Friday, August 31, 2012

Captain Beefheart: Trout Mask Replica

Music is a subjective experience; ultimately one’s enjoyment or lack thereof gleaned from an album cannot be directed by any external source. Granted, that truth puts sites like the one you’re reading in jeopardy, but if we can shed just the slightest bit of light on something, we’ll feel as if we’re helping somehow, and perhaps we’ll endure.
See what we did there? Within the space of two sentences we took a profound statement and turned it into a disclaimer of sorts. This is the influence the Internet has had on the act of writing: the author, expecting to be criticized, insulted or worse for stating an opinion, girds himself in advance as protection.
While the statements above could easily be applied to each and any of the 700 and counting entries on this blog, it seems particularly apropos given the album at hand. Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band is lots of people’s favorite album of all time. Considering that those people have included Lester Bangs, Matt Groening, David Lynch, Tom Waits and even John Lydon, it should be obvious that it is not for everyone.
We’re compelled to discuss it here because of its place in the context of Frank Zappa, a man who for the most part did not have a high success rate when it came to producing music he himself did not create or perform. The one Grand Funk Railroad album he produced isn’t notable for much more than that fact, the GTO’s were predominantly occupied as “groupies” when they weren’t babysitting his kids, and we don’t even know where to begin with Wild Man Fischer. Frank had known the Captain since high school, and they found their way into the major-label music biz independently. Their music is only occasionally similar, so even if you’ve digested the Zappa albums discussed thus far, your first exposure to Trout Mask Replica will result in raised eyebrows, whether you enjoy it or not.
Captain Beefheart had a husky blues shout, tempered by a humorous announcer’s voice. His obvious musical contributions were via saxophones and other wind instruments, blown free-style. His lyrics were alternately poetic or derived from blues and folk songs; presumably, he was the one who christened his band members such names as Antennae Jimmy Semens and The Mascara Snake. His lack of formal musical education resulted in songs that seem to lack any kind of structure, with everyone seemingly playing different songs at the same time. That would be a false assumption, as evidenced by the melodies and grooves that emerge from out of nowhere, either within a track or in one’s subconscious with ongoing exposure.
As with anything in the avant-garde, free jazz or progressive rock genres, an album like Trout Mask Replica requires patience, and not just because it fills four sides. The recording itself is very clean, except for the elements recorded from “field” sources. The cymbals are crisp and clear, but the rest of the drums often sound like oatmeal boxes. A song-by-song summary will not do it justice, and certainly not at this point in our education.
So basically, we can understand why some people love it, and why anyone else can consider it noise or a cruel joke (as a frame of reference, that’s pretty much how we feel about Sonic Youth). Its defenders can speak better to how it’s changed their lives and the world around them for good. Trout Mask Replica has the power to ruin dinner parties and wreck marriages, and should therefore be wielded with care. But, just like a pizza with anchovies, it’s up to the individual to try it out for him or herself. It just might be your thing.

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band Trout Mask Replica (1969)—3

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ben Folds 11: The Best Imitation Of Myself

A busy fifteen years in the music business brought Ben Folds to a place where either he or his erstwhile label decided to put together a compilation of hits and favorites. The Best Imitation Of Myself is packed with some of the more obvious choices from his solo career, while being sure to include key signpoints from Ben Folds Five. To make it more interesting, a few oddities provide a different perspective. “Brick”—track one, fittingly—appears in its “radio edit”, and “Landed” includes a lush string arrangement by Paul Buckmaster to cement its debt to Elton John. “Smoke” is a performance with the West Australia Symphony Orchestra. “Gracie”, his song for his daughter, is nicely positioned next to an extended-intro mix of “Still Fighting It”, his song for his son. But then there’s “You Don’t Know Me”, his one hit that everybody seems to like except us. The big news was a brand new Ben Folds Five track, the moody and melancholy “House”. It’s hardly brilliant, but its internal theme of not going back into the past would backfire once they decided to keep going.
Of course, one disc of hits wasn’t going to be enough for this guy, or his fans. Therefore, The Best Imitation Of Myself appeared as both a single disc and as an expanded package containing a disc each devoted to live tracks and rarities. Everything is nicely annotated with liner notes and key information for us geeks who like reading such things while we listen.
The live disc is arranged chronologically, which is nice, as it provides an aural glimpse of what the Five was like on stage. As wacky as they could be on their albums, their concerts gave each of their songs a shot of chaotic energy (or energetic chaos, take your pick). Piano stools would be thrown, songs would be made up, and anything went. It’s a noticeable difference when the switch to “a man and a piano” takes over for the solo years, and you can hear how the addition of a band eventually pushed him back toward the gimmicks that keep his shows interesting. Most of the songs stay close to the album versions without being redundant, but there’s also his boy-band knockoff “Girl” and a performance of “Not The Same” with the audience singing the three-part choral harmony. And we’d love to know what George Michael thinks of the duet with Rufus Wainwright on “Careless Whisper”.
The rarities disc includes unreleased demos and tracks, as well as a couple of soundtrack contributions, a track from the never-released fourth Ben Folds Five album and two more new songs from the reunited Five. The focus is predominantly on his songwriting process, with such comedic departures as the wonderfully crude “The Secret Life Of Morgan Davis” and covers like “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and Ke$ha’s “Sleazy”.
There’s a lot to take in here, but that was just the beginning. With so many things having piled up over the years, he concurrently offered up Fifty Five Vault for digital download, with 32 of the 56 tracks (no, that’s not a misprint) previously unreleased. Three hours of potentially new music is daunting on its own, but consider this: what if your favorite artist began offering up music this way?

