Tuesday, December 05, 2017

AXIS: BOLD AS LOVE AT 50



Otherworldly doesn't quite suffice as a description of the sonic delights that the Jimi Hendrix Experience wove into their second full length LP, released a half century ago this past week. The subtle genius who led the trio revealed himself to be a composer of considerable depth, turning in a set of songs that are as arresting today as they were at the time of issue. Let's travel back in time to that final month of 1967, where opaque clouds of smoke hovered over the astounded faces of those lucky souls who repeatedly sacrificed needles on turntables, worshipping at the altar of this incredible record.

It takes about half a day to get there...if we travel by dragonfly

Opening with a short "interview" that could almost be considered as the ultimate inside joke (look up Paul Caruso), the vari-speeded voices in their brief exchange set the stage for a barrage of raging coronal mass ejections, courtesy of Hendrix, which are madly panned across the stereo divide. The swooping, dive bombing assaults fade only to be replaced by the brushed drum fill that kicks off "Up From the Skies". Breezing by with a wink, this jazzy, wah-wah pedal driven flight of fancy is unlike anything from Are You Experienced. Hendrix delivers a subdued vocal that perfectly complements the track. Working against the aural template that he had crafted on the first disc, he and the Experience show a far more subtle side of their collective musical personality. You can almost imagine Hendrix taking his place on the bandstand with a larger group blending in as a contributor, rather than featured performer. Side one, which you could easily frame, then bounces back to rock as Mitch Mitchell morphs from Elvin Jones to a heavier approach as the trio lock in on the majestic “Spanish Castle Magic”. Jimi blasts off a handful of face-melters as Noel holds on to that hypnotic riff, though these type of guitar pyrotechnics are the exception rather than the rule here.

This may very well be the reason that this platter often gets passed over in the lexicon of the Experience. Those listeners expecting six string fireworks find the artist opting to play against type. Funky, tight rhythms are featured in “Wait Until Tomorrow” and note perfect nuance in the all too brief “Ain’t No Telling”. Both are variations on carnal pleasures, with a gun toting Dad to spoil the fun in the former. No room is made for endless soloing. nor is it necessary. Letting the songs breathe, dream imagery accompanied by a dizzying array of colors dominate lyrical subject matter. Hendrix wrote delicate melodies to match these ethereal moods, none finer than what you’ll find in “Little Wing” and “Castles Are Made of Sand”.

Noel Redding even draws in with his very own composition (“She’s So Fine”) singing lead and coming pretty damn close to the Who in places. Out of this treasure trove of inspired song craft, my personal highlight is the sublime “One Rainy Wish”. This is one that I always wish would never end. Dynamic and tasteful beyond description, it is incredible in headphones. Runner up? “If 6 Was 9”, which flies the freak flag proudly as a multi-part, extended freak out that allows everyone some room to rip. The spoken word section is the lone area where shade briefly eclipses the psychedelic rainbow that arcs over just about everything else. Though his other work attracted more attention, I would weigh in and say that this is his grand statement; futuristic and sweeping without ever overstaying its welcome. Wrapping up with the title track, nary a note is wasted. The Experience hit their high watermark with this one, though the tightly edited scripts would be tossed out the window during the sessions for Electric Ladyland, which had its share of high points, yet would fall victim to endless jams and a lack of organization from a production perspective following the departure of Chas Chandler.

Axis was the ultimate holiday gift from one of the masters. If you spot a vinyl copy, pay the asking price regardless of the amount.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

PRETENDERS II



Second album syndrome has been the difference maker in the careers of many artists. Clich├ęs fly like empties in a dive bar after midnight around this topic.

You have your whole life to write your first record, but...

Chrissie Hynde, aided and abetted by her band mates, rose to the challenge with a fantastic collection of tunes. One of the most underrated writers in rock, her work is inventive, melodic and very durable. Her distinctive voice is one factor that draws the listener in. Not a traditionally technically perfect instrument, though one that instantly branded the band. Once you are duly brought to attention, the material itself never wears out its welcome, which is the mark of a top class composer. The Pretenders practically outdid themselves by issuing a note perfect, eponymously titled debut set that veered from radio-friendly hits ("Brass in Pocket", "Kid") to straight up rock ("Precious", "Tattooed Love Boys") and touched on a variety of musical sweet spots, all deftly pulled together by the production of Chris Thomas. Critical comparison to its predecessor created a feeling that Pretenders II was a much lesser opus upon its release in late summer 1981.

Not so.

