Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Jeff Beck 19: 18

While he was once known as an actor, Johnny Depp has carved out quite a niche for himself as what Mick Jagger would call a starbucker. From owning the nightclub where River Phoenix died to forming the Hollywood Vampires, a supergroup made up of onetime degenerates, he’s been dabbling in music for decades. So it’s no surprise that he’d be enamored with Jeff Beck; the mystery is what Jeff saw in him.

Nonetheless, the heart wants what it wants, and supposedly a mutual fascination with vintage cars led to lots of hanging out together and, as has been known to happen, recording tracks. The first bloom of their partnership came at the height of the Covid pandemic, with a rockin’ cover of John Lennon’s “Isolation”, as timely as it was unexpected. By the time a full album came out, Depp had been tabloid fodder for months due to various ugly lawsuits involving his most recent ex-wife.

This makes 18 that much more of a curious listen, even when you want to take it on the basis of solely the music. The first problem is that he’s not much of a singer, and tries to do just that on 10 out of 13 tracks. Beck’s solo adaptation of Davy Spillane’s “Midnight Walker” sets such a wonderful mood that the industrial whiplash of Killing Joke’s “The Death And Destruction Show” only reminds us why we didn’t like his techno albums very much. Depp does his best Dennis Wilson on a self-pitying cover of “Time”, but follows that with “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade”, another techno track that at first sounds like the judge’s gag order didn’t take. Then it turns out most of it was lifted from a “poem” written by a Missouri prisoner and collected by a folklorist. Luckily, their versions of “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” and “Caroline, No” from Pet Sounds are instrumental, and lovely, but in between Depp croons “This Is A Song For Miss Hedy Lamarr”, wherein he seems to find a kindred spirit due to her “troubles”.

He lets Jeff do most of the work for Smokey’s “Ooh Baby Baby”, but the falsetto is likely mixed so low for a reason. In the same vein, the carbon-copy backing for Marvin’s “What’s Going On” makes it sound like Jeff’s wailing over a karaoke track coming through a speaker, while Depp is mostly limited to chanting the backing vocals across the room, until he starts throwing in a few lines from the same album’s “What’s Happening Brother” about halfway through. That said, “Venus In Furs” from the first Velvets album almost works, Jeff leaning into the snaky riff and dirty chords, but Depp’s posed decadence is just silly. The Everlys’ “Let It Be Me” starts out very sweetly and mostly stays that way, even with Depp harmonizing with himself with melodies we don’t recognize from the original. In very much the same mood is another song about the “pitfalls of fame”, but’s Janis Ian’s masterful, heartbreaking “Stars”. (We’re betting Depp heard it on an episode of Bojack Horseman.) Still, it’s gorgeous, and makes “Isolation” something of an anti-climax, which we suspect is double in length just so Depp could yell the bridge a second time. At least it gives Jeff more time to wail.

As should be clear, 18 is at its best when Jeff Beck is allowed to shine in the spotlight by himself. Unfortunately, this would be the last album he’d see released in his lifetime, and while he may have been fine with that, he deserved better.

Jeff Beck & Johnny Depp 18 (2022)—

Friday, July 21, 2023

Donald Fagen 2: New York Rock And Soul Revue

Steely Dan stayed pretty quiet throughout the ‘80s, separately and collectively, only emerging for the occasional production job. So when Donald Fagen surfaced in 1991 as part of an outfit dubbed The New York Rock And Soul Revue, the resultant live album was a pretty big deal. To some people, anyway.

Live At The Beacon was recorded over two nights at the wondrous Manhattan theater of the title, and delivers pretty much what the combo promises in their moniker. A bunch of gigging and session locals back up Fagen and various special guests on a variety of tunes, mostly from decades prior, for something of a cross between Paul Shaffer and Ringo’s All-Starr Band. Michael McDonald and Phoebe Snow are the most prominent vocalists, beginning with a duet on “Knock On Wood”. Donald steps up for a cool take on “Green Flower Street”, and Phoebe belts out “Shakey Ground” and “At Last”. Michael responds with “Lonely Teardrops”, then Boz Scaggs comes out to sing “Drowning In The Sea Of Love”, but not play guitar. (Rather, stalwart sideman Drew Zingg gets the call-out.)

Blues legend Charles Brown gets the spotlight for his own classic “Driftin’ Blues”, and joins Donald and Phoebe on the Dan’s “Chain Lightning”. The Brigati brothers represent the (Young) Rascals for “Groovin’”, and there’s an unfortunate detour for Michael to sing “Minute By Minute” before the throng gathers for “People Got To Be Free”. The encore is a wonderful “Pretzel Logic”, wherein Michael sings the verse about the shoes.

