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

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Lou Reed 18: Mistrial

After a mild hit single with “I Love You Suzanne” and even a track on the fairly commercial White Nights soundtrack (the just-okay-but-still-cool “My Love Is Chemical”), compounded by the mild increase of interest in the Velvet Underground, one would think Lou Reed would be poised for a smash hit album. But that’s just not how Lou rolled.
Mistrial had a funky-fresh sound for 1986, with big programmed drums, popping bass and yes, lots of guitar. The title track is promising, but it foretells the sameness in most of the arrangements, compounded by his failure to find melodies for each of the songs. “No Money Down” was a single, not helped by a Godley & Crème video depicting an animatronic Lou tearing his face off. (I mean, we always suspected he was a robot, but…) “Outside” is merely a list of conditions contrasted with those on the “inside”, and could use some editing, a melody, and less monotony. The sentiment of “Don’t Hurt A Woman” is sincere, but it comes off as an assignment for an anger management class; the same could be said for the much more aggressive “Spit It Out”.
“Video Violence” and “The Original Wrapper” are early stabs at what would one day be astute comments on the state of America eventually, but that was a way’s away. The former is as ugly as the scenes he describes, while the latter, besides beating the joke to death, simply goes by to fast for us to comprehend what the hell he’s saying. “Mama’s Got A Lover” is a clever scenario for a change, and deserves a more sympathetic arrangement. “I Remember You” is even less convincing than Bob Dylan’s underwhelming song of a year before, and the quasi-“Sweet Jane” chords that don’t change at all don’t help.
Not until the last track is the album nearly redeemed. “Tell It To Your Heart” is a tender love song, with vocal help from new buddy Rúben Blades. But ultimately, Mistrial is a misfire. He kept his profile high by joining Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour, alongside the likes of U2, Sting, and Peter Gabriel, but he was about to take his longest vacation yet.

Lou Reed Mistrial (1986)—2

Friday, August 2, 2019

Mary Hopkin 3: Those Were The Days

Even though she hadn’t had a hit in a few years, somebody still cared about Mary Hopkin at Apple, which nicely capped off her stint there with a compilation. Save the title track, which was of course included on the US version of her first album, Those Were The Days collects several songs that were only ever released as singles, some of which actually charted. Besides “albumizing” several songs, it presents something of a link between her two proper LPs.
“Que Sera Sera” and “The Fields Of St. Etienne” were produced by Paul McCartney, and feature him and Ringo playing. These were also the last tracks she recorded before moving on to producer Mickie Most, whose song choices were even more single-minded. But for her voice, “Think About Your Children” and “Knock Knock Who’s There” might as well be the Partridge Family. “Temma Harbour” attempts to evoke musical echoes of various tropical islands without focusing on one. “Lontano Degli Occhi” continued the strategy of making her a multilingual superstar; this particular Italian pastry has a certain “Feelings” quality. “Heritage”, written by Gallagher and Lyle, is much more suited to her comfort level. (The album also included “Goodbye” and “Sparrow”, both of which have been appended to the Post Card reissue, as was “Kew Gardens” to Earth Song/Ocean Song.)
Much of the Apple catalog went forgotten after the label became inactive, and the non-Beatle artists went various ways. The Apple reissues of the early ‘90s included Mary’s first two albums alongside the likes of Badfinger, James Taylor, and Billy Preston, but—in the US anyway—interest thawed, so several titles were only released in the UK, including an upgrade of Those Were The Days. She actually had a hand in compiling the CD version, which collected further stray singles and B-sides that fell off the original LP, and added three tracks from Earth Song/Ocean Song (one of which actually was a single) plus one outtake from same. Just as the LP, it presents all sides of her repertoire, for better or for worse, and while its lack of availability today unfortunately leaves some gems buried once again, the label can’t blamed; she didn’t like them anyway.

