Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Emma Swift: Blonde On The Tracks

The standard joke is that Bob Dylan’s songs are always better when somebody else sings them. We know that’s not always true, but every now and then a voice comes along to help the medicine go down more easily. Emma Swift has one of those voices, a smooth alto with country tinges. Throughout Blonde On The Tracks she applies it to Dylan’s lyrics while staying true to the original melodies.

While recorded over several years and studios throughout Nashville, Pat Sansone’s production helps keep the album very much of a piece. “Queen Jane Approximately” has a mild Byrds jangle, but nicely laid-back drums that make the song more gentle. This is a mere appetizer for “I Contain Multitudes”, which had only been out for weeks before she found a way to inject more notes into his original three-note range. “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)” gets a reading distilled through Oh Mercy, as does “Simple Twist Of Fate” to an extent, but that one is dominated by Thayer Serrano’s pedal steel guitar. The ballsiest move is to tackle all 12 minutes of “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, and she does, without making it drag at all. Even the fade is lovely. “The Man In Me” gets some soul plus some nice harmonies on the bridge, and as with the rest of the album, she leaves the gender references intact. Her take on “Going Going Gone” will have you wondering why more people haven’t covered it, and while “You’re A Big Girl Now” doesn’t end the program on an up note, it’s an excellent reading. All together, a lovely surprise.

Emma Swift Blonde On The Tracks (2020)—

Friday, February 24, 2023

Kiss 11: Dynasty

The solo albums may have cleared the decks for indulgences, but the Kiss boys weren’t united. Sure, the new album attempted to be democratic, so that each of the guys provided a share of the singing and writing. But while Vini Poncia—previously best known as a collaborator with Ringo Starr—was brought in as producer following his work on Peter’s solo album, he also replaced Peter in the studio with Anton Fig—who had beaten the skins on Ace’s album— on all but one song on Dynasty. It had been nearly two years since Kiss put out an album of all new material, and what did they have to show for it? Disco.

This is apparent right away with the thump and mild funk of “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, which was catchy enough to almost reach the top ten. It’s not a bad song, or record for that matter, just not what people want from Kiss. (In another harbinger of doom, Paul co-wrote the song with Poncia and future schlockmeister-for-hire Desmond Child.) Ace had made his point by putting out the best solo album, so he got to sing three songs, the first being a surprising remake of the Stones’ “2000 Man” filtered through the first Cars album. Disco returns on Paul’s “Sure Know Something”—again, a competent enough pop tune, but lovelorn plaints are all wrong for this band unless Peter’s singing. Speaking of which, he gives us “Dirty Livin’”, which sports a riff that predicts ZZ Top’s Eliminator album, and we’ve checked several sources to make sure it’s him singing on not Paul. Ironically, the lyrics seem to address why exactly he wasn’t deemed up to snuff (ahem) anymore.

Gene finally shows up on side two, proving that he doesn’t understand the dictionary definition of “Charisma” on a track that sounds like a barely augmented demo. Paul’s “Magic Touch” puts more emphasis on rock instead of hitting the charts, and it’s got a few decent hooks. Ace’s “Hard Times” is the second song in a row that sounds like Kiss, but he still shouts more than sings. Gene’s “X-Ray Eyes” sends all kinds of mixed messages about whether and why he wants her back; it might have been better if he’d finished editing the transcript before singing the tune. Yet is it any better than Ace’s snotty “Save Your Love” kiss-off?

At least the album packaging, while not elaborate, still delivered. The cover shot is all hair and makeup, and the custom labels sport the same pose shown on the included fold-out poster. The inner sleeve unfortunately screams colorful disco ball, but the merchandise form includes a contest to win an official Kiss pinball machine. While notable for being the first Kiss album longer than 35 minutes, Dynasty isn’t any fun. It can’t even be called willfully stupid, which each of the previous albums could at least claim. Whatever momentum they had over five very busy years was seemingly gone.

Kiss Dynasty (1979)—2

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Elton John 21: Jump Up!

By now we weren’t expecting much from Elton John, but he surprised us. Jump Up! was very much a return to form, with straight pop songs, some arty ones, few clichés, and even Bernie doing the lyrics for six of the ten.

