Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Jethro Tull 15: Bursting Out

Amazingly, Jethro Tull waited a full decade before issuing a live album. Granted, many of their shows in the ‘70s involved multimedia and sight gags, but if they were ever going to do the double live thing, 1978 was calling for it.

Bursting Out covers all the bases, from early blues like “A New Day Yesterday” to the recent folkie stylings on Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses. Following an introduction by Montreux Jazz Festival founder (and inimitably named) Claude Nobs, Martin Barre kicks into a serrated riff with Ian Anderson’s flute interjections. Cleverly, “No Lullaby” leads into “Sweet Dream” before a few acoustic pieces. From there it’s an excellent display of dynamics, sometimes within a single song. “A New Day Yesterday” devolves into a flute improvisation that quotes “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (in May) and turns into “Boureé”. “Thick As A Brick” is distilled down to about 12 minutes, incorporating much more than the edits on the two “hits” albums. An instrumental called “Conundrum” might as well be called “Prelude To Barriemore Barlow’s Drum Solo”, while a side’s worth of Aqualung favorites (saving the best for last, apparently) is split up only by an instrumental called “Quatrain” and the band’s customary reworking of “The Dambusters March”. Ian’s stage announcements throughout are typically cheeky, and occasionally bleeped, likely due to a radio broadcast.

Because of the length, the original CD omitted “Sweet Dream” and the two instrumentals; this has since been rectified, and a good thing too. Bursting Out is tight and solid, and recommended to fans of any incarnation of the band to date.

Jethro Tull Bursting Out (1978)—

Friday, December 27, 2019

Journey 11: Greatest Hits Live

Unlike the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and other arena bands who reunited in the ‘90s, Journey did not tour to support their reunion album, which pissed off everyone in the band who wasn’t Steve Perry. Holograms hadn’t become an onstage thing yet, so Columbia did the next best thing in their power to cash in while they still could.

Greatest Hits Live cobbled a disc’s worth of live recordings from the Escape and Frontiers tours, effectively presenting a concert document in the form of a sequel to Captured. Some songs are repeated from that album, but Jonathan Cain did his homework and lived up to the challenge of replicating parts he didn’t write. The sequence is very much focused on the hits, but it is faithful to the shows in that “Lights” goes into “Stay Awhile” and “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” is dragged out to seven minutes.

The liner notes made a big deal of saying how the tapes were “discovered” by chance and had to be baked before they deteriorated completely, but some of the music had indeed appeared before. This was proven a handful of years later when a complete show from 1981, which got lots of airtime in the early days of MTV, was cleaned up for an official DVD, released with a companion CD that was eventually made available on its own. Live in Houston 1981: The Escape Tour gets a slight edge over its half-brother, being that the sequence is true and Steve’s inter-song “ad-libs” make better sense in context. You also get extended solo showcases from Jonathan, Neal Schon, and Steve Smith. The CD even has something the DVD doesn’t, that being a live version of “Hopelessly In Love (The Party’s Over)”. The cover art isn’t too imaginative, but at least it’s not as baffling as the scary bird lady who adorns Greatest Hits Live.

Journey Greatest Hits Live (1998)—3
Live in Houston 1981: The Escape Tour (2005)—

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Jorma Kaukonen 2: Christmas

The holidays are all about giving, and one of our faithful readers and staunch supporters hipped us to an album we’d overlooked. Simply titled Christmas, it’s a simple collection of originals and standards from the fingers of Jorma Kaukonen, with help from collaborator Michael Falzarano.

Much like Hot Tuna seesawed between acoustic folk and electric blues, the album isn’t strictly one style or the other, but through the magic of digital, whether on a disc or streaming, one can change the sequence. Some of the instrumentals only count as holiday songs due to sleigh bells as percussion, but they work because the artists say they do. “Christmas Blues” and “You’re Still Standing” rely on distorted guitar to distract from the basic lyrics, but “The Christmas Rule” is a hilarious cautionary tale about why you shouldn’t use your fireplace on Christmas Eve. A very reverent reading of “Silent Night” is followed by “Holiday Marmalade”, which turns it into an extended 11-minute blues. “Baby Boy” is a traditional tune we suspect may have originated in the Caribbean, and a nice surprise. Just like the album itself.

Jorma Kaukonen Christmas (1996)—3

Friday, December 20, 2019

Monkees 10: Christmas Party

Given the critical success of the first new Monkees album in 20 years, it should surprise no one that a follow-up would shortly be in the works, considering the advanced years of the vocalists. Extra points if you guessed it would be a Christmas album. Sure enough, Christmas Party attempts to recreate the recipe of Good Times!, using the same producer, some of the same songwriters, and plenty of modern technology to bring Davy Jones back from the grave.

