Friday, December 31, 2021

Joni Mitchell 26: The Reprise Years

The Joni Mitchell Archives series took off to a fairly productive start. Following a set that boxed up her first four albums—including the debut remixed to remove the murk—the second real volume presented an alternate view of the era that resulted in the release of that fabulous quartet. Across five discs, The Reprise Years presents a sidecar to that unique period.

Right off we hear rare songs, including the first of two demos of “Midnight Cowboy” written for the film of the same name; frankly it’s not one of her better compositions, nor would it have fit very well on a soundtrack. Many of these demos sound very close to the released versions, proving just how well she had mastered playing the songs. Some of the home recordings are crude or incomplete, but then there are those where you can hear a clock ticking, such as on “The Fiddle And The Drum”, performed with piano. Halfway through the first disc are outtakes from the sessions for her Reprise debut, including inferior versions of “Both Sides Now” and “Conversation”, but such forgotten songs as “Jeremy” and another stab at “The Gift Of The Magi”. A few sketches of her picking (or playing piano) while humming melodies without words are fascinating.

The bulk of the second disc is a performance at an Ottawa “coffee house” captured by none other than Jimi Hendrix on his own reel-to-reel tape recorder, set up at her feet. The first album hadn’t come out yet, and songs from that album are interspersed with early versions of “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” and “Ladies Of The Canyon”, as well as the last version of “Dr. Junk” and “Come To The Sunshine”. (The latter is included in a studio take from May 1968, since abandoned.) One fascinating snapshot finds her discussing what songs could go onto her second album, which illustrates how some songs appear in earlier takes than the albums where they ended up. Clearly, she wasn’t just making it all up as she went along. Her first appearance on BBC’s Top Gear radio show is unique not only for John Peel’s trademark lugubrious delivery, but the accompaniment of players familiar from Donovan albums.

Her Carnegie Hall debut takes up all of the third disc, with the encore starting the next, although two songs have been substituted from another show, presumably to preserve continuity. She sounds confident and, most of all, happy throughout, ably retuning her guitar while expanding on the inspirations behind the songs. The appreciative if subdued audience is urged to sing along with Jesse Colin Young’s “Get Together” and “The Circle Game”, which is formed into a medley with “Little Green” for a truly poignant touch.

Three future Ladies Of The Canyon tracks are previewed from the Clouds sessions, as is the otherwise unpursued “Jesus”, right before the entirety of her appearance on The Dick Cavett Show (the one right after Woodstock, which was crashed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Jefferson Airplane). Speaking of which, “Woodstock” itself appears in a performance at the acoustic (not electric) piano, while two other Ladies tracks sport overdubs eventually discarded. Disc four ends with a harbinger in a medley of “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Bony Moronie” with James Taylor at a Greenpeace benefit. He turns up halfway through the BBC radio concert that dominates disc five, supporting her on guitar and occasional harmonies, both distinctive. She openly flirts with him before their rendition of his “You Can Close Your Eyes”, after several previews of songs that would be on Blue.

If these discs are any indication, that album was unique in that its songs (save “Little Green”) hadn’t been germinating for years, waiting for the right album sequence, as had been the case with the first three. We get an early, unfinished, and truly anxious “All I Want”, plus a few more early demos. “River” is included in an alternate mix with French horns playing carols over the coda, while the familiar B-side version of “Urge For Going” features chamber-style strings over the third verse on. As for the legendary outtake “Hunter”, the song’s similarity to “This Flight Tonight” makes its omission from Blue a wise move. (And it turns out she wrote it about a stray cat she’d adopted. This is a theme that will recur throughout her career, up to the latest pet who features in the Cameron Crowe interview that makes up the liner notes.)

There’s a lot of music here, and despite the repetition, it’s illuminating. This is an artist displaying her craft, at a time when it seemed she was infallible. She wasn’t, of course, but we can be thankful for how she reacted to the concept of fame. The proof lies herein.

Joni Mitchell Archives—Volume 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971) (2021)—

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Todd Rundgren 26: The Individualist

The second album credited to TR-i is still very much a Todd Rundgren solo project, in that he played and sang everything by himself, save the credited “choir”. The Individualist is more listenable in that it encompasses several genres; if you don’t like one song, move on to the next and see if that works.

Working once again completely by himself, editing wasn’t a priority, so most of the songs run well past five minutes. “Tables Will Turn” begins in solo sensitive mode, but once the drum machines kicks in you’re in for a long ride, not made any shorter when his Chuck D imitation re-surfaces for too many raps. “If Not Now, When” is an improvement, mostly because of all the guitars, both acoustic and distorted. But “Family Values” samples Vice President Dan Quayle, who’d been out of office for two years by that time, undermining his point. “The Ultimate Crime” is orchestrated (via computers, but still) for a nice counterpoint of style. It took several listens to “Espresso (All Jacked Up)” before we noticed it recycles melodies from “Breathless”. It’s the only song we know that combines a list of world cities with modes of coffee.

The title track offers something of a statement of positivity, but the faux Snoop Dogg delivery makes it seem like parody, and about as effective if, say, Paul Simon had tried the same approach. “Cast The First Stone” has a clever message built around a series of metaphors, bound to a suitably obnoxious goth-metal backing. You can feel “Beloved Infidel” coming in the air tonight, but its approach is a very welcome change of pace. “Temporary Sanity” bemoans the violent state of the world, buried under a highly catchy track—until the rap happens again. “Woman’s World” closes the album with straightforward guitar rock with synths, but the message is jumbled.

