Friday, December 30, 2022

Todd Rundgren 28: One Long Year

Novelty songs are a mixed blessing, as they can make or break a band who will still be destined to stay a one-hit wonder, while veterans usually know better than to try anything too trivial. That’s what makes “I Hate My Frickin I.S.P.” such a wonderful surprise from Todd Rundgren.

This positively rocking track—his first such tune since the first half of the ‘80s—is the opener of One Long Year, which compiles odds and ends he’d heretofore shared only with subscribed members to his website. Some of the lyrics are outdated, but damn, it’s still catchy. “Buffalo Grass” has obvious canned drums, but it’s got hooks throughout for another winner. We can’t say the same for the purposely robotic “Jerk”, which sounds like a response to Neil Young’s Trans album. Speaking of novelty songs, “Bang On The Ukulele Daily” is a Hawaiian arrangement of his old hit, performed for a polite Boston audience. It’s a mere distraction before the pure perfect pop of “Where Does The Time Go”.

The tiki lounge remake of “Love Of The Common Man” must have been left off With A Twist for whatever reason, and it’s odd here, but maybe it was designed to smooth the way for “Mary And The Holy Ghost”, a mildly industrial instrumental that shows he’s no mixmaster, particularly in the faux-orchestral interludes. “Yer Fast (And I Like It)” is mostly loud and stupid, but at least it’s got a lot of guitar. “Hit Me Like A Train” isn’t the best song here, but it’s pretty well constructed and he gets to use his “soul” voice, while “The Surf Talks” sounds like a new wave refugee.

One Long Year was a very nice surprise after a long decade of experimenting. It was nice to hear he could still make an accessible album mostly on his own, just like he used to.

Todd Rundgren One Long Year (2000)—3

Friday, December 23, 2022

Nick Lowe: Quality Street

While unfairly pegged a one-hit wonder thanks to “Cruel To Be Kind”, Nick Lowe is actually a rock ‘n roll legend. Having led the pub rock circuit in the ‘70s, he became a solid bass player and producer on call, having shepherded such luminaries as Chrissie Hynde and Elvis Costello through their first recording sessions. He’s still out there, playing gigs and rocking the best head of silver hair next to that of Robyn Hitchcock.

Even though he’s managed to “do his own thing” into this century—and granted, steady royalties from a cover of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” on the bajillion-selling soundtrack to The Bodyguard helped—his record label still wants his records to be lucrative. They apparently were the ones who suggested he do a Christmas album, and he was polite enough to give it a shot.

Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family is just as likeable as its performer is reputed to be. Rockabilly-style versions of the spirituals “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “Rise Up Shepherds” have an edge on the Tex-Mex arrangement of “Silent Night”. Some relatively obscure covers get welcome airings, including Eddy Arnold’s “Christmas Can’t Be Far Away”, Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains”, and a lovely take on Roy Wood’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”. “The North Pole Express” comes from a kids’ record his drummer found, while “Just To Be With You (This Christmas)” puts a lounge twist on a song by modern blues band The Mighty Blue Kings.

His own songs are the real winners: “Christmas At The Airport” puts a positive spin on holiday traveling hell, while “I Was Born In Bethlehem” is a lovely perspective on the origin story. Lyrical help from Ron Sexsmith and Ry Cooder on “Hooves On The Roof” and “A Dollar Short Of Happy” respectively isn’t as successful, but they still fit. Altogether, with his band including longtime contributors Geraint Watkins and Bobby Irwin providing able support throughout, Quality Street fulfills the thesis in its subtitle. (For more fun, The Quality Holiday Revue Live offers highlights from the following year’s support tour with Los Straitjackets as the backing band; who also provide their surf cover of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus And Lucy”.)

Nick Lowe Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family (2013)—3

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Steve Perry 5: The Season

With nearly lightning speed, Steve Perry put out more new music only a year after his comeback with Traces. Granted, it was a Christmas single—an ill-advised cover of “Silver Bells”, plus an edit of same and a version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” with melodic liberties—but it did qualify as new.

As it turned out, these were merely appetizers for The Season, an eight-song collection of well-worn holiday standards, accompanied by the guy who produced Traces plus subdued drumming by Vinnie Colaiuta. When they’re sung straight, he just sounds old and tired, but those are more palatable than the tag he adds to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and the overly smooth touches on “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. We do have to give him points for restoring the intro verse to “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” but we also wonder whether the younger man would have belted these better, or just as cringingly.

