Friday, June 28, 2019

Paul Simon 12: Concert In The Park

At possibly the peak of his solo career, Paul Simon returned to Central Park not quite ten years after his historic reunion with Art Garfunkel for another free concert. Artie was nowhere to be seen this time, but the multitudes in the park and watching on television wouldn’t have minded. And since he’d’ve been stupid not to, Paul Simon’s Concert In The Park arrived in stores not months later, just in time for holiday shopping.

The nearly two-hour show concentrated mostly on songs from Graceland and The Rhythm Of The Saints (which the tour was ostensibly promoting), with well-placed selections from his catalog. Given the international genetics of the band on the crowded stage (each member nicely profiled in the CD booklet), some of those oldies are transformed. “Kodachrome” begins with a bubbly bass and manages to hit on reggae along the way. With no Art around, and always anxious to remind people that he wrote it, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is given a more blatant gospel treatment, also touching on reggae partway through. “Train In The Distance” and “Hearts And Bones” would appeal to those to bought Negotiations And Love Songs. Given his new Brazilian friends, “Cecelia” is spiced up a little over the original arrangement. Even “Diamonds On The Soles Of Their Shoes”, in the absence of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, gets an extended vocal intro and a raucous percussion ending. Naturally, the crowd goes nuts at certain lyrical references, like the New Jersey Turnpike, New York City winters, and smoking a J.

As with the Garfunkel show, one song from the concert was not included on the eventual album. Throughout the tour, he would often bring “You Can Call Me Al” to its expected close, only to say, “That was fun, let’s play it again”—and the band would. Such things work better in the moment, so the CD as released only includes the song the once.

Even counting the redundancies with his previous three releases, Concert In The Park works as a summation of his career, and a staple of many a CD collection. It was a good show, and a good tour, and he likely wouldn’t be this huge again.

Paul Simon Paul Simon’s Concert In The Park (1991)—

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Mott The Hoople 9: Compilations

A hits album always makes a good way for a label to keep making money off an act they no longer distribute, and if the label in question hasn’t lost all the masters in a fire, they can sometimes do pretty well. By the mid-‘70s, Mott The Hoople had already been on two labels, with shifting band members, so the well was both plundered and muddied.

The band’s original producer, Guy Stevens, compiled Rock And Roll Queen for a UK release after the band jumped to Columbia, but it took another two years (and two actual hit albums) for it to be released in America. It’s a fairly rocking set; after the “title track”, we get half a minute of “The Wheel Of The Quivering Meat Conception”, which was basically the end of “The Journey”. From there, the sequence leans on their harder stuff, ending with the ten-minute “Keep A Knockin” medley from Wildlife. Save “Thunderbuck Ram”, Ian Hunter takes every lead vocal, and there is one rarity in the form of “Midnight Lady”, a B-side available nowhere else.

Two decades on, after Rhino Records partnered with Atlantic, somebody had the bright idea to put together a more expansive look at those albums. Backsliding Fearlessly: The Early Years was a terrific overview, borrowing equally from each, leaning just slightly on the debut, with key rarities thrown in. The wonderful B-side “Road To Birmingham” opens the set; the outtakes “Going Home” and “Little Christine” were already highlights of 1980’s UK rarities set Two Miles From Heaven. (A box set called Mental Train served up all four albums, each with bonus tracks, plus a disc of outtakes and another of live recordings on six CDs, released in 2018 worldwide, save the US. Of course.)

That’s a lot of attention given to some very good music, but what of the period that commenced with “All The Young Dudes”? Once the Hunter-less Mott evolved without him and stopped selling records, Columbia made sure to cash in on their own heyday with the band via Greatest Hits. A fitting title, it included all the obvious tracks, from “All The Way To Memphis” to “Roll Away The Stone”. The cover art helpfully pictured all the band members and who played what, and the set also included two singles from 1974, “Foxy Foxy” and “Saturday Gigs”, both since added to the expansion of The Hoople. (The CD you can get now adds “Sweet Jane” and “One Of The Boys”. Also in the ‘90s, The Ballad Of Mott: A Retrospective crammed much of the Columbia era onto two discs following exactly four tracks from the Atlantic era.)

