Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stephen Stills 6: Live

Even though everybody in Crosby, Stills & Nash had taken off for other labels, Atlantic was still determined to make money off of them. Recorded early in 1974, before that summer’s CSNY stadium tour, Stephen Stills Live neatly presents both sides of the axeman.
The electric side, so labeled, gives him plenty of chances to wail, beginning with “Wooden Ships”, then getting moody for “Four Days Gone”, a hidden gem from the last Buffalo Springfield album. He neatly melds his own “Jet Set (Sigh)” with Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way”, which shares a riff and tendency to wah-wah. There’s even an excellent segue into “Special Care”, from the same Springfield album. The band is tight, as to be expected, and while Joe Lala’s in the mix, he’s not prominent.
Proof that less is more, the pointedly labeled acoustic side consists of Stills alone, but still showing off his flash. A medley of “Crossroads” and “You Can’t Catch Me” gives him an excuse to fly around in an open tuning, which he does to lesser extent in “Word Game”. In contrast, “Change Partners” is a simple strum, “4 + 20” nicely restrained and the cover of “Everybody’s Talkin’” a nice surprise.
Stephen Stills Live is short, typical of a label cash-in, and likely not to be expanded anytime soon. It’s still a better overview than Still Stills, a “best-of” released late in 1976 that leaned heavily on his first solo album and Manassas.

Stephen Stills Stephen Stills Live (1975)—

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Frank Zappa 13: 200 Motels

After at least two tries and failures, Frank finally managed to complete a film that was actually released in theaters. 200 Motels was supposed to be a culmination of Zappa’s grand theories, melding rock instruments with an orchestra. If you like the Flo & Eddie brand of Zappa bathroom humor, now you’ve got even more of it. Otherwise, you’re really not missing anything.
The movie itself is tough to watch, being a mix of live performance, skits and animation. For the most part, a large soundstage contains the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the current version of the Mothers, with a few additional singers. The “plot” revolves around a bunch of inside jokes about touring and groupies, with much of the dialogue either improvised or excerpted from prior conversations. As dull as that sounds, the bass player quit halfway through filming, whereupon he was replaced by Ringo Starr’s driver, who happened to both play bass and exude a ton of teen sex appeal. (We’re not sure if his haircut can be called a mullet, but it is awful.) This change arguably gave the movie more of a story than it otherwise would have had.
A little Web research shows that much of the orchestral material had and would appear as part of other pieces—“Bogus Pomp”, “Holiday In Berlin” and the truly grand finale, “Strictly Genteel”. For the most part, it’s interesting on its own, but whenever a melody gains “lyrics”, it’s tainted with the equivalent of aural graffiti.
The “rock” numbers are impeccably arranged and performed, featuring the snotty vocal stylings of Flo & Eddie, as previewed on the Fillmore East album. “Mystery Roach” is mostly a jam, ending abruptly with a Mother asking what they’re supposed to be singing about, part of the ongoing suggestion that “he’s making us do all this”. A suite of music is broken up by references to some Midwestern hick town being akin to a “Sealed Tuna Fish Sandwich” that one might find in a typical convenience store. Jimmy Carl Black returns to portray “Lonesome Cowboy Burt”, a typical redneck looking for action and unimpressed by the group. Side two is dominated by another suite mixing the band and the orchestra; musically it’s catchy, but the melody is torpedoed by the lyrics, which describe a potential groupie preparing for the evening’s hoped-for activities.
The segment where “Jeff” goes nuts in a hotel room is animated in the film, but is mostly irritating on the album, where the voices are sped up and the orchestra plays horror-film clichés to illustrate the action. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy” is fairly pedestrian pop taking a few detours into “Bwana Dik” territory, as continued on “Penis Dimension”. “What Will The Evening Bring Me This Morning” isn’t as overtly obnoxious, giving us a chance to enjoy the melody. The last side begins with a chorus singing suggestive lyrics, interrupted by “Magic Fingers”, the first time we hear a decent Zappa guitar solo, stuck in the middle of more groupie talk. Finally there’s “Strictly Genteel (The Finale)”, an excellent composition nearly deflated by sarcastic lyrics, and ending with a neo-gospel rave-up “about” the end of the film.
Maybe this album wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so much of it. At least the orchestral pieces would be revisited on future albums to greater success and more reverence than they’re given here. Due to the film’s lack of commercial potential and the soundtrack’s distribution outside Zappa’s control, 200 Motels has long been one of the rarer items in the catalog, and because of several songs only appearing here, it gets a rating just above worthless. Its only CD appearance came about via Rykodisc as part of its deal with various studios to re-issue vintage soundtrack albums; that is currently unavailable, and it’s not known if or when the Estate will make it available again. Diehard Zappa fans will want it to complete their collections, of course.

