Friday, October 21, 2016

Alive Again

NME excreted an article listing the best live albums ever. (Quick TLD: I started this post the day that article was published; this is how long it's taking me with these posts sometimes.)

It's pretty typical for a list of this sort. It panders to more modern tastes and artists (natch - I imagine someone young wrote it), it includes critical darlings that your typical music lover or casual listener would never listen to on purpose (Velvet Underground), and it has some truly great undeniable ones on there - even KISS' famous Alive, which is probably the first time I've seen the band ever acknowledged in a music rag's lists. (It's hard to express how truly popular KISS was for a while - you'd never know it from back issues of music magazines, outside of chart lists.)

Of course, I am compelled to offer the live albums I find I play regularly (which anymore is becoming my gold standard on a lot of music - not how good it was objectively or at one point, but do I still pull it from the racks and give it a spin).

One of the things I think good live albums do is make the songs more muscular, as it has to be rendered live with a bunch of musicians that have to put it together in the moment rather than assemble a patchwork of takes and instrumental flourishes with software, nimble mixing, or razor blades on tape. It strips it down but pumps in that essential element of giving the song legs through the glory that live instruments circling a groove can bring.

Another nifty thing is live albums are often de facto greatest hits with the added bonus of fan favorites or artists favorites, which usually makes the selection of songs stellar. Since it represents a concert, there's often cohesiveness between songs, or they are ordered to flow into each other well. A good live album can be the best choice of an artist's catalog. The Talking Head's Stop Making Sense, which is in the NME list, is a central example of this.

A quick note: some live albums sound like shit. All of the ones I'm about to list sound great. A crappy-sounding recording is an instant disqualifier as far as I'm concerned, which is why I've left some off that I like, but enjoyment is marred by bootleg-esque sound.

Let's start with the weird one, and one I'm a little embarrassed about:

Joe Cocker - Live

Joe Cocker had a much more checkered musical career than the Talking Heads, who were always considered cool. Joe Cocker originally was underground and cool and weird. He performed at Woodstock. He had a career resurgence when John Belushi did a killer impression on SNL of his stage mannerisms (Cocker often contorted his body and jerked around like he was channeling the Elephant Man as a rock star), and to everyone's surprise Joe Cocker walked out and joined Belushi. The man was cool. So cool that he got tapped to make some movie soundtrack hits, which he did, so for some he became Barry Manilow. (FWIW, Manlow's great live album is not here because of muddy sound.)

This live set reflects the Manilow-esque portion of his carrer, so his earlier fans might curl their lip when those come by, but his later fans would consider the set flawed if they didn't. Me, I like'em all, so this is one of my favorite live sets. The cover of "Unchain My Heart," once it gets going, has a beat that never fails to grab that tribal part of my brain and force me - yes, force me - into the dreaded pucker strut.

Police Live - Disc. 1

I had a bootleg cassette of the Police live that was broadcast on the radio from the Palladium in NY (can you imagine any group these days allowing that?), which I guarded like it contained the cure to cancer, the recipes for KFC and Coca-Cola, plus the answer to who shot JFK. The version of "So Lonely" was simply the best ever. The official CD is from a show at he Orpheum Theatre in Boston from that very same tour, and most of it is as good as the bootleg, so when it came out as an official release, my joy was nearly complete. Then I heard the version of "So Lonely," mourned for approximately a week, learned to love it because it's almost as good, and moved on. (To see how much a live performance of that song can differ, if you have this set, listen to the much later in their career version of it on disc 2.)

The great thing about this live set is the sound that just these three guys make. It's like being assaulted by a rock satellite orbiting your head, and damn it jams and grooves. (Some would claim that the sound quality of this might disqualify it from the list, as it's borderline meh, but it is sonically interesting enough that I suspect it's a good document of their live sound at the time.

