Blue (Joni Mitchell) – Album Review

The Album That Spearheaded The Whole Singer-Songwriter Craze Of The ‘70s, “Blue” Remains Joni Mitchell’s Most Popular Record To This Very Day.

"Blue" (1971) Remains Joni Mitchell’s Most Popular Record To This Very Day. The Album Brought A Whole New Degree Of Openness Into The Making Of Music.

The album which started Joni Mitchell’s commercially-successful days, “Blue” was also the one album heralding a whole new kind of sensibility. Starting with “Blue”, artists were no longer afraid to expose their failings and vulnerabilities. Music took on a completely confessional nature, and an openness that could be potentially healing but also imminently dangerous for its participants was established.

This could hardly be termed coincidental, of course. The idealism of the late ’60s had not just been challenged – it had been turned on its head. Everything was to become starker as the decade advanced. And musicians began expressing both their inner turmoil and the state the whole industry was in through their art. The results would rank from the too-close-for-comfort “The Who By Numbers” to albums like Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks”, true artifacts of despondency that would have been out of place in the previous decade – a decade in which it was assumed that music would do nothing but change the world.

As I said when reviewing the “Hits” package, the sparser the instrumentation then the more effective the songs on “Blue” are. “River”, “Little Green”, “This Flight Tonight”… these songs wouldn’t have worked like they did otherwise. The directness of the sound simply highlights the true profundity of the message – the desire to break from the desolation of the whole music business expressed in “River”, the remorse of having given up a daughter for adoption and never hearing from her again as Joni did when she was young conveyed in “Little Green”, the self-flaying doubts upon leaving a loved one behind (as in “This Flight Tonight”)… Joni also looks resentfully on her marriage on the song “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, whereas “California” echoes the unsettling feeling of being in the wrong place at the wrong time expressed by “River”.

And even the songs which could be deemed as upbeat are weighed down by a sensation that brings to mind the old saying, “Happiness is nothing but sadness wearing a mask”. “A Case Of You” is dog-eared by destitution, the lyrics describing a love that is too strong and over-arching for its own good. And “All I Want” is a forceful reminder of how proximate loving is to hatred. In both cases, it seems as if the singer were the kind of person who gives just too much away. People like that always assume that his/her significant other will do the same. And when that doesn’t happen (because it just doesn’t happen – taking emotions for granted is as devastating as it is commonplace), a true circle of recriminations and self-loathing is patterned. Continue reading

The Band – General Introduction

The Band: Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson & Rick Danko

The Band: Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson & Rick Danko

There were not that many performers whose beginning was as shrouded in mystery as that of The Band. They were known as Bob Dylan’s backing group during his early electric tours, and they were in fact the ones backing the master onstage during the infamous “Judas!” incident. They issued their first album in 1968 (“Music From Big Pink”), and the cover illustration was actually done by Dylan. After the album was issued, they gave no interviews. And a twist of fate dictated that they were not to perform live for some time since one of their members (Rick Danko) was involved in a car accident that left him out of business for a couple of months.

One of their most popular songs, from “Music From Big Pink”:

Gradually, the mystery was lifted and what we found was an ensemble of musicians that redefined the concept of collectiveness, and the idea of a performing unit taken as a whole. Their second, eponymous album was a major step forward. Released in 1969, it is now regarded as a seminal work in the history of Rock & Roll.

Upon its release, everybody knew who they were and the way they operated. The names of the five members of The Band were on the lips of everybody within the scene and the industry: Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. With the exception of Robertson, everybody could play multiple instruments. Three members also handled lead vocals: Manuel, Danko and Helm. Still, Manuel is traditionally considered “the” lead singer of the group.

Epochal songs dealing with American themes (like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) constituted the backbone of that breakthrough album, and that was all the more remarkable since all of them (except for Helm) were Canadians.

The albums that succeeded had The Band gradually expanding their sound by approaching producers like Todd Rundgren, and working on elaborate arrangements with New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint among others. And their penultimate record together (“Northern Lights – Southern Cross”) offered a truly updated sound thanks to the addition of synthesizers into the mix.

