funkadelic, paul mccartney, alanis morissette album covers

Random record reviews: Alanis Morissette, Paul McCartney, Funkadelic

By Joel Francis

Alanis Morissette – Such Pretty Forks in the Road

On her first album in eight years, Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette gets introspective and a little too comfortable. Such Pretty Forks in the Road hits the turnpike out of the gate, but takes an unfortunate detour, succumbing to its own ponderous weight before getting back on track for the final songs.

Written for her children, “Ablaze” belongs on any Morissette best-of playlist and features one of the best lyrics on the album: “My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze.” The piano-driven confessional “Reasons I Drink” could be a b-side from Fiona Apple’s stellar Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “Drink” is followed by “Diagnosis,” a frank look at depression and mental illness. These songs are saved from being pablum for a group therapy session by a raw, honest delivery and arrangements that heighten Morissette’s emotions.

Unfortunately, Forks then takes a wrong turn. The songs start to blend (bland) together and the lyrics grow treacly. “Losing the Plot, a song about insomnia, did a good job of putting this listener to sleep. “Sandbox Love” suggests something new with a shimmering guitar intro, but collapses into the same middle-of-the-road quicksand.

Closing numbers “Nemesis” and “Pedestal” end the album on a strong note, but anyone pining for the raw anger of her ‘90s breakthrough oughta know those days are nowhere to be found.

Paul McCartney – Flaming Pie

Paul McCartney went all-in after the Beatles Anthology pushed the Fab Four back into the spotlight. For his first post-Anthology album, McCartney enlisted Anthology producer Jeff Lynne and called on old pals Ringo Starr and George Martin.

The resulting album, Flaming Pie, hits that sweet spot where the performances shine without seeming over-labored and the songwriting has a relaxed feel without feeling tossed-off. The first time McCartney was able to sustain this zone throughout an entire album he delivered Band on the Run. While Flaming Pie isn’t as good as that album, it isn’t far off and may be as close to that apex as we will ever see again.

High points include the Ringo-assisted “Beautiful Night,” the R&B number “Souvenir” and single “The Song We Were Singing,” where McCartney confronts his legacy with the great lyric “I go back so far/I’m in front of me.” The acoustic “Little Willow” is a heartfelt ballad, while album-closing “Great Day” could have appeared on Ram.

If you have some spare change, consider buying the deluxe version. The extra LP finds McCartney laying down early versions of these songs accompanied only by his own guitar (or piano). Ringing phones, overhead airplanes, barking dogs and passing trains only add to the intimacy.

Funkadelic – Maggot Brain

George Clinton’s genre melting experiment never soared as high as it does on Maggot Brain, the third album from Funkadelic. Guitarist Eddie Hazel’s 10-minute solo on the title track may be the finest sound coaxed from six strings by any rock axeman not named Jimi Hendrix. “Can You Get to That” exists in a world where Crosby, Stills and Nash recorded with Norman Whitfield-era Temptations. “Hit It and Quit It” reimagines jazz organist Jimmy Smith as a member of a Bay-area jam band. “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” combines the spirit of Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder with a jazz trio.

funkadelic maggot brain album cover

And that’s just side one.

Any trepidation of musical whiplash reading these descriptions would be well-founded, but somehow everything hangs together. Clinton’s vision of putting heavy metal, gospel, folk, funk and any other LSD-inspired musical visions into the blender and seeing what pours out resulted in a collection that is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts. Each performance supports the other possibly because the only points of reference for this sound are the other songs on the album.

Funkadelic released many other superb albums in the 1970s – to say nothing of brother band Parliament’s output – but they never danced so freely on the edge of threatening to fall into the abyss while simultaneously grabbing anything with an arm’s length to raise them into the stratosphere.

Keep reading:

Social Distancing Spins – Day 53, featuring Eddie Hazel, Miles Davis, Alex Chilton, Tom Petty, The Roots and Insurgence DC

Social Distancing Spins – Day 61, the solo Beatles releases of 1973

Review: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars

Social Distancing Spins – Day 61 (Fab Four edition)

By Joel Francis

Many Beatle fans have put together the ultimate final Beatles album, drawing from tracks on the Fab Four’s early solo albums. I remember a quote from one of the newly liberated Beatles saying the break-up was actually better for fans because instead of one Beatles album, fans would get one solo album from each mop top. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but it’s with that idea I approached today’s spins. We’ll look at the solo albums each Beatle released in 1973. Why 1973? It started because I happen to own all the albums each member released this year, but took on greater significance as I got deeper in listening and researching. Let’s go through them in the order they were released.

Paul McCartney and Wings – Red Rose Speedway (April 30, 1973) The second album released by Wings, Red Rose Speedway was also Paul’s fourth release in the three years after the Beatles’ break-up. Although 1970’s McCartney and 1971’s Ram are rightly revered today, at the time they were seen as lightweight albums that didn’t live up the expectations of a public that had grown up on “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be.” With Red Rose Speedway, Paul takes a few tentative steps in that direction.

The ballad “My Love” became Paul’s second No. 1 solo hit, after “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” The 11-minute medley that ends the album was certainly constructed with Abbey Road’s famous second-side mash-ups in mind. What does Paul give us with the remaining seven songs on the album? Nothing as substantial, unfortunately.

Opener “Big Barn Bed” is catchy, but feels like filler at the same time. “Single Pigeon” seems entirely constructed away the two words in the title play off each other. “When the Night” sounds like a rehearsal that should have been left on the cutting room floor. In fact, “Little Lamb Dragonfly” and the weird jam “Loup (First Indian on the Moon)” are the only other songs from Red Rose Speedway that I’d save in a fire. And Paul wanted this to be a double album at one point, too. Yeesh.

