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. The slightly belated 50th anniversary upgrade of the album did not include that, but two versions of “Slave” were among the studio demos included, along with several of the album tracks recorded live at London’s Royal Festival Hall that predate the album’s release.)

Elton John Honky Château (1972)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 1 extra track
2023 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1972, plus 17 extra tracks

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

Friday, May 18, 2018

Prince 7: Around The World In A Day

While Purple Rain brought Prince the worldwide recognition he craved, he was still addicted to writing and recording, for himself and for others, and soon had a follow-up ready. Credited once again to Prince and the Revolution, but mostly his work alone, Around The World In A Day got pigeonholed as something of a psychedelic side trip, the same year Tom Petty hooked up with Dave Stewart for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. That profiling wasn’t entirely accurate, but what’s clear is that the multi-demographic accessibility of the two albums before gave way to a more self-pleasing exploration of eclectic sounds, textures, and near-orchestration.

The title track is already startling, built around Mideastern instruments and influences provided by Lisa Coleman’s brother. Prince’s father also gets co-credit for some reason. There’s something of a hippy-dippy element, but he’d already shown his fascination for finger cymbals anyway. Guitars emerge on “Paisley Park”, which would become something of a personal anthem, being the name of his custom label as well as his complex slash compound whence he’d henceforth create everything.

Nestled in the middle of side one is a track that has often been overlooked. “Condition Of The Heart” begins with a long wandering piano solo one critic compared to Keith Jarrett. After about a minute of this, some synthesizers kick in for effect, there’s a slight crescendo and the song proper starts. Three verses describe separate (or not) storybook tales of heartache, each poor afflicted soul suffering from the simple malady of the title. The bridge, sung twice, takes it to the first person and loads on the falsetto harmonies over some pointedly vague imagery. Then there’s a repeat of half of the first verse, and it’s over. We can even forgive the superfluous “heartbeat” over the fade. It really is a gorgeous song—the sensitive side of Prince, if you will. (Recordings of unknown vintage feature the Purple One noodling at the piano for about a half hour. We wish he’d kept it that simple more often.)

It’s a major departure, and is a powerful segue to “Raspberry Beret”. This was the first single—released after the album was out, instead of as a teaser, and with a video made even later—and exactly what people wanted. The same might not be said for “Tamborine” [sic], a one-man demo that should have been foisted on one of his minions.

Side two is just as scattered. “America” came out of a Revolution jam, a return to the occasionally political statements of his pre-1999 albums, and not very inspired. But “Pop Life” is still incredibly cool, a great funk-rock hybrid with an infectious hook and split-second delay on the vocal to make it really stand out. The boxing match edit (twice) mystifies to this day. “The Ladder” is a gospel-tinged song with prominent saxophone and backing vocals that sounds longer than it is because it’s so slow. But the track that seemed to get the most notoriety at the time is the closer. Recorded by Prince alone with only the sax player helping out, “Temptation” starts with some fiery guitar work, goes through a dirty bump-and-grind paean to lust, then switches to a “dialogue with God” wherein the Almighty strikes our hero down for his sins, for which he immediately repents before saying goodbye, leading listeners to think he was retiring for real.

Around The World In A Day was not the triumph everybody wanted, nor could it be. All in all it may not read like the most engaging album, but the high notes are truly terrific. And just like that, he was on to his next inspiration.

Prince and the Revolution Around The World In A Day (1985)—

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Rod Stewart 4: Never A Dull Moment

One wonders how the superstars of the ‘70s could create so much music before cocaine became such a thing, but sure enough, Rod Stewart managed to pull together another solo album in between Faces albums and tours. Never A Dull Moment follows the pattern of his previous albums, taking a particular nod from Every Picture Tells A Story, relying mostly on acoustic instruments and covers from a wide range of sources. Somehow, however, it seems pale in comparison, and hindsight suggests this might be his turning point.

Again, the ingredients are there: “True Blue” is a strong Faces performance; “Lost Paraguayos” has that wandering bassline and verses that refuse to rhyme; “Mama You Been On My Mind” is an inspired arrangement of a then-unreleased Dylan song; “Italian Girls” a cross between “True Blue” and “Lost Paraguayos” that seems to predict the Stones’ “Silver Train” until the lovely slowdown. And that’s just side one.

