Friday, March 26, 2021

Journey 14: Revelation

After several grueling years trying to sing like Steve Perry, Steve Augeri’s voice gave out, and the band tapped Jeff Scott Soto, formerly of Yngwie Malmsteen’s band as well as other German metal supergroups. For whatever reason, he didn’t take, and wasn’t needed after Neal Schon saw a Filipino kid on YouTube singing a lot like Steve Perry. (Actually the “kid” was in his late 30s, but that was still a generation younger than the band he was about to join.) Thus, Arnel Pineda stepped into musical history.

Once he was installed as their singer, an album followed. Revelation wasn’t the most accurate title, considering that several editions were bundled with a disc of rerecorded Journey classics with Arnel doing the vocals, and also a live DVD with a set heavy on the hits. The album itself gets off to a bad start with “Never Walk Away”, a blatant rewrite of “Be Good To Yourself”, but at least the kid (yeah, we know) has enough of his own personality to give the proceedings some weight. “Like A Sunshower” slows things down for a pensive waltz-time slow dance, with “Change For The Better” providing a pick-me-up. “Wildest Dream” comes off like a parody of ‘80s Journey, complete with cheesy keyboards, then “Faith In The Heartland” from Generations is given the Arnel treatment, in something of a slap to Mr. Augeri; hopefully he kept his share of the publishing rights the former. (“The Place In Your Heart” was also rejigged, but only released in Japan.) “After All These Years” finds Jonathan Cain writing “Faithfully” again.

“Where Did I Lose Your Love” rewrites “Separate Ways” again, and arguably features the most Perry-like vocal, masked by Neal Schon shredding constantly. “What I Needed” is a good opportunity to go find the men’s room, even though it’s the only tune Arnel is partially credited for writing. “What It Takes To Win” actually uses “there’s no I in team” as a lyric, but at least it’s another musically intricate piece. However, “Turn Down The World Tonight” distills the album’s power ballads into a dirge, and “The Journey (Revelation)” combines Neal’s self-conscious pyrotechnics with disembodied yowling.

Because Schon and Cain have a lock on the songwriting throughout Revelation, it’s hard to state whether they considered Arnel a true team member or just a mouthpiece. The songs average at least five minutes apiece, as the guys weren’t about to edit themselves as long as it all fit on a CD. It’s not the best showcase for the vocalist, but they made more money on the road anyway.

Journey Revelation (2008)—

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Jeff Beck 14: Who Else

Seemingly content to tinker with his cars, Jeff Beck barely made it out of the 20th century without releasing another album. Largely written by collaborator Tony Hymas, Who Else! ventured further away from the fusion sound of his solo heyday, arriving at a hybrid of styles, some approximating electronica. Amazingly, it works.

From the start of “What Mama Said” (incorporating a soundbite from It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) the heavy processed drums drive the rhythm, over which Beck does his thing. That continues sans sample on “Psycho Same”, then the proceedings slow down for “Brush With The Blues”, which only gets furious in the middle. We can hear a crowd cheering, but it’s not clear if the track was recorded live. “Blast From The East” isn’t very successful, with a dated sound reminiscent of the Miami Vice theme, and “Space For The Papa” isn’t much more than the barest track from him to noodle over for seven minutes.

“Angel (Footsteps)” is an improvement, being that there’s a melody and established mood, and “THX1138” brings back the beats. “Hip-Notica” would also be an occasion for noodling, if not for the off-meter and continuous exploration by Hymas on the organ. “Even Odds” is a noisy Jan Hammer tune nicely donated for the project, but it’s easily surpassed by “Declan”, a lament from Irish music legend Dónal Lunny. It’s a nice transition to the comparatively brief “Another Place”, leaving us to wish the entire album was this relaxing.

Who Else! also introduces guitarist Jennifer Batten to Beck’s pool of talent, after she spent several years toiling alongside Michael Jackson. She’s credited on guitar and guitar synthesizer, but we don’t know enough about the technology to discern when she’s playing. Wherever she is, the album makes for good aural wallpaper, and reestablishes Beck as a craftsman to watch.

Jeff Beck Who Else! (1999)—3

Friday, March 19, 2021

Kinks 21: Celluloid Heroes

After six challenging albums, critically and commercially, RCA did not renew the Kinks’ contract, and let them scamper off to greener pastures. Naturally, the label made sure to cash in immediately with a hits album.

