Archive for the ‘Album reviews’ Category

My God, my God … The Beach Boys: “The SMiLE Sessions” (Capitol)

January 4, 2012

"Quiet, numbskull! We're making a masterpiece!" Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks are busy working on writing "SMiLE" in 1966 while the rest of The Beach Boys are out having fun fun fun.

Note, Jan. 2, 2012: I didn’t intend for this to be a long childbirth. I never do. I started this two months ago yesterday, the day the box set was released (which was the day it arrived at the front door). Things happen — having to scramble to buy a car, having to run around getting said car fixed, working pretty much a full schedule leading into Christmas, doing a couple of holiday things here and there. Besides, this long-awaited collection was my Christmas gift to myself, anyway, so I guess it was appropriate to wait ’til after Christmas to run this. And on the good side, this didn’t become an albatross that took 45 years to come out.

Nov. 1, 2011

All Saints’ Day. All Smiles’ Day.

This is the one luxury I’m allowing myself as I slowly climb back into the realm of the employed and the solvent. Today is my Christmas. And I can’t believe my gift to myself came early on the appointed day.

Sitting in the foyer this morning was a package containing the deluxe version of The Beach Boys’ “The SMiLE Sessions,” the final, long, looooooooooooong-awaited, shattered — then painstakingly restored and reassembled — jigsaw pieces of one of the most beautiful, saddening, maddening episodes in the history of popular music.

The deluxe five-CD version in a box with 3-D cover art, along with a two-LP version of the album with some extras, two 45s, a fancy hardcover booklet and a poster. There's also a much less expensive, less comprehensive two-CD version.

An album that was begun before I even started kindergarten, when Brian Wilson started working on “Good Vibrations,” finally, officially arrived in a completed form today.

Diehard Brian fans have heard many of the pieces in one form or another in countless bootleg versions through the years, versions of the album as compiled by fans; many shards were included on Capitol’s “Good Vibrations” Beach Boys box set in 1993 and, of course, there’s the fine 2004 studio version Brian recorded with his current band. (I was so scared to hear it that I didn’t buy it for three months, then finally gave in and listened and was stunned.)

But this is different. The 2004 “SMiLE’ was sung by a 62-year-old Brian, with plenty of help from his band, not the 26-year-old Brian at his creative and vocal peaks; it was a bargain I willfully accepted — and it was a brilliant piece of work — but it wasn’t The Beach Boys.

This is The Beach Boys — Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al, Bruce — as they would never be again. Granted, the album in this here box set was put together and sequenced by a 69-year-old Brian (along with his “SMiLE” lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, and his co-producers, Mark Linnett and Alan Boyd). But hey, it was his creation in the first place. This was, and is, his vision. And this is as close to what he might have been thinking at the time as we’ll ever hear.

My work schedule precludes me listening to the five CDs right now,  but I sat there at my desk today, I felt a strange emotion hit me as I was listening to “Do You Like Worms? (Roll Plymouth Rock).” Maybe, as a tune that taps into American history and the exploration of the West, it was a direct connection to “Rio Grande” and the absolute joy I felt when I first listened to Brian’s solo album in the summer of 1988. Except out of nowhere, I felt myself choke up. It was momentary, but its suddenness startled me.

And eight songs later, it was “Surf’s Up.” I thought it was beautiful the first time I heard it as a teenager — one of the most beautiful songs I had ever heard — with its melancholy piano, abstract lyrics (“Columnnated ruins domino/Canvas the town and brush the backdrop/Are you sleeping/Brother John?”) and Brian’s soaring, angelic falsetto. But sitting here today listening to it — remastered and cleaned-up, in the context of an officially sanctioned “SMiLE” masterminded by Brian? I started shaking. And then it became sobs.

My God, my God …

In my 50 years, I had never experienced the dichotomy of tears of joy until this point. The joy of both Brian and myself having stuck around long enough to see and hear this happen — and knowing what he had gone through emotionally to get to this point. Plus the sadness that comes with knowing this is the end of something.