Focused writing from Hynde, that beautiful sonic blend of shimmering guitars (courtesy of her and James Honeyman-Scott) and tasteful playing from everyone remain intact on this disc. Emphasis on the group dynamic is important because each member brought their own personalities into the instrumental mix. Chambers and Farndon steer expertly through the time signature shifts that give color to cuts like "Waste Not Want Not" and "Day After Day" while keeping their foundation work in service of the songs. "Message of Love" still resonates decades later, sounding fresh as if it could have been recorded last week. Hard hitting and delicate all at once, it occupies the same territory as the equally catchy "Talk of the Town". Remembering that they are an estimable rock ensemble, you also get edgy creations ("The Adultress", "Pack it Up") along with the relentless power that pushes "Bad Boys get Spanked" and "Jealous Dogs". Extra points are awarded for maintaining pristine production values (once again courtesy of Chris Thomas)and keeping the material tightly edited and accessible. The only selection that seems out of place is the closer ("Louie Louie") which adopts the arrangement of "The Midnight Hour" (bass and drums) and a horn section that overpowers just about everything else. Perhaps it was deployed intentionally to cover the lack of direction in an endeavor that would have made an OK B-side, but little else. That said, this is an action packed set that has aged extremely well. It is also the last full length effort completed by the original quartet. Sadly, interpersonal issues and drug abuse would lead to Pete Farndon being elbowed from the fold the following year. Honeyman-Scott would fall victim to a fatal overdose before the next project could be undertaken with Farndon suffering a similar fate in 1983. Hynde and Chambers would soldier on with replacements, though Pretenders II stands as a great document of what they were capable of at the peak of their powers.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

IMPERIAL BEDROOM



Lyrically sharp with grand arrangements to support them, the songs presented on Imperial Bedroom are incredibly ambitious, sounding (thankfully) nothing like many of the empty-headed "New Wave" groups of that period. It wasn't of its time, though remains a favorite of mine because it makes no attempt to embrace the embarrassing sonic trends that were becoming prevalent in the eighties. (He would sadly fall into that trap once on "Goodbye Cruel World" and it would be a poor fit.) Elvis Costello emerged from the UK in the late 70's, making music every bit as creative as those giants of the last golden period in the mid 60's. He was one of a handful of artists that made one last push to preserve the intelligence and vitality of rock music, before the video medium overran imagination with crass commercial interests.

Your attention is required (and held) throughout this record, not simply because of the lyrical density but also due to the detail that is evident in both production (courtesy of one the masters, Geoff Emerick) and musicianship. It sounds as if it were a difficult album to make in terms of time spent, yet that patience resulted in a definitive work of art. No blazing rock songs are submitted here, though more than a hint of the baroque touches applied to late period Beatles recordings are present. Case in point, "...and in Every Home", complete with 40 piece orchestra, incorporates stately brass parts with a nod to the fade of "Good Day Sunshine" as the title is repeated in harmony to close side one. "Pidgin English" has a similar feel. Taken at a faster tempo, it deploys horns that hit the spot and a very unique, layered vocal arrangement.

Every possible avenue is explored in providing the listener with interesting touches to find in the pristine mix. Swirling organ gradually creeps into "Beyond Belief" and does battle with an intricate, almost frantic piano, yet it all adds to the paranoid tension that threatens to snap at any moment. The genius of Steve Nieve at work.

"So in this almost empty gin palace
Through a two-way looking glass
You see your Alice"


Fading before really breaking out of the straightjacket, it is a compelling opener.

"Man Out of Time" is another highlight, featuring a jarring edit of some inspired chaos kicked up by the quartet that bookends this exceptional track. While it failed to score as a single release, this should not be taken as a reflection of its merit. One of his most underrated compositions, the melody is a grand match for the superb lyric that it's paired with.

"To murder my love is a crime
But will you still love
A man out of time..."




Stretching out in terms of vocal performance, a few new jazzy places are visited ("Shabby Doll", "Kid About it") and he really pushes himself on the emotive "Almost Blue". Nods to the past crop up as "Human Hands", which reprises the reggae stumble found on "Watching the Detectives". Similarly, "Little Savage" is cut from the same musical cloth as some of the material on "Armed Forces". His powers of continuous creativity rarely flag. There is also a very good vibe that propels much of the set, especially through the second side. Exuding positivity, "The Loved Ones" is the aural equivalent of a sunny day, with energy to spare. Though the words remain occasionally brutal, the finger pointing is balanced somewhat. "The Long Honeymoon" reveals how time tests relationships, against a soft backdrop with sympathetic accordion in support. Stylistically varied, song lengths are tightly reigned in so as not to overstay their welcome. This is an incredibly easy set to digest without restlessness setting in.

