Friday, November 26, 2021

Kiss 8: Alive II

Three studio albums since the last live album meant it was time for another celebration of what the announcer calls “the hottest band in the world.” Alive II was another double album, once again festooned with shots of Kiss in action, with a lovely full-color shot of Gene Simmons dribbling fake blood right on the front cover.
At the risk of too much repetition, the songs are taken from only those three most recent albums, delivered just as you remembered them but louder and with more pyrotechnics and more Paul Stanley stage banter. Ace Frehley is allowed to sing “Shock Me” and play his spotlight solo, then Peter Criss gets his first vocal on “Hard Luck Woman”. As with the rest of the album, reports conflict as to how much of this album was recorded in front of an actual Kiss audience, and how much was tweaked during mixing. When “Beth” comes up in the setlist, there’s no subterfuge: Peter simply grabbed a mike and sang over the backing track. (We’re assuming his drum solo on “God Of Thunder” is authentic.) Since they couldn’t repeat “Rock And Roll All Nite”, “Shout It Out Loud” must serve as the closing anthem, after which the crowd chants “We want Kiss” into the dead wax.
With only enough live material to cover three shortish sides, side four offered a grab bag of five new studio tracks. Bicentennial patriotism may have inspired “All-American Man” and the dopey “Rockin’ In The U.S.A.”, but the braggadocio of “Larger Than Life” isn’t anywhere as cerebral. If the lead guitar sounds different on those tunes, you’re right: studio gun Bob Kulick filled in for Ace, who only appears on “Rocket Ride”, wherein he plays everything but the drums. Finally, Paul turns up the fuzz for a cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Any Way You Want It”, wherein the production gets the echo right, but the main “it’s all right” vocal sounds like he’s singing along with his car speaker.
Like most sequels, Alive II had more style than substance. As for extra packaging, a booklet entitled “The Evolution Of Kiss” told the story in words and pictures, and an order form for the latest Kiss merchandise was eclipsed by the set of 18 temporary tattoos. Even these made it to the remastered CD twenty years later, small compensation for a double-disc set that could have fit on a single by several minutes. At least the new liner notes copped to Ace’s absence on side four.

Kiss Alive II (1977)—3

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Bruce Springsteen 28: No Nukes

One of the last gasps of hippie idealism personified by Laurel Canyon musicians occurred in the wake of the “accident” at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979. Led by John Hall, known back then as the guy from the band Orleans, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, and others coalesced to form Musicians United for Safe Energy, and staged a variety of events in order to raise awareness and money. Five concerts at Madison Square Garden later that year raised more of both, and were the centerpiece of a triple-album set plus a feature film.
Meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen had spent most of the year in the studio toiling and tinkering over what would become his fifth album, and hadn’t done any major shows since New Year’s Day. Naturally, his appearance with the E Street Band at two of the MSG shows, in front of what amounted to his hometown crowd, were big deals, and the excerpts included in the film did a lot to show the rest of the country what the excitement was all about. For Bruce, it was also another spark that started the fire of overt activism that has only grown in his work since then.
Both concerts were released for download and as a CD package via the Bruce Springsteen Archive website in 2018. Three years later, 13 songs compiled from the two shows were remixed and matched with the restored 16mm film footage for a double CD plus DVD or Blu-ray set, unabashedly titled The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts. From the opening crash of “Prove It All Night”, Bruce and the E Street Band attack the set like it stole their lunch money. They were fired up and ready; the occasion of the leader’s 30th birthday might have also added to the intensity. Following “Badlands” and “Promised Land” he takes the mood down to debut “The River”, and goes back to the party with “Sherry Darling”, both from the album in progress. From there, “Thunder Road”, “Jungleland”, “Rosalita” and “Born To Run” deliver the anthems.
The encore covers are included from both nights: “Stay”, with Jackson Browne and Rosemary Butler, who’d recently made it a hit again, plus Tom Petty; the classic “Detroit Medley”, which actually combined two medleys made famous by Mitch Ryder; Buddy Holly’s “Rave On”, hypercharged; and a ten-minute bash through Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter To Three”. It’s even more compelling on screen, with the mildly pompadoured and sideburned frontman looking his coolest, even when tearing around the stage with his shirttails flying, Steve Van Zandt sporting a beret before he switched to the schmatta, and Clarence “Big Man” Clemons commanding his domain. (Neither audio nor video documentation of Bruce pulling his ex-girlfriend, the photographer Lynn Goldsmith, to the stage and then having her escorted from the building because she ignored his request for no pictures has been included.)
All in all, the No Nukes Concerts provides a good balance and perspective between the five discs from the 1986 box and 2006’s excavation of Hammersmith Odeon London ‘75. “Legendary” is a fitting adjective for this music.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts (2021)—4

