Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Jethro Tull 15: Bursting Out

Amazingly, Jethro Tull waited a full decade before issuing a live album. Granted, many of their shows in the ‘70s involved multimedia and sight gags, but if they were ever going to do the double live thing, 1978 was calling for it.

Bursting Out covers all the bases, from early blues like “A New Day Yesterday” to the recent folkie stylings on Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses. Following an introduction by Montreux Jazz Festival founder (and inimitably named) Claude Nobs, Martin Barre kicks into a serrated riff with Ian Anderson’s flute interjections. Cleverly, “No Lullaby” leads into “Sweet Dream” before a few acoustic pieces. From there it’s an excellent display of dynamics, sometimes within a single song. “A New Day Yesterday” devolves into a flute improvisation that quotes “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (in May) and turns into “Boureé”. “Thick As A Brick” is distilled down to about 12 minutes, incorporating much more than the edits on the two “hits” albums. An instrumental called “Conundrum” might as well be called “Prelude To Barriemore Barlow’s Drum Solo”, while a side’s worth of Aqualung favorites (saving the best for last, apparently) is split up only by an instrumental called “Quatrain” and the band’s customary reworking of “The Dambusters March”. Ian’s stage announcements throughout are typically cheeky, and occasionally bleeped, likely due to a radio broadcast.

Because of the length, the original CD omitted “Sweet Dream” and the two instrumentals; this has since been rectified, and a good thing too. Bursting Out is tight and solid, and recommended to fans of any incarnation of the band to date.

Jethro Tull Bursting Out (1978)—

Friday, December 27, 2019

Journey 11: Greatest Hits Live

Unlike the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and other arena bands who reunited in the ‘90s, Journey did not tour to support their reunion album, which pissed off everyone in the band who wasn’t Steve Perry. Holograms hadn’t become an onstage thing yet, so Columbia did the next best thing in their power to cash in while they still could.

Greatest Hits Live cobbled a disc’s worth of live recordings from the Escape and Frontiers tours, effectively presenting a concert document in the form of a sequel to Captured. Some songs are repeated from that album, but Jonathan Cain did his homework and lived up to the challenge of replicating parts he didn’t write. The sequence is very much focused on the hits, but it is faithful to the shows in that “Lights” goes into “Stay Awhile” and “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” is dragged out to seven minutes.

The liner notes made a big deal of saying how the tapes were “discovered” by chance and had to be baked before they deteriorated completely, but some of the music had indeed appeared before. This was proven a handful of years later when a complete show from 1981, which got lots of airtime in the early days of MTV, was cleaned up for an official DVD, released with a companion CD that was eventually made available on its own. Live in Houston 1981: The Escape Tour gets a slight edge over its half-brother, being that the sequence is true and Steve’s inter-song “ad-libs” make better sense in context. You also get extended solo showcases from Jonathan, Neal Schon, and Steve Smith. The CD even has something the DVD doesn’t, that being a live version of “Hopelessly In Love (The Party’s Over)”. The cover art isn’t too imaginative, but at least it’s not as baffling as the scary bird lady who adorns Greatest Hits Live.

Journey Greatest Hits Live (1998)—3
Live in Houston 1981: The Escape Tour (2005)—

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Jorma Kaukonen 2: Christmas

The holidays are all about giving, and one of our faithful readers and staunch supporters hipped us to an album we’d overlooked. Simply titled Christmas, it’s a simple collection of originals and standards from the fingers of Jorma Kaukonen, with help from collaborator Michael Falzarano.

Much like Hot Tuna seesawed between acoustic folk and electric blues, the album isn’t strictly one style or the other, but through the magic of digital, whether on a disc or streaming, one can change the sequence. Some of the instrumentals only count as holiday songs due to sleigh bells as percussion, but they work because the artists say they do. “Christmas Blues” and “You’re Still Standing” rely on distorted guitar to distract from the basic lyrics, but “The Christmas Rule” is a hilarious cautionary tale about why you shouldn’t use your fireplace on Christmas Eve. A very reverent reading of “Silent Night” is followed by “Holiday Marmalade”, which turns it into an extended 11-minute blues. “Baby Boy” is a traditional tune we suspect may have originated in the Caribbean, and a nice surprise. Just like the album itself.

