Friday, November 17, 2017

Paul Westerberg 1: 14 Songs

After the end of the Replacements, Paul Westerberg sobered up and laid low for a while. His first musical contributions appeared on the timely Singles soundtrack, wherein “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting For Somebody” (the latter of which had even more variations in the film itself) jockeyed for attention among all the hot Seattle grunge music that sold it.
Advance critical acclaim raised high hopes for his first actual solo album under his own name, and the label had such high regard for 14 Songs that, in a fad of the time, it was simultaneously released in a limited edition as a cloth-bound book with pictures and an interview. However, it wasn’t exactly a literary masterpiece, nor was it ultimately received as one. (Besides, Tommy Stinson had already carried the torch, and ably, on his own.)
“Dice Behind Your Shades” sums up the weakness of the album. It’s a good song, and highly catchy, with trademark wordplay, but it’s just one of several on the album that can’t stand out. If anything, it sounds like a reconstituted track from All Shook Down. At worst, it hides the splendor of a song like “Things”, which on the surface relies on the barest of finger variations, but—given time and space outside the context of the album—reveals itself as a profound personal statement about, well, the things that he does and which define him.
A softie at heart, songs like “Runaway Wind” and the home demos “Even Here We Are” and “Black Eyed Susan” try to convey his tender side, but overall it’s the rockers that succeed. “Knockin’ On Mine” goes a long way on one chord, while “World Class Fad” is just plain snotty, and we mean that in a good way. “Silver Naked Ladies” features Ian MacLagan on piano and the auteur himself on saxophone, and not badly either. “Something Is Me” has some good lines, but tries too hard.
We want to like this album, but we’d rather listen to what came before. However, a major plus for 14 Songs, and keeps it somewhat interesting, is that he plays all the electric guitar, providing all the fills, rhythm, and solos that sparkled on all those ‘Mats albums. At least that hadn’t changed.

Paul Westerberg 14 Songs (1993)—3

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bash & Pop: Friday Night Is Killing Me

After the Replacements stumbled to a close, it was surprising that of all the members, the first real solo project was from drummer Chris Mars. Horseshoes And Hand Grenades contained 14 songs, written and performed by Mars, with the exception of the bass and help from members of Soul Asylum on three tracks. The songs are catchy, guitar-based alterna-pop-rock, marred only by the sad fact that he can’t carry a tune in a bucket. It was easy to read pointed barbs at his former bandmates within the lyrics, and he’d go further with the title of his next, equally harmless album, 75% Less Fat. (More consistent was guitarist Slim Dunlap’s The Old New Me, putting him back in the Stonesy bar band mode he was made to play.)
Yet while the band’s auteur kept close to his vest, it was Tommy Stinson who made the most of the Mats’ legacy by picking up where they’d left off. He grabbed Steve Foley, the band’s last touring drummer, who conveniently had a brother who played bass. Tommy switched to guitar, recruited another six-stringer, and thus Bash & Pop was born.
Friday Night Is Killing Me shows just how much he learned following Paul Westerberg around for a decade. The songs fall into basic buckets; straightforward rock with clever lyrics (“Never Aim To Please”, “Tickled To Tears”, the title track, “Tiny Pieces”) and noisy stompers (“Hang Ups”, “Loose Ends”, “One More Time”, “Fast & Hard”, “He Means It”), all drawn up from Stones and Faces blueprints. Each side ends with a wistful acoustic strum (“Nothing”, “First Steps”) The overall sound is crisp and clean, following on from All Shook Down. And while Tommy doesn’t have the greatest voice either, he’s got charm and he’s having fun—something sorely lacking from the ‘Mats’ last days.
Two dozen years after the album came and went, it was reissued by the same label that had been busy curating the Big Star legacy. The obligatory bonus disc is loaded with demos and alternate versions, plus a few contemporary B-sides and strays, including “Making Me Sick” from the Clerks soundtrack. Perfect for the obsessives among us, but at the very least it gives the album another chance at exposure.

