Happy New Year, everyone. We’ve made it to 2020.
Now that the holidays are behind us we can get back to a regular schedule. I don’t just mean with Retro Record Reviews. I mean life in general. I haven’t known what day of the week it is for the past two weeks! But it’s Saturday morning, so that means it’s time for the weekly batch. There were some really excellent pickings this week. There was some mediocre stuff in there, too. There were a couple albums that I shouldn’t like that ended up being two of my favorite spins this week. And there was at least one disc I should love but which I don’t care for at all.
Rick Astley, 1991 – Free
I remain an unabashed fan of Rick Astley’s first two albums, recorded with the production powerhouse of Stock/Aitken/Waterman. Those were two of the first albums I reviewed when I switched to this new format (Return & Change Of Direction). But as much as I enjoyed those records, I wasn’t even aware of his 1991 release, Free.
Apparently, the single “Cry For Help” off of this LP was a top 10 hit for Astley but I never heard it. Overall, this album is good, but not great; enjoyable but forgettable. That might be because none of the songs were drilled into my head by incessant Top 40 radio play. Or it might be because none of these songs were turned into a notorious internet meme. Or maybe this batch of songs suffers from not having the S/A/W production team behind it.
Astley himself wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on Free and he acquits himself as a capable songwriter. I certainly enjoy his compositions more than I do Michael McDonald’s “In The Name Of Love” which opens the disc. Standouts include the Astley-penned “Is This Really Love?” and “Move Right Out,” the latter co-written with Rob Fisher of Naked Eyes. Rick Astley is at his best when embracing the soul music that made him a household name in the late-80s and the disc suffers when he strays from that. The Bacharach-by-way-of-Elton-John yacht-rocker “The Bottom Line” is just… whatever the opposite of good is.
I will say he still has an amazing voice here and that makes even the lesser efforts more bearable. “Wonderful You” is a fantastic and soulful ballad that should have been a single and which highlights Astley’s croon better than any other track on the album. Though this record ends up being a fairly pedestrian affair, it’s worth it for a handful of standout cuts.
Rod Stewart, 1995 – A Spanner In The Works
Although “Some Guys Have All The Luck” was one of the first two singles I ever bought, I was never what you might call a big Rod Stewart fan and I hadn’t followed any of his releases from the ‘90s onward. Eventually, I came to appreciate his contributions to rock history and when I found a cheap copy of A Spanner In The Works my first thought was, “Rod Stewart covering Tom Waits. This might be interesting.”
Stewart’s voice is still in fine form as he approaches 50 on this album but his song choices are fairly uninspired. The single “Leave Virginia Alone” was rescued from the Tom Petty scrapheap and is one of the stronger cuts on the record. Bob Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You” gets a fairly faithful rendition here but, like most of his tunes, it is better when Dylan does it; still, when Rod puts the full power of his voice behind this one it’s worth a listen. “Lady Luck,” more uptempo than most tracks on the LP, is one of the few glimpses of the rock’n’roll Rod Stewart of old.
“Muddy, Sam And Otis,” lack of an Oxford comma notwithstanding, should be a moving tribute to his influences and inspirations but it falls flat. And then he reinterprets Tom Waits’s down-on-his-luck desperado in “Hang On St. Christopher” as a messy soul number, complete with horns and a honky-tonk piano. I think I’ll stick with Tom Jones and Queens Of The Stone Age for my Tom Waits covers.
Overall, there isn’t a ton to recommend this record. Apart from the couple of singles mentioned prior, there is “Delicious,” co-written with Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor and another old school rocker (even if the vocals are mixed too low under the electric guitar) and a very good cover of Sam Cooke’s “Soothe Me” that takes the blue-eyed soul treatment a lot better than some other numbers.