The Band Performing Live At "The Last Waltz" Concert

The Band Performing Live At "The Last Waltz" Concert

As good as they were, those albums began showcasing some strains and rivalries within the group, as Robertson emerged as an authoritative figure – he took the credit for most of their compositions, and that caused serious problems in the long run, with other members accusing him of claiming authorship of what was essentially a collective effort. Robertson would be the first member to quit – his last performance with The Band was on the famed concert movie “The Last Waltz” in 1978. Continue reading

Damn The Torpedoes (Tom Petty) – Album Review

"Damn The Torpedoes" Was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers First Platinum Album. It Was Issued In 1979.

"Damn The Torpedoes" Was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers First Platinum Album. It Was Issued In 1979.

“Damn The Torpedoes” was Petty’s third album, and the one that brought true recognition to him and the Heartbreakers (his classic backing band). It came out in 1979, and it signaled the first run-in that Tom had with the industry. Basically, Petty’s record company at the time (Shelter) was sold to MCA, a move Petty disapproved of. He tried to detach himself by all means, and he was to eventually end up bankrupt as a result. Hence the title of the record – Admiral David Farragut’s famous order at the Battle of Mobile Bay: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”.

Getting down to the music, now, the disc is invariably good. It caught Tom and the boys at the peak of their explicit days as rockers, whereas the album closer “Louisiana Rain” evidenced a desire to innovate and move out of the constraints of the genre, even if only a little.

The singles included “Refugee” (a song that hit #15) and the top 10 hit “Don’t Do Me Like That”. “Here Comes My Girl” (which featured a spoken delivery by Tom) and “Even The Losers” were also to go down as Tom Petty classics. The latter in particular will always be an excellent example of Petty’s prototypical characters – people who are out of fortune but not out of luck, as I commented on the general introduction I wrote yesterday. Continue reading

Tom Petty – General Introduction

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

A rocker at heart. That is the way Tom Petty would go down in history. Sure, there were some diversions along a career that spans three decades and that still keeps going on strong. The first one came in 1985 with the concept album “Southern Accents”, and his first stint as a Traveling Wilbury showcased a very different side of him (the second album by the Wilburies found Petty back on more familiar territory). But these (and his solo albums like Wildflowers) can be deemed as mini-vacations after which he came energized like never before.

Born in Gainesville (Florida) in 1950, Petty’s interest in rock & roll music was instilled by two of the main icons of a whole generation, The Beatles and Elvis Presley (whom he was to met in person). After playing with a band called Mudcrutch that was to issue only a single back in the ‘70s (the band would reunite in 2008 to do a proper record), Petty launched a solo career with the assistance of two of his Mudcrutch bandmates, Mike Campbell (lead guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards). They were to be joined immediately by Ron Blair (bass) and Stan Lynch (drums), and that was the birth of Petty’s legendary backing unit, The Heartbreakers. Both Campbell and Tench are with Petty to this day, and Campbell in particular has had a big input on Mr. Integrity’s music both in terms of compositions (they often share writing credits) and production-wise.

Mr. Integrity. That is one of Tom Petty’s most recurrent nicknames, specially among punters. He has been known to stand against music industry abuses, and to side with fans time after time regarding decisions that would affect them like the marking up of albums. Tom’s first direct attack came with the title of his third record, “Damn The Torpedoes” (1979). It was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ fist platinum album after the previous one (“You’re Gonna Get It”, 1978) had cracked the Top 40. It included the radio hits “Refugee”, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Here Comes My Girl”.
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Live At The Isle Of Wight (The Who) – Album Review

Recorded In 1970 At The Isle Of Wight, The Who's Legendary Performance Was Finally Issued In 1996

Recorded In 1970 At The Isle Of Wight, The Who's Legendary Performance Was Finally Issued In 1996

It may sound incredible –  nay, it is incredible – but a live rendering of Tommy by the original lineup was not released until this double album was issued in 1996. The one landmark live disc by the band bypassed Tommy almost entirely. And the one “official” release that had a full performance was as diluted as it could ever possible be – it was part of the “Join Together” box set, with a trillion guest chirping in and a backing band as huge as to render the three surviving members irrelevant.

