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 12, 2018

Lou Reed 15: Legendary Hearts

Having apparently remembered less is more, Lou kept to mostly the same formula on Legendary Hearts, but with two key changes. Fred Maher joined on drums, and would go on to anchor several of Lou’s better albums going forward. Also, while Robert Quine is credited on guitar, he would go to his grave insisting that much of his lead work was minimized out of spite, jealousy, or some unforgivable indiscretion. Whatever the truth, the album is missing an edge, forcing us (once again) to focus on the auteur’s words, vocals, and melodies, mostly concerned with sobriety and marital bliss.
An atmospheric wash belies the basic combo backing on the title track, a strong meditation at the wonder of the glory of love with an original view on what might have befallen Romeo. The rant “Don’t Talk To Me About Work” may be defended as a monologue in character, but it only works when one considers that Lou actually did have a few office jobs in his time. “Make Up My Mind” (spoiler alert: he can’t) wanders along, a decent set of changes seeking a better subject. Another character emerges in “Martial Law”, a mildly funky track that brings something of an ironic solution to domestic violence. “The Last Shot” refers mostly to drink, but could also be drugs or a metaphor in general. The chords, though simple and familiar, make the song memorable. (Likewise, “Bottoming Out” on the other side uses the old I-vi-ii-V change and doubles the title in terms of both drink and motorcycles.) With a simple sleepy groove, “Turn Out The Light” has a welcome change in delivery, closer to his ‘70s slur but more assured somehow.
While the main message is “I wanna dance with you,” “Powwow” is just plain strange, lyrically. Only years after he skewered racial stereotypes in “I Wanna Be Black”, what we to make of a romantic song that references fire water, teepees, arrows and scalping? “Betrayed” could use a little more development, seeming to portray a man in a relationship with a woman with severe daddy issues, unless we’re missing something really obvious. “Home Of The Brave” is long and slow, a tribute to various friends who’ve either settled down or died as he contemplates his own happy life. While it comes to a grand close, and would be a fine ending, the slight “Rooftop Garden” is seemingly tacked on to underscore the point.
At this point in an arduous career, Lou could be commended for releasing an album that wasn’t pointedly bad, and Legendary Hearts can’t be called that. It’s not as strong as The Blue Mask, but it remains one of his better unknown albums.

Lou Reed Legendary Hearts (1983)—3

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Roxy Music 1: Roxy Music

When they emerged, they were just plain goofy looking, and it’s hard to disagree today. Roxy Music was part greasy pompadour, part progressive, part glam, part outer space, and damn catchy. Looks weren’t everything; they had to sound good, and they did.
“Re-Make/Re-Model”, which opens their eponymous debut, might as well be the theme song to their imaginary TV series. After the sounds of a cocktail party, a piano establishes the rhythm before the band pounds it into submission. You can hear Bryan Ferry posing through his vocals, while Phil Manzanera solos like he’s trying to hit every fret on the neck at least five times. Andy Mackay honks his saxophone, and Brian Eno adds wacky synth effects seemingly at random. Everybody gets two bars to solo, including drummer Paul Thompson and bass player Graham Simpson, who would set a standard by leaving the band before the album was released.
The rest of the side does well to live up to the promise. “Ladytron” begins with a space landing and continues with an oboe solo before Ferry starts singing in a different key. Whether or not he’s trying to seduce a robot is just part of the fun, which continues big time on “If There Is Something”. Here the simple piano chording gets processed through a mildly country-western filter, then takes a darker turn through a descending riff wherein Ferry lists all the ways he’d show his affection, from climbing mountains to “growing potatoes by the score.” The music finds its way to a more comfortable resolution, and if you got the album in the US, the wondrous single “Virginia Plain” comes over the hill into Whoville like sleighbells. Elsewhere, “2HB” bubbles in next, with Casablanca references underscoring the actor’s initials in the title.
Side two isn’t quite as classic, and works a little too hard to be as epic. “The Bob (Medley)” is indeed a series of vignettes stuck together, with only the effects strewn throughout seeming to refer to the Battle of Britain (again, a pun of a title). A punk dirge makes up the first part, a heck of a chorus (“Too many times beautiful”) peeks out from somewhere, and peek from the other side of the window to a party we’re not invited to returns us to the dirge, and big tympani to end the suite. The lecherous creep in Ferry returns on “Chance Meeting”, his pitch leering over the piano while Manzanera unrolls sheets of distortion and feedback. “Would You Believe?” is a little more pleasant, a sweeter approach to seduction, even through the rave-up sax solo straight from the car hop. It’s a nice change of pace, since “Sea Breezes” is very slow and spare, Ferry sounding like a cross between Tiny Tim and Jeremy Hilary Boob. Another decent guitar solo sets up the middle section sung over the slowest drum solo you’ll ever hear. And just like closing credits, “Bitters End” sums up the cocktail party, our narrator sadly, drearily alone. Or something.
Until we can think of another word for it, Roxy Music is just plain goofy fun, particularly side one, which gets a major boost from “Virginia Plain”. That tune has gone on and off different reissues of the album, but sits squarely in sequence for the most recent super deluxe edition overseas, along with demos, outtakes, BBC performances, and a DVD with video clips and the obligatory 5.1 surround mix by Steven Wilson.

