Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Lou Reed 31: The Creation Of The Universe

Shortly after reviving one of the more reviled albums of his career, Lou Reed happily scampered off with a couple of avant-garde musicians who were enamored with both the structure and the possibilities of Metal Machine Music, to the point where they actually arranged it for orchestra. Naturally, Lou was thrilled, and wanted to collaborate further. Dubbed the Metal Machine Trio, they improvised their way through a few concerts in L.A. art installations, two of which were released as The Creation Of The Universe.

These tracks don’t have titles outside of “Night 1” and “Night 2”, each in two parts. Mostly there’s the hum of feedback and some guitar distortion, with keyboards emulating different sounds, and an occasional saxophone skronking amid the din. Sometimes Lou will start with quiet picking, or play power chords. While not completely atonal, it occasionally approximates music. The audience even applauds at the end of each “Night”. Nonetheless, Fripp & Eno did it better, and with only two people.

Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio The Creation Of The Universe (2008)—2

Friday, October 22, 2021

Yes 3: The Yes Album

By titling their third album The Yes Album, one might think Yes were starting fresh. In many ways, they were, shaking off the orchestral embellishments and dependency on covers, and giving new guitarist Steve Howe plenty of room to leave his stamp, and not just on the nine-minute tracks. Engineer Eddy Offord was upgraded to co-producer, helping seal his pedigree as premier prog producer in between Emerson, Lake & Palmer dates.

The stop-start nature of “Yours Is No Disgrace” makes it difficult to get into the song right away, but it does, with a wonderful galloping sequence that screams “anthem”. Things stop for tightly harmonized vocals, which continue over the main theme, continuing in variations. It’s one of their better long-form pieces, setting yet another template for future albums. Jon Anderson’s lyrics are fairly obtuse, per usual. The new kid gets a solo spot, taken from a live performance, with his genre-spanning instrumental “The Clap”. (This has since been amended to omit the definite article, but since that’s how it’s announced, that’s what we call it.) “Starship Trooper” is another long one, this time in labeled parts: “Life Seeker” would be the catchy first section; “Disillusion” is another fast-picked acoustic country detour before a return to the original theme; and, after a windup, “Würm” follows three descending chords while Tony Kaye’s Hammond organ fights for space between dueling guitar solos.

“I’ve Seen All Good People” is announced by the repeated hook of the title, but first there’s the three-chord “Your Move” section, which stretches the chess metaphor but still manages to evoke John Lennon, with “instant karma” in the lyrics and “all we are saying is give peace a chance” mixed low beneath one of the verses. The “All Good People” section revives the hook, first setting up continual guitar solos, then fading over organ chords that modulate a full step with every repeat. “A Venture” is reminiscent of the more complicated songs from the first two albums, but here the musical blend is superior, deftly allowing a jazz piano solo of sorts while Chris Squire’s bass burbles below and Bill Bruford plays his polyrhythms. These time experiments continue on “Perpetual Change”, another long one that takes detours through a nursery rhyme section, but manages to stay tuneful.

By design, The Yes Album has proven to be the prime starting point for the band, and most of the songs have been in fairly solid rotation on Classic Rock radio ever since. If you’re sick of them, blame the radio.

The eventual expanded CD added truncated single mixes of “Your Move” and “Starship Trooper”, plus a studio recording of “Clap” that incorporates elements of “Mood For A Day”, which would show up on the next album. Only the latter was included on the CD portion of the eventual Steven Wilson remix package, along with an extended “A Venture” that winds into freeform cacophony; the single versions were included on the DVD or Blu-ray, depending on which one you bought, along with surround mixes, live versions, and whatnot.

