Sunday, December 09, 2018

MINI REVIEW: DARK HORSE



George Harrison turned a corner with his third studio release. Featuring an array of session players, notably members of the LA Express, the result plays a lot better now than it did to those eagerly awaiting its arrival in the shops back on this date in 1974. While it is not the best LP in his discography (that honor typically goes to All Things Must Pass), it is quite worthy of investigation as he explores a few different sonic avenues. There is a looser feel to some of the tracks ("Hari's On Tour (Express)", "Maya Love") and the author isn't shy about chronicling some of the painful recent events that had cast a shadow upon his personal life. Substance abuse ("Simply Shady"), his marital breakdown/separation ("So Sad", the bizarre cover of and lyrical updates to "Bye Bye, Love") are laundered and left to freely twist in the breeze.

Despite the rough patch, a sense of humor remains. The title cut makes a number of amusing allusions to his status as the quiet, economy class former Fab who sneaks up to pull away from the others in field, running on a dark race course. It features some beautiful, Harrisonoid changes, with a jazzy arrangement lifted by the flute of Tom Scott. Definite highlight and deservedly got the nod as a single release. His voice was not in the best shape for these sessions, though the slight frog in the throat delivery comes very close to that of his old pal Eric Clapton on this one. This actually helps, rather than hinder, the end product. Soul informs the stunning "Far East Man", adding yet another dimension to the overall eclecticism of this disc. This was a co-write with fellow raver, Ron Wood and one that he hoped might pique the interest of Frank Sinatra in terms of having Ol' Blue Eyes cover it. He passed, though you should not as it ranks with "Dark Horse" and "Maya Love" as a standout here. The only real clunker is "Ding Dong, Ding Dong" which was intended to reap some airplay as a would-be seasonal favorite. Lavishly produced, it bombs the assignment due to Harrison's inability to provide a strong vocal performance. In the end, it should have been elbowed off of the completed project.

Why did this effort receive such a critical pasting when it first appeared?

Refusing to play to type, Harrison deliberately went in a 180 degree direction from his work up to that point. Delving into jazz, soul and taking a more spontaneous approach to his craft were bold moves. The record-buying masses aren't keen on change. George put his foot down on providing the musical comfort food that his Beatle-obsessed followers were craving and in doing so, created some very compelling soundscapes for Dark Horse. Listen with fresh ears to the closer ,"It is 'He' (Jai Sri Krishna)". Deeply introspective and exquisitely crafted, it is several summers ahead of what his contemporaries had on offer at that time. Ragged in places, though disarmingly honest overall, Dark Horse is a far better record than its detractors would have you believe. Spinning it again today has revealed further nuances that have only served to reinforce that opinion. Revisit your vinyl copy (if you have one) and hear for yourself.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY AT 50



The songs that grace this high watermark in the Kinks discography are some of the finest that Ray Davies would ever submit for public consumption. High praise indeed as he was in the midst of an incredibly inspired composing run. "Sunny Afternoon", "Waterloo Sunset", "Autumn Almanac" and the brilliant Something Else by the Kinks LP had all showcased an embarrassment of riches in terms of pure quality.

In part, Village Green offers up a fond, poetic obituary for a fictional place in the distant past. The added bonus comes in the use of interesting stylistic, musical detours which maintain listener engagement throughout. This should have been a universal smash for the group. The release date would not be an auspicious one for the set. Falling on the same day as The White Album, the disc was overshadowed by this seismic event along with the offerings of other heavy hitters during this timeline (Beggars Banquet, Electric Ladyland had also hit the shops at this point). Lacking proper promotion (new albums weren't hyped half as much as they are today) and with the Kinks still banned from touring in the US, it sank commercially. Lyrical subject matter was well out of step with the psychedelic vibe that was prevalent at that time, which also didn't help matters.

"While everybody else thought that the hip thing to do was to drop acid, to do as many drugs as possible and listen to music in a coma, the Kinks were singing songs about lost friends, draught beer, motorbike riders, wicked witches and flying cats."

One additional wrench in the works was a decision to put out a different iteration of the disc for the European market. This version had 12 tracks, omitting "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains", "Big Sky", "Sitting by the Riverside", "Animal Farm" and "All of My Friends Were There" and adding "Mr. Songbird" and the excellent "Days", which had already scored in Britain as a single. The record company restored the aforementioned tunes (removing "Mr. Songbird" and "Days") for the more familiar 15 cut sequence that went out to residents of the US and UK.

Are you with me now?

