Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Mick Jagger 2: Primitive Cool

While there are those who defend Dirty Work, the last Stones album before their lengthiest hiatus to date, Mick Jagger’s own opinion spoke volumes when he passed on touring to promote it to work on his next, contract-stipulated solo album instead. Primitive Cool appeared in that strange, Stones-less era, and made little commercial or artistic impact.
This time one of the name producers was David A. Stewart of Eurythmics, who was always better in small doses than taking over an entire album (witness Tom Petty’s Southern Accents, Daryl Hall’s 1986 solo album, and the resounding thud of Bob Geldof’s first album after Live Aid). A laundry list of session people fills the credits, including two future members of Living Colour. In a smart move, Jeff Beck handled a lot of the lead guitar, which helps with overall unity. (Mick toured the album down under and in Japan, with up-and-coming guitarist Joe Satriani on board.)
Musically, it’s a step up from She’s The Boss, with more emphasis on guitars and lyrics than funk and grooves. Despite a few slick touches, “Throwaway” is a catchy single, much more than the ill-advised “Let’s Work”. Maybe we can blame Dave Stewart for this one, but Mick should have known better, at a time when the yuppie-greed-is-good ethic was starting to fade. Likewise, he should have recognized that the main riff of “Radio Control” is very similar to Free’s “All Right Now”. “Say You Will” isn’t that complicated (Dave Stewart again) but is still very catchy. The title track comes off much more dramatic than it needs to be, partially due to the arrangement, but it does approach the concept of an aging Mick explaining himself to his much-younger children, some of whom today are old enough to be the parents of his most recent offspring.
Side two is dominated by three songs. Considering how the album was ignored at the time, it’s striking to listen now and discover that he may well have thrown the musical first punches at Keith, with songs like “Kow Tow”, “Shoot Off Your Mouth”, and “Party Doll” painting respectively hurt, nasty, and resigned portraits of a paramour who let him down (Paddy Moloney’s pipes and whistle providing a lovely counterpoint on the latter). In the middle is “Peace For The Wicked”, a baffling dance song with a rock mix that can’t decide what it’s about. The most ambitious track on the album—and again, while Mick’s financial acumen can be described as ambitious, we wouldn’t necessarily say that about his musical contributions—would be the lengthy last track. Beginning with now-dated synths and continuing with those pipes and whistle, “War Baby” would appear to be some kind of cry for world peace. The melody’s okay, but the sound effects kill any good it could do.
Despite its worst efforts, it’s a very listenable album. Yet while it wasn’t obvious that the Stones were virtually done, Primitive Cool didn’t do much to suggest Mick would be just fine on his own. He needed Keith to spur him on, much like Paul McCartney needed someone like John Lennon to keep him in check (and vice versa). And the fans wanted to hear the Stones.
And the cover art? Good Lord, but that’s just awful.

Mick Jagger Primitive Cool (1987)—3

Friday, September 15, 2017

Neil Young 57: Hitchhiker

Waiting for Neil to reveal his Archives to the extent long promised is an exhausting task for any fan, particularly those not especially wowed by his newer material. Based on direct quotes, we’ve come to expect a laundry list of unreleased album projects, and while a few live albums have made it to retail shelves, such titles as Homegrown, Chrome Dreams, and Toast remain locked up to date. And then he goes and puts out Hitchhiker, which the general public didn’t know anything about until he mentioned it in his second memoir.
The music was recorded over the course of a “stony” evening in 1976, shortly after he bailed on the Stills-Young Band tour. David Briggs rolled tape, and the session resulted in ten acoustic demos, all release-worthy. In fact, three of the recordings have been in the catalog for, well, decades; “Campaigner” came out on Decade with one less verse than the full take here, “Pocahontas” was overdubbed for Rust Never Sleeps, and “Captain Kennedy” made it out intact on Hawks & Doves. Five other songs appeared in alternate versions on later albums as well. Most people will zero in on “Powderfinger”, the oft-bootlegged acoustic version, just as mysterious as ever, but without the fire of Crazy Horse.
“Ride My Llama” comes off as fragmented, petering out before he decided how to finish it. The title track, which wouldn’t make it to an album for 34 years, comes off less a cautionary tale than an acknowledgement of the medicine he enjoyed. Another stab at “Human Highway” will fuel debate over the “definitive” version of the song, with or without CSN. “The Old Country Waltz” is played on piano, and very well too, showing off its complexities and delivered with a much more honest approach than the hokey take on American Stars ‘N Bars.
Two otherwise unreleased songs make their first appearances. “Hawaii” is a strange portrait of an archetypical Neil loner; it’s fairly complete, which only makes it more odd that he seemingly hasn’t played it since, even onstage. “Give Me Strength” is a gorgeous slice of heartbreak that he supposedly sat on because it was just too personal. This particular take has a couple of guitar mistakes and other noises, which would not have passed muster in 1976.
At a brisk 33 minutes, Hitchhiker is another tease of an ongoing project of unfathomable depth. According to the logo on the packaging, this is the fifth in a series of “special releases”, which means there are four other such albums in the pipeline that predate this little surprise. The mind reels at the possibilities; if only they were probabilities. The only constant thing about Neil is that he constantly changes his mind.

