Friday, November 24, 2023

Grateful Dead 19: In The Dark

By the time the Dead released another studio album, it was their first in seven years. However, they had toured consistently in that period, which both allowed them to slowly hone new material as well as grow their appeal as a live draw. Soon the younger brothers and sisters of the original Deadheads were catching shows and trading tapes with the same fervor. By the time In The Dark came out, the pump was primed. They even made videos for three of the songs, increasing the exposure. (Also, pop culture was suddenly very nostalgic for the hippie scene of the late ‘60s, what with the whole 20th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper and so forth.)

They also learned their lessons from their last few studio albums, and chose to record this one live in an empty auditorium, then spending little time fixing and overdubbing before mixing and completing. The result is a strong set that doesn’t have any dated production sheen outside of whatever keyboard effects they were using that year. They had to reason to try to sound contemporary, and fully embraced their advanced years in the lyrics.

After rumbling into motion, “Touch Of Grey” tackles the statement of purpose immediately, with a playful lyric that doesn’t try to be poetic or overly profound, and that’s what sold the album. “Hell In A Bucket” is a wordy, bawdy Weir/Barlow kissoff that gives Jerry plenty of room to stretch, and you can dance to it too. “When Push Comes To Shove” is a basic shuffle boogie that loads up the imagery to convey a simple statement (that being “you’re afraid of love”, of course), and the sneaky blues of “West L.A. Fadeaway” caps a strong side.

Brent Mydland was still the new guy, and his “Tons Of Steel” is in the “woman as a train” metaphor, with appropriate opening effects, that’s about as subtle as a chainsaw. Bobby loads up other metaphors in the state-of-the-world address in “Throwing Stones”, for a strong two-fer. Finally, “Black Muddy River” is an elegant embrace of the inevitable that’s far from sappy or morose.

Perhaps in a nod to the preferred format for most Dead collections in those days, the cassette version of In The Dark included a bonus track at the end of side one, which bumped “West L.A. Fadeaway” to the middle of side two, making it much longer than side one. At any rate, “My Brother Esau” is heavy on Biblical and Vietnam War connotations, and a song even Bobby himself professes to not comprehend. (It was also the B-side for the “Touch Of Grey” single. By the time of the expanded reissue, it was programmed after the album proper, bolstered by two earlier outtakes and two contemporary rehearsals of album tracks, plus a live “Throwing Stones” from their summer tour with Bob Dylan.)

In The Dark was a blessing and a curse for the band and their fans, who suddenly had to deal with an onslaught of affluent kids harshing their mellows, crowding the parking lots, and generally acting uncool. But everybody already liked the songs, and weren’t likely to get sick of them anytime soon.

Grateful Dead In The Dark (1987)—
1987 cassette: same as 1986, plus 1 extra track
2006 expanded CD: same as cassette, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Queen 8: Live Killers

While their albums were popular, Queen was one of those bands that was best experienced in person. They were a big concert draw around the world, even in countries where English wasn’t the primary language, so when the time came for a live album, they were ready. Being the ‘70s still, and being Queen, Live Killers was a double.

A thunder crack opens the album, and the band soon kicks in with a sped-up rendition of “We Will Rock You”. Freddie actually asks the attendees if they’re ready to rock, then they plow into “Let Me Entertain You”. The introduction to “Death On Two Legs” is bleeped, apparently purposely to avoid a lawsuit from the object of the lyrics. It ends almost abruptly to segue into “Killer Queen”; this too is cut short to switch to “Bicycle Race”, which also is truncated in order for Roger to sing “I’m In Love With My Car”, salvageable due to Brian’s shredding. Things slow way down for “Get Down, Make Love”, complete with nutty interlude, and “You’re My Best Friend” closes the side.

“Now I’m Here” has an interesting intro, as the delay effect used for his voice kicks in before the song starts. After about four minutes the band stops so Freddie can the crowd in a call-and-response, which continues after the band comes back in, and then again towards the end. The crowd, of course, eats it up, going on to cheer the drum break. Rather than continue the illusion of a concert, the album fades to silence before returning with an acoustic “Dreamer’s Ball” and a gentle “Love Of My Life”, with which the crowd also sings along, eventually taking it over. They also cheer the return of the band for a stomp through “‘39”, and then the band plugs back in for “Keep Yourself Alive”.

