Friday, October 27, 2023

Bryan Ferry 8: Taxi

An atypical break from the business for Bryan Ferry ended in 1993 with the release of Taxi, an album of… covers, just like his solo career started. (The album is dedicated to his mother, who died two years earlier; maybe that’s what’d kept him busy since his last album.) It was co-produced by Robin Trower, who contributes guitar effects to every track, as do the familiar Neil Hubbard and even ambient pioneer Michael Brook. Other session cats include Steve Ferrone, Nathan East, and Greg Phillinganes. All together it’s much less campy than his first solo albums, sounding instead like it’s coming from another planet.

That spacey approach oddly sets up “I Put A Spell On You”, which doesn’t sound like Creedence or Nina Simone, and certainly not like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Listen closely and you might hear Maceo Parker. Classic ‘60s R&B is touched by “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “Just One Look”, and “Rescue Me”, the latter two nearly unrecognizable. “Answer Me”, which he either heard from Frankie Laine or Nat King Cole, gets a groove treatment, as does “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, but still suitably dirgey. “Girl Of My Best Friend” was UK hit for Elvis, but not for Bryan. “Amazing Grace” comes closest to his double-take inducing choices of the ‘70s, though it’s still pretty straightforward, using David Sancious’ gospel-flavored organ, while the “title track” is far away from the silky soul of the original. (He does use the whistle, however.) Finally, “Because You’re Mine” is credited as his own, but it’s mostly an atmospheric throwback to the first track.

When the rhythm is there, Taxi follows on from his seductive ‘80s work, and sports grainy, moody Anton Corbjin photos aplenty. There are worse ways to kill time.

Bryan Ferry Taxi (1993)—3

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Big Audio Dynamite 2: No. 10, Upping Street

Mick Jones clearly came out ahead of Joe Strummer after the Clash, and didn’t stop to rest. The second Big Audio Dynamite album followed almost exactly a year after the first, and sported an interesting name in the coproducer and occasional songwriting category: Joe Strummer. (Somebody else compared this to John Lennon producing Wings.) But as if the title of No. 10, Upping Street wasn’t obscure enough, the “most illinest B-boy” pose on the front cover would likely have turned away casual record store browsers.

Once again the combo attempts to cross genres, from synth-pop to rap. “C’mon Every Beatbox” channels Eddie Cochran through a rockin’ dance track, Mick’s vocals well supported by Don Letts. “Beyond The Pale” is the clear winner here, a Strummer-Jones track with a tuneful melody, piano in the mix, and a wonderful guitar solo. Apparently it’s drawn from his own family history, so clearly it meant a lot to him. “Limbo The Law” ups the tempo with a drum machine on high speed that detracts from the melody; likewise, “Sambadrome” is based around a canned beat, with some bass and piano, and a lot of samples in Spanish (sorry, our bad, they’re Portuguese and shame on us for assuming).

“V. Thirteen” is tuneful with a big guitar sound and a good choice for the second single—the Strummer-Jones team again—but it doesn’t quite get the singalong quality of a “Train In Vain” or “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”. Don Letts sings “Ticket”, with a delivery that modern ears sounds like Roy Kent, except for the motormouth toasting. “Hollywood Boulevard” namedrops a lot of old icons of screen and page, but it’s more stream of consciousness than anything coherent. “Dial A Hitman” is tuneful, with that canned harmonica from “Medicine Show”, except that it devolves into a “film excerpt” performed by Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne that isn’t as funny after you’ve heard it once. Finally, “Sightsee M.C.!” is more straight rap, loaded with samples and triggers.

The American cassette sported two extra tracks, one on the end of each side: “Ice Cold Killer” was a remix of “Limbo The Law”, peppered with “say hello to my little friend” samples from Scarface, while “The Big V” is an instrumental version of “V. Thirteen”, with the vocal melody played on guitar. These were tacked to the end of the CD, but after the “Badrock City” remix of “C’mon Every Beatbox” became a dance hit, it was added to the cassette and CDs too.

While No. 10, Upping Street is more consistent across the board than the first album, it doesn’t really stand out as much as that one did. The world simply wasn’t ready for this kind of hybrid.

