Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Jimi Hendrix Loose Ends (1973)


Well, the one sincere thing about this album is its title: Loose Ends. Because indeed it is a patchwork of some Hendrix studio sessions (rehearsals), and they’re not the first rate, I must say.

It seems like the album editor glued pieces of tape as a jig-saw puzzle – and provided enough material, length-wise to be published as an album. It meets that requirement, if nothing else.

It’s a tricky thing with posthumous albums: they’re part of artist’s official discography, but you can be almost certain the artist himself wouldn’t do it that way. Compilations are another story; you can simply dismiss them as an attempt to gain extra money (although there are some good ones too).

Some tracks from ‘Loose Ends’ (see? I’m refusing to call them songs, because some of them are not complete songs) are taken from previously released material, some are rehearsals that end with a fade-out, some are instrumental versions of known-songs, there’s a blues standard…

The blues standard is good old Willie Dixon’s ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ and it’s decent, even if a bit sub-par in vocal delivery (Jim could had it better certainly). Jam 292 is exactly what it name suggests, Blue Suede Shoes is…wait. It’s specific. Half of the songs is Jimi explaining to the drummer (Michell or Buddy Miles? tracks are a mixed bag with various musicians) how to play the song, insisting only on ‘cymbal and snare’ in an old fashioned-way.

I have to admit Jimi’s trademark guitar sound and approach doesn’t feet well with such an approach. It ends with a fade-out, implying that a jam continued for who knows how long. That’s the material we are dealing with here. It might be interesting to Hendrix fans who are interested in knowing how was Jimi working with his colleagues – it could be aimed at fans that are musicians, I guess. Poor Perkins. First a certain truck driver took his song and became famous, and then he experienced numerous butcherings of it. Including this one. I’m sure Jimi wouldn’t like it to be published neither.

‘The Stars That Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice’ is the same as the original. If there are some minor differences, I can’t trace them. But I never understood this one to be frank, it seems like a quite noodling cacophony.

Everything else is quite forgettable, except for ‘Burning Desire’ that stands out of the crowd: I like this one a lot (was headbanging on it in my teens) – it’s powerful, with grinding guitar, ascending in melody, tempo and energy, building up on blues-driven madness while Jimi shouts ‘burning desire, all around electric chair’. Angular, unusual, and yet so distinctly marked with Jimi’s signature. It’s worth all the points for rating of this unsuccessful album ,the other one being ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, perhaps for its educational value, but certainly not for wider audience.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Jimi Hendrix Loose Ends | | Leave a comment

Neil Young Lucky Thirteen (1993)


The album tracks, remixes and live recordings on Lucky Thirteen come from Neil Young’s trying affiliation through the Eighties with Geffen Records, a period that found him more slagged than celebrated. In fact, that passage only clarified Young’s passionate, career-long commitment to emotion over style; it offered the genre experiments of someone who countered early-Seventies Eagles-style pop, for example, with music that sounds like Sonic Youth playing country rock. Lucky Thirteen resequences and rethinks the imperfect but important Eighties work of an artist who recently contended that “deep inside” his acoustic pleasantries, his distorted raveups, his troubled techno, his symphonic flights, lies “the same stuff.” It’s an extraordinary view for a Sixties-based rock musician to take — a refusal to moralize about genre — and on this compilation, Young begins to set his artistic record straight.

Compiled by Young himself, Lucky Thirteen is more concerned with demonstrating the value of eclecticism than showing off Young’s finest Geffen copyrights; many memorable songs don’t appear. Instead, Young tries to show how the emotional impulses behind his songwriting, performing and recording methods remain constant as his styles vary. Beginning with a spectacular remix, firm and echoing, of “Sample and Hold” (Trans, 1982), followed by the blend of romantic yearning and technological severity in “Transformer Man,” from the same album, Young makes the bold transition into the analog guitar-and-harmonica vibe of the previously unreleased “Depression Blues.” In context, the dramatic effect of a narrative shot through with worries and hope that mourns the loss of “magic” in today’s world is impossible to overstate. These songs alone make Young’s point extremely well: that when you’re not married to one particular style, your music can then be free to develop itself totally, without fear of too much attention to what Young calls “surface.”

On the rest of Lucky Thirteen, Young further wins his case not with theory but with music: In a live, gnarly, previously unreleased version of “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me,” he stretches out words in a George Jones kind of way. On “Hippie Dream” and “Pressure” (Landing on Water, 1986) he sings country aches into songs governed by involved, gritty electric guitar. And in a patch of his famous indigestibility, he tells the tale of “Mideast Vacation” (Life, 1987), rolling out that metal-sired “Like a Hurricane” float that could be, in the end, Young’s greatest musical contribution.

