Friday, October 31, 2008

Led Zeppelin 8: The Song Remains The Same

Though it’s called the soundtrack for the film, The Song Remains The Same isn’t. There’s an entire website dedicated to picking apart all the edits on the album and whether or not they match the ones in the movie; plus there are songs on the album that aren’t in the film and vice versa. As a representation of live Zeppelin—and the only band-sanctioned live release for over two decades—it’s just okay, and not great.
Side one is easily the most listenable, since it has four songs—the opening “Rock And Roll”, the odd choice of “Celebration Day” and the twin delight of the title track and “The Rain Song”. The 27-minute version of “Dazed And Confused” makes more sense in the context of the film, but without that it’s noise, and a whole side’s worth to boot. (Although, lo and behold, one of the tangents shows off one of the key riffs that would become “Achilles Last Stand”.) On side three, “No Quarter” is okay, but the live “Stairway” is pretentious. “Moby Dick” is dull even for a drum solo and “Whole Lotta Love” serves mostly as a springboard for a medley.
Having been filmed and recorded three years previously, it was already out of date upon its release, but at least the movie gave audiences a chance to actually see the band. Also, since the band had fallen into a period of inactivity, the album kept them on the charts. But as an official document designed to stop the bootleggers, it only spurred further production. Nonetheless, if you had everything else, you had to have this too.
The band ignored The Song Remains The Same for a full thirty years, not including any of it in the box sets or updated CD reissues until Jimmy Page finally prepared a remastered CD version (alongside an upgraded DVD of the film) in 2007. Resequenced to match the film—and original setlist, for the most part—the new version added excellent versions of “Black Dog”, “Over The Hills And Far Away”, “Misty Mountain Hop”, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, “The Ocean” and “Heartbreaker” to a whole new soundtrack, combining to provide a much better flow all around. It’s not the same album as before, and it’s still not the definitive live document, and still full of edits, but at least the reissue earned repeat, loud listens. (As for the film, it defies any consensus of an essential document, guilty pleasure, embarrassing indulgence or stoner’s delight. In true alignment with the album title, some things will never change.)

Led Zeppelin The Song Remains The Same (1976)—
2007 CD reissue: “same” as 1976, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who 10: Quadrophenia

As before, the Who worked their way through a number of possible concepts for the next release, even going so far as to record an album’s worth of tracks in 1972. That project was aborted, though a few singles surfaced, and somehow Pete was able to take a couple of the leftovers and work them into what finally emerged as the epic Quadrophenia. The story within is basically impenetrable—it’s not so much of a plot as a portrait of a Mod kid named Jimmy—and while Pete’s idea of using a different musical theme to represent each member of the band as a different facet of Jimmy’s personality was daring, it doesn’t quite take.
Despite that, the album is excellent. While the Mod concept may not have been clear to anyone who wasn’t around at the time, Quadrophenia retains a universal appeal, simply because Pete managed to convey the desperation and confusion of post-adolescence in his music and lyrics. (Kids aren’t supposed to be this sensitive, but sadly, they are.) Just as the ‘70s began to take over the music business, the album looks back to the period before the British Invasion but keeps its sound contemporary yet timeless, and not a little symphonic.
“I Am The Sea” is kind of an overture, with the main themes poking through the rain and surf. “The Real Me” crashes through just as the rain stops. John’s bass work here is right out of his performances on their covers of “Baby Don’t You Do It”. The title track is more of a true overture, and plays those themes we’ll be hearing from time to time with advanced synthesizers and a couple of melodies that will stick in your head. “Cut My Hair” has two themes that will rise soon enough, with Pete taking the verse and bridge while Roger shouts the “zoot suit” chorus. A favorite moment is when the opening chords (over C major) are repeated at the end (over A minor). Described as a “mini-opera” within the album, “The Punk And The Godfather” piles on the angst and desperation, with Pete taking the midsection to deal with stardom better than Roger Waters ever could.
“I’m One” is all Pete again, voicing doubts awhile remaining determined to stand out. “The Dirty Jobs” returns us to Roger, even though the concept of “karma” doesn’t belong in the lyrics. For some reason a marching band and circus appear at the end, but that takes us right into “Helpless Dancer”, supposedly Roger’s theme. This works much better as an instrumental in the two overtures. “Is It In My Head” was from the 1972 sessions, and it’s impossible to hear it in any other context but this. “I’ve Had Enough” definitely sounds like it’s leading to some kind of decision, particularly with the lyrical detour about how Jimmy’s going to have his jacket cut. The end of the song always sounds like he jumped, in front of a train perhaps? But then…
Side three starts in a train station, reprises the “why should I care” theme from “Cut My Hair”, and starts Jimmy hallucinating on the “5:15”. “Sea And Sand” is a wistful reverie about his lost love, with the jacket detour fitting well. (You can hear “I’m The Face”, their first single, just over the fade.) “Drowned” would never be performed this way again, but it’s still one of Pete’s finest pleas for redemption. “Bell Boy” is Keith’s theme, even though it describes another character. His tender vocal in the middle is heartbreaking.
John’s theme is shoehorned in the middle of “Dr. Jimmy”’s psychotic episode—a shame really, since the theme is so pretty. Roger really does a fair job of straddling all those moods. “The Rock” repeats most of the title track but extends them so they can all come together at the end. And just when they do, the thunder breaks for “Love Reign O’er Me”. Pete saved his own achingly beautiful theme for last. The final seconds, all crashing chords and every piece of percussion Keith could throw, are fantastic.

