Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Phil Collins 6: Dance Into The Light

After 25 years in the band, and fully flush from his solo career, Phil Collins officially left Genesis, and promptly dropped this pile of dreck into the marketplace.
Perhaps “dreck” is too harsh a word. Dance Into The Light isn’t pointedly bad, or even misguided. It’s simply ordinary, and the few times it tries to be anywhere near adventurous, it’s not original. The title track, despite its assertion, is in such a weird meter that anyone attempting to dance to it would appear to be suffering a conniption. “Just Another Story” beats the same groove into the ground for 6½ minutes; frankly, it’s most interesting during the jazz piano solo, and the chorus hook is pretty good. “Oughta Know By Now” has something in there, but this arrangement doesn’t cut it. The lyrics for “Lorenzo” come of the mother of the kid with the disease dramatized in the film Lorenzo’s Oil from a few years before, but the music is sub-Afropop done better by Peter Gabriel. Speaking of which, if you hoped he’d distill the quirky narratives of Paul Simon’s Graceland into one track, “Wear My Hat” is just for you, while “Take Me Down” and “River So Wide” merely cop the guitar styles and milder rhythms from that album. The liner notes insist that “there are no drum machines on this album!”, but the real deal doesn’t always help. (It’s also the first album he’s put out that didn’t sport his mug life-size on the cover.)
Most frustrating about this album is that there are a few guitar-based tracks hidden amidst all the others. “That’s What You Said” (subtitled “Spirit Of ‘65” in the booklet) sports a part halfway between a 12-string and a Coral sitar, and it’s good pop. “Love Police” keeps the jangle going, even if “It’s In Your Eyes” pours it on too thick. “The Same Moon” could have fit on the last two Genesis albums, except for the guitar solos. “No Matter Who” isn’t great, but he was probably listening to George Harrison while writing it. Had he concentrated on tracks like these, he would have endured the usual brickbats about jumping on the Britpop bandwagon, and hindsight might have treated it better, but there’s still no excuse for the anemic version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” that closes this opus.
If you’ve been keeping up with the story so far, it should be no surprise that Dance Into The Light is just way too long at a full hour. For those who simply have to have more, the Extra Moves disc (clever, that) of the Deluxe Edition 20 years later adds the usual smattering of live versions and demos, plus three contemporary B-sides, each very different.

Phil Collins Dance Into The Light (1996)—2
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1996, plus 10 extra tracks

Friday, May 29, 2020

Bryan Ferry 3: Let’s Stick Together

While Roxy Music was on hold, Bryan Ferry didn’t waste the opportunity to do a summing-up of his own. Let’s Stick Together fit with his existing solo brand of Roxy-fied covers, but this time collected various strays that had been already issued as B-sides or EPs. The other difference was that half of the album consisted of re-recorded Roxy tracks, mostly from the first album. “Casanova” is transformed into a slinky strut, while “Sea Breezes” tempers the creep factor somewhat. “2HB” and “Chance Meeting” might as well be the same recordings, but unfortunately, “Re-Make/Re-Model” is drained of its charm, losing the solo sections but retaining the slowdown.
The balance of the album shows he’s getting the hang of putting his own stamp on covers. The “title track” is dominated by a saxophone honking one note throughout—just like the harmonica on Wilbert Harrison’s original, but not as charmingly. “Shame, Shame, Shame” is nice and trashy, the Beatles’ “It’s Only Love” is completely transformed into something else entirely, and the old chestnut “You Go To My Head” becomes pure Philly soul. “The Price Of Love” was a latter-day Everly Brothers hit; just chop off the mariachi trumpet at the start for best effect. Finally, “Heart On My Sleeve” was actually a current song, courtesy of the Gallagher and Lyle songwriting team.
Having been cobbled from various sources, Let’s Stick Together actually works as an album, with enough variety to keep him from having to sustain a theme. The alternate takes on Roxy tunes remain curiosities, in all senses of the word.

Bryan Ferry Let’s Stick Together (1976)—3

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Roxy Music 6: Viva!

Some said Roxy Music broke up, others said they were taking a break. While various members would collaborate over the next couple years, the first thing they did was release a live album, which is what you’re supposed to do, unless you do a hits collection, and we’ll get to that.
Viva! Roxy Music was compiled predominantly from a couple shows from 1974, with two songs from a year before and another from a year after. The energy throughout is good, and consistent throughout. The transitions between songs from different tours are particularly seamless. Even the quieter tracks, like “Chance Meeting”, get to shine in the live setting, as even Glaswegian audiences hadn’t yet learned to be as disruptive as their American cousins. Fans of John Wetton will want to pay close attention, as he played bass on the 1974 tour, and his contributions stand out, particularly on “The Bogus Man” and the loud portion of “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”. Meanwhile, Sal Maida, later of the legendary Long Island power pop outfit Milk ‘N’ Cookies, features on bass for the 1973 tracks. And when the album ends, it just ends—no audience cheering, just silence.
The only real rarity on Viva! is “Pyjamarama”, a standalone single taken at a sluggish pace. Luckily, it was included at full speed, albeit remixed, on the following year’s Greatest Hits, alongside such usual suspects as “Virginia Plain”, “Love Is The Drug”, and “Do The Strand”. Granted, most of these were hits in the UK only, but that shouldn’t bother American fans. The tempo stays up all the way through “A Song For Europe”, and regains the pace for the last two tracks. Easily a good place to start, at least until the number of Roxy compilations would dwarf that of their studio albums.

Roxy Music Viva! Roxy Music (1976)—
Roxy Music
Greatest Hits (1977)—

Friday, May 22, 2020

Paul Simon 14: The Capeman

After the period of relatively high activity that began with Graceland, it had been a long time since a new album of songs from Paul Simon. And when one did arrive, it wasn’t exactly what people expected.
It turned out he’d been very busy for most of the ‘90s working on a Broadway musical, which took both a lot of work and a lot of money. He soon learned the hard way that neither of those factors would guarantee success. The Capeman was based on the life of a convicted murderer who dominated New York City headlines in the late ‘50s, partially because of his youth and partially because of his Puerto Rican heritage. Simon’s approach to creating this grand work was unorthodox, and he didn’t make too many friends in the process. When the show debuted, it was lambasted, but the writing was already on the wall when people heard the album designed to preview and promote it.
Songs From The Capeman is credited to Paul Simon alone, but many of the vocals are handled by the actors and actresses in the play, to the point where one forgets who wrote everything. Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades appear here and there, yet he himself sings “Born In Puerto Rico”, which is hard to believe even as a character because of his by-now familiar voice. (José Feliciano sings the version added as a bonus track the following century, and it’s better.)
The album demands attention, since the lyrics (or libretto) is very important to the story at hand. It would help if the story were linear, but it’s not. It’s easy to slip into the background, and then some spurt of profanity or stereotypical patois will leap from the speakers, and we worry about its effect on impressionable children. That happens a lot in “Adios Hermanos”; loading up your opening track with f-bombs isn’t likely to appeal to a more conservative fan base. Dialogue from archival interviews is intended to add gravitas, but merely muddies the process.
Musically it’s not bad; we’re in no position to judge the authenticity of the Latin heritage and style, but this is mostly balanced throughout by a wonderful smattering of doo-wop. “Quality” balances two doo-wop styles, the solo croon and the girl-group chorus, quite well, and better than the dual personality of “Bernadette”. “Virgil”, sung from the point of view of a prison guard, sounds like a hokey Western gunfight. “Killer Wants To Go To College” is a decent tune with too much plot, even split into two parts. “Trailways Bus” will only have one yearning to hitchhike from Saginaw with a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies. The finest moment could be “Can I Forgive Him”, set up as a conversation between the Capeman’s mother and those of the murder victims, and sung by himself to the accompaniment of his acoustic guitar.
The Capeman was an interesting concept, but ultimately the Songs From The Capeman are bound to the show. While moments of clarity shine through, it’s a vanity project, and not really worth the trouble. The expanded version from this century would have been an excellent opportunity to illuminate any part of the story, but merely adds the Feliciano track mentioned above, along with another schizophrenic doo-wop track in “Shoplifting Clothes” and an unfinished demo of “Can I Forgive Him”. Clearly, he’s moved on.

