Friday, October 22, 2021

Yes 3: The Yes Album

By titling their third album The Yes Album, one might think Yes were starting fresh. In many ways, they were, shaking off the orchestral embellishments and dependency on covers, and giving new guitarist Steve Howe plenty of room to leave his stamp, and not just on the nine-minute tracks. Engineer Eddy Offord was upgraded to co-producer, helping seal his pedigree as premier prog producer in between Emerson, Lake & Palmer dates.
The stop-start nature of “Yours Is No Disgrace” makes it difficult to get into the song right away, but it does, with a wonderful galloping sequence that screams “anthem”. Things stop for tightly harmonized vocals, which continue over the main theme, continuing in variations. It’s one of their better long-form pieces, setting yet another template for future albums. Jon Anderson’s lyrics are fairly obtuse, per usual. The new kid gets a solo spot, taken from a live performance, with his genre-spanning instrumental “The Clap”. (This has since been amended to omit the definite article, but since that’s how it’s announced, that’s what we call it.) “Starship Trooper” is another long one, this time in labeled parts: “Life Seeker” would be the catchy first section; “Disillusion” is another fast-picked acoustic country detour before a return to the original theme; and, after a windup, “Würm” follows three descending chords while Tony Kaye’s Hammond organ fights for space between dueling guitar solos.
“I’ve Seen All Good People” is announced by the repeated hook of the title, but first there’s the three-chord “Your Move” section, which stretches the chess metaphor but still manages to evoke John Lennon, with “instant karma” in the lyrics and “all we are saying is give peace a chance” mixed low beneath one of the verses. The “All Good People” section revives the hook, first setting up continual guitar solos, then fading over organ chords that modulate a full step with every repeat. “A Venture” is reminiscent of the more complicated songs from the first two albums, but here the musical blend is superior, deftly allowing a jazz piano solo of sorts while Chris Squire’s bass burbles below and Bill Bruford plays his polyrhythms. These time experiments continue on “Perpetual Change”, another long one that takes detours through a nursery rhyme section, but manages to stay tuneful.
By design, The Yes Album has proven to be the prime starting point for the band, and most of the songs have been in fairly solid rotation on Classic Rock radio ever since. If you’re sick of them, blame the radio. (The eventual expanded CD added truncated single mixes of “Your Move” and “Starship Trooper”, plus a studio recording of “Clap” that incorporates elements of “Mood For A Day”, which would show up on the next album. Only the latter was included on the CD portion of the eventual Steven Wilson remix package, along with an extended “A Venture” that winds into freeform cacophony; the single versions were included on the DVD or Blu-ray, depending on which one you bought, along with surround mixes, live versions, and whatnot.)

Yes The Yes Album (1971)—4
2003 remastered CD: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks
2014 Definitive Edition: “same” as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks (plus DVD or Blu-ray)

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Frank Zappa 45: The Helsinki Concert

Right after the Frankensteinian assembly of the first volume in Frank’s You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, the second volume was devoted to exactly one band’s performance at exactly one gig (although evidence has emerged that there were actually two shows, but still). This is basically the Roxy & Elsewhere band, but with only one horn player and one drummer, in this case Chester Thompson. Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke enjoy a lot of onstage repartee; the inside joke of this particular show revolves around the word “tush”, as well as Suzi Quatro, who was also touring Finland at the time. Also, Ruth Underwood shows her incredible percussion chops throughout.
We prefer the arrangement of “Village Of The Sun” from Roxy to the version they race through here, but there’s no question that the band is tight. While a good chunk of the repertoire comes from that album, they also played songs that were yet to be released, including “RDNZL” and “Approximate” (another chance for Frank to include a tap-dancing sequence near the start, annoyingly). Part of the guitar solo for “Inca Roads” was edited into the track released on One Size Fits All. “Pygmy Twylte” gets a longer guitar solo before devolving into “Room Service”, a rockin’ groove that turns into something of a sub-Flo and Eddie routine about hotel food and groupies. After an “Idiot Bastard Son” interlude, there’s a dizzying transition into “Cheepnis”.
“Dupree’s Paradise” appears in a 24-minute “rock band” arrangement, as opposed to the chamber music score, but first we must endure further routines and in-jokes regarding their manager’s wife theft of hotel towels. These are forgotten once the drum solo and percussion duet take over, though the duck calls leave something to be desired. This manages to segue into a performance of “Satumaa”, a “Finnish tango” apparently familiar to most of the crowd. “T’Mershi Duween” is another early rarity, moving neatly through “The Dog Meat Variations” and “Uncle Meat”.
Perhaps the most historic aspect of this show is the baffling request for the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” just before “Montana”. Frank duly includes “Whipping Post” references throughout the song, and indeed a cover would be a Zappa concert staple come the ‘80s. A detour into “Big Swifty” provides the finale.
As with the first volume, this set is best appreciated by aficionados, and while some of the sequences become tiresome, it’s still a decent representation of one of Frank’s more celebrated bands. That might actually make it a good place to start.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2: The Helsinki Concert (1988)—3

Friday, October 15, 2021

Elton John 18: The Thom Bell Sessions and Victim Of Love

As further proof that Elton John was undergoing some kind of identity crisis, the follow-up to his tepidly received A Single Man was a maxi-single of three songs recorded two years earlier. The Thom Bell Sessions were named for the producer in charge, famous for his popular “Philly soul” hits of the time; by the time Elton got to work with him, he’d moved to Seattle.
Elton was happy to merely be the singer on the sessions, letting the producer provide the songs as well as the backing. Indeed, “Three Way Love Affair” benefits from Elton’s warm voice, and while “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” was a catchy hit, it could well have been the Spinners, who actually sing on “Are You Ready For Love”, which runs for eight minutes. Those of us who were thoroughly sick of disco by the summer of ‘79 were dismissive, but today we can agree that the production is indeed impeccable.
A good ten years later, once Elton was slowly regaining commercial acceptance again, The Complete Thom Bell Sessions presented all six songs originally recorded for the project. While false advertising, “Nice And Slow” found Elton and Bernie Taupin collaborating with Bell, and “Country Love Song” wouldn’t be confused for a Tumbleweed Connection outtake. A superior re-recording of “Shine On Through” would open A Simple Man.

But he wasn’t done with disco, nor was he ready to take control in the studio. For his next trick, he hooked up with Pete Bellotte, whom he’d first met in the mid-‘60s and had since gone on to make a mint creating Eurodisco with Giorio Moroder and writing for Donna Summer. That hitmaking approach was applied to Victim Of Love, to which Elton devoted exactly eight hours, which is what it took to apply his vocals to the generic backing tracks. Save the execrable opening cover of “Johnny B. Goode”, the songs were supplied by the producer and his team. Truly shocking are the credits, which include such musicians as Marcus Miller on bass, Keith Forsey on drums a few years before Billy Idol, the ubiquitous Paulinho da Costa on percussion, and even Michael McDonald and Pat Simmons hiding from the Doobie Brothers on the title track. Like most disco albums of the time, there is no break between songs, just the same four-to-the-bar kickdrum thump. The only respite comes with the silence at the end of each side. Even more so than The Thom Bell Sessions, Victim Of Love lacks any of Elton’s personality, and therefore any of his genius or talent.

Elton John The Thom Bell Sessions (1979)—
1989 The Complete Thom Bell Sessions: same as 1979, plus 3 extra tracks
Elton John Victim Of Love (1979)—

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Graham Nash 5: Songs For Survivors

For the first time, the winner of the “who’s gonna be the first of CSN to do a solo album” contest went to Graham Nash, though apparently it took him two years to find a label that would distribute it. The nod to the title of his first solo album 30 years before is clever, but as with most sequels, Songs For Survivors has a high hill to climb.
The first drawback is his voice, which shows the effect of time, and gets in the way when he tries to sound sincere. “Dirty Little Secret” is a strong opener, referencing the specter of racism, but “Blizzard Of Lies” and “Lost Another One” are just too cheerful musically to match the lyric content. It’s dangerous for anyone but Leonard Cohen to write about “The Chelsea Hotel”, but at least he stays away from overt references to that song (or Joni’s “Chelsea Morning”, for that matter), choosing instead to celebrate the artists who led mostly bleak lives there. Just when you think he couldn’t possibly still be sappy, “I’ll Be There For You” is the pick-me-up nobody we know requested. (Maybe it got somebody through a crisis, which would be fine.) “Nothing In The World” delivers the same sentiment, but it’s a better song all around.
“Where Love Lies Tonight” is pure ‘70s James Taylor, if you like that sort of thing, but the cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Pavanne”, featuring harmonies from one Sydney Forest, is particularly surprising, and very nice. “Liar’s Nightmare” may sound like it rips off “Masters Of War”, but since that stole the melody of the traditional “Nottamun Town”, no harm no foul. Despite the length, it’s the best tune on the album, and somehow makes “Come With Me” bearable.
Despite all we’ve said, Songs For Survivors is still one of his better solo albums, though that’s considering how thin the competition is. Soundwise the production is commendable, thanks to the father-son team of Russ and Nathaniel Kunkel, while instrumental support from the likes of Matt Rollings, Dean Parks, and Viktor Krauss is understated and more than competent.

