Friday, April 28, 2023

Robyn Hitchcock 34: Life After Infinity

Because his wordplay has always been so unique, Robyn Hitchcock can be easily overlooked for his fretwork. But as anyone who’s witnessed a live performance should have been able to notice, the man knows his way around a guitar. Stinging leads aren’t his forte; rather he does intricate fingerpicking and flatpicking, sometimes in arpeggios but always in distinct patterns. He’s as fun to watch as he is to hear.

Instrumental pieces have been occasional parts of his albums going back to I Often Dream Of Trains, but Life After Infinity is his first all-instrumental release, and it’s a joy. It’s mostly solo, mostly built on a few guitar tracks, with occasional bass and percussion added by Hitchcock stalwart Charlie Francis. These might well be demos, recorded simply, and that’s fine; a grainy quality pervades the overall sound, adding to the mystic quality.

“The Eyes In The Vase” is mostly a rumination on one chord with a melody on top, with distant percussion, very redolent of English folk. “Daphne, Skipping” also has one chord for its basis, but the joyful chromatic riff and happy rhythm evoke the title nicely. “Plesiosaurs In The Desert” has something of an ambient drone to support the wandering guitar before the seagulls fly in from the distance. Knowing what we do about the auteur, “Tubby Among The Nightingales” was likely inspired by one of his cats; here the strum is augmented by a twangy Telecaster. “Gliding Above The Ruins” features a trilling mandolin-style effect, while a ticking clock and a banjo(!) drive “Come Here, Little Ghost”, accented by full chord strums and what sounds like a piano.

“Nasturtiums For Anita” is just a single guitar finding its way, building to a wonderful energy; “Celestial Transgression” also begins more delicately, adding instruments sparingly, the bass nearly providing the most melody. These approaches develop further in “The Sparkling Duck”, with harmonic passages spread across the insruments. “Veronica’s Chapel” opens with what appear to be the same bells from “Big Black Smoke” and “Fat Old Sun” before giving way to backwards guitar and very psychedelic riffing. About halfway through bass, cowbell, and other percussion add more of a steady groove, and the bells see us out again. Finally, “Mr. Ringerson’s Picnic” is jaunty and tuneful before fading on what sounds like another idea entirely.

We often remark in this forum when an album is too long. Well, Life After Infinity feels too short; at least it goes by very quickly, even at 37 minutes. It’s a pleasure to hear at any time of day, in any weather, but best in solitude. Here’s hoping there will be more someday.

Robyn Hitchcock Life After Infinity (2023)—4

Friday, April 21, 2023

Neil Young 68: High Flyin’

In the summer of 1977, Neil took up with one of the guys who used to be in Moby Grape, who’d found a singer-songwriter and a drummer who could sing, and the quartet played several gigs around the Santa Cruz area billed as the Ducks. This was not Neil’s band; his job here was mostly as guitar player, supporting the other guys and their original songs, except when they played one of his. As quickly as the combo started, they were done, and Neil went off to start work on what would become Comes A Time.

It only took 45 years, but an official Ducks album finally came out as part of the Neil Young Archives Official Bootleg Series. High Flyin’ presents two discs of the band in their element: a bar. Three such venues are represented here, including Neil favorite The Catalyst, along with a recorded “live rehearsal” and an appearance at a local auditorium. The songs were recorded well enough—by Neil’s own team, of course—to the point where you can almost smell the spilt beer and urinal cakes.

Just as in every scene across America and most of Canada throughout the rock ‘n roll era up through today, The Ducks were a decent bar band, with accomplished if pedestrian vocalists. If anything, they were faster than Crazy Horse, and certainly funkier. Overall, pretty solid rock ‘n roll, as would be expected of any other bar band with a hotshot guitarist.

