Friday, July 1, 2022

Ringo Starr 1: Sentimental Journey

For the first fourteen or so years of this forum, our sole entry for Ringo Starr’s solo work began like this:

It’s high time we address a major conundrum of such a chronicle as this: How does one explore the solo careers of the Beatles while excluding Ringo? Easy, says Everybody’s Dummy. Impossible, says everyone else who’s undertaken such an assignment. But let’s be reasonable here; very little Ringo did after 1969 stands up with the efforts of the three songwriting Beatles, and the little that did usually had the help of one of those Beatles, and probably George. So to be fair, here’s a look at Ringo’s Apple output. There’s little need to go further.

But because we like to educate, illuminate, and encompass as well as entertain, the self-styled luckiest man in showbiz is getting more complete treatment, starting here. His post-Beatles career may not be as stellar as the others’, but he still put in his time, and he deserves better than a single post. (Besides, we’ve typed more words on lesser figures, and worse albums.)
As the future of the band was in doubt come late 1969, Ringo was justifiably concerned as to how he’d spend his time henceforth. Acting was a possibility but not a given, and unlike the other three he didn’t do much songwriting, and didn’t have a backlog of tunes waiting to be heard. So he turned to a pet project he’d considered from time to time.
Sentimental Journey was a collection of old standards, the type of songs his mother and stepfather used to enjoy singing at gatherings and at the pub depicted on the cover. Each track was arranged big band-style by a different musician, from buddies like Klaus Voormann and Maurice Gibb to more known entities as George Martin and Quincy Jones. Some are straightforward, some are horribly dated, and most sound like the fare one would hear on any TV variety show of the time. And each one was sung by Ringo, as only he could. He didn’t even have to play the drums.
The title track is fairly indicative of the album as a whole, and re-establishes his “aw, shucks” brand. (The arranger was Richard Perry, who will loom large in the near future.) It’s also the highlight of both sides, as the schtick wears thin. His first pitch limitations are all over “Night And Day”, double-tracked on “Blue, Turning Grey Over You” and the banjo-laden “Bye Bye Blackbird”. McCartney is listed as the arranger for “Stardust”, but it’s more likely George Martin, who also did “Dream”. “Whispering Grass” is mostly harmless, but “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” is the absolute pits. The rest of the tracks aren’t really worth discussing, except that they’re not quite as bad as that.
Without realizing it, Sentimental Journey proved Ringo was a trendsetter, being the first rock star to go the standards route one day trod by Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan; even Paul McCartney wouldn’t do his own take for forty years. But at the very least, it’s a vanity album, something he could have given his mother for her birthday rather than foist on the public during a busy Beatle release schedule. The question remains: how often did she listen to it, assuming she did?

Ringo Starr Sentimental Journey (1970)—

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

John Cale 3: The Academy In Peril

Somehow John Cale got a job as an A&R exec for the Reprise label, and his first album for them came loaded with lots of arty cachet. The very clever cut-out cover design via Andy Warhol is based on those good old Kodak slides, which don’t hint in the slightest at the predominantly classical contents, with only slight detours.
“The Philosopher” opens with a bluesy acoustic slide guitar while percussion thumps, an organ bleats, and horns blare, then a viola arrives. Ron Wood is thanked in the notes for the next track, but we suspect he’s playing the slide on this, because “Brahms” is simply solo piano in the classical style. Maybe he came up with the title? “Legs Larry At Television Centre” is named after the titular narrator, the drummer from the Bonzo Dog Band, here in the role of a director in an imaginary control room guiding the cameras supposedly filming the string quartet. Frankly, he’s distracting. The title track returns to the piano, starting quietly and eventually getting more frantic.
Layers of swirling piano make up the “Intro” to “Days Of Steam”, the most conventional track here, missing only a vocal and lyrics. The viola takes the melody, with a piano and vibraphone mostly doubling each other, before a recorder right out of “Ruby Tuesday” and a trumpet playing chromatic scales takes us out. The next “3 Orchestral Pieces” are banded as one track, and could be film soundtracks: “Faust” is lovely and haunting, “The Balance” begins regally and goes off-balance, and “Capt. Morgan’s Lament” is more stately. “King Harry” returns to the style of “The Philosopher” and “Days Of Steam” with percussion, plus demonic hissed vocals by Cale. Finally, “John Milton” is another piano piece with orchestral touches, and it’s quite moving.
One wonders how Reprise thought they were supposed to market this album. It’s not radio-friendly in the least, but when the guy whose name is on the cover works for the label, maybe that was enough for them. It’s tough to recommend The Academy In Peril, but for all its lovely moments, it still deserves to be heard.

John Cale The Academy In Peril (1972)—

Friday, June 24, 2022

Eric Clapton 4: Rainbow Concert

Credit Pete Townshend for trying to get Eric Clapton back to regular work instead of succumbing to his heroin addiction. This entailed assembling an all-star band to back him for a pair of shows at London’s Rainbow Theater. In addition to himself, the other musicians were erstwhile Traffic members Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Rebop Kwaku Baah, and Ric Grech, plus Ron Wood and the elusive Jimmy Karstein. All were prominently listed on the cover of Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert, released nine months later by a label that had already been busy recycling Clapton recordings.
All-star concerts are often more notable for who’s playing rather than how well they play, and the six songs here aren’t exactly mind-blowing. After a half-decent “Badge” and a run through the Dominos rarity “Roll It Over”, Stevie sings “Presence Of The Lord.” He takes the lead on Traffic’s “Pearly Queen”, which manages to hold together despite the full stage before galloping to a finish. “After Midnight” is somewhat plodding, but “Little Wing” benefits from the extra players, and they’re mostly in tune. (Reports that several vocals were overdubbed after the fact have not been disproved.)
Coming soon after the Dominos live album, Rainbow Concert wasn’t much more than a cash grab with star power to move it, and so it remained. Following Clapton’s resurgence in the ‘90s, the eventual remastered CD was filled nearly to capacity with further performances from the two shows, reconstructed to approximate a true setlist. Unfortunately, they did so by editing down the songs that were on the original album, which was short to begin with, and leaving out two others from the original night. (Did we really need to hear Townshend ribbing an unamused Capaldi between numbers about an alleged STD?)
That said, the new version is certainly listenable, if not a true document. We hear an emcee introduce “Eric Clapton and the Palpitations,” and they rip right into “Layla”. “Blues Power” and “Key To The Highway” allow for more dueling and noodling, and Stevie nicely takes the high parts on “Bottle Of Red Wine” and “Tell The Truth”. The two drummers can’t cop Jim Gordon’s backwards beat on “Bell Bottom Blues”, but they trade off with Rebop for the middle of “Let It Rain”. All told, it’s better, but not exactly essential.

Eric Clapton Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert (1973)—
1995 Chronicles remaster: “same” as 1973, plus 8 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Todd Rundgren 27: With A Twist

So this was kinda cute. Anyone wishing Todd would do an album like one of his old classics was greeted with a collection of older songs freshly re-recorded lounge/exotica-style with his usual studio cronies. He even insisted With A Twist... was not a gag in the liner notes, alongside a photo of him standing shirtless in a large body of water.
The songs are still recognizable, but rearranged from top to bottom to highlight the ensemble. Some of the differences are striking: “I Saw The Light” plays with the meter so it sometimes feels like it’s missing a beat; “Can We Still Be Friends” gets a sax solo; “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” uses the bossa-nova setting common on any number of keyboards. “Love Is The Answer” is far from anthemic, and “Hello It’s Me” is just plain creepy. Along with a remake of “Never Never Land” from Peter Pan and Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You”, less obvious choices of his own compositions—“Influenza”, “Mated”, “Fidelity”—sound closest to their soft origins, but none more so than “A Dream Goes On Forever”.
There’s a sameness throughout the album that wears out the concept pretty quickly, but the album actually works. Anyone hearing these songs for the very first time may have a better shot at enjoying them, because they were good songs to begin with. But none surpass the original recordings.

