Friday, June 30, 2023

Jerry Garcia 7: Run For The Roses

Just as Bob Weir liked to stretch outside of the Dead, Jerry Garcia had regularly used other bands as a chance to just jam without any pressure. Run For The Roses was technically the product of the Jerry Garcia Band, but that last phrase as written didn’t appear anywhere in the packaging. Along with the usual gang of John Kahn, Ron Tutt, and Merl Saunders was the brand new name of organist Melvin Seals, while the repertoire mixes diverse covers and originals written with Robert Hunter.

One of those is the title track, which sounds closest to a Dead contender and has some of Hunter’s most clever lyrics. Michael Omartian’s burbling clavinets dominate both channels of the otherwise surprisingly reggaefied “I Saw Her Standing There”. Clyde McPhatter’s “Without Love” is soulful R&B and a keeper, except for that final flatulent brass note. A real surprise is “Midnight Getaway”, a subdued and blatant lament over the end of an affair—very uncharacteristic of Hunter’s more, shall we say, poetic excursions. There’s no question what this song’s about, and the instrumental sections are even better. (We especially like the mention of the cat “under the stars”.)

That makes the equally straightforward “Leave The Little Girl Alone” something of a letdown—maybe because Kahn wrote the music while Jerry solos constantly under his own vocals. “Valerie” is a slow shuffle more along the lines of what we’d expect, and a sleepy slog through “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, done even more reggae than Eric Clapton did, continues the dance with Dylan that would last the rest of his life. (Outtakes of “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Simple Twist Of Fate” feature among the bonuses on the expanded CD, along with an attempt at “Dear Prudence”, an alternate mix of “Valerie” with backing vocals, another stab at “Fennario” a.k.a. “Peggy-O”, and a pre-Dead take of “Alabama Getaway”.)

Even though side two loses steam, there’s enough on Run For The Roses to give fans something to enjoy at home when they’ve run out of concert tapes. Some of the keyboards and guitar effects are a little same-y and dated, but such technology would continue to be refined and embraced better in years to come.

Jerry Garcia Run For The Roses (1982)—3
2004 expanded CD: same as 1982, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Bob Weir 4: Bobby & The Midnites

Always the poppiest of the Dead, Bob Weir took advantage of another break between albums to work with a side project to explore that tendency. Along with onetime Kingfisher Matt Kelly and new Dead boy Brent Mydland, he recruited Alphonso Johnson and Billy Cobham, both veterans of fusion outfits, and one Bobby Cochran, who’d been in a recent incarnation of Steppenwolf and happened to be the nephew of Eddie Cochran. While the label of their first album was careful to state “featuring Bob Weir”, it was credited to Bobby & The Midnites.

The music is more straightahead rock—and faster—than most Dead albums, and Billy sure knows how to hit cymbals. “Haze” is a fun boogie from the start with a nice chant from the band. Bob uses his Dylanesque yelling-singing hybrid on “Too Many Losers”, but much more tunefully. “Far Away” has some cool chords but descends into an easier singalong, with lots of space for Brent to explore his Hammond B-3. There’s a sharp left turn on the reggae cover “Book Of Rules”, and “Me, Without You” is typical early-‘80s tense rock fodder. “Josephine” is mostly a vehicle for Matt and Brent while Bob expresses his desire to “rock and roll with you”, then “(I Want To) Fly Away” crams a lot of ideas in, never sure if it’s jazz, rock, or reggae. “Carry Me” is the requisite pretty one, though the choruses have more power that just can’t be contained. For crowd-pleasers, “Festival” sure is a sneaky Jimmy Buffett knock-off.

Bobby & The Midnites was easily the most enjoyable Weir album since his first, which was basically a Dead album anyway. Although it didn’t light up the charts, the band was never more than a way to kill time between Dead tours, and it took three years for a follow-up. By the time of Where The Beat Meets The Street, Kelly and Mydland were otherwise detained, Kenny Gradney of Little Feat replaced Alphonso, a keyboard player who doubled on sax came in, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter was brought on as producer. Bob took a back seat in the writing and singing categories, resulting in an extremely generic ‘80s soundtrack to a movie we’d never want to see. “(I Want To Live In) America” wouldn’t impress even the most diehard Rambo fan, and “Rock In The ‘80s” is even worse.

