Friday, January 31, 2020

Roxy Music 5: Siren

Roxy Music was fairly established at this point, but they’d also evolved. While they still specialized in skewed takes on standard pop clichés, Siren almost approaches mainstream, but still finds the “future” tag firmly affixed. This is the album with “Love Is The Drug”, and chances are anyone who’s ever heard the band knows them for that song alone. As well they should, with its popping bass and realistic sound effects. Once again, these guys know how to kick off an album.

From there, the album touches on all styles. “End Of The Line” manages to revive the country influence of “If There Is Something” with even more hokey fiddle. “Sentimental Fool” opens with a heavily distorted guitar not unlike labelmate Robert Fripp on a recent Eno album, before laying on the sleaze. “Whirlwind” crashes in, with Phil Manzanera’s frantic strumming reminiscent of a different Eno album, before turning to a standard rocker. Wisely, that strumming reappears only once in the middle of the track and again to close the side.

“She Sells” is a cross between cabaret, funk, and the fiddling soon familiar from Kansas albums, with seemingly a different feel for each section, slowing down and speeding up. “Could It Happen To Me?” is also fairly camp, whereas “Both Ends Burning” nicely uses a bed of synth strings for a wonderfully driving single wherein all the players get to show off. “Nightingale” is another sneaky, with excellent dynamics instead of just pounding the beat into the plastic. Finally, “Just Another High” builds from a simple set of changes to a slow fade for a stately ending.

Siren was more collaborative, Byran Ferry allowing himself to work with musical ideas from Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera, and even Eddie Jobson. It’s a solid collection of tracks, with nothing that screams to be skipped. It was also easily the band’s best work since the debut, which was too bad, because they were about to take an extended break.

Roxy Music Siren (1975)—

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Pretenders 12: Break Up The Concrete

In the wake of a Rhino reissue campaign, Chrissie Hynde convened yet another version of the Pretenders, none of whom had been in the band before, for a brand new album. This lineup included players from alt-country outfits like the Pernice Brothers and Son Volt, while the drumkit was handled by Jim Keltner, all on songs Chrissie wrote herself save one, a cover of “Rosalee” by Akron legend Robert Kidney.

One bonehead review of Break Up The Concrete called it Chrissie’s country album; rockabilly and yes, alt-country is more like it. It’s not trendy or clichéd, wouldn’t be mistaken for anything at the CMAs, and nowhere near as dire a departure as Loose Screw was. The overall sound is live and fresh, almost like first takes or even demos. Several even include count-ins and instructions, as if they’re learning the tunes while the tapes roll.

The rockabilly numbers speed past, with little chance to follow the lyrics, such as the title track, the equally frenetic “Don’t Cut Your Hair”, and particularly the religious references in “Boots Of Chinese Plastic”. The slower songs are rather diverse, like the tender portrait of “The Nothing Maker” followed by the R&B hybrid in “Don’t Lose Faith In Me”. “Love’s A Mystery” and “You Didn’t Have To” will appeal to fans of “Sense Of Purpose”, though “The Last Ride” is a little tepid. But “One Thing Never Changed” is nice and torchy, and the sinewy “Almost Perfect” really stands out.

With zero ad power on a tiny label, Break Up The Concrete came and went without much notice, even to the point that some foreign markets packaged the album with a best-of CD. It’s still one of the more interesting albums of her career, and a good argument that she shouldn’t hang up her guitar anytime soon.

Pretenders Break Up The Concrete (2008)—3

Friday, January 24, 2020

Kiss 2: Hotter Than Hell

Part of the Casablanca label’s marketing strategy for Kiss entailed constantly having new product on the shelves, so within months of releasing their debut, the band was back at work on a follow-up. Hotter Than Hell was a daring title for 1974, packaged in a cover that for some reason was designed like a Japanese comic book, with titillating photos of the band members in racy situations and a very clever combination of the foursome’s signature makeup. In fact, the sessions went so quickly they didn’t bother finish the songs or mix the album properly, resulting in a record that to this day sounds like absolute sludge.

“Got To Choose” is a competent opener, nicely followed by “Parasite”, based on a nasty speed-metal riff and one of the few untempo tracks here. Then there’s “Goin’ Blind”, which always sounds out of tune, and an unintentionally hilarious, grammatically awkward lyric sung to a 16-year-old girl from a 93-year-old man. (In future live versions, he’d stay 93, but she’d get younger.) The title track needs to be a little faster, but the boys sure know how to write a chorus. The flop first single was “Let Me Go, Rock ‘N Roll”, despite a tasty pile of riffs, and luckily for them they’d rewrite it much better on the next album.

