Saturday, June 24, 2017

Second childhood

Been buying old science-fiction magazines cheap on eBay recently, trying to recapture my childhood, get back to the days when I thought being a science fiction writer would be the best job in the world.
Maybe not the best PAYING job. But somehow I wasn't worried about that back then -- ask any of my old girlfriends and the ex-wife who watched me many times buy books and music before I bought food: "It's OK, honey -- we'll live on love...."
I think mainly what I missed from the magazines was the great artwork, but I re-read a few of the stories, the ones I remember best. They're still great. It makes me feel good to re-read them, and just to read those old magazines again, years after I sold half my collection off because I was short on cash....
I still wish I could have pulled it together 40 years earlier and made a more serious run at being a real writer. I mean, I was pretty serious, but I don't think I knew what I was doing. There was a whole lot of living and learning I hadn't done yet. And now that I've done it, I don't really have the energy to obsess about my own fiction writing anymore, most of the time. I was a reporter for too long, and the "just the facts" approach maybe buried my imagination.
A year ago, just for fun, I started writing a music-fantasy set in an after-the-bomb future, starring my usual lineup of old friends. I got about 6,000 words into it without worrying about where it was going or what I was going to do with it.
This was shortly after I met The Girlfriend -- and then spending time with her became much more important than anything else I was doing. It still is. She hasn't kept me from writing creatively -- I haven't really felt like it. Plus I didn't know where this story was going anyway.
I re-read some of it a couple weeks back. To me, it seems pretty good. Might have some potential. Kinda visionary for me, funny in places, I like the setting and I know the characters.
But I don't know where it goes -- unless it starts repeating some of the shocks of real life as my friends lived it, and I'm not sure I want to write about most of that stuff. Or unless I want to dive into pure fantasy. But when you've been a full-time reporter for 20 years, imagination was the first thing you tossed out.
I may post the story here in pieces, but I need to look back through it again, make sure I'm happy with it as it is. I'm hoping maybe it will develop as I post the parts, and maybe I'll figure out where to go with it. Sort of a novel in progress.
A note to my old friends who are out there -- don't worry. I don't think you'll recognize yourselves, though you'll recognize your names. And I think you'll be happy with how I've depicted you. The story's intended as a tribute to those old days 40 years ago, anyway. Certainly those were happy times for me (as I look back) and I want to keep them that way.
You have been warned.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Tilting at windmills?

I'm not a Frank Zappa fan, though I agree he was an interesting personality. If you ARE a fan, you'll probably enjoy Neil Slaven's biography of FZ, ELECTRIC DON QUIXOTE (1996), which is the first book on music that's held my interest all the way through in quite awhile.
There've been other books on Zappa. FZ wrote one himself, THE FRANK ZAPPA BOOK, which I thought was a little silly and scattered, along with skipping whole sections of his life. Barry Miles's ZAPPA, which I read and reviewed here a couple of years ago, wasn't bad -- but it soon bogged down into recapping album-tour-album-tour-album-tour until Frank died. It could have used more detail, more interviews.
But Miles was great at catching Good Stories -- one leads off his book, a story from Frank's early years that maybe explained the direction FZ went for the rest of his life. It's such a great story that Miles repeats it again almost word-for-word a few chapters later.
Slaven -- a producer at Decca/Deram in the early '70s -- maybe doesn't have such a nose for great stories, but he compiles a ton of period quotes from newspaper and magazine articles, and adds a ton more info from interviews he did with Zappa. Slaven also comments in some depth on the music itself, something Miles never did. Slaven gets across some of the obsessiveness that would push a man to record and release more than 60 albums in a nearly-30-year career.
Slaven also picks up some of the sarcasm of his subject. He clearly has his own opinions on how Zappa was treated, which of FZ's albums are worth re-hearing, and how much of Frank's work will continue to be heard.
There's also detailed coverage of FZ's later trips to DC to argue against rock censorship. This section made me think it's too bad FZ and Hunter S. Thompson aren't around today to call "Bullshit!" on so much of what's coming out of DC. Actually, I think FZ and HST woulda made a great ticket for Prez and VP.
But hypocrisy, fascism and greed never die. Musicians do. There's a long chapter on all the work FZ got done while his health was declining.
There's also detail on the many fine musicians who performed as FZ's backing bands -- among them Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, George Duke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Ian and Ruth Underwood, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, Eddie Jobson, Patrick O'Hearn, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Captain Beefheart, the Original Mothers, and many more. Their opinions -- usually very favorable about FZ -- come across strongly.
None of this changes my opinion of FZ's music -- for most of which, I've never been able to get past the stupid, silly, grade-school-level lyrics. They seem too close to the things FZ was trying to make fun of. But maybe I've just heard the wrong stuff. I heard a chunk of HOT RATS while in a Tacoma record store awhile back, and it sounded pretty good. Maybe I need to hear more of that and the WAKA/JAWAKA-GRAND WAZOO period....

I've also been eating up parts of the annual BEST MUSIC WRITING series from DaCapo Books. Each volume I've found so far has something in it worth holding on to -- a long piece about a guy who discovered "numbers stations" on short-wave radio and ended up compiling a four-CD set of what they broadcast, which turned out to be code-messages to spies -- some of this stuff was later used on a Wilco album; a hilarious/disgusting piece on how Warner Brothers Records treats artists who never earn back their advance; a long piece on how Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" still works today, 50 years later; looks back at Phil Ochs, Bettye LaVette, Nina Simone, Anita O'Day and others; meeting The Shaggs; the importance of Big Country; an obituary for great English DJ John Peel; and much more.
Well worth your time if you find a copy at Goodwill.
More eventually....

