Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Elton John 6: Madman Across The Water

Elton and Bernie were very busy in 1971, and the third LP was the best of all. The real follow-up to Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water builds on the American influences without relying on any real theme or concept, save superior, mature songwriting.
Some of his best and certainly highly iconic songs load up side one. Everybody knows “Tiny Dancer” by now, or at least can associate it with the male star of Who’s The Boss. “Levon” is one of the most hauntingly moving songs about very little, other than to remind us that English is possibly the only language where Jesus is not used as a given name. Equally mysterious but less serious is the identity of “Razor Face”, although the wild accordion over the end ties in with the Band influence of the track before. Such a jaunty touch is a fake-out setup for the title track, with its vivid, almost cinematic arrangement matching the implicit horror in the lyrics. We particularly like the backwards effect on the acoustic guitar bridging the two halves. (Compared to the version recorded for Tumbleweed but shelved, they made the wise choice to redo it.)
Side two isn’t as immediately classic, but only because it has a lot to follow. “Indian Sunset” attempts to sum up the plight of the Native American. It’s a lovely production, and a stirring song, but the lyrics are what one might expect from a British kid who watched a lot of cowboy movies growing up. It’s a strange jump to “Holiday Inn”, their contribution to the “rock star on the road” genre, with that wonderful mandolin part. We’re guessing “Rotten Peaches” is the plaint of a man in prison, but the joyful accompaniment is such an odd juxtaposition with the words that it works. Speaking of odd, “All The Nasties” brings the choir heard earlier on the album to the fore, even given their own intro to the “oh my soul” mantra toward the end. (Nick Drake fans note: Robert Kirby was the arranger.) Something of a reaction to critics, its message is reinforced by the comparatively brief and extremely mournful “Goodbye”, which predicts future faux-classical pieces like “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”.
All together, Madman Across The Water is solid, and we must mention Paul Buckmaster’s wonderful string arrangements throughout. In a fine example of “it is what it is”, there were apparently no outtakes of interest. While most of his other albums from his first decade in the business have been reissued and expanded multiple times, this one remains as it always was: nine songs, and that’s it. Amen.

Elton John Madman Across The Water (1971)—

Friday, January 12, 2018

Humble Pie 5: Rockin' The Fillmore

While Humble Pie remained relatively obscure throughout the U.S., somebody had the bright idea to record their residency at New York’s Fillmore East, and then release a double live album from it. (This in a calendar year that already saw similar albums from the Allmans to Zappa.)
But most bands rose to the occasion at the Fillmore, particularly when their diehard fans went to every show, and the Pie truly kick their butts on Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore. Building on the volume of Rock On, which they were supposed to be promoting. Starting with the swapped vocals on “Four Day Creep”, it’s a punishing plow through “I’m Ready” and “Stone Cold Fever”. Every track is loud and most are pretty long, two even taking up a side each—one of those is an incredibly slow but fascinating drag through Dr. John’s “I Walk On Gilded Splinters”, the other an equally muddy “Rollin’ Stone”. Side four picks up the pace, and is given over to two songs usually associated with Ray Charles, “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and the terrific “I Don’t Need No Doctor”.
Mysteries remain about the album, such as why they needed a two-part title, and if they went through all the trouble about including special labels on two of the sides, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have them be photos from the actual show, rather than an outdoor concert somewhere far from the venue being commemorated? Then, over 40 years later, the upstart Omnivore label managed to curate a set of all four shows from this stint, which spelled out which tracks came from which shows. As it turns out, “Stone Cold Fever” was played only the once, and all the sets began with the same four songs, close to the same length, though there was a little stretching on the encores, which varied. Unfortunately, Steve Marriott’s patter didn’t always vary, and the third time he describes “Gilded Splinters” as his favorite boogie isn’t as funny as the first. But if you loved the original album, the complete set is a must.

Humble Pie Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore (1971)—

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Faces 3: A Nod Is As Good As A Wink