Of the albums released by the former Fabsters in 1973, Red Rose Speedway is easily the lightest of the bunch. Fortunately, Paul was far from done for the year. He’d release another album before Christmas and reunited with George Martin in the summer for the hit James Bond theme song “Live and Let Die.” Their song was far better than the film.

George Harrison – Living in the Material World (May 30, 1973) Despite the success of “Someday,” few fans would have picked George to be the most successful Beatle after the break-up, but in 1973 George was sitting on a mountain of good will from his concerts for Bangladesh (and resulting album) and just as many accolades for his triple-LP masterpiece All Things Must Pass. George’s follow up, Living in the Material World isn’t a major statement like his previous releases, but it does confirm that George’s songwriting skills ran deep.

The only single from the album, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” was a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and dealt with George’s struggle between stardom and spirituality. George’s existential grappling dominates the album, but it rarely feels heavy-handed or preachy. The may be because George varies the song structures and arrangements of songs dealing with these themes. For example, the title song and “Give Me Love” are very upbeat, while “Try Some, Buy Some” is slightly psychedelic. “The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)” and “The Day the World Gets Round” are slower contemplative numbers.

Between all this seriousness, George pokes fun at Paul’s lawsuit against his fellow Beatles with “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” (chorus: “Bring your lawyer and I’ll bring mine/Get together and we could have a bad time”). George would release another seven solo albums in his lifetime, but it wasn’t until the posthumous release of Brainwashed in 2002 that he again reached the same height achieved with Living in the Material World.

John Lennon – Mind Games (November 2, 1973)
Ringo Starr – Ringo (November 2, 1973)
Picture walking out of the record store in early November excitedly clutching the new John Lennon and Ringo Starr albums, only to discover hours later that Ringo’s album is the better of the two. Sure, Ringo gets by with the help of his friends, but he ropes in A-list guests here.

George chips in two songs and writes another – “Photograph” – with Ringo. John and Paul each write one song. In fact, Ringo has a co-write credit on three songs and wrote “Step Lightly” by himself. Musically, Marc Bolan from T-Rex, Harry Nilsson, Billy Preston and members of The Band all appear, as do the other Beatles (though, sadly not all on the same track). The cover depicts Ringo onstage, and indeed the album is paced like a live performance, complete with Ringo thanking all his guests and signing off at the end.

Ringo (the album) spawned two No. 1 hits in “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen.” The later is the only bum spot on the album. Johnny Burnette’s original 1960 hit was featured prominently in the film American Graffiti released earlier that summer, possibly inspiring Ringo to cover it. Regardless of the reason, post-adolescent men singing about teenage girls will never not be creepy. Despite this misstep, Ringo is a party, from start to finish. Ringo can usually be found at a cheap price in the used record bins. If you don’t have this album, there is absolutely no reason not to pick it up.

Meanwhile, John Lennon was struggling. The Nixon administration was playing political football with John’s work visa and his marriage to Yoko Ono was on the rocks. On top of that, John’s previous album, the uber-topical and political Some Time in New York City was a dud. Mind Games is a definite improvement, but it still sounds like a man who doesn’t know which way to go. The gorgeous, sweeping title song was a Top 20 hit, but not all of the remaining 10 songs work. “Tight A$” and “Meat City” sound like the same song and while both songs rock, neither go anywhere. The jokey political anthem “Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” is easily the best up-tempo song on the album. More than 40 years later, this song was used to great effect in the post-apocalyptic action film Children of Men (which is highly recommended).

Other stellar moments on Mind Games include the emotional ballad “Out of the Blue” (John’s best vocal performance on the album), the relationship-affirming “I Know (I Know)” (built around a guitar lick that sounds suspiciously like “I’ve Got a Feeling”) and the upbeat “Intuition,” which foreshadows the direction John would take on Double Fantasy. I also like the slow apology “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry),” which sounds like a sort of cousin to “Jealous Guy.”

Mind Games is a very different album than Ringo, but the inconsistencies on Mind Games puts Ringo in the pole position.

Paul McCartney and Wings – Band on the Run (December 5, 1973) Somewhere between the spring release of Red Rose Speedway and the autumn recording of Band on the Run, Paul managed to lose nearly half of his band. Now down to a trio, Paul, his wife Linda and Denny Laine departed to Lagos, Nigeria, to hang out with Fela Kuti, lose the in-progress studio tapes in a mugging and create a defining rock masterpiece.

If Red Rose Speedway often felt slight, nearly every song on Band on the Run drives with a purpose. The opening one-two punches of the title song and “Jet” remain classic rock radio staples today (as does “Let Me Roll It,” which closes the first side). Tucked between those hits on the first side is the jaunty “Mrs. Vandebilt” with its infectious “ho hey ho” chorus, and the delicate “Bluebird.”

The second side doesn’t have any singles, but the material remains strong. The slide guitar and string arrangement on “No Words” makes it feel like a George song. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” incorporates reprise of some of the earlier melodies with a jolly drinking song. If there’s a weak song on the album it might be “Helen Wheels,” but even this track is better than all but a couple songs on Red Rose Speedway. After four solo albums that confounded and disappointed fans’ expectations, Paul finally delivered the mainstream post-Beatles triumph everyone was waiting for with Band on the Run.

