Friday, February 23, 2024

Prince 23: The Vault

The Artist Still Referred 2 As Prince by Warner Bros. still owed them another album, so he gave them 1. The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale purportedly collected tracks from a variety of sources from the ‘80s and ‘90s; even after Crystal Ball, many of the Purple 1’s fans had been looking 4ward 2 such an album 4 years. (Sorry.)

We said “purportedly”; his liner notes stated they spanned the years 1985 to 1994. However, while one song was indeed recorded that early, the rest came from the ‘90s. They’re of a piece as well, bordering on jazz, and a few were even intended for James L. Brooks’ ill-fated I’ll Do Anything film when it was designed as a musical.

One of those songs was supposedly the bopping “The Rest Of My Life”, which could work as the theme song for any sitcom starring an empowered modern woman. The party noises on “It’s About That Walk” are a little distracting, but luckily they fade away to let the track breathe. “She Spoke 2 Me” had already appeared on the Girl 6 soundtrack; this extended version runs over eight minutes, with lots of soloing. “5 Women” had previously been covered by Joe Cocker, and even without hearing his version it’s easy to see how, given its “Thrill Is Gone” vibe. “When The Lights Go Down” sets a subtle groove, and lays back for a lengthy piano solo.

“My Little Pill” is another odd detour, especially when followed by the moody “There Is Lonely”. That song’s allusion to Biblical betrayal ties in well with the theme of “Old Friends 4 Sale”, which did indeed date from 1985, and got a big arrangement in the Parade era. These aren’t the original lyrics, but they’re just as bitter. “Sarah” lightens the mood considerably with a more expected appreciation of the female form, and “Extraordinary” is a hidden gem of a slow jam.

Being a contractual obligation, he did the bare minimum for this album. Compared to the bounty and quality of Crystal Ball, The Vault was a major letdown, but we can blame its marketing. Musically it’s still intriguing, unfairly overlooked, and just as worthy as Chaos And Disorder.

Prince The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)—3

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Dire Straits 9: On The Night and Live At The BBC

Despite lackluster reviews, On Every Street was a huge hit around the globe, and was followed by a massive world tour that kept the band on the road for over a year. Such an undertaking was likely done with the idea that it would never happen again, and to underline the finality of it all, the tour was documented on On The Night.

Everything is bigger since Alchemy, and even the Brothers In Arms tour, with nine guys now onstage. As he did on the album they were supporting, Paul Franklin adds prominent pedal steel throughout. This is noticeable right away, where “Calling Elvis” is stretched out to ten minutes. New drummer Chris Whitten, fresh from Paul McCartney’s world tour, pounds the skins. Twenty minutes are given over to “Romeo And Juliet” and “Private Investigations”, which of course had already been on Alchemy and not necessarily enhanced here. Everything else comes from the last two albums, and all are crowd-pleasers, but here they’re mostly longer with more guitar solos and interplay, some of which is intriguing and some of which is noodling. A song like “You And Your Friend” can set a mood on a home stereo, but pretty much plods in an arena. That said, the closing “Brothers In Arms” is positively majestic and moving.

In the UK where such things were more common, “Your Latest Trick” was released as a single, promoted as the Encores EP, sporting a hot pink photo negative of the On The Night cover, bolstered by three songs that weren’t on the album: “The Bug” (which actually came earlier in the set), and familiar Alchemy favorites “Solid Rock”, and “Local Hero—Wild Theme”. Some thirty years later, the Live 1978-1992 box set expanded the original album to two discs, adding three more lengthy repeats from Alchemy as well as another “Two Young Lovers”, two songs from On Every Street, but most interestingly, the ultra-rare “I Think I Love You Too Much”, which was performed at Knebworth in 1990 with guest Eric Clapton, and covered that year on an album by blind blues phenom Jeff Healey. (The Encores EP was repeated on its own.)

Just how far the band had come—or sunk, depending on your point of view—was soon underscored by the excellent and very welcome Live At The BBC. This late-century surprise combined a 1978 radio appearance by the initial quartet playing six songs from the first album, plus the rarity “What’s The Matter Baby”, cowritten with brother David Knopfler, and which sounds like a blueprint for “Lady Writer”. Fleshing out the disc is a 1980 TV performance of “Tunnel Of Love”, complete with both intros as eventually heard on Alchemy, that is worth the twelve minutes even after Mark’s guitar has gone way out of tune. Even with the addition of keyboards, they were very tight.

Dire Straits On The Night (1993)—
Dire Straits
Live At The BBC (1996)—

Friday, February 16, 2024

Fairport Convention 1: Fairport Convention

Joe Boyd is one of those Zelig-like characters to be found throughout this forum. He witnessed Bob Dylan going electric at Newport, he produced the first singles by Pink Floyd, and he started a production company that would eventually shepherd the likes of Nick Drake into public consciousness. This cachet would get him gigs working with R.E.M. and Robyn Hitchcock, among others. Fairport Convention was another of his early discoveries, and they’ve since gone on to become eponymous with English folk-rock.

In the beginning they were simply a coterie of like-minded young musicians trying to do something original. With Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble trading vocals, and two guitarists in Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol, they had something of a Jefferson Airplane vibe, but the rhythm section of Tyger Hutchings and Martin Lamble was more reserved. Their eponymous debut is all over the place, mixing esoteric covers with quirky originals.