Neil Young Hitchhiker (2017)—

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Robbie Robertson 3: Music For The Native Americans

While he never overtly covered it in the songs he wrote, Robbie Robertson’s family legacy includes ancestry of Mohawk origin. Having already made a name for himself as a musical curator for films, he was a wise choice to perform that task for a television documentary called The Native Americans. On the accompanying soundtrack album, he surrounded himself with other colleagues of First Founders heritage—including Rita Coolidge and Douglas Spotted Eagle, to name two of higher-profile musicians—to make up a collective dubbed the Red Road Ensemble.
The music is best when instrumental, using modern programming techniques and textures to mix with authentic instruments. Vocals sung in other languages and dialects become part of the aural picture when picked up by ears that only understand English. In fact, Robbie’s own vocal selections, while good, bring it back to being a solo album, but not at a sacrifice of the overall mood.
Being even less typical a release than his previous solo albums, Music For The Native Americans wasn’t a massive hit, and even the documentary itself doesn’t exactly appear to be a momentous viewing event (which is too bad, because it sounds fascinating). The album itself is tough to find today outside of used bins, but is available for streaming and download, and worth a listen.

Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble Music For The Native Americans (1994)—3

Friday, September 8, 2017

Prince 5: 1999

Michael Jackson was years from anointing himself the King of Pop, but for those of us who liked rock ‘n roll (and couldn’t dance anyway), Prince’s wielding of a Telecaster more than made up for any hesitation of men wearing eyeliner and mascara. 1999 had been out for a while before MTV started showing the videos for the title track and “Little Red Corvette”, and soon enough he was inescapable. Even WNEW-FM (where rock lives, or at least did in 1983) started playing the songs. He had transcended genre, and that didn’t happen all that often anymore, if at all.
Simple (and similar) as those videos were by any production standards, they sold the image. The band, not yet known as the Revolution, set up on multiple levels of an elaborate stage. Two women gyrated over each other and one keyboard, while a guy in scrubs and shades played another. The lead guitarist (or so we thought) had a samurai-styled headband, and Prince actually slid down a firepole to make his entrance on “1999”.
Of course, once you bought the album, it was more clear: Prince played and sang everything on the album, except for the shared vocals on the title track and some elsewhere, and the lead on “Little Red Corvette”. Those two tracks still sound great today, and the extended album versions add and highlight more of the music. Followed by the infectiously goofy “Delirious”, that’s a perfect album side right there.
Side two is split between two long dance pieces, both heavy on beats and simple keyboard or guitar counterpoints. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is suggestive on its own before he explicitly tells “Marsha” what he’d like to do, while “D.M.S.R.” is more P-Funk-inspired. “Automatic”, which opens side three, is even longer, finally ending after some sad wailing from the ladies under a guitar solo. “Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)” is a weird homage of sorts to New Romantic synth-pop, but “Free”, prefaced by canned waves and marching footsteps, is a hidden gem of a ballad, an anthem even, that predicts a couple of future epics.
Then there’s “Lady Cab Driver”, which can’t decide if it wants to be a political tirade or a psychotic, vengeful sexual assault, and “All The Critics Love U In New York”; both are artfully minimalist tracks stretched way too long. Finally, “International Lover” is another slow piano ballad showcasing his vocal range, deviating into a pillow-talk session a la “Do Me, Baby” only transferred to the mile-high club; he even thanks us for choosing his airline. Well, at least he had a sense of humor.
It may be blasphemy not to give this four stars or higher, but 1999 really is padded to excess. That’s fine if you wanna dance, of course, but a listen to the various edits that came out on singles proves that it could have been a tight yet solid single LP. Part of the indulgence from his record label allowed him to release 70 minutes of music across a two-record set. It helps when the records sell, but at this rate, you’d think they’d let him break into films, for crying out loud.

