Sunday, December 7, 2014

Tom, Dick, etc.

In 1968, when the Beatles were asked who they were listening to, they responded “Nilsson!”. And America said, “Who?”.

America would eventually catch up to the Beatles. First it was “Everybody’s Talkin’”, which won Harry Nilsson a Grammy. Then some people may have caught “The Point” - an hour long cartoon he essentially conceived and wrote the songs for. But it was Nilsson Schmilsson, which had the huge hit “Without You”, that really put him on the map.

He went on to make many more records - some very good, some not so much - while out carousing with John Lesson and many, many others.

And then a few years ago, he passed away a few years ago, and was genuinely mourned by his fellow carousers.

The End

For a fuller picture, you might want to check out the documentary “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?”  Definitely worthwhile.

But what were the Beatles so excited about? Mainly his first couple of albums.

Well, if it’s good enough for the Beatles it’s good enough for me.

Harry Nilsson.jpg

These two CDs represent Harry’s first two real albums recorded during 1967 and 1968. The first disc contains those two albums. The second disc is comprised of his attempt to make a single record out of those two records, and partly failing, but with some spectacular results, plus some bonus cuts. Got that?

Nilsson is an extremely talented singer and songwriter who sometimes dabbles in genres I’m not all that crazy about. Which results is records that are very good but that could have been (my definition of) great.

First, there was Pandemonium Shadow Show, which looks like this:

This is clever, intricate pop music. “1941”, written by Harry, is brilliant, beautiful and heartbreaking. The rest of the record is very entertaining all the way through, so it takes a while to realize that while the covers are good but unnecessary. “She’s Leaving Home” is perfect but wouldn’t replace the Beatles’ version.  Same for “River Deep, Mountain High”.

Was this just the record company’s way of marketing him?  Maybe they thought including those titles would draw some people in. Kind of like what they did with a lot of singers from the pre rock era. And they were striving to showcase a singer at least as much as they were a songwriter.

And Harry could do both in spades. He could write and sing Sinatra type ballads, music hall ditties, cabaret ballads. All very skillfully done, but not my cup of tea.

It’s hard to find fault with this record, and it’s certainly pleasant enough as it goes by, but I want more Harry! B+

So then came Aerial Ballet:

And we get him! Almost all Harry compositions. Some, like “Daddy’s Song” and “Good Old Desk”, that begin the record are almost as great as “1941”. And the others that end it, like “I Said Goodbye to Me” (which I thought was about a breakup, but may be about suicide) is. It’s also got “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Harry’s version of “One” (the big hit for Three Dog Night), and “Bath”, which are fantastic.

An almost classic. A-

A couple of years later, after he wins a grammy for “Everybody’s Talkin”, he goes back into the studio and tries to combine these two records into one, which resulted in:

Aerial Pandemonium Ballet:

And he almost gets it right.

The results - the best of both records and all Harry with the exception of Everybody’s Talkin could have been a truly great album,

But again, because he’s as much a singer as he is a songwriter, he includes “River Deep, Mountain High” when he could have included a couple of other of his own songs.

I would have done a better job compiling it, and it would have gotten an A or even an A+.

But Harry only gets a A-.

But unlike the John Cale set I got last year - another 2 CD set comprised of three albums - I could easily let this one play all the way through, repetitions and all,  without stopping. It’s that good. My caveats are more on principle than on sound.  

And the bonus cuts are excellent.

So, overall this set gets a strong  A-

But that’s Harry for you. He was nothing if not a bit frustrating.

Whimsy, melody and not a small bit of pain. a very impressive set of music, and it serves to remind us that Harry was doing great work long before Nilsson Schmilsson.

Right, yet again, Beatles!

Friday, November 28, 2014

That Is the Question!

We do these things sometimes. We rebuy “lost” records because they bring back a specific time.

CD or Not CD:

This used to be a big question - which of your vinyl records would you replace with the better sounding CD?

There was a lot to consider:
  1. Do you still have it? Some records disappear mysteriously… You know who you are.
  2. If you’ve still got it, what shape is it in?  Did you accidentally step on it when you dropped it on the filthy floor (Beggar’s Banquet), or did that penny you put on the Victrola’s tone arm dig a new groove, thus creating your own unique version of the album (Revolver), and you’d maybe like to hear it the way it was recorded?
  3. Would the CD version make a marked difference in sound quality? I tried to convince myself of this but I can’t think of a single example where this turned out to be true.
  4. Oh, and how good is the record? I”ll admit this matters.
  5. Does it have anything left for you? Ah, the most elusive question of all! The question of the record’s half-life, which I covered in my 8 track posts link.

It's kind of funny to see all the young folk considering these same questions except that they’re going in reverse - from CD to vinyl.