Mary Hopkin Those Were The Days (1972)—
1995 UK CD: same as 1972, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Rush 16: Presto

Rush had tended to use the quarterly live album as a bookend, suggesting that the band’s next album would be an evolution, a new phase of the band, if you will. In the case of Presto, a marked de-emphasis on synthesizers was accompanied by a brand new contract with Atlantic, which they expected would give it, and the band, a push to the turn of the century.
“Show Don’t Tell” was an ideal intro, being the first track promoting the album, and the opener. Near-flamenco flourishes by every instrument carry understated verses designed to highlight the catchy choruses. “Chain Lightning” doesn’t stand out very much, until the chorus starts to sound too much like that of “Limelight”, and frankly, the pitch-altered “that’s nice” at the end is just odd. The next two songs solidify their role as spokesmen for suburban teens, continuing ideas first begun on “Subdivisions”: “The Pass” concerns teen suicide, pointedly against it, Alex’s little solo adding a feeling of triumph before the futility of “Christ what have you done”, whereas “War Paint” is a little more upbeat, dismantling the ideas of personal image and superficial vanity. “Scars” is built around an insistent African-style rhythm, with more lyrical references to “atmospheric changes”. The title track’s metaphors are a little forced, and Neil’s lyrics seem more self-reflecting than universal.
“Superconductor” is somewhat mindless, but it was designed that way, being a commentary on the disposable pap that always seems to sell millions of copies. Perhaps to prove their point, “Anagram (For Mongo)” doesn’t reference Blazing Saddles further than the title; rather, the wordplay reveals a series of adages, some clever, some forced. Lest we think they’re all about having fun, “Red Tide” crams concern over a variety of contemporary ills (acid rain, AIDS, the ozone layer) into one track, and “Hand Over Fist” extols cooperation over individual isolation. (Plus, the images of rock, scissors, and paper in the packaging inspired debate over which symbol corresponded to which band member.). Finally, “Available Light” starts with a very basic (for them) piano theme, but doubles the speed for the choruses, which culminate in throwbacks to Geddy’s high-pitched wailing.
Presto is a harmless little album, not exactly groundbreaking, but certainly reasserting the brand. All the elements are there, from the heavy riffing and polyrhythms to the literate lyrics and Geddy’s voice. Keyboards are still in there, but they don’t dominate. These days it sounds a little slick, but not as dated as other albums. (As for the cover art, it’s just plain goofy, illustrating the title track with an unconscious allusion to Watership Down.)

Rush Presto (1989)—3

Friday, July 26, 2019

Grateful Dead 11: Skeletons From The Closet

Now that the Dead had ran off and started their own label, Warner Bros. did the smart thing and put together a hits album. Skeletons From The Closet purported to present the “best” of the band’s albums, and while the band didn’t have a lot of hit singles per se, most of the tracks here have since become staples on Classic Rock radio. The usual suspects are here: “Truckin’”, “Sugar Magnolia”, “Uncle John’s Band”, “Casey Jones”, “Friend Of The Devil”. There are a few curveballs, such as “The Golden Road”, which opened the debut and sounded incredibly dated then even then; “Rosemary” seems a little odd too. An edit of “Turn On Your Love Light” and “One More Saturday Night” give a glimpse at the band onstage, and while “Mexicali Blues” from Bob Weir’s solo album does have the band playing on it, those horns will harsh your mellow.
It’s a solid set, and likely one that will lead a newbie deep into the catalog. A decade after its release, next-generation high school Deadheads were required to have a Skeletons From The Closet cassette with them at all times; the tape itself was usually on constant autoplay in the car, and the case was sized right to stash a joint.

One record’s worth of tunes wasn’t enough to sum up the band, of course, so three years later—just in time for their next label switch—Warner put out a double LP, also incorporating “best of” in the subtitle. What A Long Strange Trip It's Been used the extra space to further explore their work onstage as well as in the studio. As before, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty get the most dipping. “Truckin’” is repeated from Skeletons, likely because it was the source of the set’s title, but they kindly included the rare single versions of “Born Cross-Eyed” and “Dark Star”. The “studio” half also includes the Bear’s Choice version of “Black Peter”, and along with an edit of “St. Stephen” from Live/Dead, sides three and four sample the “Skull & Roses” album and Europe ‘72.
It’s hard to determine the audience was for this; diehards had to have it for the two rare tracks, while we’d assume that the recently converted might have already delved into the original albums too. Still, the cassette version crammed it all onto a single tape, for further convenience.

