Friday, May 26, 2023

Journey 16: Freedom

Seemingly determined to rock till he dropped, and tout the wonders of Just For Men, Neal Schon continued to drive Journey well into a fifth decade, even without new music. Each of the post-Perry albums had been predominantly showcases for Neal, and proof that Deen Castronovo has none of the jazz chops that made the albums with Steve Smith on drums that much more interesting. That they cared about this fact was mildly apparent when, after Deen had to drop out due to legal issues over what we’ll euphemistically call various domestic dilemmas, the first replacement on the kit was Omar Hakim, shortly followed by none other than Steve Smith himself, who had previously refused to be part of any Journey project that didn’t include Steve Perry. More fun arose after Jonathan Cain’s latest wife joined the Trump administration as a spiritual adviser, which sent Neal back looking for Gregg Rolie, who also thought any Journey without Steve Perry (and to a lesser extent, himself) was stupid. Then, after Neal and Jonathan sued Ross Valory and Steve Smith for attempting to take over the band, those two were out again, to be replaced by Randy Jackson (again) and Narada Michael Walden. Those two couldn’t tour post-Covid, so Neal brought in the bass player from Hardline and, you guessed it, Deen Castronovo.
All this fun back story is offered for entertainment, of course, which we can’t say about Freedom, 2022’s one-word catalog entry. To Arnel Pineda’s credit he doesn’t try to ape Steve Perry’s phrasing on these new songs, which come across mostly as retreads of the classics. To say that the piano “Together We Run” apes that of “Don’t Stop Believin’” might be a stretch, but good luck getting through “Don’t Give Up On Us” without imagery from the “Separate Ways” video yet again clogging your head. (Too bad they didn’t do a straight cover of the David Soul tune of the same name.) If you can stomach those, the rest of the album follows as expected, throwing in the occasional piano ballad between the arena stompers, all recorded in separate places due to lockdown and whatnot, then mixed together into one boomy 73-minute mess. Pineda is a good sport, considering he only helped write one song, and thankfully, it wasn’t “United We Stand”. Deen sings lead on “After Glow”, proving he wasn’t completely on the outs, though he’s competing with Neal’s noodling for pretty much the whole track. “Don’t Go” is cheesy ‘80s in a good way, but we’d bet that wasn’t planned. And “Beautiful As You Are”, harmless as it is, does not need to be seven minutes long.
Soon after Freedom was released, Neal sued Jonathan over access to the band’s corporate American Express card. Yet they still managed to tour. To help push that along, their 2021 appearance at Lollapalooza was released at the end of 2022, and consists of nothing originally recorded after 1986.

Journey Freedom (2022)—2

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Brian Eno 25: Finding Shore

From his first collaborations with other musicians, Brian Eno has often been in the position of electronically processing the sounds other people produce. That’s how he started out with Roxy Music, and how he usually “produces” other people. His two albums with Harold Budd found him working head to head with a pianist, and that’s very much the idea behind Finding Shore, a collaboration with British keyboardist Tom Rogerson.
It’s not the best comparison, as Rogerson is a much more expressive pianist in the classical style—as demonstrated best on “On-ness”—compared to the minimalist, impressionistic landscapes Budd conceived. The listening experience is more emotional, and not as “cold” as the Budd albums could tend to be. Still, there’s a familiarity to “Quoit Blue” and “Minor Rift” that sends us back there. That said, thanks partially to the technology Eno uses, the music can sound more harsh and mechanical, as on “March Away”, “Eastern Stack”, “Red Slip”, and “Chain Home”. This makes the majestic “Marsh Chorus” and “An Iken Loop” more welcome.
The improvisatory approach covers a lot of moods, so Finding Shore can be a little disjointed. But taken individually, the tracks are certainly enjoyable.

Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno Finding Shore (2017)—3

Friday, May 19, 2023

Frank Zappa 49: You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4

By volume four of the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, Frank seemed content to let the music stand, as the liner notes consist only of technical info about each track, and no other commentary. Other than most of the music coming from 1984 shows, there’s no overlying theme tying everything together.
On disc one, there’s a nice stretch from “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” through “Willie The Pimp” into “Montana”, though the latter jumps between 1984 and 1973. “Brown Moses” and “The Evil Prince” are more musical and less provocative than they are on Thing-Fish, but not necessarily improved; the guitar solo is the best part of the latter. “Let’s Move To Cleveland Solos” is limited to just that, beginning with a five seconds in 1973 then forward to 1984 with a guest appearance by sax man Archie Shepp. This jazz odyssey switches to a percussive improvisation from 1969 dubbed “You Call That Music?”, before we travel to 1982 for the synths of “Pound For A Brown Solos”. “Take Me Out Of The Ball Game” is performed in Spain with Ike Willis and Walt Fowler impersonating Atlanta Braves announcers and other clichés common to modern baseball. The big historical highlight is the first known version of “The Torture Never Stops”, sung by Captain Beefheart.
Disc two undercuts much of the musical content with attempts at humor, such as the cataloguing of objects used in “Stevie’s Spanking”, the Jim Morrison spoof from the reliable Factory in the Bronx in 1969 of “Tiny Sick Tears”, and seven minutes of nose-picking discussion traversing two tracks from 1974. Perhaps in internal commentary, “Are You Upset?” is a confrontation with an angry Fillmore East attendee in 1969 who didn’t appreciate the improv. This provides a transition to the six brief doo-wop covers that fill up the balance of the disc.
Most of Vol. 4 is devoted to music and soloing, so it would be a decent sampler for folks starting out, though the jokes may deter them from going further. Those seeking even more only had to wait a month after this volume was unleashed when Frank started selling his own bootlegs in an attempt to cut into the profits of the underground. Beat The Boots! offered a box of CDs (also sold separately) that replicated the artwork and generally atrocious sound of eight bootleg albums selected from the previous years. A second volume of seven titles followed a year later, and another six discs’ worth made up the third “volume”, released for download in 2009.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4 (1991)—3

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

John Cale 5: Fear

A switch to Island Records put him John Cale touch with some like-minded individuals who, like and with him, recorded a series of albums that predicted both punk and New Wave, both in sound and subject matter. Fear is consistent with his earlier song-based albums, while also being a departure. (Brian Eno is credited as contributing “Eno”; he and Cale also worked on Nico’s album that year.)
Dramatic piano chords open “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend” before a more stately figure with guitar accompaniment carries the song proper. Things wind up in the choruses, and Cale ends the song nearly screaming as the arrangement falls apart. This makes “Buffalo Ballet” even prettier, despite the sad lyrics about the transformation of the Old West (admittedly, the auteur says, from a Welsh point of view). “Barracuda” is a little more rock ‘n roll, with dark poetry and a demented viola solo, all while reminding us that “the ocean will have us all.” This in turn makes the near seaside lullaby of “Emily” that much more perverse. Continuing the nautical theme, “Ship Of Fools” nicely varies between major figures and major-seventh figures for another nice-sounding track that’s fairly inscrutable.
“Gun” brings back the nasty rock, with a stark narrative, a tasty riff and an extended guitar solo from Phil Manzanera that more than fits the mood for over eight minutes. Softer, and not how you think, is “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy”, which American listeners will be confused to hear rhymed with “porky”. Eno pal Judy Nylon coos throughout and amazingly, this was a single. We would have gone with the more straightforward but just as tuneful “You Know More Than I Know”. Besides, his delivery of “what crap” is wonderful. “Momamma Scuba” manages to combine the menace of “Gun” with the nautical imagery of side one over a band featuring Richard Thompson.
Thanks to the players, Fear has an edge over Paris 1919, and therefore sounds more natural. It was almost like he was getting used to being a frontman.

