Friday, December 29, 2023

Roger Waters 5: Lockdown Sessions and Dark Side Redux

In the years following his 2017 solo album, Roger Waters took a band on the road for another multimedia extravaganza that incorporated not only the new stuff but classic Floyd as well, and as would be expected. As outspoken as ever, he garnered criticism aplenty for his anti-Israel stance, which overshadowed the anti-Trump imagery in the show. A film and album of the production, both titled Us + Them, did only slightly better than his reworking of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale.

Like most musicians hamstrung by the limitations of the Covid pandemic, he did what he could to keep busy musically, and in his case, that meant rerecording mostly stripped-down arrangements of songs that had been played throughout the tour. Intriguing but inessential, The Lockdown Sessions slows down three songs from The Wall (four actually, as the track called simply “Vera” segues into “Bring The Boys Back Home” to stretch it out for five minutes), two from The Final Cut, and “The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range” from Amused To Death, while keeping the original guitar solos intact. However, the pointedly titled “Comfortably Numb 2022”, eschews both guitar solos, substituting an angry attempted phone call for the first and a backup singer wailing over explosive effects for the fade. For the most part, his voice hovers somewhere between a whisper and an aside; at least he’s not yelling.

The album made a splash only among the faithful, so he decided to make the most of the 50th anniversary of The Dark Side Of The Moon to give that album the same treatment, with the same band, knowing full well that the earth would stop on its axis at the news. The angle this time was to tackle the lyrics of a younger man with the perspective of a near octogenarian, and since he wrote them, he’s certainly allowed.

For the most part, the “reimaginings” are extreme. Effects are pretty much gone, except that chirping birds are everywhere. “Speak To Me” is now an opportunity to recite the lyrics to “Free Four” over that ominous heartbeat. Another couplet from that song is intoned before the verses of “Breathe”, which at least has drums and is more recognizable. “On The Run” retains its robotic pulse, but is dominated by a new monologue soaked in paranoia and madness. It continues over the start of “Time”, where clocks used to be. It slowly plods along, prodded by Hammond organ and swirly cellos, and a woman softly ooh-ing where there used to be a guitar solo. “Great Gig In The Sky” is possibly the most transformed; in keeping with its original theme of mortality, he reads part of a correspondence with the assistant of a cancer-stricken acquaintance that includes an anecdote about a show in Croatia. Clare Torry’s improvised melody is transposed to a quiet synth.

“Money” keeps its 7/4 meter but not the effects; this time the sax and guitar solos are replaced by a surreal narrative about a boxing match. Luckily, “Us And Them” is mostly untampered, though the forced echo in the verses could have been skipped. What used to be the sax solo is now covered by strings and organ. There’s not the smoothest transition to “Any Colour You Like”, which now sounds more than ever like “Breathe”, and features another cryptic piece of prose. He does cleverly preface “Brain Damage” by addressing the “madness” of this re-recording concept, and that and “Eclipse” are taken fairly straight, if subdued. And he acknowledges by name the man who had the last word on the original album while disagreeing that it’s “all dark”.

The Dark Side Of The Moon Redux isn’t awful, but it will hardly replace the original. Nor does it lend itself to repeat listening. But Nick Mason endorsed it, so who are we to argue? Besides, if you want a non-Roger interpretation of the album, there’s always Pulse. (We do, however, like the dog on the cover.)

Roger Waters The Lockdown Sessions (2022)—3
Roger Waters
The Dark Side Of The Moon Redux (2023)—

Friday, December 22, 2023

Neil Young 70: Before And After and Fu##in Up

While he’d played a handful of shows since the pandemic, the specter of Covid and the risk of large gatherings were enough to keep Neil Young from touring behind the three new albums he put out in that period. When he finally did do a brief West Coast run in 2023, it was in his tried and true format of wandering around a stage between instruments and touching on his entire career. And being him, he commemorated it with a live album as fast as the pressing plants could make them.