Ben Folds The Best Imitation Of Myself: A Retrospective (2011)—

Monday, August 27, 2012

Soft Boys 4: Nextdoorland

His solo career had turned out less lucrative than ever, but at least Robyn Hitchcock had the distraction of reissuing Underwater Moonlight (everybody’s favorite Soft Boys album) on the trendy Matador label. In a move as unexpected as it was obvious, the band reunited for a tour, which led to a new album.
Nextdoorland turned out to be one of his better albums in a while, certainly helped by a consistent, reliable unit throughout the album, as opposed to the pick-and-choose sequencing of his Warners output. There’s little of the chaos so prevalent on their albums, instead relying on tight playing, excellent guitar interplay, and Robyn’s choice of words. It would also appear that all of the songs were written or at least developed with the Soft Boys in mind.
“I Love Lucy” is perhaps one of the better illustrations of their strengths, being mostly instrumental. “Pulse Of My Heart”, “Mr. Kennedy” and “Unprotected Love” all teem with hooks, while “My Mind Is Connected To Your Dreams” recalls some of the moodier Egyptians tracks from the ‘90s.
“Sudden Town” has a riff that flirts with “Kingdom Of Love”, breaking out of its straitjacket in time for the chorus. “Strings” goes for over six minutes, mostly due to a few psychedelic trips here and there. “Japanese Captain” tries a little too hard to be odd, so “La Cherité” is a better use of evasive meaning. “Lions And Tigers” is kinda silly, but it works.
As good as Nextdoorland is, something’s still missing. Over the years, what had once seemed to come so easily to Robyn was now seeming more contrived. Plus, spending 25 years in the business not likely too careful with his throat was starting to result in a rasp.
But at least he was making music, and letting it be heard. As was becoming common for him, another handful of songs was made available via direct mail order. The aptly titled Side Three offered another twenty minutes of catchy tunes, before disappearing. Of the six tracks, one is a remake of “Each Of Her Silver Wands” from an earlier offhand release, and “Evil Guy” had been a legendary Egyptians outtake. Its parent album is also out of print, but new and used copies abound on the e-tail sites.

The Soft Boys Nextdoorland (2002)—3
Current CD availability: none

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sting 7: Mercury Falling

This far into his solo career, it seemed that Sting’s “good” albums would alternate with the ones that sold. Mercury Falling echoes the heavier sound of The Soul Cages, while adding some of the country-western touches hinted at on Ten Summoner’s Tales. For the most part, he stuck to the same unit, with Dominic Miller on guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, with Kenny Kirkland returning on keyboards. And of course, Branford Marsalis contributes some saxophone.
A drum roll introduces “The Hounds Of Winter”, a toe-tapper despite its dour title and lyric lamenting the loss of a woman. The same description could also apply to the next track. Yes, “I Hung My Head” is in 9/8 and no, you can’t dance to it. Instead, the inside-out meter forces the listener to consider the story of a man who literally plays with a gun and has to deal with the aftermath. “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot” is the obvious single for adult contemporary radio, the “soul” horns in the music playing off the word in the title. “I Was Brought To My Senses” has a lengthy intro in the vein of such English folk tunes as “She Moved Through The Fair”, before shifting to a slightly, lightly Latin beat in seven, redeemed by its chorus. The Stax vibe returns on “You Still Touch Me”, though the single-note verse melody reminds us of a John Lennon melody we can’t quite place. “Mind Games” maybe?
The second half of the album offers another country-style tune, and indeed, Toby Keith would record a hit cover of “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying”. While it starts on the melancholy side, the pedal steel both complements the narrator’s tears and pulls him out of his post-divorce funk (adding the excellent advice, “everybody’s got to leave the darkness sometime”). “All Four Seasons” is a strong bid to write a soul standard, and we’re convinced he wrote “La Belle Dame Sans Regrets” entirely in French just because he’d woken up that morning and thought, “I’m going to write a song in French today.” At the same time, we’d like to think “Valparaiso” is an ode to the Indiana university’s basketball team, but it’s more likely about the Chilean coast. The Northumbrian pipes and reference to the dog star, again, recall the sea-based songs of two albums previous. And indeed, it does evoke an ocean voyage. “Lithium Sunset” is the shortest song on the album, and a fitting end, complete with a reference to the album title to mirror the one at the start of track one.
It’s easy to pick on Sting, because after all, he’s Sting. But Mercury Falling is one of his better efforts, the kind where you find yourself reaching for the play button after each time it finishes. What’s unknown is why the world outside North America got an extra song stuck in the middle of the second half, except that it’s another horn-heavy number in seven, with cliché lyrics about a train.

