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 combined. 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 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 64: 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

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