Saturday, 29 September 2007

Top 100 Albums - #64: Strange Beautiful Music (2002)

'Satch''s second and last appearance on the chart is Strange Beautiful Music, the follow-up to the experimental effort Engines Of Creation (2000). Satriani came to record Strange Beautiful Music after a very busy 1990s. After the release of The Extremist (1992) - his most critically acclaimed work - in 1993 he joined Deep Purple on their tour of Japan; he was asked to join the band permanently but declined. In 1996 he formed the 'shredding supergroup' G3, comprised of himself, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson, who toured widely and continue to do so sporadically. After the release of the neo-classical Crystal Planet (1998) and the experimental Engines Of Creation (2000), 'Satch' went on tour and released a live album of his dates in San Francisco in 2001.

Strange Beautiful Music opens with 'Oriental Melody', and it's not the best of starts. Satriani's guitar is scratchy and sounds convoluted. The piece relies way too much on the thundering bass (played by Matt Bissonette) and the drums (Jeff Campitelli) to create what is essentially an attempted fusion of art rock with a heavy metal rhythm section and oh-so fake violins. It's a bright piece, but the experimentation doesn't really work, in the same way that most of so-called 'progressive metal' is trash.

As a whole, 'Belly Dancer' is a great deal more focussed. The rhythm section give Satch the room he needs for some lovely bubbling guitar, even if the song is a little too long. For shred-heads there is a great deal of shredding in the middle section, and for those who have an ear for rhythm there is a nice rhythm guitar part which occassionally creeps up behind Satriani's swirling lead. 'Starry Night' is another step in the right direction, taking the tempo and the effects down just a notch to create a more all-rounded, distinctive sound. It's certainly a sign of focus on an album which was slated as being inconsistent and bland.¹

'Chords Of Life' was one of the big sitting ducks for the album as far as critics were concerned. Michael Gowan from wrote it off as "[a song] which at times sounds like "All Along the Watchtower" and at others resembles scale and chord exercises from [Swedish hard rock instrumentalist] Yngwie Malmsteen — not an enticing combo."² But he was sadly mistaken. This is a stupendous composition, not least because it is a a rare showcase of acoustic guitar, almost anathema on a Satriani record. Eric Caudieux's keyboards are simple but have a metallic beauty to them, and the whole piece is both memorable and beautiful, not because of pop hooks, but because of the emotion which Satriani has poured into this.

'Mind Storm' is a return to metal. This doesn't make it humdrum because Satriani resists relying on the typical deep and thundery chords which pollute the video airwaves all too often. Instead, he swings the bright, melodious chords around the loud drums and produces a big-belted rocker in the process. With 'Sleep Walk', however, the tempo is taken right down. This is the kind of song that would only play in two places: on a beach in Hawaii or driving home in an estate car at night. It's very formulaic and overdone, not to mention a waste of Robert Fripp's classic frippertronic guitars (see my review of Peter Gabriel 2, #85).

'New Last Jam' is a hook-driven rock song which oscillates between blues rock, hard rock and pop-rock. Although it can't quite decide what it is or where it's going, this doesn't really matter. It's so rhythmic and earworming that before you know it you're letting the notes flow through you without much care. 'Mountain Song' is much the same, insofar as it is based on a hooking rhythm part over which Satriani can basically go mad. There is sufficient which is different about this song to make it distinctive, but this approach shows the beginning of a pattern that was not present in the first half of the album.

'What Breaks A Heart' is again a slower number, this time rich in a bluesy rhythm guitar. This time the drums return to a greater sense of prominence, almost to compensate for the wierd theremin noises coming from Satriani's fretboard. There's some very decent shredding on this and the bass is also quite reasonable. This is also the case on the headbanger that is 'Seven String'. This is against a venture into the depths of metal and techno, and again it relies on the hooks of the rhythm to justify itself, rather then allowing itself to be reduced to 'just another song by an 80s shredder'.

'Hill Groove' is probably the strangest track, considering all thast has gone before. With the bright guitar, it has the feeling of a rocked-up single by The Beatles or The Monkees. For this reason, this is relatively banal and formulaic. Above everything else, it's incredibly repetitive, and like all 60s pop songs it's designed to drill into your head and stay there until you are driven mad enough to buy the damn single. The other major let-down, 'The Journey', is just plain directionless, a rubbish chord jam on which the drums rely too much on the symbols and the guitar is too synthy to be taken seriously.

