Holiday prep kept me from listening to as much new music as I’d have liked in the past couple weeks, but it was worth it for a nice break with the family. I hope all of you loyal readers are enjoying the holiday season as we lead up to the new year and the new decade. In fact, this will be the last post for me this year – there are no more On This Day articles scheduled and by next Saturday we’ll already be into January. So let’s get on with the last Retro Record Reviews of 2019.
Mono Puff, 1996 – Unsupervised
The first (and next-to-last) full-length release from They Might Be Giants’s John Flansburgh’s side-project Mono Puff, Unsupervised could almost be another TMBG album. At times it seems like all that’s missing is John Linnell’s slightly nasal vocals on half the songs.
It starts off with a blistering surf-spy guitar instrumental before the de facto title track, “Unsupervised, I Hit My Head” with lyrics so goofy they could only come from one of the Johns (Flansburgh, in this case). Elena Löwensohn delivers a heavily accented spoken word voiceover on “Distant Antenna” which, if I heard it randomly somewhere, would make me think of Cibo Matto.
“The Devil Went Down To Newport” made some small headway into mid-90s college radio but that was as close as this outfit came to a hit single. It’s a fun cut but not the best one on the record.
Overall, the album is much more guitar-oriented than most They Might Be Giants albums. Still, that’s not to say it’s a straightforward rock album. Surf music, spoken-word, and mariachi horns all show up in one form or another. There are strains of country music on “Don’t I Have The Right?” featuring lead vocals by Nancy Lynn Howell. “To Serve Mankind” is prime TMBG weirdness, with hints of Martin Denny.
Unsupervised was released just a month after the Johns released Factory Showroom in 1996, so I wonder if these were just songs leftover from those sessions that Flans then decided to go record with some other musicians. It certainly seems possible, particularly where Factory Showroom contained fewer songs than any TMBG album to date at that point. Ultimately, file this one under They Might Be A Bonus Album. Y’all know I love revisiting old albums even if they’re new to me, but every now and then I end up hearing something current that I need to share, as well. Read on for my favorite release of 2019…
Neal Francis, 2019 – Changes
This is one of my favorite albums of 2019. Neal Francis? Who’s that? What does he sound like? Well, take equal parts Elton John, Bernie Worrell, and Billy Preston, and then make an album out of every great idea they ever had that they never put to tape… and you’ll start to get an idea of what this 30-year-old upstart’s debut sounds like.
I first heard Neal Francis live in Boston in spring 2019 opening for The Cat Empire. I’ve been a Cat Empire fan for close to two decades and I’ve seen them half a dozen times. This was one of those rare times where I would have been fine if the opening act had just played for two hours instead of leaving the stage to make way for the headliner. Francis’s live show is incredible, full of energy and excitement, and I think he’s the only person I’ve ever seen to have installed a whammy bar on one of his keyboards. It was loud and raucous and funky beyond belief. I met him at his merch table afterward and berated him for not having any music available for me to purchase.
So when the album was released in September, it presented a challenging listen at first. It’s hard to capture the energy of a live performance in the studio and, in this case, it seems as if that wasn’t even a consideration. Instead, the album highlights the songcraft, musicianship, and lyrical prowess that make Neal Francis such a special act, making music that sounds like little else being produced today.
Once I was able to settle into the groove of this record, it was apparent the record was in the groove, to paraphrase Stevie. It’s smooth without being slick, soulful without being self-righteous; it pays tribute to its forbearers without being derivative. There are musical nods to New Orleans, Philly, and Chicago. There are lyrical nods to love, God, past mistakes and future redemption. The songs’ arrangements are super-tight and the tracks perfectly mixed, every instrument getting its due, none overpowering the others.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the album’s lead single by name. Released on 45 a couple months prior to the full-length, “These Are The Days” takes everything that is great about this album and distills it down into three-and-a-half minutes of sweet soul goodness that rocks and rolls and swings and shakes, organ and piano in the forefront, guitars, horns, bass, & drums keeping time and doing it with style. If you listen to this and like it, you’ll enjoy the album. If you listen to it and don’t like it, well, there’s nothing more I can do for you.