Big Audio Dynamite No. 10, Upping Street (1986)—3

Friday, October 20, 2023

Frank Zappa 50: You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 5

Frank knew full well that there were people who preferred the ‘60s version of his music, as heard on the first handful of albums credited to the Mothers of Invention. As something of a sop to those people, almost begrudgingly, he devoted the first disc of the fifth volume of the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series entirely to performances by “the original Mothers”.

The set starts promisingly with “The Downtown Talent Scout”, an otherwise unreleased blues complaint from the Freak Out! era. “Charles Ives” is a vamp heard on Trout Mask Replica and some CDs of Weasels Ripped My Flesh. “Here Lies Love” is a cover sung by Lowell George, one of several tracks here that commemorate his brief period in the band. It’s that much preferred to the playlet of “German Lunch” or “Chocolate Halvah”, wherein he competed with Roy Estrada to see who can whine the loudest. Roy is one of the featured performers on “Right There”, as he replicates the vocal stylings of a woman captured on tape some time previously in another band member’s hotel room, while the band plays interjections and the tape itself is played back. These and such segments as “Proto-Minimalism” likely best illustrate the sentiment of the title, as much of the improvised music heard loses something without the visual aspect, so we can’t see the various dance routines undertaken while the more accomplished members play Frank’s sophisticated charts, nor understand his conducting that changed tempos or prompted various outbursts. The field recordings from the tour bus and backstage also smack of “you had to be there”. Certainly more interesting are recreations of Frank’s early soundtrack music, plus segments that would be incorporated into “The Little House I Used To Live In”. “Baked Bean Boogie”, “No Waiting For The Peanuts To Dissolve”, and even “Underground Freak-Out Music” feature excerpts from recognizable tunes like “King Kong” and “Trouble Every Day”. An alternate studio version of “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” is included, but it’s an edit of what had been the actual single.

Everything on disc two was recorded in the summer of 1982, when the band sported Ray White on most of the lead vocals and Steve Vai on “stunt guitar”. Most of the music comes from a concert in Geneva that was cut short because the crowd kept throwing things at the stage, as documented on the last track. Before that, we get decent versions of “Easy Meat”, the rare “Dead Girls Of London”, “What’s New In Baltimore”, “Mōggio”, and “RDNZL”. “Shall We Take Ourselves Seriously?” is a brief but intricate swing tune based around yet another in-joke. “Dancin’ Fool” is raced through as if Frank had a bus to catch—or maybe just dodging flying objects—and “Advanced Romance” just doesn’t sound right when anyone other than Captain Beefheart sings it. “A Pound For A Brown On The Bus” is a little too slick, but this and “The Black Page #2” are good guitar workouts.

Vol. 5 is definitely for the converted only. Weasels Ripped My Flesh is a much better representation of what disc one tries to do, and disc two is just okay, so they don’t really fit together. Still, there was a lot more where all this came from.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 5 (1992)—

Friday, October 13, 2023

Rush 26: Clockwork Angels

Believe it or else, Clockwork Angels was Rush’s first concept album in the prog tradition. While they had side-long epics and tracks that continued on successive albums, and most of their albums had a basic internal theme, it took them almost forty years to come up with a story to hang an album on. (And even then, the album just had the barest narrative; the full saga would eventually appear as a standalone novel.)

Once again we’re asked to identify with a lone rebel against the accepted norm, as previously depicted in “2112” and “Red Barchetta”, but this time living in a society steeped in “steampunk and alchemy”, and that’s as far as we’re going to try to explain. The story begins with two songs that had already been recorded, released, and promoted on tour while the album was still gestating. “Caravan” has an ominous opening that’s forgotten as soon as the riff and song proper kick in; similarly, “BU2B” has a spooky atmosphere at first, not included on the original single mix, that gives way to more punishing playing. The assault doesn’t let up on the title track, which at least is a little more melodic going into each verse. Guitars are definitely to the fore here, all over “The Anarchist”—apparently the antagonist of the piece, or at least one of them—but here we also better hear the string arrangements that would also feature onstage. “Carnies” starts with yet another nasty riff—Alex Lifeson channeling Leslie West—and continues the percolating mayhem. It’s not until “Halo Effect” where the volume seems to let up, in what begins as an almost acoustic lament but gets revved up with emotion.