Emitt Rhodes had yet to go solo and being his own cult status when they covered his “Time Will Show The Wiser”, an upbeat psychedelic jam with lots of lead guitar. They were also among the first to get to Joni Mitchell; “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” follows here, while “Chelsea Morning” begins side two. “If (Stomp)” was written by Matthews and Thompson, and has something of a Lovin’ Spoonful jugband feel, while “Decameron”, written by Thompson with two people we’ve never heard of, is a lovely duet. While co-credited to Bob Dylan, “Jack O’Diamonds” is merely a few lines taken from the liner notes of his fourth album set to music by Ben Carruthers, but good on them for including such an obscurity. “Portfolio” is a piano-driven instrumental with some sawing violins from the drummer.

Following a frantic “Chelsea Morning”, “Sun Shade” is another pleasant meditation from the team that brought you “Decameron”. Its eeriness sets up the weirdness of “The Lobster”, featuring autoharps and recorder and incorporating a poem by a 20th century British author. The mildly jazzy “It’s Alright Ma, It’s Only Witchcraft” is another nod to Dylan in name only, but it’s got a decent hook for a chorus. “One Sure Thing” is a melancholy tune borrowed from folk duo Jim & Jean (collectively the inspiration for Mitch & Mickey from A Mighty Wind, and she was allegedly the inspiration for Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl”). Another instrumental closes the side; “M.1 Breakdown” is an in-joke in reference to the new British highway, the bluegrass style, it apes, and the way it ends.

While it’s all over the place, what stands out on Fairport Convention outside of the quavery vocals is Richard Thompson’s lead guitar. Only 18 years old, he was already a force with which to be reckoned and worth watching, and certainly hearing.

The album didn’t come out in America until 1970, and on a different label, after three later albums had already been released. Once the catalog was unified, it did appear on CD over here in 1990, but collectors will want to seek out the expanded import (or streaming version) that includes four bonus tracks, including “If I Had A Ribbon Bow” (their first single) and previously unreleased covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, Tim Buckley’s “Morning Glory”, and Mimi & Richard Fariña’s “Reno, Nevada”, which Matthews would record on one of his own solo albums, and which gets an extended jam here.

Fairport Convention Fairport Convention (1968)—3

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Van Morrison 47: The Prophet Speaks

It worked the last time, so Van Morrison kept the pot simmering with Joey DeFrancesco and band. The Prophet Speaks was his second album of 2018, and his fourth album over fifteen months. Clearly, he was inspired, but enough to give Joey co-billing again.

Over half of the album consists of rhythm and blues deep cuts, from such familiar touchstones as Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, and Willie Dixon. Two songs come from mildly obscure Chicago blues artist Shakey Jake: “Teardrops” [sic] and a medley of “Worried Blues” and “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”. Van mostly sticks to singing and blowing harmonica throughout, adding alto sax to only the title track and “Ain’t Gonna Moan No More”. For some reason he sees nothing strange about duetting with daughter Shana on a song like “Gotta Get You Off My Mind”.

More interesting is the fact that Van apparently wrote some new songs for the album. “Got To Go Where The Love Is” burbles with electric piano and “Spirit Will Provide” has a soulful, spiritual feel, though “5 am Greenwich Mean Time” is a basic blues. While it namechecks various icons, “Ain’t Gonna Moan” is a hollow promise coming out of his mouth, considering it’s soon followed by “Love Is Hard Work”. Finally, the title track is actually profound in its message, if repetitive.

Along with You’re Driving Me Crazy, The Prophet Speaks suggests Van’s onto something in his sixth decade of performing. His stuff may not necessarily be new, but it is fresh.

Van Morrison The Prophet Speaks (2018)—3

Friday, February 9, 2024

Thomas Dolby 3: Aliens Ate My Buick

Frustrated by his second album’s failure to extend the chart success of the first, Thomas Dolby turned to producing other people and dabbling in soundtrack work. This choice to create art over artifice made plenty of room for the likes of Howard Jones and other folks with wacky haircuts and the latest synths and sequencers. When he did get around to making another album, it was on his terms, recruiting a new band of unknowns and starting from scratch. Aliens Ate My Buick unfortunately followed its elder sibling to be received by indifference, though it deserved better.

“The Key To Her Ferrari” is a complicated sounding jazz parody featuring the distinctive narration of Robin Leach. While definitely a familiar pop culture icon when the album was first released, he was already past his fifteen minutes even then, and newer generations might not get the joke. His own narrated interlude isn’t much better. Luckily, “Airhead” is certainly catchier, though certainly misogynist, which the “explanation” in the final line doesn’t excuse. The lasciviousness continues on “Hot Sauce”, contributed by funk legend George Clinton, sporting a regular “spaghetti western guitar” and salsa interlude, as well as references to Larry Blackmon of Cameo. (Clinton previously employed Dolby on one of his own albums, before joining him, and Lene Lovich, and the Brecker Brothers, on a one-off single called “May The Cube Be With You”. Originally credited to Dolby’s Cube, it’s included here as a bonus track slash afterthought on the CD and cassette.) “Pulp Culture” skewers the L.A. scene, with a groove that would be borrowed by David Bowie in five years for “Black Tie White Noise”.

