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
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