LP Review: Pete Townshend’s ‘Who Came First (Deluxe Edition)

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“They call me the seeker, I’ve been searchin’ low and high, I won’t get to get what I’m after, til the day I die…” – “The Seeker” by the Who, written by Pete Townshend

A momentous event happened in the United Kingdom last Saturday, May 19th. The event wasn’t really contained to the UK, it was something the entire world celebrated. Lead guitarist, 2nd vocalist, and main composer of the Who, Pete Townshend had his 73rd birthday this last Saturday. Oh, yeah, and some other young “Royal” couple got married over in the UK too… I forget their names. I thought I would celebrate by focusing a little attention on his first solo album, Who Came First which was recently released in a “Deluxe Edition,” with some additional music. It seems Pete’s first solo album is a lot like the Who’s album Odds and Sods, which seems to get longer and longer with each release. When I first bought Odds and Sods it was because I loved the songs “Long Live Rock” and “Naked Eye,” (and I bought it on vinyl), and it was only 11 songs long. I recently repurchased it in a digital format and it has 23 songs now.

When a member of an established act, especially an act the magnitude of the Who, releases a solo album it can be fraught with all sorts of expectations and drama. It really shouldn’t be surrounded with all that bullshit, typically an artist just wants to change it up a bit. Working with the same musicians can probably get boring. The usual fear when someone releases a solo album is, will the group he’s in break up? Often it can definitely be a sign a band is breaking up. When Sting released his first solo album it spelled the end for all of us hoping the Police would get back together. Typically you don’t even see a solo album from somebody until well after their main group has broken up. The Beatles all found different sorts of drama facing each of their early solo releases. They all reacted in different ways – Paul went literally solo and recorded a quiet little record at home all by himself while George Harrison put out an epic three album long mini-box set. Even more evidence those guys were all headed in different directions.

Somehow, it seems, in 1972 Pete Townshend didn’t face any of that drama. The Who were coming off their greatest commercial success, 1971’s Who’s Next, and nobody seems to have freaked out about Pete doing a solo album. In fact, if I’d been asked as late as college, what Pete Townshend’s first solo album was, I’d have answered with the complete conviction of a religious convert that it was 1980’s superb Empty Glass. I bought that album on cassette so I could listen to it in my car. It remains to this day one of my favorite albums. “Rough Boys,” “Let My Love Open The Door,” (which was a song about God), and “Gonna Get Ya” were all given heavy rotation on local radio. Each of those songs are amongst Townshend’s best. It wasn’t until college that I discovered, probably at the used record store, that there’d been this earlier record.

As evidenced by one of the Who’s earliest songs, quoted above, “The Seeker,” Pete Townshend was a spiritual searcher of sorts. He eventually discovered Meher Baba, a guru from India. The 60s were an interesting time. Everybody was looking for a spiritual leader. LSD and other hallucinative drugs were opening everybody’s mind. Even the Beatles famously traveled to India to spend time with the Maharishi… although it seems that stuff only stuck with George. Meher Baba, ironically was the first spiritual teacher in the 60s who thought psychedelic drugs were bad. Townshend was a big convert… You might recognize Baba’s last name as it’s part of the title of one of the Who’s biggest songs, “Baba O’Riley” named for Meher and Tim Riley, a minimalist conductor Townshend admired… and to think for years we all thought that song was named “Teenage Wasteland.” Another early convert was Ronnie Lane, bass player for my beloved Faces and he and Townshend became very good friends.

In honor of Meher, Townshend had recorded a few small, barely released albums as gifts to Baba. Neither was circulated widely, but they were being bootlegged. The record company finally came to Townshend and asked if he would put them together for official release. These recordings, which were never meant to be for widespread consumption are homespun affairs. They’re mostly acoustic, although most are fully realized songs, these aren’t demos. Years later, Townshend acolyte Eddie Vedder would site Who Came First as his template for his first solo album, the soundtrack for Into the Wild. I had never really heard much of this album except songs that were later released on greatest hits packages. One of my favorites was “Sheraton Gibson” a song about being a musician on the road… in Cleveland no less. I’d also heard Townshend’s early version of “Lets See Action,” but I do like the Who’s fully realized version more. I’d also heard the superb “Parvardigar” which was just a beautiful song.

When I saw that there was this new deluxe version of Who Came First I finally, belatedly, sat down with this record. As I said, it’s a quiet little acoustic album, but what I really liked is that it’s a spiritual statement. Well, it’s certainly Pete’s spiritual statement. If we’re going to celebrate Dylan’s “Christian Period” (Review: Bob Dylan’s ‘Trouble No More: Bootleg Series Vol 13, (Deluxe Edition)) why not celebrate Townshend’s Baba period. The original album is full of songs about contentment (which is a lovely statement of purpose here), “Content” and spiritual joy, “Parvardigar.” “Time Is Passing” is probably my favorite song here. It’s a brilliant track. “Pure And Easy” which the Who finally got around to doing, is here in an early form, but the Who tracks aren’t the best ones. The only weird tune is a country cover, “There’s a Heartache Following Me” recorded because it was a favorite of Baba’s. Ronnie Lane even shows up and redoes “Stone” from the Faces’ first album as “Evolution.”

The deluxe edition brings some early and alternative versions of songs from the original, but it also has other, what I would deem critical tracks. “His Hands” and “Meher In Italy” are both beautiful acoustic instrumentals. There’s an acoustic version of the Who’s “The Seeker” that rivals the original. “Day of Silence” is driven by a cool harmonica. “I Always Say” is a nice bluesy change of pace. “Begin the Beguine” has a loungey vibe.  I really liked “The Love Man” and “There’s a Fortune In Those Hills.” There’s an early version of “Baba O’Riley” as an instrumental that clocks in at almost 10 minutes. I think it’s getting the most attention, but it’s a nice to have song, if you’re a completist, but it’s certainly not essential. Townshend even does his old friend Lane a solid and adds a live version of him doing Lane’s “Evolution” at a tribute show for Ronnie Lane.

