Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rolling Stones 13: Through The Past, Darkly

While the Stones took their sweet time finishing their next album, both their American and British record companies filled the gap with a hits collection (naturally, with different contents to complement with what each had already compiled in 1966). Through The Past, Darkly brought us up to date on the band’s middle period, straddling the transition from Swinging London to the cusp of their ascension to the title of best rock ‘n roll band in the world. (The Who would disagree, but we don’t have time for that now.)
All the big singles to date are included, in a juggled chronology that still flows well. “Paint It, Black” gives way to “Ruby Tuesday” (making its third LP appearance, along with “Let’s Spend The Night Together”) before falling into the psychedelia of “She’s A Rainbow”. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women”, still classic singles, make their 12-inch debuts, while “Mother’s Little Helper” and “Have You See Your Mother, Baby” get encores. “Dandelion” and “2,000 Light Years From Home” continue the trippy feel, and it all comes home with “Street Fighting Man”.
Sure, there were a few unalbumized songs that could have been collected, but that would be rectified soon enough. Besides, there was that cool eight-sided sleeve with the dedication to poor departed Brian Jones on the inside to make Through The Past, Darkly seem even more special. The music speaks for itself, and they were just getting warmed up.

Rolling Stones Through The Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) (1969)—5

Monday, December 28, 2009

Paul McCartney 23: Flaming Pie

Beatle activity took precedence for a time, so Paul abandoned the band he took around the world twice. Once the Anthology project blew over, we were pleasantly surprised to hear he had a new album all ready, and mortified to hear that half of it was produced by Jeff Lynne.
Flaming Pie might as well be called McCartney III, since it was written and recorded fairly quickly, with a minimum of pretension and him on most of the instruments. But there are other musicians on it, and the resulting title refers to a John Lennon expression as a nod to the old days when making records was fun and carefree.
“The Song We Were Singing” is a fantastic start, not unlike a pub singalong. “The World Tonight” has some fine spiraling guitar that’s not undercut by the drums. Constant readers will have noted how Jeff Lynne can take some of the world’s greatest rock drummers and make them sound like a machine. In this case, it’s Paul on drums, so he can only sound better. “If You Wanna” is an inoffensive throwaway not unlike “Things We Said Today”. “Somedays” is a very sad sounding song, with mournful strings, but the lyrics are more wistful in their nostalgia. “Young Boy” was the British single, and a good choice, with a slowed-down ending stolen from “Whiter Shade Of Pale”. “Calico Skies” was recorded during the Off The Ground sessions with George Martin, and is full of overtones from his first album. Then “Flaming Pie” comes crashing in. With its obnoxious vocal and pounding piano, it’s another example of getting the recipe exactly right.
“Heaven On A Sunday” takes the mood down again, with atmosphere and interlocking guitars, one played by his son James. The wholly unwelcome Steve Miller is all over the idiotic “Used To Be Bad”, but “Souvenir” provides a little bit of soul, a well-written R&B torcher. “Little Willow” is an incredibly gentle song for any lost friend, in this case Ringo’s ex-wife Maureen. Truly touching and elegantly played. He made a big deal out of finally writing a song with Ringo, but “Really Love You” isn’t a song, it’s a five-minute timekiller. If you skip this one you go right into “Beautiful Night”, that one song per album that’s guaranteed to please. The verses are gorgeous, the choruses are gorgeous, the orchestral arrangement is gorgeous, and the silly party ending can’t kill it. And it’s always nice to follow a beautiful night with a “Great Day”, which probably dates from the 1971 “Bip Bop”/“Big Barn Bed” period. Linda joins in, and the next thing you know, you’re pressing the play button again.
Flaming Pie was such a nice surprise, and completely unexpected. Even Jeff Lynne and Steve Miller couldn’t tarnish the fun to be had herein. In fact, even taking out “Used To Be Bad” and “Really Love You” we still have twelve above-average, fully realized McCartney songs. And with the late-year release of yet another classical work, Paul McCartney’s Standing Stone (a tone poem with orchestra and wordless chorus), he had every reason to be proud. But all was not well at home.

Paul McCartney Flaming Pie (1997)—

Friday, December 25, 2009

Beatles 28: Anthology 3

To close out the trilogy, Anthology 3 followed in October. But this time there would be no “new” song, so the set starts with a short orchestral piece by George Martin that purports to be from the White Album sessions, but is actually incidental music from the Yellow Submarine film. The rest of the disc is not strictly chronological, but only features songs from the latter half of 1968. There are those who demand the release of the legendary 27-minute version of “Helter Skelter”; if this plodding excerpt is any indication of the quality, we’re not missing anything. Several songs recorded at George’s house shortly before the White Album sessions started give an interesting perspective on material that would turn up later. Unfortunately, most of the EMI outtakes included from this period sound too close to the standard versions for them to be interesting, but there are a few exceptions. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is the first completed version, more calypso than ska. “Good Night” begins with just Ringo and George Martin’s piano, then fades into the orchestra. George stark, haunting solo demo of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” will floor anyone who thinks of it only as a heavy tune. “Not Guilty” wouldn’t be heard by the public until George rerecorded it in 1979, despite the over a hundred takes it took to get to this version that would have been a worthy White Album track. The first mono mix of “Glass Onion” included an odd collage before George Martin replaced it with sinister strings; this version is welcome here. “What’s The New Mary Jane” is a chaotic collaboration by John with Yoko, George and Mal Evans. The song itself is weird enough, but the four minutes of noise at the end will be less appealing to those who can’t stomach “Revolution 9”. A take of “Julia” closes the disc, and there’s something very poignant hearing John talk with Paul at the end without any of the tension that supposedly permeated throughout the year.
The second disc also jumps around to liven up the dull Get Back takes, but then again, that whole period was out of order to begin with. An aborted “I’ve Got A Feeling” that had been strangely shortlisted for the original album starts us off, followed by Billy Preston’s debut on “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”. Paul lopes through “Teddy Boy” to nobody’s pleasure—not even his. A dull “Oh! Darling” is undercut by John’s preoccupation with Yoko’s divorce, but it is nice to finally hear “The Long And Winding Road” before Spector got his mitts on it. Three demos by George are scattered throughout the program to add some excitement. “Mailman Bring Me No More Blues” was on the aborted Sessions album, which slightly justifies its inclusion here. The only part of the famous rooftop performance we get is the final “Get Back” after the cops arrived. There isn’t much included from the Abbey Road sessions, save a raspy, low-key “Ain’t She Sweet”, Paul’s one-man band demo of “Come And Get It” that was the note-for-note prototype for Badfinger’s single, and an ethereal mix of “Because” that shows off the vocals. “I Me Mine” shows up in its original short form with timely studio chat. “The End” has more guitars and orchestra for the grand finale, and the last thing we hear is the final piano chord from “A Day In The Life”: rising, striking, and falling.
Each disc on Anthology 3 is over 70 minutes, compared to the 60-minute program on the other volumes, which almost makes up for the lesser quality of selections here. Listening to this volume, whether in tandem with or separate from the first two, only reminds us that for all the effort they put into Abbey Road, the band truly ended with a whimper and so much left undone. Had they only managed to stay interested longer, they still could have put some pretty good albums together and apart. But it doesn’t matter now. Each Anthology CD set, as well as the video box set, sold just as well as expected. Their back catalog already had strong legs, and continued to sell despite a premium price tag. While EMI hinted that there would be more goodies to come, the Threetles insisted the well was finally dry.

