Friday, December 30, 2022

Todd Rundgren 28: One Long Year

Novelty songs are a mixed blessing, as they can make or break a band who will still be destined to stay a one-hit wonder, while veterans usually know better than to try anything too trivial. That’s what makes “I Hate My Frickin I.S.P.” such a wonderful surprise from Todd Rundgren.

This positively rocking track—his first such tune since the first half of the ‘80s—is the opener of One Long Year, which compiles odds and ends he’d heretofore shared only with subscribed members to his website. Some of the lyrics are outdated, but damn, it’s still catchy. “Buffalo Grass” has obvious canned drums, but it’s got hooks throughout for another winner. We can’t say the same for the purposely robotic “Jerk”, which sounds like a response to Neil Young’s Trans album. Speaking of novelty songs, “Bang On The Ukulele Daily” is a Hawaiian arrangement of his old hit, performed for a polite Boston audience. It’s a mere distraction before the pure perfect pop of “Where Does The Time Go”.

The tiki lounge remake of “Love Of The Common Man” must have been left off With A Twist for whatever reason, and it’s odd here, but maybe it was designed to smooth the way for “Mary And The Holy Ghost”, a mildly industrial instrumental that shows he’s no mixmaster, particularly in the faux-orchestral interludes. “Yer Fast (And I Like It)” is mostly loud and stupid, but at least it’s got a lot of guitar. “Hit Me Like A Train” isn’t the best song here, but it’s pretty well constructed and he gets to use his “soul” voice, while “The Surf Talks” sounds like a new wave refugee.

One Long Year was a very nice surprise after a long decade of experimenting. It was nice to hear he could still make an accessible album mostly on his own, just like he used to.

Todd Rundgren One Long Year (2000)—3

Friday, December 23, 2022

Nick Lowe: Quality Street

While unfairly pegged a one-hit wonder thanks to “Cruel To Be Kind”, Nick Lowe is actually a rock ‘n roll legend. Having led the pub rock circuit in the ‘70s, he became a solid bass player and producer on call, having shepherded such luminaries as Chrissie Hynde and Elvis Costello through their first recording sessions. He’s still out there, playing gigs and rocking the best head of silver hair next to that of Robyn Hitchcock.

Even though he’s managed to “do his own thing” into this century—and granted, steady royalties from a cover of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” on the bajillion-selling soundtrack to The Bodyguard helped—his record label still wants his records to be lucrative. They apparently were the ones who suggested he do a Christmas album, and he was polite enough to give it a shot.

Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family is just as likeable as its performer is reputed to be. Rockabilly-style versions of the spirituals “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “Rise Up Shepherds” have an edge on the Tex-Mex arrangement of “Silent Night”. Some relatively obscure covers get welcome airings, including Eddy Arnold’s “Christmas Can’t Be Far Away”, Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains”, and a lovely take on Roy Wood’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”. “The North Pole Express” comes from a kids’ record his drummer found, while “Just To Be With You (This Christmas)” puts a lounge twist on a song by modern blues band The Mighty Blue Kings.

His own songs are the real winners: “Christmas At The Airport” puts a positive spin on holiday traveling hell, while “I Was Born In Bethlehem” is a lovely perspective on the origin story. Lyrical help from Ron Sexsmith and Ry Cooder on “Hooves On The Roof” and “A Dollar Short Of Happy” respectively isn’t as successful, but they still fit. Altogether, with his band including longtime contributors Geraint Watkins and Bobby Irwin providing able support throughout, Quality Street fulfills the thesis in its subtitle. (For more fun, The Quality Holiday Revue Live offers highlights from the following year’s support tour with Los Straitjackets as the backing band; who also provide their surf cover of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus And Lucy”.)

Nick Lowe Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family (2013)—3

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Steve Perry 5: The Season

With nearly lightning speed, Steve Perry put out more new music only a year after his comeback with Traces. Granted, it was a Christmas single—an ill-advised cover of “Silver Bells”, plus an edit of same and a version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” with melodic liberties—but it did qualify as new.

As it turned out, these were merely appetizers for The Season, an eight-song collection of well-worn holiday standards, accompanied by the guy who produced Traces plus subdued drumming by Vinnie Colaiuta. When they’re sung straight, he just sounds old and tired, but those are more palatable than the tag he adds to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and the overly smooth touches on “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. We do have to give him points for restoring the intro verse to “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” but we also wonder whether the younger man would have belted these better, or just as cringingly.

A year later, following his recent trend, the album was reissued in a deluxe digital edition that began with two new original songs. “Maybe This Year” was a new original with some originality, for lack of a better word, while “This Christmas” revived an obscure Donny Hathaway track. While an improvement over the original program, the overall melancholy isn’t likely to make your spirits bright.

Steve Perry The Season (2021)—2

Friday, December 16, 2022

JD McPherson: Socks

Once the holiday season arrives, one’s tolerance of the frequency and preponderance of Christmas music is often related to how many times we have to hear the same songs over and over and over again. For every old favorite there seem to be fewer and fewer modern classics. Somebody had to write those songs in the first place, after all.

JD McPherson is a young-ish rockabilly player from the Tulsa area who took up this challenge and ran with it. Socks has the vibe of classic R&B, all self-penned originals, recorded with “no schmaltz”, though there is an occasional celeste to color the tracks. Beyond that, there are twangy guitars, honking saxes, piano triplets, and cheesy organs.

“All The Gifts I Need” sets the thesis, and the rest of the album follows it. “Bad Kid” and “Santa’s Got A Mean Machine” made us double-check that these weren’t actual oldies. “Hey Skinny Santa!” takes a clever culinary tour through various cities, and “Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy” is definitely one of those songs that should have been written already. The title track more than lives up to the promise of the cover art, reinforced by “Ugly Sweater Blues”, while “Claus Vs. Claus”, a duet with the sultry Lucie Silvas, provides a fresh angle on holiday stress at the North Pole, but we assure you there is a happy ending.

Socks is a short album, barely over half an hour, but there’s no filler. We wonder why more people don’t write songs like these, and when someone will get around to covering them.

JD McPherson Socks (2018)—

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

They Might Be Giants 11: Mink Car

They had several albums and oddities under their collective belts, and now They Might Be Giants had the cachet of having an original composition as the theme song for a major network television sitcom. However, Americans hoping to find “Boss Of Me” (as heard every week on Malcolm In The Middle) on Mink Car would have been disappointed, as the song was only available on versions overseas.

Instead, listeners got another unpredictable sequence of wildly different songs in almost as many styles, including odes to girls’ hairstyles (“Bangs”), a song about a pop-up disco that uses the music to illustrate its shortcomings (“Man, It’s So Loud In Here”), a Bacharach homage (the title track), a rewrite of a song already heard on a live album (“Another First Kiss”), a remake of a soul tune originally done by Mongo Santamaria and Georgie Fame (“Yeh Yeh”), remakes of songs from the album before (“Older” and “Edith Head”), a decent could-be hit (“Hopeless Deep Despair”), a pile of other songs we don’t have the patience to describe, and one terrific nod to their youth in the Boston suburbs (“Wicked Little Critta”).

Several producers are credited throughout Mink Car, suggesting that it was merely compiled from various sources until they had enough for two sides. While we do like the nutty side of the band, a little focus would’ve helped.

They Might Be Giants Mink Car (2001)—

Friday, December 9, 2022

Neil Young 67: World Record

When Neil’s on a roll, it shows. Back with Crazy Horse for an unprecedented third album in a row, World Record finds the boys holed up in the legendary Shangri-La Studios, now owned by co-producer Rick Rubin. Yet the sound is just as ragged and rough-hewn as anything Neil ever recorded in a barn. The environment is the main topic again, but at least the songs aren’t as ranting or myopic as before.