Grateful Dead The Best Of Grateful Dead: Skeletons From The Closet (1974)—4
The Grateful Dead
What A Long Strange Trip It's Been: The Best Of The Grateful Dead (1977)—

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Genesis 16: We Can’t Dance

It had already been five years since the last Genesis album, their longest stretch yet. In that time, Phil Collins had several more hit singles, another solo album, and a major tour, while Mike “+ the Mechanics” Rutherford spawned his own hit with “The Living Years” and nobody cared about Tony Banks’ solo album, nor even Bankstatement, his collaboration with Steve Hillage of Gong. Yet somehow the three of them managed to write and record a dozen songs in the space of six months, and We Can’t Dance appeared right on the cusp of grunge. As had been happening over the previous decade, only the absence of horns makes the album seem less like a Phil Collins solo album; their weakness for “wacky” videos for the more upbeat (read: radio-friendly) tracks also detracted from the songwriting.
The lyrics are also less vague, encroaching even more on social commentary, which frankly, had never been their strong suit. Wisely, the album begins with the brooding “No Son Of Mine”; while it does address domestic turmoil, the darker tone evokes good memories of the “Mama” album. “Jesus He Knows Me” is mildly catchy, but overtly skewers televangelism, and evokes uncomfortable memories of “Illegal Alien” or “Anything She Does”. But just to throw people off track, “Driving The Last Spike” is their first lengthy historical epic since the mid-‘70s, but turns toward a more contemporary sound over its ten minutes, despite the 19th-century subject matter.
While not specifically the title track, “I Can’t Dance” pretty much unravels any attempt to take the band seriously, with both the lyrics and literal video making fun of the then-current trend in music videos and soda commercials, despite their own participation and the fact that Phil had already done it quite well in the clip for “Don’t Lose My Number”. “Never A Time” is the requisite ballad, and a nice one, with echoes of adult contemporary Eric Clapton and far enough away from “People Get Ready” to keep from being sued. Then “Dreaming While You Sleep” spends far too long with a drum machine and bluesy noodling to get its point across (to wit: hit-and-run drivers will be cursed with guilt forevermore).
While Mike Rutherford’s Rickenbacker 12-string reappears after too long a wait, the mild samba rhythm and upbeat tone of “Tell Me Why” brings forth only more hand-wringing over social injustice. “Living Forever” provides an ironic contrast in its resistance to being told what to do and how to live, carried by a truly infectious backing and an extended ending that, again, recalls the mid-’70s. Despite being a single, “Hold On My Heart” is the “In Too Deep” of the album, and redundant after “Never A Time”.
As if “Tell Me Why” wasn’t enough, “Way Of The World” asks more child’s questions about why modern life is just so hard and cruel. And maybe we’re just sentimental, but “Since I Lost You” works despite its wrenching delivery and inspiration (the recent death of Eric Clapton’s young son, with some Slowhand-style leads to boot). So it really takes balls to end with yet another ten-minute epic, but “Fading Lights” is much preferable to “Driving The Last Spike”, and we still expect the chorus to go into “Ripples”. Tony’s extended solo in the middle is worthy of his best, and hindsight has brought a certain poignancy to the track, being the last studio track this version of the band released.
Basically, We Can’t Dance is a long and tiring listen; delete a few of the songs and cut others short and there’s the possibility of a strong set here—slight, but possible. The converted didn’t care, and promptly bought millions of copies and almost as many concert tickets, which in turn sold more copies of the album.

