Friday, December 25, 2020

Paul McCartney 37: McCartney III

Never one to miss an opportunity to be musical, Paul McCartney emerged from the Covid-19 lockdown (or “rockdown”, as he called it) with enough material recorded in isolation to comprise McCartney III. Like its predecessors, it was performed in its entirety all by himself.

Technology has obviously come a long way in the decades since the more primitive approach of the first two installments. Most of the albums he’s put out this century have been largely one-man band operations, so this album isn’t too far removed from Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, Memory Almost Full, or New. But by doing everything himself save the engineering, he can always fall back on the insistence that it was never designed as an album in the first place. Maybe that’s why the album is as good as it is. (In a nice touch, the album is dedicated to the recently departed Eddie Klein, an Abbey Road veteran who worked on the first post-Beatle albums by John and George, and went on to build the home studio that Paul’s used since 1985.)

“Long Tailed Winter Bird” takes the most basic acoustic guitar riff and builds a five-minute jam out of it, for something of an extended overture. The first real song is “Find My Way”, the tossed-off verses well-balanced by the more melodic choruses, and a nice false ending too. “Pretty Boys” is another rewrite of “Early Days”, but this time focusing on young male models for some reason. A piano drives “Women And Wives”, which he repeatedly said was influenced by the vocal style of Leadbelly; it’s good that he’s finally exploring the lower end of his increasingly limited range. On paper “Lavatory Lil” screams embarrassment, and most listeners think they know which ex-wife is the inspiration, but the damn thing chugs. At over eight-and-a-half minutes, one would expect “Deep Deep Feeling” to wear out its welcome, yet it’s a wonderful showcase for his unquestionable prowess on guitar, bass, and piano, and the drums aren’t bad neither.

Placed earlier on the vinyl to better even out the two sides, “Slidin’” gets its riff from a soundcheck jam from a few years previous; indeed Rusty Anderson and Abe Laboriel Jr. are credited indirectly in the notes. It’s a good rocker that nicely finds lyrics to match the suggestion of the title. “The Kiss Of Venus” recalls “Two Magpies” from the third Fireman album, and introduces a harpsichord to match his rough vocal. (This is what we mean by suggesting he try not to hit those old high notes.) “Seize The Day” seems to be most inspired by the state of the world mid-pandemic, and it turns out to be one of his better anthems, helped by the more personal bridge. If anything, “Deep Down” is the closest the album comes to “Kreen-Akrore” or “Darkroom”. Along with the recurring “deep” in the title, it’s a half-decent groove that is underdeveloped and beaten into the ground. One of our correspondents suggested that he’s a little too old to be concerned with “partying”, and in this context we’d agree. The “Winter Bird” riff resurfaces to usher in “When Winter Comes”, brought out of mothballs from the same George Martin-helmed session that gave us “Calico Skies” and “Great Day”. (Naturally, nothing is simple anymore, as the album was released in a dizzying quantity of colored vinyl pressings and cover variations. Meanwhile, Japan got four bonus tracks in the form of three alternate versions plus the original jam that begat “Slidin’”.)

Not as homespun as McCartney, nor as experimental as McCartney II, McCartney III was nonetheless a welcome visitor at the end of a very trying calendar year. We would suggest that unless he intends to record with his band again, all future new albums should be prepared with only input from his immediate family and any resultant offspring not given to sugarcoating, even for a man pushing 80. (We’d also accept a completely stripped down acoustic guitar or piano album, maybe produced by Rick Rubin…?)

Paul McCartney McCartney III (2020)—

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Bryan Ferry 5: The Bride Stripped Bare

The post-breakup album looms large in rock ‘n roll, wherein an artist pours his or her soul into music to exorcize any demons that come with losing the one thing money and fame can’t buy. Bryan Ferry was said to have been so bereft after being jilted by Jerry Hall for Mick Jagger that The Bride Stripped Bare was the inspired result.