I’m not in the business of making year-end lists – I leave that to my good friends at The PopCulturalists. But if I were, this album would top mine, and there have been a slew of great albums in 2019. I love the new Black Pumas, Nick Cave (stay tuned), and Simple Minds’s new live album, the self-titled Super Doppler record, Jon Fratelli’s long-awaited Bright Night Flowers and Springsteen’s Western Stars just to name a few. But Neal Francis’s exceptional Changes stands out in a field of stand-outs. While I was able to totally immerse myself in Changes, this next album is one that it’s going to take a long time to get a real feel for…
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, 2019 – Ghosteen
This is a difficult album to get my head around. As most are aware, Nick Cave lost his 15-year-old son in 2015. Ghosteen is his first album written and recorded after his son’s death. The album deals with the event obliquely, non-narratively, the messages just hints and allusions, there to be interpreted by the listener.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t come off as a particularly cathartic album. It’s a lyrical showcase, the music gauzy and atmospheric, lightly sketched soundscapes that serve as brittle foundations for the vocal structures that sprout forth. The lyrics themselves are dreamlike snippets and fragments, non-linear images captured without context.
Within all of this Mr. Cave deals with the human condition as he always has, touching on themes of love and death, loss, his Christian god. After listening to this album straight through a couple of times, though, it changes shape. While it is easy and obvious to focus on the snapshots of loss in “Spinning Song” and “Ghosteen,” it is ultimately a sense of acceptance and hope that pervades the record. It is telling that he ends the album with the lines “Everybody’s losing someone / It’s a long way to find peace of mind/ And I’m just waiting now for my time to come / And I’m just waiting now for peace to come… for peace to come”
There is a grace and a beauty here, a hazy portrait of a man bent by the world, but not broken – a willow moves with the wind, a river flows around the rock, moved and changed by outside forces but finally returning to the truth of its very nature. Nick Cave, it seems, has passed into the abyss and emerged – not unharmed or unchanged, but nonetheless true to his core. We tackle the most esoteric of this week’s entries next, an arty instrumental album that proves to be more impressive than actually enjoyable…
Parlour, 2010 – Simulacrenfield
I’d never heard of Parlour before I stumbled across a sealed copy of this disc at the local thrift store. There was a hype sticker on the shrink wrap that I wish I’d kept because it was the hype sticker that convinced me to layout my two bucks for the disc. Turns out they’re a musical outfit of varying size (a sextet in this incarnation) led by Tim Furnish out of Louisville, Kentucky.
They’re also an instrumental band so it’s harder to write about the experience of hearing the album for the first time. The liner notes mention drums, bass, guitar, synths, and woodwinds but not strings, oddly, since I would swear “Camus” features a violin or viola or the like, unless someone is bowing their guitar (and I wouldn’t put it past this group of gents). Or it could be synthesized strings. Point it, it’s hard to say precisely what I’m hearing. Parts of it sound like it could be film score. I guess it’s rock music, but maybe art-rock, certainly not your typical four-on-the-floor teenager music.
Suffice to say, it is outside of my comfort zone. I can listen to it and even enjoy some of it, but it’s not going into regular rotation any time soon. Simulacrenfield is a very challenging first listen – almost music-for-musicians challenging. It is complex and layered, the instruments carrying on conversations with one another in lieu of lyrics. The musicians are skillful enough to keep the complex from turning cacophonous, and each note receives its due without getting lost within the overall sound at any given moment.
Someone with a more technically musical background could probably pull this apart, dissect each song, flay each composition down to its bones and expose the underlying meat, muscle, and gristle that brings each song to life. I just enjoy it for what it is, a challenging disc of heavy, heady instrumentals that I find pleasantly engrossing while they’re playing but which I know will spend more time on the shelf than in my headphones. With the next disc, we step back onto more familiar ground, at least insofar as it is radio-friendly pop/rock by an artist everyone has heard of…
Pat Benatar, 1993 – Gravity’s Rainbow
Pat Benatar doesn’t get enough credit as a flat out rocker. For the most part, she gets lumped in with the other female stars of the ‘80s when she gets mentioned at all. This is an oversight – while she might have had pop hits in “Love Is A Battlefield,” “Shadows Of The Night,” or “We Belong” (among myriad others) she was never a pop singer in the mode of, say, Madonna or Cyndi Lauper or Laura Branigan, to name a few contemporaries. Paired with her husband, guitar legend Neal Giraldo, she carved her niche in hard granite and was more akin to, say, Joan Jett, Lita Ford and “Barracuda” era Wilson sisters than Belinda Carlisle. I’m not disparaging pop. I’m just saying Benatar wasn’t it.
