Friday, June 21, 2024

Paul McCartney 38: One Hand Clapping

In 1974, it was safe to say that Paul McCartney had recaptured the stature that had been lost since he announced he was leaving the Beatles. His fifth album was a smash hit, and he was able to replenish the Wings lineup with lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Geoff Britton with an eye on getting back on the road. Having just recorded the soon-to-be hit single “Junior’s Farm”, and not quite ready to start on the next album, the band went into Abbey Road Studios for a few days to be filmed, in conversation and performing songs destined for their live shows, for a TV special to be titled One Hand Clapping. And like similar projects Paul started in the ‘70s, it was completed and promptly shelved. (For one reason, Geoff Britton barely lasted past the end of the year, given personal conflicts with members not surnamed McCartney.)

As would often happen, the audio and visuals were widely bootlegged over the years. It wasn’t until the second decade of this century that Paul officially released any of it, with some songs parceled out to bonus discs in various Archive Collection reissues, and the full film in grainy quality on the DVD in the 2010 edition of Band On The Run. Fourteen years later, that album was expanded for the umpteenth time for its 50th anniversary with a rough mix of the album in an alternate sequence without orchestrations. Then a few months after that, One Hand Clapping was finally released as an official album, remastered from the original multitracks, without the dialogue that was alternately pompous, drunk, or tedious.

The title track—or theme song, if you will—isn’t much more than a simple jam, but from there, the band goes through some very good selections from the catalog, some of which would soon be making their onstage debuts. “Jet” is always terrific, and “Soily” is very close to how it would sound in 1976. After the strange medley of “C Moon” and “Little Woman Love”, “Maybe I’m Amazed” isn’t there yet, but would always sound better on a grand piano than the electric piano used here. The film only had a snippet of “My Love”; here we get the full take, with orchestra added, Jimmy almost copping his almost-namesake Henry McCullough’s solo. “Bluebird” is slightly more electric, and Howie Casey comes in to play his sax part.

One segment of the film showed Paul in tie and tails playing solo at the (grand) piano; these included brief renditions of “Let’s Love”, which he wrote for Peggy Lee, the otherwise unreleased “All Of You”, and even “I’ll Give You A Ring”, which would emerge as a B-side in 1982. Both “Band On The Run” and “Live And Let Die” get a boost from the overdubbed orchestra, and we should mention somewhere that Linda knows her keyboard parts well. “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five” [sic] would not make it to a live setlist until well after that year, but this partially karaoke’d version over the album track is still pretty cool. McCartney favorite “Baby Face”, from the piano segment and with horns added in New Orleans, accompanies what would be the credits if you were watching instead of listening.

Of course there were plenty of other songs recorded during the course of the project, and the second disc of the set includes a pile of those, including some that hadn’t been bootlegged. “Let Me Roll It” would go on to be played on nearly every McCartney tour going forward to this day. “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” was in the Wings set before they had enough of their own songs, and here gives Denny Laine a chance to shine on harmonica. (He also gets to do “Go Now” towards the end of the disc.) “Junior’s Farm” and “Hi, Hi, Hi” each pack a wallop, but “Wild Life” would be thankfully retired.

More bits from Paul’s solo segment include “Power Cut” (of all things) on organ, upcoming B-side “Sally G” on acoustic, the seemingly impromptu “Love My Baby” on celeste, “Let It Be” on harmonium, and a verse each of “The Long And Winding Road” and “Lady Madonna” on piano. Most striking perhaps is a slow, torchy run through “Tomorrow”.

Another portion of the filming had Paul playing acoustic in the garden behind the studio, for a featurette titled The Backyard. This too had been bootlegged, but in the end eleven minutes of the performance were included only on a 7-inch shipped with the vinyl version of the album ordered direct from his official online store. Especially irritating is that there was plenty of room for it—and then some—on the second CD. At any rate, he plays the inscrutable “Blackpool”, “Blackbird”, “Country Dreamer”, and three covers: “Twenty Flight Rock”, and Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” and “I’m Gonna Love You Too”.

Still, One Hand Clapping is a fascinating look at a brief stage of McCartney’s career. Given the prolonged, inexplicable absence of two later Wings albums from expansion, it makes for a nice tribute to Denny, who died in December 2023. (The album was also dedicated to the memories of Linda, Jimmy, and engineer Geoff Emerick.)

Paul McCartney & Wings One Hand Clapping (2024)—

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Jane’s Addiction 1: Jane’s Addiction

Straddling the hair metal and grunge scenes as the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s, Jane’s Addiction was one of the more striking bands of the era. Dominated as they were by banshee-voiced and self-styled artist slash poet Perry Farrell, it was easy to forget that the other three members were musicians as tight and inventive as their competition.

But before they went platinum they had to start somewhere, and their self-titled debut on a tiny L.A. label has never gone out of print. Co-produced by the guy who would go on to bring the Beach Boys catalog into the digital age, it was mostly recorded live at the Roxy, and copiously overdubbed.

With a drum break already patented by Pete Thomas, “Trip Away” explodes into being, providing a steady barrage of funk until an unexpected detour into a moodier middle section that leads right back into the main riff. Guitarist Dave Navarro makes his mark here. The bass intro by Eric Avery on “Whores” provides another band template of sorts, both in structure and profanity. The tempo seems a little wonky at the start of “Pigs In Zen”—not something we would expect of Stephen Perkins—but it finds its way and its dynamics, at least until Perry starts shouting his favorite four-letter word. “1%” is a protest song, not that you could tell from the buried lyrics, and the onslaught subsides for the overly romantic “I Would For You”.

Even in those days, the band played acoustic sets as well as electric ones, and “My Time” provides a catchy transition to side two. It’s even got a harmonica. “Jane Says” manages to stay interesting despite having only two chords, but this is far from the song’s best rendition. Any young band has to play covers, and their take on Lou Reed’s “Rock & Roll” is both reverent and fresh, segueing seamlessly into “Sympathy” (as in “For The Devil”). “Chip Away” provides a bookend of sorts, but consists mostly of jungle drumming and vocal effects.

Chances are most owners of this album came to it well after the fact, and considering their limited catalog, it would be cherished. But the band weren’t there yet, though it wouldn’t be long.

Jane’s Addiction Jane’s Addiction (1987)—3

Friday, June 14, 2024

Dwight Twilley 4: Scuba Divers

Speaking of Phil Seymour, he managed to get a solo deal with Boardwalk Records, the new label found by Neil Bogart after he had Casablanca taken away from him. Phil made two albums in succession, each with striking striped motifs (and the cover of Phil Seymour 2 was clever in its own way). The first had help from Bill Pitcock IV, and mixed originals, including the mild hit “Precious To Me”, with covers and contributions from Dwight Twilley and future Go-Go Kathy Valentine, while the second sported the first official release of Tom Petty’s “Surrender” and a remake of “Looking For The Magic”. Unfortunately, he just wasn’t a frontman.

But for those who loved the two Dwight Twilley Band albums, they had to tide them over while Dwight waited out his own label woes. When Scuba Divers finally appeared after a two-year delay, his original intentions had been reworked, shuffled, and sometimes left out. Four other producers besides himself were credited. He’d only slightly updated his sound to meet new wave standards, yet the secret weapon was the harmonic gift of none other than Susan Cowsill. (Her brother John played drums too.)

In fact, “I’m Back Again” could allude to his enforced absence, but overall it’s another catchy chorus with Petty-reminiscent touches. “Somebody To Love” had been a teaser single three years earlier; here it’s been remixed and a verse was added, but it’s still terrific. A title like “10,000 American Scuba Divers Dancin’” doesn’t always bode well, but there’s a fun summertime vibe to the tune. “Touchin’ The Wind” has a relatively quiet beginning, but once those handclaps start, they don’t let up. The menacing riff of “Later That Night” just screams girl-group car crash homage, like a less wordy Jim Steinman.

But for the production and the cowbell, “I Think It’s That Girl” could almost be Beatlesque, and we really gotta call out Susan Cowsill again for what she adds to these songs. While it has a rolling piano out of Fleetwood Mac’s “Say You Love Me”, “Dion Baby” is a sneaky tribute to his newborn daughter. Moreover, the mix completely obscures the lyrics of “Cryin’ Over Me”, which sounds like a cousin to “Feeling In The Dark”, and “I Found The Magic” is something of a sequel to the superior “Looking For The Magic”. “Falling In Love Again” has a mild ‘50s sheen, taking to the next level by Steve Douglas’s blaring sax solo.

