Friday, November 30, 2018

Toad The Wet Sprocket 6: Coil

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toad The Wet Sprocket Coil (1997)—

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

David Bowie 42: Loving The Alien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 23, 2018

David Byrne 1: The Catherine Wheel

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Roger Daltrey 11: As Long As I Have You

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2018

Van Morrison 36: Magic Time

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

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

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

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

Van Morrison Magic Time (2005)—3

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Mott The Hoople 7: The Hoople

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 9, 2018

Elton John 8: Don't Shoot Me

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 2, 2018

Prince 8: Parade

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

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

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

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

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

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