Friday, April 26, 2019

Kinks 14: Kronikles

While Reprise had let the Kinks get away in the U.S., the label still had rights to everything the band had recorded up until then. And since it had been six years and several actual hits since the one best-of, it was high time to kash in. Wisely, they left it to a fan, journalist and devout Kink kollector John Mendelsohn, to kompile a double album and kontribute liner notes extolling the band and the tracks therein.

While they didn’t put a lot of money into the kover design, The Kink Kronikles expertly served up four sides’ worth of klassic Kinks music from the period since that hits album, kombining hit singles, B-sides, album tracks, and other nuggets that had either been ignored by radio or not released in America at all. Mendelsohn’s point was that these tunes deserved to be heard, and now they were. While most of the albums represented here were of the konceptual ilk, he made damn sure to touch on several one-off singles from in between said koncepts, proving that they were just as good at 45 as they were at 33. (And yes, that would be Nicky Hopkins playing so many of those keyboards, kredit long overdue.)

Side one alone offers three tracks that had yet to appear in America. The overly music hall “Berkeley Mews” was left over from the Village Green era, and had only recently made it out as the British B-side of “Lola”. “This Is Where I Belong” was another British B-side, and it’s just glorious, while “Willesden Green” is an odd choice, being chosen from the Percy soundtrack to even Mendelsohn’s befuddlement. But around all that are “Victoria”, “Village Green Preservation Society”, “Holiday In Waikiki” for some reason, and the eternal “Waterloo Sunset”.

Side two explores the various downtrodden individuals that were Ray Davies’ trademark, from the more familiar “David Watts” and “Sunny Afternoon” to album tracks “Get Back In Line” and “Shangri-La”. Kult klassics “Dead End Street” and “Autumn Almanac” get welcome exposure, while “Did You See His Name”, another Village Green leftover, hadn’t been released anywhere yet.

Side three takes a side trip to more whimsical karacters, to varying success. There’s “Fancy”, with its drone and simple lyrics, followed by the goofy flop single “Wonderboy”. “Apeman” was an FM radio hit, kleverly shadowed by the American debut of “King Kong”, another goofy flop. The ragtimey “Mr. Pleasant” is a matter of taste, while “God’s Children” is far and away the best song from Percy, and Dave Davies finally gets the spotlight for “Death Of A Clown”.

Side four is said to be about women, so of kourse it starts with “Lola”, followed by its American B-side “Mindless Child Of Motherhood”. (What Mendelsohn didn’t know at the time was that this Dave Davies song, like “Susannah’s Still Alive” a few tracks later, addresses the same lost love and child he’d yet to meet.) “Polly” and “Big Black Smoke” were both B-sides from the Something Else period, and “She’s Got Everything”, with its last vestige of that famous guitar sound from ’64, was also dusted off to back up “Days”, the wonderful single that fittingly kloses the set.

While many of these tracks have since been re-assigned to various expanded album reissues and box sets in kontext, The Kink Kronikles remains an excellent follow-up to that first hits album, and anyone delving deeper into the albums sampled shouldn’t feel any redundancy. There are only a couple of klunkers here, yet it still holds up, particularly as the band had already moved on to a kompletely different place.

The Kinks The Kink Kronikles (1972)—4

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Todd Rundgren 19: The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect

While Utopia appeared to be his main focus, Bearsville Records demanded that Todd Rundgren finish out his contract, so he did. The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect is another completely solo Todd album, written and performed entirely by his lonesome. By now the synthesizers and drum machines had become more sophisticated, so many of the tracks sound like an actual band again. The songs themselves are predominantly throwaway pop, and that’s not always a bad thing.

“Hideaway” sounds like it could have been a contemporary Utopia track, particularly when the timber of his voice changes. Though it may sound sincere to some, the spoken couplet seems more of a parody, and belies the tossed-off nature of the album. “Influenza” could have been a major hit by, say, a female pop vocalist, though the hook isn’t exactly top 40 fare. Right on schedule comes the sensitive ballad “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, with a lotta blue-eyed soul. A saxophone can be heard now and then in “There Goes Your Baybay”, which goes in and out of a bossa nova beat as found on most home organs.

