Friday, March 27, 2020

Chris Whitley: Living With The Law

Here’s an album we very likely would never have heard had a friend not told us, “It’s the closest thing you’re going to find to that Daniel Lanois album you like so much.”

Indeed, Living With The Law was produced by Malcolm Burn and engineered by Mark Howard, both Lanois protégés who had been involved with Acadie and other productions. But instead of applying the sound to established legends like Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan, this time the recipient was somebody brand new on any scene. Chris Whitley was a good-looking kid with long hair who specialized in open tunings on National acoustic and occasional electric guitars, with a voice that flipped easily from growl to falsetto and back. The rhythm section was the familiar Lanois crew of Daryl Johnson and Ronald Jones, with Bill Dillon adding the more straightforward guitar parts.

From the opening “Excerpt”—a few seconds of tuning up—the overall sound is dusty, wide open space, rooms with bare light bulbs, radios that go in and out of reception (used to good effect over the fade of “Dust Radio”). The titles say a lot: “Big Sky Country”, “Make The Dirt Stick”, “Bordertown”. “Phone Call From Leavenworth” is voice and guitar, as a prison ballad should be; “Look What Love Has Done” is an excellent display of his vocals. But while blues is the driver, the songs are catchy and cross genre; even the urgent “Kick The Stones” was used in the soundtrack of Thelma & Louise. “Poison Girl” is a wonderful rocker, but the best is still the defiant yet hurt “I Forget You Every Day”.

It took Chris Whitley a long time to do a follow-up, and by then he was all about distortion and sonic yowl. He would eventually get back to basics, but his bad health caught up with him, and he never quite followed on the commercial promise of Living With The Law. If only we could remember who it was that told us about the album in the first place.

Chris Whitley Living With The Law (1991)—

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Dwight Twilley 2: Twilley Don’t Mind

The Dwight Twilley Band’s debut was a mélange of tracks created in studios on different continents over a few years years, but Twilley Don’t Mind was made in one place, and somewhat quickly. While a little more uniform and streamlined, it’s just as solid as Sincerely.

The straightforward rock of “Here She Comes” is a good place as any to start, especially when driving with the top down in search of young girls in wet T-shirts and tight blue jeans. “Looking For The Magic” has Dwight’s terrific natural tremolo vocals with verses that sound like they were made up on the spot. Oh mercy indeed. (Cool trivia: Tom Petty is credited with guitar on this track, but in the clip you can find of them miming the song for TV, he’s holding a bass.) “That I Remember” brings a welcome swagger despite the lonesome lyrics, while “Rock And Roll 47” is another in-joke we don’t get. But then Phil Seymour takes the lead vocal on “Trying To Find My Baby”, possibly our favorite song of the oeuvre.

Perversely, Phil also sings lead on the title track, which almost adds insult to injury, since he’s the band’s entire rhythm section. This comparative trifle of a number is nicely forgotten by the almost grandiose “Sleeping”, which isn’t just the longest track, but even sports a string arrangement by James Newton Howard, who’d been busy the previous couple of years with Elton John. Lest one think the boys were too ambitious, “Chance To Get Away” is a terrific close harmony gold nugget. And while “Invasion” may seem a trifle along the lines of “England” or “TV”, the lyrics reveal some pointed commentary on their professional ties.

By the time the album came out, the Shelter label had been swallowed up by relative upstart Arista, so one could assume Twilley Don’t Mind would have gotten some more legs, even after three singles were released from the album. It still makes a wonderful companion to the debut, and should be sought out post haste. (Sometime in the ‘90s it was decided to swap the opening tracks of each side, which does the favor of getting the title track out of the way early. Some but all CDs also included “Fallin’ In Love”, a lost gem that fell off the original sequence, as a bonus track.)

