Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Dire Straits 7: Money For Nothing

While it wasn’t revealed in a major press release or even mentioned at the time—despite what Wikipedia says, because we would’ve remembered—Dire Straits had broken up following their lengthy tour promoting Brothers In Arms. The band was exhausted, and Mark Knopfler was happy to concentrate on scoring films.
With even less fanfare, an album called Money For Nothing snuck out toward the end of 1988; this turned out to be something of a hits collection, not that the title nor the video-inspired artwork made that clear. The tracklist ran mostly chronologically through their handful of albums, beginning naturally with “Sultans Of Swing” and “Down To The Waterline”. Then we’re surprised with a live version of “Portobello Belle”, which is dated June 1983 in the briefest of album notes, making it something of an outtake from Alchemy. (In fact, it would have been played right before that little jig that segues into the first introduction to “Tunnel Of Love”.) Just to mess with us, a “remix” of “Twisting By The Pool” comes next, and only after that do we jump back to “Tunnel Of Love” and “Romeo & Juliet”. Then, for no reason we’ve been able to establish, it’s an alternate take of “Where Do You Think You’re Going”.
For a jolt, except for those who just flipped their record or cassette, “Walk Of Life” wheezes in, followed by a slightly edited “Private Investigations”. What’s called a “remix” of “Telegraph Road” from Alchemy runs only 12 minutes, followed by shorter versions of the default title track and “Brothers In Arms”.
As nutty as that all is, it’s still a good way to spend an hour, even given the fact that most of the people who bought the album would have already owned the three songs from Brothers In Arms. Those consumers weren’t part of the marketing plan ten years later when the more pointedly titled Sultans Of Swing: The Very Best Of Dire Straits replaced Money For Nothing as their official compilation. This time the sequence was strictly chronological and filled to capacity, dropping the two alternates representing Communiqué for “Lady Writer” and swapping the live “Telegraph Road” for the live “Love Over Gold”. “So Far Away” joined its brothers, as did three songs from On Every Street and two more later live versions. At least they kept “Twisting By The Pool”. That song was a glaring omission from 2005’s Private Investigations: The Best Of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler, which was made available in single-disc and double-disc versions, both leaning on Knopfler’s solo work. A duet with Emmylou Harris was the only real carrot, at least until their collaborative album came out the following year.
All this has only made the original Money For Nothing album grow in stature, considering that it’s now been out of print for decades, and some of its highlights remain elusive. The band didn’t have a lot of official rarities, but it sure would be nice if they could be revived.

Dire Straits Money For Nothing (1988)—4
Dire Straits
Sultans Of Swing: The Very Best Of Dire Straits (1998)—
Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler
Private Investigations: The Best Of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler (2005)—3

Friday, April 30, 2021

Nilsson 1: Spotlight On Nilsson

Harry Nilsson was always something of a cult artist, the type of guy who had lots of fans in the business, even when he didn’t sell records. He never toured, and his live appearances were limited to presenting on awards shows. He began as a songwriter, yet the songs he’s arguably known best for were written by other people.
But he also had quite a voice, and a wide range, so he managed to record some singles for a Capitol Records subsidiary that didn’t remotely overspend on graphic design. Both sides of each of those singles, plus two other songs recorded during that period, were collected on Spotlight On Nilsson, which wouldn’t gain any real attention until it was reissued multiple times after he became a big name, and even then not by much. (He didn’t have the face of a teen idol anyway.)
With ten songs coming in at a whopping 22 minutes, the album barely hints at his potential, but even buried under the generic ‘60s production, his voice is recognizable. Well, most of the time; “The Path That Leads To Trouble” sports a growl similar to that of Sonny Bono, who likely worked with Harry on some Phil Spector sessions. “Good Times” would be offered to the Monkees, though they wouldn’t finish it for 50 years. “So You Think You’ve Got Troubles” serves up a wonderful litany of ailments, very much in the vein of future humorous Nilsson tracks, but it’s a cover of a little-known country song. “I’m Gonna Lose My Mind” dabbles in R&B, right down to the Raelettes-style singers mixed just as high as he is. “She’s Yours” crams a lot of tempo changes and dynamics into two minutes.
A startlingly rearranged “Sixteen Tons”, go-go style, nearly renders the song unrecognizable, but it wouldn’t be the last time he’d tinker with a standard. A similar arrangement pins “Born In Grenada”, wherein we’re supposed to buy that he’s from Mississippi. “You Can’t Take Your Love (Away From Me)” is a forced title nowhere near as good as the “think about the good times” bridge, but he was still learning. Presented lullabye-style, “Growin' Up” sounds more like the sophisticated pop he’d develop soon enough, but “Do You Believe” is more generic soul.
Spotlight On Nilsson is a mere taster for a career that would go in several directions, but even from the start, he was set on using just the surname. It’s available for streaming, or you can search for an obscure CD that pairs the tunes with a John Stewart album from four years later called Willard, the title track of which, sadly, is not related to the film about a man obsessed with rats.

Nilsson Spotlight On Nilsson (1966)—2

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Rickie Lee Jones 1: Rickie Lee Jones

Musician magazine once did a photo essay tracking various styles through the decades, wherein Robert Palmer descended from Bryan Ferry and Richard Harris before him in the guise of the lounge lizard, and Edie Brickell was the latest version of the girl with the beret following Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones. Chauvinism has long been a feature of the music business, but if we could think of a more clever way to introduce Rickie Lee Jones than the standard elevator pitch, we would, but until then, here’s the deal.
She did indeed wear a beret onstage, and sang in a very unique voice ranging from scat to soprano. Her songs were jazzy and had the familiarity of standards, steeped in beat poetry influences. She also happened to be romantically involved with Tom Waits, then still in his wino troubadour phase. Lenny Waronker swooped in and signed her up to Warner Bros., and produced her eponymous debut with Russ Titelman. Given the era and the caliber of session players involved, Rickie Lee Jones is very much a sophisticated ‘70s pop album, anchored by the smash hit “Chuck E.’s In Love”. That song was all over the radio in 1979, surprising for its verses of hip lingo delivered by a mushmouth. (People liked the twist at the end, despite it being pure fiction.)
The rest of the album is a mix of hep cat jive and more sensitive material, beginning with the reverie “On Saturday Afternoons In 1963”. “Night Train” is not the James Brown song, but one of many in her catalog that long for deliverance via some mode of transportation. Similarly, “Young Blood” isn’t a cover either, but a good companion to “Chuck E.”, with its mid-‘70s Joni arrangement and salsa influences. “Easy Money” had already been recorded by Little Feat’s Lowell George for his one solo album before he died, and we hear a Waits similarity here too. We’re especially taken by “The Last Chance Texaco”, which really works the metaphors related to car trouble and relationships, as she explores both ends of her vocal range and effectively works in the sound of passing cars.
“Danny’s All-Star Joint”, where the jukebox “goes doyt-doyt”, is particularly jazzy and cinematic, and takes us right back to a time of flared plaid slacks and Boz Scaggs records. By a sharp contrast, “Coolsville” is a brooding recollection of lost youth, lost friends, lost innocence. “Weasel And The White Boys Cool” concocts another scenario of characters, this time around a guy named Sal, which happens to be the first name of a future collaborator, but there we are getting ahead of ourselves again. That’s the last of the uptempo tunes, as the torchy “Company” tugs the heartstrings and “After Hours (Twelve Bars Past Goodnight)” leaves her alone by the lamppost.
Her voice is an acquired taste, to be sure, and all the hype surrounding Rickie Lee Jones kept us from paying too much attention for a long time. But her artistry is subtle, and would continue to be so, as we shall see. The rating below may be adjusted again and again until we’re absolutely sure.

