Friday, May 29, 2020

Bryan Ferry 3: Let’s Stick Together

While Roxy Music was on hold, Bryan Ferry didn’t waste the opportunity to do a summing-up of his own. Let’s Stick Together fit with his existing solo brand of Roxy-fied covers, but this time collected various strays that had been already issued as B-sides or EPs. The other difference was that half of the album consisted of re-recorded Roxy tracks, mostly from the first album. “Casanova” is transformed into a slinky strut, while “Sea Breezes” tempers the creep factor somewhat. “2HB” and “Chance Meeting” might as well be the same recordings, but unfortunately, “Re-Make/Re-Model” is drained of its charm, losing the solo sections but retaining the slowdown.

The balance of the album shows he’s getting the hang of putting his own stamp on covers. The “title track” is dominated by a saxophone honking one note throughout—just like the harmonica on Wilbert Harrison’s original, but not as charmingly. “Shame, Shame, Shame” is nice and trashy, the Beatles’ “It’s Only Love” is completely transformed into something else entirely, and the old chestnut “You Go To My Head” becomes pure Philly soul. “The Price Of Love” was a latter-day Everly Brothers hit; just chop off the mariachi trumpet at the start for best effect. Finally, “Heart On My Sleeve” was actually a current song, courtesy of the Gallagher and Lyle songwriting team.

Having been cobbled from various sources, Let’s Stick Together actually works as an album, with enough variety to keep him from having to sustain a theme. The alternate takes on Roxy tunes remain curiosities, in all senses of the word.

Bryan Ferry Let’s Stick Together (1976)—3

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Roxy Music 6: Viva! and Greatest Hits

Some said Roxy Music broke up, others said they were taking a break. While various members would collaborate over the next couple years, the first thing they did was release a live album, which is what you’re supposed to do, unless you do a hits collection, and we’ll get to that.

Viva! Roxy Music was compiled predominantly from a couple shows from 1974, with two songs from a year before and another from a year after. The energy throughout is good, and consistent throughout. The transitions between songs from different tours are particularly seamless. Even the quieter tracks, like “Chance Meeting”, get to shine in the live setting, as even Glaswegian audiences hadn’t yet learned to be as disruptive as their American cousins. Fans of John Wetton will want to pay close attention, as he played bass on the 1974 tour, and his contributions stand out, particularly on “The Bogus Man” and the loud portion of “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”. Meanwhile, Sal Maida, later of the legendary Long Island power pop outfit Milk ‘N’ Cookies, features on bass for the 1973 tracks. And when the album ends, it just ends—no audience cheering, just silence.

The only real rarity on Viva! is “Pyjamarama”, a standalone single taken at a sluggish pace. Luckily, it was included at full speed, albeit remixed, on the following year’s Greatest Hits, alongside such usual suspects as “Virginia Plain”, “Love Is The Drug”, and “Do The Strand”. Granted, most of these were hits in the UK only, but that shouldn’t bother American fans. The tempo stays up all the way through “A Song For Europe”, and regains the pace for the last two tracks. Easily a good place to start, at least until the number of Roxy compilations would dwarf that of their studio albums.

Roxy Music Viva! Roxy Music (1976)—
Roxy Music
Greatest Hits (1977)—

Friday, May 22, 2020

Paul Simon 14: The Capeman

After the period of relatively high activity that began with Graceland, it had been a long time since a new album of songs from Paul Simon. And when one did arrive, it wasn’t exactly what people expected.

It turned out he’d been very busy for most of the ‘90s working on a Broadway musical, which took both a lot of work and a lot of money. He soon learned the hard way that neither of those factors would guarantee success. The Capeman was based on the life of a convicted murderer who dominated New York City headlines in the late ‘50s, partially because of his youth and partially because of his Puerto Rican heritage. Simon’s approach to creating this grand work was unorthodox, and he didn’t make too many friends in the process. When the show debuted, it was lambasted, but the writing was already on the wall when people heard the album designed to preview and promote it.

Songs From The Capeman is credited to Paul Simon alone, but many of the vocals are handled by the actors and actresses in the play, to the point where one forgets who wrote everything. Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades appear here and there, yet he himself sings “Born In Puerto Rico”, which is hard to believe even as a character because of his by-now familiar voice. (José Feliciano sings the version added as a bonus track the following century, and it’s better.)

