Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Animals On Tour - The Animals

The Animals On Tour
The Animals
MGM  SE-4281

This was my first Animals album which I bought in San Francisco in 1979.  I had a summer job in the City and in the course of my lunchtime explorations, I stumbled upon a fantastic used record store on the seedy outskirts of downtown.  It was run by this hippie-ish guy and was full of old Fillmore posters and a tasty selection of 60s era vinyl.  It was pretty pricey and I was pretty broke so I didn't buy a lot, but I learned a lot from browsing and talking to the proprietor.  He was kind of gruff but there weren't a lot of customers, usually just me and since I was pretty green he seemed to like teaching me stuff and showing me interesting records.  I wish I had taken a greater interest in the posters, he had a great selection and even some of the original litho plates to print them.  I thought they were too expensive, but of course compared to prices nowadays they were a bargain.  I did pick up some important records in the course of the summer and the place gave me a hunger for quality used record stores that remains with me to this day.  Unfortunately when my job ended and I went back to school, I didn't get over to SF and by the time I finally returned to the store, it was gone.  At least I have a few records to remind me of it.  This is a pretty good one.  It was the Animals' second American album.  Despite the title it is not a live record, but instead consists of songs taken from the Animals' first two English albums and some singles.  Among the groups associated with the British Invasion, I rank the Animals in the second tier.  They had a high quality instrumentalist in keyboardist Alan Price and with Eric Burdon they had the best British Invasion vocalist not in a group named the Beatles.  Burdon excelled at rhythm and blues vocals although you could probably make a case that he was too slavishly imitative of them in contrast to someone like Mick Jagger who adapted them for his own style.  The Animals biggest problem was that they did not produce many original songs.  Their early repertoire consisted largely of covers of well-known American songs and their approach to them was derivative.  They were like a more talented version of the Downliners Sect.  Unlike the Yardbirds or Rolling Stones, who used the rhythm and blues songs as frameworks for their own interpretations, the Animals seemed determined to ape John Lee Hooker or Ray Charles as authentically as possible.  Sometimes I wonder why am I listening to this when I could be listening to John Lee Hooker himself.  I think the answer to that question is that Burdon brings a lot of enthusiasm to his vocals and the band has a pop sensibility that smooths out the music without losing the energy.  The two singles are my favorite songs on this record.  "Boom Boom" is a high energy cover of John Lee Hooker's song and it is my favorite version of this song.  There is a nice organ solo from Price, but Hilton Valentine's guitar solo has been edited out.  It is not a particularly great solo but I don't see why it couldn't have been restored for an album that is already pretty skimpy.   Burdon and Price's "I'm Crying" is the only original song on the album and it is a good one with a steady propulsive beat, a hard-driving organ line and a powerful vocal.  It was deservedly a top 20 hit and I think it is among the best songs in their catalogue.  I really like the cover of Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City" which features another exciting solo from Price, a catchy riff and a strong Burdon vocal.  They return to John Lee Hooker for a cover of "Dimples."  The song swings but it is not as memorable as "Boom Boom."  Unlike most of their tunes, the song is driven by the guitar rather than the keyboards.  The group's cover of Chuck Berry's "How You've Changed" is better than the original largely because Burdon delivers a superior vocal.  There are three Ray Charles' covers on the album, the best of which is the jumping "Mess Around" with its blazing piano solo and pulsing bass lines.  Burdon is a terrific singer, but he can't out-sing Ray Charles and for that reason "I Believe to My Soul" and "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" are a waste of time although Burdon's smoldering vocal on the former is very soulful and I like Price's solo on the latter.  Charles is also one of the many people who have covered "Worried Life Blues" which is the bluesiest number on this record.  The Animals' version is impressive with a typically impassioned vocal from Burdon, a tasteful guitar solo from Valentine and majestic organ work from Price, but it is also the number that seems most blatantly imitative to me.  I prefer the Stones' cover of "Let the Good Times Roll" and the Yardbirds' version of "I Ain't Got You" both of which are more kinetic and imaginative then the comparatively tame versions offered here.  I also give the Stones the edge for "She Said Yeah" but the Animal's version is exciting in its own right and it gets me bopping.  I don't think any of the original Animals albums are essential, unless you are a big fan, a good comp will probably suffice for all your Animals needs.  I do play mine sometimes though and I'm happy I have them.  Recommended for people who prefer the Rolling Stones over the Beatles. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Strange Days - The Doors