A year later, following his recent trend, the album was reissued in a deluxe digital edition that began with two new original songs. “Maybe This Year” was a new original with some originality, for lack of a better word, while “This Christmas” revived an obscure Donny Hathaway track. While an improvement over the original program, the overall melancholy isn’t likely to make your spirits bright.

Steve Perry The Season (2021)—2

Friday, December 16, 2022

JD McPherson: Socks

Once the holiday season arrives, one’s tolerance of the frequency and preponderance of Christmas music is often related to how many times we have to hear the same songs over and over and over again. For every old favorite there seem to be fewer and fewer modern classics. Somebody had to write those songs in the first place, after all.

JD McPherson is a young-ish rockabilly player from the Tulsa area who took up this challenge and ran with it. Socks has the vibe of classic R&B, all self-penned originals, recorded with “no schmaltz”, though there is an occasional celeste to color the tracks. Beyond that, there are twangy guitars, honking saxes, piano triplets, and cheesy organs.

“All The Gifts I Need” sets the thesis, and the rest of the album follows it. “Bad Kid” and “Santa’s Got A Mean Machine” made us double-check that these weren’t actual oldies. “Hey Skinny Santa!” takes a clever culinary tour through various cities, and “Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy” is definitely one of those songs that should have been written already. The title track more than lives up to the promise of the cover art, reinforced by “Ugly Sweater Blues”, while “Claus Vs. Claus”, a duet with the sultry Lucie Silvas, provides a fresh angle on holiday stress at the North Pole, but we assure you there is a happy ending.

Socks is a short album, barely over half an hour, but there’s no filler. We wonder why more people don’t write songs like these, and when someone will get around to covering them.

JD McPherson Socks (2018)—

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

They Might Be Giants 11: Mink Car

They had several albums and oddities under their collective belts, and now They Might Be Giants had the cachet of having an original composition as the theme song for a major network television sitcom. However, Americans hoping to find “Boss Of Me” (as heard every week on Malcolm In The Middle) on Mink Car would have been disappointed, as the song was only available on versions overseas.

Instead, listeners got another unpredictable sequence of wildly different songs in almost as many styles, including odes to girls’ hairstyles (“Bangs”), a song about a pop-up disco that uses the music to illustrate its shortcomings (“Man, It’s So Loud In Here”), a Bacharach homage (the title track), a rewrite of a song already heard on a live album (“Another First Kiss”), a remake of a soul tune originally done by Mongo Santamaria and Georgie Fame (“Yeh Yeh”), remakes of songs from the album before (“Older” and “Edith Head”), a decent could-be hit (“Hopeless Deep Despair”), a pile of other songs we don’t have the patience to describe, and one terrific nod to their youth in the Boston suburbs (“Wicked Little Critta”).

Several producers are credited throughout Mink Car, suggesting that it was merely compiled from various sources until they had enough for two sides. While we do like the nutty side of the band, a little focus would’ve helped.

They Might Be Giants Mink Car (2001)—

Friday, December 9, 2022

Neil Young 67: World Record

When Neil’s on a roll, it shows. Back with Crazy Horse for an unprecedented third album in a row, World Record finds the boys holed up in the legendary Shangri-La Studios, now owned by co-producer Rick Rubin. Yet the sound is just as ragged and rough-hewn as anything Neil ever recorded in a barn. The environment is the main topic again, but at least the songs aren’t as ranting or myopic as before.

The lyrical content aside, “Love Earth” is a subdued and misleading opener; kids of a certain age will appreciate that he’s appropriated the melody from the closing theme from The Magic Garden TV show. Here we also hear the “kick tub” that will feature prominently among the band’s percussion. “Overhead” is almost jaunty, with a piano and what sounds like a banjo but isn’t listed. While we can’t say it’s dreamy, the middle section that provides the title and an interlude is a good transition between the halves. He’s said he started these songs by whistling as he walked, so we’ll forgive him for lifting his own melody from “Looking Forward” on “I Walk With You (Earth Ringtone)”. The track itself is nice and sludgy, with Nils Lofgren’s pedal steel providing another link to earlier albums. His accordion provides the other sound on the gentle “This Old Planet (Changing Days)”, which is otherwise pinned to a honky-tonk backing.

“The World (Is In Trouble Now)” delivers more parentheses and pounding, driven by a wheezy pump organ over a three note riff slash melody and one bass note. “Break The Chain” is only a little more inventive, but it’s all electric, which helps its “Fork In The Road”-style charm. “The Long Day Before” would almost be a lullaby but for the organ and the verse about television and the internet, and the closing slap at conspiracy theorist. “Walkin’ On The Road (To The Future)” uses most of the same instrumentation and has an anti-war message, making it poorly placed. The organ is still in use on “The Wonder Won’t Wait”, which could potentially be a cool electric stomp.