A longer retrospective called Neil Young Archives will follow Lucky Thirteen. Meantime, there is this extraordinary album, which lays out the crucial reasons why Neil Young perseveres and triumphs.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Neil Young Lucky Thirteen | | Leave a comment

Neil Young Time Fades Away (1974)


This album may do for Neil Young’s declining image what Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid did for Dylan’s. But like Dylan’s much-maligned movie soundtrack LP, Time Fades Away has its virtues when taken on its own terms and not as the latest major work of a major artist. Here, Young seems to have consciously avoided the sober sense of importance that accompanied After the Gold Rush and Harvest by recording his new material live and rough. Mistakes and fluffs dot these performances, and Young has made no attempt to correct them. For whatever reason, he’s made a startlingly unorthodox album.

If Time Fades Away isn’t the standard big statement we’ve come to expect from such performers, neither is it the standard live album of the successful artist. There are no hits, no familiar tunes; for that matter, there’s hardly any audience response — it’s quickly faded out at each song’s end. More than any of his earlier works, this record shows Young’s reticence about being a public figure.

Young’s privateness has always been at the heart of his writing and performing, right alongside his staunch moral sense. These two elements have been both his prime virtues and his main flaws. Both elements are evident in this new material, with uneven but sometimes positive results.

There is an overbearing sense of self-righteousness in the title song, with its images of nervous junkies strung out on the street. But it’s saved by a sharply ironic chorus, in which the junkie’s weak parent whines: “Son, don’t be home too late/Try to get back by eight/Son, don’t wait ’til the break of day/’Cause you know how time fades away….” The lyric is energized by hard, jerking instrumental work from the Stray Gators and by Young’s jagged, piercing vocal: He’s still the best whiner in rock & roll. And he expresses anguish like no one else.

Young’s is a pain-dominated, rather Old Testament sensibility, and nowhere is all this more obvious than in “L.A.” Young’s self-righteousness becomes absolute, and he depicts himself as some neo-Israelite prophet warning the unhearing masses of the inevitable apocalypse. Young’s blanket condemnations, “Southern Man” and “Alabama” included, are as simplistic as they are venomous, but their fire makes them compelling nonetheless. That “L.A.” is reflectively sung while the two earlier songs sounded impetuous makes this one’s content and tone that much more ugly.

It’s hard to believe that the same person who conceived “L.A.” could write and sing the delicate “Journey Through the Past,” “The Bridge,” and “Love In Mind.” These are small-scope, understated songs, and they’re performed convincingly by Young, with only his own simple piano.

The best song on the album is “Don’t Be Denied,” which continues the tone but expands the scope of his quiet, personal songs. It is a complete autobiography in four verses, and the most effective part deals with his childhood. In this section, Young cuts rapidly through scenes that depict the private trials of a rather delicate kid in a rugged land. This song seems an explicit re-expression of the emotional content of Young’s moving but impenetrably private “Broken Arrow.” The latter part of “Denied,” in which Young deals with the problems of being a celebrity, forgoes universality for the writer’s personal complaints but is no less credible for it. A lack of honesty in his work has never been one of Young’s problems; if anything, he’s gone too far in the other direction, saying what would have better been left unsaid and looking bigoted or just plain foolish in the process.

He comes off rather silly in “Last Dance,” a long, ponderous song that sounds like Young’s parody of his own After the Gold Rush hard-rock style. And he’s out of control on “Yonder Stands the Sinner,” which is self-deprecating in what seems to be a more intentional way. His voice breaks when he squeal-shouts the word, “sinner!,” as if he were disclaiming the moralistic fury of “L.A.”

If Young appears foolish and arrogant at various points on the album, he seems to be allowing us a glimpse of these flaws, rather than letting them slip through and spoil his big moments without his consent, as happened on Harvest. Time Fades Away is an idiosyncrasy from one of rock’s most idiosyncratic artists. If it isn’t a resounding success, the album is still a revealing self-portrait by an always fascinating man.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Neil Young Time Fades Away | | Leave a comment

Neil Young Archives Vol 1 (2010)


At some point during the last twenty years, as Neil Young’s Archives set was pushed back another nine months on the official Warner Brother release schedule for the umpteenth time in a row, I became convinced that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. Not the archive of unreleased songs itself, but the plans to release it.
The songs were surely there; many of the rare tracks that have surfaced on bootlegs rate among his finest work. And there are definitely a lot of them; the 2000 unreleased-song compilation Archives Be Damned, culled by tape-trading fans from a multitude of unofficial sources, fills up five audio CDs, and that’s just the stuff the general public was able to get its grubby hands on. Ever since the late seventies, Young has been talking about the project, occasionally revealing song lists on his website and then abruptly removing them. But after more than a decade of this talk, I was positive he’d never allow the whole banana to be unpeeled in his own lifetime, possibly preferring to leave it for his descendents to deal with. It was easy to imagine him calling his manager every so often to say, “I’m not dead yet, push it out to next October.”

The reasons given at the time had to do with the limitations of CD audio as a medium, or the need to re-design the accompanying booklet, but the more likely culprit was the eternally restless Young’s inability to focus on his past long enough to pull it into coherent shape. As he held press conferences and even posted a trailer for the damn thing, it seemed like he was just bringing more people in on the joke as release dates continued to be postponed through 2007 and 2008. Just a few weeks ago, as they started taking money for pre-orders, his spokespeople were promising “This time, it’s REALLY coming out” with a tone that suggested they didn’t expect to be taken seriously any more. As of last week, I would have bet you twenty bucks we’d never see it while Young was alive.