Strange Days
The Doors
Elektra  EKS-74014

The first time I heard of the Doors I was about 13, Jim Morrison was already dead and the remaining trio had given up their effort to keep the band alive.  I learned of them from reading an interview with Linda Ronstadt where she described touring with them in unflattering terms.  Nonetheless I was intrigued, particularly by the band's name.  I had heard "Light My Fire" on the radio of course, but I didn't know then who did it.  On my next visit to the record store I checked them out and liked what I saw.  I didn't have enough money to want to experiment with them though, my money was reserved for the Beatles.  A year or two later I read Joan Didion's classic essay "Waiting For Morrison" and I was hooked.  I had to investigate these guys.  I bought their debut album and it blew my teenage mind away.  During high school they were one of my favorite groups, I thought they were daring and even dangerous.  I outgrew them when I got to college and I came to find them silly and pretentious.  I stopped listening to them altogether.  Eventually I came back to them.  I'm not a fan but I like most of their records again.  This is my favorite although it is not as dazzling as the debut or as consistent as "L. A. Woman."  I just find it more interesting.  It opens with "Strange Days" which has a strong psychedelic feeling with the swirling organ and sound effects supporting trippy lyrics of distorted perception and confusion.  It features an alienated sensibility that permeates the album.  The confusion expressed in this song extends into "You're Lost Little Girl" which is a song that instantly invokes the sixties and flower children to me.  "Love Me Two Times" is a more commercial song reminiscent of "Light My Fire" with its sexually suggestive lyrics and urgency.  It has a catchy guitar riff and memorable harpsichord playing from Ray Manzarek.  "Unhappy Girl" finds Morrison attempting to liberate the title character from her self-imposed prison accompanied by a whirlwind of trippy music.  "Horse Latitudes" is one of my least favorite Doors songs.  It is about horses being thrown off a ship into the sea and Morrison orates the pretentious lyrics rather than singing them, like a bad actor or a pompous poet.  If you've ever read any of Morrison's poetry you know what an awful poet he was.  This song was one of the ones that made me decide he was full of crap back when I was in college.  I haven't really changed my mind about that and I still hate this song, but I appreciate Morrison's charisma and the band's theatricality enough to overlook a little pretentiousness.  Fortunately side one finishes strong with "Moonlight Drive" with some fine bottleneck guitar work from Robby Krieger supporting another Morrison call to hedonism.  I think it is one of their best songs.  "People Are Strange" features lyrics reminiscent of "Strange Days" but substitutes a cabaret flavor for psychedelia.  "My Eyes Have Seen You" finds Morrison coming on to another girl.  The man invariably comes up with good pick-up lines.  Its propulsive melody, strong hook and driving beat make it one of the most compelling songs on the record.  "I Can't See Your Face In My Mind" is either bad poetry or good psychedelia, maybe it's both.  The music has a dreamy feel to it.  The side ends with the epic "When The Music's Over" which I presume is an attempt to emulate "The End" from their debut album.  I think both songs are full of crap, but I like this one a little better.  I suspect both songs worked better live than on record since their dramatic character would have been enhanced by Morrison's magnetism and theatrical nature.  "When the Music's Over" has some pretty atrocious lyrics but there are some memorable lines, I particularly like "music is your only friend" and "cancel my subscription to the Resurrection."  I appreciate its ambition and the Dionysian message of it and there are some terrific musical passages in the song which is dominated by Manzarek's majestic organ lines.  If nothing else it does provide a dramatic conclusion to the album which to me is the most theatrical one in the Doors catalogue, indeed one of the most theatrical albums in rock history.  The theatricality extends to the brilliant album cover which is one of my all time favorites.  It is worth buying on vinyl for the cover alone.  For all its faults I find this album to be endlessly listenable.  It is full of originality and inspired creativity which you don't hear on too many rock albums, either then or now, the Doors may have been pretentious, but they did blaze a new trail in rock.  44 years later you can still hear their influence in countless modern bands.  Recommended to bad poets aspiring to be bad actors.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Beat Group! - The Hollies

Beat Group!
The Hollies
Imperial  LP 9312

This was the Hollies third album in the U. S. and eight of its eleven songs were drawn from the Hollies fourth British album "Would You Believe?" which contained 12 songs.  As is the case with most British Invasion groups, there are considerable differences between the British Hollies albums and their American equivalents with the latter having fewer songs and stupider titles.  The British albums are easy to find on CD but finding original vinyl copies in the U.S is pretty tough so I've settled for the Imperial albums.  This is a pretty good one with a mixture of quality original compositions and a wide array of covers.  The most memorable song is "I Can't Let Go" by Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni which was deservedly a big hit in England but failed to crack the top 40 over here for some reason.  I think it is a terrific song with wonderful vocal harmonies and appealing jangly guitar riffs.  It is one of my favorite early Hollies songs.  Most of the other songs that I like were written by the Hollies under their collective pseudonym L. Ransford.  The country-flavored "Running Through The Night" did not appear on "Would You Believe?" and was the B-side of the British single of "I Can't Let Go."  It has a nice jangly guitar line and I'm pleased that Imperial stuck it on the album.  "Oriental Sadness" shows the group's growth as songwriters.  It has a memorable melody, a nice Asian style guitar lick and the vocals are typically outstanding.  Aside from the Beatles, I don't think any British group from that era can even come close to the Hollies' skill in that regard.  "Hard Hard Year" is reminiscent of the Beatles' folk influenced songs like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" aside from an almost metallic guitar solo.  "Fifi the Flea" is just Graham Nash and an acoustic guitar.  I find it sappy and dull, but I respect the band's effort to break free of the limitations of being a beat group.  The originals give this album a little depth, the covers are mostly lightweight.  They include a pair of soul numbers.  "That's How Strong My Love Is" is pleasant enough but it can't really compete with the more soulful versions by O. V. Wright and especially Otis Redding.  "I Take What I Want" had been a single for Sam and Dave the previous year.  I don't find the Hollies version very convincing.  There are also a couple of covers that weren't on "Would You Believe?" and which were also recorded by the Beatles.  The group tackles "A Taste of Honey" at a slightly faster pace than the Beatles did although the arrangements are otherwise fairly similar.  The Beatles version is more romantic but I like the propulsive quality of the Hollies' version.  "Mr. Moonlight" was taken from the Hollies first English album "Stay With the Hollies."  It is also has a quicker tempo than the Beatles' version but I prefer John Lennon's more robust vocal to the vocal by Graham Nash which sounds whiny to me.  Both songs seem old fashioned compared to the progressive direction the band was moving in and I suspect they represent Imperial trying to make the record more commercial.  The remaining covers are "Don't You Even Care" by Clint Ballard Jr. (who wrote the band's earlier hit "I'm Alive") and "Take Your Time" by the band's namesake, Buddy Holly.  The former is enjoyable but routine commercial pop but the Holly cover is delightful, one of my favorite songs on the album.  This sparkling tune shows what adept pop craftsmen the Hollies were.  This was a transitional album for the Hollies that finds them moving towards the more progressive psych-pop direction they would take on their future records while not abandoning the commercial pop beat group direction of their earlier albums.  The group's songwriting was improving and they were exploring new sounds.  I think they were still a second tier band among the British Invasion groups, well below the Beatles, Stones, Zombies or Kinks, but they had developed a distinctive sound and style featuring jangly guitar and multi-part harmonies.  They had the technique, all they needed were better songs and they would come soon enough.  Recommended for people who think "On a Carousel" is a better song than "Our House."

