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)—