While this album is probably only for completist and Who or Pete Townshend nuts like me, I was really taken with this album. The deluxe material is definitely worth investigating even if you’re one of the few who have the original. I just wish Townshend felt this moved today and put out something new.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

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Lenny Kravitz: New Single, “It’s Enough,” His Inner City Blues Are A Smooth Groove

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*Image above taken from the internet and is likely copyrighted

When it comes to Lenny Kravitz, I think I’m like most males, I was introduced to his music in the early 90s by a girlfriend. In the early days of his career I think he was the polar opposite of Aerosmith who once said the only “chicks” at their shows were the ones they brought with them – I feel like Lenny’s early fans were mostly female. I remember a woman I was dating putting on his great debut album, Let Love Rule. I really dug his hippy vibe and laid back grooves and who doesn’t love dreadlocks? The big hit from that album was the anthem, “Let Love Rule” and it was an instant classic. His music wasn’t all about love and peace, he could get topical and political in songs like “Mr. Cab Driver,” which was actually my favorite track on the album.

But after that, like the girlfriend who turned me onto his music, I lost track of Lenny for a few years. I vaguely remember hearing “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” in the background, but his second album didn’t really pull me in. By then he was married to Lisa Bonet, which I truly envied, (she was my movie star crush) and he’d become somewhat of a tabloid star. I don’t know if I was put off by that, or I just wasn’t paying attention. Likely it was the latter. But then in 1993 (could it really have been that long ago?) the monster album Are You Gonna Go My Way came out. We were all on the bandwagon at that point. The title track is a ferocious rock song. I remained a big Kravitz fan through Circus, a dark little album which the critics hated and I absolutely loved, and his creatively titled fifth album. But once again, I started to lose track of Lenny. It may have been because was a bit uneven or maybe it was alternative rock radio beating “Again” the track from his Greatest Hits album to death. As break-up prone as I was, I couldn’t get away from that song…”will I ever see you again?” Let me answer that for you folks, for the most part, no, you won’t.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that, yes, once again a woman, the Rock Chick came home and said, you’ve gotta hear this album. It was Lenny’s 2014 LP, Strut. I loved that album, reviewed on B&V, LP Review: Lenny Kravitz, “Strut” – How’d I Miss This Sexy Album?. I’m still not sure how that album had come out and slipped through the cracks for me… I blame radio. That record sent me scurrying back to the record store to pick up a couple more of his albums I’d missed… It’s Time For A Love Revolution and Black And White America both of which are great records everybody should check out. After hearing those three albums, I was back in a serious Lenny Kravitz infatuation. It’s with high anticipation here at B&V that we look forward to his upcoming follow-up record to Strut, coming in September, named Raise Vibration. 

The first single from that album was released recently, “It’s Enough.” Now, I’ll be one of the first to admit that Lenny Kravitz wears his influences on his sleeve, as the saying goes. He’s often accused of being derivative, that’s the most common trope I hear from the critics. My thoughts on the matter tend to align with what Picasso said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” I’m not suggesting Lenny is ripping anybody off, but this new song strongly reminds me of the late, great Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Want To Holler).” I’ve been going back and forth between both songs for the last couple of days and there are similarities.

All that said, I love this song. “It’s Enough” clocks in at almost eight minutes long and yet when it ends, I feel like I want it to keep going. Like the song it was influenced by, Kravitz’s lyrics address (literally) a world of problems we face today: gun violence, the middle east, greed, and the environment just to name a few. I think it’s pretty gutsy to put the following line in your chorus, almost ensuring this won’t be played on the radio, “it’s enough, it’s enough, and we are all just getting fucked.” Kravitz has done something unimaginable, he’s made a groove-laden protest record.

Musically, this is a nice slow groove. It starts with some nice percussive elements. Like “Inner City Blues” Lenny employs a lot of non lyrical singing that acts like percussion. The percussion and a subtle piano drive the song forward. The bass line is simply monstrous. There’s a spoken word piece in the middle. This song is so Motown there’s even a trumpet solo toward the end. If we harken back to the 60s, people tend to forget that’s when all the best protest music was recorded and that’s what this song evokes for me. Like “Mr. Cab Driver” before it, Lenny has his fingers on the pulse of how a lot of people feel today… sad that we’ve come this far and not gotten anywhere. The music and the lyrics of this song are so spot on. The Rock Chick likes her Lenny a little more hard edged and rockier, but I dig the slow groove of this song. Everyone should check this one out.

Cheers!

The Longshot Return (Already?) With A Single and 3 EP’s – Billie Joe Armstrong Can’t Stop!

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I was sitting in one of my favorite watering-holes recently, enjoying a mint julep with a friend. This is the kind of bar that has bottles from floor to ceiling. They even have an old-school ladder, like libraries of old, on which the bartenders scamper up and down and roll it left and right to grab those bottles on the higher shelves. It’s fun to watch but it all looked like a lot of work. My friend and I were discussing and of course lauding our wives for their love of activity. In my case I must confess, The Rock Chick is always busy doing something. I like to say that, like commercials for the Army when I was a kid, she gets more done before 6 am than I get done all day. I never understood why that was a selling point for the Army, by the way. My friend and I are both individuals who prefer a more leisurely approach to life… a nice cocktail, some music on the turntable and a calm moment to contemplate the joys of existence. My approach is more like Prince’s song, “I was busy doing something next to nothing but different than the day before.” There’s a scene in Ghostbusters where Bill Murray’s character, Peter Venkman says something like, “I want you to think, that Peter Venkman, he’s the kind of guy who gets things done.” That’s my wife. I don’t share that zeal.