It might be telling that the title of the CD is an expression meaning that there’s a problem, something gumming up the machinery. That seems like a legitimate excuse for someone of Stewart’s pedigree to turn in such a lackluster product. Granted, it might be unrealistic to expect him to still be Rod the God after 25 years of recording – and settling into middle age at the time this was recorded – but this album feels like he was coasting. He would soon shift focus and move onto a very respectable series of albums covering The American Songbook, but Spanner sounds like someone trying to hold onto the past and losing his grip.
The Rolling Stones, 1997 – Bridges To Babylon
Thirty years into their career, it seems almost pointless to write a review of a Rolling Stones album. You already know what it sounds like, even if you’ve never heard any of the songs. Mostly uptempo MoR rock’n’roll with one or two bluesy numbers thrown in and a rock ballad or two. You can even hear Mick prancing and posturing while he’s at it.
That’s not to say that Bridges To Babylon is superfluous. It’s a good record, consistent with what you’d expect from The Stones. Not every song is fantastic but enough of them are good so that it’s a fairly decent listen, even if is not without its missteps. The island rhythms seem like an odd choice on “You Don’t Have To Mean It” – one of the three songs featuring Keith Richards on lead vocals. Jagger rhymes “I knew you were my destiny” with “I thought you’d get the best of me” in the soggy ballad “Already Over Me.”
The good on the album outweighs the not-so-good, though. The opening rocker “Flip The Switch,” followed by the single “Anybody Seen My Baby” makes for a great one-two punch to open the record. The slow build of “Out Of Control,” reminiscent of The Temptations, makes for a lightly funky mid-album highlight. Gospel-influenced “Saint Of Me” shows Jagger in perfect pout, defying others’ best intentions.
It’s a solid record, even though Jagger and Richards were, apparently, not speaking during its creation. That should count against it – they weren’t working as a band anymore, just workaday musicians going into the studio to put out a product – but it all comes together surprisingly well. The rift in the band wasn’t new and the end result proves they’d found a way to make it work.
The Rolling Stones, 2003 – Sympathy For The Devil
This was such a weird idea that I couldn’t pass it up. I’ve always been a big Fatboy Slim fan, even long after his star faded. So the idea of Norman Cook doing an eight-and-a-half minute remix of a Stones classic was irresistible, even if it sounded like a terrible idea on paper.
To start with, there’s a “Radio Edit” of the song, a four-minute treatment by The Neptunes that is heavy on strings and breakdowns but which actually works, for the most part. It’s not the worst remix I’ve ever heard.
The “Fatboy Slim Full Length Remix” of “Sympathy For The Devil” is something else altogether. From the opening beats it is clear that this is meant as dance floor fodder, even if it does maintain the same mid-tempo as the original. Added percussion dresses up an otherwise stripped-down first verse and coheres into a fun reimagining. It is very faithful to the original arrangement, the embellishments tastefully added in a way to make it more dance-friendly. A few effects are thrown at the guitar solo but nothing too distracting.
The three-track single includes the original album cut just for comparison’s sake. This release is obviously more of a curiosity than a necessity, but the Fatboy Slim remix is still a fun take on a classic.
Sarah McLachlan, 1999 – Mirrorball
A few months back I discovered Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing in one of the many stacks of CDs I haven’t listened to yet. So I listened to it and I wrote about it here and I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed it. And at the time a friend said, “If you like that, keep an eye out for Mirrorball because that’s great too.”
I do want to state that, though I loved Surfacing when I first heard it last October, I haven’t gone back to revisit it since. So none of the songs here are particularly familiar. Like Surfacing, Mirrorball starts with the smash hit “Building A Mystery.” Again, it reminds me a bit of Aimee Mann’s writing and Natalie Merchant’s voice. The band is tight and the live flourishes add another layer to the song. But then the rest of the album leaves me wanting something else, something more. I can’t say what, but this live document doesn’t provide me with the same sense of transcendence that Surfacing did.