Post script

After releasing two albums in 1973, Paul didn’t have another release until 1975’s Venus and Mars. That same year George and John – mired in his lost weekend – both released albums, but Ringo didn’t. In fact, the stars never aligned for all four Beatles to release solo albums in the same calendar year again. No one knew it at the time, but 1973 ended up being the end of another sort of era for the Beatles.

What are your favorite songs from Red Rose Speedway, Living in the Material World, Ringo, Mind Games and Band on the Run? Which of these five albums from 1973 do you like best? Did I overlook or mischaracterize your favorite tune? Leave a comment and let me know.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 41

Sonny Rollins – The Freedom Suite (1958) The Civil Rights movement and bebop came of age together in the 1940s and ‘50s. It makes just as much sense for the jazz artists of that time to make music about the blatant racial inequality happening in America at the time as did for Chuck D, KRS-One and Mos Def to do it in their times. The hard-hitting title song lasts nearly 20 minutes and takes up the entire first side. In it Rollins displays his talent for twisting, flipping and turning a theme inside-out, only without any of the humor he usually infuses into his playing. Rollins is dead serious here and his point is driven home by Max Roach’s sympathetic and dynamic drumming. The second side is devoted to softer material, including a stellar reading of The Music Man’s “’Till There Was You” (also covered by the Beatles). Rollins’ pacing in the production of this album is just as impeccable as in his playing. He knows when to clench a fist and when to extend a hand.

Raffi – Singable Songs for the Very Young (1976) This was a favorite album from my childhood and my son now enjoys it. I wrote extensively about Raffi and his then-unknown producer some time ago. 

Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe – Enko on ti Tou: 1966-2016 (compilation) I don’t know anything about this band or this music except that I love it. Internet research tells me this is “one of the most important French Antillean band from the ‘60s and ‘70s.” This practically goes without saying. In all my acquaintances with other French Antillean bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe definitely rest on the top of that pile. The internet also tells me their music is “a unique mix of Biguine, funk, Latin, compass and early Zouk.” Don’t confuse Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe with a late Zouk band. They are strictly early Zouk. Look, here is all you need to know about this fantastic collection. Ready? You know how there aren’t many airplanes in the sky right now, because we can’t really leave our houses except to go to the grocery store? And you know how we all can’t wait for this to end and safely return to exploring our world? If you put this record on and close your eyes, you can take an easy vacation in your mind down to the Caribbean. No frequent flyer miles required.

Bob Dylan – Under the Red Sky (1990)
Joni Mitchell – Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988)
Paul McCartney – Egypt Station (2018) Most longtime artists who hang around long enough reach a crossroads at a certain point in their careers. Do they want to continue pushing to be on the vanguard, or will they regroup and continue to create from their strengths? Typically, the audience figures this out an album or two before the artist. A common attempt to hang on the precipice of the cutting edge a little longer is to rope in several high-profile guests.

This is the place Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell found themselves in the late ‘80s. Mitchell enlisted Tom Petty and Billy Idol to assist on “Dancin’ Clown,” with a result that is as head-scratching as it appears on paper. Other duets were more successful. Peter Gabriel steps into “My Secret Place” and makes it sound like a So b-side. Willie Nelson and Don Henley trade vocals with Mitchell on “Cool Water” and “Snakes and Ladders,” respectively. The best duet on the album, though, comes between Mitchell and saxophone legend Wayne Shorter on “A Bird that Whistles (Corrina, Corrina).”

The hype sticker on my copy of Under the Red Sky boasts special appearances by David Crosby, George Harrison, Bruce Hornsby, Elton John, Al Kooper, Slash, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Don Was and more, with each musician’s name in all caps. For all that star power it’s remarkable that only a few guests manage to differentiate themselves from standard studio pros. The other problem with Under the Red Sky is that some of the songs are embarrassing. It doesn’t matter which special guest plays the solo on “Wiggle Wiggle,” the ghost of Jimi Hendrix couldn’t save a tune with the lyrics “wiggle to the right, wiggle to the rear/wiggle ‘til you wiggle right out of here.” Dylan is still Dylan though, and he gives us the great “Born in Time” to counterbalance “Wiggle Wiggle.” But that’s the problem: the album is a wash.

Neither Chalk Mark or Red Sky are bad albums, per se. It’s that not only do the results fail to add major works to each artists’ considerable songbooks, they seem to be trying awfully hard to achieve this mediocrity. To be fair, half-baked Dylan and Mitchell are still better than the majority of songwriters, and there are some keepers hidden in both albums. But Chalk Mark and Red Sky are also the final contemporary-sounding albums each made before retreating to acoustic guitars and the style of music that made both of them icons and haven’t come close to anything close to modern again.

Paul McCartney has managed to avoid this trap for the most part. There was a time in the mid-to-late ‘90s after the Beatles Anthology came out that it looked like he was going down the heritage path, but he still believes he can land on top of the charts again. On McCartney’s most recent album, Egypt Station, he brought in producers Greg Kurstin, who has worked with Sia, Beck, Pink and Zayn Malik of One Direction, among others, and Ryan Tedder, who has worked with Beyonce, One Direction, Selena Gomez, Ed Sheeran and many more. Clearly McCartney was thinking about the zeitgeist when he selected these producers. And while the single “Fuh You” was obviously written for Top 40 appeal, it’s also not half as awkward as “Wiggle Wiggle” or “Dancin’ Clown.” Egypt Station won’t make anyone forget about Band on the Run, but it also feels a lot less forced that Under the Red Sky and Chalk Marks in a Rain Storm.

Obviously, Dylan and Mitchell went on to release some great albums after they embraced heritage status. I don’t know that McCartney has made an album as good as Love and Theft this century, but he also hasn’t resorted to a hits-with-strings live album or three consecutive standards album. (McCartney did one, 2012’s Kisses on the Bottom, and moved on.) That has to count for something.

