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, Day 2

By Joel Francis

Welcome to another installment of spelunking in my record collection while the world … well, who knows what’s happening out there. Let’s just stick to the music.

A.K. Salim – Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy (1965) I knew nothing about this album that wasn’t on its packaging when I bought it. I don’t know much more now. But this much is certain: If you want lots of African percussion with blasts of free jazz swooping in and out, this is the place to be. It’s not for every day listening, but at the right time this always does the trick.

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018) Illmatic is such a great album that this edition marks the third time I’ve purchased it. After owning the original CD and album, I passed on the 20th anniversary edition and rolled my eyes when I heard an orchestral live version was coming out. Then I heard a track and knew I was going to have to buy this again. Hearing these performances with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the album to another level. It’s almost like watching The Godfather in a 1972 theater, then viewing it in IMAX. The jazz organ underpinning the original “Memory Lane” becomes a swirling concerto complemented by the DJ Green Lantern’s scratches. Earlier, Nas shouts out his dad’s original cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” There’s amateur footage on Youtube of Kendrick Lamar doing a similar performance with the NSO. Cross your fingers this someday gets official release.

McCoy Tyner – McCoy Tyner plays Ellington (1965) This is essentially an album by the celebrated John Coltrane quartet without the legendary leader. Without their leader’s sheets of sound, everyone else gets more room to shine. Tyner was usually the person keeping Coltrane’s songs from falling apart – think about his insistent piano line in “My Favorite Things” while Coltrane scrapes the stratosphere. Finally out front and on his own, Tyner showcases and ability to pay tribute to a genre pioneer in Ellington while applying the some of the touches he showed with the futurist saxophonist. We lost a giant when McCoy Tyner died earlier this month.

The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019) The Raconteurs have always been my least-favorite Jack White project, however their by-the-numbers approach made for a refreshing listen after White’s previous release, the bizarre solo album Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger arrived more than a decade after the Racontuers’ previous release. While I didn’t really miss them, it is nice to hear White doing some straight-up rocking without all the cutesy tricks and gimmicks.

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) Here’s a question to pull out when the party gets dull (or maybe when you want it to end): Who had a better 1970s, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye? At first glance, it looks like Wonder in a landslide. He won all the Album of the Year Grammys and graduated from opening for the Rolling Stones to recording with Ella Fitzgerald. A second look reveals that Gaye’s decade was every bit as incredible, even if he didn’t win as many trophies. Of course What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are the twin pillars, but I Want You and Trouble Man are very, very good, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows. Then there’s Here My Dear, Gaye’s final album of the decade and a bitter kiss-off to his ex-wife (and label boss Barry Gordy’s sister) Anna Gordy.

Gaye knew going into the recording sessions that Anna Gordy would receive all royalties from the album’s release, as per the terms of the divorce. Undaunted, Gaye recorded the longest album of his career and used that time to dissect the relationship, peel open Gordy’s heart and spray lemon juice on the wounds. Here, My Dear isn’t only a bitter album, though. Gaye slides between soul, gospel, funk and jazz as he bares his soul and examines the wreckage. At the time, it seemed few wanted to go on Gaye’s deeply personal journey. The album didn’t sell well initially, but eventually even Gordy came around to appreciating Here, My Dear.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975) The first time I saw Roy Ayers in concert I didn’t get it at all. I was expecting a jazz vibes player in the tradition of Lionel Hampton or Bobby Hutcherson. Instead, I got what I thought was a smooth jazz crooner going on about sunshine and searching. The second time, I got it. If Louis Jordan is the link between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, then Ayers is the cog that connects Milt Jackson with Tupac.

Tom Verlaine – Words from the Front (1982) I think I spotted this at a yard sale for a song a picked it up on a whim. While I like Television, this is the only album I own from the Verlaine catalog. I always enjoy this album while it’s playing, but it leaves my mind almost immediately after it’s done. Sorry, Tom.

Various Artists – The Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (compilation) I got this album in a bundle when Luaka Bop celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dismiss this collection as a mere toss-in at your own peril. You can hear everything from the roots of Celia Cruz and the samba to songs like “Son de los Diablos” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Afro-Peruvian music originated with the slaves brought over from Africa and forced to settle in Peru. There’s no trace of this horrific history on the 15 hip-shaking cuts here, but it does explain why some of the music sounds like a flamenco band got kidnapped by an aggressive drum circle.

The Dead Girls – Out of Earshot (2010) The Dead Girls were Kansas City band who weren’t afraid to proclaim their power pop influences. This is their second release and as far as I know the only one that made it only vinyl. You can hear a lot of Big Star, the Replacements and Thin Lizzy on this release and while the album plays more like a tribute act than saying something on its own, it’s still a very fine listen.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016) Paul Simon started taking his time between albums after Graceland took off, which is to say more than 35 years ago. Appropriately, Stranger to Stranger sounds like it has been crafted by a patient perfectionist. Simon spent an entire 40-minute podcast breaking down how he built “Werewolf,” the opening track, around the rhythms – but not guitars – of Flamenco music. Other tracks employ the experimental instruments developed by Harry Partch or the laptop sampling of Clap! Clap! “Cool Papa Bell” marries the rhythms and mood of Graceland with the profanity of The Capeman. It’s cerebral stuff to be sure, but also infinitely hummable and pleasurable.

