Friday, July 28, 2023

Ringo Starr 4: Goodnight Vienna

Since it worked last time, Ringo stayed in L.A. with Richard Perry and put together another album relying on the kindness of his friends. Goodnight Vienna brings together some of the same drinking buddies, plus some new ones. (Pointedly absent are Paul and George, the latter most likely because he had strayed into an affair with Ringo’s wife.)
John is slightly more prominent again, beginning with his voice and piano on the title track, which he wrote specifically for the project. It’s not the best tune, with the stumbly tempo and switch to the accordion between every other verse. Ringo does a decent job with “Occapella”, a relatively obscure Allen Toussaint tune that had been around for a while. “Oo-Wee” is one of two songs written with new buddy Vini Poncia, but it’s not much more than a slower and less frantic “Devil Woman”, and mostly notable for Dr. John on piano. Roger Miller’s “Husbands And Wives” is made even mopier by Ringo’s delivery, but “Snookeroo” is an Elton John/Bernie Taupin track made to order, with James Newton Howard on synth but Robbie Robertson on guitar over the Klaus Voormann and Jim Keltner rhythm section.
“All By Myself” is the other Poncia track with Dr. John on most of it, and that’s Richard Perry contributing the jokey bass voice, but Ringo is solely responsible for the mostly harmless “Call Me”, though he’s nearly pushed aside but the backing vocalists. The hit we remember is “No-No Song”, a near-novelty song about sobriety made all the more hilarious because he really did enjoy all the things the track claimed he eschewed, with Harry Nilsson humming along without any irony. But the first single was his cover of the Platters’ “Only You”, suggested by John and very much a blueprint for his own version of “Stand By Me”. The simple yet still lush “Easy For Me” gives Harry a piece of the proceeds, but the pointless reprise of the title track doesn’t do much more than supply brief farewell disguised as a “stay tuned” message.
Those hit singles helped, but even then it was clear Goodnight Vienna simply doesn’t hold as well together as the last one. It’s harmless, and nice to hear once in a while, but not necessarily twice. (Perhaps because somebody didn’t want to overload the Ringo CD at further expense to this album, some anachronistic bonuses were included on the reissue: the noisy 1972 single “Back Off Boogaloo”; its inscrutable B-side, “Blindman”, meant to accompany the hideous film of the same name; and the extended edit of “Six O’Clock” from the 8-track of the Ringo album, featuring another 90 seconds of McCartney music.)

Ringo Starr Goodnight Vienna (1974)—3
1992 CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 3 extra tracks

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 tracks, 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

David Bowie 42: Loving The Alien

Bowie’s switch to the EMI-America label in 1983 brought him possibly his greatest mainstream commercial success, but it also inaugurated a period where he found himself torn between taking the paycheck and thinking he was actually innovating. His own commentary after the fact only worked against whatever good emerged from the music collected on the Loving The Alien box set. Covering another five- or six-year stretch, this volume encompasses three studio albums, two associated tours, and just about everything else from that high-profile arc. Plus, of course, a book.
As could be said for many artists of his longevity, there was a lot of good Bowie in the ‘80s; the trouble was, you often had to endure some horrible music to find it. Side one of Let’s Dance is still solid, and the aftertaste of side two is nicely wiped away by Serious Moonlight (Live ’83), which is basically two CDs of audio from the VHS tape of the tour of the same name. Led by Carlos Alomar, the band was mostly new, with Tony Thompson on drums and the Simms Brothers on backing vocals, plus a horn section. The sound is a tad boomy, but the setlist is surprising deep, opening with “Look Back In Anger”, and leaning mostly on music from the second half of the ‘70s. (“Modern Love” was always the encore, and the live B-side version of same is included as a bonus here.)
Up next, the low good-to-bad ratio on Tonight doesn’t do him any favors, but this box set was more concerned with the drastic reimagining of Never Let Me Down alongside a remaster of the original album. Both versions ignored “Too Dizzy”, leaving it lost to time, or those of us with vintage copies. The other tour from this period is commemorated by the two CDs of Glass Spider (Live Montreal ’87), which had previously only been available as a companion to the DVD version, which itself was an upgrade from an earlier VHS. The set leans much more on ‘80s work, exceptions including a revved-up “All The Madmen” and a strangely placed “Big Brother”. Without the visuals showcasing the dance troupe onstage, the listener isn’t as distracted from concentrating on Peter Frampton’s lead guitar work. He even gets to sing the chorus of “Sons Of The Silent Age” (and yes, he does work “Do You Feel Like We Do” into one of his breaks).
The ‘80s also saw an exponential rise in the frequency of the 12-inch dance mix, to the point where a standalone Bowie compilation called Dance had apparently been planned and scrapped. The disc of that title in this set is not that aborted release, but a CD’s worth of extended mixes of various songs from the period. As with most excursions of this type, most of these remixes are pointless, and unfortunately not unintentionally funny.
Dance was a nice way to declutter what would make up the mop-up portion of the set. The two discs of Re:Call 4 consist yet again of single edits, a couple B-sides, and his musical contributions to various soundtracks, including “This Is Not America”, plus his three songs from Absolute Beginners and the five from Labyrinth. For good measure, the shorter mixes of six tracks from the LP version of Never Let Me Down are included, but still no “Too Dizzy”. Yet the compilers made room for the perennially embarrassing remake of “Dancing In The Street” with Mick Jagger and two duets with Tina Turner from her 1988 live album.
There’s just enough good spread throughout Loving The Alien to make it enjoyable. If anything, it shows he was able to be productive, if not necessarily creative, without the stimulus of cocaine. After all, he knew when to go out, and he knew when to stay in, and get things done.

David Bowie Loving The Alien (1983-1988) (2018)—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 reissue: same as 1997, plus 5 extra tracks