Tuesday, August 24, 2021

They Might Be Giants 9: Severe Tire Damage

For years, They Might Be Giants worked just as hard at presenting a unique live show as they did crafting their songs in the first place. Now between labels, they took the opportunity to compile their first full-length album from various concerts and field recordings of a sort.

On Severe Tire Damage, familiar songs are largely revamped with the horn and rhythm sections they incorporated throughout the ‘90s. The most radical change is with their punk re-arrangement of “Why Does The Sun Shine?”, but “Meet James Ensor” is delivered by just voices and accordion. “They Got Lost” and “First Kiss” are early versions of songs to be rerecorded, and three new studio tracks bookend the main program—the horn-driven “Doctor Worm”, the even goofier “Severe Tire Damage Theme”, and the shockingly brief “About Me”. Being the wacky guys they were, the program ends with a series of hidden tracks, all supposedly improvised with nonsensical lyrics spoofing the various titles in the Planet Of The Apes film franchise.

There’s always something of an inside-joke cachet to TMBG, and perhaps Severe Tire Damage is a case of “you had to be there.” But it’s still fun, and that’s where the boys excel.

They Might Be Giants Severe Tire Damage (1998)—3

Friday, August 20, 2021

Roxy Music 8: Flesh + Blood

While Roxy Music was back making albums, with the same core lineup, and including attractive women on their album covers, the band seemed to have given up trying to be any more unique than their combined styles. Sporting three credited drummers and three credited bass players, Flesh + Blood presented a band in danger of becoming the British Steely Dan.

Although Bryan Ferry seemed to have gotten the solo album bug out of his system, now he was foisting his nutty interpretations of songs that didn’t need to be covered onto Roxy albums. An incredibly tepid remake of “In The Midnight Hour” opens side one, but any listener not compelled to dismiss the rest of the program of that basis is rewarded by the much improved “Oh Yeah”, a sweet ditty about the power of music when one hears a certain song on the radio. And not just any song, mind you—this song he’s talking about is actually called “Oh Yeah”! Despite the “Heart Of Glass” percussion at the top, “Same Old Scene” is a terrific track, upping the drama considerably. “Flesh And Blood” has a wonderfully trashy guitar part, melding the old sound with the new very well. “My Only Love” follows in the same key, more of a mood than anything else.

“Over You” is one of the best songs the Cars never recorded, from the simple riff that drives the three chords to the instrumental break around the guitar solo; when the same break repeats it morphs back to Roxy again. Unfortunately, it fades right into another misguided cover, this time of “Eight Miles High”, which only fueled the “disco sucks” mentality of the time. (We’ve yet to discover any opinions on it from McGuinn, Clark, or Crosby.) The Joy Division-inspired intro to “Rain, Rain, Rain” bodes promise, but it soon turns to a cluttered reggae track; it would have been better served if combined with the similarly paced “No Strange Delight”, which comes immediately afterwards. “Running Wild” is possibly the slickest song here, to the point that without Bryan singing, it could be almost any band. Maybe that’s due to Paul Carrack on the keyboards.

Flesh + Blood wasn’t appreciated upon release; most reviewers lamented what they saw as a betrayal to their original ethos. But the guys wanted to sell records as well as express their creativity, and the covers are merely aberrations on an otherwise intriguing collection.

Roxy Music Flesh + Blood (1980)—3

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Rickie Lee Jones 2: Pirates

In the wake of such one-hit wonders as A Taste Of Honey, Debby Boone, and the Starland Vocal Band, and a year before Christopher Cross, Rickie Lee Jones won the Grammy award for Best New Artist. But as anyone will tell you, an artist puts a lifetime into a first album, and suddenly has to start from scratch for the second. Luckily for her, Warner Bros. was the kind of label that was focused on building catalogs, and was happy to wait until she was ready for her follow-up.

The standard line is that Pirates details the fallout and aftermath of her relationship with Tom Waits, but that insults her as well as the material. Nonetheless, the longing expressed in “We Belong Together” is very real, from the first majestic chords through the cyclic pattern that seems to transcend tempos and time signatures. Steve Gadd is the drummer, and his performance is absolutely stellar. (We still get chills when she harmonizes so closely with herself on “climb upon the rooftop docks” and every other occasion thereafter.) “Living It Up” sports a positively infectious piano melody as it follows Eddie, Louie, and Zero, whom some have suggested are Waits, Chuck E. and Rickie again, but they could be any lost “wild and only ones” looking for something. The middle section switches gears magnificently, culminating in an almost defiant chant of the title, before returning us to the opening piano motif again. For sheer heartbreak, little beats “Skeletons”, wherein a hopeful young couple are on their way to the hospital to have their first child, only for a case of mistaken identity to shatter their dreams. That makes the transition to the finger-snapping hip jazz of “Woody And Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking” so jarring. While it revives the sound people liked so much on the first album, the character isn’t as convincing.