Gravity’s Rainbow was her second album of the ‘90s and her first album that didn’t go gold or platinum. Listening to it for the first time today, I can only chalk that lack of commercial performance up to the tastemakers of the time who must have decided she was too much a relic of the prior decade to be a viable force in the new one. I would have preferred fifty albums that sound like this over the entire grunge era but no one asked me at the time.
At least half the songs could have been singles, with “Disconnected” an obvious standout (even if it does end a bit too abruptly – it feels like it should have been stretched out a little longer). Blues-rocker “Crazy” is another obvious choice that would have snugged up perfectly on the charts alongside the likes of Sheryl Crow or Melissa Etheridge. In the end, the only two singles from the album were its two lead cuts, “Everybody Lay Down” and “Somebody’s Baby” (discounting forty-second instrumental opener “Pictures Of A Gone World”) which are capable selections, the former a hard rock gem that rocketed up the Mainstream Rock chart. Even the somewhat restrained numbers like “You & I” and “Every Time I Fall Back” would have been good choices, the latter in particular dipping a toe into the realm of the Jim Steinman-esque rock ballad.
Pat Benatar is on the ballot for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2020. The fact that she’s been eligible since 2004 and still isn’t in tells you all you need to know about the legitimacy of the institution, but nonetheless, I thought I’d throw in a plug for her just the same in case you feel like going to the site and casting a vote in her favor. And don’t write off Gravity’s Rainbow. The fact that this album went relatively unappreciated at the time of its release is in no way an indication that it should be relegated to the scrap heap of musical history. It is a powerfully rocking album and yet another argument that Ms. Benatar’s voice is among the best in the history of popular music. Next up we take a look at the decade’s last release from the hardest working man in ’80s show business…
Phil Collins, 1989 – …But Seriously
I enjoyed Phil Collins’s solo output during the 80s and I still think that is peak-era Genesis, never having been a big prog fan. If you look at the two combined, he was one of the most prolific and ubiquitous artists of the decade, starting with 1980’s Duke and closing with …But Seriously released in November of ‘89. That’s eight-and-a-half studio albums in a decade when you take into account the studio cuts from Genesis’s Three Sides Live LP. The album I’m least familiar with during that span is this one.
I’ve mentioned it before, but my musical tastes underwent a big shift in 1989, the year I graduated high school, and by November I’d moved away from the Top 40 radio that had informed my teen years and on toward “alternative” and “college” rock (a couple of terms I’ve never been comfortable with as musical descriptors). So I’ve heard lead single “Another Day In Paradise” but it’s the only song from this album that I know right away.
It didn’t strike a chord with me as an 18-year-old and was a noticeable change of pace from the upbeat pop of No Jacket Required.
Curiously though, …But Seriously picks up right where Jacket… left off, with the big brassy pop of “Hang In Long Enough” which seems like a conscious decision to bridge the gap between the two projects. Otherwise, the album moves into heavier themes with the likes of “That’s Just The Way It Is,” “…Paradise,” and the nearly nine-minute “Colours.” There is a return to the feel of the prior album with deep cut “Heat On The Street” and smash hit “Something Happened On The Way To Heaven,” which I recognize as soon as I hear it, if not from the title. Likewise, I’m familiar with “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” on which Phil’s voice is at its most powerful, backed by a gospel choir and Eric Clapton’s guitar chops.
Although I’m hearing it front-to-back for the first time even as I’m writing this review, I can already tell you for certain that I enjoy and appreciate this album more today than I would have if I’d bought it 30 years ago. It is much more AOR than any of his previous albums, and though pop sensibilities inevitably make their way into some of the songs it’s also clear, particularly in retrospect, that Mr. Collins is transitioning to a more mature phase of his career (which, within a decade, would transition into the “writing tripe for Disney” phase of his career). Thirty years on, …But Seriously remains a worthwhile and enjoyable album. After being “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss,” the brothers on the next album decided to create an entire bliss album, but this one came with a question mark…
P.M. Dawn, 1993 – The Bliss Album…?