THE ALBUM

Tinkling piano, underpinned by softly strummed acoustic guitars and a descending bass line introduce the title track. The Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium, the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular, the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate-inventive playfulness wrapped in an engaging melody that starts you on a very English trip.

Fairly weighty thoughts, for a 24 year old, also shape "Do You Remember Walter?". The frustration felt by the inability to reconnect with a childhood friend who has succumbed to complacency is a universal subject. Jeff Lynne tipped his hat to it nearly a decade later in the opening of ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" which matches the piano and drum intro exactly.

"Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago
If you saw me now you wouldnt even know my name.
I bet youre fat and married and youre always home in bed by half-past eight.
And if I talked about the old times you'd get bored and you'd have nothing more to say."


Growing old wasn't a common theme in the music of the late 60's, though the first line of "Picture Book" suggests that you imagine yourself doing just that. Looking over your shoulder at the past, all the usual suspects show up while thumbing through an album of dusty photos. Davies was reportedly going through a patchy period in the mid sixties, suffering a depressive episode. Better spirits recovered, childhood memories of bed and breakfast, seaside vacations in "those days when you were happy, a long time ago" were channeled into his work.

"Big Sky" seems to be an impassive watcher of all that goes on below it, with lyrics that suggest an anti religious sentiment. ("Someday, we'll be free...") The band plays hard here (and on "Wicked Anabella"), without regressing to the sound of their early, almost punkish sounding singles.

Music hall now made an appearance in certain arrangements, yet this would not figure as prominently in Davies’ playbook until the early to mid 70's. Proceedings do take a strange turn, at times, with varispeeded arrangements (Noel Coward on acid, "Sitting By the Riverside") though psychedelic touches are purposely avoided. Because of this, the band also fell out of sync with then current trends. Production values were not at the level of the Kinks' contemporaries, allowing distorted sounding drums, bass rumbles and guitar buzz to remain. Getting sounds to tape without overloading the tracks would have greatly enhanced the overall audio experience.

The material was strong enough to get by this fact, though it's a minor annoyance.

Let it be stated that though the majority of the compositional load fell on Ray, brother Dave contributed a lot in shaping the final product. His input is truly deserving of co-credit. Similarly, kudos are in order for the tastefully solid foundation work of Quaife and Mick Avory. They had stretched as a functioning unit, their touch turning far more subtle in the relatively short journey from the early, proto-metal blasts of pure riff-rock that brought them to prominence in 1964.

Village Green presents a kinder, gentler Kinks, if you will. All is viewed through the lens of a quasi-pastoral existence, "far away from the soot and noise of the city" where life is quiet.

"I tried to write about what I knew, and that was the neighbourhood I grew up in. All of those songs were inspired by characters who lived, probably, 100 yards away from me. But they also pick up on a kind of wistful and ironic facet of English culture. English people are a little bit wistful and mundane - and I like the people that have little quirks in their lives and low-achieving people. I think they're worth writing about. It's something to do with the English culture and dark humor and the way we look at the world."

Bassist Pete Quaife named "Animal Farm" as his favorite track saying that, "the song gave him shivers when he first heard Ray banging it out on piano." "Starstruck" continues on an ethereal path, with mellotron supporting the lyrical reading of an individual that gets caught up in fast living, chasing after a rock star. A promotional film was made for this one, the last featuring the original lineup.

Lovely sonic surprises crop up as the needle travels across the grooves. "Phenomenal Cat" musically echoes what Syd Barrett had been doing on Piper at the Gates of Dawn., with bizarre, sped up elfin voices unsettling the once upon a time, fairy story atmosphere "Monica", by contrast, slips into a latin jazz. Sarcastically funny, "People Take Pictures of Each Other" is a cruel version of picture book in which the author expresses his distaste both for being photographed and being stuck, sitting for hours perusing them.

"Don't show me no more, please!"

Completely deflating the yearning, nostalgic theme of the album, it employs a soundtrack flown in from a distant generation to completely kill all that came before. It is nothing less than a masterstroke of sequencing as the curtain drops.

My own trip into the past comes into play here. Being steered toward this record opened another important door in my musical education. Flashback to summer 1981: Twelve year old me is in a familiar place, flipping through the stacks of a local record store. An older man who took notice of the titles that I was looking at approached me.

You really like 60's music? Have you ever listened to the Kinks?

I really hadn't, except for "You Really Got Me".