An uncharacteristically simple beat from Jeff Porcaro drives the guitars and straight-ahead piano of the rocker “Dear John”, and the basic lyrics are indicative of Gary Osborne. Bernie’s more poetic touch is apparent on the more arranged “Spiteful Child”, but the repeated “spiteful” backing vocals don’t exactly make for a hit single. There’s zero piano, and only a little keyboard back in the mix, on the mildly rockabilly but very catchy “Ball And Chain”, which is otherwise dominated by Pete Townshend’s rhythm acoustic. “Legal Boys” is not only the fourth straight song about a romantic breakup, but mostly notable as his first collaboration with Tim Rice, and not his last. The music has baroque musical theater touches, with some emotional juxtapositions in the chorus that keep it from being overly trite. Outside of the pastel paint-splattered cover art, the album’s most cringingly ‘80s aspect would be “I Am Your Robot”, which thankfully limits the dated synths to the intro that the rest of the song struggles to overcome. Amazingly, Bernie’s responsible for these words too. Yet this near-travesty is forgotten with “Blue Eyes”, a gorgeous torch song that ranks with the pair’s all-time best.

Speaking of classics, side two begins with “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)”, an elegant, heartfelt, and still touching tribute to John Lennon. The harpsichord, castanets, backing vocals, and highly singable chorus all come together to support not just a great song, but a fine recording. Unfortunately, “Princess” is something of a step down, combining the lyrical theme from “Tiny Dancer” with the lightweight pop of, once again, “Little Jeannie”. “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” is not the Kinks song, but a return to “Philadelphia Freedom”-style soul that belies the aging-inspired anxiety of the lyrics. That leaves “All Quiet On The Western Front”, a slow six-minute single about the first World War that boasts a James Newton Howard arrangement over the lengthy close.

Unlike his last few albums, which seemed cobbled together from various sessions and participants, this album is tighter, with singular production by Chris Thomas and the same basic band throughout. 1982 was a good year for many veteran performers, and Elton could be pleased to have been part of it. It had been a rough five or so years, but Jump Up! seemed to indicate he was on the right track again.

Elton John Jump Up! (1982)—3

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Grateful Dead 18: Reckoning and Dead Set

In October 1980, the Dead played two major residencies—first at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, and then at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, with a stop in New Orleans in between. They intended to get a live album out of it, but ended up with so much material that they didn’t know what to leave out. Arista allowed them to put out two distinct albums that year—one focusing on the seated acoustic sets, the other more electric.

Reckoning was the acoustic album, extending the mood of side one of Bear’s Choice across four sides, except there’s no Pigpen and Brent’s playing piano (and harpsichord on “China Doll”). Like that album, the song choices are more laid back, whether their own tunes or covers. These include “The Race Is On”, made famous by George Jones, Jesse Fuller’s “Monkey And The Engineer”, old folk tunes like “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie”, “Jack-A-Roe”, and the traditional “On The Road Again”, and repeats of “Dark Hollow” and “Been All Around This World”. “It Must Have Been The Roses”, “To Lay Me Down”, and “Bird Song” had already been claimed as Dead fodder from Jerry’s solo albums and are very welcome here.

The first CD version of the album was for some reason titled For The Faithful… and left off “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie” so it would all fit onto a single disc; this was not rectified for 25 years, when the original sequence was restored, along with a full second disc of additional material. Granted, eight of these were songs already on the original, “To Lay Me Down” was a studio rehearsal, and “Deep Elem Blues” (along with “Tom Dooley”) was from two years earlier, but still, this was generous. Of the “new” material, “Iko Iko” would become a staple, Bobby’s “Heaven Help The Fool” (played instrumental) and “Sage And Spirit” (already instrumental) were rare airings; he’d been singing “El Paso” for years.

Four months later, Dead Set was the “electric” album, and while it sported a way cooler cover, it struggled to display the excitement of the band at full throttle. As they hadn’t learned with Steal Your Face, vinyl limitations dictated shorter songs and edits, so the lengthy jams of legend aren’t captured here. In fact, the run from “Rhythm Devils” (aka “Drums”) through “Space” (née “Feedback”) to “Fire On The Mountain” is split between sides.

