Friday, February 26, 2021

Elton John 16: Greatest Hits Volume II

Maybe Elton (or his record company) knew his streak was over, as another “hits” package was pushed out to maximize any sales. Unlike the first installment, Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II ran all over the place, even including songs that predated that previous mop-up—never a good sign. It did have a nice booklet with lyrics and photos, which was nice.

After establishing the thesis yet again with “The Bitch Is Back”, his cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” graduates from single to album track, and yes, that would be John Lennon himself playing “reggae guitars” on the break. “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” is still heartbreaking, but “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” his single duet with protégée Kiki Dee is all but irresistible. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” brings the seesaw back to close the side.

Another non-album single, “Philadelphia Freedom” was all over the radio as America geared up for its bicentennial, and we still can’t figure out what it has to do with Billie Jean King’s tennis team outside the title. “Island Girl” and “Grow Some Funk Of Your Own” are good and bad choices, respectively, from Rock Of The Westies, and then we go all the way back to 1971 for “Levon”. Finally, “Pinball Wizard” reminded folks of one of the cooler sequences in the Tommy film, and showcases the Elton John Band at their best.

There’s no question that Greatest Hits Volume II delivers the goods. Back then, it did offer value for money by collecting songs from various sources, and there’s no denying how much he had dominated the charts, the jukeboxes, and the airwaves in those days.

Nothing is simple with Elton, of course; outside the U.S., “Bennie And The Jets” replaced “Levon” in the lineup. Then, when his catalog was standardized worldwide in the ‘90s, the remaster swapped out “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” for “Tiny Dancer” and “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)”—not exactly an even swap—though it kept “Levon”. Future hits collections would be more comprehensive in including the necessary hits, just as upgraded and expanded albums have collected various of the standalone singles.

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

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Cat Stevens 16: The Laughing Apple

Yusuf continued to embrace his history as Cat Stevens, and the legacy it entailed, with the mix of new and old on The Laughing Apple. Once again credited to his current and previous names, it’s another pleasant set of singer-songwriter folk music, just like he used to make.

In fact, unless one were intimately aware of his deep catalog, it’s not always easy to tell which songs are remakes. Four songs, including “Blackness Of The Night”, “Northern Wind”, “I’m So Sleepy”, and the title track, were originally recorded and released fifty years earlier on his second album. With the exception of some ornamental touches, the new versions are much more relaxed and not as fruity as the style of the times. “Grandsons” is an update of a Mona Bone Jakon outtake that had appeared on a few latter-day compilations, and rings truer in his current voice than it did then.

If “You Can Do (Whatever)” sounds like a cousin of “If You Want To Sing Out”, that’s probably because it was also intended for the Harold And Maude soundtrack but wasn’t finished in time. Similarly, “Mighty Peace” was begun in the early ‘60s. He wasn’t the first guy to put new music to “Mary And The Little Lamb”, but at least the choruses transcend the verses.

Of the new songs, “See What Love Did To Me” could have fallen off either Tillerman or Teaser, and listen for the subtle substitution of “God” in the later verses. “Olive Hill” is a spritely reverie for halcyon days, with something of a “cowboys on the prairie” instrumental break, while “Don’t Blame Them” is a call for universal tolerance with a melody inspired by Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata.

The Laughing Apple also sports contributions from longtime collaborator Alun Davies, helping the warm sound. The package is nice, too, full of storybook-style sketches for each of the songs.

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

Friday, February 19, 2021

Simon & Garfunkel 9: Old Friends Live

Vintage concerts were one thing, but as long as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were still alive and performing separately, audiences wanted to see and hear them harmonize together. Just a few years into the century, they finally got their chance.

Old Friends: Live On Stage presents the bulk of the set from their reunion tour (extra songs were added to the DVD, which also offers the spectacle of Paul doing ill-advised rock star poses). Their voices are older, certainly, but they still have that blend. However, while the songs are recognizable, these are not carbon copies; many are transformed into the more modern sounds coming from the band, handpicked by Paul. And when they do replicate the record, as on “Hazy Shade Of Winter”, the singers have modified their parts. Though there is some overlap, it’s not a straight copy of the Central Park concert; this time out we get to hear such nuggets as “The Only Living Boy In New York”, a medley of “At The Zoo” and “Baby Driver”, “Leaves That Are Green”, and even “My Little Town”.

