Friday, August 28, 2020

Faces 6: Snakes And Ladders

It’s commonly known that once the Faces were done, Rod Stewart concentrated on his solo career and Ron Wood was asked to join the Rolling Stones (though he wouldn’t be a fully vested member of the corporation until 1990). Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones managed to shanghai Steve Marriott for a reformed Small Faces, to little excitement, and then that was really it.

Meanwhile, with both Rod and the band’s catalog on their roster, Warner Bros. compiled Snakes And Ladders, subjectively subtitled Best Of Faces to make the most of it. It’s an odd set; the cover art is a collage of photos featuring several shots of interim bassist Tetsu Yamauchi (who plays on exactly one track) but none of Ronnie Lane. More to the point, none of Ronnie’s lead vocals are included. Obviously, they knew where the money was.

The album opens with “Pool Hall Richard”, a standalone single and a decent rocker, then meanders oddly through the catalog, stopping at obvious hits like “Stay With Me” and “Ooh La La”. The instrumental “Pineapple And The Monkey” and “Around The Plynth” are particularly odd choices. Side two sports the mildly disco “You Can Make Me Dance, Sing Or Anything (Even Take The Dog For A Walk, Mend A Fuse, Fold Away The Ironing Board, Or Any Other Domestic Shortcomings)”, another standalone single, but only the original LP has the alternate single take of “Had Me A Real Good Time”.

Only eight of the tracks were repeated on the superior Good Boys… When They're Asleep compilation, released 23 years later. This set moves chronologically, covering much more of the band’s breadth. It’s also a better tribute to Ronnie Lane, given the inclusion of “Debris”, “You’re So Rude”, and “Glad And Sorry”, though it pointedly hypes the connection to Rod’s solo career in the packaging. Along with “Pool Hall Richard” and “You Can Make Me Dance”, the set includes “Open To Ideas”, a souful unreleased track from the band’s final sessions.

The set was spearheaded by Ian McLagan, whose enthusiasm also drove the next major archival release. Besides sporting the greatest box set title of all time, Five Guys Walk Into A Bar… provides an exhaustive look at the band on four discs. Less than half of the tracks were from the original albums (including the two singles and outtakes from Good Boys), filling up the balance with B-sides, alternate takes, rehearsals, live performances, BBC appearances, and unreleased stuff. Ten years later, 1970-1975: You Can Make Me Dance, Sing Or Anything… boxed up the original four albums, each bolstered with extras on the CD edition, and added a fifth disc of Stray Singles & B-Sides. Between those two sets, Faces are covered. Certainly no other band has gotten more mileage out of ellipses.

Faces Snakes And Ladders/Best Of Faces (1976)—3
The Best Of Faces: Good Boys… When They're Asleep (1999)—4
Five Guys Walk Into A Bar… (2004)—
1970-1975: You Can Make Me Dance, Sing Or Anything… (2015)—

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Prince 14: Love Symbol

Those who hadn’t been paying attention might not have noticed that Prince had kept up the same rate of output for the better part of a decade at this point, and that doesn’t include all the songs he gave other people and left off his albums. Diamonds And Pearls still had legs when news came of his next album, this one officially titled with an unpronounceable rune. This artsy combination of the traditional symbols for male and female wasn’t such a surprise for the guy, but it made it very difficult to talk about the album. Anyplace the label couldn’t use the graphic itself (which had been supplied to all press outlets), the album was referred to as Symbol. Over the years, this changed to Love Symbol, as that’s how Prince had copyrighted the image. When he changed his name to the same squiggle as a protest the following year, the symbol had become larger than the album itself.

And what about that album? Well, it’s very much a continuation of the modern R&B of which the New Power Generation was capable. The first two songs were the first two singles; “My Name Is Prince” is an unconvincing gangsta rap and “Sexy MF” seems to exist only to put a hook to that particular twelve-letter word. “Love 2 The 9’s” begins more like the early soul of his first albums, until the rap break. “The Morning Papers” is finally a decent ballad, complete with guitar solo. “The Max” is mostly a listenable hybrid, though good ol’ Tony M. gets to punctuate each chorus with a rap. “Blue Light” mixes funk with reggae fairly well, but “Eye Wanna Melt With U” (that first word being an eye symbol, of course) is mostly tossed off. You’re better off skipping ahead to the ultra-smooth “Sweet Baby”.

We were hoping “The Continental” would somehow evoke Christopher Walken’s recurring character on Saturday Night Live, but instead it’s a loud track with a rap by Carmen Electra, a protégée he’d already dumped for Mayte Garcia. “Damn U” is another sultry ballad, then like clockwork we’re back to the high-energy funk of “Arrogance”, a relatively brief track that leads right to the dueling raps in “The Flow”. Catchy with a mildly Eastern motif, “7” brings back the finger cymbals we thought he misplaced after Around The World In A Day. “And God Created Woman” is such an obvious candidate for a Prince title we’re surprised it took him this long; the song itself is nothing much. “3 Chains O’Gold” has all the hallmarks of a grand epic, and apparently it was designed that way; more about that below. The guitar work is great, but the ending is just a little too Hollywood. The actual finale of the album is given over to “The Sacrifice Of Victor” another rap hybrid in falsetto that drops various hints about his childhood in the lyrics. (He since stated for the record that “Victor” is not the translation of the squiggle that served as the album title, so there.)