“Don’t Stop Me Now” isn’t ecstatically received; maybe the audience wasn’t that familiar with it yet. They’re more happy about “Spread Your Wings”, and for singing along with it. “Brighton Rock” is twelve minutes long, mostly to accommodate Brian’s lengthy guitar showpiece and Roger’s phased drums, recommended to fans of Led Zeppelin’s later performances of “Dazed And Confused”.

Side four opens with the crowd chanting “Mustapha”, of which Freddie adds a few lines instead of the expected intro to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. And since there was no way to replicate the middle section onstage, that part from the record itself comes through the speakers until they can finish it themselves. “Tie Your Mother Down” ends with Freddie bidding the crowd good night, fading to silence, and encoring with “Sheer Heart Attack”. After another fade, the familiar beat of “We Will Rock You” signals that song, followed by “We Are The Champions” and their version of “God Save The Queen” played over the PA.

Live Killers is one of the few Queen albums never to be expanded with bonus tracks. Some of it sounds a little too clean for a live recording, and indeed overdubs have been accounted for. Other enterprising souls have also spent a lot of time documenting which tracks came from which shows. But as a representation of the band onstage, it delivers. Which was the point. Besides, their next album wasn’t ready yet.

Queen Live Killers (1979)—3

Friday, November 17, 2023

Brian Eno 26: Music For Installations

Starting with Discreet Music and making a leap forward with Thursday Afternoon, Brian Eno has continually strove (strived? striven?) to create music that would enhance a visual experience without overwhelming it. Sometimes he’s created his own visuals, but more often since the ‘90s he has been sought out by established artists and organizations to accompany theirs. This led to his own strides using software to create “generative” music.

Music For Installations gathers over five hours of content from art shows over the decades. Some of it had been previously distributed on rare and/or limited-run CDs or as part of larger book/DVD packages. Collectors will be happy to make room for such rarities as 77 Million Paintings, Lightness, I Dormienti, and Kite Stories, whether procured officially or downloaded from file sharing sites.

Eno’s ambient music is usually hard to describe, and here we have six CDs’ worth to attempt, moreso without the visuals they were intended to accompany in the first place. Possibly because it’s the first track in the set, “Kazakhstan” stands out, a spooky but moving piece devised for an event in that city. Many of his pieces have chiming qualities to them, and not always demonstrated by such titles as “Flower Bells”, which itself isn’t very soothing, not that that was ever the point. “Atmospheric Lightness”, however, is soothing. “77 Million Paintings” gurgles along for 44 minutes, and we could swear we hear voices sometimes, though they’re beyond discernability. They’re more prominent and disembodied on “I Dormienti”, which is almost as long, whereas the three “Kites” pieces seem to vary on that one.

The disc titled Making Space counts here because it replicates a CD that was sold at some of his installations, but it’s much more rhythmic and involved than the other discs, more along the lines of the “juju space jazz” of his mid-‘90s albums. “New Moons” even features electric guitar purposefully strummed by Leo Abrahams, while “Delightful Universe (Seen From Above)” is almost majestic. Finally, the Music For Future Installations disc contains pieces never before utilized, not as “generative” as the earlier discs, and certainly eerie. (Good luck nodding off during “Surbahar Sleeping Music”.)

While culled from a variety of sources over the years, there’s a unity to Music For Installations, and none of it sounds dated. This music demonstrates what kept Eno occupied in solitude (mostly) throughout the late ‘90s and first part of this century, despite his less obvious output following The Drop. The set itself was available on CD and vinyl in a snazzy Plexiglas design, as well as in a more economical CD box, and the simplest of all: streaming. The latter allows the listener to have the least possible contact with the execution, and thus absorb however it works. Probably not best to have on while driving.

Brian Eno Music For Installations (2018)—3

Friday, November 10, 2023

Genesis 23: R-Kive

With Phil Collins supposedly retired and Peter Gabriel happily touring on his own any further Genesis reunions seemed unlikely. But all the principals had been involved with a BBC documentary on their history, so somebody decided an overview of the band was due. The difference this time, however, was that R-Kive democratically included three extracurricular and/or solo tracks each, and not always obvious ones, by each of the five best-known members. (Sorry, Anthony Phillips.)

The first disc focuses on the complicated early material from the Gabriel period, focusing on such epics as “The Knife”, “The Musical Box”, “The Cinema Show”, and “Supper’s Ready”. Then the songs get shorter, but still challenge. The disc is capped by “Ace Of Wands”, a frenetic prog-fusion instrumental from Steve Hackett’s first solo album that features Phil and Mike Rutherford.

