Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Robyn Hitchcock 32: The Man Downstairs

Like every other musician, Robyn Hitchcock went into quarantine, lockdown, sheltering in place, whatever you want to call it, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his case, he hunkered down in Nashville with his partner Emma Swift, shared the occasional file and short story via his Patreon account, and performed regular, almost weekly acoustic shows from his kitchen on Zoom. While Emma completed an album of unique Dylan covers, Robyn’s only release was this odd snapshot from his vault.

The Man Downstairs is helpfully subtitled Demos & Rarities, and purports to be a dry run for The Man Upstairs. That album was split between evenly between covers and originals, and while his own songs tip the scales on this one, only “Recalling The Truth” made it to the final product; “I Pray When I’m Drunk” was rerecorded with a full band for the album what came after.

The cover choices shouldn’t surprise many Robyn fans—“Arnold Layne” being one of the more common Syd Barrett selections, Dylan’s “Born In Time”, and Nick Drake’s “River Man”, which he’d played onstage. “The Tower Song” by Townes Van Zandt is a surprise, and hopefully will send the uninitiated to that catalog. His own songs run the gamut of his styles, from the mildly Dylanesque “All Love And No Peace” and the mild psychedelia of “The Threat Of Freedom” to the retro (for him) approach of the disparate “Cavendish Square” and “On Seeing Your Photograph”.

An unnumbered release on his own label, the homemade charm of The Man Downstairs comes through in its minimalist packaging, topped by a truly amateurish cover collage. Yet the quality of the music puts this up there with previous solo acoustic endeavors. What’s more, the quality of the recording suggests that he should stick with this presentation going forward, if only for economic reasons.

Robyn Hitchcock The Man Downstairs: Demos & Rarities (2020)—3

Friday, September 25, 2020

Bob Weir 2: Kingfish

While Jerry Garcia played with a whole pile of people in and out of the Dead during their live hiatus, Bob Weir stuck mostly with a local bar band called Kingfish, fronted by occasional Dead collaborator Matthew Kelly and New Riders of the Purple Sage refugee Dave Torbert. Their eponymous debut came out on the Dead’s Round Records imprint, which was reserved for side projects such as these.

The big shot got to kick off the album, and both “Lazy Lightning” and “Supplication” would find their ways into Dead sets in the future, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not. Bobby also sings lead on “Home To Dixie” and the Marty Robbins outlaw ballad “Big Iron”, later covered by Johnny Cash in the Rick Rubin era. He also anchors the reggae gospel reading of “Bye And Bye”, a Joseph Spence arrangement of the beloved hymn “We’ll Understand It Better By And By”.

In between, the success of the album depends on your tolerance of mid-‘70s country rock. We hear echoes of the Starland Vocal Band with a better guitar player. A few tracks stand out, such as “Asia Minor”, one of a few songs brought forward from an earlier Kelly-Torbert project, and sporting some of the skip-time elements of earlier Dead.

Bob would be back with the Dead soon enough, leaving Kingfish to endure on their own. Matt Kelly would reappear throughout the Dead story from time to time, but outside of this album and a couple live releases, the band’s connection is merely tangential.

Kingfish Kingfish (1976)—3

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Jerry Garcia 5: Reflections

As mentioned, the Dead as a unit were off the road, but all the members kept busy, in the studio and onstage, sometimes with each other. So it was that Jerry Garcia’s next solo album was an amalgam of sorts. Half was recorded with the current Jerry Garcia Band (which included Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, as well as Larry Knechtel in the studio), and the rest featured the Dead. Since each of the latter would make it to their setlists, Reflections shouldn’t be dismissed as a side project. Be warned, however: Donna Godchaux is prominent in the mix, in both bands.

The music alternates from one band to the other, but since the Dead tracks bookend the set, we’ll start there. “Might As Well” kicks off the proceedings, but don’t be fooled by the rollicking arrangement; this is predominantly a low-key set. The other tunes made their first album appearances after several years in progress: written solely by Robert Hunter, “It Must Have Been The Roses” was rescued from his first solo album; “They Love Each Other” was a perennial in 1973, but not as jaunty here; “Comes A Time” had been around as far back as 1971, and gains an expressive solo.

