Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Elton John - Too Low For Zero (1983)


 

Released May 1983

Recorded in Montserrat and Hollywood

After several years in the (comparative) wilderness, people were beginning to wonder if Elton John was still relevant or whether he now was just another washed up has-been. There was a convincing argument to say that he hadn't put out a decent album since 1975's "Captain Fantastic". Some occasional moments of brilliance, but not too much more, let's be brutally honest. Punk and its rages had been and gone, new wave too, even New Romanticism was getting passe. It had all morphed into pop - synthesised, often electronic, drum machine pop. Elton John could actually find his place back in this milieu - as a grand old queen, loved by the old, middle-aged and young alike. He reunited his Bernie Taupin (not before time), got together his old band and released this album that got close to recapturing the feeling of those halcyon days. Not quite though, the album was still somewhat blighted by the excesses of eighties production to be another "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road".

Let's concentrate on the good points though. The opener, "Cold As Christmas" was a melodic, but quite bleak and poignant piano-driven ballad to begin the album on a laid-back note. "I'm Still Standing" changed that - a perfect eighties upbeat pounding pop song, that would suit both the clubs and the mainstream radio. The title track was catchy and tuneful, but with a bit too much eighties percussion for my liking and grand synthesiser sweeps. There is still room for some classic Elton piano work, however. "Religion" was a chugging rocker with some Stonesy guitar in the background and a wry lyric about evangelism. It is ok, but Elton's voice sounds far weaker than it did ten years earlier and that whole bluesy rock groove the band used to have had disappeared to be replaced by a much slicker, polished sound, but one that, for me had lost its grit and soul. There is something a bit muffled about the sound on this album. Play this track, or "I'm Still Standing" and then play something from "Don't Shoot Me" or "Caribou" and I guarantee you will notice the difference.

"I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" suffers in the same way from a half-baked production, but even that can't detract from what was a classic Elton John single. Soulful, catchy and instant. No arguments to this song's classic status. "Crystal", however,  is far too "synth pop" for my liking. A bit of a throwaway this one. It begins with foreboding wind sounds, like "Funeral For A Friend" and then goes all Euro Pop, electronic keyboards and all. Shame.

For many people, though, this album was the first Elton John album they bought and it consequently means a lot to them and they think it's great. For me, I find it quite a disheartening experience listening to this having just listened to "Madman Across The Water", "Honky Chateau" and "Don't Shoot Me". Also, later albums like the excellent "Peachtree Road" are vastly superior to this, in my opinion. Not just in terms of the quality of the songs, but in the sound quality too. Give me "Peachtree Road" over this any day.

"Kiss The Bride" was a single and a punchy, singalong rocker it was too (although, once again, strangely muffled) and "Whipping Boy" is similar, although much faster, and played at a fair old pace. Elton almost falls off the edge. Again, both of them are acceptable, but I can't get too far beyond the lifeless sound. I really miss the bluesy Elton on albums like this. It is far too pop for my taste. "Saint" is another track that I feel could have been produced better. There is also something about Elton's voice during this period that I just found too high in pitch. It had lost its bluesy growl of the seventies and had yet to get to the warm depth of the late nineties and beyond.

The closer, the grand piano and strings ballad "One More Arrow" again has a high voiced Elton grating somewhat on what is not a bad song. It could have been one of those great album closers, Like "Curtains" or "High Flying Bird". However, it doesn't actually even sound like Elton. As I said, I know many, many people love this album, but it is not one of my favourites, and I own every album he has released. I understand the album's appeal, but like mid-eighties music in general, it wasn't quite to my taste.

C

Van Morrison - Poetic Champions' Compose (1987)


  

Released September 1987

Recorded in Somerset and London

After a long run now of albums in which Van Morrison underwent a spiritual quest, together with re-discovering his Irishness, he was back, giving us more. It was now becoming a well-trodden path, a bit like Bob Dylan’s “born again” period at the turn of the seventies/eighties. Were people beginning to tire of it just a bit? Maybe, but fans fans were now no longer the mainstream. They were happy to stick with him. After all it was getting on for twenty years now.

Now, however, a lot of the express spiritual search was over -  Morrison was now looking inside himself and, to be fair, expressing some romantic feelings too. The Irishness remained, but largely in the ambience of the album’s three instrumentals. Much as Morrisons-post 2000 albums have ploughed the same furrow, this was more of the same. So, if you like it, as I do, you like it. You will get something out of it.

As opposed to an upbeat opener, as was often the case, we had “Spanish Steps” where Morrison warmed up his saxophone technique quite impressively, before it flows into some carefree jazzy piano. "The Mystery" sounds like a song from the "Beautiful Vision" album, full of backing vocals, sweeping strings and lyrics about mysticism. It is reflective, mature song, from a reflective, mature artist. Look at how old Morrison now looks on the cover. Can this balding, grumpy-looking old man release rock records? No. This is more of a work of art - a painting, or a poem, there has not been anything "rock" about Morrison for years now.

“The Queen Of The Slipstream” (whatever that meant, and whoever she was) is a delightfully atmospheric soulful number, sung against a delightful harp backing, with an addictive vocal refrain and just a great vibe throughout. It is a track I have loved for a long time. There is usually at least one classic on a Morrison album. This is the one here. Just those opening bars send the shivers all over me. It is a majestic, mighty track. Van never lets you down when it matters. A truly sumptuous bass and piano intro leads us into the lovely soul of  "I Forgot That Love Existed", which is another excellent song. It also contains a wonderful saxophone massage.

“Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” is an adaptation of an old Negro spiritual. It is sombre, mournful and sparse in its backing, somewhat unsurprisingly, given its derivation. Morrison tackles it emotively and respectfully. It is certainly no toe-tapper, but it has a credible, serious appeal. "Celtic Excavation" is a beautiful saxophone instrumental.

“Someone Like You” is actually a totally disarming, romantic number that has subsequently achieved a fair amount of mainstream, Radio Two, popularity. It is easy to understand why. He hadn’t done a blatant smoocher like this for quite a while, if indeed ever. “Alan Watts Blues” (who was Alan Watts?) is as Celtic Soul as Van gets on this album - a jaunty, light and lively piece of fun and a great vocal refrain - “cloud hidden...whereabouts unknown…’. There he goes, looking into himself, not searching for the spirits of long departed poets anymore. "Give Me Rapture" is a gospelly, organ and piano-backed piece of lively Van soul in the "Real Real Gone" vein (although that  track was still three years away).

“Did Ye Get Healed”, with its cute Irish girl’s voice at the end is another excellent track - all jazzy with an absolutely mesmeric instrumental hook. Love the backing vocals and the melodic saxophone and Van's gently mumbling, growling voice. "Allow Me" is another appealing saxophone instrumental to finish off. Pleasant album.

B-


Faces - First Step (1970)


  

Released March 1970

Recorded at De Lane Lea Studios, London

From early 1970, this debut album from Ronnies Lane and Wood, Kenney Jones, Ian McLagan and Rod Stewart is a gloriously raw, edgy and beautifully slapdash affair. It sounds as if it were laid down in one whisky addled take. Therein lies its appeal, and indeed the appeal of Faces as a group in  their actually quite short recording career.