The slick Boz Scaggs-meets-Steely Dan vibe continues on “Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)”, but not for long, as the radio-friendly verse turns to the dreamier, aching transition that belongs to the subtitle. There’s a reference to “rainbow sleeves”, which will become more significant in time. A return to the jaunty theme is temporary, and we fade with the slower theme. The ache continues in the lyrics of the otherwise loping “Lucky Guy”, the melody barely hiding the bold admission of her heartbreak after telling the fellow she loves him “when I knew he didn’t care,” and you hope she really will feel better tomorrow. Following another atmospheric intro, “Traces Of The Western Slopes” opens with a verse sung by cohort Sal Bernardi, who sounds enough like Rickie Lee to confuse. (He’s the one harmonizing on the bridge in “Living It Up”, but back to our story, see.) It’s an incredibly ambitious, often impenetrable piece, with peaks and valleys that rival Joni Mitchell’s late-70s work. “The Returns” wafts in like a ballad from a Broadway musical, her voice impossibly high and fragile over the piano, not exactly a lullaby, but a peaceful closer nonetheless.

Having the lyrics printed once again on the back cover helps, not only to discern what she’s singing but to ponder the poetry. For example, is the Bird mentioned in “We Belong Together” the same as the one in “Skeletons”? Is Zero a willing companion or a hoodwinked victim of Eddie and Louie? What the hell is going on on those western slopes? Pirates is certainly more challenging than the debut, but in many ways it’s more rewarding. One can hear her voice and style developing from track to track, and while it doesn’t quite return to the heights of the first three songs, it’s one of those albums that pulls you in. Once again, the Warner Bros. instincts were correct.

Rickie Lee Jones Pirates (1981)—

Friday, August 13, 2021

Replacements 10: For Sale

In the decades following the formal dissolution of the Replacements, interest in the band—and their legend—only increased. Meanwhile Paul Westerberg emerged from suburban fatherhood with the occasional lo-fi solo album, and Tommy Stinson paid the rent by regular touring as the bassist in Guns N’ Roses. After the two got back together to record a benefit EP for ailing guitarist Slim Dunlap, they managed to get organized for a few live shows, then a nationwide tour, which ended abruptly and scattered any plans of future recording.

That had only whet fans’ appetites further, so it was a perfect excuse for any label with anything worth selling to cash in. Astonishingly, the Sire vaults didn’t just have a well-recorded show of the original band; the ‘Mats actually rose to the occasion. They would notoriously sabotage any chance to get ahead, particularly if they knew they were captured for any kind of posterity, but throughout For Sale: Live At Maxwell’s 1986, everything clicked.

The setlist is stellar, culling tunes from every one of their albums to date, even the Stink EP. “Can’t Hardly Wait” appears, still in lyrical progress, but the band’s arrangement is bulletproof. Even “solo” songs like “Answering Machine” and “If Only You Were Lonely” get an electric boost. It wouldn’t be a ‘Mats gig without wacky covers, and “Fox On The Run” is started and abandoned early. They do much better with “Black Diamond”, of course, as well as “Hitchin’ A Ride”, “Nowhere Man”, and “Baby Strange” by T. Rex via Big Star. (We almost feel bad for the poor bastard who keeps screaming for “September Gurls” to no avail; at least he had the recent Bangles cover for solace.)

From time to time Paul gets stuck, either from forgetting words or changing them and losing his place. For the most part they keep charging ahead, particularly Bob Stinson in all his glory, firing on all cylinders and seeming autopilot. Tommy gamely yells “MURDER!” during songs and lulls, and Chris Mars proves to be more than just a timekeeper. For Sale is truly an unexpected treat, and an essential part of the Replacements legacy.

The Replacements For Sale: Live At Maxwell’s 1986 (2017)—4

Friday, August 6, 2021

Kiss 7: Love Gun

The boys couldn’t be stopped, and just in time for a summer tour came yet another Kiss album. While it seems impossible that they could keep up any measure of quality, much less a pace, Love Gun was the band’s third solid album in a row. They even included a cardboard cut-out gun as a bonus insert, along with the usual shill for the Kiss Army and an order form for the first official Kiss comic book, which incorporated the band members’ actual blood in the ink.