Paul Simon Songs From The Capeman (1997)—2
2004 CD reissue: same as 1997, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Kiss 3: Dressed To Kill

Casablanca insisted they needed new product to keep sales up and running, so the third Kiss album—their third in this space of little over a year—was recorded quickly with label head Neil Bogart producing. That may have been the smartest move right there, since Dressed To Kill immediately sounds better than the massively muddy Hotter Than Hell. Cool cover, too.
But what about the tunes? They rock, of course. “Room Service” demonstrates Paul Stanley’s skill at stretching a metaphor well past its context. We get that life on the road is tough, and what better way to liven up yet another hotel room with something from the menu, but shouldn’t it be called something else when you’re at the airport or back in your home town? Gene Simmons takes over for the next two, first ragging on a “Two Timer”, then looking for solace with the “Ladies In Waiting”. Ace Frehley wasn’t ready to sing his own songs yet, which is how Peter Criss got to sing “Getaway”, which never once uses the noun form of the expression as stated in the title. If there’s anything that could be considered adventurous, the intricate acoustic intro to “Rock Bottom” would be it, especially since it has absolutely nothing to do with the song proper.
“C’mon And Love Me” sports a laugh-out-loud opening couplet, and a turn of phrase in the second verse that shows how fast they wrote the album, whereas “Anything For My Baby” updates classic ‘60s songwriting to their own template. “She” sports yet another killer riff, and piles on the imagery (“She walks by moonlight… enchanted starlight”) before deflating it (“she takes off her clothes”). There hasn’t been enough cowbell on the album yet, so “Love Her All I Can” serves it up. (Or maybe it’s supposed to sound like a drumstick on an aluminum can?) Allegedly, “Rock And Roll All Nite” was written to order at the last minute, and to their credit, they came up with a winner. If Kiss never did anything past this song, they’d still be remembered for it.
Smart boys do what they’re told, and Dressed To Kill fit the label brief perfectly. Here was another half hour of rockin’ songs for kids to blare in their bedrooms and cars, made to be replicated onstage. And that’s just what they did.

Kiss Dressed To Kill (1975)—3

Friday, May 15, 2020

Rod Stewart 8: A Night On The Town

Even though he wasn’t doing double time with a band, Rod Stewart gamely threw himself into the demands dictated by his new record label. Much like Atlantic Crossing, A Night On The Town was divided between slow and fast sides, and we still see a call-back to Never A Dull Moment in the cover art.
At this point Rod had certainly become a mainstream success, a hit on AM radio as well as FM, and for those of us of a certain age, this is why we couldn’t take him seriously for so long. Granted, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” was a few years away, but the guy in the leopard print top and the spandex slacks is in full effect. This is the album that opens with “Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)”. Whereas Neil Young’s song of similar title was an elegy for dead junkies, here Rod is doing his best to talk a virgin into bed, complete with then-girlfriend Britt Ekland cooing in French over the fade. The bravado fades immediately, however, with the faithful cover of Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, probably the version Sheryl Crow knew best. “Fool For You” is similarly a hurt kiss-off to a jet-setting paramour, somewhat ironic given his growing reputation.
The fast side gets his own back right away with “The Balltrap”, a noisy and nasty putdown that really has us missing the Faces. The covers pile up from here; Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” from over a decade before is yelled through, followed by the country rock nugget “Big Bayou”, which Ron Wood had just put on his most recent solo album, and “The Wild Side Of Life”, another country song covered by everyone back then; those tunes sound like Chuck Berry hijacked the sessions. The social commentary of “Trade Winds” goes completely against the concept of fast and slow sides, but echoes the effect of “Sailing” from the last album somewhat.
The fans Rod would have in this period of history would certainly count A Night On The Town among his best, and would likely welcome the expanded edition, which tacks a B-side onto the main program, and includes an alternate working version of the album on a second disc with some other extras. But as we’ve said too many times, this isn’t the guy we came to appreciate.
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that we have yet to discuss a particular track, the one that closes side one. We’ve been saving it for its own paragraph, because even after all these years, there are few songs as unexpected and wholly moving as “The Killing Of Georgie (Part I and II)”. This is an incredibly simple song musically, while the lyrics consist of the barest biography of a friend who happened to be gay, and was murdered on a New York City street, possibly because of this fact. With the economy of Bob Dylan and absolutely no histrionics, the story is told straightforward with no false emotion. Even the seemingly tossed-off “doo-doot doo” that passes as a chorus can’t deflate this. (“Part II” of the song is a slower lament sung like a chant, to the tune of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”. That’s probably why the complete track, over six minutes, was released as a single.)
Rod would have plenty more chances to be silly over the following decades, and take his brand all the way to the bank. He wouldn’t always be worth the effort, but an out-of-the-blue instance like “The Killing Of Georgie” is enough to remind us that, good lord, was he really good when he really wanted to be.

Rod Stewart A Night On The Town (1976)—3
2009 Deluxe Edition: same as 1976, plus 15 extra tracks

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Talking Heads 9: True Stories

At perhaps their mainstream peak, another Talking Heads studio album followed fairly quickly (for them). While sporting the appropriate title of True Stories, the album had the burden of accompanying a full-length feature film of the same name, directed by David Byrne and written by him in collaboration with playwright Beth Henley and the actor best known as Ned Ryerson (“Needle Nose Ned, Ned the Head! Bing!”) from Groundhog Day. The film was overly arty, presenting the inhabitants of a particular Anytown, U.S.A. as derived from the pages of Weekly World News and other barely believable supermarket tabloids. The songs as used in the film were either performed by or associated with various actors, making the band tangential to the proceedings, so the album itself is forced to stand alone, obscuring much of the context. Then again, even if you have seen the film, it’s not likely to send you back for a re-assessment.
Like its predecessor, the songs are simple, on the surface anyway, eschewing experimentation for hooks and lyrics. “Love For Sale” is a good charging rocker; it even starts with what sounds like the band actually having fun in the studio. “Puzzlin’ Evidence” keeps the party going, halfway between Oingo Boingo and a gospel singalong. With an arrangement similar to “And She Was” sent to a beach party, you’d think he’d’ve tried to find something more substantial to say than “Hey Now”, but there you go. “Papa Legba” sounds a little too automated these days, and works much better in the film, where it’s a showcase for Pops Staples.
While it was a mild trifle at the time, “Wild Wild Life” stands out today as a fun song, with enough musical left turns to keep your attention, and easily the highlight of the album. Continuing the journey through differing genres, the mildly zydeco “Radio Head” is mostly notable today for inspiring the name of another band. Despite the tension in the intro, “Dream Operator” becomes more of a song of wonder about childhood themes, and the nostalgia continues in “People Like Us”, with its prominent pedal steel guitar and fiddles. In a triumph of sequencing, these songs lead well into “City Of Dreams”, which also runs while the film credits roll.
Coming off the success of Little Creatures, True Stories had big shoes to fill, and didn’t. The only track that really took hold on the radio was “Wild Wild Life”, which was also included as a wacky extended mix on the CD version of the album, which the savvier kids would have bought. Many years later, this was included on the expanded CD along with Pops Staples’ version of “Papa Legba” and Tito Larriva’s interpretation of “Radio Head”, both from the film itself, but which had not been included on the Sounds From True Stories soundtrack album. Those completists who wanted all the music from the film only had to wait until 2018. The original album remains their least essential release.