The opening cover of Bob Dylan's "Wicked Messenger" is a marvellous, noisy thrash. No gentle folk rock here - loud, crashing drums, blues guitars up to the max, swirling organ and Rod Stewart's throaty rasp all make a superb concoction. The quiet tones of "Devotion" give way half way through to some thumping drums and strident, cutting guitar. "Shake, Shudder, Shiver" makes your speakers do just that. Stewart is n fine form here, sounding similar to on his debut solo album the previous year. "Stone" is a folky, fiddle-picking, early Dylan imitation of a song written by Ronnie Lane with him on vocals. Unfortunately, I find his songs a little like Keith Richards ones on Rolling Stones albums - they are ok, but I'd rather have Jagger on vocals, let's be honest. The same is true here - I would rather hear Rod Stewart blasting out some blues rock than this country romp with Lane's undistinguished, trying to ape early Dylan, voice. Sorry to all those who love it. Actually, I am being somewhat harsh, it does have its appeal, but, for me, the Stewart cuts are the better ones.

"Around The Plynth" is actually rather chaotic, with some madcap slide guitar sounds, thumping percussion and a rudimentary vocal. It sounds like a demo, to be fair. There are some genuine great bits of slide interplay, however, and, as I said earlier, this unpolished sound adds to the appeal. If Led Zeppelin had released this people would have been falling at their feet. In many places, it sounds very Zeppelin-ish. "Flying" is classic Faces blues funky rock. A bit hissy, sound-wise in places (despite being remastered), but again, it doesn't really matter - just turn it up. Check out that organ break in the middle. "Pineapple And The Monkey", an instrumental, is big, booming and beautifully bassy. It sounds bloomin' great, I have to say.

"Nobody Knows" is a slightly rambling Stewart/Lane composition/duet. It captures Stewart's voice sounding quite sad at times. "Looking Out The Window" is a frantic blues rocker and is another instrumental, which, though it is solid, powerful and convincing, with excellent sound quality, does make you wonder if the band were a little short of material at the time. As the album's title suggested, though, it was a "first step". Maybe they viewed it as that and were happy to intermingle vocal cuts with instrumentals, Cream-style. "Three Button Hand Me Down" is an absolute copper-bottomed Faces classic to close the album. A rocking tribute from Stewart to his other for handing him down a suit. It has a Status Quo style riff, played on acoustic and bass guitars and a killer vocal from Stewart. The guitars throughout the track are exhilarating, as indeed are the organ breaks. It still sounds great today. BBC Radio Newcastle's new wave "Beat Surrender" Saturday evening show regularly play this. I am not surprised. This was Faces at their very best, loud, slightly disorganised and captivating.

C+

The Eagles - Eagles (1972)


 

Released June 1972

Recorded in London

This was The Eagles' debut album, from 1972. It was a pleasant, perfectly easy on the air mix of country and rock with some folky airs floating around. High quality vocals from different members was also a notable thing about the band, who went on to be huge, million selling artists. Ironically for such a slice of Americana, it was apart from "Nightingale", recorded in London.

Jackson Browne's piece of upbeat, country rock perfection that is "Take It Easy" opens the album, with its "well I'm runnin' down the road, tryin' to loosen my load, I got seven women on my mind..." first verse, while "Witchy Woman" has a killer heavy rock riff and a general bluesy rock feel. It is a powerful cut. that showed the band were not all about "Take It Easy" style AOR. Folk/country rock was de rigeur in 1972, and this album fitted in well with the genre. Stuff like this was very much the sound of America in 1972, while the UK was in the grip of glam rock, The US music scene was nothing like that. One look at the charts all the time showed that to be the case.

"Chug All Night" is another pounding rocker, sounding a little like some of Elton's John's rocking material from the period (which possibly helps to explain why Elton did so well in the US). It has a mysterious, funky little bass and quiet vocal part that is sort of endearing. "Most Of Us Are Sad" is a tender rock ballad and "Nightingale" gets back to riffy, lively melodic rocking. Incidentally, the sound on this remastered version is excellent, taken from "The Complete Studio Recordings" box set.

"Train Leaves Here This Morning" is a beautiful country ballad with a gorgeous bass line. "Take The Devil" is a big, chunky, electric riff-dominated rock song with some excellent sleepy guitar in the middle. "Earlybird" is a guitar-picking country rocker with distinct airs in its harmonious vocals of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. "Tryin'" has another fiery guitar riff and energetic guitar abounds throughout the track. On the whole, this album is more rock than country.

"Peaceful Easy Feeling" is pretty much what everyone recognises as classic Eagles - twangy, melodic guitar, steady country beat, perfectly pitched slightly mournful vocals and a general feeling of being in a sparsely populated Mid-Western roadhouse at the end of a hot afternoon, with just the barmaid and a few local guys for company.

B-


The Mighty Diamonds - Go Seek Your Rights


  

This is actually a compilation of three albums from the roots reggae band The Mighty Diamonds. Some critics I have read are not happy with it, feeling somehow the record company are "cheating" the fans. Why? It is just a collection of good material allowing people, like me, to get into the music of The Mighty Diamonds. Which is pretty good, as it happens. In fact, all ten tracks from 1976's album, "The Right Time" are included on here anyway, and in excellent remastered sound too. The Virgin "Front Line" reggae series is outstanding both in its breadth of material and sound quality.

On to the music - The Mighty Diamonds were kings of harmony and, while their material its rootsy - Rasta consciousness, devotional "message" - it has a light, melodic quality to it. The bass is perfectly lilting and certainly not as speaker-shaking as some roots/dub reggae can be (not that there's anything wrong with that, but sometimes the qualities of a song benefit a lighter vibe). "Have Mercy" is just sublime - excellent vocals, crisp, razor sharp percussion and that small beautiful bass. "Why Me Black Brother Why" is similar. The singing is magnificent and the brass backing vibrant. That brass is    just as impressive on the intuitively nonchalant "Shame And Pride". "Right Time" is a slice of militancy but, as with all the material, it is gently delivered. The Mighty Diamonds are similar to The Gladiators in their lightness of touch. Both of them brought roots reggae to life, beautifully.

"Gnashing Of Teeth" is a dread warning about "weeping and wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth.." from Matthew 13:42. In the hands of The Mighty Diamonds, it is bassy and almost beatific, as opposed to hellishly terrifying. "Them Never Love Poor Marcus" is incredibly catchy. Once again the bass is intoxicating and uplifting.

I love roots reggae like this - clear but warm bass sound, great vocals and irresistible tunes. I forgot to mention that the rhythm backing is played by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Impeccably, of course.

"One Brother Short" is a Marley-esque "woy-oy" irrepressible skanker. The riddim is hypnotic. Just listen to those addictive drums and horns on "Master Plan". You also get the jaunty, romantic "Sweet Lady" which has the Diamonds sounding like Aswad, all commercial as opposed to rootsy.

I won't go into every track in detail, because they are all good, I am sure you have got the picture by now. If you want to dip into the roots reggae music that was so intrinsic to those wonderful "punky reggae party" years of 1976-1979 then you can't go wrong with this.

B-

David Bowie - Black Tie White Noise (1993)


  

Released April 1993

Recorded in Montreux and New York City

For me, there are two parts of David Bowie's career, his Tin Machine work being the bridging point between the two. The first part is the part that really means the most to me, the second part begins here, in 1993, and heralds the start of far more use of dance rhythms and contemporary music, some of which I find less accessible than the sounds of the 1970s and 1980s.

