Friday, July 21, 2017

Daniel Lanois 5: Belladonna

Going on three decades after he’d become, if not a household name, a name that most people might recognize if they looked at some of the CDs in their collection, Daniel Lanois still dabbled in albums of his own music, but good luck knowing what to expect with each.
Belladonna was described in its initial press release as the natural culmination of his work with Brian Eno in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which is a stretch. Outside of occasional wordless vocals, it’s entirely instrumental, but doesn’t have the electronic coldness and distance of Eno’s ambient work. Rather, Lanois works in combos, usually around a standard rhythm section, then treating the sounds afterwards to capture the mood. There’s still distance, but it’s more evocative of a southwestern landscape in North America—or more specifically, Mexico. A dusty scene, if you will, and Eno’s never been dusty.
It’s his album, so he can describe it any way he likes, but different ears react in different ways. For something simply gorgeous, go to “Telco” and “Flametop Green”. If you’re looking for Eno-type sounds, try “Oaxaca” or “Todos Santos”. “The Deadly Nightshade” has treated guitars that remind us of Cluster, and “Desert Rose” manages to recall “Silver Morning” from the Apollo project, thanks to the similar pedal steel. While not always screaming through the mix, that particular instrument is a main element of many of the songs here. To hear what he can do with an instrument most associated with straight country and certain Neil Young albums, cue up “Carla” or “Panorama”. He even pulls in Calexico mariachi on “Agave”.
As he’d begun to do, the credits on Belladonna are slim, with main co-conspirators Brian Blade and Daryl Johnson listed in bold, and a few other familiar folks added on, like pianist Brad Mehldau, Malcolm Burn, and Bill Dillon. The album was certainly compiled over time, rather than in concentrated sessions, but it holds together as a mood, either at night or while driving for miles on abandoned highways. They’re mostly brief sketches, averaging two to three minutes, but worthy of immersion.

Daniel Lanois Belladonna (2005)—3

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bad Company 8: Live 1977 & 1979

As good (or bad) as their records were, Bad Company was also designed to be a live band, and dutifully toured in support of each of those albums. Onstage, Paul Rodgers’ shirtless, hairy magnetism was able to reach the back rows of the arenas, and one only need to see Jason Lee’s character in Almost Famous to get an inkling of the appeal.
For many years, the only BadCo live recordings were of the later incarnations with different members, and the only ones featuring the classic lineup were from this century. That finally changed for a double-disc set that presented two complete-ish shows from the Burnin’ Sky and Desolation Angels tours. As each set relies on the most recent album, there’s surprisingly little overlap. Outside of an indexed drum solo on each disc, the repeats are limited to “Shooting Star”, one of which changes Johnny’s first Beatles song to “Here Comes The Sun”, and “Feel Like Makin’ Love”; both easily the band’s most overplayed songs.
In this context, even the Burnin’ Sky tracks get a little more life on a Texas stage, but you can practically feel the footsteps of the crowd heading to the bathroom during the slower songs. The London show is distinguished by the addition of keyboards, and some really rough harmonies on “Gone, Gone, Gone”. There is a slight detour to a Washington, D.C. show for a rip through the Hendrix version of “Hey Joe”, and interestingly, Mick Ralphs does most of the onstage patter.
Live 1977 & 1979 is a great addition to your shelf if you adore every one of the original six albums and just have to have more. Or, if you’ve seen any of the recent incarnations of the band, with or without Paul Rodgers or the late Boz Burrell, this could remind you what still makes them such a draw today.

Bad Company Live 1977 & 1979 (2016)—3

Friday, July 14, 2017

Jeff Beck 4: Jeff Beck Group

Jeff managed to keep the same band together for consecutive albums, and perhaps that time spent together helped the next album come together better. Prominently featuring an orange on both front and back covers for some reason, the simply titled Jeff Beck Group was recorded in Memphis with the legendary Steve Cropper producing, which probably also had a lot to do with its cohesion.
For a start, the guitar drives most of the proceedings, whether slide or wah-wah, layered where needed with different effects. When combined with straight piano, it brings to mind some of the high points of Beck-Ola; when it’s an electric piano, we’re reminded that this is Max Middleton. Bob Tench is still the singer, and gets the task of layering his own contributions in startling variations. (The female backup singers are uncredited.)
After the opening swamp boogie “Ice Cream Cakes”, covers dominate, from a boogie-flavored take on “Glad All Over” (the Carl Perkins tune, not the Dave Clark Five smash) that screams for Rod Stewart to the surprisingly soulful rejig of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”. The producer didn’t play any guitar, but co-wrote “Sugar Cane” with Beck, which begins promisingly as an instrumental, but soon gains lyrics. However, “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” is taken from a Motown torcher to a showcase for Beck with no vocals—and is that a Coral sitar?
Side two simply builds from there. Tench doesn’t do much outside the box on “Going Down”, letting the band plow through a powerful performance of a recent Freddie King hit. The Motown influence continues on “I Gotta Have A Song”, a recent Stevie Wonder album track and B-side, and another harbinger of music to come. “Highways” finds peaks and valleys in unexpected changes, taking several extended solos, while the gorgeous “Definitely Maybe” opens with twin slide leads in harmony, and follows Beck around the neck, frustratingly fading after only five minutes amid an electric piano solo.
Given its tempered emphasis on vocals, Jeff Beck Group is proof that the guitarist didn’t necessarily need a singer in his band, but apparently he wasn’t ready to go all instrumental yet. Nor was he completely thrilled with this incarnation, as he started over with a different rhythm section within months of the album’s release.

Jeff Beck Group Jeff Beck Group (1972)—3

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Yardbirds 2: Live Yardbirds

Once Led Zeppelin had become a worldwide sensation, Epic Records realized they had a live recording of the Yardbirds’ final incarnation as a quartet from 1968 sitting in their vaults. After beefing up the mix with unconvincing audience atmosphere (according to legend, from a sound effects LP featuring ambience from a bullfight), the concert was released as Live Yardbirds! Featuring Jimmy Page, to the guitarist’s immediate displeasure—partially because the fourth Zep LP was due out shortly. This and any subsequent reissues were quickly recalled, making actual copies rare, but commonly pirated and bootlegged. It’s a shame, because what one can hear of the show is quite entertaining, the band mixing some of their hits with a couple of tunes from the recent flop Little Games.
Beginning with a welcome from singer Keith Relf and a riff soon famous from “Dazed And Confused”, they plow through “Train Kept A-Rollin’”, then manage to make a medley out of “You’re A Better Man Than I” and “Heart Full Of Soul”. What comes next is likely what most worried Page: the Yardbirds version of a song they then called “I’m Confused” to differentiate it from the song it was stolen from, but still maintaining many of the elements of the track that would close side one of the first Zeppelin album. “My Baby” was a mild hit a couple of years earlier for soul shouter Garnet Mimms, and would be later recorded by Janis Joplin; here it’s an exercise in staying in sync with the time changes.
Relf asks the crowd to help out with the “heys” on “Over Under Sideways Down”; whether they comply is hard to tell under all the fake applause. “Drinking Muddy Water” is prefaced by an explanation of the detuned guitar, and a similar boast sets up “Shapes Of Things”, wherein Page replicates Jeff Beck’s original solo while sneaking in his own flourishes. He plays “White Summer” mostly by himself, the rhythm section joining in ably here and there. Finally, “I’m A Man” is dragged out to twelve minutes, incorporating the riff from “Over Under Sideways Down” and a violin bow solo, and Relf muttering some mystical lyrics (“Deep within the turning sands of inspiration…”?) before the drone goes back to the main riff via a detour that today sounds like parts of “How Many More Times”.
Jimmy Page supposedly has the master tapes of this show in his possession, and considering how he managed to expand the Zeppelin catalog in record time, it would be nice to have an officially restored version of the album without the extra sound effects. Besides being historic, captured a mere five months before Led Zeppelin as we know it was formed, it’s a fine showcase for the man Keith Relf dubbed “Jimmy Magic Fingers, the Grand Sorcerer of the Magic Guitar.” The band was pretty good, too.

