Friday, December 29, 2023

Roger Waters 5: Lockdown Sessions and Dark Side Redux

In the years following his 2017 solo album, Roger Waters took a band on the road for another multimedia extravaganza that incorporated not only the new stuff but classic Floyd as well, and as would be expected. As outspoken as ever, he garnered criticism aplenty for his anti-Israel stance, which overshadowed the anti-Trump imagery in the show. A film and album of the production, both titled Us + Them, did only slightly better than his reworking of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale.

Like most musicians hamstrung by the limitations of the Covid pandemic, he did what he could to keep busy musically, and in his case, that meant rerecording mostly stripped-down arrangements of songs that had been played throughout the tour. Intriguing but inessential, The Lockdown Sessions slows down three songs from The Wall (four actually, as the track called simply “Vera” segues into “Bring The Boys Back Home” to stretch it out for five minutes), two from The Final Cut, and “The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range” from Amused To Death, while keeping the original guitar solos intact. However, the pointedly titled “Comfortably Numb 2022”, eschews both guitar solos, substituting an angry attempted phone call for the first and a backup singer wailing over explosive effects for the fade. For the most part, his voice hovers somewhere between a whisper and an aside; at least he’s not yelling.

The album made a splash only among the faithful, so he decided to make the most of the 50th anniversary of The Dark Side Of The Moon to give that album the same treatment, with the same band, knowing full well that the earth would stop on its axis at the news. The angle this time was to tackle the lyrics of a younger man with the perspective of a near octogenarian, and since he wrote them, he’s certainly allowed.

For the most part, the “reimaginings” are extreme. Effects are pretty much gone, except that chirping birds are everywhere. “Speak To Me” is now an opportunity to recite the lyrics to “Free Four” over that ominous heartbeat. Another couplet from that song is intoned before the verses of “Breathe”, which at least has drums and is more recognizable. “On The Run” retains its robotic pulse, but is dominated by a new monologue soaked in paranoia and madness. It continues over the start of “Time”, where clocks used to be. It slowly plods along, prodded by Hammond organ and swirly cellos, and a woman softly ooh-ing where there used to be a guitar solo. “Great Gig In The Sky” is possibly the most transformed; in keeping with its original theme of mortality, he reads part of a correspondence with the assistant of a cancer-stricken acquaintance that includes an anecdote about a show in Croatia. Clare Torry’s improvised melody is transposed to a quiet synth.

“Money” keeps its 7/4 meter but not the effects; this time the sax and guitar solos are replaced by a surreal narrative about a boxing match. Luckily, “Us And Them” is mostly untampered, though the forced echo in the verses could have been skipped. What used to be the sax solo is now covered by strings and organ. There’s not the smoothest transition to “Any Colour You Like”, which now sounds more than ever like “Breathe”, and features another cryptic piece of prose. He does cleverly preface “Brain Damage” by addressing the “madness” of this re-recording concept, and that and “Eclipse” are taken fairly straight, if subdued. And he acknowledges by name the man who had the last word on the original album while disagreeing that it’s “all dark”.

The Dark Side Of The Moon Redux isn’t awful, but it will hardly replace the original. Nor does it lend itself to repeat listening. But Nick Mason endorsed it, so who are we to argue? Besides, if you want a non-Roger interpretation of the album, there’s always Pulse. (We do, however, like the dog on the cover.)

Roger Waters The Lockdown Sessions (2022)—3
Roger Waters
The Dark Side Of The Moon Redux (2023)—

Friday, December 22, 2023

Neil Young 70: Before And After and Fu##in Up

While he’d played a handful of shows since the pandemic, the specter of Covid and the risk of large gatherings were enough to keep Neil Young from touring behind the three new albums he put out in that period. When he finally did do a brief West Coast run in 2023, it was in his tried and true format of wandering around a stage between instruments and touching on his entire career. And being him, he commemorated it with a live album as fast as the pressing plants could make them.

Before And After is presented as a single track, but thankfully still indexed for each song (unlike a recent Paul Simon project). The idea is that in this age of shuffle and immediate gratification, this should be experienced like a performance. And that’s what it is. Taken from a handful of shows, with the audience mixed very low when they’re heard at all, a few overdubs fill out the sound here and there.

The setlist leans predominantly on less obvious choices, beginning with “I’m The Ocean”, transformed from its Pearl Jam thrash into a rumination along the lines of side one of Rust Never Sleeps. “Homefires” is rediscovered from the Archives, and is a clever segue to “Burned” from the first Buffalo Springfield album, then “On The Way Home” from the last. The token rarity is “If You Got Love”, yanked from Trans at the last moment and here executed on his trusty pump organ. Now at a piano, a slightly stumbly “A Dream That Can Last” goes backwards into “My Heart” by way of “Birds” in between. “When I Hold You In My Arms” is reclaimed from the post-Toast era into a love song along the lines of Storytone. “Mother Earth” is pump organed, as is “Mr. Soul”. “Comes A Time” sounds just like it did on Live Rust, and it’s a very fast segue into “Don’t Forget Love”, the sincere salutation from Barn.

Before And After is a sentimental journey, certainly, an intimate visit with Neil. While it doesn’t present a complete show—which could well appear on his website at any time—it should sate anyone still waiting to see him in person.

Some people didn’t have to wait that long, as Neil reconstituted Crazy Horse—still with Nils Lofgren, swapping piano and guitar with Micah Nelson from Promise Of The Real—for a private gig in Toronto at a billionaire’s birthday party a month before the release of Before And After. The set consisted of the Ragged Glory album in order, excluding “Mother Earth”, and was released five months later as Fu##in’ Up, just in time for a full-fledged Horse tour. (It was also included as a premium for those who paid the hefty ticket prices.) By this time both members of the rhythm section were 80 years old, but it’s Neil who seems to struggle the most, botching the lead on “Country Home”, switching verses on the title track, and straining to hit high notes in the original keys. “Love To Burn” starts to slow down at the ten-minute mark, and probably not on purpose. He does, however, nail the harmonica solo on “Days That Used To Be”—no small feat, since it never had one before.

For some reason every song here save “Farmer John” was given a new title, along with a numeric prefix, counting down from 8 to 1 and back to 9 for “Love And Only Love”, where they finally sound warmed up. It’s also unknown why the few encores weren’t included, but that’s Neil for you. Way Down In The Rust Bucket is far better overall, and not just on the shared songs.

Neil Young Before And After (2023)—3
Neil Young With Crazy Horse
Fu##in’ Up (2024)—

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Joe Jackson 21: What A Racket!

Genre exercises have been part of Joe Jackson’s career since his fourth album. Having successfully shown his ability to recreate jump blues of the swing era, he’s challenged himself as a composer on several occasions to go outside the rock album box, with varying results.

This time he’s going back a century to dwell in English music hall, having concocted a barely believable back story about a set of “recently discovered” songs by the long-lost, long-forgotten Max Champion. One listen to Mr. Joe Jackson Presents: Max Champion In “What A Racket!” should prove to any of his fans that he’s solely responsible for the words, music, and even the crafted arrangements. Each song is sung with an overly pronounced Cockney accent throughout, which both obscures the lyrics and prevents individual songs from standing out from the uniform pack. One can draw a line to Gilbert & Sullivan by way of Eric Idle much of time. That said, he’s in good voice, so his continued insistence on social cigarette smoking hasn’t taken its toll yet.

Said back story suggest that these old chestnuts are still as timely as today’s headlines, and indeed, he’s careful to blend old tropes with mildly timeless commentary. The so-called overture “Why, Why, Why?” decries complainers and dissent, but then “The Sporting Life” tackles (sorry) the plight of an non-athletically inclined citizen. The decorations on the overly maudlin “Dear Old Mum” distract from some of the nuances in the lyrics, such as the dwindling size of the family and the ways she supported them. There seems to be some kind of pertinent message in “Monty Mundy (Is Maltese!)” but it only makes us want to listen to Tom Lehrer. A peeping Tom gets ironic comeuppance in “The Shades Of Night”, which closes with something of a “get home safe, folks” salutation—odd in the middle of the album, but it caps what’s called Part the First, so consider this your notice for intermission.

Sure enough, the rousing title track—an anti-noise rant—crashes in as the virtual curtains open, but “The Bishop And The Actress” tries too hard to be covertly bawdy. “Think Of The Show!” is a variation on the timeworn life-on-the-road lament, a subject he covered way back on “The Band Wore Blue Shirts”. “Never So Nice In The Morning” is very clever, but the constant switching between the slow verse and moderate chorus makes the song drag. On one level, “Health & Safety” chides exercise buffs, but in the end it skewers the concept of armed forces in peacetime. And while Part the First had something of an obvious finale, “Worse Things Happen At Sea” is merely a keep-your-chin-up message with a singalong chorus with an anachronistic digital-sounding piano.

