Friday, March 31, 2017

Doors 7: L.A. Woman

It must have been incredibly frustrating for the members of the Doors who weren’t Jim Morrison and wanted so desperately to be a popular working band. Their erratic frontman was still the focal point, but without his so-called poetry, compounded by the risk of imprisonment over indecency charges, they had limited commercial potential.

They were united, however, in not letting their record company dictate their output, especially after the release of 13, a fairly obvious collection of hit singles. So they continued to hone their craft, building on the simpler collaboration that made Morrison Hotel a step forward. And when they got stuck for ideas, they leaned on the blues. That itself wasn’t such as stretch, as their first album featured “Back Door Man”. The blues are easy to play but tough to master; having only three chords forces the players to be creative with them, and with (usually) two repeated lines before a third response, the lyricist must make the most of the limited space. On L.A. Woman, the best explorations succeed, and the others plod.

A blast of organ-driven funk opens “The Changeling”, with Jim’s grunts and shouts complementing the scowling, bearded face on the album cover. It’s a stark contrast to the straight commercial rock of “Love Her Madly”, one of their better singles, but then it’s back to the generic blues of “Been Down So Long” and “Cars Hiss By My Window”; at least the latter has better lyrics, but the Stones gave up this kind of wandering by their sixth album. The title track, with its multiple parts and shifting speeds, still evokes a feeling of speeding down brightly lit highways at night.

“L’America” manages to approach some of the actual poetic experiments of earlier albums, but still manages to throw in a naughty albeit clever play on words. A wonderful surprise is “Hyacinth House”, with a shimmering guitar, Jim’s inspired delivery, and Hammond organ using the same stops Richard Wright found in Pink Floyd. “Crawling King Snake” is proof that they only had so much in the hopper, but “The WASP (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)” is an excellent meld of his poetry and their interpretation of it. They almost sound like a unit. The best development of the blues format and what the band could actually do comes forth in “Riders On The Storm”, also notable for being one of the few songs that uses rain as a prominent sound effect, yet doesn’t sound like a toilet running.

Knowing what we know now, L.A. Woman becomes a bigger thing than it was, though some have suggested that many of the insiders suspected it would be the band’s last album. As it is, it wasn’t a bad way to go out. The three most-recognized tracks from the album should be enough to entice anyone to buy it, and the added attraction of “Hyacinth House” and “The WASP” will balance out any boredom.

Because people who should don’t pay close enough attention to these things, the album has been reissued twice as a so-called 40th Anniversary Edition: first in 2007 with the other albums, and then again five years later to belatedly celebrate the album itself. The earlier expansion added a previously released, posthumously overdubbed outtake and contemporary B-side, while the later one focused on alternate versions of most of the tracks, plus two other outtakes. Nine years after that, these were joined by yet another expansion, this time adding a previously released demo of “Hyacinth House” and an early version of “Riders Of The Storm” to the album on one disc, and filling up two more discs with previously unreleased alternates and outtakes, making it the fourth copy of L.A. Woman completists must own.

The Doors L.A. Woman (1971)—3
2007 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks
2012 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1971, plus 9 extra tracks
2021 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1971, plus 19 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Jethro Tull 11: Too Old To Rock ‘N Roll

Like a few other current bands of the time, Jethro Tull was in the position of being expected to deliver a production with every new album. Part of that pressure came from themselves, but it’s a pretty high order to fill album after album, year after year.

Coined in a period of the 1970s when too many rockers were having trouble dealing with turning 30, Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young To Die! itself is a clever phrase that would become all too apt as more musicians left the planet. But while one might expect the album to describe the rise and fall of a rock star, the story instead opens on a guy who’s already a has-been, finds his way to another plateau of fame and/or fortune, meets disaster, then emerges into an unknown but not hopeless future. All this is only determined via reading the album’s liner notes, which exist in the form of a comic book-style spread in the gatefold. The protagonist bears a mild resemblance to Ian Anderson, who has long insisted that Ray Lomas is not based at all on him.

We’ll leave others to sort out the concept, its execution and delivery; there was even an attempt at a TV special where actors played out scenes while the band played (now available in a deluxe reissue package). What’s important to us is how it sounds coming through speakers. On that basis, the album’s just fine. It opens with a melody soon to be recognizable halfway through the other side as the title track, and like most everything the band became best known for, exudes baroque pomp. Soon enough the strummed acoustic gives way to heavy electric and staccato flute, with gratefully little of the trendy synthesizers of the day. Ian’s voice is most often treated to that “bathroom echo” sound, which suits him as well as it did John Lennon.

