Friday, July 28, 2017

Toad The Wet Sprocket 3: Fear

The label ponied up the cash for the third Toad album, and the investment paid off when Fear finally became an actual hit after several months of promotion and singles that didn’t stick. That is to say, the people that liked it loved it, and those that hated it couldn’t stand it.

The first thing we notice is that the soundscape is wider, bigger even. The band provides their own keyboards and mandolins, along with beefier guitars and louder drums, for an effect that’s more big stage than cramped living room. “Walk On The Ocean” eventually became a hit single when a remixed version gave it even more punch, but the song already had a singalong quality that evoked shared memories of some common experience. Even more vague, “Is It For Me” tells only part of the tale of poor Bradley and his broken leg. Weird as that is, “Butterflies” employs harmonies that sometimes recall Asia and a muffled spoken monologue that seems to predict a montage on the third Pearl Jam album. The weirdness ebbs briefly for “Nightingale Song”, just as impenetrable but still tame compared to what comes next. A truly frightening song when you pay close attention, “Hold Her Down” is based around a simple acoustic riff that the lead guitarist found even more fun to play on a Stratocaster, and words seem to describe just another gang rape at a frat house, the horror apparent in the delivery. It could only be followed by “Pray Your Gods”, a low-key mumble alternating with passionate choruses, closing on a repeated “dona nobis pacem”.

“Before You Were Born” spends a lot of time saying very little, reducing the chorus to a single note that still inspires fist-pumping in waltz-time. “Something To Say” is quieter, and more conducive to swaying, and belies the genre’s affection for the accordion. “In Your Ear” brings back the rock with some dynamics, but these days it’s best known as the song before “All I Want”, the song that made it all explode for them. It’s got everything that made a perfect alterna-hit in the early ‘90s: jangly electrics, chugging acoustics, catchy chorus, Hammond organ, a brief guitar solo sent through the Hammond’s Leslie speaker, ending on an unresolved chord. “Stories I Tell” returns to the claustrophobic sound of the first two albums, but breaking out for louder guitar noises. “I Will Not Take These Things For Granted” provides a sensitive oath to fade off into the sunset.

Chances are many folks bought Fear on cassette, but it’s unlikely many of them noticed how much both of the side-enders fit well with Sammy Hagar’s “Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy”. If they had, they needn’t have cared, since the album was produced so well and so full of earworms. Mashups hadn’t been invented yet anyway.

Toad The Wet Sprocket Fear (1991)—

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Joni Mitchell 16: Night Ride Home

Just as many of her contemporaries finally found their way out of the fog of the ‘80s, so did our Joni cap the decade, as well as her association with Geffen Records, with an album that we hesitate to call a return to form. Night Ride Home is almost entirely based around acoustic guitar, which is a good start. The tracks are filled out by the usual suspects—co-producer/then-husband Larry Klein on bass, Alex Acuña on percussion, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, even Wayne Shorter blowing sax on two tracks—but without the clatter and clutter that dogged her three previous albums.

That said, the title track uses crickets as a metronome, but they’re no match for the strong melody. A “Hejira”-like pattern drives “Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free)”, which somehow links the crucifixion of Christ with Exxon oil. Less obscure is “Cherokee Louise”, a haunting sketch of early adolescence where a happy ending seems impossible. It’s oddly juxtaposed with “The Windfall (Everything For Nothing)”, seemingly a tirade against a hired hand who felt financially shortchanged. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is very poetic, and rightfully so, being her musical re-setting of a Yeats piece.

While probably too long to be a hit single, “Come In From The Cold” is the most accessible track here, a slightly more wistful reminiscence of the same time period as “Cherokee Louise”, multiple Jonis forming a complex choir around the title. The music for “Nothing Can Be Done” is credited to Larry Klein, her lyrics seeming to be navigating the choppy waters of a relationship, with prominent vocal assistance from David Baerwald of David + David. “The Only Joy In Town” is a valentine to a “Botticelli black boy” she encountered in Rome, while “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac” goes back to her teenage years yet again; it’s the least successful of the trio, mostly because of how the title is repeated and repeated and repeated. What seals the album as truly worthwhile is the last track, where she plays piano for the first time in forever. “Two Grey Rooms” is a sad glimpse of unrequited love she swears isn’t autobiographical, and that’s why it resonates. Granted, there’s a rhythm section, and even strings, but those suspended chords bring joy to these ears.

