Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Kinks 27: State Of Confusion

Having re-established themselves as a big act, Ray Davies and the Kinks picked up where they left off. State Of Confusion even sports a similar cover theme to Give The People What They Want, but features the whole band, which was nice of Ray, who still wrote and produced everything.

The title track is a solid rocker with great keyboards, and they thankfully drop the scream accent a few bars in. The lyrics are fairly generic, but the music and particularly the guitar parts make it work. On a similar theme, “Definite Maybe” takes on the angst of modern life from another angle and a different rhythm. Opening with a Hendrixian take on “Here Comes The Bride”, “Labour Of Love” is a blatantly cynical view of marriage, repeatedly described as “a two-headed transplant”. What sold the album was “Come Dancing”, still a charming retro tune in tone and theme, and we still crack up at the mother’s commentary in the quiet section. It’s also a nice respite from the loudness of the first three tracks. (The video is still as charming as ever.) That happy memory is dashed aside by the post-breakup scene in “Property”.

The melancholy mood continues in “Don’t Forget To Dance”, which not only shared a word from the first single, but repeated the spiv character from the video in its own. Still, the song is a nice sentiment, and well constructed. A wash of loud guitars brings in the noisy “Young Conservatives”, an astute observation on a political trend on both sides of the pond, even pulling in a reference to a “well respected man”. “Heart Of Gold” begins with the same chord figure of “Don’t Forget To Dance” but in a different key. The verses go all over the place, seeming to describe basic sibling rivalry in one, teenage rebellion in another, and a bridge about paparazzi, yet somehow Ray says the song was inspired by the child he’d just had with fiancée Chrissie Hynde. Despite the title, “Clichés Of The World (B Movie)” is the most successful portrait of modern psychodrama hear, except for maybe the sci-fi interlude that may refer to brother Dave’s recent adventures, which we’ll explain shortly. Dave gets to yell his way through “Bernadette”, which nobody seemed to notice was already a Four Tops title, nor did they think to modify the riff stolen directly from Little Richard’s “Lucille”. Ray’s sneered interlude doesn’t add much, either, and the album just kinda ends. (Dave was likely too busy anyway with his third solo album in as many years. Chosen People continued his flirtation with synths and drum machines, and was very competent rock-wise, but ignored overall. The title track and “True Story”, which seem to address his alleged visitation by aliens who began transmitting voices into his head around this time, likely didn’t help.)

State Of Confusion is, once again, ordinary but competent, but should please anyone who liked the last album. “Come Dancing” may well have helped a new generation further discover the band’s history; the videos certainly helped. As happened in those days, the cassette version offered a variation, in this case adding an extra song on each side: “Noise” is a rant about that subject, literally and metaphorically, while “Long Distance” is a decent chapter in his “life on the road is hard” saga. (These were both added to the eventual expanded CD, following the “original extended edit” of “Don’t Forget To Dance” and the outtake “Once A Thief”.)

The Kinks State Of Confusion (1983)—3
1999 Konk CD reissue: “same” as 1983 cassette, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, August 25, 2023

Yes 7: Tales From Topographic Oceans

After releasing a triple live album, how could a band like Yes possibly scale back to something simple like a single LP? Certainly a double album was within their grasp. But to make it worthy of the “epic” tag, Tales From Topographic Oceans consisted of four side-long “songs”, with Jon Anderson’s lyrics and commentary printed in the gatefold to help us along. Or so he hoped. Inspired by a sacred text of sorts, he and the band, but mostly Steve Howe, attempted to encapsulate all of creation in eighty minutes. (There’s a lot to take in here, and since we haven’t spent half a century doing so, we are quite aware that we are likely missing subtleties and not-so-subtleties aplenty.)

“The Revealing Science Of God” is a bold title for anybody, even when subtitled “Dance Of The Dawn”. Jon sings what sounds like the same note for a few lines, which is improved when Chris Squire and then Steve Howe begin to harmonize. This gives way to a nice Rick Wakeman synth riff that’s as simple as it is catchy. “I must have waited all my life for this moment,” Jon sings, which is odd because we thought this was all taking place before the origin of time. There’s a funky break that threatens to take over the proceedings, before a more stately theme comes through, then the riff comes back, and the cycle repeats. This is precisely the type of “padding” that detractors cite as for why this didn’t need to be a double album, especially since the more placid section that arrives is more effective. This has to get funked up too before they go out they way they came in.

“The Remembering”, helpfully subtitled “High The Memory”, begins with some arpeggiated and Leslie’d 12-string that dominates while Jon and Chris Squire chant underneath. It builds slowly and deliberately, eventually adding melody, but not drums for at least six minutes. After a spacey interlude, a completely separate folky section built around the 12-string. This gets rocked up, and alternates with the spacey section. Here we have another suite with a lot of parts that probably should have each been developed on their own, rather than jerry-rigged together, since the sections are all pretty strong. (The word “relayer” figures a lot, possibly predicting their next album.)

