LP Review: Cheap Trick’s ‘We’re All Alright!’ – Pure, Rock Delight

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I know what you’re thinking… Cheap Trick? Really? Many of you are probably amazed they’re still around, although just last year they were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. And many others of you are thinking, Cheap Trick, why bother? But if you’re like me, you remember the latter half of the 70s when Cheap Trick were huge. They were the soundtrack of my junior high school years.

Their early records, ‘Cheap Trick,’ ‘In Color,’ and ‘Heaven Tonight’ are all exceptional, must-have records. Although it wasn’t until their fourth record, the epic ‘Live At Budokan’ that they hit it big. I can remember late junior high school/early high school, when every day my buddy Brewster would come to pick me up in his tan Chevy Monza. He had, of all things, an 8-track player and each morning without fail we listened to Cheap Trick’s ‘Live At Budokan.’ It took years for me to know the exact playing order of the record because the 8-track bounced around in a seemingly random way. I never understood that technology… Anyway, everywhere you went in those days you’d hear “Surrender” or “I Want You To Want Me.”

Cheap Trick always had a bit of a split personality to me… Maybe it was the divide in the band of two good looking guys and two goofy looking guys that gave me that impression. At least they were smart enough to keep guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos on the back of most of their early album covers. Put the pretty members in front of the tent to draw the chicks in… On one hand, Cheap Trick had a garage rock feel to me. Now that I’ve discovered Big Star and their exceptional LP, “#1 Record” (reviewed earlier on B&V The Music of Cinemax’s Quarry Led Me To Big Star’s “#1 Record” ) I now realize the huge debt Cheap Trick owes them. Big Star was always described as power pop, but Cheap Trick were always a little heavier. That said, their early career couldn’t be possible without the song “Don’t You Lie To Me” from Big Star.

The other side of Cheap Trick for me was their intense Beatles fetish. Not that there’s anything wrong with a Beatles fetish… If you’re going to emulate a band, it might as well be one of the greatest. The zenith of their Beatlesque tendencies was the follow up to ‘Budokan,’ the George Martin produced ‘Dream Police.’ You can’t get more Beatles than George Martin. Two members of Cheap Trick actually played on the John Lennon ‘Double Fantasy’ sessions. For me, I always appreciated the rockier side of Cheap Trick vs the overblown Beatles-esque stuff. At their best however, they were able to blend the best of both sides. They did a nice rocking re-work of George Harrison’s “Taxman” as early as their first record.

After ‘Dream Police,’ as suddenly as they had ascended, Cheap Trick’s commercial fortunes started to fade. Maybe they should have stuck with the rockier, Big Star side of their personality. It got so bad the movie “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” made fun of them as “kiddy music.” If I’m using a cultural sub-reference as deep as “Fast Times…” you know these guys have been around a long time, but I digress. To Cheap Trick’s credit, they shouldered on. The 80s and 90s were particularly tough on them. Bass player, Tom Petersson even left during that tumultuous time, only to return later. Even though they were no longer the creative/commercial juggernaut they’d been in the 70s, it seemed every so often, they’d put out a great song. “She’s Tight” caught my ear in the early 80s as did “The Flame” later that decade. So in a way, I was always aware they were around.

I figured they were making the concert circuit, a good “greatest hits band” and that was all there was to it. But then came the surprisingly great 2006 album, ‘Rockford.’ There was life left in these guys after all. It’s the kind of late career gem that B&V was created for. ‘The Latest’ in 2009 was another solid album, if not quite up to ‘Rockford.’ They were inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame last year and released another solid record in ‘Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello.’ Somehow I missed reviewing that one… too much going on. I was sorry to see that original drummer Bun E. Carlos had been booted out by that time… to paraphrase the “Big Lebowski,” “I didn’t like to see Bun E go out that way…”  And here we are a year later and they’ve already put out their next album, ‘We’re All Alright,’ a title that harkens back to their heyday and their biggest song, “Surrender.” Putting out an album a year? This really does feel like the 70s.

‘We’re All Alright’ is another late career triumph for Cheap Trick. This is a great album. I would definitely suggest the deluxe edition, as it has three strong, additional tunes. The triptych opening of the swaggering “You Got It Going On,” my favorite tune “Long Time Coming,” and the punky “Nowhere” rock with a joyful abandon. Singer Robin Zander sounds almost unhinged on “Long Time Coming” in a very, very good way when he sings “Shake, shake, shake it…”  “Radio Lover” and “Lolita” are also great Cheap Trick songs. The track, “She’s Alright” is driven along by a great Tom Petersson bass line, which is a nice change of pace tune. Rick Nielsen is just shredding on lead guitar. He’s the star of this record in my mind, although Robin Zander’s vocals are pretty amazing too. While the album rocks from start to finish, they do mix it up the sounds a bit to give this album a lot of flavor. The aforementioned “She’s Alright” and “Floating Down,” a soaring, mid-tempo ballad help break up the full on rock assault. They do find time to indulge their inner Beatles fetish on “Blackberry Way” which sounds like it could have been an outtake from the ‘Sgt Pepper’ sessions. “Rest of My Life” is another standout mid-tempo track. “Brand New Name On An Old Tattoo” is a fun, almost Motley Crue-ish tune.

If like good, ol’ fashion, guitar rock and roll, this is a must have record. Something has really kicked these guys into gear. Maybe it’s Nielsen’s son on the drums now, but these guys are on fire on this record. Even the Rock Chick strolled into the lab here at B&V and said, “Is this that new Cheap Trick, it’s great.” I suggest putting this record on, turned up to 11, with a nice glass of rye whiskey.