Of course, the band didn’t really have any hits to speak of save one, so the title The Kinks’ Greatest — Celluloid Heroes was subjective, save the track that inspired it. True to form, the label put minimal effort into the packaging, giving no information as to the albums that spawned the tracks, and failing to identify any live or single versions, of which there were a few. (On the back cover, some song titles are asterisked, for reasons we have yet to determine.)

That said, the album does take several songs out of their specific contexts, giving them the chance to be heard simply as songs and not as plot points in a concept album. “Everybody’s A Star (Starmaker)” rocks, and it’s the single edit, so it makes its point quick, in time for “Sitting In My Hotel” to provide the downside to the proposition. A live version of “Here Comes Yet Another Day” is a surprise, complete with horn section and backup singers; this segues neatly to the live “Holiday” from Everybody’s In Show-Biz. “Muswell Hillbilly” picks up the pace before “Celluloid Heroes” gets the lighters going.

“20th Century Man” drops us back on Muswell Hill, and “Sitting In The Midday Sun” and “One Of The Survivors” offer two of the better tunes from the first Preservation act, the latter in a unique mix with a different verse. “Alcohol” and “Skin & Bone” are previously released live versions, and as nice as “(A) Face In The Crowd” is, it ends the set on a downer.

When the band’s catalog was upgraded at the turn of the century, Celluloid Heroes was overhauled with a different track listing, substituting studio versions for live versions and album tracks for single edits, adding even songs to fill the CD’s capacity but cutting others. Only “Alcohol” appeared in its live incarnation. If anything, it seemed designed to give equal time to each of the RCA albums, unlike the LP. In the streaming era, however, the title has reverted to that original sequence, preserving the live “Here Comes Another Day” that has appeared nowhere else, as well as the alternate “One Of The Survivors”. Either version of the album only underscores how spotty this period was for those who aren’t already converted.

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

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Lou Reed 29: Hudson River Wind Meditations

As further proof that nobody could pin him down, Lou Reed ended an extended break from recording with another baffling album release. If the liner notes are to be believed, and why wouldn’t they, Hudson River Wind Meditations is a collection of ambient music he recorded solely to accompany his own tai chi regimen. The source is supposedly the wind coming into his loft from the nearby titular river, treated electronically for an even less busy listen than Brian Eno’s static experiments. In other words, the polar opposite of Metal Machine Music.

The first two tracks run about a half hour each; he even titled them. “Move Your Heart” sounds like a basic loop mirroring breathing and movement, whereas “Find Your Note” sounds like fingers on wine glass rims, occasionally approaching the sound of an amp feeding back. “Hudson River Wind (Blend The Ambiance)” turns the volume way up for two minutes to the point where the wind is deafening and a car horn can be heard just over the fade, and “Wind Coda” combines elements of the previous three tracks for a five-minute finale.

Our research has failed to find any endorsement or otherwise from the tai chi enthusiast community. As our exercise regimen consists solely of walking a dog, we can’t speak to its practicality. Nonetheless, Hudson River Wind Meditations is not unpleasant, only occasionally jarring, and easy to ignore.

Lou Reed Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007)—2

Friday, March 12, 2021

Frank Zappa 43: Guitar

An extremely busy release schedule over a period of five years saw several Zappa albums appear on CD for the first time, along with over a dozen new titles. Some were distributed via his own Barking Pumpkin label, but the most elaborate releases came through his arrangement with Rykodisc.

The first such release was Guitar, something of a sequel to 1981’s Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar volumes. The premise was basically the same, being guitar solos excerpted from different live performances of about sixteen songs, mostly recorded in 1982 and 1984. Unlike the earlier version, there is no “grout” offered in the way of dialogue snippets, so it’s mostly just an onslaught of fancy fretwork. Given the popularity of hair metal and such virtuosi on the scene like Joe Satriani and Zappa alumnus Steve Vai, its release was somewhat timely.

The sameness of the material—usually the band vamping on one chord, sometimes over a reggae beat, sometimes over a prerecorded loop, while Frank lets loose—makes Guitar a connoisseur’s choice. (For example, “Republicans” and “Canadian Customs” are similar, but not identical, being that they’re both solos from “Let’s Move To Cleveland”, from different dates.) The synthesizers and electronic drums also date the material, taking some of the human element out of the listening experience. Once again, we’re not going to attempt to dissect each of the tracks, though a few stand out, such as the opening “Sexual Harassment In The Workplace”, which is an actual song with melody and structure, and “Outside Now”, which puts the solo back in its original context. The crowd is very happy to hear “Watermelon In Easter Hay”, if only for half of its album length.

