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

Friday, June 11, 2021

Van Morrison 42: 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, 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

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