Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Elton John 20: The Fox

The Geffen label started out by wooing established artists, and after Donna Summer and John Lennon (and Yoko Ono), Elton John was the label’s next release. For several reasons, The Fox was overlooked then, and still seems so today. For starters, David Geffen felt the first batch of songs Elton presented was under par, so several tracks were revived after being left over from the 21 At 33 sessions. Once complete, it wasn’t promoted very well, and those who did buy the album were greeted with a rather disjointed sequence of music that went all over the place, with contributions from multiple lyricists.

“Breaking Down Barriers” is strong beginning, with waterfall piano lines and a defiant vocal over a mildly discofied arrangement that still rocks. “Heart In The Right Place” aims to be even dirtier, with the perpetual guitar solo from Steve Lukather, but the mix buries the vocal under way too much. “Just Like Belgium” sports an inscrutable Bernie Taupin lyric and a throwback ‘70s sound, with a little jangle thrown in and a woman whispering in French, whereas “Nobody Wins” is basically a cover of a song in that language, with new lyrics by Gary Osborne and a distinctly Euro-synth backing. He gets political on the angry “Fascist Faces”, which continues the modern rock sound and brings back the Rev. James Cleveland and his choir for more counterpoint. Elton even takes a piano solo.

His piano is the focus for the first part of side two, in the lushly orchestrated instrumental “Carla/Etude”, which is actually two pieces neatly stuck together. “Fanfare” is a not-brief enough James Newton Howard synth arrangement of the song that follows, and sounds like it belongs to someone else’s album. “Chloe”, the song itself, is a little better, though it sounds like a minor-key retread of “Little Jeannie”. “Heels Of The Wind” is another throwback, musically as well as lyrically via Bernie, but there’s something a little too by-the-numbers about it. That cannot be said for “Elton’s Song”, a heartbreaker written to a lyric by Tom Robinson. While the rarely-seen video makes it plain, this soliloquy of unrequited love is more poignant when heard as intended: from one schoolboy to another. That elegance makes the title track an odd finale, but there is a certain determinism in the track, which features harmonica from Mickey Raphael, soon familiar from his work with Willie Nelson.

The biggest obstacle with The Fox is that it doesn’t know what sort of album it wants to be. It’s one thing to have diverse styles, but when they jar rather than complement, the result is less than successful. As had happened before, the production and arrangements let down the potential of what could be excellent songs.

Elton John The Fox (1981)—

Friday, September 16, 2022

Grateful Dead 17: Go To Heaven

It was time for another Dead album. Their Arista deal still required them to work with an outside producer, and this time they got Gary Lyons (another guy who’d worked with Foreigner) who was also busy working on an Aerosmith album at the same time. Meanwhile, both of the Godchauxeseseses were gone, and were replaced in one swell foop by Brent Mydland, who could play keyboards as well as sing.

The humor in the Go To Heaven title wasn’t immediately obvious; the white suits on the hazy cover were likely intended to depict them as angels, but most people just assumed they’d gone full disco. Luckily, they hadn’t. Right off the top “Alabama Getaway” is a Garcia-Hunter rocker in the Chuck Berry mode, with a singalong chorus to boot. The new kid comes in strong too, with “Far From Me”, although his Michael McDonald huskiness and the overall production sound accidentally close to Pure Prairie League’s “Let Me Love You Tonight”. “Althea” rights the both lyrically and musically in a track that sounds like, well, the Dead. “Feel Like A Stranger” is a funky Bob Weir groove that leaves plenty of room for multiple guitar solos that probably went on well after the botched-sounding abrupt ending.

Bobby stays in front for the next two songs, which form something of a nautical suite. “Lost Sailor” is mysterious whether taken literally or figuratively, while the highly optimistic “Saint Of Circumstance” lifts the mood considerably. The drummers are credited with the slightly flatulent “Antwerp’s Placebo (The Plumber)” interlude before Brett shows his skill at composed in tricky time signatures with “Easy To Love You”. He’s also brought synthesizers to the mix, but we could do without the steel drum solo. Then “Don’t Ease Me In” makes its first-ever appearance on a Dead album, 14 years after its first recording for their debut indie single, bringing things full circle.

While it was released in 1980, Go To Heaven is very much a ‘70s album, and a decent finish for that era of the band—more so than Shakedown Street anyway. For the next few years they’d stick to touring. (The eventual expanded CD doesn’t add much; limp covers of the traditionals “Peggy-O” and “Jack-A-Roe” suggest a spent bullpen, although the Garcia/Hunter rarity “What’ll You Raise” shows they weren’t at all dried up. To fill up the disc, three live versions from later in the year provide something of a preview of their next two albums.)

Grateful Dead Go To Heaven (1980)—3
2006 expanded CD: same as 1980, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Jeff Beck 17: Emotion & Commotion

After another layoff between albums, Jeff Beck decided to leave techno behind and get back to just playing. Emotion & Commotion combines songs featuring female vocals—thankfully, not the all-star route that made Carlos Santana really rich in this century—with unexpected covers, most accompanied by an orchestra. The focus is on melody.

We see the title is apt, as following his interpretation of Jeff Buckley’s version of Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christie Carol”, the “Hammerhead” riff comes tearing through. “Never Alone” is quieter, closer to his ‘80s fusion style underscored by the Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn production. The classic “Over The Rainbow” would be a lovely lullaby except that it’s followed by an “I Put A Spell On You” that sticks mostly to the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins original, with Joss Stone restraining herself just enough.

