Friday, November 20, 2020

Elvis Costello 35: Hey Clockface

Like many working musicians, Elvis Costello had to cancel a tour and other best-laid plans as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With his itinerary scuppered, he made the best of a restricted situation and emerged at year’s end with one of the most challenging—and ultimately rewarding—albums of his career.
Hey Clockface is a daring amalgam of recordings from three distinct sessions. The bulk come from Paris with a combo featuring Steve Nieve on all kinds of keyboards, with brass, reeds, and cello from some French musicians, and even Steve’s stepson AJUQ on drums and harmonies. (Steve spent the lockdown holed up in the French countryside with his wife Muriel Teodori and stepson, and streamed “Daily Improvisations” for weeks on end over Facebook.) For variety, some solo recordings come from Helsinki with a rhythmic approach inspired by Tom Waits’ Real Gone, and two songs were collaborated on and recorded remotely during the lockdown with Michael Leonhart and Bill Frisell. When put together, it all works.
“Revolution #49” begins with a sound not unlike Peter Gabriel’s Mideast experiments, giving way to a spoken narrative as clear as mud. It’s a nice lead-in to the angry “No Flag”, one of the Helsinki tracks that thankfully has enough instrumentation to cover his mouth percussion. One can imagine what the Imposters would bring to this tune. “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now” is mildly smug song of schadenfreude, sung at a slow pace, almost relishing the comeuppance. The mysterious “Newspaper Pane” is one of the Leonhart-Frisell collaborations, fitting seamlessly with the rest of the tracks (thanks to the Nieveian organ parts), while “I Do (Zula’s Song)” has a mournful gait that recalls several facets of Tom Waits, whoever Zula is. “We Are All Cowards Now” is the best of the Helsinki recordings, as it sounds like an actual band, and provides less ambiguous protest than “No Flag”. The title track comes at an odd place smack in the middle of the program, with a jokey vaudeville delivery already satisfied by “A Voice In The Dark”. It seems to exist only to be shackled to Fats Waller’s “How Can You Face Me?”, which he’s careful to credit.
Lovely as it is, “The Whirlwind” is a mysterious ballad that is part of the batch written for the musical staging of the political fable A Face In The Crowd, coming eventually to the Broadway stage. Unfortunately, “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” is the least successful of the Helsinki experiments, another portrait of another fictional muckraker, the story overtaken by the auteur’s human beatbox. Just as inscrutable, “The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip” doesn’t explain who she is or why we’re hearing it, but it’s a lovely melody contributed by Nieve and Teodori. “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?” pits an aside by Bob Dylan to an arrangement recalling Leonard Cohen, then “Radio Is Everything” is another mysterious monologue over Frisell’s loops and Leonhart’s accompaniment. The mood shifts again for “I Can’t Say Her Name”, more cocktail ragtime oddly positioned in the sequence, particularly when he repeats the cartoony scatting from the title track over what should have been a fade. Thankfully, all is redeemed by the heartbreaking and gorgeous “Byline”, from the piano and his melody to the lyrics and AJUQ’s harmonic chorale.
In some ways, Hey Clockface can be seen a vast improvement over the similar experimentation that sank When I Was Cruel, delivering the late-night autumnal feel of North for easily Elvis’s best jazz excursion to date. Maybe in a few years we’ll actually know what the hell some of these songs are about.

