Friday, July 29, 2022

Talking Heads 12: No Talking, Just Head

You can’t blame them for trying.

The members of Talking Heads had grown tired of waiting for David Byrne to deign them with his presence again, so after five or so years they began recording together. Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth had stayed busy producing other people, so they had several singers they could ask to sing for them, along with old friends from their CBGB days, when they started making music together again. Byrne had other ideas, and tried to sue them; the eventual project was credited to The Heads, with the album pointedly titled No Talking, Just Head.

No matter how they approached it, the deck was stacked against them. Sometimes an established band can find a new singer to take them to commercial heights, but not every band is AC/DC. Rather than sticking with one collaborator, the Heads assigned each of the 12 tracks on the album to somebody different. Each of the resulting songs is so different, it sounds like a mix tape of 12 different bands.

Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde opens with the dark “Damage I’ve Done”, and would go on to tour with the trio to promote the album. Michael Hutchence of INXS (who would have their own issues trying to replace a singer) ironically makes one of his last appearances on an album on “The King Is Gone”, and Blondie’s Debbie Harry wails the profane title track. “Never Mind”, which seems to be based around the drums for their version of “Take Me To The River”, is a showcase for Richard Hell, while the frenetic “No Big Bang” is an odd pairing for the otherwise soulful Maria McKee. Shaun Ryder gets to do his Happy Mondays thing all over “Don’t Take My Kindness For Weakness”.

A still-unknown spoken word performer named Malin Anneteg recites the strange lyrics for “No More Lonely Nights”, while the singer from Live was still coasting on their hit album when he added “Indie Hair”. “Punk Lolita” might be the highlight of the album, with Debbie, Johnette, and Tina Weymouth trading fun rap-influenced vocals just like Tom Tom Club. Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes is lost in the mix of “Only The Lonely”, but there’s no mistaking Andy Partridge on “Papersnow”. Finally, cult figure Gavin Friday warbles “Blue Blue Moon”.

While Chris, Jerry, and Tina were all undoubtedly key to the success of Talking Heads, and contributed to the sound of the band, David Byrne’s vocals and lyrics were what resonated in millions of album sales. This goes both ways, as Byrne’s solo albums are nearly devoid of any music that sounds like the old band. No Talking, Just Head remains a curio, more interesting for fans of the individual singers.

The Heads No Talking, Just Head (1996)—2

Friday, July 22, 2022

Paul Simon 18: Stranger To Stranger

For most of his post-Garfunkel career, Paul Simon has painstakingly created songs with the mildest suggestion of a rhythm as touchpoints. In his old age, with the ease and advancements of home recording, he doesn’t have to travel to other countries and observe other cultures for inspiration. He still could, of course; he just doesn’t have to.

Stranger To Stranger sounds like it was assembled on a computer, and we don’t mean that in a bad way. The sound is still fresh and pure, like thanks to the assistance of “his old partner Roy Halee”, which is how the credit actually reads. Many of the tracks involve multiple players and exotic instruments, but it still remains very much a solitary vision.

The first sound we hear is an Indian string instrument that the liner notes tells us sounded like “The Werewolf” to the auteur’s ears, so he wrote a song around it about doom and death. Sound effects abound, and the track is taken over by a gothic horror movie pipe organ by the end, along with more howls. “Wristband” is a very clever song that retains its humor past several listens, and manages to extend the idea of exclusive entry past its premise. “The Clock” is an instrumental built around a simple pulse, with some chimes, and is over too quickly. More complex rhythms and textures drive “Street Angel”, while a waltz of sorts propels the lilting title track. As predicted two tracks earlier, “In A Parade” finds the street angel in a hospital being diagnosed for mental disorders, with beats to match.

The engaging “Proof Of Love” is very reminiscent of his early ‘90s work, and apparently the noted Brazilian influence is why. “In The Garden Of Edie”—again, clever—is another instrumental that isn’t long enough. “The Riverbank” continues the musing on death, but over a mildly funky groove that isn’t down in the slightest. “Cool Papa Bell” would be mostly a tribute to a Negro League baseball legend, but is dominated by a tuba and spends more time reflecting on a certain twelve-letter epithet. The closing “Insomniac’s Lullaby” adds sound effects and Harry Partch instruments to a lovely guitar piece and meditation on sleeplessness. It’s more of a prayer than a lullaby, but it’s effective.

