Seeing as I was on vacation for one of them, it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve posted my Retro Record Reviews. I’ve made it up to you this week with sixteen new albums’ worth of reviews and, as usual, they pack a little bit of everything – classic rock, country, hip-hop, new wave, and even a little Balkan nuttiness. Check it out!
Bruce Springsteen, 1973 – The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle
I’m gonna come right out and say it, the lack of an Oxford comma in this album’s title is bothersome to me. But not so much that it keeps me from enjoying the disc.
It astounds me how young the 24-year-old Bruce sounds here but his youth is in strict counterpoint to the world-weariness of some of these songs. “Incident On 57th Street” and “4th Of July, Asbury Park” are inhabited by a languorous spirit that sounds older than America itself. Songs like “Rosalita,” “E Street Shuffle,” and “Kitty’s Back” carry a more age-appropriate youthful energy that threatens to rattle the songs apart, particularly on the latter’s extended jazz-like denouement.
On first listen, this disc is in the running for my favorite Springsteen albums. It’s hard to say whether it’s better when it rocks and rolls or when it just hums and thrums, but there is an exciting and unmistakable energy that runs through the whole record, one that will keep me coming back.
Sade, 1994 – The Best Of Sade
There’s not a whole lot to say about The Best Of Sade. The 1994 hits compilation has become indispensable and ubiquitous. I think everyone had a copy of this at one time or another.
What I found curious here is that by the time this disc came out I’d done a complete one-eighty on Sade. When “Smooth Operator” came out in 1984 I thought it was stupid. I was twelve years old so, thematically, you could say it was over my head. I thought an operator was someone who picked up when you called the phone company.
Needless to say, by the time I got to an age where I might occasionally hope to have a reason for listening to some proper baby-making music, Sade ranked up there with the best. This is a can’t miss record for your next candlelit dinner… or even a little later, when the lights might get a little dimmer.
Mark Chesnutt, 2001 – 20th Century Masters
I hate to say, “Eh, this CD is kind of crap.” Instead, let’s say that this music doesn’t appeal to me. Of course, I wrote about Joe Diffie’s greatest hits a couple weeks ago and it could be argued that this album and that are not all that far removed from one another. Both could easily fall under the ‘90s pop-country umbrella.
That is certainly a valid point, so I’m hard-pressed to say why I enjoyed the other so much but find this one so unlikable. There are a couple songs that come close to being tolerable, but nothing I actually enjoy, nothing that causes any of these cuts to stand out in any way from a thousand other generic pop-country songs of the ‘90s.
“It’s A Little Too Late” comes close to being enjoyable, but his country cover of “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” proves once and for all that it’s the singer, not the song. As background music, I guess you could do worse, but if you actually want to listen to and enjoy the music, this isn’t it… at least for me.
George Strait, 2002 – For The Last Time: Live From The Astrodome
This is the last show ever recorded at the Houston Astrodome, third of March, 2002. I got this as part of a lot purchase along with the Marc Chesnutt CD I just finished excoriating. And listening to these side-by-side I am hard-pressed to tell you why I love one of them and loathed the other.
Not only is this a live album, but it’s a truly special event and George Strait and his band go out of their way to turn this into a party. The crowd noise, if genuine, actually adds to the recording and conveys the excitement that this night held for everyone in attendance.
There are some small but heartfelt bits of reminiscence littered throughout the recording but mostly it’s just great country music, played lovingly for a crowd that reflects all that love back at the band. Songs like “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” and “Love Without End, Amen” still tug at the ol’ heartstrings. “The Fireman” and “Write This Down” are still amusing with their wry lyrics and hoedown beat.
The difference between George Strait and the country albums I end up hating might be summed up in “Murder On Music Row,” a song he’d recorded with Allan Jackson about over-commercialization bringing about the death of authentic country music. While this feels effortlessly authentic, lesser offerings by lesser artists seem to try too hard and they fail to hit their mark.
All comparisons aside, this is a great live album and a very worthwhile documentation of an historic night. Check it out if you get the chance.
Whitney Houston, 1990 – I’m Your Baby Tonight
Another disc that came as part of a lot purchase, but worth the price of the lot by itself. Sadly, Whitney’s talent was overshadowed by the soap opera tragedy of her marriage and by her untimely death. In 1990 she was on the top of her game, coming off of two multi-platinum albums in the mid-to-late ‘80s.
I’m Your Baby Tonight continued her track record of success but upped her game by bringing in producers L.A. Reid and Babyface on several of the tracks. Production by legends like Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder (including a duet with Stevie) announced that she’d finally arrived, claiming her place among the luminaries of R&B.