The lyrical content aside, “Love Earth” is a subdued and misleading opener; kids of a certain age will appreciate that he’s appropriated the melody from the closing theme from The Magic Garden TV show. Here we also hear the “kick tub” that will feature prominently among the band’s percussion. “Overhead” is almost jaunty, with a piano and what sounds like a banjo but isn’t listed. While we can’t say it’s dreamy, the middle section that provides the title and an interlude is a good transition between the halves. He’s said he started these songs by whistling as he walked, so we’ll forgive him for lifting his own melody from “Looking Forward” on “I Walk With You (Earth Ringtone)”. The track itself is nice and sludgy, with Nils Lofgren’s pedal steel providing another link to earlier albums. His accordion provides the other sound on the gentle “This Old Planet (Changing Days)”, which is otherwise pinned to a honky-tonk backing.

“The World (Is In Trouble Now)” delivers more parentheses and pounding, driven by a wheezy pump organ over a three note riff slash melody and one bass note. “Break The Chain” is only a little more inventive, but it’s all electric, which helps its “Fork In The Road”-style charm. “The Long Day Before” would almost be a lullaby but for the organ and the verse about television and the internet, and the closing slap at conspiracy theorist. “Walkin’ On The Road (To The Future)” uses most of the same instrumentation and has an anti-war message, making it poorly placed. The organ is still in use on “The Wonder Won’t Wait”, which could potentially be a cool electric stomp.

Those looking for epic Horse crunch will love “Chevrolet”, a 15-minute reverie into the past with intertwining guitars that yet again shows what Nils brings to the table, and makes the rambles on Psychedelic Pill seem even more tedious. After all that, what’s listed as a “Reprise” of “This Old Planet” is actually an early sketch, mumbled by Neil at the electric piano.

Partially as part of his campaign for his music to only be heard on vinyl, the first nine songs, which total a half-hour, are split between two sides on a record and make up one CD, while “Chevrolet” and the reprise constitute a third side and their own CD. His other excuse was this way the photos of his brother and sister were preserved on the individual sleeves. At any rate, anyone not streaming it has to get up and change discs, just like we used to. And you should, as “Chevrolet” definitely caps the album well.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse World Record (2022)—3

Friday, December 2, 2022

Tom Petty 24: Live At The Fillmore

The Heartbreakers were always a solid band for any occasion, not just when playing Tom Petty’s songs. Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench in particular kept busy over the years doing sessions, and once they got Steve Ferrone on drums, they were even more well-rounded.
After twenty years in the business Tom was looking for something other than the usual record-release-tour cycle, and also wanted to give the band a common purpose following a stretch including two solo albums with varying contributions from the stalwarts. A residency at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium gave them a chance to be something of a house band at the venue, and they took it as an opportunity to stretch. Songs compiled from the last six shows of the stand make up the contents of Live At The Fillmore – 1997. (A two-disc version was made available for some reason, even though anyone who would want that would be happy to splurge for the four-disc version, and not just for the replica patch, pass, and picks.)

Six performances are repeated from the Live Anthology set (and one was on An American Treasure, and two more were on the Wildflowers expansion) but there are about fifty others, and most of them are covers. Chuck Berry’s “Around And Around” opens the set, and he appears on disc four in a Stones inspired mini-set of “Satisfaction”, “It’s All Over Now”, and “Johnny B. Goode”, which incorporates verses from “Bye Bye Johnny”; “Time Is On My Side” gets an airing too. Little Richard is represented by “Rip It Up” and the Everlys’ arrangement of “Lucille”, while J.J. Cale is a surprising touchstone on three songs, including “Call Me The Breeze”. A quick run through “You Are My Sunshine” (which Tom says he “learned at camp”) prefaces “Ain’t No Sunshine”. Benmont gets to shine on two Booker T classics (“Hip Hug-Her” and “Green Onions”) and Mike shows off his surf roots via the Goldfinger theme and the Ventures’ arrangement of “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue”. Even utility man Scott Thurston gets to howl the bluegrass nugget “Little Maggie”. Howie Epstein is thanked, definitely playing bass, and probably harmonizing.

Disc three is the shortest and oddest, beginning with four Byrds songs backing Roger McGuinn and ending with three blues standards sung by John Lee Hooker with his personal lead guitarist. (He thanks Tom by name but clearly doesn’t know those of any Heartbreakers. Meanwhile, Carl Perkins is pictured in the booklet but is not heard on the album, sadly.) Due to the ages of the members, ‘50s and ‘60s tunes loom large throughout; the high-speed delivery of Ricky Nelson’s wordy “Waitin’ In School” is particularly impressive, and who doesn’t like an obscure Zombies single? And while Steve is a swingin’ drummer, we’ll always miss Stan Lynch’s bite on things like “You Really Got Me” and “Gloria”.

The shows were an excuse not to be stuck playing only the hits, but several are included. “The Wild One, Forever”, “Even The Losers”, and “California” get more acoustic readings. “The Date I Had With That Ugly Old Homecoming Queen” is an otherwise unknown song based around a snaky Campbell riff, and a request for the obscure B-side “Heartbreakers Beach Party” is honored once they remember how to play it. They even dust off “On The Street” from the first Mudcrutch demo tape, recorded in 1973 in Benmont’s parents’ living room.

The Petty estate has done (mostly) a decent job with his legacy, though they’re probably still sitting on a warehouse full of Wildflowers-themed candles and Xmas ornaments. Live At The Fillmore shows a side of the band not captured in the studio, and is a nice way to spend four hours with the Heartbreakers, mostly sequenced so it can be enjoyed a disc at a time.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Live At The Fillmore – 1997 (2022)—

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Lou Reed 33: I’m So Free and Words & Music

Neither the labels nor the estate of Lou Reed immediately plundered their vaults for saleable archival material; rather, both waited several years. When “new” music did arrive, there was a similar theme, although different periods in the man’s development as a songwriter were addressed.

I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos was one of those fifty-year copyright dumps that collectors trawl the file-sharing sites for every December, but then RCA put it out as a Record Store Day exclusive with an eye-catching cover and liner notes, and eventually for streaming with four more songs. These are basic acoustic guitar and vocal run-throughs, recorded professionally, of songs that would be considered for his first solo album. Every song that would appear there is auditioned here, including the leftovers from the last days of the Velvet Underground. We also get previews of later album cuts, including “Perfect Day”, “New York Telephone Conversation”, “Kill Your Sons” (with war-protest lyrics), and “She’s My Best Friend”, as well as a charming “I’m Sticking With You”. Throughout he’s immersed in each performance, laughing at any lyrical flubs, and instructing the engineer where the breaks are and when to fade.

This snapshot of the artist stepping out is particularly interesting when compared to the album that followed soon afterwards. As the first release in the projected Lou Reed Archive Series, Words & Music, May 1965 presented the contents of a demo tape he recorded then mailed himself to preserve its authenticity. Dating from before the recordings heard in the Peel Slowly And See box, he’s still firmly in the thrall of Bob Dylan, from the delivery to the fingerpicking, even on songs we’d get to know via the Velvets. John Cale helps out on several songs, including the immortal “Buttercup Song”, which was teased for decades as “Never Get Emotionally Involved With A Man, Woman, Beast Or Child”, and takes the lead vocal on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”, which features that same maddening single beat on a sarinda as on the box. “Men Of Good Fortune” would be a title he’d use eventually, but not with these words, sung from the point of few of a fair maiden. The other “new” songs are of varying interest, though “Stockpile” has rocking promise. And the early version of “Pale Blue Eyes” is lovely. (As a bonus for some editions of the album, six cuts go even further back, as for as 1958 for his own doo-wop composition “Gee Whiz”, then up to 1963 or 1964 for two Dylan covers—an instrumental “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” with new words, both with harmonica—plus a run through “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore” and two nondescript blues.)

Together these albums are certainly essential for collectors. For the rest of the world, they actually show a kinder, gentler Lou who just wanted to write catchy songs, rather than the grouch determined to shock and upset.

Lou Reed I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos (2022)—3
Lou Reed
Words & Music, May 1965 (2022)—3

Friday, November 25, 2022

Roxy Music 11: Street Life

Whenever a band splits up, you can usually expect some kind of compilation or other contractual release in short time. Back in 1983, Roxy Music’s old American label put out The Atlantic Years 1973-1980, heavy on Manifesto and Flesh + Blood, adding only “Love Is The Drug” and “Do The Strand” from before the hiatus, with a fetching model’s face on the cover.

