Hello, My Treacherous Friends Vol. 15

 

Midway through November and the weather is turning chilly here in New England. No snow yet, but no more leaves on the trees, either. Things are heating up at Hello, My Treacherous Friends, though, with the On This Day feature turning out to be more popular than I’d anticipated. Check out this week’s anniversary retrospectives on Duran Duran and Sleigh Bells. In the meantime, here are ten albums I listened to this week: I hope you like Elton John.

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Aerosmith
1986
Classics Live
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This release is a straight-up cash grab with no imagination to the song selection and virtually no detail to the liner notes. The only reference to concert dates is “These songs were recorded at various concerts between 1977 & 1983.” Some sources online list specific years for each recording, but even that information is suspect. Furthermore, live versions of several of these songs had appeared previously on the Live! Bootleg release from ‘78. And at just eight tracks it makes for a damn slim live chronicle.
So there’s no historical or artistic merit to this release. What makes it marginally worthwhile, then, is the performances themselves. Steven Tyler’s voice was bestowed on him by one of the minor gods and he makes full use of his instrument here. But despite a fantastic rendition of “Mama Kin” and some others, this release is barely worth the price of admission (and for the record, that price was $1.80 at the local thrift shop). That said, the band is firing on all cylinders, Tyler sounds fantastic, and he gets the audience on board as well, yelling lyrics back at him. Of course, the same could be said for the 1978’s Bootleg, as well.
If there’s one live performance here that sets this volume apart from the band’s myriad other live releases, it’s “Three Mile Smile” which closes with a brief blues-nod to “Reefer Head Woman” before segueing seamlessly into a seven-minute “Lord Of The Thighs,” the latter featuring an extended guitar solo. Then the disc closes with the somewhat weak “Major Barbra,” a studio outtake that apparently didn’t fit on any album release and serves as tepid filler here.
Seriously, this is going to be of interest only to the most diehard of Aerosmith fans. The performances are good, but the song choices are redundant. The record is short, even padded with a mediocre studio cut. As a used disc for under two bucks, there are a couple of good live songs, but that’s about all that recommends it even at that reduced price.
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Annie Lennox
2007
Songs Of Mass Destruction
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Despite what feels like an unimaginative title, this turns out to be an excellent album. Annie Lennox has a voice that borders on operatic and she uses it to full effect on this disc. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in. Diva and Bare were good, and Medusa was excellent, but something on par with the latter seemed too much to hope for. But while it might not be as enjoyable as, say, Medusa, that doesn’t mean it’s not just as good.
It turns out that the title wasn’t just opportunistic – these songs are emotionally dark, wrapped in loss and longing. Lead single and opening track, “Dark Road,” sets the tone early and you almost want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to ensure you can find your way back. Lennox wrote all of these songs herself and she fully explores pain and despair, at one point crying, “Sometimes I feel like I don’t exist / Cut my veins and slit my wrists…” This is what I mean when I say this release might not be as “enjoyable” as previous efforts; it is extremely well done but that level of hopelessness can be hard to immerse yourself in. Surrendering to it, though, is a form of catharsis and almost the entire album is devoted to this type of release.
In fact, the only songs that feel out of place here are the two that don’t wallow in anguish. One is the slightly sexy “My Coloured Bedspread,” which calls to mind pleasant carnal exploits and could have been tweaked to fit the overall mood of this project. The second is “Sing,” an anthemic statement song of female empowerment but a song which also gave rise to Lennox’s SING Campaign aimed at raising funds and awareness for HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa. The song actually starts with the spoken phrase, “This is a call for the national implementation of mother-to-child transmission prevention programme in all the maternity hospitals in South Africa.” A worthwhile sentiment, to be sure, but it yanks you right out of the listening experience here. Neither of these are bad songs in their own right but their inclusion here feels random and ill-considered, particularly given their place in the sequencing (tracks 8 & 9 of 11). I could see if they marked a turning point in the album that lifted the listener out of despondency and toward hope, but that’s simply not the case, as the last two songs relapse into bittersweet misery.
Despite this misstep, however, the album is a triumph of despair that would fit comfortably beside any of the mope-rock classics of the ‘80s alternative scene. The narrator is so forlorn and Annie’s voice so expressive, that you can almost feel the chill dark shroud closing around you as you listen. That is part of what’s so attractive about this album: when it ends, you’re delivered from that sadness and sorrow feeling somehow lighter. The simple absence of despair becomes its own sort of hope.
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The B-52’s
1989
Cosmic Thing
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I’m still surprised at how well this album has aged. Better than me, that’s for sure. It’s a straight-up party album and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. This album was the first
time most of us were introduced to The B-52’s, and what an introduction it was!
The title track opens the album sounding like a party already in progress – no intro, no instrumental lead-in, just Fred Schneider shouting at us to “Gyrate ‘til you’ve had your fill!” The phrase “cosmic thing” becomes the latest euphemism for “ass” and these guys and girls want us to “shake it ‘til the butter melts!” Subtle. 
“Dry County” indulges in the album’s first bit of psychedelic rock and I’m inclined, again, to guess that they’re singing about fucking. Or lack of fucking. Doesn’t matter. Everyone seems to be having a good time anyway. Of course, the real psychedelic payoff comes with the hit single “Roam” and while travel might broaden the mind, so do psychotropics.
Hidden gems on the record include the post-apocalyptic “Channel Z” (don’t worry, the party continues into the apocalypse) and the coquettish “Junebug.” Minor single “Deadbeat Club” revels in lethargy and “Bushfire” loses itself in carnal pleasure. The whole thing closes out with an instrumental whose title could be this band’s mission statement: “Follow Your Bliss.”