Full House - Fairport Convention

Full House
Fairport Convention
A&M  SP 4265

I bought this in Berkeley around 1980.  A&M had already deleted it from their catalogue but I was lucky enough to find a cut-out.  This was the fifth album by Fairport Convention and the final studio album with original member Richard Thompson.  His departure for a solo career effectively marked the end of the group as an artistically significant unit.  They would keep plugging away to this very day (with various hiatuses) and release many more albums of course, some pretty good and one close to awful ("Gottle O'Geer".)  However as much as I love the band, I wish they had quit after this one, not even the brief return of Sandy Denny in the mid 1970s could save them from irrelevance.  Kudos to them though for hanging in there all these years despite all the adversity.  It is rather amazing that this record is as good as it is.  The band had to survive the departure of two critical members of the group following the release of "Liege & Lief."  Founding member, bassist Ashley Hutchings, was replaced by Dave Pegg who was more than an adequate replacement musically but didn't replace the artistic direction and inspiration offered by Hutchings who had largely been responsible for the band's venture into playing English folk-rock in the first place.  Still it was the departure of lead vocalist Sandy Denny that was the more serious problem.  In the course of two albums the band went from having two first rate vocalists to having none.  Denny was more than just a vocalist, she contributed many key songs and was both the face and arguably the heart of the band.  She was irreplaceable although the band's decision not to bring in a new vocalist at all is questionable.  Dave Swarbrick assumed most of the vocalist duties and as a vocalist, Swarbrick is an excellent fiddler.  Personally I find his voice rather grating and I would have preferred to have Thompson and Simon Nicol do all the singing.  Thompson was a little raw at the time, but would develop into a very fine, expressive singer in the coming years.  Still the music on this record is so good that even Swarbrick's singing can't detract too much from it and besides a good portion of it consists of instrumentals.  The jaunty opening song "Walk Awhile" features Swarbrick, Thompson, Pegg and Nicol all taking turns at the mike.  Although composed by Swarbrick and Thompson the song does have a strong traditional feeling to it and it is a lively and humorous song that displays the band's instrumental strength to good effect.  This is particularly evident on the next cut, "DIrty Linen."  On "Liege & Lief" the band had inaugurated the practice of performing a medley of traditional instrumental dance tunes on their records and there are two such medleys on this album.  "Dirty Linen" is my favorite of all the ones the band has ever done.  The band's new rhythm section of Pegg and Dave Mattacks kicks ass, Thompson's fingers fly up and down the fretboard and Swarbrick saws away on top of it all like a maniac.  It is an incredibly propulsive set of tunes guaranteed to turn the most stubborn wallflower into a lord of the dance.  I get happy feet every time I listen to it.  On a BBC recording of the song, Nicol says they chose the name for the medley because when they first started doing the song live they were bluffing their way through it, but I find that hard to believe considering how great the recording is.  The side concludes with another Thompson/Swarbrick song, the epic "Sloth."  Lyrically the song is a bit slight, a few verses decrying war and numerous repetitions of the simple chorus, for some reason the song makes me think of the American Civil War, but it is vague enough to apply to just about any war.  This simple song is stretched out by lengthy instrumental passages including some of Thompson's best guitar work with Fairport.  The interplay between Thompson and Swarbrick on the solos is mesmerizing and the robust rhythm section relentlessly drives the song to its climax.  The song is an absolute classic and it remained in Fairport's repertoire even after Thompson left the band, although frankly none of the other instrumentalists in the band ever came close to matching Thompson's ability.  The man is a true wizard of the guitar.  "Sloth" joins "A Sailor's Life" as the best example of the band's instrumental brilliance, fully the rival of any jam band from that era.  Side two opens with the traditional song "Sir Patrick Spens."  The band members trade vocals although Swarbrick sings most of it.  The band first attempted the song during the "Liege & Lief" sessions and there are at least two recordings of Sandy Denny singing the song with Fairport which give a tantalizing glimpse of how great this album could have been if she had stuck around.  Even with the low-fi nature of the recordings I prefer those Denny versions.  Still the official version is very impressive.  It has a dynamic arrangement with lots of sterling instrumental work, a fine example of the potential of English folk-rock.  On the BBC performance of "Sir Patrick Spens" Simon Nicol notes that the band was unhappy with the original tune ("a bit AC/DC" he says but I have no idea what he means by that) and substituted the tune of another Child ballad, "Hughie the Graeme."  I had trouble understanding the song when I first heard it.  I had to look it up in the Child ballads just to figure out all the words and realize it is about a conspiracy to kill a bunch of Scottish lords.  Next up is "Flatback Caper" another dance tune melody.  It is not as exciting as "Dirty Linen" but it is sure to get your toe tapping.  I might question the wisdom of including a second instrumental on the album, but if it keeps Swarbrick from singing I'm fine with it.  "The Doctor of Physick" is the final Thompson/Swarbrick song on the album and it is my favorite song on the album.  It is a sinister song about Doctor Monk who preys upon girls who think "improper" thoughts and steals their maidenheads.  It features a superb riff and the group shares the vocal.  I've always wondered if this song is derived from Chaucer, but I've never seen anything to confirm this.  In "The Canterbury Tales" one of the characters is a Doctor of Physick and his tale concerns a father who beheads his daughter rather than allowing a corrupt judge to rape her.  Obviously she is losing a different sort of "maidenhead" but there is some similarity there.  Regardless of the inspiration for it, it is a terrific song full of atmosphere and another example of the band's unparalleled skill at replicating traditional music styles.  The album concludes in a gloomy manner with the mournful traditional song, "Flowers of the Forest" which laments the loss of life in an ancient English victory over Scotland.  It might have been moving if Sandy Denny were singing it, but Swarbrick dominates the group vocal and to me having him sing a slow dirge is almost like fingernails scraping a chalkboard.  It is easily my least favorite Fairport song on their first five albums.  There was originally an eighth song intended for this album, Thompson/Swarbrick's "Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman" but Thompson had it withdrawn prior to pressing.  That is unfortunate because it would have been the best song on this album and lifted it to a higher status in my opinion.  Thompson would later add some overdubs with his then wife, Linda Thompson, and release it on "(guitar, vocal)" and the Fairport version would later surface on archival releases as well as the CD re-issue of this album.  It is one of my favorite Fairport songs and another fine example of Thompson's skill at utilizing traditional elements in contemporary songwriting.  Even without this song though, I still admire this album and I've played it a lot through the years without getting the least bit tired of it.  As an added bonus this album has some of the most interesting liner notes I've ever seen.  On the back of the cover Richard Thompson has written up the imaginary results of a bunch of games, most of them old and forgotten involving characters from folklore such as Allison Gross as well as characters from the album like the Doctor of Physick.  I've never heard of most of the games and I spent a good deal of time back when I got the record looking up the games and characters, no easy task in those pre-internet days.  Thompson's account is both amusing and sardonic with lots of violence.  I have no desire to try my hand at Badger in the Bag or Sparrow-Mumbling that's for sure.  Recommended for folklorists looking for proof that their work has relevance. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Live on Sugar Mountain - Neil Young