The album demands attention, since the lyrics (or libretto) is very important to the story at hand. It would help if the story were linear, but it’s not. It’s easy to slip into the background, and then some spurt of profanity or stereotypical patois will leap from the speakers, and we worry about its effect on impressionable children. That happens a lot in “Adios Hermanos”; loading up your opening track with f-bombs isn’t likely to appeal to a more conservative fan base. Dialogue from archival interviews is intended to add gravitas, but merely muddies the process.

Musically it’s not bad; we’re in no position to judge the authenticity of the Latin heritage and style, but this is mostly balanced throughout by a wonderful smattering of doo-wop. “Quality” balances two doo-wop styles, the solo croon and the girl-group chorus, quite well, and better than the dual personality of “Bernadette”. “Virgil”, sung from the point of view of a prison guard, sounds like a hokey Western gunfight. “Killer Wants To Go To College” is a decent tune with too much plot, even split into two parts. “Trailways Bus” will only have one yearning to hitchhike from Saginaw with a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies. The finest moment could be “Can I Forgive Him”, set up as a conversation between the Capeman’s mother and those of the murder victims, and sung by himself to the accompaniment of his acoustic guitar.

The Capeman was an interesting concept, but ultimately the Songs From The Capeman are bound to the show. While moments of clarity shine through, it’s a vanity project, and not really worth the trouble. The expanded version from this century would have been an excellent opportunity to illuminate any part of the story, but merely adds the Feliciano track mentioned above, along with another schizophrenic doo-wop track in “Shoplifting Clothes” and an unfinished demo of “Can I Forgive Him”. Clearly, he’s moved on.

Paul Simon Songs From The Capeman (1997)—2
2004 CD reissue: same as 1997, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Kiss 3: Dressed To Kill

Casablanca insisted they needed new product to keep sales up and running, so the third Kiss album—their third in this space of little over a year—was recorded quickly with label head Neil Bogart producing. That may have been the smartest move right there, since Dressed To Kill immediately sounds better than the massively muddy Hotter Than Hell. Cool cover, too.

But what about the tunes? They rock, of course. “Room Service” demonstrates Paul Stanley’s skill at stretching a metaphor well past its context. We get that life on the road is tough, and what better way to liven up yet another hotel room with something from the menu, but shouldn’t it be called something else when you’re at the airport or back in your home town? Gene Simmons takes over for the next two, first ragging on a “Two Timer”, then looking for solace with the “Ladies In Waiting”. Ace Frehley wasn’t ready to sing his own songs yet, which is how Peter Criss got to sing “Getaway”, which never once uses the noun form of the expression as stated in the title. If there’s anything that could be considered adventurous, the intricate acoustic intro to “Rock Bottom” would be it, especially since it has absolutely nothing to do with the song proper.

“C’mon And Love Me” sports a laugh-out-loud opening couplet, and a turn of phrase in the second verse that shows how fast they wrote the album, whereas “Anything For My Baby” updates classic ‘60s songwriting to their own template. “She” sports yet another killer riff, and piles on the imagery (“She walks by moonlight… enchanted starlight”) before deflating it (“she takes off her clothes”). There hasn’t been enough cowbell on the album yet, so “Love Her All I Can” serves it up. (Or maybe it’s supposed to sound like a drumstick on an aluminum can?) Allegedly, “Rock And Roll All Nite” was written to order at the last minute, and to their credit, they came up with a winner. If Kiss never did anything past this song, they’d still be remembered for it.

Smart boys do what they’re told, and Dressed To Kill fit the label brief perfectly. Here was another half hour of rockin’ songs for kids to blare in their bedrooms and cars, made to be replicated onstage. And that’s just what they did.

Kiss Dressed To Kill (1975)—3

Friday, May 15, 2020

Rod Stewart 8: A Night On The Town

Even though he wasn’t doing double time with a band, Rod Stewart gamely threw himself into the demands dictated by his new record label. Much like Atlantic Crossing, A Night On The Town was divided between slow and fast sides, and we still see a call-back to Never A Dull Moment in the cover art.

At this point Rod had certainly become a mainstream success, a hit on AM radio as well as FM, and for those of us of a certain age, this is why we couldn’t take him seriously for so long. Granted, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” was a few years away, but the guy in the leopard print top and the spandex slacks is in full effect. This is the album that opens with “Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)”. Whereas Neil Young’s song of similar title was an elegy for dead junkies, here Rod is doing his best to talk a virgin into bed, complete with then-girlfriend Britt Ekland cooing in French over the fade. The bravado fades immediately, however, with the faithful cover of Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, probably the version Sheryl Crow knew best. “Fool For You” is similarly a hurt kiss-off to a jet-setting paramour, somewhat ironic given his growing reputation.

