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Posts tagged ‘Al Stewart’

Fifty Year Friday: April 1970

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Elton John: Elton John

April 1970 continues the early seventies trend of providing strong rock/folk/pop singer songwriter albums with one of the most polished releases of early 1970, and arguably the one of most important, historically: Elton John’s second album, artfully arranged by Paul Buckmaster and produced by Gus Dudgeon.  Originally intended to be a demo of current Elton John and Bernie Taupin songs to be circulated among industry recording artists, bands, producers and execs as a means of promoting the quality and variety of John/Taupin songs available for those looking for songs to add to an album, but due to the recently increased commercial appetite for solo singer songwriter albums, the album was released commercially under Elton’s name — or Reggie Dwight’s assumed name of “Elton John” based on an inspirational combining of the names of Bluesology bandmates Elton Dean and  Long John Baldry.

Released on April 10, 1970, Elton John was relatively ignored until the single “Your Song”, the first track on the album, started getting significant airplay as a single in December 1970.  Like many others, I first bought the third album, Tumbleweed Connection in late 1970 and then purchased the Elton John album, later getting the first album (Empty Sky)  as an import as it had not been released in the U.S.  Interesting it was within a few days of purchasing the Elton John album, that I first starting hearing “Your Song” on the radio, wondering how such success would impact the next album’s quality or direction.

“Your Song’ is by far my favorite song on the album (which due to my teenage stubbornness and anti-establishment stance, might not be the case if I had been exposed to it on AM first) but this is an impressively strong album, with even my least favorite song, a tribute to the Rolling Stones country-rock style tucked away on track four of the first side (“No Shoe Strings on Louise”), being a song of some merit.  It is astonishing to consider that had this album not been released except in limited distribution as a promotional vehicle for their songwriting skills, that Elton and Bernie may have been content to have been behind-the-scene songwriters.  However, due to the quality of the arrangements, songs like “Your Song”, “Sixty Years On”, “Border Song”, “Take Me to the Pilot” and more, its hard to imagine any alternate universe where this album could have been kept under wraps for any length of time.  Today I still consider Tumbleweed Connection to be the best Elton John album, however that may be more influenced by it being the first Elton John album I bought — if I was to recommend just one Elton John album, it would be this one — especially if the tastes of the listener favored intimate or introspective singer-songwriter albums.

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Cat Stevens: Mona Bona Jakon

After a successful first album and a commercially and critically disappointing second album was followed with a near-fatal case of tuberculosis, Cat Stevens ensuing recuperation was filled with time to reflect on life and stockpile thirty to forty songs, some of which were used as material for his third album, Mona Bona Jakon.  One suspects that the realization of the merits of a simpler life is also manifested in the simplicity of the music and the arrangements on this acoustic-based album, with its transparently clear and focused guitar work, double bass, and suitable and appropriate use of strings.

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Randy Newman: 12 Songs

Also in April 1970, Randy Newman releases his second album, 12 Songs. Replacing the interesting orchestration and sometimes sympathetic characters in the songs with skilled studio musicians (including Clarence White, Ry Cooder and jazz bassist Al McKibbon) and an array of generally unpleasant and sometimes repulsive characters, Newman has refined his approach to be an all out assault of social commentary.  The music is also simpler — blatantly based on standard, cookie–cutter harmonic progressions borrowing generously from blues and country musical components.  Due to its readily accessible music  consistency of character portrayal, and twisted, ironic lyrics, the album was embraced by critics and helped further establish Randy Newman as a significant artist.

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Al Stewart: Zero She Flies

Another artist establishing a signature sound and style was Al Stewart with his release of his third album, Zero She Flies. Each song is distinct and original with “Manuscript” providing the type of historical reflection that would become more common in later Al Stewart albums.  Not included in the original album, but on CD releases as a bonus track, is the personal and reflective “News from Spain”, as good as any of the tracks on the original album.

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Paul McCartney: McCartney

Joining the list of solo singer songwriters is Paul McCartney, releasing his first solo album on the Apple label, McCartney.  Released before Let it Be, the album was accompanied with the news of the Beatles break-up and many fans incorrectly assigned the blame of the break-up to Paul or his desire to be on his own releasing solo albums of which this was the first.

