Tuesday, September 26, 2017
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
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.
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
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
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..."
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
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...
Friday, September 01, 2017
Transition for one of the most accomplished rock ensembles of all time was handled tastefully back in 1981 by issuing a sonic tour diary, their second double live set in seven years.
Actual plans to incorporate Snagglepuss in the cover design were quickly scrapped with the realization of how much legal engagement for the licensing of one image (his tail, even...) would cost. The catchphrase would stay.
Heavens to Murgatroyd would have killed as an album title
"Live" releases can serve as a summation of career statements to date, greatest hits package with crowd noise, tour souvenir and stop gap measure while the artist/band takes some time to forge a new creative path. This monster checked each of those boxes. Rush had put out eight studio discs (plus All The World's a Stage) over seven years at this point, with each subsequent project expanding their range and topping what had come before. Touring their most recent (and arguably finest) record, Moving Pictures, the trio defied gravity in performance on a nightly basis. All of that precision playing and sheer discipline in concert found its way into the grooves of Exit...Stage Left. Change in stylistic approach had been the only constant in their work to date. Zeppelin figured prominently in their debut, though when Peart came on board ahead of their second effort, he became the primary lyricist in addition to bringing his world class musicianship to the drum stool. Lengthy prog rock suites soon became the order of the day. Whole sides of vinyl were devoted to storyboards that ranged from futuristic totalitarian rule devoid of art, music or soul (2112) to an innovative exploration of inner space (Hemispheres). With Permanent Waves, there was a shift away from long form concepts, though their instrumental prowess and arrangements continued to astonish, culminating in the jazz rock masterpiece that was Moving Pictures. Exit is a beautiful synopsis of the craftsmanship that went into every note spanning the period of 1977 to 1981, the lone exceptions being the smoking, blazing travelogue, "A Passage to Bangkok" from 2112 and "Beneath, Between & Behind" which had graced Fly By Night
"Wreathed in smoke in Lebanon/We burn the midnight oil..."
Fly by night, indeed.
These aforementioned selections, along with the rest of side two, were taken from two gigs at the Apollo Theatre in Glasgow in 1980. All remaining music was captured at the Montreal Forum on a magic March evening in 1981. Everything that a Rush fanatic could hope for is gathered for repeated enjoyment here. Neil Peart gets a showcase within the framework of "YYZ", thereby extending the instrumental with his heavy hitting solo. "Broon's Bane" is the only track that had not appeared in their discography heretofore, serving as an impeccably rendered classical guitar solo intro to "The Trees". Outside of his longstanding role as producer, Terry Brown figures into the title of Lifeson's delicate fingerpicking and Geddy also jokingly introduces "Jacob's Ladder" as an old song by T.C. Broonsy.
"Xanadu", "Free Will" and the jaw-dropping "La Villa Strangiato" are incandescent.
There is much to love about this LP. A few fixes were applied before it hit record retailers, though the end result was fantastic. Listening to my vinyl copy as I scribble about it, there are nuances that cause moments of disbelief, trigger great memories of that first spin and a renewed respect for the abilities of Lee, Lifeson and Peart. Coming full circle back to the artwork on the gatefold sleeve, there is also a subtle message being delivered to their fan base in the not-so-subtle images that reference all of their previous releases.
"Take a good look at what we have done up until now because we will not be repeating it"
It wasn't apparent to me at 14 that they were using the imagery to say goodbye to that incarnation of the band, though when Signals came out in the fall of 1982, they did a complete overhaul of their sound, moving further toward a sleek, keyboard-centric model. To their credit, no attempt was made to duplicate Moving Pictures. New ways of doing business continued through the 80s, with the departure of Terry Brown from the team post Signals. That said, Rush closed an incredible chapter with Exit...Stage Left. It remains one of my personal favorites in their entire catalog, standing as a testament to the excitement that they generated as a live act at the peak of their powers. The recent digital re-mastering job on this one brings their brilliance to yet another generation of listeners, though it sounds phenomenal in any format.