John Cale Fear (1974)—3

Friday, May 12, 2023

Prince 21: Emancipation

After years of complaining about his record contract, TAFKAP didn’t declare his emancipation from it with a mere album. Emancipation consisted of 36 tracks—12 songs each on three discs, each lasting exactly an hour. A bold statement, to be sure, somewhat reminiscent of George Harrison’s three-record set following the demise of the Beatles, but considering his recent hit-and-miss ratio, did we really need three hours of all-new Prince music, or whatever we were supposed to call it?
There is some rhyme and reason to the set, thankfully. The first disc is fairly straightforward radio-friendly R&B—nothing too innovative, nothing too offensive, but nothing too ordinary either. He can still write hooks, of course; “Right Back Here In My Arms Again” is simple but infectious, and “Get Yo Groove On” has an extended dialogue section in the middle that doesn’t get much in the way. “Courtin’ Time” is a snappy ‘40s jazz distraction before the straight cover of the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow!” Four tracks later he serves up “[Eye] Can’t Make U Love Me”, as recorded by Bonnie Raitt, shortly before George Michael got to it. “Damned If [Eye] Do” kinda rocks and segues neatly into a Latin section, and “Mr. Happy” isn’t as lascivious as it could be, coming off more like a Dr. Dre pastiche even before the guest rap section. We want to read more into “In This Bed [Eye] Scream”, as the liner notes dedicate it to Wendy & Lisa, and Susannah, suggesting some kind of throwback to the days of the Revolution, but the music is all modern Prince.
Beginning with “Sex In The Summer”, based around a loop of his then-unborn baby’s heartbeat, the second disc is all about the slow jam, tracing the journey with new bride Mayte. There’s a lot of sameness, but “Emale” stands out for its relatively early embrace of terminology from what we used to call the World Wide Web. “Curious Child” is somewhat brief, lyrically anyway, based on a harpsichord motif, and very sophisticated musically. The lengthy “Joint 2 Joint” incorporates another guest rap, insights on what cereal he likes and how, ending with one end of a phone conversation. “The Holy River” is a welcome departure, more of a song than a groove, culminating in an accepted marriage proposal and a nicely constructed guitar solo. The logical conclusion is, of course, “Let’s Have A Baby”, mostly falsetto over piano and a little bass. The slow jams are broken up again by the atmospheric instrumental “The Plan”, then back with the ode to “Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife”.
Disc three kicks off with “Slave”, a word he had drawn on his face during the period when he started referring to himself as the symbol and trying to leave Warner Bros. The song doesn’t seem to give much more insight to that, except for an excuse to get funky, which “New World” encourages and “The Human Body” perpetuates. “Style” and “Sleep Around” are extended workouts, though “Da, Da, Da” has too much rap for our tastes. This disc also includes covers: “La, La, La Means [Eye] Love U” is more of an update than a carbon copy of the Delfonics original, while Joan Osborne’s “One Of Us” seems tailor-made for him. “The Love We Make” is pointedly not danceable, but a better grand finale than the title track.
We’re glad he got it all out of his system, but we don’t spend a lot of time with Emancipation, mostly because it takes up so much time. While it proves that TAFKAP never stopped teeming with ideas, having his own playground to create non-stop didn’t teach him how to edit himself.

o|+> Emancipation (1996)—3

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Beach Boys 21: Sail On Sailor

Whether or not the Feel Flows compendium was a critical or commercial success, it was no real surprise that the archivists behind the Beach Boys legacy would follow it up. Named after the best song on both albums, Sail On Sailor: 1972 encompasses the sessions for that year’s Carl And The Passions – “So Tough” and the following year’s Holland. A two-disc version expands both albums with the usual assortment of outtakes, alternate mixes, and live tracks, but that’s a mere shadow of the six-disc version, which devotes two to a Carnegie Hall concert from November of that year.
The show begins with an introduction from manager Jack Rieley, pleading for the enthusiastic crowd not to shout out random requests; he doesn’t explain that doing so will only cause Mike Love to insult them, and he does. (He also takes the occasion of an instrument change to plug transcendental meditation; at another point he predicts that Smile would be out within a year. It wasn’t.) Their set at this point had only a smattering of oldies, with a focus on newer material, which frankly sound better on stage than on records. The new guys, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, were definitely key to why the band sounded so good in the studio and onstage at this juncture, and it’s to everyone’s credit that both are prominently depicted on the cover. A second drummer and bass player were also onstage; listen closely and you can hear Tennille singing alongside the Captain! Surfing songs, plus a surprising and driving crash through “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, bring the show to a close. (The two discs also provide another perspective to 1973’s The Beach Boys In Concert, which was culled from a variety of dates, but doesn’t excuse the inclusion of live performances from later decades elsewhere in the set.)
Relistening to the original albums shows that the boys didn’t have much left in the tank; Brian is all but inaudible on Carl And The Passions, and Holland is still audacious but a mess. Only a few previously unreleased songs are included among the assortment of isolate¬d tracks—which are admittedly, pretty good. A couple from the new guys, including “We Got Love”, which had appeared on In Concert, bolster the Holland portion. An excerpt of a tape of Van Dyke Parks goading Brian into completing “Sail On Sailor” is frustrating but fascinating, just as two takes of the unknown “Out In The Country” have promise; three other Brian sketches are unfinished. Dennis, however, was just gearing up, with his “Carry Me Home” a haunting highlight.

The Beach Boys Sail On Sailor: 1972 (2022)—3

Friday, May 5, 2023

They Might Be Giants 12: No!

So many of the songs in their catalog had the singsong potential to be playground favorites, so They Might Be Giants should be commended for pointedly recording a kids’ album. While they made sure to swap songs about “death and depression” for ones related to things like bedtime, it’s still a straightforward TMBG album, with wacky sounds and clever wordplay. Their genius, however, is giving their first effort in the genre the absolutely perfect title of No!
Beginning with the charming “Fibber Island”, the guys go through mostly original songs that Gen X parents would certainly prefer to Raffi and the Teletubbies. With its accordion and lyrics about waiting for a girl to show up for a date, “Four Of Two” could be from one of their first albums. “Robot Parade” had already appeared in a more rockin’ “adult” version on Japanese pressings of Mink Car, and this one is vast improvement. The title track is probably not something those parents would want stuck in their kids’ heads, but to us it recalls Apollo 18. “Where Do They Make Balloons?” comes from the voice and pen of the bass player, who isn’t even named John, while “In The Middle, In The Middle, In The Middle” is sung by one John’s wife and is a mid-‘60s PSA written by the same guy who composed the Addams Family theme. “Violin” celebrates that instrument as well as hippos, mops, dust, and quarters for some reason. “John Lee Supertaster” is apparently derived from fact, but mostly gives Flansburgh a reason to wail on the guitar.
“The Edison Museum” is revived from Long Tall Weekend for some reason, but why they’d want to scare kids is beyond us. “The House At The Top Of The Tree” is an intriguing extension of the “Farmer In The Dell” trope, just as “Clap Your Hands” is self-explanatory. “I Am Not Your Broom” is a cute dialogue between John Linell and the object (spoiler alert: it acquiesces), “Wake Up Call” isn’t much more than nonsense syllables over a melody, and “I Am A Grocery Bag” is a nice little list. “Lazyhead And Sleepybones” will resonate with tired parents of multiple children, though they might not appreciate the cacophony of animal noises and other sound effects that pervade “Bed Bed Bed”—hardly the stuff of lullabyes. A little more serene is “Sleepwalkers”, though the band kicks in to close it out.
While the songs may be too wordy for kids to sing, we’d bet their parents have reached for No! on many a car ride. It’s a perfectly charming album, and a nice little side hustle for the boys. (Always hoping to embrace technology, the original CD was enhanced with interactive animated videos for most of the songs. As most operating systems have surpassed those system requirements, they can now be enjoyed on a dedicated website. Meanwhile, a tenth anniversary digital expansion added live versions of four songs from the album and two others, plus an extended version of a song from a different children’s album.)

They Might Be Giants No! (2002)—3

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Bryan Ferry 7: Bête Noire

Seeing as he still had some traction on the charts, Bryan Ferry kept his solo career going in the latter half of the ‘80s. Bête Noire is more of the post-Avalon template, but even with Madonna’s producer Patrick Leonard on board, it’s mostly more of the same. Seven guitarists are credited, along with three bassists, three drummers, percussion, saxes, and backing vocals, all combined into a generic, sterile program.
The three singles are still the best tracks. “Limbo” leads off well, and “Kiss And Tell” uses the clever pun of a typewriter to inspire the beat. “The Right Stuff” got most of the attention, being based on a Smiths instrumental and featuring Johnny Marr himself on guitar.
Beyond that, these are danceable grooves with barely discernable lyrics, and that’s really it. We could swear he sings “open your heart” in the choruses of “Day For Night”, which should please anyone who already wore out their cassettes of True Blue. “Zamba” closes the first half moodily for an okay change of pace, and “The Name Of The Game” has a decent chorus (with shades of “Live To Tell”) but “Seven Deadly Sins” begins with that canned chime common to so many Taco Bell commercials. There was a time when “style over substance” wouldn’t be an insult for the voice and face of Roxy Music, but Bête Noire misses the mark. He must have known it, as five years would pass until his next album.