The Beatles Anthology 3 (1996)—3

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Beatles 27: Anthology 2

Anthology 2 followed just a few months after the first installment, with just a slight delay for a rejigged sequence. Another “new” song opens the set, and it’s a winner. “Real Love” was first heard legally as an acoustic snippet from the Imagine film in 1988, and because it was actually finished before the others got their mitts on it, it was the favorite. (Hence the solo writing credit for John.) Paul and George were able to add their parts instinctively, though we don’t know whose idea the key change was. If you’re looking for the grand finale to the Beatles songbook, it beats “Free As A Bird”.
But while we’re here, it’s back thirty years. Anthology 2 neatly covers the band’s transition to a strictly studio band, while giving plenty of evidence that despite their attitude, they could still cut it live.
Moving outside a strict chronology, we hear an early take of “I’m Down” that kicks the tempo up a bit. The shortcomings of the Help! LP come through with the full-fledged outtakes of both “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means A Lot”. The former is a loud Ringo basher, while the latter steals its arrangement from “Ticket To Ride”. Excerpts from a TV show include George’s hilarious introduction to the crowd’s first acquaintance with “Yesterday”, while Shea Stadium is represented by “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”; the roar of the audience is deafening. Only three outtakes from Rubber Soul appear: an early “Norwegian Wood”, the completed first stab at “I’m Looking Through You” without the middle eight, and a three-minute edit of the notorious “12-Bar Original”. Then, it’s feet first into Revolver with the first recording of “Tomorrow Never Knows” that’s even crazier than the final take. “Got To Get You Into My Life” is dominated by discarded harmonies and a single organ chord. John and Paul giggle incessantly throughout an overdub session for an embryonic “And Your Bird Can Sing”. Some later run-throughs of “I’m Only Sleeping” show that perhaps the version we know wasn’t always their favorite. The full take included is anticlimactic coming after the effective instrumental on vibes. We go to Japan for two live songs from the last tour—and that’s just the first CD.
For those who enjoy such things, some of the more thorough bootleggers have compiled entire LPs with nothing but “Strawberry Fields Forever” in various stages of development. Disc 2 doesn’t go quite that far, but does allude to its progress. We first hear parts of John’s demos, followed by the first studio take and the complete take 7 with the drum coda from take 26. This way we get the song as originally played, plus a peek at how the two halves sounded on their own. Alternate mixes of “Penny Lane” and “A Day In The Life” demonstrate some of the fascinating sounds that were discarded before the final mixes. Without the brass, “Good Morning, Good Morning” sounds truly different—and listen to the bass running all over the place. “Only A Northern Song” also benefits from having the chaotic effects stripped away. The alternate “Sgt. Pepper (Reprise)” is notable for the minor chords at the start that got buried on the album, but the real surprise comes with the reedited “You Know My Name”, in stereo for the first time, with a previously unheard ska section that’s just plain hilarious. Simpler takes on “I Am The Walrus” and “Fool On The Hill” are mesmerizing, while a soothing, more Indian stab at “Across The Universe” ends the collection.
As it covers 1965 through the first sessions of 1968, Anthology 2 was the early choice as the installment most likely to be the most interesting. And it really is. There’s plenty here that hadn’t been heard before, and it shows how the boys began to really stretch in the studio. It also enhances one’s enjoyment of Anthology 1, giving it a wider perspective. Many purists cried foul at so many of these tracks being compiled from separate takes, but this way they could include all the interesting parts of each song. (Three and a half songs’ worth of “Strawberry Fields” is the limit here.) You can’t please everyone, and those who were most offended had all the missing stuff on bootlegs anyway. And now they had stuff they’d never have heard otherwise.

The Beatles Anthology 2 (1996)—

Monday, December 21, 2009

Beatles 26: Anthology 1

For years, anyone and everyone connected with Apple said that the standard albums (and Past Masters collections) contained all the Beatles music that was to be heard. However, that was not the complete truth. EMI had even prepared a companion to Rarities of all unreleased recordings called Sessions, but quashed it after John died. Once pristine bootlegs started appearing with hours of tape from the Abbey Road vaults, it was clear that not only was there more to be heard, but some of it was actually pretty good.
By the ‘90s, a montage of home movies compiled by Beatle insider Neil Aspinall had ballooned into a full-fledged band-endorsed autobiography, consisting of a multi-part television documentary—with video release and companion book to follow—concurrently promoted with three double-disc CD sets. Adding to the excitement, the first two TV installments each had a countdown clock over the closing credits leading up to the worldwide premieres of the first new Beatle songs in over 25 years. (Both were original late-’70s demos of Lennon compositions embellished by the “Threetles” with help from Jeff Lynne to ensure that the classic vibe would remain.)
Of the CDs, Anthology 1 most closely mirrors the documentary format of the broadcast. We follow their growth from a ragtag rockabilly outfit into EMI recording artists, with several tracks of spoken words from John, Paul and Brian Epstein included to help the story along for those of us who didn’t already know it by heart. But the very first thing we hear is “Free As A Bird”. Anticlimactic at first listen, this song has managed to tug all the right heartstrings without fail since its debut. Jeff Lynne drains all the life out of Ringo’s drums, but the harmonies and solo vocals by Paul and George more than suffice. Could we really have expected this to rank with any one of their greatest songs?
From there it’s all about the history, from the 1958 recordings of “That’ll Be The Day” and “In Spite Of All The Danger”, through some home demos from 1960 to highlights from a real studio in Germany. The best moments from the much-recycled Tony Sheridan period include “My Bonnie”, which looms large in the apocrypha, “Ain’t She Sweet”, with John’s confident swaggering lead, and the instrumental “Cry For A Shadow”. Then we’re listening to their failed Decca audition; Pete Best’s drumming is pretty dull, and Paul suffers from nervous over-enthusiasm. Once at EMI, we get official releases of such legendary outtakes as “Besame Mucho” (Paul does Ricky Ricardo), “How Do You Do It” and “One After 909”, seven years before its appearance on Let It Be. The remainder of the first disc showcases their live sound from various radio and TV shows.
Disc 2 takes us back to John telling the Windsors to rattle their jewelry, followed by an appearance on the BBC’s Morecambe & Wise TV show. It’s a quick jump to Paris for the first try at “Can’t Buy Me Love”, a pleasant change from the classic version that found its way onto seven or eight Capitol LPs. Ed Sullivan’s introduction of “All My Loving” is an essential piece of history, then it’s back to the studio. “You Can’t Do That” is fairly close to the released version, but the big surprise is the first take of “And I Love Her”, with heavier tom-toms and a more electric backing. The highlight of some recordings for the Around The Beatles TV show is undoubtedly their unique version of “Shout”, crammed into a minute and a half. The blistering “Leave My Kitten Alone”, had it been included on Beatles For Sale, would have been hailed as one of their best performances of that era. A fascinating sequence shows the evolution of “Eight Days A Week” through various experiments before they arrived on the fade-in idea. Riveting alternate takes and other unheard songs round out the set.
Anthology 1 is essential listening for any Beatle fan who’s already devoured the canon proper. With all the new material, diehards were mostly impressed by this first installment, and looking forward to the next two. The general public bought it too, though coming on the heels of the TV show, those who hadn’t read the fine print thought they were getting a hits package. The CDs subsequently showed up in used bins, much to the delight of consumers willing to pay it closer attention. We couldn’t wait for more.

The Beatles Anthology 1 (1995)—

Friday, December 18, 2009

Brian Eno 7: Cluster Collaborations

Fans of Eno’s “first four” would be well advised to seek out his work with Cluster, a German duo who’d been big on the electronic scene for some time. These more obscure albums go in and out of print every couple of years or so, usually reappearing in a different track sequence, but stand out above some of the less, shall we say, exciting entries in his catalog.

Cluster & Eno is entirely instrumental, covering a wide range of sounds and moods, with only their predominantly German titles to give any hint to the meaning. The opening “Ho Renomo” (whatever that means) is perhaps the most successful track, a wandering improvisation of three different keyboards and some guitar interjections. “Schöne Hände”, “Wermut” and “Steinsame” are more uneasy, but “Für Luise” is a little prettier in its sadness. The phonetically accurate “Die Bunge” fits something of a cowboys-in-space motif, while “One” is an improvisation featuring what sound like sitars.

Because of the lack of credits, it’s not easy to tell just how much of the album was Cluster and how much was Eno. What he contributed is much clearer on After The Heat, which includes three vocal tracks scattered throughout the mysterious and mystical instrumentals. The best by far is “The Belldog”, which brings back the sound from Before And After Science with a wonderfully opaque lyric and soaring melody. “Broken Head” is given a monotonous reading, and “Tzima N’arki” meshes an Asian-influenced backing track with a backwards vocal that produces a similar feel. (And once you realize that the vocal comes from “King’s Lead Hat”, you’ll spend half the song trying to sing along.)

These albums aren’t everyday listening, but they deserve wider exposure. The possibilities of the Internet make it easy to find them with just a little digging. Even more obscure, mostly because of its understated labeling, is an album worth of recordings that pre-date Cluster & Eno. Shelved for over two decades, Tracks And Traces is credited to Harmonia ’76, being the moniker the Cluster duo used when working with former Neu! guitarist Michael Rother. “’76” refers to the year the sessions took place, with Eno along for the ride. More electronic than the other two, it’s occasionally prettier and occasionally unsettling.