I don’t believe in the concept of “closure” — to me, it’s a senseless word tossed around carelessly by outsiders — but if something comes close, I guess this is it. It’s the glorious end of a glorious chapter of music, of a story that’s full of what sells books: joy, pain, angst, sadness, loss, mystery, redemption, paradise lost and found. The conclusion of a book that’s been written in fits and starts most of my life. And as a fan, when you carry a book around for three decades, even just spiritually and emotionally, if not physically, it’s hard to let go.

And I thought back to the spring of 1990, when Garry Trudeau ran that incredible week of Pulitzer-winning Doonesbury strips — Joanie’s lawyer friend, Andy Lippincott, getting to hear the remastered “Pet Sounds” on CD (which, along with Capitol’s first CD remastering of the entire Beach Boys catalog, was a huge deal at the time) as he lay on his deathbed from AIDS. I’m not ready to die (well, I certainly hope not), but now I can die knowing I’ve heard an official, honest-to-goodness version of “SMiLE,” the great lost album. (more…)

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘The Promise’ — Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)

December 2, 2010

Bruce Springsteen's early rejects and throwaways were better than most people's A-games.

There was so much mystery about Bruce Springsteen in those days, especially if you were just an impressionable high school kid.

Bootlegs floated about in various record stores in the late ’70s — not just those of live recordings, but studio outtakes and alternate takes. Many of them. We were teased further when Dave Marsh wrote about some of these mystery non-album tunes, such as “The Promise,” in his first Bruce bio, “Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story.”

Occasionally, one of them would pop up as a hit for someone else, or at least on someone else’s album, but not Bruce’s. Most famously, there was “Because the Night,” which Patti Smith heard when she was recording in the studio next door to Springsteen and wanted to have a go at herself.

There was also “Fire,” which he gave to Robert Gordon, who cut it on his second album with Link Wray, “Fresh Fish Special.” Gordon’s career never took off the way it should have — a shame, since he jump-started the rockabilly revival three or four years before the Stray Cats — but a year later, the tune went to No. 2 for The Pointer Sisters. And “Talk to Me,” an early hit for Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. There were also Greg Kihn’s version of “Rendezvous” and Dave Edmunds’ “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come).”

And at one dead-end temp warehouse job between my freshman and sophomore years of college — that would be the summer of ’80 — one of my co-workers,  a humongous fan, made me a cassette of some of these Bruce rejects, such as “The Promise” and “Because the Night,” along with early performances of “Seaside Bar Song,” “Thundercrack” and “Bishop Danced.” And they were such good songs, even with the poor, muffled cassette sound quality, that I always wondered why he never released them. His throwaways were better than many musicians’ A-games.

Well, he finally got the hint and released his “Tracks” box set in 1998. Just tune after wonderful tune, including many outtakes from the sessions for “The River” and some from “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” “The River” has been my favorite Bruce album since its release 30 autumns ago, but I’ve had to rethink this, since there were so many rejects I thought that were better than some of the tunes he included: “Restless Nights,” “Dollhouse,” “Where the Bands Are,” “Loose Ends,” “Roulette.”

And now, he’s at long last come around to the rest of the “Darkness” outtakes. Sort of.

The two-CD “The Promise,” sold separately and as part of this year’s big musical Christmas toy, the 30th-anniversary remastered “Darkness” CD/DVD package, does collect a lot of the essential outtakes, and many of the 22 songs here (“The Way” is an untitled track tacked onto the end of “City of Night”) hold up wonderfully. But to a certain extent, Springsteen and pals have given us a collection of overdubs and 2010 reinterpretations of several of these songs. In that regard, it’s kind of a promise unfulfilled.

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ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Le Noise’ — Neil Young (Reprise)

November 24, 2010

Neil Young with Daniel Lanois. Bring on "Le Noise." Photo: AP.

Neil Young has never been known not to follow his muse, for better and worse. Sometimes all in the breadth of the same album.

His longtime fans probably live by the same unofficial credo as the radio station to which I’ve belonged (albeit remotely these days) since 1991, WPKN  (89.5 FM, wpkn.org) in Bridgeport, Ct.: Some songs I like. Some songs I don’t like.

And chances are his listeners are following those very same words again.

