Friday, April 28, 2017

Marshall Crenshaw 4: Mary Jean & 9 Others

In 1987, it wasn’t enough to write catchy songs and record them well. John Mellencamp had the “heartland sound” pretty much sown up, hair metal was creeping in, and record buyers were fairly selective in their nostalgia. One of the bigger movie hits that summer was the Richie Valens biopic La Bamba, which brought Los Lobos their biggest hit. Meanwhile, in the same film, Marshall Crenshaw played the role of Buddy Holly, which translated to little public interest in his fourth album, in shops around the same time.

Mary Jean & 9 Others is a suitably retro title, but makes the mistake of not putting the actual name of the potential hit single in the title. Still, This Is Easy & 9 Others mightn’t have grabbed many eyes on the shelf either, given the poorly lit photo on the cover, which depicts Marshall with brother Bob (back on drums) and the high-stacked hair of Graham Maby, on loan from Joe Jackson’s band. “This Is Easy” remains a great tune, and would eventually be used as the title of a turn-of-the-century best-of.

Given that fantastic start, much of the album follows his established template of catchy melodies, simple chords (save the occasional major-seventh), rockabilly rhythms and hooky choruses. One unfortunate sidestep is “This Street”, with its processed guitars and electronic drums, sounding much like a demo. He was no slouch at recording demos, but this one simply doesn’t fit the sound of the album. “They Never Will Know”, which closes the set, is more of a slow dance, but not too slow.

“Calling Out For Love (At Crying Time)” and “Somebody’s Crying” may have a word in common, but are both standouts. The closest thing what could be called the album’s title track is certainly toe-tappin’, but pales slightly in comparison to “For Her Love” (which it closely resembles structure-wise) from his second album. In the tradition of obscure covers, this album’s contribution is a subtly rocking “Steel Strings”, from former Plimsoul Peter Case’s critically acclaimed solo debut the year before.

That track tops five minutes, and most of the songs on Mary Jean & 9 Others are over four; perhaps with only ten songs in his arsenal he was hesitant to shorten them, lest the album seem too short. In an alternate universe, his version of “Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’” from the La Bamba soundtrack might have joined the other “Crying” songs to entice consumers, but we should hope that in any alternate universe, he’s sold more records than he has in this one.

Marshall Crenshaw Mary Jean & 9 Others (1987)—3

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Gene Clark 7: Two Sides To Every Story

For most of his solo career, Gene Clark’s albums had all been worth at least hearing by many more than the people who took the time to do so. But yelling into a vacuum can only do so much, and sometimes one’s creativity suffers. By the time Two Sides To Every Story came out, he’d become a footnote to the record industry, and the album didn’t help his situation any. (RSO was the label, amazingly, and they did a better job pushing the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton.) Various stellar players appear, but it was likely just another session to them.

“Home Run King” is packed with imagery that hints at social commentary, but it’s lashed to bluegrass track that just doesn’t fit. “Lonely Saturday” is a step in the right direction, but it’s a well-worn theme. After a truly and unnecessarily jaunty bounce through “In The Pines”, he barely sounds like himself on “Kansas City Southern”, though the “lonesome sound” coda has promise. It’s not until the heartbreaking “Give My Love To Marie” by James Talley that we finally have something that ranks with his best.

That mood continues on side two with his own “Sister Moon”, which features Emmylou Harris prominently in the background choir. Even the synthesizer melds nicely with the strings. A cover of “Marylou” goes back to the honky tonk songs on side one; it’s good, but it will only inspire comparison to versions by Bob Seger and Steve Miller, and no thank you. It does make “Hear The Wind” more welcome, for all its ordinariness, but that’s not a label we can put on “Past Addresses”, which has all the ingredients in the right combination. The seagull effects notwithstanding, “Silent Crusade” is a very nice “I’m sailing away” song, and ends the set nicely.

We’d like to say even one of the Two Sides To Every Story is worth hearing, but where earlier albums put a unique spin on country rock and its potential, most of what we hear is cliché and ordinary. That’s too bad for the handful of standouts, but he probably knew he couldn’t get away with an album full of downers. So it goes.

Gene Clark Two Sides To Every Story (1977)—2

Friday, April 21, 2017

Elton John 4: Friends

Being the good professional songwriters they’d longed to be, Elton John and Bernie Taupin took seriously the task of composing the soundtrack to a film. If the film in question was a hit, they’d get noticed, and if it failed, at least they got paid. Friends was not a box-office smash, nor did it get kind reviews. The accompanying soundtrack album did manage to chart, however, most likely because Elton already had two hit albums in the U.S., and his star was rising.

