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” (1985)—3

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

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)—