Friday, May 26, 2023

Journey 16: Freedom

Seemingly determined to rock till he dropped, and tout the wonders of Just For Men, Neal Schon continued to drive Journey well into a fifth decade, even without new music. Each of the post-Perry albums had been predominantly showcases for Neal, and proof that Deen Castronovo has none of the jazz chops that made the albums with Steve Smith on drums that much more interesting. That they cared about this fact was mildly apparent when, after Deen had to drop out due to legal issues over what we’ll euphemistically call various domestic dilemmas, the first replacement on the kit was Omar Hakim, shortly followed by none other than Steve Smith himself, who had previously refused to be part of any Journey project that didn’t include Steve Perry. More fun arose after Jonathan Cain’s latest wife joined the Trump administration as a spiritual adviser, which sent Neal back looking for Gregg Rolie, who also thought any Journey without Steve Perry (and to a lesser extent, himself) was stupid. Then, after Neal and Jonathan sued Ross Valory and Steve Smith for attempting to take over the band, those two were out again, to be replaced by Randy Jackson (again) and Narada Michael Walden. Those two couldn’t tour post-Covid, so Neal brought in the bass player from Hardline and, you guessed it, Deen Castronovo.

All this fun back story is offered for entertainment, of course, which we can’t say about Freedom, 2022’s one-word catalog entry. To Arnel Pineda’s credit he doesn’t try to ape Steve Perry’s phrasing on these new songs, which come across mostly as retreads of the classics. To say that the piano “Together We Run” apes that of “Don’t Stop Believin’” might be a stretch, but good luck getting through “Don’t Give Up On Us” without imagery from the “Separate Ways” video yet again clogging your head. (Too bad they didn’t do a straight cover of the David Soul tune of the same name.) If you can stomach those, the rest of the album follows as expected, throwing in the occasional piano ballad between the arena stompers, all recorded in separate places due to lockdown and whatnot, then mixed together into one boomy 73-minute mess. Pineda is a good sport, considering he only helped write one song, and thankfully, it wasn’t “United We Stand”. Deen sings lead on “After Glow”, proving he wasn’t completely on the outs, though he’s competing with Neal’s noodling for pretty much the whole track. “Don’t Go” is cheesy ‘80s in a good way, but we’d bet that wasn’t planned. And “Beautiful As You Are”, harmless as it is, does not need to be seven minutes long.

Soon after Freedom was released, Neal sued Jonathan over access to the band’s corporate American Express card. Yet they still managed to tour. To help push that along, their 2021 appearance at Lollapalooza was released at the end of 2022, and consists of nothing originally recorded after 1986.

Journey Freedom (2022)—2

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Brian Eno 25: Finding Shore

From his first collaborations with other musicians, Brian Eno has often been in the position of electronically processing the sounds other people produce. That’s how he started out with Roxy Music, and how he usually “produces” other people. His two albums with Harold Budd found him working head to head with a pianist, and that’s very much the idea behind Finding Shore, a collaboration with British keyboardist Tom Rogerson.

It’s not the best comparison, as Rogerson is a much more expressive pianist in the classical style—as demonstrated best on “On-ness”—compared to the minimalist, impressionistic landscapes Budd conceived. The listening experience is more emotional, and not as “cold” as the Budd albums could tend to be. Still, there’s a familiarity to “Quoit Blue” and “Minor Rift” that sends us back there. That said, thanks partially to the technology Eno uses, the music can sound more harsh and mechanical, as on “March Away”, “Eastern Stack”, “Red Slip”, and “Chain Home”. This makes the majestic “Marsh Chorus” and “An Iken Loop” more welcome.

The improvisatory approach covers a lot of moods, so Finding Shore can be a little disjointed. But taken individually, the tracks are certainly enjoyable.

Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno Finding Shore (2017)—3

Friday, May 19, 2023

Frank Zappa 49: You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4

By volume four of the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, Frank seemed content to let the music stand, as the liner notes consist only of technical info about each track, and no other commentary. Other than most of the music coming from 1984 shows, there’s no overlying theme tying everything together.

On disc one, there’s a nice stretch from “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” through “Willie The Pimp” into “Montana”, though the latter jumps between 1984 and 1973. “Brown Moses” and “The Evil Prince” are more musical and less provocative than they are on Thing-Fish, but not necessarily improved; the guitar solo is the best part of the latter. “Let’s Move To Cleveland Solos” is limited to just that, beginning with a five seconds in 1973 then forward to 1984 with a guest appearance by sax man Archie Shepp. This jazz odyssey switches to a percussive improvisation from 1969 dubbed “You Call That Music?”, before we travel to 1982 for the synths of “Pound For A Brown Solos”. “Take Me Out Of The Ball Game” is performed in Spain with Ike Willis and Walt Fowler impersonating Atlanta Braves announcers and other clichés common to modern baseball. The big historical highlight is the first known version of “The Torture Never Stops”, sung by Captain Beefheart.

Disc two undercuts much of the musical content with attempts at humor, such as the cataloguing of objects used in “Stevie’s Spanking”, the Jim Morrison spoof from the reliable Factory in the Bronx in 1969 of “Tiny Sick Tears”, and seven minutes of nose-picking discussion traversing two tracks from 1974. Perhaps in internal commentary, “Are You Upset?” is a confrontation with an angry Fillmore East attendee in 1969 who didn’t appreciate the improv. This provides a transition to the six brief doo-wop covers that fill up the balance of the disc.

Most of Vol. 4 is devoted to music and soloing, so it would be a decent sampler for folks starting out, though the jokes may deter them from going further. Those seeking even more only had to wait a month after this volume was unleashed when Frank started selling his own bootlegs in an attempt to cut into the profits of the underground. Beat The Boots! offered a box of CDs (also sold separately) that replicated the artwork and generally atrocious sound of eight bootleg albums selected from the previous years. A second volume of seven titles followed a year later, and another six discs’ worth made up the third “volume”, released for download in 2009.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4 (1991)—3

Friday, May 12, 2023

Prince 21: Emancipation

After years of complaining about his record contract, TAFKAP didn’t declare his emancipation from it with a mere album. Emancipation consisted of 36 tracks—12 songs each on three discs, each lasting exactly an hour. A bold statement, to be sure, somewhat reminiscent of George Harrison’s three-record set following the demise of the Beatles, but considering his recent hit-and-miss ratio, did we really need three hours of all-new Prince music, or whatever we were supposed to call it?

There is some rhyme and reason to the set, thankfully. The first disc is fairly straightforward radio-friendly R&B—nothing too innovative, nothing too offensive, but nothing too ordinary either. He can still write hooks, of course; “Right Back Here In My Arms Again” is simple but infectious, and “Get Yo Groove On” has an extended dialogue section in the middle that doesn’t get much in the way. “Courtin’ Time” is a snappy ‘40s jazz distraction before the straight cover of the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow!” Four tracks later he serves up “[Eye] Can’t Make U Love Me”, as recorded by Bonnie Raitt, shortly before George Michael got to it. “Damned If [Eye] Do” kinda rocks and segues neatly into a Latin section, and “Mr. Happy” isn’t as lascivious as it could be, coming off more like a Dr. Dre pastiche even before the guest rap section. We want to read more into “In This Bed [Eye] Scream”, as the liner notes dedicate it to Wendy & Lisa, and Susannah, suggesting some kind of throwback to the days of the Revolution, but the music is all modern Prince.

Beginning with “Sex In The Summer”, based around a loop of his then-unborn baby’s heartbeat, the second disc is all about the slow jam, tracing the journey with new bride Mayte. There’s a lot of sameness, but “Emale” stands out for its relatively early embrace of terminology from what we used to call the World Wide Web. “Curious Child” is somewhat brief, lyrically anyway, based on a harpsichord motif, and very sophisticated musically. The lengthy “Joint 2 Joint” incorporates another guest rap, insights on what cereal he likes and how, ending with one end of a phone conversation. “The Holy River” is a welcome departure, more of a song than a groove, culminating in an accepted marriage proposal and a nicely constructed guitar solo. The logical conclusion is, of course, “Let’s Have A Baby”, mostly falsetto over piano and a little bass. The slow jams are broken up again by the atmospheric instrumental “The Plan”, then back with the ode to “Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife”.

Disc three kicks off with “Slave”, a word he had drawn on his face during the period when he started referring to himself as the symbol and trying to leave Warner Bros. The song doesn’t seem to give much more insight to that, except for an excuse to get funky, which “New World” encourages and “The Human Body” perpetuates. “Style” and “Sleep Around” are extended workouts, though “Da, Da, Da” has too much rap for our tastes. This disc also includes covers: “La, La, La Means [Eye] Love U” is more of an update than a carbon copy of the Delfonics original, while Joan Osborne’s “One Of Us” seems tailor-made for him. “The Love We Make” is pointedly not danceable, but a better grand finale than the title track.

We’re glad he got it all out of his system, but we don’t spend a lot of time with Emancipation, mostly because it takes up so much time. While it proves that TAFKAP never stopped teeming with ideas, having his own playground to create non-stop didn’t teach him how to edit himself.

o|+> Emancipation (1996)—3

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Beach Boys 21: Sail On Sailor

Whether or not the Feel Flows compendium was a critical or commercial success, it was no real surprise that the archivists behind the Beach Boys legacy would follow it up. Named after the best song on both albums, Sail On Sailor: 1972 encompasses the sessions for that year’s Carl And The Passions – “So Tough” and the following year’s Holland. A two-disc version expands both albums with the usual assortment of outtakes, alternate mixes, and live tracks, but that’s a mere shadow of the six-disc version, which devotes two to a Carnegie Hall concert from November of that year.

The show begins with an introduction from manager Jack Rieley, pleading for the enthusiastic crowd not to shout out random requests; he doesn’t explain that doing so will only cause Mike Love to insult them, and he does. (He also takes the occasion of an instrument change to plug transcendental meditation; at another point he predicts that Smile would be out within a year. It wasn’t.) Their set at this point had only a smattering of oldies, with a focus on newer material, which frankly sound better on stage than on records. The new guys, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, were definitely key to why the band sounded so good in the studio and onstage at this juncture, and it’s to everyone’s credit that both are prominently depicted on the cover. A second drummer and bass player were also onstage; listen closely and you can hear Tennille singing alongside the Captain! Surfing songs, plus a surprising and driving crash through “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, bring the show to a close. (The two discs also provide another perspective to 1973’s The Beach Boys In Concert, which was culled from a variety of dates, but doesn’t excuse the inclusion of live performances from later decades elsewhere in the set.)

Relistening to the original albums shows that the boys didn’t have much left in the tank; Brian is all but inaudible on Carl And The Passions, and Holland is still audacious but a mess. Only a few previously unreleased songs are included among the assortment of isolated tracks—which are admittedly, pretty good. A couple from the new guys, including “We Got Love”, which had appeared on In Concert, bolster the Holland portion. An excerpt of a tape of Van Dyke Parks goading Brian into completing “Sail On Sailor” is frustrating but fascinating, just as two takes of the unknown “Out In The Country” have promise; three other Brian sketches are unfinished. Dennis, however, was just gearing up, with his “Carry Me Home” a haunting highlight.

The Beach Boys Sail On Sailor: 1972 (2022)—3

Friday, May 5, 2023

They Might Be Giants 12: No!

So many of the songs in their catalog had the singsong potential to be playground favorites, so They Might Be Giants should be commended for pointedly recording a kids’ album. While they made sure to swap songs about “death and depression” for ones related to things like bedtime, it’s still a straightforward TMBG album, with wacky sounds and clever wordplay. Their genius, however, is giving their first effort in the genre the absolutely perfect title of No!

Beginning with the charming “Fibber Island”, the guys go through mostly original songs that Gen X parents would certainly prefer to Raffi and the Teletubbies. With its accordion and lyrics about waiting for a girl to show up for a date, “Four Of Two” could be from one of their first albums. “Robot Parade” had already appeared in a more rockin’ “adult” version on Japanese pressings of Mink Car, and this one is vast improvement. The title track is probably not something those parents would want stuck in their kids’ heads, but to us it recalls Apollo 18. “Where Do They Make Balloons?” comes from the voice and pen of the bass player, who isn’t even named John, while “In The Middle, In The Middle, In The Middle” is sung by one John’s wife and is a mid-‘60s PSA written by the same guy who composed the Addams Family theme. “Violin” celebrates that instrument as well as hippos, mops, dust, and quarters for some reason. “John Lee Supertaster” is apparently derived from fact, but mostly gives Flansburgh a reason to wail on the guitar.

“The Edison Museum” is revived from Long Tall Weekend for some reason, but why they’d want to scare kids is beyond us. “The House At The Top Of The Tree” is an intriguing extension of the “Farmer In The Dell” trope, just as “Clap Your Hands” is self-explanatory. “I Am Not Your Broom” is a cute dialogue between John Linell and the object (spoiler alert: it acquiesces), “Wake Up Call” isn’t much more than nonsense syllables over a melody, and “I Am A Grocery Bag” is a nice little list. “Lazyhead And Sleepybones” will resonate with tired parents of multiple children, though they might not appreciate the cacophony of animal noises and other sound effects that pervade “Bed Bed Bed”—hardly the stuff of lullabyes. A little more serene is “Sleepwalkers”, though the band kicks in to close it out.

While the songs may be too wordy for kids to sing, we’d bet their parents have reached for No! on many a car ride. It’s a perfectly charming album, and a nice little side hustle for the boys. (Always hoping to embrace technology, the original CD was enhanced with interactive animated videos for most of the songs. As most operating systems have surpassed those system requirements, they can now be enjoyed on a dedicated website. Meanwhile, a tenth anniversary digital expansion added live versions of four songs from the album and two others, plus an extended version of a song from a different children’s album.)

They Might Be Giants No! (2002)—3

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Bryan Ferry 7: Bête Noire

Seeing as he still had some traction on the charts, Bryan Ferry kept his solo career going in the latter half of the ‘80s. Bête Noire is more of the post-Avalon template, but even with Madonna’s producer Patrick Leonard on board, it’s mostly more of the same. Seven guitarists are credited, along with three bassists, three drummers, percussion, saxes, and backing vocals, all combined into a generic, sterile program.

The three singles are still the best tracks. “Limbo” leads off well, and “Kiss And Tell” uses the clever pun of a typewriter to inspire the beat. “The Right Stuff” got most of the attention, being based on a Smiths instrumental and featuring Johnny Marr himself on guitar.

Beyond that, these are danceable grooves with barely discernable lyrics, and that’s really it. We could swear he sings “open your heart” in the choruses of “Day For Night”, which should please anyone who already wore out their cassettes of True Blue. “Zamba” closes the first half moodily for an okay change of pace, and “The Name Of The Game” has a decent chorus (with shades of “Live To Tell”) but “Seven Deadly Sins” begins with that canned chime common to so many Taco Bell commercials. There was a time when “style over substance” wouldn’t be an insult for the voice and face of Roxy Music, but Bête Noire misses the mark. He must have known it, as five years would pass until his next album.

Bryan Ferry Bête Noire (1987)—