Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Rush 16: Presto

Rush had tended to use the quarterly live album as a bookend, suggesting that the band’s next album would be an evolution, a new phase of the band, if you will. In the case of Presto, a marked de-emphasis on synthesizers was accompanied by a brand new contract with Atlantic, which they expected would give it, and the band, a push to the turn of the century.

“Show Don’t Tell” was an ideal intro, being the first track promoting the album, and the opener. Near-flamenco flourishes by every instrument carry understated verses designed to highlight the catchy choruses. “Chain Lightning” doesn’t stand out very much, until the chorus starts to sound too much like that of “Limelight”, and frankly, the pitch-altered “that’s nice” at the end is just odd. The next two songs solidify their role as spokesmen for suburban teens, continuing ideas first begun on “Subdivisions”: “The Pass” concerns teen suicide, pointedly against it, Alex’s little solo adding a feeling of triumph before the futility of “Christ what have you done”, whereas “War Paint” is a little more upbeat, dismantling the ideas of personal image and superficial vanity. “Scars” is built around an insistent African-style rhythm, with more lyrical references to “atmospheric changes”. The title track’s metaphors are a little forced, and Neil’s lyrics seem more self-reflecting than universal.

“Superconductor” is somewhat mindless, but it was designed that way, being a commentary on the disposable pap that always seems to sell millions of copies. Perhaps to prove their point, “Anagram (For Mongo)” doesn’t reference Blazing Saddles further than the title; rather, the wordplay reveals a series of adages, some clever, some forced. Lest we think they’re all about having fun, “Red Tide” crams concern over a variety of contemporary ills (acid rain, AIDS, the ozone layer) into one track, and “Hand Over Fist” extols cooperation over individual isolation. (Plus, the images of rock, scissors, and paper in the packaging inspired debate over which symbol corresponded to which band member.). Finally, “Available Light” starts with a very basic (for them) piano theme, but doubles the speed for the choruses, which culminate in throwbacks to Geddy’s high-pitched wailing.

Presto is a harmless little album, not exactly groundbreaking, but certainly reasserting the brand. All the elements are there, from the heavy riffing and polyrhythms to the literate lyrics and Geddy’s voice. Keyboards are still in there, but they don’t dominate. These days it sounds a little slick, but not as dated as other albums. (As for the cover art, it’s just plain goofy, illustrating the title track with an unconscious allusion to Watership Down.)

Rush Presto (1989)—3

Friday, July 26, 2019

Grateful Dead 11: Skeletons From The Closet

Now that the Dead had ran off and started their own label, Warner Bros. did the smart thing and put together a hits album. Skeletons From The Closet purported to present the “best” of the band’s albums, and while the band didn’t have a lot of hit singles per se, most of the tracks here have since become staples on Classic Rock radio. The usual suspects are here: “Truckin’”, “Sugar Magnolia”, “Uncle John’s Band”, “Casey Jones”, “Friend Of The Devil”. There are a few curveballs, such as “The Golden Road”, which opened the debut and sounded incredibly dated then even then; “Rosemary” seems a little odd too. An edit of “Turn On Your Love Light” and “One More Saturday Night” give a glimpse at the band onstage, and while “Mexicali Blues” from Bob Weir’s solo album does have the band playing on it, those horns will harsh your mellow.

It’s a solid set, and likely one that will lead a newbie deep into the catalog. A decade after its release, next-generation high school Deadheads were required to have a Skeletons From The Closet cassette with them at all times; the tape itself was usually on constant autoplay in the car, and the case was sized right to stash a joint.

One record’s worth of tunes wasn’t enough to sum up the band, of course, so three years later—just in time for their next label switch—Warner put out a double LP, also incorporating “best of” in the subtitle. What A Long Strange Trip It's Been used the extra space to further explore their work onstage as well as in the studio. As before, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty get the most dipping. “Truckin’” is repeated from Skeletons, likely because it was the source of the set’s title, but they kindly included the rare single versions of “Born Cross-Eyed” and “Dark Star”. The “studio” half also includes the Bear’s Choice version of “Black Peter”, and along with an edit of “St. Stephen” from Live/Dead, sides three and four sample the “Skull & Roses” album and Europe ‘72.