'The Traveller' is a lot better than its predecessor, not least because Satriani has calmed down. His guitars on this piece are complimentary to the drums and bass, instead of wrestling against them. The chorus, if it is such a thing, is quite majestic, but the best part is the gentile level of restraint which Satraini applies, slamming on the brakes where anyone else would attempt to fling in another half-dozen notes.

The album closes with 'You Saved My Life', a fairly predictable but enjoyable ballad. It's hardly his most compelling piece, but it's a fitting ending to what has been an up-and-down record. This is the kind of song to play at the end of a day, just as the sun is going down. It's not that it will send you into a deep sleep, but it will calm you down sufficiently for drowsiness to take hold.

Strange Beautiful Music is a better record than Super Colossal (2006, #96) because most of the experiment pay off and come across. There are some similarities, for instance the second half is a lot more consistent - although in this case, this means that it gets very repetitive after a while. The first half is more interesting if uneven, but the main problem with the record is that it is far too long. Just as so often he tried to cram so much into less tracks, here the experiments and riffs are strung out too much. Like all Satriani records, this is not one to listen to from start to finish, certainly not in one go. But there is much to delight metal fans and shredding enthusiasts alike, and that is enough to justify its inclusion in the chart.


¹ Michael Gowan, 'Strange Beautiful Music', Accessed on October 9 2007.

² Ibid.

3.79 out of 5

Monday, 17 September 2007

Top 100 Albums - #65: Tubular Bells II (1992)

Mike Oldfield's only chart appearance comes in the form of Tubular Bells II, the updated and revised version of his most famous work, Tubular Bells (1973).
After Tubular Bells became a sensation upon its release in 1973, Oldfield retreated from the public eye, shunning calls for him to tour the project and collaborate with other artists. He spent the remainder of the 1970s creating a series of soundscape albums in a similar format - two long instrumentals, one for each side of the vinyl record. All these efforts, from Hergest Ridge (1974) to Platinum (1979), failed to replicate the critical and commercial success of his breakthrough, although Hergest Ridge briefly went to No. 1 in the UK. In the 1980s Oldfield charged for the mainstream with a series of poppier albums. Some of his efforts - like Crises (1983) - were more than reasonable; others - like 'Shine', his collaboration with Jon Anderson - were vile. After the release of Heaven's Open (1991), Oldfield left Virgin and returned to his New Age roots.

This new version of his masterpiece is divided into 14 parts instead of 2 halves - 'songs' doesn't really do the piece justice as a means of description. 'Sentinel' begins with some sweet, deceptive pinao; but before long this gives way to the familiar sequence which provided the theme for The Exorcist. Gradually this unfolds, bringing in Oldfield's familiar, mournful guitars, played with his perfected picking method of using his nails. From then on the piece rises and rises, from the spooky female vocals to the brooding bass lines. This is an absolute classic in every sense, a masterpiece of atmosphere and a brilliant way to open the album.

'Dark Star' may fall short in direct comparison, taken on its own terms this is still a great piece. At 2:16, it's a lot shorter, but it has a different feel. While 'Sentinel' was mournful, melancholy and breathtakingly sombre, this is rocking, aggressive and jagged at the edges. After some great guitar-duelling - between acoustic and electric - the melody gives way to some monumental keyboards, which are played so low that they are close to being terrifying. This is even better when they are juxtaposed by Oldfield's trebled, tender guitar.

'Clear Light' changes the tone once more, changing the emphasis to classical guitar and piano. When counterpointed by heavy bass, we achieve something very strange but alluring. As the piece develops, the female vocals return and the whole thing becomes a little more angelic. The biggest addition here, though, is the bright horn section, wich rears its head just before the piece deliberately collapses (in a good way) into a beautiful guitar solo backed with synthesised pan-pipes. And, as if this wasn't enough, we get the first glimpse of the title instrument as well.

With 'Blue Saloon', we are subjected (or treated, as the case may be) to a much darker, more startling sound. Mike Oldfield created Tubular Bells as a kind of fantasy world into which he could escape. As such it is entirely possible that the music will reflect his psyche, laced as it is with depression, panic attacks and feelings of loneliness. This is a piece void of the angelic guitars or female choirs of previous movements. This is edgy, complete with a pounding heartbeat bass line and a keyboard sequence which will send chills down your spine. Sure, the guitars are here, but they're muted and suppressed by the dark, cold background of the piece.

