Friday, May 24, 2019

King Crimson 18: Meltdown

The resurgence of King Crimson in the second decade of the 21st century is somewhat surprising, but Robert Fripp—who’s just as pleased about it as anyone—insists that it could only have happened when people’s preconceptions of what the band is and does are ignored. What he calls the ninth lineup of the band (and the fourth “Definitive Formation”) includes eight men, some already eligible to collect Social Security, whose dedication to the material and history of the band results in not only stellar performances greeted enthusiastically by audiences—some of whom are seeing the band for the first time—but the capability of performing music that was never quite able to make it from the studio to the stage.
Fripp has been releasing selected “official bootlegs” from throughout the band’s history, and the latest lineups have already been represented on several such CDs since 2014. Even after the comprehensive Radical Action To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind, two further shows from 2017 were made available, but somehow their Mexico City run in July of that year managed to astound audience and band members alike, and that’s how Meltdown: Live In Mexico got the full-fledged pantheon treatment.
Unlike Radical Action, which shuffled various tracks and presented them without audience atmosphere, Meltdown delivers what mostly replicates an actual setlist in order, with crowd ambience included. We even get to hear some of the atmospherics from the top of the show, and Fripp’s pre-recorded welcome, admonishment not to use cell phones until the very end (“use your eyes to viddy and your ears to record”), and the hilarious exhortation “Let’s have a party!” The tuning-up snippet from the tail end of the Islands introduces “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part One” and the show properly begins.
While many tunes are repeated from Radical Action, Meltdown is a different listening experience. Two pieces from the underappreciated Lizard are given new life: “Cirkus” and the “Battle Of Glass Tears” sequence from the title track. Selections from the ‘80s incarnation of the band appear; “Indisicipline” is an incredible demonstration of the how the three drummers work with and off each other. “Level Five” is also presented on its way to its promotion to part five of the “Larks’ Tongues” suite, while a gorgeous rendition of “Islands” may well be the highlight of the set. (The band’s now-traditional cover of Bowie’s “‘Heroes’”—the original of which Fripp contributed that guitar part—sits right there betwixt “The Court Of The Crimson King” and “21st Century Schizoid Man”.)
Because of its song selection, overall sound, and continuity, Meltdown gets a slight edge over Radical Action. The three discs very much convey the idea of first set, second set, and encores; the third disc is bolstered by further live recordings from the summer of 2018, including some improvs and a blazing take on “Breathless” from Fripp’s first solo album. And those who wish to viddy with their eyes can pop in the included Blu-ray.

King Crimson Meltdown: Live In Mexico (2018)—

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Mark Knopfler 9: Privateering

People like consistency, and we know that when Mark Knopfler releases a new album, we’ll have a pretty good idea what it will sound like. We don’t expect another Making Movies or Love Over Gold, but chances are he’s not about to go too far out of his (or our) comfort zone.
Recorded throughout 2011, Privateering was released worldwide in 2012, except in North America, where it took another year. Reviews were generally positive. At nearly 90 minutes there are two full albums here, but the sequence is mostly arbitrary. The music is what you’d expect: slow rumblings here, uilleann pipes there, chunky rockers elsewhere. The big addition this time out is Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, blowing harp through a Green Bullet on the bluesier tunes. The songs are all pleasant, and fairly interchangeable, though he does have a way with words (“Don’t Forget Your Hat”, “Corned Beef City”, “I Used To Could”, “Hot Or What”). The one true standout is “Radio City Serenade”, a ‘70s Tom Waits-style ballad that’s slow and pretty and doesn’t sound like everything else.

Mark Knopfler Privateering (2012)—3

Friday, May 17, 2019

Talking Heads 6: Speaking In Tongues

A break seemed to do Talking Heads a bit of good, as their next album was concise and mostly coherent. Speaking In Tongues eschewed the experimentalism of the Eno years, delivering a set of upbeat yet still quirky tunes, just like the first album, but updated for the ‘80s and with danceable grooves.
That said, opening track and first single “Burning Down The House” managed to become a regular earworm with its prominent acoustic guitar over a minimalist backing, up against spooky modern keyboard whooshes and burps. (The band already well versed in the visual arts, the accompanying music video also helped sell the album.) The dance party continues with an exhortation at the top of “Making Flippy Floppy”, proving that David Byrne might have actually listed to his rhythm section’s Tom Tom Club side project in between Prince albums. “Girlfriend Is Better” revives the twisted love songs that started them out, punctuated by laser-gun synth bursts atop what we now know as a hip-hop groove. “Slippery People” is another apt title, and “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” is equally rubbery.
The tempo finally slows, just a hair, for “Swamp” and its chant of a chorus, but it’s still catchy. “Moon Rocks” takes the disco to outer space, with a few of the third-world textures left over from their Eno era, and “Pull Up The Roots” adds a few chord changes to split up the rhythm. One of the most striking tracks arrives with “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”, which actually tries to present a structured song, and something of a love song at that.
There’s a lot of sameness throughout Speaking In Tongues, but it’s never boring. Each of the band members contributes greatly, even democratically to each track, and a handful of vocalists and extra musicians add to the sonic palette, but it never seems crowded. (The cassette had been dominating album sales for some time, and the tape version of this album offered extended versions of five songs for an extra six minutes of music; this did not apply to the compact disc for some time. When the album was reissued on CD in this century, it was in the DualDisc format, which housed DVD-formatted visual material on the opposite side of the audio portion, which included the extended versions as well as one outtake plus a new mix of “Burning Down The House”.)

Talking Heads Speaking In Tongues (1983)—3
2006 DualDisc: same as 1983, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Elton John 10: Caribou

Considering the sheer volume of music he’d put out in four years, plus the undeniable quality of work that had just filled a double album, could Elton John really keep it going at the same rate and level? A cursory listen to Caribou says no, filled as it is with fluff and pop, recorded very quickly, capped by a grinning, nearly glam cover shot in front of a backdrop that looks as fake as the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road seems to come to life.
Right away the focus is on ear candy, and while “The Bitch Is Back” was a daring title to throw on the radio in 1974, the Tower Of Power horns made it ideal for blasting in the car, though his professing to be “stone cold sober” is at odds with what we now know about those days. “Pinky” is a tender love song with all the hooks we’ve come to expect and adore, whereas “Grimsby” is an ode to a British seaside town and sounds like it’s copied from other Elton John songs. “Dixie Lily” is yet another homage to an American frontier Bernie Taupin only knew from movies, derailed immediately by the wooden train whistle used to illustrate the steamboat. There is no defending “Solar Prestige A Gammon”, a pile of gibberish sung mostly in a jokey operatic voice, and the type of wordplay even John Lennon knew to limit back on “Sun King”. After the tango scare in the intro, “You’re So Static” returns to “Bitch Is Back” territory with far too many castanets and horns dominating the extended end, drowning out the piano and Davey Johnstone’s Leslie guitar.
UFOs were a big deal in the ‘70s, but as he’d already been a “Rocket Man”, “I’ve Seen The Saucers” is from the point of view of someone insisting that he’s already mingled with aliens and would be keen to again. Elton’s stately chords and melody just manage to rise above the wacky sound effects. “Stinker” is based on a dirty groove that would be co-opted by everyone from Journey to Alannah Myles; ultimately he’s more convincing as a bitch than a badass. Then, just when you think the album can’t win you over, two lengthy tracks stretch the heartstrings to their limit. “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” is the epic that’s become bigger than Elton himself, its tantalizingly drawn out verse and soaring chorus featuring actual Beach Boys and Tennille herself, and horns more typical of Elton albums than those of Tower of Power. That would be enough, but the album’s grand finale is “Ticking”, a positively heartbreaking tale of a mass shooting in a New York bar. Especially in an era when there seems to be a school shooting every week, this piano-and-vocal performance, wisely absent of any overdubs save well-placed self-harmonies and minimal synthesizer, absolutely chills one’s bones.
Being that it was Elton John, Caribou topped the charts around the world and sold concert tickets. He could be forgiven a slight dip in quality, but he hadn’t yet learned how to slow down. Today the album is boosted by four non-album tracks: “Sick City” and “Cold Highway” are decent B-sides from the album’s two singles; “Step Into Christmas” from the previous year’s holiday season is nice to have in context too. His version of “Pinball Wizard” (matching his vivid portrayal onscreen in the film version of Tommy) was recorded by his own band—with new buddy Ray Cooper on multiple tambourines—unlike most of the rest of that soundtrack, and gains an interlude reminiscent of the end of “Gray Seal”, plus a coda that quotes “I Can’t Explain”. (Pete Townshend loved it, and so did everyone else.)

