Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Gene Clark 4: White Light

While he wasn’t as prolific as his previous bandmates, it seems that whenever Gene Clark had enough songs written, they were worth recording. That’s certainly the case with White Light, often referred to as Gene Clark due the title only appearing on the labels. Produced by Jesse Davis (temporarily shedding the “Ed”), it’s a lowkey volume of understated artistry, the highly poetic songs mostly speaking for themselves without any gratuitous embellishment or kowtowing to production tricks.
The album works best when it’s just his acoustic guitar and voice, as in “With Tomorrow” and “For A Spanish Guitar”. These alternate with more country-rock fare, like “The Virgin” and the title track, where most of the solos come from his own harmonica rather than the producer’s lead guitar. The unabashed love songs “Because Of You” and “Where My Love Lies Asleep” find a happy medium, the latter very much indebted to the Stones’ “No Expectations”. One surprise is his cover of “Tears Of Rage”, the Basement Tape tune that famously opened the Band’s first album. It’s followed in the same key, tempo, and instrumentation as “1975”, which must mean something.
White Light is worth hearing if you can find it. The Sundazed label, as well as A&M, has kept it in print, and the current streaming version adds five bonus tracks from a 2002 European CD, including an alternate mix of “Because Of You” and the most staid cover of “Stand By Me” you’ll ever hear.

Gene Clark White Light (1971)—3

Friday, December 25, 2020

Paul McCartney 37: McCartney III

Never one to miss an opportunity to be musical, Paul McCartney emerged from the Covid-19 lockdown (or “rockdown”, as he called it) with enough material recorded in isolation to comprise McCartney III. Like its predecessors, it was performed in its entirety all by himself.
Technology has obviously come a long way in the decades since the more primitive approach of the first two installments. Most of the albums he’s put out this century have been largely one-man band operations, so this album isn’t too far removed from Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, Memory Almost Full, or New. But by doing everything himself save the engineering, he can always fall back on the insistence that it was never designed as an album in the first place. Maybe that’s why the album is as good as it is. (In a nice touch, the album is dedicated to the recently departed Eddie Klein, an Abbey Road veteran who worked on the first post-Beatle albums by John and George, and went on to build the home studio that Paul’s used since 1985.)
“Long Tailed Winter Bird” takes the most basic acoustic guitar riff and builds a five-minute jam out of it, for something of an extended overture. The first real song is “Find My Way”, the tossed-off verses well-balanced by the more melodic choruses, and a nice false ending too. “Pretty Boys” is another rewrite of “Early Days”, but this time focusing on young male models for some reason. A piano drives “Women And Wives”, which he repeatedly said was influenced by the vocal style of Leadbelly; it’s good that he’s finally exploring the lower end of his increasingly limited range. On paper “Lavatory Lil” screams embarrassment, and most listeners think they know which ex-wife is the inspiration, but the damn thing chugs. At over eight-and-a-half minutes, one would expect “Deep Deep Feeling” to wear out its welcome, yet it’s a wonderful showcase for his unquestionable prowess on guitar, bass, and piano, and the drums aren’t bad neither.
Placed earlier on the vinyl to better even out the two sides, “Slidin’” gets its riff from a soundcheck jam from a few years previous; indeed Rusty Anderson and Abe Laboriel Jr. are credited indirectly in the notes. It’s a good rocker that nicely finds lyrics to match the suggestion of the title. “The Kiss Of Venus” recalls “Two Magpies” from the last Fireman album, and introduces a harpsichord to match his rough vocal. (This is what we mean by suggesting he try not to hit those old high notes.) “Seize The Day” seems to be most inspired by the state of the world mid-pandemic, and it turns out to be one of his better anthems, helped by the more personal bridge. If anything, “Deep Down” is the closest the album comes to “Kreen-Akrore” or “Darkroom”. Along with the recurring “deep” in the title, it’s a half-decent groove that is underdeveloped and beaten into the ground. One of our correspondents suggested that he’s a little too old to be concerned with “partying”, and in this context we’d agree. The “Winter Bird” riff resurfaces to usher in “When Winter Comes”, brought out of mothballs from the same George Martin-helmed session that gave us “Calico Skies” and “Great Day”. (Naturally, nothing is simple anymore, as the album was released in a dizzying quantity of colored vinyl pressings and cover variations. Meanwhile, Japan got four bonus tracks in the form of three alternate versions plus the original jam that begat “Slidin’”.)
Not as homespun as McCartney, nor as experimental as McCartney II, McCartney III was nonetheless a welcome visitor at the end of a very trying calendar year. We would suggest that unless he intends to record with his band again, all future new albums should be prepared with only input from his immediate family and any resultant offspring not given to sugarcoating, even for a man pushing 80. (We’d also accept a completely stripped down acoustic guitar or piano album, maybe produced by Rick Rubin…?)

Paul McCartney McCartney III (2020)—

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Bryan Ferry 5: The Bride Stripped Bare

The post-breakup album looms large in rock ‘n roll, wherein an artist pours his or her soul into music to exorcize any demons that come with losing the one thing money and fame can’t buy. Bryan Ferry was said to have been so bereft after being jilted by Jerry Hall for Mick Jagger that The Bride Stripped Bare was the inspired result.
Except for the barest disco influence, and a reduction of camp, the album fits alongside his previous albums, with and without Roxy Music. This is particularly surprising considering that two of the key elements among the players are American—Waddy Wachtel on lead guitar and Jerry Marrotta on drums.
He’s still determined to bend covers to his will, as demonstrated by the de-funked “Hold On (I’m Coming)”, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, and “Take Me To The River” (a year before Talking Heads). J.J. Cale’s “The Same Old Blues” is slowed down and swampier, though the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” is an inspired choice, Waddy even replicating some of Lou Reed’s solos from the original. His rendition of the traditional “Carrickfergus” seems restrained to these ears; we’ve come to expect more passion.
His originals stand out, from the opening “Sign Of The Times” through the infectious “Can’t Let Go”. One striking departure is “When She Walks In The Room”, wherein the strings go smoothly from chamber music to contemporary, just as “This Island Earth” provides a suitably spacey conclusion.
Of his solo albums thus far, The Bride Stripped Bare is probably the most consistent, despite its apparent randomness. It’s no Blood On The Tracks, but who’d expect that?

Bryan Ferry The Bride Stripped Bare (1978)—3

Friday, December 18, 2020

Phil Collins 7: Hits

Even though Phil Collins no longer resembled the prog-rocker he once was, some of his pop songs remained guilty pleasures, or at least mild departures during the years before we even dreamed how he’d turn out. Particularly after confounding listeners throughout the ‘90s, an actual hits collection was a commercial no-brainer.
Stylized with an ellipsis, …Hits delivers the promise of the title, yet in a baffling sequence. Starting with the depressing message of “Another Day In Paradise” is one thing, but then he follows it with a cover of “True Colors”, as made famous by Cyndi Lauper when Genesis still had something of an edge. Speaking of covers, “You Can’t Hurry Love” precedes “Two Hearts”, which it resembles both musically and in the respective videos. Still, the latter song, along with “Groovy Kind Of Love”, makes it easy to live without the Buster soundtrack, just as “Easy Lover”, “Against All Odds”, and “Separate Lives” collect other non-album tracks.
You can only cram so many songs onto a single CD, so there are some curious omissions. Instead, “Both Sides Of The Story” and “Dance Into The Light” make sure the ‘90s albums are covered, but only “In The Air Tonight” comes from his first. But those guilty pleasures rise to the top, and manage to make up for the likes of “Sussudio”.

Phil Collins …Hits (1998)—3

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Todd Rundgren 24: Redux ‘92

The Japanese tour looms large in many artist catalogs. Seemingly ever since Cheap Trick created “live at Budokan” as a trope, plenty of musicians have chosen that forgiving market to break in a new act, sometimes never taking it on the road in the US or the UK. Maybe that’s why Todd Rundgren accepted the easy check and actually reunited Utopia for the first time in six years for a tour.
To be precise, Redux '92: Live In Japan picks up pretty much where the band left off, playing quirky power pop heavy on synths and guitar breaks. Yet the set pulls liberally from albums like Oops! Wrong Planet and Swing To The Right in between more familiar tunes like “Hammer In My Heart” and “Love In Action”. Even “The Ikon”, albeit condensed to one-sixth of its original half-hour length, hints at their prog origins. “Hiroshima” is delivered and received well. And in case you forgot why we’re all here, “Love Is The Answer” sends everybody home.
Especially considering how many guises Utopia took on during their tenure, the uniformity of Redux ‘92 helps make sense of their catalog. Should anyone object, Todd offers a simple response in the liner notes: “Eat our collective shorts.”

