Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Kinks 13: Muswell Hillbillies

A new worldwide deal with RCA ushered in a new era for the Kinks, and their music evolved somewhat. Muswell Hillbillies returned to familiar themes from Arthur and Village Green Preservation Society, such as hanging on to the “old ways” tooth and claw, somewhat illustrated by the wide angle photo of the pub that wraps the album cover. But now there’s a paranoia, albeit well-founded, of the government’s idea of progress, and it’s likely the auteur didn’t consider the length of his hair, and that of his bandmates, to be a sign of changing times. Instead, there is also a pronounced, if misinformed, view of America as a place where the same greatest generation was better off than their British cousins.
The music is a strange hybrid of country blues with vaudeville, with a few flashes of their “classic” sound. For much of it, only Ray Davies’ voice—itself a mix of his twee and drunken deliveries—makes it clear who the band is; brother Dave contributes neither songs nor lead vocals, but we do get to hear his harmonies and fretwork. John Gosling’s keyboards fill up a lot of space when not competing with a horn section.
Something of an overture to the album, “20th Century Man” takes a while to get going, a driving strum along the lines of “Victoria”, set in its ways as it is in its chords. It finally picks up speed by the end, but fades to the oompah jazz of “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoid Blues”, which stumbles along under New Orleans horns. Perhaps it’s an actual affliction, as the mushmouthed narrator of “Holiday” blurs the reality of whether he’s on vacation or has been sent somewhere to recover. Resistance to change is further stated in the very Kinky “Skin And Bone”, which decries diets that erase “cuddly fat” from the women who lose weight. A touch of accordion gives a European flair to the lament in “Alcohol”, which would end up being a chant of solidarity when performed in front of inebriated concert crowds. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with the next track, wherein the narrator goes to a doctor to cure his multiple ills, only to be told that he suffers from a “Complicated Life”.
“Here Come The People In Grey” spells out the concerns of the fellow on the first side, who equates the effects of urban renewal with being institutionalized. As before, the time-honored panacea is simply to “Have A Cuppa Tea”, which presumably offers more satisfaction than a harry rag, even with the ragtime ending. Another cautionary tale of danger in the big city is told in “Holloway Jail”, where a sweet thing is framed and imprisoned for a crime by a guy she meets. The title of “Oklahoma U.S.A.” may seem to Americans an odd term to use, but in this case it refers to the Broadway musical and film. Despite the sentiment, it’s a lovely song. “Uncle Son” could be another confusing title except that, like a lot of the character studies, it’s based on an actual relative with that name, who (surprise) lived simply and wanted for little else. “Muswell Hillbilly” sums up the themes yet again for anyone who hadn’t picked up on them, but this time it’s in a catchy, familiar format, complete with singalong chorus.
While the political concerns are distinctly British, the constant allusions to America make Muswell Hillbillies more universal, and ultimately it’s a winner. The down side is that ignoring the lyrics makes a lot of the songs, with their simple chords, run together, while the lyrics repeat the same ideas too many times. This is clear with the two outtakes included on the first expanded reissue of the album, “Mountain Woman” using an Appalachian stereotype to illustrate enforced relocation, while “Kentucky Moon” at least acknowledges that the narrator has only the slightest idea what all those mythological American landmarks are really like.
A British deluxe edition included those two, plus some alternates, demos, and BBC radio versions on a bonus disc. A year later, once Sony had grabbed the rights to the catalog, some of those were crammed on the disc after the album proper, while a DVD offered several BBC TV performances from the following year. (One key outtake from the album is “Lavender Lane”, likely left off for self-plagiarism from “Waterloo Sunset” despite spelling out the transition to council estates and tower blocks.)