Genesis We Can’t Dance (1991)—

Friday, July 19, 2019

Paul McCartney 36: Amoeba Gig

Sir Paul has hardly gone into retirement in his advancing years, dedicating lots of time to tours in concentrated chunks, occasionally releasing new material, and revisiting his own catalog at a snail’s pace in direct opposition to what many fans feel he should be doing with it. Where other artists his age have been more organized about how they re-sell their own albums, Paul has gone at it at random, even eschewing vault peeks for straight vinyl releases in different colors. Granted, some of those vinyl releases didn’t come out that way in the first place, but seeing as how a 21st-century vinyl reissue is listed at triple what it would have been originally, there’s gold in them thar hills.
So it was surprising indeed that in a promotion that included multicolored vinyl reissues of Wings Over America, Choba B CCCP, and Paul Is Live—each a “live” release from a different decade—he chose to expand a release that had only been available as a four-song EP. Amoeba’s Secret was recorded at an in-store appearance as part of the promotion for Memory Almost Full, released first as a 12-inch and two years later on CD, then expanded to 12 tracks on the extremely limited Live In Los Angeles freebie CD, and to 14 via his own website. Now dubbed Amoeba Gig, the complete show finally became available on CD; the vinyl got a bonus “Coming Up” from a soundcheck.
So with all that, is the show any good? Oh yes. Such a small venue makes for a nice clean sound, and considering that this is the best band he’s ever employed on his own, the playing is excellent and the recreations masterful. (However, Paul “Wix” Wickens is not to be heard, his place taken by one David Arch.) As for the album he was ostensibly promoting, what became the usual staples are in evidence. “Only Mama Knows” and “Dance Tonight” appear early on, “That Was Me” is extracted from the middle of the “suite”, and “Nod Your Head” is an odd setup for a powerful “House Of Wax”.
The crowd goes nuts for the oldies, of course. The first surprise is “I’ll Follow The Sun”, fleshed out a bit with drums, keyboards, and goofy trick endings, while “The Long And Winding Road” still employs the (albeit toned-down) string arrangement he supposedly loathed. A well-traveled anecdote about “She Loves You” is a wide tangent to “I’ve Got A Feeling”, which has an extended guitar duel for a coda, followed by a blast through “Matchbox”. (Ringo was in the house, but not on the stage, sadly.) His timeworn fakeout of “Baby Face” before “Hey Jude” is about as spontaneous as his exhortations over the last four minutes, but you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved when he chokes up during “Here Today”.
Particularly following the hype and ballyhoo surrounding the overrated Egypt Station and its numerous repackagings, Amoeba Gig presents a nice little snapshot of Paul’s live capabilities. It’s also not as time-consuming as Back In The U.S., Good Evening New York City, or the various concert DVDs from other tours of the period.

Paul McCartney Amoeba Gig (2019)—3

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Jeff Beck 9: There And Back

The past few years must have tired Jeff Beck out, since it took him all the way to a new decade to finish another album. There And Back furthers his embrace of fusion with rock and funk elements, sans vocals, and finds him somewhat in transition. The album begins with Jan Hammer, then adds Simon Phillips on drums, then replaces Hammer with Tony Hymas on keyboards and Mo Foster on bass.
“Star Cycle” burbles along with the kind of synth figures Jan Hammer would soon bring to the likes of Miami Vice, and he and Beck soon get to dueling. “Too Much To Lose” is a remake of an earlier Hammer tune, with a fairly structured melody, while “You Never Know” gets fairly frenzied after establishing the riff. The highlight of the album is “The Pump”, beginning with a steady throbbing beat and minimal changes, while Beck wails above the newest rhythm section.
“El Becko” (another great title) begins with a flurry of piano that somehow turns into a pompous overture, finally giving way to a more rocking idea. This only puts the return to the overture idea in better context overall. “The Golden Road” returns to the territory of “The Pump” but wanders a bit, while “Space Boogie” is an opportunity to keep up with Simon Phillips while he attacks the kit. There are a few seconds of silence before “The Final Peace” comes in, giving Beck room to stretch over spacey synth chords.
There And Back doesn’t have anything especially groundbreaking, but it makes a nice capper to the trilogy begun on Blow By Blow. As on Wired, the other band members get most of the songwriting credits; maybe that’s why he wouldn’t make another album for five years.

