Friday, August 26, 2022

Neil Young 66: Noise & Flowers

Even while working with a rejuvenated Crazy Horse, Neil Young has utilized the services of the band Promise Of The Real for much of the 2010s. Noise & Flowers is their fifth album together, and the second live collection. Unlike the concept-laden Earth, this one’s delivered straight.

The theme is mortality, being that the tour that spawned this album took place immediately following the funeral of Neil’s manager and most consistent ally, Elliot Roberts, to whom the music is dedicated. More to the point, the band is made of players younger than each of Neil’s children; most of the music predates them too. The combination of the Covid pandemic and the sheer volume of music Neil’s been trying to put out in recent years meant this particular collection waited three years for a release, which is probably why it’s been denoted as #21 in the Archives Performance Series.

The sound is cavernous, thanks to the patented Volume Dealers production. The piano comes through the mix, but so do the congas. The crowd goes nuts for the obvious hits, even when the music teeters considerably throughout the ten-minute “Rockin’ In The Free World”—listen for the a slam against “an orange Lucifer using this song again”—but these ears like hearing such relative rarities as “Field Of Opportunity”, “Alabama”, and “I’ve Been Waiting For You”. The band is supportive on thrashers like “Throw Your Hatred Down”, but tend to rush on softer numbers like “From Hank To Hendrix”. No songs from Colorado, which was already in the can and months away from release, are included.

Again, there are plenty of pickup bands around the world who know his songs inside out and can play them as well as the Horse. For Neil, it’s about feel. And if Elliot approves, so do we. (As has been his wont, there is a matching DVD with all the performances on film. It’s very jarring to see Neil with a band that exudes such energy—he hasn’t had a bass player that animated since he played with Pearl Jam.)

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real Noise & Flowers (2022)—3

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Morrissey 6: World Of Morrissey

It had been three albums and five years, so the time was ripe for Morrissey to put out one of those mop-up albums that collected various strays of the period. As should have been expected, the selection on World Of Morrissey was as random as could be.

The cover art depicts a boxer, which is somehow fitting as the excellent “Boxers” was his most recent standalone single. Both of its B-sides, the tense “Whatever Happens, I Love You” and the deceptively singalong “Have-A-Go Merchant”, are included as well. “The Loop” backed the “Sing Your Life” single (not included here) and for the first minute or so you might think it’s going to be instrumental, but there are words eventually. Still, it’s a cool, bouncy rockabilly tune. “My Love Life” is rescued from the post-Kill Uncle limbo. A lovely, lush cover of “Moon River” is nice, except that it goes on for over nine minutes; the last six are instrumental, with barely discernable film samples of some woman sobbing layered over the last four. Three songs from the overseas-only live album Beethoven Was Deaf are nice to have, partially because the band sounds great, but two of the choices (“Jack The Ripper” and “Sister, I’m A Poet”) were both B-sides anyway, albeit in studio recordings.

And just to be perverse, the balance of the album was filled up by two album tracks each from Your Arsenal and Vauxhall And I, but most ridiculous of all was including “The Last Of The Famous International Playboys”, which had already been collected on Bona Drag. All together, a nice set, but frustrating, and still forcing collectors to collect.

Morrissey World Of Morrissey (1995)—3

Friday, August 19, 2022

Jayhawks 3: Hollywood Town Hall

The discography clearly states that Hollywood Town Hall was the Jayhawks’ third album, but it was also the first one designed as an album rather than collecting various demos. And given the backing of the Def American label, with Rick Rubin’s right-hand man George Drakoulias producing, this was most people’s first exposure to the band.

And what an excellent place to start. We originally described “Waiting For The Sun” with the suggestion to “imagine Buffalo Springfield if fronted by Carly Simon.” No? Decades later we realize we were taken in by the keening harmonies and fuzzy yet crisp guitars. Meanwhile, special guest Benmont Tench is having a ball on piano and organ, so clearly, if this album hadn’t happened, Tom Petty wouldn’t have written “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”. A blast of harmonica heralds “Crowded In The Wings”, with more choice close harmonies, but it’s that major change before the chorus and the major-seventh touch four bars later that push it over the top. The dramatic intro “Clouds” tries too hard, but a little guitar lick smooths it over and brings in another solid verse-chorus combo, though we still think “Diamonds” is a better title. “Two Angels” is repeated from the last album, and it’s a very similar performance, except that it’s Nicky Hopkins on piano. On “Take Me With You (When You Go)”, those harmonies circle all over the place, but then they go unison for the perfectly simple chorus. Years passed before we realized how slow the tempo is, but that leaves plenty of room for the guitar solo and closing feedback.