Jorma Kaukonen Christmas (1996)—3

Friday, December 20, 2019

Monkees 10: Christmas Party

Given the critical success of the first new Monkees album in 20 years, it should surprise no one that a follow-up would shortly be in the works, considering the advanced years of the vocalists. Extra points if you guessed it would be a Christmas album. Sure enough, Christmas Party attempts to recreate the recipe of Good Times!, using the same producer, some of the same songwriters, and plenty of modern technology to bring Davy Jones back from the grave.

If you’re good at math, you’ll also notice that eight of the thirteen songs are sung by Micky Dolenz, with no other Monkee involvement. His tunes include new holiday songs from the fingers of Andy Partridge, Rivers Cuomo, novelist Michael Chabon, and Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey from R.E.M. and the Minus Five. After he gets those out of the way, he tackles more modern rock ‘n roll standards, including “Jesus Christ” by Big Star, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” by Wizzard, and most daringly of all, “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney. Finally, his cover of “Merry Christmas Baby” proves he ain’t no blues man.

Since a Micky Dolenz Christmas album wouldn’t be as lucrative for anybody, Michael Nesmith contributed two covers recorded on his own: Mel Tormé’s unstoppable chestnut “The Christmas Song” and the more obscure but quite lovely “Snowfall”. An unrecognizable Peter Tork added a vocal-and-banjo rendition of “Angels We Have Heard On High”, while Davy’s vocals on “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Silver Bells” come from 1991. As ever, he knew how to work a room, a professional to the end. (Smart consumers and Monkeemaniacs would have rushed to their nearest Target store to get two exclusive bonus tracks: “Ríu Chíu”, sourced from the TV show’s 1967 Christmas episode, and “Christmas Is My Time Of Year”, originally recorded by Micky, Davy, and Peter in 1976 for the still-active fan club.)

There aren’t a lot of rock ‘n roll Christmas albums, and we’ve already covered the better ones. One’s enjoyment of Christmas Party depends on how much one can stomach an aging yet unflappably enthusiastic Micky Dolenz. Frankly, the ones he doesn’t sing are more successful, and the album is paced mostly well. We wanted to hate it, and we don’t. And it is just once a year.

The Monkees Christmas Party (2018)—3

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Todd Rundgren 21: A Cappella

Just as nobody was buying Utopia albums, Todd’s solo career had ground to a halt. The Bearsville label ceased to exist, which enabled him to put out the album he’d been sitting on for a year on Warner Bros. Once you hear that album, you can understand why labels were reluctant to back it. As befits the title, A Cappella was “written, produced, and sung” by Todd, using only his voice and we’re guessing occasional handclaps. When there are “drums”, they’re created using the sampler that would soon be as dated as the Yamaha DX-7. (The Fat Boys didn’t have the only Human Beatbox on the charts.)

Todd was always adept at layering his own vocals, but these aren’t necessarily pop songs, and the clutter of the multitracks sometimes makes it hard to hear the songs themselves. For instance, “Blue Orpheus” begins with a lovely choir-like blend, but goes off the rails when the percussion kicks in. The best tracks are those that use only voice and no effects, such as “Pretending To Care” and “Honest Work”. “Something To Fall Back On” was the obvious single, but even that hasn’t aged well, continuing the resemblance to “Jane’s Getting Serious”.

The timing was awkward as well, considering how much space is given to the antiwar “Johnee Jingo” and “Miracle In The Bazaar”, which comes off like a Muslim call to prayer. “Lockjaw” is a noisy “rocker” about a mythological bogeyman, delivered in the same cartoony voice that sank “An Elpee’s Worth Of Toons”. We’re not sure who “Hodja” is, but Wikipedia says John Stamos performed a version of it on the first season of Full House, so we’ll pass. A cover of “Mighty Love” by the Spinners is probably the best way to close the set.

We’d be curious to hear the actual songs on A Cappella to see if they’d improve with band arrangements, but we’re not that curious. Ultimately the album is as frustrating as the first Utopia album and Initiation, where he also dared people to keep up with him.

Todd Rundgren A Cappella (1985)—2

Friday, December 13, 2019

Who 28: WHO

Thirteen years isn’t that much of a stretch between studio albums when their previous gap was nearly twice that. Yet Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have been steadily performing as the Who for that duration, and that they managed to agree on songs for a new album is unexpected. Roger called the songs their “best since Quadrophenia.” Considering that this is only their sixth album since then, and one of them was The Who By Numbers, that opinion should be taken as literally as anything Pete spouts only to contradict in his next interview. However, when Uncut magazine agrees with that assessment, it’s best to go in with an open mind.

