Friday, March 29, 2019

Mary Hopkin 2: Earth Song/Ocean Song

Apple Records was still a going concern that had acts outside of various sparring ex-Beatles, and despite Paul McCartney taking zero interest in what was originally his baby, some of those acts ably carried on. After releasing some singles produced by hitmaker Mickie Most, Mary Hopkin ended up working with Tony Visconti, best known at the time for his work with T.Rex and David Bowie. (She didn’t just work with him; they got married, and that’s why her striking vocal cameo on Bowie’s “Sound And Vision” is credited to Mary Visconti.)

She didn’t like the image Paul concocted for her first album, so for Earth Song/Ocean Song Mary was determined to express her own tastes. Caught up in the English folk scene, she recruited Ralph McTell on acoustic guitar, along with Dave Cousins of the Strawbs on guitar, and Danny Thompson of Pentangle on standup bass, and hand-picked songs both familiar and unrecorded by the likes of McTell, Tom Paxton, and Cat Stevens. With more restrained string arrangements than those on Post Card, the result fits alongside contemporary albums by Nick Drake, and even dare we say the chamber elements of Nico’s Chelsea Girl.

That chamber sound is prominent on “International”, sometimes overshadowing the gently picked guitars but never her voice. “There’s Got To Be More” is an immediate improvement, with strident acoustics, that terrific Danny Thompson bass, and a defiant message in her delivery. There’s a gentle switch to “Silver Birch And Weeping Willow”, dominated by a Kingston Trio-style banjo, before “How Come The Sun” gets an excellent Visconti arrangement, and even phases the vocals on the middle section! The title track (the first half, anyway) rolls along like a leaf in a breeze, eventually landing on the ground.

With a harsh acoustic guitar thrashing unresolved chords, “Martha” fades in side two with a portrait of a neighborhood gossip justifiably ostracized by the community, which of course only compounds the problem. Skittering strings add to the unsettledness. Ralph McTell’s “Streets Of London” is legendary in the UK, and of course Mary’s take is as lovely as any. Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” is probably the most familiar song to Americans, but the arrangement is at first too literal, and then distracts from the simplicity of the original. “Water, Paper And Clay” redeems it, starting with just her lovely voice and building slowly to a pub anthem. “Ocean Song” completes the album, the same chords as “Earth Song” with different words and extended fade for an artful finale.

Mary was proudest of this album, and felt justified to leave the pop circus after its release. Without any real promotion, Earth Song/Ocean Song became easily forgotten until the ‘90s, when Apple finally started their non-Beatle reissue campaign. The initial CD release had no bonus tracks, but the 2010 version added both sides of a contemporary single (the overwrought “Let My Name Be Sorrow” and Ralph McTell’s more staid “Kew Gardens”) along with “When I Am Old One Day”, an outtake from the original LP first heard on a mid-‘90s compilation. (Another B-side, the mildly jaunty “Jefferson”, was included only in the digital download, alongside “Let My Name Be Sorrow” in French and, believe it or not, Japanese.)

Mary Hopkin Earth Song/Ocean Song (1971)—3
2010 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, March 22, 2019

Paul Simon 11: The Rhythm Of The Saints

After Graceland had paid off so handsomely, the world wondered what Paul Simon could possibly do to better it, much less equal it. While he didn’t go back to the South African well, The Rhythm Of The Saints did explore third-world rhythms and sounds, predominantly from Brazil, to inspire his words, with varying results.

“The Obvious Child” is based around Brazilian parade drums, but could easily stand on its own without all that. If anything, the drums mask the similarity in the first verse to his delivery in “You Can Call Me Al”. A snaky melody with subtle percussion underpins “Can’t Run But”, which manages to be hypnotic considering he limits his own vocals to about three notes. “The Coast” has a nice loping rhythm along the lines of “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”, and even gives co-writing credit to guitarist Vincent Nguini. Similarly we hear echoes of “Under African Skies” in “Proof” with horn parts that would be mimicked by Chevy Chase and Steve Martin in a video that didn’t help to sell the album any. The most haunting track is “Further To Fly”, with its complicated masked meter and lyrics that seem to address the search for love as well as a fear of aging and death.

The aftermath of the search is explored in “She Moves On”, which now sounds very similar to a Talking Heads rhythm from around the same time. “Born At The Right Time” stays in the same tempo but presents a more upbeat tale, complete with a singalong chorus and a hint of accordion. “The Cool, Cool River” is an ambitious track, starting with a complicated rhythm and almost forboding melody, stopping off at slightly dreamier interludes, and best of all, a few decisive horn blasts for the final run. Milton Nascimento co-wrote “Spirit Voices” and adds some of his own, but by now the basic tempo has become generic, Simon’s phrasing almost arbitrary, just as the title track mostly dribbles to a fade.