Rickie Lee Jones Rickie Lee Jones (1979)—3

Friday, April 23, 2021

Phil Collins 9: Tarzan

Despite his plummet from grace throughout the ‘90s, Phil Collins still had some clout in the business. Why else would be asked to score a major motion picture for Walt Disney Animation? And when that soundtrack went on to win Oscars and Grammys, did he give a crap if anybody didn’t like him?
We haven’t seen Tarzan, nor do we plan to if we can avoid it. The horrific deaths in The Lion King were traumatizing enough, and we’re sensitive about sad cartoon animals. Regardless, the songs on the soundtrack are competent, and about what one might hope or at least expect for such a listening experience. “You’ll Be In My Heart” was the lynchpin of the score, and there are probably elements of it sprinkled through “Two Worlds” and “Strangers Like Me”. Rosie O’Donnell, when people still liked her, thankfully scats unrecognizably on one version of “Trashin’ The Camp”, while the dreamboats in NSYNC dominate the other. (Phil’s duet with Glenn Close on one version of “You’ll Be In My Heart” is brief.)
About a third of the album is devoted to Mark Mancina’s score, so Phil only had to re-record his portion in four other languages to ensure its success in non-English-speaking regions. He even wrote more songs for the Broadway musical version, but hopefully the reader will forgive us for not digging that deep.

Tarzan: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack (1999)—3

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Phil Collins 8: A Hot Night In Paris

By the end of the century, it was easy to forget that Phil Collins was once a respected drummer, and not just in rock or prog. He dabbled in fusion jazz with Brand X in the late ‘70s, but another 20 years went by before he flung himself into more traditional jazz.
A Hot Night In Paris is credited to The Phil Collins Big Band, and that’s what it is: a live recording by a large combo influenced by those of Buddy Rich and Duke Ellington. The repertoire draws mostly from the more familiar Collins and Genesis hits of recent years, and there are absolutely no vocals. Phil plays drums, Daryl Steurmer is on guitar, Luis Conte assists on percussion, Brad Cole from his last album plays piano, somebody we’ve never heard of is on bass, and sixteen guys make up the horn section.
There’s no mistaking “Sussudio”, but the rest of the arrangements aren’t as obvious. “That’s All” is a little harder to guess, “Invisible Touch” is way subdued, and “Hold On My Heart” is slowed down to a crawl with the slightest attention to the melody. “I Don’t Care Anymore” is completely stripped of its signature drum pattern, relying instead on flashy film noir accents, reminiscent of ‘50s detective shows, rendering it virtually parodic. Gerald Albright takes the spotlight for his own “Chips & Salsa”, which isn’t the most satisfying appetizer to these ears, sorry to say.
“Milestones” is the Miles Davis tune, on which jazz guys love to stretch, and they do, whereas the easy-listening take on “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” is the closest to the record everyone knows. Luckily, the set closes with two lengthy surprises. First, the Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces”, with George Duke on piano, James Carter on sax, and Arif Mardin conducting, is always a crowd-pleaser, even for twelve minutes. Then Phil plays a short solo to kick off “The Los Endos Suite”, which reprises the closing track from A Trick Of The Tail, detouring to Buenos Aires for a few vamps, eventually returning to the “Squonk” theme so Daryl can let loose.
With the exception of those last two, most of the tunes that work best on A Hot Night In Paris are the ones that aren’t as recognizable from their hit single versions. Jazz purists may scoff, but those predisposed to despising Phil Collins might be as pleasantly surprised as they are tolerant.

The Phil Collins Big Band A Hot Night In Paris (1999)—3

Friday, April 16, 2021

Kiss 6: Rock And Roll Over

The fans (and the label) were accustomed to a couple of Kiss albums a year, and the band managed to deliver a follow-up to Destroyer on time. After the experimentation of that album, they went back to Eddie Kramer for more of a straightforward approach on Rock And Roll Over—still one of the dopiest titles of its era.
Right away they’re up to their old tricks. “I Want You” begins with Paul Stanley’s tender plaint over an acoustic 12-string, but the band kicks in to illustrate his insistence that the object of his desire will not, cannot escape him. On “Take Me” he instructs her to put her hand in his pocket to “grab onto [his] rocket”, but it’s still a great riff. Gene Simmons summons the cowbell to take over the mic for “Calling Dr. Love”, which delivers similar sentiments, but it’s a nice change in dynamic. His rhyming dictionary isn’t as successful on “Ladies Room”, nor is it clear why he wants to meet her there for an intimate encounter, but we’re either missing the obvious or thinking way too much. Peter Criss gets to sing “Baby Driver”—sadly, not a Simon & Garfunkel song, but some kind of celebration of automative transportation.
Lest any young lovely think she truly can reach these rough boys, “Love ‘Em And Leave ‘Em” makes their manifesto clear. The drums on the verses stand out because it sounds like they doubled the snare by smacking a chiffarobe. Built around another rock-solid riff that almost excuses rhyming “chances” with “romances”, “Mr. Speed” assumes that women would actually appreciate the lovin’ styles of a man with that nickname. Such presumption continues on “See You In Your Dreams”, wherein Gene details the obsession that will afflict her after he’s left town. Peter gets to shine again in the “Beth” slot, this time with “Hard Luck Woman”, which distills the third and fourth Rod Stewart albums into another catchy hit. And as before, Paul won’t let his drummer enjoy any accolades too long, as “Makin’ Love” slaps aside the country for a proto-speed metal inversion of “Train Kept A-Rollin’”.
We said in our assessment of their debut that rock ‘n roll is supposed to be fun, and a little stupid, and Rock And Roll Over delivers nicely. Some parents might not have been pleased with some of the lyrical content, if their kids were dumb enough to let them hear the album, but that’s their problem.

Kiss Rock And Roll Over (1976)—

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

David Byrne 4: The Forest and Uh-Oh

One of the perks of having your own record label in the ‘90s—especially if it was distributed by the Warner Communications empire—was that you could pretty much put out any old album you wanted, regardless of genre or sales potential. David Byrne was still a viable name back then, so some people may have expected something quirky and catchy from him. (Besides, Talking Heads weren’t officially done as a band anyway, not that Jerry Harrison or Tom Tom Club were moving units on their own.)
So 1991’s official follow-up to the quirky and yes, catchy Rei Momo was naturally another ambitious piece tied to a Robert Wilson theater project. We’ve read several online descriptions and reviews of The Forest, and none strike us as anything we’d want to sit through, but the music, which is predominantly orchestral, has a cinematic grandeur about it. (Considering that it was arranged and conducted by the legendary Jimmie Haskell, that would be expected.) In fact, the few occasions where vocals are heard detract from the whole.

By the end of the year the other Heads announced that since David had left they’d basically broken up, which might have given Uh-Oh some publicity, particularly since it was an album of college radio-friendly songs. There are some remnants of the Latin sounds from Rei Momo, but overall it sounds more like his previous band, and just as angry as he was on Naked. (Some familiar names appear among the backup singers and horn section, plus the bass player is none other than the legendary George Porter Jr. from the Meters.)
“Now I’m Your Mom” would be a clever song about gender identity, but it’s punctured the instant the title is stated in a jokey falsetto; “Girls On My Mind” is both more straightforward and more fun. “Something Ain’t Right” is a herky-jerky expression of anger toward God, whereas the narrator of “She’s Mad” seems to be the object of spousal abuse from his wife. “Hanging Upside Down” is sung from the point of view of a teenage mall rat, but the empty lifestyle is belied by the music. That’s not the case with “A Walk In The Dark”, which conjures monsters under the bed and other spooky specters but with something of a Buster Poindexter attitude.
“Twistin’ In The Wind” cleverly opens with a musical joke, but that’s abandoned for a series of disconnected couplets. “The Cowboy Mambo (Hey Lookit Me Now)” conjures neither cowboy music nor much of a mambo, but it breaks the record for the most times “shit” is intoned in one of the album’s tracks. He’s not the first guy to write a song called “Monkey Man”, but this one is described by a soldier fresh from battle and likely suffering PTSD. “A Million Miles Away” is also a well-used title, but it’s more universal in its “take this job and shove it” sentiment. “Tiny Town” is a cute plea for unity, and forgotten by the time “Somebody” explores the struggle of women of color. Or so he says.
Not that anyone noticed, but Uh-Oh was easily the most accessible album David Byrne had put out since Little Creatures. Fans of the less challenging Heads albums would be pleased.

