Friday, November 8, 2019

Frank Zappa 39: Thing-Fish

Over a period of three months, Frank released four distinct albums, each unique and challenging in its own way. Outside of Them Or Us, none could really be called a rock album, and the two instrumental releases would take some getting used to. But Thing-Fish would divide listeners most of all.
This was not the first musical Frank had envisioned, but of all his earlier grand designs, this came closest to realization. It was a bold idea: at a time when AIDS was barely beginning to register on the mainstream public consciousness, Frank expanded his opinion that the disease was the result of a government-sponsored scientific experiment to the extent that in addition to making people very sick and killing them, the effects would also lead to mutations of cartoonish extremities based on ongoing stereotypes.
Of course, any idea worth doing is worth overdoing, so Frank took this scenario and packaged it as a three-record set purporting to be the original cast recording of the opus intended for the Broadway stage. The cover depicts the title character and narrator, whose name is based on a character from the Amos ‘n Andy radio and TV show, with an oversized potato-shaped head and cartoonish duck lips, in conversation with one of the chorus members, known as the Mammy Nuns, all of whom are described as dressed like Aunt Jemima from the syrup packaging of the same name. (Really, we’re not making this up.)
The plot begins, as all Broadway shows do, with Thing-Fish (voiced by Ike Willis) explaining how the experiments of the Evil Prince led to their current condition. The proceedings soon turn into a play-within-a-play, as a yuppie couple named Harry and Rhonda (played by Terry and Dale Bozzio, who’d left the Zappa fold to form Missing Persons) wander into the theater expecting something like Cats. Much like what happened when the Mothers of Invention had a theater residency in 1967, Harry and Rhonda are assimilated into the action and subjected to various psychological horrors. For example, we meet Harry-As-A-Boy (given a genuinely hilarious gee-whiz delivery by the second Bob Harris to play with Zappa), who explains that women’s liberation turned Harry gay, disguised by the yuppie drive to succeed at all costs. Meanwhile, Rhonda is shown to have evolved from an actual blow-up doll to a ruthless feminist businesswoman. Their inevitable disgust for and at each other culminates in side five’s “Briefcase Boogie”, wherein Rhonda has sexual congress with said object, described in full four-letter detail. (The Broadway show never happened, but a simple search online makes it relatively easy to find a pictorial from Hustler magazine that provides visuals. This is also absolutely true.)
Much of the music on Thing-Fish is obscured by dialog, but for the most part, the “songs” are previously released Zappa tracks given new context with the overlaid commentary (for example, “The ‘Torchum’ Never Stops” in an extended mix of the Zoot Allures track). “No Not Now” appears twice, once with new vocals by Ike, and again as the finale, played backwards with the new title “Won Ton On”. The music that isn’t recycled is mostly performed on the Synclavier, which also provides the computerized vocals by the Crab-Grass Baby, the horrifying offspring of Harry’s depraved televangelist father and, apparently, Rhonda in her inflatable incarnation. As for new “songs”, “He’s So Gay”, a twisted mélange of doo-wop and upbeat synth pop, would have fit perfectly on the other ‘80s “rock” albums. “Brown Moses” is supposed to be the commentary by that character (described as resembling Uncle Ben from the rice box), portrayed by Johnny “Guitar” Watson. “Wistful Wit A Fist-Full” is a stereotypically Broadway showcase for piano and voice, in this case delivered by the remorseful Evil Prince in the style of Al Jolson. (Also, there are zero guitar solos on any of the six sides.)
Much as with 200 Motels and Joe’s Garage, this is an angry album, full of black humor, blanket indictments, and uncomfortable truths. It is not an easy listen, and while the libretto helps explain the action better than the dialog, one must actually hear Thing-Fish’s intonation to understand some of the purposely mangled language. Thing-Fish is hardly the first play to depict sexual activity, deviant or otherwise, but even after something like Spring Awakening became a sensation, we really can’t see how Frank really thought something like this would ever be staged per his script. Even if it was, critics would lambaste it and the Tonys would ignore it, which Frank would only flog as proof of ongoing censorship and the inability of the average American to understand his genius.

Frank Zappa Thing-Fish (Original Cast Recording) (1984)—

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Joni Mitchell 22: Millennial Compilations

Although seemingly retired, Joni kept her hand in the marketplace with not one, nor two, but three thematic retrospective sets released over a period of nine months. Each follows something of a theme, building on the mild renaissance her career had experienced; the first two continued to use her own paintings for the cover art.

First came The Beginning Of Survival, which took its title from a letter written by a Native American chief to “the Great Chief in Washington” a century before, reproduced in the package. Released in an election year amid various wars in the Mideast, the set focused on social commentary from the mid-‘80s on, mostly from the “difficult” Geffen albums. Therefore, most but not all of the tracks have jarring synthesizer arrangements and her lower voice. Perhaps it’s a good intro to her least celebrated period, but the music is still a matter of personal taste, and some tracks are simply less annoying than others.

A few months later, Dreamland covered her entire career, from the ‘70s up through the orchestral albums of this century. The songs range from beloved hits already collected on Hits to more challenging pieces like “The Jungle Line”, “Dancin’ Clown”, and the title track. The chronology is all over the place, forcing the listener to take her as she is (or was), yet there is a thread from song to song (“Free Man In Paris” to “In France They Kiss On Main Street”, the harmonicas on “Furry Sings The Blues” into “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio”). Three tracks are remakes from her orchestral albums, and the set ends with her original recording of “The Circle Game”. With even more of her paintings depicted in the package, perhaps these are the songs that meant the most to her.

The same could be said for what came the following spring. Songs Of A Prairie Girl collected songs to celebrate and evoke Saskatchewan, its “long, cold winters [and] short but glorious summers” per her brief notes. Five songs are repeated from Hits, including “Urge For Going”, but for the most part the program leans towards the later years; “Cherokee Louise” is in its arguably superior Travelogue incarnation. Two songs from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter appear: the title track, and right smack dab in the middle of the program, a so-called remix of “Paprika Plains” that aims to even out the dynamics a bit. Both songs benefit by this context, even with “Raised On Robbery” sandwiched between them. Because so many of the tracks reference her youth, there’s a certain nostalgia, and even melancholy, throughout the set.

Ultimately, these CDs prove that there is no way to encapsulate Joni Mitchell in under 79 minutes. Much like other mercurial artists among her contemporaries (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, etc.) any favorites are going to vary from person to person, and different albums speak to different people in different ways. What comes through is that, as a composer, she was anything but ordinary. Hopefully any of these albums has drawn a newbie into her complete catalog.

Joni Mitchell The Beginning Of Survival (2004)—
Joni Mitchell
Dreamland (2004)—3
Joni Mitchell
Songs Of A Prairie Girl (2005)—3