Commercially successful (what Beatles fan didn’t want to get that first solo album after their break up), the album  was overall disappointing for anyone who had previously purchased Abbey Road:  many critics and fans saw this album as concrete proof of how important (okay, instrumental) George Martin was to the overall quality of all the Beatles’ catalog.  The good part was that if one came to the album expecting little (that is one of your friends let you borrow the album after telling you how bad it was), there were some worthwhile moments.  Composed of fragments, not fully-realized tunes, and the properly arranged and realized, “Maybe I’m Amazed”, one can embrace the album for the informality and glimpses of genius.  It seems clear the album had some padding to bring it up to almost 35 minutes, including two versions of one the best tunes on the album, “Junk” — both an instrumental version of “Junk” and the vocal version which seems to have lyrics added after the fact and somewhat haphazardly. I would be fine with just the instrumental version, but one has to give credit to Paul’s vocals which are always a treat to hear.  Overall, not an essential album, but it is an album that is fun to revisit every few years.

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Jethro Tull: Benefit

Jethro Tull released their third album, continuing to refine their sound adding keyboardist John Evan (though uncredited), and creating more intriguing and colorful music than ever.  Many critics were unimpressed with the often off-the-mark Rolling Stone labeling this exciting and engaging album “lame and dumb”, yet fortunately the album did well in both the UK and the States providing Jethro Tull the necessary commercial momentum.  Retrospective reviews would be much more embracing of this remarkable set of vibrant and distinctive songs.

Be sure to check out the Steven Wilson remix of Benefit, a true aural delight that includes  “Alive and Well and Living In”, which was replaced on the US version of the album with the single “Teacher.”

 

Fifty Year Friday: September 1969

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On September 20, John Lennon met with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and the Beatles’ business manager to inform them of his intent to leave: “I want a divorce! Like the one I got from [first wife] Cynthia.”

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September 1969 was also an eventful month for baseball.  The Mets initiated a serious winning streak while the Chicago Cubs was losing games and overtook the Cubbies, even getting a 4-3 victory against Card’s pitcher Steve Carlson record-breaking 19 strike-outs, nine-inning pitching. On September 22nd, Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants became the first major league baseball player since Babe Ruth to get his 600th home run; this was in the same game against the Padres that his teammate Bobby Bonds struck out for the 178th time, breaking  an 1963 record previously held by Dave Nicholson of the Chicago White Sox.

On September 26, ABC debuted a seemingly inconsequential situation comedy about six kids, three girls and three boys, merged as a part of a marriage of two divorcees, with a dog and maid thrown for good measure. At fourteen, I avoided watching the show out of principle, but this series was a favorite of the youngest girl next of our closest neighbors, geographically and personally, a family of three older boys, all good friends to me, and three younger girls.

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But anything else that happened on September 26, or in the month of September 1969, seems culturally inconsequential to the release of the Beatles final effort before they went their own ways, their last recorded studio album, Abbey Road.  I borrowed this masterwork from one of the three boys next door in the spring of 1970 and recorded it on to my own relatively good quality reel-to-reel tape recorder along with Chicago’s second album, the two of which I listened to over and over and over while reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series.  Though more of a collection of solo Beatles songs than some of the earlier albums, the assembly and production, along with the high musical quality, made this my favorite Beatles album.

For many years, I was not particularly fond of the first track, John Lennon’s “Come Together”, seemingly a musical throwback to an earlier time.  Harmonically, this was a standard rock-and-roll chord progression, with psychedelic, wildly colorful, but also mostly incomprehensible, lyrics. Not known to me at the time was that it was written as a campaign song for Timothy O’Leary in his averted attempt to run against Ronald Reagan for Governor of California — the campaign terminated by O’Leary being arrested for possession of weed.  Also not known to me at the time, was the similarity of the song to Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.”  These facts though, probably wouldn’t have made much difference to my quickly getting tired of hearing this played every morning on the bus trip to and back from school, five days a week, from the third Monday in October 1969 to the last Friday before Christmas vacation in late December.

