Friday, May 31, 2019

Smithereens 9: 2011

Not that anyone noticed, but the Smithereens were still hacking away at making a living as working musicians. Certainly they could fill sets with their classic material, but that wasn’t good enough for them, so when the chance came to record a brand new album, they took it. Amazingly, it was worth it.

Never ones to shy away from a gimmick, 2011 expands on the title and packaging of their third classic album. They even got back together with original producer Don Dixon (who could only do so much for them the last time he helped). The songs concern the same old themes: Pat DiNizio is still just a romantic fool, even when he’s lonely.

Maybe it’s their age, but most of the tunes are in the same slow tempo, which can get a little plodding after a while. Thankfully tunes like “Rings On Her Fingers”, “Nobody Lives Forever” (which borrows a hook from “Especially For You”), and “What Went Wrong” inject some adrenaline into the proceedings. Speaking of which, “Viennese Hangover” is the same melody as “Cigarette”, while “Turn It Around” has that same chunky intro as the Who’s “Circles” and plenty of other Smithereens touchstones. “Sorry”, “One Look At You”, and “All The Same” rank up with their best.

The album’s long for them; “Goodnight Goodbye” could probably be jettisoned despite its obvious hooks, and “A World Of Our Own” has a wonderful intro for a song that doesn’t quite deliver. Still, 2011 is possibly the best successor to that first handful of great albums, and that’s especially fitting since it was the last collection of new material Pat DiNizio completed before his death in 2017.

The Smithereens 2011 (2011)—3

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Tommy Stinson 2: Perfect

After the Bash & Pop album was basically ignored, Tommy Stinson gave up on music for a while. After all, if Paul Westerberg couldn’t sell records on his own, how could the guy everyone still thought of as the teenage bass player?

By most accounts he tried working real jobs to support the family he’d left in Minneapolis while he was floundering in L.A., but eventually he made his way back to music, and put together a new band called Perfect. With the support of onetime Replacements manager Peter Jesperson, the band hit the studio and recorded an EP for an offshoot of an indie distributor. When Squirrels Play Chicken is a harmless cross between ‘70s punk and power-pop songsmithing, best exemplified by “Makes Me Happy”, which seems unsure of its key, yet matches Tommy’s freewheeling sense of melody. “Sometimes” is a stomp too slow for Green Day but perhaps more suitable for Bob Mould fans. “Alternative Monkey” is ahead of its time, considering how much it sounds today like Jet or the Strokes. “Miss Self-Esteem” comes closest to Westerberg at his most sensitive, and “Don’t Need To Know Where” revs it up to top speed, with truly explosive drums. The best part of the album is hidden at the end, a joyous thrash through “Crocodile Rock”, truly out of affection.

At 20 minutes, the EP was a nice taster of what could be, and the band went off to record a full-length album with Jim Dickinson, whom Tommy had met way back on Pleased To Meet Me. The album was completed, and promptly shelved by the record company. The tapes eventually ended up seven years later with Rykodisc, who took a chance on it, but not after juggling it and dropping one song. Once, Twice, Three Times A Maybe (an Eddie Murphy reference?) is closer to the straight Bash & Pop sound, but more straightahead rock. He’s still not the best singer, but the songs are well-crafted and arranged. (The title notwithstanding, “Making Of An Asshole” is truly terrific, as is “Peg Song”, the track not released.)

Taken all together, the entire official output of Perfect could be squeezed onto a single CD, which only means a future Record Store Day release will have it all on two records at overblown prices. You heard it here first, folks.

Perfect When Squirrels Play Chicken (1996)—3
Once, Twice, Three Times A Maybe (2004)—3

Friday, May 24, 2019

King Crimson 23: Meltdown

The resurgence of King Crimson in the second decade of the 21st century is somewhat surprising, but Robert Fripp—who’s just as pleased about it as anyone—insists that it could only have happened when people’s preconceptions of what the band is and does are ignored. What he calls the ninth lineup of the band (and the fourth “Definitive Formation”) includes eight men, some already eligible to collect Social Security, whose dedication to the material and history of the band results in not only stellar performances greeted enthusiastically by audiences—some of whom are seeing the band for the first time—but the capability of performing music that was never quite able to make it from the studio to the stage.