His latest album — his 51st, counting his box set and a greatest-hits disc — appeared with little fanfare a short while back. The title, “Le Noise,” is a play on the mispronunciation of the name of his producer, Daniel Lanois, but it’s also a sly way of summing up this solo collection: It’s noise, all right, but as the Frenchiness of the title implies, it’s refined noise. Sometimes greatly, sometimes just barely. Mostly for better, a little for worse.

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ALBUM REVIEW: ‘National Ransom’ — Elvis Costello (HRM/Concord Music Group)

November 16, 2010

Elvis Costello teams once again with producer T-Bone Burnett. But it's not all boring Americana product.

Just the mention of some people makes this music fan’s ears glaze over like a stream on a November morning. Like T-Bone Burnett.

These days, “Produced by T-Bone Burnett” is often shorthand for “OK, this is gonna a boring Americana album — a collection of songs done in a scholarly and contrived hybrid of rock, country, folk and blues that’s geared to NPR-demographic yuppies who’ve forgotten how to rock in their middle ages. And certain critics will bleat on about how it’s another masterpiece and then life will go on another day.”

Yes, I know — he co-wrote the Oscar-winning “The Weary Kind” with Ryan Bingham for “Crazy Heart.” He’s also been on the board for several albums I hold in high regard: Roy Orbison’s “Mystery Girl” and “Black and White Night Live,” Marshall Crenshaw’s “Downtown,” Los Lobos’ “How Will the Wolf Survive?” and his first Elvis Costello album, “King of America.”But all those albums were from the mid-to-late ’80s.

And I realize he’s in demand now — just this year, he did the new discs by Elton John & Leon Russell, The Secret Sisters, Bingham, John Mellencamp, Robert Randolph, Willie Nelson and Jakob Dylan, with Steve Earle and Gregg Allman on deck for next year.

But still, those four words …

And they’re found on the back of Costello’s latest album, “National Ransom,” the way they were on last year’s “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.”

Well, I let the stream thaw enough to let the album go around several times and then some. Costello may be pop music’s man for all seasons, but his recordings, like Neil Young’s (and there’s a review of his new one coming), are a crapshoot, and you never know whether you’re gonna get the good Costello, the bad Costello or the mediocre Costello.

Well, some of it’s the good Costello, some is the mediocre Costello. Not terrible, though. Not masterpiece material, but not bad. Or is that damning with faint praise, she asks semi-knowingly?

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ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Living Proof’ — Buddy Guy (Silvertone/Jive)

October 26, 2010

You're trying to tell me Buddy Guy's 74 years old? He's playing like 24. OK, maybe 34. Photo from buddyguy.com.

“I’ve been all around the world/Everywhere is home/Drink wine with kings and The Rolling Stones/I’ve got a few scars from the battles I’ve won/’Cause I’m 74 years young.”

— Buddy Guy, “74 Years Young”

It took this long, at last, for Buddy Guy to get around to recording his valedictory lap. You know what I mean — the album where he can rest on his king-sized bed of laurels and look back on his long and illustrious and influential career. You know — the type of album B.B. King has been cutting for the past 20 years. Which is how long ago Guy stormed back into the collective consciousness of music fans with “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues.”

Funny thing is, though, this new album, “Living Proof,” doesn’t sound like anyone’s resting on anything.

To some extent, it’s definitely “The Buddy Guy Story” as committed to digital recording machines. But while it’s a life in song, it sure doesn’t sound like a final chapter. The man’s as fiery as he ever was.

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ALBUM REDUX: Tracie — ‘Far From the Hurting Kind’ (Cherry Red; UK import)

September 4, 2010

In 1983, shortly after Paul Weller broke up The Jam and started The Style Council and released their first single, “Speak Like a Child,” along came a single by a young protege of his — literally twice over. Tracie Young was just 17 when she sent a demo to Weller in 1982 after seeing an ad in Smash Hits magazine looking for singers. Both Weller’s and Tracie’s songs were getting a good deal of airplay on Long Island’s big commercial alt-music station, WLIR, around the time I was graduating from college on the Island.

“The House That Jack Built,” in no way to be confused with the Aretha Franklin hit of the same name, was a bouncy, catchy, soul-pop tune driven by a sweet, pretty and passionate young voice. And it hinted at greater things to come.