Elton John Caribou (1974)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, May 10, 2019

Prince 10: Lovesexy

Along with the “racy” cover art, Lovesexy was notable at the time mostly for what it wasn’t. A set of edgy funk and rap called The Black Album had been scheduled and hurriedly pulled from release the previous December, whereupon Prince just as hurriedly recorded this album in its place. As the legend of the shelved album grew, and what did come out didn’t exactly wow those whose interest had been waning since 1985, Lovesexy was considered something of a flop, and has been somewhat forgotten since, except for the cover, of course. That’s too bad, because listeners will find the music within many of the elements of the better albums in his catalog, as well as a few new buzzwords that would emerge again.
“Eye No” (the first word is actually the symbol of an eye, which we’re not going to bother with) begins with an intriguing new agey mood and the voice of a waif informing us that rain is wet (really) before a horn-filled groove takes over for a party featuring his full band. From there, the only other musicians he uses are Sheila E. on the drums (slammin’), a couple of female vocals, and a couple of horns. “Alphabet St.” was the first single, and another of his simple yet excellent one-man-band opuses. As a single, it stops at the right time, but here on the album, he insists that Cat Glover rap a few verses. The rhythm guitar makes the whole track work. Speaking of guitar, “Glam Slam” combines the occasional Arabian orchestral touches from the last three albums into another toe-tapper underneath his distorted fretwork. A lengthy faux-classical interlude on strings takes up too much time before his ode to “Anna Stesia”, another muse he hopes will bring him closer to God and Jesus.
The chorus and title “Dance On” may suggest a party, but the lyrics are pure social commentary hidden in allegories and puns, while Sheila E. skitters around her kit. The title track would almost seem to recall “1999”, both in tempo and instrumentation, while reminding us once again that rain is wet and alluding to a new power generation. A section with sped-up and slowed-down voices almost seems to poke fun at his image. “When 2 R In Love” is a slow jam rescued from The Black Album, and would have been the least exciting track there too. “I Wish U Heaven” is a much catchier improvement, too short, and has us really missing Wendy and Lisa. As the third single from the flagging album it didn’t catch fire, which is too bad, since it deserves better. Finally, “Positivity” stretches more “we gotta got together” platitudes in a low register over a snaky stroll, stretching out under even more guitar soloing. We go out with the sound of what are probably supposed to be ocean waves but sound more like someone sloshing around a bathtub.
Prince daringly and defiantly programmed the CD version of Lovesexy as a single track, without indexing, so the listener would either have to hear it all at once. In retrospect, this wasn’t a big deal considering those who could had the cassette were also subject to two lengthy halves, but in today’s culture of instant gratification, even version available for streaming is just the one 45-minute track. Just as he wanted it. Check it out.

Prince Lovesexy (1988)—3

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Frank Zappa 37: Them Or Us

After a couple of classical detours, Frank came back with another “rock” album, and another double to boot, conveniently released amidst another tour. Them Or Us was compiled from a variety of studio and live sources, edited and juxtaposed, but doesn’t seem to follow any basic theme, except for another dog painting similar to that on The Perfect Stranger.
Once again he opens with a cover of an obscure doo-wop oldie, and once again his vocal delivery suggests “The Closer You Are” is supposed to be a parody, but we know better. “In France” is an extended in-joke sung by Zappa idol Johnny “Guitar” Watson that seems longer than it is. But then there’s “Ya Hozña”, predominantly a demonic-sounding solo overlaid with vocals recorded entirely backwards, to suggest something equally demonic in the wake of the then-current controversy over alleged backward-masking on rock albums. He makes his point, even if it goes on a little long. A little better is a reprise of “Sharleena”, included here to showcase young Dweezil Zappa’s pre-teen guitar prowess.
Side two consists of two lengthy pieces. “Sinister Footwear II” is another part of a longer ballet suite hinted at on You Are What You Is. It does sound rather sinister, with furious drums and guitar, and keyboards that remind us of what Ruth Underwood used to bring to the table. Whatever mood he’s trying to create is elbowed aside by “Truck Driver Divorce”, sung in his obnoxious lounge voice, which thankfully switches back after a minute and a half to another solo recorded live.
Further silliness ensues on side three, beginning with “Stevie’s Spanking”, which details some of the after-show exploits of stunt guitarist Steve Vai, who indeed solos on the track, as does Dweezil again. There’s another detour into the mildly doo-wop “Baby Take Your Teeth Out”, before returning to the jazz fusion of “Marque-son’s Chicken”. “Planet Of My Dreams” is sung in a high register by one-time keyboard player Bob Harris; a segment from yet another unrealized Broadway musical, it fades pretty quickly.
At the top of side four, “Be In My Video” is the closest the album might come to a possible hit single, or at least fodder for the Dr. Demento show, but considering its skewering of MTV culture (and specifically “Let’s Dance”, Frank still miffed that Bowie stole Adrian Belew away) it likely wouldn’t have been appreciated. The title track is another furious solo from a live show, while “Frogs With Dirty Little Lips” brings another Zappa offspring onto wax, somewhat; this time it was young Ahmet who contributed the lyrics. Finally, another cover bookends the set: a mostly reverent live rip through the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”, done reggae stylee for the guitar solos.
Them Or Us is an odd mishmash. Frank had embraced digital recording for its clean sound and editing capabilities, but even modern mastering can’t keep it from sounding sterile today. There’s enough of instrumental interest here, even though there aren’t any “classic” tracks. It would also be the last album of “songs” he’d release in his lifetime.

Frank Zappa Them Or Us (1984)—3

Friday, May 3, 2019

Rolling Stones 51: Honk

The initial excuse for yet another Stones compilation in a non-anniversary year was that it was supposed to tie in with an American tour. Which was then postponed due to Mick needing an emergency medical procedure. (We predicted a Viagra-related issue, which has yet to be confirmed.) This didn’t stop the promo machine from pushing the “new” set in the slightest. Honk might actually make sense as a title were “Honky Tonk Woman” actually included anywhere, but it’s not. And that’s just one of several omissions that, despite what the ads say, disprove the claim that the set offers “the very best” of the Stones.
Honk concentrates on the band from 1971 on, so we get tracks that have already been compiled on Made In The Shade, Rewind, Jump Back, Forty Licks, and GRRR!, and fear not, they didn’t forget “Brown Sugar” or “Wild Horses”. Granted, this is the first single-CD compilation they’ve offered in 25 years, but considering the small handful of new albums since then, it’s rather pointless.
But—and this is a big but—the deluxe three-disc version mines those recent decades even further, including both of the new songs from GRRR!, three unnecessary repeats from Blue & Lonesome, “Saint Of Me” instead of “Anybody Seen My Baby?” (presumably to skip paying k.d. lang any royalties), two too many choices from A Bigger Bang, and for some reason, “Dancing With Mr. D.” The already-frenzied PR spin suggests we’re supposed to be most excited about performances from the last handful of tours, featuring guest appearances from Dave Grohl, Ed Sheeran, Florence without her Machine, and Brad Paisley. This is the only portion of the album featuring music from the ‘60s, but you probably had to be there. Everything’s recorded well, with Chuck Leavell and Charlie Watts prominent in the mix. Might as well play it loud.

