Big Star - Columbia: Live At Missouri University 4/25/93
Against all probability, an organizer for the University of Missouri's Springfest contacted Big Star drummer Jody Stephens to see if he would consider a Big Star reunion show. Stephens told him that if Alex Chilton would do it, he would as well. Chilton has made a real point over the years of not cashing in on Big Star's legacy, but he decided to do the show anyway. Stephens drafted Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from the Posies to fill out the lineup, and Big Star was reborn. For those not familiar with Big Star, they are the 70's answer to the Velvet Underground - commercial flops with massive influence. The surprise here is that Chilton & co. sound fantastic. The songs have a harder edge than the originals, probably due to the new sidemen, but the songs are still great. Rumor has it that a tour and album are being considered. Welcome back.
The Velvet Underground - Live MCMXCIII
If one amazing reunion wasn't enough for you, the legendary Velvet Underground reunited for a European tour (and broke up again before the US dates), and Live MCMXCIII is the result. Also amazing is that the Velvets haven't lost anything. The real highlights are a stunning rendition of the classic "Heroin" powered by Lou Reed's thick guitar and John Cale's frantic viola work, and the surprise cut "The Gift", in which Cale reads the story of Waldo Jeffers while Reed, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker blast out the background music. Stunning.
Neil Young - Unplugged
MTV has done a ton of these Unplugged shows. Some work, some don't. Neil Young is the perfect artist for the format though. Young has done solo acoustic shows before, but on this album he tries songs he doesn't usually do acoustic, like "Mr. Soul", "Like A Hurricane" and "Transformer Man". On half the album, Young is backed most of the players from his Harvest Moon album, freeing Young for keyboards as well as guitar. Great stuff.
Graham Parker - Passion Is No Ordinary Word
A very well done overview of a great career (so far). Parker's recorded for FIVE different labels over the years, so it took a sixth (Rhino) to pull something from all phases of his career. Well worth picking up.
Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers - Greatest Hits
Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers are one of those rare acts that can put out an album called Greatest Hits, fill it with radio staples, and still leave out some big tracks. The obvious omissions are "A Woman In Love" and "Jammin' Me", but I don't know what I'd cut to make room! The tracks that are included are: "American Girl", "Breakdown", "Listen To Her Heart", "I Need To Know", "Refugee", "Don't Do Me Like That", "Even The Losers", "Here Comes My Girl", "The Waiting", "You Got Lucky", "Don't Come Around Here No More", "I Won't Back Down", "Runnin' Down A Dream", "Free Fallin'", "Learning To Fly", "Into The Great Wide Open" and two new cuts "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and a cover of the Thunderclap Newman #1 hit "Something In The Air".
The Soft Boys - 1976-81
The Soft Boys were Robyn Hitchcock's band before he went solo. A strange mix of The Beatles, The Byrds, and Syd Barrett, the Soft Boys were never quite in the right place at the right time. 1976-81 is a well done 2-CD sampler of their best material, including some great rarities like a live "Heartbreak Hotel" (done like John Cale's brooding version), and a cover of Lou Reed's "Caroline Says". If you like Robyn Hitchcock, you MUST hear this album.
Richard Thompson - Watching The Dark
Watching The Dark is a 3-CD overview of Thompson's career (with and without Linda), with a few Fairport Convention tracks (including a rare version of "A Sailor's Life") thrown in for good measure. The material is great, but this is really not a "greatest-hits" type set. The box seems aimed more at the long-time Thompson fan rather than someone new.
various artists - Stairways To Heaven
What a bizarre album this is. 20 versions of "Stairway To Heaven" as performed by various Australian bands, several of which sound a whole lot like major acts. Try and imagine the Beatles (circa 1965), the Doors, or the B-52s covering "Stairway", and you've almost got it. Through in some Manhattan Transfer-style jazz, a straight dramatic reading of the lyrics, and some R&B and you're closer. Too weird, and too funny for words.
OTHER NOTEWORTHY RELEASES
Kate Bush - The Red Shoes
The Red Shoes is Kate's first album in four years, and while it's a very good album, it's not a match for her earlier work. "Rubberband Girl" and "Eat The Music" are the "hits", but the best track is the haunting "Moments Of Pleasure". Good songs all around, but it doesn't have the impact of her earlier work.