This permutation was somewhat superseded by the eventual Super Deluxe Edition, which celebrated the 52nd birthday of the album. This time a new remaster of the original album was supported by a disc containing the 2014 Wilson remix of the album’s tracks (save “Clap) plus Wilson’s instrumental mixes of same (again save “Clap”, but including the a cappella intro for “All Good People”). A third disc had those previously released singles and outtakes, as well as a previously unreleased take of the “Life Seeker” portion of “Starship Trooper” plus, amazingly for a 1971 release, a mono(!) mix of the album. A fourth disc offered grainy live recordings from both before and after the album was released; they show Steve Howe adept at the band’s earlier material, while a rendition of “Clap” includes direct quotes from “Classical Gas”. A Blu-ray disc included updated hi-res and surround mixes, and because Rhino was behind it all, the new remaster was also included on vinyl, ensuring an inflated list price.

Yes The Yes Album (1971)—
2003 remastered CD: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks
2014 Definitive Edition: “same” as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks (plus DVD or Blu-ray)
2023 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 2003, plus 27 extra tracks (plus Blu-ray)

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Frank Zappa 45: The Helsinki Concert

Right after the Frankensteinian assembly of the first volume in Frank’s You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, the second volume was devoted to exactly one band’s performance at exactly one gig (although evidence has emerged that there were actually two shows, but still). This is basically the Roxy & Elsewhere band, but with only one horn player and one drummer, in this case Chester Thompson. Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke enjoy a lot of onstage repartee; the inside joke of this particular show revolves around the word “tush”, as well as Suzi Quatro, who was also touring Finland at the time. Also, Ruth Underwood shows her incredible percussion chops throughout.

We prefer the arrangement of “Village Of The Sun” from Roxy to the version they race through here, but there’s no question that the band is tight. While a good chunk of the repertoire comes from that album, they also played songs that were yet to be released, including “RDNZL” and “Approximate” (another chance for Frank to include a tap-dancing sequence near the start, annoyingly). Part of the guitar solo for “Inca Roads” was edited into the track released on One Size Fits All. “Pygmy Twylte” gets a longer guitar solo before devolving into “Room Service”, a rockin’ groove that turns into something of a sub-Flo and Eddie routine about hotel food and groupies. After an “Idiot Bastard Son” interlude, there’s a dizzying transition into “Cheepnis”.

“Dupree’s Paradise” appears in a 24-minute “rock band” arrangement, as opposed to the chamber music score, but first we must endure further routines and in-jokes regarding their manager’s wife theft of hotel towels. These are forgotten once the drum solo and percussion duet take over, though the duck calls leave something to be desired. This manages to segue into a performance of “Satumaa”, a “Finnish tango” apparently familiar to most of the crowd. “T’Mershi Duween” is another early rarity, moving neatly through “The Dog Meat Variations” and “Uncle Meat”.

Perhaps the most historic aspect of this show is the baffling request for the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” just before “Montana”. Frank duly includes “Whipping Post” references throughout the song, and indeed a cover would be a Zappa concert staple come the ‘80s. A detour into “Big Swifty” provides the finale.

As with the first volume, this set is best appreciated by aficionados, and while some of the sequences become tiresome, it’s still a decent representation of one of Frank’s more celebrated bands. That might actually make it a good place to start.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2: The Helsinki Concert (1988)—3

Friday, October 15, 2021

Elton John 18: The Thom Bell Sessions and Victim Of Love

As further proof that Elton John was undergoing some kind of identity crisis, the follow-up to his tepidly received A Single Man was a maxi-single of three songs recorded two years earlier. The Thom Bell Sessions were named for the producer in charge, famous for his popular “Philly soul” hits of the time; by the time Elton got to work with him, he’d moved to Seattle.

Elton was happy to merely be the singer on the sessions, letting the producer provide the songs as well as the backing. Indeed, “Three Way Love Affair” benefits from Elton’s warm voice, and while “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” was a catchy hit, it could well have been the Spinners, who actually sing on “Are You Ready For Love”, which runs for eight minutes. Those of us who were thoroughly sick of disco by the summer of ‘79 were dismissive, but today we can agree that the production is indeed impeccable.

