Friday, November 12, 2004

Time now for another installment of Johnny B's Mondo Vinyl-O! In which I take a look at some of the 33-1/3 rpm, long-playing vinyl stacks o'wax that I've listened to in the interval since the last Vinyl-O. I will not discuss music I've listened to on CD, or mp3, or cassette, or even 8-track...anything but that much beloved and sorely missed vehicle for sound output and listening pleasure, the vinyl LP.

Found this one in a stack of records Mrs. B picked up at one of her Dad's auctions. Those things never turn up any interesting music, so I didn't look through the stack she brought home at the time- in fact, it wasn't until we had our yard sale a month or so ago that I flipped through the box it was in and noticed it- its Klaus Voormann-illustrated Revolver-esque collage cover caught my eye, and upon further inspection I noticed that it had two of their biggest pre-disco era hits: "I Started A Joke" and the almost-soul "Gotta Get A Message To You". Curiosity aroused, I plucked it from the box and took it back home, and was pleasantly surprised by the music it contained. Very much of its time, and full of Sgt. Pepper-period Beatle-ish Britpop, along with the Brothers Gibb's trademark distinctive vocal harmony blend and a folk-ish underpinning. Album opener "Let There Be Love" is an attempt at an anthemic cut, with lots of grandiose strings, horns and much oohing and aahing...and it works. Next cut, "Kitty Can", is a folk-pop acoustic stomper with somebody providing sssh-sh-sssh's in lieu of percussion. "Indian Gin and Whiskey Dry" features a strong melody that I know I've heard somewhere before. The title cut is probably the most rocking; it's almost Kinks-like in its driving way. Sometimes Robin's warbling falsetto gets to be a bit much, just like years later when they were the Kings of Saturday Night...but Idea is a surprisingly solid and tuneful record, despite a worrisome self-pitying streak in some of the lyrics- and I'm glad I snatched it out of the yard sale box.

I saw Joni perform the song "Coyote" on the Band's big concert movie The Last Waltz, in 1977- the first time I ever really paid attention to her, and I liked that song a lot, so I decided to pick up the album from whence it came. Unfortunately, the only song that impressed me at the time was, you guessed it, "Coyote" it was probably 20 years before I got worked up enough about her to get another Mitchell record. Fortunately, this time, I was more receptive to Mitchell's music, and I eventually went back to re-evaluate this record...and sure enough, I liked it more in my late 30's than I did in my late teens. Here, she began to get serious about working jazz influences and musicians in her work- the accomplished bassist Jaco Pastorius (one of her legion of boyfriends, if I recall correctly) plays on every cut, along with the usual LA session musicians that she had been using for the last few years such as sax player Tom Scott and percussionist Bobbye Hall. Neil Young even shows up long enough to play harmonica on the almost melody-free "Fuzzy Sings the Blues". Her lyrics, by this time, were really in a league of their own- on the surface, dealing with her impressions of life on the road, but far more advanced, more allusive and imaginative, than the norm for that pseudo-genre. It's still not a record which blows me away, simply because it's simply too slick, samey-sounding and not all that strong melodically- but there are several cuts which stand out, including the breezy (and aforementioned) "Coyote", with its rollercoaster chord changes and lyric, and the almost Billie Holiday-ish "Blue Motel Room", an appealing lounge-jazzy cut. I'll still dig out Joni's Hits and Misses CDs when I get in the mood for the Canadian songstress, but you could do worse than this if you're curious.

