Friday, September 23, 2016

Joni Mitchell 14: Dog Eat Dog

The ‘80s found so many legends from the decades before, who had once set trends, now following them. Joni Mitchell’s skills with words and music hadn’t diminished, even if she was taking more time between albums, but the production on Dog Eat Dog, then and now, makes it difficult to get past. One of those producers, along with Joni and Larry Klein, is Thomas Dolby, who’s just fine in his own element—we can listen to “Airwaves” for hours on end, and we have—but dare we say his presence caused Joni to become, shall we say, blinded by science?
Most of the album deals with global and political concerns, which caused more controversy than the fact that “Good Friends”, the love song that opens the album, is sung as a duet with Michael McDonald. “Fiction” would be a decent synth-pop track if she wasn’t singing on it, and while the lyric makes some points, it’s more list than poetry. The message of “Three Great Stimulants” is more successful, with a more palatable accompaniment. “Tax Free” attacks televangelists, a few years before a bunch of them met scandal, but using Rod Steiger to give voice to the “men of God” is a little heavy-handed. “Smokin’ (Empty, Try Another)” is literally built around the sound of a cigarette machine—cute, but somewhat deflates her own preaching.
The title track brings all her gripes together, equating evangelists with “big wig financiers”, not exactly popular opinions under Reaganomics. Given the instrumentation and interjected effects, it’s hard to tell if she’s trying to emulate the lifestyle of “Shiny Toys” or lampooning it. It’s soon forgotten however, with “Ethiopia”, easily the highlight of the album, sticking mostly to piano with little in the way of production gimmicks, and a powerful commentary on what was one of the news events of the year. The subject of “Impossible Dreamer” isn’t clear until she includes “Give Peace A Chance”, but it’s more impressionistic than direct. She ends back where she started, with the straight-ahead romance of “Lucky Girl”, thankfully without Michael McDonald.
We’ve given Joni the benefit of the doubt thus far, but Dog Eat Dog misses the mark as an album. It still has its fans; even lifelong Joni fanatic Prince would have enjoyed some of the modulations here. But the key word there is “some”.

Joni Mitchell Dog Eat Dog (1985)—

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mott The Hoople 3: Wildlife

Suggesting a sojourn in the country, a title like Wildlife would have us think this is a gentler Mott The Hoople, from the straightforward “boys outside” photo to a predominant acoustic guitar on several tracks. And are those zodiac symbols next to their names on the back cover? Not as immediately heavy as the first two albums were, probably due to working without producer Guy Stevens, it’s managed to go unnoticed, despite some gems.
They’re still a band at this point, as Mick Ralphs gets the first vocal on “Whisky Women”, which several have said predicts Bad Company. Despite those acoustic strums, there’s still plenty of lead and that overloaded organ. Ian Hunter provides the sleepy “Angel Of Eighth Ave.”, and Mick comes back for “Wrong Side Of The River”, which is even sleepier, but there’s some great interplay in the stops and starts. “Waterlow” might take things a little far, a cracked vocal lamenting “blue broken tears” over piano and weepy strings, but Ian manages to redeem himself with a powerful take on “Lay Down”, Melanie’s super-hit song about Woodstock.
The album gets even weirder on side two with “It Must Be Love”, where a pedal steel keeps up the country pace, and a chorus that mostly repeats the word “love”. Ian can’t pick up the energy for “Original Mixed-Up Kid”, which is probably why Mick is back to declare why “Home Is Where I Want To Be”. The band must have known that a lightweight collection of seesawing songs from these guys wasn’t going to fly, so the set ends with an extremely loud and pounding live performance of Little Richard’s “Keep A’Knockin’” that runs through “Mean Woman Blues” and “What’d I Say”, strangely attributed to Jerry Lee Lewis.
So while Wildlife is a little disjointed, and there’s too much Mick and not enough Ian, it’s not a bad album, per se. At least it’s paced well.