Talking Heads True Stories (1986)—3
1986 CD: same as above, plus 1 extra track
2006 DualDisc: same as 1986 CD, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, May 8, 2020

Prince 13: Diamonds And Pearls

After a few years of less-than-stellar music, and seeing the genre now called R&B evolving without him, Prince needed to start making hits again. To his credit, he began working with a set collective of musicians with whom he could interact, and thus The New Power Generation was brought forward. Some members even took prominent roles in the videos and other appearances, in the spirit of the Revolution an eternal half-decade before. (They also included dancers and rappers, which we’ll get to soon enough.) Diamonds And Pearls confidently presented the new combo; Prince being Prince, the artwork sported a holograph, and the interchangeable women flanking him on the cover and the videos were dubbed Diamond and Pearl.
He must have been inspired, as research tells us that for the first time in forever, all the tracks were developed specifically for the album, with nothing recycled from the vault. It’s a solid set start to finish, and paced well. “Thunder” has a dark groove, and “Daddy Pop” focuses on fun; unfortunately, NPG rapper Tony M takes over the second half of the song, and will elsewhere. Vocalist and keyboard player Rosie Gaines makes a much better impression on the title track, which was one of many hit singles, as was “Cream”. He dusts off his falsetto for the mildly jazzy “Strollin’” and “Willing And Able”, while the more decadent “Gett Off” was wisely chosen to provoke as the first single.
“Walk Don’t Walk” features protégée Elisa Fiorillo prominently, and cleverly uses a car horn sample as part of the track. It’s a sharp detour into “Jughead”, a Tony M showcase that sounds like a cross between The Time and Digital Underground and just doesn’t fit, the closing “argument” being particularly intrusive. “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” is much more like it, a mid-tempo confection, then “Push” confuses everything, combining his early funk, Clare Fischer strings, and interjections from Rosie and Tony. “Insatiable” is complete slow jam along the lines of “International Lover”, but rather than end the album there, “Live 4 Love” turns the beat up again. Seeing as it’s subtitled “Last Words From The Cockpit”, perhaps the connection was intended; it even takes time for an extended guitar solo, a rarity on this album.
We’ve given a lot of Prince albums the three-star rating, even the more trying ones. Diamonds And Pearls was very much in the R&B vein, and far away from guitar-driven rock, so those of us not concerned with the pop charts didn’t pay much attention. (His propensity for turbans and buttless pants didn’t excite us much either.) But it was clear the little freak still had it, and deserved the sales that followed.

Prince & The New Power Generation Diamonds And Pearls (1991)—3

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Journey 12: Arrival

Fed up with waiting for Steve Perry to pull his head out of his hip operation, Neal Schon remembered that Journey was his band. Jonathan Cain and Ross Valory knew where their money was likely to come from, and after tapping Bad English (and Hardline) drummer Dean Castronovo, they found a competent singer in the form of Steve Augeri, who’d toiled in a handful of not-very-successful bands throughout the ‘90s. The fact that he bore a mild resemblance to Perry was undoubtedly a big plus.
Touring the oldies circuit was the immediate concern, though contributing a song to the blockbuster Armageddon soundtrack album right between two Aerosmith tracks helped in the money department. (Co-written by Jack Blades, “Remember Me” sounded more like Night Ranger.) Two years later, Arrival intended to open a new chapter for the band. They released the album first in Japan, where the melodic rock genre—a.k.a. hair metal without the makeup—was bigger than ever, and whence it was promptly pirated all over Napster. By the time it came out worldwide, a few songs were swapped, and the overly wimpy “I’m Not That Way” was dropped.
There must be people who can quote chapter and verse on all the differences, and we’re not going to. Throughout, Augeri delivers the songs in the same raspy register, though “All The Things” is a distillation of the first Tonic album. He finally shows some emotion in his voice on “Loved By You”, and “Livin’ To Do” could pass for Perry; both songs were co-written by Cain with a country songwriter. “I Got A Reason” sounds like Perry singing with Damn Yankees (surprise: also written with Jack Blades). He sounds like Bryan Adams on the ballads, most of which are interchangeable.
With all that, Arrival is generic yet harmless, and not excruciatingly embarrassing. It is, however, too damn long. Neal throws in a guitar lick as often as the mix will allow him, and lest anyone was still unconvinced they had any balls left, the band released an “experimental” EP initially through their website. Red 13 offered a two-track prog suite, an overblown heavy track, and another more conventional rocker. Most interesting is “Walking Away From The Edge”, a slow burner supposedly co-written with Geoff Tate of Queensrÿche, which has us wondering what might have happened if he’d joined the band instead.

Journey Arrival (2001)—3
Red 13 (2002)—3

Friday, May 1, 2020

Todd Rundgren 22: Nearly Human

The mid-‘80s were uncharacteristically quiet for Todd the frontman, though he did keep busy with producing the likes of the Tubes, XTC, and the one-hit wonder Bourgeois Tagg. When he finally did re-surface with his own album, it was nicely timed with the start of Rhino’s massive reissue campaign, which covered each of his solo albums to date, as well as all the intermittent Utopia albums.
Nearly Human was widely praised upon release, though modern ears may wonder why. In some ways it was a return to the brand of blue-eyed Philly soul he’d touched on in the ‘70s, and soon taken over by the likes of Hall & Oates, who’d also stopped selling records by the end of the ‘80s. The overall gimmick was that the album was allegedly recorded live in the studio, each song a single take with no overdubs, just like side four of Something/Anything? These days, however, the production style sounds more sterile than fresh, and some of those synthesizers have not aged well.
The big single was opening track “The Want Of A Nail”, featuring soul legend Bobby Womack, which sounded great on the radio despite a minimum of lyrics that rely almost entirely on the undated proverb. From there, the album settles into a comfortable adult contemporary groove, as exhibited in the lovelorn “The Waiting Game” and “Parallel Lines”, with very little in the way of guitar shredding. A curious inclusion is a faithful cover of Elvis Costello’s “Two Little Hitlers” from a decade before, right around the time Todd’s girlfriend ran off with Elvis; history has not revealed who was watching baby Liv Tyler during this period. (This track was left off the vinyl version of the album, which also juggled a few of the tracks in the middle, yet leaving side two fairly well crammed.) “Can’t Stop Running” is still in the yacht rock mode, though this time the “demonic fretwork” comes from Lyle Workman; the rest of the band on the track includes the other members of Utopia.
“Unloved Children” is right out of the “Peter Gunn Theme” playbook, but sports a lyric decrying abusive men and the families they affect. (This time he plays lead.) “Fidelity” sounds the most like its era, left over from an Al Jarreau or Gloria Estefan album, and we still can’t figure out if he cheated on her or vice versa. Following a soulful “huh”, “Feel It” is carried over from a Tubes album, and develops into a big number that succeeds despite its trappings. While not overtly obvious, “Hawking” was inspired by the physicist of the same name, and involves a lot of soul-searching. Just when you thought the album was turning into a slow jam, “I Love My Love” is an uptempo gospel workout stating that joyous realization, stretched to nearly nine minutes thanks to an extended sermon in the middle.
Throughout Nearly Human it’s clear Todd hadn’t lost his gift for writing songs with hooks. Ultimately, that’s what still makes the album work today. The album is very cohesive, despite using varying musicians on each of the tracks, each of which is notated by its date of recording. He could still hit the high notes, too.

Todd Rundgren Nearly Human (1989)—3

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Sting 15: My Songs

No, dammit. Just… no.
Apparently “enhancing” his music with orchestral touches wasn’t enough for one lifetime. Determined as ever to sound contemporary, My Songs is an attempt by Sting to bring his catalog up into the here and now. That means remixing old tracks, both solo and with the Police, or rerecording them. In the latter instance, “Demolition Man” gets yet another makeover, this time with lots of screaming guitars. But in the case of practically everything else here, the differences between the originals and these versions aren’t apparent outside the vocal. There’s nothing radical or inventive in the arrangements. The feeling the listener gets while enduring this ego exercise is a new appreciation of the album title, as expressed by a three-year-old. (“MY songs! MY fire engine! MY toys! MINE!”)
Rerecording one’s old albums is a common practice among legacy artists who wish to create higher royalties than those granted by the labels that owns the originals. But Sting has been on the same label for his entire career, so that excuse doesn’t apply here. Nor does this particular lord of the manor need the extra euros. If you loved the original versions, stick with them. They won’t waste your time. (Following the tour of the same name, a special edition of the so-called “critically acclaimed” album—according to the press release; a Google search found zero instances of any positive acclaim—added a bonus disc of live versions, which merely add the sound of a rapturous crowd.)

