Alice Cooper '80, Flush The Fashion

I suppose a new wave take on Alice Cooper wasn't the worst idea in the world — but then maybe it was since it wasn't ever repeated, even though producer Roy Thomas Baker basically used the same template for the Cars. To balance out the sudden shift in style and his soporific snarl on the back cover neither Baker nor Cooper stray far from his usual topics (drugs and social contempt) nor his usual instrumentation, and wisely just let the synths be ornaments. I like lead-in cover "Talk Talk" and the zippy single "Clones (We're All)" takes only the musical liberties it can get away with; the old verve is back in the almost anthemic "Pain," and I laughed out loud at the sly self-referential wordplay in "Aspirin Damage" ("I've got a Bayer/on my back"). Plus, "Nuclear Infected" could practically be "No More Mr. Nice Guy" for a Three Mile Island generation. Unfortunately the novelty starts leaking out of the music around that point, and while none of the remaining tracks (except the out-of-place "Leather Boots" in the first half) are incompetent they're also not very compelling. That's actually the real problem with this album: at 28 minutes and change he can't afford any clinkers, and since this was one of the few albums he does remember recording, he's simply got no excuse. (Content: drug references, mild adult themes.)

🌟🌟🌟

Art of Noise, Below the Waste

From the inexplicable gatefold doubling as a speaker advertisement to the bizarre tracklist, this album just confuses me at every turn. AoN could be weird, and could be good at being weird, as long as they gave the long ones a beat and cut the rest when they'd overstayed their welcome. This explains the shorter tracks on Who's Afraid, for example, because they're only just enough to be interesting. But here they drag on ("Yebo!", "Back To Back"), trip over their own cleverness ("Dan Dare") and make you wonder what they're even doing on the disc ("Finale"). Their better tracks recall their earlier days: "James Bond Theme," no "Peter Gunn," is basically Monte Norman mugged by "Close (To The Edit)" but still has its spartan charms, and "Catwalk" takes a while to get going but gets there. Still, even the otherwise beguiling "Island" and "Robinson Crusoe" are practically remixes of each other, and with the partial exception of "Spit" guest vocalists Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens don't add enough to their three tracks to make much difference. More proof that scum always floats to the top. (Content: no concerns.)

🌟🌟

Tower of Power, East Bay Grease

Out of print for many years, Tower of Power's début finally got a reissue on Rhino. And it's certainly an unusual gem: six long-form tracks, a different vocalist (Rufus Miller on most, his only recorded appearance), and some very high quality funk riffs with superb brass leads. For all those reasons I think I love every single one of the tracks ... about halfway, that is, because by then there's nothing new to hear, no scatting the lyrics can do to punch it up, no jam they can hit to get your attention back. If they'd cut the songs down and turned this into an EP, I think it might have stood the test of time; instead, we have an earnest but indulgent LP that'll test you instead. There's a lot of raw talent, but raw is the chief impression, and even fans will probably hit the skip button regularly. (Content: no concerns.)

🌟🌟

They Might Be Giants, BOOK

The TMBG formula still holds in 2021 — an inexplicable cover, an opaque title — but for a late-career record it's a relief this one's not purely by the numbers. Reflective of quarantine sensibilities the tracks are longer and (at least for this band) more meditative, especially my favourite track "I Can't Remember the Dream," the backwards echo of "I Broke My Own Rule" and the mesmerizing "Wait Actually Yeah No," though their tilted college rock feel is alive and well in tracks like "Moonbeam Rays," closer "Less Than One" and "Brontosaurus" ("It had been going so well/and then I broke my eggshell") with even a bit of dance music in "I Lost Thursday." Longtime fans may decry the lowered weirdness quotient, with the possible exception of that farty foghorn thing in "If Day for Winnipeg" and the album's best lyrics "Put on the cuffs/I've broken Godwin's law," maybe the subtle sly snark of "Super Cool," and in a like fashion some of the songs are uncharacteristically downright conventional (even with the lyrics "Darling, The Dose" could practically be a lost Beach Boys session; the boring "Lord Snowden" comes off like Al Stewart in a bad way). But other than the unnecessary lead-in "Synopsis for Latecomers" which absolutely fails to set the proper tone at all, there's really only two serious things wrong with this disc: first, dammit, why are there no track names in the CD gatefold, and second, why do we have to pay so much to get your baffling too-big-for-liner notes companion book? Don't tease me with that title if there's not gonna be one. (Content: no concerns.)