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

Friday, March 20, 2020

Kinks 18: Preservation Act 2

The hollow promise of Preservation Act 1 wasn’t very encouraging, but those still keen to see it through had to wait only about six months until Preservation Act 2 presented the story proper over four sides. This was more of an original cast recording, complete with radio-style announcements appearing here and there to fill in the details. Once again, each of the tracks is sung by a character, with a couple roles taken by a singer outside of the five Kinks. This time it’s even more difficult to enjoy individual songs without thinking of the plot, which is pretty bleak overall.

The first announcement warns listeners of a “people’s army” formed by the upstart communist Mr. Black in order to topple the power of Mr. Flash. “Introduction To Solution” finds the Tramp expanding on the situation, and not very optimistic that things will turn out at all well—a rather unappealing way to start a show. Thankfully, “When A Solution Comes” and “Money Talks” are dark rockers, and fairly decent, too, but another announcement heralds a speech by Mr. Black, delivered as “Shepherds Of The Nation” and basically the platform of what we’d know in a few years as the Moral Majority.

At this point we’ve gone completely into Broadway musical territory, as Mr. Flash defends his status as “Scum Of The Earth”, and one of his toadies talks of his background as a “Second-Hand Car Spiv”; neither are very enjoyable, but at least we hear a subtle reprise of “Here Comes Flash”. “He’s Evil” is presented as a “party political broadcast” by Mr. Black about Mr. Flash, but as it’s presented in the style of warning a woman that a suitor will only break her heart, it’s an improvement. “Mirror Of Love” is sung (by Ray) as Flash’s main squeeze, defending her devotion to him, and another trip to vaudeville. But another announcement tells of a “victory” for Mr. Black that resulted in “casualties”. Cue curtain for intermission.

The Tramp returns to lament that “Nobody Gives” (a damn, that is), recalling the miners’ strike of 1926 and the rise of Hitler, with the idea that neither “side” provided a solution. It’s a long track, but it does rock. “Oh Where Oh Where Is Love” continues the theme, but now it’s sung in a duet with one Maryann Price, most recently of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, and doing a passable British accent. Just when you think the album might be improving (again), the most embarrassing track yet in the Kinks’ name arrives. “Flash’s Dream (The Final Elbow)” is a conversation between Flash and his conscience (much like Prince would a decade later on “Temptation”) that’s impossible to take seriously. Having become convinced of his own imminent demise, “Flash’s Confession” continues the nightmare, for him and for us.

“Nothing Lasts Forever” is another duet made for the stage and not a rock album, Ms. Price betraying more of a twang in her vocal. (She’s apparently taken the role Ray sang in “Mirror Of Love”, which is another thing wrong with this album.) We are informed that Mr. Black’s army overthrew Mr. Flash’s regime, and took him prisoner. “Artificial Man” reveals Black’s true aim: he’s engaged an actual mad scientist to create a perfect race of automatons, Ray apparently ignorant that he’d co-opted one of the major plot points of The Rocky Horror Show. Musically it’s about as over the top as anything in Phantom Of The Paradise, and that’s not meant nicely. Ms. Price returns to warble about the Village Green’s transformation into “Scrapheap City”, then we’re informed that the new regime has installed a curfew, food and utility rationing, control over telecommunications, etc. “Salvation Road” is supposedly the theme song of the regime, and while it’s good that it sounds like the Kinks, it’s way too late to save the album.

Preservation Act 2 seems a lot longer than it is, and it is exhausting. Maybe one day we’ll have the gumption to try to siphon the album down to just cool tracks and try to ignore their intended significance, and perhaps program a single two-sided LP out of it. Until then, we really don’t want to visit this particular village green again. (The double Rhino CD didn’t include any extras for the Act 2 portion, but the late ‘90s single CD reissue of the album added two at the end of the program. An alternate recording of “Mirror Of Love” was originally released as a single, and the tuba doesn’t do it any favors. “Slum Kids” was a refugee of the stage show, and represented here in a 1979 performance.)