Friday, July 21, 2017
Seizing an opportunity to spend more time on recording their third LP, Black Sabbath invented a genre of music that has been widely copied (though never matched). Detuning his guitar to C sharp on a handful of tracks would prove to be a masterstroke for Tony Iommi, giving the band an aural fingerprint unlike anything that had come before. Master of Reality was released on July 21st, 1971, though it has aged quite well. From the opening cough that announces "Sweet Leaf" through to the last section of the brilliant, multi-part "Into the Void", there is an unshakeable confidence in every aspect of the disc. Bands like Kyuss built entire careers from this template. The one weak spot is "Solitude", which could have easily been replaced with something more representative of the other monsters that inhabit side two. The production is quite dry, which only serves to hammer home the dark tone that pervades all subject matter presented. Following the tribute to inhaling left handed ciggies, which is interrupted by an inspired, three-piece instrumental melt-down at its midpoint, there is the synthesized drone that heralds "After Forever". Burrowing into the deepest part of the frontal lobe before the riff kicks down the door, this startling composition sports lyrics celebrating liturgy and light. Quite a jarring juxtaposition to the sonic blast crater that the musicians create. Darkness takes back center stage with the crushing advance battalion of guitars that storm your speakers in "Children of the Grave". Another instant classic, which speaks to the escalation of the nuclear arms race and the fear stoked by the mere threat of using such weapons. Bill Ward's timbale assault helps to create nervous tension, though that creepy audio deployed toward the run-out grooves is unnecessary.
The two long form pieces which grace the second side that are not called "Solitude" are sublime. While the shockwaves they produce will loosen fillings, liquify your brain and soften the hardest of arteries, melodic figures remain a key ingredient. Personally, I would rank "Into the Void" as one of the best things that the quartet ever committed to tape. Hats off to Geezer for his storyline involving humankind deserting a battered Earth in the hope of finding a more hospitable world.
Is this an important release?
Absolutely. Like it or not, they brought something new to the table in terms of listening experience. Rather than continue to mine the blues based seam that they enjoyed in their early development as a gigging entity, the group (led by Iommi) went a step further. The first six Sabbath discs should have a place in any decent music collection, though Master of Reality is the turning point that truly made them unique in their era. Taking a much different approach on Vol. 4 the claustrophobic, gloriously sludgy sounds found on this record would begin to vanish.
Friday, July 07, 2017
Born out of a mutual admiration society that was formed by two musicians of estimable talents, Sacred Songs is inspired. Daryl Hall set out to make his first solo album unencumbered by expectation, inviting Robert Fripp to handle production duties. Their pairing works like a Swiss watch. Hall is the main composer/bandleader, though Fripp also plays guitar throughout, has a co-wrting credit on "NYCNY" and contributes an austere, Frippertronic instrumental ("Urban Landscape"). Record company executive meddling syndrome (RCEMS) nearly relegated this stellar disc to the vaults back in 1977. Fortunately for listeners, reason prevailed over crass commercial interests.
Conversational marker on that point for a moment.
Opening in conventional territory, the title track would slot in comfortably amongst the power pop gems that Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds turned out in the late seventies. Pub rock with soul. Turning a corner, "Something in 4/4 Time" is sublime, with a great hook and peerless vocal performance that makes it stand out from the pack. Subversive, bitter wit sums up the ultimate compromise in sacrificing artistic ambition to grab the attention of the masses.
You're selling yourself and that's a matter of fact/Your love is your life and your life is your act
Unwittingly, you are being primed for the 180 degree jolt that follows with "Babs and Babs". Fading in on the bass line that anchors this spectacular tune, a lyrical conversation is set up. Fripp takes a solo and then the entire production lifts off the ground, heading for the stratosphere in a brief interlude of ethereal "Tripper"-tronics, supported only by the drums which are heard faintly from the clouds. Snapping back to reality, we return to the narrative with trippy soundscapes creeping like fog, enveloping the track through to the outro. Startling in execution, there is a brief respite in the form of the aforementioned "Urban Landscape" which provides a soft landing pad before the onslaught that is "NYCNY". Nervous tension is built in a tight, guitar centric wig-out with time signature shifts out of a prog wet dream and outstanding vocals from Hall. Brilliant in all respects, it is a fitting closer to a very ambitious side one. The second side is heralded by the co-mingling of keyboards and guitar loops that suggest psychedelic sunrise, dissolving into the brief, yet lovely, snippet that comprises "The Further Away I Am". The rest of the program floats gently back to recognizable ground, while maintaining the quality that permeates every groove here. "Why Was it so Easy" is one of Hall's most underrated creations, boasting a beautiful melody, wistfully open-ended lyrics and per usual impeccable vocals. There are subtle interpolations of Fripp's signature sounds in "Survive" and the closer, "Without Tears". Displaying dizzying heights with vocal range, while supporting himself on piano, Hall fully commits to a piece which seems to end before it begins, trailing off with a musical question mark. Fitting for a disc that delivers surprises at every turn.