Plugging in the songs didn’t necessarily make them faster, but there’s a lot more room for soloing. “Samson And Delilah” has the energy but none of the disco trappings, but “Friend Of The Devil” is taken at about one third the original speed. Most of the tunes were staples, as were “Deal” and “Loser” are taken from Jerry’s first solo album and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” from Bobby’s. The only real rarity per se is a slog through “Little Red Rooster”.

As with its sibling, Dead Set was also truncated on CD by omitting “Space”, which was restored when the album was expanded in 2006. The bonus disc consisted of mostly longer performances, which helped make up for the edits left intact on the original album. We get to hear them stretch more; by now Bobby had started singing “C.C. Rider”, plus the band had taken on “Lazy Lightning” and “Supplication” from the Kingfish album. “Shakedown Street” is still a matter of personal taste, but “Not Fade Away” doesn’t need to be so slow for Jerry to wail. Besides, it fades out the disc.

In addition to these albums, a video compilation from the Radio City shows called Dead Ahead was available on VHS (and laserdisc!); this was later reissued on DVD with another 50 minutes of material. Altogether they provided a glimpse at what the band was all about on the cusp of the ‘80s, and the new guy was fitting in pretty well. Beyond that, these would be the last new albums by the Grateful Dead for another six years.

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

Friday, February 10, 2023

Queen 6: News Of The World

With every album, Queen had always strived for being bigger. This would be something of a stumbling block in the UK, where punk was all about tearing down pomposity (in others, anyway). In America, loud and heavy music still ruled the high school parking lot, so News Of The World was not only welcomed, but expanded the group’s popularity.

Still, they throw a curve at the start. Rather than another rococo fanfare, the stamping feet and clapping hands of “We Will Rock You” take a football chant worldwide, and Brian May’s guitar solo is one of his best. On the radio stations we listened to, the song went right into “We Are The Champions”, which anyone else would have put at the end of the album. It only took us a zillion listens to realize that the melody under “no time for losers” is the same as the schoolyard “nyeah nah na-nah nah” taunt. For another curve ball, “Sheer Heart Attack” isn’t just the long lost title track from a previous album, but a solid punk track that doesn’t take the piss in the slightest. For another whiplash-inducing switch, “All Dead, All Dead” is more morbid lyrically than musically, and it turns out Brian never got over the death of his pet cat. While “Spread Your Wings” could be read as a suicide note, it’s actually a strong message advocating survival, and another songwriting success for John Deacon. (We wonder if Sammy ever got to compare life lessons and melody with Anthony from Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out”.) “Fight From The Inside” was recorded almost completely by Roger Taylor, and is more of the dirty and stupid rock and roll he usually delivered.

If parents weren’t already disturbed by the album’s gory cover art, they would have had major conniptions over the content of “Get Down, Make Love”, where the extremely minimalist accompaniment leaves plenty of room for the lyrics to be heard and understood as intended. The effects-laden interlude provides a link between Led Zeppelin and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Brian sings the bluesy “Sleeping On The Sidewalk” in a nice Bad Company pastiche; John’s bassline is particularly deft. Deacon’s also responsible for “Who Needs You”, and its overly Spanish samba mélange unfortunately only predicts George Michael today. The severe stereo mix obscures the lyrics. While using very simple chords and the most basic of riffs, “It’s Late” is this album’s version of a suite—indeed, the lyric sheet even splits the verses up into stage “scenes”—but without the piano that earlier ones sported. We also hear echoes of Meat Loaf and Asia in here, and the double-time sections are particularly welcome. Just in case you thought Freddie wasn’t camp anymore, “My Melancholy Blues” put paid to that, bringing the album squarely back to where they left off the last time.

