Saturday, November 16, 2019

Review: 50th Anniversary Edition of 'The Band'

Bob Dylan and The Band spent the summer of ’67 in Woodstock, isolated from the sitars, Mellotrons, and psychedelics that defined the season. When they emerged, they put out the two albums that redefined Rock & Roll for back-to-the-roots ’68. But whereas John Wesley Harding felt like Dylan’s most personal album since Another Side, The Band’s Music from Big Pink was clearly made under Dylan’s heavy influence. It’s an excellent record, but their own defining personal statement was still a year away.

The Band finds The Band leaving the Dylan-collaborations and covers behind for a completely self-created work. Robbie Robertson emerged as a songwriter with a vision nearly as individual as his mentor’s. Much has been made of the idea that The Band is a sepia snapshot of America’s past seen through the eyes of an (Canadian) outsider. However, many of Robertson’s characters seem to be born Americans, and he dramatizes them with such commitment and authenticity the backwoods funk of “Up on Cripple Creek” or the farming woes of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” feel completely homebrewed in American soil. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is so soaked with humanity that it’s easy to forget that its sympathetic narrator fights alongside the Civil War’s villains (apparently that’s what staunch Civil Rights activist Joan Baez did when she turned it into a hit).

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Review: '1973: Rock at the Crossroads'

While it may not ring the cultural-epoch bells of 1955 (beginning of Rock & Roll era), 1964 (British Invasion), 1977 (punk invasion), or 1991 (cue opening riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), 1973 was actually a watershed year for pop music. Iconic releases included The Dark Side of the Moon, Quadrophenia, The Harder They Come, Court and Spark, Raw Power, New York Dolls, Band on the Run, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Innervisions. In fact, in his new book, 1973: Rock at the Crossroads, Andrew Grant Jackson deems the year “the zenith of classic rock,” referencing a analysis concluding that classic rock radio plays more songs from that year than any other. He further argues that it was also the jumping-off point for such near-future genres as punk, disco, and hip-hop.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Review: The Fox's 'For Fox Sake'

Had the breaks been a little better, The Fox might now be spoken of in the same breath as Small Faces, The Creation, The Move, The Action, Traffic, and the other mod and/or psych bands they resemble. Alas, the Brighton quintet only made one album, because as frontman Steve Brayne relates in the liner notes of a vinyl reissue of the For Fox Sake LP, their management “poached” Black Sabbath and decided to put all of its eggs in that gloomy basket. Timing might have something to do with The Fox’s failure since their mid-sixties sound was so out of step the times when they released their one and only LP in 1970.

That The Fox is all but forgotten is a drag, but there’s nothing draggy about For Fox Sake. For lovers of the brand of fresh-faced British rock that the rains of Sabbath and Zeppelin washed away, this album is a revelation. Almost every song is a gem, inviting comparison to the works of more famous artists but offering enough originality to make it essential in its own right. You’d be hard pressed to find a song by a white band that used reggae off beats earlier than “As She Walks Away”, which also resembles Larks’ Tongue-era King Crimson three years ahead of schedule. Had Hendrix experimented with circus music, he may have been able to lay claim to the sound of the epic “Madame Magical”, but since he didn’t, he cant. Most other tracks don’t strive for such uniqueness, but so who cares when For Fox Sake supplies the best Action (“Secondhand Love”), Creation (“Lovely Day”), and Small Faces (“Man in a Fast Car”) songs of 1970? Only the inchoate jam “Goodtime Music” is not up to snuff.

Sommor Records’ vinyl reissue of For Fox Sake affords this project some belated attention. The very cool album cover art is nicely reproduced. Sound is a bit flat and distorted, though that’s may be more a consequence of the album’s original lo-fi production than the digital mastering. The LP-sized booklet with Brayne’s notes and several band photos is a nice bonus. But great songs by a great band that almost nobody has heard are all the incentive necessary to hunt down For Fox Sake.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Vinyl Remasters of 4 Police Albums

Perhaps no late seventies/eighties band was as successful and brilliant in equal proportion as The Police. Each of their five albums is a must-own, almost completely unburdened by sub-par material, and each one displays a different facet of this most complex of power trios. Their debut Outlandos d’Amour saw Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland attempting to fool the punks into believing they were kindred spirits, failing at that, and producing a slick yet electrifying brew of speed rock, reggae, and pop. Their next two albums are their most similar as Regatta de Blanc and Zenyatta Mondatta lose the punk gestures to focus more on their tasty brand of poppy white (Blanc) reggae (Regatta—they were just as handy with a pretentious album title as they were with their instruments). With Ghost in the Machine, The Police took greater advantage of the studio, fattening their sound with greater use of keyboards and Sting’s surprisingly effective, overdubbed saxophone arrangements. Synchronicity went for broke as The Police shunned none of the magic studio recording offered, wrote a slew of actual and potential hits, and still made room to be hilariously eccentric (“Mother”!). That their greatest success and artistic statement was also The Police’s final album meant they went out on top with a flawless legacy.