The Kinks Muswell Hillbillies (1971)—3
1998 Konk CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks
2014 Legacy Edition: same as 1998, plus 7 extra tracks (and DVD)

Friday, January 25, 2019

Joe Jackson 20: Fool

He’s always been somewhat defiant, but few artists with the experience of Joe Jackson would release a new album three weeks into the calendar year, historically one of the slowest stretches of the retail season. But he does what he wants, whether anybody likes it or not.
While his previous release was something of “I’ve got enough songs for an album,” Fool keeps it truly simple: eight songs, four per side, recorded quickly after woodshedding them on a summer tour, recorded after the last stop (in Boise) of all places. It’s short enough to get one’s head around, but substantial. There is a recurring theme if you want one, but Fool is really just a collection of strong songs. There’s plenty of piano, plus the indispensable Graham Maby on bass. The guitarist and drummer, who have been touring with him for a few years, carry enough of the vibe of the original Joe Jackson Band while also handling the quieter stuff deftly. Even after making records for 40 years, he can be forgiven for repeating himself, but at least he has the good taste to revisit his better tunes and influences; listen for echoes of XTC, Steely Dan, and even the Beatles.
With an ominous rumble, “Big Black Cloud” balances doom-and-gloom lyrics with a plea for salvation in the choruses, over heavy piano and drums, with some power chords. “Fabulously Absolute” manages to combine punk, new wave, and catchy pop in the arrangement, with sarcastic verses and great transitions. Take a moment to listen to the high-speed syncopated guitar-and-bass combo in the break. “Dave” is a portrait of an average Joe (pun intended, we’ll explain shortly) with a “mind like a sieve” and a “head like a brick” who goes about his simple day, not caring much past his breakfast and pointless job. The chorus basically ponders whether, compared to those of us who wring our hands over the big issues and striving beyond our grasp, Dave may be better off. We also wonder whether the protagonist’s name is intentional, being that the auteur’s given name is actually David. Things travel to near-smooth jazz territory on “Strange Land”, but the piece, lyrics and music and all, rises above that simple label for a gorgeous meditation.
Things pick up for “Friend Better”, which revisits yet again his old favorite “The In Crowd” by Ramsey Lewis, backed by a drumbeat straight off of Blaze Of Glory. The title track is a hodgepodge of styles, with a faux-Mideastern motif, Shakespearean quotes, detours into samba, and shouted lyrics like its counterpart on side one. We’d like to read some further autobiography into “32 Kisses”, a pensive yet wistful look back at a relationship from a mature perspective, choosing to concentrating on the smaller, happier details. It’s a lowkey setup for “Alchemy”, the long closer that approaches lounge territory but still sounds just like him. And if you think about it, it describes what he does for a living.
There’s a lot that sounds familiar here, in the comfortable sense of the word. Fool is his best album since the excellent Rain, and a much more logical follow-up than that Duke Ellington experiment was. The sequence is wonderfully paced, and the sides really do mirror each other somewhat, reinforcing the comedy and tragedy theme in the artwork. Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple.

Joe Jackson Fool (2019)—4

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Bruce Springsteen 25: Springsteen On Broadway

Still getting a lot of legs off his memoirs, Bruce undertook a theater residency on Broadway, which he called the first five-day-a-week job he ever had. The show consisted of about 16 songs, most preceded by an extended monologue, performed solo on acoustic guitar or piano, occasionally accompanied by wife Patti Scialfa. Given the proximity to his most fervent fan base, the show’s run was extended several times, and eventually ended up as a Netflix feature and accompanying soundtrack, both entitled Springsteen On Broadway.
Bruce has been telling stories about his childhood as long as he’s been filling theaters and arenas, but with a Broadway audience he’s allowed to stretch them out as long as he wants, with no band vamping behind him waiting for the downbeat. The crowd sits quietly while he talks, laughs at all the jokes, calls out answers to brief questions and saves their applause for the music itself and a tribute to Clarence Clemons. He does his best to take advantage of the intimate setting, telling his alternately self-deprecating and exaggeratedly boastful tales, peppered with four-letter words and his own chuckles.
Springsteen On Broadway is a long program, filling up two CDs, and best enjoyed in one sitting. The stories themselves are nothing new, particularly for anyone who read his book. He begins with his youth, and moves gradually through trying to get signed, and what he did after he got famous, with some commentary on the Trump administration toward the end. The songs are mostly the expected classics from the ‘70s and ‘80s, with a few curveballs thrown in, but predominantly stripped back and slowed down. We kept checking the notes, and it really is him playing the piano, even keeping pace while he’s talking. Naysayers won’t be convinced, but he’s not singing for them anyway.