However, it appears that Green Day front man and leader of the new band The Longshot Billie Joe Armstrong shares that love of activity. I know he has an addictive personality and I don’t know if that plays into this but you have to wonder. Merely a week after releasing the great, punky new album, Love Is For Losers, (LP Review: ‘Love Is For Losers’ From The Longshot, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong’s New Side ProjectArmstrong and crew are back with another single and three EPs. That Billie Joe Armstrong, he’s the type of guy who gets things done. I am having flashbacks to that whole Uno!Dos!, and Tre! episode with Green Day. It’s not unprecedented to release everything you’ve recorded, it’s just usually staggered over a longer period of time. The Red Hot Chili Peppers started releasing the b-sides they recorded during the I’m Beside You sessions, but it took a while.  It was with great surprise that I saw on social media the Longshot announce this flurry of releases.

The first single, which I found out actually came out almost simultaneously with Love Is For Losers is entitled “Devil’s Kind.” It’s another punky rocking song. I really like this track and frankly it wouldn’t have been out of place on Love Is For Losers. It’s a little harder edged, perhaps, but a great tune. I can’t find confirmation on line, but I believe this track is penned by Armstrong.

The first EP is entitled Bullets and has a mere two tracks. Both of the tracks on this EP, “Give It All To You” and “Keep Me Satisfied” have a strong, early-Beatles vibe. When I listened to Love Is For Losers for the first time, I mentioned that I got this vintage music vibe as well as a punk vibe. It was part punk, part 60s garage band. Although I admit the garage band vibe was more of an accent. The two songs on Bullets are all retro, Beatlesque tracks. Both songs clock in at under 2 minutes. They’re both good songs but literally sound like outtakes from Meet The Beatles. Both of these tracks, I believe are originals. While both tracks are interesting, I don’t think either is essential. They’re very different than the sound of Love Is For Losers. 

The second EP, entitled Razor Baby contains 4 tracks. My favorite of the four is probably “Fever Blister” another slab of slamming punk rock. They play this track fast and hard. I love a chorus that starts “I look so repulsive….” Like “Devil’s Kind” this track wouldn’t have been out of place on Love Is For Losers. The next track, another original, is entitled “Razor Baby.” It’s a more trance like track. The playing is slowed down and Armstrong’s vocal is slightly distorted. I wouldn’t call it a ballad, just mid-tempo. It’s got a very garage rock feel to it, just a lower energy vibe. Again, it’s another track I like. The third track, “I’ve Got Problems,” bursts out of the speakers like early Green Day. It rocks fast and hard. The riff slips and slides around. I’m not sure why this one missed the cut for the album. The final track, and perhaps the most surprising on this EP is the final track, a cover of Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls” from their album In Color. They slow it down quite a bit and there’s even more distortion on Armstrong’s vocals. This version is far cry from the arena-rock style of the original, although it does slowly build. I like cover songs, it’s like a 2 for 1 special, and I did enjoy this track. Full disclosure, I do love Cheap Trick.

It appears the last track on Razor Baby, the Cheap Trick cover, was merely a harbinger of what was to come on the final, 5-track EP, Return To Sender. It’s a fascinating grab-bag of covers. This EP just sounds like a band having a good time.  They cover one of my all time favorite early Who songs, “So Sad About Us” in what is a very faithful rendition of the original. Of course Armstrong has covered the Who before with Green Day on a note-for-note version of “A Quick One While He’s Away.” From the Who, the Longshot heads to the Ramones and a tuneful “Can’t Make It On Time,” with a brief, tasty guitar solo, followed by a spot-on melancholy version of the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By,” originally written for Marianne Faithful. As a Stones fanatic, I was really thrilled to hear that last one but in all honesty, I like all of these tracks. It’s like listening to a great bar band. The final covers on Return To Sender are perhaps the oddest selections – “I Am A Rock,” the Simon And Garfunkel ballad and the Plimsoul’s “Million Miles Away.” Like I said, Armstrong is clearly having a great time with all of this.

If you count “Devil’s Kind” and all the tracks on the three EPs, Armstrong and the Longshot have literally released the same number of songs that appeared on the debut record, Love Is For Losers. For all I know, this Friday we’ll be treated to another dozen tracks… that Billie Joe Armstrong probably gets more done before 6 am than I get done all day… Check these tracks out, I think you’ll find some things you’ll like. Covers songs aren’t for everyone, but there’s a wide variety to choose from. Meanwhile, I’ll be “busy doing something next to nothing….”

Cheers!

 

Guns N’ Roses: New Song (To Me, At Least) From The Vaults – “Shadow Of Your Love”

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The messages started popping up on GNR related social media a week or so ago….”Destruction Is Coming.” I was assuming they were going to announce a plan to play Appetite For Destruction in it’s entirety on the seemingly endless (partial) reunion tour, reviewed previously on B&V (Concert Review: Guns n Roses, Kansas City, 29Jun16: The Power & The Glory). Secretly I was hoping it was an announcement that the original lineup of the band, who recorded Appetite, was reuniting – they were bringing back Izzy Stradlin on rhythm guitar and Steven Adler on drums. It turns out neither of my guesses was right. Instead, GNR are releasing a “Super Deluxe” edition of the album (as well as a skinny-ed down “Deluxe” version). So much for my prognostication skills.