Bryan Ferry Bête Noire (1987)—

Friday, April 28, 2023

Robyn Hitchcock 34: Life After Infinity

Because his wordplay has always been so unique, Robyn Hitchcock can be easily overlooked for his fretwork. But as anyone who’s witnessed a live performance should have been able to notice, the man knows his way around a guitar. Stinging leads aren’t his forte; rather he does intricate fingerpicking and flatpicking, sometimes in arpeggios but always in distinct patterns. He’s as fun to watch as he is to hear.
Instrumental pieces have been occasional parts of his albums going back to I Often Dream Of Trains, but Life After Infinity is his first all-instrumental release, and it’s a joy. It’s mostly solo, mostly built on a few guitar tracks, with occasional bass and percussion added by Hitchcock stalwart Charlie Francis. These might well be demos, recorded simply, and that’s fine; a grainy quality pervades the overall sound, adding to the mystic quality.
“The Eyes In The Vase” is mostly a rumination on one chord with a melody on top, with distant percussion, very redolent of English folk. “Daphne, Skipping” also has one chord for its basis, but the joyful chromatic riff and happy rhythm evoke the title nicely. “Plesiosaurs In The Desert” has something of an ambient drone to support the wandering guitar before the seagulls fly in from the distance. Knowing what we do about the auteur, “Tubby Among The Nightingales” was likely inspired by one of his cats; here the strum is augmented by a twangy Telecaster. “Gliding Above The Ruins” features a trilling mandolin-style effect, while a ticking clock and a banjo(!) drive “Come Here, Little Ghost”, accented by full chord strums and what sounds like a piano.
“Nasturtiums For Anita” is just a single guitar finding its way, building to a wonderful energy; “Celestial Transgression” also begins more delicately, adding instruments sparingly, the bass nearly providing the most melody. These approaches develop further in “The Sparkling Duck”, with harmonic passages spread across the insruments. “Veronica’s Chapel” opens with what appear to be the same bells from “Big Black Smoke” and “Fat Old Sun” before giving way to backwards guitar and very psychedelic riffing. About halfway through bass, cowbell, and other percussion add more of a steady groove, and the bells see us out again. Finally, “Mr. Ringerson’s Picnic” is jaunty and tuneful before fading on what sounds like another idea entirely.
We often remark in this forum when an album is too long. Well, Life After Infinity feels too short; at least it goes by very quickly, even at 37 minutes. It’s a pleasure to hear at any time of day, in any weather, but best in solitude. Here’s hoping there will be more someday.

Robyn Hitchcock Life After Infinity (2023)—4

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Roger McGuinn 1: Roger McGuinn

Maybe Roger McGuinn knew the Big Byrds Reunion wasn’t going to amount to much, as he didn’t seem to contribute much in the way of songwriting to that collective. After all, he had a solo career to kick off, and he did so mere months late with his self-titled debut. More to the point, he made sure to include all the music styles he insisted were of interest to him.
The folkie plaint of “I’m So Restless” is sheer parody, wherein he asks Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger (in that order) how he should comport himself. He even got Dylan to blow harmonica on the track. For severe musical whiplash, it’s tough to beat “My New Woman”, which is basically a full Byrds reunion in a strange meter with jazz sax man Charles Lloyd honking freestyle throughout. Roger likely found “Lost My Drivin’ Wheel” on a Tom Rush album, but he did try it first with the Clarence-era Byrds. Charles Lloyd returns for “Draggin’”, which is about a drag race—complete with Bruce Johnston adding Beach Boys-style “oohs”—but upgrades it to airplanes, to the passengers’ collective horror. “Time Cube” continues the Moog experiment left dormant at the end of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but these days it just jars against the banjo, and we always think a kettle is boiling in the background.
A timely tribute to hijacker D.B. Cooper, “Bag Full Of Money” sounds the most like countrified Byrds, and also dates from as far back as Farther Along. “Hanoi Hannah” tries to be a cutting blues about a soldier in Vietnam, but has a lot of timing issues. A children’s choir is almost never a good idea on any album, and it mars the cover of Spooner Oldham’s “Stone”, featuring the man himself on piano. Spanky MacFarlane (the singer, not the Little Rascal) joins in on the sea chanty “Heave Away”, and we stay in the islands for “M’Linda”, which sounds like something Stephen Stills would try to ape on his albums. His arrangement of “The Water Is Wide” turns the melody inside out, but David Crosby’s harmony keeps it just this side of adult contemporary.
Ultimately, Roger McGuinn is too all over the map to really impress, though there are some good parts. Occasional collaborator Jacques Levy is credited throughout, so some of the credit and blame can be shared. Like most of Roger’s ‘70s output, the album was largely ignored in the digital era, though several tracks were included on a 1991 compilation. Predictably, it was the Sundazed retro label that finally gave it a CD upgrade, complete with liner notes and two extra tracks: a solo strum through the traditional “John, John” and a full band version of Jackson Browne’s “Jamaica Say You Will”, this time where he sings it.

Roger McGuinn Roger McGuinn (1973)—3
2004 Sundazed reissue: same as 1973, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, April 21, 2023

Neil Young 67: High Flyin’

In the summer of 1977, Neil took up with one of the guys who used to be in Moby Grape, who’d found a singer-songwriter and a drummer who could sing, and the quartet played several gigs around the Santa Cruz area billed as the Ducks. This was not Neil’s band; his job here was mostly as guitar player, supporting the other guys and their original songs, except when they played one of his. As quickly as the combo started, they were done, and Neil went off to start work on what would become Comes A Time.
It only took 45 years, but an official Ducks album finally came out as part of the Neil Young Archives Official Bootleg Series. High Flyin’ presents two discs of the band in their element: a bar. Three such venues are represented here, including Neil favorite The Catalyst, along with a recorded “live rehearsal” and an appearance at a local auditorium. The songs were recorded well enough—by Neil’s own team, of course—to the point where you can almost smell the spilt beer and urinal cakes.
Just as in every scene across America and most of Canada throughout the rock ‘n roll era up through today, The Ducks were a decent bar band, with accomplished if pedestrian vocalists. If anything, they were faster than Crazy Horse, and certainly funkier. Overall, pretty solid rock ‘n roll, as would be expected of any other bar band with a hotshot guitarist.
The draw here, obviously, is anytime Neil rips off a stinging lead, blows into a harmonica, adds a harmony, or steps forward to sing one of his own songs. “Are You Ready For The Country?” is a fun stomper as ever, while “Sail Away” and “Human Highway” get nice electric treatments with energetic harmonies. The band’s treatment of “Little Wing” is especially moving, as Neil gives it something of a riff missing from the acoustic take, and “Mr. Soul” is delivered with pure Springfield energy. (Sadly, Duck takes on “Comes A Time” and “Cryin’ Eyes”, both common to other bootlegs, do not appear here.)
But that’s a small portion of nearly two hours of music. For the most part the songs alternate between originals written by bass player Bob Mosley or Jeff Blackburn, the other guitar player, plus drummer Johnny Craviotto gets to bellow some obscure R&B nuggets. “Truckin’ Man” is indicative of their lyrical depth; “Car Tune” shows that they had more in common with Neil than just music. The instrumental “Windward Passage” has become somewhat legendary over the years, being a two-guitar dueling jam, with Neil on one and Blackburn with a chorus pedal on the other. Each disc closes with a version of “Silver Wings”, arguably the band’s best (non-Neil) tune, unless you count “Hey Now”, which features even fewer lyrics than “T-Bone”. One surprise is a furious “Gone Dead Train”, which Crazy Horse covered on their first (Neil-less) album. Throughout, Neil happily lets loose, content with being part of the backdrop in a way he hadn’t been since the Squires.
High Flyin’ isn’t essential except for us Neil completists, and even that’s pushing it, but it does beg one question. Since this technically was never an actual bootleg, shouldn’t it be part of the Performance Series?

