Friday, January 13, 2017

Replacements 7: Don’t Tell A Soul

Once again coming this close to mainstream acceptance, Don’t Tell A Soul wowed critics and irritated hardcore fans, in both cases due to the album’s radio-friendly sound. With the help of new guitarist Slim Dunlap, the ‘Mats were able to translate Paul Westerberg’s latest contrarian laments to a decent record.
There’s nothing truly sloppy or stupid here, just layers of acoustic guitars and cracking drums. “Talent Show” is another thinly veiled description of Life On The Road, “Back To Back” several clever turns of phrase piled on top of each other “We’ll Inherit The Earth” is likely where a lot of fans jumped off, thanks to the early ‘70s Moody Blues homage in the furiously strummed guitars and pseudo-sci-fi overtones. But then there’s “Achin’ To Be”, likely inspired by the chicks he saw at various gigs, either onstage or in the crowd, and still one of his best. (Dig Slim’s Stonesy fills.) Less appreciated is “They’re Blind”, a more direct message to the same type of unattainable woman.
Side two crashes into place for those still ready to rock, and “Anywhere’s Better Than Here” is a worthy complaint, and it’s always nice to hear Tommy shrieking along in the back. However, one thing these guys weren’t was funky, and “Asking Me Lies” is a poor bed for more wordplay. But then there’s the moderate hit single of “I’ll Be You”, which would be an important song if only for introducing the phrase “a rebel without a clue” to the pop vernacular. It’s proof that Westerberg could write a hit song, followed up by the throwaway noise of “I Won’t”, and not even good noise. “Rock ‘N Roll Ghost” could also be considered an indulgence, more moody than memorable, but it does foreshadow some of his future paranoia. And while it’s kinda ordinary, “Darlin’ One” manages to provide a decent, epic finale.
Don’t Tell A Soul still gets less love than it should. Certainly compared to their other albums it’s not as striking, and doesn’t clear a room as well as those others, but a little time away from it, while exposing its late-‘80s sheen, proves that it’s “not bad”. The expanded CD doesn’t tip the scales either way, adding some previously released outtakes (including the rockin’ raveup “Wake Up”), a couple of demos and alternate takes, a cover of Slade’s “Gudbuy T’Jane”, and the essential B-side “Date To Church”, seemingly written on the spot with special guest Tom Waits on vocals and Hammond organ.

The Replacements Don’t Tell A Soul (1989)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1989, plus 7 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Steve Perry 1: Street Talk

When a band has an “iconic” lead singer, the average consumer tends to associate the two interchangeably. So what happens when said singer does a solo album, independent of the band? If you’re Roger Daltrey, you record songs nothing like those the main guy in the band wrote for you, giving yourself an outlet. If you’re Phil Collins, you make a sound nothing like what people expect of the band, but will eventually come to define the band, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you’re Steve Perry, you release Street Talk, heralded by a single that’s not too far off from what people in 1984 associated with the Journey brand.
We say “heralded” in a pointed reference to the self-deflating video for “Oh Sherrie”, which attempted to display Our Hero as just another guy caught in the fabrications of the modern music video treadmill. And it’s a catchy tune, with Waddy Wachtel playing the lead with more of a Southern California tone than Neal Schon’s high-speed Frisco shred. Like most of the rest of the album, it was co-written with a couple of MOR hacks, and proceeds in decidedly unadventurous manner. There’s the Four Tops-inspired rhythms of “I Believe”, the incomprehensible high harmonies on “Go Away”, the Ambrosia rewrite “Foolish Heart”, the by-numbers pop of “It’s Only Love”, Waddy credited again for “rhythm guitar solo”. Thankfully, the excitement over a DX-7 patch sounding like steel drums would soon pass.
The yacht rock continues on “She’s Mine”, but it has enough of the angst left over from the last two Journey albums to sound familiar. Apparently he used it all up, because the rest of side two limps on through empty emoting (“You Should Be Happy”), inexplicable sound effects of children laughing (“Running Alone”) and a barely clever tribute to fallen rock stars and other leaders (“Captured By The Moment”) to “Strung Out”, which is about as catchy as where we came in, and another one where it could be mistaken for his regular band. (While we’re at it, Neal Schon did do a side project around this with the not-yet-Halened Sammy Hagar, spawning two full albums that nobody mistook for Journey.)
Of course, an album doesn’t have to be good to be a hit, and this one did spawn four hit singles, and even helped earn him a solo spot on “We Are The World”. Steve went on to contribute a limp track to the full USA For Africa album, and “If Only For The Moment, Girl” was duly added to a 21st-century repress of Street Talk, alongside the overblown B-side “Don’t Tell Me Why You’re Leaving”, left off the album for good reason, and three demos left over from the band he was in before Journey, and much more palatable even today.

