Well, it was a bit of a busy week, so not as many titles this time ’round. And one of those was a four-disc box set, so that took most of a day (it was worth it). Some old favorites, some new blood, a couple of singles, and a whole lot of songs. Let’s get started.
Bruce Springsteen, 1998 – Tracks
I have a confession to make – I bought this 4-disc box set of Springsteen outtakes & b-sides for one song, 1983’s “Pink Cadillac,” when I found out that I didn’t already have a copy of this song and that this was the only place to get it on CD. But I got it still sealed for 25 bucks and I figured it would have some other good songs on it so I splurged. And I’m glad I did. It doesn’t have the overall album-cohesiveness that some of his best releases have, but every song is a good one (if you’re a Springsteen fan) and I’d wager you could put most of these songs up next to any of his singles or album tracks and they’d compare favorably. Arranged in roughly chronological order, it’s tricky to pick standout cuts across four-plus hours and 66 songs. As I said, they’re all good – some hard rockers, some heartland ballads, some good stories, all unmistakably Bruce.
It has become hard for me to be objective about Springsteen’s music because ever since I saw his Netflix Live On Broadway special I’ve become a big fan where I’d always been just a very casual fan prior. Hearing all of these old tracks, some dating back to 1972, it feels like discovering buried treasure that everyone knew about except me. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to realize that there is this cornucopia of music that I get to experience for the first time. And while a 4-disc b-sides collection might seem of interest only to completists, I’m glad I picked it up because the whole collection is fantastic.
Stone Temple Pilots, 1994 – Purple
I was never a fan of STP’s radio hits so I never looked any further. Now, 25 years later, I’ve found a copy of Purple for $2 and decided to give it a shot. It was immensely popular and people still like this band’s output, so maybe I was wrong. But I really wasn’t. Apart from a couple of the singles that I didn’t care for at the time (“Interstate Love Song” And “Big Empty”) and which benefit greatly from nostalgia for my early-to-mid twenties, there are only two tracks on the album that I find worthwhile. One is the hard-rock-psychedelia of “Pretty Penny” which has some Beatles-like aspects that I sort of dig. The other is the hidden track (a device I normally hate) which is a lounge act bit called, presumably, “Second Album” and is just a funny little tongue-in-cheek bit of fluff to close out the record. I also really like the beginning to closer “Kitchenware & Candybars” which is more melodic and acoustic, really showing off the skill in Scott Weiland’s vocal delivery. I was hoping for a sort of a quieter Zep-like number, but it shifted to blaring guitars and yelling, like so much of the rest of the songs. Overall, I have to stick with my initial impression from two-and-a-half decades ago which is that, while they may be talented, they really aren’t playing much I want to listen to.
Various, 1996 – Summer Caravan ‘96
Excellent excursion in the way-back machine. This is a great sampler from the sadly defunct Rykodisc label from the summer of 1996. It starts out with a perfectly summery song in Mickey Hart’s “Look Away” before segueing into the indie-rocker “The Devil Went Down To Newport” by They Might Be Giants side project Mono Puff. There are Latin Jazz notes from ¡Cubanismo! and Jazz Jamaica, straight-ahead rock from Bob Mould, as well as Alejandro Escovedo’s half-a-broken-heart anthem “Crooked Frame.” Norma Waterson contributed a tolerable folk number which shifts nicely to the country rock of “Won’t Be Coming Home” by Golden Smog. There is a spectacular and unexpected jazz instrumental from Frank Zappa, provocatively titled “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.” More Jazz from Peter Apfelbaum and a nice wistful bit of pop-rock from Linda Thompson. The album closes with Amos Garrett’s “Sharks Ate My Wahine,” a goofy slide guitar surf/blues instrumental perfect for your next luau. In all, this is a stellar collection – fun, upbeat, and just in time for summer (23 years ago).
‘Til Tuesday, 1996 – Coming Up Close: A Retrospective
‘Til Tuesday is one of those acts that really didn’t have a big impact but which served as a launchpad for a much more successful act, in this case, Aimee Mann’s spectacular solo career. This particular collection is great because it is front-loaded with the new-wave rock-radio ready hits of “Love In A Vacuum” and “Voices Carry” but then chooses to focus on the band’s shift to the more confessional indie-grrrl template that Aimee does so well and which defines her solo career. I’ve been an Aimee Mann fan for so long that I can no longer differentiate singles from album tracks, but this collection is packed with winners, including her collab with Elvis Costello, “The Other End Of The Telescope” which he would go on to record for his own 1996 release. Good listen on a rainy Tuesday.
