Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Clash 6: Combat Rock

The late 1980 release of Sandinista! gave the Clash something to coast on, to the point where their next album wasn’t released until the spring of 1982. Combat Rock would be the band’s biggest album, but a commercial peak they ultimately couldn’t sustain, much less survive.

Joe Strummer begins the attack right away on “Know Your Rights” (“all three of ‘em”), as relentless as it is minimal. (This was the album’s first single in England, wisely not tried in America.) “Car Jamming” is a strange hodgepodge, somewhere between the sunny pop of “Hitsville U.K.”—complete with Ellen Foley in the chorus again—and rap poetry. It’s too slow to dance too, but too uptempo not to. Two Clash classics follow back to back, and likely the reasons why the album sold so well: “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” is a trash masterpiece from Mick Jones, from its scraped intro to the double-time choruses with our favorite part, the echoed backing in Spanish; “Rock The Casbah” is even more iconic, especially considering that the entire track save the guitars, vocals, and lyrics was all courtesy of drummer Topper Headon—even the piano! While it begins with a wonderful ska-influenced intro, “Red Angel Dragnet” is further proof that Paul Simonon couldn’t carry a tune if he was handcuffed to it. What’s more, band associate Kosmo Vinyl interrupts halfway through to growl some of Travis Bickle’s monologues from Taxi Driver. In the context of the album, it makes “Straight To Hell” all the more striking, with its tribal drums competing with the guitar effects and Joe’s pointed political lyrics. Vietnam was still a sore subject in America then, and he pulls no punches.

Side two continues more in the vein of the experiments on Sandinista!, and not always in a good way. Those who enjoyed the dance aspects of the last album might have enjoyed “Overpowered By Funk”, at least up until the mic is turned over to graffiti artist Futura 2000 for a less-than-assertive rap. “Atom Tan” has some nicely vocal interplay between Strummer and Jones, but the white-on-black lyric sheet is needed to decipher the imagery. “Sean Flynn” takes us back to Vietnam for a track named after a photojournalist who disappeared outside Saigon in 1970. There’s a song in here, but the dominant atmospherics make it more of an art installation. “Ghetto Defendant” is much in the same vein, except that it features recitations by special guest Allen Ginsberg, which distract from Joe’s decent vocal. “Inoculated City” is catchy if inscrutable, but the simple beat and toilet clean commercial sample predict Mick Jones’ future. It’s a distraction before the lounge jazz of “Death Is A Star” wherein Joe recites poetry for a change. Lord knows if any of the kids who bought the album for the singles made it through this side more than once.

Combat Rock was planned as a double album—the band’s third multi-disc set—except that legendary producer Glyn Johns was brought in to mix the tracks and rein in Mick Jones in the process. The legend of the unreleased Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg endured for decades, with no solid sequence ever confirmed, until various B-sides were identified as leftovers in this century, and other outtakes were included on box sets. Then, the 40th anniversary of the album brought an expanded version called Combat Rock + The People’s Hall that included another hour’s worth of extra material of varying interest.

If these tracks had been part of the original double album, it’s arguable that it might not have been as big a hit. To wit, “Outside Bonds” is four minutes of audio-verité captured outside the New York City nightclub where the band had an extended residency. “Futura 2000” is alternate mix of a rap single by the auteur, with the band’s backing. Mikey Dread is featured on “Radio One”, which had been the B-side to “Hitsville U.K.”, whereas “He Who Dares Or Is Tired” sounds like a dub version of “Hitsville” itself. “Radio Clash”, “First Night Back In London”, and “Long Time Jerk” were B-sides already collected on Super Black Market Clash and the Sound System box. Five other outtakes had already been in the Sound System box as well, including “Midnight To Stevens” (a tribute to the producer of London Calling), an extended, more musical “Sean Flynn”, and an alternate “Know Your Rights”. (A mildly entertaining two-song EP featuring the English Beat’s Ranking Roger toasting over “Rock The Casbah” and “Red Angel Dragnet” was released separately around the same time; these would have certainly been welcome in the main set.)

The Clash Combat Rock (1982)—3
2022 Combat Rock + The People’s Hall Special Edition: same as 1982, plus 12 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Genesis 22: Live Over Europe

Following ten years apart, wherein Phil Collins did Disney soundtracks between solo albums and Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks twiddled their thumbs, the most profitable lineup of Genesis reconvened for a reunion tour. Not able to convince Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett to join, they called back Daryl Steurmer and Chester Thompson for support and off they went. (The documentary detailing the rehearsals and first shows is particularly hilarious when it’s clear Daryl and Chester know their parts far better than the other three know theirs.)