Frank Zappa Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels: Original Motion Picture Sound Track (1971)—
Current CD availability: none

Monday, January 28, 2013

Jam 1: In The City

While they emerged amidst the punk scene, The Jam weren’t exactly a punk band. They didn’t dress in ripped shirts or leather, preferring dark suits and ties. (The bass player even sported a near-mullet.) Their music—generated by Rickenbackers through Vox amps—was influenced by “mod” bands from a generation earlier. They weren’t a power trio per se, but played just as loud as one. But Paul Weller’s sneered, slightly mushmouthed delivery of his own lyrics displayed anger and defiance, typical yet atypical of an 18-year-old kid whose Dad was the band’s road manager.
“In The City” was their first single, followed a month later by the album of the same name. In just over two minutes their sound is established: slashing guitar, pulsing bass and cracking drums at top speed. While they were never fully appreciated by Americans in their time, this song’s influence was obvious when only six months later the Sex Pistols stole the riff and slowed it down for “Holidays In The Sun”.
The early pop-art Who runs through this album, though not overtly. “In The City” itself shares a title but nothing else with the B-side of “I’m A Boy”. “Art School” opens the album with a power chord flourish. “I’ve Changed My Address” has a midsection of skittering drums and toggle-switch feedback right off the first Who singles. “Slow Down” was famously covered by the Beatles, but The Jam run their version through “My Generation”. (“Takin’ My Love” is another interpretation, and was also the B-side to the “In The City” single.) They even serve up a cover of the Batman theme.
Those mod bands, like the rest of the British Invasion, were fascinated by Motown, and “I Got By In Time” swings and swaggers, right down to the response vocals. This is not to suggest that they were copycats. Paul Weller established himself as a songwriter with the songs on this album. “Away From The Numbers” speaks out against following trends and fake friends; it even breaks the four-minute mark, unlike the compact tracks on the rest of the album. “Sounds From The Street” and “Non-Stop Dancing” evoke excitable youth, while “Time For Truth” and “Bricks And Mortar” are near protest songs (the former especially, spitting the f-word in the first verse).
In The City is an excellent debut, with barely a clunker in the batch. Its 32 minutes fly by with little relief, which is great for air-drumming. Besides, as young as they were, there was plenty of time to get introspective.

The Jam In The City (1977)—4

Friday, January 25, 2013

Steely Dan 2: Countdown To Ecstasy

While still a band with a rhythm section and everything, Countdown To Ecstasy has Steely Dan veering towards slick, if slightly. Donald Fagen is the only lead vocalist here, lending the album a little more cohesion and sameness.
The wonderful “Bodhitsattva” matches a big band swing to a spiritual plea, with terrific guitar throughout for a complete anachronism. “Razor Boy” sits on some island percussion and prominent vibes, with foreboding lyrics directed at somebody; it’s not clear. One would expect a title like “The Boston Rag” to be more upbeat, but that’s one of the points of the song, which meanders along, not really catching fire until the instrumental break. “Your Gold Teeth” is preloaded with the Steely Dan sound, riding one chord for the better part of seven minutes, with a few cacophonic Fender Rhodes runs here and a few modulations for the band to “stretch out”, as the liner notes sardonically remark.
Speaking of monotonous, “Show Biz Kids” rides in circles underneath guest star Rick Derringer’s slide guitar, with backing vocals comparing Las Vegas to “lost wages” until you’re ready to kill someone. (The song is also notable for a self-reference and a certain four-letter word.) The album finally gets another highlight with “My Old School”, a jaunty backhanded tribute to Bard College with crisp horns and just the right amount of cowbell. There’s something about “Pearl Of The Quarter” that reminds us of Richard Manuel singing “Lonesome Suzie” and “In A Station”. Maybe it’s the pedal steel; it’s certainly not the “voulez voulez voulez vous”. “King Of The World” is a lot of people’s favorite, but it gets awfully jittery after a while.
Again, it’s that Steely Dan “sound” that keeps us from loving this album, and the brand in general: too much electric piano and clean guitars. However, whenever somebody lets loose with a distorted lead (usually Denny Dias, or maybe it’s Jeff “Skunk” Baxter), anything with a little fuzz, grit, stank, whatever, we find ourselves more likely to tap our toes along. They were, after all, still a self-contained unit at this point, so Countdown To Ecstasy manages to surprise.