The Ducks High Flyin’ (2023)—3

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Gram Parsons 1: GP

Revisionist history will tell you that Gram Parsons was a musical genius not fully appreciated in his time. We weren’t there, so we can’t say for sure, but like most people we had to find out about him after the fact. Still, he did help Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman find a new direction for the Byrds, then ran off with Hillman to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, and helped found what we now call country rock. However, he also hero-worshipped Keith Richards, musically as well as pharmaceutically, so it took a relative while for him to finally record an album under his own name.
While recorded in Hollywood and not Nashville, GP is a pure country album, with very little of the “rock” sounds that permeated the best Burritos tracks. With Ric Grech of Blind Faith and Traffic as the unlikely producer, the band gathered such pros as James Burton, Glen Hardin, and Ron Tutt from Elvis Presley’s band, Al Perkins and Buddy Emmons switching off on pedal steel, and the ever-popular Byron Berline on fiddle. But the most notable contribution was that of a heretofore unknown singer named Emmylou Harris, who brought out the best in the man who more or less discovered her.
Berline’s fiddle saws away from the very first notes of “Still Feeling Blue”, a Parsons original that sounds like a chestnut. Emmylou gets a nice spotlight on “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning”, but lends more subtle support on “A Song For You”. “Streets Of Baltimore” is another classic weeper about the evils of the big city, balanced nicely by the portrait of “She”, who “sure could sing”.
“That’s All It Took” is another swell duet that’s pretty straightforward, but we can’t say the same for “The New Soft Shoe”, which actually seems to be just as much about footwear as it is a dance move. Ric Grech contributed “Kiss The Children”, which sports a vocal backing borrowed directly from the Jordanaires, while “Cry One More Time” and its ‘50s saxophone comes straight from the second J. Geils Band album, of all places. The simple remorse of “How Much I’ve Lied” is smacked aside by the more obnoxious “Big Mouth Blues”, which is all honky-tonk boogie.
One’s enjoyment of GP will depend on how much likes any kind of country music, whether it’s classic Nashville or today’s sterile conveyor belt products. Whatever your preference or lack thereof, Gram Parsons was not a cookie cutter musician, and that’s why these songs have endured.

Gram Parsons GP (1973)—3

Friday, April 14, 2023

Rush 25: Time Machine

As their history loomed large and technology advanced, Rush celebrated their 35th anniversary as a band with a variety of looks back, beginning with three archival rehashes. Retrospective III: 1989-2008 notably contained two freshly remixed tracks from Vapor Trails and a recent live recording of “Ghost Of A Chance” alongside a decent mishmash of tunes from the six guitar-heavy albums released during that period. Meanwhile, Working Men was a nice idea with cool artwork, but merely recycled selections from the last three live albums, as apparently Atlantic didn’t have the rights to the first three live albums. Each track fades to silence before the next fades up for a disjointed listening experience. Oddly, most of the songs were at least two decades older than their performances, with only an otherwise unavailable “One Little Victory” as an extra. Certainly more interesting was Grace Under Pressure 1984 Tour, a live album originally released as a bonus in 2006’s Replay X 3 box, which presented three live DVDs converted from VHS, including this one. While it doesn’t have all the songs from the DVD, it comes roughly halfway between Exit Stage Left and A Show Of Hands chronologically to present the band in transition. (The audience could have been mixed a little lower, though it is fun to hear Joe Flaherty’s Count Floyd character before “The Weapon”, as part of the complete “Fear” trilogy.)
Around this time, he acclaimed documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage did a lot to boost their cred in the mainstream. Two years later, taking a break from developing new material, the band embarked on the Time Machine tour, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Moving Pictures album with a complete performance of same in the middle of a 2½-hour show. (Geddy also changed his backdrop to working sausage makers, tended by the crew.) And naturally, it became a live album. Time Machine 2011 was pointedly recorded in Cleveland, where the band had made early strides when nobody else cared, and also reminded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to stop ignoring the band.
The program begins with a smattering of hits, including “Time Stand Still” with Aimee Mann’s voice triggered from a sample. (There are a lot of samples on the album, from cartoons and cult films, that were probably a lot more entertaining in person or on video.) Two new songs already recorded and pushed to radio, “BU2B” and “Caravan”, preview the upcoming studio album already in progress. While the novelty of hearing our favorite Rush album performed live in its original sequence is appealing, Geddy’s voice isn’t up the task, as he’s begun howling the high notes after decades of tempering his shriek. (This is particularly disappointing in “The Camera Eye”, which hadn’t been played live in nearly 30 years.) Neil’s drum solo appears as its own entity rather than as part of “YYZ”, with harmonics buried in the timber leading to the customary Buddy Rich trigger, and Alex gets a 12-string solo spot called “O’Malley’s Break” that sets up “Closer To The Heart”. The crowd, of course, goes wild.

Rush Retrospective III: 1989-2008 (2009)—
Grace Under Pressure 1984 Tour (2009)—3
Working Men (2009)—
Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland (2011)—3

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Neil Finn 5: Pajama Club and Goin’ Your Way

Empty nest syndrome is apparently a universal thing, as Neil Finn discovered when his kids were grown. With more time and space than they knew what to do with, he and his wife Sharon decided to make some music. He played drums for the first time ever, and she played bass. Fellow Kiwi Sean Donnelly was brought in to add keyboards and beats, and Pajama Club was born.
The music on their eponymous (and to date, only) album is predominantly electronic, more along the lines of the experiments of Neil’s first solo album as well as the lo-fi atmosphere of the first Finn Brothers album. His voice is welcome when it’s heard, and Sharon can carry a tune as well, but it’s not always easy to find the songs amid the mix. That said, “TNT For 2” sounds most like standard Finn, “Go Kart” is goofy fun, and the chorus of “Can’t Put It Down Until It Ends” reveals a song crying out for a straight arrangement.

The following year, Neil embarked on a collaboration of sorts with Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, who’d never really caught on in America with his band the Messengers, but was beloved at home. This mutual admiration society resulted in a tour wherein they performed each other’s songs, sometimes swapping vocals, backed by a band including Paul’s nephew Dan on guitar, Neil’s son Elroy on drums, and a bass player not related to any of them. Goin’ Your Way presents a Sydney performance, and it’s both a wonderful retrospective of Crowded House and Neil solo, plus a few Split Enz songs, as well as a nice intro to Paul Kelly’s work. The two-hour set is capped by a fun stomp through Buddy Holly’s “Words Of Love” and a subdued “Moon River”, which gives the album its title.

Pajama Club Pajama Club (2011)—
Neil Finn + Paul Kelly
Goin’ Your Way (2012)—

Friday, April 7, 2023

U2 19: Songs Of Surrender

Following the usual noise about how their “next album was almost done,” U2 at least had the excuse of the COVID pandemic for why such a thing hadn’t materialized. Meanwhile, Bono took the time off to write a memoir, and The Edge busied himself with reconceptualizing various songs from the band’s catalog. Songs Of Surrender isn’t exactly U2 unplugged so much as reimagined, much like the so-called acoustic medley on the deluxe edition of Songs Of Innocence. Free from having to devise unique effects for everything, The Edge sought to find the melodic base of each, relying on keyboards, while Bono did the same by singing instead of shouting, and modifying lyrics here and there—you know, to reflect his maturity and how far he’d come from the boy who wrote the first drafts. Or something.
The simplicity concept didn’t extend to the finished product, as it was made available as a 16-track album, a “deluxe” version with four extra tracks, and a “super deluxe” set totaling 40 tracks, not quite matching the 40 chapters of Bono’s book, each of which was named after a different U2 song. Each set of ten songs was on its own disc, each of which was named for a different band member.
While the band’s anthems are known for their power and aggression, the idea of “quiet” U2 isn’t such a radical idea. But while “One” is easily stripped back, “Where The Streets Have No Name” needs to try a lot harder to make an impact when you’ve heard the standard version for 35 years. Edge sings “Stories For Boys”, so we’re told—his voice has always sounded like Bono’s at a certain register—and we do like the mild transformation of “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”, but “Bad”’s lyrics should have been left completely alone. “Walk On” was given the subtitle “Ukraine”, partially in solidarity with that nation, but also because the original inspiration for the song had fallen short of their hopes. (Bono also finally gets the timeline right for “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”.) “Dirty Day” is nearly transferred to a string quartet, but the canned horns on “Red Hill Mining Town” are wholly unnecessary. “The Fly” is transformed to funky acoustic, but a similar approach to “Desire” doesn’t work, despite Edge’s falsetto. (He also sings “Two Hearts Beat As One” and “Peace On Earth”.)
Larry is listed as drummer throughout, though we don’t seem to hear any drums on many of the tracks—except on the disc named for him—just as Adam is credited as the bass player, even when somebody else is noted as playing it. Yet a couple of dozen people are listed as playing some instrument and/or engineering; these guys can’t even make an unplugged album simply.
The most successful overhauls are arguably the songs from this century, as they haven’t been as drummed into our heads. “Ordinary Love” and “Invisible” benefit greatly from the stripped approach, and “Every Breaking Wave” will get more attention in this context, though we’d’ve preferred that “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” was just piano and vocal. For those of you keeping score, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Songs Of Innocence get the most redos—the former possibly because it was recently reissued for its 20th anniversary, the latter likely because the backlash upon its release clouded the reaction to the actual music. October and No Line On The Horizon aren’t touched at all.
Some would say that “covering yourself” is a sign that a band has run out of ideas, and some would be right. Some also insist that U2 has to be big and overblown, and some would say that’s what’s caused them to fail in the past. But Songs Of Surrender does remind us what we always liked about U2, and it could be that a more subtle approach could suit them well if they ever get around to releasing another new album. Or maybe this could work as a finale for a career that doesn’t seem to have an ending.
That said, we do take exception to the cover art. Bono’s photo matches that of his book and comes from the time of The Unforgettable Fire, while the other band images are from the Pop era. Are they afraid we wouldn’t recognize them if current shots were used?