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Kinks 17: Preservation Act 1

To say that Ray Davies was struggling is an understatement. Ten years into his professional career as a songwriter his work had become a chore, as he toiled away to be both commercial and profound. Plus, having established himself as a storyteller without compare, everything he issued had to have a theme. (Pete Townshend had the same problem, but that’s another story.)

Going back to the well is an iffy prospect for any auteur, so an extended theatrical expansion on the ideas of The Village Green Preservation Society was bound to be a challenge. What’s more, in an era of grand statements versus timetables, 1973’s Preservation opus was released in two parts before being taken on the road as a multimedia extravaganza. Preservation Act 1 was designed to set up the story somewhat, introducing characters and themes. That helps one approach it as just an album unencumbered by a plot yet to be fully revealed, but only just so, as the lyrics point out what characters sing which songs.

A wordless chorale is the basis of “Morning Song”, something of a cartoony intro that dares the listener not to think it’s a parody. “Daylight” is the first proper song, and at least it sounds like the Kinks, even after the now omnipresent brass band comes in to evoke the village green itself. “Sweet Lady Genevieve” is sung by the Tramp, but works as another lovelorn plaint and klassic Kinks too, particularly with brother Dave harmonizing on the title. Unfortunately fittingly, “There’s A Change In The Weather” is where the promise of those tracks dims. This portrait of class struggle is sung by three men in the same vocal tone, starting as a rocker but switching to a brass waltz and crawling through a heavy dirge back to the brass. “Where Are They Now?” and “One Of The Survivors” improve things slightly, the former a lament for Swinging London, angry-young-men playwrights, mods and rockers—basically everything before the summer of Love—while the latter revives the Johnny Thunder character, still on his motorcycle. By now Ray’s rhyming of pop culture icons is wearing thin.

Perhaps the most arcane track to American listeners, “Cricket” is a sermon sung by the Vicar, comparing that oh-so British sport to life. It’s clever, but it’s really to tell whether Ray has any sympathy for these characters. The plot becomes much more apparent on the medley that follows. After the chorus rails against “Money & Corruption” and prays for a savior to lead them, Mr. Black shows up to declare “I Am Your Man”, promising a version of communism that will benefit all (or at least make sure everyone has modern appliances). It would seem that the community had been taken in before, as recounted in “Here Comes Flash”, which begins as a cool riff and Dave singing lead, but soon turns to another cartoon piece, complete with closing faux-classical ending. The Tramp doesn’t seem bothered by any of this, as he’s “Sitting In The Midday Sun”, something of a cross between “Sunny Afternoon” and “Sitting By The Riverside”. In “Demolition” we finally get to hear what makes Mr. Flash so reprehensible: he was the developer who tore down all those lovely old houses to put up tower blocks and destroy the pastoral landscape. Once again, Dave’s solo bits redeem the track.

Again, as Preservation Act 1 was a stopgap to buy time necessary to complete the production, it demands to be heard as a first installment, and not its own entity. A standalone single that served to summarize the story appeared much later. “Preservation” was included as the “prologue” on Rhino’s 1991 double-CD set that contained both acts, and this sequencing was continued on the eventual single CD reissued in the late ‘90s. While a decent rocker and a welcome synopsis, its placement at the start of the program completely throws off the dynamics of the original LP. (The other bonus was the single edit of “One Of The Survivors”, one of the few songs that works on its own.)

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

Friday, March 13, 2020

Elton John 13: Rock Of The Westies

Having felt something of a rut setting in, Elton John fired his longtime rhythm section, replacing them with players from the early days and a couple of Americans found along the way. The sound was bigger but still Elton, as demonstrated on his next album, once again recorded at Caribou in Colorado. Rock Of The Westies is an odd little album, full of strange song titles but plenty of commercial sheen.