Anyway, on to this album. It begins with an appealing instrumental, "The Wedding", which combines some "Low/Heroes"- style sonorous keyboards with a lilting, melodic bass line, some swirling saxophone  and some funky guitar riffs. It is quite captivating in its own, meandering way. Chic's Nile Rodgers was on production duties again (he did "Let's Dance") and old band mates Mick Ronson (who tragically died 24 days after the album's release), pianist Mike Garson and Tin Machine's Reeves Gabrels. The next track, "You've Been Around" is a thumping piece of jazz rock and funk mixed in. Bowie briefly references 1971's "Changes" in the lyrics. The album was, I guess, intended to be a sort of "Young Americans" part two - this time updated to be a sophisticated urban soul meets dance club techno rhythms. That treatment was given to Cream's sixties blues rock classic "I Feel Free", pretty much rendering it unrecognisable. It actually just sounds like a great new, state-of-the-art Bowie song. It has mesmeric, intoxicating rhythms sliced apart by a searing Mick Ronson solo. It has to remembered that, in many ways, grunge was the music of the era, yet Bowie came out with something like this. Very adventurous as usual.

A wonderful trumpet from Lester Bowie (no relation) introduces the ebullient and stimulating title track with an instantly recognisable Bowie vocal. It has a laid-back, summery feel and a vibe similar to that which some of the tracks on "Tonight" were aspiring to. It reminds me of several other songs, but I can't bring them to mind, just snatches here and there. Despite the almost chilled out vibe at times the lyrics are typically portentous in places. Bowie certainly seems rejuvenated here, both as a lyricist and vocalist. "Jump They Say" has a frantic, dance-influenced rhythm, all repetitive drum beats per minute and swirling saxophone in places. Bowie's vocal is one of those deep, serious-sounding ones. Some excellent brass soloing in the middle. It is a very instrumentally adventurous track, despite the metronomic drum sound. "Nite Flights" (actually a Walker Brothers cover, although again it sounds like a Bowie original) has a deep, bassy and another vibrating, deep and haughty vocal. In many ways, these tracks are like some of the "Heroes" and "Lodger" material but without some of the industrial electronic vibes of that era. Some U2-style electric guitar punctuate the air. They started putting out material like this within months. I wonder why? Bowie leading the way again. It sounds cliched, but it is true.

The instrumental (save a few chanted vocals) "Pallas Athena" has some real "Heroes" saxophone blowing all around its pounding, clubby drum beat. "Miracle Goodnight" has a incredibly catchy instrumental hook and again, Bowie's vocals are a nostalgic reminder of earlier eras. "Don't Let Me Down And Down" is a somewhat twee, romantic song that would have been slated had it appeared on "Never Let Me Down" or "Tonight". It is/was so cliched and easy to criticise those albums yet praise this one. For me, I like them equally, There were good points on those albums, whatever the music media say. The song is perfectly acceptable though, but is certainly no work of genius. "Looking For Lester" is a strident instrumental featuring the talents of the afore-mentioned trumpeter once again. The presence of instrumentals on this album enhance the "Low"/"Heroes" comparisons in a tiny way, but of course the overall ambience is utterly different. Mike Garson has a trademark piano solo on the track too, which is always good to hear.

"I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday" is a cover of a Morrissey song. I know nothing about Morrissey so have no knowledge of the song but it seems to suit Bowie in a "Wild Is The Wind" sort of mournful way. "The Wedding Song" reprises the opening track with more pumping beats and  wailing saxophone from Bowie, as well as a floaty, indistinct vocal. It is a relaxing end to an intriguing album. It is my favourite of this "second period" Bowie work until "The Next Day".

B-

Van Morrison - The Best Of Van Morrison Volume Two

  

This is an odd compilation. It is certainly no “greatest hits” mix. It covers mainly work from the mid eighties/early nineties and some of the songs included are relatively low-key in comparison to those that could have been chosen - “Motherless Child” and “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God” are two examples - both meditative and calm, heavy with spiritual meaning. Similarly, the sleepy instrumental “Evening Meditation” and the title track from “Hymns To The Silence” are hardly tracks that would be recognised by many. Indeed, there are so many better ones from “Hymns” that could have been chosen.

Two sixties songs from Them are here, though, “Don’t Look Back” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, which are good to hear. Also the Irish knees-up of “I’ll Tell Me Ma”. The short recitation of “Coney Island” is an appealing oddity.

I owe this album a fair amount, however, because it helped me get into Morrison’s work from this period when I bought it back in the early nineties. It prompted me to buy all those great albums.
So, if you know a bit about Van Morrison and want to get into his peaceful, spiritual side, you can pick this up for next to nothing these days. Oh, and “In The Garden” is on it, making it worth it for that magnificent track alone. “Enlightenment”, “A Sense Of Wonder” and the horn-driven Celtic soul of “Real, Real Gone” are great too.

B-

The Rolling Stones - Steel Wheels (1989)


  

Released August 1989

Recorded on Montserrat

Along with 1986's "Dirty Work", it is easy to dismiss this album as "execrable", as many, many journalists and fans have done over the subsequent years. Yes, it is has a synthesiser presence, as did work from many artists in the mid/late eighties, but, in my opinion, it is nowhere near as bad an album as so many have considered it to be. It is actually far superior to "Dirty Work".

The late eighties were, admittedly a dreadful, barren period for music, and this album suffers some of the drawbacks of coming from that era, but there is still some solid Stones rock on here.

"Sad Sad Sad" is an excellent, riffy opener, while "Mixed Emotions" is a captivating rocker, some great backing riffs and, on the 2009 remaster, a big, throbbing bass sound. Conspiracy theorists claim the title is a subtle play on "Mick's demotion". Yeah, of course it is. Not. I love the line in "Sad Sad Sad" of "the elephant's in the bedroom, throwing all his weight about". Jagger is on revitalised vocal from on these tracks. He sounds totally rejuvenated. "Terrifying" has another killer bass line and a hypnotic intoxicating beat with one of those sleazy, menacing Jagger vocals, going on about "strange, strange desire...". Some nice brass at the end of it and some rhythmic drums from Charlie Watts. "Hold On To Your Hat" is a breakneck, slightly punky rocker that sounds a bit like it should have been on "Dirty Work". "Hearts For Sale" is a Jagger vocal-dominated mid-pace, intuitive rocker that I haven't heard for ages and I am quite enjoying discovering it again. Some excellent guitar and harmonica interplay comes in near the end. You know, this really isn't too bad an album.

A lilting, rich bass and fetching percussion introduce another Jagger, Latin/Elizabethan-style groove of a smoocher in "Blinded By Love", with him going all snake hips as he gavottes to it, no doubt. There are endearing country/acoustic twinges to the song too. One of the better, undiscovered tracks from the album. Songs like these are never played live, which is a shame. It is current trend, utilised by Bruce Springsteen a lot, to play old albums in their entirety. I reckon it would be good to hear The Stones do so with albums like this. A typical Stones grinding riff and rubber band bass give us the rocking "Rock And A Hard Place". This was a single and a good one it was too. Keith Richards' "Can't Be Seen" is a appealing, upbeat Keith song, it would have sounded great on "Talk Is Cheap", but it is ok here and considerably ballsier than some of his more wheezing ballads that cropped up with increasing regularity on latter-day Stones albums.

"Almost Hear You Sigh" was a leftover from Richards' "Talk Is Cheap" sessions, but here  is sung, and convincingly too, by Jagger. It does beg the question that all those "Keith songs" would have been better served by Jagger's vocals. Certainly the latter era ones. Not so much the earlier "I Got The Silver" blues ones. The song features some lovely acoustic guitar in the middle, Ronnie Wood, I think.

