Music Reviews: March 2018 issue

Here are selected reviews from Goldmine’s March 2018 issue:

QUEEN
NEWS OF THE WORLD: 40TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
Hollywood Records
(3 CD+1 DVD)

4 Stars

It was 1977, the height of the punk era, and so-called “dinosaur rock” bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Queen were in the crosshairs. Though Queen didn’t try to “go punk” themselves, it’s probably not a coincidence that News of the World, their sixth album, took a harder rock stance than their previous work; no “Bohemian Rhapsody,” let alone the foppery of “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” Instead, the album served up such tough, no-holds-barred numbers as “Sheer Heart Attack,” “Fight From the Inside,” “Get Down, Make Love,” and, of course, “We Will Rock You.”

Queen didn’t leave their melodic side behind completely. There’s the sweet sadness of “All Dead, All Dead,” the light reggae of the jocular kiss-off “Who Needs You,” and the concluding torch number “My Melancholy Blues.” Not to mention the flipside of the “We Will Rock You” single, Freddie Mercury’s majestic, self-affirming “We Are the Champions.” The album reached No. 3, and sold over four million copies.

The 1991 CD release came with one unmemorable remix of “We Will Rock You,” so the 2011 reissue, with five bonus tracks, was a decided improvement. Now comes this lavish set, which ups the ante even further. But there’s no accompanying 2-CD set as with other reissues, like the Beatles’ 2017 reissue of Sgt. Pepper. To get the extras, you’ll have to spring for the whole box.

Is it worth it? That depends how much of a Queen fanatic you are. It’s the same album master as the 2011 release, you get all the bonus tracks from that reissue, and the BBC tracks from 2016’s Queen On Air set. Plus: there’s an entire alternate album mix, called “Raw Sessions,” with demos, rough mixes and alternative versions that are exciting to listen to. They’re all noticeably different, with some nice surprises, like Mercury’s lead vocal on “All Dead, All Dead” (Brian May sings it on the album) and a different “Sheer Heart Attack” arrangement. And what if they decided not to go beyond Take 1 of “We Will Rock You”? This is the disc Queen-o-philes will have most fun listening to; it’s the strongest reason to get the set.

The third CD has a good mix of backing tracks and live cuts. There’s a pure analog  re-cut of the original vinyl album, straight from the unmastered analog master mix tapes. There’s also a one hour documentary on DVD, “Queen: The American Dream,” drawn from great footage shot on the band’s 1977 fall tour; one wishes it was longer. And the usual ephemera that comes with such a box (e.g. facsimile backstage passes), the best of which is a hardback book of photos.

Still, it’s a shame there isn’t a 2-CD set with the original album and raw sessions available. Which means diehard Queen fans will be sorely tempted to shell out for this box set.

(Note: Not included in the set, but available from queenonlinestore.com, is a new limited edition picture disc of the album). —Gillian G. Gaar

 

Alvin Lee & Co.
Live At The Academy Of Music, New York, 1975
Rainman Records (CD)

3 Stars

Alvin Lee led one of the great ‘60s bands, Ten Years After.  He’s now popped up years after his death in 2013 at the age of 68 in Spain (where he lived his final days) from surgical complications. This fitting 2-CD goodbye to the man with the lion’s mane of hair who used to regularly dazzle the hippies at the Fillmore East (including me) with his lightning-fast lead guitar and British feel for the blues, shows what drove Lee after quitting Ten Years After in 1973. He even explores jazz-funk fusion on the 17:30 “Percy’s Roots.”

Revitalizations of classics like “Money Honey” (the 1953 Drifters song that Elvis famously covered three years later on his self-titled debut) and “Baby, Please Don’t Go” (the 1935 Big Joe Williams blues song) are just the tip of a huge iceberg. He gets all acoustic and lovely, too. His band is comprised of former King Crimson prog-rockers on drums (Ian Wallace) and woodwinds (Mel Collins) plus two from Stone The Crows (the ‘70s band from Scotland) on bass (Steve Thomson) and keyboards (Ronnie Leahy). Add background singers and some extra nifty percussion and you have one damn fine soundboard recording (especially considering the year). Never-before-released, Lee sounds great both vocally and on his speed-zip guitar which he slows down for extra resonance. Reportedly, Lee was working on remastering this when he died and his widow Evi has continued the project. The man was a giant. Too bad he refrained from doing any of his popular Ten Years After songs. —Mike Greenblatt `

 

NEIL YOUNG + PROMISE OF THE REAL
THE VISITOR
Reprise Records
(CD, LP)

5 Stars

At age 72, Neil Young is still kicking butt and taking names. The Visitor is a stellar piece of work, filled with biting lyrics and top-drawer music. It stands among the finest work of his long career and features rock, blues, grunge, country and Latin sounds. It is Young’s second album with the California-based band Promise of the Real, following on from 2015’s The Monsanto Years. Promise of the Real is comprised of Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas (guitar, vocals) and Micah (guitar, vocals, and piano) as well as Corey McCormick (bass, vocals), Anthony Logerfo (drums), and Tato Melgar (percussion). Young and the band work so well together and there is no filler on the album. Every track shines in its own way.