David Byrne The Forest (1991)—3
David Byrne
Uh-Oh (1992)—3

Friday, April 9, 2021

Prince 16: Come

Part of Prince’s strategy for changing his name to a symbol was to get out of his contract with Warner Bros. It didn’t work, and the label not only insisted he owed them albums, but sat on him until he delivered something they considered salesworthy.
Come pointedly featured the dates “1958-1993” under the word “Prince” on the cover, as if to suggest he was dead and buried in the prison-like edifice in the background. The New Power Generation is nowhere to be found, save the rhythm section on one track, and the horn section on others. While it doesn’t have the rap distractions of his most recent work, it’s hardly a return to form.
The title track has it moments, mostly in the horns, but it gets tedious over 11 minutes. “Space” doesn’t do much over the same simple groove except pull in some harmonies and use a few NASA samples. “Pheromone” begins with an almost-ASMR effect of ocean waves and spoken hypnosis, before the song kicks in proper, sounding a lot like the kind of thing he used to pawn off on Sheila E. “Loose!” almost rocks with an angry energy, and sports a welcome guitar solo, sampled twice.
“Papa” is unsettling, as it’s mostly a narrative about an abusive father that suggests the set-upon child is Prince himself. The ocean waves appear briefly before the ultra-funky “Race” kicks in, followed by the near-slow jam of “Dark”. “Solo” has the barest accompaniment, and consists of Prince singing a poem provided by playwright David Henry Hwang. “Letitgo” was the first single promoting the album, and hardly in the league of earlier “first singles”. Finally, because he could, “Orgasm” provides the finale in the form of a guitar solo taken from Controversy’s “Private Joy” battling Vanity’s uncredited climax at full volume while he creepily encourages her.
This lackluster album was particularly frustrating after the longest gap between new releases in his career. He was quick to dismiss Come as old news, looking immediately ahead to the music he really wanted to make, if only he was allowed.

Prince Come (1994)—2

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Roger Daltrey 3: One Of The Boys

Once again the Who were in a lull, having spent much of 1976 on tour. Pete Townshend was off recording with Ronnie Lane, while Keith Moon was trying to stay sober while still hoping to become a movie star. John Entwistle kept busy with shopping sprees to fill up his new mansion, but still found time to play some of the bass parts on Roger Daltrey’s third solo album.
One Of The Boys continued Roger’s interest in interpreting songs by writers other than Pete Townshend. Philip Goodhand-Tait got more publishing royalties sent his way, and his “Parade” and “Leon” bookend side one, both songs about the dark side of stardom. Colin Blunstone, once of the Zombies, offered up the countrified “Single Man’s Dilemma”, but a real surprise came in the excellent cover of Andy Pratt’s “Avenging Annie”, which had been a mild hit for its writer only a few years before. Roger himself helped write “The Prisoner”, which would be less symbolic a lyric in a few years when its source was revealed as the inspiration for a film and matching soundrack, which we’ll discuss eventually.
The rowdy title track came from Steve Gibbons, whose eponymous band was coincidentally in the Who’s management stable. One disappointment is “Giddy”, contributed by one Paul McCartney. This song had its genesis in a jam during the Ram sessions, but the arrangement was now split into two opposing tempos, putting a little drama into the “I don’t feel sick” hook but undercutting the “rode all night” part with disco, and going on far too long. However, Murray Head’s “Say It Ain’t So Joe” was another earlier hit redone well by Roger, though the wimpier “Satin And Lace” and “Doing It All Again”, both of which he wrote with his producers, more than suggested he was better off singing other people’s words.
Any unease the Who might have felt from Roger’s solo work would have been tempered by what he did without them, and One Of The Boys, while competent, was no sales threat. Given its art-rock approach, as produced by David Courtney and Shadows drummer Tony Meehan, it probably resembles a Who album more than Roger’s first two, and doesn’t reflect the punk scene then sweeping England in the slightest.
The eventual CD expansion had some of its work cut out for it, as “Say It Ain’t So Joe” had been replaced on the LP by “Written On The Wind” in some countries; both were now included. In addition, “You Put Something Better Inside Me” was a B-side from Gerry Rafferty and the other guy in Stealer’s Wheel, while “Martyrs And Madmen” and “Treachery” were later tracks stuck here anachronistically, and will be discussed in time as well.

Roger Daltrey One Of The Boys (1977)—3
2006 reissue: same as 1977, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, April 2, 2021

King Crimson 9: A Young Person’s Guide

While King Crimson was considered strictly past tense in 1976, Robert Fripp wasn’t about to let anyone forget what they were, or could have been. A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson may well have been a contractual obligation, but this two-record compilation, packaged with a booklet crammed with photos, clippings, and a timeline, offered even the converted fan something special. More importantly, it provided a primer for newcomers.
True to his insistence that King Crimson music could not be solely defined by the players, the music is not chronological, nor is “21st Century Schizoid Man” included at all. Side one manages to encompass “Epitaph”, an “abridged” “Cadence And Cascade”, and “Ladies Of The Road”, ending with the ultra-rare Giles, Giles And Fripp take of “I Talk To The Wind”, featuring Fairport Convention’s Judy Dyble on vocals—the only woman ever to perform on a Crimson album. Side two consists of exactly two songs: the title track from Red and that album’s stellar “Starless”.
Side three juggles two different lineups, going from “Book Of Saturday” and “The Night Watch” back to “Peace” and the single version of “Cat Food” from the second album, and tossing in the rare “Groon” B-side before picking up the last two minutes of “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part One”. Side four offers the first two minutes of “Moonchild” (a.k.a. the song portion) and the Bruford-less “Trio” before closing with “The Court Of The Crimson King”, unabridged.
Fripp would go on to use the Young Person’s Guide nomenclature for similar archival digs in the decades to come, and most of these tracks would continue to feature on same. As it is, A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson itself has never been reissued on CD outside of Japan, where seemingly everything emerges sometime, though the music is readily available numerous places, and cheaper.

King Crimson A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson (1976)—4
Current CD availability: none

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Fripp & Eno 5: Beyond Even

Robert Fripp had already pioneered a system of releasing seemingly random selections from the deep King Crimson archives by the 21st century, and his Discipline Global Mobile operation would soon make further economic inroads by offering direct downloads. These extended to various of his non-Crimson ensembles and activities, so a 2006 compilation titled The Cotswold Gnomes, credited to Fripp & Eno, was an intriguing tease.
Described as “a sequence of sketches, out-takes, work in progress and alternative mixes,” its genesis was made clearer when the music was released on CD a year later as Beyond Even (1992-2006). Those who’d found The Equatorial Stars to be less than thrilling might have been more pleased with the breadth of styles undertaken here. Most of the pieces have percussion, so it doesn’t belong strictly ambient pile. The first few tracks burble along, then for the aptly titled “Sneering Loop” Fripp lets loose with a nasty riff. “Timean Sparkles” benefits from no percussion, and is closest to the quieter parts of Evening Star; “Hopeful Timean” sports contributions from bassist Tim Harries and is even quieter yet spookier. “From time to time we hear some atmospherics reminiscent of Fripp’s albums with Andy Summers, blurring the lines further as to who did what on those particular albums. The Idea Of Decline” recalls the “juju space jazz” of Nerve Net, but the latter half of the album leans to the spacey. Even the occasional energy of the first half is no match for the closer, the utterly explosive “Cross Crisis In Lust Storm”, which features ‘90s Crimso Trey Gunn on what we’ll assume is his trusty Chapman Stick. (Fripp rated his own contribution to this track very highly.)
Modern technology had of course made it much easier for people who were neither Fripp nor Eno to create automated loops and textures; still, these veterans get the benefit of being old hands at experimenting. Beyond Even is a nice peek for fans into their workshop. (A limited edition package offered the music two ways: one disc separated into individual tracks, with a few seconds of silence between each, and the other as a segued yet still indexed suite of continuous music. Even the artists’ own sites disagree as to what “disc one” is, but the streaming version is continuous, so there you go.)

