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)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Doors 8: Other Voices and Full Circle

Jim Morrison was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. He wasn’t in hiding, he wasn’t exploring his poetry, and he wasn’t breathing due to the combination of alcohol, heroin, and bathwater in his system. Jim Morrison was as dead as a door-nail.

The band still wanted to play, of course. They’d been working on new material already, having learned to fend for themselves without their lead singer around to drop his pearls of imagery. The last couple of Doors albums proved that, as a musical unit, they were tight and certainly capable. Whether anyone would care about them without the handsome guy in the leather pants out front was another question.

Other bands have rebounded successfully when they had to replace their singer, and the Doors kept it simple by splitting the task between keyboard player Ray Manzarek, who already showed his weakness on Absolutely Live, and guitarist Robbie Krieger, whose best quality is that he didn’t sound like Ray. Both guys couldn’t help but utter echoes of Jim’s swagger and laid-back delivery. Beyond that, all they needed to do was combine their instruments into enough catchy tracks to fill album sides, live shows, and hopefully, their bank accounts.

With its stark white cover and band portrait, Other Voices is a bold if indisputable claim, but the album works best when they just play. After a brief psychedelic whirl, “In The Eye Of The Sun” nails a nice swampy groove. “Ships w/Sails” is a sustainable Latin jam (unlike “Hang On To Your Life”), and “Tightrope Ride” is a direct descendant of “L.A. Woman”. “Down On The Farm” sounds the least like the Doors, but it gets distracted trying to change direction. Even the over-long “Wandering Musician” has a great hook for a slow fade. Yet, whatever one’s opinion of Jim’s “poetry”, the guys on their own were not impressive lyricists; “Variety Is The Spice Of Life” and “I’m Horny, I’m Stoned” aren’t about to make it into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations anytime soon.

A tour behind the album with a bass player and a second guitarist convinced them they could keep going, and they did. While Other Voices contained songs that Jim could arguably have sung himself, much of Full Circle considers what they might have sounded like had they never met the guy. (Really, would he have ever exhorted a crowd to “Get Up And Dance”?) The ensemble was expanded in the studio, utilizing a lot more percussion, funky backup singers, and Charles Lloyd on sax and flute. His contribution turns “Verdilac” into near-fusion; it’s just too bad there are lyrics. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” is tackled fairly straight, except for the cacophonous piano pounding and Ray’s ill-advised growling at the end. There’s even less excuse for “The Mosquito”, a bipolar track with some great jamming but an embarrassing lyrical hook (“no me moleste mosquito”, and we’re not kidding) that helped the song chart in Spanish-speaking countries. “The Peking King And The New York Queen” tries to hard to be beat poetry, though the combination of the vocals and female additions seems to predict at least one Zappa album.

Both albums remained out of print for a few decades, and were ignored by the organization once Jim’s mythology took over. But in this century, after smaller labels did okay with semi-legitimate reissues, the band made it available for streaming. Then an official re-release paired the albums in a two-CD set, with one bonus track: the 1972 B-side “Treetrunk”. Left off Full Circle because it was “too commercial”, it’s probably the best song in the bunch.

The Doors Other Voices (1971)—3
The Doors
Full Circle (1972)—

Friday, September 15, 2017

Neil Young 54: Hitchhiker

Waiting for Neil to reveal his Archives to the extent long promised is an exhausting task for any fan, particularly those not especially wowed by his newer material. Based on direct quotes, we’d come to expect a laundry list of unreleased album projects, and while a few live albums made it to retail shelves, such titles as Homegrown, Chrome Dreams, and Toast remained locked up. And then he went and put out Hitchhiker, which the general public didn’t know anything about until he mentioned it in his second memoir.

The music was recorded over the course of a “stony” evening in 1976, shortly after he bailed on the Stills-Young Band tour. David Briggs rolled tape, and the session resulted in ten acoustic demos, all release-worthy. In fact, three of the recordings have been in the catalog for, well, decades; “Campaigner” came out on Decade with one less verse than the full take here, “Pocahontas” was overdubbed for Rust Never Sleeps, and “Captain Kennedy” made it out intact on Hawks & Doves. Five other songs appeared in alternate versions on later albums as well. Most people will zero in on “Powderfinger”, the oft-bootlegged acoustic version, just as mysterious as ever, but without the fire of Crazy Horse.