The album is simply called WHO (yes, rendered in all caps), with nostalgic and iconic artwork by Peter Blake. Pete wrote all the songs, save one by brother Simon and a co-write based on a track he found on SoundCloud. As per his M.O., he painstakingly recorded his demos at great expense, then he brought them to the studio for replication by regulars Zak Starkey and Pino Palladino (as well as such session rats as Joey Waronker and Benmont Tench). Then Roger added his lead vocals on all but one, miles away from everybody else. It should be noted that Roger sounds terrific, particularly over power chords.

There really isn’t a theme to the album, but many of the songs deal with the type of topics you’d expect a well-read septuagenarian concerned with world issues and the power of music to ponder. “All This Music Must Fade” addresses the futility of it all right off the bat, closing with a profane dismissal by Pete, and “I Don’t Wanna Be Wise” confronts the fact that some of the band did indeed die before they got old. In between, “Ball And Chain” is a re-recording of “Guantanamo” from Pete’s recent hits album; Roger must’ve loved it since he really digs into it here. “Detour”, despite alluding to an early name of the band, is a clumsy call for compassion, as is the more tender yet maudlin “Beads On One String”. Killer chorus, though. “Hero Ground Zero” is directly related to Pete’s novel The Age Of Anxiety, which concerns such topics as sex scandals, music nobody understands, and a concert that portends some kind of transformation or doom.

As anthemic as that one is, “Street Song” is even more passionate, inspired by a fire that destroyed a London tower block. Pete takes over for the decidedly adult contemporary “I’ll Be Back”, which could be a love song to either his current partner or even Meher Baba; the harmonica sounds very much like longtime sideman Peter Hope-Evans, though the liner notes say otherwise. Simon Townshend’s “Break The News” is more like ‘90s rock, but Roger per usual gives it his all. “Rockin’ In Rage” returns us to the quandary of aging and relevance, while “She Rocked My World” is extremely low-key, almost Latin, and sounds unfinished.

It’s a strange way to end the album, but diehard Who freaks would have purchased at least one version of the album with three extra tracks, all sung by Pete, and they’re a strange handful. “This Gun Will Misfire” addresses gun control; “Got Nothing To Prove” is an actual mid-'60s demo given a Ted Astley-type orchestral overdub that sounds like the theme to a TV Western; “Danny And My Ponies” is a portrait of a homeless guy who still exudes enough pride to make the narrator feel humbled. (The Japanese market got an extra vintage demo called “Sand”.)

WHO is good, but not classic. Musically it sounds like an expansion of It’s Hard without the dated production. Many tracks begin with one of those circular keyboard things familiar from “Baba O’Riley”, but lots of their songs have done that. Lyrics would have been nice, and what’s with the Autotune? It’s been used ironically by others, but Pete seems to embrace it here on the sparing but glaring occasions that it pops up. Overall, it’s more satisfying than Endless Wire, if a little frustrating, and still better than McCartney’s last album.

Not even a year after its release, the band tried to recoup losses incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the performing arts industry by release a deluxe edition of the album. It included none of the bonuses from the original release, added an unnecessary remix of “Beads On One String” at the end of the disc, and included selections from a predominantly acoustic performance from February 2020 on a bonus disc. It’s entertaining, but doesn’t justify buying the album again.

The Who WHO (2019)—3
2020 Deluxe Edition: same as 2019, plus 9 extra tracks

Friday, December 6, 2019

Roger Waters 4: Is This The Life We Really Want?

Much like a certain character in a Dickens novel, Roger Waters had a change of heart in the 21st century, and began to embrace his former bandmates in public. An actual Pink Floyd reunion for Live 8 in 2005 amazingly did not involve a Fender Precision bass soaring across the stage, and when he took his latest update of The Wall on tour, both Nick Mason and David Gilmour contributed to one London performance.