Cluster & Eno Cluster & Eno (1977)—3
Eno Moebius Roedelius After The Heat (1978)—
Harmonia ‘76 Tracks And Traces (1997)—3
2009 reissue: same as 1997, plus 3 extra tracks

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rolling Stones 12: Beggars Banquet

Beggars Banquet is the first of several Stones albums from the undisputed height of their career. While it does sound of a piece with its time—such as the occasional use of a Mellotron and Indian instruments—they mostly went back to basics, concentrating on guitars and the straight production style of Jimmy Miller, an American who’d recently worked with Traffic.
You may have heard it so many times, so you’re forgiven for skipping the first track on side one, the well-worn “Sympathy For The Devil”. You’d be well rewarded by diving straight into “No Expectations”, featuring Brian Jones’ last great contribution to the band (the mournful slide guitar) and the great Nicky Hopkins on heartbreaking piano. This song always conjures mental images of a stream in the woods for some reason. “Dear Doctor” is a funny one; who would have guessed they could be this clever? “Parachute Woman” is a chugging interlude before the epic “Jigsaw Puzzle”, with its Dylanesque cast of characters. Right there you’ve got a classic album side, and you’d be excused to lift the needle back to “No Expectations” several times before finally flipping the record over.
On to side two. The first thing to say about “Street Fighting Man” is that there’s not a single electric instrument on it—the drums and acoustic were recorded to a cassette and everything else was added after that, which is why it sounds so distorted. Get down indeed. “Prodigal Son” is a dirty blues tale right out of the Bible, while “Stray Cat Blues” is about as far as you can get from the Bible. The drums here are just one reason why Charlie Watts should be knighted. This is an incredible performance, and the last minute or so still kills every time—Mick’s “ba-ba, ba-boom boom CHA”, the rumbling bass, Charlie and Nicky taking over while Keith strangles a few more notes out of the guitar, and on out till the mix stops. “Factory Girl” is a fiddle-laden slice of English folk, while the closing “Salt Of The Earth” could pass for the real thing. Keith sings the first part of this one, and his young voice is already wrecked.
Beggars Banquet is one of the more unlikely country albums by a rock band, along with Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue. While it’s definitely electric, and no one would confuse it with Garth Brooks, the majority of the tracks sports acoustic guitars and hick vocalizations. But calling this “Stones do country” risks a disservice to an album that needn’t be pigeonholed as such.
The album came out in the days when bands (in the UK, anyway) would have put out a new single the same week, with tracks that weren’t on the album—in this case, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, which you can find on any number of hits collections, and the unjustifiably buried classic “Child Of The Moon”, which can be found on More Hot Rocks. Back in the days when you’d put Beggars Banquet on one side of a 90-minute Maxell (usually with Let It Bleed on the other), both of those songs had to be added at the end of the side. Rules, after all, are rules.

Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet (1968)—5

Monday, December 14, 2009

Rolling Stones 11: Their Satanic Majesties Request

Try as they might, the Stones were simply not a psychedelic band. Their Satanic Majesties Request proves this repeatedly.
That’s not to say there aren’t some great songs from this album, or even this period. But the “indulgence” of the time—and possibly the lack of influence of manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who for the first time isn’t listed as producer—likely spurred the Stones to get all wacky.
“Sing This All Together” tries to capture the communion of “All You Need Is Love”, and just misses. Luckily the guitars kick in for “Citadel”. Bill Wyman gets his first and only solo singing and writing credit on a Stones album with “In Another Land”, immediately undermined by the sound of him snoring at the track’s end. “2000 Man” is a fun one, if only for trying to figure out the meter in which Charlie’s playing. The side ends with the much-too-long reprise, “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)”, which meanders over what can barely be called improvisation.
After a holiday-based interlude and what sounds like a carnival barker, “She’s A Rainbow” starts the second side with promise, based around Nicky Hopkins on piano, John Paul Jones on strings and a lyrical idea stolen from Arthur Lee. “The Lantern” sounds like the Stones again, with layered guitars and subtle orchestration. “Gomper” doesn’t go much of anywhere, but “2,000 Light Years From Home” gives Brian Jones a chance to play around on his Mellotron. “On With The Show” attempts to be the big finale, but it seems the guys forgot they did it already (and better) on Between The Buttons.
Their Satanic Majesties Request isn’t as bad an album as some (or the above) would suggest, but we can be thankful they got the psychedelic era out of their system so quickly. From here they’d stick with the guitars, and with much better results.
Fifty years after its release, most likely in the wake of the greatly expanded Sgt. Pepper, the Stones took the anniversary to reissue an expanded version. Well, kinda; this expensive box set contained the same music repeated on four discs (mono and stereo, on both vinyl and CD), with the obligatory lenticular cover and larger artwork. The average Stones fanatic probably had in on vinyl and at least one of its previous CD editions already, and the real fanatics would have bought the previous year’s Stones In Mono box on either vinyl or CD too, so this was truly a missed opportunity.

The Rolling Stones Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)—3

Friday, December 11, 2009

David Bowie 17: Changestwobowie

Bowie may have been taking an extended vacation, but a few things appeared in those lost years. There was “Under Pressure”, a surprising collaboration with Queen, which still sounds great today despite what Vanilla Ice did to it. He recorded a few tracks for a Bertolt Brecht project, and also did the theme song for the movie Cat People. Meanwhile, his label filled the gap with Changestwobowie, which included a handful of hits from the albums since the first Changes album, as well as a few odd choices from those early days.
But when you consider what constitutes this album, maybe those choices weren’t so odd after all. The album opens with the title track from Aladdin Sane, complete with that inimitable piano solo. “Oh! You Pretty Things” takes us way back to the near-beginning, followed up by the still stellar “Starman”. “1984” was only a few years away, and we get brought right up to date with “Ashes To Ashes”.
Side two is slightly more adventurous, beginning with “Sound And Vision” and “Fashion”. “Wild Is The Wind” is brought back from Station To Station, and it was even promoted with a new lip-synched performance video. But before you can enjoy “D.J.” you have the choice of skipping or enduring all seven minutes of “John I’m Only Dancing (Again) 1975”, the pointless “disco” remake that had stayed buried for six years.
As a bona fide greatest hits album, Changestwobowie doesn’t quite cut it. But as a sampler that would suck newbies into the depths of the catalog, it succeeds. The album still holds together well today, despite that one exception, and the cover was a winner too. Unfortunately, after the man himself took over the catalog (via Rykodisc and then Virgin), it’s no longer in print. Still, some of us hold out hope for Changesthreebowie.

David Bowie Changestwobowie (1981)—4
Current CD equivalent: none

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

David Bowie 16: Scary Monsters

All the lessons of the Berlin years were distilled down into Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), which effectively closed the book on a very busy decade. Bookended by two versions of “It’s No Game”—the first of which is preceded by what sounds like a vacuum cleaner and is much more jarring than the more pleasant closer—he takes the art-punk scene and makes it his own, for perhaps the last time.
For the most part, his songwriting has caught up with the band, so the songs are catchy, particularly on side one. “Up The Hill Backwards” switches between a faster acoustic-driven section—with Robert Fripp reclaiming his tone from Adrian Belew—and an almost chanted verse. The title track sports a silly Cockney vocal, and is a lot of fun to yell along to. Major Tom’s destiny is revealed in “Ashes To Ashes”, which also served to influence the video generation of filmmakers. “Fashion” rips the current NYC scene apart, forever linked with its video.
Side two somehow isn’t as memorable, through no fault of its own. “Teenage Wildlife” is reminiscent of “‘Heroes’” with its two-chord theme, but doesn’t hold interest as well. The same can be said for “Scream Like A Baby” and “Because You’re Young”. For good measure, a cover of Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come” continues a trend, complete with words on the lyric sheet that aren’t on the album.
And from there, he went three long years before his next full album—an eternity back then, and nothing at all these days. Scary Monsters somehow seems more “complete” than Lodger, and thus a more fitting place to take stock of where he’d brought us. In a very busy decade Bowie consistently challenged listeners, and a decade later, as the final release in the Ryko reissue series, it was another good finale. Rerecorded versions of “Space Oddity” and “Panic In Detroit” round out the bonus tracks, plus the rare single instrumental “Crystal Japan” and the startling rearrangement of “Alabama Song” where the key changes with every verse. We just had to wait a little longer to be surprised again.