Since we don’t offer ratings in quarter-point increments, we considered placing this album at a more conservative level, but when compared to her work of the previous ten years, it truly stands out. Although her devotion to cigarettes has ensured that she’ll never again sound like her first four albums, Night Ride Home is still a journey back to simplicity, and it’s about time.

Joni Mitchell Night Ride Home (1991)—

Friday, July 21, 2017

Daniel Lanois 5: Belladonna

Going on two decades after he’d become, if not a household name, a name that most people might recognize if they looked at some of the CDs in their collection, Daniel Lanois still dabbled in albums of his own music, but good luck knowing what to expect with each.

Belladonna was described in its initial press release as the natural culmination of his work with Brian Eno in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which is a stretch. Outside of occasional wordless vocals, it’s entirely instrumental, but doesn’t have the electronic coldness and distance of Eno’s ambient work. Rather, Lanois works in combos, usually around a standard rhythm section, then treating the sounds afterwards to capture the mood. There’s still distance, but it’s more evocative of a southwestern landscape in North America—or more specifically, Mexico. A dusty scene, if you will, and Eno’s never been dusty.

It’s his album, so he can describe it any way he likes, but different ears react in different ways. For something simply gorgeous, go to “Telco” and “Flametop Green”. If you’re looking for Eno-type sounds, try “Oaxaca” or “Todos Santos”. “The Deadly Nightshade” has treated guitars that remind us of Cluster, and “Desert Rose” manages to recall “Silver Morning” from the Apollo project, thanks to the similar pedal steel. While not always screaming through the mix, that particular instrument is a main element of many of the songs here. To hear what he can do with an instrument most associated with straight country and certain Neil Young albums, cue up “Carla” or “Panorama”. He even pulls in Calexico mariachi on “Agave”.

As he’d begun to do, the credits on Belladonna are slim, with main co-conspirators Brian Blade and Daryl Johnson listed in bold, and a few other familiar folks added on, like pianist Brad Mehldau, Malcolm Burn, and Bill Dillon. The album was certainly compiled over time, rather than in concentrated sessions, but it holds together as a mood, either at night or while driving for miles on abandoned highways. They’re mostly brief sketches, averaging two to three minutes, but worthy of immersion.

Daniel Lanois Belladonna (2005)—3

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bad Company 8: Live 1977 & 1979

As good (or bad) as their records were, Bad Company was also designed to be a live band, and dutifully toured in support of each of those albums. Onstage, Paul Rodgers’ shirtless, hairy magnetism was able to reach the back rows of the arenas, and one only need to see Jason Lee’s character in Almost Famous to get an inkling of the appeal.

For many years, the only BadCo live recordings were of the later incarnations with different members, and the only ones featuring the classic lineup were from this century. That finally changed for a double-disc set that presented two complete-ish shows from the Burnin’ Sky and Desolation Angels tours. As each set relies on the most recent album, there’s surprisingly little overlap. Outside of an indexed drum solo on each disc, the repeats are limited to “Shooting Star”, one of which changes Johnny’s first Beatles song to “Here Comes The Sun”, and “Feel Like Makin’ Love”; both easily the band’s most overplayed songs.

In this context, even the Burnin’ Sky tracks get a little more life on a Texas stage, but you can practically feel the footsteps of the crowd heading to the bathroom during the slower songs. The London show is distinguished by the addition of keyboards, and some really rough harmonies on “Gone, Gone, Gone”. There is a slight detour to a Washington, D.C. show for a rip through the Hendrix version of “Hey Joe”, and interestingly, Mick Ralphs does most of the onstage patter.

Live 1977 & 1979 is a great addition to your shelf if you adore every one of the original six albums and just have to have more. Or, if you’ve seen any of the recent incarnations of the band, with or without Paul Rodgers or the late Boz Burrell, this could remind you what still makes them such a draw today.

Bad Company Live 1977 & 1979 (2016)—3

Friday, July 14, 2017

Jeff Beck 4: Jeff Beck Group

Jeff managed to keep the same band together for consecutive albums, and perhaps that time spent together helped the next album come together better. Prominently featuring an orange on both front and back covers for some reason, the simply titled Jeff Beck Group was recorded in Memphis with the legendary Steve Cropper producing, which probably also had a lot to do with its cohesion.