Steely Dan Countdown To Ecstasy (1973)—3

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Rolling Stones 46: L.A. Friday

The official Stones Archive download series rolled on, following the initial Brussels Affair with a show previously mined for the Still Life album. They kept things vintage and interesting with L.A. Friday, a remaster of a mistitled bootleg from the summer tour that coincided with the Made In The Shade compilation. Notable for the first appearances of Ron Wood with the band, it shares some sequencing with Love You Live, which was mostly recorded a year later. But it’s not a duplicate at all. L.A. Friday offers a complete show—nearly two and a half hours, downloadable to two discs.
The band is generally terrific, and the sound is incredible. Fifteen minutes of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a bit much, but if Keith can stay awake, so can we. The law of equal time states that a “Midnight Rambler” of equal length is required, but that one had better built-in dynamics anyway. Things don’t threaten to go off the rails until the second verse of “Happy”, but you can always count on Charlie to restore order. (Mick sounds a little drunk, though; he finds his sea legs by the time “Fingerprint File” rolls around.) There’s a slight detour in the middle of the second half, where Billy Preston gets to do two of his own songs, with the band backing him up. Ronnie is no Mick Taylor, but he’s in tune, and listening to him is more pleasant than watching him.
When L.A. Friday cooks, it’s excellent, but the slower songs don’t translate as well in the same environment. But the boys made sure to end the show loud and fast—despite the out-of-sync percussion that threatens to capsize “Sympathy For The Devil”, removing the menace and turning it into a ten-minute Rio shuffle. The set is still that much of a notch above Love You Live. The price was right, too. (Those who had to have a physical copy only had to wait a couple of years before it was officially released in a package with a DVD, filmed a different night but synced to the audio.)

Rolling Stones L.A. Friday (Live 1975) (2012)—

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 1: Greetings From Asbury Park

In our younger days, New Jersey was something to be endured while traveling between the New York metropolitan area and Delaware. And well before a certain John Bongiovi attempted to put himself forward as its poet laureate, another guy had been linked to the musical image of this much-maligned, easily insulted state.
The music of Bruce Springsteen was rammed into the ears of album-rock radio listeners, which meant that some of us were truly sick of him well before he became a national hero. His voice took some getting used to, and the saxophone got to be a little much. Between that and the plaudits of Rolling Stone magazine, you’d think the guy invented rock ‘n roll, and we kept wondering what we were missing. It wasn’t until the mild backlash of his eighth studio album that we began to see him in a better context. And since Bruce is a man who has crafted each of his albums just so, often at the expense of dozens of worthy songs, a forum like this can better approach his history, and give him some overdue appreciation. (Like he really needs it.)
He started out as another New Dylan, a sensitive kid with an acoustic guitar and songs overspilling with words. In fact, many of the songs on Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (branding him as a local boy right there) feature multiple rhymes within a single line, almost tongue-twisting but struggling to keep up, gasping for space. For instance, if you’re more familiar with the spacey version of “Blinded By The Light” as interpreted by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, you may be surprised to find that this wordy song actually has more of a standard structure, and a guitar rhythm shared by the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen To The Music”. However, it also introduces the sax of Clarence Clemons. “Growin’ Up” is also loaded with internal rhymes, but it’s a little more concise, and more successful. “Mary Queen Of Arkansas” is taken at a much slower pace, almost too slow, with a bare accompaniment that threatens to run away from him in the closing seconds. “Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?” is a wonderful title, though the song isn’t much more of a flood of images. There’s a slowdown at the end that makes it very much of a setup for “Lost In The Flood”, a moody exploration of the apathy toward Vietnam vets and dead gang members. There’s a nice build through the track, too.
“The Angel” begins the second side very quietly, with a slow dense lyric seemingly about another motorcycle rider. That makes “For You” very welcome—a full band sound, an excellent arrangement, and well-balanced lyrics that seem more personal than observational. The saxophone comes back to the fore on “Spirit In The Night”—on the surface a portrait of noir-ish characters with wacky names, but really an authentic portrait of kids partying at a lake until the party has to end, as they all do. The album ends much like it starts, with a cavalcade of rhymes, mythmaking and swagger in “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City”.
For all the aforementioned drawbacks, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. holds together very well as a piece, but his inexperience is obvious. He’d learn as he went along, and those discovering him down the road will find some favorites here.