While it has its charms, they band deserved a more comprehensive career overview, and they got one. Not released in North America until 1989, once the catalog had been collected under the Warner Bros. umbrella, Street Life does a yeoman’s job of not only pulling together Roxy’s best, but including six Bryan Ferry solo tracks for context. The cover boasted “20 Great Hits”, which filled up the compact disc’s mid-‘80s capacity of 74 minutes, which made for short LP sides.

Right away there’s left turn, as the pounding glam of “Virginia Plain” is nudged aside by Ferry’s inane interpretation of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. The obscure “Pyjamarama” single appears in a remix before “Do The Strand” and back to Bryan for “These Foolish Things”. “Street Life” and “Love Is The Drug” fight for space among two more Ferry cover attempts and the superior “Sign Of The Times”. Five terrific choices from Manifesto and Flesh + Blood are very welcome, but they also include the hideous “In The Midnight Hour”. “More Than This” and “Avalon” help to complete the story, with “Slave To Love” slotted in before their reverent cover of “Jealous Guy”.

For the beginner, Street Life was a good way to dip into the Roxy world, with the caveat that Ferry was in the lounge. A later set called More Than This was evenly split between the band and Ferry solo, with some selections jettisoned in favor of newer songs. A proper best-of Roxy, with nothing but Roxy in reverse chronological order, appeared in the new century and did the trick.

Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music Street Life—20 Great Hits (1986)—
Roxy Music
The Best Of Roxy Music (2001)—4

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Rush 24: Snakes & Arrows

While it wasn’t their longest break between albums, Rush certainly took their time before delivering Snakes & Arrows. Working with a producer who was four when their first album came out, the album is fairly heavy throughout, although Alex Lifeson adds a lot of acoustic guitar to the overall mix, and they indulge themselves as well as the listener with three instrumentals.

The first few bars of “Far Cry” remind us of their earlier prog tracks, but that changes to modern rock before even the vocals kick in. “Armor And Sword” has a big Presto sound with riffing and rhythm Metallica fans would appreciate, while “Workin’ Them Angels” has a mandolin for we believe the first time on a Rush album. “The Larger Bowl” is helpfully subtitled “A Pantoum” which is the rhyme scheme and structure the lyrics follow, and explains the repetition, which is effective. “Spindrift” is an odd one; though we like the “Witch Hunt” atmospherics at the start, the verses don’t seem to work with the choruses. Perhaps these ideas would be better suited in combination with “The Way The Wind Blows” two tracks later. While we can hear some vocals suggesting a melody, “The Main Monkey Business” is instrumental—not as intricate as “YYZ” or “La Villa Strangiato”, but still catchy in a stumble-along way.

After the aforementioned “The Way The Wind Blows”, “Hope” is just Alex on a 12-string for two minutes, providing something of a prelude to “Faithless”, which goes from tense to anthemic with subtle strings. “Bravest Face” is surprising lyrically, as it makes reference to popular songs and even TV shows, but the choruses are an improvement, and Alex plays an unexpectedly jazzy solo. “Good News First” is another rare Neil Peart lyric spoken conversationally, but the message is murky underneath the urgency of the music. The final instrumental, “Malignant Narcissism”, does indeed build on the conceit of those earlier epic epics, with tongues firmly in cheek. It’s a lot of fun. This already long album ends with “We Hold On”, which follows the theme of struggles scattered throughout the previous hour.

They toured behind the album, as would be expected. By now their marketing strategy seemed to have been borrowed from the Rolling Stones, as the following year’s Snakes & Arrows Live was their third live album in five years. Opening with a drawn-out tease on “Limelight”, they plow through old favorites, deep nuggets like “Digital Man”, “Entre Nous”, and “Circumstances”, and most of the new album note for note over the course of two discs that fans will find essential. Alex gets to play more acoustic due a new rig, and Neil’s drum solo follows “Malignant Narcissism”. (Thankfully, while the tour continued after the live album came out, which they were ostensibly now promoting, they didn’t release another live album covering that leg. Also, for those of you following along, Geddy’s side of the stage now included ovens with actively spinning rotisserie chickens.)

Rush Snakes & Arrows (2007)—3
Snakes & Arrows Live (2008)—3

Friday, November 18, 2022

Bruce Springsteen 29: Only The Strong Survive

From the start of his career, Bruce Springsteen would pepper his live sets with covers ready-made for the E Street Band to rip, usually crowd-pleasing numbers by Mitch Ryder and Gary U.S. Bonds. Even in this century he’s led the modern E Streeters through covers for specific occasions, such as “Purple Rain” and “London Calling” in tribute to their deceased auteurs, and even in Australia where he’s honored AC/DC with “Highway To Hell” and INXS with “Don’t Change”. He has always been a student of rock history, and particularly the sounds of classic soul.

Still, the idea that half a century into his career he’d record an album of nothing but covers—the Pete Seeger album notwithstanding—surprised and concerned many (except of course the diehards who were prepared to love anything he belched onto plastic). Moreover, rather than use the E Street Band, he left the performing and arranging on Only The Strong Survive to yes man Ron Aniello, while the Boss was content to just sing. (Granted, this was the impetus behind John Lennon’s oldies album, which didn’t have the easiest gestation itself.) Add the cover art, which used only his last name, threatened that this was the first of who knows how many volumes, and showed him posing next to yet another car but looking like an extra from The Sopranos, and he was in danger of turning into Rod Stewart, and nobody wants that.

Nonetheless, Bruce throws himself into the music, because he loves it. For the most part, these aren’t songs that were overplayed on the oldies stations back when the ‘60s were mined for those playlists.

The first voice we hear on the album isn’t his, but the backing vocalists setting up the title track. “Soul Days” was a hit from this century by Dobie “Drift Away” Gray, here set up as duet of sorts with the legendary Sam Moore, who already joined Bruce on the Human Touch album. This track should have been faded before the in-studio shout out, but it’s forgotten once the next track starts. It’s astounding to realize that “Nightshift”, a 1985 tribute to the recently departed Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, was a hit song for the suddenly Lionel Richie-less Commodores while Bruce himself was in the middle of the Born In The U.S.A. tour. (One wonders whether Volume 2 will include his interpretation of highlights from the Billy Ocean catalog.) “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” gets points for beginning with a guitar and glockenspiel like classic E Street Band, but the horns and strings bring it back to the sound at hand. On “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” he can’t decide if he wants to be Frankie Valli or Scott Walker, so he tries both; god forbid he use his own voice. “Turn Back The Hands Of Time” is one of the more musically interesting tracks, considering the chord changes and key shift, whereas “When She Was My Girl” was a surprise early-‘80s hit for the Four Tops, who are also represented by the more vintage “7 Rooms Of Gloom”.

“Hey, Western Union Man” comes from the same Jerry Butler album as the title track; modern listeners may well wonder what this “telegram” thing is that keeps getting mentioned. The Temptations get their nod with “I Wish It Would Rain”, a song that’s nearly impossible to screw up, and he doesn’t. Tangentially, “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” is a very faithful cop of Jimmy Ruffin’s version. Unfortunately, “Don’t Play That Song” is set in a “party” atmosphere, but fans will likely thrill to the reference to “summer nights down by the shore”. William Bell is represented by the obscure (to us) “Any Other Way” and “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” (another duet with Sam Moore) which we only knew in Billy Idol’s drastic overhaul. “Someday We’ll Be Together” delivers the same sense of farewell as it was when it was a Supremes single in name only.

Only The Strong Survive is not awful. Nor is it absolutely necessary. True believers will love it; everyone else should dig up the original versions, and anything else those artists did.

Bruce Springsteen Only The Strong Survive (2022)—3

Friday, November 11, 2022

Prince 20: Chaos And Disorder

Before we begin: By this point in history people found it easier to refer to The Artist Formerly Known As Prince with the acronym TAFKAP, and we’re going to adopt that here for the time being. It’s easier to pronounce than “o|+>” anyway.

Chaos And Disorder was presented as the “last original material” he owned Warner Bros., and given how they promoted it, they seemed to be fine with that. We were also supposed to believe he knocked it off quickly, but it was actually more crafted than that, as the evidence shows.

