Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Cat Stevens 14: Roadsinger

It turned out that Yusuf’s return to the music industry was more than a passing fancy. Roadsinger was promoted with stickers reminding consumers who he used to be, and he even did some promotional appearances on television.

It also helped that the album is more in the spirit of Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser And The Firecat than anything since. These are simple tunes, without unnecessary ornamentation, celebrating the same old ideas of enlightenment and unity, equally without preaching, starting from the opening “Welcome Home” through to “All Kinds Of Roses”. “Thinking ‘Bout You” is a joyful love song equally applicable to a deity as it is a life partner. “Everytime I Dream” alludes to some of the criticism he’d received for his pro-Islam statements, but it’s under a wonderfully retro acoustic arrangement with subtle horns. “The Rain” could easily fit into those early ‘70s albums, as could the yearning “World O’Darkness” (noted as being “from the musical, Moonshadow”, which opened and closed a few years later).

“Be What You Must” daringly incorporates the piano melody of “Sitting”, seesawing between a major chord and a minor, while what sounds like a children’s choir helps out on the chorus; thankfully, it’s only Michelle Branch and Gunnar Nelson. “In This Glass World”, also from the musical, is built around a gently fingerpicked electric guitar, and picks up drums and crunch halfway through for a heavier sound that fits. The title track finally emerges as something of a statement of purpose, or at least a theme song. “Dream On (Until…)” isn’t much more than a sketch with saxophone, but it works as a closing benediction, followed by the gentle instrumental “Shamsia” (which we assume is also from the musical, as that’s the name of one of the characters).

Though astonishingly short, at barely over half an hour, Roadsinger reminds us why we liked this guy in the first place. Even the packaging shows his care, with the lyrics appearing either as handwritten sheets or word processor printouts with handwritten corrections, among photos of smiling children we assume are his. (Not included on most editions of the album was the single “Boots And Sand”, written in the aftermath of being refused entry to America under suspicion of terrorism, and featuring vocal support from Paul McCartney and Dolly Parton.)

Yusuf Roadsinger (2009)—

Friday, June 26, 2020

Bob Dylan 66: Rough And Rowdy Ways

Leave it to Bob Dylan to emerge after eight years with his personal take on the state of the world amidst a global situation. Right?

Wrong. Bob does a lot of things, but grand statements aren’t any of them. Even with the gravitas in the teasers that previewed it, Rough And Rowdy Ways is simply a collection of songs he wrote sometime in the preceding eight or so years. Granted, those eight years were filled with six hefty installments in his Bootleg Series, two box sets covering two historic tours, and three albums dedicated to old standards that happened to be covered first by Frank Sinatra.

Even the title is contrary. Yes, his voice is rough, but nothing on the album could really be considered rowdy. The packaging is as minimalist as any of his last handful of albums—the barest musician credits, antique photos repurposed, including a prominent photo of John F. Kennedy on the back captioned by exactly one song title; more about that in a bit. Bob’s name only appears on the spine and the discs themselves.

Most of the album is quiet, the words delivered in a near monotone, much like side two of Oh Mercy. “I Contain Multitudes” opens the program with his revised style of beat poetry infused with pop culture references, including a juxtaposition of Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, “and them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.” You can almost hear him wink. “False Prophet” turns it up with a swaggering blues, full of the boasting that’s featured in his similar songs from this century. In “My Own Version Of You”, he takes the role of a Dr. Frankenstein, describing his method of creation over a spooky country-tinged backing.

In the aftermath of his Sinatra trilogy (for lack of a better term), “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” sounds like another attempt at writing a standard along those lines. It’s even got crooning backing vocals for a very nice touch. The sense of calm doesn’t last, as he has to repel a demon in “Black Rider”. This enemy is either literal or symbolic, yet one he feels compelled to warn “the size of your cock will get you nowhere.” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” is another namecheck of a blues legend over a fitting groove.

“Mother Of Muses” is an exquisite prayer, along the lines of “Stay With Me”, this time evoking the name of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. It would be a wonderful way to end the album, but there’s more to go. “Crossing The Rubicon” is a dirty blues and something of a stumble, in need of editing. The Bob of yesteryear would have settled for ending each verse with the title, but here he overuses the image, from the first line and throughout the song. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is lovely but dizzyingly inscrutable, a travelogue that mentions dead presidents, and includes the questionable biographical that he married a prostitute, at the age of twelve no less. (Naturally, they’re “still friends.”)