But today I have ceased to doubt. As far as I know, the man still walks the earth, and I hold in my hands a set of ten DVDs from Warner Bros labeled Neil Young Achives Vol. 1: 1963-72. Among the contents are several tracks I have never heard in many years of obsessively seeking out Young’s music, along with a lot of others I have heard before, but in a fidelity that surpasses anything in my collection.

Yes, fellow Rusties, it was worth the wait.

Whether it’s worth the steep asking price is more subjective. While it’s possible to get the set on CD for a relatively modest $99, minus the videos and about a dozen audio “easter eggs”, the extensive extra content on the DVD makes a good case for doubling your investment, particularly if you already own a lot of Neil Young CDs. Each track contains a “file” with multiple compartments, and can be drilled into to peruse Young’s handwritten lyrics, interview excerpts, period photos, alternate mixes and even the occasional performance video. Purchasers of the top-line $299 Blu-Ray edition get the same content that’s on the DVDs, plus the promise of downloadable new content at some point in the future.

Nevertheless, the audio quality observed on the DVD set is already a marked improvement from every previous pressing of Young’s studio material. The songs from Crazy Horse’s 1969 debut Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, in particular, burst out of the speakers with a three-dimensional attack and stunning clarity. I wouldn’t say it’s like listening to vinyl; more like listening to half-inch tape. This really does have the feeling of throwing the original masters on for a playback, and it’s hard to imagine I’ll be needing to buy any of this music in remastered form any time soon.

As for what’s on it: the set takes a kind of strange approach to presenting Young’s entire recorded output, giving you most of the officially released tracks released during the years in question, but not quite all of them. A few songs, including favorites like “Mr. Soul” and “Words”, are represented only by live or alternate versions, leaving out their well-known studio recordings, while others have simply vanished. Surely there will be detailed lists of every relevant omission posted on the net by Tuesday afternoon, but just a cursory listen reveals are some really major ones. What happened to “Out On The Weekend”? “Emperor of Wyoming”? The Richie Furay vocals on his Buffalo Springfield material; the nine-minute version of the Springfield’s “Bluebird” that contains one of Neil’s earliest recorded guitar freakouts, his contributions to CSNY’s live album Four Way Street… it’s hard to understand why these were left off when other tracks have multiple versions taking up space. As such, it falls a bit short of being a true “complete recordings” collection; purchasers of this set can’t trade in all their existing Neil Young CDs without losing something essential.

The big draw for the most devoted collectors will be the previously-unreleased material found here, though it’s interesting to note that there’s precious little here that we boot afficionados haven’t already heard in some form. Most of those songs come from Disc 0, Neil’s legendary, un-heard recordings with his teenage band The Squires, and his earliest demos as an aspiring folksinger. It’s a trip when the very first vocal we hear, following a few rowdy Link Wray-inspired instrumentals, is a familiar one. “Well I wonder who’s with her tonight, and I wonder who’s holding her tight” sings Young, as he would in the second verse of “Don’t Cry No Tears” on 1975’s Zuma, over a decade later.

The band’s mix of surf music and Stonesy R&B must have been a hoot and a half on the Canadian club circuit in 1964. They’re not very accomplished, no better or worse than a lot of other garage bands of the time, but would certainly rate an entry on one of the Nuggets collection. Young’s 1965 demo for Elektra Records – made not in the company’s studio, but rather their tape library, with a portable reel to reel machine and a single mic – reveals Young the Dylan-esque solo troubadour still finding his voice, sometimes struggling to find his footing. But hearing it with forty years of hindsight is illuminating, much like hearing the early tapes made by the Who when they were still known as the High Numbers, or CCR’s days as the Golliwogs. Although you can tell they haven’t fully developed as musicians, singers or writers yet, there’s already a distinctive quality about them, a sense that a path has now been charted and is about to bear fruit.

Young’s Buffalo Springfield years get a disc of their own, though anyone who wants the complete story is advised to pick up the 4-disc box set that came out a few years ago (and do so soon as it is evidently now out of print), which includes all of Young’s compositions for the group, including Furay’s definitive vocal takes of “On The Way Home” and “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing”. The only unreleased song here is a short song called “Sell Out”, which, oddly, is missing the jaunty, “la-la-la” chorus it had when it first popped up on a 2004 bootleg. But there’s also about ten minutes of audio from the band’s final performance in Long Beach, from May of 1968, that finally proves what you’ve always heard about the Buffalo Springfield live: they had an electricity on stage which never translated properly in the studio. The two-guitar exploration here is phenomenal, light years beyond the tight, professional unit that made those perfect pop singles. If there’s any more stuff of this quality in Young’s vault, I might be tempted to take up safecracking.