Friday, November 19, 2021

Robert Fripp 2: Sylvian/Fripp

David Sylvian was best known as the dreamy frontman for the New Wave band Japan; he became better acquainted with Robert Fripp after doing a session together in 1985. At the turn of the ‘90s, Fripp had toyed with the idea of another incarnation of King Crimson, with Sylvian as lead singer. While that didn’t happen, the two did manage to complete a collaborative tour, which resulted in an album.
The Next Day is very much a collaboration, dominated by Sylvian’s croon, over loops as well as real drums and percussion, with Fripp mostly adding color on the side when he’s not driving the riff. Another key contributor is Trey Gunn, who’d graduated from Guitar Craft student to proficient Chapman Stick player and had joined the duo on the initial tour. Veteran drummer Jerry Marotta is also on a few tracks, along with computer treatments from co-producer David Botrill.
The album begins with the funky (always a strange word to associate with Fripp) “God’s Monkey”. But for the experiments in meter, this is fairly mainstream, as is “Jean The Birdman” with its dense lyrics. “Firepower” brings in a lot more crunch, and sports more familiar Fripp soloing that livens up the second half of this ten-minute track. (Plus, what sounds like a violin evokes echoes of the Larks’ Tongues era.) Another snaky riff drives “Brightness Falls”, which is just too slow to be danceable.
The second half of the album is a little more indulgent. “20th Century Dreaming (A Shaman’s Song)” has promise at first, but soon devolves into ambient effects while the bassline burbles beneath. Not so for “Darshan (Road To Graceland)”, which explores the era’s ubiquitous “Manchester beat” loop for about 17 minutes. It picks up anytime Sylvian sings an actual verse or Fripp’s guitar comes up in the mix, but takes up a lot of space without really going anywhere, despite the title. If anything, it makes the Frippertronic soundscape of “Bringing Down The Light” more welcome.
To support the album, the duo plus Gunn recruited “infinite guitarist” Michael Brook and Pat Mastelotto, most famous for pounding the skins for Mr. Mister, for a brief tour. The shows at the Royal Albert Hall were released as a limited edition CD called Damage, which Sylvian remixed and resequnced in 2001 for a more widespread release. The first version gets points for beginning with the moody title track, while the second adds “Jean The Birdman” at the expense of “Darshan”, which also cuts six minutes from the total disc time. Both versions provide better performances of the album’s tunes, plus a few selections from Sylvian’s solo albums as well as a song from Rain Tree Crow, the eponymous Japan reunion from 1991. In both cases, the albums end with two more rare songs: the rocking outtake “Blinding Light Of Heaven” and the much more subdued “The Next Day”.
While the pair wouldn’t take their collaboration further, the rhythm section would continue to be useful for Fripp. In hindsight, The Next Day and particularly Damage very much foreshadowed his next adventure.

David Sylvian & Robert Fripp The Next Day (1993)—3
Damage (1994)—3

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Prince 18: The Gold Experience

