Tuesday, November 28, 2023

King Crimson 21: A Scarcity Of Miracles

Despite being subtitled “A King Crimson ProjeKct”, A Scarcity Of Miracles should not be mistaken for a 21st century Crimson album. Rather, it was built up from a collaboration between Robert Fripp and one Jakko Jakszyk, who’d fronted a group of reunited Crimson alumni, including Mel Collins, who added some saxophone parts to the works in progress. Tony Levin and Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison (who’d played with Crimson in 2008) added a rhythm section and that was the album.
Most of the pieces are on the long side, with melancholy melodies and soundscape-style atmospheres. Each track has a vocal and lyrics, and Jakko harmonizes with himself. In this and other ways it’s similar to Fripp’s collaboration with David Sylvian, not as dance-heavy, but still rhythmic in places. Collins is prominent, but guitars provide the main structures, in different styles and electricity; a Chinese zither features occasionally. Some familiar-sounding riffs appear before the higher-energy segment of “The Other Man”, which is the most frenetic and welcome portion of the album. (Those who bought the DVD package got alternate mixes of the album’s tracks, as well as two improvs, which would eventually be offered for download.)
While more historic for what was to follow for the principals—and the appearance of two of the songs in future setlistsA Scarcity Of Miracles remains mostly a curio, not astounding, but not awful. It chronicles a new beginning for these principals. And because of said principals, it’s catalogued here thusly.

Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins A Scarcity Of Miracles (2011)—3

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

David Bowie 43: Conversation Piece

If the previous few years had been any indication, the time was ripe for the next massive chronological Bowie box set. Instead, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “Space Oddity” single and subsequent album, the Bowie estate began releasing a series of vinyl-only sets of mostly unheard acoustic demo versions of songs, not all of which were familiar. Spying Through A Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos were each issued as box sets of 7-inch 45rpm singles where they could easily have filled out a single LP, while The ‘Mercury’ Demos did just that.
The music spans 1968 through 1969, when Bowie was trying to finalize songs that would go on his second album, following the less-than-astounding reception for his first. The Keyhole songs are intriguing as they appear to be completely solo, sometimes overdubbing himself on guitar and percussion, with an arrival for an early version of “Space Oddity” with then-musical partner John Hutchinson. At this point he was still finding his way, aping different styles, from the nursery pop of “Mother Grey” to the more theatrical “Goodbye Threepenny Joe”. “Love All Around” is more successful, and there are two versions of “Angel Angel Grubby Face” to compare.
The Clareville Grove and Mercury material are all “Bowie & Hutch” folk duo recordings, the latter set specifically intended for the A&R man at that label. In addition to the familiar “Space Oddity” demo, highlights include two versions of “Lover To The Dawn”, which would turn into “Cygnet Committee”, Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song”, a year before Elton John released his version, and two versions of the very Simon & Garfunkel-inspired “Life Is A Circus” written by one Roger Bunn. “Janine” sports a cringey cop from “Hey Jude”, thankfully dropped by the time the album would be recorded.
Being culled from various sources and taping sessions, there was much repetition, particularly in “Space Oddity” itself. The repetition only amped up when the sets were eventually issued on CD, as part of the Conversation Piece box. This set basically served as a prequel to the Five Years box, and tried to cram in everything from the period leading up to what we now know as the Space Oddity album, with only a few overlaps.
To start, Spying Through A Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos were fleshed out with eight further unreleased performances to fill a single disc. “April’s Tooth Of Gold” is wordy but Kinky, as is “Reverend Raymond Brown” which rocks but is just too busy. The overtly Dylanesque “Jerusalem” and especially “Hole In The Ground”, which wouldn’t see an official recording until the next century, are nice surprises. And we can be glad he never pursued more “kids” songs like “When I’m Five”, which appears three times throughout the box. (Meanwhile, The ‘Mercury’ Demos got its own disc, running only 42 minutes.)
A third disc mixed two complete BBC sessions, which had previously been spread across previous deluxe editions and whatnot, with various odd singles and studio outtakes, including the rejected single that backed “In The Heat Of The Morning” with “London Bye, Ta-Ta”. A fourth disc included a new remaster of the original 1969 mix of the second David Bowie album, a.k.a. Space Oddity, and some alternate mixes. A fifth disc sported Tony Visconti’s updated 2019 mix of the same album, which was also released separately; here it added the new mix of the single version of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”, plus the apparently necessary upgrade of “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola”—a.k.a. “Space Oddity” with different lyrics in Italian.
It’s been suggested that the reasoning for this release is more along the lines of any “copyright extension” practices than any merit beyond historical. It’s more of a prequel than anything else, and deserves its own entry rather than being crammed into the context of the Space Oddity album. So we did.