Hearing (almost) all of the studio cuts from Young’s Topanga 1968-70 years over the course of three discs is nearly overwhelming. In about eighteen months, he cut the two albums that established the baseline for the rest of his career, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After The Gold Rush, and was brought into the realms of Crosby, Stills and Nash in order to “take something soft and give it balls,” as his manager once declared. As you can see on an incendiary 1969 performance of “Down By The River” on live TV, Young took this job seriously, and as a result, inspired Stephen Stills to step up his own game as much as he could, in a desperate attempt to avoid being upstaged. The interplay between these two rival/ pals has never been more evident than on the Woodstock outtake, in which they perform a slow, doomy, droning rendition of “Mr. Soul,” with acid harmonies biting through the sludge. (Young, who angrily refused to be filmed at Woodstock, is seen as a dark silhouette from the side of the stage.)

But you start to notice something when CSNY’s pristine, multiple-overdubbed studio tracks are heard smack dab in the middle of Young’s first work with the immortal Crazy Horse, the band that’s continued to back him for the last forty years, though rarely were two of those years in a row. The contrast between the tight-but-hip session players of CSNY, and the raw, raucous “American Rolling Stones” that was the Horse is immediately obvious when you put them side by side. Crazy Horse has always been the best vehicle for him to really stretch out and play endless, Coltrane-length solos that seek to explore every last possibility before crashing back into the head, while CSNY produced immaculately crafted gems that took forever to record and sounded like it. In one of the embedded interview segments, archivist Joel Bernstein likens the difference to the Beatles and the Stones, but I think that’s understating it. At their furthest extremes, you could say CSNY are kind of like Yes while Crazy Horse is kind of like the Stooges, two fundamentally different, even opposing approaches to music. And yet, this one guy manages to pull off both gigs, with mostly the same material, at the SAME TIME. It’s uncanny, folks.

The set also includes three live performances. The Horse’s show at the Fillmore East in March 1970, and Neil’s 1971 solo set from Toronto’s Massey Hall were released individually years ago, but the third, from Toronto’s Riverboat in 1968, makes its debut here. The show is wonderful, capturing a period in Young’s career that even the boot collectors haven’t heard too often. Though the one unreleased song performed, “The 1956 Bubblegum Disaster”, turns out to be a thirty-second, one-line goof, Young’s in superb voice and seems to be discovering his own songs as he works through them, spontaneously seeking out new counter-melodies for the familiar chord progressions.

Rounding out the collection is Young’s first feature film attempt, Journey Through the Past, making its first appearance on home video. “Attempt” seems like the right word even though he did in fact complete the movie. In one interview from the time of filming, included amongst the DVD extras, Young states, “There isn’t any big plan… we have a list, but we don’t really have a script.” No one who sees the film will doubt this statement. It’s mostly incomprehensible, or just plain dull. In perhaps the most typical scene, Young and girlfriend Carrie Snodgrass drive on screen, stop the car, get out and smoke a joint without talking to each other, then get back in and drive away. But there are yuks to be found periodically, particularly when sage philosophers Crosby, Stills and Nash are dispensing their pearls of wisdom, and a small helping of very good performance footage, including some of Neil’s Harvest-era band jamming away in his barn. Consider it his (relatively) clean-living Cocksucker Blues if you will, finding deeper meaning in salamander cages instead of junkies’ hotel rooms.

Here are some of the highlights for the folks who may think they’ve heard it all before:

• The foot-stomping acoustic blues “Hello Lonely Woman,” cut near the end of his days in Canada
• Another solo tune from Canada, “Casting Me Away From You”, the earliest tune that really and truly sounds like Neil Young, lilting chord changes and all
• The alternate, original version of “Mr. Soul” with a notably different guitar track, touted by Young in his autobiography Shakey as the “correct” one, which he’d irretrievably screwed up by overdubbing for the official release.
• A haunting waltz titled “Slowly Burning” from May, 1967 with Jack Nitzche leading an all-star session band of Don Randi, Russ Titleman, Carol Kaye and Jim Gordon, performed as an instrumental although there are lyrics attached in the “file”
• Versions of “Birds” and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” cut during the sessions for his 1968 solo debut, which although inferior to the released tracks, shine a light on what the choice of backing musicians can do to his raw material. The latter, especially, just kind of sits there, totally lacking the infectious charm that Crazy Horse would bring to it a few months later. It’s as good an illustration of what the funky, anti-professional Horse brought to the party as you could ask for.
• An electric version of “Everybody’s Alone” from the Gold Rush sessions with a blistering solo.
• Two studio versions of “Dance Dance Dance”, a Crazy Horse take from the Gold Rush sessions and a duet with Nash cut in England in early 1971
• The Horse wailing through “It Might Have Been” in Cincinnati; though widely bootlegged, you’ve never heard it sounding this good.
• A studio version of “Wonderin’”, similar to the one heard on the Fillmore East ’70 show released a few years ago, which also appears as part of this set
• A video of Young performing an incredible version of “The Loner” at a tiny folk club in NYC from summer of 1970, which cuts into an acoustic performance at the Fillmore East, before concluding with footage of Young showing some hippie in Washington Square Park the chords to “Cinnamon Girl.”
• Several video clips from CSNY’s summer 1970 tour, including a transcendent “On The Way Home”
• A studio take of “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” from the Harvest sessions, which misses the tequila-soaked abandon it would find during the recording of Tonight’s The Night two years later… and then, also, kick around the vault without ever being released.
• Footage of Neil recording “A Man Needs A Maid” and “There’s A World” with the London Symphony Orchestra. He has some harsh words for the musicianship of one of the world’s most famous orchestras, sputtering “They were half a beat behind me for the WHOLE FUCKIN’ THING!” which Jack Nitzche tries to explain that’s actually the conductor’s fault.
• An incredible piece of cinema verite, which I’d read about but never seen, in which Young accosts a record store clerk for selling bootleg albums and walks out the door without paying for one of his own.