The title track is the best-known song here, but that doesn’t make it the best song period. Hindsight has us thinking that the little classical lines played on strings, mandolins and guitars sound too much like one of Elton John’s parodies of the style, particularly when the chorus kicks into a ‘50s-style raveup for the big climax. (We’ll go further on a limb and compared “The Chequered Flag”, the grand finale, to Elton as well; it’s practically adult contemporary.) The stark and folky “Salamander” and “Bad-Eyed And Loveless” are welcome changes of pace, and “Taxi Grab” has some honking harmonica that recalls the band’s first albums. On songs like those, and even the more complex “Pied Piper”, there’s less of an obvious attempt to be profound, and just to play decent.

Jethro Tull Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young To Die! (1976)—3
2002 remastered CD: same as 1976, plus 2 extra tracks
2015 TV Special Edition: same as 2002, plus 24 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Toad The Wet Sprocket 2: Pale

Kids looking for jangly pop with earnest vocals and mumbled lyrics while a certain band from Georgia took its sweet time between albums could have done a lot worse than Toad The Wet Sprocket, and they probably did. Their second album was recorded, again, on the cheap, with as little as possible spent on a cover design (all lyrics in lower case, of course), though it did boast something of a “name” producer in the form of one Marvin Etzioni. Once a member of Lone Justice, at this point in his career he was dubbed the “Mandolin Man”, and indeed adds some of that trilling to “Come Back Down”, the first single from Pale and the first single in the band’s catalog to utilize the word “down”.

Most of the album follows the same template: moody, not-too-loud songs mixing acoustic and electric guitars, sung by young Glenn Phillips, whose vocals are either tolerated or hated. Lead guitarist Todd Nichols sings two tracks that might as well be the main guy, but he doesn’t have the same gift of finding a wrenching melody. As with the debut, the overall sound is a bit claustrophobic, like an overcast afternoon in a house several miles away from a gas station or food. Some more moments emerge: the dynamics in “Don’t Go Away”, with its violin-tinged ending; the unsettling domestic drama related in “Corporal Brown”; the second half of closer “She Cried”; and possibly best of all, the nearly rocking “Jam”, complete with a “joke” ending. “Chile” would appear to be something of a political commentary, though we could do without the accordion (and didn’t like it when that other band used it either).

Pale had its fans upon release, but was most likely discovered by later fans going backwards. In that case, it’s a better listen than the debut, and ably bridges the gap to the next one. And only a couple of songs sound alike.

Toad The Wet Sprocket Pale (1990)—3

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Frank Zappa 31: You Are What You Is

In between tours, Frank installed a state-of-the-art studio in the basement of his house, and proceeded to spent most of his time there. The first album recorded (or at least finished) at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen was You Are What You Is, four sides of snide commentary on the state of America under the new Reagan regime. (No points for guessing he wasn’t in favor of much of it.)

Picking on dumb kids was old hat for Frank, and “Teen-age Wind” updates it to the era where they’d sniff glue, follow Grateful Dead concerts and even “go to a midnite show of 200 Motels!” And who should turn up in the next track but Jimmy Carl Black in his Lonesome Cowboy Burt guise, claiming to be “Harder Than Your Husband” (“to get along with”). As a country pastiche it’s far too complicated chord-wise. “Doreen” is basically a doo-wop song sped up and translated to a hard rock arrangement; one wonders if a “straight” version exists. “Goblin Girl” used to get occasional radio play around Halloween, but if any program directors listened to the actual lyrics they might have thought twice. The end of the track has some bits of “Doreen” layered on top, with some “pachuco” references from old Mothers albums, then it’s a quick cut to “Theme From The 3rd Movement Of Sinister Footwear”, a complicated guitar solo subsequently overdubbed.

Side two is a suite of sorts, beginning as another satire along the lines of “Dancin’ Fool” but takes a tragic turn before ending with more irreverence. “Society Pages” describes a doyen of suburbia, whose son would grow up to proclaim, “I’m A Beautiful Guy”. The Greek chorus reminds him that “Beauty Knows No Pain”, but he’s preoccupied with “Charlie’s Enormous Mouth”. Modeled on the woman from a one-time perfume commercial who also shovels a certain substance into her similarly oversized nose, leading to her premature demise and interment, where her vapid friends stand around asking “Any Downers?” (It’s too bad, as it’s a good riff.) Somehow Frank manages to tie this to a celebration of the “Conehead”, as seen on Saturday Night Live.

The title track got some attention when its video was glimpsed on an episode of Beavis & Butthead—the original clip wouldn’t have been aired back in the day, given its depiction of Reagan in an electric chair and lyrics about “white” guys trying to be “black” and vice versa. Somehow this leads into “Mudd Club”, already immortalized by Talking Heads, played in a style hemispheres away than the music normally associated with the place. Somehow he decides that this would be a good place to lambaste the church (and the government) in “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing”—a great track on its own—which continues on “Dumb All Over”, an extended rap in a mild Central Scrutinizer voice.