For a start, the guitar drives most of the proceedings, whether slide or wah-wah, layered where needed with different effects. When combined with straight piano, it brings to mind some of the high points of Beck-Ola; when it’s an electric piano, we’re reminded that this is Max Middleton. Bob Tench is still the singer, and gets the task of layering his own contributions in startling variations. (The female backup singers are uncredited.)

After the opening swamp boogie “Ice Cream Cakes”, covers dominate, from a boogie-flavored take on “Glad All Over” (the Carl Perkins tune, not the Dave Clark Five smash) that screams for Rod Stewart to the surprisingly soulful rejig of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”. The producer didn’t play any guitar, but co-wrote “Sugar Cane” with Beck, which begins promisingly as an instrumental, but soon gains lyrics. However, “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” is taken from a Motown torcher to a showcase for Beck with no vocals—and is that a Coral sitar?

Side two simply builds from there. Tench doesn’t do much outside the box on “Going Down”, letting the band plow through a powerful performance of a recent Freddie King hit. The Motown influence continues on “I Gotta Have A Song”, a recent Stevie Wonder album track and B-side, and another harbinger of music to come. “Highways” finds peaks and valleys in unexpected changes, taking several extended solos, while the gorgeous “Definitely Maybe” opens with twin slide leads in harmony, and follows Beck around the neck, frustratingly fading after only five minutes amid an electric piano solo.

Given its tempered emphasis on vocals, Jeff Beck Group is proof that the guitarist didn’t necessarily need a singer in his band, but apparently he wasn’t ready to go all instrumental yet. Nor was he completely thrilled with this incarnation, as he started over with a different rhythm section within months of the album’s release.

Jeff Beck Group Jeff Beck Group (1972)—3

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Peter Gabriel 4: Security

For his fourth solo album, Peter somehow let his new label Geffen (soon to get a reputation for meddling with their artists) release it under the title Security. And thus it has remained, despite still being titled simply Peter Gabriel in the rest of the world. (Plus, German-speaking countries got their own version again, this time in a markedly different mix.)

Oddly enough, while the album was to bring him his greatest commercial success to date, it’s a very challenging listen, and the strange cover photo doesn’t help. Much of this can be put down to his embrace of, for lack of a better term, tribal rhythms on most of the cuts. Indeed, many of the tracks appear to take place in pre-industrial countries. It’s not a coincidence that in the modern rock era, he’s been one of the most vocal and active champions of the genre known collectively as “world music”.

“The Rhythm Of The Heat” is an accurate title for a track that fades in on a pulse, follows an eerie path, and then, as he exclaims, “The rhythm has my soul,” explodes into a frenzy of furious drumming supplied by a dance company from Ghana. The effect can alternately be felt as either unsettling or exhilarating. From there it’s a trip around the Southern Hemisphere to “San Jacinto”, which takes its time building up to the dynamic choruses. “I Have The Touch” is more straightforward, a good example of post-punk alternative music for which he was considered a pioneer. But it’s back to weird territory on “The Family And The Fishing Net”, a thought-provoking song wherein such “primitive” practices as animal sacrifices are compared to Christian wedding traditions, and found to be not all that alien.

What sold the album, of course, was the otherwise impenetrable “Shock The Monkey”, thanks in part to its striking video in heavy rotation on MTV. To this day it’s still incredibly catchy. (The liner notes from the original Geffen CD, in addition to proclaiming it as a “FULL DIGITAL RECORDING”, suggested that the song was an adaptation of classic Motown rhythms. We’d love to know which ad wizard came up with that one.) Another song known more for its visual effect is “Lay Your Hands On Me”, which became a centerpiece of his subsequent tour when Peter would perform a trust fall back into the audience, who would then pass him over their heads as he sang. With its unlikely title, “Wallflower” gets past its initial flute sample (which evokes nothing more compelling as the Karate Kid franchise) to a series of beautiful piano couplets under a lyric that soon reveals to be sympathetic to the plight of political prisoners. At least it ends on an up note with “Kiss Of Life”, jumpy meters and all.