It’s been a heavy couple of days, taking it in all at once. You probably shouldn’t try to do that. There’s enough music here to last a normal person for years. Given that, the prices don’t seem so out of line anymore. It is, after all, the (nearly) complete early output of one of the greatest talents rock music has ever seen. And that’s worth something.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Neil Young Archives Vol 1 | | Leave a comment

Neil Young: Journey Through The Past (1973)


Neil Young has been involved in a lot of memorable rock music over the last seven years. He was one of the most interesting songwriters in Buffalo Springfield, and his own solo work with Crazy Horse still sounds fresh today. At his best, Young transformed his thin voice into a distinctive vehicle for a haunting, frail style, while his lead guitar bristled with a concise energy. His most satisfying work, especially the superb Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, captured an intimate presence that was both unassuming and engaging.

The title of Young’s newest record, Journey Through the Past, suggests a selection of tracks from the various phases of Young’s career. Unfortunately, the album instead pawns itself off as a film soundtrack, although whether the existence of any film could justify the existence of this record is questionable. To be sure, there are selections by the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young here. But, oddly, nothing with Crazy Horse is included, and Neil’s evocative “Sugar Mountain,” which has never been on an album, is also absent. If old concert tapes of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” are being dredged up, why not include the full-length “Bluebird”?

It’s sad but true that the best stuff on Journey is by the Buffalo Springfield. The album opens with a hilarious introduction of the group on television that segues into a truncated version of, “For What It’s Worth,” followed by “Mr. Soul,” apparently from the same television show; Neil’s driving vocal and guitar work on “Mr. Soul” possess a vitality almost completely absent from Journey’s other cuts. From “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” on, the record quickly degenerates into a depressing combination of sloppy music and verbal filler for a two-record set that lasts barely over an hour. The first side ends with CSN&Y doing “Find the Cost of Freedom” and “Ohio” in concert. Both songs are available on Four Way Street in similarly unmemorable live versions; if Young wanted these songs re-released, he would have done better to use the superior single takes.

“Southern Man,” which was originally one of After the Gold Rush’s highpoints, is also resurrected for the third time, in a ragged concert version which again seems to feature CSN&Y singing off tune (the album’s fancy packaging somehow manages to omit a listing of who performs what on which tracks). It is tediously crammed together on side two with a new take of “Alabama,” an unblushing rehash of “Southern Man” first issued on Harvest; Journey’s new version is only distinguished by the pointless addition of some studio small talk. Neil’s Harvest band, the Stray Gators, is a stone bore on the two other tracks culled from the Harvest sessions. If the out-take of “Are You Ready for the Country” is merely annoying, Journey’s version of “Words” is downright offensive. Occupying all of side three, it winds on for 15 tortuous minutes, with nary an interesting thematic development in sight; Young’s hapless attempts at a guitar solo are so inept as to be embarrassing. All three of the Harvest songs actually sounded better in their original incarnations.

The one new song on Journey, “Soldier,” is performed by Neil alone on the piano. It’s a lousy recording, and the song is hardly up to Young’s normal standards; perhaps it serves some function in the film. Apart from “Soldier,” the fourth side is given over to sheer dreck: a bit of Handel’s Messiah, the theme from King of Kings (?), and, just as strange, Brian Wilson’s moody instrumental “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” pulled off the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. There’s really little excuse for issuing these tracks on a Neil Young album—but then, there’s not much more excuse for issuing inferior new versions of old Neil Young material.

In fact, some six minutes of Buffalo Springfield songs and the approximately three minutes of “Soldier” are all that might conceivably edify the purchaser of Journey Through the Past. It is outrageous that this album was ever released. It is frankly exploitive of a faithful audience that deserves better from one of its favored performers. There have been many moments in his career when Young has produced some fine rock. Journey Through the Past contains virtually none of those moments. It is the nadir of Neil Young’s recording activity.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Neil Young Journey Through The Past | | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin II (1969)


Hey, man, I take it all back! This is one fucking heavyweight of the album! OK — I’ll concede that until you’ve listened to the album eight hundred times, as I have, it seems as if it’s just one especially heavy song extended over the space of two whole sides. But, hey! you’ve got to admit that the Zeppelin has their distinctive and enchanting formula down stone-cold, man. Like you get the impression they could do it in their sleep.