It’s hard to determine the audience was for this; diehards had to have it for the two rare tracks, while we’d assume that the recently converted might have already delved into the original albums too. Still, the cassette version crammed it all onto a single tape, for further convenience.

Grateful Dead The Best Of Grateful Dead: Skeletons From The Closet (1974)—4
The Grateful Dead
What A Long Strange Trip It's Been: The Best Of The Grateful Dead (1977)—

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Genesis 16: We Can’t Dance

It had already been five years since the last Genesis album, their longest stretch yet. In that time, Phil Collins had several more hit singles, another solo album, and a major tour, while Mike “+ the Mechanics” Rutherford spawned his own hit with “The Living Years” and nobody cared about Tony Banks’ solo album, nor even Bankstatement, his collaboration with Steve Hillage of Gong. Yet somehow the three of them managed to write and record a dozen songs in the space of six months, and We Can’t Dance appeared right on the cusp of grunge. As had been happening over the previous decade, only the absence of horns makes the album seem less like a Phil Collins solo album; their weakness for “wacky” videos for the more upbeat (read: radio-friendly) tracks also detracted from the songwriting.

The lyrics are also less vague, encroaching even more on social commentary, which frankly, had never been their strong suit. Wisely, the album begins with the brooding “No Son Of Mine”; while it does address domestic turmoil, the darker tone evokes good memories of the “Mama” album. “Jesus He Knows Me” is mildly catchy, but overtly skewers televangelism, and evokes uncomfortable memories of “Illegal Alien” or “Anything She Does”. But just to throw people off track, “Driving The Last Spike” is their first lengthy historical epic since the mid-‘70s, but turns toward a more contemporary sound over its ten minutes, despite the 19th-century subject matter.

While not specifically the title track, “I Can’t Dance” pretty much unravels any attempt to take the band seriously, with both the lyrics and literal video making fun of the then-current trend in music videos and soda commercials, despite their own participation and the fact that Phil had already done it quite well in the clip for “Don’t Lose My Number”. “Never A Time” is the requisite ballad, and a nice one, with echoes of adult contemporary Eric Clapton and far enough away from “People Get Ready” to keep from being sued. Then “Dreaming While You Sleep” spends far too long with a drum machine and bluesy noodling to get its point across (to wit: hit-and-run drivers will be cursed with guilt forevermore).

While Mike Rutherford’s Rickenbacker 12-string reappears after too long a wait, the mild samba rhythm and upbeat tone of “Tell Me Why” brings forth only more hand-wringing over social injustice. “Living Forever” provides an ironic contrast in its resistance to being told what to do and how to live, carried by a truly infectious backing and an extended ending that, again, recalls the mid-’70s. Despite being a single, “Hold On My Heart” is the “In Too Deep” of the album, and redundant after “Never A Time”.

As if “Tell Me Why” wasn’t enough, “Way Of The World” asks more child’s questions about why modern life is just so hard and cruel. And maybe we’re just sentimental, but “Since I Lost You” works despite its wrenching delivery and inspiration (the recent death of Eric Clapton’s young son, with some Slowhand-style leads to boot). So it really takes balls to end with yet another ten-minute epic, but “Fading Lights” is much preferable to “Driving The Last Spike”, and we still expect the chorus to go into “Ripples”. Tony’s extended solo in the middle is worthy of his best, and hindsight has brought a certain poignancy to the track, being the last studio track this version of the band released.

Basically, We Can’t Dance is a long and tiring listen; delete a few of the songs and cut others short and there’s the possibility of a strong set here—slight, but possible. The converted didn’t care, and promptly bought millions of copies and almost as many concert tickets, which in turn sold more copies of the album.

