Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Robbie Robertson 4: Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy

Not that age should have any real bearing on the type of music anyone should attempt, but chances are anyone following Robbie Robertson’s career never thought, “I bet he’d sound amazing with some trip-hop beats behind him.”

Yet with Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy, that’s more or less what he did. Following along from the field experiments of Music For The Native Americans, Robbie continued exploring elements of music by the indigenous peoples of Canada, and collaborated with hip programmers Howie B. and Marius de Vries. The result is jarring, and not exactly cohesive.

While some of the tracks are fine without his vocals (still an acquired taste), when he does put himself at the forefront of the mix, we wish the extra dressing could be stripped away for the songs to breathe. “The Code Of Handsome Lake” and “Unbound” follow closest to the first two solo albums. The centerpiece of the album is arguably “Sacrifice”, which gives voice to convicted activist Leonard Peltier. Somehow the message is diluted by the samples from “One Step Beyond” on “Take Your Partner By The Hand”.

As a Robbie album, it fails. As a world fusion album, we’re not the ones to judge.

Robbie Robertson Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy (1998)—2

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Doors 9: Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine

Once the Doors were deemed finished, the powers that be valiantly attempted to preserve Jim Morrison’s legacy in rock. Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine presents a sprawling overview of the band’s work over two LPs, crammed to the gills with their biggest radio hits and album tracks. It nicely avoided anything already on 1970’s 13; while an obvious cash-in, that remained the “hit single” companion compilation, particularly if you wanted “Light My Fire”, “Touch Me”, “Hello I Love You”, and so forth without having to buy five albums.

Weird Scenes represents each of the six studio albums, nearly equally, with the shortest shrift given to The Soft Parade. While that title track would have been welcome here, it’s place is perhaps taken by two then-unalbumized B-sides: “Who Scared You” from the Soft Parade era, and “You Need Meat (Don’t Go No Further)”, the flip of “Love Her Madly” featuring the imitable vocal stylings of Ray Manzarek.

Outside 1973’s The Best Of The Doors, which was released exclusively to meet the fleeting demand for quadrophonic sound, Weird Scenes and 13 sufficed. Then two things happened: “The End” was used in Apocalypse Now, and the salacious Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive kindled interest in the band among a generation who missed out on them the first time. Money was to be made, and confusion be damned.

1980’s Greatest Hits supplanted 13 by including two songs from L.A. Woman, but lost points for “Not To Touch The Earth” (the only explicable reason being the “I am the lizard king” lyric). 1985’s Classics went more for album tracks, but the same year’s double LP The Best Of The Doors retread both that and Greatest Hits. The ‘90s brought more interest via Oliver Stone’s movie, the soundtrack of which leaned on the idea of Jim as a poet. Greatest Hits was also expanded slightly for CD with a new cover. The new century started the wave all over again, with another sequence deemed The Best Of The Doors, and two different sets called The Very Best Of The Doors, none of which should be confused with Legacy: The Absolute Best, The Future Starts Here: The Essential Doors Hits, or The Platinum Collection.

Along with the same handful of songs included for the ninth or tenth time, some kind of rarity was always stuck in the middle of these sets to entice repeat consumers. The 2010 documentary When You’re Strange, for example, attempted to undo the myths perpetuated by Oliver Stone, and its companion CD mixed hits, poetry readings, and some live versions. It should also be no surprise that for all but three of these albums, Jim was the only guy depicted on the front cover. And only Singles, available as 20 replica 45s or a two-CD set (or a deluxe version containing a Blu-ray with the 1973 quad Best Of), touched on the music the other three made without him.

Each new set only underscored how solid Weird Scenes was, and remained. At 99 minutes, it was too long for a single CD, but the emergence of Record Store Day as a marketing ploy led to its reissue on vinyl in 2014, as well as a digital version and double-disc set, using the newest remasters and restored vocals. If you must have any, pick that up and 13.

The Doors 13 (1970)—4
The Doors
Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine (1972)—4

Friday, January 19, 2018

Prince 6: Purple Rain

Of all the musicians to venture into films in that era, or in their careers, Prince seemed highly unlikely. Purple Rain was badly acted even then, but the performance sequences were convincing and enticing, and with the marketing tied into the accompanying album, Prince and the Revolution were suddenly very big deals. (Now we know better, but back then the Revolution were a real band, and they cooked.) Along with Born In The U.S.A.—and “Magic” by the CarsPurple Rain defined the summer of ‘84. A case could be made for The Boss, but only Prince got airplay on all the radio stations, whether Top 40, classic rock, or “urban contemporary”. Most of the songs became hit singles, and part of the common fabric. Quite simply, everybody in America dug him, from the city to suburbia.