And who can deny that Jimmy Page is the absolute number-one heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4″ and 5’8″ in the world?? Shit, man, on this album he further demonstrates that he could absolutely fucking shut down any whitebluesman alive, and with one fucking hand tied behind his back too.

“Whole Lotta Love,” which opens the album, has to be the heaviest thing I’ve run across (or, more accurately, that’s run across me) since “Parchmant Farm” on Vincebus Eruptum. Like I listened to the break (Jimmy wrenching some simply indescribable sounds out of his axe while your stereo goes ape-shit) on some heavy Vietnamese weed and very nearly had my mind blown.

Hey, I know what you’re thinking. “That’s not very objective.” But dig: I also listened to it on mescaline, some old Romilar, novocain, and ground up Fusion, and it was just as mind-boggling as before. I must admit I haven’t listened to it straight yet — I don’t think a group this heavy is best enjoyed that way.

Anyhow . . . Robert Plant, who is rumored to sing some notes on this record that only dogs can hear, demonstrates his heaviness on “The Lemon Song.” When he yells “Shake me ’til the juice runs down my leg,” you can’t help but flash on the fact that the lemon is a cleverly-disguised phallic metaphor. Cunning Rob, sticking all this eroticism in between the lines just like his blues-beltin’ ancestors! And then (then) there’s “Moby Dick,” which will be for John Bonham what “Toad” has been for Baker. John demonstrates on this track that had he half a mind he could shut down Baker even without sticks, as most of his intriguing solo is done with bare hands.

The album ends with a far-out blues number called “Bring It On Home,” during which Rob contributes some very convincing moaning and harp-playing, and sings “Wadge da train roll down da track.” Who said that white men couldn’t sing blues? I mean, like, who?

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Led Zeppelin II | | Leave a comment

Jeff Beck There And Back (1980)


The good news is that Jeff Beck is back with his first studio record since Wired in 1976. The bad news is that There and Back sounds dismally familiar. In the last few years, such avant-garde guitarists as Robert Fripp and James “Blood” Ulmer — not to mention New Wave upstarts like Public Image Ltd.’s Keith Levene and the Gang of Four’s Andy Gill — have been busy plowing new rhythmic and harmonic ground. Instead of rising to their challenge, Beck has merely returned to the fusion cocoon he started spinning five years ago on Blow by Blow.

Worse, the star opens There and Back with three strikes against him, all of them the work of fuzak keyboardist Jan Hammer, with whom Beck cut a 1977 live album. “Star Cycle,” “Too Much to Lose” and “You Never Know” are formulaic Hammer compositions: i.e., terminally predictable exercises in cosmic Mahavishnu-style virtuosity, lazy MOR fodder or neo-Funk-adelic jive. Throughout most of side one, Beck practically has to fight Hammer’s solo-mad ego for playing room.

Tony Hymas takes over the ivories in the other five tunes, four of which he wrote with drummer Simon Phillips. Though Hymas doesn’t add any new wrinkles to the LP’s jazzrock fabric, at least he’s a team player. Unfortunately, the Hymas-Phillips songs are as skeletal as Hammer’s are overbearing.

Still, there are moments when Beck transcends his clichéd settings. “The Pump,” a simple chord progression funked up by Mo Foster’s hydraulic bass, allows the guitarist ample room to draw out long orchestral sustains. “El Becko” represents the other side of the coin: a tight, punk-chops showcase on the order of Truth’s proto-heavy-metal raver, “Beck’s Bolero.”

Such flashes, however, are far too few. There and Back is a disappointingly static record from a consummate riffer whose specialty was always leading the pack. These days, Jeff Beck seems content to be a spectator, watching the parade go by.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Jeff Beck There And Back | | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin I (1969)


The popular formula in England in this, the aftermath era of such successful British bluesmen as Cream and John Mayall, seems to be: add, to an excellent guitarist who, since leaving the Yardbirds and/or Mayall, has become a minor musical deity, a competent rhythm section and pretty soul-belter who can do a good spade imitation. The latest of the British blues groups so conceived offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better three months ago, and the excesses of the Beck group’s Truth album (most notably its self-indulgence and restrictedness), are fully in evidence on Led Zeppelin’s debut album.

Jimmy Page, around whom the Zeppelin revolves, is, admittedly, an extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist and explorer of his instrument’s electronic capabilities. Unfortunately, he is also a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs, and the Zeppelin album suffers from his having both produced it and written most of it (alone or in combination with his accomplices in the group).

The album opens with lots of guitarrhythm section exchanges (in the fashion of Beck’s “Shapes of Things” on “Good Times Bad Times,” which might have been ideal for a Yardbirds’ B-side. Here, as almost everywhere else on the album, it is Page’s guitar that provides most of the excitement. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” alternates between prissy Robert Plant’s howled vocals fronting an acoustic guitar and driving choruses of the band running down a four-chord progression while John Bonham smashes his cymbals on every beat. The song is very dull in places (especially on the vocal passages), very redundant, and certainly not worth the six-and-a-half minutes the Zeppelin gives it.