The record was the first broadside from Respond Records, Weller’s new label, which the Modfather, a huge Northern soul fan, seemed to envision as a latter-day stable of acts a la Motown — the Sound of Young Britain, if you will. It was followed by several other singles from various artists and a killer compilation called “Love the Reason.” The highlights included a strong version of Sister Sledge’s “Mama Never Told Me” by Tracie with The Questions; and “She Is So,” a horn-and-percussion-driven bit of sweetness and fury by A Craze, fronted by Lucy Loquette, another pretty face with a fire beneath.

And the following year, there was a full-length Tracie album, “Far From the Hurting Kind,” which was even released here in the States (on A&M). It was a terribly ignored album in its time. But it built upon the sounds I had heard from her the previous year and cemented me as a fan (and, yes, I admit it, I had a tiny fan crush on her as well).

Unfortunately, aside from a couple more singles, that’s as far as her singing career went. Weller kind of lost interest in the label and it eventually disappeared. And occasionally over the years — such as those times I would pull out her album to play on my show at WPKN — I wondered what happened to her.

Well, jump ahead a quarter-century. Weller, one of the best songwriters in rock’n’roll history, still slogs on passionately 10 albums into his successful solo career. Tracie — true to her surname, looking much younger than 45 — is now a midday deejay at a radio station in Southend, Essex, and thanks to the magic of social media — I stumbled onto her MySpace page two years ago — and a groundswell of fans looking for her old material in digital form, we finally have a CD reissue of the album. Well, almost all of it, anyway, plus some other singles and two modern reworkings of old songs.

These days, I’m 49 but going on 26. Hearing this album made me feel even younger than that; it brought me back to the good parts of being 22, 23.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Brian Wilson — ‘Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin’ (Disney Pearl Series)

August 19, 2010

It’s an intriguing musical moment I’d been waiting for most of the summer — one of the foremost composers and producers of American pop music the past half-century having a go at another of the premier American composers of the 20th century.

Since he shed the thousand-ton gorilla called “Smile” and finished his four-decades-interrupted opus six years ago, Brian Wilson has been liberated to embark on flights of personal passion.

The first was “That Lucky Old Sun,” released two summers ago at this time. Inspired by the song first recorded by Frankie Laine in 1949, Wilson and his “Smile”/“Orange Crate Art” collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, created a lush song cycle contrasting the sun-splashed Southern California life with Wilson’s well-chronicled personal struggles.

Now Wilson tackles George Gershwin. The Gershwin estate contacted him last year to complete two songs the composer hadn’t finished before his untimely death in 1937. The end result, the full album, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” is difficult to wrap your head around at first — the sheer culture clash of the urbane, white-tie-and-tails, Art Deco Manhattan of the ’30s and Hawaiian-shirted SoCal fun-in-sun. Some of these versions you may never get used to. But at least some of them will grow on you once you discard your preconceptions the way you’d shed a suit, article after article of clothing, once you get to the beach.

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ARCHIVES: Frozen ropes, dying quails, good music and dying ballparks

May 30, 2010

This pre-Franorama World post ran on the Fresno Beehive Aug.6, 2008, 7:50 p.m. PDT:

So it was 35 years ago Monday — Aug. 4, 1973 — that my Uncle Bill took my brother Jim and me to our first big-league ballgame: 10 stops down the No. 7 line from his apartment in Queens to Shea Stadium. When Fresno’s greatest athlete was still the beloved ace of the Mets’ staff, Yogi was managing and Tug was starting to tell everyone “Ya gotta believe!” When Shea still had those cool blue-and-orange squares and rectangles on the outside that screamed ’60s as loudly as the girls inside screamed for The Beatles those two legendary nights.

We sat in the upper deck in foul territory in short left. And I got to see the beginning of a second Mets miracle. And it began with a loss.