Six years later, the film version of Quadrophenia tried to put the story together, and used the music in odd ways to illustrate various points. The soundtrack was drastically remixed, and not necessarily improved: “I’m One” gets a piano, “Love Reign O’er Me” gets a flute and strings, “I’ve Had Enough” also gets strings (and it’s the climax of the film) and “Helpless Dancer” is cut to 22 seconds. Plus, a lot of songs are taken out of order and other songs were left out entirely. The rest of the album consisted of a pile of non-Who oldies (left off the original mid-‘90s CD, but reinstated for the 2000 remaster) and what was the first album appearance of “Zoot Suit” (included with “I’m The Face” on both CDs). Three “new” songs were added—the too-long throwaway “Get Out And Stay Out”, “Four Faces” and “Joker James”, which was actually as old as 1967.
Unlike Tommy, and probably because the songs don’t really tell a story, the film doesn’t detract from the album. But even if you like the film, a justified cult classic, you’ll want to stick with the original.

The 1996 reissue caused a lot of controversy among people who insisted the CDs were mastered wrong. With no bonus tracks, the album was split onto two CDs, as the four sides couldn’t fit onto a single disc without editing any precious seconds. To these ears it sounds fine. (For some time there were rumblings about a Deluxe Edition along the lines of Tommy, with surround sound and an SACD layer. Several years after it was first mentioned—and abandoned—a Deluxe Edition did appear, which had the album up to “Drowned” on one disc, and from “Bell Boy” on on the second, plus eleven of Pete’s demos at the end. Those were borrowed from a package that took on an even larger scale.)

The Who Quadrophenia (1973)—5
2011 Deluxe Edition: same as 1973, plus 11 extra tracks (Director’s Cut adds 14 further tracks and one DVD)
The Who Quadrophenia Original Soundtrack (1979)—

Monday, October 27, 2008

Neil Young 16: Rust Never Sleeps

By the time Comes A Time came out, Neil was already touring with Crazy Horse and recording the songs that would fill up his next two albums. In this age of single-play CDs, it’s easy to forget the importance of album sides, and Rust Never Sleeps is the quintessential yin and yang, acoustic and electric. (Also, like Time Fades Away, much of it was recorded live in front of audiences unfamiliar with the songs.)
“My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” starts out spookily enough, and fades just as it’s getting interesting. (But it will return.) “Thrasher” has a pretty melody and lilting vocal that don’t explain the involved lyrics, which may or may not be about CSNY. “Ride My Llama” also makes no sense but is still enjoyable. You can just hear the audience clapping along in the middle. “Pocahontas” is another one of his best. A continuation of his exploration of the Native American, this was the original lead track from the unreleased Chrome Dreams album, while it’s been given some overdubs here (such as the “yi-yi-yi” backing vocals). It doesn’t really fit with the Cortez/Inca idea, but it’s still a nice look at a lost time. “Sail Away” started out in a bar setting with shuffled lyrics—probably left over from two albums earlier—but it works best here.
After you’ve enjoyed the acoustic side, here comes the fuzz. “Powderfinger” is an absolute classic. Also on Chrome Dreams in a stark, acoustic, paranoid version, Crazy Horse does the best job of all on this take. Fans are still trying to figure this song out. “Welfare Mothers” and “Sedan Delivery” are true thrashers (as opposed to the “Thrasher” on side one). “Welfare Mothers” would work best live, but “Sedan Delivery” has weird sound effects and stop-start sections that makes it the better of the two. (It had also been recorded with a radically different arrangement for Chrome Dreams; more on that later.) It all gets slammed home with the hard version of the opening track, called “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” to differentiate it.
When Rust Never Sleeps was still a new album, a certain New York FM station used to play the opening and closing songs back to back, but that’s not to say the rest of the tracks are filler. With this album, Neil capped a rollercoaster of a decade. He wouldn’t reach this height again for some time.
That fall, the Rust Never Sleeps concert film hit theaters, with the requisite soundtrack album. Though Neil intended to give it the same title, cooler heads convinced him to call it Live Rust. While the performances are enjoyable, this album is for those who think live greatest hits albums are the be-all and end-all. For song selection, Decade is preferred source for the superior studio versions. (Live Rust does, however, offer a nice version of “Comes A Time” that you can enjoy without the sawing fiddle.)