Todd Rundgren With A Twist... (1997)—3

Friday, June 17, 2022

David Bowie 37: Five Years

Every couple of years it seemed somebody would come up with another reason to remaster some element of the David Bowie catalog, sometimes as part of an anniversary, or sometimes just because. This time, it appears the people in charge wanted to streamline things somewhat, and thus began the third major overhaul of what we’ll call the RCA catalog.
Five Years is a handy title for a set that covers the initial trajectory of Bowie stardom, starting from the Space Oddity album through Pin Ups, which bade farewell to the Spiders From Mars. Six albums are presented in their original sleeves and sequences, complete with replica labels and inner sleeves, with all but Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane getting modern sonic overhauls. A nice book includes new notes and reproductions of contemporary reviews and ads, and somebody felt it necessary to include the Ziggy Stardust album a second time, in its 2003 mix by original co-producer Ken Scott, which most fans apparently hated. (The alternate cover art nicely credits Rick Wakeman and Dana Gillespie for their contributions to “It Ain’t Easy” for the first time.)
Because they were both official albums, Live Santa Monica ‘72 and the Ziggy concert soundtrack fill in the picture further. While similar in setlist, they show the difference nine months made; the earlier show leaned more on Hunky Dory since Aladdin Sane was still in progress, while by the time he got to the Hammersmith Odeon, he’d become a sensation. (Personally, the earlier show is a little more intimate, and less flashy, but just as powerful when the band is playing full speed.)
Because the albums didn’t tell the whole story, two extra discs dubbed Re:Call 1 helped to mop up many of the period’s standalone singles, B-sides, and single edits. They’re in chronological order, making it easy to track the progress from “Space Oddity” through such alternates as “The Prettiest Star” with Marc Bolan, the Arnold Corns versions of two Ziggy songs, and both versions of “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Holy Holy”. Nothing recorded before 1969 is included, and a handful of songs from the same period that had been bonus tracks on the Ryko CDs and/or other anniversary reissues are MIA, to more gnashing of teeth.
What helps, of course, is that these albums were so good to begin with. This era is one that most Bowie fans agree brought out some incredible music, and that fact becomes even more astonishing when it’s all heard together. Unless one has everything already, it’s a great place to start.

David Bowie Five Years 1969-1973 (2015)—4

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Rush 23: Feedback and R30

Now that they were back at full strength, Rush happily began celebrations for their 30th anniversary as a band. Their first order of business was to release a covers EP. Yes, you read that correctly—one of the bands who always played their own material, to the note, was doing covers.
Most of the eight songs on Feedback come from that period around the Summer of Love that fostered countless garage bands. “Summertime Blues” follows the Blue Cheer template, but with more touches of The Who, who are also represented by “The Seeker”. Two other bands are saluted twice: the Yardbirds with “Heart Full Of Soul” and “Shapes Of Things”, and Buffalo Springfield with a staid “For What It’s Worth” and “Mr. Soul”, which sports a clever quote from “Eight Miles High”. Geddy Lee adds his own harmony to Love’s “Seven And Seven Is”, which repeats the first verse rather than go straight to the explosion. Finally, “Crossroads” is all Cream.
This little album is a labor of love from the band, and will be best appreciated by its fans. Purists who revere the originals but despise Rush should appreciate that Geddy’s vocals are mostly restrained, Alex Lifeson pretty much sticks to the riffs, and Neil Peart doesn’t hit more drums or cymbals than anyone has to.
Four of the songs on Feedback would become regulars on the setlist for the so-called R30 anniversary tour, the Frankfurt stop of which was subsequently documented in a DVD package. The deluxe version included archival content, plus the music on two CDs, with a slightly abridged program that repeats only eight songs from Rush In Rio.
Coming soon after that album may seem like market saturation, but the sound is superior to that set. The opening “R30 Overture” is a nice arrangement of snippets from their early epics, going right into “The Spirit Of Radio”. “Between The Wheels” is a surprise inclusion, and of course we get a banded nine-minute drum solo out of “Mystic Rhythms”. Another unplugged “Resist” leads to an acoustic “Heart Full Of Soul” with Neil’s most understated drums ever. By the end of the show, Geddy has to compensate for some of the high notes. (The visuals add to the experience, especially since vending machines are now visible near the washers and dryers on Geddy’s side of the stage.)

Rush Feedback (2004)—3
Rush
R30: 30th Anniversary World Tour (2005)—3

Friday, June 10, 2022

Beach Boys 19: Sunshine Tomorrow

As we don’t claim to have any legal authority or expertise, please forgive some simplification. There’s this 50-year copyright rule, wherein forgotten or buried recordings by certain bands must be claimed and/or released under threat of slipping into public domain. Like other bands and artists of their heritage, the Beach Boys catalog department took advantage of streaming trends and began quietly issuing digital albums in order to beat that pesky rule. Starting in 2013, every December or so (sometimes earlier) a title would appear offering a bounty of vault tracks from the Boys. The Big Beat 1963 consisted mostly of Brian Wilson songwriting demos, while the following year’s Keep An Eye On Summer was loaded with session highlights and Live In Sacramento 1964 provided something of an expansion on Beach Boys Concert. Following the Uncovered And Unplugged edition of Party!, and Pet Sounds and Smile having already been mined for deluxe box sets, the next handful of copyright extension releases was actually pressed onto CDs.
Whoever was in charge knew which albums were getting the most revisionist-theory love, so 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow picked up more or less where the Smile box left off, but rejigged the chronology. The first disc is devoted to Wild Honey, which some folks say is superior, beginning with the first-ever true stereo mix of this very short album (save “Mama Says”, which is still in mono), followed by a couple dozen session outtakes and some contemporary live tracks, though “Aren’t You Glad” comes from a 1970 concert. The second disc jumps back several months to reveal 18 minutes of session highlights from said its predecessor, the labored but laconic Smiley Smile. But they truly bury the lede by including the first official release of the notorious unreleased Lei’d In Hawaii album.
This project was originally designed to re-establish the band as a force to be reckoned with in the wake of the Summer of Love. Smiley Smile was about to be released, so they went to Hawaii to record a live album, with Brian in tow for his first live appearances with the band since the end of 1964 (and his last for another few years). The concerts didn’t go so well, and neither did the live-in-the-studio sessions that happened to make up the difference. Wild Honey was then quickly recorded, and released only three months after Smiley Smile.
What would have been Lei’d In Hawaii combined the later studio recordings with a few songs from rehearsals for the live show. It’s a strange mix of old and new material, beginning with a nearly tongue-in-cheek introduction before a faithful cover of the Box Tops’ “The Letter” that just grinds to a halt. Brian’s electric organ unfortunately dominates the songs, which are frankly inert, including a changed perspective on the retitled “Help You, Rhonda” and a cover of the Mindbenders’ “Game Of Love” that suffers from tempo troubles. At least their harmonies on “Surfer Girl” are still impeccable; those voices help Bruce sing “With A Little Help From My Friends”, and we hear a Smile influence on “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring”.
Allegedly, an audience was supposed to be overdubbed for the final mix, and we’re not sure that would have helped. The handful of tracks included from the actual concerts sounds pretty limp, though some girls are screaming anyway; Mike Love is as obnoxious as ever. The set ends, thankfully, with a return to the studio, and a late-1967 tape of Brian trying to play and sing “Surf’s Up” solo at the piano, followed by an a capella mix of “Surfer Girl”.
Sunshine Tomorrow is pointedly for completists, but some thought was clearly put into it. It’s a smart move to start the program with the more focused music of the period, as opposed to the fractured material that made up the previous album and the aborted Hawaii experiment. Plus, we can better discern Brian’s involvement throughout, with his voice and keyboards prominent in the outtakes. (Two more compilations were made available digitally by the year’s end to further cause salivation. 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow 2: The Studio Sessions offered another disc’s worth of work-in-progress material and isolated elements from all three albums, while 1967—Live Sunshine included seven complete concerts from the era, including each of the doomed Hawaii shows.)

The Beach Boys 1967—Sunshine Tomorrow (2017)—

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Prince 19: Girl 6

Even though nobody knew what to call him, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince managed to keep people guessing just by staying in the news. The soundtrack for the Spike Lee joint Girl 6 further confused things by proclaiming “SONGS BY PRINCE” on the cover. It even appeared on Warner Bros., the label that had made him so angry in the first place. We haven’t seen the film, but the album is a curious little sampler of old and new, with album tracks and B-sides going back a decade, plus contributions from other Paisley Park artists driven by the man himself.
The brand new “She Spoke 2 Me” has mild jazz overtones in the horns and especially the guitar solo, and while “Don’t Talk 2 Strangers” is sweet, somehow such a sentiment seems odd coming from him, and after the more charged material on the rest of the album. The title track is danceable, and features samples from the film; interestingly, it’s credited to New Power Generation, but he’s obviously singing. “Count The Days” is a soulful one sporting a certain twelve-letter insult from a so-called “solo” New Power Generation album, and everybody knows “Nasty Girl” by Vanity 6, but more exciting is “The Screams Of Passion”, which was the debut single in 1985 by The Family. “Pink Cashmere” is repeated from the Hits album; so technically are “Erotic City” and “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, making this a more convenient, less expensive way to obtain those songs. “Girls & Boys” comes from Parade, while three tracks from Sign "☮" The Times don’t excuse anyone from owning that album.
Again, while it’s an odd collection, Girl 6 provides something of an alternate Prince mix tape. And although the material comes from a variety of sources, it all holds together just fine.