Roxy Music Roxy Music (1972)—

Friday, October 5, 2018

Tom Petty 21: 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’s a cover.
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 released 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 & 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, while “Nothing For Free” is best summed up by its closing line: “My brain stopped working today.”
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)—

Friday, September 7, 2018

Streets Of Fire: Original Soundtrack

The pantheon of rock ‘n roll movies is littered with a handful of great films, from either musical or cinematic standpoints, but mostly dominated by some horrible missteps. Yet, even some of these turkeys have their fans, who enjoy them from a “so bad it’s good” angle. As with albums, what makes a great rock ‘n roll movie is largely a matter of personal humor. Also, the nostalgic value will vary depending on personal experience. Therefore, the following may baffle most readers.
Streets Of Fire was supposed to be Walter Hill’s next blockbuster following 48 Hrs., but despite one hit single, this supposed “rock & roll fable” made no dent at the box office. Not did it take off in heavy cable rotation, even with the star power of Michael Paré, fresh off his iconic lead role in Eddie & The Cruisers, which did manage to gain a following on the smaller screen. Granted, the setting was a little weird—‘50s crossed with ‘80s in a city that appeared to have been built in a basement but still rained a lot—but it had Diane Lane at her jailbait hottest, Rick Moranis in a really bad suit, and Willem Dafoe as a psychopath with a tendency to wear fishing waders without a shirt. We could go on (Bill Paxton! Lee Ving! E.G. Daily! The other cute girl from Too Close For Comfort!) but then we’d never get to the music.
The soundtrack is an odd hodgepodge of styles, right in line with the anachronistic setting of the film itself. The two big production numbers come from the grandiose mind of Jim Steinman, loaded with multisyllabic verses and turns of phrase, pounding drums and percussive pianos, with the usual suspects (Rory Dodd, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, etc.) making up the faceless “Fire Inc.” “Nowhere Fast” would be recorded by Meat Loaf that same year, yet “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” appears to have been largely ignored, albeit tailor-made for the likes of Bonnie Tyler.
Half the album was produced by Jimmy Iovine, who called in favors from some important friends. “Sorcerer” was written by Stevie Nicks, sung by one Marilyn Martin, who would go on to duet with Phil Collins for another soundtrack and nothing else. (Indeed, it’s not too tough to discern Stevie’s voice in the mix, indicating that this was an outtake from her most recent solo album.) Meanwhile, “Never Be You” is a rare collaboration between Tom Petty and Benmont Tench, sung in the film by Laurie Sargent, but on the album by Maria McKee, not yet known from Lone Justice, except by Benmont, who was infatuated with her. Placing the music directly in the “now” is “Deeper And Deeper”, an occasionally lengthy track by the Fixx (conveniently signed to MCA, which released the soundtrack) used over the end credits.
Part of the plot involved an R&B vocal group, so the mostly a cappella “Countdown To Love” demonstrates their doo-wop prowess, while “I Can Dream About You” is supposed to be their big breakthrough; indeed it made it to #6 in the real world, voiced by the white guy who wrote it. For our money the best tunes here are by the Blasters, with the obscure Leiber-Stoller nugget “One Bad Stud” and their own “Blue Shadows”. (Ry Cooder composed and performed all the incidental music in the film, mostly in the vein of Link Wray’s “Rumble”, and represented only on the album by the rather dull “Hold That Snake”.)
We’re not about to suggest that either film or album deserves an elevated level of respect, but anytime we come across anyone who’s seen Streets Of Fire, much less enjoys it, we feel a sense of brotherhood like no other. At the very least, it’s got enough connections to people with fervent cult followings to be mentioned as a sidebar in their discographies. And just like Tom Cody, we’ll take it wherever we can get it.

Streets Of Fire: Music From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1984)—3

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Bob Dylan 64: Live 1962-1966

