Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Genesis 13: Three Sides Live

It might seem odd for a band to put out a double live album only five years after their previous one, but Genesis had definitely evolved, in the true definition of the word, in the meantime. Since the departure of Steve Hackett, Daryl Stuermer had supplemented Mike Rutherford on guitar and bass, while Chester Thompson remained on the backline, occasionally joined by Phil Collins for double drums.

Most of the set relies on recent albums, replicating some of the more popular tracks from Abacab and Duke. “Behind The Lines” melds into “Duchess” as expected, complete with drum machine. “Turn It On Again” and “Misunderstanding” are transformed into peppier arrangements, while “Abacab” is extended to a full ending. While it may not have been familiar to new fans, the “In The Cage” medley on side three is a highlight, incorporating parts of “The Cinema Show” and the “Slippermen” sequence from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, slowing just enough down to turn into “Afterglow”. (Remember, unlike his bandmates, Tony Banks was the only guy onstage playing his particular instruments.)

Even being their third such compilation, Three Sides Live only made sense as a title in America and a handful of other countries that did indeed include studio tracks on side four of the LP. “Paperlate” is punchy horn-driven Collins pop, right along the lines of “No Reply At All” and arguably superior, though “You Might Recall” is less successful and borderline cheesy. Then there’s “Me And Virgil”, a trouble-on-the-farm song that pales in comparison to “The Roof Is Leaking”. (All three were originally released as a British EP called 3x3, with wonderfully Beatlesque packaging, and even liner notes by Tony Barrow!) “Evidence Of Autumn” and “Open Door” were both slow and pretty B-sides from the Duke sessions; the former takes time to build but has a gorgeous verse, the latter not as gorgeous but still nice.

Since the album was standardized worldwide, those songs disappeared from the CD reissues, though they have appeared on the occasional box set. In their place, as it was in the UK and elsewhere, are three further live tracks from earlier tours. “One For The Vine” is drearier onstage, but Phil does a nice job singing “Fountain Of Salmacis”. A medley of “It” finding its way to the non-vocal parts of “Watcher Of The Skies” comes from 1976, when Steve Hackett was still in the band and Bill Bruford was on drums.

Genesis Three Sides Live (1982)—3

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jack Grace 3: Everything I Say Is A Lie

By his own admission, Jack Grace can easily write “funny” songs, as evidenced by some of the tracks in his catalog. Rather than get typecast as a novelty act, Everything I Say Is A Lie puts the emphasis on his capabilities as a songwriter. One hint is that the album is credited to just him, and not the Jack Grace Band.

Musically, it runs the gamut from country and folk to rock and blues, with different keyboards helping to expose his early obsession with the Beatles. “Burned By The Moonlight” begins with a hint of the mariachi influence that colored his last album, but soon turns to a bluesy shuffle. “Get Out Of Brooklyn” provides both history and a contemporary portrait of the hip borough, complete with banjo. “Run To Me” has some swampy electric piano, leading into the acoustic Neil Young stylings of “Being Poor”. “So We Run”, which closes the album, is a psychedelic folk song in a variety of tempos and a wonderful open tuning.

Producer and veteran cowpunk Eric Ambel provides lead guitar all over the place, and the radiant Daria Grace offers her exquisite harmonies and bass guitar, but the big surprise is two appearances by Norah Jones, singing a duet on the grungy “Bad Wind Blowing” and joining in the responses for the classic title track, right up to the key change guaranteed to stand the hair on your neck. Lest anyone worry that he’s gone all serious on us, “Kanye West (I Hear That You’re The Best)” skewers that guy and many other media sensations, and should keep Jack from being invited to perform at any awards ceremonies anytime soon. Their loss, because “I Like You” is the kind of song any modern country singer can have a hit with just by sticking to his arrangement.

Everything I Say Is A Lie is short, at nine songs, but they’re all good. It’s a shame it’s over so quickly. Modern music industry shenanigans kept the album from general release for over two years; hopefully he’s written more in the meantime.

Jack Grace Everything I Say Is A Lie (2017)—4

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Journey 8: Raised On Radio

Steve Perry’s solo album was an early sign that Journey wouldn’t last without him, but they still managed to pull together an album that, for the first time in the Perry era, sported a title with more than one word. Raised On Radio found the singer defiantly in charge, credited as sole producer and bringing in players from his solo project to replace Ross Valory and Steve Smith. One report has them leaving “due to creative differences”, others say they were fired. Whatever the truth, their absence is felt big time.

With different sections in seemingly different keys, “Girl Can’t Help It” has enough of the established Journey vibe to pass, and it’s smart to start out that way. But “Positive Touch” would have been a great hit for the Pointer Sisters; here it’s just cheesy. And that saxophone? Good Lord. “Suzanne” is a vast improvement, providing a lovelorn lyric with yearning, keening chorus; one of their more underrated, ignored classics. “Be Good To Yourself” is the requisite pep talk, but might have been more effective as a side-opener or closer. Then we get funky with “Once You Love Somebody”, with a decent melody but a generic backing, and “Happy To Give” is about as far removed from rock as they’ve ever been.