It’s easy to forget, with the dissolution of the original band, the long lapses between albums, and the whole Chinese Democracy thing, that GNR were one of the greatest, most powerful bands of all time. When we speak of Appetite For Destruction we’re talking about the “Crown Jewels” of rock and roll. It’s the best selling debut album of any band, ever. It’s one of the greatest albums ever recorded in the medium of rock and roll, hard rock, or heavy metal. In plain words, it’s a fucking tour de force masterpiece. The chemistry of that original line up was lightning in a bottle. Steven Adler’s drumming had so much swing and elasticity it gave the music a dirty groove. Slash and Izzy Stradlin on lead and rhythm guitar rivals that of the Mick Taylor/Keith Richards era of the Stones. Duff McKagan brought the punk attitude and bottom end with his bass playing. And then there’s Axl Rose… how does one describe the power of those amazing vocals. Axl’s unique vocal style brought an unhinged vibe to this music that made it nothing short of breath taking.

The sound of GNR on that first album was dark, menacing and yes, dangerous. In the 80’s, there were a ton of hard rock/heavy metal hair bands who sang about chicks and partying and having a good time. While the themes of Guns N’ Roses’ music were similar, it never seemed like anybody was having that good of a time. It was the music of what happens when the party jumps the rails. It was harrowing shit, but yet enjoyable none the less. It was the most visceral music I’d heard up to that time. They combined the bombast of heavy metal, the attitude (and short song structure) of punk, the bloozey vibe of early Aerosmith and the swagger of a much more seasoned band. That’s a helluva lot to put into a debut album. The songs were about urban menace, “Welcome To the Jungle”; drinking or perhaps better said, alcoholism, “Nightrain”; and heroin, “Mr. Brownstone.” Holy shit was this stuff ground breaking in the late 80s. Tellingly, Guns N’ Roses were one of the few 80s hard rock bands to survive the Grunge takeover… They were just that great. Grunge couldn’t kill GNR, only Axl Rose could do that…

When Guns N’ Roses debut album came out in the summer of 1987, I was living in Boston working at the world famous Food Center Liquor Store. I didn’t hear a lot of music sitting in the back of the liquor store where my job was to refill the beer cooler and take the 5-cent per can deposit returns and sort them by brewer. Filthy work with dirty beer cans. After Boston, I went immediately into exile in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the town that rock and roll forgot. In the Fall of 87 and the spring of 88, I was completely cut off from most new music. My only source of new music, other than reading Rolling Stone magazine, was MTV… who actually still played videos in those days. I don’t know if I miss sitting and vegging-out in front of hours of endless videos or I’m better off because that doesn’t happen any more… I’ll let history be the judge.

Getting my music knowledge from MTV was a bit of a curse. I literally saw the band before I heard the music. I watched the video of “Welcome to the Jungle” and Axl had his hair blown up in that 80s-rock star way and it made me think they were just another cut/paste 80s metal band. I didn’t pay any attention to that landmark tune, which tells you how much background noise was going on in my life. Then I saw the video for “Sweet Child of Mine” and thought, nice riff, it’s an ok ballad, cool guitar player in the top hat… Back then ballads rarely pierced my consciousness. Finally, laying on the couch one day, probably nursing a hangover, I had my arm across my eyes, and the video for “Paradise City” came on. Instead of looking, I just listened… and I liked what I heard. I peaked out from under my arm to see that it was GNR. Axl didn’t have his hair all teased up… and these guys rawked! It was in that moment, Guns N’ Roses finally clicked for me. I went out and bought Appetite on cassette… I was dating a virtuous woman in Shreveport and I needed something dangerous to listen to on the five hour drive. I can’t hear “Think About You” and not think of Shreveport… I’ve been a life-long Guns N’ Roses fan ever since.

Now, all these years later, GNR are revisiting Appetite For Destruction with these “Super Deluxe”/”Deluxe” versions. It looks like the “Super Deluxe” version breaks out like this: Disc 1, the original album, remastered; Disc 2 is described as “B-sides and EPs” but its basically the EP GNR Lies, which had a faux live side, (originally released as Live Like a Suicide) coupled with an acoustic side. Luckily they omit the offensive “One In A Million,” and hopefully that tune is confined to the history of bad decisions; Disc 3 looks like an early version of Appetite recorded in 86 at Sound City; and finally, Disc 4 looks like a grab bag of Demo’s and leftovers.

As part of all of this, GNR released a single, entitled “Shadow Of Your Love.” Apparently a few versions of this song have been released as B-sides. I had never heard it before and so immediately snatched it up. I’m not sure I’m down for the whole box set, but I love this track. It’s just so great to hear something from this era of the band, it hits you immediately. It’s a fast and hard tune. Axl sounds awesome. At different points he’s singing and others it feels like he’s screaming at you… ah, that good old school Axl.  The guitar work is fast and stellar. Slash’s soloing is as melodic as ever. You’re not going to find an unearthed “Paradise City” in a box set like this, nobody is going to leave a stone-cold-classic in the can for thirty years, but this is a great compliment to the Appetite LP. And let’s face it, it doesn’t look like any new music is going to come out of GNR. I heard rumors that Axl is working Angus Young on an AC/DC album, but that’s a different post.

I don’t know if there’ll be enough interesting music to get me to buy the entire box set, but this nice little blast from the past was enough to make me curious enough to at least check it out.

Rawk on!