David Bowie Conversation Piece (2019)—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 Sound 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.

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.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Anthony Phillips: The Geese & The Ghost

Because he left after the second album, and was replaced and eclipsed by the flashier Steve Hackett, Anthony Phillips is often overlooked in the Genesis story. This is unfair, because he was one of the founders of the band, and its first guitarist when Mike Rutherford concentrated on bass. But leave the band he did, and watched them from afar as they became, well, Genesis. Meanwhile, he studied classical music.
Still, he stayed on good terms with his old schoolmates, particularly Rutherford, who was happy to help him develop ideas and co-write for what was supposed to be a full 50/50 collaboration, but would instead become Phillips’ first solo album. The Geese & The Ghost should already be of mild interest to Genesis fans, and even more so because Phil Collins sings lead on two songs. That said, much of the album is pastoral, classically influenced acoustic music, mostly played on stringed and other instruments by Phillips and Rutherford, not unlike how Mike Oldfield built Tubular Bells, which it resembles at times.
The opening “Wind: Tales” sets the scene for the first minute, fading in and out before “Which Way The Wind Blows”, sung by Phil over gently strummed and picked electrics, fitting right in with his earliest vocal appearances on Genesis records. The six-part “Henry: Portraits From Tudor Times” is a Rutherford collaboration that tries to pretend Rick Wakeman never happened for thirteen minutes. For the most part it’s pleasant and low-key, with oboes and flutes, but gets a little overwrought during the “Henry Goes To War” section, and “Triumphant Return” actually includes cannons and a chorale. “God If I Saw Her Now” is sung sweetly by one Viv McAuliffe, answered by Phil.
“Chinese Mushroom Cloud” is the barest acoustic duet, floating in and out before the 15-minute title suite. This is in two parts, separated by the organ blast eight minutes in, but the second half is also in unindexed segments. Throughout, classic and rock are blended. Phillips himself sings “Collections”, a somewhat maudlin but pretty piece accompanied by flutes and an orchestral arrangement. This flows seamlessly into “Sleepfall: The Geese Fly West”, a lovely finale that starts on just piano but slowly expands to a full sound, then out on flute and oboe playing a theme similar to where we started.
While some might find it too sweet, The Geese & The Ghost is a pleasing alternative to the more challenging solo albums other band members put out in the ‘70s, and certainly more rewarding than most of Mike + The Mechanics, and anything Tony Banks did on his own. It certainly helps that it sounds more like early Genesis, and in a good way. (Later reissues restored one of the parts to the “Henry” suite on the main disc, and included another with demos and basic tracks, plus another Collins vocal, this one for “Silver Song”, which was supposedly planned as a standalone single but didn’t happen.)

Anthony Phillips The Geese & The Ghost (1977)—3

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)—

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Ringo Starr 5: Blast From Your Past

Just as John saw out his Apple contract with a hits collection, so did Ringo. After all, he had a lot of hits, and some hadn’t even been on albums—yet.
Blast From Your Past is pretty solid, starting with “You’re Sixteen” and “No No Song”. “It Don’t Come Easy” sports a terrific George Harrison production, and if you listen closely you can hear the backup singers chant “Hare Krishna” under the guitar solo. “Photograph” is the perfect follow-up, right before the noisy, goofy, and still impenetrable “Back Off Boogaloo”, which may or may not be about Paul.
Side two starts oddly, with “Only You”, a song we never remember hearing on the radio ever despite it hitting #6 on the charts. “Beaucoups Of Blues” was an American single as well, and the best song from that album. “Oh My My” was indeed all over the radio in those days, and somebody did the right thing by including “Early 1970”, the B-side to “It Don’t Comes Easy” which presents a fairly accurate State of the Beatles address that year. Finally, “I’m The Greatest” should have been a hit, or at least a single, and works just as well as a closer as it did an opener on Ringo.
If you really couldn’t live without any Ringo albums in your collection, Blast From Your Past would do just fine, though it was just over half an hour long to begin with. Even the packaging stood out, with a bright red apple on both labels and full lyrics on the inner sleeve. However, the originally standalone singles have since been added as bonus tracks to two of the albums when they were released on CD, making this less worth the dough or effort. But everything on this album was eventually included in 2007’s more expansive Photograph, which purported to be “The Very Best Of Ringo Starr”, bolstered by “Snookeroo” and “Goodnight Vienna” from that album and a further handful of tracks from three decades’ worth of his post-Apple albums. Liner notes attempted to provide info about who played what, along with Ringo’s commentary on each track, whether he remembered anything about them or not. (It was also released in a set with a DVD containing promo videos of six songs, and one rare commercial.) Only collectors need grab 2014’s Icon collection, part of Universal Music’s ongoing series of generally unnecessary compilations.