The title track didn’t come with printed lyrics, although Perry and Cain are credited for them. Once you decipher the mushmouthed slurring, it’s merely a string of oldies song titles strung together over a rockin’ riff. Yet it makes the otherwise lightweight “I’ll Be Alright Without You” stand out, with its Greek-chorus asides and extended guitar solo. Something must have happened to Perry’s voice; already husky on the album, he doesn’t sound like himself until the first chorus of “It Could Have Been You”. “The Eyes Of A Woman” is another one that would have sold buckets of a solo album, but there’s no denying the lighters-in-the-arena potential of “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever”, which might as well be “Faithfully” played backwards, with lyrics equally applicable to a lover as they are to you: the true fans.

Raised On Radio was great if you loved Street Talk. But longtime fans who were already uncomfortable with the encroaching adult contemporary influence on a band that developed from the fancy fretwork of Santana would resent Neal Schon for going along with something so by the numbers. Then again, nobody had conceived of Bad English or Hardline yet, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Naturally, Journey toured to promote the album, with newcomers Randy Jackson resembling a portly Clarence Clemons on bass and the decidedly non-photogenic Mike Baird on drums. The setlists included two songs from the Perry solo album and a few covers as encores. (The expanded CD includes live versions of “Girl Can’t Help It” and “I’ll Be Alright Without You”, as previously heard on the videos for said songs.) And that would be it for a long time.

Journey Raised On Radio (1986)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1986, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, June 16, 2017

Replacements 8: All Shook Down

What would be the final Replacements album wasn’t really a Replacements album at all. All Shook Down was a full-fledged Paul Westerberg solo album, in the auteur’s mind anyway, with the other Replacements used where he felt necessary, but often passed over for different drummers and guitarists. Surprisingly, the chosen co-producer was Scott Litt, then in the midst of a multi-album run with R.E.M.

The slashing chords of “Merry Go Round” put the sound right in line with the more radio-friendly direction of the last album, though “One Wink At A Time” immediately turns off the main road with studiously picked acoustics and honking sax. The highlight of the album, and among the best songs Westerberg ever wrote, is “Nobody”, an all-too-real wedding song, toast and kiss-off all at once. The barely contained anger bursts out on “Bent Out Of Shape”, another terrific rocker, and slides back to melancholy for “Sadly Beautiful”, which features a viola solo by the one and only John Cale. “Someone Take The Wheel” provides a bit of upbeat relief, and seems to describe both a failing marriage and a failing band.

The same summation could be applied to “When It Began”, amazingly chosen as the second single from the album to go along with the band’s last tour. The title track is barely there, a half-asleep recitation of non-sequiturs over heavy breathing and recorders. “Attitude” is supposedly the only track that includes the whole band and not session players, and in a perfect world there’d be a nastier electric version that surpasses this polite strum. “Happy Town” gets a boost from Benmont Tench on organ, while the all-too-brief “Torture” is all guitars, with just a tambourine and a harmonica solo. Another special guest is Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, lending her wail to the duet of “My Little Problem”. (He would also collaborate with fellow Les Paul Junior aficionado Joan Jett around this time on “Backlash”, even appearing in the song’s video, but her album bombed.) Finally, “The Last” crosses the lounge style of “Nightclub Jitters” with a less glamorous portrait of yet another drunk.

While not the popular opinion, All Shook Down is a highly underrated album. It may not have been what fans wanted, but as a collection of songs both written and performed well, it holds up. Of the bonus tracks included on the eventual expansion, seven are Westerberg demos, two of which for songs that didn’t make the final album: the very fragile, unsettling “Tiny Paper Plane”, and “Kissin’ In Action”, probably the most “Mats-sounding” track of all when it eventually appeared on the wonderfully titled promo Don’t Sell Or Buy, It’s Crap. That rare disc also included “Ought To Get Love”, a rowdy leftover from the Don’t Tell A Soul sessions, and Tommy Stinson’s excellent writing debut, “Satellite”; both are welcome here.

Personal footnote: Those of us who awaited the album’s release found ourselves in quite the quandary, as it was sold only on cassette or CD in the U.S. Hence, any acquisition would end up filed all alone in a rack far away from its vinyl brothers. (It was available on the fading format in Germany, although a mispress reportedly resulted in side one consisting of duets by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.) Now that vinyl is all the rage at inflated prices, All Shook Down can be procured more readily. Or not.

