Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Gene Clark 6: No Other

Following the fleeting Byrds reunion, the Asylum label held onto Gene Clark, still trying to establish himself as a lucrative singer-songwriter. No Other received the red carpet treatment for its recording, relying on plenty of session cats—Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar, Joe Lala, even the Allman Brothers’ Butch Trucks—and unlimited studio time, and was promptly ignored upon release, most likely because it didn’t sound like anything else at the time. (The glam portrait on the back cover surely didn’t help.)
It’s a wide-ranging album, beginning with the country of “Life’s Greatest Fool”, which could have fallen off of any of his other solo albums, but is soon overtaken by the backing vocals of the Blackberries. The mysterious “Silver Raven” is too long to be a hit single, but could have been nicely tackled by, say, labelmates the Eagles for some welcome radio exposure. The funky title track rumbles into the frame like the soundtrack of a blaxploitation film; the verse even bears a mild melodic similarity to Sly Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”, while the overall spirit of later Traffic pervades. “Strength Of Strings” takes even longer to formulate, beginning with a riff that becomes something of a tribal chant that seems independent of the song itself, until it’s revealed as the bridge.
But for the clavinet, “From A Silver Phial” is more country-rock, ending in a terrific wah-wah solo by Jesse Ed Davis. “Some Misunderstanding” runs for an epic eight minutes, fulfilling the “cosmic American music” espoused by Gram Parsons, especially after the fuzz-tone violin comes in. Speaking of which, “The True One” sports a melody and picking evocative of “One Hundred Years From Now”. It’s a relatively upbeat palate cleanser for the more introspective “Lady Of The North”, which melds all the styles heard so far.
All good songs, as might be expected, with lyrics that are anything but hokey, the constant is his lonesome voice, which maintains the same welcome, weary tone no matter the backing. Fast forward 45 years, and No Other had gained a reputation as one of those lost masterpieces certain obsessives like to revere. This time, the British 4AD label—which made its bones on such icons as This Mortal Coil and the Pixies—oversaw a remastered expansion of the album, with arty packaging to match and, in the deluxe vinyl version for those with the shekels to spare, even more session outtakes on SACDs (which we didn’t know they still made) and a Blu-ray with multiple mixes including 5.1 surround. Additional tracks included alternate versions of every song on the album, plus a remake of “Train Leaves Here This Morning” from the first Dillard & Clark album, which had been also covered on the debut album by—no kidding—the Eagles a couple years before.

Gene Clark No Other (1974)—
2019 Expanded Edition: same as 1974, plus 9 extra tracks (Limited Deluxe Boxset adds another 11 tracks)

Friday, March 25, 2022

Keith Richards 3: Vintage Vinos

One of the more enjoyable rock ‘n roll memoirs of any era was Life by Keith Richards, wherein he frankly rambled about all the years most people were surprised he could remember so well, much less at all. Alternately defiant and humble, it reminded everyone who already agreed that he was and would always be cooler than Mick.
A retrospective album was released as a tie-in, but rather than simply collect all his lead vocals from various Stones album, Vintage Vinos concentrates on the two studio albums by his X-Pensive Winos side band, with a few from the live album to split the program. To say the set leans heavily on Talk Is Cheap is putting it mildly, with all but one song from side one, and one from side two. By contrast, three songs come from Main Offender, and the live songs provide a sideways nod to the Stones via “Too Rude”, “Time Is On My Side”, “Happy”, and “Connection”. The big draw and only rarity is “Hurricane”, a short acoustic tune credited to Jagger/Richards and performed with Ron Wood, supposedly from the Forty Licks era, previously available as a giveaway.
Musically, of course, it’s solid; the photos are nice and the booklet even includes lyrics. Still, it’s a missed opportunity. By now diehard fans have compiled their own “Keith Sings” mix tapes and CDs covering his best lead vocals on Stones albums, but certainly any “best of Keith” should include his cover of Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run”, as well as its B-sides “Pressure Drop” and “The Harder They Come”. Then there’s “Key To The Highway”, which was a Japanese bonus track for Main Offender and B-side elsewhere, and “Oh Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me” from a Charles Mingus tribute. Operators are standing by.

Keith Richards Vintage Vinos (2010)—

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Jayhawks 2: Blue Earth

Three years had passed since the first Jayhawks album, and in that time the band wasn’t exactly focused on worldwide domination. Some demos recorded in that period were heard and spruced up by Minneapolis’s Twin/Tone Records, which duly released and promoted Blue Earth as the next big thing from the Twin Cities since the Replacements and Soul Asylum had gone the major-label route.
While the lonesome harmonica of “Two Angels” might suggest otherwise, the album is more jangly than the debut. The harmonies are firmly in place for a classic. The picking on “She’s Not Alone Anymore” suggests another throwback, but the chords say otherwise. “Will I Be Married” goes on a little long, and could be stated otherwise, though “Dead End Angel” sports some striking lyrics amid the standard changes. “Commonplace Streets” is an odd one, beginning with a “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” shuffle and meandering verses, stepping back for Gary Louris to take lots of leads.
The slow burning “Ain’t No End” is another sneaky classic, and another fine example of the vocal blend. “Five Cups Of Coffee” turns a country cliché on its ear, while the harmonies on “The Baltimore Sun” deftly navigate the chord changes. The crunch comes back on “Red Firecracker”, Mark Olson does his best Gram Parsons baritone on “Sioux City”. “I’m Still Dreaming, Now I’m Yours” is a nice idea, but a better closer is “Martin’s Song”, which was a bonus track on the original CD, and just strains to break out of its cast.
As with the first album, Blue Earth only hints at the band’s potential, but often gets a fresh evaluation anytime another alt.country signpost is passed. A later reissue added three more tracks: the naïve “Fingernail Moon”, the misleadingly titled “Two Minute Pop Song”, and the superior “Nightshade”.

The Jayhawks Blue Earth (1989)—3
2003 Restless CD: same as 1989, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, March 18, 2022

Sting 16: The Bridge

Add Sting to the list of veteran slash legendary musicians who used the Covid lockdown to see what the muse had to bring. The Bridge was indeed written and recorded under pandemic conditions, and it’s free from gimmicks. His “exclusive liner notes” explain the origins of some of the songs, but it bears saying that from the first track, the focus is on catchy tunes.
A simple drum pattern heralds “Rushing Waters”, which features the auteur harmonizing with himself over the verse before a strong chorus; from there the harmonizing isn’t as obvious, and it helps. By his own admission, “If It’s Love” is not the first pop song that treats matters of the heart with a medical condition, but it’s simply meant to be a pop song, right down to the Barry White strings that herald each chorus. “The Book Of Numbers” is helpfully described as being inspired by the architect of the Manhattan Project, but it’s a shame someone as educated as Sting didn’t see the wonky math of “three score and twenty-five”. A collaboration with DJ Maya Jane Coles, “Loving You” is the unintentional answer to “If It’s Love”, showing his quality control is somewhat lacking on an album that’s not supposed to be a concept. Luckily, the labyrinthian guitar part of “Harmony Road”—courtesy of the reliable Dominic Miller—provides a fresh sound, made even nicer when Branford Marsalis shows up with his soprano sax.
“For Her Love” begins with a guitar motif very similar to “Shape Of My Heart”, and ends with the slightest vocal hint of the similarly titled Yardbirds hit. Northumbrian instruments color “The Hills On The Border”, while “Captain Bateman” is derived and updated from an ancient ballad; both are given superior choruses that transcend mere copying. The notes tell us that “The Bells Of St. Thomas” apparently derived from a Miller melody and a Rubens painting. He’s at his breathiest here, as he’s kept the crooning to a minimum. The pretty title track closes the album simply; the liner notes include the text from a letter Sting sent Billy Joel about claiming the title for himself. (The expanded edition exclusive to Target stores in the U.S. added three extra tracks. “Waters Of Tyne” is another traditional song that shares an arrangement with the preceding title track. “Captain Bateman’s Basement” is a pleasant, jazzy instrumental variation, but we didn’t need another carbon-copy cover of “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay”, even if it was sanctioned by an Alzheimer’s charity.)
We’ve been rough on the guy, and deservedly so, but The Bridge is easily Sting’s best album in 25 years. Nice to know he still had it in him. If he keeps going, hopefully he’ll have learned something.

Sting The Bridge (2021)—3

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

They Might Be Giants 10: Long Tall Weekend

All the spoiled rotten kids today who grew up in a world driven by immediate gratification will have no appreciation of what their parents went through when downloading music—legally or illegally—first became possible. None of this click-and-drop stuff for us; we had to listen to the static of a 56k modem for any number of minutes, and eventually what we were looking for might end up on our hard drives, assuming there was room.
They Might Be Giants was the first major band to release an album through the new eMusic platform. Since they weren’t signed to an actual label at the time, that was one less hurdle. Long Tall Weekend doesn’t fill a CD, which is probably good considering how long it took to download, but the 15 tracks are unique and mostly get to the point.
“Drinkin’” is a snappy little instrumental that barely threatens to get wacky before it ends, then “(She Thinks She’s) Edith Head” seems to have been written to justify the song’s title, and features a seemingly spontaneous fake ending. “Maybe I Know” is a gender-adjusted cover of a Lesley Gore song the boys used to play in the early days, while “Rat Patrol” is loaded with heavy guitar riffing. Keen-eared listeners would recognize the truly silly “Token Back To Brooklyn” as a hidden track on Factory Showroom, and we have a soft spot for “Older”, a sober treatise on mortality, since one of our correspondents sends it to us on every birthday. “Operators Are Standing By” is another accurate portrait of the workplace, and while “Dark And Metric” is catchy, it’s impenetrable.
“Reprehensible” is a wonderful soliloquy set to a big-band backing, whereas “Certain People I Could Name” is taken from another perspective, and not just via the piano. We’re surprised “Counterfeit Faker” hasn’t already been a TMBG title, but good luck navigating the amateur banjo and fiddle backing. “They Got Lost” already appeared on Severe Tire Damage in a superior version; this one is just too slow. It’s been a while since we’ve had a mambo, and “Lullabye To Nightmares” delivers. We must thank the indispensable This Might Be A Wiki site for clarifying the a capella lyrics of “On Earth My Nina”; they’re supposed to sound backwards. Finally, “The Edison Museum” is a hilarious portrait of that New Jersey landmark, sung by the same guy who intoned “I Hear The Wind Blow” on Apollo 18.
Much of Long Tall Weekend had been around for a while, and some would appear again. It’s readily available, and faster, via streaming these days. We’ll take it.

They Might Be Giants Long Tall Weekend (1999)—3

Friday, March 11, 2022

John Entwistle 5: Too Late The Hero

A lot had changed in the Who world since John Entwistle’s last solo album, and with those albums mostly forgotten, he gladly took the money offered via the band’s latest deals to surface with another. Too Late The Hero was more in line than the occasional song he’d given to the last few Who albums, and pointedly free of gimmicks. It also helped that the band consisted of him, plus Joe Walsh on all the guitars—and there are a lot of them—with Walsh crony Joe Vitale on drums, lending to a lean, tight, cohesive mix throughout.
Right up to date, “Try Me” begins with a riff slightly pinned synthesizer bed under a clever chorus. Six years made a big difference, as his voice is noticeably huskier, but he can still harmonize with himself. A more aggressive riff drives “Talk Dirty”, with nicely layered vocals—not too dissimilar from Pete Townshend’s solo work—that the chorus doesn’t quite pay off. “Lovebird” almost qualifies as sensitive, a regretful farewell to an affair. Humor returns on the otherwise ordinary “Sleeping Man”; it doesn’t help that the vocals are mixed too low to catch all the words, but that’s why they print lyrics on inner sleeves. “I’m Coming Back” is another “life on the road” song; he’s done better, but Ray Davies did more, some of which were worse.
The disco thump of “Dancing Master” (or “Dancin’ Master”, depending whether you read the back cover or the record label) forebodes nothing good except lengthy dueling bass solos that invite Joe along for few bars. The mildly cautionary “Fallen Angel” follows his familiar trope of changing chords over the same single bass note, but the key change helps. “Love Is A Heart Attack” begins with his other trope, the descending and ascending chromatic scale, but this time it’s over the Walsh-Vitale pulse, and it’s generally more interesting than all that, even if the metaphor isn’t very thought out. But the majestic title track makes up for all the shortcomings. From the chords to the lyrics, with the verses, choruses, bridges, and coda all of the same high quality, this may be his greatest-ever song (“Boris The Spider” and “My Wife” notwithstanding).
Considering we hadn’t expected much, Too Late The Hero is surprisingly enjoyable, and only dated where noted. Moreover, it’s an excellent showcase for Joe Walsh in between Eagles albums and his own solo career.
He’s not on any of the demos included as bonus tracks on the eventual reissue, but we are going to assume that’s Kenney Jones on the drums, since he was thanked for his help on the original back cover. Four of those are runthroughs for the album, but “Love Is A Heart Attack” is a completely different, and superior tune. There’s also a gothic “Overture”, performed on piano and synthesizers, that may or may not be from the project that gave us “905”. It’s another example of his classical training, and a shame he didn’t pursue it more.

John Entwistle Too Late The Hero (1981)—3
2006 Sanctuary reissue: same as 1981, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

David Byrne 5: David Byrne

It’s safe to say that having spent several years making music that didn’t resemble Talking Heads, and not just because it was steeped in Latin influences, David Byrne had pretty much become a niche artist. It’s too bad, because his eponymous album from 1994 is very accessible. For one, it’s loaded with electric guitars.
“A Long Time Ago” more or less picks up where Naked left off, with an eerie melody over subtle percussion. But for the furious jangle that pins most of the track, “Angels” percolated with the classic vibe of “Once In A Lifetime”, particularly via the mostly spoken vocals. The distortion pedal stays on for “Crash”, which flirts with Mideastern rhythms and melodies, but gets derailed into a wildly dissonant bridge, and almost does again at the end before a gentle coda. That’s a nice segue to “A Self-Made Man”, which is a lovely track with unfortunately literal lyrics. The robotic “Back In The Box” stays radio-friendly until the closing scraping from guest guitarist Arto Lindsay, while “Sad Song” is anything but; rather, it’s a successful meld of Latin and rock.
“Nothing At All” again offers a spoken verse with a sung chorus, like a textbook David Byrne song. The convoluted riffing keeps the song interesting through the dreamy bridge, but again, the scraping lead guitar solo becomes tiresome. For a nice interlude, “My Love Is You” is a cute, pitch-challenged, and backhanded expression of affection, with a few unexpected couplets, complete with tuba. “Lilies Of The Valley” sports some disturbing imagery, but the vibraphone solo is fitting. He gets funky with “You & Eye”; turns out he’s responsible for both the clavinet and the guitar solos. “Strange Ritual” returns to the spooky place we started, but the lyrics follow the “in the future” template he’s been plying for years, only this time they’re “visions”. The tension builds to a dynamic close, leaving us with the more simple pleasures of “Buck Naked”.
While the music is as dark and stark as the packaging, David Byrne still manages to capture the ear. It’s worth re-discovery.

David Byrne David Byrne (1994)—3

Friday, March 4, 2022

John Cale 2: Church Of Anthrax

Terry Riley is best known among casual rock fans as the titular (and musical) inspiration for the Who’s “Baba O’Riley”. Those who dug deeper from another part of the spectrum might have caught his name on a collaboration with John Cale, late of the Velvet Underground.
While it was recorded before Vintage Violence, Cale’s solo debut, Church Of Anthrax is very much in the shadow of that comparatively conventional release. Being funded by CBS Masterworks (the classical arm compared to Columbia), this is a pointedly experimental album, at times challenging, but occasionally mesmerizing. (The pair had met some years previously, when both were involved with avant-garde composer LaMonte Young.)
The title track is very reminiscent of Riley’s “A Rainbow In Curved Air”, the direct influence on Pete Townshend’s “Baba” synth work. A burbling bass plus drums holds down the drone while Riley’s organ wanders on top and various horns punctate. Soon a soprano sax can be heard, sometimes resembling a viola, and the track continues to build, before finally coming to something of a conclusion that predicts King Crimson’s “Sailor’s Tale”. Some distant piano chords herald “The Hall Of Mirrors In The Palace Of Versailles”, which is a showcase for two weaving soprano sax tracks. But for a few discordant moments, it’s hypnotic.
“The Soul Of Patrick Lee” is the only “song” on the album, its lyrics as dense as Cale’s back liner notes. It’s also the only track that sounds of a piece with Vintage Violence. Interestingly, the vocalist is not Cale, but one Adam Miller, whose voice and phrasing strongly resembles that of the auteur, if a tad smoother. The duelling pianos and frenetic drums on “Ides Of March” will likely try anyone’s patience, while “The Protege” is a more tightly constructed one-chord vamp that stays steady until it’s abruptly snuffed out in a burst of electronic feedback.
With the appearance of improvisation, much of Church Of Anthrax is more in keeping with Cale’s background, and the direction he preferred for the Velvet Underground. The album goes in and out of print fairly regularly, but there’s enough interest from people with the clout to keep it available to make it so.

John Cale and Terry Riley Church Of Anthrax (1971)—3

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Eno 22: Someday World and High Life

We’ve never heard anything by the electronic band Underworld, except that they had a hit in the early ‘80s called “Doot-Doot” when they were known as Freur. One of the principals is a fellow named Karl Hyde, who hooked up with Brian Eno in 2014 for what turned into two albums.
Someday World also features a lot of input from the musician not yet known as Fred Again; at this point he was basically interning for Eno, and contributed much in the way of composing and production assistance. Hyde has a pleasing voice, not as deep as Eno’s, who often uses that phased effect, but sometimes the blend blurs the singer’s identity.
This is an album of songs, not mere textures. Much of the album bubbles with the spirit of catchy synth-pop just like what Eno inspired. “The Satellites” is pinned by a cyclical fake trumpet section, which return for another hook on “Daddy’s Car”, featuring Hyde on vocals. He’s also center-stage for most of the more dated-sounding “A Man Wakes Up”. “Witness” has a promising basic track with echoes of green worlds before and after science, but the vocals spend too much time around a single note, and the spoken contributions of Eno’s younger daughter should have been saved for the extended remix. The tension in “Strip It Down” bursts through with each chorus pleasingly.
The more subdued “Mother Of A Dog” recalls Eno’s 1990 collaboration with John Cale, and so does “Who Rings The Bell” at times, but that one’s sung by Hyde, and has much more of a melody. “When I Built This World” borrows the melody from the first line of “When I Fall In Love”, but soon deteriorates into something more robotic. “To Us All” is too loud for a lullaby, but it is lilting.

Despite all the electronics, Someday World doesn’t sound at all cold; if anything, it’s cheerful. In the interest of keeping things fresh, the dynamic duo went on to record and release High Life later in the same year. This time brevity was out the window, as ideas were chased across lengthy tracks, beginning with the hypnotic “Return” followed by the much more frenetic “DBF”. “Time To Waste It” is almost funky, the groove decorated by treated and sampled vocals. “Lilac” brings to mind later Talking Heads filtered through Bo Diddley before it gets taken over by the momentum. “Moulded Life” seems to throw multiple samples into the mix at once before the track emerges as a kind of Mission: Impossible theme, while “Cells & Bells” combines ambience with distortion to predict Eno’s next step. (As was becoming a trend, the digital version included a bonus track in “Slow Down, Sit Down And Breathe”, which is far from relaxing, while the vinyl included that plus another, “On A Grey Day”, which would be welcome anywhere.)

Eno•Hyde Someday World (2014)—3
High Life (2014)—