POPEYE-Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1980)
While it has its admirers, and is sometimes watchable for short stretches, I've always considered Robert Altman's Popeye, which starred Robin Williams and his huge prosthetic forearms, a huge disappointment and a terrible film...but my opinion is very much different when it comes to its soundtrack album. While Altman didn't always make the wisest choices when it came to his script or storytelling, he did do one thing right when he made the left-field choice of Van Dyke Parks to do the music scoring honors, and Parks inturn got the semi-retired Harry Nilsson to contribute a clutch of songs. This was Nilsson's first set of originals released in the US since 1977's RCA swan song Knnillssonn, and while they're not exactly of Nilsson Schmilsson quality, they're fun and tuneful indeed, and are nicely vocalized by Williams and Shelley Duvall, who played Olive Oyl. Parks and Nilsson always worked well together, and VDP's rococo, swirling, almost vaudevillian scoring style, complete with music hall chorus backing singers elevates many of Harry's lyrics, which are mostly tailored to the film events they're depicting. Standouts are "He Needs Me", sung by Duvall to an unmistakable, quintessential Nilssonian melody like only he could write- and curiously enough, this cut has legs- it pops up in the oddest places, like the film Magnolia and most recently, the Nike commercial with Serena Williams. Parks and Nilsson get to tweak the classic old Popeye theme song, now subtitled "I Yam What I Am" ("...and that's all that I yam what I yam"), which Parks gives a gleefully swirling accompaniment. The completely charming "Sweepea's Lullabye" also benefits from a gorgeous Parks arrangement, and it's way too short at less than two minutes. "Sweethaven", "He's Large" (Bluto, dont'cha know, sung by Olive as she prepares to elope with Popeye), and the amusing "He's Mean", a samba of sorts sung by Bluto when he discovers Olive's treachery, are all standouts. Of course, Popeye the film was a box office disaster- nobody warmed to a live-action Sailor Man when his cartoon persona was such an indelible image in the mass public's mind, plus Altman (not at his peak then at all) directed the events in a choppy, haphazard way (the final scene goes on and on and on, and is a real endurance test) Williams mumbled unintelligibly through the whole movie plus the script established that he didn't even like spinach- and didn't whip out a can until the very end! And since the film tanked, the soundtrack didn't fare much was released on the fledgling Boardwalk label, which went under not long after so promotion was not really a viable possibility. But for those of us Nilsson/Parks fans who couldn't wait to get their heroes' first work together since Nilsson's 1976 solo album Sandman, well, we were rewarded handsomely. Of course, this album's been out of print for years now, which makes it all the more amusing when people ask about the song in the Nike commercial- "Where can I get it?" Well, can't. Unless you get the Punch-Drunk Love soundtrack, and I'm not sure if even that's still in print. Sadly, this was the last album of original Nilsson songs to be released in his lifetime, since RCA has apparently chosen to sit on the album he was working on when he met his untimely death in 1995.

PARIS-Paris (1976)
If you've ever cared to look into the history of Fleetwood Mac, you're probably aware that before the band hit it big with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in 1975, founding members Mick Fleetwood and John McVie presided over revolving door of members- from the great blues guitarist Peter Green in the 60s, on through a native Californian named Bob Welch, who joined up in 1971 and whose mellow, bloozy style pretty much defined the Mac's sound (along with Christine McVie's doleful, stately piano ballads) for the five years he was in the band. The Mac had hit a low point, creatively and professionally following the release of their unsuccessful (but not bad in its own right) 1974 release Heroes Are Hard To Find, and Welch apparently felt like the time was right for him to move on and see what else he could get into, career-wise. And he eventually did become very successful for a time in the late 70's, forever avoiding Pete Best's fate, with a string of solo hit singles such as "Sentimental Lady", which he originally performed with the Mac on their 1972 release Bare Trees, and "Ebony Eyes", a rock-disco hybrid which was everywhere in 1979. The first thing he did after saying "adieu" from Mick and co., though, was a Cream-style three-man group effort with former Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick dubbed "Paris". Rounding out the trio was drummer Thom Mooney, who was replaced by the Nazz's Hunt Sales (son of Soupy, later with Iggy Pop and in Tin Machine with Bowie) for the follow-up album Big Town 2061. Paris was much more of an excuse for Welch to crank up the amps to eleven and cut loose with a harsher guitar sound than he brought to his former band, and nowhere was it more evident than on the album opener "Black Book", which features a downright nasty, distorted, syncopated guitar lick which was pretty eye-opening. Unfortunately, however, it's pretty much downhill from there- Welch, Cornick and Mooney thrash and riff around on nine more cuts, to diminishing returns. Occasionally a melody or strong lick or solo sticks its head up, but soon is submerged into the muck again. Lyrically, most of these songs play on the same themes that Welch pursued while in Fleetwood Mac, of the mystical/magical, wicked wimmen and good times rock 'n' roll. "Religion" is, naturally, a song of skepticism about same. Paris isn't a terrible record by any stretch, but it just isn't strong enough to be all that memorable, either. It just never really ignites. I suppose that this must have sold in sufficient numbers to have warranted the release of the not-much-different-or-better (for that matter) sequel, but I can't imagine who would have been buying. Welch is, sadly, pretty much forgotten these days, except on the infrequent occasions when "Sentimental Lady" or "Ebony Eyes" gets a spin on some oldies station...and in 2004 this tentative first step power-trio is even less than forgotten. It's like it never existed at all- except in the Johnny B archives. I feel like I should mention that he graphic designer in me kinda likes the nifty logo that Cornick created for the cover.

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