Side two is all about the cowbell, beginning with “All The Way”, another chorus better than the rest of the song. “Watchin’ You” could’ve used a little more development in the lyric department, as could “Mainline”, which makes even less sense, but it’s catchier and features a decent lead vocal from Peter Criss. “Comin’ Home” is an above-average “life on the road is hard” tune, wherein the singer negates all the rejection he’s had through the previous eight tracks. It would have made a better closer that “Strange Ways”, which is mostly notable for Ace’s lead guitar and a less impressive vocal from Peter.

Hotter Than Hell isn’t as immediately striking as the debut, but is almost as funny. Paul Stanley takes something of a back seat, singing lead on only three tracks, compared to Gene Simmons’ five, but the standout performer is Ace, whose lead breaks throughout are distinct and inspired. It’s a good way for fans to kill half an hour, and they’d have another album out soon enough anyway.

Kiss Hotter Than Hell (1974)—3

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Rod Stewart 7: Atlantic Crossing

With Atlantic Crossing, Rod Stewart effectively said farewell to his old life as a good-time blues singer and Faces frontman, literally crossing the ocean to relocate in L.A. and sign a fat deal with Warner Bros. While commercial success would follow, his legacy would be tainted with every hit single.

The album was recorded in such hip places as Criteria Studios in Miami and Muscle Shoals, using regulars from the latter studio as well as Booker T and the MG’s. All excellent players, to be sure, but that certain something that the Faces previously brought—as well as the quality of folks like Martin Quittenton and Micky Waller—was missing. The album still combined new originals and clever covers, but was divided between a “fast half” and a “slow half”, which may have been nice depending on your mood, but also underscored the dullness of the tunes. His voice was always raspy, of course, but here it’s lost its personality somewhat.

The fast side offers a handful of self-penned rockers with nothing much to distinguish themselves, although “Alright For An Hour” does change up the beat and “Three Time Loser” finds him “jacking off, reading Playboy on a hot afternoon.” Thanks for the update, Rod. For some reason his cover of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” is considered fast, and does split up the side a bit, especially since the slow side is very, very slow. The late Danny Whitten gets a nicer eulogy than a certain Neil Young album via Rod’s slightly syrupy take on “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”, while the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart Of Mine” becomes something of an Al Green imitation, even with the MG’s. “It’s Not The Spotlight” and “Still Love You” don’t quite reach the acoustic heights of his first three albums, though “Sailing” would soon become a classic, and rightfully so.

Many years later Rhino put together a deluxe edition of Atlantic Crossing that presented an “alternate version” of the album, consisting mostly of early takes without all the embellishments, but not exactly improving anything by subtraction. Much more interesting are three outtakes with the MG’s, including an anemic take on “Return To Sender” and a very promising version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”. Tacked onto the main program is “Skye Boat Song”, a standalone single credited to the Atlantic Crossing Drum & Pipe Band that manages to pay tribute to his homeland while leaving it behind.

Rod Stewart Atlantic Crossing (1975)—2
2009 Deluxe Edition: same as 1975, plus 15 extra tracks

Friday, January 17, 2020

Talking Heads 8: Little Creatures

Even after a handful of hit singles, Talking Heads were still too weird for mainstream, but as what used to be called college alternative started to seep its way into the general consciousness—and MTV helped—they were slowly becoming A Major Act. Little Creatures was their tamest, least experimental album yet, and was huge in the summer of 1985. The music was straight accessible pop, with a little rock, stripped of African rhythms and other worldbeat.

Not to say they’d gone completely suburban. “And She Was”, with its nod to “Be My Baby” in the drums, is still a song about a woman who started levitating in mid-air, where she naturally began to disrobe. “Give Me Back My Name” features the existential philosophizing perfected in “Once In A Lifetime” and touched on throughout Byrne’s Knee Plays project the year before. “Creatures Of Love” seems to justify sex as a form of procreation, whereas “Stay Up Late” takes the view of a toddler observing a baby. (Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth were parents by now, with another on the way, so maybe that had something to do with it.) Many songs seem to approach gender relations, such as the conversations in “Perfect World”.

If you want to dance, “The Lady Don’t Mind” is a two-chord samba, and “Walk It Down” recalls Speaking In Tongues somewhat (a little “Swamp” here, a little “Girlfriend Is Better” there). “Television Man” certainly delivers, complete with call-and-response na-nas and the ubiquitous Yamaha DX-7. Our favorite is still “Road To Nowhere”, from the a cappella intro to his final yelps on the coda, and even the accordion. (An “early” version of the song, missing a lot that made it so good, appears as a bonus track, alongside a more realized runthrough of “And She Was” and an extended mix of “Television Man”.)