The Yardbirds Live Yardbirds! Featuring Jimmy Page (1971)—3
Current availability: none

Friday, July 7, 2017

Pretenders 8: The Isle Of View

Having returned to the charts, Chrissie Hynde and her latest Pretenders lineup were in prime position to be tapped for an “unplugged” television show. They could have simply played the songs acoustically, but instead, the band chose to be joined throughout on most songs by a string quartet. They also set up in the round, playing to each other, while the audience looked on from a distance.
Both the TV show and subsequent album were given the punning title The Isle Of View, though the sequences aren’t identical, and the CD doesn’t include two of the better performances: the recent hit single “Night In My Veins” and her cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”. (As for the “title track”, it’s merely a brief lush instrumental by the quartet with seaside effects, stuck at the end of the disc.)
Those omissions aside, it’s a very entertaining listen, touching on every one of the albums in equal measure, and not always relying on the more familiar ones. “Sense Of Purpose” and “Criminal” are rescued from the obscurity of Packed!, just as “Chill Factor” is better served in this format than the faux-soul of Get Close. “Kid” is slowed down to a near-lullaby, while “The Phone Call” maintains its broken-leg menace. Damon Albarn, then riding high with Blur, is trotted out to play piano on “I Go To Sleep” (take that, Oasis).
The Isle Of View is a good way to spend an hour, and goes a long way to re-establishing Chrissie as both a superb vocalist as well as a songwriter of note. Even better, with her voice up front and the songs given space, it’s possible to finally understand the words to the songs. Some of them, anyway.

Pretenders The Isle Of View (1995)—

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Mott The Hoople 5: All The Young Dudes

The legend is usually more interesting than the truth, and this very much applies to the phoenix-like return of Mott The Hoople. Having become frustrated with their career path to date, the band grumbled to David Bowie, then having just exploded with the Ziggy Stardust album. He gave them a little song called “All The Young Dudes”, and Mott followed the demo to the note, but with the key embellishment of Ian Hunter’s asides during the choruses and over the fadeout. Suddenly they had a hit, were mistakenly labeled glam rock, and saw their ensuing fifth album, produced by Bowie, become a major worldwide smash.
The thing is, if not for the lead vocals, All The Young Dudes sounds more like a Bowie album than a Mott album. For one thing, the producer insisted on adding his own saxophone honking throughout. Also, his backing vocals are unmistakable, as are the synched acoustic and electric rhythm touches. The string arrangements are better matched to his albums, or even Lou Reed’s Transformer, Bowie’s other grand resuscitative gesture that year. Just to muddle the lineage, the album opens with their own tame cover of “Sweet Jane”.
Things get back to the Stonesy crunch for “Momma’s Little Jewel” and “Jerkin’ Crocus”. “Sucker” has potential, but again, belies the Bowie touch. “One Of The Boys” takes a while to get rolling, bracketed by a ringing telephone for some reason, and features a riff that Mick Ralphs would soon recycle for the opener on the first Bad Company album. Speaking of which, “Ready For Love” appears here, in a too-long version that entails both an alternate chorus and the subtitle “After Lights”. Despite the ill-advised strings, “Sea Diver” is another Ian Hunter weepie, and welcome to these ears.
The title track notwithstanding, and Verden Allen’s lead vocal on “Soft Ground” conjuring Bon Scott at his wackiest, All The Young Dudes is at its best whenever his wheezing organ dominates the mix. After all, a band’s biggest hit isn’t necessarily its best album. (For a wider picture, the eventual expanded CD added some early Bowie-less rough drafts, a couple of live versions from a year after the album was released, and an alternate mix of the hit single with Bowie himself singing the verses against Ian’s usual chorus.) At least Mott was given a chance to keep going, and they would, and did.

Mott The Hoople All The Young Dudes (1972)—3
2006 remastered expanded CD: same as 1972, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, June 30, 2017

Lou Reed 10: Street Hassle

One of Lou’s constant obsessions was trying to translate his live sound onto a replayable medium. It became a given that each new album’s PR push would include his chirping about the latest technology that made this album his best sounding one yet, dashing all previous attempts to shame, and repeat.
Street Hassle was originally recorded live on tour in Germany, using a “binaural” system involving microphones placed inside a Styrofoam mannequin’s head. When Clive Davis supposedly balked at the result, Lou went ahead and overdubbed on top of the backing tracks, rendering the mix muddy, jarring, and a little sluggish. Compounding the effect was his latest vocal styling, a strangulated bleat used to illustrate both of his main emotions. Even with the standard rock combo, plus backing vocals and continual sax, the results were far from slick, occasionally vulgar, and fit well with the times.
“Gimme Some Good Times” begins with the first verse from “Sweet Jane” turned inside out, complete with Lou answering himself as a heckler, providing foreshadowing for his next truly live album. “Dirt” had been threatened for a few years; by now he was angry enough at his former manager to include it here, complete with discordant piano stabs and gunshot drums in between his bile, scatological accusations and Bobby Fuller reference. But smack dab in the middle of the album is the cinematic three-part title track, based around insistent bowed cellos. Here is proof positive that Lou Reed really was one of the literary greats of the century. “Waltzing Matilda” manages to make an encounter with a gigolo sound romantic, capped by angelic harmonies leading into the next section. “Street Hassle” is an in-character monologue by a lowlife giving advice on body disposal and ending with the perfect definition of “bad luck”. “Slip Away” is brought in by a bass solo played by the auteur(!) and upstaged by a vocal cameo by none other than Bruce Springsteen. When Lou returns to end the piece, he actually sounds vulnerable. Throughout it all, the same cello part weaves in and out of earshot, sometimes replicated on guitars, harmonium, and jangle piano.
Literary greatness is not something commonly ascribed to “I Wanna Be Black”, which attempts to torpedo the hypocrisy of stereotypes, but just becomes uncomfortable. As with most of the tracks on the album, we can just barely hear an audience cheering over the fade; perhaps it was best English wasn’t their first language. “Real Good Time Together” is the old Velvets tune, familiar to fans from 1969 Live, delivered here over a heavy tremolo, and with a vocal that doesn’t convey the sentiment of the lyric in the slightest. “Shooting Star” is delivered at a palatable pace, with a simple yet straightforward chorus, while “Leave Me Alone” states its demand with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Finally, “Wait” is something of a dopey pop song, an exercise to see how many words rhyme with the title, and girl group vocals pushing him along.
Street Hassle is a messy yet ultimately satisfying album, a return to form without retreading, notwithstanding the mild recycling. In his case, one great song can make a big difference, and “Street Hassle” does that.

Lou Reed Street Hassle (1978)—3

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Genesis 13: Three Sides Live

It might seem odd for a band to put out a double live album only five years after their previous one, but Genesis had definitely evolved, in the true definition of the word, in the meantime. Since the departure of Steve Hackett, Daryl Stuermer had supplemented Mike Rutherford on guitar and bass, while Chester Thompson remained on the backline, occasionally joined by Phil Collins for double drums.
Most of the set relies on recent albums, replicating some of the more popular tracks from Abacab and Duke. “Behind The Lines” melds into “Duchess” as expected, complete with drum machine. “Turn It On Again” and “Misunderstanding” are transformed into peppier arrangements, while “Abacab” is extended to a full ending. While it may not have been familiar to new fans, the “In The Cage” medley on side three is a highlight, incorporating parts of “The Cinema Show” and the “Slippermen” sequence from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, slowing just enough down to turn into “Afterglow”. (Remember, unlike his bandmates, Tony Banks was the only guy onstage playing his particular instruments.)
Even being their third such compilation, Three Sides Live only made sense as a title in America and a handful of other countries that did indeed include studio tracks on side four of the LP. “Paperlate” is punchy horn-driven Collins pop, right along the lines of “No Reply At All” and arguably superior, though “You Might Recall” is less successful and borderline cheesy. Then there’s “Me And Virgil”, a trouble-on-the-farm song that pales in comparison to “The Roof Is Leaking”. (All three were originally released as a British EP called 3x3, with wonderfully Beatlesque packaging, and even liner notes by Tony Barrow!) “Evidence Of Autumn” and “Open Door” were both slow and pretty B-sides from the Duke sessions; the former takes time to build but has a gorgeous verse, the latter not as gorgeous but still nice.
Since the album was standardized worldwide, those songs disappeared from the CD reissues, though they have appeared on the occasional box set. In their place, at it was in the UK and elsewhere, are three further live tracks from earlier tours. “One For The Vine” is drearier onstage, but Phil does a nice job singing “Fountain Of Salmacis”. A medley of “It” finding its way to the non-vocal parts of “Watcher Of The Skies” comes from 1976, when Steve Hackett was still in the band and Bill Bruford was on drums.

