Friday, December 31, 2021

Joni Mitchell 26: The Reprise Years

The Joni Mitchell Archives series took off to a fairly productive start. Following a set that boxed up her first four albums—including the debut remixed to remove the murk—the second real volume presented an alternate view of the era that resulted in the release of that fabulous quartet. Across five discs, The Reprise Years presents a sidecar to that unique period.

Right off we hear rare songs, including the first of two demos of “Midnight Cowboy” written for the film of the same name; frankly it’s not one of her better compositions, nor would it have fit very well on a soundtrack. Many of these demos sound very close to the released versions, proving just how well she had mastered playing the songs. Some of the home recordings are crude or incomplete, but then there are those where you can hear a clock ticking, such as on “The Fiddle And The Drum”, performed with piano. Halfway through the first disc are outtakes from the sessions for her Reprise debut, including inferior versions of “Both Sides Now” and “Conversation”, but such forgotten songs as “Jeremy” and another stab at “The Gift Of The Magi”. A few sketches of her picking (or playing piano) while humming melodies without words are fascinating.

The bulk of the second disc is a performance at an Ottawa “coffee house” captured by none other than Jimi Hendrix on his own reel-to-reel tape recorder, set up at her feet. The first album hadn’t come out yet, and songs from that album are interspersed with early versions of “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” and “Ladies Of The Canyon”, as well as the last version of “Dr. Junk” and “Come To The Sunshine”. (The latter is included in a studio take from May 1968, since abandoned.) One fascinating snapshot finds her discussing what songs could go onto her second album, which illustrates how some songs appear in earlier takes than the albums where they ended up. Clearly, she wasn’t just making it all up as she went along. Her first appearance on BBC’s Top Gear radio show is unique not only for John Peel’s trademark lugubrious delivery, but the accompaniment of players familiar from Donovan albums.

Her Carnegie Hall debut takes up all of the third disc, with the encore starting the next, although two songs have been substituted from another show, presumably to preserve continuity. She sounds confident and, most of all, happy throughout, ably retuning her guitar while expanding on the inspirations behind the songs. The appreciative if subdued audience is urged to sing along with Jesse Colin Young’s “Get Together” and “The Circle Game”, which is formed into a medley with “Little Green” for a truly poignant touch.

Three future Ladies Of The Canyon tracks are previewed from the Clouds sessions, as is the otherwise unpursued “Jesus”, right before the entirety of her appearance on The Dick Cavett Show (the one right after Woodstock, which was crashed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Jefferson Airplane). Speaking of which, “Woodstock” itself appears in a performance at the acoustic (not electric) piano, while two other Ladies tracks sport overdubs eventually discarded. Disc four ends with a harbinger in a medley of “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Bony Moronie” with James Taylor at a Greenpeace benefit. He turns up halfway through the BBC radio concert that dominates disc five, supporting her on guitar and occasional harmonies, both distinctive. She openly flirts with him before their rendition of his “You Can Close Your Eyes”, after several previews of songs that would be on Blue.

If these discs are any indication, that album was unique in that its songs (save “Little Green”) hadn’t been germinating for years, waiting for the right album sequence, as had been the case with the first three. We get an early, unfinished, and truly anxious “All I Want”, plus a few more early demos. “River” is included in an alternate mix with French horns playing carols over the coda, while the familiar B-side version of “Urge For Going” features chamber-style strings over the third verse on. As for the legendary outtake “Hunter”, the song’s similarity to “This Flight Tonight” makes its omission from Blue a wise move. (And it turns out she wrote it about a stray cat she’d adopted. This is a theme that will recur throughout her career, up to the latest pet who features in the Cameron Crowe interview that makes up the liner notes.)

There’s a lot of music here, and despite the repetition, it’s illuminating. This is an artist displaying her craft, at a time when it seemed she was infallible. She wasn’t, of course, but we can be thankful for how she reacted to the concept of fame. The proof lies herein.

