

The two-CD version of Trouble No More should suffice for all but the most rabid listeners. None of Bob’s sermonizing between songs is included on either package, nor are any of the opening sets of gospel from the rotating set of backing vocalists, but when we do hear them, they fit rather than dominate. We have since upgraded our rating due to becoming better acquainted with the music, and the big set is far from tedious. The liner notes go into incredible depth describing the evolution of the material onstage, and the essay by devout atheist and outspoken skeptic Penn Jillette is movingly powerful.

Yet we maintain that a happy medium could have been achieved, had they simply added the “rare and unreleased” discs to the two live ones for a single, comprehensive package; not too big, not too small. Sometimes we think they’re intentionally ignoring us.

Bob Dylan Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981 (2017)—4

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Rolling Stones 50: On Air

Two decades after every other band of their caliber (and several of lesser) released authorized compilations of recordings from their live BBC appearances, the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world finally got around to beating the bootleggers with their own. The main purpose of On Air (not the band’s most imaginative title, since others got to it first) was to tie in with a hardcover book of the same title that documented their TV and radio spots throughout the ‘60s. However, because the scope is limited to radio recordings only, the audio artifact only goes up to 1965.

And that’s fine, because most of the tracks included come from the period when they were still considered blues interpreters. Only a small handful of Jagger/Richards compositions are included, the rest of the selections being expected Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley covers, plus other songs similar to the ones that filled up their first handful of albums. Throughout we get to hear that great rhythm section, sending Bill Wyman some due and royalties, as well as Brian Jones blowing harp.

It’s not complete, nor does it have a set chronology. That means that one of the earliest recordings (“Come On”) is followed by one of the last (“Satisfaction”, of course), and bouncing around from there. We can also hear their hopes of being blue purists dashed slightly by the screams of the girls in the audience for the theater performances.

Of course, there’s more than one version of this available; an 18-track single disc seems pointless when the double CD adds another 14. Four of the tracks were included on a vinyl EP with the super deluxe GRRR! set, but the real appeal, of course, are the eight songs that were never on any other Stones album ever. “Fannie Mae” and “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” are both serviceable tracks that would have fit on any of them. “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Memphis Tennessee” were done better by the Beatles, though even Mick doesn’t know who “took the message and wrote it on the wall” in the latter. “Beautiful Delilah” was a common Chuck Berry cover, but rare for them. “Cops And Robbers” is good silly fun, and everybody played “Hi Heel Sneakers” back then. “Crackin’ Up” is noted as one of the “new” songs to the canon, even though we do like the hot take already on Love You Live.

As can be expected, the sound quality varies due to whatever source tapes they could get. The first couple of tunes on the second or “bonus” disc are particularly grainy, but luckily the quality improves from there. In the end, it’s a long overdue addition to the wall, and as the liner notes suggest, interesting to compare to their last album.

The Rolling Stones On Air (2017)—

Friday, December 8, 2017

Kinks 10: Village Green Preservation Society

Ray Davies wasn’t the only songwriter of his generation obsessed with the simpler setting of childhood, but he was easily the most prolific. Having already filtered his talent through character-driven songs, he put a tune written for the previous Kinks album in the bullpen and set to work on building a concept around it. A 12-track sequence was planned and cancelled, while other singles came and went, and eventually an album with 15 songs appeared with the grand title The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society.

Its lack of commercial success upon original release, in America as well as Britain, has had a lot to with its current status among rock snobs and other elitists for being Ray Davies’ greatest accomplishment. While it is a concept album, it’s not a rock opera with a set narrative. Rather, it’s merely a collection of songs inspired by the idea of that quaint English tradition of the town square, where humble citizens would gather for community and whatnot. Much like the Shire for Tolkien fans, it’s a portrait of an idyllic place that was then slowly fading away thanks to postwar industry; indeed, even Ray isn’t looking at the scenery through rose-colored glasses. And no matter; the village green may have had its flaws and drawbacks, but it was home, and less scary than the Big Black Smoke.

The title track perfectly sums up the attitude of the album, celebrating and mocking traditional values at the same time. With its inspired use of rhymes (with tough words like “consortium”, “affinity” and the like) it’s such a great song that coming up with a whole album to live up to it would be a daunting task for anyone. Yet “Do You Remember Walter” lives up to challenge, an open letter to a childhood friend, lamenting their distance while accepting it. Spotlighting a theme that will be revisited at the album’s end, “Picture Book” has such an infectious riff that Green Day managed to steal it. Then we come to one of the album’s few named characters; “Johnny Thunder” is the local bad boy, but the pretty chordal riff in a style Pete Townshend also enjoyed seems to be at odds with the image of the tough guy on his motorbike. “Last Of The Steam Powered Trains” is basically a rewrite of “Smokestack Lightning”, but takes a clever metaphor to fit in with the theme of changing times. It even picks up momentum as it passes, and ends at a faster tempo than started. Clever. It’s easy to consider “Big Sky” a rumination on theology; is the title character “looking down on all the people” some kind of deity, or simply an astronomical entity incapable of emotion? Similarly, “Sitting By The Riverside” is supposed to evoke a pastoral occasion, but the merry-go-round-broke-down freakout after each verse intrudes on the dream.

One might also assume that “Animal Farm” was suggested by the novel of the same name, ten years before Roger Waters ran with the idea. However, here it’s simply Ray wishing to return to a simpler life, living among (or even as one of) those creatures without a care. “Village Green” is the older track that was the seed for the album, and while it’s a little busy, it still reinforces the theme of the album without being redundant. He makes reference to leaving to find fame and fortune, then uses the lady he’s scolding in “Starstruck” to perhaps point the finger back at himself. Then we come to what in retrospect seems to be the only psychedelic track in the Kinks kanon (sorry, had to do it). “Phenomenal Cat” seems more suited to Syd Barrett than a more “straight” writer than Ray, especially with the sped-up vocals, and it’s more jarring when we get to the music hall spoof of “All Of My Friends Were There”, which foretold some of Ray’s less impressive live appearances thanks to various medications. With “Wicked Annabella”, about a local witch legend, Brother Dave finally gets a lead vocal on a dirty track suited for him, down to the biscuit-tin drums. “Monica” describes another woman of the town, in this case the hooker with a heart of gold. There is a mild island feel, but the “I-I shall die” section always wins. Finally, “People Take Pictures Of Each Other” (“to prove that they really existed”) means something so different in the modern age of the selfie where everything must be documented, but the message remains: being involved in life is preferable to just looking at it.

