RETURN & CHANGE OF DIRECTION

It’s been a while.

I’ve decided to change the direction of the blog. Instead of digging through records I grew up with and writing paragraph upon paragraph about a single album, I’ve decided I’m going to cover more albums and write less about each one.

The reason for my decision is this: a short while ago, I came into a lot of roughly 2500 CDs, many of which I’ve never heard before. Now, I don’t want these to just sit on my shelf looking pretty in their jewel boxes. So, along with the regular inflow of CDs I purchase now and then, I’ve decided that I’m going to listen to each of those 2500 discs at least once.

So that’s what this is now. Instead of deep dives into albums I’ve listened to all my life, it’s going to be quick thoughts and first impressions on a much larger number of records. And occasionally I might dive deep on an old favorite. It could happen.

Here’s this week (please be patient while I figure out how I want to format this):

MELT

First up this week, Peter Gabriel’s 1980 self-titled release. Despite friends being big Gabriel fans in the later 80s & 90s, I’d never heard this album in its entirety. I went into it with a little trepidation, expecting 70s Genesis art-rock. I was familiar with singles “Games Without Frontiers” And “I Don’t Remember.” I was surprised to find a quasi-new-wave synth-rock record full of tight pop songs and pop hooks. Great album throughout, 40 years old next year. Glad to have made its acquaintance.

US

Continuing with Mr. Gabriel – 12 years later he dropped Us in 1992 with lead-off single “Steam” as this album’s answer to “Sledgehammer.” The album as a whole didn’t live up to the fun and cleverness of “Steam” and, as a 20 year-old, this was a bit of a disappointment to me. Now, though, the quieter, more introspective tunes are the standouts for me. “Blood Of Eden” and “Washing Of The Water” are fantastic. Hearing this album and his 1980 album back to back has me poised to seek out more of his catalog.

LOOSE SCREW

Post-heyday efforts don’t always play out, sometimes failing to capture the magic, energy, and passion of albums released in the band’s youth. Loose Screw by The Pretenders manages to avoid this sort of latter-day slippage, due in large part to Chrissie shouldering the bulk of the songwriting which, coupled with her timeless voice, makes for a classic sound, instantly nostalgic even on first listen. This one is solid throughout and recommended for anyone who has fond memories of this band but who lost track when the hit machine stopped embracing them.

EMANCIPATION

Expansive, self-indulgent, self-important, self-serious… but also brilliant throughout. Prince’s statement album Emancipation carries a few missteps across its three hours and 36 tracks but it also contains the anthemic “Jam Of The Year,” the ultra-funk of “Face Down,” and the hilarious “Style.” “Sex In The Summer” and “One Kiss At A Time” are slow jams like only Prince could do them. For the first time in his career, there are a handful of covers on here, as well, including Joan Osborne’s “One Of Us” and The Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” both given solid and reverential – if somewhat unimaginative – treatment as more than just filler tracks.

THE HITS

Nothing needs to be said about the two Hits collections that Warner put out once Prince fulfilled his contract with them. Pure gold, top to bottom, front to back.

LIVE AT WEMBLEY 86

This is a great concert disc – Queen Live At Wembley ‘86. Coming across finds like this for a buck are why I still go digging through the filthy, dusty jewel boxes in thrift shops. This is the original US CD release, which is making me want to seek out the ‘03 remaster. While the performances are excellent, the sound is less than crisp on this 1992 pressing. Stunning document nonetheless.

THE BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES

In today’s news, Rage Against The Machine sounds like Rage Against The Machine. Their third album, The Battle Of Los Angeles, finds the rap-metal pioneers in peak form. While I’ve never been a big fan, I do like their sound overall. The angry shouting vocals don’t really do it for me, but the angry, aggressive music is outstanding. A friend recommended Audioslave, with Morello’s guitar work but Chris Cornell on vocals. Suffice to say it’s now on my radar.

RICK ASTLEY

Say what you will about the Stock/Aitken/Waterman products that were the first two Rick Astley albums, but they were enormously successful, and rightly so. Both are a collection of 3-4 minute pop gems that succeed because they highlight Astley’s rich baritone to the exclusion of nearly all else. Even the synth-heavy late ‘80s production methods don’t obscure the perfect blue-eyed soul of these records. I’d love to hear both Whenever You Need Somebody and Hold Me In Your Arms re-recorded with more traditional arrangements, but it could also be argued that these recordings are nearly perfect as they are.

I DO NOT WANT WHAT I HAVEN'T GOT

Widely regarded as a one-hit wonder based on her massive success with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Sinéad O’Connor’s second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is an unfairly overlooked masterpiece. Apart from the giant single, it contains emotional powerhouses like “Last Day Of Our Acquaintance,” “Three Babies,” and “I Am Stretched On Your Grave.” Minor college radio hits like “Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Jump In The River” stand side by side with the peaceful protest of “Black Boys On Mopeds” and the prayer like a cappella of the closing title track. Not a single bad track on this album.