The “other” tracks aren’t as strong, with the clear exception of “Mission In The Rain”. The only Garcia/Hunter original here recorded by the solo band, it’s a keeper, from the mystery of the first verse to the delivery in the chorus. Unfortunately, “I’ll Take A Melody” is an Allan Toussaint song taken at a dirgey pace. “Tore Up Over You” is a Hank Ballard & The Midnighters song done well here, with lots of rolling piano from Nicky, whereas the country cover “Catfish John” was already in Jerry’s peripheral vision, having been part of the Old & In The Way repertoire.

Given the two distinct sources of the recordings, Reflections is sequenced very well, mostly alternating between bands. The bonuses include four further middling covers jammed in the studio by the JGB, along with a 16-minute Dead instrumental called “Orpheus”. This certainly supports the theory that the album was pieced together using earlier Dead sessions, coming off the high of the Blues For Allah experiments, to bolster what little the JGB was able to accomplish in the studio.

(Note: while we don’t normally append studio albums with this kind of info, it bears mentioning that two live collections from the vaults spotlight this lineup of the JGB, and especially because Nicky Hopkins is involved. They are listed below.)

Jerry Garcia Reflections (1976)—3
2004 expanded CD: same as 1976, plus 5 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Let It Rock: The Jerry Garcia Collection, Vol. 2 (2009)
     • Garcia Live Volume Five (2014)

Friday, September 18, 2020

Rush 20: Test For Echo

Three years was the longest hiatus for Rush yet, but once they reconvened for another album, they pretty much picked up where they left off. Test For Echo built on the guitar-centric sound that made Counterparts so refreshing, but missed some subtleties. Maybe Alex Lifeson’s experiments on Victor were still ringing in everyone’s ears.

The title track is a successful groove, nicely balanced between the players, while the lyrics bemoan the barrage of media already starting to affect society in the ‘90s. “Driven” is built upon multiple bass tracks; apparently Geddy Lee felt it was his turn to drive. Several tricky rhythms throw off the listener, who might not realize how few lyrics there actually are. A similar tendency to use a list as the basis for lyrics dogs “Half The World”, which still manages to be catchy, and we hear echoes of Pearl Jam in the arrangement (but definitely not the vocals). “The Color Of Right” is another good mesh of music and lyrics, this time provoking thought over legal terms. “Time And Motion” manages to mix Rush prog with current alt-metal, with a completely anachronistic keyboard throwing a wrench into everything. The social commentary continues on “Totem”, a litany of deities and religious icons, traditional and imagined.

By Neil Peart’s own admission, the lyrics to “Dog Years” were written during a post-celebratory hangover, which could be why he pushes the metaphors and puns as far as possible. (Photos of the boys as children with their new instruments illustrate the words in the CD booklet.) “Virtuality” almost sounds quaint today, decades after a time when the possibilities of the Internet still seemed like science fiction. The album’s sound finally shifts with “Resist”, based around a piano pattern that’s been the hallmark of the Atlantic era thus far along with a pleasing acoustic breakdown. It’s welcome, almost an anthem. “Limbo” is the album’s requisite instrumental, but unlike their previous successes, this seems more like a track that never got vocals, save the disembodied samples and some wordless moaning. (Apparently it was pieced together, Frankenstein-style, from various ideas that had been “in limbo” for some time. And as much as “Rush Limbo” suggests a certain narcissistic radio host, that wasn’t the intention.) With its references to Sisyphus, “Carve Away The Stone” aims to be profound amid more complicated rhythms.

Test For Echo isn’t classic Rush, but it is impressive for coming together as quickly as it did. They would tour, of course, but little did anyone know that they were about to take an even longer break.

Rush Test For Echo (1996)—3

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Alex Lifeson: Victor

Apparently not happy with Rush as his sole creative outlet, Alex Lifeson spent part of the 1994 and 1995 recording tracks in his home studio, without the other guys. Eventually the results became something of a solo album, which didn’t get much attention outside Rush diehards. Lifeson’s insistence on calling both album and artist “Victor” didn’t do him any favors.

Much of the music is harsh and overly loud. He doesn’t sing, thankfully, though he does provide “spoken word”. The handful of vocals are left to the singer from Canadian band I Mother Earth; another track is sung by cult artist Dalbello, who seesaws between a witchy purr and a Geddy-like yowl. Several musicians, including his son Adrian, assisted on other instruments, and Les Claypool of Primus plays on one track, not that you’d notice.

Four tracks of thrash finally give way to the moody “At The End”, while the more progressive “Strip And Go Naked” provides relief a few tracks later. “Shut Up Shuttin’ Up” is an attempt at humor, as two harpies complain about men over a funk-metal groove. While it should be no surprise that the lyrics don’t reach the lofty heights of Neil Peart, the sexual violence in “Don’t Care” and the title track (albeit an adaptation of a W.H. Auden poem) has us concerned about his psyche.