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince continued his quest to create on his own terms, first releasing “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” as a standalone single on the tiny Bellmark label, credited to the unpronounceable symbol he insisted was his legal name. At the same time, he was becoming very immersed in the potential of the Internet, hoping to use it as a method to distribute his music outside of the established record industry.
Virtual reality—and its limitations—was also a big thing in those days, and thus The Gold Experience was presented not so much as a concept album, but as a continuous guided program. Various “NPG Operator” segues throughout the album serve to narrate the journey, sometimes bafflingly, through the different “experiences”.
After a long intro that makes you think your disc is stuck, the irresistible beat of “P. Control” takes over, and despite his ineffectiveness as a rapper, plus the cursing and repeated female anatomy part initialed in the title, the high vocals and goofy sound effects win. “Endorphin Machine” is a furious rocker with terrific guitars, the likes of which had been missing from most Prince albums of late, culminating in one of his classic Revolution-era screams. After we’re informed in Spanish that “Prince está muerto,” somebody’s moaning punctuates the slammin’ intro to “Shhh”, a tune originally given to young protégé Tevin Campbell and taken back to become a ‘90s slow jam. “We March” purports to be something of a call for unity, but there’s an undercurrent of violence in the lyrics and sound effects. “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” comes next, a year and a half after its appearance as a single. It’s a sweet song, if a little syrupy, but you can’t stream it currently because it was the object of a plagiarism lawsuit, which he lost. “Dolphin” is almost psychedelic rock, a better track than the lyrics.
While it’s specifically set up by the NPG Operator as a jam worthy of “Housequake” and “Sexy MF”, “Now” is simply not as fun as even the latter; frankly, Digital Underground did it better. Similarly, the crunchy guitars on “319” make the song seem like a copy of Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing”, but the minimalist funk of the completely solo “Shy” provides another welcome tangent, despite the dire lyrics. “Billy Jack Bitch” features a repeated sample from the first Fishbone EP, ten years earlier, while the synth hook comes right out of Controversy. The lengthy courtroom rant “Eye Hate U” has promise, but it’s hard to take a womanizer’s broken heart seriously, and especially when he threatens violence. Still, there’s a terrific solo. After the VR program seems to melt down, we find we’ve been granted access to the final tier, in the form of “Gold”. Besides being the longest track on the album, it seems to be set up as not only a finale but a grand anthem. Even the guitar solo seems to recall “Purple Rain”. The operator reappears briefly to confirm the listener’s membership in the New Power Generation and once again welcome said listener “2 the dawn.”
Albums tended to run over an hour in those days, so it’s not fair to dismiss The Gold Experience for being too long for its own good. Stylistically it’s all over the place, offering echoes of all the music he’d created to date. In other words, it’s got something for everybody.
Footnote: As part of the promotional lead-up, a mixtape called The Versace Experience–Prelude 2 Gold was distributed during that year’s fashion week. Several exclusive edits of songs from The Gold Experience appear alongside tracks by New Power Generation (allegedly as their own entity but still driven by The Artist Himself), songs from the still-unreleased third Madhouse album, and a preview of the Kamasutra ballet. After years racking up high prices on the collector’s market, it was made available for Record Store Day 2019, then as a CD for general release.

