Pazz and Jop 1974 #3

Randy Newman – Good Old Boys

There is nothing at stake here, so I can be brutally honest: this album is sort of boring.

There’s a difficulty at the heart of all of Randy Newman’s work: he writes (mostly) great songs that he then, unfor­tunately, chooses to perform himself, often with little more than his own piano-playing as an accompaniment. His observational lyrics (gently skewered by “Family Guy”) force you to pay attention, but rarely does the music part of the song do the same.

The early part of the album has a sluggish ragtime feel, as if each track should be playing over a sepia-toned title card in a black-and-white silent movie. It’s a fitting style, as much of the lyrical content deals with an ironic longing for the American south of the pre-civil rights era (with some pointed smartassery about northern hypocrisy), but ragtime itself has more variety than these tunes. There are odd moments of excitement that slip in – a country echo in “Birmingham”, the hint of a tropical feel in “Naked Man”, sneaky southern rock forays in bits of “Kingfish” and “Back on My Feet Again” – but these really just highlight the sameness of the rest. Even those clever lyrics become a problem: unless you already understand this going in, it can be challenging to get Newman’s point of view when almost everything is sung sarcastically.

The record is not without its moments. “Marie” is a delicate love song from an unworthy lover, and “Every Man A King” (co-written by Huey Long, the subject of “Kingfish”) is a snappy honkytonk ditty with a rich chorus from Eagles on a daycation. But in its entirety, the album left me with little compelling reason to listen to it again, since, unlike the very best music, I have no expectation of being surprised or brought to joy on any future play. Which is fine – there are lots of records that do that for me already.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #2

Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic

The word that always comes to mind when I listen to Steely Dan is “lush”. The music is complex and perfectly played, the lyrics clever and insightful. Listening, you can’t help but feel a bit more elevated than with the usual pop, with all its messy emotion and histrionics. It can feel downright extravagant to allow yourself to wallow in these songs. It’s music for a concert hall, not a bar or repurposed hockey arena or ballpark.

Yet, for all the richness, it somehow manages to be understated at the same time. Donald Fagen never once seems caught up in what he’s singing about – he is simply the reporter of others’ misadventures, calmly giving you the details. Is it wrong to want something else from them? I know Steely Dan isn’t that kind of band – and I love them for it – but can anything so absent of danger properly be considered rock ‘n’ roll? They seem more of a jazz ensemble playing within the pop idiom, which sounds great, but without the unpredictability that can make jazz so exciting to listen to, there is nothing here to get the heart racing.

To an untrained ear, which definitely includes my pair, it all sort of sounds the same – other than the hits, with their built-in goodwill, very little jumps out and makes you take notice. The band definitely play with genre – the mild salsa feel early in “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”, the funky guitar of “Night by Night”, the bluesy beat of “Pretzel Logic”, the rollicking hillbilly vibe of “With A Gun” (my favourite song on the record) – but it almost always ends up sublimated to the Steely Dan sound. The one strong exception is the goofy old timey feel of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”, which would benefit from being a bit ragged – perfectly played, it has a sort of pointless wonderment to it.

In the end, for all its beauty, I felt unmoved by the seemingly effortless cool of “Pretzel Logic”. It is high end background music, the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon spent doing the laundry, or for when you’re stuck waiting to see a doctor and the magazines are all out of date. Certainly not what the band was aiming for, but worthy nonetheless – we all have unavoidable tasks to get through and they are made more palatable by a pleasing soundtrack.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #1

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark

It’s not a good time to be saying anything less than glowing about Joni Mitchell, with her recent triumphant return to the stage. A lot of people love her music. I am not one of those people. The ones who love her are right to do so. And the rest of us are right not to.

Of course, it’s not allowed to be that simple. We struggle to understand why people don’t share our values and opinions. Is there something wrong with them? Or am I the problem? We are highly irrational about the things we love, and no better about the things we don’t. 

Somewhere, there’s a Rammstein fan asking herself why she should give a shit about some old lady. I’m not quite there, but I can’t fake caring about Joni Mitchell’s music. Oh, it isn’t absolute – there are things on “Court and Spark” that I quite like, as there were on “Blue” (“A Case of You” still gives me chills) and the less-heralded “For the Roses” and “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”. But, for the most part, I have resisted the mighty weight of the Joni Mitchell Critical Complex.