There are subtle stylistic nods to production tricks that were deployed on some very English records forged at EMI in the late sixties. The hypnotic riff of NYCNY is snapped off mid-bar to end side one abruptly, while "Don't Leave me Alone With Her" has a full fade with seconds of silence before it comes roaring back to play out. Blink and you may miss both of them, though someone was clearly having fun with the final mixes.
Play it backwards, man...
With respect to that conversational marker, this disc was held back from release for three years before RCA finally gave it the green light in 1980. Apparently, the reason for initial executive indisposition toward putting this out when it was ready in '77 was the perceived lack of a hit single. Shame on them.
Much is made about great "lost albums" that send collectors into frenetic searches, only to find the chase more romantic than the catch when they finally sit down with their acquisition.
Sacred Songs is a different story.
Mixing art with accessibility is always a tightrope act, though Hall pulls it off. Given the speed with which these songs were recorded, there had to have been a very easy dialogue amongst the musicians in support. The playing is spotless, production is clean and Hall's vision for his compositions is clear. It is a pity that a follow up was not undertaken as this partnership had great promise. If you find Sacred Songs on vinyl, grab it. Guarantee that you will return for repeated listens.
Monday, June 12, 2017
Joseph Bridge has unveiled a very clever, engaging song cycle featuring a cast of characters that are infused with invention, wit and warmth. Stunning in execution, the music supports flights of fantasy that incorporate luscious vocal harmonies, blistering solos and shifting time signatures. Clocking in at one hour Bridge manages to take some very complex paths, yet maintain accessibility in approach. Marvin's Sanitarium allows you to follow the central character (Marvin Penn) musically through 16 songs and a surreal 24 hours. Though he is physically confined, his mind is unfettered. There are multiple chambers to be explored here in the twilight, dawn and dusk...
"Brenda and the Breadheads" is an absolute stunner, serving up several head-spinning, stylistic shifts. Delicate guitar and bass interplay give way to staccato delivery in the verse that breaks out into an uplifting refrain.
It's morning time, in gingerbread land
Rays of sunlight make their way into every corner now, gently waking all and sundry. "Mr. Waterpump" uses the opportunity to get out and take a stroll, embracing the day enthusiastically. Acoustic guitar accompanies him, with otherworldly, layered vocals providing a subtle, psychedelic shiver to the proceedings on the chorus. Morning is filled with both promise and routine. Marvin watches "Phyllis the Parking Meter Lady" on her rounds from a tiny window in cell #85. She represents the workaday world and a semblance of order. Punchy guitar and drum figures push the track, while soaring vocals ice the cake. Decorative trumpet reinforces a clever hook.
Cheery optimism in the form of endless blue sky is suddenly broken by a single cloud in the form of "Warning".
The ice age from the sky is here this morning/could it be the first and final warning?
While furious drum rolls whip up a torrent of guitars, violins and mayhem, there is an exhortation to take a little time to get away, seek shelter underground from the returning fire in the sky. It is a powerful jolt away from the peaceful start to Marvin's day. Foreboding, this perfectly frames the next encounter. Inhabiting cell #118, the beady-eyed "Weaselman" is not to be trusted, yet leaves a perpetual mess in his wake. This weasel wonderland is one of illusion and his thin veneer of charm is expertly directed at those who are easy prey.
Sitting on a wooden spoon, in the afternoon
Our protagonist, now in an introspective mood, contemplates what has to be done ahead of the impending tidal wave of inner turbulence that threatens to inundate all. Preparation is necessary, with the only recourse to sanctify and thus purify "The Mind's Eye". This self talk then rolls into "Welcome to the Neighborhood" with the resident, friendly lunatic in the role of tour guide. Resigned to being the "welcome man" in this labyrinth, he decides to get on with it, albeit with one foot on the ground, the other in the clouds.