Way back in the pre-electric era, a handful of Bob Dylan concerts were recorded by Columbia for possible issue as an album to be titled In Concert. While several performances from these shows have been included on a variety of archival compilations, neither the album as originally sequenced—any of the variations considered—nor the complete shows have been granted specific release. The appearance in 2011 of an ultra-rare concert from his folksinger days turned out, so far, to be a standalone idea.
However, Columbia has seen fit to offer up hours of material for procurement, initially on a limited basis, to preserve their copyright license and probably with the assumption that they would be pirated and shared anyway. The first three years of his recording career were “protected” this way, then just about every captured note from 1965 and 1966 was served up via deluxe box set treatments.
As we’ve said before, it’s not all gold, and while some people have to have everything the man ever uttered or strummed, there’s barely enough time to hear it all, much less ingest it. That makes the sudden appearance of a double-disc set called Live 1962-1966: Rare Performances From The Copyright Collections seem like a great idea until you’re done with it. Given the breadth of truly rare compositions to choose from, only “Seven Curses” and “John Brown” represent songs not on the albums originally released during that period. Historically speaking, there’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” with only two verses, “When The Ship Comes In” from the March on Washington with Joan Baez, the electric “It Takes A Lot To Laugh” from Newport and “Maggie’s Farm” from the Hollywood Bowl. The same take on “Ballad Of A Thin Man” is repeated from the seventh Bootleg Series; we’d’ve preferred the incendiary “Like A Rolling Stone” from the final Albert Hall show.
Granted, the music is excellent, and the sequencing does illustrate his development from a Woody Guthrie wannabe to the legendary performer that inspired generations. Those who haven’t clogged their hard drives with this stuff already will likely appreciate it being made available, and at a relatively low price point. But it’s an awfully random collection, belying its origin as a Japan-only release, a sequel of sorts to another grab-bag set that at least offered some actual rarities (one of which is repeated here). The haphazard production is underscored by the bad proofreading on the spines, which read “PREFORMANCES”, along with the shameful omission of Richard Manuel from the credits on the electric tracks from 1966.

Bob Dylan Live 1962-1966: Rare Performances From The Copyright Collections (2018)—3

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Programming Alert (August 2018)

Due to shenanigans on the part of property managers, planning and zoning committees, union officials, and likely people still not happy with our less-than-glowing assessment of Bob Dylan's Desire album, Everybody's Dummy is not yet installed in our new headquarters, and therefore inadequately equipped to resume regular posting. However, we assure that our staff is indeed working toward those goals, as we are eager and determined to return full-strength. Thank you for your patience, and please keep reading.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Programming Alert (July 2018)

As the Everybody's Dummy staff moves its servers and research facilities to our plush new headquarters, regular posts will be sporadic, as will the occasional update. We expect our established posting schedule to resume by month's end, so watch this space for any notifications. In the meantime, we thank you for your patience and continued support, and we hope you'll take the opportunity to peruse the archives -- ten years' worth! -- to reacquaint yourselves with gems from the past. You may be surprised to see just how many old entries have been updated with new information and tantalizing insight.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Replacements 9: All For Nothing

For years, rumors of a comprehensive set of outtakes from the Replacements’ time on the Twin/Tone label was said to be in the works, along with a rumor that such a thing couldn’t happen because Paul Westerberg stole the masters and dumped them all in one of Minnesota’s thousand lakes. Whatever the true story, fans got something of a gift with All For Nothing/Nothing For All, a double-CD set that offered four songs from each of the Sire albums on one disc, and 18 rare or unreleased tracks on the other. The cover art, seemingly depicting a sinking ship, was apt, along with the photos of the boys destroying one of their unfortunate rented vans throughout the booklet and images of beer mugs and urinals on the discs themselves.
The “hits” disc, a mix of rockers and sensitive ones, is fine, though everyone will have their own favorites that were left out. The second disc offers nuggets that would please even hardcore collectors. Some had already been B-sides, and others have since been appended to reissues of the albums themselves, but the selection and chronological sequencing make for a decent album’s worth of tunes. Highlights include: an earlier version of “Can’t Hardly Wait”; the brief but blatant “Beer For Breakfast”; vocal and writing debuts from Chris Mars (“All He Wants To Do Is Fish”) and Tommy Stinson (“Satellite”); “Date To Church” with Tom Waits; a sleazy take on “Cruella De Ville” from a Disney compilation; “Like A Rolling Pin”, a hoarse parody of a certain Bob Dylan song supposedly committed to posterity in the presence of the man himself; and their definitive crash through The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet”. Stay tuned for the unlisted track at the end, a hilarious alternate version of “I Don’t Know”. (Also exciting for the mid-‘90s, these were enhanced CDs, with two music videos on each, accessible via the CD drive on computers. High tech!)

About a decade later, Rhino managed to grab the rights to the band’s Twin/Tone albums, and celebrated with a new compilation. Don't You Know Who I Think I Was? purported to offer “the best of the Replacements”, and the eight songs from the pre-Tim albums are excellent choices. (They even sound better.) All but six tracks from disc one of All For Nothing distill that period well, but the real cheese here are the two new recordings, the grand studio reunion of Paul, Tommy, and Chris (who didn’t play drums but sang, so they still count). Both “Message To The Boys” and “Pool & Dive” aren’t exactly lost classics, but drummer of choice Josh Freese, whom Paul had used on a solo album and Tommy knew from Guns N’ Roses, gets the wallop down to ensure the vibe is there.