Mott The Hoople Wildlife (1971)—3

Friday, September 16, 2016

Phil Collins 1: Face Value

Some of the songs Phil Collins wrote in the wake of his divorce ended up on the most recent Genesis album, but somehow the demos of the rest were deemed strong enough to form the basis of his first solo album. And considering what Face Value led to, it could be said that said divorce made him millions in the long run. (Not that we’d wish misfortune on anyone, but the man does have his detractors.) While he’d contributed inventive drums to Genesis albums, had done sessions for Brian Eno and even moonlighted in the British fusion band Brand X, from this album forward, he was squarely in the world of pop.
Everybody knows the story behind “In The Air Tonight”, how Phil witnessed a murder, then invited the perpetrator to the front row of one of his concerts, where he told the whole story and instructed the authorities to make the arrest. What people don’t know is that Phil himself was simultaneously apprehended for aiding and abetting a fugitive of justice by not reporting the crime when it happened, and he’s been in prison ever since.
Whatever you want to believe, it’s still a spooky song, with a sound that’s been imitated as a sincere form of flattery, and of course, those gated drums. “This Must Be Love” sounds even more like a demo, in stark contrast to the upbeat jazzy remake of “Behind The Lines”. By ignoring the big fanfare and adding Earth, Wind & Fire’s horn section to follow the melody, we can concentrate more on the lyrics, and choose to play the original again. The crickets that can be heard at the end shouldn’t be considered a critical commentary, but effectively set up the stark tale of farmland woe in “The Roof Is Leaking”, supposedly with Eric Clapton on that dirty dobro. This fades into the excellent instrumental “Droned”, which then morphs into “Hand In Hand”, for which he apparently never wrote words, so they’re substituted by a children’s choir and the horn section. Maybe he realized it was too close to “Follow You, Follow Me”.
The horns are used to much better effect on “I Missed Again”, which was a more obvious choice for a single. We have a weakness for “You Know What I Mean”, consisting solely of piano, lush strings and Phil’s sad vocal, especially since the horns come back on “Thunder And Lightning”, a cloying slice of smooth jazz that nonetheless shows off Daryl Stuermer, who’d graduated from supporting Genesis member onstage to Phil’s main guitarist whenever he was solo. Notice also Phil’s piano composing style, which entails pounding the same single bass note while moving the chords around with the other hand. (Hey, it worked for Graham Nash.) “I’m Not Moving” sounds less produced than some of the other tracks, giving it some well-needed charm, erased by the lounge sax and too-slow pace of “If Leaving Me Is Easy”. Finally, an experiment that shouldn’t work but does is his cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, to which he invents a harmony and inserts various loops generated by Daryl Stuermer and the horns. If you listen closely at the fade, he adds two lines from “Over The Rainbow”.
Even though there is a side’s worth of really good music here, Face Value does not earn a passing grade. As songs, they’re fine, but as an album it misses the mark. But nobody cares about what we think, least of all the modern-day consumers who pounced on this record on both sides of the ocean.
As part of a massive reissue campaign called “Take A Look At Me Now”, Phil reissued his solo albums with the expected bonus discs (and unexpectedly, updated cover photos that reflected the name of the campaign). Face Value’s extras are a strangely sequenced grab bag of demos and live versions culled from various decades. If you ever wanted to hear “Misunderstanding” with a horn section, here you go. More interesting is “…And So To F”, a Brand X number well played by the live band. Of the demos, “Misunderstanding” and “Please Don’t Ask” tie the album back to Duke, while an instrumental called “Against All Odds” provides another key to the future.

Phil Collins Face Value (1981)—
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1981, plus 12 extra tracks

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Prince 2: Prince

The inner sleeve of his debut album depicted Prince in triptych, shirtless and possibly pantsless, with a guitar for modesty. For his self-titled follow-up, we get to see his hairy chest in living color, life size on the front cover, and riding a winged white horse on the back.
The lyrics are not only more suggestive, but more blatant. The music is much the same, made for dancing, but he’s been working on his hooks. One of those kicks off the proceedings, and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” became his first real hit. (The album cut contains another two minutes of synth and clavinet.) “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” is in the same mode, but he lets loose with a ripping guitar solo that’s unmistakably him. “Sexy Dancer” is a throwaway dance number, except that the musical interplay (again, all him) is excellent. That trifle to one side, “When We’re Dancing Close And Slow” is a seduction over two chords, with a lot of melodic variations to keep it from being monotonous.
In the same slow jam vein, “With You” could almost be a Bee Gees ballad from the same period. Then, with heavy fuzzed guitars and even a cowbell, “Bambi” approaches rock, and appears to be an angry lament for a woman who spurned him for—wait for it—another woman. The piano and acoustic guitar on “Still Waiting” sound both R&B and country, giving more spectrum to his sound. If you listen carefully to “I Feel For You”, you can hear the basis of the arrangement Chaka Khan made a hit five years on. The album ends with “It’s Gonna Be Lonely”, another slow jam that at least tries to stay out of lyrical clich├ęs.
While more diverse than his first album, Prince relies too much on the falsetto. But it starts strong, and the rock elements scattered throughout are a good sign. Plus, it’s always nice to hear real drums when machines are handy.