Jeff Beck There And Back (1980)—3

Friday, July 12, 2019

Cat Stevens 11: Back To Earth

From time to time an artist will attempt to regain his or her footing in pop culture by getting back to the sound that made him or her so successful in the first place. Oftentimes this intention is accompanied by the statement that so-and-so is “back”, and sometimes they even put it in the album title. While Cat Stevens was never that blatant, Back To Earth is an apt moniker for this album, as most of the songs avoid the modern sounds so prevalent on his recent work. At first, anyway.
An acoustic guitar, gentle piano, and muted drums carry “Just Another Night”, even through the double-time bridge, though the lyrics remain vague. While it’s based on the electric piano that had been prominent lately, “Daytime” is a gentle celebration of children worldwide; indeed, it was written for a UNICEF campaign. With its power chords and synth effects, “Bad Brakes” sticks out like a sore thumb, but somehow it doesn’t torpedo the proceedings. Given its comfortable yacht rock motif, “Randy” seems to be of a piece with other name songs of the time (i.e. “Mandy”, “Brandy”, “Sandy” etc.) but even given his emotional delivery, it’s not clear to us who this Randy person is, what he or she did, or why it had such an effect on the singer. “The Artist”, which follows, is a lovely understated instrumental in two parts that nicely concludes the side.
Side two begins promisingly, with “The Last Love Song” nakedly and achingly expressing hurt. But then it’s straight to the disco; we can’t tell if the instrumental “Nascimento” is supposed to evoke Milton Nascimento, but this minor-key boogie betrays a lack of lyrical inspiration. The disco influence still pervades on “Father”, a gentler prayer that sports lots of tricky changes and is past due for a simpler re-recording. The mood is dashed by “New York Times”, which paints an even nastier picture of the Big Apple than the Stones would, underneath a backing that’s part TV theme song, part travel advertisement. (In fact, the rhythm section is Will Lee and Steve Jordan, who would one day accompany Paul Shaffer on Late Night With David Letterman, and the singers include Luther Vandross.) So it’s relief when “Never” closes this short album in a more humble, laid-back mood, bringing it full circle.
Long-suffering fans may have been encouraged by Back To Earth, but had no idea that this was the last they’d hear from him for decades. We didn’t know then that he had already converted to Islam, changed his name (again), and wanted to devote his time to his faith and his family. He did owe the label one more album, so this was intended to close out his life as a performer. Now, of course, we can hear some hints of his intentions, but at least he tried to deliver something listenable.

Cat Stevens Back To Earth (1978)—

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

CSN 7: After The Storm

Even though nobody was asking for a new CSN album, they did one anyway. What was surprising was that they paid some attention to the backlash the greeted their last new set and, save one cut, kept the writing strictly in-house on After The Storm. Everybody sings on everyone’s tunes, too.
Stills is in relatively decent voice, but his tracks are hit or miss. Two Latin-tinged numbers bookend the album; “Only Waiting For You” leans too close to adult contemporary, while the excruciating “Panama” makes one even more squeamish as he recalls how a local girl made him a man. “It Won’t Go Away” and “Bad Boyz” are returns to social commentary, somewhat, though the former is too funky, and the latter, while rocking, shouldn’t be spelled that way by anyone over 30.
Nash comes off the best, mostly. “Find A Dream” and “These Empty Days” are both lifted by the harmonies—Stills being prominent, rare for Nash songs—whereas the simple, affecting “Unequal Love” sports some nice Stills leads straight out of Buffalo Springfield. When those are added to the title track, one wonders if everything is all right at home.
Having written very little for his own album the year before, Crosby kept up with the others by contributing a nearly equal pile of songs—in quantity, anyway. “Camera” has some decent imagery, but is slathered with cowbell and other Latin percussion; Stills gets co-writing credit so we’ll blame him. “Till It Shines” also gives Stills plenty of room to wail, up against Mike Finnegan’s organ. He does his own bit to decry social issues on “Street To Lean On”, which supposedly has Michael Hedges on guitar, but we can’t hear him.
Possibly the best track is their harmony-rich cover of “In My Life”, which Stills had done on his last solo album. Wisely, they stick to the chords, let a harmonica play the main riff, and leave it at that.
While mostly an improvement, that eternal blend that captured the world is only hinted at on After The Storm. They’ll always be able to lean on their old albums, which is just as well, since this one didn’t sell.

