Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Queen 3: Sheer Heart Attack

Once upon a time, a young and hungry band would write, record, tour, and repeat. Sometimes this would lead to not one but two brand new albums being released in the space of a calendar year. Those were the days. (Plus, records were cheaper then.)

Sheer Heart Attack finds Queen determined to leave their mark on the music scene, and loudly. But first: remember how the last album with “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside”? Well, that’s referenced in the atmospheric intro to “Brighton Rock”, which hides a tale of star-crossed lovers at the seashore in a frantic arrangement. Brian May takes a mostly unaccompanied solo that takes up about three minutes in the middle of the song, setting up a showcase for live appearances; we’re going to assume this is supposed to illustrate their romantic interlude before the twist ending. After all that volume and bombast, the campy “Killer Queen” is a surprise, but one that better signals the band’s sound going forward, with the prominent piano and flanged vocals and guitars. “Tenement Funster” is a dark little recording, wherein Roger Taylor boasts of his rock star coolness (tongue in cheek, thankfully) before an abrupt switch to “Flick Of The Wrist” returns Freddie Mercury to center stage for a portrait of an even more unsavory character. This too goes directly to the next song; here “Lily Of The Valley” appears to be another overwrought ballad in a prog suite, particularly with the reference to “seven seas” and the “king of Rhye”, but’s it’s more clever than that. “Now I’m Here”, with its dizzying time changes and chord changes, plus a reference to Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie”, brings a fairly adventurous side one to a breathtaking close.

An impossible high note sung by Roger heralds “In The Lap Of The Gods”, which belies its bombastic intro and strangely processes Freddie’s voice to a lower pitch, and frankly, doesn’t go anywhere, limping to a close. A speed-metal template save the harmonies, “Stone Cold Crazy” barrels past in just over two minutes, with two guitar parts chasing each other over the bridge. “Dear Friends” another left turn, and another piano and voice interlude. John Deacon’s acoustic strumming on “Misfire” makes the song sound like any number of Doobie Brothers tunes from the period, but the same cannot be said about “Bring Back That Leroy Brown”, which shares a title and the traits of Jim Croce’s character, but this is a vaudeville sendup with incredible bass work from Deacon and Brian on ukulele. The echoed acoustics and vocals on “She Makes Me” doesn’t quite match the “Stormtrooper In Stilettos” subtitle, though the police sirens and heavy breathing over the end are tough to miss. Finally, “In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited” merely presents a wholly different song to the one heard at the top of the side, and one more likely to cause audiences to sway and sing along, at least until the explosion at the very end.

There’s a lot going on throughout Sheer Heart Attack, and we suspect its charms truly emerge with time. At any rate, the inclusion of “Killer Queen”, “Now I’m Here”, and “Stone Cold Crazy” alone launch it above the line. (The 1991 expansion of the album added only a modern remix of “Stone Cold Crazy”; this was ignored two decades later, which offered a live “Now I’m Here” from 1975, two tracks from a contemporary BBC session, a fun a cappella mix of “Leroy Brown” that incorporates other instruments only where there are no vocals, and “Gods Revisited” from the 1986 Wembley show.)

Queen Sheer Heart Attack (1974)—3
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1974, plus 1 extra track
2011 remaster: same as 1974, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, September 24, 2021

Bob Dylan 68: Springtime In New York

From the first Bootleg Series set, the compilers have focused on providing proof of Bob Dylan’s genius by sharing an alternate view of his craft via the songs he left off of albums. Where many discards from his first handful of LPs tended to be the tenth or eleventh best songs he’d recorded that day, the ‘80s was a time when he rehearsed, recorded, and revised almost constantly, whereupon several scholars insist that the Bard of Hibbing could no longer be trusted to sequence his own albums.

Three full decades after that first volume, the sixteenth installment in the series is dedicated to the first part of that troubled decade. Springtime In New York doesn’t merely follow on from Trouble No More (a.k.a. the “born-again era”) three volumes earlier; it overlaps, with many of the tour rehearsals and outtakes from Shot Of Love coming from sessions already mined. (The set was released, as had become the pattern, in a two-disc edition as well as an expanded five-disc package; as most Dylan diehards would invest in the latter, that’s the one we’re treating as standard.)

Revisionist history tells us that Dylan wasn’t so much lost in the early ‘80s as he was “finding his way”; the rehearsals that make up the bulk of the first disc begin with new takes on “Señor” and “To Ramona” before running through covers as startling as “Sweet Caroline” and “We Just Disagree”; we’d never heard the AC country hit “This Night Won’t Last Forever’, but “Jesus Met The Woman At The Well” and “Abraham, Martin And John” are already familiar from the gospel period. “Need A Woman” is an alternate from the first Bootleg box, while “Let’s Keep It Between Us” is a wonderful original played often on tour but making its welcome official debut here. Again, the band that accompanied him for the gospel shows is stellar.

