Reviews written by Jeremy Frey
Rating system courtesy of The New Rolling Stone Record Guide
, edited by Dave Marsh and John Swenson
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Indispensable: a record that must be included
in any comprehensive collection.
★ ★ ★ ★
Excellent: a record of substantial merit, though
flawed in some essential way.
★ ★ ★
Good: a record of average worth, but one that might
possess considerable appeal for fans of a particular
Mediocre: records that are artistically insubstantial,
though not truly wretched.
Poor: records in which even technical competence
is at question, or which are remarkably
Worthless: records that need never (or should
never) have been created. Reserved for the most
★ ★ ★ Changes / MCA/Noble Vision (1986)
★ "Come on Home" (single) / Noble Vision (1984)
★ ★ ★ "Sure Thing" (single) / Noble Vision (1984)
Mr. Arata must be a genius, because his LP titled Changes
from 1986 masterfully predicts the mildly entertaining yet faceless pap that pollutes the country music airwaves in 2017. If you drop the needle on Changes
and expect your belief system to be challenged or your life to be greatly altered from listening to the sounds contained on the disc, the likelihood of your soul filling with disappointment as the tonearm slowly creeps through the side B runout groove is significant. Off the bat, the listener notices the very out-of-place synthesizers that bubble up occasionally. One is supposed to sound like the horn of a car driven by Tony's free-spirited filly in "They Don't Make 'em Like That No More," an evocative opener. In the chorus of the title track, you'd swear that the iconic synth line that opens Journey's "Separate Ways" was lifted straight from that smash hit. Ignoring these musical offenses, Changes
has aged pretty well, a fine wine of light country-rock. "Me and the Missus" is adorable with its 7th chords and chromatic walks up and down the boulevard, topped off with the cringey/cute line "Long as I don't lose 'er I'm no loser at all!" Changes
doesn't contain too many snoozefest ballads, but its momentum is nearly killed off on the first side with "Same Old Story" into "You Bring It All Back to Me," a double shot of sappy mediocrity (although the chorus of the latter contains a resolution that is mighty purdy). The album's enjoyment factor is highest with uptempo ditties like "Sometime Love" and "Easier Said Than Done." I also enjoy the brevity of the project: it clocks in at just around a half hour, and "Easier Said Than Done" doesn't even fuss with a second verse and is over and done in 2 minutes. I wonder if Arata wore out a copy of My Aim Is True
as he was learning to write songs. The spirit of the record and some of the vocals remind me a bit of EC. Make no mistake: Arata is no Costello when it comes to memorable lyrics, but Costello would be proud of "Nothing Beats Another Broken Heart," unthreatening on the surface but coldly bitter when you pay attention to it. The hidden gem of the album is "Rollin'," buried on side two. Unlike the rest of the album's tracks, it's not trying to be a radio hit, but that's what draws me in. The song is a reluctant journey through confusion and the problems of life as their sources change from youth to adulthood. The song's slow pace and dark atmosphere augment the unease of the subject matter.
I have to imagine that a significant problem with the album, in commercial terms, was Arata's voice. He hits the notes just fine and is decent at projecting emotion, but his voice has an unconventional quality not found in country singers with just the right tone and delivery. Often, a song will lack a spark when sung by its songwriter but will soar in the hands of the right singer. I'm always fascinated to hear songwriters and sidemen attempt to carry an album as the primary performer, which may explain my interest in Changes
. Tony Arata wrote "The Dance," which is an absolute knockout that was recorded and made very famous by a very popular country singer who probably owns several small countries. Evidently, the song was started around the time of Changes
but wasn't completed until after the album's release. If it had been included on the album in an embryonic state, I wonder if it would have disappeared along with the album or if its later resurrection would have been inevitable. It certainly would have made the record a more sought-after item these days. Changes
may be too safe for some, but it was produced with taste and it has its charm, especially with the backstory in mind.
The two singles that Tony released prior to Changes
display an artist searching even harder for a voice and musical footing. Quite fluffy and rather forgettable, "Come on Home" sports soft-sounding Casio keys, gently strummed acoustics, and the tired chugging train country beat. It sure does chug but doesn't actually end up going anywhere. The chicken-pickin guitar solo in the break could have been churned out by one of a thousand Nashville cats. The flip, "Maybe I'm Over You," is a fascinating specimen. It opens and closes with some lush major 7th chords, but the song contains no build or memorable parts whatsoever. It's almost avant-garde in its hooklessness. I also think my 45 wasn't aligned properly at the pressing plant, because the final note during the fade contains a slow and subtle vibrato, only adding to its oddness. Luckily, the "Sure Thing" single is a major step forward. Again, Arata sings in a style not unlike EC, and although the backing track sounds like karaoke, the song drives convincingly and holds enough twists and turns in its chord progression to make it a winner. It should have ended up on Changes
. On the B-side, "Enjoy the Ride" is mostly clichés barely saved by some neat Oak Ridge Boys-style backing vocals. The recorded output of Tony Arata reveals how a songwriter cut his teeth, and that's where most of its interest lies.
★ ★ ★ ★ Artful Dodger / Columbia (1975)
1975 is the date on the album, but it sure doesn't sound like it. The lead-off track "Wayside" is a rock & roll classic and serves as a summary of the record if you don't have time to listen to the whole thing (although you should). The production is clear and economical, and the instrumentation down to the bone - guitars, drums, bass, and occasional keys. Crunchy power chords cohabitate with acoustic jangle and breezy harmonies, and subtle touches (like steel drums on "Wayside") really sweeten the mix. The singer has a big stadium voice, but it fits well with the music, which is tight and melodic and performed with spirit. "Think Think" rocks a confident strut, and "Silver and Gold" is a lovely power ballad with hints of jazz. The album ends strangely: "Waiting Place" is a moody, almost futuristic-sounding track with an unpredictable path, and "New York City", a humble C&W love letter, fades a bit sooner than it should and leaves you hanging. Both songs sound nothing like the rest of the album, and they entice the listener to hang out and discover what the band does next. The album has certainly aged more gracefully than other platters of its time, and I'll probably give their others a listen.
★ ★ ★ Jay Ayers / TAM (1980)
Jay Ayers' self-titled album from 1980 opens with "Midnight Lady," three minutes of yacht rock perfection. High-pitched doo-doos and la-la-las hover overhead as the supple rhythm section lays a rock-solid foundation and Ayers yearns desperately for love, even if it's from a pro. Prominent acoustic guitars give the song rhythmic propulsion like some of the best country-rock hits of the era, and an unexpected clarinet appears midway through to sweeten the mix. The rest of the album suffers for not containing material up to the standard of its leading track. The deficiency is strong lyrics. "It's Only Love" and "Younger Days," both bouncy, soul-tinged numbers, sound great on the surface, but the words are uninspiring and routinely fall into cliché (the former is also, dare I say, square
: "It's only love, it's the only thing that everyone wants to acquire"). "Lady in Mexico" sets up a potentially interesting whiskey-fueled story of one that got away, but it winds up mundane and in serious need of a plot twist. "Easy Way Out" connects, delicately addressing depression with an appropriately melancholy backing and topped with a memorable vocal hook from Ayers in the way he sings the song's title. The mood suddenly changes on side B, opening with a lively mashup of "Different Drum" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." The guitars are jangly and the sound is more primitive. When he sings, Ayers sounds like a filthy drunkard wailing for quarters on a busy street corner. Instead of shortening the songs and butting them together to create a traditional medley, the tunes are carefully interwoven together, and the seams never show. While the lyrics don't improve much, the more reckless sound on side B shows more personality than the first half. The cover of "American Girl" doesn't contain the conviction of the original, but the Petty-influenced "It's So Hard" is an engaging power-popper with some nifty vocal interplay. I wonder if the mix of the slithery "One More Night" was intentional. The distant instruments and echo-heavy vocal create a smoky haze, enhancing the lyrics about foolishly holding on to someone. I would love to know the story behind the difference in the album's halves. Perhaps side B's loose and raw recordings were Ayers' early studio attempts, which led to sessions that produced the more professional and mature songs on side A. For the most part, the presentation of songs on Jay Ayers
is more fascinating than the music itself.
BATDORF & RODNEY
★ Life Is You / Arista (1975)
Batdorf & Rodney had some pretty good songs (check out "Let Me Go" from their first album), but none of them are contained on this platter. The marimba hook of the title song is probably the best moment of all 10 tracks. This kind of cheese is OK in small doses, but the rest of the LP isn't even entertaining on a cheese level. It's dull, gentle folky pop guaranteed to make you fall asleep. "You Are a Song" is a pale photocopy of "Life Is You." (Medley idea: "Life Is You Are a Song.") The melody and guitar playing of "Grab at a Straw" do have a bit of character. Given room to breathe, the songs may have been interesting, but they all sound like they were homogenized and optimized for radio play - slick arrangements, faceless backing, schmaltzy strings, predictable builds. The guys were clearly over it at this point. Great cover portrait though.
THE BLISS BAND
★ ★ ★ ★ Dinner With Raoul / Columbia (1978)
★ ★ ★ Neon Smiles / Columbia (1979)
Right out of the gate, Dinner With Raoul
is a winner. I don't know if it was the group's intent to be the next Steely Dan, but they succeed on their first platter. They achieve this through sharp, singalongable songs by Paul Bliss (see, the name of the band ISN'T egotistical!) and smart production by Skunk Baxter. A lot of the production touches only last a moment, maximizing their effect: sassy black background singers here, sad pedal steel there. The opener "Rio" has a tropical-flamenco feel and an instrumental break that Fagen & Becker would approve of. It is yacht rock of the highest order. All of the guys are good players, but for my money, bassist Andy Brown is the MVP, pushing everything along with some really sophisticated, jazz-influenced lines. "Slipaway" is exceptional. The classic melody of the verse builds to Michael McDonald coming in prominently with the background singers during the chorus, which is very simple on the surface but has timing and a vocal arrangement that are a bit complex. Throughout the song, the backgrounds perfectly compliment the lead vocals. All the little details are in the right place. At the end, the chorus repeats with a key change into the fade, and you will immediately hand over your money to the Bliss Band. The second side of the record peaks with "Here Goes," and lyrically, it's the most noteworthy song on the album. Essentially a suicide note, it follows the thoughts of a jumper on his way down. It is effective and haunting, and for such a difficult topic, it is handled with directness and great care. The artwork for the record is also great. I was so intrigued with the LP's front cover illustration that, to fully appreciate it, I removed the large promo sticker from the sleeve with meticulous care, like a doctor performing surgery. Had the Bliss Band opened for Steely Dan during this time, it would have been something special to witness (Wiki tells me Fagen & Co. stopped playing live in '74, though).
So what the hell happened? The difference between these two albums makes one realize the importance of a good producer, but the material itself on Neon Smiles
doesn't seem to be as strong. The first track, "Stagefright," grabs your attention, but something's different. They're going for a bigger, almost theatrical rock sound à la Styx. Briefly, the shameless pop sensibility from the first album returns: "How Do I Survive?" is pure bliss (sorry, had to). I don't know how it wasn't a Top 40 single: it's Christopher Crossed with Hall & Oates. By the third track, the band starts to stumble as redundancy sets in. "Hollywood" features a cool bass riff, but it's repeated about 400 times. The song fades into "Someone Else's Eyes," a gentle piano ballad with fretless bass that sounds like Journey without the histrionic vocals. It commits the worst musical crime: the song is dead boring. It is also without purpose, like a man standing on the corner, kicking his feet aimlessly, hands in pockets, whistling and staring into space. "Doctor" dusts off the ol' "only rock & roll can cure me" cliché, and I check the LP sleeve to make sure this is the same band that recorded Dinner With Raoul
. It sure is. There wasn't even a lineup change! The Andy Brown bass greatness returns in "Chicago," which isn't great but has a memorable hook in the chorus. "If It Takes Until Forever" plays like a wedding song with words never written (or written but left off the recording, for some reason). The most memorable part about it is the soaring guitar note that sustains forever at the end. Sounding like Survivor covering Night Ranger, "That's the Way It Is" closes the album, featuring a lengthy Queen-like vocal chant in the middle that doesn't really go anywhere, and in the finale, the song just trails sadly into silence. I'm not suggesting that Steely Dan is better than all the groups the Bliss Band imitates on Neon Smiles
, but I do feel like they lost their way. The first album sounds like music for bespectacled critics, while the second sounds like a band going for stadium rock domination. A totally bizarre transition, but also what makes this era of music so great! Both of the albums would make a dandy 2-fer on Wounded Bird.
★ ★ ★ The Bottles / MCA (1979)
■ "Valerie" (single) / MCA (1982)
The self-titled release by the Bottles contains a lot of things I like in music. It appeared when most records sounded great from a production standpoint and all pop-rock bands became more competitive to keep up with the new wave explosion of fresh-faced artists. A cool aloofness can be found in "She's a Mystery" and "Look at Julie," the latter about a spoilt rich girl with a "messed-up personality" and containing a rollicking little piano solo in the middle. Sounding a bit like the Cars playing boogie rock, "Elaina" employs an effectively simple and sassy lyric and grooves wonderfully. The contrast between the slick riffing in the verse and bouncy piano in the chorus in "Broken Apart" is exhilarating. Side two contains a pair of pretty gems. "Pulls Me to You" is a heartfelt love song with a stark piano/bass/drums backing. Sung from the perspective of a disapproving friend, "You're a Liar" puts down someone mistreating his partner. The track features some tasteful jangle and a few unexpected chord changes and vocal harmonies. The title of "I Don't Wanna Be Your Man" is the perfect setup for some clever digs and twists on the tired "I want you" motif, but the song's ho-hum lyrics don't push it to any great heights. The closer "Citizens" references "urban suicide" and seems to be about something heavy, but I'm not sure what it's getting at. The Bottles are Peter Bayless and Jefery Levy, shown in uncomfortable close-up on the back cover. Although a drummer and keyboardist also played, I'd like to know why they weren't credited as official Bottles. Although it's a solid effort overall, only a few tracks could have stood alongside the jittery, skinny-tie hits of the time. A 3:05 edit of "Elaina" backed with enough label support could have made a dent, but in a competitive field of catchier tunes, The Bottles
faded away rather quickly. Still, a copy in nice shape is worth a buck or two in a cheapie bin.
The Bottles story includes an odd epilogue that only an obsessive like me would investigate. A single with two new tracks appeared in 1982, a lifetime (in relative terms) after the album had dropped. I had to order it from a friendly Discogs seller in Spain. The timing of the single's release is strange, so I was really hoping for a diamond in the rough, a rockin' knockout that demonstrated that the Bottles were worthy of a second album that fell through for some unexpected reason. "Valerie" opens quietly with a simple piano figure much like "Pulls Me to You," but it quickly faceplants with cavernous reverb and very melodramatic singing when the other instruments enter. It contains none of the zip or the fun of the album, and you may guess that it's REO Speedwagon with the flu until halfway through the second verse when Bayless' vocal sounds like it did in '79. Ballads were never the Bottles' strength, and "Valerie" is sunk by cheeseball MOR strings, a death march tempo, and cold distance. "Late Night Dreams" begins slowly with voice and guitar, and I wondered if the band really had the audacity to slap two uninteresting ballads onto a single. Eventually the song shifts into a mid-tempo Z-grade Springsteen throwaway. The playing sounds like sleepwalkers were handed instruments, the extent of the producer's work could have been hanging a couple 57s to capture the sounds being made, and the vocal breakdown in the middle is laughably half-assed. Were the Bottles self-sabotaging their career or just completely out of gas? It's a real head-scratcher of a single. The Bottles' best moments are on the long player.
★ ★ ★ ★ Bugs Tomorrow / Casablanca (1980)
One of many albums by "opening band"-grade new wave acts that later disappeared without a trace, the sole long-playing effort from Bugs Tomorrow was lambasted for being a cheap cash-in attempt in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide
. Although the band photo on the back cover does look like it could have been lifted from the 1980 JCPenney catalog showcasing their New Wave Collection, it's actually a really fun record that holds many surprises. The sharp production provides just enough spit and shine to make the tunes explode from the speakers (check out the intro of "Summercamp"). With its faux-creepy pipe organ intro and cheesy werewolf howls (courtesy of Bugs?), the over-the-top opener "Children of the Night" has always rubbed me the wrong way. The track wouldn't really fit anywhere else on the album, but it isn't representative of the songs that follow. I've grown to tolerate it. The cranky guest of a joyless wedding somehow ends up in the Opium Wars in "Bitter Rice." I thought "Summercamp" may be a tribute to Friday the 13th
("you won't be coming back"), but it seems to be about the ill effects of heavy drug use. The album's secret weapon is "Runnerup Couples," buried on the second side. Friends of each person "caught in a one-life stand" coldly judge them, transforming the empty relationship into a game show where the couple is awarded a sad consolation prize. "Experience" has huge hooks all over the place, and to my knowledge, "Chimpanzees" is the only song in rock history that compares one's thoughts to that animal. "Burn With the Fever" likens the struggling musician to Christopher Columbus, Genghis Khan, and Bob Dylan (they would have made a killer power trio). In spite of how pompous that notion is, it's effectively punchy and comes off as a self-directed pep talk. Interestingly, "Bitter Rice" and "Burn With the Fever" are flip-flopped on the record itself, the possible result of a last-minute decision by a label rep that the former track would have more impact out front on the A side. Another record geek technical note: "Show Me" never concludes thanks to a locked groove at the end of the record's first side. Bugs shouts "I'm waiting! I'm waiting! I'm waiting! I'm waiting!" endlessly until you get up off the couch and lift the needle from the platter.