Before And After is presented as a single track, but thankfully still indexed for each song (unlike a recent Paul Simon project). The idea is that in this age of shuffle and immediate gratification, this should be experienced like a performance. And that’s what it is. Taken from a handful of shows, with the audience mixed very low when they’re heard at all, a few overdubs fill out the sound here and there.

The setlist leans predominantly on less obvious choices, beginning with “I’m The Ocean”, transformed from its Pearl Jam thrash into a rumination along the lines of side one of Rust Never Sleeps. “Homefires” is rediscovered from the Archives, and is a clever segue to “Burned” from the first Buffalo Springfield album, then “On The Way Home” from the last. The token rarity is “If You Got Love”, yanked from Trans at the last moment and here executed on his trusty pump organ. Now at a piano, a slightly stumbly “A Dream That Can Last” goes backwards into “My Heart” by way of “Birds” in between. “When I Hold You In My Arms” is reclaimed from the post-Toast era into a love song along the lines of Storytone. “Mother Earth” is pump organed, as is “Mr. Soul”. “Comes A Time” sounds just like it did on Live Rust, and it’s a very fast segue into “Don’t Forget Love”, the sincere salutation from Barn.

Before And After is a sentimental journey, certainly, an intimate visit with Neil. While it doesn’t present a complete show—which could well appear on his website at any time—it should sate anyone still waiting to see him in person.

Some people didn’t have to wait that long, as Neil reconstituted Crazy Horse—still with Nils Lofgren, swapping piano and guitar with Micah Nelson from Promise Of The Real—for a private gig in Toronto at a billionaire’s birthday party a month before the release of Before And After. The set consisted of the Ragged Glory album in order, excluding “Mother Earth”, and was released five months later as Fu##in’ Up, just in time for a full-fledged Horse tour. (It was also included as a premium for those who paid the hefty ticket prices.) By this time both members of the rhythm section were 80 years old, but it’s Neil who seems to struggle the most, botching the lead on “Country Home”, switching verses on the title track, and straining to hit high notes in the original keys. “Love To Burn” starts to slow down at the ten-minute mark, and probably not on purpose. He does, however, nail the harmonica solo on “Days That Used To Be”—no small feat, since it never had one before.

For some reason every song here save “Farmer John” was given a new title, along with a numeric prefix, counting down from 8 to 1 and back to 9 for “Love And Only Love”, where they finally sound warmed up. It’s also unknown why the few encores weren’t included, but that’s Neil for you. Way Down In The Rust Bucket is far better overall, and not just on the shared songs.

Neil Young Before And After (2023)—3
Neil Young With Crazy Horse
Fu##in’ Up (2024)—

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Joe Jackson 21: What A Racket!

Genre exercises have been part of Joe Jackson’s career since his fourth album. Having successfully shown his ability to recreate jump blues of the swing era, he’s challenged himself as a composer on several occasions to go outside the rock album box, with varying results.

This time he’s going back a century to dwell in English music hall, having concocted a barely believable back story about a set of “recently discovered” songs by the long-lost, long-forgotten Max Champion. One listen to Mr. Joe Jackson Presents: Max Champion In “What A Racket!” should prove to any of his fans that he’s solely responsible for the words, music, and even the crafted arrangements. Each song is sung with an overly pronounced Cockney accent throughout, which both obscures the lyrics and prevents individual songs from standing out from the uniform pack. One can draw a line to Gilbert & Sullivan by way of Eric Idle much of time. That said, he’s in good voice, so his continued insistence on social cigarette smoking hasn’t taken its toll yet.

Said back story suggest that these old chestnuts are still as timely as today’s headlines, and indeed, he’s careful to blend old tropes with mildly timeless commentary. The so-called overture “Why, Why, Why?” decries complainers and dissent, but then “The Sporting Life” tackles (sorry) the plight of an non-athletically inclined citizen. The decorations on the overly maudlin “Dear Old Mum” distract from some of the nuances in the lyrics, such as the dwindling size of the family and the ways she supported them. There seems to be some kind of pertinent message in “Monty Mundy (Is Maltese!)” but it only makes us want to listen to Tom Lehrer. A peeping Tom gets ironic comeuppance in “The Shades Of Night”, which closes with something of a “get home safe, folks” salutation—odd in the middle of the album, but it caps what’s called Part the First, so consider this your notice for intermission.