Utopia Redux '92: Live In Japan (1993)—3

Friday, December 11, 2020

Kiss 5: Destroyer

A whopping six months had passed since Kiss released Alive!, partially since they were touring to support it. When it came time for their next studio album, the band boldly hooked up with Bob Ezrin, who had most recently produced several Alice Cooper albums. As a result, Destroyer was cleaner, and occasionally tougher, than the first three Kiss albums, and incorporated writing credits from people outside the band.
While not a concept album, there is something resembling audio theater tying the tracks together, beginning with the montage of someone listening to the news on the radio, then getting into his (we assume) car and rocking out to older Kiss songs before “Detroit Rock City” starts for real. This is still a great riff and catchy chorus, with a pristine solo; the album version goes as far as to underscore the impending carnage in the final verse by using the sound of a car crash. This goes right into “King Of The Night Time World”, which also could have kicked off the album nicely, not to mention giving frustrated teenage boys an anthem. Any doom and gloom intended by “God Of Thunder” is negated by Bob Ezrin’s sons, whose surreptitiously recorded voices had already graced a Lou Reed album. More unintentional comedy arrives via “Great Expectations”, which cribs a Beethoven melody and uses a boys’ choir to hold up Gene Simmons’ laughable boasts.
“Flaming Youth” is very well-constructed, and with good reason: Ezrin cobbled it together from three different songs by Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Simmons that he felt weren’t up to snuff. In another sign of things to come, the guitar solos on this and “Sweet Pain” are played by Dick Wagner, also from the Alice Cooper band and well known from another Lou Reed album. “Shout It Out Loud” delivers another party anthem in the middle of side two, but this would not be the album’s main sales draw. That honor went to “Beth”, brought in by Peter Criss from his previous band and given an over-the-top reading with Ezrin on piano and members of the New York Philharmonic underneath his shaky vocal. To Paul and Gene’s horror, audiences ate it up. Paul gets the last word in “Do You Love Me”, balancing double entendres with alleged sensitivity. (While not listed on the original label or sleeve, “Rock And Roll Party” provides a closing collage to match the one that opened the album.)
The variety of styles and pop touches may have compromised the image somewhat, but Destroyer only increased the band’s popularity. Besides, they’d have another album out by the end of the year anyway.
The album’s status made it one of the few to get anything resembling an anniversary overhaul. While released a year later than the more round number of 35, Destroyer (Resurrected) was wholly remixed from the original master tapes by Bob Ezrin, who brought out buried instruments and vocals. “Sweet Pain” now features Ace’s original, wiped solo, while the standard track is added at the very end. And of course, it uses the original cover design. Some fans felt this put a mustache on the Mona Lisa, but how would they have felt if the remix was stuck in a double-CD set, with or without any other extras?

Kiss Destroyer (1976)—
2012 Destroyer (Resurrected): “same” as 1976, plus 1 extra track

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

David Byrne 3: Rei Momo

Nobody said anything, but David Byrne seemed quite busy with his own musical projects not involving Talking Heads. His new Luaka Bop imprint began a long-running series of compilations, celebrating the music of Brazil and Cuba, and eventually Asia and Africa. When he released his own album, each of the tracks on Rei Momo was helpfully denoted as to what style of music it was in, from samba and cumbia to merengue and plenty others we hadn’t hear of before.
It’s an upbeat album, and the lyrics seem to be on the positive side; in fact, the first sentence we hear is “Now and then I get horny.” Each track is impeccably arranged, with contributions from such luminaries as Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, and Kirsty MacColl, though his distinctive voice makes it all very clear just who’s singing. Yet it’s easy to lose interest in listening too closely, which is fine for dinner music. A little goes a long way, but the album’s over an hour long. Some of the tracks seem generic, such as “Make Believe Mambo”, and the “Wild Thing” interjections in “Loco De Amor”. Sometimes it feels kinda cartoony, as with the chorus of crickets and bird calls that make up the backing track of “I Know Sometimes A Man Is Wrong”. Despite their titles, “Dirty Old Town” and “The Dream Police” are not covers, and that’s probably a good thing.
Rei Momo is a bold experiment, for sure, and if it helped expose some of those lesser-known musicians from around the word, all the better for it. Undeniably toe-tapping, if you like that sort of thing.

David Byrne Rei Momo (1989)—3

Friday, December 4, 2020

Neil Young 60: Archives Vol. II

Speculation about the next installment of Neil Young’s Archives box sets began immediately upon release of the first. For a few years it was presumed that this set would take the story through the rest of the ‘70s. When Archives Vol. II: 1972-1976 did finally appear, the covered timeline was shorter, but the ten discs dove deep into one of his most fertile songwriting periods, and an era that has since become hallowed by fans. (Also, with the multimedia portion largely handled by the Archives website and app, the physical package was only released on CD, initially as a limited release with a deluxe book as with the DVD and Blu-ray versions of Archives Vol. I. This sold out in seconds, forcing Neil and Reprise to prepare a second run, as well as a slightly cheaper version with a less elaborate book. The hole left by the death of manager Elliot Roberts was never more apparent.)
Three of the CDs had already been released individually, and familiar album tracks abound; he’d already established that the Archives project is designed to present his creative output in context. Roxy gains an extra track in an extended encore performance of “The Losing End (When You’re On)”, but Tuscaloosa was not so lucky, despite the outtake of “The Loner” made available for streaming.
There is an alternate live version of that song on Everybody’s Alone (1972-1973), which fills in more of the gaps in the wake of Harvest, skirting around Time Fades Away, and offering the title track to the incomplete CSNY album Human Highway. The opening “Letter From ‘Nam” is immediately recognizable as a draft for “Long Walk Home” a decade and a half later; “Goodbye Christians On The Shore” is a mysterious fable in 7/8 time. Long booted favorites like “Sweet Joni”, “Come Along And Say You Will”, and the ramshackle electric pillage of “The Last Trip To Tulsa”, exiled for years as a B-side, show up, along with a rambling introduction to an acoustic “L.A.” that finds its way out of “I Got You Babe”.
Strangely, “Everybody’s Alone” itself doesn’t appear until two discs later. Confusingly titled, Tonight’s The Night (1973) presents the raw sessions from that album, but with none of the fabled “raps” in between the songs themselves, save a longer intro to “Tonight’s the Night Part II”. A barely together “Speakin’ Out Jam” shows the effects of the tequila, and the sound of the Santa Monica Flyers backing Joni Mitchell on “Raised On Robbery” must be heard to be believed. Similarly, Walk On (1974) presents a more complete picture of how On The Beach happened, bringing in key outtakes of the period, including an electric “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” and solo acoustic renditions of “Traces” and the old chestnut “Greensleeves”.
The Old Homestead (1974) is something of a companion to Homegrown (which follows in the set) and it’s fascinating. Only the “title” track and “Deep Forbidden Lake” had been released on albums proper, with the rest of the program—70 minutes total, the equivalent of two Neil albums—devoted to songs that slipped through the cracks. Some, like “Hawaiian Sunrise”, had featured on that summer’s CSNY tour, represented here by a superior take on “Pushed It Over The End” and Stephen Stills’ blazing contribution to “On The Beach”. “Homefires” and “Give Me Strength” were often highlights of acoustic sets over the years, while “Bad News Comes To Town” would be trotted out with the Bluenotes and “Changing Highways” would emerge 22 years later as a Crazy Horse stomper. A piano rendition of “One More Sign”, dating from the Buffalo Springfield era, is as heartbreaking as “LA Girls And Ocean Boys”, which would be co-opted into “Danger Bird”. Three distinctly different takes of “Love/Art Blues”—solo, downbeat, and jaunty with yodeling—demonstrate his quest for the right sound. “Frozen Man” and “Daughters” had been rumored for years, and live up to our hopes.
Dume (1975) not only widens the scope on Zuma by about half an hour, but reveals some of the incredible candidates left off that album, such as an earlier version of “Powderfinger” and electric takes on “Ride My Llama”, “Pocahontas”, and amazingly, even “Kansas” and “Hawaii”. “Too Far Gone” and “No One Seems To Know” appear a year before the live takes on Songs For Judy; “Born To Run” is not the Bruce song, but a Neil original tried and abandoned over the decades. Look Out For My Love (1976) is even more sprawling, the continuing adventures of the refurbished Crazy Horse alongside that year’s CSNY experiment that dwindled down to the short-lived Stills-Young Band, culminating in another stab at “Human Highway”. But first we get a transcendent “Separate Ways” that would have tilted Long May You Run even further in Neil’s favor, a band take of “Traces”, and two tracks with the Crosby-Nash vocals still intact. In the midst of all this is “Mediterranean”, an intoxicating exploration unlike anything in the catalog.
The disc also weaves in and out of the shows that made up Odeon Budokan (1976), a live album captured in London and Japan, both solo and with the Horse. While heavy on Zuma, he was probably right to shelve it and wait for Live Rust three years later. Still, the sequence includes a few songs that would have made their debuts had the album been released back then, including “Too Far Gone”, “Lotta Love”, and “Stringman”. (The overdubbed version supposedly earmarked for yet another scrapped album expected to be addressed in Archives Vol. III is on the previous disc.)
As before, not every song from every album of the period is included, and the repetition throughout the ten discs may rankle some. It can also be jarring to hear songs outside of an order etched in our brains for decades. But given the quality of those original albums, it’s astounding that he had this much in the tank, and exciting for fans who’d thought they’d heard everything. In a word, wow.