Despite the single and some MTV exposure, Scuba Divers didn’t blow up the charts. Perhaps people were already busy with Marshall Crenshaw. But he kept at it anyway. There’s a lot here to enjoy.

Dwight Twilley Scuba Divers (1982)—3

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

David Bowie 44: Brilliant Live Adventures

Perhaps killing more time while fans waited for the next box set in the chronology, the Bowie estate spent part of 2000 tidying up the aisle in the vaults dedicated to the ‘90s. First came two odd mini-albums. Is It Any Wonder? consisted of three Earthling outtakes—remakes of the Tin Machine tracks “Baby Universal” and “I Can’t Read”, and the quasi-instrumental “Nuts”—plus a new arrangement of “Stay”, the rarity “Fun” (both from the tour rehearsals), and an Eno remix of a re-recording of “The Man Who Sold The World” from the Outside sessions that had snuck out as a B-side. The more straightforward Changesnowbowie offered predominantly acoustic-based arrangements of mostly early ’70s songs—the outliers being “Shopping For Girls” and “Repetition”—recorded specifically for the BBC to celebrate his 50th birthday.

These were mere precursors to a curious program entailing the release of six live albums that would be made available individually, on CD and vinyl, for the purpose of being collected in a slipcase labeled Brilliant Live Adventures (1995-1999). These releases basically offered two glimpses each from three tours, supporting the Outside, Earthling, and ‘hours…’ albums in turn. “Glimpses” is the key word here, as one is a compilation from various shows, and two of the concerts are abridged, perhaps to fit on one disc. It was an ambitious program, to be sure, considering that the release schedule was sporadic and the quantities were limited, plus the general chaos resulting from the worldwide COVID pandemic threw even more wrenches into the works. But each title was uniquely packaged and designed, and looked as good as they sounded.

Along with such stellar players as Reeves Gabrels, Carlos Alomar, a fully reinstated Mike Garson, Zach Alford on drums, and the, frankly, brilliant addition of Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and vocals, the Outside tour was supported by Nine Inch Nails, their set melding into Bowie’s. However, none of their onstage collaborations appear on either Ouvrez Le Chien or No Trendy Réchauffé. Yet along with new arrangements of deep cuts, the songs from the album he was supporting translated much better to the stage. (The latter disc, recorded two months after the former—which adds two songs from the latter as bonus tracks for some reason—was a shorter set from a festival environment, with some different songs as well, including a strong “Jump They Say” and two performances of “Hallo Spaceboy”.)

The Earthling tour was stripped back to just Gabrels, Garson, Alford, and Dorsey, yet the keyboards and sequencers made everything sound big and full, if processed and programmed, and a little too close—rather, identical to the album. LiveAndWell.com was originally given away to website subscribers in 1999 and compiled from a handful of shows, concentrating on material from Outside and Earthling. Some editions included a bonus disc of remixes; this incarnation got new artwork and added the radical reinterpretations of “Pallas Athena” and “V-2 Schneider”, credited to “Tao Jones Index” when first released. By contrast, Look At The Moon! presented a full show on two discs (or three LPs). As with its brother, some of the rearrangements are repeated from the previous tour, but there are some new surprises, such as “Fame”, “Fashion”, and even a cover of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” sung by Gail Ann. Also, “The Jean Genie” starts acoustically, and is prefaced with a snippet of “Driftin’ Blues” for some reason.

1999’s much shorter tour—exactly nine shows, if you count the VH1 Storytellers appearance—was notable for Helmet’s Page Hamilton on lead guitar, following the abrupt departure of Reeves Gabrels. Sterling Campbell was also swapped in on drums, Mark Plati played guitars, and two women added breathy backing vocals. As befit the album he was promoting, the approach to the set was less frenetic and mostly softer, yet still energetic. The shows here are similar but not exactly identical; selections from Something In The Air had already been B-sides, while At The Kit Kat Klub was a small exclusive show recorded a month later and simultaneously webcast, which was spanking new and generally bug-prone technology at the time.

Taken all together, it’s six hours of music with a lot of repeats. Even with that, he was both busy and unpredictable throughout the latter half of the ‘90s. Collectors have to have them all, but luckily it’s possible to pick and choose. (Look At The Moon! gets a slight edge for length and variety.)

David Bowie Is It Any Wonder? (2020)—
David Bowie
Changesnowbowie (2020)—3
David Bowie
Ouvrez Le Chien (Live Dallas 95) (2020)—3
David Bowie
No Trendy Réchauffé (Live Birmingham 95) (2020)—3
David Bowie
LiveAndWell.com (2021)—3
David Bowie
Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97) (2021)—3
David Bowie
Something In The Air (Live Paris 99) (2021)—3
David Bowie
David Bowie At The Kit Kat Klub (Live New York 99) (2021)—3

Friday, June 7, 2024

Fairport Convention 2: What We Did On Our Holidays

Bands had to work fast in the late ‘60s, often juggling gigs with studio work and revolving members. By the time their first album weas out, Fairport Convention had already shed singer Judy Dyble, replacing her with one Alexandra Denny, and that made all the difference. Known forever as Sandy, she’d already written a song that was covered by Judy Collins, which we’ll get to soon enough. Ian Matthews was still in the band, but it’s Sandy’s presence, via her rich voice, that drove the sound of What We Did On Our Holidays. (This was the first Fairport album released in the U.S., using the cover shown but no title outside the band’s name. For simplicity, we’re using the British title, since that’s how everybody knows it now.)

She makes her mark right off the bat with “Fotheringay”, an original that sounds like it’s been around for centuries. This haunting portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots imprisoned in a castle is sideswiped by the 12-bar blues of “Mr. Lacey”. (The titular character was an eccentric artist, occasional actor, and inventor, whose robots can be heard taking a solo of their own after the guitar break.) Something of happy medium is achieved in the melancholy “Book Song”, which incorporates swirling harmonies, electric guitar, and even sitar. Sandy’s alone with Richard Thompson’s slide guitar somewhere in a field to hum “The Lord Is In This Place… How Dreadful Is This Place”, a lengthy interlude before Ian’s more rocking take on “No Man’s Land”, on which Richard pounds an accordion. Everything truly comes together on Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, which they probably learned from the Judy Collins version, but wonderfully harmonized.

Doing an obscure Joni Mitchell song was a coup, as her own version of “Eastern Rain” wouldn’t emerge for half a century, and those were from her coffeehouse days. Fairport’s arrangement is meteorologically evocative, with sped-up guitars darting in and out of the mix. “Nottamun Town” reclaims the melody Dylan borrowed for “Masters Of War” and gives it a near-raga arrangement for guitar with harmonies. For contrast, there’s the tinkling harpsichord throughout “Tale In Hard Time”, another strong original from Richard. It’s back to the traditional with Sandy’s wonderful reading of “She Moved Through The Fair”, which is a wonderful setup for Richard’s immortal “Meet On The Ledge”. Still sung today at the close of innumerable folk festivals, this contemplation on lost friends, childhood, and the future never fails to stir. It makes Simon Nicol’s closing “End Of A Holiday” instrumental that much more effecting.

While it’s still all over the place, What We Did On Our Holidays is quite the leap from the band’s first album. Things were starting to coalesce, and they were barely out of the gate. (The later expanded CD issued overseas included three bonus tracks: the bluesy B-side “Throwaway Street Puzzle”, Muddy Waters’ “You’re Gonna Need My Help” from a BBC session, and the outtake “Some Sweet Day”.)

Fairport Convention What We Did On Our Holidays (1969)—

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Thomas Dolby 4: Astronauts & Heretics

The ‘80s were already a distant memory by the time hair metal gave way to grunge, so where did that leave an innovator such as Thomas Dolby? Most recently he had made a cameo as the schoolmaster in Roger Waters’ all-star staging of The Wall in Berlin, which he actually pulled off. Meanwhile, on Astronauts & Heretics he continued concocting accessible, quirky pop colored by synthesizers but not dominated by them.