Rolling Stones Honk (2019)—

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Lou Reed 16: Live In Italy

RCA Records had history on its side, but promotion and art direction weren’t always their strengths. Their budget reissues looked cheaper than the cardboard they came in, and annotations tended to be at a minimum. Yet for all the ways they’ve repackaged Lou Reed’s catalog over the decades, it’s odd that one of his most acclaimed albums worldwide has never been properly released in the U.S.
Live In Italy captures the band that had just recorded Legendary Hearts, a straightforward, tight combo with Robert Quine on guitar alongside the boss, Fernando Saunders on bass, and Fred Maher on drums. The set leans heavily on the standards, from “Sweet Jane” to “Walk On The Wild Side”—most of which had already been on one or two previous live Lou albums—with songs from the new album and The Blue Mask, and even a few from Sally Can’t Dance. Quine apparently insisted that they play more obscure (for the time) Velvet Underground material, and since he was still in Lou’s good graces, that’s how we get a lengthy amalgamation of “Some Kinda Love” and “Sister Ray”. The band’s tight and Lou’s in good voice; he even manages throw in a couple of lines from Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” at the end of “Rock & Roll”.
The album did make it over here as an import, under different covers and alternate titles that sometimes came off like bootlegs. But even when the digital era dug all kinds of things out of the backs of closets, and Lou became even more of a commercial icon, Live In Italy remained a foreign pressing only. It can now be streamed from the usual places, which is how we finally got around to hearing it, just as all Lou fans should.

Lou Reed Live In Italy (1983)—3

Friday, April 26, 2019

Kinks 14: Kronikles

While Reprise had let the Kinks get away in the U.S., the label still had rights to everything the band had recorded up until then. And since it had been six years and several actual hits since the one best-of, it was high time to kash in. Wisely, they left it to a fan, journalist and devout Kink kollector John Mendelsohn, to kompile a double album and kontribute liner notes extolling the band and the tracks therein.
While they didn’t put a lot of money into the kover design, The Kink Kronikles expertly served up four sides’ worth of klassic Kinks music from the period since that hits album, kombining hit singles, B-sides, album tracks, and other nuggets that had either been ignored by radio or not released in America at all. Mendelsohn’s point was that these tunes deserved to be heard, and now they were. While most of the albums represented here were of the konceptual ilk, he made damn sure to touch on several one-off singles from in between said koncepts, proving that they were just as good at 45 as they were at 33. (And yes, that would be Nicky Hopkins playing so many of those keyboards, kredit long overdue.)
Side one alone offers three tracks that had yet to appear in America. The overly music hall “Berkeley Mews” was left over from the Village Green era, and had only recently made it out as the British B-side of “Lola”. “This Is Where I Belong” was another British B-side, and it’s just glorious, while “Willesden Green” is an odd choice, being chosen from the Percy soundtrack to even Mendelsohn’s befuddlement. But around all that are “Victoria”, “Village Green Preservation Society”, “Holiday In Waikiki” for some reason, and the eternal “Waterloo Sunset”.
Side two explores the various downtrodden individuals that were Ray Davies’ trademark, from the more familiar “David Watts” and “Sunny Afternoon” to album tracks “Get Back In Line” and “Shangri-La”. Kult klassics “Dead End Street” and “Autumn Almanac” get welcome exposure, while “Did You See His Name”, another Village Green leftover, hadn’t been released anywhere yet.
Side three takes a side trip to more whimsical karacters, to varying success. There’s “Fancy”, with its drone and simple lyrics, followed by the goofy flop single “Wonderboy”. “Apeman” was an FM radio hit, cleverly shadowed by the American debut of “King Kong”, another goofy flop. The ragtimey “Mr. Pleasant” is a matter of taste, while “God’s Children” is far and away the best song from Percy, and Dave Davies finally gets the spotlight for “Death Of A Clown”.
Side four is said to be about women, so of course it starts with “Lola”, followed by its American B-side “Mindless Child Of Motherhood”. (What Mendelsohn didn’t know at the time was that this Dave Davies song, like “Susannah’s Still Alive” a few tracks later, addresses the same lost love and child he’d yet to meet.) “Polly” and “Big Black Smoke” were both B-sides from the Something Else period, and “She’s Got Everything”, with its last vestige of that famous guitar sound from ’64, was also dusted off to back up “Days”, the wonderful single that fittingly kloses the set.
While many of these tracks have since been re-assigned to various expanded album reissues and box sets in kontext, The Kink Kronikles remains an excellent follow-up to that first hits album, and anyone delving deeper into the albums sampled shouldn’t feel any redundancy. There are only a couple of klunkers here, yet it still holds up, particularly as the band had already moved on to a kompletely different place.

The Kinks The Kink Kronikles (1972)—4

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Todd Rundgren 19: The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect

While Utopia appeared to be his main focus, Bearsville Records demanded that Todd Rundgren finish out his contract, so he did. The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect is another completely solo Todd album, written and performed entirely by his lonesome. By now the synthesizers and drum machines had become more sophisticated, so many of the tracks sound like an actual band again. The songs themselves are predominantly throwaway pop, and that’s not always a bad thing.
“Hideaway” sounds like it could have been a contemporary Utopia track, particularly when the timber of his voice changes. Though it may sound sincere to some, the spoken couplet seems more of a parody, and belies the tossed-off nature of the album. “Influenza” could have been a major hit by, say, a female pop vocalist, though the hook isn’t exactly top 40 fare. Right on schedule comes the sensitive ballad “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, with a lotta blue-eyed soul. A saxophone can be heard now and then in “There Goes Your Baybay”, which goes in and out of a bossa nova beat as found on most home organs.
Side two is just as fluffy as side one, in content anyway. “Tin Soldier” is a fairly faithful (but not exactly Faithful) cover of the Small Faces tune, with a really jarring percussive vocal effect in the verses, but an excellent approximation of P.P. Arnold’s wonderful high part and a precursor to the next near-hit he’d have several years later. “The Emperor Of The Highway” is another Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche, this time taking the guise of a gearhead on the verge of road rage. It’s kinda stupid, but nothing compared to the gloriously stupid song that made the album a hit. The ever-popular “Bang The Drum All Day” is positively infectious, and will probably be played at a sporting event within the next 24 hours, no matter when you read this. In contrast, “Drive” soon fades in with chiming guitars and driving (sorry) beat, under a lyric extolling personal perseverance. “Chant” has a similar utopian message, but isn’t as catchy as it tries to be, and now just screams new wave techno-pop.
It would interesting to know if anybody who bought The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect based on “Band The Drum All Day” got into the rest of the album, or the rest of his catalog, or even the Small Faces. Todd himself didn’t care much, since he was too busy playing with computers, experimenting with videos, and making Utopia albums. The album may not have taxed his creativity very much, but it’s more proof that with only the slightest prodding, he could spit out a catchy album in his sleep. We’d venture a guess he probably enjoyed the money.

Todd Rundgren The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (1982)—3

Friday, April 19, 2019

Rush 15: A Show Of Hands

Right on schedule, another set of four Rush albums was followed by a double live album. A Show Of Hands spotlit their most recent tour promoting their most recent album, with a couple of recordings from the previous tour to fill it out. With the exception of “Witch Hunt” and the closing “Closer To The Heart”, all the songs come from those last four albums, so nobody can really complain about repeats.
The band prided themselves on perfectly replicating their records onstage, so there’s not much difference outside a few vocal embellishments and the occasional intro. We can marvel at Geddy Lee’s ability to play bass and sing at the same time, for instance, on “Turn The Page”. Technology allowed them to play the orchestral accompaniment to “Marathon”, as well as import the voice of Aimee Mann for “Time Stand Still”. It’s also possible to enjoy the band’s unique sense of humor, beginning with the Three Stooges theme that opens the album, and Neil Peart’s four-minute drum solo, cheekily titled “The Rhythm Method”. (Keen-ears listeners will recognize some patterns carried over from “YYZ”, but those are forgotten once he starts hitting the MIDI pads.)
As the CD had become standard, A Show Of Hands was the first Rush live album that didn’t have to leave off a track that wouldn’t fit on a shiny silver disc. Of course, the LP and cassette ran the same length anyway, and diehard fans would happily pony up the cash for the companion videotape, which included songs not on the album while omitting some that were.

