Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Daniel Lanois 4: Rockets

Once he got back into his own music, Daniel Lanois started playing shows, and got more active with his website. That also provided him the opportunity to distribute music that might not have got the same support from a label.
The thinking behind Rockets was to have “a sort of renegade CD available at the merchandise stand.” Seeing as it consists mostly of alternate and/or live versions of songs from his small catalog, that’s a good description. It also provides a good sampler of the albums that aren’t Acadie, though we do get another version of “The Maker”, and a surgically altered mix of “Under A Stormy Sky” that becomes a collaboration with Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris.
But they’re not all retreads. The title track is described as (spoiler alert) “a revisit of the murder scene in the movie Sling Blade,” and shows how well he creates tension. “Sweet Soul Honey” is apparently very important to him, as he would go on to include the lyrics in his memoir; it would be more effective as the instrumental as intended. He further describes “Panorama” to be “as close as I’ve come to Samuel Barber,” but don’t expect any Adagio For Strings; this is all pedal steel guitar over thunderous drums.
Rockets is not a grand statement, nor was it meant to be. It is a worthy addition to his space on the shelf, and can be got nice and cheap from his own website.

Daniel Lanois Rockets (2004)—3

Friday, February 17, 2017

Chris Bell: I Am The Cosmos

In addition to the cult around Big Star, a similarly rabid one has developed around Chris Bell, who started the band and left it to Alex Chilton when megastardom didn’t come his way. Besides having an inarguable gift for songwriting, he was also fascinated with the recording process, and had the support of his family, who just wanted to see the kid happy.
He spent the years after leaving Big Star continually honing a small handful of songs, even getting to work on them outside of Memphis with the help of engineer Geoff Emerick, best known for his work with the Beatles. He would release exactly one single before fatally crashing his car into a utility pole at the unfortunate age of 27.
But those two songs made a small impact in their own way. “I Am The Cosmos” is a majestic anthem of heartbreak, with a great guitar solo to match, and a killer fade where the repeated couplet goes from “I’d really like to see you again” to “I never want to see you again”. “You And Your Sister” is very much a flipside, but not a B-side; this tender acoustic love song fits right along “Thirteen” from #1 Record, and even has Alex Chilton on harmonies.
These songs would be covered by the likes of the Posies and This Mortal Coil, and when Rykodisc began their Big Star blitz in 1992, to the label’s credit, they simultaneously released a full CD of post-Big Star recordings by Chris Bell. I Am The Cosmos is not a “lost album”, but a collection of several stabs in the studio over a few years nicely arranged into the equivalent of an LP. Some songs appear twice, in different mixes or different recordings (“Get Away” and “I Don’t Know” are basically the same song, and give the yearning “Speed Of Sound” its basic structure, though it’s not as obvious at first) and the three versions of “You And Your Sister”—the single, a solo recording and a “country version”—don’t seem like overkill.
For the most part, these songs are classic ‘70s-era power pop. “Make A Scene” has one of those rhythms that defies tapping along correctly, and the aforementioned “Get Away” and “I Don’t Know” just plain sizzle. “There Was A Light” and “I Got Kinda Lost” were Chilton-Bell songs he took when he left the band, preserved here with Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens in the rhythm section, and “Get Away” even features Alex on guitar and Jody on drums. Part of his mythology entailed his struggles with spirituality, making “Look Up” less vague than the more foreboding “Better Save Yourself”. “Fight At The Table” has a simple structure but a raucous arrangement and burbling synth, while “Though I Know She Lies”, one of his last recordings, is suitably sad.
His material was limited, and his strangled voice can be a bit much, but I Am The Cosmos is a worthy inclusion to the Big Star oeuvre, and certainly deserves to be there as much as Third does. When the rights to the band’s recordings shifted to the Rhino, I Am The Cosmos got the expanded treatment via their Handmade sidearm. This edition slightly rejigged the first 12 songs from the Ryko set on one CD, and packed a second with variations and sundry, such as the “extended alternate version” of the title track that didn’t fade before the killer couplet mentioned above. (Also, “Get Away” on the main disc still has its pyrotechnic drum effects, but also has some reverbed mumbles cluttering up the chorus.) Because they didn’t use up all the early stuff for their box set, this disc begins with some pre-Big Star tunes in their Icewater and Rock City incarnations, ending with an acoustic experiment deflated in the last seconds.