The Replacements All For Nothing/Nothing For All (1997)—4
The Replacements Don't You Know Who I Think I Was?: The Best Of The Replacements (2006)—4

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Phil Collins 3: No Jacket Required

After years of slowly but surely dragging Genesis to the mainstream, Mr. Showbiz cashed in all his favors and got a major label push to get this into everyone’s house. No Jacket Required was so huge it didn’t even need “Easy Lover” (big hit duet with Philip Bailey the previous fall) or “Against All Odds” (a.k.a. “Take A Look At Me Now”, a movie theme song from a year earlier) or even “Separate Lives” (the so-called love theme from White Nights, a duet with Marilyn Martin, which came out that Xmas) to sell it. This thing was huge, even winning a Grammy. (We would be remiss if not mentioning Howard Jones’ hit remake of “No One Is To Blame” the following spring, featuring Phil on harmonies and boomy drums.)
Then, as now, there are exactly two songs we really, really like: the brooding “Long Long Way To Go”, which sounds most like his earliest solo experiments and features Sting on harmonies, and “Inside Out”, which sounds like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” at half-speed, but works the simple theme well enough. It could almost pass for Genesis, even without the bridge that resembles “Taking It All Too Hard”.
The rest of the album is pure pop, heavy on the horns and synths, even further away from prog, with a distinct Prince influence on the more upbeat tunes (especially “Who Said I Would”). Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing. And the public did, eating up all the singles and loving all the wacky videos. Whenever we hear any of those songs—and “Sussudio”, “One More Night”, and “Take Me Home” are still in heavy rotation on the local “lite” radio stations—we’re reminded of a scorchingly hot summer sitting in front of an air conditioner, matching the sweaty guy on the album cover. (Patton Oswalt knows what we’re talking about.) Drop the phrase “great! great sandwich” into any conversation and see which of your contemporaries notice. Be forewarned that anyone who doesn’t remember the video for “Don’t Lose My Number” will be utterly baffled by the aside.
The CD version of No Jacket Required, for those early adopters, offered an extra track in the way of “We Said Hello Goodbye”, a nice midtempo ballad with an extended, moderately lush prelude, though something of an afterthought following the anthemic qualities of “Take Me Home”. It was included in the same spot on all reissues, as well as the 21st century “Take A Look At Me Now” edition, the extra disc of which (cheekily labeled Extra Large Jacket Required) was loaded with live versions of nine songs on the album plus “Easy Lover”, all recorded in the ‘90s save one. Demos of three eventual album tracks, none very illuminating, round out the disc, while fanatics bemoaned the absence of the B-sides “The Man With The Horn” and “I Like The Way”, and anything from 1988’s 12"ers compilation of six extended remixes.

Phil Collins No Jacket Required (1985)—3
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1985, plus 13 extra tracks

Friday, June 22, 2018

Grateful Dead 9: Bear’s Choice

Before leaving Warner Bros. to start their own label, the Dead apparently owed one more record on their contract. Thus began a vault-scraping tradition and industry that would balloon in only 20 years’ time. History Of The Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear’s Choice) would soon be known by its subtitle for easier reference, “Bear” being the nickname of their friend Owsley Stanley, who used to mix their shows in between concocting barrelsful of high-grade LSD. Recorded at the Fillmore East shortly after they completed Workingman’s Dead, it provides a nice counterpart to that album and American Beauty, with an acoustic side and an electric side, all covers leaning towards blues save one.
Pigpen had died by the time the album was released, so it stands as something of a tribute to him. He opens the set with “Katie Mae”, sung and played solo on acoustic, with some good-natured crowd banter to boot. Bob Weir sings “Dark Hollow”, and Jerry Garcia answers with “I’ve Been All Around This World”, both showing their roots well. Things pick up for a fun run through “Wake Up Little Susie”, which the crowd seems to both recognize and appreciate. The only tune known at the time of release from a Dead album is “Black Peter”, played here more slowly and sadly than the album version.
Side two gives the band more time to jam, Pigpen singing lead on both tunes. “Smokestack Lightning” is an 18-minute exploration of their early jamming roots, while “Hard To Handle” is now best known as that song the Black Crowes did. (One wonders whether they were more familiar with the Otis Redding original or this one.)
While there was never an official Vol. 2, the fourth release in the eventual Dick’s Picks series presented further selections from the same shows, heavy on the jam, spread across three discs. The eventual expansion of Bear’s Choice itself added only one song from the same shows, along with three songs from the Fillmore West the week before. (Other shows from the same general period would fill installments in other vault series, with others just as likely to follow in due time.)

The Grateful Dead History Of The Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear’s Choice) (1973)—
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Dick’s Picks Volume Four (1996)
     • Dick's Picks Volume Sixteen (2000)
     • Download Series, Volume 2: 1/18/70 (2005)
     • Download Series, Family Dog At The Great Highway 2/4/70 (2005)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 6: San Francisco 12/20/69 & St. Louis 2/2/70 (2013)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 10: Thelma, Los Angeles, CA 12/12/69 (2014)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 19: Honolulu Civic Auditorium, Honolulu, HI, 1/23/70 (2016)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Joni Mitchell 18: Hits and Misses

Amazingly, Joni had been in the business for nearly 30 years before somebody said, “Let’s do a hits album.” To which she replied, “Sure, as long as you put a ‘misses’ album out too.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Hits features a comedic cover shot of Joni lying in a street, presumably where the truck ran her over, whereas Misses depicts her drawing her chalk outline on the pavement—as she said, mooning the camera. Both albums were released simultaneously, and considering that the Hits volume was stacked with songs from Her First Four and Court And Spark, songs well known either in her renditions or in popular covers, it far outsold the sampler of lesser-known tracks that made up Misses. As something of a carrot for the fans, Hits begins with her only recorded version of “Urge For Going”, previously available only as a B-side. And while the program dwells mostly in that early era, “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody” and “Come In From The Cold” nicely represent the ‘80s and ‘90s respectively.

While Hits was a no-brainer, Misses rewards anyone brave enough to dive in. This set is not programmed chronologically at all, flying back and forth among the decades, with a slight emphasis on the Geffen years and “difficult” albums like The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. That said, fans familiar with the earliest albums will recognize “The Arrangement”, “A Case Of You”, and the title tracks from For The Roses and Hejira, the latter of which closes the set magnificently. They’re not all winners; later selections like “Nothing Can Be Done” and “Dog Eat Dog” are not our personal choices to advertise the lesser-loved albums, and the programmed sound of the newer tracks jars with the more pristine acoustic material, but if any of it gets people to dig deeper, it’s all good. The woman is, after all, an absolute treasure.

Joni Mitchell Hits (1996)—4
Joni Mitchell
Misses (1996)—3

Friday, June 15, 2018

Paul Simon 8: Hearts And Bones

A professional reunion with Art Garfunkel didn’t last long enough to result in a new Simon & Garfunkel album, so the album that did come out was credited to Paul Simon alone. Hearts And Bones was well-received critically, but its quality didn’t ring too many cash registers.
These days it’s easy to see why, as the tunes weren’t exactly radio-friendly, and after an exhausting tour with Artie he wasn’t about to go back on the road. Even his voice sounds weary on these tracks. Plus, his never-ending quest for inspiration via non-traditional sounds meant an unfortunate reliance on the trends of the time. “When Numbers Get Serious” and “Cars Are Cars” would both benefit from less busy, non-contemporary arrangements. Neither version of “Think Too Much” is very appealing, though the one labeled “(b)”, which comes first is less irritating, its calypso arrangement notwithstanding, than the faster “(a)” take.
However, the good outweighs the bad here. “Allergies” has a vocoder-type effect and electronic handclaps that still complement the fretful lyrics, as does the high-speed guitar solo from Al DiMeola. The title track and “Train In The Distance” are both pretty, understated reflections on his then-current wife and his first wife, respectively, both delivered with universal sentiments that make them gems in the catalog. “Song About The Moon” is something of a grower, with a “Slip Slidin’ Away”-style lope and a simple lyric espousing simplicity. On the other hand, “Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” is supposed to be a cipher, stretching to connect the surreal painter with classic doo-wop combo references. It could go nowhere else on the album, so closing with “The Late Great Johnny Ace” (debuted two years earlier in Central Park) is not only reverent, but gains a mournful coda for strings with winds composed by Philip Glass, ending abruptly for optimal effect.
Ever since Hearts And Bones came out, fans have wondered how the songs would have sounded with Artie singing on them. (A few had been tried on their tour, but any Garfunkel contributions to the sessions were left aside during the final mix.) Much as we’d like to hear those for history’s sake, we’re just as interested in hearing stripped-down versions of the more trying songs. The eventual reissue included four bonus tracks along those lines; outside of “Shelter Of Your Arms”, which shares some lyrics with “When Numbers Get Serious”, the demos of “Train In The Distance” and “Rene And Georgette” sound pretty close to the final cuts, while “Johnny Ace” has a resolved ending on guitar. And it’s still a sad song.

Paul Simon Hearts And Bones (1983)—3
2004 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Brian Eno 13: Nerve Net and My Squelchy Life