The band contributes throughout Little Creatures, and with the exception of the occasional pedal steel, horns, and some backing vocals, it’s just the four of them. But this is David Byrne’s vision all the way, as depicted by the Howard Finster cover art, where the other members lurk upstage while the big guy has shed his big suit for only tighty whiteys, carrying the whole world in his hands. And maybe that’s why the album, which was fine for the time, isn’t so striking now.

Talking Heads Little Creatures (1985)—3
2006 DualDisc: same as 1985, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

David Byrne 2: The Knee Plays

Coming off the success of two Talking Heads albums and a concert film, David Byrne made the wholly expected step of scoring interludes for a Robert Wilson opera intended to premiere at the 1984 Summer Olympics. Wouldn’t you?

Even those who’d ingested his previous extracurricular activities with the likes of Twyla Tharp and Brian Eno would have been surprised by Music For “The Knee Plays”. Rather than exploring third world influences, the score consists almost entirely of brass instruments with a distinct New Orleans influence, having discovered the city’s Dirty Dozen Brass Band a full five years before Elvis Costello did. Some tracks are accompanied by drums, while six of the tracks sport vocals in the form of prose recited by Byrne in the wide-eyed voice used for “Once In A Lifetime”. All are thought-provoking, particularly “The Sound Of Business”, wherein he recites the titles of fictional oldies on the radio, and “In The Future”, which predicts events that are both contradictory and strangely prophetic.

For the most part, the music sounds like a cross between a Nola funeral and a Randy Newman movie score, with strong echoes of “Silent Night”, “Amazing Grace”, “Sentimental Journey”, and the like. The most striking piece is “Winter”, which is completely unlike any of the other pieces, presenting an impressionistic soundscape much more akin to the type of new jazz expected from the ECM label, which distributed the album.

The album wasn’t supposed to be a big seller, and since the opus it was intended for was never really completed, it was easily forgotten, until two decades later, when The Knee Plays made its CD debut with bonus tracks and a DVD wherein the original sequence was accompanied by images of the production. Three of the bonus tracks are alternate arrangements of the brass tunes, while the rest are early sketches from the development stage of the project, reflecting the Kabuki theater influences that dominated before the brass element broke through. Again, it’s nothing like the Heads, but is engrossing if you give it a chance.

David Byrne Music For “The Knee Plays” (1985)—3
2007 The Knee Plays reissue: same as 1985, plus 8 extra tracks

Friday, January 10, 2020

Prince 12: Graffiti Bridge

Having had success with the Batman album, Prince used his regained clout to bank another film, which he’d once again write and direct all by himself. Anyone who enjoyed Purple Rain onscreen would be rightfully curious as well as nervous about a sequel, and unfortunately, Graffiti Bridge did not make anybody happy.

The film sets up another battle of wits, wills, and music between the Revolution-less Kid and Morris Day, who not only still has the Time under his thumb, but the band regained Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who in the real world had been bounced a few years earlier for daring to express their own ideas, only to find multimillion-dollar success producing Janet Jackson and that really hideous song by the Human League. The movie has little of the grit or charm of its predecessor; plus, being filmed inside the Paisley Park complex, it looks like it takes place entirely indoors.

This time, however, the companion album included songs by the other performers in the film—all signed to the Paisley Park record label, natch—making it more of a soundtrack. We get several songs from the Time, including a pale Xerox of “The Bird” and even “Oak Tree”, Morris’s own pale Xerox from his stillborn solo career. (For even more posturing, the Time had a full album of their own available at the same time. Pandemonium, for a change, was not entirely the work of Prince, and features a fun single in the form of “Jerk Out” and a head-scratcher called “Donald Trump (Black Version)”.) The legendary Mavis Staples sings “Melody Cool”, her character’s theme song, George Clinton helps out (kinda) with “We Can Funk” (developed from a 1984 jam with the Revolution under the more explicit title), and young protégé Tevin Campbell actually had a hit with “Round And Round”, now best known for a vocal hook sampled on the opening credits for several seasons of Top Chef.