Except for the barest disco influence, and a reduction of camp, the album fits alongside his previous albums, with and without Roxy Music. This is particularly surprising considering that two of the key elements among the players are American—Waddy Wachtel on lead guitar and Jerry Marrotta on drums.

He’s still determined to bend covers to his will, as demonstrated by the de-funked “Hold On (I’m Coming)”, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, and “Take Me To The River” (a year before Talking Heads). J.J. Cale’s “The Same Old Blues” is slowed down and swampier, though the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” is an inspired choice, Waddy even replicating some of Lou Reed’s solos from the original. His rendition of the traditional “Carrickfergus” seems restrained to these ears; we’ve come to expect more passion.

His originals stand out, from the opening “Sign Of The Times” through the infectious “Can’t Let Go”. One striking departure is “When She Walks In The Room”, wherein the strings go smoothly from chamber music to contemporary, just as “This Island Earth” provides a suitably spacey conclusion.

Of his solo albums thus far, The Bride Stripped Bare is probably the most consistent, despite its apparent randomness. It’s no Blood On The Tracks, but who’d expect that?

Bryan Ferry The Bride Stripped Bare (1978)—3

Friday, December 18, 2020

Phil Collins 7: Hits

Even though Phil Collins no longer resembled the prog-rocker he once was, some of his pop songs remained guilty pleasures, or at least mild departures during the years before we even dreamed how he’d turn out. Particularly after confounding listeners throughout the ‘90s, an actual hits collection was a commercial no-brainer.

Stylized with an ellipsis, …Hits delivers the promise of the title, yet in a baffling sequence. Starting with the depressing message of “Another Day In Paradise” is one thing, but then he follows it with a cover of “True Colors”, as made famous by Cyndi Lauper when Genesis still had something of an edge. Speaking of covers, “You Can’t Hurry Love” precedes “Two Hearts”, which it resembles both musically and in the respective videos. Still, the latter song, along with “Groovy Kind Of Love”, makes it easy to live without the Buster soundtrack, just as “Easy Lover”, “Against All Odds”, and “Separate Lives” collect other non-album tracks.

You can only cram so many songs onto a single CD, so there are some curious omissions. Instead, “Both Sides Of The Story” and “Dance Into The Light” make sure the ‘90s albums are covered, but only “In The Air Tonight” comes from his first. But those guilty pleasures rise to the top, and manage to make up for the likes of “Sussudio”.

Phil Collins …Hits (1998)—3

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Todd Rundgren 24: Redux ‘92

The Japanese tour looms large in many artist catalogs. Seemingly ever since Cheap Trick created “live at Budokan” as a trope, plenty of musicians have chosen that forgiving market to break in a new act, sometimes never taking it on the road in the US or the UK. Maybe that’s why Todd Rundgren accepted the easy check and actually reunited Utopia for the first time in six years for a tour.

To be precise, Redux '92: Live In Japan picks up pretty much where the band left off, playing quirky power pop heavy on synths and guitar breaks. Yet the set pulls liberally from albums like Oops! Wrong Planet and Swing To The Right in between more familiar tunes like “Hammer In My Heart” and “Love In Action”. Even “The Ikon”, albeit condensed to one-sixth of its original half-hour length, hints at their prog origins. “Hiroshima” is delivered and received well. And in case you forgot why we’re all here, “Love Is The Answer” sends everybody home.

Especially considering how many guises Utopia took on during their tenure, the uniformity of Redux ‘92 helps make sense of their catalog. Should anyone object, Todd offers a simple response in the liner notes: “Eat our collective shorts.”

Utopia Redux '92: Live In Japan (1993)—3

Friday, December 11, 2020

Kiss 5: Destroyer

A whopping six months had passed since Kiss released Alive!, partially since they were touring to support it. When it came time for their next studio album, the band boldly hooked up with Bob Ezrin, who had most recently produced several Alice Cooper albums. As a result, Destroyer was cleaner, and occasionally tougher, than the first three Kiss albums, and incorporated writing credits from people outside the band.