SOUNDGARDEN

I was never a fan of grunge music and a 25-year gap hasn’t changed my mind. Still hard to believe Soundgarden’s Superunknown was released 25 years ago this past March. The walls of fuzzed out chugging guitar & bass, frenetic drumming, and vocals that are alternately growled, grunted, shouted, choked, or screamed – anything but sung. That’s not to say there aren’t moments on this disc (I do like “Head Down,” “Spoonman,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Limo Wreck,” the-all-too-brief “Kickstand” – songs that do a little more to embrace Cornell’s dynamic range) and I recognize that it is considered a classic of its era. It’s just not ever going to be on a list of my favorites.
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FOREIGN AFFAIR

Riding the crest of popularity begun with Private Dancer, Tina Turner’s Foreign Affair underperformed in the US but was a massive smash in the UK and Europe. For me, a bit of a middling album, like most of her releases from the era. The slow ballads leave me cold but Tina is at her best when she’s revisiting her funk-rock roots on standouts like “Stormy Windows” and the slightly cheezy “Undercover Agent For The Blues.” The rest is MotR late ‘80s pop and some of it feels very much dated to that era.
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DAMN THE TORPEDOES

Do you ever hear an album and think, “How have I gone my whole life without hearing this?” The hits on Damn The Torpedoes are among my favorite Tom Petty songs – “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even The Losers,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” The rest of the record is just as solid and, with the exception of the six minute “Louisiana Rain,” could all have been singles in their own right. This album is top notch through and through. Forty years old in October.
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FULL MOON FEVER

Last one today. Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, his first album without The Heartbreakers, came out in April of the year I graduated high school. (You can do the math. I’m old.) The non-stop string of hits from this record made up a big part of my soundtrack that summer. Like Damn The Torpedoes ten years prior, this album is flawless, every cut a winner. Somehow I grew up just knowing Petty by his hits (of which there are myriad). Very glad, in my later years, to be getting acquainted with a few of his full albums.
More Tom Petty tomorrow!
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(And I’m aware that most of The Heartbreakers played on parts of this album, but it was mostly a Petty/Lynne affair. For that matter, apart from Dylan, all of the Wilburys played on this, as well.)

PACK UP THE PLANTATION

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ Pack Up The Plantation is an interesting live album, with performances from six different venues (The Paradise in Boston! Yeah!) and ranging from 1978-1985. A third of the album is made up of covers and some of his biggest hits are conspicuously absent. Nonetheless, it’s a cohesive record – all the songs flow together organically. Covers like “Needles And Pins” and Carole King’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” nestle comfortably alongside stalwarts like “Breakdown” and “Refugee.” The nine-and-a-half minute take on The Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” is pure celebration. Check it out.

Curious side note: this is one of very few major label discs I own that doesn’t have a barcode anywhere on the packaging.
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SOUTHERN ACCENTS

1985’s Southern Accents from Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. Another excellent record by this outfit. I am partial to the two Dave Stewart contributions (“Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Make It Better (Forget About Me).” This has nothing to do with my new wave proclivities). That said, the album is full of fantastic songs: “Spike,” “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me,” and the title track are all outstanding. There are a couple points that sound heavily influenced by Bruce Springsteen – “Mary’s New Car,” for one – but that’s not a bad thing. The more I hear by this band, the more I want to hear everything they’ve ever done.

Bonus question: “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” is co-written by Dave Stewart. This track has backing vocals that sound uncannily like his Eurythmics bandmate Annie Lennox but she is not credited on the album. Is there anyone out there who can confirm one way or the other?’
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ROCK OF THE 80s VOL 6This one was fun to listen to, even if it is an album of sad songs – I was reminded of Lane Meyer in Better Off Dead hearing one breakup song after another while driving and pitching his whole stereo out the car window. The 80’s Greatest Rock Hits Volume 6: Agony & Ecstasy. I was actually surprised by the number of songs I knew whose titles I hadn’t recognized. Lou Gramm, Eric Carmen, Natalie Cole, and Paul Carrack all have great singles on this CD that I didn’t know until I played them. Of course, Dan Hartman and the first three tracks are solid gold. And considering I got this for a buck at the Humane Society yard sale, it’s a great addition to my “80s Hits” playlist in iTunes.
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PICKIN ON REM

I wanted to like this more than I did, ultimately. There was nothing wrong with it, necessarily, but there was no spark to it, either. It was a very rote, by-the-numbers approach and the results reflect that. What should be a rocking closer, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is played at what sounds like practice speeds. The rest of it is just… meh. It’s not great.
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WAAF UNUSUAL SUSPECTS
What a pile of crap. Boston Bro-Rock mainstay WAAF put out this disc in 1995 and it has not aged well. Twenty-two tracks, more than half of which are on-air “personalities” doing gags of one sort or another. The first track consists of shock jocks Opie & Anthony calling Gilligan’s Island Star Tina Louise at her unlisted number and asking her when was the last time she got laid. This is the height of hilarity to these morons and sets the tone for the whole disc, full of misogyny, homophobia, and terribly unfunny celebrity impressions. I’d hoped that the music would save it – otherwise unreleased acoustic versions of popular hard rock tunes from the era, but even generally enjoyable bands like Dishwalia, Goo Goo Dolls, and The Beth Hart Band sound flat in this shitty radio studio. A rare exception to the normally interesting – if not excellent – live-on-air compilation CDs that were so prevalent in the 90s and early 00s.
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WHO ARE YOU
The Who, 1978, Who Are You
Not quite classic. The title track, which closes the album, is instantly recognizable and there are a handful of tracks on the album that have something truly worthwhile to offer, but about half of them fall short of greatness. Understandable. It was a fractious time for the band, with internal quarrels and addictions plaguing them. This was also the last real Who album, as Keith Moon died just two weeks after its release.
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YES YEARS
Yes, 1991, Yesyears (box set)
I’ll admit to being daunted at the prospect of five hours of Yes, mostly from their prog years. Growing up in the 80s, my knowledge of Yes started and ended with 90125 and I’d heard radio versions of “All Good People” and “Roundabout” a couple of times. But I found myself drawn in by the technicality of the music, the precision of the musicians, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy Jon Anderson’s voice. In the end, I found myself loving every song on this box set, including tracks that stretched on 10, 15, 18, even 21 minutes in length. It’s funny because I still strongly dislike Genesis’s prog output. Yes turns out to be very much up my alley, though.
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