Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Lou Reed 33: I’m So Free and Words & Music

Neither the labels nor the estate of Lou Reed immediately plundered their vaults for saleable archival material; rather, both waited several years. When “new” music did arrive, there was a similar theme, although different periods in the man’s development as a songwriter were addressed.

I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos was one of those fifty-year copyright dumps that collectors trawl the file-sharing sites for every December, but then RCA put it out as a Record Store Day exclusive with an eye-catching cover and liner notes, and eventually for streaming with four more songs. These are basic acoustic guitar and vocal run-throughs, recorded professionally, of songs that would be considered for his first solo album. Every song that would appear there is auditioned here, including the leftovers from the last days of the Velvet Underground. We also get previews of later album cuts, including “Perfect Day”, “New York Telephone Conversation”, “Kill Your Sons” (with war-protest lyrics), and “She’s My Best Friend”, as well as a charming “I’m Sticking With You”. Throughout he’s immersed in each performance, laughing at any lyrical flubs, and instructing the engineer where the breaks are and when to fade.

This snapshot of the artist stepping out is particularly interesting when compared to the album that followed soon afterwards. As the first release in the projected Lou Reed Archive Series, Words & Music, May 1965 presented the contents of a demo tape he recorded then mailed himself to preserve its authenticity. Dating from before the recordings heard in the Peel Slowly And See box, he’s still firmly in the thrall of Bob Dylan, from the delivery to the fingerpicking, even on songs we’d get to know via the Velvets. John Cale helps out on several songs, including the immortal “Buttercup Song”, which was teased for decades as “Never Get Emotionally Involved With A Man, Woman, Beast Or Child”, and takes the lead vocal on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”, which features that same maddening single beat on a sarinda as on the box. “Men Of Good Fortune” would be a title he’d use eventually, but not with these words, sung from the point of few of a fair maiden. The other “new” songs are of varying interest, though “Stockpile” has rocking promise. And the early version of “Pale Blue Eyes” is lovely. (As a bonus for some editions of the album, six cuts go even further back, as for as 1958 for his own doo-wop composition “Gee Whiz”, then up to 1963 or 1964 for two Dylan covers—an instrumental “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” with new words, both with harmonica—plus a run through “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore” and two nondescript blues.)

Together these albums are certainly essential for collectors. For the rest of the world, they actually show a kinder, gentler Lou who just wanted to write catchy songs, rather than the grouch determined to shock and upset.

Lou Reed I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos (2022)—3
Lou Reed
Words & Music, May 1965 (2022)—3

Friday, November 25, 2022

Roxy Music 11: Street Life

Whenever a band splits up, you can usually expect some kind of compilation or other contractual release in short time. Back in 1983, Roxy Music’s old American label put out The Atlantic Years 1973-1980, heavy on Manifesto and Flesh + Blood, adding only “Love Is The Drug” and “Do The Strand” from before the hiatus, with a fetching model’s face on the cover.

While it has its charms, they band deserved a more comprehensive career overview, and they got one. Not released in North America until 1989, once the catalog had been collected under the Warner Bros. umbrella, Street Life does a yeoman’s job of not only pulling together Roxy’s best, but including six Bryan Ferry solo tracks for context. The cover boasted “20 Great Hits”, which filled up the compact disc’s mid-‘80s capacity of 74 minutes, which made for short LP sides.

Right away there’s left turn, as the pounding glam of “Virginia Plain” is nudged aside by Ferry’s inane interpretation of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. The obscure “Pyjamarama” single appears in a remix before “Do The Strand” and back to Bryan for “These Foolish Things”. “Street Life” and “Love Is The Drug” fight for space among two more Ferry cover attempts and the superior “Sign Of The Times”. Five terrific choices from Manifesto and Flesh + Blood are very welcome, but they also include the hideous “In The Midnight Hour”. “More Than This” and “Avalon” help to complete the story, with “Slave To Love” slotted in before their reverent cover of “Jealous Guy”.

For the beginner, Street Life was a good way to dip into the Roxy world, with the caveat that Ferry was in the lounge. A later set called More Than This was evenly split between the band and Ferry solo, with some selections jettisoned in favor of newer songs. A proper best-of Roxy, with nothing but Roxy in reverse chronological order, appeared in the new century and did the trick.

Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music Street Life—20 Great Hits (1986)—
Roxy Music
The Best Of Roxy Music (2001)—4

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Rush 24: Snakes & Arrows

While it wasn’t their longest break between albums, Rush certainly took their time before delivering Snakes & Arrows. Working with a producer who was four when their first album came out, the album is fairly heavy throughout, although Alex Lifeson adds a lot of acoustic guitar to the overall mix, and they indulge themselves as well as the listener with three instrumentals.