While not a concept album, there is something resembling audio theater tying the tracks together, beginning with the montage of someone listening to the news on the radio, then getting into his (we assume) car and rocking out to older Kiss songs before “Detroit Rock City” starts for real. This is still a great riff and catchy chorus, with a pristine solo; the album version goes as far as to underscore the impending carnage in the final verse by using the sound of a car crash. This goes right into “King Of The Night Time World”, which also could have kicked off the album nicely, not to mention giving frustrated teenage boys an anthem. Any doom and gloom intended by “God Of Thunder” is negated by Bob Ezrin’s sons, whose surreptitiously recorded voices had already graced a Lou Reed album. More unintentional comedy arrives via “Great Expectations”, which cribs a Beethoven melody and uses a boys’ choir to hold up Gene Simmons’ laughable boasts.

“Flaming Youth” is very well-constructed, and with good reason: Ezrin cobbled it together from three different songs by Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Simmons that he felt weren’t up to snuff. In another sign of things to come, the guitar solos on this and “Sweet Pain” are played by Dick Wagner, also from the Alice Cooper band and well known from another Lou Reed album. “Shout It Out Loud” delivers another party anthem in the middle of side two, but this would not be the album’s main sales draw. That honor went to “Beth”, brought in by Peter Criss from his previous band and given an over-the-top reading with Ezrin on piano and members of the New York Philharmonic underneath his shaky vocal. To Paul and Gene’s horror, audiences ate it up. Paul gets the last word in “Do You Love Me”, balancing double entendres with alleged sensitivity. (While not listed on the original label or sleeve, “Rock And Roll Party” provides a closing collage to match the one that opened the album.)

The variety of styles and pop touches may have compromised the image somewhat, but Destroyer only increased the band’s popularity. Besides, they’d have another album out by the end of the year anyway.

The album’s status made it one of the few to get anything resembling an anniversary overhaul. While released a year later than the more round number of 35, Destroyer (Resurrected) was wholly remixed from the original master tapes by Bob Ezrin, who brought out buried instruments and vocals. “Sweet Pain” now features Ace’s original, wiped solo, while the standard track is added at the very end. And of course, it uses the original cover design. Some fans felt this put a mustache on the Mona Lisa, but how would they have felt if the remix was stuck in a double-CD set, with or without any other extras?

Not quite ten years later, the album’s 45th anniversary was celebrated with a Super Deluxe Edition that added a disc of demos, another of outtakes and alternate mixes, and a fourth with a 1976 concert in Paris in bootleg quality, plus a Blu-ray and the usual collectable ephemera. A simpler two-disc Deluxe Edition added a grab bag of the demos and alternates, plus the first four songs from the Paris concert, but it’s likely any real fans would spring for the big one, unless they bought the cheap to keep sealed.

Kiss Destroyer (1976)—
2012 Destroyer (Resurrected): “same” as 1976, plus 1 extra track
2021 45th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1976, plus 16 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 33 tracks plus Blu-ray)

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

David Byrne 3: Rei Momo

Nobody said anything, but David Byrne seemed quite busy with his own musical projects not involving Talking Heads. His new Luaka Bop imprint began a long-running series of compilations, celebrating the music of Brazil and Cuba, and eventually Asia and Africa. When he released his own album, each of the tracks on Rei Momo was helpfully denoted as to what style of music it was in, from samba and cumbia to merengue and plenty others we hadn’t hear of before.

It’s an upbeat album, and the lyrics seem to be on the positive side; in fact, the first sentence we hear is “Now and then I get horny.” Each track is impeccably arranged, with contributions from such luminaries as Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, and Kirsty MacColl, though his distinctive voice makes it all very clear just who’s singing. Yet it’s easy to lose interest in listening too closely, which is fine for dinner music. A little goes a long way, but the album’s over an hour long. Some of the tracks seem generic, such as “Make Believe Mambo”, and the “Wild Thing” interjections in “Loco De Amor”. Sometimes it feels kinda cartoony, as with the chorus of crickets and bird calls that make up the backing track of “I Know Sometimes A Man Is Wrong”. Despite their titles, “Dirty Old Town” and “The Dream Police” are not covers, and that’s probably a good thing.

