Friday, August 26, 2016

Journey 7: Frontiers

Now that they were huge, Journey was able to keep the lineup intact for two albums in a row, but where could they go after their Escape? Frontiers isn’t the obvious answer, nor is the skydiving photo session, but that’s what they did, balancing their now-patented power ballads with their loudest guitars (and huskiest voices) yet.
The first synthesizer notes will immediately bring to mind the unintentional comedy of the “Separate Ways” video, that wonderful showcase of method acting, tight close-ups, and way-too-earnest air guitaring, keyboarding and drumming, all seemingly taking place behind a Home Depot, as if the woman in question had nowhere else to walk. “Send Her My Love” is one of the secrets here, even though it was a single, and another one of those songs that immediately reduces a sensitive teenage boy to absolute mush. Following that, “Chain Reaction” is loud and annoying, a slap in the face. “After The Fall” is a little better, at least easier to sway to, but not as big a hit as “Faithfully”, which is probably being played at a wedding somewhere right now. (And the impetus for yet another unintentionally hilarious video, including lots of setup shots of bone-tired musicians Out On The Road, and chronicling Steve Perry’s battle versus his mustache. We can thank this video for Jon Bob Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive”.) We should also mention that Jonathan Cain, who wrote the song for his then-wife, hasn’t been married to her since the Reagan administration. Not to worry, she went on to invest in implants that kept her in Skinemax movies for the duration of the century.
Side one sports four of the album’s singles, so side two often gets short shrift. Speaking of secrets, “Edge Of The Blade” doesn’t seem to get any love anywhere, besides having a terrific riff and a great overall performance. “Troubled Child” provides some welcome dynamics, if not the same drama of “Mother, Father”, but “Back Talk” is just a pile of noise, based around one of Steve Smith’s less inspired drum parts. The title track is a little more complicated, but overstays its welcome with the poor decision of delayed, repeating vocals. Thankfully, “Rubicon” is a good showcase for everybody, and a strong closer.
While it’s hardly a controversy on the level of the rejigged Blood On The Tracks or Infidels albums, Frontiers is notable today for the songs that were left off. “Only The Young” and “Ask The Lonely” were originally in the track sequence but pulled (replaced by “Back Talk” and “Troubled Child”). Both would surface down the road as soundtrack contributions, and become worthy inclusions on key Journey compilations as fan favorites. Both are on the CD you can buy today, along with a couple of other songs of the period, but the question remains: where would those tracks have fit on the original LP? Both have such a big sound that having them stuck back to back in the middle of side two, where the replacements resided, makes no sense. We haven’t settled on a sequence we like, simply because we much prefer “Troubled Child” to “Chain Reaction”, which isn’t part of the equation. But if you want to reprogram the modern CD for a better overall album, skip right from “Send Her My Love” to “After The Fall”, which would have “Edge Of The Blade” ending side one. Start side two with “Only The Young”, and follow “Troubled Child” with “Ask The Lonely”. (In other words: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 11, 7, 12, 9, 10. You’re welcome.)

Journey Frontiers (1983)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rush 8: Permanent Waves

Even though it was written and recorded in 1979, Permanent Waves began the decade strongly for Rush. Sci-fi epics were out, and tight power trio interplay took over. Geddy Lee’s voice is less silly but still out of reach for detractors, but his real contribution is his growing prowess on keyboards, used more as enhancements than effects.
That’s not to say that budding suburban guitarists had nothing to copy. “The Spirit Of Radio” and “Freewill”, back to back, gave spotty teens reason to compete and impress each other at parties. The former is a celebration of a time when FM radio meant something, and whoever though these guys would find a way to combine reggae and Paul Simon? “Freewill” provides another anthem for the individual, a big deal in high school, though Geddy’s screeching on the final verse will divide the lovers and the haters. “Jacob’s Ladder” is something of an echo of those old epics, particularly with the flanged vocal section, except that the marching tempo driving the first part leads to only clouds preparing for battle, making the song nothing more than a description of the sky. (Heavy, man.)
There are a lot of tricky tempo changes on this album, and many of them are in “Entre Nous”, which delivers something of a hope for the future should those who have chosen freewill manage to cooperate. “Different Strings” hearkens back to some of the quieter moments on side two of 2112, based around a complicated guitar part and accented by an out-of-character piano accompaniment. It even fades right when you think we’re in for a lengthy solo. Instead, we’re plunged into nine minutes of “Natural Science”. Divided into three titled parts lyrically if not musically, it’s a challenging song to enjoy with all its insistence. In hindsight, it does seem something of an ancestor to an instrumental we’ll discuss soon enough.
Even with metaphorical lyrics, Permanent Waves is a very “direct” album, and if not simple, certainly simpler that where they’d been so far. They had figured out how to challenge themselves and their audience without complicating things too much, and in the process grew that audience. They even got some airplay out of it, since American deejays loved to play songs written about themselves.

