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

Friday, July 23, 2021

Journey 15: Eclipse

On something of a three-year plan, Journey took a mild detour not unlike what they’d tried with Red 13. Eclipse concentrated on heavier tunes and ignored ballads, to the point where it almost sounded like they wanted to be Dream Theater. Nobody has ever said Neal Schon couldn’t shred, and Deen Castronovo can certainly pound the skins, but despite Arnel Pineda’s vocal prowess, the band simply doesn’t have the gravitas to pull it off, even with most of the tracks running over six minutes and plenty of time to build motifs and whatnot. Plus, in all but two cases, Arnel’s lyrics were written for him.
They still try to go with the formula as much as ever; “City Of Hope” is full of “be true to yourself” platitudes, and “find your own destiny” is always convincing when sung by a guy picked for his vocal similarities to somebody else. “Edge Of The Moment” suggests what happens when you don’t quite reach that city, and perhaps the “Chain Of Love” is just a little too tight, particularly when you’re being whipped with it at a “Kashmir” tempo. “Tantra” sports a patented lengthy Jonathan Cain piano intro, reprised at the end, while Neal insistently matches the vocal note for note in between. After 25 minutes they still need to tell us that “Anything Is Possible”, such as the return of the same doom-laden drums on “Resonate”.
“She’s A Mystery” is a welcome change of pace, maybe because Arnel is credited as one of the writers, and certainly because we get an acoustic reprieve, but five minutes wasn’t long enough, and they insist on tacking on a loud coda for another two. For a song denouncing the overabundance of technology in our modern lives, “Human Feel” is incredibly robotic. With its cheesy keys and fake horns, “Ritual” almost sounds ‘80s, but the relentless beat makes the plea to “make sweet love all night long” more of a threat. “To Whom It May Concern” may start out like the senior prom slow dance, but the complicated time changes and pleading lyrics make it more of a history lecture or book report. “Someone” might even be a decent tune if it wasn’t a straight rewrite of “Somebody’s Out There” by Triumph. We’re sure we’ve heard the riff on the closing “Venus” instrumental before—maybe somewhere on this very album—and since it has nowhere to go but around, they throw a couple of false fades at us.
Eclipse is a case where the Journey brand definitely held them back. As much as they (read: Neal and Jonathan) insisted they were immune to apathy, they forgot to give what fans they still had wanted, no matter how many one-word titles they could concoct, with scarab-based artwork. The album didn’t sell—maybe because over here it was a Walmart exclusive—and the band spent the next several years touring, where they would make more money.

Journey Eclipse (2011)—2

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Kinks 22: Sleepwalker

With the promise of financial reward dangled in front of him, Ray Davies took the mandate of a new contract with Arista Records to heart and wrote an entire Kinks album devoid of any overwrought concept. That’s not to say Sleepwalker didn’t have any theme at all—he was still writing about the travails of being a working musician and skewering hypocrites and sycophants, but at least folks could enjoy the songs without having to follow a plot. (More to the point, there was no horn section or backing choir, just lots of guitar and plenty of keyboards.)
In case anyone hadn’t heard yet, it’s not easy living “Life On The Road”, but this variation is one of Ray’s catchier ones. “Mr. Big Man” builds to something particularly nasty, with brother Dave given free rein to solo throughout. With a drum intro straight from a Steve Miller record, the title track is one of the most deceptively catchy songs ever about creepy obsession. By contrast, “Brother” begins almost dreamily, as befits a heartfelt ballad, but this one is sung to humanity in general, and certainly not Dave.
Another anthem of sorts kicks off side two in “Juke Box Music”, which both celebrates and minimizes the art, complete with some wonderful Townshend-like strumming throughout. After singing lots of high parts, Dave gets the lead vocal on “Sleepless Night”, which becomes more desperate once you realize the narrator is being kept awake by the nocturnal exploits of his ex next door. “Stormy Sky” begins kinda wimpy, but a tempo change on the coda makes it a lot better, while “Full Moon” touches on the werewolf metaphor without sinking into horror cliché. Somehow “Life Goes On” manages to eulogize a suicide while poking fun at those who fail at it, until it emerges as a song of hope.
Just as the Who and the Stones met the challenge of being relevant in the punk era, Sleepwalker shows the Kinks had already figured out how to give the people what they want, well before that became a statement of purpose. It’s still firmly lodged in the ‘70s, but some things can’t be helped. (The extras on the eventual expanded CD show they weren’t exactly grasping at straws for material given what came out later as B-sides—the decent but ordinary “Artificial Light”, and the more pointed “Prince Of The Punks”, with its clever Beach Boys vocal tag. Despite their promise, two outtakes were left in the can: “The Poseur”, aged by its Latin disco approach, and “On The Outside” in both its original mix and one done in the ‘90s when it snuck out on an EP.)

The Kinks Sleepwalker (1977)—3
1998 Konk CD reissue: same as 1977, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, July 16, 2021

Prince 17: The Black Album

One of the most legendary unreleased albums of any era, The Black Album was withdrawn by Prince himself after what he called a spiritual crisis that convinced him what he created was evil. Unlike, say, the Beach Boys’ Smile album, this one was actually completed, and made it so close to general release that it was soon widely bootlegged. Naturally, critics raved, particularly after what they felt was the lackluster Lovesexy appeared in its place.
Certainly, such a legendary album would sound better on paper than out of speakers, and those who couldn’t procure a bootleg only had to wait an eternal seven years for an official release, right around the time when Prince was suing his record label. Except for the new catalog number, The Black Album appeared as originally planned, with all-black artwork a la Spinal Tap (and later, Metallica) with only the catalog number and legal info on the spine, and the song titles listed on the disc itself. A sticker helpfully explained what and who it was, and pointedly stated “limited edition”, as it was supposed to be available for sale for only two months.
The music spans a wide period in his sessionography, from the midst of what became Sign "☮" The Times through much of 1987. With the exception of the horns, some drums, and some of the vocals, he performed everything himself, staying in a predominantly heavy funk tone, set on the call-to-party “Le Grind”. “Cindy C” was inspired by the supermodel named Crawford then new on the scene; our favorite part is the hysterical exchange before the unfortunate rap section. Speaking of which, “Dead On It” takes aim at hip-hop, mostly the rappers’ lack of musicality, at a time when Prince was actively absent from that scene. “When 2 R In Love” is the same track as on Lovesexy, and stands out like the proverbial sore thumb here, unless it was intended as parody. Speaking of which…
After using a voice modulator for the Camille character, he went completely in the other direction on “Bob George”, which is mostly a comic four-letter monologue by an armed gangsta threatening bodily harm on the title character, then interacting with various sound effects to advance the story. “Superfunkycalifragisexy” is a decent groove, infectious without really going anywhere. “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton” opens with a hilarious exchange between Cat Glover and Prince as an unwanted party guest, before settling in a relentless groove with a low-mixed Hammond organ solo, a more prominent slap bass solo, a keyboard solo that sounds like a guitar, then layered percussion via keyboard, all over Sheila E.’s slammin’ drums. “Rockhard In A Funky Place” is a Camille track that was supposed to close that unreleased album, and nicely wraps up the proceedings here.
The overall vibe throughout The Black Album is Prince simply having fun, and showing a sense of humor that his mystique often hid. But everything had to be a statement, and maybe he was just as concerned that it would be considered lightweight as it was irreverent. Is it a lost masterpiece? Hell no. But it is key to the story.