Rei Momo is a bold experiment, for sure, and if it helped expose some of those lesser-known musicians from around the word, all the better for it. Undeniably toe-tapping, if you like that sort of thing.

David Byrne Rei Momo (1989)—3

Friday, December 4, 2020

Neil Young 61: Archives Vol. II

Speculation about the next installment of Neil Young’s Archives box sets began immediately upon release of the first. For a few years it was presumed that this set would take the story through the rest of the ‘70s. When Archives Vol. II: 1972-1976 did finally appear, the covered timeline was shorter, but the ten discs dove deep into one of his most fertile songwriting periods, and an era that has since become hallowed by fans. (Also, with the multimedia portion largely handled by the Archives website and app, the physical package was only released on CD, initially as a limited release with a deluxe book as with the DVD and Blu-ray versions of Archives Vol. I. This sold out in seconds, forcing Neil and Reprise to prepare a second run, as well as a slightly cheaper version with a less elaborate book. The hole left by the death of manager Elliot Roberts was never more apparent.)

Three of the CDs had already been released individually, and familiar album tracks abound; he’d already established that the Archives project is designed to present his creative output in context. Roxy gains an extra track in an extended encore performance of “The Losing End (When You’re On)”, but Tuscaloosa was not so lucky, despite the outtake of “The Loner” made available for streaming.

There is an alternate live version of that song on Everybody’s Alone (1972-1973), which fills in more of the gaps in the wake of Harvest, skirting around Time Fades Away, and offering the title track to the incomplete CSNY album Human Highway. The opening “Letter From ‘Nam” is immediately recognizable as a draft for “Long Walk Home” a decade and a half later; “Goodbye Christians On The Shore” is a mysterious fable in 7/8 time. Long booted favorites like “Sweet Joni”, “Come Along And Say You Will”, and the ramshackle electric pillage of “The Last Trip To Tulsa”, exiled for years as a B-side, show up, along with a rambling introduction to an acoustic “L.A.” that finds its way out of “I Got You Babe”.

Strangely, “Everybody’s Alone” itself doesn’t appear until two discs later. Confusingly titled, Tonight’s The Night (1973) presents the raw sessions from that album, but with none of the fabled “raps” in between the songs themselves, save a longer intro to “Tonight’s the Night Part II”. A barely together “Speakin’ Out Jam” shows the effects of the tequila, and the sound of the Santa Monica Flyers backing Joni Mitchell on “Raised On Robbery” must be heard to be believed. Similarly, Walk On (1974) presents a more complete picture of how On The Beach happened, bringing in key outtakes of the period, including an electric “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” and solo acoustic renditions of “Traces” and the old chestnut “Greensleeves”.

The Old Homestead (1974) is something of a companion to Homegrown (which follows in the set) and it’s fascinating. Only the “title” track and “Deep Forbidden Lake” had been released on albums proper, with the rest of the program—70 minutes total, the equivalent of two Neil albums—devoted to songs that slipped through the cracks. Some, like “Hawaiian Sunrise”, had featured on that summer’s CSNY tour, represented here by a superior take on “Pushed It Over The End” and Stephen Stills’ blazing contribution to “On The Beach”. “Homefires” and “Give Me Strength” were often highlights of acoustic sets over the years, while “Bad News Comes To Town” would be trotted out with the Bluenotes and “Changing Highways” would emerge 22 years later as a Crazy Horse stomper. A piano rendition of “One More Sign”, dating from the Buffalo Springfield era, is as heartbreaking as “LA Girls And Ocean Boys”, which would be co-opted into “Danger Bird”. Three distinctly different takes of “Love/Art Blues”—solo, downbeat, and jaunty with yodeling—demonstrate his quest for the right sound. “Frozen Man” and “Daughters” had been rumored for years, and live up to our hopes.

