Friday, September 29, 2023

Prince 22: Crystal Ball and The Truth

In an effort to keep his public offerings up with his musical output, TAFKAP tried a number of methods to work around the standard record company distribution model. One such gamble was a multi-disc outtakes collection called Crystal Ball, initially sold only on his website as a carrot or thank-you gift to his fans, who knew he had tons of great stuff in his vaults that never got out due to his “enslavement” to corporate schedules.

That would have been fine, but then he decided to sell it through the Best Buy and Blockbuster chains as well, while some people who ordered it “exclusively” from the website a full year earlier still hadn’t received theirs yet. Perhaps it’s not fair to condemn the man, since he was, after all, trying to get music to the fans without being tied to the big corporations. But while using the chains certainly got it out to a lot of people, it didn’t really help the independent stores, which were still in the best position to promote Prince (sorry, TAFKAP) to the people who still cared about him. But there we go being naïve again.

This editorial notwithstanding, Crystal Ball certainly deserves mention if only for the utter sprawl of the contents, which are pulled from the guy’s entire career to date over three discs. To begin with, the opening ten-minute title track originally served the same purpose for the album first compiled in 1986, which itself evolved from an album called Dream Factory, the title track of which comes next. Both are funky, and a little strange, and would have been just as mystifying had they appeared back then.

About a third of the music comes from the fertile, fabled mid-‘80s period. “Movie Star” is a wonderful Morris Day template, while the man himself plays drums on all fifteen minutes of “Cloreen Bacon Skin”. “Sexual Suicide”, “Last Heart”, and “Make Your Mama Happy” come from the Dream Factory era, “Crucial” was cut from Sign "☮" The Times for “Adore”, “Good Love” is a “Camille” track given to a movie soundtrack, and “An Honest Man” is an a cappella Parade outtake; we’d’ve preferred the instrumental from Under The Cherry Moon.

That’s not to say the more recent tracks, mostly from the mid-‘90s, aren’t as interesting. Standouts include the P-Funk homage “Hide The Bone”, “Acknowledge Me” and “Interactive”, supposedly dropped from The Gold Experience in favor of other tracks, and certain remixes of existing tracks (“So Dark”, “Tell Me How U Wanna B Done”). “She Gave Her Angels” is just lovely, but “Strays Of The World” is overwrought, though the guitar solo redeems it. “The Ride” and “Days Of Wild” were recorded live with the New Power Generation, the latter notable for being nearly the last time he’d curse on stage, and “Goodbye” provides a nice slow jam finale.

A lot of material, to be sure—and he even included liner notes for each track (as well as lyrics online at a dedicated website). It all flows together, and manages to match up despite covering a ten-year period. Without an overarching theme, it’s enjoyable if unwieldy.

As something of a bonus, perhaps because the thing took so long between announcement and arrival, a fourth disc was included in the retail version. Mostly low-key, The Truth is basically Prince with an amplified acoustic, overdubbing effects and other instruments from NPG members here and there.

The title track is still fairly profane, but tasty, as is “Don’t Play Me”, despite consisting of a single riff. “Circle Of Amour” is a wistful memory, very close for plagiarism to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”; a coda in another style shows he’d at least tried to modify it. “Third [Eye]” features fretless bass as well as some very jazzy chords, whereas “Dionne” is a slightly orchestrated plaint of petulant heartbreak. “Man In A Uniform” is a blues sporting a silly “reveille” synth part as a riff.

With its distorted vocals, “Animal Kingdom” isn’t any more effective a defense of vegetarianism as any other musician; plus, the dolphin sounds just sound cartoony. We’d like to think Stuart Scott influenced “The Other Side Of The Pillow”, but we haven’t been able to confirm this. The busy “Fascination” was mixed down from another session, and very well, so that it fits in here. Guitar is not the focal point on the bereft slow jam “One Of Your Tears” until the end, but it does support all the vocals on “Comeback”, a relatively brief song about loss, possibly about his son, who died six days after his birth. The fact that “Welcome 2 The Dawn” is labeled “Acoustic Version” suggests that a more elaborate production was in the works, yet none has appeared. At any rate, it’s another fine Prince finale.