Rush A Show Of Hands (1989)—3

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Brian Eno 16: Spinner and The Drop

In between production gigs, Eno occasionally entertained the odd commission. One such project was the soundtrack to a posthumous Derek Jarman film called Glitterbugmusic for a film, if you will. Eno duly recorded some tracks and textures, then fobbed of the tapes to Jah Wobble, best known around these parts as the bass player in Public Image Ltd. The resultant album, Spinner, was credited to the pair, yet Eno avowed that he hadn’t heard the final product until it was pressed.
Such a half-assed approach only fuels the fire of his critics, and a lot of Spinner—save the tracks obviously overdubbed with bass and drums by Wobble—does seem as if the music is being created with zero human input. Still, tracks like “Where We Lived” and “Like Organza” will inspire comparisons to Apollo, while “Garden Recalled” previews parts of Radiohead’s Kid A. While the album has too much in the way of rhythm to be considered truly ambient, it’s also too easy to ignore.

Several minutes into Spinner’s final track, the music goes silent, emerging several minutes after that with a spooky, spacey piece based around rhythm box and a couple of electric pianos. This would emerge even longer as “Iced World” at the end of Eno’s next album. He described The Drop variously as jazz played by aliens, music that “nobody asked for,” or “music that nobody wants to listen to,” which of course begs the question why we should.
This time he apparently added the rhythms all by himself, and spread them about a variety of shortish pieces that, again, are just there, with the possible exception of “Swanky”, which at least sonically resembles its title. Much of the album is rather generic sounding, although “Dear World” does weave his droning voice into the mix. (The expanded reissue shortened “Iced World” by several minutes so it would fit on vinyl, and added two tracks from an earlier Japanese release, both of which were also included in the digital version. Meanwhile, the CD was augmented by a disc containing music from one of his art installations of the time.)

Eno/Wobble Spinner (1995)—
Brian Eno
The Drop (1997)—2
2014 expanded edition: same as 1997, plus 9 extra tracks

Friday, April 12, 2019

Joni Mitchell 20: Both Sides Now

Believe it or else, at one time it wasn’t so common for performers of the rock era to record albums of standards from the pre-rock era. Not that Joni Mitchell was considered rock, but here was one of the preeminent songwriters of the century tackling “moon-June” lyrics. Plus, all those cigarettes hadn’t been kind to her range, so surely this would be a tough listen. Comparisons to Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin—recorded after her own voice had been racked to a rasp, a year before her death—weren’t exactly flattering.
However, such knee-jerk reactions aren’t fair, because Both Sides Now is just fine, taken for what it is. As advertised, these are lush arrangements of songs, most of them older than Joni herself, already done by just about anybody who crooned in front of a microphone. Save a Gordon Jenkins chart for “Stormy Weather”, all the arrangements come from young Vince Mendoza, who’s been quite busy since then. Other soloists include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Mark Isham.
The order of the tunes is supposed to follow the arc of a romance, from excited beginning through crushing defeat to the bruised but determined aftermath, whereupon the cycle starts again. Working with longtime co-producer and onetime spouse Larry Klein, it’s tempting to imagine the daggers thrown from microphone to control room. (As per usual, the package includes several of her paintings and self-portraits; a limited edition included some of these as lithograph packaged in a hat box.)
The most striking tracks would be the two remakes of their own songs, both given the same lush treatment as the rest of the tunes, but so shocking when one is so accustomed to the high soprano of three decades before. “A Case Of You” fits very well halfway through the program, but it’s the title track that truly takes on a different meaning out of the mouth of a woman of experience as opposed to a jaded twentysomething. The song was already melancholy, but now, given the years in between, it’s so much more poignant (particularly at “now old friends, they’re acting strange/and they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed”).
If Both Sides Now had been released by, say, Lady Gaga if she was around then, or Diana Krall, or another modern singer with a smoky voice, it would have been hailed as perfect, essential, dazzling. Get over the fact that Joni will never again hit those high notes, and marvel at how her evolved range wraps around these songs. Even we were skeptical at first, and are now ashamed at our callousness. This really is a special album for late nights, rainy days, and lots of wine.

Joni Mitchell Both Sides Now (2000)—

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Jerry Garcia 2: Live At Keystone

While you might not think so once considering the evidence of thousands of shared tapes and hundreds of archival CDs, the Grateful Dead did not tour year-round. They actually took the occasional break, and not just to record albums. Jerry Garcia’s best solution for keeping busy during that downtime was merely to play music with other people. Which, of course led to further album releases, as well as shared tapes and archival CDs.
One of his favorite players was Merl Saunders, a Bay Area keyboard player, and when his band (plus Jerry) played a couple nights at Berkeley’s Keystone nightclub, tapes rolled, and a double live album was duly released by Fantasy Records, to which Saunders was signed. Outside of one funky Saunders original (which has gone under numerous titles over the years but usually called “Keepers”) and a freeform group jam, Live At Keystone consists of mildly jazzy extended covers, from “The Harder They Come” to an 18-minute exploration on “My Funny Valentine”. Jerry’s fascination with Bob Dylan shows in versions of “Positively 4th Street” and “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, both slowed down to a crawl. One of the longest and slowest tracks is “Like A Road Leading Home”, written by Don Nix and Dan Penn, and first recorded by Albert King. It’s also absolutely gorgeous. “That’s All Right Mama” thankfully picks up the pace, and we’ll go on a limb to suggest that some of Saunders’ organ runs throughout the album will have one remembering Pigpen in his prime; the clavinet, not so much.
Due to Jerry’s distinctive voice and fretwork, the album fits with the larger Dead picture, and Fantasy Records has taken full advantage of that. Fifteen years later, once the Dead had become bigger than ever, the label cashed in by issuing Live At Keystone on two separate CDs, each sporting a previously unreleased performance from the original shows. That was joined by Keystone Encores, which offered another hour of music, including the Motown classics “I Second That Emotion” and “How Sweet It Is”. (It was also released as two separate LPs, each with one of the “new” performances added to the main Keystone CDs. Lost yet?) Finally, 2012’s Keystone Companions packed every note from the shows onto four CDs, in order of performance; roughly an hour’s worth of music had not been released several times already, or even once. Also, “Space” from the original LP, while not listed as part of the box, is revealed to be an excerpt from one of the performances of “Merl’s Tune”. (For further research, the sixth installment in the ongoing Garcia Live series presents a three-hour show from a few days before the Keystone run, including further covers like “After Midnight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, and a trumpet player during the second set, whose name has been lost to the mists of time. Also, Saunders’ own studio albums often included Jerry somewhere; the Well-Matched best-of presents a sampler of these, as well as music from the Keystone shows.)

Merl Saunders, Jerry Garcia, John Kahn, Paul Vitt Live At Keystone (1973)—3
1988 CD: same as 1973, plus 2 extra tracks
Merl Saunders, Jerry Garcia, John Kahn, Paul Vitt Keystone Encores (1988)—3