Side two is just as fluffy as side one, in content anyway. “Tin Soldier” is a fairly faithful (but not exactly Faithful) cover of the Small Faces tune, with a really jarring percussive vocal effect in the verses, but an excellent approximation of P.P. Arnold’s wonderful high part and a precursor to the next near-hit he’d have several years later. “The Emperor Of The Highway” is another Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche, this time taking the guise of a gearhead on the verge of road rage. It’s kinda stupid, but nothing compared to the gloriously stupid song that made the album a hit. The ever-popular “Bang The Drum All Day” is positively infectious, and will probably be played at a sporting event within the next 24 hours, no matter when you read this. In contrast, “Drive” soon fades in with chiming guitars and driving (sorry) beat, under a lyric extolling personal perseverance. “Chant” has a similar utopian message, but isn’t as catchy as it tries to be, and now just screams new wave techno-pop.

It would interesting to know if anybody who bought The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect based on “Band The Drum All Day” got into the rest of the album, or the rest of his catalog, or even the Small Faces. Todd himself didn’t care much, since he was too busy playing with computers, experimenting with videos, and making Utopia albums. The album may not have taxed his creativity very much, but it’s more proof that with only the slightest prodding, he could spit out a catchy album in his sleep. We’d venture a guess he probably enjoyed the money.

Todd Rundgren The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (1982)—3

Friday, April 19, 2019

Rush 15: A Show Of Hands

Right on schedule, another set of four Rush albums was followed by a double live album. A Show Of Hands spotlit their most recent tour promoting their most recent album, with a couple of recordings from the previous tour to fill it out. With the exception of “Witch Hunt” and the closing “Closer To The Heart”, all the songs come from those last four albums, so nobody can really complain about repeats.

The band prided themselves on perfectly replicating their records onstage, so there’s not much difference outside a few vocal embellishments and the occasional intro. We can marvel at Geddy Lee’s ability to play bass and sing at the same time, for instance, on “Turn The Page”. Technology allowed them to play the orchestral accompaniment to “Marathon”, as well as import the voice of Aimee Mann for “Time Stand Still”. It’s also possible to enjoy the band’s unique sense of humor, beginning with the Three Stooges theme that opens the album, and Neil Peart’s four-minute drum solo, cheekily titled “The Rhythm Method”. (Keen-eared listeners will recognize some patterns carried over from “YYZ”, but those are forgotten once he starts hitting the MIDI pads.)

As the CD had become standard, A Show Of Hands was the first Rush live album that didn’t have to leave off a track that wouldn’t fit on a shiny silver disc. Of course, the LP and cassette ran the same length anyway, and diehard fans would happily pony up the cash for the companion videotape, which included songs not on the album while omitting some that were.

Rush A Show Of Hands (1989)—3

Friday, April 12, 2019

Joni Mitchell 20: Both Sides Now

Believe it or else, at one time it wasn’t so common for performers of the rock era to record albums of standards from the pre-rock era. Not that Joni Mitchell was considered rock, but here was one of the preeminent songwriters of the century tackling “moon-June” lyrics. Plus, all those cigarettes hadn’t been kind to her range, so surely this would be a tough listen. Comparisons to Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin—recorded after her own voice had been racked to a rasp, a year before her death—weren’t exactly flattering.

However, such knee-jerk reactions aren’t fair, because Both Sides Now is just fine, taken for what it is. As advertised, these are lush arrangements of songs, most of them older than Joni herself, already done by just about anybody who crooned in front of a microphone. Save a Gordon Jenkins chart for “Stormy Weather”, all the arrangements come from young Vince Mendoza, who’s been quite busy since then. Other soloists include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Mark Isham.

The order of the tunes is supposed to follow the arc of a romance, from excited beginning through crushing defeat to the bruised but determined aftermath, whereupon the cycle starts again. Working with longtime co-producer and onetime spouse Larry Klein, it’s tempting to imagine the daggers thrown from microphone to control room. (As per usual, the package includes several of her paintings and self-portraits; a limited edition included some of these as lithograph packaged in a hat box.)

The most striking tracks would be the two remakes of their own songs, both given the same lush treatment as the rest of the tunes, but so shocking when one is so accustomed to the high soprano of three decades before. “A Case Of You” fits very well halfway through the program, but it’s the title track that truly takes on a different meaning out of the mouth of a woman of experience as opposed to a jaded twentysomething. The song was already melancholy, but now, given the years in between, it’s so much more poignant (particularly at “now old friends, they’re acting strange/and they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed”).