Victor is a vanity project that certainly has its admirers, but it can be skipped. Meanwhile, Neil occupied himself with an extensive all-star tribute to Buddy Rich, which sold better but was equally tangential to his main outfit.

Victor Victor (1996)—2

Friday, September 11, 2020

Van Morrison 40: Astral Weeks Live

For decades, Van Morrison brushed off most questions about his legendary Astral Weeks album. Seeing as he’s never been the type of performer to go back to the well, it was surprising indeed to hear that he would do a series of concerts celebrating the album’ 40th anniversary, performing it as a suite.

Even more astonishing, given the evidence on Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl, is that he was really into it. Because it’s his baby, he juggled the original album sequence, and enhanced four of the pieces with new codas consisting of possibly extemporaneous, certainly copyrighted lyrics over the established vamp. (Jay Berliner, who played acoustic guitar on the original album, does the same here, alongside accompanists from all stages of Van’s concert career.)

After a brief introduction we head right into the title track, which sounds as good as it ever had. The detour into “I Believe I’ve Transcended” provides a mediation and scat on Caledonia, important enough that he printed them on the back cover. “Beside You” nicely blends the dreamy arrangement from the album with the arpeggiated riff from the early take, and once again he’s on top of the swirling melody. “Slim Slow Slider”, moved up from the conclusion, actually fits in its new slot, at least until he does his best to break his strings via furious strumming for the “I Start Breaking Down” coda. (And the crowd goes wild.) The program gets back on track with “Sweet Thing”, complete with his singing-through-the-harmonica trick.

The halves of the performance are still split just like the side titles on the record. Ergo, there ends “In The Beginning”, and now, on to “Afterwards”.

“The Way Young Lovers Do” is played well, but his enthusiasm seems to have waned; maybe he shouldn’t have started breaking down two songs earlier. “Cyprus Avenue” doesn’t have the dramatics of the ‘70s rendition, instead extrapolating on the “You Came Walking Down” idea for a few minutes, for a smooth transition into “Ballerina”, which gains some seductive energy well before the “Move On Up” coda. “Madame George” ends the suite, and thanks to the lyrics printed in the booklet, for the first time we have confirmation that he’s been singing about “Madame Joy” all these years. The song proceeds as we’d hope, then he leaves the stage while the emcee pumps the crowd for recognition.

The break is short, however, as Van’s back to sing “Listen To The Lion” (incidentally, the name of his new custom label) that’s about half the original length with an instrumental section called “The Lion Speaks” marred by the emcee reminding us that the singer is “Van the man! The one! The only!” What’s called “Common One” pulls in lyrics from “Summertime In England” and “A Town Called Paradise” while the sax player parrots his words back a la Brian Kennedy. (If you buy the LP version, you get a bonus performance of “Gloria”, complete with the Doors’ John Densmore on tambourine. And yes, that really is how he’s identified in the liner notes.)

As album recreations go, Astral Weeks Live is entertaining. It helps that both band and strings follow the record very closely, so we always know where we are. It’s a nice souvenir, even more so on DVD, and only underscores why the original has endured all this time.

Van Morrison Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl (2009)—

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Bryan Ferry 4: In Your Mind

Seemingly freed from the shackles of Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry’s next solo album found him… writing original songs and recording them with various members of the band. There’s not a single wacky cover tune on In Your Mind, nor is there a single trace of camp or irony.

“This Is Tomorrow” is a fairly ordinary track, except for the instrumental bridges that hit other chords, while “All Night Operator” is proto-pub rock. “One Kiss” fades out on a drum pattern much like that which opens Bowie’s “Five Years”. With its prominent electric piano, “Love Me Madly Again” recalls the dirty skank of “Editions Of You”. It’s also the longest track, at over seven minutes. “Tokyo Joe” continues the vibe, though the “Oriental” touches in the strings are little overdone. “Party Doll” keeps up the dancing beat, and it’s not until “Rock Of Ages” that some transitory ambience, but even that gives way to another upbeat track. The title tracks provides a similar tease.

Except for the wall of saxophones—not provided by Andy Mackay, by the way—In Your Mind might as well be a Roxy Music album, following as well as it does from the more mainstream track they’d started to find. While it’s fairly ordinary, without a lot of variety, it’s also harmless.