Thankfully, before long the cold steel walls are stripped away with the bright piano and jaunty guitars of 'Sunjammer'. This really is a record to enjoy in stereo; only then can you get the pleasure of the guitars dancing off each other with the keyboard murmuring in the background. This is an unlikely candidate for an air guitar competition, but there are enough hooks here to make any mute roll around and improvise at will.

Having showered the record thus far with all this praise and adoration, we hit a pebble in the sand with 'Red Dawn'. In contrast to the precise, meticulous nature of the last five moments, this is rather aimless and subdued. The female vocals on this occassion are just plain off-putting, and the guitar part at the end sounds like it is being played by a three-year-old with only one finger.

But all is not lost, for now we come to 'The Bell'. This piece closes the first half of the record, and consists of different instruments being brought in one by one, playing the same little phrase in their idiosyncratic tones. This time around, the narrator is the guttural ctor Alan Rickman as opposed to Vivian Stanshall, founder member of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (incidentally, this could be described as a more serious version of 'The Intro And The Outro' from Gorilla (1967)). Some of the instruments are a little obscure (what is 'The Venetian Effect'?) and the vocal chords sound fake, but despite these this is a piece of unmistakeable grandeur, which, considering its inate simplicity, is both ironic and a compliment to Oldfield's skill as a composer.

'Weightless' is another let-down, a repetitive and rather formulaic composition which relies too much on electronic noise to qualify as a good movement. It's certainly not the best way to kick off the second half of the record. The panpipes on this are good, but overall it's way too mellow to drag you kicking and screaming back into the album in the way that 'Sentinel' got your attention. 'The Great Plain' is a lot better. With its folk guitars, country-ish banjos and shrill, siren-like pipes, it's a more focussed and in-depth piece. It has some wonderful sequences which flash out of the mix - for instance, the 8-bar repeating phrase from 3:11 to 3:27 has a certain magic about it which makes it a delightful listen.

'Sunset Door' is heavily reliant on pipes. While on paper this may seem like an acquired taste, in reality it's a relatively pleasant little interlude. At only 2:23 long, that is all it could serve as and all that it is designed to be. The reason being is that it must soon give way to the mighty 'Tattoo'. Even I, as a non-bagpipe fan, found this intriguing. It's a looping march, but unlike a lot of loops - which appear to not go anywhere - this has a clear sense of direction. The combination of bagpipes and Oldfield's guitar is compelling - perhaps he is using an e-bow, creating the 'bagpipe guitar' sound as mastered by Big Country(?!). Regardless of this, this is the third of the great 'tracks' on this album.

It's a real shame, then, that the album becomes so fickle hereon in. 'Altered State' is rubbish, simple as. It fells clunky, the vocals are extremely off-putting and it appears to have little overall place and purpose on the record. The only thing preventing this from being a complete disaster are the interludes which appear to have lifted straight out of a world music record. But that is not enough to save this travesty of a track.

'Maya Gold' is a good recovery from this, shrinking the album back down to its sad-tinged beginnings. It's more minimalism, relaxed and downcast, all of which works to it advantage. For the trained ear, there is some lovely soft organ parts hidden underneath the guitars. For the untrained ear, there is more than enough to enjoy though. But the same cannot be said for the closer. 'Moonshine' is lifted straight out of country and western music: as such it grates the nerves, is void of any real substance and - worst of all - it's really hard not to get up and dance, however abominable that may be. It's a hillbilly track, which brings the album to a terrible grinding halt.

At the time of its release, Tubular Bells II was attacked by critics as a sign that Oldfield was running out of steam, retreading old ground and become a slave to his own obssessions. This is certainly true for his subsequent... 'revisions', like Tubular Bells III (1998) and Tubular Bells 2003 (2003). But Tubular Bells II, for all its faults, has one big advantage over the original. That is its division into shorter tracks. Whereas subsequent editions trivialised the music by playing around with the timings of the tracks, on this occassion it makes it easier for new fans to discover his music and his genius. Younger listeners who associate 25-minute pieces with the more pretentious side of prog rock (ELP-style) may warm to this a lot more than the original, at least at first. The greatest asset of Tubular Bells II is not the respect it pays to the original, but the way in which it is put together and presented as a more accessible way into one of music's great enigmas.

