Friday, October 30, 2020

Elton John 15: Blue Moves

Seemingly pathologically addicted to recording albums, Elton emerged with his second double album in the space of three years. Heavy on pop and disco, Blue Moves is an over-ambitious, labored set that unfortunately pales in comparison with the more rock-oriented and concise Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Musicians vary from track to track, and instead of the standard Elton John/Bernie Taupin credit for all the songs, authorship runs all over the place.

Right away, “Your Starter For…” is an antiseptic instrumental written by occasional band member Caleb Quaye, and unfortunately provides an incongruous setup for the lengthy introduction to “Tonight”, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (and recorded at Abbey Road Studios, of course). All that’s missing is a candelabra. When Elton’s vocal finally comes in, you wish he hadn’t taken so long. As a movie soundtrack it might work, but there’s nothing like the payoff of “Love Lies Bleeding” after “Funeral For A Friend”. (We’ll try to keep those comparisons to a minimum.) “One Horse Town” manages to combine rock and disco in a well-worn theme for this lyricist, except that Ray Cooper’s vibraphone plonks are mixed as loud as the synthesized burps. Ray similarly dominates the next track, but as “Chameleon” recalls earlier, simpler triumphs, it’s a keeper. Finally.

Side two continues the flirting with American music, and not successfully. “Boogie Pilgrim” has something of a New Orleans funk strut, with lots of interjections by the Rev. James Cleveland for some reason. “Cage The Songbird” tries to do for Edith Piaf what “Candle In The Wind” did for Marilyn Monroe, but the “Daniel” flutes and country backing don’t fit. David Crosby and Graham Nash nicely blend their voices, though, as they did consistently when asked. “Crazy Water” is a too-long retread of “Philadelphia Freedom”, but lose the Brecker Brothers horn section and David Sanborn sax solo, and “Shoulder Holster” might fit on Tumbleweed Connection, though it wouldn’t be a highlight.

A true classic, and a heartbreaking one, emerges in “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”; our only quibble is the accordion. The mood is dispelled by “Out Of The Blue”, a six-minute instrumental sporting impeccably synchronized guitar and yes, vibes. The mild island feel of “Between Twenty And Seventeen” does not match a lyric about how the music business wrecked Bernie’s marriage to a certain tiny dancer. “The Wide Eyed And Laughing” gets points for being different, as it features several sitars as well as Crosby and Nash again. It also took five people to write. Reflecting the down start to the side, “Someone’s Final Song” is a sad elegy featuring just Elton, his piano, sympathetic keyboard touches from James Newton Howard, and mild backing voices.

The vibe continues on “Where’s The Shoorah?”, with a similar stark performance except for the choir led by Rev. Cleveland. (We looked it up, and while a shoorah has connotations both Hebrew and hoodoo, chances are Bernie just liked how it sounded.) The title basically sums up “If There’s A God In Heaven (What’s He Waiting For?)”, more fist-shaking about social ills. Despite the musical quality of this last run of tracks, “Idol” inadvertently identifies the main problem with the album (“he's not the same no more/And I have to say that I like the way his music sounded before”) over a lounge backing that must have meant a lot to George Michael. “Theme From A Non-Existent TV Series” is as badly placed as the other instrumentals, and “Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance!)” tries to provide a grand finale along the lines of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, not realizing they’d nailed it the first time.

As well produced as it is, and there are high points, Blue Moves is still a mess, if not quite the Self Portrait to his Blonde On Blonde. Even if it were shaved down to two sides, it would still be subpar. Unfortunately, this is approximately where Elton, and his golden touch, went off the rails. (Because of the varying accepted capacity of compact discs in their early days, the album’s debut in the format was incomplete, cutting four tracks almost at random in order to fit on a single CD. It only took 20 years for a fully restored two-CD program, split between the original two LPs.)

Elton John Blue Moves (1976)—2

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Frank Zappa 42: Jazz From Hell

One of the things Frank liked about the Synclavier was its ability to perform whatever he programmed into it the way it was written. (Not having to deal with temperamental human musicians was probably just as key.) He and his tireless assistants painstakingly uploaded samples of a wide variety of sounds to make up the “instruments” throughout Jazz From Hell; indeed, none of these purely digital compositions were performed live by any of his bands, save one.

If the ultra-lush “Night School” sounds like a TV show theme, it could be because Frank had pitched an alternative news program to various disinterested networks around this time. It’s one of the more accessible pieces here, as the rest of the program follows the more “modern” compositions he’d been dabbling in on his own, such as in the furious rhythms in “The Beltway Bandits”. “While You Were Art II” is a transcription of a guitar solo, here punctuated by horn sounds that remind us of Uncle Meat and vibraphone effects that have us missing Ruth Underwood. The title track doesn’t seem any more hellish than the rest of the album, nor does it stand out much.

Despite being all instrumental, Jazz From Hell still received a parental advisory sticker in some markets, likely due to the title but not the harmless content of “G-Spot Tornado”. Despite its very dated atmosphere, it’s very mainstream-sounding, with a wiping effect akin to the scratching that was prevalent in rap and hip-hop. (This one would be re-arranged for an orchestra, conducted by Frank a year before his death.) The wiping continues at a much slower pace on “Damp Ankles”, which evokes a cartoon factory. A guitar solo from 1982, dubbed “St. Etienne” from a performance in that French city, breaks up the monotony somewhat. While it starts slow, the fretwork gets frenetic by the end for a smooth transition to “Massaggio Galore”, featuring processed samples of the voices of various Zappa offspring.

As with his other instrumental excursions of the ‘80s, one’s enjoyment of Jazz From Hell will depend on one’s tolerance of computerized music. Just to show how nutty the music biz was in those days, this album garnered Frank his first Grammy® award—for Best Rock Instrumental Performance—and the only one in his lifetime. (Naturally, he disdained the gesture.)

Frank Zappa Jazz From Hell (1986)—3

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Jeff Beck 13: Frankie’s House and Crazy Legs

All of a sudden Jeff Beck was busier than he’d been in years, and his record label happily pushed out anything he gave them. Who knows if they expected major returns, because what they got wasn’t exactly commercial, even a year or so apart.

First up was Frankie’s House, the soundtrack to a British miniseries about a photojournalist in Vietnam, which explains some of the stereotypically Southeast Asian elements on some of the more atmospheric tracks. Beck is credited with merely guitars, while one Jed Lieber (whose father was the partner of Stoller) handles keyboards, which we assume includes all the drum programming. So basically, Jed provides the framework, and Beck does his thing. (“Cathouse” quotes from “Rice Pudding”, if you listen closely enough.) For overall listenability it helps that there are no vocals, but the curveball in the form of an instrumental cover of the old blues nugget “Hi-Heel Sneakers” is a little jarring.

However, that track actually provides a bridge to Beck’s other big project, a tribute to Gene Vincent’s guitarist Cliff Gallup. For this vanity exercise he teamed up with a retro combo called the Big Town Playboys, who might have been able to cash in on the Swingers fad a few years later if some of the members hadn’t defected to Portishead by then. Fans of the Stray Cats would dig the influence displayed here, though there’s a certain sameness to the program that doesn’t really vary until “Blues Stay Away From Me”, two tracks from the end. Notably absent is “Be-Bop-A-Lula”.

And with that, Jeff Beck limited himself to the occasional guest spot for the rest of the decade.

Jeff Beck & Jed Leiber Music From The Original Soundtrack Frankie’s House (1992)—3
Jeff Beck & The Big Town Playboys
Crazy Legs (1993)—3

Friday, October 16, 2020

Paul Simon 15: You’re The One

Perhaps chastened by the failure of his big splash on Broadway, Paul Simon went back to just making records. You’re The One was the first of his albums in a long while that didn’t have an overall theme or style. Granted, his output hadn’t been that heavy to begin with, and the tracks still feature exotic rhythms and not exactly orthodox instruments and textures. That’s also not to say he’s avoiding profundity by any stretch, but a Paul Simon album without an agenda is certainly a novelty.