Sting My Songs (2019)—2

Friday, April 24, 2020

Marshall Crenshaw 8: Miracle Of Science

Having sprung for the mild teaser of a live set, Marshall Crenshaw’s new label went all out to make his new album something to remember. This being the days of non-vinyl, the jewel cases of Miracle Of Science were treated with a glitter-effect hologram, while the liner itself was presented origami-style with multiple creases and miniscule credits. Meanwhile, he made the most of his deal by eschewing big studios and recording most of the album himself.
Of course, packaging is moot if the album doesn’t stick, and this one does. Following an indexed soundbite from an obscure Sammy Petrillo/Duke Mitchell movie, “What Do You Dream Of?” hits the ear candy jackpot, and the album hardly lets up from there, from the haunting “Laughter” and “Only An Hour Ago” through “Seven Miles An Hour” and the extended quasi-surf instrumental “Theme From ‘Flaregun’”. Our favorite by far is “Starless Summer Sky”, which dates back to his pre-professional years.
The originals are mixed with covers with only the barest misstep, “The ‘In’ Crowd” sounding the most like an indulgent afternoon spent overdubbing. Research tells us that “Wondrous Place” was an old Billy Fury tune; “Who Stole That Train” is an old rockabilly number that also sounds just like him, just as Grant Hart’s “Twenty-Five Forty-One” fits like a glove.
After being unavailable for too long, Marshall made Miracle Of Science the first of a projected series of reissues on his own Shiny-Tone label. The packaging was more straightforward, but he did rejig the sequence somewhat and give a few songs a fresh mix. Besides adding two brand new obscure covers, “Seven Miles An Hour” becomes a bonus track itself, as he now chose to end the album proper with the song played backwards. Beyond that, the album is still a winner, and welcome back.

Marshall Crenshaw Miracle Of Science (1996)—
2020 Shiny-Cool reissue: same as 1996, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Monkees 11: The Mike & Micky Show

One of the things that helped the Monkees as they kept touring 50 years after the fact was the active involvement of Mike Nesmith. The surviving members were also careful to hire a crack backup band of multi-instrumentalists to replicate all the parts fans knew from the records. (Having one of Mike’s sons and Coco Dolenz, sister of Micky, in the troupe kept the tours family affairs.) Peter Tork had bowed out for health reasons towards the end of his life, which the other two acknowledged by billing their concerts as “The Mike & Micky Show”. This also made an easy title for the live album that ensued from the 2019 run.
To their credit, this is not a strictly “all the hits” package. Mike sticks mostly to songs he wrote or sang, and the focus is more on the deep cuts the longtime fans love most, like stuff from Headquarters and Head, and obscurities like “St. Matthew”. A so-called acoustic set recasts “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “Tapioca Tundra”, and “Auntie’s Municipal Court” gets a rare outing. The banter between the two is still fun, but Micky’s recounting of how he came to write “Randy Scouse Git” is becoming about as tired as Paul McCartney’s story of “Yesterday”. Only two of the newer songs are included: the complicated Paul Weller/Noel Gallagher collaboration “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”, and the sublime “Me & Magdalena”, which Mike closes by acknowledging writer Ben Gibbard.
Both Mike and Micky are in their 70s, and some of the keys are taken lower to accommodate old men’s voices. But listening to Micky keep up with every word on “Goin’ Down” after all these years deserves a standing O. Live—The Mike & Micky Show is a decent souvenir for those who still care, and especially those who have yet to experience these guys while they still can. And yes, they still do “Last Train To Clarksville” and “Daydream Believer.”

The Monkees Live—The Mike & Micky Show (2020)—3

Friday, April 17, 2020

Pink Floyd 21: The Later Years

Having thoroughly mined the band’s early progress for a massive multi-volume audio-visual package, David Gilmour and Nick Mason continued loading up shelves with a set that concentrated on the period of Pink Floyd that pointedly did not involve any participation from Roger Waters. Rather than being all-inclusive, The Later Years attempts to reframe the fruits of this critically divisive period.
Right away the set immediately acknowledges the shortcomings of the Momentary Lapse Of Reason album by presenting a brand new mix, incorporating keyboard parts developed by Richard Wright whilst on the lengthy tour that followed the album’s release. Moreover, Nick went back and re-recorded several drum parts, replacing some of the electronics used on the original, and some of the parts played by session people that weren’t him. While the mix removes a good deal of the mid-‘80s sheen that made us wince back then, and we do hear musical touches that weren’t obvious before, it doesn’t change the fact that the songs weren’t very good to begin with. (That said, we never had a problem with “One Slip”, so the new version of that is nice to hear.)
Two discs are devoted to a greatly expanded Delicate Sound Of Thunder, incorporating songs left off that album’s original release, slotted in place to present the full set of the tour. While interesting for completeness’ sake, you probably had to be there to appreciate it all. (The original VHS counterpart of Delicate Sound Of Thunder is also expanded and included on Blu-ray and DVD, as is the Pulse video; apparently there was no desire to include Pulse in the CD portion.) Another disc is devoted to the band’s complete closing set at 1990’s Knebworth Festival, which capped their lengthy tour, fully available for the first time.
Five live tracks released as B-sides in 1988 and 1994 kick off a disc otherwise devoted to music from the planning stages of The Division Bell. These are apparently the original recordings, as opposed to the remixed and embellished material that made up The Endless River, with titles like “Blues 1” and “Rick’s Theme”. “Marooned Jam” and the early version of “High Hopes” will sound familiar, while “Nervana” was included on the deluxe editions of that “posthumous” album.
As before, the CDs are only part of the whole presentation. In addition to the aforementioned concert films, Blu-rays and DVDs include surround and high-res mixes of the updated Momentary Lapse, Division Bell, and the 1994 recordings, as well as footage from Knebworth and a show performed in the Grand Canal of Venice, various music videos, the films projected on screens during the shows, and other clips of varying interested. And of course there’s a book and a couple of 45s and memorabilia and such.
Also as before, a single-disc teaser offered a potpourri of selections from the set. The Later Years (1987-2019) differed in artwork and the appendage of years in the title, and gave equal time to songs from Knebworth, the expanded Delicate Sound, the updated Momentary Lapse, and the 1994 recordings. (There is a bonus in the form of a tour rehearsal of “Lost For Words”, taken from one of the Blu-ray/DVD portions.)
The Later Years is arguably not as essential as much of The Early Years, and certainly not on par with the expanded versions of The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, but considering that a generation of Floyd fans were baptized in this incarnation, it does provide closure. Sure, the overall tone is a little defensive, but the boys should be commended for wiping away some of the muck that had developed over the decades.

Pink Floyd The Later Years (2019)—3
Pink Floyd
The Later Years (1987-2019) (2019)—3

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Brian Eno 19: Small Craft On A Milk Sea

If anyone understands the power of branding in packaging modern music, it’s Brian Eno. Case in point: Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams were already busy musicians in the electronic field before meeting Eno, and worked with him on various projects throughout the first decade of the century, for such artists as Paul Simon and Coldplay. Yet when their first full-length collaboration was released as Small Craft On A Milk Sea, Eno’s name came first. Meanwhile, the liner notes show the other two as contributing keyboards and guitars, while Eno is credited with “computers”. Granted, that’s not to suggest he didn’t do anything musical with said machines, but still.
This would be more of a big deal if the album was wholly somebody else’s work, or worse, not very good. But somehow these relatively short pieces, designed with the familiar idea of creating imaginary soundtracks, hang together very well. Some cuts, such as “Complex Heaven”, “Calcium Needles”, and the title track, recall the spacescapes of Apollo; others, like “Flint March”, “Bone Jump”, and “Dust Shuffle”, bring to mind the “juju space jazz” of The Drop, but with more purpose than noodling. A guitar finally shows up in “Horse”, which sounds like a remix of certain Music For Films and the Passengers project, while “2 Forms Of Anger” bashes out a single chord right out of Joy Division. Overall, there’s enough variety in between that makes it easy to sink into it as ambient music, or even put on shuffle and enjoy from a completely random standpoint. Again, the brevity and purpose of each of the tracks on Small Craft On A Milk Sea combine for success.