★ ★ ★ Faces / ECM (1981)
The first half of "The Abhà Kingdom," which opens Faces
, is a mesmerizing piece of music. It sounds exactly how the album's cover image looks: ambiguous, calm on the surface as potential danger lurks. A lone traveler steps out of his car in a desolate stretch of country for reasons unknown. He knows not where he is going or where he has been. Maybe he broke down, or maybe he just wanted to snap a photo of the gorgeous evening sky behind him. Is something hiding in that mass of trees in the distance? The plot twist is our hero is a ghost, of course. Everything about the somewhat puzzling quality of this image coincides perfectly with the album's musical introduction: despite the darkness and mystery, the listener is immediately pulled in. "The Abhà Kingdom" begins with calm, measured playing from Clark on French horn and David Friedman on vibraharp. The cinematic music opens with whole notes playing a beautiful four-chord progression. The meditative grace of the introduction provides an emotional foundation, but the scene gradually becomes less comforting as the action builds. The vibes become jittery, and a very high-pitched cello enters, breaking the serenity with what sounds like a painful howl. The first section concludes when jazzy, freeform drums enter which, ironically, break the stability of the previous section. The cello tenses up and begins to chug, and eventually, all the instruments start to stumble over each other. The chaos segues into a more calm section that resembles the beginning, capping the journey and bringing the piece full circle. While not as impactful, the other selections on Faces
also experiment with elements of classical, ambient, drone, and free jazz. The tracks that seem to be less improvisational leave a stronger impression. A stellar vibraphone melody by Friedman drives the 6/8 vortex of "Faces in the Fire." The bouncy, Caribbean feel of "Silver Rain, Pt. III" brings a moment of sunshine to the mostly overcast landscape of the album. On the closer "You Did It, You Did It!," it sounds as if the players got their sheet music all mixed up, concluding with some off-the-cuff giggling from the musicians. When an echo effect is added at the very end, the laughing sounds like sinister cackling, a fitting end to a rather enigmatic recording. I only wish Clark and company would have stretched the first section of "The Abhà Kingdom" to the entire first half of the record, just to see where else they would have gone with it.
★ ★ ★ ★ Crimson / Celesta (1983)
The great accomplishment of Crimson
is it makes explicitly religious music easy to digest. The basic approach is twofold: the lyrics aren't heavy-handed, and the performances are enthralling. The sound is tidy with commercial ambition, but the restless dynamics of the songs bring to mind progressive rock. The theatrical "Master of Disguise" is full of starts, stops, and tricky rhythmic shifts designed to knock the listener off balance. While the whole band excels at musically complimenting the material, the vocalists are especially impressive. Throughout the album, they amusingly take huge leaps with their voices, reaching for notes that seem impossible to grab. Lead singer Teri Dew has a crystal-clear voice with a beautiful vibrato, and she's often joined in perfect harmony by a second female with a voice so similar that it sounds like Dew is double-tracked. The opener "Angel Dust" is a trip. As it begins, I can see it grabbing the attention of Alan Parsons fans but shunned by consumers of more staid spiritual music. Ugly scenes of immorality and death unfold, and the music could be the soundtrack of a maniac stalking his prey in a scary movie. Add some distorted guitar and Ozzy Osbourne wailing over top of it, and it's one of the standouts from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
. The lyrics on Crimson
are mostly humble and insightful, avoiding preachiness. "Spinning" declares simply, "I really want to believe in something worth believing in." There's probably a tongue-in-cheek Biblical reference in the message of "Lukewarm" that I'm missing, and its slightly goofy synth hook and the way the title is sung bring welcome moments of silliness to a generally serious album. The changes and lush chords of "He Is a Fool" ("who follows a follower") remind me of a well-crafted Todd Rundgren ballad from the early '80s. In it, idol worship is calmly dismantled, rejected with a sense of peace that is genuinely heartfelt and affecting. The emotional impact of "He Is a Fool" is one example of the effort that went into this record. Although it's an independent release, the pristine shine of the recording isn't lost through a crummy vinyl pressing. Also, the artwork and design (including color-coordinated lyric sheet) are relatively lush. The lack of information about the project gives it intrigue too. While it may not be everyone's cup of tea, the level of quality through all facets of Crimson
is rare among comparable albums.
★ Shove It / Virgin (1988)
Roger Taylor brought many important contributions to Queen: steady and versatile drumming, impossibly high vocal harmonies, and a handful of great tunes. His first solo LP Fun in Space
has some winners too, namely "No Violins" and the perfect Coast to Coast AM
bumper music of "Future Management (You Don't Need Nobody Else)." Shove It
is Roger Taylor's Spinal Tap moment: well-fed rock star, insulated from reality and devoid of inspiration, creates clueless solo album. I was baffled when I put this thing on. First off, the members of Taylor's band The Cross aren't credited on the back cover. According to internet reports, Taylor finished most of the recording of Shove It
before assembling the band, so it might as well be the Escape Club pictured on the front. Taylor sounds like he's just messing about in the studio and, for reasons unknown to the world, tries to sell it as a band effort. Containing several attempts to be tough and street and hip with the trends, Shove It
truly gives a bad name to solo records by drummers, an already questionable proposition. The record is dull and poorly executed, with nearly every instrument suffering from digital sterilization. Many of the songs meander, repeating phrases over and over with no purpose other than to kill time. The title of "Stand Up For Love" is sung 56 times in that song. Celebrating America by dragging out every possible cliché (Elvis, James Dean, the home of the brave...), "Cowboys and Indians" is stunk up by an array of canned vocal stabs that could have been lifted from a bad Paula Abdul song, a low-end Casio keyboard, or "Do the Bartman." In the title track, Taylor breaks into a faux-rap about what he likes and doesn't ("Girls? We love it! Cars? We love it! More girls? We love it! School? Shove it!"), while barely recognizable pieces of Queen hits are sampled with the same respect that Vanilla Ice paid when he "borrowed" from "Under Pressure." It's a gruesome train wreck. Recalling "Radio Ga Ga" in structure and spirit, "Love on a Tightrope (Like an Animal)" provides a bit of nostalgic comfort, but the moment is fleeting as the lyrics shamelessly quote "When You Wish Upon a Star." The droning keys and smooth saxophone in "Contact" bring to mind early-'80s Roxy Music, but the song is pummeled by clunky guitar riffs that hamper many of the other cuts. "Love Lies Bleeding (She Was a Wicked, Wily Waitress)" describes a thieving femme fatale with lyrics that could have been tossed off in 10 minutes and would barely pass as filler on a Queen album. The only track that demonstrates any reason for existence is "Heaven For Everyone," which feels like a warm-up for the superior Queen single "These Are the Days of Our Lives" from a few years later. It's pleasantly smooth with a touch of social consciousness, but as with the rest of the LP, the delivery is botched: although Freddie Mercury's voice floating above the choruses instantly adds interest, his appearance is oddly unceremonious. The song is buried at the end of the first side of the LP, and his uncredited vocal sounds like it was literally phoned in. The track was used on the posthumous Queen album Made in Heaven
from 1995, demonstrating how desperately the surviving band members were scraping the barrel for material at that point. With more natural sounding instrumentation and better lyrics, this could have been a decent record, but it just doesn't feel like a lot went into it. Tellingly, the recent solo compilation Best
contains no tracks from Shove It
, and Taylor seems to have disowned The Cross in general. It's no mystery why. The most complimentary thing I can say about Shove It
is that it is appropriately titled. I found it for 25 cents, and it's worth not a penny more.
★ ★ ★ ★ The Cryers / Mercury (1978)
★ ★ ★ Midnight Run / Mercury (1979)
I hate the term "power pop." It has been used to describe many bands that I take pleasure in listening to, but I've also explored a load of bands tagged with that label that are offensively mediocre. A "rock band" is held to no standard, but if you're power pop, you better be writing songs on the level of "No Matter What" and "Starry Eyes." The Cryers' debut platter has a few examples of A-class power pop, but really, it's just great rock and roll. Their attack feels uncontrived, and I get the sense that the band was not trying to live up to expectations or working hard to achieve power pop supremacy. I'd bet that they didn't even know what that term meant (if it existed in 1978). Both sides of the LP begin with terrific cuts, a classic trick from the age of dual-sided media. Instantly lovable, "Shake It Up (Ain't It Time)?" is how you do a killer song, plain and simple (and as you will see, the band's use of parentheses in song titles is commendable). It's an uncomplicated stomp that your grandma could clap along with, and the genius is in its economy: the song does a whole lot with just a little. The melody is infectious, and the band steps up in the chorus and sings in glorious harmony. Paul Stanley would have killed for a song like side two opener "(It's Gonna Be a) Heartbreaker" for his 1978 solo album. What the material lacks in topical interest it makes up for in craft and tunefulness. Some of the tracks are jangly and many are rooted in a radio-friendly, neo-country sound. The lyrics strike me as "professional": tasteful, middle-of-the-road, everything in its place. Nothing really sticks out as exceptional. Lowry Hamner does refer to himself as a "cracker" in one song, which is funny, but overall, songs like the warm and lovely "I Get High" are carried by the tunes, not the words, and that's OK. "Live to Be Free," sung by someone other than Hamner, sounds like it could be a country hit in today's world. Combining chugging acoustics with loopy slide leads, "Diamond Ladies" unfolds slowly and carefully without being showy. It's a great hidden gem, but I still don't know if it's about stray cats or golddiggers. With its Budweiser saxophone and relative lengthiness, "I'm on Fire (#5)" actually does recall Springsteen, but not his song of the same name. It's more like "Rosalita" downshifted into 2nd, but it works as the Cryers' own little epic about experiences on the road. I'm not sure if something got messed up in the mastering process, but sonically, the album leaves something to be desired. The low end is nowhere to be found, and the last track on the first side, the twangy, footstompy "All Over You," sounds limp and quiet when it should be a gut puncher.
With just the right amount of swagger and playfulness, "Lovelight (Let It Shine)" picks up where the debut left off, but quickly, you can hear a change in the sound. The instruments sound distant, the edges rounded off, the personality hindered. It's more of a production this time around, for better or worse. Also, the vocalist has exerted some dominance: the band is now pretentiously billed as "Lowry Hamner and the Cryers." That would have worked for him if the band had improved on the successes of the debut, but they do not. A handful of songs ("Hold On" and "Break Your Heart of Stone") are decent enough, but the title track approaches plodding, and "I Want to Hurt Somebody" goes for grit and winds up in bar-band bland land. Mostly, these songs strike me as B-listers from the first album. Hey, I'll take B-list Cryers over the A-list material of many beloved artists of today, but still it's a bit of a letdown. A few highlights are present, though. "I Want You Tonight" does the "Diamond Ladies" slow simmer, and "Who You Tryin' to Fool" is darn cute doo-wop. "Tell Me Your Dreams" recalls the concentrated power of "Shake It Up" and thankfully ends things on a high note, but overall, the album is a fried bologna sandwich: pretty delicious, but lacking in nutrition.
★ ★ ★ Tender Loving Abuse / Polydor (1980)
I was always fascinated by Rock in a Hard Place
. It's a much-hated record in the Aerosmith catalog simply because the classic lineup isn't on it, but the fact is it rocks mightily, and Steven Tyler's near-total incoherence makes it a great trainwreck to gawk at. Then there's this Rick Dufay guy, pictured on the back cover where Brad Whitford should be standing. He looks like Rick Springfield's scrappy little brother who just rolled out of bed and mistakenly put on his grandmother's sweater. He's standing unnaturally, like he's in a crooked room at a fun house. It's weird. Two years before appearing on Rock in a Hard Place
, Rick released his solo effort, Tender Loving Abuse
. The album was produced by Jack Douglas, who also worked on many Aerosmith records. On his own LP of feisty rock and roll, Dufay covers guitar, singing, and songwriting duties with confidence. Sometimes his wild guitar solos threaten to go right off the rails. A few tracks fall in skinny-tie territory. The chorus of "Tonight" soars wonderfully, and the catchy "Baby Now I" features talk box guitar, a textbook wordless vocal hook, and electronic bleeps sprinkled throughout. Other tunes employ Aerosmith-style heaviness. "Fool No More" could have landed on Rock in a Hard Place
without anyone batting an eye. "Love Is the Only Way (I Go Down)" is played straight but contains some sneaky double entendres (just check out that title!). The subject of "10,000 Bands" is nothing new - a critique of the music business and the difficulty of finding an artistic direction - but it contains a nifty extended double-tracked guitar solo with a twist. Instead of breaking off into harmony halfway through or during certain parts, Rick plays the same notes on both takes. This technique gives the solo a strong sense of purpose, and a satisfying peak is reached without harmonizing or other tricks. Melodically, the title track reminds me of "Songbird" by Fleetwood Mac but contains its own dry sense of humor. In it, a doomed relationship is pulled apart with sarcastic sadness ("how sweet it is to be hurt by you"). The Aerosmith/Jack Douglas connection gives Tender Loving Abuse
an interesting backstory, and it was also one of the first digitally recorded rock albums. A remastered CD with liner notes detailing the recording process and history of the songs would be quite nice. Technical note: a shout out to Dufay's mother is etched in the runout groove of the LP.
FRASER & DEBOLT
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ With Ian Guenther / Columbia (1971)
★ ★ ★ With Pleasure / Columbia (1973)
The long fade-in of the opening track is a kind of invitation and a notice: "This is something different. Wait for it..." And it's no joke. "Gypsy Solitaire" neatly sums up the brilliance of this unknown folk duo that should have been as big as Simon & Garfunkel or CSN. The performance isn't on, but it isn't off. They're not trying, AT ALL. They sing arhythmically and out of step with one another but somehow weave all the weirdness together. This is simply how the music flows out of them: in a very unadulterated way. Pro musicians can rarely hit that sweet spot, and punk rockers are always reaching for it. Fraser & DeBolt nail it as effortlessly as you breathe. They offer up a totally unique blend that you don't usually hear on record. They were allowed to just do their thing, and that's a rare (and wonderful) occurrence. They can be boldly chaotic, but they are equally skilled at control. "Them Dance Hall Girls" and "The Waltze of the Tennis Players" are simply gorgeous and sounds like folk standards. The recording is naked: vocals, acoustics, fiddle. When a voice wildly reaches for a high note, you can feel it in your bones. Every track has something intriguing to offer, even the brief drone-folk interlude "Armstrong Tourest Rest Home." Their lyrical topics are potent: examining the world with wide eyes, questioning the nature of love, celebrating their relationship with each other. The album closes with an impassioned cover of "Don't Let Me Down," and, as masterful musicians do, they wrap their arms around it and make it their own, an adopted child that might as well be theirs. I'm sure it sounded great in '71, it sounds fresh in 2014, and it'll sound ageless in 100 years, because it's real. A truly extraordinary record.
Sadly, With Pleasure
makes them sound ordinary. The songwriting is still pretty sharp ("Broad Daylight Woman"), but the spark isn't nearly as bright, and the quirkiness is all but gone. No longer free to prance through songs like nude hippies, the duo is anchored by a full band and fancied up with all kinds of bells and whistles, sounding a bit like Eli
-era Laura Nyro. I don't know if the decision to go with a full band on this record led to neutered songwriting, or vice versa. It's the same dog, just without his balls. The old duo isn't screaming to get out from behind the Vegas treatment. It's not bad, just average, and given what they're capable of, disappointingly so. I'm not sure what happened, but bless them for leaving us one classic album.
★ ★ ★ On Such a Winter's Day / Butterfly (1977)
The chilly cover image and lack of credits/musician photos set the mood of icy detachment before the needle ever drops. This combined with only an occasional appearance of vocals makes the album feel like an adventurous, self-guided grand tour of various sounds and styles, discofied...a bouncy Swedish dance party in December, if you will. (Actually Canadians were behind this, so you know it's good.) It may sound bizarre, but it's a seriously fun trip. It's sophisticated music, sometimes joyful and sometimes melancholy, with lush sounds and instruments you don't often hear in disco. The songs are arranged smartly and crafted with skill. The disco strings are mostly understated, and wah-wah is kept to a minimum. Even without a lot of vocals, the tunes stick with you. The dreadfully sad strings in "Late November" grab hold and refuse to let go. And you've never heard a cover of "California Dreamin'" like this. The desolate tone of the original remains intact, but you can move to it now! Me, I find it irresistible.
★ ★ ★ ★ Here: Before My Eyes / Good Day (1980)
I found this platter for $2 at a record show. Little did I know that I had stumbled upon a wonderful forgotten treasure. On the sleeve, Mr. Harcourt looks like the guy next door, and he hints at being a dedicated family man in his lyrics. This is truly a case of someone's dad making a record, but vocally, he is more than capable. His soulful, slightly raspy voice is reminiscent of Robert Palmer. He constantly walks the line between substantial pop-rock and kitsch and he always succeeds: the music is fun but never seems like a goof. The theme of the album is love and its joys and hardships. It's a true midwestern effort, recorded in Detroit, pressed in Cincinnati, cover photo shot in Traverse City. The lyric sheet could have been typed up by Roger himself (the courier font gives it away). All of this gives the record a high likeability factor.
The title track starts the album in a light, yacht rock vein and is followed by "Dancin'." Simple and irresistibly catchy, all the pieces are in place here for a great disco track (flanged rhythm guitar, pulsing beat, a dual lead vocal with each part separated by an octave), but it doesn't feel calculated. It just bounces along in a very carefree way, inviting the listener to join the party. Harcourt's voice shines on the low-key, Motown-esque "Could It Be You," but the song could have benefited from a bolder arrangement that opened it up in different parts. As it is, it sounds like a demo. His vocals really resemble Palmer's on "(It's Not an) Easy Thing," a sweet and hopeful song to his wife. On "Carmen," Harcourt impersonates Dr. John to a tee, and many other touches make this tune a blast. The drums momentarily break into a marching beat when he sings "march right back to me this day," and a harmonized guitar riff repeats several times and ties everything together. Towards the end, some background vocals appear, and they sound exactly like a multi-tracked Michael McDonald. It could very well be Harcourt singing these (Harcourt and Tom Powers are credited with backgrounds on the record). The track was probably buried on the second side of the record to focus attention on material sung in his natural voice, but "Carmen" gives ample evidence that Harcourt was a very talented impressionist, and it turns out to be one of the most endearing songs on the record. I only wish he would have had some marketing muscle behind it to give a wider audience a chance to taste what he was cookin'. This is a great lost gem.