Bruce Springsteen Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)—

Friday, January 18, 2013

Billy Joel 2: Piano Man

Two years living down an album he hated gave Billy Joel plenty of time to hone his chops in bars and on the road, and it was the latter that helped him get a deal with Columbia Records. He certainly sounds more confident on Piano Man, and dare we say a little tougher.
“Travellin’ Prayer” would be an ordinary country hoedown (complete with banjo, fiddle and jawbone) if not for the jazzy chords at the start. Somehow, it works. Despite its ubiquity, the title track is a very vivid portrait of the cocktail lounge crowd, whatever the hell a “real estate novelist” is. “Ain’t No Crime” could be accused of having a few clichés, but consider that this was 1973, and most sitcom theme songs hadn’t been written yet. “You’re My Home” is another excellent love song (his first such one, if you hadn’t heard “She’s Got A Way” yet) and we can forgive the line about his beloved being his “instant pleasure dome”; it’s not like her body is a wonderland or anything. As long as the title track was, he still puts another epic at the end of the first side. “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid” isn’t any more daring or out-of-place than Elton John’s view of the Old West, but there are enough Copland references and a cute twist that make it worth sitting through.
“Worse Comes To Worst” is a little annoying; the structure is ordinary (for him) and the wah-wah guitar just isn’t that cool. His vocals aren’t tough enough, but that’s remedied on “Stop In Nevada”, a portrait of a liberated woman with a suitably Elton-worthy string arrangement. “If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You)” rises above its parentheses to be memorable, as does “Somewhere Down The Line”, designed to rouse arena audiences. It’s particularly impressive that the final organ note on that song nicely sets up the intro of “Captain Jack”, the album’s other epic, and still a haunting one. Each verse provides a skewering of the teenage loser in Anytown, USA, each verse more damaging than the last. There might be a hint of Lennon in the vocal, and every white American male remembers the first time he heard the word “masturbate” on the radio. The most basic of chords make for a truly stirring chorus, and it fades away to end the album.
Piano Man flows very well, split as it is between “One Side” and “Another Side” on the original LP, with its stark cover. The plethora of session rats gives it a slickness, but it very much sounds like the Billy Joel people came to know. (The Legacy Edition includes the “legendary” radio broadcast from 1972 that got him signed to Columbia; seeing as it includes three songs never released in any form, plus lots of audible beer sipping between tracks, it’s a nice addition to the catalog.)

Billy Joel Piano Man (1973)—
2011 Legacy Edition: same as 1973, plus 14 extra tracks

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Monkees 7: Instant Replay

Only a couple of months after the Head soundtrack was released, the Monkees trio defiantly put out their next real album, Instant Replay. While most of the songs came from the year’s worth of sessions that yielded the Head songs and The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, two of those were remakes of outtakes from 1966, and the remainder of the album came from actual 1966 recordings given new mixes.
Even though the TV show was over, a tie-in with their early days was the reliance on songs by the Boyce/Hart and Goffin/King songwriting teams. Such as it is, “Through The Looking Glass” and “Don’t Listen To Linda” sound much of a piece with “I Just Won’t Be The Same Without Her”—fluffy pop, and miles away from the experimentation that pushed their recent work towards rock. The tune that does rock is “Tear Drop City”, a carbon copy of “Last Train To Clarksville”.
Nez was the Monkee most likely to rock, but here on his stuff would be filtered through country music, having recorded some by himself in Nashville the year before. “Don’t Wait For Me” isn’t as overt as some of the other tracks from those sessions (which would surface soon enough); “While I Cry” was recorded earlier, and is the better song, right down to the unresolved end. “Me Without You” fits Davy’s music-hall tendencies, with a recurring vocal part that makes it a direct ripoff of “Your Mother Should Know”. “The Girl I Left Behind Me” is an elaborate composition given a suitably tearjerking delivery. (A more recent attempt appeared as a bonus on the Birds, Bees reissues; the one here is the 1966 recording.) “A Man Without A Dream” was a B-side of the time, but most startling was “You And I”, a somewhat nasty tune from his own pen and lead guitar from Neil Young.
And there was Micky. “Just A Game” is a decent tune, but the harpsichord dates it. And possibly because it could have gone nowhere else on the album, the mini-opera “Shorty Blackwell” gives us nearly six minutes of nasal duet with his sister as they voice the thoughts of his pet cat. Yes, you read that correctly.
Considering how much the remaining Monkees had going against them at this point, Instant Replay was still moderately successful—more so than it should have been. Despite the arbitrary nature of the songs, there are those who adore the album. Yet it seemed perverse for even Rhino to prepare a three-disc Deluxe Edition through its Handmade arm, following on from similar expansions. Along with the expected mono and stereo versions, B-sides and alternates, the set offers even more unreleased material from the year before, a whole pile of backing tracks, most of Nesmith’s Nashville sessions all together, and even some of the music for the 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee TV apocalypse—though sadly, not Peter’s Bach piece nor the “Listen To The Band” finale, his last performance with the group. When combined with the Birds, Bees Deluxe Edition, the placement of some of these tracks becomes extremely arbitrary. Still, it’s nice to have a few versions of the underrated single “Someday Man”, and the multiple alternate mixes of “Mommy And Daddy” and “Good Clean Fun” would lead the observer to think there wouldn’t be a bigtime rejig of The Monkees Present. This being Rhino, of course, makes such an assumption incorrect.