I don’t revisit this disc often enough and I don’t know why. For that matter, I almost never hear this mentioned as one of the best records of the ‘80s. It’s a perfect album from start to finish, and while I make a point of mentioning the sex and drugs in this review they really are a lot more subtle about it in their songs. I think the album’s ubiquity and inescapability that summer (everyone between the ages of 10 and 70 had a copy) combined with the perennial usage of “Love Shack” at weddings, birthdays, company picnics, bar mitzvahs, and every other social event have served to undermine the value of the record as a front-to-back document.
It’s time to remedy that. I enjoyed listening to this today as much as I’ve enjoyed any LP in recent memory. So go dust off your copy (you know you have one) and spin it yourself. Eminently worth rediscovering.
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Candy Dulfer
1990
Saxuality
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I have heard some other Candy Dulfer albums and they’re not all this rough. At least, I don’t remember them being so. I have an issue with this sort of commercial soft jazz – it’s like White Zinfandel, a wine for people who don’t like wine. This is music for people who don’t like music.
Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh. The opening cut, “Lily Was Here,” has some nice guitar work from Eurythmics’ alum Dave Stewart. “There Goes The Neighbourhood” brings a respectable amount of funk, with a great bass line and some more great guitar work, this time from collaborator Ulco Bed, who wrote or co-wrote more than half the songs on this debut album. “Get The Funk” is suitably funky with some old-school vocals layered in.
The saxophone work is functional. In some places it’s downright exceptional, such as on the latter half of “Mr. Lee.” I know Ms. Dulfer is an accomplished musician, and she’s played with the greats, including Aretha Franklin, Blondie, Prince, Maceo Parker, Van Morrison, and scores of others, so I’m not for a moment criticizing her abilities as a sax player.
But I firmly believe that programmed electronic drums don’t belong in conventional jazz. And maybe that’s where this presentation breaks down for me. I’ve no issue with preprogrammed beats in other genres. I don’t have an issue with blatant commercialism in other genres. For some reason, these things bother me in jazz, so it could well be that I need to expand my own parameters of what jazz is and can be.
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Carly Simon
1975
The Best Of Carly Simon
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I used to work with a guy who was mad for Carly Simon – he thought god had formed her with his own hands. I never got it, personally, but I couldn’t help thinking about ol’ Joe when I came across this greatest hits collection. I figured it was worth two bucks. I was right.
Honestly, the music doesn’t grab me. It’s not bad. It is, in fact, several excellent examples of prime ‘70s AM radio yacht rock. And I only really keyed in on the bigger hits that I already knew at least peripherally. The standout for me was “Mockingbird” but mostly because my mom used to sing it to me – that and the Carole King-esque “Night Owl” which is the closest Carly comes to rock’n’roll on this collection.
So, for a couple bucks, I ended up with the two big hits that I already knew – “You’re So Vain” and the aspirin commercial theme song “Haven’t Got Time For The Pain” – a couple other singles that were semi-familiar, and then a couple of nice surprises. Definitely worth it.
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Duran Duran
1988
Big Thing
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This has been my favorite Duran Duran album for the past thirty years and I’m honestly surprised I haven’t written about it before now. It’s also the album that made me a lifelong Duran Duran fan. Prior to this album I had Rio on cassette and liked it a lot, but not enough that I’d gone back to buy their debut album or anything that came after. Until this album. My younger brother’s girlfriend had a copy and leant it to me.
I’d heard the singles from Seven And The Ragged Tiger and Notorious at that point, but even so, Big Thing seemed to be by another band altogether, both more mature and more grandiose in scale. It was as if they’d seen what U2 had accomplished with The Joshua Tree and they’d attempted to create their own version of something with the same scale and scope. I daresay they pulled it off. I know which album I return to more often. (Hint: it’s this one.)
The singles from the album – “I Don’t Want Your Love” and “All She Wants Is” – are great but they don’t carry the weight of some of the other songs on the disc. They combine with the thrusting drums of the opening title track for a trilogy of upbeat arena-ready tunes that hearken back to classic D-squared, almost as if the first three songs are a farewell to what has come before. As singles, they’re excellent songs; as representatives of what’s on the rest of the record, not quite so much.
The only other uptempo song here is “Drug (It’s A State Of Mind)” and this would have worked as a single as well, with its near-chant of a chorus and soulful backing vocals.
But the rest of the album has a somber feel to it, from the lament for lost friends in “Do You Believe In Shame?” to the regret in “Too Late Marlene” and the desperation in “Land.” The prettiest song – and my favorite – is “Palomino,” an abstract sculpture of a song full of reminiscence and longing; this is to Big Thing as “The Chauffeur” was to Rio, right down to the prominent snare of the drum track.
The album closes with the five-and-a-half-minute one-two punch of the quietly dreamlike “The Edge Of America” and the rude awakening of “Lake Shore Driving,” the latter a guitar-heavy hard rock instrumental that ramps up quickly and doesn’t back off, holding the listener fast with insistent riffs that sound angry. It’s an interesting choice, ending the record with an instrumental, particularly one with so much coiled energy. Furthermore, the song doesn’t end in any conventional sense, either, it just cuts off mid-note after about three minutes, leaving both the song and the album feeling unsettlingly unresolved. 
This album was their last of the ‘80s and didn’t have nearly the commercial impact that Rio had. After this, they scored another couple of hits in the early ‘90s before fading into radio irrelevance, still recording an album every few years, but now just for fans like me who buy every new record and hope it’s still good. And, honestly, most of it is still very good. I wrote about ‘07 release Red Carpet Massacre recently and in favorable terms. Big Thing, though, was Duran Duran’s last entry in the decade that they helped define at the same time that it defined their enduring identity. It’s suitable that it went out on an unresolved note, making promises about the future that have never been truly fulfilled.
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Elton John
1997
The Big Picture
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This is the first of three Elton John albums I have lined up, and they’re all from different decades so it should be fun to compare them. I wasn’t aware of this release at the time so this is truly a first-listen.