 

 

LP Review: David Byrne, ‘American Utopia,’ A Surprise Gem

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“Hear my voice, hear my voice, It’s saying something and I hope you’re concentrating…” – Talking Heads, “Warning Signs” Written by David Byrne

I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m surprised I’m posting these thoughts on David Byrne’s superb new album, American Utopia. I almost started with the Monty Python line, “and now for something completely different.” It’s been a weird year. I think it was, of all people, Don Henley who once sang, “It was a pretty big year for fashion, a lousy year for rock and roll…” Lately, I was struggling to find any music that I felt merited calling attention to. The Dead Daisies are a hard rock outfit who just put out a new album, but I didn’t hear anything that jumped out at me, it was all pretty meh. The joy of doing this blog is the actual musical spelunking I get to do. I spend my evenings and weekends locked up here in the B&V lab actually listening to music.

And so frustrated by this year’s music, I started casting a wider net on the music I was looking at. I discovered that merely 2 months ago, in March, David Byrne put out his first “solo” album in fourteen years. And while it’s true, his last actual solo album was 2004’s Grown Backward, it’s not like Byrne hasn’t been active with collaborations and scores. Although I hadn’t realized it had been six years since his St Vincent collaboration, Love This Giant. Full disclosure, Byrne’s solo career is one that I have never followed extensively. I actually found myself selectively going through a few of the albums in his back catalog to help frame the new record in my mind. His first “solo” record, Rei Momo was an album that completely slipped by me in 1989. It’s all Latino inspired music. It sounds like a Tex-Mex band playing at a Cinco De Mayo party, in a good way, and I really liked it. I’m sure it was thought of as a little eccentric in 1989 considering it was so far from his work in the Talking Heads. But he was always into world music and different poly-rythmic sounds. I also listened to his last solo record, Grown Backwards which is awash with strings and actually has Byrne doing a few opera songs. I have to say, I liked both records, probably more so because they were quirky. They stretched my concept of what a pop/rock song could sound like and I like that.

Byrne has certainly chosen a different path in his solo career. In my research I read the word “inconsistent” and “eccentric” or “avant garde” quite a bit. His solo career, a bit like Sting, took him in a lot of very different directions than the band that made him famous. Although in Sting’s case, his career always seemed calculated and pretentious… there were good songs but that “watercolors, light-jazz” thing didn’t do a lot for me. Byrne seems more truly the artiste than Sting ever has. One thing that has been consistent in Byrne’s career both with the Talking Heads and solo is that he returns to collaborating with the brilliant Brian Eno, but I’ll come back to that.

I grew up in the American heartland… The Talking Heads weren’t a band I heard a lot of in my hometown, Kansas City. They rose in the late 70s in the New York punk/post punk CBGB scene. I’d love to travel back in time and catch them, or Blondie, or Patti Smith at that bar… maybe in another lifetime. The Talking Heads were probably too edgy for KY/102, our radio station, but I still remember the first time I heard them and heard David Byrne’s voice. I always played my little clock/radio in the mornings when I was getting ready for school. It had to be late junior high/early high school, I was sitting on the bed pulling on my socks and this weird drum sound starts off… then this tremulous, nervous voice comes on and starts singing, “I don’t know why I love her like I do…” Yes, it was “Take Me To the River,” a Talking Heads song that was too big for our radio station to ignore. I had never heard this band before. If you’d have told me that song was originally by Al Green, I’d have thought you were crazy. For years I thought More Songs About Buildings and Food was their first album. In Kansas City, it was like Talking Heads 77 didn’t exist. Maybe that’s why Byrne has always expressed such disdain for where I come from, like on the song “Big Country” where he sings about us out here in fly-over country, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.” Ouch, David, ouch.

Admittedly, it wasn’t until I went to college, and started seeing the Talking Heads on MTV that I realized the depth and breadth of their work. I’d like to sound cool and say I was in on the Talking Heads from the beginning, but we just didn’t hear them. I didn’t even hear the song “Psycho Killer” until I was in college… and might I say, was there a more perfect singer in Byrne to sing that song. He sounded both psychotic and willing to kill. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get on the bandwagon and start buying Heads albums until after Speaking In Tongues. That one and Little Creatures got me hooked. Although my favorite albums now would be those first two, Talking Heads ’77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food. Byrne’s vocals, especially on those early albums were jittery and edgy, like a young virgin who had unwittingly walked into his first orgy. Who knew what was going to happen next? And the band – Chris Frantz (drums), his wife Tina Weymouth (bass) and Jerry Harrison (guitars/keyboards) – I just loved that early stuff where it was just the four of them. Through the years they added other players, keyboardists and percussionists. I dug every left turn. Many of those musical explorations were a result of the band collaborating with Eno.

Which leads me to American Utopia. From what I read, Eno did the basic tracks and sent them to Byrne to finish up the melodies and the lyrics. I think there were some other producers, notably Rodaihd McDonald who worked on the album as well. I first heard the great song, “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” in my car and for a moment thought it was an old Talking Heads song. I quickly pulled the album up and listened once. I found myself listening again. This is an album I keep returning to. The music is buoyant and the melodies are very catchy. Byrne’s lyrics are at times cryptic to me so it’s hard to know if he’s joking and fucking with all of us or he means what he sings. The album is tied to a multi-media project, Reasons to Be Cheerful, which can be found at reasonstobecheerful.world. It’s got blog posts by Byrne and others that are genuinely cheerful.

I do know the song “Bullet” had some heavy, if subtle anti-gun messaging. Or at least I thought so. I’m not smart enough to decode David Byrne. I do know he’s “saying something” and I am really “concentrating….” “Every Day Is A Miracle” seems like an anti religious song, but it’s gloriously up beat and frames the world through the eyes of various barn animals. Similarly, “Dog’s Mind” has a vaguely political vibe by framing the world through the eyes of a dog… it has my favorite line, “we are all limited by what we are.” Deep thoughts and great melodies… count me in. “Everybody Is Coming To My House” is a great big song that sounds like a party invite but ends with the words, “everybody’s coming to my house, I’m never going to be alone, and I’m never gonna go home.” So, if everybody is coming over and you’re never going home, is this invitation really a stiff arm? Its little subtle stuff like that I keep coming back to, like a riddle. While the track “Its Not Dark Up Here” seems like a happy song on first listen, the lyrics are unsettling as well… “there’s nothing funny about making money, it wouldn’t work if it was.”