Prince 1999 (1982)—

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mark Knopfler 8: Get Lucky

Don’t be fooled by the garish casino motif throughout the artwork on Get Lucky. This Mark Knopfler album rarely approaches anything reminiscent of Vegas, and coming five years after the slot machine on the cover of an earlier album, we wonder if he’s hiding a gambling addiction. Rather, a sizable portion of the album relies on dreamy Celtic- and highland-inspired backdrops, while the rest is just as low-key and midtempo. In fact, the one sore thumb here is “You Can’t Beat The House”, with its bluesy shuffle and gang backing vocals, and “Cleaning My Gun” is the closest thing to a typical post-Dire Straits rocker.
His notes for the album describe many of the influences behind the songs, and it should be no surprise than many of them describe lives lived in earlier decades than this one. “Before Gas And TV” is about as far back as he goes; industry and automotive innovation are still pet themes. That means the lovely waltz “Monteleone” is an ode to a favorite guitar builder. “Hard Shoulder” is just as exquisite, and seemingly sung from the point of view of a roadside mechanic. Even “Remembrance Day” avoids being over-mawkish, despite the presence of a makeshift children’s choir. As it turns out, thanks to the title track we know that “Get Lucky” is merely a metaphor for life in general.
The album is kept down to a digestible length, which helps. But typical of too many albums released by veterans these days, Get Lucky was made available in a variety of “editions”, some with a DVD, one with engraved poker chips and dice (yes, really), and some with extra tracks, exclusive to various retailers, and not exactly hidden treasure.

Mark Knopfler Get Lucky (2009)—3

Friday, September 1, 2017

Elton John 5: 11-17-70

Once upon a time, the promotion rounds for young struggling performers would include live broadcasts on FM radio, whether appearing in the studio next to the DJ, or simulcast from an actual concert. These performances would often lead to widely spread bootlegs, and sometimes became the basis for an official album, thus sending the cash toward the label, or at least in theory.
Elton John was then touring as part of an economical trio, with Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums, and their simple power can be beheld on 11-17-70 (which was the title in America, anyway; other countries swapped the first two numbers depending on how they displayed dates there). The album presents Elton as not yet a superstar; none of the “hits” are here, save a few album tracks that some of the cooler stations had already discovered.
After “Take Me To The Pilot” seemingly opens the show, the crowd chuckles at the a cappella chorus of “Honky Tonk Women” that kicks off that cover. “Sixty Years On” is plenty somber without the strings from the album version, Nigel’s drums covering the tension well. “Can I Put You On” is rescued from the Friends soundtrack, just as “Bad Side Of The Moon” becomes more than a B-side. However, here it’s a setup for an 18-minute medley that begins with “Burn Down The Mission” and manages to find its way through “My Baby Left Me” and “Get Back”.
11-17-70 may not have been planned in a release schedule that was already filling up, but it remains an excellent sample of a time when Elton really did a lot with a little. We maintain that if not for this album, there would be no Ben Folds Five. (The eventual remaster rejigged the order slightly and added a stellar version of “Amoreena”, while more complete recording of the show appeared as a Record Store Day exclusive on vinyl only. 17-11-70+ put the original running order on one LP, with the other songs from the show on another, including a version of “Indian Sunset” from his yet-to-be-recorded next album.)

Elton John 11-17-70 (1971)—4
1995 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 1 extra track
2017 17-11-70+ (vinyl only): same as 1995, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Jon Kanis 2: Fundamentalism Is The Only Way

San Diego-based artist Jon Kanis has kept mighty busy since 2014’s double-whammy of his written anthology Encyclopedia Walking and All-American Mongrel Boy compilation CD. In between keeping up with Everybody’s Dummy (for which we’re extremely grateful), he’s completed yet another album.
Fundamentalism Is The Only Way is a very much a trip, music of multiple genres that demands your attention and a dizzying array of lyrics, loaded with wordplay and significance. Kanis designed the album like a record used to be, with seven tracks a side. Even more so, some vintage synthesizers—and equally vintage-sounding airchecks featuring D.C.-area DJ Cerphe Colwell—plunk the listener back amidst a bygone era. That’s not to suggest the music itself is throwback; for example, “I Love You More Than Words Could Ever Say” may have shades of classic power pop, and the T.Rex stomp of “Empire” is infectious, but the sound is all now.
A pair of instrumentals bookends the set, each starting similarly but both going to lovely places on their own. We particularly like the electric violin that pops up on occasion. Three songs previewed on All-American Mongrel Boy appear here, and fit well into the context of the album’s worldview. Lest you think he thinks too much, “Devil In My Head” is one tight mini-opera at 2:48, and a particular effective setup for the lovely “Make A Wish”.
We mentioned that Fundamentalism Is The Only Way demands the listener’s attention, and that probably is the best way to experience it, liner notes in hand to keep up with the words as fast as he can deliver him, and to marvel at the number of instruments listed for each track, along with details about when each song was written, right down to the minute of conception. Others call it minutiae; we see it as proof that there’s a kindred spirit only a few time zones away.