During this same three-month window, George Harrison’s “Something”, the second track sequentially on Abbey Road, was also played on that same bus, courtesy of the local station that our bus driver was apparently captivated with or captive to.  Due to the poor audio quality and the noise on the bus, I didn’t get to fully appreciate the nuances of either of these two songs, and so also became slightly tired of “Something” sometime by late November.  However, its important to note, that compared to the other fodder on AM radio, these two tracks were gems.  It’s hard to imagine how I survived, but during these three months, as music was shifting from the diversity of the late sixties to a more homogeneous, more similarly produced approach to singles, there were numerous musically questionable songs being played on that bus radio including Oliver’s “Jean”, the Cuff Links’ “Tracy”, Bob Dylan’s  tortuous, “Lay Lady Lay”, R.B. Greaves “Take A Letter Maria”, Mel and Tim’s “Back Field in Motion”, and worse of all, The Archies’ unimaginably simplistic and simplistically unimaginable “Sugar Sugar”, one of the most blatant and annoying bubble-gum pop songs of the era. Compared to any of these and some of the other tunes being pushed at the time, “Something” was a work of art, and “Come Together”, even for the seventy-eighth time, was a welcome relief.

But back to Abbey Road — by the time I had transferred my friend’s copy of Abbey Road to tape and started playing it over and over,  I viewed “Come Together” and “Something”, (tunes I had already been overexposed to), as a pair of preludes to an extraordinarily, exceedingly, and unexpectedly high-quality, melodically-rich album. I could read over the sound of “Come Together” and even “Something”, but when I got to the rest of the album, I would often stop reading to listen for a while, before getting back to Tolkien’s more narrative story-telling.

Now certainly as my level of musicianship has increased I have come to better appreciate “Something.”  That said, even today, it is the rest of this album, starting with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” that really resonates with me.  In the previous two tracks, we have McCartney’s bass work, which is particularly impressive on “Something.”  With this third track, we have his first composition on the album, a delightful upbeat, perfectly crafted (and performed) narrative pop tune with facile, witty lyrics nicely supporting the song.   Lennon dismissed the work as more of McCartney’s “granny” music, but the work, like Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” provides the necessary lightness and contrast needed to hold together side one of Abbey Road.  “Oh, Darling” which follows, is a seriously heartfelt, blues-based ballad and  benefits from being preceded and followed by the two lighter tracks.

Whereas Ringo’s earlier composition that appeared on the White Album, “Don’t Pass Me By” was one of the simplest realization of a straightforward blues progression, his second composition, “Octopus’s Garden” is more sophisticated, possibly aided with some direction from George Harrison.   Not only does this work well with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” to bookend McCartney’s “Oh! Darling” , but it provides the contrast for the thickness and darkness of Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” which starts off as plaintive blues-rock before diving into the depths of progressive heavy metal.  It ends suddenly, providing an unambiguous and unbreachable separation between side one and side two.

Side two opens up with Harrison’s masterpiece, “Here Come’s the Sun”, by itself enough to justify having a copy of the Abbey Road album.   This is followed by Lennon’s reworking (reversal and extension) of sequence of chord progressions of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (first movement) as the core of “Because”, providing a level of reflection and sophistication that nicely sets up the unrivaled rock medley that makes the Abbey Road album an unforgettable masterpiece.  One could have taken the numbers in this medley and extended their length, falling into the trap we find on so many rock albums, where tunes are allowed to roam unchecked trespassing their natural boundaries — but by keeping each song to its minimum duration, George Martin and the Beatles maximized the musical impact to make this sixteen-minute medley the shortest sixteen minutes in the history of rock music.  The album ends with “Her Majesty” which was originally meant as part of the medley after “Mean Mr. Mustard”, but disrupted the flow and coherence, and so was intended to be left off the album altogether.  Acting under instruction not to throw anything away, one of the engineers added “Her Majesty” to the end of the master tape, after a generous length of silence.  The Beatles, when listening to the playback lacquer that also included this “added” track, liked the effect and the track ended up included as a final “hidden” track on the album, not listed originally on the LP album cover.   Growing up, I often debated with myself whether the album should have ended, predictably, with “The End”, but today, I have little doubt of the appropriateness of this unrelated coda that adds just one additional element of artistry to this overall timeless, seemingly flawless album.

Though Abbey Road was the best album from September 1969, there are others worth noting.

Laura Nyro’s dramatically intense “New York Tendaberry” was released on September 24, 1969.  Though I never caught Laura Nyro live,  this album provides me some solace as the immediacy comes about as close as a studio album can get to a real live performance.  With one strong track after another, all stylistically and compositionally individual, this is one of the best albums of September 1969.

