Friday, February 28, 2020

They Might Be Giants 7: John Henry

Having experimented with an actual rhythm section on Flood and Apollo 18, as well as subsequent tours, John Henry found They Might Be Giants expanded to a full combo. The challenge remained: would they still sound like themselves?

The simple accordion that runs through “Subliminal” cleverly links the past to the present, and the backwards ending is a cute touch. Things immediately get loud on “Snail Shell” and “Sleeping In The Flowers”, though the latter has a catchy chorus in a different tempo. “Unrelated Thing”, a song about the breakdown of a relationship as mined on Lincoln slows the proceedings down incredibly but uses a pedal steel for variety. No lyrics are provided for “AKA Driver”, likely because of the frequent use of the brand name NyQuil. “I Should Be Allowed To Think” is the first really impressive tune, this time hilariously warping the opening couplet of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” to dis other bands and proclaim one’s ubiquity. “Extra Savoir-Faire” is something of a son of “If I Wasn’t Shy”, and lopes along too slowly for our tastes, while “Why Must I Be Sad?” isn’t much more than an attempt to weave as many Alice Cooper song titles into the lyrics as possible. “Spy” is a remake of the closer from the previous year’s EP, with an almost arbitrary extended ending that would change every time they’d play it onstage. “O, Do Not Forsake Me” is sung by a male a capella group, just because.

Things seem to pick up in the second half, beginning with the jaunty “No One Knows My Plan”. They get their money’s worth out of the horns for the intro to “Dirt Bike”, which seems to sing about roving gangs of pre-teens terrorizing neighborhoods, but ends up referring to a band “over their sophomore jinx”—presumably one already referred to in “I Should Be Allowed To Think”? “Destination Moon” and “Out Of Jail” both manage to sound like classic TMBG, despite the full band sound, while “A Self Called Nowhere” is almost Beatlesque in its psychedelic choruses. “Meet James Ensor” (which celebrates “Belgium’s famous painter”) and “Thermostat” (a metaphor within an owner’s manual) return to the their more geeky aspects, then “Window” sounds like a “Fingertips” segment stretched out to a full minute. The energy keeps going on “Stomp Box”, a frenetic tune akin to “Dig My Grave” from the last album, and then “The End Of The Tour” uses another travelin’ band image while describing a car crash, or something like that.

Overall, John Henry is the band’s weakest yet. For the first time it felt like they put too much on one album; perhaps some paring back might have helped, or better pacing between the slower ones and the better, faster tunes on what we used to call side two. The good moments are good, certainly, but listeners will likely prefer to go back to the earlier stuff.

They Might Be Giants John Henry (1994)—3

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Jeff Beck 11: Guitar Shop

Another long break separated Jeff Beck albums, during which he spent a bit of time tinkering with cars in his home garage. The artwork for Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop cleverly played on this, while the credits unweildingly and repeatedly touted co-collaborators Tony Hymas on keyboards and Terry Bozzio on drums. In comparison to the high-gloss all-star approach on his last album, the trio format provides a return to form for Beck, who can simply concentrate on playing the guitar while Hymas fills in the blanks.

The title track effectively evokes the sound of a garage without sounding too gimmicky, at least until Terry adds a wacky voiceover honed from years of recording and performing with Frank Zappa. What sounds like a sax is actually a keyboard, showing how far the technology had (finally) come. “Savoy” swings a bit, though we could do without the canned audience cheering. “Behind The Veil” explores a distinct reggae groove, while “Big Block” is fat and funky, with a few surprising chords out of the well-worn E platform. All that makes the slow and pretty “Where Were You” all the more welcome, with only the barest keys under Beck’s melody.

The effect is even more profound on LP, as the tune closes side one, and on those cassette players not equipped with auto-reverse. Otherwise, CD listeners (or streamers today) are sent directly to “Stand On It”, which again sits on one chord before heading off into harmonized territory. “Day At The House” is yet another one-chord funk jam, this time split up by Bozzio’s comments on environmental issues. It’s a sharp left turn to slow jam territory on “Two Rivers”, then back to the high-speed assault of “Sling Shot”.

While not quite the jazz fusion that emerged at the end of the previous decade, Guitar Shop is a wise back-to-basics move for Beck, and a refreshing alternative to the high-speed metal of the period. It’s not supposed to be groundbreaking, and it’s not; mostly it sounds like he was having fun.