By the time you reach the cleverly orchestrated closer ("Town Cryer") there is little doubt that you have encountered work which is matched by few contemporary writers. Warm with just the right amount of sandpaper to avoid being cloying, this disc is held in high regard by both fans and critics for many reasons. He wouldn't make another one quite like Imperial Bedroom.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

47 YEARS OF PARANOIA



Black Sabbath's second album, Paranoid, was released 47 years ago this week. Sessions lasted a whole two weeks, which was pure luxury in comparison to the two days allotted for taping their eponymously titled first disc. It had only been seven months since "Black Sabbath" had been issued to the masses, yet the sonic progression made by the group since that point was astounding. Their busy gig calendar was partly responsible for keeping the band razor sharp in terms of ensemble playing, though the decision to focus on their own brand of expression in song structure would put them in the vanguard of a wholly new genre of music. The label makers would soon be clamoring to affix a descriptor that the kids could relate to in the rock mags of that era. What would it be? Heavy Metal, Heavy, Doom or Stoner Rock were all applied at various points. Suffice to say that this quartet of hirsute, young lads from Birmingham changed the game, inspiring many future acts. Their blueprint would never be successfully duplicated.

During the sixties, pop became rock. There was also a huge shift in the way live music was presented with the advent of signal phase distortion. Polite, two guitar-bass-drums-vocals type aggregations gave way to bands like The Who, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin who discarded the rhythm guitarist role, upped the decibel levels considerably and extended performances with solos for all. Typically, the guitarist took on more of the heavy lifting in that respect. Paranoid (the LP) arrived in stores on the very date that Jimi Hendrix passed away. His contemporaries were moving on, as well. Cream had long since broken up as had the Jeff Beck Group. The Who and Led Zeppelin were on the ascendant, yet were miles away from each other in their approach. Sabbath were a different animal altogether. They had honed their skills playing blues-based material but dropped covering this side of the musical spectrum to do their own thing. The genesis of their compositions had always been the monster riffs that Tony Iommi seemed to effortlessly coax from his left-handed SG. Terry Butler, a guitarist who switched to bass, would often double up on these creations, deftly supported by the jazz-inflected rhythms of Bill Ward. With Butler handling the lyrics, it would be left to Ozzy to come up with the best way to deliver those words. There would be some exceptions to this method of working on originals as they went on, with varying contributions coming from all four members.

THE BIG FOUR

"War Pigs", "Paranoid", "Iron Man" and "Fairies Wear Boots" are unquestionable classics, remaining as constants in the set list throughout years of fighting, lineup changes and eventual reunions. All boast instantly recognizable, signature guitar figures. Even a casual fan would have little trouble picking these selections out of a police lineup. You know'em, love'em and no additional amount of editorializing is necessary. Curiously, "Iron Man" takes a page from the book of "21st Century Schizoid Man" from King Crimson's debut a year earlier.
"Paranoid" was 45'd, duly becoming a top five hit in the UK. The idea of the Sabs appearing on Top of the Pops surrounded by dancing teenagers losing their minds may seem incongruous, yet video evidence is available for your viewing pleasure. They would not return to that program again for nearly eight years.



Embracing the ponderous nature of their sound coupled with a conscious effort by Geezer to take up lyrical themes that eschewed romantic love, hippy-dippy philosophies and the usual pop banalities gave them an identity that struck a nerve with a surprisingly wide audience. Iommi's inventive, multi-part face-melters helped to draw in listeners because they were as melodic as they were powerful. Osbourne found his distinctive voice with these recordings, sounding much more confident as he moved to a slightly upper register.

THE REST

My vote for the sleeper tune in the pack is "Hand of Doom". Presented as a cautionary tale about excessive drug use, the arrangement goes from a quiet, rotating riff supported by rim shots to full on, five alarm blaze, punctuated by Ward's scattershot fills. Once this subsides, another completely different segment is introduced which burns with intensity and breaks back to the intro after an almost East Indian flavored solo. Remarkable stuff. "Electric Funeral" mixes nuclear holocaust with distorted Bebop, while "Rat Salad" is nothing more than a showcase for Ward in the manner of "Toad" and "Moby Dick". The difference is in the brevity of his drum solo, during which he acquits himself quite well without testing your patience. The guitar break is jazz with a capital J. The only real clunker on the disc is "Planet Caravan", which has a vocal that is drowned in bong water (Leslie speaker) and plods along far longer than it should have. They would take this basic idea (humans embarking on interstellar space travel) and spin it into gold in the form of "Into the Void" on Master of Reality.