Mavis Staples – Livin’ on a High Note (2016) Mavis Staples is a treasure. Her soulful voice never fails to put me at ease. For her 10th solo album, Staples is assisted by some of the top indie music songwriters today. Justin Vernon, Benjamin Booker, Valerie June, Aloe Blacc and Neko Case all contribute songs. Case’s work is rarely performed by other singers, so it is intriguing to hear Staples’ voice interpret Case’s unique phrasing. Vernon and M. Ward’s “Dedicated” is another standout track. I love the way Staples delivers the lyric “if it’s us against the world/Well I would bet on us” with so much hope and assurance. Livin’ on a High Note ends on a high note with “MLK Song,” a gospel folk song that incorporates one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches for the lyrics. Staples knew King well and marched with him several times in the 1960s. Again, her singing is full of hope and optimism, not sadness or loss. Livin’ on a High Note is a feel-good album for any time, but it seems especially needed right now.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 38

By Joel Francis

Watching the anti-quarantine protests and five o’clock follies, I am trying to take comfort in these words by Walt Whitman:

Meditating among liars, and retreating sternly into
myself, I see that there are really no liars or lies
after all,
And that nothing fails its perfect return—And that
what are called lies are perfect returns.
 
Let’s get into the music.

Talking Heads – Fear of Music (1979) The Talking Heads’ third album is very much a transitional piece. You can hear some glimpses of where they are headed, into the full-blown, Brian Eno-assisted soundscapes that populate their next album, Remain in Light, but for the most part Fear of Music is spare. The song titles are just as lean. Most are one or two words, reading like a cryptic poem on the sticker placed on the pack of the album: “Mind,” Paper,” “Cities.” “Air,” “Heaven,” “Animals.” After the surprise success of “Take Me To The River” on their previous album, the Heads are intentionally running as far away from mainstream success as possible, exploring African rhythms and Ddaist nonsense on “I Zimbra,” feral primitivism on “Animals” and cinematic isolation on “Drugs.” “Cities” races with frantic paranoia and “Air” is laced with sinister synthesizers and processed vocals. Even the songs with strong melodies serve as warnings. “No time for dancing/or lovey dovey,” singer David Byrne proclaims on “Life During Wartime.” Later, “Heaven” is merely a place where nothing ever happens. The Talking Heads were never this stark – or dark – again. Which is why Fear of Music is my favorite Talking Heads album.

Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (2014) The Radiohead frontman’s second solo album is more likely to rattle around in your head after a deep listen than spring from your lips like a Broadway melody. The music is moody and cerebral. And as I found out when I saw Thom Yorke in concert in the fall of 2019, surprisingly danceable and energetic when dialed up to 11. My favorite moments are when Yorke stretches out and lets the tracks hypnotize. “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)” is a glitchy wonderland. “The Mother Lode” manages to combine ambient music with dubstep. I’m not enough of a cryptologist to pretend to know what these songs are about, nor versed enough in EDM to compare this to other, similar pieces. What I can say is that Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a solid listen that helps place Radiohead’s The King of Limbs in context.

INXS – Kick (1987) Nearly 25 years after the death of lead singer Michael Hutchence, the music of INXS remains ubiquitous. The Australian band’s pop prowess is undeniable, but they always had trouble crafting great albums around those magnificent singles. Kick, their sixth album, is the one time everything clicked. OK, it helps that five of the dozen tracks here were big hits, but the other seven are no slouches. Opening track “Guns in the Sky” plays like a set of expectations the band will need met before delivering the hits. It sets the table nicely for the great run of “New Sensation,” “Devil Inside” and “Need you Tonight.” The first half concludes with “The Loved One,” the only cover on the album. The second side includes another amazing run of “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Mystify” and the title song. You’ve heard these songs so many times I don’t need to describe them. Kick was so big that even the songs that weren’t singles ended up being recognizable. Knowing the songs’ omnipresence you may question needing to own the album. The answer is yes, of course you do. Because even though you’ve heard them a million times, once you get done playing Kick, you’re going to want to flip it over and play it again.

Berwanger – Exorcism Rock (2016) Singer, songwriter and guitarist Josh Berwanger has been a fixture on the Kansas City music scene since The Anniversary broke through in the late ‘90s. Fans missing that great band might find the next best thing with Exorcism Rock. Former bandmate Adrianne deLanda contributes backing vocals on two tracks and former Anniversary producer Doug Boehm is back behind the boards. But you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the infectious, hook-heavy songs. It’s impossible not to smile and sing along. The lyrics get catty sometimes – “Heard you on the radio/Song’s bad/I thought I’d just let you know,” goes the chorus on the title track – but the music is always sunny. Stir up Cheap Trick, Tom Petty and the Get Up Kids, another local favorite, and you’re getting close. I saw Berwanger last fall and the songs sound even better in person. I can’t wait to hear them again once all this blows over.

Paul McCartney – Tug of War (1982) Yes, this is the album with “Ebony and Ivory,” and yes that song is awful. But despite that transgression, Tug of War is a great album. First of all, there’s another, even better Stevie Wonder collaboration, the funky “What’s That You’re Doing.” Rockabilly legend Carl Perkins pops up for another duet on “Get It.” Jazz bassist Stanley Clarke also appears on two tracks. The most notable collaborator is producer George Martin, who wrote a great orchestral accompaniment for the title song and a very Beatle-esque horn line to “Take It Away.” Martin also added sublime strings to the affecting “Here Today,” McCartney’s tribute to John Lennon. Despite all this star power, McCartney is always in the driver’s seat. Side two kicks off with the upbeat “Ballroom Dancing.” Later, “Wanderlust” adds another composition to McCartney’s awesome ballad songbook. By the time you get to “Ebony and Ivory,” almost hidden away as the last song on the album, it starts to make a little more sense in the context of the album. Tug of War is easily found in the sale racks at a cheap price and should be an easy purchase next time you see it.