Neil Young Archives Vol. II: 1972-1976 (2020)—4

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Prince 15: The Hits

It shouldn’t be surprising that Prince would resist a hits collection while he was still busy writing and creating new music. It also shouldn’t be surprising that when he did allow such a compilation to happen, it wouldn’t be anything simple or straightforward.
The Hits was released as two separate volumes, neither of which was sequenced with more than a slight concession to chronological order, both stacked with actual hits—along with some odd choices—and each with a pair of “new” songs. The Hits 1 offered the laid-back single “Pink Cashmere” and a live version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”. In addition to “When You Were Mine” and “I Feel For U”, this would suggest that the first volume was intended to showcase tunes that were hits for others. The Hits 2 could be seen as the raunchier of the two, leaning on his more suggestive lyrics, and included the rocking “Peach” (featuring Kim Basinger on sampled moan of ecstasy) and “Pope”, which samples comedian Bernie Mac and seems to be highly influenced by Digital Underground.
As long as you were going to buy both anyway, The Hits/The B-Sides boasted a third disc of tracks collected on CD for the first time. While not all-inclusive, it did spotlight many of the gems hidden on 45s and 12-inches throughout the ‘80s, including “Erotic City”, “God”, “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, and the standalone single “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)”. Granted, that means there are cast-offs like “La, La, La, He, He, Hee”, but who else was loading up quality B-sides like these? Two unreleased nuggets cap the disc—the alternate “video mix” of “4 The Tears In Your Eyes” aired during Live Aid after being donated to the USA For Africa, and the majestic “Power Fantastic”, recorded during the last days of the Revolution.
Those looking for just the hits in a simple package only had to wait until 2001’s The Very Best Of Prince, which presented the more obvious choices from the same period on a single disc. Five years later, Ultimate Prince offered a different smattering with a disc of extended mixes, and ten years after that, the posthumous double CD 4ever was mildly streamlined around the contents of The Hits 1 and The Hits 2, including “Peach” and the live “Nothing Compares 2 U”, with the added bonus of the 1999-era outtake “Moonbeam Levels”.
At any rate, The Hits effectively closed a chapter in Prince’s career, drawing a definite line between what happened before, and what would come after. He would continue to intrigue, certainly, but he would also confound.

Prince The Hits 1 (1993)—3
Prince
The Hits 2 (1993)—3
Prince
The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)—

Friday, November 20, 2020

Elvis Costello 35: Hey Clockface

Like many working musicians, Elvis Costello had to cancel a tour and other best-laid plans as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With his itinerary scuppered, he made the best of a restricted situation and emerged at year’s end with one of the most challenging—and ultimately rewarding—albums of his career.
Hey Clockface is a daring amalgam of recordings from three distinct sessions. The bulk come from Paris with a combo featuring Steve Nieve on all kinds of keyboards, with brass, reeds, and cello from some French musicians, and even Steve’s stepson AJUQ on drums and harmonies. (Steve spent the lockdown holed up in the French countryside with his wife Muriel Teodori and stepson, and streamed “Daily Improvisations” for weeks on end over Facebook.) For variety, some solo recordings come from Helsinki with a rhythmic approach inspired by Tom Waits’ Real Gone, and two songs were collaborated on and recorded remotely during the lockdown with Michael Leonhart and Bill Frisell. When put together, it all works.
“Revolution #49” begins with a sound not unlike Peter Gabriel’s Mideast experiments, giving way to a spoken narrative as clear as mud. It’s a nice lead-in to the angry “No Flag”, one of the Helsinki tracks that thankfully has enough instrumentation to cover his mouth percussion. One can imagine what the Imposters would bring to this tune. “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now” is mildly smug song of schadenfreude, sung at a slow pace, almost relishing the comeuppance. The mysterious “Newspaper Pane” is one of the Leonhart-Frisell collaborations, fitting seamlessly with the rest of the tracks (thanks to the Nieveian organ parts), while “I Do (Zula’s Song)” has a mournful gait that recalls several facets of Tom Waits, whoever Zula is. “We Are All Cowards Now” is the best of the Helsinki recordings, as it sounds like an actual band, and provides less ambiguous protest than “No Flag”. The title track comes at an odd place smack in the middle of the program, with a jokey vaudeville delivery already satisfied by “A Voice In The Dark”. It seems to exist only to be shackled to Fats Waller’s “How Can You Face Me?”, which he’s careful to credit.
Lovely as it is, “The Whirlwind” is a mysterious ballad that is part of the batch written for the musical staging of the political fable A Face In The Crowd, coming eventually to the Broadway stage. Unfortunately, “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” is the least successful of the Helsinki experiments, another portrait of another fictional muckraker, the story overtaken by the auteur’s human beatbox. Just as inscrutable, “The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip” doesn’t explain who she is or why we’re hearing it, but it’s a lovely melody contributed by Nieve and Teodori. “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?” pits an aside by Bob Dylan to an arrangement recalling Leonard Cohen, then “Radio Is Everything” is another mysterious monologue over Frisell’s loops and Leonhart’s accompaniment. The mood shifts again for “I Can’t Say Her Name”, more cocktail ragtime oddly positioned in the sequence, particularly when he repeats the cartoony scatting from the title track over what should have been a fade. Thankfully, all is redeemed by the heartbreaking and gorgeous “Byline”, from the piano and his melody to the lyrics and AJUQ’s harmonic chorale.
In some ways, Hey Clockface can be seen a vast improvement over the similar experimentation that sank When I Was Cruel, delivering the late-night autumnal feel of North for easily Elvis’s best jazz excursion to date. Maybe in a few years we’ll actually know what the hell some of these songs are about.

