Friday, April 12, 2024

Jayhawks 7: Rainy Day Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Brian Eno 27: Mixing Colours

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 5, 2024

Elton John 24: Ice On Fire

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Who 17: Who’s Last and Shea Stadium

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

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

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

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

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