Friday, November 1, 2019

Neil Young 62: Colorado

For half a century, the connotation of Neil Young playing with Crazy Horse inspires the immediate aural image of a plodding electric assault, and with lots of evidence to support that. But the fuzz of “Like A Hurricane”, Ragged Glory, and Psychedelic Pill belies the lower dynamics that Neil has brought out of the guys, such as “Lotta Love”, “Running Dry”, “Oh Lonesome Me”, and countless other tunes with Billy Talbot on bass and/or Ralph Molina on drums. Take also Tonight’s The Night, recorded with that rhythm section and trading guitar and piano duties with Nils Lofgren, who was in Crazy Horse for their debut Neil-less album.
Now that Poncho Sampedro is semi-retired, Nils came back to support Neil and the other two for a few shows, which led to an album. Colorado was recorded in that state, with oxygen tanks on hand to help them adjust to the higher climate, and while many of Neil’s recent quirks are still in place—harangues about the same political issue in consecutive tracks, singing far above his range, yelling tunelessly when he hasn’t bothered to write a melody, as he does on most of the loud ones—the album holds together better than any of the last handful, simply because it offers variety and repels assumptions.
With a blast of harmonica, “Think Of Me” is a jaunty acoustic strum that sounds more like Prairie Wind than Crazy Horse until the harmonies kick in. This promising start is followed by the sludge of “She Showed Me Love”, which ponders the fate of Mother Nature in the hands of “old white guys” and “young folks”. It’s long enough to begin with, but then plods away for another seven minutes of jamming and repeats of the title on top of the six it took to get there. As the only lengthy track on the album, it seems odd that this was the one groove given such an honor.
That’s basically the template for the album: softer songs alternating with loud ones. “Olden Days”, about losing touch with friends for various reasons, sports a nice little riff echoed by the voice and piano (uncredited, though it’s probably Nils), but it seems to be over awfully quickly. Then it’s back to doom, as “Help Me Lose My Mind” alternates an agitated verse with a more inspired chorus change (musically, anyway). The sad little metaphor of “Green Is Blue” is effective, and in case you missed the point, “Shut It Down” pounds it into your head. “Milky Way” was the first track streamed to the public, and while its first-take demo quality underwhelmed then, it works much better in this context. Plus, with its tension being more quiet than loud, it provides welcome contrast.
The charming “Eternity” not only revives earlier lyric ideas, such as a house of love and a train of love, but it also features the tapdancing skills of Nils Lofgren (“click, clack, clickety clack” indeed). Set to a tune we can’t put our finger on, “Rainbow Of Colors” is another attempt at an alternate national anthem, in that it offers a positive message instead of just saying why the other side is wrong. One might think the album would end there, but “I Do” is a tender love song that takes us out very gently, along the lines of “Music Arcade” and “Without Rings”. (Those who bought the vinyl—or paid the subscription—got a bonus in the form of the moody but moving “Truth Kills”, plus a live solo electric “Rainbow Of Colors”.)
Many of Neil’s albums this century have been difficult to absorb; part of that can be ascribed to the loss of producer David Briggs in 1995. Now the death of longtime manager Elliot Roberts, to whom Colorado is dedicated, will likely affect Neil in ways he can’t fathom. We predict this album will have staying power, and those who say it’s not a Crazy Horse album need to revisit Sleeps With Angels.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse Colorado (2019)—3

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Lou Reed 24: Perfect Night

It’s safe to say that the ‘90s were going pretty well for Lou Reed, coming off a series of well-received albums. His appearance at 1997’s Meltdown Festival in London, backed by his stalwart combo of Mike Rathke on the other guitar, Fernando Saunders on bass and Tony “Thunder” Smith on drums, was recorded and released the following year as Perfect Night: Live In London. (Of course, it helped that that year’s event was curated by Laurie Anderson, Lou’s significant other.)
The set is fairly low-key, traveling through Lou’s entire catalog, starting with “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. “Perfect Day” follows, having recently been featured in Trainspotting. “The Kids” is played straight, with a little extra emotion on the choruses, but no screaming children. “Vicious” is very low-key, hanging mostly on one chord a la “Kicks” (which follows directly from “Busload Of Faith”, which comes next). “Riptide” is given a much calmer setting than its album version, while “Sex With Your Parents” is just as effective, particularly after a surprising top-speed delivery of “The Original Wrapper”. Three songs from Time Rocker, a little-seen collaboration with playwright Robert Wilson, make their debut here. “Talking Book” is pensive and wistful; “Into The Divine” is a little heavier love song of sorts, on two chords; “Why Do You Talk” is stark and accusatory.
As usual, the publicity for the album centered on his latest “perfect” guitar sound, in this case an acoustic that didn’t feed back. Perfect Night doesn’t have the ferocity of Rock ‘N Roll Animal or the comedy of Take No Prisoners, so for that reason it’s a nice alternative. But it still rocks.

Lou Reed Perfect Night: Live In London (1998)—3

Friday, October 25, 2019

Jerry Garcia 3: Compliments

Jerry Garcia’s second solo album (as opposed to collaboration) was originally titled simply Garcia, but some copies had a sticker above the title reading “Compliments Of”. In order to differentiate it from 1972’s Garcia album, we’re going with the expanded title, as has everyone else over the past 30 years.
Unlike that first Garcia album, which he recorded by himself with only Bill Kreutzmann, this installment features a pile of hired guns, as well as familiar names like Merl Saunders and John Kahn, who supposedly spearheaded the project and suggested several of the tunes. The album follows on from the recent Saunders collaboration, with Jerry playing mostly obscure covers from all over the place. For the most part, they’re fairly dull; “Let It Rock” barely sounds like a Chuck Berry song, and “Let’s Spend The Night Together” is just plain unconvincing. Van Morrison’s early “He Ain’t Give You None” doesn’t go anywhere, and the female backing singers don’t help. There’s something of a New Orleans vibe throughout, but we never had much use for Little Feat either.
From time to time his guitar leaps out of the mix, and it’s welcome. One true highlight is Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby”, which evokes Django Reinhardt, complete with gypsy violin. “Turn On The Bright Lights” is another slow burner with plenty of lead work, but probably could have been faded earlier. We have to admit his Dr. John impression on “What Goes Around” is uncanny. “Mississippi Moon” comes from bluegrass buddy Peter Rowan, about whom more will be heard, while “Midnight Town” is a collaboration between John Kahn and Robert Hunter, and a wonderful ending.
This album grew on us to the point where we increased the initial rating; basically the less familiar you are with the original versions of these songs, the better. (The later expanded version of the album adds another nine covers from the Compliments sessions, some of which would feature in future Garcia bands and shows. There’s also a brief jam called “Cardiac Arrest” that’s livelier than anything else on the album, old or new.)

Jerry Garcia Compliments Of Garcia (1974)—3
2004 expanded CD: same as 1974, plus 10 extra tracks

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Robert Hunter: Tales Of The Great Rum Runners

Outside of the band members themselves, few names are more sacred to Deadheads than that of Robert Hunter. His lyrics first appeared on the band’s second album, and he would contribute more to just about every album after that, usually collaborating with Jerry Garcia but sometimes with Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart. According to one source, he is the only non-performing member of any band that has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He managed to rack up a pile of tunes that hadn’t been recorded by the time the Dead had their own label, and thus Tales Of The Great Rum Runners was his solo debut, albeit with some of the band helping him out. Unfortunately, his voice leaves something to be desired, forced when loud and nervous when quiet. While it does have some of the same weedy qualities as Garcia’s, to the point where one can imagine these as Dead tunes, Jerry could actually hit the notes and carry the tunes. Indeed, “It Must Have Been The Roses” would reappear on a Garcia solo album, and become part of many a Dead set. We can almost hear Jerry singing “That Train”, “Maybe She’s A Bluebird”, and “Children’s Lament”, the latter here with a nostalgic bagpipe background. “Keys To The Rain” is Dylanesque in words and delivery, except for the meter changes and mariachi horns. And as befitting the album title, each side begins with something of a sea chanty, sung a cappella.
Since it’s Robert Hunter, Tales Of The Great Rum Runners is essential for Deadheads, who will enjoy the lyrics and many of the arrangements. But his legacy is better appreciated on other albums.

Robert Hunter Tales Of The Great Rum Runners (1974)—

Friday, October 18, 2019

Genesis 17: The Way We Walk

Maybe they knew this would be the last big tour for a while, as Genesis took the opportunity to glut the marketplace with not one, but two live albums culled from their big tour supporting We Can’t Dance. Playing on the video and chorus for “I Can’t Dance”, both volumes were titled The Way We Walk, and were sequenced thematically.