Jeff Beck With Terry Bozzio and Tony Hymas Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989)—3

Friday, February 21, 2020

Cat Stevens 13: An Other Cup

Well, this was unexpected. After nearly three decades of musical silence—save the occasional benefit performance in this century—the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens returned to a world everyone thought he’d left behind. Not that Yusuf Islam had been completely absent; he still showed up in the news when his academic views on the Muslim faith collided with conservative Western thought, a situation not helped when the word “Islam” caused knee-jerk reactions throughout the so-called War on Terror. That could be why An Other Cup was credited to simply Yusuf, with a sticker helpfully referencing his ‘70s nom de pop. (We’re keeping him tagged under that name for our own convenience.)

Despite the Latin horns on “Midday (Avoid City After Dark)”, the album more or less picks up where he left off, and if some of the music sounds like vintage Cat, that’s because some of it is. “Heaven/Where True Love Goes” plays on the last section from “Foreigner Suite”, while “I Think I See The Light” revisits a tune from Mona Bone Jakon. “Greenfields/Golden Sands” was supposedly begun in the ‘70s, but not finished until now. Old friends like Alun Davies and Jean Roussel are on board to bring back the classic sound as well.

In general, the album delivers thoughtful acoustic folk-type songs without too much over-production. “In The End” is the closest to a straight pop song, while Youssou N’Dour adds his unique voice to “The Beloved”. “Whispers From A Spiritual Garden” and “When Butterflies Leave” are detours into poetry. The most surprising song is a remake of the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, with lyrical changes designed to defend his beliefs rather than plead with a lover. (The UK got a bonus track in the form of “There Is Peace”, which isn’t any more or less pleasant than anything else on the album proper.)

Overall the lyrics aren’t any more preachy than Dylan’s born-again phase, and still center on the same search that dominated his best music of years before. The music is what matters, and his voice, as warm as ever, makes An Other Cup worthwhile. It’s nice to have him back.

Yusuf An Other Cup (2006)—3

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Grateful Dead 12: Mars Hotel

Throughout 1973 and 1974 the Dead kept busy both on and off stage, and soon enough had a batch of new songs for another studio album. From The Mars Hotel is a step up from the less-than-awesome Wake Of The Flood, helped by the inclusion of some ready-made Garcia/Hunter classics.

“U.S. Blues” kicks off the proceedings, and a good song for a country already excited for its bicentennial. “China Doll” revives some of the gothic mystery not heard since Aoxomoxoa, and Phil Lesh mostly rises to the occasion with the complex “Unbroken Chain”. (We say “mostly” because Donna Godchaux’s prominent vocals are mixed too high, and the synthesizer contributions from occasional auxiliary band member Ned Lagin can be a little distracting.) “Loose Lucy” is a bit of boogie sure to please crowds.

“Scarlet Begonias” is another good one, often mistitled “might as well try” and “rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes” based on the lyrics. (It also predicts an outfit one day called the Heart Of Gold Band.) Phil returns to the microphone for “Pride Of Cucamonga”, with pedal steel guitar from John McFee, then of Clover and later of the Doobie Brothers. Strangely, Bob Weir takes a back seat to Phil, contributing just one track. The lackluster “Money Money” stumbles through changing time signatures and even quotes the riff from Barrett Strong’s oft-covered “Money”. The best is truly saved for last: “Ship Of Fools” provides a wonderful commentary that could relate to the Nixon administration, today’s headlines, or anyone in a take-this-job-and-shove-it situation.

Even though Donna is given way too much room to wail from time to time, Mars Hotel is one of the better ‘70s Dead albums, and worth grabbing if you don’t want to get the entire catalog. The expanded CD is notable for including wonderful solo acoustic demos of both of Phil’s tunes, an early stab at “U.S. Blues” before the lyrics were settled, as well as the band’s only live performance of “Let It Rock”, which Jerry played often in his solo bands.

Grateful Dead From The Mars Hotel (1974)—
2006 expanded CD: same as 1974, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, February 14, 2020

Phil Collins 5: Both Sides

After several high-profile years, both on his own and with Genesis, Phil Collins came home to find his marriage falling apart. Just as he did for Face Value, he turned to his trusty drum machine and home studio to put some demos together. But instead of adding horn sections and all-star buddies, he pretty much left the demos unadorned, and that was Both Sides.