3.79 out of 5

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Top 100 Albums - #66: Frampton Comes Alive! (1976)

Peter Frampton makes his only chart appearance at number 66, with the live album that launched his career as an "arena rocker".A musical prodigy from the age of 7, self-taught guitarist and pianist Peter Frampton began his professional music career in 1966, when he became the lead guitarist and singer for The Herd, scoring a series of minor hits in the late-1960s. In 1969, 'the Face of '68' joined forces with former Small Faces guitarist and singer Steve Marriott, forming Humble Pie. It was during this period that was introducing to the 'talkbox' effect on guitar which would become his signature sound. After two years playing second fiddle to Marriott, he left to start a solo career just as Humble Pie scored their biggest US hit, 'Rockin' The Fillmore'. But despite favourable reviews for albums like Wind Of Change (1972) and Frampton's Camel (1973), mainstream success still eluded him.

Frampton Comes Alive! is the live album resulting from recordings of the 1975 tour of the States, largely culled from the concert at San Francisco. After introducing our hero as "an honorary member of L.A. society", it begins with the rip-roaring rocker that is 'Something's Happening'. Taken from the album of the same name, this is an ideal opener thanks to the precise and aggresive drumming of John Siomos. Overlay this with the guitar playing of Frampton and Bob Mayo and you have a cracking song. You sense from the start that Frampton is in his absolute element. All the timidity of his studio recordings is out the window, and the result is just plain great.

With 'Doobie Wah', Frampton gets more funky (by his own admission). The relatively softly-softly opening allows Stanley Sheldon's run-of-the-mill bass playing to creep out of the speakers. This is a lot more laid-back, with Siomos focussing on the ride and snare than the tom-toms. Frampton crests the heights with his attractive vocal delivery; and on the guitar he is given plenty of room for his riffs to settle. It's not the memorable song he's ever produced, but the sound is definitely there - even if the ending comes a little too soon.

If memorable lyrics were the problem on the last song, that is not the case on the live staple, 'Show Me The Way'. This song from Frampton (1974) finds the band in a perfect mellow balance, and the first glimpse (so to speak) of the famous talkbox. The chorus is classic Frampton modified blues: I want you to show me the way/ I want you to show me the way/ I want you day after day. Overall this mellow rock ballad is a little too laid back for many arena rockers' tastes; on the other hand, the band does not display any feelings of complacency which tend to emerge on such numbers under less control circumstances.

'It's A Plain Shame' is "an oldie, but goodie" with a proper head-banging rock riff, perfectly executed by Frampton. It's a number with a riff straight out of the late-1950s, played with all the bravado of men in long hair playing Les Pauls. Again, Sheldon is pushed into the shade as Frampton and Mayo jump into the quiet area with high-pitched solos. The chorus is catchy in its simplicity, a feeling echoed in lines like She'd like to taste me/ She'd like to waste me - it's so simple it's obviously going to work.

Taken from Wind Of Change, 'All I Wanna Be (Is By Your Side)' is the first acoustic number on the album. It's a love song, much in the same vein as 'Baby, I Love Your Way'. But there is a question of why Frampton chose acoustic for a song which would have sounded a little better with electric. On the album, sure, acoustic skills are welcome, but Frampton is not a folk singer and so cannot carry off unplugged stuff as well. Just be thankful that it's a good song. Sadly, the next one isn't. The title track of Wind Of Change is the first turkey of the album. It's acoustic again, but this time it sounds like Frampton is trying to be Dylan with the least amount of success. It's a soulless song designed only to buy time in the set - perhaps to recharge the talkbox?

'Baby, I Love Your Way' is still acoustic, but thankfully the rhythm section has woken up from its slumber. Siomos adds a lovely samba touch into the mix, while Sheldon played some beautiful harmonies over Frampton's melodies, in a manner reminiscent of a less pretentious Chris Squire. Where Mayo does feel brave enough to step forward, his backing vocals blend in well, so that you almost don't know that he's there. This is a love song from the 1970s that comes without any of the shtick or faux-macho pomposity of an Enkelbert Humperdinck or Tom Jones.

In a parallel of Frampton's career, no sooner has he got it so right, than he goes and gets it so very, very wrong. Both the next two tracks are rubbish efforts, both on their albums and on the stage. 'I Wanna Go To The Sun' is an instantly forgettable funk rip-off which meanders along and down dale with little real substance. There is no substance to this repetitive mishmish of influences, and is one to skip over. 'Penny For Your Thoughts' is pure 1970s self-indulgence. It's an instrumental (bad move) on acoustic (very bad move). Like a lot of arena rockers, these pieces were designed to prove to the audience that electric guitarist could still play acoustic well, without any reliance on effects. But like the rest of them, this sounds like a cross between an ELP record and the music being piped in a touristy Greek restaurant.