Chris Bell I Am The Cosmos (1992)—3
2009 Rhino Handmade Deluxe Edition: same as 1992, plus 13 extra tracks (and minus 1 track)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Pretenders 7: Last Of The Independents

Just as Britpop started to make straight rock popular again in the aftermath of grunge, Chrissie Hynde came across another guitarist up for the impossible task of filling James Honeyman-Scott’s shoes in another incarnation of the Pretenders. Martin Chambers seemingly returned to the fold as well, but a closer look at the credits on Last Of The Independents proves that it’s yet another collection of disparate recordings from different sessions with other rhythm sections (including another refugee from the Smiths). The only constant is Chrissie herself, whom we see right there on the cover.
The sound of the first single, the unabashedly debauched “Night In My Veins”, had pundits declaring it a comeback, but the big hit was the power ballad “I’ll Stand By You”, and it’s between those poles that the album lies. The result is not unpleasant, but hardly indispensible, especially when co-written with ‘80s hit machine Steinberg and Kelly.
The opening sequence of “Hollywood Perfume”, “Night In My Veins” and “Money Talk” is comforting, since the songs all rock, and even the slowdown of “977”, both musically and vocally an homage to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono balladry, is hardly a sentimental tale of a violent lovers’ spat. The hippie social commentary in “Revolution” (not the Lennon song) is where things start to slide to the wimpy, though “All My Dreams” does feature the new “official” lineup of the band and, unfortunately, a spoken monologue.
People who bought the album on the basis of “I’ll Stand By You” may have been jarred by what follows immediately. “I’m A Mother” is a feminist rant set to a danceable Manchester beat thrown off by her tuneless howl of the title and some riffing in a different key. Much more interesting and equally maddening is the snippet of “Tequila”, a country lament that predates the first album. After one lonesome verse it’s superseded by the opaque “Every Mother’s Son”. The rockabilly of “Rebel Rock Me”, complete with hiccupping vocal, recalls “Thumbelina”, possibly the least essential song from her last good album, then we get another by-numbers Steinberg/Kelly collaboration in the way of “Love Colours”. And for some reason she chooses to end the “comeback” with a tepid cover of Dylan’s “Forever Young” (yes, the slow version).
Last Of The Independents is not a bad album, but it’s not what we want from Chrissie. To which she’d likely retort with a string of obscenities, and she’d be right. We’re waffling over whether it should be docked half a point, so watch this space for changes.

Pretenders Last Of The Independents (1994)—3

Friday, February 10, 2017

Pink Floyd 19: Creation

After grandly expanded versions of three of their biggest albums appeared, diehard Floyd heads wondered whether the same treatment would be given to the rest of the catalog. Wisely, the band knew that the market for a multi-disc version of Saucerful Of Secrets would be limited, they took the possibilities to the extreme. The Early Years 1967-1972 offers eleven CDs of mostly rare material, along with nine DVDs and eight Blu-rays of audio-visual artifacts, all divided into years and uniquely titled along the lines of “/ation”, plus replicas of their first handful of singles and tons of printed materials. (It was supposed to be ten CDs, but a disc of their Pompeii concert was included by mistake, requiring a supplement.)
Naturally, this investment entails $500 the consumer may not have handy; each of the volumes within the set was intended to be available separately eventually, with the exception of the bonus Continu/ation volume, dominated by grainy BBC sessions, a live “Echoes” from 1974, and the movies for which More and Obscured By Clouds were recorded. Of much easier consumption was the two-disc distillation of the music from the set, subtitled Cre/ation. Beginning, as required by law, with “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, it moves forward, past early singles and radio performances, through recent remasters of some tracks. An alternate version of “Matilda Mother” with different lyrics pays tribute to both Syd Barrett and Richard Wright, just “Point Me At The Sky” seems to predict “Learning To Fly”. Then there’s “In The Beechwoods”, a wonderful performance of an unreleased Syd tune, sadly without lyrics.
Once Syd was out of the band, we can hear the other guys develop into their spacey image, with some moments to contrast and compare. “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” appears in both its single version and a shorter one live on the BBC, both of similar length. “Embryo” is also heard as a studio track, and again in a ten-minute BBC rendition. “Atom Heart Mother” is laid out in its entirety, without the orchestra or choir. “Grantchester Meadows”, Roger solo on Ummagumma, is performed for the radio with help from David Gilmour and Rick. Several excerpts from the Zabriskie Point soundtrack provide variety, and a precursor to “Us And Them”, while “Nothing, Pt. 14” is merely seven minutes of jamming that would better develop in the completed “Echoes”. The set ends with a few selections from the remastered Obscured By Clouds, but choosing to close with “Stay” seems more a tribute to Rick Wright than a wise finale.
Cre/ation is very much a teaser for the larger product, as it merely touches on the sheer volume of stuff to be found there. At the same time, it does provide an excellent lead-in to the era that began with Dark Side Of The Moon, giving plenty of exposure to Syd and some of the better moments from the albums, albeit in alternate but still tight versions.