Genesis We Can’t Dance (1991)—

Friday, July 19, 2019

Paul McCartney 36: Amoeba Gig

Sir Paul has hardly gone into retirement in his advancing years, dedicating lots of time to tours in concentrated chunks, occasionally releasing new material, and revisiting his own catalog at a snail’s pace in direct opposition to what many fans feel he should be doing with it. Where other artists his age have been more organized about how they re-sell their own albums, Paul has gone at it at random, even eschewing vault peeks for straight vinyl releases in different colors. Granted, some of those vinyl releases didn’t come out that way in the first place, but seeing as how a 21st-century vinyl reissue is listed at triple what it would have been originally, there’s gold in them thar hills.

So it was surprising indeed that in a promotion that included multicolored vinyl reissues of Wings Over America, Choba B CCCP, and Paul Is Live—each a “live” release from a different decade—he chose to expand a release that had only been available as a four-song EP. Amoeba’s Secret was recorded at an in-store appearance as part of the promotion for Memory Almost Full, released first as a 12-inch and two years later on CD, then expanded to 12 tracks on the extremely limited Live In Los Angeles freebie CD, and to 14 via his own website. Now dubbed Amoeba Gig, the complete show finally became available on CD; the vinyl got a bonus “Coming Up” from a soundcheck.

So with all that, is the show any good? Oh yes. Such a small venue makes for a nice clean sound, and considering that this is the best band he’s ever employed on his own, the playing is excellent and the recreations masterful. (However, Paul “Wix” Wickens is not to be heard, his place taken by one David Arch.) As for the album he was ostensibly promoting, what became the usual staples are in evidence. “Only Mama Knows” and “Dance Tonight” appear early on, “That Was Me” is extracted from the middle of the “suite”, and “Nod Your Head” is an odd setup for a powerful “House Of Wax”.

The crowd goes nuts for the oldies, of course. The first surprise is “I’ll Follow The Sun”, fleshed out a bit with drums, keyboards, and goofy trick endings, while “The Long And Winding Road” still employs the (albeit toned-down) string arrangement he supposedly loathed. A well-traveled anecdote about “She Loves You” is a wide tangent to “I’ve Got A Feeling”, which has an extended guitar duel for a coda, followed by a blast through “Matchbox”. (Ringo was in the house, but not on the stage, sadly.) His timeworn fakeout of “Baby Face” before “Hey Jude” is about as spontaneous as his exhortations over the last four minutes, but you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved when he chokes up during “Here Today”.

Particularly following the hype and ballyhoo surrounding the overrated Egypt Station and its numerous repackagings, Amoeba Gig presents a nice little snapshot of Paul’s live capabilities. It’s also not as time-consuming as Back In The U.S., Good Evening New York City, or the various concert DVDs from other tours of the period.

Paul McCartney Amoeba Gig (2019)—3

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Jeff Beck 9: There And Back

The past few years must have tired Jeff Beck out, since it took him all the way to a new decade to finish another album. There And Back furthers his embrace of fusion with rock and funk elements, sans vocals, and finds him somewhat in transition. The album begins with Jan Hammer, then adds Simon Phillips on drums, then replaces Hammer with Tony Hymas on keyboards and Mo Foster on bass.

“Star Cycle” burbles along with the kind of synth figures Jan Hammer would soon bring to the likes of Miami Vice, and he and Beck soon get to dueling. “Too Much To Lose” is a remake of an earlier Hammer tune, with a fairly structured melody, while “You Never Know” gets fairly frenzied after establishing the riff. The highlight of the album is “The Pump”, beginning with a steady throbbing beat and minimal changes, while Beck wails above the newest rhythm section.

“El Becko” (another great title) begins with a flurry of piano that somehow turns into a pompous overture, finally giving way to a more rocking idea. This only puts the return to the overture idea in better context overall. “The Golden Road” returns to the territory of “The Pump” but wanders a bit, while “Space Boogie” is an opportunity to keep up with Simon Phillips while he attacks the kit. There are a few seconds of silence before “The Final Peace” comes in, giving Beck room to stretch over spacey synth chords.

There And Back doesn’t have anything especially groundbreaking, but it makes a nice capper to the trilogy begun on Blow By Blow. As on Wired, the other band members get most of the songwriting credits; maybe that’s why he wouldn’t make another album for five years.