★ ★ ★ Word of Mouth / [No label] (1976)
Inside the beautifully hand-drawn sleeve of Word of Mouth
lives a welcoming collection of gentle folk containing some pretty strong songwriting. Whether strummed or picked, warm acoustic guitars drive most of the material. I hear a Gordon Lightfoot influence in the melody and vocal inflections on the opener "Wonderful," about appreciating simple joys in life (including watching turtles sunbathing on a log). A softly chugging hi-hat moves the tune along, vocal harmonies in the chorus give it just enough depth, and the fretless bass that provides the song's foundation is featured in an unexpected solo during the break (the fretless is also pictured on the back cover). Surprises such as this keep things engaging. While its comparisons between a guitar and a railroad are a little silly, "Neck of My Guitar" (listed as "Tracks" on the rear sleeve) contains a trash solo: what sounds like a washboard, pots, pans, and random pieces of metal are tapped and struck as if they were fine percussion. A lot of folk songwriting is story-oriented, but Birney focuses on free associations on various aspects of our human existence. He lets go of inner turmoil in the lively two-step "I'm Not Worried" and ponders self-improvement in "Better Man." Dreaming is a common theme: a "rainbow-chasing friend" is saluted in "Joseph" and "dreamers in between" addressed in "Neck of My Guitar." Among the dream songs, "Gypsy Wagons" is especially great. It's a hazy meditation on recognizing what's important and finding happiness with a partner. Double tracking is used on the lead vocal and the slide guitar solo, but occasionally, words or notes in one take will not mirror the other and trail off into the weeds, emphasizing the hallucinatory feel of the song. Low-key and hushed, "Out on the Line" is a compassionate ode to Common Folk, specifically an aging blue-collar man who is better than the work he dedicated his life to. He's painted as a forgotten hero in a rat race where laborers are patronized ("come on down for your piece of the pie"). Musically, the song tip-toes, not wanting to make a spectacle of its humble subjects, but the chorus begins with a melodic chant of yah-yahs, sounding an awful lot like a sea shanty or a tune a band of drinkers like to bellow on a festive Friday night. Sung from the perspective of an omniscient ghost, "Nobody's Home" cleverly addresses infidelity, and the LP's finale "Old Grey Coat" takes this tactic a step further. It starts with motivational advice given to an unknown subject, but clues near the middle suggest that the singer is a spirit, possibly God. The final verse repeats the words at the beginning but in first person, a nifty trick. The ending of the song hangs on the line, "I've got a feeling that this feeling's gonna stay...", also echoed from before. Given the cold environment the song establishes, it's unclear to me if that feeling is one of sadness or optimism. The ambiguity of "Old Grey Coat" is satisfying because its meaning is open to interpretation instead of feeling half-written or overly vague. It invites repeated listens and ends the album strongly, and I bet fans of DIY folk-rock from the '70s would treasure Word of Mouth
★ Lost at Sea / ADC (1979)
Titling this album Contractual Obligation
would have been as descriptive as its actual name. I enjoyed the heck out of The Handsome Devils
, previous efforts that contain a curious but enjoyable stew of doo-wop, prog, and space rock complimented by Todd Rundgren's typically boxy production. A four-year interim gave the band plenty of time to gather up some strong material, but doing the opposite by producing this stinker proved to be a career killer. The credits on the back cover list the band by first name only (Kim played drums, for example), which means the Hello People are a casual, friendly lot, or they're rather embarrassed by this effort. Lost at Sea
strips all character away from the band's cosmic sound and only offers weak, anonymous playing and worse lyrics. Occasionally hammy lead vocals offer no solace to the listener through this disastrous platter, although tiny glimpses of the band's harmony vocal prowess do peek through. Many musical styles are attempted, but the band's heart is in none of them. It's up for debate on which is more offensive: the limp attempt at a disco single or the stabs at lame boogie rock, each one more miserable than the last. A smattering of odd, spacey effects applied to vocals and instruments are clear bids to replicate the Todd Sound, but these moments quickly float off like unwanted balloons. As each song fades, you can almost hear the band say "sorry, we tried," barely stifling their laughter. I can't see it appealing to anyone, including hardcore Hello People fans (and how many of them
are left?). I went out of my way to find it, ordering a copy from Germany and hoping to bag a winner. The only nice thing I can say about it is the band didn't mangle their cover of "Walk Away Renée." Being boring is the worst musical crime, and Lost at Sea
is guilty on all counts. Get it out of my sight.
★ ★ ★ Aim For the Feet / Columbia (1980)
★ ★ ★ ★ Torn Together / Columbia (1981)
Aim For the Feet
mostly serves to display the potential of the Hitmen as...wait for it...a singles band! The tunes are well-crafted and the playing is strong. Nearly all of the band members contribute as songwriters, and they don't mind showing their roots: an Elvis Costello influence is apparent. In fact, "Kid's Stuff" sounds like it could have come off of Get Happy!!
. Ben Watkins skillfully emulates EC's vocal inflections and phrasing as he dishes some choice snark ("you better pray all you'll ever get will be kid's stuff"). "Slay Me With Your 45" is clever, with a rock star seducing a fan with a killer single in the first verse. The second verse is either a hitman threatening his target or a record buyer threatening to ignore the rock star. My copy of the album (a promo) didn't come with a lyric sheet, which would have been nice. It's difficult to decipher some of the words. The chorus of this track features background chants of "hit-men!" in the style of "Bat-man!" It's pretty fun. "She's All Mine" also hits the new wave bullseye, blending punk energy with '60s garage sensibilities (carnival organ, irreverent lyrics). To the band's credit, it really sounds like it was cut live with minimal overdub fussing. The power ballad "Eyes Open" sounds like a collaboration between Joe Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, which is pretty awesome if you think about it. The band perfects its new wave hit formula on "Private Eye," which would have sounded great on the radio (although I don't believe it was released as a single).
The title of Aim For the Feet
alludes to dancing and fun, while Torn Together
suggests a little conflict creeping in. Sonically, the second Hitmen album is richer, with more low end and a fuller sound. Obvious nods to their musical heroes are gone, but some of the rhythms and guitar tones recall Police records of the time. Compared to the first album, there is one less song and two minutes added to the total time, so the tracks breathe a little more. Many of the songs segue into each other, giving me the impression that more thought went into the overall presentation of this album. The lyrics are a bit more arty and dark, as on the sweaty, frantic opener "Bates Motel," inspired by Psycho
and Peeping Tom
. It's told from the perspective of someone who is about to snap and plans to use the films as inspiration. Creatively topping just about everything on the first album, the song was written by drummer Mike Gaffey, who also contributed "Score It Blue," an even more intriguing track. It begins with a slow fade-in, sounding like some great mellow bumper music played by Letterman's band in the '80s and setting a mysterious mood. The lyrics invite interpretation (they seem to be about a drug-scoring groupie). The chorus, which alternates between jangly guitars and thick harmonies, is set up by the line "Chandler's down on the floor, Runyon ran when Steiner called the tune, the score was blue." I have no idea what that means, but it is delivered with such verve that I still love it after many listens. "Don't Speak With the Enemy" contains one of my favorite bass lines on any record. It's fantastically disorienting and whenever it appears, the other instruments move out of the way. It totally carries the song. I have to think that "Changing Faces" was inspired by The Shining
and not just because of the "all work and no play" line that weaves in and out of the song. Other lyrics seem to reference Jack's interaction with Grady ("If you tell me your confessions, I will tell you mine, I will step inside your body and you can step in mine") and Hallorann's telepathy with Danny ("I watch you laughing, making noises, I watch you choking, changing faces"). Similarly obscure lyrics on the record are difficult to pull apart, but from an artistic standpoint, the band pushed itself on this LP and won. The Hitmen avoided the sophomore slump and demonstrated that they could have recorded an even better third album, but they split after Torn Together
★ ★ ★ Clay Jarvis / CJ (1976)
Clay Jarvis is another brave soul who did it himself: he founded CJ Records, on which this platter was released, and he composed all of the album's nine tracks. The stark, slightly abstract artwork suggests that the recording may be a confrontational no wave statement. However, one's fears are put to rest by reading the song titles on the back side ("Peaceful Paradise," "Smiling Face," and "We Gotta Love" are a few examples). The sequencing is curious: while most of the album is a full band effort, it begins with two gentle, stripped-down acoustic numbers, giving the impression that this may be more of a loner recording. Then "Roll Me on Down the Line" kicks the doors open with its saloon piano and drunken boogie. The performance is gleefully chaotic, with the musicians so loose that it sounds like they're playing different songs in spots. Jarvis's gritty vocal may have taken inspiration from Danny Joe Brown, and the volume of his voice depends on whether he's right on the mic or if he looks down to check his guitar playing or turns his head to guide the band into a new part. While the ensemble tracks on the album all contain this ragged charm, the acoustic songs sound were recorded with more attention to nuance. One of them, the LP opener "Smiling Face," is a good example of beginner songwriting. It's a simple love song with a pleasant vibe, but it doesn't have a build or a strong hook, and in the end, it might be a little too cute. The other acoustic songs follow suit. The full band rockers dominate the album, and they also offer mixed results. The rather brief "Between the Lines" touches on drug use, and "Burning Band" aims for a playful cockiness often heard on Bo Diddley hits. The rowdy "Gimme All Ya Got" ("before you give it all away") is about a final goodbye before a woman leaves for good. Over a Skynyrd-style chicken-fried backbeat, saxophones honk randomly and Jarvis performs like Kenneth Higney after some guitar lessons and a six-pack of Budweiser. Seasons of restlessness and conflict are contemplated in the psych trip "Summertime," a celebration of youth that actually conjures up a hot, swampy evening in the South. The song's introduction features a screaming fuzz guitar solo that recalls Springsteen's frenzied wailing in "Adam Raised a Cain." I suspect this distinct soloing, prominent on a few other cuts, is performed by second credited guitarist Marlon Nutting. A second guitarist wouldn't be needed if Jarvis were capable of that style of playing. The album doesn't overstay its welcome and it ends with a positive outlook (the nifty line "we're gonna be so strong" repeated in "We Gotta Love"), but it also feels insubstantial as it closes. Some of the material could have used a little more creative juice to make it memorable. As with many independently released oddities, the authenticity of Clay Jarvis
is to be admired, but the quirkiness around
the songs leaves a stronger impression than the songs themselves.
J.C. AND THE B'S
★ ★ ★ ★ 1st and 10 / Essay (1975)
Imagine a typical suburban high school in the mid 1970s, home to all the typical cliques. The long-haired social misfits are in a band covering Purple and Zeppelin, and oddly, the sports-loving, straight-laced joiners have a musical group of their own: J.C. and the B's. They're not the hippest lot (they named their record 1st and 10
!), but they are surprisingly sharp on music, preferring '60s pop over hard rock, and they have a wicked sense of humor. 1st and 10
chronicles the band's journey through their senior year. That sounds trite, but the B's are genuine, and the album is great fun. Sonically, it's noticeably but not distractingly lo-fi, sounding like it was recorded in the multi-purpose room of the school when the B's had study hall or a class they could ditch. The lead track "Never Miss the Business" references the end of summer, opening the door to a yearbook set to music, like Grease
without the melodrama. Every song is a journal entry. We learn that J.C. was a notch below the homecoming king on the social totem pole. The band's ride breaks down on the way to play but they vow to make the gig ("New Year's Eve 1973"). In "Cardiac Arrest," a hallucination about the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz
, presumably triggered by an ill-fated acid trip in one of the B's basements on a Saturday night, is described in horrific detail. Thanks to "Dude," no one will forget the story of the quiet girl in history class who committed suicide. The inevitable high school breakup and emotional aftermath are carefully pulled apart in the beautifully mature "Try," a symbolic transition into adulthood. In the last song, J.C. looks back on his youth as an old man, and we find that his hopeful innocence was not lost during the rat race of life. Besides the melodic appeal of their tunes, the band also laughs at itself at every opportunity. A loopy voice imitates a trumpet solo in "Marrianne," and some ridiculous falsettos are heard in the last verse of "Cardiac Arrest." The band self-references with a wink ("J.C. and the B's, please don't let us down!") and crafts some brilliant lines you don't hear every day. The final lyric of "Ruby" asks: "What's more foul than Nixon's jowls or fly dung in my soup?" The straight kids were pretty cool after all.
★ ★ ★ ★ Second Chapter / DJM (1975)
★ ★ ★ ★ Midnight in San Juan / DJM (1976)
★ ★ Hello There Big Boy! / DLM (1979)
Even before Danny Kirwan passed away, I thought about reviewing his albums because I consider them to be obscure gems. Now seems like a good time to pay tribute to a musician who always seemed to be unfairly overshadowed. Although Danny was never a prolific lyricist, his melodies stick in your head and his songs were always a cut above thanks to the unique touch of his guitar playing and the magical mojo that Fleetwood Mac laid down on albums such as Future Games
and Bare Trees
. "Sands of Time," "Tell Me All the Things You Do," and "Bare Trees" are perfect studies in economical songwriting, and Danny also excelled at heartbreakingly beautiful instrumentals, as "My Dream," "Earl Gray," and "Sunny Side of Heaven" prove. He was able to establish an atmosphere with music like no other.
Danny's solo albums are a natural continuation of where he left off in Fleetwood Mac, dropping the emphasis on the hot bluesy guitar solos of early Mac and honing the streamlined pop he began to explore before leaving the band. Second Chapter
is a carefree romp and marks the beginning of what should have been a more fruitful era in Danny's career. His guitar is never really showcased as it was in Mac: it's typically low in the mix, and solos are brief. A struggle between pursuing what he was incredibly gifted at and not wanting to be a "rock star" is apparent. Second Chapter
is certainly his most musically diverse solo album; a lot of colors are thrown at the wall and they all blend well together. One thing that strikes me about this era is a lyrical shift towards nature: water, fish, birds, rainbows, and seasons are all observed in the lyrics. The album cover is overflowing with grass and blooming flowers. Clearly Danny was inspired by the world around him, but this new focus also hints at isolation. As the title and album artwork suggest, Second Chapter
is a bit of a story through different vignettes of love, and his affection for the natural world seems to win over interpersonal affairs as the album's second half turns more quiet and inward. The soupy production is Spector-ish with soothing strings, honking horns, ragtime pianos, and down home banjos creating a garden in springtime where the listener's mind is free to wander. A tasty lead fiddle welcomes you to a great big hoedown in the opener "Ram Jam City," a song that contains the spark that makes Kirwan's best songs so magical. As it unfolds, Danny playfully chases a frisky filly while guitar and fiddle dance with percussion that sounds like horses clomping in time. The joy of the moment can almost be touched as a choir of harmonized aahs leads the parade home. I don't think Danny sounded so exuberant before or after. It's a magnificent production, courtesy of Martin Rushent. The playfulness continues with some wonderfully weird scat singing punctuating the vaudevillian "Odds and Ends," a quick little snapshot of an eccentric junk shop. "Skip a Dee Doo" contains some fine country guitar pickin' during the break and strengthens the case for Danny's versatility (see also "Sometimes" from Future Games
). The title track is a very British-sounding easy rocker that Al Stewart could have brought to the Top 20. "Lovely Days" and "Silver Streams" both showcase Danny's skill with gentle, folk-influenced ballads. I'm not sure why "Best Girl in the World" was omitted from the US pressing of the album (the version I grew up with), but it's a bit of a trifle and removing it from the record accentuates the attention toward nature. "Cascades" contains a gorgeous weave of acoustic, lead electric, and what sounds like a baritone guitar with a lyric in the chorus that suggests loneliness, a theme that would continue on the next albums. I've always wondered about the strange oscillating panning on "Hot Summer Day" and a couple other cuts. It sounds like someone's kid snuck into the control room and started turning knobs without anyone noticing. The production borders on overkill (one or two less string arrangements would be nice), but Second Chapter
is the strongest representation of Danny standing tall as a solo artist. Released in 2000, Ram Jam City
collects raw mixes and alternate takes from the Second Chapter
era. For fans, it's a real treat to listen to, containing false starts, clearer vocal harmonies, and instrumental parts that didn't make the album. The CD presents its title track in two different forms and confirms its status as a brilliant little nugget. The instrumental version sounds just as good as the album cut, and the second version sounds like an alternate mix of the original recording at the correct speed, a touch slower and less manic than what appeared on the record.
Midnight in San Juan
is Danny's best sounding
solo album: bright, natural, and uncluttered. Other than the occasional bongo and keyboard, the instrumentation is strictly drums, bass, and guitar. It's a bit looser too: you can hear Danny count off in a song, and in another, it sounds like he's humming to himself. The quality of the material is not far from its predecessor, but the lack of any bells and whistles shines a light on the lyrical thinness of the songs. The sonic cleanness of the breezy opener "I Can Tell" is as refreshing as its numerous hooks, and Danny harmonizing with himself on the vocal is wonderful to hear. It may be his attempt to write his own "Take It Easy." "Life Machine" evokes a heavy, late '60s psych vibe, while "Rolling Hills" and the title track continue the haunting mood of Kirwan's Mac-era instrumentals, although they aren't quite as impactful. The latter sounds like funky movie music with some very '70s synths as the focal point. His reggae cover of "Let It Be" is OK and confirms his McCartney influence, but I would have preferred a Danny song. It happens to be in the same position in the track listing as Second Chapter
's "Mary Jane," another reggae exercise that is superior to my ears. The gently swinging waltz "Angel's Delight" is truly a delight, containing some essential Kirwan poetry and beautiful interplay between bass and lush guitar in the instrumental breaks. The introspective "Misty River" opens with an acoustic guitar playing the melody, but oddly, synth takes over for the solo section. Although Danny didn't seem to want the spotlight, he still made all the pieces fit. The remaining songs are generally strong, but I get the sense that Danny went on autopilot at this point. The balloon of inspiration lost some air. The outro of "I Can't Let You Go" contains some of Danny's final hints of lead guitar brilliance on record and the track fades far too quickly. He seems to be on even footing for the duration of the album, but the hallucinogenic closer "Castaway" veers off the course. I've always found this track to be disturbing and its placement on the album metaphorical, a tumble off of the wagon after a period of stability. A creepy droning synth is featured heavily, and Danny's almost freaky guitar vibrato is used to maximum effect. Tension builds as the beat goes to double time before skidding into a manic refrain: its screaming guitar part and confrontational vocal sound like a genuine descent into madness. The song may have been intended as an official sign-off by Danny. It certainly feels like it, even though he owed DJM one more record.