"Continental Drift" is the big surprise on the album - a lengthy song, with instrumental experimentation not heard in The Stones' material for many a year. Moroccan sub-Saharan musicians are used on the track, in true Brian Jones-inspired style. Many have said, rightly, that The Stones would have done a lot more stuff like this, had Jones lived. Best track on the album by a mile. The repeated line "love comes at the speed of light" would not have sounded out of place on "Satanic Majesties". "Break The Spell" is another revelatory track - a sort of grinding, upbeat, jazzy almost rockabilly meets the blues sort of thing - if that makes any sense whatsoever.  Either way, it is some speeded-up fun. Then we end, of course, with one of those Richards songs I mentioned earlier. Actually, despite that, I quite like "Slipping Away". It has a gentle tenderness to it. All in all, a much better, more enjoyable album than it is ever given credit for being.

B-


Monday, 30 July 2018

Van Morrison - The Best Of Van Morrison Volume One


 

Firstly, it is somewhat surprising that there is a "Best Of" for an artist like Van Morrison, as he doesn't really have hit singles, so the "greatest hits" market is not really catered for here.

Furthermore, while this is an excellent compilation, and serves as an excellent introduction to Van Morrison’s often uplifting, inspirational for the layman, there is problem in that it includes none of his truly outstanding extended, lengthy compositions. Can a “Best of Van Morrison” really not include “Madame George”, “Tupelo Honey”, “St. Dominic’s Preview”, “Take It Where You Find It”, “And The Healing Has Begun” or “Daring Night” to name just a few? Oh, and I forgot “Listen To The Lion”, “Rave On John Donne” and “Summertime In England”!

What it does include, however, is three superb Them R’n’B tracks from the sixties - “Gloria”, “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Here Comes The Night”. There is also the marvellous solo sixties hit “Brown Eyed Girl”. Other popular tracks from slightly more recent albums are “Bright Side Of The Road” from the late seventies and “Have I Told You Lately” from the late eighties.

The catchy and appealing duet with Cliff Richard, “Wherever God Shines His Light” is here, and there is a vision of the evocative “Wonderful Remark” (although the extended, superior version is to be found on ”The Philosopher’s Stone” compilation of rarities). Personal favourites are the soulful “Queen Of The Slipstream”, the jazzy “Dweller On The Threshold” and “Did Ye Get Healed”. The autobiographical tale of his younger days “Cleaning Windows” is lively, funky and fun. Then there is the tranquil, rustic soul of “Warm Love”, the Celtic Soul of “Wild Night” and “Domino”. I could go on and name them all. They are all good, and if you want to dip into the music of this great, seminal artist, this makes a fine start.

B

Van Morrison - No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)


  

Released July 1986

Recorded in California and London

After three albums widely thought to be his "spiritual triad"of work, this, from 1986, bookends those three with "Common One" at the other end, in 1980. I believe that these two are the most spiritual works in Van Morrison's canon. Yes, the three between are also intensely spiritual, especially the tranquil, meditative "Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart", but these two really delve deep into Morrison's spiritual soul.

I cannot analyse the whole thing too well, as I am not as up on the spiritual struggle as I may be. What is clear is that as well as searching for answers, Morrison is always looking back, trying to "reclaim the previous". The first track, "Got To Go Back" has him referencing 1979's "And The Healing Has Begun" and getting nostalgic, as he now increasingly does, for those 1950s "days before rock'n'roll", playing Ray Charles and aching to "go back to the feeling". This is very much a precursor for the conceits of "Hymns To The Silence" and "Hyndford Street". "Oh The Warm Feeling" features some appealing oboe, acoustic guitar and organ as Van ruminates upon fulfilment, with the "sun on your countenance". On "Foreign Window" he mentions Lord Byron and Jean Arthur Rimbaud over a jazzy, soulful mid-tempo semi-rock backing. He loves his poetic references, does Van. "In the Palace of the Lord" he muses - another familiar lyrical theme.

A new subject for Morrison to rail about on a regular basis from now on is "all those cats who ripped off my work". His slightly sour gripe is expressed on the rumbling, bassy and acoustic "A Town Called Paradise", which also features some sumptuous saxophone and fetching backing vocals. It is one hell of an addictive slow cooker of a track. If he is moaning, who cares? Nobody moans as soulfully as Van Morrison. Strains of "Jerusalem" are heard in the fade out. I think it is time for Van to take us to Heaven. Now, I may not be as spiritual as Van, or Khalil Gibran, or whoever, but "In The Garden" is just sublime. One of the holiest, spiritually ecstatic pieces of music I have heard. Its beautiful piano coda, and Morrison's gently growling vocal - "you were a violet colour as you sat beside your mother and your father in the garden...". It is a mine of lyrical gems - "and felt the presence of the youth of eternal summers...". Sometimes, Morrison's lyricism is totally nonpareil. I simply love that track to distraction. Only Van Morrison, only he, from musicians, can bring vivid visions of my departed parents into my mind. Yes, that sounds cheesy but it is actually true.

I saw Van in concert a while back, and he was performing "In The Garden", at the point he was about to sing "wet with rain", a member of the audience bellowed out the line. Expecting notoriously grumpy Van to get irked, I was surprised when he half smiled and replied in his Belfast brogue - "yes, that's right - wet wit' reeyan..." before continuing the song, perfectly synchronised. You had to be there, I guess, but it was a marvellous moment.

You thought Van was finished - no, "Tir Na Nog" comes next. A magnificent piece of Celtic/Irish nostalgia for the "Church of Ireland" and walking all the way to "Tir Na Nog". It is sung gracefully and proudly over an insistent, sweeping orchestral backing. It is a truly great track. "Here Comes The Knight" harks back to the old Them song, in a wistful, airy number, while "Thanks For The Information" is a mysterious bluesy and jazzy song, with a great vibe to it. Lovely tenor saxophone in the background and some uplifting backing vocals on the chorus. There are hidden depths in this album, to be sure.

"One Irish Rover" is a gentle, Celtic low key refrain with Van reflecting on his journey. It has been a generally slow tempo album, but, strangely enough it ends with the really lively Celtic soul of "Ivory Tower", with Van rocking it up over a punchy horn, harmonica and Duane Eddy guitar backing. He often starts his albums with tracks like this. Here he ends it with one, just for a change. That's Van for you.

B

Elton John - Peachtree Road (2004)


  

Released November 2004

Recorded in Georgia and Los Angeles

This, like all of Elton John's post 2000 albums, a fine piece of work. He was back writing with Bernie Taupin again, concocting beautiful, catchy, evocative melodies around Bernie's Americana-influenced lyrics. This is what they did best, releasing albums that were a fine balance between solid, moving ballads and potent, bluesy rock. The albums are never built around singles, they are proper albums and, as they always were, are mature, sensitive and often reflective. Bernie Taupin is simply one of the greatest songwriters of our time, no question about it. All these albums have been hailed as a "return to form", but Elton/Bernie's quality never really left, these albums just reiterate it more than others.

The first two tracks are absolute corkers - packed full of Deep South atmosphere from the very first sound of falling rain on the wonderful "Weight Of The World", while "Porch Swing In Tupelo" is similarly entrancing. Elton's voice, despite ageing, is very strong on the album. "Answer In The Sky" is a majestic soulful and uplifting song, with a delicious hook. Many said it was a return to "Tumbleweed Connection" or "Elton John". It wasn't. It didn't have the country feel of the former or the lush orchestration of the latter. It was a 2000s album, excellent and unique in its own right. An Americana album for 2004, yet blatantly nostalgic. It is, though, very much a singer/songwriter album and one that doesn't pander to any contemporary trends. It is, as most of the pair's albums are these days, very much an American album. Indeed, they pretty much always were. This one very much so, though.