Prince The Black Album (1994)—3

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Yes 2: Time And A Word

For their second album, Yes took the bold step of incorporating an orchestra into their recorded arrangements. This did not sit well with Peter Banks, who was bounced from the band upon Time And A Word’s release. (As before, the American arm of Atlantic Records substituted a different cover, most likely because of the nudity on the original. Problem was, the band shot they used included Steve Howe, who replaced Peter Banks on lead guitar henceforth—but not on the back cover.)
While there are only two as compared with the first album, covers dominate the program. While it sports a prominent Hammond organ and plenty of bass, “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” sticks closely to the original by Richie Havens. (Also, that repeated orchestral motif we always thought was from “Rodeo” by Aaron Copland is actually the theme music from some Western from the ‘50s.) The other cover is Stephen Stills’ “Everydays”, from the second Buffalo Springfield album; unfortunately, the jazzy potential is overwhelmed by the trite strings, particularly during the dueling solos.
Beyond those, Jon Anderson comes to the fore as the key songwriter, credited alone or alongside either Chris Squire or David Foster, a previous bandmate and not the egotistical ‘80s producer. “Then” is an edgy little number, subsiding for the choruses, with an extended instrumental break that foretells future epics. The opening verse returns in a more contemplative place, but a horn outburst derails it. “Sweet Dreams” was actually a single, and doesn’t feature an orchestra at all, but relies on some twangy, jangly chords. It too has a precisely arranged middle section, as all good prog songs should.
“The Prophet” begins side two with a lengthy organ fugue; once the song kicks in proper, it’s clear this is not one of Jon’s best lyrical attempts. Musically it’s got something in common with their version of “Something’s Coming”, but the orchestral touches don’t really help. “Clear Days” is rainy-day chamber pop that turns somber, and thankfully brief, but “Astral Traveller” is another step closer to the spacey mystique their album covers would convey. The orchestra is silent again, allowing the organ and guitar to do their thing better, nicely panned across the stereo picture. The closing title track is the rare case where the orchestra actually enhances the arrangement, mostly because it doesn’t happen until the coda. Notice also that underwater guitar sound, which will figure in albums going forward—that’s Peter Banks, not Steve Howe.
Time And A Word has its moments, to be sure, but they hadn’t quite landed on The Sound. Still, it’s clear Peter Banks had a lot to do with the template, so he deserves a better legacy. (The expanded version of the album added the contemporary B-side “Dear Father”, which may or may not have helped the album, along with three alternate mixes.)

Yes Time And A Word (1970)—2
2003 remastered CD: same as 1970, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, July 9, 2021

Frank Zappa 44: You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 1

Ever since the original Mothers of Invention lineup disbanded, Frank Zappa would occasionally refer to a large-scale anthology he was planning. Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh were teasers of sorts, but barely scratched the surface. Said to encompass anywhere from three to twelve records, the contents of these sets were to be compiled from various sources, from early club dates to later tours, to provide a better representation of what the band could do, and how songs and ideas developed.
It wasn’t until 1988, and his association with the very game Rykodisc label, that he was able to begin to realize the concept. The notes inside the first volume (of six) of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore stated the purpose: previously unreleased material, predominantly live, spanning two decades with no regard to chronology. Certain “legendary” concerts were sampled liberally, and sometimes he’d even edit a performance from one period onto one or more of the same song from another or more. Each two-CD set was annotated with comprehensive notes regarding the players, the date, the location, the equipment used, and any asides pertinent to enlighten the listener of any necessary context. (As the series went on, the asides became fewer and far between. Also, various websites and sources have since corrected any factual errors for him.)
Because he was loath to discredit anything he did, we have to take Frank’s word that the music he chose for this series is worth hearing. He liked the idea of having all his bands on the same virtual stage, so that means Flo & Eddie are heard alongside Napoleon Murphy Brock and Ike Willis, Steve Vai is contrasted with Ruth Underwood, and so forth. For the most part, the transitions are seamless, and not as anachronistic as it could otherwise be.
The first volume sets the tone, bookended by two different versions of “Sofa”, several years apart. Conceptual continuity is further explored in several ways, from it’s in-jokes that weave through different songs to the two renditions of “Louie Louie”—one with improvised lyrics about Ruth, the other a more literal arrangement of “Plastic People”. “The Mammy Anthem” is heard before lyrics were applied to it; “Babette”, something of a counterpart to “Sharleena”, is a rarity from the mid-‘70s, and the original Mothers are nicely represented by the “Orange County Lumber Truck” suite, albeit split into two parts on different discs, and a cover of Bing Crosby’s “Sweet Leilani”.
These sets are designed for completists, not newbies, so they’re best appreciated after sizable exposure to the catalog. Yet, they are enlightening and worthy of revisits as more of the larger picture is filled in. Future volumes would attempt different theses than the all-encompassing thrust of the first, and will be discussed accordingly.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 1 (1988)—3