Prince Prince (1979)—

Friday, September 9, 2016

Paul McCartney 34: Pure McCartney

At this point in history it’s a challenge to name any major artist that hasn’t gone through a major catalog overhaul combined with vault excavations. Not even halfway through reissuing each of his post-Beatle albums with bonus tracks and deluxe packages for those who could afford them—and he’s taking his sweet time, unlike Jimmy Page’s warp-speed rehaul of nine Zeppelin albums—Paul McCartney happened upon a Spotify playlist he then decided to sell rather than just publish. Such is life in the modern world.
Pure McCartney is the fourth compilation of his solo work, and the fourth one that doesn’t offer much to the collector who already has the contents five or more times. It’s sold as a two-disc set, a nearly identical four-LP set, and a four-CD set, which goes deep into the catalog, to extents that will vary depending on the listener, and the one we’ll discuss.
There’s no faulting the songs, since disc one starts with “Maybe I’m Amazed”, and continues through some more of the familiar ‘70s tracks, the first wrench being the underappreciated “Warm And Beautiful”, and then a couple of tracks later with “The Song We Were Singing”. This one, which appeared on his first album after the two-year Anthology blitz, fits so well with what’s come before we have to admit that the staffer that devised this playlist either has a good ear or stumbled upon a particularly effective shuffle. It’s more of a stretch to jump up to “Early Days”, from his most recent full-length of this century, but not as nutty as going to “Big Barn Bed”, from forty years before.
From here it’s a grab bag of the usual expected tracks interspersed with some surprises from the post-Wings era; it’s his own damn fault, because he wanted something to replace the Beatles in his frame of reference, and boy, did they. We hear certain album tracks and are surprised by what doesn’t come next; for instance, “Dear Boy” goes not into “Uncle Albert” (though it does appear two songs later) but “Silly Love Songs”. And what’s wrong with that? I’d like to know. Linda permeates the proceedings, which makes sense, since she had been such a prominent figure in his development in those increasing decades. Something tells us wife #3 is okay with that. (But four songs from Ram plus “Another Day” on disc one?)
Everything’s going fine, like a McCartney compilation should, until “Bip Bop” leaps out of the middle of disc two. That’s when you remember that you just bought a Spotify playlist, or could have hooked up your tape deck if your car had one too. Who among us would stick “Calico Skies” between two tracks from Band On The Run, much less the finale and the opener in that order, via “Hi Hi Hi” and “Waterfalls”? Most of these are good songs, but it comes down to personal preference. “Appreciate” was a groaner from the new album, but it’s forgiven by “Sing The Changes” from the last Fireman album. The third disc has the two superstar Motown duets, so one’s tolerance of those can be tempered by such recent joys as “Fine Line”, “Dance Tonight” and “Queenie Eye”, and the Tug Of War gems “Wanderlust” and “Here Today”, but you also have to endure “Girlfriend”, “Press”, and “Pipes Of Peace”. However, we’re fond of “Winedark Open Sea” and “Beautiful Night”, and the set does bring “We All Stand Together” to its first-ever US release.
It doesn’t take a genius to notice that nothing from Flowers In The Dirt, one of his few critical and popular successes from the post-Wings era, was included, and he even admitted that he didn’t’ want to detract from that album’s upcoming deluxe reissue. Which again begs the question: “Why didn’t you just make a Spotify playlist instead of selling these songs for the umpteenth time?” Because, he’d answer: you pinheads will buy anything I put on the blocks. So we do. And that’s why we’ll endure “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun”, because there’s no telling when he’ll get around to Press To Play in the Archive series.
Pure McCartney recycles Wings Greatest and All The Best!, but not all of Wingspan. Granted, it had been 15 years since that set, but “Temporary Secretary” hadn’t gained any cred then, so here it is now, setting up “Hope For The Future” from that video game he soundtracked. (Better that than the Rihanna and Kayne tune, right?) The thing is, this guy has recorded so many songs since 1970 that anyone’s version of the best of them will still be pretty damn awesome. We’ve avoided making our own Spotify playlist of our favorites simply to keep him from saying, “I can sell that,” and not even crediting us for including elusive B-sides. But rest assured we’d end with “Singalong Junk”, as opposed to the vocal version that ends the set.

