Friday, December 28, 2018

Genesis 15: Invisible Touch

By 1986 Phil Collins had truly dominated the music industry to the point where the first time we heard a song called “Invisible Touch” on the radio, we assumed it was just another B-side to another single from No Jacket Required. But no! Genesis actually made another album, and if they were going to coast on Phil’s notoriety, all the better for them. (Not that he had all the fun; Mike Rutherford recruited Paul Carrack and a singer named Paul Young who wasn’t the soulful heartthrob for a combo called Mike + Mechanics, which had a couple of hits over the winter.)

At first impression, Invisible Touch is truly indistinguishable from Phil’s solo work, being that it’s full of catchy tunes and pop hooks, many of which were hit singles. Tony Banks wasn’t doing anything on the title track that was any more advanced than the keyboards on “Sussudio”, and whatever guitar flourishes Mike came up with would be copped by Daryl Stuermer on stage anyway. “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” revives some of the “dark” moods of “Mama” from the last album, and while this too would be a hit single, they had to chop about four minutes out of the middle of the album version. Then there’s “Land Of Confusion”, the big social-conscience statement with pointed video to match, its distorted mannequins still causing nightmares of its own today. And while they’d been doing pretty ballads for a while now, “In Too Deep” might as well have been “One More Night Part Two”.

“Anything She Does” sits in the same position as “Illegal Alien” from last time, and while it’s not as offensive, the horns and synths are particularly dated. It also sets the album apart as a Genesis production, since Phil on his own would never be so cheeky to sing about a porn star on a solo album; that influence came straight from the other two. They were also quick to defend their modern streamlined hitmaking sound by pointing out all the lengthy tracks on the album, like “Domino”. But calling two unrelated tracks parts one and two of the same piece doesn’t make it so. That said, “In The Glow Of The Night” suffers from the technology of the time, while “The Last Domino” at least builds momentum to be mildly exciting. “Throwing It All Away” finally gets the recipe right, combining everyone’s pop tendencies with a great arrangement and straightforward delivery. It’s the high point of the album, certainly, especially when followed by “The Brazilian”, an instrumental (you know, just like they always used to do) that doesn’t seem to conjure much of an international feel, unless they were referring to the salon treatment.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Invisible Touch, unless you’d ignored the last five years and actually expected Genesis to recapture their prog roots. Everyone else was happy with it, and it sold by the bucketful. And even if Peter Gabriel’s So, which ruled the charts and airwaves along with this album during the same period, didn’t excite the gearheads, they could always check out GTR, which combined the ideas of former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett with those of Steve Howe, most recently of Asia and once of Yes.

Genesis Invisible Touch (1986)—3

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Booker T. & The MG’s: In The Christmas Spirit

Given that everybody allowed near a microphone in the 21st century has recorded a Christmas album, sometimes you just want to get away from yet another version of a song that’s been sung many times in many ways. That’s why we usually reach for the nearest holiday CD that’s instrumental. But even those can sound alike after a while, particularly if they’re in the same old easy listening, jazz, or classical mode. At the same time, rock ‘n roll takes on the catalog tend to lose their novelty after a while, even if only played a couple of weeks out of the year.

That’s what makes In The Christmas Spirit by Booker T. & The MG’s such a welcome respite season after season. A combo best known for the classic “Green Onions” and sharing the guitarist and bass player with the Blues Brothers, here the band serves up a dozen favorites in the same Memphis R&B groove that established them as the Stax Records house band. Hammond B-3 organ takes center stage for most of it, with tasteful Telecaster and percolating bass over perfectly syncopated drums.

Having originally been issued as two sides of a record, the first half is more upbeat, with the usual suspects (“Jingle Bells”, “Winter Wonderland”, “Silver Bells”, etc.) while the second takes a slower pace, starting with a bluesy “Merry Christmas Baby”, staying quiet for “Silent Night”, “We Three Kings” and the like, which sound for all the world like church if not for the ticking snare drum. Just to remind you who they are, the set picks up at the very end with “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”.

Like most albums of the time, In The Christmas Spirit is short, but likely to get repeat plays once it’s loaded up. We haven’t figured out why the album had two different covers a year apart over here; adding to the confusion, it was called Soul Christmas—not to be confused with an entirely different compilation—with another alternative for the artwork overseas. As for the extraneous apostrophe in the band’s name, we’ll leave the blame with the record company.

Booker T. & The MG’s In The Christmas Spirit (1966)—4

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Jeff Beck 7: Wired

Not that he ever repeated himself, but Jeff Beck was smart enough to stick with a decent formula once he found one that worked. Wired builds on the foundation set by Blow By Blow, retaining producer George Martin and Max Middleton on keyboards. A couple of new names—for the time—debut here: Jan Hammer (fresh from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and ECM work, and years away from Miami Vice) on synthesizer and Narada Michael Walden (also recently with Mahavishnu as well as Weather Report, and just as far away from “Freeway Of Love”) on drums and credited for writing four of the songs. Clearly, jazz fusion was the thing, and vocals were out.

“Led Boots” is supposed to be a nod to a certain band named after a zeppelin, but it’s way to busy to have any connection past the title. “Come Dancing” is more of a challenge than an invitation, given the confrontational groove, for most of it, but listeners can marvel at the way the guitar melds with the synth. It’s all pretty funky so far, so it’s wise that he makes his own stamp “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus, in an incredibly reverent yet virtuosic take. If that’s too slow, try to keep up with “Head For Backstage Pass”, wherein he seems to be dueling with himself.

Hammer contributes “Blue Wind”, playing synth as well as drums in a leg-breaking meter, with nice call-and-response between the keys and the stringed instruments. “Sophie” is a tricky one, starting slow and dreamy, but soon working up into a frenzy of syncopation and hot licks. Max Middleton gets center stage on his clavinet for “Play With Me” for even more of the same. Finally, “Love Is Green” is a short, slow ballad for guitar, bass, and piano, its title recalling Beck’s cover from the decade before. While written by Walden, it’s very reminiscent of the quieter Hammer tunes on John Abercrombie’s Timeless album.

Wired has no gimmicks, just playing. It stays pretty far away from rock, and forms a worthy companion to its older brother. It could use a little more variety, and further explorations like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” would have been great, but you try telling Jeff Beck what to do.

Jeff Beck Wired (1976)—3

Friday, December 14, 2018

Mary Hopkin 1: Post Card

The first major hit Apple Records had that wasn’t a Beatles recording came from a young lady from Wales spotted on the 1968 equivalent of American Idol. At the time, Mary Hopkin was 18, and both looked and sounded like we imagined Eowyn from The Lord Of The Rings would. Paul McCartney foisted a song upon her, and just like that “Those Were The Days” shot to #1 all around the world.

Excited to keep the ball rolling, Paul immediately—in between finishing the White Album and courting one Linda Eastman—got to work collecting songs for her full-length album debut. Paul had yet to write a song for her; in addition to handpicking folk songs, standards, and stuff in other languages to continue her worldwide appeal, he hit up famous friends like Donovan and Harry Nilsson. When Post Card appeared the following spring, it was a wide-ranging amalgam of music, united by that high soprano that, if it’s to your taste, is just lovely.

The Donovan songs are arguably the highlight, as he (and sometimes Paul) accompanies her on acoustic. “Lord Of The Reedy River” flows along like its title, and while “Happiness Runs (Pebble And The Man)” is dangerously cute, “Voyage Of The Moon” is just lovely. Nilsson’s “The Puppy Song” sounds pretty much like all his other vaudeville homages, and fits with such oldies as “Lullaby Of The Leaves”, “Love Is The Sweetest Thing”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” (replaced on the US version by The Hit Single). Some of the arrangements border on Little Rascals quality, particularly on “Inch Worm”.

Session guys provide most of the backing, but it’s sometimes possible to discern Paul’s distinct instrumental touch, such as on “Young Love” and “The Honeymoon Song”, which modern Beatlemaniacs would recognize from their BBC bootlegs. We’re pretty sure that’s Paul all over “Prince In Avignon”, which has a gorgeous melody albeit all in French, just as she harmonizes with herself on “Y Blodyn Gwyn”, which is all Welsh. The most haunting (and heartbreaking) track on the album is “The Game”, written by Beatles producer George Martin; that’s definitely his piano playing.

When it appeared on CD as part of the early-‘90s Apple reissues, “Those Were The Days” was stuck at the beginning, and the rest of the program followed the UK LP sequence, with three bonus tracks: her version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, which had been the B-side of “Those Were The Days”, and the smash song repeated in their Italian and Spanish vocal versions. Two decades on, the next edition of the CD once again bookended the British LP lineup with both sides of the single, but added both sides of her next non-album single: “Goodbye”, a McCartney original, and “Sparrow”, a somewhat twee tune by Gallagher and Lyle. That duo was also responsible for a future B-side, “Fields Of St. Etienne”, included here in its original overblown arrangement, wisely passed over for a quieter recording not included here. (Meanwhile, the Spanish and Italian versions of “Those Were The Days” were on the digital download of the album, along with versions in French and German. Zoot allure!)