If there’s a holy grail in the Eno catalog, My Squelchy Life was it. Said to be a pop album, his first real solo vocal release since the late ‘70s, it was announced, delayed, and disappeared. In its place arrived Nerve Net, an edgy, off-putting set that didn’t so much break new ground as walk over what his disciples had done in his absence. Neither industrial nor techno, it struggled to catch fire with new fans or old.
For most of the album, vocals are used more for atmosphere than lyrical content. “Wire Shock” is designed for the dance floor, as is “What Actually Happened?”, wherein the vocoder disguises a narrative of sexual assault. “Fractal Zoom” and “Ali Click” were each subject to multiple remixes, the latter likely due to its use of the “Manchester beat” via EMF.
And therein lies part of our problem with the album, and the time in which it appeared: the remix. All of a sudden there wasn’t a definite version of anything. Every track with any kind of beat was given over to some engineer who would rejig it into something different yet the same. It made an expensive hobby even more so when a fan was driven to track down everything. It also made for a confusing listening experience when an album would include another version of a track, as Nerve Net does. After “Distributed Being” featuring Robert Fripp and John Paul Jones, the album ends with not just “Web”, a six-minute drone, but an even longer alternate mix, together pushing the program needlessly over an hour.
But in this century, when everything old is new again, the world can re-assess Nerve Net in the form of a deluxe expanded CD that includes—ta-da!—My Squelchy Life as the bonus disc. The album wasn’t completely lost, of course; three of the tracks made it to Nerve Net (one under a different title), others were on CD singles and the occasional soundtrack, while a further five were a selling point for 1993’s Vocal box. And now, dare we say, it’s easier to appreciate Nerve Net as part of the bigger picture—well, sort of. “My Squelchy Life” and “Juju Space Jazz” are just as off-kilter here, while “The Roil, The Choke” emerges better from a weird spoken piece into a lush, harmonic treat. “I Fall Up”, with its insistent “more volts! I’m sucking the juice from the generator!” hook is a great opener, and “The Harness” is an extremely melodic follower. The “moon piano” solo piece called “Decentre”, labeled “Appendix” on the Nerve Net sleeve, turns out to have been “Little Apricot” on Squelchy. Still, tracks like “Tutti Forgetti” and “Everybody’s Mother” are just as jarring as what did come out on Nerve Net.
Taken together, these albums now present a more satisfying follow-up to the collaboration with John Cale of only a few years before. But it also shows that in the ‘90s, Eno was more content working with sounds, not songs, and would rather let the likes of U2 and James use his talents for theirs.

Brian Eno Nerve Net (1992)—
2014 expanded edition: same as 1992, plus 11 extra tracks CD

Friday, June 8, 2018

Jeff Beck 6: Blow By Blow

It took him long enough, but Jeff Beck finally figured out that he could record albums without a singer. Blow By Blow was recorded with a young rhythm section and Max Middleton from the second Jeff Beck Group.
The sound is a departure from the heavy rock of earlier Beck albums, leaning more on funk and now sounding more like fusion, beginning with “You Know What I Mean”, a James Brown strut filtered through the new decade. Especially notable on an album produced by George Martin, the Beatles’ “She’s A Woman” gets a nutty approach, with a reggae groove and, to help identify the song, a few lines “sung” through a talkbox effect usually associated with Peter Frampton. It’s a sound that seems to suggest the title of the next track, “Constipated Duck”, which doesn’t sound like one. For such a great title, it’s fairly brief before fading into “Air Blower” (called “AIR Blower” on pre-CD pressings, we assume as a nod to the studio where the album was recorded), an uptempo jam that slows down dramatically towards the end, leading into the extremely jazzy “Scatterbrain”, a furious fusion with tight precision and even a sympathetic string arrangement.
Stevie Wonder dominates the start of side two, first with “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” played beautifully and mournfully by Beck, and the highly funky “Thelonius”, with the man himself on clavinet (and more constipated duck sounds). After Max Middleton’s “Freeway Jam”, with its catchy hook and breezy groove, it’s back to a more dramatic sound. “Diamond Dust” is a haunting piece in 5/4, the guitar, piano, and strings complementing each other on a beautiful melody. (Interestingly, the song was written by a guitarist in a band featuring most of the former members of the second Jeff Beck Group.)
It’s not easy to write about an instrumental album, particularly one where the nuances are more abstract. Still, Blow By Blow finally shows Jeff Beck thriving, successfully making his way on his own terms. Not quite jazz, certainly not rock, just Jeff Beck.

Jeff Beck Blow By Blow (1975)—

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Toad The Wet Sprocket 5: In Light Syrup

The ‘90s saw the explosion of movie soundtracks boasting contributions from the dozens of alterna-rock bands then jockeying for attention. It was a cheap way for the usual labels to front-load their retail cash-ins without having to license expensive tracks from elsewhere, and even when a movie didn’t do that well, the bands’ fans would have scarf the CDs up for that rare track they didn’t have.
At the same time, certain television shows had reached obsessive levels amongst their viewership that even they managed to inspire “soundtrack” albums. Thusly, devotees of shows like Friends, Ally McBeal, and even The X-Files could proudly display their allegiances with a simple jewel case.
These types of marketing partly explain how Toad The Wet Sprocket, after four albums with moderate sales, managed to amass enough tracks to fill up an album-length rarities compilation as a stopgap whilst recording their next album. Cheekily titled In Light Syrup, in a nod to the nutritional content might find in a can of fruit cocktail, it’s a decent set of soundtrack cast-offs, bonus tracks from CD singles (we used to call them B-sides), and a few nuggets previously known only to fan club members who treasured the occasional cassettes the band sent out.
These weren’t throwaways so much as songs they really did work on, but felt didn’t fit with the rest of the songs that were released on albums. (Or maybe they couldn’t find better titles than “All In All”, “All Right”, and “All She Said” once “All I Want” became their hit.) The soundtrack songs come first, and we do recall “Brother” and “Good Intentions” getting local airplay. Things get interesting once we dig deeper, such as the mild XTC influence on “Hobbit On The Rocks” and the even goofier “Janitor”. Musically, “So Alive” and “Chicken” sound like early U2, and other songs give more attention to Todd Nichols, who plays second fiddle even here.
Most of the tunes on In Light Syrup were recorded in the vicinity of Fear and Dulcinea, so there is a consistency in the sound. So while it’s very much for the fans trying to play catch-up, it’s also a worthy addition to the catalog. As the better mop-up sets should be.