People still thought of albums in terms of sides in those days, and side two is a little more reserved. “My Brain Is Like A Sieve” is an aw-shucks kind of love song with a mild but not overt Jamaican influence. Either Laura Creamer or Rosie Stone (of Sly & The Family) sings the perfect harmony, but that is Ed Asner saying “murder” for some reason in the middle. The title of “The Ability To Swing” is certainly suggested by the tempo, but the lyrics are more abstract. It was even covered six years later by Patti Austin. In “Budapest By Blimp” we finally have a sumptuous track in line with the travelogues on The Flat Earth. At over eight minutes, with a slight Steely Dan groove and impenetrable lyrics, it’s exactly what this album needs to succeed. (So much so that skipping the bonus track is advised.)

Because his name and the very title of Aliens Ate My Buick still told potential listeners that he was just as wacky as he was on “She Blinded Me With Science”, the album didn’t deliver for those seeking such hilarity, which is their loss. Besides, the title still brings a chuckle, and the back cover is a scream.

Thomas Dolby Aliens Ate My Buick (1988)—3

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Yardbirds 2: Having A Rave-Up

After scoring a hit single on both sides of the pond, the Yardbirds’ manager made sure they kept the hits coming in between gigs. Single after single were released in the UK, while America demanded albums, and that’s how Having A Rave-Up With The Yardbirds happened.

Side one of the album offers a smattering of those singles, although the first track made its debut here. The mildly socially conscious “You’re A Better Man Than I”, written by Manfred Mann’s drummer, sports good dynamics and a exploratory Jeff Beck solo over one chord. “Evil Hearted You” and “Heart Full Of Soul” were both written by Graham Gouldman, who was responsible for “For Your Love”; the former has a mild James Bond theme feel, while the latter sports a very Indian-flavored riff. Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” had already been covered by everybody in London, but it’s the Yardbirds’ version that stands above, with their patented rave-up approach (which would be copped by the Count Five for “Psychotic Reaction”). The rhythm section gets credit for writing “Still I’m Sad”, which betrays the brief flirtation many British groups of the time played with Gregorian chant. “Train Kept A-Rollin’” is a trash classic, from Beck’s locomotive imitation to Keith Relf’s inexplicably double-tracked, mismatched vocals. This recording is responsible for Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, so take that as you will.

While the packaging said nothing about it, the entirety of side two was excerpted from the previous year’s Five Live Yardbirds, which was the band’s only British LP release so far, and which still featured Eric Clapton on lead guitar. This was the stuff Clapton thrived on: Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning”, the Isley Brothers’ “Respectable”, Bo Diddley’s “Here ‘Tis”, and another blast through “I’m A Man”. And considering it was recorded at London’s legendary Marquee Club, the sound is very good.

Even though it wasn’t clear how or why the album was put together, Having A Rave-Up With The Yardbirds remains a solid listen. The singles are all solid, and somebody did us a favor by allowing the comparatively lengthy songs on side two, averaging five minutes each, to show the strength of the band, even if it did give short shrift to Clapton in the process. The album has had a confusing life in the digital era, but at the same time Five Live Yardbirds has remained available—starting with an official U.S. release on Rhino in 1988—which is a blessing.

The Yardbirds Having A Rave-Up With The Yardbirds (1965)—

Friday, February 2, 2024

Nilsson 7: Aerial Pandemonium Ballet

Now that more people knew who Harry Nilsson was, the label wanted to reissue his first two albums. That was mostly fine with him, but being very much a restless who got bored with the same old, he countered with a different idea. Rather than straight reissues of Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet, he reworked selections of both into Aerial Pandemonium Ballet.

People like to say this was the first remix album, to illustrate how ahead of his time Harry was. The fact of the matter is that sweetening an already-released master had been happening for years, such as in the case of the “rock” version of “The Sound Of Silence”; also this wasn’t long after tracks that had only been released in mono had been given stereo mixes months or even years down the road to keep up with audiophile trends. The difference was that Harry was overt about it, to the point that the back cover even helpfully listed what was different about each track (e.g. “slowed down”, “new vocals”, etc.).

Even with all the moderations and modulations, it still runs just under a mere half-hour. Following the familiar intro from the first album, two father songs (“1941” and “Daddy’s Song”) appear back to back. “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song” now sports a quote from “One” in the middle. “Good Old Desk” makes a nice transition to “Everybody’s Talkin’”, which even sets “Bath” up well.

Side two juxtaposes various love-type songs cleverly. “River Deep–Mountain High” gets a new vocal but keeps the castanets and bongos, the latter of which still feature on “Sleep Late, My Lady Friend”. Thankfully “Don’t Leave Me” and “Without Her” both a tad softer in comparison. “Together” sounds a little jerky, plus it loses a bridge, running even shorter than before and going sharply into “One”. This is also chopped down, and diluted by the tap dance that bookended Aerial Ballet.

Still, Aerial Pandemonium Ballet is a nice way to hear where he started. It can even be argued he selected the best, most enduring tracks from each, and in most cases improved them, so his instincts were spot on. (An expanded version of the album had only one “outtake”: a remix of “You Can’t Do That” that highlights the song’s actual lyrics. The other bonus tracks were from the same period, including early versions of songs that would appear on his next two albums, his party piece cover of “Walk Right Back” that weaves in lyrics from “Cathy’s Clown”, and a faithful cover of John Lennon’s “Isolation”.)

Nilsson Aerial Pandemonium Ballet (1971)—3
2000 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Guns N’ Roses 1: Appetite For Destruction

Maybe it’s because of our age, but the early ‘80s and late ‘80s sometimes seem very far apart from each other in memory. A glance at MTV playlists demonstrates the chasm: the early part of the decade was dominated by new wave until Michael Jackson took over, and the other half was all hip-hop and hair metal. The latter appealed to dirty young men, as all of a sudden cleavage had made a comeback, after years of being hidden under bulky sweaters.