The fast side gets his own back right away with “The Balltrap”, a noisy and nasty putdown that really has us missing the Faces. The covers pile up from here; Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” from over a decade before is yelled through, followed by the country rock nugget “Big Bayou”, which Ron Wood had just put on his most recent solo album, and “The Wild Side Of Life”, another country song covered by everyone back then; those tunes sound like Chuck Berry hijacked the sessions. The social commentary of “Trade Winds” goes completely against the concept of fast and slow sides, but echoes the effect of “Sailing” from the last album somewhat.

The fans Rod would have in this period of history would certainly count A Night On The Town among his best, and would likely welcome the expanded edition, which tacks a B-side onto the main program, and includes an alternate working version of the album on a second disc with some other extras. But as we’ve said too many times, this isn’t the guy we came to appreciate.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that we have yet to discuss a particular track, the one that closes side one. We’ve been saving it for its own paragraph, because even after all these years, there are few songs as unexpected and wholly moving as “The Killing Of Georgie (Part I and II)”. This is an incredibly simple song musically, while the lyrics consist of the barest biography of a friend who happened to be gay, and was murdered on a New York City street, possibly because of this fact. With the economy of Bob Dylan and absolutely no histrionics, the story is told straightforward with no false emotion. Even the seemingly tossed-off “doo-doot doo” that passes as a chorus can’t deflate this. (“Part II” of the song is a slower lament sung like a chant, to the tune of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”. That’s probably why the complete track, over six minutes, was released as a single.)

Rod would have plenty more chances to be silly over the following decades, and take his brand all the way to the bank. He wouldn’t always be worth the effort, but an out-of-the-blue instance like “The Killing Of Georgie” is enough to remind us that, good lord, was he really good when he really wanted to be.

Rod Stewart A Night On The Town (1976)—3
2009 Deluxe Edition: same as 1976, plus 15 extra tracks

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Talking Heads 9: True Stories

At perhaps their mainstream peak, another Talking Heads studio album followed fairly quickly (for them). While sporting the appropriate title of True Stories, the album had the burden of accompanying a full-length feature film of the same name, directed by David Byrne and written by him in collaboration with playwright Beth Henley and the actor best known as Ned Ryerson (“Needle Nose Ned, Ned the Head! Bing!”) from Groundhog Day. The film was overly arty, presenting the inhabitants of a particular Anytown, U.S.A. as derived from the pages of Weekly World News and other barely believable supermarket tabloids. The songs as used in the film were either performed by or associated with various actors, making the band tangential to the proceedings, so the album itself is forced to stand alone, obscuring much of the context. Then again, even if you have seen the film, it’s not likely to send you back for a re-assessment.

Like its predecessor, the songs are simple, on the surface anyway, eschewing experimentation for hooks and lyrics. “Love For Sale” is a good charging rocker; it even starts with what sounds like the band actually having fun in the studio. “Puzzlin’ Evidence” keeps the party going, halfway between Oingo Boingo and a gospel singalong. With an arrangement similar to “And She Was” sent to a beach party, you’d think he’d’ve tried to find something more substantial to say than “Hey Now”, but there you go. “Papa Legba” sounds a little too automated these days, and works much better in the film, where it’s a showcase for Pops Staples.

While it was a mild trifle at the time, “Wild Wild Life” stands out today as a fun song, with enough musical left turns to keep your attention, and easily the highlight of the album. Continuing the journey through differing genres, the mildly zydeco “Radio Head” is mostly notable today for inspiring the name of another band. Despite the tension in the intro, “Dream Operator” becomes more of a song of wonder about childhood themes, and the nostalgia continues in “People Like Us”, with its prominent pedal steel guitar and fiddles. In a triumph of sequencing, these songs lead well into “City Of Dreams”, which also runs while the film credits roll.

Coming off the success of Little Creatures, True Stories had big shoes to fill, and didn’t. The only track that really took hold on the radio was “Wild Wild Life”, which was also included as a wacky extended mix on the CD version of the album, which the savvier kids would have bought. Many years later, this was included on the expanded CD along with Pops Staples’ version of “Papa Legba” and Tito Larriva’s interpretation of “Radio Head”, both from the film itself, but which had not been included on the Sounds From True Stories soundtrack album. Those completists who wanted all the music from the film only had to wait until 2018. The original album remains their least essential release.