The Individualist is a tad more palatable than No World Order, so it’s preferred, but at this perspective, it hasn’t aged as well as some of his other one-man band efforts. Still, it was good to know he could still write a catchy tune, and not just for himself.

TR-i The Individualist (1995)—

Friday, December 24, 2021

Ben Keith: Seven Gates

Most people know him in the context of most of Neil Young’s albums without Crazy Horse, but Ben Keith was already an established Nashville studio musician before he worked on Harvest. The year before that he played on Ringo Starr’s Beaucoups Of Blues, and ten years before that he provided the pedal steel for Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces”.

About a year before he produced Jewel’s first album, Ben Keith completed a Christmas album. Partially recorded at Neil’s Broken Arrow Ranch studio, with some sessions in Nashville and elsewhere, Seven Gates has more of an authentic country feel than most showbiz holiday albums, which is probably why it was resoundingly ignored upon release. Music fans would have snapped it up, as it features Neil on several tracks either singing or playing his pump organ, while Mickey Raphael (best known for playing harmonica alongside Willie Nelson) is all over the place. Wanna hear Johnny Cash duet with Neil on “The Little Drummer Boy”? Here it is. Pat McLaughlin and Rusty Kershaw warble through “Christmas Time’s A Comin’”. But don’t be fooled by “We Will Rock You”—it’s actually “The Rocking Carol”, 50 years before Brian May used the words for something else. Here it’s sung by Nashville’s Pamela Brown and Neil’s wife Pegi.

The album is at its best when it’s simplest on the instrumentals, such as “Ave Maria”, “Silver Bells”, “Away In A Manger”, and “Blue Christmas”. It’s occasionally overproduced with dated synth strings, but all in all, it evokes snowy hills and pine trees for a serene listen. Thankfully, the children’s choir doesn’t show up until track 8, and we don’t know why so many people arrange “Greensleeves” aka “What Child Is This” to sound apocalyptic, though Neil appears at the end singing alongside his sister Astrid and Nicolette Larson.

Some 13 years later the album was reissued, again quietly, under the title Christmas At The Ranch with a different cover. But it also sports a modified version of “Les Trois Cloches”, now with vocals by Neil and Pegi.

Ben Keith & Friends Seven Gates (1994)—3

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Rickie Lee Jones 3: Girl At Her Volcano

The American record industry tried a few gimmicks in the early ‘80s to spur sales in the face of revenue lost to video games. One of these was the mini-album, which offered more music than a 45, but less than a full LP, and suitably priced. It didn’t exactly bring in buckets of cash, but in due time the compact disc would spur consumers to re-buy things they already had and all was well.

Rickie Lee Jones was able to use the mini-album as a stopgap while she readied her third album, plus reports suggest she was rehabbing from various addictions anyway. Girl At Her Volcano is a curious collection of covers, some live and some in the studio, and just one original. While under half an hour long, it’s still an artistic statement, and rather personal.

Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” comes from a theater performance in Pasadena the year before, showing her depth and range. Her version of the ‘60s pop classic “Walk Away Renee” is enhanced by an original musical inversion apparently titled “Letters From The 9th Ward”, and it’s possibly our favorite version of this particular tearjerker. The mood of regret continues with “Hey Bub”, said to be the first song written for Pirates, but not recorded until this project. Despite the off-mic flirting with the audience at L.A.’s Roxy, the classic “My Funny Valentine” is delivered slowly and carefully, considering every word, until the sobs take over the final verse while the piano matches her timing.

In her more joyful street-corner version of “Under The Boardwalk”, she’s one of several voices singing; it’s a break from the down tone of side one, but just a little too sterile for us. While the phrase was mentioned on the title track of the last album, “Rainbow Sleeves” is a Tom Waits original supposedly written expressly for her at the height of their romance, and recorded during the sessions from the debut. Bette Midler recorded it first, and performed it in the original cinema release of her film Divine Madness, so there is some conjecture she, and not Rickie, was the intended recipient. Whatever the truth, this performance is heartbreaking. The brief benediction “So Long”, written by session man Neil Larsen with Lani Hall (former Brasil ’66, current Mrs. Herb Albert) for one of her albums, would also appear to be left over from the first album. (The cassette got a bonus in a four-year-old live performance of “Something Cool”, with Lyle Mays on synthesizer, that goes from cute to soaring to, yes, cool.)

Girl At Her Volcano was hard to find for a while, having only been released on CD in Japan, where they release everything. Now that it’s available on streaming services, this key step in her history can be more widely enjoyed. For one, this was the last of the jazzy beatnik in the beret for some time.

Rickie Lee Jones Girl At Her Volcano (1983)—3

Friday, December 17, 2021

Suzanne Vega 11: New York Songs And Stories

New York City has been the focus of much of Suzanne Vega’s work, so the idea of a live album dedicated to songs related to the city might seem negligible. However, given how few live albums are in her catalog, much less active, it’s worth exploring, so we are.

An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories presents an intimate café-style performance of 16 songs, interspersed with brief explanations of some of the tunes. Impeccably recorded, with the support of a percussion-less combo, the appreciative audience enjoys some of her more familiar songs, though they likely knew them all. Despite occasional huskiness, she sounds exactly like she did when she first recorded most of these songs. As with the Close-Up Series, some of the “newer” songs benefit from a minimum of production trickery, and also help illuminate songs otherwise overlooked (case in point: “Pornographer’s Dream”). “Ludlow Street” and “Tombstone” are the most ornate, while “Thin Man” uses a prominent dated drum machine. “Tom’s Diner” is again in the style of the bootleg remix, and not a cappella. Covers are a rarity in her catalog, so her rendition of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” is surprising if not exactly unique. Altogether, it’s a nice diversion, and probably the closest we’ll get to spending an evening with Suzanne Vega.

