Friday, October 21, 2016

Toad The Wet Sprocket 1: Bread And Circus

As R.E.M. slowly emerged from college alternative darlings to mainstream success, several young bands formed in their buttoned-up wake, dominated by jangly and/or arpeggiated guitars and earnest yet enigmatic frontmen. Most of these bands had the hubris of youth, where everything was important, especially the aches caused by an unjust world.
Cling as they might to their collective and individual integrity, these guys (and a few girls) still longed to be rock stars, and the sooner they expressed that desire over saving any specific rainforest, the less likely they were to rocket to success with one unlikely album, plummet back to earth with the next, and be accused of selling out. In the ‘90s, one such band was Live, and while Soul Asylum was never lumped into the post-R.E.M. wave, their career arc is worth scoffing at here.
A sense of humor helped, and that’s one reason why Toad The Wet Sprocket didn’t follow the same self-destructive path. They started mostly together in high school, and weren’t exactly pinup material; some may have found the singer cute, but the guitarist and bass player sported anachronistic beards common to guys in the drama club. Following the classic template, their first album was self-released before being picked up by Columbia. Most of Bread And Circus is in the same vague setting: elongated, unintelligible syllables, harmonized for emphasis, washed in reverb, with a rhythm section that is both competent and dynamic. A few songs stand out, such as the strong opener “Way Away”, followed by “Scenes From A Vinyl Recliner”. “Know Me” lets the angst push past furrowed eyebrows, and while “One Little Girl” is far from the best track, at least they were trying to stretch out with something the kids could dance to. “Always Changing Probably” even has a saxophone, for crying out loud.
Bread And Circus still sounds like a demo, because it was. They would get better, but it remains something of a harbinger.

Toad The Wet Sprocket Bread And Circus (1989)—3

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Brian Eno 4: Discreet Music

While he’d yet to find a label for the genre, Brian Eno was fascinated by the dual concepts of music that was both self-generating and capable of being part of a larger environment. The back cover of Discreet Music, which put him closer to achieving these ideas, goes into much better depth of explaining how as well as why he created this album.
Side one, which shares the album’s title, is a 30-minute mix of synthesizer loops he’d created for Robert Fripp to extemporize upon. The tones are fairly basic, simple flute sounds and low winds. The notes are few, alternating within the same key and pitch, going in and out of the overall mix to provide a pleasant accompaniment to any number of non-arduous activities. Because it’s so long, it often seems on the verge of fading away, only to return. It’s probably best experienced at home, with the windows open to hear birds singing and rain falling, as Eno’s inspiration for the piece happened to include.
Side two purports to present another approach to his self-generating thesis. Here he takes one of the most well-known, copied pieces of music in the history of written scores, and has a classic string ensemble disassemble it three different ways. We recognize the first notes of Pachelbel’s Canon from the start, only to have it slowly evolve into long, drawn-out extensions of the notes. The second section allows spurts of the melody to appear and sustain, while the third, by design, renders the score past the point of recognition.
Coming smack-dab amidst Eno’s “pop” albums, Discreet Music is alternatively distracting and challenging. Where side one has its merit, side two is collectively a matter of personal taste; if anything, it’s unique to hear Eno “music” played by acoustic, unamplified and untreated instruments. The album is best appreciated as part of his big picture, after all else has been absorbed.