Crosby, Stills & Nash After The Storm (1994)—

Friday, July 5, 2019

Bruce Springsteen 26: Western Stars

Even in this modern age, Bruce Springsteen has managed to keep any new album under wraps until it’s been delivered to the label. Yet no sooner had he announced Western Stars—a low-key set of songs he said was inspired Southern California, Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell, that sort of thing—than he seemed to disown it, promising a new album with the E Street Band ere long. Outside of Patti, none of those guys are here, save some of the more recent backup singers and horn players, many veterans of the Seeger Sessions era, though David Sancious, of all people, plays on two tracks.
The album was developed slowly over the better part of eight years, during which he got distracted by expanded reissues, an autobiography, a Broadway residency, a couple of tours, and two other albums. The cover art is fitting, as most of the songs indeed express an overall feeling of the open plains. (What is it with these Jersey boys and cowboys, anyway?) The music is also embellished by strings, some real, some synthesized. The tone is set with “Hitch Hikin’”, which is about just that, the strings evoking a Copland sweep. Unless it’s not clear, the next track identifies him as “The Wayfarer”, who’s even more aimless than the guy in the first track, assuming he was actually headed somewhere. The next fella is standing still, waiting for his gal coming in on the “Tucson Train”, and the ending suggests she actually arrives. The title track cleverly suggests both an astronomical description as well as anonymous actors who used to work in the movies when cowboy films were all the rage. Meanwhile, those of us of a certain age know exactly what that “little blue pill” does. Two tracks later, “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” seems to cover the same theme, though it’s not clear whether the guy works in the industry or is just a lifelong daredevil, but it’s a much better song with surprising key changes; this is the album’s turning point. (In between is the clunker “Sleepy Joe’s Café”, a borderline party song for a catalog that already has too many of them.)
Indeed, the second half of the album is much stronger, where each arrangement really adds to the drama in its prescribed story. The guy who’s been “Chasin’ Wild Horses”, like others here, has been doing that as both his job and by nature. It shares a melodic hook with his Beach Boys homages of a decade earlier, but that big Western sound is brought out on “Sundown”, with its banjo and baritone guitars and yearning lyrics familiar to Wichita linemen and denizens of Galveston and Phoenix. While very brief, “Somewhere North Of Nashville” explores a different kind of has-been, this time a songwriter. The sparse arrangement is a nice departure from the rest. While it seems about as simple, “Stones” finds an excellent lyrical turn and dresses up the few chords very well, and this is one that will endure. Great as it is, “There Goes My Miracle” almost succeeds as the big anthem, but the canned drums throughout the track, and especially on the second verse, leap out of the retro mood he’d been so set on. “Hello Sunshine” brings the prairie sound back; this was the first track the masses heard, and everybody noticed its similarity to “Everybody’s Talkin’”, and Bruce should know the difference between homage and mimicry. Besides, there’s been a lot of sunshine, sunrises, sundowns, and sun in general on this album, putting his skill at sequencing into question. It probably should have gone closer to the beginning, particularly since “Moonlight Motel” could only go at the end of the album. Here the drifter has landed in a town with nothing going on but memories of the one he let get away. (There’s a lot of heartache in these songs.)
Western Stars is a nice album, and succeeds despite itself. The narrators are dusty men, older but certainly wiser and even more hopeful than the guys we met on Nebraska. Many fans loved it right away, while in a surprising departure, Rolling Stone awarded it only four stars. Chances are it’s a grower, more so than the albums he did put out while marinating on this one.

Bruce Springsteen Western Stars (2019)—3

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Van Morrison 37: The Great Recession

While Van Morrison is very interested in the music of the past, that doesn’t include his own past. As evidenced by his prolific if not stellar release schedule over recent years, he’s more concerned with creating than revisiting. So it’s rare indeed when anything comes out of the vaults, yet in the space of one year, three separate yet hardly distinct collections were released, each with a different angle, and none definitive.

At The Movies, helpfully subtitled “Soundtrack Hits”, was designed to appeal to people who only know “Baby Please Don’t Go” from Good Morning Vietnam or “Have I Told You Lately” and “Someone Like You” from any number of rom-coms. The badly researched liner notes made a point of calling out how many times Martin Scorsese used Van’s music in his films, from the terrific performance of “Caravan” from The Last Waltz through the definitive version of “Wonderful Remark” to, strangely enough, his rendition of “Comfortably Numb” with members of The Band from Roger Waters’ 1990 all-star staging of The Wall in Berlin. A live version of “Moondance” with overdubbed vocals and an alternate of “Brown Eyed Girl” were dangled as rarities, but there were enough Van standards to make it all listenable.

