Neverending Randomplay #291-#300
Neverending Randomplay is a feature in which I let my J-River Media Center choose what we get listen to. My collection currently stands at 18,135 titles. The lion's share are rock of all genres, with a mix of pop, blues, country, pre-rock, jazz, reggae, soul, electronic, avant-garde, hip-hop, rap, bluegrass, trance, Afrobeat, J-Pop, trip-hop, lounge, worldbeat, commercial jingles, etc. filling it out. I don't influence the track selection in any way; whatever comes up, comes up. Rated 1-5 stars.
291. Sheryl Crow: I Shall Believe ***
"I Shall Believe" is the closing track from Crow's 1993 debut, Saturday Night Music Club. It's a slow, dirge-like number that has Crow's overdubbed and double tracked voice harmonizing with itself; the instrumentation is muted and dominated by keyboards, the overall atmosphere is not dissimilar to a Daniel Lanois-produced U2 cut. Taken on its own, it really isn't much; the lyrics don't stick with you, the melody is barely hummable, and Crow's vocals are the best thing about it, even though they aren't nearly as memorable as her vocals on "All I Wanna Do" "Strong Enough" or "Leaving Las Vegas", the albums strongest cuts. Crow's career has been slowly but steadily running low on gas over the last few years; part of it may have to do with her chosen genre. Part of what made her successful in the 90's was a general adherence to classic rock forumla; few things have gone more out of style in the 00's than classic rock. As an album closer, "I Shall Believe" is underwhelming, although its sleepy vibe does give it a 'party's over' feel; if you're a fan, you probably like this more than I do, but if you're not, you aren't missing anything much with this one.
292. New Riders of the Purple Sage: Dead Flowers ****
"Dead Flowers" should be well known to rock fans in its original version; it's a Jagger/Richard song from Sticky Fingers, one of several from that album that mined a Gram Parsons-influenced country rock (Parsons was palling around with Keith Richard in those days). New Riders of the Purple Sage was an offshoot of the Grateful Dead, a country-rock outfit originally set up for Garcia, Lesh, and Hart to play Workingman's Dead-style material between Grateful Dead albums. As the years passed, the Grateful Dead's participation became minimal, and NRPS carried on without them, with a lineup of guitarist/singer John Dawson, former Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden, Dave Torbert on bass, and Dave Nelson on guitar, mandolin, and vocals. They reached an early 70's peak with Powerglide and The Adventures of Panama Red, and were popular among young dopeheads throughout most of the decade. "Dead Flowers" appeared on the 1976 album New Riders, which marked their departure from Columbia for MCA. Torbert had left the band in 1975 and was replaced by ex-Byrd Skip Battin, so the album was something of a fresh start. As a song, "Dead Flowers" is perfect material for the band, with its decadent country vibe and drug references; the only real drawback is that Dawson is a far cry from Mick Jagger in the vocal department. The song does get a great pedal steel and lead guitar though, and as mid-70's country rock, it's much better than the Eagles. However, commercially, the band's move to MCA was a bust; New Riders peaked at #145, their last chart showing ever.
293. The Charlatans UK: Weirdo ****
I never really understood why Charlatans UK never found a bigger audience in the U.S., other than bands with "UK" tacked onto their name (in this case, to differentiate the band from the Haight Ashbury Charlatans of the 60's) never seem to find audiences here. Here's what's good about "Weirdo" from Between 10th and 11th, released in 1992: the late Rob Collins' heavy Deep Purple inspired organ, Martin Blunt's propulsive bass, Tim Burgess' close miked vocals, and John Baker's tremeloed guitar. The resulting cut is softcore Madchester, with the dance beats minimalized but not absent, and the psychedelic quotient cranked up a notch. While this puts them in similar territory as the shorter-lived but superior Happy Mondays, the organ fills keep the song fresh and original, making it one of the best U.K. singles of 1992. Unfortunately, the album tanked in the US, peaking at #173, after the 1990 release Some Friendly had made it to #73 in 1990. The band endures to this day (minus organ wizard Collins, who died in 1996), but has never hit Stateside again.
294. Billy Joel: Honesty **
Billy Joel, when taken at the face value of his 70's and 80's hits, was quite obviously one of the most successful solo acts of his day. He had a knack for melody, worked with good musicians and producers, and certainly has some enduring hits, "Honesty" among them. That said, he was also something of a misogynistic simpleton lyrically, capable of utterly unselfconsciously bad and meaningless wordsmithing. In this sense, he falls far short of a Lennon or Dylan, as much as Joel would like to be considered their equal in stature. "Honesty" is case in point: Honesty is such a lonely word... What does it mean? "Honesty" has no synonyms? "Honesty" seldom appears in sentences? "Honesty" gets a page to itself in the dictionary? The answer comes in the couplet: Everyone is so untrue-- so the song isn't about "Honesty" the word, it's about how nobody is honest save for good ole reliable Billy Joel. This kind of self-pity worked in the 70's, at least among the soft rock crowd, but it sounds pretty mushy and lame now. "Honesty" didn't quite set the charts on fire even in its day, ultimately topping out at #24 in 1979. It was the second single from 52nd Street, a retread of his more successful (and better) The Stranger, from 1977. These days, Joel claims to have given up pop music altogether; his last pop album was the dreary River of Dreams, from 1993.