Fripp & Eno Beyond Even (1992-2006) (2007)—3

Friday, March 26, 2021

Journey 14: Revelation

After several grueling years trying to sing like Steve Perry, Steve Augeri’s voice gave out, and the band tapped Jeff Scott Soto, formerly of Yngwie Malmsteen’s band as well as other German metal supergroups. For whatever reason, he didn’t take, and wasn’t needed after Neal Schon saw a Filipino kid on YouTube singing a lot like Steve Perry. (Actually the “kid” was in his late 30s, but that was still a generation younger than the band he was about to join.) Thus, Arnel Pineda stepped into musical history.
Once he was installed as their singer, an album followed. Revelation wasn’t the most accurate title, considering that several editions were bundled with a disc of rerecorded Journey classics with Arnel doing the vocals, and also a live DVD with a set heavy on the hits. The album itself gets off to a bad start with “Never Walk Away”, a blatant rewrite of “Be Good To Yourself”, but at least the kid (yeah, we know) has enough of his own personality to give the proceedings some weight. “Like A Sunshower” slows things down for a pensive waltz-time slow dance, with “Change For The Better” providing a pick-me-up. “Wildest Dream” comes off like a parody of ‘80s Journey, complete with cheesy keyboards, then “Faith In The Heartland” from Generations is given the Arnel treatment, in something of a slap to Mr. Augeri; hopefully he kept his share of the publishing rights the former. (“The Place In Your Heart” was also rejigged, but only released in Japan.) “After All These Years” finds Jonathan Cain writing “Faithfully” again.
“Where Did I Lose Your Love” rewrites “Separate Ways” again, and arguably features the most Perry-like vocal, masked by Neal Schon shredding constantly. “What I Needed” is a good opportunity to go find the men’s room, even though it’s the only tune Arnel is partially credited for writing. “What It Takes To Win” actually uses “there’s no I in team” as a lyric, but at least it’s another musically intricate piece. However, “Turn Down The World Tonight” distills the album’s power ballads into a dirge, and “The Journey (Revelation)” combines Neal’s self-conscious pyrotechnics with disembodied yowling.
Because Schon and Cain have a lock on the songwriting throughout Revelation, it’s hard to state whether they considered Arnel a true team member or just a mouthpiece. The songs average at least five minutes apiece, as the guys weren’t about to edit themselves as long as it all fit on a CD. It’s not the best showcase for the vocalist, but they made more money on the road anyway.

Journey Revelation (2008)—

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Jeff Beck 14: Who Else

Seemingly content to tinker with his cars, Jeff Beck barely made it out of the 20th century without releasing another album. Largely written by collaborator Tony Hymas, Who Else! ventured further away from the fusion sound of his solo heyday, arriving at a hybrid of styles, some approximating electronica. Amazingly, it works.
From the start of “What Mama Said” (incorporating a soundbite from It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) the heavy processed drums drive the rhythm, over which Beck does his thing. That continues sans sample on “Psycho Same”, then the proceedings slow down for “Brush With The Blues”, which only gets furious in the middle. We can hear a crowd cheering, but it’s not clear if the track was recorded live. “Blast From The East” isn’t very successful, with a dated sound reminiscent of the Miami Vice theme, and “Space For The Papa” isn’t much more than the barest track from him to noodle over for seven minutes.
“Angel (Footsteps)” is an improvement, being that there’s a melody and established mood, and “THX1138” brings back the beats. “Hip-Notica” would also be an occasion for noodling, if not for the off-meter and continuous exploration by Hymas on the organ. “Even Odds” is a noisy Jan Hammer tune nicely donated for the project, but it’s easily surpassed by “Declan”, a lament from Irish music legend Dónal Lunny. It’s a nice transition to the comparatively brief “Another Place”, leaving us to wish the entire album was this relaxing.
Who Else! also introduces guitarist Jennifer Batten to Beck’s pool of talent, after she spent several years toiling alongside Michael Jackson. She’s credited on guitar and guitar synthesizer, but we don’t know enough about the technology to discern when she’s playing. Wherever she is, the album makes for good aural wallpaper, and reestablishes Beck as a craftsman to watch.

Jeff Beck Who Else! (1999)—3

Friday, March 19, 2021

Kinks 21: Celluloid Heroes

After six challenging albums, critically and commercially, RCA did not renew the Kinks’ contract, and let them scamper off to greener pastures. Naturally, the label made sure to cash in immediately with a hits album.
Of course, the band didn’t really have any hits to speak of save one, so the title The Kinks’ Greatest — Celluloid Heroes was subjective, save the track that inspired it. True to form, the label put minimal effort into the packaging, giving no information as to the albums that spawned the tracks, and failing to identify any live or single versions, of which there were a few. (On the back cover, some song titles are asterisked, for reasons we have yet to determine.)
That said, the album does take several songs out of their specific contexts, giving them the chance to be heard simply as songs and not as plot points in a concept album. “Everybody’s A Star (Starmaker)” rocks, and it’s the single edit, so it makes its point quick, in time for “Sitting In My Hotel” to provide the downside to the proposition. A live version of “Here Comes Yet Another Day” is a surprise, complete with horn section and backup singers; this segues neatly to the live “Holiday” from Everybody’s In Show-Biz. “Muswell Hillbilly” picks up the pace before “Celluloid Heroes” gets the lighters going.
“20th Century Man” drops us back on Muswell Hill, and “Sitting In The Midday Sun” and “One Of The Survivors” offer two of the better tunes from the first Preservation act, the latter in a unique mix with a different verse. “Alcohol” and “Skin & Bone” are previously released live versions, and as nice as “(A) Face In The Crowd” is, it ends the set on a downer.
When the band’s catalog was upgraded at the turn of the century, Celluloid Heroes was overhauled with a different track listing, substituting studio versions for live versions and album tracks for single edits, adding even songs to fill the CD’s capacity but cutting others. Only “Alcohol” appeared in its live incarnation. If anything, it seemed designed to give equal time to each of the RCA albums, unlike the LP. In the streaming era, however, the title has reverted to that original sequence, preserving the live “Here Comes Another Day” that has appeared nowhere else, as well as the alternate “One Of The Survivors”. Either version of the album only underscores how spotty this period was for those who aren’t already converted.

The Kinks The Kinks’ Greatest — Celluloid Heroes (1976)—3
The Kinks
Celluloid Heroes (2001)—3

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Lou Reed 29: Hudson River Wind Meditations

As further proof that nobody could pin him down, Lou Reed ended an extended break from recording with another baffling album release. If the liner notes are to be believed, and why wouldn’t they, Hudson River Wind Meditations is a collection of ambient music he recorded solely to accompany his own tai chi regimen. The source is supposedly the wind coming into his loft from the nearby titular river, treated electronically for an even less busy listen than Brian Eno’s static experiments. In other words, the polar opposite of Metal Machine Music.
The first two tracks run about a half hour each; he even titled them. “Move Your Heart” sounds like a basic loop mirroring breathing and movement, whereas “Find Your Note” sounds like fingers on wine glass rims, occasionally approaching the sound of an amp feeding back. “Hudson River Wind (Blend The Ambiance)” turns the volume way up for two minutes to the point where the wind is deafening and a car horn can be heard just over the fade, and “Wind Coda” combines elements of the previous three tracks for a five-minute finale.
Our research has failed to find any endorsement or otherwise from the tai chi enthusiast community. As our exercise regimen consists solely of walking a dog, we can’t speak to its practicality. Nonetheless, Hudson River Wind Meditations is not unpleasant, only occasionally jarring, and easy to ignore.

Lou Reed Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007)—2

Friday, March 12, 2021

Frank Zappa 43: Guitar

An extremely busy release schedule over a period of five years saw several Zappa albums appear on CD for the first time, along with over a dozen new titles. Some were distributed via his own Barking Pumpkin label, but the most elaborate releases came through his arrangement with Rykodisc.
The first such release was Guitar, something of a sequel to 1981’s Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar volumes. The premise was basically the same, being guitar solos excerpted from different live performances of about sixteen songs, mostly recorded in 1982 and 1984. Unlike the earlier version, there is no “grout” offered in the way of dialogue snippets, so it’s mostly just an onslaught of fancy fretwork. Given the popularity of hair metal and such virtuosi on the scene like Joe Satriani and Zappa alumnus Steve Vai, its release was somewhat timely.
The sameness of the material—usually the band vamping on one chord, sometimes over a reggae beat, sometimes over a prerecorded loop, while Frank lets loose—makes Guitar a connoisseur’s choice. (For example, “Republicans” and “Canadian Customs” are similar, but not identical, being that they’re both solos from “Let’s Move To Cleveland”, from different dates.) The synthesizers and electronic drums also date the material, taking some of the human element out of the listening experience. Once again, we’re not going to attempt to dissect each of the tracks, though a few stand out, such as the opening “Sexual Harassment In The Workplace”, which is an actual song with melody and structure, and “Outside Now”, which puts the solo back in its original context. The crowd is very happy to hear “Watermelon In Easter Hay”, if only for half of its album length.
The track titles are sometimes arbitrary (“Do Not Pass Go”), topical (“Jim & Tammy’s Upper Room”), or humorous (“Things That Look Like Meat”) but others are more obvious in their derivation. “For Duane” comes from a performance of “Whipping Post”; “In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky” begins with bassist Scott Thunes playing a certain Iron Butterfly riff while Frank quotes from “Rite Of Spring”; “It Ain’t Necessarily The Saint James Infirmary” quotes from both of those standards.
Again, having a constant onslaught of soloing isn’t everyone’s idea of easy listening. While the CD version added another 50 minutes of music—and another carrot for fans to make the switch from vinyl—the two-record set had different segues due to fewer tracks, and was separated into more palatable chunks of 20 minutes apiece. For those who wanted more songs, and interaction between everybody on those stages, they didn’t have to wait long.