“Sister Cry” introduces two other Jayhawks motifs—the competing choruses with simultaneously different lyrics, and trying to figure out which part Mark Olson is singing and which is Gary Louris. It takes a large pair of stones to begin a song with “you came and you gave without taking”, but that’s just what “Settled Down Like Rain” does. “Wichita” isn’t much more than two chords and a riff plus a chorus, with inscrutable lyrics on top, but it gives Gary another chance to wail. Just as mysterious is “Nevada, California”, another slow one, with plenty of room for ache and Gary’s Clarence White-influenced bending. We’d like to find this place too. (The liner notes from fellow musician Joe Hardy reference this song, and are worth reading.) A remake of “Martin’s Song” has a lot more bite and energy than its previous take for a terrific closer.

Hollywood Town Hall puts it all together—tasty folk-rock guitars, close harmonies, and good songwriting. The overall feel is of a band rocking out in a room, but of course that wasn’t the whole story. When the album was reissued and expanded, George Drakoulias supplied new notes telling the genesis of the album, starting with how he signed them by hearing Blue Earth on hold. When the band didn’t gel immediately in the studio, Charley Drayton (most famous from the X-pensive Winos) came in on drums, and helped them lay down the backing tracks, complete with one broken toe. Then all the parts were painstakingly crafted and added, ending with the vocals. (Benmont and Nicky were also added after the fact.) They fooled everyone.

At any rate, the sound of the band was a lot tighter, yet still faithful to their influences. As for the bonus tracks on the reissue, the three outtakes from the wonderfully titled Scrapple promotional EP are welcome for completeness’ sake; “Leave No Gold” has some striking twists and turns, “Keith & Quentin” is more country than the rest of the album, and “Up Above My Head” is rock gospel that would have slowed it down the wrong way. The previously unissued “Warm River” is a further fine example of the Olson/Louris blend, and “Mother Trust You Walk To The Store” provides further mythology. All just prove how well constructed the original album was.

The Jayhawks Hollywood Town Hall (1992)—4
2011 reissue: same as 1992, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, August 12, 2022

Clash 5: Sandinista!

The one word that is common to just about every review of this album is “mess”. And it’s true: the fourth album by the Clash is a sloppy, sprawling mess. Without a Guy Stevens to throw chairs at them, they produced themselves, and instead threw just about everything they could find into the mix, from recordings in London, New York, and Jamaica. Having made friends with various of Ian Dury’s Blockheads, they were invited to contribute. Joe Strummer’s old busking partner Tymon Dogg brought his violin, and Mick Jones was dating Ellen Foley from “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”, so she was around too. (The band would go on to back her up on her next album.) The year before they’d convinced Epic to release London Calling as two records crammed into one sleeve, so they did the same with this album, and then some: six sides full of sound, if not necessarily music. London Calling ran just over an hour; Sandinista! is over twice that length.

During that year reggae and dub had made big impressions on the band, and while disco may have sucked, rap was appealing. That makes “The Magnificent Seven” so startling, with beats straight from Grandmaster Flash and a bubbling Chic bass line. (Norman Watt-Roy of the Blockheads is responsible for this and some of the funkier bass lines throughout the album; Paul Simonon does play, but not as loudly nor as proficiently.) Some dreamy keyboards and a Motown beat bring in “Hitsville U.K.”, which barely sounds like a Clash song since Ellen Foley’s vocals are mixed louder than Mick’s. Joe turns the blues song “Junco Partner” inside out to a wacky reggae backing, then Topper Headon takes his first lead vocal on “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”, an upbeat track dominated by what sounds like the Space Invaders and Pac-Man arcade games at top volume. “The Leader” is the shortest song in the entire set, with some good rockabilly that actually sounds like the band for a change. It’s over before you know it, and is nudged aside by “Something About England”, which sounds like half of a big production, as if they loaded up the multitracks and forgot to raise the faders on the rhythm section for the first minute or so. There’s a strong lyric in there, but you can’t hear it.

Side two starts with another track unlike anything they’d done before. “Rebel Waltz” sports an intricately picked guitar line before a harpsichord(!) and other keyboards fill in under it—another strong tune distracted by the mix. Whatever gravitas it’s supposed to impart isn’t helped by “Look Here”, a Mose Allison tune mostly played straight but, again, smothered with atonal touches. With “The Crooked Beat”, Paul gets to follow up the threat laid down by “The Guns Of Brixton” on an even longer song layered in percussion devoid of meter or tempo. (In foreshadowing, the latter half of the track is basically a dub version. Stay tuned; we’ll explain.) Guitars return on “Somebody Got Murdered”, a starkly matter-of-fact statement heavily laden with futility. “One More Time” is a decent fusion of rock and reggae, but you have to juggle Joe’s fake accent with the highly nasal toasting from Mikey Dread. We fade to silence, and then we’re treated to “One More Dub”, an experiment that works.