🌟🌟🌟🌟

Portugal. The Man, Woodstock

What happened to this band? How much did they get to sell out? In the Mountain in the Cloud was a singular vision, a couple solid singles, more sophisticated than the other hipster pop around that time, but it went to hell in Evil Friends (literally?) and this one isn't any better. The major problem is the revolving door of producers, yielding a kitchen junk drawer of tracks cynically intended to be chopped up as singles. The best are the two Asa Taccone came in on ("Feel It Still," the album's best track, and secondarily "Keep On"), which both play to the band's strengths with a sparer, simpler mix plus just enough sweetening and just enough bounce; of a similar, if more gauche, ilk Stint-cow-orked "Tidal Wave" gets an honourable mention, maybe "Easy Tiger" too. Then it goes downhill quick: Danger Mouse didn't learn anything from their last album and keeps trying to make his tracks into the next Gnarls Barkley ("Number One" is a bad way to start, but Fat Lip on vocals for "Mr. Lonely"? Say what?), and the other John Hill ones are the worst, overweight pop bilge tarted up in the studio like an aging drunken teenybopper trying to balance on stilettos. I mean, "Live in the Moment" isn't irredeemable, but "Rich Friends" isn't as clever as it thinks it is, and the rest seem like they came from some other band entirely. I guess we should be glad the cover's not a dumpster on fire. (Content: S-bombs in "Mr. Lonely" [and F-bombs] and "Noise Pollution.")

🌟🌟

Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy

Although Edwin Meese would probably arrest you for the cover (it's a wonder the RUC didn't at the time), for my questionably informed money this is some of the band's best work. The range is more sophisticated and the production is better, and instead of just blues and rock there's ballads ("The Rain Song" — take that, George Harrison), wacky riffing ("The Crunge"), and even reggae ("D'yer Mak'er"). But yes, some blues and rock too: "Dancing Days" and Robert Plant's ode to his daughter in "The Ocean," plus a mashup of everything in "Over The Hills And Far Away" and the raucous, rollicking lead "The Song Remains the Same" (with a touch of prog to punch it up). One song fails to fire on most cylinders (the lugubrious "No Quarter"), the lyrics rarely match their tracks' melodic complexities and newer fans will wonder where the title track went (it's actually on Physical Graffiti even though it was recorded around the same time), but outside of their compilations I still think this album delivers more consistently than nearly all their other studio work. The 2014 reissue adds a second disc of rough mixes, though I submit that kind of thing was exactly why Coda flopped. (Content: no concerns.)

🌟🌟🌟🌟

Sister Sledge, We Are Family

As disco landmarks go, of course "He's The Greatest Dancer" and "We Are Family" (even at 8 minutes plus!) stand the test of time, as much because of Kathy Sledge's earnest vocals as Bernie Edwards and Nile Rodgers' carefully controlled production which prevents them from spiraling into self-parody. But at the same time the other semi-dance tracks like "Lost In Music" and "Easier To Love" seem suffocated by that restraint, as rich as their backing might be, and "You're A Friend To Me" is positively choked by the leash. The R&B influences play off stronger — "Thinking Of You" is a sultry delight — but there's not enough of it on the other tracks for them to benefit. Higher quality than most others around this time, it's hard to deny all the things that made it good, but if the production had let loose a little more it could have been great. The 1995 remaster has two absolutely potty B-side remixes of "We Are Family," destroying everything that made it enjoyable, and the first redo of "Lost In Music" is likewise a HiNRG dud. But its second 1984 remix, by Edwards and Rodgers themselves, while the overdubs are densely dumb does punch the bpm up just enough to really make it jam. Wonder if they'd just do that for the rest of it. (Content: no concerns.)

🌟🌟🌟

The Who, Face Dances

Kenney Jones never deserved half the crap he got. Unlike Keith Moon, he could hold a beat and his liquor, and he was already on the band's recorded output anyway from the refits of Tommy and Quadrophenia to no one's complaint. The problem was really Pete Townshend, who reserved most of his best output for his contemporaneous Empty Glass — but yet this album still manages to pull it off despite that. The lyrics are typically inscrutable and the song titles don't make sense, but Roger Daltrey sings them straight anyway to their benefit ("Cache Cache" the particular exemplar), and rockers like "You Better You Bet," "Another Tricky Day" and "Daily Records" (and John Entwistle's contribution with "The Quiet One") are as good as any of their older singles. Entwistle doesn't hit pay dirt with "You," though, which is a bit too tart for the other tracks, and "Did You Steal My Money" and "How Can You Do It Alone" are kind of dorky, but Moon's most lasting contribution to the band was attitude rather than drumming and a true pro like Jones easily proves it. The 1997 remaster adds three unreleased tracks, all pretty good but especially an early take of "Somebody Saved Me" — obvious tape warble intact — which is far superior to Townshend's reworking on Chinese Eyes (the two live tracks are best not mentioned). The 2021 remaster has four different live cuts to waste your time, but adds those three gems plus a fourth "Dance It Away" and an alternate take of "Don't Let Go The Coat" with different vocals. Either is worth it. (Content: adult themes, mild language.)

