Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cat Stevens 9: Numbers

As he continued to maneuver the pop industry, Cat Stevens became more obsessed with finding some kind of meaning to it all. Having long been “on the road to find out”, his next project was an exploration of numerology disguised as fairy tale. Numbers is a good-sounding album for the most part, best appreciated by not listening too closely to the story, whatever the hell it is.
After the instrumental opener “Whistlestar”, “Novim’s Nightmare” sits comfortably along his classic acoustic work. “Majik Of Majiks” begins as an excellent piano ballad, but the contemporary drums, female backing vocals, and sax solo by David Sanborn take it into the disco. “Drywood” is a little better, a mix of old and new, funky but not embarrassing.
However, “Banapple Gas” is a little embarrassing, mixing a trip to the islands with a country pedal steel and even a Coral sitar—catchy, to be sure, but not something you’d want to sing along with unless you’re about four years old. “Land O’ Freelove & Goodbye” is borderline baroque with the harpsichord and vocal lines, but a children’s choir is never a good idea. One of the less adventurous tracks musically is “Jzero”, fittingly as it’s about the antagonist of the story. “Home” deserves more study, particularly without the synth strings and children getting in the way. They also get to smother “Monad’s Anthem”, otherwise dominated by a heavily processed voice of some kind of overlord.
All these journeys were very important to the Cat, otherwise he wouldn’t have invested so much time in them. But lots of people were trying to convey messages in those days, and the better ones did it without roping in a bunch of kids. (The Wall doesn’t count.) By this time the audience was growing weary of listening to him finding his way, and Numbers didn’t help either side.

Cat Stevens Numbers (1975)—2

Friday, October 13, 2017

Paul Simon 6: Greatest Hits, Etc.

Having begun to work more slowly than ever, Paul Simon went for the standard contract-ending maneuver. Greatest Hits, Etc. compiled tracks (hits and otherwise) from his four solo albums of the decade, sweetened by two new songs to suck in those who’d already bought the albums. “Slip Slidin’ Away” has since become one of his more popular standards, an easygoing meditation on good people trying to do good things, with a clip-clopping rhythm and the Oak Ridge Boys harmonizing along. “Stranded In A Limousine” is a funky, jazzy parable that’s probably about something more profound, or at least designed to sound that way.
There’s no denying the worthiness of the hits in this package (“Me And Julio”, “Mother And Child Reunion”, “50 Ways…”) but some of the choices to fulfill the “etc.” label are up to personal taste. “Have A Good Time” mars side one, but is redeemed by the live version of “Duncan” that follows, and “I Do It For Your Love” on side two. “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” is simply an odd way to end the album, particularly coming after the raucous “Loves Me Like A Rock”. What’s more, “My Little Town” is glaringly absent.
With the snail’s pace that would follow, it would be a long time before he had any worthy contenders to add to his roster of “hits”. By the time that happened—in a big way—Greatest Hits, Etc. no longer sufficed, and was replaced with a more comprehensive set on another label. “Slip Slidin’ Away” would remain in the pantheon, but “Stranded In A Limousine” would revert to rarity status, not returning to general availability until the new century.

Paul Simon Greatest Hits, Etc. (1977)—
Current CD availability: none

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Todd Rundgren 16: Healing

Though he’d dismiss the notion today, Todd Rundgren’s first completely solo album in three years was a reaction to violence, both in his home and in the world. Healing relies more than ever on synthesizers and his own ability to get new sounds out of them while staying true to his songwriting abilities.
Six separate tracks totaling close to half an hour are crammed onto side one, resulting in an experience reminiscent of such experiments as “Treatise On Cosmic Fire” and “In And Out The Shakras We Go”, only with lyrics. “Healer” is a plea for exactly that; “Pulse” layers synths in a sneakily funky way, seeming to build in density with each measure. “Flesh” comes across as mildly evangelical and serious, then the oom-pah silliness of the resentful “Golden Goose” dispels any sense of calm created thus far. An antidote arrives in “Compassion”, his patented brand of blue-eyed soul. “Shine” is almost two songs in one, beginning with a dreamy Todd-and-piano segment that is shunted aside by a jarringly busy arrangement that goes way too long.
Side two is devoted to the three-part “Healing” suite. While they do run together and themes recur, the segments are strong on their own too, it’s a pleasing listening experience, and more effectively conveys his message than side one. The saxophone in “Part I” approaches yacht-rock waters, but never takes over the track. There’s a smooth transition to the softer “Part II”, and while “Part III” is a variation on the opening segment, there’s something a little abstract about it.
The album itself was a self-contained work, and while “Compassion” comes close, there wasn’t a radio-friendly hit single, so he wrote one. “Time Heals” was included — along with its moody B-side, “Tiny Demons” — on a seven-inch stuck inside the sleeve, resembling a 45 but running at 33. The songs have since been appended at the end of every CD reissue of the album, nicely capping an album that appreciates in value.

