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

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Neil Finn 7: Out Of Silence

Always into doing something different, Neil Finn’s next move was to rehearse and record an album quickly, and in front of an audience. But Out Of Silence wasn’t just another live album—its production was livestreamed, which wasn’t a common thing in those days. Another unique aspect is that he wrote (and played) the songs on piano, adding another facet to his style. Sons Elroy and Liam add bass and drums where requested; throughout, strings and a small choir of singers add color.

The electronic effect at the start notwithstanding, “Love Is Emotional” sets the bittersweet template, continued on “More Than One Of You”. Beginning with some spooky vibes, “Chameleon Days” is a little more experimental sounding, or maybe it’s just his falsetto vocal. Arpeggiated guitars drive “Independence Day”, which gets a terrific lift for the choruses. Brother Tim shows up for “Alone”, derived from the works of British author Mervyn Peake.

Keeping it in the family, wife Sharon co-wrote “Widow’s Peak”, another poetic reverie. “Second Nature” picks up the pace with the most accessible track here. He gets mildly political on the pleading “The Law Is Always On Your Side” and “Terrorise Me”, the latter of which echoes “Edible Flowers”. These make “I Know Different”, while weary, something of an expression of hope.

Out Of Silence can be a little precious at times, but it’s certainly a welcome departure. A lot is packed into its 35 minutes, and it may be his finest solo work yet.

Neil Finn Out Of Silence (2017)—3

Friday, March 22, 2024

Jerry Garcia 8: Almost Acoustic

Multiplatinum success wasn’t going to slow Jerry Garcia down any, and just because the Dead didn’t have any gigs booked didn’t mean he wasn’t going to play somewhere. For a few months in 1987 and 1988 he did a series of shows with a group that augmented a few members of the Jerry Garcia Band with old friends David Nelson (of New Riders of the Purple Sage) and Sandy Rothman plus a fiddle player. Hence, the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band.

The repertoire was primarily folk and blues, not as extreme as the bluegrass of Old & In The Way but certainly connected. Almost Acoustic presented a grab bag of tunes recorded during stands in Frisco and L.A. and released on the Dead’s own label for the new generation of Deadheads to snap up for their CD players. These kids would have been familiar with the likes of “Deep Elem Blues” and “I’ve Been All Around This World”, and of course the closing “Ripple”, but they might not have expected the original song about Casey Jones. In the process they would become more familiar with the work of Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, Jimmie Rodgers, and so forth.

The playing is relaxed and friendly, the crowd noise appreciative but not distracting. Jerry’s voice is a bit rough, but he’d been through a lot lately. Luckily the other pickers sing, and they harmonize well. And if you like this, there’s more where it came from, as seen below.

Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band Almost Acoustic (1988)—3
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Pure Jerry: Lunt-Fontanne, NYC, 10/31/87 (2004)
     • Pure Jerry: Lunt-Fontanne, The Best Of The Rest (2004)
     • Ragged But Right (2010)
     • On Broadway: Act One (2015)
     • Electric On The Eel (2019)

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Gram Parsons 2: Grievous Angel

By the time Grievous Angel came out, its auteur was dead, just short of the magical age of 27. This has had a lot to do with Gram Parsons’ hagiographical status, but the key to the album—and its success—is Emmylou Harris, who harmonizes on nearly every track. Having many of the same solid players on board, none of whom were as debilitated by drink and drugs as he was, helped too.

For all its Nashville trappings, “Return Of The Grievous Angel” is not your ordinary country song, loaded with sly imagery and changes. “Hearts On Fire” is another weeper, Emmylou’s control tempering his wavering. The uptempo “I Can’t Dance” has some tasty guitar work but is just a brief tangent. “Brass Buttons” is a lovely sad lament, and “$1000 Wedding” is even more heartbreaking; both are excellent cases for his songwriting.

The atmosphere changes abruptly for “Medley Live From Northern Quebec”, which isn’t a medley at all but “Cash On The Barrelhead” followed by his own “Hickory Wind” with canned crowd noise and fake patter added in, basically used to keep the album over half an hour. “Love Hurts” was tackled a full year before Nazareth got to it, and here it’s milked for all the tears it can wring. “Ooh Las Vegas” is a jaunty rewrite of “Mystery Train” written with Ric Grech and left over from the first album, while “In My Hour Of Darkness”, written with Emmylou is stately and profound, ultimately lifting the album above its older brother.

