Sunday, March 27, 2011

Really Bad Prog, Part 1

So I had this plan: I was gonna stack-up all the really lame, weak, not-brilliant Progressive Rock albums I had in the house, listen 2 each 1, & then just CRUCIFY them here in an attempt 2 clear the air, blow away these blues, make Spring finally arrive, & send these old albums off 2 the used record store with the kinda send-off they truly deserved.
The stuff I stacked-up were albums I'd had trouble with B4, or heard enuf of 2 realize I didn't like them much, or that had bad reputations that the little I'd heard did nothing 2 erase. So I figured this'd B fun, easy, a breeze 2 get in2 -- I had myself all psyched-up 4 it.
Just 1 little problem: I didn't Xpect I'd be ENJOYING this stuff as I went along, even while the music was busy being perhaps not the ultimate Xample of Prog At Its Absolute Best ... but good enuf 2 keep around anyway.
I thot this would B shooting fish in a barrel. Turns out it's gonna B more difficult than that. & that's a good thing. It would B a nice suprise 2 learn that these albums I'd stupidly dismissed (in some cases) years ago Actually Aren't That Bad.
So, onward:

I started with The Strawbs' 1972 album GRAVE NEW WORLD, an album I Xpected 2 hate because of its Xtremely solemn church-like overtones, its doomy outlook, its overwrought highly-sensitive approach.... (Robert Christgau gave this album a D+ when it was released, & I hardly ever agree with Christgau -- but on my 1st coupla listenings I was thinking he mighta nailed this 1.)
Strange, because I like these guys. I think summa their songs R GREAT ("Where is This Dream of Your Youth?", "Hero and Heroine," "Down by the Sea," "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus," "Part of the Union," etc). But they can be almost 2 earnest 4 their own good, & leader/main songwriter/singer/guitarist Dave Cousins has always struck me as being pretty highly-strung.
The thing about the Strawbs is you've gotta get past the fact that Cousins' singing often sounds like Stewie from FAMILY GUY. That same petulant, blaming, self-involved tone. Get past that & it's smooth sailing. Then you can focus on the great keyboards by Rick Wakeman, John Hawken, Blue Weaver....
GRAVE NEW WORLD itself is a little dated -- the folk-based Strawbs hadn't gone full-bore prog at this point, so at times the music sounds like prog-meets-Olde-English-madrigals. Which is fine with me.
The opener, "Benedictus," sounds Xactly like it coulda bn a church hymn -- but it doesn't go on 2 long & it's not overbearing. "Queen of Dreams" is phased & fake-psychedelic -- kinda directionless & stupid -- & dated. A lotta gimmicks covering up what mighta bn a decent song.
But bassist John Ford's "Heavy Disguise" is a pretty good, simple, catchy rocker about not believing in appearances. It's also a nice break from Cousins' vocals.
However: By the time you hear the shocking bitterness & disgust in Cousins' voice on the choruses of "New World," the song sounds like some kinda masterpiece. Cousins' voice fits it perfectly.
All thru this 1st side there's Xcellent keyboard work from Blue Weaver, & Richard Hudson's solid drumming. The 2nd side is weaker, but not embarrassing. "Tomorrow" has a big, dramatic, rockin' finish with keyboards, strings & horns. Tony Visconti's production is pretty solid thruout, Xcept 4 that silly phasing effect mentioned earlier.
There R also sevral nice, brief, refreshing acoustic miniatures sprinkled thruout the album, like "On Growing Older." What is being outlined here is a sorta "Pilgrim's Progress," the spiritual growth of a person over a lifetime.
Not sure how it's supposed 2 fit in, but guitarist Tony Hooper's "Ah Me, Ah My" is a jaunty, silly, '20s-style period piece that sounds like it coulda come straight outta some old Broadway musical. The lyrics R funny, & it's over 2 quick. Speaking of dated, "Is it Today, Lord?" adds some sitar at the end & continues the album's spiritual search.
OVERALL: Kinda insubstantial in some places, but not BAD, very pleasant at times -- & it brightened up my Saturday afternoon. I might even keep it.

Over at LA HISTORIA DE LA MUSICA ROCK, I recently commented that since about 1980 my favorite album 2 drive unwanted guests outta the house has been David Sancious & Tone's TRANSFORMATION: THE SPEED OF LOVE (1976). There R some gorgeous pieces of music on that album, but something about the whooping, hiccuping synthesizer & the Hendrixian guitar feedback tends 2 drive nervous people outta the house -- & this is on the GOOD stuff.
Then it occurred 2 me that I hadn't heard the album's 2 most obnoxious trax in quite awhile. So, emboldened by how much better-than-Xpected GRAVE NEW WORLD turned out 2 B, I put on Side 1 of TRANSFORMATION & braced myself 4 a Total Noise Onslaught....
...Memory is a funny thing. The opener, "Piktor's Metamorphosis," starts with a lite-jazz guitar, sparkly keyboards & wordless vocal theme, very avg, then goes in2 something louder & more NRgetic with Sancious's characteristic "slippery" keyboards. It ends with a dreamy, lighter-than-air repeat of the theme. A quick 6 mins.
The Hendrix tribute, the 8-minute "Sky Church Hymn #9," starts like an old acoustic blues with Sancious on guitar. There R no keyboards. It quickly moves in2 a high-speed Hendrixy gtr jam, then fades back in2 the acoustic-blues figure. Not bad, kinda spare in places ... & then suddenly Sancious's fingers R a blur on the guitar ... then back 2 that old blues theme again. There's a big Hendrixy feedback finish ... that doesn't go on long enuf.
Both these trax R actually 2 short. But the good folks at Epic (or somebody) buried the best stuff on the album -- the gorgeous piano&guitar showcase "The Play and Display of the Heart" (which I listened 2 just 2 make sure it's still as pretty as I thot), & the life-altering 18-minute title track, which takes up all of Side 2. Words cannot describe....
VERDICT on "Piktor" & "Sky Church Hymn": NOT unlistenable....