David Bowie Scary Monsters (1980)—
1992 Rykodisc: same as 1980, plus 4 extra tracks

Monday, December 7, 2009

David Bowie 15: Lodger

While the first two albums of the so-called Berlin Trilogy were merely influenced by Eno, Lodger was the most collaborative with the domed one. It’s also the weakest of the three. The lack of instrumentals also sets it apart from Low and “Heroes”.
There are some truly standout tracks: “Fantastic Voyage” is a pleasant intro, notoriously turned upside down into “Boys Keep Swinging” (complete with swapped instruments among the rhythm section); “D.J.” is still a nasty riff; “Look Back In Anger” had a vivid video and a great singalong chorus despite itself, as does “Red Sails”; and “Red Money” takes the backing track for “Sister Midnight” from The Idiot and adds new lyrics. Throughout, the wild guitar of Adrian Belew adds weird color, sometimes sounding like Simon House’s violin, which also snakes its way through the songs. (The album’s highlight, by the way, is the part-solo-part-riff by Carlos Alomar in the middle of “Look Back In Anger”.)
But that leaves the remainder, which are more experimental than enjoyable. “African Night Flight” spits out the words too fast for comfort, and “Move On” sounds like there’s a melody buried under the pounding drums and chanting. “Yassassin” (which is Turkish for “long live”, as the lyric sheet helpfully points out) wants to strive for something bigger but misses. “Repetition”, about spousal abuse, is as ugly as its theme.
Coming on the cusp of the punk era, it can certainly be said that Lodger didn’t sound like anything else Bowie had done before, nor did it sound like much else out at the same time. As an album, it gets lots of accolades, but it’s kinda noisy, leaving one feeling much like the broken and bent figure on the cover. He wasn’t done yet anyway.

David Bowie Lodger (1979)—3
1991 Rykodisc: same as 1979, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, December 4, 2009

Beatles 25: Live At The BBC

An Italian bootleg company called Great Dane had already established a fine reputation for especially reverent multi-disc packages of artists’ live material (which supposedly fell into the public domain gray area sooner than studio outtakes), when they outdid anyone’s expectations with a nine-disc box of every Beatles recording for the BBC then known to exist, in chronological order and best-yet sound. It was as lavish as any label’s official box set—truly a labor of love. So we were very surprised, not to mention skeptical, when Apple announced the imminent release of a two-disc collection of BBC recordings compiled and directed by George Martin. It appeared as promised, and was only held out of the #1 spot by the Pearl Jam album that came out the same day.
Not even trying to replicate the Great Dane set, Live At The BBC supplies all but six selections the boys recorded for radio that were never attempted at Abbey Road, along with live-in-the-studio renditions of songs we know and love, interspersed by witty banter and antics, all in glorious mono. Most of the recordings come from the busy year of 1963, with many covers of their favorites by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and so forth. The first disc alone includes “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby”, a recording that predates Please Please Me; “I’ll Be On My Way”, a Lennon-McCartney hit by Epstein protégé Billy J. Kramer; a superior rendition of “Baby It’s You”, complete with cold ending and a vocal not hampered by the cold John had during the first album’s sessions; and the stellar “Soldier Of Love”, another gem by John’s favorite songwriter at the time, Arthur Alexander.
The second disc begins with the boys describing their experience making their first film, followed by the title song. This version has the piano break rather obviously dubbed in from the record, with a joke fade that’s priceless. The rest of disc is almost as enjoyable as the first. Another string of rarities from July 1963 begins with a song John would revisit in the ‘70s, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Lonesome Tears In My Eyes” includes the riff he pinched for “Ballad Of John & Yoko”, George plows through a fun “Nothin’ Shakin’” and Paul screams another classic that never was, “The Hippy Hippy Shake”. “Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” and “Matchbox” are unique for being performed on the radio a full year before either was recorded for EMI, and “Honey Don’t” is sung here by John, not Ringo. The sound quality of “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” leads one to think that Apple used the bootlegs as their source for this collection.
There’s a lot of music here to take in at once. Considering how many times they did some of these songs on the BBC, some contenders certainly had to be left out. We would have preferred fewer songs that sound identical to the standard versions. But as it turns out, the success of the official Live At The BBC gave all concerned the confidence that the next archival project would be just as lucrative. (And it was, though it would be another two decades before another BBC set was compiled, which coincided with a revamp of this one. Some of the songs were upgraded, and the crossfades were less obvious; they also added a speech snippet, replaced another, and stuck on a “closing theme”.)
From a fan’s standpoint, it was great to have some “new” Beatles music, and just in time for Xmas, too. Listening to Live At The BBC, one couldn’t help being swept up by the overall sense of fun and excitement in each and every one of the tracks, and particularly the interview snippets. And that, of course, is just another reason why the Beatles were so special. They still make us happy.

The Beatles Live At The BBC (1994)—4
2013 remastered CD: same as 1994, plus 3 extra tracks (and minus 1)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rolling Stones 10: Flowers

The Beatles had Yesterday And Today, the Who would have Magic Bus, and the Rolling Stones have Flowers. Basically, it’s a catching-up LP that collects various singles and tracks that had already been British album tracks to fill the gap until the band’s next real album. But as crass as Capitol had been with the Beatles, at least they never stooped to putting songs on an album that had already appeared on a previous album. Flowers goes over the line with “Lady Jane”, which had been on Aftermath, along with “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, which had only appeared on Between The Buttons not six months before.
Luckily for the average record-buyer, Flowers is pretty damn good, collecting various scattered tracks from the previous year into a cohesive whole. In addition to the three retreads on side one, we get the proto-psychedelic freakout “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?”, the stellar “Out Of Time” and amazingly, a take on the Motown classic “My Girl”.
Side two begins with a pair of tracks from the British Between The Buttons. “Back Street Girl” is a trip to Paris that grows on you, in direct contrast with the noisy “Please Go Home”, a last grasp at the Bo Diddley beat under a Theremin. “Mother’s Little Helper” blamed the drug problem on the middle-aged; like “Take It Or Leave It”, it was featured on the British Aftermath. “Ride On, Baby” was a Jagger/Richards demo unlikely to appear otherwise, while “Sittin’ On A Fence” is a demo that luckily got some exposure, a great tune lifted by the harpsichord over the final verse.
For a hodgepodge, Flowers could have been a lot worse. Obviously, the record label put more thought into the sequencing than they did the artwork. And like all their American LPs, it’s still available on CD, so if you don’t have the songs already, it’s a worthwhile purchase.

The Rolling Stones Flowers (1967)—

Monday, November 30, 2009

Rolling Stones 9: Between The Buttons

For a band with as high a profile as the Rolling Stones, it seems odd that Between The Buttons would be such an overlooked album. It doesn’t feature in most pantheons of classic Stones albums, and isn’t considered “notorious”. But those who don’t know about it are missing out on something special.
Between The Buttons appeared in early 1967, in that wacky period before Sgt. Pepper decided everything had to be psychedelic. It follows on the promise of Aftermath, by including lots of unusual instruments—like recorders, Hammond organ and brass bands—on twelve new Jagger/Richards compositions. They’re further than ever from their blues roots, but it seems the band had been listening to such peers as the Kinks, along with lots of Bob Dylan. To confuse matters, the American version shared only the cover with the British edition, with a few juggled tracks and two key substitutions that would resurface soon enough in a typical case of label shenanigans.
Beginning with “Let’s Spend The Night Together” should be reason enough for this album to be popular. These days the lyrics don’t seem that risqué at all, and the piano is infectious. “Yesterday’s Papers” brings back the previous album’s misogyny and vibraphone, then the piano returns for “Ruby Tuesday”, still a wonderfully tender single. “Connection” is an excellent Chuck Berry pastiche, nicely echoed by “Miss Amanda Jones” on side two. “She Smiled Sweetly” is a rare outlet for Keith on the church organ, and the music hall feel of “Cool, Calm & Collected” finishes the side after a kazoo solo and an increasing tempo that threatens to burn onto the label.
The second side keeps it rocking. “All Sold Out” gives Charlie a chance to flail around the kit, while he’s powerfully restrained on “My Obsession”. Both tracks also feature nicely layered harmonies. “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” is the only song we can think of equally influenced by Blonde On Blonde and Winnie-The-Pooh, its Dylanesque delivery punctuated by non-blues harmonica and a hint of nursery rhyme. “Complicated” is slightly ordinary, redeemed by more updated Chuck Berry-isms in “Miss Amanda Jones”, but both form mere stepping stones to the grand finale. “Something Happened To Me Yesterday” owes an even bigger debt to that recent Dylan album, with the drunken horns and a tuba solo. Keith sings lead for the first time, and just when you think it’s ready to fade, Mick adds a spoken farewell section. A wonderful way to go.
Between The Buttons did okay on the charts, their main competition being the Monkees. If anything, the album sold on the heels of the “Ruby Tuesday”/“Let’s Spend The Night Together” single, which was left off the British version in favor of two other tracks. Both versions are in print on CD today. Which version you should get depends on how many times you already own that single on numerous Stones hits collections.