Sting Mercury Falling (1996)—

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Suzanne Vega 2: Solitude Standing

Folk-rockers are nothing if not socially conscious, so perhaps it wasn’t that surprising that 1987 saw not one but two songs about child abuse hit the airwaves. 10,000 Maniacs asked the musical question “What’s The Matter Here?”, while the more enduring song, for better or worse, was Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”. Set over a lilting E major sequence, the song alternated plaintive picking with a pair of rock guitar solos, and soon took hold of the nation’s collective conscience.
Some have pointed to its success as proof that she was a one-hit wonder, which would almost make sense had she disappeared from the music scene, which she hasn’t. Still, the song led to tons of copies of Solitude Standing flying off the shelves, and indirectly helped Shawn Colvin get a record deal, as she sang backing vocals on the track.
The album complements her debut, with similar production and songwriting, and offers more consistency in the way of her touring band appearing throughout. But just to show she’s original, the first thing we hear is “Tom’s Diner”, a view of the street sung a cappella. “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry” presents another urban portrait, the two sections working together to underscore the “selling” of body parts. “In The Eye” would appear to be written either from the point of view of a crime victim or jilted lover, but somehow her delivery isn’t convincing. (Maybe that was the point.) “Night Vision” is a slightly unsettled lullaby.
The title track a moderately adventurous attempt to personify solitude, was released as a single, but didn’t really take hold. “Calypso” is sung from the point of view of the nymph who imprisoned Odysseus, and according to the notes on the sleeve, was as old as “Gypsy”, a tender little love song from a different angle. “Language” comes in between, and probably works better as a poem than a song. The last big production is “Wooden Horse (Caspar Hauser’s Song)”, the subtitle referencing the mystery surrounding a German youth from the early part of the 19th century, the length slowly building interest in his story. A wind-up instrumental version of “Tom’s Diner” closes the set.
Synthesizers being what they were in those days, Solitude Standing does suffer from its dated production, which is probably one reason why she’s been re-recording most of her catalog with more basic arrangements lately. The album is still her biggest hit, which is understandable.
An amusing footnote came a few years later when an indie producer started circulating a bootleg remix of the “Tom’s Diner” vocal enhanced by a trendy dance beat. Such a jarring juxtaposition actually worked, and A&M released it as a single. After becoming something of a viral phenomenon (before that term was common), a collection of similar remakes was issued with Suzanne’s consent. Tom’s Album featured both versions from Solitude Standing as well as the remix, another remix by the same people of a different Vega song, a few foreign-language attempts, and a couple of rap versions. The best track was a toss-up between a parody based on I Dream Of Jeannie and a live pseudonymous improv by R.E.M. with Billy Bragg.