Ringo Starr Blast From Your Past (1975)—
Ringo Starr
Photograph: The Very Best Of Ringo Starr (2007)—3

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

Friday, September 22, 2023

Todd Rundgren 29: Liars

Now working slowly but deliberately, Todd Rundgren waited till he had something to say rather than rush things. Released in the midst of a volatile American political atmosphere, Liars is something of a concept album about the “paucity of truth”, in his own words, and one we had to look up.
Most of the album is based around keyboard-generated sounds, from synths to bass parts to drum machines, but it doesn’t sound canned. The tracks blend together, beginning with the slightly jazzy but mostly techno “Truth”, and only slightly slows down on the superior “Sweet”. “Happy Anniversary” humorously explores the age old “men are stupid/women are evil” dichotomy, taking time out for a guitar solo played by Kauai neighbor Ken Emerson, while “Soul Brother” complains about most modern music, from emo to rap. “Stood Up” is a better skewering of supposedly evolved mammals, while those who worship “Mammon” are indicted by a big rock sound and a growling vocal. The space noises in the meandering “Future”, which otherwise laments the non-appearance of flying cars and other unrealized promises.
From there it’s an easy jump to “Past” (as in “living in the”), which is a welcome lost-love tangent. “Wondering” is another basic groove, but a nice derivation from the overall theme, while “Flaw” seems to be something of a takeoff new jack swing ballad, except for the expletive-laden bridge we’d expect from Ben Folds. “Afterlife” in the same mood, but more of a universal theme, and we could swear we hear some AutoTuning. The tempo finally changes for the searching plea of “Living” (as in “a lie”), shifting abruptly for the nature sounds that open the lengthy “God Said”, which continues the conversation begun in “Mammon”. At least he doesn’t take on a strange timber, accent, or other effect for the Almighty’s responses. Finally, “Liar” begins with an Eastern melody and a symphonic flourish to condemn the guilty.
There’s a lot of sameness on Liars, and nothing really stands out. The handful of good ones could have been culled, and shortened, for a really tight album. Yet it’s somewhat amazing, for lack of a better word, that he managed to record another one-man band album that has a lot of the aspects of previous blue-eyed soul outings. His cult audience would certainly appreciate it; the public at large would likely have been turned off by the truly nutty cover photo.

Todd Rundgren Liars (2004)—

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Flying Burrito Bros 4: Last Of The Red Hot Burritos

The Burritos may have been done, but they still had contractual obligations. For a final tour, Chris Hillman brought in Al Perkins on pedal steel and Kenny Wertz on guitar and banjo to replace the departed Sneaky Pete and Bernie Leadon respectively, plus a couple of Wertz’s earlier bandmates, Byron Berline on fiddle and Roger Bush on upright bass. These two would be incremental in the band’s set, as heard on Last Of The Red Hot Burritos.
Released as last gasp after Hillman ran off to Stephen Stills’ Manassas project (bringing Al Perkins with him), the album presents possibly the closest thing to the original spirit of the band, melding country and rock and with a healthy supply of Hillman’s beloved bluegrass. Beginning with a sprightly romp through “Devil In Disguise”, “Six Days On The Road”, and “My Uncle”, they were facing a highly appreciative, raucous crowd. The acoustic, overtly bluegrass portion of the set includes “Dixie Breakdown”, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”, and “Orange Blossom Special”, and is just as well received.
The band rocks again on “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love” and “Don’t Fight It”, which fit right in with the Memphis tracks on their first album, while a swampy take on “High Fashion Queen” is a nice diversion. Chris does a nice job singing “Hot Burrito #2”, to which Perkins thankfully adds some fuzz, and the set ends with the obscure James Carr tune “Losing Game”, which features piano that wasn’t onstage.
Last Of The Red Hot Burritos was elsewhere sweetened before release in the studio, with additional piano as well as guitar to “Orange Blossom Special”. Rick Roberts is a decent singer, but doesn’t have the same harmonic blend with Hillman as Gram Parsons had. The packaging was odd, with a gatefold that features photos of everyone who was ever in the band, and liner notes based around interviews with Gram and Sneaky Pete. It’s still a nice bookend to the band, especially if you ignore the revamped version of the group that would stumble around the late ‘70s and on. (Over the years the Burritos’ legend has only grown, but it would be another four decades before further live documents officially emerged—most notably an “authorized bootleg” from a year before Last Of The Red Hot Burritos when Bernie and Sneaky Pete were still in the band.)