The Truth was mostly overlooked at the time except for diehards, but in recent years it’s been reissued on its own on vinyl as well as for streaming, and is ripe for rediscovery. Its rating is as high as it is for standing out so well. (For those who’d ordered Crystal Ball direct, a fifth CD was included as well. Originally released via mail-order cassette, Kamasutra was credited to The NPG Orchestra and is entirely instrumental. Either designed to accompany a ballet, his wedding ceremony, or both, it has symphonic and classical touches, and save a few sax-based segments, doesn’t sound anything like him.)

o|+> Crystal Ball (1998)—3
The Truth (1998)—
The NPG Orchestra
Kamasutra (1998)—3

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Toad The Wet Sprocket 8: New Constellation

Many ‘90s bands got around to reforming in the new century, and every now and then they’d take time off between statefair gigs and other one-offs to record an album, usually crowdfunded. Toad The Wet Sprocket did just that, and emerged to celebrate 25 years as a band with New Constellation.

Granted, Glen Phillips had released several solo albums since the band ended the first time, but every fan likes to hear the old gang together again—the swelling organ, the stock guitar heroics. And while their music hasn’t changed much in that period, there’s something about the title track, “Rare Bird”, and “Get What You Want” that makes them sound like a less funky Maroon 5. Somehow “The Eye” invokes recent U2, except for the bridge. “California Wasted” sports a nice emo chorus, and “The Moment” is all knotted eyebrows but still big. “I’ll Bet On You” is a nice sentiment, and easy to see played to happy crowds singing along. They’d probably enjoy “Is There Anyone Out There” for the same reasons, but “Life Is Beautiful” is a little too simple. “Golden Age” is a musical rewrite of “Windmills”, but with more universal lyrics. They save everything for “Enough”, which run six minutes and includes strings.

As a thank you to fans who’d crowdfunded the album, four additional songs were included for download. Any of these are worthy of the album, from the mildly stomping “Friendly Fire” and should-be-singles “I’m Not Waiting” and “Finally Fading” to the more wistful “Last To Fall”. Two years later, these were augmented with two more to form the Architect Of The Ruin EP. This title track is a pleasing gallop, while “So Long Sunny” turns the “Sweet Jane” riff inside out. All together, it sounds like Toad.

Toad The Wet Sprocket New Constellation (2013)—3
Toad The Wet Sprocket
Architect Of The Ruin (2015)—3

Friday, September 22, 2023

Todd Rundgren 29: Liars

Now working slowly but deliberately, Todd Rundgren waited till he had something to say rather than rush things. Released in the midst of a volatile American political atmosphere, Liars is something of a concept album about the “paucity of truth”, in his own words, and one we had to look up.

Most of the album is based around keyboard-generated sounds, from synths to bass parts to drum machines, but it doesn’t sound canned. The tracks blend together, beginning with the slightly jazzy but mostly techno “Truth”, and only slightly slows down on the superior “Sweet”. “Happy Anniversary” humorously explores the age old “men are stupid/women are evil” dichotomy, taking time out for a guitar solo played by Kauai neighbor Ken Emerson, while “Soul Brother” complains about most modern music, from emo to rap. “Stood Up” is a better skewering of supposedly evolved mammals, while those who worship “Mammon” are indicted by a big rock sound and a growling vocal. The space noises in the meandering “Future”, which otherwise laments the non-appearance of flying cars and other unrealized promises.

From there it’s an easy jump to “Past” (as in “living in the”), which is a welcome lost-love tangent. “Wondering” is another basic groove, but a nice derivation from the overall theme, while “Flaw” seems to be something of a takeoff new jack swing ballad, except for the expletive-laden bridge we’d expect from Ben Folds. “Afterlife” in the same mood, but more of a universal theme, and we could swear we hear some AutoTuning. The tempo finally changes for the searching plea of “Living” (as in “a lie”), shifting abruptly for the nature sounds that open the lengthy “God Said”, which continues the conversation begun in “Mammon”. At least he doesn’t take on a strange timber, accent, or other effect for the Almighty’s responses. Finally, “Liar” begins with an Eastern melody and a symphonic flourish to condemn the guilty.