Mary Hopkin Post Card (1969)—
1991 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks
2010 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Paul Simon 10: Negotiations And Love Songs

His label had to have been relieved by the massive success of Graceland, and knowing the man’s measured pace while creating his next likely masterpiece, Warner Bros. made the commercially wise move to issue a hits compilation. Granted, Paul Simon had only one “hit” from the two albums with the label that weren’t Graceland, so they bolstered Negotiations And Love Songs—helpfully subtitled 1971-1986—with nine selections that were already on his previous hits album plus, oddly, “St. Judy’s Comet”. (We’d also gladly take “I Do It For Your Love” over “Have A Good Time” any hour of any day, but nobody ever asks us.)

That covered the ‘70s, but what of the ‘80s? “Late In The Evening” was the logical choice to represent One-Trick Pony, sparing newcomers the trouble of picking that one up. Three of the better tracks from Hearts And Bones get welcome exposure; “Train In The Distance” even provided the set’s title. “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al” round out the program. (If you bought the two-LP version of the album, you also got the title track from Graceland.)

For a chronological overview, Negotiations And Love Songs covers the basics, with true highlights from his handful of albums to date, and not sneaking in any live versions of songs better known from his old duo. Also, with Greatest Hits, Etc. now out of print, this was the only place to find “Slip Slidin’ Away”. (If you wanted “Stranded In A Limousine”, for whatever reason, you were out of luck.) And who could resist that dreamy noir portrait of the artist with his fedora cocked at a jaunty angle?

Paul Simon Negotiations And Love Songs 1971-1986 (1988)—4

Friday, December 7, 2018

Neil Young 57: Songs For Judy

Just as chapters in Neil’s first Archives box were tantalizingly parceled out ahead of time, a decade later he appeared to be doing the same thing, focusing on performances from the mid-‘70s. Perhaps not surprisingly, the item designated #7 in his Performance Series was basically a chronologic and sonic upgrade of one of his more famous bootlegs. Songs For Judy gets its title from various meandering raps about Judy Garland, which were something of a theme during a November 1976 tour with Crazy Horse. Journalist Cameron Crowe and photographer slash guitar tech Joel Bernstein had carefully selected their favorite acoustic performances from the run and stuck them on a Maxell tape, which eventually got into the wrong hands and began circulating as “The Bernstein Tapes”. (Another fun fact: the night after the last show of the tour, Neil flew off to San Francisco to play a gig called The Last Waltz. It was a busy year.)

A quick glance at the tracklist may suggest you’ve heard this all before, and if you’ve got the bootlegs, you have, but suffice it to say this sounds a lot better. Even coming three months after the cutting session that made up Hitchhiker, only four songs are repeated. And of those, “Pocahontas” gets a stoney intro and extra lyrics at the end, while “Human Highway” is delivered on “gitjo” with a disclaimer of its own. “Give Me Strength” is given an excellent reading, and it’s hard to tell whether the crowd knew “Love Is A Rose” from the Linda Ronstadt version or thought it was “Dance, Dance, Dance”. At the time, these were brand new to audiences, and wouldn’t be out on albums for a while, if at all. The pretty piano lament “No One Seems To Know” makes its official debut, finally, and it’s worth the wait; “Too Far Gone” and “White Line” would each take over a decade to find homes. The audience hoots and hollers either way, upon which Neil constantly remarks.

Beyond that, the selections touch on just about every album he did have out by then. “Here We Are In The Years” is resurrected with a dedication to President-elect Carter, while “The Old Laughing Lady” is given a much jauntier arrangement (much like how he’d do it on Unplugged) with an added coda known as “Guilty Train”. “A Man Needs A Maid” is performed simultaneously on stringman and piano, beginning with the familiar chords of “Like A Hurricane”. “The Losing End” is just as effective solo as it was with the Horse, and even “Sugar Mountain” gets a treatment that wanders around the all-too-familiar structure. We get one line from the chorus of “Country Girl” before he moves on (“that’s as much as I know,” he says, as we tear our hair out in frustration). And of course, the hits: “Heart Of Gold”, “After The Gold Rush”, “Needle And The Damage Done”, “Harvest”, “Tell Me Why”, etc.

An unreleased live album from earlier that year, half of which featured Crazy Horse, was eventually released as part of Archives Vol. II, so those jonesing for electric mud will have to seek elsewhere. Still, Songs For Judy is an archival release of more broad appeal to casual fans than the last handful, and is right up there with the Fillmore East and Massey Hall sets.

Neil Young Songs For Judy (2018)—

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Peter Gabriel 6: So

What with his old band suddenly becoming mainstream pop icons—helped along by their ubiquitous drummer—it was both odd yet fitting to find Peter Gabriel competing for pole position at the top of the very same charts. It helped, of course, that So was very accessible; while still chock full of unusual subject matter, its sound was very radio-friendly, thanks in part to co-producer Daniel Lanois. (The handsome cover shot was also a big departure from his previous portraits.)

Production is a big part of the stunning “Red Rain”. While it sports such a big sound, the band still consists of guitar, bass, drums and piano (plus the vocal, once described as a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Elmer Fudd). The song maintains its tension, breaking the ceiling in the brief section before the last chorus, and taking it down to its bare bones gradually to the very end. To call “Sledgehammer” an antidote to the tension is an understatement; this horn-driven ode to pleasure easily made the album a hit, helped by the video. Kate Bush returns for a duet on “Don’t Give Up”, a song pointedly about a man struggling under an economic situation but easily embraced as a universal pick-me-up. “That Voice Again” juxtaposes two musical sections for a rather straightforward song about relationships.

It was the first song on side two, however, that soon became one of the biggest romantic touchstones of the decade. “In Your Eyes” still works as a love song for the ages and for any age, and would be transformed in live performances (boombox not imperative). The spooky “Mercy Street” becomes even more mysterious and unsettling the more one learns about its inspiration, the troubled poet Anne Sexton. Luckily, the hilarious pomposity of “Big Time” brings some daylight back to the proceedings, helped along by yet another amazing video. But “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” revives another disturbing subject, that of the danger of obeying authority. Less clear is what the coda (“One doubt/One voice/One war/One truth/One dream”) has to do with it.

The LP ends there, but the increasing number of consumers who bought the album on cassette or compact disc got an extra in “This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)”, a collaboration with performance artist Laurie Anderson. But if you buy the CD today, there’s been a further change: “In Your Eyes” has been moved to the end of the program, after “This Is The Picture”, making for a much different finale.

Whatever the “real” track order, the ubiquity of the songs on So hasn’t diluted their quality since they first appeared. Lots of fans discovered Peter Gabriel via this album, and likely dug deeper into his catalog for more. From an economic as well as an artistic standpoint, he couldn’t ask for a better return.

Decades later it’s still his most popular album, and nostalgists cultivated a full wish list for its inevitable commemoration. As he was never one to adhere to calendars, it was only fitting that the 25th anniversary repackaging of So arrived 26 years after its initial release. A three-disc version added a 1987 concert from Athens, while the so-called Immersion Box also added a DVD of that concert, the album on vinyl, a 12-inch disc of three outtakes and, most intriguing of all to people like us, a CD called So DNA that traces each track from initial cassette demo through later incarnations. None of the packages contain any contemporary B-sides or remixes. (In a fascinating exchange with the excellent Super Deluxe Edition website, Peter explained some of his reasoning behind what was and wasn’t included. That site’s review of the DNA disc is essential reading.)

Peter Gabriel So (1986)—
25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1986, plus 16 extra tracks (Immersion Box adds another 10 tracks, 2 DVDs, LP, 12")

Friday, November 30, 2018

Toad The Wet Sprocket 6: Coil

Even if a band was immensely popular in the ‘90s, that didn’t always dictate that every album would be a blockbuster. We blame the radio; the same week a band like Live, Soul Asylum, the Cranberries, and yes, even Pearl Jam would release a new album, stations were still playing the heavy-rotation hits from the last one or the one before. Gone were the days of free-form FM radio when a new album by a big band was an event, and every song got heard at least once.

Like most alterna-rockers, Toad The Wet Sprocket never professed to desiring superstardom, which isn’t exactly a lie. Having seen what fame could do to rock icons, any aspirant would tread carefully toward such a goal, but at the same time, the nature of record contracts dictated that a band would either make piles of money or end up owing the label the same amount, so a hit was always preferable. And while Dulcinea wasn’t exponentially more successful than Fear, they managed to hold onto their old fans and maintain a level of success that would allow for another album. (In Light Syrup kept them fresh in the racks, too.)

With its twisted, David Fincher-esque artwork and deep colors, Coil is often called a “dark” album, and it is, but it’s no less happy-go-lucky than any of their others. Overall it’s more direct, more assured, certainly louder, less precious, though Glen Phillips was certainly still performing barefoot.

