Friday, March 31, 2023

Van Morrison 45: Versatile

Mere months—that’s right, months—after a blues album, Van returned with a collection of new songs. Well, new recordings, anyway; Versatile is a swing album, more concerned with jazz (again) than blues.

If anything, this is his Sinatra album, with takes on “A Foggy Day”, “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, “Makin’ Whoopie”, and the like, but his arrangements are more unique, particularly on “Unchained Melody”. (Plus, nobody associates “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” with Frank.) It’s not all about singing; the traditional “Skye Boat Song” is a showcase for his alto sax as well as the other players.

Scattered throughout the program are originals that haven’t been done by a million people already. “Broken Record” starts the set well, except that the chorus consists of those two words repeated just as you feared. “Take It Easy Baby” is mostly a sax solo with inconsequential lyrics, but “Affirmation” is a lovely, lengthy piece featuring James Galway, up until Van starts scatting. He even covers himself: “I Forgot That Love Existed” gets a remake thirty years after we heard it the first time, “Start All Over Again” is almost as old, but “Only A Dream” only had to wait fifteen years.

While still way too long, Versatile is a good Van Morrison album for those people looking for something to play when they’ve already heard the Best Of. His voice is smooth, and we suppose you could even say it’s versatile.

Van Morrison Versatile (2017)—

Friday, March 24, 2023

Nilsson 5: Nilsson Sings Newman

Harry Nilsson understood what it meant to be a struggling songwriter trying to simultaneously make his name as a singer, which is just one reason why he felt a kinship with Randy Newman. Having already covered one Newman tune on his last album, Harry decided to showcase the songwriter by singing along while said author played the piano. Hence, Nilsson Sings Newman.

Don’t be fooled by the tremolo guitar and tambourine for the first 45 seconds of “Vine St.”; that’s merely an in-joke to set up the song proper. This is a piano-and-vocal album, and when we say vocals, we mean it; Harry painstakingly overdubbed himself wherever he saw fit, as he does here for an almost Beach Boys chorale. “Love Story (You And Me)” is quiet and simple, though those trademark Newman ragtime chords are on every chorus. Considering the time, “Yellow Man” might have been considered an anti-war statement, but now it just sounds crass, and it’s easy to be distracted by Harry’s spoken voice between some of the verses. “Caroline” is a straight love song written expressly for the project, with just the slightest hint of vibraphone in the mix. A prairie wind is the sole accompaniment for most of “Cowboy”, and just when it seems about to float away, the piano melody changes to “Midnight Cowboy Theme” by John Barry. Clever.

“The Beehive State” is odd—a verse from a chairman, a verse from a delegate from Kansas, another verse from the chairman, and a verse from a delegate from title-monikered Utah. And that’s it; maybe he didn’t want to write about the other 48? “I’ll Be Home” is more direct in its sneakiness, going from devotion to threatening in two verses. The gospel exhortation between them seems mostly like another in-joke. “Living Without You” is even more straightforward, and almost aches for a bigger arrangement. We can hear him ask for more echo in “Dayton Ohio, 1903” right before the quote from “Moonlight Serenade”, and fake a trumpet at the end. The small-town homespun theme concludes with “So Long, Dad”, which also includes him arguing with himself over how many voices should be in the mix.

Considering that Randy Newman has one of those voices known more for its character than any pleasing timber, Nilsson’s smoother tone does these songs grand favors. Willfully eccentric in its simplicity, Nilsson Sings Newman didn’t do much for either artist at the time, but persistence would pay off in both cases. (As the cult of Harry escalated in the 21st century, the album was given an expansion adding four alternate takes, plus the positively gorgeous “Snow”, criminally left off the original 25-minute album for “lack of room”.)

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Kinks 26: Give The People What They Want

Ray Davies dove into the ‘80s seemingly ready to act like the Kinks had never experienced any kind of slump. To this day the title Give The People What They Want seems like both an ethos and a punishment, but that’s what he tried to do.

After a blast of static, the guitars begin right away, crunching through “Around The Dial”, which would go on to be an American anthem anytime a DJ moved on to another station. The title track is in the same key and nearly the same tempo, and an indictment of television (which of course we all know is inferior to radio). Following the verse about Lee Harvey Oswald, it seems the album is following if not a concept but a thread, as “Killer’s Eyes” takes an analytical view of a murderer. “Predictable” is a sludgy poke at modern fashion and neuroses, given a comedic and striking (for its time) video treatment, with the disdain taken further on the sneering “Add It Up”, which still sounds like the riff from Blondie’s “Call Me”, and listen for Chrissie Hynde cooing on the chorus breaks.

