Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Gene Clark 5: Roadmaster

Even though his next album contained contributions from all five original Byrds, current Byrd Clarence White, several Flying Burrito Brothers, and even Spooner Oldham, Gene Clark had to wait over a decade for it to be released in America or even the U.K. Roadmaster was compiled from sessions going back a couple of years, effectively closing out his stillborn A&M deal.
The reunited Byrds open the album with two songs, but only the 12-string gives any hint who’s playing. Though “She’s The Kind Of Girl” is sunk by the prominent flute, “One In A Hundred” has more of the vibe, if not the substance. The Burritos are on “Here Tonight”, Chris Hillman’s harmony and Sneeky Pete’s pedal steel prominent for a sublime mix. “Full Circle Song” is another jangly gem, and would get another shot later in the year.
The title track is a sardonic workin’ musician’s lament from Spooner Oldham, but most of the album continues in the sad country-folk vein he’d been mining all along, culminating in a half-speed remake of “She Don’t Care About Time”. Even Flatt & Scruggs’ “Rough And Rocky” and the country standard “I Really Don’t Want To Know”, are slowed down to mournful paces. Of his other originals, “In A Misty Morning” is desolate but determined and “Shooting Star” deserves wider notice, though “I Remember The Railroad” is filler.
Despite all its potential, Roadmaster isn’t one of those hidden masterpieces rock snobs like to tout. Its general wimpiness makes it clear why the label didn’t want to promote it, but as a part of the larger Byrds story, it has its place, which is why we’re talking about it here. Quite simply, it sets the stage for the band’s full-fledged reunion.
Footnote: both the British release on the Edsel label, and even the eventual American release on Sundazed, which usually goes above and beyond to seem authentic, ignored artwork from the album’s original Dutch release in favor of anachronistic photos of Gene at his most Byrdsy. Like it or not, we assume the auteur picked it in the first place for a reason.

Gene Clark Roadmaster (1973)—3

Friday, August 27, 2021

Eric Clapton 1: Eric Clapton

Despite having been a big shot on the scene for several years, it wasn’t until he took a job touring with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends that Eric Clapton considered doing an album under his own name. Most of the aforementioned Friends played on the sessions, including two guys who would soon run off with Joe Cocker for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour before regrouping with Eric later that year. Another key contributor was Leon Russell on piano, who would weave his way throughout various projects of the time.
From the blistering one-chord “Slunky” jam, most of the songs were co-written with Delaney Bramlett, along the American boogie lines of the blues than the psychedelia of his prior releases. Neither the lyrics nor his voice bring the proper gravitas to “Poor Boy” or “Lonesome And A Long Way From Home”, but the galloping “After Midnight”—the first of several J.J. Cale songs Clapton would cover over the years—is more like it. Built on acoustic guitars and harmonies, “Easy Now” is a welcome change of pace, but the chorus lyrics are a little embarrassing. Despite the somber fake intro, “Blues Power” brings back the boogie to please the crowd.
Side two doesn’t have as much variety; “Bottle Of Red Wine” is mostly shouted with Delaney, and a decent riff falls under the weight of “Lovin’ You Lovin’ Me”. “I Told You For The Last Time” is fairly ordinary, with the writing credited to Delaney and Steve Cropper, and “I Don’t Know Why” doesn’t live up to the potential of its horn chart either. He does save the best for last however, with the sublime “Let It Rain”. (The bass runs, by the way, are not by Carl Radle but Stephen Stills.)
While it has its charms, Eric Clapton shows the auteur still finding his way, not sure if he wants to play the blues or be a crooner. The combo occasionally overpowers him, particularly thanks to the blaring horns of Jim Price and Bobby Keys, and he’d remember the value of the economy in a smaller outfit soon enough. Still, it’s a template for a solo career that is as spotty as it is enduring.
Being who he is, of course, the album gained “classic” status as years went by. The eventual Deluxe Edition expansion included Delaney’s inferior mixes of ten of the album’s songs, along with single cuts by King Curtis and Delaney & Bonnie, as well as session outtakes, including an early version of “Let It Rain” with different lyrics. All of these were included on the further-expanded 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, which put each mix by Tom Dowd, Delaney, and an even worse one by Eric himself on its own disc, with the outtakes on its own and bolstered by an additional alternate take. Those who love the album can now hear it three different ways.