While I have admittedly not followed Byrne’s solo career very closely, I was deeply impressed with this album. If you’re looking for thoughtful, well made music by a true artist, American Utopia is a must buy. Frankly, and I’m shocked by this as it kind of came out of nowhere, this album is a strong candidate to end up on the B&V “Best of” this year. I urge everyone to check this one out. I know I’ll keep listening to it and I plan on circling back and checking out his back catalog more extensively!

Cheers!

 

Review: Neil Young’s ‘Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live’

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Heart of Gold – This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” – Neil Young, from the liner notes of his superb greatest hits LP, Decade.

I’d like to tell you that I was born with a fully formed musical identity. Sadly, that’s not true. Everybody’s taste in music changes and evolves, especially if you’re a music spelunker like us here at B&V. I remember reading a long time ago that whatever you’re listening to in junior high school/high school is likely the music you’ll listen to the rest of your life. Thank God some kick ass music came out in the 70s/early 80s. For me, a lot of my musical gestation took place in college. I was lucky my freshman year to meet one of my future roommates, Drew. Drew helped shape my musical tastes as much as anybody I can think of, give credit to or perhaps better said, blame.

I was a basic Stones/Springsteen fan and Drew was a Who/Billy Joel fan. Clearly we each had something to teach each other. The countless hours we spent together in our college town’s lone record store are amongst some of my most cherished memories from that time. I learned a hell of a lot from Drew back then. There was also a girlfriend in there who was a lot of fun who I learned a lot from too, but I’m married now and those records are sealed. One of the key artists that Drew turned me onto, that he knew extensively but was a blindspot for me was Neil Young. I don’t know why I’d never listened to Neil. “Heart of Gold” was about the only tune I knew and I thought it was ok. I thought of him as being like the Eagles, sort of country rock… little did I know. I hope I wasn’t one of those “I don’t like his vocals” people. I already loved Bob Dylan by that time, so I don’t think that was it. Young doesn’t sing like Steve Perry, but the emotion and passion he puts into his vocals are incredibly moving. His songwriting can be dream-like, bizarre, spot-on and deeply affecting all at the same time.

By the time Drew turned me onto Neil Young, Neil had so much music out there, I thought I’d never catch up. I didn’t have that kind of bankroll. So I did what I often did as a poor student, I bought his greatest hits album, Decade. Decade was a bit of a landmark “greatest hits” package. It was a full three albums long, which was a hefty price tag. I used to blanch at the thought of buying double albums, let alone triple albums. It also encapsulated Neil’s entire career from 1966 to 1976 (hence, the name) – there were tracks from the Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, solo and a track from the Stills/Young Band. There were hits but there were also deep cuts and a few songs he’d never released before. I suspect it may have been the model that Bob Dylan’s box set Biograph  was built on. It was truly a superb package and a great place to start your Neil Young collection. Although Neil’s Archive, Vol 1 box set probably supersedes it now. In the liner notes, quoted above, Neil mentioned taking his career “into the ditch” where he met “more interesting people.” And with that one line, hand written in the liner notes of a greatest hits package, Neil was able to actually provide a name to a trio of albums that make up the period of his career from 1973 to 1974 that have henceforth been known as, The Ditch Trilogy.

The Ditch Trilogy consists of three of my all time favorite Neil Young albums: Time Fades Away (1973), On The Beach (1974) and Tonight’s The Night (1975). Tonight’s the Night was actually recorded after Time Fades Away and before On The Beach but the record company sat on the record for two years. They didn’t want to release it because they thought it was too bleak. Neil has cited Time Fades Away as his least favorite record and for years it was out of print. I couldn’t find it anywhere… the only person I knew who owned it was, yes… wait for it… my old roommate Drew. Finally it was released last year (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP). Now that I’ve heard all three of the Ditch Trilogy albums, its my opinion, if you’re going to spend an afternoon listening to all three with a nice sour mash – and everybody should – you should listen to the records in the order they were recorded vs the order they were released (i.e, Time Fades, Tonight’s The Night, Beach). The albums make more sense that way.

To truly understand the Ditch Trilogy, one needs to look at Neil’s career up to that point to give it some context. 1970 was a huge year for Neil Young. He’d joined CSNY and they released Deja Vu. In the same year Neil had released the album that made him a star, After the Gold Rush. The CSNY momentum continued with the amazing live album, 4-Way Street (1971). I can still remember walking through the living room at my college place and hearing Drew listening to 4-Way Street… the music at that place was always kick ass thanks to Drew, but I digress. By 1972 there was a lot of pent-up demand for another Neil solo record. He delivered the biggest selling album of 1972, his masterpiece, Harvest. Suddenly Young was a superstar and he did not handle it well but who does? (Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame) The hit song “Heart of Gold” was enormous. It was so big it pissed Bob Dylan off… he thought it was actually one of his songs when he first heard it. He thought he’d been ripped off… Supposedly his response was “Forever Young” a hidden jab at Neil. Who knows if that’s true or not…