The Rolling Stones Between The Buttons (1967)—4

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rolling Stones 8: Got Live If You Want It!

While anxiously waiting for the next real Stones album, the band’s American label took a hint as well as a title from a British EP. While three of those tracks had already been scattered on a couple of U.S.-only albums, the band were convinced to record a few shows on their current British tour for a full-length live album. And just like that, Got Live If You Want It! happened.
Well, not exactly. While the sources for the recordings used have been documented, many of the tracks sound just too clean to be really, really live. The technology to capture each of the instruments, microphones and drums on a stage, usually through a crappy PA system, as clear as they sound here simply didn’t exist yet. And when you add in all those screaming girls, the math just doesn’t work out.
That said, the band does display energy, especially Charlie, who drives “Under My Thumb”, complete with that post-chorus tag they’d still use in 1969, right into “Get Off Of My Cloud”. The momentum crashes for a sadly out-of-tune “Lady Jane”, so maybe this really was captured live on stage in front of an adoring audience. And when was the last time you heard an electric dulcimer? Proof of studio trickery does exist, however, as both “I’m Loving You Too Long” and “Fortune Teller” were studio tracks doctored with screams to sound live just for this album. (The originals of both can be found today on More Hot Rocks.)
Speaking of trickery, somebody had the bright idea to start side two with a tease of “Satisfaction” before cutting to the actual performance of “The Last Time”. In other words, no, the band did not really goad the audience that way. “19th Nervous Breakdown” is fairly powerful, “Time On My Side” off-pitch, and “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby” really fuzzy and distorted, so maybe it’s just the backing vocals that were touched up. “I’m Alright” is different from the one on the EP (and Out Of Our Heads here), and still an odd way to kill two minutes mid-show. “Satisfaction” fades before the audience does, who keep screaming through the “God Save The Queen” recording piped through the theater at the end.
Because it was part of the original American canon, Got Live If You Want It! is available for purchase today, with only slightly less atrocious sound than before. If anything, it proves that the Stones tradition of pushing a questionable live album on the unsuspecting public wasn’t their idea in the first place. You really can skip it.

The Rolling Stones Got Live If You Want It! (1966)—2

Friday, November 27, 2009

U2 7: Rattle And Hum

Unfortunately, having become truly superstars, U2 got caught up in the wake of their incredible success and popularity. The faithful still hung on their every word, but with Rattle And Hum—a double album and companion to their feature film—they were in danger of wearing out their welcome.
Like the film, the album began simply as a collection of live recordings produced by Jimmy Iovine, who’d done the same on Under A Blood Red Sky. But as the project ballooned and the band’s fascination with American rock icons grew, the album turned into less of a soundtrack than a follow-up to The Joshua Tree, to which it sadly pales.
The live tracks are performed well, as long as you can stand Bono’s extrapolations. “Helter Skelter” and “All Along The Watchtower” are unnecessary covers, but “Pride” and “Bullet The Blue Sky” are a little better. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is augmented by a gospel choir, but based on the film footage, it’s tough to tell if they actually appeared onstage with the band, or were grafted on in the studio. “Silver And Gold” makes its first appearance on a U2 album, though the B-side and Sun City versions are preferable.
The new songs are another odd mix. The Edge sings a poem called “Van Diemen’s Land”, with a voice that sounds uncannily like Don Johnson. “Hawkmoon 269” and “Love Rescue Me” are too-long collaborations with Bob Dylan. “Angel Of Harlem” is little more than namedropping of references Bono doesn’t understand, but somehow it was a hit. Equally baffling is the popularity of “When Love Comes To Town”, a two-chord lumber written for and featuring B.B. King, who’s obviously a good sport. “God Part II” is another rushed list, written both in response to John Lennon’s song of the same name and the recent trash biography by Albert Goldman. At least there’s some relief with “Heartland”, a Joshua Tree outtake that thankfully revives the Eno/Lanois sound, and the closing “All I Want Is You” has a sweep and passion that almost makes up for what has gone before.
Rattle And Hum seemed so much more important at the time, but the excitement didn’t last. They were getting too big, and something needed to be done if they were going to remain relevant.

U2 Rattle And Hum (1988)—2

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

U2 6: The Joshua Tree

Decades after the fact, it’s apparent this is where everything changed for U2. They’d been slowly building up to something that would make such an impact, and boy, did they. In 1987, The Joshua Tree was everywhere, much like, we’d dare to say, Sgt. Pepper had been twenty years earlier.
Also with this album, Bono gave himself license to become even more pompous and self-important, and set him and the other guys up for parody. Luckily for everyone involved, the album was—and is—pretty good. It builds on the work started with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois on The Unforgettable Fire, filling out the sound a bit and adding some American dust.
The three hits appear at the top, fading in with the galloping fanfare of “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” conjuring images of the self-deprecating video of the boys wandering around Las Vegas, and of course, “With Or Without You”. After that, “Bullet The Blue Sky” originally seemed out of place, but it delivers an excellent contrast. Closing a very good album side is another song about heroin. “Running To Stand Still” is probably the one most people would skip, but the acoustic blues and “ha la la la de day” refrains provide something of a relief to the attack of the previous track.
“Red Hill Mining Town” starts side two, and it probably means something to a few people in Dublin, but the chorus cuts through the murk to make it something worth hearing out of whatever context it’s in. “In God’s Country” manages to keep us interested over two chords, but it’s still a little weak. At the time, “Trip Through Your Wires” seemed adventurous—Bono’s blowing a harmonica!—but in the wake of their next album and film, you can see where they started to get a little ahead of themselves. “One Tree Hill” is the Personal Statement, but they fill it with enough of their anthemic sound to make people care.
That’s pretty much where the album stops, but there are two more songs, so we have to talk about them. “Exit” is the Dark Ballad, supposedly inspired by Gary Gilmore, while “Mothers Of The Disappeared” takes it back to the commercial sound, albeit with a song about Argentinean victims. This might suggest that the parts don’t quite equal the sum. But The Joshua Tree still a good album and quite justifiably the one that made people notice.
The band kindly added excellent additional songs two at a time to each of the singles — albeit at 33 1/3, making them tough to play on jukeboxes. These were all made available on the bonus disc of the 20th Anniversary Edition, alongside outtakes and working tracks. Ten years later, the 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition supplemented the album with most of a Madison Square Garden concert that spawned the “gospel” version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Recorded in the fall of 1987, after the album had taken over the world, the band had become too big for even themselves. (The so-called Super Deluxe Edition had that, along with a disc of “newly commissioned” remixes and all but one of the bonuses from the 20th Anniversary Edition, replacing a single mix with two unreleased alternate mixes.)

U2 The Joshua Tree (1987)—4
2007 20th Anniversary Edition: same as 1987, plus 14 extra tracks
2017 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1987, plus 17 extra tracks
2017 30th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition: same as 2007, plus 25 extra tracks (and minus 1 track)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Brian Eno 6: Before And After Science

Eno took a long time to release a proper follow-up to Another Green World, but that’s not to say he wasn’t busy, as evidenced by his various collaborations, as well as Discreet Music. He gained more mainstream notice by appearing heavily on two David Bowie albums within a year’s space, and some of that influence shows up on Before And After Science. Supposedly culled from sessions producing over a hundred compositions, these ten songs run a gamut of styles while conveying a cohesive mood.
Side one is almost funky, beginning with the bass-heavy “No One Receiving” and pulling out the synths for “Backwater”. “Kurt’s Rejoinder” comes at a fast pace, and we finally get a Green World-style respite with “Energy Fools The Magician”. “King’s Lead Hat”, besides being incredibly catchy, is an anagram for a band he’d soon spend several albums producing.
Side two begins with another pop song, the gentler and extremely melodic “Here He Comes”. And from here, Eno paints an aural picture of a wide, open seascape that’s as calming as it is mysterious. “Julie With…” is a moving snapshot that still raises debate over what’s actually taken place, built over slow minor chords and ending with a melancholy guitar solo. “By This River” saddens the mood even more, with an almost child-like piano part carrying through courtesy of his new friends, the German duo Cluster. (More on them later.) “Through Hollow Lands” follows its counterpart on the first side with another instrumental, this one dedicated to minimalist pianist Harold Budd. (More on him later, too.) And just like the credits for a science fiction movie about friendly aliens, “Spider And I” fades in and out on a wish and a dream.
It’s the second side that makes Before And After Science a truly grand finale for such a busy period. Eno’s first four “rock” albums are a complete entity, complementing each other so well that to enjoy one is to enjoy them all together. And while he had more albums up his sleeve, it would be a long time before we’d hear him sing again.