The important track here would be “Murder Most Foul”, the first preview for the album, included on a disc all its own. Just as “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” was given a place of honor taking up an album side, this mediation on the Kennedy assassination will be studied as deeply as any of his other epics. Over a nearly ambient backing, it begins with recounting of the events, weaving through the decades since and back, name-checking the Beatles and the Who, Woodstock and Altamont, Freddy Krueger and Scarlett O’Hara, “What’s New Pussycat” and “What’d I Say”. Over the final six minutes of nearly seventeen, he requests a litany of songs for Wolfman Jack to play, from classical and rock to jazz and blues, ending with a request for “Murder Most Foul” itself. A possible antecedent would be “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie”, which he recited once in public, approximately seven months before the events in Dallas. (See also his far-from-factual recount of the Titanic disaster in “Tempest”; meanwhile “Hurricane” also includes “wait a minute, boys” as a key statement.)

We seem to be in the minority among pundits, most of whom have declared Rough And Rowdy Ways to be a masterpiece. This far into his career, and at his advancing age, any album might be considered a final statement, and time will tell what he may yet have in store for us. Time will also tell how well this album will age; our expectations on that end have influenced our rating. And maybe one day we’ll find out what exactly Fiona Apple contributed to the album. (Supposedly piano on “Murder Most Foul”, but it’s not exactly idiosyncratic.)

Bob Dylan Rough And Rowdy Ways (2020)—3

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Rush 19: Counterparts

As the music industry continued to evolve and expand, Rush remembered what their fans preferred while recording their next album. Having recently toured with the inimitable Primus on the bill, it probably helped having some likeminded musicians encouraging them to be themselves. As it turned out, Counterparts was their best album in years.

The first thing we hear is Neil Peart counting in the band for “Animate”, a solid combination of guitar, bass, and drums, with just enough keyboards underneath to support the track without overwhelming it at all. “Stick It Out” turns the “Limelight” riff inside out in a nasty way, obliterating any memory of synthesizers, at least for the next four minutes. “Cut To The Chase” is another bouquet of riffs topped by a gem of a solo, and stops just before you’re afraid they’ll take another rap detour. It’s overwhelmed by “Nobody’s Hero”, which boldly addresses a victim of the AIDS crisis in the first verse, alludes to a girl’s death in the second, and generally underscores the need to recognize the ordinary person for all his or her strengths before it’s too late—a message Neil Peart would be faced with a few years down the road. “Between Sun & Moon” explores the mysticism of the universe in a poetic lyric over, again, lots of guitars.

Unfortunately, “Alien Shore” is a clumsy lyric, attempting to reconcile differences in gender and race, and then “The Speed Of Love” actually explores that very concept on a highly intellectual level. Then “Double Agent” turns everything upside down, musically and lyrically, dominated by several spoken (NOT rap, thankfully) sections from the mind of a spy. Where else to go but an instrumental, in this case “Leave That Thing Alone”, giving each member a chance to stand out. Another juxtaposition of styles arrives in “Cold Fire”, which pits unlikely riffing against yet another exploration of the nature of romance. Finally, “Everyday Glory” provides something of a closing anthem, encouraging the youth to strive for greatness despite bleak surroundings.

Counterparts proved just how merely tolerable the last handful of albums had been. The misfires in the middle notwithstanding, here was a solid return to form, manna for air guitarists and practitioners of the real thing, and another step towards respect.

Rush Counterparts (1993)—

Friday, June 19, 2020

Neil Young 60: Homegrown

While some unreleased albums gain notoriety via blurry traded copies, Neil Young is the king of unreleased albums shelved so well that they’ve never been bootlegged. Homegrown was his first legendary secret, scheduled for release in 1975 only to be replaced from the back burner by Tonight’s The Night. Save the handful of tracks that emerged elsewhere, it had never been heard outside his closest circle for 45 long years. With all the delays inherent to his Archives project, the promise that it would be finally released in 2020 seemed almost too good to be true. (Even the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way, pushing its release back a few months while fans sheltered impatiently in place.)