“I Love You Goodbye” takes us to the bayou—literally, with not only Cajun legends Michael Doucet and Wayne Toups on the track, but swampy percussion and sound effects. It’s a wonderful musical blend that unfortunately doesn’t permeate the album, but it’s a terrific way to start, and at least it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Two fairly short songs follow; “Cruel”, basically a duet with Eddi Reader, is a much softer change of pace, then Michael Doucet’s fiddle (and some of that percussion) returns to color the jaunty “Silk Pyjamas”. “I Live In A Suitcase” sounds most like his Flat Earth period, if a little more contemporary-sounding.

As long as we’re looking back, the clattery “Eastern Bloc” is pointedly designated as “Sequel To Europa And The Pirate Twins, 1981”, which is obvious in the second verse. It’s a throwback, but not a retread, particularly with Eddie Van Halen on lead guitar. Eddie also plays on “Close But No Cigar”, but we wonder how much the overt Beatle sample cost to procure. It relies a little too much on the title for the lyrical content, but it leads in well to the slightly retro “That’s Why People Fall In Love”, this one featuring harmonies from Ofra Haza. The mood turns way down for “Neon Sisters”, prefaced by a dramatic dedication, and featuring a few members of Siouxsie’s Banshees. Given the times, it’s not clear whether the subject of the song succumbed to AIDS or addiction, but it’s haunting nonetheless. We’ve had a lot of pop so far, and then “Beauty Of A Dream” provides a timeless conclusion, with the added pleasure of both Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia on the track.

The album’s bookends make Astronauts & Heretics a pleasant surprise. It’s pretty catchy, with his past wackiness completely toned down. One gets the idea that he was more concerned in making an album he wanted to make, stocked with his wish list of collaborators. He then pointedly stayed away from courting the pop charts to further explore to possibilities of music in the computer industry. Which made perfect sense.

Thomas Dolby Astronauts & Heretics (1992)—3

Friday, May 31, 2024

Todd Rundgren 30: New Cars and Arena

One of the stranger—and certainly unexpected—detours of Todd Rundgren’s career was his brief stint fronting The New Cars. This star-studded tribute band included original Cars Greg Hawkes and Elliot Easton (fresh off a decade with Creedence Clearwater Revisited) plus Rundgren regulars Kasim Sulton and Prairie Prince. Todd did a decent job copping the vocal stylings of both Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr, as heard on It’s Alive. This live album delivered the familiar Cars hits, plus “I Saw The Light” and “Open My Eyes”, but they blew the chance to play “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”, “Bye Bye Love”, and “Moving In Stereo” in order. They did come up with three new songs; nobody’s going to mistake “Warm”, “More”, or “Not Tonight” for Ocasek originals (that last one in either its live or studio version).

Still, Todd sounded engaged throughout, but when the tour was over, he went back to Hawaii and recorded his next album completely by himself, again, on his laptop. The resulting Arena has an apt title, as the songs are guitar-driven, alternately rocking and brooding, but all designed to keep crowds on their collective feet and pumping fists.

In keeping with the last album, one-word song titles are the norm. The intricate acoustic picking on “Mad” soon gives way to power chords and pounding drums with a yelled chorus. “Afraid” harkens back to Pink Floyd’s “Learning To Fly”, but this an arguably better song overall. We start to enter a theme, first on the angry monologue in “Mercenary” and then on the blatant parody in “Gun”. “Courage” is more along the lines of an ‘80s feel-good anthem, and while “Weakness” sports sludgy riffing to suggest another attack, the chorus gives away the sensitivity. Similarly, “Strike” sounds familiar, until you hit the chorus, which could almost be mistaken for AC/DC.

“Pissin” takes down a boor at a party, but it’s mixed in such a way that the music is the focus, not the action. Synths frame the arrangement of “Today”, but “Bardo” returns to the mysticism of his mid-‘70s lyrical endeavors. Lest people think it’s getting too deep, the swaggering “Mountaintop” has a buried fable. “Panic” ramps up the tension even while telling us not to, and “Manup” is a more direct call to action.

He’s consistently made solo albums that are completely solo, but his fascination with technology and speed in the digital age have often come off cold. Not so with Arena—even the drums, which are programmed, sound real. The album may sound big and stupid at points, but it’s worth it.

The New Cars It’s Alive (2006)—3
Todd Rundgren
Arena (2008)—3

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Dire Straits 10: Live 1978-1992

Despite million-dollar offers and the continued longevity of most of the players, Dire Straits has never reformed since the On The Night tour ended in 1993. Since then various members have played together in schizoid tribute bands, and Guy Fletcher has worked regularly with Mark Knopfler, but the auteur was a no-show at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The decades since had seen a handful of compilations, but no expanded remasters. Even when the box set The Studio Albums 1978-1991 repackaged the vinyl in 2013, it didn’t include the Twisting By The Pool EP or anything else from the handful of non-album B-sides sitting all alone. The outcry that followed didn’t change the contents of the set any seven years later when the same title was released as a CD set. (Each album was in a simple replica sleeve, each with an insert approximating the inner sleeve with lyrics where applicable.)

Still, the studio albums only told part of the story, so the people in charge of these things had a chance to throw the fans a bone with Live 1978-1992, which collected—and, in some cases, expanded—the band’s official live albums, bolstered by a show from the vault. (The packaging was a little more elaborate than the studio box, with sturdier gatefold replica sleeves and a booklet with photos and a fawning essay.) Alchemy, which was already longer on CD than the cassette and LP, gained three songs to fill nearly two hours. (They did chop a minute of the “Going Home” intro, which was a shame.) On The Night was expanded by an hour to spread across two discs with the addition of seven tracks. The British Encores EP was also included in the box, unnecessarily repeating “Your Latest Trick” and not folding the other three songs into the On The Night discs, where they could have fit.

Live At The BBC was the same as ever—though it did gain about a minute to accommodate a DJ’s introduction of the band members—but the big draw was the first-ever release of Live At The Rainbow, recorded at the legendary London theater at the end of the Communiqué tour. It’s a bigger show than what’s heard on the BBC—not the members, just the size of the room and the ambience—and they seem a little tired, but still engaged.

Luckily, they improve as the set goes on. They play most of the first album and half of the second, and still close to the album arrangements at this juncture; having yet to hire a keyboard player, “Portobello Belle” hasn’t been tarted up yet. Oddly, despite the presence of “Lady Writer” in the set, they’re still playing “What’s The Matter Baby?” The crowd does get to hear early versions of “Les Boys” (prefaced by an almost apologetic intro), “Solid Rock” (not yet there), and most surprisingly and satisfyingly, “Twisting By The Pool” three years early. That last one sets up an encore of four oldies, where they’re joined by Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott and Tony de Meur of The Fabulous Poodles.

Dire Straits Live 1978-1992 (2024)—3

Friday, May 24, 2024

Frank Zappa 52: Playground Psychotics

After preparing and releasing twelve hours of music collated from his entire career, Frank’s next big project was dedicated to the Flo & Eddie era of the band. Playground Psychotics combined field recordings with concert excerpts to provide a widescreen portrait of what he called “A Typical Day On The Road”.

Each disc starts with several minutes of indexed dialogue captured by his trusty portable tape recorder, capturing the band and roadies in conversation on planes, in hotels, and backstage. One segment is an interview with the manager of the hotel where the infamous “mud shark incident” took place. “Diptheria Blues” is a dressing room jam featuring Aynsley Dunbar on whiskey bottle. Much of the humor, onstage and off, is clearly visual, so lovers of in-jokes and bathroom humor will be in heaven. Things get truly nutty when we get to hear tape recordings featuring playbacks of recording captured on other band members’ tape recorders, culminating in the closing segment on disc two. Some of this was excerpted from the videotape The True Story Of 200 Motels, briefly documenting the cause and result of Jeff Simmons quitting the band, not wanting to be fodder for Frank’s thesis at the expense of his musicianship.

The musical excerpts are far more interesting, with further songs from the Rainbow Theater show that ended with Frank being knocked off stage, which we don’t get to hear here. While the Pauley Pavilion is listed as another source, the only music heard from that show is a short “Divan” segment of what would become “Sofa”. Instead, much of the music comes from the Fillmore stint, including older songs and a thirty-minute “Billy The Mountain” (cobbled together from two shows) that’s actually listenable. One of the key selling points of this album outside the Zappa faithful is an alternate mix (and edit) of what Beatle fans knew as side four of John & Yoko’s Some Time In New York City, documenting their guest appearance with the Mothers. Despite being given such new song titles as “Aaawk” and “A Small Eternity With Yoko Ono”, “Well” is still the only segment of true musical appeal.

