Friday, January 27, 2017

Thunderclap Newman: Hollywood Dream

Anytime we analyze a one-hit wonder on this dais, it’s usually because the accompanying album to said hit single actually has plenty to recommend it, a result that is never guaranteed. Thunderclap Newman is one of those beloved one-hit wonders, so beloved that the first two editions of the indisputable (okay, stop laughing) Rolling Stone Record Guide gave their only album five stars. (The third edition knocked it down to three, and the most recent edition doesn’t mention it at all.)
Hollywood Dream arrived about a year after the surprise success of the sublime “Something In The Air”, and though the band did some touring, they didn’t last long enough to make a follow-up. That was no big surprise, seeing as the band was built around singer-songwriter-drummer John “Speedy” Keen (who did some driving for Pete Townshend, and contributed “Armenia City In The Sky” to The Who Sell Out), ragtime pianist-horn player Andy Newman (who went to art school with Pete before going on to work for the post office) and then-teenage guitarist Jimmy McCulloch (who didn’t have any connection to Pete we can discern). Jimmy’s brother played drums on stage so Speedy could stand up front and sing, and they recruited another guy to play bass, since Pete had handled that instrument himself pseudonymously while producing the album.
That last factoid has a lot to do with why the album is still of interest to anyone outside curiosity over the single. While Jimmy would go on to be renowned for his fine fretwork, some of the drumming, simpler piano playing, and certain acoustic guitar passages sound very similar to performances us Who freaks recognize from Pete’s home demos. Maybe Speedy played on some of those? Whatever the truth, some of these songs would be pirated on bootlegs under the mistaken guise of unreleased Townshend compositions.
The original album had “Something In The Air” as the last track, while later reissues moved it all the way to the top. There’s a good argument for both ways, particularly when one notices that many of the songs follow the same basic template as the hit: two-chord intros, descending basslines at verse ends, some of the melodies, and detours over the bridges where Newman’s piano sounds like it’s in a different key than the rest of the song at hand. Another limitation comes forth as well: “Weedy” would have been a better nickname for the auteur, as Mr. Keen was not blessed with a fine singing voice or reliable pitch. (He also had a nose rivaling that of the producer.)
The single aside, the album is bookended by two different versions of the same song. “Hollywood #1” ends in a solo piano ramble, while “Hollywood #2”, which comes out of the unrelated instrumental title track, has percussion piled on like closing credits. In between, the album bounces back and forth like a taut bungee cord. “The Reason” sounds a lot like 1970 Pete, is a strong tune to rival the single, and provides a similar template for the cover of Dylan’s “Open The Door, Homer”, yet to be let out of the basement. “Look Around” and “The Old Cornmill” are solid rockers, but the big eyebrow-raiser is “Accidents”, a slightly morbid nursery rhyme turned into a nine-minute exploratory jam.
While essential for Who fans, Hollywood Dream inhabits a unique corner of pop music, a British version of country, music hall and trad jazz. The Bonzo Dog Band is referenced in other summaries, but we hear early Badfinger in here too. And since it was their only album, the CD reissues kindly include the single versions of “Something In The Air”, “The Reason” and “Accidents” (at less than half the length, with different vocals) along with their B-sides, and more kazoo than most people will endure.

Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream (1970)—3
1991 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Waterboys 6: Dream Harder