Volume One: The Shorts was released first, in time for the holiday buying season, and concentrated on the hit singles, some recorded on the Invisible Touch tour. Outside of Phil Collins’ evangelist impression on “Jesus He Knows Me”, F-bomb in “Invisible Touch”, and gargling through “I Can’t Dance”, there’s no real difference from the studio versions, except that stalwart supporting players Daryl Stuermer and Chester Thompson are on hand to fill out the sound. (Nice of the boys to include them on the cover, though.) It helped that none of the songs had been repeated from earlier live albums, but that also meant that your enjoyment depended on whether you liked the ‘80s version of Genesis.

If you didn’t, maybe you were more excited by Volume Two: The Longs, which arrived a few months later with no intention of going gold. This set was devoted to their lengthy epics, mostly focusing on instrumental interplay. “Old Medley” begins with “Dance On A Volcano” before weaving tunes from the Peter Gabriel era over 15 minutes, then teasing the crowd with random lines from the likes of “That’s All”, “Your Own Special Way”, “Follow You, Follow Me” and, sadly, “Illegal Alien”. (Earlier tours had similar medleys, wherein Phil would even sprinkle a Mike + The Mechanics tune and “You Can’t Hurry Love”.)
Four tracks exceed ten minutes; “Drum Duet”, thankfully, is “only” six. Even in this context the newer pieces stick out, though the “Home By The Sea” suite does well, as does “Domino”, begrudgingly. The two epics from We Can’t Dance don’t gain any stature but don’t lose any either.

Genesis The Way We Walk Volume One: The Shorts (1992)—3
Genesis
The Way We Walk Volume Two: The Longs (1993)—3

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Rush 17: Chronicles

Smart labels anthologize the ones who got away, particularly when the ones have continued to thrive elsewhere. While Rush had jumped to Atlantic, Mercury knew that their catalog would continue to sell, particularly in the CD era. Hence, Chronicles neatly summarized the band’s history from start to now, on two discs, democratically sampling each one of their albums; the exception was three songs from Moving Pictures.
In addition to providing an excellent overview that documented the taming of Geddy Lee’s vocal cords, the big draw for fans was the inclusion of the songs that had been left off the original CDs of All The World’s A Stage and Exit… Stage Left. “What You’re Doing” and “A Passage To Bangkok” each appear in sequence to ensure that every album was represented. Moreover, “Mystic Rhythms” was included from A Show Of Hands, and “Show Don’t Tell” provides true closure.
The modes of the times dictated that a double CD was packaged in a clamshell case about an inch thick, but Chronicles was worthy of taking up space on a shelf, and seemingly would always. It stayed in print even after the catalog was remastered in 1997, whereupon Mercury took to anthologizing them again, and not for the last time. Retrospective I: 1974-1980 and Retrospective II: 1981-1987 each repeated ten tracks from either disc of Chronicles and made some very bold additions (“By-Tor”? “The Body Electric”?) while jumbling the chronology and adding zero rarities. (Both volumes were combined into a single slimline package for 2006’s Gold, which reinstated “Working Man” to the dais at the expense of “Something For Nothing”.)
Then in 2003, likely to cash in on the band’s return from hiatus, The Spirit Of Radio was a single disc purporting to present the band’s “greatest hits”, despite the fact that only one of their singles had ever cracked the Billboard Top 40. That said, it again stuck to the timeline and hit all the highlights, with the possible exception of “Force Ten”. (True completists would also want to make room for the two Rush entries in Universal’s head-scratching ICON series. The first was a glorified mix tape that mixed familiar tracks with deep cuts; this was repeated a year later in a second version, along with a disc that sampled all their Mercury live albums.)

Rush Chronicles (1990)—4
Rush
Retrospective I: 1974-1980 (1997)—
Rush
Retrospective II: 1981-1987 (1997)—
Rush
The Spirit Of Radio: Greatest Hits 1974-1987 (2003)—4

Friday, October 11, 2019

Jeff Beck 10: Flash

Five years was a long time in the ‘80s, so when Jeff Beck finally got around to recording an album, the music scene had changed dramatically. The cover of Flash is telling; here El Becko is shown wearing a stylish suit, not unlike the blazer Bob Dylan appropriated for the same year’s Empire Burlesque. (Like that album, producer of the moment Arthur Baker adds his sheen as well, dating the album just as severely today.) Nile Rodgers dominates the proceedings, fresh from Mick Jagger’s solo album.
Beck’s guitar is just as adventurous as ever, but on every track, drums boom and synths dominate the bass, bringing to mind “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins, which isn’t on the album, and likely wasn’t recorded yet, but you get the idea. The album as a whole resembles so many movie soundtracks of that period.
The big draw was Rod Stewart’s appearance on a cover of “People Get Ready”, which would bring the singer a needed boost, soon to be derailed by “Love Touch”. Most of the rest of the vocals came from the soulful throat of Jimmy Hall, once of Wet Willie, here following the footsteps of Bobby Tench. “Ambitious” is fairly funky, but takes off when Beck takes over. He’s all over “Gets Us All In The End” pretty much from start to finish, a track otherwise tailor-made for Bonnie Tyler, but “Stop, Look And Listen” and “Ecstasy” are ultimately generic vocally. And while anybody would know by now that Beck was no singer, somehow Nile Rodgers felt he should take the mic for “Get Workin’” (punctuated by the stuttering sample best personified by “Rock Me Amadeus”) and “Night After Night”. Luckily for everyone he’s mixed low, and several background singers fill up the cavern of sound.
Interestingly, two instrumentals each come from keyboard players we’ve heard on previous Beck albums. Jan Hammer’s “Escape” manages to employ dynamics over the same metronomic beat. Tony Hymas offers “You Know, We Know”, which starts okay, but soon turns into everything else. The LP and cassette ended there, but certain CD pressings maximized the extra playing time by adding two B-sides. “Nighthawks” is another ordinary Nile Rodgers tune sung by Jimmy Hall, while “Back On The Streets” features the talents of Karen Lawrence, soon to be heard singing the opening theme to the hit TV show Misfits Of Science.
Flash managed to become something of a hit, mostly for the Rod Stewart connection, but also because it fit squarely into radio formats of the time. It’s undeniably catchy, perhaps a guilty pleasure, and at its best when you can concentrate on the guitar, not the dressing. If you can’t, dock the rating a full point.

Jeff Beck Flash (1985)—3

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Cat Stevens 12: Footsteps in the Dark

After a few years of musical silence, the news emerged that Cat Stevens had changed his name yet again. Now known as Yusuf Islam, he had retired from pop music to devote his life to his family and his faith. Meanwhile, his songs still played on the radio, in all formats, so releasing a second greatest hits compilation wasn’t too much of a stretch.
Despite its subtitle, Footsteps In The Dark is fairly short on actual hits, but it’s still chock full of quality. In a covert admission that the albums since the first hits album hadn’t aged well, the set covers songs throughout the entire ‘70s. As an added bonus, three songs make their album debut.
Side one is nearly flawless, beginning with “The Wind” but veering off course with “(I Never Wanted) To Be A Star”; okay, we get it. “Katmandu” and “Trouble” are rescued from Mona Bone Jakon. In between is the charming “I Want To Live In A Wigwam”, the B-side of “Morning Has Broken”. “On The Road To Find Out” turns out to be just one of the foreshadowings scattered throughout his pop career, while “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”, written for and featured prominently in the film Harold And Maude finally appears for home enjoyment.
The second side hops even wider throughout the decade, from “Where Do The Children Play?” and “How Can I Tell You” to later tunes “The Hurt”, “Daytime” (whence comes the album title), and “Silent Sunlight”. The simple but sweet “Don’t Be Shy” is the other Harold And Maude song here, and for some reason “Father & Son” appears, despite its inclusion on the first hits album.
The CD era would eventually inspire further collections, beginning with Classics Volume 24 (numbered as part of A&M’s 25th Anniversary Classics series), which combined tunes from both hits albums and nicely included “If You Want To Sing Out”. Several different releases purporting to be The Very Best Of Cat Stevens have appeared over the years; the most recent is not chronological, but includes more pop material from the ‘60s and concludes with, yes, “If You Want To Sing Out”. 2005’s Gold double CD was very comprehensive, going from “Matthew & Son” through Teaser And The Firecat on the first disc alone, and including both Harold And Maude songs. The second disc rushes through the rest of the ‘70s, and even includes a new track recorded by Yusuf Islam himself specifically for this set. All that said, Footsteps In The Dark is still the best (and cheapest) choice, particularly for “I Want To Live In A Wigwam”.