If you’re good at math, you’ll also notice that eight of the thirteen songs are sung by Micky Dolenz, with no other Monkee involvement. His tunes include new holiday songs from the fingers of Andy Partridge, Rivers Cuomo, novelist Michael Chabon, and Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey from R.E.M. and the Minus Five. After he gets those out of the way, he tackles more modern rock ‘n roll standards, including “Jesus Christ” by Big Star, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” by Wizzard, and most daringly of all, “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney. Finally, his cover of “Merry Christmas Baby” proves he ain’t no blues man.

Since a Micky Dolenz Christmas album wouldn’t be as lucrative for anybody, Michael Nesmith contributed two covers recorded on his own: Mel Tormé’s unstoppable chestnut “The Christmas Song” and the more obscure but quite lovely “Snowfall”. An unrecognizable Peter Tork added a vocal-and-banjo rendition of “Angels We Have Heard On High”, while Davy’s vocals on “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Silver Bells” come from 1991. As ever, he knew how to work a room, a professional to the end. (Smart consumers and Monkeemaniacs would have rushed to their nearest Target store to get two exclusive bonus tracks: “Ríu Chíu”, sourced from the TV show’s 1967 Christmas episode, and “Christmas Is My Time Of Year”, originally recorded by Micky, Davy, and Peter in 1976 for the still-active fan club.)

There aren’t a lot of rock ‘n roll Christmas albums, and we’ve already covered the better ones. One’s enjoyment of Christmas Party depends on how much one can stomach an aging yet unflappably enthusiastic Micky Dolenz. Frankly, the ones he doesn’t sing are more successful, and the album is paced mostly well. We wanted to hate it, and we don’t. And it is just once a year.

The Monkees Christmas Party (2018)—3

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Todd Rundgren 21: A Cappella

Just as nobody was buying Utopia albums, Todd’s solo career had ground to a halt. The Bearsville label ceased to exist, which enabled him to put out the album he’d been sitting on for a year on Warner Bros. Once you hear that album, you can understand why labels were reluctant to back it. As befits the title, A Cappella was “written, produced, and sung” by Todd, using only his voice and we’re guessing occasional handclaps. When there are “drums”, they’re created using the sampler that would soon be as dated as the Yamaha DX-7. (The Fat Boys didn’t have the only Human Beatbox on the charts.)

Todd was always adept at layering his own vocals, but these aren’t necessarily pop songs, and the clutter of the multitracks sometimes makes it hard to hear the songs themselves. For instance, “Blue Orpheus” begins with a lovely choir-like blend, but goes off the rails when the percussion kicks in. The best tracks are those that use only voice and no effects, such as “Pretending To Care” and “Honest Work”. “Something To Fall Back On” was the obvious single, but even that hasn’t aged well, continuing the resemblance to “Jane’s Getting Serious”.

The timing was awkward as well, considering how much space is given to the antiwar “Johnee Jingo” and “Miracle In The Bazaar”, which comes off like a Muslim call to prayer. “Lockjaw” is a noisy “rocker” about a mythological bogeyman, delivered in the same cartoony voice that sank “An Elpee’s Worth Of Toons”. We’re not sure who “Hodja” is, but Wikipedia says John Stamos performed a version of it on the first season of Full House, so we’ll pass. A cover of “Mighty Love” by the Spinners is probably the best way to close the set.

We’d be curious to hear the actual songs on A Cappella to see if they’d improve with band arrangements, but we’re not that curious. Ultimately the album is as frustrating as the first Utopia album and Initiation, where he also dared people to keep up with him.

Todd Rundgren A Cappella (1985)—2

Friday, December 13, 2019

Who 28: WHO

Thirteen years isn’t that much of a stretch between studio albums when their previous gap was nearly twice that. Yet Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have been steadily performing as the Who for that duration, and that they managed to agree on songs for a new album is unexpected. Roger called the songs their “best since Quadrophenia.” Considering that this is only their sixth album since then, and one of them was The Who By Numbers, that opinion should be taken as literally as anything Pete spouts only to contradict in his next interview. However, when Uncut magazine agrees with that assessment, it’s best to go in with an open mind.

The album is simply called WHO (yes, rendered in all caps), with nostalgic and iconic artwork by Peter Blake. Pete wrote all the songs, save one by brother Simon and a co-write based on a track he found on SoundCloud. As per his M.O., he painstakingly recorded his demos at great expense, then he brought them to the studio for replication by regulars Zak Starkey and Pino Palladino (as well as such session rats as Joey Waronker and Benmont Tench). Then Roger added his lead vocals on all but one, miles away from everybody else. It should be noted that Roger sounds terrific, particularly over power chords.