The success of his “Celtic folk” period contrasted with the resurgence in popularity of “The Whole Of The Moon” thanks to a reissued single (and the fact that it’s a great frickin’ tune) seemed to inspire another left turn from Mike Scott, still using The Waterboys as the catch-all for his music. With Dream Harder, however, this particular turn damaged his axle, leaving him stuck in an ill-advised “rock” corner.
There’s nothing wrong with loud guitars, of course, especially since they’d been part of his sound all along. But the album was recorded with all hired hands, resulting in a mostly generic early-‘90s sound one would expect from the Geffen label, with only his reedy-weedy voice and spiritual lyrics tying the album to the Waterboys of yore. Granted, each of those albums used the moniker instead of his own name, but using it yet again for this batch of mostly indistinguishable tunes inspires the accusations of suckering the fans.
The first four tracks plow along with heavy drums and vocals in constant “wonder”, before “Corn Circles” provides variety in the way of a bluesy shuffle, but not much else. “Suffer” is stuck in a reggae groove with a guitar that won’t stop shredding, ending with a hardly surprising play on “shut the door”. Our ears prick up for “Winter Winter”, a lovely acoustic strum in a minor that sadly ends after 36 seconds to make way for a Yeats poem set to a power ballad tempo. The poem deserves a better backing, and the backing deserves a more fitting lyric. Then we get a fake nursery rhyme about the “Spiritual City” with prominent sitar for that psychedelic feel and a voiceover by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly for some reason. “Wonders Of Lewis” would be another impressionistic interlude being that it’s only two minutes, but then we have “The Return Of Jimi Hendrix”, another poem about a dream set to a Jim Keltner drum pattern, with a band Hendrix guitar imitation. It is, however, one of the few songs that mentions Yonkers, so there’s that. Not until the last track—“Good News”, with its Yamaha digital piano—does the album truly sound like him.
Dream Harder is a failed experiment, and not always the wisest move when you’re on a new label more concerned with pushing units on Nirvana, Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses. While he can be commended for not rehashing the same old sound, this direction wasn’t the answer for what he should do next.

The Waterboys Dream Harder (1993)—2

Friday, January 20, 2017

Mott The Hoople 4: Brain Capers

As if to prove that they hadn’t wimped out on anyone, Mott The Hoople’s fourth album is all about attitude, and balancing power, passion and speed. Even better, Ian Hunter sits squarely behind the lead mike for most of Brain Capers, and that makes a big difference.
For the title alone, “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” should win a medal, but it’s backed up by a stupidly long percussive intro before blasting through a glorious kiss-off, self-censored on the choruses to prove their own terms. Since wacky covers were a hallmark of the band, “Your Own Backyard” is a clean-and-sober anthem by Dion DiMucci (yes, of the Belmonts) given the Mott treatment, then Mick Ralphs insists on singing “Darkness, Darkness” by the Youngbloods, full of tension and bite. We’re due for another Ian Hunter epic, and “The Journey” delivers, from its lighter-waving verses and choruses, a sensitive bridge, and then a pile-driving second section, Ian’s voice cracking at all the right spots.
“Sweet Angeline” brings straight rock ‘n roll via pounding piano eighth notes, and the priceless rhyming summation, “You have rendered me obscene.” He strains to hit the notes on “Second Love”, which Verdon Allen wrote, but once again the quiet beginning gives way to volume, and even some mariachi horns from Jim Price, straight off of Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St. (It was 1971, after all.) The anger that opened the album comes back full throttle on “The Moon Upstairs”, all fuzz and riffing, and no self-censorship this time. And just to put forth a final statement, “The Wheel Of The Quivering Meat Conception” presents the last minute or so of the end of “The Journey”.
Brain Capers was the band’s big shot to make it, and it nearly didn’t, if not for one generous fan. We’ll get to that soon enough, but for now, revel in the sound of a hard-working combo trying their damnedest to blow the shackles off their potential. Even with all the dynamics and pauses, your knees will jog happily.

Mott The Hoople Brain Capers (1971)—4

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Genesis 12: Abacab

From here the line between Genesis and Phil Collins really begins to blur, as his solo career brought his voice to a wider audience. On Abacab, his voice is more confident than ever, yet he still feels compelled to play “characters”. And thanks to the hand of engineer Hugh Padgham, the sound crackles throughout.
The title track is still a lot of fun for a song about nothing; even the closing jam, while simple, keeps the attention with the dueling synth and guitar, and crazy seagull effects in the back. “No Reply At All” is an awfully bold departure, for the band anyway, being that it is plastered with the same Earth, Wind & Fire horns that Phil used on his solo albums, to the detriment in the mix of Tony Banks’ organ and Mike Rutherford’s highly impressive bass. (His guitar is equally impressive all over the album.) “Me And Sarah Jane” is another quirky Banks tune, with some echoes of the ‘70s, but wrapping up nicely for the final “choruses”. The real hidden gem here is “Keep It Dark”, which even got a video, telling a grand Genesis sci-fi tale in 6/4.
Side two starts in a similar fashion to side one, with an extended jam of sorts for “Dodo/Lurker”, which somehow encompasses an extinct bird and a submarine. “Who Dunnit?” appears to be an exercise in annoyance, starting with a simple idea then beating it into submission. “Man On The Corner” seems descended from Phil’s demos for his solo album, with a touch of the social commentary he’d pursue later, unless one considers it a view in third person of the poor slob from “Misunderstanding”. “Like It Or Not” fits with Phil’s recent romantic laments, except that Mike wrote it. There’s a wonderfully moody setup for “Another Record”; sadly it doesn’t last for the whole song, which turns into a clever acknowledgement of fleeting stardom (indeed, the song was allegedly left over from Duke) featuring one of the earliest uses of the fake harmonica sound that would become omnipresent throughout the decade.
There are a few long tracks, but no epics; most of the tunes are concise but not throwaways. Abacab is a refreshing look back to the band when they were just this close to becoming true behemoths. There’s something for every fan, and something to piss every fan off.

Genesis Abacab (1981)—

Friday, January 13, 2017

Replacements 7: Don’t Tell A Soul

Once again coming this close to mainstream acceptance, Don’t Tell A Soul wowed critics and irritated hardcore fans, in both cases due to the album’s radio-friendly sound. With the help of new guitarist Slim Dunlap, the ‘Mats were able to translate Paul Westerberg’s latest contrarian laments to a decent record.
There’s nothing truly sloppy or stupid here, just layers of acoustic guitars and cracking drums. “Talent Show” is another thinly veiled description of Life On The Road, “Back To Back” several clever turns of phrase piled on top of each other “We’ll Inherit The Earth” is likely where a lot of fans jumped off, thanks to the early ‘70s Moody Blues homage in the furiously strummed guitars and pseudo-sci-fi overtones. But then there’s “Achin’ To Be”, likely inspired by the chicks he saw at various gigs, either onstage or in the crowd, and still one of his best. (Dig Slim’s Stonesy fills.) Less appreciated is “They’re Blind”, a more direct message to the same type of unattainable woman.
Side two crashes into place for those still ready to rock, and “Anywhere’s Better Than Here” is a worthy complaint, and it’s always nice to hear Tommy shrieking along in the back. However, one thing these guys weren’t was funky, and “Asking Me Lies” is a poor bed for more wordplay. But then there’s the moderate hit single of “I’ll Be You”, which would be an important song if only for introducing the phrase “a rebel without a clue” to the pop vernacular. It’s proof that Westerberg could write a hit song, followed up by the throwaway noise of “I Won’t”, and not even good noise. “Rock ‘N Roll Ghost” could also be considered an indulgence, more moody than memorable, but it does foreshadow some of his future paranoia. And while it’s kinda ordinary, “Darlin’ One” manages to provide a decent, epic finale.
Don’t Tell A Soul still gets less love than it should. Certainly compared to their other albums it’s not as striking, and doesn’t clear a room as well as those others, but a little time away from it, while exposing its late-‘80s sheen, proves that it’s “not bad”. The expanded CD doesn’t tip the scales either way, adding some previously released outtakes (including the rockin’ raveup “Wake Up”), a couple of demos and alternate takes, a cover of Slade’s “Gudbuy T’Jane”, and the essential B-side “Date To Church”, seemingly written on the spot with special guest Tom Waits on vocals and Hammond organ.

The Replacements Don’t Tell A Soul (1989)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1989, plus 7 extra tracks