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Lou Reed 30: Berlin Live

In hindsight, it didn’t take very long for Lou Reed’s Berlin album to shed its status as a grand failure to emerge as a tortured masterpiece, but its author was always defensive about it. So he was very game when his buddy Hal Willner suggested staging a series of concerts presenting the album in its entirety, with accompanying films by Julian Schnabel, as a template, if not an audition, for the Broadway musical Lou always hoped to make out of it.
The concerts in Brooklyn were filmed and released on DVD, and the soundtrack released as Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse. The band featured his most recent rhythm section of Fernando Saunders and Tony “Thunder” Smith; an on-stage orchestra, directed by original album producer Bob Ezrin and including the ubiquitous Jane Scarpantoni on cello. provided the necessary baroque touches, but the real draw is Steve Hunter, returning on lead guitar. One might have hoped that, given the opportunity, Lou would finally restore some of those lost segments deleted from the original album, but no. Except for some extended solos, the album is presented the way it’s always been, start to finish.
A choir quietly sings the chorus of “Sad Song” as an introduction before the sound effects begin for the album’s title track. Steve Hunter provides plenty of fire during “Lady Day”, more so than the previous live version, while the choir helps with the chorus. Fernando on electric and Rob Wasserman on double do their best to channel Jack Bruce on “Men Of Good Fortune”, spurring the band to turn it up. “Caroline Says Pt. I” and “How Do You Think It Feels” proceed as expected, though Lou adds his own rhythm guitar for crunch. Similarly, “Oh Jim” gets stretched between the two sections by some underwhelming fret dueling, but is enlivened by some scatting from Sharon Jones (of the Dap-Kings).
The performances of the songs on side two are faithful, though Lou emotes more in “Caroline Says Pt. II” (and the backup singers join in to accentuate “so cold”) and “The Kids” (for which tapes of the crying kids are used rather than drag toddlers onstage to provide the audio-verité. The choir adds natural ambience to “The Bed” and leads exactly into the full-blown “Sad Song”, with more crunch from Lou’s guitar under Steve Hunter’s note-perfect reproduction of his original solos. The crowd politely waits until the last note has died away before cheering. (There is, of course, an encore: Antony provides another reading of “Candy Says”, then Lou offers “Rock Minuet” and ends with “Sweet Jane”, as bound by law, but without the Steve Hunter intro, sadly.)
Live recreations of classic albums, unless drastically reimagined, are often best appreciated in person, most listeners would be better off sticking with the original Berlin album. This new version is fronted by swaggering Lou, who was MIA in 1973, but the suite’s legacy is still respected as well as revered.

Lou Reed Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse (2008)—3

Friday, July 2, 2021

Jack Grace 4: What A Way To Spend A Night

The COVID-19 pandemic affected musicians of all income brackets, with the independent, self-managed troubadours the hardest hit. So it was that What A Way To Spend A Night by the Jack Grace Band fell once again to the machinations or lack thereof in what currently passes for the industry, and sat on the back of the proverbial stove. Luckily, nothing got burned.
Just as he’s evolved from the overt country approach of his earlier work, so has the band evolved, this time featuring Fabian Bonner on bass and Ian Griffith on drums, local boys from Cambridge in the UK, where the album was recorded. Such economy works for an album that sports a breadth of musical styles, all still within the established Jack Grace brand.
Along with the solid songwriting, another key to the album’s cohesiveness is the variety of keyboards throughout, via Bill Malchow. They’re particularly profound on “The Monster Song”, from the accordion waltz intro through the spooky organ to the double-speed ragtime bridge that gets sucked into an old victrola for a wonderful coda. We hear an evocation of early Tom Waits on “You’d Be Disappointed (If I Didn’t Disappoint You)”, and the Broken Mariachi Horns inject their patented color into “Here Comes The Breeze”. The rhythm section is particularly attentive on “Bearded Man”, which takes the simplest riff into Hendrix territory—no, really—after every exhorted “swing!” By contrast, “I’m A Burglar” is a sneaky little metaphor for something; we’re just not sure what.
The unexpected chord voicings in the instrumental “Smokehouse Discrepancy” turn the 12-bar blues on its ear, providing a nice break at the halfway point, and cleansing the palette for “Broken Melody”, a heartbreaking highlight of not just this album but his catalog. “Don’t Wanna Work Today” is probably the closest to the drinking songs of an earlier decade, while a title like “Mr. Sanderson & Sons Amazing Secret Traveling Show” will remind some of a certain track by The Band, but the arrangement shines, particularly in the mass harmonies. “Nobody Brought Me Nothing” is just plain infectious and fun, and “Chinatown” will whet your appetite for your local take-out or dine-in place while keeping you on your toes with the shifting rhyme scheme. (And it never once falls back on any musical cliché.)
What A Way To Spend A Night is solid from start to finish, and actually improves with time. Between club appearances and Internet streams we’ve heard each of these songs several times, yet it says a lot when a seasoned live performer manages to capture the definitive versions on playable media. Let’s not wait four years for the next one.

Jack Grace Band What A Way To Spend A Night (2021)—4

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Elton John 17: A Single Man

Two things are apparent from the cover of A Single Man: Elton John is not wearing glasses of any kind, and Gus Dudgeon is not listed as producer. The gatefold shows the lord of the manor at the wheel of a classic Jaguar, and Bernie Taupin is nowhere to be found on the labels or inner sleeve. Clearly, this album was a considered departure.
The lyricist is one Gary Osborne, who Elton probably met through Kiki Dee, but was best known to the public at large for his contributions to Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds, which managed to combine the talents of Justin Heyward of the Moody Blues, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, and Richard Burton. He doesn’t have Bernie’s unique approach, his prosaic style, nor his pretension; the accent here is on rhymes that create ear candy. (The band is different too, with future Wings drummer Steve Holley behind the kit and future Pink Floyd sideman Tim Renwick on the guitars.)
We know we’re in for a different album with the stately elegance of “Shine On Through”, and quite lovely indeed. But “Return To Paradise” can’t decide if it wants to be in the islands or Mexico, with the marimba and mariachi horns competing for space. The uptempo “I Don’t Care” finally brings in the rock, somewhat, though the strings and phased guitar are definitely Philly soul. Possibly the least subtle metaphor by anyone’s standards, “Big Dipper” lopes around New Orleans, and it was wise of him to cop to lifting from “Makin’ Whoopee” at the end. “It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy” is sneaky, straddling the line between bluesy and ballad. Ray Cooper’s vibraphone is more welcome here than it was on Blue Moves, but the song truly didn’t need to last eight minutes. If anything in his catalog screams for a “radio edit”, this is it. (According to one report, the original take ran twelve minutes, so maybe we should be thankful.
“Part-Time Love” is from the same discofied cloth as “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, and a smart choice for a single while “Georgia” tries to evoke Tumbleweed Connection. He breaks out of his lower register for “Shooting Star”, something of a counterpoint to the groupie ballad “Superstar”, and should have been a smash hit for any female singer who wanted to cover it. “Madness” is a rare attempt to be political, but the sentiments are tempered by an undeniably catchy arrangement. After a brief “Reverie” comes one of the most elegant pieces he’d written since “Funeral For A Friend”. If his story is to be believed, “Song For Guy” was composed on a lonely afternoon, only he found out a day later that one of his assistants had been killed in an accident while he was writing. It’s a heartbreakingly gorgeous melody, played on piano with synthesized strings and a simple drum machine. The only words are “Life isn’t everything.”
A Single Man was not well-received upon release, but time has shown it to be far from awful. His “lower” voice sounds fine, and the work throughout is inventive and strong; Elton was just more concerned with having hits than making art. One such flop of the era was the over-ambitious single “Ego”, written with Bernie. This leads off the current CD’s bonus material, along with its flipside “Flinstone Boy” (which doesn’t do much beyond paraphrase a line from the show) and three other B-sides of the time, no better or worse than the album they were supporting.