Rush Permanent Waves (1980)—

Friday, August 19, 2016

Grateful Dead 5: Workingman’s Dead

A couple of funny things happened on the way to the next Dead album. First, Jerry Garcia taught himself how to play the pedal steel guitar. Then, the band decided to write songs in a conventional manner. Most accounts credit Crosby, Stills & Nash for influencing the band to concentrate more on singing, which makes one of the few collaborations of the LA scene and the Frisco scene of the time.
Workingman’s Dead was the first recorded fruits of this new approach, established firmly by “Uncle John’s Band”, a campfire strum with an entirely acoustic backing. “High Time” adds a guitar through a Leslie speaker, but is slow, sad, and pretty. That new pedal steel dominates “Dire Wolf”, something of a modern folk song, perhaps best known by the chorus “don’t murder me.” The Dead that rocks finally surfaces on “New Speedway Boogie”, which continues the foreboding theme, this time obliquely referring to the Altamont free concert, which had already gotten so tense by the time the band showed up that they turned around and left without playing. (As seen in Gimme Shelter, Santana drummer Michael Shrieve fills in Garcia and Phil Lesh about the situation. “Bummer,” comments Jerry. “Marty [Balin] got beat up,” says Shrieve. “Doesn’t seem right, man,” replies Phil.)
Things pick up musically with another modern folk lament. “Cumberland Blues” begins like a Dead jam, but turns to bluegrass by the end with a prominent banjo. “Black Peter” counterparts “High Time”, being a slow sad lope, with a few nice touches, like the occasional organ and the layered vocals. “Easy Wind” gives Pigpen something to do vocally, and he manages to keep up even though it sounds like the band is playing in three different tempos simultaneously. “Casey Jones” provides a grand finale, another twist on an old folk tale, and one everybody likes to sing because it rhymes “train” with “cocaine”.
As would be proven in time, Workingman’s Dead was key to a successful year for the band artistically, and part of a wave of good music coming out of California at the time. By moving away from experimenting for the sake of it, and borne out by the sepia-toned, almost Wild West artwork, they could be taken seriously as musicians. (The expanded CD is packed to capacity: a mix of “New Speedway Boogie” with backing vocals; a pile of live recordings of the time, like “Dire Wolf” sung by Bob Weir and an off-pitch “Mason’s Children”, a song recorded for the album but left off; and the obligatory radio ad.)

The Grateful Dead Workingman’s Dead (1970)—4

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Oasis 2: (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?