The finest moments bookend the set: the gentle yet rhythmic “That’s Where I Belong”, and the suitably peaceful “Quiet”. In between, we follow narratives like the troubled marriage chronicles in “Darling Lorraine” and the title track, the latter frustrating in that there’s a wonderful melody in there, while the accusations in the chorus deflate it. Maybe that’s the point, but it reduces the inclination to listen too closely. “Old” is a personal history in the guise of a standup routine, while “The Teacher” is just plain pretentious in its professed humility.

We should mention that he had young children around the house during the making of this album, so perhaps that explains the nursery rhyme elements of “Look At That” and “Hurricane Eye”, but even he can’t leave things as simple as that. “Pigs, Sheep And Wolves” could be a nice parable if he hadn’t smothered the Mother Goose possibilities with Orwellian sentiments illustrated by Law & Order imagery. “Señorita With A Necklace Of Tears” pulls a remote line out of the middle for its title, rather than go with one of the more memorable hooks scattered throughout. “Love” is a more pleasant samba and a better cross between intricacy and directness.

You’re The One sounds good, as we would expect, but his attempts to sound relaxed and chummy aren’t very convincing. Maybe he’s too easy a target for criticism, but for all its sonics, and the sameness of it all, you’ll want to stick with the classics. (Only four years later the album was overhauled along with its older siblings, adding three live versions expertly performed that don’t expand much on the studio versions.)

Paul Simon You’re The One (2000)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 2000, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Cat Stevens 15: Tell ‘Em I’m Gone

While the songs weren’t exactly pouring out of him, Yusuf had fully returned to the concept of performing what used to be called pop music again. When it did arrive, Tell ‘Em I’m Gone prominently included his previous stage name as part of the packaging. (The album was also released on his own Cat-O-Log imprint. For those interested in such things, the vinyl version sported artwork by famed bootleg illustrator William Stout.)

The album’s liner notes helpfully explain his early fascination with the blues, and how he developed his own folk-style approach to it once he realized he didn’t have the voice as displayed by his contemporaries (think Eric Burdon, Rod Stewart, etc.) Decades later he’s still steeped in the architecture of the blues, putting his own arrangements to the likes of “Big Boss Man” and “You Are My Sunshine”. Just to keep you on your toes, he also covers Edgar Winter (“Dying To Live”) and Procol Harum (the atypically rocking “The Devil Came From Kansas”).

When he’s not tapping on his own history—“I Was Raised In Babylon” discusses the pros and cons of world religions, while the loping “Editing Floor Blues” explicitly addresses the Salman Rushdie kerfuffle—his own tunes continue to spread good news, such as the pretty fable “Cat & The Dog Trap” and the obvious but still heartfelt “Doors”. While “Gold Digger” may seem overly materialistic, it apparently concerns a South African miners’ strike, which ties in with the anti-slavery theme of his title track (aka “Take This Hammer”).

Because he can, lots of big names come to help out, including Richard Thompson, Charlie Musselwhite, Lenny Castro, and Will Oldham. The sound on Tell ‘Em I’m Gone is simple and crisp, as befits a co-production with Rick Rubin. What’s more, the album was mixed by onetime producer Paul Samwell-Smith, providing another link to the past.

Yusuf Tell ‘Em I’m Gone (2014)—3

Friday, October 9, 2020

Robert Plant 14: Digging Deep

Although the term has seemingly outgrown the technology whence it was derived, the celebrity podcast has become a valuable promotional tool in the music industry, particularly when related to archival releases. Robert Plant was an early adopter with his Digging Deep series, wherein he told wide-ranging stories about a handful of songs from his catalog, prodded by an eager interviewer. Some of these were included on a box set of vinyl 45s, resequenced from 16 original singles, which appeared in late 2019, and included some actual radio hits.

The following fall brought forth Digging Deep: Subterranea, a much cheaper two-CD set that only shared a few tracks with the vinyl box. Like the equally sprawling Sixty-Six To Timbuktu, it’s designed to present Robert as an innovative wanderer outside of the golden god image cultivated with Led Zeppelin. Out of thirty tracks, only seven are repeated from that set. Each of his solo albums are touched on, nearly democratically, but there’s nothing from the Honeydrippers EP or his Grammy®-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss. However, Shaken ‘N Stirred is completely ignored. The often-overlooked (especially by us) Band Of Joy and Fate Of Nations get the most love. The latter is obviously very important to him, and while “I Believe” and “29 Palms” aren’t exactly deep cuts, “Great Spirit” appears in its acoustic mix, which was a bonus track to the 2007 rerelease of the album. In this context, we can see how that album was very much a transition from synth-tinged radio rock to the sounds he’d embrace in this century, were it not for that little side trip with Jimmy Page in the mid- to late ‘90s (also not mentioned here).

While that earlier compilation included a full disc worth of rarities, Digging Deep: Subterranea offers only three previously unreleased tracks, all presumably recent recordings, scattered throughout the non-chronological track order. “Nothing Takes The Place Of You”, a wonderful slow burner originally written and recorded by Toussaint McCall (we never heard of him either). “Charlie Patton Highway (Turn It Up Part 1)” is supposedly a preview of his next full album project and, as befits the title, more of a detuned blues than an exotic world jaunt. Finally, “Too Much Alike” is a jaunty duet with Patty Griffin, and the lyrical content will only fuel further wonder about the level of their collaboration.

As the subtitle leaves open the possibility of other volumes, Digging Deep isn’t a hits collection per se, but serves to celebrate his full catalog. Perhaps some of those overlooked albums will be given more appreciation as a result.

Robert Plant Digging Deep: Subterranea (2020)—

Friday, October 2, 2020

Nick Mason: Live At The Roundhouse

The Pink Floyd tribute band industry has been thriving for decades now, making room for any number of outfits in addition to such successful franchises as Brit Floyd, The Machine, and The Australian Pink Floyd Show. So it was both surprising and fitting that drummer Nick Mason, of all people, who’s the only man to appear on every Floyd album, would launch a tribute band of sorts.

With the fantastical moniker of Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, this five-piece combo was formed to celebrate the Floyd of the pre-Dark Side Of The Moon years—basically the music on the various volumes of The Early Years. Most of the songs in their repertoire were not performed at all by the post-1987 Floyd, and some barely made it to the stage at all when they were new. Between the economy of the lineup and the capabilities of modern stage equipment, these versions are as faithful as they are passionate.

Live At The Roundhouse, a combination CD/DVD or Blu-ray set, provides the evidence. On bass is Guy Pratt, who held the same job through the Waters-less years. One of the guitarists is Gary Kemp, best known from Spandau Ballet, of all bands. Both sing lead, and neither attempt to emulate the original vocalist(s). And Nick Mason himself, who’s barely played drums this century and was never really known as the most dynamic player, shows an awful lot of energy.

The songs are paced well, bouncing between some very different albums. “Interstellar Overdrive” is something of an overture, the freakout section incorporating elements of “Let There Be More Light” and “The Narrow Way”, going into “Astronomy Domine”. “Lucifer Sam” suffers a bit from Guy Pratt’s wacky asides, but there’s still no beating that riff. (A Sex Pistols reference is somehow shoehorned into “The Nile Song”, too.) Obscured By Clouds finally gets its due, with a few tracks scattered throughout the set. An abridgement of “Atom Heart Mother Suite” is bookended by verses from the starkly acoustic “If”, and “A Saucerful Of Secrets” itself is tackled and conquered. Syd Barrett is not ignored, from all of the early singles to “Bike” and the ultra-rare “Vegetable Man”. “Point Me At The Sky” is the wild card of an encore.

Lots of aging rock stars get pigeonholed into the living tribute act category, and it’s moot whether this set will woo the skeptical. But Live At The Roundhouse is a unique snapshot of an era that often gets overlooked, and even more fun to watch.

Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets Live At The Roundhouse (2020)—