Elvis Costello Hey Clockface (2020)—

Friday, November 13, 2020

Joni Mitchell 24: The Early Years

With nary a rarity in her catalog, Joni Mitchell has generally let her albums speak for her career. While other artists of her caliber, generation, and output have shared their sketchbooks, Joni has resisted such openness. Her only box set that doesn’t merely repackage albums, 2014’s Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced, presented four hours of music going as far back as Blue covering the subject of, well, love, all taken from the catalog.
Her longtime manager, the late Elliot Roberts, had been privy to his other client Neil Young’s ongoing efforts to document his professional career, so maybe we can thank him for convincing her to finally delve back in the past. After all, Archives—Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) is dedicated to his memory. These five CDs cover roughly five years before her first album was recorded, and it provides an abundance of riches, and in pretty good quality.
The set begins with a quasi-audition tape recorded at a Saskatoon radio station, wherein she treads the folk music ground familiar to fans of Joan Baez, furiously strumming her ukulele, yet her voice is as strident and clear as ever. Two club sets by “Joanie Anderson” expand her brand somewhat, in her engaging introductions, though a rendition of the calypso “Sail Away” hints at some of the harmonic heights she’d achieve in a few years’ time.
With the second disc, a performance of “Urge For Going” at her mother’s birthday party debuts her earliest songwriting attempts. “Born To Take The Highway” and “Here Today And Gone Tomorrow” are more naïve than naiveté, and Jac Holzman of Elektra Records was presumably less than wowed by the five songs from her audition for him. Nonetheless, her voice and passion makes them work in the context of this box. Besides, the songs began to just pour out.
The decided shift from traditional material to her own compositions is amplified by her switch to guitar and her discovery of alternate tunings, evident in a couple dozen songs she never brought to a studio. A trio of unheard songs from a March 1967 tape (“Gemini Me”, “Strawflower Me”, “A Melody In Your Name”) are particularly astounding; a few months later “Free Darling”, featuring a slight detour with the phrase “I came to the city”, is buried amidst demos of familiar songs. Despite its melancholy tone, “Come To The Sunshine” is an unabashed love song, while “The Gift Of The Magi” suffuses the O. Henry story with existential horror. “Dr. Junk” sports dizzying changes and wordplay, and a good example of why she might have been hesitant to explore her history. But “What’s The Story, Mr. Blue?”, which she says was cobbled together from several unfinished songs, displays a wry, even ribald humor.
Most of the familiar songs appear as formed as we got to know them, either from her albums or the covers that sustained her before she got her own contract. Though there are a few word changes and alternate melodies, but hardly radical ones. A tantalizing snippet called “Joni Improvising” finds her edging up to “The Dawntreader” and “I Had A King”. We finally have her own versions of “Eastern Rain”, which Fairport Convention recorded early on. There’s even a performance of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” to illustrate how it influenced “The Circle Game”. Several radio and television appearances are introduced by fawning hosts, to which she replies with equal parts modesty and candor.
While she’s increasingly avoided live performance in recent decades—citing stage fright, insufficiently receptive audiences, and the tedium of having to constantly change guitar tunings as the main deterrents—she did start out on the coffeehouse circuit, so it’s insightful indeed to hear how she fared when she was literally singing for her supper. Three straight sets from the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan cap the package, and demonstrate how much she had in her arsenal at that time. Songs she would scatter throughout her first three albums (four if you include “Little Green”, wherein she sings the name of the daughter she gave up) are often prefaced by lengthy introductions and elaborations, painting a portrait of a performer at ease in the spotlight. After breaking a string, she beseeches someone to change it for her while she performs an a cappella song.
As might be expected of a release this size, some songs (e.g. “Both Sides Now”, “Urge For Going”, “The Circle Game”) appear repeatedly. Still, the pure talent in her voice and fingers shines throughout. Also, there’s not a single song played on the piano. Those would come.

Joni Mitchell Archives—Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) (2020)—

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Journey 13: Generations

Steve Augeri had a thankless task replacing Steve Perry in Journey, but money is money and tour they did. While they made progress by maintaining the same lineup for two albums in a row, Generations muddles their aim by farming out four of the songs to every other band member. At least, they kept the songwriting in house for the most part. They even brought back Kevin Elson to produce.
The album continues Neal Schon’s quest for respect as a shredder, with more emphasis on power and less on ballads. Brevity is barely considered with most songs over five minutes; after all, don’t we wanna hear all that fretwork?
“Faith In The Heartland” is the rousing anthemic opener, and a good show case for Augeri, though there is a little of Perry’s asides just before the fade. Neal and Jonathan Cain didn’t notice how much the verse of “The Place In Your Heart” resembles that of “Ask The Lonely”, but they can still write a chorus. Drummer Dean Castronovo takes over the mike for the lackluster “A Better Life”, and he does a pretty good Steve Augeri impression, slightly better than Jonathan mewling his way through “Every Generation”. Augeri takes control for two songs he wrote on his own, the tender-but-barbed “Butterfly (She Flies Alone)” and the more adventurously metered “Believe”.
“Knowing That You Love Me” provides the requisite dark love song, kicked aside by the more frenetic war commentary in “Out Of Harms [sic] Way”. As if that wasn’t fast enough, Neal revives “In Self-Defense” from his second collaboration with Jan Hammer, a song incidentally co-written with Steve Perry. “Better Together” is a defiant message to the haters, and one they’d need before handing “Gone Crazy” over to Ross Valory. The classic Journey sound returns for “Beyond The Clouds”, and we still can’t figure out if she’s dead or just dumped him.
The band kindly gave a copy of Generations to anyone who attended one of their concerts that summer, but added the generic “Never Too Late”, sung by Dean, as a bonus to the retail release. Meanwhile, Japan got the exclusive extra of Jonathan’s “Pride Of The Family”, probably the only song in this century that quotes 38 Special.
This album will be easily embraced by the already converted; nobody else need bother.