Brian Eno Discreet Music (1975)—3

Friday, October 14, 2016

Frank Zappa 30: Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar

A few albums earlier Frank had stumbled on an easy way to copyright new compositions: merely extracting a guitar solo from a live performance of an established song. A few examples dotted those records, and now he put together three complete albums of assorted instrumental excerpts, separated by Lumpy Gravy-style dialogue. Originally sold individually via mail order, they soon found their way into a nationally distributed collective box. With the exception of a mid-‘90s release that replicated the set on three CDs, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar can be usually found as a two-disc package, all the original music intact.
The package deal is best, since no one “album” is better than another. Given the unifying effect of the contents, and considering that many of the solos come from different performances of a small handful of stage favorites—“Inca Roads” being the most common catalyst—recorded during a four-show London run in February 1979, a track-by-track dissection is futile for our purposes, but we must call out some highlights.
Frank never said he was the greatest guitarist on the planet, but insisted he played his own stuff very well. Many of the solos here are distinctively toned, usually over a two-chord vamp, so he never had to worry much about changing keys or memorizing scales and modes. Things do get interesting when there’s a tricky time signature, as on “five-five-FIVE”, based on 5/8, 5/8 and 5/4. This is particularly refreshing when the band gets stuck in a reggae groove, again on two chords. “Treacherous Cretins” begins with an intriguing electric sitar arpeggio, threatens reggae but luckily gives way to Vinnie Colaiuta’s better drumming. “The Deathless Horsie” follows an extended meter similar to “Watermelon In Easter Hay”, but the real keeper is “Ship Ahoy”, taken from an Osaka performance of “Zoot Allures” a few years earlier. Here his guitar is put through an effect that’s somewhere between a wah-wah and a synth filter, for a terrific sound.
There is humor on the album, and not just what he called each album. “Variations On The Secret Carlos Santana Chord Progression” is an apt title for a vamp on what sounds like “Evil Ways” (or “Oye Como Va”, or “She’s Not There”), and you can’t help but smile at titles like “Gee, I Like Your Pants”, “Pinocchio’s Furniture” and “Soup ‘N Old Clothes”. Sometimes the song title comes from the dialogue snippets, but they’re still very random.
The set arguably drags towards the end, with a full side’s worth of slower music taken from studio improvisations, but taken as a whole, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar goes solidly in the plus column, and should offend absolutely nobody.

Frank Zappa Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (1981)—
Frank Zappa
Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More (1981)—
Frank Zappa
Return Of The Son Of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (1981)—3

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Lou Reed 8: Rock And Roll Heart

The rock ‘n roll animal had become a serious liability to his label, and it says a lot about how your career’s going when even RCA dumps you. Still, Lou was still a name, and got an immediate lift from Arista, currently making millions on the back of Barry Manilow, but also taking chances with the likes of Patti Smith. They would indulge him for a series of iffy albums, starting with Rock And Roll Heart.
This was his chance to make a splash, and he missed the pool by about ten feet. The trouble is apparent from the start, as “I Believe In Love” extols the virtues of “good time music and good time rock ‘n roll” over a completely sterile backing borrowed from any contemporary TV variety show. While “Banging On My Drum” does feature his trademark rhythm guitar, the lyrics consist of the title, which is supposed to rhyme with “having lots of fun.” “Follow The Leader” might as well be disco, though his stuttering delivery is all speed, with little to add than to namecheck New York City. We finally have a glimmer of hope on “You Wear It So Well”, a minor-key piano-based ballad on par with similar tracks on his first three solo albums. “Ladies Pay” follows the same format, but has even less to say, and fewer chords to say it over. As poetry it doesn’t need music, and as a guitar solo, it needs a better place to wail. Yet somehow, for all its basicness, the title track works.
“Chooser And The Chosen” has a nice moody beginning, but it must have been too complicated to get lyrics, resulting in an instrumental with sax solo. He did manage to conjure two verses for both chords in “Senselessly Cruel”, and drawls some obnoxious subterranean homesick lines for “Claim To Fame”. Maybe he wouldn’t want to admit it, but “Vicious Circle” could well be a memo to himself, “surrounded by [his] so-called friends.” “A Sheltered Life” is twisted vaudeville, with opposing sax tracks, an odd leftover from a decade before. But just like the other side, this one ends strong with the role-playing in “Temporary Thing”, something of a follow-on from “Kicks”. He’d go back to this novel again, too.
Lou was starting to be reliable only in that he could be counted on for every other album. It’s hard to believe he approved the master of Rock And Roll Heart thinking it was worthy of his talent and intellect, but he did, and there it is. And his new label was stuck with him.