As many of the tracks weren’t designed to be singles, Village Green Preservation Society isn’t the easiest listen, and takes some patience to appreciate. Without a linear tale to tell, it’s a challenge to determine what the songs have to do with each other, except that they came out of Ray’s brain and he said they were all connected. But once the songs become more familiar, and one marvels at the arrangements—most of the keyboards courtesy of good old Nicky Hopkins, and tasteful use of the Mellotron to simulate orchestral instruments rather than make noises—it’s understandable that so many people wish they could live there year-round.

Those so enamored would have made a beeline for 2004’s UK-only three-CD deluxe edition, which included stereo and mono versions of the album and the songs bumped for the original release, plus alternate mixes and many of the singles and cast-offs recorded during the same period. By the time the 50th anniversary rolled around, the album had gained such stature that a truly deluxe edition was prepared. Alongside a straight CD reissue and a two-disc version that bolstered the stereo and mono mixes with the expected bonuses, a massive doorstop added the mono and stereo mixes on vinyl, a vinyl version of the 12-song sequence, three replica 45s presumably included for the cover art, the expected hardcover book, a small stack of photos and posters and whatnot, and three more CDs.

One can see the fingerprints of producer Andrew Sandoval all over this, his perplexingly wide view of chronological context having justified the excessive padding on various Monkees boxes. Both the mono and stereo versions of the album, the alternates, and most of the leftovers have been given new remasters, though some have been carried over from that 2004 set. An entire disc is devoted to session outtakes; some of these are brand new mixes completed to highlight aspects of the tracks. Easily half of a disc of BBC sessions has already been out on either or both of two BBC box sets, while the rest seem to be included just because they were from 1968, when they were still promoting Something Else. A sequence of Ray’s demos is fascinating, certainly, but there’s a jump ahead five years to unreleased explorations from the ‘70s incarnation of the concept (which we’ll get to) that better belong to an expansion of those albums, and even choral performances of some of the songs by Ray with an orchestra in 2010.

Taking out the time travel bits and non-Village Green material, the set could easily have been shaved down to four discs, or even three. But would it truly be “super deluxe”? Fans of the album may disagree. Nonetheless, the volume of music enables anyone to spend an entire day in that mythical spot. Fittingly.

The Kinks The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1969)—4
2018 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 34 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 77 tracks plus vinyl)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pretenders 9: Viva El Amor

After two decades and only six albums, the idea of the Pretenders in 1999 seemed silly. But the near-comeback via Last Of The Independents kept those involved willing to stick around for Chrissie Hynde’s next batch of songs, some of which were, again, written with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.

At first sample, ¡Viva El Amor! seems stuck between contemporary beats and anonymous backings, which happens when you pit producers like Stephen Hague and Stephen Street against each other. “Popstar” is a snotty insult of the latest wave of girl singers, with robotic drums and a late cameo by David Johansen. The highly catchy “Human” was better, and a cover of an obscure song from a few years before by Divinyls (whose singer Christine Amphlett was Chrissie Hynde’s only competition in the awesome bangs department). “From The Heart Down” threatens to waver to sappiness, but The Duke Quartet returns from their cameo on Isle Of View to add strings right around the guitar solo, making it quite affecting. “Nails In The Road” is the first great guitar song on the album, a hidden gem, but even though “Who’s Who” is the second song in a row to reference a “queue”, it’s a little on the wimpy side. “Dragway 42” is more of a production than a song, something of a Mideastern travelogue, but the Duke Quartet neatly adds nightmarish accents to Chrissie’s fine vocal.

“Baby’s Breath” is a snotty riposte to a lackluster lover, with some confusing meter jumps. “One More Time” sounds like another run-of-the-mill torch song, but again, her vocal range is astounding. “Legalise Me” is a good pounding rocker that gives guest star Jeff Beck (no slouch when it comes to bangs, either) a change to blow his pyrotechnics everywhere. Then the mysterious “Samurai” manages to slow down the proceedings somewhere between a memory and a hallucination. Her perfect Spanish rendition of a Cuban folk song is given the pre-encore spot, before the mildly dreamy ode to the “Biker” lifestyle, which features the Duke Quartet again.

While the lamentable Get Close was an embarrassing display of Chrissie going soft, the equally venom-free ¡Viva El Amor! is a fine serving of mature, vulnerable pop, for lack of a better term we can’t invent. Perhaps because we expected so little, it is indeed a pleasant surprise, and well worth spending time around.

Pretenders ¡Viva El Amor! (1999)—3

Friday, December 1, 2017

Mott The Hoople 6: Mott

After David Bowie glitted off to his next musical obsession, the newly popular Mott The Hoople were back to making their own records their own way. Mott was a return to the “straight” sound of their Atlantic years, though we do detect some leftover Mick Ronson influence on Mick Ralphs’ solos. (Also, they were down to a quartet, Verden Allen having tired of having his songs passed over.)

The album is mostly pounding rockers with a few quieter, moodier pieces, and both approaches have their hits and misses. “All The Way From Memphis” is a perfect opener, with the same notes hit for fourteen seconds and a terrific shout-along chorus. “Whizz Kid” pummels past with little subtlety, but we will allow that some of the backing vocals in the verses are right out of Bowie. And we don’t know why the song stops on a dime, returning for a few seconds way in the distance. Starting with a grand dramatic intro, “Hymn For The Dudes” soon quiets down too, and would appear to be another response to their perceived success. Then it’s back to the stomp for “Honaloochie Boogie” with its long vowel and oddly processed vocals, and “Violence” is pretty obnoxious, with an incongruous violin (ha!) over the chorus.

“Drivin’ Sister” is more mindless boogie framed by obvious sound effects, but then there’s “Ballad Of Mott The Hoople (26th March 1972, Zürich)”, which seemingly references one of the band’s last gigs before Bowie supposedly rescued them. It’s gentle and a little sad, and very sweet. Up to this point we’ve only heard from Ian Hunter’s mouth, with Mick Ralphs limited to just one lead vocal. “I’m A Cadillac” works car clichés over a couple of familiar hooks, but the best part is when it morphs into “El Camino Dolo Roso”, a sneaky instrumental that gains a lot of momentum. Finally, “I Wish I Was Your Mother” is just plain odd, trilling with mandolins, and fretting over some kind of Freudian dilemma.

While more solid than All The Young Dudes, Mott is merely serviceable rock in a familiar setting. The boys were back on track. It wouldn’t last, of course.