Following the American leg, Live Over Europe 2007 replicated the setlist on two full CDs. Beginning with “Duke’s Intro”, which melds elements of “Behind The Lines” and “Duke’s End”, they move to “Turn It On Again”, which was the handy name of the tour, and proceed through over two hours of expected hit songs (“No Son Of Mine”, “Land Of Confusion”, “I Can’t Dance”, “Invisible Touch”, and the like) as well as more ambitious epics (the complete “Home By The Sea” and “Domino” suites, an “In The Cage Medley”, “Firth Of Fifth” into “I Know What I Like”) and relative deep cuts (“Mama”, “Ripples”). The requisite dual drum solo is called “Conversations With 2 Stools”, named after the objects Phil and Chester beat for the first three minutes, and after a few encores of later hits, the set ends nicely with “The Carpet Crawlers”.

The performances are impeccable, and drawing from several shows ensures competency if not intimacy. The album was a nice enough souvenir, but it was soon to become part of a larger deal.

Being one of those bands audiophiles liked, it made good business sense for Genesis to revisit their catalog in the 21st century by releasing three box sets over a period of 18 months, each dedicated to a distinct period of the band. Each remastered CD was matched with a DVD containing the same studio album in 5.1 surround sound and other audio-visual content, and each set contained a bonus disc—and matching DVD—of “Extra Tracks”, such as B-sides (including “Match Of The Day” and “Me And Virgil”, which were omitted from the Archives #2 box) and other rarities.

A year after the final album box was released, their live legacy was reassessed much the same way, but not exactly. 1973-2007 Live included a CD and 5.1 surround-sound DVD pairing for an expanded Genesis Live, which added five out-of-order tracks from the Lamb tour, but not the fabled “Supper’s Ready” that had snuck out way back when. Seconds Out was also paired with a DVD, while Three Sides Live—in its all-live, no “Paperlate” version—did not get a surround mix. Neither did The Way We Walk, but that combined volume was rejigged to replicate the actual set lists as opposed to “short” and “long”. Also, “Drum Duet” was now called “The Drum Thing”, while “Mama”, “That’s All”, and “In Too Deep”, plus “Turn It On Again” as a bonus, were moved to the end, having been recorded on earlier tours.

A slot in the packaging was included for consumers to store their separately purchased copies of Live Over Europe 2007, which was nice of the designers, but even more exciting was the disc of extra tracks in the form of Live At The Rainbow, recorded in 1973 at the fabled London theater. Some of this was already on the first Archives box, and the jury’s still out as to how much of the vocals were touched up by Peter Gabriel decades later. (The DVD portion includes another 20 minutes of music from the show, sequenced in context. Also, folks gnashing their teeth about no DVDs for two of the albums only had to wait two months for The Movie Box 1981-2007, which contained five DVDs, plus their Behind The Music documentary and an empty slot for the When In Rome DVD from the reunion tour.)

Genesis Live Over Europe 2007 (2007)—3
1973-2007 Live (2009)—3

Friday, January 20, 2023

Frank Zappa 48: Best Band and Jazz Noise

Frank spent the first two years of the ‘90s visiting formerly Communist countries and overseeing the CD debuts of several catalog items. Then the summer of 1991 brought forth not one but two double-CDs dedicated to performances by the 1988 band, referred to directly in the title of the first set.

The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life was likely the more accessible of the two for most people, consisting of more familiar songs plus comedic threads. Despite being cobbled from multiple locations, the first disc is presented much like a standard set, with something of an intro amid “Heavy Duty Judy”. Mike Keneally gets to hone his Johnny Cash impression, not only on “Ring Of Fire” but several songs after. A variety of old favorites make way for a reggae arrangement of Ravel’s “Bolero” with a now-customary quote from “My Sharona”, and four songs from One Size Fits All close the disc.

The second disc sports some interesting covers, beginning with robotic stabs at both “Purple Haze” and “Sunshine Of Your Love” from a soundcheck. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (performed on St. Patrick’s Day) segues into the theme from The Godfather before a “comedy” monologue in the guise of a Southern televangelist. Several lyrical changes ridiculing Jimmy Swaggart dot the next handful of songs, and the first part of “The Torture Never Stops” incorporates several classic TV show themes. The highlight of the album, and certainly the tour, was their arrangement of “Stairway To Heaven”, taken at a reggae pace, which switches to ska for the guitar solo, played note for note in unison by the horn section, then to the original’s tempo for the finale. (Not included, allegedly for copyright reasons, was the band’s “Beatles Medley”, which put new words, mostly about Swaggart, to the original melodies and arrangements of “Norwegian Wood”, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. One such performance would finally surface on Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show in 2021.)