He’s likely not excepting sales in the millions with What A Racket!; after all this time Joe Jackson writes to please only himself. Given how many other so-called jukebox musicals have been concocted over the years over flimsier premises, it’s entirely possible that these songs could find their way to a theatrical venue at some point. Whether it does or not, we’ll wait to see what other songs he might write.

Joe Jackson Mr. Joe Jackson Presents: Max Champion In “What A Racket!” (2023)—3

Friday, December 15, 2023

Kiss 13: Music From The Elder

Having seen their sales plummet over the past few years, Kiss was still determined to keep going. They found a new drummer in Eric Carr, who was immediately saddled with a “fox” persona for his makeup. They started working on songs at Ace’s house, and put in a call to Bob Ezrin, who’d produced Destroyer and was currently riding the wave of success from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Apparently it was his idea for them to make a concept album, and given Gene’s fascination with Marvel Comics and the like, they agreed. (“They” meaning Gene and Paul; Ace was overruled, and Eric had no say.) Music From “The Elder” was promoted as songs for a movie yet to be written, much less filmed.

It was a departure, all right; the stark cover art screamed medieval sorcery, and no pictures of the band appeared anywhere, save the logo. Inside the gatefold what appears to be excerpts from some scripture talk of some ancient race that walks among mortals seeking worthy applicants to their sacred order, and how a caretaker named Morpheus (no, really) will deliver a boy to fulfill the task. (Pretty big leap from Love Gun, huh?) Inner sleeves varied; some had the lyrics, while others only had the production credits on the clear plastic sleeves PolyGram had started pushing. The back cover credits the appearances of a symphony orchestra, a choir, and three voice actors, including one Christopher Makepeace, best known as the 98-pound weakling protagonists Clifford in My Bodyguard and Rudy in Meatballs. But even the record company was already nervous about how this album would be received, and with no guarantee the film would follow, Mr. Makepeace’s dialogue as “the boy” was not heard on the final product.

“The Oath” crashes out of the speakers, with all the guitars Kiss fans want, and Paul switching between his tough voice on the verses and his falsetto for the choruses. One of the writers is listed as one Tony Powers, and we’ll get to him. “Fanfare” is a brief instrumental with twee flutes and winds, invoking King Arthur’s court or some such locale that kills a minute, then “Just A Boy” attempts to push the story along, with acoustic and electric guitars well arranged. “Dark Light” takes a few bars to get rolling, but it’s clear that Ace isn’t at all vested in the words he’s singing, and we’re not clear which might have been suggested by co-writers Lou Reed or Anton Fig. Plus, Ace, still can’t sing. “Only You” is the only song here written solely by a single member of the band, in this case Gene, and it’s odd to hear the god of thunder sing about someone being the light and the way. The mumbo gets even more jumbo in “Under The Rose”, and by now they seem to be trying to sound like old tourmates Rush. Between the synths and chanted chorus, it’s close to parody. If anything else, this track proves Eric Carr to be a superior drummer, handling the polyrhythms and complicated riffs.

“A World Without Heroes” is based around a lyric suggested, again, by Lou Reed, and while it’s the most commercial-sounding track here, it’s not much better than their pop attempts of the last two albums. The orchestral arrangement, particularly coupled with the guitar solo, is straight out of side three of The Wall. Listeners of a certain age could be forgiven for thinking the eponymous villain in “Mr. Blackwell” is the same designer who used to publish worst-dressed lists, whereas the song itself is pretty much sludge. “Escape From The Island” is an Ace-led instrumental with Eric (and Ezrin on bass) keeping up well that again evokes old Rush, but it’s a mere trifle compared to the overwrought showpiece of “Odyssey”. It was written solely by the aforementioned Tony Powers, and we don’t know why, but Paul gives his all to the vocal and self-harmony to deliver the lyrics, even the ridiculous bridge (“There’s a child in a sundress looking at a rainy sky/There’s a place in the desert where an ocean once danced by”). This song can’t decide if it’s sci-fi or fantasy, and yes, there is a difference. “I” finally brings back the classic Kiss sound, Paul and Gene trading vocals, and the message could actually exist outside of whatever the plot is. Gene even expresses his desire to rock and roll all night at the close. However, not listed on the album is what’s usually referred to as “Finale”, which reprises “Fanfare” with added, unintentionally funny dialogue from two of the actors.

As a prog album, Music From “The Elder” isn’t any worse than anything else, but overall, it’s too silly for even Kiss. The bad outweighs the good, and while it has its defenders, it remains an anomaly in their catalog and their history.

The album was dutifully remastered and reissued in 1997 so fans old and new could get a fresh perspective. The biggest difference was the track sequence, now in the apparent intended order as depicted on the original back cover, and as released in Japan, but which left out “Escape From The Island”. “The Oath” is now stuck in the middle of side two, making the introduction of a slightly longer “Fanfare” even more shocking to the uninitiated. “Odyssey” is pulled to the middle of side one, following “Just A Boy”, and it works better here, as well as nicely setting up “Only You” and “Under The Rose”. “Dark Light” starts side two, and a much better segue to “A World Without Heroes”. Even “The Oath” fits here, leading into “Mr. Blackwell”, bridged by “Escape From The Island” into “I”. (Sadly, none of the other dialogue was restored, and the jury is out as to how that affected Chris Makepeace’s legacy.) This version is an improvement, certainly, just enough to redeem it as something worth hearing. And that’s why it gets the rating below.

Kiss Music From “The Elder” (1981)—3

Friday, December 8, 2023

Elton John 23: Breaking Hearts

Proving he knew not to mess too much with success, Elton John plowed ahead with an album that once again kept the classic band intact, with Bernie Taupin providing every lyric, and even getting his own photo on the back cover. But Breaking Hearts wasn’t exactly a throwback, being steeped in contemporary sheen.

For example, while the synth is subtle on the mildly Stonesy “Restless”, the bass is very pronounced, to the point where we don’t care about the overtly political commentary in the lyrics. Bernie was trying to think worldly in those days, as he even slips in a reference to the Berlin Wall as a point of comparison in “Slow Down Georgie (She’s Poison)”, a schizophrenic arrangement equally let down by the character assassination driving the plot. A lot better is “Who Wears These Shoes?”, built around the same Motown rhythm that inspired recent hits by Phil Collins and Billy Joel. The mildly melodramatic title track (which gets the subtitle “Ain’t What It Used To Be”) provides an alternate viewpoint for a change, this time of a womanizing man rather than a slattern; one could almost hear Freddie Mercury crooning this. After a strange ambience, “Li’l ‘Frigerator” is an upbeat rocker back to hating women, with more ‘80s keyboard touches and a surprising sax solo pushed aside by a nice guitar solo.

“Passengers” is a departure of sorts, a catchy chant based on a South African folk song, and actually refers to apartheid. It’s one of the least Elton-sounding songs he’s ever done, and it works. “In Neon” is a sympathetic portrait of a sad woman wishing for fame and fortune, with backing vocal touches that recall earlier cinematic references like “Candle In The Wind”. Keeping the mood slow, the ballad “Burning Buildings” has a lot of dynamics, rising and falling without getting carried away, even a few Beatlesque touches. There’s a nice interlude where the piano doubles the acoustic guitar solo. Another one that shouldn’t work but does is “Did He Shoot Her?”, which is loaded with classic harmonies and combines ‘80s beats with ‘70s sitar, Philly soul with a Jagger vocal, bridging the decades. Speaking of which, “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” rankled us from the first listen as it more or less retreads the music from the Stones’ “Let It Bleed”, save the bridge. (Within a few months, he’d retooled the lyrics for a designer jeans commercial, declaring that “Sasson says so much.” This is absolutely true.)

That song kept him on the radio; he was also in the news after marrying the woman who engineered Breaking Hearts. The producer was the faithful Chris Thomas, who kept the sound fresh for an overall successful product, provided you don’t listen too closely.

Elton John Breaking Hearts (1984)—3

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Jayhawks 6: Smile

Determined to prove they were still a band, thank you very much, the Jayhawks crashed into the new century with even more of a departure from The first sign that something was different on Smile is the production credit to Bob Ezrin, most famous for working with Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and Kiss. Gary Louris is still the leader, but everyone helps with the songwriting here and there, including Ezrin. While Karen Grotberg’s voice and piano are heard all over the place, she’d left the band before the album came out to raise a family, replaced onstage and in the artwork by Jen Gunderman.