Peter Tosh – Legalize It (1976) Reggae guitarist Peter Tosh had a lot to prove on Legalize It, his solo debut. After coming up in the Wailers, Tosh was eager to establish himself as more than Bob Marley’s sidekick. Although the title song is a strident political statement (with supporting cover art), the rest of the album is surprisingly playful. “Ketchy Shuby” is a light-hearted look at love and “Whatcha Gonna Do” manages to stay perky despite a narrative about running afoul of the law. Think of it as the reggae equivalent of “Here Comes the Judge.” The most heartfelt moments arrive in the middle of the album. “Why Must I Cry” is an emotional breakup song written with Bob Marley. The next song is an excellent Rastafarian hymn, “Igziabeher (Let Jah Be Praised).” Legalize It successfully established Tosh as a star in his own right and ranks among his best work.

Social Distancing Spins – Days 28 – 30

By Joel Francis

I hope everyone had a good holiday weekend (if you’re into that sort of thing).

R.E.M. – Reveal (2001) I counted down the days to this album’s release after hearing the lead single, “Imitation of Life.” While I still like that song and a few other moments on Reveal, it was the most unsatisfying experience I’d had with an R.E.M. album until that point. Reveal gets off to a strong start with the first handful of songs, but then just kind of floats on its pillows of keyboards. Reveal also receives a strong demerit for failing to include “Fascinating,” one of the band’s best late-period ballads. It was reportedly cut because it sounded too much like the other material, but Reveal’s biggest problem is that it sounds too samey, and few of its songs are as memorable – or beautiful – as “Fascinating.” Hearing Reveal made me wonder if Up, the band’s first album after the departure of drummer Bill Berry, was a fluke. I don’t begrudge the band for pressing on as a trio, but the great moments were further apart.

Bootsy’s Rubber Band – Bootsy? Player of the Year (1978) George Clinton’s P-Funk was a well-oiled machine by the time bass man Bootsy Collins’ their album dropped. Your mileage with Bootsy? Player of the Year will depend on how much you like Clinton’s signature sound. “Bootsy? (What’s the Name of This Town” and “Roto-Rooter” are exactly the type of high-energy funk exercises you imagine them to be. (“Town” even features some funky flute.) “Hollywood Squares” opens with an appropriately theatrical fanfare, complete with tympani. The slow grind R&B workout “Very Yes” features uncredited but very accommodating female singers. The original funkateer is in prime form here.

Matthew Sweet – Wicked System of Things (2018) After a delightful trio of covers albums with Susanna Hoffs, Matthew Sweet finally pivoted back to his solo career. That return featured so many ideas and guests it was split across two albums, Tomorrow Forever and Tomorrow’s Daughter. The Tomorrow follow-up features Sweet stripping down and rocking out in a trio. Wicked System features some Sweet’s most aggressive playing in nearly a decade, but just because the riffs are harder doesn’t mean the album is lacking Sweet’s power pop chops. “Eternity Now” and “Backwards Upside Down” are great pop songs that could easily slot alongside his ‘90s work in a setlist. “It’s a Charade” is a deceptively sunny protest song, thanks to the cheery backing vocals on the chorus. Wicked System of Things snuck out as a Record Store Day release. I’m not sure it is on streaming platforms, but it is definitely worth seeking out if you are a fan of Sweet or power pop.

The Replacements – Hootenany (1983)

The Replacements – All Shook Down (1990) The Minneapolis college rock favorite’s second album is a beautiful mess, starting with the opening title track. “Hootenany” sounds like something some drunks would rip through in the basement while warming up. In other words, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the ‘Mats’ IDGAF ethos. “Run It,” the second song turns back to the more familiar sound of the band’s debut. Side one ends with “Mr. Whirly,” another drunken jam free-associating well-known riffs and lyrics. My favorite early ‘Mats song kicks off side two. “Within Your Reach” is the first glimpse of Paul Westerberg’s more sensitive and nuanced songwriting, which would blossom on the next two albums.

By the time of All Shook Down, Westerberg was positioning himself as a Serious Songwriter. While the compositions and performances are undoubtedly better, they also aren’t as much fun. That’s not to say it isn’t a good album. “Merry Go Round,” “Nobody” and “Somebody Take the Wheel” belong on any solid Replacements playlist. “Sadly Beautiful” is Westerberg at his aching, lonely best. All Shook Down ends with a song called “The Last,” a fitting title for what would be the end of the line for the band.

Beatles – Anthology 1 (1995) It’s hard to believe, but right now we are as far from the release of the Beatles Anthology series as that landmark look back was from the end of the Beatles. It’s also hard to believe that something that was seen as the ultimate treasure trove when it came out has become so inessential today. Be honest, when was the last time you listened to any of the Anthology collections? Prior to this, it had been years for me, especially for this first volume. Thanks to all the spoken word interludes Anthology 1 has an audio documentary feel the other collections lack. At times it feels like the only reason a performance is included on the album is because it was featured in the film. It’s great fun watching the Fab Four ham it up on Morcambe and Wise, but hearing only the audio is much less fun (and insightful). Hearing the Decca audition tape and the Quarrymen performances are historically interesting but not musically vital. In other words, I’m glad they’re here and that I have them, but I rarely reach for them.