Friend Mike Strikes Again:

So anyway, Friend Mike got this record back when we were roommates. When he moved away he left his records with me. I eventually gave them back. This in marked contrast to me when I moved out of my parent’s house. I sure as hell took all of my records - plus the stereo! - leaving my Brother Pat hanging.

The contents of Friend Mike’s Record Collection are somewhat blurry now. Which is a shame since there were many shared experiences in there.

But this one I remember well.

It was 1981, and Friend Mike and I were were sharing an apartment, and sufficiently pulverized by Television to risk getting the dreaded post-breakup-solo-album-by-the-former-front-man. (See Little Feat and Lowell George for an egregious example.)

So Mike picked it up, and it immediately made it onto our 3am Philosophical Discussion After Bar Hopping playlist. 

But before you knew it Mike upped and left for Germany. And Italy. And Japan. And Egypt. And f*cking Mars for all I know.

And me? Oh, I did my share of traveling. From Southwest Brooklyn to slightly more easterly Southwest Brooklyn to even more slightly eastward Southwest Brooklyn. Yeah, ladies, I was a real ramblin’ man!

TV or Not TV?:
Tom Verlaine.jpg

This is Tom Verlaine's first solo record after the breakup of Television.

And it would be ludicrous to say it compares to either of Televisions’s two studio releases. That's okay. Good TV (Tom Verlaine) doesn’t quite compare to Good TV (Television, the musical group) it beats the hell out of Good TV (the household appliance).

Tom was one of the great guitar players of the rock era. And it’s important that he come on strong instrumentally since his voice is kind of gnarly. He sounds like he’s being strangled under normal circumstances. When he strains, well…

Luckily for us, he delivers with the guitar. And his lyrics are always worthwhile. Thus each song has something to offer, whether it be imaginative playing, ideas, or general atmosphere. Sometimes all three.

So while it’s nothing monumental, it does bear the simple message that Tom was alive and kicking, though maybe not quite as hard as before. Point taken. Plus, he’d go on to make better records. Like the more in your face Dreamtime.

And although it's 2014, I'm happy to report that after a few listens everything kicks back into place, and I'm right back in 1981, feeling that Tom (and Friend Mike for that matter) was entering into his next phase, which Dreamtime would confirm in spades.  B+

Friday, November 14, 2014

Arcade Glow

Me and Arcade Fire go way back.

I found their first record, Funeral, Life Changing.  

Neon Bible aims for life changing, but that rarely works, and doesn’t here. But even after the initial disappointment of it, I have to admit it’s still a very strong record.

The Suburbs was calm, satisfying and reassuring in that they could come up with sixteen excellent - as opposed to NB’s ten hit or miss - songs.

But, as you might notice, there’s the "artist half-life” working here. This is when an artist first blows you away, but over the course of time, grows less inspired.  Their original, er, fire, wanes to a glow. Warm but not brilliant.

That Arcade Fire's best work may be behind them is no sin. It happens to the best of them/us.

But like any other self respecting, and formerly Life Changing band, they try something new.

Arcade Fire Reflektor.jpg

AF does it by shifting to a more dance oriented sound, using James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem to help produce.

They risk pissing off their fans, but it’s a smart move to shake off all that alt rock adulation. Besides, no one’s expecting a masterpiece at this point.

This new sound was introduced on a TV special after their appearance on SNL. Unlike the rest of the universe, I really enjoyed it.

Now that I have the record, how does it sound after being a little more lived in? After all, whatever move you’re trying to make, you better bring along the goods, like good songs. So do they?


It’s a two CD set. Think of it as their Sandanista, though less compelling, urgent or even earnest. But that’s okay. Earnestness gets annoying after a while.

While Sandanista ran over two hours, Reflektor only goes for a little over 80 minutes, which makes me smell a rat. After all, there are only thirteen songs which, if judiciously edited, could have easily fit onto one CD.

I can hear the objections already:

AF: But that would ruin the concept!  
Me: Whatever that is. If I were more interested I’d read the lyrics to find out.

AF: But we made them longer so that people could dance to them!
Me: I’ll never know.

And yet, I can listen to all of it all the way through, and it doesn’t drag at all. 

Could I live without it? Sure. So it falls into that sad category known as Good But Unnecessary. Is the world a better place with it here? A wee bit.

But I imagine there are many other better - and just as daring - albums out there. So it’s time for me to find my new Arcade Fire. B+

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Songs About Puppies!

The Beauty Myth

I’m very suspicious of beauty. When it’s right there on the surface I immediately suspect it’s only on the surface, and my BS detector goes on high alert.