Two much-overdone Willie Dixon blues standards fail to be revivified by being turned into showcases for Page and Plant. “You Shook Me” is the more interesting of the two — at the end of each line Plant’s echo-chambered voice drops into a small explosion of fuzz-tone guitar, with which it matches shrieks at the end.

The album’s most representative cut is “How Many More Times.” Here a jazzy introduction gives way to a driving (albeit monotonous) guitar-dominated background for Plant’s strained and unconvincing shouting (he may be as foppish as Rod Stewart, but he’s nowhere near so exciting, especially in the higher registers). A fine Page solo then leads the band into what sounds like a backwards version of the Page-composed “Beck’s Bolero,” hence to a little snatch of Albert King’s “The Hunter,” and finally to an avalanche of drums and shouting.

In their willingness to waste their considerable talent on unworthy material the Zeppelin has produced an album which is sadly reminiscent of Truth. Like the Beck group they are also perfectly willing to make themselves a two- (or, more accurately, one-a-half) man show. It would seem that, if they’re to help fill the void created by the demise of Cream, they will have to find a producer (and editor) and some material worthy of their collective attention.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Led Zeppelin I | | Leave a comment

Jeff Beck Flash (1985)


Before you do anything else with Flash, drop the needle on the last half of “Ambitious,” the album’s chug-a-funk leadoff track. Just as singer Jimmy Hall steps back from the song’s skeletal tune and jackhammer rhythm with a Tarzanlike “yeah!” Jeff Beck’s guitar suddenly shoots up into the mix like a runaway jet, cutting a reckless path through Nile Rodgers’ spit ‘n’ polish production with sawtooth distortion and heat-ray feedback. Then, in a daredevil display of rock-guitar heroics that recalls Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland in his full pyrotechnic glory, Beck yanks his guitar up and down flights of freakish harmonic steps, executes breathtaking suicide dives with his vibrato bar, and claws away at the song’s core riff with angry trills and harsh, scraping leads. Flash is Jeff Beck’s first album since 1980, but that solo — a manic summation of his power and influence in rock guitar, from his Yardbirds days right up to Eddie Van Halen — makes it seem like he’s never been away.

Beck’s reunion here with his late-Sixties bandmate Rod Stewart, on Curtis Mayfield’s inspirational ballad “People Get Ready,” is also a welcome return to classic form, a replay of their soulful covers of “Ol’ Man River” and “Morning Dew” from Beck’s 1968 Truth LP. Stewart wraps his sandpaper croon around the song with tender, unaffected enthusiasm, while Beck gently unravels the melody in his poignant but forceful guitar breaks.

Flash, however, is not an album that dwells on the past. In the same way that he adapted jazz fusion to arena-rock dimensions on the mid-Seventies LPs Blow by Blow and Wired, Beck challenges the rigid discipline of Eighties dance music, with Arthur Baker producing two songs and Nile Rodgers writing and producing another four. In fact, these collaborations almost don’t work; Rodgers essentially gives Beck a series of static groove tunes to gallop around in, as on “Get Workin'” (with Beck on vocals!) and “Ambitious.” Baker, in turn, makes the guitarist fight for solo space, piling up keyboards and background vocals in a disco panorama on “Gets Us All in the End.”

Fortunately, that just makes Beck hit back harder. On the stuttering “Stop, Look and Listen,” he rips into Rodgers’ grooves with violently distorted blues flourishes and air-raid-siren vibrato work. Beck clears the decks with a firestorm solo right at the start of “Gets Us All in the End,” then repeatedly butts into Baker’s dense arrangement with vengeful ingenuity. If there were a bit more Stewart-like grit in Jimmy Hall’s strong but anonymous lead vocals, the result could have been a real funk-metal Beck-Ola. Nevertheless, Flash ranks as one of Beck’s best ever, a record of awesome guitar prowess and startling commercial daring. It is also irrefutable proof that his kind of flash never goes out of fashion.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Jeff Beck Flash | | Leave a comment

Jeff Beck Live With The Jan Hammer Group (1977)


In 1969, Miles Davis was looking for a way to sell more albums. So the jazz trumpeter delved into rock and R&B on Bitches Brew. When his record sales promptly increased, fusion was born.

Eight years later, the genre is having an identity crisis. Once, pegging fusion was easy: it was the rigorously creative effort of Miles Davis, his former sidemen (Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Josef Zawinul and Wayne Shorter) and a San Francisco-based band, the Fourth Way, led by pianist Mike Nock. These days, though, fusion has diffused; within its extremes of thoughtless, schlocky grafting (e.g., Stanley Turrentine over strings and a funky drummer) and “serious,” often ponderous composition and orchestration (the ECM school), there’s mostly unfocused music.

Fusion musicians don’t seem to be bothered. For most of them, “fusion” is simply a marketing tool, a convenient critical invention, nothing real enough to have actual implications. Which makes sense, considering the form began less as an art than as a way to make money, and continues in this reactionary vein: the music Davis created was still way above the common denominator so, many exjazzmen, seizing their big chance to stop scuffling, have eagerly gone more reactionary. (Also, because they are almost exclusively tied to major commercial labels, fusioneers constantly risk being told their work’s not marketable enough, a kind of pressure that doesn’t aid artistic surety.)