Still, despite a kinder, gentler Roger, many of the new images and messaging within the staging of The Wall proved he could still be plenty disgusted over world issues, and when he finally got around to a new album after 25 years, it showed. Is This The Life We Really Want? isn’t much different from his other solo albums, except that there are no all-star guests and exactly one guitar solo. While there isn’t a storyline, most of the things that pissed him off on Amused To Death have multiplied, particularly the media and global terrorism. Nigel Godrich, most famous for producing Radiohead and Beck, takes charge here, tethering Roger in much as he did Paul McCartney in 2005. The album still sounds somewhat Floydian, with familiar strings, keyboard flourishes, octave notes on the bass, and so on.

Sound effects like ticking clocks and conversations abound, some not easy to discern in the murk of the mix. The songs are mostly slow and depressing, his voice either gravelly and disgusted or howling with rage. He occasionally lapses into lists instead of lyrics, and did not write a distinct melody for each of the tracks. F-bombs are spat, particularly when railing against Donald Trump.

“When We Were Young” is a “Speak To Me”-style intro, with ticking clocks, a heartbeat pulse, and muffled voices, moving into “Déjà Vu” (a title that doesn’t appear until the end of the tune). It’s a profound rumination on what he’d do if he were God, then if he were a drone, complete with startling effects. A drumbeat that evokes Bowie’s “Five Years” drives “The Last Refugee”, a sad reflection that erupts into the much angrier “Picture That”, with a wonderful rant culminating in “a leader with no [expletive deleted] brains”, all over music that sounds like “Sheep”.

That takes a lot out of him, and a cough that reminds us of the first grunt on “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” heralds “Broken Bones”, a mostly acoustic elegy for Mistress Liberty. The title track maintain tension over several minutes, then detours into a strange monologue in south London accent about ants before ending on what sounds like a patient flatlining. Some “Welcome To The Machine” mechanics continue the same tempo and heighten the tension on “Bird In A Gale”, which is less political but just as bleak. The Bowie beat must be a theme for lost children, as it returns on “The Most Beautiful Girl”, about another victim of random government-sanctioned violence.

As before, a song about an innocent is answered from the point of view of the finger on the trigger, and “Smell The Roses” brings in the funk a la “Have A Cigar” filtered through the second half of “Dogs”. It’s a good way to set up the album’s finale, which is really one song with three titles, and the middle one is just one verse. Taken together, “Wait For Her”, “Oceans Apart”, and “Part Of Me Died” may well be, dare we say, the most beautiful thing he’s ever released. The suite ends with a positive message, but also on an unresolved, minor chord, almost abruptly.

While not an easy listen, the music on Is This The Life We Really Want? is certainly moving, and serves the lyrics, whether or not you understand what he’s talking about. While he’s preaching to his choir, the album is a lot better than it could have been. In other words, it was worth the wait.

Roger Waters Is This The Life We Really Want? (2017)—3

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

David Bowie 43: Conversation Piece

If the previous few years had been any indication, the time was ripe for the next massive chronological Bowie box set. Instead, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “Space Oddity” single and subsequent album, the Bowie estate began releasing a series of vinyl-only sets of mostly unheard acoustic demo versions of songs, not all of which were familiar. Spying Through A Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos were each issued as box sets of 7-inch 45rpm singles where they could easily have filled out a single LP, while The ‘Mercury’ Demos did just that.

The music spans 1968 through 1969, when Bowie was trying to finalize songs that would go on his second album, following the less-than-astounding reception for his first. The Keyhole songs are intriguing as they appear to be completely solo, sometimes overdubbing himself on guitar and percussion, with an arrival for an early version of “Space Oddity” with then-musical partner John Hutchinson. At this point he was still finding his way, aping different styles, from the nursery pop of “Mother Grey” to the more theatrical “Goodbye Threepenny Joe”. “Love All Around” is more successful, and there are two versions of “Angel Angel Grubby Face” to compare.

The Clareville Grove and Mercury material are all “Bowie & Hutch” folk duo recordings, the latter set specifically intended for the A&R man at that label. In addition to the familiar “Space Oddity” demo, highlights include two versions of “Lover To The Dawn”, which would turn into “Cygnet Committee”, Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song”, a year before Elton John released his version, and two versions of the very Simon & Garfunkel-inspired “Life Is A Circus” written by one Roger Bunn. “Janine” sports a cringey cop from “Hey Jude”, thankfully dropped by the time the album would be recorded.