It’s a slick album, but not necessarily bland. And they were never heard from again. The yuppies loved it, and hopefully dug deeper into the catalogs of the guest performers.

The New York Rock And Soul Revue Live At The Beacon (1991)—3

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Kiss 12: Unmasked

The good news about the Unmasked album is that Kiss mostly abandoned disco. However, they went full fore into catchy pop, using their occasional skill to find hooks to apply them to songs that only rocked on the surface. The misogyny that colored so many of their earlier albums had also been toned down in favor of love songs, with varying results.

They still collaborated with new buddy Vini Poncia, but the opening “Is That You?” is by a songwriter who would go on to contribute countless generic tunes to movie soundtracks, filling in space between people you’ve heard of. The dearth of millennial girls named “Shandi” shows the lack of influence this sensitive not-ballad had on their fan base. There’s nothing wrong with the song, except that it’s completely wrong for Kiss. Speaking of which, “Talk To Me” is the first Ace’s contributions, and it would be great if someone else sang it, because he can’t. Gene finally shows up on “Naked City”, a song that took four people to write. The bass matches the guitar riff note for note, but social commentary about urban desolation isn’t his strong suit. And while it starts with another solid Kiss riff, “What Makes The World Go ‘Round” needs a better chorus, and therefore a better title.

“Tomorrow” has a new wave edginess not to far away from Billy Joel’s “Sometimes A Fantasy”, with even worse lyrics. “Two Sides Of The Coin” is another Stonesy Ace riff with dumb lyrics, but Paul’s harmonies definitely provide a lift. Poncia’s keyboards take the bite out of the otherwise mindless “She’s So European”, and the same applies to “Easy As It Seems”, which is loaded with even more non sequiturs masquerading (sorry) as insight. Ace stumbles with the funky “Torpedo Girl”, though the sound effects at the start are unintentionally hilarious. Gene gets the last word with “You’re All That I Want”, as lyrically insipid as anything else here.

Sure, the songs are competent any mostly catchy, but the comic book cover art is the best thing about Unmasked by far. Note that while Peter is depicted everywhere, he doesn’t appear on any song, as Anton Fig was kept on the kit. Ace also seems to have done all the guitars and basses on his tracks, so we’ve got another quasi-White Album situation here, but with none of the chemistry. They were now less relevant than ever, even to their fans.

Kiss Unmasked (1980)—2

Friday, July 14, 2023

Elton John 22: Too Low For Zero

If nothing else, Elton John was determined to keep churning out music at a steady pace of a new album every year. Too Low For Zero kept him on the charts thanks to decent tunes as well as getting somewhat back to basics. Bernie Taupin was fully on board, providing the lyrics for every song, and so were all the members of the original Elton John Band.

Even Ray Cooper and Kiki Dee show up on “Cold As Christmas (In The Middle Of The Year)”, an odd choice for the lead track, given the title and subject matter (an older couple falling out of love). But it’s forgotten as soon as “I’m Still Standing” crashes in, and as wonderful a statement of purpose as any. The title track suffers from the keyboard and drum machines of the time—Elton is solely to blame, since James Newton Howard was no longer handling the synths—but there’s no denying its catchiness. “Religion” is a decent countrified track hampered by a lyrical indictment of hypocritical born-again types. (Social commentary was never this pair’s strong suit; that was about a decade away.) But he shows he can still get a hit with a slow one with “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”, another terrific track, helped along by a harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder. (Davey Johnstone gets credit for some of the music as well.)

Unfortunately, “Crystal” is in the same one-man-synth-band mode as the title track, but again, it’s got a terrific melody, and deserves to be rearranged. Its demo feel is underscored when it segues jarringly into the rocking, nearly Who-like “Kiss The Bride” with its welcome guitars. While “Whipping Boy” sounds like we’ve heard it before, it’s good and trashy in a way he and Bernie hadn’t been since the ‘70s, and like everything we’ve heard so far here, it’s infectious. It’s a quick segue to the slower “Saint”, with its opening fanfare straight from an Asia album, and the band supports the chorus well. Just as slow is “One More Arrow”, which seems to be an elegy for a doomed young man that Elton sings at the upper end of its register. Thus his best album in years ends hauntingly.