Jon Kanis Fundamentalism Is The Only Way (2016)—

Friday, August 25, 2017

Humble Pie 4: Rock On

Rock On is a fitting title for the fourth Humble Pie album. At this point they’d traveled away from the light-and-shade juxtapositions of the first album, and concentrated on heavier-sounding tunes. That meant a little less Peter Frampton, but he’s still there.
Some kind of law decreed that every band needed a song called “Shine On” in their repertoire, and Frampton delivers here. Shaky Jake returns for a cameo on “Sour Grain”, a pretty ballsy tune that slows down profound near the end, and effect that’s immediately dispelled by the barroom boogie of “79th And Sunset”; per usual Steve Marriott gets in some good rhymes. The first great riff of the album arrives on “Stone Cold Fever”, everybody contributing to the overall feel, and then some, since Marriott couldn’t blow hard and play guitar like that at the same time. It’s an immediate segue to their ultra-slow take on Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone”, which only encourages tastier fretwork and an inspired (comparative) rave-up.
That only makes “A Song For Jenny” seem even more tender, but the band soon kicks in along with the so-called Soul Sisters (the eternal voices of P.P. Arnold, Doris Troy, and Claudia Lennear). “The Light” isn’t one of Frampton’s better tunes, but he was still ahead of the game. Besides, Greg Ridley’s “Big George” is so dopey it’s fun, and that would indeed be Bobby Keys on sax. The jazzy piano lead-in to “Strange Days” again recalls Traffic of the same era, even with the delay effect of the vocals. A drawn-out ending seems to lead directly to another tune, this time the ‘50s-inspired “Red Neck Jump”, complete with “shoo-waddy” backups.
Developments in due time would lead to this album being just slightly overshadowed, and we’ll get to that. Rock On is good fun, even if it takes a while to get there. Again.

Humble Pie Rock On (1971)—3

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Smithereens 7: Beatles and Tommy

The new century would keep the Smithereens occasionally busy touring, but without a record deal there seemed to be no point in recording new albums of original material. Meanwhile, Pat DiNizio tried running for public office, then contracted some kind of medical condition that required treatment via Prednisone, sending his body weight well over 300 pounds. He also started his own website, on which he occasionally posted in all caps and booked his “living room concerts”, open to anyone willing to pony up the dough. He also hawked homemade compilations of Smithereens demos and live versions, and recorded This Is Pat DiNizio. Distributed in a confusing array of multiple-disc configurations, it presented him singing pop hits from the rock era, accompanied by acoustic guitar or piano.
Already a capable replicator of power pop classics, it wasn’t big a jump for him to convene his old band for Meet The Smithereens!, a song-for-song duplication of the first Beatle LP on Capitol Records. The band sounds great, and they’ve obviously lived every one of these songs, but by staying so close to the blueprints—their excuse being that serious musicians wouldn’t take liberties with Beethoven or Mozart—they don’t really add anything to the experience, unless you thought the voices of the Fab Four pale in comparison to that of Pat DiNizio.

Beatlemaniacs will buy anything, seemingly, so that 27-minute album was followed a year later by another of the same length. B-Sides The Beatles offered a slightly more imaginative track selection, leaning more on the band’s less obvious early album tracks (and yes, B-sides). This time, however, guitarist Jim Babjak is allowed to sing lead on two tracks, and drummer Dennis Diken gets his own spotlight. Next to the commissioned Jack Davis cover art, the campiest touch is having Jersey transplant Andy White play drums on “P.S. I Love You”, just as he displaced Ringo on the original recording. What ultimately gives this volume a slight edge over its predecessor is the choices of the rare instrumental “Cry For A Shadow” and the closing “Some Other Guy”. (More recently the band has issued yet another Beatle tribute, wherein they commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fabs’ Washington Coliseum concert with another re-recorded note-for-note set, complete with overdubbed screams. We’ll pass.)

Perhaps just to prove they were capable of something a little heavier (and headier), their next tribute presented an abridged selection of songs from the Who’s original Tommy album. The focus here isn’t so much on the story but the songs that rock harder, skipping things like “Underture”, “1921”, “Cousin Kevin”, and any reference to a perverted uncle. Well played, certainly, but while we get some variety with five of the songs sung by band members who aren’t Pat, none of the vocalists approach Roger Daltrey’s power or Pete Townshend’s vulnerability. Still, it’s a less obvious choice for a remake album, and the arrangements are closer to the Who’s eventual stage versions. The cover gimmick this time is using legendary bootleg artist William Stout, and most amazingly, the program tops 40 minutes.

The Smithereens Meet The Smithereens! (2007)—2
The Smithereens B-Sides The Beatles (2008)—
The Smithereens The Smithereens Play “Tommy”! (2009)—3