The title track is wonderfully sweet, with lovely interlocking phrases on the chorus. “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is sprinkled with mandolins and accordion, but was co-written with a Nashville ringer best known for modern Aerosmith hits. “What Led Me To This Town” has some lazy twang, but also features a harbinger in some odd electronic percussion. The auto-beats dominate “Somewhere In Ohio”, which is mostly tuneful, but the reliance on “buh-buh bah bah” for too many missing lyrics just seems lazy, which the guitar crunch on the choruses doesn’t remedy. “A Break In The Clouds” is more straightforward, thanks to another killer chorus, a well-placed steel guitar, and wonderful harmonies from Karen throughout. Electronica returns on “Queen Of The World”, which has, yes, another terrific chorus, but “Life Floats By” is a rockin’ stomper, and welcome.

The plaintive acoustic and vocal on “Broken Harpoon” are disrupted by whoops and bleeps, while real strings compete with a Mellotron. Tim O’Reagan sings lead on “Pretty Thing”, which is basically a funkier arrangement of “Dying On The Vine” from the last album. We still have no idea what or who “Mr. Wilson” is about; pop culture tropes suggest Brian Wilson, but then the second verse seems to refer to Alex Chilton. More overdriven beats dominate “(In My) Wildest Dreams”, and the songs are starting to sound alike. “Better Days” is more along the lines of straight rock, and “Baby, Baby, Baby” turns it up for a finish with enough tambourine and feedback to sound like Oasis.

In the end, Smile is an overlong album that tries too hard. Maybe we can blame Ezrin, who gets cowriting credit on the most blatant outliers, or any of the four people credited for “programming”. Whatever the culprit, the grandeur they sought didn’t get the band anywhere, as the album flopped. After such a strong run, it’s a disappointment. (Oddly, “Who Made You King”, an electric outtake included on the expanded edition fourteen years later, would have been more welcome on the original album. Of the other bonus tracks, the brief “Gypsy In The Mood” is more of an unfinished interlude, but the studio-quality demos “A Part Of You”, “Greta Garbo”, and “Five Cornered Blues” (written with former Jayhawk Mark Olson) have a lot of promise. Tim sings on a live version of “Life’s Little Ups And Downs” by Charlie Rich, included for some reason.)

The Jayhawks Smile (2000)—
2014 Expanded Edition: same as 2000, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, December 1, 2023

Joni Mitchell 28: The Asylum Years

Joni’s move to the then-new Asylum label in 1972 wasn’t just a change of distribution. The albums she recorded there took a turn from the predominantly solo acoustic sound of her first four albums, incorporating rhythm sections and horns, resulting in a commercial adult contemporary sound, then veering towards more esoteric jazz. The third box in her Archives series tackles the first half of this era, which saw four albums hit the charts, and is as illuminating as one could hope.

The first two discs encompass the making of the For The Roses album, beginning with a handful of solo and pristine demos—the first two from 1971, despite the box subtitle—including the stunning, otherwise unknown “Like Veils Said Lorraine”. Then we go to Carnegie Hall for a widely bootlegged, rapturously received performance that spills over to disc two. She plays the “hits”, but several Roses songs are new to the crowd, as the album wouldn’t be out for another nine months. She brings out various “friends” for “The Circle Game”, including Jackson Browne, who opened the show. (He’s listed as one of the choristers “possibly” in attendance; the “David” she mentions is likely Geffen, who’s also listed.)

James Taylor sits in on an acoustic rock ‘n roll medley and “Electricity” from further Roses sessions, whereas a try of “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio” with Neil Young and two Stray Gators was wisely redone elsewhere. (Similarly, that song and “See You Sometime” were also tried days later with the same Stray Gators, but not Neil.) Further alternate mixes include “Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire” where she overdubs a vocalization of the eventual sax part. “Sunrise Raga” is a fascinating mostly instrumental with her acoustic accompanied by tabla, and she was clearly interested in covering “Twisted” this early. (It’s nice to hear a version without Cheech & Chong, too.) A solo “Judgement Of The Moon And Stars” from a London concert is enthralling.

Disc three begins with a stunning 12-minute piano-and-vocal suite that goes from “Down To You” through “Court And Spark” and “Car On A Hill” back to the beginning. She must have considered this for release, as it features multiple Jonis harmonizing on the “Car” section. Other demos for the Court And Spark album are refreshing to hear without the studio adornments. We get three versions of “Raised On Robbery”—an acoustic with trilling chorused Jonis and percussion, a rockin’ one from a Graham Nash session, and the one recorded a day later with the Tonight’s The Night band that was on Neil Young’s second Archives box. As with the Roses portion, alternate mixes from the sessions are capped with an instrumental sketch, in this case the Greek-flavored “Bonderia”.

The balance of disc three and all of the fourth are devoted to a more laid-back L.A. concert with the support of Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, providing something of an alternate to Miles Of Aisles. (Most of that album came from shows performed five months later, and features some different selections from what’s here.) Whereas that album was programmed as a double album of four sides, here we have a complete show that moves through the dynamics of a full band for a half-hour, through a solo section featuring some lengthy conversational intros, and back with the band. While Scott can be a little overbearing in some contexts, his simple touches on “Cold Blue Steel” and “For Free” are welcome, and she works very well with the whole band. Oddly, there’s no “thank you, good night” after the last song; the disc simply ends after “Car On A Hill”.

An early live recording of “Jericho” starts the fifth disc, followed by “Woman Of Heart And Mind” in front of a quiet Wembley audience during the 1974 CSNY tour. These acoustic performances provide an excellent segue to seven demos for The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, not all of which have been bootlegged before (and there are some demos out there not collected here). Anyone put off by the arrangements on the finished album should appreciate these all the more. “Harry’s House”, for example, does not have the “Centerpiece” interlude, and an early “Dreamland” is accompanied only by guitar. Session outtakes from the album include “The Jungle Line” without the Burundi drummers or synthesizer, and another try at “Dreamland” with a band backing.

Her first Archives box fascinatingly traced her growth, and the second provided a fine companion to her first four albums. The period covered in this third box went widely off most people’s expectations—not unlike Neil Young’s “ditch” era—with varying critical and commercial success. As we can hear here, everything, from the biggest band arrangement to the solo performances, started with words and a melody. While she may have identified with painters, whom she referenced on Miles Of Aisles (“nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’”), her sketches are as fascinating as the finished works. And my goodness, was she prolific.

Joni Mitchell Archives—Volume 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) (2023)—4

Friday, November 24, 2023

Grateful Dead 19: In The Dark

By the time the Dead released another studio album, it was their first in seven years. However, they had toured consistently in that period, which both allowed them to slowly hone new material as well as grow their appeal as a live draw. Soon the younger brothers and sisters of the original Deadheads were catching shows and trading tapes with the same fervor. By the time In The Dark came out, the pump was primed. They even made videos for three of the songs, increasing the exposure. (Also, pop culture was suddenly very nostalgic for the hippie scene of the late ‘60s, what with the whole 20th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper and so forth.)

They also learned their lessons from their last few studio albums, and chose to record this one live in an empty auditorium, then spending little time fixing and overdubbing before mixing and completing. The result is a strong set that doesn’t have any dated production sheen outside of whatever keyboard effects they were using that year. They had to reason to try to sound contemporary, and fully embraced their advanced years in the lyrics.

After rumbling into motion, “Touch Of Grey” tackles the statement of purpose immediately, with a playful lyric that doesn’t try to be poetic or overly profound, and that’s what sold the album. “Hell In A Bucket” is a wordy, bawdy Weir/Barlow kissoff that gives Jerry plenty of room to stretch, and you can dance to it too. “When Push Comes To Shove” is a basic shuffle boogie that loads up the imagery to convey a simple statement (that being “you’re afraid of love”, of course), and the sneaky blues of “West L.A. Fadeaway” caps a strong side.

Brent Mydland was still the new guy, and his “Tons Of Steel” is in the “woman as a train” metaphor, with appropriate opening effects, that’s about as subtle as a chainsaw. Bobby loads up other metaphors in the state-of-the-world address in “Throwing Stones”, for a strong two-fer. Finally, “Black Muddy River” is an elegant embrace of the inevitable that’s far from sappy or morose.