Those looking for epic Horse crunch will love “Chevrolet”, a 15-minute reverie into the past with intertwining guitars that yet again shows what Nils brings to the table, and makes the rambles on Psychedelic Pill seem even more tedious. After all that, what’s listed as a “Reprise” of “This Old Planet” is actually an early sketch, mumbled by Neil at the electric piano.

Partially as part of his campaign for his music to only be heard on vinyl, the first nine songs, which total a half-hour, are split between two sides on a record and make up one CD, while “Chevrolet” and the reprise constitute a third side and their own CD. His other excuse was this way the photos of his brother and sister were preserved on the individual sleeves. At any rate, anyone not streaming it has to get up and change discs, just like we used to. And you should, as “Chevrolet” definitely caps the album well.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse World Record (2022)—3

Friday, December 2, 2022

Tom Petty 24: Live At The Fillmore

The Heartbreakers were always a solid band for any occasion, not just when playing Tom Petty’s songs. Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench in particular kept busy over the years doing sessions, and once they got Steve Ferrone on drums, they were even more well-rounded.
After twenty years in the business Tom was looking for something other than the usual record-release-tour cycle, and also wanted to give the band a common purpose following a stretch including two solo albums with varying contributions from the stalwarts. A residency at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium gave them a chance to be something of a house band at the venue, and they took it as an opportunity to stretch. Songs compiled from the last six shows of the stand make up the contents of Live At The Fillmore – 1997. (A two-disc version was made available for some reason, even though anyone who would want that would be happy to splurge for the four-disc version, and not just for the replica patch, pass, and picks.)

Six performances are repeated from the Live Anthology set (and one was on An American Treasure, and two more were on the Wildflowers expansion) but there are about fifty others, and most of them are covers. Chuck Berry’s “Around And Around” opens the set, and he appears on disc four in a Stones inspired mini-set of “Satisfaction”, “It’s All Over Now”, and “Johnny B. Goode”, which incorporates verses from “Bye Bye Johnny”; “Time Is On My Side” gets an airing too. Little Richard is represented by “Rip It Up” and the Everlys’ arrangement of “Lucille”, while J.J. Cale is a surprising touchstone on three songs, including “Call Me The Breeze”. A quick run through “You Are My Sunshine” (which Tom says he “learned at camp”) prefaces “Ain’t No Sunshine”. Benmont gets to shine on two Booker T classics (“Hip Hug-Her” and “Green Onions”) and Mike shows off his surf roots via the Goldfinger theme and the Ventures’ arrangement of “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue”. Even utility man Scott Thurston gets to howl the bluegrass nugget “Little Maggie”. Howie Epstein is thanked, definitely playing bass, and probably harmonizing.

Disc three is the shortest and oddest, beginning with four Byrds songs backing Roger McGuinn and ending with three blues standards sung by John Lee Hooker with his personal lead guitarist. (He thanks Tom by name but clearly doesn’t know those of any Heartbreakers. Meanwhile, Carl Perkins is pictured in the booklet but is not heard on the album, sadly.) Due to the ages of the members, ‘50s and ‘60s tunes loom large throughout; the high-speed delivery of Ricky Nelson’s wordy “Waitin’ In School” is particularly impressive, and who doesn’t like an obscure Zombies single? And while Steve is a swingin’ drummer, we’ll always miss Stan Lynch’s bite on things like “You Really Got Me” and “Gloria”.

The shows were an excuse not to be stuck playing only the hits, but several are included. “The Wild One, Forever”, “Even The Losers”, and “California” get more acoustic readings. “The Date I Had With That Ugly Old Homecoming Queen” is an otherwise unknown song based around a snaky Campbell riff, and a request for the obscure B-side “Heartbreakers Beach Party” is honored once they remember how to play it. They even dust off “On The Street” from the first Mudcrutch demo tape, recorded in 1973 in Benmont’s parents’ living room.

The Petty estate has done (mostly) a decent job with his legacy, though they’re probably still sitting on a warehouse full of Wildflowers-themed candles and Xmas ornaments. Live At The Fillmore shows a side of the band not captured in the studio, and is a nice way to spend four hours with the Heartbreakers, mostly sequenced so it can be enjoyed a disc at a time.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Live At The Fillmore – 1997 (2022)—