Mott The Hoople Mott (1973)—3
2006 remastered expanded CD: same as 1973, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, November 24, 2017

Journey 9: Greatest Hits and Time3

While no formal announcement was made, Journey was done, and the label wisely put together a hits compilation. Greatest Hits was fairly comprehensive, focusing solely on the Steve Perry era, leaning heavily on the Jonathan Cain era, and sticking with the ear candy. In addition to all the singles from the albums, what we used to call side one is framed by “Only The Young” and “Ask The Lonely”, putting them right along side their albumized brothers. Beyond that, the sequence is a grab bag, but at least they save “Be Good To Yourself” for last so you can skip it entirely. Wikipedia tells us, and they’re never wrong, that it’s among the most successful compilation titles by anyone ever, and most of those sales racked up before it was repackaged 18 years on with an extra track.

Since every band got its own box set in the ‘90s, Journey’s turn came right on schedule. The oddly titled Time3 mostly got it right by starting at the very beginning, with a full half-hour of music from the borderline fusion period before Steve Perry came along. To prove the point, a failed track called “Velvet Curtain” is duct-taped onto the completed “Feeling That Way” to show how he transformed it. There aren’t a lot of rarities here, outside of a few B-sides and live tracks since added to reissues of the albums, and some unfinished ideas from the mid-‘80s era. Some of the bigger hits appear in live incarnations, so despite the selection of deeper album cuts, it’s not the definitive Journey package for someone who just wants one title on the shelf.

At the turn of the century, the new trend was the double-disc “Essential” anthology, which was an excuse to regurgitate a hits collection with some deeper cuts. The Essential Journey did just that, basically replicating the Greatest Hits sequence with only a little variety on disc one, with a questionable choice filling up the second. It would be another ten years before Greatest Hits 2 finally offered a decent (and decently priced) companion. In addition to more stuff from the Cain era (and big points for including “Suzanne”) and the FM radio hits and album tracks that stood out on the box set, segues like “Good Morning Girl” into “Stay Awhile” and “Feeling That Way” into “Anytime” were preserved. (We’d’ve dumped “Walks Like A Lady” and “When I Think Of You” for “Natural Thing” and “Edge Of The Blade”, but once again, the phone did not ring.)

Journey Greatest Hits (1988)—4
2006 CD reissue: same as 1988, plus 1 extra track
Journey Time3 (1992)—3
The Essential Journey (2001)—
Greatest Hits 2 (2011)—4

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Phil Collins 2: Hello, I Must Be Going!

This was the stage of music history where it began to become impossible to avoid hearing Phil Collins. Months after touring behind the last Genesis album, he was back working on his second solo album. Hello, I Must Be Going! went further to establish him as Mr. Entertainment, balancing shameless pop with more substantial material, sometimes with the speed of a ping-pong match.

“Those drums” begin the album, as “I Don’t Care Anymore” angrily throws boxes all over the place. Then it’s a major mood swing to the horns-heavy “I Cannot Believe It’s True”, one of several songs that does not need to exceed five minutes but does anyway. Successful despite itself is “Like China”, a terrific, almost sweet tune not ruined by his Cockney accent. “Do You Know, Do You Care?” goes back to the darker sound, with those drums again, angry vocals and guitars used like loops. Amazingly, and a sad commentary on the record-buying public, his too-cute cover of the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” became a massive hit, hyped by yet another promo video wherein he played all the parts.

Keeping things upbeat, “It Don’t Matter To Me” layers extremely syncopated horns over a very simple sequence. “Thru These Walls” begins in “In The Air Tonight” territory, right down to similar scenes in the video, but he errs too far on the side of creepy. Then it’s back to the ultra-sweet “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away”, which relies solely on voice, piano, guitar, bass, drums, and strings to convey the equally simple sentiment. Right out of nowhere comes “The West Side”, a near-fusion instrumental that still manages to clear the palette for “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning”, which displays his uncanny ability to write heartbreakers.

Ultimately, Hello, I Must Be Going! is a better album than Face Value, mostly because it was designed as an album, rather than a collection of enhanced demos. He even took it on his first solo tour, yet the eventual expanded reissue offers only a handful of tunes from that era (including covers of “It’s Alright” and “People Get Ready”), along with performances from later tours. Two demos cap the Hello! Extras disc, wherein we can hear him “doo-doo” and “no-no” his way through the yet-to-be-completed lyrics for “Do You Know, Do You Care?” and “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away”.

Phil Collins Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982)—3
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1982, plus 11 extra tracks

Friday, November 17, 2017

Paul Westerberg 1: 14 Songs

After the end of the Replacements, Paul Westerberg sobered up and laid low for a while. His first musical contributions appeared on the timely Singles soundtrack, wherein “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting For Somebody” (the latter of which had even more variations in the film itself) jockeyed for attention among all the hot Seattle grunge music that sold it.

Advance critical acclaim raised high hopes for his first actual solo album under his own name, and the label had such high regard for 14 Songs that, in a fad of the time, it was simultaneously released in a limited edition as a cloth-bound book with pictures and an interview. However, it wasn’t exactly a literary masterpiece, nor was it ultimately received as one. (Besides, Tommy Stinson had already carried the torch, and ably, on his own.)

“Dice Behind Your Shades” sums up the weakness of the album. It’s a good song, and highly catchy, with trademark wordplay, but it’s just one of several on the album that can’t stand out. If anything, it sounds like a reconstituted track from All Shook Down. At worst, it hides the splendor of a song like “Things”, which on the surface relies on the barest of finger variations, but—given time and space outside the context of the album—reveals itself as a profound personal statement about, well, the things that he does and which define him.

A softie at heart, songs like “Runaway Wind” and the home demos “Even Here We Are” and “Black Eyed Susan” try to convey his tender side, but overall it’s the rockers that succeed. “Knockin’ On Mine” goes a long way on one chord, while “World Class Fad” is just plain snotty, and we mean that in a good way. “Silver Naked Ladies” features Ian MacLagan on piano and the auteur himself on saxophone, and not badly either. “Something Is Me” has some good lines, but tries too hard.

We want to like this album, but we’d rather listen to what came before. However, a major plus for 14 Songs, and keeps it somewhat interesting, is that he plays all the electric guitar, providing all the fills, rhythm, and solos that sparkled on all those ‘Mats albums. At least that hadn’t changed.

Paul Westerberg 14 Songs (1993)—3

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Tommy Stinson 1: Friday Night Is Killing Me

After the Replacements stumbled to a close, it was surprising that of all the members, the first real solo project was from drummer Chris Mars. Horseshoes And Hand Grenades contained 14 songs, written and performed by Mars, with the exception of the bass and help from members of Soul Asylum on three tracks. The songs are catchy, guitar-based alterna-pop-rock, marred only by the sad fact that he can’t carry a tune in a bucket. It was easy to read pointed barbs at his former bandmates within the lyrics, and he’d go further with the title of his next, equally harmless album, 75% Less Fat. (More consistent was guitarist Slim Dunlap’s The Old New Me, putting him back in the Stonesy bar band mode he was made to play.)