There really isn’t a theme to the album, but many of the songs deal with the type of topics you’d expect a well-read septuagenarian concerned with world issues and the power of music to ponder. “All This Music Must Fade” addresses the futility of it all right off the bat, closing with a profane dismissal by Pete, and “I Don’t Wanna Be Wise” confronts the fact that some of the band did indeed die before they got old. In between, “Ball And Chain” is a re-recording of “Guantanamo” from Pete’s recent hits album; Roger must’ve loved it since he really digs into it here. “Detour”, despite alluding to an early name of the band, is a clumsy call for compassion, as is the more tender yet maudlin “Beads On One String”. Killer chorus, though. “Hero Ground Zero” is directly related to Pete’s novel The Age Of Anxiety, which concerns such topics as sex scandals, music nobody understands, and a concert that portends some kind of transformation or doom.

As anthemic as that one is, “Street Song” is even more passionate, inspired by a fire that destroyed a London tower block. Pete takes over for the decidedly adult contemporary “I’ll Be Back”, which could be a love song to either his current partner or even Meher Baba; the harmonica sounds very much like longtime sideman Peter Hope-Evans, though the liner notes say otherwise. Simon Townshend’s “Break The News” is more like ‘90s rock, but Roger per usual gives it his all. “Rockin’ In Rage” returns us to the quandary of aging and relevance, while “She Rocked My World” is extremely low-key, almost Latin, and sounds unfinished.

It’s a strange way to end the album, but diehard Who freaks would have purchased at least one version of the album with three extra tracks, all sung by Pete, and they’re a strange handful. “This Gun Will Misfire” addresses gun control; “Got Nothing To Prove” is an actual mid-'60s demo given a Ted Astley-type orchestral overdub that sounds like the theme to a TV Western; “Danny And My Ponies” is a portrait of a homeless guy who still exudes enough pride to make the narrator feel humbled. (The Japanese market got an extra vintage demo called “Sand”.)

WHO is good, but not classic. Musically it sounds like an expansion of It’s Hard without the dated production. Many tracks begin with one of those circular keyboard things familiar from “Baba O’Riley”, but lots of their songs have done that. Lyrics would have been nice, and what’s with the Autotune? It’s been used ironically by others, but Pete seems to embrace it here on the sparing but glaring occasions that it pops up. Overall, it’s more satisfying than Endless Wire, if a little frustrating, and still better than McCartney’s last album.

Not even a year after its release, the band tried to recoup losses incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the performing arts industry by release a deluxe edition of the album. It included none of the bonuses from the original release, added an unnecessary remix of “Beads On One String” at the end of the disc, and included selections from a predominantly acoustic performance from February 2020 on a bonus disc. It’s entertaining, but doesn’t justify buying the album again.

The Who WHO (2019)—3
2020 Deluxe Edition: same as 2019, plus 9 extra tracks

Friday, December 6, 2019

Roger Waters 4: Is This The Life We Really Want?

Much like a certain character in a Dickens novel, Roger Waters had a change of heart in the 21st century, and began to embrace his former bandmates in public. An actual Pink Floyd reunion for Live 8 in 2005 amazingly did not involve a Fender Precision bass soaring across the stage, and when he took his latest update of The Wall on tour, both Nick Mason and David Gilmour contributed to one London performance.

Still, despite a kinder, gentler Roger, many of the new images and messaging within the staging of The Wall proved he could still be plenty disgusted over world issues, and when he finally got around to a new album after 25 years, it showed. Is This The Life We Really Want? isn’t much different from his other solo albums, except that there are no all-star guests and exactly one guitar solo. While there isn’t a storyline, most of the things that pissed him off on Amused To Death have multiplied, particularly the media and global terrorism. Nigel Godrich, most famous for producing Radiohead and Beck, takes charge here, tethering Roger in much as he did Paul McCartney in 2005. The album still sounds somewhat Floydian, with familiar strings, keyboard flourishes, octave notes on the bass, and so on.

Sound effects like ticking clocks and conversations abound, some not easy to discern in the murk of the mix. The songs are mostly slow and depressing, his voice either gravelly and disgusted or howling with rage. He occasionally lapses into lists instead of lyrics, and did not write a distinct melody for each of the tracks. F-bombs are spat, particularly when railing against Donald Trump.

“When We Were Young” is a “Speak To Me”-style intro, with ticking clocks, a heartbeat pulse, and muffled voices, moving into “Déjà Vu” (a title that doesn’t appear until the end of the tune). It’s a profound rumination on what he’d do if he were God, then if he were a drone, complete with startling effects. A drumbeat that evokes Bowie’s “Five Years” drives “The Last Refugee”, a sad reflection that erupts into the much angrier “Picture That”, with a wonderful rant culminating in “a leader with no [expletive deleted] brains”, all over music that sounds like “Sheep”.