Frank Zappa Guitar (1988)—3

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Yes 1: Yes

For the casual FM radio listener, a Yes song was usually identifiable by the vocals of Jon Anderson. His high-pitched delivery has been distinctive throughout most of the band’s career, but from the very beginning this was a band determined to let each of its members shine on every song. This was not an easy feat to maintain, and probably one reason why they’ve barely managed to keep the same lineup for more than two albums in a row, and sometimes not even that long.
While their fantasy sci-fi approach would take a few albums to take firm hold, much of their eponymous debut sounds like the band they’d become. It’s not immediately apparent on “Beyond And Before”, which begins with a staccato attack on the same note, first on guitar, then doubled on Chris Squire’s extra-trebly Rickenbacker bass. Tony Kaye leans on the Hammond organ, while Bill Bruford explores his drumkit under precise three-part harmonies that disguise Jon Anderson’s part. Of course, most bands start out playing covers, and surprising choices would define Yes at the beginning. The jazz potential of the Byrds’ “I See You” is stretched for nearly seven minutes, particularly in the hands of Peter Banks on guitar. The soft and pretty “Yesterday And Today” provides a sharp contrast in dynamics, before “Looking Around” blasts through the speakers again.
Side two follows the basic pattern of side two—raveup, cover, ballad, big finish. “Harold Land” stands out, being something of a harbinger of the type of character sketches Genesis would cook up in the Peter Gabriel era. In this case the titular protagonist is ravaged by the harsh realities of—you guessed it—war. Notice also the striking contrast between the pomp of the intro before descending into the more mournful chords of the main song. The cover slot is sneaky here, with a complicated introduction soon melding into a tarted-up extension of the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing”, which still finds an excuse to throw in the riff from “Day Tripper”. “Sweetness” is this side’s sappy romantic tune, a song in a pastoral hippie style much like that which Led Zeppelin would abandon around the same time. “Survival” probably comes closest their future sound, thanks to the underwater wah-wah effect on the bass (or is it the guitar? we don’t know) and the multiple shifts in tempo.
Those who come at this album after the fact may have to remind themselves that Steve Howe wasn’t in the group yet. Peter Banks was just one of the secret weapons of this fledgling band, and he remains underappreciated except by the most rabid Yes fans, who will likely disagree with a lot we’ll have to say about these albums. (When Yes was remastered in the new century, it was standardized with the original album art, and offered up two early versions each of a future album track and a future B-side, as well as two versions of their rearrangement of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. We wonder if Todd Rundgren was familiar with it.)

Yes Yes (1969)—3
2003 remastered CD: same as 1969, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, March 5, 2021

Neil Young 61: Way Down In The Rust Bucket

The return of Crazy Horse for 1990’s Ragged Glory album rode a wave of critical acclaim that spilled over into the subsequent Smell The Horse tour the following winter and spring. While the staging was in line with the big amps and giant mike stands of previous tours, the tone was colored by Operation Desert Storm, and the setlists stayed pretty basic, as captured on the Weld album and video.
It didn’t start out that way. As he had on other occasions, Neil followed up the album sessions by bringing Crazy Horse into a nearby club to whip the tunes into shape. These were smaller affairs than the usual arena shows, with tickets sold quickly and quietly to the lucky few who managed to pounce on time. Being Neil, the shows were filmed and recorded for his own reference; a few songs from other such visits came out officially in the ‘90s, on the Broken Arrow and Year Of The Horse albums.
. The two-and-a-half-hour set played on November 13 that year, as captured on Way Down In The Rust Bucket, covered most of Ragged Glory, which had already been out for two months, but also touched on other songs from the previous two decades. Along with the usual Horse staples, like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Like A Hurricane”, the boys plowed through lesser-known nuggets, like “Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze” and “Bite The Bullet”. They even played “Danger Bird” for the first time ever in public, and the second-ever live performance of “T-Bone”. The band sounds great; Neil has trouble with some of the high notes on “Days That Used To Be”, and we don’t expect velvet harmonies from the other guys anyway.
The focus throughout Way Down In The Rust Bucket is the music. Very little of the between-song chatter is included, and every track fades to silence after the song is finished, with a minimum of crowd ambience. (The video portion, simultaneously released on DVD, included all the chatter, tuning, and false starts, as well as the night’s performance of “Cowgirl In The Sand”, which apparently had audio issues.)
Of the many projects teased from Neil Young Archives throughout 2020, this was a welcome installment in the growing catalog. Hard to believe, listening over 30 years later, these guys were considered “old” then.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse Way Down In The Rust Bucket (2021)—

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Bob Dylan 67: 1970

Just before the end of 2020, another one of those highly limited beat-the-deadline copyright releases snuck out and made another three discs’ worth of leftovers from Bob Dylan sessions quite popular on the illegal download sites. The key draw of 50th Anniversary Collection 1970 was the balance of the one day George Harrison spent in the studio with Dylan. That’s probably why the label decided to make the set available to the general public for a much lower price.
Now titled simply 1970, it arrived with George’s involvement emblazoned on the cover, overly gushing liner notes and, save the one New Morning-era image on the back of the booklet, several well-traveled photos from 1969. Normally this would be merely a footnote to the Another Self Portrait volume of the Bootleg Series, except that it offers over three hours of unreleased music, much of which hadn’t been bootlegged. Also, unlike that set, the music is presented strictly chronologically, filling in the development of two separate albums.
Disc one begins with the rest of the work done with David Bromberg and Al Kooper on what would be sent off for overdubs to complete Self Portrait. Along with yet another stab at “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” (yippee), we get for more tries at “Went To See The Gypsy” and variations on “Alberta”, an “Untitled 1970 Instrumental”, and most revealing of all, the basic track of “Woogie Boogie”, consisting just of Dylan’s piano and Bromberg’s guitar. In between are abandoned tries at “Universal Soldier”, “Come A Little Bit Closer”, and a goofy “Little Moses”.
We jump to May 1, when George arrived, beginning with attempts at nailing down arrangements for “Sign On The Window”, “If Not For You”, and “Time Passes Slowly”, accompanied by Russ Kunkel on drums and yes, the Charlie Daniels on bass. Having seemingly tired of those, they began covering earlier Dylan originals, including “Song To Woody”, “Gates Of Eden”, “Rainy Day Women”, and “I Threw It All Away”. Only “Mama, You Been On My Mind” hadn’t made it to a Dylan album yet. In between, they jam on covers like “Ghost Riders In The Sky”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, oldies by Sam Cooke, Carl Perkins, and the Everly Brothers, and even “Yesterday”. The day ended more takes of “If Not For You” and “Sign On The Window”. Despite what was reported in the press at the time, this was not exactly a stellar meeting of future Wilbury minds. George gamely strums his Stratocaster and offers some leads, harmonizing when he knows the words, but their collaboration at the Concert for Bangla Desh the following summer was ultimately more satisfying.
A month later, Bob brought back Kooper, Bromberg, Daniels, and Kunkel, plus Ron Cornelius on guitar and some female singers for five dedicated days of recording what would become New Morning. As it turns out, just as much and often more time was spent on covers than the originals that made up the album as released. In addition to three distinct variations on the Cajun chestnut “Alligator Man”, as well as “Jamaica Farewell” and “Long Black Veil”, it’s clear that the likes of “Sarah Jane”, “Lily Of The West”, and “Can’t Help Falling In Love” were not merely one-offs in between “proper” takes, but actually finessed to what would be first shortlisted for New Morning, and officially foisted on the public on the embarrassing Dylan album three years later. There are even two takes of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”, which he’d yet to try in the studio; frankly, this bluesy approach with the women singing doesn’t work. But we can also hear more new originals take shape, thankfully, and a final session two months later would complete the project.
While it’s nice that the set is more easily attainable by both Dylan and Beatle completists, the historic value of 1970 outweighs its musical merit, and the casual listener will likely find it tedious. Yet throughout all three discs, Bob is engaged with the songs, slipping back and forth between his raspy voice and Nashville Skyline croon. Unless any snippy tirades against the participants were edited out, he sounds like he’s enjoying himself.