Elvis Costello Hey Clockface (2020)—

Friday, November 13, 2020

Joni Mitchell 24: The Early Years

With nary a rarity in her catalog, Joni Mitchell has generally let her albums speak for her career. While other artists of her caliber, generation, and output have shared their sketchbooks, Joni has resisted such openness. Her only box set that doesn’t merely repackage albums, 2014’s Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced, presented four hours of music going as far back as Blue covering the subject of, well, love, all taken from the catalog.
Her longtime manager, the late Elliot Roberts, had been privy to his other client Neil Young’s ongoing efforts to document his professional career, so maybe we can thank him for convincing her to finally delve back in the past. After all, Archives—Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) is dedicated to his memory. These five CDs cover roughly five years before her first album was recorded, and it provides an abundance of riches, and in pretty good quality.
The set begins with a quasi-audition tape recorded at a Saskatoon radio station, wherein she treads the folk music ground familiar to fans of Joan Baez, furiously strumming her ukulele, yet her voice is as strident and clear as ever. Two club sets by “Joanie Anderson” expand her brand somewhat, in her engaging introductions, though a rendition of the calypso “Sail Away” hints at some of the harmonic heights she’d achieve in a few years’ time.
With the second disc, a performance of “Urge For Going” at her mother’s birthday party debuts her earliest songwriting attempts. “Born To Take The Highway” and “Here Today And Gone Tomorrow” are more naïve than naiveté, and Jac Holzman of Elektra Records was presumably less than wowed by the five songs from her audition for him. Nonetheless, her voice and passion makes them work in the context of this box. Besides, the songs began to just pour out.
The decided shift from traditional material to her own compositions is amplified by her switch to guitar and her discovery of alternate tunings, evident in a couple dozen songs she never brought to a studio. A trio of unheard songs from a March 1967 tape (“Gemini Me”, “Strawflower Me”, “A Melody In Your Name”) are particularly astounding; a few months later “Free Darling”, featuring a slight detour with the phrase “I came to the city”, is buried amidst demos of familiar songs. Despite its melancholy tone, “Come To The Sunshine” is an unabashed love song, while “The Gift Of The Magi” suffuses the O. Henry story with existential horror. “Dr. Junk” sports dizzying changes and wordplay, and a good example of why she might have been hesitant to explore her history. But “What’s The Story, Mr. Blue?”, which she says was cobbled together from several unfinished songs, displays a wry, even ribald humor.
Most of the familiar songs appear as formed as we got to know them, either from her albums or the covers that sustained her before she got her own contract. Though there are a few word changes and alternate melodies, but hardly radical ones. A tantalizing snippet called “Joni Improvising” finds her edging up to “The Dawntreader” and “I Had A King”. We finally have her own versions of “Eastern Rain”, which Fairport Convention recorded early on. There’s even a performance of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” to illustrate how it influenced “The Circle Game”. Several radio and television appearances are introduced by fawning hosts, to which she replies with equal parts modesty and candor.
While she’s increasingly avoided live performance in recent decades—citing stage fright, insufficiently receptive audiences, and the tedium of having to constantly change guitar tunings as the main deterrents—she did start out on the coffeehouse circuit, so it’s insightful indeed to hear how she fared when she was literally singing for her supper. Three straight sets from the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan cap the package, and demonstrate how much she had in her arsenal at that time. Songs she would scatter throughout her first three albums (four if you include “Little Green”, wherein she sings the name of the daughter she gave up) are often prefaced by lengthy introductions and elaborations, painting a portrait of a performer at ease in the spotlight. After breaking a string, she beseeches someone to change it for her while she performs an a cappella song.
As might be expected of a release this size, some songs (e.g. “Both Sides Now”, “Urge For Going”, “The Circle Game”) appear repeatedly. Still, the pure talent in her voice and fingers shines throughout. Also, there’s not a single song played on the piano. Those would come.

Joni Mitchell Archives—Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) (2020)—

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Journey 13: Generations

Steve Augeri had a thankless task replacing Steve Perry in Journey, but money is money and tour they did. While they made progress by maintaining the same lineup for two albums in a row, Generations muddles their aim by farming out four of the songs to every other band member. At least, they kept the songwriting in house for the most part. They even brought back Kevin Elson to produce.
The album continues Neal Schon’s quest for respect as a shredder, with more emphasis on power and less on ballads. Brevity is barely considered with most songs over five minutes; after all, don’t we wanna hear all that fretwork?
“Faith In The Heartland” is the rousing anthemic opener, and a good show case for Augeri, though there is a little of Perry’s asides just before the fade. Neal and Jonathan Cain didn’t notice how much the verse of “The Place In Your Heart” resembles that of “Ask The Lonely”, but they can still write a chorus. Drummer Dean Castronovo takes over the mike for the lackluster “A Better Life”, and he does a pretty good Steve Augeri impression, slightly better than Jonathan mewling his way through “Every Generation”. Augeri takes control for two songs he wrote on his own, the tender-but-barbed “Butterfly (She Flies Alone)” and the more adventurously metered “Believe”.
“Knowing That You Love Me” provides the requisite dark love song, kicked aside by the more frenetic war commentary in “Out Of Harms [sic] Way”. As if that wasn’t fast enough, Neal revives “In Self-Defense” from his second collaboration with Jan Hammer, a song incidentally co-written with Steve Perry. “Better Together” is a defiant message to the haters, and one they’d need before handing “Gone Crazy” over to Ross Valory. The classic Journey sound returns for “Beyond The Clouds”, and we still can’t figure out if she’s dead or just dumped him.
The band kindly gave a copy of Generations to anyone who attended one of their concerts that summer, but added the generic “Never Too Late”, sung by Dean, as a bonus to the retail release. Meanwhile, Japan got the exclusive extra of Jonathan’s “Pride Of The Family”, probably the only song in this century that quotes 38 Special.
This album will be easily embraced by the already converted; nobody else need bother.

Journey Generations (2005)—3

Friday, November 6, 2020

Bruce Springsteen 27: Letter To You

As threatened, Bruce did indeed record an album with the E Street Band following the unveiling of his Western Stars project. Then he proceeded to sit on it for a year, rather than unleash it in time for blasting from car windows by fans happy to be out of the house amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps then Letter To You might truly be appreciated as “just what we needed,” as all the other reviews would have us believe. Maybe the delay was because he knew this was the basic framework of an album, with lyrics far from polished and frankly pandering, and an overall sound that often sounds like somebody trying to imitate Springsteen.
“One Minute You’re Here” quietly eulogizes someone or something that has been lost, then the title track crashes in along the lines of “Lucky Town”. “Burnin’ Train” opens with a flourish of Charlie Giordano’s Hammond organ, then gallops along like the title. Then we come to the first of three songs pulled from the notebooks of the 1970s. Despite their age and their legend, they have two more things in common: they’re all too long and played way too slowly, in the same plodding tempo. “Janey Needs A Shooter” was started, then abandoned, and finally finished with Warren Zevon in 1980, where it’s still slow but not plodding. This version goes back to Bruce’s original, disturbing lyrics, covered by the three major chords. “If I Was A Priest” is loaded with the same hick Guthrie voice that Dylan adopted in an attempt to camouflage a suburban upbringing. “Song For Orphans” had been played live as recently as 2005; the choruses add a few notes to the melody. Each of these top six minutes, and drag an already slow program. (All date from his first demos for Columbia Records, supposedly unearthed for a yet-to-be-specified archival project; the songs, and fans alike, would be better served having the originals.)
The other songs fare a little better, but there’s still some sameness between “Last Man Standing” and “The Power Of Prayer”, which sit back to back. “House Of A Thousand Guitars” is mostly keyboards, but his repeating “a thousand guitars” a thousand times before the end doesn’t give it any edge. “Rainmaker” sounds like a louder version of the dusty anthems on Western Stars, which isn’t a bad thing. Nobody in the studio pointed out how much the verses of “Ghosts” resemble “Walls Came Down” by the Call, especially over the lengthy coda, which is too bad, since the choruses have potential. Yet “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is an excellent closer, and a shoo-in for any season-end montage you can imagine.
Letter From Home isn’t bad, and we have warmed to it, but those who consider it a masterpiece are just as deaf as those who didn’t get the lyrics to “Born In The U.S.A.”, and by now they should know better. He may have been going for the vibe of the sessions that produced The River, but this is not the same band as it was forty years earlier. Nor should it be. Take it for what it is and don’t put any more significance to it. (And what’s up with that cover shot? Shouldn’t he have saved that for his Christmas album?)