Happy 4th of July! Keep all your fingers safe out there folks!

 

 

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Gregg Allman,The Blues/Rock Legend, RIP: The Midnight Ride Is Sadly Over

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*photo shamelessly stolen from the internet

Man, has it been a tough couple of weeks. It started it off well enough. I saw Soundgarden two weeks ago today and they were spectacular. I left hopeful to hear a new album from those guys sometime this year. Then things took a dark turn. Chris Cornell passed away after a show in Detroit. Then a few days later some idiot in Manchester attacks a teeny-bopper concert full of young girls, the height of cowardice. And now, in the midst of Memorial Day weekend, I got the news blues/rock legend Gregg Allman has passed away. I have to admit, my “Spidey-Senses were tingling” about Gregg for a while. He’d been hospitalized and had cancelled some tour dates. He was only 69.

The Allman Brothers Band, which bore Gregg and his brother Duane’s name, is to guitar playing what the SEC is to college football. They have all the championships. My nickname for the Allman Brothers was always “Guitar University.” Whether it was Duane Allman/Dickey Betts, or in the later years Warren Haynes/Derek Trucks, manning the guitars, you were certain to hear virtuoso guitar performances. Even surrounded by all those guitars the bedrock of the Allman’s sound was Gregg’s Hammond B-3 organ which was the melodic platform from which those guitars launched and soared. The heartbeat, and for me the key component to the Allman Brothers’ sound, was Gregg’s vocal. Even in his younger days he sang with a depth and knowing despair usually reserved for men three times his age. Who else could write, in their 20’s, “Just one more mornin’ I had to wake up with the blues…” “Dreams” indeed…

When he was a very young child his father, an Army sergeant, was shot and killed by a drinking buddy. You have to wonder if that early tragedy informed Gregg’s soulful, sad voice. Gregg Allman didn’t just sing the blues – with all the tragedy (his father, his brother’s untimely death), the women, Cher, the divorces (6), the drugs, the booze, and all the legal problems divorces, booze and drugs bring – Gregg Allman lived the blues.

I’ve read quite a bit on line about Gregg Allman the last twenty-four hours. Almost unanimously they refer to Allman as a “southern rock” pioneer. I do know that Gregg considered the term southern rock redundant. If it’s southern music, it rocks, baby! When I think about the Allman’s music, I don’t think of it as southern rock. Yes, they built the template of the multi-lead guitar, bluesy, touch of country, rock and roll. To me they were just a great blues band with a jazz ethos. The solo’ing and the playing off each other was so much more akin to Miles Davis than well, Marshall Tucker. I don’t really like jam bands, like say, The Grateful Dead, but you could easily call the Allman Brothers Band a jam band. In my opinion they played more forcefully than all that Grateful Dead noodling. These guys were taking the blues places it hadn’t been.

My introduction to the Allman Brothers Band was an odd one. When I was in college my musical taste and my album collection was exploding in all different directions. I had musical ADD. I’d buy a Stones album, then maybe a Beatles album, then back over to the Faces. I had the good fortune to have a roommate, Drew, who had a singular focus when it came to music. When he got into an artist he went straight through the catalog until he had it all. We were both musical completists. Drew came home one day with “I’m No Angel,” Gregg’s great ’86 solo album. Yes, the production is a little dated, but it was the strongest thing he’d done since “Laid Back.” This was my introduction to Gregg Allman and my gateway into the Allman Brothers Band. You have to remember, when I came of record-buying age, Allman was married to Cher and had just put out “Allman And Woman.” Not my bailiwick. Up to the point Drew brought home “I’m No Angel” I was aware of the Allmans but hadn’t paid any attention to them.

Drew also played me “Live At the Fillmore East” for the first time. That’s when I was hooked, my musical life changed that day. It wasn’t until I moved to Arkansas that I crashed through the entire early Allman’s catalog. I mean, if you live in the south you better own some Allman Brother’s albums… I consider “The Allman Brothers Band,” “Idlewild South,” “Fillmore East,” “Eat A Peach” and “Brothers And Sisters” all ESSENTIAL rock music listening. It’s an amazing catalog of work. They defined jam rock, southern rock, blues rock, just plain rock! Through losing Duane Allman, founder/leader/legendary guitarist and founding bassist Barry Oakley they continued to put out fantastic music. While it’s easy to focus on those early records, when the Allman Brothers regrouped in 1990 for the great reunion/comeback album ‘Seven Turns’ it led to a string of really great albums. I would highly recommend ‘Where It All Begins,’ but I also loved the last Allman album, without Dickey Betts, ‘Hittin’ The Note.” There’s some great playing on that record especially on the long track, “Desdemona.” They also cover the Stones’ “Heart of Stone,” which I’m rather partial to.

While the Allman Brothers’ legend is cemented, I don’t hear nearly enough about Gregg’s great solo work. One of the unique things about Gregg’s solo work is on almost every solo album he’d go back and rework one of the Allman’s early songs. His first solo album, “Laid Back” is his masterpiece and his reimagining of “Midnight Rider” is so differently orchestrated than the original you almost forget there are 2 versions of that track. “Laid Back” is a must have. His cover of Jackson Browne’s oft-covered “These Days” is definitive. His follow-up, the live “The Gregg Allman Tour” is, like “Fillmore East,” one of the great double live albums of the 70s. Gregg always brought more of an R&B feel to his solo records vs the bluesy muscle of Allman Brothers. The other 70s solo Gregg album that everyone should own is ‘Playing Up A Storm.’ You won’t recognize any of the tunes, I don’t think there are any “hits” per se, but it’s almost the same high quality as “Laid Back.” Choice listening!