U2 Songs Of Surrender (2023)—3

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Thomas Dolby 1: The Golden Age Of Wireless

Many one-hit wonders don’t deserve the appellation, since the assumption is that they never did anything else of merit. Thomas Dolby proved that to anyone who took the time to listen to his catalog, even if he can’t escape his one hit.
After a few years doing sessions, young Dolby (not his real name) managed to get financing for an indie single. “Urges” and “Leipzig” were harmless but mildly intriguing, and led to a major label deal for his first album. The Golden Age Of Wireless does depend on what were then modern synthesizers, but like Stevie Wonder and Pete Townshend before him, he had enough skill on keyboards and melodic sense to make the technological innovations more than mere gimmicks.
While “Flying North” does have a prominent drum machine, the insistent piano line and “string” arrangement would translate very well to an acoustic setting. “Commercial Breakup” adds more prominent guitars and a more danceable beat, while “Weightless” layers on the vocals before more subdued verses with that piano that Peter Gabriel used in those days. “Europa And The Pirate Twins” is wonderful synth-pop with an equally wonderful arc in the lyrics, and we like how “Windpower” builds on some of Brian Eno’s music for films for its main hook.
“Wreck Of The Fairchild” is mostly instrumental with ska touches but for some radio communications in Spanish that becomes a mere if lengthy prelude to the album’s best song. “Airwaves” has it all: nearly impenetrable lyrics, a unique bass part, a haunting melody, and a truly soaring chorus, the latter boosted by the faux-horn lines over the final choruses. (Billy Joel borrowed the verse melody for “Goodnight Saigon”.) Continuing with the theme, “Radio Silence” is more chilly music of the era, complete with cooing female vocals, and “Cloudburst At Shingle Street” provides an inscrutable yet fitting finale.
The Golden Age Of Wireless holds together very well, exceeding the sum of its parts, but was not left alone for long. The American version of the album, which followed a few months later, used a different cover for starters, and shuffled most of the tracks to accentuate the more techno aspects of the contents. It also dropped “The Wreck Of The Fairchild”, added both sides of his first single, replaced “Radio Silence” with an alternate version, and most criminally, used the single edit of “Airwaves”, which cuts out the bridge and fades too early.
Meanwhile, Dolby got a great idea for a music video, and wrote a song to go with it called “She Blinded Me With Science”. Somehow this did the trick, and this maddeningly catchy track became what most people associate with the guy to this day. The flip side was “One Of Our Submarines”, a stunning mini-symphony we thought was called “What About South Marie?” the first several times we heard it on late-night radio, and took us even longer to realize borrows the main melody from The Six Million Dollar Man for one of its many hooks. Extended versions of these two songs made up side one of the Blinded By Science EP, which backed with longer versions of “Windpower” and “Flying North”, bookending the full “Airwaves” for a stellar half hour of music.
By this time somebody decided that the smash hit single belonged on the American album, so the extended “Science” and “Submarines” replaced the two early single tracks, and the order was shuffled yet again, with the original album cover restored but “Windpower” shortened into a third variation. Further tinkering occurred for the CD versions (note the plural), until a final sequence took hold, though some copies favored the long “Science” but the shorter “Airwaves” and “Windpower”.
That lineup would become standard worldwide, until the man himself remastered the original album with a pile of extras for release everywhere but the US, which had to wait ten years for a less extravagant package that supplemented the first version with both sides of the early single, both sides of the hit single, and the alternate “Radio Silence”. (The 2009 version is the one now streaming, and Blinded By Science was digitally upgraded, kinda, with standard versions of the tracks supplemented by three live versions of unknown vintage just in time for its 40th anniversary.)

Thomas Dolby The Golden Age Of Wireless (1982)—
Thomas Dolby
The Golden Age Of Wireless (US version) (1982)—3
Thomas Dolby
The Golden Age Of Wireless (US version #2) (1983)—
2019 Echo CD: same as 1982, plus 5 extra tracks
Thomas Dolby Blinded By Science (1983)—4

Friday, March 31, 2023

Van Morrison 45: Versatile

Mere months—that’s right, months—after a blues album, Van returned with a collection of new songs. Well, new recordings, anyway; Versatile is a swing album, more concerned with jazz (again) than blues.
If anything, this is his Sinatra album, with takes on “A Foggy Day”, “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, “Makin’ Whoopie”, and the like, but his arrangements are more unique, particularly on “Unchained Melody”. (Plus, nobody associates “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” with Frank.) It’s not all about singing; the traditional “Skye Boat Song” is a showcase for his alto sax as well as the other players.
Scattered throughout the program are originals that haven’t been done by a million people already. “Broken Record” starts the set well, except that the chorus consists of those two words repeated just as you feared. “Take It Easy Baby” is mostly a sax solo with inconsequential lyrics, but “Affirmation” is a lovely, lengthy piece featuring James Galway, up until Van starts scatting. He even covers himself: “I Forgot That Love Existed” gets a remake thirty years after we heard it the first time, “Start All Over Again” is almost as old, but “Only A Dream” only had to wait fifteen years.
While still way too long, Versatile is a good Van Morrison album for those people looking for something to play when they’ve already heard the Best Of. His voice is smooth, and we suppose you could even say it’s versatile.

Van Morrison Versatile (2017)—

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Richard Lloyd: Alchemy

While Tom Verlaine was the voice and subsequently the face of Television, those who listened closely enough to their albums knew that they had a second guitarist. Richard Lloyd was very much a foil for Verlaine’s fretwork, and we will always stress the importance of a rhythm guitarist. Once the band split, Richard had the opportunity to express himself without the other guy in the way, and he did so with Alchemy.
Musically the album isn’t that far removed from the Cars, and the auteur blames the producer for loading up the mix with contemporary keyboards against his wishes. Vocally he’s not too removed from Ben Orr’s croon, so that adds to the overall listenability. (TV bandmate Fred Smith plays bass, as he did on Verlaine’s solo album; we don’t know who the other players are.)
Of course, it helps that the songs are there. Though it wasn’t a single, “Misty Eyes” got NYC radio play, and while it’s not exactly power pop, it deserves to be revived. “In The Night” is loaded with enough hooks to distract from the synthesizers, but you can understand why he was miffed about them. The title track is just plain toe-tapping, and “Woman’s Ways” has dueling harmonica solos to go with its constant harmonica riff, for crying out loud, His guitar prowess shines throughout, especially on “Number Nine”, which has a very similar circular riff to that of “See No Evil”.
“Should Have Known Better” is right out of 1965, at least until the synths kick in at the end. “Blue And Grey” was the single, and the one that sounds most like the Cars, except that the fuzz guitar obscures the piano in the mix until the wonderful break. The lyrics for “Summer Rain” rest heavily on “whoa-oh” but it’s still catchy. “Pretend” is another showcase for a very melodic lead, and while “Dying Words” is a little verbose, it’s still a well-arranged little symphony of sorts.
For whatever reason, Alchemy wasn’t a bigger hit for the time. Could be that Elektra, which purposely kept their roster lean and choice, was content letting the Cars run with the not-quite-New-Wave sound. At any rate, while it doesn’t reach the heights of his former band, it’s clear that Richard Lloyd wasn’t just the other guitar player.