The British always have a way of pumping up musical hype, mostly so they can tear it down again. (Anybody remember the Bros? Didn’t think so.) So when two bands with mod haircuts and retro vibes showed up, the weeklies over there tried to make Blur vs. Oasis as relevant as the Beatles vs. the Stones.
The big difference is that the Beatles and the Stones got along, whereby the boys in Blur learned quickly to ignore the japes from Oasis. Here in the States, it didn’t make much of a ripple, when both bands were making decent records. Somehow (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? established Oasis as the clear winners of whatever battle they had with Blur, on only their second album. In fact, it took their fourth single (if you count the three that came out in the UK before the album did) to make an impression, and that’s why most people can still recognize “Wonderwall” from the first few notes.
Some have questioned how a Beatle purist like ourselves could like this album, which is understandable. For one thing, when it came out, the Gallagher boys had barely started to be as pretentiously loutish as they would shortly become. Also, it was a great set of power pop songs crafted so well it took several listens to realized whence they’d been pinched. Example: while we noticed the cop of “With A Little Help From My Friends” at the end of “She’s Electric”, it was two years before we realized that the bridge rips off the bridge to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and we had to read about that. The origin of the word “Wonderwall” is obvious to any diehard George Harrison fan, but that didn’t stop Liam from publicly disparaging the quiet one, who knew that no reaction only proved how stupid the kid was, particularly since Noel came up with all the songs.
And there are still a lot of songs to enjoy on this, such as “Roll With It”, “Cast No Shadow”, “Hey Now”, “Some Might Say” (there’s that T.Rex riff again), and even all 7½ minutes of “Champagne Supernova”. A favorite is still “Don’t Look Back In Anger”, which starts out like “Imagine” and features Noel instead of Liam on lead vocals. (Soon afterwards Noel took the mike for an MTV appearance while Liam sulked in the balcony, and showed that he was just as capable of carrying the band on his own. Yet it would be years before he made the leap.)
“Morning Glory” is the only real clunker here, since it doubles the feedback and fuzz with helicopter effects and is just noisy. Overall, the recipe works, and the latest anniversary edition offers up 28 further tracks, including the complete “Swamp Song” tapped for those interludes, the vinyl-only “Bonehead’s Bank Holiday”, all the B-sides that made collecting their singles worth the cash, and a mess of live versions and demos. Call it a guilty pleasure, but we still like it.

Oasis (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995)—4

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bruce Springsteen 20: Working On A Dream

Bruce never worked fast, and had long earned the luxury of having to rush himself. Working On A Dream was one of the fastest follow-ups in his career, arriving only five retail quarters after Magic. Having learned his lesson from that time he put out two albums on the same day, this time he decided to give the songs that materialized at the end of the sessions a little breathing room.
On the basis of “Outlaw Pete”, an eight-minute saga about a bank-robbing baby that has some catchy hooks outside of the one that’s identical to “I Was Made For Loving You” by Kiss, one can be forgiven for thinking the kid didn’t get enough oxygen. But “My Lucky Day” redeems it, with the big E Street sound everybody loved on The Rising, and even a textbook Clarence solo. The title track is a little too by numbers, and the sweetness of “Queen Of The Supermarket” is sunk by its improbability, or at least its literalness; Paul Westerberg already wrote the best ode to a checkout girl anyway. Right at the end he finds a terrific countermelody, then shocks us with an F-bomb, and lets the song fade to the accompaniment of a UPC scanner. (We kid you not.) “What Love Can Do” sounds like something he must’ve written already, and it could do without the clattery arrangement. “This Life” builds on the Brian Wilson inspirations of the last album to get us smiling again.
The experiments continue on “Good Eye”, a noisy blues rocker sung through a Green Bullet. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a country song that has nothing to do with John Lennon, and while “Life Itself” is twice as long and has nothing to do with George Harrison, it’s got more depth. The country elements of those last couple of songs combine with the high notes on “Kingdom Of Days” to take it away from “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” and “Your Own Worst Enemy”. “Surprise, Surprise” was another chance to evoke John Lennon, or at least Gomer Pyle, but instead stays a pop song with a Mark Ronson bridge. It’s a final chance for toe-tapping, given the dusty atmosphere of “The Last Carnival”. (As had become standard, this album’s hidden or bonus track is “The Wrestler”, written for the movie of the same name. It’s no “Streets Of Philadelphia”.)
Working On A Dream is possibly Bruce’s most lightweight album, in that it’s not weighed down by the hard lives and tough loves of all those just plain folks. Rolling Stone magazine was bound by law to give it five stars, but that should mean nothing by now. It’s merely harmless and enjoyable.

Bruce Springsteen Working On A Dream (2009)—3

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Rolling Stones 8: Got Live If You Want It!