Yet while the band’s auteur kept close to his vest, it was Tommy Stinson who made the most of the Mats’ legacy by picking up where they’d left off. He grabbed Steve Foley, the band’s last touring drummer, who conveniently had a brother who played bass. Tommy switched to guitar, recruited another six-stringer, and thus Bash & Pop was born.

Friday Night Is Killing Me shows just how much he learned following Paul Westerberg around for a decade. The songs fall into basic buckets; straightforward rock with clever lyrics (“Never Aim To Please”, “Tickled To Tears”, the title track, “Tiny Pieces”) and noisy stompers (“Hang Ups”, “Loose Ends”, “One More Time”, “Fast & Hard”, “He Means It”), all drawn up from Stones and Faces blueprints. Each side ends with a wistful acoustic strum (“Nothing”, “First Steps”). The overall sound is crisp and clean, following on from All Shook Down. A few famous names are dropped in the notes, notably two Heartbreakers and their occasional percussionist. And while Tommy doesn’t have the greatest voice either, he’s got charm and he’s having fun—something sorely lacking from the ‘Mats’ last days.

Two dozen years after the album came and went, it was reissued by the same label that had been busy curating the Big Star legacy. The obligatory bonus disc is loaded with demos and alternate versions, plus a few contemporary B-sides and strays, including “Making Me Sick” from the Clerks soundtrack. Perfect for the obsessives among us, but at the very least it gives the album another chance at exposure.

Bash & Pop Friday Night Is Killing Me (1993)—
2017 CD reissue: same as 1993, plus 18 extra tracks

Friday, November 10, 2017

Who 26: Maximum As & Bs

Part of the music industry’s money-making strategy for the second decade of the 21st century was to reprint anything and everything on limited-edition vinyl in multiple colors and at exorbitant prices, while still not allowing returns from retailers. Every now and then they’d get clever, but a lot of the time the attention to reproductive detail resulted in products that were nice to look at, but not necessarily convenient to listen to, particularly in the modern era of immediate digital access.

The business team behind The Who are clearly no dopes when it comes to recycling, and one of their recent, more clever projects involved four chronological box sets offering replicas of the band’s original 45s, with accurate labels and picture sleeves where applicable. The audio has since been compiled and issued in a five-CD set called Maximum As & Bs. While we extend kudos for the correct non-use of apostrophes, and it’s great to finally have some of their so-called lost tracks handy again, it would have fit on four CDs, and not a few tracks appear for the umpteenth time.

Three short years before, the Who Hits 50 set included most of these A-sides, yet this box does tell the story fairly well. Beginning with the first High Numbers record, it goes through the band’s singles in order. Since half of the debut album was milked for the charts, those tracks nicely frame both versions of “Circles”, even including “Waltz For A Pig”, the Graham Bond Organisation track credited to “The Who Orchestra” for legal reasons. Repetitions are few, so “Circles” doesn’t appear again as part of the Ready Steady Who EP, also included in context.

The milking continues in the Tommy era, so a few of those album tracks appear in jarring edits, and again in re-recordings for the movie soundtrack. But even for a band who learned early on that the album format was their strength, some of their lesser-known gems finally resurface (read: everything from 1970 through 1973). Then we hear the band’s overall output quality diminish alongside its quantity, with fewer rarities. Album cuts were used for B-sides, and outside of “Bony Moronie” from 1971, the live tracks included here come from the 1982 and 1989 Keith-less tours. It’s a big leap to the two new songs from 2004, and the Wire & Glass EP from two years later. Finally, there’s “Be Lucky” from that last compilation, and yet another stereo remix of “I Can’t Explain” to complete the circle.

It’s odd that they include cancelled singles (“Circles” and “Instant Party Mixture”, which fans would have had on both deluxe expansions of My Generation, plus “Eminence Front” and “It’s Your Turn”) without including some of the tracks they actually mention in the booklet, like the censored “Who Are You” and the live “Dancing In The Street” from 1979. But with 90 tracks lasting five hours, there’s certainly a lot of music here, and the plethora of distinct mixes on Maximum As & Bs makes quibbling over what wasn’t included exactly that. Plus, it beats having to get up and flip or replace the record every three minutes.

The Who Maximum As & Bs: The Complete Singles (2017)—

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Rush 11: Signals

Each new album increased their popularity, and inducted new Rush fans into the fold. But if there was any doubt that Rush were the patron saints of the high school parking lot, the first track on Signals—released in time for the fall semester—dispelled it.

As with the previous album, a synthesizer dominates, setting a standard for the band’s new next phase. It’s a catchy riff, with nice open suspensions and slight minor modifications, and then the lyrics start. Tying in with the zoning map on the back cover, “Subdivisions” expertly nails the alienation felt by the average North American suburban teenage boy, many of whom may well have been Rush fans. The song doesn’t treat the turmoil as petty or insignificant, nor does it encourage violence or revolution. The band knew their audience, because they remembered what it was like to be that audience.

It’s a good start to the album, which does manage to keep up. “The Analog Kid” is built on a circular guitar riff, and further explores the dreams of a teenage boy, only scratching the surface. “Chemistry” begins with chords reminiscent of their early work, with a little “Vital Signs” thrown in, plus rare lyrical contributions from all three band members that likely would have made some sense to the kids struggling through science class. In contrast with the track earlier, “Digital Man” paints another archetypical portrait, with lots of guitars over a jazzy rhythm.

Reggae influences continue on “The Weapon”, which, while part of the in-progress “Fear” trilogy, isn’t really that scary. As further proof that they knew their fan base, “New World Man” was literally written to fill space, as a measure to keep the cassette sides equal. Besides being one of the better tracks here, it also became something of a hit. A sobering meditation on the loss of creativity, “Losing It” is possibly the least Rush-like track, beginning with synth parts off a Journey album and an electric violin contributed by a guy who would one day be best known for working with k.d. lang. And after years of exploring science fiction in their lyrics, “Countdown” is a factual account of the band’s experience watching the launch of the Columbia space shuttle.

While not as universally appealing as Moving Pictures, Signals provided a worthy follow-up for the growing fan base to wear out in their tape decks. Hindsight shows the worrisome encroachment of synthesizers into the band’s onstage arsenal, but the best songs are still highlights.

Rush Signals (1982)—

Friday, November 3, 2017

Oasis 5: Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants

The bad grammar somehow fitting, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants presents a still-defiant Oasis, somewhat bruised following their fall from infallibility but still determined to rock. Having lost two members, the band relied more on loops and samples to create their music. That’s not so much of a stretch, considering Noel Gallagher sang on a hit single by the Chemical Brothers. It’s still derivative of an earlier decade, but at least the trip-hop influence doesn’t hurt one’s ears like Be Here Now did.