Brian Eno Before And After Science (1977)—4

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Brian Eno 5: Live Collaborations

Some would call it a short attention span, while others would insist that it was part of his quest for something new, but the truth of the matter is that Brian Eno didn’t stay in one place for long. From time to time he’d be coaxed onto a stage, even going on a brief tour with a backup band supporting his first album. Bootlegs of usually short lengths go in and out of circulation, lately under the title Dali’s Car; of most interest is an early version of “I’ll Come Running” with different lyrics, based on a riff out of “Baby’s On Fire”.
Soon afterwards, attracted by the other performers involved, Eno took part in a one-off showcase featuring singer-guitarist Kevin Ayers, as well as John Cale and Nico, both late of Eno’s beloved Velvet Underground. The performance by the combo (dubbed ACNE from their collective surnames, an acronym sure to appeal to Eno’s fondness for wordplay) was released later in the year as June 1, 1974. Eno starts the album with “Driving Me Backwards” and “Baby’s On Fire”, supported by Cale and Ayers’ backing band, and sticks around for Cale’s dark cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” and Nico’s even more harrowing take on the Doors’ “The End”, with only her see-sawing harmonium below her voice. The other side of the album is devoted to Ayers, whose voice has its own issues with pitch. (Not included on the album was Nico’s rendition of the German national anthem, including the verses usually left out following the demise of the Nazis.)

Following some appearances with Robert Fripp, Eno’s next high-profile extracurricular performances were with a group headed by fellow Roxy Musician Phil Manzanera. The 801 got their name from an Eno song lyric, and he takes the lead vocal on the majority of 801 Live. The suitably somber “Lagrima” leads into “TNK”, a wonderfully arranged cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”, followed by two rearranged pieces from the Manzanera catalog, dovetailing into Eno’s own “Sombre Reptiles”. “Baby’s On Fire” gets a funky makeover, complete with the aforementioned riff, before Phil’s “Diamond Head” instrumental from the album of the same name. A crash through “Miss Shapiro” from the same album leads into the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, and it all comes down to a reverent “Third Uncle”.
Of the two, 801 Live is pretty solid, and more accessible to a broad audience than the cult sounds of Ayers, Cale and Nico. While the 1974 show has yet to be expanded, the 801 has been upgraded twice: first to add two more Eno songs between what were sides one and two, and again with a bonus disc of rehearsals from a few days earlier.

Kevin Ayers–John Cale–Eno–Nico June 1, 1974 (1974)—3
801 801 Live (1976)—
1999 CD reissue: same as 1976, plus 2 extra tracks
2009 Collector’s Edition: same as 1999, plus 12 extra tracks

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Brian Eno 4: Discreet Music

While he’d yet to find a label for the genre, Brian Eno was fascinated by the dual concepts of music that was both self-generating and capable of being part of a larger environment. The back cover of Discreet Music, which put him closer to achieving these ideas, goes into much better depth of explaining how as well as why he created this album.
Side one, which shares the album’s title, is a 30-minute mix of synthesizer loops he’d created for Robert Fripp to extemporize upon. The tones are fairly basic, simple flute sounds and low winds. The notes are few, alternating within the same key and pitch, going in and out of the overall mix to provide a pleasant accompaniment to any number of non-arduous activities. Because it’s so long, it often seems on the verge of fading away, only to return. It’s probably best experienced at home, with the windows open to hear birds singing and rain falling, as Eno’s inspiration for the piece happened to include.
Side two purports to present another approach to his self-generating thesis. Here he takes one of the most well-known, copied pieces of music in the history of written scores, and has a classic string ensemble disassemble it three different ways. We recognize the first notes of Pachelbel’s Canon from the start, only to have it slowly evolve into long, drawn-out extensions of the notes. The second section allows spurts of the melody to appear and sustain, while the third, by design, renders the score past the point of recognition.
Coming smack-dab amidst Eno’s “pop” albums, Discreet Music is alternatively distracting and challenging. Where side one has its merit, side two is collectively a matter of personal taste; if anything, it’s unique to hear Eno “music” played by acoustic, unamplified and untreated instruments. The album is best appreciated as part of his big picture, after all else has been absorbed.

Brian Eno Discreet Music (1975)—3

Friday, November 20, 2009

Rolling Stones 7: Aftermath

Aftermath is the first “real” Stones album, the one that showcases the band as we would come to accept them. All the songs are credited to Jagger-Richards (whether or not they were the actual writers). Brian Jones, having lost his power to keep them strictly a blues band, stretches out on several exotic instruments. And Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts keep everything tied down in the back.
Of course, the misogyny is out in full force; Mick did have an image to keep, after all. The opening notes of “Paint It, Black” hint at the current Indian influence before giving way to the blatant nastiness of “Stupid Girl”. Brian shines again on “Lady Jane”, contributing the dulcimer and probably the harpsichord. It’s a very gentle song, until you pay attention to the lyrics. Brian’s marimbas drive “Under My Thumb”, another cruel song still played by the band today. “Doncha Bother Me” is a successful marriage of Chicago blues and swinging London. “Think” features several guitar parts, from the strummed acoustic to the “Satisfaction” fuzz tone; an underrated track.
“Flight 505” starts the second side with a boogie piano solo from sixth Stone Ian Stewart before turning into an otherwise ordinary song with a trick ending worthy of Pete Townshend. “High And Dry” is a country blues that sounds like it was written five minutes before it was recorded. They would do this style better in the future. “It’s Not Easy” isn’t much, but “I Am Waiting” is the hidden gem here, a fine example of mid-‘60s British chamber pop and a killer bridge. The mood turns completely with “Goin’ Home”, a track notorious for being rock ‘n roll’s first lengthy album track. Unfortunately, Mick can’t sustain us over the eleven-plus minutes here; he’d learn the secret of dynamics soon enough.
Aftermath is the Stones learning how to compete on the album charts in an era when fans wanted more substance for their dollar. The British version, which came out a couple of months earlier with a different cover and different tracks (naturally), offered even more value, clocking 53 minutes against the 42 on the American. Somebody at ABKCO understood this album’s importance, as both the US and UK versions are available today on CD, should you wish to compare them.

The Rolling Stones Aftermath (1966)—3

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rolling Stones 6: Big Hits

In two years’ time, the Stones had released five albums in America, compared to three in the UK (where there were more songs exclusive to EPs and 45s). These had some great tracks and actual hit singles, of course, but with the possible exception of their debut, those LPs were increasingly chaotic, with arbitrary sequencing and consisting of a strange menu of covers, tentative songwriting attempts and incongruous “live” recordings punctuated by screaming girls. And for the completist, several but not all of those B-sides and EP tracks were scattered throughout, leaving little continuity.
In that time they’d also evolved from an R&B combo to actual competition to the Beatles in the songwriting category. So in many ways their first “great” album, and a much better place to soak up all the history up to 1966, is Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass). This collection brings together practically all the snotty songs we love: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, “The Last Time”, “Get Off Of My Cloud”, “19th Nervous Breakdown” and so forth. A few not-quite-hits like “Tell Me”, “Play With Fire” and “Good Times, Bad Times” and key covers including “Not Fade Away”, “Time Is On My Side” (here in its “guitar intro” incarnation) and “It’s All Over Now” round out the set, and if you’re feeling sensitive, there’s always “As Tears Go By”. The LP even came with a full-size booklet of dreamy photos. (Naturally, the British version, which came out eight months later, had different tracks and a different cover.)
If you love the Stones, you’re going to want those first five albums anyway. But for a starting point, Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass) does the job well. And there’s nary a clunker in the set.