Live on Sugar Mountain
Neil Young 
Trademark of Quality  TMQ 71022 

I found this in Wisconsin last year.  I was in a combination cheese shop/antique store (which is not as weird as it sounds if you've ever been to Wisconsin) and while my wife was sampling the local fromage, I poked around in the antique store.  I found a bin of records.  I rarely find good records in antique stores, they are usually either overpriced or poor quality.  This bin had a lot of classic rock, but it was not in collectible condition for the most part and I already had much of the desirable stuff in there.  Just as I was about to give up I noticed this record nestled among some Neil Young albums.  As you can see it is just a generic blank sleeve which usually means a bootleg.  Old timers out there probably can recall that a lot of the lesser quality bootleg albums came in generic sleeves with mimeographed sheets identifying the record slipped inside the shrinkwrap.  Once the shrinkwrap is gone, often the mimeograph sheet gets lost.  The inner label of the record was blank but someone had written "Sugar Mountain" on it.  I figured it must be a Neil Young concert bootleg.  I don't really collect bootlegs especially not vinyl ones and even more so vinyl ones missing their artwork but it was only a buck so I picked it up.  It was a good decision.  It turned out to be Young's February 1, 1971 concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.  On it he previews a bunch of songs that had yet to be recorded on an album.  The concert has been bootlegged in various guises through the years but the original pressing was on Trademark of Quality but I don't think this is one, because all the copies I've seen of those have actual labels on the vinyl.  This has the Trademark of Quality matrix number stamped on the vinyl but I think it is a later generation issue, perhaps a bootleg of the bootleg.  It is a popular bootleg, I imagine at some point Young might want to put it out himself if he hasn't already.  I haven't been keeping up with the abundance of archival recordings he has been releasing.  It is not a professional recording though, it is a lo-fi audience recording.  Nonetheless, the sound is decent, no distortion and not too much audience noise aside from the occasional cough which amazes me since every time I go to a show there is always some jackass nearby yapping all the way through it.  It is a solo acoustic show with just Young and his guitar and occasionally piano.  It opens with "On the Way Home" from the Buffalo Springfield and "Tell Me Why" from "After the Goldrush."  Then he starts with new songs.  There is a moving version of "Old Man" (from "Harvest") and then he goes to the piano to introduce "Journey Through The Past" which would eventually be recorded for "Time Fades Away."  "Sugar Mountain" gets a lengthy introduction with Young exhorting the crowd to sing along.  Young is quite talkative at the show, perhaps because it was the last show on his tour.  In the middle of the song he stops and tells the crowd that he originally wrote 126 verses for the song and had to narrow them down to four and one of them is the worst thing he ever wrote (it is the "Now you're underneath the stairs" verse in case you are wondering) and if he can deal with the embarrassment of singing it they ought to be able to sing along with him and finally the crowd does join in a little.  Next up is "Don't Let It Bring You Down" and the side ends with Young returning to the piano for "Love In Mind" which also wouldn't appear on legitimate vinyl until "Time Fades Away."  Side two begins with "Cowgirl In the Sand" and then he plays "Heart of Gold."  It is back to the piano for "A Man Needs a Maid" which Young explains came to him when he was bedridden.  There is a slightly altered line when Young substitutes "A man feels afraid" for "A man needs a maid" in one of the choruses which I think improves the song.  This performance seems a bit naked without the strings on the recorded version (on "Harvest") but I find it more moving.  There is a lengthy introduction for "Needle and The Damage Done" where Young puts down bootlegs (oh the irony) in particular the CSN&Y "Wooden Nickel" which he calls a "capitalist ripoff."  There are also some comments about the lost accomplishments of people who succumb to heroin addiction.  Next up is "Ohio" and then back to the piano for "See the Sky About To Rain" which wouldn't get released until 1974 on "On The Beach."  The Buffalo Springfield song "I Am a Child" is next and it is one of the loveliest versions I've heard.  The album ends with a rousing performance of the unrecorded song "Dance, Dance, Dance" which features the audience loudly clapping along.  