Genesis Three Sides Live (1982)—3

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jack Grace 3: Everything I Say Is A Lie

By his own admission, Jack Grace can easily write “funny” songs, as evidenced by some of the tracks in his catalog. Rather than get typecast as a novelty act, Everything I Say Is A Lie puts the emphasis on his capabilities as a songwriter. One hint is that the album is credited to just him, and not the Jack Grace Band.
Musically, it runs the gamut from country and folk to rock and blues, with different keyboards helping to expose his early obsession with the Beatles. “Burned By The Moonlight” begins with a hint of the mariachi influence that colored his last album, but soon turns to a bluesy shuffle. “Get Out Of Brooklyn” provides both history and a contemporary portrait of the hip borough, complete with banjo. “Run To Me” has some swampy electric piano, leading into the acoustic Neil Young stylings of “Being Poor”. “So We Run”, which closes the album, is a psychedelic folk song in a variety of tempos and a wonderful open tuning.
Producer and veteran cowpunk Eric Ambel provides lead guitar all over the place, and the radiant Daria Grace offers her exquisite harmonies and bass guitar, but the big surprise is two appearances by Norah Jones, singing a duet on the grungy “Bad Wind Blowing” and joining in the responses for the classic title track, right up to the key change guaranteed to stand the hair on your neck. Lest anyone worry that he’s gone all serious on us, “Kanye West (I Hear That You’re The Best)” skewers that guy and many other media sensations, and should keep Jack from being invited to perform at any awards ceremonies anytime soon. Their loss, because “I Like You” is the kind of song any modern country singer can have a hit with just by sticking to his arrangement.
Everything I Say Is A Lie is short, at nine songs, but they’re all good. It’s a shame it’s over so quickly. Modern music industry shenanigans kept the album from general release for over two years; hopefully he’s written more in the meantime.

Jack Grace Everything I Say Is A Lie (2017)—4

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Journey 8: Raised On Radio

Steve Perry’s solo album was an early sign that Journey wouldn’t last without him, but they still managed to pull together an album that, for the first time in the Perry era, sported a title with more than one word. Raised On Radio found the singer defiantly in charge, credited as sole producer and bringing in players from his solo project to replace Ross Valory and Steve Smith. One report has them leaving “due to creative differences”, others say they were fired. Whatever the truth, their absence is felt big time.
With different sections in seemingly different keys, “Girl Can’t Help It” has enough of the established Journey vibe to pass, and it’s smart to start out that way. But “Positive Touch” would have been a great hit for the Pointer Sisters; here it’s just cheesy. And that saxophone? Good Lord. “Suzanne” is a vast improvement, providing a lovelorn lyric with yearning, keening chorus; one of their more underrated, ignored classics. “Be Good To Yourself” is the requisite pep talk, but might have been more effective as a side-opener or closer. Then we get funky with “Once You Love Somebody”, with a decent melody but a generic backing, and “Happy To Give” is about as far removed from rock as they’ve ever been.
The title track didn’t come with printed lyrics, although Perry and Cain are credited for them. Once you decipher the mushmouthed slurring, it’s merely a string of oldies song titles strung together over a rockin’ riff. Yet it makes the otherwise lightweight “I’ll Be Alright Without You” stand out, with its Greek-chorus asides and extended guitar solo. Something must have happened to Perry’s voice; already husky on the album, he doesn’t sound like himself until the first chorus of “It Could Have Been You”. “The Eyes Of A Woman” is another one that would have sold buckets of a solo album, but there’s no denying the lighters-in-the-arena potential of “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever”, which might as well be “Faithfully” played backwards, with lyrics equally applicable to a lover as they are to you: the true fans.
Raised On Radio was great if you loved Street Talk. But longtime fans who were already uncomfortable with the encroaching adult contemporary influence on a band that developed from the fancy fretwork of Santana would resent Neal Schon for going along with something so by the numbers. Then again, nobody had conceived of Bad English or Hardline yet, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Naturally, Journey toured to promote the album, with newcomers Randy Jackson resembling a portly Clarence Clemons on bass and the decidedly non-photogenic Mike Baird on drums. The setlists included two songs from the Perry solo album and a few covers as encores. (The expanded CD includes live versions of “Girl Can’t Help It” and “I’ll Be Alright Without You”, as previously heard on the videos for said songs.) And that would be it for a long time.

Journey Raised On Radio (1986)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1986, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, June 16, 2017

Replacements 8: All Shook Down

What would be the final Replacements album wasn’t really a Replacements album at all. All Shook Down was a full-fledged Paul Westerberg solo album, in the auteur’s mind anyway, with the other Replacements used where he felt necessary, but often passed over for different drummers and guitarists. Surprisingly, the chosen co-producer was Scott Litt, then in the midst of a multi-album run with R.E.M.
The slashing chords of “Merry Go Round” put the sound right in line with the more radio-friendly direction of the last album, though “One Wink At A Time” immediately turns off the main road with studiously picked acoustics and honking sax. The highlight of the album, and among the best songs Westerberg ever wrote, is “Nobody”, an all-too-real wedding song, toast and kiss-off all at once. The barely contained anger bursts out on “Bent Out Of Shape”, another terrific rocker, and slides back to melancholy for “Sadly Beautiful”, which features a viola solo by the one and only John Cale. “Someone Take The Wheel” provides a bit of upbeat relief, and seems to describe both a failing marriage and a failing band.
The same summation could be applied to “When It Began”, amazingly chosen as the second single from the album to go along with the band’s last tour. The title track is barely there, a half-asleep recitation of non-sequiturs over heavy breathing and recorders. “Attitude” is supposedly the only track that includes the whole band and not session players, and in a perfect world there’d be a nastier electric version that surpasses this polite strum. “Happy Town” gets a boost from Benmont Tench on organ, while the all-too-brief “Torture” is all guitars, with just a tambourine and a harmonica solo. Another special guest is Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, lending her wail to the duet of “My Little Problem”. (He would also collaborate with fellow Les Paul Junior aficionado Joan Jett around this time on “Backlash”, even appearing in the song’s video, but her album bombed.) Finally, “The Last” crosses the lounge style of “Nightclub Jitters” with a less glamorous portrait of yet another drunk.
While not the popular opinion, All Shook Down is a highly underrated album. It may not have been what fans wanted, but as a collection of songs both written and performed well, it holds up. Of the bonus tracks included on the eventual expansion, seven are Westerberg demos, two of which for songs that didn’t make the final album: the very fragile, unsettling “Tiny Paper Plane”, and “Kissin’ In Action”, probably the most “Mats-sounding” track of all when it eventually appeared on the wonderfully titled promo Don’t Sell Or Buy, It’s Crap. That rare disc also included “Ought To Get Love”, a rowdy leftover from the Don’t Tell A Soul sessions, and Tommy Stinson’s excellent writing debut, “Satellite”; both are welcome here.
Personal footnote: Those of us who awaited the album’s release found ourselves in quite the quandary, as it was sold only on cassette or CD in the U.S. Hence, any acquisition would end up filed all alone in a rack far away from its vinyl brothers. (It was available on the fading format in Germany, although a mispress reportedly resulted in side one consisting of duets by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.) Now that vinyl is all the rage at inflated prices, All Shook Down can be procured more readily. Or not.

The Replacements All Shook Down (1990)—4
2008 CD reissue: same as 1990, plus 11 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Rush 10: Exit Stage Left

Four studio albums meant it was time for a double live album, and Rush complied, at the height of their game. In addition to another clever theater phrase, Exit… Stage Left bridges the transition from lengthy prog epics to synthesizer-driven music. Most of the music comes from the previous four albums, with the exception of two songs on side two, which was recorded on a tour a year before the rest of the tracks.
Even with the silence between tracks, it holds together as a solid piece, crashing open with “Spirit Of Radio”, jumping on “Red Barchetta” and extending “YYZ” with a three-minute drum solo. The middle of the album provides context for those who came in at either Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures, tossing in the stadium-friendly “Closer To The Heart” and “The Trees”, the latter preceded by an instrumental prelude called “Broon’s Bane”, which got kids working on their fingerpicking. At twelve minutes, “Xanadu” may try patience, or it may send them back to the mall to pick up the earlier albums. It’s back to the hits on side four, with the socko punch of “Freewill” and “Tom Sawyer”, with “La Villa Strangiato” as the grand finale.
Outside of the lengths of some of the tunes, there’s not a lot of difference between the recordings on Exit… Stage Left and the original albums; Rush was never a band that improvised, and the fans didn’t want that anyway. But in the absence of greatest hits, it delivers enough of the experience to keep those kids buying concert tickets, and geared up for the next album.