There’s a lot of sameness on Liars, and nothing really stands out. The handful of good ones could have been culled, and shortened, for a really tight album. Yet it’s somewhat amazing, for lack of a better word, that he managed to record another one-man band album that has a lot of the aspects of previous blue-eyed soul outings. His cult audience would certainly appreciate it; the public at large would likely have been turned off by the truly nutty cover photo.

Todd Rundgren Liars (2004)—

Friday, September 15, 2023

Thomas Dolby 2: The Flat Earth

That pesky hit single was a double-edged sword for Thomas Dolby, as he suddenly felt pigeonholed as something of a novelty act. He was already well into the process of recording his next album, but had to cut it short due to promotional obligations, which didn’t allow him to adjust the schedule for completing it. The way he tells it, The Flat Earth suffered as a result. It certainly feels short, and at 37 minutes, it is.

Somebody else pointed out that where the first album predicted steampunk, here he’s the khaki-panted world traveler. “Dissidents” burbles in, soon joined by scratchy guitars for a pretty funky track about, well, being a dissident writer. The title track begins much the same way, but the rhythm is more subtle, with textures that would soon be equated with mainstream embrace of so-called world music. (This is a good place to call out Kevin Armstrong’s exemplary guitar work throughout the album.) Even more gorgeous is the melancholy “Screen Kiss”, a portrait of a small town girl ruined by the big time. Listen for Matthew Seligman’s wonderful bass playing, very evocative of Jaco Pastorius on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album.

After a mysterious intro, “White City” sounds more like the last album, with another impenetrable lyric. The barely audible narration by Robyn Hitchcock as “Keith” doesn’t clear anything up, not that we’d expect it would. “Mulu The Rain Forest” suffers from an overuse of effects; the piano and vocal on their own are just plain gorgeous. His cocktail jazz arrangement of “I Scare Myself” sounds so much like him few might have realized it was originally written and recorded by Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks seventeen years before. As something of a reward to the those hoping for more comedy, “Hyperactive!” provides the closest echo of “She Blinded Me With Science”, loaded as it is with wacky voices and voiceovers, matched by a truly twisted video. Still, that’s why we can’t help but chuckle at the trombone whenever it appears, but the song sounds very out of place following what’s gone before.

Those who really paid attention to his first album won’t be too surprised with The Flat Earth. He’s definitely reaching here, looking for new sounds and making the most of available technology. Considering how labored it all its, who knows if more time would have improved it any? (The converted should certainly seek out the 2009 import remaster, which loads up the balance of the CD with off singles, a collaboration with Ryuchi Sakamoto, and soundtrack work, plus a couple of live tracks.)

Thomas Dolby The Flat Earth (1984)—3

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Morrissey 7: Southpaw Grammar

Morrissey never hid his love of glam rock from his own work, so it should be no surprise that art-rock wasn’t far behind. Southpaw Grammar lets the band—the same as the last few albums, except a rotating rhythm section—bash through eight songs, with a big Steve Lillywhite production.

Based around a sample from a Shostakovich symphony, “The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils” is very much a dirge that at least gets some energy once the drums kick in, and runs a total of eleven minutes. “Reader Meet Author” is a tightly packed rock tune that skewers critics, not noticing for a second that he’s calling the kettle black. “The Boy Racer” is even louder and angrier, and seems to resent the new brand of Britpop bands taking his place in people’s ears, but we could we be reading way too much into it. “The Operation” begins with a two-minute drum solo that’s more rhythmic than virtuostic, until the song itself takes over, another nasty kiss-off. (It goes into a completely different rave-up for the last two minutes.)

“Dagenham Dave” is seemingly a portrait of a typical working-class lout, but it’s hard to tell since the verses are spare and the chorus merely repeats the title ad infinitum. “Do Your Best And Don’t Worry” is the closest thing yet to a Morrissey pep talk, whereas “Best Friend On The Payroll” is even more minimalist in its lyrics, which is a shame since the melody is so catchy. (And quite honestly, who among his fans could relate to the struggles of employing a personal servant?) Finally, “Southpaw” is another lengthy one, mostly a showcase for guitar effects and pyrotechnics, coming to strange halt after ten minutes.