Bruce Springsteen Springsteen On Broadway (2018)—

Friday, January 18, 2019

Todd Rundgren 18: Utopia

Technically this is the second Utopia album called Utopia, but except for Todd Rundgren’s involvement, it’s miles away from the prog escapade of eight years before. This being 1982, Utopia was all about catchy pop with clever rhymes and metaphors all about the trials and tribulations of modern romance, heavy on guitars, harmonies, and trendy keyboards. All the compositions are democratically credited to Utopia as whole, the members trading off on lead vocals. Todd himself only sings lead on three tracks, duetting in unison with Kasim Sulton on others.
“Libertine” crashes out of the speakers, setting up a perfectly frenzied guitar solo, but the effect is lessened by the more MOR “Bad Little Actress”. The wonderfully Beatlesque “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” could easily have fit on Deface The Music but for Roger Wilcox’s oafy delivery. This track was also promoted with a video wherein the band members appeared as hapless insects—pretty advanced for the time. (Also, Kasim Sulton had left the band for a short period, and this track was co-written with his ultimately temporary replacement.) Drummer Willie Wilcox takes over singing on “Neck On Up”, and frankly his voice isn’t bad. “Say Yeah” has some familiar changes and harmonies too, but the “say what” hook emerged a continent away from Merseyside.
“Call It What You Will” is along the same general lines as “Libertine”, right down to an albeit less insane guitar solo. And like side one, “I’m Looking At You But I’m Talking To Myself” slows the pace down, and right on time, the terrifically stupid “Hammer In My Heart” brings it right back up. (This wouldn’t be his only stupid yet wonderful song of the year, and we’ll get to that.) “Burn Three Times” is dopey but not in a good way, cramming in every cooking cliché as they can get to rhyme, and “There Goes My Inspiration” is something of a downer.
Ten songs are listed on the sleeve, but the set included a “bonus LP” of five songs, called side three on the inner sleeve and labels, the same five songs on both sides of the vinyl. Although it kicks off with “Princess Of The Universe”, one of the most infectious backhanded compliments of the decade, the other tunes aren’t as strong. “Infrared And Ultraviolet” offers the requisite demonic guitar work, “Forgotten But Not Gone” is an amalgam of ‘60s rockabilly but for the anachronistic piano, “Private Heaven” approaches ‘70s rock but misses, and “Chapter And Verse” works the “Burn Three Times” angle about as successfully.
Listening to Utopia now, it makes more sense how Todd ended up working with various members of the Cars over the years. Not all of the songs stand out, but they are catchy, and it provided value for your dollar. The original cassette shuffled the side three tracks within the program, while the eventual Rhino CD simply had them at the end of the program. Collectors will want to find a Canadian reissue, which adds the so-called “dance mix” of “Hammer In My Heart”. Get down! (Another historical footnote: this was one of exactly five albums released by the short-lived Elektra subsidiary Network Records, putting Utopia in the regal company of Irene Cara.)

Utopia Utopia (1982)—3

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Jethro Tull 14: Heavy Horses