Most of the songs were covers, or at least by outside writers; why else would Bob sing about some girl who needs a “Lifeguard”? The techno remake of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” was particularly execrable considered he’d been shot to death by his own father just that year. “Thunder & Lightning” might be better without the atmospheric intro, and “Falling” is half-decent, possibly due to John Barlow’s lyrics, but he was also partly responsible for “America”, along with the guy who played Beef in Phantom Of The Paradise, as well as the dangerous groupie portrait of “Gloria Monday”.

Whatever he’d hoped to achieve with this band was shot to hell in three short years; luckily he still had his day job. Not surprisingly, none of the songs on either album were ever played live by the Dead.

Bobby & The Midnites Bobby & The Midnites (1981)—3
Bobby & The Midnites
Where The Beat Meets The Street (1984)—

Friday, June 23, 2023

Queen 7: Jazz

We’re guessing that anyone who got into Queen on the back of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” would have been sorely confused by the first track on Jazz. While it does eventually incorporate some trademark Brian May licks, the majority of “Mustapha” is an operatic exploration evoking Allah and sung confidently by Freddie Mercury, mostly in Arabic and Persian.

Of course, they might have bought the album on the basis of the first single, which paired the equally intricate “Bicycle Race” with the unlikely singalong “Fat Bottomed Girls”. Around our way these songs were often played back to back a la the aforementioned openers from News Of The World—and considering each song references the other, it made sense—but they don’t appear on the album that way. Instead, “Fat Bottomed Girls” is the second song on side one, followed by the moody piano ballad of “Jealousy”, and only after that do we hear “Bicycle Race”. (To confuse things further, a poster of about 70 nude women on bicycles came with early copies of the album, which likely distracted those bewildered teenage boys for the duration of their youth.) “If You Can’t Beat Them” is a straightahead rocker, and proof yet again that John Deacon wrote some terrific songs for this band. “Let Me Entertain You” recalls the heavy sound of their first albums, even if the sentiment in the lyric, thanks to the mildly campy delivery, tries to hard to convince.

The hard rock continues on “Dead On Time” with a rapid-fire, tongue-twisting chorus and a closing thunderclap effect that’s as startling as it is silly. “In Only Seven Days” borders on yacht rock with its romantic chord changes—one of which will feature four tracks later—and acoustic guitars (courtesy of Deacon, who wrote it), while “Dreamers Ball” is more of a lazy New Orleans blues. That makes “Fun It” a real anomaly, being extremely disco-influenced an intentionally inane; they would do better on their next real album. We can blame Roger Taylor for this one, though Freddie must have liked it since he sings half the vocals. Brian sings his sentimental heart out over trilling acoustics on “Leaving Home Ain’t Easy”, even the part in the middle where the “wife” responds. All this is forgotten once “Don’t Stop Me Now” kicks in, however. This song was criminally ignored in the U.S. for the better part of 25 years, which is insane because it just might be the greatest Queen song of all time. This makes the closing “More Of That Jazz”, another one-man-band demo from Roger, all the more anticlimactic, especially when the mix suddenly weaves in earlier snippets of the album before returning to the song proper.

The songs on Jazz all over the place, touching on virtually every known genre except jazz itself. While it has its moments, and the bad parts aren’t necessarily bad, it simply doesn’t hold together as an album. Still, it’s further evidence that there never has been another band that sounds like Queen. (The first reissue added only modern remixes of “Bicycle Race” and “Fat Bottomed Girls”, while the one twenty years later included an instrumental of the former, the single edit of the latter, an alternate mix of “Don’t Stop Me Now” with too many guitars, an early take of “Dreamers Ball”, and a live “Let Me Entertain You” from a 1981 Montreal concert released on video and CD a few years before.)

Queen Jazz (1978)—3
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1978, plus 2 extra tracks
2011 remaster: same as 1978, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, June 16, 2023

Bob Dylan 69: Shadow Kingdom

Recent years had seen a flurry of Bootleg Series and other archival collections, but Bob Dylan only halted his constant, consistent touring when Covid happened. Still, pushing 80, he didn’t want to stop.

