Social Distancing Spins – Day 18

By Joel Francis

The journey through my record collection continues.

Pet Shop Boys – Actually (1987) The Pet Shop Boys’ second album is the strongest in their still-growing catalog (Behaviour is a close second). Come for the hit singles and stick around for the album cuts, like the Kraftwerk-inspired “Shopping” and “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” the moody track based on an Ennio Morricone melody that opens the second side. Still not convinced? This is the album with the glorious Dusty Springfield duet “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” That alone makes Actually worth owning. While the other nine songs aren’t as strong (how could they?), Actually is filler-free dance/pop perfection.

Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language (2016) As a producer, Daniel Lanois has worked on some of my all-time favorite albums by Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Robbie Robertson. (We talked about his work on the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon back on Day 9.) The sound on Goodbye to Language is closer to Lanois’ ambient work with Brian Eno than his commercial endeavors. The premise is simple. Lanois’ pedal steel playing is recorded and treated by Rocco DeLuca. The result is an ethereal dream guaranteed to release stress. Put this on and let yourself go.

The Decemberists – The King is Dead (2011) I jumped on the Decemberists bandwagon with their video for “Sixteen Military Wives,” which reminded me of Rushmore. Two albums later, I feared they got lost in their own mythology for the ponderous concept album The Hazards of Love. Fortunately, I was wrong. The King is Dead is everything Hazards wasn’t: succinct, buoyant, humorous, fun. That a few songs sounded like peak-era R.E.M. (“Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water”) or Tom Petty circa Wildflowers (“Don’t Carry It All”) doesn’t help. It may be easier to play spot-the-influence with The King is Dead than on the band’s other releases, but the sound is still filtered through singer/songwriter Colin Meloy’s grad school tweed and spectacles, making it distinctly the Decemberists.

Miles Davis – My Funny Valentine (1965)

Miles Davis – Four and More (1966) Both of these albums draw from the same 1964 performance at Philharmonic Hall in New York City. The ballads went on Valentine and the uptempo numbers were relegated to Four and More. By the time Four and More was released, Miles had moved on from his modal sound and was about to reinvent jazz once again. Less progressive fans probably enjoyed this look back at the time. Pianist Herbie Hancock was only 23 and drummer Tony Williams just 18 at the time of this performance, but both play with a confidence and ambition beyond their years. These are probably the best performances of saxophone player George Coleman in Miles’ band. He tends to get overlooked between tenures of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. The quartet lingers on the ballads, drawing out every note, particularly on the 15-minute title cut. Conversely, they blast through the chords on “So What” and “Seven Steps to Heaven” with almost careless speed.  FYI, the entire concert was finally released as originally performed on CD in 1992.

James Brown – Live at the Apollo, Volume II (1968) Five years after the first Live at the Apollo album propelled James Brown off the chitlin circuit, Brown returned to the same venue but in a different place musically. The R&B that defined the first Apollo album was giving way to funk on the sequel. Songs like a hard-driving “Kansas City” and “Think” (with Kansas City, Kan. native Marva Whitney) showed Brown’s roots, while “Cold Sweat” and “Bring It Up” point the way forward. The 11-minute version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is one-third as long as the original half-hour Apollo release. So the sequel isn’t as concise, but it captures the Hardest Working Man in Show Business in prime form.

Alejandro Escovedo – With These Hands (1996) Alejandro Escovedo is an undiscovered treasure. His songwriting deftly slides between different settings, from string quartet to country, Latin American to raw rock. For his third album, Escovedo enlists Willie Nelson and his harmonica player Mickey Raphael, cousin Shelia E and singer Jennifer Warnes. Despite these high-profile guests, the spotlight remains firmly on Escovedo and his masterful songs. From the moody opener of rocker “Put You Down” through “Tugboat,” a dedication to Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison that ends the record, there isn’t a bad song to be found.

Pearl Jam – Yield (1998) “Wishlist,” the next-to-last song on the first side of Yield, is my favorite Pearl Jam song. It’s simple, quiet and understated with none of the bombast of “Alive” or even “Given to Fly,” the song that precedes “Wishlist” on Yield. This album marks the first time the Seattle quintet returned to the meat-and-potatoes hard rock without any artistic detours. Although 2009’s Backspacer produced better results mining this same vein, Yield is still a good, direct hard rock album.