While Every Picture Tells A Story rocks with acoustic instruments, anyone who longed to hear Rod Stewart with some voltage beneath him needed only wait a few months before another Faces album. From its live cover shot and cheeky title, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink... To A Blind Horse, positively crackles.
Yet while Rod swaggers his way through “Miss Judy’s Farm”—just one of the tracks here that refuses to stick to an ABAB rhyme scheme—over those terrific Ian McLagan electric piano licks, Ronnie Lane gets his share of the spotlight too. “You’re So Rude” is a randy slice of afternoon delight, with blasts of organ and sound effects pushing the story along. Lest one think it’s all silly, “Love Lives Here” brings on the heartbreak, and while Mick Jagger would never admit to stealing the mood for “Fool To Cry”, he was wise not to borrow the harpsichord. Ronnie returns for the aftermath of the relationship—in a pub, naturally—on “Last Orders Please”, and whatever sadness Rod had two songs earlier is well gone by the groupie abuse in “Stay With Me”.
Side two begins, out of character, with the melancholy “Debris”. Sung by Ronnie, with Rod helping out on the choruses, what sounds like another sad love song turns out to be memories of his dad. It’s very sweet, but unfortunately followed by a rather tepid rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” that eventually picks up, but the lead guitar stays stuck in the Leslie speaker. The fun returns on “Too Bad”, another funny tale of Life on the Road that could have taken place earlier in their careers or that week. And fun as “That’s All You Need”, it too doesn’t make sense, from going about remembering an estranged brother, to the guy showing up mid-track for “a cup of coke” and steel drums taking the album to the spindle.
But we don’t listen to Faces albums for deep thoughts, and that’s why A Nod Is As Good As A Wink is just plain fun. Besides, it’s always nice to hear Ronnie Lane break up the monotony, isn’t it?

Faces A Nod Is As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse (1971)—

Friday, January 5, 2018

Talking Heads 3: Fear Of Music

For their third album, Talking Heads made a conscious effort not to be overly commercial or mainstream, recording quickly with a mobile truck from their rehearsal space, and keeping most of the song titles to a single word. Brian Eno was brought back to produce, and his interests helped them find new sounds and better use for David Byrne’s voice throughout Fear Of Music.
African influences abound on the inspiration for “I Zimbra”, with nonsense lyrics taken from a dada poem. A little slower but just as danceable, “Mind” percolates with ping-ponging guitars and keyboards, wacky bass bursts, and Byrne finding another wacky character to inhibit. We like the Television-style guitars on “Paper”, but “Cities” is even more intense and insistent, with that adhesive “checking it out” hook. But the real hit tune is “Life During Wartime” (better known as “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco… I ain’t got time for that now”), which is just plain funky. “Memories Can’t Wait” slows down the funk but lays on the dirt, ending a very strong side one.
High breathy voices are the perfect embellishment for a song called “Air”; we’re assuming Jerry Harrison is playing those fine leads. “Heaven” is reminiscent of Bowie’s first two Berlin albums, and even though some might balk at the less than pious sentiment, we don’t know why this song hasn’t been covered more. From here the album gets a little trying. “Animals” is a decent track, but the lyrics are a little too clever, and the gruff vocals don’t really help. “Electric Guitar” is even more cacophonous, but it’s worth listening for Tina’s wacky bass in the back. Finally, “Drugs” sounds the most like an Eno track, suitably disconcerting and jarring.
Despite their contrarian intentions, Fear Of Music was their most consistent, tight, and accomplished album to date, and incredibly catchy to boot. It was too weird for top 40 radio, but FM radio ate it up, and the songs still sound fresh today. (In a demonstration of their efficiency, the expanded CD includes only one unfinished song, and three early mixes of three others.)

Talking Heads Fear Of Music (1979)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1979, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Morrissey 4: Your Arsenal

Just like it did with the Smiths, it took Morrissey three albums (and one compilation) to reach a level of something approaching greatness. Your Arsenal was produced by Mick Ronson—an icon to any kid raised on Bowie and Mott The Hoople—and mostly bathes Moz in a glorious meld of glam and rockabilly, to be expected from guys with pompadours.
“You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side” and “Glamorous Glue” are wonderfully trashy stompers, the former bringing to mind “Brand New Cadillac” and the latter echoing parts of “Sheila Take A Bow”, both in good ways. “We’ll Let You Know” is based around softer arpeggios and acoustic rhythm, but there’s a tension and discord underneath that threatens to overpower it—fittingly, for a song that seems to forgive the football hooligan culture. If that doesn’t raise enough eyebrows, “The National Front Disco” straddles a defense of a kid who joins a racist movement with the suggestion that it’s just a trendy thing to do. After that too builds and builds, “Certain People I Know” sits somewhere between skiffle and music hall—a simple sounding song, but with lots of layers that belie the simplicity.
Possibly the closest relative to his old band, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” is a hilarious portrait of musical envy well known to bands from the local to the international level. “You’re The One For Me, Fatty” doesn’t say much besides that, but it’s such a happy and sweet tune it doesn’t need to. Not until “Seasick, Yet Still Docked” does he go back to his morose persona; it’s actually welcome by now. A long transition involving a ticking clock and a radio stuck between German and French stations eventually finds “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”, which does have a few musical nods to “Rock & Roll Suicide” off Ziggy Stardust. (Bowie himself liked the song so much recorded it for his own next album.) It’s enough of a big ending, but instead we close with “Tomorrow”, which starts in a three but continues in four before going back to three and a tack piano sequence that reminds us of “Asleep”.
Your Arsenal is very good because it not only sounds good, but the songs are also good. There isn’t a throwaway here, he keeps the whining to a minimum, and he also remembered to show off his humor. It truly takes skill to sound this effortless.