The quality continues on the country-ish ballad "Turn The Lights Out When You Leave", once again, the refrain is instant. It grabs you by the senses. Elton's voice is as good as it has been for many a year. Time for one of those big ballads - "My Elusive Drug" fits the bill, "my eloozive drug" as Elton sings it. It is both mournful, yearning and grandiose. "They Call Her The Cat" is one of those horn-driven blues rockers Elton has done so well over the years, in the "Philadelphia Freedom" vein. "Freaks In Love" is a dignified, stately ballad. It has to be repeated that the quality really is exceptional on this album. "All That I'm Allowed" is also excellent, with a wonderful hook to it. Both of them, Elton and Bernie, have really hit the right spot on this album, musically and lyrically. The perfect partnership at the top of its game. These two great middle-aged men have given us so much over the years.

The remaining tracks are all high quality too - the lovely, tender "I Stop And I Breathe"; the nostalgic and terribly sad "Too Many Tears"; the mournful "It's Getting Dark In Here" with its start like Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and the soully "I Can't Keep This From You". The album became more reflective and low-key as it progressed, as if it were ageing, along with its composers. t really is a mature and fulfilled album. In Elton's top ten albums.

B+



Elton John - Rock Of The Westies (1975)


  

Released October 1975

Recorded in The Netherlands and London

Released only five months after the phenomenally successful (and indeed magnificent) "Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy" this album followed what was proving to be a typical path for Elton John in the mid-seventies and eighties - one superb album, followed quickly (often too quickly) by a patchy one. As "Caribou" followed "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" almost before it should have done, this did the same, and the pressure to put out more product resulted in another dip in quality. Bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olson from the original Elton John Band had left, probably unfairly fired by a truculent Elton. Indeed, Olsson has since said it came as a complete shock.

The album was what was now the formulaic but balanced mix of rocky material and big, punchy ballads. "Yell Help" is an unremarkable slice of funk-driven rock. It ends ends with some madcap clavinet and shrieking backing vocals interplay. A petty underwhelming start to the album, to be honest. "Dan Dare" is a "Honky Cat" soundalike typical piece of Elton John bluesy mid-paced piano-driven rock. Again, it just doesn't really ever get anywhere. "Island Girl" is different, however, a moderate hit single, it is a lively tale of a Jamaican prostitute in New York's City - "she wraps herself around you like a well-worn tyre...". If you say so, Bernie. Even less of a hit was another single, "Grow Some Funk Of Your Own". This was a shame as it is a vigorous and enjoyable bluesy rocker with some wryly amusing lyrics.

"I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)" is actually an excellent mid-tempo, dramatic power ballad, like some of the material on "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player". I am thinking particularly of "Have Mercy On The Criminal". "Street Kids" is a ballsy and bassy rocker with Elton hollering and yelping throughout his vocal, these were the days when he could reach those high notes. It ends with some decidedly "Sympathy For The Devil" "woo-woo" backing vocals. "Hard Luck Story" is a pounding slab of boogie rock that Elton could now do in his sleep. 

"Feed Me" is a laid-back ballad with some funky guitar, without the guitar it would sound like something from "Tumbleweed Connection". It features some fetching percussion from new percussionist Ray Cooper. "Billy Bones And The White Bird" has a sort of Bo Diddley, "Mona"/"Not Fade Away" riff/beat to it. Heaven knows what the song is about.

Overall, I find this album more patchy and less appealing than "Caribou", but it is worth the occasional listen.

C+


Bob Dylan - Dylan (1973)


  

Released November 1973

It is time that this long-reviled album got a reassessment. It has long since been withdrawn. I remember it coming out, though, and getting bad reviews. It is now available on the "Bob Dylan Complete Works" Box Set, which is how I obtained it. Expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised upon hearing it. Expecting it to be absolutely execrable, I found it to be probably two thirds dreadful, which has to be taken as a positive. It is an album of mainly cover versions recorded as warm-ups for "Self Portrait" in 1970 and released as part of a legal dispute between record labels in 1973. Something to do with Columbia and Asylum. I can't actually be bothered to research the minutiae behind it.

Anyway, on to the music. "Lily Of The West" is a jaunty, tuneful and attractive Wild West tale and Dylan's take on Elvis's "Can't Help Falling In Love" is nowhere near as bad as has been said. "Sarah Jane" suffers from poor production, and Dylan's insistence of singing "Sar-oh" instead of "Sarah", it is the only Dylan original composition on the album. The backing singers sound louder that Dylan, so it doesn't really come off. "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes" is a heartbreaking narrative about the Native American-descended soldier who was one of those who raised the US flag on Iwo Jima and died a penniless drunk. It again is the victim of a hissy production.

I have to say, "Mr Bojangles" doesn't really come off, but it is again, nowhere near as bad as many have said. The problem was with this album was that it was a record label "kiss off" of mostly sub-standard, throwaway semi-demos, when so much unreleased high quality material still lay in the vaults. Personally, I had just got into Bob Dylan at the time, at the age of fourteen, and considered getting this album. I had no real concept of how far down the scale of influence he had fallen from his position of eminence in the sixties. The same with The Rolling Stones and the members of The Beatles. I was fourteen, I loved them all and lapped up what they released with no disappointment or cynicism. I bought "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", "Angie" and "Red Rose Speedway" and loved them.

"Mary Ann" is an acceptable country ballad that would have been ok on "Self Portrait", but Dylan's cover of Joni Mitchell's iconic ecological anthem "Big Yellow Taxi" sounds as if he was just having a bit of fun the studio. The cover of Elvis's "A Fool Such As I" is just about acceptable. "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue" is very hissy and Dylan sounding like a slightly drunken restaurant Mariachi singer. The backing singers come "la-la-la" ing in and its becomes a bit of a joke. Actually, I guess the reviewers were correct all those years ago. This was an abomination. It has to be said, in defence, however, that none of it was Dylan's fault.

Never mind, "Planet Waves" was only two months away.

D-

Bob Dylan - Planet Waves (1974)


 

Released January 1974

Recorded in Los Angeles

Early 1974's "Planet Waves" was the bridging album between the folky/country material of the late sixties/early seventies and the acoustic-driven rock poetry that was "Blood On The Tracks". It is also as emotionally complex as that album too, no lightweight country pie on here. It is an album that grows on you with each listen, as I listen to it now, I am thinking that the album is better than I had previously thought. The sound is excellent, by the way, unlike the rather harsh sounding "New Morning".

"On A Night Like This" is an energetic, swirling throwback to the days of 1966, with The Band on top form backing Dylan once again and his delivery enthusiastically upbeat. A beautiful, melodic, deep bass underpins the gorgeous "Going, Going, Gone". This is definitely a precursor to "Blood On The Tracks". It is a dignified, sombre track with a great sound to the backing on it. Robbie Robertson comes up with one hell of a guitar solo to finish the track. "Tough Mama" is a "Basement Tapes"-style bluesy romp, with Garth Hudson's organ blowing and circling around all over the place, like an idiot wind. "Hazel" with her "dirty blonde hair" is a love song from Dylan to another mercurial woman and most entrancing it is too. There are very slight shades of 1983's "Licence To Kill" in there somewhere, just before the "touch of your love" part. Dylan delivers a delicious harmonica too.