Steve Perry Street Talk (1984)—2
2006 CD reissue: same as 1984, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, January 6, 2017

Prince 3: Dirty Mind

He’d already proved what he could do in established studios with his first two albums. But now Prince had the company clout to record at home, and the results, as demonstrated on Dirty Mind, were striking. Even more so than the near-crotch shot on the cover.
The thump of the music could still be considered R&B, the tinny synthesizers and trebly guitars on the title track are straight out of new wave. “When You Were Mine” has the same sound, but is even more catchy, with Beatlesque harmonies that made it an obvious choice for covers early on. An ascending arpeggio opens “Do It All Night”, and he’d apparently just bought a Yamaha electric piano, but the slap funk bass keeps this squarely in the disco. “Gotta Broken Heart Again” practically swings; a little slight but genuinely tuneful.
Side two is all about provocation. “Uptown” and “Partyup” start and close the side respectively, and disguise racial relations, anti-war concerns and sexual identity issues within boisterous beats. But most people talked about the two songs in between. “Head” is the option offered by one particular conquest, voiced here by new band member Lisa Coleman. “Sister” is exactly what you suspect, delivered at pogo-speed in 90 seconds. Each track is crammed up against the next, sometimes with a dissonant flourish, and no room to breathe.
Barely half an hour long, Dirty Mind brings Prince solidly into the ‘80s, and closer still to the icon he’d become. Best of all, he was getting more confident in his voice, doubling the falsetto with a more natural register. And even though they’re not on the bulk of the album (a keyboard here, a vocal there), the inner sleeve shows future members of the Revolution. Not pictured, but supposedly involved in “Partyup”, is one Morris Day.

Prince Dirty Mind (1980)—3

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Todd Rundgren 14: Adventures In Utopia

With each album, Utopia got less experimental, but having settled on a steady lineup, they were also more democratic, making them truly separate from Todd Rundgren’s truly solo work. Despite its high-tech design and tie-in with an alleged TV production, Adventures In Utopia is practically mainstream.
“The Road To Utopia” fades in with a hint of space travel, or at least opening credits, but settles into a basic structure. “You Make Me Crazy” could be mistaken for The Cars, and “Second Nature” is even a little disco, but Kasim Sulton got the hit single with “Set Me Free”. At seven minutes, “Caravan” approaches prog, but succeeds on structure and tunefulness, even through the dueling synth and guitar solos.
The mildly overblown “Last Of The New Wave Riders” approaches self-parody, both in performance and lyrical content, and while it seems to be tamed by the low-key intro to “Shot In The Dark”, this too escalates into a Big Number. “The Very Last Time” is another Rundgren kiss-off, balancing between the wistful verses and angry choruses. Then we have “Love Alone”, a cross between Broadway and Queen, with a synth-string backing and a choir of counterparts under the lead vocal. It’s still better than “Rock Love”, another disco tune with a stretched metaphor.
Despite its dated attributes, Adventures In Utopia manages to entertain, with songs that can appeal to more listeners than before. The concept remains elusive.

