Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Toad The Wet Sprocket 7: P.S.

Thanks to dwindling sales and the requisite “musical differences”, Toad The Wet Sprocket dribbled to a close by the end of the century. The business being what it was, the label okayed a hits collection, which by law required the inclusion of exclusive material.

P.S. (A Toad Retrospective) is not only a fitting title, but it also happens to be the name of a song yet to be included on an album—until now! Apparently one of the first tunes they wrote, it was recorded specially for the set but without lead guitarist Todd Nichols, who also doesn’t appear on “Eyes Wide Open”, the other new track. In between, the set runs through all the usual hits and radio favorites from all six albums, mostly staying uptempo until “I Will Not Take These Things For Granted”, which always sounds odd in the middle of a sequence instead of at the end of one. To make things further interesting, several of the tracks appear in edited or remixed versions, but as that’s how most of them ended up on the radio or in music videos, the differences aren’t exactly striking. “Silo Tornado”, a strings-heavy bonus from the Japanese version of Coil closes the set; fans still have to hold onto other CDs for their versions of “Instant Karma”, “Hey Bulldog”, and particularly “Rock & Roll All Night”, which might be the greatest Kiss cover ever recorded.

A decade later, two other compilations appeared as part of Sony’s budget Super Hits and Playlist series. The former runs 33 minutes and leans heavily on Dulcinea album tracks, while the latter purports to be the band’s “very best” and sticks closer to P.S., but substitutes a couple of live versions from 2004’s Welcome Home, which documents a 1992 concert. That’s worth getting on its own, as the band plays a well-sequenced set, complete with vocal asides to George Harrison, the Replacements, and the Waterboys. An onstage keyboard player adds color, and altogether there’s a toughness and tightness given to the early material. There’s even pre-release takes on “Brother” and “Fall Down”.

Those aforementioned musical differences didn’t preclude the occasional reunion gig, and after a decade or so of working separately to little widespread notice outside the fervent, they reconvened to record new versions of several songs from their catalog. This is a common trend among bands whose work is owned by a label no longer interested in paying them, so they can hawk recordings they do own at hefty licensing fees to raise income. All You Want would likely fool anyone not paying close attention into thinking these were the originals. Musically it’s fine; as a product it’s inessential.

Toad The Wet Sprocket P.S. (A Toad Retrospective) (1999)—4
Toad The Wet Sprocket
Welcome Home: Live At The Arlington Theater, Santa Barbara 1992 (2004)—
Toad The Wet Sprocket
Super Hits (2008)—3
Toad The Wet Sprocket
Playlist: The Very Best Of Toad The Wet Sprocket (2009)—
Toad The Wet Sprocket
All You Want (2011)—3

Friday, February 22, 2019

Talking Heads 5: The Name Of This Band

After a pretty busy couple of years, David Byrne was delving further into art-rock on his own, and the Talking Heads rhythm section made an album under the guise of Tom Tom Club, which would prove one day to be more lucrative for them than anything they did in the band. Even Jerry Harrison did a solo album.

Fearing group inactivity for who knew how long, the label smartly issued a double-live album with a twist. The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads spanned their career to date, beginning with a radio broadcast from 1977 on side one (likely not in the living room setting shown on the front cover, sadly), then moving to a larger-capacity theater in 1979 on side two. The other two sides dip into shows from the tour supporting Remain In Light, wherein they recruited extra musicians, some of whom were already known, to translate their evolved sound: Adrian Belew on guitar, Bernie Worrell on keyboards, Steve Scales on percussion, “Busta Cherry” Jones on bass, and backup singers Nona Hendryx and Dolette McDonald.

Despite the difference in sound between the eras, the album is sequenced in such a way that it flows. Of course, it helps that David Byrne’s goofy delivery is up front and center. As a historical document it works, being the first LP appearance of “Love → Buildings On Fire”, as well as offering pre-release versions of “Air” and “Memories Can’t Wait”, plus the otherwise unavailable “A Clean Break”; cassette buyers got a bonus in the form of “Cities”. It also served as a hits overview, with such favorites as “Psycho Killer”, “Life During Wartime”, and “Take Me To The River”, scattered throughout, in familiar arrangements. (Note: this is called foreshadowing. All will be revealed in time.)

For some reason, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads was unavailable on CD for two decades, despite being able to fit onto a single disc. So it’s to their credit that when it did appear, it was doubled in length, bolstering both eras for a double-CD set packed to the gills.