I really enjoy this record but I don't think I'd pay the inflated price it normally costs and if I did I'd probably opt for a CD version since it would probably have better sound quality.  Bootleg vinyl is always a crap shoot, the pressings are usually inferior to commercial ones, this one is okay but the mastering is so poor that you have to crank up the volume to hear it which means the surface noise is amplified as well.  Still I'm very happy to have it and I've been playing it quite a bit.  It is a great concert with a lot of warmth and atmosphere coming through on the recording.  Recommended for people who think "Harvest" is over-produced.

Pussy Cats - Harry Nilsson

Pussy Cats
Harry Nilsson
RCA CPL1-0570

I was at a Neko Case show last month and I heard her do her cover of "Don't Forget Me" which she recorded on "Middle Cyclone."  That inspired me to pull out the original version which appeared on this album.  You will probably notice the smiling mug of Dr. Winston O'Boogie on the cover combing Nilsson's hair and Lennon gets co-billing as well even though he was only the producer on the album.  Ringo is on the album too but if you want to see him you have to look at the pictures in the gatefold (where you will also see Keith Moon, the other big guest star on the album.)  The album dates from the period when Yoko Ono threw Lennon out of their home and he and Nilsson were drinking buddies.  Lennon's influence is definitely felt on the record which resembles Lennon's mid-1970s work in its grandiose sound, something Lennon presumably picked up from his association with Phil Spector.  This is evident from the very first track, a splendidly heavy cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross" with strings and echo and a spectacular vocal from Nilsson.  Nilsson reportedly injured his vocal cords making this record and listening to his vocal here it is easy to see why.  The wall of sound continues with a rollicking cover of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues."  It is followed by the best song on the record, "Don' Forget Me."  The wall of sound is wisely replaced with Nilsson playing piano accompanied by a tasteful string arrangement.  It is a heart breaking song about divorce.  I like Neko Case's version, but Nilsson's version is superior, she has a great voice but she doesn't match the plaintive and desperate feelings he gives to the song.  "All My Life" brings a complete change of mood.  It is a light-hearted, humorous song about a guy who is all partied out and tired of getting wasted which immediately calls to mind all the stories about Lennon and Nilsson raising hell in Los Angeles.  The side ends with the subdued "Old Forgotten Soldier" on which Nilsson's voice sounds very ragged.  It is vintage Nilsson, a charming old-fashioned shuffle, like Randy Newman, Nilsson had the ability to blend classic Tin Pan Alley pop songwriting craftsmanship with a modern rock sensibility creating a very satisfying hybrid.  Side two kicks off with a slow cover of "Save The Last Dance For Me."  With its echoey sound, loud drums, stately piano and strings it sounds like an outtake from Lennon's "Mind Games."  Nilsson sings it beautifully, the song is done so seriously one almost forgets that it is a silly love song.  Lennon provides the song "Mucho Mungo" which is paired with a Nilsson song called "Mt. Elga."  It is a nice bit of pop fluff with a tropical feel.  It is followed by another oldie, a cover of Johnny Thunder's early 1960s hit "Loop De Loop."  Nilsson's voice is so raspy he sounds like Joe Cocker on it.  The song is of course completely inane, but it gets Spectorized nonetheless with a chorus and no less than three drummers, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and Jim Keltner.  The results are silly but fun.  Once again the record shifts mood abruptly with the solemn "Black Sails" which is just Nilsson and strings.  It is a creepy song about a guy rhapsodizing about his lover's varicose veins, when it comes to lyrics Nilsson is nothing if not original.  The album ends on an upbeat note with a manic jumping cover of "Rock Around the Clock."  When I first heard this album back in the 70s I was disappointed, but I've come to really like it.  This is not Nilsson's best album, but it is one of his most charming and fun ones and it has aged rather well.  It has acquired a cult following it definitely didn't have when it came out.  The Walkmen even covered it in its entirety.  Recommended to fans of Lennon's "Rock 'N' Roll."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions - John Lennon/Yoko Ono

Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions
John Lennon/Yoko Ono
Zapple ST 3357

It was John Lennon's birthday a few days ago.  He would have been 71 had he not been murdered, nearly as old as my Mom.  It is hard to imagine what he might be like were he still alive.  I wonder what he would think of this record if he could hear it now.  I suspect it would hold a lot of memories for him.  It was a record born out of love and pain, half of it was recorded in the hospital in London where Ono was recovering from the miscarriage of their child which is depicted on the front cover.  On the reverse side the couple are seen getting busted for drug possession by some smug looking English bobbies.  Side one consists of "Cambridge 1969" which was recorded at a 1969 concert at Cambridge University.  It is 26 minutes of Ono howling, bleating, laughing, groaning and making bird sounds while Lennon lays down a storm of shrieking guitar feedback.  Towards the end they are joined by a percussionist and a sax player at which point the cacophony of sound reminds me a bit of John Coltrane's experiments with free jazz.  It sounds like torture, but I kind of dig it.  I like the exuberance of the performance and it is sort of trippy.  It sounds like a tone deaf person trying to sing a work by Gyorgy Ligeti.  I admire Lennon's willingness to explore new sounds and new forms of music.  Whatever criticisms one might make about this record, there is no denying that Ono certainly expanded Lennon's musical horizons.  You can't get much farther from Elvis and Chuck Berry than this.  I don't like side two as much, but is definitely out there as well.  It begins with "No Bed for Beatle John" with Ono and Lennon singing the text of press articles about them and the Beatles, it resembles the kind of choral polyphony one would associate with medieval church music.  It suffers from Ono's limitations as a conventional singer, I find her more effective in her banshee mode.  It is followed by "Baby's Heartbeat" which is five minutes of a recording of their baby's heartbeat prior to his death.  I find it depressing to listen to, although the sound itself is mildly compelling.  It is almost a relief when it is followed by "Two Minutes Silence" which is exactly that.  The side finishes with "Radio Play" which is twelve minutes of someone messing around with the radio dial (back when radios still had dials) abruptly switching frequencies every couple of seconds.  Now this is torture.  I find it extremely irritating and the only thing I find interesting are the bits where you can hear Lennon talking on the telephone in the background.  Nevertheless of the three Lennon/Ono avant-garde albums, I like this one the best by far.  Admittedly I almost never listen to side two, but side one appeals to me both as music and as art.  As difficult as they are at times to listen to, all three albums succeed to varying degrees as personal statements and in that sense I think can be considered to be artistically successful.  It is debatable whether they work as music, but as works of performance art, I think they are interesting.  Lennon and Ono do have chemistry together and listening to these records you can feel the affection and enthusiasm they have for each other.  I suppose you could argue that their art was exhibitionistic and narcissistic but personally I like that quality in art.  Recommended for people who'd prefer a trip to the museum over a rock show.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Something New - The Beatles

Something New
The Beatles
Capitol  ST 2108

Another example of the typically shoddy treatment of the early Beatles albums by Capitol Records.  This is largely drawn from the British version of "A Hard Day's Night" which in my opinion is the best Beatles album prior to "Rubber Soul."  American Beatles fans had to buy two albums to get the contents of the British album, this one and the soundtrack album to "A Hard Day's Night" on United Artists.  This record has 8 of the 13 songs on the British album and shares 5 titles with the soundtrack album.  The remainder of this skimpy album is fleshed out with "Matchbox," "Slow Down" and "Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand" which is of course the German language version of "I Want To Hold Your Hand."  I bought this album late in my Beatles collecting history.  I resisted it a long time because I had the infinitely superior British album and because it irritated me to give Capitol money for it.  When I finally bought one, I picked up a used one just to make sure Capitol didn't get a dime from me for it.  I criticize this album, but only because of the packaging.  It is still a Beatles album and all the songs on it aside from the German one are worthwhile.  "Matchbox" is my favorite of all their many Carl Perkins covers (I count 7 officially released ones including the ones on "Live at the BBC" and the "Anthology" albums.)  The song is a perfect fit for the lead vocalist, Ringo.  The cover of Larry Williams' "Slow Down" shows what an excellent rock and roll band the Beatles were.  "And I Love Her" may be corny but it displays McCartney's growing musical sophistication as does "If I Fell" for Lennon.  The country flavored "I'll Cry Instead" demonstrates their amazing versatility and shows the personal quality Lennon was bringing to his lyrics as he grew as a songwriter.  Its desperation foreshadows his brilliant lyrics in "Help" the following year. "Things We Said Today" has long been one of my favorite early Beatles songs.  This is a consistently stimulating record, but you probably don't need it.  Stick with the British version.  Recommended for Beatles fanatics only.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lucky Thirteen - Bert Jansch

