Friday, April 20, 2018

Lou Reed 13: Growing Up In Public

Something very odd happened on the cusp of the new decade: Lou Reed sobered up, fell in love. With a woman. Whom he married. With his parents in attendance. These events affected his life affected his life and writing, possibly leading to the honest (on the surface, anyway) monologues throughout Growing Up In Public.
He still sounds desperate and gargling on “How Do You Speak To An Angel”, to the effect that he’s almost tongue-tied, while the tight New York backing adds some doo-wop echoes. He’s a little more in control but still tense on “My Old Man”, wherein he accuses his father of continually beating his mother. “Keep Away” is a mildly humorous look at a dysfunctional relationship with some terrific rhymes. For the title track he relies on the same basic chords, repeated, with an annoying fretless bass part that resembles an elephant, while “Standing On Ceremony” is pure new wave, with menacing verses and an incongruous chorus that merely repeats the title awkwardly.
While not exactly an epic, “So Alone” is a one-sided conversation well illustrated by the accompaniment, with a “get up and dance” section that’s actually funny. By contrast, “Love Is Here To Stay” has potential, but the he-said-she-said content of the verses is underdeveloped. The momentum slides further on “The Power Of Positive Drinking”, something of a novelty track, complete with a dopey faux-reggae beat and a quote from “Please Please Me”, of all things. In “Smiles”, he blames his permanently sour puss on his mother, with so many lyrics crammed in they’d make a better poem than a song, even with an odd reference to “Walk On The Wild Side” at the end. We seem to be a fly on the wall for his marriage proposal in “Think It Over”, a surprisingly tender and effective song. That would be a great place to end the album, but instead we close with a plea to “Teach The Gifted Children” that quotes from “Take Me To The River” for some reason; whether this is a nod to Al Green or Talking Heads is unknown.
Growing Up In Public would appear to be an accurate description of the overall thematic effect. That’s not to say, as he’d mocked a couple of years earlier, “Lou Reed’s mellowed, he’s older,” but all the conflicting references to his parents come off like notes taken after an hour on the shrink’s couch. He may have been maddening, but at least he was interesting.

Lou Reed Growing Up In Public (1980)—

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Steve Perry 2: For The Love Of Strange Medicine

Oddly, the glass-shattering voice of Steve Perry stayed silent for years following the last Journey album. When he did emerge, it seemed he’d spent his time growing his hair and singing himself hoarse. For The Love Of Strange Medicine finds him even raspier than on Raised On Radio, working with a bunch of unknown session guys, save the keyboard player from Winger and the bass player from Toto. Just as with his previous solo outing, there are enough Journey elements to keep the true believers invested, and wondering why he couldn’t just get the real guys to do it.
“You Better Wait” was the best choice for first single and opening track, and the best song on the album by far. It sports all the hallmarks people associate with That Voice—flashy lead guitar, piano and synth, layered vocals, pounding drums. From there, “Young Hearts Forever” strains to keep pace, but already sounds dated, and slows down needlessly in the middle. The slow ballad arrives right on time with “I Am”, followed by the theme song for a soundtrack to a movie yet to be filmed, “Stand Up (Before It’s Too Late)”. The title track limps along with some decent hooks, but not a lot of energy, while “Donna Please” attempts to be a heartbreaker a la “Suzanne”.
“Listen To Your Heart” attempts to inject some heavy rock into the proceedings, but somehow ends up jerry-rigging several half-baked ideas together. “Tuesday Heartache” is more heartache-by numbers that takes a strange detour into a Peter Gabriel soundtrack halfway through. “Missing You” is a little clichéd, but it’s a good kind of clichéd, just as “Somewhere There’s Hope” embraces the main ingredients of so-called melodic rock: ¾ time, slamming snares, piano, and yes, a choir. It even goes on about two minutes too long. That only makes the opening of “Anyway” (“I’d like to say I’m sorry/I’d like to make amends”) unintentionally hilarious.
While just a little better than Street Talk, the album underwhelmed, though “You Better Wait” was a mild hit. Fanatics raced to pick up the CD-maxi single, as well as the one for “Missing You”, both of which included songs not on the album. Two of those—“If You Need Me, Call Me” and “One More Time”—appeared as bonus tracks for the head-scratching reissue of For The Love Of Strange Medicine 12 years later (alongside two lesser outtakes and a live “Missing You” from his solo tour). Why these tracks were relegated to B-side status instead of the album itself, where they would have both been more welcome and appreciated, would be a mystery for a few years yet.