Stranger To Stranger is another winner in a career that’s slowly winding down. From time to time he leans on one of his spoken character voices rather than trying to find a melody, but the solo guitar pieces have us wishing he would do an instrumental album of same. He should also be commended for the album’s digestible length, at just over 37 minutes. (That said, a deluxe edition included a few extra tracks, starting with the exquisitely recorded “Horace And Pete”, the theme song for a Louis C.K. web series, which should have been on the main album. The oldie “Duncan” and “Wristband” come from a well-received performance on A Prairie Home Companion. “Guitar Piece 3” is a spooky interlude, while “New York Is My Home” is a collaboration with Dion DiMucci, also featured in the aforementioned web series.)

Paul Simon Stranger To Stranger (2016)—

Friday, July 15, 2022

Neil Young 65: Toast

Remarkably, or maybe not, the first two “unreleased” albums Neil Young issued as part of his Archives’ Special Release Series have a similar history. Like Homegrown, Toast was started, abandoned, and then superseded by another album that didn’t directly relate to issues in his personal life. We may never know the full details of the “rough patch” that found Neil living in San Francisco while his wife and kids were back at the ranch, but apparently that experience colored the lyrics and his overall mood. At any rate, he began again with Booker T and the MG’s a few months later, and those sessions resulting in Are You Passionate? the following year.

Crazy Horse is definitely a different band than the MG’s in more ways than one, so one would think Toast (named after the studio where it was recorded) would have a more, shall we say, primitive sound. However, the earlier takes of the songs that made it to Passionate show that their soul-influenced arrangements were well in place before Booker T et al got hold of them. If anything, those tunes recall the Bluenotes, which also started as a Crazy Horse project before Neil replaced the rhythm section.

“Quit” lacks its subtitle, as well as Booker T’s organ, but it’s basically identical to the later take, right down to the female vocals. Knowing what we know now, it’s eerie to hear Pegi singing on it, but it stands out better here, without the sameness of the tracks on Passionate surrounding it. In contrast, “Standing In The Light Of Love” is total grunge, from the pounding riff to Neil’s strangled vocals, and much more what we expect from the Horse. It’s also one of those tracks that, amazingly, had stayed buried all this time, even after being revived in 2014. That said, “Goin’ Home” is still the best song of the batch, though this mix fades the song during the final solo, rather than coming to an abrupt halt, which we always liked. “Timberline” is another one of those legendary lost songs from the era, but this ragged take shows its shortcomings. The sloppiness doesn’t really match the desperation in the narrative about an unemployed logger, which needs more development. (We say this while being quite aware that it’s precisely the kind of track that people love from the Horse.)

A distinct improvement is “Gateway Of Love”, which was teased on the back cover of Passionate and played live with the Horse throughout that summer. It’s the only track we hear that has the “Latin influence” Poncho Sampedro mentioned in interviews about the shelved album; most of that is in the drums, while the bass could go either way. “How Ya Doin’?” is an odd title for what became “Mr. Disappointment”, since that question only surfaced in the later recording. This earlier version is sung in Neil’s natural voice, rather than the low rasp he adopted for the album. “Boom Boom Boom” is the same song as “She’s A Healer”, except that it’s longer and taken just a tad slower. Once again the eventual title features prominently in the lyrics, while the initial title does not. At thirteen minutes it does drag, but the jazzy bridge stands out more, and Tom Bray adds a trumpet, just as he would on the later album. Neil overdubbed a few stabs at a piano, and somebody’s playing the vibes and tapping bongos.