The track titles are sometimes arbitrary (“Do Not Pass Go”), topical (“Jim & Tammy’s Upper Room”), or humorous (“Things That Look Like Meat”) but others are more obvious in their derivation. “For Duane” comes from a performance of “Whipping Post”; “In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky” begins with bassist Scott Thunes playing a certain Iron Butterfly riff while Frank quotes from “Rite Of Spring”; “It Ain’t Necessarily The Saint James Infirmary” quotes from both of those standards.

Again, having a constant onslaught of soloing isn’t everyone’s idea of easy listening. While the CD version added another 50 minutes of music—and another carrot for fans to make the switch from vinyl—the two-record set had different segues due to fewer tracks, and was separated into more palatable chunks of 20 minutes apiece. For those who wanted more songs, and interaction between everybody on those stages, they didn’t have to wait long.

Frank Zappa Guitar (1988)—3

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Yes 1: Yes

For the casual FM radio listener, a Yes song was usually identifiable by the vocals of Jon Anderson. His high-pitched delivery has been distinctive throughout most of the band’s career, but from the very beginning this was a band determined to let each of its members shine on every song. This was not an easy feat to maintain, and probably one reason why they’ve barely managed to keep the same lineup for more than two albums in a row, and sometimes not even that long.

While their fantasy sci-fi approach would take a few albums to take firm hold, much of their eponymous debut sounds like the band they’d become. It’s not immediately apparent on “Beyond And Before”, which begins with a staccato attack on the same note, first on guitar, then doubled on Chris Squire’s extra-trebly Rickenbacker bass. Tony Kaye leans on the Hammond organ, while Bill Bruford explores his drumkit under precise three-part harmonies that disguise Jon Anderson’s part. Of course, most bands start out playing covers, and surprising choices would define Yes at the beginning. The jazz potential of the Byrds’ “I See You” is stretched for nearly seven minutes, particularly in the hands of Peter Banks on guitar. The soft and pretty “Yesterday And Today” provides a sharp contrast in dynamics, before “Looking Around” blasts through the speakers again.

Side two follows the basic pattern of side two—raveup, cover, ballad, big finish. “Harold Land” stands out, being something of a harbinger of the type of character sketches Genesis would cook up in the Peter Gabriel era. In this case the titular protagonist is ravaged by the harsh realities of—you guessed it—war. Notice also the striking contrast between the pomp of the intro before descending into the more mournful chords of the main song. The cover slot is sneaky here, with a complicated introduction soon melding into a tarted-up extension of the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing”, which still finds an excuse to throw in the riff from “Day Tripper”. “Sweetness” is this side’s sappy romantic tune, a song in a pastoral hippie style much like that which Led Zeppelin would abandon around the same time. “Survival” probably comes closest their future sound, thanks to the underwater wah-wah effect on the bass (or is it the guitar? we don’t know) and the multiple shifts in tempo.

Those who come at this album after the fact may have to remind themselves that Steve Howe wasn’t in the group yet. Peter Banks was just one of the secret weapons of this fledgling band, and he remains underappreciated except by the most rabid Yes fans, who will likely disagree with a lot we’ll have to say about these albums. (When Yes was remastered in the new century, it was standardized with the original album art, and offered up two early versions each of a future album track and a future B-side, as well as two versions of their rearrangement of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. We wonder if Todd Rundgren was familiar with it.)

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

Friday, March 5, 2021

Neil Young 62: Way Down In The Rust Bucket

The return of Crazy Horse for 1990’s Ragged Glory album rode a wave of critical acclaim that spilled over into the subsequent Smell The Horse tour the following winter and spring. While the staging was in line with the big amps and giant mike stands of previous tours, the tone was colored by Operation Desert Storm, and the setlists stayed pretty basic, as captured on the Weld album and video.

It didn’t start out that way. As he had on other occasions, Neil followed up the album sessions by bringing Crazy Horse into a nearby club to whip the tunes into shape. These were smaller affairs than the usual arena shows, with tickets sold quickly and quietly to the lucky few who managed to pounce on time. Being Neil, the shows were filmed and recorded for his own reference; songs from other such visits came out officially in the ‘90s, on the Broken Arrow and Year Of The Horse albums.