Disc two charts the evolution of the band with Phil as lead singer, starting with the gorgeous “Ripples” and “Afterglow”, detouring to “Solsbury Hill”, “Biko”, and a track each from Tony Banks (the poppy “For A While”, on which he plays a competent guitar solo) and Hackett (the tuneful “Every Day”, from his third solo album). It stays somewhat heavy through “Turn It On Again”, “Abacab”, and “Mama” with “In The Air Tonight” in between, then it’s all pop with “That’s All”, “Easy Lover”, and “Silent Running” from Mike + The Mechanics.

The ubiquity of the pop charts continues on disc three with three songs from Invisible Touch, plus “The Living Years”, a.k.a. the other hit by Mike + The Mechanics. “Red Day On Blue Street” comes from a Tony Banks album nobody bought wherein he worked with such vocalists as Marillion’s Fish and, in this case, Nik Kershaw. Three songs from We Can’t Dance are followed by “Over My Shoulder”—another Mike + The Mechanics track that spotlights Paul Carrack—and the title track from Calling All Stations. Nothing appears from So, despite having been endlessly promoted over the previous two years on Gabriel’s tours in support of its anniversary reissue; instead we get “Signal To Noise”. Similarly, of all the Phil songs to choose, somebody picked “Wake Up Call”. Just to give everyone their due, “Nomads” is a flamenco new age hybrid sung by Hackett with Chris Squire on bass, while “Sirens” comes from Banks’ second classical album.

While R-Kive was a nice idea, it was a missed opportunity. Chances are trying to coordinate all the solo Collins and Gabriel hits would have taken a lot of paperwork, but it still seems they felt it necessary to have that equal time for everybody. That third disc is just weird, but that’s roughly where the quality didn’t really keep up with the chronology. By now, anyone with a CD burner or premium Spotify account could make their own compilations, or dig out their old mix tapes. Still, most of the music makes it worth the listen.

Genesis R-Kive (2014)—3

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Rolling Stones 52: Hackney Diamonds

It took Charlie Watts dying for the Rolling Stones to “set a deadline” for bashing out an all-new album like the last one, which came out eighteen years before. Yet Hackney Diamonds has something that album didn’t have, and maybe we can thank album producer Andrew Watt, who was born after they completed the tour supporting Steel Wheels but before Flashpoint was released. (They must have really liked him since they gave him co-writing credit on the first three songs; somewhere Mick Taylor is seething.)

Granted, they’d put out new songs for compilations and expanded reissues, but this time there’s a unified purpose. The core band is down to Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood. Darryl Jones isn’t on the album at all; the bass is handled by either Watt or one of the special guests (when specifically credited) or by either Keith or Ronnie (when there’s no bass credit). Charlie is on only two songs, but at least that’s one more than Lady Gaga, as one of our correspondents pointed out. We’ve been very vocal in our opinion that without Charlie there isn’t any Stones, but he himself handpicked Steve Jordan to fill in for the tour he had to miss, initially for health reasons, and eventually because he was dead. We like Steve, and not just because of his X-Pensive Wino status, and he equips himself well throughout the album.

They wisely start with the riff-happy “Angry”, which was hilariously previewed weeks before release with a website that purposely crashed when fans tried to access it. It’s dumb but catchy, with a great turnaround chorus that gets better. “Get Close” has a swagger in the rhythm (again, real nice job, Steve) and some more solid guitar. James King provides a nice Bobby Keys-style sax solo over a percussion break, and if you listen closely enough you might hear Elton John on piano. The third track is a good slot for a slow one, and “Depending On You” delivers without being too cloying. Mick’s tethered in his yell, and while there are strings on the track, they’re very subtle and effective. With “Bite My Head Off”, they seem to be retreading to the first track, with Mick back to shouting a moronically profane lyric, but none other than Paul McCartney on bass. (Sadly, right after Mick namechecks him, a guitar solo buries his contribution.) When Keith is heard harmonizing on the bridges, all is right with this song. “Whole Wide World” would be the social commentary tune, sung with a forced Cockney accent, but still solid. Suddenly it’s time for another quiet one; “Dreamy Skies” sounds like the type of thing Keith would sing, but Mick does it well, with Keith in support. The harmonica solo goes nicely with the laidback guitars.