The Rolling Stones Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass) (1966)—4

Monday, November 16, 2009

U2 5: The Unforgettable Fire

For their fourth full-length album, U2 wanted to try something different. Rather than the dependable sound Steve Lillywhite gave their previous albums, they turned to a more atmospheric sound picture. The band most likely knew Brian Eno’s production work from his collaborations with David Bowie and Talking Heads; Eno convinced them to also work with his sidekick Daniel Lanois, with whom he’d recently been exploring more “ambient” recordings.
When The Unforgettable Fire appeared, critics pounced on the murky chaos evidenced in the opening track, “A Sort Of Homecoming”. Had they waited, they could have been carried away by the chorus. They were much kinder to the first, obvious single, “Pride (In The Name Of Love”. This was what sold the album to the public, who knew a hit when they heard one. (Unfortunately, nobody told Bono that Martin Luther King was killed in the evening, and not the “early morning [of] April 4”.) “Wire” turns the Lillywhite sound inside out, from the harmonic guitar riff through the trebly funk bass to the double-time drums. The title track is a surprise, a showcase for the Edge on piano, Bono’s passionate vocal and the near-orchestral treatments, likely courtesy of Eno and Lanois. The track is one of the band’s best. The first side closes with “Promenade”, more of a musical poem than a song.
Similarly, the second side begins with a sketch, the atmospheric “4th of July” built around improvised bass and guitar. Unlike the title, it inspires visions of snowy fields at dusk. “Bad” would become another surprise for the band. Built mostly around two chords, it starts quietly and builds through two crescendos under covert lyrics about heroin addiction. “Indian Summer Sky” seems to echo “Wire” on the previous side, another insistent drum-driven sung under angry vocals. “Elvis Presley And America” also came under fire as “indulgent”; the stream-of-consciousness vocal wanders over a slowed-down early mix of “A Sort Of Homecoming”, yet still manages to hold your interest. (Though we’re still not sure what the hell it has do with Elvis Presley or America.) The album ends with the simple “MLK”, another tribute to the subject of “Pride”.
The album was a worldwide hit, and added to the band’s growing mystique in the US—so much so that some B-sides and live tracks were hurriedly issued the following summer as the Wide Awake In America EP. Driven by a powerful performance of “Bad”, it became a huge hit in the wake of Live Aid. A rearranged “A Sort Of Homecoming” brought out the strengths of that song, and the outtakes “The Three Sunrises” and “Love Comes Tumbling” also got airplay.
The EP was included in full on the 25th anniversary edition of the album, alongside remixes and other B-sides of the period that further explore the collaboration with Eno and Lanois. The band’s affection for the album is also evident by their finally completing two tracks from the sessions.
Hindsight being what it is, The Unforgettable Fire has long since escaped its tag as an indulgent experiment to be appreciated as a terrific album. And they were just getting started.

U2 The Unforgettable Fire (1984)—
2009 Deluxe Edition: same as 1984, plus 16 extra tracks

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rolling Stones 5: December’s Children

For all their progress musically, the Rolling Stones were still considered product and nothing more. London Records had to get another LP on the shelves for the Xmas season, and that’s how December’s Children (an enigmatic title made even more obscure with the subtitle “And Everybody’s”) happened.
They started with a pile of tunes up for grabs from the British version of Out Of Our Heads. “She Said Yeah” is a glorious minute and a half of fuzz, from the same guy who wrote “Slow Down” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”. “Talkin’ About You” is one of their less obvious Chuck Berry covers, given a more soul-oriented groove. And the slightly psychedelic “I’m Free” would go on to be one of their more unlikely stage favorites, though we wonder why they didn’t bother to redo that out-of-sync tambourine.
Because it was the law, two recent singles, the terrific “Get Off Of My Cloud” and the acquired taste “As Tears Go By”, had to be included on the album. The same went for their respective B-sides: “The Singer Not The Song”, which proves how difficult it is to keep two 12-strings in tune with each other, and “Gotta Get Away”, the inspiration for “Laugh” by the Monkees, as well as their own live arrangement for “Under My Thumb”. But the pickings then grew slim, which is how a demo of “Blue Turns To Grey” ended up there, along with two more songs from that live British EP, Muddy Waters’ “Look What You’ve Done” from Chess the year before, and “You Better Move On”, an Arthur Alexander slow burner that was already two years old at this point.
But even for such a mixed bag, December’s Children does have some decent music, and even more confident songwriting from Mick and Keith, making it a gamble that works. They were a good band that was only getting better.

The Rolling Stones December’s Children (And Everybody’s) (1965)—

Friday, November 13, 2009

Brian Eno 3: Another Green World

With his third album, Eno truly hit on a combination that encapsulated his legacy. Another Green World contains not only futuristic pop songs, but several vocal-less tracks that spotlight the “textures” that would make him a producer in demand. While some famous friends—like John Cale, Robert Fripp and Phil Collins—are on hand to add to the sonic picture, Eno is responsible for most of the instruments, many listed in the credits more for their descriptive qualities than their actual names. When there are vocals, the lyrics are more minimal and simplistic, for lack of a better term, than ever.
Those tracks with vocals are all winners. “Sky Saw” sports a repetitive riff that sounds like its title, and two sets of vocals. “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Golden Hours” are impenetrable but fascinating. “I’ll Come Running” is the closest thing in his canon to a love song; who wouldn’t fall for someone pledging to tie your shoes? “Everything Merges With The Night” nearly ends the proceedings with another calm sensation, but for the actual finale.
But in between, the instrumentals provide counterpoints all the way through. In most cases, the tracks fade in as well as out, giving the impressions that we’ve either happened upon them, or perhaps they’re passing by us. The mysterious “In Dark Trees”, in particular, is juxtaposed with the grand “The Big Ship” for some widely diverse moods. The title track is absolutely gorgeous and far too short. “Little Fishes” and “Becalmed” are extremely accurate titles, while “Sombre Reptiles” and “Over Fire Island” are suggestive in their own way. “Zawinul/Lava” nods at the jazz keyboard legend, mixing simple piano lines over a quiet rhythm section and what sound like animal shrieks. And instead of the calm mentioned earlier, the “Spirits Drifting” in the closing track don’t seem at all benign.
So wherever this green world is, the space music provided on this album seems fitting. Another Green World covers all the bases, and nothing else in his discography matches it. So it’s a great place to start, but you won’t find anything else like it in the catalog.

Eno Another Green World (1975)—4

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Brian Eno 2: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

Now firmly a solo artist, Eno strove forward with Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), based around (so he said) a series of postcards about the Chinese Revolution and featuring, unlike the last album, the same band throughout all the tracks. This gives the album a certain continuity not immediately recognizable to those of us who hadn’t seen the postcards.
“Burning Airlines Give You So Much More” and “Back In Judy’s Jungle” seem to want to set up some kind of story, but it isn’t getting anywhere. “The Fat Lady Of Limbourg” derails any possibility of a plot, with a lyric that’s out front and teases up to the denouement. It’s at this point that “Mother Whale Eyeless” rises above the obscurity for a song that serves to unite us all. “The Great Pretender” ends the side with a fading “cricket menace” designed to drive the listener mad.
It’s the second side where the album truly takes off. “Third Uncle” would be appropriated by Bauhaus for their entire career, but his version includes mumbled lyrics, an incessant beat and a guitar solo that’s absolute genius. “Put A Straw Under Baby” takes things down a notch, a lovely nursery rhyme with backing from the notoriously untalented Portsmouth Sinfonia. “The True Wheel” features a gloriously repetitive solo from Phil Manzanera over three chords in off meter and the first mention of an entity called the 801. “China My China” reminds us of the alleged concept, and a wonderful typewriter interlude after the line “to pay percussion over solos.” A lengthy silence precedes the title track, which serves as a deceptively calm soundtrack to mountain climbing.
Not as strong as his first, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) still offers sounds that are far ahead of where others were at the time. Its tentative beginning is more than redeemed by the bulk of the remainder, and it serves as a worthy chapter in his story. He was gaining a reputation as something of an intelligent oddball, but he was about to evolve again, with some of his best work still to come.