Bob Dylan 1970 (2021)—3

Friday, February 26, 2021

Elton John 16: Greatest Hits Volume II

Maybe Elton (or his record company) knew his streak was over, as another “hits” package was pushed out to maximize any sales. Unlike the first installment, Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II ran all over the place, even including songs that predated that previous mop-up—never a good sign. It did have a nice booklet with lyrics and photos, which was nice.
After establishing the thesis yet again with “The Bitch Is Back”, his cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” graduates from single to album track, and yes, that would be John Lennon himself playing “reggae guitars” on the break. “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” is still heartbreaking, but “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” his single duet with protégée Kiki Dee is all but irresistible. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” brings the seesaw back to close the side.
Another non-album single, “Philadelphia Freedom” was all over the radio as America geared up for its bicentennial, and we still can’t figure out what it has to do with Billie Jean King’s tennis team outside the title. “Island Girl” and “Grow Some Funk Of Your Own” are good and bad choices, respectively, from Rock Of The Westies, and then we go all the way back to 1971 for “Levon”. Finally, “Pinball Wizard” reminded folks of one of the cooler sequences in the Tommy film, and showcases the Elton John Band at their best.
There’s no question that Greatest Hits Volume II delivers the goods. Back then, it did offer value for money by collecting songs from various sources, and there’s no denying how much he had dominated the charts, the jukeboxes, and the airwaves in those days.
Nothing is simple with Elton, of course; outside the U.S., “Bennie And The Jets” replaced “Levon” in the lineup. Then, when his catalog was standardized worldwide in the ‘90s, the remaster swapped out “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” for “Tiny Dancer” and “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)”—not exactly an even swap—though it kept “Levon”. Future hits collections would be more comprehensive in including the necessary hits, just as upgraded and expanded albums have collected various of the standalone singles.

Elton John Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II (1977)—
1992 CD reissue: same as 1977, plus 2 extra track (and minus 2 tracks)

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Cat Stevens 16: The Laughing Apple

Yusuf continued to embrace his history as Cat Stevens, and the legacy it entailed, with the mix of new and old on The Laughing Apple. Once again credited to his current and previous names, it’s another pleasant set of singer-songwriter folk music, just like he used to make.
In fact, unless one were intimately aware of his deep catalog, it’s not always easy to tell which songs are remakes. Four songs, including “Blackness Of The Night”, “Northern Wind”, “I’m So Sleepy”, and the title track, were originally recorded and released fifty years earlier on his second album. With the exception of some ornamental touches, the new versions are much more relaxed and not as fruity as the style of the times. “Grandsons” is an update of a Mona Bone Jakon outtake that had appeared on a few latter-day compilations, and rings truer in his current voice than it did then.
If “You Can Do (Whatever)” sounds like a cousin of “If You Want To Sing Out”, that’s probably because it was also intended for the Harold & Maude soundtrack but wasn’t finished in time. Similarly, “Mighty Peace” was begun in the early ‘60s. He wasn’t the first guy to put new music to “Mary And The Little Lamb”, but at least the choruses transcend the verses.
Of the new songs, “See What Love Did To Me” could have fallen off either Tillerman or Teaser, and listen for the subtle substitution of “God” in the later verses. “Olive Hill” is a spritely reverie for halcyon days, with something of a “cowboys on the prairie” instrumental break, while “Don’t Blame Them” is a call for universal tolerance with a melody inspired by Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata.
The Laughing Apple also sports contributions from longtime collaborator Alun Davies, helping the warm sound. The package is nice, too, full of storybook-style sketches for each of the songs.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens The Laughing Apple (2017)—3

Friday, February 19, 2021

Simon & Garfunkel 9: Old Friends Live

Vintage concerts were one thing, but as long as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were still alive and performing separately, audiences wanted to see and hear them harmonize together. Just a few years into the century, they finally got their chance.
Old Friends: Live On Stage presents the bulk of the set from their reunion tour (extra songs were added to the DVD, which also offers the spectacle of Paul doing ill-advised rock star poses). Their voices are older, certainly, but they still have that blend. However, while the songs are recognizable, these are not carbon copies; many are transformed into the more modern sounds coming from the band, handpicked by Paul. And when they do replicate the record, as on “Hazy Shade Of Winter”, the singers have modified their parts. Though there is some overlap, it’s not a straight copy of the Central Park concert; this time out we get to hear such nuggets as “The Only Living Boy In New York”, a medley of “At The Zoo” and “Baby Driver”, “Leaves That Are Green”, and even “My Little Town”.
About halfway through the first act they chat a little bit about their youth and history together; Artie is as gracious as usual, and Paul takes the opportunity to take a few shots. They do a brief busk of “Hey Schoolgirl”, then bring out the actual Everly Brothers for a combined assault on “Bye Bye Love”. Artie sings “Kathy’s Song”, surprisingly, and trades verses with Paul on “American Tune”; “Slip Slidin’ Away” is the only other nod to either solo career. And while he cedes the second verse of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to its author, Paul’s attempts at being soulful fall flat. Finally, on a new studio song called “Citizen Of The Planet”, included as a closing “bonus”, their voices sound younger, leading us to wonder if this is an outtake from Hearts And Bones.
Maybe you had to be there, but at least this particular reunion wasn’t embarrassing, considering that at this late date they’re unlikely to try it again. It’s nice to know that while they were getting along, we get to feel it.

Simon & Garfunkel Old Friends: Live On Stage (2004)—3

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Simon & Garfunkel 8: Live 1967 & 1969

With a concise catalog and outtakes already mined, how else could Columbia capitalize on Simon & Garfunkel in the 21st century? The answer was so head-slappingly obvious it’s a wonder it took so long: live albums from the archives. Two sets were eventually released, both stepping far up sonically from the bootlegs that had circulated through the decades.
Live From New York City, 1967 expanded on the Lincoln Center peek-in from the Old Friends box, leaving “Red Rubber Ball” as an exclusive to that set. It’s just Artie and Paul onstage, with none of the anonymous session polish, and nearly every song gets something of an explanatory introduction, adding to the intimacy. Most of the set would be familiar to anyone who had the albums, plus “A Hazy Shade Of Winter” was the current hit single. The future B-side “You Don’t Know Where Your Interest Lies” is something of a surprise, as it hadn’t been finished yet, and “A Church Is Burning” would only be known to those who tracked down Paul’s elusive solo debut. (He switches between six-string and 12-string acoustic guitars depending on the tune, plus you can hear his affected British accent even on the straight intros.)

First released as a Starbucks exclusive, Live 1969 was compiled from a handful of concerts from the autumn of that year. Nicely sequenced, it begins with the boys playing by themselves, joined seven songs in by Wrecking Crew legends Fred Carter, Jr on guitar, Joe Osborn on bass, Larry Knechtel on keys, and Hal Blaine on drums. In addition to adding variety in the song selection, in this case the boys sound energized with a band behind them, and adapt well.
Several remarks are made throughout regarding the album they say they’re trying to finish, and four of those new songs are premiered here, including a stunning performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. The crowd welcomes “The Boxer”, the newest song they knew, which here sports the extra verse familiar to us now from the 1982 reunion, replacing the instrumental break from the studio version. The album closes as it began, with only the duo onstage, including an efficiently arranged “Old Friends/Bookends”. (It has since been determined that the versions of “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and “Kathy’s Song” are the same lovely ones that appeared on Greatest Hits, while “That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine” is not the same one as on Old Friends. The entire set was eventually included in the 40th anniversary edition of Bridge Over Troubled Water, which was of course the album in progress when the shows originally took place.)