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Art for art's sake

Here's a sort of out-take from that new book I maybe started writing a few days ago....

OK, now here's a surprise. Was thinking recently about all those old science fiction stories and novels I read back when I was growing up, and realized that half of the stuff I read I got sucked into because of the great artwork. Like the artists were working their asses off trying to get me (and other readers) to notice or read something we might normally have passed by.
This was especially true in science fiction magazines in the '70s and '80s, where the quality of the stories varied, but the artwork was usually of pretty high quality. And back in the '60s, the artwork was almost always top notch, even if some of the magazines were sometimes kinda shoddy. No matter how far to the Right the old '60s ANALOG went, the art was always amazing -- there was a feeling of freedom and exploration (and even comedy) there that even iron-handed old editor John W. Campbell couldn't spoil.
Though I sold a ton of old SF magazines a few years ago when I was short on cash, I still have a cabinet-full left. So I went to that cabinet last night to maybe get nostalgic about the old days through some great art, and discovered ... most of that art disappeared out of my house a long time ago.
I think when it became clear to me that I was A Words Guy -- because I was never going to be An Artist -- I think I started hanging onto the words that meant the most to me, and let most of the artwork go. And now I miss it.
Exploring the net earlier today, I found a couple websites that do a pretty good job of preserving some of this stuff. They maybe short-change some great black-and-white interior illustrations for the more dazzling color cover stuff, but at least they know who the artists were -- eye-opening artists like Kelly Freas (who could go from cartoon-like comedy to gorgeous stuff that would take your breath away), Rick Sternbach, Mike Hinge, Vincent DiFate, Steve Fabian, John Schoenherr, Jack Gaughan, James Odbert, Val Lakey Lindahn, Janet Aulisio, Broeck Steadman, Roger Dean, Rodney Matthews, Angus McKie, David Hardy, Ian Miller, Patrick Woodroffe, Virgil Finlay, Paul Lehr, Richard Powers, Ed Emshwiller, Ames, and so many others.
Only a couple of these guys are well-known names. Most of them never broke through to the mainstream like Frank Frazetta or Jack Kirby did. They didn't get paid very well, most of them, especially back in the old magazine days. Some of them died broke. But their gorgeous work is really timeless. And I'm sorry now that I don't have more of it around.
About the only art book I still have in the house is Hipgnosis's gorgeous and hilarious book of album covers they did for Pink Floyd and other rockers back in the '70s, WALK AWAY RENE. And it's a classic that you'll never get away from me. Once I had a copy of Roger Dean's gorgeous VIEWS portfolio -- but I never figured out what the lengthy text was raving on about, and I already had most of the album covers, so....
Here's the weird thing -- science-fiction/fantasy/horror has never been bigger on movie screens and TV. But for most of the artists listed above, their work seems to have almost vanished, and I think something unique has disappeared. It's not quite "retro" yet -- in some ways it's the world all around us today -- only BETTER.
Meanwhile, science fiction magazines are just barely holding on. The most recent issues of ANALOG and ASIMOV'S I've seen over the last couple years are WAY thinner than the old days, and they hardly run any artwork beyond the cover. FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION never did run interior art. INTERZONE is pretty flashy and art-filled, very current -- but the fiction doesn't grab me much.
The good old stuff is pretty-much gone.
What all this babbling means is the next time I go to Half-Price Books or Goodwill, I'll probably be grabbing all those old science-fiction magazines up on the CLEARANCE section's top shelf that I can hardly reach. And I'll pay a buck apiece for them. Just to have the art around again....

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Hacked?

Greetings. It looks like my three-month-old laptop may have been "killed" as part of the ongoing worldwide cyberattack. I keep getting what my son used to call "the blue screen of death" as the machine tries to start and load-up. This started happening after five minutes on Facebook early this morning. Ghod knows if I've been infected, but I don't like the timing.
Luckily, I still have this eight-year-old laptop as backup. No complaints from me, at least I'm still "connected," except now this machine seems incredibly SLOW....
Will be working to see what the hell's wrong, but in the meantime it looks like any Silly or Political stuff will be posted at my old TADs-Back-Up-Plan page on Facebook. Will of course announce there if I have any new reviews to post here.
Haven't been doing much lately -- may even have started ANOTHER new book a couple days ago, sort of by accident. More about that eventually.
More here soon, and be careful with your computers out there....

...After giving it 12 hours to recover, the new laptop FINALLY came back to life and -- after cleaning up and defragmenting the hard drive -- it SEEMS to be working normally again, for now. I'll keep you posted. Thought I was a goner for sure. Back to normal status, apparently. Safe Computing, everyone....

UPDATE -- It happened again on May 19th, while I was trying to write a post here. Since then I've "restored" the system to its condition before May 13th, cleaned-up and defragged the hard drive again, and as of this morning it seems to be working normally. Whatever that means.
But what's with this fragile new technology? Already I've had more "fun" with this machine than I ever had with the old laptop. The old machine's been dropped at least twice and been knocked off of desks a couple times, and it still works. More or less. Maybe they made them tougher eight years ago. Or maybe the viruses out there now are just meaner. Anyway, onward.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Spring Break