Eno Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)—

Monday, November 9, 2009

Brian Eno 1: Here Come The Warm Jets

Musicians often say they feel most creative when trying something new on their proficient instrument or attempting to bring something coherent out of an instrument they’ve never played before. Unfamiliarity with the rules, so to speak, frees them from sticking to a prescribed structure, and lets them try things they wouldn’t had they “known better”.
Brian Eno’s genius has been that his instrument of proficiency is the recording medium itself, and by using musical implements in various ways and then treating them in the mixing process, the end result on the listener’s home stereo has been some of the most influential music of the last thirty-odd years.
He first gained notoriety adding sound color to the performance of Roxy Music, and he soon after went “solo”, releasing records under his own name and as collaborations with other, similar thinking artists. Much of his output since the ‘70s has been under the guise of producer, working with such performers as David Bowie, Devo, Talking Heads, U2 and, most recently, James and Coldplay.
His first solo sojourn was an experiment with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, with the guitarist soloing over tape loops controlled by Eno. Not too long afterward appeared Here Come The Warm Jets, a proper Eno solo album filled with ten tracks not too far removed from what people would expect from Roxy Music, a band that strove to marry the ‘50s and the ‘80s in the ‘70s.
Here Come The Warm Jets is an exciting collection of fractured pop songs, all performed by various musicians cast for each track as Eno saw fit. From the start, the lyrics seem almost secondary, existing only to prop up the tracks themselves. The opening “Needles In The Camel’s Eye” is propelled by a driving riff courtesy of guitarist Phil Manzanera and (especially) Chris Spedding. Indeed, on this track the words are inconsequential. “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch” considers a love triangle with a man who can either breathe or fart fire, depending on what you’ve read. Fripp returns on “Baby’s On Fire”, a tour de force for his guitar. “Cindy Tells Me” is something of a doo-wop number translated to the N.O.W. generation, and a descending piano sequence takes “Driving Me Backwards” to the center groove.
A different piano takes over side two, with its longing to be “On Some Faraway Beach”. This track builds and builds, then recedes nearly to its starting point, followed by the rantings about “Blank Flank”, who served to bring the protagonists to submission. “Dead Finks Don’t Talk” seems to be another swipe at Bryan Ferry, and it degenerates into to the very basic “Some Of The Are Old”. The title track, supposedly an ode to urination, brings it all full circle with a driving beat much like the album opener.
Here Come The Warm Jets is a very satisfying slice of futuristic music that still seems anachronistic today. True to his acumen, it’s unclear as to how much of the finished product came from the spontaneous contributions of the players and what came from Eno’s own head. Whatever the genesis, it continues to be exciting listening.

Eno Here Come The Warm Jets (1973)—4

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rolling Stones 4: Out Of Our Heads

The terrific title of Out Of Our Heads appeared on an album in America ahead of the UK, which always seemed to be slow in catching up. (The cover photo was already a year old, and one of the last times Mick would allow himself to be shoved out of the spotlight.) The Stones were still relying on covers to fill up their shows, but they were also finally writing songs that would be the envy of their competitors.
Considering that this album includes both “The Last Time” and a little ditty called “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is usually enough to put it in the pantheon of masterpieces, but those who do have overlooked the filler. “I’m Alright” is a hash of “Shout” recorded live for a British EP and stuck here for no reason. “The Under Assistant West Coat Promotion Man” is an in-joke that should have stayed a B-side. Another flip, “The Spider And The Fly”, is a little better, both as a blues pastiche and a song. And “One More Try” also wouldn’t come out in the UK for another six years.
One tune much too good to stay buried is “Play With Fire”, a stripped-down performance with spooky harpsichord by Jack Nitzsche, that lay the groundwork for every chauvinistic Stones track to follow. As good as they are, “Mercy Mercy”, “Hitch Hike”, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Good Times” and “Cry To Me” were all recent hits by the likes of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. It’s clear, however, that Mick’s voice was improving as he tried to emulate those soul legends.
While still a hodgepodge, Out Of Our Heads shows improvement, but since “Satisfaction” is available on about twelve other Stones compilations, it’s not as essential as it once was. (To confuse the CD buyer even further, it’s available today in both its US and UK incarnations—the latter sporting the cover used later on the US-only December’s Children, bending the space-time continuum even further.)

The Rolling Stones Out Of Our Heads (1965)—

Friday, November 6, 2009

Paul McCartney 22: Paul Is Live

The title and artwork aside (pretty funny!), Paul Is Live basically served to collect money from folks who’d been scarfing up bootlegs from his most recent tour anyway. In contrast to the previous concert souvenir, this was shorter, more of a grab bag that didn’t include every song performed—most likely because there would be too much repetition from Tripping The Live Fantastic, but that doesn’t excuse four routine retreads from Wings Over America. We do get the first performances of “Penny Lane” and “Magical Mystery Tour”, some more oldies and key tracks from Off The Ground, a couple of soundcheck improvisations, and a Chet Atkins tribute from Robbie McIntosh, but it just isn’t the kind of album that demanded repeated listenings.
We can understand why this album exists, but it just came too soon after the previous tour and album. The Rolling Stones had been in a greedy lather-rinse-repeat cycle of a new album followed by a big tour, commemorated by a live album, so it was disappointing that Paul was that aware of his own selling power. Expertly played, every song is heartily applauded—but so what? (And if you’re wondering, the dog on the cover is not the original Martha, who would have been about 27 if she were still alive.)

Paul McCartney Paul Is Live (1993)—3

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Paul McCartney 21: Off The Ground

Paul rang in 1993 by announcing a new album and a new world tour with the same band as last time (save the new drummer). As one of the few legends of his generation to be active past the age of 50, we weren’t expecting to be blown away. And that’s a good thing, ‘cos we weren’t. Off The Ground is a pleasant, inoffensive collection with a fairly basic sound not unlike the old Wings albums.
The title track is intended to be a rousing opener, if a little sterile. “Looking For Changes” is the first of many songs here about the environment. (Did you know the McCartneys are a vegetarian family? Well, they’ll remind you just in case you hadn’t heard.) “Hope Of Deliverance” has a lot of driving acoustic guitars with an almost calypso feel, and luckily the album improves from here on. “Mistress And Maid” is a baroque soap opera piece written with Elvis Costello and while, like all of his Elvis songs, is written too high for him to sing, it survives the vocal approach. “I Owe It All To You” is a pretty obvious thank you to Linda, with some tasteful, moody guitar interplay. It never gets as bad as it threatens. Everyone we know absolutely hates “Biker Like An Icon”, mostly because the lyrics are so idiotic, but give us that chorus any day of the week.
“Peace In The Neighbourhood” is in keeping with the midtempo feel of the album, which has really started to flow at this point. “Golden Earth Girl” is a musical and lyrical extension of “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Warm And Beautiful”, with real nice use of oboe and clarinet. “The Lovers That Never Were” is another Costello drama, with a pounding ¾ meter. While it’s very similar to “Mistress And Maid”, both of these are better than either “Don’t Be Careless Love” or “You Want Her Too” from Flowers In The Dirt so we’ll keep them. “Get Out Of My Way” is calculated Rock, intended to show off the guitarists, complete with fake ending. It’s okay here, but would wear out its welcome on stage. “Winedark Open Sea” takes us back to the Wings vibe of the earlier tracks with an extended ending that doesn’t get tedious. And we still love the big finale “C’mon People” despite ourselves. There’s a lot of political nonsense in the air here, but the orchestral arrangement by George Martin (especially the “ba-ba BA-ba-ba, BAM!” in the middle) and the mild psychedelic march tempo are a lock. And in true Wings spirit we get a not-so-hidden track, supposedly written in India in 1968, a reminder to be “Cosmically Conscious”. (Well, George wasn’t reminding us, so thanks, Paul.)
Taken on its own, Off The Ground isn’t remarkable, but as the dim luster of Flowers In The Dirt had already faded, this was a huge improvement in comparison. While certainly not close to his best post-Beatles work, it’s an underrated collection that deserved kinder attention. It still does.

Paul McCartney Off The Ground (1993)—

Monday, November 2, 2009

George Harrison 13: Live In Japan

One of the more baffling questions of the rock era is this: If your best friend ran away with your wife, would you still hang out with him? George’s friendship with Eric Clapton has long been the cause of head-scratching among us plebes. Whether it was respect or the promise of easy cash, somehow Eric managed to talk George into touring the Far East in 1991. Eric supplied the band—the same crew who’d brought him several Grammys for his Unplugged show—and George only had to bring a couple of guitars and his choice of songs.
Since George never played any other dates outside that original itinerary, the only souvenir we were allowed was Live In Japan, two discs’ worth of a typical concert from the tour. Interestingly, he plays eight Beatles songs, with little touches like the recorded count-in for “Taxman” and the missing verse of “Piggies”. The remainder covers all the hits from throughout his solo career, ending with “Roll Over Beethoven”. There were occasional surprises, like “Old Brown Shoe” and “Cheer Down”, but for the most part he goes with songs well inside the vernacular. The songs hold up, and the band plays everything competently, as we’d expect they would.
It’s nice to hear George in a live atmosphere again, and he almost seems to be enjoying himself, even giving the crowd an occasional “arigato”. For the longest time Live In Japan was the closest thing to a career retrospective, and it gave Warners some dough from songs they never owned. (And just to show he cared, the credited producers for the set are Spike and Nelson Wilbury.)

George Harrison Live In Japan (1992)—