Joni Mitchell Archives—Volume 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971) (2021)—

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Todd Rundgren 26: The Individualist

The second album credited to TR-i is still very much a Todd Rundgren solo project, in that he played and sang everything by himself, save the credited “choir”. The Individualist is more listenable in that it encompasses several genres; if you don’t like one song, move on to the next and see if that works.

Working once again completely by himself, editing wasn’t a priority, so most of the songs run well past five minutes. “Tables Will Turn” begins in solo sensitive mode, but once the drum machines kicks in you’re in for a long ride, not made any shorter when his Chuck D imitation re-surfaces for too many raps. “If Not Now, When” is an improvement, mostly because of all the guitars, both acoustic and distorted. But “Family Values” samples Vice President Dan Quayle, who’d been out of office for two years by that time, undermining his point. “The Ultimate Crime” is orchestrated (via computers, but still) for a nice counterpoint of style. It took several listens to “Espresso (All Jacked Up)” before we noticed it recycles melodies from “Breathless”. It’s the only song we know that combines a list of world cities with modes of coffee.

The title track offers something of a statement of positivity, but the faux Snoop Dogg delivery makes it seem like parody, and about as effective if, say, Paul Simon had tried the same approach. “Cast The First Stone” has a clever message built around a series of metaphors, bound to a suitably obnoxious goth-metal backing. You can feel “Beloved Infidel” coming in the air tonight, but its approach is a very welcome change of pace. “Temporary Sanity” bemoans the violent state of the world, buried under a highly catchy track—until the rap happens again. “Woman’s World” closes the album with straightforward guitar rock with synths, but the message is jumbled.

The Individualist is a tad more palatable than No World Order, so it’s preferred, but at this perspective, it hasn’t aged as well as some of his other one-man band efforts. Still, it was good to know he could still write a catchy tune, and not just for himself.

TR-i The Individualist (1995)—

Friday, December 24, 2021

Ben Keith: Seven Gates

Most people know him in the context of most of Neil Young’s albums without Crazy Horse, but Ben Keith was already an established Nashville studio musician before he worked on Harvest. The year before that he played on Ringo Starr’s Beaucoups Of Blues, and ten years before that he provided the pedal steel for Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces”.

About a year before he produced Jewel’s first album, Ben Keith completed a Christmas album. Partially recorded at Neil’s Broken Arrow Ranch studio, with some sessions in Nashville and elsewhere, Seven Gates has more of an authentic country feel than most showbiz holiday albums, which is probably why it was resoundingly ignored upon release. Music fans would have snapped it up, as it features Neil on several tracks either singing or playing his pump organ, while Mickey Raphael (best known for playing harmonica alongside Willie Nelson) is all over the place. Wanna hear Johnny Cash duet with Neil on “The Little Drummer Boy”? Here it is. Pat McLaughlin and Rusty Kershaw warble through “Christmas Time’s A Comin’”. But don’t be fooled by “We Will Rock You”—it’s actually “The Rocking Carol”, 50 years before Brian May used the words for something else. Here it’s sung by Nashville’s Pamela Brown and Neil’s wife Pegi.

The album is at its best when it’s simplest on the instrumentals, such as “Ave Maria”, “Silver Bells”, “Away In A Manger”, and “Blue Christmas”. It’s occasionally overproduced with dated synth strings, but all in all, it evokes snowy hills and pine trees for a serene listen. Thankfully, the children’s choir doesn’t show up until track 8, and we don’t know why so many people arrange “Greensleeves” aka “What Child Is This” to sound apocalyptic, though Neil appears at the end singing alongside his sister Astrid and Nicolette Larson.

Some 13 years later the album was reissued, again quietly, under the title Christmas At The Ranch with a different cover. But it also sports a modified version of “Les Trois Cloches”, now with vocals by Neil and Pegi.

