Friday, December 28, 2018

Genesis 15: Invisible Touch

By 1986 Phil Collins had truly dominated the music industry to the point where the first time we heard a song called “Invisible Touch” on the radio, we assumed it was just another B-side to another single from No Jacket Required. But no! Genesis actually made another album, and if they were going to coast on Phil’s notoriety, all the better for them. (Not that he had all the fun; Mike Rutherford recruited Paul Carrack and a singer named Paul Young who wasn’t the soulful heartthrob for a combo called Mike + Mechanics, which had a couple of hits over the winter.)

At first impression, Invisible Touch is truly indistinguishable from Phil’s solo work, being that it’s full of catchy tunes and pop hooks, many of which were hit singles. Tony Banks wasn’t doing anything on the title track that was any more advanced than the keyboards on “Sussudio”, and whatever guitar flourishes Mike came up with would be copped by Daryl Stuermer on stage anyway. “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” revives some of the “dark” moods of “Mama” from the last album, and while this too would be a hit single, they had to chop about four minutes out of the middle of the album version. Then there’s “Land Of Confusion”, the big social-conscience statement with pointed video to match, its distorted mannequins still causing nightmares of its own today. And while they’d been doing pretty ballads for a while now, “In Too Deep” might as well have been “One More Night Part Two”.

“Anything She Does” sits in the same position as “Illegal Alien” from last time, and while it’s not as offensive, the horns and synths are particularly dated. It also sets the album apart as a Genesis production, since Phil on his own would never be so cheeky to sing about a porn star on a solo album; that influence came straight from the other two. They were also quick to defend their modern streamlined hitmaking sound by pointing out all the lengthy tracks on the album, like “Domino”. But calling two unrelated tracks parts one and two of the same piece doesn’t make it so. That said, “In The Glow Of The Night” suffers from the technology of the time, while “The Last Domino” at least builds momentum to be mildly exciting. “Throwing It All Away” finally gets the recipe right, combining everyone’s pop tendencies with a great arrangement and straightforward delivery. It’s the high point of the album, certainly, especially when followed by “The Brazilian”, an instrumental (you know, just like they always used to do) that doesn’t seem to conjure much of an international feel, unless they were referring to the salon treatment.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Invisible Touch, unless you’d ignored the last five years and actually expected Genesis to recapture their prog roots. Everyone else was happy with it, and it sold by the bucketful. And even if Peter Gabriel’s So, which ruled the charts and airwaves along with this album during the same period, didn’t excite the gearheads, they could always check out GTR, which combined the ideas of former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett with those of Steve Howe, most recently of Asia and once of Yes.

Genesis Invisible Touch (1986)—3

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Booker T. & The MG’s: In The Christmas Spirit

Given that everybody allowed near a microphone in the 21st century has recorded a Christmas album, sometimes you just want to get away from yet another version of a song that’s been sung many times in many ways. That’s why we usually reach for the nearest holiday CD that’s instrumental. But even those can sound alike after a while, particularly if they’re in the same old easy listening, jazz, or classical mode. At the same time, rock ‘n roll takes on the catalog tend to lose their novelty after a while, even if only played a couple of weeks out of the year.

That’s what makes In The Christmas Spirit by Booker T. & The MG’s such a welcome respite season after season. A combo best known for the classic “Green Onions” and sharing the guitarist and bass player with the Blues Brothers, here the band serves up a dozen favorites in the same Memphis R&B groove that established them as the Stax Records house band. Hammond B-3 organ takes center stage for most of it, with tasteful Telecaster and percolating bass over perfectly syncopated drums.

Having originally been issued as two sides of a record, the first half is more upbeat, with the usual suspects (“Jingle Bells”, “Winter Wonderland”, “Silver Bells”, etc.) while the second takes a slower pace, starting with a bluesy “Merry Christmas Baby”, staying quiet for “Silent Night”, “We Three Kings” and the like, which sound for all the world like church if not for the ticking snare drum. Just to remind you who they are, the set picks up at the very end with “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”.

Like most albums of the time, In The Christmas Spirit is short, but likely to get repeat plays once it’s loaded up. We haven’t figured out why the album had two different covers a year apart over here; adding to the confusion, it was called Soul Christmas—not to be confused with an entirely different compilation—with another alternative for the artwork overseas. As for the extraneous apostrophe in the band’s name, we’ll leave the blame with the record company.

