Friday, August 30, 2019

Talking Heads 7: Stop Making Sense

Being filmed for a concert documentary would have appealed to art school alumni, so Talking Heads gladly allowed that to happen for Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. And you can’t have a movie without a soundtrack album, which is how they ended up putting out two live albums in the space of two years.

While the film represents a performance in real time, beginning with David Byrne by himself and gradually adding the other Heads and additional musicians until the stage is full, the album takes a more basic approach, sequenced for listenability. Four songs are included from Speaking In Tongues, which was the album the tour was supporting, and the songs shared with The Name Of This Band are in different arrangements. The result is an excellent intro to the band’s work thus far.

Just as in the film, the album opens with a solo performance (acoustic guitar with beatbox accompaniment) of “Psycho Killer”. The Speaking In Tongues songs follow, and all are excellent versions, if not superior to the studio takes. They’re presented in a jumbled order from the actual setlist, but frankly, starting with “Swamp” and ending with “Girlfriend Is Better” is a fine succession and completes an excellent album side.

Side two’s nothing to sneeze at either. A slightly rearranged “Once In A Lifetime” is just as essential as the studio version, the band truly filling in and enhancing it. “What A Day That Was” would have been new to anyone who hadn’t heard David Byrne’s Catherine Wheel album, and it fits fine here. “Life During Wartime” opens with an unfamiliar keyboard cadence before finding its way to the trademark riff, while “Take Me To The River” pumps up the stark blues of their own version with a little more soul.

Listening to the original LP today, it seems to go by more quickly than 40 minutes, which is understandable, as the more prevalent cassette and CD versions extended all but three of the tracks, for a total of seven minutes; these also sported an alternate mix of “Slippery People”. Just in time for the fifteenth anniversary of the album (and a DVD release of the film), a “Special New Edition” presented all (but two) of the songs as performed in the movie in order, albeit edited to fit on a single CD. It even begins with Byrne’s introduction (“Hi. I got a tape I want to play.”) “Psycho Killer” is now followed by a lovely stripped-down “Heaven” with Tina Weymouth on bass and one of the backup vocalists. The other two emerge for a couple of early songs, and then the stage is full. Along with a couple more tunes from Speaking In Tongues, David is nice enough to step aside for a virtual Tom Tom Club performance of “Genius Of Love”, complete with Chris Frantz’s version of toasting. (Plus, he had to get into that big suit. You know, so he could make his head smaller.)

Those of us who miss Stop Making Sense as we first heard it can simply program our CD players, burn a disc, or make a Spotify playlist. The version now available can certainly be called definitive, but you might as well own the DVD for, well, the full picture. (The fortieth anniversary of the filming was the occasion to finally restore the two songs from the original—“Cities” and a medley of “Big Business”/“I Zimbra”—to the DVD, Blu-ray, and new vinyl pressing, as well as for streaming, and on CD a years later.) It really is a fine film, and everybody looks like they’re having an absolute ball. Even David Byrne seems like he actually appreciates everyone else on stage, to the point of bringing the crew onstage before his exit. What we didn’t know then, of course, was this would be the last evidence of the band onstage, as they never toured as a unit again.

Talking Heads Stop Making Sense (1984)—4
1999 Special New Edition: same as 1984, plus 7 extra tracks
2023 Deluxe Edition: same as 1999, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Todd Rundgren 20: Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia

Since we started this mission, we’ve tried to give equal time to albums good and bad, short and long. The idea is that an artist’s story is told by the albums he, she, or they make, and we’ve tried where possible to approach each entry from the perspective of somebody following along in real time, as each new album emerged. When it comes to certain veterans, however, it can be tough to dredge up anything new to say about people who haven’t necessarily said anything new in decades.

Now, that’s not fair to a guy like Todd Rundgren, who has long explored the boundaries of whatever technology was available at every given moment. But between record companies and his own attention span, he stopped being truly and consistently commercial by the time the ‘80s were underway. Luckily for him, he had plenty of production work, and he also managed to keep Utopia going as an active band while pushing work under his own name.