That ‘80s Trevor Horn sound returns on “Serene”, which wanders through dentist office territory but still lives up to its title, then Imelda May tackles the vocal on Jeff Buckley’s version of Nina Simone’s version of “Lilac Wine”. Lovely as that is, it’s no competition for his treatment of “Nessun Dorma” that to these ears is just as tearjerking as Luciano Pavarotti’s. Vinnie Colaiuta’s complicated rhythms bring in another Joss Stone vocal on “There’s No Other Me”, and we go out on a soft note with “Elegy For Dunkirk”, plucked from the Atonement soundtrack and featuring the classical vocals of one Olivia Safe.

Emotion & Commotion isn’t Jeff Beck’s most innovative album, but it’s a nice listen, and that helps a lot. Truth be told, we kept up with his catalog through all those middling albums just so we could crow about “Nessun Dorma”. We’re going to go listen to it again.

Jeff Beck Emotion & Commotion (2010)—3

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Frank Zappa 47: You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3

The third of six projected volumes in the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series returns to the grab bag style of the first. It’s not completely random, but it’s really of interest for fans only.

Disc one focuses on the 1984 band, which had a tendency towards reggae rhythms and had been represented in the racks solely on Does Humor Belong In Music?, which wasn’t available worldwide. Nowadays that disc is preferred, but there are some unique moments here, including 15-year-old Dweezil soloing on “Sharleena”, an extended jam on “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”, and “Drowning Witch” pieced together from three shows from 1984 and one from 1982. In-jokes abound, inspired by game shows and Ron Popeil gadget commercials, but we always like hearing Ike and Frank crack each other up throughout “Bobby Brown” and “Joe’s Garage”. Some “new” songs appear: “Ride My Face To Chicago” is a chance to solo, “Carol, You Fool” pits doo-wop against a reggae beat (which this band tended to fall back on to its detriment), and “Chana In De Bushwop” features lyrics from the mind of four-year-old Diva Zappa.

Disc two offers more variety era-wise, beginning with the original Roxy performances of “Dickie’s Such An Asshole”. A Terry Bozzio drum solo leads into an early performance of “Zoot Allures” that unfortunately switches to a guitar solo six years later over, yes, reggae. A chunk of the side two suite of You Are What You Is comes from an MTV concert in 1981, and the start of “Cocaine Decisions” from 1984 is edited onto a 1982 performance in a Sicilian soccer stadium during a riot, as depicted on the back cover of The Man From Utopia. Still trying to play through the tear gas, they segue into the unfortunately titled “Nig Biz”. For some reason 24 minutes is devoted to a confusing medley of “King Kong” compiled from three 1982 concerts, with a seven-minute detour into the Rainbow show in 1971 where he was knocked off the stage, all in different tempos. For further conceptual continuity, there is a reference to a poem read during “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” on Volume 1.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3 (1989)—3

Friday, September 2, 2022

Queen 5: A Day At The Races

Named after another Marx Brothers film and sporting a similar cover design, it’s easy to view A Day At The Races as a companion to Queen’s previous album. That would be incorrect, since it’s as different from A Night At The Opera as that was to Sheer Heart Attack, which this one more closely resembles.

Something of a pompous synthetic fanfare opens takes up the first minute, and it’s a distraction before “Tie Your Mother Down” crashes in with its terrific riff. After that solid opener, Freddie is left alone with his multitracked harmonies and his lonesome piano for “You Take My Breath Away”. At five minutes it takes a while to make its point, and the closing loop makes an unsettling transition to the more typical ‘70s rock of “Long Away”. Brian sings this one, and we’re reminded of how much his voice does match Freddie’s. “The Millionaire Waltz” begins like Freddie solo again, this time in operetta mode. When the drums finally come in, they’re welcome, but it’s become a little too much of a retread of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. “You And I” returns us to straight rock, proving once again how much of a secret weapon John Deacon was as a songwriter.

While “Somebody To Love” is as over-the-top as anything on this album, it’s still one of Freddie’s (and the band’s) greatest creations. Here it all comes together—the piano, the bass, the drums, the guitar, and especially the choir on top of that voice. We even feel let down after it dribbles to a close, since it’s followed by the angry rock outrage of “White Man” (though it should be said that English bands singing about the plight of Native Americans was a smart shift away from those who were obsessed with cowboys). It’s another U-turn to the mild vaudeville of “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”, more along the line of the Queen that had been emerging. Roger Taylor’s songs always stick out like a sore thumb on Queen albums, and “Drowse” fills the same requirement as “I’m In Love With My Car”, though it’s nowhere near as silly. Brian apparently provides the keyboards for “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)”, which is a nice lighter-waver sung partially in Japanese. The already anthemic song ends with that backwards-sounding fanfare that opens the album.

A Day At The Races is good, but it had a hard act to follow. Still, it shows they were trying, highlights their versatility, and continues the brand they were building. They were getting there, certainly. (Neither of the modern mixes on the 1991 expansion were included on the 2011 remaster. Instead, consumers got the backing track for “Tie Your Mother Down”—which still has the backing vocals on the choruses—a lengthy live “Somebody To Love” from 1982 and a preview of “You Take My Breath Away” from 1976, a slightly different “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” from a Top Of The Pops appearance, and an “HD mix” of “Teo Torriatte” that omits the crazy ending.)

Queen A Day At The Races (1976)—3
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1976, plus 2 extra tracks
2011 remaster: same as 1976, plus 5 extra tracks