Marc Cohn – Listening Booth: 1970 (Saguaro Road) – CD review –
When an artist does an entire album of covers, it’s usually a sign that they’ve run out of ideas. But when it’s done in such earnest, as is Listening Booth: 1970, you have to take notice. Every big music fan has a particular time in their life when the world was exploding musically. For me, it was 1978, with LP’s by ELO, Todd Rundgren, and the Cars. For Marc Cohn, that time was 1970 and he’s put together an album of twelve tracks that were released that year.
Typically, when an artist does an album like this, they either stay faithful to the original or attempt to drastically reinvent each song. Cohn actually does neither, instead he filters these songs through his own musical skin. So, they’re not note for note copies, but they all manage to sound comfortable. There’s no “oh sheesh” moment where you realize how he’s reworked something. Take the opener, “Wild World,” originally done by Cat Stevens. Here, he gives it a marching beat, which is a novel idea, yet it’s accompanied by acoustic instruments and great harmonies, as was the original.
The cheesy Bread number “Make it With You” sounds like an Al Green outtake, with it’s slinky guitar and Rhodes piano. “After Midnight” is fairly faithful to the JJ Cale original, yet there’s room for a little lick from Clapton’s “Layla,” and some swamp guitar accents. And, the Badfinger power pop classic, “No Matter What,” is slowed down and twanged up, with a guest vocal from Aimee Mann. While all of this might seem blasphemous on paper, once you hear the tracks, you realize how much love and respect went into this project. For once, a covers album that doesn’t make you want to go listen to the originals; instead you want to hit the repeat button. –Tony Peters
Trying to follow up the biggest-selling album of all time is impossible. If that record, Rumours, was a window into the band’s failing relationships, then Tusk shows us what happened next; how they handled the over-blown success. Where Rumours was a slick, cohesive affair, Tusk is wildly erratic and many of the tracks sound unfinished.
The album opens with the muted, Christine McVie song, “Over and Over,” an odd choice to start the record; no doubt used to signal that this is not “Rumours II.” That’s followed by “The Ledge,” with distorted guitars and cavernous percussion played at double-speed; it sounds like nothing Fleetwood Mac has ever done. And, that’s the point. After the runaway success of the previous record, leader Lindsey Buckingham tried very hard to sabotage the album. His tracks are full of bile and fury. This is not to say that Tusk doesn’t have its moments. Christine McVie turns in the closest thing to a hit single in “Think About Me,” and the transcendent “Brown Eyes,” a song that’s barely there, but stark and beautiful.
Stevie Nicks delivers a couple of her most grandiose statements, in “Sara” and “Sisters of the Moon.” Even Buckingham has his moments, in the sinister “Tusk,” and the ethereal “That’s All For Everyone.” The real problem with Tusk is that it’s just too long (originally released as a 20-track, double LP). Pull off, say eight of the tracks, and you’ve got yourself a much better and focused album. Instead, Tusk lies somewhere between a masterpiece and an all out mess. –Tony Peters
Guy Sebastian – Like It Like That (Sony) – CD review –
Great soul music is still out there, you just gotta hunt for it. In this case, that means going halfway around the world. Don’t let his Australian Idol credentials fool you (he won the inaugural season in 2003), Guy Sebastian is the real deal. What sets him apart from his American Idol counterparts is that he not only can sing, he does it with real SOUL.
His last offering in his native land was the great “Memphis Album,” which featured Sebastian, backed by old soul guys like Steve Cropper. Now, with his first Stateside release, Like It Like That, he’s proven that he can actually write great soul songs on his own. “All To Myself” and “Attention” both have that classic Motown stompin’ feel that makes you move your feet, while “Bring Yourself” has conversational lyrics akin to Stevie Wonder’s best work. Sebastian had a hand in composing the entire album, and he doesn’t just re-write classic soul songs. He’s obviously immersed himself in the genre and can truly add to it. And, since the US Top 40-buying public wouldn’t know good soul music if it hit them over the head, there’s a handful of straight-ahead pop tunes as well.