The Band released their second studio album, self-titled “The Band”, on Sept 22, 1969. Generally country rock, music is accessible and generally good with music mainly written by guitarist Robbie Roberson, who also engineered the album.  For the most part, the lyrics are narrative and provide an historical aspect.  Particularly notable is “The Unfaithful Servant”,  with its art-song qualities.

Fleetwood Mac released their third album, Then Play On on September 19, 1969, the last Fleetwood Mac studio album with Peter Green.  The band takes advantage of the capabilities of studio recording technology for the first time, producing a strong, polished album incorporating blues, blues-based rock,  and contemporary rock numbers including Peter Green’s reflective, leisurely-paced and melancholic “Closing My Eyes”, the understated, simple and nostalgically effective, Pink-Floyd-like “When You Say”, and Peter Green’s “Rattlesnake Shake” which lyrically harkens back to those early blues records that cover taboo topics.  Notable is Peter Green’s guitar work throughout and the overall musical variety provided by contributions from all four band members.  The UK initial release was a relatively lengthy album, and the US version dropped two tracks.  The Rhino Deluxe CD edition includes not only the two omitted tracks, but Peter Green’s 1970 masterpiece, “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)” — which combines elements of psychedelic rock and early progressive rock.

The Guess Who release their fifth studio album, “Canned Wheat” sometime in September 1969. This is their strongest album to date including two radio hits, “Undun” and “Laughing”  and an early, and perhaps superior version, of “No Time” with a ear-awakening microtonal introduction.

Man releases the wittily titled 2 ozs of Plastic with a Hole in the Middle.  The album takes on a distinctly progressive tone with an incredibly strong opening instrumental track, “Prelude/The Storm”, solid evidence at how effective could the band could be at crafting and shaping larger musical statements.   Though the remaining album does not stay at this lofty level (the next track is more standard blues-rock and elements of blues and psychedelic rock dominant side two), it has its moments.

While Fleetwood Mac was able to get away with a suggestive album title and Peter Green’s more overt “Rattlesnake Shake”, an unambiguous song about male self-pleasuring, Man had some corporate censorship imposed.  Their label, perhaps not too unexpectedly for 1969, found some fault with the title of the second track on the first side, “Shit on the World”, forcing the band to rename it to the more innocuous “It Is As It Must Be.”  The title of “Spunk Rock” was also targeted, but due to miscommunication at the record executive level, it was inexplicably changed to the even less inoffensive “Spunk Box.” Re-releases of the album have kept the altered titles of “Spunk Box” and “It Is As it Must Be” thus inadvertently delivering a just and lasting subtle irony.

Al Stewart was able to dodge censorship completely on Love Chronicles with one of the first uses of the present participle form of the f word on a record released by a major label (CBS Producer Clive Davis learned of its inclusion after the release or it would have been not allowed.) Released in September 1969, the album is basically a song-cycle covering male/female relationships, some of which are clearly autobiographical including the eighteen minute title track.  The musicianship is outstanding with the 1969 line-up of Fairport Convention (minus vocalist Sandy Denny) and Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin on the title track, “Love Chronicles.”

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The Nice released their third album, simply titled “Nice”, sometime in September 1969, with the album peaking to third position on the UK album charts.  The liner notes are provided, in handwritten form, by Keith Emerson. The album’s music is filled with classical and jazz references and includes Pepper Adams on baritone sax and Joe Newman on trumpet on the last track of side one, “For Example.” Emerson writes about this session in his autobiography expressing his elation at getting Pepper Adams (who was a musician on what Emerson notes was his favorite album of all time, Thelonious Monk at Town Hall.)  Side two of The Nice was recorded at the Fillmore East on April 9 and 10 of 1969 and these two particularly compelling tracks continue the trend of incorporating jazz and classical components.  The first live track,  “Rondo” is based on Brubeck’s “Rondo Alla Turk” and includes Bach references and a reference to Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The second live track is a extended and transformed rendition of Dylan’s blues number “She Belongs to me”, and includes references to Elmer Bernstein’s theme from the Magnificent Seven, Aaron Copland’s Hoedown, and more J.S. Bach.  All the diversity and wide ranging quotations are managed coherently, producing a substantial musical experience.

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