Friday, February 15, 2019

Elton John 9: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

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

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Prince 9: Sign “O” The Times

Considering that he was never remotely suspected of using cocaine or amphetamines, Prince was a particularly prolific musician. By the time Parade and Under The Cherry Moon came out, he was already on his way to having another album ready. Not just another album; first there was the double Dream Factory, plus the vari-sped Camille, which were somewhat combined into the triple Crystal Ball. Eventually, sixteen tracks were spread across two records, released as Sign "☮" The Times, credited to Prince alone, having disbanded the Revolution the previous fall. Most of his work thus far had been completely solo works anyway, and while the Revolution does appear on a live track recorded the year before, pretty much everything else save the horns and some vocals are all him. (He also had time to record two LPs’ worth of funky smooth jazz under the Madhouse moniker.)
Released ahead of the album, everybody called the infectious title track “minimalist” and it is, based around a simple stock drum pattern, with a few bass runs and lots of bluesy guitar. It’s probably also the last time anybody referred to heroin as “horse”. Lest anyone think he was leaving the funk behind, “Play In The Sunshine” is an upbeat distillation of “1999” and “Delirious”, then—“Shut up already! Damn!”—“Housequake” is an even nastier groove, and pretty funny to boot. (His voice is sped up a tad here, and credited to “Camille” on other instances too.) “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” keeps up the funk, and manages to slip in a Joni Mitchell reference halfway through. This is where the album starts to get what people call “eclectic”, and we’re pretty sure it has nothing to do with the legendary wit of the same name.
The meaning of “It” shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, but there’s something about that raspy vocal that cracks us up. The very surreal “Starfish And Coffee” becomes less so when one learns it’s an account of Susannah (and Wendy) Melvoin’s grade school classmates, eventually given a charming reading on a mid-‘90s reboot of The Muppet Show. The horn-infused “Slow Love” fits its title just fine, a Hey Love-style jam with minimal falsetto, and things pick up again on “Hot Thing”. “Forever In My Life” could be called a departure, wherein he expresses a desire for long-term commitment over some subtle yet tasty acoustic guitar.
The idea is swatted away with the surprising hit in the form of “U Got The Look”, basically a duet with Sheena Easton, who had a hit a few years earlier with “Sugar Walls”, and definitely Prince’s type. Here’s where “Camille” truly stands out, seeming to get squeakier with every line. “She” apparently sings “If I Was Your Girlfriend” too, making the pronouns and perspective dizzying. “Strange Relationship” seems like a rearrangement of the same tune, but with a more straightforward structure and no monologue. The extremely catchy “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” was already a terrific single, with its “nah-nah-nah-nah” vocals predicting “November Rain”; on the album it’s extended by about three minutes with a tempo shift and guitar solos before reverting to the original theme.
Despite being only two chords over one bass note, “The Cross” builds from its simple strum to a driving grunge that Lenny Kravitz would eventually cop for three full albums. Suddenly we’re transported back to Paris the previous summer for “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” with the expanded Revolution, reviving the “oh-wee-oh” Wizard Of Oz chant last heard in “Jungle Love”. Finally, “Adore” says goodnight with another horn-driven slow jam, with about four or five vocal parts weaving in and out of each other at all octaves.
Because the four sides’ worth offer a lot to ingest, Sign "☮" The Times takes a lot of time to appreciate. That said, it’s diverse, a lot of fun, and better than 1999. Pare it down to a single, and it would be even better, but what would you leave off? Besides ending his golden era, it mostly signified the end of the Revolution, and we miss them. (He didn’t tour America behind it, but did release a concert-style film, which did about as well as his previous film, but is worth checking out if you can find it.)

Prince Sign "☮" The Times (1987)—4

Friday, February 8, 2019

Frank Zappa 36: The Perfect Stranger

Seemingly determined in this stretch of his career to be taken seriously as a composer as opposed to a songwriter, Frank hooked up with renowned conductor Pierre Boulez, who got an orchestra to rehearse, perform, and record another pile of his chamber music pieces. Not to be confused with the Deep Purple album from the same year, The Perfect Stranger was released on Angel, EMI’s classical subsidiary, which must’ve tickled Frank no end.
Heralded by a doorbell, Boulez and the Ensemble InterComtemporain dive into the title track, and wander around for about 12 minutes to illustrate an encounter between a housewife and an industrial vacuum cleaner salesman, the product being one of Frank’s favorite appliances. (By the way, the liner notes call these all “dance pieces”, as if we could imagine the choreography as described therein.) “Naval Aviation In Art?” expands the piece already heard on Orchestral Favorites, downplaying the solo violin but retaining the suspense. They also provide the first official appearance of “Dupree’s Paradise”, an instrumental that had been around since before the Roxy shows, and delivered with little of the jazz overtones heard on other versions, but resolving well.
The other half of the album is performed by what’s called the Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort, which was actually Frank composing music and performing it using the Synclavier, a computerized system that made classical transcription a zillion times easier and faster, and reproduced it flawlessly. With this machine, Frank’s big beef about being at the mercy of prima donnas and insufficiently skilled musicians was solved. Well, mostly; the Synclavier wasn’t exactly a digital sampler, so music performed on or by it risked sounding canned, much like Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos and sundry. That said, “The Girl In The Magnesium Dress” is based around the sound of a vibraphone over electric piano tones, both played at high speed. “Love Story” is more frenetic and brief, sounding more like a bunch of keyboards, while “Outside Now Again” slows down a theme from Joe’s Garage that sounds very close to “Duke Of Prunes”, noodling away on top of it. “Jonestown” closes the album, essentially his aural vision of the horror in Guyana used to comment on religion, organized or not, as a whole. It’s highly disturbing, but effective.
As with his other albums in the classical vein, one’s appreciation for The Perfect Stranger will depend mostly on one’s tolerance for orchestral instruments, and if the absence of vocals and guitar solos is a factor in any way. The addition of the Synclavier makes it very much a historical entry in the canon, as he would continue to both explore its capabilities and release his results.