Toast is still unfinished as an album, and likely wouldn’t have wowed us had it come out instead back then. The disparate styles don’t cohere very well, but at least there are more dynamics, so it’s superior to Passionate, and will likely get more spins round our way. Moreover, his voice isn’t as strained here. It’s not as revelatory as Homegrown, and it hasn’t had as many decades of speculation to live up to, but once again we want to hear everything else he’s been sitting on.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse Toast (2022)—3

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Brian Eno 23: The Ship

Ambient music and vocal music have been parts of various Eno albums, to be sure, but he’s rarely tried to meld them within the same piece. That changed with The Ship.

The title track is a lengthy meditation on the sinking of the Titanic. The subject is not a new obsession; back in the ‘70s Eno inaugurated his Obscure Records label with a neo-classical piece by Gavin Bryars called, yes, The Sinking Of The Titanic, which built on the idea that the orchestra on board kept playing while the boat sank. This intriguing piece incorporated taped voices and sound effects to approximate the effect of water, and so does Eno’s. After several minutes of setting a mood, he starts singing, slowly, in a very low register, and harmonized. When the voices arrive, they’re either fragmented, too low to discern, or approximate another language, until the piece fades on a repeated “wave after wave”.

The second half of the album is a suite in three parts titled “Fickle Sun”, said to be inspired by the further destruction of the first World War. The first part is almost as long as “The Ship”, but the music isn’t as soothing, with more ominous melodies in the background and the lyric punctuated by distant thuds that approach into loud clanging accompanied by brass. A churchy organ emerges, and the melody changes to a more major key. Soon the voice appears almost alone, with a female voice processed to sound like a telegraph, ending with some strings and more uncertainty. The second part, subtitled “The Hour Is Thin”, is a relatively brief, apparently computer-generated monologue read by the voice of Darth Maul, the live-action Tick, and the flatmate from Shaun Of The Dead over some otherwise pleasant piano plinking we’d prefer to hear alone. The surprising finale is a very reverent cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free”, helped by recent cohorts Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams. Whatever this has to do with the Titanic or the war is beyond us, but it’s shimmering and lovely.

Because of its length, The Ship is one of those Eno albums that sounds different every time you listen to it, thanks to all the layers and textures. And that’s probably what he wanted. It’s easy to get lost in.

Brian Eno The Ship (2016)—3

Friday, July 8, 2022

Lou Reed 32: Lulu

While he’d been mildly active, and certainly visible, Lou Reed wasn’t celebrated for any new innovations in the 21st century. Most of his musical adventures involved reviving earlier triumphs; his last album of new material was just plain ugly. But despite finding true love with Laurie Anderson, he wasn’t about to turn softer or gentler, and was happy to explore the worst aspects of the human condition via yet another pile of songs designed to accompany yet another obscure German play being directed by Robert Wilson. (The original playwright also wrote the text that would become the modern musical Spring Awakening.) Since the source material concerned a seductress turned prostitute, it naturally behooved Lou to go out of his way to load up the libretto with scatological references and violent sexual imagery. Adding to the carnage was his decision to record the songs with Metallica, who hadn’t exactly been relevant for a couple of decades themselves.

On paper, the idea of Lou Reed backed by Metallica sounds like a really terrible idea, and the audio evidence doesn’t contradict. It wasn’t enough to just knock out a few songs—Lulu is a double album, running nearly 90 minutes. Don’t be fooled: this is not art. It’s not even decent noise.

“Brandenburg Gate” starts okay, with a few strums of an acoustic and Lou singing on pitch, but then three power chords crash in and James Hetfield starts yelling “small town girl” at the end of each phrase and Lou’s grasp on melody goes out the window. This is the shortest track on the album. “The View” would be a hilarious theme song for the talk show of the same name, as it’s built on doom-soaked chords for Lou to rant over. Hetfield offers a chorus of sorts as small respite, and there’s a decent solo, so perhaps the band could rework it on their own. What sounds like a viola opens “Pumping Blood”, soon melded and overtaken by feedback and another crunching riff that deserves better than Lou yelling the title over it. This gives way to a moodier section while Lou talks about, you guessed it, pumping blood, then a completely different riff takes over, then another. The same feedback leads to the speed metal of “Mistress Dread”, providing at least a consistent tempo for headbanging. “Iced Honey” repeats the same two chords, and is shorter than it seems; the dueling vocals when they start do not favor either singer. “Cheat On Me” opens with three minutes of a near-ambient drone that will turn to feedback when Lou cuts in, and a drum pattern right out of the Moe Tucker playbook starts up. But Lars Ulrich can’t play that simple that long, so around the time Lou and James start yelling at each other he’s hitting more and more drums and adding cymbals. This continues for another six minutes.