The Monkees Instant Replay (1969)—2
1995 Rhino CD: same as 1969, plus 7 extra tracks
2011 Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 68 extra tracks

Monday, January 14, 2013

Steely Dan 1: Can’t Buy A Thrill

When Steely Dan started out, they were a tight little combo with three different singers. Of course, the one with the worst voice (and ever-present grimace) ended up dominating their catalog. But back then, Can’t Buy A Thrill was a relatively straightforward rock album, with only a few of the jazz touches that would soon color their output.
It’s fitting that their debut should begin with “Do It Again” matches its snaky riff to mildly Latin percussion, with one of the more extended uses of a Coral electric sitar on record. “Dirty Work” is the one that doesn’t sound like Steely Dan because of the smooth-voiced singer, but once the chorus comes in it becomes more obvious (and it’s still a fun one to sing at a job you hate). “Kings” is an excellent track about the Magna Carta, Nixon or neither, and another tasty guitar solo. A third vocalist (the drummer this time) takes over “Midnite Cruiser” (with another terrific solo section) but “Only A Fool Would Say That” ends side one kinda lame. At least it’s a shortish song.
Things turn around right away with the sizzling “Reelin’ In The Years”, another radio favorite, although our ears still think they’re “reeling in the yeast”. “Fire In The Hole” stumbles along to showcase the piano, becoming a setup for Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s pedal steel solo through the fade. The guy who sang “Drity Work” returns to take the lead on “Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)”, a not-so-distant cousin of Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately”. There’s a little Traffic influence in “Change Of The Guard”, and something very infectious about the “na-na-na” interludes between each verse. The side ends with the rather intricate “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”, which is just plain confusing.
So again, it’s a pretty solid album, and consistent within itself despite the “casting” that was the band’s trademark. The lyrics are oblique to this day, but the catchiness and accessibility of the music makes it a mainstream pleaser. Which can’t be said for everything.

Steely Dan Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)—

Friday, January 11, 2013

King Crimson 14: The Power To Believe

Despite most people’s expectations, King Crimson actually surfaced in the 21st century. The Power To Believe retained the same quartet from the previous album, and is something of a piece, with its intricate fake-delay guitars and electronically enhanced percussion. There seems to be less emphasis on upfront vocals, which is fine.
The title track is split into four parts, and we haven’t listened to them enough times to figure out how they connect. Granted, the first part is a cappella, a processed vocalizing that recurs throughout. The second seems to have several other sections within it; the third supports a lengthy slow Fripp solo, and the coda is almost Enoesque (until the vocals come in). “Level Five” is textbook Crimson, pounding a non-standard time signature into submission with staccato emphasis; similarly “Elektrik” should be pleasing to shredheads. If there’s a radio-friendly single on the album, it’s “Eyes Wide Open”, but even that might be considered too light for the band and the prog genre overall. “Facts Of Life” has a long, dull intro (indexed separately) and lyrics that think too much, but an experiment that works once you figure out the point is “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With”, a skewering of the nu-metal scene and how their songs are constructed (“I guess I’ll repeat the chorus/we’re gonna repeat the chorus”). “Dangerous Curves” builds in the style of “The Devil’s Triangle”, and overall the album seems to hearkening back to the Crimson of the early ‘70s.
Something of a preview (a la Vrooom for Thrak) appeared in the form of Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With. Three new songs-with-vocals are linked by short, processed a cappella pieces and instrumentals. A ten-minute live version of “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part IV)” is pretty cool, and the set ends with a collage of snippets from the studio, some humorous. The one song that didn’t appear on The Power To Believe was “Potato Pie”, which extended some of the “blues” experiments of the last album.
History has shown that nothing is set in stone, but for many years, this was the last King Crimson album, Fripp having semi-retired but still authorizing archival releases and fighting for the rights of the musician. He has left a legacy that is challenging, inspiring, unpredictable and, for those who have made the plunge, highly rewarding.