The second disc delves into the recording sessions that resulted in Shot Of Love. Here, still, he’s “searching”, with somewhat polished arrangements of covers like “Let It Be Me”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, and Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart”. The best songs left off the original album have already been archived elsewhere; the included alternate of “Angelina” is nice but not as striking as the previously released take was when it emerged. “Lenny Bruce” is included in a mix with elements wiped before its release; presumably those are the “Casio” parts as depicted on the tape boxes in the packaging. A handful of originals heard first here are varied if occasionally lackluster: “Price Of Love” features a Bo Diddley beat and cheesy organ; “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away” was buried on a TV soundtrack ten years ago and comes out as a cross between “Ramona” and “Romance In Durango”; “Fur Slippers” is an early arrangement of a one-chord song later given to B.B. King; “Borrowed Time” has promise but sits in an ordinary chord sequence; “Is It Worth It?” is a work in progress on the way to “Dead Man, Dead Man”; “Yes Sir, No Sir” is startling, enticing, and mysterious.

The two discs’ worth of Infidels outtakes finally bring the set’s title into context, considering where and when they were recorded. We already liked Mark Knopfler’s production on this album, as well as the contributions from the band, so hearing alternate takes of six of the album tracks is welcome. “Jokerman” and “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” are the original master tracks before the artist took advantage of the newfangled digital technology to tinker with the lyrics and phrasing. Then there are the leftovers; “Blind Willie McTell” was a highlight of the first set in an acoustic incarnation; this one adds electricity and more tension. We get to follow the journey to “Foot Of Pride” via an alternate take as well as two early drafts entitled “Too Late”. “Julius And Ethel” is an oddly timed piece of social commentary destined to be clouded by the facts. “Someone Got A Hold Of My Heart” might be the best version yet of this song, but that’s not saying much, and “Tell Me” is a toss-up. This version of “Lord Protect My Child” shows its musical similarity to “License To Kill”, while “Death Is Not The End” is notable for running two minutes past the length heard on Down In The Groove. Covers still abound; “This Was My Love” sees him exploring Sinatra three decades early; “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” is different from a rare B-side; “Baby What You Want Me To Do” is a duet with Clydie King and features a lot of Mick Taylor, so that’s good.

The fifth disc is the most challenging. While it begins with “Enough Is Enough” (an otherwise unknown original performed at one of the concerts mined for Real Live) and “License To Kill” as performed on the David Letterman show, we move into the making of Empire Burlesque. In most cases, it’s clear that while the production didn’t help the album, the songs weren’t quite there either. Although some of the gloss has been removed, it can’t save tracks like “Tight Connection To My Heart”, “Seeing The Real You At Last”, or either version of “Clean Cut Kid”. However, “I’ll Remember You” and “Emotionally Yours” are lovely, and the alternate of “Dark Eyes” sounds like an outtake from World Gone Wrong, proving that he really hadn’t changed at all. “New Danville Girl” presents a more accessible platform than its eventual “Brownsville Girl” incarnation for presenting the art within. Of the two versions of “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky”, we prefer the “slow” one, but it’s still a chore since he yells through both of them. While never finished, “Straight A’s In Love” has promise, but goes way too fast for everyone involved.

As has also been the trend, the discs are short; the two-disc is just over two hours and the deluxe set could fit on four CDs. Maybe they knew better than to overload our ears with too much Bob. We could easily enjoy more outtakes from Infidels, and there have been accounts of numerous 1986 sessions with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in between tours that were not represented on Knocked Out Loaded. (“Band Of The Hand”, anyone?) Surely they’re not holding out for a standalone set dedicated to the period between Empire Burlesque and Oh Mercy. While we’re at it, why not have all three songs from the 1984 Letterman performance? Why not include the rehearsals?

All this is quibbling, of course. Springtime In New York is welcome and worthy of the canon. It definitely shows what was missing on the lesser albums, and highlights what we already liked of that period. Enjoy.

Bob Dylan Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980-1985 (2021)—

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Clash 3: London Calling

First of all, it’s got a great cover. Aping the lettering from one of the first Elvis Presley LPs, the image is that of Paul Simonon destroying his Fender Precision bass on stage. This would be just one hint at the scope of music to be heard on London Calling. Stylistically, it’s all over the map, with nods to rockabilly, ska beats and even big ballads throughout its four sides—a far cry from the punk rush of the first two Clash albums, and most of the singles in between. Part of the credit could go to producer Guy Stevens, whose work on Island Records and with Mott The Hoople a decade earlier still resounds.