Friday, April 5, 2019

Phil Collins 4: But Seriously

Considering the man’s ubiquity through the ‘80s—a time where he himself says “even I was sick of hearing me everywhere”—there would be no question that the next Phil Collins solo album would be a smash hit. First, though, there was a detour in the form of his first starring role in a major motion picture. Buster is best remembered today by two songs from the soundtrack album: the Motown hybrid “Two Hearts”, written with Lamont Dozier and celebrated with yet another video wherein he appears as every member of a band, and his gorgeous rearrangement of “A Groovy Kind Of Love”.
Like all international superstars, he was very concerned about the state of the world in 1989, and the lyrics on …But Seriously were designed to reflect that, if subtly. An upbeat yet odd start, “Hang In Long Enough” has a blast of horns, but sticks too uncomfortably close to “1999” to sound original. A familiar drum machine and keyboard meld brings in “That’s Just The Way It Is”, which features a harmony from new buddy David Crosby; presumably Phil was the only guy on the planet who hadn’t heard Bruce Hornsby’s song from a couple years before, though the bagpipes at the end are a nice touch. “Do You Remember” was made to be a hit single, and it was, but sounded better when it was called “Groovy Kind Of Love”. Normally we wouldn’t get too excited about “Something Happened On The Way To Heaven”, but that fantastic game-show fanfare that appears at the top and in the middle? POW! “Colours” sadly decries apartheid for the first three minutes, then transitions into a promising jazz instrumental before going back to a more Genesis sound (plus horns) for another six. As a respite, “I Wish It Would Rain Down” is best known for spotlighting Eric Clapton’s guitar work; he also appeared in the elaborate video alongside the rest of the band and Jeffrey Tambor. (That canned keyboard sound dominates the rest of the mix today.)
“Another Day In Paradise” was the first single, and now we hear the song’s structural similarity to “Man On The Corner”; at the time the big deal was made about David Crosby singing on it, and it won a Grammy for Record of the Year. With a faster version of the same chorus, “Heat On The Street” is a bouncy Motown-like tune in defense of “the kids”. “All Of My Life” reeks of Stephen Bishop’s influence, particularly on the “Tootsie”-like verse; if you listen closely you can hear Steve Winwood on organ, and that’s not Clapton, but Sting regular Dominic Miller on the leads guitar. The furious instrumental “Saturday Night And Sunday Morning” provides some late variety, but is over before it can really make an impact, and seems strange to stick before “Father To Son”, a pleasant paternal chat. While it begins very much like “Take Me Home”, “Find A Way To My Heart” recycles the horn hits we’ve heard for the previous hour to end up in a different place.
While it’s simply too damn long, and too many songs sound alike, the album sold a bazillion copies worldwide, thanks in part to all the hit singles and the subsequent world tour, which was commemorated by 1990’s Serious Hits… Live! album and concert video. Typical of the “Take A Look At Me Now” reissue campaign, …But Seriously’s bonus disc (labeled Extra Seriously, ho ho) mixes performances from that tour with others from later tours, along with a few B-sides and demos.

Phil Collins …But Seriously (1989)—
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1989, plus 13 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Jeff Beck 8: With The Jan Hammer Group Live

This album has been much maligned over the years, likely because it was (at the time of release, anyway) the furthest out Jeff Beck had gone from what people expected of him. While it’s his picture on the cover, since he made the money for the label, Live is double-billed with the Jan Hammer Group, who at this time consisted of all former members of fusion pioneers Mahavishnu Orchestra. Hammer himself had made his impression on Beck all over Wired, while the rhythm section of Fernando Saunders and Tony “Thunder” Smith would one day make Lou Reed very happy. Without question, this is a fusion album, and a true collaboration, Beck’s role being that of the guitarist in the band. Therefore, half the program is given over to material from earlier Hammer albums.
Car horn sound effects not only set up “Freeway Jam”, but recur throughout—a novelty when guitars and synths didn’t commonly make those noises with ease, but mostly annoying today. “Earth (Still Our Only Home)” is funky, but Hammer’s not a vocalist, and the lyrics are unintelligible. Beck takes over the vocoder for “She’s A Woman”, and soon ends up parroting some of Peter Frampton’s clichés from his own live album from the year before. He even exhorts the crowd to “put those hands together” for “Full Moon Boogie”, sung well by Tony Smith with lots of electric violin from Steve Kindler.
Side two has no vocals, thankfully. Crazy space noises open “Darkness/Earth In Search Of A Sun”, moving into a more ambitious groove. “Scatterbrain” translates well to the stage, with the orchestral parts covered by Hammer and Kindler, while the rhythm section travels at the speed of light. “Blue Wind” is an excellent display of precision, and takes a surprising yet apt detour into “Train Kept A-Rollin’”, proving he still had rock in him. And with a “God bless, ya,” they’re gone.
Assuming they’re authentic from the performances, the crowd dug the show, as will anyone into jazz fusion. Therefore it’s recommended, but you’ve been warned.

Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group Live (1977)—3

Friday, March 29, 2019

Mary Hopkin 2: Earth Song/Ocean Song

Apple Records was still a going concern that had acts outside of various sparring ex-Beatles, and despite Paul McCartney taking zero interest in what was originally his baby, some of those acts ably carried on. After releasing some singles produced by hitmaker Mickie Most, Mary Hopkin ended up working with Tony Visconti, best known at the time for his work with T.Rex and David Bowie. (She didn’t just work with him; they got married, and that’s why her striking vocal cameo on Bowie’s “Sound And Vision” is credited to Mary Visconti.)
She didn’t like the image Paul concocted for her first album, so for Earth Song/Ocean Song Mary was determined to express her own tastes. Caught up in the English folk scene, she recruited Ralph McTell on acoustic guitar, along with Dave Cousins of the Strawbs on guitar, and Danny Thompson of Pentangle on standup bass, and hand-picked songs both familiar and unrecorded by the likes of McTell, Tom Paxton, and Cat Stevens. With more restrained string arrangements than those on Post Card, the result fits alongside contemporary albums by Nick Drake, and even dare we say the chamber elements of Nico’s Chelsea Girl.
That chamber sound is prominent on “International”, sometimes overshadowing the gently picked guitars but never her voice. “There’s Got To Be More” is an immediate improvement, with strident acoustics, that terrific Danny Thompson bass, and a defiant message in her delivery. There’s a gentle switch to “Silver Birch And Weeping Willow”, dominated by a Kingston Trio-style banjo, before “How Come The Sun” gets an excellent Visconti arrangement, and even phases the vocals on the middle section! The title track (the first half, anyway) rolls along like a leaf in the a breeze, eventually landing on the ground.
With a harsh acoustic guitar thrashing unresolved chords, “Martha” fades in side two with a portrait of a neighborhood gossip justifiably ostracized by the community, which of course only compounds the problem. Skittering strings add to the unsettledness. Ralph McTell’s “Streets Of London” is legendary in the UK, and of course Mary’s take is as lovely as any. Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” is probably the most familiar song to Americans, but the arrangement is at first too literal, and then distracts from the simplicity of the original. “Water, Paper And Clay” redeems it, starting with just her lovely voice and building slowly to a pub anthem. “Ocean Song” completes the album, the same chords as “Earth Song” with different words and extended fade for an artful finale.
Mary was proudest of this album, and felt justified to leave the pop circus after its release. Without any real promotion, Earth Song/Ocean Song became easily forgotten until the ‘90s, when Apple finally started their non-Beatle reissue campaign. The initial CD release had no bonus tracks, but the 2010 version added both sides of a contemporary single (the overwrought “Let My Name Be Sorrow” and Ralph McTell’s more staid “Kew Gardens”) along with “When I Am Old One Day”, an outtake from the original LP first heard on a mid-‘90s compilation. (Another B-side, the mildly jaunty “Jefferson”, was included only in the digital download, alongside “Let My Name Be Sorrow” in French and, believe it or not, Japanese.)