An early version of “Drugs” appears in the first half, amidst some tracks taken from a promotional LP of a different radio broadcast and other sources, but what were sides one and two appear in sequence within themselves. To make the most of the later stuff, the same shows were mined, but now all the songs appear in an order to approximate the actual setlist, as well as preserve the flow. A couple of songs are repeated in this half, and the first tentative minute of “Crosseyed And Painless” is chopped off, going straight to the familiar groove, but sacrifices had to be made. Throughout, it’s clear—these guys were tight.

Talking Heads The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (1982)—
2004 expanded reissue: same as 1982, plus 16 extra tracks

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Rod Stewart 5: Sing It Again Rod

Mercury Records was in the midst of its longest drought between Rod Stewart albums, so they made the obvious move of compiling a stopgap. In packaging designed to resemble a very large whiskey glass, Sing It Again Rod was not immediately obvious as a collection of tracks from his previous albums; the inner sleeve even sported photos of Rod posing and preening onstage.

But as they were limited to the albums he did for them, that meant they couldn’t touch anything by the Faces, or even the first two Jeff Beck albums. Still, they had plenty to choose from, going with all of side two of Every Picture Tells A Story, three from the previous year’s Never A Dull Moment, plus two each from the others. While the sequencing is a little odd, the obvious choices are here, but the only rarity is his version of “Pinball Wizard” from the all-star orchestral remake of the Who’s Tommy. Somebody thought “Lost Paraguayos” was preferable rather than to add a B-side, or even the “Oh! No Not My Baby” single that came out a few months later. (These would have to wait until he jumped labels and started selling even more records, with the first of two double albums that regurgitated about two thirds of the material he’d left them.)

As a sampler, Sing It Again Rod does the trick, and makes a fine listen. But those who care to dig deeper should just go ahead and get the originals; somebody else would do a much better cover of “Pinball Wizard” in a couple of years anyway.

Rod Stewart Sing It Again Rod (1973)—

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.)

The eventual posthumous expanded version of the album presented a wealth of material for fans and scholars. While the Deluxe Edition merely added all the pertinent single mixes, B-sides, and 12-inch mixes, the behemoth Super Deluxe Edition offered another three discs of tracks from the vault, detailing the progress of the album through all its configurations, finally revealing legendary outtakes, and (of course) adding some stuff that wasn’t part of the soup at all, such as a track with Miles Davis and several songs demoed for pre-comeback Bonnie Raitt. (Two further CDs documented a live show from June 1987, and a DVD presented a New Year’s Eve concert from the newly completed Paisley Park Studios.) While we can’t reconstruct each of the unreleased albums from these contents alone, we can still marvel at his productivity and explorations, and lament the loss of the Revolution—Wendy and Lisa in particular. We’ll even go so far as to say the record company was right, and Sign "☮" The Times was better as a double album than the triple he presented them.

Prince Sign "☮" The Times (1987)—4
2020 Deluxe Edition: same as 1987, plus 13 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 53 tracks, plus DVD)

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

Friday, February 1, 2019

Peter Gabriel 7: Passion

True to Gabriel form, the follow-up to his smash hit album was not a commercial endeavor, but another soundtrack to a controversial film, and an album that came out nearly a year after its theater companion. But by giving it the title of Passion, rather than boldly stating it as the soundtrack to The Last Temptation Of Christ, Peter firmly established it as an album on its own. Moreover, he got to explore and promote all kinds of music from Third World countries, adding such luminaries as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to the dedicated musicians in his studio and touring bands.

Because of the ambient nature of the album, many of the tracks blend together for a unified listening experience. But some tracks do stand out on their own, and convey a mood not necessarily tethered to Martin Scorsese’s vision. “The Feeling Begins” evokes a windy desert, with a variety of percussion to add tension. The same method is used for the suite of tracks bookended by “Of These, Hope” with “Lazarus Raised” in the middle. “Sandstorm” really does sound like one, and the title track is particularly haunting.

But it’s not all African and Mideastern sounds. “With This Love” is heard twice on the album: once led by an oboe and cor anglais, and again with a choir. Both add a distinctly English touch in the midst of an otherwise geographically accurate musical portrait. Peter’s voice is finally heard on “A Different Drum”, a wordless chant that seems just on the verge of becoming a catchy chorus. “It Is Accomplished”, which accompanies the last seconds of the film as the end credits roll, manages to speak the emotions of triumph and release over an amazingly simple, repetitive melody. (Blasting it from your car speakers even enhances the catharsis of driving away on your last day from a job you hate.)

To best appreciate Passion, it should be approached not as an album but as background music. And like the best of its ilk, it has the power to rise above such a negative label to deliver a riveting listening experience. It’s similar to Birdy in that respect, but on a grander scale.

Peter Gabriel Passion (1989)—