The Replacements All Shook Down (1990)—4
2008 CD reissue: same as 1990, plus 11 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Rush 10: Exit Stage Left

Four studio albums meant it was time for a double live album, and Rush complied, at the height of their game. In addition to another clever theater phrase, Exit… Stage Left bridges the transition from lengthy prog epics to synthesizer-driven music. Most of the music comes from the previous four albums, with the exception of two songs on side two, which was recorded on a tour a year before the rest of the tracks.

Even with the silence between tracks, it holds together as a solid piece, crashing open with “Spirit Of Radio”, jumping on “Red Barchetta” and extending “YYZ” with a three-minute drum solo. The middle of the album provides context for those who came in at either Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures, tossing in the stadium-friendly “Closer To The Heart” and “The Trees”, the latter preceded by an instrumental prelude called “Broon’s Bane”, which got kids working on their fingerpicking. At twelve minutes, “Xanadu” may try patience, or it may send them back to the mall to pick up the earlier albums. It’s back to the hits on side four, with the socko punch of “Freewill” and “Tom Sawyer”, with “La Villa Strangiato” as the grand finale.

Outside of the lengths of some of the tunes, there’s not a lot of difference between the recordings on Exit… Stage Left and the original albums; Rush was never a band that improvised, and the fans didn’t want that anyway. But in the absence of greatest hits, it delivers enough of the experience to keep those kids buying concert tickets, and geared up for the next album.

Rush Exit… Stage Left (1981)—

Friday, June 9, 2017

Oasis 4: The Masterplan

Like all good British bands, Oasis had amassed a pile of B-sides for all the singles they’d released over the span of three albums. Most of these have been included on expanded 21st-century versions of those albums, but back when the band was still fresh, 14 of them were put together on The Masterplan.

Besides keeping these songs available, the set nicely reinforces Noel Gallagher as a performer in his own right. The orchestral pomp of the title track just wouldn’t fit with Liam’s sneer anyway. Noel’s acoustic busk of “Morning Glory” bookends “Acquiesce”, and he also sings the choruses in between Liam’s verses. “Talk Tonight” is a wonderfully sensitive plea for sanity, while “Going Nowhere” suffers from the Bacharach overload of the time. Speaking of which, “Half The World Away” bears a strong resemblance to “This Guy’s In Love With You”, but only in the main theme and a few of the chords. While we’re at it, “Listen Up” resembles “Supersonic” from the first album, but has some intricate (for Noel) modulations over the chorus that make it the better song; perhaps such touches kept it a B-side. “Headshrinker” is blown open with a great Stonesy riff, making a nice diversion from the usually worn influences.

Still, some of the songs were better as B-sides. “The Swamp Song”, excerpted as interludes on the Morning Glory album, is interesting to hear once in total, while the accordion diversion at the end of “(It’s Good) To Be Free” is just silly. And although their loud, live plow through “I Am The Walrus” wouldn’t have sat well on an album, it’s great to have here.

As only two of the tracks come from singles released to promote Be Here Now, The Masterplan might have made for a better third album than the overblown mess that did come out. Instead it became a nice reminder what made the band so good in the first place, and might even have helped keep them relevant into the next century.

Oasis The Masterplan (1998)—

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Bruce Springsteen 22: Wrecking Ball

Nearly four decades into his recording career, the inevitability of Rolling Stone magazine giving every Bruce Springsteen album a five-star review is nearly pathological. Granted, we’re no doctor, but sometimes it’s hard to believe we’re listening to the same album.

Wrecking Ball is the “angry” Bruce album, bemoaning the state of the union with a boomy sound and a lot of yelling, even for him. Part of that comes from the day’s headlines, but mostly because technology allows him to build his tracks himself, which keeps him from being reined in as he might in a band situation. Most of what’s left of the E Street Band are pasted in here and there, but overall it’s a collaboration with co-producer Ron Aniello. Between them, they cover most of the instruments, even drums. Even with real instruments, there’s a dependence on loops and samples that makes it all very sterile-sounding.

“We Take Care Of Our Own” begins with all the subtlety of a U2 anthem, but the glockenspiel or its equivalent soon gives away who it really is. It’s exactly what his fans hope for, but it doesn’t last. “Easy Money” is stuck somewhere between a drum machine and a campfire, with nursery rhyme-level lyrics; “Shackled And Drawn” has a slightly better hook. Then we come to “Jack Of All Trades”, which details all the things a workin’ man can do around the house to take care of his own during hard times. Meant to be stirring, it ends up maudlin, but hopefully somebody out there took some comfort from it. (The guitar solo comes from new best friend Tom Morello, best known from Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave.) “Death To My Hometown” is not a protest of the worst single from Born In The U.S.A. but another worker’s anthem sung in a brogue with backing to match. Despite its bombast (and another Tom Morello solo), “This Depression” manages to be a welcome return to more familiar Bruce.