The Rhythm Of The Saints wasn’t a hit on the Graceland level—how could it be?—but people liked it and bought it. It also hasn’t had the legs its predecessor had, as the weaknesses only become more pronounced as the decades roll by. Throughout the album, he sings in a gentle tone, which is fine, but with few exceptions doesn’t help each of the songs stand out from each other.

According to Wikipedia, citing a magazine article we’ve yet to find or confirm, the album had an different sequence before the label insisted on opening with “The Obvious Child”, rather than having it at the top of side two (despite that being where “You Can Call Me Al” happened to sit). The original sequence basically flips the sides, but doesn’t present any more dynamic an effect. (The expanded CD helps widen the picture, with a very nice acoustic demo of “Born At The Right Time” and “Thelma”, a great pop song left out in the first place, likely because it’s so direct compared to the other lyrics.)

Paul Simon The Rhythm Of The Saints (1990)—3
2004 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Van Morrison 37: Pay The Devil

Oh great, another year, another Van Morrison album, another label, another… what the?! This sounds like old-time country and western!

And that’s exactly the deal. Pay The Devil is loaded with fiddle, pedal steel, two-step drums, Floyd Cramer-style piano, and lovelorn tunes from the honky tonk. Most of the songs are covers from the pre-rock era, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” being the most familiar one; the main exception is “Till I Gain Control Again”, written in the ‘70s by Rodney Crowell, and previously done by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, and Willie Nelson.

His own songs aren’t much to get excited about. The title track is another one of his “how dare you judge me” songs, but at least he doesn’t rant about the copycats in the business this time. “Playhouse” is a country blues that mentions the British monetary system but otherwise repeats the usual clichés. “This Has Got To Stop” reads like a parody, with its burned down houses and castles in the sand, rhyming “understand” with “Newfoundland”, and lines like “I watched you watching me as I watched you walk away from me.” His voice is still his best instrument, and even with all the trimmings, he delivers everything like it’s jazz or soul.

Pay The Devil is a nice change of pace from his other interchangeable releases of late. But if you want to hear Van sing country, you’re better off going back to Tupelo Honey.

Van Morrison Pay The Devil (2006)—3

Friday, March 15, 2019

Mott The Hoople 8: Live

Ian Hunter’s final run with Mott The Hoople was celebrated somewhat with a live album covering two continents. Side one of Live was recorded at Broadway’s relatively new Uris Theater (fun fact: the opening act was Queen) a few years before Barry Manilow’s residency, while side two was captured a few months earlier at the Hammersmith Odeon. Even in these locales, the band is still fairly sloppy, even if they weren’t the same five guys from five years before.

In 1974, live albums were usually designed as hits collections, and outside of “All The Way From Memphis” and “All The Young Dudes”, this one doesn’t approach that model. Things slow down big time on “Rest In Peace” and “Rose”, both only known from B-sides. They also stomp through “Walkin’ With A Mountain” and “Sweet Angeline” from the early days—the latter with an extended survey of the “slags” in the audience—and a cacophonous medley springing from “Jerkin’ Crocus” and “Rock & Roll Queen”, stopping off at “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Get Back” (lyrics not even close) on the way to “Violence”.

The original LP only had room for excerpts from the shows, which the eventual 30th Anniversary Edition attempted to rectify by expanding each album side to a full CD and with the tracks presented in the sequence performed. Both begin with the grandiose “Jupiter” from Holst’s Planets; the Broadway half then starts with a verse from “American Pie” before “The Golden Age Of Rock ‘N’ Roll”. While recorded only five months apart, there’s only the mildest overlap between the halves, so it’s hardly repetitive. That said, the longer “Walking With A Mountain” on the London disc is devoted mostly to Ariel Bender’s fretwork, which occasionally resembles Jimmy Page at his clumsiest.

Mott The Hoople Live (1974)—3
2004 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1974, plus 13 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Tom Petty 23: The Best Of Everything

An American Treasure nicely presented another side of Tom Petty’s well-traveled catalog, so the announcement of a comprehensive double-disc collection with two “new” songs so soon after seemed a tad crass. While the MCA portion of his history had already been anthologized on a single CD, as well as a double and even in a box set, this would be the first time anything from Wildflowers on had been compiled in any way. Thankfully, the powers that be gave the new box time to be appreciated, and delayed The Best Of Everything till the following spring.