Because MTV’s rotation model relied on oversaturation, those of us who weren’t connoisseurs quickly came to hate most of the hair metal bands, starting with Poison and Bon Jovi, but there was definitely something about those Guns N’ Roses guys. For one, although they had teased hair and tattoos and played loud, it seemed like they were cut more from the Aerosmith cloth than Mötley Crüe or even Van Halen. Their music was more intricate than the usual power chords, and the lead guitarist was skilled but not strictly a pyrotechnic shredder. Going by the non de plume of Slash, it was apt. His top hat and curls made a good counterpart for the banshee of a lead vocalist, who called himself W. Axl Rose, soon to be familiar solely by the singular Axl. The other guitarist, Izzy Stradlin, usually looked like he couldn’t decide if he was Mick or Keith, bass player Duff McKagan resembled a doughier male version of Kelly Bundy, and drummer Steven Adler sat at the back but swung a lot more than he got credit for.

Appetite For Destruction shows much of their musical breadth, beginning with the undeniable swagger of “Welcome To The Jungle”, the first single and soon-to-be inescapable video. After a lot of yowling, Axl works on his lower range for “It’s So Easy”, but storms through the Def Leppard interlude for a profane kiss-off. “Nightrain” loads up the riffs and solos for a toe-tappin’ ode to drinkin’. “Out Ta Get Me” isn’t much more than a riff and a hook to hang F-bombs on, while “Mr. Brownstone” goes out of its way not to glorify smack. Yowza, indeed. While the third one released, “Paradise City” ended up being the first single to come out after the album had already started to sell, and soon became a radio anthem despite or because of its six-plus-minute length.

After a dark Aerosmith-like intro, “My Michelle” is apparently a true story about another lost little L.A. girl, and there’s even more cowbell on the almost sensitive “Think About You”; it’s even got acoustic guitars. But these tentative approaches to love songs have nothing on “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. Constructed as a mini-suite, it’s got (another) one of those classic riffs pinning it, even a bass solo of sorts on the intro, and was helped along by a video that garnered more widespread appeal. The speed-punk “You’re Crazy” ups the energy as well as the attitude, which “Anything Goes” tries to sustain, but is mostly a showcase for Slash’s talk box, until the tempo switch at the end. Finally, “Rocket Queen” is another mini-suite that couldn’t get played on the radio, as the middle section includes audio-verité of actual sexual congress. That said, each of the bookends are solid tunes on their own.

While it took the better part of a year to get noticed, Appetite For Destruction basically ensured that GN’R would be ubiquitous on the radio and TV, as well as in the press for the next three years. While their saga would take various twists and hit new valleys, this is where their legend started, and it remains an impressive debut.

The album was natural candidate for expansion for its 30th anniversary in multiple configurations, and they went all out. The bonus disc in the Deluxe Edition included all of the tracks from the Lies album but one, replaced by an acoustic trial of “Move To The City” and an earlier “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, but the key addition is “Shadow Of Your Love”, an outtake from the original Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP that had been a B-side, but MIA until now. Five songs from the “1986 Sound City Sessions” show the band having the arrangements down, while three live tracks from London—including covers of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”—mop up tracks from out-of-print singles and EPs. Along with a pile of photos, ticket replicas, and even temporary tattoos, the Super Deluxe Edition added two more discs to encompass even more of the Sound City Sessions, including a shrill “Heartbreak Hotel”, an early take of “Back Off Bitch”, a few unfinished sketches, some spirited acoustic takes, and two versions of an epic called “November Rain”. (The piano-based take is just as long as the final product, while the one built around acoustic guitar sounds way too much like “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”.) For those who needed more, the $1000 Locked N’ Loaded Edition added everything on vinyl, plus a cassette of a 1985 demo session hidden amidst reams of even more ephemera.

Guns N’ Roses Appetite For Destruction (1987)—4
2018 Deluxe Edition: same as 1987, plus 18 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 21 tracks plus Blu-ray)

Friday, January 26, 2024

Kinks 28: Word Of Mouth and Return To Waterloo

Word Of Mouth found the still-busy Kinks in a state of transition. Founding drummer Mick Avory only played on three tracks on the album, and would be replaced by Bob Henrit, who’d followed Jim Rodford from Argent, via Dave Davies’ recent solo albums.

There must have been no hard feelings, since Mick appeared in the video for “Do It Again”, the album’s first track and lead single. It fades in on a variation of the opening to “A Hard Day’s Night”, and crackles along like a good Kinks single should. The title track has another wonderfully fuzzy riff and high harmonies from Dave, but “Good Day” sounds like a glorified demo. Still, its message of determination, even in the wake of a starlet’s death, is inspiring. Then Dave surprises us with rare political commentary in his “Living On A Thin Line”, and his mild yobbo phrasing works well with Ray’s occasional answering. Ray himself answers with the punky “Sold Me Out”, an angry comment on the same theme.