Ben Keith & Friends Seven Gates (1994)—3

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Rickie Lee Jones 3: Girl At Her Volcano

The American record industry tried a few gimmicks in the early ‘80s to spur sales in the face of revenue lost to video games. One of these was the mini-album, which offered more music than a 45, but less than a full LP, and suitably priced. It didn’t exactly bring in buckets of cash, but in due time the compact disc would spur consumers to re-buy things they already had and all was well.

Rickie Lee Jones was able to use the mini-album as a stopgap while she readied her third album, plus reports suggest she was rehabbing from various addictions anyway. Girl At Her Volcano is a curious collection of covers, some live and some in the studio, and just one original. While under half an hour long, it’s still an artistic statement, and rather personal.

Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” comes from a theater performance in Pasadena the year before, showing her depth and range. Her version of the ‘60s pop classic “Walk Away Renee” is enhanced by an original musical inversion apparently titled “Letters From The 9th Ward”, and it’s possibly our favorite version of this particular tearjerker. The mood of regret continues with “Hey Bub”, said to be the first song written for Pirates, but not recorded until this project. Despite the off-mic flirting with the audience at L.A.’s Roxy, the classic “My Funny Valentine” is delivered slowly and carefully, considering every word, until the sobs take over the final verse while the piano matches her timing.

In her more joyful street-corner version of “Under The Boardwalk”, she’s one of several voices singing; it’s a break from the down tone of side one, but just a little too sterile for us. While the phrase was mentioned on the title track of the last album, “Rainbow Sleeves” is a Tom Waits original supposedly written expressly for her at the height of their romance, and recorded during the sessions from the debut. Bette Midler recorded it first, and performed it in the original cinema release of her film Divine Madness, so there is some conjecture she, and not Rickie, was the intended recipient. Whatever the truth, this performance is heartbreaking. The brief benediction “So Long”, written by session man Neil Larsen with Lani Hall (former Brasil ’66, current Mrs. Herb Albert) for one of her albums, would also appear to be left over from the first album. (The cassette got a bonus in a four-year-old live performance of “Something Cool”, with Lyle Mays on synthesizer, that goes from cute to soaring to, yes, cool.)

Girl At Her Volcano was hard to find for a while, having only been released on CD in Japan, where they release everything. Now that it’s available on streaming services, this key step in her history can be more widely enjoyed. For one, this was the last of the jazzy beatnik in the beret for some time.

Rickie Lee Jones Girl At Her Volcano (1983)—3

Friday, December 17, 2021

Suzanne Vega 11: New York Songs And Stories

New York City has been the focus of much of Suzanne Vega’s work, so the idea of a live album dedicated to songs related to the city might seem negligible. However, given how few live albums are in her catalog, much less active, it’s worth exploring, so we are.

An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories presents an intimate café-style performance of 16 songs, interspersed with brief explanations of some of the tunes. Impeccably recorded, with the support of a percussion-less combo, the appreciative audience enjoys some of her more familiar songs, though they likely knew them all. Despite occasional huskiness, she sounds exactly like she did when she first recorded most of these songs. As with the Close-Up Series, some of the “newer” songs benefit from a minimum of production trickery, and also help illuminate songs otherwise overlooked (case in point: “Pornographer’s Dream”). “Ludlow Street” and “Tombstone” are the most ornate, while “Thin Man” uses a prominent dated drum machine. “Tom’s Diner” is again in the style of the bootleg remix, and not a cappella. Covers are a rarity in her catalog, so her rendition of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” is surprising if not exactly unique. Altogether, it’s a nice diversion, and probably the closest we’ll get to spending an evening with Suzanne Vega.