Prince’s own songs are very mixed bag. Most came from ideas that had been percolating as far back as before 1999, and sound disjointed in the context. A foreboding spoken intro notwithstanding, “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got” tries to get the party going, and “New Power Generation” would become more important in a couple years when he started calling his band that. “The Question Of U” is right out of left field; turns out it’s from the Parade era, and that’s probably why we like it. “Elephants & Flowers” is fairly catchy, even if the lyrics make no sense, while “Joy In Repetition” brings back the weirdness. (Surprise! It originated in that murky era when Sign "☮" The Times was a triple album under another title.) “Tick, Tick, Bang” is an annoying, noisy, sample-heavy track not as strong as the Time track that follows it, but “Thieves In The Temple”, Prince’s only hit from the album, still sounds promising. “Still Would Stand All Time” is a simmering ballad that works despite its lushness and overemoting, unlike the title track, which tries to be an anthem and misses wide right. Had he forgotten he’d sung about “The Ladder” five years before? “New Power Generation (Pt. II)” provides a nice reprise for the credits rolling in our heads.

Besides being way too long, Music From Graffiti Bridge is frustrating, and basically another step back. In the real world, rap and new jack swing were taking over. Working in a vacuum wasn’t doing him any favors, and while that’s how he put together much of his greatest stuff to begin with, at least Purple Rain exuded a gang mentality that had you rooting for him. This time around, the Morris character’s accusations that nobody understands his music get a grudging nod. All that said, the Prince songs on their own, outside of any cinematic context, are worth the trip.

Prince Music From Graffiti Bridge (1990)—3

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Marshall Crenshaw 7: My Truck Is My Home

The Razor & Tie label was started in the mid-‘90s by a couple of ex-corporate lawyers who were determined to perpetuate the careers of some of their favorite performers whom they felt had unjustly fallen by the wayside in the modern music scene—Little Steven, Gary U.S. Bonds, Willie Nile, and so forth. After reissuing various albums and compilations, they set to signing established acts. Marshall Crenshaw was a perfect choice.

To buy some time and bring in some cash before a new studio album, a live set winkingly titled My Truck Is My Home presented a smattering of recordings of varying vintage and quality to present something of a snapshot of a typical Crenshaw show. As is made clear, his shows were anything but typical. Just as his own albums had veered into other people’s material, here he tackles tunes by the Byrds, the MC5, and even ABBA alongside his own concise compositions, including songs from the debut and the stellar “You’re My Favorite Waste Of Time”. The settings range from amplified acoustic to full band, and it all sounds like him. It’s also a nice primer for anyone who only knows the man from “Someday, Someway” and “Whenever You’re On My Mind”.

Marshall Crenshaw Live… My Truck Is My Home (1994)—3

Friday, January 3, 2020

Sting 14: 44/876

We don’t profess to be experts on reggae to any extent. At the suburban CD store we managed, we directed inquisitive boomers to Bob Marley’s Legend compilation, then to any other titles we knew tended to sell. Beyond that, they were on their own, but at least we couldn’t be accused of tricking anyone into buying something lousy.

Sting has dabbled in reggae from the very first Police album, and occasionally since then, but it’s still surprising that four decades later, after forcing himself into nearly every other genre, he’d submerge himself in an entire album of the stuff. Yet 44/876 is a collaboration with dancehall superstar (and native Jamaican) Shaggy, whose expertise and style rules the proceedings, to their benefit.

If not for his distinctive vocals, Sting seems almost like an embellishment, but he gets credit for composition on every track. (Adding to the confusion: the producer credited as Sting International is not a megalomaniacal sobriquet for Gordon Sumner, but the stage name of an actual producer.) “Morning Is Coming”, “Waiting For The Break Of Day”, and “22nd Street” could easily work on a Sting album, while the title track, “Just One Lifetime”, and “To Love And Be Loved”, to mention a few, don’t benefit much from his interjections. “Don’t Make Me Wait” is certainly catchy, especially if you’ve already heard Marley’s “Waiting In Vain”. “Dreaming In The U.S.A.” has a mild “Roxanne” guitar in the verse that’s not as noticeable when you realize it’s in a major key. Still, it takes a lot of balls to write a song called “Sad Trombone” in an era when that’s become a ubiquitous clichéd sound effect. (Target customers and digital downloaders got four extra tracks, including a remix of “Don’t Make Me Wait” and an arrangement of “Love Changes Everything”, the main song from a less-than-beloved Andrew Lloyd Webber production, that sounds way too much like “Ring Of Fire”.)

Were this 20 years ago, we could probably pass this off to customers looking for a new reggae CD; whether that would incur the wrath of purists, we can’t say. 44/876 is harmless, mildly enjoyable, and fine for background music at whatever Starbucks or mall clothing store you choose to frequent.

Sting & Shaggy 44/876 (2018)—3