One odd feature of the album is the two dialogue segues, featuring actress Kirstie Alley (then starring on the final season of Cheers) as a befuddled reporter trying to get answers out of our hero. Nowadays they just seem silly, but apparently these bits were supposed to play a larger part of the album, which at one point encompassed a “funk opera” (our words) of sorts entailing those mythical chains of gold. (We haven’t heard any of the bootlegs of the working versions, nor have we seen the full-length 3 Chains O’Gold film, and we don’t plan to.)

Yet the biggest obstacle to Love Symbol is its length, amounting to a CD packed to the gills. There’s just too much music here. Prince had always had more material than he knew what to do with, and now that vinyl wasn’t anyone’s priority, he could load up an album to capacity. That doesn’t always translate to quality—after all, Sign "☮" The Times had been reduced from three records—and this album is hardly in the same league. It sold okay, of course, thanks to the singles.

Prince & The New Power Generation o|+> (1992)—2

Friday, August 21, 2020

Talking Heads 10: Naked

We remember very well the atmosphere in which this album arrived; the aftermath of a cold winter, and whaddya mean there’s a new Talking Heads album? The few articles about the band that appeared in the wake of True Stories presented a trio generally flummoxed if not stymied by the dictatorial whims of David Byrne, and then the packaging for Naked included a photo of the entire band grinning amidst urban nightlife. Unlike the previous albums, where David Byrne hogged the songwriting, all four members contributed to creating the music. For the most part, however, the band is lost among the extra musicians, totaling in the dozens, throughout the tracks. Overall the mix disguises the message, and it ain’t pretty.

A funky horn section anchors “Blind”, and indeed David sings with more “soul” than ever, but don’t be fooled by the danceability. The horns also drive “Mr. Jones”—impossible to separate from the Dylan connotation—which sounds more like a straightforward Heads tune, but now filtered in the wake of Paul Simon’s mainstream African experiments. (Hindsight now points to the next Byrne project, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.) Eric Weisberg’s steel guitar lends a Hawaiian feel to the brassy “Totally Nude”, a celebration of living in the trees, though “Ruby Dear” suggests that paradise might be under threat. This is confirmed in “(Nothing But) Flowers”, a hilarious reversal of the ecological sentiments in “Big Yellow Taxi”, the narrator lamenting how his beloved strip malls have been replaced by fields and trees. Johnny Marr, liberated from the Smiths, shines all over this track.

The album was released in an election year following eight years of Reaganomics, and it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the band was disdainful of the state of the nation, and the metaphors in “The Democratic Circus” are barely hidden. The organic sound of the track is jarred by the robotic opening to “The Facts Of Life”, recalling the cold atmosphere of Fear Of Music and taking all the emotion out of procreation. A family bus trip from a child’s point of view appears to be the setting of “Mommy Daddy You And I”, but there’s an undercurrent of fear throughout the narrative. It’s daring to put a similar title next, and the mistrust between the lovers in “Big Daddy” continues the unsettling mood. “Bill” (not included on the LP, where some of the tracks are also shortened) is a similarly dangerous man, but more in the serial killer vein. “Cool Water”, which closes the album, is the most chilling tune here, from its foreboding guitar riff and increasingly tense rhythm. An English horn solo adds to the bleakness, and even the suggestion of relief provided by the title turns to an image of drowning in the very last seconds. (In this century, the feeling of dread is diluted by the addition of “Sax And Violins”, started for the album but only finished in 1991 for inclusion on the star-studded Until The End Of The World movie soundtrack.)

Like most albums that take time to sink in, Naked is possibly the band’s most challenging album. Once the melodies finally take and familiarity reigns, the lyrics show just how dark everything has become, wherever you look. No wonder they didn’t tour behind it.

Talking Heads Naked (1988)—3
1988 cassette and CD: “same” as above, plus 1 extra track
2006 DualDisc: same as 1988 CD, plus 1 extra track

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Todd Rundgren 23: 2nd Wind

Given the span of time that preceded Nearly Human, Todd Rundgren was comparatively quick with a follow-up. Following the example of that album, 2nd Wind was recorded live in front of a theater audience, who are only heard applauding after one track. Unfortunately, the album also follows the adult contemporary sound to an uncomfortable result.

Once again the single opens the album, and “Change Myself” is mostly harmless if wimpy. “Love Science” comes off as yet another James Brown parody, and while “Who’s Sorry Now” has its moments, it’s dragged out way too long, even with the brevity of a lounge sax solo.
There’s a Broadway element to the presentation, which is enforced by the inclusion of three songs from the little-known musical Up Against It, most famous for being adapted from playwright Joe Orton’s rejected screenplay for the Beatles’ third, ultimately unmade film. While it has ancestors in Todd’s previous Gilbert & Sullivan’s flirtations, “The Smell Of Money” sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, and “Love In Disguise” is excruciatingly mewled Lloyd Webber-style by two members of the ensemble in addition to Todd. “If I Have To Be Alone”, however, works as a classic Rundgren track, regardless of album, band, or concept.