If Both Sides Now had been released by, say, Lady Gaga if she was around then, or Diana Krall, or another modern singer with a smoky voice, it would have been hailed as perfect, essential, dazzling. Get over the fact that Joni will never again hit those high notes, and marvel at how her evolved range wraps around these songs. Even we were skeptical at first, and are now ashamed at our callousness. This really is a special album for late nights, rainy days, and lots of wine.

Joni Mitchell Both Sides Now (2000)—

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Jerry Garcia 2: Live At Keystone

While you might not think so once considering the evidence of thousands of shared tapes and hundreds of archival CDs, the Grateful Dead did not tour year-round. They actually took the occasional break, and not just to record albums. Jerry Garcia’s best solution for keeping busy during that downtime was merely to play music with other people. Which, of course led to further album releases, as well as shared tapes and archival CDs.

One of his favorite players was Merl Saunders, a Bay Area keyboard player, and when his band (plus Jerry) played a couple nights at Berkeley’s Keystone nightclub, tapes rolled, and a double live album was duly released by Fantasy Records, to which Saunders was signed. Outside of one funky Saunders original (which has gone under numerous titles over the years but usually called “Keepers”) and a freeform group jam, Live At Keystone consists of mildly jazzy extended covers, from “The Harder They Come” to an 18-minute exploration on “My Funny Valentine”. Jerry’s fascination with Bob Dylan shows in versions of “Positively 4th Street” and “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, both slowed down to a crawl. One of the longest and slowest tracks is “Like A Road Leading Home”, written by Don Nix and Dan Penn, and first recorded by Albert King. It’s also absolutely gorgeous. “That’s All Right Mama” thankfully picks up the pace, and we’ll go on a limb to suggest that some of Saunders’ organ runs throughout the album will have one remembering Pigpen in his prime; the clavinet, not so much.

Due to Jerry’s distinctive voice and fretwork, the album fits with the larger Dead picture, and Fantasy Records has taken full advantage of that. Fifteen years later, once the Dead had become bigger than ever, the label cashed in by issuing Live At Keystone on two separate CDs, each sporting a previously unreleased performance from the original shows. That was joined by Keystone Encores, which offered another hour of music, including the Motown classics “I Second That Emotion” and “How Sweet It Is”. (It was also released as two separate LPs, each with one of the “new” performances added to the main Keystone CDs. Lost yet?) Finally, 2012’s Keystone Companions packed every note from the shows onto four CDs, in order of performance; roughly an hour’s worth of music had not been released several times already, or even once. Also, “Space” from the original LP, while not listed as part of the box, is revealed to be an excerpt from one of the performances of “Merl’s Tune”. (For further research, the sixth installment in the ongoing Garcia Live series presents a three-hour show from a few days before the Keystone run, including further covers like “After Midnight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, and a trumpet player during the second set, whose name has been lost to the mists of time. Also, Saunders’ own studio albums often included Jerry somewhere; the Well-Matched best-of presents a sampler of these, as well as music from the Keystone shows.)

Merl Saunders, Jerry Garcia, John Kahn, Paul Vitt Live At Keystone (1973)—3
1988 CD: same as 1973, plus 2 extra tracks
Merl Saunders, Jerry Garcia, John Kahn, Paul Vitt Keystone Encores (1988)—3

Friday, April 5, 2019

Phil Collins 4: But Seriously

Considering the man’s ubiquity through the ‘80s—a time where he himself says “even I was sick of hearing me everywhere”—there would be no question that the next Phil Collins solo album would be a smash hit. First, though, there was a detour in the form of his first starring role in a major motion picture. Buster is best remembered today by two songs from the soundtrack album: the Motown hybrid “Two Hearts”, written with Lamont Dozier and celebrated with yet another video wherein he appears as every member of a band, and his gorgeous rearrangement of “A Groovy Kind Of Love”.