...Shoulda quit while I was ahead. Barclay James Harvest's XII (1978) is a streamlined, mainstream prog-pop album, so deliberately inoffensive you can barely hear it. & so lethargic you wonder why they bothered.
BJH were 1 of the 1st of Britain's mellotron-based bands, following in the footsteps of the Moody Blues & teaming-up with an orchestra early in their career. But they've always been WILDLY inconsistent.
The album before XII, GONE TO EARTH (1977), actually has 3 pretty great songs on it, out of 9 -- & that's about the best rating I can give any BJH album I've heard, including their sevral best-of's. I woulda traded-off XII YEARS ago if a dog hadn't eaten the (rather pretty) album cover. Apparently the cover was the best part....
Anyway, the opener, guitarist John Lees's "Loving is Easy," has a semi-disco beat & some stunningly obvious smutty lyrics. Not a success.
Bassist Les Holroyd's "Berlin" almost gets it right -- it's almost haunting. But it doesn't GO NEwhere.
A stronger singer woulda helped botha these songs, but there R other problems: They're just sorta flat, limp, there's nothing 2 set them off. They're so AVERAGE.
Holroyd writes better choruses, as on "Turning in Circles." But the hooks R still limp. It just sounds like a failed pop single.
Lees' "The Closed Shop" opens with flutes & a march beat -- the 1st mildly suprising moment on the whole side. But I couldn't finish it.
By this point -- 5 songs in -- I'm wondering why I ever liked these guys in the 1st place. They DID do some good stuff -- I recommend the 3 good songs on GONE TO EARTH ("Hymn," "Spirit on the Water" & the crashingly melodramatic "Poor Man's Moody Blues"), their early rocker "Taking Some Time On," the hypnotic "Ring of Changes," "Play to the World," "The Song They Love to Sing"....
1 critic 1nce described BJH as "morose progressive rock." Dave Marsh 1nce called them "numbing." He was right, when they were at their worst. As they R on XII. I'll try 2 get back 2 this again later....
2 B Continued....

Planned 4 future installments: Reviews of more work by BJH, The Strawbs, Renaissance, Jean-Michel Jarre, Mike Oldfield, Mannheim Steamroller, Focus, ELP, Nektar, Utopia, Brand X, Dixie Dregs, Journey, Group 87, Sky, Enya....
NE1 out there who might B able 2 set me up with CHEAP copies of NE of the following 4 this ongoing research effort, please drop me a line:
Genesis: DUKE.
Jethro Tull: A PASSION PLAY.
Barclay James Harvest: OCTOBERON.
ELP: LOVE BEACH, TARKUS (Rastro has convinced me I'm the problem with this 1, but I need another hearing 2 find out).
Renaissance: NOVELLA & AZURE D'OR.
Yes: TORMATO, TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS, RELAYER (just really angry noise, the last time I heard it).
Gentle Giant: GIANT FOR A DAY!
(Delayed due 2 rotten weather & weak Internet signals, but finally completed, put in2 English & posted on 31 March 11 at 3:30 pm....)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Rainbow's End, Part 2

Tho I loved Camel's THE SNOW GOOSE the 1st time I heard it (sometime in Fall 1977), & bought it & RAIN DANCES soon afterward, then worked my way in2 the back-catalog -- I didn't become a real Camel fan until Fall '78 when I grabbed BREATHLESS the 1st week it was out. The guys in my favorite record store knew I was a Caravan fan & probly thot I'd eat up BREATHLESS. They were right.
I played the bouncy, at-times gorgeous 1st side non-stop, wished the 2nd side was as good, & took the album with me (along with SNOW GOOSE & a pile of other prog essentials) on a week-long road-trip 2 Seattle in Spring '79 as "music I couldn't live without." Took my record player with me, too. & tape-player. & lotsa tapes....
More evidence in my theory that the ORDER in which you hear an artist's work has some impact on what & how you think about them.... Today I think BREATHLESS is an above-avg prog-pop album with a fairly weak 2nd side. I also think Camel was fairly inconsistent thruout their career, & the farther you go in their Decca/MCA/Janus/Arista/Passport catalog, the more inconsistent they get -- usually due 2 commercial pressure brought by their record company.
I'm fairly forgiving about this tho -- I got sucked-in 2 stay by summa Camel's more commercial stuff, so maybe I can put-up-with more than hard-core prog fans who jumped on board with, say, MIRAGE.
All this 2 Xplain why I'm more enthusiastic about Camel's later work -- I think Andy Latimer's songwriting got stronger, & I think the band's production & sound got WAY better. But things still weren't perfect ... & neither is the selection of later work on Camel's RAINBOW'S END 4-CD best-of. The playlist:

Aristillus/Spirit of the Water/First Light/Unevensong (live, previously unreleased)/Lunar Sea (live)/Rain Dances (live, previously unreleased)/Echoes/Breathless/City Life/Nude/Drafted/Captured (live)/Summer Lightning (live)/Sasquatch/A Heart's Desire/End Peace/In the Arms of Waltzing Frauleins/Cloak and Dagger Man/Stationary Traveller/Long Goodbyes/Pressure Points (live)/West Berlin (live)/Fingertips (live)