That was the reason everybody flocked to this when it was issued in 1996. We all had our appetites whetted the previous year, as a video of the performance was released by Murray Lerner. Although it was not the full performance, it sufficed to send everybody counting the days until a live CD was issued. And we didn’t have to wait that long, fortunately. Continue reading

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John) – Album Review

A Two-record Set, "Goodbye Yello Brick Road" Was Released In 1973 To Great Success

A Two-record Set, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" Was Released In 1973. It Is Now Regarded As The One Album That Marked Elton's Highest Commercial Point.

This is the quintessential Elton John album. It has some pop masterpieces, some filler, some embarrassments, some songs whose lyrics wouldn’t work anywhere else but here, a couple of songs that have inexcusable words, and (on the whole) songs that scream out “this guy sure plays and sings with gusto”.

The cuts that work obviously include the larger-than-life hits “Bennie & The Jets”, “Candle In The Wind” and the title track. Personally, I find it impossible to assimilate that these songs stand as part of a bigger work and not as isolated pieces that are played on the radio every five seconds, and that can sit next to anything. These songs are likewise the ones where Bernie does its job correctly, and even more than that on the perennial “Candle In The Wind”. The album also has the live favorite “Saturday’s Night Alright For Fighting” – it was actually the first single, and it hit higher in the UK than in the US, which was something unusual for Elton at this point. The song also was covered by The Who for the John/Taupin tribute “Two Rooms”, and their version (with Who archivist Jon Astley on drums) can be found on the “30 Years Of Maximum R & B” boxed set as well. It is certainly a “British” song – it deals with Bernie’s early years on the countryside (Lincolnshire), and the images of boys and girls preparing for a long night out surely factored heavily in its success. Continue reading

Compact Snap! (The Jam) – Compilation Album

"Snap!" Was The First Jam Compilation Ever Released. The Year Was 1983. The CD Edition Was To Omit 8 Tracks.

"Snap!" Was The First Jam Compilation Ever Released. The Year Was 1983. The CD Edition Was To Omit 8 Tracks.

Quite a gem, this is the CD reissue of a double LP that collected all the singles and the best album tracks that the epoch-making band led by Paul Weller produced during its time together. Eight tracks have been dropped to make it all fit into one CD – the eight album tracks. That makes the CD stand as a sort of singles collection.

Every A-side is featured, and that includes the compositions “’A’ Bomb In Wardour Street” and “Dreams Of Children”, songs that were released as part of double A-sided singles. Of course, all the non-album tracks that they were to release are featured – “Going Underground”, “Strange Town”, “When You Are Young”, and their final #1: “Beat Surrender”  (a song that feels more Style Council than The Jam). Continue reading

Extras (The Jam) – Compilation Album

"Extras" Assembles Rare Songs & Takes From All Over The Jam's Relatively Brief Career.

"Extras" Assembles Rare Songs & Takes From All Over The Jam's Relatively Brief Career.

Extras was a compilation of Jam b-sides, rare tracks and demos that was issued in 1992. The main value the compilation has always had is in portraying the development of Paul Weller as a composer, since cover versions that map out the way he shaped the sound of the trio as they went along are extensively provided. We have covers of The Beatles (“And You Bird Can Sing”), The Small Faces (the charged “Get Yourself Together”) and The Who (“Disguises” and “So Sad About Us”, the b-side to “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight” that paid tribute to the passing of Keith Moon) along with many R & B and soul covers like “Move On Up”, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Fever” (which is fused with Paul’s own “Pity Poor Alfie”).