Lucky Thirteen
Bert Jansch
Vanguard VSD 79212

I was sorry to read recently that the Scottish folk musician/singer Bert Jansch had passed away.  I first heard of him via Donovan mentioning him in a couple of songs on "Sunshine Superman" but it wasn't until I became obsessed with English folk-rock via my discovery of Fairport Convention that I started to listen to him.  I was a big fan of his group, Pentangle, and their first three records are still among my favorites.  Even though I followed his bandmate John Renbourn's post-Pentangle career quite closely, I unfortunately haven't heard much of Jansch's recent work.  I do have a couple of his albums from the 1960s though.  This was his American debut which was compiled from tracks from his first two English albums.  Unlike his work with Pentangle which featured a lot of traditional folk music, this album is contemporary folk with some folk-blues as well.  It kicks off with a cover of Davy Graham's classic instrumental "Angi" (listed here as "Angie.")  Jansch plays it with complete confidence and impressive dexterity.  It is one of six guitar instrumentals on the album.  I'm not a big fan of folk guitar instrumentals, my John Fahey records do not leave their sleeves much.  However I do enjoy the instrumentals on this album particularly "The Wheel," the frenetic "Lucky Thirteen" and the Middle Eastern flavored "Casbah."  Of the remaining songs with vocals, all are composed by Jansch aside from "Been on the Road So Long" by his fellow Scottish folkie Alex Campbell.  I prefer Campbell's version from "Alex Campbell and Friends", it is more melodic and features Sandy Denny singing along with him, but Jansch's guitar playing on his version is very striking.  Of Jansch's originals my favorite is "Needle of Death" which is about a heroin overdose.  It is a beautiful song that Yo La Tengo fans will be familiar with from their cover on their EP "Today is the Day."  I'm also impressed by the powerful anti-war song "I Have No Time."  I'm pretty sure he is referring to the Vietnam War although it is not mentioned by name.  "Running From Home," which is about a runaway girl, is also a very pretty song, Jansch had a gift for writing poetic and delicate lyrics.  There are exceptions of course.  I find "Ring a Ding Bird" to be tedious and a little inane.  I don't care much for the monotonous "Courting Blues" either, which is about a guy trying to talk his girlfriend into going to bed with him.  "Oh My Babe" is a litany of woe that could be trite, but is given strength from Jansch's performance.  Jansch's vocal style tends towards the low key and lugubrious, but his vocal on "Oh My Babe" is strong and passionate.  "Rambling's Gonna Be the Death of Me" is a folk-blues from the so-long-babe-I-gotta-ramble school but Jansch's ringing guitar and another strong vocal keep me interested.  This is a fine album with outstanding guitar playing.  Even if folk puts you to sleep, Jansch's fretwork should keep you listening.  Recommended to Richard Thompson fans who prefer hearing him unplugged.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pearl Harbor and the Explosions - Pearl Harbor and the Explosions

Pearl Harbor and the Explosions
Pearl Harbor and the Explosions
Warner Bros.  BSK 3404

The Bay Area had a pretty lively punk/New Wave scene while I lived there, mostly centered around the Mabuhay Gardens club in North Beach.  It was largely ignored by the local mainstream media, but the local PBS station used to cover the avant-garde art scene and occasionally included the music scene as well in some late night programs which is where I first saw video art and where I also saw a few New Wave videos.  One of them featured a video from this local band.  I was enamored of all things New Wavy and was taken by the video, particularly the charismatic lead singer, Pearl E. Gates.  They performed their song "Drivin" which became a local hit.  The band never really made it nationally and fell apart a few years later and I ended up buying their album as a cutout.  At the time I was so naive that I thought of this as cutting edge, but listening now it sounds pretty tame.  The group was a lot more pop than punk, although the sound is very New Wave with the propulsive beat and Gates mannered singing style.  They remind me of some of the funkier New Wave groups like Pylon or the Talking Heads.  "Drivin'" was a great single.  It has an irresistible bass riff worthy of Tina Weymouth and a fun, hiccupy vocal from Gates.  "You Got It (Release It)" is a soaring power pop song with nice guitar licks from Peter Bilt.  "Don't Come Back" with its martial drumming and jerky rhythms and "Keep Going" with its quirky inspirational lyrics sound like outtakes from "Talking Heads 77".  "Shut Up and Dance" is one of the harder rocking songs on the album, it reminds me of the Knack.  It will definitely get you moving.  Side one is one bouncy tune after another, perfect for a dance party.  Side two is not as much fun.  "The Big One" is tedious, once the beat slows down you notice how repetitious and simplistic the lyrics are.  "So Much For Love" sounds like the Talking Heads doing a disco song.  "Get A Grip On Yourself" is so David Byrne-like that it borders on plagiarism.  The side ends on a high note with the fast tempo "Up and Over" which gets me bopping big time although it drags on a bit too long.  This album has its flaws, it is derivative and the lyrics are bland to the point of being mundane, but as far as New Wave records go, you could do worse.  There are real drums and no synths and Gates is an engaging singer.  It is not pretentious and it is full of energy.  Recommended for Talking Heads fans who wish David Byrne wasn't so weird. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Vs. - Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam
Epic 53136