Suzanne Vega Solitude Standing (1987)—3

Monday, August 20, 2012

Jimi Hendrix 4: Band Of Gypsys

Just like that, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was no more, mostly because Noel Redding was tired of being overlooked. Reprise put out the Smash Hits collection, offering a smattering of hit singles and the three “British” songs left off of Are You Experienced, with some hideous photos of the band dressed as banditos on the back. (The Brits’ own version of the album came out a year earlier, with different tracks and more rarities.)
An attempt at a larger group for the Woodstock festival had potential, but for a touring outfit, it made more sense to keep things simple. Also, with the resolution of a contract dispute dictating an exclusive recording, Jimi convened Band of Gypsys, featuring old Army buddy Billy Cox on bass and singer/drummer Buddy Miles, formerly of Electric Flag. The band played four shows at the Fillmore East over the New Year’s holiday, and six songs from the two January 1st shows would appear as Band Of Gypsys that spring.
At the risk of expressing political incorrectness, the sound is “blacker” than any of his albums to date, and something of a departure. While it’s a showcase for his guitar throughout, the songs aren’t as flashy or gimmicky as his psychedelic era had suggested. He’s simply playing, and playing well.
The band hadn’t prepared a lot of new material, and indeed, the opening and closing songs come off more like jams than compositions. “Who Knows” has a cool off-beat riff, played on one chord for nine minutes, while Buddy scats away in the middle. A similar approach drives “Machine Gun”, a mesmerizing performance, with the eponymous guitar effects never becoming tacky. A highly personal anti-war song, with a stunning harmony part, with a few post-song comments left in before the needle hits the inner groove.
“Changes” (or “Them Changes”, depending on which label you’re reading) is a Buddy Miles song, also pounding a couple of riffs into the ground, but with a few modulations to keep it unpredictable. The starts and stops of “Power Of Soul” (mistitled “Power To Love” on the LP) show just how tight this band was, continued on “Message Of Love” (also referred to as “Message To Love” from time to time), which had the potential to be a highlight of whatever album he’d record next. “We Gotta Live Together” fades in from a longer performance, Buddy singing unintelligible words while the crowd dutifully claps its hands.
Band Of Gypsys takes some getting used to if you only know Jimi from the hits. Given time, it sinks in as an excellent demonstration of his musical capabilities. Again, it was only one snapshot of that two-day residency. Occasional reissues of the album—again, complicated by label rights—purported to offer additional songs from the concerts. There was even a Band Of Gypsys 2, although half of that album featured a different band. The situation was somewhat rectified with 1999’s double-disc Live At The Fillmore East, which offered nearly two hours of additional material from those performances, with something of a chronically haphazard sequence. A complete performance was eventually released on its own in 2016 as Machine Gun: The Fillmore East First Show, in terrific sound that got fans wondering whether a box covering all four shows could happen. While they may not have been Jimi’s ultimate dream band, thankfully the tapes were rolling when lightning struck.

Jimi Hendrix Band Of Gypsys (1970)—4

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cars 1: The Cars

One of the most willfully odd bands dedicated to perfecting the pop song, the Cars made a sizable stamp on the music scene in the time they were with us. Mostly run by Ric Ocasek’s iron fist, they boasted not one but two lead singers—him, and the much handsomer and easier-on-the-ears Ben Orr, who was used less. Greg Hawkes epitomized the potential of nerds and geeks alike, adding wacky synth color everywhere. Elliot Easton was a left-handed riff and solo machine, with a great mop of hair. And even though most of his output would end up being delivered by a succession of processed drums, David Robinson provided a bridge to the past, having done time in the “seminal” Modern Lovers.
They also made a fantastic debut, with every song a gem. Side one alone kicks off with the one-two-three punch of “Good Times Roll” (with its nod to “Good Day Sunshine” on the chorus), “My Best Friend's Girl” (with its “Words Of Love” homage in between the verses) and “Just What I Needed”. Lyrically these tracks would be dull if not for Ric Ocasek’s inimitable phrasing, but having Ben sing the latter track provides a change-up. “I’m In Touch With Your World” is usually where most people get off, with its robotic wind-up arrangement, but “Don’t Cha Stop” picks up the pace nicely.
Side two is something of a suite, with no breather between the tracks. “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” puts it in motion, building and building till it just stops. Ben takes over the lead mike from here, beginning with “Bye Bye Love”, a wonderful showcase for keyboards and guitars. “You think you’re so illustrious you call yourself intense” indeed. Another buildup to a dead halt leads into “Moving In Stereo”, which will always evoke the famous Phoebe Cates scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. That crossfades with the dynamic “All Mixed Up”, all tension in a bottle that’s finally released on the “leave it to me” fade. Whew.
One of our record store cohorts from back in the day insisted that the only way you could have a Cars greatest hits album would have to include all of these tracks in order before moving on to things like “Shake It Up”, “Magic” and so on. We have to agree. The Cars is just plain toe-tapping fun. It’s also the only album to get the Deluxe Edition treatment from Rhino, in a fold-out package bolstered by a bonus disc of demos that sound pretty close to the sleek finished product.