King Crimson The Power To Believe (2003)—3

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Crosby & Nash 2: Wind On The Water

CSNY actually managed to reunite for a major tour in the summer of 1974, playing for several hours a night in stadiums, ushering an era of mammoth concerts. Since Neil had tons of songs to choose from, Stills felt he had to keep up, leaving Crosby and Nash to gamely sing along and bang tambourines.
Once the tour was over, the only “new” album was the So Far hits collection. Neil and Stills went back to their corners, and since Crosby & Nash never had a problem getting along, they held onto the rhythm section and recorded another joint LP. Which meant that the songs were written mostly separately, but recorded mostly together. By this part of the decade, however, the Asylum example had taken root, so many of the people associated with the Southern California vibe appear—Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar, David Lindley and of course, Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar—having already proven themselves on the first Crosby/Nash album.
Thankfully, that threat of blandness doesn’t dominate Wind On The Water. For one, Crosby still had it at this point, contributing some excellent songs. “Carry Me” is a basic wish to rise above one’s limitations, ending with a personal verse about his dying mother. “Bittersweet” is based around a circular piano part, never quite finding its root, and that’s what makes it so affecting. “Low Down Payment” wanders between time signatures in best Déjà Vu tradition. Unfortunately “Homeward Through The Haze” reaches too much to be a classic; a better version had been left in the can that would do it justice down the road.
Nash’s songs aren’t quite as strong. As obscure as “Mama Lion” is, “Take The Money And Run” needs a little more substance to match its infectious riff. You can tell that “Love Work Out” is his song by the pounding piano; the song isn’t much but it ends with a fantastic guitar solo. “Cowboy Of Dreams” is his best contribution, being something of a tribute to Neil, and a chance for David Lindley to play his fiddle.
The best is saved for last, and it’s nice when an epic makes the trip worthwhile, as opposed to sinking the proceedings under its on bloat. It’s something of a suite that gives the album its title, dedicated “To The Last Whale…” It opens with a faux-Gregorian piece called “Critical Mass”, the likes of which Crosby had already shown he could pull off. The final vocal chord leads into the oceanic string arrangement heralding “Wind On The Water”, a Nash protest over the hunting of whales. Heartfelt, if a little naïve, it draws attention to the subject of ecology and endangered animals, and predicts his obvious support of the “no nukes” movement.
While not as stunning as some of their earlier work together or alone, Wind On The Water is still a pleasant diversion, proving that maybe these guys would be able to make it just fine on their own. At least, until the other two showed up.

David Crosby/Graham Nash Wind On The Water (1975)—3

Monday, January 7, 2013

Billy Joel 1: Cold Spring Harbor

Billy Joel causes arguments like few other musicians of his or any generation. For some he’s a pompous hack, while others hail him as a terrific songwriter and live performer. For those of us who grew up near New York City, he seemed almost as ubiquitous on the radio as Springsteen, even though it took him a while to become a household name. And even though his last album of songs is two decades old, an all-star benefit at Madison Square Garden isn’t complete unless he comes out to play songs loaded with local references.
As he’d say, he was a classically trained pianist who loved rock ‘n roll, and many of his melodies started out as instrumental pieces grounded solidly in classical piano. That’s one reason why his attempts to rock aren’t as convincing as when he emulates pieces by 18th-century longhairs. With the benefit of hindsight, we consider him a guilty pleasure, with everything both of those words suggest.
His first album was soundly ignored when it came out, and even the version of Cold Spring Harbor that you can find today isn’t quite the album it might have been. Apparently the first (and only) pressing ran fast, and it wasn’t until well after he was a big star that his old manager arranged to have it reissued—at the right speed, but remixed and rerecorded in places. Some have compared this to what Alan Douglas did to the Hendrix legacy; we’d suppose even Billy would say that’s extreme.
The album deserved better, since it not only sounds like the Billy Joel that would be embraced within a few years, but it’s not much like other singer-songwriter albums of the period (except maybe that Elton John guy). “She’s Got A Way” and “Everybody Loves You Now” would get another lease on life a decade later, having been well-worn on the road. “You Can Make Me Free” comes between those on side one, and builds up into a terrific jam (complete with overdubbed Beatlesque harmonies) removed from the reissue. His manager may have screwed him over, but at least he put his charge in touch with some decent session guys. “Falling Of The Rain” is built around a trademark Joel piano run, and there’s even an original “Nocturne”; both show off those aforementioned classical chops.
It’s a short album at a little over half an hour, so the misses stand out. “Turn Around” would be rewritten better a few times on future albums, while “Why Judy Why” is pretty ordinary. “You Look So Good To Me” simply has too much Hammond organ. “Tomorrow Is Today” gets away from itself in the middle, when his “soulful” voice makes its first appearance and the strings saw away at arpeggios at top speed. “Got To Begin Again” leans heavily on the “end of the road” metaphor, even for a closing track.
Still, there’s enough on Cold Spring Harbor that suggests his potential. Some enterprising individuals have used digital technology to speed-correct the original LP, which would be the best way to hear it. Again, his voice isn’t quite there, suggesting a lack of confidence (well-placed as it turns out). But again, these things are clearer with the perspective of forty years. If anything suggested he wasn’t ready for the big time, it was the mustache.