Worse, many fusion players embrace diffusion, claiming that labels — like “fusion” — only inhibit artistic conception. Well, it’s true much of the best fusion was made when the genre was too young to be called anything. But it’s also true that much subsequent fusion music pales in comparison, as even those who make it admit. Maybe, in this case, freedom spells flaccidity. And maybe a refocusing of the genre, a turn back to the beginning, is in order.

To my ears, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, by Chick Corea and Return to Forever, has “heightening” and “tension and release,” the key elements of fusion quality, in spades. Every cut proceeds as a series of small, jazz-based structural twists — time stops, coyly repeated riffs, the rhythm section dropping out momentarily, the melody changing completely and abruptly. And each twist intensifies the album’s constant rock-infused energy, setting it up tensely, letting it go, more so than if a rock band just laid out the same feeling without embellishment. The result is heightened rock — speaking purely musically, since fusion’s lack of lyrics deprives it of a dramaturgy. But, using similar instrumentation, fusion records give us varying numbers of aural climaxes per song, while ZZ Top and James Brown get us off only once. (And in other ways, of course, fusion is also heightened jazz.)

Sad to say, RTF’s subsequent LPs became so contrived in this direction they lost spontaneity, as did most other fusion artists. After The Inner Mounting Flame, the Mahavishnu Orchestra became arty and mystical; after the first cut of Spectrum, Billy Cobham became aimless. On Headhunters, Herbie Hancock heightened funk; on the albums that followed, he mined it dry. Finally, in the void, Jeff Beck emerged with Wired, which captured the spirit of Hymn but — ironically — from the rock perspective. Of course, Beck’s chops aren’t that incisive in relationship to jazz-based form, so the charts were simple compared to Corea’s — whose wouldn’t be? The point was that Jan Hammer’s cranked-up Moog and Beck’s raving guitar, given even a taste of fusion’s structure, turned especially kickass.

Yet Live joins all the other fusion busts. It lacks energy, perhaps because the four direct Narada Michael Walden tunes that worked so well on Wired are replaced by Hammer charts; maybe, too, because Beck doesn’t respond as well when the going becomes more complex. But someone, whether it was Beck or Hammer (who produced), just chose the wrong tapes. Instead of the night of shrieking, wailing and ripping I heard in New York, we get singing, sound effects, voice-bag tricks and a general aura of gimmickry.

Which leads us to the Brecker Brothers. Horn bands can especially heighten funk; in their few concert appearances, the Breckers have excited people with punchy little bursts and razor-sharp turns. Additionally, their writing is already marked by an abundance of stop-on-a-dime tricks, breeding grounds for tension and release. Yet their last two LPs contain much uneventful, if commercial, music. I wonder why they don’t try harder to make some memorable mass-audience fusion, based on the horn-band experience. Maybe their distinctive musicality, feeling and humor as purer jazz players gets in the way; it carries Don’t Stop.

More disturbingly, fusion has developed a “serious” school, involving many somniferous ECM artists as well as some of the ex-Davis players, including former RTF drummer Lenny White. White’s two albums are classy, thoughtful packages, extremely confident and competent. But White, fond of writing suites in emulation of classical composers, continues to ignore his real strength, which is fusion-funk. For example, the first two cuts on Venusian Summer, his first album, play uniquely with pulse, accenting it contrapuntally with gritty organ fills so it moves slicker than any backbeat. On Big City, the final track — a jam featuring Brian Auger and guitarists Ray Gomez and Neil Schon — has a smoking beginning but ends after seven minutes with a too ethereal Bennie Maupin soprano solo. It doesn’t build — through horn fills, more guitar battling, drum-keyboard tradeoffs — as it should. Elsewhere on this highly eclectic record, there’s an overwhelming precision of “creativity” that’s enervating. I wish White would play funk and leave worrying about Varese to musicians who record in Oslo.

Somewhat sadly, the best record of the four reviewed here is by the least talented artist. But Lonnie Liston Smith, another ex-Miles sideman, avoids pretension and understands tension (not to mention release). The result is a totally unified, original approach to fusion. Once an angular, modal piano stylist, Smith now writes soft R&B tunes that rely on the whimsical beauty of minor-key chordal situations. (On Renaissance, they’re especially enhanced by veteran arranger Horace Ott.) Beneath Smith’s melodies chug vaguely danceable beats; the juxtaposition creates its own kind of heightening. On “Starlight and You,” Smith’s brother Donald contributes a stylish yet poignant near-falsetto vocal; while we soar on the bliss of his cool effort, Lonnie intensifies our feeling with some in-the-groove piano comping. Its structure showcases the tension-funk and lets it go, ever so slowly.

Fusion needs to become more aware of its strengths. While some may claim that artists can’t become sufficiently detached from their music to regard what makes it tick, mature artists at least have a sense of their medium’s boundaries and challenges. In that sense, unfortunately, most fusion musicians are still immature.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | Jeff Beck Live With The Jan Hammer Group | | Leave a comment