Bash & Pop Friday Night Is Killing Me (1993)—
2017 CD reissue: same as 1993, plus 18 extra tracks

Friday, November 10, 2017

Who 26: Maximum As & Bs

Part of the music industry’s money-making strategy for the second decade of the 21st century was to reprint anything and everything on limited-edition vinyl in multiple colors and at exorbitant prices, while still not allowing returns from retailers. Every now and then they’d get clever, but a lot of the time the attention to reproductive detail resulted in products that were nice to look at, but not necessarily convenient to listen to, particularly in the modern era of immediate digital access.
The business team behind the The Who are clearly no dopes when it comes to recycling, and one of their recent, more clever projects involved four chronological box sets offering replicas of the band’s original 45s, with accurate labels and picture sleeves where applicable. The audio has since been compiled and issued in a five-CD set called Maximum As & Bs. While we extend kudos for the correct non-use of apostrophes, and it’s great to finally have some of their so-called lost tracks handy again, it would have fit on four CDs, and not a few tracks appear for the umpteenth time.
Three short years ago, the Who Hits 50 set included most of these A-sides, yet this box does tell the story fairly well. Beginning with the first High Numbers record, it goes through the band’s singles in order. Since half of the debut album was milked for the charts, those tracks nicely frame both versions of “Circles”, even including the then-unreleased “Instant Party Mixture” as well as “Waltz For A Pig”, the Graham Bond Organisation track credited to “The Who Orchestra” for legal reasons. Repetitions are few, so “Circles” doesn’t appear again as part of the Ready Steady Who EP, also included in context.
The milking continues in the Tommy era, so a few of those album tracks appear in jarring edits, and again in re-recordings for the movie soundtrack. But even for a band who learned early on that the album format was their strength, some of their lesser-known gems finally resurface (read: everything from 1970 through 1973). Then we hear the band’s overall output quality diminish alongside its quantity, with fewer rarities. Album cuts were used for B-sides, and outside of “Bony Moronie” from 1971, the live tracks included here come from the 1982 and 1989 Keith-less tours. Then it’s a big leap to the two new songs from 2004, and the Wire & Glass EP from two years later. Finally, there’s “Be Lucky” from that last compilation, and yet another stereo remix of “I Can’t Explain” to complete the circle.
With 90 tracks lasting five hours, there’s certainly a lot of music here, and the plethora of distinct mixes on Maximum As & Bs makes quibbling over what wasn’t included exactly that. Plus, it beats having to get up and flip or replace the record every three minutes.

The Who Maximum As & Bs: The Complete Singles (2017)—

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Rush 11: Signals

Each new album increased their popularity, and inducted new Rush fans into the fold. But if there was any doubt that Rush were the patron saints of the high school parking lot, the first track on Signals—released in time for the fall semester—dispelled it.
As with the previous album, a synthesizer dominates, setting a standard for the band’s new next phase. It’s a catchy riff, with nice open suspensions and slight minor modifications, and then the lyrics start. Tying in with the zoning map on the back cover, “Subdivisions” expertly nails the alienation felt by the average North American suburban teenage boy, many of whom may well have been Rush fans. The song doesn’t treat the turmoil as petty or insignificant, nor does it encourage violence or revolution. The band knew their audience, because they remembered what it was like to be that audience.
It’s a good start to the album, which does manage to keep up. “The Analog Kid” is built on a circular guitar riff, and further explores the dreams of a teenage boy, only scratching the surface. “Chemistry” begins with chords reminiscent of their early work, with a little “Vital Signs” thrown in, plus rare lyrical contributions from all three band members that likely would have made some sense to the kids struggling through science class. In contrast with the track earlier, “Digital Man” paints another archetypical portrait, with lots of guitars over a jazzy rhythm.
Reggae influences continue on “The Weapon”, which, while part of the in-progress “Fear” trilogy, isn’t really that scary. As further proof that they knew their fan base, “New World Man” was literally written to fill space, as a measure to keep the cassette sides equal. Besides being one of the better tracks here, it also became something of a hit. A sobering meditation on the loss of creativity, “Losing It” is possibly the least Rush-like track, beginning with synth parts off a Journey album and an electric violin contributed by a guy who would one day be best known for working with k.d. lang. And after years of exploring science fiction in their lyrics, “Countdown” is a factual account of the band’s experience watching the launch of the Columbia space shuttle.
While not as universally appealing as Moving Pictures, Signals provided a worthy follow-up for the growing fan base to wear out in their tape decks. Hindsight shows the worrisome encroachment of synthesizers into the band’s onstage arsenal, but the best songs are still highlights.

Rush Signals (1982)—

Friday, November 3, 2017

Oasis 5: Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants

The bad grammar somehow fitting, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants presents a still-defiant Oasis, somewhat bruised following their fall from infallibility but still determined to rock. Having lost two members, the band relied more on loops and samples to create their music. That’s not so much of a stretch, considering Noel Gallagher sang on a hit single by the Chemical Brothers. It’s still derivative of an earlier decade, but at least the trip-hop influence doesn’t hurt one’s ears like Be Here Now did.
Right out of the gate, “Fuckin’ In The Bushes” shows off the new sound, though it isn’t much more than a collage. Based around a “Funky Drummer”-type sample, complete with vinyl crackles, the new sound is also presented ably on “Go Let It Out”, which was the first single, though the Mellotron is out of place. The second single, “Who Feels Love?”, is way too long and a little too psychedelic, with backwards guitars and sitars, and a melody that sounds too much like earlier, better Oasis tracks. Plus, the hippy-dippy sentiment doesn’t sound convincing coming out of Liam’s mouth or Noel’s hand. “Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is” manages to combine an AC/DC stomp with “Roadhouse Blues”—stupid, but still fun, until the 30-second farting synth at the end. Surprisingly good is “Little James”, Liam Gallagher’s first recorded composition and written for his son. Even more impressive is the production, incorporating “Don’t Look Back In Anger” piano, though the “Hey Jude” ending goes (again) a little long.
“Gas Panic!” returns us to India before floating on another psychedelic bed, and by now we wish they’d pick up the tempo a hair (one of the downsides of quitting coke, to be sure). Still, Noel sings two further slow songs in a row: “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” is another feather in his vocal cap, while “Sunday Morning Call” is a more elaborate production. Together they provide respite from Liam’s rasp. “I Can See A Liar” is a wonderful glam stomp, with a few hints of the Cult in the riff, for a terrific shot of energy. And that’s good, because “Roll It Over” just drags until the end.
For all the imperfections and indulgences, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants is still not as indulgent as Be Here Now, and manages to hold interest. Being relatively tight, it’s a welcome return to form quality-wise on par with the first two Oasis albums. But we must add one final gripe: if you’re going to book legendary vocalists P.P. Arnold and Linda Lewis, give them something to do besides sing “ah” buried in the mix.

Oasis Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (2000)—3

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Bruce Springsteen 23: High Hopes

Having decided he could create albums anywhere and anytime, Bruce went the Tattoo You route by raiding his outtakes vault. However, while the Stones managed to create a great album from their leftovers, Bruce only ended up with a plateful of table scraps on High Hopes, a desperate title to be sure.
Some songs had appeared in earlier incarnations. The title track had been part of the E Street Band reunion sessions two decades earlier; it’s a cover, so he can’t be blamed for the lazy chorus, but he should have known better about the horns. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was introduced on the reunion tour and released on the 2001 live album, and is just as long here, but still good. Tom Morello played guitar on half the album, and sings some of the verses on the too-long, too-loud rock remake of “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”. (He also allegedly suggested all the covers that were included. “Just Like Fire Would” was originally recorded by a punk band, but here it’s all Bruce. Similarly, “Dream Baby Dream” was originally by synth-punk duo Suicide, and becomes an aching prayer.)
“Harry’s Place” was likely left off The Rising in favor of “Mary’s Place”, which is no better. “Down In The Hole” begins low-key like a Devils & Dust track, but picks up with crazy samples and sound effects, just as “Heaven’s Wall” opens with a gospel chant and beats a “raise your hand” motif into submission. “Frankie Fell In Love” is a nice throwback to his character songs from the ‘70s, and “The Wall” a nice memorial to Vietnam veterans. But “This Is Your Sword” is an unconvincing call to arms, and “Hunter Of Invisible Game”, while lilting, lopes aimlessly.
While some of the songs are certainly worth saving from obscurity, the album as a whole fails. Perhaps as proof that he’s no longer his best editor, an EP called American Beauty appeared for Record Store Day and online streaming, containing four songs easily as good if not better than anything on High Hopes. The title track and “Hurry Up Sundown” are rousing arena rockers, “Mary Mary” a sweet strum, and “Hey Blue Eyes” a deceptively pretty tune about wartime atrocity.