Thanks for checking in here, but I won't be reviewing any Strange Music for awhile.
I've been posting pretty steadily here since last June, but it's time for a break.
I have another book project I should finish that I keep putting off, because I don't want to face it -- even though it would only take a couple weeks to finish. And I've been trying to get the book written since 1977.
It's also been awhile since I've listened to any music FOR PLEASURE, rather than concentrating on whether it's WORKING or if I can make any snarky comments about it.
Lately Sunday album-review-days have been coming around too fast, and what's always been fun before has started to seem like work -- self-imposed, but still work. I still have a lot of new-to-me music piled up to listen to here, but nothing I'm too excited about, to be honest.
I've been pretty dissatisfied with almost all music and books lately. I think I'm getting stale.
I've also noticed -- especially since getting this new laptop in February -- that the Internet and especially Facebook are great time-wasters. And I continue to put projects off.
So I'm gonna try to unplug and do some other stuff. If I can't resist commenting about something, I'll post it here, and I'll probably still post Political and Silly stuff on Facebook, but I'm gonna try not to spend ALL DAY doing it. (That's been happening to me a lot, lately.)
I'll clear my head out, and then hopefully come back here fresher and more enthusiastic. And maybe I'll be able to pile up more new stuff while I'm gone.
I don't plan to be gone too long. I'll probably be back before you even realize....

Sunday, April 16, 2017

All the way 3!

Once again, complete album reviews. Because it's Easter, and I'm a glutton for punishment.

Some folks think Genesis's SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND (1973) is one of the best, most consistent progressive-rock albums ever. We'll see.
It's certainly one of the LONGEST single albums -- two crammed-full sides totaling more than 50 minutes, tho this may just be due to Peter Gabriel's notorious wordiness. Let's find out.
* Dancing With the Moonlit Knight -- Opens with a-capella PG vocals and delicate guitar, gentle keyboards. PG sounds a bit like Peter Hammill here. The lyrics are the usual hazy, poetic stuff these guys did. Musical support gains in force as it goes, leading into a guitar-keyboards duel.... Do I catch a brief riff stolen from Renaissance here...? Lyrics seem to be a critique of British consumer society.... Wish Tony Banks would lay off the Mellotron, but the production is clearer than on their earlier albums, you can actually HEAR stuff.... Devolves into keyboard and guitar atmospherics at the end.
* I Know What I Like -- Yeah, I think we've all heard this before. This is nice and pleasant enuf, and it deserved to be a hit in England, but I'm used to hearing the version Phil Collins sings on the live SECONDS OUT double-album....
* Firth of Fifth -- Used to the SECONDS OUT version, where Tony Banks's opening piano solo is moved to the middle, where (to me) it works much better. But this version should have led-off this album. After the piano solo, it's rather hazy and pastoral, despite the story being told. The musicianship is quite something, and unlike on NURSERY CRYME you can HEAR everything clearly. This is very nice -- nice quick-stepping mid-section. Tony's keybs give way to Steve Hackett's ghostly guitar solo. These guys had talent. Tony's end-solo is actually faded out because this track's already gone on over 9 minutes....
* More Fool Me -- What's this? The drummer sings? Yes, Phil Collins on lead vocals -- and it's a very delicate, quiet lead vocal. This is a nice contrast from "Firth of Fifth." Hushed, modest. ...Oh, then it opens out ... a little.... Nice side-closer -- acoustic, brief.
* The Battle of Epping Forest -- Opens with martial drumming and piping. Then it's Punks versus Mods in London! Too bad Pete mumbles and rushes the vocals. Nice keyboard breaks, as always. Considering this song is about a rumble between two street gangs, it's pretty delicate. And it runs almost 12 minutes. Is that because PG's lyrics for this take up most of the second side of the lyric sheet? Nice stuck-up vocal by PG as he imitates a reverend.... Then he sounds like Dave Cousins from the Strawbs.... Long journey for not much. Least impressive track so far.
* After the Ordeal -- Opens with extensive keybs and guitar.... Pretty, kind of aimless. This could have been a shorter album with some editing. LOTS of guitar -- a pretty instrumental, but....
* The Cinema Show/Aisle of Plenty -- Hypnotic guitar work by Steve Hackett. PG's grumbling vocal is nothing much. Seems like a romance story at first, but then -- where the heck is this going? Nice atmospherics.... Then multi-part wordless vocals, very pretty.... Moves into more ghostly Hackett guitar, then a tasty keyboard theme that starts out pretty dinky and gains in power -- 'til Banks starts showing off.... There's a lot of messing around on this album, as if they HAD to get every tasty instrumental lick in, or thot they weren't giving their fans enuf value for the money. This would have more impact if they skipped the pretty-but-aimless spots.
...The "Aisle of Plenty" section continues the consumer-society critique that started the album. It's brief.
And that's all. Overall? Nice instrumentals, guitar and keyboards the strongest point. If they were more direct, they could become a big success. It's obvious they've got talent.... Above average, but this album is not going to change your life.

