Sunday, February 28, 2010
VALLEYS OF NEPTUNE
Nearly forty years after he crossed into the next dimension, there is an ongoing fascination with Jimi Hendrix. He caught the attention of heavyweights in many genres of music, pulled off miracles with a stomp box and revolutionized rock guitar in the process.
Are You Experienced hit the scene with the force of a grand piano landing on a box of powdered donuts, snapping the minds of countless listeners when it was unleashed in 1967. Light years ahead of everything else at that time, his debut was the envy of many of his contemporaries.
Heavy schedules followed with commitments that pushed him toward the inevitable cycle that has taken out many very talented performers.
Legions of feedback-loving, volume pigs have tried to emulate him, possessing none of his finesse and feel. More than one of his peers has gone on record stating that they could not figure out how he produced those tones, even after studying his technique up close.
Valleys of Neptune is a "new" release, featuring material captured in studio sessions dating from early 1969, with a couple of tracks that were done outside that period. His legacy had been tarnished somewhat by posthumous, grave-robbing, cash-in releases that hit the market in the 70s and continued to appear while the legal issues surrounding his estate were being untangled. The late 90s saw a reversal of this state of affairs, with a faithful restoration of First Rays of the New Rising Sun, an LP he was working on at the time of his death.
Now we get a further sampling of his work. Seven of the twelve cuts here have not left the vaults until now.
1. "Stone Free"
2. "Valleys of Neptune" Previously unreleased
3. "Bleeding Heart"
4. "Hear My Train a Comin'"
5. "Mr. Bad Luck" Previously unreleased
6. "Sunshine of Your Love" Previously unreleased
7. "Lover Man" Previously unreleased
8. "Ships Passing Through the Night" Previously unreleased
10. "Red House"
11. "Lullaby for the Summer" Previously unreleased
12. "Crying Blue Rain" Previously unreleased
Better still that these tapes are being handled in a more respectful manner, especially after years of shoddy repackages that would not have met with the approval of the man himself.
Overall, it sounds pretty solid with nothing standing out as any great departure from what he had previously done.
The point being?
Allegedly, one of his ambitions was to shed the stage persona that he had been growing tired of and delve into big band jazz, following along the lines of Wes Montgomery. Hard to fathom, although his followers might have eventually watched him take a seat on the bandstand amongst a larger group of musicians. Had he lived, this would have made for a startling career shift. Jimi's occasional summit meetings with Miles Davis are especially legendary. The select few that were privileged enough to hear the combination of these two virtuosos, playing behind closed doors for pleasure, were suitably impressed. Again, if there was a tape machine running, it would be quite interesting to hear what they did. Missed opportunity otherwise.
For the hard-core archivists out there, this album may be seen as a bit slight in terms of real surprises. Hendrix was known for tracking quite a bit, bringing in a revolving cast of supporting players to jam and get ideas down. With that in mind, there is hope that more gems may be unearthed for release, showcasing another side of his multi-faceted musical personality.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Don't you just love the internet? News travels at insane speeds, though most of it reads like it was fact-checked by a sleep deprived chimp who has just polished off three bottles of cough syrup.
Indeed, it must have been that very primate who let news of Gordon Lightfoot's death slip past quality control and take up a portion of cyberspace, namely the websites of several Canadian newspapers a few days ago.
That is until the man himself made a statement to the contrary, courtesy of a Toronto news station. Currently on tour, Lightfoot is delivering his classics to packed houses. Catch him in the act if you can. His work is understated, has been covered by countless artists and is well worthy of investigation.
Don Quixote is no exception.
Not a runaway commercial smash upon release, the bearded bard turned in this thoroughly laid back set back in early 1972. Lightfoot was on an artistic roll during this period, having nicely bevelled some of the rougher edges found in his earliest work (also great) to find a superb balance between what he had to say and how he would sonically present it. Delicate acoustic passages, fine supporting players and a sure touch with a tune are all strengths that enhance the listening experience, though it is his way with words that steals the show.
One of the finest lyricists to ever commit pen to paper.
In this respect, he had few peers, always exploring interesting themes, story telling and making it all seem effortless. That rich, distinct vocal delivery is his signature, perfectly balanced against a backdrop of acoustics, sighing steel and occasional strings. Rarely missing the mark, Don Quixote would slip neatly into the alt country/folk parade that, to these ears, has been a hiding place for the more experimental aspects of rock since the mid-nineties.
Whether he's celebrating Canadian geography in the guise of uprooting and heading west ("Alberta Bound") spinning an early ecological tale ("Ode to Big Blue") or simply turning out one of the most touching love songs to ever grace a record ("Beautiful") this is Lightfoot at his best. The title of "poet" is too readily assigned these days, more often than not to hacks whose attempts at profundity should be relegated to the broom closets of the Hallmark corporation.
Lightfoot's work remains in a class of its own.
Spend some quality time with Gord
Monday, February 15, 2010
GET THE KNACK
Remember this LP?
Power pop/rock, tightly arranged with great harmonies and lascivious lyrics that seemed a perfect match for the leering gentleman who sang them.
Doug Fieger succumbed to cancer yesterday at age 57.
This album has been in my collection for 30 years. It really doesn't seem that long ago. "My Sharona" was all over the radio and The Knack were poised for big things. The Beatles with a dirty mind.
Here's one for the road.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
BAND ON THE RUN
Viewed as an incredible return to form, the third Wings platter was nothing short of miraculous as it was made under tumultuous circumstances. All of the key elements that had informed his best work in the past were still there, waiting to be unlocked. Reconnected with his muse, McCartney did not waste an inch of tape in the process.
Paul: “When we got back, people said ‘Ah, out of adversity has been born a fine album.’ I hate that theory. I hate the idea that you have to sweat and suffer to produce something good. It may be true as well.”
Denny Seiwell and Henry McCullough both quit their positions shortly before the group was set to travel to Africa and begin tracking sessions. Soldiering on as a trio, Paul, Linda and Denny found themselves in a less than adequate recording facility. To further complicate matters, Paul and Linda were robbed, losing the demo tapes they had brought along to work from. Legendary musician Fela Kuti expressed concern that they had made the trek to co-opt their rich culture of indigenous music and rhythms.
So your band has imploded, you are in a foreign country looking at an unfinished studio without even a rough draft of your new songs and the locals aren't exactly thrilled that you bothered to make the trip in the first place.
What do you do?
Geoff Emerick, who had accompanied them to Lagos to serve as engineer, worked some magic to help bring their workspace up to code. Approaching the project in the same manner as he did when making the McCartney LP, Paul played drums, bass, guitar and keyboards with contributions from Denny and Linda on various instruments and backing vocals. When everything seemed dire, the team rallied in grand style. The sheer power of the multi-part title cut followed by "Jet" sets the tone as the underlying theme of the record deals with flight and escape. You can take that any way you like, though the theme involving "leaving the ground" continues with the cocktail lounge jazz of Bluebird. Everything clicks on the first side, which closes out with a nice tribute to Lennon's Plastic Ono Band sound on "Let Me Roll It". Heavy reverb on the vocals, the guitar tone and a little primal whimper thrown in toward the fade all ice the cake. It's a very civilized way of ending the "John vs. Paul" sniping that played out on their recent records and in the press.
Confident in every possible way, the melodies and song structures found here are exceptional, with a consistency that was entirely missing from Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway. He and Denny (along with Linda) utilize that great vocal blend to full effect, especially with "No Words", a fine tune which Laine brought in and finished with Paul's help. Experimental sound collage takes up the middle section of "Picasso's Last Words". The initial progression and hook was the result of a friendly challenge. Actor Dustin Hoffman asked him about his song writing process, specifically around what subject matter inspired him to invent a new tune. He went a step further, showing McCartney a Time magazine article about the recent death of Pablo Picasso, which mentioned his reported dying words: "Drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can't drink anymore".
Could you write a song about this?
Within minutes, he had something, to Hoffman's delight.
The finale references the homestretch of Sgt. Pepper with a cool flashback. Just as "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" builds to an orchestrated climax, you get a quick reprise of the chorus of "Band On the Run" before the needle goes skidding off into the run-out grooves. Unquestionably standing as one of the top five solo records that he or his former colleagues ever made, Band On the Run stayed on the charts for 116 weeks, hit number one twice and repaired a lot of damage to his artistic credibility. Wings would press on through the remainder of the decade, with changing lineups, selling millions of discs, though McCartney would not quite match the overall quality found here.
What's the use of worrying? No use
Saturday, February 06, 2010
RED ROSE SPEEDWAY
There is much truth in the old adage:
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
Wings expanded to a five piece outfit, travelled through Europe playing small gigs and released a few singles in 1972. All the while, Paul and company were squeezing in recording sessions, chipping away at what would become the "Next Album". Working steadily, enough material was taped to fill a double LP. This idea was scrapped when the calendar page flipped over into 1973, the end product of the work boiled down to a single disc. This left contributions from other members of Wings on the cutting room floor. "My Love" was then dangled before the public as a taster single. Listeners snapped it up like piranhas, sending the tune to the top of the US charts. Now billed as "Paul McCartney and Wings", the band seemed poised for a commercial breakthrough.
Artistically, the project fell well below expectation, with many listeners thinking of other places to shove that rose which protrudes from McCartney's mouth in the cover shot.
Thorns first, of course.
I will be the first to admit that MacCartney has done excellent work, is a stellar musician, singer, producer, etc. Which is precisely why this is so damn frustrating to listen to. You expect a bit more and it is not there. At least with Wild Life, it's understood that he was intentionally doing something off the floor with no polish. Red Rose Speedway took time, effort and it still plays like he was screwing around.Substance is entirely lacking which precludes any serious evaluation of the material. Paul traded on his melodic gifts to lodge his creations in the brains of millions. On Speedway he blows some great opportunities by taking ideas with promise and turning them into cutesy mush. "Single Pigeon" is a prime example, with a piano line that could have been worked up into something great. Instead, Linda chips in with flat responses in the pre-chorus and the whole thing goes down in flames as a children's sing-along. The words don't help, either.
What works well here had already been tracked two years prior during the studio dates for Ram ("Get On the Right Thing", "Little Lamb Dragonfly")."Big Barn Bed" got started during this period as well, though it was updated and recorded specifically for Speedway. Again, it sounds like he did a massive bong hit and wrote down whatever came to mind, though the arrangement is clever. His skills in this department hadn't deserted him.
Speaking of circling around the hookah, Paul may owe mechanical royalties to Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys for "Loup (1st Indian on the Moon)". When the first bit with the chant breaks down, there are some random bleeps and sound effects which give the impression that Loup has reached his destination, happily bounding on the lunar surface. Listen carefully (if you have a copy) to the bass part that is employed in this section as it is lifted directly from the Pet Sounds track "Here Today".
Brian Wilson jolts upright from a dead sleep, wide-eyed and screaming.
Despite the obvious syrupy nature of the song, "My Love" stands head and shoulders above everything else. Henry McCullough's solo is a model of taste and economy.
Wings could never be considered a group of equals because Paul dominated the writing. Prone to dictatorial methods in the studio, he did not allow for those around him to fully contribute and come up with their own instrumental parts for the songs. When he did, great moments such as the inspired guitar solo in "My Love" would happen. Conversely, when the players followed a "by the numbers" formula laid down by the boss, listeners ended up with garbage like "When The Night".
No one has asked, nevertheless, allow me to present a more palatable version of Red Rose Speedway:
Big Barn Bed
Get On the Right Thing
Little Lamb Dragonfly
One More Kiss
Hi Hi Hi
Give Ireland Back to the Irish
The crowd loses their mind, giving a five minute standing ovation.
Fortunately, the next chapter in the story would prove to be far more successful from a musical standpoint. Just as he was about to be written off, he stepped up and silenced all of his critics.
Thursday, February 04, 2010
After issuing two solo records, James Paul McCartney decided that he wanted to be part of a band again. Getting back in front of an audience would require a solid supporting cast. Enlisting drummer Denny Seiwell, whose solid work on Ram impressed him, was a fine start. His choice to fill the keyboard slot in his new aggregation was shocking.
His wife Linda.
Had she been a seasoned pro, the rock world still would have been skeptical, though it really was an odd pick because she could barely play a note. He insisted that she should be part of the project, taught her a few basic chords and then there were three.
Casting an eye about for a guitarist, he hit upon the idea of having Denny Laine join him. After all, he had known Laine from his days with the Moody Blues (pre Justin Hayward), liked his voice and thought that they would work well together. According to Paul, the name for this new group came out of a stressful time as Linda was giving birth to their second child, Stella. Complications arose and it wasn't certain that the baby would survive. While praying for his wife and child, the image of angel's wings came to McCartney.
Wings quietly started rehearsing a freshly minted batch of tunes in July of '71.
Take it, Tony!
Puffing on some of Mother Nature's finest, having a few beers and knocking around a few oldies, they also jammed on a few new ideas as well. Paul made the executive decision to record some of their "first takes". That's always a good move if you want to sift through the tapes and pick out certain things that merit further development.
He probably shouldn't have released them for public consumption.
Before erupting into an extended laughing fit, consider listening to this from a different perspective. You're hearing a bootleg that mistakenly fell into a pile and was given the green light as an official release. No need to run back into a burning building to retrieve this, though if you do find it on vinyl for a buck, (as I did, way back) then you're set.
McCartney himself had to have realized that this was the byproduct of working up some ideas to break in the band. Nothing more. So you have some pointless fun ("Mumbo"), a song directed at toddlers ("Bip Bop"), the catchy pop tune ("Tomorrow") and a white, left-handed-cigarette-smoking-reggae-fied cover ("Love is Strange").
Ideas that have promise ("Wild Life", "Some People Never Know") run way too long on underdeveloped melodies with no transitions to make them more interesting. Had more time been invested with certain tracks (and backing vocals turned down in the mix) the results would have been marginally better.
Unsurprisingly, extreme critical backlash met "Wild Life" upon its release at the tail end of '71. Once half of an enormously influential song writing partnership, McCartney now seemed to have lost the plot.
"Dear Friend" would be the standout track on Wild Life. It is a small olive branch that he extended to Lennon in the wake of the very public pissing match that they were engaged in at that time.
Best viewed as some messy sketches from a writer trying to escape a long shadow and do things differently.