Not all of the songs deal with failed romance, but overall it’s still a dour album, even when it’s upbeat. Apparently convinced that But Seriously wasn’t serious enough, “Both Sides Of The Story” treads territory familiar from “Another Day In Paradise”, but with faster drums and guitars and a distinct Peter Gabriel influence in the bridge (think “Biko”). “Can’t Turn Back The Years” is the first lover’s lament, while “Everyday” fills the “Never A Time” template following an extended solo piano intro. “I’ve Forgotten Everything” is a well-worn lyric in a defensive vein, but the recording certainly owes a debt to the Blue Nile. “We’re Sons Of Our Fathers” utilizes a banjo and canned horns for a near-Dixieland feel that thankfully dissipates. At least the track provides a little variety once those instruments are overshadowed, even if it if is about damn kids nowadays. “Can’t Find My Way” would likely stand out on any other album; here it’s just another mope.

While still a plea for forgiveness, “Survivors” revives the driving sound of the opening track, with prominent drums layered on top. It’s a shame he didn’t realize that the opening of “We Fly So Close” is ripped off from the theme from the movie Fame; maybe he was too concerned with repeating the basic chords from “In The Air Tonight”, right up to the guitar at the chorus. Despite the obvious nod to “Somewhere” from West Side Story, “There’s A Place For Us” has a Prince-worthy hook that’s screaming for someone to cover it. While supposedly about the ongoing troubles in Northern Ireland, the bagpipes on “We Wait And We Wonder” once again recall Peter Gabriel, this time “Come Talk To Me” from the year before. And in case you didn’t get the point, “Please Come Out Tonight” reiterates what’s really on his mind.

As is common with albums recorded in solitude, editing is eschewed throughout Both Sides, resulting in another over-long album, with several tracks lasting well over five, six, even seven minutes. Once again good songs get lost in the interminable sequence. Hence, it wasn’t the smash we’d come to expect; even the adult contemporary crowd seemed to be less than interested in something so down. (One of the first releases in the “Take A Look At Me Now” reissue series, the bonus Extra Sides disc collected a few contemporary B-sides, including the catchy “Take Me With You”, a demo of “Hero” as given to David Crosby, and a handful of live versions of album songs from questionable audio sources.)

Phil Collins Both Sides (1993)—
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1993, plus 10 extra tracks

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Rush 18: Roll The Bones

It’s safe to say that Rush was a mainstream band now, miles away from their Dungeons & Dragons roots. The cover of Roll The Bones may not intentionally acknowledge that dice-centric pastime, but once again utilizes a multilevel visual pun.

While not as obvious as side one of 2112 or such lengthy epics as “Cygnus X-1”, many of Rush’s albums can be considered concept albums, as there is often a common lyrical theme. On Roll The Bones, the theme is chance, gambling, and the general belief that fate is not pre-determined. “Dreamline” doesn’t directly concern that theme, but it’s a great track for driving, and a suitable anthem for the youth who managed to escape “Subdivisions”. Similarly, “Bravado” continues the “don’t give up” message from “The Pass” for a solid one-two punch.

And then the title track happens. The canned horns used on “Dreamline” are really starting to grate here, and funk isn’t really Rush’s thing. But nothing will prepare you for the rap section in the middle, to the point where even the chorus can’t redeem it. “Face Up” includes some keyboards we thought they’d left behind on Hold Your Fire, but at least it sounds like they’re having fun, even more so on the well-constructed instrumental “Where’s My Thing?”, helpfully subtitled “Part IV, ‘Gangster Of Boats’ Trilogy”.

In acknowledgement that their fans were older—as were they—“The Big Wheel” is the first song that approaches the topic of love and romance since “Tears” on 2112, this time in the form of a mild pep talk. “Ghost Of A Chance” is a more serious look at the topic, nailed to a garage riff and arena-ready solo. In between, “Heresy” considers the fall of the Iron Curtain without being too sappy, though the martial rhythms that open and close the track are a tad cliché. “Neurotica” finds Neil Peart having fun with words, though this time the pep talk is more along the lines of “snap out of it!” A few wacky time signatures help trip up the track. “You Bet Your Life” offers more wordplay, and the album basically ends.

Roll The Bones isn’t a classic out of the gate, but it remains catchy and, dare we say, toe-tapping. Save the title track, it’s easy to ignore, and we mean that in a good way. It might have been their most accessible album to date, filling a niche smack dab in the middle of the decline of hair metal and the rise of grunge.