Dread Zeppelin - Hot & Spicy Beanburger
Talk about "taking the hint". For Dread Zep's third album (1992's It's Not Unusual), lead singer (and Elvis impersonator) Tortelvis was gone. Reggae singer Ed Zeppelin was gone, and instead of Led Zep covers, Dread Zep did disco covers. No, it was WORSE than you're thinking. IRS dropped the band, and, well, the Dread boys seem to have got the hint. Tortelvis and Ed Zeppelin are back, and Hot & Spicy Beanburger (on DZ's own label) is chock full of Led Zep covers, with great take on "Unchained Melody" thrown in for good measure. If you don't like Dread Zep, this won't covert you. If you're already one of the faithful, grab a peanut-butter-'nana sannich and throw on the album. Uh huh.
David Sylvian & Robert Fripp - The First Day
The First Day is a odd combination of former Japan lead singer David Sylvian's Bowie-esque vocals, and Robert Fripp's dazzling lead guitar. The songs are much longer than is currently hip (the three longest are 17:17, 11:50 and 10:25 long), and give Fripp (along with stick player Trey Gunn) a chance to play with different textures of music.
ALSO WORTH A LISTEN
- Cracker - Kerosene Hat
- Donald Fagen - Kamakiriad
- Midnight Oil - Earth And Sun And Moon
- The Waterboys - Dream Harder
FRANK ZAPPA (1940-1993)
In his last year, Frank released two official albums (The Yellow Shark and Ahead Of Their Time) that really showed the breadth of his career. Ahead Of Their Time is a live recording of the Mothers Of Invention in the late 60s, and The Yellow Shark is his brand new classical work commissioned and performed by Ensemble Modern, a German modern music ensemble. The Yellow Shark is easily the best of Frank's "serious" work. It's got all the Zappa hallmarks, including his stinging sense of humor. "Welcome To The United States" is pseudo-dramatic reading of the entry form needed for visitation in the US, backed by bizarre sound effects from the Ensemble. Also, a CD of last year's tribute concert called Zappa's Universe, giving a nice overview of a long and storied career. The highlight there are back-to-back gospel-tinged a capella renditions of two of Zappa's most pointed attacks on televangelism, "Heavenly Bank Account" and "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing".
Frank was truly one-of-a-kind. He was a multi-talented composer, who wrote in almost every style imaginable. He tried rock & roll, symphonic music, doo-wop, blues, rap, broadway showtunes, jazz, country, and synthesized music too complex for conventional musicians, with lyrics ranging from the silly to "dirty" to no-holds-barred attacks on institutions that needed to be attacked.
I saw five different Zappa concerts, two on back-to-back nights on his last tour in 1988. On that tour, Zappa had a 12-piece band (two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, percussion, a five-piece horn section, and Zappa on stunning, powerful guitar solos improvised on the spot) that would come out and play one hour straight, pause for a voter registration drive in the lobby, come back and play another hour straight, followed by encores. No breaks between songs, and the set list changed radically from night to night. Through official releases and bootlegs, I've counted 114 different songs the band had ready to roll. On top of all of that, the sound was mixed perfectly, I could hear every instrument clear as a bell. The best concerts I've ever seen, bar none.
Over his career, Zappa released a staggering sixty-five albums from 1965-1993, many double sets, yet most people know his music for one of three "novelty" songs: "Valley Girl", "Dancin' Fool", or "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow". Sadly, I fear most people who remember Frank will remember those songs, the names he gave his kids, or his testimony before Congress about record labelling, and completely miss out on one of the most brilliant and innovative musicians ever. Not me.
THE TOP TEN FOR 1993
(in my opinion, anyway)
10) Denis Leary - No Cure For Cancer
Yes, I know, this is a comedy album. Leary's style tends more to the "assaultive", so this album is not for everyone. If you can deal with the style, this is one of the funniest albums you'll ever hear. There are three songs on here as well, all catchy, the highlight being the "signature" opening track, "Asshole". Kinda says it all.
9) Tom Waits - The Black Rider
This simply had to be interesting. The Black Rider is a new play, and this album is the score, written by Waits and William S. Burroughs. The style goes back to Waits "pawn shop" style, complete with a musical saw on the stunning ballad "November".