That takes a lot out of him, and a cough that reminds us of the first grunt on “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” heralds “Broken Bones”, a mostly acoustic elegy for Mistress Liberty. The title track maintain tension over several minutes, then detours into a strange monologue in south London accent about ants before ending on what sounds like a patient flatlining. Some “Welcome To The Machine” mechanics continue the same tempo and heighten the tension on “Bird In A Gale”, which is less political but just as bleak. The Bowie beat must be a theme for lost children, as it returns on “The Most Beautiful Girl”, about another victim of random government-sanctioned violence.

As before, a song about an innocent is answered from the point of view of the finger on the trigger, and “Smell The Roses” brings in the funk a la “Have A Cigar” filtered through the second half of “Dogs”. It’s a good way to set up the album’s finale, which is really one song with three titles, and the middle one is just one verse. Taken together, “Wait For Her”, “Oceans Apart”, and “Part Of Me Died” may well be, dare we say, the most beautiful thing he’s ever released. The suite ends with a positive message, but also on an unresolved, minor chord, almost abruptly.

While not an easy listen, the music on Is This The Life We Really Want? is certainly moving, and serves the lyrics, whether or not you understand what he’s talking about. While he’s preaching to his choir, the album is a lot better than it could have been. In other words, it was worth the wait.

Roger Waters Is This The Life We Really Want? (2017)—3

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

David Bowie 43: Conversation Piece

If the previous few years had been any indication, the time was ripe for the next massive chronological Bowie box set. Instead, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “Space Oddity” single and subsequent album, the Bowie estate began releasing a series of vinyl-only sets of mostly unheard acoustic demo versions of songs, not all of which were familiar. Spying Through A Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos were each issued as box sets of 7-inch 45rpm singles where they could easily have filled out a single LP, while The ‘Mercury’ Demos did just that.

The music spans 1968 through 1969, when Bowie was trying to finalize songs that would go on his second album, following the less-than-astounding reception for his first. The Keyhole songs are intriguing as they appear to be completely solo, sometimes overdubbing himself on guitar and percussion, with an arrival for an early version of “Space Oddity” with then-musical partner John Hutchinson. At this point he was still finding his way, aping different styles, from the nursery pop of “Mother Grey” to the more theatrical “Goodbye Threepenny Joe”. “Love All Around” is more successful, and there are two versions of “Angel Angel Grubby Face” to compare.

The Clareville Grove and Mercury material are all “Bowie & Hutch” folk duo recordings, the latter set specifically intended for the A&R man at that label. In addition to the familiar “Space Oddity” demo, highlights include two versions of “Lover To The Dawn”, which would turn into “Cygnet Committee”, Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song”, a year before Elton John released his version, and two versions of the very Simon & Garfunkel-inspired “Life Is A Circus” written by one Roger Bunn. “Janine” sports a cringey cop from “Hey Jude”, thankfully dropped by the time the album would be recorded.

Being culled from various sources and taping sessions, there was much repetition, particularly in “Space Oddity” itself. The repetition only amped up when the sets were eventually issued on CD, as part of the Conversation Piece box. This set basically served as a prequel to the Five Years box, and tried to cram in everything from the period leading up to what we now know as the Space Oddity album, with only a few overlaps.

To start, Spying Through A Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos were fleshed out with eight further unreleased performances to fill a single disc. “April’s Tooth Of Gold” is wordy but Kinky, as is “Reverend Raymond Brown” which rocks but is just too busy. The overtly Dylanesque “Jerusalem” and especially “Hole In The Ground”, which wouldn’t see an official recording until the next century, are nice surprises. And we can be glad he never pursued more “kids” songs like “When I’m Five”, which appears three times throughout the box. (Meanwhile, The ‘Mercury’ Demos got its own disc, running only 42 minutes.)

A third disc mixed two complete BBC sessions, which had previously been spread across previous deluxe editions and whatnot, with various odd singles and studio outtakes, including the rejected single that backed “In The Heat Of The Morning” with “London Bye, Ta-Ta”. A fourth disc included a new remaster of the original 1969 mix of the second David Bowie album, a.k.a. Space Oddity, and some alternate mixes. A fifth disc sported Tony Visconti’s updated 2019 mix of the same album, which was also released separately; here it added the new mix of the single version of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”, plus the apparently necessary upgrade of “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola”—a.k.a. “Space Oddity” with different lyrics in Italian.

It’s been suggested that the reasoning for this release is more along the lines of any “copyright extension” practices than any merit beyond historical. It’s more of a prequel than anything else, and deserves its own entry rather than being crammed into the context of the Space Oddity album. So we did.

David Bowie Conversation Piece (2019)—3