Rush Roll The Bones (1991)—3

Friday, February 7, 2020

Robbie Robertson 5: How To Become Clairvoyant

After a decade spent scoring films and hawking the legacy of the Band, Robbie Robertson actually got around to recording an album of songs. Despite the photos of the artist in a hoodie and contributions from people like Trent Reznor and Marius de Vries, throughout How To Become Clairvoyant he generally acts his age and goes with his strengths.

He’s also wise enough to ask notable guests to contribute. “Straight Down The Line” immediately conjures good memories of his first two solo albums, with help from guitarist Robert Randolph. The sultry “When The Night Was Young” and “The Right Mistake” feature the vocals of one Angela McLuskey. But the most prominent special guest is Eric Clapton, who sings and plays on half the album, even writing some, while Steve Winwood adds his trademark organ. Clapton is most prominent on “Fear Of Falling”, which sounds more like one of his own recent albums, and the instrumental “Madame X”, which is the track with the Reznor credit but hardly Nine Inch Nails. “Axman” name-checks various guitar slingers of days gone by, but the only guy Robbie trades licks with is Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine.

Even without the neon-bright guest appearances, the songs are commendable, for the most part. “He Don’t Live Here No More” is full of mystery, but “This Is Where I Get Off” only scratches the surface about why he left The Band, mostly relying on clichés. “She’s Not Mine” might sink under a more syrupy arrangement, but here he lets his raspy voice do the talking, whereas “Won’t Be Back” is sufficiently heartbreaking. The title track had already appeared on a soundtrack for the vampire TV series True Blood, and is loaded with imagery and metaphors, with a teasing narrative a la “Somewhere Down The Crazy River”. The closing instrumental “Tango For Django” doesn’t sound much like a tango to these ears, but some of the atmospherics are nice.

Without a doubt, How To Become Clairvoyant is a very pleasant surprise, and certainly the true follow-up to the debut and Storyville. It’s a grower, and we like that.

Robbie Robertson How To Become Clairvoyant (2011)—3

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Simon & Garfunkel 7: Old Friends

As they only had five albums, it had been easy for people to amass the Simon & Garfunkel catalog for years, particularly when most of the albums were available at the budget “Nice Price” tier. That didn’t stop the label from putting them all in a box called Collected Works; this 1981 release came with no frills but the music, although the eventual CD version cut it down to three discs by doubling up the first two pairs while adding a booklet of lyrics.

By the mid-‘90s the archival box set had been well established, so they were due, and Old Friends managed to outdo Paul’s skimpy offering of a few years before. Besides having a perfect title, this three-disc set served up music from their first Columbia sessions all the way to their last shows in the ‘60s, ending fittingly with “My Little Town”. For the most part, the music is presented chronologically, generally by recording date, which sometimes better reflects when certain singles appeared months before they were included on albums.

A lovely demo of “Bleecker Street” begins the set, followed by seven songs from the first album. Eight songs from the second are well spaced, so the single version of “The Sound Of Silence” doesn’t come too soon after the LP version. “Homeward Bound” was from those sessions, and it precedes their great take on Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run The Game”. Eight songs from Parsley, Sage lead into “A Hazy Shade Of Winter” and “At The Zoo” in place as singles. Five selections from a 1967 Lincoln Center concert provide new perspectives on oft-heard tracks, plus a harmonized rendition of “A Church Is Burning” from Paul’s then-obscure solo album and even “Red Rubber Ball”, which had topped the charts the year before by the Cyrkle. The trawl through what would become Bookends continues with “Fakin’ It” and its rare B-side, “You Don’t Know Where Your Interest Lies”. For some reason they recorded a couple of Christmas carols around this time; both end the second disc. Three songs from a 1968 concert include an earlier live recording of “Bye Bye Love”, followed by the rest of Bridge Over Troubled Water in order of recording. The duo’s demo of “Feuilles-O” appears, but not the notorious “Cuba Si, Nixon No”. Two performances from Carnegie Hall, these from late in 1969, include a medley of “Hey Schoolgirl” and “Black Slacks”, followed by “That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine”.

As with most boxes of this ilk, Old Friends delivers a lot, but leaves the listener wanting more, such as the handful of album tracks not included. A few years later, The Columbia Studio Recordings expanded on the original idea of Collected Works by bolstering each of the albums with bonus tracks, repeating some (but not all) from the Old Friends set. (The expanded albums were all made available individually as well.)

Simon & Garfunkel Old Friends (1997)—
Simon & Garfunkel
The Columbia Studio Recordings (1964-1970) (2001)—4