A good ten years later, once Elton was slowly regaining commercial acceptance again, The Complete Thom Bell Sessions presented all six songs originally recorded for the project. While false advertising, “Nice And Slow” found Elton and Bernie Taupin collaborating with Bell, and “Country Love Song” wouldn’t be confused for a Tumbleweed Connection outtake. A superior re-recording of “Shine On Through” would open A Simple Man.

But he wasn’t done with disco, nor was he ready to take control in the studio. For his next trick, he hooked up with Pete Bellotte, whom he’d first met in the mid-‘60s and had since gone on to make a mint creating Eurodisco with Giorio Moroder and writing for Donna Summer. That hitmaking approach was applied to Victim Of Love, to which Elton devoted exactly eight hours, which is what it took to apply his vocals to the generic backing tracks. Save the execrable opening cover of “Johnny B. Goode”, the songs were supplied by the producer and his team. Truly shocking are the credits, which include such musicians as Marcus Miller on bass, Keith Forsey on drums a few years before Billy Idol, the ubiquitous Paulinho da Costa on percussion, and even Michael McDonald and Pat Simmons hiding from the Doobie Brothers on the title track. Like most disco albums of the time, there is no break between songs, just the same four-to-the-bar kickdrum thump. The only respite comes with the silence at the end of each side. Even more so than The Thom Bell Sessions, Victim Of Love lacks any of Elton’s personality, and therefore any of his genius or talent.

Elton John The Thom Bell Sessions (1979)—
1989 The Complete Thom Bell Sessions: same as 1979, plus 3 extra tracks
Elton John Victim Of Love (1979)—

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Roxy Music 9: Avalon

Ten years after their debut, Roxy Music had come a long way from their initial image as “the ‘50s meets the ‘80s in the ‘70s.” Even without the greasy pompadour and space-age costumes, Bryan Ferry was still one of the suavest guys ever to stalk a stage in a rumpled silk suit, looking like he’d hurriedly gotten dressed following a backstage encounter. The band had always been about style, so in retrospect, their transition to a slick, post-disco adult contemporary sound wasn’t that surprising. Moreover, it improved Flesh + Blood by association.

Their journey culminated on Avalon, a lush and classy recording that showcases the band’s strengths—down to the trio of Ferry (singing more smoothly than ever before), Andy Mackay on sax and the inimitable Phil Manzanera on guitar, with well-chosen session guys.
The opening single, “More Than This”, gained a new following after its use in the Bill Murray vehicle Lost In Translation, but that only underscored its reputation as a stirring, enigmatic song. In fact, a good deal of the album puts impressionistic images into grooves, so that the sound is more important than any possible message. “The Space Between” demonstrates this with its mix of drum machines and real drums, saxophones and riff guitars underneath blurry vocals. The title track is perhaps the most overt portrayal of the singer as lounge lizard, accented by the cooing of a female vocalist. “India” doesn’t sound like the country it’s supposed to describe, but just as the music seems about to go somewhere, it’s interrupted by the flourish that opens the snaky “While My Heart Is Still Beating”.

The album’s slick production value made it especially popular the year it came out, as the CD format provided a gapless listening experience over the LP—all the better for a yuppie’s makeout session. “The Main Thing” keeps up the tension through to the lengthy introduction that sets up “Take A Chance With Me”, all the way through the highly tuneful and romantic “To Turn You On”. The heavy tremolo on the synth and vocals makes a nice match for the simple changes of “True To Life”. The closing “Tara”, a quiet sax solo over seashore sound effects and hints of melodies that have come before, is a fitting finish.

While Avalon is the last studio album credited to Roxy Music proper, it paved the way to Ferry’s late-‘80s solo work. And while Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera have shown up from time to time, if this album was indeed their swansong, it was a great way to go out.