Elton John A Single Man (1978)—3
1998 CD reissue: same as 1978, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, June 25, 2021

Paul Simon 16: Surprise

Outside the title, the biggest surprise about this Paul Simon album was that it was largely a collaboration with Brian Eno, who’s credit with “sonic landscape”. Even with the domed one’s touches, Surprise is still unquestionably a Paul Simon album, built around the same exotic rhythms that have dominated his solo career. In another surprise, he plays nearly all the guitars throughout, from the sprightly African figures to the more distorted riffs.
One of those begins “How Can You Live In The Northeast?”, which opens the album with zero subtlety, touching on a world at war and floods overcoming levees. “Everything About It Is A Love Song” takes a journey through multiple textures, always coming back the most simple guitar figure. “Outrageous” is the first most overt attempt to sound modern, sung in one of his character voices, but the “who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone” hook still works. Not as successful is “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love”, which seems more like the Eno approach of using whatever words fit the rhythm at hand. The powerful “Wartime Prayers” starts out just lovely, with nice atmospherics and gentle guitar, but as it’s designed to be an anthem, the heavy drums distract from Herbie Hancock’s piano. “Beautiful” escapes us; the lyrics seem to teeter between modern nursery rhymes and details about children adopted from overseas.
“I Don’t Believe” is a highly personal cry of defiance, going so far as to credit his wife (who’s also glimpsed “brushing her long chestnut hair”) for one of the aside observations. Unfortunately, the bridges about his stockbroker aren’t about to raise any sympathy. The travelogue in “Another Galaxy” is elevated by Eno’s touch, though he’s heavier-handed on “Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean”, which doesn’t quite reach lyrical heights. “That’s Me” suggests more autobiography—underscored by the vintage snapshot used to illustrate the lyrics—and while “I never cared much for money” is a baldfaced lie, the multiple looped guitars (again, all him) stand out.
Along with its overall consistency, the best thing about Surprise is its manageable playing time. There is something of a bonus track in “Father And Daughter”, a remix of a song previously featured in The Wild Thornberrys Movie, but it fits both sonically and thematically. It’s a nice inclusion.

Paul Simon Surprise (2006)—3

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Grateful Dead 15: Terrapin Station

It had seemingly been an eternity since the last Dead album, and now they’d signed with Clive Davis’ new Arista label, which had already scooped up such daring legacy artists as the Kinks, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Barry Manilow. They were also tasked with using an outside producer, which is how Terrapin Station ended up with Keith Olsen in the booth, on his way from Fleetwood Mac to Foreigner.
Bob Weir dominates side one, beginning with the confusing time signature on the mildly reggaefied “Estimated Prophet”, unfortunately featuring the ubiquitious Tom Scott on sax. While the band had played “Dancin’ In The Streets” at several points in their career thus far, the disco arrangement of it here is just plain horrible. Bob and Donna Godchaux get a better chance to shine harmonically on Phil Lesh’s “Passenger”, which injects some needed rock and roll into the proceedings, particularly when followed by another disco mistake, this time on the traditional “Samson & Delilah”. Then Donna takes center stage for “Sunrise”, which she wrote all by herself. Between her performance and the orchestration, this could have been a very well received adult contemporary hit; it just doesn’t sound like the Dead at all.
The centerpiece of the album, of course, was the entirety of side two, entitled “Terrapin Part 1”. (The Dead apparently never completed music for Part 2, although lyricist Robert Hunter played portions of it over the years.) Besides presenting Jerry Garcia on vocals for the first time on the album, it challenges the listener not merely because it’s a multipart suite, but because it incorporates orchestration by Paul Buckmaster, and even the English Choral choir.
It starts innocently enough with “Lady With A Fan”, which evokes an image of scarlet begonias and such, but takes a minor key turn before morphing to “Terrapin Station” proper. The “Terrapin” theme is based around a not-too-intricate guitar part, part riffing and part chords, that is unfortunately matched and ultimately overshadowed by the orchestration. Following a crescendo, “Terrapin Transit”, credited to the two drummers in the band, recalls some of the Eastern influences of the “Blues For Allah” suite, and nicely folds into the “At A Siding” vocal portion, which features an uncredited trumpet a la Miles Davis. The drummers also drive “Terrapin Flyer” and its quickly syncopated beats under Jerry’s high-speed (sped up?) soloing, though the orchestration veers dangerously close to calypso. After another crescendo, the main theme returns as “Refrain”, this time with the choir intoning the title with different affectation.
Despite the overall success of the suite, the dated production as well as the clunkers on side one do not serve Terrapin Station well, rendering it sub-par. Luckily, there are better versions of these songs in the Dead archives, which continues to expand in general availability. (The cover has its charm, too.)
The eventual expanded CD would have been a perfect opportunity to concoct a stripped-back mix of the “Terrapin” suite, but apparently nobody thought of that. Still, it did offer some interesting rarities, including the otherwise unrecorded Lesh track “Equinox”, a Dead rendition of “Catfish John”, which had already appeared on Jerry’s most recent solo album, an early studio take of “Fire On The Mountain”, and a lengthy “Dancin’ In The Street” from their fan-favorite 1977 show at Cornell University.

Grateful Dead Terrapin Station (1977)—
2006 expanded CD: same as 1977, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, June 18, 2021

Queen 2: Queen II

With the imaginatively titled Queen II, Queen attempted to further their image, though they still seemed stuck between Zeppelin-style hard rock and English prog. They’re clearly still finding their way, but not embarrassingly. (As a record or cassette, it was divided into “Side White” and “Side Black”, which wasn’t just an art concept to flesh out the packaging. Mostly it makes it easier to remember which similarly titled epic is on which side.)
The album begins with a stately “Procession” of treated guitars—no synthesizers!—with only a kick drum helping it along before morphing into “Father To Son”, which has that triumphant anthemic feel they were perfecting. “White Queen (As It Began)” follows the maiden-in-the-tower trope without being too cheesy, and builds nicely. Brian May sings “Some Day One Day”, with its “Ramble On” acoustic and electrics, then Roger Taylor offers “The Loser In The End”, still trying out his rock ‘n roll rooster persona. It’s got good crunch and nicely layered guitars, bass, and of course drums, but it’s a style they’d leave behind.
Interestingly, Brian wrote most of the white side, while Freddie Mercury gets sole writing credit for the songs on the black. These seem to be even more inspired by fairy tales and whatnot, and even segue like any good prog side should. “Ogre Battle” takes a while to rumble in before exploding with backwards sounds and heavy, heavy riffing, sounding almost like Black Sabbath before Freddie starts singing. Any gravitas is deflated by the way over-the-top harpsichord on “The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke”, not to mention the truly dippy lyrics. “Nevermore”, though brief, provides a good future template, based on piano with stacks of vocals. There’s only a brief pause before “The March Of The Black Queen” incorporates tongue-twisting couplets and several melodies into another harbinger of a certain rhapsody. While it’s not a lyrical fit with what’s come before, “Funny How Love Is” is a perfect, energetic successor. Finally, “Seven Seas Of Rhye” appears as a fully fledged song and without the ellipsis from the first album, bringing a challenging album to a strong finish. (The snatch of “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” stands out strangely, but would also be explained in time.)
The first expansion of Queen II included the ultra-bluesy yet campy B-side “See What A Fool I’ve Been”, plus a remix of “Ogre Battle” and a misguided extended dance mix of “Seven Seas Of Rhye” that pits the vocals against samples from a variety of Queen tracks. Only “See What A Fool I’ve Been” was repeated on the next upgrade, alongside a BBC performance of same plus “Nevermore” from another BBC session, a live “White Queen”, and an instrumental mix of “Seven Seas Of Rhye”.