Bryan Ferry In Your Mind (1977)—3

Friday, September 4, 2020

Genesis 19: Archive

With the band all but over, the longtime members of Genesis convened to compile a box set of rarities. Rather than cram all their incarnations into a single sprawling compilation, Genesis Archive 1967-75 wisely concentrated on the Peter Gabriel years. In an eccentric move, but ultimately a method that enhanced the listening experience, the program went backwards, kind of. (We’ll explain.)

The first two discs are devoted to the only professionally recorded live performance of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. The sound is terrific, the rhythm section and keyboards tight, and Peter’s occasional song introductions attempt to shed some light on the work’s thick plot. Because many of the songs as originally performed had less-than-stellar vocals due to the costumes he wore onstage, Peter re-recorded an indeterminate portion of the vocals specifically for this set. Steve Hackett allegedly redid some of his guitar parts too. Because (they said) the tape ran out for “It”, that song is included in its studio incarnation with all new vocals.

The third disc begins with five songs from a 1973 concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre—four from Selling England By The Pound, plus “Supper’s Ready”, the latter supposedly with new vocal parts as well. A BBC performance of “Stagnation” with the then-newly recruited Steve Hackett and Phil Collins is excellent. Three rare singles fill the rest of the disc. “Twilight Alehouse”—originally from the Foxtrot era but eventually released as the B-side to “I Know What I Like”—is unsettling in its portrait of an ordinary yet disturbed man (as opposed to fantasy or mythological creature) finding solace in alcohol, but the instrumental break is worth it. The standalone “Happy The Man” single sounds almost like a parody of Cat Stevens (despite the alarming rhyme “like a nun with a gun”). The drastically re-arranged, re-recorded single version of “Watcher Of The Skies” cuts out the entire Mellotron intro, sticks to the verses, and fades on a chant.

The fourth disc is the most challenging, simply because it goes way, way back to when they were just kids starting out, before Steve and Phil. Some of these are more historically than musically interesting; good luck enduring “Let Us Now Make Love” without cringing. A strings-less mix of “In The Wilderness” suggests that a stripped-down version of the debut might be of interest, as are such demos as “Dusk” and “She Is Beautiful”. A few tracks recorded for the BBC and nowhere else are also unique in that Peter shares some vocals with Tony Banks and Anthony Phillips. The bulk of the disc predates the first album, and includes even more straight pop and love songs than anything they’d do until the ‘80s.

Coming at a time when Peter was supposedly hard at work on his next album, the Genesis Archive reminded people who’d given up on the modern version of the band where they’d come from. It didn’t do Phil Collins any favors, unless you listen closely enough to the drums.

Genesis Genesis Archive 1967-75 (1998)—

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Kiss 4: Alive!

We’ve already alluded to the Casablanca label’s skill at losing money; suffice it to say that the next Kiss album came directly out of an economic strategy. A live album was supposed to be cheaper to record than a studio album, and while the spectacle, pyrotechnics, and other hallmarks of a Kiss concert could only be imagined while listening to a record, Alive! managed to convey all the excitement of actually being there.

Part of the Kiss branding was to deliver the songs onstage exactly as they were pressed onto vinyl, so there’s very little derivation from the gospel on these four sides. “Firehouse” doe gains an annoying siren over the end of the tune and “100,000 Years” is stretched to twelve minutes for a drum solo and several minutes of Paul exhorting and cajoling the crowd, but all the songs were familiar to fans from the three albums they already owned, and nobody complained. (Except Ace Frehley, whose desire to stretch his solos was indulged only on “She”.)

Only after years of rumor did Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons finally admit that while the songs on the album were indeed recorded in concert, much overdubbing afterwards covered all kinds of bugs common to live recording, such as missed notes, microphone placement, and the like. Even the crowd noise was enhanced in places. Besides, Paul’s intros and interjections, which scale the dizzying heights of unintentional hilarity, must be heard to appreciated, whether in or out of context.

None of this takes away from the whole, which is that Alive! is still a classic live album, and one of the seminal examples of its era. The packaging is devoted to the cult of the fan, from the kids posing with the homemade banner on the back cover to the handwritten messages in the gatefold (opposite photos of the other fine Kiss albums for your collection). A deluxe eight-page color booklet only underscored just how awesome they were. This was not reproduced in future CD editions, unfortunately, which also continued to offer the program on two discs, despite being short enough to fit on just one.

Kiss Alive! (1975)—4