What really sold the album was “Destroyer”, wherein Ray mashes up “All Day And All Of The Night” and “Lola” to further explore neuroses and makes it work. “Yo-Yo” is a grim glimpse at the end of a marriage given an unfortunate metaphor that’s overused, and “Back To Front” is pounded through the speakers, though some of the snaky riffs are kinda cool. Unfortunately, while “Art Lover” is supposed to be from the point of view of a divorced father missing his kids, his delivery suggests there may be another, more horrible reason why he’s not allowed to see them. The sadness continues on “A Little Bit Of Abuse”, an outside look at a relationship that should end but won’t. The mood finally lifts for “Better Things”, a sincerely generous song of farewell.

The good outweighs the bad here, but there’s still something ordinary about the album. On top of Ray being the only Kink on the cover, it doesn’t take much to notice that Dave Davies doesn’t sing at all on the album, nor does he contribute any songs. Those needing their fixes didn’t have to look far, as he’d finally got a solo deal, putting out two albums in quick succession before Give The People What They Want came out. The first was mostly a one-man-band deal, with title and artwork based on the American catalog number, with lots of riffing and buried vocals, while Glamour was almost as loud, added more keyboards to befit the “futuristic” lyrics, and used one Bob Henrit on drums throughout.

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

Friday, March 17, 2023

Yes 6: Yessongs

In keeping with the big-ness of prog, when it came time for a live Yes album, a double album wouldn’t do. Yessongs was a three-record set, in a package sporting three Roger Dean landscapes and a booklet full of photos of the band as well as the crew.

Vinyl constraints meant that the order of a basic show was shuffled to fit the six sides. Also, the music was culled from their two most recent tours, and Bill Bruford only appears on the three tracks from the first one. He took off after recording Close To The Edge to find more intricate challenges with King Crimson, whereupon his replacement was one Alan White, most familiar from playing on a few John Lennon and George Harrison records. Would he be able to handle the polyrhythms Bruford left behind?

The album begins with the sound of an expectant crowd clapping through an excerpt from Stravinsky’s The Firebird as the band takes the stage. The music gives way to Rick Wakeman’s Mellotron, and eventually Steve Howe fumbles his way into “Siberian Khatru” (don’t worry, he catches up by the end). Just before “Heart Of The Sunrise” we can hear an audience member yell “louder!” “Perpetual Change” comes from one of the Bruford shows, and is extended for him to take a drum solo. “And You And I” begins not with the harmonics intro from the studio, but a quote from the majestic “Eclipse” section before going back for the vocal. Plus, Steve plays it all on electrics, so something is lost. (Since he gets a solo spot to play “Mood For A Day”, it’s not like he didn’t have an acoustic handy.)

Speaking of solo spots, Jon Anderson warbles alone for a few seconds before introducing Rick, who plays what are listed as “exceprts” from that year’s The Six Wives Of Henry VIII solo album, a multi-keyboard showcase that was neither as prog nor as pretentious as it could have been, the concept notwithstanding. He even throws in a few familiar classical and silent movie quotes to tweak the crowd. Somehow it all works into the intro for “Roundabout”.

“I’ve Seen All Good People” is wisely played to the accompaniment of a trilling acoustic, until the loud section. “Long Distance Runaround” comes from one of the Bruford shows as well, as does “The Fish” that follows, beginning with more noodling from Steve that becomes a basis for Chris Squire to solo, before the band comes in, then they drop out again, then eventually they join again. Altogether this section goes for about nine minutes. “Close To The Edge” takes up all of side five, complete with sound effects, and is still pretty majestic. “Yours Is No Disgrace” seems to start mid-performance with some jamming before the riff starts proper, but they manage to keep the energy going at a galloping pace throughout, through extended sololing, and “Starship Trooper” is delivered fairly close to the record, with the addition of the choral voices from Wakeman’s Mellotron.

If anything, Yessongs proves that the band could tackle their complex material just fine in a live setting. And yeah, the new guy could keep up pretty well too. Fans weren’t thrilled with the occasionally muddy sound of the album—neither was the band nor the producer, for that matter—but they only had to wait 42 years until Progeny: Seven Shows From Seventy-Two delivered on its title, going back to the source tapes for nearly identical Bruford-less setlists across 14 remastered discs. (A two-disc “highlights” package distilled from five of the shows replicates a basic concert for those wanting only a taster. Also, 1975’s Yessongs feature film, which offered a truncated glimpse of one of the shows on the tour, has since made it to DVD and Blu-ray.)

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Peter Gabriel 12: Scratch My Back

The good news was that fans didn’t have to wait another decade for a new Peter Gabriel album. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the long-promised I/O, said to have been derived from the pre-Up period. First, he finally released the Big Blue Ball compilation, derived from several weeks of recording in a fantasy camp scenario in the early ‘90s. Then, he recorded an album of covers, with orchestral backing.