Mott The Hoople Rock And Roll Queen (1974)—3
Mott The Hoople
Greatest Hits (1976)—
2003 remastered expanded CD: same as 1976, plus 2 extra tracks
Mott The Hoople Backsliding Fearlessly: The Early Years (1994)—4

Friday, June 21, 2019

Roxy Music 3: Stranded

After parting ways with Eno, Roxy Music carried on with another bass player and recruited Eddie Jobson for his skills on violin and wacky synths. Stranded even presented another lovely pinup on the cover to excite teenage crowd. Yet we wonder if they were all working too fast.

“Street Life” rumbles in, sounding a bit like a cousin of “Editions Of You”, so there’s some familiarity, just as “Just Like You” evokes the cocktail party atmosphere, but improves when the band comes in. A quirky modern riff introduces “Amazona”, and somehow the sonics approach the types of noises Eno used to make for them. “Psalm” is given room to breathe, which is good, since it goes from observing someone’s sense of fashion to an actual psalm.

A nice Wall of Sound begins side two with “Serenade”, all the instrumentalists given a canvas to decorate and the melody’s pretty good too. Modern ears can’t help but hear “Courtney Love” when he sings “courtly love”. The doom-ridden “A Song For Europe” is already creepy enough, but then he starts crooning in French over the end. After that, the rave-up beginning of “Mother Of Pearl” is highly welcome, even with the effect of Bryan singing two songs at the same time, and chances are he had been listening to Bowie. But not even a minute and a half in the piece slows dramatically to a three-chord vamp suggesting the “party time” had indeed taken its toll, and it’s back to self-parody. A lengthy a cappella coda repeats until the piano switches to “Sunset”, which is hardly affected at all.

Probably it’s because we like Eno so much, but in opposition to practically every other review we’ve read, Stranded just doesn’t work for us. Roxy Music sounds less like a band than a conveyance for Bryan Ferry, and considering he was also doing solo albums, that’s a disservice to Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera, although both were allowed to collaborate on the songwriting. Time may change our opinion; watch this space.

Roxy Music Stranded (1973)—

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Bryan Ferry 1: These Foolish Things

Apparently Roxy Music wasn’t broad enough to contain all of Bryan Ferry’s creativity, so first chance he got, he did a solo album. Yet while the cover shot of These Foolish Things presents him as almost contemporary, the cover songs that make up the album itself come off as a broad parody a la the lounge lizard in all his previous photos, as befits a man with a truly twisted idea of scintillating cocktail music.

Yes, these are cover songs, played straight without any wacky effects or funny sounding instruments—unless you count Eddie Jobson’s electric violin. It’s just his croon, backed up by some very enthusiastic women. He runs roughshod through the Top 40 songbooks of the ’50s and ‘60s, touching on everyone from Lieber & Stoller to Goffin & King, Lennon/McCartney to Jagger/Richards, Brian Wilson to Motown. Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is removed from post-nuclear nightmare into a near-clone of “Virginia Plain”. “Don’t Worry Baby” retains the same “Be My Baby” beat as the Beach Boys original, just as “Sympathy For The Devil” doesn’t deviate from the Charlie Watts tattoo. “You Won’t See Me” opens with a busy signal that thankfully doesn’t carry through the entire track. The title track, which dates back to the ‘30s, closes the set with just enough kitsch to fit onto an actual Roxy album.

We suppose that the repertoire presented on These Foolish Things is supposed to be ironic along the lines of Warhol’s soup cans, particularly when he tackles songs usually associated with female singers (“Piece Of My Heart”, “It’s My Party”, “I Love How You Love Me”). Obviously he’s enjoying himself, or he wouldn’t waste his time, much less the listener’s. But truly great covers transcend their originals, and these don’t.

Bryan Ferry These Foolish Things (1973)—2

Friday, June 14, 2019

Faces 5: Coast To Coast

With Rod Stewart getting more and more attention, Ronnie Lane followed his gypsy heart and left the Faces. But they had gigs, so Tetsu Yamauchi, most recently featured in a Free offshoot, took over on bass (and presumably, his share of the bar tab). And that’s when they decided to release a live album. Coast To Coast: Overture And Beginners was billed to the Rod Stewart/Faces combination, and leaned more on Rod’s solo work than Faces material proper. In the US, Mercury distributed the album, while Warner Bros. got the tape and 8-track rights.