Steve Perry For The Love Of Strange Medicine (1994)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1994, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, April 13, 2018

Rush 12: Grace Under Pressure

For much of the band’s career to date, producer Terry Brown loomed large, to the same subliminal effect on a record sleeve as a George Martin or an Andrew Loog Oldham. So it was indeed A Big Deal when the next Rush album credited a different name alongside theirs.
Grace Under Pressure arrived at the height of ‘80s silliness, and a glance at the back cover provides proof. Synthesizers were now at the forefront of the mix, alongside guitars that were even further from prog. Hindsight has been kinder to the album than we were at the time, enthralled as we still were with Moving Pictures. The new album seemed almost too slick, too shiny; but again, if this was your high school soundtrack, your reaction would have been different.
To their credit, each of the songs does indeed explore, vividly, the concepts of human stress—not in the egomaniacal Dark Side Of The Moon sense, but more what non-rock stars must endure on a daily basis in so-called modern society. The album starts with a moment of “2112” wind and then “Distant Early Warning” (commencing a worrying trend of not having the title mentioned in the song itself, making it tough to request on the radio) echoes the contemporary nuclear worry prevalent in 1984, yet dares to hint at the notion of a romantic relationship. “Afterimage” goes right to the point, reflecting on a recently deceased friend, and not at all mawkishly; rather, the urgency in the riff conveys anger at what/who was lost. “Red Sector A” is divisive, being as it sports what we’d still call a disco beat, but it’s paired a compelling lyric, evocative of the Holocaust, which Geddy Lee’s parents survived. “The Enemy Within” is said to be part one of the completed “Fear” trilogy, which began two studio albums before, continuing the reggae beat from the second part (and from “Vital Signs”). Each installment is thus less interesting than the last.
A somewhat robotic beat fittingly but annoyingly inaugurates “The Body Electric”, accompanied by percolating bass and more unresolved chords; as with much of the album, the chorus is the best part. “Kid Gloves” has a dizzying, cyclical riff in 5/4 that calms down for the choruses, and reading the lyrics now, they come off as something of a comfort for the confused teen mindset depicted in “Subdivisions”. The edgy “Red Lenses”—listed in lowercase and demonstrative color type in all documentation—is loaded with plays on the word and simple rhymes. Finally, “Between The Wheels” employs a suitably tense synth bed, hints at a chance of perseverance with a driving chorus, but reverts to the tension to reflect the cycle.
It’s not one of our go-to Rush albums, so we’re always surprised how listenable Grace Under Pressure turns out to be whenever we throw it on. Still, it’s a long way from the yowls and sorcery of the previous decade, and does show that while the band may no longer be considered progressive, they have progressed.

Rush Grace Under Pressure (1984)—3

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Paul Westerberg 2: Eventually

Some critics still cared about Paul Westerberg, and his label had Replacements fans working there, so they were willing to bankroll another solo album. Eventually was an apt title, considering that it took a while to complete, starting with Brendan O’Brien (in between multiplatinum Pearl Jam albums) as producer, and finishing with the more indie-minded Lou Giordano.
The music follows the same template as his more recent albums to this point, catchy guitar-driven rock with clever couplets. “These Are The Days” and “Century” would have fit on 14 Songs, but the listener’s ears perk up on the bittersweet “Love Untold”, a terrific song unfairly ignored by most radio programmers. Right on time, the tempo picks up for the hook-laden “Ain’t Got Me” and the relentless trash rock of “Had It With You”, which comes off as a cross between “My Little Problem” and “Backlash”, except there’s no female duet partner. “MamaDaddyDid” returns to a lazier strum, and not very exciting.
Side two (on the cassette, since no vinyl version was released at the time) immediately becomes more interesting with “Hide N Seekin”. It begins like a demo, Westerberg singing over a single quiet electric guitar, pausing for several silent seconds after the chorus, then picking up again, adding a slight organ and brushed drums to the mix. “Once Around The Weekend” is a bit of a retread, but everyone got excited for “Trumpet Clip”, which features good ol’ Tommy Stinson on bass and, yes, trombone while the auteur spits out the lyrics, giggling occasionally. “Angels Walk” is redeemed by some decent guitar rips, but it’s forgotten once “Good Day” takes over, a piano dirge that, but for the lyrical nod to “Hold My Life”, one might not guess is a tribute to the recently departed Bob Stinson. From there, “Time Flies Tomorrow” keeps it quiet and sensitive.
There’s no thrashing on the album, nothing that fans complained had been missing since Don’t Tell A Soul. Yet, Westerberg sounds more confident overall on Eventually, which puts it strongly in the plus column. The whole is definitely greater than the parts.