Neil Young & Crazy Horse Rust Never Sleeps (1979)—
Neil Young & Crazy Horse Live Rust (1979)—

Friday, October 24, 2008

Paul McCartney 5: Band On The Run

By now fans weren’t expecting much from Paul. Moreover, two Wings flew the coop, having had enough of the democracy that never was. With his back against the wall, he took the challenge and, as John would say, was scared into doing something good for a change. Band On The Run comes off like a concept album, in a time when that sort of thing was expected, but luckily transcends that straightjacket.
The title track was the most Beatlesque track he’d done in years, with a ton of hooks and all those different parts coming together. The movement from the “if we ever get out of here” into “the rain exploded” is almost cinematic. When he can fit the jigsaw puzzle together like this, no one else comes close to McCartney. (However, this is the first tune of many to come that reference silly names like Sailor Sam.) “Jet” regurgitates the “Satisfaction” riff, made even snottier by the horns, and is a worthy rocker. And those drums again—Paulie was getting pretty good at them! “Bluebird” is a close cousin to “Blackbird”, with more references to flying and being free. This fit nicely on the radio with soft rock from the Eagles, America and so on. The midsections with the interlocking guitars and layered harmonies are exquisite. “Mrs. Vandebilt” makes no sense, but what’s the use of worrying? Others have pointed to “Let Me Roll It” as his response to “How Do You Sleep?”, the connection being the bathroom vocal style and plodding bass line. This is one of those recordings in his catalog where one wouldn’t be surprised if he played all the instruments. It sounds very much like the experiments on McCartney (and has a close cousin on McCartney II, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).
“Mamunia” would be pleasant if it wasn’t so long. This is the only track that seems to have an African influence (the album having been recorded in Nigeria) and not much of one. “No Words” is an updated Everly Brothers song co-written with Denny Laine; great guitars at the end. “Helen Wheels” was on the American LP, and occasional CDs from time to time. It’s a good “on-the-road” stomper, even if it should be faded earlier so we don’t have to hear Linda counting to four again and again. “Picasso’s Last Words” was written on a dare from Dustin Hoffman (really, Paul, you shouldn’t have) that only serves to have earlier album melodies woven in and out. “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five” was odd to have on the radio right around the same time as Bowie’s “1984”; the sinister melody belied the rather simple subject, but in the wake of his James Bond work it’s still pretty cool. It comes crashing to the climax, and then the title track fades in for a few moments for a nice finale right out of the movies.
Paul had an inkling he needed to prove himself too, and he rose to the occasion. And his drumming was better as well—there’s not a moment on Band On The Run that makes you cringe like his previous visits behind the kit. While it was definitely a step up, history has dimmed its luster. But he got his confidence back (and John and George’s fading reputations didn’t hurt) so now he could go back to being Mr. Showbiz, with varying results. Besides, there were only three of them, plus the sax player, and he could indulge us with a poster of Polaroids from the studio depicting cases of Guinness and even a toilet.
Decades on, it was still considered one of his best works. 1999 brought an “anniversary” edition in a handsome cardboard box, complete with an expanded booklet and a documentary-style bonus disc that told the story of the album, from recording to artwork and marketing. The few rare tracks were predominantly live rehearsals from the late ‘80s and more recent buskings.
It was also the debut release in the projected Paul McCartney Archive Collection, re-released in several permutations. The standard CD did not include “Helen Wheels”; that was part of the bonus disc on the so-called Special Edition, alongside the B-sides “Country Dreamer” and “Zoo Gang” and several performances from the unreleased One Hand Clapping film, which was included on a DVD. The Deluxe Edition came with a thick book, plus the bonus disc from the 25th Anniversary CD.

Paul McCartney & Wings Band On The Run (1973)—
1999 25th Anniversary CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 21 extra tracks
2010 Archive Collection Special Edition: same as 1973, plus 8 extra tracks and 1 DVD (Deluxe Edition also adds 21 extra tracks from 1999)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