That acoustic strumming so beloved by Dave Matthews and so many other bands of the time underpins “Whatever I Fear”, though the lead vocal (and Todd Nichols’ harmonies on the chorus) are pure Toad. Just as pure Toad is first single “Come Down”, which has two of the band’s favorite title words as well as a killer chorus and hooks aplenty, neither of which guaranteed airplay on an already confused platform. “Rings” has chordal qualities that recall their earlier albums, except that they’re played a lot harder, and it would seem the words are sung from the point of view of a tree? “Dam Would Break” offers more of that earnest acoustic strumming so iconic of the bands who didn’t play grunge in the era of the same, plus a neat metaphor and wordless chorus. Todd gets to shred to his heart’s content on “Desire”, the closest they get to “funky”, or even “dirty”, and while “Don’t Fade” starts and ends quietly (comparatively, for this album) there’s still a ton of aggression in the band’s delivery.

“Little Man Big Man” presents a basic summary of human nature, and possibly the nature of warfare, in a catchy, low-key structure with clever use of acoustics. Another should-have-been-classic, “Throw It All Away” is one of those songs that sounds like so many others, but in a good way. It’s uplifting, has great harmonies, and sends a seemingly simple message to go along with the basic chords. The feeling is short-lived, as “Amnesia” turns up the volume (and anger) again over the Holocaust and other genocides. “Little Buddha” is an odd one; in addition to its Van Dyke Parks string arrangement, it takes a long time to say very little, the crux of which is “life is suffering, tee-hee, ha-ha.” Which makes “Crazy Life”, sung by Todd, a nice addition. It’s here in a slightly remixed form than its original appearance on the Empire Records soundtrack, which beat In Light Syrup to the shelves by a month, and while it would fit thematically on that album, it provides a certain sunlight here. It’s also a good setup for the wistful benediction of “All Things In Time”, which also ensures that another favorite title word is included.

The louder, harder Toad as displayed on Coil may have put a few fans off, but it’s still a logical progression. For newcomers, it helped separate them from “nice” bands like Hootie & The Blowfish, but as far as the charts were concerned, they were both in the same pile of CDs headed for the used bin.

Toad The Wet Sprocket Coil (1997)—

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

David Bowie 42: Loving The Alien

Bowie’s switch to the EMI-America label in 1983 brought him possibly his greatest mainstream commercial success, but it also inaugurated a period where he found himself torn between taking the paycheck and thinking he was actually innovating. His own commentary after the fact only worked against whatever good emerged from the music collected on the Loving The Alien box set. Covering another five- or six-year stretch, this volume encompasses three studio albums, two associated tours, and just about everything else from that high-profile arc. Plus, of course, a book.

As could be said for many artists of his longevity, there was a lot of good Bowie in the ‘80s; the trouble was, you often had to endure some horrible music to find it. Side one of Let’s Dance is still solid, and the aftertaste of side two is nicely wiped away by Serious Moonlight (Live ’83), which is basically two CDs of audio from the VHS tape of the tour of the same name. Led by Carlos Alomar, the band was mostly new, with Tony Thompson on drums and the Simms Brothers on backing vocals, plus a horn section. The sound is a tad boomy, but the setlist is surprising deep, opening with “Look Back In Anger”, and leaning mostly on music from the second half of the ‘70s. (“Modern Love” was always the encore, and the live B-side version of same is included as a bonus here.)

Up next, the low good-to-bad ratio on Tonight doesn’t do him any favors, but this box set was more concerned with the drastic reimagining of Never Let Me Down alongside a remaster of the original album. Both versions ignored “Too Dizzy”, leaving it lost to time, or those of us with vintage copies. The other tour from this period is commemorated by the two CDs of Glass Spider (Live Montreal ’87), which had previously only been available as a companion to the DVD version, which itself was an upgrade from an earlier VHS. The set leans much more on ‘80s work, exceptions including a revved-up “All The Madmen” and a strangely placed “Big Brother”. Without the visuals showcasing the dance troupe onstage, the listener isn’t as distracted from concentrating on Peter Frampton’s lead guitar work. He even gets to sing the chorus of “Sons Of The Silent Age” (and yes, he does work “Do You Feel Like We Do” into one of his breaks).

The ‘80s also saw an exponential rise in the frequency of the 12-inch dance mix, to the point where a standalone Bowie compilation called Dance had apparently been planned and scrapped. The disc of that title in this set is not that aborted release, but a CD’s worth of extended mixes of various songs from the period. As with most excursions of this type, most of these remixes are pointless, and unfortunately not unintentionally funny.

Dance was a nice way to declutter what would make up the mop-up portion of the set. The two discs of Re:Call 4 consist yet again of single edits, a couple B-sides, and his musical contributions to various soundtracks, including “This Is Not America”, plus his three songs from Absolute Beginners and the five from Labyrinth. For good measure, the shorter mixes of six tracks from the LP version of Never Let Me Down are included, but still no “Too Dizzy”. Yet the compilers made room for the perennially embarrassing remake of “Dancing In The Street” with Mick Jagger and two duets with Tina Turner from her 1988 live album.

There’s just enough good spread throughout Loving The Alien to make it enjoyable. If anything, it shows he was able to be productive, if not necessarily creative, without the stimulus of cocaine. After all, he knew when to go out, and he knew when to stay in, and get things done.

David Bowie Loving The Alien (1983-1988) (2018)—3

Friday, November 23, 2018

David Byrne 1: The Catherine Wheel

In a year that already saw a full-fledged Talking Heads album and a strict collaboration with Brian Eno released, David Byrne upped his autonomy by completing a score for a Twyla Tharp ballet. Not being connoisseurs of the form we aren’t about to make any opinions about the production itself, but the music from The Catherine Wheel is still accessible, in both senses of the word.

In a forward-thinking move, The Complete Score From The Broadway Production Of “The Catherine Wheel” was initially available on cassette, while the LP, being the standard of the time, was about half the length and titled Songs From The Broadway Production Of “The Catherine Wheel”. Leaning more on vocal tracks (read: songs) and contributions from Jerry Harrison and surrogate members Bernie Worrell, Dolette McDonald, Steve Scales, and Adrian Belew, it sounds more like an actual Talking Heads album. “His Wife Refuses” burbles in on a good rhythmic pulse before escalating into a nervous portrait of suburban hell. “What A Day That Was” is probably the best-known track here, due its appearance on a future album, though his voice is just off-pitch here to be grating. “Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)” follows the same groove, but has better vocals, sounds less like a demo, and is more successful. “Poison” and “My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks)” are both fairly funky, and welcome his discovery of his “swamp” voice, while “Big Business” (sense a theme here?) manages to sound very European new wave, even with the wonderful clavinet.

A few strictly instrumental pieces balance the album. “Two Soldiers” starts as a wonderfully dramatic theme, but picks up the same rhythm of the previous track to dispel any doom. “The Red House”, with its frenetic percussion and sampled voices, is a close cousin to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts; “Eggs In A Briar Patch” is a more distant relative, as a more straight backing, and more driven by Brian Eno’s contribution. “Cloud Chamber” isn’t the only ambient piece in recorded history to use metal percussion to convey that image, but is effective, just as “Light Bath” is quiet and soothing.

Once the CD (and now streaming) became the way to go, The Complete Score superseded the LP version, and now provides a more seamless experience, with the addition of several instrumentals. Highlights include “Ade”, a nice poppy collaboration with Eno, “The Blue Flame”, which Peter Gabriel must have heard, “Dense Beasts” into “Five Golden Sections”, and the “Under The Mountain” and “Dinosaur” sequence. “Light Bath” now opens and closes the whole suite, framing it nicely. Again, there might be too much here for people just wanting the tunes, but there’s a good flow, and we have to give him more credit than we had previously.

David Byrne Songs From The Broadway Production Of “The Catherine Wheel” (1981)—3
The Complete Score CD and cassette: same as 1981, plus 22 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Roger Daltrey 11: As Long As I Have You

The years rolled on and The Who kept touring, for the simple reason that they could. Yet Pete Townshend still hadn’t written any new songs for Roger Daltrey to sing, so he went back to the template of his ‘70s solo albums. As Long As I Have You was a grab bag of covers found across the decades, plus two of his own songs. Pete even plays guitar on a few of the tracks, and most have a female choir shouting in the back, but it’s all about the guy on the cover.

The title track is a great punchy soul number, one of those songs that loomed large on the British R&B scene when the Who were starting out. It’s a sharp switch to “How Far”, a Stephen Stills track from Manassas delivered in the same spirit. However, “Where Is A Man To Go” switches the gender of a song most commonly associated with Dusty Springfield after bouncing around Nashville for a while, and it doesn’t really work for Roger. Research tells us that “Get On Out Of The Rain” is a modified title for an early Parliament song; the political lyrics are relevant for 2018, but sound a little mushmouthed coming from him. “I’ve Got Your Love” is similarly dug up from a Boz Scaggs album released around the same time as Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms”, and both suit him fine.