He went on to explain why they were great and that "The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society" was the one to seek out. Prophetically, he also said that I should buy lots of Stones albums as they would probably be making records for another twenty years or so. Never did see that guy again, though he was very wise. It took some time to fully appreciate Ray Davies' genius, though his body of work puts him in the same class as the premier songwriters of the sixties. Should you should sell a family member or a kidney to get a copy of this album?

Definitely.

Concerning the low profile of this wonderful set, Ray himself once jokingly noted that, "Even the people who talk about Village Green probably haven't heard it."

EPILOGUE

Fortuitously, subsequent generations have been exposed to the magic of this timeless classic via some long overdue repackaging love. First came the 2004 deluxe edition, which shoveled up much of what was recorded during these sessions on three CDs, in better fidelity.



In grand celebration of its 50th birthday, the "Superdeluxe" package leaves no stone unturned, giving the Superfan 11 discs and a staggering 174 selections to become immersed in. Pop into this link for all of the details. Sadly, they don't make 'em like this anymore.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

SYNCHRONICITY



Synchronicity – an acausal principle as a basis for the apparently random simultaneous occurrence of phenomena

The last recorded statement from this legendary trio manages to be exciting, dark, jarring, clever and accessible all at once. Neatly avoiding the aural traps that would forever freeze their contemporaries in time, Synchronicity plays as fresh today as it did upon its release. Far from radiating mindless good cheer, the subject matter ponders extinction, spiritual decay, betrayal and relationships in turmoil. All was expertly woven together by the principal author of this intriguing song cycle. Copeland and Summers each chipped in with one of their own compositions, supporting Sting's endeavors with their usual imaginative, impeccable instrumental magic.

Cigar to Hugh Padgham for a pristine production job. Listening now to my vinyl copy in awe.

Austerity in arrangement is the key to the joyous aural experience, allowing every snare hit, bass line and guitar figure to punch through spectacularly in the mix. The virtuosity of all three musicians is slightly muted in favor of subtlety. Copeland is most notably reserved on the second side of the disc, keeping time and adding flourishes where required. He is not filling every empty space with dexterous high-hat work or flying across the kit, yet when he does break out (the outro of "O My God", the entirety of Synchronicities I and II) it is electrifying. Summers puts on a masterclass in tasteful, atmospheric coloring, leaving no blemish on any track. The sounds that he coaxes from his guitar and accompanying effects deployed are always in service of the song. Special mention goes to the dazzling set of runs that he rolls across "Synchronicity II". He also raises the ghost of Plastic Ono Band with "Mother", which is bizarre and a step ahead of its time. The Mother Complex in waltz time, complete with primal screaming, also fits into the Jungian concepts that inform much of this LP, albeit unintentionally.

Without question, this is pretty much a Gordon Sumner showcase. His mindset going into the writing process was not a happy one. His marriage was on the rocks and relations with his bandmates were fractious, at best. All parties have expressed their opinions on the difficulties that clouded the sessions. For Sting, his creative outlet became a source of healing. Four singles hit commercial paydirt upon release, though by far the most successful was the "tune that shall not be named". It is subversive in tone, possessing dark undercurrents that are not the norm for a worldwide, number one smash hit. Deserving of all acclaim, its power lies in a direct simplicity that is difficult to achieve in songcraft.

Every cake you bake, every leg you break

There is a palpable tension that builds through side one of Synchronicity. Listeners are treated to abrupt, 180 degree turns as the change-ups are relentless, much to the credit of all involved in sequencing. The rush of images and aggressive playing of the opener dissolves into tribal, world beat ("Walking in Your Footsteps") and a sobering message about the fragility of existence. That paranoia creeps into "Miss Gradenko" which playfully examines forbidden love under the guise of a totalitarian regime and a feeling of impending disaster is what makes "Syncronicty II" so compelling even as of this writing. Long shadows are cast, though the melodies are brilliant. Sting's bassmanship is particularly sharp with sparkling lines underpinning both "O My God" and the aforementioned "Miss Gradenko". Side two provides a break from the claustrophobia-inducing tone that pervades the beginning of the set. Though the material is less experimental, it is minor-key morose in nature. Beautifully executed, "King of Pain" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" manage to transcend the root core of hurt/betrayal that inspired both cuts. They are nothing less than triumphant highlights in a stacked deck. The moody closer ("Tea in the Sahara") ends on an anticlimactic, dour note. With an enchanting storyline that took a cue from The Sheltering Sky, the image of the beguiled sisters burning under the desert sun with nothing more than broken promises and cups filled with sand is grim.