And that was pretty much it for Gram Parsons, though his music certainly endured. Warner Bros. thoughtfully paired GP with Grievous Angel on a two-fer cassette in the ‘80s, then issued them together on a single CD in 1990, providing excellent value for fans old and new. In 2006, in time for what would have been his 60th birthday, The Complete Reprise Sessions put each album on its own disc with interview snippets afterwards, and added a third disc of alternate takes.

Gram Parsons Grievous Angel (1974)—

Friday, March 15, 2024

Phil Collins 14: The Singles and Plays Well With Others

The “Take A Look At Me Now” series of Phil Collins album reissues was certainly ambitious, and considering how quickly it come to completion, mostly successful. (Your move, Paul McCartney.) However, many of the hit singles that appeared on movie soundtracks over the years were not included near their most obvious albums, and a high volume of B-sides and other oddities were also passed over on the various bonus discs in favor of demos and live versions of often anachronous origin.

But he didn’t make it this far in the biz being a dope. Just in time for his autobiography to hit bookshelves came a compilation—his third—called The Singles. This was available two ways: a three-disc version in chronological order, and an abridged version that shuffled 33 of the songs into one mostly upbeat mix and one mostly slow one. (It also contains everything on …Hits.) Anyone who truly cares will half to have the big set, but considering that half of the third disc is made up of songs from Tarzan and Brother Bear, that makes it easy to skip it.

Two years later, an even more ambitious project emerged. Plays Well With Others was a sprawling four-CD set highlighting his guest spots on albums going all the way back to 1969. The first disc goes up to 1982, touching on sessions he did for the likes of John Cale, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, John Martyn, and Peter Gabriel, his furious side trips with Brand X, and production jobs for Robert Plant and ABBA’s Frida (represented by the smash hit “I Know There’s Something Going On”). The second disc is a little less eclectic, with production work for Eric Clapton, Philip Bailey, and Stephen Bishop, as well as more obvious hits like Howard Jones’ “No One Is To Blame”, Tears For Fears’ “Woman In Chains”, and even “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid. (His version of “Burn Down The Mission” from the Elton John tribute album Two Rooms appears as well.)

By the third disc we’re in the ‘90s, which here is dominated by more John Martyn productions, session work for David Crosby, and his own appearances on soundtracks and tribute albums. “No Son Of Mine” appears here too for some reason. But there is some jazz work, with Quincy Jones and Fourplay. This continues on the fourth disc, which pulls from three decades’ worth of live appearances, but the jazz is tempered by all-star turns from Prince’s Trust concerts and such. For all the trashing he’s gotten over the years, including by this very forum, it’s easy to forget that he was a very inventive drummer in his prime.

A year after that, further strays from the Collins catalog were finally collected, albeit digitally. Other Sides contained 90 minutes of B-sides—including “The Man With The Horn” and several revealing demos—that still should have been parceled out to the proper album reissues, while Remixed Sides ran to two hours’ worth of extended versions to appease anyone who loved 1988’s 12"ers compilation or needed all four versions of “Hang In Long Enough”.

Phil Collins The Singles (2016)—3
Phil Collins
Plays Well With Others (2018)—
Phil Collins
Other Sides (2019)—
Phil Collins
Remixed Sides (2019)—2

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Bryan Ferry 9: Mamouna

As it turns out, writer’s block had kept Bryan Ferry from releasing a new album for so long, and only Taxi was able to break it. Working with Robin Trower must have helped too, as he’s credited as co-producer on Mamouna as well. The rhythm section was generally Nathan East and Steve Ferrone, then on loan from Eric Clapton. Even more interesting is the occasional presence of Brian Eno, who had legendarily fallen out with Ferry in the early days of Roxy Music.

Not much has changed since the last time, as “Don’t Want To Know” burbles with the same grooves that have dominated his work over the previous ten years. But for some street noise, “N.Y.C.” is straight-ahead Nile Rodgers funk with Maceo Parker guesting on sax. “Your Painted Smile” and “The Only Face” get the mix of mood and melody right, but in between, the title track follows on “To Turn You On” without the emotion.