To support Harvest, Young convened a group of session musicians in New York to prep for a tour. The pressure on Young was immense. The musicians all demanded $100,000 each for the tour, an unheard of sum back then, which supremely pissed Young off. He was touring on the pastoral, mellow grooves of Harvest with an openly hostile relationship with his backing band. To help balance things, he invited his friend from Crazy Horse, guitarist Danny Whitten to join the tour as rhythm guitarist. Unfortunately Whitten’s substance abuse problems, booze and heroin got in the way. Neil was quoted as saying, “he just couldn’t cut it. He couldn’t remember any of the songs.” So Neil did what he had to do, the show must go on. He fired Whitten. I had always heard he’d given Whitten $50 and a plane ticket back to L.A. and that Whitten had OD’d on $50 worth of heroin. Actually, he’d mixed booze and valium into a lethal combo. Literally, this happened the night after Neil Young had fired him. Now added to the pressure of having the biggest record in the world and a hostile band environment was an enormous sense of guilt. I don’t know how Young continued on tour. Oh, yes perhaps I do… he discovered and started drinking tequila. I try to avoid tequila… I used to say, they knew which drug to legalize, tequila. If I drink that stuff I’m either going to fight you or try to fuck you… maybe both at the same time… but enough about me.

To add to all of this mayhem, Neil brought along a mobile recording studio to capture it all on tape. Instead of a folky, country-rock evening the fans were expecting they got the electric Neil. Blaring, blasting guitars like it was an armed assault instead of a concert. To add to that, he performed a bunch of newly written songs that nobody had heard. It’s tough to attend a concert when you don’t recognize the music. When you know and are familiar with the songs, it multiplies the enjoyment exponentially. God knows what the audiences thought, but the resulting album, Time Fades Away is brilliant. After the tour, one of his roadies (and CSNY’s roadie) Bruce Berry succumbed to drugs and OD’d on a lethal mix of cocaine and heroin. Man, what a shitty year.

After the tour, Neil holed up in his studio with a band he dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers which consisted of Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums) both from Crazy Horse, Nils Lofgren on guitar (and in a surprise move, Neil had him play piano, an instrument he had previously never played) and Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar. As mentioned above, the album was pretty grim. Its basically the recording of a man exorcising his demons. It’s not often that an artist can lay himself and his emotions so nakedly bare in front of the world. I can only compare it to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. The two versions of the title track which bookend the album both reference the late Bruce Berry who “was a working man, he used to drive that Econoline van…” The performances are ragged and messy. They all sound like a first take, where the band is just watching Neil and trying to follow along. And I will say, it’s a very druggy album. There are a lot of drug references and Neil sounds fucked up half the time. There may be no hits on this record, but there’s not a Young fan who doesn’t consider it a masterpiece.

Last week Young released another superb entry in his wonderful Vault Series. Apparently, even though the record company refused to release Tonight’s The Night Young decided to play some live dates at the Roxy in Los Angeles in September of 1974 and play the unreleased album. And, as usual, he recorded the concerts resulting in this great live, vault release, Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live. While the performance still starts and ends with the song “Tonight’s the Night” he doesn’t just play the album in it’s running order. He also omits a couple of songs, the Danny Whitten sung “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” and “Borrowed Time.” He also adds as an encore, “Walk On,” that Neil introduces as an old song, despite the fact that it wouldn’t be released until a year later on On The Beach.

I might be slightly overstating this when I say this was a bit of a bracing listen. I don’t mean that in a bad way… it’s just a surprise. I’ve heard the original LP so many times, it’s etched in my mind, it’s part of the canon. So to hear Neil get up and be joking on stage – he starts by saying the first topless woman to jump on stage wins a prize of some sort… it was the 70s, way before Me Too, so let’s not get upset – is kind of shocking. In terms of the music, it’s played with more precision than on the original album. Obviously the band was much more familiar with the music by the time of these performances and everybody plays at a high level. The cloud of grief that hangs over Tonight’s The Night seems to dissipate here quite a bit, not that this is joyful music. “Roll Another Number (For The Road) swings so much it sounds like something Hank Williams might have done. The songs are still tough and gritty, but Neil is engaged and seems to be enjoying playing them. I love the way he bears down on his guitar when starts playing the title track to begin the show. Everybody plays so well here. I wonder how the crowd remains as enthusiastic as they do since no one in the room, who isn’t on stage, knew the material.

For me, and I admit, I’m a completist (guilty as charged), this is an essential companion piece to Tonight’s The Night. The lighthearted manner in which Young plays these tunes is evidence that the grief he was feeling was slowly lifting. I think this live album is a key link between Tonight’s and the follow up, On The Beach. I actually went out and listened to this on Neil’s archive web page, which I highly recommend to anybody, neilyoungarchives.com which is free for now. I will warn you… if you’re a Neil fan, you can get lost in there. I pulled it up one Friday in February and the next thing I knew it was Monday… At the very least everyone should go out to the Archive website and listen to this phenomenal historical document. Tonight’s the Night really comes alive in this performance… and don’t forget to put on the entire Ditch Trilogy with a nice tumbler of sour mash… you can thank me later.

 

LP Review: ‘Love Is For Losers’ From The Longshot, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong’s New Side Project

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“I think everyone should spread as many rumors and lies about the Longshot as possible…” – Billie Joe Armstrong

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the ’90s music scene. The easiest and perhaps the laziest way to describe the ’90s is to describe it as the Grunge Era. And while Grunge was a powerful force in music, Kurt Cobain and crew certainly destroyed everything that came before them, there was a lot more going on in music at the time. There was a ton of what was described as “alternative rock” back then, which was basically anything that wasn’t “classic rock.” Or basically, alternative rock was anything that wasn’t say, Foghat. It’s easy to look at the ’90s as the last Golden Age of Rock. Guitar driven bands are few and far between nowadays… Thank heaven for Greta Van Fleet!