Started with "Aristillus," a cute, brief, mechanical wind-up-toy song that opens MOONMADNESS, an album that I've always thot noodles around 2 much. There R some good things on it, tho... 4 me, the best is "Spirit of the Water," a brief, eerie, lonely, shimmery, dreamlike piece that closes MM's 1st side. It's haunting.
Hadn't heard "First Light" in quite awhile. Mel Collins's sax really lights-up the closing section, making a good piece memorable ... but it doesn't go on long enuf.
"Unevensong" isn't as balanced or defined as the studio version on RAIN DANCES (another album with a lotta filler), but the ending's still Xcellent -- with the intertwining guitar & keyboard themes -- & there's more nice Collins sax in the mix.
"Lunar Sea" likely has a lot of what prog fans like most about Camel -- lotsa spacey atmosphere & Peter Bardens' striding keyboard lines. The live version here is pleasant but kinda dull -- the band noodles along with the theme 2 long. There R some nice shimmery bits, tho. The closing picks up energy with some nice charging Latimer guitar & more of Collins' sax. It fades into....
"Rain Dances," which opens with Bardens' roller-rink-in-the-sky keybs & adds Collins' sax, then flows in2 the hypnotic theme -- which doesn't last long enuf. Collins's flute & sax work really sets these guys' songs off -- it's too bad he didn't get more room 2 play....
"Echoes," "Breathless," "City Life," "Drafted" & "Nude" all still sound gorgeous. BREATHLESS producer/engineer Mick Glossop got a detailed, clear, airy, almost ethereal sound outta these guys that later producers followed. That certainly aided their more lyrical side, but still allowed them 2 get heavier -- as on the opening of "Down on the Farm," which oughta B here. The only thing I hear diffrent on these trax is that Andy Ward's drums may have been punched up just a bit on "City Life"....
I'm bummed that there Rn't more trax from I CAN SEE YOUR HOUSE FROM HERE. The gorgeous "Eye of the Storm" & "Who We Are," & the sorta-pushy "Wait" R all stronger songs than "Survival" (which is just a 1-minute orchestrated prelude), the draggy "Hymn to Her," or even the 10-minute gtr showcase "Ice." As a fan of Latimer's guitar work, I understand why "Ice" is here. But there's some great soaring gtr lines at the end of "Wait" & "Who We Are," 2. & Kit Watkins' "Eye of the Storm" deserves 2 B heard by a bigger audience.
"Captured" is taken at a faster pace than the studio version, but it works, & the dual keybs R pretty cool. It ends 2 fast.
"Summer Lightning" backs away from the dated disco(!) beat of the studio original, but phases Latimer's vocals almost beyond recognition. He does sound more like co-composer/vocalist Richard Sinclair that way, tho. An intresting alternate version of the song, with some nice Latimer gtr at the end. The lyrics R still pretty great, if you can figure them out....
"Sasquatch" still sounds great, with its wonderful mix of what sounds like dozens of gtrs, including former Genesis-guy Anthony Phillips on 12-string. "Heart's Desire/End Peace" is a gorgeous gtr epilogue. But it's 2 bad the angry & frustrated "Manic" isn't here -- it features some FURIOUS Latimer gtr in the midsection, & possibly Susan Hoover's best lyrics ever. "Camelogue" & "Today's Goodbye" would also have been better choices than "Heroes" & the brief "Selva" -- I still think THE SINGLE FACTOR is a great 1/2 an album....
"Waltzing Frauleins" is a brief German period piece. "Cloak and Dagger Man" sounds EXACTLY like the Alan Parsons Project -- the same mechanical drumming & Chris Rainbow's vocals.
"Stationary Traveller" is sorta a "son of Ice," only shorter. There's a nice pan pipes solo, & some airy, dramatic gtr work. Good background music. The verses on "Long Goodbyes" R intresting, but the choruses R dull. There's some more nice gtr toward the end.
"Pressure Points" opens with lotsa dramatic gtr, then devolves in2 good background music. There's lotsa drama, but it doesn't lead anywhere. "West Berlin" is a solid live version of the best song on STATIONARY TRAVELLER. There's some nice shimmery keybs by Ton Scherpenzeel.
"Fingertips" is a pleasant suprise. A 4gettable track from STATIONARY TRAVELLER gains real life in the concert setting. There's some more nice sax from Mel Collins. A very nice mood piece -- possibly, in its modest way, the best live track in the set.
Which seems like a good way 2 bring down the curtain....

OVERALL: Well, I woulda included more later stuff, but that's the kinda hairpin I am. You don't need ALL of MOONMADNESS, & a coupla trax from RAIN DANCES coulda bn dropped -- "Tell Me" or "Metrognome" or "Elke." I'm not sure you need all of MIRAGE, either. So drop 1/2adozen trax & add "Flight of the Snow Goose," "Down on the Farm," "Manic," "Eye of the Storm," "Who We Are" & "Wait," & I'm reasonably happy....
The history of the band is pretty good (tho nobody proofread it) -- it was good 2 get the real story behind why Andy Ward left ... & summa the photos R a hoot. & tho I still don't like Decca/Universal's book-format CD packages, at least they didn't use those lock-in-place clips that were used in Caravan's THE WORLD IS YOURS package awhile back.
There's nothing from the later Camel Productions releases included here -- this strictly covers the Decca period. But "Mother Road" mighta bn a nice addition....
Overall, I'm glad 2 have it, & it sounds great. Maybe a few 2 many live trax when I woulda preferred the studio originals in most cases. But still, pretty generous of the compilers -- most of the work, apparently, by a guy named Mark Powell who also did the Caravan package & wrote the histories in each set. Nice work, Mark....
PS: I should note that the live versions of "Supertwister" & "Homage to the God of Light" mentioned in the "Part 1" write-up were also previously unreleased....

COMING SOON: Really Bad Prog.... The things I go thru 4 you people. Stay tuned....

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All-nite television....

Talk about guilty pleasures....
This post is not about music OR books. It's about an addiction I've developed on Monday nites, the 1 "weekend" nite off I can count on each week. Xcept 4 CNN when I'm waking up, Monday nite is about the only time I DO watch television. & over the last 3 years I've become addicted 2 the WWE's "Monday Night RAW" professional wrestling on the USA Network, & BBC America's hilarious British car show TOP GEAR.
The 2 couldn't B more diffrent. My roommate Jay got me hooked on wrestling. At 1st I thot it was REALLY STUPID, the kind of thing idiots & lowlifes & drunks & violence fans would enjoy. But I put-up with it 2 get 2 the Good Stuff that followed later in the evening.
But then I slowly got addicted 2 the Big Comedy & the Big Drama -- almost Gothic Drama in some cases, the dramatic equivalent of a heavy-metal concert, as funny & doomy & over-the-top as yr fave heavy metal band.
I started 2 look 4ward 2 the latest adventures of the larger-than-life heroes, the evil bad guys, the soap-opera plotting & gossip. I wondered what "living legend" from pro wrestling's past would come out of the woodwork 2 further my education.
I don't even care whether the wrestling action is "real." Doesn't matter 2 me. & such considerations don't detract from the entertainment value. Obviously some1 is scripting & choreographing this stuff. No way could they pull it off without a framework 2 follow. & besides, I know there's no way I could get slammed around (or fly around) the ring the way these folks do without seriously hurting myself, probly permanently.
So I don't care if the punches R pulled or the injuries R faked. Doesn't make NE diffrence 2 the actual spectacle or the effect -- which is gloriously cheap entertainment.
I'm not such a rabid fan that I'm going to the upcoming Wrestlemania -- I won't even be buying the pay-per-view of it. But I love the big laffs & I get sucked in2 the big dramas, & I hava great time week after week.
Bsides, I think the characters R great -- some of them R way larger than life, comparable 2 characters outta the best movie you've ever seen or the best book you've ever read. I'm hooked on the ongoing story. I love the struggles toward greatness & thru adversity, the legends & the history & the mystique around summa these athletes.
I want somebody, ANYBODY, 2 shut The Miz up. I want somebody 2 silence Alberto Del Rio. I want some1 2 put a gag on announcer Michael Cole, & I hope it's Jerry "The King" Lawler. I really do think John Cena's the All-American Guy. I wait 2 C what new outrage Randy Orton pulls off. & I wish somebody would kick CM Punk's ass & make him a little more humble. & I can smell what The Rock is cookin'.
& that's just a few of the stories that R continuing on RAW every week. Yeah, sure, it's pretty fakey & over-the-top at times. But it's not really about NE of that. & the entertainment level is pretty amazing. & these WWE people R on the road around the country (& around the world) 5+ nites a week. I don't know how they do it & keep their energy up....
So now that I've maybe blown my credibility with some of you, let me try 2 get it back....