Queen Queen II (1974)—3
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1974, plus 3 extra tracks
2011 remaster: same as 1974, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Stephen Stills 12: Pieces

The outfit Stephen Stills called Manassas had a lot of potential, but had imploded before really reaching it. Stills and main partner Chris Hillman were increasingly distracted by their legacies and other collaborators to sustain it past the year they were together. (These ears felt Hillman was unfairly kept to second fiddle status anyway.)
So in a year when Crosby, Stills & Nash were celebrating their fortieth anniversary (and Graham Nash and Neil Young put out their own box sets), it was nice for Stills to curate a third, lost Manassas album. Pieces presents a deeper glimpse at the band’s potential, touching on all the genres they attempted to cover while they were together. It also gives more though not equal time to Hillman.
Some of these are alternate versions, but not alternate takes per se. “Witching Hour” and “Like A Fox” are absolute gems astoundingly left off the first album; “Sugar Babe” is an excellent improvement on the track from Stills’ second album, whereas “Word Game” is given an unnecessary shuffle. “Fit To Be Tied” would turn into “Shuffle Just As Bad” in a few years, while “My Love Is A Gentle Thing” had already been heard on the CSN box and was started in 1970 and finished in 1975, which doesn’t explain what it’s doing here. “High And Dry” goes from a “bluesman with my guitar” growl to a faster arrangement with what we assume is a canned audience cheering. “I Am My Brother” is Stills alone with his acoustic.
“Lies” is a rockin’ Hillman alternate, while “Love And Satisfy” shows another side of his talent. He likely leads a bluegrass detour through “Panhandle Rag”, “Uncle Pen”, and “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)”, including an alternate of “Do You Remember The Americans”, and including input from sometime Burrito Byron Berline. For contrast, the brief “Tan Sola Y Triste” instrumental fits the Latin side of the band.
Had some of these tracks made it to Down The Road, the band just might have endured longer. Or maybe not. At any rate, it’s a treat to have the material on Pieces available. Its length and quality illuminate its predecessors, and that was the point.

Manassas Pieces (2009)—3

Friday, June 11, 2021

Van Morrison 41: Duets

The all-star duets album had its peak in the ‘90s, when the likes of Elton John and Frank Sinatra crossed genres and generations to expand their sales footprints. So it’s surprising when someone like Van Morrison makes such a clear commercial move, and that he did it this late in his career.
Both the cover and the title of Duets: Re-working The Catalogue make the intention clear, but this is not a grab for a renaissance a la Carlos Santana or Ray Charles. These are all takes on deep cuts from throughout his catalog, and all his own compositions. The lesser-known songs work better than the “hits”; “Real Real Gone” sounds exactly like the original, except that Michael Bublé enunciates half of it.
For the most part he sticks with likeminded veteran performers, such as Bobby Womack, Mavis Staples, and Natalie Cole, who’s known for possibly one duet too many. George Benson sings and plays welcome guitar on “Higher Than The World”, and “Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby?” features none other than the song’s subject. “Fire In The Belly” has some good repartee with Steve Winwood and Chris Farlowe does his best Ray Charles on “Born To Sing”. “Get On With The Show” sounds like Otis Day & The Knights, but he and Georgie Fame mix well per usual. You can skip the last track, wherein Van and Taj Mahal try to out-scat and stutter each other, but we actually get hear Van laugh at the end.
From the younger crowd, Joss Stone ably tackles “Wild Honey”, we’ve never heard of Clare Teal or Gregory Porter. Shana Morrison sounds better singing with her dad than solo on “Rough God Goes Riding”, but we’re rather partial to “Streets Of Arklow” with Mick Hucknall.
As duets albums go, Duets: Re-working The Catalogue could have been a lot worse, and maybe, just maybe, somebody dug through the back catalog to contrast and compare after hearing these. Maybe.

Van Morrison Duets: Re-working The Catalogue (2015)—3

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Geddy Lee: My Favorite Headache

Following Neil Peart’s self-imposed retirement from music and Rush in particular, Geddy Lee took the opportunity to record a solo album—his first bold departure from the band and brand since appearing on “Take Off” by Bob and Doug MacKenzie.
My Favorite Headache isn’t a radical departure from ‘90s Rush, expect that Geddy wrote all the lyrics and collaborated with fellow Canadian Ben Mink on the music, both writing and performing. (Mink had spent the years since his cameo on Signals by racking up Grammys and kudos with k.d. lang.) Matt Cameron, of Soundgarden and then Pearl Jam, plays the majority of the drums. Still, there’s no mistaking who’s singing, though he’s certainly come a long way from the strangled yowl of a quarter-century before.
The title track burbles with riffing along the lines of Les Claypool in Primus, but this is not a bass-heavy showcase; indeed “The Present Tense” and “Window To The World” sport fairly radio-friendly hooks. “Nothing Is Perfekt” sports both techno touches and an arty string section, plus a piano part in the place of a solo. “Runaway Train” sounds familiar, but keeps it interesting by dropping beats out of the measures.
Geddy had written the occasional lyric before in Rush, yet it’s clear that being Neil Peart’s mouthpiece had an influence on his own approach. That said, “The Angels’ Share” would not have passed the Professor’s muster. “Moving To Bohemia” brings back the burbling bass for an interesting concept (namely, leaving suburbia, utopia, etc.) “Home On The Strange” gets nice and funky, as if he’d been listening to the band Tonic, just as “Slipping” starts as a ballad with a lot of piano and acoustic guitars, then gains tension a la Alice In Chains. Despite its standard rock arrangement, “Still” sounds very much to these ears like a modern Rush song. “Grace To Grace” does too, but seems forced until you realize he’s talking about the Holocaust.
Overall, My Favorite Headache is right in line with the more mainstream tracks from the last handful of Rush albums—the Atlantic years, if you will. It wasn’t a huge seller, suggesting that it was all or nothing for their fans. At the very least, it’s much more enjoyable than Victor.