And if it wasn't you, it would be someone else, another one to take your place
And if it wasn't you could you be somewhere else, the other half is lost in space
Here in cell # 61 we have Gregory Hawson. His crime? Setting fire to the bakery that he's been dismissed from. Best of all, the stories of all personalities that are woven into the lyrics actually come to life via musical narrative. Your imagination is all that's required as the wordplay is robust enough to paint a vivid picture. Similarly, "Ricky the Mouse" is befriended by Marvin, who at first comes in search of food and stays on to start a family in Marvin's room. Realizing their connection, the fact that they live together in harmony isn't lost on Marvin. Another delightful and resourceful member of this diverse crew, Ricky is welcomed rather than targeted as a pest. The tune is spectacular.
With the passing of the afternoon, shadows slowly begin to lengthen, intruding on the light-hearted moments. Dusk brings a slight chill as preparations are made for internal battle. Startling feedback heralds war inside against the outside, as a massed army of guitars dominates the sonic landscape of "Landmines". Tension builds as the message is delivered:
So off you go to find your land mines, deep and hidden
Drilling down into the fabric of your psyche, what will it take to illuminate these metaphorical land mines? Can these past shadows be deactivated for good?
WORLDS AWAY IN THE EVENING
This is the point in Marvin's day where he is lifted far beyond the boundaries of earthbound concerns. "Worlds Away" kicks this set into the sublime centre of consciousness itself. Highlights are plenty, though the monster lurking here in the "back nine" is the towering "Triangle Clouds", with fret-melting soloing that perfectly complements the melodic heaviness of the piece. Marvin's journey ends with his feet back on the ground, though that firmament consists of the cottony triangle clouds. The juxtaposition of light and shade are evident, though the need to balance both is Marvin's ultimate quest. Night is falling, bringing next a gentle musical landing pad in the haunting "Winter Blues", which rivals any musical statement made about those short, gloomy days where the simple joys in life are scarce. Curiously, there is an equation of seasonal change as the light fades on his day.
Marvin says the things that he had to say/Could it be that he only has just one more day to find a way?
Or is this "Goodbye"?
Teasing potential outcomes to Marvin's day, it is ultimately left up to the listener to decide what happens next. (Is he closing the door behind him on the sanitarium? Bidding farewell to internal conflict?) Out of all of the melodic, top class work to be found on Marvin's Sanitarium, "Goodbye" stands tall. Dynamic and crackling with electricity, it is a powerful punctuation mark to a head-spinning day. Ending with the exquisitely orchestrated instrumental, "Ireland's Dream", Marvin ends his day and finds rest in deep sleep as a contented feline. Strings are soothing and uneasy all at once, with a nervous tempo that is broken up by tiptoeing guitar figures. There is now time to contemplate where you have been inside of the sanitarium, without words to distract. The question remains: Was all of this real? There is no better way to find out than to go back to the top. With each spin, further nuances will be uncovered.
Simply put, this is a must hear.
Purchase it now and find out more about Joseph Bridge right here
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Today marks the 48th anniversary of the release of Tommy. It was a grand statement for Pete Townshend and The Who. Roughly seven years ago, I did a series of reviews that covered all of their discs up to Who Are You.
Feel free to check out my take on this iconic double LP here
Feel free to check out my take on this iconic double LP here
Friday, May 19, 2017
Light years ahead of its time, Close to the Edge represents nothing less than the high watermark of the prog period. The second (and last) Yes album to feature the Anderson/Squire/Wakeman/Howe/Bruford lineup is their masterpiece, though the sessions were reportedly far from carefree.
Three long form pieces are presented, two of which feature four part suites.