And it still holds up today. Three decades on it’s easy enough to make fun of the lyrics to “When Doves Cry”, and even in the title track, but we defy anyone to resist “Let’s Go Crazy”. That crazy “dearly beloved” intro gives way to a track that rocks, mimed so precisely to open the movie. “Take Me With U” introduces the questionable vocal abilities of Apollonia, as well as his fascination with finger cymbals. Following mostly in order, “The Beautiful Ones” was recorded by Prince alone, and quite vivid given its placement in the film. The “Wendy? Yes Lisa” dialogue at the top of “Computer Blue” is what most people remember of the song, which always seemed incomplete, especially when one read the extra lyrics on the inner sleeve. Here again it becomes a setup for “Darling Nikki”, the infamous tune that introduced the world to Tipper Gore, and those of us with record players ruined our needles trying to decipher the backwards message at the end.

“When Doves Cry” was the striking preview to both the film and the album, with a video that acted as a trailer and featured the band, who don’t play on the song, and we’d still love to hear the removed bass line. The rest of the album slightly rejigs the live sequence that closes the movie, albeit with some overdubs. “I Would Die 4 U” sizzles, and “Baby I’m A Star” is bold (and also includes more backwards messages), but the title track absolutely had to end the album. It’s stellar in its simplicity, culminating in that fantastic solo that still rings even after the strange strings take over the end. And we can still hear the audience cheering. (Better yet, seek out the footage of the first-ever performance of the song that became the basis of the album track, with most of the brilliance already there.)

While forever tied to the movie, Purple Rain is not a soundtrack album per se, since you’d have to get the Time’s album for “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” (plus, arguably, Apollonia 6’s opus for “Sex Shooter”). Even though Prince was the writer and performer of those tracks, none were included when an expanded edition of the album finally appeared, but it did include a disc of vault items, including the full 12-minute “Computer Blue”, “Father’s Song” (a full recording of the piano piece quoted as the guitar solo in “Computer Blue”), and some other music from the era, although some of what was included dated from after the movie and album were released. An even more expanded set included a full disc of single edits, extended mixes and B-sides, including “Erotic City”, “17 Days”, “Another Lonely Christmas” and “God” (both in its original instrumental “Love Theme From Purple Rain” form and the re-recorded B-side with vocals), as well as a DVD transfer of 1985’s Prince And The Revolution: Live VHS. This eventually got its own release on CD, in a package that included the video on Blu-ray. As nice as it is to hear, some of the longer interludes are best appreciated with the visuals. And yeah, the band was hot.

Prince and the Revolution Purple Rain (1984)—4
2017 Deluxe Edition: same as 1984, plus 11 extra tracks (Deluxe Expanded Edition adds another 15 tracks, plus DVD)
Prince And The Revolution Live (2022)—3

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Elton John 6: Madman Across The Water

Elton and Bernie were very busy in 1971, and the third LP was the best of all. The real follow-up to Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water builds on the American influences without relying on any real theme or concept, save superior, mature songwriting.

Some of his best and certainly highly iconic songs load up side one. Everybody knows “Tiny Dancer” by now, or at least can associate it with the male star of Who’s The Boss. “Levon” is one of the most hauntingly moving songs about very little, other than to remind us that English is possibly the only language where Jesus is not used as a given name. Equally mysterious but less serious is the identity of “Razor Face”, although the wild accordion over the end ties in with the Band influence of the track before. Such a jaunty touch is a fake-out setup for the title track, with its vivid, almost cinematic arrangement matching the implicit horror in the lyrics. We particularly like the backwards effect on the acoustic guitar bridging the two halves. (Compared to the version recorded for Tumbleweed but shelved, they made the wise choice to redo it.)

Side two isn’t as immediately classic, but only because it has a lot to follow. “Indian Sunset” attempts to sum up the plight of the Native American. It’s a lovely production, and a stirring song, but the lyrics are what one might expect from a British kid who watched a lot of cowboy movies growing up. It’s a strange jump to “Holiday Inn”, their contribution to the “rock star on the road” genre, with that wonderful mandolin part. We’re guessing “Rotten Peaches” is the plaint of a man in prison, but the joyful accompaniment is such an odd juxtaposition with the words that it works. Speaking of odd, “All The Nasties” brings the choir heard earlier on the album to the fore, even given their own intro to the “oh my soul” mantra toward the end. (Nick Drake fans note: Robert Kirby was the arranger.) Something of a reaction to critics, its message is reinforced by the comparatively brief and extremely mournful “Goodbye”, which predicts future faux-classical pieces like “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”.

