Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Sting 15: My Songs

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

Sting My Songs (2019)—2

Friday, April 24, 2020

Marshall Crenshaw 8: Miracle Of Science

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

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Monkees 11: The Mike & Micky Show

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

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

Friday, April 17, 2020

Pink Floyd 21: The Later Years

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

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Brian Eno 19: Small Craft On A Milk Sea

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

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

Friday, April 10, 2020

Gene Clark 2: Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark

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

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

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

John Entwistle 3: Rigor Mortis Sets In

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

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

Friday, April 3, 2020

Cream 5: Live Cream

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

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

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

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