Being culled from various sources and taping sessions, there was much repetition, particularly in “Space Oddity” itself. The repetition only amped up when the sets were eventually issued on CD, as part of the Conversation Piece box. This set basically served as a prequel to the Five Years box, and tried to cram in everything from the period leading up to what we now know as the Space Oddity album, with only a few overlaps.

To start, Spying Through A Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos were fleshed out with eight further unreleased performances to fill a single disc. “April’s Tooth Of Gold” is wordy but Kinky, as is “Reverend Raymond Brown” which rocks but is just too busy. The overtly Dylanesque “Jerusalem” and especially “Hole In The Ground”, which wouldn’t see an official recording until the next century, are nice surprises. And we can be glad he never pursued more “kids” songs like “When I’m Five”, which appears three times throughout the box. (Meanwhile, The ‘Mercury’ Demos got its own disc, running only 42 minutes.)

A third disc mixed two complete BBC sessions, which had previously been spread across previous deluxe editions and whatnot, with various odd singles and studio outtakes, including the rejected single that backed “In The Heat Of The Morning” with “London Bye, Ta-Ta”. A fourth disc included a new remaster of the original 1969 mix of the second David Bowie album, a.k.a. Space Oddity, and some alternate mixes. A fifth disc sported Tony Visconti’s updated 2019 mix of the same album, which was also released separately; here it added the new mix of the single version of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”, plus the apparently necessary upgrade of “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola”—a.k.a. “Space Oddity” with different lyrics in Italian.

It’s been suggested that the reasoning for this release is more along the lines of any “copyright extension” practices than any merit beyond historical. It’s more of a prequel than anything else, and deserves its own entry rather than being crammed into the context of the Space Oddity album. So we did.

David Bowie Conversation Piece (2019)—3

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Dwight Twilley 1: Sincerely

Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour were a couple of nice boys with nice hair from Tulsa who created some of the tastiest power pop (though they despised that term) of the mid-‘70s. With Dwight concentrating on guitars and keyboards, and most of the singing and songwriting, and Phil holding down both bass and drums, together they were the faces of the Dwight Twilley Band, but that understates the nearly constant input of Bill Petcock IV on lead guitar. Both sang, and it takes a while to figure out who’s who. Their debut, Sincerely, provides plenty of catchy opportunities to do that.

It’s always a good idea to start your album with your hit single, and “I’m On Fire” is a terrific place to begin, with riffs, hooks, guitars, everything. “Could Be Love” combines real drums with a machine, and what sounds like a toy organ with a toy piano; clearly these guys had lots of fun making records. Lest you think they’re wimps, “Feeling In The Dark” is much harder rock, with Leon Russell pounding away on piano, then “You Were So Warm” evokes the Beach Boys in harmonies and chords. The title track sounds as lo-fi as anything else, but fun fact: the backwards guitar and bass were provided by engineer Roger Linn, just a few years before inventing his eponymous drum machine.

They’re not all winners, of course. “TV” is an ode to that very technology delivered by a rockabilly vocal; thankfully “Release Me” returns to a girl group sound. “Three Persons” has layered vocals that disguise the lyrics, but that “love you, love you” chorus always pricks up our ears. With its vibrato falsetto and cliché lyrics, “Baby Let’s Cruise” seems like a parody, but it’s just so damn infectious despite itself. “England” is probably the best example of how the lyrics don’t seem to have any purpose except to fill out the track, especially when “Just Like The Sun” does a better job of conveying an image.

As their friend Tom Petty soon found out, Shelter Records proved to be a false promise for a lot of its artists, so this and other Twilley albums have been in an out of print over the years, with and without bonus tracks. Thanks to the Internet, Sincerely is easy enough to be heard, and should be.

Dwight Twilley Band Sincerely (1976)—

Friday, November 22, 2019

Elton John 12: Captain Fantastic

The man couldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop, and before you knew it, here was a new Elton John album. Having looked back somewhat with the hits album, for their next multiplatinum move Elton and Bernie concocted a concept album intended to evoke their early pre-fame years as struggling songwriters and performers. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy even came in another elaborate package with a poster, two booklets of photos and such, and even lyrics to a song that wasn’t on the album because they never finished it.