The title track, inspired by the demolition of many of the stadiums he once filled, is pretty ordinary until the bridge about halfway through, which makes the return to the opening motif a smooth one. “You’ve Got It” provides another respite in the form of a basic love song without any sociological agenda, but it’s not one of his better ones. The most daring track is “Rocky Ground”, which uses a gospel sample and refrain, even including a rap; the song deserves a more stripped-down approach to be more effective. The fake gospel overtone carries over to “Land Of Hope And Dreams”, first heard over a decade earlier on a live album, now re-recorded with one of Clarence’s solos flown in. “We Are Alive” begins with the sound of a needle in dead wax, and soon stomps along as a modern Woody Guthrie song, its message deflated by mariachi horns right out of “Ring Of Fire”.

The album proper ends there, but any Boss fan worth his or her salt would have had to pick up the “Special Edition” for its two extra tracks. “Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale)” sounds like it comes from the same campfire as “We Are Alive”, and could work over the closing credits of a Coen brothers drama. Finally, “American Land”, first heard as part of the Seeger Sessions trip, gets a studio version here, and still sounds like the Pogues.

Despite the acknowledged highlights, Wrecking Ball is a lesser Springsteen album. We’ve let him slide before, and he’s allowed to experiment all he wants, but even he wouldn’t suggest that everything he’s done is gold.

Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball (2012)—

Friday, June 2, 2017

Grateful Dead 7: Skull & Roses

In the year following their first live double album, the Dead had recorded and released a pair of LPs that concentrated on succinct songwriting. They learned to use this concentrated approach onstage, where they were now down to five members, with just one drummer. Hence, their next live installment—also a double—reflected less of a lengthy, space jam approach and more of the tight country and blues covers they’d picked up along the way, and indeed made their own, to the point where only obsessives like ourselves know (or care) that other people wrote and recorded them first.

The album simply titled Grateful Dead by the record label has long been referred to by Deadheads (as christened on the inner gatefold) as “Skull & Roses”, due to its artwork and to differentiate it from the eponymous debut. A quick listen to the two similarly titled albums should dispel any confusion, as they almost sound like two different bands. Beginning with the confident gallop of “Bertha”, a Garcia-Hunter original, side one moves to Merle Haggard’s prison lament “Mama Tried” and the jugband revision of “Big Railroad Blues” before ending with the complicated textures and meter of “Playing In The Band”, spotlighting Bob Weir in the music he wrote. Side two is the album’s only concession to psychedelic jamming, being an 18-minute extension of “The Other One”, known previously to record-only fans as the first track from the second album. Keep in mind the first five minutes are devoted to a drum solo.

Side three is all covers: “Me And My Uncle”, written by Papa John Phillips and learned from a Judy Collins album; “Big Boss Man”, which gives Pigpen his moment in the dwindling spotlight; “Me And Bobby McGee”, captured a month after Janis Joplin’s version topped the charts; and the standard “Johnny B. Goode”, which shows just how much of the Dead’s sound came directly from Chuck Berry. Side four is split between another Garcia-Hunter original, the mournful “Wharf Rat”, and the medley of “Not Fade Away” and “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad”, establishing the Bo Diddley beat that they’d use for countless similar medleys over the duration of their career.

If one was so inclined, the “Skull & Roses” album could be shaved down to a single LP highlighting the band’s original compositions. Indeed, “Bertha”, “Playing In The Band” and “Wharf Rat” were sweetened in the studio, predominantly by Garcia buddy Merl Saunders on organ (as well as some unclarified pianist and doubling of the vocals on the latter track). With those on one side and “The Other One” on the other, it would have been a simple sequence, but that would have been at the expense of the covers that, again, loom large in the legend. And indeed, the album as a whole is one of their better sets, with a fresh live sound throughout that concentrates more on the music than the audience. The quick fades, however, can be a little frustrating.

Another double album that could fit on a single CD, the eventual expanded version added two more ‘50s vintage covers and the now-obligatory hidden radio ad. A few later vault releases have mined the era surrounding this album, most notably the four-CD Ladies And Gentlemen… The Grateful Dead, which scans through four of the Fillmore East shows out of the New York dates recorded for what would be the “Skull & Roses” album. (Interestingly, after Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty both used this period for their 50th Anniversary Deluxe Editions, the bonus disc for this album was taken from a Fillmore West show a few months later, but still before the release of the original album.)

Grateful Dead Grateful Dead (1971)—4
2003 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks
2021 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 10 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Ladies And Gentlemen… The Grateful Dead (2000)
     • Dick's Picks Volume 35 (2005)
     • Three From The Vault (2007)
     • Road Trips: Vol. 1, No 3: Summer ’71 (2008)
     • Winterland May 30th 1971 (2012)
     • Workingman’s Dead: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (2020)
     • American Beauty: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (2020)