The first few bars of “Far Cry” remind us of their earlier prog tracks, but that changes to modern rock before even the vocals kick in. “Armor And Sword” has a big Presto sound with riffing and rhythm Metallica fans would appreciate, while “Workin’ Them Angels” has a mandolin for we believe the first time on a Rush album. “The Larger Bowl” is helpfully subtitled “A Pantoum” which is the rhyme scheme and structure the lyrics follow, and explains the repetition, which is effective. “Spindrift” is an odd one; though we like the “Witch Hunt” atmospherics at the start, the verses don’t seem to work with the choruses. Perhaps these ideas would be better suited in combination with “The Way The Wind Blows” two tracks later. While we can hear some vocals suggesting a melody, “The Main Monkey Business” is instrumental—not as intricate as “YYZ” or “La Villa Strangiato”, but still catchy in a stumble-along way.

After the aforementioned “The Way The Wind Blows”, “Hope” is just Alex on a 12-string for two minutes, providing something of a prelude to “Faithless”, which goes from tense to anthemic with subtle strings. “Bravest Face” is surprising lyrically, as it makes reference to popular songs and even TV shows, but the choruses are an improvement, and Alex plays an unexpectedly jazzy solo. “Good News First” is another rare Neil Peart lyric spoken conversationally, but the message is murky underneath the urgency of the music. The final instrumental, “Malignant Narcissism”, does indeed build on the conceit of those earlier epic epics, with tongues firmly in cheek. It’s a lot of fun. This already long album ends with “We Hold On”, which follows the theme of struggles scattered throughout the previous hour.

They toured behind the album, as would be expected. By now their marketing strategy seemed to have been borrowed from the Rolling Stones, as the following year’s Snakes & Arrows Live was their third live album in five years. Opening with a drawn-out tease on “Limelight”, they plow through old favorites, deep nuggets like “Digital Man”, “Entre Nous”, and “Circumstances”, and most of the new album note for note over the course of two discs that fans will find essential. Alex gets to play more acoustic due a new rig, and Neil’s drum solo follows “Malignant Narcissism”. (Thankfully, while the tour continued after the live album came out, which they were ostensibly now promoting, they didn’t release another live album covering that leg. Also, for those of you following along, Geddy’s side of the stage now included ovens with actively spinning rotisserie chickens.)

Rush Snakes & Arrows (2007)—3
Snakes & Arrows Live (2008)—3

Friday, November 18, 2022

Bruce Springsteen 29: Only The Strong Survive

From the start of his career, Bruce Springsteen would pepper his live sets with covers ready-made for the E Street Band to rip, usually crowd-pleasing numbers by Mitch Ryder and Gary U.S. Bonds. Even in this century he’s led the modern E Streeters through covers for specific occasions, such as “Purple Rain” and “London Calling” in tribute to their deceased auteurs, and even in Australia where he’s honored AC/DC with “Highway To Hell” and INXS with “Don’t Change”. He has always been a student of rock history, and particularly the sounds of classic soul.

Still, the idea that half a century into his career he’d record an album of nothing but covers—the Pete Seeger album notwithstanding—surprised and concerned many (except of course the diehards who were prepared to love anything he belched onto plastic). Moreover, rather than use the E Street Band, he left the performing and arranging on Only The Strong Survive to yes man Ron Aniello, while the Boss was content to just sing. (Granted, this was the impetus behind John Lennon’s oldies album, which didn’t have the easiest gestation itself.) Add the cover art, which used only his last name, threatened that this was the first of who knows how many volumes, and showed him posing next to yet another car but looking like an extra from The Sopranos, and he was in danger of turning into Rod Stewart, and nobody wants that.

Nonetheless, Bruce throws himself into the music, because he loves it. For the most part, these aren’t songs that were overplayed on the oldies stations back when the ‘60s were mined for those playlists.

The first voice we hear on the album isn’t his, but the backing vocalists setting up the title track. “Soul Days” was a hit from this century by Dobie “Drift Away” Gray, here set up as duet of sorts with the legendary Sam Moore, who already joined Bruce on the Human Touch album. This track should have been faded before the in-studio shout out, but it’s forgotten once the next track starts. It’s astounding to realize that “Nightshift”, a 1985 tribute to the recently departed Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, was a hit song for the suddenly Lionel Richie-less Commodores while Bruce himself was in the middle of the Born In The U.S.A. tour. (One wonders whether Volume 2 will include his interpretation of highlights from the Billy Ocean catalog.) “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” gets points for beginning with a guitar and glockenspiel like classic E Street Band, but the horns and strings bring it back to the sound at hand. On “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” he can’t decide if he wants to be Frankie Valli or Scott Walker, so he tries both; god forbid he use his own voice. “Turn Back The Hands Of Time” is one of the more musically interesting tracks, considering the chord changes and key shift, whereas “When She Was My Girl” was a surprise early-‘80s hit for the Four Tops, who are also represented by the more vintage “7 Rooms Of Gloom”.

“Hey, Western Union Man” comes from the same Jerry Butler album as the title track; modern listeners may well wonder what this “telegram” thing is that keeps getting mentioned. The Temptations get their nod with “I Wish It Would Rain”, a song that’s nearly impossible to screw up, and he doesn’t. Tangentially, “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” is a very faithful cop of Jimmy Ruffin’s version. Unfortunately, “Don’t Play That Song” is set in a “party” atmosphere, but fans will likely thrill to the reference to “summer nights down by the shore”. William Bell is represented by the obscure (to us) “Any Other Way” and “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” (another duet with Sam Moore) which we only knew in Billy Idol’s drastic overhaul. “Someday We’ll Be Together” delivers the same sense of farewell as it was when it was a Supremes single in name only.

Only The Strong Survive is not awful. Nor is it absolutely necessary. True believers will love it; everyone else should dig up the original versions, and anything else those artists did.

Bruce Springsteen Only The Strong Survive (2022)—3

Friday, November 11, 2022

Prince 20: Chaos And Disorder

Before we begin: By this point in history people found it easier to refer to The Artist Formerly Known As Prince with the acronym TAFKAP, and we’re going to adopt that here for the time being. It’s easier to pronounce than “o|+>” anyway.

Chaos And Disorder was presented as the “last original material” he owned Warner Bros., and given how they promoted it, they seemed to be fine with that. We were also supposed to believe he knocked it off quickly, but it was actually more crafted than that, as the evidence shows.

The first thing you notice is the electric guitar, and boy, is there a lot of it on this album, and more than had been heard on a TAFKAP album in years. The title track is a solid groove with support from the New Power Generation, and “I Like It There” is even more dominated by the guitar, and fit right in with grunge at the time. “Dinner With Delores” is almost soft-rock, with a gentle strum out of the Revolution’s mid-period; he also performed the song on two major talk shows within the same week. “The Same December” is also radio-friendly pop, though the song turns to harder rock before the first chorus, and becomes a slow swagger midway. “Right The Wrong” is horn-heavy social commentary about injustice that’s more interesting musically than lyrically, whereas “Zannalee” whose title seems to have been inspired by a certain hideous movie starring Judge Reinhold and Nicolas Cage; the song itself is an average blues notable for his uncanny impersonation of a heavily accented Minnesota cop.

“I Rock, Therefore I Am” would be a strong statement if the song did; instead it’s a showcase for vocalist Rosie Gaines and not one but two rappers. The piano balladry of “Into The Light” is a nice change of pace, though it soon turns into a pushy Christian anthem. There’s a direct segue into “I Will”, which is basically the second part of the song, making a nice suite, complete with a cocktail jazz piano solo and more guitar. “Dig U Better Dead” is a promising title with a techno groove and a mixed message, and the nasty “Had U” is an idea that fades before it really goes anywhere, except for a blunt kissoff.

While TAFKAP may not have considered Chaos And Disorder to be anything major, it’s still a solid, accessible album that works simply because it’s not labored. A few missteps aside, it deserves reevaluation by anyone who wrote it off.

o|+> Chaos And Disorder (1996)—3

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Van Morrison 44: Roll With The Punches

In our music retail days, we found it hard to get excited about new releases in the blues or reggae genres, as both were populated by performers who weren’t exactly groundbreaking. Each also had a lot of sameness, and repetition, so when an album stood out, it was rare.

That’s one of the stumbling blocks of Van Morrison’s Roll With The Punches, which is predominantly concerned with blues, mostly old and some new. There are a few special guests, which is no surprise, along with a few retreads, so very little grabs one’s attention.

The title track gets right to business, but the softer “Transformation” is just one track featuring Jeff Beck and Chris Farlowe, both of whom get more room to shine on “I Can Tell” and the forced medley of “Stormy Monday” and “Lonely Avenue”. Georgie Fame sings first on Count Basie’s “Goin’ To Chicago”, while another veteran of the ‘60s R&B scene, Paul Jones of the original Manfred Mann, gets to warble on Van’s latest complaint about “Fame”. Another original, “Too Much Trouble”, finally delivers a tune that could be a classic.