I also despise music that tries to make me feel like I’m supposed to like it. You know the type I mean. The ones with a big orchestras, like “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic” (which I don’t actually hate, but you get the idea). It’s like they’re telling me to buy the record so they can cover the cost of  orchestra’s tuxedo rentals.

Another one of my musical pet peeves involves singers who brag about how much they love someone (Then why are you hear singing to me, I think?).

Any song with puppies should be treated with utmost suspicion.

And then there are those artists who sing about virtue and spirituality after having clawed their way to the top. Yeah you, Madonna. But to be fair, I liked Ray of Light.

Okay, I’m not even convincing myself here. But I’d like to think I’m predisposed to dislike anything “solemn”.

But once I’m convinced the beauty goes deeper, then I’m beauty’s little bitch. And I end up liking even the most shamefully manipulative songs. The bridge from "Lost in Love" by Air Supply is one of the more embarrassing examples of this. Just ten seconds, but I'll forever live in shame.

And this will come to explain a big chunk of what will eventually end up on my Top One Or Two Hundred Whatevers.  

Beck: Suspected Singer of Puppies

Which brings me to Beck. Not Jeff Beck you old geezer you! Beck Hansen. C’mon! You know who I mean!

He started out as one of the coolest people on earth and then slowly (d)evolved into a boring person, just like the rest of us.

The first Beck was the guy who threw everything AND the kitchen sink onto a record. He sampled, he rapped, he even played guitar. He was good at it, and I was good with it. I came to love his first record, Mellow Gold
even though the first time I heard it I though the neighbors from hell had just moved in next door.

Unlike the rest of the world, I didn’t love the even noisier “classic”, Odelay. It was a case of lots of sounds, but none of them sounding great. I’m right, and the world is wrong, of course.

But he got me good with the weird left turn of Mutations. The music was laid back, bluesy and otherworldly. I’d say it was out of character for him, but I wasn’t sure he had any. And it was barely out before he was calling it an anomaly, signaling a quick reversal back to where he was before, wherever that was.

He was clearly a hit or miss kind of guy, and anyway there were plenty of other artists worth checking out, so I figured we were done. I skipped Midnite Vultures.  

But then came Sea Change, which I only caught up with a year or two back, where the young smart aleck was now thirty and heart-broken. The music is spare, sometimes enervated, hinting at substance abuse as a means of dealing with the pain.

And everybody - well the old folks with the money anyway - loved it, and he started getting played on Americana stations. But then he was gone yet again, and so was I.

It must have been tempting to replicate the success of Sea Change. So it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise when he announced that he was making a companion record for it. Plus, he was getting older, and after all the genre experiments and noise, didn’t he deserve to make a killing?

Or, to be less cynical about it, maybe he’s just older and wiser, and sees the value in just going for beauty.

On a purely practical level, it sounded promising. But after four CDs I wasn’t sure I’d bite.

Beck Morning Phase.jpg

Well, my son did it for me, giving it to me for Father’s Day. And I’m glad he did.

Not gritty, not overwhelmingly sad, and with less pain, less need for numbing it. In other words, real  pretty.

So what’s wrong with that? Not a whole lot.

But gone is the razor sharp wit. (No lines like “She’s got tofu the size of Texas”)

And when he dispenses with all the noise, you notice he’s got a surprisingly narrow bag of tricks.

And dissonant strings are getting a bit tired. Thankfully he limits them to the short theme cuts. “Wave” does get a little out of hand, though.

And you can’t help but notice that the first song begins exactly the same way as the first one on Sea Change, so you prepare for the worst.

But it doesn’t come. It’s almost as if he’s telling you that although he could be starting from the same point as Sea Change, this time he wants to go in a different direction.

And I have to admit, he’s good at deploying those limited tricks - a banjo, pedal steel, piano and especially those echoey Buffalo Springfield guitar chords - where they’re needed..

Hard core Beck fans who didn’t care for Sea Change, won’t like this even more conservative work. Beck should be re-inventing music, they say. Well, maybe he should, but I’ll take what I can get.

So I won’t judge this record on what Beck is “supposed” to be doing. If I did, Morning Phase comes up way short in that it's nothing new under the sun other than Beck being happy.

If I simply judge it on it's own merits, I have to conclude it's a beautiful record from an unexpected source. Although with Beck I should know by now to expect the unexpected.

Does it really matter that he used to be an innovative twenty-year old? Why can’t he just make a pretty record? It is what it is. Like Nashville Skyline.

So let the young folk scoff. They probably have the time to hunt down more adventurous music than this, but I don’t.
On a weird side note, it wasn’t a great summer fun-wise, but I had all these beautiful songs to go with my malaise. The effect was not unlike the deep bittersweet painful days of Push Barman to Open Old Wounds.
Thanks a lot Beck!  