Booker T. & The MG’s In The Christmas Spirit (1966)—4

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Jeff Beck 7: Wired

Not that he ever repeated himself, but Jeff Beck was smart enough to stick with a decent formula once he found one that worked. Wired builds on the foundation set by Blow By Blow, retaining producer George Martin and Max Middleton on keyboards. A couple of new names—for the time—debut here: Jan Hammer (fresh from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and ECM work, and years away from Miami Vice) on synthesizer and Narada Michael Walden (also recently with Mahavishnu as well as Weather Report, and just as far away from “Freeway Of Love”) on drums and credited for writing four of the songs. Clearly, jazz fusion was the thing, and vocals were out.

“Led Boots” is supposed to be a nod to a certain band named after a zeppelin, but it’s way to busy to have any connection past the title. “Come Dancing” is more of a challenge than an invitation, given the confrontational groove, for most of it, but listeners can marvel at the way the guitar melds with the synth. It’s all pretty funky so far, so it’s wise that he makes his own stamp “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus, in an incredibly reverent yet virtuosic take. If that’s too slow, try to keep up with “Head For Backstage Pass”, wherein he seems to be dueling with himself.

Hammer contributes “Blue Wind”, playing synth as well as drums in a leg-breaking meter, with nice call-and-response between the keys and the stringed instruments. “Sophie” is a tricky one, starting slow and dreamy, but soon working up into a frenzy of syncopation and hot licks. Max Middleton gets center stage on his clavinet for “Play With Me” for even more of the same. Finally, “Love Is Green” is a short, slow ballad for guitar, bass, and piano, its title recalling Beck’s cover from the decade before. While written by Walden, it’s very reminiscent of the quieter Hammer tunes on John Abercrombie’s Timeless album.

Wired has no gimmicks, just playing. It stays pretty far away from rock, and forms a worthy companion to its older brother. It could use a little more variety, and further explorations like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” would have been great, but you try telling Jeff Beck what to do.

Jeff Beck Wired (1976)—3

Friday, December 14, 2018

Mary Hopkin 1: Post Card

The first major hit Apple Records had that wasn’t a Beatles recording came from a young lady from Wales spotted on the 1968 equivalent of American Idol. At the time, Mary Hopkin was 18, and both looked and sounded like we imagined Eowyn from The Lord Of The Rings would. Paul McCartney foisted a song upon her, and just like that “Those Were The Days” shot to #1 all around the world.

Excited to keep the ball rolling, Paul immediately—in between finishing the White Album and courting one Linda Eastman—got to work collecting songs for her full-length album debut. Paul had yet to write a song for her; in addition to handpicking folk songs, standards, and stuff in other languages to continue her worldwide appeal, he hit up famous friends like Donovan and Harry Nilsson. When Post Card appeared the following spring, it was a wide-ranging amalgam of music, united by that high soprano that, if it’s to your taste, is just lovely.

The Donovan songs are arguably the highlight, as he (and sometimes Paul) accompanies her on acoustic. “Lord Of The Reedy River” flows along like its title, and while “Happiness Runs (Pebble And The Man)” is dangerously cute, “Voyage Of The Moon” is just lovely. Nilsson’s “The Puppy Song” sounds pretty much like all his other vaudeville homages, and fits with such oldies as “Lullaby Of The Leaves”, “Love Is The Sweetest Thing”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” (replaced on the US version by The Hit Single). Some of the arrangements border on Little Rascals quality, particularly on “Inch Worm”.

Session guys provide most of the backing, but it’s sometimes possible to discern Paul’s distinct instrumental touch, such as on “Young Love” and “The Honeymoon Song”, which modern Beatlemaniacs would recognize from their BBC bootlegs. We’re pretty sure that’s Paul all over “Prince In Avignon”, which has a gorgeous melody albeit all in French, just as she harmonizes with herself on “Y Blodyn Gwyn”, which is all Welsh. The most haunting (and heartbreaking) track on the album is “The Game”, written by Beatles producer George Martin; that’s definitely his piano playing.