Music From The Motion Picture Girl 6 (1996)—3

Friday, June 3, 2022

Van Morrison 1: Blowin’ Your Mind

After several singles and two albums with the Belfast band Them, Van Morrison made his way to New York City where producer Bert Berns offered him a standard contract as a solo artist with his Bang label. Eight songs were recorded very quickly, with the perennial “Brown Eyed Girl” as the clear hit. Follow-up singles weren’t as successful, but Berns had already compiled Blowin’ Your Mind as an album from the songs.
Smart producers put the hit at the top of side one, and “Brown Eyed Girl” is followed by the slightly brooding “He Ain’t Give You None”. That runs for five minutes, a little over half the length of what follows. “T.B. Sheets” is a two-chord slog under a narration by a guy who’s uncomfortable watching his girlfriend die of tuberculosis, to the point that his harmonica seems to be in the wrong key.
The wince-inducing arrangement of “Spanish Rose” isn’t helped by his phrasing, though we do hear something of a preview of “Ballerina” here and there. “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” sounds a little different, probably because Berns foisted it on him for the “Brown Eyed Girl” B-side (and subsequent royalties, an old producer’s trick). “Ro Ro Rosey” succeeds despite its simplicity, but simple is not what we’d call “Who Drove The Red Sports Car”. Its tension is smacked aside by a generic “Midnight Special”, with the girls mixed way too high.
Van didn’t want this album out to begin with, since (he says) he considered them singles and potential B-sides. He also hated the cover, which is hideous. Most of the reason why we’re addressing it now is because everything he recorded in this brief period kept popping up like the proverbial bad pennies.
After Bert Berns died, his widow continued to run the label for years, and since she never liked Van anyway, likely didn’t prevent various cash-in compilations from coming out once he’d gone into the mystic as the Belfast cowboy. Misleadingly titled, The Best Of Van Morrison was released in the wake of Moondance, and boldly featured a photo from the back cover of Astral Weeks. Granted, the album did include “Brown Eyed Girl” and four other songs from Blowin’ Your Mind, but the other five songs came from later 1967 sessions. “It’s All Right” drags, while “Send Your Mind” is much more furious. “The Smile You Smile” and “The Back Room” are good examples of his lyrics starting to become more impressionistic. “Joe Harper Saturday Morning” is the best blend of lyrics and melody, but throughout these tracks, the guitarist is way too up front.
Three years later, T.B. Sheets sported a cover painting showing the artist in full creative reverie. Five songs were again repeated from Blowin’ Your Mind, three of which had also been on Best Of, plus “It’s All Right” and the now-title track. The draw to even the dubious were two earlier, previously unreleased takes of Astral Weeks songs. Along with a few extra lyrics, “Beside You” sports a spellbinding guitar part that strains to maintain its pace throughout, but “Madame George” takes the idea of a party too literally, removing all of the mystery and, frankly, the beauty of the eventual masterpiece.
By the ‘90s, Sony had obtained the rights to the Bang label, and in the wake of his late ‘80s resurgence, Bang Masters collected all of the songs from the three albums into one set, though “He Ain’t Give You None” was an alternate take, remixed for modern dynamics. Added bonuses were another take of “Brown Eyed Girl”, the “La Bamba” rip-off B-side “Chick-A-Boom”, and a charming demo of “The Smile You Smile”. (Around this time Blowin’ Your Mind and T.B. Sheets were also reissued on CD, the former with bonus tracks in the form of alternate takes of the songs from side two.)
Adding to the nuttiness of the legacy, several compilations of dubious legality began appearing around this time with a disc’s worth of truly odd songs, known as the “contractual obligation session”. Having been informed in late 1967 that he still owed Bang more material, he recorded 31 songs in 35 minutes, written on the spot using most of the same chord changes and played on an out-of-tune acoustic. He started with various riffs on “Twist And Shout”, then moved to similar exhortations and copies of “Hey Joe”, “Hang On Sloopy”, “La Bamba”, and the like. A figure named Dumb George, never once called Madame, appears several times. He sing-speaks about waiting for “The Big Royalty Check”, undermines the message of “T.B. Sheets” with “Ring Worm”, and ridicules his former mentor via impressions as well as such titles as “Blowin’ Your Nose” and “Nose In Your Blow”. If you’re looking for grains that will sprout into future epics, you’ll be gravely disappointed. He acknowledges this halfway through with the self-explanatory “Freaky If You Got This Far”.
Fifty years after that first standard contract, he signed what must have been a pretty sweet deal with Sony to pick up his catalog, as The Authorized Bang Collection gathered (just about) everything from the Bang sessions in one packed set. (Not only did Van approve of the compilation, he even provided liner notes.) The first disc has the original Bert Berns stereo mixes of Blowin’ Your Mind, followed by the five songs that debuted on the 1970 Best Of, the two Astral Weeks alternates from T.B. Sheets in mono, “Chick-A-Boom” in mono, and the “Smile You Smile” demo. The second disc consists mostly of alternate takes, some with session banter, beginning with single versions of “Brown Eyed Girl” (“laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey hey” in place of “makin’ love in the green grass”) and “Ro Ro Rosey”. Alternates of “Beside You” and “T.B. Sheets” are worthy of comparison, and 15 minutes of successive attempts at “Brown Eyed Girl” provide a rare look at the making of a hit single. Finally, the third disc has all the contractual obligation songs in case you really want to hear “Want A Danish” in best-ever sound.
Van purists should definitely spring for the Authorized set; those merely curious should be fine with Bang Masters. Keep in mind that he would abandon this sound as soon as he could. Otherwise, “Brown Eyed Girl” is easy enough to find on other collections.

Van Morrison Blowin’ Your Mind (1967)—
1995 Sony MasterSound Edition: same as 1967, plus 5 extra tracks
Van Morrison The Best Of Van Morrison (1970)—2
Van Morrison
T.B. Sheets (1973)—
Van Morrison
Bang Masters (1991)—3
Van Morrison
The Authorized Bang Collection (2017)—3

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Kinks 24: Low Budget

The spirit and aggression of the punk scene seemingly invigorated rather than scared Ray Davies. With Low Budget, he concocted a set of mostly guitar-oriented songs loaded with hooks, just like the label wanted. There was no concept per se, but certain themes dominated.
“Attitude” sports a riff right off the lone Sex Pistols album, and Ray comes in shouting a snotty vocal, and while the synth wash at the end dates the track, it doesn’t ruin it. Good as that is, “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” is a truly classic track, with serious piano, crunchy riffing, and high harmonies disguising the pro-America sentiment. Curiously, the track runs nearly six minutes on the album, but the similar guitar and sax solos have us wondering if it weren’t artificially extended. A Chuck Berry cop is given the Ramones treatment on “Pressure”, where the ailment is more generalized, but “National Health” speaks more specifically about mental and physical stress with a less frenetic arrangement, with more modern percussion and synth effects. Speaking of which, “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” is one of the more unfortunate results of the disco era. The hideous thump of the rhythm section is surpassed only by “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, unleashed that same year by Kiss, but at least this works as an (albeit) stupid song, not at all taken seriously by Ray, and abetted handsomely yet under protest by Dave. (The Animals quote is cute too.)
Nobody must’ve told them the title track sounds too close to Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” for comfort, but it’s still a good track for yelling along. “In A Space” isn’t very exciting, and repetitive to boot, but the sympathy throughout “Little Bit Of Emotion” makes up for it, despite the sax solo. “A Gallon Of Gas” might have been designed to appeal to an American audience, or maybe Ray couldn’t find anything to rhyme with “a liter of petrol”. At any rate, the whining about not being able to fill the tank in his limousine is strange coming so soon after the title track. It lopes along like Zappa’s “Road Ladies”, until the more traditional rock of “Misery” smacks it aside. “Moving Pictures” brings back the disco influence, but more along the lines of what the Stones were doing.
Low Budget would re-establish the band as a relevant force both on FM radio as well as in concert. Those radio hits are reflected in the bonus tracks on the expanded CD, which include extended versions of “Catch Me Now I’m Falling”, “Superman”, and “Gallon Of Gas”, the latter with extra verses in the “your body’s like a car” motif. The album also begins the lengthy tenure of Jim Rodford, fresh from Argent, on bass, but oddly, the only Kink depicted anywhere in the package is Ray.