Political throwbacks continue with a slowed down take on “You Haven’t Done Nothin” by Stevie Wonder, and then the album stays in the same tempo for the duration. He goes back to the ‘50s for the little-known doo-wop of “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind”, and up to the mid-‘60s for “The Love You Save”, the old Joe Tex number. Oddly, he sounds the least like himself on “Certified Rose”, which he wrote himself and had even performed with the Who when John Entwistle was still alive. But the album ends strong with another original. “Always Heading Home” is a pretty piano ballad with piano and cello than recalls the sweeter pop of his solo debut.

As his autobiography (also out this year) attests, Roger loves his job, and is happy for whatever good turns come his way. As Long As I Have You was a nice souvenir, and better than the bulk of his solo work.

Roger Daltrey As Long As I Have You (2018)—3

Friday, November 16, 2018

Van Morrison 36: Magic Time

We’ve learned to take a deep breath before attempting to analyze another Van Morrison album. So it’s very refreshing when we stumble on one as pleasant as Magic Time. Maybe it was the label change—this time to Geffen—or the fact that the songs were leftovers from the two albums prior. What wasn’t good enough the first time hangs together well here.

The album starts strong with “Stranded”, a gentle blend of jazzy blues and doo-wop, with a slow lazy roll like floating on the sea. “Celtic New Year” is just as lovely and nearly as slow without dragging, complete with a cameo by Paddy Moloney near the end. “Keep Mediocrity At Bay” would be good advice if it weren’t so close to “Sweet Home Chicago”, and “Evening Train” doesn’t break any lyrical ground but it’s still a toe-tapper. He gets a couple of covers out of the way early on—Frank Sinatra’s “This Love Of Mine” and “I’m Confessin’”, given a slight Louis Prima scat over the loping beat. That clears the deck for “Just Like Greta” (as in Garbo, who just wanted to be alone), another slowish treat that builds nicely with a hint of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra in the strings.

“Gypsy In My Soul” doesn’t hearken back to “Gypsy” so much as evoke thoughts of “Spooky” and “Smooth Operator”, and he felt the need to alter Fats Waller’s “Black And Blue” into “Lonely And Blue”. Worth much more scrutiny is “The Lion This Time”, which suggests a connection to “Listen To The Lion” despite its lilting nursery rhyme quality. The title track isn’t much until the harmonica solo, but at least he waited until nearly the end to complain about all the injustice he’s endured in “They Sold Me Out”, over chords that sounds too much like “People Get Ready” and other songs we can’t identify. Finally, “Carry On Regardless” isn’t much more than a litany of film titles from the Carry On film franchise. Stick through the full six minutes to hear him yodel and—amazingly—laugh.

Take a few songs off and get it closer to 45 minutes, and Magic Time is one of Van’s better albums from the post-Avalon Sunset phase of his career. It still doesn’t rate higher than it is, but of the previous ten with the same rating, it’s the one to pick.

Van Morrison Magic Time (2005)—3

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Mott The Hoople 7: The Hoople

Still trying to keep up with their promise, Mott The Hoople had more changes in its lineup. Morgan Fisher joined the band on keyboards to fill in the hole Verden Allen left the album before, and after Mick Ralphs ran off to form Bad Company with Paul Rodgers, Luther Grosvenor from Spooky Tooth took over on lead guitar under the name Ariel Bender. The Hoople (finishing up the previous album’s example) is very much Ian Hunter’s album, as his affected vocals and pounding piano dominate every track.

Most of the songs involve his main obsession, the treadmill of the music industry. A faux-serious introduction heralding “The Golden Age Of Rock ‘N’ Roll”, before falling into a typical Hunter boogie, with traffic-jam horns, female backing vocals, and a truly bent guitar solo. “Marionette” is something of a mini-opera, with other band members contributing vocals as counterpart, and somewhat harrowing. The hooker paean “Alice” has a dizzying pile of rhymes that deserves an actual melody instead of Ian’s posing. And then there’s “Crash Street Kidds”, which combines three different riffs in three different tempos, any of which would have been welcomed by Kiss, seems to crumble into nothing, and then starts all over again, running another three minutes until a chilling “now you’re dead” chant.

Most fans agree that “Born Late ‘58”, Overend Watts’ sole writing credit for the band, is up there with any other Mott classic, and it fits the blueprint. A tribute to the woman who’s still his wife to this day, “Trudi’s Song” finally turns the volume down, sounding like a refugee from Wildlife. The quiet is short-lived, as a loud conversation begins “Pearl ‘N’ Roy (England)” until Ian tells them to shut up so they can boogie some more. “Through The Looking Glass” would appear to be another pretty piano ballad, but slathers on orchestration somewhere between Bowie theatrics and Broadway tragedy. “Roll Away The Stone” brings everything back to the start for a simple anthem, but re-recorded from the previous year’s single because Mick Ralphs had played on it.

The Hoople has its fans, but these ears find it way too overblown to be taken all at once. (The reissue is worth seeking out, as it includes some non-album singles and B-sides worthy of being heard again.) Very soon Ian Hunter would leave the band himself, leaving the rhythm section and Morgan Fisher to carry on as simply Mott, and then as British Lions.

Mott The Hoople The Hoople (1974)—
2006 remastered expanded CD: same as 1974, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, November 9, 2018

Elton John 8: Don't Shoot Me

So much of Elton John’s music had cinematic tendencies, with stories to tell. Yet despite the cover art and overall design, Don't Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player is merely a collection of songs, in so many styles that it’s more like a variety show than a movie. The public didn’t care; they loved the singles and he had another hit.

“Daniel” is one of those hits that today may inspire a lunge to change the station, but it’s still a sweet song; note the electric piano for a change, and trilling acoustics. “Teacher I Need You” has triplet arpeggios that would dominate several Ben Folds albums in thirty years’ time, and a lyric not too far from the teen angst of “Amy” and “I think I’m Gonna Kill Myself”. “Elderberry Wine” and “Midnight Creeper” both boast meaty brass for the intentions of boogie; the former has enough meter changes to have you tripping over your feet, while the latter tries to be tough. In between, however, is “Blues For Baby And Me”. This criminally under-heard tune has all the elements of an Elton John classic: a cascading melody matched by the piano, a romantic lyric, and open-ended mystery. The strings and horns recall Love and “Levon”, and either a Coral sitar or a real one adds unexpected accents.

Despite its borderline disco beginning, “Have Mercy On The Criminal” is a heavy-blues version of the outlaw cowboy music of only a few years before, given more drama by Davey Johnstone’s multi-layered guitars. “I’m Gonna Be A Teenage Idol” is a terrific track, but for the overdone horn arrangement and unconvincing lyric. (For a better slant, think “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen.) “Texan Love Song” is a parody of redneck ideology and hardly an homage, an approach that works so much better on “Crocodile Rock”, with its simple progression and infectious singalong la-la chorus tag. It would be a fine ending to the album, but “High Flying Bird”, another poetic Bernie Taupin lyric given a big open treatment, points to certain songs yet to be written or recorded.

As mentioned, Don't Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player was a huge hit, and got his 1973 off to a strong start. Even with only two hit singles, it was enough; plus the packaging had lots of pretty pictures in a full-size lyric booklet. Many years later, the reissue added decent value in the form of four B-sides from the era. “Screw You”, “Jack Rabbit”, and “Whenever You’re Ready (We’ll Go Steady Again)” will be of interest to completists, but the key addition is “Skyline Pigeon”, a re-recording of a song from his debut, given a wonderful string arrangement and beautifully understated treatment by the band. A gem, truly.

Elton John Don't Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player (1973)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, November 2, 2018

Prince 8: Parade

Prince’s second major motion picture was a big deal destined to crash, and it did. So a lot of what people think of Parade, the album designed as a companion to the film, is colored by whether they have any opinion of Under The Cherry Moon, and most of that isn’t positive. A narcissistic exercise in black and white, at first it appears to take place in an earlier decade, but the music doesn’t match, and much of the dialogue is too modern. Prince directed the movie himself, and completely relishes the script in every scene. Jerome Benton plays a larger version of the version of himself from Purple Rain, but doesn’t quite have the capacity for some of the more dramatic lines he has to deliver.

Therefore it’s best to take the album as its own entity, despite some obvious references in the lyrics and a heavily French influence. While credited to the Revolution, the whole band only plays on three tracks, the rest consisting of Prince by himself, per usual, with help from Wendy and Lisa, and lots of cinematic orchestration by Hollywood veteran Clare Fischer. (Pointedly, however, all the singles taken from the album save the first were Revolution tracks.)