The title track begins with sounds that recall their Western fantasies of only a few years before, but beyond that brief beginning, the music is mostly contemporary, and not at all evocative of the period when these events were supposedly taking place, no matter what the lyrics convey. Which is fine, of course, and likely helped the album’s sales, but dates the album today. “Tower Of Babel” and “Bitter Fingers” follow the same template—a moody opening referring to snowy pavements and struggles, then a more straightforward backing from the band (most of whom would be sacked before the tour). “Tell Me When The Whistle Blows” is pure Philly soul, with some particularly tasty Davey Johnstone guitar, but it’s a welcome left turn to the classically epic “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, on some days our absolute favorite Elton John song. At nearly seven minutes, this opus of thanks for being talked out of a doomed marriage was an odd choice for AM radio, but boy, did it sound good.

“(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket” blasts off side two with a killer riff and more Philly soul, but suddenly we’re in Gilbert & Sullivan territory for the jumpy “Better Off Dead”, and “Writing” is pure yacht rock. Luckily, Elton remembered his better albums and was sure to build up to a big satisfying finale. “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” is mournful for most of it, again sounding mildly derivatively classical. The bridge is in a major key, then the verse reverts to the minor before finding its way back to major key for the resolution. Then without warning, “Curtains” takes over. Slow archetypal Elton chords are decorated by his double-tracked vocal while the band peeks in here and there. There are only two verses, each ending with a simple “oh-oh-oh” motif. On the second, the band finally kicks in completely, right on time for a surprising couplet, surprising in that it is not only directed at the audience, but is delivered in the first person plural, Bernie and Elton together: “And just like us, you must have had a once upon a time.” The “oh-oh-oh” is joined by additional wordless harmonies and parts, somewhat reminiscent of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, bringing everything up to date as the credits roll.

At this point Elton had the Midas touch. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy shipped gold and was the first album ever to debut at #1 on the Billboard album charts. It still coheres well as an album, but today’s ears are beginning to detect that the gravy train might not last. (The initial expanded CD added the pertinent singles “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, along with the B-side “One Day At A Time”, a superior version of a recent Lennon solo track. For the album’s 30th anniversary, the B-side “House Of Cards” was added to these on the one disc, while a second presented the bulk of a 1975 Wembley concert where the album was played in order by his revised and expanded band, followed by “Pinball Wizard” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”.)

Elton John Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 3 extra tracks
2005 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 13 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Mary Hopkin 4: Live At The Royal Festival Hall

Having had enough of the pop music industry, and already starting a family, Mary Hopkin kept mostly to herself over the decades, surfacing occasionally on a background vocal or an album on a small label. Any Apple reissue brought her attention, and once her kids were grown they became extremely determined to promote their mum. One of the first CDs released on the Mary Hopkin Music label was a concert performed in the wake of Earth Song/Ocean Song, opening for headliner Ralph McTell.

It’s an eclectic set, touching on some of the hits but mostly on the folk songs she loved, such as “Silver Dagger”, “Once I Had A Sweetheart”, “Both Sides Now”, and “Morning Is Broken”. Acoustic guitars, plus Danny Thompson on upright bass, and a small string quartet back her gently. Just as her delivery is confident, her banter in between is witty and utterly charming. Speaking of which, one can’t help but smile as she and husband Tony Visconti duet on the Beatles’ “If I Fell”. She even does “Those Were The Days”, she says, because her in-laws had “flown in from New York” to hear it.

The sound quality is a little wonky on the last two songs, but her voice—that sweet, angelic voice—is clear as a blue sky, and shines through. Live At The Royal Festival Hall 1972 is a wonderful discovery for anyone who enjoyed her brief pop career.

Mary Hopkin Live At The Royal Festival Hall 1972 (2005)—

Friday, November 15, 2019

Bob Dylan 65: Travelin’ Thru

The ongoing Bob Dylan Bootleg Series project has resulted in volumes designed to be as revelatory as they are historically important. The fifteenth such release certainly illuminates a legendary collaboration, but it doesn’t necessarily rewrite history.