o|+> The Gold Experience (1995)—3
The Versace Experience–Prelude 2 Gold (2019)—3

Friday, November 12, 2021

Kinks 23: Misfits

1978 found several veteran British invasion bands reacting to both their longevity as well as the generation gap. The Stones and The Who both faced their mortality and vitality straight on, and so did Ray Davies. While the Kinks managed to maintain a certain cachet among the young punks—the Jam’s cover of “David Watts” appeared as a single and again as an album track around this time—the band was fractured at this point, with John Gosling and bass recruit Andy Pyle easing out of the lineup. Even drummer Mick Avory couldn’t be bothered to make many of the sessions for the album that became Misfits; some of the tracks feature veteran session man Clem Catini.
Still, a contract was a contract, and Ray dutifully wrote a new batch of songs that weren’t tethered to an overall concept. The title track is a gentle celebration of those not like everybody else, with a hook repeated by several instruments—in all, a well-constructed track. Unfortunately, “Hay Fever” is a fairly dopey rocker lamenting seasonal allergies, and we’re pretty sure there’s not a clever subtext meant by “all the pills and the powders”. The American version of the album follows with the rocking “Live Life”, one of two overtly political songs on the album. This one is a plea for sanity amid times of social and racial unrest; chances are it was swapped with the less subtle character that narrates “Black Messiah” on side two, for fear we wouldn’t get the joke. (Plus, the UK mix of “Live Life” is longer.) The mood turns gentle again for “A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy”, another of Ray’s periodic explorations of whether the power of music was enough to sustain him or his fans—possibly influenced by Elvis Presley’s death the year before. Oddly, it’s followed by “In A Foreign Land”, something of a lyrical cross between “Apeman” and the desire to be a tax exile.
“Permanent Waves” finds Ray back at the doctor, who prescribes a new hairstyle to cure his current ills. It’s not a winner, but showcases some of the latest synth technology. Even without the lyrical content, the aforementioned “Black Messiah” is a strange musical mix of bluebeat (too slow for ska, too fast for reggae) with the kind of New Orleans horns abandoned three or four albums ago. “Out Of The Wardrobe” is even more a defense of transvestism than “Lola”, bringing it into the lives of “ordinary folks”, and could well be an LGBT anthem today. Dave Davies finally gets his requisite solo spot in “Trust Your Heart”, matching a soaring melody with power-chord riffing for a nice distraction. It ends rather abruptly, and then we get the arty power chords that began the motivation anthem “Get Up”.
Misfits is mostly harmless, so it goes in the good pile. It’s not a classic by Kinks standards, but still a worthy chapter in Ray’s ongoing opus. (The expanded CD preserves the UK sequence of the album, bolstered by three single edits, including the shorter US mix of “Live Life”, and the standalone “Father Christmas” single, a suitably sardonic view of the modern holiday and still a perennial radio favorite.)

The Kinks Misfits (1978)—3
1998 Konk CD reissue: same as 1978, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Paul Simon 17: So Beautiful Or So What

After all this time, and a handful of, frankly, “eh” albums, one might be forgiven for not expecting to be wowed another time by Paul Simon. So Beautiful Or So What is sneaky in that it starts out tepidly, but soon elevates to something special.
Much of the album was recorded alone at his home studio, so there are plenty of loops and effects. These seem to dominate “Getting Ready For Christmas Day”, which is built around a sermon from several decades earlier, then becomes a relevant lament for children stationed overseas during the holidays and the determination to muddle through somehow. The same clattery backing supports “The Afterlife”, one of his more successful attempts at approaching aging and death with humor. “Dazzling Blue” has echoes of “Under African Skies”, which is fine with us. A very intricate guitar part, half plucked and half strummed, drives “Rewrite”, which rises above the “help me, thank you” hook in the chorus with subtle verses. Those tracks will not prepare you for “Love And Hard Times”, a gorgeous rumination on creation and blessings, with a gentle piano and string arrangement to match his gentle guitar.
“Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” is almost a sermon of its own, with an uptempo backing and near-gospel delivery. We take another break for the exquisite “Amulet”, a solo guitar instrumental, leading into further rumination on “Questions For The Angels”, wherein a pilgrim’s stroll through Brooklyn takes in a billboard of Jay-Z. “Love And Blessings” samples from another old gospel recording, but wisely limits it to the choruses. Meanwhile, the vocal, guitar, and bass all follow the same basic melody, but just out of phase to keep from unison. Finally, the title track, digs into a dirty groove, reiterating all the themes we’d heard thus far.
So Beautiful Or So What really is a pleasant surprise, especially when you’re not expecting much. Even with all the contributors in the credits, and the time it took to create, it still exudes a low-key presentation, with a fresh sound. Well worth revisiting.

Paul Simon So Beautiful Or So What (2011)—

Friday, November 5, 2021

David Bowie 34: iSelect, Santa Monica, Storytellers

While he’d shown up here and there on stage and screen, the first decade of the 21st century had turned quiet for David Bowie. Still, a few new collections of older material kept him on the shelves while we waited for something new.