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Steve Perry 1: Street Talk

When a band has an “iconic” lead singer, the average consumer tends to associate the two interchangeably. So what happens when said singer does a solo album, independent of the band? If you’re Roger Daltrey, you record songs nothing like those the main guy in the band wrote for you, giving yourself an outlet. If you’re Phil Collins, you make a sound nothing like what people expect of the band, but will eventually come to define the band, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you’re Steve Perry, you release Street Talk, heralded by a single that’s not too far off from what people in 1984 associated with the Journey brand.
We say “heralded” in a pointed reference to the self-deflating video for “Oh Sherrie”, which attempted to display Our Hero as just another guy caught in the fabrications of the modern music video treadmill. And it’s a catchy tune, with Waddy Wachtel playing the lead with more of a Southern California tone than Neal Schon’s high-speed Frisco shred. Like most of the rest of the album, it was co-written with a couple of MOR hacks, and proceeds in decidedly unadventurous manner. There’s the Four Tops-inspired rhythms of “I Believe”, the incomprehensible high harmonies on “Go Away”, the Ambrosia rewrite “Foolish Heart”, the by-numbers pop of “It’s Only Love”, Waddy credited again for “rhythm guitar solo”. Mercifully, the excitement over a DX-7 patch sounding like steel drums would soon pass.
The yacht rock continues on “She’s Mine”, but it has enough of the angst left over from the last two Journey albums to sound familiar. Apparently he used it all up, because the rest of side two limps on through empty emoting (“You Should Be Happy”), inexplicable sound effects of children laughing (“Running Alone”) and a barely clever tribute to fallen rock stars and other leaders (“Captured By The Moment”) to “Strung Out”, which is about as catchy as where we came in, and another one where it could be mistaken for his regular band. (While we’re at it, Neal Schon did do a side project around this with the not-yet-Halened Sammy Hagar, spawning two full albums that nobody mistook for Journey.)
Of course, an album doesn’t have to be good to be a hit, and this one did spawn four hit singles, and even helped earn him a solo spot on “We Are The World”. Steve went on to contribute a limp track to the full USA For Africa album, and “If Only For The Moment, Girl” was duly added to a 21st-century repress of Street Talk, alongside the overblown B-side “Don’t Tell Me Why You’re Leaving”, left off the album for good reason, and three demos left over from the band he was in before Journey, and much more palatable even today.

Steve Perry Street Talk (1984)—2
2006 CD reissue: same as 1984, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, January 6, 2017

Prince 3: Dirty Mind

He’d already proved what he could do in established studios with his first two albums. But now Prince had the company clout to record at home, and the results, as demonstrated on Dirty Mind, were striking. Even more so than the near-crotch shot on the cover.
The thump of the music could still be considered R&B, the tinny synthesizers and trebly guitars on the title track are straight out of new wave. “When You Were Mine” has the same sound, but is even more catchy, with Beatlesque harmonies that made it an obvious choice for covers early on. An ascending arpeggio opens “Do It All Night”, and he’d apparently just bought a Yamaha electric piano, but the slap funk bass keeps this squarely in the disco. “Gotta Broken Heart Again” practically swings; a little slight but genuinely tuneful.
Side two is all about provocation. “Uptown” and “Partyup” start and close the side respectively, and disguise racial relations, anti-war concerns and sexual identity issues within boisterous beats. But most people talked about the two songs in between. “Head” is the option offered by one particular conquest, voiced here by new band member Lisa Coleman. “Sister” is exactly what you suspect, delivered at pogo-speed in 90 seconds. Each track is crammed up against the next, sometimes with a dissonant flourish, and no room to breathe.
Barely half an hour long, Dirty Mind brings Prince solidly into the ‘80s, and closer still to the icon he’d become. Best of all, he was getting more confident in his voice, doubling the falsetto with a more natural register. And even though they’re not on the bulk of the album (a keyboard here, a vocal there), the inner sleeve shows future members of the Revolution. Not pictured, but supposedly involved in “Partyup”, is one Morris Day.

Prince Dirty Mind (1980)—3

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Todd Rundgren 14: Adventures In Utopia

With each album, Utopia got less experimental, but having settled on a steady lineup, they were also more democratic, making them truly separate from Todd Rundgren’s truly solo work. Despite its high-tech design and tie-in with an alleged TV production, Adventures In Utopia is practically mainstream.
“The Road To Utopia” fades in with a hint of space travel, or at least opening credits, but settles into a basic structure. “You Make Me Crazy” could be mistaken for The Cars, and “Second Nature” is even a little disco, but Kasim Sulton got the hit single with “Set Me Free”. At seven minutes, “Caravan” approaches prog, but succeeds on structure and tunefulness, even through the dueling synth and guitar solos.
The mildly overblown “Last Of The New Wave Riders” approaches self-parody, both in performance and lyrical content, and while it seems to be tamed by the low-key intro to “Shot In The Dark”, this too escalates into a Big Number. “The Very Last Time” is another Rundgren kiss-off, balancing between the wistful verses and angry choruses. Then we have “Love Alone”, a cross between Broadway and Queen, with a synth-string backing and a choir of counterparts under the lead vocal. It’s still better than “Rock Love”, another disco tune with a stretched metaphor.
Despite its dated attributes, Adventures In Utopia manages to entertain, with songs that can appeal to more listeners than before. The concept remains elusive.

Utopia Adventures In Utopia (1980)—3