The Cars The Cars (1978)—4
1999 Deluxe Edition: same as 1978, plus 14 extra tracks

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

R.E.M. 17: Live

R.E.M.’s commercial status was at its lowest since the band began, and maybe they were okay with that. Like Pearl Jam, whose own bell curve of success was pretty swift, world domination wasn’t as important as making records on their own terms, confident that the “true fans” would stick around.
That said, there’s something just a little defiant about R.E.M. Live. A fairly straight reproduction of the final show from a tour leg promoting their most recent dud of an album two years earlier, it’s unique for being their first by-the-book live album. (It was also recorded in Dublin, where, at the time of Live’s release, they had just finished a few shows trying out new material. Obviously, the city holds a special place for them.)
Since Bill Berry’s retirement, the other three took to touring with a drummer and two additional members who could swap guitars and keyboards, allowing Mike Mills to concentrate on bass and harmonies. But besides being strict hired guns and not full-fledged band members, they don’t get in the way, merely filling out the sound where necessary. That’s demonstrated very well on the songs from Around The Sun, which are performed better onstage than they were for the album.
Two decades’ worth of material means they could cherry-pick from throughout their career. Oddly only one song each appears from Up and Reveal. Everything is played fairly straight, even “Drive”, here in its album arrangement as opposed to the heavier “road” version. Even if you’re sick of “Everybody Hurts”, which runs over six minutes here, it’s still pretty cool to hear the crowd singing along with every note. They do the same for “The Great Beyond”, proving just how loyal that fan base was. Mike Mills’ lead vocal on “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” shows that his strengths lie in harmony. The one rarity for the time was “I’m Gonna DJ”, exuding tons of fun.
R.E.M. Live is for fans only, but packaged for value with a DVD of the same show. The second disc is shorter than the first, but research shows that it consists of (most of) the encore portion, and thus leans on the hits. People not fond of the band will have a field day mocking the Stipe image on the cover, but that merely reinforces the defiant attitude the band came to exhibit.

R.E.M. R.E.M. Live (2007)—3

Monday, August 13, 2012

Robert Fripp: Exposure

Something of a sabbatical followed Robert Fripp’s most recent disbanding of King Crimson. He immersed himself in a spiritual philosophy, to which he adheres and practices to this day. Musically, he explored the possibilities of Frippertronics, the guitar/tape loop method he’d first developed with Brian Eno. He also spent time in the Greenwich Village punk scene, producing the Roches and working with Daryl Hall, adding his touches to David Bowie’s “Heroes” album, and even accompanying Peter Gabriel on his first solo tour. That experience led him to produce Gabriel’s second album, which features the piece that also be the title of the album at hand.
Exposure is presented as a suite, incorporating eavesdropped conversations, interviews old and new, and Fripp’s own compositions. Easily the most striking thing about the album is the appearance of Daryl Hall, singing in the voices that sold bazillions of Top 40 records, yet fitting very well into the album.
Other, more learned “Fripp scholars” have delved deeply into the evolution of this album, and on paper (or screen) it reads a lot more out there than it actually is. What stands out is just how accessible it is. “Preface” is akin to an orchestra tuning up, jostled by the straight rock of “You Burn Me Up I’m A Cigarette”, which features the most basic chord changes in Fripp’s catalog under Daryl Hall’s pounding piano and vocal. That said, “Breathless” sounds the most like Crimson (the Red era, at least). “Disengage” starts quietly before what sounds like Daryl Hall again but is really Peter Hammill shrieks his way through the jam. Hall’s more at home on “North Star”, while Hammill sounds downright vampiric on “Chicago”. “NY3” pits a furious fusion jam against a shouting match from Fripp’s neighbors, so that the much softer “Mary”, with its pretty vocal, plucked guitar and Frippertronics, provides welcome relief.
The title track is an alternate mix of the Gabriel version (with or without the vocals, depending on which CD you have), augmented by Terre Roche sings and screams the title while someone (Fripp? Eno?) spells it. Another series of aphorisms punctuates “Häaden Two”, the mild cacophony giving way to the bleak “Urban Landscape”. Suddenly “I May Not Have Had Enough Of Me But I’ve Had Enough Of You” crashes through with a more “melodic” lovers’ spat. An allegedly condensed lecture provides a burst (worthy of John & Yoko) before the sequence that ends the album. “Water Music I” presents Frippertronics accompanied by another lecture, segueing into a lovely Peter Gabriel piano-and-vocal rendition of his own “Here Comes The Flood”, followed by a moment of silence and the evocative sound painting of “Water Music II”. The “Postscript” echoes “Preface”.
The album has been rejigged more times that necessary, mostly because Fripp’s original plan to have more Daryl Hall was not approved by the singer’s label. People who know such things say that the most recent CD is closest to the original LP, so that should suffice until the next time he redoes it.
Because of its disparate musical styles, it’s not for everyone, and even Crimson fans might find it less than satisfying. It was obviously a big deal to Fripp, and thirty years of hindsight better show where it fits into the story at large.