Geddy Lee My Favorite Headache (2000)—3

Friday, June 4, 2021

Neil Finn 1: Try Whistling This

After Crowded House disbanded, Neil Finn found himself without a band for the first time in decades. So rather than start over with a new combo, he worked from the ground up, mostly on his own, embracing new technology to explore his more experimental side.
The first thing we hear on Try Whistling This is a primitive drum machine, which continues under the pleasantly picked acoustic guitar and sunny melody of “Last One Standing”. Altogether, a good start. “Souvenir” is reminiscent of the lo-fi experiments on the Finn Brothers album, right down to the octave harmonies. With a keyboard and verse right off a ‘70s Eno track, “King Tide” is off-putting at first, but once the other instruments come in, the song rises. Following the moody title track, which comes into its own during the last minute or so, the album’s clear highlight is “She Will Have Her Way”, which could have been a smash hit nationwide had it only gotten airplay. If it wasn’t so slow, maybe “Sinner” would have impressed some programmer, based as it is around a cocktail piano and strings loop.
Knowing how these musical geniuses come up with ideas, we’re going to assume “Twisty Bass” was a working title that stuck. Whatever the story, it’s too long and draggy to keep interest. Luckily, “Loose Tongue” sports one of those infectious riffs; if not for the modern effects, it could be a Crowded House track, and it’s got a cool coda too. “Truth” and “Astro” are further buried gems, and much more straightforward than the middle of the album, but he dumps out the effects bag for “Dream Date”, which is otherwise catchy. “Faster Than Light” suggests that he and R.E.M. were listening to some of the same producers for ideas around the same time. Finally, “Addicted” wanders around a simple tack piano, before winding slowly down to a stop.
Try Whistling This was underwhelming upon release, for those of us still stuck in the sunny power pop of the House. It’s improved in retrospect, with many melodies emerging from the murk. Kudos to him for taking the chance.

Neil Finn Try Whistling This (1998)—3

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Clash 2: Give ‘Em Enough Rope

The highly anticipated second album by the Clash was the first to be officially released in the United States, and it does seem to take a more American approach. While still recorded in London, the producer of choice was Sandy Pearlman, best known then for masterminding Blue Oyster Cult. His approach on Give ‘Em Enough Rope was to bury the vocals, which dilutes whatever message the band was trying to express, but also results in an album best played and enjoyed loud.
Indeed, “Safe European Home” leaps from the speakers, and seamlessly segues from rock to reggae for the foreshadowing at the end, as Joe Strummer intones variations on the phrase “Rudie can’t fail.” “English Civil War” tries a little hard to be militant, based as it is around “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, but “Tommy Gun” sports a terrific arrangement, with the guitars all power chords and new drummer Topper Headon imitating the bursts of ammunition. “Julie’s In The Drug Squad” is a goof on pub rock, with BOC’s Allen Lanier dancing around the piano. Paul Simonon had been practicing the bass, which is to the fore of the mix on “Last Gang In Town”.
“Guns On The Roof” cops the “I Can’t Explain” riff but throws enough harmonics and dynamics behind it for you to forget the steal. On “Drug-Stabbing Time” you really are hearing a saxophone, contributed by Stan Bronstein of Elephant’s Memory. Mick Jones doesn’t get a lead vocal until “Stay Free”, but it’s a good one, a wistful message to a missed childhood friend, wherever he or she may be now. “Cheapskates” is a little sludgy, more interesting for Mick’s lead lines weaving throughout. “That’s No Way To Spend Your Youth” was the American title given to “All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts)”, and the mix doesn’t do it any favors except for stamping your feet along.
While not as bold a statement as their debut—whichever one you heard first—Give ‘Em Enough Rope still delivers, satisfying the fans they’d started piling up. They were already proving they weren’t a bunch of tone-deaf punks, and were already evolving.

The Clash Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)—3

Friday, May 28, 2021

Zombies 2: Odessey & Oracle

Despite constant recording and touring, the Zombies weren’t able to ride the success of their first hit singles. Unbowed, they put their all into the ambitiously titled Odessey & Oracle, which ultimately broke up the band.
While the title and matching cover art reflected the psychedelic Summer of Love, the music was merely well-crafted, straightforward pop, built again mostly around Rod Argent’s keyboards, embellished by harmonies clearly influenced by that other cult classic Pet Sounds, and the Mellotrons left lying around at Olympic and EMI’s Abbey Road studios. The songs themselves, written separately by Argent and Chris White but perfectly matched, reflected the shift from mindless pop to near literature, as befit any band trying to compete in the marketplace with the likes of the Beatles and the Kinks.
From the start, these aren’t your ordinary love songs. “Care Of Cell 44” is a musical love letter to someone about to be released from prison, and it’s never stated what the inmate’s gender is. It’s positively infectious from start to finish, and the repeats of the “feel so good you’re coming home soon” hook never get tiring. Inspired by the macabre William Faulkner short story, the chamber pop arrangement of “A Rose For Emily” is fitting. Using an acoustic guitar for a change, the contrasting minor and major keys of “Maybe After He’s Gone” effectively reflect its lyrics, and a Leslie effect on the electric provides “Beechwood Park” with its own shade. The parlor sound on each verse of “Brief Candles” transforms to living color for each verse before returning, and we really like how the guitar is paired with the Mellotron throughout “Hung Up On A Dream”.
Vinyl is a good way to experience the album, as the flute setting of the Mellotron dominates “Changes”, luckily balanced by the harmonies on the choruses, and tension between. The most Beatlesque track is the jaunty “I Want Her, She Wants Me” with a prominent bass line wandering precisely underneath the dancing harpsichord. The joyful hope continues on “This Will Be Our Year”, though we prefer the mix without the horns. If anything might derail the listener’s enjoyment, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” is a harrowing antiwar song set in the first World War, a common fascination for British musicians of the time. Sung with suitable quivering by Chris White, it made for an unlikely single. “Friends Of Mine” returns the mood to sunny, as the narrator celebrates all the happy couples in his life, the backing vocals even reciting their names. Finally, “Time Of The Season” manages to be a musical progression for the band, while still evoking the cool of “She’s Not There”, with those sighing call-and-response vocals and a virtuosic organ solo.
It’s fitting that the album ends with the song that ultimately got the album onto the charts. The omnipresent Al Kooper was doing A&R for Columbia Records at the time, found Odessey & Oracle in a stack of import LPs, and spearheaded its American release. Its subsequent success prompted the suits to get the band to record a follow-up, and they tried, but Colin Blunstone had already quit the business and the remaining members were already morphing into Argent. (Once again, the Zombie Heaven box set nicely fills in the blanks.)
Over the years Odessey & Oracle became one of those relatively obscure records touted by rock snobs as a lost classic. Depending on how sick you were of hearing “Time Of The Season” on oldies stations, newcomers could be justifiably skeptical. But it truly is a grower, we’re lucky to have it in the world. It’s been reissued several times in the digital age, usually with bonus tracks like those later singles, sometimes with the mono and stereo versions together. (We lean towards the mono ourselves.)