The Kinks Low Budget (1979)—3
1999 Konk CD reissue: same as 1979, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, May 27, 2022

Kiss 9: Double Platinum

The label’s game plan for Kiss was to have fresh product on the shelves as fast as kids could buy them. Sometimes this resulted in the band releasing albums before they’d finished writing the songs, and usually not filled to capacity. Two live albums already meant completists owned many of the same songs twice, and to further dent those wallets, 1976’s The Originals was a specially priced set that crammed the first three albums (in paper replica sleeves) into a wallet-style sleeve with the added bonus of a 16-page booklet, sticker, and trading cards.
By 1978 the band was bigger than ever, and while pressure continued to mount, a marketing campaign was afoot that would keep them in the limelight, if not necessarily together. First up was Double Platinum, a greatest hits compilation packaged in a faux-silver embossed cover. Along with the usual merchandising and Kiss Army order forms inside the sleeve was a replica double platinum award plaque, with room for the owner to inscribe his (or her) name. (While it looked as convincing as the records that came on the backs of cereal boxes, there was no music in the grooves on this piece of cardboard. We know this because we have friends who tried to play them, only to be left with a crude hole torn in the center of the label. They hung it on their bedroom walls anyway.)
The set begins with one new song: “Strutter ‘78”, a re-recording of the first track of the first album, given a slight but not embarrassing disco sheen. From there, rather than present straight dubs of the songs they already had, many of the songs were remixed, sometimes drastically, for more unified sound throughout. “Do You Love Me” has more pronounced vocals, and “Hard Luck Woman” delays the drums, but “Calling Dr. Love” gets a new, more “demonic” intro, and “Let Me Go, Rock ‘N’ Roll” reminds us why it wasn’t that good in the first place. Besides being all written solely by Paul Stanley, the songs on side two are mostly left alone, so listeners can stomp along with “Love Gun”, “God Of Thunder”, “Hotter Than Hell”, and “I Want You” with little distraction, but “Firehouse” is sped up, raising the pitch a whole step, which actually works.
On side three, “Deuce” and “100,000 Years” have mild edits in the vocals, while “Detroit Rock City” loses the context of the original album, so no extended intro and no car crash, and shorter breaks. The most bizarre setup is a segment of the acoustic intro from “Rock Bottom” faded in before “She”; it’s not listed on the label, and the track list in the gatefold lists it at the start of the side. “Rock ‘N Roll All Nite” ends the side, as it should. “Beth” starts side four, conveniently for those who want to cue it up quickly, and the sentiment is wiped away by “Makin’ Love”. “Cold Gin” is pretty much the same, but on either side of it, “C’mon And Love Me” is sped up a half-step, and “Black Diamond” is totally different, with not only a longer intro, but the song started over again from the intro in place of the gradual slowed-down fade from the original album, and now fading before the verse starts again.
On the surface, all these differences don’t really take away from the music. Double Platinum is also consistent in its length, being as long as the two longest Kiss studio albums. As a starter kit, it works. But to date, unfortunately, the album has not been certified higher than platinum (single, not double). But at least they made it a single CD.

Kiss Double Platinum (1978)—

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Stephen Stills 14: The Rides

For all his dabbling in styles over the years, Stephen Stills has always considered himself a blues man. His excursions into the genre have varied from astounding to embarrassing, and his fretwork hasn’t always been welcome in, say, a Crosby, Stills & Nash forum.
So it’s surprising that it only took him half a century to find an outfit that just lets him wail. The Rides pairs him with young phenom Kenny Wayne Shepherd, with Barry Goldberg (who was on the Bloomfield side of the Super Session album) on keyboards and a rhythm section including Chris Layton, once of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band, on drums. On Can’t Get Enough—co-produced by Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads, interestingly enough—Stills and Shepherd alternate vocals on mostly originals, but there are some surprising takes. Shepherd happily sneers his way through the Stooges’ “Search And Destroy”, but he’s not as convincing on Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee”. Stills hasn’t been in the strongest voice for years, but he’s most animated on the loud take on his own “Word Game”. The title track is not the Bad Company song, and we’ve got mixed feelings about that, but “Rockin’ In The Free World” adds nothing to the original. Basically, the album is best when they just play (and when there are no backing vocalists).

Three years later, the same crew delivered Pierced Arrow, which picked up where they left off, only louder. “Virtual World” halves the pace, but it’s a duet in harmony, “By My Side” is a slow burner, also with good harmonies, and “Mr. Policeman” has a terrific swagger. All the tracks were original collaborations this time, with the exception of Willie Dixon “My Babe” and “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination”, which first appeared on Barry Goldberg’s 1973 eponymous album. The backing vocalists were different this time, and mixed lower, and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds blows harp, most prominently on “Game On” and the lyrically inane “I Need Your Lovin’”. Again, the focus is on the musical interplay and of the two—as there haven’t been any further Rides albums—Pierced Arrow gets the edge.

The Rides Can’t Get Enough (2013)—3
The Rides
Pierced Arrow (2016)—3

Friday, May 20, 2022

King Crimson 15: The Great Deceiver

While it covered all the lineups King Crimson sported over the years, the Frame By Frame box set stuck mainly to album tracks, with the one disc of live material limited to three of those incarnations. The era of the band that begun with the Larks’ Tongues In Aspic album was particularly revered by both audiences and Robert Fripp himself, so he took the opportunity to curate another box set, this time devoted to that quartet. The Great Deceiver highlights six shows, some complete, throughout four discs. While the repertoire is similar, we get to hear just how differently Fripp, John Wetton, David Cross, and Bill Bruford approached each performance. Fripp makes no apology for including four versions of “Easy Money”, though it is something to experience two different audiences hearing “Starless” for the first time—and with violin.
The first disc presents the penultimate gig by the band, completed at the start of disc two. (Even the “Walk On” and “Walk Off” music from (No Pussyfooting) is included for posterity.) This show was the source of “Providence” on Red, presented unedited here, and “21st Century Schizoid Man” on USA, where it was overdubbed. In those days Fripp would actually engage the crowd with announcements, and here his introduction of a well-received improvisation called “A Voyage To The Centre Of The Cosmos” is peppered with his own chuckles.
The bulk of the second disc comes from nine months earlier in Glasgow, and includes the full improv that would be edited and titled “We’ll Let You Know” on Starless And Bible Black. Here the opening jam before “Larks’ Tongues Part One” is called “Sharks’ Lungs In Lemsip”; another improv gets the title “Tight Scrummy” and is built around an almost comically prominent rhythm machine. A surprising encore arrives with Fripp strumming “Peace: A Theme” before the band goes into “Cat Food”. Ten minutes of material from a later show at Penn State fill up the disc, and stay tuned for a hidden track wherein Fripp signals engineer George Chkiantz to change tapes.
Disc three is devoted to a show from Pittsburgh with a rowdy audience. Here the “Walk On” music is smacked away by a furious “Great Deceiver”, but having to tune the Mellotrons quiets the proceedings down quickly into one improv. “Exiles” builds the tension, but Fripp follows that with a pretty piece for guitar and violin dubbed “Daniel Dust”. Things pick up for “Doctor Diamond”, a mushmouthed original that never really gelled. An improv called “Wilton Carpet” moves into “The Talking Drum” and then an “abbreviated” “Larks’ Tongues Part Two”. (Another fourteen minutes from Penn State end the disc, consisting of another announcement from Fripp asking “Is there life out there?”, whence the following improv gets its title; another hidden track demonstrates further onstage tuning of two Mellotrons.)
Disc four opens in Toronto with a furious (there’s that word again) piece called “The Golden Walnut” that eventually dwindles to silence. After “The Night Watch” and “Fracture” comes another improv, cheekily dubbed “Clueless And Slightly Slack”, and a phrase used throughout the booklet. From there we go a Zurich show for plenty of improvisation, one of which is called “The Law Of Maximum Distress” and split into two parts due to a missing tape. As it turns out, that missing piece had been chopped out of the master back in 1973 to be overdubbed as “The Mincer” on Starless And Bible Black. Further dying Mellotron fuels the prelude to “The Talking Drum”, which ends abruptly, along with the entire set.
Once again design was treated with the same respect as the music, from individually unique disc titles and artwork to the comprehensive booklet that incorporated vintage Fripp diary entries from the period, which chronicle the eventual demise of the quartet whilst on the road. He also took the opportunity to expound on further corruption in the music industry, as was his wont, since his previous notes. There is some commentary from the other principals, but most space is given over to a continuation of the press clippings excerpted in the previous box—namely reviews, both positive and negative, of Frame By Frame. (In this century the set was reissued as separate two-disc sets with simpler packaging than the original box.)

Five years later, another important archival piece arrived in the form of The Nightwatch. This two-disc set presents the bulk of the Amsterdam concert that provided the bulk of Starless And Bible Black. Expanding on the background provided in the Great Deceiver booklet, the copious liner notes explain the conditions under which this particular show came to be, and how miserable the band members were at this point of the tour. The result is a portrait of a band pulling excellence out of despair.
Much of the material from this era would one day be parceled out as direct downloads, and in the Starless and Road To Red mega-box sets. These discs provide gradual steps into that well.

King Crimson The Great Deceiver: Live 1973-1974 (1992)—3
King Crimson
The Nightwatch (1997)—

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Phil Collins 10: Testify

Maybe the Tarzan money was enough to convince a label to keep financing Phil Collins albums. That’s the only reason we can think of to justify the existence of Testify, given the times. Once again he built the album up from his own demos, using session guys to fill in the guitars and bass.
“Wake Up Call” is catchy, but “Come With Me” has a hook based on Brahms’ Lullaby—not the mood you want for the second track. The title track is a late-‘80s throwback with an altogether unconvincing lyric, not helped by the gospel chorus. The retro sound returns on “Don’t Get Me Started”, another in a line of ill-advised social commentary statements. “Swing Low” is also fairly generic, though it does refer to a warning of “something coming in the air tonight”, but somehow the ordinariness of “It’s Not Too Late” actually works.
A familiar drum machine drives most of “This Love This Heart”, which also uses its dynamics to rise out of the mire, but “Driving Me Crazy” is an apt title for a track loaded on caffeinated synths. Longtime collaborator Daryl Steurmer finally turns up on “The Least You Can Do”, but so do some Uilleann pipes for some reason. “Can’t Stop Loving You” is a modern remake of an old Leo Sayer hit, and is easily mistaken for a Collins original. “Thru My Eyes” is fairly harmless, with its canned horns and such, and “You Touch My Heart” could almost be another lullaby, but it’s got nice harmonies right out of “True Colors”.
Truth be told, any of the songs on Testify could be a hit for someone else, certainly someone just concerned with having hits. Apparently many of the songs were inspired by his new bride and their child, which is fine, but a whole album full of tunes like these is just too much. (This was the most recent album of original songs, as opposed to covers, to be expanded in his 2016 reissue campaign, and the Additional Testimony bonus disc (heh) offered a grab bag of B-sides, live versions, and demos.)

Phil Collins Testify (2002)—2
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 2002, plus 10 extra tracks

Friday, May 13, 2022

Neil Young 63: Citizen Kane Jr. Blues

Eighteen months after they were originally announced, the second, third, and fourth installments in Neil’s Official Bootleg Series finally appeared. Two of these chronicled shows only two days apart, and mined material already on four other archival releases. But most fans were far more excited about a show that should have been part of Archives Vol. II—it even fits chronologically between two of that set’s discs.
Citizen Kane Jr. Blues was mastered from the original cassette recording of an impromptu set played in the wee hours at New York City’s Bottom Line following a Ry Cooder gig; Leon Redbone was the opener. Neil had just finished recording On The Beach, but would only play four of that album’s songs, and played even further material that had yet to be released, or even recorded in the forms we would get to know them. (The show was edited to fit on two vinyl sides, but Neil does provide a “complete” stream of the album on his site, which runs about ten minutes longer, mostly due to a lengthy monologue before “Motion Pictures” that explains why he hasn’t played “Southern Man” in a while, and discusses “honey slides”, a potent marijuana concoction that allegedly fueled his recent writing and recording.)
After a brief introduction, he introduces a song with a title that gives this boot its title, but would come to be known as “Pushed It Over The End” and a highlight of the upcoming summer’s CSNY tour. Even without the dynamics of the full band, the stop-start arrangement is hypnotic. He introduces “Long May You Run” as a song he wrote about his car, and the audience chuckles throughout. “Greensleeves” is delivered straight, to silence, then he apologetically sets up “Ambulance Blues” for being a “bummer”, but again, they hang on to every line. At the time, only “Helpless” had made it to an album, and the crowd is happy to hear it.
“Revolution Blues” is just as spooky acoustic, and he downplays the down mood of “On The Beach” by opening with a few guitar licks in the style of Stephen Stills. An inebriated-sounding request for “something country-western” prompts “Roll Another Number (For The Road)”, which is appreciated with clapalongs and yee-haws. Even without the full intro “Motion Pictures” is mesmerizing. He offers the crowd a choice between two songs for his last number, but they want to hear both, so they get a lovely “Pardon My Heart” and then “Dance Dance Dance”, a month away from mutating into “Love Is A Rose”.
Basically, if you love this period of Neil, Citizen Kane Jr. Blues is essential. While he’s been all about sound quality, and replicating other bootlegs with pristine tapes from his own Archives, this show is intimate, raw, and seemingly much more spontaneous. Even the stray coughs from the crowd enhance the natural ambience. And it’s from a period that hasn’t been as documented as, say, early 1971. There will never likely be a better-sounding version of this show, and that’s fine.

Neil Young Citizen Kane Jr. Blues (2022)—4

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Neil Finn 3: 7 Worlds Collide

To promote the all-but-U.S. release of his second solo album, Neil Finn played a weeklong residency at a theater in Auckland, New Zealand with a band that included two members of Radiohead and other special guests, sometimes trading each other’s songs. The highlights were compiled on 7 Worlds Collide. (The DVD version added even more selections, and provides key visual clues to what’s going on.)
A few of the One Nil tracks make the program, while “Loose Tongue” from his first solo album is nicely translated to the stage. Johnny Marr emerges from years of session work to sing his own “Down On The Corner”, and Neil returns the favor by ably tackling The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. Multi-instrumentalist Lisa Germano takes a rare spotlight on the transfixing “Paper Doll” before harmonizing nicely on “Turn And Run”. It wouldn’t be a show without Tim Finn, and the two perform not only a few from their one collaboration album to date, but preview “Edible Flowers” from the next one. Eddie Vedder reveals himself to be a huge Split Enz fan, taking lead vocals on “Take A Walk”, “Stuff And Nonsense”, and “I See Red”, the latter yelled over a band fronted by Neil’s son Liam (more on him later). The band also backs him on “Parting Ways” from the most recent Pearl Jam album. For Crowded House fans, “Weather With You” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over” close the set.
7 Worlds Collide isn’t the first time Neil would collaborate with surprisingly likeminded musicians, but it is an unexpected surprise. One suspects it may have helped pave the way for the emergence of One All in the U.S. the following year.

Neil Finn & Friends 7 Worlds Collide (2001)—

Friday, May 6, 2022

Yes 4: Fragile

Growing up with classic rock radio meant we’ve been prejudiced against not just certain songs, but certain bands. That’s why we think this little forum of ours has been so important; not only can we put certain things we love in context, but we’ve also come around on songs we, frankly, hated with a passion.
Fragile begins with one such culprit, the immortal-despite-our-better efforts “Roundabout”. Once upon a time we would hear those twelfth-fret harmonics and lunge to change the station as soon as possible. It’s still not our favorite song by any stretch, but time, patience, and the determination to review albums no matter what has allowed us to see why so many Yes fans and fanatics love it so damn much.
The album has something of an apt title, since the band had just bounced Tony Kaye because he didn’t want to venture further than piano and organ. To both replace him and better attain their vision, they convinced Rick Wakeman to give up sessions and bring his arsenal of keyboards into the fold. Under pressure and short on funds, they concocted an album consisting of four mostly long songs, interspersed with “individual ideas” from each band member. Pink Floyd had already tried this, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer would one day get several albums out of the method; the trick is to have such statements fit into a larger collaborative concept (think the White Album or Déjà Vu.
“Roundabout” does indeed start the album, and those beginner harmonics only slightly disguise Chris Squire’s monster bass. Wakeman’s keys come in on the second verse and we start to appreciate just how intricate the tune is. Its structure repeats sections with mild variations, so that it’s never quite over when you think it is. And after all this time, while we’re not sure how mountains would come out of the sky, what else could they possibly do but stand there?
Wakeman gets the first solo spot, a piece called “Cans And Brahms” that reassigns instruments in a symphony to different keyboards and overdubbed. These days it sounds more canned than Brahms, mostly since Switched-On Bach had already blazed the trail. Then Jon Anderson does a vocal round called “We Have Heaven”, which gets pretty busy until a door slams on it and footsteps run away into the wind. (Again, this was two years after Pink Floyd did it.) This brings us to “South Side Of The Sky”. This never got as much radio play as the rest of the album, yet that shouldn’t suggest it’s no good. The first verses have good rocking tension, and Wakeman’s completely solo piano interlude (which likely kept it off the radio) cleverly sets up an extended vocal chorale with good band support before the verses come back again.
Bill Bruford has been fairly constrained thus far, but side two starts with “Five Per Cent For Nothing”, a 35-second burst that really is in 4/4, but syncopated with competing atonal lines from Squire and Steve Howe and a few stabs from Wakeman. It’s a mere prelude to that other song you might be sick of, “Long Distance Runaround”. Here again we can marvel how well the players double each other, and Wakeman appears to be playing a primitive electric piano rather than something more advanced. (The internet tells us that Bruford is playing in 5/8 over the band’s 4/4 in the verses, which explains the off-kilter effect.) It’s deceptively short, ending on a flourish that segues into “The Fish”, which almost always got airplay as a result. This is Chris Squire’s statement, which we’re told is all layered bass parts, but there are drums, some wah-wah, and a chant of the song’s subtitle (“schindleria praematurus”, for all you marine biologists out there). Steve Howe’s solo spot is the longest, the Spanish-classical original “Mood For A Day”. It gets busy but is mostly pastoral, which belies the furious intro of “Heart Of The Sunrise”, wherein everybody gets to blow (in the jazz sense, that is). The track seems to slow down, but then the riffing returns with a vengeance. The vocal doesn’t come in for almost four minutes, for almost another song completely. The interplay increases with precision, until finally the main riff swallows the tune whole. But wait! After a few seconds of silence, a door opens to return us to “We Have Heaven”, already in progress.
Fragile really is better in context as an album than parsed out in a rotation, and despite its fragmented genesis, just plain works. Also, this was the debut of Roger Dean as their go-to album art guy, and his other-worldly ideas fit the music perfectly. More of his designs appear in a booklet that came with initial pressings, featuring the now-customary shots of each band member on stage and with their families. Anderson offers four lines of a poem, while Wakeman offers a dense paragraph of thanks to various individuals, organizations, and a pub. (The initial expanded CD added two timely tracks: the full-length cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”, which will be discussed in a different context, and a rough mix of “Roundabout”. Only the latter was included when the album was reissued in a “definitive edition” with new mixes by Steven Wilson, along with other rough mixes and outtakes.)

Yes Fragile (1971)—4
2003 remastered CD: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks
2015 Definitive Edition: “same” as 1971, plus 6 extra tracks (plus DVD or Blu-ray)

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Pretenders 16: Valve Bone Woe

If anyone’s read this far, they know the high esteem in which we hold Chrissie Hynde as a singer. In addition to her own songs, she’s proven a deft interpreter of others’ music since the first Pretenders album. Her first all-covers album has the design of a classic jazz vocal album, but while some of the selections on Valve Bone Woe fall into that category, she’s also brave enough to add songs outside the Great American Songbook.
Nancy Wilson’s “How Glad I Am” is taken fairly straight, until the slightly discordant fade, which sets up the trip-hoppy effects that derail the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No”, otherwise taken in a torch style. “I’m A Fool To Want You” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well” are more reverent treatments, and she seems to only wail along with the trumpet on “Meditation On A Pair Of Wire Cutters” by Charles Mingus. One might expect her to tackle an Astrud Gilberto vocal, but instead she goes for the earlier Jobim composition “Once I Loved”. Meanwhile, her “Wild Is The Wind” follows closer to David Bowie’s version than that of Nina Simone or Johnny Mathis. (She does the bridge just once, preferring an extended ending that will make you nostalgic for Portishead.)
Trip-hop effects also color “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, and while we’re intrigued anytime someone covers Nick Drake, Bred Mehldau set the bar for “River Man”. Still, the ending nicely segues to “Absent Minded Me”, which she heard from either Julie London or Barbra Streisand, although this is also taken over by factory sounds by the close. We can’t hear her anywhere on Coltrane’s “Naima”, which also gets the effects treatment, but luckily “Hello, Young Lovers” isn’t too ornate. She tackles an obscure Kinks song for the first time in decades, but the already bossa nova “No Return” could have stayed out of the rainforest, especially when the traffic jam runs through it. “Que Reste-t-il De Nos Amours?” shows she can still slay us in French, but we did not need a minute of sampled dialogue from a French film. Maybe we’d feel different had we learned the language.
As should be clear, Valve Bone Woe is best when it’s not so busy. Even her voice can’t compete with all the treatments; co-producer Marius de Vries is likely to blame for those. That said, she still knows how to pick ‘em.

Chrissie Hynde With The Valve Bone Woe Ensemble Valve Bone Woe (2019)—3

Friday, April 29, 2022

Frank Zappa 46: Broadway The Hard Way

In 1988, Frank Zappa assembled a band that was arguably his most accomplished for what was supposed to be a lengthy worldwide tour. The 12-person band, including a full horn section, made it through an East Coast leg and a few months in Europe with a repertoire in the dozens before a petty mutiny imploded the project, and that was that.
Naturally, Frank had recorded all the gigs, and used his suddenly free time to compile a few albums from the gigs that had actually been played. Broadway The Hard Way was the first of these, and concentrated heavily on the new songs that had debuted. Considering the timeframe, the lyrical content and subsequent asides focused on two pet peeves: the activities of the Reagan administration and the hypocritical hijinks of such televangelists as Jimmy Swaggart.
The album originally appeared two ways—a two-sided program on LP and cassette, and an extended, rejigged sequence on CD. Both started with the same three songs, all new. “Elvis Has Just Left The Building” is sung by new guitarist Mike Keneally this side of a Johnny Cash impression, punctuated by accents from Ike Willis and a pretty good imitation of Sam Kinison screaming. “Planet Of The Baritone Women” is misogyny directed at Wall Street in an old European style, whereas “Any Kind Of Pain” almost approaches adult contemporary in its sax solos and chorus; Frank takes a solo here.
On the LP and cassette, the balance of side one was filled by “Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk”, which was the last song before intermission. This is a highly intricate song in structure and harmony, mostly dealing with televangelists Jim Bakker (who went to prison for embezzlement) and Pat Robertson (who was running for president that year) but touching on the NRA and the KKK along the way. A fan named Eric Buxton, who’d been following the tour, is brought up to read a Twilight Zone-style monologue before the music becomes more adult contemporary again.
Side two of the LP and cassette begin with Frank explaining the concept of a form of prison food called “confinement loaf”, which is referred to throughout “Dickie’s Such An Asshole”, which follows, and elsewhere on the album. However, the CD omits this detail, so it goes straight from “Any Kind Of Pain” to “Dickie’s Such An Asshole”, matching the LP and cassette sequence again.
So anyway, “Dickie’s Such An Asshole” dated from the Roxy era when the Watergate hearings were threatening to take down Nixon; clearly Frank saw parallels between that scandal and the Iran-Contra affair from the year before. “When The Lie’s So Big” continues to lambaste Republicans, with clever inserts and quotes from the horn section, then “Rhymin’ Man” turns its ridicule to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was also running for president that year. This time the Johnny Cash voice is more overt. “Promiscuous” is rapped by Ike Willis about then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (whom Frank felt resembled Cap’n Crunch via his uniform and facial hair) and the theme from the TV show The Untouchables allows Ike to do a Robert Stack impression while skewering figures in Iran-Contra.
The LP and cassette end there, but the CD has another half an hour of music. “Why Don’t You Like Me?” rearranges “Tell Me You Love Me” with new words about Michael Jackson, sung by Robert Martin in a bad impersonation. “Bacon Fat” is an old R&B tune with new lyrics about confinement loaf, while the jazz instrumental “Stolen Moments” becomes a prelude for special guest Sting to come onstage and sing “Murder By Numbers” (which, he explains, was denounced by Jimmy Swaggart). “Jezebel Boy” asks why vice squads don’t round up male prostitutes with the zeal they apply to females. After some entertaining sound effects, it’s a thematic switch to “Outside Now”, and Frank gets to solo again, as he does also on “Hot-Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel”. That leads thematically to a rewrite of “What Kind Of Girl?” focusing on Swaggart’s reported adventures with prostitutes. There’s a quote from “Strawberry Fields Forever” halfway through, which is this album’s only nod to an extended “Beatles Medley” played throughout the tour, with further parody lyrics devoted to the torrid subject. The CD ends with “Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk”, complete with the intermission announcement and exhortation to vote.
Considering that most of the songs are cobbled together from multiple performances—sometimes as few as two but usually five or as many as ten, and back and forth within a track—it’s a testament to Frank’s editing skill that Broadway The Hard Way flows like a single show. Further performances would appear in the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, as well as on two double-CD sets we’ll get to, but then there was a twenty-year wait before Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show presented the band’s final performance in Frank’s homeland, complete with the Beatle rewrites. Even there, the references are as dated as his pink shirt and jacket.

Frank Zappa Broadway The Hard Way (1988)—3
1989 Rykodisc CD: same as 1988, plus 8 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Elton John 19: 21 At 33

He was still selling out concert halls and arenas, but Elton John was obsessed with his chart placings. (He still is to this day.) 21 At 33 was something of an attempt at a comeback, even going so far to include Bernie Taupin and some old bandmates in the mix. But it’s still a mix, and not quite a blend.
“Chasing The Crown” is an excellent opener, with all the rock elements we’ve been missing, and lyrics by Bernie. The female choir fits, but it turns out that blazing guitar is courtesy of Steve Lukather, proving why he banked so much doing sessions. “Little Jeannie” was the hit single, with some “Daniel” echoes in the instrumentation; these days the drum machine in the second verse is a clever touch alongside the real thing. Gary Osborne wrote the lyrics for that one, and the next track is Elton’s first collaboration with Tom Robinson, who’d achieved notoriety a few years before with “Glad To Be Gay”. “Sartorial Eloquence” is a posh way of saying “gee but you clean up nice”, which wasn’t more successful as a hit single under the title “Don’t Ya Wanna Play This Game No More?” Bernie returns on “Two Rooms At The End Of The World”, which would describe and celebrate their tried-and-true writing method. Unfortunately, the track is just too punchy, and while he’d use this blueprint more successfully in the future, the horn and other singers engulf Elton’s parts.
Bernie’s also responsible for “White Lady White Powder”, which was hardly a subtle metaphor even then. The simple piano is soon joined by Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson and turns into something of a retread of “Phildelphia Freedom” without the strings. To underscore their intimacy with the song’s message, three of the Eagles add harmonies. Having seemingly packed his nostrils to the limit, “Dear God” is a limp prayer via Gary Osborne; the music deserves better. (This time the choir includes Bruce Johnston, Toni Tennille and two other veterans from The Wall, plus Peter Noone, of all people.) Tom Robinson also contributed “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again”, here given an arrangement too close to that of “Little Jeannie”, and a sax solo from the guy who used to play with Billy Joel. The genre shifts again on “Take Me Back”, which would do better if it was more overt country, especially given Byron Berline’s double fiddle solo. Finally, “Give Me The Love” is a disco-tinged collaboration with Judie Tzuke, whom we’ve never heard of either, but she was signed to his record label, so there.
While starting mostly strong, 21 At 33 fails as an album, though it’s certainly better than the missteps of 1979. Given his work ethic, he wasn’t about to take any time off. The album title was more of a score than a milestone anyway: he turned 33 years old while making the album, which would be his 21st. (This may seem confusing taking our series into account, but his arithmetic included everything we’ve reviewed thus far, plus Lady Samantha, a UK-only collection of B-sides and rarities issued initially only on 8-track and cassette that we’ll get to in another context.)

Elton John 21 At 33 (1980)—

Friday, April 22, 2022

Grateful Dead 16: Shakedown Street

Their record company wanted more product, so the Dead decamped to their rehearsal space to deliver what would become Shakedown Street. Still required to use a name producer, they went the somewhat safe route with Little Feat’s Lowell George, who’d be dead within the year.
There is something of a gumbo feel to their laid-back cover of the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’”; this was one of Pigpen’s showcases back in the day, but it’s handled here by Bob Weir. It’s also splattered with timbale-style percussion, which continues on “France”, wherein Donna Godchaux duets with Weir on music he wrote with Mickey Hart to a Robert Hunter lyric. It’s got way too much steel drums, but some nice acoustic soloing, which only whets listeners’ appetites for Jerry Garcia to do something. Unfortunately he does so with the heavily discofied title track, the chorus and hooks of which still bear an uncomfortable similarity to “Stayin’ Alive”. This wouldn’t keep the tune from becoming a live staple, however. “Serengetti”, a track consisting solely of Mickey and Bill Kreutzmann’s percussion, is a more successful experiment, and a nice distraction. However, “Fire On The Mountain” uses the same two-chord template—maybe because Mickey wrote the music?—as “Franklin’s Tower”, but a hair slower. It, too, would become a favorite onstage.
Side two starts strong with “I Need A Miracle”—a rather ordinary sentiment, but the track has power. “From The Heart Of Me” is Donna’s final spotlight with the band, and while it’s a little chirpy, it’s a nice song, perhaps too quirky to be an adult contemporary hit. Historians shouldn’t be misled by “Stagger Lee”—rather than work up a new arrangement of this chestnut, Robert Hunter wrote all new words to tell the story, including the previously unknown fact that “she shot him in the balls.” Ideas remained thin, however, as “All New Minglewood Blues” is a slowed-down retread of a song from their first album. But “If I Had The World To Give” is a very tender Garcia-Hunter tune, and a nice benediction.
Despite its shortcomings, Shakedown Street isn’t a “bad” album, but it’s not great. The most popular songs continue to sell it to those who embrace them. (Bonus tracks on the eventual expanded CD include a version of “Good Lovin’” with Lowell George singing lead, alongside three songs from the band’s legendary appearance in Egypt in front of the Sphinx, including a 13-minute slog through “Fire On The Mountain”.)

Grateful Dead Shakedown Street (1978)—3
2006 expanded CD: same as 1978, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Jeff Beck 16: Jeff

Determined as ever to follow his own muse, the turn-of-the-century flurry of activity from Jeff Beck culminated with the simply titled Jeff, which followed on from its predecessors in a full-blown embrace of electronica. To his credit, these experiments work, except when they don’t.
It helps that his collaborators include such pioneers as Andy Garcia and David Torn, who dominate “So What” and “Plan B” respectively, but then vocals start to get in the way. “Pork-U-Pine” doesn’t need any input from Saffron of Republica, while “Seasons” should have been left as an orchestral mood piece. By this time we lose patience for “Trouble Man”, built on a pounding drum loop; “Grease Monkey” and “Hot Rod Honeymoon”, both produced by Apollo 440, lean on automotive effects, though the latter has some cute Beach Boys references.
“Line Dancing With Monkeys” is a terrific song title, though the finished product doesn’t suggest any of that. Tony Hymas turns up on “J.B.’s Blues”, which is more moody than bluesy, whereas as “Pay Me No Mind (Jeff Beck Remix)” is almost entirely the work of Me One, from the outfit who once exhorted us to pump up the jam. “My Thing” brings back the woman who yelled all over the Apollo 440 tracks for a rather generic track. Just to completely throw us off, the set closes with a supposedly traditional melody called “Bulgaria” that segues into “Why Lord Oh Why”, another Tony Hymas composition, with the whole suite orchestrated by a guy who once did the same for Black Sabbath.
More than the others, Jeff is recommended if you like techno, but it’s not strictly a guitar showcase. Approach with caution.

Jeff Beck Jeff (2003)—3

Friday, April 15, 2022

Queen 4: A Night At The Opera

This is approximately where the legend of Queen really begins. Calling the album A Night At The Opera hints at the bombast contained within. Throughout, they deliver.
Furious classical piano arpeggios compete with sinister guitar effects before a tempo change and a sudden choral hit announces “Death On Two Legs”. Subtitled “Dedicated To…”, it’s a nasty riposte to a former manager that’s directly deflated by the Rudy Vallee crooning of “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon”, playing right into Freddie’s camp. While brief, it leaves room for Brian May’s guitar solo, which sports his signature sound. Roger Taylor again provides unintentional comic relief, this time with the unfortunately sincere “I’m In Love With My Car”. Despite having been used humorously in the closing credits of countless TV shows and films, “You’re My Best Friend” remains a sweet tribute, and above all, catchy as all get-out. (Plus, John Deacon gets his share of the lucrative royalties.) The misleading folkie strum of “‘39” belies the lyrics, which are right out of science fiction; much more typical of the band is the cock rock of “Sweet Lady”. Lest anything the earlier vaudeville tease was just that, “Seaside Rendezvous” is even more produced and even sillier.
They haven’t completely left their prog influences behind, as demonstrated by the content and construction of “The Prophet’s Song”. While impressive, the indulgence of the intricate and echoed a cappella midsection is tempered by their resisting to name it, as Rush and other contemporaries would have done. The harp-like guitar effects at the close of the song nicely meld with the opening of “Love Of My Life”, a gorgeous ballad that also shows off Freddie’s piano prowess. Vaudeville returns yet again, this time courtesy of Brian, for “Good Company”. Though not brief, it’s a stark contrast to what comes next. Even before Wayne’s World wore out its fifteen minutes, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was always worth the listen, and it remains one of the most impressively intricate songs of its time. (Its use of the stereo spectrum is particularly expert.) What could possibly follow that? A Queen-style arrangement of “God Save The Queen”, of course.
Anyone who buys A Night At The Opera on the basis of “Bohemian Rhapsody” or even “You’re My Best Friend” will not be disappointed, particularly since there’s more to the album than those. It’s an excellent gateway to the band. (Two remixes were added to 1991’s expanded reissue; these were ignored for the version twenty years later, which instead offered the contemporary re-recording of “Keep Yourself Alive”, later live versions of “Love Of My Life” (from Live Killers) and “’39”, and new isolated mixes of “You’re My Best Friend”, “I’m In Love With My Car”, and the “operatic” middle section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to highlight the vocals.)

Queen A Night At The Opera (1975)—
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1975, plus 2 extra tracks
2011 remaster: same as 1975, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Mark Knopfler 11: Tracker

The listener’s contract with a favorite artist is that we must follow their trail, even if the artist doesn’t excite us as much anymore. We know what to expect from a Mark Knopfler album, but we keep listening in case something wows us. It’s happened with other people, but Tracker fills his end of the bargain by being competent.
“Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes” threatens jazz before being overtaken by Irish folk, and as has become usual, the lyrics—this time a reverie about a time long past—don’t meld with the backing. A much more effective reminiscence is “Basil”, which details his early job at a newspaper in the company of a poet who clearly wished he was elsewhere. “River Towns” is slow and ordinary, except that the saxophone reminds us of Clarence Clemons at his most restrained; think “Secret Garden”. A highlight is “Skydiver”, which clops along for a while, but manages to soar when the extra harmony from Ruth Moody kicks in, and especially when the chords change slightly towards the end. “Mighty Man” fades in like a foggy Irish ballad, and sports Chieftains-style chanting on the chorus, but the incessantly handclap rhythm of “Broken Bones” will make you feel as if your own palms hurt. Besides, the pseudo-funk arrangement wasn’t much better on “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)”.
Ms. Moody features again on “Long Cool Girl”, one of his stronger love songs, but “Lights Of Taormina” sounds like we’ve heard it before. That said, we do smile when he rhymes the title with “if anyone has seen her.” “Silver Eagle” is a lulling reverie from a musician on the road that manages to build despite its simplicity. “Beryl” pays tribute to another obscure writer, but the cheesy organ seems an extremely odd touch, and while the rockin’ beat is a nice change, it merely takes up space. It’s a particularly strange palate-cleanser before “Wherever I Go”, a gorgeous duet with Ms. Moody with unnecessary sax solos.
As had become common, an hour-long album wasn’t enough to contain all his creativity, so various bonus tracks appeared in a variety of territories and permutations. These include the bluegrass-tinged “.38 Special”, the truck driver’s monologue in “My Heart Has Never Changed”, the traditional-sounding “Heart Of Oak” and “Time Will End All Sorrow” (both superior to many songs on the album), and “Oklahoma Ponies”, which begins with a welcome blast of feedback. The best is “Terminal Of Tribute To”, one of the more intricate songs he’s done in years, and a caustic portrait of a never-was—worse than a has-been—stuck on the cover band treadmill. Could this be a snipe at former Dire Straits bandmates on the tribute band circuit, as one of our intrepid correspondents has pointed out? Either way, this definitely should have made the main album.
What can we say about this album that we haven’t said already? Tracker is not offensive, and it would be a lot better if he cut some of the tracks. Quantity is not always quality, but at last he’s got a level that’s maintained. If anything, we’re going to keep our ears out for Ruth Moody, so thanks for that.

Mark Knopfler Tracker (2015)—3

Friday, April 8, 2022

Elvis Costello 36: The Boy Named If

Considering how many genres he’s spanned in his career—particularly in the 21st century—PR folks have an easy time of it whenever Elvis Costello releases “his most rocking album since” whatever the last one was that fit that description. In the case of The Boy Named If, this is not hype. The album crashes out of the speakers from the first moment, and more or less stays at that volume. Due to the nature of the post-Covid world, and the worldwide residences of individual Imposters, the album was pieced together via the mixing stage from at least five different recording locations. Yet incredibly, it sounds live and dynamic, a testament to the intuition and interplay of the performers, as well as the engineers.
With a nearly dissonant riff that keeps the song off balance, “Farewell, OK” is all spit and spite, a kiss-off like he’s often done. The title track limps into place like that of When I Was Cruel, but this is a better song as well as performance, with lots of input from Steve Nieve’s keyboards. While we’re talking throwbacks, “Penelope Halfpenny” recalls “Georgie And Her Rival”; his voice even sounds 30 years younger. “The Difference” threatens to be one of the character studies on Momofuku but emerges as a lost Brutal Youth track, right down to the violent revenge in the lyrics. “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” expertly condenses the rustic Americana and propulsion of The Delivery Man, with some wonderfully chaotic fretwork. After all that onslaught, “Paint The Rose Red Blue” provides some welcome, not exactly useless beauty, but again, the violence in the lyrics isn’t focused, despite the strong melody. “Mistook Me For A Friend” kicks the pretty mood away with more verbose anger and throwback sound.
“My Most Beautiful Mistake” isn’t the first time he’s used a film set as a setting and metaphor; this one is notable for the harmonies and more prominent input from one Nicole Atkins. One of our correspondents pointed out the bass riff of “Magnificent Hurt” being identical to that of Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop”; as with “Farewell, OK” Elvis’s dissonant riffing against the key keeps the song fresh. “The Man You Love To Hate” is a noisy burlesque number, then Pete Thomas beats a busy tattoo on the busy samba of “The Death Of Magic Thinking”. “Trick Out The Truth” spews out a litany of rhymes and arcane references to describe a nightmare that’s more odd than scary, while crickets contribute to the tempo. “Mr. Crescent” also threatens to be another obscure portrait, but the song, a quietly strummed benediction, is much better than most of his similar titles.
The Boy Named If is basically the rock album Elvis Costello didn’t make for the better part of fifteen years, devoid of extraneous collaborators and dramatic works in progress. With Sebastian Krys he’s found a collaborator in the booth who can navigate his styles and whims. The Imposters continue to be valuable interpreters, and his voice is as sharp and melodic as ever, as if he’s been stuck in a time warp. It’s a welcome return. (Elvis also continues to save money on design by painting his own album covers. For those who had to have more, a limited edition package contained even more canvas daubs along with short stories to accompany each song that are as impenetrable as the lyrics.)

Elvis Costello & The Imposters The Boy Named If (2022)—

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Nilsson 3: Aerial Ballet

Harry Nilsson’s third album followed on closely from the last one; it’s very polite, with plenty of overly cute touches and vocal gymnastics. Aerial Ballet is an apt title, as it consists of high-wire feats designed to stun and amaze. There’s even a tapdancing routine that frames the album.
Removed from the album so as not to compete with the Monkees’ version but since restored, “Daddy’s Song” follows the same template as “1941” from the last album (“I loved my daddy but he left and now I’m sad”). It’s said that the initials of “Good Old Desk” make it an ode to a certain deity, which goes way over our heads, but while we’d like to hear the piano chords removed from the rest of the arrangement, when the strings come in, they’re lovely. “Don’t Leave Me” has some lovely dynamics between the verse and the chorus, but the scat sections, again, grate. While he hadn’t hit such a level of fame yet, “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song” is an astute diatribe about the fickleness of it all that dissolves into yet another scat detour. “Little Cowboy” is supposed to be a lullaby, but the clippety-clop effect sounds like parody, and when you factor in the horns, good luck getting the kid to sleep. “Together” finally blends words and music well for a good track, and no scatting!
Up till now the album has focused on his own songwriting, but side two starts with the classic “Everybody’s Talkin’”, two years before its use in Midnight Cowboy and originally written by folkie Fred Neil. It’s followed by the next best song on the album, “I Said Goodbye To Me”, at least until the lyrics are echoed, literally, by a spoken track, but then we’re subjected to a reprise of “Little Cowboy” dominated by virtuosic whistling. “Mr. Tinker” (who was a tailor, ho ho) is another character study that’s mostly notable for a vocal hook that foreshadows “One”, which comes after. While not as overwrought (or as effective) as the hit Three Dog Night version, its arrangement more closely follows the busy-signal mode that inspired the track. “The Wailing Of The Willow” is more Bacharach bossa nova, pleasant and not offensive, whereas “Bath” is one of the happiest songs about a having a hangover, yet still thinks a variation on “doo-wacka-doo” comprises an actual chorus.
Aerial Ballet tries very hard to impress, but he’s still an acquired taste. It’s telling that for such a short album, it seems a lot longer.

Nilsson Aerial Ballet (1968)—