Richard Lloyd Alchemy (1979)—3

Friday, March 24, 2023

Nilsson 5: Nilsson Sings Newman

Harry Nilsson understood what it meant to be a struggling songwriter trying to simultaneously make his name as a singer, which is just one reason why he felt a kinship with Randy Newman. Having already covered one Newman tune on his last album, Harry decided to showcase the songwriter by singing along while said author played the piano. Hence, Nilsson Sings Newman.
Don’t be fooled by the tremolo guitar and tambourine for the first 45 seconds of “Vine St.”; that’s merely an in-joke to set up the song proper. This is a piano-and-vocal album, and when we say vocals, we mean it; Harry painstakingly overdubbed himself wherever he saw fit, as he does here for an almost Beach Boys chorale. “Love Story (You And Me)” is quiet and simple, though those trademark Newman ragtime chords are on every chorus. Considering the time, “Yellow Man” might have been considered an anti-war statement, but now it just sounds crass, and it’s easy to be distracted by Harry’s spoken voice between some of the verses. “Caroline” is a straight love song written expressly for the project, with just the slightest hint of vibraphone in the mix. A prairie wind is the sole accompaniment for most of “Cowboy”, and just when it seems about to float away, the piano melody changes to “Midnight Cowboy Theme” by John Barry. Clever.
“The Beehive State” is odd—a verse from a chairman, a verse from a delegate from Kansas, another verse from the chairman, and a verse from a delegate from title-monikered Utah. And that’s it; maybe he didn’t want to write about the other 48? “I’ll Be Home” is more direct in its sneakiness, going from devotion to threatening in two verses. The gospel exhortation between them seems mostly like another in-joke. “Living Without You” is even more straightforward, and almost aches for a bigger arrangement. We can hear him ask for more echo in “Dayton Ohio, 1903” right before the quote from “Moonlight Serenade”, and fake a trumpet at the end. The small-town homespun theme concludes with “So Long, Dad”, which also includes him arguing with himself over how many voices should be in the mix.
Considering that Randy Newman has one of those voices known more for its character than any pleasing timber, Nilsson’s smoother tone does these songs grand favors. Willfully eccentric in its simplicity, Nilsson Sings Newman didn’t do much for either artist at the time, but persistence would pay off in both cases. (As the cult of Harry escalated in the 21st century, the album was given an expansion adding four alternate takes, plus the positively gorgeous “Snow”, criminally left off the original 25-minute album for “lack of room”.)

Nilsson Nilsson Sings Newman (1970)—3
2000 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Kinks 26: Give The People What They Want

Ray Davies dove into the ‘80s seemingly ready to act like the Kinks had never experienced any kind of slump. To this day the title Give The People What They Want seems like both an ethos and a punishment, but that’s what he tried to do.
After a blast of static, the guitars begin right away, crunching through “Around The Dial”, which would go on to be an American anthem anytime a DJ moved on to another station. The title track is in the same key and nearly the same tempo, and an indictment of television (which of course we all know is inferior to radio). Following the verse about Lee Harvey Oswald, it seems the album is following if not a concept but a thread, as “Killer’s Eyes” takes an analytical view of a murderer. “Predictable” is a sludgy poke at modern fashion and neuroses, given a comedic and striking (for its time) video treatment, with the disdain taken further on the sneering “Add It Up”, which still sounds like the riff from Blondie’s “Call Me”, and listen for Chrissie Hynde cooing on the chorus breaks.
What really sold the album was “Destroyer”, wherein Ray mashes up “All Day And All Of The Night” and “Lola” to further explore neuroses and makes it work. “Yo-Yo” is a grim glimpse at the end of a marriage given an unfortunate metaphor that’s overused, and “Back To Front” is pounded through the speakers, though some of the snaky riffs are kinda cool. Unfortunately, while “Art Lover” is supposed to be from the point of view of a divorced father missing his kids, his delivery suggests there may be another, more horrible reason why he’s not allowed to see them. The sadness continues on “A Little Bit Of Abuse”, an outside look at a relationship that should end but won’t. The mood finally lifts for “Better Things”, a sincerely generous song of farewell.
The good outweighs the bad here, but there’s still something ordinary about the album. On top of Ray being the only Kink on the cover, it doesn’t take much to notice that Dave Davies doesn’t sing at all on the album, nor does he contribute any songs. Those needing their fixes didn’t have to look far, as he’d finally got a solo deal, putting out two albums in quick succession before Give The People What They Want came out. The first was mostly a one-man-band deal, with title and artwork based on the American catalog number, with lots of riffing and buried vocals, while Glamour was almost as loud, added more keyboards to befit the “futuristic” lyrics, and used one Bob Henrit on drums throughout.

The Kinks Give The People What They Want (1981)—3

Friday, March 17, 2023

Yes 6: Yessongs

In keeping with the big-ness of prog, when it came time for a live Yes album, a double album wouldn’t do. Yessongs was a three-record set, in a package sporting three Roger Dean landscapes, and a booklet full of photos of the band as well as the crew.
Vinyl constraints meant that the order of a basic show was shuffled to fit the six sides. Also, the music was culled from their two most recent tours, and Bill Bruford only appears on the three tracks from the first one. He took off after recording Close To The Edge to find more intricate challenges with King Crimson, whereupon his replacement was one Alan White, most familiar from playing on a few John Lennon and George Harrison records. Would he be able to handle the polyrhythms Bruford left behind?
The album begins with the sound of an expectant crowd clapping through an excerpt from Stravinsky’s The Firebird as the band takes the stage. The music gives way to Rick Wakeman’s Mellotron, and eventually Steve Howe fumbles his way into “Siberian Khatru” (don’t worry, he catches up by the end). Just before “Heart Of The Sunrise” we can hear an audience member yell “louder!” “Perpetual Change” comes from one of the Bruford shows, and is extended for him to take a drum solo. “And You And I” begins not with the harmonics intro from the studio, but a quote from the majestic “Eclipse” section before going back for the vocal. Plus, Steve plays it all on electrics, so something is lost. (Since he gets a solo spot to play “Mood For A Day”, it’s not like he didn’t have an acoustic handy.) Speaking of solo spots, Jon Anderson warbles alone for a few seconds before introducing Rick, who plays what are listed as “exceprts” from that year’s The Six Wives Of Henry VIII solo album, a multi-keyboard showcase that was neither as prog nor as pretentious as it could have been, the concept notwithstanding. He even throws in a few familiar classical and silent movie quotes to tweak the crowd. Somehow it all works into the intro for “Roundabout”.
“I’ve Seen All Good People” is wisely played to the accompaniment of a trilling acoustic, until the loud section. “Long Distance Runaround” comes from one of the Bruford shows as well, as does “The Fish” that follows, beginning with more noodling from Steve that becomes a basis for Chris Squire to solo, before the band comes in, then they drop out again, then eventually they join again. Altogether this section goes for about nine minutes. “Close To The Edge” takes up all of side five, complete with sound effects, and is still pretty majestic. “Yours Is No Disgrace” seems to start mid-performance with some jamming before the riff starts proper, but they manage to keep the energy going at a galloping pace throughout, through extended sololing, and “Starship Trooper” is delivered fairly close to the record, with the addition of the choral voices from Wakeman’s Mellotron.
If anything, Yessongs proves that the band could tackle their complex material just fine in a live setting. And yeah, the new guy could keep up pretty well too. Fans weren’t thrilled with the occasionally muddy sound of the album—neither was the band nor the producer, for that matter—but they only had to wait 42 years until Progeny: Seven Shows From Seventy-Two delivered on its title, going back to the source tapes for nearly identical Bruford-less setlists across 14 remastered discs. (A two-disc “highlights” package distilled from five of the shows replicates a basic concert for those wanting only a taster. Also, 1975’s Yessongs feature film, which offered a truncated glimpse of one of the shows on the tour, has since made it to DVD and Blu-ray.)