OK, The Turtles PRESENT THE BATTLE OF THE BANDS (1968): On this album, a late-'60s pop band well-known as consummate singers, players, etc., impersonate 11 different OTHER bands, and POSE as those bands inside the cover. These guys were real professionals and wrote almost all the songs, so this should be a lot of fun, and a pretty high-concept package for the late '60s. Supposed to be a forgotten classic. Includes 2 actual chart hits! Onward.
* The Battle of the Bands -- Introduction is sorta-garage-rock with horns. Written by Harry Nilsson and producer Chip Douglas (who produced the Monkees and others). Big production. Over fast.
* The Last Thing I Remember -- Dreamy, spacey late-'60s psych, obviously composed under the influence of evil Drugz.... The vocals almost spiral out of control. Nice harpsichord! probably shoulda saved this for later on the album.
* Elenore -- Ha ha. Always loved this. It's just freakin' perfect, even tho the lyrics are a joke. These guys were geniuses.
* Too Much Heartsick Feeling -- Uh oh, it's Country. Badly sung, off-key Country. And it works. Funny. This could be Roy Clark or somebody like that. Big production, for a country weeper.
* Oh, Daddy! -- Narrated cheerfully by a guy stuck in prison for doing something bad. Then turns into a sorta Dixieland singalong. Nice, and ... uh ... disturbing.
* Buzzsaw -- This seems to be a surf instrumental.... Lotsa fuzz-bass and heavy organ. OK, not an instrumental. But definitely Surf. The Beach Boys wish they coulda done something this demented in 1968. Fades out too soon.... Quick side.
* Surfer Dan -- Now THIS is Surf. With more undercurrents of Drugz: "He's so ripped he can't see you go by." This could be straight out of 1963, except for the lyrics....
* I'm Chief Kamanawanalea (We're the Royal Macadamia Nuts) -- Ha. Nice drumming.... A little early in history for tribal chanting. But it's over with quick....
* You Showed Me -- I've always hated this. Thot it was gloppy and not rock and roll. Tho it IS beautifully sung. This is an old Byrds song, written by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. Nice subtle use of synthesizer.
* Food -- An ode to some of their favorite foods, followed by an Alka-Seltzer commercial. Pretty silly.
* Chicken Little Was Right -- Pickin' and grinnin'.
* Earth Anthem -- Opens with gorgeous acoustic guitar and horn, and breathy vocals. Gets better and more moving on repeated listenings. Nice closer.
Overall: Lotsa talent. Maybe if they coulda recorded something longer than 2 or 3 minutes they woulda outlasted the '60s. They said they were frustrated that nobody noticed their more adventurous work, but this album has some nice, silly, adventurous stuff on it. Not a bad comedy record.

BONUS TRACKS:
* Manfred Mann's Earth Band -- Joybringer, from SOLAR FIRE (1973). Was a Top 10 hit in England. Supposedly based on Gustav Holst's "Mars" theme from THE PLANETS, if anybody cares. Nice keyboards from Manfred. Pretty lively -- livelier than anything I heard on MM/EB's GET YOUR ROCKS OFF (1973). Nice guitar and vocals from Mick Rogers. Ends too soon. Wonder why radio never plays this? It's easy enuf to get into.... Possibly because the title isn't even listed on the album cover....
* Manfred Mann's Earth Band -- Father of Day Father of Night, from SOLAR FIRE. Bob Dylan allegedly wrote this? But it runs 9 minutes.... This is a way bigger, grander production than "Joybringer." The lyrics are pretty simple. After the verses it takes off into lengthy guitar and keyboard variations. The later guitar riff is VERY familiar from somewhere else, but I can't place it. Later, Manfred brings in some of that nice icy-cold keyboard sound he sometimes gets, as on the much-later "Stranded" (on CHANCE, 1980). Quite a show-offy piece here, in several different ... movements. Prog fans will like.
* U.K. -- Thirty Years, from U.K.'s first album (1978). For guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who died earlier this morning. I don't think I've heard this in MORE than 30 years. Overlooked at the end of Side 1 of this band's first album. Opens with exquisite acoustic picking, followed by a sorta strained John Wetton vocal. Moody, dark, atmospheric, long opening section. Then opens out into louder and more adventurous work, with herky-jerky rhythms, superb Bill Bruford drumming, and more excellent Holdsworth guitar work.
...OK folks, I'm done for today. More full albums next Sunday. Or maybe ALL ALAN PARSONS! ALL INCREDIBLE STRING BAND! ALL ELO! We'll see what I'm up for....

Friday, April 14, 2017

The story so far

Here's a quick overview of the best new-to-me music I've heard during my continuing re-investigation of progressive-rock/Strange Music over the last six months. Unfortunately, there isn't much of it. And you don't want to see the list of the worst stuff....
* Argent -- Dance in the Smoke, from their first album (1970). Excellent mantra-like piece, builds in intensity as it goes. Their later "Lothlorien" is also good -- nice light touch on these tracks. Guess they got heavier and more obvious later....
* Camel -- Go West, DUST AND DREAMS (1991). The album is a gorgeous soundtrack to Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH. "Go West" is beautiful, moving, great guitar -- maybe better than "Mother Road," the next track on the disc and the only thing off this that I'd heard previously.
* Be-Bop Deluxe -- Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape, from LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE (1977). To be honest, the lyrics go right past me, but Bill Nelson's guitar solo and Andy Clark's keyboards light this song up. Very nice stuff.
* Starcastle -- Shine on Brightly, from CITADEL (1977). Not too Yes-ish. Nice and sparkly.
* Gordon Giltrap -- VISIONARY, PERILOUS JOURNEY. Excellent instrumental progressive-guitar-and-group work, supported by the duo Edwards-Hand. Nice mood music. (Edwards-Hand weren't worth hearing on their own....)
* John Martyn -- May You Never, Solid Air. Smokey British electric-folk from Nick Drake's friend and neighbor.
* Renaissance -- Island, from their first album (1969). Gorgeous vocals from Jane Relf, an edited version could have been a hit. The rest of the album, eh.
* Osibisa -- first album (1970). Nice tribal drumming and upbeat happy tunes, they sounded like no one else.
* Byrds -- The World Turns All Around Her, from TURN! TURN! TURN! (1965). Another overlooked great from Gene Clark ("I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better").
* Linda and Richard Thompson -- The Great Valerio (live), from Linda's best-of DREAMS FLY AWAY (1996). Stark, dramatic live solo-vocal-and-guitar piece, even MORE intense than the studio version on R&L's I WANT TO SEE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS TONIGHT (1974).
* Stackridge -- No One's More Important Than the Earthworm, from EXTRAVAGANZA (1975). Silly lyrics get a big Pink-Floyd-style treatment. Impressive. Written by former King Crimson singer Gordon Haskell.
* Jade Warrior -- WAVES (1975). Very ... uh ... discreet ambient instrumentals, sort of an Environments mood-music album. Still not sure about the fake-whale-songs at the end of Side 2. So quiet and pleasant it almost fades into the background.... Betcha Brian Eno heard this at some point.
* Jethro Tull -- Slow Marching Band, from THE BROADSWORD AND THE BEAST (1982). Excellent miniature, builds nicely, ends at just the right spot, doesn't overstay its welcome.
* Stomu Yamashta, Steve Winwood, Michael Shreve -- GO (1976), Side One. As spacey as WAVES, only more upbeat, with Winwood adding occasional funky vocals and keybs. Good synth work. A nice surprise. Need to get back to Side 2 someday....
* Synergy -- CORDS (1978), Side 1. Distant, icy, spacey, ominous synth work. Quite a contrast to Larry Fast's earlier, warmer albums SEQUENCER and ELECTRONIC REALIZATIONS FOR ROCK ORCHESTRA.
* Van der Graaf Generator -- REFLECTIONS early-best-of. Haven't gotten all the way through this. Knew VdGG was different and intense from hearing all of PAWN HEARTS (1971), which is a spooky record. This is also spooky, dark, gothic, grim, intense. Well worth hearing, but you probably won't be singing along with it....
* Gentle Giant -- I'm Turning Around, from THE MISSING PIECE (1977). Nice gentle love song, sort of a follow-up to their excellent "On Reflection" (on FREE HAND, 1975).