“Ride My Llama” comes off as fragmented, petering out before he decided how to finish it. The title track, which wouldn’t make it to an album for 34 years, comes off less a cautionary tale than an acknowledgement of the medicine he enjoyed. Another stab at “Human Highway” will fuel debate over the “definitive” version of the song, with or without CSN. “The Old Country Waltz” is played on piano, and very well too, showing off its complexities and delivered with a much more honest approach than the hokey take on American Stars ‘N Bars.

Two otherwise unreleased songs make their first appearances. “Hawaii” is a strange portrait of an archetypical Neil loner; it’s fairly complete, which only makes it more odd that he seemingly hasn’t played it since, even onstage. “Give Me Strength” is a gorgeous slice of heartbreak that he supposedly sat on because it was just too personal. This particular take has a couple of guitar mistakes and other noises, which would not have passed muster in 1976.

At a brisk 33 minutes, Hitchhiker is another tease of an ongoing project of unfathomable depth. According to the logo on the packaging, this is the fifth in a series of “special releases”, which means there are four other such albums in the pipeline that predate this little surprise. The mind reels at the possibilities; if only they were probabilities. The only constant thing about Neil is that he constantly changes his mind.

Neil Young Hitchhiker (2017)—

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Robbie Robertson 3: Music For The Native Americans

While he never overtly covered it in the songs he wrote, Robbie Robertson’s family legacy includes ancestry of Mohawk origin. Having already made a name for himself as a musical curator for films, he was a wise choice to perform that task for a television documentary called The Native Americans. On the accompanying soundtrack album, he surrounded himself with other colleagues of First Founders heritage—including Rita Coolidge and Douglas Spotted Eagle, to name two of higher-profile musicians—to make up a collective dubbed the Red Road Ensemble.

The music is best when instrumental, using modern programming techniques and textures to mix with authentic instruments. Vocals sung in other languages and dialects become part of the aural picture when picked up by ears that only understand English. In fact, Robbie’s own vocal selections, while good, bring it back to being a solo album, but not at a sacrifice of the overall mood.

Being even less typical a release than his previous solo albums, Music For The Native Americans wasn’t a massive hit, and even the documentary itself doesn’t exactly appear to be a momentous viewing event (which is too bad, because it sounds fascinating). The album itself is tough to find today outside of used bins, but is available for streaming and download, and worth a listen.

Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble Music For The Native Americans (1994)—3

Friday, September 8, 2017

Prince 5: 1999

Michael Jackson was years from anointing himself the King of Pop, but for those of us who liked rock ‘n roll (and couldn’t dance anyway), Prince’s wielding of a Telecaster more than made up for any hesitation of men wearing eyeliner and mascara. 1999 had been out for a while before MTV started showing the videos for the title track and “Little Red Corvette”, and soon enough he was inescapable. Even WNEW-FM (where rock lives, or at least did in 1983) started playing the songs. He had transcended genre, and that didn’t happen all that often anymore, if at all.

Simple (and similar) as those videos were by any production standards, they sold the image. The band, not yet known as the Revolution, set up on multiple levels of an elaborate stage. Two women gyrated over each other and one keyboard, while a guy in scrubs and shades played another. The lead guitarist (or so we thought) had a samurai-styled headband, and Prince actually slid down a firepole to make his entrance on “1999”.

Of course, once you bought the album, it was more clear: Prince played and sang everything on the album, except for the shared vocals on the title track and some elsewhere, and the lead on “Little Red Corvette”. Those two tracks still sound great today, and the extended album versions add and highlight more of the music. (By the way, the key to the groove in “Little Red Corvette” is how he drops every fourth snare hit.) Followed by the infectiously goofy “Delirious”, that’s a perfect album side right there.

Side two is split between two long dance pieces, both heavy on beats and simple keyboard or guitar counterpoints. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is suggestive on its own before he explicitly tells “Marsha” what he’d like to do, while “D.M.S.R.” is more P-Funk-inspired. “Automatic”, which opens side three, is even longer, finally ending after some sad wailing from the ladies under a guitar solo. “Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)” is a weird homage of sorts to New Romantic synth-pop, but “Free”, prefaced by canned waves and marching footsteps, is a hidden gem of a ballad, an anthem even, that predicts a couple of future epics.

Then there’s “Lady Cab Driver”, which can’t decide if it wants to be a political tirade or a psychotic, vengeful sexual assault, and “All The Critics Love U In New York”; both are artfully minimalist tracks stretched way too long. Finally, “International Lover” is another slow piano ballad showcasing his vocal range, deviating into a pillow-talk session a la “Do Me, Baby” only transferred to the mile-high club; he even thanks us for choosing his airline. Well, at least he had a sense of humor.