Mary Hopkin Earth Song/Ocean Song (1971)—3
2010 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

David Crosby 3: Thousand Roads

Only four years after his second solo album, David Crosby appeared with a third installment. Could he really have written an album’s worth of songs in that time?
Unfortunately, as Thousand Roads proved, the answer was a big fat no. Not that it bothered him; he was happy to restrict himself to vocals, not even touching the guitar, and contributed exactly one solo composition in addition to two high-profile co-writes. The obvious selling point was the first single, “Hero”, not only written with Phil Collins but featuring him prominently on vocals. “Yvette In English” is a collaboration with Joni Mitchell, who would release her own version a year later; Crosby’s is laid-back, and a high point. The title track also has promise, something of a dirty blues with minimal drums and electric and acoustic dueling from Andy Fairweather-Low and Bernie Leadon respectively.
Every other song was written by somebody else, all strictly in the adult contemporary mode, yet with sensitive hippie ideals and themes close to his heart. “Too Young To Die” comes from Jimmy Webb, of all people, and is about driving fast, as opposed to Stephen Bishop’s closing tearjerker “Natalie”, about an OD victim. Marc Cohn and John Hiatt, both decent writers whose commercial high points were already behind them, are featured in the first half, and the genre’s favorite unknown songwriter, Paul Brady, gets a spot in the second half, as does a writer who’d recently given a couple of hits to Bonnie Raitt.
Throughout the album, Graham Nash pops up to harmonize with his buddy, and help remind the listener who’s album it is. Anyone looking for a pleasant MOR album for upscale suburban afternoon will enjoy it, but coming from the legacy of David Crosby, even considering CSN’s lightweight tendencies, Thousand Roads is a dead end. (Yeah, we said it.)
Amazingly, his brief promotional tour for the album highlighted two new original songs, both of which appeared on It’s All Coming Back To Me Now…, an entertaining document of a night at the Whisky A Go Go. “Rusty & Blue” is a decent meditation with nice atmospherics by Jeff Pevar, while “Till It Shines On You” would get a full CSN treatment soon enough. Lengthy explorations on tunes from the ‘60s and ‘70s fill out the package, and not only does Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes come out to mewl on “Almost Cut My Hair”, good ol’ Graham Nash shows up for that extra bit of excitement. (The album title mystifies, as it’s likely Crosby hadn’t heard the song that Celine Dion would scream to the top of the charts in a few years’ time.)

David Crosby Thousand Roads (1993)—2
David Crosby
It’s All Coming Back To Me Now… (1995)—3

Friday, March 22, 2019

Paul Simon 11: The Rhythm Of The Saints

After Graceland had paid off so handsomely, the world wondered what Paul Simon could possibly do to better it, much less equal it. While he didn’t go back to the South African well, The Rhythm Of The Saints did explore third-world rhythms and sounds, predominantly from Brazil, to inspire his words, with varying results.
“The Obvious Child” is based around Brazilian parade drums, but could easily stand on its own without all that. If anything, the drums mask the similarity in the first verse to his delivery in “You Can Call Me Al”. A snaky melody with subtle percussion underpins “Can’t Run But”, which manages to be hypnotic considering he limits his own vocals to about three notes. “The Coast” has a nice loping rhythm along the lines of “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”, and even gives co-writing credit to guitarist Vincent Nguini. Similarly we hear echoes of “Under African Skies” in “Proof” with horn parts that would be mimicked by Chevy Chase and Steve Martin in a video that didn’t help to sell the album any. The most haunting track is “Further To Fly”, with its complicated masked meter and lyrics that seem to address the search for love as well as a fear of aging and death.
The aftermath of the search is explored in “She Moves On”, which now sounds very similar to a Talking Heads rhythm from around the same time. “Born At The Right Time” stays in the same tempo but presents a more upbeat tale, complete with a singalong chorus and a hint of accordion. “The Cool, Cool River” is an ambitious track, starting with a complicated rhythm and almost forboding melody, stopping off at slightly dreamier interludes, and best of all, a few decisive horn blasts for the final run. Milton Nascimento co-wrote “Spirit Voices” and adds some of his own, but by now the basic tempo has become generic, Simon’s phrasing almost arbitrary, just as the title track mostly dribbles to a fade.
The Rhythm Of The Saints wasn’t a hit on the Graceland level—how could it be?—but people liked it and bought it. It also hasn’t had the legs its predecessor had, as the weaknesses only become more pronounced as the decades roll by. Throughout the album, he sings in a gentle tone, which is fine, but with few exceptions doesn’t help each of the songs stand out from each other.
According to Wikipedia, citing a magazine article we’ve yet to find or confirm, the album had an different sequence before the label insisted on opening with “The Obvious Child”, rather than having it at the top of side two (despite that being where “You Can Call Me Al” happened to sit). The original sequence basically flips the sides, but doesn’t present any more dynamic an effect. (The expanded CD helps widen the picture, with a very nice acoustic demo of “Born At The Right Time” and “Thelma”, a great pop song left out in the first place, likely because it’s so direct compared to the other lyrics.)

Paul Simon The Rhythm Of The Saints (1990)—3
2004 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Van Morrison 36: Pay The Devil

Oh great, another year, another Van Morrison album, another label, another… what the?! This sounds like old-time country and western!
And that’s exactly the deal. Pay The Devil is loaded with fiddle, pedal steel, two-step drums, Floyd Cramer-style piano, and lovelorn tunes from the honky tonk. Most of the songs are covers from the pre-rock era, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” being the most familiar one; the main exception is “Till I Gain Control Again”, written in the ‘70s by Rodney Crowell, and previously done by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, and Willie Nelson.
His own songs aren’t much to get excited about. The title track is another one of his “how dare you judge me” songs, but at least he doesn’t rant about the copycats in the business this time. “Playhouse” is a country blues that mentions the British monetary system but otherwise repeats the usual clichés. “This Has Got To Stop” reads like a parody, with its burned down houses and castles in the sand, rhyming “understand” with “Newfoundland”, and lines like “I watched you watching me as I watched you walk away from me.” His voice is still his best instrument, and even with all the trimmings, he delivers everything like it’s jazz or soul.
Pay The Devil is a nice change of pace from his other interchangeable releases of late. But if you want to hear Van sing country, you’re better off going back to Tupelo Honey.

Van Morrison Pay The Devil (2006)—3

Friday, March 15, 2019

Mott The Hoople 8: Live

Ian Hunter’s final run with Mott The Hoople was celebrated somewhat with a live album covering two continents. Side one of Live was recorded at Broadway’s relatively new Uris Theater (fun fact: the opening act was Queen) a few years before Barry Manilow’s residency, while side two was captured a few months earlier at the Hammersmith Odeon. Even in these locales, the band is still fairly sloppy, even if they weren’t the same five guys from five years before.
In 1974, live albums were usually designed as hits collections, and outside of “All The Way From Memphis” and “All The Young Dudes”, this one doesn’t approach that model. Things slow down big time on “Rest In Peace” and “Rose”, both only known from B-sides. They also stomp through “Walkin’ With A Mountain” and “Sweet Angeline” from the early days—the latter with an extended survey of the “slags” in the audience—and a cacophonous medley springing from “Jerkin’ Crocus” and “Rock & Roll Queen”, stopping off at “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Get Back” (lyrics not even close) on the way to “Violence”.
The original LP only had room for excerpts from the shows, which the eventual 30th Anniversary Edition attempted to rectify by expanding each album side to a full CD and with the tracks presented in the sequence performed. Both begin with the grandiose “Jupiter” from Holst’s Planets; the Broadway half then starts with a verse from “American Pie” before “The Golden Age Of Rock ‘N’ Roll”. While recorded only five months apart, there’s only the mildest overlap between the halves, so it’s hardly repetitive. That said, the longer “Walking With A Mountain” on the London disc is devoted mostly to Ariel Bender’s fretwork, which occasionally resembles Jimmy Page at his clumsiest.

Mott The Hoople Live (1974)—3
2004 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1974, plus 13 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Tom Petty 22: The Best Of Everything

An American Treasure nicely presented another side of Tom Petty’s well-traveled catalog, so the announcement of a comprehensive double-disc collection with two “new” songs so soon after seemed a tad crass. While the MCA portion of his history had already been anthologized on a single CD, as well as a double and even in a box set, this would be the first time anything from Wildflowers on had been compiled in any way. Thankfully, the powers that be gave the new box time to be appreciated, and delayed The Best Of Everything till the following spring.
Rather than running strictly chronologically, the sequence jumps from year to year to prove it’s all part of the same soup. It repeats everything from the 1993 hits collection, with the exception of “Something In The Air”, adding only “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Stevie Nicks (which replaced it on later versions of the set) and “Southern Accents”. (Were it up to us, we’d’ve tried to squeeze in “A Woman In Love” and “Change Of Heart”.)
As for the Warner years, every studio album is covered, including his solo outings and both Mudcrutch albums. Wildflowers offers three tracks, though there could easily be more, and She’s The One is well represented by the hit version of “Walls” and the quieter “Angel Dream”. “Room At The Top” is the best choice from Echo, as is “Dreamville” from The Last DJ; that title track is a given. “I Should Have Known It” is the obvious go-to from Mojo, but two from Highway Companion is pushing it. “American Dream Plan B” is here because something had to come from Hypnotic Eye, especially since three songs—all good—come from the second Mudcrutch album, and just one from the first.
The two new tracks aren’t exactly buried treasure. The “title track”, which had already appeared in an alternate mix on An American Treasure, ends the first disc in a version that includes a second verse chopped out before making it to Southern Accents. The second disc closes with “For Real”, something of a statement of purpose that ties in with the music business themes of The Last DJ, which is roughly when it was written. Oddly enough, it was recorded during sessions to add a song to his previous double-CD anthology…
Overall, The Best Of Everything delivers what it promises. While the so-called second half of his career may not have been as prolific or gifted as the hungry years, hearing some of those songs in this context does them a big favor, just as hearing the earlier stuff in something other than the usual order breathes life into them as well. And for that it’s recommended, especially for those who’ve held out on getting a Petty collection until now.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers The Best Of Everything (2019)—4