And while this isn’t always my thing, I have to say that this is an impressive album. Whitney’s perfect vocals set in more of a funk’n’soul setting make for a great record. There are a few ballads that allow her instrument to soar and shine, but it’s the deep soul dance cuts where the sheer power of her voice is most remarkable.
I expected to have to tolerate my way through this record, but it turns out to be one winning cut after another. It was responsible for six Top 20 singles but there isn’t a song on the disc that couldn’t have been a chart hit. Almost 30 years old and from my most formative years, it does have a bit of a time capsule feel to it, but the music resonates across the decades without losing any of its impact.
The Charlie Daniels Band, 1983 – A Decade Of Hits
Up here in New England among the under-50 set, most people think of Charlie Daniels for “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” if they think of him at all. I was in the same boat until I heard “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” a few years back, his tribute to southern rockers. That inspired a couple purchases and then this collection popped up in a recent lot purchase.
Apart from the two songs mentioned earlier I didn’t know any of these. There’s the theme from Burt Reynolds’s Stroker Ace, “Stroker’s Theme.” There’s the hilarious rough-and-tumble story song “Uneasy Rider” which borrows liberally from Johnny Cash, though the language might be a bit more than what the Man In Black would approve of.
“Still In Saigon” is a Vietnam flashback that doesn’t carry the weight of contemporary offerings from Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, or Johnny Cash himself. “Long Haired Country Boy” is an anthemic bit of roots rock fun. And “The Legend Of Woolley Swamp” is a spooky Halloween tale that’s fun any time of year.
What I find most interesting about this collection, though, is Charlie’s apparent politics in the ‘70s & ‘80s and how far they were from where he stands today. I won’t bring politics into the discussion except to say that it’s a complete one-eighty.
Regardless of your politics, this is a (mostly) fun listen that perfectly highlights the southern country rock that The Charlie Daniels Band does so well and that so few other performers do at all.
Brad Paisley, 2001 – Part II
You know I’m deep into a lot purchase when I’m listening to a string of country albums. Not that I dislike country, but it’s not in my wheelhouse.
I’m glad for the discovery of this Brad Paisley album, though. I’ve heard the name but never heard his music before. Two songs in, and I’m thinking I like this dude. He’s got a great sense of humor and an authentic country feel to his music. The title track is a heartbreaker that anyone could relate to. “Two People Fell In Love” is a little too sappy, a little too “butterfly effect” for me. But overall, I really like these songs.
“Munster Rag” is a rollicking instrumental, something you don’t get on a lot of country albums. Then Paisley brings in some country pedigree on “Too Country,” featuring Buck Owens and George Jones.
I’m surprised by how much I like this record and it’s always a pleasant surprise to be introduced to a brand new artist (brand new to me, anyway). I’ll keep an eye out for other Brad Paisley discs when I’m thrift shopping in the future. It’s good stuff.
k.d. lang, 1992 – Ingénue
Another problem with purchasing in lots is that sometimes you wind up missing the album artwork. Most of the time I’ll just skip that CD or chuck it in the bin if it’s something I already own. But this is a k.d. lang album I haven’t heard before, so I’ll just make do without a booklet.
There was, in the 90s, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it resurgence in lounge music, most pointedly with Mike Flowers Pops covering “Wonderwall,” the excellent Lounge-A-Palooza compilation (Steve & Eydie covering “Black Hole Sun,” anyone?), and Rhino’s superb Ultra-Lounge series. And listening to Ingénue for the first time, it seems it would have fit right in with this era.
k.d. lang’s voice is always spectacular and she approaches a number of torch songs here, most famously the excellent “Constant Craving,” which effectively set her star in motion outside of the country audience. She wrote or co-wrote every song on the disc, which underscores her ability to move between genres. I dig her sound on this record, especially neo-noir number “Still Thrives This Love.”
This entire disc winds up on the Cigars & Whiskey playlist – it is smoky and smooth, sultry and sensuous, without ever turning tawdry. Missing album cover or not, I am thrilled to have finally heard this CD.
Ugly Americans, 1996 – Stereophonic Spanish Fly
I’ve been a fan of Bob Schneider since his major-label debut, Lonelyland, in 2001. For some reason, I never dug backward into his band projects prior to his solo career.
Recently someone shared “You Turn Me On” to a Bob Schneider fan page I follow. After checking out the song and the goofy video, I had to seek out the album. Seeing a young, thin, blond Bob Schneider fronting the band was a bit of a trip. “Vulcan Death Grip” was another single off the album with a corresponding video.