I’d like to blame this on the fact that songs from Fumbling Toward Ecstasy are littered liberally throughout the setlist, but knowing the songs beforehand wasn’t a requisite for falling in love with Surfacing. I keep comparing the two albums because it’s the only point of reference I have for McLachlan’s music. Her voice is still sweet and strong. “Adia” is still a standout cut. “Path Of Thorns” carries more weight than most of the songs here. But the rest leaves me underwhelmed.
Maybe I was in a different state of mind back when I heard Surfacing for the first time. Maybe I need to revisit both albums at the same time to see if my love for one translates to the other when they’re side-by-side. More likely, though, is that I’ll just shelve this and remember it when the handful of 5* tracks pop up randomly on my iPhone playlists.
Seven And The Sun, 2002 – Back To The Innocence
Yet another CD I didn’t know I owned by a band I’ve never heard of. A quick glance at Wikipedia informs me this was the only album by Seven And The Sun, although a second one was recorded and never released. A couple of these songs were apparently used in movies and TV so I’m curious if I may have heard any of them as incidental music. Let’s give it a spin.
I really like the first song, “Jump.” It’s a new millennium spin on ‘80s New Wave: fun, simple, and with a riff-laden party-starter of a chorus. Minor hit “Walk With Me” is a catchy little nothing song with a great vocal delivery and a sing-along refrain. The band doesn’t sound like anyone else in particular but after three songs they do sound like a lot of what was getting airplay in the ‘90s and ‘00s. This isn’t meant to sound derisive – I like it a lot – but it’s not particularly distinctive.
Quasi-ballad “Black And Blue” is the first song on the record that doesn’t seem to stick the landing, incorporating strings and more emotive vocals. Likewise full-on sapfest “I Pray.” Halfway through the disc and it is clear that this band’s strength lies in its fun, uptempo numbers. Unfortunately, as I progress through the latter half of the LP, those uptempo numbers are in short supply. “Don’t Ask Me Why” tries but the spoken word/rap segment coupled with the prominent cello combine to create something considerably less than the sum of its parts.
This CD started out with such promise, but the truth is that it is frontloaded with two or three really good songs before things devolve into weak ballads, sameyness, and poorly executed ideas. I began listening to it wondering why this band hadn’t made a bigger impact and ended up with an answer to that question.
Simple Minds, 2019 – Live In The City Of Angels
Conceptually a loose sequel to their 1987 double-live album Live In The City Of Light, 2019 saw the release, 32 years later, of the four-disc Live In The City Of Angels box set, a 25-song, two-plus hour live performance recorded in Los Angeles on 24 October 2018.* Somehow they performed this massive show and didn’t include “Chelsea Girl” in the setlist, but I imagine I’ll be able to get past that oversight. I bought this when it was released back in early October but I’m just now listening to it for the first time. I’ve been looking forward to this for three months.
I will say right at the beginning that the only type of person who would buy a four-disc Simple Minds live box set is the type who is already a pretty big fan of the band, so there is going to be very limited objectivity to be found in this review. But I’m writing about music and my opinions on it, so objectivity shouldn’t even enter into it.
The set begins with “The Signal And The Noise” from their 2018 release, Walk Between Worlds before launching into “Waterfront,” one of their best-known and best-loved songs from the mid-‘80s, and then going all the way back to 1981 for early single “Love Song.” The tracklist is fairly evenly divided between newer music, deeper album cuts, and big hits. At one point we get 1981’s “Theme For Great Cities” followed by 1995’s excellent “She’s A River” and then 2018’s “Walk Between Worlds.” When you’ve got a musical catalog that spans four decades, you can mix things up a little bit. The main concert ends with a progression of some of their biggest hits: “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” “New Gold Dream (81, 82, 83, 84),” “Once Upon A Time,” “Alive And Kicking,” and “Sanctify Yourself.” They throw in a cover of The Dubliners’ “Dirty Old Town” and the 4th disc includes covers of Prince’s “The Cross” (outstanding in large part due to Sarah Brown’s vocals and Charlie Burchill’s guitar work) and The Call’s “Let The Day Begin.”
