Wednesday, May 19, 2004

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Hey! I feel another Vinyl-O coming on! For those who may not be familiar with the Mondo Vinyl-O!, it's where I write a paragraph or three about a number of those paragons of antiquity the 33 1/3 long-playing vinyl recorded album, specifically those I've listened to in the period since the last Vinyl-O!. This was prompted originally by a new turntable I purchased in late 2002, and my joy in being able to listen to a lot of albums that I hadn't been able to for a heck of a long time, or to be specific, the demise of my previous turntable. So anyway, on with the show.

You're probably aware of Hunter- lead vocalist and primary songwriter for the great Mott The Hoople, big hit "All The Young Dudes", also wrote "Once Bitten Twice Shy" (Great White had a hit with it, shudder) "Cleveland Rocks" (you remember- Drew Carey). In 1975, having gone as far as he felt he could go with Mott, he struck out on his own (well, with former Bowie main man Mick Ronson at first) and released his self-titled debut later that same year. It went over pretty well, but Ronson couldn't hang around thanks to his rotten contract with Tony DeFries and MainMan, so Hunter was left to his own devices and recorded the more low-key and jazzy All American Alien Boy in America the next year. While this was an excellent album, it contained no hits and stiffed. Hunter went back to England, formed a band, recorded some new songs with then-white-hot Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, and named the record after the band, "Overnight Angels". All good, right? Monster record, right? Wrong. Columbia USA, for some reason, didn't like the album and chose not to release it, and it was available only on import for several years. Of course, you know I had to search all over God's earth to get a copy because I was an absolutely rabid Hunter/Mott fan back then, and I managed to score this album a year later thanks to the efforts of Bill Lloyd at Tunetown. Anyway, it's a mystery why Columbia didn't like this- it's certainly no worse than the first two. With Baker at the helm, it has a bit more bombast than we were accustomed to getting from Ian at the time, but it really added a galloping, frantic edge to cuts like the side one opener "Golden Opportunity" and the next cut, "Shallow Crystals". Track three, which name-drops the band in "Hey Hey We're The Monkees" style, opens ominously but soon breaks out into a surging rocker. "Broadway" is a typical Hunter song about young girl in the big city and showbiz and rock 'n' roll and all that, and is marked with nice dynamics. Side two begins with a bopping rocker "Justice of the Peace", featuring doo-wopish vocal backing; it's agreeable but slight. Next up is another fallen angel song, "Miss Silver Dime", which again has a nice theatrical dynamic with its swelling chorus but features some rather sexist lyrics (Hunter sometimes fell into this trap, sadly). "Wild and Free" attempts to be just that, but is really the only clunker on the record- it's a lot of bash and crash and nothing else. "Ballad of Little Star" is similar in feel to "Shallow Crystals" and "Broadway". The album's closer is really out of left field- "To Love A Woman" is almost pop-soul, and sounded very radio-friendly to my ears with its Queen-ish backing vocals. It's anybody's guess why this album received the treatment it did, but the upshot was that Hunter disbanded the group (one of the members had gone to join Foreigner anyway) and came back two years later with what was his best-selling (well, Ian Hunter might have sold more, I don't know) solo album, You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic, so it all turned out OK. I still like to dig this out and give it a listen once in a while, and I'm happy to have it!

This was the album that set Supertramp up for its late 70s-early 80s success, thanks to its hit "Give A Little Bit", a charming piece of poppery that sounds good on the radio to this day. Supertramp as a group was an odd duck- too pop to be prog, too elaborate in its song structures and subject matter to be pop- but most often they got lumped in with the progressives. Of course, after the next album Breakfast In America went sextuple platinum, they started getting compared to the Beatles, with whom they did share a definite knack for writing memorable melodies. Anyway, there's plenty of those on this album, which is quite all over the map with its influences. Of course, there's strong popcraft throughout, augmented with jazzy sax and chord changes and even some gospel flourishes here and there. Quietest Moments isn't as pop-friendly as its successors were, several cuts are over six minutes in length, the best being the big magnum opus track "Fool's Overture", essentially a "Fool on the Hill" type statement which incorporates synths and a sampled Winston Churchill speech, and is actually very memorable despite its self-pitying lyric. Other cuts of note include the love-song title track, again melodically strong, the theatrical-sounding "Lover Boy" which kinda comes across as music-hall on Thorazine; "From Now On", with its catchy gospel-choir BVs in the chorus and fadeout; and my favorite cut, ironically the simplest and shortest- "Downstream", a very touching love-n-devotion song with a haunting melody. Groups like Supertramp may be one of the reasons why we got Punk, but they were OK with me. I listened to this album a lot back in '77 and '78, so it remains a sentimental favorite, even though later I got really really tired of hearing "Take The Long Way Home" on the radio.

West Indie-born Armatrading was a husky-voiced singer-songwriter that everybody always thought was one album away from having that ONE HIT single or album which would propel her into superstardom...and while it never happened, she's managed to have a long, steady if not spectacular career which continues to this day. This album was as close as he came to grabbing the brass ring. It was produced (to distraction, some might say) by Steve Lillywhite, fresh off successes with XTC, Big Country, and especially U2, and he did his typical bombastic thing on nearly every cut. The Key is very much a 1983-type record, loaded with synths, syndrums, and agressive reggae-ish beats, and fortunately for Armatrading her songs were strong enough to hold up under the weight of such treatment. There are several tracks i flat out love, like the rockish (if a bit dodgy lyric-wise, in a PC way) "I Love It When You Call Me Names"; the swaying reggae-ish title track- the "key", of course, is to your heart; and a couple of heartfelt ballads ("Everybody Gotta Know", "I Love My Baby") which close each side and are very moving despite the overbearing synth accompaniment. "Drop The Pilot" is another catchy rocker. Adrian Belew guests on several cuts. According to AMG, this one crashed the US Top 40, but I don't think she ever returned. Lillywhite went on to absolutely butcher (in my opinion, a lot of people dig it) Marshall Crenshaw's second album, and produced a handful of subsequent Armatrading releases. I dig this one out occasionally and get taken straight back to '83.