About halfway through the first act they chat a little bit about their youth and history together; Artie is as gracious as usual, and Paul takes the opportunity to take a few shots. They do a brief busk of “Hey Schoolgirl”, then bring out the actual Everly Brothers for a combined assault on “Bye Bye Love”. Artie sings “Kathy’s Song”, surprisingly, and trades verses with Paul on “American Tune”; “Slip Slidin’ Away” is the only other nod to either solo career. And while he cedes the second verse of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to its author, Paul’s attempts at being soulful fall flat. Finally, on a new studio song called “Citizen Of The Planet”, included as a closing “bonus”, their voices sound younger, leading us to wonder if this is an outtake from Hearts And Bones.

Maybe you had to be there, but at least this particular reunion wasn’t embarrassing, considering that at this late date they’re unlikely to try it again. It’s nice to know that while they were getting along, we get to feel it.

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Simon & Garfunkel 8: Live 1967 & 1969

With a concise catalog and outtakes already mined, how else could Columbia capitalize on Simon & Garfunkel in the 21st century? The answer was so head-slappingly obvious it’s a wonder it took so long: live albums from the archives. Two sets were eventually released, both stepping far up sonically from the bootlegs that had circulated through the decades.

Live From New York City, 1967 expanded on the Lincoln Center peek-in from the Old Friends box, leaving “Red Rubber Ball” as an exclusive to that set. It’s just Artie and Paul onstage, with none of the anonymous session polish, and nearly every song gets something of an explanatory introduction, adding to the intimacy. Most of the set would be familiar to anyone who had the albums, plus “A Hazy Shade Of Winter” was the current hit single. The future B-side “You Don’t Know Where Your Interest Lies” is something of a surprise, as it hadn’t been finished yet, and “A Church Is Burning” would only be known to those who tracked down Paul’s elusive solo debut. (He switches between six-string and 12-string acoustic guitars depending on the tune, plus you can hear his affected British accent even on the straight intros.)

First released as a Starbucks exclusive, Live 1969 was compiled from a handful of concerts from the autumn of that year. Nicely sequenced, it begins with the boys playing by themselves, joined seven songs in by Wrecking Crew legends Fred Carter, Jr on guitar, Joe Osborn on bass, Larry Knechtel on keys, and Hal Blaine on drums. In addition to adding variety in the song selection, in this case the boys sound energized with a band behind them, and adapt well.

Several remarks are made throughout regarding the album they say they’re trying to finish, and four of those new songs are premiered here, including a stunning performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. The crowd welcomes “The Boxer”, the newest song they knew, which here sports the extra verse familiar to us now from the 1982 reunion, replacing the instrumental break from the studio version. The album closes as it began, with only the duo onstage, including an efficiently arranged “Old Friends/Bookends”. (It has since been determined that the versions of “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and “Kathy’s Song” are the same lovely ones that appeared on Greatest Hits, while “That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine” is not the same one as on Old Friends. The entire set was eventually included in the 40th anniversary edition of Bridge Over Troubled Water, which was of course the album in progress when the shows originally took place.)

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

Friday, February 12, 2021

Doors 11: Box Set

Seeing as most bands were commemorated with box sets by the end of the century, it made sense that the Doors would get their own as well. With six studio albums to cherry-pick, they did their fans a solid by concentrating on rare material for three of the four discs in the imaginatively titled Box Set.

The first and third discs focus on a sprawling pile of live recordings and studio outtakes, sequenced without regard to chronology or source. Seeing as the thrust of the set was to highlight Jim Morrison’s “genius” and “fearlessness”, such a random approach makes sense. The set begins, appropriately, with “Five To One” from the infamous Miami concert that got Jim arrested for, among other things, calling the audience a bunch of “f—king idiots”. This is followed by a “jazz” version of “Queen Of The Highway” for an exercise in extremes, and from there it’s a chaotic bounce back and forth through a six-year stretch. Their earliest demos, before Robbie Krieger joined, are scattered throughout, are notable for Ray Manzarek playing piano a la Ramsey Lewis on songs that would eventually become band staples. (“Go Insane” is the exception, and would have been in popular rotation on the Dr. Demento show.)