“The 39 Steps” is just another groove with occasional soundbites that have us wondering what the song has to do with the film (any version). The heartbreak comes through big time on “Which Way To Turn”, but it’s the insistent “Wildcat Days” that really stands out, being co-written with Eno and also featuring Andy Mackay on sax somewhere in the mix. (He’s also credited on the mildly swampy “Gemini Moon”.) On “Chain Reaction”, he finally remembered how to write a song instead of just riding a groove, and the female vocals here are very effective.

Too much of Mamouna sounds the same, and like more of the same. But longtime fans seeking more of the same will be very pleased with it. There is definitely a flow, but if there’s any kind of story here, it’s buried.

As the album approached its 30th anniversary, an expanded package included not only the original shelved version of the album, which was to be titled Horoscope, but a third disc of “Sketches”, providing a first-ever glimpse into his creative process. Now it’s hard to hear what was wrong with Horoscope, as “Where Do We Go From Here” (the template for “The 39 Steps”) crackles with more menace, “The Only Face” is more direct, and “Desdemona” is just as solid without Maceo or Nile. “S&M (Midnight Train)” and “Loop De Li” would eventually emerge twenty years later on another album; here they provide a welcome lift (the former more than the latter, but still). “Gemini Moon” is less processed than the final version. “Raga” breaks out of the monotonic backing with some intriguing touches, but it was likely the tepid ten-minute overhaul of “Mother Of Pearl” that gave executives pause. (This was eventually used for a movie soundtrack.)

Most of the “Sketches” are instrumental—some dating back to 1989—which helps provide some musical contexts amid the finished grooves. “Robot” is a generic Ferry-by-numbers idea that matches its title for six minutes, while “Horoscope” itself has some interesting textures but with a woman’s spoken voice too high in the mix. “Your Painted Smile” and “The Only Face” each appear in strikingly intimate piano-and-vocal renditions that have us wishing he’d do more albums with performances just like them.

Bryan Ferry Mamouna (1994)—
2023 Deluxe Reissue: same as 1994, plus 18 extra tracks

Friday, March 8, 2024

Clash 8: Story Of The Clash

Maybe it’s just us, but the distance between 1983 and 1988 seems a lot wider than other five-year spans within decades. So when it came out, the double-LP retrospective The Story Of The Clash, Vol. 1 seemed like an overdue look back to a much different time. The back cover nicely noted the release dates of each track, while the gatefold liner notes in miniscule print by one Albert Transom (aka Joe Strummer) bordered on stream of consciousness without really illuminating the music. (The UK version of the album had custom labels with each member’s face on a different side, while the US were stuck with stock Epic labels.)

The chronology seems to go backward, but still has something of a logic to it. Anyone who only knew Combat Rock might have been thrown by the near-disco opener in “The Magnificent Seven” before getting to the songs they already knew. Another funk-dub hybrid, “This Is Radio Clash”, makes its first album appearance, and “Armagideon Time” is nicely given a bigger platform. Side two further explores the pop-leaning side, via such favorites as “Train In Vain” and “I Fought The Law”, but also curveballs like “The Guns Of Brixton” and “Bankrobber”.

The other two sides of the album are mostly devoted to the first two albums and the earliest punk singles; of course, some of those had been included on the American version of the first album, so they weren’t as rare for us. (Also, “Capitol Radio” is the original UK EP version with the interview snippet at the top.) But for a jump to “London Calling” and “Spanish Bombs”, the set ends well on “Police And Thieves”.

Naturally, anybody would say that four sides of Clash music would leave something out—only two tracks from Sandinista!?—but a Volume 2 never happened. Instead, once everybody started getting a box set, the Clash did too. Clash On Broadway was designed for CD as opposed to vinyl or cassette, and therefore at three discs had than double the capacity of Story Of The Clash.

Along with all the key albums, singles, and B-sides, box sets had to have rarities. Disc one delivers with demos of “Janie Jones” and “Career Opportunities” produced by Guy Stevens, and live versions of “English Civil War” and “I Fought The Law”. American consumers would have appreciated the songs from the first UK album, which hadn’t made it to CD yet. Disc two is dominated by Give ‘Em Enough Rope (plus the decent outtake “One Emotion”) and London Calling, while the third disc features a live “Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)”, a soulful cover of “Every Little Bit Hurts”, the outtake “Midnight To Stevens”, and the unedited take of “Straight To Hell”. While not listed anywhere, “Street Parade” ends the set.

In the 21st century, box sets were expected to include absolutely everything if consumers were going to buy them again. Sound System—cleverly designed like a boom box—offered the first five albums on eight discs, plus two discs mopping up singles, B-sides, and outtakes, rounded out by alternate mixes of Combat Rock material. Another disc had nine early demos and six live songs from the Lyceum in 1978. Even with all that, only six of the rarities from Clash On Broadway were included in the set, making that first box a keeper.

Sound System also contained a DVD and piles of ephemera, which made the eight-disc 5 Album Studio Set, designed like a road case, a cheaper option. Or you could spring for the newly curated, less obvious The Clash Hits Back two-disc set, which was derived from a 1982 gig setlist, and we’d be interested in hearing the actual gig. It was also 20 minutes shorter than 2003’s more chronological The Essential Clash, which happened to be the only one of these compilations to include anything from Cut The Crap.

The Clash The Story Of The Clash, Vol. 1 (1988)—4
The Clash
Clash On Broadway (1991)—4
The Clash
The Essential Clash (2003)—
The Clash
Sound System (2013)—
The Clash
The Clash Hits Back (2013)—

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Iggy Pop: The Bowie Years

David Bowie used his cachet to help—for lack of a better word—some artists who might have remained cult figures had he not championed them. In some cases, like Dana Gillespie and Ava Cherry, it didn’t exactly work, but Lou Reed and Mott The Hoople could certainly attribute some of their longevity to his patronage.

Then there was Iggy Pop. Bowie loved the garage anarchy of the Stooges, and helped get their Raw Power album onto shelves. (He also appropriated Iggy’s croon into his own vocal styles.) A few years later, both Bowie and Iggy were trying to get off drugs, so they went to France and then Germany to work as artists. Between them they completed four albums that were all released in 1977, and all remain high points of their respective catalogs.

Everything on The Idiot was written by the pair, backed by Carlos Alomar and the rhythm section of George Murray and Dennis Davis. While still trashy (“Funtime” and “Baby”), Bowie’s arty tendencies took over to slow the music down and find grooves. “Sister Midnight” and “Nightclubbing” paint vivid pictures of their lifestyle, while “China Girl” would one day get a new lease on life. “Dum Dum Boys” is something of a lament for old bandmates, “Tiny Girls” sports a doo-wop saxophone, and “Mass Production” turns the drone of “Station To Station” into something more robotic. Besides being removed from the assault of the Stooges albums, The Idiot is a startling album, but now we can hear it as very much a blueprint for bands like Joy Division, as well as what would become side one of Low.

To promote the album, Bowie actually went on tour with Iggy, playing keyboards and adding vocals alongside the Sales brothers (Tony on bass and Hunt on drums and vocals) and guitarist Ricky Gardiner. Then the band went right back into the studio to record Lust For Life. This time Iggy was more in charge, relying less on Bowie to provide music and scenarios, and it works. It also rocks, from the Motown-derived pounding of the title track through “Sixteen” and “Some Weird Sin”, the latter of which sports some wonderful backing Bowie vocals. Ricky Gardiner’s chords drive “The Passenger”, but “Tonight” is most striking if you’ve only heard Bowie’s tame cover, which doesn’t include the prelude. The call-and-response of “Success” is just plain hilarious, making the pleas in “Turn Blue” even more arresting. “Neighborhood Threat” would also get a Bowie remake one day, while the band swapped instruments for the trashy “Fall In Love With Me”.

By the time Lust For Life came out, Bowie was busy recording his own “Heroes” album, so Iggy ended up touring the album with future Heartbreaker Scott Thurston and Stacey Heydon replacing Bowie and Gardiner augmenting the Sales brothers. TV Eye 1977 Live, released a year later, was split between shows played by the two bands, and for the longest time was the only evidence of Bowie’s onstage work with Iggy. The sound is bootleg quality, recorded and mixed on the cheap to get out of his label contract, but still crackles with energy—or at least power when the songs slow to a crawl—particularly on the Stooge classics “T.V. Eye”, “Dirt”, and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and the rare “I Got A Right”.