Side two is nearly a mirror, with three covers and just one original. First there’s Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel”, which concentrates on the song rather than the pyrotechnics, though we could do without the bongos. “Interludings” is a 40-second guitar piece supposedly written by Ron Wood’s brother Art, and serves as an intro to “You Wear It Well”, otherwise known as that song that sounds exactly like “Maggie May”. “I’d Rather Go Blind” was a B-side a few years earlier by Etta James, and thankfully gets more exposure here. Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ The Night Away” provides a nice “party” ending, as opposed to a soft benediction.

We don’t want to say Never A Dull Moment is an oxymoronic description of the contents, but perhaps the pressure of following two strong albums was too much. It’s not like he was trying to make some kind of art statement anyway—except in the cover design, which always seems upside down and inside out.

Rod Stewart Never A Dull Moment (1972)—3

Friday, May 11, 2018

Talking Heads 4: Remain In Light

By this time the other members of Talking Heads who weren’t David Byrne had every right to feel overlooked. Granted, as the “frontman” he got most of the attention, but that wasn’t to say he was the sole auteur of the band’s music. So when it came to their fourth album, they didn’t start with songs, but extended jams, wherein they’d find hooks to develop into songs, each member rotating on instruments as inspired.

Of course, any sense of democracy was out the window when Brian Eno got involved, who soon began dictating the direction of the sessions, with David Byrne as a willing conspirator. The two had already collaborated outside the Heads, and soon African rhythms and “found sounds” would interweave with the band’s interest in the growing hip-hop genre and other grooves, plus contributions from outside musicians, resulting in Remain In Light.

The word “groove” is important here, because—unlike their work released thus far—the music doesn’t generally fit into the traditional verse-chorus song structure. “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is a clattery funk tune with typically nervous vocals, prominent harmonies from Eno, and what sounds like a video game where the solo should be. While it has a similar vocal approach, “Crosseyed And Painless” gets our approval due to its prominent guitar and straight rock sound, while “The Great Curve” is back to a frantic funk groove, with vocal chants in the back and Adrian Belew contributing advanced guitar synthesizer.

The one track that could be called a song, with verses and distinguishable choruses, is “Once In A Lifetime”, possibly their greatest track ever. The off-kilter bass, up against the other instruments, the keyboards actually approximating the sound of water, the goofy lyrics, the infectious hook, and the glorious organ chords before the closing fade; all collide into a classic tune, helped along by the video that was all over early MTV. “Houses In Motion” was a daring choice for the next single, but following the “spoken verse” section with sung chorus combo. Another prominent element are Jon Hassell’s trumpets, which don’t sound like them. “Seen And Not Seen” is also predominantly spoken, as well as spooky, tied to a beat that would soon ground the rhythm section’s work in Tom Tom Club, and presents a sound that would dominate arty new wave for the next few years. Similarly, “Listening Wind” predicts some of the textures The Police would use in a few years, a near-ambient backing with percussion and birdcalls on guitar. “The Overload” is the culmination of the creeping darkness, a slow, brooding track that purposely recalls Joy Division.

Remain In Light was hailed as a masterpiece of the new decade upon release, and has only piled up accolades since then. Again, if you like grooves as well as songs, it will resonate, but it doesn’t have the immediacy of Fear Of Music. If you’re looking for an album of songs just like “Once In A Lifetime”, you’ll also be disappointed. But fans (and Enophiles) should certainly seek out the expanded CD, which offers four “unfinished outtakes”, including rough drafts of “Lifetime” and “Born Under Punches”.

Talking Heads Remain In Light (1980)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1980, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Frank Zappa 34: Baby Snakes

Frank had lots of grand ambitions, and often spoke of big projects and productions that would inevitably evolve as time went on and money ran out, and would almost as inevitably go unfinished. One of the few that did happen was Baby Snakes, filmed during the Halloween run in 1977 at New York’s Palladium, released about two years later with claymation segments another other hijinks edited in. The soundtrack companion appeared about four years after that, on a picture disc via mail order.