Perhaps to make up for being quiet through most of side two, Alan White is given lots of space to display his drumming ingenuity all over “The Ancient”. Percussion dominates, with a lot of distorted, atonal guitar, as befits a piece subtitled “Giants Under The Sun”. It seems to go on for far too long before a vocal comes in, and there’s a lot of stopping and starting to keep you from nodding off. We hear a few more melodic moments, but mostly Steve meanders for several minutes while the percussion keeps trying to beat its way through. Finally there’s an abrupt switch to a nylon-string guitar paired with a vocal, which thankfully silences so Steve can take an extended classical-type solo, which soon descends into a pretty melodic sequence now known as “Leaves Of Green”. This redeems the side, but they still insist on reprising one of the heavy riffs.

“Ritual” boldly begins with the threat of a majestic fanfare, and tries to deliver, but it’s not easy due to the tricky time signature and wordless melody that defies singing along. So they give up, leaving Steve to wander by himself for a while—we even get a quote of the “Close To The Edge” riff—before Jon comes to the realization that that “Nous Sommes Du Soleil”. There’s another decent rocking section about twelve minutes in, albeit reprising that odd time signature and melody at the start of the side. It gets more frenzied until everything stops and the proceedings descend—again—into cacophonous percussion with effects that sound like tapes being sped up and run backwards, until finally it all fades to reveal another peaceful Howe segment with piano accompaniment to restate the thesis of the French subtitle. The whole band shows restraint as the suite comes to a close.

Back in the vinyl days it was easy to get lost in a side at a time, and just keep sending the needle back to the start. That would be the most efficient way to ingest Tales From Topographic Oceans, but even that can be considered a chore. It’s one of those albums that demands attention, because there’s a lot going on for a long time. Also, while they were busy crafting all these sections to fit together, there is a severe dearth of hooks. Did it really need to be this long? It’s not a bad album by any stretch, despite the hype and hindsight backlash, but it is definitely not for everyone.

Thirty years after it was first released, the remastered version restored about two minutes of music to the start of the first track, so now there’s a growing sense of this particular world being created before our ears, and better setting up Jon’s vocal entry, which now seems abrupt in its original context. This addition actually improves the album. (They also lopsidedly but understandably put the first three tracks on one disc, and added “studio run-throughs” of sides one and three to the second disc. One jettisoned segment seems to predict the theme from The Rockford Files. Later “definitive editions” offered the usual surround sound re-imaginings in various channels and resolutions.)

Yes Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)—3
2003 remastered CD: same as 1973, plus 2 extra tracks
2016 Definitive Edition DVD: “same” as 1973, plus 2 extra tracks (plus 2 DVDs)
2016 Definitive Edition Blu-ray: “same” as 2003, plus 8 extra tracks (plus Blu-ray)

Friday, August 18, 2023

David Crosby 7: Lighthouse

All of a sudden David Crosby was busy musically, which was good for him, since he’d pissed off Nash and Young seemingly for good, and Stills was happy playing with anyone else. Enter one Michael League, who was born right before Crosby went to prison for multiple drug and weapons convictions in the mid-‘80s. Apparently the kid, who was best known for a jazz fusion called Snarky Puppy, wanted to record something fast, so they did. Lighthouse is mostly a collaboration, with Crosby singing everything and playing some guitar, while League adds very unobtrusive guitars and basses. (Surprisingly absent for the first time in decades is James Raymond, who’d been so involved with every other Crosby project of the previous twenty years.)

Overall it’s a very gentle album, beginning with “Things We Do For Love”, which is otherwise about as slight as its title might suggest, but good luck resisting it. “The Us Below” has a comforting, familiar rolling guitar part and rich harmonies pondering our place in the universe. “Drive Out To The Desert” is full of good advice, delivered slowly and deliberately. Musically it’s a prelude to the more percussive “Look In Their Eyes”, which appears to be a plea for the homeless, immigrants, refugees, you name it. He expands the theme on “Somebody Other Than You”, wherein he angrily assails the people who marginalized others in the first place.

League wrote the music for “The City”, which is probably why it doesn’t sound like a Crosby song, but somebody should have noticed the lift from Steely Dan’s “Do It Again”. They’re not the first to write about New York as a woman, and won’t be the last. “Paint You A Picture” is another collaboration with Marc Cohn, who wrote the words but does not play the piano. Spooky as well as haunting, the lyrics are as autumnal as the music. “What Makes It So” combines the rolling approach already heard on the album with more questioning of so-called authority. “By The Light Of Common Day” stands out for one of the female voices who sings with him, one Becca Stevens, who also wrote the music to Crosby’s words.

Lighthouse is another nice album, and at its best when it stays low-key. While we don’t hear the masterpiece other reviewers have, and he certainly sounds older, it was good to know he still had the fire to create.

David Crosby Lighthouse (2016)—3

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Graham Nash 7: This Path Tonight

One might think Graham Nash was busy curating his past, between CSN-related box sets, printing old photos, and writing a memoir in which he extolled the genius of his partners and his happy existence as a family man. But within a few years, he’d left his wife, took up with a younger woman, and vowed to never work with David Crosby again. He also made his first solo album in fourteen years.

This Path Tonight is notable among his work in that it was written completely in collaboration with another, lesser-known musician. Oddly, that musician was Shane Fontayne, who’d been a large presence on David Crosby’s most recent first-album-in-years. Nonetheless, it was a smart move, as Graham has a tendency to play in a very small sandbox.

The title track and “Myself At Last” cover the same basic metaphorical ground as depicted on the cover (hint: he’s on a lonely road and traveling, traveling, traveling), alternately edgy and contemplative. “Cracks In The City” and “Beneath The Waves” both consider the ongoing struggles humanity in such a cruel world, and to some extent, so does “Fire Down Below”, but it stands out thanks to a vibe more along the lines of his mid-‘70s work. “Another Broken Heart” would seem to be designed to comfort the woman he left, but comes off more berating than sympathetic.

He finally seems to address his future in “Target” with its blatantly phallic imagery of what he’s going to do with his bow and arrow. Then, he looks back at when he “used to be in a band” and music was all anybody needed in “Golden Days”. There’s a sad fake string arrangement here, and that mood continues on “Back Home”, a blunt examination of the end of life, on which “Encore” expands more kindly, touching on passing lovers, friends, and concerts. Only on the digital and download versions of the album does he get political, with the racial charged “Mississippi Burning” and “Watch Out For The Wind”, while “The Last Fall” is another melancholy end-of-relationship tune.

Throughout This Path Tonight, the band is well-placed and the production provides good atmosphere. While it isn’t a masterpiece, it is strikingly fresh in places, making it his most worthwhile solo album since his first.

Graham Nash This Path Tonight (2016)—3

Friday, August 11, 2023

Neil Young 69: Chrome Dreams

If you’ve read this far, you would be aware that lost or otherwise abandoned albums dot Neil Young’s career. Depending on whom you believe, Chrome Dreams was either a work in progress that made it to an acetate or a full-fledged album that was yanked at the last minute in favor of American Stars ‘N Bars. At any rate, the acetate was bootlegged sometime in the ‘90s, becoming one of those “why the hell did he bury this?” touchstones for fans.

Some 46 years after its original sequencing, he put it out as part of his Archives’ Special Release Series. At fifty minutes, it’s longer than most contemporary Neil albums, which averaged 35 in those days. Selected from sessions stretching over two and a half years, It’s just as much of a mixed bag as the album that did come out, and just as down as Homegrown was, which was supposedly why he didn’t put that out. Up until the appearances of Hitchhiker and Archives Vol. II, half of the tracks were unique alternate versions to standard ones that were eventually released. So while the album has become slightly redundant at this late date, it’s still arguably superior to Stars ‘N Bars.

The unadorned “Pocahontas” starts us off, just as it did Hitchhiker, followed by the canon versions of “Will To Love” (for a real mindwarp), “Star Of Bethlehem” (which of course was part of Homegrown), and “Like A Hurricane” (to blow your ears out); these three were also on side two of Stars ‘N Bars, but with the first two swapped in order. “Too Far Gone” comes from the Zuma sessions, as delivered on Archives Vol. II, played by Neil with Poncho Sampedro on mandolin in an identical if more delicate arrangement than the one that would finally turn up on Freedom a decade later.

“Hold Back The Tears” is a wholly different recording finally making its official appearance. It’s a lot starker than the Stars ‘N Bars take, with Neil’s own harmonies and overdubs as well as an extra verse making it superior. The familiar Crazy Horse trash version of “Homegrown” is followed by “Captain Kennedy”, of all things, which was part of Hitchhiker and had first snuck out on Hawks & Doves. The piano-based “Stringman” was recorded live in London with overdubs added later, and is beautiful (which made it so welcome on Unplugged, and on Archives Vol. II). “Sedan Delivery” is another terrific surprise. An earlier take with Crazy Horse, it’s still loud but slower, with only one unchanging tempo compared to the stop-start of the established arrangement, but it’s almost more punk, with extra words, too. “Powderfinger” is the acoustic one from Hitchhiker, twice as paranoid as the one we know and just as effective, and it all ends with the Comes A Time take of “Look Out For My Love”.