My son got me hooked on TOP GEAR, which is the best, funniest show on television right now, near as I can tell. It's certainly the cleverest, wittiest show I'm aware of. It's at times beautifully filmed, brilliantly edited, marvelously hosted by the hilarious Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond & James May -- & I don't even think U havta B much of a car fan 2 love it.
I love looking at old "classic" cars, but most newer cars leave me cold. The trio of hosts shows that there's plenty of newer vehicles U can still "wow" at, even if U can't afford them.
& the show goes way beyond its basic format of looking at, test-driving & reviewing cars -- some of their historical pieces (like 1 on the roots & birth of the automobile) R pretty great 4 documentary value, & summa their races & travels around the globe have bn amazing. These guys have shown that there isn't much that cars can't do. They have driven 2 the North Pole in tough, specially-outfitted Toyota pickups, driven across South America & thru part of Africa, crossed the English Channel in self-modified "aqua-cars," & much more.
& some of their nostalgia pieces R also pretty amazing -- including 1 long film they did last season on the demise of the British sports-car industry, something uniquely British from the 1950's, '60s & '70s that is now mostly gone. U might not Xpect something this moving in a car-review show, but there it is. These guys Rn't just a buncha jokers. They've got soul, 2.
They are usually hilarious, & never ever boring. If I have 1 complaint, it's that they don't do ENUF shows -- they make 6 in a "series" & then take a break 4 a few months. & tho I do sometimes get tired of BBC America's endless re-runs during their Monday nite TOP GEAR marathons (tho U might catch something new in an episode you've already seen 2wice), I'm also grateful that recently as the hour gets later they've been pulling-out 5-, 6- & 7-year-old episodes I've never seen B4, including 1 they ran 2nite that featured The Guys as roadies 4 The Who. So I guess this post does have some connection 2 music after all....

Monday, March 14, 2011

Rainbow's End, Part 1

Camel's RAINBOW'S END 4-disc best-of is a pretty solid collection of the band's work, more in-depth than their earlier 2-disc ECHOES best-of, & with a more detailed history of the band than the 1 included in ECHOES. But I'm not sure it shows-off the group at their absolute best.
Let me Xplain: Tho their early work includes some definite progressive-rock classics (SNOW GOOSE, etc.), apparently unlike a lotta fans I think Camel got better later on as guitarist Andy Latimer's songwriting improved -- the instrumentals got where they were going faster & with less noodling -- & with more majestic results -- & summa the actual songs were Xceptional. & their later albums include 1 flat-out prog masterwork, 1980's gorgeous concept album NUDE.
& tho Camel was a big victim of record-company/commercial pressures, when they didn't completely cave-in they walked the tightrope with some style. When they fell-off however, the results could B gruesome -- see occasional trax scattered on albums from RAIN DANCES onward, or the whole 1st side of THE SINGLE FACTOR.
Most hard-core prog fans boost the early albums, so they should Njoy this package, which features 2 discs+ of the early work thru 1977. 21 of the 59 trax included R also live recordings -- rather a lot, I thot, & not all the live trax R ID'd on the box. Counting the live trax, U Nd-up with ALL of MIRAGE & MOONMADNESS, 4 trax offa their debut, 5 offa SNOW GOOSE, & 1/2adozen more off RAIN DANCES.
The later, more "commercial" stuff takes-up less than a disc & 1/2. I think this is something of a mistake, but hard-core prog fans should B happy, & the #'s don't lie -- about 1/2 of this set I either hadn't heard B4 or ignored or overlooked 4 years....
Camel Classics included: Never Let Go, Lady Fantasy, Rhayader & Rhayader Goes to Town (both in studio & live versions), Spirit of the Water, Unevensong, Echoes, Breathless, City Life, Drafted, Sasquatch, A Heart's Desire/End Peace, West Berlin.
Classics NOT included: Flight of the Snow Goose (1 of their punchiest & most direct early instrumentals), Down on the Farm (which I still think is sorta Britain's version of Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good"), Eye of the Storm, Who We Are, Wait, Manic.

Reviewed so far: Never Let Go, Slow Yourself Down, Curiosity, Mystic Queen, Nimrodel/Procession/The White Rider, Freefall, Earthrise, Lady Fantasy (original mix), Ligging at Louis' (live), Arubaluba (live), Supertwister (live), Homage to the God of Light (live).