Overall, this is the monster that made them superstars. Little wonder as the material retains its freshness and power nearly 50 years on. You have my permission to play it really LOUD.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

PARIS



Firing on liquid hydrogen during the tour to support Breakfast in America, Supertramp also captured a number of their shows on tape with the intent to prepare a live album for future release. As it happened, upon reviewing the results from various venues, group members almost unanimously urged that their performances in Paris were by far the best of everything.

Issued 37 years ago this month, it seems that their decision was a wise one. I would have paid full price for the rendition of "Fool's Overture" alone. This is a very exciting document that serves as a showcase for their earlier work, impeccably executed with very little post-production cosmetic surgery needed according to those who worked with the live masters. My vinyl copy has been with me since the mid-eighties. Fantastic place to start for the uninitiated and very easy to return to for those longtime fans of the band. Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies would soon fall out after Famous Last Words in '82, with Hodgson exiting the fold for a solo career. Paris remains a highlight in their discography.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

IMAGINE AT 46



Having made a decidedly brave artistic statement with his first proper solo album in 1970 (Plastic Ono Band) there were rumblings from record company PR that John Lennon should try to deliver something that would appeal to a wider audience. Enlisting the help of some high profile co-conspirators, he set up shop in his home studio at Tittenhurst (Ascot Sound) to lay down tracks for his next LP. Phil Spector would again be on hand to direct traffic as producer, with George Harrison making significant instrumental contributions to a number of compositions. The material was as strong as the guest list, with inspired sparks flying throughout the sessions, which took just two weeks to arrive at a finished product. Astounding in these times where projects take that long just to properly mic the drums (if indeed a human being is actually required to play them).

Where Plastic Ono Band had austere instrumentation, emotionally raw subject matter and yielded no radio-friendly hit singles, Imagine was much lighter in tone overall. There were elements of a darker nature that fueled the lyrics, though the melodies were far more easily assimilated. Spector was also given the green light to further augment certain selections with strings and had more musicians to work with in the bargain. The "Wall of Sound" approach was not taken as Lennon was not a patient man when it came to endless studio tinkering. He was co-producer, head cook and much more a fan of spontaneity when it came to evaluating takes. Compromise in partnership won the day here and "off the floor" feel mixes comfortably with light orchestration.

"Imagine" (the song) is a model of simplicity. Yoko Ono had a large hand in the words (she also provided her feedback at critical points while recording was in progress) as John took literal inspiration from her book, Grapefruit. This warranted a co-credit that was shamefully not granted on the label. Nonetheless, it remains one of his most popular tunes, eclipsing even some of his major work produced with his former colleagues. Impressive, given the high quality of Beatle output during the previous decade. There is a reason for some of that residual magic finding its way into the grooves of this disc. Lennon resurrected several pieces that he had started in the late sixties. "Gimme Some Truth" was jammed during the Get Back/Let It Be marathon in January 1969. "Jealous Guy" was originally written in India in 1968 as "Child of Nature", duly demoed and submitted for potential placement on the White Album. He would abandon the title and completely re-write the lyrics for inclusion on Imagine. Listen to the musical reference to "A Day in the Life" just before the choruses. Similarly, "Oh My Love" was also conceived in late 1968 (post White Album issue), though Yoko's contribution is properly recognized with a name-check as co-writer. Lennon was industrious in not wholly discarding any of these ideas as they are definite highlights of the pack. Harrison blasts a ridiculously brilliant solo on "Gimme Some Truth", while he and Lennon weave gorgeous melodic arpeggios that sweetly balance the verbal assault on those "short-haired, yellow-bellied sons of Tricky Dicky". Nixon's administration would soon cause much legal wrangling and immigration anguish for the outspoken Liverpudlian, though that would eventually work out.

Vitriol was not absent from the proceedings. Paul McCartney was the real life target of "How Do You Sleep?". Their nasty war of words in the press following the dissolution of the group was regrettable. This razor sharp attack was the apotheosis, accusing Paul of being a "pretty face", creatively spent ("the only thing you done was yesterday") and tied to a nagging wife ("jump when your momma tell you anything"). Flashing back to Sgt. Pepper, there is a snippet of warm up chat/random notes prefacing the intro and a dig about the aforementioned album in the first line. He even dredges up the crazed fan mythology around his estranged writing partner's passing.

"Those freaks was right when they said you was dead..."

Ouch!

From a musical perspective, the arrangement is startling. Cutting strings swirl with a quasi-Eastern feel, the guitar tone is brittle and Harrison once again tops it off with a devastating slide break. For all of its misplaced viciousness, this one reminds the listener of the bitter wit possessed by JL. He and Paul would meet privately the following year and agree to stop airing their differences via the media.