Roxy Music Avalon (1982)—4

Friday, October 8, 2021

Jerry Garcia 6: Cats Under The Stars

Just as bandmate Bob Weir got to indulge his quirks outside the confines of the Grateful Dead, so could Jerry Garcia. And he did, constantly. Cats Under The Stars ventured near the MOR territory of Bob’s recent outing, but at least Jerry had lyricist Robert Hunter to keep him in familiar territory. Keith and Donna Godchaux feature prominently, on keyboards and too-loud vocals respectively, alongside the reliable John Kahn, Merl Saunders, and Ron Tutt; the collective was dubbed, naturally, Jerry Garcia Band.

“Ruben And Cherise” is one of those character mythologies that Robert Hunter weaves so well, though we could do without the synth horns and guitar effects that sound like a warped steel drum. It’s also easy to sway too, despite the constant tempo changes. John Kahn is credited for the music on the calypso-flavored “Love In The Afternoon”, and it’s surprising that nobody pointed out the chord changes are identical to “Ship Of Fools”. “Palm Sunday” is a brief trifle, sunk by what sounds like a synthesized harmonica, while the title track starts with a decent groove and another screwy meter. We’d love to take that tinkly keyboard out of the mix.

Side two is just strange. First off, “Rhapsody In Red” is a celebration of music that just plain rocks, Jerry soloing from start to finish, whether he’s singing or not. Unfortunately, Donna is the only vocalist on her own “Rain”, which otherwise sports a smart chamber strings and horns arrangement behind the adult contemporary backing, the guitar sounding like ‘70s Traffic. She also leads the choral group on John Kahn’s “Down Home”, evoking a cowboy campfire. “Gomorrah” brings Jerry back to the microphone for a slow lope a la “Candyman” or “Sugaree”, more in line with classic Garcia-Hunter.

Deadheads find Cats Under The Stars to be an absolute treat, but they probably like Donna anytime and anywhere. While Jerry’s voice and guitar ring throughout, the uninitiated may find the album to be dated at best, and generally sub-par. (The bonus tracks on the expanded CD are mostly covers and aren’t very exciting—unless you want a 16-minute version of “Don’t Let Go”—although there is a rehearsal of “Down Home” without Donna and a lovely stripped-down take of “Palm Sunday”.)

Jerry Garcia Band Cats Under The Stars (1978)—
2004 expanded CD: same as 1978, plus 7 extra tracks

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Bob Weir 3: Heaven Help The Fool

The Dead’s deal with Arista Records allowed members to do solo albums, and Bob Weir was the first to bite. Where his first solo project involved the rest of the band anyway, it seems he had a different vision for Heaven Help The Fool. This time, the musicians included schlockmeister David Foster, Tom Scott, Waddy Wachtel, two guys from Toto, Bill Champlin on his way to ‘80s Chicago, and the guy who played drums in Journey after they booted Steve Smith. Do the math, and you get L.A. smooth.

That’s the prevailing sound from the start. “Bombs Away” is catchy, but there are far too many singers and saxophones in the way of the tune. If “Easy To Slip” sounds like a step in the right direction, keep in mind it’s a Little Feat cover, and that’s Elton John’s rhythm section holding it down. “Salt Lake City” is about as inspiring as the Beach Boys song of the same title, and it didn’t work for them either. Besides, he’s already a little old to be talking about all the pretty Mormon girls he’d like to see there. (As with all the songs that weren’t covers, John Barlow is the lyricist, so blame him.) “Shade Of Grey” moves through what sounds like several keys from verse to chorus, and musically surpasses the gang vocals on every “out in the streets”.

Maybe we’re just dim, but we can’t tell whether the title track is boasting or a warning. And maybe we’re suckers for mush, but “This Time Tomorrow” is a heartbreaker, even with the lush strings. However, in six short years Marvin Gaye could actually roll in his grave in reaction to the limp arrangement of “I’ll Be Doggone”. That makes the generic arena rock of “Wrong Way Feelin’” a relief.