The first thing you notice is the electric guitar, and boy, is there a lot of it on this album, and more than had been heard on a TAFKAP album in years. The title track is a solid groove with support from the New Power Generation, and “I Like It There” is even more dominated by the guitar, and fit right in with grunge at the time. “Dinner With Delores” is almost soft-rock, with a gentle strum out of the Revolution’s mid-period; he also performed the song on two major talk shows within the same week. “The Same December” is also radio-friendly pop, though the song turns to harder rock before the first chorus, and becomes a slow swagger midway. “Right The Wrong” is horn-heavy social commentary about injustice that’s more interesting musically than lyrically, whereas “Zannalee” whose title seems to have been inspired by a certain hideous movie starring Judge Reinhold and Nicolas Cage; the song itself is an average blues notable for his uncanny impersonation of a heavily accented Minnesota cop.

“I Rock, Therefore I Am” would be a strong statement if the song did; instead it’s a showcase for vocalist Rosie Gaines and not one but two rappers. The piano balladry of “Into The Light” is a nice change of pace, though it soon turns into a pushy Christian anthem. There’s a direct segue into “I Will”, which is basically the second part of the song, making a nice suite, complete with a cocktail jazz piano solo and more guitar. “Dig U Better Dead” is a promising title with a techno groove and a mixed message, and the nasty “Had U” is an idea that fades before it really goes anywhere, except for a blunt kissoff.

While TAFKAP may not have considered Chaos And Disorder to be anything major, it’s still a solid, accessible album that works simply because it’s not labored. A few missteps aside, it deserves reevaluation by anyone who wrote it off.

o|+> Chaos And Disorder (1996)—3

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Van Morrison 44: Roll With The Punches

In our music retail days, we found it hard to get excited about new releases in the blues or reggae genres, as both were populated by performers who weren’t exactly groundbreaking. Each also had a lot of sameness, and repetition, so when an album stood out, it was rare.

That’s one of the stumbling blocks of Van Morrison’s Roll With The Punches, which is predominantly concerned with blues, mostly old and some new. There are a few special guests, which is no surprise, along with a few retreads, so very little grabs one’s attention.

The title track gets right to business, but the softer “Transformation” is just one track featuring Jeff Beck and Chris Farlowe, both of whom get more room to shine on “I Can Tell” and the forced medley of “Stormy Monday” and “Lonely Avenue”. Georgie Fame sings first on Count Basie’s “Goin’ To Chicago”, while another veteran of the ‘60s R&B scene, Paul Jones of the original Manfred Mann, gets to warble on Van’s latest complaint about “Fame”. Another original, “Too Much Trouble”, finally delivers a tune that could be a classic.

If you thought the only thing missing Van’s version of “Bring It On Home To Me” on It’s Too Late To Stop Now was Jeff Beck, your prayers have been answered. Jeff and Chris also spice up the surprising addition of “Ordinary People”, which pales against the original, but Sister Rosetta Thorpe’s “How Far From God” is a nice change of pace, as is the oldie “Teardrops From My Eyes”. From there it’s just Van doing more Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Automobile Blues”), Mose Allison (“Benediction”), T-Bone Walker (“Mean Old World”), and Bo Diddley (“Ride On Josephine”).

Were we in charge, and we certainly are not, we’d’ve ditched the all-star turns and stuck to the blues standards he hadn’t done to death yet. It had been a while since Van had really wallowed in the blues genre, so Roll With The Punches mostly delivers, except when it doesn’t. As had been the pattern, he recorded a bunch of songs, decided he had an album’s worth, and put it out. Take it or leave it, see if he cares.

Van Morrison Roll With The Punches (2017)—3

Friday, November 4, 2022

Nilsson 4: Harry

By the end of the decade Nilsson was starting to become equally known for singing as well as songwriting, certainly in the Hollywood industries. He was busy in the first part of 1969 working on the soundtrack for the over-the-top Otto Preminger film Skidoo, which featured two songs related to the “plot”, and “The Cast And Crew”, which literally read the film credits over musical backing. His next proper album played with his mystique with the simple title Harry, the boyhood photo on the front, liner notes by Apple publicist Derek Taylor’s daughter on the back, and sepia-toned snaps in the gatefold.

Opening with his own version of “The Puppy Song”, written originally for Mary Hopkin’s first album, he’s right back to the “vo-de-oh-doe” approach that filled up his first two RCA albums. “Nobody Cares About The Railroads Anymore” is another slice of nostalgia, but “Open Your Window” is a not-too-lush ballad that’s more restrained and therefore more successful. The Beatle fixation continues on a faithful cover of “Mother Nature’s Son”, with strings replacing the brass on the original. “Fairfax Rag” and “City Life” were both written by fellow Monkees songwriter Bill Martin; the former is forced ragtime, while the latter actually sounds contemporary, and is preferred.

“Mournin’ Glory Story” is also firmly in the present, a brief but heartbreaking portrait of what we used to call a bag lady, as is the romance glimpsed in “Maybe”, but then he adds a patriotic tune his mother wrote after World War II. “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City” was written but rejected for Midnight Cowboy in favor of “Everybody’s Talkin’”, the arrangement of which it almost pointedly resembles. “Rainmaker” was written with the aforementioned Bill Martin, and sounds like it could belong to a larger conceptual piece. He was smart enough to record Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” a full year before the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, while Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear” provides a preview of Nilsson’s next album.

With Harry, he finally, tentatively, breaks away from the overused stylistic gimmick of his earlier work and begins to approach his true potential. For that, it is recommended.

Nilsson Harry (1969)—3
1997 DCC reissue: same as 1969, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Kinks 25: One For The Road

Having had a few recent hits, plus interest spurred by classic rock radio in the U.S. and the U.K. mod revival, the Kinks had become a popular arena ticket over here. To cash in, One For The Road was a double live album culled from seven shows in preparation for and support of Low Budget, played over the space of a year. (Because of the times, the tracks received overdubs during the mixing process.)

Along with stalwart Mick Avory and Dave Davies living his guitar god dreams, they boasted Jim Rodford on bass and Ian Gibbons on keyboards, solidifying a lineup that would last for a few more albums. The theatrics and storylines were long gone—now it was all about the hits, the last album, well-chosen deep cuts like “The Hard Way”, “Misfits”, and “Prince Of The Punks”, and songs other bands had revived for them (“Stop Your Sobbing”, “David Watts”). For the most part, everything’s delivered straight, with the disco influenced ironed out of recent songs and “Celluloid Heroes” given an extended intro, but the ska rearrangement of “Till The End Of The Day” is just wrong for this band.

The album was a hit, with a gatefold package that included a double-sided poster, touted on the cassette as available for only a dollar to cover postage and handling. (Those were the days.) The first CD version of the album skipped “20th Century Man”; this was reinstated in the ‘90s in a package that included a bonus CD-ROM of live footage taken from the videocassette that came out back then, and appeared on DVD in 2001. Future reissues of the album were limited to the music.

The Kinks One For The Road (1980)—3

Friday, October 28, 2022

Robyn Hitchcock 33: Shufflemania!

We generally prefer Robyn Hitchcock albums either when he’s completely solo or playing with the same band on all tracks. In many cases, the albums that are pieced together from different sessions with rotating players don’t always succeed, but that can also be blamed on the songs. In the case of Shufflemania! however—though we’re still wondering how or if it’s supposed to related to another album—the scattered approach works. He’d already made the most of the 2020 pandemic to stay as creative as possible, and here he’s collaborated over the wires with 15 other players in as many studios. Some of these people include members of Wilco, the Raconteur who produced his last album, two former Soft Boys, Johnny Marr, Sean Lennon, and the lovely Emma Swift. He started with vocals and guitar, then had his guests fill in the rest.

A demo-quality strum chugs at speed and is soon taken over by a full band on “The Shuffle Man” for a snappy opener before “The Inner Life Of Scorpio” provides a calmer contrast, mostly contributed by Mr. Marr. As usual, the lyrics are inscrutable, as they are in “The Feathery Serpent God”, which is more mysterious but also more satisfying. It wouldn’t be a Robyn Hitchcock without a reference to a bygone mode of transportation, and “Midnight Tram To Nowhere” fits the bill, while “Socrates In Thin Air” returns to the more whimsical lyrics of the ‘80s but with one of his modern choruses.