Unlike his solo work wherein Bob is the sole writer, these songs are a collaborative effort, with actual verses and choruses. This is pure ‘90s power-pop but with those Bob Schneider lyrics.
I’m glad to be coming to this album later in life. Much as I love Bob’s solo stuff, I think I might have found it disappointing on the heels of such exceptional straightforward pop-rock. Bob’s hook, apart from his excellent songwriting, is his goofy quirkiness. There isn’t a lot of quirkiness here, just well-done radio-ready rock.
I can’t figure out why this band didn’t make the cut instead of winding up as a footnote to an indie musician’s solo career. I’m admittedly biased, what with being a fan for so long but, if anything, this album is more radio-friendly than anything he’s done on his own and it would have fit in perfectly with ‘90s power-pop mainstays like Smashmouth or Everclear (not saying these were great bands, but they were undeniably hitmakers).
I’ll have to check out the rest of Ugly Americans’ output now that I’ve heard this. That being said, much as I’ve enjoyed this disc, I’m glad the band split and we’ve had two decades of solo Bob instead.
Gogol Bordello vs. Tamir Muskat, 2004 – J.U.F.
The first song I ever heard by Gogol Bordello was “Gypsy Part Of Town,” the opening track on J.U.F. (which stands for Jewish-Ukrainian Friendship). The song was included on a sampler from CMJ New Music Monthly, still one of the best music mags to ever go out of print.
That song (and this album) gave me an unrealistic expectation about what other Gogol Bordello records would sound like. I’ve heard no other album of theirs that contains the slick production, samples, and dance beats that make up the soundtrack underlying J.U.F. You’ve still got Eugene Hütz’s heavily accented vocals over the top of it all, but even these are occasionally altered or processed to suit the production.
Standout cuts on the album include “Gypsy Part Of Town” and the insane wedding party song of “Last Wish Of The Bride.” And while I know this may incite some of the hardcore Gogol Bordello fans, this is far and away my favorite album of theirs. Western dance music sensibilities combined with eastern instrumentation and Ukrainian-tinged shouted vocals – this makes for a rare and interesting melange that has kept this disc in regular rotation for the last 15 years.
Robert Palmer, 1988 – Heavy Nova
I always thought of Robert Palmer as an 80s artist based on “Addicted To Love,” “Simply Irresistible,” (presented here) and his involvement with The Power Station. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that he’d been releasing records since 1974. I had a copy of Riptide growing up but I’d never heard Heavy Nova before.
There are hits and misses. “Simply Irresistible” is a timeless classic. “More Than Ever” sounds very much of its time, like someone was trying to create a generic 80s tune. “Change His Ways,” a single off the album that I’d never heard before, is just weird, incorporating half-a-dozen different musical styles (including *gasp* yodeling) to ill-effect.
And that’s just the first three songs. There’s a bit of Cajun-tinged blues, some run-of-the-mill rock, a hint of calypso, even a fair bit of crooning on “It Could Happen To You,” but nothing that really catches the ear like the lead single. “Casting A Spell” comes close but is marred by some ethnic chanting and out-of-place backing vocals. And then there’s the Jermaine Jackson cover to close out the album (actually a pretty decent version).
Though I haven’t listened to the album in a long time, I remember Riptide having a more organic flow to the track sequencing. This is a bit of a sticky goulash whose ingredients prove more distracting than properly savory.
Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock, 1988 – It Takes Two
The first two cuts off this album are stone classics. Title track “It Takes Two” and second single “Joy And Pain” are pure old-school gold. The latter has a killer drum breakdown on the chorus that is perfect in its minimalism.
This was the golden age of sampling and E-Z Rock excels in this arena, borrowing from The Jacksons, Jimmy Castor Bunch, and even contemporaries Run-DMC (among others) before the album is over. The Lyn Collins “Think (About It)” sample on “Don’t Sleep On It” defines the whole song.
The album’s most critical misstep is the attempted slow jam “Crush,” which is a little bit cringe-y 30 years later. It was probably sweet at the time but the chill rap had been done better six months prior by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. But the tempo picks up again with the DJ showcase “Get On The Dance Floor” and all is right with the world again as the bass line from The Jacksons’ “Shake Your Booty” anchors this minor masterpiece.
Rob Base and D.J. E-Z Rock are a footnote in the chapter on golden age hip-hop, but they’re an indispensable footnote. Their singles are instantly recognizable and the thirty intervening years disappear in the time it takes to scratch a record. Summer’s almost over, so be sure to give this one a spin before it’s gone.