 

I did a quick read-up on this record over at Wikipedia and apparently, this was Bernie Taupin’s least favorite album of those on which he collaborated. I find this surprising because I find it a pleasant listen. “Something About The Way You Look Tonight” is a great single and the only song here that I’ve heard before. I was worried that the omnipresent orchestral and string sections might overpower Elton’s stellar piano work on the rest of the songs, but fortunately that’s not the case.

 

And there are some excellent album cuts here, as well, like “If The River Can Bend,” which was apparently released as a single but I don’t think it gained any chart presence. It has a ‘70s rock feel to it with gospel backing singers rounding out its sound and stands as one of the album’s highlights. “January” and “Wicked Dreams” are also standout cuts.
It’s not GoodbyeYellow Brick Road or Captain Fantastic, but nothing is. It certainly doesn’t sound like the worst Elton John LP ever recorded. It’s not even the worst among those that I’ve heard.
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Elton John
2006
The Captain & The Kid
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Conceived as a loose follow-up to the classic and autobiographical Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy, The Captain & The Kid had big shoes to fill from the outset, though if anyone could fill them, it was obviously going to be Elton & Bernie. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly if you’re not a cynical cus like me), they seem to manage.

I’d never heard anything from this album and I’m surprised by how much the first couple of songs actually rock. Elton John was in his nearly sixty when this was recorded but he’s still pounding the shit out of those keys on “Postcards From Richard Nixon” and “Just Like Noah’s Ark” and his voice is as strong as ever. The opening cuts, at any rate, certainly sound like vintage Elton and that’s always a treat. “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” is a love song to New York City that doesn’t have the same tempo and energy as the first two numbers but is a damn fine song nonetheless.

Halfway through the disc and it is one of my favorite Elton John albums so far. It’s funny but some artists get to a certain point and you start to think, “Well, they just don’t have it in them to make a record as great as their earlier efforts.” Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes they’re just interested in moving in another direction. Sometimes we, as listeners, want them to keep making our favorite album over and over and we’re inevitably disappointed when the latest release sounds different. By 2006 I definitely would have added Elton John to the list of performers I assumed just didn’t have it in them anymore, especially after dreck like “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.”