Journey Generations (2005)—3

Friday, November 6, 2020

Bruce Springsteen 27: Letter To You

As threatened, Bruce did indeed record an album with the E Street Band following the unveiling of his Western Stars project. Then he proceeded to sit on it for a year, rather than unleash it in time for blasting from car windows by fans happy to be out of the house amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps then Letter To You might truly be appreciated as “just what we needed,” as all the other reviews would have us believe. Maybe the delay was because he knew this was the basic framework of an album, with lyrics far from polished and frankly pandering, and an overall sound that often sounds like somebody trying to imitate Springsteen.
“One Minute You’re Here” quietly eulogizes someone or something that has been lost, then the title track crashes in along the lines of “Lucky Town”. “Burnin’ Train” opens with a flourish of Charlie Giordano’s Hammond organ, then gallops along like the title. Then we come to the first of three songs pulled from the notebooks of the 1970s. Despite their age and their legend, they have two more things in common: they’re all too long and played way too slowly, in the same plodding tempo. “Janey Needs A Shooter” was started, then abandoned, and finally finished with Warren Zevon in 1980, where it’s still slow but not plodding. This version goes back to Bruce’s original, disturbing lyrics, covered by the three major chords. “If I Was A Priest” is loaded with the same hick Guthrie voice that Dylan adopted in an attempt to camouflage a suburban upbringing. “Song For Orphans” had been played live as recently as 2005; the choruses add a few notes to the melody. Each of these top six minutes, and drag an already slow program. (All date from his first demos for Columbia Records, supposedly unearthed for a yet-to-be-specified archival project; the songs, and fans alike, would be better served having the originals.)
The other songs fare a little better, but there’s still some sameness between “Last Man Standing” and “The Power Of Prayer”, which sit back to back. “House Of A Thousand Guitars” is mostly keyboards, but his repeating “a thousand guitars” a thousand times before the end doesn’t give it any edge. “Rainmaker” sounds like a louder version of the dusty anthems on Western Stars, which isn’t a bad thing. Nobody in the studio pointed out how much the verses of “Ghosts” resemble “Walls Came Down” by the Call, especially over the lengthy coda, which is too bad, since the choruses have potential. Yet “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is an excellent closer, and a shoo-in for any season-end montage you can imagine.
Letter From Home isn’t bad, and we have warmed to it, but those who consider it a masterpiece are just as deaf as those who didn’t get the lyrics to “Born In The U.S.A.”, and by now they should know better. He may have been going for the vibe of the sessions that produced The River, but this is not the same band as it was forty years earlier. Nor should it be. Take it for what it is and don’t put any more significance to it. (And what’s up with that cover shot? Shouldn’t he have saved that for his Christmas album?)

Bruce Springsteen Letter To You (2020)—3

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Kinks 20: Schoolboys In Disgrace

Well, at least this one rocks, finally, but Ray Davies still seemed pathologically bent towards concepts. The point of Schoolboys In Disgrace would be that the education system serves only to repress creativity and browbeat the poor little kiddies into kowtowing to authority. And maybe, that’s how ordinary juvenile delinquents turn into full-fledged villains like Mr. Flash, or so the note on the back cover suggests. (The band even dressed the part, in hideous green uniforms that would be bettered by Angus Young, and Ray donning a mask for the headmaster that was equal parts Gabriel-era Genesis and one of Gerald Scarfe’s puppets for The Wall, still four years away.)
Often the album leans on ‘50s parody, reflecting the band’s own ages and the wave of greasy nostalgia sweeping pop culture at the time. “Schooldays” finds Ray looking back wistfully yet again to his younger days, even missing the teachers and textbooks he hated. “Jack The Idiot Dunce” pits a portrait of an object of ridicule living in ignorant bliss against a Jerry Lee Lewis piano. The lengthy “Education” chronicles the journey from primitive man’s quest for basic knowledge to the oversaturated curricula of today’s competitive schools. Unfortunately, it has too many stops and starts, as befits a big production number. The over-the-top basso voice that begins “The First Time We Fall In Love” defies the listener to take it serious, despite its barbed commentary on the pain of young romance.
“I’m In Disgrace” takes a much more specific approach to the same theme, and it’s a much better song, though some of the lyrics suggest a sinister cause for the end of the affair (“It wasn't lust, it wasn't rape/It was just a mistake”). Great guitars though. Whatever shame the disgraced schoolboy feels is confessed to the “Headmaster”, and the anguish only increases as the pleading gets more desperate. The unfeeling response in “The Hard Way” rams the point home. After three straight tracks of solid rock, the gospel R&B of “The Last Assembly” points to such future graduation themes as “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” and “Good Riddance”. “No More Looking Back” could well be a prophetic title, as the electric piano at the start and the melded guitars certainly place it squarely in the ‘70s. But the parody returns for the minute-long “Finale”, which reprises the brainwashing message of “Education”.
Thanks to the guitar-centric arrangements, Schoolboys In Disgrace is one of the better Kinks albums of their “theatrical” period, but only if you don’t listen too closely to the story and skip the sillier numbers. Dave Davies can take some of the credit for the sound, which is small compensation since some of the events dramatized within are based on his own teenage misadventures. (Perhaps because they were working so fast to get records on the shelves, and thus lacked outtakes, it’s also that rare Kinks album that hasn’t been enhanced by any reissue.)

The Kinks Schoolboys In Disgrace (1975)—