The opening “Medley (Yell Help – Wednesday Night – Ugly)” finds him harmonizing with himself over James Newton Howard’s funky clavinet (part of Elton’s new band strategy being that he’d stick to piano). The funk continues on “Dan Dare (Pilot Of The Future)”, which namechecks a sci-fi hero of British comic books amid other garbled lyrics; amazingly, the closing vocal chorale sounds just like Queen. “Island Girl” is the latest attempt to immortalize a woman from an exotic place, musically very interesting given the unconventional bass line. It was the album’s only hit single, unlike “Grow Some Funk Of Your Own”, something of a take on “Gimme Three Steps” and not entirely convincing, or “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)”, which takes Bernie Taupin’s cowboy fixation to the extreme, in an arrangement already perfected in the arrangements on the last album.

The howling guitar and riff at the top of “Street Kids” recalls Bad Company until the congas kick in, and the tricky meter manages to keep it interesting. However, “Hard Luck Story” is fairly pedestrian, with a chorus that sounds flown in from a completely different song than the verses. “Feed Me” is all yacht-rock swagger; these days we want to add “Seymour” to every time he croons the title. But nothing prepares the listener for the bombastic arrangement of “Billy Bones And The White Bird”, which in no way suggests the “ancient mariner” tale hidden in the lyrics. “Check it out,” indeed.

Rock Of The Westies isn’t bad, and not strange enough to be a failed departure. It came out a mere five months after its predecessor, and as a whole suggests that maybe a little more time than that was needed. (The eventual expanded CD included two extras from the album sessions: a low-key take of “Planes”, later covered by the lead singer of the Zombies, and the lovely B-side “Sugar On The Floor”, written by new protégée Kiki Dee, of whom more would be heard and soon.)

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Frank Zappa 40: Mothers Of Prevention

The actions of a few Senators’ wives gave Frank his biggest public exposure since the “Valley Girl” single. Appalled that these women were using their privileged access to possible legislation that would censor musicians, and its proximity to a proposed home-taping tax, he put on a nice suit and testified before the Senate (alongside John Denver and Dee Snider) to point the finger of shame at everyone involved. He wasn’t touring anyway, so the fight against the PMRC gave him something to do. (He’d been labeling his albums himself already anyway.)

It remains unknown whether the album titled Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention would have appeared in this or any format, but it did, and that was the context. Much of the album is instrumental, with the sampling capabilities of the Synclavier (his current pet noisemaker) to the fore.

Side one is a mishmash. “We’re Turning Again” is mildly melodic, but mostly notable for quoting various classic rock songs by the (mostly dead) singers they lampoon, perpetuating the Cass Elliot ham sandwich rumor, and Ike Willis’ impressions of Walter Cronkite, Bob Dylan, and Thing-Fish. The instrumental “Alien Orifice” has a mild TV cop show theme mood, but at least it’s got a decent guitar solo, sorely lacking on this album. “Yo Cats” is a lounge jazz tirade against schooled musicians, again crooned by Ike, while “What’s New In Baltimore?” is a more enjoyable instrumental, with a lengthy guitar solo, once again resembling the closing theme to Saturday Night Live.

Side two is bookended by two Synclavier instrumentals of mild interest, “Little Beige Sambo” and “Aerobics In Bondage”. In between is the centerpiece of the album, “Porn Wars”. Here various soundbites of the Senators from the PMRC hearing are quoted, sampled, ridiculed, and interspersed with Synclavier music, snippets of the people in the piano from Lumpy Gravy and yet another appearance by Thing-Fish. Outside of Frank’s voice, the one that truly stands out today is that of Al Gore; we had no idea he’d be vice president within ten years, and almost president in fifteen. A couple Senators sound like Foghorn Leghorn, and one goes to far as to allege Frank’s Constitutional ignorance without letting him reply that, in fact, he’d always gotten top marks in his high school civics class.

