Tuesday, December 27, 2011
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS - THE RETURN OF THE SPECTACULAR SPINNING SONGBOOK!!!
I got this jones for a handful of artists, but none more so than Costello. Ever since I discovered in 1979 that he routinely released 45's with non-LP b-sides, I was off to the races, grabbing all those pricey British imports. Even when he turned around a couple of years later and put them all on an easy-to-buy album called Taking Liberties, thereby rendering my investment near-useless, I was still happy, as the album had a couple more new-to-me tracks. This has not diminished a bit since, and I've grabbed every reissue, deluxe version, DVD and stray 45 (he's still making them!). I don't think anyone has been reissued more, with ever-expanding numbers of bonus cuts. Take his debut, My Aim Is True. There was the original Columbia album. Then it appeared on CD. Costello got the rights back, and teamed with Rykodisc, adding several bonus cuts. Those rights ran out, and it went to Warner/Rhino, who turned it into a double with many more demos and such. Then the rights went to Universal, who at first sent it out in its original, no bonus cuts version. Then they stuck it out as a Deluxe, squeezing the demos and such onto disc one, and adding a complete period live concert as the second disc. It goes without saying I have owned all these. At least I didn't buy it on cassette. However, I recently bought the CD soundtrack to the TV show House, to get him singing a cover of Christina Aguilera's Beautiful. On eBay. Cost me $20. It's not very impressive, don't do it.
I guess you won't be surprised that I have succumbed to the ultimate temptation offered by the Costello machine. The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!! is a deluxe boxed set, limited to just 1500 copies world-wide. It features music from his tour this spring with The Imposters, recorded at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. There's one CD of music, and one DVD, with about two-thirds of the CD cuts the same as the DVD. Then there's a four-track vinyl addition, a bonus of four more cuts. Add it all up, you probably have most of the show, about two-hours of music. And the price for this honor? $249 if you order it from amazon.ca right now. Gack.
These deluxe boxes are becoming the norm for the pricey collector market. Pink Floyd did multiple disc versions for the reissues of Wish You Were Here and Dark Side Of The Moon, with The Wall coming out shortly. The Rolling Stones have a few of them, the most recent being the Some Girls box. The Who did Live At Leeds and Quadrophenia, and The Beach Boys have one for SMiLE. These all feature more discs than the regular versions, five or six usually, or perhaps 180 gram vinyl versions, and a nice big box with a nice big book in it. And the usual price is around $120. So what justifies the doubling of that grand price for Costello? Well, we get an autograph. At least, I think it's his autograph. It would take a highly-skilled forensic examiner, maybe that guy on Pawn Stars, to judge if it even says Elvis, such is the hand-writing. Yes, there is a very good hard-cover book, and there's a replica of the spinning wheel that was featured on the tour, which audience members spun on stage to select a song, The Price Is Right-method. Still, this packaging isn't that costly, it isn't gold inlay, so what we're really paying for is the exclusivity, the elite membership in the club, the collectible value. But of course, what's really happening here is that us life-long collectors just can't bare to have something out there we don't own. It should have also come with a t-shirt that said SUCKER.
Oddly enough, the person to blow the whistle on the whole scam was Costello himself. Shortly before its release, Costello put a message on his website advising people NOT to buy his new record. Even he found the price ridiculous, and claimed to not know the record label was going to charge that much. He advised people to who had that kind of money to instead invest in a recent, wonderful Louis Armstrong box, with hours more music, which Costello said was better anyway. Now, cynics have weighed in, saying he must have known the price being charged, these details are carefully negotiated, and he did sign each one (I hope). But it's possible he didn't, or his management didn't tell him, or they didn't ask, or something. His father was very sick of late, and recently passed away, so it could have been the last thing on his mind.
The kicker though, also came from Elvis's own pen, when he informed us that the individual parts of this set would soon be available separately to purchase, at a regular price. Double gack. So all this stuff I could have had for, like $40 bucks tops. And all I'm going to get is a book, a box, and a scrawl for my extra two hundred? Now I really want that SUCKER t-shirt. Because there it is, also on amazon.ca, coming in February, the cheap version of the disc.