After an aircheck of Joe calling into progressive New York radio station WBAI, “Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)” is something of a retread of “The Magnificent Seven” but not as slick. It ends abruptly for “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)”, which sounds like the Clash again, to take over. There’s an extended ending where the song begins to fade under some feedback, then comes back in before fading for good. “Corner Soul” is another one lost to a busy mix and even more Ellen Foley, but mixed lower. A tape of a street huckster opens and closes the otherwise steel drum-fueled “Let’s Go Crazy”, but the more obviously dub-influenced “If Music Could Talk” is an improvement. Then things go completely off the rails for “The Sound Of Sinners”, a completely unexpected gospel rave-up with Topper adding a nice harmony. There’s even a benediction of sorts at the end.

With that setup, side four almost sounds like where the album (or another one) should start, as the guitar siren of “Police On My Back” makes you think the Clash you’ve been used to have returned after all, but surprise! Eddy Grant wrote this song, before he rocked on down to Electric Avenue. “Midnight Log” is another brief one in the vein of “The Leader”, while “The Equaliser” is a mostly dub track of double length that sounds like it’s missing the main context. “The Call Up” was the danceable first single, an anti-draft protest that still takes up a lot of space. Its sentiment is continued in “Washington Bullets”, which gives the album its title and skewers every country that subscribes to the military industrial complex. In a poor mixing choice, the organ is absolutely pinned at the end of the track. “Broadway” could be Strummer’s Sinatra moment, or at least a prediction of the Replacements’ “Nightclub Jitters”, but the mix is too crazy, and just to make things interesting, the last minute is given over to Mickey Gallagher’s daughter’s rendition of “The Guns Of Brixton”. By now anyone would be justified in calling this the band’s White Album.

The Clash-ness continues at the top of side five on “Lose This Skin”, except that it’s written and caterwauled by Tymon Dogg, whose sawing violin predicts the Waterboys. Some clever helicopter effects via guitar open the extremely melodic “Charlie Don’t Surf”. It’s one of the better tracks here, but by now it’s clear they were struggling to fill six sides, as “Mensforth Hill” runs “Something About England” backwards, with posed dialogue on top. (Again, White Album.) After that “Junkie Slip” sounds like another one that should’ve been a B-side, and while “Kingston Advice” has promise, it’s literally torpedoed throughout by video game noises. Similar sound effects are used like percussion on “Street Parade”, which deserves better.

Side six is either loved or hated, considering that most of it recycles what’s come before. But first we have “Version City”, which opens with the sound of a sample from Mattel’s version of the Mellotron winding up under an unctuous announcer, a bad omen for how the rest of an otherwise decent song is treated. “Living In Fame” is a dub version of “If Music Could Talk” sung by Mikey Dread, but then the sample and announcer come in again and “Silicon On Sapphire” layers a conversation between computers (this is not a joke) over the track for “Washington Bullets”. “Version Pardner” takes us all the way back to “Junco Partner” on side one, and isn’t as jarring, but it’s just as random. Mickey Gallagher’s sons get into the act, singing “Career Opportunities” from the first album over a sprightly harpsichord-led arrangement. And where else can we go with a mellow instrumental of “Police & Thieves” (or maybe “If Music Could Talk”?) called “Shepherds Delight”, possibly due the bleating interjections, that suddenly switches to a slowed-down tape of a car driving off?

There’s nothing pointedly awful on Sandinista!—surely “Mensforth Hill” would have its supporters. Even the dub versions on side six would have made decent B-sides, and then people would be clamoring for them. Still, trying to shave the album to a stellar single disc is near-impossible. Call it the results of a busy year, and take time to see what rises to the top. If anything, the dub experiments heard on B-sides and Black Market Clash will not only make more sense, but improve in stature.

The Clash Sandinista! (1980)—3

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Rickie Lee Jones 4: The Magazine

Her next “real” album took some time, but apparently Rickie Lee Jones found inspiration in Paris, and managed to kick whatever her addictions to record The Magazine. The producer is different, but the sound is still slick, with the reliable Steve Gadd drumming on several tracks and various members of Toto here and there. The big difference is the use of synthesizer, which is subtle, but pronounced in the all-digital recording.

