Saturday, December 5, 2009

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part I)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are four long ones.

Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison

Two diametrically opposed camps have formed in response to this compilation. One wishes it had been two discs and included all of Harrison’s best work (his Traveling Wilburys songs included) and that the songs had been sequenced less haphazardly, both to reflect the trajectory of Harrison’s development (or at least his career) and to make for a less sonically jarring listening experience. The other camp says nuts to such cavils: Harrison’s catalog oozes greatness no matter how you slice it, and to refuse to enjoy nineteen examples from it simply because they’re not sensibly sequenced or the nineteen one would have preferred is as petty as Harrison’s Wilbury partner Tom.

What neither camp has mentioned is the effect of eleven of this collection’s seventy-eight minutes being taken up by Harrison-sung Beatles songs (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun”) from the Concert for Bangladesh. Now, how many Beatles songs are on The John Lennon Collection or Paul McCartney’s Wingspan? None. Why? Because no one needs reminding that Lennon and McCartney were in the Beatles and because Lennon and Mcartney had enough fab solo material not to need Fab padding.

No one needs reminding that Harrison was a Beatle either (especially not with both “All Those Years Ago,” his Lennon tribute, and “When We Was Fab,” his Beatles tribute, on Let It Roll). So including the Bangladesh cuts while leaving off actual Harrison hits such as “Crackerbox Palace,” “This Song,” and “Love Comes to Everyone” implicitly diminishes his solo-artist stature.

The Bangladesh cuts also look like bait intended to convince owners of The Best of George Harrison (1976) and Best of Dark Horse 1976-1989 (1989) that they need Let It Roll too. But many Harrison fans had hoped Let It Roll would be was the single-disc Harrison best-of to end all single-disc Harrison best-ofs. Instead, its mix of hits, misses, redundancies, and obscurities makes it seem more like a teaser for a forthcoming box set.

Let It Roll does provide one useful service: It rescues 1985’s “I Don’t Want to Do It,” a Bob Dylan cover and one of Harrison’s finest singles, from the Porky’s Revenge soundtrack. And, as one might expect from an album containing “My Sweet Lord,” “Give Me Love,” and “What Is Life,” the tunefulness seldom lets up. But it needn’t have let up at all. Next time, somebody please get this right.

The Woodstock Experience

Amid the spate of fortieth-anniversary Woodstock product, these five two-disc sets by acts who performed that long-ago weekend at Yasgur’s farm stand out. Listing at $19.98 apiece, each one comes with an original, and in most cases classic, 1969 studio album (no big deal, as those albums are already available separately), original packaging and a poster (a medium-sized deal), and a live disc containing that act’s entire Woodstock set (a big deal indeed, as the various Woodstock soundtracks contain only excerpts).

The five acts are, not surprisingly, those to whose catalogs Sony has access. They’re also acts who were at or near their respective peaks at the time. So besides strong studio albums (Janis Joplin’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, Santana’s Santana, Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand!, Johnny Winter’s Johnny Winter), one gets live albums that both hold up on their own and function as a looser, more stoned mirror image.

But the set to get if you’re only getting one is Jefferson Airplane’s. Comprising Volunteers, which keeps getting better with age, and a live set including “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” it’s almost enough to erase the memory of the Airplane’s eventual morphing into Starship.

Elvis 75--Good Rockin’ Tonight

You remember Elvis Presley. He was the Michael Jackson of your parents’ (and your grandparents’) generation, except it was rock’n’roll and not pop of which Elvis was king, A-list actresses and not pre-pubescent boys he was accused of bedding). He was a performer so talented he couldn’t help shifting pop-cultural paradigms every time he lifted his voice in song or swiveled his hips in actual or simulated heat, a one-man entertainment Mount Rushmore, replete with the requisite four faces (mid-to-late-’50s hillbilly-rebel Elvis, early-to-mid-’60s Hollywood-cornball Elvis, mid-to-late-’60s comeback-Vegas Elvis; early-to-mid-’70s increasingly stoned-and-corpulent Elvis).