The folkier direction embraced on Songs From The Wood continued wholeheartedly on Jethro Tull’s next studio set. Heavy Horses is a heavily agrarian album, extolling the virtues of various fine steeds and other common barnyard creatures, with two separate songs that refer to mice. Yes, mice.
“…And The Mouse Police Never Sleeps” may seem an odd title, but turns out to be something of a riddle with a simple answer: it’s about a cat. “Acres Wild” is a love song with a mild disco beat, yet manages to comment on the country versus the city; no points for guessing which one Ian Anderson prefers, but at least he assures us that he’ll “make love to you” pretty much anywhere. Martin Barre finally gets to let loose with some riffing on “No Lullaby”, a mostly heavier track along the lines of their most popular sounds. The title is apt, as there’s not a lot of reassurance in this lesson for an infant, who wouldn’t be able to sleep through it anyway, after having been jarred awake by the brief drum solos. “Moths” is a very poetic description of the insects’ seemingly “suicidal quest” around a candle, to precisely trilling mandolins and a string arrangement. “Journeyman” is very interesting musically, with the bass, guitar, and organ in harmony with each other, the cyclical nature of the melodies fitting the treadmill progress and repetition of the figure described.
Side two is virtually devoted the Ian Anderson menagerie, starting with the ode to his dog in “Rover”. (There are a few passages of vibraphone throughout that remind us of Zappa, or at least “Changes” by Yes.) Similarly, “One Brown Mouse” was seemingly spared the wrath of the police in the first track, given lots of devoted attention and wonder from the auteur. The title track is the longest and most ambitious, combining the heavy riffing with intricate strings, multiple tempo changes, occasionally evoking the galloping horses themselves. And while the creature named is actually an inanimate object, it’s only fitting that he takes the time to marvel at the wonder of the “Weathercock”.
Altogether what we have here is a longing for simpler times and traditional pleasures, though there’s no mention of the economic strife of raising crops and such season after season. Heavy Horses is mostly strong, and highly recommended for those who love Songs From The Wood; it might even be better than that album. (For the cleverly appended New Shoes upgrade of the album for its 40th anniversary, the obligatory Steven Wilson remix is supported by various unreleased tracks, plus two CDs covering a May 1978 concert in Switzerland, some of which had already appeared on the Bursting Out live album.)

Jethro Tull Heavy Horses (1978)—3
2003 remastered CD: same as 1978, plus 2 extra tracks
2018 40th Anniversary New Shoes Deluxe Edition: same as 1978, plus 31 extra tracks

Friday, January 11, 2019

Rush 14: Hold Your Fire

After a dozen years and albums developing their sound, Rush had found something of a formula in the mid-‘80s, along with consistent commercial success. Hold Your Fire was very much in the mold of Power Windows, from its general sound and embrace of technology, and while that may have been fine for the kids who snapped it up, the bigger picture tells a different story.
“Force Ten” is a dynamic opener, the wind metaphor taking over and driving most of the feel, Geddy Lee’s bass chords and vocals particularly top-notch. It’s proof that they could write a catchy chorus now and then, underscored by the excellent construction of the next tune. “Time Stand Still” has one of their trademark circular riffs over a sneaky time signature, but what most people remember about the track is that it features the voice of Aimee Mann, then still of ‘Til Tuesday. Her contribution was so key they had to incorporate her face into the onstage visuals.
And from there it gets a little generic, even for them. The arrangements are tight, the playing distinct and expert, and even Geddy’s voice sounds warmer than ever, but the songs don’t leap from the speakers. “Open Secrets” actually approaches the topic of communication between romantic partners but they might as well still be talking about trees or snow dogs given the instrumental approach. Bizarrely, “Second Nature” uses a quieter, soulful approach (for them) to address the topic of the environment, and “Prime Mover” does that quiet-loud-quiet-loud thing through most of the song, which again is catchy, but sounds a lot like the songs on the last album.
“I don’t wanna face the killer instinct,” Geddy wails after an ominous intro, and the theme of “Lock And Key” is set. The music is more interesting than the lyrics. We can’t say the same for “Mission”, which was one of their most accessible songs at the time, and one that now seems to be a prime candidate for a hair metal power ballad. “Turn The Page” has aged better, despite what sound like canned horns, and frankly a lot better than the Bob Seger song of the same name, but not as easy to dance to. The band themselves have disowned “Tai Shan” since its release, and for good reason. It’s one thing to write a song influenced by a trip to China, but using Southeast Asian melodies in the era of The Karate Kid is cringeworthy. And using that damn whistle synth patch a year after everyone else did was just sloppy research. “High Water” is a good closer, even if it is a little too derivative of “Mystic Rhythms” and ends abruptly.
Hold Your Fire was the band’s longest studio album to date, and while ten tracks certainly gave value for the money, maybe they shouldn’t have. Still, it’s a competent album, and not “bad” in the least; it’s just not very exciting. They had gotten comfortable, and were letting the machines do their experimenting for them.
Rush Hold Your Fire (1987)—3