There’s nothing wrong with Heaven Help The Fool except that it’s a departure from the Dead brand. One suspects that given his druthers, Bobby would have preferred a career like Boz Scaggs or Dan Fogelberg had attained by this time, and gladly worked with producer Keith Olsen forever. But for extremely rare occasions, none of these songs would make it to Dead setlists, which is telling.

Bob Weir Heaven Help The Fool (1978)—2

Friday, October 1, 2021

Genesis 21: Archive #2

Having already devoted four discs to the Peter Gabriel era of the band, the Genesis Archive #2: 1976-1992 box set was designed to supplement the Phil Collins era. Whereas the first set was teeming with goodies for the fans, this time out they had a smaller pool covering a wider period.

The sequencing is just plain strange, as each disc ignores chronology. The first contains B-sides (largely studio tracks, plus one extended remix), the second is all live versions (some of which happened to already be B-sides), and the third has more remixes, then more live versions, and then more B-sides. Warning to uber fans: Steve Hackett only appears on one live track (alongside Bill Bruford on drums) and just three of the B-sides.

The “B-sides” disc is gold for collectors and just as maddening. At their best, they show a more experimental side of the band in a time when they’d become mainstream. For example, “On The Shoreline” is a surprisingly poppy little gem from the We Can’t Dance era that hearkens to earlier triumphs, while “Hearts On Fire” utilizes canned horns with vocals way too close to “Illegal Alien”. “You Might Recall”, “Paperlate”, and “Evidence Of Autumn” return to digital after being exiled from the North American version of Three Sides Live. “Do The Neurotic” is a lengthy instrumental of some merit, even if it does sound like the theme song to an ‘80s detective TV show, while “I’d Rather Be You” defines B-side throwaway. The “Naminanu” and “Submarine” instrumentals are somewhat related to “Dodo/Lurker”, so that’s nice, but here they’re separated by “Inside And Out” from the Spot The Pigeon EP, the surprisingly strong “Feeding The Fire” from the Invisible Touch sessions, and a seven-minute remix of “I Can’t Dance”.

In the booklet—which goes in depth into the albums of the period, even though most of the music discussed isn’t heard—Tony Banks’ justification for the selection of live tracks is that none had appeared on a live album before. That doesn’t mean we were aching for a live version of “Illegal Alien”, but that’s what kicks off the second disc. Luckily, the bulk of the disc concentrates on deep cuts from earlier albums, such as “Ripples”, “Entangled”, and “Duke’s Travels” (which extends through “Duke’s End”). Well-deserved credit is given to Daryl Stuermer and Chester Thompson for their valuable contributions to the band on stage.

The first 25 minutes of the third disc are devoted to three extended remixes from the Invisible Touch era before jumping back for contemporary-ish live versions of a profanity-laden “No Reply At All”, a heckled “Man On The Corner”, and an affected “The Lady Lies”. Then it’s more B-sides from the first few years of the Phil era: “Open Door” and “Pigeons” return from Three Sides Live and Spot The Pigeon exile respectively; “The Day The Light Went Out” and “Vancouver” are mildly poppy yet mysterious; “It’s Yourself” is a revelation, as it leads directly into the opening of “Los Endos” on A Trick Of The Tail. A ten-minute “work-in-progress” recording of “Mama” closes the set, and is the only previously unreleased studio track.

That right there is annoying, although the band insisted that any “outtakes” per se ended up as B-sides. But even with the limited supply, there were some key omissions—namely, “Match Of The Day” from Spot The Pigeon and “Me And Virgil” from the 3x3 EP (or side four of Three Sides Live, depending on your location). Somehow the band thought the extended remixes they included were less embarrassing than the tracks they left out. Couldn’t those have been added in context, and the 12-inch variations relegated to its own disc with others of the sort? This is all quibbling, of course, since the set is designed strictly for diehards. By now the hits could be found elsewhere anyway, but at least some of those rarities were available again.

Genesis Genesis Archive #2: 1976-1992 (2000)—3