When you read or talk about music, you will run into lots of people telling you that you’re wrong about something like this. They will explain patiently, as if speaking to a well-behaved child, why you are wrong: her intimate confessional lyrics, her melodies, her novel vocal style, her experiments with jazz. None of this is incorrect, but it misses the point. I don’t care how “great” she is, because I don’t care about the sounds she’s making. And if you don’t get enjoyment from what you’re listening to, why are you even listening to it? For all her greatness, give me something I enjoy. This isn’t broccoli, or cardio, or meditation, or any other thing I do (haphazardly) because it’s good for me. Give me cuddlecore, bedroom pop, emo. Give me my 50th play of “Welcome Interstate Managers”, my 100th play of “The Stranger”, my 250th of “My Aim is True”. But also give me artists that I had never even heard of until this very month: give me Cub, Freedy Johnston, Blake Babies, Leo Nocentelli, Leikeli 47, Hollie Cook. I hope you’ll check them out, but I won’t argue if they don’t do it for you. Just don’t tell me why I’m wrong to not love Joni.

Even some of the reasons given for why she is great don’t sit right with me. Does the personal nature of her lyrics make them better than less personal work? “My Sweet Annette” by Drive-By Truckers never fails to move me (pedal steel guitar is one of the most mournful instruments ever invented, and if you pair it with fiddle, I am pretty much done for), and that story absolutely did not happen to the writer. Artists make the personal universal and the universal personal: neither is intrinsically better than the other.

Or her voice. Yes, it’s distinctive, and you would know it anywhere. But what are you to do if you find it so displeasing that it distracts you from the song? This is sometimes what I experience with her work.

Often what I like in her music are the things that seem less like what I expected to hear. The shambling southern rock feel of much of the guitar work in “Free Man in Paris” (which I have been spontaneously singing over the past week). The boogie-woogie rhythms of “Raised on Robbery”. The minimalist funk of “Trouble Child”. The madcap silliness of “Twisted”. There are pleasant smooth jazz-adjacent moments throughout the record, and from what I know of her subsequent career, it turned out to be a sandbox that she quite enjoyed playing in.

“Court and Spark” is a perfectly fine pop record: I just don’t hear whatever it was that made critics decide it was the best album of its year, and I could listen to it one hundred times and probably never hear it. Luckily, I don’t have to: there’s always another play of “Purple Rain” waiting for me if I run out of ideas about what to put on next.

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #20

Jethro Tull – Aqualung

We end our journey through 1971 with this, umm, classic. It’s hard to be objective about Jethro Tull: everything about them cries out pretension, from the name (taken from an agriculturist who died in 1741) to the prominence of flute in their music to the image I have never been able to clear from my memory banks of Ian Anderson in tights looking like a demented Pan. The whole thing is ripe for parody, and maybe that’s part of the problem: I’ve seen too many things over the years making fun of Tull-like bands to take the real thing very seriously.

But the real problem is that it simply isn’t very memorable. As I listened to this for a second time, I couldn’t think of anything to say about it. I don’t really dislike any of this, but that’s because I don’t have much of a reaction to it at all. Yeah, the flute is unique for a rock record, there are some lovely piano bits, the guitar definitely rocks, and I give a shit about almost none of it. I can imagine lots of effort being put into interpreting the profundities found on the lyric sheet, but I can’t be bothered to try. No one track stands out enough to call it my favourite, and there is nothing here worth hating. It just is. And so 1971 ends with a whimper. That 1972 will begin with a bang is an understatement.

(I thought about leaving out the Spotify link since I can’t recommend this record, but figured that if you wanted to punish yourself, it’s not my place to get in the way.)

(Originally posted on Facebook, May 8, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #18 (tied)

Procol Harum – Broken Barricades

When you think of Procol Harum, if you think of them at all, it is of the mystical beauty of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (easily a top 100 all-time rock song, and I will wrestle to the death (or at least until we’re both really, really tired and bored) anyone who disagrees) or whatever the hell “Conquistador” is getting at. Those are pretty different tunes, and knowing nothing about the band coming into this, it did not surprise me to learn there was by 1971 an internal tension as to what they were and would become. The album is kind of schizophrenic, switching in disjointed fashion from track to track. (Track 2 practically gave me vertigo, it so differed from its predecessor.) The rockers really rock, the mellow songs are often beautiful (though not all that interesting, other than the lovely strings, horns and gentle piano of “Luskus Delph”), and none of it seems to fit together all that well. For all that each song brings, the album doesn’t feel like a big experience, but rather a collection of really nice smaller ones.

My favourites are the rocking bookends of “Simple Sister” and “Poor Mohammed”. In the former, the stretch from (roughly) 2:38 to 5:05 is awe-inspiring: starting with a simple bass riff and light drums, elements are added bit by bit to amp up the intensity, remaining grounded by the original instruments. It’s how an epic should sound. The latter is a sort of southern rocker, with possibly the only coherent lyrics on the record, though, man, they could sure use a better vocalist on this one (the lead guitarist was given the chance to, umm, shine). The lyrics on other tunes, though certainly unique and memorable, are often nonsensical (“Baby sandwich soaped for comfort”? “Your baking breath breeds body ‘x’”?). I loved the piano on the bluesy  “Memorial Drive” (a sort of honky tonk feel) and “Playmate of the Mouth” (banging away in the background), though organ, the instrument the average listener most associates with the band, is largely absent (likely because the current organist was also their bass player). Also pleasing is a sort-of percussion jam session on “Power Failure” (though I didn’t much care for the song overall, and the part I like definitely feels out of place), and there is some fantastic guitar work throughout. In the end, a band I always thought of as a one- (or maybe two-, depending on how you feel about “Conquistador”) trick pony just maybe has enough tricks to make a further dip into their catalog worthwhile.

(This is another one I listened to on YouTube, but Spotify at least has a version of my favourite track for your listening pleasure.)

(Originally posted on Facebook, May 1, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #18 (tied)

Randy Newman – Randy Newman/Live

There are prettier voices and far more virtuosic ivory ticklers, and his style is so consistent as to seem mannered and worthy of parody all these years later. So it is easy to forget what a great songwriter he is. It’s no surprise he ended up writing for the movies, given his pedigree (two of his uncles are legendary Hollywood composers) and penchant for storytelling. A lot of his songs take the perspective of someone other than himself, so you can see how not-very-bright people could get upset with a song like “Yellow Man” if you think too hard on what he’s saying and not the way he’s saying it. It would get him in trouble in 1978 with his one hit, “Short People” (one of three great humourous hits from that weird year, the others being, of course, Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Steve Martin’s “King Tut”).

That reliable style can be a bit much over a full record, so it helps that this checks in at a brisk 32 minutes over 14 tracks. All the fat has been trimmed off this album. “Tickle Me” is a delight, probably my favourite song here, and a sharp comment on a dying relationship (“You won’t have to talk to me and I won’t have to talk to you”), as is “Lonely at the Top”, which would make more sense coming from Frank Sinatra, who rejected it (Frank was not known for having a sense of humour about himself), although it would then seem pompous rather than funny. “I’ll Be Home” is beautiful, revelling in it’s simplicity (and check out Barbra Streisand’s version to get around the baggage of Newman’s voice), there is a powerful pathos to “Cowboy”, and “I Think Its Going to Rain Today” is another favourite. Newman might best be appreciated in small doses, and this is about as small as something can get and still be called an LP with any degree of honesty.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 25, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #17

Mahavishnu Orchestra – The Inner Mounting Flame

As we move down the list, some strange records start to turn up. That’s to be expected – it takes less consensus on an album’s merits to be voted the 17th best of a year as compared to anything higher ranked. Which brings me to this enormous mess of an LP. This is where my limitations as a reviewer come to full bloom, because I don’t even have the language to talk about this in a way that means anything (this will be a common refrain as we encounter anything that attaches the word “jazz” to itself), as opposed to more popular music, where I can connect it to other things I know well (like “that time when Kanye West lost his mind” (pretty much everything after “Graduation”) or “that time Garth Brooks thought growing a soul patch made him cool” (you know)).

It’s definitely an album that requires immersive and focussed listening for a newbie to make sense of: listen #1 on earbuds while walking in my neighbourhood left me confused, but listen #2 on my couch with big Bose headphones allowed me to hear more of the nuances (while still being very confused). I don’t know what this is supposed to be – it’s labelled jazz fusion, but the guitar rocks as hard as anything I’ve heard during this journey through 1971. (It makes a bit more sense now that I see Kamasi Washington, possibly the only jazz artist who I’ve ever listened to with actual intent, is also considered a jazz fusionist.) I can’t even begin to consider recommending this, because I don’t know what this is. But I will definitely listen to it again, because sometimes my need to understand something prevails over all common sense. Those who know me best will not be surprised by this.

(Also, do check out Kamasi Washington, you will not regret it (or maybe you will, I don’t know, I’m just rambling here). Start with “Harmony of Difference”, which is how I was first exposed to his brilliance.)