The Flying Burrito Bros. Last Of The Red Hot Burritos (1972)—3
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Authorized Bootleg/Fillmore East, New York, N.Y. – Late Show, November 7, 1970 (2011)—3

Friday, September 15, 2023

Thomas Dolby 2: The Flat Earth

That pesky hit single was a double-edged sword for Thomas Dolby, as he suddenly felt pigeonholed as something of a novelty act. He was already well into the process of recording his next album, but had to cut it short due to promotional obligations, which didn’t allow him to adjust the schedule for completing it. The way he tells it, The Flat Earth suffered as a result. It certainly feels short, and at 37 minutes, it is.
Somebody else pointed out that where the first album predicted steampunk, here he’s the khaki-panted world traveler. “Dissidents” burbles in, soon joined by scratchy guitars for a pretty funky track about, well, being a dissident writer. The title track begins much the same way, but the rhythm is more subtle, with textures that would soon be equated with mainstream embrace of so-called world music. (This is a good place to call out Kevin Armstrong’s exemplary guitar work throughout the album.) Even more gorgeous is the melancholy “Screen Kiss”, a portrait of a small town girl ruined by the big time. Listen for Matthew Seligman’s wonderful bass playing, very evocative of Jaco Pastorius on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album.
After a mysterious intro, “White City” sounds more like the last album, with another impenetrable lyric. The barely audible narration by Robyn Hitchcock as “Keith” doesn’t clear anything up, not that we’d expect it would. “Mulu The Rain Forest” suffers from an overuse of effects; the piano and vocal on their own are just plain gorgeous. His cocktail jazz arrangement of “I Scare Myself” sounds so much like him few might have realized it was originally written and recorded by Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks seventeen years before. As something of a reward to the those hoping for more comedy, “Hyperactive!” provides the closest echo of “She Blinded Me With Science”, loaded as it is with wacky voices and voiceovers, matched by a truly twisted video. Still, that’s why we can’t help but chuckle at the trombone whenever it appears, but the song sounds very out of place following what’s gone before.
Those who really paid attention to his first album won’t be too surprised with The Flat Earth. He’s definitely reaching here, looking for new sounds and making the most of available technology. Considering how labored it all its, who knows if more time would have improved it any? (The converted should certainly seek out the 2009 import remaster, which loads up the balance of the CD with off singles, a collaboration with Ryuchi Sakamoto, and soundtrack work, plus a couple of live tracks.)

Thomas Dolby The Flat Earth (1984)—3

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Morrissey 7: Southpaw Grammar

Morrissey never hid his love of glam rock from his own work, so it should be no surprise that art-rock wasn’t far behind. Southpaw Grammar lets the band—the same as the last few albums, except a rotating rhythm section—bash through eight songs, with a big Steve Lillywhite production.
Based around a sample from a Shostakovich symphony, “The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils” is very much a dirge that at least gets some energy once the drums kick in, and runs a total of eleven minutes. “Reader Meet Author” is a tightly packed rock tune that skewers critics, not noticing for a second that he’s calling the kettle black. “The Boy Racer” is even louder and angrier, and seems to resent the new brand of Britpop bands taking his place in people’s ears, but we could we be reading way too much into it. “The Operation” begins with a two-minute drum solo that’s more rhythmic than virtuostic, until the song itself takes over, another nasty kiss-off. (It goes into a completely different rave-up for the last two minutes.)
“Dagenham Dave” is seemingly a portrait of a typical working-class lout, but it’s hard to tell since the verses are spare and the chorus merely repeats the title ad infinitum. “Do Your Best And Don’t Worry” is the closest thing yet to a Morrissey pep talk, whereas “Best Friend On The Payroll” is even more minimalist in its lyrics, which is a shame since the melody is so catchy. (And quite honestly, who among his fans could relate to the struggles of employing a personal servant?) Finally, “Southpaw” is another lengthy one, mostly a showcase for guitar effects and pyrotechnics, coming to strange halt after ten minutes.
Southpaw Grammar is edgy and angry, perhaps too much. It’s not an album to get lost in, but it certainly rocks. He always defended it, of course. (Some 14 years later he saw fit to reissue the album in a dramatically revised format, with a completely different sequence, Bowie-inspired cover art, and four extra tracks.)