Lou Reed Rock And Roll Heart (1976)—2

Friday, October 7, 2016

Pat DiNizio: Songs And Sounds

Given the declining excitement about anything new from the Smithereens, Pat DiNizio made a surprising detour into solo territory. Its faux-jazz packaging, complete with pretentious liner notes, didn’t help any, but those who looked closer could see that Songs And Sounds was recorded with the bass player from the Stranglers, a drummer who’d worked with Jeff Beck and Lou Reed, and a horn player for extra color.
The opening “Where Am I Going?” comes from an old Bernard Herrmann movie score, and its lugubrious sound would confound listeners into thinking he’d turned into Mark Eitzel from American Music Club. But it’s a false alarm, as the next track, and most everything that follows, could easily be a Smithereens track. It’s all there: melody, chord changes, toe-tapping beats. Perhaps some different faces in the studio were just the shot in the arm he needed.
The lyrics are still what we’d expect from the sad sack of Scotch Plains, given the lovelorn content of “No Love Lost” and “A World Apart”. “124 MPH” has a boomy demo quality for a difference, while “Today It’s You” is almost nasty. Contemporary reviews compared his delivery to the mature Elvis Costello, and similarities can be heard on that track and even the lullaby for “Liza” (though she’d probably sleep better if he strummed the acoustic a little more quietly).
Most of Songs And Sounds is slower than punk speed, which isn’t that big a deal, except that it makes the closing cover of “I’d Rather Have The Blues” more of a downer, the studio-verité excerpt hidden at the end notwithstanding. Naturally, the album made no impact on the charts, but it’s still worth discovering.

Pat DiNizio Songs And Sounds (1997)—3

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Jethro Tull 10: M.U.

Even if their concepts weren’t grasped by everybody, Jethro Tull had amassed enough familiar songs to fill a hits collection, and that’s exactly what M.U. is. The letters supposedly stand for “musician’s union”, and other letters are used in the back cover’s detailed credits as to who played what and when.
Each of the band’s albums, save the debut and the most recent, is represented, almost all in radio edits, to spotlight the riffing, and taking everything completely out of their album contexts. Side one especially plays just like one of those themed “lunch blocks” deejays used to do, consisting of a handful of songs by a single band. “Thick As A Brick Edit #1” helpfully presents the first three minutes of that album, going right into the animal sounds of “Bungle In The Jungle”.
Side two has a little more variety, with the exotic touches of “Fat Man” hitting the jazzed-up “Living In The Past”. Then “A Passion Play Edit #8” drops us into the middle of the second side of that album, towards the end of Act III, also known as “Overseer Overture”. Years before it became standard for best-of albums, there’s a brand-new track in “Rainbow Blues”, a decent outtake from War Child.
M.U. wouldn’t be Tull’s only hits collection, but it set the benchmark for the rest, and has stayed in print most of these years. Perfectly listenable and immediately recognizable, it says almost nothing about their bigger ideas, and features all the qualities listeners either love or hate about them.

Jethro Tull M.U.—The Best Of Jethro Tull (1976)—

Friday, September 30, 2016

Tears For Fears 6: Raoul And The Kings Of Spain

Another album nobody cared about when it came out was from the band still known as Tears For Fears. Ten years and only two full-lengths after Songs From The Big Chair—still their best work—Roland Orzabal’s latest project was scheduled, then dropped from their label before it could be released, and picked up by another that did release it, only to have it sink like a stone. It’s too bad, because Raoul And The Kings Of Spain was the most cohesive thing he’d done since that high watermark. (Curt Smith was still AWOL at this point.)
That’s a lot of back story, but maybe it will get people to appreciate this underrated gem, which sports rich production, regretful but otherwise impenetrable lyrics, and plenty of dynamics. Spanish imagery seems to be a key theme here, as portrayed in the artwork and the songs themselves (the title track, the punning and slinky “Sketches Of Pain”, and “Los Reyes Catalicos”, which appears halfway through and again as a reprise) but if there’s a story here we haven’t figured it out.
In between are all kinds of catchy tunes, most flowing in and out of each other, making something of a suite that still supports the idea of a concept. “Falling Down” builds from a very simple guitar riff to a track that should have been a hit single, if people still cared about TFF. “Secrets” begins with “Imagine”-style piano—something of a trend in the ‘90s—before escalating into a soaring statement in their own style. The weakest track is “God’s Mistake”, which sounded dated even when it was tried as a single, but even in this company it’s doesn’t require skipping.
“Sorry” simply explodes from the speakers with a lot of energy, and “Humdrum And Humble” builds on the retro-soul stylings popularized by Seal. “I Choose You” is the slow ballad, and a sentiment Ralph Wiggum can get behind. Reading the lyrics for “Don’t Drink The Water” won’t help, but does get the feet going again, while “Me And My Big Ideas” sneaks in TFF mainstay Oleta Adams just before the album finishes.
One of the best things about Raoul And The Kings Of Spain is that you can probably find it in a used bin for under five bucks. Thank the waning consumer confidence in the Tears For Fears brand, because with this album, their loss is your gain.

Tears For Fears Raoul And The Kings Of Spain (1995)—4