8) Robyn Hitchcock And The Egyptians - Respect
This is an odd album for Hitchcock. The Egyptians back him up, but all the instruments used are acoustic. The highlights are his attempt to write a Band song, "The Serpent At The Gates Of Wisdom", the bizarre Barry White-style a cappella track "Wafflehead", "The Wreck Of The Arthur Lee", and "Arms Of Love".
7) Adrian Belew - The Acoustic Adrian Belew
A fan club-only issue, this album has Belew playing older tracks from prior bands (King Crimson, The Bears), older solo tracks, a cover of the Beatles' "If I Fell" and Roy Orbison's "Crying" strictly on acoustic guitar and dobro, without the flashly guitar effects he's known for. As it turns out, he's an good acoustic player as well. A very simple, but excellent, album.
6) Sugar - Beaster
After Sugar finished the Copper Blue sessions last year, they had studio time left over. They used the resulting time to record Beaster (released Easter week), a dark, powerful album full of religious imagery. The six songs build to a frenzy on the two middle cuts, "Judas Cradle" and "JC Auto" (short for Jesus Christ Autobiography), and closes down with a startling ballad "Walking Away", with just Bob Mould's vocal and a church organ for accompaniment. A solid second effort.
5) Mike Keneally - hat.
Keneally was the "stunt guitarist" in Frank Zappa's 1988 tour band, and hat. shows some of the influence. Keneally records straight power-pop, searing guitar solos, ballads, and tracks that defy description. He's got a sense of humor about it too, especially on "Eno And The Actor", "Dhen Tin" (a punk song about a certain cinnamon flavored chewing gum), and "The Car Song" (about "car lust"). Check it out.
4) Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet - Sport Fishin' - The Lure Of The Bait, The Luck Of The Hook
An amazing album. The Shadowy Men are an instrumental band known for providing the background music on The Kids In The Hall. Sport Fishin' is a great album - two dozen tracks (some under a minute in length) full of spunk and wit. Irresitible.
3) Martin Newell with Andy Partridge - The Greatest Living Englishman
The Greatest Living Englishman is an terrific album full of 60's-style English pop songs. Catchy, clever, and charming. The style falls somewhere between the Beatles, the early Kinks and XTC. If you like 60's pop (complete with strings and the occasional harpsichord), you NEED to hear this. The only knock is that the sound is a bit muffled. The album was recorded in Partridge's home studio, and the sounds shows it.
2) Teenage Fanclub - Thirteen
Thirteen is the long-awaited followup to TFC's break-through album Bandwagonesque, and it doesn't disappoint. Thirteen is a progression from the last album. The harmonies are still there, the melodies are stronger, the hooks are still catchy, and the band still packs massive power on the loud tracks. The difference here are some of the more delicate numbers offsetting the rave-ups. Great stuff.
1) Pete Townshend - Psychoderelict
Psychoderelict is Pete Townshend's most adventurous solo album, and his best since 1982's All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. What makes the album so adventurous is not the songs, but the format. Psychoderelict is a radio play, with acted-out scenes in between (and during) the tracks on the album. The songs themselves do not tell the story (like they did in Tommy and Quadrophenia), but complement the story.
The story itself concerns a reclusive older rock star named Raymond Highsmith (aka Ray High), and a plot between his manager, Rastus Knight, and a powerful journalist, Ruth Streeting, to egg High back into the spotlight. The story also has a subplot about Ray's secret project "Gridlife" which concerns a future society where the citizens are all hooked up to a virtual reality system called "The Grid" as a replacement for real life. The concept of "Gridlife" is a lift from an aborted Who project called Lifehouse. In fact, four instrumental bits from Lifehouse (including a bit of the original "Baba O'Riley" demo) serve as background for some of the dialog scenes.
The songs are Townshend's best in many years, including some of the best flat out rockers he's written since the Who. "English Boy", "Fake It", "Don't Try To Make Me Real" and "I Want That Thing" are all clever, driving numbers, while "I Am Afraid" and "Now And Then" are softer ballads that keep a balance to the album. His singing and guitar playing seem re-energized. This is a must-hear.
NOTE: Psychoderelict has been released in two versions, with and without the dialogue. To me, the dialogue makes the album a complete experience, but many people may prefer the songs-only version. If you're interested, listen to both before you decide.