Make A Jazz Noise Here gets its title from an aside in “Big Swifty” that includes quotes from several classical pieces. As a whole it’s more concerned with instrumentals, solos, and improvisation, but he made sure to include an opening “Stinkfoot” to talk more about Jimmy Swaggart. A long piece combining various chunks from “Pound For A Brown” featuring manipulated samples gives way thankfully to the “Orange County Lumber Truck Medley” into “Theme From Lumpy Gravy”. A lengthy “King Kong” is given the reggae treatment, with a monologue from Bruce Fowler about prehistoric fish and Congressional samples breaking up the solos, that degenerates into a free-for-all titled “Star Wars Won’t Work”.

The second disc is devoted to more noodling for fans of the more adventurous material of the previous decade, including “The Black Page”, “Dupree’s Paradise” (much shorter than on the Helsinki album), and “Sinister Footwear”, with a couple of detours into brief performances of pieces by Bartok and Stravinsky. We suspect “Stevie’s Spanking” was included simply because Mr. Vai had been more visible in the hair metal tape racks, but it’s an opportunity for Frank to shred, as he also does on “Alien Orifice”, “Cruisin’ For Burgers”, and “Advance Romance”. “Strictly Genteel” provides, as always, a nice finale.

If you like the other releases by the 1988 band, Make A Jazz Noise Here does complete the set, but it’s much more indulgent and geared towards musos and other geeks. Its rating therefore reflects its necessity.

Frank Zappa The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (1991)—3
Frank Zappa
Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991)—

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Eric Clapton 5: 461 Ocean Boulevard

Seemingly finally off junk for good, Eric Clapton headed back to Florida. With the help of Tom Dowd in the control room, and former Domino Carl Radle bringing in some players from Oklahoma, he managed to complete his second real solo album, named after the address of the house where he was living. With the addition of labelmate Yvonne Elliman from the Jesus Christ Superstar albums, he also established a band that would serve him for the rest of the decade.

Right off the bat, “Motherless Children” recalls the Dominos with a galloping beat, constant organ, and melodic slide for a great starter. He immediately turns things down for the spiritual “Give Me Strength”, and underscores it with a truly wimpy rendition of “Willie And The Hand Jive”. “Get Ready”, co-written and sung with Yvonne Elliman, is an improvement on both, but as the third slow song in a row, it’s easy to overlook. But then its reggae beat is immediately elevated with a cover of “I Shot The Sheriff”, which certainly made more people aware of Bob Marley.

“I Can’t Hold Out” begins with a dirty guitar, but mostly sleepwalks through a standard 12-bar written by either Willie Dixon or Elmore James. “Please Be With Me” is something of a Duane Allman tribute, being written by the leader of Cowboy, who were signed to the Allmans’ label and toured with the band; their original version featured Duane on dobro, which Eric plays here. Even though Jim Carrey co-opted it 25 years later, we’re still a sucker for “Let It Grow”, an incredibly melodic little wonder that slightly modifies “Stairway To Heaven” chord changes into something of a power ballad that showcases multiple guitar tones. Robert Johnson continues to be a touchstone, as “Steady Rollin’ Man” is injected with some funk. George Terry—aka the other guitarist on the album—provides the riff-happy “Mainline Florida” for a catchy finale.

For better or for worse, 461 Ocean Boulevard establishes the Clapton brand going forward: competent, easy listening rock that’s neither challenging nor groundbreaking, steeped in the blues, but still focused in the present. He’s best when he simply plays his guitar; unfortunately he can’t always carry an album. If this is your thing, go forward happily. Personally, we prefer more grit.

Due to a publishing dispute over “Give Me Strength”, that song was pulled from later reprints of the album and replaced with “Better Make It Through Today”, a track from his next album. When 461 was first released on CD, this new sequence was the same, but with “Give Me Strength” stuck at the end. The mid-‘90s remaster finally restored the original 10-track lineup. 2004’s deluxe edition filled out the first disc with some in-studio jams, and added a second disc compiled from London shows at the end of the year, opening with a gospel-tinged version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”. (Further studio outtakes were added to 2013’s Give Me Strength: The ’74/’75 Recordings box set, making both expansions required for completists.)

Eric Clapton 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974)—3
2004 Deluxe Edition: same as 1974, plus 16 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Brian Eno 24: Reflection

We’ve mentioned that many of Eno’s ambient albums are so complex that they sound different on each listening. That’s tough to do with physical media, as once something is mastered it’s set in stone, for lack of a better metaphor. As many of his ambient works are designed to accompany whatever environment he’s created, he’s always longed for something that could change naturally.