Perhaps in a nod to the preferred format for most Dead collections in those days, the cassette version of In The Dark included a bonus track at the end of side one, which bumped “West L.A. Fadeaway” to the middle of side two, making it much longer than side one. At any rate, “My Brother Esau” is heavy on Biblical and Vietnam War connotations, and a song even Bobby himself professes to not comprehend. (It was also the B-side for the “Touch Of Grey” single. By the time of the expanded reissue, it was programmed after the album proper, bolstered by two earlier outtakes and two contemporary rehearsals of album tracks, plus a live “Throwing Stones” from their summer tour with Bob Dylan.)

In The Dark was a blessing and a curse for the band and their fans, who suddenly had to deal with an onslaught of affluent kids harshing their mellows, crowding the parking lots, and generally acting uncool. But everybody already liked the songs, and weren’t likely to get sick of them anytime soon.

Grateful Dead In The Dark (1987)—
1987 cassette: same as 1986, plus 1 extra track
2006 expanded CD: same as cassette, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Queen 8: Live Killers

While their albums were popular, Queen was one of those bands that was best experienced in person. They were a big concert draw around the world, even in countries where English wasn’t the primary language, so when the time came for a live album, they were ready. Being the ‘70s still, and being Queen, Live Killers was a double.

A thunder crack opens the album, and the band soon kicks in with a sped-up rendition of “We Will Rock You”. Freddie actually asks the attendees if they’re ready to rock, then they plow into “Let Me Entertain You”. The introduction to “Death On Two Legs” is bleeped, apparently purposely to avoid a lawsuit from the object of the lyrics. It ends almost abruptly to segue into “Killer Queen”; this too is cut short to switch to “Bicycle Race”, which also is truncated in order for Roger to sing “I’m In Love With My Car”, salvageable due to Brian’s shredding. Things slow way down for “Get Down, Make Love”, complete with nutty interlude, and “You’re My Best Friend” closes the side.

“Now I’m Here” has an interesting intro, as the delay effect used for his voice kicks in before the song starts. After about four minutes the band stops so Freddie can the crowd in a call-and-response, which continues after the band comes back in, and then again towards the end. The crowd, of course, eats it up, going on to cheer the drum break. Rather than continue the illusion of a concert, the album fades to silence before returning with an acoustic “Dreamer’s Ball” and a gentle “Love Of My Life”, with which the crowd also sings along, eventually taking it over. They also cheer the return of the band for a stomp through “‘39”, and then the band plugs back in for “Keep Yourself Alive”.

“Don’t Stop Me Now” isn’t ecstatically received; maybe the audience wasn’t that familiar with it yet. They’re more happy about “Spread Your Wings”, and for singing along with it. “Brighton Rock” is twelve minutes long, mostly to accommodate Brian’s lengthy guitar showpiece and Roger’s phased drums, recommended to fans of Led Zeppelin’s later performances of “Dazed And Confused”.

Side four opens with the crowd chanting “Mustapha”, of which Freddie adds a few lines instead of the expected intro to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. And since there was no way to replicate the middle section onstage, that part from the record itself comes through the speakers until they can finish it themselves. “Tie Your Mother Down” ends with Freddie bidding the crowd good night, fading to silence, and encoring with “Sheer Heart Attack”. After another fade, the familiar beat of “We Will Rock You” signals that song, followed by “We Are The Champions” and their version of “God Save The Queen” played over the PA.

Live Killers is one of the few Queen albums never to be expanded with bonus tracks. Some of it sounds a little too clean for a live recording, and indeed overdubs have been accounted for. Other enterprising souls have also spent a lot of time documenting which tracks came from which shows. But as a representation of the band onstage, it delivers. Which was the point. Besides, their next album wasn’t ready yet.

Queen Live Killers (1979)—3

Friday, November 17, 2023

Brian Eno 26: Music For Installations

Starting with Discreet Music and making a leap forward with Thursday Afternoon, Brian Eno has continually strove (strived? striven?) to create music that would enhance a visual experience without overwhelming it. Sometimes he’s created his own visuals, but more often since the ‘90s he has been sought out by established artists and organizations to accompany theirs. This led to his own strides using software to create “generative” music.

Music For Installations gathers over five hours of content from art shows over the decades. Some of it had been previously distributed on rare and/or limited-run CDs or as part of larger book/DVD packages. Collectors will be happy to make room for such rarities as 77 Million Paintings, Lightness, I Dormienti, and Kite Stories, whether procured officially or downloaded from file sharing sites.

Eno’s ambient music is usually hard to describe, and here we have six CDs’ worth to attempt, moreso without the visuals they were intended to accompany in the first place. Possibly because it’s the first track in the set, “Kazakhstan” stands out, a spooky but moving piece devised for an event in that city. Many of his pieces have chiming qualities to them, and not always demonstrated by such titles as “Flower Bells”, which itself isn’t very soothing, not that that was ever the point. “Atmospheric Lightness”, however, is soothing. “77 Million Paintings” gurgles along for 44 minutes, and we could swear we hear voices sometimes, though they’re beyond discernability. They’re more prominent and disembodied on “I Dormienti”, which is almost as long, whereas the three “Kites” pieces seem to vary on that one.

The disc titled Making Space counts here because it replicates a CD that was sold at some of his installations, but it’s much more rhythmic and involved than the other discs, more along the lines of the “juju space jazz” of his mid-‘90s albums. “New Moons” even features electric guitar purposefully strummed by Leo Abrahams, while “Delightful Universe (Seen From Above)” is almost majestic. Finally, the Music For Future Installations disc contains pieces never before utilized, not as “generative” as the earlier discs, and certainly eerie. (Good luck nodding off during “Surbahar Sleeping Music”.)

While culled from a variety of sources over the years, there’s a unity to Music For Installations, and none of it sounds dated. This music demonstrates what kept Eno occupied in solitude (mostly) throughout the late ‘90s and first part of this century, despite his less obvious output following The Drop. The set itself was available on CD and vinyl in a snazzy Plexiglas design, as well as in a more economical CD box, and the simplest of all: streaming. The latter allows the listener to have the least possible contact with the execution, and thus absorb however it works. Probably not best to have on while driving.

Brian Eno Music For Installations (2018)—3

Friday, November 10, 2023

Genesis 23: R-Kive

With Phil Collins supposedly retired and Peter Gabriel happily touring on his own any further Genesis reunions seemed unlikely. But all the principals had been involved with a BBC documentary on their history, so somebody decided an overview of the band was due. The difference this time, however, was that R-Kive democratically included three extracurricular and/or solo tracks each, and not always obvious ones, by each of the five best-known members. (Sorry, Anthony Phillips.)

The first disc focuses on the complicated early material from the Gabriel period, focusing on such epics as “The Knife”, “The Musical Box”, “The Cinema Show”, and “Supper’s Ready”. Then the songs get shorter, but still challenge. The disc is capped by “Ace Of Wands”, a frenetic prog-fusion instrumental from Steve Hackett’s first solo album that features Phil and Mike Rutherford.

Disc two charts the evolution of the band with Phil as lead singer, starting with the gorgeous “Ripples” and “Afterglow”, detouring to “Solsbury Hill”, “Biko”, and a track each from Tony Banks (the poppy “For A While”, on which he plays a competent guitar solo) and Hackett (the tuneful “Every Day”, from his third solo album). It stays somewhat heavy through “Turn It On Again”, “Abacab”, and “Mama” with “In The Air Tonight” in between, then it’s all pop with “That’s All”, “Easy Lover”, and “Silent Running” from Mike + The Mechanics.

The ubiquity of the pop charts continues on disc three with three songs from Invisible Touch, plus “The Living Years”, a.k.a. the other hit by Mike + The Mechanics. “Red Day On Blue Street” comes from a Tony Banks album nobody bought wherein he worked with such vocalists as Marillion’s Fish and, in this case, Nik Kershaw. Three songs from We Can’t Dance are followed by “Over My Shoulder”—another Mike + The Mechanics track that spotlights Paul Carrack—and the title track from Calling All Stations. Nothing appears from So, despite having been endlessly promoted over the previous two years on Gabriel’s tours in support of its anniversary reissue; instead we get “Signal To Noise”. Similarly, of all the Phil songs to choose, somebody picked “Wake Up Call”. Just to give everyone their due, “Nomads” is a flamenco new age hybrid sung by Hackett with Chris Squire on bass, while “Sirens” comes from Banks’ second classical album.

While R-Kive was a nice idea, it was a missed opportunity. Chances are trying to coordinate all the solo Collins and Gabriel hits would have taken a lot of paperwork, but it still seems they felt it necessary to have that equal time for everybody. That third disc is just weird, but that’s roughly where the quality didn’t really keep up with the chronology. By now, anyone with a CD burner or premium Spotify account could make their own compilations, or dig out their old mix tapes. Still, most of the music makes it worth the listen.