Paul McCartney Pure McCartney (2016)—4

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Replacements 6: Pleased To Meet Me

Officially down to three members, The Replacements ended up in Ardent Studios, birthplace of the Big Star albums Paul Westerberg loved so much, with producer Jim Dickinson, who’d worked on Third and also played piano with the Stones. Dickinson’s ability to get music out of substance-addled musicians, plus his early adoption of digital recording technology, made Pleased To Meet Me a strong, if short album.
Side one is nearly perfect: “I.O.U.” is a powerful opening kissoff; “Alex Chilton” pays loving tribute to the man of the title (who himself appears later on the album); “I Don’t Know” a hilarious call-and-response summation of the relationship between the band and everyone in the industry who tried to help them; “Nightclub Jitters” showing the more “adult” side of Westerberg with a faux-cocktail jazz backing; and “The Ledge” is a truly harrowing monologue by a boy contemplating suicide, continuing for a full minute after we apparently hear the fatal leap.
Side two goes through some throwaway rock that torpedoes further perfection, but the cold opening of “Never Mind” is an excellent development in Westerberg’s education in making records of good songs. “Valentine” is just that, and exactly the kind that a girl crushing on him would love to receive. “Shooting Dirty Pool” stomps through the mix with some admittedly clever lyrics, and “Red Red Wine” is little more than a mushmouthed paean to the beverage, but they’re forgiven for what comes next. “Skyway” is tender, acoustic, heartbreaking and infectious, and a great setup for “Can’t Hardly Wait”. Westerberg had been trying to perfect this song for two years, constantly fiddling with the lyrics, but that classic riff is unquestionable. Apparently it wasn’t his idea to add horns or the strings, but by setting it into posterity, the song was finished for him, and that’s the version that has become one of the band’s most beloved tracks.
Because the tunes are so good, Pleased To Meet Me seems longer than 33 minutes, and there’s more than that added to the updated CD. Along with noisy B-sides like “Election Day”, “Tossin’ And Turnin’” and “Route 66” (as well as Chris Mars crooning a cover of “Cool Water”), we get a few band demos of songs that would go unreleased or retooled. “Photo” combines the better elements of “Shooting Dirty Pool” and “Red Red Wine”, while “Kick It In” has some real promise. Alternate versions of “Alex Chilton” and “Can’t Hardly Wait” provide some archaeology, but overall, it’s one of the few expanded CDs that really does deliver value.

The Replacements Pleased To Meet Me (1987)—4
2008 CD reissue: same as 1987, plus 11 extra tracks

Friday, September 2, 2016

Todd Rundgren 13: Back To The Bars

As we’ve noted too many times already, the late ‘70s were the era of the double live album. Todd had already released one album that was recorded in concert, in addition to including live performances as parts of other predominantly studio collections, but Back To The Bars offered something of a twist in that it was culled from performances in smaller clubs and theaters, hence the title. (That doesn’t explain the futuristic shirtless-in-the-desert cover shot, however.)
Apparently these were elaborate shows, involving onstage dancers and multiple TV sets, which expectedly don’t come through on the records. We do get hits and album favorites from most of his albums to date, performed by onetime and then-current members of Utopia, even on songs from Rundgren albums as opposed to Utopia albums. For the most part, the songs sound like the records, except that “Never Never Land” has a full ending and the soul medley from A Wizard, A True Star ends not with “Cool Jerk” but his own “I Saw The Light”. As we might expect, the big finale goes to “Hello It’s Me”, which supposedly includes Daryl Hall, John Oates, and Stevie Nicks, but good luck picking them out of the mix.
Todd being Todd, three of his catchiest tunes bookend two adventurous compositions from Initiation. It’s also amusing to hear him heckle his own hecklers here and there. Back To The Bars has a bright, live sound, with mostly seamless transitions, making for a decent sampler.

Todd Rundgren Back To The Bars (1978)—3