Friday, August 18, 2017

Rod Stewart 3: Every Picture Tells A Story

Every now and then we come across an album that’s been ancient history almost as long as we can remember, the more popular songs being fixtures on the radio before Classic Rock was an actual programmed genre. Its ubiquity prevents us from connecting with it. Then one day, almost without warning, like being slapped across the face with a raw trout, we say, “Ah, now I get it.”
We didn’t ask to be born when we were, nor are we responsible for Rod Stewart becoming increasingly silly over the course of the ‘70s. For some time we wrote off “Maggie May” as simply a too-long song that stole a title and nothing else from a copyrighted snippet on Let It Be. Therefore we can’t say exactly when we realized what a fine album Every Picture Tells A Story is, but it was likely after his MTV Unplugged appearance and album that tried to suggest that he invented that particular trend. (He didn’t.)
Yet the title track absolutely rocks, driven by a determined 12-string acoustic (Ron Wood, of course) and positively pounding drums from good old Micky Waller. Woody adds a few electric leads, but it still takes a long time for the title to be sung, by which time we’ve already been seduced by the occasional harmonies from Miss Maggie Bell. It’s a great start to a solid album side, the rest of which is devoted to covers. “Seems Like A Long Time” was first heard on the same Brewer & Shipley album that gave us “One Toke Over The Line”; it fits him better than them, but sounds very close to Van Morrison’s “Brand New Day” from the same year. A furious dobro kicks off “That’s All Right”, the Elvis song everybody knows, shoehorned for some reason into an Appalachian arrangement of “Amazing Grace”. And despite the similar title two cuts before, “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” is yet another relatively obscure Dylan tune done very nicely.
Before we get to “Maggie May” proper, there’s a brief classical guitar piece called “Henry” that occasionally gets indexed separately depending on which version of the album you have. Frankly, the best part of the song is the trilling mandolins, which get their own moment to shine before sending the song out to the fade, in the days when a five-minute hit single was still a rarity. It’s a good transition to the next track. “Mandolin Wind” doesn’t feature the instrument as prominently until about halfway through, but yet again a track explodes with drums to inspire severe foot-stomping. While not credited as such, “(I Know) I’m Losing You” is a full-fledged Faces performance, and a killer rendition of the Temptations song. (That would be Ronnie Lane helping with the low parts, and Kenney Jones never sounded this good in The Who.) And while he wasn’t the first guy to cover Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe”, it’s likely Rod’s is the version everybody knows, and it’s affecting to hear this stud sing about his broken heart.
What is so fascinating about this album is, again, that most of the electric touches, whether guitar or organ, seem to be afterthoughts once the acoustic backing tracks were laid down. We’ve been tough on the guy, but Ron Wood deserves dual credit for everything he contributes to this album. Outside of the multitude of guitars, he also plays most of the bass, mixed unobtrusively. But Every Picture Tells A Story depicts just one man and name on the cover, and he set a bar that, frankly, he’d never hit again.

Rod Stewart Every Picture Tells A Story (1971)—4

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Talking Heads 2: More Songs About Buildings And Food

For their second album, Talking Heads began a collaboration with Brian Eno that would dominate the next few years. For now, the change wasn’t a great departure, and they chose to underplay it with the mildly generic title More Songs About Buildings And Food.
For the most part, David Byrne still yowls like somebody with a severe neurological disorder. On “With Our Love”, whatever’s bothering him threatens to come to a head, but the change in dynamics of the chorus calms him down. Even if we’re not sure why “The Girls Want To Be With The Girls”, at least his guitar and Jerry Harrison’s organ blend well for a full sound.
After a while, Eno’s influence comes through: the clattering percussion on “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel”; the gang chorus on “The Good Thing”, credited to Tina and the Typing Pool; the processed drums on “Warning Sign”, the synths that take over “Stay Hungry”. Steel drums heard over the long fade of “Found A Job” seem to be the only connection to recording in the Bahamas.
Overall, it’s a danceable album, thanks to the rhythm section, starting at a boppy tempo and staying there for all of side one and most of side two. Unfortunately, that means a lot of the songs sound alike. The dramatic stops and starts in “I’m Not In Love” (not the 10cc song) are approximately where the albums starts to get out of its own way, made even more so with the relentless groove in between.
The final two tracks finally provide something different. The band’s slight deconstruction of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” sounds very different from the rest of the album, almost as if they’re trying to impersonate another band. “The Big Country” has a sleepy slide guitar suggesting country music, with a more relaxed vocal and pointed lyrics (“I wouldn’t live there if you paid me”) that would soon become another trademark.
More Songs About Buildings And Food finds Talking Heads still developing. Then again, it was an era when the record labels let their artists figure it out as they went along. The expanded CD helps illustrate this, with a version of “Stay Hungry” left off the first album, and alternate versions of three other songs.

Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978)—3
2005 CD reissue: same as 1978, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, August 11, 2017