The Cardinals (back when Joe Torre rocked those muttonchop sideburns) were in first in the National League East; the Mets were in last, I think nine games out. It was Jerry Koosman against Bob Gibson. And the Cards won the battle, 4-3, but lost the pennant that sunny Saturday afternoon. Gibson singled with one out in the second. The next batter — I believe it was Ken Reitz — hit a sharp liner, but it was right at Teddy Martinez, the shortstop. The mighty Gibson ripped up his right knee trying to get back to first. He eventually got up and went to the mound to test the knee, but collapsed in a heap. By the time he returned in mid-September, St. Louis had faded from the race and the Amazins were on their memorable run toward the seventh game of the Series in Oakland.

I also wanted to see Willie Mays. I figured, at 42, it was gonna be his last year, and I wanted to see him play once. He didn’t. The consolation prize was heading back to the train and seeing a swarm of kids in the Shea parking lot crowding around a pink yacht of an Imperial with a black vinyl roof — and black California plates: SAY HEY.

I forgot about the anniversary … until I got in a little summer listening this past week and heard Scott McCaughey sing a trippy, wistful bit of nostalgia titled “I Dream of Willie Mays” on the most excellent new album by The Baseball Project, “Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails.”

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ALBUM REVIEW: “Purity of Essence” — Hoodoo Gurus (Hoodoo Gurus Records)

May 21, 2010

The Hoodoo Gurus -- older, wiser but no less melodic or energetic. Clockwise from left: Dave Faulkner, Brad Shepherd, Mark Kingsmill and Rick Grossman. Photo: Sony Records Australia

When I tell people my favorite band is The Fleshtones — at least the folks who at least know who they are — I get a lot of “You mean they’re still around?”

Well, the same goes for their kindred souls and good pals from Sydney, the Hoodoo Gurus — except, unlike the ‘shtones (together since 1976), the Gurus, formed in 1980, did split up for a spell (1998-2003). Well-liked in the States among fans of garage and ’80s-’90s college radio, but revered in their home country — and inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame in 2007 — the foursome recorded a reunion album in ’04, “Mach Shau,” but it never came out here.

“Purity of Essence” is the first Gurus disc released Stateside since “Blue Cave” in ’96. And damn, it’s so good to have them back. It’s as if they never left.

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ALBUM REVIEW: “Small Time Hustler” — The Suppressors (self-released)

May 13, 2010

Manu Janssens (center), Omari Jones (right) and the rest of The Suppressors roll out "Small Time Hustler" May 14 at Audie's Olympic in Fresno.

There was a time, Manu Janssens told me, that all you had to do in Fresno was say the words “ska show” and people would come out and the place would be full.

That would have been in the ’90s, years before I moved here — during the thick of ska’s third wave and the heyday of the city’s gift to the then-flourishing national ska scene, Let’s Go Bowling.

That’s hardly the case here anymore for any act in any genre. LGB still gets together for a handful of well-received shows a year, but for a local band that plays regularly, or tries to, the sledding is much rougher (especially in a city that gets no snow).

Fresno is a place where the arts are never more than tepidly appreciated (the major museum in town went under in January, and two others are hurting badly) and that goes for music, too. People will pay good money for a major product act at Fresno State’s arena, the Save Mart Center, or to see any of a kazillion cover bands — and Fresno leads the league in “tribute” bands — but original indie acts, even the immensely talented ones, struggle to get anyone to come out to see them.

Live music clubs are few, the club owners do no promotion at all for their venues (too cheap to even put up fliers), bring few national-level performers (a sin, considering Fresno is right in the center of California and would be the ideal stopover for shows between San Francisco and L.A.), and the general public seems just as apathetic. (Or, in a city where the official unemployment rate is over 20%, maybe they’re just plain broke.) So my Fresno friends are reduced to mostly having to reminisce about all the great national shows back in the day at the Wild Blue Yonder, the Cadillac Club (both long gone) or the Wilson Theatre (now a right-wing church).

And it’s in this climate that Janssens, the ringleader and tenor saxophonist of the current local ska standard-bearers, The Suppressors, has decided to put out the band’s first album, “Small Time Hustler.” The release party will take place Friday (May 14) at Audie’s Olympic in Fresno. I don’t hold much hope for the Big No embracing the group or the album, but they do have the legs to do something on a statewide level, and maybe a national stage as well.

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