Shadow Kingdom was a hyped online event at the height of the pandemic that turned out to be a film of an alleged live performance with masked musicians supposedly backing him, captured in smoky monochrome. Accordion was the main instrument, along with subtle acoustic and electric guitars, and the setlist came predominantly from the thin, wild mercury period of the mid-‘60s. Two years later, it was made available again for streaming, with a “soundtrack” to match, and no credits for who was actually in the band.

He’s in good voice, playing with the words of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and enjoying the sentiment of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”. “Queen Jane Approximately” gets a reading as good as the one with the Dead, with a nice harmonica solo too, but “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is nearly rocked-up and doesn’t work, especially lacking a rhythm section. The accordion gives a distinctly south-of-the-border tinge to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, while “Tombstone Blues” is given a subdued treatment along the lines of everything on Rough And Rowdy Ways. “To Be Alone With You” shares the structure of the original, but mostly new (to these ears) lyrics that skew towards the twisted.

It's a good setup for the mild menace of “What Was It You Wanted?”, which is in stark contrast to the near-chamber pop of “Forever Young” with what sounds like a harpsichord. “Pledging My Time” is a welcome surprise—interesting that he uses the published lyrics for the “hobo” verse rather than what he sang on the original track—as is “The Wicked Messenger”, which has a more fleshed-out arrangement. “Watching The River Flow” also gets a few alterations but still upbeat, but while “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is also stripped down like the last album, it’s also goes by so quickly we had to go back to hear if he skipped a verse. (He didn’t.) The final four minutes are given over to “Sierra’s Theme”, a two-chord minor key instrumental others have compared to “All Along The Watchtower”.

Any Dylan concert is a crapshoot, since one never knows what kind of mood or voice he’ll be in. Shadow Kingdom is an intimate evening with Bob, equal parts greatest hits and new interpretations, flowing neatly from song to song with nary a break. Besides being his first new live album since 1995, it’s a nice reminder that when he’s good, he’s very, very good.

Bob Dylan Shadow Kingdom (2023)—

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Phil Collins 13: Going Back

Decades of onstage antics had taken their toll, and Phil Collins decided he might as well cap his performing career with an album celebrating the music he loved as a kid—specifically, Motown, and other ‘60s R&B nuggets often performed by mod bands at the Marquee Club in London and the like. Going Back was comprised of meticulous recreations of classic tracks, from the arrangements to the mixing, even getting some of the original Funk Brothers involved. Most of the tunes are from the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, with a few Stevie Wonder collaborations, some Curtis Mayfield, Goffin-King selections popularized by Dusty Springfield (including the title track), and one best associated with the Ronettes.

This was no big stretch for a guy who’d had one of his first solo hits with a carbon copy of “You Can’t Hurry Love”; his work on the Buster soundtrack was in the same spirit. His choices range from the obvious—“Uptight”, “Heatwave”, “Going To A Go-Go”—to not-so familiar ones we had to look up. “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” are both distinctly ‘70s, but fit. Most run around the standard two minutes and fifty seconds, cramming 18 songs into just under an hour. (An “Ultimate Edition” added seven more songs, including “Ain’t To Proud To Beg”, “Dancing In The Street”, and “You Really Got A Hold On Me”—plus “Ain’t That Peculiar”, which Peter Garbriel covered on his first solo tour back in 1977)—as well as a DVD chronicling the making of the album with four further downloadable tracks.)

It’s a fun listen, well capturing the spirit of the originals. But it does suggest that his creative well had run dry, just as his voice sounds thinner and weaker than ever, underlining his intention to make this his last album. The attention to detail is admirable, but the average listener is better off digging up those original Motown records, or finding a way to get some royalties directly to the artists.

When the album wrapped up his “Take A Look At Me Now” reissue campaign a few years later, the revision didn’t just update the cover art. Now called The Essential Going Back, the original album was pared back to 13 songs from the original 18, plus “Too Many Fish In The Sea” from the DVD. The Extras Live disc contained 16 songs recorded on the brief summer tour supporting the album, repeating some from the main program but substituting others, performed with nary a break between tunes, and thankfully not in the same order. His voice sounds better here too.