Paul Westerberg Eventually (1996)—

Friday, April 6, 2018

Genesis 14: Genesis

After touring to support Three Sides Live, and taking a few months off for Phil Collins to push his second solo album, Genesis went right back to work on their next album, and had it out by the end of the year. (Right after Phil finished a brief tour as Robert Plant’s drummer.) Titled simply Genesis, it has since been referred to as the “Mama album”, thanks to the opening track and first single, whereas we immediately recognized the childhood toy depicted on the cover.
“Mama” was a good choice for an introduction to the album, as its harsh sound dragged the band back from the pop sound people had begun to associate with them. (Another good sign: no horn sections anywhere.) That said, “That’s All” is fairly simple, both in execution and lyrics. The next two tracks form a suite that completes the side, just like the old days. “Home By The Sea” takes some time to absorb; apparently the repeated demands to “sit down” come from the ghosts occupying said home. “Second Home By The Sea” is a lazy title, but nicely pairs with its brother, bringing everything full circle in the last minute.
That’s a pretty decent album side, but the execrable “Illegal Alien” is up there with the worst songs the band has ever committed to posterity. At best it’s an accurate Men At Work pastiche, but even they had the taste not to go this politically incorrect. “Taking It All Too Hard” is a little better, back to Phil’s recently patented breakup lyrics. Around our way “Just A Job To Do” was an FM radio staple, a heavier track with good band interplay. One of the sneakier songs in their catalog, “Silver Rainbow” begins with a catalog of paradoxes, then moves into what seems like a cautionary lecture, until you realize he’s talking about the first time making out with a girl (“and a bear comes in the room” being a particularly red herring). Finally, “It’s Gonna Get Better” works around tricky time signatures and finds a suitable melody to deliver its uplifting message.
“Illegal Alien” aside, Genesis remains one of their better albums because the three of them were still playing like a band, contributing equally. We’ll go so far as to say it was their last good album, which says a lot, considering how busy they’d been up to this point.

Genesis Genesis (1983)—

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Bruce Springsteen 24: Chapter And Verse

With a glimpse of mortality following the loss of E Street Band members, and even before he started writing his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen opened his legendary vaults to demonstrate the making of certain key albums in his catalog. Some were also accompanied by live artifacts. He’d already started offering downloads of shows from his most recent tour, but the Bruce Springsteen Archives went further back, selling professionally recorded concerts, complete with aesthetically relevant artwork, from his entire career.
It’s a fairly impressive endeavor, having recently escalated to a new release every month or so, and higher concentration on the previous century. Once his book was published, a companion of sorts was also released. Chapter And Verse doesn’t attempt to condense every musical reference in the pages into an 80-minute program, but it does provide something of a chronological overview, even going back before the fame.
His first band is represented by “Baby I”, a worthy garage rock stomp, and an even louder thrash at “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover”. Once he started writing his own songs in the ‘70s, Steel Mill takes over for “He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)”, with a lot of pinched lead guitar and organ; then they evolve into the Bruce Springsteen Band for “Ballad Of Jesse James”, which belies a distinct Van Morrison influence. “Henry Boy” is an awfully busy acoustic demo that predates the first album, and the best parts would form the backbone of “Rosalita” two years down.
“Growin’ Up” is included in the demo version previously heard on Tracks, and from there we go forward with a song per album until this century. The idea seems to be to include the most personally important track from each, and not necessarily the hits. If that’s what you’re looking for, you have other options. This one’s for the diehard fans.