The album kicks off in grand style with the grunge-meets-blues protest song “Already Great.” The song ends with a repeated call and response of “Whose street?/ Our street!” That is followed by the rocker “Fly By Night Deal” which features Young’s spoken-word vocal over very effective backing vocals. Young then shifts gears for the softer, somewhat whimsical “Almost Always” that has Young on acoustic guitar and harmonica. The strident, guitar-oriented protest song “Stand Tall” sounds like a Crazy Horse track. The countrified “Change Of Heart” is acoustic with a light touch. Young’s lead vocal shifts from singing to spoken word. “Carnival” is a jaunty Latin-style song with a mostly spoken-word vocal by Young. “Diggin’ A Hole” sounds like a vintage blues track from the 1950s that would have seemed right at home on a Muddy Waters album. The lyrics are repetitive but, as with all great blues songs, very effective. “Children Of Destiny” is another protest track, exhorting people to stand up for what is right and to protect democracy and the land for future generations. The brief bluesy protest song “When Bad Got Good” contains a demand of “lock him up” and declares “No belief in the Liar-in-Chief.” The album closes with the loose and meandering acoustic track “Forever.” The lyrics to the track are terrific, in particular “Earth is like a church without a preacher.” —John Curley

 

ROY ORBISON
A LOVE SO BEAUTIFUL
Roy’s Boys/Monument/Legacy (CD)

4 Stars

ARETHA FRANKLIN
A BRAND NEW ME
Atlantic/Rhino (CD)

4 Stars

Looks like London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has a new side gig. In 2015, they provided the orchestral backing for an Elvis Presley album, If I Can Dream, which took Presley’s vocals and dropped them into a new setting — orchestral accompaniment by the Royal Phil. The subsequent album topped the charts in the U.K. and Australia, and reached No. 21 in Billboard’s “Top 200,” while topping the Classical Music Chart (a first for Presley).

That naturally led to follow-up releases: 2016’s The Wonder of You, and 2017’s Christmas with Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s also led to the production team of Nick Patrick and Don Reedman taking the same approach with two other artists: Roy Orbison and Aretha Franklin.

Reedman, who saw Orbison when he toured Australia, explains in the liner notes he always felt the singer had an operatic voice, which would make pairing him with an orchestra a natural progression. This release features some of his best-known material: “In Dreams,” “Crying,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman,” as well as “You Got It,” from his last album, Mystery Girl, and a duet with Ward Thomas on “I Drove All Night.” In a nice touch, Orbison’s sons, Wesley, Roy Jr., and Alex, also appear on some numbers.

Given that these are “best of” sets of sorts, you can probably guess what tracks appear on the Franklin album: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Think,” and, of course, “Respect,” along with some other interesting selections, like “Let It Be” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” (Liner notes here would also have been nice).

The whole concept is something of a novelty, a means of reworking something old and familiar. And to these ears, having heard all the Presley releases in addition to these two new ones, the orchestrations don’t add all that much. Do side-by-side comparisons of, say, “In Dreams” and “Respect,” and the orchestrated versions sound too cluttered, too busy. There’s an emotional purity to the original versions that’s somewhat compromised by the layers of strings and other adornments.

That’s this reviewer’s personal view. But it doesn’t mean that the recordings aren’t also enjoyable to listen to. In a sense, it’s like envisioning what these artists would’ve done in concert, how they might bolster their work to present a more full-bodied performance. It’s a fun spin on some classic work — even if the new versions don’t surpass the originals.
—Gillian G. Gaar

 

Various Artists
An American Troubador: The Songs of Steve Forbert
Blue Rose Music (CD)

4 Stars

Steve Forbert, 63, has been one of the most poignant sandpapery-voiced singer-songwriters since the 1970s. His first two albums, 1978’s Alive On Arrival and 1979’s Jackrabbit Slim are pure out-of-nowhere masterpieces and his career since has had more than a few brilliant nuggets scattered amongst his 18 solid albums. His songs have been covered by Rosanne Cash, Keith Urban and Marty Stuart, just to name three.