Midnight in San Juan
was released as Danny Kirwan
in the States, and this version of the album contains some thoughtful liner notes by Richard Hogan. An excerpt:
A consummate pop craftsman, Danny couples layers of instruments with poetic conceits depicting the magic of a world many are too busy or jaded to notice. His new songs couple spring-clean the airwaves - you forget you're indoors when you're listening to them. Shafts of sunlight, forest creatures, romantic encounters surface and re-surface as emblems of hope on the singer's horizon. But the nature imagery isn't artificial, doesn't become frozen in a still-life tableau - rains fall, winds blow as if Kirwan knows he has no control over the things he finds idyllic.
1979 was a weird time for the Fleetwood Mac family. Tusk
was a brave double-disc curveball from the corporate headquarters. Jeremy Spencer went hippie disco-folk on his album Flee
. Bob Welch tried sparse new wave on The Other One
. According to various reports (including an anecdote in Mick Fleetwood's autobiography), Danny Kirwan was homeless. His last album, Hello There Big Boy!
, is an unintentional portrait of mental illness. He doesn't look well on the album sleeve, and the record itself seems to represent giving up: side 2 is rather brief and just sputters and dies at the end. Danny musters all the emotion that he can, but he seems detached and less focused. The record contains only four new Kirwan compositions. Producer Clifford Davis was likely the mastermind of the album's vibe: a more straightforward, smooth late '70s sound with background singers, electric piano, and the occasional string arrangement. The backstory of Danny's struggle is hard to ignore and makes the album an uncomfortable listen, but I treasure its highlights. "Wings of a Dove" is signature Kirwan, deceptively simple (only one verse and chorus, repeated) but completely enchanting. Even at a low point, he was capable of magic. Equally intriguing, "Spaceman" cruises in a similar vein and sounds like it was written and recorded in the same session. Danny's hope circles the drain in "Caroline," a painful dirge about a failed relationship (reportedly, his marriage) that's oddly followed by a goopy ballad that opens with "You are the one who makes me happy." Continuing the awkward track sequencing, "You" is followed by "Only You," a high-octane blues-rocker from the Fleetwood Mac days that's given the neutered yacht rock treatment here with wah guitar and Vegas horns. Compared to the fire of the original and lacking the killer guitar hook it contained in the refrain, it falls rather flat and was a poor choice for a single. I wonder if recording the song was suggested by Danny or a tactic by Clifford Davis to keep Kirwan engaged in the album. Hello There Big Boy!
is rounded out by material from a few of the musicians who played on the album. The best of the outside material is probably "End Up Crying," a convincing lite rocker that would have had a decent chance on the radio. For me, the highlight of "Gettin' the Feelin'" is the very obvious bass guitar bobble at the top of the 2nd chorus. "California" is a simple little ditty contributed by Clifford Davis and vocalist Dana Gillespie. That's an odd collaboration. When Gillespie made her vocal contributions to the album, Davis could have asked her if she had any song ideas because he was so starved for material, and they may have patched "California" together on the spot. A rather lovely homage to the Beach Boys, "Summer Days and Summer Nights" is a duet with Gillespie and it concludes the record somewhat strangely. At the close of the song, Danny ends his vocal phrases quickly, as if he was dying to get out of the studio. The final repeated line "Now it's time to say goodbye to the magic in your eyes" makes the album's finale (and the end of Kirwan's career) that much more sad. It would have been nice to have Christine McVie instead of Gillespie on the track to provide some closure and give the album a bump in exposure, but at this point, it may have done more harm than good. It seems Kirwan wasn't equipped to deal with fame, and unfortunately, it either caused or irritated his personal problems. Clifford Davis claimed to have utilized 87 musicians to get the album done, but the credits list only one rhythm section with several additional musicians on vocals, guitar, and keys. I have to think that it's a fairy tale because he has been quoted as not liking the album and it makes for a funny story in that context (unless he was referring to string players who are heard on several tracks), but it's worth noting that his own work on the project didn't exactly elevate it. The mix at the beginning of "You" is head-scratchingly bad, and several production choices on the album are highly questionable. The album is such a far cry from the euphoria of "Ram Jam City," which kicked off Kirwan's solo era with great promise only four years earlier. After his third solo album, it was clear that Danny was not coming back.
I was very sad when I heard that Danny Kirwan passed away. It was odd to see the online articles about a seemingly sensitive and private man who hadn't been heard from in decades alongside the shallow media fodder of today. I'll always remember many years ago when my dad and I were driving around my hometown in December looking for a Christmas tree with my cassette dub of Danny's music providing the soundtrack; around the same time, being complimented on my developing drumming skills as I played along to "Midnight in San Juan"; a bit later, being thrilled about hearing some true rarities on Ram Jam City
. My record collection has experienced quite a bit of turnover through the years, but I've never considered parting with my Danny albums (including my highly treasured test pressing of Hello There Big Boy!
). Everyone holds certain artists in high esteem because their music means so much more than a faceless tune you whistle along to in the car, and Kirwan is one of a few of those top-shelf musicians for me. To this day, I consider his body of work to be very underrated, but thanks to being part of one of the most popular bands in history, his obscure solo work will be in a good position to be found and loved by curious fans.
★ ★ ★ ★ Passion Creek / Rave (1981)
★ ★ ★ ★ "In the Market" (single) / Rave (1981)
is one of my favorites from the world of private press obscurities because it is an archetype of great independent music: tunes every bit as worthy as the pop hits of its era but created with minimal frills and fuss. I have to think Mr. Koenig's artistic vision is completely untainted on this obsessively self-contained effort: all songs by Jody, recorded and engineered by Jody, produced by Jody, performed by Jody. The studio where the album was recorded was even designed and built
by Jody. I wouldn't doubt he operated the press when his LPs were created at the plant. Even if you don't like all the music, at least you know with no hesitation that it's the way Jody wanted it. Koenig is quirky (check out that falsetto), but he never tries to be an oddball and lets the music flow with honesty. The giveaway of his one-man-band approach is the poor execution of the drum fills, but Koenig can hold a beat just fine and is skilled on the other instruments he plays. Weird synth sounds and Casio tones sprinkled throughout provide complimentary spice to the typically conventional song structures. The middle section of "Cali" is Koenig's Brian Wilson moment, an achievement realized by few. A heavily accented triplet in the verse leads into a sublime section of music whose sheer beauty distracts from its weirdness, floating along in dreamland with no clear time signature. The song then resumes with its familiar verse in what sounds like a different key. It's a wonderful, disorienting passage that an outside producer may have tried to smooth out. Several lengthy tracks are present on the platter, but no attempts are made to turn a humble tune into a progressive rock epic. "She's the Girl" stretches to nearly 7 minutes and it opens very unceremoniously, almost as if the tape began rolling several seconds after the song actually started. The track alternates between a carefree stroll and double-time hyperactive bliss and it feels like a journey of emotions, something it wouldn't achieve if it had been crafted as a little 2:35 nugget. As is, the song may not make sense on its own, but it's a ray of sunshine on an album that is actually rather bleak lyrically. Repeating its hymn-like melodies for maximum impact, "If I Walked For Miles" also benefits from its length. When the guitars in the coda harmonize on a stinging riff, it sounds like a ghostly Fleetwood Mac jam circa '69-'70. The spirituality hinted at in "If I Walked For Miles" becomes the central theme of "Chains on the Bible," a bright, beautifully performed bluegrass number that's also the best production on the album, due in part to its drumless arrangement. When Koenig harmonizes with himself, he sounds like Jules Shear. When he's double-tracked, he sounds like Gerry Rafferty, particularly on "Lonely Heart" and "Don't Live Inside Yourself." Both of these cuts also feature Koenig's slightly bizarre, untrained falsetto. While Koenig's talent as a song craftsman is more impressive than his lyrical prowess, the despair of the country waltz "Memories Play Tricks on My Mind" hits hard. I like how the title of "Love Letter, Talk" is sung as "love, let her talk," but I don't know if this was intentional wordplay. For you arty types, the title of the poem-set-to-music "Sad in Love/Zen" is an invitation to the listener to quietly reflect, and "Passion Creek," which plays with apocalyptic imagery and interplanetary travel, is included only in written form on the album's rear cover. The only track that goofs is ironically titled "My Mistake," a blubbering, maudlin piece at the end of the first side in which the Casio tones sound extra chintzy and the drums are extra clumsy. Ignoring this blunder, Passion Creek
is genuine, tuneful, and highly enjoyable.
Released the same year as Passion Creek
, the "In the Market" single follows in the same vein. With the A-side's palm muted guitars and futuristic keyboards, a strong new wave influence is evident, and a glockenspiel during the verse break offers some lo-fi charm. The major-key chorus contrasts nicely with the darker verses and practically explodes with joy, jangling like power pop but feeling more substantial than that genre suggests. The end contains a tense guitar riff over the chorus progression that sounds like Morse code. "In the Market" falls into the category of killer songs that are unfairly ignored because they don't reinvent the wheel. The listener probably knows where it's going but doesn't know how it will get there, which is the magic of a great tune. The B-side "James Dean" begins with an eerily pulsating beat and skronky guitar from some post-punk nightmare. It eschews a predictable narrative about the pop culture icon, instead using Dean as a springboard to comment on evolving times and concluding that he wouldn't survive in today's world. Passion Creek
is more rootsy and introspective than the single, which features a clean-shaven and youthful-looking Koenig on the cover. It seems he put what he thought were his "hits" on the single and saved the weightier material for his long player. I'm sure there's an interesting story behind the history of these releases, both worthy of investigation.
★ ★ ★ ★ Some Things Never Change / A&M (1979)
★ ★ ★ "More Ego" (single) / Philips (1981)
On the front cover of Some Things Never Change
, David Kubinec antagonistically points at the music lover holding the record. With popped collar and raised eyebrows, captured mid-rebuke, he strikes a confrontational pose. He looks a little older and not terribly cool, but he wants to prove his worth to the listener. And he does: he ably rocks with glam sensibilities and a dash of punk attitude. Throughout the record, he uses both technique and sheer rawness to achieve a vocal style that is ragged in the best sense. A light effect is typically applied to Kubinec's voice, but the instruments always sound punchy and natural. The music breathes. The album could be used as a reference recording to demonstrate stereo equipment. My copy is also exceptionally clean and free of surface noise, easily one of the best sounding records in my collection.
A vivid portrait of life on the road, the opener "Another Lone Ranger" addresses expectations, angst, and doubt. Kubinec really goes for it vocally and I get the sense that he's accepted his nomadic life and wouldn't have it any other way (the reflective, almost country-like "Comin' Home" is a hopeful sequel). He's playfully poetic about his adoration of the unattainable on the title track ("I ain't no fanatic, ecclesiastic, or Captain Fantastic, no nothing that drastic"), the chorus of which is one giant knockout hook. His writing is also sharp on "Love in the First Degree," which contains some subtle UFO sounds after Kubinec declares that "not even Captain Kirk could beam me up." This track is very airy with lots of space (one drum fill is a single timbale hit) and a bit wobbly thanks to its odd descending bass line. Some serious existential dread is confronted on "Out in the Rain," which begins with heavy organ and warpath snare drum before transforming into an "All the Young Dudes"-type anthem. As Kubinec howls the song title in the home stretch, it sounds like he's being dissolved by acid rain. The snare rolls return with loudly honking bagpipes as he's stomped into the road in a nightmarish parade march. The album's razor edge becomes a little dull on side B. "Sit on It" is a sleazy rocker that is largely indecipherable (what "pterodactyl on the trampoline" means should probably remain a mystery). Atmosphere seems to be more important than lyrics in the waltz-time number "On the Edge of the Floor." Again, many of its lines are difficult to decipher, and Kubinec can't help but crack up when delivering them. It may be purposefully obscure ("heavy on the rhythm but light on the rhyme" is one phrase I could make out), but it features a swirling arrangement and seductive little melody. Chris Spedding has a moment to shine near the end of "Tear Myself Away," a rockabilly thing that's fun but feels like a disposable genre exercise. "The Elf Sires" is a clever bit of songcraft: Kubinec's career framed as an ancient fable. He begins as a young, wide-eyed fan and is eventually swept up in the business, making music himself and witnessing what really happens behind the curtain. Through ups and downs, he becomes savvy and slightly bitter, repeating "I was better off alone but we've got to progress" as a kind of twisted mantra to push himself forward. Near the end, the song spirals into a cacophonous racket, indicating that the tale doesn't end happily, but it's a powerful closer to a lean and mean album that was unfairly lost in the shuffle.
A couple years after Kubinec's LP, a single inexplicably appeared in the Netherlands. Upon first listen, it's a bit of letdown, only because it sounds like it was recorded in the janitor's closet of the studio where Some Things Never Change
was created. The single is self-produced and credited to "Kuby," suggesting an artistic retreat. Nonetheless, with repeated spins, the tunes slowly emerge from the murk. "More Ego" contains a classic '60s-sounding melody backed with the kind of ska bounce that Joe Jackson honed around the time of Beat Crazy
. "We don't need more ego" is the song's central theme, but Kubinec pronounces "ego" with a short "e," making it sound like he's singing about the popular frozen waffle. Perhaps he had his eye on jingle writing. Pronunciation quirks aside, if there is a Kuby earworm, "More Ego" is most definitely it. Serve it with maple syrup and fruit topping, and your guests will rave. The verse of "The Little Ships" is trademark Kubinec and would have sat comfortably on Some Things Never Change
. When a twangy guitar plays the main riff in the fist-pumping refrain, the strings are plucked with such exaggerated force that it sounds like they're going to pop right off the fretboard. You probably won't find it thumbing through used 45s at your local record shop, but it's a neat curiosity in this era of Kubinec's recorded work.
★ ★ ★ Worth Waiting For / [No label] (1981)
Worth Waiting For
presents an interesting dichotomy about its creators. The band is named after Joel LaRiccia, who provides arrangements and production and is the band's sole lyricist. However, the supporting musicians are featured prominently on the LP's sleeve (including in beautiful illustrations by Joseph Rutt), and lead vocals are shared by several members (my copy also appears to be autographed by guitarist Jeff Bloomer). Focusing only on the music, Worth Waiting For
sounds like a collective effort instead of a showcase for a band leader. The frequent appearance of marimba and percussion keeps things mostly mellow, and the freeform hippie vibe throughout is epitomized by "Friends," containing a gang vocal on the hand-holding chorus and a cheering drum circle in the fade out. The album sounds like it was performed by a Christian rock band playing secular material. Only a couple tunes seem to be overtly religious, but the band's melodies and vocal stylings often bring to mind songs of praise (the stately bridge of "She Said Yes" is an example). The recording is primitive, to say the least, with the drums sounding particularly lifeless in the AM radio aural stew. A homemade sound can enhance the atmosphere of an album, but it's problematic here. First, the album was recorded in a studio over the course of nearly two years, but the cheap-o sound quality doesn't reflect that level of effort. Second, the sonic mushiness often hampers the album's highlights. The delightful "She Said Yes" shows promise with rich guitar voicings in the intro, tricky rhythmic shifts in the break, a unique Motown-meets-hard-rock feel, and an irresistible chorus, but the mix is flat and muddy, sinking the song's charms like quicksand. Pacing and (lack of) song selection are also issues. Worth Waiting For
stumbles out of the gate with "Cinnamon's Song," a syrupy love ballad not representative of the bulk of the record, but it rebounds nicely with "Cotton Roller." This track features a chorus and vocal arrangement that will stick in your head for days and is one of the stronger offerings on the album. "All I Need" is a cold sweat, acid rock barn burner performed with real conviction, examining the rigors of the road and a struggle with faith. It is a winner in spite of its overly busy solo break, which sounds like five guitarists simultaneously trying to out-do each other. Taking a cue from the pop symphonies of the mid-'60s, the ambitious "P.M. Advances" finds the band pivoting between moods with ease, patching a number of musical forms together into a unified whole. After a false ending, a Chuck Berry-style rave-up provides a final shot of adrenaline and a dose of optimism with the repeated line "goodnight but not goodbye." Instead of occupying the third slot in the song sequence, it would have been more effective at the end of the first side or perhaps as the album's penultimate track (with the closer "I Need You" a good comedown). "Rat Race" is the odd duck, a prog-influenced new wave critique of the 9-to-5 world and one of the few pieces not bearing a prominent Allman Brothers/CSN influence. Generally, the album could have been stronger with a bit of trimming and a slightly larger recording budget. Worth Waiting For
requires some sifting, but I think patient fans of the style and era would be satisfied with its high points.
THE LOW NUMBERS
★ Twist Again With the Low Numbers / Rhino (1978)
I want to like this album. I really do. The person from eBay who sold it to me even included a handwritten note with some anecdotal information about the front sleeve photo (it was shot in Beverly Hills, and the building in the background was torn down and replaced by another mansion). The idea of the co-founder of Rhino Records cutting an album both celebrating and poking fun at punk/new wave is appealing to me, but this flops like a dead fish. Opening the LP with a cover of the Jam's classic "In the City" is a desperate cry for attention. Worse yet, it's not even a good cover! It adds nothing besides some fairly irritating "city city city city" chanting and lead guitar runs during the chorus. The other covers are just as flat, and the originals are 3-chord duds, with a couple exceptions. "She's Not Gonna Be in My Song" gleefully shits on a stock doo-wop progression while describing a girl unworthy of having a song written about her, a clever idea in itself. The lyrics get nastier and funnier with each verse and manage to rhyme "Idi Amin" with "album," an impressive feat. The effective '60s pastiche "All the Wrong Girls Like Me" is also a good time, but everyone appearing on it sounds heavily intoxicated. It was alright to go for a shabby, trashy-sounding vibe, but Bronson & Co. went way too far. The production quality swings wildly from track to track, and the drums often sound like they were recorded through a telephone receiver with a cheap boombox. This is best exemplified on the no-fi "Shok Treetments." It was released as a single a few years before appearing on this album. In '76, it was a bit ahead of its time musically, and on a 45, it would work quite well as a standalone punch in the face. Here, alongside other tracks that are charming by comparison, it becomes a musical torture test. It sounds like the people involved with the album had a hell of a good time making it, but as a whole, it sure as hell isn't any fun to listen to.