Graham Nash Songs For Survivors (2002)—3

Friday, October 8, 2021

Jerry Garcia 6: Cats Under The Stars

Just as bandmate Bob Weir got to indulge his quirks outside the confines of the Grateful Dead, so could Jerry Garcia. And he did, constantly. Cats Under The Stars ventured near the MOR territory of Bob’s recent outing, but at least Jerry had lyricist Robert Hunter to keep him in familiar territory. Keith and Donna Godchaux feature prominently, on keyboards and too-loud vocals respectively, alongside the reliable John Kahn, Merl Saunders, and Ron Tutt; the collective was dubbed, naturally, Jerry Garcia Band.
“Ruben And Cherise” is one of those character mythologies that Robert Hunter weaves so well, though we could do without the synth horns and guitar effects that sound like a warped steel drum. It’s also easy to sway too, despite the constant tempo changes. John Kahn is credited for the music on the calypso-flavored “Love In The Afternoon”, and it’s surprising that nobody pointed out the chord changes are identical to “Ship Of Fools”. “Palm Sunday” is a brief trifle, sunk by what sounds like a synthesized harmonica, while the title track starts with a decent groove and another screwy meter. We’d love to take that tinkly keyboard out of the mix.
Side two is just strange. First off, “Rhapsody In Red” is a celebration of music that just plain rocks, Jerry soloing from start to finish, whether he’s singing or not. Unfortunately, Donna is the only vocalist on her own “Rain”, which otherwise sports a smart chamber strings and horns arrangement behind the adult contemporary backing, the guitar sounding like ‘70s Traffic. She also leads the choral group on John Kahn’s “Down Home”, evoking a cowboy campfire. “Gomorrah” brings Jerry back to the microphone for a slow lope a la “Candyman” or “Sugaree”, more in line with classic Garcia-Hunter.
Deadheads find Cats Under The Stars to be an absolute treat, but they probably like Donna anytime and anywhere. While Jerry’s voice and guitar ring throughout, the uninitiated may find the album to be dated at best, and generally sub-par. (The bonus tracks on the expanded CD are mostly covers and aren’t very exciting—unless you want a 16-minute version of “Don’t Let Go”—although there is a rehearsal of “Down Home” without Donna and a lovely stripped-down take of “Palm Sunday”.)

Jerry Garcia Band Cats Under The Stars (1978)—
2004 expanded CD: same as 1978, plus 7 extra tracks

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Bob Weir 3: Heaven Help The Fool

The Dead’s deal with Arista Records allowed members to do solo albums, and Bob Weir was the first to bite. Where his first solo project involved the rest of the band anyway, it seems he had a different vision for Heaven Help The Fool. This time, the musicians included schlockmeister David Foster, Tom Scott, Waddy Wachtel, two guys from Toto, Bill Champlin on his way to ‘80s Chicago, and the guy who played drums in Journey after they booted Steve Smith. Do the math, and you get L.A. smooth.
That’s the prevailing sound from the start. “Bombs Away” is catchy, but there are far too many singers and saxophones in the way of the tune. If “Easy To Slip” sounds like a step in the right direction, keep in mind it’s a Little Feat cover, and that’s Elton John’s rhythm section holding it down. “Salt Lake City” is about as inspiring as the Beach Boys song of the same title, and it didn’t work for them either. Besides, he’s already a little old to be talking about all the pretty Mormon girls he’d like to see there. (As with all the songs that weren’t covers, John Barlow is the lyricist, so blame him.) “Shade Of Grey” moves through what sounds like several keys from verse to chorus, and musically surpasses the gang vocals on every “out in the streets”.
Maybe we’re just dim, but we can’t tell whether the title track is boasting or a warning. And maybe we’re suckers for mush, but “This Time Tomorrow” is a heartbreaker, even with the lush strings. However, in six short years Marvin Gaye could actually roll in his grave in reaction to the limp arrangement of “I’ll Be Doggone”. That makes the generic arena rock of “Wrong Way Feelin’” a relief.
There’s nothing wrong with Heaven Help The Fool except that it’s a departure from the Dead brand. One suspects that given his druthers, Bobby would have preferred a career like Boz Scaggs or Dan Fogelberg had attained by this time, and gladly worked with producer Keith Olsen forever. But for extremely rare occasions, none of these songs would make it to Dead setlists, which is telling.

Bob Weir Heaven Help The Fool (1978)—2

Friday, October 1, 2021

Genesis 21: Archive #2

Having already devoted four discs to the Peter Gabriel era of the band, the Genesis Archive #2: 1976-1992 box set was designed to supplement the Phil Collins era. Whereas the first set was teeming with goodies for the fans, this time out they had a smaller pool covering a wider period.
The sequencing is just plain strange, as each disc ignores chronology. The first contains B-sides (largely studio tracks, plus one extended remix), the second is all live versions (some of which happened to already be B-sides), and the third has more remixes, then more live versions, and then more B-sides. Warning to uber fans: Steve Hackett only appears on one live track (alongside Bill Bruford on drums) and just three of the B-sides.
The “B-sides” disc is gold for collectors and just as maddening. At their best, they show a more experimental side of the band in a time when they’d become mainstream. For example, “On The Shoreline” is a surprisingly poppy little gem from the We Can’t Dance? era that hearkens to earlier triumphs, while “Hearts On Fire” utilizes canned horns with vocals way too close to “Illegal Alien”. “You Might Recall”, “Paperlate”, and “Evidence Of Autumn” return to digital after being exiled from the North American version of Three Sides Live. “Do The Neurotic” is a lengthy instrumental of some merit, even if it does sound like the theme song to an ‘80s detective TV show, while “I’d Rather Be You” defines B-side throwaway. The “Naminanu” and “Submarine” instrumentals are somewhat related to “Dodo/Lurker”, so that’s nice, but here they’re separated by “Inside And Out” from the Spot The Pigeon EP, the surprisingly strong “Feeding The Fire” from the Invisible Touch sessions, and a seven-minute remix of “I Can’t Dance”.
In the booklet—which goes in depth into the albums of the period, even though most of the music discussed isn’t heard—Tony Banks’ justification for the selection of live tracks is that none had appeared on a live album before. That doesn’t mean we were aching for a live version of “Illegal Alien”, but that’s what kicks off the second disc. Luckily, the bulk of the disc concentrates on deep cuts from earlier albums, such as “Ripples”, “Entangled”, and “Duke’s Travels” (which extends through “Duke’s End”). Well-deserved credit is given to Daryl Stuermer and Chester Thompson for their valuable contributions to the band on stage.
The first 25 minutes of the third disc are devoted to three extended remixes from the Invisible Touch era before jumping back for contemporary-ish live versions of a profanity-laden “No Reply At All”, a heckled “Man On The Corner”, and an affected “The Lady Lies”. Then it’s more B-sides from the first few years of the Phil era: “Open Door” and “Pigeons” return from Three Sides Live and Spot The Pigeon exile respectively; “The Day The Light Went Out” and “Vancouver” are mildly poppy yet mysterious; “It’s Yourself” is a revelation, as it leads directly into the opening of “Los Endos” on A Trick Of The Tail. A ten-minute “work-in-progress” recording of “Mama” closes the set, and is the only previously unreleased studio track.
That right there is annoying, although the band insisted that any “outtakes” per se ended up as B-sides. But even with the limited supply, there were some key omissions—namely, “Match Of The Day” from Spot The Pigeon and “Me And Virgil” from the 3x3 EP (or side four of Three Sides Live, depending on your location). Somehow the band thought the extended remixes they included were less embarrassing than the tracks they left out. Couldn’t those have been added in context, and the 12-inch variations relegated to its own disc with others of the sort? This is all quibbling, of course, since the set is designed strictly for diehards. By now the hits could be found elsewhere anyway, but at least some of those rarities were available again.