Man, was I wrong! This is a young man’s rock’n’roll album. We should’ve been able to see it coming – who knows more about rocking than an old rocker? – but this is out-of-the-blue unexpected excellence. He’s only released two other studio albums since 2006 and while I’d never had any interest in them I’m now thinking they might be worth revisiting, because this album is damn near perfect.

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Elton John
1972
Honky Château
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Speaking of classic Elton John albums, how is Honky Château out of print? My friend DJ over at The PopCulturalists was raving about this album so I had to track down a copy online. Hopefully it’s out of print because they’re planning a Deluxe Edition reissue similar to the Captain Fantastic rerelease. That’s the only way it makes sense.

 

“Honky Cat” has always been one of my favorite EJ songs – going back to my Elton John’s Greatest Hits cassette that I had in high school and that I wore out in the Walkman I had constantly attached to my belt – and it opens the program here. The other big hit from Honky Château is “Rocket Man,” but just about any song could have served as a single. “Mellow” is an incredible slice of ‘70s blue-eyed soul. “Hercules” was supposed to be released as a single but never quite got there. “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself” is a jaunty piano riff that would make Harry Nilsson proud. “Amy” is just fantastic.

 

Oddly, I’d never heard this version of “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters.” I only know the song from a funky soul cover version off of Buckshot LeFonque’s debut in ‘94. I’ve always liked the song but I’ve never sought out Elton John’s original. I’m glad to finally make its acquaintance here.

 

Three Elton John albums in one day and as much as I loved The Captain & The Kid I think the nod has to go to Honky Château as the best of the bunch. This is an all-time classic that is easily on par with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Tumbleweed Connection, and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player. A masterpiece.
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Various Artists
1991
Two Rooms: Celebrating The Songs Of Elton John & Bernie Taupin
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It seems only fitting to wrap things up with an Elton John tribute album. I’m a sucker for a good cover version and there are lots of great artists on this compilation, so let’s check it out track by track.
Eric Clapton offers up a fun Bourbon Street blues take on “Border Song” to start things out.
The Kate Bush cover of “Rocket Man” begins with a fragile delicacy before adding a reggae-lite rhythm section. It’s an odd stylistic choice but it just about works.
“Come Down In Time” sees Sting performing with a solo piano accompaniment, giving the song a stripped-down feel in comparison to the orchestra-backed original.
The Who serve up a very Whoish cover of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” Quite enjoyable.
The Beach Boys take on one of my favorite EJ tracks, “Crocodile Rock” but it does nothing for me. The harmonized backing vocals, usually a great part of any Beach Boys song, just make this one sound silly.
Wilson Phillips covering “Daniel.” Kinder to say nothing at all.
Joe Cocker’s version of “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” is just masterful. I might like it better than the original.
“Levon” is credited to just Jon Bon Jovi and not to his band. It starts out as a carbon copy but really ramps up just before the first chorus. Good take on this tune.
Tina Turner’s take on “The Bitch Is Back” is just awesome. Like the song was written for her.
Daryl Hall & John Oates tackle, appropriately, “Philadelphia Freedom” with their usual smooth rock approach. Another great entry.
“Your Song” as covered by Rod Stewart is a mostly bland affair. I think a more rock-oriented song would have suited him much better.
Relative newcomer (in 1991) Oleta Adams has a go at “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” It’s only the sheer power of her voice and the angelic choir behind her that keep this from being an also-ran. I prefer George Michael’s live version.
“Madman Across The Water,” covered here by Bruce Hornsby, is pretty faithful to the original.
Sinéad O’Connor’s take on “Sacrifice” is beautiful and heartbreaking.
I really like “Burn Down The Mission” by Phil Collins. This would have been easy to screw up but it ends up working really well.
This collection closes with George Michael covering “Tonight.” It’s good, but unfortunately, my thrift store copy of the CD was compromised and there’s a lot of glitch to this one track.
At any rate, a very worthwhile tribute album with the gems far outweighing the few stinkers here. Now I just need to find another copy with a final track that plays correctly.

Elton John’s music always reminds me of my older sister, who introduced me to his songs before I was old enough to really appreciate them. So there was a fun bit of nostalgia in this week’s playlist, as well. She also tells me she likes reading these reviews, so this one’s for you, Peej.

Next week should see some reviews on albums from New Wave acts, some hard rock outside of my normal radar, a couple more obscure items, and a giant soundtrack from the ’80s. Until then, keep those discs spinning.

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