Of course, the big draw for this set was the reunion track “Free As a Bird.” I liked it at the time and I still enjoy it today. Then again, I am also a big fan of George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as individual musicians, so I was already standing on third before the first pitch was thrown. Hearing these three interact musically on John Lennon’s recording is a delight, and frankly Anthology 1’s best moment. That’s not to say there aren’t other great songs here. The early versions of “One After 909” and hearing “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Eight Days a Week” are definite high points. But the band was finding their footing more than they were experimenting. That came in the later, superior, Anthologies.

Social Distancing Spins – Days 26 and 27

By Joel Francis

Nice weather and conference calls are an anathema to playing records.

Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003) Reading Jay-Z’s book Decoded has me turning back to his old albums for the first time in quite a while. Sean Carter has always been at his best when rhyming about himself, particularly his early exploits as a hustler. Jay’s told it so many times it’s almost as much cliché as legend by this point. The Black Album is loaded with boasting and taunts over some of the best productions of the time. The Neptunes, Rick Rubin, Just Blaze, Timbaland and a young Kanye West all contribute tracks. One of Hova’s best-known rhymes on the album comes from “Moment of Clarity”: “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.” As we saw on 4:44, Jay can’t really do conscious rap without inevitably turning it back on himself. (Remember his lament over not investing in Dumbo real estate in “The Story of O.J.”?) The Black Album is all about Jay-Z all the time, and we are better for it.

Paul McCartney – Press To Play (1986) Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that Press to Play was a solid Paul McCartney album, unfairly overlooked because of its very of-the-moment production. It isn’t. There are some songs I genuinely enjoy here, such as the flamenco guitar-accented “Footprints,” “Press” and “Move Over Busker.” There is a solid EP lurking among these 10 tracks. The problem with the rest is that despite help from 10cc’s Eric Stewart, the songwriting simply isn’t that strong. McCartney was wise to bring in Elvis Costello as a songwriting partner for his next album, Flowers in the Dirt. I didn’t pay much for Press to Play so I don’t feel badly about owning it, but all but the most dedicated McCartney fans can press skip instead.

Sonny Rollins – Next Album (1972) Jazz albums from the 1970s can be a dicey proposition. One never knows how much synthesizer or slap/fretless bass will be involved. Fortunately, Sonny Rollins plays to his strengths on Next Album. For the most part, Rollins plays in an acoustic four-piece setting. Opening number “Playin’ in the Yard” is the only track to feature electric bass and electric piano. It’s also the only time Next Album sounds of the moment, but anyone who enjoyed Joe Zawinul’s tenure with Cannonball Adderly will feel right at home. Later, “The Everywhere Calypso” lives up to its name with a fun Caribbean beat. The absolute high point is a 10-minute version of “Skylark” that closes the album. The band gradually fades away during the performance, leaving Rollins to play unaccompanied for several blissful minutes.

DJ Shadow – Endtroducing (1996) The Bay-area DJ’s first album is the one to which all of his other releases will be compared. None of the songs on this all-instrumental album made the charts, but “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” has appeared in several commercials. You would probably recognize the haunting piano line if you heard it. The spacey “Midnight in a Perfect World” is another favorite. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes “Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2” is the centerpiece of the album. It starts with a harp refrain before building into a hard drum attack (with strings). It eventually settles back down into something almost ambient. If Brian Eno ever tried to create dance music, it might sound a lot like this. Whenever someone says that sampling isn’t music, I hold up Endtroducing as an emphatic counterargument. Then walk away, because arguing about what constitutes music, much like arguing about authenticity or what is or isn’t a sport, is a waste of time. And I’d rather be listening to music than quarreling about it.

Toots and the Maytals – Funky Kingston (1975) Reggae pioneer Toots Hibberts’ first album for Island Records is so strong you might be forgiven for thinking you are listening to a greatest hits album. Many of his biggest – and best – songs are here: “Funky Kingston,” “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop” (later covered by the Clash, the Specials and Keith Richards) and a delightful cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads” (with West Jamaica standing in for West Virginia). Hibbert’s singing has always been filled with as much soul and gospel as reggae. His joyous vocals go a long way toward making these great songs even more infectious.

Junior Walker and the All Stars – Shotgun (1965) Junior Walker recorded nearly 20 albums for Motown, but this is really the only one you need. From the title song to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “(I’m a) Roadrunner” to the infectious “Shake and Fingerpop,” Shotgun not only contains Junior Walker’s best-known tunes, but a deep well of great album tracks as well. “Shoot Your Shot” could be “Shotgun”’s cousin, complete with dance steps. “Cleo’s Mood” steps away from the template and sounds like a Leiber-Stoller revival. When you see Shotgun, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger. You know you need this.

Review: Cheap Trick, Peter Frampton

(Above: Peter Frampton takes an early summer voyage through “Black Hole Sun” at Starlight Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Peter Frampton and Cheap Trick have more in common than releasing two of the best-selling and critically acclaimed live albums of all time in the late 1970s. Thursday night at Starlight, the two children of the Beatles professed their love for the Fab Four.

Cheap Trick covered “Magical Mystery Tour” during its opening 80-minute set. Two hours later, Frampton ended his set (and the night) with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Both songs fit the performer’s personalities. Paul McCartney’s genius for concise pop songs and cheeky sense of humor have been celebrated and amplified by Cheap Trick since the mid-‘70s. Likewise, George Harrison’s introspection and guitar virtuosity have been among Frampton’s hallmarks since his precocious start in the late ‘60s.