The real draw on these discs would be the variety of unreleased songs and sketches, from both stage and studio, most frankly better off unreleased in the first place. For example, “Rock Is Dead” is a 16-minute edit of an hour-long jam the boys put on tape after getting smashed at a Mexican restaurant near the studio. “I Will Never Be Untrue” is something of an Otis Redding homage, Robbie doing his best Steve Cropper imitation. “Black Train Song” finds them wandering through “People Get Ready”, “Mystery Train”, and “Crossroads” via a tune called “Away In India” while teenyboppers scream for “Hello I Love You”. Most surprising to these ears is their arrangement of “Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor”, supposedly with actual strings overdubbed on the spot.

Just to keep it confusing, the third disc begins with “Hello To The Cities”, which combines an Ed Sullivan introduction with Jim purposely greeting an audience with shout-outs to other cites than the one they’re in. “Break On Through” from the Isle of Wight in 1970—one of their last performances—is marred by Ray’s doubling of Jim’s vocal, then we go to Vancouver for sloppy versions of “Rock Me” and “Money” with Albert King sitting in. “Someday Soon” was designed to deflate blissful hippies with a reminder of their mortality, just as “Mental Floss” and the brief “Adolph Hitler” joke (“still alive… I slept with her last night”) are supposed to be provocative. “Orange County Suite” is nice, even though it combines a tape of Jim singing his poetry with modern backing from the other three. This follows “Tightrope Ride”, the only selection from the Jim-less portion of the catalog.

In between, a disc of recordings from the band’s stand at the Felt Forum in early 1970 presents something of a companion to the Absolutely Live album. A few songs from the then-new Morrison Hotel give way to a full performance of “Celebration Of The Lizard”, then a blues detour takes us through “Crawling King Snake” a year before its appearance on an album, ill-advised takes on “Money” and “Gloria”, plus a rambling extemporization credited as “Poontang Blues/Build Me A Woman/Sunday Trucker”. An 18-minute extension on “The End” closes the disc. Even when Jim’s pitch wavers, and it does, the band is tight throughout.

The fourth disc, of “band favorites”, offers five tracks chosen by each of the three surviving members. Obvious tracks like “Light My Fire” and “Riders On The Storm” sit alongside such deep cuts as “Shaman’s Blues” and “Yes, The River Knows”. It’s fairly evenly split between the six albums, though Strange Days is represented the most.

Box Set wouldn’t be the only doorstop unleashed to commemorate the band, of course. Two years later, The Complete Studio Recordings presented the first six albums, supported by none of the B-sides or post-Jim releases, but did include a disc called Essential Rarities culled from the Box Set. (This was released as a standalone disc a year after that, touting the rare track “Woman Is A Devil”, which was merely an excerpt from “Rock Is Dead”.) 2006’s Perception served up remastered versions as well as surround mixes of each of the same albums with their 40th anniversary bonus tracks; five years later, A Collection consisted of just those albums in replica sleeves, with no bonus tracks. (Of more interest to connoisseurs would be the ongoing Bright Midnight series of official bootlegs, which we’re not even to attempt to catalog.)

The Doors Box Set (1997)—3

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Grateful Dead 14: Steal Your Face

Back before quitting the road for a spell, the Dead undertook a few projects to buy time and stay in front of fans. One guaranteed crowd-pleaser was The Grateful Dead Movie, which combined performances from a farewell five-night stand at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom with conversations with actual Deadheads plus psychedelic animation. Of course, by the time the film was finished, the band had resumed touring anyway, so to maximize the documentation of the stint, as well as bolster profits for their failing record label, the double live Steal Your Face album was released as a placeholder.

This was the period where the band was using their “Wall of Sound” PA system, a couple hundred speakers that may have sounded fine in person, but wasn’t recorded very well. Also, where previous live albums had ebb, flow, and momentum, this one seemed mostly a grab bag. It was not well-received, nor did it seem the band had much input past playing the songs in the first place. The energy seems subdued, even for them; “Ship Of Fools”, for one, is taken at a funereal pace, making “Beat It On Down The Line” a welcome pick-me-up, even with Donna Godchaux doing her thing. A few R&B and country covers make their first appearances on a Dead LP after having been in their repertoire for a few years; Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and “Around And Around” don’t have much life, but “Big River” by Johnny Cash and “El Paso” by Marty Robbins are snappier. Similarly, “solo” tracks like “Sugaree” and “Black Throated Wind” get the full band treatment, and Robert Hunter’s “It Must Have Been The Roses” enjoys another workout.

