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