P.M. Dawn was an unusual outfit, a rap/R&B/pop hybrid that embraced a musical and lyrical style that was ultimately a rejection of prevailing hip-hop values of the time. Like contemporaries De La Soul, P.M. Dawn focused on the positive and uplifting, dealing with real human emotions and consciousness rather than posturing and putting up a hard front. Vocalist Prince Be created for himself a spiritual persona embracing the eternal as opposed to the immediate. This is reflected even in the record’s full title, The Bliss Album…? (Vibrations Of Love And Anger And The Ponderance Of Life And Existence). Not quite Fiona Apple’s When The Pawn… but still quite unwieldy.
Many of the lyrics are stream of consciousness musings, wildly open to subjective interpretation. Furthermore, though labeled as a hip-hop outfit, these are melodic songs with vocals often closer to singing than traditional rap. The music is upbeat and danceable with softer and more organic sounds surrounding the de rigueur samples.
The first P.M. Dawn album I heard was 1995’s Jesus Wept and stylistically The Bliss Album is similar and instantly familiar. Opening tracks “When Midnight Sighs” and “So On And So On” have the same mellow flow I expected, though “Plastic” takes on a more conventional rap cadence and delivery while at the same time lyrically repudiating hip-hop tropes.
Not every song lands smoothly. The romantic “To Love Me More” doesn’t quite work, the near desperate longing out of step with Prince Be’s normal serenity. Their cover of “Norwegian Wood” might not resonate with Beatles purists. Overall, though, these songs are more hit than miss, slightly trippy semi-psychedelia that might sit comfortably in a playlist alongside Deee-lite or something off of Prince’s Around The World In A Day. Hits like “I’d Die Without You,” The Boy George duet “More Than Likely,” and the George Michael sampling “Looking Through Patient Eyes” were ‘90s staples.
The Bliss Album doesn’t really do anything to expand the P.M. Dawn sound, but it does serve to further their unique vision of hip-hop. Unfortunately, they were only a few years away from DJ Minutemix’s arrest for sexual abuse and his expulsion from the group and they never regained the commercial or critical acclaim of their first two albums. When Prince Be joined the graduating class of 2016 it signaled the definitive end of P.M. Dawn even though a couple of non-original members continue to perform under the moniker. As its most successful and popular LP, The Bliss Album serves as P.M. Dawn’s lasting legacy.
Prince, 1995 – The Versace Experience: Prelude 2 Gold
This is a curious release from the Prince estate. One could argue that it is long overdue while others could argue that it is completely unnecessary. The Versace Experience was originally released as a promo cassette given away during the 1995 Paris Fashion Week in one of the few meager efforts made to promote Prince’s forthcoming The Gold Experience (click here for all the reasons why this is my favorite Prince album). It finally saw a CD and vinyl release in 2019 but the album it was supposed to be promoting remains regrettably out of print. I can only hope that the powers that B are working on a rerelease along the lines of the recent Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic and this year’s 5-disc box set edition of 1999.
The Versace Experience is presented as a mixtape, combining truncated versions of several songs from The Gold Experience along with cuts from side-projects such as Madhouse (“Rootie Kazootie”), The New Power Generation (“Get Wild In The House”) and The New Power Generation Orchestra (orchestral instrumental snippet “Kamasutra Overture #5”). The songs are chopped down or remixed and blended in a series of seamless segues to maintain the mixtape aesthetic. In 2019 it presents a fun new approach to old and familiar material.
Oddly absent from this promo piece is any reference to its parent album’s early lead single, “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World.” Instead, the disc starts with the Club Mix Edit of “Pussy Control,” notable because it is the first place in his catalog that I’ve seen the word spelled out instead of abbreviated as “P Control.” This is a shorter version of the “P Control” remix that would appear on the Crystal Ball box set in 1998. There are excerpts (stylized as “x-cerpt”) from The Gold Experience slow jams “Shhh” and “Shy,” as well as from the anthemic “Gold” and funky rocker “319.” There is also a remix of the single “👁 Hate U” that, as far as I know, doesn’t appear elsewhere in Prince’s vast catalog.