Fripp has been releasing selected “official bootlegs” from throughout the band’s history, and the latest lineups have already been represented on several such CDs since 2014. Even after the comprehensive Radical Action To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind, two further shows from 2017 were made available. Live In Vienna had Jeremy Stacey on drums in place of Bill Reiflin, who’d gone on sabbatical for what turned out to be terminal cancer. The third disc of the set was filled out by extra improvisations from elsewhere in the tour, and was held back for mass release until after that of Live In Chicago, which still had Stacey but also included Bill, back in the band on keyboards. (This two-disc set also included the otherwise unavailable song “The Errors”.) As good as that show seemed, somehow their Mexico City run a few weeks later managed to astound audience and band members alike, and that’s how Meltdown: Live In Mexico got the full-fledged pantheon treatment.

Unlike Radical Action, which shuffled various tracks and presented them without audience atmosphere, Meltdown delivers what mostly replicates an actual setlist in order, with crowd ambience included. We even get to hear some of the atmospherics from the top of the show, and Fripp’s pre-recorded welcome, admonishment not to use cell phones until the very end (“use your eyes to viddy and your ears to record”), and the hilarious exhortation “Let’s have a party!” The tuning-up snippet from the tail end of the Islands introduces “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part One” and the show properly begins.

While many tunes are repeated from Radical Action, Meltdown is a different listening experience. Two pieces from the underappreciated Lizard are given new life: “Cirkus” and the “Battle Of Glass Tears” sequence from the title track—the latter suite a massive improvement from the studio take. Selections from the ‘80s incarnation of the band appear; “Indisicipline” is an incredible demonstration of the how the three drummers work with and off each other. “Level Five” is also presented on its way to its promotion to part five of the “Larks’ Tongues” suite, while a gorgeous rendition of “Islands” may well be the highlight of the set. (The band’s now-traditional cover of Bowie’s “‘Heroes’”—the original to which Fripp contributed that guitar part—sits right there betwixt “The Court Of The Crimson King” and “21st Century Schizoid Man”.)

Because of its song selection, overall sound, and continuity, Meltdown gets a slight edge over Radical Action. The three discs very much convey the idea of first set, second set, and encores; the third disc is bolstered by further live recordings from the summer of 2018, including some improvs and a blazing take on “Breathless” from Fripp’s first solo album. And those who wish to viddy with their eyes can pop in the included Blu-ray.

King Crimson Live In Chicago (2017)—
King Crimson
Live In Vienna (2018)—
King Crimson
Meltdown: Live In Mexico (2018)—

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Mark Knopfler 10: Privateering

People like consistency, and we know that when Mark Knopfler releases a new album, we’ll have a pretty good idea what it will sound like. We don’t expect another Making Movies or Love Over Gold, but chances are he’s not about to go too far out of his (or our) comfort zone.

Recorded throughout 2011, Privateering was released worldwide in 2012, except in North America, where it took another year. Reviews were generally positive. At nearly 90 minutes there are two full albums here, but the sequence is mostly arbitrary. The music is what you’d expect: slow rumblings here, uilleann pipes there, chunky rockers elsewhere. The big addition this time out is Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, blowing harp through a Green Bullet on the bluesier tunes. The songs are all pleasant, and fairly interchangeable, though he does have a way with words (“Don’t Forget Your Hat”, “Corned Beef City”, “I Used To Could”, “Hot Or What”). The one true standout is “Radio City Serenade”, a ‘70s Tom Waits-style ballad that’s slow and pretty and doesn’t sound like everything else.

Mark Knopfler Privateering (2012)—3

Friday, May 17, 2019

Talking Heads 6: Speaking In Tongues

A break seemed to do Talking Heads a bit of good, as their next album was concise and mostly coherent. Speaking In Tongues eschewed the experimentalism of the Eno years, delivering a set of upbeat yet still quirky tunes, just like the first album, but updated for the ‘80s and with danceable grooves.