Jim Kerr’s voice is as powerful as ever and Charlie Burchill’s guitar rings out clear and true. It is great to hear updated versions of old favorites from the classic Simple Minds era but also rewarding to hear live renditions of tracks just a few months old at the time of this performance. I’ve only gotten to see the band once and it was an excellent experience. I’ll add Live In The City Of Angels to the other live recordings by the Simple Minds, another snapshot of a band that never stops evolving.
*The track “Glittering Prize” was recorded on 08 November 2018 in Miami. Discs 3 & 4 consist of recordings made during various soundchecks & rehearsals.
G. Love & Special Sauce, 1999 – Philadelphonic
I still think of G. Love as being a relatively new act but the truth is that Philadelphonic turns 20 this August and I’ve been a fan since 1994. This release finds the trio continuing with their peculiar blend of laid-back hip-hop, blues, R&B, and pop/rock. Twenty years on and there’s still really no one who sounds like G. Love & Special Sauce.
G. Love’s flow is as crisp as ever, even as he continues to deliver it over the trio’s loose jazz-influenced instrumentation. The guest appearance by surf rocker Jack Johnson On “Rodeo Clowns” is fine, as far as it goes, but I’m still not a Jack Johnson fan. The bulk of the album has a chill party vibe to it, like some friends had brought their instruments with them and set up on a back deck at dusk. “Roaches” is a goofy snapshot of inner-city living. R&B chiller “Relax” could be the LP’s mission statement and features some pretty harmonizing. “Rock & Roll (Shouts Out Back To The Rappers)” pays tribute to the genre’s groundbreaking acts. “Friday Night (Hundred Dollar Bill)” is a fun song about avoiding trouble while having a night out.
In the end, it’s another great album from G.Love & Special Sauce, the kind that feels like it fell together easily. It’s nothing you have to try hard to like or think about too deeply. But it would be a fitting soundtrack to a barbecue, a beach party, or a road trip – anywhere that you want to have a low-key hang with friends and have fun doing it.
The Smashing Pumpkins, 1993 – Siamese Dream
A couple of things to mention before I get into this one. First, it’s unclear if the band name is Smashing Pumpkins or The Smashing Pumpkins. On this album it’s just Smashing Pumpkins, but there are others with the definitive article attached. Secondly, I’ve never been much of a fan, but I keep trying to like them for some reason. So at thrift store prices I thought it was worth picking up what a lot of people consider their best album.
A massive slab of guitar opens the album and sets the tone. Singles “Cherub Rock” and “Today” are vaguely familiar – not like I’ve listened to them regularly, more like, “Hey, I think I heard this used in a movie once.” And I’ll admit to struggling to make out Corgan’s lyrics half the time. Sonically, the record has a lot of good metal inclinations and I like that about it. But even going into this one with the intention of hearing something new and hoping I’d come away liking it, I’m simply not finding any connection to the music.
“Rocket” is pretty good and was apparently another single from the album, though I don’t recognize it. “Disarm” is decent and relatively intelligible, but I don’t care for the tortured vocals, which seem to be a Corgan signature on a lot of these songs. “Geek USA” incorporates a loud metal riff that overpowers the whole song; it’s one of the best tracks on the album until the two-minute mark when it goes all quiet and introspective. It does pick up again a minute later but by that point the momentum is lost.
I’m going to state an unpopular opinion: I just can’t get behind this record. I’m hoping for some conversation in the comments section that may clue me in as to what others find so appealing because I’m just not hearing it even after reading critical reviews. I come close to liking segments of certain songs but then something queers the experience for me and I end up disliking it again. And I’m aware that no band appeals to everyone, but this one seems like something I should enjoy or at least appreciate and it’s completely passing me by.