Around 1972, when glam, bubblegum and shock-rock were ascendent, many of the old-school 60's rock stars were seeing the writing on the wall for the hippie dream, and many of them recorded downbeat, depressed records which reflected on their lives and what went wrong. A great example of this is Neil Young's classic On The Beach, and his CSNY compadre Graham Nash followed suit with this, his second solo album, which shares many similarities with Young's album, including many of the same musicians and general sound. Of course, it's nowhere near as good as OTB, but there are several worthy tracks here including the side one opening title cut, which finds Nash in a cranky mood as he confronts someone who keeps complaining to him, set to a "Woodstock"-ish beat. It pretty much sets the feel of the record- Nash is in a bad mood, and almost every cut has a scolding, didactic tone which becomes kinda opressive for a while. He makes George Harrison sound like a happy-go-lucky free spirit sometimes. Misery loves company, I guess. Anyway, some other memorable tracks include the country shuffle "You'll Never Be The Same" which features some nice harmony vocals even as he gives the kiss-off to a former girlfriend, "Grave Concern", another uptempo rocker with that mid-70s Young rhythm section sound and some tasty David Lindley slide guitar; and "And So It Goes", which reminds somewhat of Young songs like "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "L.A." and again, nice harmony vocals- in fact, that's a given throughout the record- say what you want about CSN and the occasional Y- those sumbitches could harmonize. Brilliantly. Beautifully. My favorite cut is the gently loping "Hey You (Looking at the Moon), which has a low-key but engaging melody, nicely sung of course and featuring some wheezy harmonica licks in the mix. One serious negative to this album, though, is the Dylanish "Oh Camil (The Winter Soldier)", which finds scornful Nash taking the high moral ground in judgment over a Vietnam vet. This is simply reprehensible, and while he took some flak over it, he didn't get enough if you ask me. Anyway, Wild Tales, overall, is a strong, and overlooked record, like its predecessor Songs For Beginners. Nash engages and entertains even as he repels with his glumness and hectoring. My love for the early-mid 70s CSNY sound is enough, apparently, for me to overlook the most egregious of subject matter.

Bonnie, having released six good-to-outstanding albums featuring her distinctive blues/country/pop/folk throughout the 70s to almost complete chart indifference, was looking (like Joan Armatrading above) for that ONE BIG HIT which would propel her to the next level. It looked like her cover of Del Shannon's "Runaway" from 1977's Sweet Forgiveness was gonna do it, but it stalled before reaching the upper heights of the charts, so enter Peter Asher, who was experiencing mega success as the producer of both James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who were both superstars at the time. Hook her up with Bonnie, and the sky's the limit, right? Uh, wrong. The Glow failed on a lot of levels, and a big part of it was Asher's production style, which poured layer after layer of gloss on an artist best left with some rough edges here and there. The record came out and sank without a trace in the post-punk- and-early-new-wave-late 70s. Bonnie, for her part, didn't help much- her originals were uniformly dull, and what spark The Glow has comes from the covers, such as side one opener "I Thank You", the old Sam & Dave hit and the first single, which doubtlessly got overshadowed by ZZ Top's cover of the same song from that same year- a bigger hit, as I recall. Still, it was a rocking track and definite reason for optimism. It's followed by another Hayes/Porter blues song, "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)", and while you'd think it's right in Bonnie's wheelhouse, it's given a plodding treatment and seems two minutes too long. And that remains a problem- there's a tired feeling about just about every song on the record. Tempos are mid-at -best, and each song has a generic sameness about it that makes almost every one of them dull and boring. Not the best way to propel onesself to stardom. There's a Jackson Brown cover, "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate", which is played for dramatics but becomes a snooze (of course, it doesn't help that I'm not a big Browne fan anyway), a woulda-shoulda been fun cover of "Bye Bye Baby", a rocking cut for about a minute and a half but again it goes on too long and doesn't get any more interesting; a dumb reggae-style cover of the great song "The Boy (Girl) Can't Help It", and some primo lounge-schlock on the title cut. Towards the end, it perks up a bit with a cover of Robert Palmer's "You're Gonna Get What's Coming", which was also a single and probably should have been a hit- it's catchy as all get out but overlong; and the album closes with Eric Kaz's "Goin' Wild For You Baby", a tuneful ballad in which Raitt finally sounds as winning as she can, and hearkens back to previous efforts like her excellent 1975 Home Plate. The Glow was a total disaster, in my opinion, and kinda hastened her slide into dire career straits during the 80s. Asher didn't fare much better after this album, either- he was less in demand by the middle of the 80s as Ronstadt went off into other musical directions and Taylor went into semi-retirement. Of course, it took an even slicker approach by producer Don Was to get her that long-awaited and well-deserved stardom via 1989's Nick of Time, but she went through a lot of down periods beforehand. Oddly enough, I saw her in concert on the tour for this album and she delivered a great show, which convinced me that it was Asher what sunk this record.