Yes Yessongs (1973)—3
Progeny: Seven Shows From Seventy-Two (2015)—3
Progeny: Highlights From Seventy-Two (2015)—3

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

David Crosby 6: Croz

Right about when nobody was expecting it, David Crosby released only his fourth solo album in a four-decade span. Granted, he’d done two albums with the CPR project, but his last collection of new songs was half of another duo album with Graham Nash a decade before. Luckily for performer and listener alike, Croz is laid-back and natural, like visiting with an old friend.
James Raymond is still his main collaborator, and he wrote several songs, including the opening “What’s Broken”. This features a very subtle contribution from Mark Knopfler; you have to listen very closely before it’s clear that it’s really him. Social commentary comes early with “Time I Have”, mostly in the same tempo, but with much more obtrusive guitar from Shane Fontayne. “Holding On To Nothing” is more contemplative, and this time the guest soloist is Wynton Marsalis, flown in from Lincoln Center. The tempo picks up and the meter gets intricate for Raymond’s “The Clearing”, with nice voicings built in. Nautical metaphors dominate “Radio”, which has a wonderful and dare we say inspiring chorus. “Slice Of Time” is poetic and pleasant.
“Set That Baggage Down” has some almost funky guitars courtesy of co-writer Fontayne, and Crosby plays one for the only time on the album on the haunting portrait of “If She Called”. The stripped-down approach makes this one a highlight. The drum machine sadly undercuts the piano on “Dangerous Night”, especially through earbuds, but the harmony on the chorus helps you forget as the song progresses. The instrumentation on “Morning Falling” seems transported from a ‘90s Sting album, but it’s a nice sound for him. Graham Nash probably wishes he could have sung on “Find A Heart”; the soprano sax and jazzy meter keep the Sting connotation going, and in a good way.
Croz is a nice surprise—not stellar, but welcome. Despite how how wrecked his health for so many years, he’s still in terrific voice. If anything we wish we heard more of his guitar rather than let the hired guns play all the parts.

David Crosby Croz (2014)—3

Friday, March 10, 2023

Stephen Stills 13: Carry On

When it was Stephen Stills’ turn to get a Graham Nash-curated box set, he had to have four CDs, not three. Considering the volume of music he’d put out over nearly half a century, it almost makes sense, but any collection would have to keep in mind that quantity in Stills’ case doesn’t necessarily indicate quality. Luckily, Carry On is designed for those who like deep dives, via alternate versions and unreleased tunes.
The first sound we hear is a 17-year-old kid sweetly singing and picking on a Voice of America radio feed from Costa Rica; two years later his voice has acquired some of the smoke we’re accustomed to, with The Au Go Go Singers. Ten Buffalo Springfield tracks provide a terrific glimpse into his contributions there; sadly, the rare extended “Bluebird” jam is still MIA. We’d already heard the demo of “Four Days Gone” on the Buffalo box, but two one-man band demos nicely lead into the first CSN album and Déjà Vu. A solo “So Begins The Task” and a one-man-band-plus-drummer version of Crosby’s “The Lee Shore” are nice surprises.
Disc two offers a wonderful sequence. It covers roughly two years, in neither recording nor release order, but encompasses his first three albums, all made without those other guys. Hidden gems include an early version of “The Treasure”, a live duet with Steve Fromholz on “Do Unto Others”, “Find The Cost Of Freedom” from a surprise appearance with Neil Young at a Crosby-Nash gig, and “Little Miss Bright Eyes”, which evolved from a Déjà Vu outtake called “Ivory Tower”. And while he’s obviously proud that he got to play with Hendrix, did their unreleased “No Name Jam” really need overdubs in this century?
That disc stands alone just fine, but disc three is where it starts to unravel. We begin with some of the not-so-highs of the Stills album before bouncing through the rest of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. Illegal Stills is ignored, but Thoroughfare Gap isn’t. A couple live acoustic tunes break up the slickness; other rarities include “Spanish Suite” with Herbie Hancock, a CSNY mix of “Black Coral”, an edited but still interminable “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, and the quieter mix of “I Give You Give Blind”.
Disc four is just as spotty, notable for offering selections from the anemic Allies live album for the first time on CD. A solo sketch called “Welfare Blues”, recorded at Jimmy Page’s studio, appears for some reason, as does an unnecessary remake of “Church (Part Of Someone)” from his first album, overloaded with synths and emoting chorists. Nice selections from Stills Alone sit uncomfortably next to clunkers from Man Alive! In the middle of all this is a live arrangement of “Girl From The North Country”, from one of the last times CSN sang together well in public, and a version of Otis Redding’s “Ole Man Trouble” from one of the CSNY2K tours with Booker T. & the MG’s.
The first half of Carry On is stellar, so while it’s a shame the rest can’t keep up, we didn’t expect it to. This one’s for the fans. And Graham.

Stephen Stills Carry On (2013)—

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Jeff Beck 18: Loud Hailer

While his is the only name on the cover, spine, and label, Loud Hailer is more of a collaboration than a Jeff Beck album. The vocals and guitar riffs come respectively from Rosie Bones and Carmen Vandenberg of Bones UK, whose producer gets credit here as well. The album is something of a maturation of the electronica experiments from the turn of the century, in that it’s still very processed, but production techniques have caught up so it doesn’t sound totally robotic.
Beyond the mild abrasion throughout, personal enjoyment will likely depend on one’s tolerance of Rosie’s vocals, which lean heavily on an affected cockney approach. Her lyrics mostly focus on social commentary, as shown in such titles as “The Revolution Will Be Televised” and “Scared For The Children”. The soulful “Shame” is a highlight, mostly because she sings more than poses—kudos also for the key change at the end. “Thugs Club” rumbles along until we hit a sly rhythmic echo of “Beck’s Bolero”, and “O.I.L. (Can’t Get Enough Of That Sticky)” is a funky JB’s homage. The closing “Shrine” is the best melding of Rosie’s voice and his guitar. That said, Vandenberg is an accomplished guitarist, and often dominates the tracks; two instrumentals—the slow-burning “Pull It Up” and “Edna”, which is a mere prelude to “The Ballad Of The Jersey Wives”—keep the focus on Beck.
The Bones UK folks have since gone their way, so maybe Loud Hailer was as far as this collaboration could go. It’s still worth a listen.

Jeff Beck Loud Hailer (2016)—3

Friday, March 3, 2023

Pretenders 18: Standing In The Doorway

In addition to countless and sometimes notable covers, Bob Dylan tribute albums have been a thing since the ‘60s, but the Covid lockdown inspired many to re-associate themselves with the man’s music. Chrissie Hynde has unabashedly worn her Dylan devotion on her sleeve throughout her career, even adding “Forever Young” to one album, but Standing In The Doorway is a true labor of love. To her credit, she’s chosen nine songs more beloved to fans than jukeboxes, with half of the songs coming from the ‘80s. The album was recorded via text; she’d do a take, then send it to current Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne to add other instruments. Somewhere along the way veteran engineer Tchad Blake added further touches, mixed the batch, and took photos for the album package.
It all sounds very homemade, as befits modern file transmission, from the pre- and post-chatter around “In The Summertime” and “You’re A Big Girl Now” to the birdsong heard here and there. The title track has modified chords from the original, but they suit her delivery; her lyrical adjustments aren’t as successful on “Sweetheart Like You”. Despite its minimalist structure, “Blind Willie McTell” develops into an impressive production. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” gets accordions and mandolin-like touches yet remains a happy strum, but “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” is the highlight, though that could be because we heard the opening chords and feared a take on “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” is played straight, while “Every Grain Of Sand” is elegant and understated.
Standing In The Doorway isn’t the most innovative Dylan tribute, and her vocal approach often mimics his, sometimes sounding more parody than homage. But at 70, Chrissie Hynde remains an excellent interpreter of anyone’s songs, and not just her own.

Chrissie Hynde Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan (2021)—3

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Emma Swift: Blonde On The Tracks

The standard joke is that Bob Dylan’s songs are always better when somebody else sings them. We know that’s not always true, but every now and then a voice comes along to help the medicine go down more easily. Emma Swift has one of those voices, a smooth alto with country tinges. Throughout Blonde On The Tracks she applies it to Dylan’s lyrics while staying true to the original melodies.
While recorded over several years and studios throughout Nashville, Pat Sansone’s production helps keep the album very much of a piece. “Queen Jane Approximately” has a mild Byrds jangle, but nicely laid-back drums that make the song more gentle. This is a mere appetizer for “I Contain Multitudes”, which had only been out for weeks before she found a way to inject more notes into his original three-note range. “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)” gets a reading distilled through Oh Mercy, as does “Simple Twist Of Fate” to an extent, but that one is dominated by Thayer Serrano’s pedal steel guitar. The ballsiest move is to tackle all 12 minutes of “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, and she does, without making it drag at all. Even the fade is lovely. “The Man In Me” gets some soul plus some nice harmonies on the bridge, and as with the rest of the album, she leaves the gender references intact. Her take on “Going Going Gone” will have you wondering why more people haven’t covered it, and while “You’re A Big Girl Now” doesn’t end the program on an up note, it’s an excellent reading. All together, a lovely surprise.