Because of the anthropological approach, Playground Psychotics will be mostly of interest to fanatics who can stomach Flo & Eddie. While cramming several months of material into two CDs is no small feat, a larger context was certainly needed. Sure enough, the band’s two sets at Carnegie Hall in October 1971 were released in a four-CD package forty years later, in decent-sounding mono and including a performance by the doo-wop combo and support act The Persuasions. (Carnegie Hall was reissued a little over eight years later as a three-disc set that omitted the Persuasions segment.) Hearing the transitions and dynamics as played shows just how hot the band was, but you also have to endure the vocalists’ attempts at humor. “Magdalena” is even more repulsive here, and 15 minutes are devoted to “The Mud Shark”. There’s a more complete “Divan” suite (including “Stick It Out”, eight years before Joe’s Garage) with lots of four-letter words in English and German. Beyond that, “King Kong” runs a half an hour to accommodate solos—though it abandons the 3/8 meter after the first minute or so—and “Billy The Mountain” is now up to 47 minutes.

That was all well and good, but connoisseurs would be even more sated ten years after that by The Mothers 1971. This eight-CD set encompassed all four unedited Fillmore sets (including John & Yoko, unexpurgated) and the complete Rainbow show, with another sixteen songs from Scranton and Harrisburg in between to present a sort of virtual concert. With so many repeats of the material, “Billy The Mountain” emerges as a major if silly work, and we can almost start to appreciate the musicality of the “Shove It Right In” suite; it’s just too bad that the lyrics are so puerile. If you want to hear a ribald take on “My Boyfriend’s Back”, here’s your chance. Turns out Don Preston only played on the encores at the Fillmore, which certainly helped cool Frank’s otherwise petulant mood. Don’s fully on board at the Rainbow, leading the opening “Zanti Serenade”, extended for another ten minutes here. “Wonderful Wino” is still in the set, and the encore was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, after which we can actually hear Frank hitting the concrete floor.

Frank Zappa/The Mothers Playground Psychotics (1992)—2
Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention
Carnegie Hall (2011)—
The Mothers
The Mothers 1971 (2022)—

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Nilsson 8: Nilsson Schmilsson

The world was finally ready for Harry Nilsson, and so was he. Hooked up with rising producer Richard Perry, who’d brought Barbra Streisand firmly into the present-day, they decamped to London and recruited such Beatle-centric aces as Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Klaus Voormann, and Gary Wright to create Nilsson Schmilsson. The blurry photo of a distinctly non-sexy photo of the bathrobe-clad artiste holding a hash pipe in front of an open refrigerator notwithstanding, this was the pinnacle of his pop journey.

Still, that cover photo nicely sets up the jaunty “Gotta Get Up”, complete with some in-context dreams, before canned car noises continue the story in “Driving Along”, which provides further chance for observation. Despite the optimistic sound of those tracks, a cover of “Early In The Morning”, accompanied by solely by a pawed organ, suggests our hero is stuck somehow. Suddenly it’s hours later and “The Moonbeam Song” has us pondering not only the skies but “bits of crap”. Horns weren’t a new thing on Nilsson albums thus far, but Jim Horn’s soulful arrangement on “Down” is firmly contemporary.

While side one is short, it’s a strong record so far, but side two is where everything goes into the stratosphere. It took Harry’s vision to turn Badfinger’s “Without You” from a middling album track to a soaring plaint, and the template for everyone thereafter. He follows it with the goofy “Coconut”, a song made for the Muppets if there ever was one. Following a sprightly take on Shirley & Lee’s “Let The Good Times Roll”, “Jump Into The Fire” doubles down on the one-chord challenge of “Coconut” for seven minutes, pounding the riff into submission over an audibly detuned bass while Henry Hill watches out for helicopters. The mildly mewling “I’ll Never Leave You” provides a mildly paranoid ending, but when you consider that it was left over from The Point!, it makes more sense.

If anything made Harry a household name, Nilsson Schmilsson was it. But then he had something to live up to, which was an impossible task. Still, he should have been proud of it. (The eventual expanded CD included some interesting bonuses: a “Without You” that’s even more overwrought in Spanish; “Lamaze”, a Smile-sounding track that dissolves into laughter after a recitation; a 1968 take of “Gotta Get Up” still in vaudeville mode; an alternate “Moonbeam”; and two songs that would be reworked on future albums.)

Nilsson Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, May 17, 2024

Guns N’ Roses 2: Lies

By the end of 1988, tapes (and CDs) of Geffen catalog number 24148 sold hourly. It seemed every kid and their older siblings had to have Appetite For Destruction—along with Metallica’s …And Justice For All—and the posters, pins, T-shirts, and stickers sold pretty well too. Soon enough, another Geffen catalog number (24198) was flying out of stores alongside its elder brother. GN’R Lies was something of a stopgap, a glorified EP and initially priced accordingly.

The “live” side ran only 13 minutes, and replicated the now-rare Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP from 1986, put out while the band was prepping Appetite. These were actually demos spiced up with canned audience noise, but most young listeners were fooled. “Reckless Life” is pretty snotty, as is the cover of Rose Tattoo’s “Nice Boys”. Somebody’s honking a sax on “Move To The City”, which swamps the swagger of this otherwise lame song, but Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin” is a fairly accurate demonstration of their roots. Axl’s profane intro proves he didn’t understand the song’s lyrics.

The second side of all new acoustic-based tracks put them well ahead of not only the Unplugged trend but the competition, proving they really were musically adept. “Patience” is the first surprise, since pretty much nobody was whistling on songs then, and Axl sang most of it straight, saving the yowl until the coda. “Used To Love Her” is a poorly landed joke, but it’s still catchy as heck, somewhat descended from the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”. The revamp of “You’re Crazy” is startling and very successful, slowed down and funky, but still edgy. “One In A Million” is the tune that pissed off everybody with a conscience, as it railed equally against law enforcement, foreigners, and minorities. It’s got more whistling and some fuzz guitar, and the portions of the song that don’t offend—like the backing track and about half of the lyrics—are actually pretty good. Instead, Axl was all about making statements, and the backlash was such that the song was pointedly left off the deluxe expansions of Appetite For Destruction three decades later, though the song remains available. Not for the last time would Axl torpedo any respect the band garnered.

Side two is what makes Lies worth keeping, though the mixed messages in the music as well as all over the tabloid-style cover prevented them from gaining more respect. Yet at this point they pretty much ruled the roost, so much so that every wannabe band made sure to include power ballads on their next albums.

Guns N’ Roses GN’R Lies (1988)—

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Ringo Starr 7: Ringo The 4th

The regal title was supposed to be punny—this was Ringo’s fourth album of modern material, suggesting that Sentimental Journey and Beaucoups Of Blues (and of course, Blast From Your Past) didn’t count. But Ringo The 4th was actually a departure, as he eschewed the all-star (read: ex-Beatle or related) help and let producer Arif Mardin run the proceedings. There are still tons of top-line session players, though he did play the drums, augmented by Steve Gadd. He even co-wrote six of the songs with buddy Vini Poncia. But it was 1977, and that’s how we got a disco album.

“Drowning In The Sea Of Love”, a six-year-old hit for Joe Simon, gets the Philly soul approach, with the backing vocalists mixed as high as Ringo. They also dominate “Tango All Night”, which was actually released as a single in Argentina; when he intones “I-yi-yi,” you’ll be inclined to agree with the sentiment. “Wings” is one of the originals, and while it kinda rocks, we wonder whether Paul McCartney’s band had any influence on the title. His mopey delivery is just too much for “Gave It All Up”, a litany of life’s disappointments that somehow still has a happy ending. The line about sitting “with a couple of beers” is unfortunately believable, and the coda sports a motif stolen from a Bee Gees song from the year before. “Out On The Streets” manages to pick up the pace, but it’s still faceless, up until the very odd closing rap.