Being so popular, it was natural that the album would be expanded for reissues, but this didn’t happen right away. The 1991 CD added merely a “bonus remix ruined by Rick Rubin” that extended the final guitar figure over bass and drums from Flea and Chad of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This was eschewed on the later remaster for the rockin’ outtake “Feelings, Feelings”, two songs from a BBC session, “Sheer Heart Attack” live in 1979, and a revved-up “We Will Rock You” three years after that. The album’s 40th anniversary gained the most, kinda, with two full CDs—one dedicated to so-called Raw Sessions, comprising alternate takes and rough mixes save for a live “Sleeping On The Sidewalk”, and the other containing the 2011 bonus tracks, previously released BBC sessions and live versions, “karaoke” tracks, and one radio edit. (By that time box sets like this included the original album on vinyl as well, which this did, plus a DVD and a book, yanking up the price and further angering fans who already had most of the material already.)

Queen News Of The World (1977)—
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1977, plus 1 extra track
2011 remaster: same as 1977, plus 5 extra tracks
2017 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 2011, plus 25 extra tracks (and DVD)

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Jayhawks 4: Tomorrow The Green Grass

While still in flux, the Jayhawks were bolstered by major label support, making the expectations for Tomorrow The Green Grass even higher. They obviously liked what keyboards brought to their sound, so Karen Grotberg was now an official member on piano; her high harmonies are welcome too. The drummer situation hadn’t been worked out yet, so session ace Don Heffington was used throughout, and Benmont Tench is credited for simply “organ”. Once again the songwriting were credited overall to Mark Olson and Gary Louris. (This time the liner notes were by legendary Minneapolis folk figure Tony Glover.)

The plaintive “Blue” has since become one of our favorite songs by anybody, and they must have known they had something special, as they got the legendary Paul Buckmaster to add strings. “I’d Run Away” gallops in on a chorus of violin and viola for a wonderful country jangle; Gary still has his “Carly Simon singing with Buffalo Springfield” tone in his voice. “Miss Williams’ Guitar” is a rare overt lyric from Mark, here unabashedly paying tribute to his new bride, cult folksinger Victoria Williams. “Two Hearts” is more subdued, breaking out with an “I am lonely” plea just before the guitar break, but “Real Light” turns the amps back on before “Over My Shoulder” layers on the lonesome harmonies. And what could be cooler than covering “Bad Time”, the last hit single by Grand Funk, a band who hadn’t been cool since, if that?

Gary’s bending picking is on display throughout the otherwise quiet “See Him On The Street”, to which “Nothing Left To Borrow” provides excellent counterpoint. “Ann Jane” is slow and either heartbreaking or creepy, since we’re not sure of the intentions of the narrator, and sports not only a Wurlitzer electric piano, but a backwards drum pattern taken from “Bell Bottom Blues”. “Pray For Me” is all doubled guitars and 12-strings, sounding most like the previous album. “Red’s Song”, the one track also credited as written by bass player Marc Perlman, is another party trick where the boys’ voices sound identical until they don’t. “Ten Little Kids” is a sneaky finale, beginning with an innocent strum and descending into an all-out thrash that moves through glorious choruses and ends in a wash of not unpleasant feedback that ends abruptly.

Tomorrow The Green Grass didn’t thrill right away, particularly if you were expecting more of the crunch from the last album. But the quality was all there, complementing Hollywood Town Hall very well, and not just to fill the other side of a Maxell XLII-90 tape.

Such was the stature of the album over time that it was prominently reissued anytime the erstwhile Def American label changed distributors, and was even blessed with a deluxe Legacy Edition 25 or so years after its initial release. The first disc was bolstered with three outtakes, as well as the title track, previously consigned to a B-side, as was Karen’s vocal spotlight on the country weeper “Last Cigarette”. Hidden at the end is a scratchy unfinished demo of “Blue” that provides a stepping stone to the second disc, which is loaded with so-called “Mystery Demos”, recorded by Olson and Louris acoustically throughout 1992 with an occasional fiddler. Some of these songs made it to this album, some would be tackled down the road, and the rest were never essayed again. It can make for an occasionally spooky, American gothic listening experience, but there are some wonderful moments.

The Jayhawks Tomorrow The Green Grass (1995)—4
2011 Legacy Edition: same as 1995, plus 24 extra tracks