The draw here, obviously, is anytime Neil rips off a stinging lead, blows into a harmonica, adds a harmony, or steps forward to sing one of his own songs. “Are You Ready For The Country?” is a fun stomper as ever, while “Sail Away” and “Human Highway” get nice electric treatments with energetic harmonies. The band’s treatment of “Little Wing” is especially moving, as Neil gives it something of a riff missing from the acoustic take, and “Mr. Soul” is delivered with pure Springfield energy. (Sadly, Duck takes on “Comes A Time” and “Cryin’ Eyes”, both common to other bootlegs, do not appear here.)

But that’s a small portion of nearly two hours of music. For the most part the songs alternate between originals written by bass player Bob Mosley or Jeff Blackburn, the other guitar player, plus drummer Johnny Craviotto gets to bellow some obscure R&B nuggets. “Truckin’ Man” is indicative of their lyrical depth; “Car Tune” shows that they had more in common with Neil than just music. The instrumental “Windward Passage” has become somewhat legendary over the years, being a two-guitar dueling jam, with Neil on one and Blackburn with a chorus pedal on the other. Each disc closes with a version of “Silver Wings”, arguably the band’s best (non-Neil) tune, unless you count “Hey Now”, which features even fewer lyrics than “T-Bone”. One surprise is a furious “Gone Dead Train”, which Crazy Horse covered on their first (Neil-less) album. Throughout, Neil happily lets loose, content with being part of the backdrop in a way he hadn’t been since the Squires.

High Flyin’ isn’t essential except for us Neil completists, and even that’s pushing it, but it does beg one question. Since this technically was never an actual bootleg, shouldn’t it be part of the Performance Series?

The Ducks High Flyin’ (2023)—3

Friday, April 14, 2023

Rush 25: Time Machine

As their history loomed large and technology advanced, Rush celebrated their 35th anniversary as a band with a variety of looks back, beginning with three archival rehashes. Retrospective III: 1989-2008 notably contained two freshly remixed tracks from Vapor Trails and a recent live recording of “Ghost Of A Chance” alongside a decent mishmash of tunes from the six guitar-heavy albums released during that period. Meanwhile, Working Men was a nice idea with cool artwork, but merely recycled selections from the last three live albums, as apparently Atlantic didn’t have the rights to the first three live albums. Each track fades to silence before the next fades up for a disjointed listening experience. Oddly, most of the songs were at least two decades older than their performances, with only an otherwise unavailable “One Little Victory” as an extra. Certainly more interesting was Grace Under Pressure 1984 Tour, a live album originally released as a bonus in 2006’s Replay X 3 box, which presented three live DVDs converted from VHS, including this one. While it doesn’t have all the songs from the DVD, it comes roughly halfway between Exit Stage Left and A Show Of Hands chronologically to present the band in transition. (The audience could have been mixed a little lower, though it is fun to hear Joe Flaherty’s Count Floyd character before “The Weapon”, as part of the complete “Fear” trilogy.)

Around this time, the acclaimed documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage did a lot to boost their cred in the mainstream. Two years later, taking a break from developing new material, the band embarked on the Time Machine tour, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Moving Pictures album with a complete performance of same in the middle of a 2½-hour show. (Geddy also changed his backdrop to working sausage makers, tended by the crew.) And naturally, it became a live album. Time Machine 2011 was pointedly recorded in Cleveland, where the band had made early strides when nobody else cared, and also reminded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to stop ignoring the band.

The program begins with a smattering of hits, including “Time Stand Still” with Aimee Mann’s voice triggered from a sample. (There are a lot of samples on the album, from cartoons and cult films, that were probably a lot more entertaining in person or on video.) Two new songs already recorded and pushed to radio, “BU2B” and “Caravan”, preview the upcoming studio album already in progress. While the novelty of hearing our favorite Rush album performed live in its original sequence is appealing, Geddy’s voice isn’t up the task, as he’s begun howling the high notes after decades of tempering his shriek. (This is particularly disappointing in “The Camera Eye”, which hadn’t been played live in nearly 30 years.) Neil’s drum solo appears as its own entity rather than as part of “YYZ”, with harmonics buried in the timber leading to the customary Buddy Rich trigger, and Alex gets a 12-string solo spot called “O’Malley’s Break” that sets up “Closer To The Heart”. The crowd, of course, goes wild.