This ambitious and smart offering is timeless, succeeding on every level. The men who created it were aware enough to know that they would not be able to carry on as they were. Sting had the vision, though it was unfair to assume that the massive talents of Summers and Copeland could be sublimated, relegating them to silent session players. To their credit as a team, they moved away from the reggae-fied sound that brought them to prominence and continued to stretch creatively. Synchronicity stands as their finest work and a fitting swansong for a group that accomplished a lot in a very short window of time.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO TURNS 50



Indulgence in genre hopping seems fairly commonplace in the 21st century, so most contemporary listeners greet these shifts by their favorite artists with a resigned shrug. In 1968, The Byrds full on swan dive into country music was widely viewed by their fans as sacrosanct. The band had flirted with this style on a handful of tracks spread over their previous five LPs, though they never fully committed to it. This type of musical cross-pollination wasn't entirely unprecedented at that time. Jerry Lee Lewis, Buffalo Springfield, Rick Nelson, Dylan and The Beatles all recorded material that bore the stamp of country-fried influences, yet stopped short of total immersion.

Prior to embarking on their path toward the Sweetheart sessions, all was not well with the Byrds. The recording of their last LP The Notorious Byrd Brothers saw the departure of David Crosby and Michael Clarke. The album itself was one of their best efforts. The group, on the other hand, was effectively gutted. Needing to replace the departed in order to play live, their first act was to bring in Kevin Kelley on drums. The trio played some small gigs but it soon became evident that they would need a fourth musician to properly flesh out their sound on stage.

Enter Gram Parsons

Though his tenure with the band was brief, Sweetheart of the Rodeo may not have happened if he had not come into their orbit. Whole books and articles have been devoted to this subject. In short, Parsons bonded with Hillman while kicking around some old country tunes together. Gram spelled out his plan to intertwine rock with country, something he had first attempted with the International Submarine Band record in 1967. Hillman was game. McGuinn took some convincing when the idea was initially floated to fully submit to the rustic charms of traditional roots music and head to Nashville to lay it all down. He acquiesced and they set to work, aided by session pros JayDee Maness on pedal steel, guitarist Clarence White, John Hartford (who handled banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar) with Earl P. Ball and Barry Goldberg on piano. Clocking in at just over thirty minutes, the result was a model of concision, glorious harmony and impeccably rendered song craft. Curiously, this incarnation of the Byrds was also done by the time Sweetheart was released in late August. Commercial reception was chilly, though that is understandable considering the jarring 180 degree turn taken by the group. Rock journalism of the era was limited to paper based media. News related to the upcoming projects and plans of "your favorite artists" travelled far more slowly. Promotional ads were utilized by record labels, though in most cases, new releases appeared without months of aggressive marketing campaigns to precede them. The Byrds audience was not prepared for what they heard and were duly perplexed. Airplay was limited in terms of pop/rock radio. Country stations viewed the long-haired hippie boys' foray into their territory with suspicion and also opted not to take up the disc. The Outlaw movement was still in the future. Country music stars remained in their own camp with followers who didn't pay much attention to rock bands or the burgeoning counterculture. Delivering this magic record put them in the vanguard of a particular sound. They would have to wait patiently for the rest of the world to catch up.

THE ALBUM

Bookended by two Dylan compositions, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” kicks off the proceedings in grand style. McGuinn renders the unfathomable lyric beautifully, with smooth pedal steel lines supporting the verses. This was one of many tunes that Bob worked on with The Band in the basement of Big Pink. Roger altered a line that Dylan playfully corrected him on when he re-recorded the tune for release on his second greatest hits album in 1971.

"Pack up your money, put up your tent, McGuinn."

Chris Hillman gets nominated next for one of the best lead vocal tracks in the pack. "I Am a Pilgrim" is an old Christian spiritual that dates back to the late 19th century, though its authorship is unknown. Hillman has no trace of affectation in his delivery, bringing home the lyric beautifully with a very even, natural tone. All three singers do a very earnest and admirable job throughout of occupying the space without ever sliding into hokey parody. Both cuts are standouts and were duly issued as singles, though neither selection caught fire on the charts.