John Lennon 5: Mind Games

After the political nonsense of the previous year, Mind Games was a step back to melodies and tunefulness, but once you paid attention it seemed as if John was also running out of steam. There are great tunes and catchy numbers on this album, but it just seems so ordinary, which is one of the last adjectives one would use to describe John Lennon.
The title track still has a soaring quality that makes it a great track to this day. (That’s not an orchestra, it’s just a bunch of guys! But they sound so big…) Had he ever toured again, this would have been a showstopper. “Tight A$” is boogie with nothing else to hold it up, which unfortunately doesn’t pass for art. This would not be the only example of water-treading on this album. “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)” has some interesting chord changes and a cool arrangement, but lines like “all that I know is just what you tell me” come off more pathetic than romantic. It’s heartfelt, but much too Yoko-centric for mass enjoyment. “One Day (At A Time)” is a good example of why John shouldn’t sing falsetto for an entire song; perhaps he was going for a Stylistics feel on this? Whatever the motivation, it grates. “Bring On The Lucie (Freda Peeple)” is a lot of fun, before you realize how maddeningly repetitive it is. And it seems pointless to spend more than three seconds on the side closer. (That’s an in-joke.)
Side two starts off with as close as a potboiler as we’ll get, the funky “Intuition”, showing John was listening to the radio from time to time. This would have been another good choice for a single, or even one for Ringo to cover. “Out The Blue” is the best on the album next to “Mind Games”, mostly because of the clever chord changes, but also because of the bare honesty in the lyrics and delivery. “Only People” is harmless if lightweight; a whole lotta so what with too much “right on, brother”. It’s much improved by the John Denverisms of “I Know” (that’s not meant as a bad thing), yet by this point it’s become tiresome to hear John apologize to Yoko continuously. This tune has some fantastic harmonies right out of Rubber Soul. He may have lost the passion, but his craftsmanship is strongly in evidence on this underrated song. While the title track was an extension of the unfinished “Make Love Not War”, “You Are Here” takes another old slogan and adds an “East is East” sentiment to it, but it just doesn’t lift itself up at all. “Meat City” is a rocking way to blow out the album, which, now that you can look back on it, doesn’t say much, does it?
Mind Games is not a bad album; it just isn’t great. Many of these songs seem slight because they are merely pleasant, when his earlier work, while still incredibly personal, was more moving. Luckily his voice is as good as ever, and even the slimmest songs benefit from it. This was the best he could come up with at the time; meanwhile Yoko was becoming incredibly prolific and getting tired of him. John was left to create fourth-quarter product and scamper off to the West Coast. (The 2002 reissue brings out sonic surprises in the mix, a lot more exciting than the demos tacked at the end. At least there were a few drawings in the booklet we hadn’t seen before.) He would eventually regain some inspiration after the chaos in LA with Phil Spector, and write from his gut for his next full-length LP.

John Lennon Mind Games (1973)—3
2002 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 3 extra tracks

Monday, October 20, 2008

Elvis Costello 20: Painted From Memory

New wavers everywhere were hanging themselves by their skinny ties over the news that Elvis Costello made an entire album with pop schlockmeister Burt Bacharach. Elvis had never made a secret of his affection for the man, consummated with a collaboration for Alison Anders’ Brill Building homage Grace Of My Heart. (The song in question, the emotional “God Give Me Strength”, took a similar role in the film as a far-reaching flop along the lines of “River Deep—Mountain High”.) Rather than leave it buried on a soundtrack, the new dynamic duo continued to collaborate by fax, and the song was given pole position as the closer on the resultant album.
It was suggested that Elvis and Burt would simply revisit songs from their own careers, but instead they came up with twelve new tracks that sounded like they came from either Burt’s ‘60s heyday or Elvis’ own catalog. Painted From Memory is lushly orchestrated and does not include a single song that could be classified as fast, yet fans of EC’s slower, prettier songs will enjoy having their heartstrings tugged.
“In The Darkest Place” is a good way to start the album, with its late-night mood and just enough female backing vocals to set a standard for the rest. “Toledo” begins with those trademark Bacharach flugelhorns. The city captured here is the one in Spain, a citadel not far from Escorial, which contains the staircase that inspired “13 Steps Lead Down” on Brutal Youth. “I Still Have That Other Girl” is very pretty, and it’s impressive how he nails the key change. “This House Is Empty Now” is obvious subject matter for an Elvis song, but he really pulls it off. Even the guitar solo is succinct and to the point, but his vibrato starts to get a little tiring. “Tears At The Birthday Party” may or may not be the same cake from “Alison”, and we’ve reached the more trying part of the album. “Such Unlikely Lovers” recalls Steely Dan at their most sterile, and features the most fitting line to sum up the album: “Can you believe it’s happening?”
The second half opens with the melancholy “My Thief”, which recalls mid-‘70s Tom Waits, and some of Joe Jackson's more “serious” compositions, especially the female response at the end. “The Long Division” is very reminiscent of parts of Punch The Clock, vocally and arrangement-wise, and is the least of the album. Luckily, Elvis’s love of the old Sinatra late-night concept albums shines on the title track. “The Sweetest Punch” brings some well-appreciated tempo back to the proceedings, before the haunting drama of “What's Her Name Today?” And again, the inclusion of “God Give Me Strength” works as something of an epilogue to remind us how it all started.
For those who gave it a chance, Painted From Memory quickly overcame the danger of being truly awful. It has just the right amount of syrup to break your heart, and if you put any of these songs onto any of his other, punkier albums, they would still make perfect sense. We could almost forgive the hat.

Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach Painted From Memory (1998)—4

Friday, October 17, 2008

George Harrison 4: Living In The Material World

Coming after two successful three-record sets, George’s new album was a cause for trepidation. Just from looking at the cover of Living In The Material World it was hard to say what was afoot. There was the comfort of familiar names to suggest the music would be up to snuff, but what was the deal with all the lyrical references to the Lord and the Hindu paintings? This is where the river splits.
“Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” has trademark slide and acoustic guitars, great harmonies and breathless “om” sections, making for a pleasant single not unlike Dylan’s “I Want You”. “Sue Me Sue You Blues” has a nasty undercurrent, similar to the sounds George and friends gave John for the Imagine LP. Having spent the previous year dealing with Apple and Bangla Desh litigation, his weariness was understandable. “The Light That Has Lighted The World” unfortunately takes that weariness to another level. This is a very pretty song with all the ingredients we’ve come to love him for, but without trying very hard he comes across as holier-than-all. “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” should have been a single, and it would have been a smash, even if consumers didn’t catch the ambiguity in the lyrics. “Who Can See It” goes back to Dirgeville, which luckily doesn’t last. The title track is a tad too conceited for a song about humility, but is notable for one of the last appearances of an emotion called humor for a few years. The so-called “big ending” is quite satisfying.
Side two is a little too similar to side four of All Things Must Pass, in that the album’s run out of steam. “The Lord Loves The One (That Loves The Lord)” is too direct for any hymnal, and is about as enjoyable as “I Dig Love”. Why is it that the same sentiments were easier to swallow on the last album? “Be Here Now” is a beautiful exploration over an open tuning, with a worthwhile lesson using honey instead of vinegar. “Try Some Buy Some” was left over from some earlier Phil & Ronnie Spector sessions, with trilling mandolins and tympanis galore. The melody is lovely and the lyrics are stupid. It’s incredibly complicated musically, in an odd key that’s not easy to play on guitar or keyboards. Klaus Voormann’s bass line drives it. “The Day The World Gets ‘Round” chronicles his feelings the morning after the Bangla Desh concerts and, like the closing “That Is All”, sounds too much like the dirges on side one for them to really stand out. He’s starting to get a little petulant, and the last song doesn’t ease it any.
The 2006 CD reissue improved on the LP by thoughtfully including two of the few rare B-sides from George’s solo career. “Deep Blue” is a loping acoustic number about his mother’s slow death to match the pathos of “Bangla Desh”, for which it had been the flipside. “Miss O’Dell” is another nonsense number, notable for his infectious laughing at the cowbell and Paul’s boyhood telephone number at the end. (2014’s Apple Years reissue included that studio version of “Bangla Desh” as well, as it hadn’t turned up anywhere else.)
While Living In The Material World doesn’t quite have all the ingredients, there’s enough here, especially on the first side, to warrant further listening. Anything would be a letdown after All Things Must Pass, but as this wasn’t a complete departure, it gets two thumbs up. In the battle of the post-Beatles he was a little shaky but still on top, and better off than the Other Three.

George Harrison Living In The Material World (1973)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 2 extra tracks
2014 Apple Years reissue: same as 2006, plus 1 extra track

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Who 9: John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey

With the Who’s newfound success, they had more time on their hands and creativity to burn while Pete enjoyed the luxury of waiting until his next big concept came to him. But by the time Who Came First was released, John Entwistle got sick of waiting and had already released two solo albums.
Fans had already gotten a taste of his black humor with the occasional album track and B-side, and Smash Your Head Against The Wall served up nine original songs alternating between both wistful and heavy. The opening “My Size” boasts a riff with a Neil Young influence (whose “Cinnamon Girl” was covered for the album, but not released until the ‘90s) while tracks like “Ted End” and “What Are We Doing Here” show an awareness of mortality not often exhibited by rock stars. Having been disappointed with the Who’s version, his own rendition of “Heaven And Hell” took a place of honor at the bottom of side one. And outside of Who roadie Cy Langston on guitar and Humble Pie’s Jerry Shirley on drums, John played everything else, including keyboards, brass and, of course, all the basses.

Once the preparation for what became Who’s Next and its subsequent promotion ended, John went back into the studio with a few more friends to record Whistle Rymes. A little harder than the first one, with more sardonic songs about divorce and voyeurism, it probably would have been ignored if it wasn’t him, and there are only a couple of songs that might have worked with the Who, but they were just as good as what he let them have. The album gets points for “Apron Strings”, with incredible layered harmonies that show his musical skill.

Meanwhile, Roger Daltrey took an interest in a young songwriter named Leo Sayer, and with the idea to give the kid a boost into the business, ended up recording an album of his songs. Daltrey is a nice change of pace, sporting folk-pop tunes that are more introspective and much less bombastic than the typical Who album. “One Man Band” has a chummy music-hall quality, followed by “The Way Of The World” and the sweeping “You Are Yourself”. “Thinking” turns up the volume before “You And Me” ends side one on a sigh.
“It’s A Hard Life” and “Giving It All Away” form a strong suite, but the next two tracks derail the trajectory. “Reasons” redeem the proceedings just in time, and the last sound we hear is a reprise of “One Man Band” performed on the roof of the Beatles’ Apple building.

Obviously John and Roger had plenty to offer, so the novelty of hearing them perform music not written by Pete Townshend was enough to get people to listen. But when it came down to it, as long as the Who were still around and Pete was still creating, audiences didn’t pay as much attention to their solo work. Each of John’s subsequent solo albums did worse, while Roger alternated the occasional album with acting in films. (Keith even stayed out of the brandy bottle long enough to record Two Sides Of The Moon with his LA drinking buddies. If you’ve ever thought, “Boy, I’d love to hear Keith sing instead of play drums!”, help yourself.)