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 24, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 -#16

Grateful Dead – Grateful Dead (Skull & Roses)

I have aggressively resisted the Grateful Dead for pretty much as long as I’ve been aware of their existence, for two reasons. First, the passion of their fan base is anathema to my broader tastes when it comes to art. Second, I mostly just shrugged at what I did hear through passive exposure (though I owned a 45 of their 1987 hit “Touch of Grey”, I was buying just about everything that made the charts back then, and rarely played it). (Also, 45s were the worst – I don’t need (well, I do, but that’s a different conversation) to be doing interval training while listening to music.) I can’t say there’s much chance of me seeking out other of their records, but after more shrugging initially, I ended up enjoying this album. It’s odd for a live record in that you are barely aware of the presence of an audience. I couldn’t find the answer (Google, you failed me!) but it would have been on brand to ask for quiet to enhance the quality of much-encouraged bootleg recordings. 

As for the songs themselves, the five-minute eight-second long drum solo at the beginning of “The Other One” was more interesting than any five-minute eight-second long drum solo deserves to be. This turns out to be noteworthy, because the Dead had two drummers until two months before the first of these tracks was recorded, so it seems someone took the opportunity to show off. Their poppy cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” is a delight (Kristofferson was EVERYWHERE in 1971), as is their faithful rendering of “Johnny B. Goode”, and I enjoyed the original “Wharf Rat”. You definitely come away understanding how much fun it might have been to see them live – there’s no better way to listen to an 18-minute song than stoned and in the company of fellow travellers. The Dead were as much a religion as a rock band, and this seems like a pretty decent introduction to their creed.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 24, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #15

Jeff Beck Group – Rough and Ready

I don’t think I’ll remember much about this record a month from now, but it was a (mostly) fun listen while it was on. It’s a messy record, a mishmash of rock, jazz, blues and soul influences that can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be. (Or maybe that’s exactly what it wants to be.) I know of Beck as a guitar god, and my first thought when I hear mention of him is his 1985 video for “Ambitious”, with its Murderer’s Row of B- and C-list celebrities (including Donny Osmond, who channeled George Michael’s look – and an unexpected assist from Peter Gabriel – into a comeback a few years later). So, of course, there’s a lot of great guitar playing, though it sometimes seems to serve no point other than to remind you that “Holy shit, Jeff Beck can really play!” The piano and drums are what stand out mostly (the instrumental centrepiece “Max’s Tune” is a showcase for the former) and my predilection for solid bass playing is frequently rewarded, but the vocalist is just a howler without much nuance in his delivery (sort of a discount bin David Clayton-Thomas was my initial impression). The lyrics are about as unremarkable as such things can be, with not a single phrase making an impression. Taken together, we are left with a record that is pleasing to the ear without making much of a dent on the soul.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 21, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #14

Joni Mitchell – Blue

My wife does not like Joni Mitchell’s music at all. I don’t feel quite the same (I owned on cassette and enjoyed often her 1988 sort-of comeback “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”), but in deference to the love of my life, I usually skip her tunes when they come up on a Spotify playlist. The problem is her voice: there are those too frequent moments when it sounds like a small bird is being gently murdered. She can never quite shake herself of the need to aim for those higher notes, even though the sound doesn’t really change, it just feels strained. I thus came to this with a lot of resistance, though half the tracks here were familiar from long passive exposure.

The songwriting cannot be faulted. I know next-to-nothing about Mitchell and her career arc, but would be unsurprised to learn she was a favourite of desperate artsy girls and boys lying stoned in dorm rooms trying to figure their shit out. There’s a nakedness to her confessional lyrics, a leaving-it-all-out-there (Kris Kristofferson supposedly told her to “keep something to yourself”) approach to her art that should draw young aesthetes to her. “I could drink a case of you, darling, and still be on my feet” just gutted me with that sense of desperate desire for another person that we all – if we’re both lucky and cursed – have felt. (And, weirdly, the strain in her voice works for this song.) I especially liked the songs where it is Joni and her piano (except “My Old Man”, which is a microcosm of the things that can make her a difficult listen) or guitar, and when she combines those and reins in somewhat the vocal tics, the results are sublime, as in “Blue” and “River”. “Little Green” was new to me, and I love this gentle song about the daughter she gave up for adoption. In the end, while I won’t be playing this regularly – I would like to stay married, for one thing – I can see myself coming back to it, all alone and wallowing in Joni.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 18, 2021)