"Something There Is About You" has Dylan being nostalgic about the "old Duluth" of his youth. This is harmonica-driven blues rock song that wouldn't have sounded out of place on either "Blood On The Tracks" or, indeed, "Desire". Tracks like this remind one that Dylan hadn't really laid down anything this powerful since "John Wesley Harding" and possibly "Blonde On Blonde". Forget all that country twanging and folk odes, this was proper Dylan.

Talking of proper Dylan. "Forever Young" is next. Uplifting inspiring, heartbreaking. One of my favourite Dylan songs of all time. It never fails to get me all emotional. Superb. I remember seeing Dylan in concert with Mark Knopfler at the Hammersmith Odeon a few years back and Knopfler sang this as the encore, with Dylan sitting regally behind the keyboards. Mark turned to him to deliver the line "may your song always be sung" and the great man, just nodded, like The Queen waving to her subjects. A priceless moment. The faster version of the same song that comes next doesn't do it for me. The slow version is the definitive one, in my opinion. This slightly rockabilly version of it deprives of of its soul, its emotion. It should have stayed on the cutting room floor, maybe replaced by "Nobody 'Cept You".

Only Dylan could title his own song "Dirge". Here he is backed by Robertson, while he plays piano. It is a stark, emotions bared song that, at the time people presumed was about his marriage. Robertson's guitar is sumptuous and while the song is stark and bleak, it is no dirge. Listening to it, you realise "Blood On The Tracks" is on the way. "You Angel You" is a Band-style mid-tempo rocker. "If this is love give me more, more, more" pleads Dylan over another magnificent organ break. "Never Say Goodbye" starts with some searing guitar and is a beguiling, romantic slow burner, once again, it is very Band-like. It is so good to have Dylan back, listening to this. We had missed him. "Wedding Song" is a stark, acoustic guitar and harmonica love song that is in the "Blood On The Tracks" style.

There is no question that this is, by far, Bob Dylan's finest album since "John Wesley Harding". He was now entering a four year halcyon period, the third great one of his career.

B+

Keith Richards - Talk Is Cheap (1988)


  

Released October 1988

Keith Richards' first solo of "Keith songs" from 1988, is not a bad effort. It was released during the period when Richards and Jagger had fallen out. It contains material that would not have disgraced any Stones album from the period.

The opener, "Big Enough" is all funky guitars and saxophone riffs. A sort of un-Stonesy sound that has a real refreshing, lively appeal. "Take It So Hard" is more of a typical "Keith track" that you might find on a Stones album - a trademark riff and Keith's understated, downbeat, quiet voice struggling, as usual, to make itself heard. It is an album of fundamental, hard-working rock, a bit like David Bowie with Tin Machine. Keith liked that "back to basics", working with a band thing, forgetting all about the image and marketing concerns that seemed to fascinate Mick Jagger. This album sort of exemplifies that ideology. You can sense that Keith is enjoying himself here, throughout the album. One feels that if Richards had left The Stones at this point, he would have carried on putting out albums like this for the rest of his career. Indeed, his other two solo albums are similar.

"Struggle" has more classic Richards riffage, and sounds very Stonesy, let's be honest. If you heard it,  unaware, you would say "a mid-late eighties Rolling Stones album track". It still sounds energising and punchy, however.  "I Could Have Stood You Up" takes Richards back to his rock'n'roll youth. It is almost skiffle in its jaunty rhythm. It is an enjoyable oddity. "Make No Mistake" is one of those whispered, croaking vocal slow rock ballads that appear on most Stones albums from the eighties onwards. It is backed by some excellent funky, soulful brass sections, although the song seems too taxing for Keith's voice on occasions. I has hints of "Almost Hear You Sigh" from The Stones' "Steel Wheels" about it.

"You Don't Move Me" has an intoxicating drum intro, matched by Richards' choppy riff. As Keith songs go, this is a very good one. It would have been much better had songs like this ended up on Stones albums, even if Jagger was to sing them, like he did, successfully, on "Almost Hear You Sigh", in fact. Apparently, though, the song was thinly veiled swipe at Jagger so maybe that would not have been a good idea! "How I Wish" starts with another trademark riff that continues throughout the song, which is an energetic rocker. "Rockawhile" is an engaging, slow tempo number with a hypnotic rhythm behind it. It just sort of chugs along without getting too far and features some "Gimme Shelter"-style backing vocals too. It has an appeal all the same.

"Whip It Up" is another riffy number. A bit of hiss at the beginning (as there is on a few of the songs). A big, rumbling bass powers this one along, matching Keith's riffs. "Locked Away" is a low key slow number that is very much like a Stones album Keith song, especially the "I oughta be locked away" chorus. "It Means A Lot" is a gritty, tough, clunky closer to what is a spirited, enthusiastically-delivered album.

B-

Elton John - Victim Of Love (1979)


  

Released October 1979

This is one of Elton John's most odd, and least successful albums. After some reasonable success with 1978's "A Single Man", Elton ignored the punk revolution going on all around him and released an album of seven extended disco-rock songs. Quite why is unclear. Maybe he just felt like it. Apparently he had met producer Pete Bellotte (well known for collaborations with disco guru Giorgio Moroder) and Bellotte and persuaded Elton to do a disco album. Elton agreed on the premise that he just sang the vocals and did not play piano. The whole projects reeks of being an exceptionally poor decision. Even disco's light was fading by now, Elton was a year (or three) too late. Even now, you have to wonder what possessed him to do this.

The opener is a punchy, thumping cover of Chuck Berry's classic "Johnny B. Goode". Is is not too bad, although has no real rock'n'roll feeling to it but it allows whoever replaced Elton on piano to rock out with some boogie-woogie piano in the middle. Then we get some programmed drums and some wah-wah guitar before Elton returns on vocals. It is an interesting, upbeat oddity. "Warm Love In A Cold World" is all Giorgio Moroder-influenced disco rhythms - pounding drums and electric keyboard swirls backing repetitive vocals and some typical disco "thumb" bass. "Born Bad" is next (all the tracks segue into each other). It actually sounds pretty much the same as the previous one. The beat has not changed all.The "born bad" refrain is repeated just like the "warm love" bit on the previous song. "Thunder In The Night" has some Russian classical overtones and Elton's vocal is quite convincing on this one. It is probably the album's catchiest song. At least it is recognisable as Elton John.

You know, this album lasts only around thirty-five minutes, but after around twenty, I have had enough. The beat simply does not change. The vocals float around above it but it actually is a very boring album. "Spotlight" borrows the guitar riff from "Caribou"'s "Grimsby" in places, I believe. "Street Boogie" is as remarkable as the rest of it. The title track has slightly more disco appeal, with a convincing refrain, but overall I am sorry to say that this was a completely uninspiring project. I have tried to be as positive as possible, but sometimes you just have to be honest.

D-

Bob Dylan - New Morning (1972)


  

Released October 1970

Recorded at Columba Studios in New York City

Around 1970-72 was the time many artists put out laid-back, contemplative, rustic country rock - Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey", Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Deja Vu" and this, from Bob Dylan. It is a beguiling piece of work. It has been praised a lot, especially in comparison with "Self Portrait", which I feel is wide of the mark, slightly. Personally, I much prefer the latter. This album I find somewhat stark and unrealised. It came only four months after the reviled "Self Portrait", yet it avoided the brickbats and was hailed as a refreshing breath of fresh air. I am not quite sure why. It has always seemed throwaway and lightweight, to me.