“Prelude To Gravity” is a lovely piano instrumental with light strings, whereas “Gravity” itself crashes in with drums. It’s a very complicated song, with lots of tempo shifts and accents, and poetry we can’t begin to decipher. While it begins like a nursery rhyme, “Juke Box Fury” is more along the lines of her jazz-bo hits. It even has the same hackneyed horn part from her other albums, pinning the choruses, but her vocal blend at the end of each still kills. We’re amazed that “It Must Be Love” wasn’t a hit single, either by her or anybody else, since it’s one of the most perfectly mainstream songs she’d yet written, with just enough of the right ingredients to make it original. “Magazine” recalls the sadder stories from Pirates, and we’re not sure whether the narrator is waiting for a lover or a drug connection.

Those horns return “The Real End”, which seems like a more obvious choice for a single with its simple pre-chorus hook and matter-of-fact cynical lyrics about fleeting romance. There’s a stretch where she layers her own voice like horns, which would have been enough. “Deep Space”, subtitled “An Equestrienne In The Circus Of The Falling Star”, provides another welcome see-saw shift to quiet, especially before “Runaround”, which mentions the “Juke Box Fury”, and sounds like two different songs forced together. The album closes with three pieces called “Rorschachs”. The first is a very European instrumental with trilling guitars and mandolins and a hummed melody called “Theme For The Pope (Marrants D’eau Douce)”, which translates as “sweet water fools”. (There is a version out there sung as a duet with Sal Bernardi—yeah, him again—in French, and seem to describe some lost souls between Memphis and Nashville. We had to look this up, because the lyrics aren’t included on the original vinyl.) “The Unsigned Painting” begins with a lonesome plaint, which is brushed aside by a spoken impressionistic piece. This segues into the more musical “The Weird Beast”, which continues the strange imagery via interlocking vocals.

The album works best when she’s exploring, making the more adult contemporary ear candy seem out of place. The Magazine is impenetrable to be sure, but somehow she makes it all very compelling. The listener wants to understand the songs, and that makes it worthwhile. She’s unique, all right.

Rickie Lee Jones The Magazine (1984)—3

Friday, August 5, 2022

Elvis Costello 37: The Resurrection Of Rust

In 1972, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named D.P. MacManus joined forces with a fellow aspirant named Allan Mayes in the latter’s combo, a folk-rock outfit dubbed Rusty. Eventually whittled down to the duo, the pair performed under that moniker for about 18 months in and around Liverpool before going their separate ways. In time MacManus would change his name to Elvis Costello, and while Mayes has continued to play music professionally in the decades since, he hasn’t attained a fraction of the acclaim or notoriety his erstwhile partner has.

Roughly fifty years after their initial collaboration, the two reunited to finally record what amounts to a six-song demo. The Resurrection Of Rust is supposedly drawn from their old repertoire, now with the added extra of having the Imposters backing them on each track. (As with Elvis’s last album, all the parts were recorded from various studios around the world, brought together in the mix. Thanks, Covid.) As a bonus, the prominent organ on the infectious “Surrender To The Rhythm” is contributed by Bob Andrews, who played on the original Brinsley Schwarz recording.

That song and the slower, soulful “Don’t Lose Your Grip On Love” are Nick Lowe covers—a writer who looms large in Costello’s history, and whose voice that of Mayes occasionally resembles—from the same album, while “I’m Ahead If I Can Quit While I’m Behind” was also covered by the Brinsleys back then. “Warm House (And An Hour Of Joy)” is a D.P. McManus original said to be a crowd-pleaser back then; here he sings it in his “precious” voice and harmonizes with himself as well as Mayes. “Maureen And Sam” is possibly the most intriguing song, since this original co-write would one day emerge heavily re-written as “Ghost Train”. In this incarnation, the subjects of the song are treated with much more pathos, with major-seventh chords to match. The staccato sections may have been part of the original arrangement, but here Elvis plays it way too heavy, and the canned applause halfway through distracts. The mood is lifted by their medley of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”; Elvis makes his long-awaited debut on electric violin here, in addition to the mandolin he trills here and elsewhere. (We’re pretty sure he wasn’t proficient on those in 1972. To make collectors even more irate, the Japanese version includes an actual Rusty demo from that year, the lo-fi “Silver Minute”.)

Pleasant as it is, the duo’s voices aren’t a natural blend—Elvis tends to emote to his nature, while Mayes sings low yet convincingly on his own. He’s the better guitarist, having spent all that time on the road playing covers, but Elvis nudges his own leads into the mix here and there. Nonetheless, The Resurrection Of Rust is a labor of love, and the mutual affection is evident in every note. A sequel would be welcome.

Rusty The Resurrection Of Rust (2022)—3