Having been stupid enough to sit through this, we come to the really good stuff. And it was worth it. '(I'll Give You) Money' is from Frampton and opens with a brilliant sequence from Siomos on tom-toms and bass drums. The opening lines are priceless: I'll give you money/ I'll give you loving/ I'll give you everything/ Except heaven opening. And while this is too complex to be a proper headbanger, the sound is great. The crowd is louder, the drums are more prominent, the guitar is edgier - everything falls into place. You'd almost think it was a different gig...

'Shine On' is mellower, but only just. Complete with a catchy riff and organ (Mayo), this is yet another one to shuffle to slowly and gently with little care for the meaning of the song. Siomos' cymbals sound notoriously tinny on this track, like something from an early-1960s pop record. Listen carefully and Sheldon will creep into with his melodious bass lines. 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' is a cover - obviously. But this is actually a massive improvement - especially for those who didn't like the original. Die-hard Stones fans will cry sacrilege, but Frampton has done a great service by stripping away Charlie Watts' monotonous timekeeping, jazzifying it with a lovely instrumental section. He can sing better than Mick Jagger, too.

'Lines On My Face' is lifted out of Frampton's Camel and has a more mournful edge to it, with the kind of sound in the opening that Snowy White would borrow in the early-1980s. It's a power ballad with the volume turned down abouty missed opportunity for love. Frampton's voice is quivering slightly, giving the impression that this is intensely personal. It may well be about his first wife, Mary Lovett, whom he divorced in 1973, the year the album came out. It's a deeply personal, well-rounded little number.

As it turns out, we are rewarded for our patience. If you must listen to only one track on this album, for the good of the world, make it 'Do You Feel Like We Do'. It's the longest, clocking in at 14:17, but it's absolutely majestic. From the first six notes from Frampton's guitar, the place is alive with excitement because everyone knows what's coming next. It's solid lyrically, the chorus is simple but effective, and the musicianship is great. But best of all is the long gap left after 3:53. After a pretty reasonable keyboard solo by Bob Mayo, we wait with baited breath for that moment. When the talkbox arrives, the euphoria comes and you sink into a sense of deep satisfaction which is most particular to rock'n'roll.

On all counts, Frampton Comes Alive! would not seem like a worthy rival to Live At Leeds (#68). Judged on the same criteria it comes across as a poor relation. The sound is so polished that all the live energy is dissipated; the lyrics are forgettable; the crowd are almost shoved aside instead of becoming part of the sound; and the musicianship is above average, hardly giving the impression of people at the top of their game. But to view this album through such a narrow prism is to do it a disservice. The real charm of Frampton Comes Alive! is the culmination of Frampton's best work into the arena that suited it best. It is the ideal starting point of an examination of his career, where other live albums are issued to buy time. It's not Live At Leeds, but in the mid-1970s it was the closest that discerning fans would get without selling their soul to punk.

3.79 out of 5

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Top 100 Albums - #67: Procol Harum - The Collection (1985)

Prog rock godfathers Procol Harum makes their only chart appearance in the form of a greatest hits compilation, released between the end of the original band in 1977 and its reformation in 1991.

Procol Harum formed in 1967 and comprised of vocalist Gary Brooker, lyricist Keith Reid, guitarist David Trower, bassist David Knights, organist Matthew Fisher, and drummer B. J. Wilson. The band would have a constantly fluctuating line-up, not least with the departure of Fisher in 1969. The band scored a massive hit with 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale', which went to No. 1 in June 1967 and stayed their for six weeks. Their subsequent singles fared less well, as did their self-titled debut album. But albums like A Salty Dog (1969) and Grand Hotel (1973) received critical acclaim and kept them somewhat in the public eye, as least where their fans were concerned. But as the 1970s wore on and the prog movement they helped to found died in the face of punk, the band's reviews crumbled and they called it a day in 1977.

Any compilation has to start with 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale'. And why not? There is a reason why this song has often been voted one of the greatest ever written. It's not as rocking as 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and not as mystical as 'Stairway To Heaven' (supposedly - see past posts on Led Zeppelin IV). But it has a deep emotional quality to it, a resonance that cannot be explained. Fisher's organ washes over Wilson's dynamic drumming, creating the tragedian atmosphere over which Brooker croons his melancholy lines. Like Robert Plant on 'Stairway To Heaven', Reid's lyrics are left open to multiple interpretations: there is a general consensus (it is about tripping on acid from the point of view of the tripper), but there are outside chances too (e.g. it is about the Titanic). It's a song that was way ahead of its time, and perhaps it is that which makes it so endearing.