That’s not to say they’d gone soft in the slightest. If you’re looking for power and commentary, the title track kicks it off for you, a virtual siren of doom. The first cover of several on the album is “Brand New Cadillac”, a rockabilly favorite that’s another great showcase for Joe Strummer’s voice. (C’mon, how can you beat “Baby baby drove up in a Cadillac/I said ‘Jesus Christ, where’d you get that Cadillac?”) Things turn down for “Jimmy Jazz”, which isn’t jazz save a couple chords and a sax solo, but it’s the first time we learned how the Brits pronounce the last letter of the alphabet. “Hateful” speeds up the Bo Diddley beat and adds a catchy melody, and given the reliance on covers, “Rudie Can’t Fail” is especially surprising for its authentic ska arrangement. Plus, we like Joe’s exhortation to Mick Jones: “Sing, Michael, sing!”

“Spanish Bombs” is one of the catchier tunes about the Spanish Civil War, nicely layered with subtle acoustic guitars, organ, and octave harmonies. A personal favorite is “The Right Profile”, a horn-driven portrait of beleaguered actor Montgomery Clift, with one of the greatest lyrics of all time, which we’ve transcribed directly from the sleeve: “Arrrghhhgorra buh bhuh do arrrrgggghhhhnnnn!!!!...” While Joe wrote it, he must have known Mick was the best conduit for “Lost In The Supermarket”, so simple and somehow fragile. That feeling is wiped aside by the more urgent “Clampdown”, with an organ part we think is courtesy of Mickey Gallagher from Ian Dury’s Blockheads. For a real departure, Paul Simonon sings his own dark and brooding composition, “The Guns Of Brixton”. His voice is all but tuneless, but it works.

To keep everyone guessing, “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” begins as a cover of the ancient “Stagger Lee” before switching tempo and key and everything to the reggae tune of the actual title. “Death Or Glory” gets an awful lot of action out of its three chords, weaving well in and out of choruses and verses, showing their grasp of dynamics. (This would be a good place to praise drummer Topper Headon, who handles every tempo and style they throw at him.) Though it goes by too fast to understand most of the words, “Koka Kola” carefully avoids copyright infringement while putting a new spin on the phrase “coke adds life”. The only song on the album credited as written by the whole band, “The Card Cheat” pulls in Phil Spector’s magnificent Wall of Sound and mariachi horns for another tale of an outlaw’s demise.

Despite the misplaced apostrophe, “Lover’s Rock” is poppy and fun, with lots of wacky percussion things poking in and out of the mix. Another one that needs the lyric sheet to decipher, “Four Horsemen” presents the band themselves as the mythical figures of the title, and is poignant today given their limited time together. “I’m Not Down” is more wonderfully hook-laden pop, whereas “Revolution Rock” is another reverent reggae cover that would prove highly influential to Californian white kids generation later.

Possibly the album’s most famous song isn’t listed on the cover, label, or lyric sheet. More to the point, “Train In Vain” is the tune everyone thinks of as “Stand By Me” and was originally hidden at the end of Side 4. It was added so late in the process that some of the stickers only counted 18 tracks and not 19, but if you looked carefully at the runout groove on that side, you could see “TRACK 5 IS TRAIN IN VAIN” etched there. Even later cassettes and CDs didn’t mention it.

Released on the cusp of a new decade, London Calling firmly established the band as important, and turned the punk scene on its ear. Perhaps it could have been shaved from two LPs to one, but what would you leave out? If you’re going to have just one Clash album, this would probably be the one to choose; besides being solid start to finish, it was priced well, at least until the digital era. So after much ruminating, we’ve awarded it the rating below.

The album was nicely upgraded for its silver anniversary, with not only a DVD and liner notes but a bonus disc full of pre-album rehearsals, including several songs (and covers) that would make the album proper, plus a surprising take on a reggae cover of Bob Dylan’s relatively obscure “The Man In Me”. (Later reissues replicated the album on two CDs, despite previously fitting on one.)

The Clash London Calling (1979)—5
2004 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition: same as 1979, plus 21 extra tracks (and DVD)

Friday, September 17, 2021

Pretenders 15: Alone

Once again “Pretenders” was presented as an overall brand name rather than a band of consistent members that fans had been following for over three decades. On Alone, Chrissie Hynde is joined by fellow Akronian Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who produced and brought along a couple of guys from his side project The Arcs. Therefore, the sound is those distorted retro R&B overtones made popular by the likes of Amy Winehouse and, yes, the Black Keys. And no, Martin Chambers isn’t on the album.