The suitably moody “Noirer Than Noir” begins a quieter side two, followed by the welcome intricate picking throughout “The Man Who Loves The Rain”. “The Sir Tommy Shovell” is a rocker about an imaginary pub, but we would very much like to visit. Plus, the title is another “shuffle man,” so there you go. “The Raging Muse” is another cool rocker, amazingly cobbled together from recordings done on three continents. While generally hopeful, “One Day (It’s Being Scheduled)” could be slightly improved by not giving away the payoff in the title.

With all that, Shufflemania! holds together well. We’re still waiting for another masterpiece, but this will do in the meantime.

Robyn Hitchcock Shufflemania! (2022)—

Friday, October 21, 2022

Yes 5: Close To The Edge

Seemingly at full strength by retaining the same lineup for two straight albums, Yes put all they had into Close To The Edge. To prove they weren’t kidding, the album consisted of one side-long epic backed with two other lengthy pieces to establish themselves as the prog trailblazers. (The simple green cover with the band photos on the back—including one shot of co-producer Eddy Offord—may seem oddly ordinary, but fear not: a trademark Roger Dean landscape takes up the gatefold.)

After bird song and water effects fade in, the instrumentalists take a couple of minutes to see how fast they can play and still keep in sync, and eventually a theme emerges on Steve Howe’s guitar. This first part is titled “The Solid Time Of Change” and sports lyrics and a chorus that will recur in the others. The second part, “Total Mass Retain”, is similar musically, except that the chorus hooks are sung faster. Rick Wakeman’s organ takes over the earlier theme, and we move to the more ethereal “I Get Up I Get Down” interlude, which ruminates on that theme with interlocking vocals before a massive pipe organ provides a very churchy atmosphere. A bleepy synthesizer shifts the proceedings back to the original theme and the final “Seasons Of Man” portion. After eighteen minutes, the “I get up I get down” melody is something of a relief and a release, and too brief before a calliope brings back the birds and water.

While “Close To The Edge” may seem indulgent and an acquired taste, we can’t say the same for “And You And I”. For our money, this is the quintessential Yes track, from Steve’s initial harmonics to check his tuning while the organ provides a melodic bed, and then that wonderful 12-string intro. This song too has parts, beginning with “Cord Of Life” over three simple chords played ad infinitum until finally there’s a switch to a pre-chorus that sets up the transition to “Eclipse”, an almost symphonic theme. A simple (for them) Leslie effect on the guitar brings in a slower repeat of the chorus, which hangs there until the 12-string intro returns. “The Preacher, The Teacher” speeds up the musical themes to a more jaunty backing, eventually building up to the pre-chorus for a reprise of the “Eclipse” section, which reaches a fermata (look it up), and “The Apocalypse” is the odd title given to the final 45 seconds and the final chorus.

All that happens in ten minutes, but we’ve still got the rest of side two to go. While it’s certainly intricate and complicated, “Siberian Khatru” is comparatively straightforward and rocking. A strong guitar riff always helps, and the band comes in with a driving rhythm of its own while Howe tweedled-ee-dees on top. They keep the energy going for the duration, there’s a harpsichord solo, and the lyrics make absolutely no sense.

Close To The Edge is a lot of people’s favorite Yes album, which we can understand. There is a lot going on, and most of it is, well, edgy and distracting, so it’s not the type of thing we can throw on at any hour of the day. As we’ve probably said before, we do respect certain prog performers because it does take a lot of work to write lengthy compositions with multiple parts that fit together, and Yes does that here.

Naturally the album was expanded when its time came. It’s always interesting when bonus tracks outnumber an album’s original tracks; while the single version of their cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” may seem redundant as the expanded Fragile included the full version, more interesting is the edit of “Total Mass Retain” used as its B-side. Early mixes of “And You And I” and “Siberian Khatru” just sound empty, because they are. Steven Wilson helmed the stereo and surround mixes for the later “definitive edition”, which had even more extras on the Blu-ray.

Yes Close To The Edge (1972)—
2003 remastered CD: same as 1972, plus 4 extra tracks
2014 Definitive Edition: “same” as 1972, plus 2 extra tracks (plus DVD or Blu-ray)

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Smithereens 10: The Lost Album

In 1993, the Smithereens were without a label, but decided to record an album anyway. Then they began negotiations with another label, and promptly abandoned the work in progress for a whole new collection of songs. A Date With The Smithereens was recorded and released to little interest, and onward they went.

Many of the abandoned songs made it to the public in the form of demos and such on various self-produced compilations, but in 2022 what’s simply called The Lost Album made it to shelves. While it’s “80% finished” according to bassist Mike Mesaros’ liner notes—indeed, some tracks have only a tambourine for percussion—it’s still got a freshness and excitement that Date mostly lacked.

The songs lack the big boomy sound that characterized their first albums, but that dearth of punch doesn’t get in the way of the songs, which are all quality. “Out Of This World” is a decent retread of “Top Of The Pops”, and “Dear Abby” thankfully isn’t written as a contribution to an advice column. It sounds like there’s a whole other vocalist on “Don’t Look Down”—allegedly Pat’s own voice as a placeholder for a player to be named later—but “A World Apart” nicely cops the sound of Beatles ‘65 again. So far it’s standard Smithereens, which makes the “Iron Man” stomp of “Stop Bringing Me Down” a welcome departure. After almost six minutes of that, it’s a good switch back to the simple pop of “Pretty Little Lies”.

“Monkey Man” is neither the Stones song, nor the Toots & The Maytals track ska’d up by the Specials, but a terrific riff nonetheless. “Everyday World” is harmless, while “Face The World With Pride” sports a wonderful riff and snappy verses that deserve a better title and hook, no matter how painstakingly it was sung. “Love Runs Wild” and “All Through The Night” probably wanted big productions with strings and whatnot, and while Pat Dinizio’s joke songs don’t usually work, “I’m Sexy” just needs to change that one word to work.

Again, the tunes are solid, and most any would have improved A Date With The Smithereens. It’s doubtful they would have changed the overall fortune of that album, but at least we can hear them now.

The Smithereens The Lost Album (2022)—3

Friday, October 14, 2022

Kiss 10: The Solo Albums

The next part of the bold 1978 plan to keep Kiss product on the shelves was the risky idea to issue four solo albums simultaneously. To preserve a semblance of unity, each was “dedicated” to the other three, but were recorded separately with no input from the others, though some hired guns appeared on more than one. They were even individually issued on picture discs. Besides getting over two hours of Kiss-related musical content paired with specific merchandise order forms, those rabid consumers who bought all four got each segment of an interlocking poster. Just because, we’ll tackle the albums from left to right when all the posters are connected.

Because of the lead vocals and all the layered rhythm guitars with help from band acolyte Bob Kulick—plus, he wrote all the songs—Paul’s album sounds the most like Kiss. That also means the lyrics are really dumb. But it’s musically consistent, which helps if you’re a Kiss Army cadet not seeking exotic adventure. For instance, “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me” crosses the verse of “Rock ‘N Roll All Nite” with a perfect power-pop chorus, and “Take Me Away (Together As One)” has cascading acoustic guitars and an extended Abbey Road-style coda. Paul Stanley suggests what a 1978 Kiss album would have sounded like were he able to corral the others, though he might not have managed to convince Peter to croon “Hold Me, Touch Me” (Think Of Me When We’re Apart)”.

Gene’s album starts with a demonic laugh and nightmare strings heralding the otherwise ordinary rock of “Radioactive”, and the album proceeds mostly in a standard rock motif. Despite his image, he seems to want to present himself as a well-rounded entertainer, calling on lots of special guests, including Joe Perry, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Rick Nielsen on guitars, and backing vocals from Donna Summer, Helen Reddy, Janis Ian, the future Peg Bundy, and two of the guys from Beatlemania. “Living In Sin” (“at the Holiday Inn”, naturally) sports a cameo from Cher as an excited fan on the phone, “See You In Your Dreams” gets a redo, and the whole shmeer ends with a lush take on “When You Wish Upon A Star”. Despite his limited range, Gene Simmons is silly but adept.