Right out of the gate, “Fuckin’ In The Bushes” shows off the new sound, though it isn’t much more than a collage. Based around a “Funky Drummer”-type sample, complete with vinyl crackles, the new sound is also presented ably on “Go Let It Out”, which was the first single, though the Mellotron is out of place. The second single, “Who Feels Love?”, is way too long and a little too psychedelic, with backwards guitars and sitars, and a melody that sounds too much like earlier, better Oasis tracks. Plus, the hippy-dippy sentiment doesn’t sound convincing coming out of Liam’s mouth or Noel’s hand. “Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is” manages to combine an AC/DC stomp with “Roadhouse Blues”—stupid, but still fun, until the 30-second farting synth at the end. Surprisingly good is “Little James”, Liam Gallagher’s first recorded composition and written for his son. Even more impressive is the production, incorporating “Don’t Look Back In Anger” piano, though the “Hey Jude” ending goes (again) a little long.

“Gas Panic!” returns us to India before floating on another psychedelic bed, and by now we wish they’d pick up the tempo a hair (one of the downsides of quitting coke, to be sure). Still, Noel sings two further slow songs in a row: “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” is another feather in his vocal cap, while “Sunday Morning Call” is a more elaborate production. Together they provide respite from Liam’s rasp. “I Can See A Liar” is a wonderful glam stomp, with a few hints of the Cult in the riff, for a terrific shot of energy. And that’s good, because “Roll It Over” just drags until the end.

For all the imperfections and indulgences, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants is still not as indulgent as Be Here Now, and manages to hold interest. Being relatively tight, it’s a welcome return to form quality-wise on par with the first two Oasis albums. But we must add one final gripe: if you’re going to book legendary vocalists P.P. Arnold and Linda Lewis, give them something to do besides sing “ah” buried in the mix.

Oasis Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (2000)—3

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Bruce Springsteen 23: High Hopes

Having decided he could create albums anywhere and anytime, Bruce went the Tattoo You route by raiding his outtakes vault. However, while the Stones managed to create a great album from their leftovers, Bruce only ended up with a plateful of table scraps on High Hopes, a desperate title to be sure.

Some songs had appeared in earlier incarnations. The title track had been part of the E Street Band reunion sessions two decades earlier; it’s a cover, so he can’t be blamed for the lazy chorus, but he should have known better about the horns. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was introduced on the reunion tour and released on the 2001 live album, and is just as long here, but still good. Tom Morello played guitar on half the album, and sings some of the verses on the too-long, too-loud rock remake of “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”. (He also allegedly suggested all the covers that were included. “Just Like Fire Would” was originally recorded by a punk band, but here it’s all Bruce. Similarly, “Dream Baby Dream” was originally by synth-punk duo Suicide, and becomes an aching prayer.)

“Harry’s Place” was likely left off The Rising in favor of “Mary’s Place”, which is no better. “Down In The Hole” begins low-key like a Devils & Dust track, but picks up with crazy samples and sound effects, just as “Heaven’s Wall” opens with a gospel chant and beats a “raise your hand” motif into submission. “Frankie Fell In Love” is a nice throwback to his character songs from the ‘70s, and “The Wall” a nice memorial to Vietnam veterans. But “This Is Your Sword” is an unconvincing call to arms, and “Hunter Of Invisible Game”, while lilting, lopes aimlessly.

While some of the songs are certainly worth saving from obscurity, the album as a whole fails. Perhaps as proof that he’s no longer his best editor, an EP called American Beauty appeared for Record Store Day and online streaming, containing four songs easily as good if not better than anything on High Hopes. The title track and “Hurry Up Sundown” are rousing arena rockers, “Mary Mary” a sweet strum, and “Hey Blue Eyes” a deceptively pretty tune about wartime atrocity.

Bruce Springsteen High Hopes (2014)—2
Bruce Springsteen
American Beauty (2014)—3

Friday, October 27, 2017

Bob Weir 1: Ace

Of the Grateful Dead’s front men, Bob Weir was always the most basic musically. His songs had a tendency toward good-time boogie, with no rampant experimental characteristics. It was a good balance for a live show, since the songs were simple enough to learn, but as the only selections on an album, things can get a little dull. Unless, of course, you love to boogie.

Ace is a Bob Weir solo in name only, as the basic band on every track is the Grateful Dead; moreover, it serves as the premiere of new keyboards guy Keith Godchaux, along with his wife Donna on backing vocals. “Greatest Story Ever Told” leaps out of the gate with a war whoop and exactly the type of rhythm Deadheads live for. Thanks to lyrics by Robert Hunter, the story is interesting. “Black-Throated Wind” has a different sound thanks to lyrics from Weir’s friend John Barlow, the stumbly meter, and prominent horn section, but “Walk In The Sunshine” is just plain dippy even for him. “Playing In The Band” had already appeared on the “Skull & Roses” album; here it’s nearly twice as long and more intricate, thanks to the competent piano.

The true hidden gem of the album is “Looks Like Rain”, with its perfectly heartbroken vocal, a complementary pedal steel from Jerry, and a string arrangement of all things. It’s a wonder this hasn’t been covered by more people. It could be because its effect is flattened by the goofy mariachi horns on “Mexicali Blues”—a decent saloon tune, but oh, that incessant “da-dat-dat”. “One More Saturday Night” would also be a band staple; here’s it’s just more boogie in the mode set by “Greatest Story”. With its multi-faceted lyrics and possible interpretations, “Cassidy” makes for a very effective closer.

Take the best parts of Ace and shuffle them with the vocal highlights from Garcia’s solo album from earlier in the year, and you’d have a pretty strong ’72 Dead studio album. Instead, indulgence reigned the day, even for these guys. As it is, there’s enough good on it to outweigh the rest, so it works. Meanwhile, two of the songs (“Playing In The Band” and “Greatest Story”) would appear later the same year on Mickey Hart’s solo album Rolling Thunder, which went even further away from the traditional Dead sound. Despite the appearances of most of the Dead, the album incorporates contributions from members of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and other Frisco musicians, the Tower of Power horns, and two well-known tabla players to his own percussion to present something of a world music fusion. (A half-century later, Bob celebrated Ace ’s 50th anniversary with two shows where he and his current band played the album in its entirety; one of these was included on the bonus disc of the deluxe reissue.)