Morrissey Your Arsenal (1992)—

Friday, December 29, 2017

Frank Zappa 33: The Man From Utopia

Right around this time Frank started (over)using a vocal technique he called “meltdown”, which was really just him singing in an overly smarmy lounge-jazz voice, which is funny for about half a minute. The only possibly interesting aspect of the technique was that whiz-kid guitarist Steve Vai would listen to the tapes of Frank thus emoting onstage, then painstakingly transcribe the notes so he could double the vocalizing via overdub on the track. Frank, naturally, was so proud of his extemporaneous brilliance that his vocal on the completed track (and subsequent album product) remained mixed just as high, while the more impressive guitar work (again, not his, but he “wrote” it) takes the aural back seat.
This is important to know, because The Man From Utopia suffers for it. It starts okay with “Cocaine Decisions”, a rather well-thought-out diatribe against young urban professionals who spent much of their salaries on Columbian sky candy, to the point where their jobs might be affected. Then the meltdown takes over “The Dangerous Kitchen”, an otherwise clever portrait of what the facilities at the Zappa household looked like when various musicians, employees, progeny and assorted friends went in search for sustenance. “Tink Walks Amok” is a multi-layered, multi-bass solo performed by Arthur Barrow, peppered occasionally by the “My Sharona” riff Frank was so fond of quoting. Unfortunately it’s elbowed aside by “The Radio Is Broken”, wherein Frank and Roy Estrada both use the meltdown voice to crack each other up whilst describing old sci-fi horror movies. Roy does throw in his falsetto briefly, with an original Mothers throwback reference. A good old snork opens “Mōggio”, a welcome instrumental.
“The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou” combines two R&B sides from the mid-‘50s, sung in style, but losing something with the modern instrumental sheen. “Stick Together” is another diatribe, this time against American unions, delivered over a reggae beat and the same two chords, salvaged slightly by the asides from Ray White and Ike Willis. As it doesn’t say anything new, “SEX” is puerile by even Frank’s standards, relying on a couplet that Spinal Tap would use to much better (and funnier) effect. The respite from the meltdown is broken by “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats”, yet another summary of the sexual-scatological exploits involving the band and crew. Finally, “We Are Not Alone” is a fairly rocking instrumental, heavy on saxophones, with a couple of intriguing changes in tempo and use of mandolin.
In another case of post-partum tampering, the first authorized CD issue of The Man From Utopia was not only remixed, but re-edited and re-sequenced. This breaks up the meltdown selections a little better, but the albums isn’t improved as a whole. The side-ending instrumentals are swapped, so the disc now ends with “Mōggio”, but first one must endure (or skip) “Luigi & The Wise Guys”, a doo-wop harmony piece that doesn’t say much more than “you’re a dork”. After which, the listener may either agree or feel insulted. Especially coming after “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats”.

Frank Zappa The Man From Utopia (1983)—2
1993 Barking Pumpkin CD: “same” as 1983, plus 1 extra track

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Robyn Hitchcock 31: Robyn Hitchcock

Another one of those heritage artists we find ourselves paying attention to more as a custom than out of continued wonder, Robyn Hitchcock keeps putting out albums that occasionally recall his ‘80s heyday with a single band, but don’t always carry through every second. It took him nearly four decades in the business before he released an eponymous album, a move that always suggests A Major Statement.
He always does better when he records with a dedicated band, and Robyn Hitchcock indeed gets a boost from a cohesive sound. It also helps that the album rocks. “I Want To Tell You About What I Want” gets out of its one-chord groove in time, and while “Virginia Woolf” spends less time on her than Sylvia Plath, it follows right along with terrific guitar leads. “I Pray When I’m Drunk” is a something of a Johnny-Cash-meets-the-Byrds pastiche that works by being brief. “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” opens the same way as the first track, but opens up with a terrific chorus. Things finally slow down for the lengthy “Sayonara Judge”.
“Detective Mindhorn” seems to be connected with the fictional star of a recent British film; catchy as it is, it’s too long to be a theme song. The country sound resurfaces on “1970 In Aspic”, another curious look back at a year from his youth, a theme he continues on “Raymond And The Wires”, another tribute to his father. Another slower song goes longer on “Autumn Sunglasses”, with plenty of Rickenbacker 12-string and a lyric that doesn’t sound too labored. Finally, “Time Coast” ends the set with toe-tapping garage rock.
Robyn Hitchcock is another one of those albums that sounds great when it’s playing, and will likely continue to. But by the time we get around to listening to it again, he’ll have another one out.

Robyn Hitchcock Robyn Hitchcock (2017)—3