Southpaw Grammar is edgy and angry, perhaps too much. It’s not an album to get lost in, but it certainly rocks. He always defended it, of course. (Some 14 years later he saw fit to reissue the album in a dramatically revised format, with a completely different sequence, Bowie-inspired cover art, and four extra tracks.)

Morrissey Southpaw Grammar (1995)—3
2009 Expanded Edition: “same” as 1995, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, September 8, 2023

Van Morrison 46: You’re Driving Me Crazy

Joey DeFrancesco was a third-generation jazz phenom who had become a major label recording artist at the age of sixteen. He’d already worked with John McLaughlin and guested on dozens of albums in between recording his own before Van Morrison tapped him and his small combo for You’re Driving Me Crazy.

This was Van’s third album released in the space of seven months, and like the others, it’s a jazz and blues set combining standards and remakes of his own tunes. Most of the latter are recent (“Evening Shadows”, “Magic Time”, the whiny “Goldfish Bowl”) or certainly obscure (“All Saints Day”, “Celtic Swing”), and we’re not sure we needed another sprint through “The Way Young Lovers Do” or a bop version of “Have I Told You Lately” with daughter Shana. The covers are a grab bag as well, from Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” to Ray Charles’ “Sticks And Stones”.

What helps everything stand out is DeFrancesco’s Hammond B-3 organ, and occasional trumpet. Van plays alto sax here and there—you can always tell when he’s about to because he keeps singing with the mouthpiece in; he also takes a nice harmonica break on “Things I Used To Do”—but mostly lets Troy Roberts do the heavy horn work. It’s refreshing to hear Van in a different environment. (Yes, he had Georgie Fame in his band for a while, but that was more R&B than jazz.)

The album was supposedly recorded over two days, and at 70 minutes, they seem to have kept everything. Van also seemed to enjoy himself, as we can hear him laughing during the solos on the title track, and at the end of “Every Day I Have The Blues”. As with most of his work this century, You’re Driving Me Crazy is not a major statement; it’s just a gig. And it’s a pretty good one.

Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco You’re Driving Me Crazy (2018)—3

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Tom Verlaine 2: Dreamtime

Two years went by before Tom Verlaine finished a second solo album. Dreamtime picked up where the last one left off, offering ten more tunes like what we’d come to expect. Half of the album features the Fred Smith-Jay Dee Daugherty rhythm section; the other sports the drummer for the Dictators and a guy who’d go on to work with John Waite. Guitarist Ritchie Fliegler is his foil throughout.

“There’s A Reason” delivers what we’ve come to expect—insistent riffing, jagged accents, strangulated vocals—and the program follows through. “Penetration”, which is just Tom with Jay Dee, except for a piano at the end, kinda stumbles into place, but is precisely constructed. The pattern falls right into place on “Always”, a straightforward chugger but for a lovely angelic chorus, whereas “The Blue Room” is a rumbling instrumental except for the word “hi-fi”. With its arpeggiated guitars and straight pop structure, the brooding “Without A Word” could be a hit for someone with a better voice.

Except for the 12-string, “Mr Blur” could be another lost Television track, just as the power chords on the chorus of “Fragile” are downright mainstream. “A Future In Noise” is about as blunt a putdown song as he’d yet to write up to this point. “Down On The Farm” is the resident wacky track, with a guitar part predicting car alarms, strangely romantic overtures in the words, and a big swirly finish. “Mary Marie” is a more toned-down portrait of a mystery woman.

Even with the sameness, Dreamtime is another satisfying Verlaine album for anyone willing to decipher the meaning of the lyrics. Not a lot of people did, and the album was pretty much forgotten until well into the digital era, when it was reissued on the Infinite Zero label, an archival imprint curated by Henry Rollins and Rick Rubin. Along with gushing liner notes, this edition very nicely added two extra tracks from a rare single: “The Blue Room” with more, seemingly extemporaneous vocals, and a longer, hotter mix of “Always”. (These were not included on the later Collector’s Choice CD.)