Chrissie is a compelling vocalist and top-notch songwriter whatever her outlet. Were we in charge of marketing, we’d’ve promoted this as a Chrissie & Dan album, as her name would pull in Pretenders diehards, and his would yank in the younger generations. But we’re not, but we still feel compelled to insist that this is not a Pretenders album, nor should it be mistaken for one, despite the advertising. (A later pressing coupled the album with a bonus disc recorded live the following year with the previous version of the Pretenders including, yes, Martin Chambers on drums.)

The title track mixes Lou Reed swagger with a more tuneful chorus, but doesn’t really convince. “Roadie Man” and “Let’s Get Lost” are pointed throwbacks to a pre-punk era, but “Gotta Wait” brings in the stomp. “Never Be Together” is co-written by the guy she worked with on her Stockholm album, plus it’s got Duane Eddy sitting in on guitar. “Chord Lord” turns the sequence of “Lay Lady Lay” inside out nicely, so that’s good.

Acoustic and lowkey, “Blue Eyed Sky” is a welcome change of pace at the halfway point, but while “The Man You Are” also begins acoustic, it’s soon swallowed up by clattery production. The spaghetti western vibe on “One More Day” is too cheesy to work, and the overly whiny “I Hate Myself” isn’t going to win her any sympathy. “Death Is Not Enough” comes from obscure musician Marek Rymaszewski, so she’s still got a head for a hook when she hears one. Finally, “Holy Commotion” would be a much better song if it hadn’t been built around what sounds like a synthesizer preset.

We’d like to say Alone is good for what it is, except that it is NOT a Pretenders album. We will not begrudge Chrissie any desire to experiment, since she’s still one of the baddest rockers out there, and we like our teeth just the way they are.

Pretenders Alone (2016)—2

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Jayhawks 1: The Bunkhouse Album

By the mid-‘80s, American country music was in a period of transition. The “urban cowboy” phase of a few years before had become a stereotype, and while more serious “artists” like Rosanne Cash and Lyle Lovett were slowly emerging as influential, most legacy artists were struggling in the mainstream.

But in the heartland of the United States, younger bands were discovering Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and especially the late Gram Parsons, whose brand of “cosmic American music” provided an easier foothold into country rock than the latest Nashville syrup. These kids adopted the songs and styles, without a drop of parody in their interpretations. One of those bands was the Jayhawks, started by Minnesotan Mark Olson, whose voice came straight from the Flying Burrito Brothers, and blended so well with that of lead guitarist Gary Louris it was sometimes hard to tell the two apart.

Their self-titled album was only pressed in a run of two thousand, but word of mouth would eventually spread to the point where the so-called “Bunkhouse Album”—due to the cover art and the band’s self-assigned label—commanded high dollars on the used vinyl market. Not until 2010 did it get widespread release, which is how we managed to finally hear it.

It’s definitely twangy, with more overt country touches than their later albums, but the elements of what made the Jayhawks are all there. The likes of “Falling Star”, “Tried And True”, and “Cherry Pie” seem derivative, but “Let The Critics Wonder” and “Good Long Time” show off a unique voice. “Let The Last Night Be The Longest (Lonesome Memory)”, “The Liquor Store Came First”, “Misery Tavern”, and “Six Pack On The Dashboard” manage to take the drinkin’ song to new levels, while “Behind Bars” and “(I’m Not In) Prison” work on another trope and “People In This Place On Every Side” and “King Of Kings” play on the gospel elements of classic country. Again, these may seem like they’re poking fun at the more hokum elements of the genre, but time would prove their reverence.

The Jayhawks The Jayhawks (1986)—3

Friday, September 10, 2021

Beach Boys 20: Feel Flows

The so-called copyright extension program continued in Beach Boys Land. 2018 brought two digital-only collections from the sessions for Friends and 20/20 respectively, accompanied by the 114-track On Tour: 1968. A comparatively skimpy three-song EP the following year was all that represented 1969, until it was revealed that a larger project was underway. Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971 not only expanded two very popular albums, but added session outtakes and live versions on the consumer’s choice of a two-disc or five-disc set. (The five-disc version didn’t merely add three more discs to the two-disc version, which picked and chose among its extras from all over the total offered.)