🌟🌟🌟

Eric Johnson, Ah Via Musicom

A slight effort from a man whose skill should imply a better result. When he rocks he really does: not just "Cliffs of Dover," an incomparable virtuoso artifact worth all the airplay it's ever got, but also its junior reprise "Righteous" (apropos) and the undulating sparkle of "Trademark." Unfortunately the slower instrumentals have a little trouble taking off ("East Wes"), "Steve's Boogie" is way too short, and his ill-advised four vocal tracks are inoffensive at best. It's not a total writeoff, but I just wish the lows on this album weren't as low as the highs were high. (Content: no concerns.)

🌟🌟

Pylon, Chomp

Hypnotic, at times baffling and never like anything you've heard before or since, the most accessible release from the elder statespersonpeople of the turn of the Reagan era Athens-alt scene (to be sure a coarsely relative statement). The formula doesn't stray a great deal from Gyrate; Vanessa Briscoe's murky, murmury vocals still diffuse more fog than they dispel, with sharp edges and shrieks like flashlights suddenly igniting in your eyes, and the same sort of taut paranoia propelled by the unstable yet purposeful shuffle of Curtis Crowe's drumming and the deep slap of Michael Lachowski on bass. Rather, the difference is in production and mood: the grit is there, but it's swifter and airier ("Beep," floaty closer "Altitude"), it even flirts with layers (the almost whimsical "Italian Movie Theme"), and the lyrics land more heartfelt than simply angsty ("Yo-Yo," "No Clocks"). But just to remind you they'd never sell out, the centrepiece remains the tinny menacing dirge of "Crazy," and lead-off "K" lets you know any new affectations are entirely under their own control. After all, to let it be pigeonholed as mere post-punk or new wave would ruin the idea. (Content: no concerns.)

🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Clash, London Calling

It's noteworthy to observe that for however many music acts don't know what they want to be at the beginning, a few of the greats do a style sprawl right in the middle. Yes, London Calling has all the punk attitude you expect from their third album, but also spreads on a healthy helping of soul, jazz, rockabilly and even a touch of ska and reggae, and to my great surprise it all goes together brilliantly. You want a revolution? They'll play it. You want strutting and brass? They've got it. Social commentary? Silly jams? Name it. (Pete Townshend-esque guitar smashing? Sure!) The amazing part is how well it meshes; the undercurrent of attitude fuses it all well. In fact, there's so much great stuff here and the deft touch between edgy and entertaining is so adeptly handled that I can't think of a song I didn't like. But that's kind of its weakness, isn't it? It's 19 tracks of everything under the sun, and I do mean everything — like almost every double album ever made it goes on a bit too long even if the going's really good. The 25th anniversary version adds on a disc of premixes which have the same energy but not the same level of production, and except for the handful of unreleased tracks mixed in they're interesting exactly once. (Content: adult themes in "Lovers Rock," violent imagery in "Spanish Bombs," "Koka Kola" and "Guns of Brixton.")

🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Yes Album

The band was in the weeds by this point, in real danger of getting dropped by Atlantic, and they needed a win. This wasn't really it but slightly more often than not it gets close. Typical of their later output their longform pieces are the best ones, even if the lyrical concepts are clumsy; anti-war "Yours Is No Disgrace" is incredibly poignant and supple, some of their best work ever, along with the oblique but earnest three-part "Starship Trooper" with Steve Howe's satisfyingly heavy guitar self-duet. Unfortunately, they're split by the sloppy "Clap," recorded live for no good reason and thus a famine amidst plenty, and while "A Venture" is charming in miniature "I've Seen All Good People" after awhile gets dreary in length, the kind of overwrought metaphysical chess metaphor that would make Bobby Fischer slit his wrists. Closing track "Perpetual Change" is particularly instructive: full of fascinating moments you want more of, but like your hyperactive nephew keeps erratically running off to other tangents, even audibly near the end when the music abruptly pans into one channel in an idea that probably sounded better to the engineer than it does in my ears. Well, live on to record another day, I suppose. The 2003 remaster adds a studio version of "Clap" which largely eliminates my objections to the album live cut, but the bowdlerized single versions of "I've Seen All Good People" (as "Your Move") and "Starship Trooper" (as "Life Seeker") are unnecessary, and so is the excessive 2014 Panegyric multi-format release. (Content: no concerns.)

🌟🌟🌟