All three albums would become cult classics despite low sales, and all three were included on 2020’s comprehensive The Bowie Years box set. A disc of negligible single mixes and alternate takes is capped by the Bowie-produced “I Got A Right” single and an recent interview with Iggy, while three discs present three live performances with mostly identical setlists and Bowie on board, from London’s Rainbow, Cleveland’s Agora, and a Chicago radio station. These vary in quality, but we do hear pre-studio renditions of “Turn Blue”, “Tonight”, and “Some Weird Sin”, as well as further Stooge favorites. (Meanwhile, Deluxe Editions of The Idiot and Lust For Life were each bolstered by a live disc: the Rainbow show from the box for the former, and TV Eye for the latter.)

Iggy Pop The Idiot (1977)—
2020 Deluxe Edition: same as 1977, plus 15 extra tracks
Iggy Pop Lust For Life (1977)—4
2020 Deluxe Edition: same as 1977, plus TV Eye 1977 Live
Iggy Pop TV Eye 1977 Live (1978)—3
Iggy Pop
The Bowie Years (2020)—3

Friday, March 1, 2024

Frank Zappa 51: You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6

The sprawling You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series presented the good, the bad, and the ugly throughout years of performances. This is thoroughly demonstrated on the first disc in this final volume, which deals explicitly with “the topic of sex (safe and otherwise)”.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to write songs about sex; Frank wanted to talk about it too, so several monologues and raps on the topic dot the disc. That said, “The M.O.I. Anti-Smut Loyalty Oath” from 1970 is a mildly humorous statement in the wake of Jim Morrison’s obscenity trial. “The Poodle Lecture”, spoken over the “Stink-Foot” rhythm, kinda fits into the theme, as a setup for “Dirty Love”. Less successful are “The Madison Panty-Sniffing Festival”, which is exactly what it sounds like, and “Lonely Person Devices”, which sets up “Ms. Pinky”. His diatribe about Peter Frampton’s “I’m In You” is less necessary when “I Have Been In You” appears twenty minutes later, bookended by improvs on “The Torture Never Stops” with a very loud sex tape over the PA. It’s back to the Fillmore with Flo & Eddie for “Shove It Right In”, the extended groupie suite from side two of 200 Motels, and admittedly rocks. “Wind Up Workin’ In A Gas Station” is notable for the vocal work by the onetime Bianca Thornton, and the 1984 run from “Dinah-Moe-Humm” to “Muffin Man” is mostly good.

The second disc is mostly more musical, with such highlights as the complicated “Thirteen” with L. Shankar on electric violin; he returns a half-hour later for “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance”. Patrick O’Hearn’s “Lobster Girl” bass solo nicely seques into “Black Napkins” with the 1976 horn section that unfortunately jars to 1984 for the guitar solo. (“The Illinois Enema Bandit” was cobbled from at least six sources.) Even “Catholic Girls” and “Crew Slut” are generally played more for dexterity than laughs. Breaking up the flow is an operatic monologue by Lisa Popeil, who sang on “Teen-age Prostitute”. “Lonesome Cowboy Nando” combines a 1988 performance full of in-jokes with one from 1971 with Jimmy Carl Black, which leads into the “200 Motels Finale” from the same show. The disc, and the series, ends with a “Strictly Genteel” from 1981.

So after twelve CDs’ worth of music, what have we learned? Well, as much as he insisted that “Touring Can Make You Crazy”, he was a guy determined to have a good time, all the time. He worked his bands and when they rose to the occasion, they were stellar. The fact that he could edit sections from multiple performances is just as much of a testimony to his ear as to the tightness of the bands—even if he insisted the edits were necessary due to the bands’ ongoing inability to play the stuff correctly. If anything, the series fostered a new generation of Zappa scholars, who would continue to dissect these and other live recordings over the years. Those who collected all six volumes could even procure a road case to keep them in.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6 (1992)—2