This 21-track widely diverse project is a keeper in that there’s nary a weak link which is usually the downfall of tribute albums. If one didn’t know Forbert, one would still be enthralled by these words, these melodies and these stellar performances.

Oates is without Hall but has Delaney & Bonnie wild-child daughter Bekka Bramlett on “I Blinked Once.” Jim Lauderdale’s version of “What Kinda Guy?” is not only hilarious but rocks in an endearing way. Forbert used the template laid down by Charlie Rich in “Mohair Sam” where language itself is mangled to maximum effect. Texas balladeer Robert Earl Keen makes “It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way” his own. John Popper from Blues Traveler nails “You Cannot Win (If You Do Not Play).” Bill Lloyd’s “When The Sun Shines” might be my personal highlight but you can’t go wrong with any of these great Americana tracks from a below-the-radar American Treasure like Forbert.
—Mike Greenblatt

 

SPOCK’S BEARD
SNOW LIVE
Radiant Records
(2-CD+2-DVD)

4 Stars

Imagine if, in 1969, just after completing The Who’s rock opera masterpiece, Tommy, Pete Townshend announced he was quitting the band… without ever playing a note of it onstage.

That’s exactly what happened in 2002 when Neal Morse, founder/singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist for U.S. progressive rockers Spock’s Beard, quit the band just as it released Snow, an album that has gone on to be regarded by many (including this reviewer) as the band’s unquestionable masterpiece. There was no tour for this great album. Morse never played Snow with Spock’s Beard live… until, that is, 2016, when Morse reunited with the band at his annual Morsefest event to finally perform the two-record set start-to-finish.

This (for fans of the band, at least) historic event was filmed and recorded and is now available on a superb 4-disc set offering two DVDs of the video version and two CDs of the audio. The best way to experience this is on DVD, because the music only tells half the story. There was a real poignance to this emotionally charged performance, as the story of Snow closely reflected Morse’s state of mind at the time of its creation. On its surface, Snow tells the tale of an albino man born with psychic powers who becomes famous for these abilities before he leaves it all behind to embrace a spiritual life. It’s easy to read this as a metaphor for Morse’s story—instead of psychic abilities, he had great musical gifts and was achieving success with Spock’s Beard, but decided just after finishing the album that he had to leave the band to follow his own path as a Christian musician.

This subtext adds great emotional power to such moments in this concert as when Morse sings “I Will Go.” He knew he was leaving the group when he wrote these words, and it’s virtually impossible to see him get choked up as he sings them now and not be moved. Beyond the emotional power of this performance, it’s also a testament to what a damn great band Spock’s Beard was in the Morse era, and has continued to be in the years since he left. This show unified all past and present members of Spock’s Beard — the original lineup of Morse, his brother Alan (lead guitar), drummer Nick D’Virgilio, keyboardist Ryo Okumoto and bassist Dave Meros was joined by current lead singer Ted Leonard and drummer Jimmy Keegan (who replaced D’Virgilio in 2011 and left in 2016). This seven-piece ensemble killed it on this complex, challenging song cycle, and the cooperation between players is heartening; Morse trades off lead vocals with D’Virgilio (who took over as singer from 2002 to 2011), Leonard and Keegan.

The additional players also add richness and texture in the instrumental department, with additional guitars and keyboards fleshing out the parts of these beautiful, melodic songs. No arrangements had to be stripped down. The music features complex time signatures and ornate arrangements, but what makes Snow so exceptional is the quality of the well-crafted songs themselves, and the power of their message. With pitch-perfect staging (on the stage of Morse’s church!) and a deep, full, powerful mix by Rich Mouser, this set is an essential purchase for any Spock’s Beard/Neal Morse/all-around prog fan. Bonus features include a documentary/Q+A video segment, and two additional songs.
—Howard Whitman

 

JOE HAGAN
STICKY FINGERS
Alfred A. Knopf
(Hardcover)

5 Stars

Joe Hagan uses some pungent terms in describing Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in his biography: he’s an “inveterate social climber,” who’s “cocky,” and “overbearing,” is noted for his “brusque arrogance,” “casual betrayals,” and “bullying force,” and whose staffers derisively referred to him (behind his back, of course) as nothing more than a “starf**ker.” And that’s just in the first 11 pages.