The biggest mystery about the album was this: seeing as Tonight’s The Night was such a dark album, just how much darker was Homegrown, even if Neil said it was a sequel of sorts to Harvest? The answer lies in his biography. Tonight’s The Night eulogized dead friends, while Homegrown eulogizes a dead relationship, with the body still warm and the legacy ongoing in the child Neil and girlfriend Carrie Snodgress shared. It was mostly written and recorded in the aftermath of CSNY’s massive 1974 reunion tour, and yet another aborted album by that crew. Neil was incredibly prolific in this period, the songs coming faster than he could record them, much less release them. His voice throughout Homegrown is weary, and Tim Drummond’s solid but wavering bass reflects the mood wherever he plays.

The first few songs do mirror the Harvest sequence. “Separate Ways” begins already in progress, a lazy lope a la “Out On The Weekend”, but even slower and much more infused with despair than simple melancholy. Having only been heard on bootlegs with the likes of Booker T & the MG’s, it’s great to finally have it in the official canon. “Try” is only slightly jauntier in tempo, with a tack piano and Emmylou Harris, and notoriously uses a phrase attributed to the woman screaming in the rain in “Harvest”. In the “Man Needs A Maid” slot is “Mexico”, a solo piano and voice vignette derived from Joni Mitchell’s prettier moments. “Love Is A Rose” was previously a pleasant trifle on Decade; here the same take, with its bum harmonica note, proves its true home. While not as raucous as the eventual Crazy Horse version, the title track revs slowly up to speed in the spirit of “Are You Ready For The Country?” And then the album goes completely off the rails. “Florida” is a recitation of a surreal dream while he and Ben Keith scrape piano strings and rub wine glass rims at an excruciating pitch. (If it sounds at all familiar, that would be due to the packaging of Tonight’s The Night, where the words were transposed over a replica of the liner notes from On The Beach.) “Kansas” isn’t as surreal, but acknowledges the waking “from a bad dream” over exploratory acoustic strumming. (That the melody sounds a bit like the Hitchhiker version of “Powderfinger” is probably insignificant.)

On the basis of the contents, “We Don’t Smoke It No More” wouldn’t stand up in a court of law, being little more than a slow Jimmy Reed blues with the barest of lyrics but cool lead guitar fighting with harmonica. Perhaps the most surprising departure is “White Line”. Even though its acoustic arrangement was revealed on Songs For Judy, this understated take (recorded at the Who’s studio, by the way, with only Robbie Robertson adding acoustic noodling) seems galaxies away from the loud Crazy Horse rendition that would be taken as standard fifteen years later. Frankly, it’s gorgeous. It nicely sets up the brilliant “Vacancy”, an edgy electric stomp like “World On A String” crossed with “Revolution Blues”, with sometime Band member Stan Szelest working the Wurlitzer electric piano. (Levon Helm is on the album as well.) “Little Wing” cleanses the palate just as it mysteriously opened Hawks & Doves, and an allegedly alternate mix of “Star Of Bethlehem” brings the program to a quiet close.

The benefit of history makes Homegrown as good as it sounds today. Despite being recorded in Nashville and on his ranch with some of the same players, it’s ragged where Harvest was smooth. Its haphazard flow is right in line with the mind of the man who directed Journey Through The Past only a couple of years before. Had it been released as originally planned, it likely would have confused and angered many, only to be debated for decades. It is the natural follow-up to On The Beach, and should be celebrated.

Neil Young Homegrown (2020)—4

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Van Morrison 39: Keep It Simple

It’s highly unlikely that the grumpiest man in rock ‘n roll takes anybody’s opinion under serious consultation, but with Keep It Simple he seems to be sticking to a well-worn philosophy. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, no catering to any genre, just Van singing and playing Van music. British legends Mick Green and Geraint Watkins add to the blend, and even ‘70s band members John Platania and David Hayes are on board.

Beginning with “How Can A Poor Boy?”, the music is understated rhythm & blues via guitar and organ, with some country & western touches in the harmonica and accordion, and gospel in the backing vocals. “Lover Come Back” is simple yet moving, while the unlikely banjo makes “Song Of Home” a grower. He’s not above regurgitating clichés, such as “School Of Hard Knocks” (a much better song than the title) and “Don’t Go To Nightclubs Anymore”. “That’s Entrainment” is a little too close to another phrase that the emotion he’s trying to convey doesn’t really come through. At this point in his career he’s gotta end with an epic of sorts, and “Behind The Ritual” combines the good and bad of Van, from a decent sax solo to two entire verses sung repeating the words “blah” and “blah”.

Keep It Simple is mostly harmless, and almost inviting. One might even presume he’s enjoying himself. And we can finally give this one the edge over its recent brothers. In the context of his post-Avalon Sunset work, the rating stands.