Bob Weir Ace (1972)—3
2023 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1972, plus 9 extra tracks

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Jerry Garcia 1: Garcia

With all the time they spent touring, it’s a wonder the members of the Grateful Dead had any time for extracurricular activities. But play they did. Due to his prowess on a variety of stringed instruments, Jerry Garcia was in high demand for his friends’ sessions, making prominent appearances on solo albums by Crosby, Stills & Nash and Paul Kantner, the first album by New Riders Of The Purple Sage, and co-billing on Hooteroll? by jazz fusion organist Howard Wales. His own solo album was very much a one-man affair; with the exception of Bill Kreutzmann on drums and lyrics by (who else?) Robert Hunter, Garcia let him loose on guitars, bass, pedal steel, and keyboards.

And since he sings anything with words, it sounds a lot like a Dead album. Side one alone is wall-to-wall: “Deal”, “Bird Song”, “Sugaree”, and “Loser”, all of which were played live by the band before the album was released, and stayed concert staples for the duration. Each is in that loping, acoustic-based mode established on the last two studio albums, so they will already sound familiar.

Back when album sides had to be flipped to hear the rest, it’s possible that many owners of this LP wore out side one. These days, if listening on CD or a cassette dub, what used to be side two would be rather harsh on one’s mellow. The first three tracks for something of a suite; “Late For Supper” and “Spiderdawg” are examples of avant-garde or musique concrete (take your pick), with the kind of dissonant piano stabs and electronic effects usually associated with early Pink Floyd, whereas “Eep Hour” is a more conventional instrumental built around minor-key triplets and Floydian changes. He stays on piano for the gospel-tinged “To Lay Me Down”, which was attempted for American Beauty but not used, but would still surface onstage from time to time. “An Odd Little Place” is a gorgeous interlude for minimalist piano and atmospheric drums, and makes a fantastic prelude for “The Wheel”, which has an epic feel and big sound considering, again, it’s all Jerry plus Bill.

The eventual expansion of Garcia presents a few of the songs in their early stages—just acoustic guitar, vocal, and drums—plus the piano-and-drums first pass through the “Eep Hour” suite. There’s even a version of “Eep Hour” itself on electric guitar that takes it to a completely new place. Even so, the original sequence worked so well on its own, so the extras are only essential for completists, who are likely trying to catch up with all the live shows the band keeps issuing.

Jerry Garcia Garcia (1972)—
2004 expanded CD: same as 1972, plus 8 extra tracks

Friday, October 20, 2017

Robert Plant 13: Carry Fire

His hair may be too long and his face ever more creased, but fifty years into his commercial career Robert Plant sounds very comfortable with his voice, his instrument. Carry Fire continues with the palette set by lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, his previous solo album, except that the rhythms here are not as overtly exotic, and the breadth of material not as wide.

“The May Queen” was the first preview track, and it’s fairly circular, finally breaking out in the wordless chorus. “New World…” would have been a stronger choice, as it has a driving tempo and therefore more energy. But despite its slower pace, “Season’s Song” moves like a boat on the sea, and it’s a keeper. Towards the end of “Dance With Me Tonight”, right alongside the sound of a heraldic horn, his voice finally emerges an octave higher than it’s been all album, and one can’t help but smile at its familiarity. It’s a good setup for “Carving Up The World Again”, a protest song with a tribal beat and better chorus. He’s been political before, so it’s not that big a deal, but it’s not his strong suit, and that makes “A Way With Words” something of a relief.

These ears aren’t especially wowed by the balance of the album. The exotic influences return on the title track, by way of more overt loops; it improves as it builds. “Bones Of Saints” ups the tempo to a rock level again, getting a lot of steam out of the “no, no, no” chorus. He lets out a few good yells near the end, but “Keep It Hid” remains tense and restrained. “Bluebirds Over The Mountain” is a wholly original reading of the rockabilly classic, sung as a duet with Chrissie Hynde of all people, and ending with some more great yells. Finally, “Heaven Sent” ends the album very, very slowly, and fades just as it gets interesting.

The previous album was so fresh and interesting that Carry Fire is already at a deficit for fair comparison. But it too reveals its strengths the more it sinks in, and he’s onto something.

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters Carry Fire (2017)—3

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cat Stevens 9: Numbers

As he continued to maneuver the pop industry, Cat Stevens became more obsessed with finding some kind of meaning to it all. Having long been “on the road to find out”, his next project was an exploration of numerology disguised as fairy tale. Numbers is a good-sounding album for the most part, best appreciated by not listening too closely to the story, whatever the hell it is.

After the instrumental opener “Whistlestar”, “Novim’s Nightmare” sits comfortably along his classic acoustic work. “Majik Of Majiks” begins as an excellent piano ballad, but the contemporary drums, female backing vocals, and sax solo by David Sanborn take it into the disco. “Drywood” is a little better, a mix of old and new, funky but not embarrassing.

However, “Banapple Gas” is a little embarrassing, mixing a trip to the islands with a country pedal steel and even a Coral sitar—catchy, to be sure, but not something you’d want to sing along with unless you’re about four years old. “Land O’ Freelove & Goodbye” is borderline baroque with the harpsichord and vocal lines, but a children’s choir is never a good idea. One of the less adventurous tracks musically is “Jzero”, fittingly as it’s about the antagonist of the story. “Home” deserves more study, particularly without the synth strings and children getting in the way. They also get to smother “Monad’s Anthem”, otherwise dominated by a heavily processed voice of some kind of overlord.

All these journeys were very important to the Cat, otherwise he wouldn’t have invested so much time in them. But lots of people were trying to convey messages in those days, and the better ones did it without roping in a bunch of kids. (The Wall doesn’t count.) By this time the audience was growing weary of listening to him finding his way, and Numbers didn’t help either side.

Cat Stevens Numbers (1975)—2

Friday, October 13, 2017

David Bowie 41: A New Career In A New Town

Once again an era of Bowie’s career is perfectly summarized by one of his own song titles. The A New Career In A New Town box set basically covered what is still called the Berlin era, despite only some of the music being recorded there, and follows the pattern of the previous sets: the studio albums and pertinent live albums, sometimes twice, and a mop-up disc to include singles. With a book.

Starting with this box, Tony Visconti has become very involved with shaping the official history. Not only did he produce the original albums, but his modern mixes, with the stated intention of enhancing the original records thanks to modern technology, will become both prominent and controversial—particularly without Bowie around to approve or reject.

Low and “Heroes” appear in simply remastered versions of their original mixes, then we get Stage as originally released, followed by Stage (2017), newly prepped by Visconti, which incorporates all the additional tracks added since 1991, and in the correct setlist order. (The artwork is only mildly different.) Lodger is presented the same way—the original mix, which we admittedly always found harsh, and then a new, airier mix, this one supposedly okayed by Bowie prior to his death. Scary Monsters follows, once again succinctly summing up the period. (Sadly, his narration of Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf, recorded as a Christmas present for his son and released on RCA Red Seal in 1978, is not included.)