All together, Madman Across The Water is solid, and we must mention Paul Buckmaster’s wonderful string arrangements throughout. In a fine example of “it is what it is”, there were apparently few outtakes of interest. While most of his other albums from his first decade in the business have been reissued and expanded multiple times, this one remained as it always was: nine songs, and that was it. Amen.

Or it would have been, until the 50th anniversary came around, likely put off a year due to COVID-19. The first-ever expansion of the album added a solo live version of “Indian Sunset” from the 11-17-70 concert, previously released outtakes “Rock Me When He’s Gone” and the title track with Mick Ronson, the single version of “Levon”, and a mix of “Razor Face” extended by about two minutes. The bonus disc consisted of piano demos for all the songs on the album—the title track twice—plus another for “Rock Me When He’s Gone” and the full studio version of the outtake. (The Super Deluxe the audio from a mostly solo BBC appearance, consisting of performances of everything on the album save “All The Nasties” on its own disc, plus video content.)

Elton John Madman Across The Water (1971)—
2022 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 16 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 8 tracks plus Blu-ray)

Friday, January 12, 2018

Humble Pie 5: Rockin' The Fillmore

While Humble Pie remained relatively obscure throughout the U.S., somebody had the bright idea to record their residency at New York’s Fillmore East, and then release a double live album from it. (This in a calendar year that already saw similar albums from the Allmans to Zappa.)

But most bands rose to the occasion at the Fillmore, particularly when their diehard fans went to every show, and the Pie truly kick their butts on Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore. Building on the volume of Rock On, which they were supposed to be promoting. Starting with the swapped vocals on “Four Day Creep”, it’s a punishing plow through “I’m Ready” and “Stone Cold Fever”. Every track is loud and most are pretty long, two even taking up a side each—one of those is an incredibly slow but fascinating drag through Dr. John’s “I Walk On Gilded Splinters”, the other an equally muddy “Rollin’ Stone”. Side four picks up the pace, and is given over to two songs usually associated with Ray Charles, “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and the terrific “I Don’t Need No Doctor”.

Mysteries remain about the album, such as why they needed a two-part title, and if they went through all the trouble about including special labels on two of the sides, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have them be photos from the actual show, rather than an outdoor concert somewhere far from the venue being commemorated? Then, over 40 years later, the upstart Omnivore label managed to curate a set of all four shows from this stint, which spelled out which tracks came from which shows. As it turns out, “Stone Cold Fever” was played only the once, and all the sets began with the same four songs, close to the same length, though there was a little stretching on the encores, which varied. Unfortunately, Steve Marriott’s patter didn’t always vary, and the third time he describes “Gilded Splinters” as his favorite boogie isn’t as funny as the first. But if you loved the original album, the complete set is a must.

Humble Pie Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore (1971)—

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Faces 3: A Nod Is As Good As A Wink

While Every Picture Tells A Story rocks with acoustic instruments, anyone who longed to hear Rod Stewart with some voltage beneath him needed only wait a few months before another Faces album. From its live cover shot and cheeky title, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink... To A Blind Horse, positively crackles.

Yet while Rod swaggers his way through “Miss Judy’s Farm”—just one of the tracks here that refuses to stick to an ABAB rhyme scheme—over those terrific Ian McLagan electric piano licks, Ronnie Lane gets his share of the spotlight too. “You’re So Rude” is a randy slice of afternoon delight, with blasts of organ and sound effects pushing the story along. Lest one think it’s all silly, “Love Lives Here” brings on the heartbreak, and while Mick Jagger would never admit to stealing the mood for “Fool To Cry”, he was wise not to borrow the harpsichord. Ronnie returns for the aftermath of the relationship—in a pub, naturally—on “Last Orders Please”, and whatever sadness Rod had two songs earlier is well gone by the groupie abuse in “Stay With Me”.

Side two begins, out of character, with the melancholy “Debris”. Sung by Ronnie, with Rod helping out on the choruses, what sounds like another sad love song turns out to be memories of his dad. It’s very sweet, but unfortunately followed by a rather tepid rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” that eventually picks up, but the lead guitar stays stuck in the Leslie speaker. The fun returns on “Too Bad”, another funny tale of Life on the Road that could have taken place earlier in their careers or that week. And fun as “That’s All You Need”, it too doesn’t make sense, from going about remembering an estranged brother, to the guy showing up mid-track for “a cup of coke” and steel drums taking the album to the spindle.