Brian Eno with Jon Hopkins & Leo Abrahams Small Craft On A Milk Sea (2010)—3

Friday, April 10, 2020

Gene Clark 2: Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark

Having seen zero success with his solo debut, Columbia dropped Gene Clark, who found his way over to A&M Records, which would pick up on another Byrds offshoot ere long. This time he hooked up with another country iconoclast. Doug Dillard had been part of a family-based bluegrass band that were semi-regulars on The Andy Griffith Show before he started doing sessions, playing banjo for the likes of the Monkees. Having shared management with the Byrds, he and Gene teamed up as Dillard & Clark, eventually recording another short yet worthy album.
The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark is an intriguing stew of traditional country, without drums, and mild psychedelia, thanks to an occasionally prominent electric harpsichord. Chris Hillman adds mandolin to two tracks, but the most prominent contributor outside of Dillard & Clark themselves is one Bernie Leadon, who added banjo and guitar and co-wrote several of the songs.
Gene comes off strong with another hidden gem, the mildly brooding “Out On The Side”, then “She Darked The Sun” is pure porch music, at least up until the mildly atonal finish. His honking harmonica opens “Don’t Come Rollin’”, which tumbles into stacked rhymes and warnings, while “Train Leaves Here This Morning” would one day feature on the debut Eagles album, but once again we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
“With Care For Someone” is stuck between a hoedown and descending minor key mystery, but the upbeat chorus wins the battle. Not so for “The Radio Song”, which has a dusty lyric but is beholden to that harpsichord, providing an out-of-body experience. The hoedown returns on a cover of Lester Flatt’s “Git It On Brother” and “In The Plan”, and “Something’s Wrong” nicely bookends the set.
Coming so soon after Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark got decent reviews from critics who still remembered who they were, but once again didn’t move any copies (Gene still not into touring by airplane). It’s gone in and out of print over the years, but the version to find adds three non-album singles, including the lost masterpiece “Why Not Your Baby”.

Dillard & Clark The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark (1968)—3

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

John Entwistle 3: Rigor Mortis Sets In

It is rather telling that in the time between proper Who albums, John Entwistle had recorded and released three albums of his own. That does not suggest that he was just teeming with songs tragically stifled within the group context, because as each succeeding solo album demonstrated, he wasn’t.
He should of course be commended for keeping busy while waiting for Pete to need his services, and unlike Keith Moon, who didn’t have much else to do but drink, he put his own band together, christened Rigor Mortis in keeping with his black comedy reputation. Naturally, the American record label added his name to the cover and spine, to make it more clear to the casual consumer just who the artists were. From that sleeve, Rigor Mortis Sets In operated from the hypothesis that classic rock ‘n roll was dead, and therefore they needed to commemorate it while the body was still warm. The result was an album peppered with covers of standards soon to be familiar to anyone who watched Happy Days, surrounded by sarcastic originals performed in the same style. So if you wanted to hear what Entwistle would do with the likes of “Hound Dog”, “Lucille”, and “Mr. Bass Man”, the answer is not much.
“Gimme That Rock ‘N Roll” would be tolerable if the rest of the album didn’t sound like it. “Do The Dangle” gets its title from the dance craze described in the third verse (it involves getting a rope and kicking out a chair); the others are the Wheezy and the Strike, and are funny the first time. In the tragedy tradition is “Roller Skate Kate”, directly descended from Paul Anka’s “Donna" and loaded with sound effects and a monologue describing her demise. Following an interlude that sounds a lot like Keith Moon laughing in tune, we meet “Peg Leg Peggy” who, like the other afflicted girls in the same song, offers appeal similar to that of “Mary Ann With The Shaky Hand”. Of mild interest is “Made In Japan”, a somewhat jingoistic ditty bemoaning the lack of local manufacturing that is at least catchy. For further proof he didn’t have enough ideas, witness the whole unnecessary, near-carbon copy remake of “My Wife”. The closing “Big Black Cadillac” is a riff and a drum solo tasked with a non-story to support.
Not to sell the band short, as they were certainly competent, else he wouldn’t have hired them. There are clever moments throughout the album, but they don’t bear repeated listens. Rigor Mortis Sets In wasn’t exactly dead on arrival, but had little chance of recovery.

John Entwistle’s Rigor Mortis Rigor Mortis Sets In (1973)—2

Friday, April 3, 2020

Cream 5: Live Cream

Just because the band was done didn’t mean there wasn’t money to be skimmed off Cream. With all three members still active with various new projects, their label went back to the vaults and emerged ere long with Live Cream, which mostly presented two sides’ worth of extended versions of songs from the first album, recorded during the same stretch of shows that spawned the live portion of Wheels Of Fire. “N.S.U.” is particularly good, though we always think “Sweet Wine” is played too slowly. The sound is terrific, and the interplay excellent. Oddly, the compilers also chose this outlet to unleash “Lawdy Mama”, a Disraeli Gears outtake better known as “Strange Brew” with different lyrics.

Two years later, after Eric Clapton had already struck gold on his own and with Derek and the Dominos, Live Cream Volume II leaned more on the “hits” (“White Room”, “Sunshine Of Your Love”, f’rinstance). This time the sources were split between the same Wheels Of Fire shows and those from their farewell tour, as sampled on Goodbye. “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” stands out, but then again so does the crowd noise throughout, and it’s a matter of taste whether these particular tunes sound better live. But the key draw here is a 13-minute exploration on “Steppin’ Out”, which Clapton had done with the Blues Breakers, but hadn’t been included on any Cream album. Both albums, while more tossed together than lovingly presented, still showed off the band’s power, and nicely bookend their work.

From there, Cream’s legacy was recycled through countless complications and repackages. Clapton was the only surviving band member when, over half a century after the band called it quits, the powers that be put together Goodbye Tour—Live 1968, a set of four discs each containing a complete show from that brief run. The Oakland show is arguably the most interesting, as the set list varies the widest from the other three; Ginger Baker takes his drum solo on “Passing The Time” instead of “Toad”, which wasn’t performed. “Toad” as well as “Traintime” show up on disc two and three; the crowd was rowdy at the L.A. Forum, and not because of Buddy Miles introducing the band, while the San Diego show is heard for the first time ever here. Finally, while the final show at the Royal Albert Hall had already been broadcast at the time and released on video (it’s the one where the camera on Jack Bruce’s microphone is close enough to show his fillings and tonsils) this is the first time it’s been on CD. While it sounds like mud compared to the other discs, it’s historically important. (Though you’d think someone would have noticed that some of the photos in the booklet are backwards.)

Cream Live Cream (1970)—
Live Cream Volume II (1972)—3
Goodbye Tour—Live 1968 (2020)—3

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

McDonald And Giles: McDonald And Giles

While Robert Fripp tried to keep King Crimson going despite a revolving door of players, two original band members made a stab at continuing on their own. Ian McDonald, who’d provided the saxes and keyboards, and drummer Michael Giles made one self-titled album together, which snuck out on the marketplace in mild competition with their old band’s latest.
McDonald And Giles does carry on slightly from Crimson, down to labeling parts of songs; the biggest difference of course would be the absence of a prominent electric guitar. While it avoided the “demonic” character of the first Crimson album, the music was still elaborate, not quite prog, not quite pastoral, but still kinda jazzy. It provides something of a different perspective to the second and third Crimson albums, while never being harsh at all, and even predicts some sounds on the fourth, which hadn’t been written yet.
“Suite In C” runs all over the place through musical styles for eleven minutes, even including a cameo appearance by Steve Winwood on piano and organ. The much more pleasant “Flight Of The Ibis” sports lyrics by hip hype man B.P. Fallon, while the music itself is very close to “Cadence And Cascade” from the second Crimson album. “Is She Waiting?” is even quieter and prettier, and “Tomorrow’s People—The Children Of Today” is even more of a continuation of the mild whimsy of the Giles, Giles And Fripp, from the traffic jam horns to the flute-led boogie in the middle.
All of side two is given over to “Birdman”, a conceptual tribute to the first British aviator. (In a further connection to the larger Crimson history, the lyrics are supplied by Peter Sinfield.) This too is all over the place stylistically, the music occasionally intended to evoke action, such as the cacophonous machinery in the “Inventor’s Dream” section. The sadly brief “Wishbone Ascension” sequence is noted on the sleeve as having been once part of a larger Crimson piece, but “Birdman Flies!” builds nicely, leading into the chorale of “Wings In The Sunset”, the melody continued instrumentally on “The Reflection”.
There’s enough on McDonald And Giles to make it worth hearing, though it doesn’t latch on immediately. The boys didn’t tour, seemingly happy to stay home with their old ladies, as lovingly displayed on the album sleeve, and who could blame them. Michael Giles didn’t do much more musically, but not to worry about Ian McDonald; within a few years he’d be a key member of Foreigner.