Of course I should have seen this coming. It's just the sheer nerve involved in sticking this version out in advance of the other, and no full disclosure of the plans. All the other super-deluxe boxes come out at the same time, and there's no subterfuge involved. I know, buyer beware, and all that, and I'm getting awfully close to sour grapes rather than review here. But I did believe, at the time of purchase, that this would be unique, highly collectible, and aside from bootlegs or file-sharing, the only source for this. Since it is not, it is my opinion it is way over-priced. By at least a hundred bucks. I'm sure it took Elvis a couple of days to do all the autographs, but even he says it's a rip-off. With a couple of books out myself, and hard-bound, high-quality paper, with tons of pricey photos, I know a bit about packaging, and still, there's a ton of profit on this. $249 x 1500 equals $373,500 gross flying around, and somebody at Concord/Universal is smiling .
Jeez music company suits, don't pick on your last customers. We're the ones not downloading, and paying cash for everything, remember? The last of a dying breed. It's probably not a smart idea to alienate us.
Oh right, the music. The show. It's a lot of fun, there's this wheel, and real audience members, and it's one of the best-shot concert videos I've seen, and there's a go-go girl dancing in a cage, and Costello is acting this funny character, and The Bangles guest and go-go dance too, and Peace, Love and Understand and Alison, and lots of other old favourites and some recent good ones and even a brand-new song, plus an old one he'd never done live on stage before. But you know what? I think I'll wait to review it probably when the reasonably-priced versions come out, because with this special, limited-edition, ultra-hip, only the cool kids have it version, it's really not the same experience if you're not staring at his signature while you're enjoying the music.
There's one born every minute, and today, that's me.
Monday, December 19, 2011
This time though, there's more subtle moments, and in fact more mainstream touches. Check out Sister, a funky, soulful number, but with surprising ELO touches, a synth line, an organ fill, that kind of thing. The 70's have never been more obvious in the Keys' sound. Even the one time they stop that incredible pounding drum and fuzzy guitar, the acoustic guitar track Little Black Submarines sounds like something you'd find on a Traffic album. But then it includes my favourite moment on the disc, when the acoustic track gives way to the loudest moment on the record, the second half of the song a scorching number with an old-school electric solo. Again, that's such a 70's trick, and I keep thinking of all the groups I'm reminded of. But spot-the-reference is only fun once or twice. What really matters is that the stuff is all good, right through.
I can tell this album is damn good, because it zips by. The first two times it played, I looked up in shock at the silence coming from the speakers, in what seemed to me to have been about 15 minutes, no more. I think it's because of really clever pacing, and the uniformity of the song lengths. Or maybe I'm overthinking. Maybe, it's like the last words you hear sung on the disc: "Don't let it be over". That's how I felt.
Friday, December 16, 2011
It's always worrisome when producers take raw materials, in this case vocals, build the tracks posthumously. But since that's pretty much what her producers did anyway, you can't argue that they are over their bounds. Winehouse sang, they added. In fact, she had never met many of the musicians and voices on Frank until after the disc came out, such was the way Mark Ronson put it together. So, away they went.
While not being a regular, cohesive disc, these are worthy cuts all. Of course, it's her voice. Like Aretha in her heyday, Winehouse had the ability to make everything ring, seemingly effortlessly. She was a true singer, using her voice as an instrument, delivering both a tremendous performance and defining the mood. When you find out that many of these tracks were the alternates, the discards in the pile, left aside for other arrangements, its hard to figure out why. Highlights include a dramatic and very different arrangement of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? that makes a mockery of the original, the new Between The Cheats, which surely would have been a highlight of a third disc, and Half Time, dropped from the Frank album, but clearly no lesser number. This is the rare disc to come out after an early death that enhances an artist's legacy.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
She can rock out, ya. She can haunt you. That's the first three songs. About a minute into number four, a bouncy banjo one called The Cove, after you've already figured out she a top singer, she opens her range up and starts hitting high notes and you realized she's got more tricks up her sleeve. Then, the song toughens up and it sinks in that this is a number about those hunters that lure and kill the dolphins each year in Japan, the ones caught on video a couple of years back, and the protest against them. This is strong stuff.