As for extras, a separate “Heroes” EP offers German and French versions of the song in both album and single edits, which nicely cuts down the potential repetition on the Re:Call 3 disc. Beginning with the usual single edits of several songs—plus extended versions of “Beauty And The Beast” and “Breaking Glass”—this installment includes rarities expected and unique, such as: 1979’s stark re-recording of “Space Oddity”; the instrumental “Crystal Japan”; the complete 11-minute Baal EP, recorded for a BBC-TV production of a Bertolt Brecht play; the initial, superior soundtrack version of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”; and the classic duets “Under Pressure” with Queen and “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby. In all, a suitably odd end to a challenging yet rewarding chapter of Bowie’s career, poking into the ‘80s, right before things took a complete turn.

David Bowie A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) (2017)—

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Todd Rundgren 16: Healing

Though he’d dismiss the notion today, Todd Rundgren’s first completely solo album in three years was a reaction to violence, both in his home and in the world. Healing relies more than ever on synthesizers and his own ability to get new sounds out of them while staying true to his songwriting abilities.

Six separate tracks totaling close to half an hour are crammed onto side one, resulting in an experience reminiscent of such experiments as “Treatise On Cosmic Fire” and “In And Out The Shakras We Go”, only with lyrics. “Healer” is a plea for exactly that; “Pulse” layers synths in a sneakily funky way, seeming to build in density with each measure. “Flesh” comes across as mildly evangelical and serious, then the oom-pah silliness of the resentful “Golden Goose” dispels any sense of calm created thus far. An antidote arrives in “Compassion”, his patented brand of blue-eyed soul. “Shine” is almost two songs in one, beginning with a dreamy Todd-and-piano segment that is shunted aside by a jarringly busy arrangement that goes way too long.

Side two is devoted to the three-part “Healing” suite. While they do run together and themes recur, the segments are strong on their own too, it’s a pleasing listening experience, and more effectively conveys his message than side one. The saxophone in “Part I” approaches yacht-rock waters, but never takes over the track. There’s a smooth transition to the softer “Part II”, and while “Part III” is a variation on the opening segment, there’s something a little abstract about it.

The album itself was a self-contained work, and while “Compassion” comes close, there wasn’t a radio-friendly hit single, so he wrote one. “Time Heals” was included — along with its moody B-side, “Tiny Demons” — on a seven-inch stuck inside the sleeve, resembling a 45 but running at 33. The songs have since been appended at the end of every CD reissue of the album, nicely capping an album that appreciates in value.

Todd Rundgren Healing (1981)—3

Friday, October 6, 2017

Van Morrison 34: Down The Road

It can be tiresome to trawl through a legacy artist’s ongoing catalog when even the artist in question avers that he’s just doing a job. Van Morrison has never felt compelled to justify his albums; he simply records them and puts them out, and considers any status in the grand pantheon as moot, but somehow still deserving of awe.

Unfortunately for us, we’ve established a format here, and we must proceed, somehow. Down The Road is another competent album of pleasant R&B-inspired originals with some country flavors. He’s not overtly complaining about how the industry’s screwed him, but at least two songs lament the state of current popular music. “Hey Mr. DJ” is a Sam Cooke song in all but delivery, while “Whatever Happened To P.J. Proby?” gets its inspiration from a guy best known as having a hit with a Lennon-McCartney giveaway. “Choppin’ Wood” is supposedly about Van’s father, but it’s got the same rhythm as the far inferior “Talk Is Cheap”, lessening the sentiment somewhat. “All Work And No Play” spouts the usual clichés, and his ill-advised quasi-scatting results in one of the least essential versions of “Georgia On My Mind” ever recorded. Despite the pedestrian lyrics, “Evening Shadows” is an intriguing collaboration with jazz clarinet legend Acker Bilk, and we get more variations on common themes like “Meet Me In The Indian Summer” and “What Makes The Irish Heart Beat”.

At 15 tracks and over an hour of playing time, Down The Road is too long to really ingest, and the listener would likely put on an earlier album that truly resonates. In the plus column: not a sign of Brian Kennedy anywhere.

Van Morrison Down The Road (2002)—3

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Beach Boys 19: Sunshine Tomorrow

As we don’t claim to have any legal authority or expertise, please forgive some simplification. There’s this 50-year copyright rule, wherein forgotten or buried recordings by certain bands must be claimed and/or released under threat of slipping into public domain. Like other bands and artists of their heritage, the Beach Boys catalog department took advantage of streaming trends and began quietly issuing digital albums in order to beat that pesky rule. Starting in 2013, every December or so (sometimes earlier) a title would appear offering a bounty of vault tracks from the Boys. The Big Beat 1963 consisted mostly of Brian Wilson songwriting demos, while the following year’s Keep An Eye On Summer was loaded with session highlights and Live In Sacramento 1964 provided something of an expansion on Beach Boys Concert. Following the Uncovered And Unplugged edition of Party!, and Pet Sounds and Smile having already been mined for deluxe box sets, the next handful of copyright extension releases was actually pressed onto CDs.

Whoever was in charge knew which albums were getting the most revisionist-theory love, so 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow picked up more or less where the Smile box left off, but rejigged the chronology. The first disc is devoted to Wild Honey, which some folks say is superior, beginning with the first-ever true stereo mix of this very short album (save “Mama Says”, which is still in mono), followed by a couple dozen session outtakes and some contemporary live tracks, though “Aren’t You Glad” comes from a 1970 concert. The second disc jumps back several months to reveal 18 minutes of session highlights from said its predecessor, the labored but laconic Smiley Smile. But they truly bury the lede by including the first official release of the notorious unreleased Lei’d In Hawaii album.

This project was originally designed to re-establish the band as a force to be reckoned with in the wake of the Summer of Love. Smiley Smile was about to be released, so they went to Hawaii to record a live album, with Brian in tow for his first live appearances with the band since the end of 1964 (and his last for another few years). The concerts didn’t go so well, and neither did the live-in-the-studio sessions that happened to make up the difference. Wild Honey was then quickly recorded, and released only three months after Smiley Smile.

What would have been Lei’d In Hawaii combined the later studio recordings with a few songs from rehearsals for the live show. It’s a strange mix of old and new material, beginning with a nearly tongue-in-cheek introduction before a faithful cover of the Box Tops’ “The Letter” that just grinds to a halt. Brian’s electric organ unfortunately dominates the songs, which are frankly inert, including a changed perspective on the retitled “Help You, Rhonda” and a cover of the Mindbenders’ “Game Of Love” that suffers from tempo troubles. At least their harmonies on “Surfer Girl” are still impeccable; those voices help Bruce sing “With A Little Help From My Friends”, and we hear a Smile influence on “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring”.