JOHN CULLITON MAHONEY
★ ★ ★ Love Not Guaranteed / Amherst (1973)
The music of Mr. Mahoney shares qualities of CCR and Guess Who material from the early '70s, modern for its time but also carrying deep roots in earlier styles, including dixieland, folk, and country. Free of cluttered arrangements, Autotuning, and other processing, the sound is midrangey, rather dry, and refreshingly organic. John looks like the guy who worked on your car last week, and his relatable songs are for the Everyman. With many tracks featuring brushes, lounge piano, and acoustic guitar, the mood is generally hushed and relaxed. Maybe a bit too relaxed: it's easy to see why the album quietly slipped into obscurity. One could imagine Mahoney hitting paydirt as a pro songwriter back in the '70s: Neil Diamond would have had an absolute field day with the bouncy "Rosie," and it's easy to picture Burton Cummings working his dramatic magic with the brooding title track. Still, JCM carries the full singer-songwriter weight on a few select cuts. The carefree, Latin-flavored "Summer Love" puts the listener on a sun-drenched beach with drink in hand. On the closer "Country Bound," a wordless, hymnlike coda finds John heading towards a simpler life, letting the listener project their own journey onto the music. He tells the tale of a man who meets his soulmate in a train station in "Winnipeg Girl," the real head-turner of the album. The story could be autobiographical, a work of fiction, or a little of both, but Mahoney sells it. Intimate and direct, he treats it like a tender lullaby and sounds like he's singing an inch from your ear. More knockout moments on this record, stronger marketing machinery, or establishing himself as a songwriter for others could have made Mahoney a contender for commercial success, but it wasn't to be. For the obscuro enthusiast, Love Not Guaranteed
is a nice reward for filing through a dusty stack of vinyl.
★ ★ ★ ★ Dancing in the City / Harvest (1978)
Harvest Records, home of a number of wonderfully eclectic artists, is the perfect label for Marshall Hain. This album has been a long-time favorite since I found it in a dollar bin many years ago. I picked it up based on the cover art, a strange Mardi Gras-style scene of gigantic shoes parading down the street. The name of the artist is also a little puzzling. I've seen it clarified with punctuation on other releases. As it appears here, "Marshall Hain" suggests a singular artist, but it actually combines the surnames of our main performers. Kit Hain is the kind of vocalist who could sing the phone book, and Julian Marshall works exceptionally well with female collaborators (see also Eye to Eye, with Deborah Berg). It's hard to believe that they only got to make one album. Judging from the cool confidence displayed on Dancing in the City
, the duo should have cranked out hits well into the '80s. Back in '79 around the album's release, I'd expect fans of Breakfast in America
to be receptive to Marshall Hain's slick offering of sophisticated pop. A funky excursion into jazz-fusion with a distinctly Euro feel, the hyperactive "Different Point" kicks the album off with a bang, containing some of the record's most impressive playing and a clever bit of wordplay that may zip right by for those not paying attention ("different point of view" in the first chorus becomes "different point of you" at the end). I'm hard-pressed to think of a single more underappreciated than the record's title track. The folks at Harvest were no dummies for naming this version of the album after it (outside of the U.S., the album was titled Free Ride
). It's a sublimely atmospheric song about late-night tomfoolery, although it's not a stretch to say that, on a deeper level, the song celebrates belonging. The effect of the smooth keyboard tones, alluring vocals, and pulsing beat is nearly trancelike. Subtle touches include a complimentary vocal counterpoint from Marshall, syncopated hand claps in the chorus, and that trademark descending synth note that was very trendy in dance hits of the time. Similarly sweet tidbits are all over the rest of the album: a persistent guiro in "You Two," a jazzy marimba solo in "Real Satisfaction," a carnival intermission in "Free Ride." The album is bursting with hooks and stylistic variety, and the recording sounds excellent with lively dynamics and rich low end. Good humor is prevalent too, and on "Take My Number," it's slyly perverse. The song plays like the smoothest ballad you've ever heard, full of sweet nothings with backgrounds in the chorus straight out of Motown and a closing vocal arrangement that pays proper tribute to Pet Sounds
. It all sounds very romantic for a tune about a fling. The high-octane piano ditty that begins side 2 is inexplicably titled "Take My Rumber." "Free Ride" is coy about a forward proposition, and the Elton John-esque "You Two" ambivalently shrugs at a potentially traumatic love triangle. "Mrs. the Train" flirts with hard rock and is "never gonna stop at your station." The duo know when to be serious, too. Both of the album's sides feel like a theatrical act, each closing with a show-stopping ballad. At times, the achingly vulnerable "Coming Home" brings to mind the gentle tranquility of "I'm Not in Love," with Marshall's vocal counterpoint returning and fretless bass adding an otherworldly layer. The sweeping "Back to the Green" is every bit as gorgeous as "Coming Home," but it's more of a production. It opens with a low droning note, and a classical-sounding piano slowly fades in. The song addresses a quest to escape city life and serves as the opposing side of the title track, bringing the album to a logical conclusion (intentional or not). The sections of "Back to the Green" aren't terribly well-defined and certain lyrics are repeated at the transition points, giving the song a dreamy quality. After the orchestra swells in the home stretch, the drone reappears as the instruments drift off into the right channel. Although their collaboration was brief, Marshall and Hain were able to transmit their creative spark onto vinyl with great success. Dancing in the City
is the kind of album you hope to stumble upon for cheap, a delight from beginning to end.
★ ★ ★ Maybe the Good Guy's Gonna Win / Arista (1978)
This album features lean piano pop-rock, certainly as tuneful and listenable as Beach Boys records of the era. He does sound a bit like his musical colleague Andy Pratt, particularly on the title track, which seems like a response to Pratt's "Resolution." While Pratt went for lushness and complexity, Mr. Mendelson is content pumping out a style of melodic pop that's immediate and more easily accessible. And it's a nice record. The classically minded "Outside My Window" would fit nicely in a little music box with a slowly twirling ballerina. "Sweet Persuasion" and "Free Is Free" add a touch of hard rock grit without sounding too forced. The 2 most enduring songs begin each side: "Lifetime Woman" sounds like an infectious theme song for a '70s sitcom, and "Hold On" is "Hot Child in the City" crossed with "I Wanna Be Your Lover." Fantastic.
★ ★ ★ Stargazer / Horizon (1979)
Despite a couple clunkers, this is pretty exquisite yacht-rock. All the necessary topics are covered: sunbathin', stargazin', lovemakin', and of course, monkey admiration. Mr. Michaels has a pleasant pop voice, at times sounding like Paul Simon crossed with Al Stewart. The album feels very cohesive and comforting with just enough eclecticism to keep it out of Blandsville. The ballad "This Is Love" is pretty thin lyrically but glows with gorgeous simplicity. The title track ends with a nifty gospel-disco thing, and a few tracks feature a light tropical feel in true yacht-rock fashion. He goofs on "Ugly Ramona," which tries to be compassionate but is mostly condescending. Give the man a prize for trying, though. Not much is known about Gordon Michaels. He sings of a recently deceased Irish hero and he looks like Arthur
-era Dudley Moore on the cover, so one may safely assume he hails from across the pond. I can look at the song titles and hum you the melody of each one, so he does write memorable ditties. And, he's a likable dude. Sometimes that's enough for me.
★ ★ ★ ★ Calling All Girls / Warner Bros. (1980)
★ ★ ★ Lumia / Warner Bros. (1980)
Calling All Girls
, the debut from singing drummer wonderboy Hilly Michaels, is like a shook-up can of Sunkist, ready to spew its sugary goodness with great force. It is a production triumph thanks to an inspired Roy Thomas Baker, who had a field day with the material. Around every corner are little bits of tasty ear candy: giddy background vocals, pulsing palm-muted guitar, UFO synth tones, flanged passages, castanets, key changes, jingling sleigh bells. It's all here, in generous quantity. The record's sonic profile is a perfect compliment to the music, a vivid celebration of youthful fun. Calling All Girls
works in the same way the best Ramones music succeeds: the hooks are irresistible, the message is genuine, the songs level all in their path. "Shake It and Dance" is a great example, chugging relentlessly and injecting new life into a seemingly worn-out topic. Few songs capture the feeling of love at first sight as wonderfully as the sweet "Gemini." After a whispered, nearly silent opening, "U.S. Male," a tongue-in-cheek love song with a patriotic theme, explodes with the kind of bombast that Baker used on Queen records, but with more focus here on unabashed pop sensibility. Liza Minelli singing on the bridge is the cherry on the cake. Even as the material softens a bit near the end, the production never lets up for a second. The frantic rock-opera closer "Something on Your Mind" sounds like something straight out of musical theater. What I love most about the record is the relentless joy that practically seeps from the grooves of the vinyl. NUMBER 1 IN HEAVEN, to quote a Sparks album title. Well worth hearing if you can find it in a used bin for a few bucks.
sacrifices the razor-sharp pop perfection on Calling All Girls
but expands the creative freedom. The result is a grab bag. The production definitely feels more hands-off than the last record. More conventional vocal arrangements make it less engaging to listen to, and the reverby mix suggests detachment. The album utilizes more synthy/electro textures, and everything is covered with a rather ugly sheen. My copy of the LP also has an annoying sibilance issue. Despite the flaws, Michaels' wacky charm is still present and he comes through with some worthy tunes. It would not have worked on the previous record, but the intriguing Kraftwerk tribute "Assembly Line" is an emotionless soundtrack to an automated factory and a possible comment on the music biz. A-listers "Look at That Face" and "Our Love Could Last Forever" open the album with a quick sugar high, despite being brought back down to Earth by the slow-moving ballad "I've Got No Right to Love You." The Sparks influence is more prominent on this record (trivia: Michaels provided the big beat on Big Beat
). "In the City" contains quick pre-chorus start-stop accents reminiscent of those that punctuate "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us." The main section of the song ends abruptly and gives way to an otherworldly half-time instrumental outro: the spaceship gently floating away from NYC into the dark sky. The stacked Calling All Girls
background vocals make a quick appearance in "Reach For the Vitamins," a song about a love marathon that astutely predicts Viagra. Michaels sings the praises of the KGB, vodka, and, of course, Soviet women in the fetishistic "Russian Girls." The lighthearted and slightly twisted humor of both of these tracks owes much to the Mael brothers. Calling All Girls
are different animals but are both worth exploring for those seeking rich, quirky pop. Word is that Michaels either auditioned for or was asked to join KISS on two occasions, but this may be more urban legend than anything. Still, it's fun to imagine a song like "Look at That Face" on Unmasked
, sung by Ace Frehley.
★ ★ ★ The Movies / Firefly (1975)
★ ★ ★ ★ Double "A" / GTO (1977)
★ ★ ★ ★ Bullets Through the Barrier / GTO (1978)
★ ★ ★ ★ India / RCA (1980)
★ ★ Motor Motor Motor / RCA (1981)
The Movies had an impressive run through the mid-to-late '70s. Impressive because of their self-propelled momentum: they released 5 decent records but never gained much more than a cult following. Some of their music is available on Youtube and streaming services, but none of the albums have made it to CD. The band morphed from Doobie Brothers-meets-fusion to a style of moody, minimal pop-rock, a bit reminiscent of the Stranglers' early '80s hits. There's a fair amount of filler at either end of their discography, but nearly every album brought some kind of significant shift, either in style or quality, and the band's evolution is awfully interesting to track for record nerds.
The most impressive aspect of the Movies' self-titled debut is the playing. The band is skilled at a variety of styles and sometimes explores a few within one song. The material usually sits at the unlikely intersection of jazz-prog and roots-rock. The album's weak spot is the songwriting, occasionally interesting but yet to take shape. The sexual metaphors of "Candy Bar" and "Get Up and Get Under" are pretty cringeworthy and hilarious, respectively, but "Black Country Lady" is solid and the soft and sweet "Look For My Light" hints at their ability to produce decent singles. The Latin feel of "Charity Performance" features the band's leader and rhythm guitarist Jon Cole outgunning lead guitarist Greg Knowles in dueling solos and foreshadows more use of this style on future records. Features their best cover art, but an innocuous introduction overall.
The band's great leap forward comes with Double "A"
. Not only are the lyrics more interesting, the tunes sharper and the playing livelier, the album contains a palpable sense of joy that makes it impossible to resist. The titles of "Heaven on the Street" and "Living the Life" provide clues to the record's tone. It seems the biggest problem faced by band lyricist Jon Cole was whether or not to engage in sexual relations ("Boogaloo," another questionable metaphor). But even when dealing with love problems, as with "True Love Trouble," the band bounces along so happily that you're barely aware that anything's wrong. The improved tunes give the stylistic experiments more impact. The low-key "Yo-Yo" describes a flaky fellow and ends with a powerful Latin breakdown. The stark, acoustic "Rumour" is a study in beautiful conciseness, and "Big Boys Band" is a sly swipe at the U.S. military. Donald Fagen could have written "She's a Be-Bopper," a loving tribute to Charlie Parker. Despite the fact that the band's label and the world at large didn't quite know what to do with them, the Movies proved that they were a formidable force with this platter.
Everything came together for the band on Bullets Through the Barrier
, and it was probably the improved production on this album that pushed them to greater heights. They never sounded punchier or played with more spirit, evolving from a great-sounding band of normal guys to a group prepped for stardom. "The Last Train" drives hard and sets the album up as a thrill ride. "No Class" shows the band's adeptness at jerky new wave and sounds as good as anything Elvis Costello did around this time. They cleverly quote the Beatles' "Rain" in "Horror Story," and they resemble 10cc in "Build It All Up" and "Nobody Loves an Iceberg." "Love on the Run" is a slow-burn blues rocker, and "Berlin" is one of their stronger "epic" songs, painting a vivid picture of mystery and darkness. Lyrically, the closer "Merci and Bye Bye" coincides with the band's upcoming transition and rocks like a Thin Lizzy track. A fitting end to this era.
Given some time to experiment and explore, the Movies shifted to a more commercial sound after Bullets
. For a moment, on India
, it works wonderfully. Instead of sounding like a band reduced to pandering or desperately trying to stay alive, they draw on their experience and deliver a fresh new sound that sounds authentic and comfortable. Every song sounds like a 45 single: more midrangey, all the fat trimmed, the band's tightest arrangements to date. All traces of Latin, jazz, and prog are gone. It was quite a makeover. They retain the confidence and songwriting strength from the last album and craft new sculptures of pop greatness. They were clearly taking cues from new wave bands, but what they really have going for themselves is an air-tight, spacey R&B feel on songs like "8AM," "See Through Me," and "Have Another Body." "Bardot" is a punkish sprint, and the sublime "Love Is a Sacrifice" is the band's best ever attempt to write a hit single. It was released as a 45 in the UK, but it seemingly got lost in the shuffle, an opportunity lost.
Clearly, all is not well in Movieland on Motor Motor Motor
. Five members are listed in the credits, but four appear on the sleeve (forever cover shy, their heads are covered by helmets on the front). Worse yet, the record is bland and listless, a faded photocopy of the template that was successful on the previous album. It's hard to believe that a band once so adventurous could arrive at such a depressing dead end. It's possible they were beaten down by conflict, expectation, and obligation. "Hard Heart" is heartless, "Slavery Time" wimpy blues-rock, and they bottom out with "Dance Some More," a lame attempt at a radio hit. Oddly, the record gets decent near the end. "Tearaway" has some spunk with the rhythm pushed by some prominent percussion, recalling the good old days. The last track, "Dancing in Space," could be the album's best. The melody sounds familiar and shows that the band was able to create songs that were identifiable as the Movies, but it was too little too late. It's a shame that the track wasn't appended to India
with the rest of this album shelved. Although the band ended with their gas tank empty and their engine coughing, a well-selected single-disc anthology would be a knockout and a deserved tribute to this band that's been unfairly buried.
★ ★ ★ New Monkees / Warner Bros. (1987)
As far as I'm concerned, self-importantly criticizing the New Monkees is like shooting fish in a barrel. As misguided as the whole idea was, the accompanying album isn't half bad. Yes, it's primarily written and performed by outside musicians, and by the looks of the credits, it seems that 2 of the 4 New Monkees did nothing in the studio besides maybe chuck water balloons at people (because they're wacky!), but you can't put down the original Monkees for not crafting their hits from scratch. They produced some timeless songs. The songs here are not timeless, but they are fun, synth-poppy bits of candy. By today's standards of pop gloss, the record doesn't sound all that slick, but it does have that '80s feel to it, with cutting-edge MIDI keys and the snare drum often sounding like a canon firing in the distance. Marty Ross carries the album as the primary vocalist, and he looks to be the most accomplished musician of the bunch, flipping the dynamic of the original Monkees in which the more talented guys weren't out front much. Jared Chandler, seemingly the Davy Jones of the Monkees '87, is credited only with background vocals (along with a dozen other people). The album begins with "What I Want," a first-rate single with a memorable melody and a na-na-na breakdown (what more do you need, really?), and most of the record follows suit. You'll be hard-pressed to find pop as delightful as "Carlene" or "Do It Again" elsewhere. Surprisingly, "Boy Inside the Man" is not a ditty about pedophilia. It's actually a passionate Hooters-esque stomp. Sporting a fantastic '80s 'do, Larry Saltis coos the ballad "The Way She Moves" ("I Wanna Be Free" for the new gen?), and it's as cute as a floppy-eared puppy dog. The record sputters a little towards the end (particularly with the clichéd token party song "Turn It Up"), but on the whole, the singing and playing are spirited, and it's a mighty enjoyable listen.
★ ★ ★ ★ Sanctuary / Epic (1981)
Initially I thought 53 minutes was a little long-winded for a regular LP, but then I discovered that it's a compilation. Therefore, I forgive the running time. New Musik serves up intriguing acoustic-electro-pop that was certainly ahead of the curve, striking a wonderful balance between arty and tuneful. This probably sounded alien to most in 1980-81, but luckily they had some irresistibly catchy numbers like "Straight Lines" and the title track to draw people in. It sounds like a great soundtrack to an '80s sci-fi film about a man living in a 1984-style world. A great flood appears ("This World of Water") but not before the man contemplates religion ("Churches"), takes some classes ("Science"), wanders about aimlessly ("Areas"), becomes disenchanted with the rat race ("They All Run After the Carving Knife"), and fights the power ("While You Wait"). In the end, a new reality appears but he longs for the old ways ("Back to Room One"). It is creepy, mysterious, and ethereal, and it makes me want to peel back more layers. The one thing I dislike about the record is its annoyingly tinny and compressed sound. I don't know if the original recordings share the sonic quality of this compilation. Maybe it needs to be remastered, maybe my needle's shot. I still think it's a winner, and all the bands currently doing '80s revisionism are indebted to albums like this.