In the space of a year, Utopia released two studio albums for the indie Passport label. Both albums included songwriting contributions from all four members, and embraced current music technology, like drum machines and synthesizers. Both are slick and loud, both approach political commentary in between love songs, and neither is very good. The Cars may have done it best, but here Utopia comes off like the Tubes.

Oblivion came first, in a none-more-black cover with light embossing that belies the slick contents within. “Itch In My Brain” is no “Hammer In My Heart”, and it’s pushing it to have a song called “Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw” in 1984. “I Will Wait” has potential, as does “Maybe I Could Change”, even with its quasi-Broadway intro. But of the whole album, “Crybaby” is the real keeper despite everything against it, like the keyboards and the inscrutable video with Willie Wilcox’s rotating motorcycle drumset, but at least it featured Ellen Foley.

POV arrived sporting graphics made up predominantly of windows from the then-mindblowing Macintosh operating system; oh, the memories this brings back for those of us who remember a world before Microsoft. The photos suggest some kind of sci-fi thriller; meanwhile, Todd was sporting one of his worst haircuts, and considering his history at the barber, that’s saying something. “Play This Game” is a terrific opener, but “Style” kills the momentum, and will have the listener looking online for “Jane’s Getting Serious”. “Mated” is half-decent yacht rock, and “Zen Machine” is no “Zen Archer”.

After the band was pretty much done, but before the label collapsed, they released Trivia, which compiled a grab-bag of selections from both Passport albums, along with some fine choices from 1982’s Utopia album that elevate the others. Two new tracks were recorded for extra enticement, “Fix Your Gaze” preferable to “Monument.” (The artwork is so dated it hurts: the front image looks like the work of someone who just bought a computerized graphic design program, while the back capitalizes on the Trivial Pursuit craze.)

A decade later, Rhino had already reissued every Rundgren and Utopia album up to 1982, so when they acquired the rights to the Passport albums, they combined everything on a double-disc set cleverly dubbed Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia. For the cover art, they went with the most photogenic option, as if that did any good. The first disc had Oblivion plus “Fix Your Gaze”, while the other had POV plus “Monument” and the B-side “Man Of Action”. This edition is tough to find, but the two albums now stream from the usual places with the extra tracks.
And that, dear reader, is how we can justify reviewing all these so-so albums in one post.

Utopia Oblivion (1984)—2
POV (1985)—2
Trivia (1986)—
Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia (1996)—2

Friday, August 23, 2019

Prince 11: Batman

One of the more surprising projects of Prince’s career involved music designed to tie in with what would prove to be the first major reboot of a superhero franchise. While Danny Elfman wrote the score for Tim Burton’s vision of Batman, which had its own soundtrack album, Prince got roped into making an album of music “inspired” by the film. (Plus, after several albums that failed to reach the commercial heights of Purple Rain, Warner Bros. figured they could get The Purple One to do them a solid. This would not bode well for their relationship going forward, but back to our story, see.)

While some of the music was indeed included in the film—which your correspondent has never, ever seen and doesn’t plan to—Prince’s songs profess to present the point of view of various characters, the lyric sheet helpfully telling us who says what. Luckily for those of us just here for the music, the album isn’t bad at all. Rather than pluck a variety of incomplete ideas from his growing stockpile of ideas, he devoted his full creativity, as well as once again playing everything except the horns.

But for the voice samples and orchestral touches, “The Future” comes off like more minimalist funk, which always works in his case. The voice of Jack Nicholson jars us back to the present, and “Electric Chair” both turns up the drums and lets loose his electric guitar. Then there’s “The Arms Of Orion”, which is supposed to be the romantic duet, and sure enough, Sheena Easton is brought back to sing the female part. It seems almost too tame for even him, probably because she apparently wrote the lyrics, and probably would have been better off on her own album. “Partyman” is another one of those danceable tracks he can create in his sleep—nice little nod to Sly & the Family Stone on the choruses—and while “Vicki Waiting” mentions a character in the movie, the track works on its own. (Just substitute another two-syllable name.)