Genesis Genesis Archive #2: 1976-1992 (2000)—3

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Queen 3: Sheer Heart Attack

Once upon a time, a young and hungry band would write, record, tour, and repeat. Sometimes this would lead to not one but two brand new albums being released in the space of a calendar year. Those were the days. (Plus, records were cheaper then.)
Sheer Heart Attack finds Queen determined to leave their mark on the music scene, and loudly. But first: remember how the last album with “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside”? Well, that’s referenced in the atmospheric intro to “Brighton Rock”, which hides a tale of star-crossed lovers at the seashore in a frantic arrangement. Brian May takes a mostly unaccompanied solo that takes up about three minutes in the middle of the song, setting up a showcase for live appearances; we’re going to assume this is supposed to illustrate their romantic interlude before the twist ending. After all that volume and bombast, the campy “Killer Queen” is a surprise, but one that better signals the band’s sound going forward, with the prominent piano and flanged vocals and guitars. “Tenement Funster” is a dark little recording, wherein Roger Taylor boasts of his rock star coolness (tongue in cheek, thankfully) before an abrupt switch to “Flick Of The Wrist” returns Freddie Mercury to center stage for a portrait of an even more unsavory character. This too goes directly to the next song; here “Lily Of The Valley” appears to be another overwrought ballad in a prog suite, particularly with the reference to “seven seas” and the “king of Rhye”, but’s it’s more clever than that. “Now I’m Here”, with its dizzying time changes and chord changes, plus a reference to Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie”, brings a fairly adventurous side one to a breathtaking close.
An impossible high note sung by Roger heralds “In The Lap Of The Gods”, which belies its bombastic intro and strangely processes Freddie’s voice to a lower pitch, and frankly, doesn’t go anywhere, limping to a close. A speed-metal template save the harmonies, “Stone Cold Crazy” barrels past in just over two minutes, with two guitar parts chasing each other over the bridge. “Dear Friends” another left turn, and another piano and voice interlude. John Deacon’s acoustic strumming on “Misfire” makes the song sound like any number of Doobie Brothers tunes from the period, but the same cannot be said about “Bring Back That Leroy Brown”, which shares a title and the traits of Jim Croce’s character, but this is a vaudeville sendup with incredible bass work from Deacon and Brian on ukulele. The echoed acoustics and vocals on “She Makes Me” doesn’t quite match the “Stormtrooper In Stilettos” subtitle, though the police sirens and heavy breathing over the end are tough to miss. Finally, “In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited” merely presents a wholly different song to the one heard at the top of the side, and one more likely to cause audiences to sway and sing along, at least until the explosion at the very end.
There’s a lot going on throughout Sheer Heart Attack, and we suspect its charms truly emerge with time. At any rate, the inclusion of “Killer Queen”, “Now I’m Here”, and “Stone Cold Crazy” alone launch it above the line. (The 1991 expansion of the album added only a modern remix of “Stone Cold Crazy”; this was ignored two decades later, which offered a live “Now I’m Here” from 1975, two tracks from a contemporary BBC session, a fun a cappella mix of “Leroy Brown” that incorporates other instruments only where there are no vocals, and “Gods Revisited” from the 1986 Wembley show.)

Queen Sheer Heart Attack (1974)—3
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1974, plus 1 extra track
2011 remaster: same as 1974, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, September 24, 2021

Bob Dylan 68: Springtime In New York

From the first Bootleg Series set, the compilers have focused on providing proof of Bob Dylan’s genius by sharing an alternate view of his craft via the songs he left off of albums. Where many discards from his first handful of LPs tended to be the tenth or eleventh best songs he’d recorded that day, the ‘80s was a time when he rehearsed, recorded, and revised almost constantly, whereupon several scholars insist that the Bard of Hibbing could no longer be trusted to sequence his own albums.
Three full decades after that first volume, the sixteenth installment in the series is dedicated to the first part of that troubled decade. Springtime In New York doesn’t merely follow on from Trouble No More (a.k.a. the “born-again era”) three volumes earlier; it overlaps, with many of the tour rehearsals and outtakes from Shot Of Love coming from sessions already mined. (The set was released, as had become the pattern, in a two-disc edition as well as an expanded five-disc package; as most Dylan diehards would invest in the latter, that’s the one we’re treating as standard.)
Revisionist history tells us that Dylan wasn’t so much lost in the early ‘80s as he was “finding his way”; the rehearsals that make up the bulk of the first disc begin with new takes on “Señor” and “To Ramona” before running through covers as startling as “Sweet Caroline” and “We Just Disagree”; we’d never heard the AC country hit “This Night Won’t Last Forever’, but “Jesus Met The Woman At The Well” and “Abraham, Martin And John” are already familiar from the gospel period. “Need A Woman” is an alternate from the first Bootleg box, while “Let’s Keep It Between Us” is a wonderful original played often on tour but making its welcome official debut here. Again, the band that accompanied him for the gospel shows is stellar.
The second disc delves into the recording sessions that resulted in Shot Of Love. Here, still, he’s “searching”, with somewhat polished arrangements of covers like “Let It Be Me”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, and Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart”. The best songs left off the original album have already been archived elsewhere; the included alternate of “Angelina” is nice but not as striking as the previously released take was when it emerged. “Lenny Bruce” is included in a mix with elements wiped before its release; presumably those are the “Casio” parts as depicted on the tape boxes in the packaging. A handful of originals heard first here are varied if occasionally lackluster: “Price Of Love” features a Bo Diddley beat and cheesy organ; “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away” was buried on a TV soundtrack ten years ago and comes out as a cross between “Ramona” and “Romance In Durango”; “Fur Slippers” is an early arrangement of a one-chord song later given to B.B, King; “Borrowed Time” has promise but sits in an ordinary chord sequence; “Is It Worth It?” is a work in progress on the way to “Dead Man, Dead Man”; “Yes Sir, No Sir” is startling, enticing, and mysterious.
The two discs’ worth of Infidels outtakes finally bring the set’s title into context, considering where and when they were recorded. We already liked Mark Knopfler’s production on this album, as well as the contributions from the band, so hearing alternate takes of six of the album tracks is welcome. “Jokerman” and “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” are the original master tracks before the artist took advantage of the newfangled digital technology to tinker with the lyrics and phrasing. Then there are the leftovers; “Blind Willie McTell” was a highlight of the first set in an acoustic incarnation; this one adds electricity and more tension. We get to follow the journey to “Foot Of Pride” via an alternate take as well as two early drafts entitled “Too Late”. “Julius And Ethel” is an oddly timed piece of social commentary destined to be clouded by the facts. “Someone Got A Hold Of My Heart” might be the best version yet of this song, but that’s not saying much, and “Tell Me” is a toss-up. This version of “Lord Protect My Child” shows its musical similarity to “License To Kill”, while “Death Is Not The End” is notable for running two minutes past the length heard on Down In The Groove. Covers still abound; “This Was My Love” sees him exploring Sinatra three decades early; “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” is different from a rare B-side; “Baby What You Want Me To Do” is a duet with Clydie King and features a lot of Mick Taylor, so that’s good.
The fifth disc is the most challenging. While it begins with “Enough Is Enough” (an otherwise unknown original performed at one of the concerts mined for Real Live) and “License To Kill” as performed on the David Letterman show, we move into the making of Empire Burlesque. In most cases, it’s clear that while the production didn’t help the album, the songs weren’t quite there either. Although some of the gloss has been removed, it can’t save tracks like “Tight Connection To My Heart”, “Seeing The Real You At Last”, or either version of “Clean Cut Kid”. However, “I’ll Remember You” and “Emotionally Yours” are lovely, and the alternate of “Dark Eyes” sounds like an outtake from World Gone Wrong, proving that he really hadn’t changed at all. “New Danville Girl” presents a more accessible view than its eventual “Brownsville Girl” incarnation, but of the two versions of “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky”, we prefer the “slow” one, but it’s still a chore since he yells through both of them. While never finished, “Straight A’s In Love” has promise, but goes way too fast for everyone involved.
As has also been the trend, the discs are short; the two-disc is just over two hours and the deluxe set could fit on four CDs. Maybe they knew better than to overload our ears with too much Bob. We could easily enjoy more outtakes from Infidels, and there have been accounts of numerous 1986 sessions with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in between tours that were not represented on Knocked Out Loaded. (“Band Of The Hand”, anyone?) Surely they’re not holding out for a standalone set dedicated to the period between Empire Burlesque and Oh Mercy. While we’re at it, why not have all three songs from the 1984 Letterman performance? Why not include the rehearsals?
All this is quibbling, of course. Springtime In New York is welcome and worthy of the canon. It definitely shows what was missing on the lesser albums, and highlights what we already liked of that period. Enjoy.