With its retro photo and Changesonebowie typeface, iSelect was sure to draw attention, even after it was given away with a Sunday paper in the U.K. This was a handpicked compilation of his own favorites, mostly from the ‘70s and generally deep cuts, complete with his own commentary on the inspiration and/or recording for each in the liner notes. He’s not above self-deprecation, and is also careful to praise several of the musicians who contributed, including Mick Ronson and Mike Garson.
Any collection taken from such a wide source is guaranteed not to please everyone, but we find it hard to fault a mix tape that begins with “Life On Mars?” and “The Bewlay Brothers” from Hunky Dory with the “Sweet Thing/Candidate” suite in between. As for rarities, “Some Are” was included from the out-of-print Rykodisc version of Low, while “Time Will Crawl” was upgraded with real drums and strings replacing the machines on the original. The radio introduction and “Hang On To Yourself” from Santa Monica in 1972 cap the set.

That particular recording had been a legendary bootleg for years, and got wider distribution in the mid-‘90s via a label set up by Bowie’s old management, to the artist’s irritation. An official Bowie-approved release, with improved sound and packaging, was something of a surprise in 2008 after such a stretch of time. It’s an essential snapshot of the era; the band was only ten shows into the American tour, and they’re still working on their swagger. Terrific performances of “The Supermen”, “Life On Mars?”, “Waiting For The Man”, and a preview of “The Jean Genie” are just some of the highlights, and Bowie’s brief but affectionate liner notes praise Ronson and Garson again.

Such candor wasn’t exactly rare for Bowie when the mood struck him. He was particularly effusive for his appearance on VH1 Storytellers as part of the advance promotion of ‘hours…’ Along with anecdotes (and occasional imitations) of Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, and Steve Marriott, he delivered two songs from the album, plus low-key renditions of a few deep cuts and a few familiar ones. “China Girl” got a lovely introduction courtesy of Mike Garson, and a revved-up remake of his oldie “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” would lead to a still-unreleased album of similar remakes. (When made available for purchase ten years later, the CD merely replicated the original broadcast, but it was packaged with a DVD that added four further songs, which have since become available via streaming and a vinyl release. These included two more new songs, plus his recent deconstruction of “I Can’t Read” and a striking “Always Crashing In The Same Car”.)

David Bowie iSelect (2008)—
David Bowie
Live Santa Monica ’72 (2008)—
David Bowie
VH1 Storytellers (2009)—3

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Van Morrison 42: Keep Me Singing

Eight years earlier Van Morrison pledged to keep it simple; now he’s asking whoever’s in charge to Keep Me Singing. Considering how his output had tailed off in that time, it’s a reasonable request.
It’s a slightly schizophrenic album—about half revives the lush sound perfected in the late ‘80s, which he abandoned as soon as it became profitable, while a variety of uptempo tracks attempt to provide variety, but simply seem badly placed. “Let It Rhyme” opens the proceedings with a reiteration of that theme he’s repeated since “Stepping Out Queen”, while the subtle pedal steel guitar gives a nice ambience. “Every Time I See A River” is a collaboration with lyricist of note Don Black, who apparently made his money in movies and theater. We like it anyway, and no, that’s not Georgie Fame on the organ. The title track isn’t very exciting, but “Out In The Cold Again” expresses a rare vulnerability, and “Memory Lane” begins with another out-of-character flourish, this time of strings. Then things go completely off the rails: “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword” is a decent groove, but the lyrics sound like a first draft, and completely at odds with what we’ve heard already.
Better you should skip right to “Holy Guardian Angel”, which repeats a bunch of blues clichés but still has a lovely arrangement with nice backing vocals for a change. He probably heard “Share Your Love With Me” from Bobby “Blue” Bland, or even The Band; most likely he ignored the Kenny Rogers cover. The reminiscing continues in “In Tiburon”, wherein his memories and impressions of the Beat scene in San Francisco weave through the verses. The comparatively brief “Look Beyond The Hill” begins as a cool-jazz instrumental, then delivers three quick verses and a middle eight. “Going Down To Bangor” is basically a tourist advertisement for some of the sights in County Down in 12-bar blues, and “Too Late” is strangely attached to a doo-wop tempo. Finally, “Caledonia Swing” is a pure instrumental akin to closing credits.
Had he shaved a few of the uptempo oddities from the running time, this might have been an overdue successor to his No Guru through Enlightenment period. Instead, Keep Me Singing is just another Van Morrison album, to be filed aside the rest.

Van Morrison Keep Me Singing (2016)—3