That said, opening track and first single “Burning Down The House” managed to become a regular earworm with its prominent acoustic guitar over a minimalist backing, up against spooky modern keyboard whooshes and burps. (The band already well versed in the visual arts, the accompanying music video also helped sell the album.) The dance party continues with an exhortation at the top of “Making Flippy Floppy”, proving that David Byrne might have actually listened to his rhythm section’s Tom Tom Club side project in between Prince albums. “Girlfriend Is Better” revives the twisted love songs that started them out, punctuated by laser-gun synth bursts atop what we now know as a hip-hop groove. “Slippery People” is another apt title, and “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” is equally rubbery.

The tempo finally slows, just a hair, for “Swamp” and its chant of a chorus, but it’s still catchy. “Moon Rocks” takes the disco to outer space, with a few of the third-world textures left over from their Eno era, and “Pull Up The Roots” adds a few chord changes to split up the rhythm. One of the most striking tracks arrives with “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”, which actually tries to present a structured song, and something of a love song at that.

There’s a lot of sameness throughout Speaking In Tongues, but it’s never boring. Each of the band members contributes greatly, even democratically to each track, and a handful of vocalists and extra musicians add to the sonic palette, but it never seems crowded. (The cassette had been dominating album sales for some time, and the tape version of this album offered extended versions of five songs for an extra six minutes of music; this did not apply to the compact disc for some time. When the album was reissued on CD in this century, it was in the DualDisc format, which housed DVD-formatted visual material on the opposite side of the audio portion, which included the extended versions as well as one outtake plus a new mix of “Burning Down The House”.)

Talking Heads Speaking In Tongues (1983)—3
2006 DualDisc: same as 1983, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Elton John 10: Caribou

Considering the sheer volume of music he’d put out in four years, plus the undeniable quality of work that had just filled a double album, could Elton John really keep it going at the same rate and level? A cursory listen to Caribou says no, filled as it is with fluff and pop, recorded very quickly, capped by a grinning, nearly glam cover shot in front of a backdrop that looks as fake as the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road seems to come to life.

Right away the focus is on ear candy, and while “The Bitch Is Back” was a daring title to throw on the radio in 1974, the Tower Of Power horns made it ideal for blasting in the car, though his professing to be “stone cold sober” is at odds with what we now know about those days. “Pinky” is a tender love song with all the hooks we’ve come to expect and adore, whereas “Grimsby” is an ode to a British seaside town and sounds like it’s copied from other Elton John songs. “Dixie Lily” is yet another homage to an American frontier Bernie Taupin only knew from movies, derailed immediately by the wooden train whistle used to illustrate the steamboat. There is no defending “Solar Prestige A Gammon”, a pile of gibberish sung mostly in a jokey operatic voice, and the type of wordplay even John Lennon knew to limit back on “Sun King”. After the tango scare in the intro, “You’re So Static” returns to “Bitch Is Back” territory with far too many castanets and horns dominating the extended end, drowning out the piano and Davey Johnstone’s Leslie guitar.

UFOs were a big deal in the ‘70s, but as he’d already been a “Rocket Man”, “I’ve Seen The Saucers” is from the point of view of someone insisting that he’s already mingled with aliens and would be keen to again. Elton’s stately chords and melody just manage to rise above the wacky sound effects. “Stinker” is based on a dirty groove that would be co-opted by everyone from Journey to Alannah Myles; ultimately he’s more convincing as a bitch than a badass. Then, just when you think the album can’t win you over, two lengthy tracks stretch the heartstrings to their limit. “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” is the epic that’s become bigger than Elton himself, its tantalizingly drawn out verse and soaring chorus featuring actual Beach Boys and Tennille herself, and horns more typical of Elton albums than those of Tower of Power. That would be enough, but the album’s grand finale is “Ticking”, a positively heartbreaking tale of a mass shooting in a New York bar. Especially in an era when there seems to be a school shooting every week, this piano-and-vocal performance, wisely absent of any overdubs save well-placed self-harmonies and minimal synthesizer, absolutely chills one’s bones.