Morrissey Southpaw Grammar (1995)—3
2009 Expanded Edition: “same” as 1995, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, September 8, 2023

Van Morrison 46: You’re Driving Me Crazy

Joey DeFrancesco was a third-generation jazz phenom who was already a major label recording artist at the age of sixteen. He’d already worked with John McLaughlin and guested on dozens of albums in between recording his own before Van Morrison tapped him and his small combo for You’re Driving Me Crazy.
This was Van’s third album released in the space of seven months, and like the others, it’s a jazz and blues set combining standards and remakes of his own tunes. Most of the latter are recent (“Evening Shadows”, “Magic Time”, the whiny “Goldfish Bowl”) or certainly obscure (“All Saints Day”, “Celtic Swing”, and we’re not sure we needed another sprint through “The Way Young Lovers Do”, or a bop version of “Have I Told You Lately” with daughter Shana. The covers are a grab bag as well, from Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” to Ray Charles’ “Sticks And Stones”.
What helps everything stand out is DeFrancesco’s Hammond B-3 organ, and occasional trumpet. Van plays alto sax here and there—you can always tell when he’s about to because he keeps singing with the mouthpiece in; he also takes a nice harmonica break on “Things I Used To Do”—but mostly lets Troy Roberts do the heavy horn work. It’s refreshing to hear Van in a different environment. (Yes, he had Georgie Fame in his band for a while, but that was more R&B than jazz.)
The album was supposedly recorded over two days, and at 70 minutes, they seem to have kept everything. Van also seemed to enjoy himself, as we can hear him laughing during the solos on the title track, and at the end of “Every Day I Have The Blues”. As with most of his work this century, You’re Driving Me Crazy is not a major statement; it’s just a gig. And it’s a pretty good one.

Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco You’re Driving Me Crazy (2018)—3

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Tom Verlaine 2: Dreamtime

Two years went by before Tom Verlaine finished a second solo album. Dreamtime picked up where the last one left off, offering ten more tunes like what we’d come to expect. Half of the album features the Fred Smith-Jay Dee Daugherty rhythm section; the other sports the drummer for the Dictators and a guy who’d go on to work with John Waite. Guitarist Ritchie Fliegler is his foil throughout.
“There’s A Reason” delivers what we’ve come to expect—insistent riffing, jagged accents, strangulated vocals—and the program follows through. “Penetration”, which is just Tom with Jay Dee, except for a piano at the end, kinda stumbles into place, but is precisely constructed. The pattern falls right into place on “Always”, a straightforward chugger but for a lovely angelic chorus, whereas “The Blue Room” is a rumbling instrumental except for the word “hi-fi”. With its arpeggiated guitars and straight pop structure, the brooding “Without A Word” could be a hit for someone with a better voice.
Except for the 12-string, “Mr Blur” could be another lost Television track, just as the power chords on the chorus of “Fragile” are downright mainstream. “A Future In Noise” is about as blunt a putdown song as he’d yet to write up to this point. “Down On The Farm” is the resident wacky track, with a guitar part predicting car alarms, strangely romantic overtures in the words, and a big swirly finish. “Mary Marie” is a more toned-down portrait of a mystery woman.
Even with the sameness, Dreamtime is another satisfying Verlaine album for anyone willing to decipher the meaning of the lyrics. Not a lot of people did, and the album was pretty much forgotten until well into the digital era, when it was reissued on the Infinite Zero label, an archival imprint curated by Henry Rollins and Rick Rubin. Along with gushing liner notes, this edition very nicely added two extra tracks from a rare single: “The Blue Room” with more, seemingly extemporaneous vocals, and a longer, hotter mix of “Always”. (These were not included on the later Collector’s Choice CD.)