There is a subversive genius at work in the arrangements here. The "country-rock" tag is actually a simplification of what is really happening under the surface. "You Don't Miss Your Water" is soulful, R & B in the hands of its writer (William Bell) yet is reworked to synthesize rock drumming, the mellow back-porch strains of pedal steel and iron clad harmonies that veer toward pastoral settings rather than the Stax sound. Similarly, this approach is taken with "One Hundred Years From Now" and the closer "Nothing Was Delivered". On the other side of the spectrum, you have Parsons clearly channeling George Jones on "You're Still On My Mind" as the narrator soaks up booze in a local watering hole to fill the void of the departure of an ex lover. "Life in Prison" is cut from the same cloth, retaining the uptempo honky tonk shuffle with despondent lyrical subject matter. Antithetical to the aforementioned hybrid selections, they provide a listening experience that has variance in theme. Don't be fooled by labels, as you really do hear a subtle, sonic shift in gears as the album progresses. Ranging from the dirt-under-the-nails folk of "Pretty Boy Floyd" to the unabashed "livin for the Lord" overtones of a Louvin Brothers classic ("The Christian Life") you also get the aching beauty of Parsons' ode to his teenage home in Greenville, South Carolina ("Hickory Wind"). The experience is rewarding in every aspect.

"One Hundred Years From Now" is sublime.

Returning to where they begin this set, Dylan's inscrutable “Nothing Was Delivered” wraps up Sweetheart with a combination of elements that make this LP so brilliant. Production, playing and singing are all equally fine with an oblique summary in the refrain:

“Nothing is better, nothing is best / Take care of yourself, get plenty rest.”


Critical estimations from the era in which it appeared were actually pretty positive. There were dissenting opinions about the new direction, though to their credit, the band did not overplay their hand with their fans in presentation. They do not appear on the cover in ten gallon hats, soberly posing in the garb of the wild west amongst tumbleweeds. Presentation is as subtle as the musical content. No references are made to the political and social turbulence of the late sixties, which has allowed the disc to age gracefully. Outside of and a step ahead of its time, Sweetheart of the Rodeo has lived up to its reputation as an incredibly brave and influential work.

The following year, Hillman and Parsons would team up to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, while McGuinn recruited a whole new cast of players to forge ahead under the Byrds name. The country rock banner would be taken up by subsequent groups to far greater acclaim, though the architects did eventually get their due acknowledgment as true innovators.

McGuinn, Hillman, Marty Stuart and a crack band of pros are currently in the midst of a tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart. Playing the album in its entirety, along with a mix of other classics, the dates are selling out quickly and the reviews have been glowing. Here's a taste of what to expect from these legendary musicians and upcoming dates as of this writing.




Sept. 9 Folly Theatre Kansas City, MO
Sept. 12 Historic Gillioz Theatre Springfield , MO
Sept. 17 Albany, NY Hart Theater @ The Egg
Sept. 18 Albany, NY Hart Theater @ The Egg [Sold Out]
Sept. 20 Hopewell, VA Beacon Theatre [Sold Out]
Sept. 23 New York, NY Town Hall
Sept. 24 New York, NY Town Hall [Sold Out]
Sept. 26 Boston, MA The Emerson Colonial Theatre
Oct. 1 Louisville, KY Brown Theatre
Oct. 3 Akron, OH Akron Civic
Oct. 8 Nashville, TN The Ryman Auditorium
Oct. 10 Roanoke, VA The Jefferson Center
Oct. 15 Durham Performing Arts Center Durham, NC
Oct. 21 Byers Theatre Atlanta, GA
Oct. 23 EKU Center For The Arts Richmond, KY
Oct. 30 Carnegie Music Hall Of Homestead Munhall, PA
Nov. 9 Majestic Theatre Dallas, TX
Nov. 10 Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater Austin, TX

Thursday, May 10, 2018

TRAFALGAR



Inspired by the historic naval battle of 1805 that took place west of Cape Trafalgar at the mid-point of the Napoleonic wars, the Bee Gees ninth disc was not a conceptual piece that documented every aspect of the British defeat of the Franco-Spanish coalition. Aside from the cover artwork which featured a reprint of Pocock's painting (The Battle of Trafalgar) and an elaborate recreation of Lord Nelson's death on the inner sleeve, there is little reference to this historical event found in the music. For those who enjoy such trivia, the gatefold shot features Barry playing Admiral Nelson, surrounded by Robin, Maurice, their father Hugh Gibb, Geoff Bridgeford, and an unidentified man in the shadows.

Standing a few feet taller than everything else on this disc is the majestic "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart", which begins with Robin delivering his lines in a vulnerable, almost tentative fashion. Barry joins as the track builds toward the chorus, which has their pitch-perfect harmonies stacked against piano and understated strings. Their melodic sensibility here is balanced by dynamics which draw the listener closer. The full stop before the hook-line isn't anticipated, making that falsetto vocal change-up altogether more surprising. Achingly beautiful, with a universally understood refrain, the Gibbs were rewarded with a their first chart topping single. They run up another contender for stand out selection in the pack with "Israel", which has an ethereal overall feel complements of the orchestral touches and inventive bass work. Their estimable talents as singers lifts the material, though it would be fair to say that the mood here is reserved throughout. Upbeat fare, programmed to move the party to the dance floor, this is not. Primarily focused on song craft, great care is lavished upon every detail in production. Now afforded the luxury of using two-inch, 16-track master tape, this allowed for increased separation of instruments and voices, which inevitably made more refined stereo mixes possible.

Per usual, Maurice is a one-man instrumental army. He also takes (rare) lead vocals on both of his contributions ("It's Just the Way", Trafalgar"). One of the most curious tunes in the "back-nine" is "Don't Wanna Live Inside Myself" which has a verse whose melody is more than reminiscent of "Helpless" (CSNY) and then veers sharply toward "I Shall Be Released" in the approach to the chorus. They had been down this path before with "Marley Purt Drive" from Odessa (think "The Weight"). Subversive humor at work, no doubt. All three brothers could be quite funny in both live shows and interview situations, though that side of their personality was muted in their writing. Closing with the sweeping "Walking Back to Waterloo", Trafalgar ends on a dramatic and classy note. The prevailing tone is one of introspection, which positions this LP as a perfect accompaniment to twilight, adult beverages and headphones. The mix is sublime with enough subtlety to maintain interest. Hypnotic without being soporific, this set has aged remarkably well.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

THE WHO LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST 1968



Long in circulation as a bootleg recording, the audio document of The Who laying waste to the stage of the Fillmore East in April 1968 caught the quartet in excellent form and fidelity. Tight from months of road work, their sets were no less than beautifully executed sonic assaults on the lucky crowds in attendance. Lauded as one of the greatest live rock bands of any era, the illicit issue of this material in the mid 70s only served to solidify such opinions.

This single, black market disc was duly redistributed over time in various formats, yet only told part of the story.

The April 5th and 6th shows were taped in their entirety, though the capture of the first night was botched and unsalvageable. Barring technical issues that obliterated large parts of "Substitute" and "Pictures of Lily", the second attempt was magic. The unofficial version that originally leaked out to collectors is truncated, however. "Relax" and "My Generation" both fade out prematurely, while the beginning of "A Quick One" is also unceremoniously cut, picking up the action with the "Ivor" sequence.

Enter Bob Pridden and Richard Whittaker

Tasked with dusting off the original four-track tapes and utilizing 21st century technology to mix them for proper release, they did a fantastic job. The performances are incandescent, showing a powerhouse band in a crucial phase of transition. Maximum R & B was abandoned at the side of their touring highway, growing smaller in the rearview mirror as the unique songwriting vision of Pete Townshend coalesced. Reconciling studio arrangements with the precision attack that the instrumentalists brought to their live work, the results remain astonishing a half century on.

PRELUDE

In the initial rush of what came to be known as the "British Invasion" in the early sixties, groups would generally have a half hour turn on stage after their opening acts. Front of house sound was treated as an afterthought as amplification was limited to what the players themselves had onstage. Vocals were run through columns that pointed toward the audience, monitors were non-existent and the brief was to turn up, play aggressively and shout to be heard over the crowd. This worked out fine for small clubs, though the ability to project the music to larger venues filled with screamers wasn't possible at that time. Bill Graham was one of the early champions of giving artists a proper platform to deliver their message. He viewed rock concerts as theatrical performances, thus the musicians he promoted were equipped with the best sound and lights available. Having hit on a winning formula in San Francisco with the Fillmore, he gambled on renovating an abandoned movie theater in New York City in 1965 and the Fillmore East showcased some of the greatest bands of that era.

Are we there yet?

Just about.

The Who had made their US debut roughly a year before, playing short sets in front of rotating crowds as part of a package gig (promoted by DJ Murray the K) in New York with Cream and a few other notable acts. Set length was 15 minutes. Constant touring followed with an appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June helping to raise their profile in the States. Between gigs they had to squeeze in session time to complete their inventive concept LP The Who Sell Out which was released at year end.

THE MONSTERS

Having put hundreds of hours into their craft, the beast that was Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon now stretched their show well beyond a perfunctory turn of 30 minutes. The concept of extended jams were coming into vogue and "stacks" replaced the lone amplifier that hitherto had been the only source of noise for guitarists/bassists. The revolution of signal phase distortion raised the game, giving birth to ROCK and a genuinely mind-bending experience for concert goers.