When it appeared on CD as part of the early-‘90s Apple reissues, “Those Were The Days” was stuck at the beginning, and the rest of the program followed the UK LP sequence, with three bonus tracks: her version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, which had been the B-side of “Those Were The Days”, and the smash song repeated in their Italian and Spanish vocal versions. Two decades on, the next edition of the CD once again bookended the British LP lineup with both sides of the single, but added both sides of her next non-album single: “Goodbye”, a McCartney original, and “Sparrow”, a somewhat twee tune by Gallagher and Lyle. That duo was also responsible for a future B-side, “Fields Of St. Etienne”, included here in its original overblown arrangement, wisely passed over for a quieter recording not included here. (Meanwhile, the Spanish and Italian versions of “Those Were The Days” were on the digital download of the album, along with versions in French and German. Zoot allure!)

Mary Hopkin Post Card (1969)—
1991 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks
2010 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Paul Simon 10: Negotiations And Love Songs

His label had to have been relieved by the massive success of Graceland, and knowing the man’s measured pace while creating his next likely masterpiece, Warner Bros. made the commercially wise move to issue a hits compilation. Granted, Paul Simon had only one “hit” from the two albums with the label that weren’t Graceland, so they bolstered Negotiations And Love Songs—helpfully subtitled 1971-1986—with nine selections that were already on his previous hits album plus, oddly, “St. Judy’s Comet”. (We’d also gladly take “I Do It For Your Love” over “Have A Good Time” any hour of any day, but nobody ever asks us.)

That covered the ‘70s, but what of the ‘80s? “Late In The Evening” was the logical choice to represent One-Trick Pony, sparing newcomers the trouble of picking that one up. Three of the better tracks from Hearts And Bones get welcome exposure; “Train In The Distance” even provided the set’s title. “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al” round out the program. (If you bought the two-LP version of the album, you also got the title track from Graceland.)

For a chronological overview, Negotiations And Love Songs covers the basics, with true highlights from his handful of albums to date, and not sneaking in any live versions of songs better known from his old duo. Also, with Greatest Hits, Etc. now out of print, this was the only place to find “Slip Slidin’ Away”. (If you wanted “Stranded In A Limousine”, for whatever reason, you were out of luck.) And who could resist that dreamy noir portrait of the artist with his fedora cocked at a jaunty angle?

Paul Simon Negotiations And Love Songs 1971-1986 (1988)—4

Friday, December 7, 2018

Neil Young 57: Songs For Judy

Just as chapters in Neil’s first Archives box were tantalizingly parceled out ahead of time, a decade later he appeared to be doing the same thing, focusing on performances from the mid-‘70s. Perhaps not surprisingly, the item designated #7 in his Performance Series was basically a chronologic and sonic upgrade of one of his more famous bootlegs. Songs For Judy gets its title from various meandering raps about Judy Garland, which were something of a theme during a November 1976 tour with Crazy Horse. Journalist Cameron Crowe and photographer slash guitar tech Joel Bernstein had carefully selected their favorite acoustic performances from the run and stuck them on a Maxell tape, which eventually got into the wrong hands and began circulating as “The Bernstein Tapes”. (Another fun fact: the night after the last show of the tour, Neil flew off to San Francisco to play a gig called The Last Waltz. It was a busy year.)

A quick glance at the tracklist may suggest you’ve heard this all before, and if you’ve got the bootlegs, you have, but suffice it to say this sounds a lot better. Even coming three months after the cutting session that made up Hitchhiker, only four songs are repeated. And of those, “Pocahontas” gets a stoney intro and extra lyrics at the end, while “Human Highway” is delivered on “gitjo” with a disclaimer of its own. “Give Me Strength” is given an excellent reading, and it’s hard to tell whether the crowd knew “Love Is A Rose” from the Linda Ronstadt version or thought it was “Dance, Dance, Dance”. At the time, these were brand new to audiences, and wouldn’t be out on albums for a while, if at all. The pretty piano lament “No One Seems To Know” makes its official debut, finally, and it’s worth the wait; “Too Far Gone” and “White Line” would each take over a decade to find homes. The audience hoots and hollers either way, upon which Neil constantly remarks.