John Entwistle Smash Your Head Against The Wall (1971)—
John Entwistle Whistle Rymes (1972)—
Roger Daltrey Daltrey (1973)—

Monday, October 13, 2008

Pete Townshend 1: Who Came First

Pete’s fascination with guru Meher Baba had surfaced as early as Tommy, and even before “The Seeker” was released he had spearheaded a charity tribute album featuring performances by some of his fellow Baba-lovers. Happy Birthday included six Townshend tracks—pulled from various hours of home demos he’d already amassed—plus his accompaniment on others, with some experimental poetry in between. It was followed a year later by I Am, which had less overt Pete involvement, save the ten-minute instrumental of “Baba O’Riley” ending one side and his “Parvardigar” prayer ending the other.
Naturally, the two albums were bootlegged, gypping the record companies and the charity. The idea was put forth to make them more widely available, but Pete chose instead to compile a hodgepodge of some of his Baba tracks with other demos, winkingly titled Who Came First.
“Pure And Easy”, an edit of the Lifehouse demo (and the centerpiece of the story), left fans clamoring for an official Who version having heard it on stage throughout the previous year. Ronnie Lane’s “Evolution” is followed by “Forever’s No Time At All”, which had zero Pete input. “Nothing Is Everything” is Pete’s demo of “Let’s See Action”, which had been a Who single the previous year in the UK. This is longer, with an extra lyric on the bridge.
“Time Is Passing” celebrates the joy of music with a wonderful arrangement that brings a Mideastern quality to the ear. “There’s A Heartache Following Me” is a Jim Reeves song Baba loved, and “Sheraton Gibson” was famously written in a fit of songwriting influenced by (according to Pete) by Dylan’s Self Portrait. (That album wasn’t conceived that way, but the point is that if you wait long enough, you can write a song.) “Content”, a poem Pete set to music, sounds like a prayer, while “Parvardigar” really is one.
Who Came First may be a hodgepodge, but it makes for exciting yet pleasant listening, a nice compromise between leftover Lifehouse songs and the Baba albums. It fell out of view for many years until Rykodisc, then at the height of their respectability as a reissue label, gave it proper exposure, boosting the content with the bulk of the Pete tracks from the Baba albums (including a third, 1976’s With Love). Along with the demo of “The Seeker”, “Day Of Silence” and “The Love Man” (one of his hidden gems) come from Happy Birthday and are a showcase for his sensitivity. The three With Love tracks are especially illuminating: “His Hands” is instrumental with piano, guitar and mandolin trilling along not unlike Pete’s other mid-‘70s work; “Sleeping Dog” is a pleasant fireside ditty; and “Lantern Cabin” closes the set with a fairly accurate prediction of George Winston’s style.
When Pete’s catalog was overhauled in the new century, Who Came First was supplemented by the two other Pete tracks from Happy Birthday (Cole Porter’s “Begin The Beguine”, which was Baba’s other favorite song, also included on Pete’s 1987 demos collection Another Scoop, and the anti-pot “Mary Jane”) plus the Mose Allison pastiche “I Always Say”, released for the first time.
(Footnote: the three Baba tribute albums were reissued by Pete’s Eel Pie label, first as the limited-edition Avatar box set, then as the simpler Jai Baba package. As for the instrumental “Baba O’Riley”, we’ll get back to that eventually.)

Pete Townshend Who Came First (1972)—4
1992 Rykodisc: same as 1972, plus 6 extra tracks
2006 Hip-O: same as 1992, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, October 10, 2008