Genesis R-Kive (2014)—3

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Rolling Stones 52: Hackney Diamonds

It took Charlie Watts dying for the Rolling Stones to “set a deadline” for bashing out an all-new album like the last one, which came out eighteen years before. Yet Hackney Diamonds has something that album didn’t have, and maybe we can thank album producer Andrew Watt, who was born after they completed the tour supporting Steel Wheels but before Flashpoint was released. (They must have really liked him since they gave him co-writing credit on the first three songs; somewhere Mick Taylor is seething.)

Granted, they’d put out new songs for compilations and expanded reissues, but this time there’s a unified purpose. The core band is down to Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood. Darryl Jones isn’t on the album at all; the bass is handled by either Watt or one of the special guests (when specifically credited) or by either Keith or Ronnie (when there’s no bass credit). Charlie is on only two songs, but at least that’s one more than Lady Gaga, as one of our correspondents pointed out. We’ve been very vocal in our opinion that without Charlie there isn’t any Stones, but he himself handpicked Steve Jordan to fill in for the tour he had to miss, initially for health reasons, and eventually because he was dead. We like Steve, and not just because of his X-Pensive Wino status, and he equips himself well throughout the album.

They wisely start with the riff-happy “Angry”, which was hilariously previewed weeks before release with a website that purposely crashed when fans tried to access it. It’s dumb but catchy, with a great turnaround chorus that gets better. “Get Close” has a swagger in the rhythm (again, real nice job, Steve) and some more solid guitar. James King provides a nice Bobby Keys-style sax solo over a percussion break, and if you listen closely enough you might hear Elton John on piano. The third track is a good slot for a slow one, and “Depending On You” delivers without being too cloying. Mick’s tethered in his yell, and while there are strings on the track, they’re very subtle and effective. With “Bite My Head Off”, they seem to be retreading to the first track, with Mick back to shouting a moronically profane lyric, but none other than Paul McCartney on bass. (Sadly, right after Mick namechecks him, a guitar solo buries his contribution.) When Keith is heard harmonizing on the bridges, all is right with this song. “Whole Wide World” would be the social commentary tune, sung with a forced Cockney accent, but still solid. Suddenly it’s time for another quiet one; “Dreamy Skies” sounds like the type of thing Keith would sing, but Mick does it well, with Keith in support. The harmonica solo goes nicely with the laidback guitars.

The cycle goes back to upbeat and accusing on the mildly dance-y “Mess It Up”, which has Charlie on drums, and it’s obvious. He’s also on “Live By The Sword” (they even include his count-in), a mildly T.Rex-sounding track that also features the return of Bill Wyman on bass, and Elton pounding the piano into submission. Mick’s still ticked off for “Driving Me Too Hard”, but it’s a slower groove, and welcome, especially when we hear Keith. Speaking of which, it’s not until “Tell Me Straight” that he gets a lead vocal, and this time Mick provides the harmony, keeping it all in the band. The only nod to contemporary music comes via “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven”, a slowly building burner with Sticky Exile car horn saxes. Mick even uses his falsetto over the extended coda. It’s got Stevie Wonder on three different keyboards, but he’s buried in the mix to favor this century’s answer to Dale Bozzio. (At one point we could swear she sings “I hear the sweet smell” and “I smell the sweet sound” and we don’t think it was intentional.) The last statement is given over to just Mick and Keith, the original partners and last men standing, duetting on “Rolling Stone Blues”, the Muddy Waters song that started it all.

At 48 minutes, the album is solid and not at all bloated. They say they had enough tunes left over for a follow-up, but somehow Hackney Diamonds is a fitting finale to a very long career that saw serious highs and lows. They weren’t supposed to live this long, much less keep rocking at this age. If they really can keep going, at this level, then everybody wins.

One thing this review did not cover upon initial post was the numerous vinyl versions and then that were dumped on the market, likely so collectors buying multiple copies would catapult it to the top of the charts. Not three months after the album’s release, a “Live Deluxe Double CD” was issued, likely to recoup momentum lost when “Now And Then” by the Beatles came out. The second disc here included the seven songs performed at the album launch the week of original release; four of these are from the new album, including Lady Gaga on “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven”, wherein she still smells them. “Shattered” is the opener, and a good thing, since the guitars are a little stiff. The rhythm section, which does include Darryl Jones, kicks.

Rolling Stones Hackney Diamonds (2023)—

Friday, November 3, 2023

Beatles 34: Now And Then

It really wasn’t that good a song to begin with. John had the barest verses, and just a sketch of a bridge; more to the point, it was even more dirgey than “Free As A Bird”. Like most of his piano songs, it was slow, and mildly morose. The surviving cassette, recorded at home in the Dakota, was marred by a consistent buzz, obscuring the piano and affecting the fidelity of the vocal. He was always more concerned with documentation and emotion than fidelity when composing while a tape ran anyway. It was a sketch, and nothing more, and who knows what he might have done with it given time.

The stature of “Now And Then” grew in Beatlemaniac circles as soon as it was revealed that a third song, to follow “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”, would not be completed by the surviving Beatles in order to be included on Anthology 3. It became another one of those legendary lost tracks, heard only by insiders, and obsessed over by the same people who longed to hear “Carnival Of Light” or the 27-minute “Helter Skelter”, two further unreleased group performances, albeit from the ’60s.

But Paul kept talking about the song, even after George died, stoking interest among fans who still cared. He always seemed determined to finish it. There are several reasons for this; for one, Paul never liked leaving things undone. The Wings era is dotted with half-completed films, as well as a constant retinkering of an odds-and-sods collection called Cold Cuts. Even his most recent solo album featured a track developed from an outtake rediscovered while researching potential bonus tracks for the reissue of an earlier album.

Most of all, he never stopped missing John. Theirs was one of the 20th century’s great love stories, in addition to being a partnership that changed the world, and their public spat following the band’s breakup always rankled. After tempers cooled and lawsuits were settled, their paths crossed from time to time; allegedly, one of their final meetings was only a few months before John was killed. According to accounts, the last words he spoke to Paul were affectionate, along the lines of “Think about me every now and then, old friend.” [Emphasis added.] 21 years later, George was gone too, making any further reunion a mere footnote. (Since then, our hearts would leap anytime we saw images of Paul and Ringo together anywhere, whether on a stage or a red carpet.)

Clearly, the song meant a lot to Paul. Another twenty years went by until technology caught up to his dream of completing it. Thanks to the work Peter Jackson did on the Get Back project, Paul was able to incorporate vintage footage of John singing “I’ve Got A Feeling” on the Apple roof into his own performances of the song onstage in 2022. He wondered if Jackson’s AI program of isolating voices could be used on the “Now And Then” tape. Wonder of wonders, it could. From there it was a matter of incorporating George’s guitar from the aborted 1995 sessions, adding new bass, piano, and vocals himself, and flying in Ringo’s new drum parts and vocals, as these things are accomplished post-Covid, from Ringo’s own studio a continent and ocean away. Paul even put on his impression of a George-style slide guitar solo. Then Giles Martin collaborated on a string arrangement, weaved in some old harmonies Love-style, and the song was mixed. But how would it be offered out into a primarily digital world, where radio airplay meant nothing and vinyl was a pricey artifact for collectors?

Following months of rumors, the Beatles organization expertly stoked interest in the official reveal of the song—first with a countdown to something, illustrated by an image of a rewinding cassette, then the announcement of the upcoming unveiling of the song, teased with another week-away countdown. Adding it to an upcoming expansion of the Red and Blue albums on CD and LP—despite the fact that it was first conceived after well after the release of an album that had a cutoff of 1970 in its title—was daring, to say the least. All some of us wanted was a simple CD single with the superior 2015 mixes of “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love” that smoothed out some of the Jeff Lynne bombast and enhanced John’s voice further. Instead, the announced single was to be available in a variety of vinyl variants, and even on cassette, all backed with yet another appearance of “Love Me Do” (the original single version with Ringo on drums) with the idea that their last song should only be accompanied by their first song. The cover art was minimalist—some said half-assed—and only slightly alluded to the cover art of the Red and Blue albums, lining up with the balcony on each. (A CD single containing the two songs was finally announced for purchase exclusively via The Beatles Store a day before the final countdown completed.)

