Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Dwight Twilley 1: Sincerely

Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour were a couple of nice boys with nice hair from Tulsa who created some of the tastiest power pop (though they despised that term) of the mid-‘70s. With Dwight concentrating on guitars and keyboards, and most of the singing and songwriting, and Phil holding down both bass and drums, together they were the faces of the Dwight Twilley Band, but that understates the nearly constant input of Bill Petcock IV on lead guitar. Both sang, and it takes a while to figure out who’s who. Their debut, Sincerely, provides plenty of catchy opportunities to do that.

It’s always a good idea to start your album with your hit single, and “I’m On Fire” is a terrific place to begin, with riffs, hooks, guitars, everything. “Could Be Love” combines real drums with a machine, and what sounds like a toy organ with a toy piano; clearly these guys had lots of fun making records. Lest you think they’re wimps, “Feeling In The Dark” is much harder rock, with Leon Russell pounding away on piano, then “You Were So Warm” evokes the Beach Boys in harmonies and chords. The title track sounds as lo-fi as anything else, but fun fact: the backwards guitar and bass were provided by engineer Roger Linn, just a few years before inventing his eponymous drum machine.

They’re not all winners, of course. “TV” is an ode to that very technology delivered by a rockabilly vocal; thankfully “Release Me” returns to a girl group sound. “Three Persons” has layered vocals that disguise the lyrics, but that “love you, love you” chorus always pricks up our ears. With its vibrato falsetto and cliché lyrics, “Baby Let’s Cruise” seems like a parody, but it’s just so damn infectious despite itself. “England” is probably the best example of how the lyrics don’t seem to have any purpose except to fill out the track, especially when “Just Like The Sun” does a better job of conveying an image.

As their friend Tom Petty soon found out, Shelter Records proved to be a false promise for a lot of its artists, so this and other Twilley albums have been in an out of print over the years, with and without bonus tracks. Thanks to the Internet, Sincerely is easy enough to be heard, and should be.

Dwight Twilley Band Sincerely (1976)—

Friday, November 22, 2019

Elton John 12: Captain Fantastic

The man couldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop, and before you knew it, here was a new Elton John album. Having looked back somewhat with the hits album, for their next multiplatinum move Elton and Bernie concocted a concept album intended to evoke their early pre-fame years as struggling songwriters and performers. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy even came in another elaborate package with a poster, two booklets of photos and such, and even lyrics to a song that wasn’t on the album because they never finished it.

The title track begins with sounds that recall their Western fantasies of only a few years before, but beyond that brief beginning, the music is mostly contemporary, and not at all evocative of the period when these events were supposedly taking place, no matter what the lyrics convey. Which is fine, of course, and likely helped the album’s sales, but dates the album today. “Tower Of Babel” and “Bitter Fingers” follow the same template—a moody opening referring to snowy pavements and struggles, then a more straightforward backing from the band (most of whom would be sacked before the tour). “Tell Me When The Whistle Blows” is pure Philly soul, with some particularly tasty Davey Johnstone guitar, but it’s a welcome left turn to the classically epic “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, on some days our absolute favorite Elton John song. At nearly seven minutes, this opus of thanks for being talked out of a doomed marriage was an odd choice for AM radio, but boy, did it sound good.

“(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket” blasts off side two with a killer riff and more Philly soul, but suddenly we’re in Gilbert & Sullivan territory for the jumpy “Better Off Dead”, and “Writing” is pure yacht rock. Luckily, Elton remembered his better albums and was sure to build up to a big satisfying finale. “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” is mournful for most of it, again sounding mildly derivatively classical. The bridge is in a major key, then the verse reverts to the minor before finding its way back to major key for the resolution. Then without warning, “Curtains” takes over. Slow archetypal Elton chords are decorated by his double-tracked vocal while the band peeks in here and there. There are only two verses, each ending with a simple “oh-oh-oh” motif. On the second, the band finally kicks in completely, right on time for a surprising couplet, surprising in that it is not only directed at the audience, but is delivered in the first person plural, Bernie and Elton together: “And just like us, you must have had a once upon a time.” The “oh-oh-oh” is joined by additional wordless harmonies and parts, somewhat reminiscent of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, bringing everything up to date as the credits roll.