“Frustration”—too easy a target for a song title—begins with a minute or so of metallic scraping and stabs at an organ, like something used as percussion on a Tom Waits album, then the most basic metal riff of all time provides another bed for Lou to rant over. Everything comes to a halt, and then he decides to sing a melody over the tuneless scraping. The most listenable track isn’t exactly a relief, as “Little Dog” sports minor-key acoustic strumming in one channel and electric feedback in the other and also in the center, the lyrics lamenting the existence of the subject. (Lou loved dogs, and he and Laurie had lost Lolabelle to pancreatic cancer just a few years before.) “Dragon” goes back to the established template of ambient noise eventually taken over by riffing that, again, deserves a better lyric and vocal than the eleven minutes of ranting here. “Junior Dad” finally combines a melody with a sentimental backing, with a drone not unlike a John Cale viola, but more like what’s used on an Eno album. It also runs over nineteen minutes, the last nine of which consist solely of that drone.

It’s mostly too bad that there are some decent metal riffs throughout Lulu, doomed to exist only for Lou to yell over. His voice is ragged but not in a method acting way. He doesn’t sound scary; he just sounds weak. The few times Hetfield gets to let loose with his yowl just jar with Lou’s bleating, to the point where they don’t even sound like they’re on the same album. (Frankly, we’d love to know how many times during the sessions Lou glared at Lars or ordered him to just shut up already.)

David Bowie allegedly loved this album. And there is music on Lulu, really. It’s just not worth waiting for. It would also be the last new music Lou Reed would release in his lifetime.

Lou Reed & Metallica Lulu (2011)—2

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Bryan Ferry 6: Boys And Girls

The template set by Avalon served Bryan Ferry very well following the second dissolution of Roxy Music. Boys And Girls not only continues the trend towards original material, just like his more recent solo albums, but it includes many of the same hired-guns involved with Roxy at the end—Andy Newmark, Neil Hubbard, Alan Spenner, and more. Several guitarists of name pop up throughout the album, and David Sanborn is the only saxophonist credited. Neither Phil Manzanera nor Andy Mackay appear in the laundry list of contributors.

In many ways, the album is Avalon II: The Sequel. “Sensation” works the template, with one guitar playing a staccato two-note riff over a disco thump, but just when you think it’s going to be ordinary, “Slave To Love” bursts forth. The deceptive intro is in one key, and the song itself moves to the standard I-vi-IV-V with a pretty melody on top. When the intro returns for the solo, it’s a perfect transition. Simple but infectious. “Don’t Stop The Dance” returns to the moody template. Ferry’s ever known to be deep, but he does make the astute observation that “beauty should be deeper than skin”, and who can argue? “A Waste Land” isn’t much more than an impressionistic link, filling the “India” slot on Avalon, going right into “Windswept”, which shares some musical similarities to “While My Heart Is Still Beating”.

Flip over to side two and “The Chosen One” burbles into place, sounding just like “The Main Thing”. “Valentine” breaks from the template with something of a Mideastern reggae feel; this time the guitarist would either be Mark Knopfler or someone doing an uncanny impression. “Stone Woman” picks up the tempo noticeably, though it’s not much more than a dance groove. The title tracks provides a slow-burning finale, automated and real drums beating to the end.

Like most sequels, Boys And Girls doesn’t so much continue the story as retell it, and that’s fine if you’re looking for more of the same. The days when Bryan Ferry was a trendsetter were long past, and now he was just making records and counting the money. He could still blend vocals to make one’s ears prick up.

Bryan Ferry Boys And Girls (1985)—3