Elsewhere, those moments of insecurity that led to darker ruminations ("Jealous Guy", "How")were beveled by their treatment with the addition of the Flux Fiddlers, beautifully rendered vocals and brilliant support from the cast of players. "Crippled Inside" takes up the mantle of finger pointing in the manner of mid-sixties Dylan (minus the brutal character assassination present in "How Do You Sleep?") and belies some of the hurt that was exposed on Plastic Ono Band. "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier" is ponderous. I would have given the elbow to this one in consideration for a spot, as it overstays its welcome at six minutes. Would have been fine as a B-side.

"Oh My Love" is sublime as sunrise over the ocean.

Everything else just clicks, from Lennon taking his unique rhythmic lead playing for a stroll through the bluesy "It's So Hard" to the whimsical, catchy "Oh Yoko", which closes out the set on a note of ebullience. Spector and Lennon harmonize, jokey harmonica plays into the fade and you're reminded of why the man was one half of the greatest songwriting duo of all time. Sense of humor is one of the key ingredients to attracting folks to your cause. That attribute would, sadly, be missing from his next endeavor. (Some Time in New York City)

How does Imagine hold up in 2017?

Quite well. While are a few reference points that are redolent of the time period, it remains one of his best solo efforts. The Utopian world view of the title track survives today as it neatly avoids a ham-fisted manifesto designed to bring about change. Instead, it is a simple, poetic suggestion that asks humankind to consider this. Well written, executed with speed and brilliance, it would also be his last uniformly excellent offering of the seventies. While there would be flashes of innovation (Mind Games) and a brief return of his muse with Walls and Bridges, neither were as consistent as Imagine.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one...




Wednesday, September 06, 2017

LIVE RUST



Wrapping up an artistically bountiful decade, Neil Young (aided and abetted by Crazy Horse) brought some new material to the concert stage that reflected diametrically opposite poles of the volume spectrum. Divided neatly between two sides of vinyl, Rust Never Sleeps was a triumph that mixed softer acoustic fare with loud, uncompromising rock. Six of the nine selections were recorded live, with crowd response removed and some further augmentation done prior to its release. Pushing forward, Young had also captured a number of gigs in multiple venues during that same period in 1978. With the Horse in fine form, the backline consisted of cartoonish, oversized amps and mics. Apart from relatively quiet solo performances on guitar/piano, the rest of the show was put across at high decibel levels.

We've got Mother Nature on the run in the nineteen seventies

Once the mushroom clouds had dissipated, producer David Briggs sifted through the tapes to mix the bulk of what would become Live Rust. Released just five months after Rust Never Sleeps in late November 1979, the double album was intended to serve as a companion piece to the concert film of the quartet ripping it up at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. While some would quibble that four tunes from Rust Never Sleeps found their way onto this disc, the overall quality of the final product was not in question. Opening with slow pitches, armed with just his trusty 12 string and harmonica, there are beautiful takes on "Sugar Mountain" and "I Am a Child". The folky strumming persona soon morphs into the volume dealer, leaning into his axe with abandon.

"The Loner" is stunning. Jacked up with twin lead lines, it is taken at a frenetic pace that shreds the more understated studio version that had appeared on Young's self-titled, first solo effort. This journey through the past doesn't stop for maudlin speeches about lost friends, ten years gone down boozy, drug fueled highways or the collateral damage done by a life devoted to chasing the lost chord. Instead, you have the odes all too clearly etched in the set list ("The Needle and the Damage Done", "Tonight's the Night") with cleverly placed audio snippets from the Woodstock Festival to raise hippie ghosts and opaque clouds of smoke above the crowd. Perhaps having that Hendrix button pinned to his guitar strap provided additional inspiration to bomb the faithful punters back to the stone age (pun intended) with "Sedan Delivery" and wind out like a madman on "Like a Hurricane".

For an artist so prolific, this sonic tour diary covers many, though understandably not all, highlights from the Shakey Songbook. His biggest hit ("Heart of Gold") is nowhere to be found, yet "Lotta Love" from Comes a Time is a terrific bonus and delicately rendered at that. Melody mixes easily with the more ostentatious fare found on this disc. Programmed intelligently, the overall excitement generated is palpable nearly 40 years on from these gigs. Poncho proudly rocks a Habs jersey, Ralph and Billy get stuck in the mud occasionally but float nice harmonies around the boss as he takes flight. It's all there in a beautiful snapshot and has held a prized spot in my vinyl collection since the early eighties. Live Rust majestically crowned years of top class work, rightfully earning accolades as a high watermark in terms of live LPs.

The days of the Squires were long gone, though the passion to play remained strong...