Going on two decades since the first two Best Of collections, Van himself compiled a third volume covering those heavily plowed but not exactly fertile years. The Best Of Van Morrison Volume 3 wasn’t just a double CD, but was loaded with about a dozen duets, certain to woo those consumers excited by Ray Charles, Tom Jones, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King, to name a few. That means you also get a lot of Brian Kennedy, and way more covers than originals. Those collaborations also up the ante for everyone who already bought each of the albums, as many come from other artists’ albums, various artists sets, obscure CD singles, and whatnot.

Then, after trying to convince us that the least exciting span of his career needed two discs to encapsulate, a re-signing with PolyGram dictated that a single disc should somehow sum up four decades. Still On Top—The Greatest Hits repeated ten tracks from At The Movies while replicating about half of the first Best Of. Four songs were picked seemingly at random from Best Of Volume 3, yet a grave disservice was rectified by the inclusion of “Wavelength” and “Tore Down A La Rimbaud”. (Overseas, Still On Top was issued as a double CD, the second disc being equally as satisfying and maddening as the first. Another limited edition added a third disc of worthy selections and head-scratchers.)

So we’re not saying that the recession of 2007 was a result of such shelf-stuffing, but today these collections are basically moot. Because labels don’t like to leave anything alone, once Sony got their hands on Van’s catalog in 2015 they felt compelled to put out their own double-disc overview. The Essential Van Morrison starts with “Gloria” and goes on to cover the ‘60s and ‘70s fairly well, hitting on all the big albums but choosing “Hungry For Your Love” over “Wavelength”. “Cleaning Windows” comes from the Belfast Opera House album, and everybody likes “Caravan” from The Last Waltz, but “Spanish Rose”? Disc two manages to speed through the better part of three decades in the same time, skipping No Guru, No Method, No Teacher but still touching most of the albums from this century.

Van Morrison At The Movies—Soundtrack Hits (2007)—3
Van Morrison
The Best Of Van Morrison Volume 3 (2007)—3
Van Morrison
Still On Top—The Greatest Hits (2007)—
Van Morrison
The Essential Van Morrison (2015)—

Friday, June 28, 2019

Paul Simon 12: Concert In The Park

At possibly the peak of his solo career, Paul Simon returned to Central Park not quite ten years after his historic reunion with Art Garfunkel for another free concert. Artie was nowhere to be seen this time, but the multitudes in the park and watching on television wouldn’t have minded. And since he’d’ve been stupid not to, Paul Simon’s Concert In The Park arrived in stores not months later, just in time for holiday shopping.
The nearly two-hour show concentrated mostly on songs from Graceland and The Rhythm Of The Saints (which the tour was ostensibly promoting), with well-placed selections from his catalog. Given the international genetics of the band on the crowded stage (each member nicely profiled in the CD booklet), some of those oldies are transformed. “Kodachrome” begins with a bubbly bass and manages to hit on reggae along the way. With no Art around, and always anxious to remind people that he wrote it, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is given a more blatant gospel treatment, also touching on reggae partway through. “Train In The Distance” and “Hearts And Bones” would appeal to those to bought Negotiations And Love Songs. Given his new Brazilian friends, “Cecelia” is spiced up a little over the original arrangement. Even “Diamonds On The Soles Of Their Shoes”, in the absence of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, gets an extended vocal intro and a raucous percussion ending. Naturally, the crowd goes nuts at certain lyrical references, like the New Jersey Turnpike, New York City winters, and smoking a J.
As with the Garfunkel show, one song from the concert was not included on the eventual album. Throughout the tour, he would often bring “You Can Call Me Al” to its expected close, only to say, “That was fun, let’s play it again”—and the band would. Such things work better in the moment, so the CD as released only includes the song the once.
Even counting the redundancies with his previous three releases, Concert In The Park works as a summation of his career, and a staple of many a CD collection. It was a good show, and a good tour, and he likely wouldn’t be this huge again.

Paul Simon Paul Simon’s Concert In The Park (1991)—

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Mott The Hoople 9: Compilations

A hits album always makes a good way for a label to keep making money off an act they no longer distribute, and if the label in question hasn’t lost all the masters in a fire, they can sometimes do pretty well. By the mid-‘70s, Mott The Hoople had already been on two labels, with shifting band members, so the well was both plundered and muddied.