Bob Dylan Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980-1985 (2021)—

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Clash 3: London Calling

First of all, it’s got a great cover. Aping the lettering from one of the first Elvis Presley LPs, the image is that of Paul Simonon destroying his Fender Precision bass on stage. This would be just one hint at the scope of music to be heard on London Calling. Stylistically, it’s all over the map, with nods to rockabilly, ska beats and even big ballads throughout its four sides—a far cry from the punk rush of the first two Clash albums, and most of the singles in between. Part of the credit could go to producer Guy Stevens, whose work on Island Records and with Mott The Hoople a decade earlier still resounds.
That’s not to say they’d gone soft in the slightest. If you’re looking for power and commentary, the title track kicks it off for you, a virtual siren of doom. The first cover of several on the album is “Brand New Cadillac”, a rockabilly favorite that’s another great showcase for Joe Strummer’s voice. (C’mon, how can you beat “Baby baby drove up in a Cadillac/I said ‘Jesus Christ, where’d you get that Cadillac?”) Things turn down for “Jimmy Jazz”, which isn’t jazz save a couple chords and a sax solo, but it’s the first time we learned how the Brits pronounce the last letter of the alphabet. “Hateful” speeds up the Bo Diddley beat and adds a catchy melody, and given the reliance on covers, “Rudie Can’t Fail” is especially surprising for its authentic ska arrangement. Plus, we like Joe’s exhortation to Mick Jones: “Sing, Michael, sing!”
“Spanish Bombs” is one of the catchier tunes about the Spanish Civil War, nicely layered with subtle acoustic guitars, organ, and octave harmonies. A personal favorite is “The Right Profile”, a horn-driven portrait of beleaguered actor Montgomery Clift, with one of the greatest lyrics of all time, which we’ve transcribed directly from the sleeve: “Arrrghhhgorra buh bhuh do arrrrgggghhhhnnnn!!!!...” While Joe wrote it, he must have known Mick was the best conduit for “Lost In The Supermarket”, so simple and somehow fragile. That feeling is wiped aside by the more urgent “Clampdown”, with an organ part we think is courtesy of Mickey Gallagher from Ian Dury’s Blockheads. For a real departure, Paul Simonon sings his own dark and brooding composition, “The Guns Of Brixton”. His voice is all but tuneless, but it works.
To keep everyone guessing, “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” begins as a cover of the ancient “Stagger Lee” before switching tempo and key and everything to the reggae tune of the actual title. “Death Or Glory” gets an awful lot of action out of its three chords, weaving well in and out of choruses and verses, showing their grasp of dynamics. (This would be a good place to praise drummer Topper Headon, who handles every tempo and style they throw at him.) Though it goes by too fast to understand most of the words, “Koka Kola” carefully avoids copyright infringement while putting a new spin on the phrase “coke adds life”. The only song on the album credited as written by the whole band, “The Card Cheat” pulls in Phil Spector’s magnificent Wall of Sound and mariachi horns for another tale of an outlaw’s demise.
Despite the misplaced apostrophe, “Lover’s Rock” is poppy and fun, with lots of wacky percussion things poking in and out of the mix. Another one that needs the lyric sheet to decipher, “Four Horsemen” presents the band themselves as the mythical figures of the title, and is poignant today given their limited time together. “I’m Not Down” is more wonderfully hook-laden pop, whereas “Revolution Rock” is another reverent reggae cover that would prove highly influential to Californian white kids generation later.
Possibly the album’s most famous song isn’t listed on the cover, label, or lyric sheet. More to the point, “Train In Vain” is the tune everyone thinks of as “Stand By Me” and was originally hidden at the end of Side 4. It was added so late in the process that some of the stickers only counted 18 tracks and not 19, but if you looked carefully at the runout groove on that side, you could see “TRACK 5 IS TRAIN IN VAIN” etched there. Even later cassettes and CDs didn’t mention it.
Released on the cusp of a new decade, London Calling firmly established the band as important, and turned the punk scene on its ear. Perhaps it could have been shaved from two LPs to one, but what would you leave out? If you’re going to have just one Clash album, this would probably be the one to choose; besides being solid start to finish, it was priced well, at least until the digital era. So after much ruminating, we’ve awarded it the rating below.
The album was nicely upgraded for its silver anniversary, with not only a DVD and liner notes but a bonus disc full of pre-album rehearsals, including several songs (and covers) that would make the album proper, plus a surprising take on a reggae cover of Bob Dylan’s relatively obscure “The Man In Me”. (Later reissues replicated the album on two CDs, despite previously fitting on one.)

The Clash London Calling (1979)—5
2004 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition: same as 1979, plus 21 extra tracks (and DVD)

Friday, September 17, 2021

Pretenders 15: Alone

Once again “Pretenders” was presented as an overall brand name rather than a band of consistent members that fans had been following for over three decades. On Alone, Chrissie Hynde is joined by fellow Akronian Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who produced and brought along a couple of guys from his side project The Arcs. Therefore, the sound is those distorted retro R&B overtones made popular by the likes of Amy Winehouse and, yes, the Black Keys. And no, Martin Chambers isn’t on the album.
Chrissie is a compelling vocalist and top-notch songwriter whatever her outlet. Were we in charge of marketing, we’d’ve promoted this as a Chrissie & Dan album, as her name would pull in Pretenders diehards, and his would yank in the younger generations. But we’re not, but we still feel compelled to insist that this is not a Pretenders album, nor should it be mistaken for one, despite the advertising. (A later pressing coupled the album with a bonus disc recorded live the following year with the previous version of the Pretenders including, yes, Martin Chambers on drums.)
The title track mixes Lou Reed swagger with a more tuneful chorus, but doesn’t really convince. “Roadie Man” and “Let’s Get Lost” are pointed throwbacks to a pre-punk era, but “Gotta Wait” brings in the stomp. “Never Be Together” is co-written by the guy she worked with on her Stockholm album, plus it’s got Duane Eddy sitting in on guitar. “Chord Lord” turns the sequence of “Lay Lady Lay” inside out nicely, so that’s good.
Acoustic and lowkey, “Blue Eyed Sky” is a welcome change of pace at the halfway point, but while “The Man You Are” also begins acoustic, it’s soon swallowed up by clattery production. The spaghetti western vibe on “One More Day” is too cheesy to work, and the overly whiny “I Hate Myself” isn’t going to win her any sympathy. “Death Is Not Enough” comes from obscure musician Marek Rymaszewski, so she’s still got a head for a hook when she hears one. Finally, “Holy Commotion” would be a much better song if it hadn’t been built around what sounds like a synthesizer preset.
We’d like to say Alone is good for what it is, except that it is NOT a Pretenders album. We will not begrudge Chrissie any desire to experiment, since she’s still one of the baddest rockers out there, and we like our teeth just the way they are.

Pretenders Alone (2016)—2

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Jayhawks 1: The Bunkhouse Album

By the mid-‘80s, American country music was in a period of transition. The “urban cowboy” phase of a few years before had become a stereotype, and while more serious “artists” like Rosanne Cash and Lyle Lovett were slowly emerging as influential, most legacy artists were struggling in the mainstream.
But in the heartland of the United States, younger bands were discovering Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and especially the late Gram Parsons, whose brand of “cosmic American music” provided an easier foothold into country rock than the latest Nashville syrup. These kids adopted the songs and styles, without a drop of parody in their interpretations. One of those bands was the Jayhawks, started by Minnesotan Mark Olson, whose voice came straight from the Flying Burrito Brothers, and blended so well with that of lead guitarist Gary Louris it was sometimes hard to tell the two apart.
Their self-titled album was only pressed in a run of two thousand, but word of mouth would eventually spread to the point where the so-called “Bunkhouse Album”—due to the cover art and the band’s self-assigned label—commanded high dollars on the used vinyl market. Not until 2010 did it get widespread release, which is how we managed to finally hear it.
It’s definitely twangy, with more overt country touches than their later albums, but the elements of what made the Jayhawks are all there. The likes of “Falling Star”, “Tried And True”, and “Cherry Pie” seem derivative, but “Let The Critics Wonder” and “Good Long Time” show off a unique voice. “Let The Last Night Be The Longest (Lonesome Memory)”, “The Liquor Store Came First”, “Misery Tavern”, and “Six Pack On The Dashboard” manage to take the drinkin’ song to new levels, while “Behind Bars” and “(I’m Not In) Prison” work on another trope and “People In This Place On Every Side” and “King Of Kings” play on the gospel elements of classic country. Again, these may seem like they’re poking fun at the more hokum elements of the genre, but time would prove their reverence.

