Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: 10cc "How Dare You!"

Dare Accepted
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Not quite as good as "The Original Soundtrack," but hitting many of the same high points, 10cc parlayed the success of "I'm Not In Love" to an album that tinkered with pop conventions and progressive rock with "How Dare You!" It's also the band's last proper album as a four piece; by the next album Kevin Godley and Lol Creme would depart to focus their attentions on artier rock and their guitar invention, the Gizmotron, which is used to good effect on the album's title track. (It used a set of small wheels against the guitar strings that allowed you to almost infinitely sustain guitar notes.)

"How Dare You!" also grapples with the art-rock sensibilities of Godley and Creme vieing with the more conventional pop and rock aspirations of Graham Gouldman and Eris Stewart. I've previously postulated that 10cc was the kind of rock band Monty Python would have dreamed up if not The Rutles, which again finds the band wrestling over their direction. The still funny "I Want to Rule The World" is narrated by an angry baby who's had it up to here and wants to be the world's youngest tyrant (shades of Stewie from "Family Guy," anyone?). On the opposite end, you have "I'm Mandy, Fly Me," which opens with a snippet of "Clockwork Creep," then goes on to narrate the tale of a plane crash survivor who dreams of his rescue by the stewardess on the travel brochure. All of this is going about through some radical tempo shifts and a meaty guitar solo. It ranks among the band's best compositions. Then comes that dichotomy again; the uncomfortable tale of the stalker in "Iceberg."

That back and forth is what holds "How Dare You!" from achieving the full heights of "The Original Soundtrack," probably adding to or abetted by the creative schisms in the band itself. "Art For Art's Sake" seemingly confronts this dilemma head on. It might be the most straightforward song the band ever wrote, highlighting the differences between creativity and commercial production. It's kind of like "The Worst Band In The World," except that band has grown up and is lost in a quandary of their success.

"Money talks so listen to it,
Money talks to me.
Anyone can understand it
Money can't be beat."

If there was any note to go out on, "Art For Art's Sake" summed it up pretty well. While Gouldman and Stewart would retain a level of success under the 10cc banner on "Deceptive Bends," the push and pull of the two factions of the group are what made 10cc (and by extension, "How Dare You") such a fascinating band.


Friday, June 28, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Electric Light Orchestra "Zoom"

Putt Putt Putt
3 Out Of 5 Stars

An Electric Light Orchestra album in name only, 2001's "Zoom" actually sounds better via this remaster than it did on initial release. If there's one thing Jeff Lynne really comprehends, it's sound. Which means what you're really buying here is a fantastically mastered Jeff Lynne solo album. Factor in that Lynne basically arrested his musical development at The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour," and you'll get a much greater understanding of what "Zoom" is all about.

After all, classic ELO was a band. Only Richard Tandy is on board from the old hands and he is a guest on two of the songs. Ringo Starr shows up just as often as Tandy does. Sadly, some of George Harrison's final work is found on "A Long Time Gone" and "All She Wanted." Harrison gave his Traveling Wilbury buddy some tasty work to go out on, which adds to "Zoom's" charm. And yes, "Zoom" is a charming album. You'll hear a lot of Beatles touchstones, maybe even more than you'll reflect on actual ELO albums. Because after sound, the second thing Lynne understands is his way around a decent pop song.

That's what you'll find scattered around "Zoom." "Easy Money" is Lynne's typical take on rockabilly, while "Just For Love" at least brings in the string section to accompany the Beatles/ELO sound. The leadoff single from 2001, "All Right," is an OK guitar rocker (but it's no "Do Ya"). There's also the lovely "Melting In The Sun," which does sound like latter day ELO. What kind of undermines "Zoom" is the bonus inclusion of a live "Turn To Stone." When you listen to that particular song, it reminds you of what is missing from "Zoom." Lynne used to be able to knock off an entire album of sugary hookfests like that 1977 gem, with a band to make them sound like magic, and there isn't anything on "Zoom" that comes close. Which, again, is what determined my thoughts in the first part of the review. Call "Zoom" an extension of the Wilburys. Call it a decent Jeff Lynne solo project. Just remember that, despite the labeling, this isn't really an ELO album.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Paul McCartney and Wings "Wings Over America"

Paul McCartney Embraces his Legacy
5 Out Of 5 Stars

When Paul McCartney and The Beatles dissolved their partnerships, McCartney was bound and determined to go his own way. He made a few solo albums, like the masterpiece "Ram," but then decided he wanted a full fledged rock band behind him. Hence were Wings born. The corresponding Wings albums, like "At The Speed Of Sound" and "Venus and Mars" had McCartney insisting, over and over, that Wings was a band. To the point where Linda McCartney and Denny Laine were singing. The Beatles were dead and gone. Wings were here and now.