“Christopher Tracy’s Parade” doesn’t just open the album; it kicks off a suite of tracks that were recorded as one sequence, with changes in rhythm, time, and key intact. A fanfare with plenty of flourishes, it crumbles down into something of a muddle, before returning as “New Position”, accompanied by the barest percussion and broken steel drums. That slows down as well to the even more spare, even briefer “I Wonder U”, wherein Wendy sings the lead. It’s a quick change of tempo to the disturbed waltz of “Under The Cherry Moon”. Strange as it is, the segment works. It’s not the psychedelia of the last album, nor is it rock or funk. And that makes the arrival of “Girls And Boys” welcome, as it sounds more like the type of Prince track people might have come to expect, finger cymbals and all. The whole band seems to be singing the repeated chant of a chorus, with Wendy’s sister Susannah and Sheila E. in there too, plus a woman talking in French for about a minute. “Life Could Be So Nice” has a big uptempo sound, though it’s just him, and it too stops abruptly for the lush instrumental “Venus De Milo”, just a hint of the background music used in the film.

Side two is framed by two of his most underappreciated tracks. “Mountains” has all the pieces: a good groove, Prince on falsetto, decent horns that don’t overplay, a catchy chorus. (There’s a nearly ten-minute version on the 12-inch single, which would be nice to hear again.) In case you forgot where we were, the track fades into another French trifle, “Do U Lie?” Female vocals fight for space with the orchestra, and yes, there’s an accordion. The song that people do know is “Kiss”, which he originally gave to one of his protégé slash side projects, only to take it back when he liked their minimal arrangement. The video is still fun for showing of his sense of humor. The Revolution returns for “Anotherloverholenyohead”; the wordplay of the title likely contributed to its lack of success on the radio, but the movie was out of theaters by then anyway. And everything quiets down for “Sometimes It Snows In April”. This gorgeous lament features only acoustic guitars and piano, with Wendy and Lisa joining his vocals for an extended ethereal introduction. The chorus, sad as it is, has wonderful changes, and just like that, the album’s over.

Parade is a strange little album, but very rewarding given time to breathe. It’s hard to believe now that it came out less than two short years after Purple Rain, during which he did two albums for Sheila E. and tried to morph the remains of The Time into The Family (known today for releasing the first version of a little number called “Nothing Compares 2 U”). Also, during the three-month period between the release of the album and the film, he was competing with himself, as the Bangles had a smash hit with “Manic Monday”, credited to his character onscreen.

Prince and the Revolution Parade: Music From The Motion Picture Under The Cherry Moon (1986)—

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Faces 4: Ooh La La

Even with the changing in attitudes and success, the Faces could still come through with what they did best. While stories are rife with increasing tensions between Rod Stewart and the rest—plus Ronnie Lane wanted to tour in a gypsy caravan—it’s astounding that Ooh La La is as together as it is.

Right away “Silicone Grown” sets up the boogie, a great riff and bash for two chords. Due to its similarity to “Memphis”, “Cindy Incidentally” could pass for the album’s token cover, but works its way up to a different chorus, for a superior tune. Ronnie Lane gets two minutes to shine on “Flags And Banners”, a lovely strum given some fuzz and over too soon, then it’s back to boogie on “My Fault” (Ronnie Wood soloing all the way, natch). The rollicking “Borstal Boys” is the only song we know that features a Klaxon horn, bringing back childhood memories of Cheaper By The Dozen, and not the Steve Martin atrocity. Too bad it doesn’t play through the whole song.

An already short album has an instrumental, “Fly In The Ointment”, kicking off side two, and while it has too many minor chords to be a jam, it’s perhaps a sign of the lack of camaraderie behind the scenes. Still, it’s a good setup for a quieter selection of tunes, beginning with Rod’s tender “If I’m On The Late Side”. The surprising vocal combo of both Ronnies and Ian McLagan propels “Glad And Sorry” to wonderful heights, then “Just Another Honky” has another nice riff swapped between the piano and guitar. The title track caps the album, a lovely conversation between the generations, with a lead vocal by Ronnie Wood, of all people! We can thank modern pop culture for bringing this song into wider exposure, given its appearance in movies and commercials, and we’re not sick of it yet.

Even if they didn’t know it would be their last studio album—and they probably didn’t—Ooh La La manages to be a truly grand finale, expertly sequenced, without a single throwaway. Some things are apparently just too good to last.

Faces Ooh La La (1973)—

Friday, October 26, 2018

R.E.M. 23: At The BBC

With seemingly hours of shows in their vaults, R.E.M. took a simpler route for an archival release, once again in a year without an album’s 25th anniversary. R.E.M. At The BBC spews up a box of eight CDs’ worth of material (plus a DVD) culled from the band’s British radio appearances. These were all live performances, both as a four-piece as well as the expanded ensembles of later years.

Fans of the classic lineup with Bill Berry will have to be content with an hour or so from a 1984 concert that sounds like they’re playing at the other end of a tunnel and includes songs that weren’t on albums yet (“Hyena” being a particular train wreck), part of a 1991 appearance that’s very similar to their Unplugged set, plus a full performance from 1995 that includes songs that would end up on New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Everything else comes from post-Up, after Bill retired. (Granted, several of their upgraded albums include live performances from the earlier period.)

That’s not to say the later stuff isn’t of the same quality; it’s tough not to get caught up in the crowd’s excitement at Glastonbury in 1999, Thom Yorke’s Patti Smith impression on “E-Bow The Letter”, or any deep cut given a passionate treatment. Yet while the selections come from different years, the listener may tire of multiple renditions of “Losing My Religion”, “Man On The Moon”, “The Apologist”, “Walk Unafraid” and the like. Rare songs are few; there’s “Fretless” and “Love Is All Around” from 1991, and a cover of “Munich” by the Editors from 2008. Yet for the price—$80 for the set, or $25 for a two-disc distillation—it’s a pretty good deal. And it makes a strong argument for their prowess as a solid live band.

R.E.M. R.E.M. At The BBC (2018)—3

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Marshall Crenshaw 6: Life’s Too Short

After too many years of public apathy and corporate indifference, Marshall Crenshaw surfaced on a new label with his best album since his debut, and hardly anyone noticed. Part of the battle Life’s Too Short faced was the times; well-constructed rock ‘n roll just wasn’t selling in 1991. Also, it came out on a tiny subsidiary of MCA, which was too busy with the money Geffen was raking in to promote it. (We’ll give him a pass on the mullet, since it was 1991.)

Those who did dive in were rewarded immediately; “Better Back Off” rises above the Stones quote, and the album barely lets up from there, one solid track after another. “Fantastic Planet Of Love” is borderline silly, with effects that could even pass for spacey, but a catchy tune always wins. Just to show he’s not completely in his own world, a cover of “Face Of Fashion” by New Zealand punk icon Chris Knox gets a nice grungy reading. The only slow songs don’t show up until the middle of side two; “Starting Tomorrow” has a near doo-wop vibe, while “Somewhere Down The Line” goes a little long but has sweet harmonies from Rosie Flores. “Everything’s The Truth”, written with Jules Shear, sits in between for a terrific bash.

Ed Stasium, fresh off Living Colour and the Smithereens, produced, with a solid combo anchored by Fernando Saunders and Kenny Aronoff. (The one track with another rhythm section, “Stop Doing That”, also includes contributions from TV’s Paul Shaffer, and fits seamlessly with the rest of the album.) We’ll go ahead and state the obvious: Life’s Too Short to miss out on this album.

Marshall Crenshaw Life’s Too Short (1991)—

Friday, October 19, 2018

Elvis Costello 34: Look Now

You can’t argue with math, so it really had been ten years since Elvis Costello’s last album with the Imposters, and only his fourth album of “new” material in that same span. Look Now arrived in something of the wake following a tour that focused on 1982’s Imperial Bedroom (a big favorite around these parts) as well as work with Burt Bacharach on more songs for a projected Broadway musical based on 1998’s Painted From Memory. Both albums show up in all the press for this one, but we hear shades of Mighty Like A Rose in the baroque horn arrangements, and Punch The Clock in the female backup vocals. One thing the album doesn’t do is rock; the spirit, as well as the musical and piano contribution, of Bacharach looms large over the proceedings, which tend mostly toward soulful pop. (For another clue, Dusty In Memphis gets a clever acknowledgment in the notes.)

The big drums and sound of “Under Lime” are about as loud as the album gets, a catchy sequel of sorts to “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” with a plot that gets more disturbing with every listen. “Don’t Look Now”, written with Bacharach, is just one of many songs sung from a woman’s perspective, this one bringing to mind either an aging ingénue or a young model. It’s pretty, yet brief. “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter” is a collaboration with Carole King that sat unheard from the ‘90s; while it’s hard to discern her mark, the theme of a spurned divorcée is carried over in “Stripping Paper”, something of a cousin to “This House Is Empty Now”, wherein the narrator finds the remnants of her marriage amid the décor. The “daring” teen pregnancy ode “Unwanted Number” makes a surprising appearance, being the other song he contributed to the soundtrack of Grace Of My Heart, the film that brought him together with Bacharach in the first place. We take a break from female problems to world issues, as “I Let The Sun Go Down” is concerned with the impending Brexit.