Toad The Wet Sprocket In Light Syrup (1995)—3

Friday, June 1, 2018

CSN 5: Live It Up

Just when you thought they couldn’t get any worse, Crosby, Stills & Nash managed to underperform to the least of their senses, if not their abilities. The embarrassment of Live It Up begins with the cover art, depicting giant hot dogs being roasted on the moon. That should be enough to keep the album far from the cash register, but people bought it anyway. Whether they enjoyed the noisy, unsuited production values remains an equal mystery.
The liner notes helpfully pinpoint the dates each of the songs were committed to posterity; for the most part the recordings came immediately in the wake of the underwhelming release of American Dream, proving that they didn’t pay attention to their own bad reviews. The hideous title track was contributed by constant sideman Joe Vitale and recorded as far back as 1986, which is only part of the problem, but it’s followed “If Anybody Had A Heart”, penned by buddies J.D. Souther and Danny Kortchmar, supposedly featuring Roger McGuinn on 12-string, and first heard over the closing credits of that same year’s About Last Night (aka Demi Moore’s finest nude scenes before the implants). Stills steps forward with two polar opposites. “Tomboy” is another Latin-tinged drag, while “Haven’t We Lost Enough” is a very appealing and welcome acoustic tune, even though it was written with the singer from REO Speedwagon. Crosby and Nash team up on “Yours And Mine”, which pleads for someone, someone to think of the children. (Guest star: Branford Marsalis on sax, what else?)
After that downer, Stills and Nash bring back the “carnivále!” atmosphere for the unnecessarily parenthesed “(Got To Keep) Open”, with Bruce Hornsby on piano and accordion somewhere in there. Nash thought well enough of the drummer from Go West to spearhead the inclusion of “Straight Line” (guest star: Peter Frampton!), followed by his own “House Of Broken Dreams”. “Arrows” is a Crosby collaboration with buddy Michael Hedges, who doesn’t appear on the track, perhaps to make room for Branford Marsalis again. This tune would have been a low light on any Hedges album, which might explain how it got here instead. Finally, there’s “After The Dolphin”, which is not about the endangered mammal for once, but refers to a pub destroyed during World War I. A different angle for an anti-war statement, but badly tied to a synth program that jars with the canned radio reports.
So that’s one decent song out of ten, and surprisingly, the best thing Stills did all decade. The rest of Live It Up is beyond defense, and deserves to be buried.

Crosby, Stills & Nash Live It Up (1990)—1

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Mick Jagger 4: Goddess In The Doorway

After a fairly successful renaissance of the Stones for the close of the century, Mick decided it was time for a solo album. For his fourth time out he seemed to have grasped an idea of what would justify a detour from his regular band, but that doesn’t mean he should have bothered. Goddess In The Doorway finds him as obsessed as ever with sounding contemporary, tapping younger talents (we’ll get to those) but still relying on guitar work here and there from the likes of Joe Perry and Pete Townshend.
“Visions Of Paradise” is guilty-pleasure pop, a collaboration with the guy from Matchbox 20, so we’ll blame him for the less convincing parts. Bono is brought in for “Joy”, which relies mostly on two chords with a few diversions, and slathered with a gospel choir for that faux-spiritual feel. Something about “Dancing In The Starlight” sounds like we’ve heard it twice already, but it does have a killer chorus. “God Gave Me Everything” is basically a one-man Lenny Kravitz production with Mick singing, but then it’s followed with the mild modern R&B of “Hide Away”, which Keith might have made more reggae were he allowed to; instead we get Wyclef Jean. “Don’t Call Me Up” is the sensitive ballad with a title that sounds too familiar, and subject matter to match.
Besides being inscrutable, the title track suffers from a edgy pace and Mideastern touches already overused by Sting. “Lucky Day” isn’t too far removed from “Anybody Seen My Baby”; that this dance beat reminds one of a Stones track might define irony if we still knew what that was. “Everybody Getting High” is just plain stupid, as is the hurt posturing in “Gun”. “Too Far Gone” isn’t too bad, except that he opens by stating he doesn’t like nostalgia, then goes on to lament how the modern world has paved over his youth and technology has all but obliterated nature. A decent editor might have helped him get his message straight. “Brand New Set Of Rules” seems to suggest that he’s matured somewhat, on a track that’s better than the lyrics. (Two of his daughters are credited on backup vocals; presumably they’re the ones adding the “ooh-ooh” parts in the middle?) For some reason a “cocktail version” of the title track is hidden at the end, which actually sounds more interesting than the real thing.
This album notoriously got five stars in Rolling Stone magazine, an accolade seriously undermined when you consider it came from the highly suspect “journalistic integrity” of Jann Wenner. Clearly a favor was being paid, because this was hardly the apex of the man’s life’s work. Mick is very good at one thing, and that’s not to say that he’s a one-trick pony, but he’d be better served by trying a real departure from the average if he wants respect outside the Stones. Goddess In The Doorway isn’t embarrassing, but it just doesn’t make it.