Joe Strummer – 001 (compilation) The 2018 collection 001 is both an overview of Joe Strummer’s career opportunities outside of The Clash and a treasure of unreleased material from his archives. The ten-year jump from his pre-Clash band The 101ers to “Love Kills” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack is jarring, but other than that the collection flows quite smoothly until its unfortunate, premature ending.

Kudos to the Strummer estate for making this set affordable, instead of a trophy piece that only the super-rich or ultra-dedicated can acquire.

U2 – October (1981) The Irish quartet’s sophomore album is easily the group’s most overlooked release. It doesn’t have the promise of their defiant debut, the hit singles on War or the Brian Eno cache of The Unforgettable Fire. All bets for October’s reappraisal were off once The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby took off.

October’s status may seem harsh in this context, but it’s pretty fair. October is by no means a difficult listen, but it also doesn’t the chops to muscle its way into the conversation. That said, it is still nice to see “Gloria” and “October,” the album’s two best songs, creeping back into setlists for the first time since the ‘80s.

Classic Christmas Carol: “Jesus Christ”

By Joel Francis

Big Star’s third album isn’t a happy affair. The record was delayed for four years by their label and issued in various configurations before finally being issued on CD as “Third/Sister Lovers,” nearly 15 years later. More than three decades later, it remains a fascinating mish mash of songs about death, abandonment, sexual paranoia and odd Velvet Underground and Jerry Lee Lewis covers.

Yet – perhaps metaphorically – out of this mess comes “Jesus Christ.” The fourth cut on the album, the song eschews the expected sarcasm and is a straightforward celebration of the Savior’s birth. In two short verses, songwriter and vocalist Alex Chilton paints an image of angles rejoicing that “Jesus Christ was born today.”

“Jesus Christ” is barely over two and a half minutes, but Chilton doesn’t even need that much to get his point across. The track starts with 20 seconds of nonsense before song kicks in, and closes with a saxophone solo from guest Carl Marsh that betrays the band’s Memphis roots. The performance has a deceptively spare arrangement, alternating between raw verses delivered with just Chilton’s guitar and voice and Jody Stephens’ drums. The touches of piano and percussion on the chorus, however, show that the boys have studied Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Although he’s barely audible in the mix, producer Jim Dickinson is presumably somewhere in the background, thumping away on bass.

Big Star may not have been big stars – a video for this song couldn’t even be found online – but they were very influential. Power pop acts like Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet and the New Pornographers owe a lot of their sound to Big Star. Paul Westerberg name-checked Big Star’s leader in the Replacements single “Alex Chilton.” Both Teenage Fanclub and Athens, Ga.-based acolytes R.E.M. have recorded memorable versions of “Jesus Christ.”

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

Review: Get Up Kids

(Above: The Get Up Kids perform “Martyr Me” at the second show of their two-night stand at the Record Bar in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Nearly a year to the date after reuniting, the Kids are still alright.

Homegrown heroes the Get Up Kids capped off a two-month tour opened their dual-night stand at the Record Bar Friday night in front of an energetic crowd. Both shows benefit the family of the late Recycled Sounds owner Anne Winter.

No one in the band mentioned Winter during their 80 minute set. Instead they dashed through 20 songs that encompassed their decade of glory, inspirations and a couple new numbers.

The night started with a frenetic, nonstop explosion through “Holiday,” “I’m a Loner Dottie, A Rebel” and “The One You Want.” After slowing things down with “Valentine,” the Kids kicked into a new number.

“Your Petty Pretty Things” doesn’t deviate from the sounds and themes that made the hometown band famous around the world, but has enough wiggle room in its three and a half minutes for the band to kick it into high gear during the outro and ride the riff together before abruptly wrapping up. That energy was channeled into a powerful reading of “Come Clean.”

The band was lined up four across with the drums in the back of the corner stage. Keyboard player James Dewees was pushed so far to stage left that it seemed like he faced out the windows and into the parking lot more often than into the crowd.

As usual, Dewees was the band’s not-so-secret weapon. He shined an acoustic duet of “Campfire Kansas” with guitarist Jim Suptic on lead vocals, but Dewees’ most interesting contribution came on “Keith Case.” The second new song of the night, “Case” appeared out of a left turn from “No Love.” Driven by Rob Pope’s fuzz bass, Dewees applied a shimmering sci-fi synth line that makes the sound stand out in Kids’ catalog. Later, Dewees’ classic piano riff formed the bridge from “Holy Roman” into “Mass Pike.”

Although the Record Bar was full, there was still plenty of elbow room. The faithful throng delighted in throwing back frontman Matt Pryor’s words with same energy they were delivered. “Act and Action” erupted into one of the biggest sing-alongs of the night until “Don’t Hate Me.” The atmospheric “Walking on a Wire” kept slowly building layer by layer until both the crowd and the band took it through the roof.

In lieu of an encore, the band went straight into their cover of “Close To Me.” The Cure’s  1985 hit was obviously a big influence on the band, but the Kids nearly manage to one-up their heroes with Ryan Pope’s buoyant drum line propelling the song.

The set ended at midnight with the final words to “Ten Minutes” ringing out: “Everything will work out fine.” So far, it has.

Setlist: Holiday; I’m A Loner Dottie, A Rebel; The One You Want; Valentine; Your Petty Pretty Things (new song); Coming Clean; Woodson; Out of Reach; No Love; Keith Case (new song); Red Letter Day; Campfire Kansas; Holy Roman; Mass Pike; Act and Action; Walking on a Wire; Close To Me; Beer For Breakfast; Don’t Hate Me; Ten Minutes