The modern-sounding “Mr. & Mrs. Hush” bears the most echoes of his collaboration with The Roots, and catchy as it is, still befuddles the listener still trying nail the identities of Harry Worth, Mr. Feathers, Stella Hurt, and the like. “Photographs Can Lie” is another Bacharach co-write, this time from the point of view of a woman considering her father’s infidelities. Things pick back up in “Dishonor The Stars”, which deftly sets up the soul promise made real in “Suspect My Tears”, another 20-year-old tune making its welcome appearance, with a terrific Hey Love arrangement and occasional falsetto. (Nobody told him he lifted the chorus from Diana’s version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.) “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me?” continues the R&B revue, with a samba backing and clever interlocking vocals. It makes “He’s Given Me Things”, the final scorned woman tune written with Burt, something of an anti-climax; it’s a little too quiet, and we’re left wondering if all these women are the same character.

Because it had been so long, Look Now is a big deal, with a lot of expectation for it. The history of some of the compositions puts it across not so much as a statement but a reason to give these songs some exposure past the concert stage, where he’s been living for most of the decade. The diehard fans will also eat up the Deluxe Edition, with four extra tracks: “Isabelle In Tears” sounds like an unfinished audition for Bacharach; “Adieu Paris”, a smarmy excuse to write and sing in lounge French; “The Final Mrs. Curtain”, a decent contender for the album proper if not for the Hush couple; and “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way”, written for the movie Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.

But that cover art? He’s a much better songwriter than a painter.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters Look Now (2018)—3

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Frank Zappa 35: London Symphony Orchestra

In early 1983, Frank hooked up with young up-and-conducting conductor Kent Nagano to take another stab at recording his “classical” music, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra. According to Frank, the experience was excruciating, from the costs of transcribing all the parts for all the players to what he deemed a lack of respect from said players, who didn’t take the challenge seriously enough for his taste, even—horrors!—spending their breaks in the sessions at the local pub. Whatever the story (and there are several versions), three days of sessions resulted in 90 minutes of music, which may or may not have been edited before release to fix mistakes and whatnot.

Just as the execution of getting this stuff recorded in the first place was a logistical nightmare, its eventual appearance has been just as convoluted. First there was The London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I LP in 1983, credited to “Zappa”. In 1986, Rykodisc replaced two of those tracks with a 24-minute arrangement of “Bogus Pomp” on a CD credited to his full name, but with no article before or number after the title. A vinyl and cassette release a year later, called London Symphony Orchestra Vol. II (credited to full name again), included “Bogus Pomp” plus two more pieces. Not until 1995 did all of the pieces appear together in one place, in a new sequence as a two-CD set credited to his full name and appended as “Vol. 1 & 2”. The 2012 version approved by the family has it back to the surname and Roman numerals, and helpfully has both official release numbers on the spine.

This is exactly the type of minutiae that occupies and enrages Zappa collectors, and for the sake of this review we’re going to break tradition and assign the rating to the double-disc edition, out of its chronology, just because it’s easier.

Is it essential? No. Is it awful? No. Being modern classical music, influences from 20th century composers make the tunes difficult to hum. Titles like “Bob In Dacron” and “Mo ‘N Herb’s Vacation”, much like those on Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, seem fairly arbitrary. Frank would often say the music was intended to accompany a ballet, and provided liner notes describing the alleged albeit outlandish plot. More often the effect is more like listening to a film score without dialogue, or a soundtrack from a Looney Tunes or Tom & Jerry short. “Envelopes” is transformed from its “rock” incarnation on Ship Arriving Too Late… Three selections are updates from Orchestral Favorites; as mentioned, “Bogus Pomp” is longer here and incorporates even more elements of the 200 Motels suite, as well as some charts going back to 1968. This version of “Strictly Genteel”, however, is a keeper.

Zappa The London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I & II (1995)—3

Friday, October 5, 2018

Tom Petty 22: An American Treasure

Coming in the middle of a period when it seems lots of major artists were passing along, Tom Petty’s death seemed especially shocking. He’d just finished an anniversary tour celebrating his band’s career as major label product; such a finale seemed about as likely as David Bowie dying right after releasing his final album, or Charles Schulz the morning of the last Peanuts strip.

Even though his output had slowed over recent years, consistent touring—as well as material shared on his satellite radio show, which eventually turned into its own channel—made it clear that there was a plenty of unheard material in his clubhouse, certainly since the Playback set just scratched the surface. Rather than rushing out another hits collection with the same obvious songs, his family and band members wisely waited till the following fourth quarter before unveiling An American Treasure. A true valentine for the fans, these four CDs offer about four hours’ worth of mostly unreleased material, with a handful of previously unknown songs. Even familiar deep cuts from the albums we all know are presented in different mixes, often extended past a fade or buffed of their contemporary sheen. The booklet provides commentary and detailed credits for each track, ensuring that Stan Lynch, Howie Epstein, and even overlooked Mudcrutch member Danny Roberts get their due. And there are no covers here—Tom wrote them all.

Having already mined their concert history for a previous box, the live portion of the set is lean yet choice. Highlights include stripped-down arrangements of “Even The Losers” and “I Won’t Back Down”, a beefed-up “Saving Grace” with the full band, “Insider” with Stevie Nicks 25 years after the album version and, best of all, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar introducing the band at the fabulous Forum.

The discs are thematically separated between decades, with some wavering of chronology but still linear. The ‘70s disc opens with another take of “Surrender”, which somehow got left off their first three albums, and closes with the soulful Mudcrutch track “Lost In Your Eyes” (complete with uncredited trumpet!), both of which showcase the gargle of a voice Tom had when the journey began, as heard in between. The ‘80s kicks off terrifically: the positively stellar “Keep A Little Soul” would have been the best song on Long After Dark, and still in rotation today if only. “Keeping Me Alive” and “The Apartment Song” are pretty close to the versions on Playback, but still work for the narrative. “Don’t Treat Me Like A Stranger” is rescued from the B-side of “I Won’t Back Down”, just as a full band take of “King Of The Hill” with Roger McGuinn reminds us what a great tune that is. A couple of tracks from Southern Accents are given more authentic, less robotic mixes, while “Walkin’ Through The Fire” is a missing piece of its original concept, and illuminates “My Life/Your World” (not included) somewhat.

The ‘90s were arguably the peak of his popularity, which we know does not always equal “good”. However, this segment brings out some of the overlooked elements of some less-than-perfect albums; the outtakes “Gainesville”, “I Don’t Belong”, and especially “Lonesome Dave” are very worthy of the canon, while an electric “Wake Up Time” proves he made the right choice for the version that closed Wildflowers. The final disc is left to cover this century, when radio and video weren’t promoting his music as much anymore. As much of that latter period leaned on blues for the albums, it’s nice to hear breezy tunes like “You And Me”; “Bus To Tampa Bay” and the alternate “Sins Of My Youth” would have been wonderful side trips on Hypnotic Eye. “Two Men Talking” is redeemed by the wonderful interaction between Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, the longtime sidemen who co-produced the project. The set ends with the last original song from his last original album: “Hungry No More”, live with Mudcrutch, bringing it all back to the beginning.

An American Treasure is an apt title, for it shows even us jaded types that he never stopped doing what he loved, nor did he stop honing his craft. As wonderful as the music is, we’d rather he was still around.

Tom Petty An American Treasure (2018)—4

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Cat Stevens 10: Izitso

With his concepts failing to connect with the world at large, Cat Stevens went back to writing just plain songs. While Izitso finds him even closer to chucking it all for a simpler life and enlightenment, he was still finding inspiration from modern synthesizers and contemporary rhythms.

But while some synthesizer experiments of the era still sound fresh, the Cat isn’t so lucky. The needlessly parenthetical “(Remember The Days Of The) Old Schoolyard” is designed to conjure memories of a more innocent youth, screaming children and all, but the keyboard colorings dump way too much color on those old snaps. Interestingly, the song uses a melody line like that theme from the “Foreigner Suite” that sounds like Coldplay, and while Elkie Brooks may be a worthy duet partner, she’s no Kiki Dee. “Life” uses the keyboards better, a more understated musing closer to his classic sound, complete with bouzoukis. And while that establishes a better mood, we’re off to Muscle Shoals for “Killin’ Time”, squarely in the now, but coming off like Bachman-Turner Overdrive playing “Shakedown Street”. And as he says, “You really miss the point.” “Kypros” is a harmless instrumental based around a rhythm box that’s not much more of a demo, and would be ideal background music for any number of ‘80s video games. Shackled to a forced metaphor, “Bonfire” sounds awkward today, even with Chick Corea noodling on piano. The salacious lyrics are more suited to Barry White, especially considering the path he was about to take, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.