Much of the earliest stuff & the live trax here reveal Camel as a sorta prog-rock jam-band, very pleasant but not distinctive. The gorgeous, life-affirming "Never Let Go" is their best early song, with Xcellent Latimer guitar & Peter Bardens' organ runs 2 set it off along with the strong verses & great choruses. Edited 4 airplay-time it shoulda bn a hit. It still sounds great. The version here perhaps plays-up Bardens' organ work a bit more clearly in the mix compared 2 the version on ECHOES.
"Slow Yourself Down" is slower & jazzier, featuring Bardens' vocals & a nice, loud, energetic gtr&organ middle-break. "Curiosity" has a jazzy/bluesy feel & again some nice keyboards. "Mystic Queen" has a nice mysterious atmosphere & good swirling keybs.
So far, nice & mostly laid-back -- not that much 2 get Xcited about.
Which leads us in2 the trax from MIRAGE: I hadda copy of this album 4 years, but after obtaining ECHOES I realized I only kept MIRAGE 4 the closing "Lady Fantasy" suite, so I traded the album off. Which means I overlooked mosta this stuff 4 YEARS. Nice 2 have it back in the house. The "White Rider" suite takes a few mins 2 get rolling, but the closing section is mostly a very pretty gtr-flute-keyboards showcase.
"Freefall" is closer 2 the "standard" Camel sound of this period, lotsa fast action & quick changes. Repeated listenings will likely show this up as a new favorite.
Other than "Never Let Go," "Earthrise" is the 1st track in this package that I actually recognize. More flashy, fast-paced work w/ memorable themes.
The version of "Lady Fantasy" included here is sposta B the "original mix" -- but 2 me it doesn't sound all that diffrent from the previously-released version. Bardens' keyboards R perhaps not as loud, & there R definitely just-slightly-diffrent keyb phrases in the rockin' closing section. It still makes 4 a fast 13 mins.
"Ligging at Louis'" & "Arubaluba" R OK live trax, nice 2 have if not stunning. "Louis'" is probly at best pleasant background music, not distinctive. "Arubaluba" is a flashy gtr jam w/o a really memorable melody. "Supertwister" is not ID'd as being a live track on the box. It's pleasant enuf. If I remember right, the studio version on MIRAGE closes w/ the sound of a beer bottle being opened....
Bardens' "Homage to the God of Light" is a sorta funky, pulsing gtr&keyb instrumental jam that rolls on 4 19 mins. It gets kinda noisy & shapeless in the middle, but it's nice 2 have. The liner notes indicate this performance was the last time the band played the piece live.
...I'll have more notes on the resta this set soon, including the later stuff I'm more enthusiastic about -- & will likely Xpress some frustration about summa the great stuff that ISN'T included....

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Klassik Kinks

When I 1st heard The Kinks on the radio, round about 1971, 4 some reason I thot they were Mexican. Or Spanish.
Not really sure I can Xplain how I got that impression. But listen 2 the way Ray Davies sings "All Day and All of the Night" -- like he can't quite get the words out, like he's learned English as a 2nd language. But this effect mighta bn due 2 primitive production techniques.
"Lola" didn't clear things up 4 me, either. If NEthing, it just got me more confused. "You Really Got Me" didn't help, either. Again, the direct, almost crude production by Shel Talmy emphasizes the force & push of the guitars -- they're not really "heavy" as we would later define the term, more like a controlled Xplosion. In some almost indefineable way, The Kinks were "spicier," more energetic, than a lotta music of the same period. There was Something Different going on there.
If I'd heard "Victoria" at that point it woulda cleared everything up 4 me, but I didn't hear it until YEARS later....
I don't think I actually got my facts straight until 5 years later when I read John Mendelssohn's Kinks reviews in THE ROLLING STONE RECORD REVIEW VOLUME II. & by the time The Pretenders came along with "Stop Your Sobbing," I at least knew who Ray Davies WAS, tho there were a lot of his songs I'd never heard. Still haven't.
Fast-4ward 2 my Record Store Daze: We played the heck outta The Kinks' LOW BUDGET, which had a few decent songs on it -- "National Health" was probly my fave: "Nervous tension, man's invention, is the biggest killer that's around today...," continuing with some funny advice on how 2 keep your stress down. But tho there were a couple of catchy tunes like the disco takeoff "I Wish I Could Fly Like Superman" & the down&dirty title track, with only a couple of Xceptions it wasn't Xactly ... uh ... charming. "Little Bit of Emotion" sounded the most like the real Ray, talking about how often people hide & only let little bits of themselves peek out 4 others 2 see.
We also played the heck outta their double-live album ONE FROM THE ROAD, from which a scattering of tracks caught my attn, tho a lot of it seemed really sloppy. The live version of "Lola" didn't do NEthing 4 me, but "Victoria" was an absolute killer anthem with great crunchy gtr riffs & Brother Dave whooping it up in the background. Ditto 4 "David Watts" -- the only problem w/ both these songs was that they were TOO SHORT.
Then there was the moody "Misfits" & the flat-out gorgeous "Celluloid Heroes." & who could resist Ray's use of Harry Belafonte's "Day-O"? I was starting 2 think these guys might B worth looking in2.
Couple years later The Kinks had a "comeback" of sorts, with nostalgic hits like "Come Dancing" & "Don't Forget to Dance" & "Do it Again," + I remember hearing the title track from STATE OF CONFUSION quite a bit. But it wasn't until AFTER this that I started digging in2 their old stuff.
I started with THE KINK KRONIKLES, a 2-record set of mostly 4gotten trax from their middle period. There I found the marvelous original version of "Victoria" + the modest & charming acoustic "Village Green Preservation Society." But there was a lot more: the sublime "Shangri-La," which Ray sings the choruses of like his heart's gonna jump outta his chest; the depressing-yet-charming(?) "Dead End Street"; the silly & irresistable "Apeman" -- why was this never a hit?! The choruses alone shoulda locked it in2 the Top 10.... There was the equally silly "Sunny Afternoon," which I'd somehow overlooked. Ray sounds pretty relaxed 4 a guy who's sposta B all stressed-out about his marital breakup.... Oh, & "Lola" was on it, 2....
There were a few trax I didn't quite get: Lotsa critics hail "Waterloo Sunset" as something like the most beautiful 45 RPM single in the history of the English language.... While I think it's a clear Dpiction of Ray's more introverted side, I can't get Xcited about it. Just doesn't strike me as a lost classic. ...& "Autumn Almanac" is just silly.
Ghod knows I'm not done Xploring them yet. I was a sucker 4 "Tired of Waiting for You" back when I was about 12, & over the years I've adopted others that I was 2 young 2 notice the 1st time around: "A Well Respected Man," the silly "Dedicated Follower of Fashion"....
Somewhere around here I've got a 2-disc set of Kinks singles I've gotta get 2. Looks pretty complete. & the VILLAGE GREEN album, which I wanna set aside some time 4. All I've heard is the opening title track. If it's all that good, it'll B worth the time.
I haven't actually heard all that much by these guys, but it's intresting how their best stuff really sticks with you. More soon, quite likely....