Simply Red, 1991 – Something Got Me Started
Here’s a band where I like most of their singles but I don’t think I own any of their albums. 1991’s “Something Got Me Started” is completely new to me, despite being nearly 30 years old. It’s got a great disco beat and a house-style piano riff and not much at all in the way of lyrics.
While it maintains some of the blue-eyed soul characteristic of their big US hits “Money’s Too Tight To Mention” and their cover of “If You Don’t Know Me Now,” “Something Got Me Started” feels much more suited to the dance floor at the local gay club alongside the latest Pet Shop Boys chart entry. Conversely, the two b-sides here – an excellent a cappella cover of Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” and the aforementioned “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” – underscore the soul background before the title track gets reimagined as even more dancefloor fodder in the “Perfecto Mix.”
I like ‘90s house music as much as the next guy and “Something Got Me Started” is a very decent – if somewhat forgettable – track in that respect. For my money, however (and my money was $2 at the Savers), the real find on this CD-single is the a cappella Robert Johnson cover. Mick Hucknall’s voice is as clear and bright as sun on Caribbean waters and it is clear that this type of music is where his gifts lie.
The Smithereens, 1991 – Blow Up
I first heard The Smithereens album 11 last year (I reviewed it under HMTF1.08) and it was love at first spin. Blow Up is the follow-up to 11 and picks up exactly where its predecessor left off. Pure pop and stellar songcraft steal the show once again. How this band never crossed over to the mainstream is beyond me.
Album opener “Top Of The Pops” is perfect power-pop with a timeless feel that would have been right at home on the radio a decade later. “Too Much Passion” is a Squeeze-like number that would have been right at home half a decade earlier. “Tell Me When Did Things Go So Wrong” is a riff-heavy pub-rocker that could have been put out on the Stiff label in the late ‘70s while “Evening Dress” is a crooner straight out of the ‘60s. “Anywhere You Are” foreshadows Jars Of Clay’s smash 1995 hit “Flood.”
Maybe that chameleon-like quality counted against them – it is impossible to pigeonhole this band since they’re capable of writing and playing anything and doing it well. While there are exceptions here and there, it has been my experience over 40 years of listening to pop music that bands that can’t be easily categorized make promotion and commercial success a lot harder.
Still, this is clearly a straightforward rock’n’roll band, even if they do switch up styles from one song to the next. It’s not as though they’re breaking out into free jazz or bossa nova or barbershop quartet pieces. I can only speculate that it was a failure of the label to properly sell the band. Unfortunately, Pat DiNizio’s 2010 autobiography Confessions Of A Rock Star is out of print and I can’t even scare up a used copy on Amazon or eBay.
Because 11 was such a pleasant surprise and because it was the band’s biggest commercial success I didn’t go out of my way to dig through their back catalog. Now that I’ve listened to Blow Up, which I found on a routine thrift store run, I’m very inclined to get online and seek out the rest of The Smithereens albums. These two CDs have been so good that I’d be doing myself a disservice not to hear the rest of their output.
Sponge, 1994 – Rotting Piñata
Sponge is one of those ‘90s bands that never went away but no one knows they’re still around. In fact, they’re playing a small venue a couple towns away from me in two weeks. After listening to Rotting Piñata I’m half tempted to go see the show – it would certainly be a high energy affair if this album is any sort of a yardstick.
I had almost zero familiarity with this band prior to today’s listen. The only Sponge song I’d heard before was a cover of “Go, Speed Racer, Go” on the Saturday Morning (Cartoons’ Greatest Hits) compilation. I’ve mentioned before that the grunge scene was never my scene but Vinnie Dombrowski has a powerful voice – even more Vedder than Vedder, if that’s possible. Unlike Pearl Jam, though, I’m finding this music somewhat engaging. It still isn’t really my thing, but it does give me a bit better understanding of why this type of music might appeal to some people (and why it was immensely popular for a brief period about 25 years ago).