Gregg’s last solo album, ‘Low Country Blues’ was produced by T Bone Burnett and featured Gregg doing almost exclusively old blues covers. The opening track, “Floating Bridge” will stop you in your tracks. He tackles Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and matches the Stones version for sheer blues awesomeness. My only complaint about ‘Low Country’ was there wasn’t enough of Gregg’s seminal organ playing, but it’s a nit of a complaint.

Another album that didn’t get a lot of attention, but everyone should check out is Gregg’s 1997 solo album, “Searching For Simplicity.” He does a great, acoustic re-work of “Whippin’ Post.” There is a great, great version of John Hiatt’s “Memphis In The Meantime.” For me, “Rendezvous With The Blues” is the highpoint. Gregg’s bluesy growl is let loose on that one. It’s a solid, bluesy record and well worth checking out.

Today I am sad, because we have lost another legend. I’m starting to get that bad 2016 feeling again… We’re starting to lose people in bunches again. Thankfully we have an amazing back catalog to console us through our grief. And, I was pleased to hear that Gregg had completed his long-awaited follow up to ‘Low Country Blues,’ and that album should be out in September.

Make no mistake people, a giant of the blues, of rock and roll, of music has passed this weekend. The world is better off for knowing Gregg Allman’s artistry.

Cheers!

I Awoke To The Devastating News: Chris Cornell Has Passed Away, RIP

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*Picture taken by the Rock Chick, Sunday, May 14th, 2017

“I heard the news today, oh boy…” –The Beatles

I believe it was Robbie Robertson, guitarist of the Band who famously said, “The road has taken a lot of the great ones…” Sadly, we have one more name to add to that list.

I was awakened this morning by my wife, the Rock Chick, which usually doesn’t happen unless there is a task at hand, like “we forgot to put the recycling out.” I’m easily startled so nobody really likes waking me up before the alarm. She teared up as she gave me the devastating news that singer, guitarist, songwriter, father, husband, Rock Star Chris Cornell had passed away from an apparent suicide over night. I couldn’t believe it… surely there had to be a mistake here? My heart and thoughts go out to his family, his wife and two kids. I can’t imagine what they’re going through.

In a word, I’m devastated. This is made much worse for me as I just saw Chris and the rest of Soundgarden here in Kansas City on Sunday night at Starlight Theater and they were fantastic. When I was young, and I first started going to concerts, I realized that when you see a really great show there is a post-concert bliss or buzz, call it what you want, that can last for days. That Soundgarden post-concert high hadn’t even worn off for me yet. And now Chris is gone.

He prowled the stage like a prize fighter last Sunday. His voice was perfect. He sang all up and down the scale. His vocal was as strong as anything I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard everybody. He played more guitar than I thought he would and actually had some chops. The man was truly a Rock Star, with a capital R and S. He told a wonderful story about his grandparents, who he said lived in KC. His grandfather built Rolls Royce engines here, apparently. He said coming over the river and seeing Kansas City, the few times he visited, always made him feel good. It was a lovely moment in the show. I felt he’d really connected with the adoring audience. My God, he was only three months younger than I am.

I was a big Soundgarden fan. The first thing I connected with was Cornell’s voice. “Fell On Black Days” is a song that means so much to me, I don’t feel I can share it in these pages. I also bought the Temple of the Dog LP, a tribute to Chris’ fallen friend Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” from ‘Temple of the Dog’ is another of those songs that take me back to a very specific time in a very moving way. After Soundgarden broke up I bought his first solo LP, ‘Euphoria Morning’ which I didn’t connect with, although “Can’t Change Me” from that album is still in high rotation here at the house (I play it for my wife). I really loved his work with Audioslave. I have all three of those great albums. When he returned to his solo career I was back on the bandwagon when he released the live acoustic ‘Songbook’ album and the fantastic acoustic based studio LP, ‘Higher Truth,’ reviewed on B&V. I can truly say I was a fan of most, if not all, of this guy’s work. ‘Higher Truth’ will be playing in my house all day.

I was happy a couple of years ago when Chris got back together with his mates in Soundgarden and they put out ‘King Animal,’ and was thrilled to see them Sunday night. I wanted to see him when he got back together with Temple of The Dog for a brief tour and I pray someone taped those shows. He even played with Audioslave at a benefit a couple of months ago… It seems he’d reunited and made peace with everybody. That is some comfort, I guess.

My friend, drummer Blake, said via text, “Only Eddie Vedder is left from the big 4 Grunge bands of the 90s…” It hadn’t occurred to me we’ve lost Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Layne Staley (AIC), and now Chris Cornell. Soundgarden was purportedly working on a new album that I think we all were looking forward to…

This is just a fucking tragedy. I am distraught. If you’re out there, and you’re having a hard time, reach out to somebody. Don’t let it get to this point.

I had a dear friend commit suicide back in the early 90s. It left a mark on me that remains to this day. I can’t help but feel this particular artist, going out in this particular way is going to leave a similar mark on a lot of people.

It’s a dark ride folks, take care of each other. RIP Chris Cornell, Rock Star.

LP Review: John Mellencamp, “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” Featuring Carlene Carter

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When I was in high school I dated a girl whose parents both worked, which was rare in my neighborhood. After school we’d go over to her house for those two hours before her parents got home and drink beer and listen to music. I remember listening to one of the few albums she actually owned, ‘American Fool’ by a guy then named John Cougar. Sure, those were fun afternoons, but I never really got into that album. If middling music was the cover charge to hang out unsupervised in the afternoons with a young girl and beer, I was willing to pay it. Despite having to hear “Jack And Diane” every day, those are still fond memories.

By ’83, I was done with high school, that girl was done with me, and John Cougar was done with the last name “Cougar,” which had been given to him by his first manager. He was now John Mellencamp and he put out an ‘Exile On Mainstreet’ sloppy rocker of an album named ‘Uh-Huh.’ I was on the band wagon. I loved that album, especially the song, “Play Guitar.” Mellencamp was always described as a poor man’s Seger and Seger was described as a poor man’s Springsteen. I guess that makes Mellencamp a cut-rate Springsteen. That math was always too hard for me.

Mellencamp followed up ‘Uh-Huh’ with his two masterpieces ‘Scarecrow,’ and ‘The Lonesome Jubilee,’ that latter of which was a stylistic left turn with fiddles and acoustic guitars. Sometimes when an artist breaks with his past work and pushes himself, marvelous things result. For Mellencamp that marvelous thing was ‘The Lonesome Jubilee,’ his career highlight. Since that time, he’s bounced back and forth between his two styles, the ‘Jubilee’ type acoustic/rootsy stuff and his earlier rockier style. For every ‘Big Daddy’ he’d veer back to the electric guitar noise of ‘Whenever We Wanted.’ I stuck with him through a lot of that journey. Another positive development for Mellencamp was his shift from the typical rock lyrics to a more geopolitical view of the world, lyrically speaking. I’ve always liked lyrics that mean something…

His first album for Columbia, entitled ‘John Mellencamp’ was one of the first LPs that the Rock Chick and I found we loved in common. That was a true late career masterpiece and I urge everyone who hasn’t to check that one out. Self-titled LPs released late in an artist’s career typically signal a rebirth of sorts and ‘John Mellencamp’ is no exception. After that things got a little dicier for me with Mellencamp. ‘Rough Harvest’ was an album that sounded like acoustic demos that was recorded to get out of a recording contract, never a good artistic premise for a record. ‘Cuttin Heads’ left me cold. I liked his bluesy (more like rootsy) ‘Trouble No More,’ and even ‘Freedom’s Road’ had a lot of redeeming songs but after that I got off the bandwagon. The music just all started to sound grim. I bought ‘No Better Than This’ based on the hype of Mellencamp working with T. Bone Burnett but despite all the love of the critics it did nothing for me…maybe it was the fact they recorded it in mono. Sigh.

After that I completely disconnected from Mellencamp. I’d heard he was doing theatrical stuff for the stage and movies but I turned a deaf ear. The Rock Chick came home one day and purchased a tune she said reminded her of me, “Troubled Man” from the album ‘Plain Spoken,’ which is never a song you want somebody to associate you with. I was going through some hard times at work. I actually heard good buzz around ‘Plain Spoken’ but for reasons unclear I didn’t check it out. “Troubled Man” is a great Mellencamp tune…

I read somewhere on line that Mellencamp had a new LP coming out in late April, entitled ‘Sad Clowns & Hillbillies’ on which he was going country. “Well, fuck, consider him dead,” was my first thought. He was duetting with a woman named Carlene Carter (who I had never heard of) and also everybody’s go to country duet partner, Martina McBride. I was disappointed to think an artist the stature of Mellencamp would go the Bon Jovi country route to sell some records. Of course Mellencamp likely has a lot of alimony to pay so, maybe that was the motivation. Even the title had me horrified, ‘Sad Clowns’? ‘Hillbillies’? Really?

Despite the awful title, I was curious. I was driving around and on my satellite radio I heard a song from the new album, “Battle of Angels” and damned if it wasn’t a great song. I’ve spent some time with this LP and I’ve realized something I’d forgotten, something that is fundamental to all good music: NEVER underestimate the strength of great songwriting. You can argue with the instrumentation and even with Mellencamp’s voice, ravaged by cigarettes, but if you listen to his melodies and his lyrics, these are indeed really good if not great songs.

This is not so much of a country album as Mellencamp doing his ‘Lonesome Jubilee’ style roots music, so don’t be fooled by the “going country” stuff you read. There are some more country-ish elements here but this is not all in country. Carlene Carter, it ends up, is the daughter of country royalty, June Carter Cash and damn if she doesn’t sound exactly like her mother. It’s truly uncanny. Now, full disclosure, I love Johnny Cash and I own a duets album of he and June Carter and I’ve always loved her voice. So I immediately became attached to Carlene’s vocals. She only duets on a handful of these tunes. Martina McBride is here, but only on one song. This is not a duet’s album. Its more of a harmony vocals kind of thing with a few duets. The female voices do a nice job of off-setting Mellencamp’s sandpaper vocals.

“Mobile Blue” is a cover that I really liked, despite Mellencamp’s Louis Armstrong vocals. “Battle of Angels” is the LPs high point for me. If you check out nothing else, check that tune out. “Grandview” boasts an awesome electric guitar from none other than Izzy Stradlin of Guns N Roses fame. There are a number of strong tunes here, including “All Night Talk Radio,” which if driven by electric guitars instead of a fine Miriam Strum violin, would have been a rock anthem as big as “Little Pink Houses.” “What Kind of Man Am I” is a song that could only be written by Mellencamp, all regrets and sadness.

Don’t get me wrong, there are stumbles here. “Sugar Hill Mountain” is a tune I can do without. The album jumps off the rails on the back end which was disappointing after the strong beginning 5 or 6 tracks. “Sad Clowns” is a full on country waltz that grates on me.  “Easy Target” is sung in a vocal that sounds like a garbage truck that threw a rod. On the second half of the album, the only tune that resonates with me is the great tune, “My Soul’s Got Wings,” which boasts great harmonizing from Mellencamp and Carter.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this album. Even though Mellencamp will never likely climb the heights he once saw in the 80s and 90s, he’s still making complicated, intricate music. This is compelling and interesting despite it’s title. However, I can not recommend this record as a purchase. I’d check out the tunes on the front half of the album, selectively. If you have a streaming service it’s worth a listen or two. These are the kind of records that generally get over looked by, well, almost everybody. However, these are also precisely the type of albums, done by artists who’ve honed their craft and skills, that you’re likely to find a hidden gem or two.

Musical spelunking always brings rewards, folks.

The BourbonAndVinyl List of Rock’s Best “Side Projects”

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In the early days of rock and roll, listeners weren’t very sophisticated. As a musician it was easy to get pigeon-holed… you were either in a band or you were a solo artist. You were either Bob Dylan, all alone or The Beatles, four lads from Liverpool. If an artist in a band put out a solo album the general consensus was that the band was breaking up. You were either on the bus or the bus was coming after you…

The first artist I can remember who defied that paradigm was Rod Stewart. After he left the Jeff Beck Group to go solo, quickly followed by Ronnie Wood, he didn’t stay solo very long. He joined The Faces with Ronnie. But then he did something audacious that no one had never done before… he continued his solo career. He’d release a solo album and then a Faces album every year. Back and forth, back and forth. Fans, in the early 70s were clearly confused. Some concert venues went so far as to bill the Faces as “Rod Stewart and The Faces,” like the Faces were Stewart’s version of Wings… his back up band. That probably got a little awkward in the dressing room. There were always accusations from the band that Rod was keeping his best material for his solo albums. I think  we all know where that led. And likely, dividing his time between projects diluted the finished product on one end…

These days doing solo stuff outside the setting of your established band is pretty much expected. It’s not the death knell of a band when the lead singer or the guitar player branch out and do something solo. Well, unless we’re talking about Aerosmith and Steven Tyler who suddenly turns into the village idiot and decides to promote “his own brand” vs the band, but again that ain’t normal. All of this is well and good with me, artists should express themselves as they wish. But it occurred to me the other day, there is a third category outside of band projects and solo projects… the infamous “side project.” Many times, instead of going full-on solo, a band member will do a one-off project with other musicians. Maybe it’s the artist’s attempt to stick his toe into the solo realm. Or maybe it’s just a musical vacation away from the usual mates in the band to work with some other friends or just some new, different musicians to test the creative boundaries. Think of it as a vacation only with instruments. I’m not talking about a guest shot on someone else’s album, I’m talking about a full on diversion from one’s career to do something else. I don’t think anybody has really celebrated the best of these, so after some bourbon and a lot of thought.. here are the best Rock N Roll Side Projects…

  1. The Traveling Wilbury’s – George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty all between albums convene at Lynne’s house and end up striking pay dirt with Vol. 1. After Orbison’s death they actually did a second album, but the second side project record is usually not as good as the first one.
  2. The Notting Hillbillies – Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits gets together with some old mates and does the underrated, mellow strummer, “Missing…and Presumed Having a Good Time.” “Your Own Sweet Way” was the stand out, but don’t under-estimate the charm of the other guys in the band’s turns on lead vocal.
  3. Mad Season, ‘Above’ – Mike McCready, the guitarist from Pearl Jam, says he got together with Layne Staley (among others) to show Layne that you could create music while sober. This record is murky but “River of Deceit” is one of Staley’s greatest vocals.
  4. Chickenfoot – Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Joe Satriani, & Chad Smith got together for not just one LP, but 2, much like the Traveling Wilbury’s. I actually thought both of these records were great, but the second record, named Vol 3, just never caught on…
  5. Power Station – Robert Palmer took a break from his solo career to get together with a couple members of Duran Duran and the incredible Tony Thompson on drums as a lark to record the old T Rex song, “Bang A Gong.” Things got rolling in the studio and they knocked out an entire LP. I love, love “Some Like It Hot,” with the immortal line, “She wants to multiply, are you gonna do it?” Unfortunately this led the lead singer of Duran Duran, Simon Le Bon, to do the misguided Arcadia project… Oh, well. Palmer refused to tour behind the smash hit and went back to his solo career. That’s why it’s called a side-project, people.
  6. The Hindu Love Gods – Warren Zevon backed by REM. REM had been tapped as Warren’s backing band on the superb ‘Sentimental Hygiene.’ I’m not sure why but the band (sans Michael Stipe) went back into the studio with Zevon and punched out this LP of covers as diverse as Hank Williams, Muddy Waters and of all things, “Raspberry Beret” by Prince. They sure sound like they’re having a great time. It’s relaxed and awesome. Highly recommend this LP.
  7. Tin Machine – David Bowie decides to chuck the solo career for the anonymity of a band project. They actually did two albums, but the first one is the gem. “Under the God” is a great song, but check out their electrified cover of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” Pretty amazing stuff.
  8. Stills/Young Band, ‘Long May You Run’ – Originally an attempted CSNY reunion, early in the sessions Crosby and Nash exited. Since the CN part of the equation had done well with their collaboration LPs, it only seemed natural that the SY part would follow suit. Critics decried this album for a lack of songwriting, but my college roomie Drew turned me onto this superb LP and I love it. The title track is great but so is Stills’ ode to scuba diving “Black Coral.” Recorded in Miami, this is like a much, much cooler Buffet album. Young split early in the tour for this album to get back to solo records… too bad. I love these two collaborating.
  9. The Little Willies – Norah Jones doing country covers and originals with a bunch of New York buddies of hers. They’ve done two full LPs, and contrary to the rule, they both kick ass. But as usual, I have to say, Norah could sing the phone book and I’d listen in… But be aware, the other guy sing selected tracks too. I have to admit I love the humorous song “Lou Reed.”
  10. The Foxboro Hottubs – Green Day in disguise. On this superb LP, they’re doing punky, surf-rock tunes while taking a break from doing rock operas. This is a great gem of a record.
  11. Temple of the Dog – Chris Cornell of Soundgarden uniting with most of Pearl Jam for a tribute LP for the former lead singer of Mother Lovebone, Andrew Wood. I love this record. These guys actually just reunited for a short series of concerts on the coasts. I’m hoping for a live LP document of those shows.
  12. Mudcrutch – Tom Petty and several Heartbreakers reunite with other original members of Mudcrutch as Petty explores his first pre-Heartbreakers band. They’ve done two full LPs, and again, unlike the normal rule, both kick ass. Petty is more laid back and jammy with Mudcrutch. These are must have LPs for any fans of Petty’s.
  13. The Raconteurs – Jack White’s first side project outside of The White Stripes, followed shortly by the Dead Weather project. I prefer the Raconteurs. It doesn’t matter what Jack White does, it’s typically brilliant. I actually like the second LP they did better than the first. Check out the epic “Carolina Drama.”
  14. The Firemen – Paul McCartney’s fabulous side project with electronica producer Youth. They’d done a full-electronica album prior to “Electric Arguments” but “Arguments” is the record to buy. Youth told McCartney, “I want chords and vocals this time” and McCartney delivered. Paul always seems to come alive when alleviated from the pressure of the McCartney name… This album brings out the best of McCartney’s experimental side. Weird, quirky – yes. Excellent, yes.
  15. The New Barbarians – Ronnie Wood needed a backing band after his wonderful solo LP, “I’ve Got My Own Album To Do,” and Keith Richards volunteered to go out on the road with him. I think they actually did two tours, but I’m not positive. There’s a limit to even my knowledge… They never actually released anything, but how much fun would this have been to see? Lots of white powder consumed on this tour… I think they finally did a live LP years later…

This list isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list but these are some of the greatest “side-projects” done by some of the greatest musicians of all time. You’ve got a couple of Beatles and a couple of Stones on the list, so it can’t be half bad! Do a little spelunking and chances are if you like a band their members have done something creative on the side! Look outside the box and you may just be rewarded!

Cheers!

 

 

 

Artist Lookback: Black Sabbath, 1980-1981, The Superb Dio Era

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A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about Ozzy Osbourne’s albums with Randy Rhoads. It was one of Ozzy’s greatest eras. I think, in the interest of “equal time,” that it’s only fair to take a look at what his old band mates were up to while Ozzy was launching his solo career. Fed up with Ozzy’s erratic addict behavior and diminishing album sales, Tony Iommi and the gang decided it was time to make a change. Ozzy was sacked. The choice for replacement was none other than former Elf and Rainbow lead singer Ronnie James Dio. It was an inspired choice.

Other than a brief flirtation with the ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ album when my mom’s friend brought her children’s records over for me to tape on cassette, I really didn’t know anything about pre-Dio Sabbath. That LP frankly, scared me at the time. I had to wonder what was going on at my mom’s friend’s house. Sure, I knew the song “Paranoid” but I’m not even sure I connected that with Ozzy. I was into bluesier rock like The Stones, ZZTop, Foghat, not heavy metal. Looking back, one has to wonder why Dio would quit Rainbow, who seemed to be on the upswing, and join Sabbath who were sinking under the weight of their own addictions and commercial failures. Coming off two absolute clunkers, “Technical Ecstasy” and “Never Say Die,” Sabbath was in need of a shot in the arm. “Never Say Die” seems like a joke now, considering they blew up the band by firing Ozzy right after that LP.

I remember the first time I heard the first “single” if you an call it that, from ‘H&H,’ “Neon Nights” on KY102, the local radio station in Kansas City. With it’s galloping pace and heavy guitar, and that voice, who was that singing I wondered, it was the type of tune you’d put on before riding into battle. Perhaps I’d been wrong and there were non-blues-based music out there I needed to check out. This was my inauguration into heavy metal. Oh, and I was hooked!

The two 80’s albums Sabbath did with Ronnie James Dio are absolutely essential to not only heavy metal fans, but fans of rock and roll of any stripe. While it was only a brief period lasting a little over 2 years and only two albums, it was one of Sabbath’s most fruitful periods. Let’s look at both LPs.

‘Heaven And Hell’ (1980)

When I saw the album cover of ‘Heaven and Hell’, with the group of angels smoking cigarettes and gambling, I thought, “Oh, yes, I’m in the right place.” This was going to be a special listening event. I went downstairs to use my parents considerably better and more powerful stereo. I put the headphones in the jack and dropped the needle. Unfortunately, my parents stereo had a knob that had to be turned to “auxiliary output” before it would divert the music to the headphones, so while I thought I was privately enjoying “Neon Nights” it was actually blasting out of the speakers overhead sending my mother into a gasping, screaming fit of rage as she ran from the kitchen all the way to the living room to throw her body on the stereo. In her defense, I had it turned up to “11.” Sorry, mom.

Side one of the original vinyl LP of ‘Heaven And Hell’ is as good as any in the Sabbath pantheon. Not only does it kick off with “Neon Nights,” but side one had “Lady Evil,” just a great, spooky tune with a furious bass line and the title track, “Heaven And Hell.” “Heaven And Hell” ranks amongst the greatest tracks of all time. “Children of the Sea” rounds out side one and is another stand-out tune. For me the key track on side two is “Die Young” a hard rocking basher that could be argued was the template for Dio’s whole career. There’s a quiet bridge in the middle of “Die Young” with an acoustic guitar and Dio singing that’ll stop your heart. “Wishing Well” is another great, heavy track on side 2. They end with two very strong tracks, “Walk Away” swings and “Lonely Is The Word” is an epic Sabbath tune. This album is a must have. There isn’t a bad note from start to finish. This album equals anything Ozzy was doing on ‘Blizzard of Oz’ at the time. This was a lot heavier than anything Ozzy was doing, certainly. Bringing in Dio completely rejuvenated the creative process in Sabbath. In short, this tour de force is a triumph.

‘Mob Rules’ (1981)

The follow up to ‘Heaven And Hell,’ ‘Mob Rules’ came out so quickly afterward I didn’t even realize it had come out. Actually the follow up to ‘Heaven’ was a quick and dirty live LP where Dio sang a number of Ozzy-Sabbath tunes. They probably did that to piss Ozzy off, which I’m sure it did. My future college roommate Matthew and I were driving up to Kansas State to check out the campus one weekend when he slid a cassette tape of ‘Mob Rules’ into his super-powered, Subaru stereo. Sabbath was back with another great album. I went to the vinyl store Sunday afternoon right after we got back home to buy the album, post haste. Once again, the album art was terrific. When my mom saw this album, for the first time ever, she started to question what I was doing up in my room with the headphones on. I could see it in her eyes, “was my son in a Satanic cult?” No mom, I’m just a metal fan.

‘Mob Rules’ kicks off with “Turn Up The Night” which almost feels funky. Is there such a thing as disco metal? Geezer Butler’s bass almost makes you want to dance. The epic “Sign Of The Southern Cross” is the centerpiece of side one of this album. It leads into an atmospheric instrumental “E5150” that bleeds into the fast and hard title track, “Mob Rules.” “When you listen to fools, the mob rules…” was something I would quote to my parents when they’d take me to church, which may have been the proof my mother needed that I was indeed in a Satanic cult. Side two starts with “Country Girl” which is an OK tune, but not my favorite. I’ll admit I like they were branching out on subject matter. Side 2 immediately picks up with “Slipping Away,” the fantastic “Falling Off The Edge Of the World,” (which has my all time favorite Sabbath quote, “I’ve seen some visions of Hell that are horribly strange”) and finally the dramatic “Over And Over” to end things. This is top shelf heavy metal and while perhaps not as mind altering as ‘Heaven And Hell’ it’s certainly still a stunning album. I would label ‘Mob Rules’ as another must-have, essential LP for any rock and roll fan.

Sadly, as quickly as it had begun, and as fruitful as it proved to be, the Dio Era in Sabbath ended. There was a sudden announcement that Dio had left for a solo career (which was great on its own) and that former Deep Purple lead singer Ian Gillan had joined Black Sabbath. In my mind Sabbath didn’t really do anything I liked again until ’13’ the Rick Rubin-produced reunion album with Ozzy. They even reunited with Dio briefly in 1992 for the lackluster LP ‘Dehumanizer.’ Alas, the magic was gone. When you find lightning in a bottle folks, hold on tight.

I recommend immediate purchase of both these records. If you can find them on vinyl, all the better. Turn that stereo up to 11 and Rawk! Oh, and make sure you have that “auxiliary output” thing taken care of… we wouldn’t want to scare mom again.

iPod Playlist – Springsteen’s ‘Human Touch’/’Lucky Town’ LPs at 25: The B&V Single LP Edit

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I saw over the weekend that Bruce Springteen’s two simultaneously released 1992 LPs had turned 25 years old. ‘Human Town’ and ‘Lucky Town’ were highly anticipated back in ’92. We hadn’t heard anything from Springsteen since 1987’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ and back then five years between albums was a luxury only afforded to those nut jobs in Boston. In the interim, since ‘Tunnel of Love,’ much had occurred in Springsteen’s life. He’d gotten divorced, married again and started a family (good for him). On the music end of the ledger he’d severed ties with his long time backing band, The E Street Band (bad for him). Bruce had decided it was time to go solo.

At the time, I remember hearing or reading an interview with Springsteen where he said his music and the story he was trying to tell had all been building from ‘Greetings From Asbury Park’ all the way through ‘Born In The USA.’ He felt that ‘Born In The USA’ was the culmination of that story and it was time to find a new direction. He’d attempted to do that very thing with ‘Tunnel of Love,’ although my thoughts on that LP were that it was a reaction to the unheard of fame that resulted from ‘Born In the USA’ and it was Springsteen’s attempt to slow that hysteria down a bit. Often when an artist gets bigger than they expected, they release a quiet, introspective or “arty” work so they can avoid the massive expectations they’ve set up for themselves.

At the time, I remember thinking, “new direction,” my ass. The fame has given him “the fear.” But all these years later, when I listen to the classic live shows he’s been releasing on his website, damn if I don’t hear the progression. The live LPs I’ve heard from 1975 through 1984 all do actually build upon each other. He had the skeleton of his live shows and with each succeeding LP he added certain pieces here, took away pieces there. ‘Born In the USA’ really was an end point for Springsteen. He’d gone from rhyming boardwalk poet on ‘Greetings From Asbury Park’ to working class hero for the universe on ‘Born In the USA.’ It now makes sense to me what he was trying to do. His work, more than almost any other artist I can think of is, as he describes it to be, a dialogue.

Despite Springsteen’s best efforts to escape the expectations set by his past, with the long wait between records and firing the E Street Band, the expectations were still running very high in 1992 from his rabid fan base, yours truly included. Only Guns N Roses had released two albums on one day, although in their case I actually considered ‘Use Your Illusions’ to be a double album released separately to command a higher sales price. When the news that Springsteen was releasing two albums on one day leaked, we all went nuts. The first thought was, well this explains the long absence, he’s polished off two records. Then word came out that he’d been toiling over the first record, ‘Human Touch’ for years but had been hit with a burst of sudden inspiration and knocked out the second record, ‘Lucky Town’ in a matter of weeks, a rarity for Bruce.

When the two albums came out, I liked them. I have to admit in retrospect, I was carried away by sheer enthusiasm and momentum, I was young. It was obvious ‘Human Touch’ was labored over and ‘Lucky Town’ was pounded out by Bruce in a room with a guitar and only a drummer helping him. After repeated listens I began to realize these albums lacked the musicality of his previous LPs with the E Street Band. I soon realized that I was pretty disappointed. The critical reception to the album was tepid at best and savage at worst. Only Springsteen’s ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ (despite the excellent title track) has received a more savage critical response. It appeared that Springsteen had lost “it.” Maybe a life of happy domestic bliss had blunted his creative edge?

There’s an old adage in rock and roll, that in every double LP there is a great single LP lurking. Certainly there are exceptions to that rule where the double LP stands on it’s own. ‘Exile On Mainstreet,’ ‘The Beatles,’ ‘1999,’ ‘Songs In The Key of Life’ and ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ all stand out as masterpiece double LPs, which I covered in a previous post. But on the whole, you can take many double LPs, edit them down to a single LP and you’d have a better, more cohesive work and likely a more commercial album. Not that anybody should care about the commerciality of the LP. Art is art, people, follow the muse. As someone who once tried to write a novel, believe me, editing is good, folks.

Over the weekend, one of my favorite websites, UltimateClassicRock.com had four different critics attempt to test the “in all double LPs there lurks a great single LP” rule. Each critic took a shot at taking ‘Human Touch’ and ‘Lucky Town’ and combining tracks from each to create a new, single LP. I usually don’t tailgate on anybody else’s idea but this was an exercise that I’d attempted several times over the years, since the advent of MP3’s made doing so easy. And frankly, all four of the critics got it wrong. They mostly limited the new single disc to 10 to 12 tracks. Clearly the critical disdain for these two LPs remains to this day… There are more than 10 good songs on these records.

Here is the official B&V version of ‘Human Touch’/’Lucky Town’ edited down to a single record. I have this on my iPod as a playlist as editing vinyl is a little difficult. I took the liberty of expanding my play list to 14 songs, (of a potential 24 songs on over both records, I didn’t include anything left out and released on ‘Tracks’). In returning to these discs I realized that there’s a lot more to like here than to loathe. Don’t get me wrong, these are some of Springsteen’s weaker efforts, but if he’d combined them and done his usual scrupulous editing I think this would have been a lot more acceptable to longtime fans, despite the missing musicality of the E Street Band…I did labor over the exact order of these tunes… to make it more cohesive… The original LP is denoted in parentheses, LT = ‘Lucky Town, HT = ‘Human Touch.’

Side One:

  1. Lucky Town (LT)
  2. Local Hero (LT)
  3. Human Touch (HT)
  4. Soul Driver (HT)
  5. Better Days (LT)
  6. Gloria’s Eyes (HT)
  7. If I Should Fall Behind (LT) – the beautiful, acoustic ballad to end side 1…
  8. Roll Of The Dice (HT) – a rocker to start side 2…
  9. 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On) (HT)
  10. Leap of Faith (LT)
  11. I Wish I Were Blind (HT)
  12. Living Proof (LT)
  13. All Or Nothing At All (HT)
  14. My Beautiful Reward (LT)

This would have represented, in my mind here at B&V a much tighter, more cohesive LP. Each side starts off with some up beat, rocking tunes and ends with a beautiful ballad. If I’ve left out a tune or you have an alternative version, I’m all ears. I think revisiting these LPs on their 25th Birthday with a tumbler of something strong is well worth the adventure and the time.

“I’m a thief in the house of love and I can’t be trusted….”