If you thought the only thing missing Van’s version of “Bring It On Home To Me” on It’s Too Late To Stop Now was Jeff Beck, your prayers have been answered. Jeff and Chris also spice up the surprising addition of “Ordinary People”, which pales against the original, but Sister Rosetta Thorpe’s “How Far From God” is a nice change of pace, as is the oldie “Teardrops From My Eyes”. From there it’s just Van doing more Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Automobile Blues”), Mose Allison (“Benediction”), T-Bone Walker (“Mean Old World”), and Bo Diddley (“Ride On Josephine”).

Were we in charge, and we certainly are not, we’d’ve ditched the all-star turns and stuck to the blues standards he hadn’t done to death yet. It had been a while since Van had really wallowed in the blues genre, so Roll With The Punches mostly delivers, except when it doesn’t. As had been the pattern, he recorded a bunch of songs, decided he had an album’s worth, and put it out. Take it or leave it, see if he cares.

Van Morrison Roll With The Punches (2017)—3

Friday, November 4, 2022

Nilsson 4: Harry

By the end of the decade Nilsson was starting to become equally known for singing as well as songwriting, certainly in the Hollywood industries. He was busy in the first part of 1969 working on the soundtrack for the over-the-top Otto Preminger film Skidoo, which featured two songs related to the “plot”, and “The Cast And Crew”, which literally read the film credits over musical backing. His next proper album played with his mystique with the simple title Harry, the boyhood photo on the front, liner notes by Apple publicist Derek Taylor’s daughter on the back, and sepia-toned snaps in the gatefold.

Opening with his own version of “The Puppy Song”, written originally for Mary Hopkin’s first album, he’s right back to the “vo-de-oh-doe” approach that filled up his first two RCA albums. “Nobody Cares About The Railroads Anymore” is another slice of nostalgia, but “Open Your Window” is a not-too-lush ballad that’s more restrained and therefore more successful. The Beatle fixation continues on a faithful cover of “Mother Nature’s Son”, with strings replacing the brass on the original. “Fairfax Rag” and “City Life” were both written by fellow Monkees songwriter Bill Martin; the former is forced ragtime, while the latter actually sounds contemporary, and is preferred.

“Mournin’ Glory Story” is also firmly in the present, a brief but heartbreaking portrait of what we used to call a bag lady, as is the romance glimpsed in “Maybe”, but then he adds a patriotic tune his mother wrote after World War II. “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City” was written but rejected for Midnight Cowboy in favor of “Everybody’s Talkin’”, the arrangement of which it almost pointedly resembles. “Rainmaker” was written with the aforementioned Bill Martin, and sounds like it could belong to a larger conceptual piece. He was smart enough to record Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” a full year before the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, while Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear” provides a preview of Nilsson’s next album.

With Harry, he finally, tentatively, breaks away from the overused stylistic gimmick of his earlier work and begins to approach his true potential. For that, it is recommended.

Nilsson Harry (1969)—3
1997 DCC reissue: same as 1969, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Kinks 25: One For The Road

Having had a few recent hits, plus interest spurred by classic rock radio in the U.S. and the U.K. mod revival, the Kinks had become a popular arena ticket over here. To cash in, One For The Road was a double live album culled from seven shows in preparation for and support of Low Budget, played over the space of a year. (Because of the times, the tracks received overdubs during the mixing process.)

Along with stalwart Mick Avory and Dave Davies living his guitar god dreams, they boasted Jim Rodford on bass and Ian Gibbons on keyboards, solidifying a lineup that would last for a few more albums. The theatrics and storylines were long gone—now it was all about the hits, the last album, well-chosen deep cuts like “The Hard Way”, “Misfits”, and “Prince Of The Punks”, and songs other bands had revived for them (“Stop Your Sobbing”, “David Watts”). For the most part, everything’s delivered straight, with the disco influenced ironed out of recent songs and “Celluloid Heroes” given an extended intro, but the ska rearrangement of “Till The End Of The Day” is just wrong for this band.

The album was a hit, with a gatefold package that included a double-sided poster, touted on the cassette as available for only a dollar to cover postage and handling. (Those were the days.) The first CD version of the album skipped “20th Century Man”; this was reinstated in the ‘90s in a package that included a bonus CD-ROM of live footage taken from the videocassette that came out back then, and appeared on DVD in 2001. Future reissues of the album were limited to the music.

The Kinks One For The Road (1980)—3