Friday, March 8, 2019

Roxy Music 2: For Your Pleasure

Even when you’re trying to stand out from a multicolored crowd, it’s important not to shake things up too much. Bryan Ferry knew that, so most of the elements that made Roxy Music’s debut so startling are still in place on For Your Pleasure, right down to the model on the cover and the band’s own poses in the gatefold.
A terrific opener, “Do The Strand” exhorts the listener to try the latest dance craze for a variety of bizarre reasons, the most compelling being that “rhododendron is a nice flower.” If you think “Beauty Queen” has a menacing undercurrent, you ain’t heard nothing yet, especially since it evens out once the song proper starts. Plus, that cool double-time section is lotsa fun (cute reference to “sea breezes” too). “Strictly Confidential” also seesaws between drama and lilting falsetto, dragging things somewhat. Luckily, “Editions Of You” revives the better moments of the first album, ponding away at the riff with Eno finally getting a chance to unleash his beeps and whoops. It provides something of a sorbet before the debauched horror of “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”, wherein the ladies’ man expresses his devotion to vinyl. It’s worth sticking around once Phil Manzanera lets loose on guitar, even through the fake fade. (The subject was tackled with a little more humor a few years on by the Police.)
Eno has more room to wander on “The Bogus Man”, a nine-minute groove on one note that still manages to stay interesting due to everybody’s input. Once that sputters away, “Gray Lagoons” sounds almost carefree, reviving some ‘50s elements and even breaking down for a harmonica solo. The title track brings the mood back to dark, first taking its sweet time to get rolling, then wandering around the piano for far too long to the end, culminating in Mellotron and Judi Dench.
For Your Pleasure has to compete with the first album, and while it’s not as striking, it’s still worthwhile. We want to like it, if that helps. Eno’s own opinion was clear when he said “tarah tarah” to the band for his own feathered path, yet the others would soldier on.

Roxy Music For Your Pleasure (1973)—3

Friday, March 1, 2019

World Party 6: Arkeology

Five albums in fifteen years isn’t such a big deal these days, but Karl Wallinger loved, loved, loved to record, so he amassed a whole pile of things likely never to be heard outside his own speakers. But once the Internet made it easier for people to distribute their work directly, he did just that, but with a twist. Arkeology presented five hours’ worth of mostly unreleased World Party material on five discs, packaged in a spiral-bound daily planner.
While much of his studio work was one-man-band, he did rely on a few hired guns, especially for live work. In fact, the songs most people would have heard appear that way, sometimes twice. (Anyone seeking a more concise compilation with the actual hits can opt for 2007’s Best In Show, also released on his own label.) We also notice that for a guy trained on piano, he plays a decent guitar for a southpaw holding it upside and backwards.
The music isn’t organized thematically or chronologically, and we’re not going to discuss every track here, but there are some amazing gems hidden throughout. Right off the bat “Waiting Such A Long Long Time”, “Nothing Lasts Forever”, and “Everybody’s Falling In Love” are catchy tracks that would have been welcome on any album. Add other nice surprises like “No More Crying”, “Basically”, the mildly Kinky “All The Love That’s Wasted” (which sounds better here than on Dumbing Up), “Lost In Infinity”, “Another World”, and “Mystery Girl” (heard in two versions here) and there’s a solid single album right there. One of the better tracks is “Time On My Hands”, a Bang! B-side written by occasional guitarist (and professional McCartney impersonator) Dave Catlin-Birch. “Kuwait City” is also revived from its hiding place on Bang!.
Influences abound, from the note-for-note remakes of three White Album tracks, Little Richard’s “Lucille”, and Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You”. Sly and the Family Stone’s “Stand!” is a good live cover, but there’s no need for anyone else to play “Like A Rolling Stone”. Just to prove his versatility and capacity for silliness, you can tap your toes along with the British music hall of “The Good Old Human Race”, “You’re Beautiful But Get Out Of My Life”, and snippets like, well, “Silly Song”.
They can’t all be perfect, as demonstrated by the overlong “Everybody Dance Now” leading into a too-short Brian Wilson inference called “Closer Still”. “This Is Your World Speaking” tries to be an anthem of universal togetherness, but at nine minutes it’s what happens when one works alone. “Break Me Again” could easily be whittled down to a third of the length, while unfinished ideas like “New Light” are just begging to be enhanced. The instrumental “Outro” has us wishing we could hear the rest of the tune. There’s a lot in here too explore, and its bulk is what holds Arkeology back.

World Party Arkeology (2012)—3

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Toad The Wet Sprocket 7: P.S.

Thanks to dwindling sales and the requisite “musical differences”, Toad The Wet Sprocket dribbled to a close by the end of the century. The business being what it was, the label okayed a hits collection, which by law required the inclusion of exclusive material.
P.S. (A Toad Retrospective) is not only a fitting title, but it also happens to be the name of a song yet to be included on an album—until now! Apparently one of the first tunes they wrote, it was recorded specially for the set but without lead guitarist Todd Nichols, who also doesn’t appear on “Eyes Wide Open”, the other new track. In between, the set runs through all the usual hits and radio favorites from all six albums, mostly staying uptempo until “I Will Not Take These Things For Granted”, which always sounds odd in the middle of a sequence instead of at the end of one. To make things further interesting, several of the tracks appear in edited or remixed versions, but as that’s how most of them ended up on the radio or in music videos, the differences aren’t exactly striking. “Silo Tornado”, a strings-heavy bonus from the Japanese version of Coil closes the set; fans still have to hold onto other CDs for their versions of “Instant Karma”, “Hey Bulldog”, and particularly “Rock & Roll All Night”, which might be the greatest Kiss cover ever recorded.
A decade later, two other compilations appeared as part of Sony’s budget Super Hits and Playlist series. The former runs 33 minutes and leans heavily on Dulcinea album tracks, while the latter purports to be the band’s “very best” and sticks closer to P.S., but substitutes a couple of live versions from 2004’s Welcome Home, which documents a 1992 concert. That’s worth getting on its own, as the band plays a well-sequenced set, complete with vocal asides to George Harrison, the Replacements, and the Waterboys. An onstage keyboard player adds color, and altogether there’s a toughness and tightness given to the early material. There’s even pre-release takes on “Brother” and “Fall Down”.
Those aforementioned musical differences didn’t preclude the occasional reunion gig, and after a decade or so of working separately to little widespread notice outside the fervent, they reconvened to record new versions of several songs from their catalog. This is a common trend among bands whose work is owned by a label no longer interested in paying them, so they can hawk recordings they do own at hefty licensing fees to raise income. All You Want would likely fool anyone not paying close attention into thinking these were the originals. Musically it’s fine; as a product it’s inessential.