295. Black Sabbath: A Natural Acrobat ****
Here is heavy metal monolith Black Sabbath at its most progressive sounding, from the 1974 album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. By 1974, heavy metal was already showing signs of losing its grip on the charts in the US, an erosion that would continue unabated until the early 1980's. Guitarist Tony Iommi was keen on arting up Sabbath's sound, putting them more in league with a band like Yes; Ozzy Osbourne was against the idea, preferring to keep the metal simple. On Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Iommi got his wish; ex-Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman was enlisted, orchestras were brought in, production trickery was employed promiscuously. The resulting album proved conclusively that Black Sabbath didn't have anything resembling the chops of Yes, and the band returned to a more stripped down, almost garagey sound for Sabotage in 1975. "A Natural Acrobat", despite what sound like congas deep in the mix, and some electronic monkeying with Osbourne's vocal, is one of the most straightforward pieces of metal on the album; Wakeman isn't on it, and Iommi's vaguely funkified guitar vies with a good tormented Ozzy vocal to deliver a solid metal classic. In retrospect, some of the art-rock touches on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath weren't bad; had the band a clue as to how to apply them in the service of an evolution of sound, they might have come up with better albums in the late 70's. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath remains the road not taken, and "A Natural Acrobat" the best thing on it.
296. Mojave 3: Love Songs on the Radio ****
Late 90's sadcore group Mojave 3 was actually a spinoff of the shoegaze band Slowdive, featuring Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell, and Ian McCutcheon. Originally, the trio were working on demoes for a new Slowdive album in 1994 when Creation records unceremoniously dropped them from the label. They approached dream-pop label 4AD with the demoes, and were rechristened Mojave 3, to reflect their change in sound. "Love Songs On The Radio", from the 1994 Mojave 3 debut, Ask Me Tomorrow, bears nary a trace of shoegaze whatsoever. Instead it is a sleepy, lonesome, sad sounding desert ballad with country/western touches and plenty of atmospheric, echoey slide guitar, and Goswell's winsome vocals. Fans of Mazzy Star or the Cowboy Junkies would dig this right away. The band released four albums, the most recent in 2003; on each, they move farther way from their roots. Guitarist Simon Rowe of space rock/shoegaze pioneers Chapterhouse and Alan Forrester on keyboards flesh out the sound on later albums.
297. Skinny Puppy: Death ***
From the gentle pastoral drowsiness of Mojave 3, we lurch into the abrasive, torturously aggressive hostility of Canadian industrial rock pioneers Skinny Puppy, an effect akin to falling asleep at the wheel and getting broadsided by a truck. Which is okay by me, nothing like a little adrenaline to wake me up. Unfortunately, the Skinny Puppy on "Death" isn't quite the Skinny Puppy who bridged the gap between Throbbing Gristle and NIN. From The Process, released in 1996 and their last album, the lineup was in great turmoil; Nivek Ogre quit during the sessions and Dwayne Goettel died from a heroin overdose; leader cEvin Key was recovering from an injury he suffered on a movie set. Four producers were hired and fired, and the album was three years in the making. For all of this, "Death" isn't as bad as it might have been, and in its mixing and production it is fairly inspired. But it doesn't deliver the shocks the early band did, and the many disparate sonic touches, fairly tasty on their own, never quite come together as a whole.
298. Big Head Todd and the Monsters: Bittersweet ****
Somewhere between roots rock and jam band lies Big Head Todd and the Monsters, a trio from Colorado. "Bittersweet", from the 1991 debut Midnight Radio, is a pretty song, with nice slide guitar and lead from Todd Park Mohr; his vocals are a mix of Mark Knopfler, Colin Hay, and Dave Matthews (who had not yet emerged nationally). The song has a brisker tempo than anything the aforementioned trio of singers is usually associated with, giving Big Head Todd and the Monsters an agreeable toe-tap worthiness; the solo is an unexpectedly jangly one, and it hits some good resonance. It took some time for the band to break, but "Bittersweet" eventually found college airplay in 1993. The band's commercial peak was in 1994, the year jam band rock was becoming the next big thing, when Stratagem reached #30; they've been around ever since, but their sales have withered to almost nothing.
299. George Thorogood: Move It On Over ****
You either like George Thorogood or you don't. Perhaps only Weird Al Yankovic has found a norrower niche to call home and make a living at it. Thorogood is a one note performer; you get Chicago blues based rock 'n' roll, with pleanty of loud raucous guitar, and slide. As a white boy playing material BB King, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and others had done to perfection years ago, Thorogood is excellent at what he does; the man can sure play guitar, and his vocals, while never his strong suit, are usually serviceable. So "Move It On Over" is typical Thorogood; a Hank Williams number raunched up with guitar slashes and plenty of energy. Hank WIlliams' original is still better, but this will still get the joint jumping. It appeared on CD for the first time in 1992 for the The Baddest of George Thorogood and the Destroyers anthology.
300. Tanya Tucker: Don't Go Out With Him ***
Tanya Tucker has been an off-and-on country fixture since hitting the charts in 1972, at the age of 13. By 1990 and Tennessee Woman, she was a veteran, and sounds like one here. Her voice has attained some gravel, and the arrangement is purely by-the-numbers contemporary country. On this cover of Foster & Lloyd's "Don't Go Out", she trades vocals with T. Graham Brown in a kind of dialog; while both singers gravelly voices lend the song a little soul, the production is so slick it flattens it completely. Tucker has done better material, although she never really attained first-tier status in country; her attempt to break into rock in 1978 with T.N.T. didn't really work out either. For fans only.
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