Suzanne Vega An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories (2020)—3

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Neil Young 63: Barn

One of the things we really, really like about the Neil Young Archives website is how he details and logs everything he’s ever released down to the exact recording date and sequence. That’s how we know that Barn was recorded with the Colorado lineup of Crazy Horse exactly a year after the solo performances that spawned his The Times EP, which grew out of various “porch sessions” filmed for streaming during the Covid lockdown. Apparently his preference to record during the days approaching a full moon still holds. (The title is evocative, but unlike many Neil Young classics of yesteryear, with and without Crazy Horse, Barn was not recorded in the fabled barn on Neil’s Northern California ranch, but in one located somewhere in the mountains of, again, Colorado.)

In a clear signal that this will be another comparatively low-key Crazy Horse album, the extremely gentle “Song Of The Seasons” opens, all acoustic with bleats of harmonica and Nils Lofgren on accordion. The quiet mood is properly bludgeoned by “Heading West”, a recollection of the navigational direction young Neil took with Mommy when their family split up, after which she bought him his first guitar. Things start to get sloppy with “Change Ain’t Never Gonna”, which revives Ranting Neil from the Promise Of The Real albums, only this time featuring a wheezing harmonica and Nils on saloon piano. Another stomp, “Canerican”, celebrates both his American citizenship and Trump’s defeat in 2020 without gloating, while “Shape Of You” is a boozy stumble of a love song that illuminates the fun he’s having. We can’t discern the meaning of the mysterious “They Might Be Lost”, and maybe Neil hasn’t either, but there’s something compelling about the uncertainty that permeates, and not just in what he alludes to smoking.

Grandstanding is certainly at a minimum on this album, but “Human Race” is a fresh draft of the thesis already presented in “Who’s Gonna Stand Up” and “Children Of Destiny”. (“It’s all one song,” after all.) Here he finally takes the opportunity to shred while Ralph Molina struggles with the tempo. The recipe is finally perfected on “Tumblin’ Thru The Years”, a nice piano stroll with Billy Talbot adding subtle R&B runs through the verses—something he’s almost never, ever done in his decades in the job—and a nice chord change to set up the title. “Welcome Back” is perversely both the longest track on the album and the softest; barely fretted electric guitars answer each other over the mildest ticking of the rhythm, and we’d love to know who sat on the piano just after the two-minute mark. (This, by the way, is precisely the vocal range he should stick to from here on. Throughout the rest of the album, he insists on straining for notes he hasn’t been able to hit in years.) And while it’s a wonderful sentiment, we might enjoy “Don’t Forget Love”—which he says took him three months to write—all the more if it didn’t recycle melodic sections of “Living With War” and “Horseshoe Man”.

Starting with Peace Trail, Neil seems to be recording his new songs before he’s finished writing them. Perhaps this is because he knows his time is limited; the cumulative effect is that the songs sound tossed off. As press time he said he was already thinking about his next album; while we would prefer one solid album to two okay ones, we’d still want to hear everything anyway. Nonetheless, like Colorado, Barn works well as a whole, particularly if you just let the music wash over. Much as we miss Poncho, Nils is once again a good ingredient in the band, adding color where previously Neil might have meandered into jamming.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse Barn (2021)—3

Friday, December 10, 2021

Rush 22: Vapor Trails

After telling the other members of Rush he was retired, Neil Peart set off on a solo motorcycle trip throughout North and South America. The trip did him good, as he got a book out of the experience, fell in love and remarried, and basically felt refreshed enough to get back behind the kit and try to make music with Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee again. They took their sweet time, more concerned with impressing each other than any other agenda, though Alex did insist on zero keyboards, to which the others acquiesced. Eventually, Vapor Trails emerged.

Appropriately, “One Little Victory” begins with a furious tattoo of drums, before a metallic Lifeson riff and only the slightest pauses in the manifesto. “Ceiling Unlimited” offers another top-speed riff with deep-thought lyrics; clearly these guys are glad to be back. The title “Ghost Rider” will be familiar to fans from Neil’s book about his bike trip; even without that background, the song urges positivity and perseverance. “Peaceable Kingdom” is another relentless riff, and one that reminds us of Pearl Jam a decade earlier. After all that pounding, “The Stars Look Down” is a bit much, except when the band quiets down a bit and weaves some backwards guitar into the mix. “How It Is” begins with a deceptively delicate arpeggiated guitar but increases in volume on schedule, whereas “Vapor Trail” is a better version of the same recipe.

“Secret Touch” presents another subdued intro that will become something of a chorus, which sounds like we’ve heard it elsewhere on the album already. It took several listens to realize it’s Geddy’s bass driving that little riff. Continuing the meteorological theme, “Earthshine” starts with a riff right outta Kiss, but with more finesse amidst the power, and time changes that band would never attempt. While it’s too heavy to be considered, “Sweet Miracle” is almost sensitive in its sentiment, though we wouldn’t be surprised if a certain plot element from Young Frankenstein wasn’t involved. “Nocturne” is something of a grunge throwback, with the simplest bass part Geddy’s ever written, the basic rhythm, and lyrics about dreams. “Freeze” (listed as Part IV of the “Fear” trilogy!) is one of the more developed songs, working through several sections that provide variety. Finally, “Out Of The Cradle” completes the band’s determination to endure, taking Walt Whitman’s idea of “endlessly rocking” at a literal sense he couldn’t imagine.