"If Not For You" (covered by George Harrison on "All Things Must Pass" and made a hit single by Olivia Newton-John is appealing and country-ish. "Day Of The Locusts" was a bit of a bizarre, staccato song about Dylan receiving an honorary degree, while "Time Passes Slowly" is very much in the "Nashville Skyline" country vein. "Went To See The Gypsy" is one of the best cuts, a full, bassy and pounding tale of Dylan visiting Elvis Presley in concert in Las Vegas. There is a better version of it on "Another Self Portrait", however. "Winterlude" has a waltz beat and sounds like an old country song from the 1940s. "If Dogs Run Free" is quite a rarity among Dylan's songs. It is a piano-driven jazzy song, with Dylan croaking throatily some cod-philosophy while backed by some intensely irritating "Scooby-do-dooo, bah, bah, bah" backing "scat" vocals. At times, this really is quite awful, yet it has a vibrancy of sound about it and a sort of perverse appeal.

The title track features some excellent organ and bass work and has a lively, upbeat refrain. One of the album's best tracks. "Sign On The Window" is very much a "Self Portrait" type song - a plaintive piano-driven ballad, featuring some intrusive "woo-woo" backing vocals at times. It has Dylan ruminating about living in a cabin in Utah, catching rainbow trout and having a bunch of kids who all him "Pa". All very relaxed. The best (and only) blues rocker on the album is the punchy "One More Weekend", this is probably my favourite and is a throwback to the mid sixties. It is good to hear him rock and sing about seduction, as opposed to bucolic pleasures, for the first time in a while. "The Man In Me" is not at all bad either - a slow soulful groove. Less of the country, more of the Band-style rock ballad.

"Three Angels" is a bizarre oddity. Dylan narrates some surreal lyrics about what, I am not really sure. "Father Of Night" is one of Dylan's first devotional sons, a precursor to his 79-82 "born again" material, but, as yet, he had not seen the light.

C+

Mott - Drive On (1975)


  

Released in September 1975

Recorded at Clearwell Castle, Gloucestershire

My favourite band in the 1970s was Mott The Hoople. After they had split in October 1974, I stuck with charismatic lead singer Ian Hunter as he put out his solo work, which was, and still is, excellent. Then there was the rest of the band. What should I do about them? They formed the spin-off group, "Mott", no longer containing the by now iconic Hunter, or guitarists Mick Ralphs or Ariel Bender. Only drummer Dale "Buffin" Griffin, bassist Overend Watts and latter-day pianist Morgan Fisher remained. They were joined by guitarist Ray Major and "Spinal-Tap"-esque lead singer Nigel Benjamin, complete with high-pitched "heavy rock" squeal and a harlequin one-piece suit. Oh dear, oh God, oh my-oh.... (check out the Friars Aylesbury website. I was at the gig, in June 1976).

I stuck with them for this 1975 album, out of some sort of loyalty, a bit like watching a favourite footballer at the end of his career, plying his trade in the lower leagues. There were just a couple of moments on this album, but they really were just split seconds, to be honest. The overall sound is one of bombastic sub-heavy rock, characterised by Benjamin's voice, which certainly wasn't to my taste. Ian Hunter's Dylanesque big anthems had gone, and Mott The Hoople's Stonesy rockers too. The influence now were a sort of Deep Purple meets Black Sabbath sort of thing.

The opener, "By Tonight" is actually my favourite track, written by Overend Watts, as indeed the whole album is, it has a killer introductory riff, some great guitar and Benjamin's most convincing of his vocals. It would have been ok as an MTH track, to be fair. Some Hunter-esque piano at the end from Fisher. "Monte Carlo" starts with a solid enough trademark rock riff, but soon enough Benjamin begins his high-pitched wailing. It sort of spoils what was an acceptable enough rocker. Sorry, Nigel, your voice just wasn't for me. "She Does It" is a lively and catchy rocker and "I'll Tell You Something" is a competent rock ballad I guess. The problem with this material, though, is that it had just lost the MTH je ne sais quoi, that something that they had, for those great four or five years (particularly the last two). After this, the album goes downhill rapidly. "Stiff Upper Lip" is awful, to be honest, trying to ape MTH's "Pearl'n'Roy" and "Violence" and failing, badly, while "Love Now" employs those hackneyed heavy rock cliches in its lyrics - "I want love, I want it now, not in five minutes, I want it now...". The big heavy riffs are impressive, but it all just made me think "is this what MTH had come to?". Overend Watts had previously contributed only the somewhat laboured "Born Late '58" to Mott The Hoople's body of work. Now he was writing a whole album, and, unfortunately, his limitations showed. Now I loved Overend as part of Mott The Hoople and felt so genuinely sad when I heard of his passing last year, but back to business, this album just doesn't do it.

"The Great White Wail" has another chugging riff and then it descends in to some more cod-heavy rock vocals. The chorus refrain is reasonable enough, but this is very definitely fourth division stuff. admittedly there is some impressive guitar near the end of this track, but I just can't get past this not being anything like Mott The Hoople, really. It is, I know, partly my problem. I know there are some people who love this album. Maybe I just can't see it.

On "Here We Are", Benjamin attempts a lower key, more romantic ballad-ish vocal. It all sounds a bit flat to me, although the backing on the song is vibrant enough, it all goes a bit 'prog rock", with several changes of pace and style. "It Takes One To Know One" is full of cliches and is best left behind. The opening piano to "I Can Show You How It Is" has echoes of Ian Hunter but, unfortunately, that's as good as it got for what was a bit of a dirge, with a dreadful, singalong chorus.

Sorry lads, you know I love you, but this wasn't for me. Funny thing is, though, every now and again I dig this album out and play it!

C-

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Elton John - Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player (1973)


  

Released in January 1973

Recorded at Chateau D'Herouville, France and London

This was the album, released in January 1973, that saw Elton John begin his transition from "mature before his time, bespectacled balladeer" to outrageous glam rocker, still singing m,any of the same ballads, and interpreting Bernie Taupin's wonderful lyrics, but now with huge platform boots, gold lame suits and massive novelty glasses. The music was now not just adult, sincere ballads but was developing a commercial edge. Yes, "Your Song" and "Rocket Man" had been huge hits, but they were not upbeat, "glammy" rockers like the exhilarating, singalong fun of "Crocodile Rock". Even the album's other big hit, the moving "Daniel", although a slow number, had an irresistible hook that made it a perfect single.

To be honest, both "Teacher I Need You" and "Elderberry Wine" were rollicking, piano-driven instantly memorable rockers and certainly would have made great singles. There was certainly nothing like these tracks on late 1971's "Madman Across The Water" or also particularly on mid 1972's "Honky Chateau" (although there were a few signs of a new direction on that album). "Teacher" has a glorious refrain and "Elderberry" has one hell of a brass section on it.

"Blues For My Baby And Me" is a throwback to those introspective, mournful, brooding "Madman Across The Water" ballads, full of Bernie Taupin's Western imagery and a lovely, captivating, soulful chorus part. Just gorgeous. Elton at his mid-seventies best. Uplifting and infectious. "Midnight Creeper" is a strident, pumping piece of brass-driven blues rock, with a name check for Tina Turner. Nobody did this sort of funked-up, ballsy and bluesy rock like The Elton John Band in those days. Their sound was quite unique. The horns and guitar interplay is energising. Great stuff. As with some of the "Caribou" material, I had forgotten how good some of these lesser-known tracks were.