Suzanne Vega 10: Lover, Beloved

Because we tend to think of popular music as being separate from that designed for the dramatic stage, it’s always a little shocking when we hear of an artist we know from the radio writing a Broadway musical. Unfortunately, ever since Green Day took over the Great White Way, anyone thinks they can do it now.
Suzanne Vega was always more literate than most of her contemporaries, so a one-woman show about author Carson McCullers isn’t too big of a stretch for her writing. Five years after the play debuted, she collected some of the songs she wrote for it on Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers. Her main collaborator here is Duncan Sheik, who took his particular brand of sensitive pop to great success in this century with big-time musicals like Spring Awakening. Gratefully, there are no show-stopping diva moments on Lover, Beloved, playing instead to Vega’s already established strengths.
That said, the setting dictates that the music be something of a departure. “Carson’s Blues” is a jazzy number with accordion, trombone, and shades of Annie Ross. “New York Is My Destination” has a wonderful piano and clarinet arrangement, but dips every time she ends a verse with an affected “just like me!” (Lou Reed made a career of speaking during his songs; she shouldn’t.) “Instant Of The Hour After” would be familiar to those who picked up one of her Close-Up albums, and its drama is quite welcome here. Strikingly, it’s the most commercial-sounding tune that has the most eyebrow-raising lyrics, as “We Of Me” seems to suggest a romantic or familial triad, while the obsession inherent in “Annemarie” only makes that song that much more powerful.
The prominent banjo on “12 Mortal Men” reminds of recent Tom Waits, fitting for a lyric partially about a chain gang. A timely track considering that Go Set A Watchman had been unleashed only a year before, “Harper Lee” finds the author complaining about her more renowned contemporaries over the vaudeville stagger borrowed from the first track. The title track is another “standard” song, with a pretty melody and gentle nudging, that provides welcome space between the more elaborate settings. To wit: “The Ballad Of Miss Amelia” is something of a mis-fire, distilling one of McCullers’ novellas into a mostly-spoken showpiece complete with a saloon environment. “Carson’s Last Supper” gets back to better surroundings in something of a benediction.
While a little knowledge about the subject’s life and works will certainly illuminate some of the titles and lyrics, Lover, Beloved must stand on its own outside the context of a libretto, and luckily, it does. It’s best appreciated as an album, not shackled to the fate, good or bad, of what sells theater tickets.

Suzanne Vega Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers (2016)—3

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Morrissey 3: Kill Uncle

Moz soldiered on, determined to stay in business as a frontman. Kill Uncle, his third full-length release but only his second solo album, finds him in limbo somewhat, torn between the guitar sound that brought him fame and a distinct pop personality that didn’t keep people asking when the Smiths were getting back together. The producers were Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, best known for their pop work ages previously in the decade before with Madness, Dexys Midnight Runners and Elvis Costello, but who’d recently worked on They Might Be Giants’ Flood. That’s one reason why the sound is all over the place. His main musical foil (Morrissey being all about his lyrics) was Mark E. Nevin, previously of the shortlived Fairground Attraction.
Two of the better tracks, both singles, appear near the top of the album. “Our Frank” has welcome guitars and complementary piano, while the sneaky but catchy “Sing Your Life” has a background chorus of multiple Morrisseys and strings even. In between, however, is the mournful “Asian Rut”, which decries racial violence over a string bass, violin, and organ backing. “Mute Witness” is driven by a canned piano right out of the Go-Go’s we can assume comes from co-writer Clive Langer, so it’s surprising when he starts to croon. The silly pop continues on “King Leer”, its title only the first of its wincing puns. (Yet there are those who say the only good puns are bad ones, so it’s up to the listener to decide if the song succeeds.)
Also co-written with Clive Langer, “Found Found Found” celebrates a promising new relationship over an ominous heavy guitar arrangement, which contrasts with “Driving Your Girlfriend Home”, a cinematic little track that recalls some of the more moving Smiths moments. “The Harsh Truth Of The Camera Eye” is a trying song, partially because the whiny (even for him) lyrics about the pitfalls of public scrutiny, partially because of the length, and mostly because of the camera-clicking sound effects and zoo noises. A more familiar, and welcome sound and lament returns for “(I’m) The End Of The Family Line”, a matter-of-fact statement of the consequences of being so unlovable. It’s even got a trick ending. But the true farewell is “There’s A Place In Hell For Me And My Friends”, sung quietly over a mournful piano, with some military snares near the end. (In America, where they couldn’t leave things alone, a fine B-side called “Tony The Pony” has the right sound but completely upsets the mood.)
Critics and the public alike were down on Kill Uncle upon release, but it’s hardly terrible. True to form, the remastered version you can pick up today not only has different cover art and a shuffled track order, but two negligible B-sides are inserted between the original short album sides. More strikingly, “There’s A Place In Hell” no longer ends the album, and has been replaced by a rock version. Oh, and no “Tony The Pony” either.