Tom Verlaine Dreamtime (1981)—3
1994 Infinite Zero Archive CD: same as 1981, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, September 1, 2023

Nilsson 6: The Point

While he’d had some success, Harry Nilsson had yet to become a household name. Always looking for an angle, and with the help of an acid trip, he came up with an idea that would turn into not just his new album, but a feature-length children’s television special. The Point! was something of a cross between Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneetches” (which would be animated and broadcast two years later) and an earlier TV special, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. An otherwise inoffensive kid with a different physical attribute from his neighbors is ostracized by them, and sent off with only his canine companion for company. Along the way they meet all kinds of wacky characters and return to share valuable lessons about inclusion, conformity, and hopefully forgiveness.

Like most TV specials of the era, it’s as charming as it is dated, as befits the technology of the time and the style of the head animator, best embodied for this generation in the commercials for Tootsie Pops. (One notices the influence of Yellow Submarine and The Phantom Tollbooth as well.) Dustin Hoffman originally narrated, in a role later redubbed by Ringo Starr and then Alan Thicke, while the part of the boy in the story, as well as the boy to whom the story is told, was played by none other than Mike Lookinland, then otherwise occupied as Bobby Brady. Other roles were filled by such voice luminaries as Paul Frees, June Foray, and Lennie Weinrib.

On the album, Nilsson narrates most of the story as seen in the film, which is over twice as long. The music is only tangentially related to the plot, but tempers the “hey man” tone of his narration. (We can even hear him turn a page at one point.) Still, the songs work on their own, singalongable by adults and kids of all ages, which, if you’ll pardon the expression, was the point.

“Everything’s Got ‘Em” mostly establishes that “this is the town and this is this people”; we assume the title refers to the ubiquitous points. A narration sets the scene about a boy born without a point on his head like everyone else has, but most people seem to like him anyway. “Me And My Arrow” is a wonderful song for any kid and his or her dog, though the bridge doesn’t fit at all, in all its familiar Nilsson-ness. The contest in the story that leads to the immediate crisis is illustrated by “Poli High”, basically a cheerleading chant that sports a brief “hold that line” counterpoint we would swear he heard in “Revolution 9”. The story’s Karen equivalent banishes the boy and his dog from the town, we are informed that the next song will conveniently fill the time it takes to get to the next part of the story, and “Think About Your Troubles” does just that, with a rather straightforward explanation of how water is repurposed in nature.

Some narration condenses the action in the film to the point (sorry) where the travelers come upon a seemingly bottomless hole, setting up “Life Line”, a lonesome song with a deceptively cheerful melody. Once out of that tough spot, the pair meets more fascinating people in the film, which is glossed over on the album until a prehistoric bird picks them up for “P.O.V. Waltz”. After “flying high in the sky,” they’re dropped off, and eventually nap, to the tune of “Are You Sleeping?”, which could be a nice lullaby if not for the same bridge detour that colors “Me And My Arrow”. The boy and his dog return to the town and point out that everything has a point. Thus science and compassion prevail over ignorance and egomania, and we live happily ever after.

With The Point!, he began to develop his “rock” voice more. As more people began to take notice of this character, the concept itself would endure outside of him. The songs were expanded into stage productions, one of which would reunite two Monkees. And for all its hippy-dippyness, it’s still a nice story. Such feel-good be-yourself messages were common in that era, and frankly, the message is just as important today.

The first expanded version of the album added the standalone single “Down To The Valley”, which was in the same spirit of the album if a little too busy—and very much like mid-period Beach Boys—and the B-side “Buy My Album”, which beseeched the listener to do just that, even though “Down To The Valley” wasn’t on any album. The more elaborate package a few years later sported excellent liner notes by Nilsson uberfan Curtis Armstrong, a reproduction of the original comic book insert of the story, and different bonuses: early versions of “Think About Your Troubles” and “Life Line”, an alternate take of “Down To The Valley”, and as a hidden track, the surviving excerpt of a demo for “I’ll Never Leave You”.

Nilsson The Point! (1971)—3
1998 DCC CD: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks
2002 BMG Heritage CD: same as 1971, plus 4 extra tracks