Talking Heads True Stories (1986)—3
1986 CD: same as above, plus 1 extra track
2006 DualDisc: same as 1986 CD, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, May 8, 2020

Prince 13: Diamonds And Pearls

After a few years of less-than-stellar music, and seeing the genre now called R&B evolving without him, Prince needed to start making hits again. To his credit, he began working with a set collective of musicians with whom he could interact, and thus The New Power Generation was brought forward. Some members even took prominent roles in the videos and other appearances, in the spirit of the Revolution an eternal half-decade before. (They also included dancers and rappers, which we’ll get to soon enough.) Diamonds And Pearls confidently presented the new combo; Prince being Prince, the artwork sported a holograph, and the interchangeable women flanking him on the cover and the videos were dubbed Diamond and Pearl.

He must have been inspired, as research tells us that for the first time in forever, all the tracks were developed specifically for the album, with nothing recycled from the vault. It’s a solid set start to finish, and paced well. “Thunder” has a dark groove, and “Daddy Pop” focuses on fun; unfortunately, NPG rapper Tony M takes over the second half of the song, and will elsewhere. Vocalist and keyboard player Rosie Gaines makes a much better impression on the title track, which was one of many hit singles, as was “Cream”. He dusts off his falsetto for the mildly jazzy “Strollin’” and “Willing And Able”, while the more decadent “Gett Off” was wisely chosen to provoke as the first single.

“Walk Don’t Walk” features protégée Elisa Fiorillo prominently, and cleverly uses a car horn sample as part of the track. It’s a sharp detour into “Jughead”, a Tony M showcase that sounds like a cross between The Time and Digital Underground and just doesn’t fit, the closing “argument” being particularly intrusive. “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” is much more like it, a mid-tempo confection, then “Push” confuses everything, combining his early funk, Clare Fischer strings, and interjections from Rosie and Tony. “Insatiable” is complete slow jam along the lines of “International Lover”, but rather than end the album there, “Live 4 Love” turns the beat up again. Seeing as it’s subtitled “Last Words From The Cockpit”, perhaps the connection was intended; it even takes time for an extended guitar solo, a rarity on this album.

We’ve given a lot of Prince albums the three-star rating, even the more trying ones. Diamonds And Pearls was very much in the R&B vein, and far away from guitar-driven rock, so those of us not concerned with the pop charts didn’t pay much attention. (His propensity for turbans and buttless pants didn’t excite us much either.) But it was clear the little freak still had it, and deserved the sales that followed.

It took a while, but a long-gestating expansion program finally appeared in celebration of the album’s 32nd birthday. The remastered album was paired with a disc of “single mixes and edits” for the Deluxe Edition, whereas the Super Deluxe Edition added another three hours of vault tracks, including songs written for and/or recorded at the time by the likes of Rosie, Chaka Khan, Mavis Staples, and Martika, plus two discs devoted to a concert at his Glam Slam nightclub. This is a hot show, focusing on the album but including previews of “The Sacrifice Of Victor” and “Sexy M.F.”—the next album already being complete—plus his reclaimed “Nothing Compares 2 U”. “Cream” and “1999” kick off lengthy jams, the latter into “Baby I’m A Star”. Tony M is all over it, and the set ends with the standard version of “Gett Off” followed by the “Houstyle” arrangement. (A Blu-ray included the video of this show and others, along with the complete Diamonds And Pearls Video Collection, which interspersed videos with band interviews.) All together, a motherlode for fans of the album.

Prince & The New Power Generation Diamonds And Pearls (1991)—3
2023 Deluxe Edition: same as 1991, plus 15 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Editions adds another 47 tracks plus Blu-ray)

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Journey 12: Arrival

Fed up with waiting for Steve Perry to pull his head out of his hip operation, Neal Schon remembered that Journey was his band. Jonathan Cain and Ross Valory knew where their money was likely to come from, and after tapping Bad English (and Hardline) drummer Dean Castronovo, they found a competent singer in the form of Steve Augeri, who’d toiled in a handful of not-very-successful bands throughout the ‘90s. The fact that he bore a mild resemblance to Perry was undoubtedly a big plus.