The contemporary sheen made sense then, and there are enough elements in Too Low For Zero to put it on the level of his ‘70s heights. It’s definitely worth revisiting. Even the lengthy B-sides included on the reissue, which seem to come from earlier sessions, aren’t that embarrassing. “Earn While You Learn” is a funky instrumental credited to Lord Choc Ice, “Dreamboat” is a Gary Osborne lyric that rhymes “dream on dreamboat” with “steam on steamboat”, and “The Retreat” is another Taupin rumination on dead soldiers that doesn’t quite evoke Tumbleweed Connection.

Elton John Too Low For Zero (1983)—3
1998 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 3 extra tracks

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Peter Gabriel 13: New Blood

Now things were starting to get a little out of control. Having enjoyed the kudos for Scratch My Back, Peter got the idea to extend the orchestral remake approach to—wait for it—his own songs. This was hardly a new concept, for people as widespread as Sting and Spinal Tap had gone this route, and it was a worrying trend when once-vital performers saw the remake idea as fresh. The fact of the matter was that they simply couldn’t be bothered write a new album’s worth of tunes. Or maybe it’s the fault of the generation who put them on the map, who’d grown up to be wary of anything unfamiliar.

At any rate, and as might be expected, New Blood is exceptionally concocted, with great care given to both the new arrangements and capturing the sound. It’s an album for diehard fans, who will likely get much more out of it than the casual listener. Some of the tracks actually provide a new perspective; “San Jacinto” in particular is given a sweeping arrangement with a chilly piano intro reminiscent of Tubular Bells, and moves smoothly into its own coda. Without its booming drums, “Intruder” is very different, and scarier; “Darkness” is just as unsettling in this format too. Two songs from the OVO project might spur interest in that obscure CD; even though one is an instrumental, and a lovely one at that, the other is a duet with his daughter Melanie.

But much of the album comes off more like background music. Most of “Rhythm Of The Heat” isn’t that different from the song, until the big climax happens, sounding less like a tribal ritual than a movie soundtrack. “In Your Eyes” is much too urgent, and comes off like a stalker. “Red Rain” is given a brass-heavy treatment that misses on the tension, and “Don’t Give Up” is sung with a woman (not his daughter) who trills like a cartoon bird. A “bonus” rendition of “Solsbury Hill” is preceded by five minutes of ambient sound actually recorded on location, which is a great idea if you like listening to wind blowing.

New Blood is certainly harmless, but it’s just a shame that so much time was put into something that still comes off as a distraction. In fact, the disc of the first twelve tracks without any vocals, included in the “special edition”, is almost preferable, as some of the pieces work best that way, like “Mercy Street”; otherwise that song isn’t any more riveting than the original version. (“Blood Of Eden” was a bonus track in this edition as well, and “Signal To Noise” was available for download.)

He had already taken the orchestra on tour supporting Scratch My Back when he started to prepare for the album. The following year’s Live Blood was culled from two nights in London, with selections from the two orchestral albums augmented by arrangements for “The Drop”, “Washing Of The Water” (another nice duet with Melanie), and “Biko”, which is oddly placed in the middle of the program. Despite the occasional bombast, the album is an intimate listen, helped by his occasional commentary.

Peter Gabriel New Blood (2011)—3
Peter Gabriel
Live Blood (2012)—3

Friday, July 7, 2023

Ben Folds 15: What Matters Most

Since we last heard from Ben Folds, he kept busy, just not in the new music category. He used his powers for good, working with orchestras and schools. He wrote a memoir that focused on the nature of creativity, which led to the launch, during the Covid pandemic, of a podcast discussing creativity further with guests in the entertainment and scientific fields. He used the situation of having to shelter in place to post the occasional video and home concert stream. Somewhere in there he also got married for a fifth time, and eventually came up with enough songs to constitute a new album.

The overall style of What Matters Most is ‘70s pop, with mostly simple instruments and tons of melody, but still sounding fresh. The subject matter is mostly adult-oriented, meaning mature, and reflective of recent times. (Sadly, his one-off song “2020”, which hilariously and profanely summed up life during the pandemic, is not included.)

An extended sequenced keyboard part opens “But Wait, There’s More”, which can’t help but reflect life with Covid, but works as a meditation on the passage of time in general, with lots of wonderful layered harmonies chanting the title repeatedly. “Clouds With Ellipses” is a pretty little piece on the same theme, with YouTube sensation dodie [sic] providing the harmonies here. “Exhausting Lover” is the requisite “naughty” track, this time about a salacious encounter with a younger, shall we say adventurous lady. For his sake we really hope it’s not based on a true story, especially since the track itself is so good. “Fragile” brings the mood back to more serious territory, with a monologue about a narcissistic abuser, with a subtle string section and gentle viola solo. While it may not be strictly classical, the accompaniment to “Kristine From The 7th Grade” is rather stately, while the subject matter will be all too familiar to people who’ve had to cut off contact with Trumpers and science deniers in recent years.