The release date was bracketed by two new films, unleashed the day before and after the song premiered. First came a 12-minute documentary telling the story of the song’s evolution, loaded with lots of old footage and shots of the Threetles working together in 1995. Seeing a later clip of George in the context of his passing was poignant on its own, but then we came to the revelation of what Jackson’s technology accomplished, and there it was: John’s voice, loud and clearer than ever, isolated and bare. The world lost a lot when we lost John, but we’ll never get over the loss of that voice—that voice—arguably the greatest, most influential voice in rock ‘n roll.

Peter Jackson’s commissioned promo video for the song hit all the right spots, melding familiar and truly rare footage, while touching on familiar images. Some of the manipulation bordered on corny, but the overall theme was the power of memory and the place the Beatles have in ours, and undoubtedly each other’s. He said he wanted to celebrate their irreverence and humor as well as tug the heartstrings, and he succeeded. Our favorite moment is from 3:03 to 3:07; look for it. As George said himself in Anthology, “God, we had fun in those days.” (It has been pointed out that this was Jackson’s shortest film ever, unless you count the Get Back preview from December 2020.)

Despite what we presume are Paul’s contributions to the finished song’s structure, “Now And Then” still isn’t any great shakes. There’s a mournful overtone to it—too bad John didn’t leave any unfinished rockers behind—and the sad, dull lyrics have us wondering what was going on with Yoko when they came to him. (Surely he wasn’t really singing about Paul, or the Beatles, as has been surmised?) Outside of That Voice, the track only soars on the middle eights and the instrumental break. But if you liked “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”, it completes the suite. Paul’s piano matches John’s template, Ringo’s drums are spot-on as ever, and while we can hear George’s rhythmic strumming here and there, knowing he didn’t play the solo deepens his loss. Paul counts in the track, and Ringo is heard saying “good one” just as it ends. The strings are subtle and therefore effective, while the manipulated backing vocals fill in the spaces without being parodic. We half expected it to end on a resolved major chord, but even that would be too much. Although just over four minutes long, it seems to end too quickly. But it’s still historic just for what it is, and we really like it a lot, even after dozens of plays. Considering over 25 years passed between the band’s breakup and the Anthology project, and even more time passed between that and the completion of this song, how can this music continue to seem so, well, timeless? That its official B-side is over 60 years old is just insane.

The Beatles story contains so many what-ifs. John’s murder made a lot of things impossible. But thanks to Paul and Ringo, both over 80 years old, with the blessings and encouragement of Olivia and Dhani Harrison, Sean Lennon, and Yoko Ono, those four guys continued to share their magic, their gifts with us all. Wherever John and George are now, they should be very pleased.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Bryan Ferry 8: Taxi

An atypical break from the business for Bryan Ferry ended in 1993 with the release of Taxi, an album of… covers, just like his solo career started. (The album is dedicated to his mother, who died two years earlier; maybe that’s what’d kept him busy since his last album.) It was co-produced by Robin Trower, who contributes guitar effects to every track, as do the familiar Neil Hubbard and even ambient pioneer Michael Brook. Other session cats include Steve Ferrone, Nathan East, and Greg Phillinganes. All together it’s much less campy than his first solo albums, sounding instead like it’s coming from another planet.

That spacey approach oddly sets up “I Put A Spell On You”, which doesn’t sound like Creedence or Nina Simone, and certainly not like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Listen closely and you might hear Maceo Parker. Classic ‘60s R&B is touched by “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “Just One Look”, and “Rescue Me”, the latter two nearly unrecognizable. “Answer Me”, which he either heard from Frankie Laine or Nat King Cole, gets a groove treatment, as does “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, but still suitably dirgey. “Girl Of My Best Friend” was UK hit for Elvis, but not for Bryan. “Amazing Grace” comes closest to his double-take inducing choices of the ‘70s, though it’s still pretty straightforward, using David Sancious’ gospel-flavored organ, while the “title track” is far away from the silky soul of the original. (He does use the whistle, however.) Finally, “Because You’re Mine” is credited as his own, but it’s mostly an atmospheric throwback to the first track.

When the rhythm is there, Taxi follows on from his seductive ‘80s work, and sports grainy, moody Anton Corbjin photos aplenty. There are worse ways to kill time.

Bryan Ferry Taxi (1993)—3

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Big Audio Dynamite 2: No. 10, Upping Street

Mick Jones clearly came out ahead of Joe Strummer after the Clash, and didn’t stop to rest. The second Big Audio Dynamite album followed almost exactly a year after the first, and sported an interesting name in the coproducer and occasional songwriting category: Joe Strummer. (Somebody else compared this to John Lennon producing Wings.) But as if the title of No. 10, Upping Street wasn’t obscure enough, the “most illinest B-boy” pose on the front cover would likely have turned away casual record store browsers.

Once again the combo attempts to cross genres, from synth-pop to rap. “C’mon Every Beatbox” channels Eddie Cochran through a rockin’ dance track, Mick’s vocals well supported by Don Letts. “Beyond The Pale” is the clear winner here, a Strummer-Jones track with a tuneful melody, piano in the mix, and a wonderful guitar solo. Apparently it’s drawn from his own family history, so clearly it meant a lot to him. “Limbo The Law” ups the tempo with a drum machine on high speed that detracts from the melody; likewise, “Sambadrome” is based around a canned beat, with some bass and piano, and a lot of samples in Spanish (sorry, our bad, they’re Portuguese and shame on us for assuming).

“V. Thirteen” is tuneful with a big guitar sound and a good choice for the second single—the Strummer-Jones team again—but it doesn’t quite get the singalong quality of a “Train In Vain” or “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”. Don Letts sings “Ticket”, with a delivery that modern ears sounds like Roy Kent, except for the motormouth toasting. “Hollywood Boulevard” namedrops a lot of old icons of screen and page, but it’s more stream of consciousness than anything coherent. “Dial A Hitman” is tuneful, with that canned harmonica from “Medicine Show”, except that it devolves into a “film excerpt” performed by Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne that isn’t as funny after you’ve heard it once. Finally, “Sightsee M.C.!” is more straight rap, loaded with samples and triggers.

The American cassette sported two extra tracks, one on the end of each side: “Ice Cold Killer” was a remix of “Limbo The Law”, peppered with “say hello to my little friend” samples from Scarface, while “The Big V” is an instrumental version of “V. Thirteen”, with the vocal melody played on guitar. These were tacked to the end of the CD, but after the “Badrock City” remix of “C’mon Every Beatbox” became a dance hit, it was added to the cassette and CDs too.

While No. 10, Upping Street is more consistent across the board than the first album, it doesn’t really stand out as much as that one did. The world simply wasn’t ready for this kind of hybrid.

Big Audio Dynamite No. 10, Upping Street (1986)—3

Friday, October 20, 2023

Frank Zappa 50: You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 5

Frank knew full well that there were people who preferred the ‘60s version of his music, as heard on the first handful of albums credited to the Mothers of Invention. As something of a sop to those people, almost begrudgingly, he devoted the first disc of the fifth volume of the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series entirely to performances by “the original Mothers”.

The set starts promisingly with “The Downtown Talent Scout”, an otherwise unreleased blues complaint from the Freak Out! era. “Charles Ives” is a vamp heard on Trout Mask Replica and some CDs of Weasels Ripped My Flesh. “Here Lies Love” is a cover sung by Lowell George, one of several tracks here that commemorate his brief period in the band. It’s that much preferred to the playlet of “German Lunch” or “Chocolate Halvah”, wherein he competed with Roy Estrada to see who can whine the loudest. Roy is one of the featured performers on “Right There”, as he replicates the vocal stylings of a woman captured on tape some time previously in another band member’s hotel room, while the band plays interjections and the tape itself is played back. These and such segments as “Proto-Minimalism” likely best illustrate the sentiment of the title, as much of the improvised music heard loses something without the visual aspect, so we can’t see the various dance routines undertaken while the more accomplished members play Frank’s sophisticated charts, nor understand his conducting that changed tempos or prompted various outbursts. The field recordings from the tour bus and backstage also smack of “you had to be there”. Certainly more interesting are recreations of Frank’s early soundtrack music, plus segments that would be incorporated into “The Little House I Used To Live In”. “Baked Bean Boogie”, “No Waiting For The Peanuts To Dissolve”, and even “Underground Freak-Out Music” feature excerpts from recognizable tunes like “King Kong” and “Trouble Every Day”. An alternate studio version of “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” is included, but it’s an edit of what had been the actual single.