Simon & Garfunkel Live From New York City, 1967 (2002)—
Simon & Garfunkel
Live 1969 (2009)—4

Friday, February 12, 2021

Doors 11: Box Set

Seeing as most bands were commemorated with box sets by the end of the century, it made sense that the Doors would get their own as well. With six studio albums to cherry-pick, they did their fans a solid by concentrating on rare material for three of the four discs in the imaginatively titled Box Set.
The first and third discs focus on a sprawling pile of live recordings and studio outtakes, sequenced without regard to chronology or source. Seeing as the thrust of the set was to highlight Jim Morrison’s “genius” and “fearlessness”, such a random approach makes sense. The set begins, appropriately, with “Five To One” from the infamous Miami concert that got Jim arrested for, among other things, calling the audience a bunch of “f—king idiots”. This is followed by a “jazz” version of “Queen Of The Highway” for an exercise in extremes, and from there it’s a chaotic bounce back and forth through a six-year stretch. Their earliest demos, before Robbie Krieger joined, are scattered throughout, are notable for Ray Manzarek playing piano a la Ramsey Lewis on songs that would eventually become band staples. (“Go Insane” is the exception, and would have been in popular rotation on the Dr. Demento show.)
The real draw on these discs would be the variety of unreleased songs and sketches, from both stage and studio, most frankly better off unreleased in the first place. For example, “Rock Is Dead” is a 16-minute edit of an hour-long jam the boys put on tape after getting smashed at a Mexican restaurant near the studio. “I Will Never Be Untrue” is something of an Otis Redding homage, Robbie doing his best Steve Cropper imitation. “Black Train Song” finds them wandering through “People Get Ready”, “Mystery Train”, and “Crossroads” via a tune called “Away In India” while teenyboppers scream for “Hello I Love You”. Most surprising to these ears is their arrangement of “Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor”, supposedly with actual strings overdubbed on the spot.
Just to keep it confusing, the third disc begins with “Hello To The Cities”, which combines an Ed Sullivan introduction with Jim purposely greeting an audience with shout-outs to other cites than the one they’re in. “Break On Through” from the Isle of Wight in 1970—one of their last performances—is marred by Ray’s doubling of Jim’s vocal, then we go to Vancouver for sloppy versions of “Rock Me” and “Money” with Albert King sitting in. “Someday Soon” was designed to deflate blissful hippies with a reminder of their mortality, just as “Mental Floss” and the brief “Adolph Hitler” joke (“still alive… I slept with her last night”) are supposed to provocative. “Orange County Suite” is nice, even though it combines a tape of Jim singing his poetry with modern backing from the other three. This follows “Tightrope Ride”, the only selection from the Jim-less portion of the catalog.
In between, a disc of recordings from the band’s stand at the Felt Forum in early 1970 presents something of a companion to the Absolutely Live album. A few songs from the then-new Morrison Hotel give way to a full performance of “Celebration Of The Lizard”, then a blues detour takes us through “Crawling King Snake” a year before its appearance on an album, ill-advised takes on “Money” and “Gloria”, plus a rambling extemporization credited as “Poontang Blues/Build Me A Woman/Sunday Trucker”. An 18-minute extension on “The End” closes the disc. Even when Jim’s pitch wavers, and it does, the band is tight throughout.
The fourth disc, of “band favorites”, offers five tracks chosen by each of the three surviving members. Obvious tracks like “Light My Fire” and “Riders On The Storm” sit alongside such deep cuts as “Shaman’s Blues” and “Yes, The River Knows”. It’s fairly evenly split between the six albums, though Strange Days is represented the most.
Box Set wouldn’t be the only doorstop unleashed to commemorate the band, of course. Two years later, The Complete Studio Recordings presented the first six albums, supported by none of the B-sides or post-Jim releases, but did include a disc called Essential Rarities culled from the Box Set. (This was released as a standalone disc a year after that, touting the rare track “Woman Is A Devil”, which was merely an excerpt from “Rock Is Dead”.) 2006’s Perception served up remastered versions as well as surround mixes of each of the same albums with their 40th anniversary bonus tracks; five years later, A Collection consisted of just those albums in replica sleeves, with no bonus tracks. (Of more interest to connoisseurs would be the ongoing Bright Midnight series of official bootlegs, which we’re not even to attempt to catalog.)

The Doors Box Set (1997)—3

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Grateful Dead 14: Steal Your Face

Back before quitting the road for a spell, the Dead undertook a few projects to buy time and stay in front of fans. One guaranteed crowd-pleaser was The Grateful Dead Movie, which combined performances from a farewell five-night stand at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom with conversations with actual Deadheads plus psychedelic animation. Of course, by the time the film was finished, the band had resumed touring anyway, so to maximize the documentation of the stint, as well as bolster profits for their failing record label, the double live Steal Your Face album was released as a placeholder.
This was the period where the band was using their “Wall of Sound” PA system, a couple hundred speakers that may have sounded fine in person, but wasn’t recorded very well. Also, where previous live albums had ebb, flow, and momentum, this one seemed mostly a grab bag. It was not well-received, nor did it seem the band had much input past playing the songs in the first place. The energy seems subdued, even for them; “Ship Of Fools”, for one, is taken at a funereal pace, making “Beat It On Down The Line” a welcome pick-me-up, even with Donna Godchaux doing her thing. A few R&B and country covers make their first appearances on a Dead LP after having been in their repertoire for a few years; Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and “Around And Around” don’t have much life, but “Big River” by Johnny Cash and “El Paso” by Marty Robbins are snappier. Similarly, “solo” tracks like “Sugaree” and “Black Throated Wind” get the full band treatment, and Robert Hunter’s “It Must Have Been The Roses” enjoys another workout.
Despite its relation to the film, Steal Your Face was not the official soundtrack album for their movie, nor was it given much love in their ongoing archival program, getting only a couple of straight CD transfers with no extras. Rather, fans are directed to The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack, which offers five discs full of mostly complete performances from the shows, though not all of them, and in a mostly ramshackle order. (It still offers more than the double-DVD reissue of the movie itself.) As for the Wall of Sound era, official band archivists have made several shows available for comparison, as listed below.

Grateful Dead Steal Your Face (1976)—3
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Dick’s Picks Volume Seven (1997)
     • Dick's Picks Volume Twelve (1998)
     • Dick's Picks Volume Twenty-Four (2002)
     • Dick's Picks Volume 31 (2004)
     • The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack (2005)
     • Road Trips: Vol. 2, No. 3: Wall Of Sound (2009)
     • Dave’s Picks Volume 2: Dillon Stadium, Hartford, CT 7/31/74 (2012)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 9: Harry Adams Field House, U. of Montana, Missoula, 5/14/74 (2014)
     • Dave’s Picks Volume 13: Winterland, San Francisco, CA 2/24/74 (2015)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 17: Selland Arena, Fresno, CA, 7/19/74 (2016)
     • Pacific Northwest '73-'74: The Complete Recordings (2018)
     • Pacific Northwest '73-'74: Believe It If You Need It (2018)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 34: Jai-Alai Fronton, Miami, FL 6/23/74 (2020)