Van Morrison Keep It Simple (2008)—

Friday, June 12, 2020

Grateful Dead 13: Blues For Allah

For too many reasons to document here, the Dead had taken an extended break from live performance—as a unit, anyway. But with their own record label and distribution, they used the studio to experiment, ably blending songs with exploration on Blues For Allah. (Mickey Hart was also back in the fold, having left a few years earlier after his dad ran off with a pile of the band’s money.)

“Help On The Way” exudes a certain mysticism in the guitars and electric piano, going into the intricate jam of “Slipknot!” Before you know it, they’ve found their way to “Franklin’s Tower”, a two-chord slow boogie best known for its “roll away the dew” chorus. “King Solomon’s Marbles” is a two-part instrumental with dizzying time changes; the “Stronger Than Dirt” portion gets its title from the same rhythmic suggestion of the Doors’ “Touch Me”, while “Milkin’ The Turkey” would suggest a bluegrass influence that isn’t there. “The Music Never Stopped” would be a middling Bob Weir trifle, except that it once again features Donna Godchaux prominently, sinking it for these ears.

Side two is even more esoteric. “Crazy Fingers” has a reggae lilt, and plenty of organ, destined to become a live favorite over the last decade of the band’s run. Weir redeems himself with the lovely Bach-flavored instrumental “Sage & Spirit”, featuring a roadie from Quicksilver Messenger Service on flute. Finally, the lengthy title suite is taxing at first, working very hard to evoke the spirit of Egypt. There’s a moment near the end of the opening section where Donna’s counterpoint sounds like the middle of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” (the “world of secret hungers” part) but eventually it coalesces, crickets poking through the desert winds (really). A melody develops out of all this, and “into eternity” is chanted with Donna wailing past the point of welcome.

While it’s not usually our thing, Blues For Allah is a successful experiment, breaking barriers as well as new ground for the band. But it still sounds like the Dead, and even without an audience for ambience and feedback, they found a way to create. The expanded version of the album is of interest in that context, adding a bunch of instrumental jams recorded few months before the sessions proper, plus “Hollywood Cantata”, a Robert Hunter lyric for a song that would evolve into “The Music Never Stopped”.

Grateful Dead Blues For Allah (1975)—3
2006 expanded CD: same as 1975, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Jerry Garcia 4: Old & In The Way

All the way back in 1973, mere months after jamming with the Merl Saunders Band, Jerry swapped his electric guitar for his trusty old banjo and hooked up with some friends to play pure bluegrass music. Dubbed Old & In The Way after one of the tunes in their repertoire, selections from a live set recorded that October were eventually released on the Grateful Dead’s Round Records subsidiary. It’s remained (mostly) in print ever since, and as a result, Old & In The Way probably did more to expose a new generation to bluegrass than any other album released during the last quadrant of the 20th century.

Of course, these just weren’t your average friends out for a strum. Longtime sideman John Kahn plucks the upright bass, David Grisman is on mandolin, and Peter Rowan handles the guitar and most of the lead singing, as well as writing most of the songs that weren’t already standards. In a move akin to getting Roy Orbison into the Traveling Wilburys, the fiddle is handled by the legendary Vassar Clements. (They have a lot of fun blowing through his “Kissimee Kid”.)

If you’re looking for Dead music, or even anything like Garcia’s other solo projects, you’ll be disappointed, particularly as none of the songs found their way into Dead sets. Instead, this is just damn fun bluegrass. “Midnight Moonlight” and “Panama Red”—both by Rowan—are possibly the best-known songs from the set, with the possible exception of “Wild Horses”, the Stones song taken even further into the woods than the Flying Burrito Brothers had.

While the band wasn’t around for very long, the archives have been kind to those looking for more of the same. A year after Jerry’s death, David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label issued That High Lonesome Sound, containing further songs from the same night Old & In The Way was recorded, including a wonderful arrangement of “The Great Pretender”, along with songs from a set at the same location the week before. This was followed a year later by Breakdown, presenting a further assortment of tunes, most of which were alternate takes to the songs already on the other two. (Both sets from the October 8 show were released as Live At The Boarding House in 2008; five years later this set was expanded to include both sets from the week before.)