I was up in Seattle over the summer and I heard some guys on the radio talking about Pearl Jam's 20th anniversary which shocked me.  It made me feel old because to some extent I still think of Pearl Jam as a modern group.  I could hardly believe it had been 20 years already since the release of "Ten."  I was never a huge fan of the group, I think I liked them more for what they represented than their actual music - the battle with Ticketmaster, their respect for their fans and the indie ethos, their political activism and anti-Bush rhetoric and their commitment to vinyl.  I recently saw Cameron Crowe's new movie about the band, "Pearl Jam Twenty."  It is a great film, one of the best documentaries about a band that I've ever seen, I was enormously impressed and even moved by it.  In one of my favorite clips, Eddie Vedder holds up a CD of "Ten" and tells the camera that he wishes it was an album instead.  My thoughts exactly.  This was the first record of theirs that I bought and I mostly bought it because I was so pleased that the group was still releasing albums on vinyl.  In those dark days, vinyl seemed doomed and Pearl Jam's almost quixotic effort to keep the format alive deserved my support.  I wasn't sorry I bought it though, it is a terrific record and it remains my favorite of all their albums.  The album kicks off with the high energy "Go" with Vedder pleading for something or someone to "don't go out on me."  His manic vocal is full of desperation and urgency and Mike McCready shreds his way through a killer guitar solo.  It is followed by the tortured "Animal" which is another outstanding rocker.  "Daughter" is a classic song about a child with a learning disability.  There is a glimpse of Vedder and Stone Gossard composing the song in "Pearl Jam Twenty."  "Glorified G" is a sarcastic anti-gun song, Vedder has never been shy about flexing his liberal muscles and I admire him for that.  "Dissident" is another classic song that describes a woman who shelters a fugitive and then turns him in.  Vedder's powerful vocal on it is one of my favorites.  "W. M. A." is about racism (it stands for White Male American) and features some wonderful tribal-style drumming from Dave Abbruzzese.  It ends a great side of music.  Side two opens with the ferocious "Blood" with Vedder screaming invective at what I assume is the media.  "Rearviewmirror" is the poppiest song on the album with its hypnotic riff and catchy chorus.  Vedder is still pissed though, he is trying to escape from his tormentor in his car.  The funky "Rats" pointedly compares rats to humans with rats coming out on top.  I don't share Vedder's fondness for the rodents, but I do enjoy his scathing comments on human bad behavior, the man does have a lively sense of outrage (to borrow an expression from Andrew Sarris.)  "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" is yet another classic song.  In contrast to the aural assault on most of this hard rocking album, it is a quiet song about a woman in a small town who encounters an old flame which leads to a rumination about small towns and the passage of time.  It is one of the most beautiful songs in the Pearl Jam canon with a warm, heartfelt Vedder vocal.  The anger returns with "Leash" a song of youthful rebellion with the memorable chorus "drop the leash, drop the leash, get out of my fucking face."  The slow moody ballad "Indifference" concludes the side.  It is a depressing song, although the line "I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room" could easily be Vedder's personal credo.  Thus ends one of the best albums of the 1990s.  Happy anniversary Pearl Jam, I'm so glad you guys stuck it out, those are twenty years to be proud of.  Recommended to people who think rock music should really mean something beyond the ringing of a cash register. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Best of Cilla Black - Cilla Black

The Best of Cilla Black
Cilla Black
Parlophone  PCS 7065

I'm a fan of female English pop singers of the 1960s but my taste runs more toward rock and soul oriented singers like Dusty Springfield and Billie Davis.  My interest in Cilla Black is largely driven by her connection to the Beatles.  A fellow Liverpudlian, she was part of the Merseybeat music scene and was managed by the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein.  She recorded for the same record label as the Fabs and was produced by George Martin.  She recorded several Lennon/McCartney songs that the Beatles never released, three of which are on this album.  None of these songs sound anything like Beatles songs.  Her first single from 1963, "Love of the Loved" came from the Beatles.  The Beatles never recorded it for a record but you can hear their version on the bootlegs of the Decca audition tapes.  It reminds me of the cabaret-type songs that McCartney liked to do, such as "Besame Mucho."  Black's version is much better than the Beatles version, George Martin gives it an elaborate big band arrangement and it swings quite nicely.  "Step Inside Love" was written for Black's television show by McCartney.  It is just about impossible to imagine the 1968 Beatles recording the song, but there is a goofy informal performance of it by them on "Anthology 3."  It is my favorite of Black's Beatles' songs, particularly the soulful chorus.  "It's For You" is another McCartney song that I don't believe the Beatles ever recorded.  It has a nice arrangement from George Martin and it was a U. K. hit for Black.  She also covered "Yesterday" but doesn't really bring anything new to it.  Black had success with Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs as well.  Her 1964 recording of "Anyone Who Had a Heart" was a giant hit in England.  She also had a big hit in the U. K. with "Alfie" which Bacharach arranged for her.  I'm not a big fan of the song, but her performance of it is quite dramatic.  Her gift for dramatic vocals is also evident in her soaring vocals for "What Good Am I," "Where is Tomorrow?" and especially "You're My World" which was her only hit in the United States.  Black was a talented singer, but she gravitated towards "easy listening" mainstream pop performances, however her cover of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" is soulful and suggests that she might have been able to follow Dusty Springfield into more rhthym and blues type material if she hadn't chosen to go the cabaret route.  "Sing A Rainbow" also follows a different direction than most of her songs.  It is a gentle, almost twee performance that reminds me of Mary Hopkin or the early Marianne Faithfull.  I don't think it is really a style that suits her though, it wastes that giant voice of hers.  This record is a little too middle of the road to be completely satisfying to me, but I enjoy most of it.  Recommended for fans of Sandie Shaw and Petula Clark.