Travelin’ Thru goes in depth into the creation of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, two albums that were so unlike what Bob had done before, as well as what his perceived rock ‘n roll peers had accomplished. They’re also albums that, for the most part, have never been plundered by bootleggers, so the anticipation for hearing outtakes for the first time runs high. The first disc in the set devotes the equivalent of an album side’s worth of alternates from each of these albums, but unfortunately there are no “HOLY CRAP” moments among the selections. The lone unheard song, “Western Road”, isn’t much more than an uninspired 12-bar repeating the same clichés about going to Chicago. There are some takes tried in alternate tempos, but nothing that will have the listener thinking it should have been released instead of what was. (The compilers admit to the dearth of multiple takes, partially because they allegedly just weren’t different, but mostly because the tapes themselves have been missing for decades. We can’t blame the Universal fire for this one, much as we’d like to.)

The packaging for Travelin’ Thru prominently trumpets “featuring Johnny Cash” throughout, as the bulk of the set is dedicated to the session of duets that yielded the version of “Girl From The North Country” that opens Nashville Skyline. Unfortunately, little else reaches that level of sublimity, the majority of the summit spent running through what they can recall of various songs while Johnny’s band, which included Carl Perkins, gamely plays along and navigates the hairpin key changes. Johnny comes off better throughout, as their voices don’t quite mesh with Bob in full “Lay Lady Lay” croon, and he barely harmonizes more than singing a single note against Johnny’s melody. A few tunes could have had potential had they worked on them, but it’s hard to say whether they thought it would be worth it. One stab deserving attention is the real-time mashup of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Understand Your Man”, each man singing a verse from either song simultaneously. We could get excited about finally hearing Bob sing “Wanted Man”, but they spend most of the take trying to remember the words and making up new ones. Clearly they enjoyed each other’s company, and Bob even appeared on the debut episode of ABC-TV’s The Johnny Cash Show, performing “I Threw It All Away” and the almost-a-single “Living The Blues” and duetting with Johnny on “Girl From The North Country”. (All three are included here.)

To fill out a set that could easily fit on two discs instead of three, we get two further outtakes from Self Portrait, both Cash songs: “Ring Of Fire” gets a slick treatment and “Folsom Prison Blues” speeds up into a jam. Along the same lines are a handful of songs from a documentary about bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, including the Scruggs Family arrangement of “Nashville Skyline Rag” and Bob’s half-remembered “To Be Alone With You”. Recorded amidst the New Morning sessions, his voice has returned to its familiar rasp.

When you count the various copyright collections that emerged over the last decade or so, Travelin’ Thru effectively fills in the remaining gaps on the first decade of Bob’s career. (In fact, keen-eyed collectors would have scooped up the highly limited 50th Anniversary Collection 1969, which offered two discs’ worth of further outtakes from that year—mostly unfinished takes, and a few more duets, but notably the otherwise unheard “Running”.) Therefore, it’s highly unlikely a future Bootleg Series release will cover anything else from the ‘60s. This one will be welcomed by Dylan obsessives, and everybody loves Johnny Cash. But it’s also nice to have an installment in the series that doesn’t break the bank. And no “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”!

Bob Dylan Travelin’ Thru 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (2019)—3
Bob Dylan
50th Anniversary Collection 1969 (2019)—

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Kinks 16: The Great Lost Kinks Album

Navigating the Kinks catalog was already a chore in the early ‘70s, given the different releases on either side of the Atlantic. Having recently explored the depths of the vaults with The Kink Kronikles, Reprise (and resident Kinks krusader John Mendelsohn) dangled another carrot in the form of The Great Lost Kinks Album. With a track selection as baffling as its cover art, this album attempted to illuminate some hidden gems, except that the band (read: Ray Davies) didn’t know anything about it till after it was out, and since most of the tracks had already been rejected by the label years before, forced the LP’s deletion. (On top of that, the liner notes even take up several paragraphs slamming the band’s current stage act, which likely didn’t please Ray either.)

Two of the tunes were actually from a truly lost album, the aborted Four More Respected Gentlemen stopgap: “Misty Water” and “Mr. Songbird” (which had already been out on the rare 12-track version of Village Green Preservation Society). With its subtle Mellotron, “Lavender Hill” (not to be confused with the Muswell Hillbillies outtake “Lavender Lane”) is a nice refugee from the Something Else period, as is “Rosemary Rose” with its harpsichord. “Pictures In The Sand” is also from the same era, stuck between vaudeville and “Autumn Almanac”. The trad-jazzy “Till Death Us Do Part” sounds like a TV theme song, and since it was written for a film, that makes sense. Meanwhile, side two is bookended by two similar middle-aged goofs, “When I Turn Off The Living Room Light” and “Where Did My Spring Go?”