McDonald And Giles McDonald And Giles (1971)—3

Friday, March 27, 2020

Chris Whitley: Living With The Law

Here’s an album we very likely would never have heard had a friend not told us, “It’s the closest thing you’re going to find to that Daniel Lanois album you like so much.”
Indeed, Living With The Law was produced by Malcolm Burn and engineered by Mark Howard, both Lanois protégés who had been involved with Acadie and other productions. But instead of applying the sound to established legends like Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan, this time the recipient was somebody brand new on any scene. Chris Whitley was a good-looking kid with long hair who specialized in open tunings on National acoustic and occasional electric guitars, with a voice that flipped easily from growl to falsetto and back. The rhythm section was the familiar Lanois crew of Daryl Johnson and Ronald Jones, with Bill Dillon adding the more straightforward guitar parts.
From the opening “Excerpt”—a few seconds of tuning up—the overall sound is dusty, wide open space, rooms with bare light bulbs, radios that go in and out of reception (used to good effect over the fade of “Dust Radio”). The titles say a lot: “Big Sky Country”, “Make The Dirt Stick”, “Bordertown”. “Phone Call From Leavenworth” is voice and guitar, as a prison ballad should be; “Look What Love Has Done” is an excellent display of his vocals. But while blues is the driver, the songs are catchy and cross genre; even the urgent “Kick The Stones” was used in the soundtrack of Thelma & Louise. “Poison Girl” is a wonderful rocker, but the best is still the defiant yet hurt “I Forget You Every Day”.
It took Chris Whitley a long time to do a follow-up, and by then he was all about distortion and sonic yowl. He would eventually get back to basics, but his bad health caught up with him, and he never quite followed on the commercial promise of Living With The Law. If only we could remember who it was that told us about the album in the first place.

Chris Whitley Living With The Law (1991)—

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Dwight Twilley 2: Twilley Don’t Mind

The Dwight Twilley Band’s debut was a mélange of tracks created in studios on different continents over a few years years, but Twilley Don’t Mind was made in one place, and somewhat quickly. While a little more uniform and streamlined, it’s just as solid as Sincerely.
The straightforward rock of “Here She Comes” is a good place as any to start, especially when driving with the top down in search of young girls in wet T-shirts and tight blue jeans. “Looking For The Magic” has Dwight’s terrific natural tremolo vocals with verses that sound like they were made up on the spot. Oh mercy indeed. (Cool trivia: Tom Petty is credited with guitar on this track, but in the clip you can find of them miming the song for TV, he’s holding a bass.) “That I Remember” brings a welcome swagger despite the lonesome lyrics, while “Rock And Roll 47” is another in-joke we don’t get. But then Phil Seymour takes the lead vocal on “Trying To Find My Baby”, possibly our favorite song of the oeuvre.
Perversely, Phil also sings lead on the title track, which almost adds insult to injury, since he’s the band’s entire rhythm section. This comparative trifle of a number is nicely forgotten by the almost grandiose “Sleeping”, which isn’t just the longest track, but even sports a string arrangement by James Newton Howard, who’d been busy the previous couple of years with Elton John. Lest one think the boys were too ambitious, “Chance To Get Away” is a terrific close harmony gold nugget. And while “Invasion” may seem a trifle along the lines of “England” or “TV”, the lyrics reveal some pointed commentary on their professional ties.
By the time the album came out, the Shelter label had been swallowed up by relative upstart Arista, so one would Twilley Don’t Mind would have gotten some more legs, even after three singles were released from the album. It still makes a wonderful companion to the debut, and should be sought out post haste. (Sometime in the ‘90s it was decided to swap the opening tracks of each side, which does the favor of getting the title track out of the way early. Some but all CDs also included “Falling In Love”, a lost gem that fell off the original sequence, as a bonus track.)

Dwight Twilley Band Twilley Don’t Mind (1977)—

Friday, March 20, 2020

Kinks 18: Preservation Act 2

The hollow promise of Preservation Act 1 wasn’t very encouraging, but those still keen to see it through had to wait only about six months until Preservation Act 2 presented the story proper over four sides. This was more of an original cast recording, complete with radio-style announcements appearing here and there to fill in the details. Once again, each of the tracks is sung by a character, with a couple roles taken by a singer outside of the five Kinks. This time it’s even more difficult to enjoy individual songs without thinking of the plot, which is pretty bleak overall.
The first announcement warns listeners of a “people’s army” formed by the upstart communist Mr. Black in order to topple the power of Mr. Flash. “Introduction To Solution” finds the Tramp expanding on the situation, and not very optimistic that things will turn out at all well—a rather unappealing way to start a show. Thankfully, “When A Solution Comes” and “Money Talks” are dark rockers, and fairly decent, too, but another announcement heralds a speech by Mr. Black, delivered as “Shepherds Of The Nation” and basically the platform of what we’d know in a few years as the Moral Majority.
At this point we’ve gone completely into Broadway musical territory, as Mr. Flash defends his status as “Scum Of The Earth”, and one of his toadies talks of his background as a “Second-Hand Car Spiv”; neither are very enjoyable, but at least we hear a subtle reprise of “Here Comes Flash”. “He’s Evil” is presented as a “party political broadcast” by Mr. Black about Mr. Flash, but as it’s presented in the style of warning a woman that a suitor will only break her heart, it’s an improvement. “Mirror Of Love” is sung (by Ray) as Flash’s main squeeze, defending her devotion to him, and another trip to vaudeville. But another announcement tells of a “victory” for Mr. Black that resulted in “casualties”. Cue curtain for intermission.
The Tramp returns to lament that “Nobody Gives” (a damn, that is), recalling the miners’ strike of 1926 and the rise of Hitler, with the idea that neither “side” provided a solution. It’s a long track, but it does rock. “Oh Where Oh Where Is Love” continues the theme, but now it’s sung in a duet with one Maryann Price, most recently of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, and doing a passable British accent. Just when you think the album might be improving (again), the most embarrassing track yet in the Kinks’ name arrives. “Flash’s Dream (The Final Elbow)” is a conversation between Flash and his conscience (much like Prince would a decade later on “Temptation”) that’s impossible to take seriously. Having become convinced of his own imminent demise, “Flash’s Confession” continues the nightmare, for him and for us.
“Nothing Lasts Forever” is another duet made for the stage and not a rock album, Ms. Price betraying more of a twang in her vocal. (She’s apparently taken the role Ray sang in “Mirror Of Love”, which is another thing wrong with this album.) We are informed that Mr. Black’s army overthrew Mr. Flash’s regime, and took him prisoner. “Artificial Man” reveals Black’s true aim: he’s engaged an actual mad scientist to create a perfect race of automatons, Ray apparently ignorant that he’d co-opted one of the major plot points of The Rocky Horror Show. Musically it’s about as over the top as anything in Phantom Of The Paradise, and that’s not meant nicely. Ms. Price returns to warble about the Village Green’s transformation into “Scrapheap City”, then we’re informed that the new regime has installed a curfew, food and utility rationing, control over telecommunications, etc. “Salvation Road” is supposedly the theme song of the regime, and while it’s good that it sounds like the Kinks, it’s way too late to save the album.
Preservation Act 2 seems a lot longer than it is, and it is exhausting. Maybe one day we’ll have the gumption to try to siphon the album down to just cool tracks and try to ignore their intended significance, and perhaps program a single two-sided LP out of it. Until then, we really don’t want to visit this particular village green again. (The double Rhino CD didn’t include any extras for the Act 2 portion, but the late ‘90s single CD reissue of the album added two at the end of the program. An alternate recording of “Mirror Of Love” was originally released as a single, and the tuba doesn’t do it any favors. “Slum Kids” was a refugee of the stage show, and represented here in a 1979 performance.)

