Friday, October 28, 2022

Robyn Hitchcock 33: Shufflemania!

We generally prefer Robyn Hitchcock albums either when he’s completely solo or playing with the same band on all tracks. In many cases, the albums that are pieced together from different sessions with rotating players don’t always succeed, but that can also be blamed on the songs. In the case of Shufflemania! however—though we’re still wondering how or if it’s supposed to related to another album—the scattered approach works. He’d already made the most of the 2020 pandemic to stay as creative as possible, and here he’s collaborated over the wires with 15 other players in as many studios. Some of these people include members of Wilco, the Raconteur who produced his last album, two former Soft Boys, Johnny Marr, Sean Lennon, and the lovely Emma Swift. He started with vocals and guitar, then had his guests fill in the rest.

A demo-quality strum chugs at speed and is soon taken over by a full band on “The Shuffle Man” for a snappy opener before “The Inner Life Of Scorpio” provides a calmer contrast, mostly contributed by Mr. Marr. As usual, the lyrics are inscrutable, as they are in “The Feathery Serpent God”, which is more mysterious but also more satisfying. It wouldn’t be a Robyn Hitchcock without a reference to a bygone mode of transportation, and “Midnight Tram To Nowhere” fits the bill, while “Socrates In Thin Air” returns to the more whimsical lyrics of the ‘80s but with one of his modern choruses.

The suitably moody “Noirer Than Noir” begins a quieter side two, followed by the welcome intricate picking throughout “The Man Who Loves The Rain”. “The Sir Tommy Shovell” is a rocker about an imaginary pub, but we would very much like to visit. Plus, the title is another “shuffle man,” so there you go. “The Raging Muse” is another cool rocker, amazingly cobbled together from recordings done on three continents. While generally hopeful, “One Day (It’s Being Scheduled)” could be slightly improved by not giving away the payoff in the title.

With all that, Shufflemania! holds together well. We’re still waiting for another masterpiece, but this will do in the meantime.

Robyn Hitchcock Shufflemania! (2022)—

Friday, October 21, 2022

Yes 5: Close To The Edge

Seemingly at full strength by retaining the same lineup for two straight albums, Yes put all they had into Close To The Edge. To prove they weren’t kidding, the album consisted of one side-long epic backed with two other lengthy pieces to establish themselves as the prog trailblazers. (The simple green cover with the band photos on the back—including one shot of co-producer Eddy Offord—may seem oddly ordinary, but fear not: a trademark Roger Dean landscape takes up the gatefold.)

After bird song and water effects fade in, the instrumentalists take a couple of minutes to see how fast they can play and still keep in sync, and eventually a theme emerges on Steve Howe’s guitar. This first part is titled “The Solid Time Of Change” and sports lyrics and a chorus that will recur in the others. The second part, “Total Mass Retain”, is similar musically, except that the chorus hooks are sung faster. Rick Wakeman’s organ takes over the earlier theme, and we move to the more ethereal “I Get Up I Get Down” interlude, which ruminates on that theme with interlocking vocals before a massive pipe organ provides a very churchy atmosphere. A bleepy synthesizer shifts the proceedings back to the original theme and the final “Seasons Of Man” portion. After eighteen minutes, the “I get up I get down” melody is something of a relief and a release, and too brief before a calliope brings back the birds and water.

While “Close To The Edge” may seem indulgent and an acquired taste, we can’t say the same for “And You And I”. For our money, this is the quintessential Yes track, from Steve’s initial harmonics to check his tuning while the organ provides a melodic bed, and then that wonderful 12-string intro. This song too has parts, beginning with “Cord Of Life” over three simple chords played ad infinitum until finally there’s a switch to a pre-chorus that sets up the transition to “Eclipse”, an almost symphonic theme. A simple (for them) Leslie effect on the guitar brings in a slower repeat of the chorus, which hangs there until the 12-string intro returns. “The Preacher, The Teacher” speeds up the musical themes to a more jaunty backing, eventually building up to the pre-chorus for a reprise of the “Eclipse” section, which reaches a fermata (look it up), and “The Apocalypse” is the odd title given to the final 45 seconds and the final chorus.