Some of the best original b-sides include “The Butterfly Collector” (a timeless take on the groupies and hangers on that have always littered the music scene), and the electric version of Foxton’s Smithers-Jones (a string quartet performs it on “Setting Sons“; the original version was the flipside to “When You Are Young”). There is also Weller’s own “Shopping” (a shuffly number that manages to marry the vision which led to the Style Council with the sound of The Jam) and the salient “Tales From The Riverbank”. That one has always been deemed as one of those “should have been an a-side” track by fans, critics and Weller himself. Its placement on the album is also very good, being situated right at the beginning with “The Dreams Of Children”.

There are also two unreleased Weller originals. They are “No One In The World” and “Hey Mister”. Both are performed by him unaccompanied – the former is played on guitar, and “Hey Mister” is played on piano. The songs have a disaffected outlook on life and politics respectively, and I think they would have made for interesting group performance. Continue reading

The Best Of Joy Division – Compilation Album

"The Best Of Joy Division" Was Released in 2008

"The Best Of Joy Division" Was Released in 2008

Released in 2008, this is an excellent compilation. But to get the main niggle out of the way once and for all: Joy Division was to release an EP and 2 LPs in the years they were together. The 2 albums fit one CD easily, so that coming up with a “Best Of” album which has about 50 minutes of music is always going to be objected to by many. In this particular case, the compilers made the blunder of including an instrumental track (“Incubation”) that is extraneous to the usual spark of the band, which was dependent on Curtis delivery both in terms of content and form.

There, that was the only negative thing that could be said about this anthology. Because the cuts that did make it to the CD are among Joy Division’s finest compositions, conveying in equal measure the palpitating rage and frustration that lay behind Curtis haunted glance, and the melodically ferocious approach of the band. Starting with “Digital” (one of the most delectable paranoid tirades I ever listened to) and ending with “Isolation”, the album is a perfect snapshot of what made the band so unique and (above all) so influential for generations to come.

The first three numbers in particular work like nothing else, as “Digital” is followed by “Disorder” and “Shadowplay”, two emblematic Joy Division songs. The album also includes the hit “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, “Heart & Soul”, the maniac “She’s Lost Control” and a song that makes me think of Costello’s “Radio, Radio”, only that the approach is obviously far removed. The song is called “Transmission”, and while Costello’s number deals with the way the industry dominates the airwaves, Curtis’ song takes a more personal way through and showcases the effect of what is played, not the role of the ones who decide what does get played. Continue reading

Who Are You (The Who) – Album Review

The Cover Of Who Are You Has True Tragic Relevance - Keith Moon Was To Die Shortly Before The Album Was Released

The Cover Of Who Are You Has True Tragic Relevance - Keith Moon Was To Die Shortly Before The Album Was Released

The final Who album featuring Keith Moon is a mostly distinguished way for the original lineup to bow out, although there are many particularities that make the LP a disc like no other within their catalog. First thing first: Moon has lost a great deal of ability, to the point that he couldn’t play “Music Must Change” (Pete’s footsteps set the basic rhythm). He does manage to drum adequately enough on “Sister Disco” and the popular title track. He also puts up a sparky performance all through “Guitar And Pen”. But his magic skills and touch are missing.

In second place, Pete emphasizes notes over chords for the first time in their career. That doesn’t make the album any better or worse than other Who offerings. It just makes it a bit peculiar. And structurally speaking, he has Roger sing a recitative lyric on “Guitar And Pen”. The one song in which they had done this before was “Helpless Dancer“, only that the vocal is far, far campier this time around. “Helpless Dancer” was notably more measured and (if you wish) less theatrical.

Besides, out of 9 songs only six are penned by Pete. The remaining three come from an aborted opera John had tried to assemble (“905” and “Had Enough”), while he serves up the loud “Trick Of The Light” (about a man falling in love with a prostitute). But this time around, he lets Roger take the lead. He only sings “905”. He would sing “Trick Of The Light” live, though:

The main value of this album is the actual content of the songs, as the lyrics deal with artists and their never ending struggle to remain evergreen and motivating to those who follow them. This is evident on “Guitar And Pen” (“never spend your guitar and your pen”), “New Song” (“we sing the same old song with a few new lines/and everybody wants to cheer it”) and the ambitious “Music Must Change”.

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