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Golden Age of Soul/R&B

I was pretty lucky 2 start listening 2 AM radio in the Fall of 1970, when the Golden Age of Soul & R&B still had a little while left 2 run.
Course I missed the REAL Golden Age -- the '60s, when people like James Brown & Aretha Franklin & The Supremes & Miracles & Temptations & Four Tops & Wilson Pickett & Otis Redding & a cast of thousands from Motown were toppin' the charts every other week. I don't consider that "my" decade because I wasn't old enuf then 2 appreciate any music -- I didn't even realize what a radio was for until the Fall of '70.
But there was still lotsa great stuff being played then. The Jackson 5 had just had their 1st few hits, "I Want You Back" & "ABC" & "I'll Be There" & so on, but they were still really hot. 1 of the 1st few 45's I ever bought was the Jacksons' gorgeous "Maybe Tomorrow" -- I've still got it. & I remember "Never Can Say Goodbye" getting some airplay -- tho not really THAT much in Tacoma, Wash., where I was living at the time. & later on I bought Michael's "I Wanna Be Where You Are," thot it was pretty cute, & better than summa his other early solo hits.
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles were still all over the radio with the classic "Tears of A Clown" -- what an amazing song that is; it had #1 Hit written all over it. Can you believe Motown sat on it 4 3 years before issuing it as a single?
Stevie Wonder was still pretty hot. I'd heard his marvelous "I Was Made to Love Her" & summa his earlier hits, & Tacoma-area radio was all over stuff like "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" & "If You Really Love Me" & "Superstition" -- I was more a fan of "Higher Ground." It just seemed irresistable with that great chugging rhythm & killer choruses.
But maybe my all-time fave by Stevie was "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" -- hilarious! & so relaxed! Stevie always seemed 2 B having such a good time in a lotta his songs, & so did you when you heard them....
Stevie's later stuff was pretty great too -- "Sir Duke," "Isn't She Lovely?," the way-underrated "A Seed's A Star/Tree Medley," & the best childhood-nostalgia song ever: "I Wish." But I had some blank spots with summa Stevie's stuff: "For Once in My Life" was maybe a pretty-good song, but a little overproduced -- & how bout that showbizzy backing choir on the choruses? Who's idea was that? & do you know it took me YEARS 2 realize "My Cherie Amour" is a great song? & it's so lonely. & there's Stevie's great "la-la-la"'s, showing 1nce again that sometimes you can say a whole lot with no words at all....
I've always been a sucker 4 group vocals, & soul groups were great at them. I was also a sucker 4 what they useta call "sweet soul." The Stylistics were like the gods of sweet soul, with gorgeous hits like "You Are Everything" & "Betcha By Golly Wow." If you want romantic & mushy, there you go.
Summa the more upbeat groups were pretty great too: The Spinners were amazing, with great hypnotic stuff like "I'll Be Around" & their other early hits, "I'm Comin' Home," "Rubberband Man".... I was also a fan of The Dramatics, whose "What'cha See is What'cha Get" still sounds like pure 1971 to me. Their big hit "In the Rain" could stand with any of the best "sweet soul" here.
Al Green piled-up the hits thru the early '70s & he was always a pleasure 2 hear, tho 4 me he never topped "Let's Stay Together" -- I still turn that 1 up whenever it comes on oldies radio....
Marvin Gaye probly peaked in the early '70s, tho it took me a few years 2 discover his great '60s hits like "Ain't That Peculiar?" & "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," + his classic duets with Tammi Terrell.
Meanwhile in the early '70s, Marvin was knockin folks out with the brilliant "What's Goin' On" & "Inner City Blues." Has anyone else ever sounded so relaxed while talking about Big Social Problems?
I always got Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes confused with the O'Jays or the Chi-Lites, but "Bad Luck" is a freakin' classic. 4 me they never topped it. & I don't think I've ever heard any of Teddy Pendergrass's solo stuff....
A lot of Aretha's '60s stuff went right past me, but in the early '70s she was still rockin -- "Spanish Harlem" was a huge hit, & 2 songs especially stood out for me: the gorgeous, leisurely "Daydreaming" & the light-hearted "'Until You Come Back to Me," with its loopy flute & great backing chorus.
The Supremes' "Back in My Arms Again" was 1 of the stack of old 45's I grabbed from my Cousin Carol when I was around 6 years old -- & I remember the B-side of that single was just as good, but I can't remember what it was..... I'd loved their stuff thru "I Hear a Symphony" & "Love is Here and Now You're Gone" & "Reflections" -- & in the early '70s the Diana-Ross-less Supremes issued 1 more killer, the very-underrated "Up the Ladder to the Roof." When's the last time you heard that 1 on your fave oldies station? Meanwhile, Diana was releasing her own great stuff, like the brilliant epic long version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" -- wow.
The Four Tops had a bit of a comeback in the early '70s with songs like "Keeper of the Castle," but for me they never topped the brilliant "Reach Out, I'll Be There." & I never heard the Xcellent "It's the Same Old Song" until after I heard KC & the Sunshine Band's version of it 10 years later! Another Xample of not doing my homework....
Speaking of homework, when I 1st started listening 2 AM, Sly and the Family Stone were all over the place with great hits like "Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin" & "I Want to Take You Higher" -- the intensity level was unbeatable! Their GREATEST HITS album is still an adventure 2 listen 2, tho it took me years 2 latch on2 it.... Sly's little sister ended up in a vocal group called Little Sister, who scored a minor hit with "Somebody's Watching You," which sounds like a REALLY QUIET (but really good) Sly track. 4 years I thot it was some forgotten Sly hit....
There were lots more: Timmy Thomas's "Why Can't We Live Together?"; the Jimmy Castor Bunch's hilarious butt-bumpin' "Troglodyte"; Tower of Power's "So Very Hard to Go," "Down to the Nightclub" & "You're Still a Young Man"; & later on Earth, Wind and Fire's joyous early hits like "Shining Star," "Sing a Song" & "September," & the gorgeous "After the Love Has Gone"; Prince's classics "1999" & "Purple Rain" & "Let's Go Crazy"; the Brothers Johnson's "I'll Be Good to Ya" & "Strawberry Letter #23"; the Three Degrees' "When Will I See You Again?"; the Commodores' "Sail On" & "Night Shift"; Chic's "I Want Your Love" & "Good Times"; Donna Summer's "I Love You" & "Heaven Knows".... I'm sure I'm forgetting somebody, there was so much great stuff on the radio back then....
When I moved back 2 Idaho in the Fall of '73 I figured the music I'd hear on the radio might change -- no big urban environment in Boise, which was then still just a small town. But I was wrong, pretty much. 1 of the 1st songs I remember hearing on local Top 40 station KFXD was Ike & Tina Turner's great "Nutbush City Limits" -- so good it couldn't be ignored, even in then-99.5-percent-white Idaho.
I've wanted 2 write about this stuff 4 awhile. Seems like NEtime I crank-up the CD player if there R guests in the house, my 1st choice is always a Best of Motown CD. It's just really good get-together/party/feel-good music. So obviously it's left its mark on me like everything else I listen 2. Not bad 4 a white kid from Boise....