A cloudburst early in Cheap Trick’s daylight set sent many fans scurrying for cover, but the quartet stayed put. The faithful that remained in the open air strummed air guitar under ponchos and bounced beneath umbrellas to “Hot Love” and “Voices.”

cheap-trickThe quartet stretched out on a couple numbers, jamming on a lengthy “Need Your Love” and taking “Magical Mystery Tour” for a couple extra trips around the block well after the recorded fade-out. Eighties power ballad “The Flame” set up a killer home stretch that included “Dream Police” and “Surrender,” two of the band’s best-loved songs, and “I Want You To Want Me” and “Ain’t That A Shame,” the two biggest hits from “At Budokan.”

Likewise, Frampton didn’t skimp on numbers from his blockbuster “Frampton Comes Alive.” In fact, the opening coupling of “Something’s Happening” and “Doobie Wah” mirrored the first two songs on side one of the album.

Although Frampton is a fine songwriter – look no further than “Baby, I Love Your Way” – guitar solos are his meat and potatoes. His opening solo for the ballad “Lines on My Face” was almost smooth jazz. Later, Frampton traded solos with nearly everyone in the band during a 20-minute reading of “Do You Feel Like We Do.” His best solo came on “(I’ll Give You) Money.”

The band dropped out partway through, leaving Frampton along with his thoughts and his fretboard. The quiet, delicate playing gradually built back up, with each band member subtly, gradually rejoining. Before long, Frampton was trading licks with second guitarist Adam Lester, each trying to tastefully top the other. A lesser guitarist would have ended the song sliding across the stage on his knees with a flurry of notes. Frampton just stood and played, building layer on layer with his fingertips.

Beatles covers were the coup de grace, but a few other interesting covers wormed their way into the night. By now, Cheap trick has likely played “Ain’t It A Shame” more than Fats Domino. A surprising instrumental version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” found Frampton delivering the final chorus through his infamous talk box. Finally, if it was strange to hear Cheap Trick do “Magical Mystery Tour” sans piano, it was even more jarring to hear Frampton cover Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” without horns.

There were plenty of empty seats in the top third of the theater, but four decades after committing their defining concert performances to vinyl, the unlikely pairing of classic rock vets proved they still had plenty to say and many who were anxious to hear it.

Cheap Trick setlist: Hello There; Oh Candy; Big Eyes; Lookout; Hot Love; Voices; I Can’t Take It; Need Your Love; Magical Mystery Tour; She’s Tight; I Know What I Want; The Flame; I Want You To Want Me; Dream Police. Encore: Ain’t That A Shame; Surrender; Auf Wiedersehen; Goodnight.

Peter Frampton setlist: Something’s Happening; Doobie Wah; Show Me the Way; Lines on My Face; Lying; Signed, Sealed, Delivered; (I’ll Give You) Money; Baby, I Love Your Way; Black Hole Sun; Do You Feel Like We Do. Encore: While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

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Review: Ringo Starr

(Above: The run from “Don’t Pass Me By,” “Yellow Submarine” and “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” was one of the strongest parts of Ringo Starr’s long overdue return to Kansas City in October, 2014.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The last time both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr both performed in Kansas City in the same year they were onstage together at Municipal Stadium.

The Fab Four’s drummer gave his first performance in the area since 1992 on Saturday night, only three months after McCartney’s concert at the Sprint Center.

Starlight Theater wasn’t quite full, but judging from the crowd’s reaction to “Yellow Submarine” and “With A Little Help from My Friends” many people had waited a long time for this moment.

Several members of Ringo’s All-Starr band were also making belated returns. Bass player Richard Page congratulated the Royals for their playoff success and noted that last time he played Kansas City his band Mr. Mister was opening for Tina Turner, and the Royals had just won the World Series. Guitarist Steve Lukather said he couldn’t remember the last time he was here.

ringoNow in its 25th year and 13th iteration, the All-Starr Band works as a round-robin jukebox with each musician taking the spotlight, then introducing the next band member up. Guitarist Todd Rundgren was the biggest name on the bill aside from the headliner. While the other names may not have been as familiar, the songs they helped take to the top of the charts – “Rosanna,” “Evil Ways,” “Broken Wings” – definitely were.

The seven-piece band had the most opportunity to stretch out and show off on the Santana numbers – “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va” and especially “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” – lead by organist Gregg Rolie, a founding member of the Santana band. Lukather handled lead guitar duties for most of the night, but seem to save his best solos for those songs. Surprisingly, the band also jammed over a slowed-down Bo Diddley beat during Toto’s “Roseanna.” Rundgren’s “Bang on the Drum” incorporated a bit of “Low Rider” during Page’s bass solo.

The only unfamiliar song in the two-hour set was Page’s “You Are Mine.” Rundgren’s amazing guitar arrangement for the ballad showed why he has been an influential and in-demand producer for several decades.

As expected, the Beatles material and early Starr solo singles drew the biggest response. Starr opened and closed the set with a trio of songs and peppered another five in between. His contribution to “The Beatles” album (known as “The White Album”), “Don’t Pass Me By” was a fun surprise. Lukather, Rundgren and Page were clearly having a ball playing their hero’s songs. All three huddled together, sharing one mic on the choruses of “Boys” and “I Wanna Be Your Man.”

The night closed with the introduction of Billy Shears and “With a Little Help from My Friends.” As the song was winding down, the band jumped into John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” a fitting tribute to the man who has made peace and love his motto.