The cycle goes back to upbeat and accusing on the mildly dance-y “Mess It Up”, which has Charlie on drums, and it’s obvious. He’s also on “Live By The Sword” (they even include his count-in), a mildly T.Rex-sounding track that also features the return of Bill Wyman on bass, and Elton pounding the piano into submission. Mick’s still ticked off for “Driving Me Too Hard”, but it’s a slower groove, and welcome, especially when we hear Keith. Speaking of which, it’s not until “Tell Me Straight” that he gets a lead vocal, and this time Mick provides the harmony, keeping it all in the band. The only nod to contemporary music comes via “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven”, a slowly building burner with Sticky Exile car horn saxes. Mick even uses his falsetto over the extended coda. It’s got Stevie Wonder on three different keyboards, but he’s buried in the mix to favor this century’s answer to Dale Bozzio. (At one point we could swear she sings “I hear the sweet smell” and “I smell the sweet sound” and we don’t think it was intentional.) The last statement is given over to just Mick and Keith, the original partners and last men standing, duetting on “Rolling Stone Blues”, the Muddy Waters song that started it all.

At 48 minutes, the album is solid and not at all bloated. They say they had enough tunes left over for a follow-up, but somehow Hackney Diamonds is a fitting finale to a very long career that saw serious highs and lows. They weren’t supposed to live this long, much less keep rocking at this age. If they really can keep going, at this level, then everybody wins.

One thing this review did not cover upon initial post was the numerous vinyl versions and then that were dumped on the market, likely so collectors buying multiple copies would catapult it to the top of the charts. Not three months after the album’s release, a “Live Deluxe Double CD” was issued, likely to recoup momentum lost when “Now And Then” by the Beatles came out. The second disc here included the seven songs performed at the album launch the week of original release; four of these are from the new album, including Lady Gaga on “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven”, wherein she still smells them. “Shattered” is the opener, and a good thing, since the guitars are a little stiff. The rhythm section, which does include Darryl Jones, kicks.

Rolling Stones Hackney Diamonds (2023)—

Friday, November 3, 2023

Beatles 34: Now And Then

It really wasn’t that good a song to begin with. John had the barest verses, and just a sketch of a bridge; more to the point, it was even more dirgey than “Free As A Bird”. Like most of his piano songs, it was slow, and mildly morose. The surviving cassette, recorded at home in the Dakota, was marred by a consistent buzz, obscuring the piano and affecting the fidelity of the vocal. He was always more concerned with documentation and emotion than fidelity when composing while a tape ran anyway. It was a sketch, and nothing more, and who knows what he might have done with it given time.

The stature of “Now And Then” grew in Beatlemaniac circles as soon as it was revealed that a third song, to follow “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”, would not be completed by the surviving Beatles in order to be included on Anthology 3. It became another one of those legendary lost tracks, heard only by insiders, and obsessed over by the same people who longed to hear “Carnival Of Light” or the 27-minute “Helter Skelter”, two further unreleased group performances, albeit from the ’60s.

But Paul kept talking about the song, even after George died, stoking interest among fans who still cared. He always seemed determined to finish it. There are several reasons for this; for one, Paul never liked leaving things undone. The Wings era is dotted with half-completed films, as well as a constant retinkering of an odds-and-sods collection called Cold Cuts. Even his most recent solo album featured a track developed from an outtake rediscovered while researching potential bonus tracks for the reissue of an earlier album.

Most of all, he never stopped missing John. Theirs was one of the 20th century’s great love stories, in addition to being a partnership that changed the world, and their public spat following the band’s breakup always rankled. After tempers cooled and lawsuits were settled, their paths crossed from time to time; allegedly, one of their final meetings was only a few months before John was killed. According to accounts, the last words he spoke to Paul were affectionate, along the lines of “Think about me every now and then, old friend.” [Emphasis added.] 21 years later, George was gone too, making any further reunion a mere footnote. (Since then, our hearts would leap anytime we saw images of Paul and Ringo together anywhere, whether on a stage or a red carpet.)