Beyond that, the selections touch on just about every album he did have out by then. “Here We Are In The Years” is resurrected with a dedication to President-elect Carter, while “The Old Laughing Lady” is given a much jauntier arrangement (much like how he’d do it on Unplugged) with an added coda known as “Guilty Train”. “A Man Needs A Maid” is performed simultaneously on stringman and piano, beginning with the familiar chords of “Like A Hurricane”. “The Losing End” is just as effective solo as it was with the Horse, and even “Sugar Mountain” gets a treatment that wanders around the all-too-familiar structure. We get one line from the chorus of “Country Girl” before he moves on (“that’s as much as I know,” he says, as we tear our hair out in frustration). And of course, the hits: “Heart Of Gold”, “After The Gold Rush”, “Needle And The Damage Done”, “Harvest”, “Tell Me Why”, etc.

An unreleased live album from earlier that year, half of which featured Crazy Horse, was eventually released as part of Archives Vol. II, so those jonesing for electric mud will have to seek elsewhere. Still, Songs For Judy is an archival release of more broad appeal to casual fans than the last handful, and is right up there with the Fillmore East and Massey Hall sets.

Neil Young Songs For Judy (2018)—

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Peter Gabriel 6: So

What with his old band suddenly becoming mainstream pop icons—helped along by their ubiquitous drummer—it was both odd yet fitting to find Peter Gabriel competing for pole position at the top of the very same charts. It helped, of course, that So was very accessible; while still chock full of unusual subject matter, its sound was very radio-friendly, thanks in part to co-producer Daniel Lanois. (The handsome cover shot was also a big departure from his previous portraits.)

Production is a big part of the stunning “Red Rain”. While it sports such a big sound, the band still consists of guitar, bass, drums and piano (plus the vocal, once described as a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Elmer Fudd). The song maintains its tension, breaking the ceiling in the brief section before the last chorus, and taking it down to its bare bones gradually to the very end. To call “Sledgehammer” an antidote to the tension is an understatement; this horn-driven ode to pleasure easily made the album a hit, helped by the video. Kate Bush returns for a duet on “Don’t Give Up”, a song pointedly about a man struggling under an economic situation but easily embraced as a universal pick-me-up. “That Voice Again” juxtaposes two musical sections for a rather straightforward song about relationships.

It was the first song on side two, however, that soon became one of the biggest romantic touchstones of the decade. “In Your Eyes” still works as a love song for the ages and for any age, and would be transformed in live performances (boombox not imperative). The spooky “Mercy Street” becomes even more mysterious and unsettling the more one learns about its inspiration, the troubled poet Anne Sexton. Luckily, the hilarious pomposity of “Big Time” brings some daylight back to the proceedings, helped along by yet another amazing video. But “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” revives another disturbing subject, that of the danger of obeying authority. Less clear is what the coda (“One doubt/One voice/One war/One truth/One dream”) has to do with it.

The LP ends there, but the increasing number of consumers who bought the album on cassette or compact disc got an extra in “This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)”, a collaboration with performance artist Laurie Anderson. But if you buy the CD today, there’s been a further change: “In Your Eyes” has been moved to the end of the program, after “This Is The Picture”, making for a much different finale.

Whatever the “real” track order, the ubiquity of the songs on So hasn’t diluted their quality since they first appeared. Lots of fans discovered Peter Gabriel via this album, and likely dug deeper into his catalog for more. From an economic as well as an artistic standpoint, he couldn’t ask for a better return.

Decades later it’s still his most popular album, and nostalgists cultivated a full wish list for its inevitable commemoration. As he was never one to adhere to calendars, it was only fitting that the 25th anniversary repackaging of So arrived 26 years after its initial release. A three-disc version added a 1987 concert from Athens, while the so-called Immersion Box also added a DVD of that concert, the album on vinyl, a 12-inch disc of three outtakes and, most intriguing of all to people like us, a CD called So DNA that traces each track from initial cassette demo through later incarnations. None of the packages contain any contemporary B-sides or remixes. (In a fascinating exchange with the excellent Super Deluxe Edition website, Peter explained some of his reasoning behind what was and wasn’t included. That site’s review of the DNA disc is essential reading.)

Peter Gabriel So (1986)—
25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1986, plus 16 extra tracks (Immersion Box adds another 10 tracks, 2 DVDs, LP, 12")