Peter was always the odd man out of the band, and his solo album didn’t help. Vocally he wasn’t awful if a little generic, while his personal musical taste leaned more toward R&B, which in those days meant less like Stax/Volt and more like disco. “Kiss The Girl Goodbye” used the band logo in the typography, but nothing on the album resembled the band in the least. His take on “Tossin’ And Turnin’” might have wowed them on American Bandstand, but we keep expecting to him to turn into Benny Mardones or some other yacht rocker. Even fans of “Beth” and/or “Hard Luck Woman” aren’t going to find anything like that on Peter Criss, except for maybe “I Can’t Stop The Rain”. At least he played most of the drums.

Ace wasn’t easy to corral in the band either, but his album is easily the best of the batch musically. He plays nearly everything himself, helped by future bandmate Anton Fig and that guy’s future Letterman cohort Will Lee, and wisely brought Eddie Kramer on board to produce. His vocal shortcomings are neatly obscured by the riffing and soloing, and the songs are intricate but catchy, as well as heavy (and dopey) enough for Kiss. “Snow Blind” and the Queen-like “Wiped Out” hint at pharmaceutical overload—even in those days we heard rumors of disorderly behavior at dives all over Westchester County. “Ozone” is mostly an excellent guitar track, making the vocal arbitrary, while “Fractured Mirror” is wholly instrumental. The big hit was “New York Groove”, which he didn’t even write himself, and pushed Ace Frehley as the album to have even if you didn’t like Kiss.

To promote the albums, various songs were used on the soundtrack of the band’s first and only major film project, Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park, which pretty much continued the band’s slide into irrelevance. In Europe and elsewhere, a Best Of Solo Albums compilation plucked three tracks at random from each, leading wisely with “New York Groove”. While they’re not horrible, any suggestion that these albums were the equivalent of the bumper bundle left by the former Beatles in 1970 is just ludicrous.

Paul Stanley Paul Stanley (1978)—3
Gene Simmons
Gene Simmons (1978)—3
Peter Criss
Peter Criss (1978)—2
Ace Frehley
Ace Frehley (1978)—3

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Pretenders 17: Hate For Sale

Not that Chrissie Hynde worked at a frantic pace, but Hate For Sale is the first Pretenders album in a while that earns the use of the band name. For one, Martin Chambers is back on drums, and the other two guys had already appeared on a previous album. Plus, the producer is Stephen Street, who helmed the desk for the band’s ‘90s albums. Also, it rocks. Mostly.

Chrissie wrote all the songs with guitarist James Walbourne, and they’re all pretty solid. The title track is a furious opener, complete with false start, while “The Buzz” sports an intro very much like “Kid”. “Lightning Man” evokes the reggae of “Private Life”, with a melodica right out of Twin/Tone. We don’t know what “Turf Accountant Daddy” is supposed to be about, but at least she finds “Cincinnati” to be a better rhyme than “Reno, Nevada”. (We also like the nod to Blondie in the brief synth solo.) “You Can’t Hurt A Fool” gives her a chance to be soulful.

“I Don’t Know When To Stop” takes us back to the loud bash at the beginning, then “Maybe Love Is In NYC” subverts the familiar “All Along The Watchtower” chords by arpeggiating the electric and strumming a prominent acoustic, and finding a catchy melody for the chorus. The trashy “Junkie Walk” is followed by Bo Diddley filtered through “Didn’t Want To Be This Lonely”. She waits until the very end to flip the script, with the overly emotional “Crying In Public”, accompanied by piano and her go-to Duke String Quartet.

At just over thirty minutes, Hate For Sale is short and to the point. It’s also the first Pretenders album in a long time worthy of playing on a loop. Not bad for a few veterans pushing 70.

Pretenders Hate For Sale (2020)—

Friday, October 7, 2022

Phil Collins 12: Love Songs

So this was odd. Six years after a proper hits collection, Phil Collins doubled up with a two-disc set of favorites from his solo career, and included a handful of rarities. In keeping with his image as a romantic balladeer, Love Songs was subtitled A Compilation… Old And New. Only four songs are repeated from that first set of hits, which we guess is the good news.

The problem is we didn’t need two discs of this drivel. Four songs come from Both Sides, none of them hits; he also has a better opinion of his last two solo albums than we do. We approve the revival of “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away”, but “This Must Be Love” and “If Leaving Me Is Easy” were hardly highlights of his solo debut. The only real hit that postdated the …Hits set was “You’ll Be In My Heart.”

So what was “new”? “Tearing And Breaking” is a collaboration with folk hero John Martyn, and a sleep-inducing opener to disc one. A live “rehearsal” of “True Colors” avoids cries of redundancy with the hits album, but is unnecessary; similarly, “Separate Lives” is the inferior live version. Two songs from ‘90s various artists are mopped up—Curtis Mayfield’s “I’ve Been Trying”, “Somewhere” from West Side Story—though live covers of “My Girl”, the standards “Always” and “The Way You Look Tonight” aren’t going to convince anyone they’re definitive.

While Love Songs was a good idea, somebody should have explained to Phil that just because a song concerns relationships or includes the word “love” somewhere doesn’t mean it belongs in a sequence with others of the same slim criteria. Most of all, at this juncture we wondered who exactly comprised his audience.

Phil Collins Love Songs: A Compilation… Old And New (2004)—2

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Phil Collins 11: Brother Bear

Then again, maybe Testify was indeed a sop given to Phil Collins solely to ensure he’d write another soundtrack to a Disney film about anthropomorphic animals designed to terrify children. Brother Bear doesn’t seem to have endured at all like Tarzan has, but it’s clear Phil put in a lot of effort.

Once again Mark Mancina assisted with the score, and his contributions are heard on the latter half of the album, along with further songs repeated in different arrangements. The songs are about what one has come to expect from Phil, and could easily have been parsed out to individual albums, except that they were written to order. “Look Through My Eyes” wants to be this album’s “You’ll Be In My Heart” but isn’t. Tina Turner is given the lead vocal on “Great Spirits” for some reason; Phil’s version would be a bonus track on certain retail editions of the album. “Welcome” is pure Disney, first in a Phil-sung version, and later led by Oren Waters of the Waters family with the Blind Boys of Alabama (fresh from Peter Gabriel sessions). “No Way Out” (another phrase used for a recent Gabriel song) also appears twice, first with something of a ‘90s Genesis vibe, but the cheery-sounding chorus does not match the sentiment in the lyrics at all. The second version is more direct to the plot, slower, and more anguished, both in delivery and reception. “Welcome” is sung first in Inuit by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir (!) and later by Phil with a completely different vibe. “On My Way” is more typical, and should pop up in any number of department store commercials.

As before, we haven’t seen this movie, don’t plan to, and will try to avoid it just because traumatized cartoon animals make us sad. Nor have we seen the sequel, which roped in Melissa Etheridge for its soundtrack. Brother Bear is therefore reserved for Collins completists and Disney fetishists.

Brother Bear: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack (2003)—

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Elton John 20: The Fox

The Geffen label started out by wooing established artists, and after Donna Summer and John Lennon (and Yoko Ono), Elton John was the label’s next release. For several reasons, The Fox was overlooked then, and still seems so today. For starters, David Geffen felt the first batch of songs Elton presented was under par, so several tracks were revived after being left over from the 21 At 33 sessions. Once complete, it wasn’t promoted very well, and those who did buy the album were greeted with a rather disjointed sequence of music that went all over the place, with contributions from multiple lyricists.

“Breaking Down Barriers” is strong beginning, with waterfall piano lines and a defiant vocal over a mildly discofied arrangement that still rocks. “Heart In The Right Place” aims to be even dirtier, with the perpetual guitar solo from Steve Lukather, but the mix buries the vocal under way too much. “Just Like Belgium” sports an inscrutable Bernie Taupin lyric and a throwback ‘70s sound, with a little jangle thrown in and a woman whispering in French, whereas “Nobody Wins” is basically a cover of a song in that language, with new lyrics by Gary Osborne and a distinctly Euro-synth backing. He gets political on the angry “Fascist Faces”, which continues the modern rock sound and brings back the Rev. James Cleveland and his choir for more counterpoint. Elton even takes a piano solo.

