The Listening Post: June 2011

The sounds of summer begin.

  • Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968Stephen Stills. The title says it all. On 4/26/68, Stephen Stills crashed a Judy Collins studio session and, when it was over, bribed the engineer to stick around so he could record some demos. “Just roll tape,” he said, and then sat and played 13 songs that he’d been working on but had not yet recorded. It seems hard to believe in 2011, but back in 1968 Stephen Stills was one of rock music’s best songwriters. Floating between the dissolution of Buffalo Springfield and his hooking up with David Crosby and Graham Nash, this is Stills performing loose, ragged, acoustic versions of his new material, some of which would become rock standards. There are beautiful versions here of “Wooden Ships” (minus the verses that would be added by Paul Kantner and David Crosby), “Helplessly Hoping,” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (which sounds nearly fully formed. There are also songs that would pop up on solo albums and with Manassas. The problem with the album is its roughness. By the third song his guitar is drifting in and out of tune. All of the songs on this album are good. The problem is that the majority of them are available in far superior versions elsewhere. Why listen to a rough pass at “Black Queen” when you can get a fully realized version on the first Stills solo album? As interesting as the early version of “Wooden Ships” is, it pales in comparison to the CSN version and doesn’t belong on the same planet as the Jefferson Airplane version. Which leaves the tracks that aren’t available anywhere else. Of those, the opening “All I Know Is What You Tell Me” is the best, a great track performed beautifully. The others (“Judy,” “Dreaming Of Snakes,” “Bumblebee,” and “The Doctor Will See You Now”) are good tunes that might have been great when recorded properly and fleshed out with further instrumentation and vocals. Just Roll Tape is an interesting album to listen to a few times, but it remains nothing more than a curio for obsessive fans.
    Grade: C+
  • John, The Wolf King of L.A.John Phillips. If there is a more screwed up person in the history of popular music than John Phillips, who allegedly had an incestuous affair with his daughter that lasted for years, I can’t imagine who it could be. But while the very mention of his name is guaranteed to bring shudders of revulsion, the fact remains that the guy wrote some great music, at least until the drugs and alcohol turned him from a musician into a full-time reprobate with tons of money. Phillips’s ear for harmony and vocal arrangement may be unparalleled in rock music. The best of what he did with The Mamas and The Papas are triumphs of songwriting and arranging. When he released John, The Wolf King of L.A. in 1969 Phillips was at his peak as a songwriter. This was his first solo album and he put aside the folky stylings of The Mamas and The Papas in favor of a more country/Byrdsy sound. Wolf King was clearly influenced by the growing popularity of country music in rock circles, as shown by albums like Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Bradley’s Barn, and The Gilded Palace Of Sin. Young, stoned, and filled to the brim with talent, this was also the last music Phillips released that was worth anything. The drugs took him that quickly. But this album is a minor masterpiece of country rock from the gorgeous opener “April Ann” to the epic closer “Holland Tunnel.” The album is California to the bone with songs like “Topanga Canyon,” “Malibu People,” and “Down The Beach,” and serves as one of the cornerstones of what became both the California sound and the singer/songwriter movement in the 1970s. While it didn’t do all that well on the charts, it’s clear that people like Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt were paying close attention. Phillips isn’t as strong a singer as Papa Denny Doherty, but his rough voice fits the material well, and the instrumentation is top-notch, courtesy of studio pros like The Wrecking Crew, and contributions from James Burton on guitar and Darlene Love on backing vocals. A very good album, mellow with a solid groove that prevents it from getting boring.
    Grade: B
  • Reckoning (Deluxe Edition)R.E.M. The second album from R.E.M. stands as one of the great albums of the 80s. For a long time it was considered to be nothing more than a little brother to Murmur, but it’s really every bit as good as their first LP. On the 25th anniversary of its release, it was remixed and rereleased with an additional disc featuring a live concert from the Aragon Ballroom in 1984. The live disc features tunes from both Murmur and Reckoning and their debut EP Chronic Town, as well as versions of the as-yet-unreleased “Driver 8” and “Hyena.” There’s also a nice cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” The problem with live albums…all live albums… is that they must meet certain criteria to be considered as anything more than tour souvenirs or contractual obligation releases. In order for a live album to truly achieve the type of greatness a studio album can attain some, or preferably all, of these standards need to be met: 1) for the majority of songs the live versions are better than the studio versions of the same songs, 2) there are unreleased songs (or cover songs) that are available nowhere else, 3) the live versions are noticeably different than their studio predecessors (acoustic versions, different arrangements, etc). A live album where there is precious little difference between the live tracks and their studio counterparts is, frankly, pointless. Consider the original version of the Who’s Live At Leeds, largely thought to be the greatest live rock album of all time. Six songs: three of the songs had no studio counterparts (“Shaking All Over,” “Summertime Blues,” “Young Man Blues”), one song had only been available as a single (“Substitute”), and the other two were presented in radically altered form (“My Generation” and “Magic Bus”). None of this is true on the live show packaged with Reckoning. The songs are presented in a very similar way to the studio versions. The “unheard” songs that were performed that night are now part of the R.E.M. canon. There are lots of missed notes and flubbed lyrics. At times they sound like they’re not really sure what song they’re performing. Because of this, there’s actually a certain charm to the recording. This is really live, warts and all. The songs are all played with the reckless abandon of a band that is not ready for the arena circuit. My guess is that this would have been a great concert to see, when the excitement generated on stage and the immediacy of the music would allow you to overlook flaws. But as a recording, preserved for posterity, those flaws are very evident. Still, there’s simply no denying the songs here. From “Femme Fatale” to “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” there isn’t a single song on the disc that isn’t great. Extra points awarded for a band that’s got this many great songs on a live disc, especially when it isn’t that horror known as the “Greatest Hits Live” album. At 54 minutes, it also falls short of the other monstrosity, the “Double Live” album. But as enjoyable as the ramshackle nature of the live disc is, it’s simply not essential listening, unlike the studio Reckoning.
    Grade: A+ for the original album
    Grade B+ for the bonus live disc