The live performances that follow each album proper are somewhat confusing, since only a few songs come from the early ‘70s. Two of the songs were originally recorded for Sunflower but not released till 1976, so it makes sense that their live versions date from then, but does anybody really want to hear anything from the ‘80s or ‘90s? More enjoyment comes from the various singles and one-offs from the same period that would have better bolstered the two-fers of these albums that came out in 2000 with zero extras. Granted, those include Brian’s odd mad scientist imitation on the Halloween-themed “My Solution” and the band’s premiere recording of Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In The Sun”, but also such surprises as the aptly titled “Sweet And Bitter”, a brief instrumental of “You Never Give Me Your Money”, and some rare Dennis-penned material, mostly with future The Captain, Daryl Dragon. Various songs that would be redone for future albums or emerge on CD-era compilations fill out the story as well.

Much of the sessions discs for both albums is dedicated to new mixes that focus on the backing tracks plus harmonies. On the best tracks, the tightness of the band is underscored, while the worst show up the dated instrumental choices of the era, usually horns or flutes. (Sunflower included a lot of input from Dragon and the Wrecking Crew; for Surf’s Up they apparently worked on their own.) In all cases, their skill at concocting a vocal blend no matter the track or style is unparalleled. There’s an awful lot for fans here, and it’s not all awful, either.

The Beach Boys Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971 (2021)—3

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Jeff Beck 15: You Had It Coming

The good news is Jeff Beck fans only had to wait two years for another album. The bad news is the album was You Had It Coming.

The electronic experiments of the last album have taken over, and these ten tracks do their best to replicate the sounds from an automotive garage. For the first time in a while, he takes writing credit for most of the songs, so maybe it was his idea. His distinct tone pokes through the barrage of sound, but such an onslaught can be tiring. The cover of Nitin Sawhney’s “Nadia” starts out very lovely, until the drum ‘n bass accompaniment takes over; the same thing happens to the cool riff on “Rosebud”. Even the perennial “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” is re-interpreted by vocalist Imogen Heap, while drums beat a martial pattern into the mix. Things finally calm down at the end, for “Blackbird”—not a Beatles cover, but Jeff imitating bird calls with programmed responses—which leads into the mysterious and moody “Suspension”.

You Had It Coming had to have been somebody’s cup of tea, because it did win Grammys. What it says about the future of guitar is beyond our scope.

Jeff Beck You Had It Coming (2001)—2

Friday, September 3, 2021

Nilsson 2: Pandemonium Shadow Show

This is where the legend of Harry Nilsson really begins, and mostly by a fluke. Beatles insider Derek Taylor heard one of its songs on the radio while doing publicity in California, told his old bosses about it, and soon they were trumpeting “Nilsson” as their favorite band. Coming so soon after their previous endorsement of the Monkees, who’d already recorded some of his songs, it kinda makes sense.

Still, that kind of advance hype doesn’t make Pandemonium Shadow Show the type of album everyone has to own. While gifted with a versatile voice, and a grasp of olde American musical styles, one gets a distinct “inside joke” vibe from it. Most of his originals are delivered in a cross between “vo-de-oh-doe” vaudeville—right down to the constant scat vocal breaks—and the circus element that ties in with the title. Even “She Sang Hymns Out Of Tune”, which he didn’t write, sounds like it should be accompanying someone on flying trapeze, while “Freckles” dates back to 1919.

The songs are catchy, yet hardly cliché. “Ten Little Indians” recasts the nursery rhyme with Ten Commandments connotations in a brass-heavy track, and “1941” is a bold, unforgiving autobiography. “Cuddly Toy” would get exposure on TV in the Monkees’ rendition, just as “Without Her” would be covered by everyone from Glen Campbell to Blood, Sweat & Tears. “Sleep Late, My Lady Friend” is a nice diversion, with its Bacharach-style bridges. “There Will Never Be” is near-Latin pop in a maddening 5/4 time signature, while “It’s Been So Long” evokes Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys as well as the Fab Four—who figure prominently in the grooves, too. “You Can’t Do That” is indeed a cover of their tune, delivered straight except for the backing vocals, which sing over a dozen Beatle song titles into the mix. If that wasn’t enough, his version of “She’s Leaving Home” was recorded just days after the original record came out. The grand finale is “River Deep—Mountain High”, the previous year’s flop by Ike & Tina Turner, and Harry’s version is very close to (former mentor) Phil Spector’s original production, but with more bongos.

Lots of people love Pandemonium Shadow Show. Again, that doesn’t guarantee everyone will. We’re not even sure if we like it—we never liked Davy Jones’ soft-shoe routines on The Monkees either. There’s a lot of sameness, and many of the songs blend together, and not conceptually either. Proceed with caution.

Nilsson Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967)—