At this point Elton had the Midas touch. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy shipped gold and was the first album ever to debut at #1 on the Billboard album charts. It still coheres well as an album, but today’s ears are beginning to detect that the gravy train might not last. (The initial expanded CD added the pertinent singles “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, along with the B-side “One Day At A Time”, a superior version of a recent Lennon solo track. For the album’s 30th anniversary, the B-side “House Of Cards” was added to these on the one disc, while a second presented the bulk of a 1975 Wembley concert where the album was played in order by his revised and expanded band, followed by “Pinball Wizard” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”.)

Elton John Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 3 extra tracks
2005 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 13 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Mary Hopkin 4: Live At The Royal Festival Hall

Having had enough of the pop music industry, and already starting a family, Mary Hopkin kept mostly to herself over the decades, surfacing occasionally on a background vocal or an album on a small label. Any Apple reissue brought her attention, and once her kids were grown they became extremely determined to promote their mum. One of the first CDs released on the Mary Hopkin Music label was a concert performed in the wake of Earth Song/Ocean Song, opening for headliner Ralph McTell.

It’s an eclectic set, touching on some of the hits but mostly on the folk songs she loved, such as “Silver Dagger”, “Once I Had A Sweetheart”, “Both Sides Now”, and “Morning Is Broken”. Acoustic guitars, plus Danny Thompson on upright bass, and a small string quartet back her gently. Just as her delivery is confident, her banter in between is witty and utterly charming. Speaking of which, one can’t help but smile as she and husband Tony Visconti duet on the Beatles’ “If I Fell”. She even does “Those Were The Days”, she says, because her in-laws had “flown in from New York” to hear it.

The sound quality is a little wonky on the last two songs, but her voice—that sweet, angelic voice—is clear as a blue sky, and shines through. Live At The Royal Festival Hall 1972 is a wonderful discovery for anyone who enjoyed her brief pop career.

Mary Hopkin Live At The Royal Festival Hall 1972 (2005)—

Friday, November 15, 2019

Bob Dylan 65: Travelin’ Thru

The ongoing Bob Dylan Bootleg Series project has resulted in volumes designed to be as revelatory as they are historically important. The fifteenth such release certainly illuminates a legendary collaboration, but it doesn’t necessarily rewrite history.

Travelin’ Thru goes in depth into the creation of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, two albums that were so unlike what Bob had done before, as well as what his perceived rock ‘n roll peers had accomplished. They’re also albums that, for the most part, have never been plundered by bootleggers, so the anticipation for hearing outtakes for the first time runs high. The first disc in the set devotes the equivalent of an album side’s worth of alternates from each of these albums, but unfortunately there are no “HOLY CRAP” moments among the selections. The lone unheard song, “Western Road”, isn’t much more than an uninspired 12-bar repeating the same clichés about going to Chicago. There are some takes tried in alternate tempos, but nothing that will have the listener thinking it should have been released instead of what was. (The compilers admit to the dearth of multiple takes, partially because they allegedly just weren’t different, but mostly because the tapes themselves have been missing for decades. We can’t blame the Universal fire for this one, much as we’d like to.)

The packaging for Travelin’ Thru prominently trumpets “featuring Johnny Cash” throughout, as the bulk of the set is dedicated to the session of duets that yielded the version of “Girl From The North Country” that opens Nashville Skyline. Unfortunately, little else reaches that level of sublimity, the majority of the summit spent running through what they can recall of various songs while Johnny’s band, which included Carl Perkins, gamely plays along and navigates the hairpin key changes. Johnny comes off better throughout, as their voices don’t quite mesh with Bob in full “Lay Lady Lay” croon, and he barely harmonizes more than singing a single note against Johnny’s melody. A few tunes could have had potential had they worked on them, but it’s hard to say whether they thought it would be worth it. One stab deserving attention is the real-time mashup of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Understand Your Man”, each man singing a verse from either song simultaneously. We could get excited about finally hearing Bob sing “Wanted Man”, but they spend most of the take trying to remember the words and making up new ones. Clearly they enjoyed each other’s company, and Bob even appeared on the debut episode of ABC-TV’s The Johnny Cash Show, performing “I Threw It All Away” and the almost-a-single “Living The Blues” and duetting with Johnny on “Girl From The North Country”. (All three are included here.)

To fill out a set that could easily fit on two discs instead of three, we get two further outtakes from Self Portrait, both Cash songs: “Ring Of Fire” gets a slick treatment and “Folsom Prison Blues” speeds up into a jam. Along the same lines are a handful of songs from a documentary about bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, including the Scruggs Family arrangement of “Nashville Skyline Rag” and Bob’s half-remembered “To Be Alone With You”. Recorded amidst the New Morning sessions, his voice has returned to its familiar rasp.