Chrome Dreams is a hell of an album, and an intriguing demonstration of album sequencing. Had it come out back then it likely would have confused people and sold poorly, and just as likely be heralded today. It would also have irrevocably changed the course of time, as we would then live in a world that never had Comes A Time or Rust Never Sleeps. Hearing all these alternate versions for the first time was game-changing, to be sure. For all its retroactive redundancy, it still deserves to be heard, if only for “Hold Back The Tears” and “Sedan Delivery”. (Footnotes: The original drawing that allegedly inspired the album title was lost in a warehouse fire, but fate managed to provide artwork of a similar vintage by none other than Ron Wood for this official release. Also, the album straddles his second and third Archives volumes, making organizing and navigating even crazier.)

Neil Young Chrome Dreams (2023)—

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Cat Stevens 17: King Of A Land

By now Yusuf had become very reconciled with his former role, making the occasional public appearance, spearheading 50th anniversary deluxe editions of his ‘70s albums, and in one case, re-recording and reclaiming it. There was still enough turmoil in the world to comment upon, and once he had an album’s worth of songs, he and longtime producer Paul Samwell-Smith got to recording them. Once again credited to his two most recent monikers, King Of A Land covers a breadth of styles, expected and unexpected, with sweet storybook-style illustrations throughout. (It was also distributed by the recently relaunched Dark Horse label, under the direction of George Harrison’s son, and we see a connection between those legendary seekers for the first time.)

With its horns and tinkling harpsichord, “Train On A Hill” has something of a fairy tale feel, but it’s very much a modern, simple response to “Peace Train”. The title track continues the child-like tone, with expository advice nicely timed with the ascendancy of Charles III to the British throne. This makes the Skynryd-style riffing on “Pagan Run” all the more shocking, since the Cat had never rocked this hard. The song—another one about being saved from damnation—mostly avoids country-rock, until the slide guitar one would expect on a track featuring Russ Kunkel on drums. “He Is True” is a brief meditation in a quieter arrangement, but the twang comes back on “All Nights, All Days”, which sports some very Harrison-like slide guitars and mandolins. The jaunty instrumentation of “Another Night In The Rain” would seem to be at odds with the seemingly down-on-his-luck narrator, except that the choruses show the glass as half full.

“Things” is very much in the mode of his earlier work, but with a much more overt religious message. Even more overt is “Son Of Mary”, which retells the story of Jesus framed by simple choruses comforting his worried mother. The equally pious “Highness” is dominated by a throaty gospel choir, and the mix works somehow. “The Boy Who Knew How To Climb Walls” would appear to be another parable, except that his cracking voice drips with sadness over the effects of war, and it’s heartbreaking. The same voice remains on “How Good It Feels”, which takes a while to get to its point—twice via a quote from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, happily with no Dracula overtones—and it’s worth it. The closing “Take The World Apart” is just plain jaunty, a cross between the Magic Garden closing theme and his own “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”.

While it lands all over the place, King Of A Land is ultimately rewarding. Unless you can’t stand the guy, it’s impossible to hear without smiling.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens King Of A Land (2023)—3

Friday, August 4, 2023

Joni Mitchell 27: At Newport

Following an aneurysm in 2015, Joni Mitchell hadn’t made any public appearances. But by the turn of the decade, she had been hosting various “Joni Jams” at her house, mostly spearheaded by singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile and featuring an assortment of musicians. In July 2022, Carlile brought one of these to a larger stage, literally and figuratively, at the Newport Folk Festival, with the lady herself at the center of the throng, placed on an actual throne. The participants started by playing some of her songs, and eventually she was compelled to join in.

A year later, At Newport presented most of this appearance, albeit shuffled from the original setlist sequence so Joni is heard earlier instead of partway through. The album is clearly subtitled “featuring the Joni Jam”, but it should be the other way around. It’s still very much a tribute show performed some very starry-eyed accompanists; she doesn’t sing on every song, and when she does, she’s often supported by other vocalists. Carlile often answers many of the lines in the same cloying way Brian Kennedy used to on too many Van Morrison albums. (Interestingly, two members of The New Basement Tapes are onstage.) An anecdote about the song precedes “Amelia”, and we’d love to hear more like that.

The album is at is best when they stop fawning and let her sing without a net. “Both Sides Now”, in a lower key than she’s ever sung before, is particularly moving, even with Carlile’s coaching. The Gershwins’ “Summertime”, which preceded in the set but comes next here, is just plain terrific. When she plays “Just Like This Train” on electric guitar with no vocals, and only the slightest accompaniment, it’s transfixing. The album ends as the set did, and as it should, with the entire throng singing along to “The Circle Game”. “Joni Mitchell has returned!” yells Carlile, Joni laughs and says it was “so fun”, and the crowd chants her name to the fade.

The hootenanny has been a fixture of folk music since well before the coffeehouse days, but when it concerns someone of Joni’s stature, perhaps everyone else should just stand aside. That said, it was indeed a historic afternoon, and rightfully preserved.

Joni Mitchell At Newport (2023)—3