Friday, February 5, 2021

Queen 1: Queen

Most successful and, particularly, iconic musical figures have spawned clones. Lots of bands tried to emulate the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and so forth; singers from Frank Sinatra all the way to Madonna inspired imitators. But no other band in history sounds like Queen.
The main reason is the one and only Freddie Mercury, for whom the term “frontman” should be exclusively reserved. It was his voice that perked most people’s ears, plus his onstage presence was positively magnetic. But the other guys weren’t exactly slouches. Brian May built the guitar he played himself, and would eventually get his doctorate in astrophysics to back up his methodical approach to music. He, like drummer Roger Taylor, were excellent singers, and handsome in their own ways, but knew their place in this lineup. John Deacon, the quintessential quiet bass player, didn’t seem to add much beyond bad haircuts, but turned out to be a secret weapon in songwriting.
Their debut album sports some of the aspects that would define their work going forward, even if the distinct Queen sound isn’t there yet. Any band would be proud to have “Keep Yourself Alive” as their opening anthem, full as it is of fretwork, swagger, and energy. “Doing All Right” can’t decide if it’s a campy ballad or prog experiment; the fact that it predates Freddie’s arrival in the band might be the reason, except that the next two tracks sit firmly in fantasyland. “Great King Rat” is an unsavory character out of a nursery rhyme, whose demise is celebrated via a galloping rhythm, while “My Fairy King” begins the experimentation with layered, impossibly high harmonies.
“Liar” is interesting, as it begins with a basic drum solo, a minute or so of riffing on one chord and then another, before the vocal begins its narrative, complete with responses that solidify its genetic connection to a certain bohemian rhapsody down the road. “The Night Comes Down” was written by Brian, but sounds perfectly suited for Freddie; it’s another one where the intro doesn’t seem to point the direction of the track. “Modern Times Rock ‘N’ Roll” is an embarrassing slice of speed metal sung by Roger; luckily it’s over quickly. “Son And Daughter” is slower sludge with enigmatic lyrics that modern ears take as gender-questioning, whereas “Jesus” is much more straightforward, being a scene straight out of the Gospels. In a wonderful instance of foreshadowing, “Seven Seas Of Rhye…” provides a brief instrumental teaser of a song to be completed later.
The band’s albums were grandly reissued and slightly expanded on CD in 1991; Queen’s bonus tracks consisted of the outtake “Mad The Swine”, a later re-recording of “Keep Yourself Alive”, and a modern remix of “Liar”. Of these, only “Mad The Swine” made it to the next round of reissues 20 years later, where it was joined by demos of five album tracks recorded six months before the album sessions proper. (Since the version of “The Night Comes Down” on the album was mixed from the demo, it arguably appears twice.)

Queen Queen (1973)—3
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1973, plus 3 extra tracks
2011 remaster: same as 1973, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, January 29, 2021

Van Morrison 40: Born To Sing

At this point we wonder why we should bother assigning a rating to a 21st century Van Morrison album that doesn’t break any new ground or venture into a tangential genre. Born To Sing: No Plan B states the thesis in the title, and spends an hour proving it.
Just in case you’re not convinced, the CD booklet includes five pages of liner notes written by three separate writers, each praising the auteur to the heavens and marveling at his genius. Lyrics are included for each track, which is helpful given his increasingly mushmouthed approach, but suffice it to say he’s not above adding “shite” to a rhyme scheme, quoting Sartre, or railing about worldwide capitalism taking precedence over God-consciousness. Also, it’s one thing to hear him decry “phony pseudo jazz” in a verse, another to read it twice, and even more to imagine it sounding exactly like the song in progress.
But the notes for each track also detail who played what, and this is where we are impressed. Much of the piano lines come from Van’s fingers, and he often wails on his saxophone between verses. (Two other horn players are in the backup band, along with a keyboard player who doubles on trumpet.) He plays guitar on only the plodding John Lee Hooker pastiche “Pagan Heart”, which follows the equally lengthy but musically intriguing “If In Money We Trust”. “Close Enough For Jazz” adds words to a twenty-year-old instrumental, though “Retreat And View” merely inspires us to put on Astral Weeks to hear that phrase in “Beside You”. “End Of The Rainbow” does build nicely, and “Educating Archie” provides a shift in tempo for a closer. While Born To Sing: No Plan B in neither overwhelming nor underwhelming, one could do a lot worse. And yes, he can still sing.

Van Morrison Born To Sing: No Plan B (2012)—3

Friday, January 22, 2021

Pretenders 14: Stockholm

One has to hand to a veteran like Chrissie Hynde, determined to make music no matter who was listening, with whoever she happened to find compatibility. Named for the city where it was recorded, Stockholm was her first full-length album released under her own name, rather than a conglomeration dubbed the Pretenders.
And that’s a good thing, since outside of her iconic voice, this is the least Pretenders-sounding album since Get Close. Like that album, the focus this time is on pop, but in more of the ‘60s retro-soul slash Bacharach mode as revived lately by the likes of Mark Ronson. Most of that can be laid on producer Bjorn Yttling, supposedly a wunderkind of Swedish pop. The sound isn’t so much striking as it is repetitive. Every now and then there’s a departure, such as Neil Young’s trademark contribution to “Down The Wrong Way”; John McEnroe apparently offers the same for “A Plan Too Far”. “Tourniquet (Cynthia Ann)” takes an almost goth turn, while “You’re The One” has a hook that recalls Britney Spears’ “Toxic”.
So Stockholm is acceptable, but we suspect we’d prefer the straight rock approach to these lyrics. Seeing as they’re split between pining for someone or damning their insensitivity, we wonder whether anyone in particular inspired them. Her previous collaborator perhaps?

Chrissie Hynde Stockholm (2014)—3

Friday, January 15, 2021

Marshall Crenshaw 10: #447

Even at a time when the major labels were throwing all kinds of money at hit artists, the smaller indies managed to keep their rosters afloat, even when the folks in question weren’t drawing in barrels full of cash. Marshall Crenshaw simply kept doing what he always did—writing and recording, touring on a small scale, repeat.
The drolly titled #447 also delivered what was expected. The now customary “Opening” is a sonic mishmash designed to confuse before the songs proper kick in. “Dime A Dozen Guy”, “Television Light”, and “Glad Goodbye” are all tuneful Crenshaw numbers, melding rockabilly with country and rhumba. But for the Mellotron, “T.M.D.” could have fallen off his first album, as could “Tell Me All About It” and “Right There In Front Of Me”. Guitar instrumentals had become part of his palette by now, and his progress is displayed on the highly picturesque “West Of Bald Knob”, the even jazzier “Eydie’s Tune”, and the closing “You Said What??”
As with Miracle Of Science, #447 has a lo-fi but not amateurish sound, the auteur having mastered the complexities of economy. Save some spare contributions from others, he plays most of the instruments himself. And just as with the 9-Volt Years collection, we get to hear the sound of a man having fun making records. Even if they weren’t calling them that anymore.

Marshall Crenshaw #447 (1999)—3

Friday, January 8, 2021

Rush 21: Different Stages

It was customary for Rush to follow four studio albums with a live album, but Different Stages was, well, different. First of all, it encompassed three full CDs—the first two devoted to music from the Test For Echo tour, with a few tracks from the Counterparts tour. These were even among the first “enhanced” CDs, providing a multimedia lightshow style program when inserted into certain computers.
Because the band is always so precise, the main indication that this is a live album is due to how loud the audience is mixed throughout the first two discs. There is a suggestion in the notes that some of the tapes may have been “messed with” to make a perfect representation, and Geddy’s growing dependence on sequencers for the keyboards while he’s singing and playing bass sometimes brings up sounds and voices that two hands and two feet simply can’t do themselves. (His detour in the middle of “Driven” is therefore a nice distraction.) Still, the extended jam (!) at the end of “Closer To The Heart” demonstrates that they still knew how to have fun. Most of the tunes on the first disc come from the Atlantic years, with detours to “Limelight” and “The Trees”. Then, they play the “2112” suite in its entirety for the first time onstage in years. The second disc stays in the recent past, save a surprise “Analog Kid”; unfortunately, they keep the rap section of “Roll The Bones”. “Leave That Thing Alone” segues into “The Rhythm Method – 1997”, a drum solo from a different date altogether. Then it’s back to the early ‘80s for a lengthy sequence of “Natural Science”, “The Spirit Of Radio”, “Tom Sawyer”, and “YYZ”.
The third disc goes back two decades to an hour’s worth of music excerpted from a show before a rather appreciative Hammersmith Odeon audience in 1978. It’s a good overview of the early years, the epics limited to “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1”. (The entire show would have to wait another two decades, until the 40th Anniversary Edition of A Farewell To Kings.) Get your magnifying glass out for the details in the artwork, where we see a modern-day Geddy scalping tickets, Alex being dragged off in a straitjacket, and Neil silently observing from the balcony.
Per their custom, it’s a good summation of the best aspects of their most recent phase, uneven as it was. As it turns out, this sprawling tour through the band’s history served a larger purpose. Coming in the aftermath of Neil Peart’s daughter’s death in a car accident, followed within a year by his wife’s death from cancer and his subsequent withdrawal from the band, Different Stages didn’t so much close a chapter as present a grand finale for the band.

Rush Different Stages (1998)—