Allegedly, an audience was supposed to be overdubbed for the final mix, and we’re not sure that would have helped. The handful of tracks included from the actual concerts sounds pretty limp, though some girls are screaming anyway; Mike Love is as obnoxious as ever. The set ends, thankfully, with a return to the studio, and a late-1967 tape of Brian trying to play and sing “Surf’s Up” solo at the piano, followed by an a capella mix of “Surfer Girl”.

Sunshine Tomorrow is pointedly for completists, but some thought was clearly put into it. It’s a smart move to start the program with the more focused music of the period, as opposed to the fractured material that made up the previous album and the aborted Hawaii experiment. Plus, we can better discern Brian’s involvement throughout, with his voice and keyboards prominent in the outtakes. (Two more compilations were made available digitally by the year’s end to further cause salivation. 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow 2: The Studio Sessions offered another disc’s worth of work-in-progress material and isolated elements from all three albums, while 1967—Live Sunshine included seven complete concerts from the era, including each of the doomed Hawaii shows.)

The Beach Boys 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow (2017)—

Friday, September 29, 2017

King Crimson 22: Radical Action

After another lengthy hiatus, and a period where the band’s figurehead stated twice that he was done with performing and touring like he used to, King Crimson became a concert act again in 2014. This incarnation swelled to seven members, three of whom were drummers and set up at the front of the stage. Alongside Robert Fripp, other veterans included stalwart bass and Stick player Tony Levin, drummer Pat Mastelotto, and most remarkably, the return of Mel Collins on sax for the first time since the Red album. Other members found their way in via various Crimson side projects and Fripp-approved tribute acts.

While the shows featured some new material, the setlists relied heavily on material from the “classic” period, now that there were enough people and technology available onstage to recreate those pieces. In keeping with Fripp’s view of concerts as “a hot date with King Crimson”, each was recorded for posterity, and some were issued to the public. Live At The Orpheum presented 41 minutes distilled from two LA shows on that first brief tour, while Live In Toronto was an “official bootleg” of a full show a year later.

The scope of what this incarnation was able to accomplish can be experienced on Radical Action To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind, a three-CD set available with a Blu-ray, and also a version that adds two DVDs. (The audience response is mixed out of the audio, but is discernable on the video.) While it purports to include a version of every song played on the tour, the discs are reorganized into distinct thematic sets. “Mainly Metal” and “Easy Money Shots” go through well executed tracks from the ‘90s-and-later lineups, as well as material that hadn’t been played live since the early ‘70s, with selections from In The Wake Of Poseidon and Islands. “Crimson Classics” features their “greatest hits” from the debut and Red, but that’s not to suggest it’s the go-to, especially since stuff from Larks’ Tongues In Aspic is on the first two.

In addition to the enhanced yet reverent arrangements (“Baby Elephant Walk”, anyone?) there is some “new” music here. The title suite is archetypical Crimson, with angular arpeggios over odd time signatures and Fripp fuzz, part one and part two framing a vocal section called “Meltdown”. And while it does have the word in the title and swaggers along, “Suitable Grounds For The Blues” isn’t about to be covered by Buddy Guy anytime soon. Tony Levin is forward in the mix here, as he is on the “Interlude” that follows. Second guitarist Jakko Jakszyk is also the lead vocalist, and while his polished approach sounds startling on the newer, less familiar tracks and certainly competent on the old favorites, one must remember that Fripp was a big fan of Daryl Hall. Each disc also includes a distinct piece for percussion, proving just how tight a dozen limbs could be.

Despite being both pricey and sprawling, Radical Action... is still a good entry into the world of King Crimson, covering a lot of ground and leaving only the ‘80s stage of the band unrepresented. Come to think of it, most Crimson releases lean on the expensive side, but you also get a lot of content for your dollar. And yes, the guy on the cover is pretty disturbing.

King Crimson Live At The Orpheum (2015)—3
King Crimson
Live In Toronto (2016)—
King Crimson
Radical Action To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind (2016)—

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Jethro Tull 12: Songs From The Wood

Perhaps taking the title of the previous album to heart, the next phase for Jethro Tull was to fully embrace the English folk music they’d hinted at all along. Songs From The Wood begins with such a statement of purpose in the title track, an immaculate a capella opening, the flute and acoustic come in, and before too long they’re competing for space with the drums and electric and keyboards and arrangement. So it still sounds like Tull, but the lyrics are now more pointedly derived from ancient texts and more older-sounding (at least) couplets.

That’s pretty much the M.O. for the rest of the album. You’d have to read the liner notes to know that “Jack-in-the-Green” is performed entirely by Ian Anderson, suggesting that maybe he didn’t need the band after all. (He also takes complete songwriting and production credit for the album, although lead guitarist Martin Barre and now-fulltime keyboardist David Palmer are mentioned for “additional material”.) “Cup Of Wonder” has some contemporary touches that must have sounded revolutionary for the time, but now place the album squarely in the second half of its decade. After a lengthy, tightly syncopated intro, “Hunting Girl” is a fable either full of double entendre or not, and just seems to take forever to resolve, unless you dig the playing. We will allow that it’s rather daring to include an original Yuletide song on an album released in February, but “Ring Out, Solstice Bells” is just that.

Much of side two runs together, unfortunately. After some pseudo-Switched-On Bach harpsichord, “Velvet Green” traipses around a renaissance fair, but at least adds some scenery changes. “The Whistler” was actually a single, and a favorite for a lot of fans, but they probably really like the flute too. Thankfully it’s brushed aside by the distorted guitar solo that begins “Pibroch (Cap In Hand)” all by itself, sounding closest to “classic” prog Tull. That goes on a while, and then “Fire At Midnight” seems to be a nice quiet ending, but it too gets worked up.

There’s no denying that Songs From The Wood was a good direction for the band to try, and it does have its appeal. But a little goes a long way, and a lot overdoes it. One’s enjoyment of the album, as ever, depends on your preferred dosage of Ian Anderson. (The deluxe anniversary upgrade offers the now-required 5.1 surround mix to highlight the original quad mix, along with two CDs’ worth of live recordings from the subsequent tour. And other stuff.)

Jethro Tull Songs From The Wood (1977)—3
2003 remastered CD: same as 1977, plus 2 extra tracks
2017 The Country Set Deluxe Edition: same as 1977, plus 30 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs)