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. Eight months later, that sequence formed the first disc of a “super deluxe edition” that added six live tracks and a duet of “For Her Love” in Spanish.)

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

Peter Gabriel 11: Up

After several years of rumors and false confirmations from the man himself, a full ten years passed between new Peter Gabriel albums, a break that spanned the Millennium. In the meantime he’d become very active on the Internet with his own personal website. In person he’d come to resemble none other than Burl Ives, a far leap from the skinny, more hirsute frontman of old.

Note we said “albums”, plural; first there was Long Walk Home, his soundtrack to Rabbit-Proof Fence, a drama about displaced Aboriginal children in the 1930s. While not as familiar and haunting as Birdy, nor as consistently dynamic and striking as Passion, his trademarked textures and touchstones resonated through to his next “real” album, released shortly afterwards.

Up starts promisingly enough with the fiendish “Darkness”—thirty seconds of muted percussion before exploding with a cry of pain or something, moving through sections reminiscent of the eerier tracks on the third and fourth albums. “Growing Up” delivers an upbeat groove but not much in the way of melody; still, he felt it important enough to name the tour after it. The haunting “Sky Blue” is based largely around a piece from Long Walk Home, specifically a repeated refrain sung by the Blind Boys Of Alabama. “No Way Out” has a rhythm reminiscent of “In Your Eyes”, but is nowhere near as catchy. Those fans who’d held onto their copies of the City Of Angels soundtrack from a few years earlier might have appreciated the alternate version of “I Grieve” included here.

The downfall of taking so long on this album meant that “The Barry Williams Show” becomes a weak diatribe against the likes of Jerry Springer, and makes it just as dated as it would have become anyway. (Apparently he wasn’t familiar with the iconic American status of the Brady Bunch actor, and used Shooter McGavin in the disturbing video instead.) “My Head Sounds Like That” sports a gripping but sad backing of piano and brass band, turning things up in the middle. While it’s not the Roxy Music song of the same name, “More Than This” is another attempt at a hit single. More uneasy listening comes in “Signal To Noise”, featuring the wailing, flown-in voice of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; the tension, albeit compelling, abates for “The Drop”, which is just Peter and the piano.

While Up has its moments, it’s just not that memorable, which is one of the last things we’d ever thought we’d say about a Peter Gabriel album. There’s plenty of promise in these tracks, but not enough songs, most of which pass seven minutes anyway. Perhaps all that time tweaking things in his quest for the perfect sound removed any spark. It also didn’t help that he’s easily distracted, as evidenced by such things as Long Walk Home and the Millennial OVO project (which featured the lovely tribute “Father, Son”). Artists with more obtrusive management might have suggested he make one good album rather than two so-so ones.

But he never wanted to be a superstar, and always strove to make his own music following his own whims. That’s why he’s still got a rabid fan base, who would have been happy to snap up the “official bootlegs” from the tours that followed Up, with each show represented on CDs pressed from the soundboard mixes.

Peter Gabriel Long Walk Home: Music From The Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)—
Peter Gabriel
Up (2002)—

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

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Brian 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)—