The Cure - Show and Paris

The Cure has, to me, become perhaps the oddest best band to have existed to date. Good and great bands all cultivate a sound that's uniquely theirs, but even then, you can sometimes draw comparisons between them. For example, Radiohead's OK Computer sounds like them, of course, but it makes you think of the expansiveness of Pink Floyd. The Cure sounds like no one else, or nothing else (grammar be damned). Their studio albums sound like "studio creations," meaning they sound like the band could never replicate them live, which is why these two live albums are a pleasant shock. If the song "Trust" (from Show) doesn't tug at your heart, then you might wanna go see the Wizard to see if you have one at all. (Btw, Show is the hits, Paris is the deep cuts and fan faves.)

Soul Asylum - After the Flood: Live from the Grand Forks Prom, June 28, 1997

Soul Asylum is/was a Minneapolis band who'd mastered the art of sounding off-key and sloppy - a style that most of the Miniapple bands chased at the time, save for Prince. However, it was just a style, because I saw them do an "Eagles" night with a couple other bands, and together, they sounded JUST like the Eagles.

When Grand Forks had a devastating flood in 1997, one of the many things affected was the Prom. Up steps Soul Asylum to be the band for the prom, which they recorded and thus created this gem. Besides their own hits, they did what a prom band should do and cover popular hits of the day, and local favorites, which is why this set is so fantastic. Check out "I Know" and "Rhinestone Cowboy."

Sade - Lovers Live

Lovers Live is a singular sonic event, a complete album experience, and one of the better sounding albums on this list. It's low-key, meditative, jazzy, and is perfect for a mellow party, or to relax to after the sun is down. Listen to samples before laying down money, though; this will either be to your taste or it won't. It's genesis is interesting, too.  She had put out a hits/anthology of love songs, which was a huge success, so this is the tour she put together to support that; thus, it's not a complete greatest hits - just those about love.

Cheap Trick Sgt. Pepper Live and Live at Budokan

There was a brief spasm of bands completely covering other band's big deal albums a couple few years ago. The best of that lot is Cheap Trick's Sgt. Pepper Live. (Another from that spasm is The Flaming Lips covering Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon - not as good.) If you're a Beatles fan, you've probably listened to Sgt. Pepper so many times it may be somewhat worn out. This set is a faithful recreation that gives it that extra live kick, makes it rock a little harder, and refreshes what is truly a masterpiece.

Billy Joel - Songs in the Attic

This is the only album here that was released as an album unto itself (and not just live versions of their hits). Before Piano Man and The Stranger made Joel the sliced bread (re "best thing since!") of the modern music world, he'd put out some good albums that were flawed by mastering problems and using too-slick studio musicians (Joel's charge). So Joel assembled the best songs of his previous stuff (save for the ubiquitous song "Piano Man"), and did gorgeous, powerful live versions. "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" is probably the perfect rendition of a stellar song, and exhibit A on how a great drummer - Liberty DeVitto - can make the song. (Trivia: this song is about he and his wife leaving Hollywood and moving back to the east coast, after his Piano Man stint (the one the song's about) in a bar there.)

"Every Kind of People" - Robert Palmer

This is just one song from an album, because the rest is an odd hodgepodge of studio and live songs, but what a song. The original studio version is a peppy, staccato groove breakdown. This live version is more contemplative and flowing, with a distinctive bass line which tries to adhere to the studio version, but transcends it. If you like the snippet of the song, I suggest you spend the buck or so right away, because it goes in and out of availability frequently.

I hope you find something here you come to love.

In other news, Gerry Rafferty's classic City to City has finally gotten the remastering and special edition treatment, but only in the UK. Happily, though, you can buy it from UK Amazon, even if you're in 'Murica or Canada. (Back in the day, you couldn't order internationally.) You're welcome.