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Steve Perry 3: Greatest Hits

Yes, we know what you’re thinking. Did the few hits Steve Perry had outside of Journey constitute a full album, particularly in a CD era that demanded a sequence at least an hour long? No, they didn’t. Yet to this day marketing geniuses still use the term “greatest hits” when they really mean “best of according to somebody’s whim.” Even more confusingly, the official title was Greatest Hits + Five Unreleased. The second half was correct, if a little too precise. (Bear with us, we’ll get there.)
The set duly kicks off with the four singles and/or radio hits from Street Talk, negating the need to own that album, plus “Go Away”, seemingly because it was the only other decent song on it. “You Better Wait” and “Missing You” represent For The Love Of Strange Medicine, but only after seven tracks not widely known.
As it turns out, he hadn’t been silent after Raised On Radio; rather, he completed a solo album in 1989 that (he says) was rejected by the label. Some of those songs had snuck out as the CD equivalent of B-sides to the Strange Medicine singles, where they were well received by the dozen or so people who heard them. While “Forever Right Or Wrong (Love’s Like A River)” and “Against The Wall” are a little overblown, they’re still catchy, just as “Melody”, “Once In A Lifetime Girl”, and “What Was” are decent pop fodder. “When You’re In Love (For The First Time)” and “Summer Of Luv” suggest that maybe the label was right, but the others have more staying power than most of Strange Medicine.
Back to the chronology, “I Stand Alone” is from the animated flop Quest For Camelot, the soundtrack of which put him in the company of Leann Rimes, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, and the long-awaited collaboration of Eric Idle and Don Rickles. “It Won’t Be You”, denoted a “writing demo”, was one of those B-sides, but another, the expert “If You Need Me, Call Me”, is represented instead a 1977 track recorded by the band he was in before Journey. (The liner notes carefully list every single musician credit for all the songs.)
So with all that, the album title was half right. But while calling out the five “new” songs guaranteed sales to Journey fans who already had the Strange Medicine singles, it undersold the total contents, which weren’t all hits but weren’t complete dogs. Perhaps that’s why, when the album managed to be rereleased as part of a Journey catalog overhaul, the title was reduced to simply Greatest Hits, but with a bonus in the form on “Don’t Fight It”, a duet with Kenny Loggins that actually was a hit. (For those who have to have everything, 2009’s Playlist: The Very Best Of Steve Perry budget compilation repeats a dozen of the alleged greatest hits, and adds two more from Strange Medicine.)

Steve Perry Greatest Hits + Five Unreleased (1998)—3
2006 Greatest Hits reissue: same as 1998, plus 1 extra track