As is a common gripe around these parts, Vapor Trails is too long and could have been stronger had they concentrated on fewer songs, but most fans were happy with the general aggressiveness, and that the band was back (and touring). Still, much commentary was dedicated to the overall sound of the album, which was loud, certainly, but also harsh to the point of discomfort—in other words, not the band’s usual quality control, to which they fully copped. Some time later, two of the songs were remixed for inclusion on a compilation, and they went ahead to not only get veteran producer David Bottrill (familiar from Peter Gabriel credits) to remix the entire album, but re-release it in 2013, when it was also included in the box set The Studio Albums 1989-2007 at the expense of the original. (They also brightened the cover, and softened the font inside, too.) In the process, certain mix differences emerged, including a guitar part on “Ceiling Unlimited” and other nuances elsewhere. It’s still too long.

Back then, of course, they promoted the album with the standard mega-tour. Rather than waiting for the usual four-album cycle—and possibly because they wouldn’t have wanted to chance waiting that long—Rush decided to release the audio of the Rio de Janiero stop on the tour supporting Vapor Trails, in front of 40,000 people, separately from the DVD. Rush In Rio presented the complete, nearly three-hour show in order on three CDs, with two extra tracks from elsewhere in the tour tacked on the end. There are a few fun moments—the Simpsons sample at the end of “The Big Money”, the animal sounds scattered throughout “The Trees”, an unplugged “Resist” without drums—but the enthusiasm of the crowd notwithstanding, it’s not as essential as their earlier live sets, which is why we restrict it to this mention. The DVD is preferred, if only because one can see the working washing machines set up on Geddy’s side of the stage. (He’d switched to in-ear monitors, and they needed something to visually balance the mountain of amps that still filled Alex’s side.)

Rush Vapor Trails (2002)—3
Rush In Rio (2003)—3
Vapor Trails Remixed (2013)—3

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Brian Wilson 3: At My Piano

Since breaking free of Eugene Landy’s clutches in the early ‘90s, Brian Wilson managed to create new music—as well as finish old music—and even embark on several tours, supported by several sympathetic musicians dedicated to letting him sing and play. In that time, nine separate solo albums were completed—five albums of new original material, plus tributes to George Gershwin and Disney movies, a Christmas album, and the 2004 incarnation of Smile. Outside of the latter, these adult-contemporary albums didn’t exactly approach genius or break any ground. But as long as he was happy and safe from his demons, that was fine with us.

Each of these projects were usually accompanied by PR activities, press blurbs, the occasional TV interview, and subsequent speculation as to how much he was in control of his own life compared to the protective net around him. That has continued with the release of At My Piano, which purports to be “his classic hits reimagined for solo piano.” Such a description conjures expectations of Brian doing a living room gig, as seen in various YouTube videos posted throughout the Covid lockdowns. His approach there, as it has been for decades, is to pound out chords and basslines rhythm-style, not the New Age approach heard on the album itself. So is it really Brian playing so prettily?

Despite our initial skepticism, we say yes, and it’s lovely. While the playing is more intricate than usual, what likely happened is that he played the chords, then overdubbed the melodies, harmonies, and counterpoints that have become so recognizable over the decades afterwards. In other words, he crafted these tracks just like he crafted all those Beach Boys classics in the first place, only doing the parts by himself rather than with a Gold Star Studio full of the Wrecking Crew. (Of course, if he really is playing all those parts live in one take, even better. But that would mean he has six hands.)

The selections are a mostly predictable grab bag of classics from the band’s heyday, beginning with the prettier ones, like “God Only Knows”, “In My Room”, and “The Warmth Of The Sun”, highlighting just how different these songs were from the standard pop songs of the time. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “You Still Believe In Me”, and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” provide a Pet Sounds transition to “Sketches Of Smile”, a mini-suite incorporating “Our Prayer”, “Heroes And Villains”, and “Wonderful” before a full-fledged “Surf’s Up”. “Friends” is revealed to be something of an Erik Satie homage, while “Mt. Vernon Farewell” is rescued from the suite appended to Holland. Unfortunately, having “Good Vibrations” crash in after that is just wrong.

Despite that, as we said, At My Piano is just lovely, and something about the softness of the performance and the mix make it ideal for the holiday season. Without intending to, Brian Wilson made a Christmas album. Nice of him.

Brian Wilson At My Piano (2021)—4

Friday, December 3, 2021

Robert Plant 15: Raise The Roof

Following the astounding success of their first collaboration, one would expect Robert Plant and Alison Krauss to continue to mine that field. Allegedly, a few sessions in the wake of their Grammy awards yielded nothing, so they left it alone for dozen years or so before trying again. Suddenly, Raise The Roof appeared, with T Bone Burnett back in the producer’s chair and most of the same players in the studio as last time. Yet, whereas Raising Sand had a quality that made it sound like it came from another planet, this one seems a little more conventional. The singers still have a lovely blend, but there aren’t as many harmonies as before.

It starts well; “Quattro” is a suitably spooky tune by the desert noir band Calexico, and it suits them. Another Everlys song gets attention, but this time “The Price Of Love” is slowed down and mournful. The wonderful “Go Your Way” comes from obscure British folkie Anne Briggs, who indirectly inspired a song Jimmy Page stole for the first Zeppelin album, so a debt is slightly paid. Allen Toussaint’s “Trouble With My Lover” is taken very quietly by Alison, while “Searching For My Love” is handled by Robert in near-full voice. “Can’t Let Go” repeats the “Gone, Gone, Gone” formula from the first album, and it’s still a winner.