Even after those are out of the way, the vibe continues, as proven by the over-meticulous but still compelling “Kindness”. “Public Servant” provides a welcome break from form, flirting with the political commentary that would surface in his writing soon. “Gaya’s Eyes” is an awfully long way to go to insist we save the planet before it’s too late. Except for the instrumentation, the title track seems to recall the earliest prog experiments with the original Utopia.

While still adding up to less than an hour, 2nd Wind is tiring in its length, most of the songs topping five minutes. The band consists of such Rundgren all-stars as Roger Powell and members of the Tubes, plus Ross Valory of Journey, who was probably thrilled with the paycheck. It’s too bad that such care and preparation went into something so underwhelming. (Cue gnashing of teeth and angry tirades from Todd diehards.)

Todd Rundgren 2nd Wind (1991)—2

Friday, August 14, 2020

Pretenders 13: Fidelity

While the Pretenders have been more of a conceptual band than a cohesive unit for the vast majority of their existence, it’s always surprising when Chrissie Hynde emerges with music under her own name than in the guise of the collective that propelled her to notoriety. While Fidelity! is credited to the unwieldy JP, Chrissie & The Fairground Boys, it’s easily as good a Pretenders album as anything released under that name.

That said, this outfit grew out of an unlikely collaboration with a Welsh folksinger half her age named John-Paul Jones, a.k.a. JP. Supposedly they both knew their animal attraction couldn’t sustain the generational difference, so they put at least a portion of that energy into songwriting. Their conundrum is laid out immediately in “Perfect Lover”, wherein she lists her detriments while he rasps his devotion notwithstanding.

The rest of the album provides further ruminations on romance and the futility thereof, and plenty of opportunities for us to get what she saw in him musically. His yowl dominates “If You Let Me”, an otherwise outstanding rocker. The symbol of the fairground looms large here, in two song titles as well as the band name, and we can’t figure out why. JP handles “Leave Me If You Must” all his own (if he hasn’t listened to Leonard Cohen yet, he probably should) but most of the tracks fall into the conversation trope, as in “Australia” and “Courage”. “Misty Valleys” is just Chrissie, and it’s lovely in its catchy melancholy, while “Meanwhile” presents a different balance, and “Never Drink Again” and the title track suggest she regrets the circumstances of their fabled first meeting.

This is all conjecture, but the listener gets an overwhelming feeling of voyeurism throughout Fidelity! Still, a crack band of unknowns anchors each track, although JP’s constant presence is an acquired taste, and very much why this shouldn’t be called a Pretenders album. Chrissie sounds as alluring as ever, and that’s what makes it all click. One would think it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but she’s yet to work with any of the players since.

JP, Chrissie & The Fairground Boys Fidelity! (2010)—3

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Marshall Crenshaw 9: The 9-Volt Years

We generally like it when artists put out compilations of their demos and works-in-progress, and a record geek and studio-holic like Marshall Crenshaw fits the bill. As the subtitle suggests, The 9-Volt Years: Battery-Powered Demos & Curios (1979-198?) covers a wide period of creativity.

It’s usually a smart move to include familiar tunes on discs like this; “Someday, Someway” and “Rockin’ Around In N.Y.C.” are blueprints for the first album, while “Vague Memory” is a late-‘80s reworking for the better, and “Bruce Is King” is a fascinating instrumental version of what would become “Blues Is King”. “Something’s Gonna Happen” and “You’re My Favorite Waste Of Time” appear very close to the versions originally released as singles, and had been hard to find for several years.

Esoteric covers have dotted his career, represented here by Bo Diddley’s “I’m Sorry” and radio performance of Sam Cooke’s “That’s It, I Quit, I’m Movin’ On”. He’s kind enough to help his brother Bob out with royalties, thanks to the inclusion of the otherwise unknown “She’s Not You” and the wonderful “Everyone’s In Love With You”, for which he credits Burt Bacharach as an influence, but we also hear Todd Rundgren. “Bad Luck” is collaboration with Was (Not Was), enhanced here by some subtle yet hilarious sound effects, while “Stay Fabulous” is a simple instrumental designed to stay that way. “Run Back To You” fits with the sunny power pop of the debut, though “First Love” would have been fine for a made-for-TV movie on the very subject. For some reason he includes a nine-second snippet called “…The Thrill Of The Fight…”, which allegedly illustrates a fistfight in the crowd at the end of a gig, not that we could tell if the liner notes hadn’t told us.

Much like Pete Townshend’s Scoop compilations, The 9-Volt Years likely represents a small fraction of the cassettes and other media Marshall Crenshaw has piled up over the years. Wisely, his self-deprecating nature keeps it from being a complete ego trip.

Marshall Crenshaw The 9-Volt Years: Battery-Powered Demos & Curios (1979-198?) (1998)—3