Planned for Sunday morning: Complete listening and off-the-top-of-my-head reviews of Genesis's SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND (1973) and the Turtles' BATTLE OF THE BANDS (1968). Bonus tracks may follow, time permitting....
Also planned for the future:
* ALL ALAN PARSONS! Got half a dozen albums piled up to listen to and review previously-unheard parts of....
* STILL MORE REALLY BAD PROG! I promise. The things I go through for you people....
* ALL KEYBOARDS! Ghod knows how I'm gonna describe this....
* ALL RICK WAKEMAN! Ditto....
* ALL JAZZ-ROCK!
* ALL MOODIES' SOLO ALBUMS!
* ALL INCREDIBLE STRING BAND!
* ALL ELO!
* ALL GENESIS!
...and Ghod Knows what else....

Sunday, April 9, 2017

All the way 2!

Once again, reviews of complete albums -- because it's Sunday, I'm a dummy, and I haven't had enuf coffee yet.
First up, Renaissance's ILLUSION (1970).
ILLUSION shows Renaissance in transition from their original lineup to the one that became moderately famous in progressive-rock circles in the mid-'70s. Headed by ex-Yardbirds Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, this classical-rock-folk band recorded their first album in 1969 (reviewed last Sunday in "All the way"), and then started this follow-up. But the band was already falling apart.
Keyboardist John Hawken is replaced by Don Shin on one track here, and on another piece there's an almost-entirely-new lineup. This album also marks the first appearance of acoustic guitarist Michael Dunford and Cornwall poet Betty Thatcher -- who would both be part of Ren over the long haul.
So this album is sorta a patchwork. It's copyrighted 1970, but one rock-and-roll reference book claims the album was only released in West Germany that year, and not issued in England until much later. Plus one track included here ("Face of Yesterday") was re-recorded later on Illusion's pretty-great OUT OF THE MIST (1977). And Illusion was basically the first version of this band, minus Keith Relf. You can see how confusing this all gets....
Enuf background. What does it SOUND like?
* Love Goes On -- This is already lighter than the first album. Airy la-la-la group vocals and strummed guitar, then picks up a bit as Jane Relf sings the lyric. Not rock and roll, way closer to what they used to call adult-contemporary back in the '70s. Pleasant, harmless -- and really short.
* Golden Thread -- Opens with long show-offy piano. If the first album had a flaw, it was mainly that the band had too much room to play -- and no idea how to fill the space. The shorter, more structured stuff was better -- like "Island." This drifts into airy piano-and-wordless-vocals stuff, sounding like the NEXT Renaissance album, PROLOGUE (1972), which includes none of these people. Three or four minutes in, Keith Relf starts singing. He's OK, but they're so much better with Jane singing. ...Pleasant, harmless, a little long.
* Love is All -- More light, airy pop-song stuff. The lyrics are hippy mush. Not much of a debut for lyricist Thatcher.
* Mr. Pine -- This is the track with the mostly-new lineup. Sounds unfinished. The opening is hippy blather, under-produced, almost laughable. The keyboard-led mid-section was recycled note-for-note in Renaissance's later "Running Hard"! ... Develops into a four-part suite. Doesn't seem like it was worth the trouble. These folks had talent, the question was how to channel it.
* Face of Yesterday -- The version on their later OUT OF THE MIST is a small masterpiece. This seems a little too delicate. Some extra added subtle electric guitar that mainly just calls attention to itself. Jane Relf's vocal is a little unsure. The later version is in a lower key and just seems more confident. This isn't terrible.... Maybe my problem is this just doesn't rock enough. It's pretty, tho.
* Past Orbits of Dust -- This closer runs 14 minutes. Keyboardist Don Shin takes the spotlight from the start. Vocals are rather low-key. This is looser and more relaxed than the rest of the album.... This riffs along in its nice, harmless, electric-piano-fueled way ... but then there's a Drum Solo. But at least it's brief. This has a little rock power behind it -- or at least as much power as you can get out of an electric piano, which ain't much -- but not TOO much, that would be rude. Uh oh, then there's a sorta spacey bass solo.... So a spacey riffer that stretches on for 14 minutes. Not bad, and they've got talent, but....
Is that all? Oh well, as Gentle Giant once said, "We didn't know what we were doing until our fourth album."