Cat Stevens Footsteps In The Dark: Greatest Hits Volume Two (1984)—

Friday, October 4, 2019

David Crosby 4: CPR

In another one of those unlikely stories outside a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, David Crosby needed a liver transplant, and met a kid he likely would have given up for adoption if he hadn’t already ran out on the mother. Not only did young James Raymond bear little resentment towards his deadbeat dad, but he’d spent much of a blissful childhood becoming a rather accomplished musician in his own right. Once this odd couple started spending time together, jam sessions happened, and songs appeared. With the assistance of session rat Jeff Pevar, the easily monikered CPR started playing shows and recording an album.
Even more unlikely, the resultant CPR offers some of Crosby’s best work in literally decades. Relying mostly on Raymond’s musical ideas, which come from places outside his usual toolbox, the lyrics flow without sounding forced or trite. Highlights include “Morrison”, a belated criticism of Oliver Stone’s version of the Doors story. “That House” and “Somehow She Knew” express different kinds of loss and the sorrow they bring. “Rusty And Blue” is fleshed out from his live album, the source of the title “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”. One PR selling point was “Little Blind Fish”, a CSNY leftover that had snuck out on bootlegs; the similarities are minimal. “Time Is The Final Currency” is a wonderfully understated closer.
Raymond sings the main voice on “One For Every Moment”, with percussion that veers a little close to Stills territory, as well as “Someone Else’s Town”, complete with F-bomb. On his own he sounds like Timothy B. Schmit; with Crosby he provides something of a high Nash counterpoint. The moody “Yesterday’s Child” is the best of his offerings. Throughout, Pevar adds guitar touches worth of Danny Kootch and David Lindley, while a variety of supporting players, some familiar, prop up the back end.

A few years later, following a CSNY reunion album and tour, CPR was back in business with Just Like Gravity. Like the debut, it’s on the long side, but it rocks a little harder, overall. It’s still in the slightly jazzier adult contemporary with New Age touches of the debut, but tunes like “Darkness” use sneaky melodies and non-standard chords to skew off the beaten path. The vocals are also shared more, taking turns on verses, and the kid gets more of a spotlight, taking charge on “Eyes Too Blue” and “Jerusalem”. “Angel Dream” lists Graham Nash as a co-writer, and has something of the moving sweep of “Delta”. Crosby’s voice is still up to the task right off the bat in “Map To Buried Treasure” and elsewhere; the title track is just him and an acoustic, and it’s the sound fans have waited to hear since about 1972.

These albums appeared on a tiny independent label, as did two live recordings, and are tough to find today, but they are streaming. Together they help preserve Crosby’s relevancy as the years go by.

CPR CPR (1998)—3
CPR
Just Like Gravity (2001)—3

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Paul Simon 13: 1964/1993

Lots of people’s careers were celebrated with box sets in the early ‘90s, and some of them were actually worth investing in—usually if there were rare or unreleased tracks on them. That’s what made Paul Simon’s place on the shelf so maddening. First of all, the title was off; the music runs the gamut from 1957 to 1991, so somebody wasn’t paying attention. Even limited to three discs, as befits a guy who’d recorded fewer than a dozen albums, much of 1964/1993 was stuff people had already, whether on the albums themselves or, more likely for the time, Negotiations And Love Songs.
The set begins with the version of “Leaves That Are Green” from his then-out-of-print solo album, moving through only a handful of tracks from the Simon & Garfunkel albums—possibly due to licensing—with the live take of “Kathy’s Song” for variety. A tentative demo of an unfinished “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, already sounding like he meant it for Art to sing, is included for petulant reasons. The classic rendition follows, as does a strange little spoken segment called “The Breakup”, wherein Art attempts to make a statement about their separation while Paul interrupts constantly from the control booth. This goes into the original “Hey, Schoolgirl” single from 1957, then “My Little Town” is the last we hear from Art before the chronology returns to the start of Paul’s actual solo career.
From there, it’s basically an expansion on Negotiations, with a lot of the same tunes, save a live version of “Still Crazy After All These Years” from 1991. The final disc has seven songs from Graceland, five from The Rhythm Of The Saints, and three from Concert In The Park. There is another bonus in the form of “Thelma”, an outtake from Rhythm Of The Saints that’s worth more than a cursory listen.
Certainly, the music contained on 1964/1993 is such a high quality, even if you had it already, that we can’t fault the content. It simply should have been something else entirely, and both he and his label would soon learn a harsh lesson on what consumers were willing to abide.

Paul Simon 1964/1993 (1993)—

Friday, September 27, 2019

Roxy Music 4: Country Life

Somehow Roxy Music managed to maintain a lineup for two straight albums. Given the evidence on Country Life, we can presume that familiarity with each other worked in their favor.
Side one is easily their best, most consistent side since the debut, while not as startling. “The Thrill Of It All” is yet another classic opener, a simple piano part running through the entire track while the drums pound the pavement. “Three And Nine” brings back the camp and a nod to the ‘50s, with what sounds like French words but aren’t. Then “All I Want Is You” is an excellent wall of guitars, and a return to the sound of “Thrill” without repeating it. Similarly, “Out Of The Blue” rocks just as hard, with plenty of phasing on and off Eddie Jobson’s violin. “If It Takes All Night” sounds like one of Ferry’s perverted covers from his solo albums, though the party rhythm of the track doesn’t mesh with the arrival of “that old ennui”.
In full illustration of what the album listening experience was like back in the days when we had to manually switch between sides, the second half of the album is a different trip. “Bitter Sweet” is a dire little tune, made even more foreboding when the stormtroopers come marching through and the proceedings take a distinctly Germanic tone, even before he sings a verse in that language. A baroque harpsichord leads “Triptych”; strange even for them, the lyrics seem occupied with the Crucifixion and Resurrection. The trashy rock sound returns for “Casanova”, a putdown worthy of Dylan’s nastiness. The party seems to be winding down a la side two of the debut on “A Really Good Time”, but “Prairie Rose”, with its slide guitars and honking saxes, is one of the odder evocations of the state of Texas in the rock ‘n roll era.
We didn’t expect much from Country Life, after the so-so Stranded and Bryan’s solo experiments, so its quality certainly delivers and gives hope for the future. In fact, the album’s decent enough that they didn’t need the women in the translucent underwear to draw attention to it.

Roxy Music Country Life (1974)—

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Bryan Ferry 2: Another Time, Another Place

Just bursting with the need to express himself, Bryan Ferry found time in between Roxy Music albums to record another collection of covers, this time leaning on country music, R&B, and even standards. The tuxedo shot on the cover is at odds with the musical content, just like last time.
And just like last time, the results as heard on Another Time, Another Place are mixed. The beginning of “The ‘In’ Crowd” predicts another hit song down the road, but in this context it sounds like a typical Roxy tune, which is fine. From there, the arrangements vary from song to song. After a winking first verse, he tramples through “Funny How Time Slips Away” and turns “You Are My Sunshine” into a New Orleans funeral. “(What A) Wonderful World” is the Sam Cooke tune, not the one made famous by Louis Armstrong, turned into a calypso cha-cha. His take on “It Ain’t Me Babe” isn’t as horrifying as what he did to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, but it’s not much better. “Fingerpoppin’” is possibly the least-known track here—at least it is to us—and interchangeable with “Barefootin’” and tunes of that ilk. “Help Me Make It Through The Night” survives a very misplaced key change, but the best is truly saved for last. The title track is a Ferry original, and easily as good as any Roxy tune.
Musically, Another Time, Another Place is fine, provided you have little familiarity with the originals and don’t listen too closely to the words. If anything, it’s a snapshot of a time when labels were willing to put out anything their artists recorded.

Bryan Ferry Another Time, Another Place (1974)—

Friday, September 20, 2019

Pretenders 11: Pirate Radio

Once Rhino got a hold of the Pretenders catalog, a box set celebrating the band was certainly expected. Pirate Radio (helpfully subtitled “1979-2005”) presented four discs chronologically spanning Chrissie Hynde’s career to date, with the usual rarities added, along with a DVD of videos and TV appearances.
Needless to say, while it doesn’t include the entire debut album, the first disc is stellar. Beginning with a demo of “Precious”, it methodically works through all the singles that built that album, with big points for including “Cuban Slide” and “Porcelain” on CD in the U.S. for the first time. “What You Gonna Do About It” is a live cover of a Small Faces tune, and before we know it, two of the guys are dead and Chrissie’s onto the third album.
Things start to slide about halfway through the second disc, right about when we get to the Get Close debacle. Here at least we get to hear an early version of “Tequila”, and more complete than the snippet on Last Of The Independents. A handful of leftovers from Get Close are of varying interest, as is the cover of “Windows Of The World” from an obscure soundtrack and a carbon copy cover of the Beatles’ “Not A Second Time”.
The third disc continues with more songs from Packed! before serving up most of Last Of The Independents and finishing up with selections from the Isle Of View, nicely including “Creep”. Other rare covers include “Bold As Love” for a Hendrix tribute and “Angel Of The Morning” for a companion album to Friends. A demo of “Every Mother’s Son” is quite effective.
The final disc is easily the most forgettable, for while it does sample the inoffensive ¡Viva El Amor!, it also covers Loose Screw. However, if you wanted to hear Chrissie take on “The Needle And The Damage Done” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, and didn’t want to buy the G.I. Jane soundtrack for “The Homecoming”, you’re in luck.
Before too long Rhino would expand the early albums, and include several of the extras in all the right places. There’s more good than bad on Pirate Radio, but more than anything it underscores what she lost early on, and while we can admire her determination to keep going, the set is only of value to completists.

Pretenders Pirate Radio 1979-2005 (2006)—

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Cars 7: Move Like This

After literally decades of avoiding the nostalgia train—and the “New Cars” project that paired Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes with Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, and Prairie Prince doesn’t count—Ric Ocasek apparently wrote a set of song that he decided would sound perfect if played by the old guys. David Robinson was contacted, and the Cars, now a quartet in the absence of the late Ben Orr, were back. For a while, anyway.
Move Like This isn’t going to supplant any of the original series, with the possible exception of Door To Door, but that at least had “Strap Me In” on it. These tracks are very evocative of their classic sound, with percolating synths that recall Devo, steady drums, lots of guitars, and those omnipresent harmonies. Ric’s voice is certainly older, and doesn’t have that goofy quality he used to promote (though that doesn’t keep him from sounding like Goofy on some of the slower tunes). The production was split between the band and Jacknife Lee, when he wasn’t busy with U2 and R.E.M.; Ric and Greg are both credited with playing bass, whether programmed or stringed.
“Blue Tip” (the opener), “Free”, and “Sad Song” are possibly the best tunes, with riffs right off the first couple albums, and sardonic lyrics. “Hits Me” actually mentions Ric’s resemblance to Ichabod Crane. The aforementioned slower songs, “Soon” and “Take Another Look”, aren’t always as convincing; maybe if Ben were around he could have added his croon.
As reunions go, Move Like This is far from embarrassing. The band played a handful of shows to promote it, and that was it.

The Cars Move Like This (2011)—3

Friday, September 13, 2019

Paul Westerberg 3: Suicaine Gratifaction

He still had powerful friends in the industry, but normal folks still waiting for Paul Westerberg to rock again—or at least reunite the Replacements—weren’t going to get to exhale anytime soon. Pleasant as his first two solo albums were, they didn’t sell, and somehow he ended up on Capitol Records with Don Was, of all people, co-producing his album while waiting for the Rolling Stones to call. Suicaine Gratifaction is an unwieldy title, with way more syllables than an album that sounds like it takes place in a suburban living room should. Indeed, most of the basic tracks were recorded at his house, where he was sober and a first-time father, which further suggest why the songs are low-key and spare.
“It’s A Wonderful Lie” starts the set with a simple strum rather than a brash potboiler; it even closes with the sound of him putting his guitar down with a shrug. “Self-Defense” is one of many slow piano tunes here along the lines of “Good Day” from the last album. Lest things get too downbeat, “Best Thing That Never Happened” finally comes close to rocking with the wordplay we expect, taken up a further notch on “Lookin’ Out Forever”, wherein he delivers a tune that would be a favorite if any Gin Blossoms fans heard it. Plenty of riffs here, and quite tasty. Then it’s back to wistful territory on “Born For Me”, given the same tempo as “Here Comes A Regular” but much more romantic, with Shawn Colvin singing along an octave higher on the choruses. “Final Hurrah” is loud again, but it reminds us of songs he’s already written.
“Tears Rolling Up Our Sleeves” is another unique image, but the song doesn’t do much except highlight a goofy keyboard part that pops up in the mix here and there. He’s back on the piano for the beginning of “Fugitive Kind”, which gets a band injection after a couple of minutes and juggles a few hooks for a surprising duration, then it’s back to melancholy balladeering on “Sunrise Always Listens”. He cheers up considerably on “Whatever Makes You Happy”; the sound of his baby son timed just right in the pause before the last chorus puts a big smile on the track. It’s never clear why he shot an “Actor In The Street”, but by the end of “Bookmark” he sounds like he just wants to go to sleep, and you might too, except that it’s a pretty nice cop of Tom Waits’ ballad style without the rasp.
There’s nothing really “wrong” with Suicaine Gratifaction except that it fails to thrill. The songs are competent, tuneful, and well-constructed, but that’s about it. Worth hearing, certainly, but at this point he’d become a guy whose albums sold more out of habit than excellence.

Paul Westerberg Suicaine Gratifaction (1999)—3

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Morrissey 5: Vauxhall And I

Fairly energized by the success of his last solo album, Morrissey stuck with the two guitarists and collaborators for a follow-up that, thankfully, was not a retread at all. Vauxhall And I isn’t quite as brash as Your Arsenal, but while it still has a big sound, it’s more lush too.
Beginning quietly but building slowly, “Now My Heart Is Full” would make longtime fans swoon, with his soaring vocal and Smiths-worthy backing. The mood immediately goes dark on “Spring-Heeled Jim”, which paints a portrait of a ne’er-do-well, while dialogue from a British documentary film may be important, but it distractingly overtakes the mix, obscuring the track. “Billy Budd” cranks up the energy again, with terrific wah-wah guitar and galloping drums. “Hold On To Your Friends” threatens to be somber, but finds the tempo soon enough and really turns around for the chorus. And you can add “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer You Get” to his pile of classic titles with tunes to match. (“I bear more grudges than lonely High Court judges”? Terrific.) All in all, a solid side of music.
That’s a lot to live up to, and the rest of the album tries, but without much increase in tempo. “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself” is a spiteful little strum, and “I Am Hated For Loving” follows the same basic lines, but it’s not as bitter. Things stay dreary on “Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning”, with its mournful clarinet effect and near-whispered vocal. With its briefest of lyrics, “Used To Be A Sweet Boy” is something of a trip back to the old house, perhaps to reel around a fountain? “The Lazy Sunbathers”, out there on the beach just after “a world war was announced,” might be a reference to Nero fiddling in the face of apocalypse, or something else entirely. Finally, “Speedway” has a sound effect 16 seconds in that could be a motorbike or car, but sounds more like a chainsaw. That makes more sense with all its talk of rumors and lies, and the album soon pounds to a close.
Despite running out of steam, Vauxhall And I is a decent album, and goes a long way to sustaining Morrissey’s icon status. At this point, he’d been a solo act longer than he was a Smith, and while he would always be connected with that group, he’d certainly proved what he could do on his own. With the right band. (Luckily for fans, the 20th anniversary update of the album kept the track order intact, and added a bonus disc with a 1995 concert.)

Morrissey Vauxhall And I (1994)—3
2014 20th Anniversary Definitive Remaster: same as 1994, plus 14 extra tracks

Friday, September 6, 2019

Kiss 1: Kiss

Stanley Eisen and Eugene Klein were a couple of enterprising young men from Long Island determined to make it big in the music business. What set them apart from their contemporaries was their innate understanding of the power of branding, as well as loyalty to said brand among consumers. (Musical acumen helped, but art wasn’t as big a goal as commercial success.) After dissatisfaction with the progress of their band Wicked Lester, the two vocalists (one on the guitar, the other on bass) methodically searched for and found a lead guitarist and a drummer whom they felt would achieve their vision.
By this time the boys had changed their names to the more rockin’ Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. Guitarist Paul Frehley gladly went by Ace so there wouldn’t be two Pauls in the band, and drummer Peter Criss had already truncated his surname from Criscuola, so all they needed now—naturally—were personas to go with their carefully manufactured images. The uniform suits and nicknames (the quiet one, the cute one) ascribed to another fab foursome wouldn’t be enough for these guys. Each member of Kiss (sometimes rendered in all caps, but we’re not going to do that) would wear distinctive makeup and costumes befitting their “characters”. Elaborate stage performances with as much pyrotechnics and comic book shock level that could fit into whatever venue they were playing became just as important as the music they made.
And what of the music they made? As demonstrated on their eponymous debut, the emphasis is on heavy riffs, not exactly metal, but harder than glam. (And what makes those riffs so distinctive? The guitars are tuned down a half-step.) The lyrics are basic, easily grasped by any suburban white kid hoping to find a woman who’d give him a deuce, whatever that was, drink cold gin with him, or do it somewhere even less comfortable than the back of a Volkswagen.
Track by track the songs are solid. “Strutter”, “Nothin’ To Lose”, “Firehouse”, “Cold Gin”, “Deuce”, and “100,000 Years” all deliver hooks upon hooks, all in E or A, and while “Let Me Know” isn’t as exciting, a harmonized a cappella breakdown before a raveup and fade is a clever touch. Our personal favorite is the instrumental “Love Theme From Kiss”, which is just a terrific title. “Black Diamond” is the album’s equivalent of an epic, starting with an acoustic intro with a sensitive vocal, plowing through over the riff, slowing down the chords for another Ace solo and ending on a single A chord, repeated and slowed down over two full minutes.
It’s suggested that lengthening this tune, along with adding more silence between tracks, was done to push the album over the half-hour mark. Then, in a rare case of Kiss doing something they didn’t want to do, an oldie called “Kissin’ Time” was given new lyrics and a Kissified arrangement and released as a single in the label’s attempt to boost sales. It’s fairly embarrassing, except for Ace’s solo, which almost justifies its being stuck at the top of side two in all but the album’s first pressings, and it remains there in the CD sequence as well.
Rock ‘n roll is supposed to be fun, and a little stupid, and Kiss fit the bill. The album is simply loaded with catchy tunes, and while it took a while for people to notice, these guys were on their way to notoriety, in all senses of the word.

Kiss Kiss (1974)—4

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Rod Stewart 6: Smiler

Just as we had to battle preconceptions of Rod Stewart formulated in the wake of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and that ilk, it’s tough to look at Smiler, his last solo album while he was still with the Faces, as better than it is. It was his first album on his own in two years, and frankly, the formula was wearing thin.
“Sweet Little Rock ‘N Roller” is a decent bash through a Chuck Berry tune with Ronnie Wood turned up to ten. (Pointedly, despite appearances by Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones, there are no virtual Faces tracks on this album.) A brief harpsichord piece called “Lochinvar”, and just like similar segues on the last two albums, it introduces a track in the vein of “Maggie May” and “You Wear It Well”, but “Farewell” swings and misses. One of the drummers beats a tattoo into “Sailor”, which also sports a horn section and screaming females in a case of too much ketchup. What begins as a lovely acoustic reverie turns into a crowded medley of “Bring It On Home To Me” and “You Send Me” that’s less of a tribute to Sam Cooke than a ego exercise. Elton John and Bernie Taupin contributed “Let Me Be Your Car” to the proceedings, and Elton even sings on it. He would find better duet partners.
While there’s no question his voice is suited to it, changing the gender of a certain song to “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Man” does nobody any favors. “Dixie Toot” has promise, but belabors the point with the horn section and and a Dixieland band. “Hard Road” is a decent bash but for the bongo drums mixed way up. For some reason we get an acoustic instrumental of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”, perhaps as a thematic setup for “Girl From The North Country”. It has a decent arrangement, but is his least successful Dylan cover to date. But the most curious track is “Mine For Me”, donated by Paul and Linda McCartney, which sports a melody very close to another cover Rod would claim very shortly. It’s hard to picture what Paul would have done with this himself, but we’re hoping he’d’ve avoided the steel drums. Sure sounds like Paul harmonizing here, though.
Smiler suffers by comparison with all that has gone before, and at least it attempts to rock most of the time. But we’re starting to sense his more annoying attributes coming forth, and the excesses of the ‘70s tainting otherwise talented individuals.

Rod Stewart Smiler (1974)—

Friday, August 30, 2019

Talking Heads 7: Stop Making Sense

Being filmed for a concert documentary would have appealed to art school alumni, so Talking Heads gladly allowed that to happen for Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. And you can’t have a movie without a soundtrack album, which is how ended up putting out two live albums in the space of two years.
While the film represents a performance in real time, beginning with David Byrne by himself and gradually adding the other Heads and additional musicians until the stage is full, the album takes a more basic approach, sequenced for listenability. Four songs are included from Speaking In Tongues, which was the album the tour was supporting, and the songs shared with The Name Of This Band are in different arrangements. The result is an excellent intro to the band’s work thus far.
Just as in the film, the album opens with a solo performance (acoustic guitar with beatbox accompaniment) of “Psycho Killer”. The Speaking In Tongues songs follow, and all are excellent versions, if not superior to the studio takes. They’re presented in a jumbled order from the actual setlist, but frankly, starting with “Swamp” and ending with “Girlfriend Is Better” is a fine succession and completes an excellent album side.
Side two’s nothing to sneeze at either. A slightly rearranged “Once In A Lifetime” is just as essential as the studio version, the band truly filling in and enhancing it. “What A Day That Was” would have been new to anyone who hadn’t heard David Byrne’s Catherine Wheel album, and it fits fine here. “Life During Wartime” opens with an unfamiliar keyboard cadence before finding its way to the trademark riff, while “Take Me To The River” pumps up the stark blues of their own version with a little more soul.
Listening to the original LP today, it seems to go by more quickly than 40 minutes, which is understandable, as the more prevalent cassette and CD versions extended all but three of the tracks, for a total of seven minutes; these also sported an alternate mix of “Slippery People”. Just in time for the fifteenth anniversary of the album (and a DVD release of the film), a “Special New Edition” presented all the songs as performed in the movie in order, albeit edited to fit on a single CD. It even begins with Byrne’s introduction (“Hi. I got a tape I want to play.”) “Psycho Killer” is now followed by a lovely stripped-down “Heaven” with Tina Weymouth on bass and one of the backup vocalists. The other two emerge for a couple of early songs, and then the stage is full. Along with a couple more tunes from Speaking In Tongues, David is nice enough to step aside for a virtual Tom Tom Club performance of “Genius Of Love”, complete with Chris Frantz’s version of toasting. (Plus, he had to get into that big suit. You know, so he could make his head smaller.)
Those of us who miss Stop Making Sense as we first heard it can simply program our CD players, burn a disc, or make a Spotify playlist. The version now available can certainly be called definitive, but you might as well own the DVD for, well, the full picture. It really is a fine film, and everybody looks like they’re having an absolute ball. Even David Byrne seems like he actually appreciates everyone else on stage, to the point of bringing the crew onstage before his exit.

Talking Heads Stop Making Sense (1984)—4
1999 Special New Edition: same as 1984, plus 7 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Todd Rundgren 20: Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia

Since we started this mission, we’ve tried to give equal time to albums good and bad, short and long. The idea is that an artist’s story is told by the albums he, she, or they make, and we’ve tried where possible to approach each entry from the perspective of somebody following along in real time, as each new album emerged. When it comes to certain veterans, however, it can be tough to dredge up anything new to say about people who haven’t necessarily said anything new in decades.
Now, that’s not fair to a guy like Todd Rundgren, who has long explored the boundaries of whatever technology was available at every given moment. But between record companies and his own attention span, he stopped being truly and consistently commercial by the time the ‘80s were underway. Luckily for him, he had plenty of production work, and he also managed to keep Utopia going as an active band while pushing work under his own name.
In the space of a year, Utopia released two studio albums for the indie Passport label. Both albums included songwriting contributions from all four members, and embraced current music technology, like drum machines and synthesizers. Both are slick and loud, both approach political commentary in between love songs, and neither is very good. The Cars may have done it best, but here Utopia comes off like the Tubes.
Oblivion came first, in a none-more-black cover with light embossing that belies the slick contents within. “Itch In My Brain” is no “Hammer In My Heart”, and it’s pushing it to have a song called “Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw” in 1984. “I Will Wait” has potential, as does “Maybe I Could Change”, even with its quasi-Broadway intro. But of the whole album, “Crybaby” is the real keeper despite everything against it, like the keyboards and the inscrutable video with Willie Wilcox’s rotating motorcycle drumset, but at least it featured Ellen Foley.
POV arrived sporting graphics made up predominantly of windows from the then-mindblowing Macintosh operating system; oh, the memories this brings back for those of us who remember a world before Microsoft. The photos suggest some kind of sci-fi thriller; meanwhile, Todd was sporting one of his worst haircuts, and considering his history at the barber, that’s saying something. “Play This Game” is a terrific opener, but “Style” kills the momentum, and will have the listener looking online for “Jane’s Getting Serious”. “Mated” is half-decent yacht rock, and “Zen Machine” is no “Zen Archer”.
After the band was pretty much done, but before the label collapsed, they released Trivia, which compiled a grab-bag of selections from both Passport albums, along with some fine choices from 1982’s Utopia album that elevate the others. Two new tracks were recorded for extra enticement, “Fix Your Gaze” preferable to “Monument.” (The artwork is so dated it hurts: the front image looks like the work of someone who just bought a computerized graphic design program, while the back capitalizes on the Trivial Pursuit craze.)
A decade later, Rhino had already reissued every Rundgren and Utopia album up to 1982, so when they acquired the rights to the Passport albums, they combined everything on a double-disc set cleverly dubbed Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia. For the cover art, they went with the most photogenic option, as if that did any good. The first disc had Oblivion plus “Fix Your Gaze”, while the other had POV plus “Monument” and the B-side “Man Of Action”. This edition is tough to find, but the two albums now stream from the usual places with the extra tracks.
And that, dear reader, is how we can justify reviewing all these so-so albums in one post.

Utopia Oblivion (1984)—2
Utopia
POV (1985)—2
Utopia
Trivia (1986)—
Utopia
Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia (1996)—2

Friday, August 23, 2019

Prince 11: Batman

One of the more surprising projects of Prince’s career involved music designed to tie in with what would prove to be the first major reboot of a superhero franchise. While Danny Elfman wrote the score for Tim Burton’s vision of Batman, which had its own soundtrack album, Prince got roped into making an album of music “inspired” by the film. (Plus, after several albums that failed to reach the commercial heights of Purple Rain, Warner Bros. figured they could get The Purple One to do them a solid. This would not bode well for their relationship going forward, but back to our story, see.)
While some of the music was indeed included in the film—which your correspondent has never, ever seen and doesn’t plan to—Prince’s songs profess to present the point of view of various characters, the lyric sheet helpfully telling us who says what. Luckily for those of us just here for the music, the album isn’t bad at all. Rather than pluck a variety of incomplete ideas from his growing stockpile of ideas, he devoted his full creativity, as well as once again playing everything except the horns.
But for the voice samples and orchestral touches, “The Future” comes off like more minimalist funk, which always works in his case. The voice of Jack Nicholson jars us back to the present, and “Electric Chair” both turns up the drums and lets loose his electric guitar. Then there’s “The Arms Of Orion”, which is supposed to be the romantic duet, and sure enough, Sheena Easton is brought back to sing the female part. It seems almost too tame for even him, probably because she apparently wrote the lyrics, and probably would have been better off on her own album. “Partyman” is another one of those danceable tracks he can create in his sleep—nice little nod to Sly & the Family Stone on the choruses—and while “Vicki Waiting” mentions a character in the movie, the track works on its own. (Just substitute another two-syllable name.)
What we still called side two in those days is a little more hit or miss. In a rare case of Prince repeating himself, “Trust” builds on the tempo and structure of “Baby I’m A Star”, but’s it’s still catchy. These days “Lemon Crush” seems reflective of recent Michael Jackson, as well as suggesting the new jack swing genre nearly upon us. The biggest throwback to his old sound is “Scandalous”, a slow jam sung in falsetto, complete with female moans and sighs poking through the mix here and there. (This was given even more heat when it was remixed three times as part of “The Scandalous Sex Suite” with further contributions from Kim Basinger herself.) While it doesn’t do much except pad a short album, “Batdance” became the best advertisement for the movie, mashing up more samples of dialogue with other songs from the album and even the old Batman TV theme. It’s actually kinda fun, until the tempo drastically changes, but at least it comes back for the end (on the album, but not the single).
The movie was a huge hit, and Prince’s album did almost as well. (You could even pony up for the limited edition “Batman in a can”, which housed the CD with different artwork and booklet inside a miniaturized replica of a film canister. Nice idea, but it took up space and tended to roll off a shelf.) Silly as it all was, it was proof we shouldn’t write Prince off just yet. However, he had further cinematic goals, which would unravel it all again. (That’s called foreshadowing. Can you stand it?)

Batman™ Motion Picture Soundtrack (1989)—3

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Elton John 11: Greatest Hits

By now Elton John was undoubtedly one of the biggest stars in the business, so a best-of wasn’t exactly unexpected, given his rate of appearance in the record racks. Greatest Hits was also a fairly accurate title as far as the charts were concerned, and while there weren’t any rarities, the packaging had custom labels, pretty pictures, and detailed information on who played what, where, and when, for those of us who get excited about such things.
It’s not comprehensive—ten tracks come from five albums, including three from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” from only six months before. But it’s solid, running the gamut from pretty (“Your Song”, “Daniel”) to rocking (“Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, “Bennie And The Jets”) to silly (“Honky Cat”, “Crocodile Rock”). The one head-scratcher is “Border Song”, which wasn’t really a hit, but it’s a good tune, so we’ll take it. To these ears it evokes both Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water, neither of which are represented here, but both albums are so good fans should have had them anyway. (Fun fact: outside the U.S. and Canada, “Bennie In The Jets” was replaced by “Candle In The Wind”; both appear on the CD today.)
Greatest Hits soon became one of those ‘70s albums everybody had, alongside Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and the Eagles’ own hits album, easily and often obtainable from those 12-records-or-tapes-for-a-penny outfits. In the decades since, other collections have added essentials from the same era, so this particular set may seem a little brief today. Yet, the arc of his career was still rising.