Friday, January 4, 2019

Joni Mitchell 19: Taming The Tiger

Between the Grammy Awards and the legs on her hits album, it’s safe to say that Joni Mitchell was about as high-profile as she would ever be. In addition to critical respect and public appreciation, the tabloids had a feel-good story on her hands when she was reunited with the daughter she’d given up for adoption 33 years before.
But anyone expecting Taming The Tiger to reflect all that good news just doesn’t know Joni. As ever, she’s experimenting with new sounds—this time courtesy of a guitar synthesizer that not only enabled her to change between her multitude of tunings in a matter of seconds, but provided sounds and textures that inspired the songs she wrote on it. The usual gang of supporting players is here, particularly Wayne Shorter and his soprano sax (one of the few horn players we don’t mind hearing as much as we do him).
In a mild act of defiance to anyone expecting easy listening, “Harlem In Havana” begins with atonal percussion effects, which turns into the sound of a carnival gone haywire, the canned sounds of excited riders coming off more like screams of actual terror. But soon enough a melody emerges, as does a song, and the jarring feeling passes. “Man From Mars” is a heartbreaking song of loss, lamenting the one who left, but what makes it so universal is that it’s actually about her cat, immortalized in the paintings throughout the packaging, who disappeared after she scolded him for peeing on the floors. (The lesson, of course, is that pain is just as real for the loss of a pet as it is a partner, and if you’ve never experienced either, you’re lucky.) To that point, “Love Puts On A New Face” is presented as a recount of a conversation that delineates the difference between the sexes without blaming anyone. Not so for “Lead Balloon, a nasty song from the opening distortion and the “Kiss my ass” opening line is that sticks out like a sore thumb, and frankly goes over like the metaphor in the title. Much more effective is “No Apologies”, another sad rumination on the abuse of women by men who should have known better.
The title track has soothing atmospherics, but outside of the obvious slams against the record industry, the poetry is way over our heads. From there, however, the themes return to those of the heart, and for the better. “The Crazy Cries Of Love” puts new music to words by a fellow Canadian songwriter she admired, and has some wonderful, hopeful imagery. The song most people would focus on is “Stay In Touch”, a gentle acknowledgement of the new relationship she was developing with her daughter, who brought along a family of her own. It’s nicely paired with “Face Lift”, said to be based on an argument she’d had with her own aging mother. Something of a benediction comes in “My Best To You”, her reinterpretation of an ancient song by the Sons of the Pioneers. Then, after what seems like an eternal gap of silence, “Tiger Bones” emerges. It’s a solo guitar piece, and it’s just lovely. We can’t think of any other instrumental in her catalog, either, so that makes it all the more special.
It may be that in a few years’ time we’ll decry the “cold, dated sound” of Taming The Tiger, but for now, the arrangements and production work, not only recalling parts of Hejira but nicely complementing what we’ll be kind and call her mature vocal range. It was nice to have her “back”; but was she?

Joni Mitchell Taming The Tiger (1998)—

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Grateful Dead 10: Wake Of The Flood

Three years had passed and three live albums had appeared since their last studio album, and now that the Grateful Dead had their own record label, they decided to capture their newest material without an audience. Wake Of The Flood is far from the acoustic one-two of 1970, as Pigpen was dead and Keith Godchaux was given free rein on all kinds of keyboards. Donna Godchaux can be heard, but she’s still mostly in the background.
“Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” is a fairly low-key start, notable for its saloon piano and especially the prominent fiddle, contributed by bluegrass legend Vassar Clements. Lest we get too carried away, Keith takes his only lead vocal on “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away”. His thin voice is no match for the dated sax that honks all the way through the tune, but at least it’s short. Despite an intriguing intro, “Row Jimmy” just as slow, even for the Dead, but it’s a grower, if you let the song emerge from underneath the phased electric piano and gurgling clavinet. Even lovelier—and yes, slower—is “Stella Blue”, the words given space to breathe alongside the chords.
Side two begins tentatively as well, but the chorus of “Here Comes Sunshine” redeems the lyrics, and never quite gets close to ripping off the Beatles. The tune that sounds most like the Dead is “Eyes Of The World”, slathered with Jerry’s lead guitar dancing in between the vocals and harmonies, setting audiences positively atwirl. Then Bob Weir finally gets a chance to shine, and he does, with the 12-minute “Weather Report Suite”. A pretty “Prelude” leads into “Part 1”, with the pedal steel nicely rolling alongside the organ. The lyrics for this part were written with Eric Andersen, and the overall effect is preferable to “Part 2—Let It Grow” (written with usual Weir collaborator John Barlow), which gets more frantic, punctuated by brass and what sounds like strings. The saxophone comes back for an extended solo, and indeed Martín Fierro would join the band on tour before being relegated to Jerry’s solo bands.
Wake Of The Flood is okay for mid-period Dead, but some of the blandness that affected so many of their contemporaries in the ‘70s is evident here. The eventual expanded CD actually enhances the listen, thanks to a complete solo acoustic “Weather Report Suite” demo, alongside an outtake of “China Doll” and a live “Eyes Of The World” that stretches to 17 minutes.

Grateful Dead Wake Of The Flood (1973)—3
2006 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 3 extra tracks