Jeff Beck There And Back (1980)—3

Friday, July 12, 2019

Cat Stevens 11: Back To Earth

From time to time an artist will attempt to regain his or her footing in pop culture by getting back to the sound that made him or her so successful in the first place. Oftentimes this intention is accompanied by the statement that so-and-so is “back”, and sometimes they even put it in the album title. While Cat Stevens was never that blatant, Back To Earth is an apt moniker for this album, as most of the songs avoid the modern sounds so prevalent on his recent work. At first, anyway.

An acoustic guitar, gentle piano, and muted drums carry “Just Another Night”, even through the double-time bridge, though the lyrics remain vague. While it’s based on the electric piano that had been prominent lately, “Daytime” is a gentle celebration of children worldwide; indeed, it was written for a UNICEF campaign. With its power chords and synth effects, “Bad Brakes” sticks out like a sore thumb, but somehow it doesn’t torpedo the proceedings. Given its comfortable yacht rock motif, “Randy” seems to be of a piece with other name songs of the time (i.e. “Mandy”, “Brandy”, “Sandy” etc.) but even given his emotional delivery, it’s not clear to us who this Randy person is, what he or she did, or why it had such an effect on the singer. “The Artist”, which follows, is a lovely understated instrumental in two parts that nicely concludes the side.

Side two begins promisingly, with “The Last Love Song” nakedly and achingly expressing hurt. But then it’s straight to the disco; we can’t tell if the instrumental “Nascimento” is supposed to evoke Milton Nascimento, but this minor-key boogie betrays a lack of lyrical inspiration. The disco influence still pervades on “Father”, a gentler prayer that sports lots of tricky changes and is past due for a simpler re-recording. The mood is dashed by “New York Times”, which paints an even nastier picture of the Big Apple than the Stones would, underneath a backing that’s part TV theme song, part travel advertisement. (In fact, the rhythm section is Will Lee and Steve Jordan, who would one day accompany Paul Shaffer on Late Night With David Letterman, and the singers include Luther Vandross.) So it’s relief when “Never” closes this short album in a more humble, laid-back mood, bringing it full circle.

Long-suffering fans may have been encouraged by Back To Earth, but had no idea that this was the last they’d hear from him for decades. We didn’t know then that he had already converted to Islam, changed his name (again), and wanted to devote his time to his faith and his family. He did owe the label one more album, so this was intended to close out his life as a performer. Now, of course, we can hear some hints of his intentions, but at least he tried to deliver something listenable. (Oddly, this was the first of his albums to receive a multidisc expansion, somewhat in line with its 40th anniversary. In this case, a new remaster of the album was paired with the 2001 remaster, plus a disc mixing outtakes with more recent live recordings, another disc dedicated to an album he produced for his brother at the time, and finally a disc dedicated to his final live concert appearance as Cat Stevens in 1979.)

Cat Stevens Back To Earth (1978)—
2019 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 1978, plus 42 extra tracks (plus Blu-ray)

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Peter Gabriel 8: Shaking The Tree

More to keep him in the marketplace than anything else, a Peter Gabriel “greatest hits” album snuck out at the end of 1990. While it was probably mostly the label’s doing, he certainly gave his input, even going so far as to refuse to package it inside the cardboard longbox that was standard in the US at the time. Shaking The Tree became a perennial seller, providing true hits alongside some other curios. (Those who bought the vinyl were shorted four songs, in case you were curious.)

Despite beginning with “Solsbury Hill”, the chronology goes all over the map through the rest of his solo work. Collectors would be slightly interested in the various edits and remixes that were utilized to keep the program at capacity, affecting various selections from the third album, Security and So. Even “Zaar”, from Passion and hardly a big radio request, fits in the flow.

More interesting was the new piano-and-vocal performance of “Here Comes The Flood” that scrapes away all the bombast of the album version to the bare bones, and nicely sets up “Red Rain”. The big draw was the title track, which was actually a remix (with new vocals) of a song from the previous year’s Youssou N’Dour album, which Peter had produced.