Clearly, the song meant a lot to Paul. Another twenty years went by until technology caught up to his dream of completing it. Thanks to the work Peter Jackson did on the Get Back project, Paul was able to incorporate vintage footage of John singing “I’ve Got A Feeling” on the Apple roof into his own performances of the song onstage in 2022. He wondered if Jackson’s AI program of isolating voices could be used on the “Now And Then” tape. Wonder of wonders, it could. From there it was a matter of incorporating George’s guitar from the aborted 1995 sessions, adding new bass, piano, and vocals himself, and flying in Ringo’s new drum parts and vocals, as these things are accomplished post-Covid, from Ringo’s own studio a continent and ocean away. Paul even put on his impression of a George-style slide guitar solo. Then Giles Martin collaborated on a string arrangement, weaved in some old harmonies Love-style, and the song was mixed. But how would it be offered out into a primarily digital world, where radio airplay meant nothing and vinyl was a pricey artifact for collectors?

Following months of rumors, the Beatles organization expertly stoked interest in the official reveal of the song—first with a countdown to something, illustrated by an image of a rewinding cassette, then the announcement of the upcoming unveiling of the song, teased with another week-away countdown. Adding it to an upcoming expansion of the Red and Blue albums on CD and LP—despite the fact that it was first conceived after well after the release of an album that had a cutoff of 1970 in its title—was daring, to say the least. All some of us wanted was a simple CD single with the superior 2015 mixes of “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love” that smoothed out some of the Jeff Lynne bombast and enhanced John’s voice further. Instead, the announced single was to be available in a variety of vinyl variants, and even on cassette, all backed with yet another appearance of “Love Me Do” (the original single version with Ringo on drums) with the idea that their last song should only be accompanied by their first song. The cover art was minimalist—some said half-assed—and only slightly alluded to the cover art of the Red and Blue albums, lining up with the balcony on each. (A CD single containing the two songs was finally announced for purchase exclusively via The Beatles Store a day before the final countdown completed.)

The release date was bracketed by two new films, unleashed the day before and after the song premiered. First came a 12-minute documentary telling the story of the song’s evolution, loaded with lots of old footage and shots of the Threetles working together in 1995. Seeing a later clip of George in the context of his passing was poignant on its own, but then we came to the revelation of what Jackson’s technology accomplished, and there it was: John’s voice, loud and clearer than ever, isolated and bare. The world lost a lot when we lost John, but we’ll never get over the loss of that voice—that voice—arguably the greatest, most influential voice in rock ‘n roll.

Peter Jackson’s commissioned promo video for the song hit all the right spots, melding familiar and truly rare footage, while touching on familiar images. Some of the manipulation bordered on corny, but the overall theme was the power of memory and the place the Beatles have in ours, and undoubtedly each other’s. He said he wanted to celebrate their irreverence and humor as well as tug the heartstrings, and he succeeded. Our favorite moment is from 3:03 to 3:07; look for it. As George said himself in Anthology, “God, we had fun in those days.” (It has been pointed out that this was Jackson’s shortest film ever, unless you count the Get Back preview from December 2020.)

Despite what we presume are Paul’s contributions to the finished song’s structure, “Now And Then” still isn’t any great shakes. There’s a mournful overtone to it—too bad John didn’t leave any unfinished rockers behind—and the sad, dull lyrics have us wondering what was going on with Yoko when they came to him. (Surely he wasn’t really singing about Paul, or the Beatles, as has been surmised?) Outside of That Voice, the track only soars on the middle eights and the instrumental break. But if you liked “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”, it completes the suite. Paul’s piano matches John’s template, Ringo’s drums are spot-on as ever, and while we can hear George’s rhythmic strumming here and there, knowing he didn’t play the solo deepens his loss. Paul counts in the track, and Ringo is heard saying “good one” just as it ends. The strings are subtle and therefore effective, while the manipulated backing vocals fill in the spaces without being parodic. We half expected it to end on a resolved major chord, but even that would be too much. Although just over four minutes long, it seems to end too quickly. But it’s still historic just for what it is, and we really like it a lot, even after dozens of plays. Considering over 25 years passed between the band’s breakup and the Anthology project, and even more time passed between that and the completion of this song, how can this music continue to seem so, well, timeless? That its official B-side is over 60 years old is just insane.

The Beatles story contains so many what-ifs. John’s murder made a lot of things impossible. But thanks to Paul and Ringo, both over 80 years old, with the blessings and encouragement of Olivia and Dhani Harrison, Sean Lennon, and Yoko Ono, those four guys continued to share their magic, their gifts with us all. Wherever John and George are now, they should be very pleased.