“It Don’t Bother Me” grows from a seed to something very powerful; this one was written by Scottish folk legend Bert Jansch (who wrote the aforementioned arrangement stolen by Jimmy Page, further sharing the wealth). “You Led Me To The Wrong” is an Appalachian plaint featuring not Alison on fiddle, and “Last Kind Words Blues” would evoke the same mountain. “High And Lonesome” was written by Robert and T-Bone, and sounds more like the last few Plant albums. It’s a little ordinary, but far surpassed by Alison singing “Going Where The Lonely Go”. We won’t be the first to tell you the album should have ended there, but instead they tack on “Somebody Was Watching Over Me”, which is grating, frankly. (Target customers got two extra tracks, a sweet cover of Hank Williams’ “My Heart Would Know” and the funkier “You Can’t Rule Me” by Lucinda Williams—no relation).

We’re sure this will grow on us with time, but we were silly to expect Raise The Roof to contain the exact same magic. Still, recommended.

Robert Plant | Alison Krauss Raise The Roof (2021)—

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Roxy Music 10: The High Road

Roxy Music’s tour supporting Avalon was commemorated two ways: a videocassette chronicling a show in France, and a four-song EP (or mini-album, as they called them in the U.S. in the early ‘80s) recorded live in Glasgow, both titled The High Road. The timing was smart, as they coincided with the American leg of the tour.

Rather than rehash stuff from the hit album, the EP selections included “Can’t Let Go” from Bryan Ferry’s most recent solo album, a decent version of “My Only Love” from Flesh + Blood that leaves plenty of room for Phil Manzanera to shred and Andy Mackay to wail, and two “new” covers. John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” had been in their set as a tribute since his murder two years before, while the band—mostly the backup singers—sucks all the tension and passion out of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” in a version that’s even longer than the original.

That was the last anybody heard of Roxy Music as an entity for seven years, when Heart Still Beating was released with a minimum of fanfare. While the liner notes state that it was recorded in France in 1982, experts have reported that it does indeed include the four tracks from The High Road throughout the sequence, which also does not emulate an actual setlist, nor replicate a complete show, running only 67 minutes.

Yeah, but what about the music? The focus is on recent hits, so there’s a smattering from Avalon, plus a welcome “Dance Away”. The first wave of the band is represented by “Out Of The Blue”, “A Song For Europe”, “Both Ends Burning”, “Love Is The Drug”, and a not-very-decadent “Editions Of You”. Bryan even steps aside for Phil to lead a frenzied take on his solo track “Impossible Guitar”, which the band tackles gamely.

Even with its omissions, Heart Still Beating is a nicer souvenir of the second Roxy era than the mini-LP was. And it caps the trajectory just as Viva! did for the first period of the band.

Roxy Music The High Road (1983)—
Roxy Music
Heart Still Beating (1990)—3

Friday, November 26, 2021

Kiss 8: Alive II

Three studio albums since the last live album meant it was time for another celebration of what the announcer calls “the hottest band in the world.” Alive II was another double album, once again festooned with shots of Kiss in action, with a lovely full-color shot of Gene Simmons dribbling fake blood right on the front cover.

At the risk of too much repetition, the songs are taken from only those three most recent albums, delivered just as you remembered them but louder and with more pyrotechnics and more Paul Stanley stage banter. Ace Frehley is allowed to sing “Shock Me” and play his spotlight solo, then Peter Criss gets his first vocal on “Hard Luck Woman”. As with the rest of the album, reports conflict as to how much of this album was recorded in front of an actual Kiss audience, and how much was tweaked during mixing. When “Beth” comes up in the setlist, there’s no subterfuge: Peter simply grabbed a mike and sang over the backing track. (We’re assuming his drum solo on “God Of Thunder” is authentic.) Since they couldn’t repeat “Rock And Roll All Nite”, “Shout It Out Loud” must serve as the closing anthem, after which the crowd chants “We want Kiss” into the dead wax.

With only enough live material to cover three shortish sides, side four offered a grab bag of five new studio tracks. Bicentennial patriotism may have inspired “All-American Man” and the dopey “Rockin’ In The U.S.A.”, but the braggadocio of “Larger Than Life” isn’t anywhere as cerebral. If the lead guitar sounds different on those tunes, you’re right: studio gun Bob Kulick filled in for Ace, who only appears on “Rocket Ride”, wherein he plays everything but the drums. Finally, Paul turns up the fuzz for a cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Any Way You Want It”, wherein the production gets the echo right, but the main “it’s all right” vocal sounds like he’s singing along with his car speaker.

Like most sequels, Alive II had more style than substance. As for extra packaging, a booklet entitled “The Evolution Of Kiss” told the story in words and pictures, and an order form for the latest Kiss merchandise was eclipsed by the set of 18 temporary tattoos. Even these made it to the remastered CD twenty years later, small compensation for a double-disc set that could have fit on a single by several minutes. At least the new liner notes copped to Ace’s absence on side four.

Kiss Alive II (1977)—3

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Bruce Springsteen 28: No Nukes

One of the last gasps of hippie idealism personified by Laurel Canyon musicians occurred in the wake of the “accident” at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979. Led by John Hall, known back then as the guy from the band Orleans, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, and others coalesced to form Musicians United for Safe Energy, and staged a variety of events in order to raise awareness and money. Five concerts at Madison Square Garden later that year raised more of both, and were the centerpiece of a triple-album set plus a feature film.

Meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen had spent most of the year in the studio toiling and tinkering over what would become his fifth album, and hadn’t done any major shows since New Year’s Day. Naturally, his appearance with the E Street Band at two of the MSG shows, in front of what amounted to his hometown crowd, were big deals, and the excerpts included in the film did a lot to show the rest of the country what the excitement was all about. For Bruce, it was also another spark that started the fire of overt activism that has only grown in his work since then.

Both concerts were released for download and as a CD package via the Bruce Springsteen Archive website in 2018. Three years later, 13 songs compiled from the two shows were remixed and matched with the restored 16mm film footage for a double CD plus DVD or Blu-ray set, unabashedly titled The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts.

From the opening crash of “Prove It All Night”, Bruce and the band attack the set like it stole their lunch money. They were fired up and ready; the occasion of the leader’s 30th birthday might have also added to the intensity. Following “Badlands” and “Promised Land” he takes the mood down to debut “The River”, and goes back to the party with “Sherry Darling”, both from the album in progress. From there, “Thunder Road”, “Jungleland”, “Rosalita”, and “Born To Run” deliver the anthems.

The encore covers are included from both nights: “Stay”, with Jackson Browne and Rosemary Butler, who’d recently made it a hit again, plus Tom Petty; the classic “Detroit Medley”, which actually combined two medleys made famous by Mitch Ryder; Buddy Holly’s “Rave On”, hypercharged; and a ten-minute bash through Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter To Three”. It’s even more compelling on screen, with the mildly pompadoured and sideburned frontman looking his coolest, even when tearing around the stage with his shirttails flying, Steve Van Zandt sporting a beret before he switched to the schmatta, and Clarence “Big Man” Clemons commanding his domain. (Neither audio nor video documentation of Bruce pulling his ex-girlfriend, the photographer Lynn Goldsmith, to the stage and then having her escorted from the building because she ignored his request for no pictures has been included.)

All in all, the No Nukes Concerts provides a good balance and perspective between the five discs from the 1986 box and 2006’s excavation of Hammersmith Odeon London ‘75. “Legendary” is a fitting adjective for this music.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts (2021)—4

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Prince 18: The Gold Experience

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince continued his quest to create on his own terms, first releasing “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” as a standalone single on the tiny Bellmark label, credited to the unpronounceable symbol he insisted was his legal name. At the same time, he was becoming very immersed in the potential of the Internet, hoping to use it as a method to distribute his music outside of the established record industry.

Virtual reality—and its limitations—was also a big thing in those days, and thus The Gold Experience was presented not so much as a concept album, but as a continuous guided program. Various “NPG Operator” segues throughout the album serve to narrate the journey, sometimes bafflingly, through the different “experiences”.

After a long intro that makes you think your disc is stuck, the irresistible beat of “P. Control” takes over, and despite his ineffectiveness as a rapper, plus the cursing and repeated female anatomy part initialed in the title, the high vocals and goofy sound effects win. “Endorphin Machine” is a furious rocker with terrific guitars, the likes of which had been missing from most Prince albums of late, culminating in one of his classic Revolution-era screams. After we’re informed in Spanish that “Prince está muerto,” somebody’s moaning punctuates the slammin’ intro to “Shhh”, a tune originally given to young protégé Tevin Campbell and taken back to become a ‘90s slow jam. “We March” purports to be something of a call for unity, but there’s an undercurrent of violence in the lyrics and sound effects. “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” comes next, a year and a half after its appearance as a single. It’s a sweet song, if a little syrupy, and has gone in and out of availability due to being the object of a plagiarism lawsuit, which he lost. “Dolphin” is almost psychedelic rock, a better track than the lyrics.

While it’s specifically set up by the NPG Operator as a jam worthy of “Housequake” and “Sexy MF”, “Now” is simply not as fun as even the latter; frankly, Digital Underground did it better. Similarly, the crunchy guitars on “319” make the song seem like a copy of Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing”, but the minimalist funk of the completely solo “Shy” provides another welcome tangent, despite the dire lyrics. “Billy Jack Bitch” features a repeated sample from the first Fishbone EP, ten years earlier, while the synth hook comes right out of Controversy. The lengthy courtroom rant “Eye Hate U” has promise, but it’s hard to take a womanizer’s broken heart seriously, and especially when he threatens violence. Still, there’s a terrific solo. After the VR program seems to melt down, we find we’ve been granted access to the final tier, in the form of “Gold”. Besides being the longest track on the album, it seems to be set up as not only a finale but a grand anthem. Even the guitar solo seems to recall “Purple Rain”. The operator reappears briefly to confirm the listener’s membership in the New Power Generation and once again welcome said listener “2 the dawn.”

Albums tended to run over an hour in those days, so it’s not fair to dismiss The Gold Experience for being too long for its own good. Stylistically it’s all over the place, offering echoes of all the music he’d created to date. In other words, it’s got something for everybody.