Tom Verlaine Dreamtime (1981)—3
1994 Infinite Zero Archive CD: same as 1981, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, September 1, 2023

Nilsson 6: The Point

While he’d had some success, Harry Nilsson had yet to become a household name. Always looking for an angle, and with the help of an acid trip, he came up with an idea that would turn into not just his new album, but a feature-length children’s television special. The Point! was something of a cross between Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneetches” (which would be animated and broadcast two years later) and an earlier TV special, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. An otherwise inoffensive kid with a different physical attribute from his neighbors is ostracized by them, and sent off with only his canine companion for company. Along the way they meet all kinds of wacky characters and return to share valuable lessons about inclusion, conformity, and hopefully forgiveness.
Like most TV specials of the era, it’s as charming as it is dated, as befits the technology of the time and the style of the head animator, best embodied for this generation in the commercials for Tootsie Pops. (One notices the influence of Yellow Submarine and The Phantom Tollbooth as well.) Dustin Hoffman originally narrated, in a role later redubbed by Ringo Starr and then Alan Thicke, while the part of the boy in the story, as well as the boy to whom the story is told, was played by none other than Mike Lookinland, then otherwise occupied as Bobby Brady. Other roles were filled by such voice luminaries as Paul Frees, June Foray, and Lennie Weinrib.
On the album, Nilsson narrates most of the story as seen in the film, which is over twice as long. The music is only tangentially related to the plot, but tempers the “hey man” tone of his narration. (We can even hear him turn a page at one point.) Still, the songs work on their own, singalongable by adults and kids of all ages, which, if you’ll pardon the expression, was the point.
“Everything’s Got ‘Em” mostly establishes that “this is the town and this is this people”; we assume the title refers to the ubiquitous points. A narration sets the scene about a boy born without a point on his head like everyone else has, but most people seem to like him anyway. “Me And My Arrow” is a wonderful song for any kid and his or her dog, though the bridge doesn’t fit at all, in all its familiar Nilsson-ness. The contest in the story that leads to the immediate crisis is illustrated by “Poli High”, basically a cheerleading chant that sports a brief “hold that line” counterpoint we would swear he heard in “Revolution 9”. The story’s Karen equivalent banishes the boy and his dog from the town, we are informed that the next song will conveniently fill the time it takes to get to the next part of the story, and “Think About Your Troubles” does just that, with a rather straightforward explanation of how water is repurposed in nature.
Some narration condenses the action in the film to the point (sorry) where the travelers come upon a seemingly bottomless hole, setting up “Life Line”, a lonesome song with a deceptively cheerful melody. Once out of that tough spot, the pair meets more fascinating people in the film, which is glossed over on the album until a prehistoric bird picks them up for “P.O.V. Waltz”. After “flying high in the sky,” they’re dropped off, and eventually nap, to the tune of “Are You Sleeping?”, which could be a nice lullaby if not for the same bridge detour that colors “Me And My Arrow”. The boy and his dog return to the town and point out that everything has a point. Thus science and compassion prevail over ignorance and egomania, and we live happily ever after.
With The Point!, he began to develop his “rock” voice more. As more people began to take notice of this character, the concept itself would endure outside of him. The songs were expanded into stage productions, one of which would reunite two Monkees. And for all its hippy-dippyness, it’s still a nice story. Such feel-good be-yourself messages were common in that era, and frankly, the message is just as important today.
The first expanded version of the album added the standalone single “Down To The Valley”, which was in the same spirit of the album if a little too busy—and very much like mid-period Beach Boys—and the B-side “Buy My Album”, which beseeched the listener to do just that, even though “Down To The Valley” wasn’t on any album. The more elaborate package a few years later sported excellent liner notes by Nilsson uberfan Curtis Armstrong, a reproduction of the original comic book insert of the story, and different bonuses: early versions of “Think About Your Troubles” and “Life Line”, an alternate take of “Down To The Valley”, and as a hidden track, the surviving excerpt of a demo for “I’ll Never Leave You”.

Nilsson The Point! (1971)—3
1998 DCC CD: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks
2002 BMG Heritage CD: same as 1971, plus 4 extra tracks