Speaking of blatant, parentheses strike again on “(I Never Wanted) To Be A Star”, a clever track that weaves in references to his earliest hits soon after he left the old schoolyard. However, the lament is misplaced on an album seemingly designed to top the charts, given the yacht-rock qualities of “Crazy” and “Sweet Jamaica”. Then there’s “Was Dog A Doughnut?”, another windup instrumental that people will insist predicts techno. We’re not sure where the doughnut falls in, but the barking dog effects may indeed have influenced “Rockit”. One of the better songs, “Child For A Day”, ends the album, and while it’s possibly the most archetypical Cat Stevens song here, it turns out his brother wrote it.

At the time, Izitso would have been considered a comeback, and it would have been welcomed. As should be clear, it has not aged well, and while it’s definitely a step up from the last handful of albums, it’s still less than memorable.

Cat Stevens Izitso (1977)—

Friday, September 28, 2018

Kinks 12: Lola

Continuing their tendency of lengthy album titles and unwieldy concepts, the Kinks entered the ‘70s with an album best known for its title song—although said track is far from the highlight of the album. On Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One, Ray Davies’ latest obsession is the wicked music industry, delivered in the form of letters home to ma (or schizophrenic rants, you pick). Some country influences poke through, but the music is predominantly rock, not pop, with the key addition of John Gosling on keyboards; Nicky Hopkins had likely become too expensive for Ray to pay what he was worth.

Following a brief intro teaser of a song to be named later, “The Contenders” follows a meaty riff through a statement of purpose for an idealist hoping to make a difference. “Strangers” shows how far Dave Davies had come as a writer, and his wistful perspective provides a nice balance for Ray’s soapbox, particularly with the sarcastic description of “Denmark Street”, the home of predatory sheet music publishers. Luckily, it’s pretty brief, leaving lots of space for “Get Back In Line”, which one must pay close attention to understand the pros and cons of joining the musician’s union. It’s even more sublime when followed by “Lola”, the infamous gender-bending anthem that became one of the band’s most famous songs, even after you’re not 13 anymore. Having seemingly scored with their “hit”, they’re headed to the “Top Of The Pops”, a mini-opera based around a mutilation of the “Louie Louie” riff with an extended break featuring the melody from “Land Of A Thousand Dances”. “The Moneygoround” is another slice of music hall, wherein Ray namechecks the managers and publishers he feels ripped him off.

The “Lola” guitar appears again on “This Time Tomorrow”, with airplane effects illustrating the tedium of the touring treadmill, yet still hopeful for something better. Then it’s acknowledged that he’s “A Long Way From Home”, in the same melancholy arena as “Shangri-La” but not as frightening, and nicely balanced yet again by Dave on the tough and angry “Rats”. The other song everyone knows is “Apeman”, a pleasingly silly plea for simplicity notable for his daring pronunciation of “fogging”, and the second song Ray song in two years that mentions King Kong. He does his best Dave imitation on “Powerman”, with another terrific riff and clever jumps in meter. “Got To Be Free” completes the song begun at the top of the album, and while it’s something of a declaration of independence, it also suggests that the excerpt before “The Contenders” was actually the coda for the song itself; hence the moneygoround begins anew.

Most of the songs on Lola are good enough to stand on their own, and for that, we’ll commit blasphemy and declare it superior to Arthur. Despite the cover’s notation, there never was a “Part Two”, though a case could be made for the soundtrack to the film Percy, based on a novel written by Robyn Hitchcock’s dad (really) about the world’s first penis transplant (really). Despite a few tracks on compilations, the album went unreleased in America until it was included as part of a double-CD deluxe edition of Lola. And a good place for it, too, since it’s not their finest offering, loaded with sterile instrumentals and a borderline Muzak version of “Lola”. However, Ray did offer up some songs that stand well outside this context, too. “God’s Children” and “The Way Love Used To Be” are a little naïve, but both lovely pleas for “going back” to more pastoral times. “Animals In The Zoo” and “Dreams” fit well with the Lola sound and concept. “Moments” is a little cloying, thanks to the outside arrangement, while “Just Friends” is a plodding parody of chamber pop. Strangest of all is “Willesden Green”, and Presley-Cash pastiche sung by bassist John Dalton. (Of course, for Kinks konnoisseurs, the deluxe set is a no-brainer, as both discs are filled up with rarities, including alternate mixes from both albums and the excellent Lola outtakes “Anytime” and “The Good Life”.)

The Kinks Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround (1970)—
2014 Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround & “Percy” Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 30 extra tracks

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Humble Pie 6: Smokin’

Now that they’d finally “arrived”, Peter Frampton was gone on his own, so Steve Marriott’s new guitar foil was Clem Clempson. The band soldiered on, continuing their foundation of heavy boogie and sludge on Smokin’.

Covers slowed down beyond recognition are still their thing, with “C’mon Everybody” on one side and “Road Runner” on the other, with Stephen Stills mangling the Hammond organ. He’s also prominent on the opening “Hot ‘N Nasty”, which is one of the few tracks we suppose could be danced to, if only for the inspired rhyme of “feeling” and “ceiling”. “The Fixer” follows on the slow riffs that drove Rockin’ The Fillmore, but ends with a wonderful triplet phrase right out of Jimi Hendrix’s last recordings. “You’re So Good For Me” rises above its dull beginning and Faces impersonation to incorporate Doris Troy and Madeline Bell on backing vocals. Blues legend Alexis Korner helps out on the out-of-place skiffle shuffle “Old Time Feelin’”.

The song that sold the album starts side two. “30 Days In The Hole” opens with a snippet of the boys practicing their harmonies for the chorus, before Steve details all the wonderful varieties of drugs that got him where he is. The lengthy “I Wonder” is supposedly based on a little-known blues side, but good luck noticing the similarities. The solos are masterful, but in case anyone falls asleep from the pace, “Sweet Peace And Time” bludgeons its way to the end, and a good way to clear your sinuses.

Smokin' is worthy of the albums that came before, but once you dig deep, Frampton’s balance is sorely missed. Still, these guys weren’t trying to create fine art.

Humble Pie Smokin' (1972)—3

Friday, September 21, 2018

Byrds 15: Live 1969 and 1971

If it happened at any other time but the late ‘60s, the Byrds would have ended after David Crosby left the band, and the remaining members would have issued their work under another name—the Sweethearts, perhaps, after the album where things truly changed. Once Chris Hillman bailed, and Roger McGuinn was the only Byrd left, the band we knew only three years before was done anyway. Yet, the band called the Byrds that featured a phenomenal lead guitarist named Clarence White on five albums cannot be so easily discarded. That combo was truly unique for its time, playing both traditional country songs and rock amalgams, well before the Eagles ran with the concept. Granted, the Flying Burrito Brothers were working a similar experiment, but they too suffered from revolving band members.

Today, two different artifacts have become part of the Byrds canon, and both come from the era featuring the group we’re going to call the Sweethearts. Live At The Fillmore — February 1969 compiles highlights from two nights at the Fillmore West, right after Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde came out. The sets were heavy on that album and Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, with a few other country covers thrown in alongside a medley of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and “Eight Miles High”, and ending with “Rock & Roll Star”, “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, and “Chimes Of Freedom”. From the opening “Nashville West”, Clarence wails and Roger keeps out of his way.

The only lineup change until the final Byrds album for Columbia was Skip Battin on bass; that incarnation of the Sweethearts (catchy, isn’t it?) was already represented on the first two sides of (Untitled). By now they didn’t sell records in America, but flourished in the UK. A well-performed set was extracted from Roger’s vaults for Live At Royal Albert Hall 1971, released on the psychedelic-centric Sundazed label, and it’s clear how far they’d come as a live act since the Fillmore show. Just as on (Untitled), they begin with “Lover Of The Bayou”, and move through their older Dylan covers with newer tracks. Things go acoustic to show off Clarence’s prowess there, through a couple of traditional songs and “Mr. Tambourine Man”. (By now Gene Parsons would leave the kit to play banjo, and their road manager covered on percussion.) A lengthy “Eight Miles High” jam has to wait through an extended bass solo for the song itself to emerge. While not on the same level as in the folk-rock era, their vocal blends shine throughout, right through the closing a cappella take on “Amazing Grace”. We even get to hear them called back for several encores.

These two albums nicely complement the studio albums of the period, and show strengths that were sadly lost in the mixes. And anytime we get to hear Clarence White, everybody wins. Both are worth seeking out.

The Byrds Live At The Fillmore — February 1969 (2000)—3
The Byrds
Live At Royal Albert Hall 1971 (2008)—

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Rush 13: Power Windows

After not too long a break, another Rush album appeared, with another co-producer. Those who thought Grace Under Pressure was too shiny would likely welcome the better balance of guitar and synth on Power Windows. Amazingly, the album even got a semi-positive review in Rolling Stone magazine.