Boulez Conducts Zappa The Perfect Stranger (1984)—3

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Lou Reed 16: New Sensations

There’s something so joyous about an incredibly stupid song, particularly when it comes from someone with loftier ambitions. (Think “Happy Jack” and “Bang On The Drum All Day”.) That’s why, after years of preaching to a small choir, Lou Reed suddenly had a huge radio hit with a three-chord trifle called “I Love You, Suzanne”, with an opening couplet that stole the hook from “Do You Love Me” by the Contours and even spawned a music video complete with stunt double.
The tune opened New Sensations, a somewhat modern-sounding album that actually charted. Backup singers, some part of Jim Steinman’s go-to crew, add touches, making it sound a little too modern. The production is bright, as are the guitars, all but a few of which are played by Lou. The rhythm section of Fernando Saunders and Fred Maher remain in place, but Robert Quine was long gone.
The simplicity of the band keeps the album fresh, even if it doesn’t break much ground. “Endlessly Jealous” follows “Suzanne”, making up in chords what it repeats in the lyrics. “My Red Joystick” ties in with his strange pose on the cover, though it doesn’t mesh in the kiss-off to an ex-lover and various postulations about Adam and Eve; better to concentrate on the continual soloing over the single chord. “Turn To Me” is built on an archetypical Lou riff, and stacks a series of odd verses pledging devotion to unnamed individuals going through all kinds of unfortunate events. The title track ends up an homage to his motorcycle, which was also reflected in his endorsement deal for Honda scooters all over TV that year.
L. Shankar’s violin provides an exotic bent to “Doin’ The Things That We Want To”, which forces rhymes out of his appreciation for Sam Shepard plays and Martin Scorsese movies. The New York theme continues on “What Becomes A Legend Most”, pairing the tagline from a well-known pro-fur coat campaign with the type of chamber pop recalled from Transformer and Berlin. “Fly Into The Sun” embraces nihilism, while “My Friend George” discusses a friend who apparently did the same to violent ends. “High In The City” goes back to celebrating the simple pleasures of Manhattan, as does “Down At The Arcade” (or “The Great Defender”, depending on which pressing you have) in its own way. We can get Lou being fascinated by video games, but the delivery here comes off as pointedly cartoonish.
So while “I Love You, Suzanne” is definitely the high point to which the other songs fail to match, New Sensations still sounds like he put some effort into it. Again, not a classic, but not embarrassing.

Lou Reed New Sensations (1984)—3

Friday, February 1, 2019

King Crimson 14: Absent Lovers

Having already looked at both ends of the ‘70s version of the band, the next archival release from King Crimson covered the ‘80s version. Absent Lovers presents the final show of the tour supporting Three Of A Perfect Pair, which was also the last time these four musicians would play together for ten years. The show was originally recorded for radio broadcast, and promptly bootlegged, and while this official version is mixed from the original multitracks, some odd fades suggest that a boot might have been the source.
It’s no big deal, because the recording is crisp. After three albums and tours in this incarnation, they had the set pretty much down. After a lengthy introductory improv titled “Entry Of The Crims”, the disparate pieces come together into “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part III”, and off they go. As the vocalist, Adrian Belew takes the opportunity to engage the crowd in between songs, and his vocals are still a matter of personal taste. He even takes time at the end to individually acknowledge everyone on the tour crew. Outside of excellent versions of “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II” (both of which originally recorded in the ‘70s, so Bill Bruford gets to show how well he remembered them), the set leans heaviest on what was the new album and Discipline, with a few things from Beat, shuffling the pile and juxtaposing more familiar (read: better) songs with ones we overlooked.
And that right there is what makes the album worth it. While the three ‘80s albums sound very cold—partially because of the emphasis on electronics—onstage the pieces have a lot more room to breathe, which Robert Fripp insists is always better anyway. Absent Lovers is a highly recommended introduction to that version of King Crimson, shedding some light onto that section of the catalog and the history. (If you really want to immerse yourself into the era, the On (And Off) The Road box set presents nine CDs containing remastered versions of the three albums (with bonus tracks), live recordings, and outtakes, as well as Absent Lovers, along with DVDs and Blu-rays loaded with surround mixes and video content.)

King Crimson Absent Lovers—Live In Montreal 1984 (1998)—