Elton John Greatest Hits (1974)—4
1992 CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 1 extra track

Friday, August 16, 2019

Frank Zappa 38: Francesco Zappa

This wacky record consists of music originally composed in the late 18th-century by a Milanese fellow with the same last name as our Frank. Basically, Frank’s copyist found out about the guy, and Frank wondered what the music sounded like, so they acquired some sheet music of some trio sonatas, and the copyist transferred it to the Synclavier, Frank’s latest composing toy. Then Frank reassigned different sounds to the different parts, so instead of violins and a cello, we’ve got twinkles and tweets and occasional whoops and burps, which one might expect. Sometimes there’s even an approximation of a harpsichord or strings. (But to be clear, all the sounds you hear come from a programmed machine. Which is fine.)
This might all sound like a case of other people doing all the work only for Frank to screw with it and call it his own, but Francesco Zappa is actually quite listenable, toe-tappingly catchy, and very pleasant. It’s chamber music, with no jokes, and no irony, other than the fact that there was once another Zappa writing music not a lot of people got to hear. As hinted at on The Perfect Stranger, the sounds used evoke Switched-On Bach. Plus, there’s that dog again on the cover.
So is this just a vanity project? Probably. Would anyone care about this music if Frank hadn’t made it available? Well, the man really did exist, and other pieces have since been exhumed and recorded by actual classical ensembles. Is it essential? Hardly. Is it historically important? Only in the context of Frank’s journey with the Synclavier. Is it worth hearing? Sure. And there you go.

The Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort Francesco Zappa (1984)—3

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Kinks 15: Everybody's In Show-Biz

Ray Davies’ fascination—some might say obsession—with America continued, somewhat on the next Kinks album. This time it was a double, the band’s first, not counting Kronikles. Everybody's In Show-Biz (sometimes with the subtitle Everybody’s A Star, sometimes without) presented two sides of music mostly complaining about the drudgery of touring, and another two recorded at Carnegie Hall during one such recent tour. It’s not an easy listen.
“Here Comes Another Day” would be a decent on its own, but the theme had already been covered in “This Time Tomorrow”. Only three years later the band’s sound has been upgraded with the inclusion of a horn section, although the music is reduced to two chords, it’s still a decent groove. Then it’s off to the drunken music hall sound that dominates the rest of the tracks, beginning with the greasy food litany of “Maximum Consumption”, but at least Dave Davies shows up for some harmonies. “Unreal Reality” begins even slower and drunker; it speeds up, thankfully, but the horns take up the mix. “Hot Potatoes” sees the brothers trading verses from the point of view of someone pointedly not in the jet set beseeching his wife for sweet lovin’ over fancy cookin’. Kill the horns and speed it up, and perhaps we’d have something. “Sitting In My Hotel” returns us to the sad rocker in the stated location, acknowledging just how petty he’s being in the face of things. Frankly, it’s lovely.
He’s back to whining about food on “Motorway”, but you’d think for all the time he’d spent plodding across America he’d’ve picked up that it’s called a highway. Dave gets a song of his own, and while “You Don’t Know My Name” is within the concept of touring, his perspective is refreshing, though we could do without the Canned Heat flute. “Supersonic Rocket Ship” pairs the music of “Apeman” with the getaway dreams of “Holiday In Waikiki” and “I’m On An Island”, then “Look A Little On The Sunny Side” is back to vaudeville, with a tuba holding the bass and a single parade drum providing the percussion. But the listener’s patience is rewarded with the lovely “Celluloid Heroes”, a song that celebrated the fading stars of Hollywood a whole year before “Candle In The Wind”, and an overt admission that Ray fully understands that the illusions of the big screen are just those.
Pairing those songs with a snapshot of a recent gig may be designed to add some conceptual commentary, but mostly it gives the band and their label a chance to double dip into the royalties. Still, for all his neuroses, Ray is quick to give credit to the people onstage beside and behind him. They start energetically with “Top Of The Pops”, and the horns add a new level to “Brainwashed”. But then the drink starts to get to Ray on a bizarre snippet of the show tune “Mr. Wonderful”, which sets up “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoid Blues”, and the rest of the set concentrates on songs from Muswell Hillbillies. There are detours through Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” (aka “Day-O”) and “Baby Face”, and we’re left with a couple minutes dedicated to the end of “Lola”, mostly sung by the audience.
Being such a long album, the first reissue only had room for two live extras, including a version of “Til The End Of The Day”, which makes the most of the stop-start riff to welcome folks to the show. For the deluxe edition two decades later, a second disc added those plus eleven more live performances—including five alternates from the original album—plus four session outtakes. (Of those, “History” is a nice new discovery, sung straight without irony or horns. “Sophisticated Lady” would emerge on the next album under another title, but here’s it’s a harmless instrumental with guitars.) If anything, the expansion proves that they were still a decent live band. That is, when they weren’t too drunk to play.

The Kinks Everybody's In Show-Biz—Everybody’s A Star (1972)—
1998 Konk CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 2 extra tracks
2016 Legacy Edition: same as 1998, plus 15 extra tracks

Friday, August 9, 2019

Joni Mitchell 21: Travelogue

The idea of Joni Mitchell doing a standards album three decades into her career may have been tough to swallow, but the final result turned out to be quite palatable. So for her next trick, she decided further the experiment on “A Case Of You” and “Both Sides Now” to recast even more of her own material with orchestral arrangements.
Apparently anything worth doing is worth overdoing, so Travelogue runs over two hours. Right there it’s a lot to take in; plus, unlike established standards that have already been arranged in dozens of ways, most of Joni’s material already exists in definitive form as her original album tracks. That said, many of the selections are deep cuts, so people hearing the songs for the very first time may enjoy these versions more than those of us more familiar with them might. The selections come from eleven of her albums; of those, Wild Things Run Fast is represented by four tracks (ex-husband Larry Klein did the arrangements, so maybe that one is special to him.)
Some of the more percussive treatments sound like mid-‘70s Tom Waits, while “Sex Kills” is lashed to a rhythm akin to “On Broadway”. There’s a choir here too; unobtrusive on “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”, it works on “God Must Be A Boogie Man”, but not so much on “Sire Of Sorrow”. The louder tracks can be jarring so soon after softer ones, again making the two-hour journey arduous. The Hejira remakes seem to be the most faithful, and the look all the way back to “The Dawntreader” is also lovely. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” has something of a wandering arrangement, but her voicing of the waitress’s one line cheapens it. “Woodstock” is given an even more extended approach than hers, and certainly from CSNY’s version; we find it meandering. “For The Roses” gets a dramatic overhaul, wherein she really explores each line, just as “Cherokee Louise” is given a heartbreaking treatment, as befits the lyrics. “The Circle Game” ends the program gorgeously, with wonderful sax trills from Wayne Shorter, making for as moving as closer as “Both Sides Now” was on her last album.
In some ways Joni was ahead of the curve, as the years since have seen several artists go the “orchestral re-imagining” route a la Travelogue. Cynics suggest such a project happens when an artist has run out of ideas; in Joni’s case, she said she was done with the record business anyway. She wasn’t, but we didn’t know that then, and neither did she.

Joni Mitchell Travelogue (2002)—3