Toad The Wet Sprocket P.S. (A Toad Retrospective) (1999)—4
Toad The Wet Sprocket
Welcome Home: Live At The Arlington Theater, Santa Barbara 1992 (2004)—
Toad The Wet Sprocket
Super Hits (2008)—3
Toad The Wet Sprocket
Playlist: The Very Best Of Toad The Wet Sprocket (2009)—
Toad The Wet Sprocket
All You Want (2011)—3

Friday, February 22, 2019

Talking Heads 5: The Name Of This Band

After a pretty busy couple of years, David Byrne was delving further into art-rock on his own, and the Talking Heads rhythm section made an album under the guise of Tom Tom Club, which would prove one day to be more lucrative for them than anything they did in the band. Even Jerry Harrison did a solo album.
Fearing group inactivity for who knew how long, the label smartly issued a double-live album with a twist. The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads spanned their career to date, beginning with a radio broadcast from 1977 on side one (likely not in the living room setting shown on the front cover, sadly), then moving to a larger-capacity theater in 1979 on side two. The other two sides dip into shows from the tour supporting Remain In Light, wherein they recruited extra musicians, some of whom were already known, to translate their evolved sound: Adrian Belew on guitar, Bernie Worrell on keyboards, Steve Scales on percussion, “Busta Cherry” Jones on bass, and backup singers Nona Hendryx and Dolette McDonald.
Despite the difference in sound between the eras, the album is sequenced in such a way that it flows. Of course, it helps that David Byrne’s goofy delivery is up front and center. As a historical document it works, being the first LP appearance of “Love → Buildings On Fire”, as well as offering pre-release versions of “Air” and “Memories Can’t Wait”, plus the otherwise unavailable “A Clean Break”; cassette buyers got a bonus in the form of “Cities”. It also served as a hits overview, with such favorites as “Psycho Killer”, “Life During Wartime”, and “Take Me To The River”, scattered throughout, in familiar arrangements. (Note: this is called foreshadowing. All will be revealed in time.)
For some reason, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads was unavailable on CD for two decades, despite being able to fit onto a single disc. So it’s to their credit that when it did appear, it was doubled in length, bolstering both eras for a double-CD set packed to the gills.
An early version of “Drugs” appears in the first half, amidst some tracks taken from a promotional LP of a different radio broadcast and other sources, but what were sides one and two appear in sequence within themselves. To make the most of the later stuff, the same shows were mined, but now all the songs appear in an order to approximate the actual setlist, as well as preserve the flow. A couple of songs are repeated in this half, and the first tentative minute of “Crosseyed And Painless” is chopped off, going straight to the familiar groove, but sacrifices had to be made. Throughout, it’s clear—these guys were tight.

Talking Heads The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (1982)—
2004 expanded reissue: same as 1982, plus 16 extra tracks

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Rod Stewart 5: Sing It Again Rod

Mercury Records was in the midst of its longest drought between Rod Stewart albums, so they made the obvious move of compiling a stopgap. In packaging designed to resemble a very large whiskey glass, Sing It Again Rod was not immediately obvious as a collection of tracks from his previous albums; the inner sleeve even sported photos of Rod posing and preening onstage.
But as they were limited to the albums he did for them, that meant they couldn’t touch anything by the Faces, or even the first two Jeff Beck albums. Still, they had plenty to choose from, going with all of side two of Every Picture Tells A Story, three from the previous year’s Never A Dull Moment, plus two each from the others. While the sequencing is a little odd, the obvious choices are here, but the only rarity is his version of “Pinball Wizard” from the all-star orchestral remake of the Who’s Tommy. Somebody thought “Lost Paraguayos” was preferable to rather than add a B-side, or even the “Oh! No Not My Baby” single that came out a few months later. (These would have to wait until he jumped labels and started selling even more records, with the first of two double albums that regurgitated about two thirds of the material he’d left them.)
As a sampler, Sing It Again Rod does the trick, and makes a fine listen. But those who care to dig deeper should just go ahead and get the originals; somebody else would do a much better cover of “Pinball Wizard” in a couple of years anyway.

Rod Stewart Sing It Again Rod (1973)—

Friday, February 15, 2019

Elton John 9: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Having recorded several solid albums in a span of time where most artists would be lucky to record even one, it is still astounding that Elton John (and his band, plus lyricist Bernie Taupin and producer Gus Dudgeon) could maintain the pace with a double album. Yet they did; Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is four sides’ worth of catchy tunes, just as one would hope for, covering a variety of styles but all sounding like Elton John. The packaging was pretty classy too, from the clever cover painting to the lyrics and illustrations on the triptych interior.
The daring “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” suite makes it clear this will not be a simple pop album. Within a few minutes the majestic first half goes from gothic to baroque to opera, all with just a synthesizer (courtesy of engineer David Hentschel, just years away from producing Genesis), piano, and phenomenal guitar. It’s a seamless segue to the rocking second half, where we finally hear vocals, and plenty of them. After eleven minutes it gallops away, destroying towns and villages in its wake. For a complete left turn, “Candle In The Wind” would have remained a simple elegy for Marilyn Monroe, at the time barely dead a decade, but a generation later the song was revised to memorialize a certain princess. These days we’d rather skip to the stomping “Bennie And The Jets”, a terrific snapshot of the glam era, complete with whistling crowds over major seventh chords and slapback echo. And that’s one hell of an album side.
Side two keeps the quality high, starting with the pretty title track and its soaring choruses. “This Song Has No Title” is mostly solo, with just keyboards and vocals, and seems to hearken back to his earlier albums. What’s more, it’s followed by a vibrant reading of the three-year-old B-side “Grey Seal”, which is instantly elevated from curio to classic. “Jamaica Jerk-Off” is the first real clunker here, a genre experiment about as inspired as its title. One of Axl Rose’s favorites, “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is an improvement, although hindsight shows it’s a precursor to a later hit. It’s a downer to end the side, but there’s two more to go.
Side three is a sneaky sequence, starting almost sweetly, but soon the nasty underbelly of the characters surfaces. The wistful “Sweet Painted Lady” reminds us of The Band, with whom we know Elton was familiar, and Willis Alan Ramsay, of whom he may not have been. The seagulls at the end make an odd transition to “The Ballad Of Danny Bailey” subtitled by the years of a bootlegger’s lifespan. The lyrics are okay, but we gotta admit “the harvest is in” is a clever substitute for “you reap what you sow”, and the extended coda takes the song to a higher level. “Dirty Little Girl” is just plain nasty in an almost funny way, even reflecting the end of “Bennie And The Jets” over the fade. But the tone turns once you’re familiar with “All The Girls Love Alice”, a downright frightening tune about a doomed teenager used up like a dirty little girl.
After all that, side four is comparatively fluffy. “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘N Roll)” sports a cheesy organ part and a roller-rink detour through Palisades Park that Bruce Springsteen would one day take to heart. It pales next to “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, which out and out rocks. We go back to Hollywood for a tribute to “Roy Rogers”, as if one cinematic icon wasn’t enough, and “Social Disease” continues the Western theme, at least until the saxophone comes in. But then the complicated chord voicings in “Harmony” make a strong case for sticking it out to the end. It might be our absolute favorite Elton song of all.
Many people we respect say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is his best album, and it is very good, but we can find tracks that would have made better B-sides, than filling out a double LP. Unrelated but still pertinent, its length resulted in its being reissued a number of times in the digital era, first as two CDs, then everything crammed onto one. The 30th anniversary version spread it across two discs again, but added the three B-sides from the album’s singles (which had already been on the expanded Don't Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player) plus a remix of “Candle In The Wind” reduced to vocals and acoustic guitar. (This lineup was also released in a set including a DVD with the recent “Classic Albums” documentary.)
Ten years later, another anniversary edition appeared in several sizes. The standard two-disc had the original album on one, with the other split between modern covers of nine of the album’s songs and shuffled “highlights” from a 1973 concert. The super deluxe book-style version included the entire concert on two discs of their own, with the modern covers augmented by the previous edition’s bonus tracks, both sides of his “Step Into Christmas” single, two earlier versions of “Grey Seal” and, for some reason, “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Pinball Wizard” from the following year—all of which were already available on other expansions and compilations. And a DVD presenting a edit of a 1973 documentary about the album.

Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)—4
2003 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1973, plus 4 extra tracks
2013 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1973, plus 18 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 18 plus DVD)