Pink Floyd The Early Years 1967-1972: Cre/ation (2016)—4

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Lou Reed 9: Walk On The Wild Side and Different Times

RCA had their faults as a label, but had pioneered the concept of repackaging via their association with Elvis Presley. So even after they dropped Lou Reed from their roster, they made sure to get him to curate a compilation. Wisely again, the set subtitled “The Best Of Lou Reed” was called Walk On The Wild Side after the most famous song, and the one likely to attract newcomers in the bin. (Rachel, Lou’s stubbled soulmate, appears among the Polaroids strewn about the cover art.)
Of course, “best of” is an objective opinion, and Walk On The Wild Side goes all over the place. Each of his RCA albums is sampled save Metal Machine Music. “Sweet Jane” from Rock ‘N Roll Animal is severely truncated to remove the intro and fade early (to make room for “White Light/White Heat”, which doesn’t belong here?) and it’s not even the single version. Maybe “How Do You Think It Feels” was the most commercial track from Berlin, but just to force even established fans to buy it, there is one “new” track, the trashy “Nowhere At All” B-side from the Coney Island Baby sessions.
As an introduction, the album works, and there are probably many people who still revere the album for that reason. Two decades later, when he’d had a career renaissance and was making decent albums on another label, RCA dipped into the same pile for a similar but different compilation, in disregard of the fact that the first disc of the box set from five years before would have sufficed. Different Times: Lou Reed In The ‘70s shares only four tracks with Walk On The Wild Side, but takes advantage of CD capacity to include the complete live “Sweet Jane” and more songs from each of the albums sampled. By then, “Perfect Day” had become a cult favorite, more so than “New York Telephone Conversation”, so that made sense, and Berlin maybe wasn’t quite so scary anymore. Even for a cash-in, Different Times ably displaces its much older brother, and nobody missed “Nowhere At All”.

Lou Reed Walk On The Wild Side: The Best Of Lou Reed (1977)—3
Lou Reed
Different Times: Lou Reed In The ‘70s (1996)—