A handful of tracks come from another great lost album, that being the never-finished full-length LP Dave Davies was supposedly working on in the wake of his solo singles. “There Is No Life Without Love” and “This Man He Weeps Tonight” were both British B-sides, while the horn-flavored “Groovy Movies” makes its debut here. Dave also sings lead on “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”, rescued from the flipside of the “Sunny Afternoon” single; rumor has it the song was written for Eric Burdon of the Animals, and we believe it. “Plastic Man” was the equally silly A-side to “King Kong”, which was already included on Kronikles, and “The Way Love Used To Be” is the other worthy song from the Percy soundtrack.

As an album, The Great Lost Kinks Album isn’t great by any stretch, but its charms do reveal themselves in time. Original copies are rare and therefore high-priced; luckily, the tracks have since been farmed out to various CDs, predominantly the expanded Village Green and Arthur reissues. So while no single disc replicates it, the tunes are all readily accessible.

The Kinks The Great Lost Kinks Album (1973)—3
Current CD equivalent: none

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 59: 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

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
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, not two.

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
Retrospective I: 1974-1980 (1997)—
Retrospective II: 1981-1987 (1997)—
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”. A 2001 box set alternately titled either Cat Stevens or On The Road To Find Out covers his career over four discs, with the requisite outtakes, demos, and live tracks. 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”. As for Harold And Maude, a handful of limited vinyl-only releases in this century covered the new and previously released Cat Stevens music used in the film, until an official soundtrack was finally released for CD and streaming in 2022, adding dialogue and other music from the film.

Cat Stevens Footsteps In The Dark: Greatest Hits Volume Two (1984)—
Cat Stevens
Harold And Maude—Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2022)—3

Friday, October 4, 2019

Peter Gabriel 9: Us

While fans were accustomed to Peter Gabriel’s slow release pace and interest in world music, they were clamoring for the true follow-up to So. With Us, chock full of songs built on hooks, they got it.

He’d written about relationships before, of course, but what made this album so different was that each of the songs (well, nine of them, anyway) overtly dealt with topics like communication, desire and sex. He was in a crossroads; having finally divorced from his wife, he had also found himself in the tabloids when he was seen in the company of the fetching Rosanna Arquette.

The opening fanfare of “Come Talk To Me” sounds like bagpipes, with galloping drums accompanying a plea, a demand for attention, it’s hard to ignore him. Things turn down though, first for the straightforward “Love To Be Loved”, then for “Blood Of Eden”, which musically sounds akin to “Don’t Give Up”, only this time the voice of hope is provided by Sinead O’Connor. The horn-heavy “Sledgehammer” sound returns on “Steam”, and while it’s not explicitly about the physical act, there’s a horniness to it. “Only Us” uses a variety of conflicting meters to disguise the song’s true rhythm, but it doesn’t really settle in.

“Washing Of The Water” is lyrically and musically reminiscent of spirituals, and its feel certainly conveys the desire to be cleansed, to start anew. (Indeed, some of it sounds influenced by “Bread And Wine”, the closing track on Passion.) The mood is truly jarred by “Digging In The Dirt”. Here the emotions touched on via therapy are exposed to the raw, culminating in the sinister “don’t talk back” sections before the choruses. “Fourteen Black Paintings” begins as another throwback to the Passion album, with its tense ambience and use of Mideastern instruments, but its simple lyrics rather recall “We Do What We’re Told”. But to revive the attention of anyone who left the room to get popcorn, “Kiss That Frog” provides an uptempo come-on, with all the hallmarks of vintage soul, and little subtlety in the lyrics. But he saves the best for last. “Secret World” gears up steadily on an almost machine-like beat, and brings in a vocal that’s tired, resigned yet proud of the state of his relationship. It’s not clear whether the people in the song are going to stay together or separate, but that’s what makes it universal. Chills arrive at the whispered “shh—listen” near the end.

Us is a heavier listen than So, but the overall strength endures and reveals itself over time, just as the composer revealed himself in the songs. While Daniel Lanois (again) helped bring Peter’s ideas into the ‘90s, older fans likely enjoyed the touches that reminded them of the Peter Gabriel of a decade before.

Peter Gabriel Us (1992)—

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)—3

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)—