Footnote: As part of the promotional lead-up, a mixtape called The Versace Experience–Prelude 2 Gold was distributed during that year’s fashion week. Several exclusive edits of songs from The Gold Experience appear alongside tracks by New Power Generation (allegedly as their own entity but still driven by The Artist Himself), songs from the still-unreleased third Madhouse album, and a preview of the Kamasutra ballet. After years racking up high prices on the collector’s market, it was made available for Record Store Day 2019, then as a CD for general release.

o|+> The Gold Experience (1995)—3
The Versace Experience–Prelude 2 Gold (2019)—3

Friday, November 12, 2021

Kinks 23: Misfits

1978 found several veteran British invasion bands reacting to both their longevity as well as the generation gap. The Stones and The Who both faced their mortality and vitality straight on, and so did Ray Davies. While the Kinks managed to maintain a certain cachet among the young punks—the Jam’s cover of “David Watts” appeared as a single and again as an album track around this time—the band was fractured at this point, with John Gosling and bass recruit Andy Pyle easing out of the lineup. Even drummer Mick Avory couldn’t be bothered to make many of the sessions for the album that became Misfits; some of the tracks feature veteran session man Clem Catini.

Still, a contract was a contract, and Ray dutifully wrote a new batch of songs that weren’t tethered to an overall concept. The title track is a gentle celebration of those not like everybody else, with a hook repeated by several instruments—in all, a well-constructed track. Unfortunately, “Hay Fever” is a fairly dopey rocker lamenting seasonal allergies, and we’re pretty sure there’s not a clever subtext meant by “all the pills and the powders”. The American version of the album follows with the rocking “Live Life”, one of two overtly political songs on the album. This one is a plea for sanity amid times of social and racial unrest; chances are it was swapped with the less subtle character that narrates “Black Messiah” on side two, for fear we wouldn’t get the joke. (Plus, the UK mix of “Live Life” is longer.) The mood turns gentle again for “A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy”, another of Ray’s periodic explorations of whether the power of music was enough to sustain him or his fans—possibly influenced by Elvis Presley’s death the year before. Oddly, it’s followed by “In A Foreign Land”, something of a lyrical cross between “Apeman” and the desire to be a tax exile.

“Permanent Waves” finds Ray back at the doctor, who prescribes a new hairstyle to cure his current ills. It’s not a winner, but showcases some of the latest synth technology. Even without the lyrical content, the aforementioned “Black Messiah” is a strange musical mix of bluebeat (too slow for ska, too fast for reggae) with the kind of New Orleans horns abandoned three or four albums ago. “Out Of The Wardrobe” is even more a defense of transvestism than “Lola”, bringing it into the lives of “ordinary folks”, and could well be an LGBT anthem today. Dave Davies finally gets his requisite solo spot in “Trust Your Heart”, matching a soaring melody with power-chord riffing for a nice distraction. It ends rather abruptly, and then we get the arty power chords that began the motivation anthem “Get Up”.

Misfits is mostly harmless, so it goes in the good pile. It’s not a classic by Kinks standards, but still a worthy chapter in Ray’s ongoing opus. (The expanded CD preserves the UK sequence of the album, bolstered by three single edits, including the shorter US mix of “Live Life”, and the standalone “Father Christmas” single, a suitably sardonic view of the modern holiday and still a perennial radio favorite.)

The Kinks Misfits (1978)—3
1998 Konk CD reissue: same as 1978, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Paul Simon 17: So Beautiful Or So What

After all this time, and a handful of, frankly, “eh” albums, one might be forgiven for not expecting to be wowed another time by Paul Simon. So Beautiful Or So What is sneaky in that it starts out tepidly, but soon elevates to something special.

Much of the album was recorded alone at his home studio, so there are plenty of loops and effects. These seem to dominate “Getting Ready For Christmas Day”, which is built around a sermon from several decades earlier, then becomes a relevant lament for children stationed overseas during the holidays and the determination to muddle through somehow. The same clattery backing supports “The Afterlife”, one of his more successful attempts at approaching aging and death with humor. “Dazzling Blue” has echoes of “Under African Skies”, which is fine with us. A very intricate guitar part, half plucked and half strummed, drives “Rewrite”, which rises above the “help me, thank you” hook in the chorus with subtle verses. Those tracks will not prepare you for “Love And Hard Times”, a gorgeous rumination on creation and blessings, with a gentle piano and string arrangement to match his gentle guitar.

“Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” is almost a sermon of its own, with an uptempo backing and near-gospel delivery. We take another break for the exquisite “Amulet”, a solo guitar instrumental, leading into further rumination on “Questions For The Angels”, wherein a pilgrim’s stroll through Brooklyn takes in a billboard of Jay-Z. “Love And Blessings” samples from another old gospel recording, but wisely limits it to the choruses. Meanwhile, the vocal, guitar, and bass all follow the same basic melody, but just out of phase to keep from unison. Finally, the title track, digs into a dirty groove, reiterating all the themes we’d heard thus far.

So Beautiful Or So What really is a pleasant surprise, especially when you’re not expecting much. Even with all the contributors in the credits, and the time it took to create, it still exudes a low-key presentation, with a fresh sound. Well worth revisiting.

Paul Simon So Beautiful Or So What (2011)—

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Van Morrison 43: Keep Me Singing

Eight years earlier Van Morrison pledged to keep it simple; now he’s asking whoever’s in charge to Keep Me Singing. Considering how his output had tailed off in that time, it’s a reasonable request.

It’s a slightly schizophrenic album—about half revives the lush sound perfected in the late ‘80s, which he abandoned as soon as it became profitable, while a variety of uptempo tracks attempt to provide variety, but simply seem badly placed. “Let It Rhyme” opens the proceedings with a reiteration of that theme he’s repeated since “Stepping Out Queen”, while the subtle pedal steel guitar gives a nice ambience. “Every Time I See A River” is a collaboration with lyricist of note Don Black, who apparently made his money in movies and theater. We like it anyway, and no, that’s not Georgie Fame on the organ. The title track isn’t very exciting, but “Out In The Cold Again” expresses a rare vulnerability, and “Memory Lane” begins with another out-of-character flourish, this time of strings. Then things go completely off the rails: “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword” is a decent groove, but the lyrics sound like a first draft, and completely at odds with what we’ve heard already.