All that happens in ten minutes, but we’ve still got the rest of side two to go. While it’s certainly intricate and complicated, “Siberian Khatru” is comparatively straightforward and rocking. A strong guitar riff always helps, and the band comes in with a driving rhythm of its own while Howe tweedled-ee-dees on top. They keep the energy going for the duration, there’s a harpsichord solo, and the lyrics make absolutely no sense.

Close To The Edge is a lot of people’s favorite Yes album, which we can understand. There is a lot going on, and most of it is, well, edgy and distracting, so it’s not the type of thing we can throw on at any hour of the day. As we’ve probably said before, we do respect certain prog performers because it does take a lot of work to write lengthy compositions with multiple parts that fit together, and Yes does that here.

Naturally the album was expanded when its time came. It’s always interesting when bonus tracks outnumber an album’s original tracks; while the single version of their cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” may seem redundant as the expanded Fragile included the full version, more interesting is the edit of “Total Mass Retain” used as its B-side. Early mixes of “And You And I” and “Siberian Khatru” just sound empty, because they are. Steven Wilson helmed the stereo and surround mixes for the later “definitive edition”, which had even more extras on the Blu-ray.

Yes Close To The Edge (1972)—
2003 remastered CD: same as 1972, plus 4 extra tracks
2014 Definitive Edition: “same” as 1972, plus 2 extra tracks (plus DVD or Blu-ray)

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Smithereens 10: The Lost Album

In 1993, the Smithereens were without a label, but decided to record an album anyway. Then they began negotiations with another label, and promptly abandoned the work in progress for a whole new collection of songs. A Date With The Smithereens was recorded and released to little interest, and onward they went.

Many of the abandoned songs made it to the public in the form of demos and such on various self-produced compilations, but in 2022 what’s simply called The Lost Album made it to shelves. While it’s “80% finished” according to bassist Mike Mesaros’ liner notes—indeed, some tracks have only a tambourine for percussion—it’s still got a freshness and excitement that Date mostly lacked.

The songs lack the big boomy sound that characterized their first albums, but that dearth of punch doesn’t get in the way of the songs, which are all quality. “Out Of This World” is a decent retread of “Top Of The Pops”, and “Dear Abby” thankfully isn’t written as a contribution to an advice column. It sounds like there’s a whole other vocalist on “Don’t Look Down”—allegedly Pat’s own voice as a placeholder for a player to be named later—but “A World Apart” nicely cops the sound of Beatles ‘65 again. So far it’s standard Smithereens, which makes the “Iron Man” stomp of “Stop Bringing Me Down” a welcome departure. After almost six minutes of that, it’s a good switch back to the simple pop of “Pretty Little Lies”.

“Monkey Man” is neither the Stones song, nor the Toots & The Maytals track ska’d up by the Specials, but a terrific riff nonetheless. “Everyday World” is harmless, while “Face The World With Pride” sports a wonderful riff and snappy verses that deserve a better title and hook, no matter how painstakingly it was sung. “Love Runs Wild” and “All Through The Night” probably wanted big productions with strings and whatnot, and while Pat Dinizio’s joke songs don’t usually work, “I’m Sexy” just needs to change that one word to work.

Again, the tunes are solid, and most any would have improved A Date With The Smithereens. It’s doubtful they would have changed the overall fortune of that album, but at least we can hear them now.

The Smithereens The Lost Album (2022)—3

Friday, October 14, 2022

Kiss 10: The Solo Albums

The next part of the bold 1978 plan to keep Kiss product on the shelves was the risky idea to issue four solo albums simultaneously. To preserve a semblance of unity, each was “dedicated” to the other three, but were recorded separately with no input from the others, though some hired guns appeared on more than one. They were even individually issued on picture discs. Besides getting over two hours of Kiss-related musical content paired with specific merchandise order forms, those rabid consumers who bought all four got each segment of an interlocking poster. Just because, we’ll tackle the albums from left to right when all the posters are connected.