Keeping with the assaultive nature of the album title, there’s nary a ballad here, with even the “romantic” songs delivered with beats and speed. “I Stole Your Love” barely lets up its hook in the verses, and doesn’t bother to expand on the title in the chorus. “Christine Sixteen” begins with a wonderfully off-tempo riff with producer Eddie Kramer bashing the same two chords on the piano, and that turnaround given a different life 12 years later via “Funky Cold Medina”. As for the lyrics, the danger of felony is compounded by Gene’s lecherous monologue after the first verse. Clearly, he’s got to have her and can’t even wait until after the bridge or even the solo. She must not have been convinced, because in the next trick he’s insisting he’s “Got Love For Sale”, presumably to recoup any losses spent hanging around high school parking lots. Ace Frehley makes his lead vocal debut on “Shock Me”, which was supposedly inspired by an actual onstage electrocution, but apparently it only zapped his sense of pitch. Nice cymbal work by Peter Criss, by the way. “Tomorrow And Tonight” is another arena anthem, wherein the title is masterfully rhymed with “oh yeah, uh huh, all right.”

The title track rat-a-tats out of the speakers with little subtlety, but one would think that such a powerful weapon would be designed to make its object feel more than “okay”. Speaking of rhymes, Peter rocks rather than wimps out on “Hooligan” (who “won’t go to school again”) while Gene sticks to type for “Almost Human”, except now the demon is a werewolf. That sentiment has nothing on “Plaster Caster”, a blatant ode to one of the more notorious groupies in rock history, and certainly one reason why Gene wanted to become a rock star in the first place. With all the apparent decadence, maybe that’s why they decided to close the album with a gender-modified cover of the Ronettes’ “Then She Kissed Me”, complete with castanets and booming snare. In hindsight, Paul Stanley says it was a dumb idea, but then they couldn’t risk an album running under 30 minutes.

One of the better sounding Kiss albums yet, Love Gun not only shipped platinum, but it would be the first of the band’s catalogue to get the expanded Deluxe Edition treatment. This entailed an appreciation by Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, quotes from the band, and a bonus disc of extra tracks, which still could have fit on the main disc. These include four demos from Gene, including the rather sophisticated yet unreleased “Much Too Soon”, two eternal minutes of Paul demonstrating how to play “Love Gun”, a seven-minute radio interview with Gene, and three songs recorded live on the tour supporting their next album.

Kiss Love Gun (1977)—
2014 Deluxe Edition: same as 1977, plus 11 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Talking Heads 11: Sand In The Vaseline

With the band all but done, the time was right for a Talking Heads compilation. Sand In The Vaseline, helpfully subtitled Popular Favorites 1976-1992, presented a comprehensive overview over two CDs. Commentary from all four band members—yes, even David Byrne—adds occasional insight, while detailed musician credits for each track show how much help they had over the years.

It’s a nicely paced set, showing the band’s steady development from quirky punks to experimental groove masters. After two early demos, the “Love -> Buildings On Fire” single, and the B-side to “Psycho Killer”, the program democratically samples from each of the band’s albums, along with two live versions from Stop Making Sense that, frankly, make sense. The set ends with four “new” songs, all very modern and danceable: “Sax And Violins”, which had snuck out on a movie soundtrack the year before; “Gangster Of Love”, which combines a drum track from 1980 with music from 1987, newly finished for this set; “Lifetime Piling Up”, another leftover from Naked; and “Popsicle”, from 1982.

That was fine for most people, but the record industry has often been about repackaging. A decade later, just after the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Once In A Lifetime box set expanded the catalog overview to three discs, with the extra draw in the inclusion of a DVD that expanded their Storytelling Giant VHS compilation of music videos. With the added space they went a little deeper into each album, going so far as to included eight tracks from the first two albums. As for rare material, three of the four early tracks and two of the later tracks from Sand In The Vaseline were repeated, while some alternate mixes were scattered throughout. Along with “A Clean Break” from the then-out-of-print The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, the Naked leftover “In Asking Land”, which would evolve into “Carnival Eyes” on Rei Momo, makes it necessary for collectors. (A year after that, The Best Of Talking Heads attempted to distill the legacy down to a single disc, opening with “Love -> Buildings On Fire”, making a few substitutions that weren’t on Sand In The Vaseline, and eschewing live versions.)

Talking Heads Sand In The Vaseline: Popular Favorites 1976-1992 (1992)—4
Talking Heads
Once In A Lifetime (2003)—
Talking Heads
The Best Of Talking Heads (2004)—4