Rather than running strictly chronologically, the sequence jumps from year to year to prove it’s all part of the same soup. It repeats everything from the 1993 hits collection, with the exception of “Something In The Air”, adding only “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Stevie Nicks (which replaced it on later versions of the set) and “Southern Accents”. (Were it up to us, we’d’ve tried to squeeze in “A Woman In Love” and “Change Of Heart”.)

As for the Warner years, every studio album is covered, including his solo outings and both Mudcrutch albums. Wildflowers offers three tracks, though there could easily be more, and She’s The One is well represented by the hit version of “Walls” and the quieter “Angel Dream”. “Room At The Top” is the best choice from Echo, as is “Dreamville” from The Last DJ; that title track is a given. “I Should Have Known It” is the obvious go-to from Mojo, but two from Highway Companion is pushing it. “American Dream Plan B” is here because something had to come from Hypnotic Eye, especially since three songs—all good—come from the second Mudcrutch album, and just one from the first.

The two new tracks aren’t exactly buried treasure. The “title track”, which had already appeared in an alternate mix on An American Treasure, ends the first disc in a version that includes a second verse chopped out before making it to Southern Accents. The second disc closes with “For Real”, something of a statement of purpose that ties in with the music business themes of The Last DJ, which is roughly when it was written. Oddly enough, it was recorded during sessions to add a song to his previous double-CD anthology…

Overall, The Best Of Everything delivers what it promises. While the so-called second half of his career may not have been as prolific or gifted as the hungry years, hearing some of those songs in this context does them a big favor, just as hearing the earlier stuff in something other than the usual order breathes life into them as well. And for that it’s recommended, especially for those who’ve held out on getting a Petty collection until now.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers The Best Of Everything (2019)—4

Friday, March 1, 2019

World Party 6: Arkeology

Five albums in fifteen years isn’t such a big deal these days, but Karl Wallinger loved, loved, loved to record, so he amassed a whole pile of things likely never to be heard outside his own speakers. But once the Internet made it easier for people to distribute their work directly, he did just that, but with a twist. Arkeology presented five hours’ worth of mostly unreleased World Party material on five discs, packaged in a spiral-bound daily planner.

While much of his studio work was one-man-band, he did rely on a few hired guns, especially for live work. In fact, the songs most people would have heard appear that way, sometimes twice. (Anyone seeking a more concise compilation with the actual hits can opt for 2007’s Best In Show, also released on his own label.) We also notice that for a guy trained on piano, he plays a decent guitar for a southpaw holding it upside and backwards.

The music isn’t organized thematically or chronologically, and we’re not going to discuss every track here, but there are some amazing gems hidden throughout. Right off the bat “Waiting Such A Long Long Time”, “Nothing Lasts Forever”, and “Everybody’s Falling In Love” are catchy tracks that would have been welcome on any album. Add other nice surprises like “No More Crying”, “Basically”, the mildly Kinky “All The Love That’s Wasted” (which sounds better here than on Dumbing Up), “Lost In Infinity”, “Another World”, and “Mystery Girl” (heard in two versions here) and there’s a solid single album right there. One of the better tracks is “Time On My Hands”, a Bang! B-side written by occasional guitarist (and professional McCartney impersonator) Dave Catlin-Birch. “Kuwait City” is also revived from its hiding place on Bang!.

Influences abound, from the note-for-note remakes of three White Album tracks, Little Richard’s “Lucille”, and Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You”. Sly and the Family Stone’s “Stand!” is a good live cover, but there’s no need for anyone else to play “Like A Rolling Stone”. Just to prove his versatility and capacity for silliness, you can tap your toes along with the British music hall of “The Good Old Human Race”, “You’re Beautiful But Get Out Of My Life”, and snippets like, well, “Silly Song”.

They can’t all be perfect, as demonstrated by the overlong “Everybody Dance Now” leading into a too-short Brian Wilson inference called “Closer Still”. “This Is Your World Speaking” tries to be an anthem of universal togetherness, but at nine minutes it’s what happens when one works alone. “Break Me Again” could easily be whittled down to a third of the length, while unfinished ideas like “New Light” are just begging to be enhanced. The instrumental “Outro” has us wishing we could hear the rest of the tune. There’s a lot in here to explore, and its bulk is what holds Arkeology back.

World Party Arkeology (2012)—3