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Generic Tape Club

Way back at the end of 1973, right after my family had moved back home 2 Boise, Idaho, & I was living in a sort of small apartment in the basement of the house -- where I was amazed 2 discover that my little battery-operated transistor radio could pick-up signals from as far away as Vancouver, BC, Canada; El Paso, Texas; Oklahoma City; San Francisco; Los Angeles -- my folks bought the 1st decent hi-fidelity stereo system the family'd ever had.
Before that, the best stereo in the house had been an old Magnavox console-stereo-AM/FM radio/turntable/8-track player that sat in the living room with all the other good furniture. But I was the only 1 who ever played it -- that was where freshly-bought 45 RPM singles were auditioned 4 the parents' approval -- & so after a coupla yrs I inherited the old stereo, after my father cut the legs off of it 4 some reason. After that it sat right on my bedroom floor, & had enuf bass 2 shake the house. In fact it was almost all bass....
A door-2-door salesman sold my folks the new stereo, which was totally high-tech (4 back then) -- nice big speakers, gorgeous sound on FM, + a precision turntable that I was warned away from. I wasn't allowed 2 play that until later, tho I could play the radio. That's how I discovered the gorgeous, clear stereo sound on FM. I'd never heard FM stations B4, wasn't even aware they were out there. At the end of '73 or early '74 was when I 1st started tuning-in -- hearing in its earliest days Boise's gutsy KBBK-FM, which was completely automated 4 its 1st few years, & played stuff like Yes's "Starship Trooper" when the station employees thot nobody was listening.... It got 2 the point where I couldn't wait 4 my folks 2 leave the house, so I'd hava crack at the Good Stereo....
Nice as the stereo was, & as good as the new-2-me FM band sounded, I was more Xcited about what went WITH the stereo package.
We also got a big catalog of cassette tapes that could B ordered as part of the payment plan, + a bunch of certificates which guaranteed that as long as we were members of The Tape Club, we could order NE tape in the catalog 4 $1 each.
This wasn't the Columbia Tape Club, or the Capitol Tape Club (my folks were members of that 4 awhile, til they had enuf of getting tapes they didn't order), or the RCA Tape Club. This was just "The Tape Club." Generic. Just like their catalog, which was 50+ typewritten pages of nothing but album titles & artists' names & an order #. They had everything from rock & pop 2 country 2 jazz 2 stuff I wouldn't know how 2 classify -- groups like Flash & Osibisa & Audience, even the Firesign Theater -- I actually know who THEY are.
It didn't take long 4 me 2 latch on2 this, stashing aside my lunch-money dollars in order 2 buy music -- starting a years-long habit of buying music & books B4 I bought food....
Once I got started, I dived in pretty heavily. I started off with Yes's YESSONGS Bcos I was dying 2 hear "Your Move" & "Roundabout" again. I remember Bing sorta disappointed when the 2 tapes arrived & I learned that YESSONGS wasn't a best-of -- it was a 2-tape "live" album. But then I heard it & got sucked-in by the loudness, the crashing drama, the gorgeousness of "Close to the Edge." I lived inside that album 4 months. After that you couldn't stop me. A partial list of purchases, from memory:

Beatles: 1962-1966, 1967-1970, WHITE ALBUM, ABBEY ROAD.
The Who: WHO'S NEXT.
Tommy James & the Shondells: GREATEST HITS.

These were basically bootleg tapes -- that Bcame clear as soon as the Yes package arrived. The cassettes were bone-white, with a typewritten label on each side listing artist & album-title, & THE TAPE CLUB embossed on the bottom of the label. The tapes were shipped inside those old-fashioned, flimsy, clear-plastic boxes that cheap tapes came in back in the very early '70s. There was no factory artwork, no credits, no song listings. Just a tape with music on it.
At the time I thot this was a pretty good deal. At the time the recordings seemed 2 B pretty good quality, better than I could do recording stuff off the radio. They even sounded OK on the fancy stereo my folks had bought.
It wasn't til later that I realized the sound quality on these tapes was pretty abysmal, as if somebody had set-up a microphone next 2 a stereo speaker & sucked-up whatever sound came out. Summa the recordings were a little fuzzy, a little mushy, maybe a little 2 bass-heavy.
I didn't care. Maybe they weren't legit tapes -- & I'd B willing 2 bet all the $$$ I spent that none of the cash went 2 the artists thru royalties -- but those Tape Club folks opened up a whole new world 4 me.
I disappeared in2 those 7 Moody Blues albums 4 a coupla years -- during junior-high & highschool if I wasn't taping songs off the radio I was listening 2 the Moodies. All those albums R perfect in their way -- even IN SEARCH OF THE LOST CHORD, the most dated of the bunch. Even TO OUR CHILDREN'S CHILDREN'S CHILDREN, which I hated at 1st Bcos of its cold distance & its God's-eye view of Reality -- but 1nce it grew on me, I realized it's just as great as the rest. Even ON THE THRESHOLD OF A DREAM, even with the 6 mins of noise it ends on.
I already knew all the Beatles' hits, of course. I just wanted them all in the house. & I disappeared in2 the WHITE ALBUM 4 weeks at a time -- how weird, how twisted it seemed 2 me, compared 2 the Fab 4's earlier work. & ABBEY ROAD -- perfect, especially the epic 2nd side.
I was already a Who fan, had bought their "Join Together" single at age 12, & loved "Won't Get Fooled Again" & "Behind Blue Eyes." But WHO'S NEXT is also an almost-perfect album, Xcept mayB 4 "Love Ain't for Keeping." & I stayed a Who fan til their early-'80s breakup.
The Beach Boys' best-of turned me on early 2 "Surf's Up" & "God Only Knows" & "California Saga."
Most of these tapes self-destructed from overplay years ago. The 1 that held on longest was Tommy James' BEST OF, which I finally trashed after I found a vinyl copy of the album a few years back. Wasn't gonna dump the tape -- no matter how decrepit it was getting -- until I had something 2 replace it with....
Not sure why I stopped ordering stuff from The Tape Club. MayB Bcos I realized the sound quality of their recordings wasn't getting NE better. MayB cos I learned there were actual record stores out there where I could get this same music in far better sound & much more attractive packages. & as soon as I could start going 2 those stores, that's where I went.
They didn't come in a pretty package, & they weren't Xactly high quality, but when it came 2 a low-cost music fix, I owe those Tape Club people a lot. Has anybody else out there ever dealt with those folks...?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The problem with rock&roll novels