What we still called side two in those days is a little more hit or miss. In a rare case of Prince repeating himself, “Trust” builds on the tempo and structure of “Baby I’m A Star”, but’s it’s still catchy. These days “Lemon Crush” seems reflective of recent Michael Jackson, as well as suggesting the new jack swing genre nearly upon us. The biggest throwback to his old sound is “Scandalous”, a slow jam sung in falsetto, complete with female moans and sighs poking through the mix here and there. (This was given even more heat when it was remixed three times as part of “The Scandalous Sex Suite” with further contributions from Kim Basinger herself.) While it doesn’t do much except pad a short album, “Batdance” became the best advertisement for the movie, mashing up more samples of dialogue with other songs from the album and even the old Batman TV theme. It’s actually kinda fun, until the tempo drastically changes, but at least it comes back for the end (on the album, but not the single).

The movie was a huge hit, and Prince’s album did almost as well. (You could even pony up for the limited edition “Batman in a can”, which housed the CD with different artwork and booklet inside a miniaturized replica of a film canister. Nice idea, but it took up space and tended to roll off a shelf.) Silly as it all was, it was proof we shouldn’t write Prince off just yet. However, he had further cinematic goals, which would unravel it all again. (That’s called foreshadowing. Can you stand it?)

Batman™ Motion Picture Soundtrack (1989)—3

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Elton John 11: Greatest Hits

By now Elton John was undoubtedly one of the biggest stars in the business, so a best-of wasn’t exactly unexpected, given his rate of appearance in the record racks. Greatest Hits was also a fairly accurate title as far as the charts were concerned, and while there weren’t any rarities, the packaging had custom labels, pretty pictures, and detailed information on who played what, where, and when, for those of us who get excited about such things.

It’s not comprehensive—ten tracks come from five albums, including three from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” from only six months before. But it’s solid, running the gamut from pretty (“Your Song”, “Daniel”) to rocking (“Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, “Bennie And The Jets”) to silly (“Honky Cat”, “Crocodile Rock”). The one head-scratcher is “Border Song”, which wasn’t really a hit, but it’s a good tune, so we’ll take it. To these ears it evokes both Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water, neither of which are represented here, but both albums are so good fans should have had them anyway. (Fun fact: outside the U.S. and Canada, “Bennie In The Jets” was replaced by “Candle In The Wind”; both appear on the CD today.)

Greatest Hits soon became one of those ‘70s albums everybody had, alongside Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and the Eagles’ own hits album, easily and often obtainable from those 12-records-or-tapes-for-a-penny outfits. In the decades since, other collections have added essentials from the same era, so this particular set may seem a little brief today. Yet, the arc of his career was still rising.

Elton John Greatest Hits (1974)—4
1992 CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 1 extra track

Friday, August 16, 2019

Frank Zappa 38: Francesco Zappa

This wacky record consists of music originally composed in the late 18th-century by a Milanese fellow with the same last name as our Frank. Basically, Frank’s copyist found out about the guy, and Frank wondered what the music sounded like, so they acquired some sheet music of some trio sonatas, and the copyist transferred it to the Synclavier, Frank’s latest composing toy. Then Frank reassigned different sounds to the different parts, so instead of violins and a cello, we’ve got twinkles and tweets and occasional whoops and burps, which one might expect. Sometimes there’s even an approximation of a harpsichord or strings. (But to be clear, all the sounds you hear come from a programmed machine. Which is fine.)

This might all sound like a case of other people doing all the work only for Frank to screw with it and call it his own, but Francesco Zappa is actually quite listenable, toe-tappingly catchy, and very pleasant. It’s chamber music, with no jokes, and no irony, other than the fact that there was once another Zappa writing music not a lot of people got to hear. As hinted at on The Perfect Stranger, the sounds used evoke Switched-On Bach. Plus, there’s that dog again on the cover.

So is this just a vanity project? Probably. Would anyone care about this music if Frank hadn’t made it available? Well, the man really did exist, and other pieces have since been exhumed and recorded by actual classical ensembles. Is it essential? Hardly. Is it historically important? Only in the context of Frank’s journey with the Synclavier. Is it worth hearing? Sure. And there you go.

The Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort Francesco Zappa (1984)—3

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Kinks 15: Everybody's In Show-Biz

Ray Davies’ fascination—some might say obsession—with America continued, somewhat on the next Kinks album. This time it was a double, the band’s first, not counting Kronikles. Everybody's In Show-Biz (sometimes with the subtitle Everybody’s A Star, sometimes without) presented two sides of music mostly complaining about the drudgery of touring, and another two recorded at Carnegie Hall during one such recent tour. It’s not an easy listen.

“Here Comes Yet Another Day” would be a decent on its own, but the theme had already been covered in “This Time Tomorrow”. Only three years later the band’s sound has been upgraded with the inclusion of a horn section, although the music is reduced to two chords, it’s still a decent groove. Then it’s off to the drunken music hall sound that dominates the rest of the tracks, beginning with the greasy food litany of “Maximum Consumption”, but at least Dave Davies shows up for some harmonies. “Unreal Reality” begins even slower and drunker; it speeds up, thankfully, but the horns take up the mix. “Hot Potatoes” sees the brothers trading verses from the point of view of someone pointedly not in the jet set beseeching his wife for sweet lovin’ over fancy cookin’. Kill the horns and speed it up, and perhaps we’d have something. “Sitting In My Hotel” returns us to the sad rocker in the stated location, acknowledging just how petty he’s being in the face of things. Frankly, it’s lovely.

He’s back to whining about food on “Motorway”, but you’d think for all the time he’d spent plodding across America he’d’ve picked up that it’s called a highway. Dave gets a song of his own, and while “You Don’t Know My Name” is within the concept of touring, his perspective is refreshing, though we could do without the Canned Heat flute. “Supersonic Rocket Ship” pairs the music of “Apeman” with the getaway dreams of “Holiday In Waikiki” and “I’m On An Island”, then “Look A Little On The Sunny Side” is back to vaudeville, with a tuba holding the bass and a single parade drum providing the percussion. But the listener’s patience is rewarded with the lovely “Celluloid Heroes”, a song that celebrated the fading stars of Hollywood a whole year before “Candle In The Wind”, and an overt admission that Ray fully understands that the illusions of the big screen are just those.

Pairing those songs with a snapshot of a recent gig may be designed to add some conceptual commentary, but mostly it gives the band and their label a chance to double dip into the royalties. Still, for all his neuroses, Ray is quick to give credit to the people onstage beside and behind him. They start energetically with “Top Of The Pops”, and the horns add a new level to “Brainwashed”. But then the drink starts to get to Ray on a bizarre snippet of the show tune “Mr. Wonderful”, which sets up “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoid Blues”, and the rest of the set concentrates on songs from Muswell Hillbillies. There are detours through Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” (aka “Day-O”) and “Baby Face”, and we’re left with a couple minutes dedicated to the end of “Lola”, mostly sung by the audience.

Being such a long album, the first reissue only had room for two live extras, including a version of “Til The End Of The Day”, which makes the most of the stop-start riff to welcome folks to the show. For the deluxe edition two decades later, a second disc added those plus eleven more live performances—including five alternates from the original album—plus four session outtakes. (Of those, “History” is a nice new discovery, sung straight without irony or horns. “Sophisticated Lady” would emerge on the next album under another title, but here’s it’s a harmless instrumental with guitars.) If anything, the expansion proves that they were still a decent live band. That is, when they weren’t too drunk to play.

The album was expanded again for its 50th anniversary in tandem with Muswell Hillbillies in a box that included a handful of the extras from the 2016 edition on LP only; the single CD had to make do with only a modern mix of “Celluloid Heroes”. Further remixes appeared in the big box, along with a Blu-ray containing a 15-minute home movie.

The Kinks Everybody's In Show-Biz—Everybody’s A Star (1972)—
1998 Konk CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 2 extra tracks
2016 Legacy Edition: same as 1998, plus 15 extra tracks
2022 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1972, plus 1 extra track

Friday, August 9, 2019

Joni Mitchell 21: Travelogue

The idea of Joni Mitchell doing a standards album three decades into her career may have been tough to swallow, but the final result turned out to be quite palatable. So for her next trick, she decided further the experiment on “A Case Of You” and “Both Sides Now” to recast even more of her own material with orchestral arrangements.