So it’s no wonder that Wenner has taken exception to Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and ‘Rolling Stone’ Magazine. On its release, he and Hagan were supposed to be promoting the book together; instead, Wenner released a statement calling the book “deeply flawed and tawdry” and withdrew his support. Hagan, in an interview with the New York Times, countered that there was nothing Wenner didn’t know about in the book, and that the issue was one of control. Wenner had initially wanted Hagan to write an authorized book, meaning Wenner would’ve had the right to approve everything in it. Hagan said he couldn’t work that way, and Wenner finally agreed, only reading the book in its final stages.

Wenner’s right in that Sticky Fingers doesn’t present the most flattering portrayal of him. But the real issue should be whether or not it’s a fair one. He’s certainly shown as an ambitious and ruthless operator with a not inconsiderable ego. But you don’t rise to the top in any industry by being nice; at one time Wenner oversaw not only Rolling Stone, but also Outside, Men’s Journal, Us, and the book imprint Rolling Stone Press.

Most of the book is about Rolling Stone, especially its 1960s/70s heyday, and anyone who enjoyed rock music and/or Rolling Stone during this period will find Sticky Fingers wonderfully insightful. It’s no dry recounting of the rise of Wenner’s media empire. The staff in-fighting, sexual liaisons, copious drug use, and ever-changing litany of world’s top rock stars dropping and in and out of the story make the book a real page-turner.

And then there’s the behind-the-scenes look at how the magazine was put together. Favored stars got preferential treatment, to the point of being able to oversee the stories written about them. Less favored acts didn’t fare so well; Paul Simon was on the hit list for years, because he’d had an affair with Wenner’s girlfriend — before Rolling Stone magazine had even started.

It’s also the first time Wenner’s personal life has been discussed in such detail (remember, it’s a Wenner biography, not just the story of Rolling Stone). Though married to a woman for nearly 30 years, Wenner was gay; he didn’t publicly come out until leaving his wife in 1995. Now his conflicted double life is finally revealed, including rare interviews with Wenner’s ex-wife, Jane.

Hagan, with Wenner’s help, also got many well-known names to open up to him: Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, David Geffen, Clive Davis, Yoko Ono, and Bette Midler, among many others. It’s an impressive cast of characters that adds further interest to this story about a man who, like him or not, created a media brand that ultimately had a profound effect on popular culture.
—Gillian G. Gaar

 

Sons of Apollo
Psychotic Symphony
InsideOut Music/Sony
(CD, LP)

3 Stars

Another day, another new Mike Portnoy supergroup. Since the superstar drummer’s exit from Dream Theater in 2010, he’s played with a number of different bands, many of them groupings of famous musicians. In the latest such band, Sons of Apollo, he reunites with Derek Sherinian, who served as Dream Theater’s keyboardist from 1994 to 1999, as well as bassist Billy Sheehan, his rhythm-section partner in the hard-rock trio The Winery Dogs. This quintet is rounded out by two more players of note, vocalist Jeff Scott Soto (who’s sung with Yngwie Malmsteen and briefly was the touring singer in Journey) and guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, best known for his stint with the Slash-less Guns N’ Roses.

That’s some pedigree, and in many ways, the band lives up to its promise. As stated in press material, the intention here was to merge Dream Theater-level progressive metal with the more straightforward hard rock of classic bands such as Deep Purple. On tracks such as “Coming Home,” they come very close to pulling that off. Soto’s bravado-filled vocals don’t resemble definitive Purple singer Ian Gillan as much as his brief replacement (and longtime vocalist for Rainbow) Joe Lynn Turner. But on a track like the opener, “God of the Sun,” Soto sounds more like David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap, and when Soto bellows “I am the god of the sun!,” one can’t help but think of the Tap’s cringeworthy Stonehenge moment.

Still, it’s impossible to deny this band’s incredible musical ability. Portnoy delivers his typical outstanding drumming, busy and technical and populated with crazy fills, but never forgetting about the almighty groove. Sherinian is a master technician on the keyboards, and his fiery solos could often be confused with guitar leads. That’s high praise here, because Bumblefoot is the breakout star of this band and album. His elastic fretless, drop-tuned rhythm guitar is a compelling element throughout this disc, while his leads often equal the work of his Dream Theater counterpart John Petrucci. Only Sheehan is underserved here; his bass is often buried in the mix, which is understandable when flashy talents like Sherinian and Bumblefoot are executing their flamboyant parts. Sheehan plays more of a supportive role in this band, which is a shame, because he’s one of the most stunning bass players on the planet, but someone has to hold down the foundation here, and it’s him.

