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)—

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

David Byrne 4: The Forest and Uh-Oh

One of the perks of having your own record label in the ‘90s—especially if it was distributed by the Warner Communications empire—was that you could pretty much put out any old album you wanted, regardless of genre or sales potential. David Byrne was still a viable name back then, so some people may have expected something quirky and catchy from him. (Besides, Talking Heads weren’t officially done as a band anyway, not that Jerry Harrison or Tom Tom Club were moving units on their own.)

So 1991’s official follow-up to the quirky and yes, catchy Rei Momo was naturally another ambitious piece tied to a Robert Wilson theater project. We’ve read several online descriptions and reviews of The Forest, and none strike us as anything we’d want to sit through, but the music, which is predominantly orchestral, has a cinematic grandeur about it. (Considering that it was arranged and conducted by the legendary Jimmie Haskell, that would be expected.) In fact, the few occasions where vocals are heard detract from the whole.

By the end of the year the other Heads announced that since David had left they’d basically broken up, which might have given Uh-Oh some publicity, particularly since it was an album of college radio-friendly songs. There are some remnants of the Latin sounds from Rei Momo, but overall it sounds more like his previous band, and just as angry as he was on Naked. (Some familiar names appear among the backup singers and horn section, plus the bass player is none other than the legendary George Porter Jr. from the Meters.)

“Now I’m Your Mom” would be a clever song about gender identity, but it’s punctured the instant the title is stated in a jokey falsetto; “Girls On My Mind” is both more straightforward and more fun. “Something Ain’t Right” is a herky-jerky expression of anger toward God, whereas the narrator of “She’s Mad” seems to be the object of spousal abuse from his wife. “Hanging Upside Down” is sung from the point of view of a teenage mall rat, but the empty lifestyle is belied by the music. That’s not the case with “A Walk In The Dark”, which conjures monsters under the bed and other spooky specters but with something of a Buster Poindexter attitude.

“Twistin’ In The Wind” cleverly opens with a musical joke, but that’s abandoned for a series of disconnected couplets. “The Cowboy Mambo (Hey Lookit Me Now)” conjures neither cowboy music nor much of a mambo, but it breaks the record for the most times “shit” is intoned in one of the album’s tracks. He’s not the first guy to write a song called “Monkey Man”, but this one is described by a soldier fresh from battle and likely suffering PTSD. “A Million Miles Away” is also a well-used title, but it’s more universal in its “take this job and shove it” sentiment. “Tiny Town” is a cute plea for unity, and forgotten by the time “Somebody” explores the struggle of women of color. Or so he says.

Not that anyone noticed, but Uh-Oh was easily the most accessible album David Byrne had put out since Little Creatures. Fans of the less challenging Heads albums would be pleased.

David Byrne The Forest (1991)—3
David Byrne
Uh-Oh (1992)—3

Friday, April 9, 2021

Prince 16: Come

Part of Prince’s strategy for changing his name to a symbol was to get out of his contract with Warner Bros. It didn’t work, and the label not only insisted he owed them albums, but sat on him until he delivered something they considered salesworthy.

Come pointedly featured the dates “1958-1993” under the word “Prince” on the cover, as if to suggest he was dead and buried in the prison-like edifice in the background. The New Power Generation is nowhere to be found, save the rhythm section on one track, and the horn section on others. While it doesn’t have the rap distractions of his most recent work, it’s hardly a return to form.

The title track has it moments, mostly in the horns, but it gets tedious over 11 minutes. “Space” doesn’t do much over the same simple groove except pull in some harmonies and use a few NASA samples. “Pheromone” begins with an almost-ASMR effect of ocean waves and spoken hypnosis, before the song kicks in proper, sounding a lot like the kind of thing he used to pawn off on Sheila E. “Loose!” almost rocks with an angry energy, and sports a welcome guitar solo, sampled twice.

“Papa” is unsettling, as it’s mostly a narrative about an abusive father that suggests the set-upon child is Prince himself. The ocean waves appear briefly before the ultra-funky “Race” kicks in, followed by the near-slow jam of “Dark”. “Solo” has the barest accompaniment, and consists of Prince singing a poem provided by playwright David Henry Hwang. “Letitgo” was the first single promoting the album, and hardly in the league of earlier “first singles”. Finally, because he could, “Orgasm” provides the finale in the form of a guitar solo taken from Controversy’s “Private Joy” battling Vanity’s uncredited climax at full volume while he creepily encourages her.

This lackluster album was particularly frustrating after the longest gap between new releases in his career. He was quick to dismiss Come as old news, looking immediately ahead to the music he really wanted to make, if only he was allowed.

Prince Come (1994)—2