Phil Collins Going Back (2010)—3
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: “same” as 2010, plus 17 extra tracks (and minus 5 or 12 tracks)

Friday, June 9, 2023

Clash 7: Cut The Crap

It’s never a good sign when you have to hire two guitar players to replace the guy you just fired, but that’s exactly what the Clash did after abandoning Mick Jones to Big Audio Dynamite. While Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon allegedly wanted to get back to their straightahead punk roots, the evidence given on Cut The Crap showed them to be more aligned with Mick’s new band. Sure, there are guitars everywhere, but the drums are programmed and overly robotic. We know now that manager Bernie Rhodes took control of the production and lyrics, and while Paul’s in the photos, he’s not on the album at all. Rather, any bass not made by a synthesizer—and there are an awful lot of dated keyboards on this album—come from Norman Watt-Roy, who already filled in on Sandinista!

Speaking of which, the busy effects-filled mix of “Dictator”—with chatter in both channels—recalls the more non-musical moments of that album, to the point where one can’t hear the words, chords, or melody (except for those of the synth horns). The chanted gang vocals, which are all over this album, don’t help, and proof they did the opposite of the album title’s suggestion. “Dirty Punk” has some elements of their earliest songs, but comes off instead as a Clash parody, whereas the raison d’être of “We Are The Clash” isn’t very convincing either; in fact, Joe rolls his first R just like Johnny Rotten used to. “Are You Red…Y” would be a half-decent new wave number if it were recorded by anyone else, like Sigue Sigue Sputnik or somebody like that. “Cool Under Heat” sports enough acoustic guitar and martial energy to be interesting, but for those damn chant vocals. Also, the conga is way too loud. Similarly, “Movers And Shakers” starts with potential, but is lost to a really stupid synth line fighting against the chanting in the chorus.

“This Is England” begins with what sounds like the auto-rhythm button on your average 1985 Casio keyboard, and would actually kinda work if it was the only out-there song on the album. “Three Card Trick” brings back some of the reggae from earlier in the decade, but is nowhere as convincing as those homages were. Just when you think the album might be improving, more video game effects and an unintelligible conversation preface yet another chanted chorus on “Play To Win”—but it’s soon apparent that the choruses are only distractions from the atmosphere in said preface. The inane “Fingerpoppin’” wants you to dance, which makes sense considering the track wants to emulate “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”, and what’s with the growled chorus? “North And South” is sung by one of the new guitarists, whose voice is neither as strong nor as distinctive as Joe’s or Mick’s, but again, might work on somebody else’s album since it’s got a nice melody. And frankly, “Life Is Wild” follows the template of eight other songs here so closely that it doesn’t stand out except for the silence that follows.

Cut The Crap was the Clash in name only, and we would be tempted to call it a Joe Strummer solo album if he hadn’t denounced it himself upon release. It didn’t help that it came out the same week as This Is Big Audio Dynamite, an album that is a masterpiece in comparison. At this point Strummer had seemed to squander everything he’d worked for, with an album title that was all too apt. The new combo was supposedly pretty ferocious onstage, and even when they were busking, but any proof remains only on bootlegs, just as there might be a good album in here somewhere, which we’ll never know. For the most part, it has been absent from most compilations and retrospectives, although a mid-price European reissue CD included the “Do It Now” B-side, while “Sex Mad Roar” remains MIA in the digital era.

The Clash Cut The Crap (1985)—2

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Big Audio Dynamite 1: This Is Big Audio Dynamite

Five years seems to be the standard shelf life for a lot of bands, and just like the Jam, who’d emerged at around the same time, the Clash as we knew them didn’t last past 1982. Mick Jones wanted to get more into hip-hop, and Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon didn’t, so they bounced him. After a short stint with General Public—an offshoot of the similarly splintered (English) Beat—Mick recruited a new rhythm section, though the drums were primarily electronic, a keyboard player, and filmmaker buddy Don Letts (as seen on the cover of Black Market Clash) to provide vocals and sound effects via the then-burgeoning practice known as sampling. The new combo was dubbed Big Audio Dynamite, occasionally called Bad; This Is Big Audio Dynamite was their rather blatant statement of purpose.