Better you should skip right to “Holy Guardian Angel”, which repeats a bunch of blues clichés but still has a lovely arrangement with nice backing vocals for a change. He probably heard “Share Your Love With Me” from Bobby “Blue” Bland, or even The Band; most likely he ignored the Kenny Rogers cover. The reminiscing continues in “In Tiburon”, wherein his memories and impressions of the Beat scene in San Francisco weave through the verses. The comparatively brief “Look Beyond The Hill” begins as a cool-jazz instrumental, then delivers three quick verses and a middle eight. “Going Down To Bangor” is basically a tourist advertisement for some of the sights in County Down in 12-bar blues, and “Too Late” is strangely attached to a doo-wop tempo. Finally, “Caledonia Swing” is a pure instrumental akin to closing credits.

Had he shaved a few of the uptempo oddities from the running time, this might have been an overdue successor to his No Guru through Enlightenment period. Instead, Keep Me Singing is just another Van Morrison album, to be filed aside the rest.

Van Morrison Keep Me Singing (2016)—3

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Lou Reed 31: The Creation Of The Universe

Shortly after reviving one of the more reviled albums of his career, Lou Reed happily scampered off with a couple of avant-garde musicians who were enamored with both the structure and the possibilities of Metal Machine Music, to the point where they actually arranged it for orchestra. Naturally, Lou was thrilled, and wanted to collaborate further. Dubbed the Metal Machine Trio, they improvised their way through a few concerts in L.A. art installations, two of which were released as The Creation Of The Universe.

These tracks don’t have titles outside of “Night 1” and “Night 2”, each in two parts. Mostly there’s the hum of feedback and some guitar distortion, with keyboards emulating different sounds, and an occasional saxophone skronking amid the din. Sometimes Lou will start with quiet picking, or play power chords. While not completely atonal, it occasionally approximates music. The audience even applauds at the end of each “Night”. Nonetheless, Fripp & Eno did it better, and with only two people.

Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio The Creation Of The Universe (2008)—2

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.

This permutation was somewhat superseded by the eventual Super Deluxe Edition, which celebrated the 52nd birthday of the album. This time a new remaster of the original album was supported by a disc containing the 2014 Wilson remix of the album’s tracks (save “Clap) plus Wilson’s instrumental mixes of same (again save “Clap”, but including the a cappella intro for “All Good People”). A third disc had those previously released singles and outtakes, as well as a previously unreleased take of the “Life Seeker” portion of “Starship Trooper” plus, amazingly for a 1971 release, a mono(!) mix of the album. A fourth disc offered grainy live recordings from both before and after the album was released; they show Steve Howe adept at the band’s earlier material, while a rendition of “Clap” includes direct quotes from “Classical Gas”. A Blu-ray disc included updated hi-res and surround mixes, and because Rhino was behind it all, the new remaster was also included on vinyl, ensuring an inflated list price.

Yes The Yes Album (1971)—
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)
2023 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 2003, plus 27 extra tracks (plus 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

Roxy Music 9: Avalon

Ten years after their debut, Roxy Music had come a long way from their initial image as “the ‘50s meets the ‘80s in the ‘70s.” Even without the greasy pompadour and space-age costumes, Bryan Ferry was still one of the suavest guys ever to stalk a stage in a rumpled silk suit, looking like he’d hurriedly gotten dressed following a backstage encounter. The band had always been about style, so in retrospect, their transition to a slick, post-disco adult contemporary sound wasn’t that surprising. Moreover, it improved Flesh + Blood by association.

Their journey culminated on Avalon, a lush and classy recording that showcases the band’s strengths—down to the trio of Ferry (singing more smoothly than ever before), Andy Mackay on sax and the inimitable Phil Manzanera on guitar, with well-chosen session guys.
The opening single, “More Than This”, gained a new following after its use in the Bill Murray vehicle Lost In Translation, but that only underscored its reputation as a stirring, enigmatic song. In fact, a good deal of the album puts impressionistic images into grooves, so that the sound is more important than any possible message. “The Space Between” demonstrates this with its mix of drum machines and real drums, saxophones and riff guitars underneath blurry vocals. The title track is perhaps the most overt portrayal of the singer as lounge lizard, accented by the cooing of a female vocalist. “India” doesn’t sound like the country it’s supposed to describe, but just as the music seems about to go somewhere, it’s interrupted by the flourish that opens the snaky “While My Heart Is Still Beating”.

The album’s slick production value made it especially popular the year it came out, as the CD format provided a gapless listening experience over the LP—all the better for a yuppie’s makeout session. “The Main Thing” keeps up the tension through to the lengthy introduction that sets up “Take A Chance With Me”, all the way through the highly tuneful and romantic “To Turn You On”. The heavy tremolo on the synth and vocals makes a nice match for the simple changes of “True To Life”. The closing “Tara”, a quiet sax solo over seashore sound effects and hints of melodies that have come before, is a fitting finish.

While Avalon is the last studio album credited to Roxy Music proper, it paved the way to Ferry’s late-‘80s solo work. And while Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera have shown up from time to time, if this album was indeed their swansong, it was a great way to go out.

Roxy Music Avalon (1982)—4

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 platform than its eventual “Brownsville Girl” incarnation for presenting the art within. 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)—