Eric Clapton Eric Clapton (1970)—3
2006 Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 17 extra tracks
50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 2006, plus 12 extra tracks

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

Mark Knopfler 1: Notting Hillbillies and Chet Atkins

While the world, or at least part of it, wondered what was up with Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler emerged as part of an outfit dubbed the Notting Hillbillies, with a very Dire Straits-like single in “Your Own Sweet Way”. Unfortunately for listeners, that was Knopfler’s only lead vocal on an album mostly made up of traditional songs and country covers. Missing… Presumed Having A Good Time was presented as a collaboration with British pickers Steve Phillips and Brendan Croker, with Dire Straits keyboardist Guy Fletcher, future Dire Straits member Paul Franklin on pedal steel, and the band’s manager Ed Bicknell credited on drums.
The album does provide a breadth of material made for coffee bars and bookstores of the next decade. With its insistent anvil effect, “Railroad Worksong” is better known as “Take This Hammer”, while “Bewildered” is much toned down from James Brown’s version. “Run Me Down” follows the pattern of “Setting Me Up” and “Sound Bound Again” until the vocals start, though “One Way Gal” has a distinct Caribbean feel, or even reminiscent of a luau. You can almost hear Mark harmonizing on “Blues Stay Away From Me” and “Please Baby”, but only barely. “Will You Miss Me?” and “That’s Where I Belong” bring songwriting royalties to Phillips and Croker respectively, and we presume they’re duetting on the Louvin Brothers’ “Weapon Of Prayer”. Outside of the single, the album’s highlight is Charlie Rich’s immortal “Feel Like Going Home”.

The soft, smooth tone of the album was mirrored a few months later on an album billed as a Knopfler collaboration with the legendary Chet Atkins. Neck And Neck offered more adult contemporary country music played by twenty agile fingers supported by such Nashville legends as Steve Warinier, Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, and Vince Gill. Roughly half the album is vocal; the modern updates of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” and “Yakety Axe” are cute, if a little cringey today. The balance is made up of more cinematic vocal-less pieces, such as “So Soft, Your Goodbye” and “Tears” by Grappelli and Reinhardt. “Tahitian Skies” is something of a cross between “Why Worry” and “Waterloo Sunset”, while “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is taken at a jaunty pace. Don Gibson is covered twice, in an instrumental of “Sweet Dreams”, and a Knopfler vocal on “Just One Time”. “Poor Boy Blues” and “The Next Time I’m In Town” are templates for the solo career he’d start in earnest one day. (Another Knopfler original, “I Think I Love You Too Much”, was premiered at that summer’s Knebworth Festival with Eric Clapton, but would end up being recorded by blind blues phenom Jeff Healey.)

While not exactly what fans wanted, these two albums fit well together, both conceptually as well as time-wise on a Maxell 90-minute tape. They kept Mark Knopfler’s name in the trades while the rest of Dire Straits waited for the phone to ring, and were more commercial than his occasional soundtracks. While the Notting Hillbillies didn’t line the pockets of its “other” members with gold, Neck And Neck brought Chet Atkins back into favor in the ‘90s.

The Notting Hillbillies Missing… Presumed Having A Good Time (1990)—3
Chet Atkins/Mark Knopfler
Neck And Neck (1990)—3

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Roger Daltrey 4: McVicar

By the end of the ‘70s, the Who expanded further into the film industry to shore up any finances lost via touring or lack thereof. Having already enjoyed a piece of The Kids Are Alright and getting kudos for the adaptation of Quadrophenia, another pet project served to provide Roger Daltrey with both a dramatic lead role and a new haircut. McVicar was based on the memoirs of a British career criminal who managed to overcome incarceration, recapture, and parole to rejoin society as a journalist. (Considering Roger’s hardscrabble upbringing, he must have felt born for the role.)
Naturally, despite the non-musical content of the film, a soundtrack album would be mutually beneficial. As ever, Roger relied on songwriters both established, like Russ Ballard, and new, like Steve Swindells. And while the liner notes are vague, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Kenney Jones and Rabbit Bundrick are among the all-star musicians, so listeners can imagine it’s a Who album.
The opening “Bitter And Twisted” is a tough rocker with some smart couplets (“a psychopath never takes a bath,” indeed) balanced immediately by the lonesome sentiments of “Just A Dream Away”. There’s some odd but purely coincidental foreshadowing in “White City Lights”, which is merely another ballad. Despite the disco thump, “Free Me” has all the power chords and horn blasts of a solid Who song, and enough to make it to radio.
“My Time Is Gonna Come” is fairly boneheaded, with a four-note range, and more than a little robotic, wearing out its welcome in no time. “Waiting For A Friend” has an easy, country-influenced swagger to it for a nice change of pace. Sweet without being saccharine, “Without Your Love” would be familiar to diehards as a Meher Baba hymn penned by Pete’s buddy Billy Nicholls, as originally included on the obscure With Love tribute LP, mandolins and all. To Roger’s credit, he does a fine job with it. The title track is the most overt reference to the film’s plot, but it’s strong enough to stand alone without it.
As a rockin’ Daltrey album it works, but because McVicar is a soundtrack, each side is interrupted by instrumentals credited to Jeff Wayne, of the musical War Of The Worlds fame. Both “Escape Part One” and “Escape Part Two” sound like any number of ‘80s crime thriller soundtracks, with a flute that owes more than a debt to Ian Anderson. Beyond that, the half-hour of Roger music is surprisingly fresh.

Roger Daltrey McVicar—Original Soundtrack Recording (1980)—3

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