Robert Fripp Exposure (1979)—3

Friday, August 10, 2012

Jimi Hendrix 3: Electric Ladyland

Jimi had become fascinated with studio recording, spending much of his time there when he wasn’t touring incessantly. And given his magnetic personality, it was easy for hangers-on to access him in the studio, where jam sessions would inevitably take place. He was teeming with ideas, and wanted to get them all out.
Electric Ladyland was a double album in a time when the concept was evolving from an indulgence to elite artistic expression. Unlike Cream, who put out a half-studio/half-live set that year, or the Beatles, who had three very prolific writers vying for space, Electric Ladyland is all Jimi, credited as “producer” and “director”, with barely any filler.
Similarly to the last album, a fanfare of sorts begins the proceedings. But while “EXP” assaults the listener, “…And The Gods Made Love” is a sound painting of phased effects and slowed-down tapes. After it whooshes by, “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” provides a breath of Curtis Mayfield in an almost one-man band. “Crosstown Traffic” careens from speaker to speaker, with a pounding piano, wacky kazoo and infectious chorus. Just when you think pop it taking over, up bubbles the opening notes of “Voodoo Chile”. Not to be confused with the track of a similar title, this is a 15-minute blues exploration backed by Mitch, Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane on bass, and Steve Winwood on organ. Jimi and Stevie play off each other amazingly, and the only distraction is the nightclub ambience added after the fact.
Things get a little more conventional on side two, beginning with Noel Redding’s “Little Miss Strange”, nicely decorated by Jimi. “Long Hot Summer Night” is more complicated, but the straight-ahead R&B of “Come On (Part I)” picks up the pace. On “Gypsy Eyes”, another forecast of his funk style, he matches the vocal with guitar, while another guitar stutters a rhythm and a third slides. The previous summer’s UK single “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp” is one of the best examples of psychedelia, with the wah-wah doubled on harpsichord and heavenly harmonies aah-ing over the lyrics.
Side three is as misleading as side one, given the number of curveballs throughout. “Rainy Day, Dream Away” begins as a jazz groove, while a couple of stoned individuals bemoan then embrace having to stay inside. A few hits off a joint bring in the vocal, which shifts gears a few times before another groove establishes itself, only to fade away into the underwater journey of “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”. This epic begins with a simple riff over three chords while Mitch plays a martial beat. The verse simply follows a descending chromatic sequence into the riff. The bridge, if it can be called that, gets a bit more intense, the vocals phased and echoed, and punctuated by his trademark asides. The intensity elevates until it stops for another verse and riff. Mitch plays with his cymbals for seven minutes while Jimi explores his neck, adding bubbly bass parts and Chris Wood from Traffic on flute, all swirling around the spectrum. The song reaches another apex to usher in a final verse, fading into a final phased sound painting indexed as “Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently Gently Away”.
The suite concludes at the start of side four, with “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” picking up where “Rainy Day” left off on side three, continuing for a three-minute jam featuring Buddy Miles on drums, in something of a premonition. “House Burning Down” is something of a political commentary about urban unrest in a dangerous year. His guitar parts manage to emulate the sound of fire and chaos brilliantly. Speaking of brilliant, his version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” transformed that simple tune into an anthem of sorts, to the point where Dylan’s been doing it the Hendrix way ever since. And finally, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” takes up the gauntlet from side one to present a more compact, hypnotic variation.
Many call Electric Ladyland Hendrix’s best album, and we’d have to agree. It works best as a whole, or even as individual sides. It also represents the final statement by the original Experience, while clearly showing that Jimi would be taking his music other places, even if the destination or even the pit stops weren’t clear.
While the contents of the album were uniform worldwide, the cover was not. Although the American version has become a classic image, it wasn’t what Jimi had in mind at all, preferring a photo of the band surrounded by children on the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, taken by the future Linda McCartney. The UK spread a photo of 19 nude women across the front and back, which Jimi himself hated.
The variations continued in the digital era, naturally. The first CD had the album on two discs, reduced to one once the industry standard for CD lengths was increased, albeit with a noise. The 1993 CD version used yet another unrelated photo for the cover, which was thankfully restored to the American original in 1997, with shots from the Alice session and even a letter from Jimi about his ideas for the cover inside the booklet.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland (1968)—

