Sunday, September 02, 2018
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sunday, February 04, 2018
Denny Laine, along with a very talented group of musicians, brought a venerable recording to life last Thursday evening. Performing the Band on the Run album in its entirety, with a further mix of Wings and Moodies selections, Laine and his wrecking crew owned the stage, leaving two packed houses deliriously happy in the bargain. Weaving in some humorous banter between songs, the newly minted member of the Rock and Roll Hall of fame appeared relaxed and graciously shared the spotlight with his band mates. Each took a turn at the mic, flawlessly executing their daunting lead vocal tasks. No mean feat, it is a high compliment to their collective abilities as singers.
Vocal harmonies were impeccable ("Mamunia", "Bluebird"), extended guitar solos inspired ("Helen Wheels", "No Words", "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five") while the group maintained a perfect balance of spontaneity and adherence to the arrangements. Laine joked that they were "not a tribute band" because of their resistance to playing the numbers by rote. His comment is given significant weight by virtue of one irrefutable fact.
He was there when these songs first took shape in the studio...
Despite the complexity involved in putting across this LP in a live setting, without a net, it was successful on every level.
The crowd knew every word, with the master of ceremonies delivering on the promise of a high energy performance. Front of house sound was pristine, the size of the venue was ideal to catch every nuance and the set list was a virtual highlight reel. As "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" was building to that classic crescendo, everyone in the was on their feet, swept away by a killer musical experience.
There was more to come
Denny roared through "Time to Hide", one of his underrated gems from Wings at the Speed of Sound and showcased some tasty harp playing. In addition to leading a particularly fired-up "Sprits of Ancient Egypt", the caffeinated version of James Brown's "I Go Crazy" from the first Moodies disc was another welcome surprise. Closing with the ballad that he has long been most closely associated with, "Go Now" wound down the proceedings with class. Truly superb evening and it was an absolute pleasure to be in attendance.
Denny's partners in crime are all top class players in their own right. Most reviewers are remiss in failing to mention those key individuals in supporting roles. All of the following gents may take a virtual bow.
Alex Jules - One man keyboard army/horn section. His solos were brief, yet riveting and note perfect. Great voice.
Benjamin Lecourt- In addition to expertly steering the ship through the shifting sands of various time signatures, brought his bilingual skills to the fore during "Picasso's Last Words".
Brian Pothier - Bouncing between acoustic 12 string and electric lead guitar, his feel and tone were spot on. Impressive, precise slide work, as well.
Erik Paparozzi - Serious chops on the low end, though he ran all of Paul's bass lines respectfully and hit impossibly high notes with ease on every vocal turn. Quiet captain of the team.
Special mention goes to the songs themselves. While the adversity faced by Paul, Linda and Denny during the making of Band on the Run has been well documented, the lyrics and melodies themselves reveal no trace of these stresses. Instead there is an underlying theme of escape, flight, speed and joyful confidence infused in every note. The material itself was not tied to any political or socio-economic stances of the era allowing it to remain fresh in 2018. Watching it happen live provided a renewed respect for the continuous creativity that powered the LP.
Message to all who take the time to read this. If Denny is taking his act to your city this year, do whatever it takes to secure tickets. This gifted man is generous with his time and puts on an amazing show. Find out more about Denny Laine's future musical plans at his page
Sunday, January 21, 2018
1982 was a breakout year for Colin Hay and his mates. The Men At Work had put in their time since their formation in 1978 getting tight as a performing unit. In November of 1981, Business as Usual was released. Massive success followed. While folks were whistling "Downunder", record buyers sent both the single and LP to the top of the pops. In the midst of a heavy touring/promotional schedule, the group managed to commit a second collection of songs to tape. Less whimsical than their first in terms of lyrical subject matter, Cargo was shelved for some time before the record company gave the green light for issue in the spring of 1983. The executive decision was directly related to the aforementioned success of Business as Usual. No need to have competing product in the marketplace when sales were still brisk.
Who can it be now?
Heralded by the eerie sound of wind, footsteps and chiming bells, "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive" kicks open the door with force, putting a slight spin on the classic tale of a mad scientist who alters himself (physically and mentally) by downing a beaker of his latest chemical experiment. An arresting tune, the refrain is clever and sets a jittery tone for what follows. Suspend your disbelief for a moment: Imagine that this is merely a set up for a hallucinogenic sequence of events that befall him after he drinks his potion. The good doctor embarks on very unsettling trip, the narrative of which is captured in the nine songs that follow.
I can't get to sleep...
"Overkill" is a perfect pop confection: excellent hook line, taut verses with an instantly catchy chorus. Tailor made for maximum radio exposure. The lyric is restless, with nervous tension around every corner. It is here where a confusing fog steadily creeps across the brain of Mr. Jive. What is real? He isn't quite sure.
Ghosts appear and fade away...
Realizing that no such concept is actually being rolled out to listeners by the composers (mainly Hay with two contributions from Ron Strykert), those of you who are still playing the home game can still have some fun reimagining the intent of this inventive set. The protagonist flashes back to the well-meaning, yet mundane, parental lectures of his childhood ("Settle Down My Boy"), has some surreal fun in his room ("Upstairs in My House") and ends up ruminating on the past ("No Sign of Yesterday") as act one comes to a somber close. Flipping over to the next side, reality intrudes with a comment on military madness in the form of "It's a Mistake". Definite highlight of the pack. In keeping with the tense atmosphere of that era, the lyric alludes to the futility of the perpetual nuclear standoff between superpowers. Escalating one-upmanship has but one catastrophic climax. As with all other tracks here, the six string interplay between Hay and Strykert is very well thought out. Their tones are captured expertly in the mix, never stepping on each other. Cigar goes to multi-instrumentalist Greg Ham (who is sadly no longer with us) for his work throughout. From the haunting saxophone responses that grace "Overkill" to the killer flute solo (seriously) that completely lifts "No Restrictions" into the stratosphere, he leaves no blemish on this disc. He even takes a rare lead vocal on "I Like To". Split personality disorder may be the best descriptor for the overall mood as each construction whips you in various directions, with dizzying highs and lows explored equally. The opening remark about a post-drink song cycle centered on "Dr. Heckyll" was made in the spirit of fun, though the jarring 180 degree jolt that takes you from the exuberance of "High Wire" to the reggae-fried, morose strains of "Blue For You" adds fuel to the idea of a dreamlike thread running throughout the program.
Give me no restrictions, in what I do or say...
Back on earth, everyone brings a frenetic energy to their parts on this very underrated record. They were a hell of a good live band, too. Finding a receptive audience in the commercial sweepstakes, Cargo would also prove to be the final bow for the quintet, as the rhythm section was asked to leave before sessions began for their third full length project (Two Hearts). Strykert departed close to the end of those studio dates, leaving Hay and Ham to carry on with other musicians on the subsequent supporting tour.
Remaining a very compelling listen, my vinyl copy sounds as fresh today as it did when it first floated down from the sky by parachute, landing gently on my turntable back in '83. In addition to strong material, it is not weighed down by the ugly production methods (heavy reverb on everything, cheesy drum machine noises pushed way up front in the mix, etc.) that would soon be ubiquitous as the eighties progressed. Colorful and imaginative as its cover art, Cargo is quite worthy of (re)investigation. Be careful of what you drink before putting it on.
Thursday, January 18, 2018
First of three records released under the name Stealers Wheel. Gerry Rafferty (best known for “Baker Street”) and Joe Egan penned and sang all of the material, backed up by additional musicians. There would be a rotating cast of support players in their brief stint as a “band”. Sonically, the listener will spot a huge nod to the compositional approach of the Fab Four. The big single was “Stuck in the Middle With You” which flew into the top ten in 1973, sold by the truckload and saturated radio playlists of that era. Rafferty channels Dylan mixing in a bit of Lennon on his lead vocal (though he doesn’t quite veer into “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” territory), with Egan harmonizing on the catchy chorus. Tasty slide parts color the song, which sits on a clever bass groove. Handclaps ice the cake. More cowbell? They have you covered in the breaks. All the makings of a hit. When Quentin Tarantino deployed it as part of The Reservoir Dogs soundtrack (who could forget that disturbing Mr. Blonde scene) it was back. Credit to the strength of the tune in that it has held up remarkably well. The rest of this debut effort is quite respectable. “Late Again” and “You Put Something Better Inside Me” are both highlights and also got 45’ed. “Outside Looking In” plays like a lost Lennon solo cut, yet the overall impact is hypnotic. “I Get By” would have slotted in perfectly on the second Big Star album (Radio City) with a stop-start arrangement, twin guitar attack and comes closest to a “rock” feel.
The mix is incredibly clean, which is no surprise as the legendary Geoff Emerick engineered along with John Mills. My copy dates from the late 70s, though I found it second hand in the early 90s. Listening for the first time in at least a decade, this is a lot better than I remember it. Solid harmonies and impeccable playing in service of the songs goes a long way. Stealers Wheel (the album) remains overlooked despite its obvious charms. Their catalog got a makeover and reissue in 2016. If you spot this one in vinyl format, grab it.