The two-and-a-half-hour set played on November 13 that year, as captured on Way Down In The Rust Bucket, covered most of Ragged Glory, which had already been out for two months, but also touched on other songs from the previous two decades. Along with the usual Horse staples, like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Like A Hurricane”, the boys plowed through lesser-known nuggets, like “Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze” and “Bite The Bullet”. They even played “Danger Bird” for the first time ever in public, and the second-ever live performance of “T-Bone”. The band sounds great; Neil has trouble with some of the high notes on “Days That Used To Be”, and we don’t expect velvet harmonies from the other guys anyway.

The focus throughout Way Down In The Rust Bucket is the music. Very little of the between-song chatter is included, and every track fades to silence after the song is finished, with a minimum of crowd ambience. (The video portion, simultaneously released on DVD, included all the chatter, tuning, and false starts, as well as the night’s performance of “Cowgirl In The Sand”, which apparently had audio issues.)

Of the many projects teased from Neil Young Archives throughout 2020, this was a welcome installment in the growing catalog. Hard to believe, listening over 30 years later, these guys were considered “old” then.

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

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Bob Dylan 67: 1970

Just before the end of 2020, another one of those highly limited beat-the-deadline copyright releases snuck out and made another three discs’ worth of leftovers from Bob Dylan sessions quite popular on the illegal download sites. The key draw of 50th Anniversary Collection 1970 was the balance of the one day George Harrison spent in the studio with Dylan. That’s probably why the label decided to make the set available to the general public for a much lower price.

Now titled simply 1970, it arrived with George’s involvement emblazoned on the cover, overly gushing liner notes and, save the one New Morning-era image on the back of the booklet, several well-traveled photos from 1969. Normally this would be merely a footnote to the Another Self Portrait volume of the Bootleg Series, except that it offers over three hours of unreleased music, much of which hadn’t been bootlegged. Also, unlike that set, the music is presented strictly chronologically, filling in the development of two separate albums.

Disc one begins with the rest of the work done with David Bromberg and Al Kooper on what would be sent off for overdubs to complete Self Portrait. Along with yet another stab at “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” (yippee), we get for more tries at “Went To See The Gypsy” and variations on “Alberta”, an “Untitled 1970 Instrumental”, and most revealing of all, the basic track of “Woogie Boogie”, consisting just of Dylan’s piano and Bromberg’s guitar. In between are abandoned tries at “Universal Soldier”, “Come A Little Bit Closer”, and a goofy “Little Moses”.

We jump to May 1, when George arrived, beginning with attempts at nailing down arrangements for “Sign On The Window”, “If Not For You”, and “Time Passes Slowly”, accompanied by Russ Kunkel on drums and yes, the Charlie Daniels on bass. Having seemingly tired of those, they began covering earlier Dylan originals, including “Song To Woody”, “Gates Of Eden”, “Rainy Day Women”, and “I Threw It All Away”. Only “Mama, You Been On My Mind” hadn’t made it to a Dylan album yet. In between, they jam on covers like “Ghost Riders In The Sky”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, oldies by Sam Cooke, Carl Perkins, and the Everly Brothers, and even “Yesterday”. The day ended more takes of “If Not For You” and “Sign On The Window”. Despite what was reported in the press at the time, this was not exactly a stellar meeting of future Wilbury minds. George gamely strums his Stratocaster and offers some leads, harmonizing when he knows the words, but their collaboration at the Concert for Bangla Desh the following summer was ultimately more satisfying.

A month later, Bob brought back Kooper, Bromberg, Daniels, and Kunkel, plus Ron Cornelius on guitar and some female singers for five dedicated days of recording what would become New Morning. As it turns out, just as much and often more time was spent on covers than the originals that made up the album as released. In addition to three distinct variations on the Cajun chestnut “Alligator Man”, as well as “Jamaica Farewell” and “Long Black Veil”, it’s clear that the likes of “Sarah Jane”, “Lily Of The West”, and “Can’t Help Falling In Love” were not merely one-offs in between “proper” takes, but actually finessed to what would be first shortlisted for New Morning, and officially foisted on the public on the embarrassing Dylan album three years later. There are even two takes of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”, which he’d yet to try in the studio; frankly, this bluesy approach with the women singing doesn’t work. But we can also hear more new originals take shape, thankfully, and a final session two months later would complete the project.

While it’s nice that the set is more easily attainable by both Dylan and Beatle completists, the historic value of 1970 outweighs its musical merit, and the casual listener will likely find it tedious. Yet throughout all three discs, Bob is engaged with the songs, slipping back and forth between his raspy voice and Nashville Skyline croon. Unless any snippy tirades against the participants were edited out, he sounds like he’s enjoying himself.

Bob Dylan 1970 (2021)—3