Billy Joel Cold Spring Harbor (1971)—3
1983 reissue: "same" as 1971

Friday, January 4, 2013

Bob Dylan 53: Tempest

This late into his career, it’s a big deal indeed when a new Dylan album comes out. Still performing at the age of 71, every moment he’s still around is precious, and like some of his contemporaries, he foregoes the nostalgia route by occasionally adding to the catalog. Tempest isn’t as rife with heavy symbolism as some would hope, unless the rarity of Dylan giving an album a title track is supposed to mean something. It also shouldn’t be significant that the album was released 11 years to the day after “Love And Theft”, and 22 years from Under The Red Sky, but it is, even if we don’t know why. As he’d insist, it’s just a collection of songs.
“Duquesne Whistle” begins with a sound one would associate with a grainy cartoon or Chaplin short; once the song kicks in it gains a little more fuzz, with a jaunty organ part underneath. Robert Hunter, who’d supplied most of the lyrics for Together Through Life, does the same here; the rest is all Bob, or at least until somebody points out all the literary lifts. Meanwhile, good luck trying to get the image of that pinhead from the video out of your skull. “Soon After Midnight” lopes along nicely, along the lines of “Where Teardrops Fall” from Oh Mercy. While sadly not a cover of the David Gilmour song from Ummagumma, “Narrow Way” pounds its groove for several minutes. “Long And Wasted Years” sounds like a Lanois production in the intro, and something about the descending guitar brings to mind George Harrison’s solo stuff. His delivery, a cross between the shouted style of the ‘80s and the aw-shucks voice of the Basement Tapes, is enticing. With its toe-tapping arrangement, “Pay In Blood” might be the most commercial-sounding tune he’s done in 30 years. Its upbeat presentation becomes even weirder considering the content of the song. “Scarlet Town” is a little too closely related to “Ain’t Talkin’”, another song everybody likes but us, but at least it tries to tell a tale.
“Early Roman Kings” was the first song previewed from the album, and starts out sounding too much like “My Wife’s Home Town”—almost like he wanted to scare people into thinking the album would be Together Through Life Part 2. The idea of “early Roman kings in their sharkskin suits” is an interesting juxtaposition, and that’s just the beginning; the accordion is completely unnecessary and wheezes from top to toe. At nearly nine minutes and one chord, “Tin Angel” threatens to bore, but the story (something of an update of “Matty Groves”) is told well, with lots of twists. If that’s not long enough, the title track runs nearly fourteen minutes, a melodic rumination on the sinking of the Titanic, which seems to wander between actual accounts and red-herring references to the movie (fitting, since it’s in the same mood as “Red River Shore”, or another one of his movie songs we never bothered to memorize). The final epic is “Roll On John”, a tribute to John Lennon that gently tugs heartstrings. There’s a little slap-back Plastic Ono-style echo on the vocal, and the whole thing sounds very much like a big ship bobbing on the waves. It’s not the most complicated song, and many of the images don’t necessarily apply to the Beatle, but it’s the type of thing that will stick in your brain long after the disc has faded to silence.
Tempest is good, but not great, and that’s fine. It’s certainly an improvement on his last two regular albums, even Modern Times, a case where the ingredients were there but the recipe wasn’t accurate. He’s not all rasp, either—when he sings without pushing, he’s still incredibly smooth. We may elevate this to four stars eventually, but for now, we can strongly recommend it.