OK, next up, the Stories' first album (1972).
I picked this up because Stories later released a semi-classic English pop-rock album ABOUT US (1973) which had half an hour of pretty great stuff on it -- punchy, catchy, melodic, memorable pop songs. Best were the dramatic "Please Please" (which would still sound great on classic-rock radio), the sweet shoulda-been-hit "Love is in Motion,'" the mysterious "Words," and the wistful "What Comes After." But the group was breaking up at the time -- half the album is merely average, and some tracks are just filler. Oh, and the Number One 1973 hit "Brother Louie" is on there, too.
Keyboardist/songwriter Michael Brown started with The Left Banke back in the '60s. Singer/bassist Ian Lloyd had a spotty solo career and sang backing vocals for bands like Foreigner. Onward....
* Hello People -- Opens with sweet piano and Ian singing in a lower key than usual. This is a plea for brotherly love and peace -- still works today. Slowly gains in punch as it goes. Ian sounds pretty relaxed. ...OK, doesn't get that much better....
* I'm Coming Home -- Basic homecoming lovesong. Features Mike Brown's ragtime-ish piano that sometimes appears on ABOUT US. OK, not stunning.
* Winter Scenes -- Brown and Lloyd wrote all the songs. This is a lighter wintry mood-piece. More nice show-offy piano in the middle. So far this album seems much more modest and lower-key than ABOUT US.
* Step Back -- Little more of a rock punch here. Still nothing magic yet.
* You Told Me -- Basic breaking-up lovesong with added strings. Nice light touch here. Could grow on me.... That was a quick side.
* St. James -- Rockier. Some OK tho brief show-offy guitar from Steve Love in the middle. Ian sounds a bit off-key in places. Gains in catchiness as it goes.
* Kathleen -- This is lighter, moodier, more contemplative. They have a pretty good touch with the lighter stuff. Some nice harpsichord from Brown in the middle. Seems like ABOUT US played-up their strengths -- here they were still finding out what those strengths were....
* Take Cover -- This is heavier. Added guitar and keyboards and more vocal harmonies really make a difference. And then it's over, too soon.
* Nice to Have You Here -- OK, this is a little soupy. Too much mournful keyboard.
* High and Low -- Big finish? Not really. OK choruses, but not a total success. More grandiose piano. Brief attempt at a big coda.
Overall: Promising, but probably not worth the cash. Go get a copy of ABOUT US at Goodwill and pick out your favorite parts.

BONUS TRACKS:
* Turtles -- Earth Anthem, from BATTLE OF THE BANDS (1968). Wow, cosmic! Opens with gorgeous horns and strummed guitar, followed by nice breathy vocals. Builds with a choir and strings. They may not have been entirely serious, but it works. "This is not an island...." Still perfect for Earth Day. Ends a little anti-climactically....
* Dukes of Stratosphear -- You're My Drug, from PSONIC PSUNSPOT (1987). XTC in disguise. Not bad. Very 1968-ish psychedelic. An impressive reproduction, especially the phasey spaceship-"whooshing" sounds....
* Dukes of Stratosphear -- Shiny Cage. OK, the last one was good enough, we'll try this ... which isn't that different from other XTC I've heard....
* Byrds -- The World Turns All Around Her, from TURN! TURN! TURN! (1965). Oh yes. This is great. So nice you'll want to hear it twice. How about that Gene Clark?

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Twofer

Today only -- two posts for the price of one....

THE DUMBEST SONGS THE RADIO STILL PLAYS
After a month of off-and-on listening (mostly off), here's more than a dozen of the dumbest songs I heard that Seattle-area radio still insists on playing. And Michael Jackson and the Eagles aren't mentioned once!
- Elton John and Kiki Dee -- Don't Go Breakin' My Heart. Yeccch. The worst thing Sir Elton's ever done. The moment when he officially started heading downhill. Kiki had a couple good songs -- this wasn't one of them.
- Pat Benatar -- Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Yeezus, haven't we gotten over this S&M fantasy yet?
- Madonna -- Like a Virgin, Material Girl. I'll bet Madonna barely remembers being a virgin. And "Material Girl" is unfortunately perfect for the money-grubbing society we live in today. Yes, I realize it's kind of a joke. It also kind of isn't. That's why it's ... uh ... post-modern. Whatever.
- Rick Springfield -- Jessie's Girl. God, 1980 is getting so tiresome.
- Toni Basil -- Mickey. Ugh. Weirdly, Weird Al Yankovic's "Ricky" is what I remember instead....
- Devo -- Whip It. Biggest penis metaphor to make the charts since Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." And so what?
- Hall and Oates -- Maneater. Yurg. These guys had talent, but not on this. This is a big S&M/domination fantasy, too.
- Soft Cell -- Tainted Love. 1982 has always confused me....
- Human League -- Don't You Want Me? Same thing here.... But they were way better when they were only "Human"....
- John Cougar Mellencamp -- Jack and Diane. Ugh. Who wants to be told it's all downhill after 16? A mean trick to play on teenagers.
- Wham! -- Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Still waiting for the George Michael nostalgia wave. You KNOW it's gonna happen....
- Kim Wilde -- You Keep Me Hangin' On. The Supremes and Vanilla Fudge got there first, so who needs this? Kim's "Kids in America" is an early-'80s classic, though. How come nobody ever plays THAT anymore....?
- Tiffany -- I Think We're Alone Now. Tommy James and the Shondells did some GREAT stuff. So there was no need for this. Or Billy Idol's "Mony Mony." Or Joan Jett's "Crimson in Clover." I can wait for a cover of "Mirage."
Sorry I couldn't find any more outrageous examples in a month of listening. I EXPECTED to. And Ghod knows I tried.... Seattle is still the worst-programmed radio-market I've ever lived in....