The legacy sounds as flawless as ever on half-speed remastered vinyl from A&M. The mastering jobs generally sounds pleasingly similar to that of the original seventies/eighties releases. Regatta de Blanc, though, sounds distinctively improved with stronger bass and more vibrant detail, while the bass frequencies of Synchronicity are pumped up a bit. Initially released in last year’s Every Move You Make: The Studio Recordings box set, four of The Police’s five are now getting individual releases as well. I’m not sure why the band’s most visceral disc, Outlandos d’Amour, wasn’t invited to the party, and since each Police album is essential, the box set might still be the smartest way to go, especially since it includes a bonus disc of equally essential non-LP singles. Still, those who need to flesh out an incomplete collection should be very happy with these individual releases.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review: 'Humble Pie: Life & Times of Steve Marriott + 1973 Complete Winterland Show'

There’s never been a singer quite like Steve Marriott, with his banshee cry streaking out of his elfin frame. He was one of the very few British soul shouters who never seemed to force the energy, never seemed to be doing a parody of authentic, African-American singers (sorry, Mick). Monumentally talented yet still underrated, particularly outside of his home country, Marriott is certainly worthy of more attention. Setting that issue straight seems to be the goal of Gary Katz’s goal when putting together Humble Pie: Life & Times of Steve Marriott. However, as that title suggests, the storytelling is a bit lop-sided, with little attention paid to Marriott’s most vital years as a Small Face and most of the documentary focusing on his seventies work as a member of Humble Pie.

Since Humble Pie was produced in the late nineties, it was shot on full-frame video. That video presentation means its new Blu-ray presentation does nothing for its images, but audio is an improvement over the included DVD in this Blu-ray/DVD/CD set. The decision to fill the screen’s margins with distracting visual noise was a bad one, though.

The documentary itself offers plenty of opportunities to hear Steve wail, though its abundant performance footage leaves the talking heads (Humble Pie members Peter Frampton, Jerry Shirley and Clem Clempson, friends Chris Farlowe and Spencer Davis, fans Chris Robinson and Kevin Dubrow, two of his ex-wives, etc.) to take a back seat and deprives the doc of a complete picture of the man. Fortunately, an hour of bonus interview footage fleshes out Marriott to a certain degree with personal stories from many of the main movie’s participants. Still, the most enticing bonus of this set is that CD capturing a ferocious Humble Pie set from Winterland in 1973.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Review: Rolling Stones' 'Let It Bleed' 50th Anniversary Box Set

Once they realized they couldn’t get by with covering great old Chuck Berry and blues numbers forever, The Rolling Stones got busy with trying to hack out a distinctive sound of their very own. This led to their most eclectic period as they continually tossed fashionable sounds against the wall to suss which one was the stickiest. While it’s tantalizing to imagine how the rest of the Stones’ career might have played out if they’d settled on the cool marimbas and Elizabethan harpsicords of Aftermath or the spooky Mellotrons and Moroccan jams of Their Satanic Majesties Request, they probably made the wisest choice to stick with what they knew best. Thus, the rugged blues and sinister Rock & Roll of 1968’s Beggars Banquet became the template for much of the rest of their career.

Their 1969 follow up, Let It Bleed, never strays too far from the previous year’s outing, though there is too much good stuff in the grooves to dismiss it as an also ran. If “Country Honk” is a more disposable C&W parody than “Dear Doctor” and “Midnight Ramber” is a less elegant first-person portrait of evil than “Sympathy for the Devil”, the Stones kept things fresh with the incomparable apocalyptic atmospherics of “Gimmie Shelter”, the wicked grooves and guffaws of “Monkey Man”, Keith Richards’s deliciously gnarly solo-vocal debut “You Got the Silver”, and the hard-learned insights and choir—choir!—of the pop symphony “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. 

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