Mick Jagger Goddess In The Doorway (2001)—

Friday, May 25, 2018

Elton John 7: Honky Château

Right on schedule, Elton, Bernie, and the band went off to the Château d'Hérouville outside Paris, where all the hip ‘70s stars would record, to complete another full-length album. Despite the somber bearded face and gray tones on the wallet-style cover, Honky Château is light and accessible, so much so that some of the tracks are ubiquitous.
A clever title, “Honky Cat” is an early indication of his pop sound, with a honking horn section over a New Orleans groove. “Mellow” goes back to the singer-songwriter sound of the last few albums, but goes on a little long with the organ solo in the middle that lasts through the end. Then there’s “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself”, which is something of a monologue about “teenage blues”, sung with absolutely no sympathy for the self-involved narrator. “Legs” Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Band shows up to tap-dance, as he would, and we’re still not sure why. “Susie (Dramas)” is another Taupin lyric inspired by Americana, set to a rocking beat we’ve heard before. Things slow down again for “Rocket Man”, here given its full subtitle (“I Think It’s Gonna Be A Long, Long Time”). Notably, this is the first appearance of David Hentschel on synthesizer, where he’d stay for the time being.
“Salvation” has a mild gospel feel, via the lyrics and the mass chorus vocals, and while the sentiment is a bit trite, the chorus has a good hook, which is the real point. The idea continues on “Slave”, which seems to match the lament of a pre-Civil War “servant”, but the backing is almost inappropriate, more concerned with geography than the message. It’s back to more basic needs on “Amy”, a song of lust for a woman of the same name; as with the song that occupies the same spot on side one, there is a guest star, this time Jean-Luc Ponty on electric violin. One of the pair’s more surprising anthems, “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters” is a moving, enduring tribute to New York City, with a wonderfully subtle harmony on the first couplet in the chorus. If you’re looking for deep meaning, don’t bother digging too far into “Hercules”, which appears to be about a woman who loves a cat (or “cat”, this being 1972) of the same name. That Elton took that as his legal middle name during the gestation of the album may only be a coincidence.
And that’s it—no concept, just songs. Honky Château gets points for relying solely on the Elton John Band, solid as they were. We prefer the “heavier” tone of the previous two studio albums, but it’s still worthy, and not at all fluffy. (The eventual reissue added one bonus track, an incredibly fast version of “Slave” that, despite its lack of reverence, is miles better than the album version.)

Elton John Honky Château (1972)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 1 extra track

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Doors 10: An American Prayer

Jim Morrison always fancied himself a poet, as should be obvious from any of the spoken passages on any Doors album, or the gatefold of Waiting For The Sun. During a few lulls in the band’s schedule, he would record recitations of some of his scribblings sans musical accompaniment, with the idea that an album could be made from them.
So it was that seven years after he (supposedly) shuffled off his drunken coil, the other three members of the band got together to finish that album. Credited to Jim Morrison alone (with “music by The Doors”), An American Prayer is a seamless suite over two album sides of poetry readings, concert clips, old Doors music and newly recorded Doors music. There is a certain cinematic sweep to it—Jim also fancying himself a filmmaker—so the imagery is vivid.
However, as a Doors album it fails, mostly because the music is independent of the words. We’re not about to claim any literary authority to judge the poetry, but suffice it to say high school kids will love the four-letter words, the repeated use of a slang term most women would kill you for uttering, and the “lament” for a part of his own anatomy. Still, for the most part his delivery is calm and cool, only screaming during the handful of concert excerpts. Snippets from “Peace Frog”, “Blue Sunday”, and “The WASP” are used to counterpoint the appropriate recitations; a one-sided telephone conversation about killing a hitchhiker is underscored by “Riders On The Storm”. For some reason, a live version of “Roadhouse Blues” begins side two, marred by his extended scat in the middle and ending with some dialogue baiting a fan over astrology. The new music jars with the old, sounding too contemporary to 1978, and not enough like, well, the Doors. At least the package included a nice booklet of writings and drawings.
Oliver Stone’s version of the band’s history leaned heavily on Jim’s poetry, which undoubtedly led to the album being reissued on CD, with extra tracks. “Babylon Fading” is accompanied by the same Elektra sound effects record used at the end of “Revolution 9”, though “Bird Of Prey” is a brief a cappella couplet with some musical promise. An “extended version” of “Ghost Song” closes the set to focus on the band’s contribution, and underscore why some of us don’t miss disco. Now that “Roadhouse Blues” is available on any number of Doors compilations, this album is less necessary than ever.

Jim Morrison/The Doors An American Prayer (1978)—2
1995 CD reissue: same as 1978, plus 3 extra tracks