Not wanting to bore overseas listeners with the silly antics of the American government, the album was released elsewhere in a “European version” that dropped “Porn Wars” in favor of three exclusive tracks. Two of these were tacked onto the following year’s CD in the U.S., which also rejigged the sequence slightly. “I Don’t Even Care” features Johnny “Guitar” Watson yelling over a live jam, while “One Man, One Vote” is another Synclavier piece. (The third track finally appeared when the album was reissued in the 1995 catalog overhaul, and it’s remained there ever since. “H.R. 2911” was named after the home taping bill Frank suspected was tied up with all the PMRC business, and consists of some of the Synclavier music heard under “Porn Wars”, with lots of snorks as percussion.)

From a musical standpoint, Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention is mildly interesting but not essential. For students of history, his testimony is in the public record, can be watched online, and can also be read in The Real Frank Zappa Book. He continued to toy with the material at home, of course. Compiled in 1989 but not released for 23 years, the Understanding America compilation included “Porn Wars Deluxe”, twice the length of the original version thanks to the inclusion of musical excerpts from the Zappa catalog and even more Senatorial soundbites. 2010’s “Congress Shall Make No Law…” presented his full Senate testimony as well as a later appearance before Maryland state legislature, broken up by Synclavier music and samples of his nephew burping.

Meanwhile, the record industry did indeed adopt a generic “parental advisory—explicit lyrics” label that was soon widely lampooned and kept certain albums out of Wal-Mart, while making it easier for kids to find albums sure to piss off their elders. And yet somehow, some way, the world kept turning.

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

Friday, March 6, 2020

Joni Mitchell 23: Shine

If you leave a genius alone long enough, she’ll emerge when she has something to say. And that’s exactly what Joni Mitchell did, nearly a decade after her last album of new material. Shine arrived with no agenda, save the pile of songs she’d just created, or came to her, however you want to put it. Best of all, most were simply arranged, with nothing reeking of any time period or musical trend—just her voice, her piano or guitar, and a few friends adding the instruments she didn’t play, like winds and pedal steel.

In an unexpected move, Shine begins with “One Week Last Summer”, a wonderful piano instrumental with saxophone that manages to sound fully orchestrated. “This Place” celebrates the great outdoors and wide open spaces, helped by pedal steel guitar, in the hope that there’ll still be time before they all get mined for any number of reasons. She returns to the piano for “If I Had A Heart”, a lament for the state of the world in the post-9/11 world and the numbness that has resulted. The drum machine and effects turn up on “Hana”, and she adds some amazingly distorted guitar herself, which is jarring at first. However, taken as part of the whole it’s not too distracting, particularly with the slow pretty piano of “Bad Dreams”.

A remake of “Big Yellow Taxi” is unnecessary, except to enforce that she’d been pissed about the environment for decades. The canned beats continue, along with that wacky guitar, on “Night Of The Iguana”, which was inspired by the movie of the play of the same name, tied to the ecological theme. “Strong And Wrong” is back to the piano, mourning centuries of man’s hubris in the name of religion. For an excellent juxtaposition, the title track is a lengthy prayer, asking for grace for all things on Earth, from little children and starving fishermen to misguided leaders and even those who inspire road rage. That would be a heavy way to go out, but instead she chooses to end with “If”, an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem that extols strength in the face of chaos.

A comeback of this magnitude would normally lead directly to a Grammy for Album of the Year; instead, that increasingly dubious honor went to Herbie Hancock’s all-star tribute River: The Joni Letters, out the same day. Featuring appearances by Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and the woman herself, it recast songs from her catalog into Starbucks-friendly jazz, pushed along by Wayne Shorter and Vinnie Colaiuta. The album works best on the instrumental tracks, particularly as two of them are jazz standards: “Solitude”, by Duke Ellington, and “Nefertiti”, which Shorter (who wrote it) and Hancock played with Miles Davis. (A 10-year anniversary edition thoughtfully included a second disc comprising the four bonus tracks that had been farmed out to Amazon and iTunes.)

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