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. Even with the 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