Bruce Springsteen Letter To You (2020)—3

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Kinks 20: Schoolboys In Disgrace

Well, at least this one rocks, finally, but Ray Davies still seemed pathologically bent towards concepts. The point of Schoolboys In Disgrace would be that the education system serves only to repress creativity and browbeat the poor little kiddies into kowtowing to authority. And maybe, that’s how ordinary juvenile delinquents turn into full-fledged villains like Mr. Flash, or so the note on the back cover suggests. (The band even dressed the part, in hideous green uniforms that would be bettered by Angus Young, and Ray donning a mask for the headmaster that was equal parts Gabriel-era Genesis and one of Gerald Scarfe’s puppets for The Wall, still four years away.)
Often the album leans on ‘50s parody, reflecting the band’s own ages and the wave of greasy nostalgia sweeping pop culture at the time. “Schooldays” finds Ray looking back wistfully yet again to his younger days, even missing the teachers and textbooks he hated. “Jack The Idiot Dunce” pits a portrait of an object of ridicule living in ignorant bliss against a Jerry Lee Lewis piano. The lengthy “Education” chronicles the journey from primitive man’s quest for basic knowledge to the oversaturated curricula of today’s competitive schools. Unfortunately, it has too many stops and starts, as befits a big production number. The over-the-top basso voice that begins “The First Time We Fall In Love” defies the listener to take it serious, despite its barbed commentary on the pain of young romance.
“I’m In Disgrace” takes a much more specific approach to the same theme, and it’s a much better song, though some of the lyrics suggest a sinister cause for the end of the affair (“It wasn't lust, it wasn't rape/It was just a mistake”). Great guitars though. Whatever shame the disgraced schoolboy feels is confessed to the “Headmaster”, and the anguish only increases as the pleading gets more desperate. The unfeeling response in “The Hard Way” rams the point home. After three straight tracks of solid rock, the gospel R&B of “The Last Assembly” points to such future graduation themes as “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” and “Good Riddance”. “No More Looking Back” could well be a prophetic title, as the electric piano at the start and the melded guitars certainly place it squarely in the ‘70s. But the parody returns for the minute-long “Finale”, which reprises the brainwashing message of “Education”.
Thanks to the guitar-centric arrangements, Schoolboys In Disgrace is one of the better Kinks albums of their “theatrical” period, but only if you don’t listen too closely to the story and skip the sillier numbers. Dave Davies can take some of the credit for the sound, which is small compensation since some of the events dramatized within are based on his own teenage misadventures. (Perhaps because they were working so fast to get records on the shelves, and thus lacked outtakes, it’s also that rare Kinks album that hasn’t been enhanced by any reissue.)

The Kinks Schoolboys In Disgrace (1975)—

Friday, October 30, 2020

Elton John 15: Blue Moves

Seemingly pathologically addicted to recording albums, Elton emerged with his second double album in the space of three years. Heavy on pop and disco, Blue Moves is an over-ambitious, labored set that unfortunately pales in comparison with the more rock-oriented and concise Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Musicians vary from track to track, and instead of the standard Elton John/Bernie Taupin credit for all the songs, authorship runs all over the place.
Right away, “Your Starter For…” is an antiseptic instrumental written by occasional band member Caleb Quaye, and unfortunately provides an incongruous setup for the lengthy introduction to “Tonight”, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (and recorded at Abbey Road Studios, of course). All that’s missing is a candelabra. When Elton’s vocal finally comes in, you wish he hadn’t taken so long. As a movie soundtrack it might work, but there’s nothing like the payoff of “Love Lies Bleeding” after “Funeral For A Friend”. (We’ll try to keep those comparisons to a minimum.) “One Horse Town” manages to combine rock and disco in a well-worn theme for this lyricist, except that Ray Cooper’s vibraphone plonks are mixed as loud as the synthesized burps. Ray similarly dominates the next track, but as “Chameleon” recalls earlier, simpler triumphs, it’s a keeper. Finally.
Side two continues the flirting with American music, and not successfully. “Boogie Pilgrim” has something of a New Orleans funk strut, with lots of interjections by the Rev. James Cleveland for some reason. “Cage The Songbird” tries to do for Edith Piaf what “Candle In The Wind” did for Marilyn Monroe, but the “Daniel” flutes and country backing don’t fit. David Crosby and Graham Nash nicely blend their voices, though, as they did consistently when asked. “Crazy Water” is a too-long retread of “Philadelphia Freedom”, but lose the Brecker Brothers horn section and David Sanborn sax solo, and “Shoulder Holster” might fit on Tumbleweed Connection, though it wouldn’t be a highlight.
A true classic, and a heartbreaking one, emerges in “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”; our only quibble is the accordion. The mood is dispelled by “Out Of The Blue”, a six-minute instrumental sporting impeccably synchronized guitar and yes, vibes. The mild island feel of “Between Twenty And Seventeen” does not match a lyric about how the music business wrecked Bernie’s marriage to a certain tiny dancer. “The Wide Eyed And Laughing” gets points for being different, as it features several sitars as well as Crosby and Nash again. It also took five people to write. Reflecting the down start to the side, “Someone’s Final Song” is a sad elegy featuring just Elton, his piano, sympathetic keyboard touches from James Newton Howard, and mild backing voices.
The vibe continues on “Where’s The Shoorah?”, with a similar stark performance except for the choir led by Rev. Cleveland. (We looked it up, and while a shoorah has connotations both Hebrew and hoodoo, chances are Bernie just liked how it sounded.) The title basically sums up “If There’s A God In Heaven (What’s He Waiting For?)”, more fist-shaking about social ills. Despite the musical quality of this last run of tracks, “Idol” inadvertently identifies the main problem with the album (“he's not the same no more/And I have to say that I like the way his music sounded before”) over a lounge backing that must have meant a lot to George Michael. “Theme From A Non-Existent TV Series” is as badly placed as the other instrumentals, and “Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance!)” tries to provide a grand finale along the lines of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, not realizing they’d nailed it the first time.
As well produced as it is, and there are high points, Blue Moves is still a mess, if not quite the Self Portrait to his Blonde On Blonde. Even if it were shaved down to two sides, it would still be subpar. Unfortunately, this is approximately where Elton, and his golden touch, went off the rails. (Because of the varying accepted capacity of compact discs in their early days, the album’s debut in the format was incomplete, cutting four tracks almost at random in order to fit on a single CD. It only took 20 years for a fully restored two-CD program, split between the original two LPs.)

Elton John Blue Moves (1976)—2

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Frank Zappa 42: Jazz From Hell

One of the things Frank liked about the Synclavier was its ability to perform whatever he programmed into it the way it was written. (Not having to deal with temperamental human musicians was probably just as key.) He and his tireless assistants painstakingly uploaded samples of a wide variety of sounds to make up the “instruments” throughout Jazz From Hell; indeed, none of these purely digital compositions were performed live by any of his bands, save one.
If the ultra-lush “Night School” sounds like a TV show theme, it could be because Frank had pitched an alternative news program to various disinterested networks around this time. It’s one of the more accessible pieces here, as the rest of the program follows the more “modern” compositions he’d been dabbling in on his own, such as in the furious rhythms in “The Beltway Bandits”. “While You Were Art II” is a transcription of a guitar solo, here punctuated by horn sounds that remind us of Uncle Meat and vibraphone effects that have us missing Ruth Underwood. The title track doesn’t seem any more hellish than the rest of the album, nor does it stand out much.
Despite being all instrumental, Jazz From Hell still received a parental advisory sticker in some markets, likely due to the title but not the harmless content of “G-Spot Tornado”. Despite its very dated atmosphere, it’s very mainstream-sounding, with a wiping effect akin to the scratching that was prevalent in rap and hip-hop. (This one would be re-arranged for an orchestra, conducted by Frank a year before his death.) The wiping continues at a much slower pace on “Damp Ankles”, which evokes a cartoon factory. A guitar solo from 1982, dubbed “St. Etienne” from a performance in that French city, breaks up the monotony somewhat. While it starts slow, the fretwork gets frenetic by the end for a smooth transition to “Massaggio Galore”, featuring processed samples of the voices of various Zappa offspring.
As with his other instrumental excursions of the ‘80s, one’s enjoyment of Jazz From Hell will depend on one’s tolerance of computerized music. Just to show how nutty the music biz was in those days, this album garnered Frank his first Grammy® award—for Best Rock Instrumental Performance—and the only one in his lifetime. (Naturally, he disdained the gesture.)