Sure enough, the rousing title track—an anti-noise rant—crashes in as the virtual curtains open, but “The Bishop And The Actress” tries too hard to be covertly bawdy. “Think Of The Show!” is a variation on the timeworn life-on-the-road lament, a subject he covered way back on “The Band Wore Blue Shirts”. “Never So Nice In The Morning” is very clever, but the constant switching between the slow verse and moderate chorus makes the song drag. On one level, “Health & Safety” chides exercise buffs, but in the end it skewers the concept of armed forces in peacetime. And while Part the First had something of an obvious finale, “Worse Things Happen At Sea” is merely a keep-your-chin-up message with a singalong chorus with an anachronistic digital-sounding piano.

He’s likely not excepting sales in the millions with What A Racket!; after all this time Joe Jackson writes to please only himself. Given how many other so-called jukebox musicals have been concocted over the years over flimsier premises, it’s entirely possible that these songs could find their way to a theatrical venue at some point. Whether it does or not, we’ll wait to see what other songs he might write.

Joe Jackson Mr. Joe Jackson Presents: Max Champion In “What A Racket!” (2023)—3

Friday, December 15, 2023

Kiss 13: Music From The Elder

Having seen their sales plummet over the past few years, Kiss was still determined to keep going. They found a new drummer in Eric Carr, who was immediately saddled with a “fox” persona for his makeup. They started working on songs at Ace’s house, and put in a call to Bob Ezrin, who’d produced Destroyer and was currently riding the wave of success from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Apparently it was his idea for them to make a concept album, and given Gene’s fascination with Marvel Comics and the like, they agreed. (“They” meaning Gene and Paul; Ace was overruled, and Eric had no say.) Music From “The Elder” was promoted as songs for a movie yet to be written, much less filmed.

It was a departure, all right; the stark cover art screamed medieval sorcery, and no pictures of the band appeared anywhere, save the logo. Inside the gatefold what appears to be excerpts from some scripture talk of some ancient race that walks among mortals seeking worthy applicants to their sacred order, and how a caretaker named Morpheus (no, really) will deliver a boy to fulfill the task. (Pretty big leap from Love Gun, huh?) Inner sleeves varied; some had the lyrics, while others only had the production credits on the clear plastic sleeves PolyGram had started pushing. The back cover credits the appearances of a symphony orchestra, a choir, and three voice actors, including one Christopher Makepeace, best known as the 98-pound weakling protagonists Clifford in My Bodyguard and Rudy in Meatballs. But even the record company was already nervous about how this album would be received, and with no guarantee the film would follow, Mr. Makepeace’s dialogue as “the boy” was not heard on the final product.

“The Oath” crashes out of the speakers, with all the guitars Kiss fans want, and Paul switching between his tough voice on the verses and his falsetto for the choruses. One of the writers is listed as one Tony Powers, and we’ll get to him. “Fanfare” is a brief instrumental with twee flutes and winds, invoking King Arthur’s court or some such locale that kills a minute, then “Just A Boy” attempts to push the story along, with acoustic and electric guitars well arranged. “Dark Light” takes a few bars to get rolling, but it’s clear that Ace isn’t at all vested in the words he’s singing, and we’re not clear which might have been suggested by co-writers Lou Reed or Anton Fig. Plus, Ace, still can’t sing. “Only You” is the only song here written solely by a single member of the band, in this case Gene, and it’s odd to hear the god of thunder sing about someone being the light and the way. The mumbo gets even more jumbo in “Under The Rose”, and by now they seem to be trying to sound like old tourmates Rush. Between the synths and chanted chorus, it’s close to parody. If anything else, this track proves Eric Carr to be a superior drummer, handling the polyrhythms and complicated riffs.