Rush Exit… Stage Left (1981)—

Friday, June 9, 2017

Oasis 4: The Masterplan

Like all good British bands, Oasis had amassed a pile of B-sides for all the singles they’d released over the span of three albums. Most of these have been included on expanded 21st-century versions of those albums, but back when the band was still fresh, 14 of them were put together on The Masterplan.
Besides keeping these songs available, the set nicely reinforces Noel Gallagher as a performer in his own right. The orchestral pomp of the title track just wouldn’t fit with Liam’s sneer anyway. Noel’s acoustic busk of “Morning Glory” bookends “Acquiesce”, and he also sings the choruses in between Liam’s verses. “Talk Tonight” is a wonderfully sensitive plea for sanity, while “Going Nowhere” suffers from the Bacharach overload of the time. Speaking of which, “Half The World Away” bears a strong resemblance to “This Guy’s In Love With You”, but only in the main theme and a few of the chords. While we’re at it, “Listen Up” resembles “Supersonic” from the first album, but has some intricate (for Noel) modulations over the chorus that make it the better song; perhaps such touches kept it a B-side. “Headshrinker” is blown open with a great Stonesy riff, making a nice diversion from the usually worn influences.
Still, some of the songs were better as B-sides. “The Swamp Song”, excerpted as interludes on the Morning Glory album, is interesting to hear once in total, while the accordion diversion at the end of “(It’s Good) To Be Free” is just silly. And although their loud, live plow through “I Am The Walrus” wouldn’t have sat well on an album, it’s great to have here.
As only two of the tracks come from singles released to promote Be Here Now, The Masterplan might have made for a better third album than the overblown mess that did come out. Instead it became a nice reminder what made the band so good in the first place, and might even have helped keep them relevant into the next century.

Oasis The Masterplan (1998)—

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Bruce Springsteen 22: Wrecking Ball

Nearly four decades into his recording career, the inevitability of Rolling Stone magazine giving every Bruce Springsteen album a five-star review is nearly pathological. Granted, we’re no doctor, but sometimes it’s hard to believe we’re listening to the same album.
Wrecking Ball is the “angry” Bruce album, bemoaning the state of the union with a boomy sound and a lot of yelling, even for him. Part of that comes from the day’s headlines, but mostly because technology allows him to build his tracks himself, which keeps him from being reined in as he might in a band situation. Most of what’s left of the E Street Band are pasted in here and there, but overall it’s a collaboration with co-producer Ron Aniello. Between them, they cover most of the instruments, even drums. Even with real instruments, there’s a dependence on loops and samples that makes it all very sterile-sounding.
“We Take Care Of Our Own” begins with all the subtlety of a U2 anthem, but the glockenspiel or its equivalent soon gives away who it really is. It’s exactly what his fans hope for, but it doesn’t last. “Easy Money” is stuck somewhere between a drum machine and a campfire, with nursery rhyme-level lyrics; “Shackled And Drawn” has a slightly better hook. Then we come to “Jack Of All Trades”, which details all the things a workin’ man can do around the house to take care of his own during hard times. Meant to be stirring, it ends up maudlin, but hopefully somebody out there took some comfort from it. (The guitar solo comes from new best friend Tom Morello, best known from Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave.) “Death To My Hometown” is not a protest of the worst single from Born In The U.S.A. but another worker’s anthem sung in a brogue with backing to match. Despite its bombast (and another Tom Morello solo), “This Depression” manages to be a welcome return to more familiar Bruce.
The title track, inspired by the demolition of many of the stadiums he once filled, is pretty ordinary until the bridge about halfway through, which makes the return to the opening motif a smooth one. “You’ve Got It” provides another respite in the form of a basic love song without any sociological agenda, but it’s not one of his better ones. The most daring track is “Rocky Ground”, which uses a gospel sample and refrain, even including a rap; the song deserves a more stripped-down approach to be more effective. The fake gospel overtone carries over to “Land Of Hope And Dreams”, first heard over a decade earlier on a live album, now re-recorded with one of Clarence’s solos flown in. “We Are Alive” begins with the sound of a needle in dead wax, and soon stomps along as a modern Woody Guthrie song, its message deflated by mariachi horns right out of “Ring Of Fire”.
The album proper ends there, but any Boss fan worth his or her salt would have had to pick up the “Special Edition” for its two extra tracks. “Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale)” sounds like it comes from the same campfire as “We Are Alive”, and could work over the closing credits of a Coen brothers drama. Finally, “American Land”, first heard as part of the Seeger Sessions trip, gets a studio version here, and still sounds like the Pogues.
Despite the acknowledged highlights, Wrecking Ball is a lesser Springsteen album. We’ve let him slide before, and he’s allowed to experiment all he wants, but even he wouldn’t suggest that everything he’s done is gold.

Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball (2012)—

Friday, June 2, 2017

Grateful Dead 7: Skull & Roses

In the year following their first live double album, the Dead had recorded and released a pair of LPs that concentrated on succinct songwriting. They learned to use this concentrated approach onstage, where they were now down to five members, with just one drummer. Hence, their next live installment—also a double—reflected less of a lengthy, space jam approach and more of the tight country and blues covers they’d picked up along the way, and indeed made their own, to the point where only obsessives like ourselves know (or care) that other people wrote and recorded them first.
The album simply titled Grateful Dead by the record label has long been referred to by Deadheads (as christened on the inner gatefold) as “Skull & Roses”, due to its artwork and to differentiate it from the eponymous debut. A quick listen to the two similarly titled albums should dispel any confusion, as they almost sound like two different bands. Beginning with the confident gallop of “Bertha”, a Garcia-Hunter original, side one moves to Merle Haggard’s prison lament “Mama Tried” and the jugband revision of “Big Railroad Blues” before ending with the complicated textures and meter of “Playing In The Band”, spotlighting Bob Weir in the music he wrote. Side two is the album’s only concession to psychedelic jamming, being an 18-minute extension of “The Other One”, known previously to record-only fans as the first track from the second album. Keep in mind the first five minutes are devoted to a drum solo.
Side three is all covers: “Me And My Uncle”, written by Papa John Phillips and learned from a Judy Collins album; “Big Boss Man”, which gives Pigpen his moment in the dwindling spotlight; “Me And Bobby McGee”, captured a month after Janis Joplin’s version topped the charts; and the standard “Johnny B. Goode”, which shows just how much of the Dead’s sound came directly from Chuck Berry. Side four is split between another Garcia-Hunter original, the mournful “Wharf Rat”, and the medley of “Not Fade Away” and “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad”, establishing the Bo Diddley beat that they’d use for countless similar medleys over the duration of their career.
If one was so inclined, the “Skull & Roses” album could be shaved down to a single LP highlighting the band’s original compositions. Indeed, “Bertha”, “Playing In The Band” and “Wharf Rat” were sweetened in the studio, predominantly by Garcia buddy Merl Saunders on organ (as well as some unclarified pianist and doubling of the vocals on the latter track). With those on one side and “The Other One” on the other, it would have been a simple sequence, but that would have been at the expense of the covers that, again, loom large in the legend. And indeed, the album as a whole is one of their better sets, with a fresh live sound throughout that concentrates more on the music than the audience. The quick fades, however, can be a little frustrating.
Another double album that could fit on a single CD, the eventual expanded version added two more ‘50s vintage covers and the now-obligatory hidden radio ad. A few later vault releases have mined the era surrounding this album, most notably the four-CD Ladies And Gentlemen… The Grateful Dead, which scans through four of the Fillmore East shows out of the New York dates recorded for what would be the “Skull & Roses” album.