"My Generation" swallows two full sides here, clocking in at 33 minutes. Kicking off with the stop/start motif, Entwistle solo bursts and key signature change toward the chaos that closes the studio recording, they take an abrupt detour into improvisational madness. The lads throw up a compelling wall of noise: Moon flailing around his kit as Townshend coaxes an array of sounds from his axe, while Entwistle solos as much as his counterpart on the four-string. They lose each other in the sonic hedge maze at times, though the germs of themes that would be integral to Tommy show up as they bomb the faithful back to the Stone Age with sheer intensity. The casual fan may only take one pass through this, yet it reveals them to be far heavier than their records belied up to that point in time. Similarly, "Relax" is a revelation extended out to nearly 12 minutes of psychedelic bliss, with a quick shot of "Day Tripper" thrown in for fun. Never in solidarity with the hippy bands that came out of California during this era, the Who made an exception in their approach with this deep cut from Sell Out. Special mention goes to their take on "A Quick One (While He's Away)". It weighs in as the third longest piece from the Fillmore gigs and was a genuine surprise. The ending still grants forgiveness to all but goes on for quite some time in the outro as Entwistle gives a mini-master class on how to work every inch of the fret-board. It is different from the arrangements they did at Leeds, on the BBC, Monterey Pop and even the superb take from the Rock and Roll Circus film.

There once was a note, LISTEN!

Pretty much everything etched into the grooves is a highlight reel. You get a spotless version of "Tattoo" and Townshend's offering to the American Cancer Society, "Little Billy", which went unused until it was pulled from mothballs for Odds and Sods in 1974. The scattershot drum pattern of "Happy Jack" hits a home run as does "I'm a Boy". The caffeinated, "run and gun" Eddie Cochran covers ("Summertime Blues", "C'mon Everybody") along with a few other selections from the vaults ("Fortune Teller", "Shakin' All Over") would remain in their set lists for another couple of years.

Switching to a gear that was hitherto unknown for them, the transitory period of their stage show from 1967 to 1970 wasn't well documented. This slab of brilliance fills in the gap, showing the pre-Tommy Who to be already one of the best in the business. An exciting release, Live at the Fillmore East 1968 is highly recommended. Best appreciated in vinyl format.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

BEE GEES 1st



Supposing that this record was a room, then its contents would certainly bear the hallmark of opulence. Rare paintings adorning the walls, with furnishings and fixtures from an interior decorator's wet dream to complete the space. Cracks and blemishes? Sure, a few are present, yet the sheer brilliance of the cornerstone pieces divert your attention from any surface flaws. The brothers Gibb dipped their cups into a well of songwriting riches early on, always coming up with them filled to the brim. Bee Gees 1st was actually their third full length release, though it was the first to be issued internationally.

Truly fine it is.

Even a cursory listen will reveal that these lads possessed sharp melodic instincts, harmonic gifts and an intrinsic knowledge of song craft well beyond their years. To put things in perspective, while in the midst of writing and recording this material, Robin and Maurice were 17. Barry was the elder statesman at the tender age of 19.



This set appeared at the height of the Summer of Love, a window of time which saw an incredibly eclectic crop of musical styles unveiled to an unsuspecting public. The Beatles had recently set a very high bar with Sgt. Pepper in June, casting a daunting shadow over their contemporaries at that point. To their credit, the Bee Gees held their own, turning out high quality, easily assimilated work on this LP. While some content is redolent of the sonic template that the Fab Four had established on Revolver the previous year (which evolved exponentially on Pepper), they did have their own artistic voice. With Colin Petersen (drums) and Vince Melouney (guitar) on board as full fledged members, the quintet was also a legitimate performing entity. This lineup would stay intact until 1970.

HIGHLIGHTS

Percentage wise, exceptional songs are the rule here. No less than five tracks from this platter found their way onto their first hits compilation in 1969 (Best of Bee Gees). These selections all have a distinctive flavor, caressing the neural population in your auditory cortex in a manner that will not allow your brain to shake them easily. Catchy yet curiously minor key morose at their core, they played a major role in bringing the Gibbs to the attention of the masses.