Opening with the gentle sound of a burbling stream, the 18 minute title track is soon overtaken by an intense rush of guitar/bass flourishes with precision drumming that straddles time signatures. Bruford
couples solid foundation work with flash and Squire's bass tone is spectacular. There is dirt in the attack on his Rickenbacker where needed, switching on a dime from roller coaster runs to smoother expressions. Special mention goes to Rick Wakeman with the nimble fingered, mind-blowing virtuosity he demonstrates in the “I Get Up I Get Down” section. According to Steven Wilson, who did the 5.1 mix:
"They went to a church [St. Giles-without-Cripplegate in London], recorded the church organ in isolation, and then came back and spun it back into the multitrack. I didn’t know that at first, but it’s such a glorious, kind of overpowering sound. And you know what? That’s pretty much the way it is on the tape. All of the reverberation is the natural reverberation from the church where it was recorded..."
This high wire act continues with meticulously layered vocal parts.
Close to the edge, down by the river
Down at the end, round by the corner
Seasons will pass you by
When the downshift occurs, it is mesmerizing. The listener is coaxed back to the pastoral soundscape that started the trip (and it is a journey), wrapping side one.
"And You and I" is the audio equivalent of a solar eclipse. Howe excels with acoustic figures that are as fine as the melody itself.
"Siberian Khatru" sees every member of the team contribute memorable passages, creating their own category in a way that seems effortless, though painstaking hours went into every recorded minute. Being a product of the analog era, there was no recourse to the easy digital solutions that are at the fingertips of contemporary engineers. Watch the creativity as it flies through the air. Going to tape was an entirely different process, yet magic was made.
Gliding high above these amazing arrangements is the voice of Jon Anderson. What else can you say? For the uninitiated, this is an album that you will happily never get to the bottom of. Easily remains as futuristic music upon this writing.
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Upon its release in June 1989, this record was greeted far more warmly than anything McCartney had done since Tug of War. There was sound reason for such sentiments. Following Tug of War, his output during the decade of MTV was patchy and not terribly focused.
Pipes of Peace had the same basic ingredients as Tug of War (George Martin handling production, superstar duet action on two tracks) yet much of the material was weak. After hearing "The Other Me", it put me off from purchasing anything bearing his name for several years.
Give My Regards to Broadstreet had nothing new to offer, save for "No More Lonely Nights". The soundtrack to a poorly received feature film recast Beatles, Wings and (oddly) recent solo stuff with a ton of big name session players lending their talents. Overall, it was a fairly pointless exercise.
The "Spies Like Us" single begged the question: What happened to the guy who wrote "Live and Let Die"?
Press to Play, despite the promise of teaming with Eric Stewart, failed to make much of an impression and was seen as another misstep. Reportedly, endless tinkering in the studio drained the content of any initial spark that was present during writing sessions. More effort should have gone into song craft and the final product was met with commercial indifference.
One of the most successful artists of the 20th century was again at a crossroads. He had been written off before in the early 70s. Those who had underestimated his ambition were pleasantly surprised by Band on the Run, a subsequent run of hits and the enormous success of the Wings Over America tour.
Would he have enough left in the tank for a third act?
ALL THE BEST
Compiling a retrospective hits package for issue in November of '87 was the first step back in the ring. He also included a song ("Once Upon a Long Ago") which had been submitted to director Rob Reiner for use in The Princess Bride. Though rejected for the film, McCartney deemed it worthy to put out as a taster single to help promote All The Best. For the first time in nearly five years, I went out of pocket for a new McCartney record. Flipping to the B-side for a listen, there was a little gem called "Back On My Feet" that immediately caught the ear. Co-written with one Declan McManus, this was the first road test of a new writing partnership that would spawn some very fine songs.
Still have that single.
Though it is purely coincidence, the lyrical subject matter would suggest the mindset of someone who is temporarily down but has the resolve to rebound.
Give me your hand again/'Til I land again
Fast forward to late May of '89...
"My Brave Face" is 45'ed and shipped out to tease the upcoming Flowers in the Dirt. Backed with a great tune called "Flying to My Home", both had been co-written with Elvis Costello. Spinning a narrative around a character who is missing their partner, the melody is solid. The hook is bolstered by a well placed guitar figure that echoes the verse. No doubt inspired by having a wordsmith like Costello to bounce ideas around with, it amounts to his sharpest work in years. There are more than a few nods to his past in the arrangement, though it comes across fresh and still holds up quite well.