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Neil Finn 5: Pajama Club and Goin’ Your Way

Empty nest syndrome is apparently a universal thing, as Neil Finn discovered when his kids were grown. With more time and space than they knew what to do with, he and his wife Sharon decided to make some music. He played drums for the first time ever, and she played bass. Fellow Kiwi Sean Donnelly was brought in to add keyboards and beats, and Pajama Club was born.

The music on their eponymous (and to date, only) album is predominantly electronic, more along the lines of the experiments of Neil’s first solo album as well as the lo-fi atmosphere of the first Finn Brothers album. His voice is welcome when it’s heard, and Sharon can carry a tune as well, but it’s not always easy to find the songs amid the mix. That said, “TNT For 2” sounds most like standard Finn, “Go Kart” is goofy fun, and the chorus of “Can’t Put It Down Until It Ends” reveals a song crying out for a straight arrangement.

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

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

Friday, April 7, 2023

U2 19: Songs Of Surrender

Following the usual noise about how their “next album was almost done,” U2 at least had the excuse of the COVID pandemic for why such a thing hadn’t materialized. Meanwhile, Bono took the time off to write a memoir, and The Edge busied himself with reconceptualizing various songs from the band’s catalog. Songs Of Surrender isn’t exactly U2 unplugged so much as reimagined, much like the so-called acoustic medley on the deluxe edition of Songs Of Innocence. Free from having to devise unique effects for everything, The Edge sought to find the melodic base of each, relying on keyboards, while Bono did the same by singing instead of shouting, and modifying lyrics here and there—you know, to reflect his maturity and how far he’d come from the boy who wrote the first drafts. Or something.

The simplicity concept didn’t extend to the finished product, as it was made available as a 16-track album, a “deluxe” version with four extra tracks, and a “super deluxe” set totaling 40 tracks, not quite matching the 40 chapters of Bono’s book, each of which was named after a different U2 song. Each set of ten songs was on its own disc, each of which was named for a different band member.

While the band’s anthems are known for their power and aggression, the idea of “quiet” U2 isn’t such a radical idea. But while “One” is easily stripped back, “Where The Streets Have No Name” needs to try a lot harder to make an impact when you’ve heard the standard version for 35 years. Edge sings “Stories For Boys”, so we’re told—his voice has always sounded like Bono’s at a certain register—and we do like the mild transformation of “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”, but “Bad”’s lyrics should have been left completely alone. “Walk On” was given the subtitle “Ukraine”, partially in solidarity with that nation, but also because the original inspiration for the song had fallen short of their hopes. (Bono also finally gets the timeline right for “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”.) “Dirty Day” is nearly transferred to a string quartet, but the canned horns on “Red Hill Mining Town” are wholly unnecessary. “The Fly” is transformed to funky acoustic, but a similar approach to “Desire” doesn’t work, despite Edge’s falsetto. (He also sings “Two Hearts Beat As One” and “Peace On Earth”.)

Larry is listed as drummer throughout, though we don’t seem to hear any drums on many of the tracks—except on the disc named for him—just as Adam is credited as the bass player, even when somebody else is noted as playing it. Yet a couple of dozen people are listed as playing some instrument and/or engineering; these guys can’t even make an unplugged album simply.

The most successful overhauls are arguably the songs from this century, as they haven’t been as drummed into our heads. “Ordinary Love” and “Invisible” benefit greatly from the stripped approach, and “Every Breaking Wave” will get more attention in this context, though we’d’ve preferred that “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” was just piano and vocal. For those of you keeping score, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Songs Of Innocence get the most redos—the former possibly because it was recently reissued for its 20th anniversary, the latter likely because the backlash upon its release clouded the reaction to the actual music. October and No Line On The Horizon aren’t touched at all.

Some would say that “covering yourself” is a sign that a band has run out of ideas, and some would be right. Some also insist that U2 has to be big and overblown, and some would say that’s what’s caused them to fail in the past. But Songs Of Surrender does remind us what we always liked about U2, and it could be that a more subtle approach could suit them well if they ever get around to releasing another new album. Or maybe this could work as a finale for a career that doesn’t seem to have an ending.