Being that it was Elton John, Caribou topped the charts around the world and sold concert tickets. He could be forgiven a slight dip in quality, but he hadn’t yet learned how to slow down. Today the album is boosted by four non-album tracks: “Sick City” and “Cold Highway” are decent B-sides from the album’s two singles; “Step Into Christmas” from the previous year’s holiday season is nice to have in context too. His version of “Pinball Wizard” (matching his vivid portrayal onscreen in the film version of Tommy) was recorded by his own band—with new buddy Ray Cooper on multiple tambourines—unlike most of the rest of that soundtrack, and gains an interlude reminiscent of the end of “Gray Seal”, plus a coda that quotes “I Can’t Explain”. (Pete Townshend loved it, and so did everyone else.)

Elton John Caribou (1974)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, May 10, 2019

Prince 10: Lovesexy

Along with the “racy” cover art, Lovesexy was notable at the time mostly for what it wasn’t. A set of edgy funk and rap called The Black Album had been scheduled and hurriedly pulled from release the previous December, whereupon Prince just as hurriedly recorded this album in its place. As the legend of the shelved album grew, and what did come out didn’t exactly wow those whose interest had been waning since 1985, Lovesexy was considered something of a flop, and has been somewhat forgotten since, except for the cover, of course. That’s too bad, because listeners will find the music within many of the elements of the better albums in his catalog, as well as a few new buzzwords that would emerge again.

“Eye No” (the first word is actually the symbol of an eye, which we’re not going to bother with) begins with an intriguing new agey mood and the voice of a waif informing us that rain is wet (really) before a horn-filled groove takes over for a party featuring his full band. From there, the only other musicians he uses are Sheila E. on the drums (slammin’), a couple of female vocals, and a couple of horns. “Alphabet St.” was the first single, and another of his simple yet excellent one-man-band opuses. As a single, it stops at the right time, but here on the album, he insists that Cat Glover rap a few verses. The rhythm guitar makes the whole track work. Speaking of guitar, “Glam Slam” combines the occasional Arabian orchestral touches from the last three albums into another toe-tapper underneath his distorted fretwork. A lengthy faux-classical interlude on strings takes up too much time before his ode to “Anna Stesia”, another muse he hopes will bring him closer to God and Jesus.

The chorus and title “Dance On” may suggest a party, but the lyrics are pure social commentary hidden in allegories and puns, while Sheila E. skitters around her kit. The title track would almost seem to recall “1999”, both in tempo and instrumentation, while reminding us once again that rain is wet and alluding to a new power generation. A section with sped-up and slowed-down voices almost seems to poke fun at his image. “When 2 R In Love” is a slow jam rescued from The Black Album, and would have been the least exciting track there too. “I Wish U Heaven” is a much catchier improvement, too short, and has us really missing Wendy and Lisa. As the third single from the flagging album it didn’t catch fire, which is too bad, since it deserves better. Finally, “Positivity” stretches more “we gotta got together” platitudes in a low register over a snaky stroll, stretching out under even more guitar soloing. We go out with the sound of what are probably supposed to be ocean waves but sound more like someone sloshing around a bathtub.

Prince daringly and defiantly programmed the CD version of Lovesexy as a single track, without indexing, so the listener would either have to hear it all at once. In retrospect, this wasn’t a big deal considering those who could had the cassette were also subject to two lengthy halves, but in today’s culture of instant gratification, even the version available for streaming is just the one 45-minute track. Just as he wanted it. Check it out.

Prince Lovesexy (1988)—3

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Frank Zappa 37: Them Or Us

After a couple of classical detours, Frank came back with another “rock” album, and another double to boot, conveniently released amidst another tour. Them Or Us was compiled from a variety of studio and live sources, edited and juxtaposed, but doesn’t seem to follow any basic theme, except for another dog painting similar to that on The Perfect Stranger.

Once again he opens with a cover of an obscure doo-wop oldie, and once again his vocal delivery suggests “The Closer You Are” is supposed to be a parody, but we know better. “In France” is an extended in-joke sung by Zappa idol Johnny “Guitar” Watson that seems longer than it is. But then there’s “Ya Hozña”, predominantly a demonic-sounding solo overlaid with vocals recorded entirely backwards, to suggest something equally demonic in the wake of the then-current controversy over alleged backward-masking on rock albums. He makes his point, even if it goes on a little long. A little better is a reprise of “Sharleena”, included here to showcase young Dweezil Zappa’s pre-teen guitar prowess.