Frank Zappa Jazz From Hell (1986)—3

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Jeff Beck 13: Frankie’s House & Crazy Legs

All of a sudden Jeff Beck was busier than he’d been in years, and his record label happily pushed out anything he gave them. Who knows if they expected major returns, because what they got wasn’t exactly commercial, even a year or so apart.

First up was Frankie’s House, the soundtrack to a British miniseries about a photojournalist in Vietnam, which explains some of the stereotypically Southeast Asian elements on some of the more atmospheric tracks. Beck is credited with merely guitars, while one Jed Lieber (whose father was the partner of Stoller) handles keyboards, which we assume includes all the drum programming. So basically, Jed provides the framework, and Beck does his thing. (“Cathouse” quotes from “Rice Pudding”, if you listen closely enough.) For overall listenability it helps that there are no vocals, but the curveball in the form of an instrumental cover of the old blues nugget “Hi-Heel Sneakers” is a little jarring.

However, that track actually provides a bridge to Beck’s other big project, a tribute to Gene Vincent’s guitarist Cliff Gallup. For this vanity exercise he teamed up with a retro combo called the Big Town Playboys, who might have been able to cash in on the Swingers fad a few years later if some of the members hadn’t defected to Portishead by then. Fans of the Stray Cats would dig the influence displayed here, though there’s a certain sameness to the program that doesn’t really vary until “Blues Stay Away From Me”, two tracks from the end. Notably absent is “Be-Bop-A-Lula”.

And with that, Jeff Beck limited himself to the occasional guest spot for the rest of the decade.

Jeff Beck & Jed Leiber Music From The Original Soundtrack Frankie’s House (1992)—3
Jeff Beck & The Big Town Playboys
Crazy Legs (1993)—3

Friday, October 16, 2020

Paul Simon 15: You’re The One

Perhaps chastened by the failure of his big splash on Broadway, Paul Simon went back to just making records. You’re The One was the first of his albums in a long while that didn’t have an overall theme or style. Granted, his output hadn’t been that heavy to begin with, and the tracks still feature exotic rhythms and not exactly orthodox instruments and textures. That’s also not to say he’s avoiding profundity by any stretch, but a Paul Simon album without an agenda is certainly a novelty.
The finest moments bookend the set: the gentle yet rhythmic “That’s Where I Belong”, and the suitably peaceful “Quiet”. In between, we follow narratives like the troubled marriage chronicles in “Darling Lorraine” and the title track, the latter frustrating in that there’s a wonderful melody in there, while the accusations in the chorus deflate it. Maybe that’s the point, but it reduces the inclination to listen too closely. “Old” is a personal history in the guise of a standup routine, while “The Teacher” is just plain pretentious in its professed humility.
We should mention that he had young children around the house during the making of this album, so perhaps that explains the nursery rhyme elements of “Look At That” and “Hurricane Eye”, but even he can’t leave things as simple as that. “Pigs, Sheep And Wolves” could be a nice parable if he hadn’t smothered the Mother Goose possibilities with Orwellian sentiments illustrated by Law & Order imagery. “Señorita With A Necklace Of Tears” pulls a remote line out of the middle for its title, rather than go with one of the more memorable hooks scattered throughout. “Love” is a more pleasant samba and a better cross between intricacy and directness.
You’re The One sounds good, as we would expect, but his attempts to sound relaxed and chummy aren’t very convincing. Maybe he’s too easy a target for criticism, but for all its sonics, and the sameness of it all, you’ll want to stick with the classics. (Only four years later the album was overhauled along with its older siblings, adding three live versions expertly performed that don’t expand much on the studio versions.)

Paul Simon You’re The One (2000)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 2000, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Cat Stevens 15: Tell ‘Em I’m Gone

While the songs weren’t exactly pouring out of him, Yusuf had fully returned to the concept of performing what used to be called pop music again. When it did arrive, Tell ‘Em I’m Gone prominently included his previous stage name as part of the packaging. (The album was also released on his own Cat-O-Log imprint. For those interested in such things, the vinyl version sported artwork by famed bootleg illustrator William Stout.)
The album’s liner notes helpfully explain his early fascination with the blues, and how he developed his own folk-style approach to it once he realized he didn’t have the voice as displayed by his contemporaries (think Eric Burdon, Rod Stewart, etc.) Decades later he’s still steeped in the architecture of the blues, putting his own arrangements to the likes of “Big Boss Man” and “You Are My Sunshine”. Just to keep you on your toes, he also covers Edgar Winter (“Dying To Live”) and Procol Harum (the atypically rocking “The Devil Came From Kansas”).
When he’s not tapping on his own history—“I Was Raised In Babylon” discusses the pros and cons of world religions, while the loping “Editing Floor Blues” explicitly addresses the Salman Rushdie kerfuffle—his own tunes continue to spread good news, such as the pretty fable “Cat & The Dog Trap” and the obvious but still heartfelt “Doors”. While “Gold Digger” may seem overly materialistic, it apparently concerns a South African miners’ strike, which ties in with the anti-slavery theme of his title track (aka “Take This Hammer”).
Because he can, lots of big names come to help out, including Richard Thompson, Charlie Musselwhite, Lenny Castro, and Will Oldham. The sound on Tell ‘Em I’m Gone is simple and crisp, as befits a co-production with Rick Rubin. What’s more, the album was mixed by onetime producer Paul Samwell-Smith, providing another link to the past.

Yusuf Tell ‘Em I’m Gone (2014)—3

Friday, October 9, 2020

Robert Plant 14: Digging Deep

Although the term has seemingly outgrown the technology whence it was derived, the celebrity podcast has become a valuable promotional tool in the music industry, particularly when related to archival releases. Robert Plant was an early adopter with his Digging Deep series, wherein he told wide-ranging stories about a handful of songs from his catalog, prodded by an eager interviewer. Some of these were included on a box set of vinyl 45s, resequenced from 16 original singles, which appeared in late 2019, and included some actual radio hits.
The following fall brought forth Digging Deep: Subterranea, a much cheaper two-CD set that only shared a few tracks with the vinyl box. Like the equally sprawling Sixty-Six To Timbuktu, it’s designed to present Robert as an innovative wanderer outside of the golden god image cultivated with Led Zeppelin. Out of thirty tracks, only seven are repeated from that set. Each of his solo albums are touched on, nearly equally, but there’s nothing from the Honeydrippers EP or his Grammy®-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss. However, Shaken ‘N Stirred is completely ignored. The often-overlooked (especially by us) Band Of Joy and Fate Of Nations get the most love. The latter is obviously very important to him, and while “I Believe” and “29 Palms” aren’t exactly deep cuts, “Great Spirit” appears in its acoustic mix, which was a bonus track to the 2007 rerelease of the album. In this context, we can see how that album was very much a transition from synth-tinged radio rock to the sounds he’d embrace in this century, were it not for that little side trip with Jimmy Page in the mid- to late ‘90s (also not mentioned here).
While that earlier compilation included a full disc worth of rarities, Digging Deep: Subterranea offers only three previously unreleased tracks, all presumably recent recordings, scattered throughout the non-chronological track order. “Nothing Takes The Place Of You”, a wonderful slow burner originally written and recorded by Toussaint McCall (we never heard of him either). “Charlie Patton Highway (Turn It Up Part 1)” is supposedly a preview of his next full album project and, as befits the title, more of a detuned blues than an exotic world jaunt. Finally, “Too Much Alike” is a jaunty duet with Patty Griffin, and the lyrical content will only fuel further wonder about the level of their collaboration.
As the subtitle leaves open the possibility of other volumes, Digging Deep isn’t a hits collection per se, but serves to celebrate his full catalog. Perhaps some of those overlooked albums will be given more appreciation as a result.