Elvis Costello 19: All This Useless Beauty

While the Rykodisc reissue program rolled on, Elvis stayed busy touring with the Attractions, promoting Kojak Variety in his own way and preparing for a return to the studio with those Attractions by playing a five-show residency in Manhattan. Many of the songs he tried out had been written with other people’s voices in mind, and some had already been recorded by those people. (Fans were understandably wondering if perhaps this was because the well had run dry; he pointed out that after covering other people’s songs on Kojak, now it was his turn to cover himself. Or something.)
The album with the Attractions did emerge on schedule, thank goodness. All This Useless Beauty is a relatively low-key set of original ballads. Several complained that it wasn’t “Pump It Up” enough; those people must not have noticed how much his voice had improved. (Lots of piano too, which may have reflected his rediscovery of the Trust album via preparing its reissue the year before.) As it turned out, not all of the songs had been heard before in other renditions, and even those that had—like the opening “The Other End Of The Telescope”, first released by ‘Til Tuesday—had evolved somewhat, making for more definitive versions. “Little Atoms” follows, piling on the imagery and wordplay over a gurgling backing based on “Deutscheland Uber Alles”. The title track—a first for Elvis—and “Poor Fractured Atlas” examine the role of the post-liberation male, while “Complicated Shadows” (written for Johnny Cash) and “Shallow Grave” (written with Paul McCartney) take more of a country-and-western bent. “Starting To Come To Me” and “It’s Time” originated from the Mighty Like A Rose period; the latter seems at first to be a classic nasty Costello kiss-off, but would be revealed to be yet another angry diatribe against Margaret Thatcher.
While the album did occasionally rock, for the most part it accurately reflected the maturity of a band who’d known each other for two decades. After doing a pile of piano-and-vocal shows with Steve Nieve (commemorated on the limited edition Costello & Nieve live EP set released at year’s end) he promptly dragged the album around the world for another tour, at the end of which he threatened to retire and refused to work with the bass player ever again; of the two promises, he’s only thus far kept the latter.
All This Useless Beauty was given a position of honor in the first batch of Rhino releases, bolstered by various demos of unknown vintage, with a few more tracks written for others to sing, including “Almost Ideal Eyes”, a dizzying David Crosby pastiche that came this close to making the album. Other timely bonuses include a rendition of the McCartney collaboration “That Day Is Done” with the Fairfield Four, the Brian Eno experiment “My Dark Life” and “The Bridge I Burned”, added to the contract-ending Extreme Honey: The Very Best Of The Warner Bros. Years compilation, which followed in 1997. With the Warner period over and the Ryko reissues completed, he was at (yet another) crossroads.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions All This Useless Beauty (1996)—
2001 Rhino: same as 1996, plus 17 extra tracks

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Who 8: Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy

At the top of their game and with the end of legal limbo, the Who took the opportunity to look back with a collection of their earlier singles. Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy quickly runs awry of any straight chronology, but still presents a great sequence of their best songs, many of which hadn’t been on albums yet.
“I Can’t Explain” kicks us off, followed by the American edit of “The Kids Are Alright”. “Happy Jack” gives way to “I Can See For Miles”. “Pictures Of Lily” is the male version of unrequited pop star obsession later lived out by Sally Simpson. Then it’s back to “My Generation” before jumping ahead to “The Seeker”. The Who’s first new release after the triumph of Tommy, it has been called slight, but can you name any other contemporary songs by people of their stature that namechecked Dylan and the Beatles? It’s still a tough recording.
Side two opens with the cacophony of “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”, followed by “Pinball Wizard”. “A Legal Matter” was an unlikely choice for a single, though “Boris The Spider” perhaps could have been huge. “Magic Bus” is included in a rare long version that’s still unavailable on CD, and it’s still a truly stupid song. “Substitute” was another great single that somehow doesn’t seem to fit between the first two albums, and neither does “I’m A Boy”. Its single version is better, but the long version included here explores the horns more, with an extra verse too.
Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy delivers the hits and should-have-beens in a handy package that made it a must-own in the vinyl era. But it was not included when the Who’s catalog was revamped in the 1990s, a move that still angers most fans. Considering the repetition that did occur, this was a case where nobody would have complained, especially if other, later hits were added in to pad out the CD. Instead—just like in the ‘80s—the record company decided to issue a series of redundant hits albums, none of them coming close to the near-perfection of MBB&B. The closest thing in the catalog is The Ultimate Collection, a two-CD set that contains all the songs, albeit the shorter mixes of “Magic Bus” and “I’m A Boy”. (As for single CDs, My Generation—The Very Best Of The Who had 12 of the 14 songs and Then & Now had nine, both including the two short mixes.)

The Who Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy (1971)—4
Current CD equivalent: none

Monday, October 6, 2008

Neil Young 15: Comes A Time

Having glanced into the past—albeit with a three-record set—Neil was soon ready with another album. But keeping with his standard M.O., it wasn’t a simple trip from the studio to the pressing plant to the record store. First, an album was announced with the title Give To The Wind. Then, it was changed to Comes A Time, then delayed yet again after Neil decided to swap the order of the last two songs on side one, necessitating the destruction of an entire press run. At least he kept the title the same.
“Goin’ Back” starts sweetly, and goes through a mysterious middle section. Strings appear, and female harmonies. Very nice. The title track is nearly ruined by the seesawing fiddle, an accompaniment that would return several times over the next eight years or so. “Look Out For My Love” was the original closer to Chrome Dreams, and is a rare acoustic departure from the Crazy Horse we know and love for the mud they usually throw. The same sound is used well on “Lotta Love”, which was a big AM radio hit for then-girlfriend Nicolette Larson; Neil’s version fits him like a glove. “Peace Of Mind” is tearjerkingly beautiful, filled with strong lyrics (even the line “she still gets you hot” can’t sink this). His decision to swap these songs was a sound one.
The second side turns up the country, making it akin to side one of American Stars ‘N Bars. We’d heard so much about “Human Highway” for years, as it was supposed to be the centerpiece of at least two aborted CSNY projects. Hearing it here for the first time is something of a letdown, but it has gained appreciation over the years, especially those harmonies. “Already One” is an autobiographical jewel, if a little odd to have Nicolette refer with him to “our little son”. “Field Of Opportunity” has themes that would be revisited in time, but here it’s silly country with a strained pun. “Motorcycle Mama” is another mistake where no one involved comes off well. “Four Strong Winds” is a Canadian folk anthem that he’s made his own. He’s said that he used to practice this one in front of a mirror when he was a boy dreaming of fame and fortune. It ends the album with a nice “off into the sunset until the sequel” sensation. Just like in the cowboy movies.
Comes A Time is a very appealing country album with his most overt Nashville sound yet. Most of the songs have strings used quite nicely with only a hint of syrup. Even the weaker performances here are redeemed by the best songs. But even with something this strong, he wasn’t about to sit still.