Utopia Adventures In Utopia (1980)—3

Friday, December 30, 2016

Rush 9: Moving Pictures

The one Rush album everyone can agree on (unless you hate Rush, in which case you should stop reading this entry immediately), Moving Pictures presents the band at perhaps their most creative peak, when the synthesizers became integral to the band’s sound without completely taking it over. The economy of writing laid out on Permanent Waves is even better displayed here, most songs not too long and still meaty enough to be immersive.
This is the album that begins with “Tom Sawyer”, another one of their most recognizable songs, and based mostly on a single drone. Then we have a song about a car, in this case a mispronounced “Red Barchetta”, given an extremely picturesque arrangement that changes gears just like all the best (and worst) songs about cars do. Every teenage guitarist worth his salt just had to master that harmonics riff, being one of the few Alex Lifeson parts that doesn’t require speed to impress. Trainspotters love to explain the significance of “YYZ”, its Morse code tempo giving each of the band members room to show off. A Zeppelinesque hook introduces “Limelight”, practically a pop song and one of Neil Peart’s most personal, ironic, and often misinterpreted lyrics.
It’s such a perfect album side that many spotty youths we know played it way more than the flip, often skipping right to “Witch Hunt” in the middle of side two. It was their loss, which they would all realize once the charms of “The Camera Eye” were allowed to be heard. A two-verse song contrasting and comparing two iconic cities isn’t any literary leap, particularly when the cities in question are Manhattan and London, but they can be a pretty big deal to anyone seeing them for the first time. The verses are almost secondary to the main thrust of the song, with its grandiose swoop and cinematic breadth. Still, at eleven minutes most D&D players would have been more impressed by the sinister undertones and gothic overtones of “Witch Hunt”, and since “Vital Signs” even got airplay on MTV, most of the kids were able to keep up with the backwards reggae beat and tricky stop-time.
Even the band themselves know how large Moving Pictures looms in their legend, going so far as to spotlight it on tour some 30 years after its initial release. There’s nothing silly or embarrassing here, but there is some well-placed humor, both in the music and on the cover. Again, of all their catalog, this is the one album every Rush fan can agree on, and the best entry point.

Rush Moving Pictures (1981)—4

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Oasis 3: Be Here Now

All of a sudden, and mostly because Blur hadn’t swatted them out of the way at home or in the US, Oasis was the biggest band in the world. Those accolades fueled the hubris necessitating the news flash that they weren’t the Beatles. Hell, they weren’t even the Jam, even after cozying up to and getting endorsements from the similarly coiffed mod icons, and ticking off the surviving Fabs in the process. They remained, however, five of the luckiest guys in the world led by the whims of a cokehead with a marginal talent for recycling old riffs and lyrics.
Whereas (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? was, and remains, a highly catchy collection of pop songs, the much-anticipated Be Here Now still tries patience. Most of the songs are over six minutes long, and thanks to the uniform mixing—all distorted guitars and crash cymbals with feedback hum, extended endings and too much tambourine—it takes more listens than most can stand before individual songs stand out under Liam Gallagher’s whine. Only their third album, and it’s already a sad game to discern which of their own songs they’d begun to rewrite.
Yet, it’s a long time to get to even that point. “D’You Know What I Mean?” has the attitude but none of the substance of the debut, and after seven minutes it finally gives way to “My Big Mouth”—an apt title for the Gallagher brothers, to be sure, and a lame rewrite of the previous album’s title track. Noel comes to the fore on “Magic Pie”, something of a timely recapture of the Revolver era and a good distillation of the better moments of the album, but again, who in the hell besides these guys in those days thought seven-minute tracks were a good idea, with or without crash cymbals and feedback? Even Noel yells “shut up!” right before one of the final extended free-form fades.
That’s three tracks, and the listener has already sacrificed 20 valuable minutes of existence. We’ve yet to hear anything as catchy—or, ironically, as anthemic, given the length—of anything from the first two albums. That almost comes with “Stand By Me”, a lazy title and a pale remake of “Live Forever” and “Married With Children” from the first album, but goes far too long to make its point. “I Hope, I Think, I Know” is welcome given its four-minute brevity, but it’s still buried beneath a barrage of sound, and the same approach sinks “The Girl In The Dirty Shirt”, which insists on ending with a pointless electric piano vamp.
These songs are all in the same tempo, with that damn tambourine driving it along, so by the time “Fade In-Out” kicks in, nobody cares, even after it finally changes chords. Here also is when they decide to placate those with short attention spans by tossing up “Don’t Go Away”, a mope worthy of anything else in the decade, and the album’s high point. Had the album started there, the title track would have been a welcome groove, but by now it’s just more indulgence, with a stupid slide whistle to boot. By the time we’re almost at the end of this very long album, we get the Beatlesque plea in “All Around The World”, complete with Liam’s unique pronunciation of “shine”. That goes on for nine minutes, and it would be a good place to end the album, but we still have to be told that “It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!)”, over a groove that doesn’t sound any different from the previous hour. Just to make sure, they tack on another two minutes of “All Around The World” to let everyone know just how artistic they were.
Back then, when we really, really wanted to like this album, we said, “It will be interesting to see where these guys are in five years, assuming they’re still around.” And despite all it’s problems, we still want to like Be Here Now. But boy, did they fall off the tram. The band’s attempts to come off confident only end up wary, as if they knew everybody else had figured them out. Why else would they have a tambourine cover everything up for 71 minutes?
Two decades on people are still defending this album, and they shouldn’t. Naturally, it had to be reissued with bonus discs, which did at least unearth some decent (if still too long) Noel-sung B-sides in “The Fame”, “Flashbax” and “Going Nowhere”. Acoustic takes of songs like “Stand By Me” show their obvious sources, inescapable appeal, Noel’s limited strumming ability, and the blend the brothers could create when they weren’t slapping each other around. We even get an acoustic busk of “Setting Sun”, the acid-house Chemical Brothers track that had Noel singing lead. But there’s also an entire disc of Noel’s one-man band demos of the songs that became the album, all of which portend the horror to come, and certainly the length. Had they been released back then, they might have aged better than the album itself.