Robert Plant Digging Deep: Subterranea (2020)—

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Stephen Stills 11: Man Alive

On his first solo album since the fleeting Stills Alone, Stephen Stills still didn’t have a major label deal. Yet he corralled some of favorite sidemen, such as Joe Vitale, Mike Finnegan, and George “Chocolate” Perry, and managed to fill up a CD called Man Alive!
While the otherwise detailed credits leave this information out, some of the material had been around for a while. At the very least, his vocals on the opening “Ain’t It Always” are exponentially clearer than his mushmouthed delivery on everything else. (We know we’ve used that adjective a lot, but until we find another, it will have to do.) This sinks another otherwise promising track like “Hearts Gate”, wherein he’s accompanied by an acoustic guitar plugged into the recording console for a rather sterile-sounding result. On “Piece Of Me”, a blues harp helps balance the sound.
Even the songs with real drums sound canned, starting with the excruciatingly island-tinged “Feed The People”. While touting a “special appearance by Neil Young,” “Round The Bend” features Stills on everything else save Russ Kunkel’s basic percussive pattern. Neil shows up again on “Different Man”, a welcome duet, but there’s no need for another recording of “Drivin’ Thunder”. Meanwhile, a similar “special appearance by Graham Nash” on the co-written “Wounded World” isn’t about to set the world on fire.
There are still a few moments that give hope for what could have been. “Acadienne” is a pleasant Cajun strum sung partially in Creole that thankfully keeps the accordion low in the mix, though the croaking frogs over the fade are unnecessary. “Ole Man Trouble” (the Booker T. Jones tune, and not the Otis Redding song) is a step in the right direction for his voice. And while daring in both design and length, “Spanish Suite” manages to stay interesting over its eleven minutes, partially thanks to a contribution by Herbie Hancock, and despite Stills’ ongoing insistence in singing in Spanish.
Once upon a time Stephen Stills had a voice that matched his instrumental dexterity. But after decades of performing, aging, and likely drug and alcohol abuse, his grizzled approach doesn’t match contemporary arrangements. Other artists of his age and longevity have learned to adapt, yet Man Alive! proves he’s hasn’t.

Stephen Stills Man Alive! (2005)—2

Friday, October 2, 2020

Nick Mason: Live At The Roundhouse

The Pink Floyd tribute band industry has been thriving for decades now, making room for any number of outfits in addition to such successful franchises as Brit Floyd, The Machine, and The Australian Pink Floyd Show. So it was both surprising and fitting that drummer Nick Mason, of all people, who’s the only man to appear on every Floyd album, would launch a tribute band of sorts.
With the fantastical moniker of Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, this five-piece combo was formed to celebrate the Floyd of the pre-Dark Side Of The Moon years—basically the music on the various volumes of The Early Years. Most of the songs in their repertoire were not performed at all by the post-1987 Floyd, and some barely made it to the stage at all when they were new. Between the economy of the lineup and the capabilities of modern stage equipment, these versions are as faithful as they are passionate.
Live At The Roundhouse, a combination CD/DVD or Blu-ray set, provides the evidence. On bass is Guy Pratt, who held the same job through the Waters-less years. One of the guitarists is Gary Kemp, best known from Spandau Ballet, of all bands. Both sing lead, and neither attempt to emulate the original vocalist(s). And Nick Mason himself, who’s barely played drums this century and was never really known as the most dynamic player, shows an awful lot of energy.
The songs are paced well, bouncing between some very different albums. “Interstellar Overdrive” is something of an overture, the freakout section incorporating elements of “Let There Be More Light” and “The Narrow Way”, going into “Astronomy Domine”. “Lucifer Sam” suffers a bit from Guy Pratt’s wacky asides, but there’s still no beating that riff. (A Sex Pistols reference is somehow shoehorned into “The Nile Song”, too.) Obscured By Clouds finally gets its due, with a few tracks scattered throughout the set. An abridgement of “Atom Heart Mother Suite” is bookended by verses from the starkly acoustic “If”, and “A Saucerful Of Secrets” itself is tackled and conquered. Syd Barrett is not ignored, from all of the early singles to “Bike” and the ultra-rare “Vegetable Man”. “Point Me At The Sky” is the wild card of an encore.
Lots of aging rock stars get pigeonholed into the living tribute act category, and it’s moot whether this set will woo the skeptical. But Live At The Roundhouse is a unique snapshot of an era that often gets overlooked, and even more fun to watch.

Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets Live At The Roundhouse (2020)—

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Robyn Hitchcock 32: The Man Downstairs

Like every other musician, Robyn Hitchcock went into quarantine, lockdown, sheltering in place, whatever you want to call it, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his case, he hunkered down in Nashville with his partner Emma Swift, shared the occasional file and short story via his Patreon account, and performed regular, almost weekly acoustic shows from his kitchen on Zoom. While Emma completed an album of unique Dylan covers, Robyn’s only release was this odd snapshot from his vault.
The Man Downstairs is helpfully subtitled Demos & Rarities, and purports to be a dry run for The Man Upstairs. That album was split between evenly between covers and originals, and while his own songs tip the scales on this one, only “Recalling The Truth” made it to the final product; “I Pray When I’m Drunk” was rerecorded with a full band for the album what came after.
The cover choices shouldn’t surprise many Robyn fans—“Arnold Layne” being one of the more common Syd Barrett selections, Dylan’s “Born In Time”, and Nick Drake’s “River Man”, which he’d played onstage. “The Tower Song” by Townes Van Zandt is a surprise, and hopefully will send the uninitiated to that catalog. His own songs run the gamut of his styles, from the mildly Dylanesque “All Love And No Peace” and the mild psychedelia of “The Threat Of Freedom” to the retro (for him) approach of the disparate “Cavendish Square” and “On Seeing Your Photograph”.
An unnumbered release on his own label, the homemade charm of The Man Downstairs comes through in its minimalist packaging, topped by a truly amateurish cover collage. Yet the quality of the music puts this up there with previous solo acoustic endeavors. What’s more, the quality of the recording suggests that he should stick with this presentation going forward, if only for economic reasons.

Robyn Hitchcock The Man Downstairs: Demos & Rarities (2020)—

Friday, September 25, 2020

Bob Weir 2: Kingfish

While Jerry Garcia played with a whole pile of people in and out of the Dead during their live hiatus, Bob Weir stuck mostly with a local bar band called Kingfish, fronted by occasional Dead collaborator Matthew Kelly and New Riders of the Purple Sage refugee Dave Torbert. Their eponymous debut came out on the Dead’s Round Records imprint, which was reserved for side projects such as these.
The big shot got to kick off the album, and both “Lazy Lightning” and “Supplication” would find their ways into Dead sets in the future, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not. Bobby also sings lead on “Home To Dixie” and the Marty Robbins outlaw ballad “Big Iron”, later covered by Johnny Cash in the Rick Rubin era. He also anchors the reggae gospel reading of “Bye And Bye”, a Joseph Spence arrangement of the beloved hymn “We’ll Understand It Better By And By”.
In between, the success of the album depends on your tolerance of mid-‘70s country rock. We hear echoes of the Starland Vocal Band with a better guitar player. A few tracks stand out, such as “Asia Minor”, one of a few songs brought forward from an earlier Kelly-Torbert project, and sporting some of the skip-time elements of earlier Dead.
Bob would be back with the Dead soon enough, leaving Kingfish to endure on their own. Matt Kelly would reappear throughout the Dead story from time to time, but outside of this album and a couple live releases, the band’s connection is merely tangential.