“A World Without Heroes” is based around a lyric suggested, again, by Lou Reed, and while it’s the most commercial-sounding track here, it’s not much better than their pop attempts of the last two albums. The orchestral arrangement, particularly coupled with the guitar solo, is straight out of side three of The Wall. Listeners of a certain age could be forgiven for thinking the eponymous villain in “Mr. Blackwell” is the same designer who used to publish worst-dressed lists, whereas the song itself is pretty much sludge. “Escape From The Island” is an Ace-led instrumental with Eric (and Ezrin on bass) keeping up well that again evokes old Rush, but it’s a mere trifle compared to the overwrought showpiece of “Odyssey”. It was written solely by the aforementioned Tony Powers, and we don’t know why, but Paul gives his all to the vocal and self-harmony to deliver the lyrics, even the ridiculous bridge (“There’s a child in a sundress looking at a rainy sky/There’s a place in the desert where an ocean once danced by”). This song can’t decide if it’s sci-fi or fantasy, and yes, there is a difference. “I” finally brings back the classic Kiss sound, Paul and Gene trading vocals, and the message could actually exist outside of whatever the plot is. Gene even expresses his desire to rock and roll all night at the close. However, not listed on the album is what’s usually referred to as “Finale”, which reprises “Fanfare” with added, unintentionally funny dialogue from two of the actors.

As a prog album, Music From “The Elder” isn’t any worse than anything else, but overall, it’s too silly for even Kiss. The bad outweighs the good, and while it has its defenders, it remains an anomaly in their catalog and their history.

The album was dutifully remastered and reissued in 1997 so fans old and new could get a fresh perspective. The biggest difference was the track sequence, now in the apparent intended order as depicted on the original back cover, and as released in Japan, but which left out “Escape From The Island”. “The Oath” is now stuck in the middle of side two, making the introduction of a slightly longer “Fanfare” even more shocking to the uninitiated. “Odyssey” is pulled to the middle of side one, following “Just A Boy”, and it works better here, as well as nicely setting up “Only You” and “Under The Rose”. “Dark Light” starts side two, and a much better segue to “A World Without Heroes”. Even “The Oath” fits here, leading into “Mr. Blackwell”, bridged by “Escape From The Island” into “I”. (Sadly, none of the other dialogue was restored, and the jury is out as to how that affected Chris Makepeace’s legacy.) This version is an improvement, certainly, just enough to redeem it as something worth hearing. And that’s why it gets the rating below.

Kiss Music From “The Elder” (1981)—3

Friday, December 8, 2023

Elton John 23: Breaking Hearts

Proving he knew not to mess too much with success, Elton John plowed ahead with an album that once again kept the classic band intact, with Bernie Taupin providing every lyric, and even getting his own photo on the back cover. But Breaking Hearts wasn’t exactly a throwback, being steeped in contemporary sheen.

For example, while the synth is subtle on the mildly Stonesy “Restless”, the bass is very pronounced, to the point where we don’t care about the overtly political commentary in the lyrics. Bernie was trying to think worldly in those days, as he even slips in a reference to the Berlin Wall as a point of comparison in “Slow Down Georgie (She’s Poison)”, a schizophrenic arrangement equally let down by the character assassination driving the plot. A lot better is “Who Wears These Shoes?”, built around the same Motown rhythm that inspired recent hits by Phil Collins and Billy Joel. The mildly melodramatic title track (which gets the subtitle “Ain’t What It Used To Be”) provides an alternate viewpoint for a change, this time of a womanizing man rather than a slattern; one could almost hear Freddie Mercury crooning this. After a strange ambience, “Li’l ‘Frigerator” is an upbeat rocker back to hating women, with more ‘80s keyboard touches and a surprising sax solo pushed aside by a nice guitar solo.