As for the rest of the pack, there is much to be desired. Exquisite melodies ("Distractions", "Put It There" and "Don't Be Careless Love") mix effortlessly with punchy pop ("This One", "Figure of Eight"). In fact, "This One" could very well be the highlight of the set. Catchy, confident and riding on an infectious chorus, it bears all of the hallmarks of what this gifted man is truly capable of. For balance, "You Want Her Too" brings a bit of shade to the table with Costello playing sarcastic counterpoint to McCartney's hopeless romantic. His influence is a steadying presence here. Though he does not contribute to "We Got Married", he likely kicked Paul in a direction that freed him to craft a minor-key, dramatic storyline around a long term relationship that is not viewed through the usual rose-colored lenses.
Strength follows strength throughout the program with a few exceptions. "How Many People" and "Motor of Love" should have been elbowed as they lack the quality of all that comes before. Closing honours rightfully belonged to the majestic "That Day is Done". Similarly, in the spirit of revision to improve the overall listening experience, I would have put "Flying to My Home" in place of "Rough Ride". It is a far superior construction. The production, while considered top class for that period, tends to unjustly date stamp much of what drifts out of the speakers. Part of the problem is "too many cooks" syndrome with no fewer than four big names (plus McCartney himself) occupying the directors chair during the gestation period of this disc. That said, the result exceeded all expectations, setting the table for McCartney to return to the business of touring for the first time in a decade. More importantly, he would be doing so behind a a stellar new album.
"When I'd got the call to say Paul wanted me to write some songs with him for his next record, I didn't know what to expect, but as his last cowritten hit had been with Michael Jackson, I wondered whether I should be taking some dancing lessons."
These lines from Costello's book, Unfaithful Music, (which is a terrific read) are a glimpse into the wit and way with words that likely brought about this pairing.
He was not a contemporary of McCartney in the sense that they did not come to prominence in the same era, though he had long established his own style, had success and respect from his peers. Well aware that he was not in the same class as McCartney in terms of the business (few could make that claim) there would always be a sense of being a junior partner in the arrangement. His talent would never be in question and Elvis brought out the best in his co-writer. Neither man is known for their ability to suffer fools, yet the two were very productive during the time that they set aside to write together. Though it was fleeting, some magic definitely happened. The missed opportunity was a full blown, joint project. You can read about it elsewhere, though differing opinions on the overall production direction roundly dashed ice water on the plan to have Costello quarterback the sessions.
Luckily, Paul is a thoughtful curator of his recorded legacy and the recent addition to the ongoing Archive Collection offered all of those pristine demos along with a remastered version of Flowers in the Dirt. Unlike some material of this nature, these songs are an absolute pleasure to listen to. All are of very high calibre and tease what an alternate universe iteration of this LP may have sounded like. While the full band treatment of "My Brave Face" adds crucial elements to it that aren't fleshed out in the embryonic take, the stripped down approach still works. "Don't Be Careless Love" in skeletal form beats the album cut by a country mile. Again, with minimal retakes and bare bones augmentation this disc would have been one hell of a surprise had it been followed through properly. The consolation prize is that we have it here (in part) in excellent fidelity. Highly recommend adding this one to your collection.
Saturday, February 25, 2017
Reflecting on George Harrison's Cloud Nine LP. This iconic musician would have been celebrating his 74th birthday today.
At that point in time, his last outing (Gone Troppo) had clocked in at roughly 30 minutes, contained a number of excellent songs ("Wake Up My Love", "Circles") was woefully under-promoted and failed to make a dent in the charts upon release in 1982. Harrison saw little value in chasing what was trendy or even trying to compete with the disposable pop that began to dominate the airwaves as the MTV craze snowballed. Spectacle now ruled in terms of music PR, twisting a barrage of images around the collective optic nerve of television audiences 24 hours a day. Understatement in song craft and musicianship now had very little traction with the masses.
George downed tools for a few years to spend time on other pursuits, though the urge to create pulled him back to his home studio in January of 1987 to start work on what would be termed as a "comeback" record.