When I read about that era now, I notice a lot of bands get sort of lumped together. I see Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden all lumped together with Green Day, who were another ’90s powerhouse. And while Green Day got big with Dookie in 1994, I’ve always viewed them as being apart from the Grunge thing. Green Day were punk rockers, plain and simple. I’m not suggesting they were derivative, they were just clearly punk. While all the Grunge guys and especially Nirvana were influenced by punk, they were something different. Pearl Jam was more influenced by classic rock than they’d probably be willing to admit. Soundgarden, to me at the time, were Black Sabbath with a better vocalist (I’m talking about Ozzy here, not Dio, I love those Sabbath LPs with RJD…). I will also say, in terms of differentiating Green Day from the other bands of the era, I think that Green Day had a better rhythm section in Tre Cool (drums) and Mike Dirnt (bass) than the other bands… with all due respect to Nirvana’s Grohl/Novoselic, Soundgarden’s Cameron/Shepherd, or Pearl Jam’s Ament/plug-in-drummer-name here. Pearl Jam went through more drummers than Spinal Tap. None of those rhythm sections were bad, I’m just saying Tre Cool is a kick ass drummer. And I do like Grohl as a drummer more than I do as a front man…but I’m off on a tangent here.

If you listen to Green Day’s Dookie, their major label debut, or any of their earlier albums, they were very punk. There was a rawness to the music and a certain amount of menace. They’ve always had a good sense of humor, but it came with a great “fuck you” attitude. You could hear a definite influence of the Clash or the Sex Pistols in early Green Day. As the years passed, their sound evolved and expanded, I think, for the better. Listening to Green Day now, they sound more like the power-pop/rock of say, Big Star with admittedly more powerful guitar, arena-rock size choruses and stronger hooks. My favorite album from Green Day remains their most diverse musically, Warning, which at the time was their least selling album. After that they went heavily into the Rock Opera genre, with American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. Over their career Green Day has lost a bit of that menace in their sound but I’ve remained a big fan. I liked their last album, Revolution Radio (LP Review: Green Day “Revolution Radio,” They retrench and relaunch).

The mastermind behind Green Day is, of course, Billie Joe Armstrong. As those of you who regularly read B&V know, I’ve always subscribed to the “Great Man” (or woman, I’m using the generic term “man,” because its sounds better than Great Person) theory of rock. I cribbed the theory from a history class. It basically means that at certain points in history or in this case rock and roll, certain great men, er I mean people, came forward to have a significant impact on things. I consider, along with guys like Jack White or Eddie Vedder, Billie Joe Armstrong to be one of these “great” people. He’s now stepped out of Green Day and formed a new band or as they like to call it, a new side-project.

It’s not the first time Armstrong has done this. With the other members of Green Day, they put out an album of 60s style rock tunes under the moniker the Foxboro Hot Tubs. There are rumors a band named the Network was also actually Green Day out there, but it’s never been proved to the point I take that as gospel. Those projects (if the Network really was Green Day) were something more akin to the Beatles pretending to be Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, just a fun way to take some of the pressure off being Green Day. I loved that Foxboro album, it’s a lot of fun. I also followed Armstrong on his truly first “solo” album outside of Green Day, Foreverly, which was a cover album of an old Everly Brothers’ album (Songs My Father Taught Me), literally song for song, only in a different order. I loved that album, but that could be because in a stroke of genius Armstrong invited Norah Jones to harmonize with him. It’s a quiet little album in the vein of Plant/Krauss’ Raising Sand. 

So now we have the Longshot. So, in order “spread as many rumors” as I can, I’ll tell you what I know and what I think. Armstrong wrote all the tunes on Love Is For Losers, except for a curious cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Goodbye to Romance.” I suspect that he plays all the instruments on this album, although his son is credited as drumming on one song. They’ve done a few live gigs, and the Longshot, at least live, consists of long time Green Day touring guitarist Jeff Matika on bass, Kevin Preston on guitar and David Field on drums. Obviously Armstrong is on vocals and guitar as well.

Love Is For Losers is probably the “punk-iest” thing I’ve heard Armstrong do since Insomniac. The rock songs on this album don’t reach the punk menace of “Geek Stink Breath” but what songs do? This album is a blast of punk-y guitar-rock full of big time riffs. I will say Armstrong has not lost his ability to write hook-filled songs. My first listen through, I got an almost 50s vintage vibe running through the music, but I think that may be because I’ve been listening to a lot of Elvis lately… But when you think about it, the original punk rockers were really stripping away a lot of the artifice that had grown up in rock and roll and took it back to it’s simpler, less complicated roots, albeit with more attitude and well, menace.

I will say, a lot of this music, at least through the first few listens does seem, for lack of a better word, “monochromatic.” Rockers like “The Last Time,” the title track, “Cult Hero” and “Taxi Driver” all sound alike on first listen. The more I listen, the more I like these tracks, and I start to hear the different riffs emerge. There are a few stylistic breaks with that core sound, “Chasing The Ghost” still has guitars but Armstrong uses some vocal effects with interesting results. And, the aforementioned cover of the ballad “Goodbye To Romance,” which sent my wife running from the room, at least made me smile. I mean, who covers Ozzy?

Armstrong seems extremely energized by this creative outlet outside of Green Day. And while I’m not sure I’d say this is a 100% return to punk, it’s certainly got a lot of that swagger and energy. A lot of times side projects are half-assed, narcissistic projects, but you certainly can’t say that about the Longshot. It feels like Armstrong is really into this and is having a great time doing it. While Love Is For Losers isn’t going to change the course of music, it’s nice to hear Armstrong unleash the less polished guitar sound. God knows, we need more guitar driven rock out there. This album certainly deserves a listen.

Cheers!