His piano is the focus for the first part of side two, in the lushly orchestrated instrumental “Carla/Etude”, which is actually two pieces neatly stuck together. “Fanfare” is a not-brief enough James Newton Howard synth arrangement of the song that follows, and sounds like it belongs to someone else’s album. “Chloe”, the song itself, is a little better, though it sounds like a minor-key retread of “Little Jeannie”. “Heels Of The Wind” is another throwback, musically as well as lyrically via Bernie, but there’s something a little too by-the-numbers about it. That cannot be said for “Elton’s Song”, a heartbreaker written to a lyric by Tom Robinson. While the rarely-seen video makes it plain, this soliloquy of unrequited love is more poignant when heard as intended: from one schoolboy to another. That elegance makes the title track an odd finale, but there is a certain determinism in the track, which features harmonica from Mickey Raphael, soon familiar from his work with Willie Nelson.

The biggest obstacle with The Fox is that it doesn’t know what sort of album it wants to be. It’s one thing to have diverse styles, but when they jar rather than complement, the result is less than successful. As had happened before, the production and arrangements let down the potential of what could be excellent songs.

Elton John The Fox (1981)—

Friday, September 16, 2022

Grateful Dead 17: Go To Heaven

It was time for another Dead album. Their Arista deal still required them to work with an outside producer, and this time they got Gary Lyons (another guy who’d worked with Foreigner) who was also busy working on an Aerosmith album at the same time. Meanwhile, both of the Godchauxeseseses were gone, and were replaced in one swell foop by Brent Mydland, who could play keyboards as well as sing.

The humor in the Go To Heaven title wasn’t immediately obvious; the white suits on the hazy cover were likely intended to depict them as angels, but most people just assumed they’d gone full disco. Luckily, they hadn’t. Right off the top “Alabama Getaway” is a Garcia-Hunter rocker in the Chuck Berry mode, with a singalong chorus to boot. The new kid comes in strong too, with “Far From Me”, although his Michael McDonald huskiness and the overall production sound accidentally close to Pure Prairie League’s “Let Me Love You Tonight”. “Althea” rights the both lyrically and musically in a track that sounds like, well, the Dead. “Feel Like A Stranger” is a funky Bob Weir groove that leaves plenty of room for multiple guitar solos that probably went on well after the botched-sounding abrupt ending.

Bobby stays in front for the next two songs, which form something of a nautical suite. “Lost Sailor” is mysterious whether taken literally or figuratively, while the highly optimistic “Saint Of Circumstance” lifts the mood considerably. The drummers are credited with the slightly flatulent “Antwerp’s Placebo (The Plumber)” interlude before Brett shows his skill at composed in tricky time signatures with “Easy To Love You”. He’s also brought synthesizers to the mix, but we could do without the steel drum solo. Then “Don’t Ease Me In” makes its first-ever appearance on a Dead album, 14 years after its first recording for their debut indie single, bringing things full circle.

While it was released in 1980, Go To Heaven is very much a ‘70s album, and a decent finish for that era of the band—more so than Shakedown Street anyway. For the next few years they’d stick to touring. (The eventual expanded CD doesn’t add much; limp covers of the traditionals “Peggy-O” and “Jack-A-Roe” suggest a spent bullpen, although the Garcia/Hunter rarity “What’ll You Raise” shows they weren’t at all dried up. To fill up the disc, three live versions from later in the year provide something of a preview of their next two albums.)

Grateful Dead Go To Heaven (1980)—3
2006 expanded CD: same as 1980, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Jeff Beck 17: Emotion & Commotion

After another layoff between albums, Jeff Beck decided to leave techno behind and get back to just playing. Emotion & Commotion combines songs featuring female vocals—thankfully, not the all-star route that made Carlos Santana really rich in this century—with unexpected covers, most accompanied by an orchestra. The focus is on melody.

We see the title is apt, as following his interpretation of Jeff Buckley’s version of Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christie Carol”, the “Hammerhead” riff comes tearing through. “Never Alone” is quieter, closer to his ‘80s fusion style underscored by the Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn production. The classic “Over The Rainbow” would be a lovely lullaby except that it’s followed by an “I Put A Spell On You” that sticks mostly to the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins original, with Joss Stone restraining herself just enough.

That ‘80s Trevor Horn sound returns on “Serene”, which wanders through dentist office territory but still lives up to its title, then Imelda May tackles the vocal on Jeff Buckley’s version of Nina Simone’s version of “Lilac Wine”. Lovely as that is, it’s no competition for his treatment of “Nessun Dorma” that to these ears is just as tearjerking as Luciano Pavarotti’s. Vinnie Colaiuta’s complicated rhythms bring in another Joss Stone vocal on “There’s No Other Me”, and we go out on a soft note with “Elegy For Dunkirk”, plucked from the Atonement soundtrack and featuring the classical vocals of one Olivia Safe.

Emotion & Commotion isn’t Jeff Beck’s most innovative album, but it’s a nice listen, and that helps a lot. Truth be told, we kept up with his catalog through all those middling albums just so we could crow about “Nessun Dorma”. We’re going to go listen to it again.

Jeff Beck Emotion & Commotion (2010)—3

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Frank Zappa 47: You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3

The third of six projected volumes in the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series returns to the grab bag style of the first. It’s not completely random, but it’s really of interest for fans only.

Disc one focuses on the 1984 band, which had a tendency towards reggae rhythms and had been represented in the racks solely on Does Humor Belong In Music?, which wasn’t available worldwide. Nowadays that disc is preferred, but there are some unique moments here, including 15-year-old Dweezil soloing on “Sharleena”, an extended jam on “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”, and “Drowning Witch” pieced together from three shows from 1984 and one from 1982. In-jokes abound, inspired by game shows and Ron Popeil gadget commercials, but we always like hearing Ike and Frank crack each other up throughout “Bobby Brown” and “Joe’s Garage”. Some “new” songs appear: “Ride My Face To Chicago” is a chance to solo, “Carol, You Fool” pits doo-wop against a reggae beat (which this band tended to fall back on to its detriment), and “Chana In De Bushwop” features lyrics from the mind of four-year-old Diva Zappa.

Disc two offers more variety era-wise, beginning with the original Roxy performances of “Dickie’s Such An Asshole”. A Terry Bozzio drum solo leads into an early performance of “Zoot Allures” that unfortunately switches to a guitar solo six years later over, yes, reggae. A chunk of the side two suite of You Are What You Is comes from an MTV concert in 1981, and the start of “Cocaine Decisions” from 1984 is edited onto a 1982 performance in a Sicilian soccer stadium during a riot, as depicted on the back cover of The Man From Utopia. Still trying to play through the tear gas, they segue into the unfortunately titled “Nig Biz”. For some reason 24 minutes is devoted to a confusing medley of “King Kong” compiled from three 1982 concerts, with a seven-minute detour into the Rainbow show in 1971 where he was knocked off the stage, all in different tempos. For further conceptual continuity, there is a reference to a poem read during “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” on Volume 1.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3 (1989)—3

Friday, September 2, 2022

Queen 5: A Day At The Races

Named after another Marx Brothers film and sporting a similar cover design, it’s easy to view A Day At The Races as a companion to Queen’s previous album. That would be incorrect, since it’s as different from A Night At The Opera as that was to Sheer Heart Attack, which this one more closely resembles.

Something of a pompous synthetic fanfare opens takes up the first minute, and it’s a distraction before “Tie Your Mother Down” crashes in with its terrific riff. After that solid opener, Freddie is left alone with his multitracked harmonies and his lonesome piano for “You Take My Breath Away”. At five minutes it takes a while to make its point, and the closing loop makes an unsettling transition to the more typical ‘70s rock of “Long Away”. Brian sings this one, and we’re reminded of how much his voice does match Freddie’s. “The Millionaire Waltz” begins like Freddie solo again, this time in operetta mode. When the drums finally come in, they’re welcome, but it’s become a little too much of a retread of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. “You And I” returns us to straight rock, proving once again how much of a secret weapon John Deacon was as a songwriter.

