Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Faces 4: Ooh La La

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

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

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

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

Faces Ooh La La (1973)—

Friday, October 26, 2018

R.E.M. 23: At The BBC

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

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

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

R.E.M. R.E.M. At The BBC (2018)—3

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Marshall Crenshaw 6: Life’s Too Short

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

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

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

Marshall Crenshaw Life’s Too Short (1991)—

Friday, October 19, 2018

Elvis Costello 34: Look Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Frank Zappa 35: London Symphony Orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 5, 2018

Tom Petty 22: An American Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Petty An American Treasure (2018)—4

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Cat Stevens 10: Izitso

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

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

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

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

Cat Stevens Izitso (1977)—