The Jayhawks The Jayhawks (1986)—3

Friday, September 10, 2021

Beach Boys 5: Party!

Just as the Beatles were beginning to take more time with their albums, so was Brian Wilson. In need of a stopgap while he labored over the band’s next real album, Beach Boys’ Party! was hurriedly recorded and released in time for Christmas. (It also extended the trend of the exclamation point to three consecutive albums.)
The concept was simple: the Beach Boys hanging out with their friends and girlfriends slash wives, drinking pop and eating potato chips, strumming their guitars for a low-key singalong. Percussion comes from a set of bongos, a tambourine, and whoever wants to clap along (plus, according to the liner notes, Al Jardine on ashtray). A few years earlier, this would be called a hootenanny; a generation later, MTV would make a mint on the idea, save the pop and chips.
Save two tracks, the songs on Party! aren’t busked renditions of their greatest hits, but lean toward songs that they loved as teenagers—or would love if they still were teenagers. That’s how “Hully Gully” is followed by joyfully reverent takes of labelmates the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” and “Tell Me Why”. “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” is the first nod to their own catalog, having already been on the previous year’s live album, while “Mountain Of Love” was obviously a favorite, as Brian Wilson would lift the bridge for his own “Little Children” two decades later. Dennis does his best on another Beatles song, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, while the rest of the party giggles. Some of the chatter between songs is a little cringey in retrospect, with Brian and Mike Love taking different tacks on crowd control, but they come together nicely on “Devoted To You”.
“Alley Oop” picks up the pace, and while it’s slower, the gang harmonies on the Crystals’ “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” keep it going. That’s the cue for Mike to goof on “I Get Around” and “Little Deuce Coupe”, which is a dangerous setup for Al’s appropriately nasal “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, which prompts all kinds of jeering from the gang. The best is truly saved for last, as “Barbara Ann”, led by (Jan &) Dean Torrence, would become one of their biggest hits. (In fact, it was rushed out as a single in the wake of the failure of “The Little Girl I Once Knew”.) The album version goes on another minute, with false endings and further wackiness.
Beach Boys’ Party! does perpetuate the myth of sun and fun that was present from their first singles and albums, complete with lots of photos of the boys and their girls. Surely more than one record-buyer wished he or she was invited to the party itself, rather than looking in from the outside.
Nothing is what it seems, of course, and history has shown that despite the final presentation, each of the Party tracks was recorded and mixed first, with the chatter and whatnot added in during final mastering. For the album’s fiftieth anniversary, after the band’s curators had begun various archeological restorations of the band’s oeuvre, Beach Boys’ Party!: Uncovered And Unplugged presented the songs on the album without the extra party effects, alongside excerpts of other songs and chatter attempted at the album’s sessions, filling up two CDs. Despite coming from four of five different recording dates, the “uncovered” mix of the album still sounds as fun as the final product, like they actually were enjoying themselves, with minimal ribbing but still lots of goofing around. The sessions give a glimpse of the other dozen songs attempted in the process, including two further Bob Dylan songs, the Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride”, the Stones’ “Satisfaction”, Sonny Bono’s “Laugh At Me” (with parodic lyrics by Mike), several Lieber-Stoller tunes (including several attempts at “Ruby Baby”), “Twist And Shout”, “Long Tall Sally”, and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”. “Riot In Cell Block #9” predicts a song on a future album, and it’s somewhat fitting to see that the project did indeed conclude with “Barbara Ann”.
Footnote: The album was not ignored in the 1990 two-fer rollout of the Beach Boys catalog. Since it was such an anomaly to begin with, the caretakers chose to pair it with 1969’s oddball Stack-O-Tracks, which presented 15 Beach Boys classics in classic duophonic sound (upgraded to true stereo for the CD) but no vocals, giving the budding Beach Boy or Girl the chance to sing along thanks to the included lyrics and chords booklet (which was not included with the CD).

The Beach Boys Beach Boys’ Party! (1965)—3
1990 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus Stack-O-Tracks album and 3 extra tracks
2015 Uncovered And Unplugged: “same” as 1965, plus 69 extra tracks

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Jeff Beck 15: You Had It Coming

The good news is Jeff Beck fans only had to wait two years for another album. The bad news is the album was You Had It Coming.
The electronic experiments of the last album have taken over, and these ten tracks do their best to replicate the sounds from an automotive garage. For the first time in a while, he takes writing credit for most of the songs, so maybe it was his idea. His distinct tone pokes through the barrage of sound, but such an onslaught can be tiring. The cover of Nitin Sawhney’s “Nadia” starts out very lovely, until the drum ‘n bass accompaniment takes over; the same thing happens to the cool riff on “Rosebud”. Even the perennial “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” is re-interpreted by vocalist Imogen Heap, while drums beat a martial pattern into the mix. Things finally calm down at the end, for “Blackbird”—not a Beatles cover, but Jeff imitating bird calls with programmed responses—which leads into the mysterious and moody “Suspension”.
You Had It Coming had to have been somebody’s cup of tea, because it did win Grammys. What it says about the future of guitar is beyond our scope.

Jeff Beck You Had It Coming (2001)—2

Friday, September 3, 2021

Nilsson 2: Pandemonium Shadow Show

This is where the legend of Harry Nilsson really begins, and mostly by a fluke. Beatles insider Derek Taylor heard one of its songs on the radio while doing publicity in California, told his old bosses about it, and soon they were trumpeting “Nilsson” as their favorite band. Coming so soon after their previous endorsement of the Monkees, who’d already recorded some of his songs, it kinda makes sense.
Still, that kind of advance hype doesn’t make Pandemonium Shadow Show the type of album everyone has to own. While gifted with a versatile voice, and a grasp of olde American musical styles, one gets a distinct “inside joke” vibe from it. Most of his originals are delivered in a cross between “vo-de-oh-doe” vaudeville—right down to the constant scat vocal breaks—and the circus element that ties in with the title. Even “She Sang Hymns Out Of Tune”, which he didn’t write, sounds like it should be accompanying someone on flying trapeze, while “Freckles” dates back to 1919.
The songs are catchy, yet hardly cliché. “Ten Little Indians” recasts the nursery rhyme with Ten Commandments connotations in a brass-heavy track, and “1941” is a bold, unforgiving autobiography. “Cuddly Toy” would get exposure on TV in the Monkees’ rendition, just as “Without Her” would be covered by everyone from Glen Campbell to Blood, Sweat & Tears. “Sleep Late, My Lady Friend” is a nice diversion, with its Bacharach-style bridges. “There Will Never Be” is near-Latin pop in a maddening 5/4 time signature, while “It’s Been So Long” evokes Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys as well as the Fab Four—who figure prominently in the grooves, too. “You Can’t Do That” is indeed a cover of their tune, delivered straight except for the backing vocals, which sing over a dozen Beatle song titles into the mix. If that wasn’t enough, his version of “She’s Leaving Home” was recorded just days after the original record came out. The grand finale is “River Deep—Mountain High”, the previous year’s flop by Ike & Tina Turner, and Harry’s version is very close to (former mentor) Phil Spector’s original production, but with more bongos.
Lots of people love Pandemonium Shadow Show. Again, that doesn’t guarantee everyone will. We’re not even sure if we like it—we never liked Davy Jones’ soft-shoe routines on The Monkees either. There’s a lot of sameness, and many of the songs blend together, and not conceptually either. Proceed with caution.