★ ★ ★ Steal Your Heart / Moseka (1981)
Steal Your Heart
is a rare private press curiosity. It was masterminded in Fostoria, Ohio, less than an hour from the small town I grew up in. The first half of the record exists primarily to demonstrate that Parkers Band can write songs that would sit comfortably next to REO Speedwagon and Styx on AOR radio back in the day. The hooks and arrangements are decent, but the lyrics are frustratingly poor: "heart" is rhymed with "heart" in the title track. Things get more interesting on side two. The charming, easy-rocking "Take the Road" sounds like a minor hit single for the Little River Band around 1980. No one would mistake "Lady I Love" for Big Star, but it does have a pretty jangle to it. The gentle, exotic feel of "Thru Her Eyes" is a welcome stylistic diversion and brings to mind Billy Joel's Latin-tinged hits from his heyday. Everything lines up for Parkers Band on "Bad Way to Go," a spunky power pop earworm that proves to be the album's highlight. It's driven by a tense organ line and ace melody and even contains some unexpected slap bass near the middle. Despite some dated synth tones, it's a great sounding
record, especially considering it was recorded in a small Ohio studio. The production is lean and crisp, and the instruments are punchy. Steal Your Heart
would be stronger with some better material, but it's the sound of a humble local band trying to make it, and it's worth a listen on that level by fans of the era.
★ Time to Fly / Decca (1971)
★ It's in Everyone of Us / Arista (1975)
Someone at the label really wanted Time to Fly
to be a hit because there are some serious players here (Corea, Hammer, Cobham, Brecker). The playing is indeed fantastic throughout, but tragically, the songs just aren't there. It does open with great promise. "First," a smooth and playful little tune, leads the listener to believe that the platter will play out in a brassy and spirited Blood, Sweat & Tears vein. Those hopes are dashed with the second track, the dreaded Poem Set to Music. It's commendable that Mr. Pomeranz didn't go for the easy chord progressions and well-worn lyrical clichés, but a few of the songs are rather tough to sit through because they wander aimlessly and never do find a reason to exist. He also indulges in bad melodrama ("City Show") and throws out some lyrical doozies ("I'm like a painful sunburn minus the pain"). Regardless, "A Fine Woman" is a strong, concise acoustic track with a sharp hook, but its brief playing time makes it feel like an incomplete idea (and the bluesy coda doesn't add much). In conclusion, I found this album for $0.49, and I do not feel cheated. Really.
Providing the illusion of substance, jazz was a decent backdrop for Mr. Pomeranz' songs on Time to Fly
. On It's in Everyone of Us
, he goes for adult contemporary balladeer, heavy on the polish and schmaltz. I was disappointed to find that the title track is not about communicable diseases (it's about strength, and courage, or something). "Thea" is the best he can do: a well-crafted and bouncy little pop song. "The Hit Song of All Time" unwisely uses the process of songwriting as a metaphor for love. A homeless woman on a bus is the hapless subject of "Greyhound Mary," a character sketch that couldn't be more trite. Full of strings and swells and over-emoting, "Clarence" is a tale of a mountain man that is dynamic and theatrical on the surface but isn't terribly interesting storywise. Singing of a simple backwoods person and backed by a Broadway orchestra feels very wrong, and it also seems to go on for 5 hours. Apparently Manilow covered "Tryin' to Get the Feeling Again," but with awkwardness like "Tryin' to get the feeling again, like a bloodhound searchin' for a long lost friend," the track feels below even ol' Barely Man-Enough. It seems Mr. Pomeranz found success with film and theatre, which suits him better than trying to be a pop star. In the gatefold photo, he looks like joyfully psychotic David Hess in the middle of shooting Last House on the Left.
★ ★ Porrazzo / Polydor (1980)
Johnny Porrazzo is a capable vocalist with a brassy delivery similar to that of Dennis DeYoung. The crowd would have loved him if his band (naturally named Porrazzo) had opened for Styx in the late '70s. Their record opens promisingly enough. The band plays for its life on "Isn't It Nice," brainless but infectious rock and roll that steamrolls everything else on the record in terms of sheer energy. Following is "Lady of Light," a breezy little tune with a rich melody and a captivating chorus. The chorus begins with the lead vocal sailing over a set of chords with steadily descending bass notes. Halfway through, the chords repeat as the vocal splits between Johnny in 3-part singing the original line and a lead vocal introducing a countermelody. Just before the refrain, all of the voices unite on the lyric "come together." Cool stuff! While all this is going down, the time shifts between 6/4 and 4/4, and it's successful because it all sounds effortless. Disappointingly, the album suffers from a lack of material as memorable as the first two tracks. Overall thematic consistency is also an issue. Side B opener "Debbie Desire," detailing the exploits of a loose woman, precedes the sappy love song "Take a Look at Me" (plucked as the single, somehow; "Lady of Light" would have been a much better choice). Mr. Porrazzo shares songwriting credits with various members of the band, but no one is a particularly distinctive lyricist, and he adopts different styles and moods as one would try on jackets at a department store. As a whole, Porrazzo
isn't impressive, but it has a few cuts worthy of listening to. The back sleeve of the LP reveals that some of the group members have pretty great nicknames ("Bongo" and "Dody" comprise the rhythm section), and guitarist James Boro looks just like James Hetfield circa 1983.
★ ★ ★ Pick-Up / Chrysalis (1975)
Brian Protheroe seems to have higher ambitions than to simply throw together a batch of songs on a record, but I don't really know what he was trying to go for. The album plays a bit like a soundtrack, quite often theatrical, describing odd characters and weird scenes, but while the songwriting is observational, it rarely paints a vivid picture. The front cover shows Mr. Protheroe at what looks to be a movie premiere, climbing out of a fancy car with a smiling, well-dressed lady by his side. He was a prolific actor back around the time of the album's release, so the material could just be autobiographical, following a day in the life of an offbeat London entertainer in the mid '70s. Taken individually, the songs are quite nice with lots of curveballs thrown. Many times, the album fuses a Ben Folds sense of whimsy with Al Stewart's smooth pop delivery. Nearly all of the songs have off-the-wall breakdowns and unexpected side streets, but they all flow well and the transitions are never jarring. They just make the destinations of the mini-journeys impossible to predict. "Scobo Queen" tells the tale of a cold-hearted actress who gets assassinated and builds up a tense paranoia by going down every possible avenue before its end. The impressive tongue-twisting verbiage in the second verse of "Enjoy It" keeps the mood light. The record is marked by confidence with genre-hopping: "Chase Chase Chase" is surprisingly authentic-sounding country, "Running Through the City" is more of an enjoyable stroll through acoustic folk, and "Soft Song" sounds like a lush, meticulously crafted Alan Parsons Project ballad. The epic title track closes the album. My heavily-stickered copy of this LP was previously owned by a radio station, and they employed a three-checkmark grading scale (with notes) on the back cover for each of the album's songs, and "Pick-Up" is described as "REALLY DIFFERENT." I couldn't've said it better myself. It's essentially the whole record in one song: a dreamlike story of an ambush, bopping from opera to old-time jazz to calypso-reggae without breaking a sweat. It's no wonder this platter got lost in the shuffle: it's all over the map. But there is good advice amid the madness in the lyrics: "You've got to enjoy it, don't think too much about it or you'll destroy it."
JOEY PULLIN AND THE MISSILES
★ ★ ★ Give Me Tonight / Star Travel (1983)
Mr. Pullin really goes for smash hit glory on the title track of Give Me Tonight
, kicking this EP off in style. After a tight instrumental opening featuring a melodic octave guitar line, the song goes directly into the dangerously addictive chorus. It's a cool little trick providing maximum impact and instant musical gratification for the hook-starved listener. The song plays out like a classic, fun-loving single by Eddie Money that you'd crank up on the car radio in the early '80s. Also noteworthy are the call-and-response female backing vocals and the feel-good upward key change near the ending. The song really checks all the boxes for pop pleasure. Pullin is fond of background vocals that provide a kind of conversation with the lead vocal in his songs. This technique is used to great effect on selections such as "Sweet City Nights." It's a bit of a genre exercise with its steel drum and trumpet solo adding exotic flavors. The song's charms overwhelm any lack of authenticity. The EP contains decent stylistic variety. "Tell Me Janey" is driven by metal riffs played at a breakneck pace, and Pullin's wild vocals hint at a Mark Farner influence (the EP was recorded not too far from GFR's hometown of Flint, Michigan). This track is followed by a tender 6/8 ballad titled "I Can't Live With You," a nice showcase for Pullin's vocal chops in a slow setting, although it's not quite the epic that the duration listed on the sleeve suggests (6:45 on the back cover, around 5:00 in reality). Give Me Tonight
stalls near the end, indicating that Pullin didn't have the goods for a full-length recording. On the other hand, a single (with the title track on the A-side) may have felt like too little, so the length of this recording seems appropriate. Give Me Tonight
wasn't going to set the world on fire - lack of lyrical distinction is a weak point - but the blend of independent spirit and professional production is interesting, and Pullin's blank stare and rocker poses are worth examining.
★ The Rings / MCA (1981)
is assembly line pop-rock containing every new wave cliché in the book, but there are moments I kinda liked. "Got My Wish" is menacing and hypnotic, and "I Need Strange" is fun and contains some hooks you may actually remember in a day or two. Any potential in "Watch You Break" vanishes as the singer utilizes a bad Puerto Rican accent for no reason at all. The rest is a sad showcase of watered-down reggae, faux punk, and cute, peppy rock with lyrics about girls who like to dance all night and other similar topics. Use as a frisbee in a heavily wooded area. You may get lucky and it'll hit a tree.
★ ★ Misplaced Ideals / A&M (1978)
On this platter, Sad Café often combine light loungey verses with bombastic rawk choruses. They all play with enough finesse to pull it off, but sometimes it doesn't sound quite right. "Feel Like Dying" exemplifies this point. It hits on a soothing jazz-soul groove, but then the wanky, heavy guitar solo comes in. A respectable sense of ambition led them to combine such different styles, but not everyone wants them all in one song. The band displays humor in the middle of "Restless," when the train goes off the track for a second. After the band stops, the singer does his best Daltrey stutter to cue them back in, but they all miss the mark pretty badly. Despite not being perfect, IT SOUNDS GREAT, and they smartly kept it. "Black Rose" delivers the anthemic goods, and intertwining the title phrase with "back roads" had me reaching for the lyric sheet. "Run Home Girl" is a tasty AM Gold
-sounding single, jazzy and gently driving, but it could've ended just after the halfway mark. Most of the other songs run long as well. "Hungry Eyes" is an epic journey with heavy orchestration. The album isn't full of this kind of bombast, but the production is generally big and boomy and sometimes the material feels nondescript. If you're a fan of hard-edged rock from the '70s, you may love it.
■ Silver Blue / Epic (1978)
Despite my opinion of this platter, I think that it is
possible to successfully convert songs that aren't necessarily dance-oriented into disco hits with style and taste. The individual who dreamed this project up had neither of those qualities. More reprehensible is the fact that he evidently had some pull in the music industry back in the day. Shouldn't he have known better? The record mimics the glossiest of the glossy disco of the time, making "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" sound like high art. It is tedious, incessantly pulse-y and incessantly bouncy, with bells, clavinets, and irritating string swells in every crack and corner. All of the tracks are covers, but original compositions are merely springboards with no respect paid to the source material. Ideas are picked at, juicy bits kept and the rest discarded, like the carcass of a raccoon pecked by a buzzard. Clever reboots of old classics would have been just the ticket, but first and foremost, this is brainless dance music. The way "Yellow Rose of Texas" is sung turns the song into a big joke...but you can dance to it! A disco version of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" makes as much sense as my cat teaching me trigonometry. The cold and disconnected re-imagining of "Good Vibrations" keeps certain lyrics and ditches the remainder, an insult to Brian Wilson's craft and genius vision. "So Rare" is devoid of personality. The musicians are nowhere credited, but character is simply unimportant here. The word "tacky" doesn't quite capture "Light My Fire." It's Spinal Tap gone disco. The melody has been deconstructed and any grit sanded away, obliterating any and all of the original's appeal. This treatment is used on every track. The top of the front cover reads "featuring 'Tennessee Waltz.'" I will admit that this is the only moment where the album almost works. It's so absurd that it could have been passable as a goofy one-off single in the tradition of "Stars on 45." However, the overwhelming arrogance and ickiness of this project renders it junk.
★ ★ ★ Woody Simmons / Deep River (1980)
Forgive me, but I thought Woody Simmons was a man. The person on the LP cover looks a little like Nick Gilder: androgynous, but leaning towards the masculine. When I dropped the needle on the platter and heard a high-pitched feminine voice, my confidence turned to confusion. I had to Google the artist's name to crack the mystery. Woody Simmons is a woman and a pretty talented musician, it turns out. While I don't feel that this is a particularly strong album in comparison to strong albums, it contains qualities that I enjoy in many records of the time. The songs are tuneful (not earth-shattering) and worthy of repeated listens. Sonically, many albums sounded great in the late '70s and early '80s due to sharper production techniques and improved recording technology. For me, the sweet spot ends when digital recording and electronic/processed drums dominated the landscape. Even on an independent record label, rare for its time, this record boosts production as clean and pro-sounding as on any major label release. The album specializes in soulful pop with Top 40 aspirations. I don't know if it was an attempt to gain some commercial recognition or if Simmons wanted to try a genre exercise. Either way, the record hits its targets most of the time. Vocal harmonies and horns are prominent, and the mostly female supporting cast is very solid and deserves a nod. The best tracks ("It Don't Rain," "You Are My Friend," and the terrific "Too Good to Be") sound like lost Carole King songs adapted to a light disco setting. The latter cut is particularly memorable, playful and sweet as an old Motown single. As indicated by the song titles, the sentiments expressed in the lyrics are usually simple but relatable. "Message" songs are never easy to execute, but "Who'll Save the Animals" is heartfelt and not too preachy. Two ballads occupy the middle of the LP's second side, and they're both pretty but they slow the album to a sleepy pace. The breezy acoustic track "Sleepin' Out" hints at folk, but Simmons' rootsy side comes into full bloom on "Trolley Car," a short bluegrass instrumental that closes the album and showcases the artist's depth and versatility, if only for a moment. It's a bit of a sore musical thumb, but unconventional touches like this give the album some interest and set it apart from the rest of the herd.
★ ★ ★ ★ Party / Passport (1980)
Wonderfully weird, tense, and nerdy, the Tapes fall somewhere between new wave and post-punk. Rarely following a traditional rhyme scheme, the lyrics are fittingly printed in sentence/paragraph form on the inner sleeve, like 11 little chapters in a book. The songs are full of ideas but the band's attack is clean and tight. The guitar lines are crisp, and no notes or words are wasted. "To Assemble" coldly cures a broken heart with step-by-step instructions similar to those included with pre-fab furniture. It's hard to tell where the songs are going to go, but the band's sound is well-established by the end of the album. Much of it is stereotypically herky-jerky and angular, but they do hit on some great dance grooves. The terrific instrumental fade of "Into Action" features a bass line that is positively funkadelic. The album rolls by quickly but leaves you wanting to hear it again. There aren't many singalong choruses or familiar song structures, so it's not for everyone, but if you're a bit adventurous, it's a very satisfying listen.
★ ★ ★ Hot Flash / Friar Tuck's Productions (NA)
A mixture of live and studio tracks recorded on the cheap with no pretensions whatsoever, Hot Flash
by the Villagers, a Toledo-based act with roots in late '60s folk, is a prime example of "real people music." As the first cut begins, you might think that they accidentally put the warm-up take on the record. The guitar and drums drag noticeably, and p-pops are audible when the vocal enters. Although the track sounds more "normal" as the musicians get into it, much of the album's charm (and the appeal of this type of music) comes from the band showing its seams and presenting pure authenticity. Primary vocalist Pat Moran belts it out like someone's talented mom at karaoke night. She uses her pleasing vibrato often and at times sounds like Olivia Newton-John. On "Woman in Love," Moran holds the note at the end of the second verse exactly as long as Barbra Streisand did, simultaneously paying tribute and showing off her own chops. She also composed the record's sole original, "Speak Your Heart," a folky number in 6/8 time. The range of material presented is without restriction: a little Billy Joel, a little old-time jazz, a little Survivor...no big deal. Side two contains an incredible hat trick of diversity: "Holding Out for a Hero," "Hava Nagila," and "Rocky Top." Sequencing songs like these together is jarring for the listener, but not homogenizing all the arrangements and being unconcerned about wrapping everything up in a nice, neat package is praiseworthy. One could argue that this aesthetic is what sets the album apart. It's a modern vaudeville experience, a hodgepodge album by that cover band of normal-looking people you passed at the summer street fair. If you're curious about the group, highly recommended is The Villagers on Such a Night
. It's a dynamite collection of folk/Americana tunes better suited to the band's skill set (scaled-back arrangements, expert vocal harmonies), but be warned: it's so rare that it practically doesn't exist.
★ ★ ★ Roller Coaster Weekend / Atlantic (1974)
Albums by sidemen are worthy of analysis because you can hear what influences they bring to the work of a band or well-known artist. To Joe Walsh fans, the playful staccato piano that opens Roller Coaster Weekend
is instantly recognizable as flavoring on Walsh solo albums, to which Vitale often contributed songwriting and instrumental support (Vitale also co-wrote the gorgeous "Pretty Maids All in a Row" from Hotel California
). "Shoot 'Em Up" was retooled as "Fun" on Walsh's Got Any Gum?