He gives his all for “Can She Do It Like She Dances”, but it’s still embarrassing to endure. While “Sneaking Sally Through The Alley” has nothing on Robert Palmer’s version, it actually fits Ringo okay, again, until he starts extemporizing over the fade. “It’s No Secret” is an inoffensive slice of yacht rock, and “Gypsies In Flight” is an even slower variation on the same melody. Finally, “Simple Love Song” wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t sound so much like “Philadelphia Freedom”.

Truly, if Ringo was his best album, Ringo The 4th is barely 25% as good, or as successful. His cachet was sinking fast, and the label didn’t pick up his option. And to think only three years before he was the hottest ex-Beatle on the charts.

Ringo Starr Ringo The 4th (1977)—2

Friday, May 10, 2024

David Crosby 9: Here If You Listen

Enjoying the continued collaboration with Michael League, David Crosby kept up his creative run to work with him again—plus two women who’d sung on one song on the Lighthouse album—for his fourth album in five years’ time. (Yes, he actually doubled his output.) He even went so far as to credit Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, and League in that order on the cover of Here If You Listen, albeit under his much larger name, but still. Age did not affect the man’s gift.

The album truly is a collaboration, with everyone either contributing to the songwriting or providing it on their own. Voices blend everywhere, and while his is the most noticeable, the performers are serving the music, not Crosby. Just as he was able to prove in CPR, he does thrive when he’s in a band. With one exception, the quartet provides all the instrumentation, and none of those include percussion of any kind.

“Glory” showcases each vocalist in a lush but not overprocessed mix; indeed, the production is pristine throughout this album. “Vagrants Of Venice” sports a circular riff from Becca and collaborative, poetic lyrics. “1974” is one of two vintage demos newly amended here; wordless vocals from presumably that year scat over a trademark strum before the others join in to fill out the track. Snarky Puppy pianist Bill Laurance supplies the basis for “Your Own Ride”, wherein Crosby directly addresses his mortality inside a song for his youngest son. The lyrically minimalistic “Buddha On A Hill” is most notable for supplying the album title, which is frankly repeated way too many times, but the combination guitar and vocal solo is striking.

Becca set a Jane Tyson Clement poem to her own music for “I Am No Artist”, an eyebrow-raising claim considering Crosby’s history, but it’s not his song. “1967” is the other augmented vintage demo, his familiar “dun-dun” placeholders overlaid with three repeated lines of antiwar prose, fading on hammer-ons a la Michael Hedges. (And yes, we’d love to hear more demos like this.) Crosby alone supplied the lyrics for “Balanced On A Pin”, another subtle meditation on mortality and potential, while League takes the lead on the feminist “Other Half Rule”. Given all that’s come so far, Willis’s “Janet” is a jarring funk detour, and the cover of “Woodstock” is a vocal distillation of Joni’s original and the CSNY cover, but more along the lines of the former.

That sort of thing works better as a concert highlight than an album track. Sure enough, the combo played a short tour in support of the album, one night of which was commemorated on a CD and DVD four years later, and which ends with that very cover. The set is pulled mostly from the new one and Lighthouse, with an early detour to Stevens’ “Regina” from one of her solo albums, and a smattering of jazzier Croz classics. “What Are Their Names” is a minute-long a capella snippet, but “Déjà Vu” is stretched to ten minutes. Throughout the program he’s in excellent voice and having a great time, and it’s clear their natural-sounding blend was not a studio concoction.

David Crosby Here If You Listen (2018)—3
David Crosby & The Lighthouse Band
Live At The Capitol Theater (2022)—3

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Graham Nash 8: Over The Years

For no reason we can fathom, except maybe that the oldest song was turning fifty, Graham Nash decided to put together an anthology of his work. Over The Years… consisted of two discs—one of the album tracks we all know, and the other with demo versions of eight of the songs, plus seven others.

The first disc is enjoyable by itself. Most of it features Crosby, Stills, and sometimes Young, and from the fertile four-year period that straddled the turn of the ‘70s. Starting with “Marrakesh Express”, there are no real surprises or eye-raisers. Two of the five Songs For Beginners tracks are “previously unreleased mixes” for those who notice such things. Just one song comes from the ‘80s, and the disc ends with “Myself At Last” from his most recent album.

The demos disc is mostly previously unreleased, and provides an alternative view of most of the same period. These aren’t the lo-fi cassette variety we often get with demos, but studio-quality recordings. Beginning again with “Marrakesh Express”, it continues chronologically but still doesn’t get past 1972 until the last three songs. Each track is denoted with not only the year, but the city where it was recorded. Generally the demos aren’t too different from the final product, but there are some rarities. There’s “Horses Through A Rainstorm”, recorded by both the Hollies and CSNY but not released until decades later by either of them. The intricacies of “Pre-Road Downs” turn out to be built-in, which is unexpected, just as the piano on “Wind On The Water” is better than we thought him capable. (“Just A Song Before I Go” is another surprise on piano.) “Man In The Mirror” sports an almost jaunty intro that went unused, and “I Miss You” and “You’ll Never Be The Same”—both from Wild Tales—actually work better here. “Wasted On The Way” features Stephen Stills and Timothy B. Schmit, just like the album version would.

But for the repetition, Over The Years… nicely recaps what people like about Graham Nash. It also says something about his output that he seems to have very little that hasn’t been heard, nor does he put much stock into much over the last three decades.

Graham Nash Over The Years… (2018)—3

Friday, May 3, 2024

Kinks 29: Come Dancing

It had been ten years since the last Kinks kompilation, and it’s pretty safe to say that they had enough hits to fill such an album—particularly since their contract was up with the latest label. As proven by Come Dancing With The Kinks, helpfully subtitled “The Best Of The Kinks 1977-1986”, there were two records’ worth. The so-called Arista years were pretty solid as it turned out, and most of these tracks were FM radio favorites.

Of course, the live album included songs that had been around before, which is how the set could begin with “You Really Got Me”. That’s a good setup for the familiar structure of “Destroyer”, and while the disco thump of “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” is out of place, “Juke Box Music” and “A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy” show a common thread. The title track starts an upbeat side two, through “Sleepwalker”, “Catch Me Now I’m Falling”, “Do It Again”, and “Better Things”.

The third side begins like the first, this time with “Lola”. The snotty “Low Budget” leads into three more songs from State Of Confusion—“Long Distance” (which was only on the cassette of that album), “Heart Of Gold”, and “Don’t Forget To Dance”. The mood of that one is revealed to have its roots in “Misfits” from five years earlier, and it’s wisely placed at the top of side four. “Living On A Thin Line” gives Dave some of the publishing, but the real value is the first LP appearance of 1977’s “Father Christmas” single, with its bluntly honest sentiment disguised by a Springsteenian intro. The extended live “Celluloid Heroes” provides a fitting conclusion.

The set’s running time just exceeded 80 minutes, so something had to be sacrificed for the burgeoning compact disc format. To achieve this, the compilers chose to cut “Catch Me Now I’m Falling”, “Sleepwalker”, and “Misfits”. The latter was no real loss, but surely the two lesser tracks from State Of Confusion (read: non-hits) could have been booted instead.

When the album was reissued at the turn of the century as part of the Konk overhaul, those two were indeed left off, along with the live “Celluloid Heroes”, but replaced by “Full Moon”, “A Gallon Of Gas”, and “Good Day”. In other cases, the longer album tracks were used instead of single versions, to fill the disc to capacity. This only underscores that a band’s “best of” is purely subjective, as opposed to “greatest hits”, which can be verified. The order was shuffled as well, so it now begins with “Come Dancing”, sticks the live tracks in the middle, and ends with “Father Christmas”. Other than that, it seems very random, so while they may not sound as good, the 1986 versions are preferred.

The Kinks Come Dancing With The Kinks/The Best Of The Kinks 1977-1986 (1986)—3
The Kinks
Come Dancing With The Kinks/The Best Of The Kinks 1977-1986 (2000)—3

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Crazy Horse: Scratchy

Back when Neil Young hooked up with a group called the Rockets, he planned to not only use them as a backing band but also shepherd their career as a separate entity. As with most things in Neil’s career, intent didn’t always become results, and after the band was whittled down to guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina—and freshly monikered Crazy Horse—he augmented them on the road with session legend and mentor Jack Nitzsche. By the time they finally recorded their own album, young phenom Nils Lofgren was in the mix.