'Homburg', from 1967, combines the proto-prog influences of the last track and adds some more disticntly psychedelic lyrics into the mix. While Reid's offering on 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' were bizarre and mystical, here they are straightforwardly English. The chorus - Your trousers cuffs are dirty/ And you shoes are laced up wrong/ You better take off your Homburg/ 'Cos your overcoat is too long - sounds like the kind of line which Syd Barrett would have come up with. Melancholy remains in the form of Brooker, but this is lifted by the presence of an active bass line, courtesy of Knights.

'A Salty Dog', the title track of their 1969 album, opens to the sound of seagulls and minor chords on violins. Again, it's a song steeped in melancholy; again, it's a showcase for Brooker's delivery and Wilson's drums; and again, it's not the easiest thing to listen to lyrically. But this is different from the previous tracks. This is a mood piece, swelling and succinct, which abandons the structure of the first two albums to create something which is truly moving to all but the most Stoical ear. Prog fans will lap this up.

With 'Whaling Stories', we are treated to more of a classic rock style - chiefly because this is taken from Home (1970), the first album without Fisher and thus without organs. The stylish opening features some lovely interplay between Brooker's piano playing and Trower's guitar. From then on it, it gets a bit meandering, but unlike a lot of prog-era records released from hereon in, this is meandering with a purpose. It's a jam, but one which adds texture to the piece and creates an atmosphere, rather than serving as a self-indulgent exercise in improvisation, ELP-style.

'Quite Rightly So' and 'Shine On Brightly' return to the Fisher era; the former quite dramatically. This is an organ heavy piece, which sounds like a dignified version of a Yes song mixed up with bits of Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles. As on a lot of Procol recordings, the production feels distant, perhaps because of the constraints with technology, perhaps out of a desire to appeal to the tripping generation. 'Shine On Brightly', the title track from their 1968 record, sounds even more like a Beatles record; Brooker's delivery and the trippy feeling reminds one of 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'. The lyrics are oblique and forgettable, but it's pleasant enough without them.

Having gone backwards in time, we then rush forward to 1973 and 'Grand Hotel'. For such an orchestral piece, this is surprisingly catchy. The opening lines are quite intriguing in a quaintly inexplicable: ask someone to explain why Tonight we sleep on silken sheets/ We drink fine wines and eat rare meats is so endearing, and they cannot put it into words. And neither can I. While on Home (1970) Reid's insistence on rhyming let him down, here it produces something... well, indescribable. And the changes in time signature - the waltz section in the middle, for instance - work very well to boot.

The first real slip-up comes from 'Bringing Home The Bacon'. For all the rock piano of Brooker, it is clear that from the outset this is a showcase for Wilson and his taste for rhythm. But while Wilson is not self-indulgent like Carl Palmer, his dynamism is best suited to unpredictable fills within tightly organised songs - not unlike his exact contemporary, Keith Moon. This miscalculated emphasis on the drums turns the whole thing into a ham-fisted jam which puts a damper on the rest of their repetoire.

The better and rockier 'Toujours L'Amour' has more of an R&B feel to it, a reflection of Brooker's former outfit The Paramounts who received the backing of the Rolling Stones. It's an acerbic song about love and lost, which features new guitarist Mick Grabham. He provides the foil to both Brooker and the bass guitar, played with an ominous touch by Alan Cartwright. Reid is on top form with lines like She took all the pleasure, and none of the pain/ She took all the credit, and none of the blame.

'Broken Barricades' is the title track from Trower's last album with the band. It features a hooky synthesiser track which paints Wilson into a corner but allows Brooker the room he needs. It has a distinctly pop feel to it, complete with the break in the middle before Wilson is given a chance to breathe. But before one can appreciate it fully, it gives way to an ill-sounding live recording of 'Conquistador'. Taken from the band's 1972 live recording with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (oh, prestigious!), it's an example of Brooker at his most ornate and, as a result, most off-putting.

The slump continues with 'Nothing But The Truth'. The flaw here is that this is just plain annoying from start to finish. Brooker's delivery succumbs to the temptations of the long notes, turning his melancholy into a pop-rocker's drawl. Taken from Exotic Birds And Fruit (1974), this is bouncy but irritating, the kind of summer song which is instantly forgotten by the time September is through. The violins and grandiose production cannot save this turkey, anymore than they can with 'Butterfly Boys'. Despite Wilson's attractive drumming and the nice piano, this feel empty and is instantly forgettable. Reid's lyrics in particular fails to convey any of his fascinations with sin and redemption - the many mentions of 'savages' go straight over one's head i nthe face of a self-parodying guitar solo.

