Monday, October 31, 2011

Saturday, October 22, 2011

October Cuteness

Who Had the Best Decade?

Today in class, I engaged several of my students with this important question - who topped the 1970's, musically speaking? I gave them the following choices (a multiple choice quiz, of sorts): Elton John, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, David Bowie or Led Zeppelin? They could only consider the material released 1970-79. I considered The Who in there as well, but while their 70's was awesome, too many crucial records and singles were in the 60's. Several immediately went to Zeppelin (as I expected teenage boys would), but once I reminded them that both Led Zeppelin I and Led Zeppelin II could not be considered (both released in 1969), Zeppelin quickly fell out of the running. Although, one student held fast to IV and Houses of the Holy as evidence.

While Elton was initially scoffed at, I rattled off the following discography from the 70's:

Elton John (70)
Tumbleweed Connection (70)
17-11-70 (live) (71)
Madman Across the Water (71)
Honky Chateau (72)
Don't Shoot Me I'm the Piano Player (73)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (73)
Caribou (74)
Capt. Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (75)
Rock of the Westies (75)
Blue Moves (76)
Here and There (live) (76)
A Single Man (78)
Victim of Love (79)

First, how freakin' prolific. '70-'75 is unassailable (well, except Caribou). But Rock of the Westies forward really weakens the argument for Elton, so I think he's out.

I imagine my friend ANCIANT, had he been there, would have picked Bowie. But Pin-Ups, the two live throwaways and Lodger weaken Bowie for me. Plus, Young Americans is mediocre overall once you get beyond the title track.

So that left Neil and Floyd. My students went overwhelmingly with Pink Floyd, and that is tough to argue against. While it is not a long discography, just look at it:

Atom Heart Mother (70)
Meddle (71)
Obscured By Clouds (72)
Dark Side of the Moon (73)
Wish You Were Here (75)
Animals (77)
The Wall (79)

OK, Atom Heart Mother sucks, and Obscured By Clouds was a soundtrack toss-off, but the rest of that is all classic. I mean, rock and roll canon stuff.

Neil Young was about as prolific as Elton in the 70's:

After the Goldrush
Déjà vu (CSNY)
Journey Through the Past (soundtrack)
Four Way Street (CSNY) (live)
Time Fades Away (live)
On the Beach
Tonight's the Night
Long May You Run (Stills-Young Band)
American Stars 'n Bars
Comes a Time
Rust Never Sleeps (live)
Live Rust (live)

Journey Through the Past sucks, Long May You Run is terrible and American Stars 'n Bars is spotty. But the rest is great to brilliant.

My students were firmly with Floyd, but I can't decide between Floyd and Neil. Each time I want to lean towards Neil, I think Meddle/DSOTM/WYWH/Animals/The Wall. Can you really top that?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dez Reviews Peter Gabriel's New Blood, 2011

It hasn't been easy being a Peter Gabriel fan for the last fifteen years or so. The failed OVO project, some inconsequential soundtrack contributions, the one proper album of new material was the murky Up, and then a glacial collection of symphonic covers. In fact, his best piece of recent work was his 2002 soundtrack to the film 'Rabbit-Proof Fence,' Long Walk Home. While on tour this last year for his orchestral covers record Scratch My Back with his orchestra, the first half of the show consisted of the SMB material, while the second half featured orchestral reworkings of his own material. Gabriel was so pleased with these new versions of his own tunes, he decided to release those on his latest album, New Blood. He continued working with arranger John Metcalfe on these tunes, the same arranger he worked with on SMB.

I guess Gabriel felt a bit more free and bold when tinkering with his own material, because New Blood is much more interesting and successful than Scratch My Back. This whole symphonic treatment thing is in vogue with older artists these days. Ray Davies played with his Kinks material through choral arrangements (it was OK). Sting did it with Symphonicities (which was terrible). I think Gabriel's symphonic versions are quite successful. It also helps that he is in fine voice here. He was so subdued on SMB, I was afraid that perhaps he had lost his range. Not so, as he shows here.

One of the keys is that he does not choose, for the most part, obvious or overly familiar songs. Yes, "In Your Eyes" and "Digging in the Dirt" are here (as is an obligatory "Solsbury Hill" tacked on at the end as a bonus track), but the bulk of the songs here dig pretty deep into his catalogue. And that works, the less familiar material is less tied down by expectations. The rules here are the same as on SMB, no electric instruments allowed. An occasional piano is the closest Gabriel gets to traditional rock instrumentation.