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sting 6: Fields Of Gold

Having become possibly more popular than when he was in the Police, Sting (or somebody) decided to sum up a rough decade of solo work with a hits album. Named after the huge single from his last album, Fields Of Gold offered the usual assortment of radio favorites, along with the customary brand new tracks. Of the two, the romantic “When We Dance” was the most obvious hit. “This Cowboy Song” is stuck at the end, and nowhere near as successful, except to wonder why he kept writing songs with a fake Western theme.
Each of his four studio albums to date is represented, with a couple of variations to keep it interesting. “Fortress Around Your Heart” and “Why Should I Cry For You” are alternately mixed, while “We’ll Be Together” is completely different, and likely the take with Eric Clapton on guitar. It’s still a pretty annoying song.
Compilers of sets such as these often use the “best of” heading rather than “greatest hits”, which is why “They Dance Alone” and “Russians” make the cut and things like “All For Love” (a movie theme sung with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart) don’t. The previous year’s remake of “Demolition Man” for another film also goes ignored, although the EP of that is worth seeking out for his live cover of “A Day In The Life”. To confound the collector even further, it was released with a different sequence in the world outside the U.S., dropping a couple of songs and adding even more in their place, such as the soundtrack version of “It’s Probably Me” and “Fragile” in Spanish.
It doesn’t do more than hint at the jazz influences that sparked his solo career, choosing instead to stay mainstream; after all, that’s what led to his pile of platinum records. But Fields Of Gold is still a good sampler for those not ready to pull the trigger on the individual albums.

Sting Fields Of Gold: The Best Of Sting 1984-1994 (1994)—

Monday, August 6, 2012

Suzanne Vega 1: Suzanne Vega

There was something of a Greenwich Village folk revival in the early ‘80s, which started to gain a little attention with the advent of hippie nostalgia. But before that kicked in, Suzanne Vega put out her self-titled debut on the then-respected A&M label.
Her voice isn’t striking so much as pleasant, a slightly breathy alto with an occasional streetwise cool. What brought her attention was her simple guitar picking and somewhat poetic lyrics, which abound on Suzanne Vega.
“Cracking” begins with a simple, pretty picked guitar line, soon backed by synths. The verses are mostly spoken in rhythm without much melody, until the very last verse, where it just begins to soar. “Freeze Tag” continues the edgy, wintry feeling, lifted just a bit by “Marlene On The Wall”. With its energetic backing, it was a moderate hit, a clever portrayal of various failed relationships as observed by a photograph. The vulnerability re-emerges on “Small Blue Thing”, riding the line between literal and figurative. “Straight Lines” sports jagged motifs to match the image of a woman cutting her own hair, and may or may not be a self-portrait.
“Undertow” begins gently, then soon becomes a rather disturbing picture of obsession. (Sarah McLachlan must’ve loved this one.) The standout track is “Some Journey”, from its opening stridently strummed to the accompaniment of Mark Isham’s keyboards and Darol Anger’s violin (both Windham Hill artists at the time). The arc of the song is expert, starting with imagining another time and place before being deposited firmly in the disappointing present. “The Queen And The Soldier” would appear to be the most “folk” song on the album, considering its structure and medieval subject matter. The dénouement isn’t very satisfying, but it’s still memorable. The image of a queen has a very different meaning in “Knight Moves”, where a relationship is viewed in the context of a chess match. And another overheard conversation drives “Neighborhood Girls”, very influenced by the New York City of Lou Reed, chasing a tangent to an extreme before being reeled back to the start. (She performed this once with the Grateful Dead, and the fit was perfect.)
We first discovered this album in the wake of her second, which was a much bigger hit. It happened as September finally decided to turn to fall, and the yellowing leaves and graying skies were an excellent backdrop to these sensitive, thoughtful songs. Some of the production (keyboards and slap bass mostly) doesn’t work, but for a first effort, it was exciting.