He kinda does that with Reflection, but not if you buy the CD. A $40 app from the Apple Store was designed to be completely generative, with the sound adapting to time of day and even the season of the year. Even the streaming version, which had to stick with one program, was updated from time to time; as of this writing there are four “single” versions on Spotify of varying lengths.

At any rate, the CD consists of a single 54-minute track, and has not changed since first play, at least as far as we can tell. (Thursday Afternoon was also a one-track album, but more happens here.) It begins quietly, suggesting a dark landscape like On Land, but soon finds a setting more like The Ship, only without voice. The tones, similar to bass electric piano notes and sometimes vibes as heard on Music For Airports, reverberate seemingly without end, until a distant high-pitched sound seems to appear from across whatever water we’re looking at around 18 minutes in. A variation sounds about four minutes later, bringing a major-chord change that resounds, then recedes. About a half hour in there’s actually a two-chord sequence; ten minutes after that some multi-note figures appear, and what we used to call space sounds. Eventually the program fades on what we used to call a loop, and then it’s gone.

We will admit to putting on Reflection specifically for falling asleep, so it does take some effort to experience the entire program. It’s easy to ignore, but rewarding when you don’t.

Brian Eno Reflection (2017)—3

Friday, January 6, 2023

Paul Simon 19: In The Blue Light

Even though he wasn’t exactly a road warrior, it was surprising to hear Paul Simon announce a farewell tour in 2018. Shortly afterward, he surprised us further with an album made up entirely of remakes of songs from his catalog. To his credit, In The Blue Light isn’t merely a reclaiming of songs in publishing limbo, nor is it the “let’s orchestrate them!” gambit. Rather, he’s taken songs he felt were “underappreciated” over the years, not least by himself, and given them “fresh perspectives”.

That’s all fine and well, but it’s still an album of remakes. “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” becomes a big band slow blues, whereas “Love” (one of four songs from You’re The One) isn’t all that different, except that now it has Bill Frisell. “Can’t Run But” does get an orchestral treatment from the yMusic ensemble, who we first heard on a Ben Folds album. “How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns” goes for late-night jazz, with help from Wynton Marsalis, who infuses “Pigs, Sheep And Wolves” with New Orleans gumbo.

The yMusic folks return on “Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War”, downplaying the doo-wop references on the original but still lovely. “The Teacher” works better in this context, particularly with the focus on Spanish guitars and brief saxophone solos, but he still chooses to “act out” the emotions in “Darling Lorraine” rather than let the words and music carry them. That lengthy tune makes the moody jazz of “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy” stand out that much more. It’s an especially nice lead-in to the very soft take on “Questions For The Angels”.

Throughout In The Blue Light his voice is tired, but he works with its limitations. Having different players on each track also gives the listener time to be immersed in each, rather than have them be lost in the sequence. It’s a nice album for easy listening.

Paul Simon In The Blue Light (2018)—3

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Mark Knopfler 12: Down The Road Wherever

We know Mark Knopfler can chicken-pick and solo like nobody else, but he’s suffered from relying on a lot of the same over the decades. Down The Road Wherever is another assortment of new songs, and it’s striking for the variety of music styles, sometimes from track to track.

“Trapper Man” fades in kinda like “Telegraph Road”, which is encouraging, but the similarity ends there, as the song stretches the metaphor to cover the music biz, and even has a funk breakdown. “Back On The Dance Floor” is either about that stated subject or a career criminal hoping for a big score; either way the chorus is stolen from “The Letter” via the Box Tops. The same narrator could be the subject of “Nobody’s Child”, for that matter. “Just A Boy Away From Home” sports a solo initially stolen from the Stones’ version of “You Gotta Move”, but goes into a completely different place with the most subtle of Stax horns to become a highlight of the album. Also nice is “When You Leave”, which has a prominent muted trumpet and sad piano like a lost torch standard, but “Good On You Son” just sounds too modern with its beats, despite the reference to Cockney Rebel.

We wouldn’t have expected a dour song with a chorus asking where somebody left “My Bacon Roll”, but here it is. “Nobody Does That” is another experiment with modern beats mixed with ‘70s funk; “One Song At A Time” is similarly upbeat, but the lyrics nicely travel through time. “Floating Away” seems based on “Spooky”, with striking lyrics about painting a portrait of a fat man, and likely symbolic, but “Slow Learner” is another piano-based torch song, and more resonant. “Heavy Up” is stuck between reggae and salsa for an interesting blend, but “Matchstick Man” is a lovely memory of a traveling musician during the holidays.

Down The Road Wherever appeared in a dizzying array of formats, with bonus tracks depending on category and country, which suggests that even he didn’t know how to present the album. We’re still waiting for another Making Movies or Love Over Gold, which is why we still pay attention.

Mark Knopfler Down The Road Wherever (2018)—3