And so, the closer - for want of a better term. 'Pandora's Box' is an attempt, at least, to return to the glory days. And to be honest, it doesn't do too badly. The sound is familiar, perhaps; on the other hand, this could be seen as a reflection of all the motifs which made the band such a hit. There are hints of other prog acts in here - the flutes from early Genesis, for instance - along with later influence, like the wierd interference-sounding synthesiser later to be employed by The Stranglers.

Procol Harum became famous almost by accident and as such never reached the dizzying heights of success enjoyed by their contemporaries. On the other hand, it is highly unfair to write them off as a one-hit wonder - or one-trick pony, for that matter. Sure, both commercially and critically, the band never matched 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale'. But that is no reason to dismiss them as the predecessors to the one-hit wonders of the X-Factor kind. This compilation, like others, is good not because of its choice of songs - after the hit years it's a question of who's still listening. This is good because it lays the one-hit wonder myth to rest. And that is enough to lead to a full rehabilitation of this heavily underrated band.

3.79 out of 5

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Top 100 Albums - #68: Live At Leeds (1970)

Number 68 sees the entrance of The Who onto our chart, with Live At Leeds, widely considered the greatest live album of all time.After spending four years recording and touring, The Who finally cracked America with Tommy (1969), the first 'rock opera' about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes famous through playing pinball and starts his own religion to enlighten those of his generation. Having set the bar high in the studio, The Who spent the remainder of 1969 on a world tour, conducted almost as proof that The Who could still wow live audiences even with such ambitious and complicated material. But upon returning to England and going through the tapes of the live recordings, Pete Townshend was not satisfied to release any of them as or as part of a live album. So, on Valentine's Day, 1970, the band played at Leeds University Refectory and recorded the results in a mobile studio (a van parked down an empty street, to be precise).

Being the 1995 remaster, this version includes all the banter and gaps between songs phased out the original. So the first sound is that of the audience applauding, following by Keith Moon and John Entwistle tuning up. But all such matters aside, we kick off. The opening to 'Heaven And Hell' can only be described as blistering. Rick Wakeman likened it to a sledgehammer¹ - and he wasn't far off. From the first power chord to the beginning of Entwistle on vocals, you are flung backwards into your chair by about 3 feet, if you play it loud enough. Moon plays at his best, so quick that you can't keep up and yet so easy to comprehend. Sure, Entwistle is not the best vocalist - his rhotacism does become noticeable after round and round. On the other hand, we are treated to Townshend's glorious shredding, and the whole thing is just plain powerful.

Having started with a B-side, the band follow straight through into 'I Can't Explain', their first single as The Who. Released in 1964 at the height of the mod movement, here it is presented without the glossy production of the single. Roger Daltrey's voice is louder, angrier and a lot more powerful - a sure sign that he has started to find the voice needed to express Townshend's songs which the early singles lacked. Moon is completely let loose, hitting his crash cymbal and hammering down the tom-toms at every conceivable opportunity. It's quite faithful to the original, and yet it does this while sounding absolutely nothing like it.

The next two songs, 'Fortune Teller' by Benny Spellman and 'Tattoo' by Townshend, are segued together. 'Fortune Teller' is a little disjunctive. The pace and style of the song doesn't suit Daltrey's voice as much as it would Townshend's or even Entwistle's. The time signature change before the final verse is clumsy and the song itself is quite middle-of-the-road - so it's easy to see why The Rolling Stones covered it. 'Tattoo' is better because it shares the vocals out between Daltrey and Townshend according to range. It's also littered with the sense of humour characteristic of Entwistle's work, like 'Boris The Spider'. Just look at the third verse: My Dad beat me, 'cos mine said 'Mother'/ But my Mother naturally liked it, and beat my brother/ 'Cos his tattoo was of a lady in the nude/ And she throught that was mighty rude.

Mose Allison's 'Young Man Blues' became a fixture of The Who's live setlist up to Quadrophenia (1973), partially thanks to this performance (for cultists, a different version exists on the deluxe version of Who's Next (1971)). Here we see Keith Moon in riotous form, both with his drumming and his banter on-stage with Townshend. The song is an ideal showcase for Daltrey's bluster, and the opening sees the perfect combination of Townshend and Entwistle in question-and-answer riffs, which come out beautifully in stereo.