Not that anyone was going to forget who he was
Having gathered a group of high profile friends to contribute to this project, the end product is tightly edited, well paced and the production (handled by George and Jeff Lynne) is pristine. Vocal harmonies and hooks abound, the quality of the material is top class. Among the best of the pack are "Fish On the Sand", "This Is Love" and the in-joke filled, "When We Was Fab". There is some fantastic six string interplay between Harrison and Eric Clapton on the title track. Listening to my vinyl copy (which I snapped up way back in November of '87) while scribbling these lines, it is impressive to hear the attention to detail that went into layering guitar parts. You also get the sense that George reigned in Lynne's tendencies toward throwing a ton of augmentation into the arrangements. Similarly, the pairing with Lynne helped Harrison simplify his approach toward song structure. The overall mix is superb, still sounding fresh nearly 30 years on.
This song is just six words long
The biggest surprise of the set was the inclusion of an obscure tune by Rudy Clark ("Got My Mind Set On You") which tore up the charts as a leader single and gave the album a massive boost from a commercial standpoint. Speaking of videos, this one and the clip that accompanied "When We Was Fab" both received heavy rotation on MTV, bringing his famous face into the purview of another generation who had missed him in his first incarnation as a pop star back in the sixties.
Ringo shows up to grace the skins here, as well.
Cloud Nine arguably paved the way for the Traveling Wilburys aggregation the following year, which itself was a massive, yet unexpected, hit.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Following the release of three decent (albeit largely unnoticed) studio albums, Blue Oyster Cult decided to package their live show for direct injection into the homes of their fans in early 1975. Two black circles were duly filled with performances culled from a number of venues on their (then) most recent tour. This double live set cracked the US top 30 (topping out at # 22 on the Billboard chart) serving to bring their sound above ground, while deservedly garnering the attention of a wider audience in the commercial sweepstakes.
Hey, I heard a couple of people sayin' Hot Rails to Hell
Relentless gigging will turn any loose aggregate of musicians into a well-oiled machine. Such was the itinerary for the pride of Long Island in the early seventies. While the quintet squeeze every drop of blood from their tunes onstage, they do remember to remove their collective feet from the gas and allow for dynamic downshifts in the arrangements. "Seven Screaming Dizbusters" is one of the best examples of that, along with the moody "Then Came the Last Days of May". Crowd reaction is retained, rather than downplayed in the overall mix. Listen to the faithful as they respond rapturously after getting scorched by a particularly frenetic, extended version of "ME 262" which closes side three. People went nuts for these guys and they packed houses without the benefit of a hit single or any significant unit shifting.
Curiously, the label makers in the industry have been content to brand the output of this truly under-appreciated band as "Heavy Metal" and unfairly rank them below their contemporaries. Part of the equation comes down to a low profile in the lead vocal department. All of them could sing, though there was no Plant, Gillan, Rogers or Mercury that really stepped out front to own the stage. This is what bumps you into the economy class seats in terms of early to mid 70s purveyors of hard rock. Not quite Foghat nor were they Uriah Heep. Traces of prog flirt with "boogie" riffs, though embracing lyrical subject matter that was at times unfathomable (What the hell is "Harvester of Eyes" REALLY about??) was another obstacle to contend with in terms of gaining entry to the mass public imagination. Nevertheless, the lads did bring a not-so-secret-weapon to the party.
Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser
Precise, fret-scorching virtuosity lifts just about every cut on this gem into the stratosphere. Why this man does not figure in the conversation when it comes to six string wizards is a puzzle. His partners in crime provide perfectly obstreperous, yet tasteful, sonic support. The Bouchard brothers keep the engine stoked while allowing Roeser and Allan Lanier to shine. Buck's solos defy gravity. "Cities on Flame" is taken at a positively caffeinated pace. All of the material found here comes off far better than the studio versions. Eric Bloom keeps all of the stories straight behind ever present shades.
These guys could really play
Pound for pound, this is the finest BOC live album. Definitely stands as one of the most exciting documents of its kind from that decade, coming across raw, sweaty and real. Some Enchanted Evening (1978) and Extraterrestrial Live (1982) have their moments, though both are uneven, without an eighth of the intensity that crackles from the speakers when this disc is cranked. While it has resided in my CD collection for many years, I have only obtained a vinyl copy very recently while rummaging through the stacks of a used record store in San Francisco. Listening in the intended format inspired this post.