Songs such as “Labyrinth” seem to exist more as a framework for the band’s wild excursions than than as songs, but then the band switches gears with a track like “Divine Addiction,” which nicely spotlights Soto’s vocal chops over a song that would fit in perfectly in the latter-day Deep Purple catalog.

The album wraps up with “Opus Maximus,” a proggy instrumental that provides a final testament to the band’s considerable chops as it recalls prog classics such as ELP and UK. Aided by crisp production by Portnoy and Sherinian, Psychotic Symphony may not be for all tastes, but if you like athletic musicianship mixed with solid rock, along with the occasional side order of tongue-in-cheek pretentiousness, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. —Howard Whitman

 

TIM BUCKLEY
VENICE MATING CALL
Manifesto (2-CD Set)

5 Stars

Like his short-lived contemporary Jim Morrison, Tim Buckley [1947-1975] conveyed the late 1960s/early ’70s sensuality and urgency in a voice that by itself was a mating call. With his dramatic sustains and swoops, growling dips and soaring fallen-angel falsetto flights, Buckley (father of similarly short-lived Jeff Buckley, whom he met but once) was one of his era’s most astounding singer-songwriters — a man whose artistic vision was too broad for boundaries of style.

With 13 tracks stretching over 100 minutes, cleanly mastered Venice Mating Call comes from recently surfaced tapes of Sept. 3-4, 1969, performances at Los Angeles’s famed Troubadour.   The shows were works in progress in every sense, with his hipster jazz/rock band extemporizing without mere noodling on spontaneous arrangements unlike those the songs later got on studio recordings. For that matter, lines in a song here could be shifted to a different song in the studio.

Thanks in part to his mother’s extensive LP collection, Buckley could “create in any direction,” his sometime writing partner Larry Beckett points out in this package’s thorough notes. Guitarist/pianist Lee Underwood remarks, “The intensity and atonality I think he absorbed from the Miles (Davis) of his day.” “Lorca” goes deeply into blues consciousness. “(I Wanna) Testify” has a black church influence.

Spellbinding Venice Mating Call is part of Manifesto Records’ project of releasing previously unissued Buckley concerts and remastering some of his ’70s LPs such as Sefronia and Look At The Fool. This could be exciting. —Bruce Sylvester


QUICK PICKS

By John M. BorackTHE SEARCHERS ANOTHER NIGHT: THE SIRE RECORDINGS 1979-1981
Omnivore (CD)

Genre: Power Pop

A most welcome reissue, combining both of The Searchers’ excellent new wave-era albums and adding alternate mixes, B-sides and a previously unreleased version of John Hiatt’s “Ambulance Chaser.” The Searchers’ jangly guitars and heavenly harmonies never sounded better, and covers of songs from the likes of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Big Star andThe Records add to the fun.

JEFF LYNNE’S ELO WEMBLEY OR BUST Columbia (CD+DVD)

Genre: Pop-Rock

A double-CD set – and a two-hour DVD – containing note-perfect live renditions of most of ELO’s classics, as well as a few curve balls (“Xanadu,” “Wild West Hero”), performed by Jeff Lynne and a dozen (!) backing musicians. The patented flying saucer hovers overhead throughout and Lynne is a genial, if slightly awkward, front man. (He also botches the first verse of a tentative reading of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care.”) Curiously, each song on the CD fades out at the close, negating the “live in concert” feel.

THE FOUNDATIONS THE BEST OF THE FOUNDATIONS
Varese Sarabande (CD)

Genre: Pop-Soul

The sublime smashes “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” and “Build Me Up Buttercup” are here, of course (both presented in their mono single versions), along with 14 more soulfully satisfying numbers. Under-the-radar winners such as the 1969 B-side “Solomon Grundy” and the last-gasp 1972 single “Stoney Ground” are enough to make one overlook the fact that a handful of the songs here sound similar to “Build Me Up Buttercup” or “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You.”

 

CHRIS BELL THE COMPLETE CHRIS BELL Omnivore (6-LP set)

Genre: Pop

An exquisitely packaged and lovingly curated limited edition collection that takes a deep dive into the musical legacy of the co-founder of Big Star, who died tragically at age 27 in 1978. Bell’s thoughtful, tortured brilliance is on display throughout, whether it’s on the pre-Big Star cuts, the posthumous, glorious I Am the Cosmos album, or the two LPs worth of outtakes and alternate versions. Also included is an illuminating, previously unheard interview with Bell from 1975, only available as part of the boxed set.

 

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