The Zombies Odessey & Oracle (1968)—

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Zombies 1: The Zombies

The so-called British Invasion following the Beatles brought a deluge of pop combos to American airwaves, and given the precedent of the Fab Four, wacky names abounded. The Zombies, however, were neither a Merseybeat group nor an R&B outfit trying to grab the brass ring while clad in matching suits and sporting moptop haircuts. For one, the band was driven not by guitars but largely by main songwriter Rod Argent’s electric piano. Colin Blunstone had a predominantly breathy voice that could leap into a shriek on command. Harmonies abounded.
True to the American tradition of chopping up British LPs and leaning on the hits, The Zombies cherrypicked from their native debut Begin Here, adding a few leftovers from B-sides and EPs, and gave key attention to the two smash hits written by Argent. “She’s Not There” came first, and takes the opening spot on side one. Despite its sophisticated arrangement, in each chorus there’s a wonderfully audible gasp of an inhale that most producers would have been quick to fix. “Tell Her No” wasn’t as big, its use of Bacharach-style major-seventh chords have vaulted it as a major classic, and one of the gems of the era. Beyond those, “It’s Alright With Me” begins as a generic dance number with a riff and ascending chords, but throws a curve ball at the end of the second verse by slowing down the tempo, then diving into a top-speed piano solo. Similarly, “Sometimes” begins one way, then chugs along over a Vox organ for aural variety. “Woman” lets guitarist Paul Atkinson play the riff.
Argent wasn’t the only band member holding his head up (yeah, we went there) in the songwriting department. Bassist Chris White offered up the musically intricate “I Don’t Want To Know” and the tongue-tripping “What More Can I Do”. “Work ‘n’ Play” is an instrumental credited to their producer, and throws in a few unexpected changes under the harmonica.
Everybody covered Motown in those days, but their take on “You Really Got A Hold On Me” gets a twist by getting attached to Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” in a medley. “Can’t Nobody Love You” was borrowed from Solomon Burke, and the Gershwins’ “Summertime” is taken as a waltz showing off their chops. That’s not to say they couldn’t hold their own in a club, as demonstrated by their stomp through “I Got My Mojo Working”, led by Hugh Grundy demolishing the drums.
Even two-hit wonders had trouble keeping momentum in the face of shifting PR strategies, so it was years before more of the band’s work was properly heard in context. The comprehensive Zombie Heaven box set collects all the songs here as well as on singles, EPs, plus of course the British album, showing off what the band actually could offer if only anyone had heard them. They did put their all into a grand hurrah of sorts, and we’ll discuss that in due time.

The Zombies The Zombies (1965)—3

Friday, May 21, 2021

Genesis 20: Turn It On Again

Barely a year after Phil Collins had compiled his own hits collection, Genesis got one of their own. Turn It On Again: The Hits sticks very close to that premise, with half of the program devoted to songs from Invisible Touch and We Can’t Dance. (Hey, it says “hits” right in the title, not “best of”.)
The compilers do their best with the space left over, and the first few tracks do provide something of a balance via the “title” track and “Mama”, which, like several selections here, is presented in its radio edit. We get a handful of further songs from the ‘80s, with “Follow You Follow Me” and “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” the only selections from the ‘70s. The stillborn “Congo” from Calling All Stations is something of a middle finger, only slightly offset by the one “new” track. “The Carpet Crawlers 1999” is a re-recording including the five members of the “classic” lineup, with Steve Hackett getting to add lots more guitar and Phil prominently harmonizing with Peter Gabriel, before taking over the last verse all his own. (Rumor has it the original plan was to have Ray Wilson sing a verse, but he was no longer in the band when they finally got around to recording, so tough bananas on him.)
Longtime Genesis fans would have had all the original albums anyway, but when Phil Collins returned in 2007 for a reunion tour, Turn It On Again: The Hits was expanded to two discs and subtitled The Tour Edition. This time, after starting with that “title” song, they followed the reverse chronological template of 2004’s three-disc Platinum Collection, going backwards from the We Can’t Dance material, adding “Tell Me Why” from that album for some reason. “Illegal Alien” plus further songs from Abacab filled out the picture, while the second disc did a better job of sampling the ‘70s, with such rarities as “Happy The Man” and two tracks from the Spot The Pigeon EP. It’s still a little light on Peter Gabriel, but again, we’re talking hits here. (“The Carpet Crawlers 1999” closed the first disc, while “Congo” was stuck all the way at the end of the second, after the single edit of “The Knife”.)

Genesis Turn It On Again: The Hits (1999)—
2007 Tour Edition: same as 1999, plus 16 extra tracks

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Flying Burrito Bros 3: The Flying Burrito Bros.

The legend—or cult, if you will—of Gram Parsons has become so pervasive in the past decades that the third album by the Flying Burrito Brothers is often overlooked, and not just by us. This simply self-titled release was recorded after Parsons was bounced from the band, but it does carry over the rest of the lineup from the previous album, with the addition of a young songwriter named Rick Roberts. While unknown at the time, he blended with Chris Hillman’s vision of the band, enough to dominate the songwriting credits on The Flying Burrito Bros.
However, the opening track is a confident take on Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever”, led by Hillman’s weary but certain voice. The beautifully yearning “Colorado” is enough to establish Roberts as a key addition, and every alt.country band worth its salt should have this in their setlists. Hillman’s “Hand To Mouth” is barely country, but the secret weapon is guest Earl Poole Ball on the piano. “Tried So Hard” is a Gene Clark composition, held over from the week and a half he was in the band, while “Just Can’t Be” is a sneaky, swampy one.
Loyal Byrds always fly home to the Dylan nest, and “To Ramona” starts side two, a barn-dance waltz designed to let Sneaky Pete Kleinow explore the possibilities of his pedal steel. “Four Days Of Rain” is another winner from Roberts, and it’s not until just before the final chorus that you realize the bass plays the same note through the verses. “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” isn’t much musically, but the verses make up for it. “All Alone” works a little harder to be deeper, then Bernie Leadon’s busy banjo carries “Why Are You Crying” for a bluegrass finish over non-standard chords.
Where Burrito Deluxe sounded alternately forced and half-assed, The Flying Burrito Bros. is a solid, enjoyable blend of country rock, and a definitely a progression, if not as inventive as The Gilded Palace Of Sin. Commercially, it didn’t matter. Soon after the album failed to ignite any interest, the band scattered, with Chris Hillman going off to join Stephen Stills in Manassas, Bernie Leadon joining a new band that would be called the Eagles, and Rick Roberts carrying the Burritos brand until starting a new project called Firefall. (The drummer? Erstwhile Byrd and Burrito Michael Clarke.)