Next comes something extra-special, and like nothing I've heard before. It's a fairy tale, a child's story with a moral, and so well done it will touch the most cynical of us all. John And The Monster has to be heard to be fully appreciated, with the spoken-word start, the switch into a song, the tender and touching delivery, the ingenuity of the story. A monster who can cure cancer? The boy who finds him, but chooses to save him from being locked up instead of saving his own life? Five minutes folks, I marvel at her ability to write and then polish that story into brief perfection. I hope she's ready to turn it into a kids book immediately.
Another brilliant bit of story-telling comes in the tale of Cannonball Sam, the smartest sailor ever forced to walk the plank. Next up is Snap Crack, a mystery-hipster-blues that Tom Waits could sing. I could go on about each song, but I've run out of superlatives.
Normally when I see parental involvement, especially in major jobs such as production and co-writing, my instincts tell me there's trouble afoot. However, not only is it clear Gillis comes fully deserving and talented to be an artist, she also had the perfect person to work with in-house. Her father David is a champion fingerstyle guitar player, an award-winning songwriter, and obviously an able producer. Plus, he's connected and smart to surround her with top-notch players, including Bill Dillon, Gary Craig and Kevin Fox. I guess you could say she has an unfair advantage over all the other 21-year olds. But this ain't Canadian Idol, this is the real deal, this is art.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
The songs go back to the earlier sound of the group, a little more folky, a little less calculated. I wasn't a big fan of The King Is Dead, except for a couple of cuts, as I did find it too polished and forced. These tracks feel like the band is more relaxed and therefore more true to what they do best. It's energized and modernized folk, songs that feel almost traditional, but clearly crafted and happily played by youngsters. The "demo", I 4 U & U 4 Me, is the sound of a great performing group recording off the floor, and the lack of polish and pretense is a sound I'd much prefer they chase. Burying Davy is a takes them way back, a real British countryside number, circa 1750. I don't know if I've ever heard a band better suited to covering the Dead either, settling perfectly into the staggering beat and almost off-kilter plucking and tinkling. Plus, Jenny Conlee sounds beautiful behind Colin Meloy's countrified lead.
These tracks were leaked on-line in that weird official way that bands and companies do now to attract attention and buzz, figuring the publicity is better than the lost sales. By the look of the 'net, it worked because fans and downloaders are crowing about some or all of them, especially lead track E. Watson, a major composition for the group. I just hope there's enough buzz to keep them leaning in this more relaxed direction.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Here's what that was like. The Rolling Stones were back after a few lackluster mid-70's years, fueled by that old motivator, one of them getting busted (Keith, Toronto, Heroin). Created amidst that serious situation, and other external threats to the band (the rise of punk and disco), the Stones pushed back by incorporating shades of those new music styles, and simply being edgier than either. While it may be the last time that happened, that doesn't diminish what a fine album Some Girls was.
And now we see, what a fine tour it was too, as the band cockily laid out a full seven of its ten cuts, in order, in concert. This new DVD and Blu-Ray features a previously-unissued show from 1978, deep in the heart of Texas. It's a rejuvenated band for sure, featuring new Keith foil, Ron Wood, now fully integrated, and only former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagen swelling the ranks (oh, plus stalwart Ian Stewart too, whenever he felt like plunking piano). That's opposed to the last few tours, when actual official Stones are outnumbered by support players. So kids, this is why some of us still snort about mega-concerts at Magnetic Hill and such, there's a DIFFERENCE.
"Go ahead," spits Jagger. "Bite the Big Apple. Don't mind the maggots." He's singing about NYC, deep in decay those days, and if there's one thing Jagger could document, it was late 20th century turbulence. You could tell Keith knew he was onto something, singing about the Twin Towers of depravity and depression that marked the city. While Miss You may have felt a little disco, it was the darkness in those dance clubs he was really tapping into. Anyway, watching Richards and Wood battling and riffing on stage, skinny and half-conscious, it just all seems so real, perfect, well done.