"Holiday" sees Barry taking lead vocal honors to set things up ("Ooh, you're a holiday/such a holiday") with Robin's distinctive quaver taking over in short order (beginning with "It's something I thinks worthwhile"). They deliver a lyric that likens a romantic partner to a vacation or trip. Possessing a high haunt count, the melody grabs you immediately. Whether "the puppet makes you smile" or not isn't the point. When writing about love and relationships, they were deliberately vague in framing the narrative. In an excerpt from Daniel Rachel's fascinating book,The Art of Noise: Conversations with Great Songwriters, Robin explains the process:

"Holiday" was written on an autoharp...There have been songs called "Holiday" since, but we were probably the first group to write a song called "Holiday" about a relationship...Songwriting is not so much about the obvious; it's about going around the houses and looking at it from a different angle.

Hitting the top ten at that time in the singles sweepstakes, this one still resonates even a half century removed from that era.



Grim subject matter frames "New York Mining Disaster, 1941", yet they take the plight of those trapped by an underground collapse and turn it into a conversation. Following a very solemn intro, the music breaks out of its straight-jacket, building in intensity and speeding up in an unorthodox fashion.

Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?/ Do you know what it's like on the outside?/Don't go talking too loud you'll cause a landslide...

The orchestral arrangement is ideal with those iron clad harmonies tying it all together. Viewed through the Gibb's lens, there is no resolution, only resignation when it comes to the doomed crew, sealed in miles below the surface of the earth. Oddly enough, Rupert Holmes may have taken inspiration from this when he crafted "Timothy", which was a minor chart hit for The Buoys in 1971. In a "you-have-to-hear-this-to-believe-it" scenario, the protagonist is singing about being snagged in a mine cave-in with Joe and Tim. They are located and freed, though only two survive to tell the tale. The inference is that they resort to cannibalism, consuming Timothy to stay alive while awaiting rescue.

I digress

Moving to more conventional fare, "To Love Somebody" is a quintessential torch song that Barry draws every iota of raw emotion out of in his vocal. Achingly powerful in a visceral sense, a debt to the Motown sound is quite obvious in the arrangement. This one cuts to the chase beautifully, has been widely (deservedly) covered by other artists and boasts an incredible hook. Anyone who has been on the short side of love can relate. "I Can't See Nobody" emerges as its natural companion, with the refrain again bringing home a universal sentiment: love can blind you to all other available options. All four aforementioned compositions managed to grab the public imagination in a big way, despite having an underlying sadness about them. There is catharsis in suffering, though it helps to have such innovative soundscapes to soften the hard medicine in the messages.

Oh solo Dominique...

Maurice emerges as multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire in the unique, psychedelic and quite startling "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You". Mixing Gregorian chant, mind bending mellotron and a good deal of confidence in pulling this one off, there is much to be commended in terms of its construction. Beautifully "out there", they never attempted anything even remotely like it again. An exercise in good intentions gone right, it remains "trippy" as of this writing.

THE REST

Circling back to my earlier comment about stylistic comparisons to that quartet from Liverpool, the Klaus Voormann designed cover art wasn't the only linkage to Revolver to be found here. "In My Own Time" runs uncomfortably close to the structure of "Taxman" with jagged, distorted down-strokes on rhythm guitar and McCartney's bass line showing up with little alteration. Drop-dead perfect emulation of John/Paul/George three-part harmony makes you forget about this and marvel at how dialed in the lads were as singers. Sharing DNA didn't hurt, either. The drawing room harpsichord that drives "Turn of the Century" nudges into Pepperland territory ("Fixing a Hole"), though they counter that by running the clock back to examine life through the eyes of those souls that witnessed the last gasp of the 1800s. "Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts" is pure English musical hall, very much in the vein that Ray Davies was mining in his work with the Kinks as they turned away from riff-based rock in the mid-sixties. My personal favorite of the deep cuts is "Cucumber Castle". Brief with esoteric strings that serve to enhance the song, rather than smother it, the title would be recycled for a future project. It would represent a difficult chapter in their career that saw Robin leave the fold for a short time to embark on a solo venture. Happily, all differences would be patched up amicably. Flashing back to 1967, hard work and talent aligned perfectly to bring the first taste of fame to the Bee Gees.

Returning to my dog-eared vinyl copy to take in this gem was easy. Even the second tier tunes have merit and properly listening again after a long time away has renewed my appreciation for them as composers. When the band comes up in conversation, people tend to immediately flash on the trio as they appeared at the height of Disco-mania in the late 70s, when the Saturday Night Fever film soundtrack dominated radio playlists. Multi-faceted as writers, musicians and prodigiously talented singers, the ingenuity that fueled Bee Gees 1st was impressive, establishing them as a creative force a full decade prior to this. If it's not already part of your collection, grab it. One of their best records, bar none.