Todd Rundgren Healing (1981)—3

Friday, October 6, 2017

Van Morrison 33: Down The Road

It can be tiresome to trawl through a legacy artist’s ongoing catalog when even the artist in question avers that he’s just doing a job. Van Morrison has never felt compelled to justify his albums; he simply records them and puts them out, and considers any status in the grand pantheon as moot, but somehow still deserving of awe.
Unfortunately for us, we’ve established a format here, and we must proceed, somehow. Down The Road is another competent album of pleasant R&B-inspired originals with some country flavors. He’s not overtly complaining about how the industry’s screwed him, but at least two songs lament the state of current popular music. “Hey Mr. DJ” is a Sam Cooke song in all but delivery, while “Whatever Happened To P.J. Proby?” gets its inspiration from a guy best known as having a hit with a Lennon-McCartney giveaway. “Choppin’ Wood” is supposedly about Van’s father, but it’s got the same rhythm as the far inferior “Talk Is Cheap”, lessening the sentiment somewhat. “All Work And No Play” spouts the usual clich├ęs, and his ill-advised quasi-scatting results in one of the least essential versions of “Georgia On My Mind” ever recorded. Despite the pedestrian lyrics, “Evening Shadows” is an intriguing collaboration with jazz clarinet legend Acker Bilk, and we get more variations on common themes like “Meet Me In The Indian Summer” and “What Makes The Irish Heart Beat”.
At 15 tracks and over an hour of playing time, Down The Road is too long to really ingest, and the listener would likely put on an earlier album that truly resonates. In the plus column: not a sign of Brian Kennedy anywhere.

Van Morrison Down The Road (2002)—3

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Graham Nash 3: Innocent Eyes

Graham was so starved for collaboration in the mid-‘80s that he participated in a Hollies reunion, then defied all the lessons he should have learned from Stephen Stills’ recent monstrosity. The cover of Innocent Eyes may have qualified as cutting-edge computer graphics in 1986, but now it’s just a blurry mess. Speaking of which…
Take away his voice and every track sounds like it was written and recorded for an action/comedy movie soundtrack, probably on MCA. There are guitars, but they’re fighting for space with the Yamaha DX7s and Linn drums. You can hear that third world conch blowing sound that was all the rage, best associated with the opening seconds of “Sledgehammer”. And when there’s a deviation in rhythm, he relies on reggae. (Beats Latin, but still.)
There is no point in doing a track-by-track rundown, since they’re all fairly hideous. He went on the record to say that the sound was his own doing, that he hadn’t been coerced by anything other than his own desire to stay contemporary and rely on other songwriters for help. For the most part, the lyrics don’t say anything particularly profound, though “Chippin’ Away” would be revived by CSN when the Berlin Wall came down. “Glass And Steel” is a welcome departure in tempo and content, another song written in sympathy for David Crosby’s struggles of the time.
Then “I Got A Rock” steps all over everything, and we’re reminded how bad Innocent Eyes is. As ever, stripped-down arrangements might help illuminate whatever assets are in the tunes, but why bother?

Graham Nash Innocent Eyes (1986)—

Friday, September 29, 2017

King Crimson 15: Radical Action To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind

After another lengthy hiatus, and a period where the band’s figurehead stated twice that he was done with performing and touring like he used to, King Crimson became a concert act again. This incarnation swelled to seven and then eight members, three of whom were drummers and set up at the front of the stage. Alongside Robert Fripp, other veterans included stalwart bass and Stick player Tony Levin, drummer Pat Mastellotto, and most remarkably, the return of Mel Collins on sax for the first time since the Red album. Other members found their way in via various Crimson side projects and Fripp-approved tribute acts.
While the shows featured some new material, the setlists relied heavily on material from the “classic” period, now that there were enough people and technology available onstage to recreate those pieces. The scope of what they were able to accomplish can be experienced on Radical Action To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind, a three-CD set available with a Blu-ray, and also a version that adds two DVDs. (The audience response is mixed out of the audio, but is discernable on the video.) While it purports to include a version of every song played on the tour, the discs are reorganized into distinct thematic sets. “Mainly Metal” and “Easy Money Shots” go through well executed tracks from the ‘90s-and-later lineups, as well as material that hadn’t been played live since the early ‘70s, with selections from In The Wake Of Poseidon and Islands. “Crimson Classics” features their “greatest hits” from the debut and Red, but that’s not to suggest it’s the go-to, especially since stuff from Larks’ Tongues In Aspic is on the first two.
In addition to the enhanced yet reverent arrangements (“Baby Elephant Walk”, anyone?) there is some “new” music here. The title suite is archetypical Crimson, with angular arpeggios over odd time signatures and Fripp fuzz, part one and part two framing a vocal section called “Meltdown”. And while it does have the word in the title and swaggers along, “Suitable Grounds For The Blues” isn’t about to be covered by Buddy Guy anytime soon. Tony Levin is forward in the mix here, as he is on the “Interlude” that follows. Second guitarist Jakko Jakszyk is also the lead vocalist, and while his polished approach sounds startling on the newer, less familiar tracks and certainly competent on the old favorites, one must remember that Fripp was a big fan of Daryl Hall. Each disc also includes a distinct piece for percussion, proving just how tight a dozen limbs could be.
Despite being both pricey and sprawling, Radical Action... is still a good entry into the world of King Crimson, covering a lot of ground and leaving only the ‘80s stage of the band unrepresented. Come to think of it, most Crimson releases lean on the expensive side, but you also get a lot of content for your dollar. And yes, the guy on the cover is pretty disturbing.

King Crimson Radical Action To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind (2015)—

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Jethro Tull 12: Songs From The Wood

Perhaps taking the title of the previous album to heart, the next phase for Jethro Tull was to fully embrace the English folk music they’d hinted at all along. Songs From The Wood begins with such a statement of purpose in the title track, an immaculate a capella opening, the flute and acoustic come in, and before too long they’re competing for space with the drums and electric and keyboards and arrangement. So it still sounds like Tull, but the lyrics are now more pointedly derived from ancient texts and more older-sounding (at least) couplets.
That’s pretty much the M.O. for the rest of the album. You’d have to read the liner notes to know that “Jack-in-the-Green” is performed entirely by Ian Anderson, suggesting that maybe he didn’t need the band after all. (He also takes complete songwriting and production credit for the album, although lead guitarist Martin Barre and now-fulltime keyboardist David Palmer are mentioned for “additional material”.) “Cup Of Wonder” has some contemporary touches that must have sounded revolutionary for the time, but now place the album squarely in the second half of its decade. After a lengthy, tightly syncopated intro, “Hunting Girl” is a fable either full of double entendre or not, and just seems to take forever to resolve, unless you dig the playing. We will allow that it’s rather daring to include an original Yuletide song on an album released in February, but “Ring Out, Solstice Bells” is just that.
Much of side two runs together, unfortunately. After some pseudo-Switched-On Bach harpsichord, “Velvet Green” traipses around a renaissance fair, but at least adds some scenery changes. “The Whistler” was actually a single, and a favorite for a lot of fans, but they probably really like the flute too. Thankfully it’s brushed aside by the distorted guitar solo that begins “Pibroch (Cap In Hand)” all by itself, sounding closest to “classic” prog Tull. That goes on a while, and then “Fire At Midnight” seems to be a nice quiet ending, but it too gets worked up.
There’s no denying that Songs From The Wood was a good direction for the band to try, and it does have its appeal. But a little goes a long way, and a lot overdoes it. One’s enjoyment of the album, as ever, depends on your preferred dosage of Ian Anderson. (The deluxe anniversary upgrade offers the now-required 5.1 surround mix to highlight the original quad mix, along with two CDs’ worth of live recordings from the subsequent tour. And other stuff.)

Jethro Tull Songs From The Wood (1977)—3
2003 remastered CD: same as 1977, plus 2 extra tracks
2017 The Country Set Deluxe Edition: same as 1977, plus 30 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs)