Thursday, August 15, 2019
New music from Led Zeppelin was eagerly awaited by their fan base in the summer of 79. Three years had passed since the issue of Presence and The Song Remains the Same soundtrack. They had not set foot onstage since the ill-starred US tour in 1977, which had been cut short due to the tragic death of Robert Plant's son, Karac. All group activity came to an abrupt stop as the once mighty dirigible lost altitude, floating gently back toward earth. At this point, it was uncertain that the quartet would ever regroup again. This was kept quiet as Plant took time to grieve with his family.
While they were away, the sonic landscape shifted. Punk, new wave, and pub rock offered back to basics, streamlined fare that hit listeners hard. Lengthy sets, interminable solos and spectacle were replaced by short blasts of adrenalin from groups that made up for in energy what they lacked in chops. Radio was dominated by disco, soft rock and pop. The dinosaur tag was slapped on those artists/bands that came to prominence in the previous decade and who were now considered out of touch.
How would Zeppelin respond, creatively, to these developments?
Their return to business would be a fairly glacial process, though the offer of free studio time that came from Abba members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson would be too good to pass up. The now defunct Polar Studios was be no means conveniently located, though it did provide a new environment in which to work. Convening in the last months of 1978 to start the project, winter weather in Stockholm ensured that the players would be woodshedding without distraction. Despite this fact, certain indulgences were still impeding half the team, leaving them not quite match fit. (We'll insert a conversational marker on that point.) They soldiered on, finding their feet and rediscovering their chemistry as a functioning unit.
The contents of In Through the Out Door would serve to both delight and confound listeners on first pass. The key element common to all of their albums is clever sequencing. Page especially knew the power of an attention grabbing first track bookended by a dramatic closer. "In the Evening" would continue that tradition in grand style. Deploying a Gizmotron, Jimmy sets up a hazy, atmospheric drone that has a middle eastern flavor. Hypnotic as it is exotic, the minute long intro creates a spacey feel, building expectation of what's to come.
In the eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevening
Plant breaks the spell, leaving Bonham to kick down the door with authority. Over his four on the floor stomp sits an exquisite, rotating riff punctuated by dive-bombing whammy bar action. All perfectly complimented by the innovative synth touches of John Paul Jones. Page's solo is preceded by a brief, but glorious, noise explosion that he created by depressing the tremolo arm toward the body of his Strat as far as it could go before quickly releasing it. He references this trick in a 1990 interview with Guitar World magazine, stating that he wanted to shake up anyone listening to the tune and make them go, "what the hell was THAT?!?". There is even a quick nod to Clapton's figure from "Outside Woman Blues" in the outro passage to ice the cake. Outstanding work from all involved.
Now is an appropriate time to return to that aforementioned conversational marker. The material that follows can scarcely be described as "Quintessential Zeppelin". This is where devotees of the band who appreciated their "scorched-earth" approach to rock were puzzled. Similarly, if you were in search of acoustic fare there wasn't any to found. One main factor in the musical knuckleball tossed out here is that John Paul Jones had a larger hand in the writing than he had previously. He had also come into possession of a Yamaha GX-1, an analog polyphonic synthesizer organ that figured prominently in the overall sound. He stepped forward because Page had partially checked out, his contributions greatly scaled back in comparison to all efforts that had come before. He played brilliantly, though mainly to add color instead of being the driving factor behind these compositions. Be mindful of this as you listen.
"South Bound Saurez" is a light, piano driven piece that would have sounded more at home on an early Elton John record. Not a bad tune, though nothing that sticks in the brain or bears repeated spins. Zep aficionados were not seeking such detours nor were they hoping for the lads to suddenly morph into the Atlanta Rhythm Section. "Fool in the Rain" is far superior, boasting a strong melody that supports a clever narrative where the protagonist is so anxious about being stood up on an important date that he blanks on the agreed upon meeting place. Nifty 12/8 meter is employed, with the piano and bass playing slightly against it. The instrumental star of this piece is Bonham, who flawlessly executes a deep pocket groove that is worthy of every scrap of praise which has been heaped on it over the years. His technique is stunning. Percussionists can easily go to Youtube and marvel at his work on this cut in isolation. Cigar goes to Jones (with an assist from Robert) for the arrangement, featuring that cool, freewheeling samba breakdown. Plant nails his vocal, making this an absolute highlight. Again they aren't playing to type, though that doesn't matter when the song itself is so strong. Rounding out the first side is "Hot Dog", which is notable for Page's tricky riff, barrelhouse flourishes on the 88s from JPJ and comedic, cornpone delivery from Plant. His Elvis worship comes into play here as does Jimmy's love of the Sun Records sound. While this is a fine example of their versatility and ability to comfortably slip into another genre, the track is dispensable. "Wearing and Tearing" which had been committed to tape during these sessions, but left in the vault, (eventually released on Coda in 1982) would have been a much better fit.
Side two begins with the sprawling, proggy "Carouselambra". Dominated by the stabbing, icy synths of Jones, this multi part vehicle is interesting in places, yet it would have benefited from judicious editing as the running time outlasts the strength of the concept. Zep were rarely tedious with their studio work, the lone exception being made here. By contrast, "All My Love" is a triumph. Taking care with all possible loose ends, the lyric is a fulsome, heartfelt tribute to Plant's son. Out of tragedy, healing is achieved in creative expression. Beautifully sung, delicate guitar decoration is woven in seamlessly in with the keys. All is topped by a stately, classically influenced solo from JPJ. It is the closest that they ever came to a pop song and is another standout. Page was dismissive of this approach in later interviews, going as far to say that it really wasn't their style. He plotted with Bonham to ensure that their next project moved them squarely back into the hard rock camp. This would sadly not come to fruition. In Through the Out Door did close out in far more familiar, bluesy territory. "I'm Gonna Crawl" is soulful, nodding to the Stax sound. Plant pours some real emotion into the mic. And Jimmy? If the master doesn't bring you to the verge of tears with his expressive solo, you don't have a heart. It almost seems as if he is roused from a soporific state, taking the reins belatedly to remind us that his gifts are still intact. Ending on a single note from Jones that sounds like a musical question mark, there is a feeling of unfinished business hanging in the air for a moment. With that, the prodigiously talented aggregation that guided a generation on a magically mind-blowing, decade-long sonic journey took their final recorded bow. Pity was that no one realized it at the time. All future plans ended with the shocking death of Bonham the following year.
EPILOGUE: IN THROUGH THE OUTTAKES
Forty years have passed since the release of this often misunderstood LP. Points can be made for the fact that though it was uneven as a whole, they were at least making an attempt to expand their horizons, experiment with new technology and deliver an end product that was moving with the times. For better or worse, the synthetic layering (which seems woefully dated now) prefigured what was to come in the eighties. All four members of Zeppelin had large music collections, covering a broad range of styles. It should come as no surprise that they would add new colors to their creative palette. Commercially, the disc flew off the shelves of record retailers with alarming speed. Music executives of the era credited this platter with single handedly rescuing an industry that was flagging as the seventies drew to a close.
Page has been protective of their legacy, acting as curator over the years when it has come to the three R's of this iconic band: Remixing, Repackaging and Re-releasing. The 2015 reissue didn't yield very much in the way of aural goodies. Essentially, the second disc features an alternate mix of each song from the original set. It would have been nice to hear demos or tracks that never saw the light of day in any format. Even better, there is live documentation of a handful of these tunes that could have been cleaned up and offered for consumption. Only extremely hardcore fans would play the 2015 extras more than once. If you see a vinyl copy in good shape for five to ten bucks, grab it. No need to shell out anymore than that. There are six different cover photo variations out there as well, just to add to vinyl collectors fun. Happy hunting.
This gig from June 30th, 1980 is one of then best you'll hear as far as late period, live Zeppelin goes. Captured without a net in Frankfurt, they are firing on all cylinders. Far more solid than their Knebworth performances. One week later, they played their last show with Bonzo.
Monday, August 05, 2019
Sunday, August 04, 2019
The fourth full length disc from Joe Robinson is the sonic equivalent of a cool breeze on a sweltering summer day. His estimable skills as a guitarist have drawn high praise from peers and audiences around the globe. This is merely one facet of his musical persona. All too often, a rare talent will appear on the scene with astounding instrumental prowess, mowing down listeners with dazzling displays of technical flash. Folks lend an ear, are duly surprised and move on to other business once the comet streaks by.
Undertones is aptly titled as it reveals multiple layers of gifts that are on display
Robinson wears a number of hats with ease. He produced and co-wrote all twelve tracks, topping each with melodic, soulful lead vocals. It is the strength of song craft which really catches the ear and those superb, fret board chops always support, though never overwhelm, what is presented. Playing in service of the tune is an art, which he executes with taste to spare. To give credit where it's due, Joe is brilliantly supported throughout by Pete Abbott (drums) and Anton Nesbitt (bass). They provide solid foundation work, jumping with ease from funk to pop to blues-inflected rock, leaving nary a blemish on this stunning set.
"Anything But Love You" has a stutter stop intro, quickly transitioning into straight-ahead power pop with a great hook. Opening strong, he follows it up with the punchy "Reputation" which features tasty rhythm playing by all members of the trio and is topped with a note perfect outro solo. Elsewhere, he hits home runs with radio-friendly fare ("Mindless", "Connection") and sharply satirizes the trappings of 21st century social media along with here-today-gone-later today trendiness ("Millennium Man").
Going deeper still, the narrative of "Snakeman" is truly jarring, ending up as one of the most beguiling creations in already impressive company. Brushed snare and jazzy comping provide the atmosphere, brightly lulling you into a false sense of security. The storyline is one that you could frame with a 180 degree twist that M. Night Shyamalan would offer up an appendage for. Delicate, ultra pro-playing from all involved (which is the rule here) culminates in a gorgeous solo that floats into the ear with the stealth of a cat burglar. If it was etched on canvas, this gem would be proudly displayed in the Louvre. Full stop.
It gets even better
Combining a clever, engrossing shaggy-dog tale from the road, impeccable acoustic finger picking and smooth vocal, "Let the Guitar Do the Talking" finishes as another highlight reel cut. Brevity being the soul of wit, the author makes his point with authority, leaving you wanting more. The closer, "Temagog", is pure poetry. Providing another pleasant surprise, this spoken word piece mixes autobiographical detail with peerless, free-form imagery. It is a wonderful epilogue to a record that takes you on an eclectic and ultimately very satisfying journey.
Undertones comes highly recommended. Meticulous production, top class playing/singing lift songs that are both thoughtful and incredibly catchy. Best of all, this is material that does not have an expiry date. He has neatly avoided the aural traps that contemporary artists have bought into in recent times. People will be discovering and enjoying this music for years to come. Count on that.
Here at home in the eternal now, you can support his work, purchase Undertones here and learn more about this talented musician via his website
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
The Lord of the Strings Concert Series has brought a host of top flight musicians to the stage to showcase their talents. President and founder Tim Johnson has been doing so since 2002, to the delight of Southern Californian music fans. On Saturday evening, he took up his usual role as master of ceremonies to introduce a performer who proceeded to dazzle the assembled crowd with two sets, featuring inventive original tunes mixed in with a variety of genre-hopping standards.
Water-droplet harmonics cascaded in waves over the audience, followed by complex chord voicing executed at the speed of light supported by bass-lines that seemed to be rolling off the thumb of the tastiest funk player. Floating over this were flawlessly picked melody lines interjected by mind-blowing solos.
All executed simultaneously, seemingly effortlessly, by one prodigiously talented individual.
Meet Joe Robinson...
While those of us witnessing this wizardry paused to pick our collective jaws from the floor and reattach them, Joe casually remarked that he was now "warmed up" and continued on with a virtual masterclass in guitar virtuosity. The combined skillsets of Lenny Breau, Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel (who has championed and mentored Robinson), Merle Travis, Roy Clark and Roy Buchanan all figure in his wheelhouse. Add to this a pitch perfect tenor voice, topped off with a unique, melodic songwriting gift and you have an artist to be reckoned with.
None of this is surprising when you learn that he had logged 1000 plus gigs by the tender age of eighteen(!). The by-product of hard work and natural prowess was obvious to all who were lucky enough to be in attendance. Dashing off a highlight reel of jazz standards, pop, funk, country licks (and everything in between) "The Cannonball Rag" sat comfortably alongside "Misty", "Bye, Bye Blackbird" and his caffeinated version of "Classical Gas" which earned him top honors in the 2008 Australia's Got Talent competition. He also included Adam Rafferty's arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" as well as Tommy Emmanuel's reading of "Over the Rainbow". Both were sublime interpretations. Utilizing a loop pedal for certain tunes, he would lay down sweet rhythm grooves and then grab his Telecaster to obliterate the faithful with incandescent leads. For one selection, he played two guitars at once (picking hand on the acoustic, fret hand on the electric) in what he described as (paraphrasing here), "wrangling both instruments to perform a parlor trick that he never tires of."
Showmanship at its finest.
It must be noted that Robinson read the mood of the crowd quite well, pacing his set accordingly. The most impressive aspect of his stage banter was that he kept it light, humorous and never fell into the singer/songwriter abyss of over-explaining what he was about to do.
Let the Guitar do the Talkin'...
On top of his aforementioned abilities as a performer, his compositions reveal him to be an absolute wordsmith. Free of cliché and brimming with melodic hooks, the songs that he previewed from his new disc, Undertones, were spectacular. ("Anything But Love You", "Let the Guitar Do the Talkin'" and the very clever (hilarious) "Millennium Man"). I will be reviewing that album in full soon, so stay tuned. Other standouts were "Adelaide" and "The Ghost of al Capone", which was result of a dream he had. His storytelling on the latter has a concision and intelligence that draws the listener in, with nary a wasted word to be found. Concluding the evening with "Out Alive", he ripped a series of solos that brought the house to its collective feet. Generous with his time, he even did an encore after that. It was an incredible show, in an intimate venue with crystal-clear sound. My thanks to Nate and Scott for the invite, as all expectations were exceeded.
Deserving of every superlative, to truly appreciate his estimable talents in person, please check out Joe's website for upcoming shows. Highly recommend to all reading here to get out and see him, support the artist and purchase his music. Guaranteed that you will be entertained and inspired out of your skull.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
"There weren't any demos...Everything was basically made up in the studio, you see. I just play the guitar, don't I? That is my characteristic and it's my identity as you hear it. I suppose as far as this album goes, in a way it's almost like a back-to-basics album."
Interviewed for Guitar World magazine back in 1988 to promote Outrider, Jimmy Page certainly was no ordinary guitarist talking up his new disc. He was one of the most revered figures in rock circles. The eighties began with the promise of the first Led Zeppelin US tour since 1977 and the potential of forthcoming new music. All of that disappeared in an instant with the untimely passing of John Bonham. Shortly after, the surviving members announced that they had made a mutual decision to disband. Deep shock was followed by a retreat from the public eye. Page downed tools, reportedly not touching a guitar for a long period of time until he was approached to do the soundtrack for Death Wish II. This led to a reset for the gifted musician, who returned to live performance in 1983, joining Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton for the ARMS charity shows in the UK. Out of this experience, he also reconnected with Paul Rodgers who had recently left Bad Company and stood in for Steve Winwood when nine additional ARMS dates were booked in the US. Their collaboration in The Firm came next, yielding two albums and a couple of short tours before they called it quits. In 1987, he began work on the material for his solo debut.
Naturally, the nine tracks that appear on this record feature spotless fret-work from the star of the show, who tastefully deploys his guitar army and manages to properly scorch the clone groups that cropped up in that time period attempting to replicate sounds that he invented back in the late 60s. Looking at this from a vinyl perspective, side one leans toward hard rock while the flip downshifts to a more laid back vibe, with the blues taking center stage toward the finish line. Three lead vocalists lend their throats to the proceedings (John Miles, Chris Farlowe and Robert Plant). Amongst the heavy hitters, "Wasting My Time" and "The Only One" both leap from the speaker grills to instantly grab your attention. The former has sweet slide breaks and a catchy chorus while the latter has Plant presiding over a series of riffs that recall the vibe of their old aggregation. Jason Bonham acquits himself admirably throughout, forging his own style on the skins, particularly shining on "Writes of Winter".
“Emerald Eyes” is the absolute standout of the pack. Page masterfully blends acoustic twelve string and electric guitar with a shimmering tremolo effect. The melody is haunting, accented by those silky Pagean bends. Quite like old times.
Positively wigging out on "Prison Blues", JP throws down face melting solos with a twist. His great sense of dynamics allows for a build up in intensity before he takes it over the top. Great "off the floor", spontaneous feel.
If I cannot have your love, I'll sing the blues
Overall, this is a pretty decent platter. Those that rushed out to purchase it in the week it was released (yours truly being one of them) were presented with a sturdy set of tunes, highlighted by impeccable musicianship throughout. Anyone expecting the second coming of Zeppelin would have had a sharp adjustment of expectation. Hence, contemporary reviews were mixed.
The dissenting voices missed a few key points.
First off, Page wisely avoided the trappings of horrible eighties production that was all the rage at that point. No fake drums pushed up in the mix or dated synthesizers with everything drowning in reverb. Shelf life of the material extends exponentially as a result. While he nods to his past, there is no concentrated effort to turn this into Zeppelin Redux. His knowledge of how to get the best sounds to tape came from years of hanging around after playing sessions, watching the engineers and taking notes. A deep understanding of varying styles/genres of music also factors in, though he doesn't stray too far from the known path here.
Holding up well in 2019, it still stands as the lone title in his discography to be produced under his name. The subsequent tour undertaken in support of the LP exposed a new generation to his talents. If you see Outrider in any format, drag it home. You will be pleasantly surprised.
Saturday, June 08, 2019
How do you follow being Fab?
For Paul McCartney, hard work was the key to his impressive run during the 1970s. Forming Wings was a deliberate attempt to start over, return to playing live and reignite the joy of being in a working band. Written off initially by critics, Paul and team would eventually turn negative notices for their inaugural effort, Wild Life, into glowing reviews with Band on the Run. During this time, group members came and went, with Denny Laine and Linda being the only constant fixtures throughout the journey. Following up with a string of hit singles/albums, culminating in the hugely successful Wings Over America tour and triple disc, document of these shows, Wings had become a veritable commercial force. Entering their seventh year, lineup changes once again entered the equation. With the departure of drummer Joe English and lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch in 1978, it was left to Laine to recruit new members.
Enter Steve Holley and Laurence Juber.
Their skillsets as musicians are estimable. Bringing a new energy to the proceedings, this version of Wings would feature far more muscular playing than ever before. Reset button fully deployed, the quintet set to work on new material. The sessions for what would become Back to the Egg were ground out at multiple locations/recording facilities and lasted nearly a year. Chris Thomas was brought in to co-produce with McCartney. His presence would bring another perspective in terms of the approach to tracking and final mix.
Before delving into the content, it's best to set expectations for those not familiar with this record. Upon release, it was subject to scathing reviews from rock scribes of that time. Some were mildly snarky, while others were pretty vicious. This set is much better than the notices it received. Next up is the talk track around McCartney wanting to capture the energy of punk and some of the premier "New Wave" acts that were coming to prominence during that era. Some of the tracks have a harder edge, which is a positive, though any evidence of trying to recreate the vibe of the Sex Pistols doesn't really stand out. (Try to imagine John Lydon wrapping his vocal chords around "Winter Rose"). Instead, certain selections are closer in feel to the pub rock/power pop movement. Far more Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds than the Damned. Let's face facts: Punk was DIY, ragged-ass musicianship and pure adrenalin. None of those bands spent a year on their productions nor did any utilize a castle as a recording locale.
HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR EGGS?
Naturally divided into two listening experiences in its original vinyl format, side one is labeled as 'Sunny Side Up' while the flip (pun intended) is 'Over Easy'. It is the sunny side that gets the edge for consistency. Opening with the funky "Reception", it's all about the bass. Paul's line is tight and perfect, grooving accordingly. Nodding to his mid-sixties experiments with tape loops, spoken word snippets are threaded into the mix (excerpted from "The Poodle and the Pug") along with a shrill synth-guitar line. The effect is that of someone fiddling with a tuner dial on a radio, trying to pick up a clear signal. As this brief instrumental fades, "Getting Closer" crashes in with authority. Custom built with a fantastic hook and a powerful, vintage McCartney "screaming" vocal, it was an obvious choice for a single. The energy is amped up in the outro, propelled by Holley's precision percussive attack. First rate rock tune, it certainly deserved a higher chart ranking. "We're Open Tonight" is a short, delicate acoustic piece that serves as a clearing of the aural palate before the onslaught of "Spin It On", which is about as close as this set comes to Punk. It is hyper-caffeinated, though the rotating riff is pretty standard. Juber's fretwork is the star of the show on this one. Denny Laine's lone offering, "Again and Again and Again", raises the bar a notch higher. Reportedly a hybrid of two motifs that he had been working on, the bridge is spectacular with a very clever turnaround. A standout track with Laine delivering a pristine lead vocal, supported by McCartney's stellar harmony, it is power pop at its finest. Scoring again with a superbly heavy slab of guitar-centric madness is "Old Siam, Sir". This one apparently caused some friction in terms of credits for contribution of key parts, though the result is another contender for best in show on the disc. McCartney steps up with a tonsil-shredding lead, Juber and Laine execute fine harmonized guitar figures and Holley steers the arrangement with inventive fills. Linda's keyboard perfectly compliments the lyrical theme. Downshifting slightly, "Arrow Through Me" is a prime example of how seamlessly Paul adapts the stylistic elements of other genres, in this case funk/R & B through the lens of Stevie Wonder. Smooth vocal, leaping into falsetto territory, floats over a haunting melody and the horn section ices the cake. These last two cuts were also 45'ed, making it as far as the top 30. Both were worthy of higher placement and round out an ultimately solid first side of music.
Conceptually, pulling together a virtual "dream team", comprised of some of the premier instrumentalists in rock, to play in unison on a song or two seems like a pretty interesting idea. McCartney brought these heavy friends into the studio to lay down the "Rockestra Theme" and "So Glad to See You Here".
Denny Laine, Laurence Juber, David Gilmour, Hank Marvin, Pete Townshend – guitars
Steve Holley, John Bonham, Kenney Jones – drums
Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones, Ronnie Lane, Bruce Thomas – basses
Paul McCartney, Gary Brooker, John Paul Jones – pianos
Linda McCartney, Tony Ashton – keyboards
Speedy Acquaye, Tony Carr, Ray Cooper, Morris Pert – percussion
Howie Casey, Tony Dorsey, Steve Howard, Thaddeus Richard – horns
The motif of the "Rockestra Theme" is quite basic, easily adapted by an expanded session crew and is concise. Not sure why they still hadn't had any dinner, though.
Feed the Rockestra, Macca or face their wrath...
Despite the cast of thousands approach, both worked out extremely well. The "Rockestra Theme" won a Grammy for best rock instrumental. One of the surprises amongst the pack on the 'Over Easy' side is "To You". Lyrically it deals with a similar theme as that of "Arrow Through Me" where the narrative is taken from the point of view of a jilted lover. The music that supports it pre-figures the sounds that would color eighties productions. It is quite different than anything that had come before it in the Wings catalog and pointed to a very promising sonic direction for them had they continued on as a unit.
Instead of carrying on down a more experimental avenue, Paul retreated into familiar territory, filling out the rest of the back nine with softer fare. To be blunt, "The Broadcast" is execrable and should have been elbowed in favor of something else from the sessions like "Cage" (which went unreleased) or perhaps another tune from Denny Laine. Taking song fragments and welding them together saw the inclusion of "After the Ball/Million Miles" and "Winter Rose/Love Awake". While boasting fetching melodies (Winter Rose is especially beautiful, taken on its own), they are a poor fit with the surrounding material. "Baby's Request" was chosen to close out the set, though that honor should have gone to "So Glad to See You Here", which includes a short, reggae-fied reprise of "We're Open Tonight" toward the end. Showcasing McCartney's versatility, this soft jazz number is about as close to Hoagy Carmichael as you can get. It's good yet really doesn't belong here, coming off as an anachronism that few contemporary consumers would truly connect with. The aforementioned songs diffused the finished product, likely resulting in the indisposition registered by the reviewers who gave it such a critical pasting.
The perspective of forty years has seen a revision of opinion concerning Back to the Egg. It is now seen as a creative step forward in some respects, with Chris Thomas helping to guide McCartney toward a cleaner production style. The infusion of new blood in the Wings camp also gave a meatier dimension to their overall sound. Desire to do something different with song structure is another plus. This incarnation was really just finding its feet as a live act (as bootlegs from the 1979 UK tour will attest). It's a pity that an unfortunate series of events (the pot bust in Japan being the major blow) conspired to permanently bring an end to Wings.
While it kicks off better than it finishes, it is well worth adding to your collection. Those of you who own a vinyl copy know what to do.
Spin it on, don't stop, take it back to the top...
Sunday, June 02, 2019
Stan Rogers' untimely passing would give his third studio LP the sad distinction of being the last recording released by the artist during his lifetime. He was working on an ambitious concept that involved writing entire albums around the theme of specific regions in Canada. His first two sets dealt with the socio-economic concerns of the Atlantic Provinces in the mid 70s, blending nautical tales with topical fare and good old fashioned songs that addressed love, loss and everything in between. Rogers was a wordsmith, possessed of a rich baritone voice and the soul of a poet who crafted intelligent music that continues to inspire anyone lucky enough to be introduced to it. The title track, once hailed as the alternate Canadian national anthem, details the futility of the quest that early explorers undertook to find a route across Canada to the Pacific ocean. His work had diverse roots in folk, country and English traditional styles. "The Field Behind the Plow" is one of the most eloquent and heart wrenching tributes to the men and women who toil quietly to help provide the food on our tables that we take for granted. Equally beautiful is the metaphor deployed in the lyrics of "Free in the Harbour" which compares the extensive whale hunting in times past to ongoing oil exploration and how these creatures are no longer pursued in favor of extracting an entirely different type of "oil from the sea". It ranks as one of his finest tunes.
Regardless of the subject matter, he infused the characters that populated his writing with a wonderful accessibility. You knew them or at least had a sense that you did. Skipping an afternoon of work to escape a few hours of drudgery, the protagonist in "Working Joe" steals some time to relax. Managing to balance light hearted fun with a touch of pathos, the tune also swings. "The Idiot" takes up an all too familiar tale of young Maritimers heading west to seek work in the oil patch, daydreaming about returning to their home town. Stan wrote for everyone and he captured the cultural touchstones of the western region as masterfully as he did in his earlier paeans to the east coast. When it came to the music itself, he surrounded himself with top class players. Brother Garnet Rogers brought his talents to the mix on violin, while Paul Mills (who also produced his recordings) added his nimble fingers on lead guitar. In performance, impeccable musicianship and spot on vocals from everyone were punctuated with entertaining, frequently hilarious stories.
Northwest Passage comes highly recommended, though all of his output was of very high caliber. Anyone with a love for clever, well-constructed and heartfelt music will connect with these compositions. He was the genuine article, living and breathing his craft.
Brilliant, outspoken, opinionated and on the cusp of greater notoriety as an artist, Rogers perished in a fire aboard Air Canada flight 797 on June 2, 1983. He was just 33 years old. Such promise, of new music to be made, stories yet to be told, all disappeared in an instant.
Friday, May 31, 2019
Fittingly titled, the third Nilsson record soars majestically. Named for a vaudeville act originally performed by his grandparents, there is definitely a circus-like atmosphere woven into the grooves. The cover art depicts an old fashioned aircraft superimposed on a drawing of the artist's unsmiling visage. This provides another perspective entirely as the songs deftly perform the sonic equivalent of an Inmelmann turn, which is comprised of an ascending half-loop followed by a half-roll. Successful execution means that the pilot brings the plane to a higher altitude and pulls off a course change of 180 degrees. Listeners are guaranteed an equally exhilarating experience.
In addition to capturing that gravity defying voice in the midst of complex aerobatic maneuvers, producer Rick Jarrard pushes studio craft to its very limit. Add to this the remarkable arrangements of George Tipton and you have a veritable dream team in place. Harry brought some of his most innovative compositions to the table, resulting in one of his finest albums.
Despite the lighthearted intro, "Daddy's Song" alludes to the personal pain felt by its author, whose own father deserted him at an early age. This underscores a rigid dichotomy that informs much of content in this set. Themes of loneliness, insecurity and ruptured relationships are set to uplifting musical accompaniment. This could easily be a companion piece to "1941" from his previous disc. Wrestling with the raw emotions that come with paternal abandonment, there is the idealized version of Dad in the first two verses followed up by the reality of "the rainy day" that he left and the vow to end the cycle of sadness should he become a father himself. With its meticulously multi-tracked harmonies, this beautiful song makes for a compelling opener. In jarring juxtaposition to people who let you down comes a truly inventive ode to the workstation.
“When my heart’s on the floor I just open the drawer of my favorite guest / And what do I see but a picture of me working at my good old desk"
Melodic with a truly killer hook, "Good Old Desk" is one of the highlights in a stellar set. Curiously, many read a divine meaning into the title, seeing it as an acronym for the Almighty (G.O.D.). Appearing on Playboy After Dark in 1969, Nilsson performed the tune, telling host Hugh Hefner (with a straight face) that, "the song's meaning was in its initials." Years later, he fessed up to the fact that he was really just bullshitting Hefner and simply thought that it was a funny thing to say. In truth, there was a far more mundane inspiration for this one. Nilsson had office space at RCA and elaborated on his quiet place of work in a 1977 interview on the BBC:
"I had this little office with a desk, and a lamp, and then a couple of things on the wall and a rug. I turned the regular office overhead lights out and just lit this little lamp, and I was very comfortable there. I'd go there at night and write and there was no one in the building."
The other standout in terms of ingenuity and execution is the brilliant "One". Harry claimed that the staccato keyboard centerpiece of the arrangement was conjured while placing a phone call and getting a busy signal. His vocal is a mini master-class in dynamics, culminating in a flawless falsetto leap toward the outro. Pre-figuring Neil Young by a few years, the "number" that you're doing here is a thinly veiled reference to rolling/smoking a left handed ciggie. Tipton takes a minimalist approach to augmentation, with light strings, decorative flute and a hint of harpsichord supporting that effortless hummingbird of a voice throughout. Three Dog Night covered "One", scoring a hit, while Harry's version failed to chart. Great shame, as the original here is far superior.
Aerial Ballet is notable for being a proverbial Trojan horse, as it contains Nilsson's version of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'", which would sit virtually unnoticed until it was pulled for inclusion on the Midnight Cowboy film soundtrack in 1969. In an odd reversal of fortune, while others would hit big with his songs, he would do the same when covering the work of other writers. It would earn him his first Grammy.
There is nothing resembling "rock" to be found in the grooves of Aerial Ballet. Nor does the material align with anything remotely psychedelic, flying in the face of the trends of those times. Instead, the musical underpinnings are incredibly serene, at times seeming like a throwback to a bygone era. The professional songwriter surfaces in offerings like "Don't Leave Me" and "The Wailing of the Willow" and both also tap feelings of sadness that are at the core of the lyrical subject matter throughout. Elsewhere, Beatlesque touches can be found in the story-oriented songs ("Mr. Tinker" and "Mr. Richland's Favorite Song"). Harry weaves these narratives with a sharp eye for concision and exposition of the theme, taking the shortest route possible. Your patience is never tested in spinning this wonderful disc as no cut exceeds the three minute mark. While Nilsson Schmilsson often gets the critical nod as his best work, this is an equally strong contender for that honor. It is no surprise that his contemporaries greatly admired his estimable talents. Using his voice as an instrument, backed by top class musicians with a sympathetic producer in his corner, Aerial Ballet is a high watermark in his catalog.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Seismic shifts in popular music occurred during the 1960s. Artists who stretched the boundaries of expression provided listeners with sounds that would have a shelf life lasting for decades beyond the era in which they were created. Rock as a genre had matured. With the advent of FM radio format, full length albums became statements that required your attention as opposed to one or two hit singles cobbled together with filler. Stylistic diversity and the element of surprise were a constant thread that made the material so compelling. As the decade wound down, a new musical aggregate appeared on the scene that would inspire their contemporaries and have a powerful influence on the sonic template of the seventies.
The debut LP of Crosby, Stills and Nash was a game changer.
What's more, they did it quietly.
While the principals themselves disagree on exactly where they first blended their voices in glorious harmony (Joni Mitchell's place versus Cass Elliot's pad for those placing the home game), what is not in dispute is how important the results were. The trio were all former members of high profile groups. Crosby had success with the Byrds, Stills came to prominence with Buffalo Springfield and Nash was a key player in the Hollies. All had experienced creative frustration during their time with these bands. The idea of using their own names for this new project would guarantee that each writer was given equal billing and would be free to pursue solo work, if they so desired. Ground rules in place, they began the task of crafting and rehearsing the songs that would comprise this phenomenal disc.
THRILL ME TO THE MARROW
Opening with the multi-part stunner that is "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", the tone is set beautifully. Shimmering harmonies, inventive acoustic playing, Latin flavors and shifting time signatures are blended expertly. Stephen Stills quarterbacks this one, topping his cry from the heart with a soulful lead vocal. Nicknamed "Captain Manyhands" by the others, he plays almost every note on multiple instruments throughout, with few exceptions. Stills' recently ruptured relationship with folk singer Judy Collins translates into a soaring, majestic cornerstone piece. It is nothing less than a career highlight. Just as you catch your breath from the jubilant outro, a snippet of spoken gibberish (courtesy of Crosby) leads into the sleek, catchy "Marrakesh Express". Finding hidden messages embedded in rock records had become de rigueur for those fanatics whose sleuthing was generally aided by a healthy supply of cannabis (or other stimulants). Poking fun at this with his subversive intro, Croz probably inadvertently caused many to damage their vinyl copies trying to play this backward. The joke gets funnier when you take into consideration that many were looking to East Indian philosophies and gurus to find a deeper meaning to their existence. Composer Nash gently sends up all and sundry looking for "The Answer".
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they've led
Listen not to what's been said to you
He scores with a melodic single, which made it into the top 30 along with "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes". Graham has finely honed pop sensibilities, a knack for which would land CSN on top forty playlists with regularity. Crosby weighs in next with the serene, intelligently designed "Guinnevere". His vocal interplay with Nash is a model of economy and beauty, while the tuning he uses (EBDGAD) enhances the ethereal quality of this quiet gem. All three tracks serve to introduce you to the eclectic nature of the group dynamic and the personalities behind the creative process.
Stills provides two more acoustic-guitar-centric vehicles to showcase their spotless harmonies in "You Don't Have to Cry" and "Helplessly Hoping". The former was the proving ground for Nash to add his clean, stratospheric high harmony to that of his partners in crime. How amazing would it have been to be in the room when he listened intently to the first pass and then provided the missing piece to what would become their signature sound. When you have singers that are this talented, why pile on layers of augmentation? "Helplessly Hoping" is pure, alliterative magic and would remain a staple of their set-lists for years to come.
"Wooden Ships" boasts a brilliant, anti-war tale with Stills and Crosby each taking a lead role from the prospective of characters who are survivors of a nuclear holocaust. Written with Paul Kantner, the narrative ingeniously has the post-apocalyptic group escaping the fallout zone by boat to start a new civilization.
Horror grips us as we watch you die
All we can do is echo your anguished cries
Stare as all human feelings die
We are leaving you don't need us
This is one of the handful of selections that have a full band arrangement (meaning Stills plays everything with Dallas Taylor on drums). The sleeper cuts are "Pre-Road Downs", another criminally underrated Nash tune with a great hook and Crosby's very fine "Long Time Gone". Crosby tends to be overshadowed by his mates as a lead vocalist, though he turns in a powerful performance. The sheer confidence that is on display in every aspect of this landmark recording is felt even today, fifty years after it landed in stores and subsequently on the turntables of millions.
Why is this such an important record?
The key is in the approach. Sharply bucking prevailing trends of the time, arrangements are stripped down to feature acoustic guitars and voices prominently. When drums do appear in the mix, they are unobtrusive and deployed to keep time. Tedious, lengthy, electric guitar-heavy workouts are avoided. The focus is rightly placed on the songs. All three composers brought only their very best to the table. Their transatlantic hybrid introduced a very unique harmonic style that inspired countless acts, setting the stage for what would be labeled as "soft rock" and permeating playlists of the early 70s as the singer-songwriter movement grabbed hold of the public imagination. They also became poster children for the Woodstock generation, due in large part to their coming out party at the festival mere months after CS&N was released. Imitators appeared, though no one managed to successfully duplicate what they were laying down. Elements of folk, pop, jazz, rock and everything in between were synthesized into something entirely fresh. Ultimately listenable, well crafted and still beguiling a half century on, this record is required listening for anyone who appreciates top class harmony singing and melody.
Tuesday, May 14, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen, this LP is arguably where Neil Young discovered his true essence. Compared with some of the more elaborate arrangements found on his self titled, debut solo disc, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is austere. All of the urgency, energy and inspiration of the musicians playing together in the studio is captured beautifully. David Briggs understood the value of transferring a "live off the floor" feel directly to tape, without endlessly revisiting the tracks to re-do parts in layers after the fact. No need to over-analyze. The minimalist path to recording would become a signature in the work that Neil would produce from this point forward.
Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina were primarily a vocal group (Danny and the Memories) in the mid-sixties, cut a single as The Psyrcle (produced by Sly Stone) and made little impression on the music scene of that era. All three picked up a musical instrument fairly late in the game. With some rudimentary instruction, they began to play together. Hooking up with other like-minded players, the Rockets were born. Endless jams evolved into shaping some of their own material, penned mainly by Whitten and Leon Whitsell. They managed to produce one, eponymously titled long player. Again, it was not a raging commercial success. At this point, Young stumbled upon them. He had escaped the wreckage of the Buffalo Springfield and had his own first disc in the can. Long story short, he poached Whitten, Talbot and Molina from the Rockets.
George Whitsell: "My understanding was Neil was gonna use the guys for a record and a quick tour, bring 'em back and help us produce the next Rockets album. It took me a year and a half to realize that my band had been taken."
This new aggregation was re-branded as Crazy Horse. Rehearsals began in earnest to work on music with their new boss. What they put to tape in a relatively short period of time would be a game changer.
"Cinnamon Girl" is the perfect opener, deploying a mesmerizing riff in D A D G B D tuning. It is a short blast of pure rock and roll, with a killer hook, dual lead vocals courtesy of Young and Whitten (who takes the high harmony) and culminates in a one note solo that you could frame. Like the best work of any writer, it is marked by brevity and ingenuity. Young lets out brief burst of noise from his Les Paul as a postscript, letting the last note decay in a haze of distortion. This shot across the bow would remain a staple of his set-lists for decades. It has aged beautifully, neatly avoiding any ties to the era from which it came.
So who is this girl? In typical Neil fashion, he provided a cryptic explanation in the liner notes to his Decade collection.
"Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me thru Phil Ochs eyes, playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife."
Deftly switching gears, the title track follows with the groove downshifting to a laid back, country rock vibe. Great harmonies frame this fulsome tribute to getting back to a place where the pace of life is slower, free from hectic itineraries. Purposely open ended, the details of this idealized retreat are left to the imagination.
Everybody seems to wonder/What it's like down here...
Just as you get acquainted with the subtle charms of this tune, it fades out, leaving you wanting a little more. Definite highlight. Pulling a complete 180 degree turn, "Round and Round (It Won't Be Long)" is a simple vehicle for acoustic guitar. His keening tenor is joined here by Robin Lane, who admirably complements Young on this folky, minor key sad ballad. As he would later on with Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson, bringing a female voice into the vocal arrangement brought another sonic dimension to the table. While it is a decent composition, this is one instance where cutting the running time down would have been beneficial. A minor complaint, though side one ends on both a hypnotic and gloriously sprawling note. "Down by the River" is a cornerstone piece, which would be taken well beyond the nine minute mark on stage by the Horse. The rhythm section hangs on tight while Whitten weaves simple but effective lines through Young's solos. There are no virtuoso heroics, so bass and drum fills are economic and as unobtrusive as possible. Briggs simply let the band play and pruned the end result of any glaring mistakes or uninspired sections. Another instant classic, without pretension.
Side two gets off to a slow start, flagging a bit in terms of intensity. "The Losing End" (When You're On) is a serviceable, country flavored shit-kicker, though fairly non-descript. "Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets) is a dirge, salvaged only by the outstanding violin improvisation by...wait for it...former Rocket, Bobby Notkoff. The closer snaps everything back into sharp focus. "Cowgirl in the Sand" is the majestic, long form companion to "Down By the River", yet manages to hit harder due to some truly unhinged fret-bombing from Mr. Young. Sporting a short, brooding intro, the lyric is unfathomable with a turnaround that is nothing short of breathtaking. Just to illustrate how strong this melody is, have a listen to the acoustic version found on Four Way Street, which documents the CSNY live experience circa 1970. It works either way, though it's a blast to hear Crazy Horse support Neil as he coaxes some otherworldly licks from his axe. Slamming the door shut on this timeless disc, it completely overshadows the aforementioned selections that precede it on the second side.
While this stunning artistic statement did not fly up the charts when it was initially released back in '69, it sold respectably and made a lasting impression on his contemporaries. Listeners were put on notice. Young found both his aural template and sympathetic co-conspirators to help bring his unique vision to life. It is remarkable how fresh this music sounds a half century later. If you dig Uncle Neil, dust off your vinyl copy and have a loud 50th anniversary celebration.
Sunday, April 28, 2019
Commitment to a persona, without so much as a wink, is commendable. Neil Hamburger is an inspired product from the fertile imagination of Gregg Turkington. On stage, he inhabits this character perfectly, often challenging his audience with material that is intentionally offensive, groan-worthy and insanely funny. Possessed of a razor sharp wit, he also expertly destroys would-be hecklers while moving, at a glacial pace, through each set up. Hamburger delivers all and sundry in a very distinctive voice, which he deploys on his latest recording, Still Dwelling. For the uninitiated, Turkington steps up to the mic, singing as Neil Hamburger on all twelve tracks. This is not an easy task, though he makes it seem effortless. For the prospective listener, do keep this in mind when you delve into this very fine disc.
Featuring an impressive list of guest contributors, meticulous production, arrangements and impeccable playing, you will be drawn in by the lush soundscape that lifts every song. The choice of covers had to have been an assiduous process as each selection takes you on both a genre and era-hopping journey. Two original compositions ("The Luckiest Man in the Room" and the closer, "Little Love Cup"), co-written by Turkington and his long-time collaborator Erik Paparozzi, round out the set.
Special mention must be made of the masterful job that Erik Paparozzi does in wearing multiple hats as producer/ arranger/multi-instrumentalist. Assuming the roles of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and one-man Wrecking Crew (pun intended), he raises the ghost of those legendary recordings that came out of Gold Star and Sunset Sound in the sixties. What is most impressive, is that he did not have the luxury of sitting behind the glass at the board with a crack team of session players ready to do his bidding. He alone lays down all of the bed tracks and painstakingly overdubs a laundry list of additional instrumentation. Deserving of every superlative, this is genius level work and the main reason why the end product has such a warm, cohesive sound.
"Backwards Traveler", which originally featured on Wings' London Town LP, is a clever way to open the proceedings as it sets the tone for the trip back in time that you are about to take. Different from McCartney's arrangement, taken at a faster pace and wisely opting to drop the transition into "Cuff Link", it gives Hamburger a flashy vehicle to establish himself as master of ceremonies.
Highlights abound, though "Everything's Alright" takes things to yet another level of excellence. In addition to the aforementioned exquisite musical underpinnings, Jack Black (as Judas) and Mike Patton (as Jesus) lend their vocal talents to the mix. Their voices bring a sense of balance to this stunning, over the top slice of musical theatre. Former touring keyboardist for the Who, John Bundrick ("Rabbit" to his friends) makes the first of his four contributions, shining brightly with his nimble work on the 88s. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself would surely approve.
Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" has been covered before, notably by Glen Campbell on his 1967 album, By the Time I Get to Phoenix. His rendition is earnest and smothered in strings. Flipping the script, it is arranged here as a country vehicle. Hamburger brings a genuine a road-weary feel, audibly sighing at times while half-speaking the lyrics, with which he takes a couple of pointed liberties. ("On a tour of one night stands/my suitcase and my jokes in hand" and "Tonight I'll tell my gags again"). Those dusty, maudlin ballads where the narrator spins a deliberately sad tale with a cast of thousands wailing away on backing vocals are parodied here in grand style.
A deep sense of pathos is conveyed convincingly on "Standing on the Corner". Where the original was jaunty, this version has you wondering why the protagonist seems so morose. Key to the desultory atmosphere is the brilliant string arrangement, courtesy of Petra Hayden. Minor key sad, you almost forget about the objectifying nature of the lyrics until the truly creepy, half-whispered delivery of the line, "Brother you can't go to jail for what you're thinking". Imaginatively reinvented, the whole thing works like a Swiss watch. The back nine of Still Dwelling continues with some very pleasant surprises. "Crazy On You" has to be heard to be believed. A galloping drum pattern is interpolated by short breakdowns, with sweeping orchestration (handled by "Rabbit") and choral backing. The coral sitar substituting for the guitar solo is particularly inspired. You can almost picture Hamburger, comb-over and bow tie askew, prodding his finger wildly at those whom he vows to unload on.
Gonna go crazy on you and you and YOU!!
Further ramping up the derangement factor, he also delivers a truly unhinged vocal take on "World Without Love". Gives fresh perspective to that opening line.
Please lock me away
The grand slam moment in this highly entertaining program is the marriage of the Midnight Cowboy Theme with John Lennon's "Isolation". After hearing this beautifully executed piece, you may even be moved to do an A/B comparison with "Let's Go Away for Awhile" from Pet Sounds. Why? Not because the melodies are anything alike, but rather that this is the vibe that radiates from the speaker grills as the music washes over you. It is a very high complement to all involved that this feel is captured perfectly. It isn't a stretch to imagine this wafting from dashboard of a 1967 GTO convertible, racing along the Pacific Coast Highway at sunset.
Closing out on an unexpectedly touching note, "Little Love Cup" offers a tender message to be good to one another.
You'll never be lonely, if love everybody you know.
Signing off with a touch of show-biz schmaltz, the mantra that you're left with is concise: No one loves a hater.
This extremely fun journey through the past is quite clever with nuances that reveal themselves upon each new spin. Love and loss through the lens of truly talented people who have a deep understanding of music history combined with a subversive sense of humor. I would highly recommend that you seek out a vinyl copy of Still Dwelling as this format will allow you to take in every note as it was intended to be heard. Support the artist and grab this for yourself right here
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Steve Lukather, top class musician and songwriter, has a compelling story. The Gospel According to Luke has been out for a couple of years as of this writing, though this is a call to all who have not yet picked it up to do so immediately.
Shame on me for being late to the party
Having devoured countless rock memoirs, I can easily name this book as being three summers ahead of all competition.
Lukather's recollections are unflinching, inspiring and infused with wit. In part, this reads as a passionate love letter to those gifted individuals who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to create the soundtrack of the 20th century and beyond. The players that comprised The Wrecking Crew are deservedly given high praise. They were the gold standard in terms of their craft, setting the stage for the next generation of brilliant, studio session teams that Steve (and his band mates) became an integral part of. The reader is ushered into a world where prodigiously talented human beings were called upon to shape arrangements, turn slight ideas into number one hits and do it all in the least amount of takes.
The brotherhood that led to the creative, multi-platinum selling entity of Toto is examined in unvarnished detail. Rightly setting the record straight about their accomplishments and taking humorous shots at the snobbery of rock critics of that era, you also get an unexpected tug on the heartstrings in his touching portrayal of those genius band members who have since left the material world. Wildly funny tales from the road sit comfortably next to group drama, triumph and loss. It is a page-turning ride that does not let up for a moment. Nor does the author shy away from personal low points. Indulgences in substances, those long nights of work in headphones or away on tour take a toll on families. All is addressed with class and grace.
Name-checking thousands of classic records that he's been a part of is but one layer of the multi-faceted individual who generously shares his life experiences in this tome. Possessed of a relentless work ethic, confidence and guided by a vision that was shaped at the tender age of six while watching the US television debut of four gents from Liverpool, "Luke" reminds you that anything is possible with a mix of timing, perseverance and sheer ability. Happily, there are more chapters currently being written.
Order yourself a copy here and enjoy for yourself. Well worth the investment and ultimately re-readable, it's "a great hang" with a legend.
Sunday, April 07, 2019
When it came time to record their second album, Nazz really had their act together.
All members were apple-cheeked, talented and barely into their twenties. Todd Rundgren provided strong songs, was de facto producer/arranger and burned up the frets with his lead playing. Robert "Stewkey" Antoni handled lead vocals and keyboards like a seasoned pro, with supporting harmonies from his band mates. Carson Van Osten approached the bass with the chops of Jack Bruce while drummer Thom Mooney flew across the kit like a caffeinated Keith Moon.
This mesmerizing set was released 50 years ago today.
Heralded by a manic snare drum build-up, with instrumental swells accented by a crisp bell, the lads forcefully kick down the door on "Forget All About It". Transitions happen at lightning speed, with 180 degree swings from the verse to the hooky chorus. The intro passage reappears briefly (a nod to Cream's "White Room") before the quick, stinging solo from Rundgren. The quiet, keyboard-centric breakdown is a masterstroke. Van Osten excels, with roller-coaster bass runs throughout. All of this action is packed into three and a half minutes.
If you haven't got time to rest, then take the record off now
"Not Wrong Long" follows. Short and sweet with piano and organ sitting prominently together in the mix, there is a hint of Big Pink era Band here, if only in feel. Pulled from the pack as the taster single this one (surprisingly) didn't score on the charts at the time, though it is more than worthy.
Ride my chariot, baby!
Keeping the energy high, "Rain Rider" is another stunner with great harmonies. Highlighted by Antoni's dexterous work on keys, the performance is tight and punchy. The first side then takes a detour down a softer alley. "Gonna Cry Today" points toward the solo work that Rundgren would soon be indulging in and wouldn't sound out of place on Something/Anything?. Out of left field is the best descriptor for the multi-part "Meridian Leeward", with quirky lyrics, complexity in arrangement and a creepy vibe. Must be heard to be believed, though it is fantastic as it is strange. The closer to the first half of the program features Mooney inserting short bursts of solo fills, at dentist drill speed, on the proto-metal "Under the Ice". These guys were an exceptionally tight band and they pull out all of the stops in flame-thrower fashion. This should have been sequenced as the last track, as it kills everything that comes after.
Which brings us to the second side. Solid, blues inflected rock sums up "Hang On Paul", "Kiddie Boy" and "Featherbedding Lover". All have requisite gunslinger solos and showcase the players well, though they lack the innovation of their predecessors. Rumor has it that Rundgren was pushing for this to be a double album, including more esoteric compositions in which he took inspiration from the work of Laura Nyro. His colleagues and the record company disagreed, choosing to boil the sessions down to a single disc. This would lead to his departure shortly after Nazz Nazz was issued. Coincidentally, the compromise may well have been the inclusion of the final two cuts. "Letters Don't Count" is as beautiful as it is concise. Closing in grand style is the sprawling, "A Beautiful Song", which clocks in at nearly twelve minutes and veers from instrumental riff-fest to a soft, harmony driven section before bowing out on an "everything WITH the kitchen sink" ending. If you listen closely, Todd even provides Pink Floyd with a guitar figure that they would deploy a decade later, midway through "Hey You". Wrapping up on a majestic note, this would, sadly, mark the end of their activity as a group. 1971 saw the record label put out Nazz III. Comprised entirely of the songs recorded during sessions for Nazz Nazz (but excised from the LP), it was merely a postscript as opposed to a new project.
As mentioned earlier, their chief songwriter bailed out. The resulting album, fine as it is, didn't find the massive audience that it was rightly deserving of. Whether it was the lack of a hit single, failure on the part of the record company to properly promote Nazz Nazz or a low band profile, with Rundgren gone all of these factors would be moot.
The great shame in all of this is unfulfilled promise. Production standards were top class, the songwriting and playing first rate. In an alternate reality, this compelling work should have struck gold and allowed for at least another recording by the quartet. Every bit the equal of the work that was being turned out by their contemporaries, Nazz Nazz should be treated to a 50th anniversary repackaging, with bonus cuts and liner notes that loudly sing the praises of this underappreciated gem. Spinning this now, it's remarkable to hear how fresh it sounds. All a testament to the wizard and true star behind the board. For those who are already initiated, you get it. If you aren't acquainted with Nazz Nazz, seek out a vinyl copy and crank it up.
Saturday, March 23, 2019
Sophomore Album Syndrome is one of those overused descriptors that those who opine on rock music tend to lean on when tasked with evaluating the much anticipated follow up release from artists who knocked it out of the park with their debut. Upon first spin, the prospective listener may feel that Van Halen II is a bit more restrained in tone when compared to the heart-pounding pyrotechnics that poured from the speaker grills throughout their first effort. Further investigation reveals a concise, impeccably rendered set with subtle charms sprinkled amongst the heavier fare.
Fresh off their first world tour, the musicians were in top form when they trooped into the studio to commit these songs to tape. Completed in a mere three weeks, much of what you hear is the result of first-take magic, without overthinking. That spontaneity is what makes these tracks sound so compelling forty years on.
Easing into side one, "You're No Good" kicks off on an understated note. As the lone cover tune here it is a far cry from the ostentatious opener that "Running With the Devil" provided on Van Halen. A bold move in that they don't attempt to tear your head off from the drop of the needle, yet it really doesn't feel as if the players are fully into this one. Far more successful is "Dance the Night Away" which proves to be melodic, catchy and reveals them to be adept at turning out a perfect pop single without a hint of contrivance. It sounds as if it could have been recorded last week and made a stuck landing on radio playlists. Hard rock swagger with a twist of fun returns with the scorching intro of "Somebody Get Me a Doctor". This one bears all of the hallmarks of "live off the floor" excitement, with Alex Van Halen putting on a masterclass in precision playing. Listen to his ride cymbal work during Ed's solo. Roth rides the wave with a wink and a gun delivery, brilliantly supported by the harmony vocals of Michael Anthony. The laughs continue with "Bottom's Up" and that vocal breakdown where the lads get a case of the giggles on the mic. Anthony pulls off some tasty jazz chops on "Outta Love Again", whereas the Van Halen brothers simply shred and burn right into the run out grooves. Flipping over to the second side, "Light Up the Sky" and "DOA" offer hyper-adrenalized riffing that would make any metal head eternally happy. Multi-faceted in their approach, there is something for everyone in this action packed thirty minutes and change.
The biggest knuckle ball delivered on VH II? Lasting a scant sixty seconds, "Spanish Fly" offers tapped harmonics with a roller coaster run up and down the fret board of Eddie’s Ovation nylon-stringed guitar. All of the doubters who wrote off his finger tapping technique as the product of stomp-box manipulation and studio trickery were silenced in one fell swoop by this stunning display of virtuosity.
Similarly, the crystal-clear, water droplet harmonics that herald "Women in Love" are sonic perfection. If asked to summarize the genius of EVH in a quick clip, this is exactly what I would queue up. No exceptions.
Closing strong with the groovy "Beautiful Girls", you've got a drink in your hand, toes in the sand and Van Halen II cranked. What more could you ask for?
Tuesday, March 05, 2019
Long before Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill launched a personal campaign to bring down the Gillette Corporation, they, along with drummer Frank Beard, recorded their debut LP and unleashed it on an unsuspecting public in early 1971. The Texan trio emerged fully formed from their chrysalis, with great tunes, sturdy chops, sexually charged lyrical subject matter and a healthy sense of humor all blended effortlessly in a hypnotizing boogie. The overriding theme here is blues, though they wisely don't stretch the material into the outer limits of tedium, opting instead for concise, punchy arrangements that never overstay their welcome.
The concept of the power trio was honed to perfection in the sixties with Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience in the vanguard of what could be accomplished with a dash of signal phase distortion, talent and the will to take Chicago blues to places that it had never been before. In the case of UK based musicians, they were besotted worshippers of BB King, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf (to name a few). These legends were unfairly underappreciated in their own country, though the music that they telegraphed across the pond was welcomed warmly by English musicians. They brought this sound back to its birthplace, reminding listeners of the great treasures that they were ignoring in their own back yard. Curiously, ZZ Top felt the same indifference toward their inaugural efforts back in the USA.
London Records to the rescue.
Yet again, the reps from this British label were immediately hip to what they heard and signed the band to a deal. Gibbons and team did not disappoint. Don't buy the line about the group lacking polish here or requiring more time to get their act together. They were already bad-ass. Audiences would eventually catch up and propel them nationwide.
Clocking in at a mere 35 minutes, this platter is heavy on groove, beautiful guitar tone and every note is delivered with authority. Kudos to producer Bill Ham for capturing the warmth of these performances directly, allowing the personalities of each player to shine in a very simple mix. He snags co-writing credits on a few tracks in the bargain.
Right out of the gate, "(Somebody Else Been)Shaking Your Tree" grabs you with a harmony laden hook, complemented by the sweet strains of pedal-steel. Gibbons soulful vocal gives way to a brief face-melter and things wrap up under three minutes. It's a model of economy and surprisingly pop oriented. "Brown Sugar" follows, throwing a 180 degree change-up with a solo intro that delves deep into the blues. Gibbons provides a drop dead imitation of the subtle feedback that Hendrix used to ease into "Foxey Lady". Before you can catch your breath, Hill and Beard kick in hard and make you forget all about the Stones song of the same name. The lads got the jump on Mick and company by a few months in terms of using the title, though the lyrics are far less subtle. Speaking of Jimi, he very generously took Gibbons and his old aggregation (The Moving Sidewalks) out on tour as an opening act in 1968. Billy has spoken in glowing terms in interviews about how Hendrix got the sonic results he wanted out of his gear. One of his tricks in achieving a particular tone was to remove the scratch plate from his Stratocaster so that he could manipulate the toggle switch to stay put in five positions instead of three. This opened a whole new avenue of tonal control, which wasn't lost on his young protégée. The tasty sounds that Gibbons coaxes from his axe on these tracks shows how much he learned from the master and how expertly he incorporated these important lessons into his own style.
Overall, this set is pretty spotless. They prefigure just about every rock ballad that Lynyrd Skynyrd would commit to tape with "Old Man" and provide highlight reel fodder at every turn ("Just Got Back From Baby's", "Squank" and the closer, "Backdoor Love Affair"). Particularly impressive is how they get maximum return out of simple, rotating riffs while subtly deploying shifting time signatures to showcase Gibbons' nimble fingers ("Going Down to Mexico") before returning to the main motif. In the hands of lesser musicians, playing straight, 12 bar can be a stultifying experience for those who are subjected to it. By contrast, Gibbons, Hill and Beard created pure joy in the room, with nary a wasted note to be found. That chemistry is real and rare. While none of these selections found their way onto radio playlists or greatest hits packages, all of the cuts retain a freshness that doesn't pin them down to any era.
Eternal shelf life...
Back in the mists of the early 80's, I had a pretty magical introduction to this very fine debut. Eliminator was all over radio and MTV at this point in time. An older friend, who turned me on to a great deal of excellent music, had agreed to give me a lift to join some friends at a party in "the city". It was winter, roads were dodgy and the drive from our rural community took longer than usual. Taking my place in the passenger seat, he handed me a lit joint and popped a cassette into the deck. For the next half hour, I was completely mesmerized by the slippery rhythms and guitar wizardry that emanated from the speakers. There was no need for conversation. 15 year old mind was blown. At my request, he made a copy that would be virtually worn out from nightly listening in headphones. Eventually, I hunted down the vinyl pressing that is with me to this day. Impossible to put a price tag on that type of gift.
Following the massive success of Eliminator, a decision was made to remix their first six releases in an attempt to give these discs a contemporary feel. The results were disastrous, with drums that sounded as if they had been recorded in an airplane hangar and guitars that were pretty much neutered in the process. Do yourself a favor: find an original copy of ZZ Top's First Album on vinyl and avoid the sonically butchered version.
Accept no substitutes.
Saturday, January 26, 2019
Truly fitting that Mark Knopfler would soon branch out into writing film soundtracks, as his compositional approach on Making Movies successfully completes a transition from small screen vignettes to full blown Cinemascope. He had hinted at these abilities with "Sultans of Swing". You can see the faces of the weary pros onstage in the club, playing because of a long standing passion, the dismissive kids in the crowd who don't have the capacity to embrace or understand the music. There is a bit of backstory on the musicians, though the focus is on Knopfler's dazzling technique as he peels off a number of monster solos. Kitchen sink drama with virtuoso chops.
With Dire Straits third outing the musicianship remains intact, while song craft and production values take a huge stride forward. Jimmy Iovine was brought in to to co-produce, who in turn coaxed E-Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan to add his nimble fingers to the proceedings. The lyrical subject matter of all three tracks on side one deal with (loosely) love and disappointment. "Tunnel of Love" is a masterclass in how to build mood with a series of guitar breaks that set a bar and then vault over it effortlessly with each new passage. The outro salvos are as close to perfection as you can possibly achieve. Bittan finds space to weave in his parts, always complimenting and never distracting from the melody. Over eight minutes, Knopfler takes you on an emotional journey that ends in a gut-punch as the protagonist realizes, belatedly, what has actually been lost.
She took off a silver locket. She said remember me by this.
She put her hand in my pocket. I got a keepsake and a kiss.
And in the roar of dust and diesel I stood and watched her walk away.
I could have caught up with her easy enough, but something must have made me stay.
Utilizing the amusement park as a backdrop is inspired and as the piece downshifts, there is yet another veiled reference. The Spanish City in question is actually an English fairground in Whitley Bay.
And girl it looks so pretty to me, like it always did,
Like the Spanish City to me when we were kids.
There is a depth to the writing that allows the listener to easily get swept into the narrative, yet it doesn't cross the line into pathos. What comes next is the very clever "Romeo and Juliet", which outlines a relationship doomed by poor timing. Framing the overall storyline with regret over an inability to maintain what was initially a strong bond, the updated version of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers suggests that the narrator was there in full support of "Juliet" as she aspired to make it in showbiz and was unceremoniously dropped as a partner when that dream was achieved.
Come up on different streets they both were streets of shame
Both dirty both mean yes and the dream was just the same
And I dreamed your dream for you and now your dream is real
How can you look at me as I was just another one of your deals?
One of his best songs, bar none. The stutter-stop "Skateaway" closes out an absolutely spotless 22 minutes of music. Nothing less than a crowning achievement in their recorded legacy.
There is also a second side.
Anticlimactic after being bowled over by what precedes it, the back nine of this remarkable LP is marred only by the closer ("Les Boys") which has no business sitting alongside the other material here. Apparently, they had "Twisting by the Pool" in the can at this point. It would have made a far better substitute. "Expresso Love" and "Solid Rock" are definite highlights of the pack, though both return the set to earth without compromising the high standard that makes this disc so compelling. I would rank it at the very top of their discography in terms of substance and sheer brilliance across the board. Brothers in Arms would be a commercial bonanza for the band a few years later, though this is Knopfler's finest hour. Spin it again, as it has aged beautifully with enough nuance to keep you coming back for repeated listens.
Sunday, January 06, 2019
This subtle charmer of an LP is surprisingly solid, considering the mile-wide delta that separates the personalities of the group that were brought together to write and record it. John "Speedy" Keen, Andy Newman and Jimmy McCulloch formed the nucleus of this aggregation. Hollywood Dream features great melodies, strong performances from all involved and excellent fidelity. Pete Townshend was responsible for the fine production job, assembling the aforementioned players and handles all bass work on the record.
Quirky and catchy, "Hollywood #1" leads off with the author lamenting the bygone days of old Hollywood with Newman rolling over the 88s all on his lonesome in the outro, as if there was no space for his part within the body of the tune. "The Reason" follows, bringing another stellar outing from the musicians. McCulloch turns in a scorching, face melting solo (one of a few stunners that he contributes here) that raises the game several notches. Excitement pours from the speaker grills into the fade. Astounding work from a lad who was all of fifteen years old when he did these sessions.
Who aficionados take note: The arrangements on a number of tracks are redolent of the approach that Townshend took while composing the demos for Tommy (think "1921" and "Sally Simpson"). As principal author of the majority of the material, Keen's work bears a similar stamp of that of his former boss. This is a plus, though it doesn't detract from the unique songwriting vision that he brings to the table.
"Accidents" is the cornerstone piece of the pack. Wildly adventurous in the structure, this multi-part composition weds grim subject matter (the untimely ends of several children) with free form experimentation. These flights of fancy were born out of the revolution in sound that began to take root in the mid sixties. Casting off the conventions of 2-3 minute running time, whole sides of vinyl could be swallowed up by a single theme. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, this epic cut ends with a relentless mantra that takes you right to the run-out grooves.
Life's just a game, you fly a paper plane, there is no aim
Though it was an unlikely candidate for a single release, it was edited and duly issued as such. It failed to make an impression on the charts and works much better in all of its unexpurgated glory.
Highlights abound on this disc which includes an immaculate Dylan cover ("Open the Door, Homer") the instrumental title track (written by Jimmy and Jack McCulloch) and the closer, "Something in the Air" which had already scored them a number one in the UK in 1969.
Call out the instigators
Because there's something in the air
We've got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here, and you know it's right
Known by contemporary audiences for the dead-on cover that Tom Petty recorded for his greatest hits compilation in the early 90s, it is a shame that the original doesn't get played on classic rock stations with the same frequency as other hits of that era. It is a superb song in every respect. With so much to commend it, it is surprising that Hollywood Dream was a commercial bust when it initially appeared in 1970. Keen's falsetto can be a bit overwhelming in large doses, yet that is the only area where potential points could get deducted. It has been stated that they may have waited a bit too long to deliver on the full-length project following the success of "Something in the Air", though 50 years on that's a moot point. Regrettably, this line up would not produce any further music together. MCA re-issued it with different cover art in 1973, though it did not stir any resurgence of interest in the band. This is the vinyl version that I own and am currently spinning. An original pressing will cost you up to 100 dollars or more.
Guaranteed that this unjustly forgotten gem is worth every penny that you'll spend to add it to your collection.