Finally, the great Chuck Klosterman has assembled probably the best description I've read or heard about how to discern the micro-filament differences between the sub-genres "Rock and Roll" and "Rock." Not that I care about such distinctions; I personally feel they're for a certain type of people who have a dark need for this uber-definition of things for reasons best left undiscussed. But I do love the language and the attempt. Without further ado:
Here's a simple way to parse this not-so-simple description: Play the song "Rock and Roll" by Led Zeppelin. Based on a traditional twelve-bar blues progression, "Rock and Roll" is the only song in the Zeppelin catalog that is literally rock and roll music, unless you count "Hot Dog" and "Boogie with Stu." Every other Zeppelin song is a sophisticated iteration of "rock," even when the drums are reggae. Jerry Lee Lewis played rock and roll. Jerry Garcia played rock. The song "Rock Around the Clock" is a full-on rock and roll number, but the Moody Blues' "I'm Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band)," Rick Derringer's "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo," and Bad Company's "Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy" remain inflexibly rock (with no rolling whatsoever). John Lennon's 1975 solo album Rock 'n' Roll is actually a self-conscious attempt at rock and roll, while Joan Jett's 1982 cover of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" professes a love for something it technically isn't. The least ambiguous rock and roll song ever recorded is "Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard, closely followed by the Kingsmen's 1963 cover of "Louie Louie." The least ambiguous rock 'n' roll song is "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones. The least ambiguous rock song ever recorded is "l Like to Rock" by April Wine. - from But What if We're Wrong by Chuck Klosterman, pp. 60, footnote 1


Whisky Prajer said...

I've taken a stab at commenting several times, only to scrape and bow my way out the door in abject silence. Maybe this one will stick.

First of all, I was surprised by how much I agreed with the NME piece. Used to be they thought everything was shite. But now KISS Alive??

Initially I was set to post a list of seven or eight "live" albums I still enjoyed listening to. Then I realized most of those were compilations culled from various live shows (AC/DC Live from the mid-90s is probably the most reliable of these - "all killer, no filler" to use the parlance). When I turned to consider actual concert recordings, it occurred to me that more than a few were compilations artfully mixed to sound like a single concert, a la Bob Seger & TSBB's Nine Tonight. Then my brain went Klostermanic.

The last time I watched Stop Making Sense (shortly after the film got the last polish, I think; prior to that, it was THE most-played concert CD in my collection) there was a moment when the entire band was finally assembled and playing that I realized there were things happening on the soundtrack that weren't happening on the stage. After that I sat at some remove and wondered why this was a big deal to me.

Almost all the other "live" albums I revere have been seriously doctored - KISS Alive, just for starters. So what I conjure when I queue up that disc isn't a particular concert experience at a particular time and venue, but a memory of what that album conjured for me at a time when I was just a kid who'd never been to a rock concert.

So why does Stop Making Sense qualify as a concert album and AC/DC Live as a compilation? If the studio had made the latter a seamless "one concert" experience, would that have made me hear it any differently? How, and why, and which do I value more?

Stop Making Sense is the big dividing line - for me, at least. The initial album was a compilation affiliated with the movie; the later release was a compressed version of the film - which was actually a distillation of three performances. Once the CD re-release occurred, I lost my appetite for that particular concert - I doubt I've listened to the entire CD a dozen times. When The Name Of This Band Is... was finally re-released, that became my "live" Talking Heads go-to disc. Listening to The Name Of This Band, I realized that I preferred the initial "compilation" CD of SMS to the "concert" CD of SMS, partially because the compilation had for years been evocative, while the newer concert version just reminded me of what I was missing visually. And now I greatly preferred The Name Of This Band to either of those, because it was just straight-up evocative.

Anyway. There are a bunch of 70s acts I can only listen to live: The Allman Brothers, Peter Frampton, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick. The studio stuff just seems like a flyer they put together to get kids to show up at the arena.

Yahmdallah said...

What a great comment, Whisky. I enjoyed reading it.

Now I'll have to load up my DVD of Stop Making Sense and look for what you call out. I always liked the early shorter, original version of the CD (bought it first on cassette), too.

I'm a bit shocked about your thoughts on Bob Seger. I consider at least three of his studio albums must-haves, and he's renowned in recording circles for having consummate production and musicianship on those albums. He's considered one of the best training school bands, along with Frank Zappa, for teaching musicians when not to play. But, that's what makes it fun, eh? We all have those heroes that to others aren't that so much.