“Back To Anonymous” works on two levels; it’s a realization from a celebrity that’s not necessarily a household name, but it also reflects how face masks brought people to common ground again during Covid. The uncharacteristically jangly “Winslow Gardens” goes back to the beginning of lockdown, and we like to think the odd meter reflects the general unsettledness that had descended in 2020. Following a purposely deceptive prelude, the breakup tale in “Paddleboard Breakup” is incredibly vivid, right down to the weather, with chords that barely modulate over a tempo that ticks like a time bomb, and the twist at the end makes it all even more excruciating. A strident piano opens the title track, which deals with the finality of certain kinds of loss, which “Moments” doubles down to remind us to appreciate what we have while we can. A collaboration with the electronic folk duo Tall Heights, it interestingly recalls his cover of “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service. (A limited edition expanded CD included three extra tracks: “Happy Clapper”, which sounds like it was inspired by the drum machine effect; another breakup song in “Why Did You Tell Me Everything” that has us hoping his most recent marriage isn’t in trouble; and a piano-based interpretation of Roger Miller’s “A Million Years Or So”.)

There seem to be a lot of knotted eyebrows throughout What Matters Most, but we called it a mature album, and it is. The melodies are compelling and haunting, the album is well crafted overall, and various little moments emerge over time to illuminate everything else.

Ben Folds What Matters Most (2023)—

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Jayhawks 5: Sound Of Lies

From the beginning, and for many, Mark Olson was the key songwriter in the Jayhawks, and Gary Louris was his indispensable foil. But after four albums, two of which had major label push, the rat race got to be too much for Olson, and he left the band to devote time to his wife, the singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, who was struggling with multiple sclerosis. Louris, bassist Marc Perlman, and newer members Karen Grotberg and Tim O’Reagan wanted to keep going, so they did.

As the story goes, they lost a key singer-songwriter and much of their twang, but they gained a band in the process, leaving us with Sound Of Lies, a much more eclectic collection than their previous efforts. The artwork is dominated by Louris’ distinctive glasses, and he wrote most of the songs on his own, each of which drips with despair even when paired with the sunniest melodies. But there are plenty of harmonies, thanks to Karen and Tim, and the addition of Kraig Johnson on rhythm guitar and Jessy Greene on violin keeps the sound full.

Side one is strong from start to finish. Karen’s piano is the first sound we hear, and will continue, along with her sweet voice. “The Man Who Loved Life” seems to emerge from a position of defeat, with contradictory turns of phrase and battle-torn imagery. It pulls back as often as it tries to get loud, while “Think About It” totally gives in to the urge, Gary’s wah-wah pedal on full distorto. “Trouble” shares some chords and feel with “Creep” and “The Air That I Breathe” while being country enough to stand on its own. The twang endures for “It’s Up To You”, one of the few songs on the album that points fingers rather than loathes one’s self. That is not the case with the absolutely heartbreaking plaints of “Stick In The Mud”, while “Big Star” turns the volume back up to blast the music biz while resigning itself to it.

Things slide a little to the left for the second half, beginning with the bongwater effects on “Poor Little Fish” and the gothic mystery of “Sixteen Down”. The phased guitars and wistful melody of “Haywire” help keep the mood this side of cheerful, with a nicely arranged middle section for dynamics. Contrast that with the driving menace of “Dying On The Vine” and the repeated “scared of you” hook, especially the late key change. Drummer Tim contributes “Bottomless Cup”, and just because it’s stuck next to last doesn’t mean it should be skipped, because it’s a solid, yearning keeper, especially since the title track is so quiet.

A little less country and lot more rock, Sound Of Lies proved the reports of their demise were thankfully exaggerated. It’s also on the long side, yet still flows. Strong as it was, it didn’t exactly burn up any charts, but remains a hidden gem truly worthy of attention. (The eventual Expanded Edition added two contemporary B-sides—the mildly funky “I Hear You Cry”, which Marc wrote, and the droning “Sleepyhead”—and three outtakes, including the “Kirby’s Tune” jam and alternates of “It’s Up To You” and the title track.)

The Jayhawks Sound Of Lies (1997)—
2014 Expanded Edition: same as 1997, plus 5 extra tracks