“Passengers” is a departure of sorts, a catchy chant based on a South African folk song, and actually refers to apartheid. It’s one of the least Elton-sounding songs he’s ever done, and it works. “In Neon” is a sympathetic portrait of a sad woman wishing for fame and fortune, with backing vocal touches that recall earlier cinematic references like “Candle In The Wind”. Keeping the mood slow, the ballad “Burning Buildings” has a lot of dynamics, rising and falling without getting carried away, even a few Beatlesque touches. There’s a nice interlude where the piano doubles the acoustic guitar solo. Another one that shouldn’t work but does is “Did He Shoot Her?”, which is loaded with classic harmonies and combines ‘80s beats with ‘70s sitar, Philly soul with a Jagger vocal, bridging the decades. Speaking of which, “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” rankled us from the first listen as it more or less retreads the music from the Stones’ “Let It Bleed”, save the bridge. (Within a few months, he’d retooled the lyrics for a designer jeans commercial, declaring that “Sasson says so much.” This is absolutely true.)

That song kept him on the radio; he was also in the news after marrying the woman who engineered Breaking Hearts. The producer was the faithful Chris Thomas, who kept the sound fresh for an overall successful product, provided you don’t listen too closely.

Elton John Breaking Hearts (1984)—3

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Jayhawks 6: Smile

Determined to prove they were still a band, thank you very much, the Jayhawks crashed into the new century with even more of a departure from The first sign that something was different on Smile is the production credit to Bob Ezrin, most famous for working with Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and Kiss. Gary Louris is still the leader, but everyone helps with the songwriting here and there, including Ezrin. While Karen Grotberg’s voice and piano are heard all over the place, she’d left the band before the album came out to raise a family, replaced onstage and in the artwork by Jen Gunderman.

The title track is wonderfully sweet, with lovely interlocking phrases on the chorus. “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is sprinkled with mandolins and accordion, but was co-written with a Nashville ringer best known for modern Aerosmith hits. “What Led Me To This Town” has some lazy twang, but also features a harbinger in some odd electronic percussion. The auto-beats dominate “Somewhere In Ohio”, which is mostly tuneful, but the reliance on “buh-buh bah bah” for too many missing lyrics just seems lazy, which the guitar crunch on the choruses doesn’t remedy. “A Break In The Clouds” is more straightforward, thanks to another killer chorus, a well-placed steel guitar, and wonderful harmonies from Karen throughout. Electronica returns on “Queen Of The World”, which has, yes, another terrific chorus, but “Life Floats By” is a rockin’ stomper, and welcome.

The plaintive acoustic and vocal on “Broken Harpoon” are disrupted by whoops and bleeps, while real strings compete with a Mellotron. Tim O’Reagan sings lead on “Pretty Thing”, which is basically a funkier arrangement of “Dying On The Vine” from the last album. We still have no idea what or who “Mr. Wilson” is about; pop culture tropes suggest Brian Wilson, but then the second verse seems to refer to Alex Chilton. More overdriven beats dominate “(In My) Wildest Dreams”, and the songs are starting to sound alike. “Better Days” is more along the lines of straight rock, and “Baby, Baby, Baby” turns it up for a finish with enough tambourine and feedback to sound like Oasis.

In the end, Smile is an overlong album that tries too hard. Maybe we can blame Ezrin, who gets cowriting credit on the most blatant outliers, or any of the four people credited for “programming”. Whatever the culprit, the grandeur they sought didn’t get the band anywhere, as the album flopped. After such a strong run, it’s a disappointment. (Oddly, “Who Made You King”, an electric outtake included on the expanded edition fourteen years later, would have been more welcome on the original album. Of the other bonus tracks, the brief “Gypsy In The Mood” is more of an unfinished interlude, but the studio-quality demos “A Part Of You”, “Greta Garbo”, and “Five Cornered Blues” (written with former Jayhawk Mark Olson) have a lot of promise. Tim sings on a live version of “Life’s Little Ups And Downs” by Charlie Rich, included for some reason.)

The Jayhawks Smile (2000)—
2014 Expanded Edition: same as 2000, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, December 1, 2023

Joni Mitchell 28: The Asylum Years

Joni’s move to the then-new Asylum label in 1972 wasn’t just a change of distribution. The albums she recorded there took a turn from the predominantly solo acoustic sound of her first four albums, incorporating rhythm sections and horns, resulting in a commercial adult contemporary sound, then veering towards more esoteric jazz. The third box in her Archives series tackles the first half of this era, which saw four albums hit the charts, and is as illuminating as one could hope.