With the Some Girls songs the centerpiece, the group seems to almost rush through the opening four songs, desperate to get to the new stuff they knew to be so excellent. Let It Rock is hurried and sloppy Chuck Berry, Jagger even forgetting the words, a throw-back to the 60's when opening numbers were often tossed off in order for the sound crew to get levels and the guitar players to get comfortable. All Down The Line is pretty much the same thing. Finally Honky Tonk Women reminds us this is the Greatest Band In The World, and Star Fucker reminds us they are the rudest, thank you Sex Pistols. Then it's showtime, with When The Whip Comes Down leading off the new album set.
After that, we're back in familiar Stones territory, but at a rare peak. It's the best Love In Vain I've seen, Jagger morphing into James Brown. Tumbling Dice kills, Jagger back dancing and preaching. God he's great tonight. He's in total command now, jumping, pointing, teasing the audience, the front rows right at the edge of the stage, with no security perimeter in those days. No giant inflatable penises, no props at all. The comic relief comes from Mick slapping Ronnie on the bum during guitar solos. Happy, Brown Sugar, Jumpin' Jack Flash. They call them dinosaur bands now, The Stones and The Who. But there was a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and they were scary, dangerous, bad-ass motherfuckers, the best there ever was.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
What a joy it is to see such early footage, way back to 1975, pre-first album, and while the band was still a three-piece, Jerry Harrison not on board yet. And of all places, it's CBGB's, where the band were one of the stalwarts along with The Ramones, Blondie, etc. There are embryonic versions of With Our Love and I'm Not In Love, and then, bam, there it is, a 1975, CBGB's 3-piece, different lyrics, Psycho Killer. It's the New Wave version of finding film of The Beatles with Pete Best at the Star Club. Then hop ahead a year, and here's this very shy, bizarre guy, Byrne, unable to simply introduce a song, any song, without messing it up. To show us how incapable he was, there's a montage of just introductions captured at The Kitchen in NYC, and you have to wonder how this guy ever became an MTV star.
Yet, he did. Watch Byrne and the band blossom, as they see their anti-rock star system bizarrely make them, well, rock stars. Marvel at them on American Bandstand, doing Take Me To The River, a minor hit, and being interviewed by Dick Clark. While they might have seem as cool as ice, the commentary track reveals how thrilled they were to be there, amazed that it wasn't just the artsy New York scene for them anymore. By the time they were debuting bona fide hits such as Burning Down The House on the new, hip Late Night With David Letterman show, it was a night-and-day difference in confidence.
It was a different band, too. They expanded in the latter half of the group's run, adding extra guitar, keys, percussion, vocalists, expanding to 11 members on some shows. Again, we are watching them grow up, quite literally grow bigger, a night-and-day difference from the three-piece in less than a decade. And then.. it died, and quite quickly. After the muddle of True Stories (a totally unmemorable album and film), Byrne pulled the plug, and it's been.... testy. That's why it's great to see the performance of Life During Wartime from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions in 2002, see how much fun they are having, and getting that confirmed by Tina Weymouth on the commentary track. Plus, even though he doesn't deign to sit with the other three for such a recording, at least they have nothing but positive, and even loving things to say about each other. Or rather, the people they see on the screen from those halcyon days. It's an excellent DVD, a fun-filled two hours, and damn, you know, here's one band I wish could get back together, it would be a heck of a lot more appealing than The Police.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Some Girls stands alone in the Stones cannon, with no other work sounding like it, and no disc connecting so thematically. Jagger was in charge, Richards was still struggling with the Toronto bust and his junkie life, Ron Wood was brand-new, and everybody had something to prove. Jagger came armed with a group of songs reflecting the mid-70's mess that was New York City, as down and dirty as the place would ever get, barely holding off economic collapse and moral chaos. Able to understand both the dance club hedonism of disco and Studio 54, and the polar opposite of punk (weren't the early Stones prototypes?), the band gave it back to both styles. Miss You is a funky joy, while the triple-guitar threat of Lies, Shattered, and Respectable showed the Stones were totally contemporary.