For starters, the music, vocals, and lyrics aren’t as dour as Pearl Jam’s. I’ll cop to taking advantage of the easy comparison, but PJ is shorthand for an entire genre of music from that period and the easiest (and most recognizable) reference point. Another reviewer called Sponge “a Stone Temple Pilots ripoff band” but I don’t hear that so much. Rotting Piñata has more energy to the songs, where most of grunge music feels like a slog to me. “Neenah Menasha” is anchored by a gigantic heavy metal riff and Dombrowski’s vocals stretch into the realm of metal, as well. I find this one song more enjoyable than anything in the STP catalog. “Miles” has a similar metal feel to it; it also evokes Robert Frost in a sort of cheesy fashion that I find amusing; that’s the only real strike against this record so far.
Hit single “Molly” might have been the basis for the Stone Temple Pilots comparison but even this song is more imaginative and more fun to listen to than Scott Weiland was. The album closes with the hidden track “Candy Corn” which is actually just a very enjoyable bit of psych-metal. It might be my favorite cut on the record other than “Neenah Menasha.”
As much as I enjoyed my first listen to this disc, it still feels like a grower to me. It surprises me to find that I like a band that gets lumped in with grunge (even if I don’t think that label fits, here). I expect that repeated exposure to this disc will find me liking it more, peeling away some of the layers, learning some of the lyrics. It’s cold here in January, but I’m already thinking of this as a late-night rocker on the back deck come springtime.
Starship, 1985 – Knee Deep In The Hoopla
This one is a little embarrassing. I don’t really subscribe to the idea of a “guilty pleasure” – everyone just likes what they like, right, and we’re all too cool to worry about being cool – but there’s got to be a line somewhere and I feel like Starship is probably just on the other side of that line. Jefferson Airplane? Legendary. Jefferson Starship? Still good. Starship? Well…
I turned 14 the week after this record came out. I didn’t know what was cool or good – I just knew what got hammered into my impressionable ear holes six times a day by Top 40 radio. “We Built This City” was fun and upbeat and celebratory. The album title Knee Deep In The Hoopla seemed cool and clever to me at the time. “Sara” is still a classic mid-‘80s pop ballad. And it has the added bonus that a friend and I changed the opening lyric from “The letter started with good-bye…” to “The lady farted with a sigh…,” a bit of sophomoric idiocy that still makes me chuckle almost 35 years later. There were a couple other singles whose names I don’t recognize – the Top 30 “Tomorrow Doesn’t Matter Tonight” and Top 100 “Before I Go” – and the rest of the album is generic ‘80s.
What’s wrong with generic ‘80s, though? I literally spent a decade immersed in generic ‘80s. There were standouts, of course, and bands I liked better than others, but by definition, the bulk of the music was going to be average. Now, I will take “average” ‘80s over any other decade, but that’s because, you know, formative years and all that, studies have been done, et cetera, et cetera. That’s the point here, though. Not much on this record approaches “outstanding” or “indispensable,” but it is all very adequate and very enjoyable and produced according to the tastes of the time. Grace Slick’s voice is fantastic and Mickey Thomas sounds like the poor man’s Steve Perry (this is a compliment). The whole band is good – Craig Chaquico’s guitar work and Donny Baldwin’s gated ‘80s drumming, in particular.
I’m gonna come right out and say it: I really like this record. A lot. It might be cheesy. It might be a once-great rock’n’roll act trading legitimacy for pop stardom. It might even be embarrassing to like it this much. I don’t care. The ear wants what the ear wants and I will always love anything as unmistakably ‘80s as this record. In fact, I think I’ll go back and listen to it again right now.
And that’s a wrap for the first installment of Hello, My Treacherous Friends for 2020. I’ve got to say, those last two albums – Sponge and Starship – just blew me away. I can’t believe how much I enjoyed them. I generally have a pretty open mind when it comes to music but I wasn’t expecting too much from either of those records.
Just goes to show – you never really know. That’s why we listen to everything!
As always, thank you for reading!
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Until next time, keep those discs spinning.