Morrissey Kill Uncle (1991)—3
2013 Expanded Version: “same” as 1991, plus 3 extra tracks (and minus 2)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Kinks 9: Something Else

While released overseas on the closing cusp of the Summer of Love, the Kinks’ next album didn’t make it out in America until the first month of 1968. Something Else By The Kinks is a terribly understated title for the band’s best work to date. In addition to even more excellent Ray Davies tunes, we can hear the emergence of Dave Davies as a songwriter, as it includes songs that had recently released as solo singles. But because Something Else is another one of those finely sequenced albums, we’ll tackle them in this context.
While seemingly every other British band spent part of the era dabbling in psychedelia, the Kinks were decidedly set on simpler passions. “David Watts” might as well be a leftover from the mod era, describing a boy who, unlike the narrator, dresses right, looks right, and “is so gay and fancy-free”. Dave comes up strong with “Death Of A Clown”, a blatantly Dylanesque plaint, both in words and tone, but with ethereal “la-la-la” transitions that keep it from being too much of a ripoff. The balance between the brothers is explored with some maturity in “Two Sisters”, with a harpsichord framing the portrait of freewheeling single Sybilla and trapped housewife Priscilla. (Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending.) The quiet samba of “No Return” provides musical variety, particularly before the Cockney smoker’s lament of “Harry Rag”. “Tin Soldier Man” could be seen as a protest song, considering the era, but this particular figure gets to go home to his wife and kids and “keep his uniform tidy”. “Situation Vacant” returns to the theme of modern people trying to get by in the day’s economy, but this time blaming the breakdown of the marriage on the nagging mother-in-law. (The guitar solos provide evidence that Keith Richard heard the album a few times.)
Dave kicks off side two with the randy “Love Me Till The Sun Shines”, a decent, sneaky rocker. “Lazy Old Sun” seems to go out of its way to be off-pitch, with horn parts, a slide bass, and incessant maracas managing to sonically illustrate the more unbearable days of summer. But what makes Ray happiest, of course, is “Afternoon Tea”, particularly with the one he loves. Meanwhile, Dave misses his “Funny Face”, from whom he’s separated by windows, gates, and doctors. “End Of The Season” begins with sound effects right off of Face To Face (indeed, the song was left over from those sessions) before turning to something of a cabaret spoof. Closing the set, though hardly tacked on, is “Waterloo Sunset”, the previous summer’s hit single. Several critics have called it one of the loveliest songs of the 20th century, and while first impressions may not support it, it truly is one of those songs that sticks with you, with simple changes and a melancholy narrator watching two kids named Terry and Julie crossing over to what he imagines must be a better future.
Dave’s contributions notwithstanding, Something Else By The Kinks captures the band as they escaped from under producer Shel Talmy’s thumb to the apparent preference of Ray’s, who gets co-credit for producing. And while he’s only briefly mentioned by his first name on the back cover, the more intricate piano parts are played by good old Nicky Hopkins, who certainly deserves credit for why the tracks sound as good as they do. (Once again, expanded editions released overseas are worth digging up, as they include many contemporary singles and B-sides just as good as the A-sides that made it to the album. And then there’s the exquisite “Little Women”, which only got as far as a backing track with Mellotron overdubs.)

The Kinks Something Else By The Kinks (1968)—4

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Frank Zappa 32: Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch

Every now and then, and usually without trying, Frank Zappa would find his way to mainstream attention—wider than the Dr. Demento radio show, anyway—with a novelty song. That would lead to a placing on the Billboard singles chart, and the hilarious scenario of Casey Kasem setting it up on American Top 40.
That’s pretty much what happened with “Valley Girl”, in which Frank’s daughter Moon could be heard chattering in the style of her teenage classmates over a punk-metal groove, hearty chorus vocals, and a truly inspired bass line occasionally belying his ongoing fascination with “My Sharona”. Already the object of a trivia question (as in “what rock star named his daughter Moon Unit?”), thus began the young lady’s career as a commentator on pop culture. (It also inspired one of the better teen-oriented movies of the era, with a solid yet Zappa-free soundtrack, the first starring role for one Nicolas Cage, and the one-day voice of Chuckie from Rugrats topless. Yet we digress.)
The unsuspecting consumers who sprung for the album rather than the single would likely find the title Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch to be only funny thing on the record outside of “Valley Girl”. Granted, “No Not Now” begins with a typical riff of the era, somewhere between the Cars and the Tubes, but continues with shrill falsetto vocals countered by Frank’s own jaded commentary and asides about Donny & Marie, a Hawaii Five-O reference, and other inside jokes. It goes right into the hit single, which itself leads to the equally catchy “I Come From Nowhere”. Original Mothers bass player Roy Estrada sings this one, in an unrecognizable voice, and it gets a lot more interesting once the backing takes over, at top speed. It fades out, lending to the assumption that there’s a longer take somewhere.
Side two is culled from various live performances, sometimes edited within a single track. “Drowning Witch” would be the title track, wherein Frank creates a back story for the cover art, then lets loose for ten minutes of “impossible guitar parts”, most likely played by Steve Vai. It’s a seamless switch to “Envelopes”, a keyboard-heavy instrumental that seems to predict some of the orchestral work about to occur, except for the canned laughter that reappears from the previous track. Just to appease those looking for comedy, “Teen-age Prostitute” provides an alternative to the Valley Girl lifestyle, sung operatically by Lisa Popeil.
Somewhere there must be a study that can tell us whether Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch actually led a newcomer to a larger appreciation of Frank Zappa. At any rate, it’s an impeccably performed album, which makes up for any shortcomings in the lyrics.