, and the climax of "Falling" was repurposed as the frame of "At the Station" from ...But Seriously, Folks
. To me, it's fascinating that these pieces of music, all-new to most fans when they were introduced on Walsh albums, originally existed here. Although guest spots from Walsh and Rick Derringer provide strong selling points, Vitale alone steals the show. He plays everything except guitar and writes and sings all of the tunes. The purity of vision is admirable, and because Vitale is primarily a drummer, the rhythmic foundation of the material is strong and consistent. Occasionally, I hear classical influences in Vitale's songs: the wistful introduction of "School Yard," the Eno-esque "Interlude," and the piano passages of "Mad Man" are stately without hampering the rock. Darkly nostalgic and beautifully melodic, "Feeling's Gone Away" brings me back to the similar Vitale track "Book Ends" from Walsh's The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get
LP. The strength of these songs confirms to me that Vitale writes best in a moody, psychedelic vein. If the record has a flaw, it is the lack of any real knockout tunes, though "Falling" is an exception. In it, a patchwork of disparate parts with completely different rhythmic feels creates a dizzying effect, and then the song turns on a dime and segues into the barreling and supremely catchy outro, smartly recycled by Mr. Walsh in '78. The lyrics have to do with hopelessness with the different musical sections representing the ups and downs in fighting it. The track fades with strength but no lyrical resolution: the struggles of life don't end, but at times, they can be conquered. Given Vitale's long-time collaboration with Walsh, it's difficult to judge this record through an unfiltered lens, but Roller Coaster Weekend
stands up a decent showcase for Vitale's talents. At the end of the '70s, Walsh brought Vitale into the Eagles touring band to give the backbeat a much needed shot in the arm. For this, Vitale was subjected to the wrath of Don Henley and therefore deserves a prize of some kind.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ The Last Rainbow / [No label] (1981)
Through his words and music, Larry Voltz skillfully creates a vision of a lonely and dysfunctional future based on actions (and lack of action) by humans in the present. It's not a pretty picture, and he hints that it may arrive sooner than later. On "Water Is the Window" and "On the Roof," he addresses apathy for the environment and its consequence: ending up like the ossified fallout victims on the front cover. "Sitcom" comments on the media's power to manipulate and suggests that political coverage on television has no more substance than an episode of Three's Company
. Set to a spacy C&W waltz, "The American Dreamer" denounces consumerism and willful ignorance with a sharp sense of humor. Urban shysters and con artists appear as creatures from some sci-fi nightmare in the creepy "Danskin Danceking Demons." Despite the discord, Larry is hopeful about matters of the heart on the closer "Gizmo Su": turns out love is the only thing worth pursuing in this bleak world. Maybe the future isn't all that different from the present.
The Last Rainbow
is an ambitious and creative work that never falls back on a formula. By crafting the music and releasing the LP solely on his own, Mr. Voltz's purity of artistic vision could not be stronger and makes the record that much more worthy of investigation. Although Larry was just 19 when he recorded the album (he looks well out of his twenties on the sleeve), his observations are mature and thought-provoking. He voices his concerns about corruption, pollution, greed, and the shallowness of modern culture without being heavy-handed. His most arty lyrics belong to the album's title track, but in actuality, the song is instrumental with the words appearing only on the back cover (and additional "bonus" lyrics printed on the inner sleeve). I suspect that "The Last Rainbow" began life as an epic poem (from a creative writing project?) and the idea evolved into a concept album. Voltz was clearly limited financially by having to orchestrate the album in his bedroom (proudly stated on the sleeve), but his chilly electro-rock sound establishes the mood wonderfully. Unconventional song structures on the record enhance the sense of displacement and unease. An example occurs in the middle of the second verse of "Water Is the Window," when an unexpected shift to a major key progression announced by a slide guitar solo effectively transports the listener to a happy dream. But the dream is quickly revealed to be a nightmare, and we're seamlessly dropped back into reality. Unlike many one-man, DIY home recordings, the sound of the album is full and professional. He multi-tracks his vocals with proficiency, and his intricate, harmonized guitar runs impressively hit the mark. Brian May and Tom Scholz were obviously heroes, and perhaps George Orwell provided thematic inspiration. I was introduced to this album through Enjoy the Experience
, an outstanding book on private press recordings. After seeing the cover art, I mistakenly assumed that the album would be calculated camp. In reality, it's a genuine, thoughtful, and important musical statement, and given the fact that it's a completely self-contained effort from a Texas kid barely out of high school, it's nothing short of miraculous.
★ ★ ★ ★ Blue Lightning Accent / Blue Ash (1980)
Blue Lightning Accent
is chock full of ear-grabbing fragments and passages; it's up to the listener to piece it all together. Of course, this effect was unintentional by the artist. Like the Shaggs, David Welsh transmits a singular artistic vision. Musical ideas are introduced rather spastically. He has his own sense of time: the flow of much of the album is determined by how quickly Welsh forms the chords on the fretboard. The meter isn't conventional, but it always feels natural, and that's where the record's allure lies. For the truly observant, the title track and "Rock Drummer" are reversed on the back cover, but the two songs' credits and durations are not. Although there are no producer or technical credits on the sleeve, the album is beautifully recorded, a heavy metal Philosophy of the World
in hi-fi. The record is a split between slower voice/guitar compositions and energetic, full band rockers (Tom Harriman handles the drums while Welsh covers the rest). The lyrics are a challenge throughout: many lines are simply unintelligible. I'd love to know what the opener "6's, 9's, Tens & Towers" is about. Repeated listens can only offer new clues. The track whips erratically from weird riff to weird riff, and when the guitar and drums actually align halfway through, the song "rocks" for precisely 3 seconds before resuming on the unmarked path. "Rock Drummer" likens pounding the skins to the journey of a climber scaling a mountain. With its rich acoustic chords and woozy scat vocal providing a perfect bridge from chorus to verse, "The Climb Into Heaven" is the highlight among the slower songs. "Water Fall" includes an impressively technical guitar figure in the verse, and when Welsh backs off the vocal mic, presumably to check his playing, it's a charmingly genuine moment. A tornado of Greg Ginn-style guitar and chaotic drumming, "Blue Lightning Accent" could have easily been lifted from The Process of Weeding Out
. Welsh turns semi-normal on the album's closer, "Keeping Pace," a recollection of summertime love set to the sounds of a '60s garage rock single run over by a bulldozer. Blue Lightning Accent
is offbeat greatness: endless enjoyment will come to the brave consumer just trying to make sense of the thing.
★ ★ ★ ★ Seasons / Radio (1981)
The platter before you can be assessed one of two ways: a thematic effort using weather events as a frame, or a concept album built around the drum sound of "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins. Truth is, Mr. Werner's album is a little of both. The record's giddy first half is like a mischievous kid jumping from puddle to puddle on a rainy day. "Rain in May" sets the table: the simple lyrics and childlike melody take me back to the cracked masterpieces Brian Wilson was churning out on The Beach Boys Love You
. Here, the additions are a weird mechanical voice robo-singing through the song's finale and the aforementioned Collins drum sound from his '81 hit (a lightly ticking programmed beat interrupted by bombastic drums in the choruses). Most of the songs on Seasons
can be as deep as the listener prefers. The high atmospheric pressure in "Thunderstorm" could signify fear, and "Raincloud" ties bad weather to a failing relationship. The latter contains some real '60s-style pop whimsy despite the subject matter and fades far too quickly. Songs such as "Like an Autumn Leaf" and "Indian Summer" are practically stomps, driven by tribal chants and memorable call-and-response gang vocals (and check out the ELO influence on the latter). The elephant in the room is the Sprockets
-approved version of "Summer in the City," but Werner shows proper respect for the source material. Instead of an indulgent deconstruction, the cover retains the charm of the original tune, strengthened by some catchy drum patterns in the breaks and what sounds like rhythmically chirping crickets. Clouds roll in and the mood turns darker on the flip side of the album, which opens with a rather stunning set of songs. Featuring a particularly heavy Phil Collins influence, the agitated "In the Winter" decries the cold and embodies desperate, schizophrenic isolation quite effectively. Werner transcends on "Crystals (So Cold)," telling of the death of a romantic dream through the chilly lens of side B. It's the kind of beautifully floating masterpiece that Beach House has made a career out of. Over a smoothly gliding synth line and gently ticking drum pattern, Werner sings in vulnerable falsetto about a relationship that appears calm on the surface with trouble brewing at the core. Despite painting a bleak ecological picture on "Cosmic Winter (We'll Make It to Mars)," Werner is optimistic that humanity will prevail against all challenges, offering the tune as a singalong on the voyage into space. With its friction of minor-key verse rubbing against major chorus, the lengthy title track works as a nice comedown from the preceding trilogy. After a few listens, Seasons
really coalesces: Werner's craft begins to outshine the eccentricities of the record, and a deeper theme emerges. From the heartbeat drum pulse that opens the record through the fluctuations of the journey that follow, Seasons
ultimately encompasses life, and one worth exploring.
★ ★ ★ ★ Balls Up / Unicorn (1982)
★ ★ ★ To the Night / Unicorn (1982)
The Unicorn label is probably best known for being involved in the distribution fiasco for the Black Flag album Damaged
, but they also released an impressively wide range of music. I found these albums in two separate cheapo bins. It turns out they were released next to each other in 1982 (judging from the catalog numbers), but they couldn't be more different musically. From the muted guitar chords that open "Cocktailed Sky," the first cut of Wet Picnic's Balls Up
, the energy immediately jumps off the record. Tight and tense, the track is about kicking booze and turning over a new leaf by joining the vice squad. You may have guessed that this platter is not an overly serious affair. "She Don't Care" seems very self-aware to me, as if the band discussed crafting the perfect power-pop song...and they did pretty well! Containing some poptastic chord changes, carnival organ, and soaring harmonies, the song describes the end of a rather empty relationship. It's calculated but pretty irresistible. Addressing apocalyptic paranoia, "Are You in Touch" goes for an intense punk sprint. With the vocal sounding like "are you in dodge," it could have been the perfect jingle for the Chrysler K-car, which rolled off the assembly line in '81. The album takes another hard turn with "He Believes," which opens with a vibrato-heavy keyboard part that sounds like a theremin singing opera. Quiet and meticulously crafted, its lyrics are about a randy young lad who seeks to consummate his imaginary relationship with a gorgeous movie starlet. It could have been a Bette Midler torch song with more palatable lyrics (unlike "chances are she'll tell him to shove it"). The mini-album (or extended EP, if you prefer) ends with "Tension," which may be about the line between sexual anxiety and work pressure blurring, but its lyric "who knows what this is all about" seems fitting. The stylistic variation of Balls Up
is a benefit instead of a failed attempt to demonstrate virtuosity. It's the rarity of being painfully hip but also genuinely great.
Examining the stark cover art of To the Night
, one might suspect an edgy singer-songwriter effort, but Gary Harrison is a teddy bear. The style of the album is early '80s pop-country with ear-pleasing hooks and the occasional out-of-place-but-cool-at-the-time synth. The record would be a classic for the ages if everything was as great as its opener "Arms of Saturday Night." It's either a straight-faced tribute or a sneaky parody of Springsteen, with a melody that wouldn't be out of place on Born to Run
, its seemingly intentional cruising/racing clichés, and hilarious lyrical references to bulging crotches (courtesy of Connie, the counterpart to Springsteen's Wendy), running red lights, endless nights, and so on. Whatever the intent, make no mistake: it's a fantastic little ditty. Elsewhere, the lyrics are sometimes clumsy ("she's just someone I used to love...every night, for a year or so"), sometimes dull, but usually passable in a "professional" sense. What sadly sinks the album is its overabundance of ballads. Slow dances such as "Everything That I've Got" are pleasant enough, but half of the album is made up of similarly schmaltzy tunes. The record needs more tracks like the bopping toe-tapper "Foolin'." Although the slow numbers are generally indistinguishable, "He's a Boy" is a diamond in the rough. It's a gentle, touching love song in which Harrison describes his newborn son's constant discovery of the world around him and imagines all the wonderful things he wants for his son when he grows up. To the Night
does contain some strong material, but it would have worked much better as a mini-album (like the five-track Balls Up
). Imagine a label (even an indie) releasing albums like this back-to-back today. Kudos to the short-lived Unicorn for promoting musical diversity in their catalog and keeping life interesting for vinyl hunters like me.
★ ★ ★ ★ Do What Must Be Done / Stone (1980)
From the au naturel cardboard jacket (mine's even autographed on the back) to the mossy folk-rock sounds seeping from the grooves of the disc, rustic is the operative word. A couple primitively recorded, oddly-placed covers of early rock & roll tunes ("Rave On" and "Hey Baby") enhance the off-kilter vibe. As for the original material: where did these songs come from? They sound like Top 20 hits from an alternate 1970s (it's possible; see Back to the Future Part II
). The masterminds of Woodeye - Rick Chapman and John Curci - craft carefree, dreamlike vignettes driven by beautifully rough-edged guitar and tinged with weird sounds swirling around the edges of the mix. Some frenetic hi-hat work and a random nod to Leslie Gore's "It's My Party" in the conclusion of the soul homage "Loves Laughter and Cries" throw an otherwise conventional-sounding love song off the track. The Woodeye boys get philosophical on "Natural Law" ("no one's ever wise enough to keep from growing old"), a slab o' boogie marked by an odd chorus of sorts that simply asks "how do you know?" over a psychedelic ascent. Opening with a slow snare build, "Jimmy" tells of a storyteller/singer who indulges in nickel beer (mama says "stay away"). Given its title, "Woodsong" may be the band's unofficial theme. After beginning with a funky synth bass line, it unfolds with a bit of flute and some weird rolling tom fills. The words seem to be a person's hazy conscience providing self-help about a rocky relationship. Even better, "Drowsy Water" is the shining jewel in the Woodeye crown: Eagles-like backing vocals wash over a fever dream about Satan stealing the souls of road-bound rock musicians. Git-r-done and find this platter.
★ ★ ★ All in Fun / Columbia (1979)
The first half of this platter contains a smoothed-out R&B/soul/funk concoction that is pleasant enough, but I think it really gets goin' on the second side. The title track opens Side B. It's relentlessly up despite a sense of melancholy and desperation in the lyrics. Reminiscent of the Stylistics, the mellow ballad "What's Come Over Me" is home to a rich and tender lead vocal (the album's best). "A Shift in the Wind" is the kind of smooth jazz you hear on the Weather Channel. Do they still play smooth jazz during the local forecast? On this track, the playing is tasteful and the arrangement is pretty masterful in that it captures the listener's attention for the duration of the song. The melody gives me déjà vu. I feel like I've heard it somewhere before (Local on the 8s?). It's hard to say that any smooth jazz has teeth, but this is certainly not Kenny G-style fodder. I like it.
The Tough Boys: My Journey with Carlo Trenta and Billy Joel
There's something to be said for mystery. It can keep the flames of curiosity burning for ages, and if you're easily obsessed like me, you will not rest until your questions are answered. I've never made it a point to listen to music that no one else knows about. It just works out that way sometimes. I have always had a tendency to sidestep what's hot at the moment and possessed a genuine curiosity about music on the fringe and a desire to learn about records that people have shunned, buried or forgotten about (or have tried hard to forget). In my years of seeking out music, some of the best weirdo stuff has come from discount racks, bargain bins and piles of unwanted records. I've come across some strange items, but only once have I purchased an album that promised an artist on the cover but delivered someone else on the recording, a mistake the crappiest bootlegs in existence manage to avoid. It turned into an unlikely puzzle that took 20 years to solve.
The Bosom Buddies
theme song turned me on to Billy Joel as a kid, and around the time I was in high school, I learned of Billy's pre-fame band Attila through an interview I saw on TV. With the baffling LP cover displayed onscreen for a few seconds, Joel probably cringed inside as he named the record's more incredibly titled tracks, "Amplifier Fire" and "Brain Invasion", with little comment as he seemed to psychically push the interviewer on to the next topic. This was more than enough to grab my attention. Turns out Billy is pretty embarrassed by Attila and has never said more than a few sentences at one time about the project. The bizarreness of the band's music combined with Billy's reported attempts to keep the record out of peoples' hands by buying up all the copies has given it a pretty strong cult following. It used to be fairly hard to find. In the internet age, you can snag a used copy on eBay and listen to the record in its entirety on YouTube while you wait for the LP to arrive. Attila is non-existent in the world of conventional, just-the-hits-please Billy Joel fandom, but its underground immortality is perpetuated by a new generation of cult music lovers online. The band is archived, dissected, and discussed on weirdo music blogs and comment threads. "Holy Moses" was given the jazz treatment by an experimental trio featuring two bass clarinetists. Some armchair music historians have gone so far as to claim that Billy Joel was a key figure in the development of the "blast beat", a drum pattern frequently employed by grindcore bands (and supposedly birthed by Attila drummer Jon Small halfway through "Brain Invasion"). It's all as wacky and fascinating as the music itself.
Oddly, the album that has been disowned by Joel and is generally regarded as a stain on his career has been repackaged in a number of strange, less-than-official releases through the years. Most are credited not to Attila but to Billy Joel, obviously to capitalize on his famous name. Some of the records even feature shots of snappily-dressed solo-era Joel on the cover, giving the record buyer false hope that the music within employs the light melodic craft of "Piano Man" or "Just the Way You Are." Attila
has only been released with the artist's permission once, on Epic Records in 1970, and I am certain that it will never see a sanctioned release again.
In the mid-'90s, I unexpectedly stumbled upon a sketchy looking reissue of Attila
at Phar-Mor, a pharmacy/general store located in the American Mall in Lima, Ohio. It was a cassette titled Revenge Is Sweet
and was credited to "Billy Joel with Attila." The cover was simply a close-up of Joel's face, young and innocent, and the tape contained the complete Attila album (with the first two songs flipped, for some reason). I was always attracted to the bizarre and obscure and I was a BJ enthusiast, so naturally, this was up my alley. This was a tape that wouldn't be found on the HOT NEW RELEASES rack in any popular music store. It wasn't even good enough to be featured prominently in Phar-Mor. One look at the packaging of this reissue told me that it is not authorized product. It even delivered a PSA in tiny font: "Stop drugs!" It was illicit, seedy, and wrong. The music itself was almost beside the point. A freakshow is intriguing. "Uptown Girl" is not.
After subsequent trips to Phar-Mor, I discovered that this cassette had a few variations with different album titles, covers and track listings, but they were all products of "Creative Sounds, Ltd." and all credited to Billy Joel first, Attila and the Hassles (another pre-fame group) second. What turned out to be of particular interest was the CD version, named after the Attila track "Rollin' Home." It claimed to be a "double album" and supposedly contained tracks from Attila as well as the Hassles, reinforced by a photo of Hassles-era Joel on the cover. But I knew something was up just by looking at the titles of the Hassles tracks: "E.A.R.," "Rabbitt," "The Tough Boy." Those can't be Billy Joel songs, can they? Of course, this piqued my interest and I got the CD.