Nilsson Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967)—

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Gene Clark 5: Roadmaster

Even though his next album contained contributions from all five original Byrds, current Byrd Clarence White, several Flying Burrito Brothers, and even Spooner Oldham, Gene Clark had to wait over a decade for it to be released in America or even the U.K. Roadmaster was compiled from sessions going back a couple of years, effectively closing out his stillborn A&M deal.
The reunited Byrds open the album with two songs, but only the 12-string gives any hint who’s playing. Though “She’s The Kind Of Girl” is sunk by the prominent flute, “One In A Hundred” has more of the vibe, if not the substance. The Burritos are on “Here Tonight”, Chris Hillman’s harmony and Sneeky Pete’s pedal steel prominent for a sublime mix. “Full Circle Song” is another jangly gem, and would get another shot later in the year.
The title track is a sardonic workin’ musician’s lament from Spooner Oldham, but most of the album continues in the sad country-folk vein he’d been mining all along, culminating in a half-speed remake of “She Don’t Care About Time”. Even Flatt & Scruggs’ “Rough And Rocky” and the country standard “I Really Don’t Want To Know”, are slowed down to mournful paces. Of his other originals, “In A Misty Morning” is desolate but determined and “Shooting Star” deserves wider notice, though “I Remember The Railroad” is filler.
Despite all its potential, Roadmaster isn’t one of those hidden masterpieces rock snobs like to tout. Its general wimpiness makes it clear why the label didn’t want to promote it, but as a part of the larger Byrds story, it has its place, which is why we’re talking about it here. Quite simply, it sets the stage for the band’s full-fledged reunion.
Footnote: both the British release on the Edsel label, and even the eventual American release on Sundazed, which usually goes above and beyond to seem authentic, ignored artwork from the album’s original Dutch release in favor of anachronistic photos of Gene at his most Byrdsy. Like it or not, we assume the auteur picked it in the first place for a reason.

Gene Clark Roadmaster (1973)—3

Friday, August 27, 2021

Eric Clapton 1: Eric Clapton

Despite having been a big shot on the scene for several years, it wasn’t until he took a job touring with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends that Eric Clapton considered doing an album under his own name. Most of the aforementioned Friends played on the sessions, including two guys who would soon run off with Joe Cocker for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour before regrouping with Eric later that year. Another key contributor was Leon Russell on piano, who would weave his way throughout various projects of the time.
From the blistering one-chord “Slunky” jam, most of the songs were co-written with Delaney Bramlett, along the American boogie lines of the blues than the psychedelia of his prior releases. Neither the lyrics nor his voice bring the proper gravitas to “Poor Boy” or “Lonesome And A Long Way From Home”, but the galloping “After Midnight”—the first of several J.J. Cale songs Clapton would cover over the years—is more like it. Built on acoustic guitars and harmonies, “Easy Now” is a welcome change of pace, but the chorus lyrics are a little embarrassing. Despite the somber fake intro, “Blues Power” brings back the boogie to please the crowd.
Side two doesn’t have as much variety; “Bottle Of Red Wine” is mostly shouted with Delaney, and a decent riff falls under the weight of “Lovin’ You Lovin’ Me”. “I Told You For The Last Time” is fairly ordinary, with the writing credited to Delaney and Steve Cropper, and “I Don’t Know Why” doesn’t live up to the potential of its horn chart either. He does save the best for last however, with the sublime “Let It Rain”. (The bass runs, by the way, are not by Carl Radle but Stephen Stills.)
While it has its charms, Eric Clapton shows the auteur still finding his way, not sure if he wants to play the blues or be a crooner. The combo occasionally overpowers him, particularly thanks to the blaring horns of Jim Price and Bobby Keys, and he’d remember the value of the economy in a smaller outfit soon enough. Still, it’s a template for a solo career that is as spotty as it is enduring.
Being who he is, of course, the album gained “classic” status as years went by. The eventual Deluxe Edition expansion included Delaney’s inferior mixes of ten of the album’s songs, along with single cuts by King Curtis and Delaney & Bonnie, as well as session outtakes, including an early version of “Let It Rain” with different lyrics. All of these were included on the further-expanded 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, which put each mix by Tom Dowd, Delaney, and an even worse one by Eric himself on its own disc, with the outtakes on its own and bolstered by an additional alternate take. Those who love the album can now hear it three different ways.

Eric Clapton Eric Clapton (1970)—3
2006 Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 17 extra tracks
50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 2006, plus 12 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

They Might Be Giants 9: Severe Tire Damage

For years, They Might Be Giants worked just as hard at presenting a unique live show as they did crafting their songs in the first place. Now between labels, they took the opportunity to compile their first full-length album from various concerts and field recordings of a sort.
On Severe Tire Damage, familiar songs are largely revamped with the horn and rhythm sections they incorporated throughout the ‘90s. The most radical change is with their punk re-arrangement of “Why Does The Sun Shine?”, but “Meet James Ensor” is delivered by just voices and accordion. “They Got Lost” and “First Kiss” are early versions of songs to be rerecorded, and three new studio tracks bookend the main program—the horn-driven “Doctor Worm”, the even goofier “Severe Tire Damage Theme”, and the shockingly brief “About Me”. Being the wacky guys they were, the program ends with a series of hidden tracks, all supposedly improvised with nonsensical lyrics spoofing the various titles in the Planet Of The Apes film franchise.
There’s always something of an inside-joke cachet to TMBG, and perhaps Severe Tire Damage is a case of “you had to be there.” But it’s still fun, and that’s where the boys excel.

They Might Be Giants Severe Tire Damage (1998)—3

Friday, August 20, 2021

Roxy Music 8: Flesh + Blood

While Roxy Music was back making albums, with the same core lineup, and including attractive women on their album covers, the band seemed to have given up trying to be any more unique than their combined styles. Sporting three credited drummers and three credited bass players, Flesh + Blood presented a band in danger of becoming the British Steely Dan.
Although Bryan Ferry seemed to have gotten the solo album bug out of his system, now he was foisting his nutty interpretations of songs that didn’t need to be covered onto Roxy albums. An incredibly tepid remake of “In The Midnight Hour” opens side one, but any listener not compelled to dismiss the rest of the program of that basis is rewarded by the much improved “Oh Yeah”, a sweet ditty about the power of music when one hears a certain song on the radio. And not just any song, mind you—this song he’s talking about is actually called “Oh Yeah”! Despite the “Heart Of Glass” percussion at the top, “Same Old Scene” is a terrific track, upping the drama considerably. “Flesh And Blood” has a wonderfully trashy guitar part, melding the old sound with the new very well. “My Only Love” follows in the same key, more of a mood than anything else.
“Over You” is one of the best songs the Cars never recorded, from the simple riff that drives the three chords to the instrumental break around the guitar solo; when the same break repeats it morphs back to Roxy again. Unfortunately, it fades right into another misguided cover, this time of “Eight Miles High”, which only fueled the “disco sucks” mentality of the time. (We’ve yet to discover any opinions on it from McGuinn, Clark, or Crosby.) The Joy Division-inspired intro to “Rain, Rain, Rain” bodes promise, but it soon turns to a cluttered reggae track; it would have been better served if combined with the similarly paced “No Strange Delight”, which comes immediately afterwards. “Running Wild” is possibly the slickest song here, to the point that without Bryan singing, it could be almost any band. Maybe that’s due to Paul Carrack on the keyboards.
Flesh + Blood wasn’t appreciated upon release; most reviewers lamented what they saw as a betrayal to their original ethos. But the guys wanted to sell records as well as express their creativity, and the covers are merely aberrations on an otherwise intriguing collection.