Basically we have about 36 minutes of music from a film that ran over four times as long, fitting chronologically just before Sheik Yerbouti. In fact, the title song is merely an edit of the album track. “Titties & Beer” gets a mild edge of over its previously heard version due to the modified exchange between Frank and Terry Bozzio—to wit, Frank says he’s been through hell already, having been “signed with Warner Bros. for eight f—kin’ years!” “The Black Page #2” (sans drum solo) provides a transition to “Jones Crusher”, well sung by Adrian Belew.

“Dinah-Moe-Humm” was always a crowd-pleaser, yet this version follows Zappa’s wearying trend of inviting excitable audience members up to dance and be ridiculed, and loses a lot without the visuals. “Punky’s Whips”, though familiar from the Zappa In New York CD, was not included on the album, so it makes its first appearance here. So we get even more vocalizing from Terry Bozzio, in between some decent musical interludes (including the quote from “Isn’t It Romantic”, but somehow not “Sunshine Of Your Love”, which pops up repeatedly elsewhere).

Due to its length and despite its relative obscurity, Baby Snakes was always something of a minor but not disposable album. 1988’s CD added a minute or so of dialogue at the top, and removed the gap between the two album sides, and that was it for extras. The film itself was available on VHS in both its full version and a 90-minute edit, and many years later, for one of their periodic birthday tributes, the Zappa Family Trust offered all 164 minutes of the audio as Baby Snakes—The Compleat Soundtrack for download. If that wasn’t enough, the fortieth anniversary of the concerts brought forth Halloween 77, offered in a package with a Zappa costume and mask and a USB stick with all six shows from the run. The October 31 show, from which much of the original Baby Snakes album was compiled, was simultaneously released as a three-CD set, with bonus tracks from the show the night before.

Frank Zappa Baby Snakes (1983)—3

Friday, May 4, 2018

Smiths 9: Reissues! Repackages!

If you’ve been keeping score, you will have deduced that the Smiths catalog consisted of four LPs, a pile of singles and radio sessions that were reshuffled on three separate compilations, and one live album, all released within a relatively brief five-year period. Yet the earnest reissuing and repackaging of their output began shortly after Morrissey’s delayed “comeback”, and things still got left out, even with the repetition.

1992 brought a decent pair of CDs, the similarly but not uniformly titled Best…I and …Best II (both of which spawned singles to promote them). The first volume concentrated mostly on songs that had been singles, while the second added a few album tracks for a slightly deeper focus. Neither was chronological, but together presented many of their best-known cuts for what would have been a solid double album. A little over two years later, Singles repeated many of the tunes on a single disc lasting an hour, but often in their longer album mixes, and including one album track that had been a single but wasn’t on the previous volumes. (Confused yet?)

In the new millennium, The Very Best Of The Smiths crammed 23 tracks onto a single disc, with only two songs that hadn’t been on the 1992 discs, one of which had yet to be regurgitated thusly. The band was more directly involved with 2008’s The Sound Of The Smiths, with Johnny Marr going so far as to supervise the mastering. It also had 23 tracks, in mostly chronological order, but without exactly duplicating Very Best. More interesting to collectors was the deluxe edition, which added several of the B-sides already familiar from previous compilations, along with several rare B-sides that hadn’t made it to any album to date.

But then vinyl came back into vogue, so in 2011, Johnny Marr remastered the catalog so Complete could present all the albums all together in one package for anyone who wanted to start from scratch. However, the title was incorrect. The CD set offered the four studio albums, the three compilations, and the one live album, leaving several of those stray B-sides out. And with all the overlapping between those three compilations, some tracks appeared more than once. For even more repetition, the deluxe set offered (along with the eight albums on LP and CD) vinyl replicas of 25 singles rife with duplication, with some of those otherwise unavailable tracks shoehorned in between. And we’re not even going to touch the deviation in mixes.