Friday, February 3, 2017

Suzanne Vega 9: Close-Up

It’s common for musicians to release re-recorded versions of songs. It happened all the time in the standards era, so connoisseurs could compare how Frank Sinatra delivered a tune in his twenties to his approach decades later. Many live albums offer straight reproductions of hit singles and album tracks to adoring audiences. However, in an age when music can be shared and distributed faster, wider, and easier than ever, anytime an artist redoes his or her own music the cynical eyebrow is raised.
Suzanne Vega was very straightforward when she began her Close-Up series, which presented new recordings of her songs, chosen from her entire catalog, released in four thematic volumes. Her reasons were that some of her albums were out of print, and mass consolidation across the music industry didn’t guarantee future royalties from them. Therefore, new, mostly stripped-down renditions of songs she still liked playing would bring another opportunity to gets paid, yo.
We adore her voice, and wish we could hear her sing from the kitchen when it’s her turn to do the dishes, so we admit to a bias. Unlike other singers, her range is the same as it always was, though some of those high notes have been lost to a quarter-century. While some songs sound the same as ever, whether acoustic (“Small Blue Thing”, “Gypsy”) or electrically embellished (“Marlene On The Wall”), it’s more interesting to hear the ones rescued from busy production (“When Heroes Go Down”, everything from Nine Objects Of Desire). But she also keeps “(If You Were) In My Movie” and “Fat Man And Dancing Girl” close to their original clattering arrangements, and not exactly “stripped down”.
Each of the volumes has something to offer, and even had different bonus tracks, depending on where you bought them. Love Songs is the most successful; because it’s the first one, the novelty is new, but it also offers some of her prettiest tunes. People & Places, with its observations and speculations, is a little more embellished, and also has her two most famous songs in “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”, the latter delivered closer to the style of the bootleg remix. The big draw is a version of “The Man Who Played God”, originally part of a collaboration with Danger Mouse and the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. States Of Being covers “emotional turmoil”, and deviates least from the originals, with such embellishments as a string quartet and a new song in the way of the then-unreleased “Instant Of The Hour After”. Songs Of Family would appear to be her most personal songs, being inspired by her daughter, her divorce, her childhood, and her lineage. Mostly back to the original sparse brief, it includes three more produced “new” tracks, two of which were among the first songs she ever wrote.
That’s four albums that revisit most of her previous seven albums, with Days Of Open Hand being the least represented. The way to get it all would be Close-Up Series, a book-style package that includes each volume, plus another disc containing all the bonus tracks offered up on various digital platforms, and a live DVD. It would be, of course, if you can find it, as it’s gotten pricey.

Suzanne Vega Close-Up Vol. 1, Love Songs (2010)—
Suzanne Vega
Close-Up Vol. 2, People & Places (2010)—
Suzanne Vega
Close-Up Vol. 3, States Of Being (2011)—3
Suzanne Vega
Close-Up Vol. 4, Songs Of Family (2012)—
Suzanne Vega
Close-Up Series (2014)—3

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

John Paul Jones: Zooma and Thunderthief

He was the quietest member of Led Zeppelin, but arguably the most talented. John Paul Jones had already spent the first part of his career as a session rat when he joined Zeppelin on bass and keyboards, and having spent much of that band’s tenure in the shadows of the other three, it wasn’t all that surprising that he didn’t pursue a high-profile solo “career” after the band was finished. Some session work here, some arranging there, but it seems he got the most notice anytime Page and Plant did something together, with or without him.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that he finally released proper albums under his own name. By then he had hooked up with Robert Fripp’s Discipline Global Mobile operation, which still strives to put the composer and performer first. Indeed, the first two tracks on 1999’s Zooma sound very much in line with that decade’s version of King Crimson, and not just because Trey Gunn is in the credits. The majority of the instrumentation comes from the man whose name is on the spine, via basses of multiple string quantities, lap steel guitars, mandolas and keyboards. (Of the two credited drummers, one is modern session rat Denny Fongheiser, and the other is Pete Thomas, best known from Elvis Costello’s Attractions.) Of the nine tracks, most could qualify as prog, all extremely toe-tapping, with some quieter atmospherics for variety. He even brings in members of the London Symphony Orchestra for one track. The listener will find him or herself looking at the credits to discover that more often than not, it’s Jonesy himself playing the screaming lead.

A tour supporting Zooma (opening up for Crimson) meant he needed to find a band, so he hooked with the rhythm section of a Celtic prog band, including the bass player from Kajagoogoo. They contributed somewhat to The Thunderthief, which begins very much in the Zooma mode, even featuring a guitar solo from Robert Fripp. The first sign that it’s not the same album comes on the title track, where he actually sings. (News flash: this is not a talent kept criminally under wraps all these years.) He also chooses to warble the lyric on “Ice Fishing At Night”, which sometimes overpowers the otherwise haunting “No Quarter”-like piano. Similarly the toothless soccer hooligan delivery on “Angry Angry” is worth skipping, particularly as it leads to a lovely interpretation of the Appalachian standard “Down The River To Pray”. He plays a lot more mandolin in general on this album, providing a wider palette of sound.
For whatever reason, he hasn’t released a third album, seemingly content to collaborate with others, in different genres. As it is, Zooma and The Thunderthief remain enjoyable listens for diehard Zeppelin fans—and certainly Crimson fans—and are at least as enjoyable as some of the stuff Page and Plant did on their own.

John Paul Jones Zooma (1999)—3
John Paul Jones
The Thunderthief (2001)—3