Grateful Dead Grateful Dead (1971)—4
2003 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Ladies And Gentlemen… The Grateful Dead (2000)
     • Three From The Vault (2007)
     • Winterland May 30th 1971 (2012)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Paul Simon 5: Still Crazy After All These Years

A common theme in the mid-‘70s was the so-called divorce album, wherein confessional singer-songwriters lamented the passing of the relationship with whatever dew-eyed muse that had inspired their most beloved songs of romantic devotion. John Lennon spilled his troubles on Walls And Bridges, and Bob Dylan arguably set the standard with Blood On The Tracks, but Paul Simon’s way with cryptic words kept Still Crazy After All These Years from being merely dirty laundry. It even won Grammys. (He limited the expression of his inner turmoil to a cheesy mustache and a cheesier hat.)
The album is front-loaded with some of his best songs, beginning with the resigned title track, its cool electric piano and offbeat strings that perfectly frame the inevitable sax solo. One big draw is “My Little Town”, a reunion on tape with Art Garfunkel (also included on his own concurrently released album). Easily one of their spookier tracks, it nails the feeling of being trapped by one’s origins, heritage, family, society, etc.; in other words, everything that made Simon & Garfunkel spokesmen for their disaffected generation. “I Do It For Your Love” is an extremely melancholy reverie on the ended marriage, finding a metaphor in an odd place, but countered by the jive-rhyme in “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, something of a spin on “Love Potion #9”. After four solid tracks, “Night Game” is just plain odd, taking some common baseball expressions literally. It seems out of place here, being more in line with his proper solo debut.
For a big-time mood swing, “Gone At Last” is a gospel raveup sung as a duet with Phoebe Snow and the now-familiar Jessy Dixon Singers whooping it up in back. From there, “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy” seems to be way too slow, but manages to keep up with itself, and our warped ears hear influences on and of Van Morrison and Tom Waits of the same period. We don’t have much use for “Have A Good Time”, between the cutesy delivery, broken-legs meter shifts, and particularly the out-of-place sax solo appearing at the end like a busker around a corner in a subway tunnel. “You’re Kind” is much better, by being simple and offering up a twist ending that’s very real. A final mood swing arrives in “Silent Eyes”, a slow, poetic creation, not exactly a prayer, but still establishes a mood of night and sleep. (In an odd bit of foreshadowing, the piano here is played by Leon Pendarvis, whom most casual TV viewers would recognize as a longtime member of the Saturday Night Live band. Thanks in part to his friendship with producer Lorne Michaels, Paul Simon would go on to appear on the show in various capacities many times over the coming decades.)
Such a strong closing track makes Still Crazy After All These Years Paul Simon’s best work since splitting with Artie, and easily on par with the better Simon & Garfunkel albums. (Bonus tracks on the eventual reissue include a demo of a future hit single and a very alternate arrangement of “Gone At Last”.) It must have taken a lot out of him, since his output would be less prolific going forward.

Paul Simon Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, May 26, 2017

Bob Dylan 62: Triplicate

We’ve already noted that Bob has rarely repeated himself in over half a century of recording, but some of his work has emerged, usually in hindsight, in arcs of threes. Triplicate is the third installment in his recent obsession with the Great American Songbook, and it’s three discs — whether you buy LP or CD — to boot. These 30 new recordings are evenly split between them, totaling just over 30 minutes each. It’s a lot of music to take in at once, and an in-depth analysis is out of our capabilities at this point. As with the last two, it’s nighttime listening, or if maybe if it’s raining, and probably not something that will be blasted out car windows or at the beach.
The first disc begins with a dance band horn section and ends jauntily; the second and third each start the same way but also end more subdued. Frank Sinatra is still the common touchstone. Disc one offers three songs from his September Of My Years album, which originally commemorated Frank’s (gasp!) 50th birthday, coloring the mood, but not clarifying it any. It’s easier to get into the more familiar, well-trodden songs, like “As Time Goes By”, “Stormy Weather”, “Sentimental Journey”, “My One And Only Love”, “These Foolish Things” and “Stardust”. In our case, the selections we know from September Of My Years and “Trade Winds”, familiar from Bugs Bunny cartoons, inspire the most humming along.
Once again transposing orchestral arrangements to a tiny combo, his band is flawless, particularly when left to themselves, quietly purring along behind the soft guitars and pedal steel. Dance band horns appear at times, providing variety. As should be expected, Bob’s voice varies. He has trouble on “Day In, Day Out”, “Where Is The One” and on tunes with the widest ranges, but is flawless on “It’s Funny To Everyone But Me” and even the wistful “There’s A Flaw In My Flue”. As silly as the title sounds, his delivery is convincing, the opposite effect of the blue pajamas he mentions on “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan”.
The album title is just plain lazy, and the ones given to the individual discs, despite the apostrophes, seem almost arbitrary, as much red herrings as Fallen Angels was for that album. The liner notes, presumably not written by him, work a little too hard to praise. Triplicate remains something of a novelty, and Shadows In The Night remains the better album, making a welcome, familiar listen after getting through an hour and a half of similarly arranged pieces. So too does Fallen Angels fall better into place, but we dare say this one is the runner-up of the three. So far.

Bob Dylan Triplicate (2017)—3

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Cat Stevens 8: Greatest Hits

Due to his success in the ‘70s, Cat Stevens’ original label took plenty of advantage of the material he recorded in the ‘60s, repackaging the same two albums in different configurations and even daring to put a more contemporary photo on the cover along with a false claim that the contents delivered his “best”. He wouldn’t have been able to stop them anyway, but could certainly claim Greatest Hits as the title for an album dedicated to his more recent, and indeed, best work.
Greatest Hits is not presented chronologically, and neatly transitions from the simpler acoustic material to the more electric arrangements and back again. Some of the new transitions work quite well—for instance, “Father & Son” to “Sitting” to “Morning Has Broken”. Original copies came with a poster featuring a July-through-June calendar of sorts, with lyrics appearing where dates would be, suggesting some kind of framework. Most of his singles are here—“Peace Train” in its early-faded edit—including the non-album cover of Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night” and the “new” exclusive “Two Fine People”.
For an introduction to Cat Stevens—or at least the one who dominated the airwaves and turntables in the early ‘70s—the curious would be well served by Greatest Hits. And then they’d end up grabbing Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser And The Firecat anyway. It’s since been surpassed by later compilations, which we’ll get to eventually and in context.

Cat Stevens Greatest Hits (1975)—

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mick Jagger 1: She’s The Boss

With the strength of the Rolling Stones Records label behind him, Bill Wyman released two solo albums in the ‘70s, both of which sold on the strength of his name, neither of which were that exciting, mostly because Bill can’t sing. (He did a little better in the early ‘80s with “Je Suis Un Rock Star”, being something of a novelty song with a cheesy synth part to match his weedy voice.)
It’s understandable that Bill would need to stretch his creativity, having been demoted to the least respected Stone once Ron Wood became Keith’s fulltime pal. But the idea of a Mick Jagger solo album, after over two decades of being both the voice and key creative consultant of the band, made even less sense. What could he do on his own that he couldn’t accomplish with the band he ran with an iron fist?
The answer lies in a Latin phrase we don’t feel like looking up, but roughly translates to “the question answers itself.” Mick was always interested in contemporary beats, while Keith and Woody were happy to play the same Chuck Berry riffs in between drinks and snorts. Each of the Stones albums so far had something “danceable” on it, but only so much. The new worldwide deal with CBS had the key provision that Mick would be given the opportunity to do solo albums; crafty as he always was, he figured his name would be enough to sell units, and possibly unshackle himself from the band that was becoming an albatross. Attaching his voice to a song credited to the Jacksons, in an attempt to cash in on the phenomenal success of Thriller (not coincidentally, another solo project by someone previously associated publicly with a band he no longer needed) gave him something of a test shot.
Hence, She’s The Boss, which accomplishes the feat of sounding nothing like the Stones save a few lines here and there, since he didn’t change his voice at all. He produced the album with Bill Laswell and Nile Rodgers (who also supplies the loudest guitars not already played by Jeff Beck), both of whom knew a thing a two about being contemporary as well as commercial. Keith gets writing credit on “Lonely At The Top”, one of dozens of songs out at the time that sounded exactly like “Footloose”, but no other Stones are involved at all. “½ A Loaf” tramples a metaphor with dated keyboards, while “Running Out Of Luck” and “Turn The Girl Loose” would have been lesser tracks on any Stones album, the latter particularly with its angry “ladies’ rap” over the fade. “Secrets” and the title track each labor over the same riff with a lot of yelling.
All this time later, the most palatable songs are the ones chosen as singles, and both are on side two. “Just Another Night” and “Lucky In Love” (which is about two minutes too long) could almost pass as Stones songs, if a little poppy. “Hard Woman” is the token ballad, with pretty Paul Buckmaster strings, although it’s not easy to buy Mick as a lovelorn, heartbroken sap this late in his tabloid career.
She’s The Boss isn’t a bad album for a piece of product, but fails as an out-of-expected-genre experiment by not being adventurous enough. However, it wasn’t the most embarrassing thing he released that year. That honor still belongs to his duet with David Bowie on “Dancing In The Street”, thrown together for the Live Aid concert. The song was bad enough; the video made it excruciating.

Mick Jagger She’s The Boss (1985)—2

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Byrds 13: McGuinn, Clark & Hillman

While nobody really noticed, the influence of the Byrds managed to subtly seep through the music of the ‘70s. Crosby, Stills & Nash carried the torch on the radio and arenas, with Crosby’s old band becoming more of a footnote in his biography. The Eagles certainly picked up some of the harmonic touches, and a band called Firefall, formed from the aftermath of the Flying Burrito Brothers, had some breezy hit singles just this side of yacht rock.
So when Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and Gene Clark decided to collaborate on an album, it less resembled the classic Byrds sound than the open-shirted, mildly discofied trend that was commercially viable in 1979. On paper, it could have been considered as much a Byrds album as anything released under that name after Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, but both the album and the combo were named after the three members. If you’re looking for the Byrds, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a superstar summit, this is isn’t it either. If you long for the chime of that Rickenbacker 12-string, you’re out of luck.
The first warning sign is on the back cover, listing the Albert brothers as producers, and good ol’ Criteria Studios in Miami—Stephen Stills’ home base and knob twiddlers of choice, for his solo albums as well as the recent CSN reunion. The first sound the listener hears when dropping the needle on side one is a timbale, and sure enough there’s Joe Lala all over the mix, just like on those Stills projects. None of the three guys are credited with playing any instruments, though we can assume each played guitar, on his own songs anyway. None of the songs are credited as collaborations, which is no big deal.
Chris Hillman’s voice came a long way from being stuck in the background, so his spotlights are probably the least excruciating, but again, they sound like Firefall, which was fine for the times, but less so today. “Long Long Time” deserves further evaluation. Who knows what that nightmare intro to “Surrender To Me” is all about, but it’s also the only song none of the guys had a hand in writing. However, he is sorely to blame for “Stopping Traffic” and “Sad Boy”.
Gene Clark was arguably the best songwriter in the band, as displayed on the first two albums, but didn’t have much commercial success on his own. For a guy who was supposedly such a pioneer and harbinger of, “Little Mama”, “Feelin’ Higher”, “Backstage Pass” and “Release Me Girl” come off as generic, albeit competent adult contemporary. (There should never be a saxophone on anything approaching the Byrds, and fake audiences only ironically.)
Just as with the last get-together, McGuinn isn’t the dominant voice. Though “Don’t You Write Her Off” was the first single, and it’s got a terrific chorus, the verses are only tangentially related to it, and the steel drums are just painful. He’s redeemed by “Bye Bye Baby”, the gentle folk lullaby that ends the album, and easily the truest tribute to the legacy.
McGuinn, Clark & Hillman has its defenders, and we can respect that. Many of the people who bought this album upon release needed something to tide them over while the Eagles took their sweet time on The Long Run. In a perfect world, and in this age of revision, a “less-discofied” version of this album would be a welcome addition to the history. As for the guys themselves, they were soon down to duo without Gene, further albums were dead on arrival, and the ‘80s were virtually Byrd-free.

McGuinn, Clark & Hillman McGuinn, Clark & Hillman (1979)—2

Friday, May 12, 2017

Prince 4: Controversy

From time to time in this forum, we’ve discussed a band slash artist’s “first four”. The debut album proclaims the newcomer, the follow-up restates the thesis, the third album pointedly tries to reinvent a wheel, and in senior year we find out what they’ve learned. The version of the theory applies to Prince, because Controversy is where the brand was firmly established. Deviations followed, certainly, but for anyone playing catch-up, this is the album that sounds most like the Prince that dominated the middle of the decade.
It looks like the same coat from the previous album cover; hopefully he’d changed his drawers for the poster inside. But just as there’s more color in the artwork, the tracks are more filled out, melding even more the styles of funk, rock and new wave. The title track choogles along with several riffs, quiets down for a recital of the Lord’s Prayer, and gets back up with a P-Funk chant, and then we hear that scream for the first time. Similarly, “Sexuality” suggests that the world’s ills can be healed by ignoring our superficial differences and getting busy. To prove his point, “Do Me, Baby” is a lengthy slow jam that culminates in one-sided pillow talk that’s more uncomfortable than arousing, personally.
Side two provides more variety over its five tracks. “Private Joy” is straight-ahead synth-pop ending in a wild feedback-heavy solo that bleeds into and throughout “Ronnie, Talk To Russia”. This lyrical dynamo sports a truly cheesy organ and cheesier machine gun effects, then it’s back to the dance floor for “Let’s Work”, with a particularly tasty pop-and-slap bass. “Annie Christian” is almost no-wave, with a robotic arrangement and non-musical vocals for a parable about the title character being responsible for death and destruction. Finally, “Jack U Off” swings, a dirty song that’s actually fun.
It’s not as strikingly enjoyable as Dirty Mind, but again, Controversy provides a logical progression, and a good setup for what was to come next. Besides, the falsetto was kept to a minimum.
However, it wasn’t the only Prince album out that year. Despite credits saying otherwise, the eponymous debut by The Time was all Prince, completely written and performed by him, save for Morris Day on vocals and occasional drums, plus Dr. Fink on a few synths and Lisa Coleman anytime a woman’s voice is heard. (“After Hi School” was written by guitarist Dez Dickerson, but Prince plays all the instruments.) It’s a danceable album, but still sounds very tossed off. “Girl” and “Oh, Baby” are almost laughable, brokenhearted slow jams with forced vocals by Morris, who really worked best in a visual medium. The best track by far is “Cool”, wherein his personality comes through big time. The same approach applied to What Time Is It?, recorded and released the following summer while Prince was finishing his next album. “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” is the only slow tune, and Morris has upped his attitude; “Wild And Loose” and “The Walk” even feature humorous dialogues with female conquests. “777-9311” and “The Walk” have a couple of scorching guitar solos, making things more interesting.

Prince Controversy (1981)—3
The Time
The Time (1981)—
The Time
What Time Is It? (1982)—

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Todd Rundgren 15: Deface The Music

So you know how Utopia had been approaching ordinary, radio-friendly music with each release? Well, who could have anticipated that their next move—or gimmick, if you will—would be an album of Beatle sound-alikes so uncanny they rival those of the Rutles?
The cover art is subtle, but Deface The Music is very much an homage to the Fabs, right down to the simple “more Utopia albums for your collection” ad on the inner sleeve. We’re not going to pick out every reference, but suffice it to say, these tracks scream moptop, with only Todd Rundgren’s nasal delivery keeping it oceans away from a bona fide British invasion.
The album’s sequenced chronologically, so to speak; side one is a celebration of 1964, from “I Just Wanna Touch You” all the way to “That’s Not Right”. The sound even apes early Capitol full dimensional stereo, with the drums and bass on one side and the other instruments on the other. The flute sound on “Alone” isn’t going to fool anybody, though; that’s neither the real thing nor a Mellotron. But what do you expect from a band that includes computer genius and synthesizer pioneer Roger Powell?
“Take It Home” closes side one with a hint of Rubber Soul, then “Hoi Polloi” kicks off side two in a mild aping of “Penny Lane”. “Life Goes On” will seem like a reference to a certain Revolver track about a spinster, but there’s a Utopia precedent already in “Love Alone” from the previous album. “Feels Too Good” even combines “Getting Better” with “Fixing A Hole”. Rather than taking it all up to Abbey Road, “Everybody Else Is Wrong” celebrates everybody’s favorite Lennon songs from the Magical Mystery Tour album, which both echoes Faithful and predicts that Todd would meet XTC one day. All it’s missing is a fake ending, confounding expectations yet again.
With only two songs out of thirteen over three minutes, Deface The Music goes by quick, but that just gives you more time to play it again. Chances are, you will.

Utopia Deface The Music (1980)—

Friday, May 5, 2017

Michael Nesmith: The First National Band

In addition to his increasingly experimental contributions to Monkees albums, Michael Nesmith also displayed a defiant affection for country music. As the band dwindled out of commercial favor, he began stockpiling songs, which usually began as poetry pieces with arbitrary titles, that he hoped to one day issue on his own.
His first major extracurricular experiment reared its wacky head in the summer of 1968. The Wichita Train Whistle Sings was recorded over two days with dozens of L.A.’s finest session players, and presented ten instrumental arrangements of Nesmith tunes, some already familiar from earlier Monkees albums. The record is best appreciated if one is fluent with the more standard recordings, because the styles used here range wildly from easy listening to high school marching band, with prominent banjos and a determination to be just plain nutty. Laughter at zany guitar lines is left in, along with the notorious sound of Tommy Tedesco’s prized Telecaster being hurled into the air and crashing to the floor.

Once free from the Monkees, he strove to fully explore the possibilities of blending the professional Nashville sound with his own idiosyncratic tendencies. Such a blend was already evident on “Listen To The Band” and “Good Clean Fun”, both chosen as Monkees singles, and after settling on some friends as his rhythm section, he was able to rope in pedal steel player Red Rhodes to complete the First National Band. In less than a year’s time, they recorded three albums’ worth of material, released faster than they could be recorded. Just like other early practitioners of what would become country rock would take decades to get any kind of respect, they were pretty much ignored at the time, being too country for rock and not country enough for country.
Magnetic South came first, frontloaded with Nesmith originals, some of which were those Monkees leftovers: the samba-flavored “Calico Girlfriend”; the all-too-brief “Nine Times Blue”, which goes into the nearly funky “Little Red Rider”; “The Crippled Lion”, a hidden Nesmith gem; and the surprising hit story-song “Joanne”, which cuts right to “First National Rag”, something of a commercial break telling the listener to flip the record over. There he pulls out the yodel for “Mama Nantucket” and “Keys To The Car”, and gets a little ambitious with “Hollywood”, but by ending with two covers—the straight croon of “One Rose” and a “mind movie” rendition of “Beyond The Blue Horizon”—it’s a nice little trip.

Loose Salute was half in the can by the time Magnetic South, and is even more country, but with only one cover (“I Fall To Pieces”). “Silver Moon” with its mild island lilt was a mild hit single, and probably the high point. Monkees fans today have already heard several better takes of “Conversations” (a.k.a. “Carlisle Wheeling”), and the original single of “Listen To The Band” was so definitive, even by his own admission, why do another? “Tengo Amore” is enticing until the vocal kicks in, a frighteningly accurate amalgam of Stephen Stills’ worst Latin tendencies. Where the first album was refreshing, this one’s almost ordinary.

By the time Loose Salute was on the shelves, the rhythm section had already left, so Nevada Fighter was finished with session pros. This time the sides were split, with Nesmith originals on side one and covers on side two. The originals are of fine quality, particularly “Propinquity” (another Monkees refugee) and the rocking title track. With the exception of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, the covers come from the pens of previous Monkee collaborators Harry Nilsson, Michael Murphey and Bill Martin, with a surprising choice in “I Looked Away”, best known as the opener for Derek and the Dominos’ Layla. Red Rhodes’ solo “Rene” closes the album, and the chapter, fittingly.
The three First National Band albums have been in and out of print over the years, and further reissues have gone as far as abridging them to cram the most music in. If one enjoys Nesmith’s voice and writing, and can handle a lot of pedal steel guitar, they’re worth checking out, particularly for fans of Gram Parsons. If anything, they run rings around Changes.

Michael Nesmith The Wichita Train Whistle Sings (1968)—2
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band
Magnetic South (1970)—3
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band
Loose Salute (1970)—
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band
Nevada Fighter (1971)—3

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

World Party 5: Dumbing Up

Even if it takes him years to finish an album for a tiny public that cares about it more than any distribution channel, Karl Wallinger has the skill to produce himself, layering instruments and sounds, either by himself or with dedicated players, to concoct the product in his head. (And, apparently, design his own cover art with stock programs.) As solid as Dumbing Up is, he could still use an editor.
Many of the tracks are long for what used to be airplay standards, and when they tend to be on the slow side, it’s easy to lose interest. “High Love”, obviously a ballad close to his heart for the time he devotes to it, would be better served by highlighting the sublime harmonies that don’t show up to until the end. Luckily, it’s followed by “Best Place I’ve Ever Been” is the upbeat quasi-single the album sorely needs. “Santa Barbara” is a lovely seaside-inspired piano reverie that’s a departure for him, though the seagulls could be scaled back. “All The Love That's Wasted” has something of a music-hall feel, but is immediately superseded by the grand “Little Bit Of Perfection”. “Another 1000 Years” is obviously melodically suggested by “Baby You’re A Rich Man”, which brings us to our next point.
Where the album truly falls short of excellent are the obvious pastiches. “Here Comes The Future” has an anachronistic arrangement that belies the title, and his funk experiments are kinda embarrassing anyway. And having already recorded several songs based liberally on Dylan’s electric heyday, “Who Are You?” loses any value in its rant by not trying harder (though at least it doesn’t all sound like its funk coda). In contrast, he manages to better direct his social commentary on the closing “Always On My Mind”, a simple solo piano with just piano, vocals, and some effects, albeit for over eight minutes.
Not long after the album was released with nary a ripple of impact, Wallinger suffered a brain aneurysm, the effects of which incapacitated for the better part of six years. Once sufficiently recovered, he rereleased Dumbing Up on his own label, shuffling the original sequence, dropping two songs and adding two new ones. “‘Til I Got You” and “I Thought You Were A Spy” are both effortless tunes that, amazingly, no one else had thought of yet. “All The Love That's Wasted” is no great loss, but it’s a shame he cut “Little Bit Of Perfection”. The album still ends with “Always On My Mind”; where else could it fit?

World Party Dumbing Up (2000)—3
2006 reissue: same as 2000, plus 2 extra tracks (and minus 2 tracks) plus DVD

Friday, April 28, 2017

Marshall Crenshaw 4: Mary Jean & 9 Others

In 1987, it wasn’t enough to write catchy songs and record them well. John Mellencamp had the “heartland sound” pretty much sown up, hair metal was creeping in, and record buyers were fairly selective in their nostalgia. One of the bigger movie hits that summer was the Richie Valens biopic La Bamba, which brought Los Lobos their biggest hit. Meanwhile, in the same film, Marshall Crenshaw played the role of Buddy Holly, which translated to little public interest in his fourth album, in shops around the same time.
Mary Jean & 9 Others is a suitably retro title, but makes the mistake of not putting the actual name of the potential hit single in the title. Still, This Is Easy & 9 Others mightn’t have grabbed many eyes on the shelf either, given the poorly lit photo on the cover, which depicts Marshall with brother Bob (back on drums) and the high-stacked hair of Graham Maby, on loan from Joe Jackson’s band. “This Is Easy” remains a great tune, and would eventually be used as the title of a turn-of-the-century best-of.
Given that fantastic start, much of the album follows his established template of catchy melodies, simple chords (save the occasional major-seventh), rockabilly rhythms and hooky choruses. One unfortunate sidestep is “This Street”, with its processed guitars and electronic drums, sounding much like a demo. He was no slouch at recording demos, but this one simply doesn’t fit the sound of the album. “They Never Will Know”, which closes the set, is more of a slow dance, but not too slow.
“Calling Out For Love (At Crying Time)” and “Somebody’s Crying” may have a word in common, but are both standouts. The closest thing what could be called the album’s title track is certainly toe-tappin’, but pales slightly in comparison to “For Her Love” (which it closely resembles structure-wise) from his second album. In the tradition of obscure covers, this album’s contribution is a subtly rocking “Steel Strings”, from former Plimsoul Peter Case’s critically acclaimed solo debut the year before.
That track tops five minutes, and most of the songs on Mary Jean & 9 Others are over four; perhaps with only ten songs in his arsenal he was hesitant to shorten them, lest the album seem too short. In an alternate universe, his version of “Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’” from the La Bamba soundtrack might have joined the other “Crying” songs to entice consumers, but we should hope that in any alternate universe, he’s sold more records than he has in this one.