We haven’t seen the film, and don’t plan to, but having read a few synopses online we can imagine that the music supports the apparent Romeo & Juliet Meets The Blue Lagoon In Rural France plot just fine. In the context of innocent young love the grownups don’t understand, Elton’s pretty melodies and Bernie’s sweet sentiments do have a universal appeal outside a movie theater, nudged along by Paul Buckmaster arrangements. The title track was even a minor hit single, being a simple celebration of emotion under two and half minutes. “Michelle’s Song” is of a similar sentiment and approach, and a better choice for a wedding song. The very pretty “Seasons” appears twice, first at the tail of a piece dominated by oboe, and again at the close as a reprise.

Roughly half of the album is devoted to orchestral music, mostly “variations” on themes used in the songs, with one piece used under a “poetic recitation” and an 11-minute plod seemingly culled from four separate cues. Luckily, Elton had some snappier numbers on hand, likely composed independent of the project at hand. “Honey Roll” is very much along the lines of the cowboy boogie of Tumbleweed Connection, and might even be an early draft of some of those songs. “Can I Put You On” is another midtempo rocker that even made it into his live set.

Originally released on a budget label, Friends got lost in the crowd of the other albums he’d put out in such a short period of time, and usually got noticed only after the fact in bargain bins. To date its only digital appearance has been via the 1992 Rare Masters collection, and a good place for it. Even the non-vocal (and non-Elton) tracks are included, although the original sequence has been slightly shuffled, disturbing the balance somewhat. But at least the music hasn’t been lost for good.

Elton John Original Soundtrack Recording From The Paramount Picture “Friends” (1971)—3
Current CD equivalent: Rare Masters

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Morphine 5: The Night

At the risk of sounding crass, the prize for most “rock ‘n roll” death goes to a man who actually died onstage. Morphine was playing a show in Italy, when Mark Sandman collapsed from cardiac arrest mid-song and never recovered. Besides putting an end to his band, it colored the reception of what would be their already-completed album.

At a whopping 50 minutes, The Night is the longest album in their catalog. While based, as ever, around that voices and those saxes, new (for them) instruments are heard throughout the album, more than before. Three songs even have female backup singers.

Lilah, namechecked on Like Swimming, appears to be the muse on the title track, which mixes Sandman’s own piano and Jane Scarpantoni’s cello for a rainy lament. A Tom Waits-style rumba with organ underpins the riveting “So Many Ways”, and piano takes over for “Souvenir”, with less tension and more familiar sounds. They get positively funky (again, for them) on “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer”, the organ provided by John Medeski. Lilah is pushed aside for one Martha Lee on “Like A Mirror”, which has a great couplet buried under a robotic beat. “A Good Woman Is Hard To Find” fades in, almost as if it were caught mid-performance, and is another contender for a mainstream hit.

“Rope On Fire” has a distinct Mideastern feel, with flavored strings and percussion; it could almost pass for adult contemporary world music, and that’s meant in a good way. The only percussion heard on “I’m Yours, You’re Mine” is a high-hat, unless there’s another beat buried in there somewhere, giving the song a ticking tension that threatens to explode with the organ and synth but doesn’t. Drums are all we hear on “The Way We Met”, which deserves a better backing. “Slow Numbers” is clever, recalling the mood, music and feel of the Rykodisc albums. The effect of somber Celtic fiddles dominates “Take Me With You”, which repeats the title enough to sound like an epitaph. The backing vocals sound tacked on, and that’s a shame.

It’s a bigger shame that The Night is the last Morphine album, and it’s not the first time a band’s promise was cut short. Not all of the tracks sound finished, begging the moot question: Was the released product his vision preserved, or an interpretation thereof?

Morphine The Night (2000)—3

Friday, April 14, 2017

Faces 2: Long Player

The next Faces album sported minimal cover art, a throwback to the days when records came in plain sleeves with only the label showing for identification. Interestingly, it wasn’t identical all over the globe; the British version even had “stitches” keeping the cardboard together. This is a good metaphor for the grab-bag nature of the tunes within Long Player.

“Bad ‘N Ruin” opens with a decent riff, barely bothering to change chords. Ron Wood solos constantly, as he was wont to do. “Tell Everyone” and “Sweet Lady Mary” are slower, sensitive tunes sung by Rod Stewart, but not as slow as the bottleneck-heavy “Richmond”, sung by Ronnie Lane. Then we’re transformed to the Fillmore East for a decent live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, less than a year after anyone heard Paul McCartney’s original recording. Ronnie takes the first verse, then Rod takes over, even starting to sing the song again after the band’s stopped. (A studio take was issued around the same time as a single.)

It’s back to the barrelhouse for “Had Me A Real Good Time”, eventually bringing in horns after the fake ending. “On The Beach” has all the audio quality of a rehearsal, but still sounds very together. It’s back to the Fillmore for a lengthy skip through Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good”, complete with call-and-response from the crowd. Woody’s dobro rendition of the hymn “Jerusalem” closes the album, and provides something of a bridge to the next Rod Stewart solo album.

Long Player is good, and fun. Sounds like it, anyway. By not evenly laying out the slow tunes, the raveups, the acoustic ones and the boogies, it never gets stuck in a rut. We could use a little more Ronnie Lane and less Ronnie Wood, but that’s us.

Faces Long Player (1971)—3

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Van Morrison 33: Skiffle Sessions and You Win Again

Just as his previous label was willing to indulge him, so did Van Morrison’s current corporate home. Having moved more than a few copies of his last album, they went ahead and approved the release of two side projects within the same year.

Most kids in the post-war UK found their way to rock ‘n roll via skiffle, an offshoot of what used to be called “trad jazz” and best popularized by Lonnie Donegan, who played with Chris Barber’s band. Both men get equal billing (below Van) on The Skiffle Sessions, culled from two concerts in Belfast. Lonnie does most of the singing, as he should, and his voice hasn’t deteriorated at all over the years. It’s an enjoyable overview of the folk and blues traditionals that made up standard skiffle repertoires, complete with washboard, and would be just as enjoyable without Van, whose gruff vocals certainly stick out. Still, this album likely sent some checks to the other fellows, and having Dr. John on a few tracks probably helped too.

A much different, slightly more focused collaboration came in the form of a duet album with Linda Gail Lewis, otherwise known as Jerry Lee’s sister. You Win Again collects even more country and blues covers, mostly from Hank Williams and his disciples. For those of us who’d never heard of her before, and we’d be surprised if anyone had, Linda Gail has a fine voice, and when combined with Van, conveys a lot of fun. A couple of tracks seem to hint at the piano-pounding style of her brother, but otherwise it’s very similar to Van’s retro style, but with more twang. It does include one original, the goofy and strangely appealing “No Way Pedro”.

Both albums are certainly worth the plastic on which they’re printed, but are hardly essential. He’d already spent most of his career paying tribute to his influences and idols, so if anything, The Skiffle Sessions and You Win Again provide proof that he could still enjoy his “job”, onstage and off.

Van Morrison, Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber The Skiffle Sessions—Live In Belfast (2000)—3
Van Morrison & Linda Gail Lewis
You Win Again (2000)—3

Friday, April 7, 2017

Pink Floyd 19: The Early Years

As they’d promised, each of the volumes (save the bonus mop-up set) in Pink Floyd’s massive The Early Years 1967-1972 box set were made available individually, making it a little easier for fans on a budget to not only acquire the sets, but make time to ingest them. In addition to the music, the DVD and Blu-ray portions of each provide tons of audio-visual material, performance footage and the like, as well as some rare quad mixes and (supposedly) a 5.1 surround mix of Meddle. As we’re all about audio here, that’s what interests us most.

1965-1967: Cambridge St/ation: This is the set for Syd Barrett fanatics, as most of the tunes began in his head. Opening with six tracks recorded at the start of 1965, we can hear the early R&B influence not very well translated by the players, Syd’s voice sounding more like intentional parody. (Roger Waters’ songwriting contribution is certainly intended to be humorous.) All the non-LP single sides are here, along with the alternate of “Matilda Mother”, “Jugband Blues”, the previously unreleased “In The Beechwoods”, and (finally) “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream”. The second disc is devoted to a live performance in Sweden (historic for hearing Syd in concert; demerits for nearly inaudible vocals) and a half-hour of experimental noodling for an avant-garde film project.

1968: Germin/ation: This transitional period, breaking in David Gilmour, is somewhat limited in unheard music, except to put the two singles and their B-sides in context. There are two incomplete tracks from a mid-summer session, one of which sounds like a prototype for “Cymbaline” but for the wacky time changes, the other a Waters piece that seems to have a nativity influence. The bulk of the disc is made up of two BBC radio appearances, including an early take of “Embryo” and one of six live performances of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” scattered throughout the audio portions of the volumes.

1969: Dramatis/ation: The band still finding their way, we get some outtakes from the More soundtrack, including a piece called “Hollywood” that bridges the gap from the untitled piece on the 1968 set with “Cymbaline”. The lone studio take of “Embryo” leads to a BBC session featuring a three-minute “Eugene” and songs that would end up on Ummagumma, followed by four tracks recorded live in Amsterdam, heavy on the slow jamming (“Eugene” now ten minutes), light on vocals. A slightly later performance in Amsterdam makes up the second disc; this is the much-bootlegged performance of two suites, The Man and The Journey, that dominated that summer’s tour. Most of the songs were from already-released albums, and bridged with further jamming and sound effects. It’s more historic than groundbreaking, particularly considering David’s failure to hit the high notes on “The Narrow Way”.

1970: Devi/ation: The “Atom Heart Mother” suite took over the sets at this time, and it appears here in three lengthy but discrete versions in reverse chronological order spaced throughout: a band-only live performance in Switzerland; a BBC performance with orchestra and choir; and a “studio runthrough” from before the orchestra and voices had been added. The balance of the first disc is dedicated to the rest of that radio appearance, with another long “Embryo”, another long “Eugene”, another “Green Is The Colour”, and two songs from side two of Atom Heart Mother. Most of the second disc is devoted to outtakes from their work on the Zabriskie Point soundtrack. Predominantly instrumental, a little spacey, the standouts are the Laurel Canyon folkie pastiche “Crumbling Land” and “The Riot Scene”, which is more familiar now as the chords to “Us And Them”.

1971: Reverber/ation: While only five songs, this isn’t the shortest audio installment in the set, but it could be the most solid. Following the “Nothing” work-in-progress excerpt is a full hour-long BBC concert, with lengthy versions of “Embryo” (again, but no kiddie effects) and “Fat Old Sun”, faithful reproductions of “One Of These Days” and “Echoes”, and those wonderful John Peel intros. The band was tight, having shed much of the meandering that dominated the preceding years.

1972: Obfusc/ation: The CD portion of the announced package was to consist solely of the remixed Obscured By Clouds, but thanks to a “mistake”, the audio from the Live At Pompeii performance was included as well. That’s a nice surprise bonus, particularly if you don’t mind two more versions of “Eugene”. In addition to sounding great, it shows how earlier “freeform” jams like “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” and “Saucerful Of Secrets” still made sense among the newer explorations from Meddle.

In theory, fans could benefit from the piecemeal availability depending on how they feel about certain phases of the band, e.g. pro- or anti-Syd, or a strong preference or hatred for a particular album. Between sound quality and performance, some volumes are simply more palatable than others. Chances are, for most Floyd heads, if they’re in for one, they’re in for all.

Pink Floyd The Early Years 1965-1967: Cambridge St/ation (2017)—3
Pink Floyd
The Early Years 1968: Germin/ation (2017)—3
Pink Floyd
The Early Years 1969: Dramatis/ation (2017)—3
Pink Floyd
The Early Years 1970: Devi/ation (2017)—
Pink Floyd
The Early Years 1971: Reverber/ation (2017)—4
Pink Floyd
The Early Years 1972: Obfusc/ation (2017)—4

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Kinks 8: Live Kinks

For various reasons, mostly bureaucratic, the Kinks didn’t tour America for most of the ‘60s. They were, however, shackled to the theater circuit all over the UK and other countries, where they appeared on bills with six other bands and played for about half an hour a show. One of these shows was recorded and released in the U.S. under the title The Live Kinks, and the following year elsewhere as Live At Kelvin Hall (that being the venue in Glasgow where it was recorded) and with a better cover.

As was the norm, what listeners heard on their hi-fis most likely included recordings made far away from Kelvin Hall and the screaming audience that overpowers the mix. The set, while a bit sluggish, presents competent reproductions of hit singles and recent album tracks, the only real rarity being a medley that finds its way from “Milk Cow Blues” through the Batman theme to “Tired Of Waiting For You” and back to “Milk Cow Blues”. Dreamy Dave Davies gets to sing lead on two songs, and he and Ray try to engage the crowd (who know the words to “Sunny Afternoon” and can be heard singing “Happy Birthday” at one point, but we don’t to whom). The band doesn’t sound terrible, and there’s probably a great performance buried under the audience noise. But it was just another day for the Kinks, who by all accounts were more occupied that month with a new song of Ray’s called “Waterloo Sunset”.

While other Kinks albums have been lavishly repackaged with each reissue, this one has only gotten as deluxe as having both mono and stereo mixes on one CD, with the international title and cover. Each reissue has also correctly listed the first track as “Till The End Of The Day”, whereas the original LP wrongly had it as “All Day And All Of The Night”.

The Kinks The Live Kinks (1967)—3