Suzanne Vega Suzanne Vega (1985)—4

Friday, August 3, 2012

Beatles 30: Tomorrow Never Knows

Those individuals special enough to be called “Beatle insiders” likely stay that way due to their ability to keep a secret, as well as that of creating media buzz over a non-event. Every now and then something does appear to excite fans old and new; the last of these were arguably the catalog overhaul in 2009, and the iTunes deal a year later that made the 14-album canon available for individual (and legal) download.
Since then there’s been the occasional iTunes expansion, such as the Red and Blue albums, all three Anthology sets, Love, 1 and even Yellow Submarine Songtrack. They’ve yet to recreate digital versions of such themed compilations as Rock ‘N’ Roll Music, Love Songs or Reel Music, but what diehards really want are more things from the vaults, like the once-available Hollywood Bowl concerts and Christmas messages, or any of the multitudinous outtakes and live performances. (See the recent Rolling Stones Archive downloads, or even Paul McCartney’s own catalog expansions, for reference.)
Instead, Apple and Apple have made a move right down the middle. Tomorrow Never Knows follows the path of the themed compilations that present one alleged facet of the band. This time the focus is on “their most influential rock songs”. This particular, all-new sequence is download only—no vinyl or CD counterpart—and at eight bucks, it’s cheaper than buying the songs individually. (Also, the re-edited promo clip for “Hey Bulldog” was offered for download, making the second time that song and video have been used to promote a collection of previously released music.)
Rock ‘N’ Roll Music is a viable comparison, as six of those songs are repeated here. But while that set leant heavily on their earlier material, Tomorrow Never Knows takes the other end of the seesaw, picking tracks from Revolver, the White Album and even Yellow Submarine. It’s heavy on John, with two songs by George. Only two tracks are “non-canon”—the 2003 remix of “I’ve Got A Feeling” from Let It Be… Naked and the wackier Anthology 3 remix of “The End” that incorporates the final chord from “A Day In The Life”. (And yes, “It’s All Too Much” is still the standard album track, and not the full-length version.)
The music’s great, of course, and all are the 2009 masters, so the sound is terrific. “I’m Down” and “You Can’t Do That” are a little jarring up against the later period tunes, and it all has the air of somebody’s mix tape. There are plenty of other rockin’ songs that are missing, so it’s hardly a definitive collection.
Nor is it an essential one. Tomorrow Never Knows is designed for completists and anyone whose opinion of the band can only be swayed by the likes of Dave Grohl or the members of Linkin Park and Maroon 5 who contributed blurbs to the iTunes sale page. The minimalist artwork doesn’t help; even the iTunes LP element, designed to add multimedia to the package, is the bare minimum. Thus it will be very interesting to see what, if anything, follows this little experiment to the virtual record rack.

The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows (2012)—
Current CD equivalent: none; download only

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Graham Nash 2: Wild Tales

Graham Nash’s first solo album, Songs For Beginners, was a pleasant slice of sensitive pop, and worth going back to, or at least alternating with the album he split a year later with Crosby. That’s a good thing, because Wild Tales, his second solo effort, is pretty dull. Some of the songs are allegedly includes refugees from some recent aborted CSNY sessions, but taken together, they don’t really amount to anything. It’s also painfully short.
The title track has a decent groove, introducing David Lindley’s distinctive slide guitar. But it speeds through two verses, and is done. The wheeze of his harmonica ushers in “Hey You (Looking At The Moon)”, and will be heard again on “Prison Song”, a topical attempt designed to rally pot smokers. “You’ll Never Be The Same” lopes along, like it’s trying to be a kiss-off, but we’re guessing the object of the song is glad to be rid of him and his nagging. (Unless that’s the point, which would be kinda clever.) “And So It Goes” is too close to the arrangement of “Southern Man” to rise above the chorus, which is pretty good for four bars.
“Grave Concern” picks up the pace a bit (thanks to the same rhythm section anchoring Neil Young’s Time Fades Away). The lyrics aren’t much, but probably relate to what sounds like a Nixon soundbite bubbling underneath the solo. American war crimes in Vietnam are the subject of “Oh! Camil (The Winter Soldier)”, delivered in the protest style of Dylan filtered through Donovan. It’s surprising that this one hasn’t been revived, but perhaps rhyming “Camil” with “how do you feel” wasn’t the wisest choice for an opening couplet. “I Miss You” is a showcase for his plodding piano, but “On The Line” is successful despite himself. “Another Sleep Song” isn’t really a sequel, but his discomfort is getting tough to sit through.
Wild Tales proves the assertion that as a songwriter, Graham Nash was a terrific high harmony singer. Then again, the activities around this time of the members of CSNY who weren’t Neil suggested that maybe they’d shot their loads early on, each coming up with sub-standard material, or none at all, in Crosby’s case. This album fails to make much of an impression, and it also doesn’t help that the back cover and sleeve use that typeface that’s the ‘70s equivalent of Comic Sans.

Graham Nash Wild Tales (1973)—2