Marshall Crenshaw Mary Jean & 9 Others (1987)—3

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Stephen Stills 9: Right By You

The cover of Stephen Stills’ only solo album of the ‘80s depicts what appears to be some kind of crazy angled rocket, alongside futuristic lettering. Those who took the time to flip it and see the back cover will see that it’s actually some kind of racing boat. Right By You is a nearly perfect representation of his misguided narcissism, every note a gem, every song a masterpiece. Of course, one has to be Stephen Stills to buy that.
We don’t know anyone who’s heard this album, much less owns it, so we have no idea whether the electronic drums that saturate all but the last two tracks sounded this awful in 1984. It should go without saying, yet we’ll say it anyway, that the percussion combines with the period keyboards and Latin rhythms for a truly aggravating listening experience. Lionel Richie could get away with these arrangements, and we’re not saying that in a bad way.
The same accomplices appear, like George Perry and Joe Lala, alongside other unrecognizable names. Graham Nash sings prominent harmonies, most frustratingly on a reworking of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” that didn’t really need another verse from Stephen’s hand. Mike Finnegan’s synth and soulful vocals on “Can’t Let Go” make an odd duet better suited to a female partner or a soap opera tie-in. Chris Hillman appears with cohort Herb Pedersen on a bluegrass version of an antiwar folk song. But the most striking guest is Jimmy Page, whose processed sound distracts from the horror on three tracks.
There just might be a good album buried under Right By You, which actually marked his return to Atlantic Records. In the absence of a reunited, rejuvenated CSN, maybe they figured it was an easy tax write-off.

Stephen Stills Right By You (1984)—

Friday, April 21, 2017

Elton John 4: Friends

Being the good professional songwriters they’d longed to be, Elton John and Bernie Taupin took seriously the task of composing the soundtrack to a film. If the film in question was a hit, they’d get noticed, and if it failed, at least they got paid. Friends was not a box-office smash, nor did it get kind reviews. The accompanying soundtrack album did manage to chart, however, most likely because Elton already had two hit albums in the U.S., and his star was rising.
We haven’t seen the film, and don’t plan to, but having read a few synopses online we can imagine that the music supports the apparent Romeo & Juliet Meets The Blue Lagoon In Rural France plot just fine. In the context of innocent young love the grownups don’t understand, Elton’s pretty melodies and Bernie’s sweet sentiments do have a universal appeal outside a movie theater, nudged along by Paul Buckmaster arrangements. The title track was even a minor hit single, being a simple celebration of emotion under two and half minutes. “Michelle’s Song” is of a similar sentiment and approach, and a better choice for a wedding song. The very pretty “Seasons” appears twice, first at the tail of a piece dominated by oboe, and again at the close as a reprise.
Roughly half of the album is devoted to orchestral music, mostly “variations” on themes used in the songs, with one piece used under a “poetic recitation” and an 11-minute plod seemingly culled from four separate cues. Luckily, Elton had some snappier numbers on hand, likely composed independent of the project at hand. “Honey Roll” is very much along the lines of the cowboy boogie of Tumbleweed Connection, and might even be an early draft of some of those songs. “Can I Put You On” is another midtempo rocker that even made it into his live set.
Originally released on a budget label, Friends got lost in the crowd of the other albums he’d put out in such a short period of time, and usually got noticed only after the fact in bargain bins. To date its only digital appearance has been via the 1992 Rare Masters collection, and a good place for it. Even the non-vocal (and non-Elton) tracks are included, although the original sequence has been slightly shuffled, disturbing the balance somewhat. But at least the music hasn’t been lost for good.

Elton John Original Soundtrack Recording From The Paramount Picture “Friends” (1971)—3
Current CD equivalent: Rare Masters

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Morphine 5: The Night

At the risk of sounding crass, the prize for most “rock ‘n roll” death goes to a man who actually died onstage. Morphine was playing a show in Italy, when Mark Sandman collapsed from cardiac arrest mid-song and never recovered. Besides putting an end to his band, it colored the reception of what would be their already-completed album.
At a whopping 50 minutes, The Night is the longest album in their catalog. While based, as ever, around that voices and those saxes, new (for them) instruments are heard throughout the album, more than before. Three songs even have female backup singers.
Lilah, namechecked on Like Swimming, appears to be the muse on the title track, which mixes Sandman’s own piano and Jane Scarpantoni’s cello for a rainy lament. A Tom Waits-style rumba with organ underpins the riveting “So Many Ways”, and piano takes over for “Souvenir”, with less tension and more familiar sounds. They get positively funky (again, for them) on “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer”, the organ provided by John Medeski. Lilah is pushed aside for one Martha Lee on “Like A Mirror”, which has a great couplet buried under a robotic beat. “A Good Woman Is Hard To Find” fades in, almost as if it were caught mid-performance, and is another contender for a mainstream hit.
“Rope On Fire” has a distinct Mideastern feel, with flavored strings and percussion; it could almost pass for adult contemporary world music, and that’s meant in a good way. The only percussion heard on “I’m Yours, You’re Mine” is a high-hat, unless there’s another beat buried in there somewhere, giving the song a ticking tension that threatens to explode with the organ and synth but doesn’t. Drums are all we hear on “The Way We Met”, which deserves a better backing. “Slow Numbers” is clever, recalling the mood, music and feel of the Rykodisc albums. The effect of somber Celtic fiddles dominates “Take Me With You”, which repeats the title enough to sound like an epitaph. The backing vocals sound tacked on, and that’s a shame.
It’s a bigger shame that The Night is the last Morphine album, and it’s not the first time a band’s promise was cut short. Not all of the tracks sound finished, begging the moot question: Was the released product his vision preserved, or an interpretation thereof?

Morphine The Night (2000)—3

Friday, April 14, 2017

Faces 2: Long Player

The next Faces album sported minimal cover art, a throwback to the days when records came in plain sleeves with only the label showing for identification. Interestingly, it wasn’t identical all over the globe; the British version even had “stitches” keeping the cardboard together. This is a good metaphor for the grab-bag nature of the tunes within Long Player.
“Bad ‘N Ruin” opens with a decent riff, barely bothering to change chords. Ron Wood solos constantly, as he was wont to do. “Tell Everyone” and “Sweet Lady Mary” are slower, sensitive tunes sung by Rod Stewart, but not as slow as the bottleneck-heavy “Richmond”, sung by Ronnie Lane. Then we’re transformed to the Fillmore East for a decent live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, less than a year after anyone heard Paul McCartney’s original recording. Ronnie takes the first verse, then Rod takes over, even starting to sing the song again after the band’s stopped. (A studio take was issued around the same time as a single.)
It’s back to the barrelhouse for “Had Me A Real Good Time”, eventually bringing in horns after the fake ending. “On The Beach” has all the audio quality of a rehearsal, but still sounds very together. It’s back to the Fillmore for a lengthy skip through Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good”, complete with call-and-response from the crowd. Woody’s dobro rendition of the hymn “Jerusalem” closes the album, and provides something of a bridge to the next Rod Stewart solo album.
Long Player is good, and fun. Sounds like it, anyway. By not evenly laying out the slow tunes, the raveups, the acoustic ones and the boogies, it never gets stuck in a rut. We could use a little more Ronnie Lane and less Ronnie Wood, but that’s us.

Faces Long Player (1971)—3

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Van Morrison 32: Skiffle Sessions and You Win Again

Just as his previous label was willing to indulge him, so did Van Morrison’s current corporate home. Having moved more than a few copies of his last album, they went ahead and approved the release of two side projects within the same year.
Most kids in the post-war UK found their way to rock ‘n roll via skiffle, an offshoot of what used to be called “trad jazz” and best popularized by Lonnie Donegan, who played with Chris Barber’s band. Both men get equal billing (below Van) on The Skiffle Sessions, culled from two concerts in Belfast. Lonnie does most of the singing, as he should, and his voice hasn’t deteriorated at all over the years. It’s an enjoyable overview of the folk and blues traditionals that made up standard skiffle repertoires, complete with washboard, and would be just as enjoyable without Van, whose gruff vocals certainly stick out. Still, this album likely sent some checks to the other fellows, and having Dr. John on a few tracks probably helped too.

A much different, slightly more focused collaboration came in the form of a duet album with Linda Gail Lewis, otherwise known as Jerry Lee’s sister. You Win Again collects even more country and blues covers, mostly from Hank Williams and his disciples. For those of us who’d never heard of her before, and we’d be surprised if anyone had, Linda Gail has a fine voice, and when combined with Van, conveys a lot of fun. A couple of tracks seem to hint at the piano-pounding style of her brother, but otherwise it’s very similar to Van’s retro style, but with more twang. It does include one original, the goofy and strangely appealing “No Way Pedro”.
Both albums are certainly worth the plastic on which they’re printed, but are hardly essential. He’d already spent most of his career paying tribute to his influences and idols, so if anything, The Skiffle Sessions and You Win Again provide proof that he could still enjoy his “job”, onstage and off.

Van Morrison, Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber The Skiffle Sessions—Live In Belfast (2000)—3
Van Morrison & Linda Gail Lewis
You Win Again (2000)—3