Bruce Springsteen High Hopes (2014)—2
Bruce Springsteen
American Beauty (2014)—3

Friday, October 27, 2017

Bob Weir 1: Ace

Of the Grateful Dead’s front men, Bob Weir was always the most basic musically. His songs had a tendency toward good-time boogie, with no rampant experimental characteristics. It was a good balance for a live show, since the songs were simple enough to learn, but as the only selections on an album, things can get a little dull. Unless, of course, you love to boogie.
Ace is a Bob Weir solo in name only, as the basic band on every track is the Grateful Dead; moreover, it serves as the premier of new keyboards guy Keith Godchaux, along with his wife Donna on backing vocals. “Greatest Story Ever Told” leaps out of the gate with a war whoop and exactly the type of rhythm Deadheads live for. Thanks to lyrics by Robert Hunter, the story is interesting. “Black-Throated Wind” has a different sound thanks to lyrics from Weir’s friend John Barlow, the stumbly meter, and prominent horn section, but “Walk In The Sunshine” is just plain dippy even for him. “Playing In The Band” had already appeared on the “Skull & Roses” album, here it’s nearly twice as long and more intricate, thanks to the competent piano.
The true hidden gem of the album is “Looks Like Rain”, with its perfectly heartbroken vocal, a complementary pedal steel from Jerry, and a string arrangement of all things. It’s a wonder this hasn’t been covered by more people. It could be because its effect is flattened by the goofy mariachi horns on “Mexicali Blues”—a decent saloon tune, but oh, that incessant “da-dat-dat”. “One More Saturday Night” would also be a band staple; here’s it’s just more boogie in the mode set by “Greatest Story”. With its multi-faceted lyrics and possible interpretations, “Cassidy” makes for a very effective closer.
Take the best parts of Ace and shuffle them with the vocal highlights from Garcia’s solo album from earlier in the year, and you’d have a pretty strong ’72 Dead studio album. Instead, indulgence reigned the day, even for these guys. As it is, there’s enough good on it to outweigh the rest, so it works. Meanwhile, two of the songs (“Playing In The Band” and “Greatest Story”) would appear later the same year on Mickey Hart’s solo album Rolling Thunder, which went even further away from the traditional Dead sound. Despite the appearances of most of the Dead, the album incorporates contributions from members of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and other Frisco musicians, the Tower of Power horns, and two well-known tabla players to his own percussion to present something of a world music fusion.

Bob Weir Ace (1972)—3

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Jerry Garcia 1: Garcia

With all the time they spent touring, it’s a wonder the members of the Grateful Dead had any time for extracurricular activities. But play they did. Due to his prowess on a variety of stringed instruments, Jerry Garcia was in high demand for his friends’ sessions, making prominent appearances on solo albums by Crosby, Stills & Nash and Paul Kantner, the first album by New Riders Of The Purple Sage, and co-billing on Hooteroll? by jazz fusion organist Howard Wales. His own solo album was very much a one-man affair; with the exception of Bill Kreutzmann on drums and lyrics by (who else?) Robert Hunter, Garcia let him loose on guitars, bass, pedal steel, and keyboards.
And since he sings anything with words, it sounds a lot like a Dead album. Side one alone is wall-to-wall: “Deal”, “Bird Song”, “Sugaree”, and “Loser”, all of which were played live by the band before the album was released, and stayed concert staples for the duration. Each is in that loping, acoustic-based mode established on the last two studio albums, so they will already sound familiar.
Back when album sides had to be flipped to hear the rest, it’s possible that many owners of this LP wore out side one. These days, if listening on CD or a cassette dub, what used to be side two would be rather harsh on one’s mellow. The first three tracks for something of a suite; “Late For Supper” and “Spiderdawg” are examples of avant-garde or musique concrete (take your pick), with the kind of dissonant piano stabs and electronic effects usually associated with early Pink Floyd, whereas “Eep Hour” is a more conventional instrumental built around minor-key triplets and Floydian changes. He stays on piano for the gospel-tinged “To Lay Me Down”, which was attempted for American Beauty but not used, but would still surface onstage from time to time. “An Odd Little Place” is a gorgeous interlude for minimalist piano and atmospheric drums, and makes a fantastic prelude for “The Wheel”, which has an epic feel and big sound considering, again, it’s all Jerry plus Bill.
The eventual expansion of Garcia presents a few of the songs in their early stages—just acoustic guitar, vocal, and drums—plus the piano-and-drums first pass through the “Eep Hour” suite. There’s even a version of “Eep Hour” itself on electric guitar that takes it to a completely new place. Even so, the original sequence worked so well on its own, so the extras are only essential for completists, who are likely trying to catch up with all the live shows the band keeps issuing.

Jerry Garcia Garcia (1972)—
2004 expanded CD: same as 1972, plus 8 extra tracks

Friday, October 20, 2017

Robert Plant 13: Carry Fire

His hair may be too long and his face ever more creased, but fifty years into his commercial career Robert Plant sounds very comfortable with his voice, his instrument. Carry Fire continues with the palette set by lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, his previous solo album, except that the rhythms here are not as overtly exotic, and the breadth of material not as wide.
“The May Queen” was the first preview track, and it’s fairly circular, finally breaking out in the wordless chorus. “New World…” would have been a stronger choice, as it has a driving tempo and therefore more energy. But despite its slower pace, “Season’s Song” moves like a boat on the sea, and it’s a keeper. Towards the end of “Dance With Me Tonight”, right alongside the sound of a heraldic horn, his voice finally emerges an octave higher than it’s been all album, and one can’t help but smile at its familiarity. It’s a good setup for “Carving Up The World Again”, a protest song with a tribal beat and better chorus. He’s been political before, so it’s not that big a deal, but it’s not his strong suit, and that makes “A Way With Words” something of a relief.
These ears aren’t especially wowed by the balance of the album. The exotic influences return on the title track, by way of more overt loops; it improves as it builds. “Bones Of Saints” ups the tempo to a rock level again, getting a lot of steam out of the “no, no, no” chorus. He lets out a few good yells near the end, but “Keep It Hid” remains tense and restrained. “Bluebirds Over The Mountain” is a wholly original reading of the rockabilly classic, sung as a duet with Chrissie Hynde of all people, and ending with some more great yells. Finally, “Heaven Sent” ends the album very, very slowly, and fades just as it gets interesting.
The previous album was so fresh and interesting that Carry Fire is already at a deficit for fair comparison. But it too reveals its strengths the more it sinks in, and he’s onto something.