Bruce Springsteen Chapter And Verse (2016)—3

Friday, March 30, 2018

Grateful Dead 8: Europe ‘72

Having become dedicated (sorry) to playing shows, that was the place to hear new Grateful Dead music. And since their live albums were moneymakers, they were able to travel with a label-subsidized tape unit to capture all of their European shows, which would then become their third live album, and a three-record set to boot.
Europe ‘72 doesn’t replicate a typical show, but it does mirror the “Skull & Roses” album by presenting songs old and new. Pigpen takes a smaller role throughout, with new pianist Keith Godchaux filling in the arrangements, and his wife Donna singing backup. The energy flags a bit over the six sides, but it’s very possible that many early listeners concentrated on a side at a time.
After a rollicking “Cumberland Blues”, “He’s Gone” is a pleasant saloon lope that provides the title of a future live album and “One More Saturday Night” makes the transition from Bob Weir solo track to Dead standard. “Jack Straw” is a mysterious song with many layers, possibly a murder ballad, possibly the plaint of escaped convicts. There’s no such mystery about “You Win Again” except that it’s a Hank Williams song. “China Cat Sunflower” emerges from the psychedelic era to form a jam with “I Know You Rider”, which some Dead-influenced band is likely playing somewhere right now, or thinking about it.
“Brown Eyed Women” has a somewhat modern sound, but lyrics that evoke moonshiners from the early part of the century, and it’s a grower. Pigpen comes to the microphone for “It Hurts Me Too”, the ancient blues tune, but not as slow as “Ramble On Rose”. “Sugar Magnolia” gets extended nicely, complete with fake ending, and keen ears have spotted that one can pick out a few notes from “Dark Star” at the beginning. Pigpen emerges again on “Mr. Charlie”, a decent midtempo boogie, but “Tennessee Jed” blends in with the other low-energy tracks to keep it from standing out.
Right on time, the album switches to extended jams, as on Live/Dead, which actually helps bring us around. Side five begins with an introduction for “Truckin’” that acknowledges its hit single status, and extends after 13 minutes into an “Epilogue”. This is presumably continued in a mildly atonal “Prelude” on side six, before ending with a slow “Morning Dew” that manages to sustain interest.
For continuity’s sake, the first CD version of Europe ‘72 split the album across two discs, comprising three sides apiece. The eventual expansion had the first four sides on one disc, with the rare Pigpen track “The Stranger (Two Souls In Communion)” as a bonus; a hidden gem, to be sure, if a shaky performance. The other CD offered the “Truckin’” through “Morning Dew” run, plus Weir’s “Looks Like Rain” and a half-hour romp on the Rascals’ “Good Lovin”, which is interesting if you like Pigpen.
Even before that, the same period was mined for other archival releases. Hundred Year Hall was culled from a concert in Germany, and had the boost of being the first release following Garcia’s death. A complete show from two days earlier was eventually released in a shuffled order as Rockin' The Rhein With The Grateful Dead, while Steppin' Out With The Grateful Dead: England ’72 offered four discs from various dates. For the absolute collector, Europe '72: The Complete Recordings offered all 22 shows on 73 CDs, packed in a suitcase. Each show was eventually released individually, but even more accessible for those on a budget was Europe '72 Volume 2, which presented a companion to the original without repeating any of its songs, though there is some overlap with the Skull & Roses set. The first disc delivers even more Pigpen, with the second more devoted to lengthy jams and a lovely “Sing Me Back Home”. (Those who still can’t get enough can sample the New York shows immediately before the tour on Dick's Picks 30, one entire show of which is on Dave's Picks Volume 14.)

Grateful Dead Europe ‘72 (1972)—
2003 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 6 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Hundred Year Hall (1995)
     • Steppin' Out With The Grateful Dead: England ’72 (2002)
     • Dick's Picks 30 (2003)
     • Rockin' The Rhein With The Grateful Dead (2004)
     • Europe '72: The Complete Recordings (2011)
     • Europe '72 Volume 2 (2011)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 14: Academy Of Music, New York City, 3/26/72 (2015)