Danny is the main singer on Crazy Horse, beginning with “Gone Dead Train”, written by Jack and first heard sung by Randy Newman on the soundtrack of the Mick Jagger vehicle Performance at his most rockin’ ever. Neil’s “Dance, Dance, Dance” had figured in his own acoustic sets for a while; here it’s harmonized and augmented by Byrds-adjacent fiddler Gib Guilbeau. “Look At All The Things” is Danny’s first great song here, so simple yet mesmerizing. A constantly phased guitar colors “Beggars Day”, which Nils wrote and gets credited as lead singer on, but to these ears it sounds like Danny. But the song everyone remembers is the heartbreaking “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”, which got its widest exposure via Rod Stewart’s two cover versions.

“Downtown” has another Neil connection, as he’d pointedly release a live version one of his own albums. Jack’s piano drives his own “Carolay”, with cool California harmonies and surprising meter changes, but “Dirty, Dirty” isn’t much more than a three-chord stomp with lots of slide and little in the way of lyrics. We can hear more of Nils on “Nobody”, another strong early effort by the kid. “I’ll Get By” does indeed get by on the strength of some really obvious rhymes, and Jack proves why he was never a singer on “Crow Jane Lady”, which takes advantage of a long, long fade.

The sum is definitely greater than the parts on Crazy Horse, and the album holds together very well. We notice that Billy’s bass is more animated here than anywhere else captured on tape. But by this time Danny had become less than reliable, to put it mildly, and Nils was soon busy with his solo career. Nitzsche only had so much patience for most things anyway, and stuck with Neil. Undeterred, Billy and Ralph brought in erstwhile Rocket George Whitsell and two other guys to record a follow-up. Loose split the songwriting between the new guys, and given the generic country rock on display here, Whitsell was the key, with such strong tracks as “Try”, “Move”, and “All Alone Now”, but the wonderfully titled “And She Won’t Even Blow Smoke In My Direction” is sadly instrumental. (Greg Leroy’s “All The Little Things” is fairly decent too, and his slide guitar throughout does its best to fill the hole Nils left.)

But nobody cared, and this wasn’t enough to sustain them or keep them on Reprise, so at the end of 1972, Billy, Ralph, and Leroy started over again with two new members on keyboards and other guitar. At Crooked Lake sported a clever cut-out cover design, but that was about it. This music is even more generic than Loose—some tracks don’t even have the rhythm section at all—and can be avoided, unless you really liked Firefall. Both albums tanked, but luckily Ralph and Billy started working with Neil again, and eventually found guitarist Frank Sampedro, who was good enough to revive the Crazy Horse moniker, which is another tangent.

Neil has always spoken reverently of Danny Whitten, so Crazy Horse on their own haven’t exactly been forgotten as the decades passed. The band’s legacy got another boost in 2005 when Rhino Handmade compiled Scratchy, subtitled The Complete Reprise Recordings. This conveniently put the first album and Loose on one disc, with a handful of entertaining outtakes—mostly from the first album, plus a lame unreleased remake of “When You Dance You [sic] Can Really Love”—along with a “radio spot” and both sides of a 1962 single by Danny & The Memories (a.k.a. The Rockets when they were a doo-wop group) on a second disc. Historically it was nice of them to include both albums, but instead has us wishing they’d just stuck with a simple expanded version of the first album, with disc two’s extras added after the album proper. That’s how you can hear the first album on the Neil Young Archives site, after all.

Crazy Horse Crazy Horse (1971)—
Crazy Horse
Loose (1972)—
Crazy Horse
At Crooked Lake (1972)—2
Crazy Horse
Scratchy: The Complete Reprise Recordings (2005)—3

Friday, April 26, 2024

Yes 9: Yesterdays

By now Yes were ready for a break, and who could blame them. While the key members worked on the requisite solo projects, the label bided their time with a compilation. Yesterdays didn’t have to stretch too much for a title, as it was built around tracks mostly from the era of their first two albums, a.k.a. the ones before Steve Howe. The big draw—outside the Roger Dean artwork, and we could do without the kid taking a leak on the back—were the non-album tracks making their first appearance on a Yes LP, and which bookend this one.

“America”, here in its full ten-minute splendor, is a molecular reconstruction of the Simon & Garfunkel album track, incorporating motifs from the unrelated song of the same title from West Side Story (clearly an influence on the band from the beginning). This is the only track here with Howe and Rick Wakeman, who are revved up and restrained, respectively. Of their epics, it’s not their best, but it’s still a good setup for “Looking Around” from the debut, which is itself followed nicely by “Time And A Word”. “Sweet Dreams” interestingly sits in the same side-ending slot as it did on the second album. Unfortunately, side two drags a bit, although “Then”, “Survival”, and “Astral Traveller” are undeniable harbingers of their later developed sound. The orchestrated “Dear Father” was the B-side of “Sweet Dreams” and a good place for it, as the religious hand-wringing doesn’t really suit them.

Yesterdays is redundant in the CD era, as the first two albums have never gone out of print, and the rarities have become standard bonus tracks. But it arguably chose the best tracks to satiate those waiting for the next big statement—or spur new initiates to fill in their racks—while sending some cash Peter Banks’ way.

Yes Yesterdays (1975)—

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Kiss 14: Killers

The band’s rep had hit such a nadir by 1982 that their label—Casablanca no longer being the money chute it once was—fast-tracked a new Kiss compilation. They even insisted the band record new songs for it, but figured the band was such a lost cause that they didn’t bother releasing the set in the US or Canada.

Everything about Killers screams budget release, from the tacky lettering on the front to the garish pink triangle on both sides. There was no special inner sleeve, or any shilling for merchandise. Outside of the new songs, the balance is made up by older hits, all album tracks and some repeated from Double Platinum. Worst of all, Gene is shown with short hair, and Paul has a bandana. But since American veterans of the Kiss Army had to get it somewhere, they might have been surprised to see the alternate band logo on the German version of the album, as that country didn’t like how the “SS” in the regular version resembled that of Hitler’s Schutzstaffel. (The kids also would have had to find the Japanese and Australian editions of the album, each of which added two catalog songs, one of which was “Shandi”.)

Paul sings all the new ones, beginning with “I’m A Legend Tonight”, which is better than its chorus, save for the muffled drums. He yells his way through “Down On Your Knees”, which crams an awful—and we do mean awful—lot of clichés into three and a half minutes. This masterwork was co-written with Bryan Adams, of all people. Unfortunately, these only highlight the lyrical shortcomings of “Cold Gin” and “Love Gun”. “Shout It Out Loud” is the single mix, and “Sure Know Something” is one of the two “later” songs.

Paul wrote “Nowhere To Run” all by himself, and the best of the new songs musically; too bad he couldn’t think of a better chorus than “Nowhere to run/Nowhere to hide”. He also didn’t notice that “Partners In Crime” mentions someone being “down on your knees”; this riff deserved a better home too, and the canned horn blasts don’t help. It’s back to the hits with edited versions of “Detroit Rock City”, “God Of Thunder”, and “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, ending with the Alive! version of “Rock And Roll All Nite”.

Even the hits can’t save this album. But being what it was, Killers was a popular import for decades, particularly since the four new songs wouldn’t be collected on any other compilation until the 21st century. By that time the album was made available for streaming, incorporating the three songs from the Japanese and Australian sequences. And in 2022, those four rarities were included in the Super Deluxe Edition of Creatures Of The Night.

Kiss Killers (1982)—2

Friday, April 19, 2024

Steely Dan 8: Reissuin’ The Years

Way back in 1978, as part of a last gasp by ABC Records before being swallowed up by MCA—and knowing the band wouldn’t have any other product out soon—a Greatest Hits album by Steely Dan hit the shelves in time for the holiday buying season. This two-record set was packed to capacity, literally and figuratively, going through the band’s six albums to date in order, and leaning heaviest on Pretzel Logic. Twelve of the songs had actually been singles, but the biggest draw at the time was “Here At The Western World”, an decent unreleased tune from the Royal Scam sessions.