Johnny Cash, 1994 – American Recordings
These Rick Rubin productions were instant classics, becoming instantly ingrained in the American psyche. At least, that’s the way I remember it from twenty-five years ago. And this first one is still the best.
Accompanied by just his acoustic guitar, an old and wizened Johnny lays down some new tracks and revisits some others. “Drive On” is still enough to give me chills. His cover of son-in-law Nick Lowe’s “The Beast In Me” is dark and haunted. Covers of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits songs rival the originals.
I’m not even bothered by the inclusion of stuff like “Why Me Lord” and “Redemption” because, while I don’t really go in for all that churchin’, you sorta know your gonna get some if you buy a Johnny Cash Record.
I don’t know anyone who says, “I don’t like Johnny Cash.” He’s a national treasure and one of the most important recording artists in our country’s history. The six American Recordings albums are essential Americana, none more so than this first.
Nine Inch Nails, 1994 – The Downward Spiral
Lyrically, it’s hard for me to relate to this album, hearing it for the first time as a forty-ahemsomething-year-old. Not to say that grown men don’t struggle with depression and “the downward spiral,” but this feels more adolescent/post-adolescent, even if Reznor was in his late twenties when he recorded it. Not to get confessional, but at my age I can’t imagine feeling any emotion as strongly as the protagonist of this album seems to feel things.
While I can’t overtly relate to it, I can appreciate it. The seething rage and despair captured here are gripping and terrifying. I can remember times in my life when I felt as out-of-control as some of these songs feel and I recall the hopelessness and helplessness of those moments. I’m glad for the laudanum haze of middle age because I really don’t want to revisit those emotions.
More impressive than the lyrics and vocals, though, is the pioneering work done musically on this disc. Reznor and producer Flood were responsible for bringing Industrial music to the mainstream in the mid-nineties. They didn’t invent the sound, but they made it radio-friendly. As such, they were massively influential on existing and subsequent acts.
A year-and-a-half after this album was released I saw Nine Inch Nails perform with David Bowie on the day after my birthday as part of the Outside Tour and their collaboration was a thing to behold. Outside remains one of my favorite Bowie albums and it would not have existed without The Downward Spiral.
On paper, I shouldn’t like this disc and I’m surprised to find the opposite is true. Well, “like” isn’t the right word, but I’m drawn to it rather than repelled by it. A massive pastiche of noise with vocals either screamed or, alternately, obscured by the crushing force of the music… it’s not normally my type of thing. Couple that with the dark mood that pervades the record and it is very much not my thing. That’s what makes this such a special and enduring record, I think. It resonates for people who grew up with it, but even for someone hearing it for the first time, it seems to connect with something deep and primal.
Talking Heads, 1985 – Little Creatures
It’s tough to get a feel for a Talking Heads album on first listen. That said, Little Creatures is more listener-friendly for the non-initiate than a lot of their discs. And it’s a good one.
The familiarity of singles like “And She Was” and “Road To Nowhere,” bookend the record, interspersed with the perfect pop of “Walk It Down” and “Stay Up Late.” There’s a touch of the Byrneian avant-garde on a couple cuts, but much less so than on some of their other output.
In short, a fun and funky sub-40 minute gem that delights from the first outing onward. Easy to see why this is one of Talking Heads’s most well-regarded albums.
Various, 1993 – Living In Oblivion: The 80’s Greatest Hits Volume 2
This is a well thought out series of mix-CDs from EMI. While it doesn’t live up to its claim of “The 80’s Greatest Hits” – no Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen – it does offer a bit of the ol’ something-for-everyone.
Any Brit or American born between 1965 and 1977 is going to know at least a handful of these songs, even if they haven’t heard them in a couple decades. Bigger names on this disc include Culture Club, Thompson Twins, The Power Station, Kate Bush, and Deborah Harry (pointedly, not Blondie).
The real value for me is in the outliers, stuff I don’t already have elsewhere in my collection: Sigue Sigue Sputnik, JoBoxers, Living In A Box, Missing Persons.
And while this five-disc, 96 song collection can’t compare to Rhino’s Just Can’t Get Enough New Wave series, it’s a very worthwhile set all on its own. Frankly, after listening through Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral earlier, some major key synth-pop is just the thing.
Thanks for reading. No more summer vacation for me, so we should get back to weekly installments of your favorite Retro Record Review site. If you’re American, enjoy the long Labor Day weekend, the last gasp of summer passed, and while you’re at it, keep spinning those discs.