When you count the various copyright collections that emerged over the last decade or so, Travelin’ Thru effectively fills in the remaining gaps on the first decade of Bob’s career. (In fact, keen-eyed collectors would have scooped up the highly limited 50th Anniversary Collection 1969, which offered two discs’ worth of further outtakes from that year—mostly unfinished takes, and a few more duets, but notably the otherwise unheard “Running”.) Therefore, it’s highly unlikely a future Bootleg Series release will cover anything else from the ‘60s. This one will be welcomed by Dylan obsessives, and everybody loves Johnny Cash. But it’s also nice to have an installment in the series that doesn’t break the bank. And no “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”!

Bob Dylan Travelin’ Thru 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (2019)—3
Bob Dylan
50th Anniversary Collection 1969 (2019)—

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Kinks 16: The Great Lost Kinks Album

Navigating the Kinks catalog was already a chore in the early ‘70s, given the different releases on either side of the Atlantic. Having recently explored the depths of the vaults with The Kink Kronikles, Reprise (and resident Kinks krusader John Mendelsohn) dangled another carrot in the form of The Great Lost Kinks Album. With a track selection as baffling as its cover art, this album attempted to illuminate some hidden gems, except that the band (read: Ray Davies) didn’t know anything about it till after it was out, and since most of the tracks had already been rejected by the label years before, forced the LP’s deletion. (On top of that, the liner notes even take up several paragraphs slamming the band’s current stage act, which likely didn’t please Ray either.)

Two of the tunes were actually from a truly lost album, the aborted Four More Respected Gentlemen stopgap: “Misty Water” and “Mr. Songbird” (which had already been out on the rare 12-track version of Village Green Preservation Society). With its subtle Mellotron, “Lavender Hill” (not to be confused with the Muswell Hillbillies outtake “Lavender Lane”) is a nice refugee from the Something Else period, as is “Rosemary Rose” with its harpsichord. “Pictures In The Sand” is also from the same era, stuck between vaudeville and “Autumn Almanac”. The trad-jazzy “Till Death Us Do Part” sounds like a TV theme song, and since it was written for a film, that makes sense. Meanwhile, side two is bookended by two similar middle-aged goofs, “When I Turn Off The Living Room Light” and “Where Did My Spring Go?”

A handful of tracks come from another great lost album, that being the never-finished full-length LP Dave Davies was supposedly working on in the wake of his solo singles. “There Is No Life Without Love” and “This Man He Weeps Tonight” were both British B-sides, while the horn-flavored “Groovy Movies” makes its debut here. Dave also sings lead on “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”, rescued from the flipside of the “Sunny Afternoon” single; rumor has it the song was written for Eric Burdon of the Animals, and we believe it. “Plastic Man” was the equally silly A-side to “King Kong”, which was already included on Kronikles, and “The Way Love Used To Be” is the other worthy song from the Percy soundtrack.

As an album, The Great Lost Kinks Album isn’t great by any stretch, but its charms do reveal themselves in time. Original copies are rare and therefore high-priced; luckily, the tracks have since been farmed out to various CDs, predominantly the expanded Village Green and Arthur reissues. So while no single disc replicates it, the tunes are all readily accessible.

The Kinks The Great Lost Kinks Album (1973)—3
Current CD equivalent: none

Friday, November 8, 2019

Frank Zappa 39: Thing-Fish

Over a period of three months, Frank released four distinct albums, each unique and challenging in its own way. Outside of Them Or Us, none could really be called a rock album, and the two instrumental releases would take some getting used to. But Thing-Fish would divide listeners most of all.

This was not the first musical Frank had envisioned, but of all his earlier grand designs, this came closest to realization. It was a bold idea: at a time when AIDS was barely beginning to register on the mainstream public consciousness, Frank expanded his opinion that the disease was the result of a government-sponsored scientific experiment to the extent that in addition to making people very sick and killing them, the effects would also lead to mutations of cartoonish extremities based on ongoing stereotypes.

Of course, any idea worth doing is worth overdoing, so Frank took this scenario and packaged it as a three-record set purporting to be the original cast recording of the opus intended for the Broadway stage. The cover depicts the title character and narrator, whose name is based on a character from the Amos ‘n Andy radio and TV show, with an oversized potato-shaped head and cartoonish duck lips, in conversation with one of the chorus members, known as the Mammy Nuns, all of whom are described as dressed like Aunt Jemima from the syrup packaging of the same name. (Really, we’re not making this up.)