“The Big Money” crashes out of the silence, full of percolating bass and suspended guitar chords, and a mid-section that could almost be mistaken for U2. Lyrically it’s not the most adventurous, but the cyclical patterns make it memorable. “Grand Designs” starts okay but doesn’t break much ground, though we really like that high-speed piano run about halfway through. While it seems a little forced these days, “Manhattan Project” is about the creation of the atomic bomb—a big topic of the era—swinging between a plaintive melody and a more urgent chorus, with a string arrangement by Anne Dudley, best known for her work with Trevor Horn and Art of Noise. “Marathon” is a more upbeat anthem to bring side one to a close, metaphors aplenty, and featuring an actual choir.

Side two doesn’t always catch fire. “Territories” is a pretty blatant (for them) commentary on world politics, stuck to a mildly Eastern rhythm and Far Eastern melodies. “Middletown Dreams” is something of an extension of the suburban setting of “Subdivisions”; the chorus is the best part, and since practically every state in the U.S. has a Middletown, concertgoers could always cheer for theirs. “Emotion Detector” sounds like elements of other songs on the album, so it doesn’t really go anywhere, but at least “Mystic Rhythms” does a better job with “exotic” sounds and would allow Neil to play around his electronic kit onstage.

While they still weren’t exactly mainstream, Power Windows finds the band even further from their prog-metal roots. The down side of the bargain was that their “big arena sound” was making many of their songs sound indistinguishable from each other. And while the sidelong epic seemed to be well in their past, none of the tracks is shorter than five minutes, adding to the density. It works, but only just. And perhaps the only dated thing about the album is the haircut of the kid on the cover, who still looks surprisingly like Anthony Michael Hall.

Rush Power Windows (1985)—3

Friday, September 14, 2018

Journey 10: Trial By Fire

Steve Perry’s solo album hadn’t made much of an impact, but then again Bad English—Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain’s collaboration with John Waite—didn’t last past a second album, and Neal’s attempt at metal in Hardline was largely ignored. Even the Storm, which featured Gregg Rolie and the spurned rhythm section of Ross Valory and Steve Smith, missed out on success. Yet in an era when the Eagles managed to get back together, the re-emergence of Journey in the studio made sense, at least from a commercial angle. But would they sound any good?

Sure enough, the “classic lineup” that gave us Escape and Frontiers did indeed make an entire album together, which immediately led to Steve’s refusal to tour behind it, and an unintentionally hilarious episode of Behind The Music. The most maddening thing was, by Journey standards, Trial By Fire was pretty good.

Coming in at over an hour, the album shows the three songwriters attempting to straddle all possible worlds associated with the brand, giving equal time to big ballads and riff-heavy rockers. In fact, the first “single” from the album was a double: “Message Of Love” aped enough of “Separate Ways” to make it to classic rock radio, while “When You Love A Woman” was destined to be several couples’ wedding song. They are separated on the album by “One More”, another loud track with top-speed fretwork and nightmarish strings.

From there it’s mostly where they left off on Raised On Radio, but with a more unified sound than the patchwork of that album. “If He Should Break Your Heart” and “Forever In Blue” are typical Perry looks back to the high school crush who still haunts him, seemingly. And just when you think they’ve got the magic back, “Castles Burning” induces a headache sure to last longer than the six minutes it takes to sit through. You’re smarter to hit the skip button for “Don’t Be Down On Me Baby”, a slow apologetic waltz that apparently didn’t take, for all Steve’s got are the memories in “Still She Cries”, and Jonathan slathering the end of the track with John Tesh piano stylings.

Along with new age, so-called “world music” kept instrumentalists busy in the ‘90s between reunion albums, and “Colors Of The Spirit” also shows the influence of The Lion King back then. “When I Think Of You” brings back the romance and the slow dance, even if it does recall the love theme from Major League. Yet if there’s a real winner on the album, it’s “Easy To Fall”, to which the whole band rises: music, lyrics, harmonies, chord changes, key changes, a retro outro, just a great performance, and truly a hidden gem in the catalog. “Can’t Tame The Lion” delivers a final blast of arena rock, with “It’s Just The Rain” (complete with sound effects!) and the title track hobbling to the finish. (As if that wasn’t enough, there was a hidden track after several seconds of silence, the half-baked Sam Cooke reggae homage “Baby I’m A Leaving You”. This was given its own index on the eventual reissue, followed by “I Can See It In Your Eyes”, a surprisingly edgy track previously only included on the Japanese version of the album.)

As head-slappingly silly as it seems sometimes, Trial By Fire remains a much more worthy end to the Steve Perry era of Journey. Whatever legs it might’ve had were undermined by the band’s inactivity, leaving the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Kiss, and countless other “reunited” bands to rake in the box office receipts. The album’s mostly been forgotten; meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out the significance of the cat lady and the giant baby in the boat on the album cover.

Journey Trial By Fire (1996)—3
2006 CD reissue: same as 1996, plus 1 extra track

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Paul McCartney 35: Egypt Station

Because he can—and will—play practically any instrument, the novelty of Paul McCartney recording an album all by himself hasn’t been a novelty since the 20th century. Now that technology has made it much easier and faster for him, much of his rock output since the War on Terror has been recorded that way, with the credits mentioning some help from his loyal touring band, but not always being specific.

Egypt Station follows in the one-man-band vein, once again collaborating with a young hot producer of the day whose job is to help him find his way and perhaps rein him in from time to time. This approach worked best on Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, where Nigel Godrich allegedly challenged him repeatedly to strive for substance. Not so here; these days, with the likes of James Corden and Jimmy Fallon fawning all over him to younger audiences, he can get away with being cute.

The old bastard can still find a melody from time to time. The tracks that stand out for us—more so than the one-note upbeat tunes—are slower and piano-based. “I Don’t Know” is an audacious, vulnerable start (following the brief “Opening Station” ambient fanfare of sorts); one must skip halfway through the album to “Hand In Hand” for a similar mood. An exception is “Dominoes”, which rises above its basic elements to be catchy for five minutes. “Do It Now” tries to be inspirational, along with the other social commentary on the album.

Much will be made of “Despite Repeated Warnings”, an allegory in the form of a suite that compares the President Trump era to a pending disaster. “Who Cares” is something of an anti-bullying anthem but addressed more intimately, even when framed by some feedbacky guitar. “People Want Peace” isn’t the most controversial statement he could make, but that’s what happens when it’s 2018 and you can stretch an hour’s worth of music across four sides of vinyl. Like other tracks on the album, it’s a musical echo of “Queenie Eye”. Speaking of which…

While Paul’s not the worst drummer in the world, he’s never been especially inventive at the kit, and his beats can go in circles. But after half a century of creating, some repetition can be forgiven, somewhat. “Happy With You” recalls “Dance Tonight” and “Early Days”, both in acoustic approach and the latter in the way it talks about the past (in this case, the drugs and drinking in which he indulged). The same can be said for “Confidante”, and while we wanted to speculate whom the subject could be, turns out it’s only his guitar. “Come On To Me” would already be considered a sequel to “Nod Your Head”, if not for the puerile play on pronunciation throughout “Fuh You”, proudly helmed by the singer from OneRepublic, who was born shortly after Back To The Egg came out. Least exciting are “Caesar Rock”, built around another punning syntax, slightly redeemed by his ballsy vocal delivery, and “Back In Brazil”, a strange little story that was likely suggested by the rhythm, almost recalling some of his ‘80s experiments, and not in a good way. These are the most egregious examples of spontaneous lyrics he didn’t bother to improve. A second “Station” interlude would seem to close the program, but for “Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link”, another apparent stitching of incomplete songs, closed out by a decent guitar solo.

As before, the Target chain got two extra tracks; “Get Started” is a catchy track with lazy lyrics and a stupid ending, while “Nothing For Free” is best summed up by its closing line: “My brain stopped working today.” And then the following spring, because he’s done it for every album since 2007, he put out expanded versions at various price points once the album seemingly stopped selling for good. The so-called “Explorer’s Edition” added a second disc, including the two Target tracks, four live performances, a “full-length” mix of “Who Cares” that adds two minutes of acoustic noodling, and three “new” songs. The goofy “Frank Sinatra’s Party” screams B-side, while “Sixty Second Street” is a pleasant strum given an unnecessary tempo change. “Get Enough”, which snuck out digitally on the first day of 2019, is a ballad with potential cruelly subjected to Autotune in a failed experiment. (The limited “Traveller’s Edition” had all that in a suitcase with the album and extras on vinyl and CD, the album on cassette, and a whole bunch of printed crap.)

As harmless pop, Egypt Station isn’t substantial, nor is it offensively half-assed. That’s been par for his course; we don’t expect much, and he doesn’t completely waste our attention. The promise of a new McCartney album wasn’t always a good thing, but even after a five-year gap, we should be happy he’s given us a distraction in these troubled times. People will love it, and eventually they’ll realize there’s not much here to treasure. He can do way better than this.

Paul McCartney Egypt Station (2018)—
2019 Explorer’s Edition: same as 2018, plus 10 extra tracks