I don't remember what my first reaction was hearing the "Hassles" tracks. Even before the vocal kicked in on the first track, a psychedelic new-wave ditty entitled "E.A.R.", I knew it wasn't Billy Joel. Listening to the rest, I knew that they were never hits for whomever they belonged to. Compared to Billy Joel, they practically sounded like they were from another planet. I thought they were totally freakish. As time passed, they grew on me a little. I imagine the first emotion most people felt upon hearing them was hatred. Instant, seething hatred, because the songs are so un-Billy Joel-like. It may have prompted some to remove the disc from their player and stomp it or throw it out their car window. "Music is pure rubbish including poor lead singing" is how one disgruntled Billy Joel fan described the songs on an old alt.music message board. I may have been the only person in the world who listened to the fraudulent Hassles tracks more than once and developed an interest in the musicians behind them.
Many things made these songs intriguing to me. With no band photos or credits, my speculation was based only on the songs, and it was also one of my first encounters with "independent" music. In my area coming up, there was no local music scene or a band you knew that recorded an album. I didn't get into punk and alternative rock for a few years, and at the time, I had no point of reference for a batch of quirky songs clearly not born on a major label. The vocalist sounded like a guy who was a little too old to be singing about tough punks and space bunnies. I could picture him on public access television, hosting a monster movie marathon wearing those spiral eye glasses as someone at the control board triggered every cheesy video warp, ripple and morph available at his fingertips. The tracks were in a tight new-wave vein but still miles away from the impeccable Phil Ramone-produced nuggets found on Glass Houses
. They had more in common with the bouncy irreverence of "Rock Lobster."
The lyrics were often tongue-in-cheek and had a goofy, novelty quality to them. This could have been a prefab skinny-tie band playing at a frat party in some comedy film from the early '80s. Were they serious or joking? Were these songs demos? I assumed they were, because I didn't understand how tracks that ended up on a legitimate album could have been misfiled as Billy Joel. As I mentioned before, this was the only time I'd bought a CD or tape that contained a different artist than advertised. Was there a lawsuit? Shouldn't it have been withdrawn? Maybe the compilation coordinator wasn't that sharp on music and couldn't tell that the Hassles tracks were not Billy Joel. More than likely, there was no compilation coordinator. Still, someone
had to pluck the orphan tracks from an illegitimate source and give them the green light. The incompetence was fascinating, and the fact that the disc existed at all was almost unbelievable. For BJ, I imagine the only thing more embarrassing than Attila was that it was available on CD with a batch of weird songs credited to him but performed by someone else (although I doubt he even knew of it). It was a perfect storm, and I my interest grew a little every day.
Also keep in mind that this happened when the internet, full of illustrations of men with shovels and jackhammers accompanied by the words PAGE UNDER CONSTRUCTION, wasn't a terribly useful tool yet. In my world, information about music could be found in books or old periodicals at the library. Difficult mysteries were nearly impossible to crack. Even harder was being a kid in a small town, cut off from streams of obscure music and people with deep knowledge about it. Culturally, it was like being on a deserted island. At this point, I was already cutting my teeth on music geekery, attending record shows, discovering the cool independent music stores in the area and frequenting the one book store that carried Billboard
. I did what I could with the resources I had to satisfy my thirst, but the time and the place were serious limitations. Despite this, my curiosity continued to grow. In the late '90s, I learned some basic HTML coding and put together a little web page dedicated to Attila. While compiling information, I searched around online and still found no trace of the band behind the weirdo tracks on the Rollin' Home
disc. Despite this, my webpage featured a section dedicated to the faux-Hassles. I secretly hoped the mystery band would step forward and send me an e-mail claiming responsibility, but no such luck. Years passed and occasionally I would revisit the songs and scour the internet for clues but would always come up with nothing. I knew I'd never figure out who did those songs. It was a cold case if there ever was one.
Then on November 4, 2014, some unknown force prompted me to Google Billy Joel and "Tough Boy" (one of the bogus songs), and one of the results was an Amazon review of an album by Joey Trentadue and King Chinook Band. After I read the title of the review, "Do you mean Billy Joel didn't record these songs after all???," I turned giddy knowing that I may have just cracked this impossible mystery. The review, written in March 2012, mentioned the Attila/Hassles CD that I had bought from Phar-Mor and also explained how the bogus tracks were tacked on to that disc. According to the review writer, they were released on an album credited to Billy Joel & the Hassels. When I first heard the CD, one of my theories was that the bogus tracks were by a band named the Hassles that had nothing to do with Billy Joel. The Joey Trentadue album on Amazon appeared to be a recent digital-only compilation. I was more determined than ever to find out the original source of the bogus tracks. I Googled Joey Trentadue and found a blog titled "Special Punk," dedicated to outsider music, with a review describing an album by Carlo Trenta & the Demons. It was clear from the review that this record was the legitimate home of the bogus tracks, and a commenter who posted that Carlo's true identity was Joey Trentadue confirmed it. After many years of wondering, the mystery was solved just like that, with the right Google search and a few mouse clicks.
How exactly did the music of Carlo Trenta become attributed to Billy Joel in the first place? The world may never know, but this is what I've dug up on the fiasco. Tough Boy, Rock Da Box
, Trenta's album and the original source of the Hassles-attributed Rollin' Home
tracks, was released on his own label CJT Records in 1981. CJT was short-lived and appears to have only issued two other recordings: 7" singles of Trenta with unidentified band performing loopy C&W originals worthy of inclusion on Songs in the Key of Z
. The Tough Boy
, the album credited to Billy Joel & the Hassels but containing six Trenta songs (and Attila's "Holy Moses," naturally), was somehow released a year earlier on Koala Records (also released on Koala was Hour of the Wolf
by the legitimate Hassles, credited to Joel and re-titled Country Boy
, a Tough Boy
companion piece of sorts). Other than the mention in the online review of the Joey Trentadue compilation, I have only seen one trace of the existence of The Tough Boy
. I did a thorough search on Gemm, Discogs, and other sites, and I came across an eBay auction from 2011 for the LP. It sold for $75. I reckon this is the ultimate weirdo Billy Joel collectible, containing only one track that can be properly credited to the man.
Founded in 1979, Koala Records was based in Hendersonville, Tennessee and specialized in no-budget compilations of famous musicians with album art that appeared to be created by a high school yearbook committee. Around 1982, the label folded after scandals involving the release of unauthorized recordings and a master recording tax shelter. Jack Millman, a musician and entrepreneur who, according to a Billboard
article, supplied Koala with recordings, was found to be involved in the same tax scheme. One may assume that the Carlo Trenta songs ended up in Millman's hands and he slapped Billy's name on them and passed them onto Koala. Or, it was all the result of a clerical error and no one actually checked the recording (remember, no one could mistake Carlo Trenta for Billy Joel). Personally I think the latter is unlikely, because the song titles on Trenta's own version of his album differ from the titles on the Koala LP. Someone along the chain listened to the songs and created new titles from their lyrics for The Tough Boy
. The validity of the recording still wasn't checked out by the time it got to Creative Sounds, Ltd., creator of Rollin' Home
and a load of other budget releases by recognizable artists. In the early '90s, that label became involved in legal troubles similar to Koala's a decade earlier. I still think it's an amazing feat that the Trenta/Joel mixup survived into the compact disc age, but it unfortunately ended with the death of Creative Sounds, Ltd. near the end of the millennium.
I'm fascinated with stories like this. These journeys make record collecting worthwhile, and it makes me miss old bargain bins, wonderful sources of strangeness. They're still around at retail chains like Best Buy at Wal-Mart, but nowadays they are populated with familiar titles by familiar artists. I believe that true bargain bin items should be clipped, notched, holed, or otherwise mutilated in some way. I stopped at a Big Lots recently to see what their discount music rack looked like, and sadly, it was uninspired. $5 CDs with no surprises, no bullet holed jewel cases, nothing weird. All of them even had that white seal on the top of the jewel case under the shrinkwrap with the album title and artist name, saving people from the arduous task of physically flipping through the discs. Included in the collection were sanctioned remasters of Piano Man
and An Innocent Man
. No Rollin' Home
. Meijer used to offer a fantastic wall of discount tapes and CDs, many of dubious origin. One of my favorite bargain bins was found at the short-lived Sun TV in Lima. Their bin contained cassettes for a mere ten pennies! I found a Stix Hooper tape in there and that led me to discover the Crusaders, a superior band in any musical circle. A musician who composed a popular hit for Garth Brooks released a solo album in the mid-'80s that promptly vanished, possibly because he was better suited as a writer than a singer. That was in the bin. Another tape contained songs that could have been The Weather Channel's Greatest Local Forecast Hits of the '80s
. Every new tape, no matter how cheesy, was like food for my brain. Each cassette held unheard sounds, a curious story, a little adventure. The bin was not a source of great artistic works, but it satisfied my need to lay my hands on something a little different.
They can be pretty picked over, but these days, discount sections at second-hand music shops are still good sources for oddball and fringe albums. Every good record store has a discount area, and this is typically the section I seek out first. Items could be $1 (Dollarland at Used Kids in Columbus, Ohio), $0.50 (Reckless in Chicago), or in the case of Dave's Records (also in Chicago), a bank-breaking 25 cents per album. Dave's discount stack is located right by the front door for optimal browsing convenience (and because Dave probably wouldn't mind someone swiping a handful of quarter recs occasionally). Often, the items on prominent display in these shops are inevitably different versions of records you already own: a foreign pressing, the 180-gram audiophile edition, a fresh remaster with a bonus 7" or some other kind of bait to get you to double dip. I'll admit that I take the bait now and again, but double and triple dipping encourages labels to endlessly rehash the same material and turns the buyer into a tunnel-visioned music consumer, only needing the most essential five-star albums in any genre and unaware of the incredible treasure trove of old forgotten records waiting to be found. Some are brilliant and many are terrible, but all have been quietly passed over and are practically begging to be listened to.
When I picked up that cheap Billy Joel CD, I never would have guessed that it would become such a huge source of fascination and curiosity, but it's a lesson that you can find unexpected surprises in the strangest places. Although I discovered the identity of the band behind those weirdo tracks, many questions remain. Is Carlo Trenta aware that his songs made it on to a record credited to Billy Joel in the early '80s? Does he know that this led to an appearance on a Billy Joel compilation that populated Phar-Mors across the country? Was he aware that his music, under the most bizarre circumstances, ended up exposed to more people than he could have ever imagined? All of this intrigues me, and I'll continue to chip away at the story (I did mail him a letter; it was returned undeliverable). Bargain bins are slowly going away, but there are many ways to seek out music. I will always be drawn to the odd, the freakish, and the unwanted, and I'll always be that guy in the section of musical Charlie Brown Christmas trees. The hunt is satisfying. Be adventurous. Venture into unfamiliar territory and chances are, you'll find some treasures (and definitely a few bombs).
The Tough Boys: A Follow-up
A little while ago, I shared my story of discovering an unusual album in a very unusual way (to start from the beginning, please read The Tough Boys: My Journey with Carlo Trenta and Billy Joel
). For the curious, I have an update. I was not expecting to find a copy of the original album that credited Carlo Trenta to Billy Joel (The Tough Boy
, on Koala Records, released in 1980). It never came up for sale online. It seemed to be highly scarce but not particularly sought after. I figured 95% of the copies ended up in a dumpster somewhere in Tennessee (home of the long-defunct Koala). To my giddy delight, I came across an eBay auction a few months ago in which a seller in the Nashville area was offering not one, but ten SEALED
copies of this masterpiece, at a very reasonable price. I quickly bought four, and the rest were sold soon after.
Now take a look at that cover art. It was worth it, yeah? Koala Records made a habit of grabbing cool but nondescript stock photos that had nothing to do with the music and slapping it on the covers of their records. Around the time The Tough Boy
was unleashed, Koala "reissued" a Monkees album with a beach sunset photo on the front, making it look like a $3.98 compilation that you may spot in...Phar-Mor. Probably the best Koala cover I've seen, the image above looks like it could been lifted from an Irish Spring print ad from the 1970s. It's fairly gorgeous, but not really a fit with the music of Mr. Joel or
Mr. Trenta. The font and wonky spacing of the letters, particularly in the artist's name, catches the eye. Then there's the misspelling of the pre-fame Joel band, the Hassles (and the fact that a different pre-fame BJ band, Attila, briefly appears on this LP). I can only assume the typesetter was intoxicated or under the influence of drugs during the design process, but the juxtaposition of superstar name and no-budget artwork is just too perfect. We will never know what the Koala creative department was thinking when it assembled this particular masterwork, but it certainly adds a heavy layer of intrigue to the story. The back cover of the LP contains the wow factor of a tax form: basic information presented in black font on a white background.
On the LP label itself, Koala brazenly credits the songs of Carlo Trenta (all tracks, save for Attila's "Holy Moses") to Billy Joel. The publishing accounts of Artie Ripp and Irwin Mazur (two music industry execs involved with Billy in his early days) are also listed. Ripp's is misspelled, but that's not a shocker. Thinking about this, I don't know if someone at Koala truly believed that all of these songs were Billy Joel, or if the label was willing to falsify copyright information to get this album out the door and make a few bucks.
Here's the song breakdown (pay attention!):
(performed by Attila)
(performed by Carlo Trenta & the Demons; actual title: Mechanical Liz)
(Carlo Trenta; actual title: Habit Rabbit)
The Tough Boy
(Carlo Trenta; actual title: Tough Boy's a Punk) (this song is listed at the end of Side A on the record label but actually appears at the beginning of Side B)
Enough Is Enough
(Carlo Trenta; actual title: I'm Not Your Pushin' Broom)
(Carlo Trenta; actual title: Credit Cards)
Crossing the Door
(Carlo Trenta; actual title: Next Door Girl)
As I mentioned in my original post, Carlo Trenta's legitimate debut LP (Tough Boy, Rock da Box
), containing his songs here, was released a year after The Tough Boy
. The titles of the Trenta songs on The Tough Boy
are different from Mr. Trenta's own titles. So who came up with these? How did their release on this album beat the official Trenta record by a full year? And what does "Crossing the Door" mean anyway? My hypothesis is that Trenta recorded the songs and shopped them around to different labels, including Koala Records, and they were released without the artist's consent on The Tough Boy
. Beaten but not defeated, Trenta recorded three additional songs to stretch his core tunes into a full-length album: Tough Boy, Rock da Box
The sound quality of the Trenta tracks released in the 1990s on the Creative Sounds CDs (see original post) is actually excellent. Little generational loss is evident, and they are certainly not vinyl sourced. However, the quality on The Tough Boy
is so-so. The mix lacks high end, tiny dropouts occur every so often and the sound muddies up randomly during several passages. However, nothing is quite as interesting as what's going on in the album's first track. It opens with tuneless racket unmatched by Metal Machine Music
or a jammed garbage disposal. Those familiar with the Attila record will soon recognize it as the bone-crunching intro riff of "March of the Huns"...playing in reverse
. The opening figure of "Holy Moses" (played correctly) fades in, and for a moment, the two songs actually sound kinda cool together. By the time verse two of "Holy Moses" kicks in though, the superimposed track is running backwards through the Attila jazz-metal freakout "Godzilla," and the novelty wears off very quickly. The songs fade out together, suggesting that the creative layering was intentional on Koala's part. I have to think that it was, because it would be impossible to superimpose one song on another without noticing. It's as though they wanted the unexpecting listener to rip the album off the turntable and smash it to bits in a fit of rage before reaching the second track. Maybe some gullible music fans were convinced that their turntable was playing both sides of the record simultaneously. In a way, it's funny, and the bizarre story advances to the next level of weird, but I'm also satisfied that Koala went belly up quickly. For Billy Joel fans in 1980, The Tough Boy
was a kick in the balls. For enthusiasts of really strange records: worth its weight in gold.
The story doesn't stop here. I knew of the existence of an 8-track version of The Tough Boy
, but it seemed even harder to find than the wax. By some miracle, a couple weeks ago I spotted a copy for sale from a seller located in Tennessee on a site called webstore.com. Yes, please. The 8-track version holds a few unique and noteworthy features. First, it contains alternate cover art, a stark sketch of a rural home and some trees. Unlike the vinyl cover, it's weird and creepy, and it may have even less to do with the music than the cover of the LP. It doesn't even have the artist or album name on the front, a bold artistic move. Second, the 8-track contains a Trenta composition not on the LP. Its title, "Viva La Micro-wave" (legitimate title: "Microwave Oven") is probably the best of the lot. Lastly, the fine print on the label is worth repeating (spelling errors belong to Koala):
The illustrations are a commercial concept for this album. Therefore we are unalbe to say that the illustrations represent a completely accurate presentation ot the recording artist as he or she has or does now appear. This ablum contains previously released recorded material.
Fully understanding this statement is difficult, because I don't know if the cover is supposed to represent the musical works of the artist listed on the front edge or the artist whose songs appear on the album. This disclaimer confirms that actual thought went into the cover art and its not-so-obvious meaning, but the fact that the illustration represents both artists so very poorly raises more questions than answers. Koala may be clued into something that I am not. I'm stumped, but that's what makes the journey so much fun. I'll listen to the 8-track eventually (I have a player in storage). I expect it would sound like all 8-tracks I've listened to: containing the crispness of music played on a stereo with the bass turned all the way up and the treble turned all the way down, with several pillows held in place by a heavy blanket in front of each speaker. And as with all 8-tracks, the tape will snap within 10 seconds of inserting the cartridge into the player. Considering the quality control of Koala Records, the tape may contain Carlo Trenta, Billy Joel, Yiddish folk songs, or the Jonestown tapes.
For now, the circle is complete, until the Carlo Trenta master tapes or original handwritten lyric sheets are offered for sale on eBay, or Trenta tours the United States performing Tough Boy, Rock da Box
in its entirety, or Billy Joel officially announces that Carlo Trenta was all a Tony Clifton-style ruse during a period of suicidal depression after the release of 52nd Street
. Going down the rabbit hole of odd music can be a wild ride, but your persistence will always be rewarded. For the Joel-Trenta-Hassels-Demons saga, more surprises will surely come.