Dume (1975) not only widens the scope on Zuma by about half an hour, but reveals some of the incredible candidates left off that album, such as an earlier version of “Powderfinger” and electric takes on “Ride My Llama”, “Pocahontas”, and amazingly, even “Kansas” and “Hawaii”. “Too Far Gone” and “No One Seems To Know” appear a year before the live takes on Songs For Judy; “Born To Run” is not the Bruce song, but a Neil original tried and abandoned over the decades. Look Out For My Love (1976) is even more sprawling, the continuing adventures of the refurbished Crazy Horse alongside that year’s CSNY experiment that dwindled down to the short-lived Stills-Young Band, culminating in another stab at “Human Highway”. But first we get a transcendent “Separate Ways” that would have tilted Long May You Run even further in Neil’s favor, a band take of “Traces”, and two tracks with the Crosby-Nash vocals still intact. In the midst of all this is “Mediterranean”, an intoxicating exploration unlike anything in the catalog.

The disc also weaves in and out of the shows that made up Odeon Budokan (1976), a live album captured in London and Japan, both solo and with the Horse. While heavy on Zuma, he was probably right to shelve it and wait for Live Rust three years later. Still, the sequence includes a few songs that would have made their debuts had the album been released back then, including “Too Far Gone”, “Lotta Love”, and “Stringman”. (The overdubbed version supposedly earmarked for yet another scrapped album expected to be addressed in Archives Vol. III is on the previous disc.)

As before, not every song from every album of the period is included, and the repetition throughout the ten discs may rankle some. It can also be jarring to hear songs outside of an order etched in our brains for decades. But given the quality of those original albums, it’s astounding that he had this much in the tank, and exciting for fans who’d thought they’d heard everything. In a word, wow.

Neil Young Archives Vol. II: 1972-1976 (2020)—4

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Prince 15: The Hits

It shouldn’t be surprising that Prince would resist a hits collection while he was still busy writing and creating new music. It also shouldn’t be surprising that when he did allow such a compilation to happen, it wouldn’t be anything simple or straightforward.

The Hits was released as two separate volumes, neither of which was sequenced with more than a slight concession to chronological order, both stacked with actual hits—along with some odd choices—and each with a pair of “new” songs. The Hits 1 offered the laid-back single “Pink Cashmere” and a live version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”. In addition to “When You Were Mine” and “I Feel For U”, this would suggest that the first volume was intended to showcase tunes that were hits for others. The Hits 2 could be seen as the raunchier of the two, leaning on his more suggestive lyrics, and included the rocking “Peach” (featuring Kim Basinger on sampled moan of ecstasy) and “Pope”, which samples comedian Bernie Mac and seems to be highly influenced by Digital Underground.

As long as you were going to buy both anyway, The Hits/The B-Sides boasted a third disc of tracks collected on CD for the first time. While not all-inclusive, it did spotlight many of the gems hidden on 45s and 12-inches throughout the ‘80s, including “Erotic City”, “God”, “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, and the standalone single “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)”. Granted, that means there are cast-offs like “La, La, La, He, He, Hee”, but who else was loading up quality B-sides like these? Two unreleased nuggets cap the disc—the alternate “video mix” of “4 The Tears In Your Eyes” aired during Live Aid after being donated to the USA For Africa, and the majestic “Power Fantastic”, recorded during the last days of the Revolution.

Those looking for just the hits in a simple package only had to wait until 2001’s The Very Best Of Prince, which presented the more obvious choices from the same period on a single disc. Five years later, Ultimate Prince offered a different smattering with a disc of extended mixes, and ten years after that, the posthumous double CD 4ever was mildly streamlined around the contents of The Hits 1 and The Hits 2, including “Peach” and the live “Nothing Compares 2 U”, with the added bonus of the 1999-era outtake “Moonbeam Levels”.

At any rate, The Hits effectively closed a chapter in Prince’s career, drawing a definite line between what happened before, and what would come after. He would continue to intrigue, certainly, but he would also confound.

Prince The Hits 1 (1993)—3
The Hits 2 (1993)—3
The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)—