I don't think I'm overstating the quality of the bonus cuts here. Each one has some obvious quality that could have been explored into a finished track for the album. I don't mean they are demos; these are finished or nearly-finished cuts, missing a better mix or a solo or a lyric, something to take them up that final notch. Sugar Blue, the harmonica star of Miss You even shows up on two cuts, indicating they were strong contenders. One is an unheard Keith number, a cover of a Waylon Jennings number, We Had It All, which in the end didn't fit with the parody-country of Far Away Eyes. Country was obviously in the air during the sessions, with Mick singing Hank Williams' You Win Again here too. What's missing from all these cuts is the gritty, claustrophobic feel of the album proper.
One of the criticisms of the bonus cuts on Exile On Main Street was the significant overdubbing and producing done by Don Was, to get the bare tracks up to release-level. Here, there are reportedly lots of new additions, including new vocals, guitar parts, etc., but Was and Jagger (for the most part) have done a much better job matching the new parts with the old. I'd still like to hear the unadorned numbers, to make my own decision, but hey, the artist should be the one to control these things while living. Well recommended.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Jones gives a bit of everything, from classics to blues to gospel to Gershwin, some originals and of course, some Oscar. The more I hear Jones, the more I wonder if he'd lived in another city, would his star have shined brighter, without Peterson ahead of him. Hearing his confident, rapid work, with total comfort on the keys, no sloppiness, all action all the time, I marvel at the skill and dexterity. Yet there's not an ounce of vanity here. He's in love with the music, and realizes the audience wants to hear such accomplishments as much as he wants to play them.
This is positive, bright, joyful material, with Jones' runs up the higher octaves dominating much of the show. That delightful tinkling might be too showbiz for post-bop and beyond, but to me its ear candy. I actually can't think of a better-sounding piano recording right now, at least one with the highs so rich and ringing. Oh to be a barfly in Baden..
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Not that the signs weren't there; "The Fly" introduced some sort of Bono character, and "Zoo Station" pointed to the tour concept, but they were still good songs for the most part, and rocked. Yes, they were trying hard to be big, but they were grand gestures, and not empty. Even the Singer still seemed connected to his audience then, able to admit he might be "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World". This is one of the last great albums, in the old, L.P. sense, before downloads and single cuts took over. Each song packs a punch, usually both musically and literally, and stands distinct. It may be because of the unique situation of the recording. The usual Lanois-Eno team wasn't really working in partnership; rather they were changing roles, and including the talents of Flood and Steve Lillywhite as well, depending on the cut. For instance, on "Zoo Station", it's Lanois produced, Flood mixing and engineering, no sign of the others. On "Even Better..", it's Lillywhite producing with Lanois and Eno, and on it goes for each cut, some combination of the bunch.
This is the 20th Anniversary edition, and is the norm now, you have a choice of how much extra material you want, and how much cash to drop. The Deluxe 2 CD Edition is just fine for me, especially since the bonus disc is so strong as well. Comprised mostly of b-sides, it is a great mix of outtakes, inspired covers and interesting remixes. The excellent version of Lou Reed's "Satellite Of Love", which became a tour highlight, is found here, as is a cool take on the Stones' "Paint It Black". The remixes of "Mysterious Ways" and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" are those rare beasts that add something to the tune rather than just mess with it. The Super Deluxe set has 10 discs, including 4 DVD's, and costs $118 minimum. Get this, the Uber Deluxe Box will run you $435, and seems to be mostly a limited-edition thing with magnetic parts and a pair of Bono's Fly sunglasses, I kid you not. Look, I'm one of the rare music writers who still likes U2, but if you find yourself tempted by either of these monstrosities, we have got to get you outside more.