While “Somebody To Love” is as over-the-top as anything on this album, it’s still one of Freddie’s (and the band’s) greatest creations. Here it all comes together—the piano, the bass, the drums, the guitar, and especially the choir on top of that voice. We even feel let down after it dribbles to a close, since it’s followed by the angry rock outrage of “White Man” (though it should be said that English bands singing about the plight of Native Americans was a smart shift away from those who were obsessed with cowboys). It’s another U-turn to the mild vaudeville of “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”, more along the line of the Queen that had been emerging. Roger Taylor’s songs always stick out like a sore thumb on Queen albums, and “Drowse” fills the same requirement as “I’m In Love With My Car”, though it’s nowhere near as silly. Brian apparently provides the keyboards for “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)”, which is a nice lighter-waver sung partially in Japanese. The already anthemic song ends with that backwards-sounding fanfare that opens the album.

A Day At The Races is good, but it had a hard act to follow. Still, it shows they were trying, highlights their versatility, and continues the brand they were building. They were getting there, certainly. (Neither of the modern mixes on the 1991 expansion were included on the 2011 remaster. Instead, consumers got the backing track for “Tie Your Mother Down”—which still has the backing vocals on the choruses—a lengthy live “Somebody To Love” from 1982 and a preview of “You Take My Breath Away” from 1976, a slightly different “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” from a Top Of The Pops appearance, and an “HD mix” of “Teo Torriatte” that omits the crazy ending.)

Queen A Day At The Races (1976)—3
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1976, plus 2 extra tracks
2011 remaster: same as 1976, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, August 26, 2022

Neil Young 66: Noise & Flowers

Even while working with a rejuvenated Crazy Horse, Neil Young has utilized the services of the band Promise Of The Real for much of the 2010s. Noise & Flowers is their fifth album together, and the second live collection. Unlike the concept-laden Earth, this one’s delivered straight.

The theme is mortality, being that the tour that spawned this album took place immediately following the funeral of Neil’s manager and most consistent ally, Elliot Roberts, to whom the music is dedicated. More to the point, the band is made of players younger than each of Neil’s children; most of the music predates them too. The combination of the Covid pandemic and the sheer volume of music Neil’s been trying to put out in recent years meant this particular collection waited three years for a release, which is probably why it’s been denoted as #21 in the Archives Performance Series.

The sound is cavernous, thanks to the patented Volume Dealers production. The piano comes through the mix, but so do the congas. The crowd goes nuts for the obvious hits, even when the music teeters considerably throughout the ten-minute “Rockin’ In The Free World”—listen for the a slam against “an orange Lucifer using this song again”—but these ears like hearing such relative rarities as “Field Of Opportunity”, “Alabama”, and “I’ve Been Waiting For You”. The band is supportive on thrashers like “Throw Your Hatred Down”, but tend to rush on softer numbers like “From Hank To Hendrix”. No songs from Colorado, which was already in the can and months away from release, are included.

Again, there are plenty of pickup bands around the world who know his songs inside out and can play them as well as the Horse. For Neil, it’s about feel. And if Elliot approves, so do we. (As has been his wont, there is a matching DVD with all the performances on film. It’s very jarring to see Neil with a band that exudes such energy—he hasn’t had a bass player that animated since he played with Pearl Jam.)

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real Noise & Flowers (2022)—3

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Morrissey 7: World Of Morrissey

It had been three albums and five years, so the time was ripe for Morrissey to put out one of those mop-up albums that collected various strays of the period. As should have been expected, the selection on World Of Morrissey was as random as could be.

The cover art depicts a boxer, which is somehow fitting as the excellent “Boxers” was his most recent standalone single. Both of its B-sides, the tense “Whatever Happens, I Love You” and the deceptively singalong “Have-A-Go Merchant”, are included as well. “The Loop” backed the “Sing Your Life” single (not included here) and for the first minute or so you might think it’s going to be instrumental, but there are words eventually. Still, it’s a cool, bouncy rockabilly tune. “My Love Life” is rescued from the post-Kill Uncle limbo. A lovely, lush cover of “Moon River” is nice, except that it goes on for over nine minutes; the last six are instrumental, with barely discernable film samples of some woman sobbing layered over the last four. Three songs from the overseas-only live album Beethoven Was Deaf are nice to have, partially because the band sounds great, but two of the choices (“Jack The Ripper” and “Sister, I’m A Poet”) were both B-sides anyway, albeit in studio recordings.

And just to be perverse, the balance of the album was filled up by two album tracks each from Your Arsenal and Vauxhall And I, but most ridiculous of all was including “The Last Of The Famous International Playboys”, which had already been collected on Bona Drag. All together, a nice set, but frustrating, and still forcing collectors to collect.

Morrissey World Of Morrissey (1995)—3

Friday, August 19, 2022

Jayhawks 3: Hollywood Town Hall

The discography clearly states that Hollywood Town Hall was the Jayhawks’ third album, but it was also the first one designed as an album rather than collecting various demos. And given the backing of the Def American label, with Rick Rubin’s right-hand man George Drakoulias producing, this was most people’s first exposure to the band.

And what an excellent place to start. We originally described “Waiting For The Sun” with the suggestion to “imagine Buffalo Springfield if fronted by Carly Simon.” No? Decades later we realize we were taken in by the keening harmonies and fuzzy yet crisp guitars. Meanwhile, special guest Benmont Tench is having a ball on piano and organ, so clearly, if this album hadn’t happened, Tom Petty wouldn’t have written “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”. A blast of harmonica heralds “Crowded In The Wings”, with more choice close harmonies, but it’s that major change before the chorus and the major-seventh touch four bars later that push it over the top. The dramatic intro “Clouds” tries too hard, but a little guitar lick smooths it over and brings in another solid verse-chorus combo, though we still think “Diamonds” is a better title. “Two Angels” is repeated from the last album, and it’s a very similar performance, except that it’s Nicky Hopkins on piano. On “Take Me With You (When You Go)”, those harmonies circle all over the place, but then they go unison for the perfectly simple chorus. Years passed before we realized how slow the tempo is, but that leaves plenty of room for the guitar solo and closing feedback.

“Sister Cry” introduces two other Jayhawks motifs—the competing choruses with simultaneously different lyrics, and trying to figure out which part Mark Olson is singing and which is Gary Louris. It takes a large pair of stones to begin a song with “you came and you gave without taking”, but that’s just what “Settled Down Like Rain” does. “Wichita” isn’t much more than two chords and a riff plus a chorus, with inscrutable lyrics on top, but it gives Gary another chance to wail. Just as mysterious is “Nevada, California”, another slow one, with plenty of room for ache and Gary’s Clarence White-influenced bending. We’d like to find this place too. (The liner notes from fellow musician Joe Hardy reference this song, and are worth reading.) A remake of “Martin’s Song” has a lot more bite and energy than its previous take for a terrific closer.

Hollywood Town Hall puts it all together—tasty folk-rock guitars, close harmonies, and good songwriting. The overall feel is of a band rocking out in a room, but of course that wasn’t the whole story. When the album was reissued and expanded, George Drakoulias supplied new notes telling the genesis of the album, starting with how he signed them by hearing Blue Earth on hold. When the band didn’t gel immediately in the studio, Charley Drayton (most famous from the X-pensive Winos) came in on drums, and helped them lay down the backing tracks, complete with one broken toe. Then all the parts were painstakingly crafted and added, ending with the vocals. (Benmont and Nicky were also added after the fact.) They fooled everyone.

At any rate, the sound of the band was a lot tighter, yet still faithful to their influences. As for the bonus tracks on the reissue, the three outtakes from the wonderfully titled Scrapple promotional EP are welcome for completeness’ sake; “Leave No Gold” has some striking twists and turns, “Keith & Quentin” is more country than the rest of the album, and “Up Above My Head” is rock gospel that would have slowed it down the wrong way. The previously unissued “Warm River” is a further fine example of the Olson/Louris blend, and “Mother Trust You Walk To The Store” provides further mythology. All just prove how well constructed the original album was.

The Jayhawks Hollywood Town Hall (1992)—4
2011 reissue: same as 1992, plus 5 extra tracks