The Kinks Preservation Act 2 (1974)—2
1998 Konk CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Kinks 17: Preservation Act 1

To say that Ray Davies was struggling is an understatement. Ten years into his professional career as a songwriter his work had become a chore, as he toiled away to be both commercial and profound. Plus, having established himself as a storyteller without compare, everything he issued had to have a theme. (Pete Townshend had the same problem, but that’s another story.)
Going back to the well is an iffy prospect for any auteur, so an extended theatrical expansion on the ideas of The Village Green Preservation Society was bound to be a challenge. What’s more, in an era of grand statements versus timetables, 1973’s Preservation opus was released in two parts before being taken on the road as a multimedia extravaganza. Preservation Act 1 was designed to set up the story somewhat, introducing characters and themes. That helps one approach it as just an album unencumbered by a plot yet to be fully revealed, but only just so, as the lyrics point out what characters sing which songs.
A wordless chorale is the basis of “Morning Song”, something of a cartoony intro that dares the listener not to think it’s a parody. “Daylight” is the first proper song, and at least it sounds like the Kinks, even after the now omnipresent brass band comes in to evoke the village green itself. “Sweet Lady Genevieve” is sung by the Tramp, but works as another lovelorn plaint and klassic Kinks too, particularly with brother Dave harmonizing on the title. Unfortunately fittingly, “There’s A Change In The Weather” is where the promise of those tracks dims. This portrait of class struggle is sung by three men in the same vocal tone, starting as a rocker but switching to a brass waltz and crawling through a heavy dirge back to the brass. “Where Are They Now?” and “One Of The Survivors” improve things slightly, the former a lament for Swinging London, angry-young-men playwrights, mods and rockers—basically everything before the summer of Love—while the latter revives the Johnny Thunder character, still on his motorcycle. By now Ray’s rhyming of pop culture icons is wearing thin.
Perhaps the most arcane track to American listeners, “Cricket” is a sermon sung by the Vicar, comparing that oh-so British sport to life. It’s clever, but it’s really to tell whether Ray has any sympathy for these characters. The plot becomes much more apparent on the medley that follows. After the chorus rails against “Money & Corruption” and prays for a savior to lead them, Mr. Black shows up to declare “I Am Your Man”, promising a version of communism that will benefit all (or at least make sure everyone has modern appliances). It would seem that the community had been taken in before, as recounted in “Here Comes Flash”, which begins as a cool riff and Dave singing lead, but soon turns to another cartoon piece, complete with closing faux-classical ending. The Tramp doesn’t seem bothered by any of this, as he’s “Sitting In The Midday Sun”, something of a cross between “Sunny Afternoon” and “Sitting By The Riverside”. In “Demolition” we finally get to hear what makes Mr. Flash so reprehensible: he was the developer who tore down all those lovely old houses to put up tower blocks and destroy the pastoral landscape. Once again, Dave’s solo bits redeem the track.
Again, as Preservation Act 1 was a stopgap to buy time necessary to complete the production, it demands to be heard as a first installment, and not its own entity. A standalone single that served to summarize the story appeared much later. “Preservation” was included as the “prologue” on Rhino’s 1991 double-CD set that contained both acts, and this sequencing was continued on the eventual single CD reissued in the late ‘90s. While a decent rocker and a welcome synopsis, its placement at the start of the program completely throws off the dynamics of the original LP. (The other bonus was the single edit of “One Of The Survivors”, one of the few songs that works on its own.)

The Kinks Preservation Act 1 (1973)—
1998 Konk CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, March 13, 2020

Elton John 13: Rock Of The Westies

Having felt something of a rut setting in, Elton John fired his longtime rhythm section, replacing them with players from the early days and a couple of Americans found along the way. The sound was bigger but still Elton, as demonstrated on his next album, once again recorded at Caribou in Colorado. Rock Of The Westies is an odd little album, full of strange song titles but plenty of commercial sheen.
The opening “Medley (Yell Help – Wednesday Night – Ugly)” finds him harmonizing with himself over James Newton Howard’s funky clavinet (part of Elton’s new band strategy being that he’d stick to piano). The funk continues on “Dan Dare (Pilot Of The Future)”, which namechecks a sci-fi hero of British comic books amid other garbled lyrics; amazingly, the closing vocal chorale sounds just like Queen. “Island Girl” is the latest attempt to immortalize a woman from an exotic place, musically very interesting given the unconventional bass line. It was the album’s only hit single, unlike “Grow Some Funk Of Your Own”, something of a take on “Gimme Three Steps” and not entirely convincing, or “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)”, which takes Bernie Taupin’s cowboy fixation to the extreme, in an arrangement already perfected in the arrangements on the last album.
The howling guitar and riff at the top of “Street Kids” recalls Bad Company until the congas kick in, and the tricky meter manages to keep it interesting. However, “Hard Luck Story” is fairly pedestrian, with a chorus that sounds flown in from a completely different song than the verses. “Feed Me” is all yacht-rock swagger; these days we want to add “Seymour” to every time he croons the title. But nothing prepares the listener for the bombastic arrangement of “Billy Bones And The White Bird”, which in no way suggests the “ancient mariner” tale hidden in the lyrics. “Check it out,” indeed.
Rock Of The Westies isn’t bad, and not strange enough to be a failed departure. It came out a mere five months after its predecessor, and as a whole suggests that maybe a little more time than that was needed. (The eventual expanded CD included two extras from the album sessions: a low-key take of “Planes”, later covered by the lead singer of the Zombies, and the lovely B-side “Sugar On The Floor”, written by new protégée Kiki Dee, of whom more would be heard and soon.)

Elton John Rock Of The Westies (1975)—3
1996 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Frank Zappa 40: Mothers Of Prevention

The actions of a few Senators’ wives gave Frank his biggest public exposure since the “Valley Girl” single. Appalled that these women were using their privileged access to possible legislation that would censor musicians, and its proximity to a proposed home-taping tax, he put on a nice suit and testified before the Senate (alongside John Denver and Dee Snider) to point the finger of shame at everyone involved. He wasn’t touring anyway, so the fight against the PMRC gave him something to do. (He’d been labeling his albums himself already anyway.)
It remains unknown whether the album titled Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention would have appeared in this or any format, but it did, and that was the context. Much of the album is instrumental, with the sampling capabilities of the Synclavier (his new favorite composing toy) to the fore.
Side one is a mishmash. “We’re Turning Again” is mildly melodic, but mostly notable for quoting various classic rock songs by the (mostly dead) singers they lampoon, perpetuating the Cass Elliot ham sandwich rumor, and Ike Willis’ impressions of Walter Cronkite, Bob Dylan, and Thing-Fish. The instrumental “Alien Orifice” has a mild TV cop show theme mood, but at least it’s got a decent guitar solo, sorely lacking on this album. “Yo Cats” is a lounge jazz tirade against schooled musicians, again crooned by Ike, while “What’s New In Baltimore?” is a more enjoyable instrumental, with a lengthy guitar solo, once again resembling the closing theme to Saturday Night Live.
Side two is bookended by two Synclavier instrumentals of mild interest, “Little Beige Sambo” and “Aerobics In Bondage”. In between is the centerpiece of the album, “Porn Wars”. Here various soundbites of the Senators from the PMRC hearing are quoted, sampled, ridiculed, and interspersed with Synclavier music, snippets of the people in the piano from Lumpy Gravy and yet another appearance by Thing-Fish. Outside of Frank’s voice, the one that truly stands out today is that of Al Gore; we had no idea he’d be vice president within ten years, and almost president in fifteen. A couple Senators sound like Foghorn Leghorn, and one goes to far as to allege Frank’s Constitutional ignorance without letting him reply that, in fact, he’d always gotten top marks in his high school civics class.
Not wanting to bore overseas listeners with the silly antics of the American government, the album was released elsewhere in a “European version” that dropped “Porn Wars” in favor of three exclusive tracks. Two of these were tacked onto the following year’s CD in the U.S., which also rejigged the sequence slightly. “I Don’t Even Care” features Johnny “Guitar” Watson yelling over a live jam, while “One Man, One Vote” is another Synclavier piece. (The third track finally appeared when the album was reissued in the 1995 catalog overhaul, and it’s remained there ever since. “H.R. 2911” was named after the home taping bill Frank suspected was tied up with all the PMRC business, and consists of some of the Synclavier music heard under “Porn Wars”, with lots of snorks as percussion.)
From a musical standpoint, Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention is mildly interesting but not essential. For students of history, his testimony is in the public record, can be watched online, and can also be read in The Real Frank Zappa Book. He continued to toy with the material at home, of course. Compiled in 1989 but not released for 23 years, the Understanding America compilation included “Porn Wars Deluxe”, twice the length of the original version thanks to the inclusion of musical excerpts from the Zappa catalog and even more Senatorial soundbites. 2010’s “Congress Shall Make No Law…” presented his full Senate testimony as well as a later appearance before Maryland state legislature, broken up by Synclavier music and samples of his nephew burping.
Meanwhile, the record industry did indeed adopt a generic “parental advisory—explicit lyrics” label that was soon widely lampooned and kept certain albums out of Wal-Mart, while making it easier for kids to find albums sure to piss off their elders. And yet somehow, some way, the world kept turning.