The most successful songs are the ones where he takes the most chances. The driving opener "The Rhythm of the Heat" is the perfect example. Gabriel tried to get the orchestra to replicate what he had done on the original with layers of percussion. The result, especially in the extended ending, reminds one of a bold Kronos Quartet piece, with the violins and cellos slashing and cutting sharply on top of one another into a thrilling crescendo. The orchestral setting fits some of his moodier songs quite well. The already creepy "Intruder" is made even creepier here with an ominous and brooding orchestral backdrop. The chestnut "In Your Eyes" is quite nice, and benefits from Gabriel's tinkering with the song for over 20 years, it features the extra verse that he often adds in concert and features nice dynamic shifts.

There are a couple of songs where these newer versions actually improve on the originals, such as "Mercy Street," "Wallflower" and "Darkness." The strongest song on the collection is a thrilling version of "Red Rain." While it won't make you want to toss out the original version from So (which is one of Gabriel's finest moments on record, afterall), it is an exciting and bold reinterpretation in its own right that at least matches the original's passion and conviction.

It is true, not everything works here. "Downside Up" is still a mediocre song, however you arrange it, and "Don't Give Up" (never a favorite of mine) is made even more irritating than the original, replacing the annoying Kate Bush from So with an even more annoying Ane Brun. "Digging in the Dirt" does not do anything interesting enough to warrant a new version, and the tacked on "Solsbury Hill" is too similar to its original version to be of much interest (in the liner notes, Gabriel himself admits he didn't want to do "Solsbury Hill," but due to popular demand at his shows, he did an arrangement. His lack of interest shows on that one, and is why it is tacked on merely as a bonus track). But the proper album's closer (before the bonus track), "The Nest That Sailed the Sky," is a lovely, almost ambient, instrumental version of a forgotten track buried on OVO. I would have preferred he end the album there and leave "Solsbury Hill" off altogether, because it is a really nice, moody closer. The jaunty version of "Solsbury Hill" wrecks the mood.

Overall, this record will not make you want to throw out your old Peter Gabriel albums in favor of these new versions, but the best of them can stand as interesting and often quite engaging reinterpretations. Now maybe he will finally finish I/O, which he has supposedly been working on for over ten years.

Rating: *** out of *****

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dez Reviews Lindsey Buckingham's Seeds We Sow, 2011

Tonight my good friend Big Jim is attending a Lindsey Buckingham show in Houston as we speak. To rub it in, he sent me a photo of his tickets on my phone. Bastard. It reminded me that I meant to review his latest release, Seeds We Sow. Most of you probably know that Buckingham was/is the creative force behind Fleetwood Mac's most successful period. With all due respect to Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie fans, it was always Lindsay producing and arranging the songs, no matter who "wrote" them or sang on them.

Most of you probably have not followed his rather fascinating, under the radar solo career. His solo records are places where Lindsey indulges in what is necessarily somewhat restrained on the more commercial Fleetwood Mac records. Production genius? Lindsey makes overproduction an artform on his solo records (some may, and do, complain about his overproduction in his solo work, but that is almost silly. I mean, that is part of the point with Lindsey Buckingham). Neurotic and quirky songwriting? He saves his most bizarre tunes for his solo records. Great guitar? His best guitar playing is reserved for his solo records where he can really let loose. His last few solo records, including this one, are truly solo affairs. He records them at home, plays virtually every instrument, and really holes up and isolates himself from the world. These are insular records.

Seeds We Sow does not disappoint. In fact, it may be his most consistent solo effort, at least in league with the excellent Under the Skin and Gift of Screws. His outstanding acoustic fingerpicking style is all over this record, so there is plenty for guitar afficiados to enjoy here. But the songwriting is a step up from the usual here. "Rock Away Blind" and "End of Time" sound like they could easily fit on a blockbuster Fleetwood Mac release, while "One Take" rocks hard with real fire and anger. For me, "In Our Own Time" is really where the great (over)production, guitar playing, lyrics, vocals and quirky songwriting all come together best. If you are new to Buckingham's solo work, Live at the Bass Performance Hall is still the place to start, but Seeds We Sow stands alongside his best solo studio work.

ABOVE: Here's a live clip of him playing "In Our Own Time." Check out that guitar work. (Sorry for the ad you have to watch up front. It's worth it, though.)

***1/2 out of *****