Everything on disc two was recorded in the summer of 1982, when the band sported Ray White on most of the lead vocals and Steve Vai on “stunt guitar”. Most of the music comes from a concert in Geneva that was cut short because the crowd kept throwing things at the stage, as documented on the last track. Before that, we get decent versions of “Easy Meat”, the rare “Dead Girls Of London”, “What’s New In Baltimore”, “Mōggio”, and “RDNZL”. “Shall We Take Ourselves Seriously?” is a brief but intricate swing tune based around yet another in-joke. “Dancin’ Fool” is raced through as if Frank had a bus to catch—or maybe just dodging flying objects—and “Advanced Romance” just doesn’t sound right when anyone other than Captain Beefheart sings it. “A Pound For A Brown On The Bus” is a little too slick, but this and “The Black Page #2” are good guitar workouts.

Vol. 5 is definitely for the converted only. Weasels Ripped My Flesh is a much better representation of what disc one tries to do, and disc two is just okay, so they don’t really fit together. Still, there was a lot more where all this came from.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 5 (1992)—

Friday, October 13, 2023

Rush 26: Clockwork Angels

Believe it or else, Clockwork Angels was Rush’s first concept album in the prog tradition. While they had side-long epics and tracks that continued on successive albums, and most of their albums had a basic internal theme, it took them almost forty years to come up with a story to hang an album on. (And even then, the album just had the barest narrative; the full saga would eventually appear as a standalone novel.)

Once again we’re asked to identify with a lone rebel against the accepted norm, as previously depicted in “2112” and “Red Barchetta”, but this time living in a society steeped in “steampunk and alchemy”, and that’s as far as we’re going to try to explain. The story begins with two songs that had already been recorded, released, and promoted on tour while the album was still gestating. “Caravan” has an ominous opening that’s forgotten as soon as the riff and song proper kick in; similarly, “BU2B” has a spooky atmosphere at first, not included on the original single mix, that gives way to more punishing playing. The assault doesn’t let up on the title track, which at least is a little more melodic going into each verse. Guitars are definitely to the fore here, all over “The Anarchist”—apparently the antagonist of the piece, or at least one of them—but here we also better hear the string arrangements that would also feature onstage. “Carnies” starts with yet another nasty riff—Alex Lifeson channeling Leslie West—and continues the percolating mayhem. It’s not until “Halo Effect” where the volume seems to let up, in what begins as an almost acoustic lament but gets revved up with emotion.

Once upon a time a title like “Seven Cities Of Gold” would have received a more mystical treatment, but here it’s all riffing and yelling. That’s why the nearly jangly suspended chords opening “The Wreckers” are such a surprise, making for a very radio-friendly pop tune that turns very dark by the end. “Headlong Flight” combines several dizzying riffs and drums that won’t let up—there’s even a solo of sorts—with references to “Bastille Day” throughout. The much more subdued “BU2B2” is very much the opposite of its predecessor, with a different tempo and accompaniment to match the beaten narration. The heavy rocking “Wish Them Well” takes over right away to answer those questions, and “The Garden” is constructed as a grand, not exactly grandiose finale, relying on the strings and acoustic guitar to set the atmosphere. By the time the piano shows up, and Alex rips out a more restrained but still emotive solo, there is a definite feeling of a journey, and perhaps an arrival.

They took the album on tour, of course, recorded early on for the requisite live album and matching DVD or Blu-ray. Along with popcorn makers added to the back line, a live string ensemble was on stage for the Clockwork Angels segment (which dropped both “BU2B”s but included every other song mostly in album order) and stayed onstage to augment “Dreamline”, “Red Sector A”, “YYZ” (!!), and “Manhattan Project”, the latter a bonus taken from another night. The set was their longest yet, nearly filling three discs; most of the first is derived from material originally recorded in the ‘80s, which they attack faithfully but with something extra. Geddy’s howling continues, and while Alex is credited with backing vocals, some of the harmonies sound canned to these ears. (Each of the discs includes a titled drum solo: “Here It Is!” sits in the middle of “Where’s My Thing?”, “Drumbastica” is part of “Headlong Flight”, which leads to Alex’s “Peke’s Repose” solo, and “The Percussor” is a more electronic-based one with sample triggers fans had come to expect.)

Rush Clockwork Angels (2012)—3
Clockwork Angels Tour (2013)—3

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Neil Finn 6: Dizzy Heights

By now it should be clear that just because Neil Finn’s name is on something doesn’t necessarily indicate that it will sound like anything else he’s done. While Crowded House, Split Enz, and even the Finn Brothers have their niches, a solo album will be surprising and unexpected.

That’s certainly the case with Dizzy Heights, which was co-produced with Dave Fridmann, and individual best known for his work with Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, Mogwai, and other sonically experimental entities. As set forth immediately in “Impressions”, much of this album is funky psychedelic, with lots of wah-wahs and sweeping strings, to the point where if Neil’s not singing, you’d forget it’s his album. The title track is a little more straightforward, as is “Flying In The Face Of Love”, but both are danceable. Following a nutty windup intro, “Divebomber” builds to sport a dramatic, almost harrowing orchestral arrangement that seems influenced by “Song Of The Lonely Mountain”, which he wrote and sang for Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit movie a couple years before. “Better Than TV” doesn’t have as much tension, but still swirls into a frenzy, and “Pony Ride” provides another more accessible experience.

He gets political on “White Lies And Alibis”, a diatribe about injustice straight outta Peter Gabriel and U2 that is suitably somber sounding. The bloopy intro of “Recluse” is off-putting, but it turns into the album’s best song, with a killer chorus. “Strangest Friends” is comparatively brief compared to the rest of the album, and seems to ponder the performer-audience relationship. “In My Blood” prominently uses that phrase in the chorus, but it sounds like it’s been flown in from a completely different song. The highly impressionistic “Lights Of New York” is treated in such a way that puts the listener in the scene, bringing the album to a close.

It's clear Neil made Dizzy Heights for himself, and with no expectations of world domination. Once again, it’s a family affair, with wife Sharon on bass and backing vocals, and sons Liam and Elroy providing guitar and drums respectively. There’s a lot here, and it’s worth it.

Neil Finn Dizzy Heights (2014)—3

Friday, October 6, 2023

Pretenders 19: Relentless

The latest version of Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders does have something in common with the most recent albums under that name—namely, main foil James Walbourne, who plays lots of guitar, some of the bass, and several keyboards. Relentless was written entirely by the pair, and has proved to be divisive throughout all the reviews we’ve read, from glowing to disgusted. (And Martin Chambers is nowhere to be heard.)

The first three tracks deliver on the album title. “Losing My Sense Of Taste” does sport some shimmering guitar tones that recall James Honeyman-Scott, but is otherwise a piledriver. “A Love” finds another retro tone but stays in the same tempo and mood, then “Domestic Silence” is a trudge with Hammond organ and surprising harmonies. The lost love tale of “The Copa” finally provides a quieter respite, somewhere between Tex-Mex, surf music, and ‘60s chanteuse, and the melancholy continues on “The Promise Of Love”, driven by piano with a prominent organ. She’s still brooding on “Merry Widow”, which sports a guitar part and mood change right out of Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters.

“Let The Sun Come In” is a good distillation of “Up The Neck” with a cool riff to boot for the verses, and a chorus that goes somewhere else entirely. “Look Away” is another lowkey beatnik tune with thudding drums, which go on beating slowly for “Your House Is On Fire”, which actually rhymes “see ya” with “wouldn’t want to be ya” in its chorus. “Just Let It Go” is the album’s epic but one, with a keening chorus, weeping guitars, and buzzsaw electric solos. There’s a cool chordy riff for most of “Vainglorious”, but there’s also an annoying seagull effect that undermines the entire track. Compare that effect to the looped-sounding strings on “I Think About You Daily”, a collaboration with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood that sounds like nothing else on the album.

As we’ve tried to convey, Relentless is all over the place musically. There are good songs in here, and she’s still in incredible voice. It just makes it above the Mendoza line.

Pretenders Relentless (2023)—3

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Paul Westerberg 4: Stereo/Mono

Being a college rock hero didn’t translate to sales for Paul Westerberg, so he took his wares to a smaller label and cut back on the big production. Stereo was self-recorded and overdubbed at night in his basement, but not exactly a lo-fi result.

“Baby Learns To Crawl” and “Dirt To Mud” aren’t identical, but they’re both monotonous in their own ways, though the latter is more memorable since it cuts off mid-verse. “Only Lie Worth Telling” is the first decent song, with hooks and clever lyrics dying for a rhythm section, and “Got You Down” strives for the same, but then “No Place For You” actually has drums and an electric guitar with bass frequencies, so…? “Boring Enormous” is back to acoustic troubadouring, bettered by the emotion in “Nothing To No One”, which is nicely augmented with a slide guitar part.