The first two discs encompass the making of the For The Roses album, beginning with a handful of solo and pristine demos—the first two from 1971, despite the box subtitle—including the stunning, otherwise unknown “Like Veils Said Lorraine”. Then we go to Carnegie Hall for a widely bootlegged, rapturously received performance that spills over to disc two. She plays the “hits”, but several Roses songs are new to the crowd, as the album wouldn’t be out for another nine months. She brings out various “friends” for “The Circle Game”, including Jackson Browne, who opened the show. (He’s listed as one of the choristers “possibly” in attendance; the “David” she mentions is likely Geffen, who’s also listed.)

James Taylor sits in on an acoustic rock ‘n roll medley and “Electricity” from further Roses sessions, whereas a try of “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio” with Neil Young and two Stray Gators was wisely redone elsewhere. (Similarly, that song and “See You Sometime” were also tried days later with the same Stray Gators, but not Neil.) Further alternate mixes include “Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire” where she overdubs a vocalization of the eventual sax part. “Sunrise Raga” is a fascinating mostly instrumental with her acoustic accompanied by tabla, and she was clearly interested in covering “Twisted” this early. (It’s nice to hear a version without Cheech & Chong, too.) A solo “Judgement Of The Moon And Stars” from a London concert is enthralling.

Disc three begins with a stunning 12-minute piano-and-vocal suite that goes from “Down To You” through “Court And Spark” and “Car On A Hill” back to the beginning. She must have considered this for release, as it features multiple Jonis harmonizing on the “Car” section. Other demos for the Court And Spark album are refreshing to hear without the studio adornments. We get three versions of “Raised On Robbery”—an acoustic with trilling chorused Jonis and percussion, a rockin’ one from a Graham Nash session, and the one recorded a day later with the Tonight’s The Night band that was on Neil Young’s second Archives box. As with the Roses portion, alternate mixes from the sessions are capped with an instrumental sketch, in this case the Greek-flavored “Bonderia”.

The balance of disc three and all of the fourth are devoted to a more laid-back L.A. concert with the support of Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, providing something of an alternate to Miles Of Aisles. (Most of that album came from shows performed five months later, and features some different selections from what’s here.) Whereas that album was programmed as a double album of four sides, here we have a complete show that moves through the dynamics of a full band for a half-hour, through a solo section featuring some lengthy conversational intros, and back with the band. While Scott can be a little overbearing in some contexts, his simple touches on “Cold Blue Steel” and “For Free” are welcome, and she works very well with the whole band. Oddly, there’s no “thank you, good night” after the last song; the disc simply ends after “Car On A Hill”.

An early live recording of “Jericho” starts the fifth disc, followed by “Woman Of Heart And Mind” in front of a quiet Wembley audience during the 1974 CSNY tour. These acoustic performances provide an excellent segue to seven demos for The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, not all of which have been bootlegged before (and there are some demos out there not collected here). Anyone put off by the arrangements on the finished album should appreciate these all the more. “Harry’s House”, for example, does not have the “Centerpiece” interlude, and an early “Dreamland” is accompanied only by guitar. Session outtakes from the album include “The Jungle Line” without the Burundi drummers or synthesizer, and another try at “Dreamland” with a band backing.

Her first Archives box fascinatingly traced her growth, and the second provided a fine companion to her first four albums. The period covered in this third box went widely off most people’s expectations—not unlike Neil Young’s “ditch” era—with varying critical and commercial success. As we can hear here, everything, from the biggest band arrangement to the solo performances, started with words and a melody. While she may have identified with painters, whom she referenced on Miles Of Aisles (“nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’”), her sketches are as fascinating as the finished works. And my goodness, was she prolific.

Joni Mitchell Archives—Volume 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) (2023)—4