Following this, we are treated to three of The Who's best known singles. In introducing them, Townshend is nicely self-deprecating about their performance in the charts - The Who are probably the most successful band never to have had a No. 1 single. Although a truncated version, 'Substitute' benefits greatly from the turned-up bass, and Townshend's guitar sounds much brighter than the jangly mod version released as a single. 'Happy Jack', taken from A Quick One (1966), is too kooky and strange to pass muster live, and the audience all seem to agree. And 'I'm A Boy' works just as well live as on record, even if on this occassion Townshend seems a little stretched or nasal for many's liking.

The next 'song' is the strangest article on the album. 'A Quick One, While He's Away', again from A Quick One, is a mini-rock opera about a girl guide being seduced by an old engine driver - as Townshend describes it, "it's one of those social comment... things." This begins well, as Townshend speaks to the audience and Moon interjects your expectation rise by their reactions. But then the bubble bursts, first as the band go barbershop and then venture into the convoluted sequence of songs. Townshend's other attempts at rock opera - Tommy, Quadrophenia and Wire and Glass, which takes up the second half of Endless Wire (2006) - are given room to develop and evolve, producing magic. This is squashed and compressed beyond recognition; the fact that Pete has to explain the story to the crowd before subjecting them to the mediocre music can hardly be a good sign.

We then jump forward quite a bit. 'Amazing Journey/ Sparks' is taken from a performance of Tommy in its near-entirely which came after 'A Quick One, While He's Away' (this can be found on the double disc deluxe edition from 2001). While this musical jump is more than obvious enough to annoy you, the quality of the performance - Moon especially - leaves you feeling much more well-disposed towards the track. Even those who aren't Tommy fans will agree that this stands well on its own. And at least it's somewhat in the right place - on the 2001 version, all the Tommy tracks are bunged onto a second disc, rather defeating the point of a live record.

'Summertime Blues' by Eddie Cochran is a great rocker to restore tempo after the relative introspection of Tommy. Entwistle is given a lot of room on this song, both on his bass and the supporting vocals. Daltrey is his usual brilliant, youthful self, playing off Keith so well as he would do on Who's Next. 'Shaking All Over' is another classic rock'n'roll song, which, if done by anyone else, would sound hopelessly passé. There is just something this version which redeems it. Maybe it's Daltrey's screeching delivery, maybe it's Moon's powerful drumming, maybe it's the interplay between Townshend and Entwistle - who knows?

Who fans who prefer their output from the 1970s may choose to skip over 'My Generation'. But even those who are tired of that anthem should give this a second look. Clocking in at 14:52, this is not simply an extended version of the song like 'I Can't Explain' was - now that would be a turn-off. Instead, this is a medley of sorts. After a great version of a great anthem ends at 1:47, we are treated to some aggressive instrumentalism before plunging into the 'See Me, Feel Me' section from 'We're Not Gonna Take It' (Tommy). Then 'Naked Eye', followed by random improvising over riffs from 'Overture' and what sounds like an early version of 'Relay'. It's a labyrinth of leitmotifs and half-songs which takes time and patience to unravel, but it's worth it.

The album, if not the concert, finishes with 'Magic Bus'. Taken from the live album of the same time - released in 1968 - this is a much better version. The slightly kooky percussion is still there, but it sounds more well-rounded live. Townshend's echoey guitar is glorious over Moon's efforts and Daltrey is in much better shape. It is fair to assume that Entwistle was not happy here - he always complained of playing this song because it only featured one or two chords (while he preferred half a dozen a second). For the keen listener, listen to Moon's ending on the drums - it's uncanny similar to that of 'Rock And Roll' off Led Zeppelin IV (1971) - QED...

Live albums are always difficult to judge, especially against the rest of a band's repertoire. With The Who, it's reputation precedes it even more by the members' admission that they could never capture their live energy on record, at least not completely. As it stands, Live At Leeds is a fascinating record, a time capsule into a band in its prime between two of the most original albums in rock history. It's not just an album, it's an historical reference point, the dawn of the age of rock music for real after the end of the hippie movement which had prolongued psychedelic music long after its death. The only problems with Live At Leeds are that, as a fan, it features too many covers (the original 6-track version had only 3 originals on it) and it focusses too much on the singles which, when compared to subsequent output, don't justify The Who's reputation as fully as it might have been. Nonetheless, it's a marvellous record to have which, even after 37 years, still has that sledgehammer power.

3.79 out of 5

¹ 'The Who Live At Leeds 2 - BBC Look North', Accessed on September 3 2007.