Oasis Be Here Now (1997)—

Friday, December 23, 2016

Grateful Dead 6: American Beauty

To stretch a metaphor, American Beauty is to Workingman’s Dead as Revolver is to Rubber Soul. The Dead were firing on all their creative cylinders, and produced an album that both complemented and built on its predominantly acoustic predecessor.
And talk about a strong opener: “Box Of Rain” is a fully fleshed-out arrangement, with acoustic guitar, Clarence White-flavored leads, harmonies, piano, bass and both drummers in a busy mix, capped by a lead vocal by Phil Lesh. It really is one of their best tracks, especially when heard in context with the two songs that come next. “Friend Of The Devil” is the one all guitar players try to learn, with its descending riff in G, but what we hear now is the high-speed mandolin, contributed by Garcia buddy David Grisman. (We also can’t help singing the first verse of “Kiss Me Deadly” along with that riff. Mostly because we don’t know the rest of “Kiss Me Deadly”.) “Sugar Magnolia”, with Jerry playing pedal steel like nobody else, is just as much of a quintessential Dead tune, and always seems longer than it really is. “Operator” is Pigpen’s contribution to both the album and the genre of songs that take place on a telephone. “Candyman” sounds most like the last album, being another slow sad lope, and loaded with lots of folk song references.
Any Deadhead worth his or her salt will immediately swoon and sway to “Ripple”, and join in the celestial choir finishing the tune with “da da da”s. On the record it’s a quick segue to “Brokedown Palace”, which almost seems like a natural part two, a honky tonk piano adding to the atmosphere. Something of a sore thumb is “Till The Morning Comes”, mostly because we far prefer Neil Young’s shorter song of a similar title from the same year. There’s something a little sinister about declaring “you’re my woman now” and demanding that she make herself easy. “Attics Of My Life” provides a wide palette to prove how much they’d progressed on their harmonies, but just like the last album started and finished strong, so does this with “Truckin’”, which has more drug references to make the kids giggle, and the source of any mention of a long, strange trip.
To continue our Beatles insight above, while that band spent the next three years in the studio, the Dead took the opposite route, and wouldn’t release another studio album of new material for three years. They almost didn’t have to, since they proved themselves so well with both Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. This album completes the one-two punch, and belongs in the other side of a Maxell 90 with its brother. (Live versions, most from before the album was released, all needing a lot of work on harmonies, fill up the expanded disc, along with edited single versions of “Truckin’” and “Ripple”.)

Grateful Dead American Beauty (1970)—4