Suzanne Vega An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories (2020)—3

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Neil Young 63: Barn

One of the things we really, really like about the Neil Young Archives website is how he details and logs everything he’s ever released down to the exact recording date and sequence. That’s how we know that Barn was recorded with the Colorado lineup of Crazy Horse exactly a year after the solo performances that spawned his The Times EP, which grew out of various “porch sessions” filmed for streaming during the Covid lockdown. Apparently his preference to record during the days approaching a full moon still holds. (The title is evocative, but unlike many Neil Young classics of yesteryear, with and without Crazy Horse, Barn was not recorded in the fabled barn on Neil’s Northern California ranch, but in one located somewhere in the mountains of, again, Colorado.)

In a clear signal that this will be another comparatively low-key Crazy Horse album, the extremely gentle “Song Of The Seasons” opens, all acoustic with bleats of harmonica and Nils Lofgren on accordion. The quiet mood is properly bludgeoned by “Heading West”, a recollection of the navigational direction young Neil took with Mommy when their family split up, after which she bought him his first guitar. Things start to get sloppy with “Change Ain’t Never Gonna”, which revives Ranting Neil from the Promise Of The Real albums, only this time featuring a wheezing harmonica and Nils on saloon piano. Another stomp, “Canerican”, celebrates both his American citizenship and Trump’s defeat in 2020 without gloating, while “Shape Of You” is a boozy stumble of a love song that illuminates the fun he’s having. We can’t discern the meaning of the mysterious “They Might Be Lost”, and maybe Neil hasn’t either, but there’s something compelling about the uncertainty that permeates, and not just in what he alludes to smoking.

Grandstanding is certainly at a minimum on this album, but “Human Race” is a fresh draft of the thesis already presented in “Who’s Gonna Stand Up” and “Children Of Destiny”. (“It’s all one song,” after all.) Here he finally takes the opportunity to shred while Ralph Molina struggles with the tempo. The recipe is finally perfected on “Tumblin’ Thru The Years”, a nice piano stroll with Billy Talbot adding subtle R&B runs through the verses—something he’s almost never, ever done in his decades in the job—and a nice chord change to set up the title. “Welcome Back” is perversely both the longest track on the album and the softest; barely fretted electric guitars answer each other over the mildest ticking of the rhythm, and we’d love to know who sat on the piano just after the two-minute mark. (This, by the way, is precisely the vocal range he should stick to from here on. Throughout the rest of the album, he insists on straining for notes he hasn’t been able to hit in years.) And while it’s a wonderful sentiment, we might enjoy “Don’t Forget Love”—which he says took him three months to write—all the more if it didn’t recycle melodic sections of “Living With War” and “Horseshoe Man”.

Starting with Peace Trail, Neil seems to be recording his new songs before he’s finished writing them. Perhaps this is because he knows his time is limited; the cumulative effect is that the songs sound tossed off. As press time he said he was already thinking about his next album; while we would prefer one solid album to two okay ones, we’d still want to hear everything anyway. Nonetheless, like Colorado, Barn works well as a whole, particularly if you just let the music wash over. Much as we miss Poncho, Nils is once again a good ingredient in the band, adding color where previously Neil might have meandered into jamming.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse Barn (2021)—3

Friday, December 10, 2021

Rush 22: Vapor Trails

After telling the other members of Rush he was retired, Neil Peart set off on a solo motorcycle trip throughout North and South America. The trip did him good, as he got a book out of the experience, fell in love and remarried, and basically felt refreshed enough to get back behind the kit and try to make music with Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee again. They took their sweet time, more concerned with impressing each other than any other agenda, though Alex did insist on zero keyboards, to which the others acquiesced. Eventually, Vapor Trails emerged.

Appropriately, “One Little Victory” begins with a furious tattoo of drums, before a metallic Lifeson riff and only the slightest pauses in the manifesto. “Ceiling Unlimited” offers another top-speed riff with deep-thought lyrics; clearly these guys are glad to be back. The title “Ghost Rider” will be familiar to fans from Neil’s book about his bike trip; even without that background, the song urges positivity and perseverance. “Peaceable Kingdom” is another relentless riff, and one that reminds us of Pearl Jam a decade earlier. After all that pounding, “The Stars Look Down” is a bit much, except when the band quiets down a bit and weaves some backwards guitar into the mix. “How It Is” begins with a deceptively delicate arpeggiated guitar but increases in volume on schedule, whereas “Vapor Trail” is a better version of the same recipe.

