Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Rush 27: R40

Their fortieth year as a band was celebrated with a North American tour, resulting in Rush’s eleventh live album. R40 Live was another three-CD package, also made available with or as a DVD or Blu-ray set; this would be preferred by most fans who would not only appreciate seeing their idols—and their antics—up close, but also get the various comedic films shown as interludes throughout in high resolution.

After “The World Is… The World Is”, a montage of 26 iconic Rush riffs compiled to accompany the opening video, the first disc more or less travels backwards in time from Clockwork Angels to Signals, but skipping three ‘80s albums. (This might not have been the smartest idea, as Geddy Lee ends up forced to sing at higher registers as the show progresses.) The second set relies on the old faithfuls and epics from Moving Pictures and Permanent Waves, followed by excerpts from “Cygnus X-1” in shuffled order, staying on A Farewell To Kings for “Closer To The Heart” and “Xanadu”, and finishing with a 12-minute condensation of “2112”. The encores combined “Lakeside Park” with “Anthem” and “What You’re Doing” with “Working Man”, ending with a tag of their early “Garden Road”, which never made it to an album.

To fill up the third disc, various performances from throughout the tour not played at these shows were included, to provide as complete a chronicle as possible. Performed live for the first time ever on this tour, “Losing It” appears twice: once with original violinist Ben Mink, and again with Jonathan Dinklage of the Clockwork Angels String Ensemble from the last show of the tour.

Naturally everything is impeccably played, two drum solos are indexed, and there’s enough variety from the last few live albums to keep it from sounding too redundant. Again, the visual aspect of the show is key, as the stage setup goes from the steampunk setup at the start through the washing machines to the Marshall stacks, ending with amps atop wooden chairs. Even Geddy switched to his old basses and smaller keyboards as the need fit.

Following this tour, finding himself increasingly beset by physical limitations, Neil Peart decided he’d had it. The other two agreed. Rush would never perform as a band, live or in the studio, again.

Rush R40 Live (2015)—

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

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 not 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