The earliest hint of what would be Scratch My Back came with his version of The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book Of Love”, recorded for a movie nobody saw, but soon became ubiquitous on TV soundtracks. From there he chose songs from established and newer artists, and gave each an impassioned vocal reading over stark arrangements.

By choosing from such a big pool, he risks blasphemy by screwing with songs people already know and love, but may also introduced the uninitiated to music they might have otherwise never heard. The “standards” arguably come first; “Heroes” takes the drums out of the Bowie song, leaving the strings to drive everything, while “Boy In The Bubble” is far removed from Paul Simon’s African groove. He’s about the 80th person to tackle Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”, but interestingly redoes Neil Young’s “Philadelphia”, from the movie soundtrack to which he’d also contributed. However, his interest in deep catalog unearths lesser-known tracks, like Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind” and Lou Reed’s mega-obscure “The Power Of The Heart”. He can thank his kids for exposing him to bands like Elbow, Regina Spektor, Arcade Fire, and Bon Iver, and his takes make us almost want to explore the originals. (A so-called “special edition” added alternate versions of three songs, plus a version of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset”.)

Scratch My Back was supposed to inspire a songwriters’ exchange called And I’ll Scratch Yours (get it?), wherein each of the artist Peter covered would in turn record a version of one of his songs. Not surprisingly, this was easier said than done; only six new recordings appeared, and as iTunes exclusives. Apparently, Radiohead were not pleased with his overhaul of their song. (A completed album, with a few substitutions, finally appeared in late 2013; oddly, it was the veteran performers, like David Byrne, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, and Paul Simon, who made his songs their own, while most of the younger artists stuck far too close to the originals to delivery any unique interpretations.) While his delivery throughout certainly displays his enthusiasm and devotion to this music, one ultimately wishes he could get the same inspiration from his own personal muse, and come up with something as simple and pure.

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back (2010)—3

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Jeff Beck 18: Loud Hailer

While his is the only name on the cover, spine, and label, Loud Hailer is more of a collaboration than a Jeff Beck album. The vocals and guitar riffs come respectively from Rosie Bones and Carmen Vandenberg of Bones UK, whose producer gets credit here as well. The album is something of a maturation of the electronica experiments from the turn of the century, in that it’s still very processed, but production techniques have caught up so it doesn’t sound totally robotic.

Beyond the mild abrasion throughout, personal enjoyment will likely depend on one’s tolerance of Rosie’s vocals, which lean heavily on an affected cockney approach. Her lyrics mostly focus on social commentary, as shown in such titles as “The Revolution Will Be Televised” and “Scared For The Children”. The soulful “Shame” is a highlight, mostly because she sings more than poses—kudos also for the key change at the end. “Thugs Club” rumbles along until we hit a sly rhythmic echo of “Beck’s Bolero”, and “O.I.L. (Can’t Get Enough Of That Sticky)” is a funky JB’s homage. The closing “Shrine” is the best melding of Rosie’s voice and his guitar. That said, Vandenberg is an accomplished guitarist, and often dominates the tracks; two instrumentals—the slow-burning “Pull It Up” and “Edna”, which is a mere prelude to “The Ballad Of The Jersey Wives”—keep the focus on Beck.

The Bones UK folks have since gone their way, so maybe Loud Hailer was as far as this collaboration could go. It’s still worth a listen.

Jeff Beck Loud Hailer (2016)—3

Friday, March 3, 2023

Pretenders 18: Standing In The Doorway

In addition to countless and sometimes notable covers, Bob Dylan tribute albums have been a thing since the ‘60s, but the Covid lockdown inspired many to re-associate themselves with the man’s music. Chrissie Hynde has unabashedly worn her Dylan devotion on her sleeve throughout her career, even adding “Forever Young” to one album, but Standing In The Doorway is a true labor of love. To her credit, she’s chosen nine songs more beloved to fans than jukeboxes, with half of the songs coming from the ‘80s. The album was recorded via text; she’d do a take, then send it to current Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne to add other instruments. Somewhere along the way veteran engineer Tchad Blake added further touches, mixed the batch, and took photos for the album package.

It all sounds very homemade, as befits modern file transmission, from the pre- and post-chatter around “In The Summertime” and “You’re A Big Girl Now” to the birdsong heard here and there. The title track has modified chords from the original, but they suit her delivery; her lyrical adjustments aren’t as successful on “Sweetheart Like You”. Despite its minimalist structure, “Blind Willie McTell” develops into an impressive production. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” gets accordions and mandolin-like touches yet remains a happy strum, but “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” is the highlight, though that could be because we heard the opening chords and feared a take on “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” is played straight, while “Every Grain Of Sand” is elegant and understated.

Standing In The Doorway isn’t the most innovative Dylan tribute, and her vocal approach often mimics his, sometimes sounding more parody than homage. But at 70, Chrissie Hynde remains an excellent interpreter of anyone’s songs, and not just her own.

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