The plot begins, as all Broadway shows do, with Thing-Fish (voiced by Ike Willis) explaining how the experiments of the Evil Prince led to their current condition. The proceedings soon turn into a play-within-a-play, as a yuppie couple named Harry and Rhonda (played by Terry and Dale Bozzio, who’d left the Zappa fold to form Missing Persons) wander into the theater expecting something like Cats. Much like what happened when the Mothers of Invention had a theater residency in 1967, Harry and Rhonda are assimilated into the action and subjected to various psychological horrors. For example, we meet Harry-As-A-Boy (given a genuinely hilarious gee-whiz delivery by the second Bob Harris to play with Zappa), who explains that women’s liberation turned Harry gay, disguised by the yuppie drive to succeed at all costs. Meanwhile, Rhonda is shown to have evolved from an actual blow-up doll to a ruthless feminist businesswoman. Their inevitable disgust for and at each other culminates in side five’s “Briefcase Boogie”, wherein Rhonda has sexual congress with said object, described in full four-letter detail. (The Broadway show never happened, but a simple search online makes it relatively easy to find a pictorial from Hustler magazine that provides visuals. This is also absolutely true.)

Much of the music on Thing-Fish is obscured by dialog, but for the most part, the “songs” are previously released Zappa tracks given new context with the overlaid commentary (for example, “The ‘Torchum’ Never Stops” in an extended mix of the Zoot Allures track). “No Not Now” appears twice, once with new vocals by Ike, and again as the finale, played backwards with the new title “Won Ton On”. The music that isn’t recycled is mostly performed on the Synclavier, which also provides the computerized vocals by the Crab-Grass Baby, the horrifying offspring of Harry’s depraved televangelist father and, apparently, Rhonda in her inflatable incarnation. As for new “songs”, “He’s So Gay”, a twisted mélange of doo-wop and upbeat synth pop, would have fit perfectly on the other ‘80s “rock” albums. “Brown Moses” is supposed to be the commentary by that character (described as resembling Uncle Ben from the rice box), portrayed by Johnny “Guitar” Watson. “Wistful Wit A Fist-Full” is a stereotypically Broadway showcase for piano and voice, in this case delivered by the remorseful Evil Prince in the style of Al Jolson. (Also, there are zero guitar solos on any of the six sides.)

Much as with 200 Motels and Joe’s Garage, this is an angry album, full of black humor, blanket indictments, and uncomfortable truths. It is not an easy listen, and while the libretto helps explain the action better than the dialog, one must actually hear Thing-Fish’s intonation to understand some of the purposely mangled language. Thing-Fish is hardly the first play to depict sexual activity, deviant or otherwise, but even after something like Spring Awakening became a sensation, we really can’t see how Frank really thought something like this would ever be staged per his script. Even if it was, critics would lambaste it and the Tonys would ignore it, which Frank would only flog as proof of ongoing censorship and the inability of the average American to understand his genius.

Frank Zappa Thing-Fish (Original Cast Recording) (1984)—

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Joni Mitchell 22: Millennial Compilations

Although seemingly retired, Joni kept her hand in the marketplace with not one, nor two, but three thematic retrospective sets released over a period of nine months. Each follows something of a theme, building on the mild renaissance her career had experienced; the first two continued to use her own paintings for the cover art.

First came The Beginning Of Survival, which took its title from a letter written by a Native American chief to “the Great Chief in Washington” a century before, reproduced in the package. Released in an election year amid various wars in the Mideast, the set focused on social commentary from the mid-‘80s on, mostly from the “difficult” Geffen albums. Therefore, most but not all of the tracks have jarring synthesizer arrangements and her lower voice. Perhaps it’s a good intro to her least celebrated period, but the music is still a matter of personal taste, and some tracks are simply less annoying than others.

A few months later, Dreamland covered her entire career, from the ‘70s up through the orchestral albums of this century. The songs range from beloved hits already collected on Hits to more challenging pieces like “The Jungle Line”, “Dancin’ Clown”, and the title track. The chronology is all over the place, forcing the listener to take her as she is (or was), yet there is a thread from song to song (“Free Man In Paris” to “In France They Kiss On Main Street”, the harmonicas on “Furry Sings The Blues” into “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio”). Three tracks are remakes from her orchestral albums, and the set ends with her original recording of “The Circle Game”. With even more of her paintings depicted in the package, perhaps these are the songs that meant the most to her.

The same could be said for what came the following spring. Songs Of A Prairie Girl collected songs to celebrate and evoke Saskatchewan, its “long, cold winters [and] short but glorious summers” per her brief notes. Five songs are repeated from Hits, including “Urge For Going”, but for the most part the program leans towards the later years; “Cherokee Louise” is in its arguably superior Travelogue incarnation. Two songs from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter appear: the title track, and right smack dab in the middle of the program, a so-called remix of “Paprika Plains” that aims to even out the dynamics a bit. Both songs benefit by this context, even with “Raised On Robbery” sandwiched between them. Because so many of the tracks reference her youth, there’s a certain nostalgia, and even melancholy, throughout the set.

Ultimately, these CDs prove that there is no way to encapsulate Joni Mitchell in under 79 minutes. Much like other mercurial artists among her contemporaries (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, etc.) any favorites are going to vary from person to person, and different albums speak to different people in different ways. What comes through is that, as a composer, she was anything but ordinary. Hopefully any of these albums has drawn a newbie into her complete catalog.

Joni Mitchell The Beginning Of Survival (2004)—
Joni Mitchell
Dreamland (2004)—3
Joni Mitchell
Songs Of A Prairie Girl (2005)—3

Friday, November 1, 2019

Neil Young 59: Colorado

For half a century, the connotation of Neil Young playing with Crazy Horse inspires the immediate aural image of a plodding electric assault, and with lots of evidence to support that. But the fuzz of “Like A Hurricane”, Ragged Glory, and Psychedelic Pill belies the lower dynamics that Neil has brought out of the guys, such as “Lotta Love”, “Running Dry”, “Oh Lonesome Me”, and countless other tunes with Billy Talbot on bass and/or Ralph Molina on drums. Take also Tonight’s The Night, recorded with that rhythm section and trading guitar and piano duties with Nils Lofgren, who was in Crazy Horse for their debut Neil-less album.

Now that Poncho Sampedro is semi-retired, Nils came back to support Neil and the other two for a few shows, which led to an album. Colorado was recorded in that state, with oxygen tanks on hand to help them adjust to the higher climate, and while many of Neil’s recent quirks are still in place—harangues about the same political issue in consecutive tracks, singing far above his range, yelling tunelessly when he hasn’t bothered to write a melody, as he does on most of the loud ones—the album holds together better than any of the last handful, simply because it offers variety and repels assumptions.

With a blast of harmonica, “Think Of Me” is a jaunty acoustic strum that sounds more like Prairie Wind than Crazy Horse until the harmonies kick in. This promising start is followed by the sludge of “She Showed Me Love”, which ponders the fate of Mother Nature in the hands of “old white guys” and “young folks”. It’s long enough to begin with, but then plods away for another seven minutes of jamming and repeats of the title on top of the six it took to get there. As the only lengthy track on the album, it seems odd that this was the one groove given such an honor.

That’s basically the template for the album: softer songs alternating with loud ones. “Olden Days”, about losing touch with friends for various reasons, sports a nice little riff echoed by the voice and piano (uncredited, though it’s probably Nils), but it seems to be over awfully quickly. Then it’s back to doom, as “Help Me Lose My Mind” alternates an agitated verse with a more inspired chorus change (musically, anyway). The sad little metaphor of “Green Is Blue” is effective, and in case you missed the point, “Shut It Down” pounds it into your head. “Milky Way” was the first track streamed to the public, and while its first-take demo quality underwhelmed then, it works much better in this context. Plus, with its tension being more quiet than loud, it provides welcome contrast.

The charming “Eternity” not only revives earlier lyric ideas, such as a house of love and a train of love, but it also features the tapdancing skills of Nils Lofgren (“click, clack, clickety clack” indeed). Set to a tune we can’t put our finger on, “Rainbow Of Colors” is another attempt at an alternate national anthem, in that it offers a positive message instead of just saying why the other side is wrong. One might think the album would end there, but “I Do” is a tender love song that takes us out very gently, along the lines of “Music Arcade” and “Without Rings”. (Those who bought the vinyl—or paid the subscription—got a bonus in the form of the moody but moving “Truth Kills”, plus a live solo electric “Rainbow Of Colors”.)

Many of Neil’s albums this century have been difficult to absorb; part of that can be ascribed to the loss of producer David Briggs in 1995. Now the death of longtime manager Elliot Roberts, to whom Colorado is dedicated, will likely affect Neil in ways he can’t fathom. We predict this album will have staying power, and those who say it’s not a Crazy Horse album need to revisit Sleeps With Angels.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse Colorado (2019)—3