“Like it Like That” and “Art of Love” (featuring Idol winner Jordin Sparks) both show that Sebastian can hang with what’s on the charts. “Never Hold You Down” is perhaps the best mix of both worlds; soulful with an incredibly catchy chorus. A far cry from cookie-cutter, Like it Like That shows that Guy Sebastian should be taken seriously. — Tony Peters
It sounded like a good idea in 1978: each member of Kiss release a solo album at the same time. Problem is, the band’s fan base didn’t have the disposable cash to purchase all four records at once, so the gimmick backfired. Gene Simmons’ LP, although wildly erratic, charted the highest; while Paul Stanley’s lacked the punch of Kiss, and Peter Criss’ outing showed that, left to his own devises, he had no freakin’ clue. Then, there was lead guitarist Ace, probably voted the least likely to succeed.
Yet, he not only turns in the finest of the four records, he managed to put together a pretty damn good album in it’s own right. The tracks on Ace Frehley are closer to straight-ahead rock than the heavy-metal posturing of his parent group. And, missing from this album are the typical groupie and road songs that Kiss loved to write. Instead, Frehley gets pretty honest on his personal problems in “Wiped Out,” “Snowblind,” and “Ozone.” His soloing is spirited; some of the best he’s ever put on record.
Also of note is drummer Anton Fig, who flat-out blows away Peter Criss (for proof, just check out “Rip It Out”). Although all four members of Kiss sang, Frehley’s voice had never graced a hit of theirs. That’s why his “New York Groove” was such a triumph, climbing all the way to #13 in early 1979. Frehley would eventually succumb to the vices mentioned on this record. But, for one shining moment, Ace is king. –Tony Peters
Following the death of original drummer Paul Hester, the remaining members of Crowded House reconvened in 2007 to record their first album in 14 years. That disc, Time On Earth, was a morose affair, yet even the most heartbreaking songs of loss were wrapped in gorgeous melodies, making it another triumph for the band. Flash forward to current day and Intriguer. Not surprising, the album sounds like the sister of Time on Earth; which is to say, it’s another mid-tempo affair filled with great songs.
Leader Neil Finn’s earliest work with the band, over 25 years ago, was perpetually sunny and immediately grabbed you. The songs on Intriguer are more intricate, darker, and sometimes haunting. It will take a few listens for these tracks to set in, but then they grab you. This is intricate pop music at its finest. There are little touches, like the fuzz bass and mandolin on “Saturday Sun,” or the dreamy sequence in “Either Side of the World,” adding to the ear candy. Many of these tunes start out as one thing and then turn into something altogether different.
Take “Falling Dove,” it starts as a fragile acoustic piece, then morphs into a Faces-type rocker in the middle, before returning for a quiet ending. Or, the next song, “Isolation,” which has this guitar-freakout ending. Another standout is “Twice If You’re Lucky” with its slinky guitar lines, it’s probably the happiest tune on the album. With two great albums in a row, here’s hoping Crowded House sticks around for a long time. — Tony Peters
Full Moon Fever is Tom Petty’s best collection of songs, and it’s also his first solo outing outside his band, the Heartbreakers. After seven LP’s, Petty decided to go it alone, but he smartly keeps one element of his band intact in guitarist Mike Campbell. His slinky solos are the one holdover from his previous albums. By enlisting former ELO guru Jeff Lynne to produce the album, Petty ensured that it would sound nothing like the jangly, roots rock of his past.
In truth, the album sounds closer to the Traveling Wilburys, which Lynne helmed the year before: robotic drums and processed guitars; this is slick rock at it’s finest. Everything works here, from the opening anthemic “Free Fallin,’” to the excellent driving tune “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” to the goofy, countrified “Yer So Bad.” Perhaps, outside of his band setting, Petty doesn’t have to conform to what he’s supposed to sound like. He can stretch a little, as in the eerie “A Face in the Crowd.” There’s even room for him to pay his debt to the Byrds, in his cover of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” Oddly, Petty would invite Lynne back to produce his next album with the Heartbreakers, Into the Great Wide Open. Sonically, it would sound exactly like this album, showing how strong a force Lynne was as a producer. –Tony Peters
No band has based their entire career more on one album than Rush. Not only their best album, Moving Pictures is the only one worth listening to all the way through. First of all, it’s their best collection of songs, beginning with their crowning achievement, “Tom Sawyer,” a perfect blend of hard rock and the progressive metal they had been tinkering with over their previous albums. “Red Barchetta” shows off drummer Neil Peart’s lyrcism.