"Have Mercy On The Criminal" is another that harks back a bit to the "Madman" album, in its bleak subject matter, and somewhat inscrutable sound. This one certainly had no commercial pretensions whatsoever. It sits a little incongruously with the rest of the album. I remember at the time, when I heard it, at 14, I hated it. Now, in later years, I have reassessed, unsurprisingly. "I'm Gonna Be A Teenage Idol" is a pounding, brassy number that sounds like "Honky Cat" in places. The lyrics ruminate on the pop fame Elton was about to have. "Texan Love Song" is a whimsical, country ballad  with an acoustic backing that has hints of the material from the "Elton John" album. The lyrics also concern redneck homophobia in considerable detail but this went largely unnoticed at the time. "Goddam it you're all gonna die" sings the bigoted protagonist. A dark song sung over a light, buoyant melody. It had considerable irony.

After the rousing beginning to the album, it was in danger of getting in to a bit of a rut by now, but this is all saved by the rousing "Crocodile Rock", with its instant, "la-la-la" chorus and fairground keyboard riff. "High Flying Bird" was an inspirational, soaring ballad, with snatches of the piano notes from "Candle In The Wind" in places. It was one of those songs that seemed to fit being the final track on an Elton John album, like "Curtains" from "Captain Fantastic" and "All The Nasties" from "Madman" (yes I know it was the penultimate track, but it fits the bill). Elton John was on the way to flying higher than he had ever done.

B-

Elton John - Caribou (1974)


  

Released June 1974

Recorded in The Netherlands, Los Angeles and London

In many ways, Elton John's 1974 "Caribou" album was his equivalent of Bob Dylan's "Self Portrait" from 1970. After some really impressive mature albums in the early seventies, followed by one hell of a crossover to merge reflective, moving adult balladry with glam rock in 1973's multi-million seller, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", so much was now expected of Elton John, both in the UK and, more importantly in the USA, where he was now huge. In the seventies, artists were expected to put out albums virtually every year and one got the impression that this often half-baked album was Elton and Bernie's attempt to say "it doesn't matter, if you pressure us to release an album before we're ready, we will release any old rubbish". Indeed, the track "Solar Prestige A Gammon" was populated with nonsense, meaningless lyrics, in an invented language, as if to exemplify that notion and prove their point. The problem with this album is that after "Yellow Brick Road" they just weren't ready to put out any more material. "Captain Fantastic" should have been the follow up, and great it would have been too (as indeed it was). It was Elton's "Goats Head Soup".

There are, of course, two absolute classic Elton/Bernie hit singles on here - the exhilarating, in-your-face rocker that is the riffy "Bitch Is Back" and the now absolutely iconic "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me". The latter is a moving, singalong and lengthy ballad and even now is regarded as one of their classics. The upbeat, lively "Grimsby" is a good one too, a slice of nostalgia from Bernie about the Humberside town hear where he grew up in Lincolnshire. The tuneful and endearing ballad  "Pinky" is not bad either. "Dixie Lily" is a jaunty slice of energetic country rock, with Taupin's Western lyrics to the fore once again. He had been mining this seam for several years now, lyrically.

As I said, "Solar Prestige", despite its rollicking, catchy melody and piano-driven beat, was a waste of everyone's time. "You're So Static" is acceptable, actually, a brass-driven funky and bluesy rocker that wouldn't have sounded out of place on "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player" from early 1973. The brass parts are pumping and punchy and Elton's piano is manically impressive. I haven't heard this track for years and I am quite enjoying again, to be honest. "I've Seen The Saucers" is a bizarre song about flying saucers, and you feel they were going down the space path one too many times, but it has a sort of weird, late sixties Beatles-ish appeal. To be honest, it is really difficult one to categorise. It is good, or is it throwaway rubbish? Actually, it's sort of ok.

"Stinker" is, would you believe, a bit of a little hidden gem. Full of searing guitar licks, irrepressible horns and Elton on bluesy top vocal form, while pounding his pudgy fingers on those keyboards. "Ticking" has a most entrancingly beautiful and melodic piano introduction, and the song, in contrast, tells a tragic tale of a previously well-behaved young man who goes off the rails and pointlessly murders fourteen people in a bar. It is actually one of Bernie Taupin's most disturbing songs, and indeed is one of his lost classics. I had utterly forgotten this wonderful song. I am so glad I rediscovered it. Add it to any "Elton John obscure greats" playlist.

You know, I have really enjoyed playing this album again. Give it a listen. It has had a bum rap for too long.

C+

Bob Dylan - Saved (1980)


  

Released June 1980

Recorded at Muscle Shoals Studio, Alabama

The second of Bob Dylan's Christian albums, I have always found "Saved", from 1980, far less appealing than its predecessor, the vivacious, dynamic "Slow Train Coming". Firstly, despite its supposed remastering, the sound has aways been far more muffled than the previous album. It is somewhat muddy, the instruments far less defined. Dylan's fervour has lost its initial zeal, to be honest, he is saying the same things again - warning of damnation, of purgatory and cautioning us against sin, willing us to accept the Lord - or else. He played a 100 date tour delivering such on stage sermons, which wasn't his best move (although some of the live recordings from that period are surprisingly good - see "The Bootleg Series Vol 13"). The songs played from this album actually sound much better in concert than they do here.

The album opens with a short vocal track, "A Satisfied Mind", before kicking into the rocky, powerful title track, full of loud female gospel-style backing vocals and a solid drum, guitar and piano backing. It rocks averagely well, and I always enjoy it when I hear it. "Covenant Woman" is a slower-paced, lengthy rock ballad that doesn't really get anywhere, comparatively. "What Can I Do For You?" is a yearning number in the same sow temp, lifted in the middle by a gorgeous harmonica solo. There is a powerful guitar, drum and bass guitar ending to the song as well. "Solid Rock" has always sounded far too muffled to me, and again it sounds much better played live. It is has an insistent, rocking beat, though, although the vocals are far too down in the mix, as is the bass. You cannot convince me this has been remastered, I'm afraid.

On "Pressing On", a tired-sounding Dylan tells us how he is indeed pressing on, as if to say "I'm gonna carry on doing this, whatever, it's too late to stop now..." to coin a phrase. Again, it is a track dominated by the vocal backing, it almost drowns out Dylan, in  a way that it didn't on "Slow Train Coming". As with all the material on the album, I and it somewhat half-baked, as if with a bit more attention, it could have been much better. The same applies to the potentially potent "In The Garden". "Saving Grace" raises the bar a bit, it is probably my favourite on the album. Slow, dignified and moving. Lovely organ backing on it, and guitar too. Dylan's voice on this one is as convincing as it was on "Slow Train Coming". Nice one. The pure gospel of "Are You Ready" very much sounds like an outtake from the previous album. It grinds and plods and again the backing vocalists dominate but it also features a searing guitar solo, mid-point.

The problem for Dylan was, that as an artist who had always trod his own path, oblivious to trends and fashions, he had previously always taken multitudes with him on his journey. Here, though, with this album selling really poorly, he was like a saviour in the wilderness.

NB - despite being supposedly "remastered" for the "Complete Works Box Set", the sound still sounds slightly under par to me, a bit bassier but that's it. For me the only truly decent Dylan remasters are those released as "HDCD" remasters. They all have wonderful clarity and warmth of sound.

C-