But we don’t listen to Faces albums for deep thoughts, and that’s why A Nod Is As Good As A Wink is just plain fun. Besides, it’s always nice to hear Ronnie Lane break up the monotony, isn’t it?

Faces A Nod Is As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse (1971)—

Friday, January 5, 2018

Talking Heads 3: Fear Of Music

For their third album, Talking Heads made a conscious effort not to be overly commercial or mainstream, recording quickly with a mobile truck from their rehearsal space, and keeping most of the song titles to a single word. Brian Eno was brought back to produce, and his interests helped them find new sounds and better use for David Byrne’s voice throughout Fear Of Music.

African influences abound on the inspiration for “I Zimbra”, with nonsense lyrics taken from a dada poem. A little slower but just as danceable, “Mind” percolates with ping-ponging guitars and keyboards, wacky bass bursts, and Byrne finding another wacky character to inhibit. We like the Television-style guitars on “Paper”, but “Cities” is even more intense and insistent, with that adhesive “checking it out” hook. But the real hit tune is “Life During Wartime” (better known as “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco… I ain’t got time for that now”), which is just plain funky. “Memories Can’t Wait” slows down the funk but lays on the dirt, ending a very strong side one.

High breathy voices are the perfect embellishment for a song called “Air”; we’re assuming Jerry Harrison is playing those fine leads. “Heaven” is reminiscent of Bowie’s first two Berlin albums, and even though some might balk at the less than pious sentiment, we don’t know why this song hasn’t been covered more. From here the album gets a little trying. “Animals” is a decent track, but the lyrics are a little too clever, and the gruff vocals don’t really help. “Electric Guitar” is even more cacophonous, but it’s worth listening for Tina’s wacky bass in the back. Finally, “Drugs” sounds the most like an Eno track, suitably disconcerting and jarring.

Despite their contrarian intentions, Fear Of Music was their most consistent, tight, and accomplished album to date, and incredibly catchy to boot. It was too weird for top 40 radio, but FM radio ate it up, and the songs still sound fresh today. (In a demonstration of their efficiency, the expanded CD includes only one unfinished song, and three early mixes of three others.)

Talking Heads Fear Of Music (1979)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1979, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Morrissey 4: Your Arsenal

Just like it did with the Smiths, it took Morrissey three albums (and one compilation) to reach a level of something approaching greatness. Your Arsenal was produced by Mick Ronson—an icon to any kid raised on Bowie and Mott The Hoople—and mostly bathes Moz in a glorious meld of glam and rockabilly, to be expected from guys with pompadours.

“You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side” and “Glamorous Glue” are wonderfully trashy stompers, the former bringing to mind “Brand New Cadillac” and the latter echoing parts of “Sheila Take A Bow”, both in good ways. “We’ll Let You Know” is based around softer arpeggios and acoustic rhythm, but there’s a tension and discord underneath that threatens to overpower it—fittingly, for a song that seems to forgive the football hooligan culture. If that doesn’t raise enough eyebrows, “The National Front Disco” straddles a defense of a kid who joins a racist movement with the suggestion that it’s just a trendy thing to do. After that too builds and builds, “Certain People I Know” sits somewhere between skiffle and music hall—a simple sounding song, but with lots of layers that belie the simplicity.

Possibly the closest relative to his old band, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” is a hilarious portrait of musical envy well known to bands from the local to the international level. “You’re The One For Me, Fatty” doesn’t say much besides that, but it’s such a happy and sweet tune it doesn’t need to. Not until “Seasick, Yet Still Docked” does he go back to his morose persona; it’s actually welcome by now. A long transition involving a ticking clock and a radio stuck between German and French stations eventually finds “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”, which does have a few musical nods to “Rock & Roll Suicide” off Ziggy Stardust. (Bowie himself liked the song so much recorded it for his own next album.) It’s enough of a big ending, but instead we close with “Tomorrow”, which starts in a three but continues in four before going back to three and a tack piano sequence that reminds us of “Asleep”.

Your Arsenal is very good because it not only sounds good, but the songs are also good. There isn’t a throwaway here, he keeps the whining to a minimum, and he also remembered to show off his humor. It truly takes skill to sound this effortless.

Morrissey Your Arsenal (1992)—