It’s a good sampler, though oddly enough, the one track Shaking The Tree doesn’t have, to worldwide confusion, is “In Your Eyes”, so soon after its exposure in the movie Say Anything. Surely that would have been a better choice than “Mercy Street”? People who really wanted it could just buy So, of course. Or, they could wait until 2003 and pick it up on the double-disc Hit anthology, which sported a few other edits, a couple of soundtrack rarities and songs from the two albums he’d completed in the interim, a different second disc depending on whether you were in the US, UK, or Germany, but no “Shaking The Tree”. (As long as we’re getting ahead of ourselves, Atlantic took the opportunity to cash in with Revisited, a fairly crass repackaging of songs from his first two solo albums, timed to coincide with his next solo album.)

Peter Gabriel Shaking The Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats (1990)—4
Peter Gabriel
Revisited (1992)—3
Peter Gabriel
Hit (2003)—3

Friday, July 5, 2019

Bruce Springsteen 26: Western Stars

Even in this modern age, Bruce Springsteen has managed to keep any new album under wraps until it’s been delivered to the label. Yet no sooner had he announced Western Stars—a low-key set of songs he said was inspired Southern California, Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell, that sort of thing—than he seemed to disown it, promising a new album with the E Street Band ere long. Outside of Patti, none of those guys are here, save some of the more recent backup singers and horn players, many veterans of the Seeger Sessions era, though David Sancious, of all people, plays on two tracks.

The album was developed slowly over the better part of eight years, during which he got distracted by expanded reissues, an autobiography, a Broadway residency, a couple of tours, and two other albums. The cover art is fitting, as most of the songs indeed express an overall feeling of the open plains. (What is it with these Jersey boys and cowboys, anyway?) The music is also embellished by strings, some real, some synthesized. The tone is set with “Hitch Hikin’”, which is about just that, the strings evoking a Copland sweep. Unless it’s not clear, the next track identifies him as “The Wayfarer”, who’s even more aimless than the guy in the first track, assuming he was actually headed somewhere. The next fella is standing still, waiting for his gal coming in on the “Tucson Train”, and the ending suggests she actually arrives. The title track cleverly suggests both an astronomical description as well as anonymous actors who used to work in the movies when cowboy films were all the rage. Meanwhile, those of us of a certain age know exactly what that “little blue pill” does. Two tracks later, “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” seems to cover the same theme, though it’s not clear whether the guy works in the industry or is just a lifelong daredevil, but it’s a much better song with surprising key changes; this is the album’s turning point. (In between is the clunker “Sleepy Joe’s Café”, a borderline party song for a catalog that already has too many of them.)

Indeed, the second half of the album is much stronger, where each arrangement really adds to the drama in its prescribed story. The guy who’s been “Chasin’ Wild Horses”, like others here, has been doing that as both his job and by nature. It shares a melodic hook with his Beach Boys homages of a decade earlier, but that big Western sound is brought out on “Sundown”, with its banjo and baritone guitars and yearning lyrics familiar to Wichita linemen and denizens of Galveston and Phoenix. While very brief, “Somewhere North Of Nashville” explores a different kind of has-been, this time a songwriter. The sparse arrangement is a nice departure from the rest. While it seems about as simple, “Stones” finds an excellent lyrical turn and dresses up the few chords very well, and this is one that will endure. Great as it is, “There Goes My Miracle” almost succeeds as the big anthem, but the canned drums throughout the track, and especially on the second verse, leap out of the retro mood he’d been so set on. “Hello Sunshine” brings the prairie sound back; this was the first track the masses heard, and everybody noticed its similarity to “Everybody’s Talkin’”, and Bruce should know the difference between homage and mimicry. Besides, there’s been a lot of sunshine, sunrises, sundowns, and sun in general on this album, putting his skill at sequencing into question. It probably should have gone closer to the beginning, particularly since “Moonlight Motel” could only go at the end of the album. Here the drifter has landed in a town with nothing going on but memories of the one he let get away. (There’s a lot of heartache in these songs.)