NPG track “Get Wild In The House” makes a strong case for exploring this particular Prince project’s then-current album Exodus and later track “Free The Music” is a sub-two-minute mashup of most of the songs from that LP. Instrumental “Rootie Kazootie” from Eric Leeds and Madhouse is a nice little slice of jazz-funk. “Kamasutra Overture #5” is a 45-second glimpse at the NPG Orchestra that doesn’t do the full project any justice whatsoever, though that is a topic for another article at some point. The only real outlier here is the standalone “Chatounette Controle” which is really just Prince saying the names of various supermodels over a remixed version of “P Control.” It is every bit as odd as it sounds in writing.
This is definitely a nonessential Prince product, only of interest to rabid fans and hardcore collectors. There is virtually nothing here that cannot be found elsewhere in his collection in a preferable form, and at just over half an hour the disc isn’t even really long enough to make for a decent mixtape. That being said, I’m glad it has finally seen a wide official release because, as a rabid fan and collector, there are a few things here that prove worthwhile, particularly the Madhouse track. Given that it was rereleased with its full title, including the Prelude 2 Gold suffix, I can only hope that they’re planning on polishing off that particular gem and bringing it back out into the light of day. Now that one is essential Prince. The next album was the biggest musical surprise of the past week for me, fleshing out what I had thought of as a one-hit wonder into a legitimately impressive rock band…
Procol Harum, 1972 – The Best Of Procol Harum
Records like this one are a big part of the reason I so enjoy this writing project. Prior to hearing this Best Of compendium, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single Procol Harum Song other than classic rock stalwart “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” I also wouldn’t have been able to tell you that guitar great Robin Trower was once a part of the band.
“Whiter Shade…” is such an unusual song in the annals of rock history that it was easy to believe it might be the band’s one good song. Certainly they were unlikely to have crafted another song based on Bach’s music with baroque leanings that could match their smash hit. But Procol Harum weren’t a one-trick pony, either. While some of the songs on this collection – such as “Homburg” and “Quite Rightly So” – are somewhat similar to “Whiter Shade…” others, like “Long Gone Geek” and “Lime Street Blues,” sound as if they could be by another band altogether.
These fellows predate Genesis by several years. Hearing more Procol Harum today than ever before, it makes me wonder if Gabriel, Banks, and Rutherford were big fans back at Charterhouse School. The music isn’t straight up prog-rock, but it does share a lot in common with 1970’s Genesis, including a penchant for orchestral rock. I also pick up strains of Bowie here and there and wonder if they might have influenced his early work, as well.
This Best Of collection has definitely been an eye-opener (ear opener?) and my interest is well and truly piqued. I had never given any thought to Procol Harum, always writing them off as a one-hit wonder. While it’s true that they never again matched the commercial peaks of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” they are an artistically intriguing act whose work I’m now anxious to seek out and learn more of. For the final disc in this week’s stack of reviews, we go from classic rock to punk rock…
RC5, 2004 – Run Baby Run
I was never a big fan of punk rock but I like some of it. New millennium Seattle punk outfit RC5 is pretty enjoyable as these things go, loud and brash with hints of rockabilly hidden under the fuzzed-out rhythm guitar and pounding drums. It helps, too, that most of the words are semi-intelligible – singing instead of just screaming or shouting.
This is an eleven-and-a-half minute EP and after giving it a couple listens I’m actually really digging it. These guys do a great job making each song melodically distinct; homogeny is another broad issue I have with a lot of punk.
The tag line on the album cover says, “The explosive true story of a savage street fighter turned crusader” so it seems we’re dealing with a concept album of sorts, as well, though I can’t make out enough of the lyrics to be certain this is the case. In the end, it’s just a quick, fun record that I got as part of a lot-purchase and would never have heard otherwise. Not really my bailiwick and not the sort of thing I’d seek out, but these five songs will be put into occasional rotation.
That’s a wrap on the year. And it has been a very good year for My Treacherous Friends, finally establishing a good working rhythm and having a lot of fun with the blog. It was also successful in that I’ve had more eyes on my writing than ever before, thanks in no small part to the team over at Banzai Retro Club (and if you’re not following them on Twitter, be sure to check them out).
Thank you to everyone who has read one of my reviews this year, and even more thank you to anyone who has read more than one. While I love exploring the piles of CDs I have stacked up around my office, I also hope that some people are getting turned on to new music by reading what I have to say about it. I try to stay positive in my reviews and when I can’t be nice, I try to at least be brief.
So, for the last time in 2019, thank you for reading!
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Until next time, keep those discs spinning.