A pleasant stomp through “It’s All Over Now” kicks things off, followed by a driving, electric “Cut Across Shorty”. “Too Bad” is hitched up to “Every Picture Tells A Story” without much excitement or reason despite a similar tempo and Rod knowing the words. “Angel” is looser than it should be, but the crowd goes nuts for “Stay With Me”.

A cover of the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain” has promise, but feels like it slows down halfway through. (Another live version with a horn section had snuck out earlier as a B-side.) The energy continues to flag on “I’d Rather Go Blind”, making “Borstal Boys” a nice change of pace, but it too stops to let Ron Wood noodle on slide for a couple minutes by himself. The band eventually stumbles back in, and somehow they find their way into “Amazing Grace”. Finally, their exposure of solo Beatles material surfaces for a stab at John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”, Ian McLagan nicely comping Nicky Hopkins’ parts.

Coast To Coast isn’t a bad album, but it doesn’t quite capture the good time for which the band was legendary. Critics hated it, mostly because Ronnie Lane was gone, and the band must not have rated it much, because while it did sneak out on CD, it’s out of print today, and isn’t even available for (legal) streaming.

Rod Stewart/Faces Coast To Coast: Overture And Beginners (1974)—3
Current CD availability: none

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Neil Young 58: Tuscaloosa

Among his many threats and yet-to-be-realized intentions, Neil Young had dangled the idea of an album called Time Fades Away II, compiled from the first part of the tour that spawned the ragged live album of the original name. Ten years after that bombshell revelation, Tuscaloosa presented most of a show that fulfilled that concept. More so, even; unlike Time Fades Away, which concentrated on new material, this set offers more of what the crowd was likely expecting to hear.

After two tunes played solo and sung flat for even him, the band joins to fill in the sound behind his acoustic, concentrating on the hit Harvest album. Halfway through the program, with no warning, “Time Fades Away” explodes into the speakers, turning up the energy considerably. “Lookout Joe” is introduced as a song for returning vets, and sounds very much like the version came out two years later. “New Mama” appears in its loud incarnation, thank goodness, and for the first time we hear a slight resemblance to “Last Dance”. “Alabama” fits very well with the “new” songs, and “Don’t Be Denied” is still trying to find its arrangement. Frustratingly, the album ends on a fade.

Tuscaloosa is more for diehard fans than casual listeners, and it’s no substitute for Time Fades Away, yet we’re happy to have it. At less than an hour, it seems short; a few songs were left off the release due to repetition or supposedly subpar performances, which goes against Neil’s stated “warts and all” goal of the Archives. (“The Loner” was said to have been out of tune, but based on the evidence eventually allowed to stream on his site, it sounds terrific.) Folks following along in release order may tire of songs that were also on the previous Archives Performance Series release, but the guy only had a handful of albums out at the time. And as he also points out, in 2019 he is the only surviving member of the band, so it’s a tribute to them, too.

Neil Young & Stray Gators Tuscaloosa (2019)—3

Friday, June 7, 2019

Nicky Hopkins: The Tin Man Was A Dreamer

The most beloved session pianist of the rock era, Nicky Hopkins continues to be ignored by that large building in Cleveland that has seen fit to memorialize Madonna and her ilk, and that’s simply a crime against humanity. We haven’t been shy about our admiration for him in this forum, as a look at all the entries tagged with his name can attest. He played on most of the early Kinks records, the first Who album and several others in the ‘70s, several Rolling Stones albums and singles and even some tours, and while he contributed to only one Beatles track (that would be him on the bridge in “Revolution”, folks) he was continually tapped for solo albums by each of them. Even Paul got around to using him in the ‘80s.