Until 1976 and the tour where McCartney shocked everyone. "Wings Over America," the then triple album, featured Wings and Paul digging into The Beatles' catalog, which also meant that he was performing some of these songs for the first time in their existence to a live audience. (As a reminder, The Beatles turned their back on touring in 1966.) The crowds, understandably, went nuts. With that kind of energy, Paul leans into "Lady Madonna," "Blackbird," "Yesterday" and a few others with an obvious glee; he may have been trying to erase his past before, but there's no way to deny he was reinvigorated to be on the road without dragging around the invisible elephant in the room.

It also shows off Wings as a more capable band than most critics gave them credit for. The opening "Venus and Mars/Rock Show" opens the concert with some serious electricity, and "Live and Let Die" rivals "Helter Skelter" for McCartney's all time rockingest tune. As an added feature, the song "Soily," which was a regular on McCartney tours, has never been released except for "Wings Over America." It's among the McCartney and Wings songs that take up the bulk of the album, with highlights being "Hi Hi Hi," "Band On The Run," and the single from the album, "Maybe I'm Amazed."

Now condensed to a double CD, the remastered sound is terrific. (I had the older CD, and a one on one comparison reveals a crisper sound, less muffled.) If you want to spend a couple extra bucks, the triple version contains an eight song bonus disc from San Fransisco's Cow Palace and adds "Let Me Roll It" and a differently arranged "Bluebird" as the main attractions. (Although the fade on "Picasso's Last Words" is annoying.) All together, this is one of the more important documents of Paul McCartney's recorded legacy, the moment in time where he let his past catch up with him and he didn't turn it away.


Monday, June 24, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Vampire Weekend "Modern Vampires of the City"

New Fangs
4 Out Of 5 Stars

"Modern Vampires of The City" is what happens when creatures that can never die begin to contemplate the future. Vampire Weekend's third album is a mostly muted affair, whispering maturity from the first gospel-ish harmonies and finger poked piano of "Obvious Bicycle." Lead singer Ezra Koenig has put aside most of his quirkiness to concentrate on meaningful lyrical statements. "Girl, you and I will die this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?" Granted, he's singing to a girl who is an outsider along with him, but instead of making it a joke (ala "Cousins" on "Contra"), he's more concerned about mortality.

This newfound sense of seriousness will probably put off some of the indie-heads who can't stomach when their favorite band "sells out" ("Modern Vampires" debuted at number one on Billboard) or takes a significant step away from their early sound. While there are a few things I miss, like some louder guitar for one, I don't miss the preciousness of the first album. This is a band that no longer squeals "college band" at every turn of phrase or overtly and obvious attention grabbing musical stunt. The Vampire Weekend of the debut would probably not be telling you "There's a headstone right in front of you" ("Don't Lie"), for example.

There are still a few plays for the radio. "Diane Young" clips along at a kinetic pace and even throws in some auto-tune to mock anyone who wants to call "Modern Vampires" 'serious music,' all the while playing pun games with "Diane Young" and 'dying young.' It also contains one of the weirder lyrical choices I've heard on a record this year, Koenig tells Diane she's got "the luck of a Kennedy." Yes, they want to be taken seriously with "Modern Vampires Of The City" taking on life, death, religion and the big bad specter of growing up, but Vampire Weekend has that cake and their quirky, too.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Huey Lewis and The News "Sports 30th Anniversary Edition"

Good Sports
4 Out of 5 Stars

The album that made Huey Lewis and the News into stars was almost unavoidable from 1984 through '85, when five of these songs became huge hits (and overseas, you could have added "Bad is Bad"). That Huey was Hollywood photogenic didn't hurt during the peak years on MTV, making the videos for the songs fun to see (you can find them on The Greatest Hits CD + DVD Combo), but the band's slick combination of Pop Rock and R'n'B should not be underestimated.

Huey's gruff but lovable voice carries the charm on much of his best work, and that made songs like "Heart of Rock and Roll" and "Heart and Soul" irresistible. They even found themselves in an unwarranted controversy when "I Want a New Drug" rankled the ire of some parent's groups. (And what sells records better?) They also had a great ear for covers, as they do a slick version of Hank William's "Honky Tonk Blues."

Slick is the operative word here. "Sports" was the pinnacle of Huey Lewis and The News' rough and cuddly period, still coming on like a hungry bar band. By Fore!, the band had lost their fight and had become the smooth pop band favored by yuppies everywhere. That is not to say that The News weren't capable of taking a poke at themselves and their new-found status, one of the best hits from "Fore" was "Hip to Be Square." But for sheer party-album thrills, "Sports" was hard to beat in the mid-80's.