One thing leads to another....

THE RETURN OF CD'S AT WORK
I get sick of Seattle-area music-radio in less than 5 minutes. I got sick of listening to news-radio this week too, so a few days ago marked the reappearance of CD's at work for the first time in months. I use old-school soul and R&B as a soundtrack because it keeps me moving and keeps my energy up. Here's the playlist for the last few nights:
* Tower of Power -- Down to the Nightclub, You're Still a Young Man, What is Hip?, So Very Hard to Go.
* Al Green -- Tired of Being Alone, I Can't Get Next to You, Let's Stay Together, Love and Happiness, I'm Still in Love With You, You Oughta Be With Me, Call Me, Let's Get Married, Sha-La-La, Take Me to the River, Love Ritual, L-O-V-E, Full of Fire.
* Marvin Gaye -- What's Going On?, Inner City Blues, Trouble Man.
* Spinners -- I'll Be Around, I'm Coming Home.
* Dramatics -- Whatcha See is Whatcha Get.
* Timmy Thomas -- Why Can't We Live Together?
* Funkadelic -- Can You Get to That?
* Brothers Johnson -- Strawberry Letter 23.
* Sly and the Family Stone -- Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin, M'Lady, Sing a Simple Song.
* Bill Withers -- Lovely Day, Ain't No Sunshine, Grandma's Hands.
* Booker T and the MG's -- Time is Tight, Hang 'Em High.
* Gladys Knight and the Pips -- I Heard it Through the Grapevine, The End of Our Road, The Nitty Gritty.
* Earth, Wind and Fire -- Serpentine Fire, Fantasy, Getaway.
* Neville Brothers -- Hey Pocky Way, Bird on a Wire.
* Junior Walker and the All-Stars -- I'm a Road Runner, I Ain't Goin' Nowhere, Anyway You Wannta, Nothing But Soul, Shotgun, Shake and Fingerpop.
* Temptations -- Get Ready, Ain't Too Proud to Beg, I Know I'm Losing You, I Can't Get Next to You, Papa Was a Rolling Stone, My Girl (a capella).
...This will probably continue. It keeps my mood up, and customers seem to like it. One guy was thrilled to hear Tower of Power, even tho he mis-identified them as Chicago. Hey, they both had horns....
Only complaint: The Temptations' ULTIMATE COLLECTION has the studio version of "Get Ready," rather than the live hit version. The choruses still sound pretty great, tho....

PLANNED FOR TOMORROW starting around 10 a.m.:
"All the Way 2!" -- Renaissance's "transitional" 1970(?) album ILLUSION, and the first album (1972) by Stories, headed by Ian Lloyd and Michael Brown, who released the pop-rock semi-classic ABOUT US in 1973. Bonus Tracks may follow, time permitting....

Sunday, April 2, 2017

All the way

This is an experiment in which your clueless reviewer will attempt to play and review 2 or 3 entire albums ALL THE WAY THROUGH, which I'm told is a unique new way to listen to music -- a method I haven't thot of in years. Should also be a challenge in light of my short attention-span and tendency to stop listening to something as soon as I get bored.
First up:

Renaissance -- (first album) (1969).
But first, some background: This classical-folk-rock band was formed by former Yardbirds singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty. Their first album -- produced by another ex-Yardbird, Paul Samwell-Smith (who later produced Cat Stevens, America, Jethro Tull) -- wasn't a huge success, tho they issued a follow-up, ILLUSION, a year later. Then the band fell apart, and Relf was later electrocuted. By the time Renaissance's third album PROLOGUE came out in 1972, their line-up was completely different, tho McCarty kept writing songs for them, and these are included on PROLOGUE and 1973's ASHES ARE BURNING.
The original lineup (tho with McCarty now on acoustic guitar and vocals, John Knightsbridge on elec gtr, and Eddie McNeil on drums) reformed as Illusion for OUT OF THE MIST (1977), the best Renaissance-style studio-album that band never did. They followed-up in 1978 with ILLUSION, which was quieter, and the lyrics were forgettable.
Renaissance continued into the 1980's with a string of albums, the best and liveliest of which seems to be LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (1976). Some of their studio work is rather stiff and self-conscious, tho "Rajah Khan" on PROLOGUE is great swirling psychedelic noise, and "Northern Lights" on A SONG FOR ALL SEASONS (1977) is a charming lovesong.
Whew. OK, onward....
* Kings and Queens -- Pretty gutsy, leading off your debut album with one of its longest songs. It needs to be a killer. Not sure this one is. It was included on that WONDEROUS STORIES 4-CD "history" of progressive-rock that I grabbed a few years back, in an edited version (I think), and I wasn't impressed then. And this runs almost 11 minutes....
Opens with some quick grand-piano moves and other attempts at drama, then moves into a more bass-heavy, driving approach. That's the first four minutes, and nothing's happened yet. Then Keith Relf starts singing, symbolic lyrics vaguely applicable to today's political situation. Some nice keyboards by John Hawken.
Then they slow it down a little. More drama, more show-offy piano. So far, Hawken's riffing piano is the best thing here, tho Relf's singing isn't bad. Nice riffing, and McCarty's a good, dramatic drummer. Getting better as it goes, gaining in drama just by the playing and singing, without the extra atmospheric messing around. But not a total success.
* Innocence -- The lyrics are kinda silly late-'60s hippy mush, and Relf isn't a strong-enough singer, but again Hawken's keyboards are strong. He's clearly the star here. This is quieter than the first track, tho not as memorable.
* Island -- At last, Jane Relf starts singing. She has a high, clear voice that's captured beautifully on OUT OF THE MIST. This song has some of that album's magic. Hawken breaks loose for a classically-inspired keyboard solo in the middle, which ain't really necessary. A little overdone, but OK. Edited, this could have been a hit. Nice, soft symphonic-rock. The best thing here.
* Wanderer -- More showing-off by Hawken. He's great, but was this group formed just to show him off? They get better every time Jane Relf sings, but this is actually over too fast.
* Bullet -- 11-1/2 minutes. More piano-based drama, followed by group chanting and silly lyrics. Keith picks up the harmonica, making this a classical-folk-blues jam. And he's OK on the harp. And there's still too much dramatic messing around. If these folks could have focused a bit, they might have been awesome. Long bass solo.... More atmospheric messing around at the end, no real ending.
Overall, eh. "Island"'s the best thing here, an edited version would be great.