Following some synth-based wandering, the main riff on “Massive Reductions” sounds horribly dated today; while the song eventually rocks, the subject matter is starting to wear thin. Dave comes back with the angry (again) “Guilty”, but at least he wasn’t singing about aliens anymore. The wordy “Too Hot” has canned horns and some of the calliope sounds from “Come Dancing” disguising lyrics about the workout craze somehow related to more social commentary. After a lot of energy, “Missing Persons” provides sweet relief despite the sad subject matter. “Summer’s Gone” is almost Stonesy in its tempo and Dave’s licks, but there are some clever Beach Boy touches, and we can’t help thinking it’s about breaking up with Chrissie Hynde. We could say the same about “Going Solo”, but closer inspection shows it’s a parent’s plaint about grown offspring.

Even though Word Of Mouth is no masterpiece, it’s still a decent Kinks album, particularly considering how long they’d been at it. (The only bonus tracks on the expanded reissue 15 years later were extended versions of “Good Day” and “Summer’s Gone”.) If it sounds a little distracted, that’s likely because Ray was busy with yet another attempt at melding music and drama.

Though it had nothing to do with another song, Return To Waterloo was something of a Dennis Potter-influenced rock opera, depicting the dreary point of view and visions of a commuter who may or may not be a serial rapist, broadcast in the UK in late 1984, with limited theatrical showing in the US the following year. It’s a bit pretentious but still riveting, and therefore more successful than Pete Townshend’s White City.

Besides writing and directing it, Ray appears briefly as a subway busker, just like in the “Do It Again” video. A soundtrack album—credited solely to Ray, likely because Dave didn’t (or wouldn’t) play on it—runs just under a half-hour, and shares three songs with Word Of Mouth. (They also happen to be the three songs Mick played on. Meanwhile, “Ladder Of Success” and “The Good Times Are Gone” are in the film but not included on the album, probably because they’re sung by actors.)

Following an atmospheric intro, the title track begins as a busk, but soon detours into uncharacteristic yet effective synths. “Going Solo”, “Missing Persons”, and “Sold Me Out” gain a little more insight in this context, while the remaining tracks not only have promise, but work well without a screenplay. “Lonely Hearts” is a lover’s lament, offset by an advice columnist. One of the last lines is “you are far away”, and then we have “Not Far Away”, a rocker “sung” by a young Tim Roth in the film. The doom prophecy in that tune gets a different perspective in the more somber and stately “Expectations”. The techno-pop “Voices In The Dark” is used over the end credits, and pulls the theme of the film back from a response to Thatcherism towards general existential loneliness.

The Kinks Word Of Mouth (1984)—3
1999 Konk CD reissue: same as 1984, plus 2 extra tracks
Ray Davies Music From The Motion Picture “Return To Waterloo” (1984)—3

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Roger Daltrey 8: Can’t Wait To See The Movie

While we can’t find the exact quote, we distinctly recall hearing an interview with Roger Daltrey around the time this album came out, saying that hearing the songs made him think, “I can’t wait to see the movie they’re from,” as if that were a good thing. Can’t Wait To See The Movie sounds like a stereotypically bad ‘80s movie soundtrack, all programmed drums, power chords, slapped and/or synth bass, and screaming saxes. As usual, he relied on outside songwriters for material, starting with his go-tos Russ Ballard and the otherwise unknown Kit Hain, and apparently Pete Townshend didn’t leave anything lying around for him, which is a shame.

Thinking back it seems like there were approximately a couple dozen different songs called “Hearts Of Fire” in those days, none of them very good. This one came very soon after a legendarily bad Bob Dylan cinematic vehicle, so at least there’s something of a tangential relation. “When The Thunder Comes” is overwrought with battlefield metaphors, while “Ready For Love” is nearly drowned out by a loud gospel-style choir. He wrote “Balance On Wires” himself with Don Snow, best known as the guy who replaced Paul Carrack in Squeeze; as one of the more understated tracks here it stands out, and in a good way, but it’s still too long at over six minutes. The choir returns to belt out the chorus of the sappy “Miracle Of Love” alongside him, but while he’s a decent actor, he simply can’t pull off the role of a sentimental fool.

Along the same basic theme, “The Price Of Love” is the long-awaited collaboration between schlockmeister tyrant David Foster and Night Ranger’s Jack Blades, who was a couple years away from Damn Yankees. (This was included on the soundtrack for that year’s Michael J. Fox vehicle The Secret Of My Success, which had a theme song written by the same pair, and performed by Night Ranger.) And while it may be that “The Heart Has Its Reasons”, that’s no excuse for aping the arpeggios of “Every Breath You Take” and its innumerable clones. Four writers are credited for “Alone In The Night”, one of whom wrote the lyrics for most of the songs from the Top Gun soundtrack. “Lover’s Storm” sports some good harmonies, but we can’t tell if those are by Roger or one of the ten people listed in bulk on the sleeve. Most curious is “Take Me Home”, a remake of a French song called “Cargo” from a few years before, with new lyrics.

The album was a sales dud, and rightfully so. Ironically, it did not include his cover version of Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, as featured in the summer’s hit film The Lost Boys and on its soundtrack album—conveniently issued by the same label—which might have helped. Nor did it have “Quicksilver Lightning” from the year before, the theme for a Kevin Bacon movie nobody liked. These would have been prime candidates for inclusion when Can’t Wait To See The Movie was expanded in 2004 by the Wounded Bird label, which even fewer people needed.

Roger Daltrey Can’t Wait To See The Movie (1987)—

Friday, January 19, 2024

Yes 8: Relayer

Suddenly Yes was in flux again, in search of a keyboard player. Rick Wakeman was gone, more content to compose, record, and perform Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table over the space of two years because he thought Yes music was getting too fruity. They ended up hiring one Patrick Moraz, who apparently not only copped some of their existing material, but was able to collaborate from the get-go.