Review: The Decemberists

(Above: “The Rake Song,” a standout cut from “The Hazards of Love.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

What you thought of Wednesday night’s concert by the Decemberists at the Uptown Theater is largely based on your opinion of the band’s latest release, “The Hazards of Love.”

The Portland-based lit-rockers played the album in its entirety during the first set of their 2-hour, 15-minute set. That meant fans who weren’t familiar with the record (or just wanted the old stuff) had to wait over an hour before the band gave them the goods.“The Hazards of Love” isn’t a standard catalog entry. It’s a full-on concept album that nearly buckles under its own weight. The story involves a woman in love with a changeling who lives in the forest and gets kidnapped by a jealous queen. Somehow an angry rake is also involved.

And while the Decemberists had hints of progressive rock in their music before, they have now embraced it completely. “Hazards” isn’t too far from the being the indie equivalent of “Tales of Topgraphic Oceans.” In other words, the evening needed a huge caveat before the first note was played.

But what a note it was. Organist Jenny Conlee took the stage alone pumping huge cords out of her B3 organ as her bandmates slowly joined her. The music shifted from acoustic numbers to heavy blues-based Black Sabbath riffs, country and canticles as different themes and characters were introduced.

To help with their production, the quintet enlisted Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond to play the beau and queen. Both artists were committed to their roles. Stark wore an all-white, flowing princess dress and would sway back and forth and gently swing her arms when her character appeared in the plot. Worden, whose band opened for the Decemberists last time they were in town, succeeded in her efforts to look and sound sinister.

While delivering the unabridged “Hazards of Love” may not be the most palatable approach, in hindsight it is understandable. Each number was largely dependent on the songs around it. Only a few numbers might have stood alone.

“The Wanting Comes In Waves” has a great pop chorus that ultimately serves as the climax to the tale. “The Rake Song” found everyone on stage, save songwriter/frontman Colin Meloy and bass player Nate Query banging on small drum sets placed throughout the stage. The power of those four additional drummers brought the hammer of the gods to the song.

“Margaret in Captivity” was another highlight. Backlit by a huge white light, Stark looked ethereal as the band played an intriguing melody that unfortunately shared the same chord changes as Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive.”

Meloy’s “thank you” at the end of “Hazards” was his first acknowledgement of the audience. However, after the half-hour break, Meloy returned as his usual loquacious self.

The band came back sans Stark and Worden took their time delivering favorites from across their catalog, stopping to tell jokes, organizing sing-alongs, explaining their songs and goading the audience. Before they played “Oceanside” Meloy explained what an ocean is because “I know that many of you have never seen an ocean. It’s much bigger than your muddy Missouri (River).”

Nearly every song in the second hour was greeted with big applause and loud singing. The crowd especially got into “Dracula’s Daughter,” the unreleased number Meloy called his worst song ever. That flowed right into “O Valencia,” which got the biggest response of the night.

At the end of “Valencia,” Worden and Stark snuck back onstage as a single spotlight focused on Meloy playing a familiar Spanish-tinged solo on his acoustic guitar. Suddenly the stage lit up and the rest of the band hit the riff to Heart’s “Crazy On You.” Worden and Stark threw themselves into their new roles as Ann and Nancy Wilson, showing off some great rock and roll pipes.

The encore kicked off with Meloy delivering a solo acoustic reading of the love song “Red Right Ankle.” That was followed by “A Cautionary Song,” which found everyone but Meloy, Query and Conlee parading through the audience with drums, tambourines and other percussion. Somehow Meloy orchestrated that maneuver into a lighthearted restaging of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Whatever. Anyone who sat through an hour of music involving a rake and bought a ticket for something the band called “A Short Fazed Hovel Tour” was definitely up for anything thrown at them.

| Joel Francis, Special to The Star

Setlist: The “Hazards of Love” album. Intermission. Oceanside; July July!; Billy Liar; We Both Go Down Together;The Engine Driver; The Sporting Life; Dracula’s Daughter; O Valencia; Crazy On You; Encore: Red Right Ankle ; A Cautionary Song