Even his concept couldn’t be contained on one side, so we get more of that final chant at the top of “Heavenly Bank Account”, which predicts a decades’ worth of crooked televangelists. Somehow this leads to a portrait of a “Suicide Chump”, who wants to end it all but is too scared to. A savior arrives in the form of an overweight girl, of whom the young man quickly tires and threatens to pummel; hence the refrain of “Jumbo Go Away”. “If Only She Woulda” works in the two most common chords from “Light My Fire” as a bridge explaining how the chump’s life got even worse. “Drafted Again” is an adaptation of a Zappa single from the year before, notable now for featuring the vocal stylings of 14-year-old Moon Zappa and six-year-old Ahmet.

Most Zappa fanatics seem to think well of You Are What You Is. These days it sounds very slick, even coming from the days before digital recording took its hold on Frank. Steve Vai is all over the album, providing a distraction from the negativity. Many of the tracks could stand find by themselves, but by insisting on weaving everything together (you know, ‘cos he was such a genius at “conceptual continuity”) they don’t get enough of a chance to breathe. Somehow.

Frank Zappa You Are What You Is (1981)—

Friday, March 17, 2017

Talking Heads 1: 77

Say the name “Talking Heads” and most people will think of a sweaty guy in a big white suit. David Byrne was indeed the voice and face of the band for most of their tenure, often to the detriment of other members. The rhythm section was (and still is) married to each other: self-taught bass player Tina Weymouth and mighty white drummer Chris Frantz. An early secret weapon was Jerry Harrison, who not only played guitar and keyboards, but brought some true indie cred being an original member of the Modern Lovers.

Talking Heads weren’t punk per se, and new wave hadn’t been coined yet, but their angular attack on the pop music form fit right alongside Television in the CBGB scene, forming a perfect square with the Ramones and Blondie. As is the case with many bands starting out, their first album stands somewhat apart from what would come after, mostly because they hadn’t landed on a certain producer yet.

Throughout Talking Heads: 77, David Byrne twitches, yodels and hiccups his way through lyrics that could best be described as “quirky”, sometimes hitting the notes, too. Even four decades later, it’s hard to tell if his persona is manufactured or authentic. (See? Rivers Cuomo isn’t such an innovator after all.)

The music is equally quirky, and sometimes just plain goofy. Even past its title, “Uh Oh, Love Comes To Town” features a steel drum solo. “New Feeling” pogoes along while David has a conniption, while “Tentative Decisions” starts slinky before finding a military march and singalong chorus of sorts. “Happy Day” follows the same musical structure of verse, pre-chorus and chorus, but with dreamy keyboards and bells, and one still expects the same lyrics on the chorus. For simple geek rock, it’s tough to beat “Who Is It?”, made more striking when followed by “No Compassion”, which seems to stop about three times before its actual end.

Side two seems to have more immediately catchy tracks, beginning with “The Book I Read”, which could even pass for a love song. “Don’t Worry About The Government” is more along the lines of a stereotypical Byrne lyric, even with the trilling mandolin effect. “First Week/Last Week… Carefree” utilizes marimbas and percussion for a quasi-tropical sound, with a saxophone that seems to predict Haircut 100, and a prominent “i-yi-yi-yi” hook that is used much better on the next track. That would be “Psycho Killer”, still the best song on the album and the best use of both Byrne persona and band sound. Whatever concern any listener may get from that dark portrait is easily brushed aside by the infectious silliness of “Pulled Up”.

Talking Heads: 77 does improve with familiarity, and there are people out there who think this is one of the greatest debuts by any band ever. Personally, we’re more into Television. (True to tradition, their first single wasn’t included on their first album, but today you can get an expanded CD that includes “Love -> Buildings On Fire” and marvel at the mariachi horns, along with some other B-sides and outtakes.)

Talking Heads Talking Heads: 77 (1977)—3
2005 CD reissue: same as 1977, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Smithereens 6: God Save The Smithereens

Towards the end of last century, new record labels were popping up left and right. Some were subsidiaries of the majors, and despite their best intentions would be all but wiped out once the majors began consolidating. But many were affiliated with some of the more independent distributors, and were run by music geeks who wanted to give some of their old heroes a fresh outlet.

One of these labels was Velvel, which began as a vanity label for the former head of Columbia Records, but soon spearheaded some comprehensive Kinks reissues. It also released Pat DiNizio’s little-heard solo album, and greenlit a new full-fledged Smithereens album.

After five years of no hits, constant gigging, and quite possibly the detour provided by that solo album, God Save The Smithereens isn’t a complete return to form, but wisely avoids any gimmicks. It’s simply a pile of tracks that sound like the band, with crackling drums, loud guitars, and DiNizio’s usual dour croon. “She’s Got A Way” gets a spirited backing the title deserves, before the left turn of “House At The End Of The World”, a collaboration with the otherwise little-known Carrie Akre. “Everything Changes”, “Flowers In The Blood” and “Someday” follow the usual sad path, but “The Long Loneliness” hints at something more upbeat. It’s probably as slow as it is, as any faster it would end up a lot shorter than 1:39.