The band’s original producer, Guy Stevens, compiled Rock And Roll Queen for a UK release after the band jumped to Columbia, but it took another two years (and two actual hit albums) for it to be released in America. It’s a fairly rocking set; after the “title track”, we get half a minute of “The Wheel Of The Quivering Meat Conception”, which was basically the end of “The Journey”. From there, the sequence leans on their harder stuff, ending with the ten-minute “Keep A Knockin” medley from Wildlife. Save “Thunderbuck Ram”, Ian Hunter takes every lead vocal, and there is one rarity in the form of “Midnight Lady”, a B-side available nowhere else.

Two decades on, after Rhino Records partnered with Atlantic, somebody had the bright idea to put together a more expansive look at those albums. Backsliding Fearlessly: The Early Years was a terrific overview, borrowing equally from each, leaning just slightly on the debut, with key rarities thrown in. The wonderful B-side “Road To Birmingham” opens the set; the outtakes “Going Home” and “Little Christine” were already highlights of 1980’s UK rarities set Two Miles From Heaven. (A box set called Mental Train served up all four albums, each with bonus tracks, plus a disc of outtakes and another of live recordings on six CDs, released in 2018 worldwide, save the US. Of course.)

That’s a lot of attention given to some very good music, but what of the period that commenced with “All The Young Dudes”? Once the Hunter-less Mott evolved without him and stopped selling records, Columbia made sure to cash in on their own heyday with the band via Greatest Hits. A fitting title, it included all the obvious tracks, from “All The Way To Memphis” to “Roll Away The Stone”. The cover art helpfully pictured all the band members and who played what, and the set also included two singles from 1974, “Foxy Foxy” and “Saturday Gigs”, both since added to the expansion of The Hoople. (The CD you can get now adds “Sweet Jane” and “One Of The Boys”. Also in the ‘90s, The Ballad Of Mott: A Retrospective crammed much of the Columbia era onto two discs following exactly four tracks from the Atlantic era.)

Mott The Hoople Rock And Roll Queen (1974)—3
Mott The Hoople
Greatest Hits (1976)—
2003 remastered expanded CD: same as 1976, plus 2 extra tracks
Mott The Hoople Backsliding Fearlessly: The Early Years (1994)—4

Friday, June 21, 2019

Roxy Music 3: Stranded

After parting ways with Eno, Roxy Music carried on with another bass player and recruited Eddie Jobson for his skills on violin and wacky synths. Stranded even presented another lovely pinup on the cover to excite teenage crowd. Yet we wonder if they were all working too fast.
“Street Life” rumbles in, sounding a bit like a cousin of “Editions Of You”, so there’s some familiarity, just as “Just Like You” evokes the cocktail party atmosphere, but improves when the band comes in. A quirky modern riff introduces “Amazona”, and somehow the sonics approach the types of noises Eno used to make for them. “Psalm” is given room to breathe, which is good, since it goes from observing someone’s sense of fashion to an actual psalm.
A nice Wall of Sound begins side two with “Serenade”, all the instrumentalists given a canvas to decorate and the melody’s pretty good too. Modern ears can’t help but hear “Courtney Love” when he sings “courtly love”. The doom-ridden “A Song For Europe” is already creepy enough, but then he starts crooning in French over the end. After that, the rave-up beginning of “Mother Of Pearl” is highly welcome, even with the effect of Bryan singing two songs at the same time, and chances are he had been listening to Bowie. But not even a minute and a half in the piece slows dramatically to a three-chord vamp suggesting the “party time” had indeed taken its toll, and it’s back to self-parody. A lengthy a cappella coda repeats until the piano switches to “Sunset”, which is hardly affected at all.
Probably it’s because we like Eno so much, but in opposition to practically every other review we’ve read, Stranded just doesn’t work for us. Roxy Music sounds less like a band than a conveyance for Bryan Ferry, and considering he was also doing solo albums, that’s a disservice to Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera, although both were allowed to collaborate on the songwriting. Time may change our opinion; watch this space.

Roxy Music Stranded (1973)—