Neil Young Comes A Time (1978)—4

Friday, October 3, 2008

Elvis Costello 18: Kojak Variety

In the summer of 1990, when he thought he was going to be doing an album with the Attractions, Elvis brought some of his last touring band to Barbados to record a pile of covers, as a goodbye of sorts, for future use. When negotiations with the Attractions fell through, he ended up recording Mighty Like A Rose with most of that touring band, and the covers project was largely put on the shelf, and promptly bootlegged. When the album was finally released five years later—amidst the continuing Rykodisc reissue campaign and plans for his next album—Elvis took the time to promote it, despite his dubious contention that he just wanted it to “sneak out”.
Kojak Variety is very much a vanity project that has the cohesiveness of Almost Blue, his earlier Nashville experiment, but like that album, its success depends largely on what you think of his versions of other people’s songs (many of which dotted the setlists on the Mighty Like A Rose tour, much to the confusion of the audience). The songs could be considered “oldies”, as they run the gamut of pop standards, jazz and blues, with a couple of obscure Randy Newman, Bob Dylan and Ray Davies tunes to showcase some of his favorite songwriters.
The performances are stellar, with the dueling guitar styles of James Burton and Marc Ribot adding contrast, and the powerful drumming of Pete Thomas and Jim Keltner—at one instance on the same kit. But it wasn’t intended to be a major statement, and wasn’t treated as such. If Elvis sulked about that, he soon moved on.
The reissue delivered further on the concept with the inclusion of “Ship Of Fools” (from the Kojak sessions) and other tracks from various ubiquitous cover albums, plus ten covers he’d recorded as a demo for George Jones (which the man apparently ignored) that further explore some of his favorite songs. But it remains one of the lesser lights in the catalog.

Elvis Costello Kojak Variety (1995)—
2004 Rhino: same as 1995, plus 20 extra tracks

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Led Zeppelin 7: Presence

In a time when the band’s fortunes seemed to fold in upon themselves, Presence is a strange trifle, and an understatement coming after the steady incline of their last few albums. While it was recorded very quickly for its time—less than a month, and finished early so the Stones could use the same studio for Black And Blue—it never sounds rushed or unfinished.
“Achilles Last Stand” has its roots in the extended parts of Page’s “Dazed And Confused” live experiments. As a guitar army it’s not necessarily the best yet, but it’s still pretty fascinating, and Plant gets to wail over that insistent drumbeat. After ten minutes of that, the lazy stroll of “For Your Life” is almost laid back, though the song itself isn’t relaxed at all, particularly the attacks on the whammy bar. “Royal Orleans” is a Crescent City-influenced rave-up that never ends when one thinks it should, ending the side oddly.
“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is a successful extension of an old blues song, and bands are still ripping this one off today. “Candy Store Rock” is a rockabilly idea that doesn’t really go anywhere, while its twin, “Hots On For Nowhere”, is too complicated to sound fully developed, though you can hear a riff that would one day reveal to have been around for a couple of years. “Tea For One” starts with a jam along the same lines, then takes the “Since I’ve Been Loving You” theme to the next step in its relationship. It’s even in the same key. The finale results in bookending an edgy yet weary album about the pressures of the road and stardom, and the question of whether it was all worth it.
Presence was recorded under duress, and it shows. For the most part, from start to finish, the lyrics are pretty somber. Although it may not seem like much on paper, the album does earn repeated listenings. Still, considering how much studio time was devoted to it, plus everything that happened to the band in the year after it was released, it’s only natural to overlook it. All these years later it retains a crisp sound and a definite level of energy from the back row. While it doesn’t grate, it doesn’t stink, and in the end, that’s a good thing.
The album was still in the running for “most underrated” when its Deluxe Edition emerged at the end of the final remastering campaign, with a 30-minute bonus disc. This time, so-called reference mixes of four of the songs seem to lack only some final guitar overdubs, save a version of “Royal Orleans” with its unrecognizable raspy vocal. The biggest surprise is an otherwise unknown song, given the unwieldy working title of “10 Ribs & All/Carrot Pod Pod (Pod)”. Built around a slow John Paul Jones piano sequence, even the eventual addition of guitars and drums make it hard to believe this is Led Zeppelin, particularly without lyrics. Had they finished and included it, Presence would have sounded very different.

Led Zeppelin Presence (1976)—
2015 Deluxe Edition: same as 1976, plus 5 extra tracks