Once upon a time a title like “Seven Cities Of Gold” would have received a more mystical treatment, but here it’s all riffing and yelling. That’s why the nearly jangly suspended chords opening “The Wreckers” are such a surprise, making for a very radio-friendly pop tune that turns very dark by the end. “Headlong Flight” combines several dizzying riffs and drums that won’t let up—there’s even a solo of sorts—with references to “Bastille Day” throughout. The much more subdued “BU2B2” is very much the opposite of its predecessor, with a different tempo and accompaniment to match the beaten narration. The heavy rocking “Wish Them Well” takes over right away to answer those questions, and “The Garden” is constructed as a grand, not exactly grandiose finale, relying on the strings and acoustic guitar to set the atmosphere. By the time the piano shows up, and Alex rips out a more restrained but still emotive solo, there is a definite feeling of a journey, and perhaps an arrival.

They took the album on tour, of course, recorded early on for the requisite live album and matching DVD or Blu-ray. Along with popcorn makers added to the back line, a live string ensemble was on stage for the Clockwork Angels segment (which dropped both “BU2B”s but included every other song mostly in album order) and stayed onstage to augment “Dreamline”, “Red Sector A”, “YYZ” (!!), and “Manhattan Project”, the latter a bonus taken from another night. The set was their longest yet, nearly filling three discs; most of the first is derived from material originally recorded in the ‘80s, which they attack faithfully but with something extra. Geddy’s howling continues, and while Alex is credited with backing vocals, some of the harmonies sound canned to these ears. (Each of the discs includes a titled drum solo: “Here It Is!” sits in the middle of “Where’s My Thing?”, “Drumbastica” is part of “Headlong Flight”, which leads to Alex’s “Peke’s Repose” solo, and “The Percussor” is a more electronic-based one with sample triggers fans had come to expect.)

Rush Clockwork Angels (2012)—3
Clockwork Angels Tour (2013)—3

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Neil Finn 6: Dizzy Heights

By now it should be clear that just because Neil Finn’s name is on something doesn’t necessarily indicate that it will sound like anything else he’s done. While Crowded House, Split Enz, and even the Finn Brothers have their niches, a solo album will be surprising and unexpected.

That’s certainly the case with Dizzy Heights, which was co-produced with Dave Fridmann, and individual best known for his work with Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, Mogwai, and other sonically experimental entities. As set forth immediately in “Impressions”, much of this album is funky psychedelic, with lots of wah-wahs and sweeping strings, to the point where if Neil’s not singing, you’d forget it’s his album. The title track is a little more straightforward, as is “Flying In The Face Of Love”, but both are danceable. Following a nutty windup intro, “Divebomber” builds to sport a dramatic, almost harrowing orchestral arrangement that seems influenced by “Song Of The Lonely Mountain”, which he wrote and sang for Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit movie a couple years before. “Better Than TV” doesn’t have as much tension, but still swirls into a frenzy, and “Pony Ride” provides another more accessible experience.

He gets political on “White Lies And Alibis”, a diatribe about injustice straight outta Peter Gabriel and U2 that is suitably somber sounding. The bloopy intro of “Recluse” is off-putting, but it turns into the album’s best song, with a killer chorus. “Strangest Friends” is comparatively brief compared to the rest of the album, and seems to ponder the performer-audience relationship. “In My Blood” prominently uses that phrase in the chorus, but it sounds like it’s been flown in from a completely different song. The highly impressionistic “Lights Of New York” is treated in such a way that puts the listener in the scene, bringing the album to a close.

It's clear Neil made Dizzy Heights for himself, and with no expectations of world domination. Once again, it’s a family affair, with wife Sharon on bass and backing vocals, and sons Liam and Elroy providing guitar and drums respectively. There’s a lot here, and it’s worth it.

Neil Finn Dizzy Heights (2014)—3

Friday, October 6, 2023

Pretenders 19: Relentless

The latest version of Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders does have something in common with the most recent albums under that name—namely, main foil James Walbourne, who plays lots of guitar, some of the bass, and several keyboards. Relentless was written entirely by the pair, and has proved to be divisive throughout all the reviews we’ve read, from glowing to disgusted. (And Martin Chambers is nowhere to be heard.)