That said, we do take exception to the cover art. Bono’s photo matches that of his book and comes from the time of The Unforgettable Fire, while the other band images are from the Pop era. Are they afraid we wouldn’t recognize them if current shots were used?

U2 Songs Of Surrender (2023)—3

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Thomas Dolby 1: The Golden Age Of Wireless

Many one-hit wonders don’t deserve the appellation, since the assumption is that they never did anything else of merit. Thomas Dolby proved that to anyone who took the time to listen to his catalog, even if he can’t escape his one hit.

After a few years doing sessions, young Dolby (not his real name) managed to get financing for an indie single. “Urges” and “Leipzig” were harmless but mildly intriguing, and led to a major label deal for his first album. The Golden Age Of Wireless does depend on what were then modern synthesizers, but like Stevie Wonder and Pete Townshend before him, he had enough skill on keyboards and melodic sense to make the technological innovations more than mere gimmicks.

While “Flying North” does have a prominent drum machine, the insistent piano line and “string” arrangement would translate very well to an acoustic setting. “Commercial Breakup” adds more prominent guitars and a more danceable beat, while “Weightless” layers on the vocals before more subdued verses with that piano that Peter Gabriel used in those days. “Europa And The Pirate Twins” is wonderful synth-pop with an equally wonderful arc in the lyrics, and we like how “Windpower” builds on some of Brian Eno’s music for films for its main hook.

“Wreck Of The Fairchild” is mostly instrumental with ska touches but for some radio communications in Spanish that becomes a mere if lengthy prelude to the album’s best song. “Airwaves” has it all: nearly impenetrable lyrics, a unique bass part, a haunting melody, and a truly soaring chorus, the latter boosted by the faux-horn lines over the final choruses. (Billy Joel borrowed the verse melody for “Goodnight Saigon”.) Continuing with the theme, “Radio Silence” is more chilly music of the era, complete with cooing female vocals, and “Cloudburst At Shingle Street” provides an inscrutable yet fitting finale.

The Golden Age Of Wireless holds together very well, exceeding the sum of its parts, but was not left alone for long. The American version of the album, which followed a few months later, used a different cover for starters, and shuffled most of the tracks to accentuate the more techno aspects of the contents. It also dropped “The Wreck Of The Fairchild”, added both sides of his first single, replaced “Radio Silence” with an alternate version, and most criminally, used the single edit of “Airwaves”, which cuts out the bridge and fades too early.

Meanwhile, Dolby got a great idea for a music video, and wrote a song to go with it called “She Blinded Me With Science”. Somehow this did the trick, and this maddeningly catchy track became what most people associate with the guy to this day. The flip side was “One Of Our Submarines”, a stunning mini-symphony we thought was called “What About South Marie?” the first several times we heard it on late-night radio, and took us even longer to realize borrows the main melody from The Six Million Dollar Man for one of its many hooks. Extended versions of these two songs made up side one of the Blinded By Science EP, which was backed with longer versions of “Windpower” and “Flying North”, bookending the full “Airwaves” for a stellar half hour of music.

By this time somebody decided that the smash hit single belonged on the American album, so the extended “Science” and “Submarines” replaced the two early single tracks, and the order was shuffled yet again, with the original album cover restored but “Windpower” shortened into a third variation. Further tinkering occurred for the CD versions (note the plural), until a final sequence took hold, though some copies favored the long “Science” but the shorter “Airwaves” and “Windpower”.

That lineup would become standard worldwide, until the man himself remastered the original album with a pile of extras for release in 2009 everywhere but the US, which had to wait ten years for a less extravagant package that supplemented the first version with both sides of the early single, both sides of the hit single, and the alternate “Radio Silence”. (The 2009 version is the one now streaming, and Blinded By Science was digitally upgraded, kinda, with standard versions of the tracks supplemented by three live versions of unknown vintage just in time for its 40th anniversary.)

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