Apparently anything worth doing is worth overdoing, so Travelogue runs over two hours. Right there it’s a lot to take in; plus, unlike established standards that have already been arranged in dozens of ways, most of Joni’s material already exists in definitive form as her original album tracks. That said, many of the selections are deep cuts, so people hearing the songs for the very first time may enjoy these versions more than those of us more familiar with them might. The selections come from eleven of her albums; of those, Wild Things Run Fast is represented by four tracks (ex-husband Larry Klein did the arrangements, so maybe that one is special to him.)

Some of the more percussive treatments sound like mid-‘70s Tom Waits, while “Sex Kills” is lashed to a rhythm akin to “On Broadway”. There’s a choir here too; unobtrusive on “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”, it works on “God Must Be A Boogie Man”, but not so much on “Sire Of Sorrow”. The louder tracks can be jarring so soon after softer ones, again making the two-hour journey arduous. The Hejira remakes seem to be the most faithful, and the look all the way back to “The Dawntreader” is also lovely. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” has something of a wandering arrangement, but her voicing of the waitress’s one line cheapens it. “Woodstock” is given an even more extended approach than hers, and certainly from CSNY’s version; we find it meandering. “For The Roses” gets a dramatic overhaul, wherein she really explores each line, just as “Cherokee Louise” is given a heartbreaking treatment, as befits the lyrics. “The Circle Game” ends the program gorgeously, with wonderful sax trills from Wayne Shorter, making for as moving as closer as “Both Sides Now” was on her last album.

In some ways Joni was ahead of the curve, as the years since have seen several artists go the “orchestral re-imagining” route a la Travelogue. Cynics suggest such a project happens when an artist has run out of ideas; in Joni’s case, she said she was done with the record business anyway. She wasn’t, but we didn’t know that then, and neither did she.

Joni Mitchell Travelogue (2002)—3

Friday, August 2, 2019

Mary Hopkin 3: Those Were The Days

Even though she hadn’t had a hit in a few years, somebody still cared about Mary Hopkin at Apple, which nicely capped off her stint there with a compilation. Save the title track, which was of course included on the US version of her first album, Those Were The Days collects several songs that were only ever released as singles, some of which actually charted. Besides “albumizing” several songs, it presents something of a link between her two proper LPs.

“Que Sera Sera” and “The Fields Of St. Etienne” were produced by Paul McCartney, and feature him and Ringo playing. These were also the last tracks she recorded before moving on to producer Mickie Most, whose song choices were even more single-minded. But for her voice, “Think About Your Children” and “Knock Knock Who’s There” might as well be the Partridge Family. “Temma Harbour” attempts to evoke musical echoes of various tropical islands without focusing on one. “Lontano Degli Occhi” continued the strategy of making her a multilingual superstar; this particular Italian pastry has a certain “Feelings” quality. “Heritage”, written by Gallagher and Lyle, is much more suited to her comfort level. (The album also included “Goodbye” and “Sparrow”, both of which have been appended to the Post Card reissue, as was “Kew Gardens” to Earth Song/Ocean Song.)

Much of the Apple catalog went forgotten after the label became inactive, and the non-Beatle artists went various ways. The Apple reissues of the early ‘90s included Mary’s first two albums alongside the likes of Badfinger, James Taylor, and Billy Preston, but—in the US anyway—interest thawed, so several titles were only released in the UK, including an upgrade of Those Were The Days. She actually had a hand in compiling the CD version, which collected further stray singles and B-sides that fell off the original LP, and added three tracks from Earth Song/Ocean Song (one of which actually was a single) plus one outtake from same. Just as the LP, it presents all sides of her repertoire, for better or for worse, and while its lack of availability today unfortunately leaves some gems buried once again, the label can’t blamed; she didn’t like them anyway.

Mary Hopkin Those Were The Days (1972)—
1995 UK CD: same as 1972, plus 6 extra tracks