Next:
Richard and Linda Thompson -- I WANT TO SEE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS TONIGHT (1974).
True Confessions: For the longest time I couldn't HEAR these folks. Bought their ISLAND YEARS best-of a few years back and couldn't get into a single song, not even the heavy-guitar outro on "Calvary Cross," not even the pretty-great "Dimming of the Day." Don't know what I was thinking. But they were SO DOWNBEAT! This surprised me, because I love Fairport Convention, where Richard's downbeat vocals and loud guitar were a key part. Even grabbed Richard and Linda's SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS a few years back and couldn't get into THAT, even with all the marriage-breaking-up drama included.
Then awhile back I heard Richard's LIVE (MORE OR LESS) while browsing at Tacoma's HI-VOLTAGE RECORDS and was knocked out. (Of course everything sounds better on THEIR sound system....) Course LIVE is rare and they didn't have a copy to sell me, but most of the songs I heard are on BRIGHT LIGHTS, so we'll see how it holds up....
* When I Get to the Border -- The usual great vocals and stinging guitar I expected, plus half of Fairport Convention is on this album! And Richard Harvey and Brian Gulland from Gryphon! Now that I have a decent turntable that plays albums at the right speed and a stereo with actual bass and decent speakers, it makes a big difference to the listening experience. Before, I thot this was kind of a lame song. Instead it's a decent bouncy-enough album-opener.
* Cavalry Cross -- The usual grim stuff, with nice stinging guitar. Too bad this is edited for vinyl, no big guitar-explosions finale.
* Withered and Died -- The title sounds just like Richard Thompson, only Linda sings it! And she sounds just like Sandy Denny! Pretty downbeat, tho not depressing.
* I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight -- This sure contrasts with "Withered and Died," and the horn-band adds charm. Richard's lyric is pretty twisted and funny, too. This is nice, tho it could maybe have been lighter and more fun....
* Down Where the Drunkards Roll -- More of Richard's low-life obsession, tho of course Linda sings it beautifully and the acoustic guitar's just fine. Ends too soon.
* We Sing Hallelujah -- Downbeat holiday song, with added recorders.
* Has He Got a Friend for Me? -- Lonely, downbeat dating song, with nice acoustic guitar and recorders. Linda sings it beautifully, tho she threatens to hang herself in the second verse....
* The Little Beggar Girl -- Cutesy, knowing, Cockney-sounding madrigal with great lyrics: "I love takin' money off a snob like you...."
* The End of the Rainbow -- Stark, depressing lullabye, beautifully sung by Richard.
* The Great Valerio -- Stark and dramatic, just Linda's vocal and Richard's acoustic. There is a stunning live version of this on Linda's best-of, DREAMS FLY AWAY.
Overall: Stark, dramatic, icily controlled. Impressive, but definitely not light listening.

Time to lighten up. Next up, Crack the Sky's LIVE SKY (1978).
Don't know much about these guys, except their live "Lighten Up McGraw" is a rockin' classic, and they do a loopy live "I Am the Walrus," too! Their only studio album I've heard bits of, SAFETY IN NUMBERS, seemed a little self-involved and seemed to strain for dramatic effects.
* Hold On -- Opens with flashy guitar, and a riff straight out of "Lighten Up McGraw." Clever lyrics.
* Maybe I Can Fool Everybody Tonight -- More flashy guitar, followed by dreamy verses. OK, not great. After a strong opening, the audience drifts off.... Then an upbeat ending, but it takes a long time to get there....
-- In the interest of time, I'm going to skip "Lighten Up McGraw," but trust me it's great. You should track it down. Great funny lyrics, nice choruses, great guitar, driving attack.
* She's a Dancer -- "McGraw" goes directly into this 9-minute track. The lyrics are ... slightly funny: "When I look into her eyes, I can see through his disguise, but am I surprised?" When there are no lyrics, these guys again seem to be relying heavily on their guitars to create the drama their songs seem to need. There's a long break with more show-offy guitar here. They are better at playing than at song-construction.
* Ice -- 11-minute guitar showcase. Nice, atmospheric, icy. These guys had some talent -- the key might have been channeling it into some more concise forms.
* Surf City -- No, not THAT "Surf City." Not when the second line is "Here come the sharks." Includes more flashy guitar and riffs from "God Save the Queen" and "The Lone Ranger Theme."
-- I'm gonna skip the encore, "I Am the Walrus," but it's a lot of loopy fun, and almost as weird as the original.
...OK, I'm done for today, folks. Thanx for sittin' in.