Western Stars is a nice album, and succeeds despite itself. The narrators are dusty men, older but certainly wiser and even more hopeful than the guys we met on Nebraska. Many fans loved it right away, while in a surprising departure, Rolling Stone awarded it only four stars. Chances are it’s a grower, more so than the albums he did put out while marinating on this one.

Only four months after the album’s release, a film co-directed by Bruce presented the album in a live format, complete with commentary, that was supposed to suffice for an actual tour. The soundtrack was duly released as Western Stars—Songs From The Film. We haven’t noticed any differences from the album versions, but because it’s treated as a performance it just might have the edge. Plus, only here can you find his unique performance of “Rhinestone Cowboy”, which was the biggest song in the country the week Born To Run came out. Naturally, Rolling Stone raved about it.

Bruce Springsteen Western Stars (2019)—3

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Van Morrison 38: The Great Recession

While Van Morrison is very interested in the music of the past, that doesn’t include his own past. As evidenced by his prolific if not stellar release schedule over recent years, he’s more concerned with creating than revisiting. So it’s rare indeed when anything comes out of the vaults, yet in the space of one year, three separate yet hardly distinct collections were released, each with a different angle, and none definitive.

At The Movies, helpfully subtitled “Soundtrack Hits”, was designed to appeal to people who only know “Baby Please Don’t Go” from Good Morning Vietnam or “Have I Told You Lately” and “Someone Like You” from any number of rom-coms. The badly researched liner notes made a point of calling out how many times Martin Scorsese used Van’s music in his films, from the terrific performance of “Caravan” from The Last Waltz through the definitive version of “Wonderful Remark” to, strangely enough, his rendition of “Comfortably Numb” with members of The Band from Roger Waters’ 1990 all-star staging of The Wall in Berlin. A live version of “Moondance” with overdubbed vocals and an alternate of “Brown Eyed Girl” were dangled as rarities, but there were enough Van standards to make it all listenable.

Going on two decades since the first two Best Of collections, Van himself compiled a third volume covering those heavily plowed but not exactly fertile years. The Best Of Van Morrison Volume 3 wasn’t just a double CD, but was loaded with about a dozen duets, certain to woo those consumers excited by Ray Charles, Tom Jones, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King, to name a few. That means you also get a lot of Brian Kennedy, and way more covers than originals. Those collaborations also up the ante for everyone who already bought each of the albums, as many come from other artists’ albums, various artists sets, obscure CD singles, and whatnot.

Then, after trying to convince us that the least exciting span of his career needed two discs to encapsulate, a re-signing with PolyGram dictated that a single disc should somehow sum up four decades. Still On Top—The Greatest Hits repeated ten tracks from At The Movies while replicating about half of the first Best Of. Four songs were picked seemingly at random from Best Of Volume 3, yet a grave disservice was rectified by the inclusion of “Wavelength” and “Tore Down A La Rimbaud”. (Overseas, Still On Top was issued as a double CD, the second disc being equally as satisfying and maddening as the first. Another limited edition added a third disc of worthy selections and head-scratchers.)

So we’re not saying that the recession of 2007 was a result of such shelf-stuffing, but today these collections are basically moot. Because labels don’t like to leave anything alone, once Sony got their hands on Van’s catalog in 2015 they felt compelled to put out their own double-disc overview. The Essential Van Morrison starts with “Gloria” and goes on to cover the ‘60s and ‘70s fairly well, hitting on all the big albums but choosing “Hungry For Your Love” over “Wavelength”. “Cleaning Windows” comes from the Belfast Opera House album, and everybody likes “Caravan” from The Last Waltz, but “Spanish Rose”? Disc two manages to speed through the better part of three decades in the same time, skipping No Guru, No Method, No Teacher but still touching most of the albums from this century.

Van Morrison At The Movies—Soundtrack Hits (2007)—3
Van Morrison
The Best Of Van Morrison Volume 3 (2007)—3
Van Morrison
Still On Top—The Greatest Hits (2007)—
Van Morrison
The Essential Van Morrison (2015)—