Setlist: Matchbox, It Don’t Come Easy, Wings, I Saw the Light, Evil Ways, Rosanna, Kyrie, Bang the Drum All Day, Boys, Don’t Pass Me By, Yellow Submarine, Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen, Honey Don’t, Anthem, You Are Mine, Africa, Oye Como Va, Love is the Answer, I Wanna Be Your Man, Broken Wings, Hold the Line, Photograph, Act Naturally, With a Little Help from My Friends > Give Peace a Chance.

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007’s Greatest Hits – The Music of James Bond

(Above: Her Majesty gets an assist from 007 to open the London Olympics in July, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

James Bond, the most famous spy in the world, first graced the big screen in “Dr. No” 50 years ago. This weekend, 007 will appear on the big screen for the 25th time in “Skyfall.” To celebrate both events, The Daily Record presents a three-part retrospective examining and celebrating the often wonderful and sometimes puzzling world James Bond theme songs. This series originally appeared in 2008 in advance of “The Quantum of Solace.”

The Music of James Bond: Part One – The Classic Years

The Music of James Bond: Part Two – The Seventies

The Music of James Bond: Part Three – The ’80s and Beyond

Jerry Leiber and the ballad of “Kansas City”

(Above: Paul McCartney goes to Kansas City with a little help from his friends.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Big Apple has “New York, New York,” “Empire State of Mind” and dozens more. The Windy City has “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Tom Waits gifted the Twin Cities with not one but two songs (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and “9th and Hennipen”). Visitors to the Bay City are encouraged to “wear some flowers in (their) hair” while the City of Angels gets “California Love,” “Beverly Hills” and “Hollywood Swingin’.” Heck, the even the Gateway City has “St. Louis Blues.”

But there’s only one universally known song about my hometown: “Kansas City.” (Only obsessive music fans and listeners of a certain age will recall “Everything Is Up To Date in Kansas City” and “Train to Kansas City.”) When listening to Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong boast about other American cities I try to find comfort reminding myself that the Beatles only sang about one city during their career and they chose “Kansas City.”

“Kansas City” is the only song visiting performers feel obliged to work into their setlist. Willie Nelson played it at Farm Aid earlier this month and Paul McCartney used it to open his 1993 show at Arrowhead Stadium (the recording from that night also appears the album “Paul Is Live”). I’ve heard the song so many times in concert I feel like someone should tell all touring acts that no, really, they don’t have to play “Kansas City” on our behalf.

It’s not like the song is invisible around town. Twelfth Street and Vine may be gone (typical of my hometown – undermining its greatest assets), but the song is still very present. Go to a Royals game and if you stick around until the end you are guaranteed to hear “Kansas City.” If the boys in blue win, fans are treated to the Beatles version. If they lose then Wilbert Harrison is piped through the speakers.

“Kansas City” was seven years old by the time Harrison got his hands on it. Originally recorded by bluesman Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, the song was written by a couple of 19-year-old Jews inspired by a Big Joe Turner record. Littlefield’s performance featured a somewhat racier chorus, ending with the line “with my Kansas City baby and some Kansas City wine.” When Federal Records received Littlefield’s recording they promptly rechristened it “K.C. Lovin’.”

Wilbert Harrison

Harrison had been performing “K.C. Lovin’” for years before he decided to record it in 1959 under its original title and with the sanitized chorus we all know today. Released on Fury Records, the platter went straight to No. 1 and spawned an army of imitators. Within weeks, interpretations of “Kansas City” by Hank Ballard, Rockin’ Ronald, Little Richard, Rocky Olson and a reissue of Littlefield’s original recording could be found in record shops. Paired with his own “Hey Hey Hey,” Little Richard’s cover hit No. 27 in the UK and inspired the Beatles’ recording.

The men – boys, really – who penned “Kansas City” wouldn’t visit the town that inspired their song until the mid-‘80s, nearly 35 years after handing the tune to Littlefield. Despite this handicap, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller nailed their vision of “a melody that sounded like it could have come out of a little band in Kansas City,” as Stoller later explained on a UK television show.

Hot on the heels of “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City” cemented Leiber and Stoller’s reputation as rock and roll’s hottest songwriters. Before the decade was out they would write scores of hit songs for the biggest singers of the day – Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Phil Spector, Ben E. King and, especially, the Coasters – and shape the young days of rock and roll more than anyone else. A sampling of their songs from the time reads like an early rock and roll greatest hits collection: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block Nine,” “On Broadway,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and on and on.

Jerry Leiber (left) and Mike Stoller show the King of Rock and Roll his next hit.

The duo’s use of strings on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” predates (and foreshadows) the Motown sound that would dominate pop music in the coming decade. In fact many of their arrangements and innovations were so prescient that Leiber and Stoller found themselves on the sidelines for much of the 1960s. The Beatles and other British Invasion bands learned to write emulating Leiber and Stoller and other Brill Building songwriters, making third-party songwriters largely redundant. The expansive use of the recording studio rendered Leiber and Stoller’s pioneering arrangements sounding (for a while) like quaint relics of the past.

Despite these advancements, rock and roll and pop music will never outgrow the shadow of Leiber and Stoller. Grammy awards, hall of fame inductions and songwriting royalties stand as a testament to Leiber and Stoller’s perpetual influence. Even “American Idol” paused to pay tribute with an all Leiber-and-Stoller episode last spring.

Jerry Leiber, 78, died Monday. His survivors include Mike Stoller, his songwriting partner of 60 years, his family and everyone who ever picked up the guitar or sat down at the piano and tried to write a song or become a star.

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