Side two consists of two lengthy pieces. “Sinister Footwear II” is another part of a longer ballet suite hinted at on You Are What You Is. It does sound rather sinister, with furious drums and guitar, and keyboards that remind us of what Ruth Underwood used to bring to the table. Whatever mood he’s trying to create is elbowed aside by “Truck Driver Divorce”, sung in his obnoxious lounge voice, which thankfully switches back after a minute and a half to another solo recorded live.

Further silliness ensues on side three, beginning with “Stevie’s Spanking”, which details some of the after-show exploits of stunt guitarist Steve Vai, who indeed solos on the track, as does Dweezil again. There’s another detour into the mildly doo-wop “Baby Take Your Teeth Out”, before returning to the jazz fusion of “Marque-son’s Chicken”. “Planet Of My Dreams” is sung in a high register by one-time keyboard player Bob Harris; a segment from yet another unrealized Broadway musical, it fades pretty quickly.

At the top of side four, “Be In My Video” is the closest the album might come to a possible hit single, or at least fodder for the Dr. Demento show, but considering its skewering of MTV culture (and specifically “Let’s Dance”, Frank still miffed that Bowie stole Adrian Belew away) it likely wouldn’t have been appreciated. The title track is another furious solo from a live show, while “Frogs With Dirty Little Lips” brings another Zappa offspring onto wax, somewhat; this time it was young Ahmet who contributed the lyrics. Finally, another cover bookends the set: a mostly reverent live rip through the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”, done reggae stylee for the guitar solos.

Them Or Us is an odd mishmash. Frank had embraced digital recording for its clean sound and editing capabilities, but even modern mastering can’t keep it from sounding sterile today. There’s enough of instrumental interest here, even though there aren’t any “classic” tracks. It would also be the last album of “songs” he’d release in his lifetime.

Frank Zappa Them Or Us (1984)—3

Friday, May 3, 2019

Rolling Stones 51: Honk

The initial excuse for yet another Stones compilation in a non-anniversary year was that it was supposed to tie in with an American tour. Which was then postponed due to Mick needing an emergency medical procedure. (We predicted a Viagra-related issue, which has yet to be confirmed.) This didn’t stop the promo machine from pushing the “new” set in the slightest. Honk might actually make sense as a title were “Honky Tonk Woman” actually included anywhere, but it’s not. And that’s just one of several omissions that, despite what the ads say, disprove the claim that the set offers “the very best” of the Stones.

Honk concentrates on the band from 1971 on, so we get tracks that have already been compiled on Made In The Shade, Rewind, Jump Back, Forty Licks (including “Don’t Stop”), and GRRR!, and fear not, they didn’t forget “Brown Sugar” or “Wild Horses”. Granted, this is the first single-CD compilation they’ve offered in 25 years, but considering the small handful of new albums since then, it’s rather pointless.

But—and this is a big but—the deluxe three-disc version mines those recent decades even further, including both of the new songs from GRRR!, three unnecessary repeats from Blue & Lonesome, “Saint Of Me” instead of “Anybody Seen My Baby?” (presumably to skip paying k.d. lang any royalties), two too many choices from A Bigger Bang, and for some reason, “Dancing With Mr. D.” The already-frenzied PR spin suggests we’re supposed to be most excited about performances from the last handful of tours, featuring guest appearances from Dave Grohl, Ed Sheeran, Florence without her Machine, and Brad Paisley. This is the only portion of the album featuring music from the ‘60s, but you probably had to be there. Everything’s recorded well, with Chuck Leavell and Charlie Watts prominent in the mix. Might as well play it loud.

A year after Honk’s release, the world was in the midst of the Covid lockdown, and suddenly the Stones reappeared with a brand new song. “Living In A Ghost Town” is a dark, mildly funky number with lyrics reflecting the world situation. With even less fanfare, it was added as the lead track to streaming versions of the Honk deluxe edition, which shuffled the sequence further.

Rolling Stones Honk (2019)—