The American tour following Security was soon captured on a double album, playfully titled Plays Live, despite the explicit acknowledgement that various tracks had been embellished in the studio. As would be expected, the setlist is heavy on the most recent albums, with a few from the first two (including “Solsbury Hill” and a wonderful “Humdrum”). Most of the songs are similar to the studio versions, with the exception of a slower “No Self Control”, and there’s an actual rarity in the form of “I Go Swimming”, only available here. (And not really that enticing once you’ve heard it.)

Peter Gabriel Security (1982)—3
Peter Gabriel
Plays Live (1983)—3

Friday, July 7, 2017

Pretenders 8: The Isle Of View

Having returned to the charts, Chrissie Hynde and her latest Pretenders lineup were in prime position to be tapped for an “unplugged” television show. They could have simply played the songs acoustically, but instead, the band chose to be joined throughout on most songs by a string quartet. They also set up in the round, playing to each other, while the audience looked on from a distance.

Both the TV show and subsequent album were given the punning title The Isle Of View, though the sequences aren’t identical, and the CD doesn’t include two of the better performances: the recent hit single “Night In My Veins” and her cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”. (As for the “title track”, it’s merely a brief lush instrumental by the quartet with seaside effects, stuck at the end of the disc.)

Those omissions aside, it’s a very entertaining listen, touching on every one of the albums in equal measure, and not always relying on the more familiar ones. “Sense Of Purpose” and “Criminal” are rescued from the obscurity of Packed!, just as “Chill Factor” is better served in this format than the faux-soul of Get Close. “Kid” is slowed down to a near-lullaby, while “The Phone Call” maintains its broken-leg menace. Damon Albarn, then riding high with Blur, is trotted out to play piano on “I Go To Sleep” (take that, Oasis).

The Isle Of View is a good way to spend an hour, and goes a long way to re-establishing Chrissie as both a superb vocalist as well as a songwriter of note. Even better, with her voice up front and the songs given space, it’s possible to finally understand the words to the songs. Some of them, anyway.

Pretenders The Isle Of View (1995)—

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Mott The Hoople 5: All The Young Dudes

The legend is usually more interesting than the truth, and this very much applies to the phoenix-like return of Mott The Hoople. Having become frustrated with their career path to date, the band grumbled to David Bowie, then having just exploded with the Ziggy Stardust album. He gave them a little song called “All The Young Dudes”, and Mott followed the demo to the note, but with the key embellishment of Ian Hunter’s asides during the choruses and over the fadeout. Suddenly they had a hit, were mistakenly labeled glam rock, and saw their ensuing fifth album, produced by Bowie, become a major worldwide smash.

The thing is, if not for the lead vocals, All The Young Dudes sounds more like a Bowie album than a Mott album. For one thing, the producer insisted on adding his own saxophone honking throughout. Also, his backing vocals are unmistakable, as are the synched acoustic and electric rhythm touches. The string arrangements are better matched to his albums, or even Lou Reed’s Transformer, Bowie’s other grand resuscitative gesture that year. Just to muddle the lineage, the album opens with their own tame cover of “Sweet Jane”.

Things get back to the Stonesy crunch for “Momma’s Little Jewel” and “Jerkin’ Crocus”. “Sucker” has potential, but again, belies the Bowie touch. “One Of The Boys” takes a while to get rolling, bracketed by a ringing telephone for some reason, and features a riff that Mick Ralphs would soon recycle for the opener on the first Bad Company album. Speaking of which, “Ready For Love” appears here, in a too-long version that entails both an alternate chorus and the subtitle “After Lights”. Despite the ill-advised strings, “Sea Diver” is another Ian Hunter weepie, and welcome to these ears.

The title track notwithstanding, and Verden Allen’s lead vocal on “Soft Ground” conjuring Bon Scott at his wackiest, All The Young Dudes is at its best whenever his wheezing organ dominates the mix. After all, a band’s biggest hit isn’t necessarily its best album. (For a wider picture, the eventual expanded CD added some early Bowie-less rough drafts, a couple of live versions from a year after the album was released, and an alternate mix of the hit single with Bowie himself singing the verses against Ian’s usual chorus.) At least Mott was given a chance to keep going, and they would, and did.

Mott The Hoople All The Young Dudes (1972)—3
2006 remastered expanded CD: same as 1972, plus 7 extra tracks