The opening “Medicine Show” sets the pace, toe-tapping and melodic with intertwined guitar parts fighting for space between the samples from spaghetti westerns. (Joe and Paul appeared in the song’s rather ridiculous video, so any hard feelings must have disappeared by then.) “Sony” isn’t as successful, mostly bringing to mind the anarchic beatbox experiments on Sandinista!, but it doesn’t matter once “E=MC2” kicks in. Now we can hear it as a rock-rap hybrid ahead of what Run-DMC did with “Walk This Way”, but back then it was an infectious litany of pop culture imagery delivered a la Chris Difford in Squeeze’s “Cool For Cats”. The samples from Performance show Mick Jones stretching his Keith Richards fixation all the way to Mick Jagger. “The Bottom Line” is another perfectly simple track, with just a few riffs around the same root note and a singable chorus. That said, “I’m gonna take you to part two” is more effective ending an album or cassette side than in the middle of a CD.

Frankly, part two isn’t as exciting, and mostly slower in tempo, but still works. Considering the time, it’s easy to assume that “A Party” refers to apartheid, though the lyrics aren’t overt. Don Letts’ Jamaican-tinged are most audible here, toasting near the end. “Sudden Impact!” is directly descended from “The Magnificent Seven” and “Radio Clash”, and maybe Blondie’s “Rapture”, but without as much percolating bass. “Stone Thames” is loaded with cartoony sound effects, and once you realize the title can be stretched to refer to Rock Hudson, the references to a certain disease related to sex start to make more sense. “Bad” is almost as noisy, and gives equal time to Letts in the verses.

The gauntlet was definitely thrown. While it’s definitely a leap from the Clash, what sells the album is Mick’s familiar vocal approach, used so well in his old band’s poppier moments. Many of the lyrics are delivered at rap speed, with the addition of self-harmonies, which makes it all more musical. He was certainly trying to do something different, as evidenced by the even dancier remixes—some even more tuneful than the album mixes—that make up most of the bonus disc in the expanded edition, released 25 years later. (The balance includes the underwhelming outtake “Electric Vandal” and two contemporary B-sides.)

Big Audio Dynamite This Is Big Audio Dynamite (1985)—3
2010 Legacy Edition: same as 1985, plus 12 extra tracks

Friday, June 2, 2023

Paul Simon 20: Seven Psalms

When some musicians retire, they mean it, and that’s it. Others find the muse still waking them up at all hours, and that’s what happened to Paul Simon. Seven Psalms is a 33-minute suite of seven movements, indexed as a single track on CD and streaming, in a meditation on creation, existence, and beyond. To accompany his 80-year-old voice, he plays a variety of guitars, predominantly acoustic, plus keyboards and percussion (including Harry Partch’s Cloud Chamber Bowls), making this his most solo album since his first.

“The Lord” is the main theme here, opening the suite and recurring twice. Over his acoustic guitar he acknowledges the subject as an encompassing giver, as well as “the Covid virus” and “the rising ocean”. “Love Is Like A Braid” is a wonderful melodic poem of gratitude, to someone or something—your choice—and very gentle indeed. For a switch in tempo, “My Professional Opinion” combines riffs from “Sentimental Journey” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”; though that’s likely unintentional, its bass harmonica can’t help but recall “The Boxer”, and just when it starts to groove, we hear “The Lord” again.

A small classical-type quartet features on “Your Forgiveness”, as is a voice ensemble, but we can’t hear the latter at all, incorporated as well as they are into the proceedings. The lyrical tone is getting darker, and the atmosphere of “Trail Of Volcanoes” adds to the unease, and we hear a note of fear as he compares his journey to those of refugees. But there is literally “a change of mood,” and Edie Brickell shows up on “The Sacred Harp” to provide a gesture of assistance and comfort. “The Lord” reappears to put things in perspective; by now He’s not just the engineer of the universe but his “record producer” as well. “Wait” is something of a plea to not leave just yet, but Edie appears again to bless the congregation, and we end with “amen”.

We will not be the first to say that Seven Psalms is a grower, but it is very welcoming on first listen, and refreshing the more familiar it becomes. After a lifetime of crafting and overcrafting, this particular collection does not seem at all labored. If it’s his final statement, it’s a good one. If he’s got more, hopefully he’ll keep it as simple as this.

Paul Simon Seven Psalms (2023)—