Monday, December 5, 2011
The single, My Bonnie, was what caught Brian Epstein's attention, why he checked them out at the Cavern Club, and became the manager. Kaempfert, with not much happening, let his contract with the band lapse. Then things started happening, and you know the rest. Meanwhile, these few Sheridan/Beat Brothers tracks ended up getting grabbed up and sent out all over the world, and even became hits, thanks to clever packaging and unsure purchasers. They thought they'd get John or Paul singing, and they couldn't recall a Tony in the group.
There actually was one cut with a Lennon lead vocal, Ain't She Sweet, and another instrumental, Cry For A Shadow, that he wrote with George. But the rest were Sheridan, and not great. Still, those eight cuts that were found from the sessions have been press and repackaged many times, and still don't get any better. That is, until they got put in this silk purse.
It's the 50th anniversary of the real recording debut of The Beatles. In honour of that, the tapes have been obtained by Time-Life music, who do excellent historic releases, such as recent boxed sets from Hank Williams. The value of this package is in the excellent liner notes, and wonderful photos and memorbilia pictured. It's like a museum display, and despite reading about these recordings many times, I learned quite a bit from historian Colin Escott's notes, and saw photos I've never seen before from Hamburg. This is a fascinating story, and to have it presented so well is a real joy.
Oh, there's the music. Those eight cuts have several variations to them, including mono and stereo versions, different mixes used in Europe and the U.S., one re-recorded Sheridan vocal, added after The Beatles got hot, introductions in English, introductions in German. With all that, eight songs become 34 different cuts, spread over two CD's. It gets ponderous by the end of disc one, and the mono versions, and then you have to do it all over again in stereo. Or, don't. Just play the eight cuts once. You'll notice the instrumental, Cry For A Shadow, is pretty darn good really. The rest? We don't need to hear anybody singing When the Saints Go Marching In as a rock n' roll song. Just read the booklet.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
How I missed out on Mary Simon before is beyond me, except to say that's the way it goes when you're being pulled 15 different ways, to check out various groups and acts. She's released five CD's in her career, and showcased at the Awards in 2010, which I somehow didn't see. I actually didn't see her perform this time either, instead only getting her helping out on mandolin and vocals for her friend Michelle Titian's set (more on Michelle at a later date). But she did slip me her most recent disc, and whenever her name came up, people I respect said, "you know she's an excellent singer-songwriter, right?".
I do now. No More Maybes grabbed me immediately, one of those rare listens where you keep waiting for something that you might not love as much as the last song, but not being disappointed, except when it ends. A roots songwriter, Simon has that ability to surprise you, and even scare you a little bit with how emotionally direct her lyrics are. In "Blue Eyes", it's a stare-down across the cafe, where she catches somebody checking her out; "I have a weakness for your blue eyes". There's no B.S. with this stuff, and since she's opening up her heart, she also gets to ask tough questions: "If I asked you what you stood for, would the answer be waiting on your lips?", she asks a potential candidate, trying to gauge his morals as much as his charm.
All this comes packaged in twang-and-tough roots rock, think Lucinda without the twang, although she can also breeze into a little more melodic fare as well. She has a deceptive voice, intimate and tuneful, but when she wants she belts a kick-ass chorus. There's great guitar throughout, and another hallmark is the solid structure to each number, with memorable bridges and harmonies. In short, we have a real songwriter here, folks.
So, that's the album, I'm loving it, but what takes it to the upper level is the what it leaves you with after you've finished listening. I'm hit right in the heart with lines that won't go away; from "Big Sore Heart", "Time to clean out the closet, time to make a brand new start/Old town, new life, sore heart/Big Sore Heart". From "Curse", it's: "More than hungry or tired, I'm just not wired/To be alone/This is my curse." In "Goodbye", it's "I will say goodbye/Let the story of us gently die", in a sad ballad with deep atmosphere, reminded me of Aimee Mann. As much as several of the songs rock, and are certainly empowered, the open emotion is near-overwhelming. Big Sore Heart.
Check her out at www.marysimon.com