“Secret Touch” presents another subdued intro that will become something of a chorus, which sounds like we’ve heard it elsewhere on the album already. It took several listens to realize it’s Geddy’s bass driving that little riff. Continuing the meteorological theme, “Earthshine” starts with a riff right outta Kiss, but with more finesse amidst the power, and time changes that band would never attempt. While it’s too heavy to be considered, “Sweet Miracle” is almost sensitive in its sentiment, though we wouldn’t be surprised if a certain plot element from Young Frankenstein wasn’t involved. “Nocturne” is something of a grunge throwback, with the simplest bass part Geddy’s ever written, the basic rhythm, and lyrics about dreams. “Freeze” (listed as Part IV of the “Fear” trilogy!) is one of the more developed songs, working through several sections that provide variety. Finally, “Out Of The Cradle” completes the band’s determination to endure, taking Walt Whitman’s idea of “endlessly rocking” at a literal sense he couldn’t imagine.

As is a common gripe around these parts, Vapor Trails is too long and could have been stronger had they concentrated on fewer songs, but most fans were happy with the general aggressiveness, and that the band was back (and touring). Still, much commentary was dedicated to the overall sound of the album, which was loud, certainly, but also harsh to the point of discomfort—in other words, not the band’s usual quality control, to which they fully copped. Some time later, two of the songs were remixed for inclusion on a compilation, and they went ahead to not only get veteran producer David Bottrill (familiar from Peter Gabriel credits) to remix the entire album, but re-release it in 2013, when it was also included in the box set The Studio Albums 1989-2007 at the expense of the original. (They also brightened the cover, and softened the font inside, too.) In the process, certain mix differences emerged, including a guitar part on “Ceiling Unlimited” and other nuances elsewhere. It’s still too long.

Back then, of course, they promoted the album with the standard mega-tour. Rather than waiting for the usual four-album cycle—and possibly because they wouldn’t have wanted to chance waiting that long—Rush decided to release the audio of the Rio de Janiero stop on the tour supporting Vapor Trails, in front of 40,000 people, separately from the DVD. Rush In Rio presented the complete, nearly three-hour show in order on three CDs, with two extra tracks from elsewhere in the tour tacked on the end. There are a few fun moments—the Simpsons sample at the end of “The Big Money”, the animal sounds scattered throughout “The Trees”, an unplugged “Resist” without drums—but the enthusiasm of the crowd notwithstanding, it’s not as essential as their earlier live sets, which is why we restrict it to this mention. The DVD is preferred, if only because one can see the working washing machines set up on Geddy’s side of the stage. (He’d switched to in-ear monitors, and they needed something to visually balance the mountain of amps that still filled Alex’s side.)

Rush Vapor Trails (2002)—3
Rush In Rio (2003)—3
Vapor Trails Remixed (2013)—3

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Brian Wilson 3: At My Piano

Since breaking free of Eugene Landy’s clutches in the early ‘90s, Brian Wilson managed to create new music—as well as finish old music—and even embark on several tours, supported by several sympathetic musicians dedicated to letting him sing and play. In that time, nine separate solo albums were completed—five albums of new original material, plus tributes to George Gershwin and Disney movies, a Christmas album, and the 2004 incarnation of Smile. Outside of the latter, these adult-contemporary albums didn’t exactly approach genius or break any ground. But as long as he was happy and safe from his demons, that was fine with us.

Each of these projects were usually accompanied by PR activities, press blurbs, the occasional TV interview, and subsequent speculation as to how much he was in control of his own life compared to the protective net around him. That has continued with the release of At My Piano, which purports to be “his classic hits reimagined for solo piano.” Such a description conjures expectations of Brian doing a living room gig, as seen in various YouTube videos posted throughout the Covid lockdowns. His approach there, as it has been for decades, is to pound out chords and basslines rhythm-style, not the New Age approach heard on the album itself. So is it really Brian playing so prettily?