Tony Orlando & Dawn, 1970 & 1974 – Candida & Prime Time
Cheese. Schlock. Whatever you want to call it, I’ve got a soft spot for the sort of AM radio soft rock that defined Adult Oriented programming in the 1970s. But even for me, these two discs – rereleased as expanded editions in 2005 – are a little too much. For every sing-along hit like “Knock Three Times” or “Look In My Eyes Pretty Woman,” there’s the intolerable dreck of something like “Little Heads In Bunkbeds” or “Gimme A Good Old Mammy Song.” The additional selections included in these special edition discs really do nothing to improve the albums, either; if these were b-sides or outtakes, it’s easy to see why. Minimal highlights include the swingy “Dreamboat” and a cover of “Up On The Roof” that isn’t nearly as watered down as I’d expected. The packaging is lovely, though, and when I found these, they were still sealed and $2 apiece, so I felt compelled. 1970’s Candida edges out 1974’s Prime Time in terms of overall listenability, but that’s still two hours I’ll never get back.
This is a pretty standard existentialist rant against a mythical creator, with its chanted criticism, “God, sometimes you just don’t come through.” It doesn’t build on previous classics of the same stripe such as “Blasphemous Rumours,” or XTC’s “Dear God.” There’s a rewritten version of “Home On The Range” that sort of starts out as written from a Native American perspective but then, being Tori Amos, goes off the rails and ends up sort of nowhere. Frankly, I can’t hear anything by Tori Amos without thinking of “Oil Spill” from that Bob’s Burgers episode. The best thing on this single is the Bernsteinian instrumental two song micro-suite that make up the last four-and-a-half minutes of the disc. I’d find Tori Amos a lot more interesting if she did more instrumental work like this. But then I’d probably never have heard of her.
I don’t know a lot by Tori Amos, but I’ve heard “Winter” before. It’s not a song I know well, but the memory of having heard it flits at the edge of my subconscious. It’s pretty good. Much better is b-side “Take To The Sky” which sounds a bit like mid-80s Kate Bush. What bums me out a bit about this US pressing of this single is that it is not the UK or German pressing, both of which had Tori’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I’ve never been able to get into her music overall. I like a couple things – her first single, “Silent All These Years” was fantastic. She has a flirtatiously filthy number called “Raspberry Swirl” or something close. But overall, never really a fan. This disc is okay, but it’s still Tori Amos.
I wasn’t ever a fan of Phish, but I’ve always respected Anastasio as a musician and writer. After hearing his self-titled album, I have a better idea of what he’s done to earn that respect. It’d be easy to write him off as a jam-band act, but it seems to me that that would sell short his music’s funkiness. More than half of this album is trippin’ on some hard funk and while it does expose its jammish side from time to time, that’s almost always done within the four corners of funk. “Alone Again” has a sort of Soul Coughing feel to it. The instrumental chamber music of “At The Gazebo” is a nice mid-album interlude. “Last Tube” is the inevitable jam showcase at eleven-and-a-half minutes, and it is an uptempo funk-rock extravaganza. Now that I’ve got a better feel for Trey Anastasio’s music, my interest is piqued. I’m not running straight out to buy everything he ever released, but I’m definitely open to further exploration.
I used to love dance mix compilations. Twenty years later, not so much. That said, I’m sure my outlook was a lot different when I was 25, so it makes sense that this good time dancey party music would appeal. Two-plus decades later, it’s just noisy computers. The only things remotely interesting here are covers of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And the reggae-tinged “Are You Ready For Some More?” still sounds like a party anthem – the only song on here that doesn’t sound terribly dated. Other than those, this is pretty rough, even if just viewed as a time capsule.
When this album came out in 2001 it seemed like it was all people talked about (on the music scene, anyway). I’m only just hearing it for the first time. Eighteen years on, I’m trying to figure out what the fuss was about. Not that it’s not good – it’s a fine record, full of effortless mid-tempo pop songs. Since I don’t know any other Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, or Jeff Tweedy I have nothing to compare it to. On first listen it also feels multi-layered, as though multiple listens will reveal a deeper richness to the music than is apparent on first listen. At any rate, I’ll be going back to it from time to time – something about this music that nearly demands repeat listens.
I don’t know anything about this band. I’d heard of them, and as I listened to this record I was almost positive I heard “You Were Right” on a mix-CD some years back. Other than that it was a blank slate. This band, performer, what have you, doesn’t seem to have any real identity on this record. I can’t say, “This album sounds like…” And not because it’s unique or special. It really just sounds like indie noodling. There are a handful of great tracks and a few other good ones and most of the rest are kind of meh. “40 Days, 40 Fights” and “Tickets To What You Need” are great, even if the latter is more or less a reworking if “You Were Right.” Nothing bad about this album, and so much that is close to good, but ends up just being mediocre.