Roxy Music Flesh + Blood (1980)—3

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Rickie Lee Jones 2: Pirates

In the wake of such one-hit wonders as A Taste Of Honey, Debby Boone, and the Starland Vocal Band, and a year before Christopher Cross, Rickie Lee Jones won the Grammy award for Best New Artist. But as anyone will tell you, an artist puts a lifetime into a first album, and suddenly has to start from scratch for the second. Luckily for her, Warner Bros. was the kind of label that was focused on building catalogs, and was happy to wait until she was ready for her follow-up.
The standard line is that Pirates details the fallout and aftermath of her relationship with Tom Waits, but that insults her as well as the material. Nonetheless, the longing expressed in “We Belong Together” is very real, from the first majestic chords through the cyclic pattern that seems to transcend tempos and time signatures. Steve Gadd is the drummer, and his performance is absolutely stellar. (We still get chills when she harmonizes so closely with herself on “climb upon the rooftop docks” and every other occasion thereafter.) “Living It Up” sports a positively infectious piano melody as it follows Eddie, Louie, and Zero, whom some have suggested are Waits, Chuck E. and Rickie again, but they could be any lost “wild and only ones” looking for something. The middle section switches gears magnificently, culminating in an almost defiant chant of the title, before returning us to the opening piano motif again. For sheer heartbreak, little beats “Skeletons”, wherein a hopeful young couple are on their way to the hospital to have their first child, only for a case of mistaken identity to shatter their dreams. That makes the transition to the finger-snapping hip jazz of “Woody And Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking” so jarring. While it revives the sound people liked so much on the first album, the character isn’t as convincing.
The slick Boz Scaggs-meets-Steely Dan vibe continues on “Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)”, but not for long, as the radio-friendly verse turns to the dreamier, aching transition that belongs to the subtitle. There’s a reference to “rainbow sleeves”, which will become more significant in time. A return to the jaunty theme is temporary, and we fade with the slower theme. The ache continues in the lyrics of the otherwise loping “Lucky Guy”, the melody barely hiding the bold admission of her heartbreak after telling the fellow she loves him “when I knew he didn’t care,” and you hope she really will feel better tomorrow. Following another atmospheric intro, “Traces Of The Western Slopes” opens with a verse sung by cohort Sal Bernardi, who sounds enough like Rickie Lee to confuse. (He’s the one harmonizing on the bridge in “Living It Up”, but back to our story, see.) It’s an incredibly ambitious, often impenetrable piece, with peaks and valleys that rival Joni Mitchell’s late-70s work. “The Returns” wafts in like a ballad from a Broadway musical, her voice impossibly high and fragile over the piano, not exactly a lullaby, but a peaceful closer nonetheless.
Having the lyrics printed once again on the back cover helps, not only to discern what she’s singing but to ponder the poetry. For example, is the Bird mentioned in “We Belong Together” the same as the one in “Skeletons”? Is Zero a willing companion or a hoodwinked victim of Eddie and Louie? What the hell is going on on those western slopes? Pirates is certainly more challenging than the debut, but in many ways it’s more rewarding. One can hear her voice and style developing from track to track, and while it doesn’t quite return to the heights of the first three songs, it’s one of those albums that pulls you in. Once again, the Warner Bros. instincts were correct.

Rickie Lee Jones Pirates (1981)—

Friday, August 13, 2021

Mark Knopfler 1: Notting Hillbillies and Chet Atkins

While the world, or at least part of it, wondered what was up with Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler emerged as part of an outfit dubbed the Notting Hillbillies, with a very Dire Straits-like single in “Your Own Sweet Way”. Unfortunately for listeners, that was Knopfler’s only lead vocal on an album mostly made up of traditional songs and country covers. Missing… Presumed Having A Good Time was presented as a collaboration with British pickers Steve Phillips and Brendan Croker, with Dire Straits keyboardist Guy Fletcher, future Dire Straits member Paul Franklin on pedal steel, and the band’s manager Ed Bicknell credited on drums.
The album does provide a breadth of material made for coffee bars and bookstores of the next decade. With its insistent anvil effect, “Railroad Worksong” is better known as “Take This Hammer”, while “Bewildered” is much toned down from James Brown’s version. “Run Me Down” follows the pattern of “Setting Me Up” and “Sound Bound Again” until the vocals start, though “One Way Gal” has a distinct Caribbean feel, or even reminiscent of a luau. You can almost hear Mark harmonizing on “Blues Stay Away From Me” and “Please Baby”, but only barely. “Will You Miss Me?” and “That’s Where I Belong” bring songwriting royalties to Phillips and Croker respectively, and we presume they’re duetting on the Louvin Brothers’ “Weapon Of Prayer”. Outside of the single, the album’s highlight is Charlie Rich’s immortal “Feel Like Going Home”.

The soft, smooth tone of the album was mirrored a few months later on an album billed as a Knopfler collaboration with the legendary Chet Atkins. Neck And Neck offered more adult contemporary country music played by twenty agile fingers supported by such Nashville legends as Steve Warinier, Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, and Vince Gill. Roughly half the album is vocal; the modern updates of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” and “Yakety Axe” are cute, if a little cringey today. The balance is made up of more cinematic vocal-less pieces, such as “So Soft, Your Goodbye” and “Tears” by Grappelli and Reinhardt. “Tahitian Skies” is something of a cross between “Why Worry” and “Waterloo Sunset”, while “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is taken at a jaunty pace. Don Gibson is covered twice, in an instrumental of “Sweet Dreams”, and a Knopfler vocal on “Just One Time”. “Poor Boy Blues” and “The Next Time I’m In Town” are templates for the solo career he’d start in earnest one day. (Another Knopfler original, “I Think I Love You Too Much”, was premiered at that summer’s Knebworth Festival with Eric Clapton, but would end up being recorded by blind blues phenom Jeff Healey.)

While not exactly what fans wanted, these two albums fit well together, both conceptually as well as time-wise on a Maxell 90-minute tape. They kept Mark Knopfler’s name in the trades while the rest of Dire Straits waited for the phone to ring, and were more commercial than his occasional soundtracks. While the Notting Hillbillies didn’t line the pockets of its “other” members with gold, Neck And Neck brought Chet Atkins back into favor in the ‘90s.

The Notting Hillbillies Missing… Presumed Having A Good Time (1990)—3
Chet Atkins/Mark Knopfler
Neck And Neck (1990)—3

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Roger Daltrey 4: McVicar

By the end of the ‘70s, the Who expanded further into the film industry to shore up any finances lost via touring or lack thereof. Having already enjoyed a piece of The Kids Are Alright and getting kudos for the adaptation of Quadrophenia, another pet project served to provide Roger Daltrey with both a dramatic lead role and a new haircut. McVicar was based on the memoirs of a British career criminal who managed to overcome incarceration, recapture, and parole to rejoin society as a journalist. (Considering Roger’s hardscrabble upbringing, he must have felt born for the role.)
Naturally, despite the non-musical content of the film, a soundtrack album would be mutually beneficial. As ever, Roger relied on songwriters both established, like Russ Ballard, and new, like Steve Swindells. And while the liner notes are vague, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Kenney Jones and Rabbit Bundrick are among the all-star musicians, so listeners can imagine it’s a Who album.
The opening “Bitter And Twisted” is a tough rocker with some smart couplets (“a psychopath never takes a bath,” indeed) balanced immediately by the lonesome sentiments of “Just A Dream Away”. There’s some odd but purely coincidental foreshadowing in “White City Lights”, which is merely another ballad. Despite the disco thump, “Free Me” has all the power chords and horn blasts of a solid Who song, and enough to make it to radio.
“My Time Is Gonna Come” is fairly boneheaded, with a four-note range, and more than a little robotic, wearing out its welcome in no time. “Waiting For A Friend” has an easy, country-influenced swagger to it for a nice change of pace. Sweet without being saccharine, “Without Your Love” would be familiar to diehards as a Meher Baba hymn penned by Pete’s buddy Billy Nicholls, as originally included on the obscure With Love tribute LP, mandolins and all. To Roger’s credit, he does a fine job with it. The title track is the most overt reference to the film’s plot, but it’s strong enough to stand alone without it.
As a rockin’ Daltrey album it works, but because McVicar is a soundtrack, each side is interrupted by instrumentals credited to Jeff Wayne, of the musical War Of The Worlds fame. Both “Escape Part One” and “Escape Part Two” sound like any number of ‘80s crime thriller soundtracks, with a flute that owes more than a debt to Ian Anderson. Beyond that, the half-hour of Roger music is surprisingly fresh.