Not included on the set, likely because ABC didn’t have the rights to it, was the superior standalone single “FM”, recorded for the soundtrack of the movie of the same name. This was, however, included on 1982’s Gold, a typically thrown-together MCA compilation that also included “Hey Nineteen” and “Babylon Sisters” from Gaucho and five earlier album cuts seemingly chosen at random. At least it filled two sides of a record.

Three years later, to appeal to the burgeoning CD market as well as audio snobs who wanted slick recordings with which they could demonstrate the new hifalutin technology, A Decade Of Steely Dan took ten tracks from Greatest Hits and added the three later songs from Gold (also substituting “Deacon Blues” for “Josie”), all in a pre-shuffled order. The cover art made no sense, but at least the insert included musician credits for each track.

That set became the go-to Steely Dan hits CD, which meant “Here At The Western World” was left in limbo in the digital age. This was rectified in 1991 when Gold was reissued in an “Expanded Edition”, which tried to compensate for duplicating four songs on Decade by adding “Western World” along with some other rarities. Two were Donald Fagen solo tracks that had appeared on two very different movie soundtracks; the mostly instrumental “True Companion” from Heavy Metal is very Dan-like, while the slick “Century’s End” from Bright Lights, Big City isn’t. Perhaps most enticingly, a hot live “Bodhisattva” from 1974 that had appeared eight years later as the B-side to “Hey Nineteen”, of all things, rounded out the disc. Besides being one of the few recordings of the band as a touring outfit, it sports a lengthy inebriated and censored introduction from one of their roadies. (While originally recorded on cassette, some of the song’s vocals sound too clean to not have been overdubbed after the fact.)

By now the box set industry was in full swing, and Steely Dan had their turn in 1993; plus, they were on tour to promote Fagen’s new album. Citizen Steely Dan crammed all six albums in sequence onto four CDs, with the occasional track swap for an “enhanced” listening experience at the start and/or end of some discs. The live “Bodhisattva” was inserted in place between Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied, just as “Western World” and “FM” bookended the Aja selections. Beyond those, the sole rarity was a 1971 demo of “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies” stuck at the end of disc four, eschewing their other oft-bootlegged, early work and even both sides of their long-lost first single, which both guys said they hated. (Their active involvement with the set was borne out by the meticulously remastered contents—though they forgot to include the intro of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” in the first pressing—along with particularly sardonic and occasionally hilarious liner notes printed in an annoying all-caps font.)

That should be sufficient for anyone, but the allure of disposable income is too much for any record executive to resist, and why would they. At the turn of the century, Showbiz Kids did a nice job of expanding the original Greatest Hits onto two CDs, complete with the requisite dip into Gaucho, the inclusion of both “FM” and “Western World”, and finally acknowledging “Dirty Work” and “Aja” as essential, though perhaps at the expense of “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”, which is no real loss. Six years later, The Definitive Collection proved to be false advertising by sticking to a single CD and featuring a song from each of their 21st-century albums. At least it included “Dirty Work”.

Steely Dan Greatest Hits (1978)—4
Steely Dan
Gold (1982)—3
1991 Expanded Edition: same as 1982, plus 4 extra tracks
Steely Dan A Decade Of Steely Dan (1985)—
Steely Dan
Citizen Steely Dan: 1972–1980 (1993)—
Steely Dan
Showbiz Kids: The Steely Dan Story, 1972–1980 (2000)—4
Steely Dan
The Definitive Collection (2006)—3

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

John Cale 6: Slow Dazzle

Having found a sound he liked, John Cale kept going. Slow Dazzle presented another set of mature, obscure rock disguised as pop, with the help of Roxy refugees Eno and Manzanera, but notably brought guitarist Chris Spedding into the fold. The result is a mostly straight-sounding album that lists steadily toward madness.

With just a hint of the Philly sound, “Mr. Wilson” acknowledges the influence of the head Beach Boy without aping him in the slightest. “Taking It All Away” recalls the chamber pop of Paris 1919, and is the first hint of remorse over a failed romance. The irritated narrator of “Dirtyass Rock ‘N’ Roll” uses onomatopoeia to convey how it soothes his soul, while “Darling I Need You” is greasy ‘50s rock right down to the sax solo and “Rollaroll” could easily be sung by Bryan Ferry, but he might not have taken Cale’s lead, which was to start to howl as the song fades.

Such an unsettling sound is carried over onto side two, where Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” is transformed into the soundtrack to a horror film. By comparison, “Ski Patrol” would appear to be a celebration of the fine workers who perform such a task at the world’s resorts, but there’s a good chance it could also be cocaine. “I’m Not The Loving Kind” would be an obvious cover choice for any adult contemporary crooner worth his salt, if only for the lovely wordless melody that makes up most of the choruses. The opening line of “Guts” makes plain why his marriage was currently in the toilet, and his anger increases over the end of the track much like “Fear”, except that the band keeps going. None of this can prepare the listener for “The Jeweller”, a Kafkaesque short story recited even more unsettlingly than “The Gift” over droning and controlled feedback.

Slow Dazzle is not an easy listen, but it’s right in line with his then-current trajectory. Chances are most people diving in without warning would swim for the ladder as soon and as fast as possible, but those who can take it will find possibly his most consistent album yet.

John Cale Slow Dazzle (1975)—3

Friday, April 12, 2024

Jayhawks 7: Rainy Day Music

Having proven that they could stretch outside the box, the Jayhawks took advantage of the alt.country wave of the 21st century and went back to the well, so to speak. Rainy Day Music pared the group back to the core of Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, supported by the stalwart Tim O’Reagan on drums and harmonies and former Long Ryder Stephen McCarthy on the other guitars and stringed instruments. With the help of producer Ethan Johns, scion of the legendary Glyn, and a sessioneer on most of the keyboards, the sound was pared back too, without excessive fuzz or feedback, giving the songs room to breathe.

Proof that they’ve gone back to basics is evident immediately on “Stumbling Through The Dark”, with its prominent banjo. “Tailspin” has a little more crunch, but gets its boost from a great chorus and a terrific countermelody from Tim. “All The Right Reasons” brings the proceedings back to just above a hush, at least until the drums kick in, and “Save It For A Rainy Day” is one of those catchy songs we could swear we’ve heard before. There must be a reason why the protagonist of “The Eyes Of Sarahjane” spells her name that way, but it still sounds like a chorus matched to a completely unrelated verse. Not quite as schizophrenic is “One Man’s Problems”, which skirts with funk when it’s not going for California pop. Both are eclipsed by Tim’s “Don’t Let The World Get In Your Way”, which even has a Mellotron.

Others have noted that the second half isn’t as strong, but that’s not to say it’s not good. “Come To The River” goes for a soulful Southern rock vibe, and “Angelyne” manages to get a new song out of the same chords that launched a thousand Byrds and Petty knockoffs. “Madman” is another vibe peace, with swampy bongos and acoustic guitars under close harmonies. While very much related to “Waiting For The Sun” musically, with more acoustic touches, “You Look So Young” succeeds, particularly in the breakdown and subsequent bridge. Tim contributes another strong one, “Tampa To Tulsa”, while “Will I See You In Heaven” comes solely from the pen of Marc, who does not sing it. The closing reprise of “Stumbling Through The Dark” only helps to suggest that the album does seem to run long and gets too quiet at times.

Despite that, Rainy Day Music is nice and cozy for any kind of weather, and a welcome change of pace. It also helped that the American label’s new distribution deal with Universal brought them within the purview of the Lost Highway imprint, which gave it decent promotion among people interested in Ryan Adams and the like.

As was common at the time, a limited edition package included a bonus CD titled More Rain, which included the rockin’ “Fools On Parade”, two demos of otherwise unreleased songs, two alternate versions of album tracks, and a live acoustic take of “Waiting For The Sun”. These songs were not included on the expanded reissue some ten years later; instead five different, previously unreleased demos and another live cut were crammed onto the end of the disc.

The Jayhawks Rainy Day Music (2003)—3
2014 Expanded Edition: “same” as 2003, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Brian Eno 27: Mixing Colours

We don’t know if being Brian’s younger brother has done Roger Eno any favors, but he has managed to build up a catalog of his own brand of ambient music over the decades. Mixing Colours was the Enos’ first released collaboration in decades, and it was apparently built over a period of 15 years.