It may be blasphemy not to give this four stars or higher, but 1999 really is padded to excess. That’s fine if you wanna dance, of course, but a listen to the various edits that came out on singles proves that it could have been a tight yet solid single LP. Part of the indulgence from his record label allowed him to release 70 minutes of music across a two-record set. It helps when the records sell, but at this rate, you’d think they’d let him break into films, for crying out loud.

As befits such a sprawling album, the eventual Deluxe Edition added a disc of single edits, dance mixes, and key B-sides like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”. But any fan worth his or her salt would have to have the Super Deluxe Edition, with two full discs of tracks from Prince’s legendary vault, including early versions of songs from the album, candidates for Vanity and the Time, and even tracks that would be reworked for release in the Batman and Graffiti Bridge era. One concert with the Revolution is included on a CD, while another is on a DVD.

Prince 1999 (1982)—
2019 Deluxe Edition: same as 1982, plus 18 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 36 tracks, plus DVD)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mark Knopfler 9: Get Lucky

Don’t be fooled by the garish casino motif throughout the artwork on Get Lucky. This Mark Knopfler album rarely approaches anything reminiscent of Vegas, and coming five years after the slot machine on the cover of an earlier album, we wonder if he’s hiding a gambling addiction. Rather, a sizable portion of the album relies on dreamy Celtic- and highland-inspired backdrops, while the rest is just as low-key and midtempo. In fact, the one sore thumb here is “You Can’t Beat The House”, with its bluesy shuffle and gang backing vocals, and “Cleaning My Gun” is the closest thing to a typical post-Dire Straits rocker.

His notes for the album describe many of the influences behind the songs, and it should be no surprise than many of them describe lives lived in earlier decades than this one. “Before Gas And TV” is about as far back as he goes; industry and automotive innovation are still pet themes. That means the lovely waltz “Monteleone” is an ode to a favorite guitar builder. “Hard Shoulder” is just as exquisite, and seemingly sung from the point of view of a roadside mechanic. Even “Remembrance Day” avoids being over-mawkish, despite the presence of a makeshift children’s choir. As it turns out, thanks to the title track we know that “Get Lucky” is merely a metaphor for life in general.

The album is kept down to a digestible length, which helps. But typical of too many albums released by veterans these days, Get Lucky was made available in a variety of “editions”, some with a DVD, one with engraved poker chips and dice (yes, really), and some with extra tracks, exclusive to various retailers, and not exactly hidden treasure.

Mark Knopfler Get Lucky (2009)—3

Friday, September 1, 2017

Elton John 5: 11-17-70

Once upon a time, the promotion rounds for young struggling performers would include live broadcasts on FM radio, whether appearing in the studio next to the DJ, or simulcast from an actual concert. These performances would often lead to widely spread bootlegs, and sometimes became the basis for an official album, thus sending the cash toward the label, or at least in theory.

Elton John was then touring as part of an economical trio, with Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums, and their simple power can be beheld on 11-17-70 (which was the title in America, anyway; other countries swapped the first two numbers depending on how they displayed dates there). The album presents Elton as not yet a superstar; none of the “hits” are here, save a few album tracks that some of the cooler stations had already discovered.

After “Take Me To The Pilot” seemingly opens the show, the crowd chuckles at the a cappella chorus of “Honky Tonk Women” that kicks off that cover. “Sixty Years On” is plenty somber without the strings from the album version, Nigel’s drums covering the tension well. “Can I Put You On” is rescued from the Friends soundtrack, just as “Bad Side Of The Moon” becomes more than a B-side. However, here it’s a setup for an 18-minute medley that begins with “Burn Down The Mission” and manages to find its way through “My Baby Left Me” and “Get Back”.

11-17-70 may not have been planned in a release schedule that was already filling up, but it remains an excellent sample of a time when Elton really did a lot with a little. We maintain that if not for this album, there would be no Ben Folds Five. (The eventual remaster rejigged the order slightly and added a stellar version of “Amoreena”, while a more complete recording of the show appeared as a Record Store Day exclusive on vinyl only. 17-11-70+ put the original running order on one LP, with the other songs from the show on another, including a version of “Indian Sunset” from his yet-to-be-recorded next album.)

Elton John 11-17-70 (1971)—4
1995 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 1 extra track
2017 17-11-70+ (vinyl only): same as 1995, plus 6 extra tracks