Because of the lead vocals and all the layered rhythm guitars with help from band acolyte Bob Kulick—plus, he wrote all the songs—Paul’s album sounds the most like Kiss. That also means the lyrics are really dumb. But it’s musically consistent, which helps if you’re a Kiss Army cadet not seeking exotic adventure. For instance, “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me” crosses the verse of “Rock ‘N Roll All Nite” with a perfect power-pop chorus, and “Take Me Away (Together As One)” has cascading acoustic guitars and an extended Abbey Road-style coda. Paul Stanley suggests what a 1978 Kiss album would have sounded like were he able to corral the others, though he might not have managed to convince Peter to croon “Hold Me, Touch Me” (Think Of Me When We’re Apart)”.

Gene’s album starts with a demonic laugh and nightmare strings heralding the otherwise ordinary rock of “Radioactive”, and the album proceeds mostly in a standard rock motif. Despite his image, he seems to want to present himself as a well-rounded entertainer, calling on lots of special guests, including Joe Perry, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Rick Nielsen on guitars, and backing vocals from Donna Summer, Helen Reddy, Janis Ian, the future Peg Bundy, and two of the guys from Beatlemania. “Living In Sin” (“at the Holiday Inn”, naturally) sports a cameo from Cher as an excited fan on the phone, “See You In Your Dreams” gets a redo, and the whole shmeer ends with a lush take on “When You Wish Upon A Star”. Despite his limited range, Gene Simmons is silly but adept.

Peter was always the odd man out of the band, and his solo album didn’t help. Vocally he wasn’t awful if a little generic, while his personal musical taste leaned more toward R&B, which in those days meant less like Stax/Volt and more like disco. “Kiss The Girl Goodbye” used the band logo in the typography, but nothing on the album resembled the band in the least. His take on “Tossin’ And Turnin’” might have wowed them on American Bandstand, but we keep expecting to him to turn into Benny Mardones or some other yacht rocker. Even fans of “Beth” and/or “Hard Luck Woman” aren’t going to find anything like that on Peter Criss, except for maybe “I Can’t Stop The Rain”. At least he played most of the drums.

Ace wasn’t easy to corral in the band either, but his album is easily the best of the batch musically. He plays nearly everything himself, helped by future bandmate Anton Fig and that guy’s future Letterman cohort Will Lee, and wisely brought Eddie Kramer on board to produce. His vocal shortcomings are neatly obscured by the riffing and soloing, and the songs are intricate but catchy, as well as heavy (and dopey) enough for Kiss. “Snow Blind” and the Queen-like “Wiped Out” hint at pharmaceutical overload—even in those days we heard rumors of disorderly behavior at dives all over Westchester County. “Ozone” is mostly an excellent guitar track, making the vocal arbitrary, while “Fractured Mirror” is wholly instrumental. The big hit was “New York Groove”, which he didn’t even write himself, and pushed Ace Frehley as the album to have even if you didn’t like Kiss.

To promote the albums, various songs were used on the soundtrack of the band’s first and only major film project, Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park, which pretty much continued the band’s slide into irrelevance. In Europe and elsewhere, a Best Of Solo Albums compilation plucked three tracks at random from each, leading wisely with “New York Groove”. While they’re not horrible, any suggestion that these albums were the equivalent of the bumper bundle left by the former Beatles in 1970 is just ludicrous.

Paul Stanley Paul Stanley (1978)—3
Gene Simmons
Gene Simmons (1978)—3
Peter Criss
Peter Criss (1978)—2
Ace Frehley
Ace Frehley (1978)—3

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Pretenders 17: Hate For Sale

Not that Chrissie Hynde worked at a frantic pace, but Hate For Sale is the first Pretenders album in a while that earns the use of the band name. For one, Martin Chambers is back on drums, and the other two guys had already appeared on a previous album. Plus, the producer is Stephen Street, who helmed the desk for the band’s ‘90s albums. Also, it rocks. Mostly.

Chrissie wrote all the songs with guitarist James Walbourne, and they’re all pretty solid. The title track is a furious opener, complete with false start, while “The Buzz” sports an intro very much like “Kid”. “Lightning Man” evokes the reggae of “Private Life”, with a melodica right out of Twin/Tone. We don’t know what “Turf Accountant Daddy” is supposed to be about, but at least she finds “Cincinnati” to be a better rhyme than “Reno, Nevada”. (We also like the nod to Blondie in the brief synth solo.) “You Can’t Hurt A Fool” gives her a chance to be soulful.