The first three tracks deliver on the album title. “Losing My Sense Of Taste” does sport some shimmering guitar tones that recall James Honeyman-Scott, but is otherwise a piledriver. “A Love” finds another retro tone but stays in the same tempo and mood, then “Domestic Silence” is a trudge with Hammond organ and surprising harmonies. The lost love tale of “The Copa” finally provides a quieter respite, somewhere between Tex-Mex, surf music, and ‘60s chanteuse, and the melancholy continues on “The Promise Of Love”, driven by piano with a prominent organ. She’s still brooding on “Merry Widow”, which sports a guitar part and mood change right out of Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters.

“Let The Sun Come In” is a good distillation of “Up The Neck” with a cool riff to boot for the verses, and a chorus that goes somewhere else entirely. “Look Away” is another lowkey beatnik tune with thudding drums, which go on beating slowly for “Your House Is On Fire”, which actually rhymes “see ya” with “wouldn’t want to be ya” in its chorus. “Just Let It Go” is the album’s epic but one, with a keening chorus, weeping guitars, and buzzsaw electric solos. There’s a cool chordy riff for most of “Vainglorious”, but there’s also an annoying seagull effect that undermines the entire track. Compare that effect to the looped-sounding strings on “I Think About You Daily”, a collaboration with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood that sounds like nothing else on the album.

As we’ve tried to convey, Relentless is all over the place musically. There are good songs in here, and she’s still in incredible voice. It just makes it above the Mendoza line.

Pretenders Relentless (2023)—3

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Paul Westerberg 4: Stereo/Mono

Being a college rock hero didn’t translate to sales for Paul Westerberg, so he took his wares to a smaller label and cut back on the big production. Stereo was self-recorded and overdubbed at night in his basement, but not exactly a lo-fi result.

“Baby Learns To Crawl” and “Dirt To Mud” aren’t identical, but they’re both monotonous in their own ways, though the latter is more memorable since it cuts off mid-verse. “Only Lie Worth Telling” is the first decent song, with hooks and clever lyrics dying for a rhythm section, and “Got You Down” strives for the same, but then “No Place For You” actually has drums and an electric guitar with bass frequencies, so…? “Boring Enormous” is back to acoustic troubadouring, bettered by the emotion in “Nothing To No One”, which is nicely augmented with a slide guitar part.

“We May Be The Ones” sounds like at least two earlier songs, but combines all the best parts into something good, with several lines that sound pointedly autobiographical. “Don’t Want Never” has a lot of promise, moreso than most of what we’ve heard, then once again stops mid-chorus as if the tape ran out. A fragment since identified as “Strike Up The Band” barely fades in and out, followed by a rocked-up version of “Mr. Rabbit”, which apparently dates back centuries, covered by the likes of Burl Ives and Pete Seeger. Fun as it is, “Let The Bad Times Roll” doesn’t deliver on its title, but “Call That Gone?” is a fragment worthy of development, as he apparently didn’t finish the lyrics.

Hidden at the end of the album is a sloppy cover of “Postcards From Paradise” by Flesh For Lulu that also cuts off abruptly, and a good lead-in for the Mono disc that accompanies the album. Recorded and branded under his Grandpaboy alter ego, it purports to be even less polished than the Stereo half, but it’s not; these songs simply rock harder.

In fact, it rocks a lot harder. These are all full-band recordings, him playing all the parts under redneck pseudonyms. He’s even a pretty good drummer. “High Time” is a midtempo smoker, “I’ll Do Anything” is good and Stonesy, and “Knock It Right Out” takes the best of both, soloing all the way underneath. “Let’s Not Belong Together” tries a little hard, but at least he’s trying. “Silent Film Star” takes a long way around a surprising put-down.

“2 Days ‘Til Tomorrow” and “Eyes Like Sparks” sound like they might have livened up the Stereo disc. “Footsteps” is another decent stomper with a surprising solo break, “Kickin’ The Stall” shows a lot of the old attitude, “Between Love & Like” is almost tender if still loud, and “AAA” is near-power pop with buried vocals, the chorus stating a barely discernable “ain’t got anything to say to anyone anymore.”

His previous solo albums seemed to be stuck trying to mix the sensitive with the snotty, but in this case of two halves, the one he wanted to hide behind is the clear winner. As ever, he’s quite the contrarian.

Paul Westerberg Stereo (2002)—2
Mono (2002)—3