But, seriously, thank you. A-

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Music Nazi Lightens Up a Bit

Heil Jaybee!:

One of the most depressing things I ever witnessed took place some time in the nineties when a group of acquaintances - just a couple of years older than me - who were in the same bar as me, began singing along to a bunch of oldies.

“Oldies” being defined as pop music produced after our parent’s era but before the Beatles.

I always prided myself on looking ahead - keeping up with things, even if I was always a year or two behind. It sure beat being out of touch. The cost of which was to miss out on all of the brilliant music that was and is being made.

I’ll admit this meant I didn’t get to sing along much in bars, but at least I wasn’t being nostalgic, which I considered a mortal sin.

So anyway back to the bar. I was not yet forty and it’s possible they weren’t either. But here they were Declaring They Were Old. I found it pathetic.

They were giving up.

My Back Pages:

But I always did have a problematic relationship with pre-Beatles rock music. Frankly, I found it idiotic. It was too tame and the lyrics were stupid. And except in rare cases, it didn’t even have an electric guitar - a mortal sin in my book.

Having been born in 1957, I didn’t really notice music until 1963, when all the girls in my first grade class went crazy for the Beatles. I’d soon go crazy for them, too, and for all the other wonderful music of that era.

Of course, we had to deal with our parents telling us how lousy the music was. My reaction was to become protective of it, and if anything, criticize their music just as aggressively. Who could like music that was liked by older people? Those people only appeared in black and white movies and were dressed up all the time! How horrible!

I’d also try to justify rock music in the terms that mattered to adults. I was forever playing songs for my mom that I thought she’d like, just to prove that my music was just as good as hers. It rarely worked. The drums or the vocal would always get in the way.

So Much Older Then:

And it would only get worse as I hit my teens. I took myself and my music very seriously. Musicianship became more important than simple enjoyment. The more pretentious the music, the better.

So I saw the idea of liking oldies as a kind of betrayal. People only slightly older than me were abandoning “our” music and saying that what came before it was better. Wasn’t that what our parents were saying?

And for what? Doo wop and vocal groups, which didn’t feature an electric guitar? Stupid lyrics like womp bomp a lua (instead of poetry like doo wah diddy)? Simple music (unlike, oh, John Prine and Neil Young)?  Poor sound quality (unlike punk rock)? I was into Emerson, Lake and Palmer, while a friend became obsessed with the Beach Boys. Imagine!

My attitude was Stand Your Ground. Our Music Was the Greatest Music of All Time. I knew this even though I wasn’t around for 99% of the “All Time” I was referring to. I Just Knew! I mean, how could anything be better than the Beatles? It just wasn’t possible, and I resented anyone who would suggest otherwise. Still do, to be honest.

What I was missing - being a too self-conscious teen ager - was that the appeal of rock music was to embrace simplicity and enjoy the sheer sound of it. So what if adults didn’t like it? That was part of the fun! It was okay to like something that was loud, messy and silly. And you didn’t owe anyone an explanation for it.

I’d eventually relent somewhat and come to like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry (notice the electric guitars) Elvis and the Everly Brothers, but I never quite shook the idea that this was music I would never fully embrace.
My music was here, and oldies were just a little bit over there.

So, on a list of genre's Jaybee likes - in descending order - you'd likely find vocal groups somewhere below Indian raga music and 17th century madrigals. (Mrs. Jaybee still had to drag me to see “Jersey Boys” this summer) So you can imaging where fifties girl groups show up.

Younger Than That Now:

But with my favorite music no longer threatened from all sides by parental disapproval and everyone's mysterious obsession - to this day - with not-so-good music, I no longer require an electric guitar as the price of admission.

And like Record Store Day before it, Amazon’s $5 mp3 sales can get me to overcome all manner of prejudices.

Plus, it can’t be nostalgia if you weren’t there in the first place, right?


The Chantels are a group of five young women who, despite the picture on the cover, very likely didn't play any instruments. But what they did do was provide the template for all girl groups (until the Runaways) to follow.

And despite it featuring most of the things I couldn't stand about the genre (mannered vocals, songs that all sound exactly alike etc.) this is really not bad.

Most of the songs are about how sorry the singer is for breaking her boyfriends heart, which, sadly, is more entertaining than listening to the heart-breakee's side of the story. But I think she's sincere.

That sincerity carries me through most of this collection. There is a simple sweetness to this music that I would have despised in my teens. Sweetness means so much more to me now.

And I no longer fear that it’s lobotomizing me. I’m lightening up. But I’ve still got a long way to go.

I don't see myself playing this a lot but when it's on, it does put a smile on my face. And that’s all I ask these days. B+