Frank Zappa Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982)—3

Friday, July 28, 2017

Toad The Wet Sprocket 3: Fear

The label ponied up the cash for the third Toad album, and the investment paid off when Fear finally became an actual hit after several months of promotion and singles that didn’t stick. That is to say, the people that liked it loved it, and those that hated it couldn’t stand it.
The first thing we notice is that the soundscape is wider, bigger even. The band provides their own keyboards and mandolins, along with beefier guitars and louder drums, for an effect that’s more big stage than cramped living room. “Walk On The Ocean” eventually became a hit single when a remixed version gave it even more punch, but the song already had a singalong quality that evoked shared memories of some common experience. Even more vague, “Is It For Me” tells only part of the tale of poor Bradley and his broken leg. Weird as that is, “Butterflies” employs harmonies that sometimes recall Asia and a muffled spoken monologue that seems to predict a montage on the third Pearl Jam album. The weirdness ebbs briefly for “Nightingale Song”, just as impenetrable but still tame compared to what comes next. A truly frightening song when you pay close attention, “Hold Her Down” is based around a simple acoustic riff that the lead guitarist found even more fun to play on a Stratocaster, and words seem to describe just another gang rape at a frat house, the horror apparent in the delivery. It could only be followed by “Pray Your Gods”, a low-key mumble alternating with passionate choruses, closing on a repeated “dona nobis pacem”.
“Before You Were Born” spends a lot of time saying very little, reducing the chorus to a single note that still inspires fist-pumping in waltz-time. “Something To Say” is quieter, and more conducive to swaying, and belies the genre’s affection for the accordion. “In Your Ear” brings back the rock with some dynamics, but these days it’s best known as the song before “All I Want”, the song that made it all explode for them. It’s got everything that made a perfect alterna-hit in the early ‘90s: jangly electrics, chugging acoustics, catchy chorus, Hammond organ, a brief guitar solo sent through the Hammond’s Leslie speaker, ending on an unresolved chord. “Stories I Tell” returns to the claustrophobic sound of the first two albums, but breaking out for louder guitar noises. “I Will Not Take These Things For Granted” provides a sensitive oath to fade off into the sunset.
Chances are many folks bought Fear on cassette, but it’s unlikely many of them noticed how much both of the side-enders fit well with Sammy Hagar’s “Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy”. If they had, they needn’t have cared, since the album was produced so well and so full of earworms. Mashups hadn’t been invented yet anyway.

Toad The Wet Sprocket Fear (1991)—

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Joni Mitchell 16: Night Ride Home

Just as many of her contemporaries finally found their way out of the fog of the ‘80s, so did our Joni cap the decade, as well as her association with Geffen Records, with an album that we hesitate to call a return to form. Night Ride Home is almost entirely based around acoustic guitar, which is a good start. The tracks are filled out by the usual suspects—co-producer/then-husband Larry Klein on bass, Alex Acuña on percussion, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, even Wayne Shorter blowing sax on two tracks—but without the clatter and clutter that dogged her three previous albums.
That said, the title track uses crickets as a metronome, but they’re no match for the strong melody. A “Hejira”-like pattern drives “Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free)”, which somehow links the crucifixion of Christ with Exxon oil. Less obscure is “Cherokee Louise”, a haunting sketch of early adolescence where a happy ending seems impossible. It’s oddly juxtaposed with “The Windfall (Everything For Nothing)”, seemingly a tirade against a hired hand who felt financially shortchanged. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is very poetic, and rightfully so, being her musical re-setting of a Yeats piece.
While probably too long to be a hit single, “Come In From The Cold” is the most accessible track here, a slightly more wistful reminiscence of the same time period as “Cherokee Louise”, multiple Jonis forming a complex choir around the title. The music for “Nothing Can Be Done” is credited to Larry Klein, her lyrics seeming to be navigating the choppy waters of a relationship, with prominent vocal assistance from David Baerwald of David + David. “The Only Joy In Town” is a valentine to a “Botticelli black boy” she encountered in Rome, while “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac” goes back to her teenage years yet again; it’s the least successful of the trio, mostly because of how the title is repeated and repeated and repeated. What seals the album as truly worthwhile is the last track, where she plays piano for the first time in forever. “Two Grey Rooms” is a sad glimpse of unrequited love she swears isn’t autobiographical, and that’s why it resonates. Granted, there’s a rhythm section, and even strings, but those suspended chords bring joy to these ears.
Since we don’t offer ratings in quarter-point increments, we considered placing this album at a more conservative level, but when compared to her work of the previous ten years, it truly stands out. Although her devotion to cigarettes has ensured that she’ll never again sound like her first four albums, Night Ride Home is still a journey back to simplicity, and it’s about time.

Joni Mitchell Night Ride Home (1991)—

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)—