While anxiously waiting for the next real Stones album, the band’s American label took a hint as well as a title from a British EP. While three of those tracks had already been scattered on a couple of U.S.-only albums, the band were convinced to record a few shows on their current British tour for a full-length live album. And just like that, Got Live If You Want It! happened.
Well, not exactly. While the sources for the recordings used have been documented, many of the tracks sound just too clean to be really, really live. The technology to capture each of the instruments, microphones and drums on a stage, usually through a crappy PA system, as clear as they sound here simply didn’t exist yet. And when you add in all those screaming girls, the math just doesn’t work out.
That said, the band does display energy, especially Charlie, who drives “Under My Thumb”, complete with that post-chorus tag they’d still use in 1969, right into “Get Off Of My Cloud”. The momentum crashes for a sadly out-of-tune “Lady Jane”, so maybe this really was captured live on stage in front of an adoring audience. And when was the last time you heard an electric dulcimer? Proof of studio trickery does exist, however, as both “I’m Loving You Too Long” and “Fortune Teller” were studio tracks doctored with screams to sound live just for this album. (The originals of both can be found today on More Hot Rocks.)
Speaking of trickery, somebody had the bright idea to start side two with a tease of “Satisfaction” before cutting to the actual performance of “The Last Time”. In other words, no, the band did not really goad the audience that way. “19th Nervous Breakdown” is fairly powerful, “Time On My Side” off-pitch, and “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby” really fuzzy and distorted, so maybe it’s just the backing vocals that were touched up. “I’m Alright” is different from the one on the EP (and Out Of Our Heads here), and still an odd way to kill two minutes mid-show. “Satisfaction” fades before the audience does, who keep screaming through the “God Save The Queen” recording piped through the theater at the end.
Because it was part of the original American canon, Got Live If You Want It! is available for purchase today, with only slightly less atrocious sound than before. If anything, it proves that the Stones tradition of pushing a questionable live album on the unsuspecting public wasn’t their idea in the first place. You really can skip it.

The Rolling Stones Got Live If You Want It! (1966)—2

Friday, August 5, 2016

Art Garfunkel: Angel Clare

One has to feel a little sorry for Art Garfunkel, having been the second banana in a successful duo, albeit one who arguably made them so palatable to a wide audience. But left on his own, without an in-house genius to craft songs for him to lay magic upon, what was he to do?
Well, first he made a couple of movies, and he even taught high school math. But the man was born to sing, sing, sing, and so he tapped Roy Halee and a sea of musicians to help craft his first solo album. Angel Clare is credited to his surname only, and gathers a truly odd assortment of traditionals and songs by contemporary writers, like Paul Williams, Jimmy Webb, Van Morrison and Randy Newman.
This is a pop album, despite the presence of Jerry Garcia, J.J. Cale, two of Derek’s Dominos, and even his erstwhile partner on one track. But his choices are downright bizarre—the murder ballad “Down In The Willow Garden”, the less obscure “Barbara Allen”, Van’s reggae outtake “I Shall Sing”, and “Feuilles-Oh”, a folk song that helped break up the duo, strapped to a Bach chorale given truly spacey lyrics. He does try to experiment with different sounds and instruments, on “Mary Was An Only Child” and “Woyaya”.
But we’re here for the voice, which always manages to find those twists that bring tears to your eyes. “Traveling Boy” is a typically creepy Paul Williams tune that tries to cover a kiss-off to last night’s groupie with fake tenderness—the flip side of Leon Russell’s “Superstar”, if you will—but good luck not swooning at the breakdown and buildup for the last minute. The smash hit “All I Know” is best known for its own hook, which disguises the malice in the relationship the rest of the song describes. Even in the slap at the “Old Man” is a pretty song with a highly mean sentiment. (He would admit that he chose songs for their melodies before reading the lyrics.) Nudged along by the arrangements, those little moments crop up to generate such an ache that it’s hard not to wallow in them.
Surprisingly, Angel Clare hasn’t gained a reputation as a fractured masterpiece, likely because Artie never battled an addiction to anything stronger than weed. There’s almost something diabolical about that angelic (sorry) voice coming out of that cherubic face delivering the words of disturbed people. The album title comes from a less-than-savory character in English literature, so maybe he’s more clever than we think. But move aside some of the weirder songs, and you can almost hear the coming of Barry Manilow. (They would have been a good match, but Barry didn’t need someone to sing his songs, and then where would Darius Rucker have learned his phrasing?) The liner notes would have us believe the whole thing was recorded in a church, but that doesn’t excuse the appearance of the boys’ choir on side two. Put the three tearjerkers on a constant loop and forget the rest, and cry until you can cry no more.

Garfunkel Angel Clare (1973)—