From time to time he would actually join a band on a full-time basis, which is how he ended up in the Jeff Beck Group; when that imploded he took a chance on Sweet Thursday, which suffered from poor distribution. Having experienced San Francisco, he soon became a key element of albums with Jefferson Airplane (with whom he played at Woodstock), the Steve Miller Band, and Quicksilver Messenger Service; his masterful instrumental “Edward, The Mad Shirt Grinder” closes their Shady Grove album. Jerry Garcia even scored him for one of the many incarnations of his solo band for a time.

Always of fragile health, the excesses common to the ‘70s didn’t agree with him, making full-time touring a non-option. Still, he kept up with the session work, and that’s him you hear on such tracks as Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful”, “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” by Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias, and of course, Cheech & Chong’s “Basketball Jones”. Once retro became a thing, he was in demand by alt-country bands (e.g. The Jayhawks) and power poppers (e.g. Matthew Sweet), and even hair metal refugees (e.g. Faster Pussycat, Izzy Stradlin). He died in 1994, leaving a legacy we’ve only touched on above, and a giant hole on albums recorded since.

Yet while he could seemingly elevate any recording he contributed to, his own songwriting was fairly limited. While he got writing credit for the occasional track, he managed only a handful of song-based albums under his own name. The most accessible one is 1973’s The Tin Man Was A Dreamer, recorded at Apple Studios with some famous friends helping out, and a listenable mix of straight rock with a few instrumentals.

The brief “Sundown In Mexico” is one such solo exercise, works as a prelude to “Waiting For The Band”, a clever metaphor. “Edward” gets a reprise from its earlier version, played even faster with George Harrison guitars and Bobby Keys on sax for the definitive recording. “Dolly” is a somewhat mawkish tribute to his wife, but it works thanks to the same touches he would soon apply to the Stones’ “Angie”. His voice was fairly weedy on its own, so for an extreme balance he used a hoarse belter named Jerry Williams to bolster some of the more rocking tracks, of which “Speed On” is one.

“The Dreamer” returns to mellow territory, particularly with strings from Elton John’s common arranger Del Newman, while “Banana Anna” goes completely the other direction with Jerry Williams again. “Lawyer’s Lament” is a backhanded compliment over a positively gorgeous backing that deserves better. “Shout It Out” seems to predict Billy Joel, and the double time chorus is always welcome. “Pig’s Boogie” provides a final blast of barrelhouse piano he could play better than anyone.

Outside of all the songs he made better, today there is only one decent biography, and a permanent memorial in the form of a park bench in West London. Nicky Hopkins deserves more than that—his own wing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for starters—but at least we can hear his music. Throw on The Tin Man Was A Dreamer in between Stones and Who and Lennon and Harrison albums and be thankful.

Nicky Hopkins The Tin Man Was A Dreamer (1973)—3

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Pretenders 10: Loose Screw

Reinvention is nothing new in the music business, and often celebrated. But listeners can get very confused when presented with a sound that’s not only very different from someone’s previous pile of albums. While Loose Screw was the first time Chrissie Hynde managed to keep the same Pretenders lineup for three consecutive albums, outside of her voice, the album sounds nothing like the band formed over two decades before. This time out the prevailing genre is reggae filtered through triphop, which may be fine for some, but if you’re looking for snarl, it ain’t here.

The opening “Lie To Me” does have a lot of bite, with no reggae touches, but it cuts out abruptly, almost mid-note, and then the sound takes over. From time to time a decent song rises from the mix, such as “You Know Who Your Friends Are” and “The Losing”, but for the most part she’s merely crooning her heartbreak. The two tunes written with Steinberg and Kelly don’t stand out in good or bad ways than the ones she wrote with her guitar player. Obscure covers still being her thing, this time she tackles “Walk Like A Panther” by a late-century British electronic outfit.

This is not an indictment of reggae as a genre; in fact, Hynde and Co. managed to tackle it pretty well in “Private Life” on the debut, and time to time since then. Loose Screw is an experiment that goes on too long, to the detriment of what might be some decent tunes. If anything, it’s like she completed the album, and let somebody completely remix and rerecord it, leaving only her voice as evidence. Sure enough, several songs were subjected to further dance remixes by the likes of Junior Vasquez, to somebody’s enjoyment, or so we’d hope.

Pretenders Loose Screw (2002)—2