And, “Limelight” ranks as one of the best “playing in a band songs.” Even though leader Geddy Lee played a great deal of keyboards on the record, it’s still not as dominant a force as it would become on future releases. And the production here is meaty, the band sounds real for the last time. With their next album, Signals, and beyond, the band would favor a slick, over-produced sound that made the band feel cold and robotic. Grace Under Pressure, Hold Your Fire, Power Windows, Roll the Bones; these albums are all interchangeable. There’s no progression or maturing, it’s the same song written over and over. Yet, because of the success of Moving Pictures, rabid Rush fans bought these and subsequent releases ad nauseum. –Tony Peters
A perfect storm of an album, Back in Black is an uncanny blend of metal and pop, and it still sells as if it were brand new. Recorded right after the death of original singer Bon Scott, this could have been a real downer. Instead, the remaining members regrouped with singer Brian Johnson and turned in the most inspired album of their career.
Johnson adds a level of toughness that was lacking with Scott. He screams, but never averts to the hysterionics of other heavy metal singers. The songs are propelled by simple, repetitive hypnotic guitar riffs and an incessant backbeat that’s reminiscent of the early rock of the 50’s. The same goes for the guitar work, many of the solos are blistering, yet they never overstay their welcome. And, the production, by Robert “Mutt” Lange, who would later go onto even bigger success with Def Leppard and Shania Twain, is equally important. The guitars are just gritty enough and the drums are upfront so you can feel the kick drum.
The album opens with the ominous “Hells Bells,” which starts out slow and picks up speed. “You Shook Me All Night Long” proved that there could be metal for the masses. Above all, this album does the impossible, it makes heavy metal that’s actually danceable. This is body music, and whether that’s manifested in banging your head, shaking your ass, or swinging from a pole, it will get you one way or another. –Tony Peters
One of the biggest selling albums of all-time is also one of the strangest. An LP based largely on themes of isolation and paranoia, the Dark Side of the Moon nevertheless continues to strike a chord with record buyers. Despite the chilly lyrics, this is a very human album.
Everyday sounds morph into rhythms of several songs: the heartbeat and clocks that begin “Time,” and the cash register at the beginning of “Money,” add a very real element to these otherwise detached songs. The intermittent random talking over the tracks also adds an element making the listener seem closer to the music. The quality of the production cannot be overlooked. Produced by the band and engineered by Alan Parsons, Dark Side is pristine, and despite its heavy reliance on keyboards, still doesn’t sound dated.
Even more amazing is the lack of any image; the cover contained no text and no mention of Pink Floyd or the songs listed within, only a prism illustration, adding to the eerie quality of the album. Pink Floyd would go on to record more heady music, but this is their shining moment. –Tony Peters
Paul McCartney & Wings – Wings Over America (1976) – CD review –
Paul McCartney has always been a perfectionist; it’s certainly one of the factors that contributed to the breakup of the Beatles. And, while his 70’s hits with Wings are great, many of them sound stuffy, as if they’ve been cooked too long. That’s what makes Wings Over America such a revelation.
McCartney is out of the studio and into a live band setting where things can really heat up, and he doesn’t have a chance to add overdub after overdub. The Wings’ hits sound more lively; “Jet,” “Silly Love Songs,” and “Let “Em In” all benefit from the concert setting. Paul had a tendency to play most of the instruments on his records. Here, he has to put his faith in the band, and they deliver. Guitarist Jimmy McCulloch is a real highlight, injecting some slinky solos into Paul’s songs.
The opening medley of “Venus & Mars / Rockshow / Jet” is as breathtaking a performance as Paul has ever done. He’d not yet made peace with his Beatles past, so the Fab Four songs are minimal; mostly leaning toward ballads like “Yesterday,” and “the Long & Winding Road.” Paul used this as a proving ground for his current band to be taken seriously, and he pulls it off. Even the album cuts, like “Time to Hide” and “Beware My Love” are enjoyable. A triple-LP set when it was first issued, Wings Over America stands as a pinnacle of McCartney’s solo work. –Tony Peters