The Flying Burrito Bros. The Flying Burrito Bros. (1971)—3

Friday, May 14, 2021

Marshall Crenshaw 11: This Is Easy

Certain artists have that first album that’s so solid that the idea of a greatest hits album almost seems redundant. The Cars and the Pretenders come to mind, but in Marshall Crenshaw’s case, where his later albums never had the legs of his first, a hits album is an opportunity to show people what they might be missing.
Being the good curators they’d always been, the Rhino label went for the one-two punch, by expanding his stellar debut simultaneously with compiling a best-of. This Is Easy! offered an unbeatable chronological sequence of his finest ear candy. Opening with the early wide-eyed single “Something’s Gonna Happen”, it moves through only four songs from the debut, and includes the “You’re My Favorite Waste Of Time” B-side. Field Day and Downtown each get four songs, and the balance of his studio albums get smaller but choice samples, right up to “Starless Summer Sky” from 1996.
Those two singles are the only real rarities, but since many of the albums had gone out of print by then, This Is Easy! very conveniently revived songs that had been lost to indifference. Some even appeared in their single edits, which guaranteed that the disc was filled to capacity. In fact, Rhino’s double disc The Definitive Pop Collection six years later expanded the program by a mere eight songs, tacking on a few more recent tracks but also adding “Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’” from 1987’s La Bamba soundtrack. And for all the different producers and players involved, everything goes together like they were meant to be.

Marshall Crenshaw This Is Easy! The Best Of Marshall Crenshaw (2000)—4

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Todd Rundgren 25: No World Order

Ever the technophile, Todd Rundgren leapt into the possibilities of interactive music by offering his compositions as a series of files that could be programmed, sampled, and manipulated by any listener with the technology (read: cash) and the patience to handle it. For those who would rather hear his latest music as complete songs, a non-interactive version of No World Order was designed to suffice, though still credited to his TR-i moniker. With 16 tracks, six of which were alternate versions, this was still presented as an uninterrupted program, to encourage the shuffle play function on the listener’s CD player to encourage random and infinite variations of the sequence. (A year later, Rhino released No World Order Lite, which stuck to the ten songs, though it didn’t recoup their losses much.)
All of this makes a simple recap of the musical content more difficult than usual, since the music was designed to be fluid. With the exception of his voice and guitars, the accompaniment is largely computer-generated for a very sterile atmosphere. Luckily, “Worldwide Epiphany” is tuneful and rocking, though his rap detour (not the only one here) shows a debt to Public Enemy. “Day Job” is delivered in a Chuck D bark, punctuated by some berserk samples, but while “Fascist Christ” is more direct and topical, it’s hard to take him seriously. “Love Thing” is new jack swing two years after Bell Biv Devoe’s peak, whereas “Property” has a “Billie Jean” bounce. By the time the title track comes around the rap approach has become tiresome, and it goes on to derail “Proactivity”. However, “Word Made Flesh” brings back the rock for a potential anthem, and “Time Stood Still” and “Fever Broke” display more of his own classic brand of soul music.
While No World Order isn’t made for casual listening, Todd still displays his expert grasp on production and songwriting throughout. Maybe somebody out there has the capability to remix the tunes, dilute the raps, and update the dated textures into something more approachable. But then, doesn’t that negate the point of the exercise?

Todd Rundgren/TR-i No World Order (1993)—

Friday, May 7, 2021

Roxy Music 7: Manifesto

The boys in Roxy Music got their side projects out of their system, and restarted the band without any agenda outside of making music. Gone were the camp affectations and ironic nostalgia; with Manifesto they were all about style and what would soon be called new romantic.
Side one, or the “East Side”, and the title track slowly burbles into place underneath a solo by rotating bass player Alan Spenner over a near-disco beat. Bryan Ferry’s lyric is kinda poetic, and the track comes to a surprising finish like, well, a spaceship taking off. “Trash” is right in line with current new wave, thanks to a cheesy organ. “Angel Eyes” would be re-recorded in a more dance vein, but the original album version is a lot more rock, and a lot more fun, honestly. “Still Falls The Rain” is a pleasant trifle, with all the Roxy ingredients in place, while “Stronger Through The Years” has something of a sinister undercurrent, and lots of further input from Alan Spenner.
The “West Side” is a little more direct, or is it? “Ain’t That So” seems to be bouncing in and out of different tempos, throwing out a melodic twist here and there that bucks the simplicity of the chorus, which consists of repetitions of the title. Except for the prominent Andy Mackay saxophone, “My Little Girl” sports harmonies right off the latest Cars album and a snare sound akin to somebody kicking a garbage can. “Dance Away” is an apt portrait of heartache, but it took a remix for the single to rearrange the structure and tighten up the track. Unfortunately, “Cry, Cry, Cry” is meaningless pop, though Phil Manzanera does give his all to his solos. The theme of dancing away heartache returns on “Spin Me Round”, ending the album rather softly.
The title may have been meant to be ironic, since Manifesto isn’t the grand statement their earlier albums seemed to be. They’re merely doing what Roxy Music collectively did well. For other people this might be considered treading water, but in this case it works. (Fun fact: after “Angel Eyes” and “Dance Away” were respectively re-recorded and remixed as singles, the new versions replaced the originals on future pressings of the album, as well as the compact disc. When the CD was remastered in 1999, the original “Angel Eyes” was reinstated, but “Dance Away” was not. Both were sound decisions.)

Roxy Music Manifesto (1979)—3

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Dire Straits 7: Money For Nothing

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

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

Friday, April 30, 2021

Nilsson 1: Spotlight On Nilsson

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

Nilsson Spotlight On Nilsson (1966)—2

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Rickie Lee Jones 1: Rickie Lee Jones

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

Rickie Lee Jones Rickie Lee Jones (1979)—3

Friday, April 23, 2021

Phil Collins 9: Tarzan

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

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Phil Collins 8: A Hot Night In Paris

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

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

Friday, April 16, 2021

Kiss 6: Rock And Roll Over

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

Kiss Rock And Roll Over (1976)—