Despite its relation to the film, Steal Your Face was not the official soundtrack album for their movie, nor was it given much love in their ongoing archival program, getting only a couple of straight CD transfers with no extras. Rather, fans are directed to The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack, which offers five discs full of mostly complete performances from the shows, though not all of them, and in a mostly ramshackle order. (It still offers more than the double-DVD reissue of the movie itself.) As for the Wall of Sound era, official band archivists have made several shows available for comparison, as listed below.

Grateful Dead Steal Your Face (1976)—3
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Dick’s Picks Volume Seven (1997)
     • Dick's Picks Volume Twelve (1998)
     • Dick's Picks Volume Twenty-Four (2002)
     • Dick's Picks Volume 31 (2004)
     • The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack (2005)
     • Road Trips: Vol. 2, No. 3: Wall Of Sound (2009)
     • Dave’s Picks Volume 2 (2012)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 9 (2014)
     • Dave’s Picks Volume 13 (2015)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 17 (2016)
     • Pacific Northwest '73-'74: The Complete Recordings (2018)
     • Pacific Northwest '73-'74: Believe It If You Need It (2018)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 34 (2020)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 42 (2022)

Friday, February 5, 2021

Queen 1: Queen

Most successful and, particularly, iconic musical figures have spawned clones. Lots of bands tried to emulate the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and so forth; singers from Frank Sinatra all the way to Madonna inspired imitators. But no other band in history sounds like Queen.

The main reason is the one and only Freddie Mercury, for whom the term “frontman” should be exclusively reserved. It was his voice that perked most people’s ears, plus his onstage presence was positively magnetic. But the other guys weren’t exactly slouches. Brian May built the guitar he played himself, and would eventually get his doctorate in astrophysics to back up his methodical approach to music. He, like drummer Roger Taylor, were excellent singers, and handsome in their own ways, but knew their place in this lineup. John Deacon, the quintessential quiet bass player, didn’t seem to add much beyond bad haircuts, but turned out to be a secret weapon in songwriting.

Their debut album sports some of the aspects that would define their work going forward, even if the distinct Queen sound isn’t there yet. Any band would be proud to have “Keep Yourself Alive” as their opening anthem, full as it is of fretwork, swagger, and energy. “Doing All Right” can’t decide if it’s a campy ballad or prog experiment; the fact that it predates Freddie’s arrival in the band might be the reason, except that the next two tracks sit firmly in fantasyland. “Great King Rat” is an unsavory character out of a nursery rhyme, whose demise is celebrated via a galloping rhythm, while “My Fairy King” begins the experimentation with layered, impossibly high harmonies.

“Liar” is interesting, as it begins with a basic drum solo, a minute or so of riffing on one chord and then another, before the vocal begins its narrative, complete with responses that solidify its genetic connection to a certain bohemian rhapsody down the road. “The Night Comes Down” was written by Brian, but sounds perfectly suited for Freddie; it’s another one where the intro doesn’t seem to point the direction of the track. “Modern Times Rock ‘N’ Roll” is an embarrassing slice of speed metal sung by Roger; luckily it’s over quickly. “Son And Daughter” is slower sludge with enigmatic lyrics that modern ears take as gender-questioning, whereas “Jesus” is much more straightforward, being a scene straight out of the Gospels. In a wonderful instance of foreshadowing, “Seven Seas Of Rhye…” provides a brief instrumental teaser of a song to be completed later.

The band’s albums were grandly reissued and slightly expanded on CD in 1991; Queen’s bonus tracks consisted of the outtake “Mad The Swine”, a later re-recording of “Keep Yourself Alive”, and a modern remix of “Liar”. Of these, only “Mad The Swine” made it to the next round of reissues 20 years later, where it was joined by demos of five album tracks recorded six months before the album sessions proper. (Since the version of “The Night Comes Down” on the album was mixed from the demo, it arguably appears twice.)

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