As you may already know, the problem with most rock&roll novels is that they aren't actually ABOUT rock&roll -- they just use rock&roll as a setting 2 get-at other issues.
Nick Hornby's Xcellent JULIET NAKED was really about Finding True Love. Hornby's HIGH FIDELITY was (unfortunately) about Becoming A Grown-Up. Iain Banks's ESPEDAIR STREET was also about Finding True Love -- tho it took awhile 2 get there. Gael Baudino's marvelous GOSSAMER AXE was about Recovering Lost Love. George R.R. Martin's THE ARMAGEDDON RAG was about Remembering The '60s, And Getting On With Life.
John Eskow's SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING really WAS about the rock&roll life ... & was kinda boring as a result, because it didn't look at anything else. It didn't have any depth. Lewis Shiner's SAY GOODBYE really was about 1 woman's pursuit of the rock&roll dream -- but other than her drive 4 success, we never really got 2 know her that well. WHY she did it remained a mystery.
My favorite rock&roll novel ever -- Lewis Shiner's GLIMPSES -- is mostly about the music & its effects on people. But even that brilliant book took-on other issues -- growing older, failing marriage, loss of parents....
Andrew Foster Altschul's LADY LAZARUS (2008) isn't really a rock&roll novel either, tho it starts out in that setting. What it is instead is a Search For The Lost (Possibly Dead) Father.
& it is WAY TOO LONG.
Now, I don't think it's fair 2 review a novel I haven't finished reading, & I hardly ever do it. But Altschul's recent DEUS EX MACHINA (reviewed here a few weeks back) was SO good that when I found out his 1st novel featured a woman rocker/poet as the heroine, well I jumped on it.
But I'm a little over 200 pgs in (out of 555 pgs), & already this book is getting dull. I'm already further in2 LADY than DEUS was in total length. & I'm still hoping Altschul can pull it off & make me eat my words. But I may not get 2 the end 2 find out.
LADY LAZARUS is the story of tragic poet Calliope Bird Morath, daughter of the late superstar rocker Brandt Morath, whose band took over the world -- & who then suicided 2 years in2 his stardom. Something of a Kurt Cobain figure.
Tho Calliope saw her father take his life, there was no funeral, she doesn't know where the body's buried, & she's convinced he's still alive & is going 2 contact her.
& her mother, Penny Power Morath -- a sort of Courtney Love figure -- Won't Talk About It.
Calliope becomes a superstar poet in college -- her work stuns her classmates, her 1st reading causes a sort of riot on campus, her 1st book of poems is Xpected 2 sell a million copies....
But by the time this happens, it's already clear Calliope's life is out of control. Bad things happen -- her life & career R full of disaster, it's not always her fault, & she has a classmate/publicist who seemingly takes over her life & steers her toward more disasters, more things the young poet doesn't want 2 do.
Now, I'm only a 3rd of the way thru the book, but I'm already getting bored with Calliope's litany of disasters. They R vividly described, but.... In fact, the book is often brilliantly written. & I'm especially struck by the way Altschul keeps slipping in2 poetry in his descriptions -- the book just slides in2 verse & rhyme. Even when it's apparently not on purpose, the book seems 2 have its own ongoing rhythm, & that's pretty neat.
But it's pretty dark, as a couple of characters point out.
It's also pretty clever. There's a lot going on here. I wish I could say that's enuf 2 keep my intrest. I plan 2 keep reading, but I hope Altschul starts pulling some rabbits outta his hat pretty soon. Altschul is also a character in the book, so I can see that there might be a whole other level of cleverness & gamesmanship going on here.
I just hope it's worth it. So far, the best chapter in the book -- the funniest, best-written chapter -- is a fictional interview with PBS's Charlie Rose. I'm not sure of the importance of that yet, but it was a really enjoyable break in the rest of the story. I hope there R more interviews coming.
But 1st, some questions:
Who was the last superstar poet? Patti Smith? Bob Dylan? Rod McKuen? Sylvia Plath? No -- Plath was virtually unknown when she died, & the dark, scorching brilliance of her poetry didn't keep her from committing suicide.
What poet WOULDN'T love 2 have a book of her poetry sell a million copies? But how likely is that these days?
Rafi Zabor's jazz novel THE BEAR COMES HOME was really about Finding True Love, but The Bear had some pretty cool jazz-life Xperiences on the way there. & in places those Xperiences were brilliantly described -- so much so that I wondered why he needed a love life.
& tho it took me 3 years 2 get thru it, so far THE BEAR is a better music-related novel than LADY LAZARUS, & it's just as clever, has just as much stuff going on, & IT'S SHORTER.
LADY LAZARUS is in some ways a perfect novel 4 these days -- it's huge, post-modern, intelligent, there's a lot going on & a lotta levels in which it's trying 2 work, & you havta work 2 read it and get a handle on what's happening. & I can see it's going to get MORE complex here shortly....
But it's also long & dense & a lotta WORK 2 read. No matter how modern it is, it's endless & dark & it's wearing out its welcome.
If it helps, you can get copies 4 a penny + shipping at