Like all international superstars, he was very concerned about the state of the world in 1989, and the lyrics on …But Seriously were designed to reflect that, if subtly. An upbeat yet odd start, “Hang In Long Enough” has a blast of horns, but sticks too uncomfortably close to “1999” to sound original. A familiar drum machine and keyboard meld brings in “That’s Just The Way It Is”, which features a harmony from new buddy David Crosby; presumably Phil was the only guy on the planet who hadn’t heard Bruce Hornsby’s song from a couple years before, though the bagpipes at the end are a nice touch. “Do You Remember” was made to be a hit single, and it was, but sounded better when it was called “Groovy Kind Of Love”. Normally we wouldn’t get too excited about “Something Happened On The Way To Heaven”, but that fantastic game-show fanfare that appears at the top and in the middle? POW! (Buried in the mix, under all the horns and vocals, is a twangy 12-string part, and a nice touch.) “Colours” sadly decries apartheid for the first three minutes, then transitions into a promising jazz instrumental before going back to a more Genesis sound (plus horns) for another six. As a respite, “I Wish It Would Rain Down” is best known for spotlighting Eric Clapton’s guitar work; he also appeared in the elaborate video alongside the rest of the band and Jeffrey Tambor. (That canned keyboard sound dominates the rest of the mix today.)

“Another Day In Paradise” was the first single, and now we hear the song’s structural similarity to “Man On The Corner”; at the time the big deal was made about David Crosby singing on it, and it won a Grammy for Record of the Year. With a faster version of the same chorus, “Heat On The Street” is a bouncy Motown-like tune in defense of “the kids”. “All Of My Life” reeks of Stephen Bishop’s influence, particularly on the “Tootsie”-like verse; if you listen closely you can hear Steve Winwood on organ, and that’s not Clapton, but Sting regular Dominic Miller on the leads guitar. The furious instrumental “Saturday Night And Sunday Morning” provides some late variety, but is over before it can really make an impact, and seems strange to stick before “Father To Son”, a pleasant paternal chat. While it begins very much like “Take Me Home”, “Find A Way To My Heart” recycles the horn hits we’ve heard for the previous hour to end up in a different place.

While it’s simply too damn long, and too many songs sound alike, the album sold a bazillion copies worldwide, thanks in part to all the hit singles and the subsequent world tour, which was commemorated by 1990’s Serious Hits… Live! album and concert video. Typical of the “Take A Look At Me Now” reissue campaign, …But Seriously’s bonus disc (labeled Extra Seriously, ho ho) mixes performances from that tour with others from later tours, along with a few B-sides and demos.

Phil Collins …But Seriously (1989)—
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1989, plus 13 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Jeff Beck 8: With The Jan Hammer Group Live

This album has been much maligned over the years, likely because it was (at the time of release, anyway) the furthest out Jeff Beck had gone from what people expected of him. While it’s his picture on the cover, since he made the money for the label, Live is double-billed with the Jan Hammer Group, who at this time consisted of all former members of fusion pioneers Mahavishnu Orchestra. Hammer himself had made his impression on Beck all over Wired, while the rhythm section of Fernando Saunders and Tony “Thunder” Smith would one day make Lou Reed very happy. Without question, this is a fusion album, and a true collaboration, Beck’s role being that of the guitarist in the band. Therefore, half the program is given over to material from earlier Hammer albums.

Car horn sound effects not only set up “Freeway Jam”, but recur throughout—a novelty when guitars and synths didn’t commonly make those noises with ease, but mostly annoying today. “Earth (Still Our Only Home)” is funky, but Hammer’s not a vocalist, and the lyrics are unintelligible. Beck takes over the vocoder for “She’s A Woman”, and soon ends up parroting some of Peter Frampton’s clichés from his own live album from the year before. He even exhorts the crowd to “put those hands together” for “Full Moon Boogie”, sung well by Tony Smith with lots of electric violin from Steve Kindler.

Side two has no vocals, thankfully. Crazy space noises open “Darkness/Earth In Search Of A Sun”, moving into a more ambitious groove. “Scatterbrain” translates well to the stage, with the orchestral parts covered by Hammer and Kindler, while the rhythm section travels at the speed of light. “Blue Wind” is an excellent display of precision, and takes a surprising yet apt detour into “Train Kept A-Rollin’”, proving he still had rock in him. And with a “God bless, ya,” they’re gone.

Assuming they’re authentic from the performances, the crowd dug the show, as will anyone into jazz fusion. Therefore it’s recommended, but you’ve been warned.

Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group Live (1977)—3