“We May Be The Ones” sounds like at least two earlier songs, but combines all the best parts into something good, with several lines that sound pointedly autobiographical. “Don’t Want Never” has a lot of promise, moreso than most of what we’ve heard, then once again stops mid-chorus as if the tape ran out. A fragment since identified as “Strike Up The Band” barely fades in and out, followed by a rocked-up version of “Mr. Rabbit”, which apparently dates back centuries, covered by the likes of Burl Ives and Pete Seeger. Fun as it is, “Let The Bad Times Roll” doesn’t deliver on its title, but “Call That Gone?” is a fragment worthy of development, as he apparently didn’t finish the lyrics.

Hidden at the end of the album is a sloppy cover of “Postcards From Paradise” by Flesh For Lulu that also cuts off abruptly, and a good lead-in for the Mono disc that accompanies the album. Recorded and branded under his Grandpaboy alter ego, it purports to be even less polished than the Stereo half, but it’s not; these songs simply rock harder.

In fact, it rocks a lot harder. These are all full-band recordings, him playing all the parts under redneck pseudonyms. He’s even a pretty good drummer. “High Time” is a midtempo smoker, “I’ll Do Anything” is good and Stonesy, and “Knock It Right Out” takes the best of both, soloing all the way underneath. “Let’s Not Belong Together” tries a little hard, but at least he’s trying. “Silent Film Star” takes a long way around a surprising put-down.

“2 Days ‘Til Tomorrow” and “Eyes Like Sparks” sound like they might have livened up the Stereo disc. “Footsteps” is another decent stomper with a surprising solo break, “Kickin’ The Stall” shows a lot of the old attitude, “Between Love & Like” is almost tender if still loud, and “AAA” is near-power pop with buried vocals, the chorus stating a barely discernable “ain’t got anything to say to anyone anymore.”

His previous solo albums seemed to be stuck trying to mix the sensitive with the snotty, but in this case of two halves, the one he wanted to hide behind is the clear winner. As ever, he’s quite the contrarian.

Paul Westerberg Stereo (2002)—2
Mono (2002)—3

Friday, September 29, 2023

Prince 22: Crystal Ball and The Truth

In an effort to keep his public offerings up with his musical output, TAFKAP tried a number of methods to work around the standard record company distribution model. One such gamble was a multi-disc outtakes collection called Crystal Ball, initially sold only on his website as a carrot or thank-you gift to his fans, who knew he had tons of great stuff in his vaults that never got out due to his “enslavement” to corporate schedules.

That would have been fine, but then he decided to sell it through the Best Buy and Blockbuster chains as well, while some people who ordered it “exclusively” from the website a full year earlier still hadn’t received theirs yet. Perhaps it’s not fair to condemn the man, since he was, after all, trying to get music to the fans without being tied to the big corporations. But while using the chains certainly got it out to a lot of people, it didn’t really help the independent stores, which were still in the best position to promote Prince (sorry, TAFKAP) to the people who still cared about him. But there we go being naïve again.

This editorial notwithstanding, Crystal Ball certainly deserves mention if only for the utter sprawl of the contents, which are pulled from the guy’s entire career to date over three discs. To begin with, the opening ten-minute title track originally served the same purpose for the album first compiled in 1986, which itself evolved from an album called Dream Factory, the title track of which comes next. Both are funky, and a little strange, and would have been just as mystifying had they appeared back then.

About a third of the music comes from the fertile, fabled mid-‘80s period. “Movie Star” is a wonderful Morris Day template, while the man himself plays drums on all fifteen minutes of “Cloreen Bacon Skin”. “Sexual Suicide”, “Last Heart”, and “Make Your Mama Happy” come from the Dream Factory era, “Crucial” was cut from Sign "☮" The Times for “Adore”, “Good Love” is a “Camille” track given to a movie soundtrack, and “An Honest Man” is an a cappella Parade outtake; we’d’ve preferred the instrumental from Under The Cherry Moon.

That’s not to say the more recent tracks, mostly from the mid-‘90s, aren’t as interesting. Standouts include the P-Funk homage “Hide The Bone”, “Acknowledge Me” and “Interactive”, supposedly dropped from The Gold Experience in favor of other tracks, and certain remixes of existing tracks (“So Dark”, “Tell Me How U Wanna B Done”). “She Gave Her Angels” is just lovely, but “Strays Of The World” is overwrought, though the guitar solo redeems it. “The Ride” and “Days Of Wild” were recorded live with the New Power Generation, the latter notable for being nearly the last time he’d curse on stage, and “Goodbye” provides a nice slow jam finale.

A lot of material, to be sure—and he even included liner notes for each track (as well as lyrics online at a dedicated website). It all flows together, and manages to match up despite covering a ten-year period. Without an overarching theme, it’s enjoyable if unwieldy.

As something of a bonus, perhaps because the thing took so long between announcement and arrival, a fourth disc was included in the retail version. Mostly low-key, The Truth is basically Prince with an amplified acoustic, overdubbing effects and other instruments from NPG members here and there.

The title track is still fairly profane, but tasty, as is “Don’t Play Me”, despite consisting of a single riff. “Circle Of Amour” is a wistful memory, very close for plagiarism to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”; a coda in another style shows he’d at least tried to modify it. “Third [Eye]” features fretless bass as well as some very jazzy chords, whereas “Dionne” is a slightly orchestrated plaint of petulant heartbreak. “Man In A Uniform” is a blues sporting a silly “reveille” synth part as a riff.

With its distorted vocals, “Animal Kingdom” isn’t any more effective a defense of vegetarianism as any other musician; plus, the dolphin sounds just sound cartoony. We’d like to think Stuart Scott influenced “The Other Side Of The Pillow”, but we haven’t been able to confirm this. The busy “Fascination” was mixed down from another session, and very well, so that it fits in here. Guitar is not the focal point on the bereft slow jam “One Of Your Tears” until the end, but it does support all the vocals on “Comeback”, a relatively brief song about loss, possibly about his son, who died six days after his birth. The fact that “Welcome 2 The Dawn” is labeled “Acoustic Version” suggests that a more elaborate production was in the works, yet none has appeared. At any rate, it’s another fine Prince finale.

The Truth was mostly overlooked at the time except for diehards, but in recent years it’s been reissued on its own on vinyl as well as for streaming, and is ripe for rediscovery. Its rating is as high as it is for standing out so well. (For those who’d ordered Crystal Ball direct, a fifth CD was included as well. Originally released via mail-order cassette, Kamasutra was credited to The NPG Orchestra and is entirely instrumental. Either designed to accompany a ballet, his wedding ceremony, or both, it has symphonic and classical touches, and save a few sax-based segments, doesn’t sound anything like him.)

o|+> Crystal Ball (1998)—3
The Truth (1998)—
The NPG Orchestra
Kamasutra (1998)—3

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Toad The Wet Sprocket 8: New Constellation

Many ‘90s bands got around to reforming in the new century, and every now and then they’d take time off between statefair gigs and other one-offs to record an album, usually crowdfunded. Toad The Wet Sprocket did just that, and emerged to celebrate 25 years as a band with New Constellation.

Granted, Glen Phillips had released several solo albums since the band ended the first time, but every fan likes to hear the old gang together again—the swelling organ, the stock guitar heroics. And while their music hasn’t changed much in that period, there’s something about the title track, “Rare Bird”, and “Get What You Want” that makes them sound like a less funky Maroon 5. Somehow “The Eye” invokes recent U2, except for the bridge. “California Wasted” sports a nice emo chorus, and “The Moment” is all knotted eyebrows but still big. “I’ll Bet On You” is a nice sentiment, and easy to see played to happy crowds singing along. They’d probably enjoy “Is There Anyone Out There” for the same reasons, but “Life Is Beautiful” is a little too simple. “Golden Age” is a musical rewrite of “Windmills”, but with more universal lyrics. They save everything for “Enough”, which run six minutes and includes strings.

As a thank you to fans who’d crowdfunded the album, four additional songs were included for download. Any of these are worthy of the album, from the mildly stomping “Friendly Fire” and should-be-singles “I’m Not Waiting” and “Finally Fading” to the more wistful “Last To Fall”. Two years later, these were augmented with two more to form the Architect Of The Ruin EP. This title track is a pleasing gallop, while “So Long Sunny” turns the “Sweet Jane” riff inside out. All together, it sounds like Toad.

Toad The Wet Sprocket New Constellation (2013)—3
Toad The Wet Sprocket
Architect Of The Ruin (2015)—3