Yep, that Elvis, and in case you couldn’t tell from the title of the latest installment in the cottage industry that Elvis box sets have become, the King would’ve turned seventy-five in 2010 if he hadn’t taken all of his daily drugs in a single dose thirty-three years before. So the Elvis 75 half of the title makes sense; the Good Rockin’ Tonight part, however, could use some tweaking. While there is plenty of good rockin’ to be found among the one hundred songs (on four discs), there’s some of the richest gospel, soul, and reified schmaltz ever committed to tape as well.

Speaking of the one hundred songs, it seems at first that there could’ve and should’ve been a dozen more. Obviously, the compilers liked the “one hundred” concept, but with forty-two minutes of total unused disc space, one wonders why such under-anthologized Presley highlights as (in no particular order) “(You‘re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” “Moody Blue,” and “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body” (an obscure but definitely “good rockin’” mid-’seventies gospel number) to name just three.

Then you realize that it’s hard to name many more than just three. Memorable alternate versions of two tracks that are included come to mind (the un-remixed “A Little Less Conversation,” that live “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” in which he spends half the song cracking up), and maybe a few judiciously selected minutes from Having Fun wth Elvis on Stage.

So maybe one hundred songs is just right. Certainly, it would be hard to improve on Discs 1, 2, and 3--which hit every highlight of the Sun years, the pre-Army years, and the post-comeback Memphis years. What’s surprising is Disc 4. Even with financial, physical, and emotional disaster looming on the horizon, the King could still, on a good night, out-sing, and often out-rock, any other mortal entertainer.


Call it a sign of the times, but from the chaos leading up to 1998’s Crystal Ball (which was pressed only after 50,000 fans had “requested” it then mailed to them after it became available in stores) or the disorder leading up to 2007’s Planet Earth (which Sony refused to distribute in U.K. music stores after a prominent U.K. newspaper included pre-release free copies in its Sunday edition), Prince has been making news for over a decade now more for the way he releases music than for the music itself. And Lotusflow3r, the first album by a major talent to be sold exclusively at Target, is no exception.

Priced at a surprisingly wallet-friendly $11.99 (or about the price of a McDonald’s dollar-menu double date) it’s really two Prince albums (Lotusflow3r and MPLSoUND) with Elixer, the debut of Prince’s latest butter-melting protégé Bria Valente, thrown in. Not that Elixer is a throwaway. “Everytime,” the mid-tempo love song that pops up halfway through, may be the most gorgeous composition to which Prince has ever affixed any of his many names, diffusing a radiance that could almost make one swear the other nine songs aren’t really just more of the high-gloss, soft-core discotheque fodder that Prince has long had his many ladies in waiting eating from his hand.

In fact, with the exception of the “Crimson and Clover” cover on Lotusflow3r (and maybe “Colonized Mind,” Prince’s latest shout-out to God), “Everytime” is more show-stopping in its luminous simplicity than any of the new Prince recordings on the other two discs are in their kaleidoscopic funktionality. The problem isn’t that he no longer has talent out the wazoo but that he apparently has more wazoos than most mortal listeners have ears.

Whereas the prolific output of Elvis Costello or Ani DiFranco often looks like headlong self-indulgence and Bob Dylan’s, Neil Young’s, and Van Morrison’s like roads less travelled, Prince’s voluminous output, for all its hyperkinesis, suggests a more static metaphor: that of lavishly furnished, exotically perfumed rooms where the party never ends and Viagra-besotted satyrs chase young things around the casting couch shouting, “I got a box of chocolates that’ll rock the sox off any girl that wanna come my way” (MPLSoUND’s “Chocolate Box)--rooms with lots of trapdoors but no windows, the latest additions to a luxury hotel where you can check in anytime you want but you can never leave.

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