There’s something a little jazzy about “The Age Of Innocence”, and not just because of the trombone and its being followed by a take on “Gloomy Sunday”. “I Believe” is up there with any of their best tunes, and “All Revved Up” manages to evoke the Beach Boys without being obvious. “Even If I Never Get Back Home” has a nice backwards guitar part at the end, and both “Try” and “The Last Good Time” deviate just enough to sound fresh (for them), sporting chords that hint at dissonance but manage to work.

Given the fluctuating appeal of power pop at that time, God Save The Smithereens could have been welcomed, and even a hit. It wasn’t. The band wouldn’t release a new album for several years, save a few gimmicks we may or may not get to. (For no reason we can determine, the album was reissued in a Deluxe Edition some six years later, augmented not only by some unreleased demos, but Pat DiNizio’s album on a second disc, with live performances and demos tacked at the end of that.)

The Smithereens God Save The Smithereens (1999)—3
2005 Deluxe Edition: same as 1999, plus 27 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Tears For Fears 7: Saturnine Martial & Lunatic

Before the expanded CD reissue became ubiquitous, the rarities album was the common (not to mention cheapest) method for gathering various castoffs outside of a band’s more easily acquirable releases. The Smiths, Elvis Costello and R.E.M. are just a few artists whose “B-sides” albums rank up with their better work, but the arithmetic doesn’t always compute for everyone.

Saturnine Martial & Lunatic arrived at an odd time for Tears For Fears fans, released by the label that dropped them before another label released the album they’d finished, which didn’t exactly set the world on simmer. And while TFF had amassed a pile of rarities over the years, there’s usually a reason why something is a B-side. For example, “The Big Chair” isn’t the lost title track from that album, but an instrumental experiment featuring sound bites from the movie Sybil, which inspired it. A little better is “When In Love With A Blind Man”, but only because it shares a melody and piano part with “The Working Hour”. “Pharaohs” seems like another odd experiment, but turns out to be a slow instrumental of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” with a shipping forecast on top.

A third of the tracks come from the Roland-only era, like “New Star”, which even made it to a movie soundtrack. And it wouldn’t be a rarities collection without wacky covers—in this case, “Sad Song” by Robert Wyatt and Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” in a carbon copy. But by including some very self-deprecating liner notes and ending with “The Way You Are”, a top 30 single they didn’t even include on their hits album because they hated it so much, the overall mood here is an album that can be left aside.

Tears For Fears Saturnine Martial & Lunatic (1996)—2

Friday, March 3, 2017

Sting 13: 57th & 9th

Surprise! Sting rocks again! Dreams come true! Prayers are answered!

All this would be cause for celebration if electric guitar and drums permeated throughout 57th & 9th, but they don’t. While they are more prominent for the first time in 20 years, they still take a back seat to his close-miked breathy voice, which in hindsight has been one of the real problems of most of his work in this century.

Case in point: both “50,000” and “Down, Down, Down”—tracks 2 and 3—begin with driving riffs and steady rhythms, but he pulls the plug on the momentum with each verse, only turning it up on the choruses. And the chorus of “Down, Down, Down” is a little too close to that of the opening track, “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” (which makes reference to “a winter’s night”, which is either coincidence or a particularly snarky reference to a previous album).

If it sounds like we’re picking on the guy, it’s because he should know better. For all his talk of the “spontaneity” that went into this album of “rock ‘n roll”, it still sounds just as labored as his efforts to write a song in 9/8 or in French. While the first three tracks have moments, we have to wait until “One Fine Day” for an effortlessly, thoroughly catchy tune, albeit one about the endangered environment. “Pretty Young Soldier” is musically smooth as well, even if the lyric about a medieval woman enlisting with not-so-ironic results is a little tired.

“Petrol Head” is the one attempt to really Rock, but his delivery works against the labored (and inconsistently mixed) automotive metaphors. Things get really quiet on “Heading South On The Great North Road”, something of an elegy for the departed (along with “50,000”) with only the patient Dominic Miller on guitar. As mentioned elsewhere, “If You Can’t Love Me” does indeed echo some of the jazz touches from his first solo albums, building infectious tension and genuine anguish. The traveling theme continues on “Inshallah”, a refugee’s prayer and a risky move in these contentious times, but that’s what he does. Finally there’s the voice from beyond in “The Empty Chair”, a subtle benediction inspired by death.

Perhaps it’s best to approach 57th & 9th not as a Sting album, but as just an album, with no legacy hanging over it. There are good songs here, and excellent performances. He just needs to redo the vocals.

Sting 57th & 9th (2016)—3