“I Don’t Know When To Stop” takes us back to the loud bash at the beginning, then “Maybe Love Is In NYC” subverts the familiar “All Along The Watchtower” chords by arpeggiating the electric and strumming a prominent acoustic, and finding a catchy melody for the chorus. The trashy “Junkie Walk” is followed by Bo Diddley filtered through “Didn’t Want To Be This Lonely”. She waits until the very end to flip the script, with the overly emotional “Crying In Public”, accompanied by piano and her go-to Duke String Quartet.

At just over thirty minutes, Hate For Sale is short and to the point. It’s also the first Pretenders album in a long time worthy of playing on a loop. Not bad for a few veterans pushing 70.

Pretenders Hate For Sale (2020)—

Friday, October 7, 2022

Phil Collins 12: Love Songs

So this was odd. Six years after a proper hits collection, Phil Collins doubled up with a two-disc set of favorites from his solo career, and included a handful of rarities. In keeping with his image as a romantic balladeer, Love Songs was subtitled A Compilation… Old And New. Only four songs are repeated from that first set of hits, which we guess is the good news.

The problem is we didn’t need two discs of this drivel. Four songs come from Both Sides, none of them hits; he also has a better opinion of his last two solo albums than we do. We approve the revival of “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away”, but “This Must Be Love” and “If Leaving Me Is Easy” were hardly highlights of his solo debut. The only real hit that postdated the …Hits set was “You’ll Be In My Heart.”

So what was “new”? “Tearing And Breaking” is a collaboration with folk hero John Martyn, and a sleep-inducing opener to disc one. A live “rehearsal” of “True Colors” avoids cries of redundancy with the hits album, but is unnecessary; similarly, “Separate Lives” is the inferior live version. Two songs from ‘90s various artists are mopped up—Curtis Mayfield’s “I’ve Been Trying”, “Somewhere” from West Side Story—though live covers of “My Girl”, the standards “Always” and “The Way You Look Tonight” aren’t going to convince anyone they’re definitive.

While Love Songs was a good idea, somebody should have explained to Phil that just because a song concerns relationships or includes the word “love” somewhere doesn’t mean it belongs in a sequence with others of the same slim criteria. Most of all, at this juncture we wondered who exactly comprised his audience.

Phil Collins Love Songs: A Compilation… Old And New (2004)—2

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Phil Collins 11: Brother Bear

Then again, maybe Testify was indeed a sop given to Phil Collins solely to ensure he’d write another soundtrack to a Disney film about anthropomorphic animals designed to terrify children. Brother Bear doesn’t seem to have endured at all like Tarzan has, but it’s clear Phil put in a lot of effort.

Once again Mark Mancina assisted with the score, and his contributions are heard on the latter half of the album, along with further songs repeated in different arrangements. The songs are about what one has come to expect from Phil, and could easily have been parsed out to individual albums, except that they were written to order. “Look Through My Eyes” wants to be this album’s “You’ll Be In My Heart” but isn’t. Tina Turner is given the lead vocal on “Great Spirits” for some reason; Phil’s version would be a bonus track on certain retail editions of the album. “Welcome” is pure Disney, first in a Phil-sung version, and later led by Oren Waters of the Waters family with the Blind Boys of Alabama (fresh from Peter Gabriel sessions). “No Way Out” (another phrase used for a recent Gabriel song) also appears twice, first with something of a ‘90s Genesis vibe, but the cheery-sounding chorus does not match the sentiment in the lyrics at all. The second version is more direct to the plot, slower, and more anguished, both in delivery and reception. “Welcome” is sung first in Inuit by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir (!) and later by Phil with a completely different vibe. “On My Way” is more typical, and should pop up in any number of department store commercials.

As before, we haven’t seen this movie, don’t plan to, and will try to avoid it just because traumatized cartoon animals make us sad. Nor have we seen the sequel, which roped in Melissa Etheridge for its soundtrack. Brother Bear is therefore reserved for Collins completists and Disney fetishists.

Brother Bear: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack (2003)—