For this 30'th Anniversary edition, there's a second "Live Sports" disc filled with live tracks, mainly between '83 and '89, but two from 2012. Yes, Huey and The News still tour regularly. The '88-89 dates are the band at their career peak, so the crowds are enthusiastic and the band is in top form, and the songs follow the original LP's running order. For my money, "Bad Is Bad" remains a News high-point, getting as close to their approximation of frat-rock and real R'n'B as they ever came. Even so, the live disc points out Lewis' strengths; a tight band that has the muscle to play rock like it's an all night party, songs that rocked slickly enough to be fun and nonthreatening, and a singer who you could take home to mom. "Sports" may not be a perfect record, but it still sounds current. Not bad for a 30 year old.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bootcamp Deer.

While we were attending Bootcamp in Northern CA last weekend, this little Miss thing decided to lay herself down perhaps 40 yards away from our cabin. She seemed totally unperturbed that I was trying to snap a picture of her.

My Amazon Reviews: 10cc "Sheet Music"

Bedside Manner
4 Out Of 5 Stars

That 10cc started out as a houseband for a bubblegum production studio was obvious on their debut album, where each song was a parodic tribute to a style of pop that was produced so accurately that the thin line between satire and the real thing was all but invisible. By the time they got to their second album, 1974's "Sheet Music," they'd jumped the parody shark and landed on an entirely different animal. They weren't quite progressive rock, they weren't quite poptunes, and they still hadn't got the Monty Python out of their system. In other words, 10cc was a quintessentially British band with a wicked sense of humor mining their often brilliant songs.

Case in point are the album's opening salvos. "Wall Street Shuffle" came off as an album oriented rock song with a killer hook, big guitar riff and semi-serious lyric about the money hustling big shots. It's then followed by "The Worst Band In The World," which takes said band looking at itself from outside the fishbowl and unable to believe that they've conned the world into buying "a little piece of plastic with a whole." Or the faux reggae on "Hotel" that serves up an All-American Menu filled with "all American Men." Or the terrorist arms dealer at the end of the album during "Oh Effendi," who suddenly finds himself on the run when the goodies run out. As "Sheet Music" plays on, it's hard to decipher when the band is playing it straight or jamming their tongue into the collective cheek.

That's what makes 10cc so hard to pigeonhole here. Just when you start to tire of the jokes, you get struck by the beautiful "Old Wild Men" or the plane's-eye-view of an upcoming crash on "Clockwork Creep." (Which eventually grew up to become "I'm Mandy Fly Me" on "How Dare You.") Eric Stewart, Graham Gouldman, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme were still working as a unit (they would ultimately break into factions of Stewart/Gouldman and Godley/Creme), and they were willing to leave no stone unturned when it came to pop styles. "Sheet Music" may not be 10cc's best album, but it is far and away their most adventurous.


Monday, June 10, 2013

My Amazon Reviews: Simon And Garfunkel "The Best of Simon And Garfunkel"

All the Best, Remastered and Remembered
5 Out Of 5 Stars

What this "Best of Simon and Garfunkel" collection does is, simply, lay out all their amazing singles on one hour-plus CD. It outshines the original "Greatest Hits" by not overlapping songs and by having a much improved quality of sound. Sure, you've probably heard half (or more) of the songs in high rotation on classic pop radio stations, but hearing them in digital clarity really does - and I hate to use the cliche here - bring them back to life.

More than anything else, the best of these singles highlights the exquisite harmonies these men had together as well as spotlights the strengths of Paul Simon's and Art Garfunkel's singular voices. Garfunkel's young, angelic choirboy voice still elicits chills on "Bridge Over Troubled Water," while Simon's leads often show a potency that can be unexpectedly forceful ("Hazy Shade Of Winter"). Yet they are still at their best when the voices blend as they do so beautifully on "Scarborough Fair" or the 70's reunion hit "My Little Town."

The non-hits work in the collection's favor. Short of buying the complete collection box set, the pickings here are choice. "The Only Living Boy in New York," "Old Friends/Bookends" (the song they opened their concert with when I saw them a few years back) or the live version of "For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her" will please the curious who are looking for more than just the hits. Some of the songs are a bit goofy/dated ("At The Zoo" and "The 59th Street Bridge Song"), but they can be forgiven when something as magnificent as "The Boxer" or as joyous as "Cecelia" play. For the value per dollar, "The Best of Simon & Garfunkel" is as good as you're going to get.