Touring the oldies circuit was the immediate concern, though contributing a song to the blockbuster Armageddon soundtrack album right between two Aerosmith tracks helped in the money department. (Co-written by Jack Blades, “Remember Me” sounded more like Night Ranger.) Two years later, Arrival intended to open a new chapter for the band. They released the album first in Japan, where the melodic rock genre—a.k.a. hair metal without the makeup—was bigger than ever, and whence it was promptly pirated all over Napster. By the time it came out worldwide, a few songs were swapped, and the overly wimpy “I’m Not That Way” was dropped.

There must be people who can quote chapter and verse on all the differences, and we’re not going to. Throughout, Augeri delivers the songs in the same raspy register, though “All The Things” is a distillation of the first Tonic album. He finally shows some emotion in his voice on “Loved By You”, and “Livin’ To Do” could pass for Perry; both songs were co-written by Cain with a country songwriter. “I Got A Reason” sounds like Perry singing with Damn Yankees (surprise: also written with Jack Blades). He sounds like Bryan Adams on the ballads, most of which are interchangeable.

With all that, Arrival is generic yet harmless, and not excruciatingly embarrassing. It is, however, too damn long. Neal throws in a guitar lick as often as the mix will allow him, and lest anyone was still unconvinced they had any balls left, the band released an “experimental” EP initially through their website. Red 13 offered a two-track prog suite, an overblown heavy track, and another more conventional rocker. Most interesting is “Walking Away From The Edge”, a slow burner supposedly co-written with Geoff Tate of Queensrÿche, which has us wondering what might have happened if he’d joined the band instead.

Journey Arrival (2001)—3
Red 13 (2002)—3

Friday, May 1, 2020

Todd Rundgren 22: Nearly Human

The mid-‘80s were uncharacteristically quiet for Todd the frontman, though he did keep busy with producing the likes of the Tubes, XTC, and the one-hit wonder Bourgeois Tagg. When he finally did re-surface with his own album, it was nicely timed with the start of Rhino’s massive reissue campaign, which covered each of his solo albums to date, as well as all the intermittent Utopia albums.

Nearly Human was widely praised upon release, though modern ears may wonder why. In some ways it was a return to the brand of blue-eyed Philly soul he’d touched on in the ‘70s, and soon taken over by the likes of Hall & Oates, who’d also stopped selling records by the end of the ‘80s. The overall gimmick was that the album was allegedly recorded live in the studio, each song a single take with no overdubs, just like side four of Something/Anything? These days, however, the production style sounds more sterile than fresh, and some of those synthesizers have not aged well.

The big single was opening track “The Want Of A Nail”, featuring soul legend Bobby Womack, which sounded great on the radio despite a minimum of lyrics that rely almost entirely on the undated proverb. From there, the album settles into a comfortable adult contemporary groove, as exhibited in the lovelorn “The Waiting Game” and “Parallel Lines”, with very little in the way of guitar shredding. A curious inclusion is a faithful cover of Elvis Costello’s “Two Little Hitlers” from a decade before, right around the time Todd’s girlfriend ran off with Elvis; history has not revealed who was watching baby Liv Tyler during this period. (This track was left off the vinyl version of the album, which also juggled a few of the tracks in the middle, yet leaving side two fairly well crammed.) “Can’t Stop Running” is still in the yacht rock mode, though this time the “demonic fretwork” comes from Lyle Workman; the rest of the band on the track includes the other members of Utopia.

“Unloved Children” is right out of the “Peter Gunn Theme” playbook, but sports a lyric decrying abusive men and the families they affect. (This time he plays lead.) “Fidelity” sounds the most like its era, left over from an Al Jarreau or Gloria Estefan album, and we still can’t figure out if he cheated on her or vice versa. Following a soulful “huh”, “Feel It” is carried over from a Tubes album, and develops into a big number that succeeds despite its trappings. While not overtly obvious, “Hawking” was inspired by the physicist of the same name, and involves a lot of soul-searching. Just when you thought the album was turning into a slow jam, “I Love My Life” is an uptempo gospel workout stating that joyous realization, stretched to nearly nine minutes thanks to an extended sermon in the middle.

Throughout Nearly Human it’s clear Todd hadn’t lost his gift for writing songs with hooks. Ultimately, that’s what still makes the album work today. The album is very cohesive, despite using varying musicians on each of the tracks, each of which is notated by its date of recording. He could still hit the high notes, too.

Todd Rundgren Nearly Human (1989)—3