While he does have a distinct style, what he provides Relayer is very much in line with the Wakeman brand to date. It’s a cold album, matching the gray landscapes in the cover art. It’s back to the Close To The Edge template of an epic on one side, and two shorter tracks (albeit nine minutes each) on the other.

“The Gates Of Delirium” is that side one epic, and something of a piece with Tales Of Topographic Oceans. Jon Anderson allegedly wanted to base the whole album on Tolstoy’s War And Peace, but was talked back to just the one track referencing just one battle. It begins with a whirlwind of sound, with a lot of harmonics on guitar, that soon turns into something of a fanfare. When the lyrics arrive, they’re more direct than impressionistic, and darker, as befits impending bloodshed. The bulk of the track is instrumental, with lots of activity and polyrhythms to illustrate the scenery, and Moraz is given plenty of room to stretch. (We even hear what sounds like crowds cheering, but maybe those are merely supposed to be bombs bursting in air. Also, it’s clear the sections have been edited together rather than played straight through, which is fine.) About fifteen minutes in the action finally calms for a more dreamy atmosphere, for lack of a better term. While it’s not notated as such anywhere in the packaging, a piece referred to ever after as “Soon” provides both a finale to the piece as well as a moment of beauty capping a very dense side of music. Hearing this part on its own is nice, but it really is more powerful in the context of the full piece.

Flip over to side two and it’s easy to think you put on a fusion album by mistake, with rippling electric piano, diminished chords right out of Bitches Brew, and panned paradiddles, despite Chris Squire’s distinctive bass. But once the guitar and vocals kick in, “Sound Chaser” is clearly a Yes tune, albeit a frenzied one. Everyone is playing at top speed, yet still well in sync, with Jon and Chris singing on top. About three minutes in the others drop out, leaving Steve Howe to wander around his fretboard towards more pastoral themes and a suitable Jon melody, but the respite is shortlived, bringing back the fusion and discord of the intro. It actually seems to speed up and slow down, punctuated occasionally by a very loud “JAH JAH JAH, CHA-CHA” motif that’s frankly pretty annoying. After all that, “To Be Over” is a breath of fresh air, with a gentle melody played on quiet keyboards, volume pedal guitar and even a sitar; by the middle Howe has added pedal steel as well as his trademark riffing and solos. While still intricate, it's not anywhere near as harsh or jarring as the rest of the album, and doesn’t even seem to take up nine minutes.

Relayer is Yes at their proggiest to date, if you can believe that. It’s not an easy listen, nor very accessible, and requires as much attention as Topographic Oceans did to sink in. The instrumental interplay can be very dense at times, to the detriment of the players, each of whom add a lot when you notice them.

The eventual expanded edition added the single edits of “Soon” and “Sound Chaser”—the former simply that excerpted segment of “The Gates Of Delirium”, the latter the last three minutes of the song and entirely instrumental save the “JAH JAH” chant—plus a “studio runthrough” of “Gates”. Only the two single edits were carried over to the CD of the later “definitive edition”, which sported a modern Steven Wilson mix lacking some overdubs. In addition, runthroughs of not just “Gates” but the entire album were included with new and surround mixes on the DVD and Blu-ray; the latter offered even further mix variations and live material. (The Wilson mixes for this and the previous four studio albums were eventually released on vinyl in a box set, as well as streaming, where the side-long tracks are split into parts, or their stated segments in the case of Close To The Edge. The guy does good work.)

Yes Relayer (1974)—3
2003 remastered CD: same as 1974, plus 3 extra tracks
2014 Definitive Edition: “same” as 1974, plus 2 extra tracks (plus DVD or Blu-ray)

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

David Crosby 8: Sky Trails

It’s amazing that it took this long for Crosby to realize that he didn’t need Stills, Nash, or Young to goad him into creating. Sky Trails was his third album in as many years, and just as different to its predecessors. Anyone worried that James Raymond had fallen out of favor can be relieved, as he’s all over this one, adding a distinctly jazzy influence throughout.

“She’s Got To Be Somewhere” crackles with Steely Dan funk, from the electric piano and horns to the Dean Parks guitar solos. The lovely title track is an acoustic gem written and sung with Becca Stevens, whom we first heard on Lighthouse. There’s a forced metaphor in “Sell Me A Diamond”, but the track itself is good, with Greg Leisz adding steel guitar before Jeff Pevar gets to shred all over it. Continuing the Steely Dan connection, “Before Tomorrow Falls On Love” was written with THE Michael McDonald, but is musically based on Raymond’s piano and Mai Agan’s striking fretless bass. She’s the cowriter of “Here It’s Almost Sunset”, which features further soprano sax work from Steve Tavaglione.

“Capitol” is the requisite political diatribe, and unfortunately derails the momentum thus far; the fake drums don’t help. A reverent cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia”, however, sounds of a perfect piece with the rest of the program. “Somebody Home” had already appeared in a live version on a Snarky Puppy album, and here it’s nicely restrained, considering how many people are on the track. The complicated “Curved Air” melds flamenco with jazz over dizzying, changing meters, and “Home Free” is a slow, grateful appreciation of simple domesticity.

Each of the albums he made this decade have been good, and Sky Trails is by far the strongest. One would think the well would be dry after working at such a speed, but it’s nice to have one’s assumptions refuted.

David Crosby Sky Trails (2017)—

Friday, January 12, 2024

Stephen Stills 15: Everybody Knows

It was a great idea on paper: Stephen Stills and Judy Collins, who’d collaborated briefly musically and otherwise in the late ‘60s, finally doing an album together. Being the nature of the biz in this century, Everybody Knows was crowdfunded and promoted with a tour.

The album mixes covers and songs from their own catalog, some of which actually refer to each other. This would have been wonderful if these septuagenarians had voices that blended. Judy still has it, and sounds as sweet as ever, but Stephen does not mesh with her at all. The result is akin to overhearing a conversation at a high school reunion, appealing much more to the participants than observers.

The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” is a surprisingly fun way to start. “So Begins The Task” was on the first Manassas album, but allegedly dates from just after their breakup. “River Of Gold” is a lovely lament for the environment written and sung by Judy, which soars when Stephen takes a solo, but sinks when he harmonizes. He finds the notes, but his voice is just too rough. The vintage “Judy” follows, first heard on Just Roll Tape, and odd to hear her harmonizing. The title track is the oft-traveled Leonard Cohen song; he died the year before.

Judy first released “Houses” in 1975, and we imagine Stephen was tickled to have a song written about him included. “Reason To Believe” and “Girl From The North Country” are of course well-worn folk standards, and Judy likely gave “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” its widest exposure back in the day. Finally, “Questions” doesn’t stray too far from the Buffalo Springfield template.

Impeccably recorded with a mix that recalls the soft rock of Daylight Again, Everybody Knows is a nice idea that unfortunately is fifty years too late. Had they managed to make an album like this back then, there’s a good chance it would have been widely beloved. But this isn’t it.

Stills & Collins Everybody Knows (2017)—2

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Ringo Starr 6: Ringo’s Rotogravure

The end of the Apple label didn’t keep Ringo out of the studio for long. Taking a hint from George, he launched the Ring O’ Records imprint, which even featured a clever logo, to wean and promote new talent. But he himself preferred to sign new deals with majors instead—Atlantic in America and Polydor everywhere else—and recorded Ringo’s Rotogravure with his all-star buddies in a matter of weeks.

After a promisingly raucous blast of energy, “A Dose Of Rock ‘N Roll” limps into place with a lot of Peter Frampton wah-wah. There’s a clever quote of Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” at the end, but then the next track is a full-fledged cover of the tune. By now Paul McCartney was a hot ticket again, yet “Pure Gold” is hardly one of his hidden treasures. He and Linda add superfluous backing vocals, but the highlight of the track is Klaus Voormann’s bass playing. A song that does work is Ringo’s own “Cryin’”, written naturally with Vini Poncia, and sounding like an excellent distillation of Beaucoups Of Blues. (Sneaky Pete Kleinow also makes his second appearance on a solo Beatle album.) Producer Arif Mardin’s touch is most obvious on the slightly disco-fied “You Don’t Know Me At All”.

“Cookin’ (In The Kitchen Of Love)” is notable for being the only new Lennon composition (and performance) released in the second half of the ‘70s, and it’s positively flimsy. Still, we like hearing his “two thee fo” before the coda. George was represented by “I’ll Still Love You”, a slightly syrupy but still pretty ballad that dated from 1970. (He was apparently not happy with either the mix or Lon Von Eaton’s guitar solos, and added another lawsuit to the intra-Beatle pile.) Meanwhile, Eric Clapton donated the leftover “This Be Called A Song” as well as his noodling throughout, fighting for space in the mix with steel drums. As if that exotic sound wasn’t enough, a mariachi band features on “Las Brisas”, which Ringo wrote with then-paramour Nancy Andrews. “Lady Gaye” is curious, being co-written with one Clifford T. Ward, who’d had a mild hit somewhere with an unrelated song called “Gaye” and had another song called “Birmingham”, which was the musical inspiration for this. All in all, a lot of work for a piece of fluff. For no apparent reason other than to stretch the album further past a half-hour, a closing 90-second ramble called “Spooky Weirdness” isn’t exactly false advertising, but it’s also unnecessary.

Just as Goodnight Vienna wasn’t as good as Ringo, so does Ringo’s Rotogravure suffer from the Xeroxing. It wasn’t enough for Ringo to get by on his personality, and without decent songs he was lost, no matter how many of his famous friends contributed their talents.

Ringo Starr Ringo’s Rotogravure (1976)—

Friday, January 5, 2024

Micky Dolenz: Sings Nesmith and R.E.M.

Throughout the original TV series, it was apparent that Micky Dolenz and Mike (as he was known then) Nesmith were the Frick and Frack of the Monkees, playing on the assumed telepathic partnership of John and Paul in the Beatle legend. Even then, Micky was a champion of Nesmith’s songs, and it wasn’t until Nez returned to touring with the Monkees in the 2010s that Micky’s exhortations got more regular and wider broadcast. By that time, family scion Christian Nesmith, who’d already been a veteran of touring outfits ranging from Air Supply to King’s X, was the musical director for Monkees’ live show. This continued when Micky and Nez were the only surviving members, and could finally call their schtick “The Mike & Micky Show”.

As with everything else in the music world, Covid put touring on hold, but since Micky had never been lazy and loved to sing, he decided to do his own spin on the Nilsson Sings Newman album by applying the concept (and cover design) to his buddy’s catalog, and corralled Christian to arrange it all. The resultant Dolenz Sings Nesmith accomplishes its thesis, relying mostly on songs outside the Monkees catalog. Many of those songs were originally released in Nashville country arrangements, which makes the templates fairly straightforward, but even the familiar ones are taken in less obvious manners.

“Carlisle Wheeling” includes everything but the kitchen sink, encompassing the original approach with arty touches. “Different Drum” is very daring, as the first-ever hit version put Linda Ronstadt on the map, but this one is done fairly straight. A deep cut on Instant Replay, “Don’t Wait For Me” is here presented with a simple picked acoustic accompaniment. The more obscure “Keep On” and “Marie’s Theme” are showcases for Christian’s keyboards, but still work. “Nine Times Blue” and “Little Red Rider” were both attempted by Nesmith with the Monkees before getting paired on the first First National Band album; here Micky takes the same approach, singing the former with a piano and rocking up the latter following the built-in key change.

“Tomorrow And Me” takes the tumblin’ tumbleweeds of the original to a more futuristic desert, pushing his voice to the upper limits of his senior range. Unfortunately, we didn’t need another version of “Circle Sky”, especially after it was redone once already, and certainly not with a faux-raga treatment. Similarly, “Tapioca Tundra” appears to be set on Mars, but still encouraging Micky’s vaudeville schtick. Much better is “Propinquity”, demoed by Nez for the first album and turned here into a stomper with an appealing banjo part. “Only Bound” is still spacey, and nicely segues into a snippet of “You Are My One”, a quarter of the length of Nez’s original jazz odyssey and filtered through Brian Wilson.

Nesmith died that December, and a month later Dolenz released Dolenz Sings Nesmith – The EP, containing four more songs from the sessions. The given highlight was “Soul-Writer’s Birthday”, a previously unreleased composition that shares the guitar accents with “Salesman” but otherwise isn’t much. “Some Of Shelly’s Blues” and “Grand Ennui” (the latter a bonus track on the main album’s CD) are taken country, while “The Crippled Lion” becomes a big ballad.

Dolenz Sings Nesmith is ultimately a vanity project, but it does reinforce what an inventive writer Michael Nesmith was, melodically and lyrically. As most of his post-Monkees catalog is slowly becoming available again, the curious would be well rewarded to go back to the sources.

After those were given time to marinate, another project that was about as expected and double take-inducing as Pat Boone covering Ozzy Osbourne or Paul Anka doing “Mr. Brightside”. Dolenz Sings R.E.M. was tackled the same way as the Nesmith album, featuring new arrangements of four songs mostly performed by Christian. With “Shiny Happy People” the performers actually managed to make one of the shortest shelf-life R.E.M. songs into a thing of beauty. The waltz intro and interludes are retained, and Micky’s sister Coco gets to sing the Kate Pierson part. “Radio Free Europe” and “Man In The Moon” are perhaps too iconic to be re-interpreted, but “Leaving New York” is positively gorgeous. The R.E.M. boys loved it; perhaps this could be fleshed out into a full-length.

Micky Dolenz Dolenz Sings Nesmith (2021)—3
Micky Dolenz
Dolenz Sings Nesmith – The EP (2022)—3
Micky Dolenz
Dolenz Sings R.E.M. (2023)—3

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Donald Fagen 3: Kamakiriad

Working with The New York Rock And Soul Revue must’ve done something to Donald Fagen’s creativity, as he was soon at work on his second real solo album. When Kamakiriad appeared, fans were surprised to see Walter Becker listed as producer, and more so when a reconstituted Steely Dan—stocked mostly by younger session cats—toured to support it.

Naturally, in all the excitement the album was often overlooked, particularly since only a few songs appeared in the setlists. That’s odd, because Kamakiriad was considered a song cycle of sorts, if not exactly a concept album. Where The Nightfly took the point of view of a young man on the cusp of the ‘60s envisioning the future, this time we have a middle-aged man imagining the future from the present day.

“Trans-Island Skyway” sets the scene as Our Hero drives off in his new space-age car, a steam-powered vehicle that grows its own food and features satellite navigation technology. (It’s not quite like Pete Townshend predicting the Internet, but still.) Despite the persistently jaunty mood, “Countermoon” refers to relationships gone stale or sour, so he decides to head to “Springtime”, a fun house that exists in the past as well as the future. Despite that stated intention, the next track finds the narrator “Snowbound”, but still trying to enjoy himself in hermetically sealed environment.

“Tomorrow’s Girls” has a mildly retro sound, painting a pretty picture that probably isn’t real. And he knows it, since he spends the fade reeling off dozens of names of the women that have apparently captured his eye in the past. Yet “Florida Moon” continues his fantasy of finding some sun-kissed strumpet to keep him company in a warmer clime. Yet the unpleasant memories he alludes to “On The Dunes” suggest it’s not the best place to be, so he’s clearly conflicted. At least “Teahouse On The Tracks” provides some kind of haven to which he can always return, where the music is hot and the dancing doesn’t stop.

Overall Kamakiriad sounds like a Steely Dan album with honking horns, slick guitars, cooing background singer, automated-sounding drums, and yeah, it’s a little sterile. No track is shorter than five minutes, and most exceed six. There’s a lot of sameness, especially in the tempo and the same rhythm, so it often fades into the background, whereas The Nightfly was much more dynamic. But if this is what it took to get the boys back on the road, so be it.

Donald Fagen Kamakiriad (1993)—