Despite our initial skepticism, we say yes, and it’s lovely. While the playing is more intricate than usual, what likely happened is that he played the chords, then overdubbed the melodies, harmonies, and counterpoints that have become so recognizable over the decades afterwards. In other words, he crafted these tracks just like he crafted all those Beach Boys classics in the first place, only doing the parts by himself rather than with a Gold Star Studio full of the Wrecking Crew. (Of course, if he really is playing all those parts live in one take, even better. But that would mean he has six hands.)

The selections are a mostly predictable grab bag of classics from the band’s heyday, beginning with the prettier ones, like “God Only Knows”, “In My Room”, and “The Warmth Of The Sun”, highlighting just how different these songs were from the standard pop songs of the time. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “You Still Believe In Me”, and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” provide a Pet Sounds transition to “Sketches Of Smile”, a mini-suite incorporating “Our Prayer”, “Heroes And Villains”, and “Wonderful” before a full-fledged “Surf’s Up”. “Friends” is revealed to be something of an Erik Satie homage, while “Mt. Vernon Farewell” is rescued from the suite appended to Holland. Unfortunately, having “Good Vibrations” crash in after that is just wrong.

Despite that, as we said, At My Piano is just lovely, and something about the softness of the performance and the mix make it ideal for the holiday season. Without intending to, Brian Wilson made a Christmas album. Nice of him.

Brian Wilson At My Piano (2021)—4

Friday, December 3, 2021

Robert Plant 15: Raise The Roof

Following the astounding success of their first collaboration, one would expect Robert Plant and Alison Krauss to continue to mine that field. Allegedly, a few sessions in the wake of their Grammy awards yielded nothing, so they left it alone for dozen years or so before trying again. Suddenly, Raise The Roof appeared, with T Bone Burnett back in the producer’s chair and most of the same players in the studio as last time. Yet, whereas Raising Sand had a quality that made it sound like it came from another planet, this one seems a little more conventional. The singers still have a lovely blend, but there aren’t as many harmonies as before.

It starts well; “Quattro” is a suitably spooky tune by the desert noir band Calexico, and it suits them. Another Everlys song gets attention, but this time “The Price Of Love” is slowed down and mournful. The wonderful “Go Your Way” comes from obscure British folkie Anne Briggs, who indirectly inspired a song Jimmy Page stole for the first Zeppelin album, so a debt is slightly paid. Allen Toussaint’s “Trouble With My Lover” is taken very quietly by Alison, while “Searching For My Love” is handled by Robert in near-full voice. “Can’t Let Go” repeats the “Gone, Gone, Gone” formula from the first album, and it’s still a winner.

“It Don’t Bother Me” grows from a seed to something very powerful; this one was written by Scottish folk legend Bert Jansch (who wrote the aforementioned arrangement stolen by Jimmy Page, further sharing the wealth). “You Led Me To The Wrong” is an Appalachian plaint featuring not Alison on fiddle, and “Last Kind Words Blues” would evoke the same mountain. “High And Lonesome” was written by Robert and T-Bone, and sounds more like the last few Plant albums. It’s a little ordinary, but far surpassed by Alison singing “Going Where The Lonely Go”. We won’t be the first to tell you the album should have ended there, but instead they tack on “Somebody Was Watching Over Me”, which is grating, frankly. (Target customers got two extra tracks, a sweet cover of Hank Williams’ “My Heart Would Know” and the funkier “You Can’t Rule Me” by Lucinda Williams—no relation).

We’re sure this will grow on us with time, but we were silly to expect Raise The Roof to contain the exact same magic. Still, recommended.

Robert Plant | Alison Krauss Raise The Roof (2021)—