Old & In The Way Old & In The Way (1975)—4
Old & In The Way
That High Lonesome Sound (1996)—
Old & In The Way
Breakdown (1997)—3

Friday, June 5, 2020

Genesis 18: Calling All Stations

Few bands that have achieved success with one lead singer go on to find success with another after the first one leaves, for whatever reason. AC/DC did it after Bon Scott, Pink Floyd kinda did it after Syd Barrett, and Genesis did it after Peter Gabriel. So once Phil Collins went solo for good, Genesis founding members Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford intended to carry on, and why wouldn’t they.

This time, however, they were replacing a singer who also happened to be their drummer, and an active collaborator for over two decades. The new singer would have to be pretty damn impressive to keep these guys in gold records and sold-out shows; a drummer wasn’t as important, as they’d used Chester Thompson to supplement Phil on tour for years. Virtual unknown Ray Wilson was certainly competent in the vocal department, but that’s about all he brought to the table as evidenced by Calling All Stations. (Two drummers were used throughout the album.)

Part of what helped Genesis move forward after Gabriel left was their existing brand: the music still sounded like the Genesis of recent years, and Phil had not only contributed vocals to earlier songs, but was able to get into the spirit of the melodies, if not the characters. By 1997 the Genesis sound had become most synonymous with him, to the point where keyboards and guitars weren’t as prominent as before. Furthermore, Banks’ multiple solo projects were sales duds, and any success Mike + The Mechanics had was usually down to whoever was singing, especially if it was Paul Carrack.

Without looking at the label of the CD, would anybody know this was Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford? Worse, would someone think this was the new album by the band that still called itself Bad Company, but sounded nothing like the lineup with Paul Rodgers? That’s what makes Calling All Stations so inessential. There’s nothing embarrassing about it, except maybe the rhythms on ill-advised first single “Congo”, or the baffling “Alien Afternoon”. “Small Talk” is pretty dopey, though “The Dividing Line” sounds enough like recent Genesis until the vocals start.

As usual for the time, the album is way too long. The new lineup toured Europe and promptly called it quits. Calling All Stations is still in print, and we thought it had not been part of any reissue or expansion program, but it turns out we were mistaken.

Genesis Calling All Stations (1997)—2

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Phil Collins 6: Dance Into The Light

After 25 years in the band, and fully flush from his solo career, Phil Collins officially left Genesis, and promptly dropped this pile of dreck into the marketplace.

Perhaps “dreck” is too harsh a word. Dance Into The Light isn’t pointedly bad, or even misguided. It’s simply ordinary, and the few times it tries to be anywhere near adventurous, it’s not original. The title track, despite its assertion, is in such a weird meter that anyone attempting to dance to it would appear to be suffering a conniption. “Just Another Story” beats the same groove into the ground for 6½ minutes; frankly, it’s most interesting during the jazz piano solo, and the chorus hook is pretty good. “Oughta Know By Now” has something in there, but this arrangement doesn’t cut it. The lyrics for “Lorenzo” come of the mother of the kid with the disease dramatized in the film Lorenzo’s Oil from a few years before, but the music is sub-Afropop done better by Peter Gabriel. Speaking of which, if you hoped he’d distill the quirky narratives of Paul Simon’s Graceland into one track, “Wear My Hat” is just for you, while “Take Me Down” and “River So Wide” merely cop the guitar styles and milder rhythms from that album. The liner notes insist that “there are no drum machines on this album!”, but the real deal doesn’t always help. (It’s also the first album he’s put out that didn’t sport his mug life-size on the cover.)

Most frustrating about this album is that there are a few guitar-based tracks hidden amidst all the others. “That’s What You Said” (subtitled “Spirit Of ‘65” in the booklet) sports a part halfway between a 12-string and a Coral sitar, and it’s good pop. “Love Police” keeps the jangle going, even if “It’s In Your Eyes” pours it on too thick. “The Same Moon” could have fit on the last two Genesis albums, except for the guitar solos. “No Matter Who” isn’t great, but he was probably listening to George Harrison while writing it. Had he concentrated on tracks like these, he would have endured the usual brickbats about jumping on the Britpop bandwagon, and hindsight might have treated it better, but there’s still no excuse for the anemic version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” that closes this opus.

If you’ve been keeping up with the story so far, it should be no surprise that Dance Into The Light is just way too long at a full hour. For those who simply have to have more, the Extra Moves disc (clever, that) of the Deluxe Edition 20 years later adds the usual smattering of live versions and demos, plus three contemporary B-sides, each very different.

Phil Collins Dance Into The Light (1996)—2
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1996, plus 10 extra tracks