The brief is very much like the albums Brian did with Harold Budd—Roger plays gentle keyboards, mostly in the acoustic or electric piano family, and Brian treats the sound or adds his own touches. Each track’s title is derived from a specific shade or tint, so whether or not they convey an accurate representation of a mood is up to the individual. That being so, we found “Snow” to be very pretty and engaging, even before we checked to see what it was called. “Celeste” seems to be one of the more musically developed pieces, as opposed to a sketch, and “Slow Movement: Sand” does convey a certain majesty as it builds. By comparison, “Desert Sand” is dominated by a Brian texture right out of 1976. “Obsidian” breaks from the mold with an organ-based sound, tempered by the more chamber-nursery tone of “Blonde”. The album is easy to have in the background, so one might not notice that the melody of “Spring Frost” turns up again an hour later as “Cerulean Blue”, for example.

Mixing Colours was released at the start of the COVID lockdown, and provided a companion for enforced solitude. Some time afterwards, the Luminous EP presented another seven tracks by the duo, which may be easier to ingest as a shorter program. These were then inserted into the album’s original sequence, which was rereleased as Mixing Colours Expanded. All together, it’s pleasant aural wallpaper from the family dynasty that invented it.

Roger Eno and Brian Eno Mixing Colours (2020)—3
Roger Eno and Brian Eno
Luminous (2020)—3

Friday, April 5, 2024

Elton John 24: Ice On Fire

For his next trick, Elton wrote an entire album with Bernie Taupin, brought back Gus Dudgeon to produce, but overlooked his trusty rhythm section to rely on hired guns and threw himself back into the ‘80s. After all, Bernie was fresh off the success of “We Built This City” for Starship. But perhaps the biggest crime about Ice On Fire was the mullet.

Typical of its era, “This Town” sounds like the theme from a buddy cop soundtrack, and even though the horns are real, they sound canned, and Elton’s delivery is near rap. And that would indeed be Sister Sledge on the backing vocals. At least “Cry To Heaven” is a return to a piano ballad, and it mostly works except for the stock Yamaha DX-7 chime that will always sound like a Taco Bell commercial. Despite the cringey lyrics, “Soul Glove” is generically catchy, with a popping bass by Deon Estus, who’d recently worked with Wham! (More on them later.) “Nikita” was the surprising first single, a non-binary-specific love song with allusions to Soviet relations in the thawing of the Cold War. “Too Young” features the Queen rhythm section, not that you’d notice, particularly with subject matter that would make Benny Mardones blush.

Credited to six writers, “Wrap Her Up” is excruciating enough for George Michael’s falsetto response to every line, and gets worse with the litany of female icons over the end, ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Nancy Reagan. “Satellite” is loaded with wacky space effects and an intro that sounds like a ripoff of Bowie’s “Fame”, but the song itself mostly improves on that. Unfortunately, “Tell Me What The Papers Say” is completely cheesy in a not-good way, and the fake horns cover up the bass and piano way too much. “Candy By The Pound” might have potential if not for the robotic backing. All this makes the closing ballad “Shoot Down The Moon” both welcome and frustrating.

The cassette and CD included an extra track in “Act Of War”, a duet with R&B singer Millie Jackson that completely jarred at the end of the program. For some reason this was not included on the eventual expanded CD, which instead added three live songs used as B-sides as well as “The Man Who Never Died”, an instrumental written for John Lennon. No version of the album included the all-star single “That’s What Friends Are For”, wherein Elton sang with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder. This was a charity single released to raise money for AIDS research, which would become a key campaign for Elton once he got sober. But that was some time away.

Elton John Ice On Fire (1985)—2
1999 CD reissue: same as 1985, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Who 17: Who’s Last and Shea Stadium

Following Pete Townshend’s statement saying the band was done, there were rumors of a live album in the works that would encompass The Who’s entire career. Instead, the following Xmas saw the release of Who’s Last. Instead of a retrospective, the album consisted solely of performances taken from the 1982 farewell tour. And since it was on MCA, nothing from the ‘80s was included.

This is the showbiz Who, going through the motions, delivering the hits, with Pete playing the Schecter Telecaster copy that always sounded like his chorus pedal was jammed in the full position. It takes balls to include songs already perfected on Live At Leeds, and superior versions of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” were on The Kids Are Alright. Most of the tracks are padded front and back with audience noise. At least John Entwistle gets the last word with his shredding vocal on “Twist And Shout”, and Kenney Jones plays with more fire throughout the album than he demonstrated on any of his Who studio recordings. Except for the backing tapes to “Who Are You” and the Who’s Next tunes, any keyboards heard are provided by Tim Gorman, cruelly called “Jim Gorman” in the liner notes, adding to the shoddiness of the package. Despite occasional moments—such as the rockabilly coda to “Long Live Rock”—Who’s Last proved to be about as inspired as its title.

It took forty years, but they finally got around to releasing a complete show from this tour, but only after it had been released on DVD and Blu-ray that went out of print. They weren’t the first band to play Shea Stadium since the Beatles, but they were certainly the biggest, cramming the field over two nights. As it was about three weeks into the tour, they were up to speed and not yet worn out. (The final show from Toronto has been on video for years, and throughout that Pete looks as uncomfortable as his haircut.)

Live At Shea Stadium 1982 is taken from the second night, and being able to hear a complete set already puts it above Who’s Last. The mix is good, making the keyboards more audible, especially when they pan across the stereo spectrum. Roger’s in good voice as ever, Pete and John less so, but Pete’s sobriety kept him on track. And since they weren’t just playing the hits, but promoting the new album, the setlist is more balanced. Once they get the newer songs out of the way, they start dipping into the past. Pete does a verse of “I’m One” solo before the band crashes in for “The Punk And The Godfather”, and “Drowned” jams for nine minutes. They even play “Tattoo” for some reason, though Pete blows the first chorus, and include “I Saw Her Standing There” in the encores. It’s a long two hours, and not stellar, but better than what we had.

The Who Who’s Last (1984)—2
The Who
Live At Shea Stadium 1982 (2024)—3

Friday, March 29, 2024

Queen 9: The Game

Like most bands, a live album presented something of a chapter break for Queen, who leapt right into the ‘80s with The Game. There wasn’t a complete overhaul of their sound, but everyone except Brian May had shorter hair, and while he doesn’t have it on the cover, the inner sleeve shows Freddie with his new mustache.

Right away it’s clear that the band’s legendary aversion to synthesizers has passed, as “Play The Game” whizzes into place, but it soon turns into a standard if Beatlesque piano-driven piece from Freddie, with lots of layered harmonies and guitar bursts. (The video is worth watching for its now hilariously dated green screen effects and the freeze frame on each of the singers in turn, as well John Deacon, who of course never sang a note in the band and so just stands there.) “Dragon Attack” has a terrific snaky riff and a vocal not too far removed from “We Will Rock You”. This might have pleased those who weren’t happy with the overt funk of “Another One Bites The Dust”, the smash single that definitely sold the album. Deacon wrote it, as well as the more rocking “Need Your Loving Tonight”. The other draw was the undeniably catchy, rockabilly-tinged “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, which had been a single a full six months before the album came out.

“Rock It (Prime Jive)” begins with Freddie singing over a slow arpeggiated guitar, but the tempo changes and Roger Taylor takes over, its stupidity underscored by a cheesy organ. But for the handclaps, things get darkly humorous with “Don’t Try Suicide”, a track that otherwise sounds directly derived from “Walking On The Moon” by the Police. “Sail Away Sweet Sister”, sung mostly by Brian, is more somber but not mournful, and we wish the instrumental coda was longer. Roger brings back the stupid with “Coming Soon”, but Brian rises to the occasion with “Save Me”, an expression of empathy that could have been on any of their earlier albums.

Even with the modern touches, The Game is one of their better albums, and a return to form. Some of the credit could go to their new co-producer, who at this time was known only as “Mack” and apparently kept them reined in. They still sounded like Queen, and that’s all that mattered. (The routine modern remix on the 1991 reissue—this time of “Dragon Attack”—was again ignored for the later expansion, which instead included two live versions, the contemporary “A Human Body” B-side, the first take of “Sail Away Sweet Sister”, and a snippet of the unfinished “It’s A Beautiful Day”.)

Queen The Game (1980)—
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1980, plus 1 extra track
2011 remaster: same as 1980, plus 5 extra tracks