Kingfish Kingfish (1976)—3

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Jerry Garcia 5: Reflections

As mentioned, the Dead as a unit were off the road, but all the members kept busy, in the studio and onstage, sometimes with each other. So it was that Jerry Garcia’s next solo album was an amalgam of sorts. Half was recorded with the current Jerry Garcia Band (which included Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, as well as Larry Knechtel in the studio), and the rest featured the Dead. Since each of the latter would make it to their setlists, Reflections shouldn’t be dismissed as a side project. Be warned, however: Donna Godchaux is prominent in the mix, in both bands.
The music alternates from one band to the other, but since the Dead tracks bookend the set, we’ll start there. “Might As Well” kicks off the proceedings, but don’t be fooled by the rollicking arrangement; this is predominantly a low-key set. The other tunes made their first album appearances after several years in progress: written solely by Robert Hunter, “It Must Have Been The Roses” was rescued from his first solo album; “They Love Each Other” was a perennial in 1973, but not as jaunty here; “Comes A Time” had been around as far back as 1971, and gains an expressive solo.
The “other” tracks aren’t as strong, with the clear exception of “Mission In The Rain”. The only Garcia/Hunter original here recorded by the solo band, it’s a keeper, from the mystery of the first verse to the delivery in the chorus. Unfortunately, “I’ll Take A Melody” is an Allan Toussaint song taken at a dirgey pace. “Tore Up Over You” is a Hank Ballard & The Midnighters song done well here, with lots of rolling piano from Nicky, whereas the country cover “Catfish John” was already in Jerry’s peripheral vision, having been part of the Old & In The Way repertoire.
Given the two distinct sources of the recordings, Reflections is sequenced very well, mostly alternating between bands. The bonuses include four further middling covers jammed in the studio by the JGB, along with a 16-minute Dead instrumental called “Orpheus”. This certainly supports the theory that the album was pieced together using earlier Dead sessions, coming off the high of the Blues For Allah experiments, to bolster what little the JGB was able to accomplish in the studio.
(Note: while we don’t normally append studio albums with this kind of info, it bears mentioning that two live collections from the vaults spotlight this lineup of the JGB, and especially because Nicky Hopkins is involved. They are listed below.)

Jerry Garcia Reflections (1976)—3
2004 expanded CD: same as 1976, plus 5 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Let It Rock: The Jerry Garcia Collection, Vol. 2 (2009)
     • Garcia Live Volume Five (2014)

Friday, September 18, 2020

Rush 20: Test For Echo

Three years was the longest hiatus for Rush yet, but once they reconvened for another album, they pretty much picked up where they left off. Test For Echo built on the guitar-centric sound that made Counterparts so refreshing, but missed some subtleties. Maybe Alex Lifeson’s experiments on Victor were still ringing in everyone’s ears.
The title track is a successful groove, nicely balanced between the players, while the lyrics bemoan the barrage of media already starting to affect society in the ‘90s. “Driven” is built upon multiple bass tracks; apparently Geddy Lee felt it was his turn to drive. Several tricky rhythms throw off the listener, who might not realize how few lyrics there actually are. A similar tendency to use a list as the basis for lyrics dogs “Half The World”, which still manages to be catchy, and we hear echoes of Pearl Jam in the arrangement (but definitely not the vocals). “The Color Of Right” is another good mesh of music and lyrics, this time provoking thought over legal terms. “Time And Motion” manages to mix Rush prog with current alt-metal, with a completely anachronistic keyboard throwing a wrench into everything. The social commentary continues on “Totem”, a litany of deities and religious icons, traditional and imagined.
By Neil Peart’s own admission, the lyrics to “Dog Years” were written during a post-celebratory hangover, which could be why he pushes the metaphors and puns as far as possible. (Photos of the boys as children with their new instruments illustrate the words in the CD booklet.) “Virtuality” almost sounds quaint today, decades after a time when the possibilities of the Internet still seemed like science fiction. The album’s sound finally shifts with “Resist”, based around a piano pattern that’s been the hallmark of the Atlantic era thus far along with a pleasing acoustic breakdown. It’s welcome, almost an anthem. “Limbo” is the album’s requisite instrumental, but unlike their previous successes, this seems more like a track that never got vocals, save the disembodied samples and some wordless moaning. (Apparently it was pieced together, Frankenstein-style, from various ideas that had been “in limbo” for some time. And as much as “Rush Limbo” suggests a certain narcissistic radio host, that wasn’t the intention.) With its references to Sisyphus, “Carve Away The Stone” aims to be profound amid more complicated rhythms.
Test For Echo isn’t classic Rush, but it is impressive for coming together as quickly as it did. They would tour, of course, but little did anyone know that they were about to take an even longer break.

Rush Test For Echo (1996)—3

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Alex Lifeson: Victor

Apparently not happy with Rush as his sole creative outlet, Alex Lifeson spent part of the 1994 and 1995 recording tracks in his home studio, without the other guys. Eventually the results became something of a solo album, which didn’t get much attention outside Rush diehards. Lifeson’s insistence on calling both album and artist “Victor” didn’t do him any favors.
Much of the music is harsh and overly loud. He doesn’t sing, thankfully, though he does provide “spoken word”. The handful of vocals are left to the singer from Canadian band I Mother Earth; another track is sung by cult artist Dalbello, who seesaws between a witchy purr and a Geddy-like yowl. Several musicians, including his son Adrian, assisted on other instruments, and Les Claypool of Primus plays on one track, not that you’d notice.
Four tracks of thrash finally give way to the moody “At The End”, while the more progressive “Strip And Go Naked” provides relief a few tracks later. “Shut Up Shuttin’ Up” is an attempt at humor, as two harpies complain about men over a funk-metal groove. While it should be no surprise that the lyrics don’t reach the lofty heights of Neil Peart, the sexual violence in “Don’t Care” and the title track (albeit an adaptation of a W.H. Auden poem) has us concerned about his psyche.
Victor is a vanity project that certainly has its admirers, but it can be skipped. Meanwhile, Neil occupied himself with an extensive all-star tribute to Buddy Rich, which sold better but was equally tangential to his main outfit.

Victor Victor (1996)—2

Friday, September 11, 2020

Van Morrison 39: Astral Weeks Live

For decades, Van Morrison brushed off most questions about his legendary Astral Weeks album. Seeing as he’s never been the type of performer to go back to the well, it was surprising indeed to hear that he would do a series of concerts celebrating the album’ 40th anniversary, performing it as a suite.
Even more astonishing, given the evidence on Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl, is that he was really into it. Because it’s his baby, he juggled the original album sequence, and enhanced four of the pieces with new codas consisting of possibly extemporaneous, certainly copyrighted lyrics over the established vamp. (Jay Berliner, who played acoustic guitar on the original album, does the same here, alongside accompanists from all stages of Van’s concert career.)
After a brief introduction we head right into the title track, which sounds as good as it ever had. The detour into “I Believe I’ve Transcended” provides a mediation and scat on Caledonia, important enough that he printed them on the back cover. “Beside You” nicely blends the dreamy arrangement from the album with the arpeggiated riff from the early take, and once again he’s on top of the swirling melody. “Slim Slow Slider”, moved up from the conclusion, actually fits in its new slot, at least until he does his best to break his strings via furious strumming for the “I Start Breaking Down” coda. (And the crowd goes wild.) The program gets back on track with “Sweet Thing”, complete with his singing-through-the-harmonica trick.
The halves of the performance are still split just like the side titles on the record. Ergo, there ends “In The Beginning”, and now, on to “Afterwards”.
“The Way Young Lovers Do” is played well, but his enthusiasm seems to have waned; maybe he shouldn’t have started breaking down two songs earlier. “Cyprus Avenue” doesn’t have the dramatics of the ‘70s rendition, instead extrapolating on the “You Came Walking Down” idea for a few minutes, for a smooth transition into “Ballerina”, which gains some seductive energy well before the “Move On Up” coda. “Madame George” ends the suite, and thanks to the lyrics printed in the booklet, for the first time we have confirmation that he’s been singing about “Madame Joy” all these years. The song proceeds as we’d hope, then he leaves the stage while the emcee pumps the crowd for recognition.
The break is short, however, as Van’s back to sing “Listen To The Lion” (incidentally, the name of his new custom label) that’s about half the original length with an instrumental section called “The Lion Speaks” marred by the emcee reminding us that the singer is “Van the man! The one! The only!” What’s called “Common One” pulls in lyrics from “Summertime In England” and “A Town Called Paradise” while the sax player parrots his words back a la Brian Kennedy. (If you buy the LP version, you get a bonus performance of “Gloria”, complete with the Doors’ John Densmore on tambourine. And yes, that really is how he’s identified in the liner notes.)
As album recreations go, Astral Weeks Live is entertaining. It helps that both band and strings follow the record very closely, so we always know where we are. It’s a nice souvenir, even more so on DVD, and only underscores why the original has endured all this time.

Van Morrison Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl (2009)—