Roger Daltrey McVicar—Original Soundtrack Recording (1980)—3

Friday, August 6, 2021

Kiss 7: Love Gun

The boys couldn’t be stopped, and just in time for a summer tour came yet another Kiss album. While it seems impossible that they could keep up any measure of quality, much less a pace, Love Gun was the band’s third solid album in a row. They even included a cardboard cut-out gun as a bonus insert, along with the usual shill for the Kiss Army and an order form for the first official Kiss comic book, which incorporated the band members’ actual blood in the ink.
Keeping with the assaultive nature of the album title, there’s nary a ballad here, with even the “romantic” songs delivered with beats and speed. “I Stole Your Love” barely lets up its hook in the verses, and doesn’t bother to expand on the title in the chorus. “Christine Sixteen” begins with a wonderfully off-tempo riff with producer Eddie Kramer bashing the same two chords on the piano, and that turnaround given a different life 12 years later via “Funky Cold Medina”. As for the lyrics, the danger of felony is compounded by Gene’s lecherous monologue after the first verse. Clearly, he’s got to have her and can’t even wait until after the bridge or even the solo. She must not have been convinced, because in the next trick he’s insisting he’s “Got Love For Sale”, presumably to recoup any losses spent hanging around high school parking lots. Ace Frehley makes his lead vocal debut on “Shock Me”, which was supposedly inspired by an actual onstage electrocution, but apparently it only zapped his sense of pitch. Nice cymbal work by Peter Criss, by the way. “Tomorrow And Tonight” is another arena anthem, wherein the title is masterfully rhymed with “oh yeah, uh huh, all right.”
The title track rat-a-tats out of the speakers with little subtlety, but one would think that such a powerful weapon would be designed to make its object feel more than “okay”. Speaking of rhymes, Peter rocks rather than wimps out on “Hooligan” (who “won’t go to school again”) while Gene sticks to type for “Almost Human”, except now the demon is a werewolf. That sentiment has nothing on “Plaster Caster”, a blatant ode to one of the more notorious groupies in rock history, and certainly one reason why Gene wanted to become a rock star in the first place. With all the apparent decadence, maybe that’s why they decided to close the album with a gender-modified cover of the Ronettes’ “Then She Kissed Me”, complete with castanets and booming snare. In hindsight, Paul Stanley says it was a dumb idea, but then they couldn’t risk an album running under 30 minutes.
One of the better sounding Kiss albums yet, Love Gun not only shipped platinum, but it would be the first of the band’s catalogue to get the expanded Deluxe Edition treatment. This entailed an appreciation by Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, quotes from the band, and a bonus disc of extra tracks, which still could have fit on the main disc. These include four demos from Gene, including the rather sophisticated yet unreleased “Much Too Soon”, two eternal minutes of Paul demonstrating how to play “Love Gun”, a seven-minute radio interview with Gene, and three songs recorded live on the tour supporting their next album.

Kiss Love Gun (1977)—
2014 Deluxe Edition: same as 1977, plus 11 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Talking Heads 11: Sand In The Vaseline

With the band all but done, the time was right for a Talking Heads compilation. Sand In The Vaseline, helpfully subtitled Popular Favorites 1976-1992, presented a comprehensive overview over two CDs. Commentary from all four band members—yes, even David Byrne—adds occasional insight, while detailed musician credits for each track show how much help they had over the years.
It’s a nicely paced set, showing the band’s steady development from quirky punks to experimental groove masters. After two early demos, the “Love -> Buildings On Fire” single and the B-side to “Psycho Killer”, the program democratically samples from each of the band’s albums, along with two live versions from Stop Making Sense that, frankly, make sense. The set ends with four “new” songs, all very modern and danceable: “Sax And Violins”, which had snuck out on a movie soundtrack the year before; “Gangster Of Love”, which combines a drum track from 1980 with music from 1987, newly finished for this set; “Lifetime Piling Up”, another leftover from Naked; and “Popsicle”, from 1982.
That was fine for most people, but the record industry has often been about repackaging. A decade later, just after the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Once In A Lifetime box set expanded the catalog overview to three discs, with the extra draw in the inclusion of a DVD that expanded their Storytelling Giant VHS compilation of music videos. With the added space they went a little deeper into each album, going so far as to included eight tracks from the first two albums. As for rare material, three of the four early tracks and two of the later tracks from Sand In The Vaseline were repeated, while some alternate mixes were scattered throughout. Along with “A Clean Break” from the then-out-of-print The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, the Naked leftover “In Asking Land”, which would evolve into “Carnival Eyes” on Rei Momo, makes it necessary for collectors. (A year after that, The Best Of Talking Heads attempted to distill the legacy down to a single disc, opening with “Love -> Buildings On Fire”, making a few substitutions that weren’t on Sand In The Vaseline, and eschewing live versions.)

Talking Heads Sand In The Vaseline: Popular Favorites 1976-1992 (1992)—4
Talking Heads
Once In A Lifetime (2003)—
Talking Heads
The Best Of Talking Heads (2004)—4

Friday, July 30, 2021

King Crimson 13: Frame By Frame

The years following the end of the ‘80s incarnation of King Crimson found Robert Fripp immersed in a music instruction-cum-philosophy retreat called Guitar Craft, the most notable result of which being the implementation of an alternate tuning he’d devised. (He would record and tour with some of the more proficient practitioners as The League of Crafty Guitarists.) But his old band would not be forgotten, and when the EG label began the process of reissuing the albums on compact disc, he was determined to be involved; hence, the ten studio albums were emblazoned with copy proclaiming each “THE DEFINITIVE EDITION”.
This is not the place to detail EG’s business difficulties, but before long the catalog had shifted to the Virgin label, and apparently the folks writing the checks felt the band deserved a box set. Using a programming method that would recur through the years and with advances in technology, Frame By Frame presented what Fripp and a subtitle deemed The Essential King Crimson, covering the three main periods of the band. The set is a good introduction for new comers, with packaging that garnered design awards and an exhaustively detailed booklet that updated the insert in A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson, presenting a chronology of the band in all incarnations, including excerpts from reviews good and bad, plus the occasional rebuttal from Fripp.
The first disc covers the first four albums and three years, beginning with the entirety of In The Court Of The Crimson King, leaving out only the meandering portion of “Moonchild”, just as on Young Person’s Guide. As there, the single version of “Cat Food” is followed by the “Groon” B-side, while “Cadence And Cascade” now sports a lead vocal freshly recorded by Adrian Belew. Similarly, “Bolero” (the only track representing Lizard) has its bass part newly replaced by Tony Levin. Two tracks from Islands are supported by the coda from that album’s title track, as it had fallen off the previous year’s CD.
The second disc attempts to digest the three albums from the John Wetton/Bill Bruford era. Unfortunately, to accomplish this a few minutes were shaved from “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part I)” and “Fracture”, while an abridgement of “Starless” fades the song just before the middle section in 13/4 and 13/8, and parks it before “Red”—a very jarring experience for those familiar with the album. The third disc samples the three ‘80s albums, mostly straight, but leaning heaviest on Discipline, its selections bookending the others. For an extra bonus, “The King Crimson Barber Shop”, created and performed a cappella by Tony Levin, closes the disc.
Boldly, the fourth disc is solely dedicated to live recordings through the years, split between the more popular lineups. Many of these recordings would be expanded upon and reissued via the King Crimson Collectors’ Club, which would begin towards the end of the century, but for now rarities like “Get Thy Bearings” and “Travel Weary Capricorn” showed off the power of the 1969 band. “The Talking Drum” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” were further samples from the show that begat part of Starless And Bible Black, while “Asbury Park” was the first time anything from USA appeared on CD. The ‘80s lineup gets the shortest shrift, and shortest tracks, and ends the set with something of a thud.
At the time, the set was extremely well received, given that it presented a smart mix of key tracks and rarities. As the catalog would continue to be tweaked as new technologies to improve sound appeared, and various anniversaries mined the evolution of each album, the set has since been surpassed by further excavations and presentations.

King Crimson Frame By Frame: The Essential King Crimson (1991)—

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Brian Eno 20: Drums Between The Bells

Suddenly busy, Brian Eno hooked up with another collaborator out of nowhere, this time English poet Rick Holland. Drums Between The Bells was billed to “Brian Eno and the words of Rick Holland”, and that’s exactly what it is—Eno music with abstract minimalist poetry recited over it, usually by a female, sometimes by himself.
Poetry readings aren’t for everyone, but then again, neither is Eno. Personally, we’d rather do without the voices, since some of the music is so nice, and some of it very familiar. “Dreambirds” and “Pour It Out” are particularly lovely piano-based pieces, and “The Real” meshes Apollo with the backwards pianos of side two of Low. “Sounds Alien” features Eno harmonizing with what a woman is reciting, but then there’s a horn break right out of an ‘80s TV cop drama. “Cloud 4” and the spooky “Breath Of Crows” involve more musical vocals as well. Leo Abrahams adds a distorted guitar to the opening “Bless This Place”, and Eno stalwart Nell Catchpole does her violin thing here and there.
The initial pressing was made available in book-like packaging that included a bonus disc of the music in a different sequence and without voices, but it cost more, naturally. A few months later, the Panic Of Looking EP presented another six tracks from the same sessions. One track, “Watch A Single Swallow In A Thermal Sky, And Try To Fit Its Motion, Or Figure Why It Flies”, is purely instrumental with treated piano. Outside of that, one cameo from his daughter and another from Bronagh Gallagher (best known from The Commitments and Pulp Fiction) it’s only for completists.

Brian Eno and Rick Holland Drums Between The Bells (2011)—3
Brian Eno and Rick Holland
Panic Of Looking (2011)—3