Emma Swift Blonde On The Tracks (2020)—

Friday, February 24, 2023

Kiss 11: Dynasty

The solo albums may have cleared the decks for indulgences, but the Kiss boys weren’t united. Sure, the new album attempted to be democratic, so that each of the guys provided a share of the singing and writing. But while Vini Poncia—previously best known as a collaborator with Ringo Starr—was brought in as producer following his work on Peter’s solo album, he also replaced Peter in the studio with Anton Fig—who had beaten the skins on Ace’s album— on all but one song on Dynasty. It had been nearly two years since Kiss put out an album of all new material, and what did they have to show for it? Disco.
This is apparent right away with the thump and mild funk of “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, which was catchy enough to almost reach the top ten. It’s not a bad song, or record for that matter, just not what people want from Kiss. (In another harbinger of doom, Paul co-wrote the song with Poncia and future schlockmeister-for-hire Desmond Child.) Ace had made his point by putting out the best solo album, so he got to sing three songs, the first being a surprising remake of the Stones’ “2000 Man” filtered through the first Cars album. Disco returns on Paul’s “Sure Know Something”—again, a competent enough pop tune, but lovelorn plaints are all wrong for this band unless Peter’s singing. Speaking of which, he gives us “Dirty Livin’”, which sports a riff that predicts ZZ Top’s Eliminator album, and we’ve checked several sources to make sure it’s him singing on not Paul. Ironically, the lyrics seem to address why exactly he wasn’t deemed up to snuff (ahem) anymore.
Gene finally shows up on side two, proving that he doesn’t understand the dictionary definition of “Charisma” on a track that sounds like a barely augmented demo. Paul’s “Magic Touch” puts more emphasis on rock instead of hitting the charts, and it’s got a few decent hooks. Ace’s “Hard Times” is the second song in a row that sounds like Kiss, but he still shouts more than sings. Gene’s “X-Ray Eyes” sends all kinds of mixed messages about whether and why he wants her back; it might have been better if he’d finished editing the transcript before singing the tune. Yet is it any better than Ace’s snotty “Save Your Love” kiss-off?
At least the album packaging, while not elaborate, still delivered. The cover shot is all hair and makeup, and the custom labels sport the same pose shown on the included fold-out poster. The inner sleeve unfortunately screams colorful disco ball, but the merchandise form includes a contest to win an official Kiss pinball machine. While notable for being the first Kiss album longer than 35 minutes, Dynasty isn’t any fun. It can’t even be called willfully stupid, which each of the previous albums could at least claim. Whatever momentum they had over five very busy years was seemingly gone.

Kiss Dynasty (1979)—2

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Elton John 21: Jump Up!

By now we weren’t expecting much from Elton John, but he surprised us. Jump Up! was very much a return to form, with straight pop songs, some arty ones, few clichés, and even Bernie doing the lyrics for six of the ten.
An uncharacteristically simple beat from Jeff Porcaro drives the guitars and straight-ahead piano of the rocker “Dear John”, and the basic lyrics are indicative of Gary Osborne. Bernie’s more poetic touch is apparent on the more arranged “Spiteful Child”, but the repeated “spiteful” backing vocals don’t exactly make for a hit single. There’s zero piano, and only a little keyboard back in the mix, on the mildly rockabilly but very catchy “Ball And Chain”, which is otherwise dominated by Pete Townshend’s rhythm acoustic. “Legal Boys” is not only the fourth straight song about a romantic breakup, but mostly notable as his first collaboration with Tim Rice, and not his last. The music has baroque musical theater touches, with some emotional juxtapositions in the chorus that keep it from being overly trite. Outside of the pastel paint-splattered cover art, the album’s most cringingly ‘80s aspect would be “I Am Your Robot”, which thankfully limits the dated synths to the intro that the rest of the song struggles to overcome. Amazingly, Bernie’s responsible for these words too. Yet this near-travesty is forgotten with “Blue Eyes”, a gorgeous torch song that ranks with the pair’s all-time best.
Speaking of classics, side two begins with “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)”, an elegant, heartfelt, and still touching tribute to John Lennon. The harpsichord, castanets, backing vocals, and highly singable chorus all come together to support not just a great song, but a fine recording. Unfortunately, “Princess” is something of a step down, combining the lyrical theme from “Tiny Dancer” with the lightweight pop of, once again, “Little Jeannie”. “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” is not the Kinks song, but a return to “Philadelphia Freedom”-style soul that belies the aging-inspired anxiety of the lyrics. That leaves “All Quiet On The Western Front”, a slow six-minute single about the first World War that boasts a James Newton Howard arrangement over the lengthy close.
Unlike his last few albums, which seemed cobbled together from various sessions and participants, this album is tighter, with singular production by Chris Thomas and the same basic band throughout. 1982 was a good year for many veteran performers, and Elton could be pleased to have been part of it. It had been a rough five or so years, but Jump Up! seemed to indicate he was on the right track again.

Elton John Jump Up! (1982)—3

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Grateful Dead 18: Reckoning and Dead Set

In October 1980, the Dead played two major residencies—first at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, and then at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, with a stop in New Orleans in between. They intended to get a live album out of it, but ended up with so much material that they didn’t know what to leave out. Arista allowed them to put out two distinct albums that year—one focusing on the seated acoustic sets, the other more electric.
Reckoning was the acoustic album, extending the mood of side one of Bear’s Choice across four sides, except there’s no Pigpen and Brent’s playing piano (and harpsichord on “China Doll”). Like that album, the song choices are more laid back, whether their own tunes or covers. These include “The Race Is On”, made famous by George Jones, Jesse Fuller’s “Monkey And The Engineer”, old folk tunes like “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie”, “Jack-A-Roe”, and the traditional “On The Road Again”, and repeats of “Dark Hollow” and “Been All Around This World”. “It Must Have Been The Roses”, “To Lay Me Down”, and “Bird Song” had already been claimed as Dead fodder from Jerry’s solo albums and are very welcome here.
The first CD version of the album was for some reason titled For The Faithful… and left off “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie” so it would all fit onto a single disc; this was not rectified for 25 years, when the original sequence was restored, along with a full second disc of additional material. Granted, eight of these were songs already on the original, “To Lay Me Down” was a studio rehearsal, and “Deep Elem Blues” (along with “Tom Dooley”) was from two years earlier, but still, this was generous. Of the “new” material, “Iko Iko” would become a staple, Bobby’s “Heaven Help The Fool” (played instrumental) and “Sage And Spirit” (already instrumental) were rare airings; he’d been singing “El Paso” for years.

Four months later, Dead Set was the “electric” album, and while it sported a way cooler cover, it struggled to display the excitement of the band at full throttle. As they hadn’t learned with Steal Your Face, vinyl limitations dictated shorter songs and edits, so the lengthy jams of legend aren’t captured here. In fact, the run from “Rhythm Devils” (aka “Drums”) through “Space” (née “Feedback”) to “Fire On The Mountain” is split between sides.
Plugging in the songs didn’t necessarily make them faster, but there’s a lot more room for soloing. “Samson And Delilah” has the energy but none of the disco trappings, but “Friend Of The Devil” is taken at about one third the original speed. Most of the tunes were staples, as were “Deal” and “Loser” are taken from Jerry’s first solo album and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” from Bobby’s. The only real rarity per se is a slog through “Little Red Rooster”.
As with its sibling, Dead Set was also truncated on CD by omitting “Space”, which was restored when the album was expanded in 2006. The bonus disc consisted of mostly longer performances, which helped make up for the edits left intact on the original album. We get to hear them stretch more; by now Bobby had started singing “C.C. Rider”, plus the band had taken on “Lazy Lightning” and “Supplication” from the Kingfish album. “Shakedown Street” is still a matter of personal taste, but “Not Fade Away” doesn’t need to be so slow for Jerry to wail. Besides, it fades out the disc.
In addition to these albums, a video compilation from the Radio City shows called Dead Ahead was available on VHS (and laserdisc!); this was later reissued on DVD with another 50 minutes of material. Altogether they provided a glimpse at what the band was all about on the cusp of the ‘80s, and the new guy was fitting in pretty well. Beyond that, these would be the last new albums by the Grateful Dead for another six years.

Grateful Dead Reckoning (1981)—
2006 expanded CD: same as 1981, plus 16 extra tracks
Grateful Dead Dead Set (1981)—3
2006 expanded CD: same as 1981, plus 10 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Download Series Volume 7 (2005)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 8 (2013)
     • The Warfield, San Francisco, California, October 9 & 10, 1980 (2019)