Bob Dylan Tempest (2012)—

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Neil Young 48: Psychedelic Pill

Mere months after Americana was unleashed on the unsuspecting world, Neil decided to make up the difference with a brand new Crazy Horse album, stretched over two discs—the equivalent of a double LP. Psychedelic Pill is just as challenging as that teaser of fuzzy folk songs, loaded with extended jams a la Ragged Glory. Therein lies one challenge; after forty-odd albums under his own name, it’s difficult to listen to something like this without comparing a song to an older one. Plus, newly sober according to his recent memoir, he can’t blame any retreads on the weed.
The album begins with an acoustic strum, then a “hey now now” vocal that launched a dozen Jimmy Fallon impersonations. A little more than a minute in, some harmonies appear, and an electric jam fades up in the mix. For all its meandering, the few direct lyrics decry MP3 sound and Picasso art becoming wallpaper. (What the hell is a “hip-hop haircut” anyway?) At 27 minutes, it threatens to get really tedious, but it’s no “T-Bone”, instead loping along like “Carmichael”. Thankfully, the music keeps it interesting, even when Poncho sounds like he’s checking his tuning (assuming that’s him in the left channel) and there’s a terrific ending. The title track shares a riff with “Sign Of Love”—and is that a lick from “Cinnamon Girl”?—mixed to flange the guitars while making the one-note melody sound like an outtake from Trans. (The alternate mix tacked at the end of the second disc lacks the swirly effects, and is therefore preferable.) “Ramada Inn” is another long one, nearly 17 minutes but riveting, talking about a couple that’s been through a lot together, which may or may not be a memoir of its own. (The lyric booklet, set up like that of Americana, is very misleading.) “Born In Ontario” is a welcome country stomp (even if “south” doesn’t rhyme with “months”) and it’s a good place for the first CD to end.
The second disc is a little shorter, but hardly a simpler listen. “Twisted Road” owes a little to “Daddy Went Walking”, picking up on the looking-back of “Born In Ontario” with a tribute to musical heroes. “She’s Always Dancing” fades in mid-solo and meanders like the latter moments on Greendale; indeed, one can picture Sun Green swaying away to it. It’s probably the least interesting song in the set. “For The Love Of Man” provides variety, in a druggy doo-wop kind of way. One might think it was of a piece with some of his hymns of the 21st century, but it turns out to be the 30-year-old song assumed to be titled “I Wonder Why”. Which makes the anachronistic fake strings rather appropriate. The most obvious choice for everyone’s favorite epic would be “Walk Like A Giant”, using his classic tone as long as you don’t mind the final four minutes of thudding sludge, sounding like the accompaniment for the covers being lowered on those giant amps.
The music on Psychedelic Pill was designed specifically to be played long, loud and live, and that’s what he did right after the album came out. We want to like it more than we do—and we do—but two discs’ worth is a lot to handle. And that’s something else that makes Neil someone we love so much: he doesn’t worry over fitting his creations within a set format, rather forcing any format to handle what he provides.

Neil Young with Crazy Horse Psychedelic Pill (2012)—3

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Stephen Stills 5: Stills

A musician as well-rounded as Stephen Stills runs the risk of trying to do too much, when all he really needs to do is shut up and play. On Stills, his first album under a new contract with Columbia, he did that, for the most part, and the result is rewarding.
“Turn Back The Pages” has a nice lazy rhythm except for whenever the chorus goes to Havana, every time. “My Favorite Changes” sports a circular riff that would be copied by Robyn Hitchcock on occasion, while “My Angel” proves that he was right at home helping out the Bee Gees in their disco phase. Despite the cowbells and wah-wah, “In The Way” is reminiscent of some of the better moments from his first solo album, though we can’t really say how. Similarly, “Love Story” is very much lacking in pretension, and “To Mama From Christopher And The Old Man” is fresh and unlabored.
“First Things First” isn’t very exciting, but it’s short. Much better are “New Mama”, a band arrangement of a Neil Young song that had just finally been released on Tonight’s The Night, and “As I Come Of Age”, an older track with Ringo on drums and Crosby and Nash on harmonies. “Shuffle Just As Bad” is a little ordinary, though it does get away from a shuffle by the end. “Cold Cold World” adds a little mystery to the proceedings, even if we’ve heard the same lead guitar tone on every track thus far. That makes “Myth Of Sisyphus” even better, being a piano-based rumination with organ.
There’s a lot of good on Stills, particularly coming at a point in time when he and his contemporaries were getting rather self-indulgent. It’s a pleasant surprise for anyone who might have written him off by now.

Stephen Stills Stills (1975)—3