For all the fleecing, each of the above compilations does present hefty servings of the band’s best work, so each is musically valid. The first two volumes are the most satisfying of the choices, while Complete allows the new fan to get most everything in one shot, provided he or she can handle the repeats.

The Smiths Best…I (1992)—4
The Smiths
…Best II (1992)—4
The Smiths
Singles (1995)—4
The Smiths
The Very Best Of The Smiths (2001)—4
The Smiths
The Sound Of The Smiths (2008)—
The Smiths
Complete (2011)—

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Kinks 11: Arthur

By now it should be clear that Ray Davies’ writing ambitions extended far past the simple pop song. Even those hit singles evoked characters and imagery that hinted at literature and even film. So it made sense when he was approached to collaborate with a playwright for an original BBC-TV production, with a story reflected in songs that would be played by the Kinks.

Expanding on one of Ray’s pet themes, Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) explores the significance and symbolism of the village green from the point of view of a central character. We haven’t found confirmation of this, but that could be why Ray sings much of the album in a character voice, approximating a dullard. When the choruses or Dave’s guitar kicks in, then it sounds like the Kinks.

The teleplay has never been published, so we can only guess at the plot based on the liner notes and the lyrics. “Victoria” is a jaunty opener and easy singalong, an ode to the old days when “life was clean, sex was bad and obscene… Victoria was my queen.” Lest we think he’s stuck in the past, two songs could apply as anti-war protests in the height of the Vietnam era. “Yes Sir No Sir” spoofs the rigors of military life, then “Some Mother’s Son” laments the inevitable deaths of these young boys. This is sung in his more familiar voice, echoing some of the sentiments from the last album, and it’s heartbreaking. “Drivin’” is mildly reminiscent of the non-album single “Autumn Almanac”; it’s a trifle of a song, and that’s the point: to escape the pressures of the day, as such horrible memories. Those pressures are made explicit in “Brainwashed”, which details how society has marginalized the greatest generation with some pretty nasty electric guitar. Another kind of mind control comes forth in “Australia”, basically a travel advert for the country where so many people had emigrated. It strangely descends into a lengthy one-chord jam, more like what the Stones might have done. There’s even some Nicky Hopkins-style piano pounding in the mix, although it’s not him, and even a wobble board as a nod to the continent.

“Shangri-La” is at once one of Ray’s best and bleakest songs, from the slowly picked acoustic at the beginning to the mocking lyrics. By the time the meter picks up and hammers out all the shallow comforts, the effect is chilling. We go back in time to hear accounts of life during the second World War. The patriotic attitudes in “Mr. Churchill Says” jar with the modern rock backing, though the air raid siren is a nice touch. “She Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina” descends into goofy musical hall, mocking the lengths people will go for fashion when they’re dead broke. Quiet and sad, “Young And Innocent Days” works well outside the concept, covering the well-worn Davies theme of regret, but “Nothing To Say” more directly addresses the generation gap in the story, with that voice again. Finally, the title track echoes the jolly effect of “Victoria” by addressing the main character directly, reassuring him a la “Nowhere Man” or “Happy Jack”. It works as a singalong, but not as substance.

Because of holdups with the TV show, Arthur wasn’t released until after a kid named Tommy had captured wide attention (helped along by that album’s recurring themes and the Who’s numerous live performances to promote it). It’s a difficult album to take in, partially because of the dense story, and then because of the depressing subject matter once you’re in. But as ever, it’s a grower.

The first expanded double CD overseas offered the album in both mono and stereo, along with some BBC recordings and contemporary Dave Davies singles, each of which features the Kinks and would have made up the solo album he never completed. By the time of the album’s golden anniversary (following the overwhelming Village Green reissues) the “standard” double CD focused on the stereo album, bolstered by singles and a handful of mono mixes on one disc, and a complete “Great Lost Dave Davies Album” on the other. Meanwhile, the larger box had all the stereo mixes on one disc, all the mono on a second, all the Dave material plus mono alternates on a third, and demos, BBC takes, and non-Kinks versions with Ray on a fourth, presumably to set up the proposed radio drama version due in 2019.

The Kinks Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) (1969)—
2019 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 25 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 40 tracks plus vinyl)