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters Carry Fire (2017)—3

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cat Stevens 9: Numbers

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

Cat Stevens Numbers (1975)—2

Friday, October 13, 2017

Paul Simon 6: Greatest Hits, Etc.

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

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

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Todd Rundgren 16: Healing

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

Todd Rundgren Healing (1981)—3

Friday, October 6, 2017

Van Morrison 33: Down The Road

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

Van Morrison Down The Road (2002)—3

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Graham Nash 3: Innocent Eyes

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

Graham Nash Innocent Eyes (1986)—

Friday, September 29, 2017

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Jethro Tull 12: Songs From The Wood

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

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

Friday, September 22, 2017

Doors 8: Other Voices and Full Circle

Jim Morrison was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. He wasn’t in hiding, he wasn’t exploring his poetry, and he wasn’t breathing due to the combination of alcohol, heroin, and bathwater in his system. Jim Morrison was as dead as a door-nail.
The band still wanted to play, of course. They’d been working on new material already, having learned to fend for themselves without their lead singer around to drop his pearls of imagery. The last couple of Doors albums proved that, as a musical unit, they were tight and certainly capable. Whether anyone would care about them without the handsome guy in the leather pants out front was another question.
Other bands have rebounded successfully when they had to replace their singer, and the Doors kept it simple by splitting the task between keyboard player Ray Manzarek, who already showed his weakness on Absolutely Live, and guitarist Robbie Krieger, whose best quality is that he didn’t sound like Ray. Both guys couldn’t help but utter echoes of Jim’s swagger and laid-back delivery. Beyond that, all they needed to do was combine their instruments into enough catchy tracks to fill album sides, live shows, and hopefully, their bank accounts.
With its stark white cover and band portrait, Other Voices is a bold if indisputable claim, but the album works best when they just play. After a brief psychedelic whirl, “In The Eye Of The Sun” nails a nice swampy groove. “Ships w/Sails” is a sustainable Latin jam (unlike “Hang On To Your Life”), and “Tightrope Ride” is a direct descendant of “L.A. Woman”. “Down On The Farm” sounds the least like the Doors, but it gets distracted trying to change direction. Even the over-long “Wandering Musician” has a great hook for a slow fade. Yet, whatever one’s opinion of Jim’s “poetry”, the guys on their own were not impressive lyricists. “Variety Is The Spice Of Life” and “I’m Horny, I’m Stoned” aren’t about to make it into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations anytime soon.

A tour behind the album with a bass player and a second guitarist convinced them they could keep going, and they did. While Other Voices contained songs that Jim could arguably have sung himself, much of Full Circle considers what they might have sounded like had they never met the guy. (Really, would he have ever exhorted a crowd to “Get Up And Dance”?) The ensemble was expanded in the studio, utilizing a lot more percussion, funky backup singers, and Charles Lloyd on sax and flute. His contribution turns “Verdilac” into near-fusion; it’s just too bad there are lyrics. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” is tackled fairly straight, except for the cacophonous piano pounding and Ray’s ill-advised growling at the end. There’s even less excuse for “The Mosquito”, a bipolar track with some great jamming but an embarrassing lyrical hook (“no me moleste mosquito”, and we’re not kidding) that helped the song chart in Spanish-speaking countries. “The Peking King And The New York Queen” tries to hard to be beat poetry, though the combination of the vocals and female additions seems to predict at least one Zappa album.
Both albums remained out of print for a few decades, and were ignored by the organization once Jim’s mythology took over. But in this century, after smaller labels did okay with semi-legitimate reissues, the band made it available for streaming. Then an official re-release paired the albums in a two-CD set, with one bonus track: the 1972 B-side “Treetrunk”. Left off Full Circle because it was “too commercial”, it’s probably the best song in the bunch.

The Doors Other Voices (1971)—3
The Doors
Full Circle (1972)—

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