Frank Zappa Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985)—2
1986 Rykodisc CD: same as 1985, plus 2 extra tracks
1995 Rykodisc CD: same as 1986, plus 1 extra track

Friday, March 6, 2020

Joni Mitchell 23: Shine

If you leave a genius along long enough, she’ll emerge when she has something to say. And that’s exactly what Joni Mitchell did, nearly a decade after her last album of new material. Shine arrived with no agenda, save the pile of songs she’d just created, or came to her, however you want to put it. Best of all, most were simply arranged, with nothing reeking of any time period or musical trend—just her voice, her piano or guitar, and a few friends adding the instruments she didn’t play, like winds and pedal steel.
In an unexpected move, Shine begins with “One Week Last Summer”, a wonderful piano instrumental with saxophone that manages to sound fully orchestrated. “This Place” celebrates the great outdoors and wide open spaces, helped by pedal steel guitar, in the hope that there’ll still be time before they all get mined for any number of reasons. She returns to the piano for “If I Had A Heart”, a lament for the state of the world in the post-9/11 world and the numbness that has resulted. The drum machine and effects turn up on “Hana”, and she adds some amazingly distorted guitar herself, which is jarring at first. However, taken as part of the whole it’s not too distracting, particularly with the slow pretty piano of “Bad Dreams”.
A remake of “Big Yellow Taxi” is unnecessary, except to enforce that she’d been pissed about the environment for decades. The canned beats continue, along with that wacky guitar, on “Night Of The Iguana”, which was inspired by the movie of the play of the same name, tied to the ecological theme. “Strong And Wrong” is back to the piano, mourning centuries of man’s hubris in the name of religion. For an excellent juxtaposition, the title track is a lengthy prayer, asking for grace for all things on Earth, from little children and starving fishermen to misguided leaders and even those who inspire road rage. That would be a heavy way to go out, but instead she chooses to end with “If”, an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem that extols strength in the face of chaos.
A comeback of this magnitude would normally lead directly to a Grammy for Album of the Year; instead, that increasingly dubious honor went to Herbie Hancock’s all-star tribute River: The Joni Letters, out the same day. Featuring appearances by Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and the woman herself, it recast songs from her catalog into Starbucks-friendly jazz, pushed along by Wayne Shorter and Vinnie Colaiuta. The album works best on the instrumental tracks, particularly as two of them are jazz standards: “Solitude”, by Duke Ellington, and “Nefertiti”, which Shorter (who wrote it) and Hancock played with Miles Davis. (A 10-year anniversary edition thoughtfully included a second disc comprising the four bonus tracks that had been farmed out to Amazon and iTunes.)

Joni Mitchell Shine (2007)—
Herbie Hancock
River: The Joni Letters (2007)—3
2017 Expanded Edition: same as 2007, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Lou Reed 25: Ecstasy

Capping a decade that basically returned him to more actual than mythical status, Lou hit the studio with the same team that been in place for the last album and tours. Ecstasy combines new songs about troubled relationships with ideas left over from the Time Rocker project for a difficult listen, dark even for him.
The mood isn’t immediately obvious. “Paranoia Key Of E” is based on a catchy riff, and just about when the words start to ramble, horns kick in and he begins to have fun with the different keys of emotions. The same two chords drive “Mystic Child”, and he didn’t write a melody past the title. At first “Mad” would seem like a slower version of the same structure, except that he actually changes chords and takes the character of an a-hole pissed off that his partner was caught cheating. The horns come back for a nice counterpoint. Jazzy chords provide inspiration for the title track, though Fernando Saunders’ bass is more intriguing than the lyrics.
Things start to go off the rails in “Modern Dance”, wherein he actually rhymes moon and June in a litany of a love letter despite the decent backing. “Tatters” is in the same melancholy mood, but doesn’t feel like you’re reading somebody’s mail. So it’s a big jolt to switch over to “Future Farmers Of America”, a novel, shall we say, view of slavery in American history, before going back to the conversational “Turning Time Around”. “White Prism” (rhymes with “jism”) starts furiously, but then settles back into the same basic beat, cramming “indentured servant” into a lyric alternate submissive and domineering.
The final stretch is a test of endurance. “Rock Minuet” has promise, a lilting waltz of imagery out of Burroughs and the opening section of “Street Hassle”, while Lou overdubs dissonant guitar and Laurie Anderson adds more musically sympathetic violin. Driven by an acoustic guitar for a change, “Baton Rouge” concocts an apocryphal autobiography of one (or both) of his divorces, redeemed by the “so helpless” chorus. Then there’s “Like A Possum”, eighteen minutes of the same two chords as slow as anything on the album while Lou repeats the same “shocking” lyrics. Critics compared it to “Sister Ray”, but at least that evolved and stayed interesting due to the interplay. This one builds too, but only in terms of the drums; many will reach for the skip button, while others will opt for eject. However, they’d miss out on “Rouge”, a brief instrumental interlude for electric violin (guess who) and the almost triumphant closer “Big Sky”.
That tune especially recalls the similar summation on The Blue Mask, which dealt with similar themes and balanced tender moods with assault. But even without “Like A Possum”, Ecstasy is way too long and way too monotonous. Every writer needs an editor, and woe betide anyone who dares to tell Lou what to change.

Lou Reed Ecstasy (2000)—

Friday, February 28, 2020

They Might Be Giants 7: John Henry

Having experimented with an actual rhythm section on Flood and Apollo 18, as well as subsequent tours, John Henry found They Might Be Giants expanded to a full combo. The challenge remained: would they still sound like themselves?
The simple accordion that runs through “Subliminal” cleverly links the past to the present, and the backwards ending is a cute touch. Things immediately get loud on “Snail Shell” and “Sleeping In The Flowers”, though the latter has a catchy chorus in a different tempo. “Unrelated Thing”, a song about the breakdown of a relationship as mined on Lincoln slows the proceedings down incredibly but uses a pedal steel for variety. No lyrics are provided for “AKA Driver”, likely because of the frequent use of the brand name NyQuil. “I Should Be Allowed To Think” is the first really impressive tune, this time hilariously warping the opening couplet of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” to dis other bands and proclaim one’s ubiquity. “Extra Savoir-Faire” is something of a son of “If I Wasn’t Shy”, and lopes along too slowly for our tastes, while “Why Must I Be Sad?” isn’t much more than an attempt to weave as many Alice Cooper song titles into the lyrics as possible. “Spy” is a remake of the closer from the previous year’s EP, with an almost arbitrary extended ending that would change every time they’d play it onstage. “O, Do Not Forsake Me” is sung by a male a capella group, just because.
Things seem to pick up in the second half, beginning with the jaunty “No One Knows My Plan”. They get their money’s worth out of the horns for the intro to “Dirt Bike”, which seems to sing about roving gangs of pre-teens terrorizing neighborhoods, but ends up referring to a band “over their sophomore jinx”—presumably one already referred to in “I Should Be Allowed To Think”? “Destination Moon” and “Out Of Jail” both manage to sound like classic TMBG, despite the full band sound, while “A Self Called Nowhere” is almost Beatlesque in its psychedelic choruses. “Meet James Ensor” (which celebrates “Belgium’s famous painter”) and “Thermostat” (a metaphor within an owner’s manual) return to the their more geeky aspects, then “Window” sounds like a “Fingertips” segment stretched out to a full minute. The energy keeps going on “Stomp Box”, a frenetic tune akin to “Dig My Grave” from the last album, and then “The End Of The Tour” uses another travelin’ band image while describing a car crash, or something like that.
Overall, John Henry is the band’s weakest yet. For the first time it felt like they put too much on one album; perhaps some paring back might have helped, or better pacing between the slower ones and the better, faster tunes on what we used to call side two. The good moments are good, certainly, but listeners will likely prefer to go back to the earlier stuff.

They Might Be Giants John Henry (1994)—3