It’s interesting to watch what happens with popular musicians as they age. Some disappear after their time of stardom and then reappear and do dinosaur tours when their demographic hits the nostalgia stage (any number of hair metal bands). Some stay in the spotlight ridiculously pretending they’re still 20 years old (Mick Jagger). Some come out of retirement and humiliate themselves with embarrassing Super Bowl shows that are all about the money-grab (The Who). And some, like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and many jazz musicians, continue to make vibrant music that grows increasingly rich and deep with age. Neil Finn and Crowded House fall into this last group.
At one time it didn’t look like it would turn out this way. Crowded House officially ended their career with an extraordinary live concert at Sydney’s Opera House in 1996 which is captured on the terrific live album Farewell to the World which was also separately released as a DVD. Nine years later Paul Hester, the band’s drummer, took his own life after years of battling depression. In 2007 a new album, Time on Earth, was released under the Crowded House name. The newly formulated group combined original members Neil Finn (guitars, piano, vocals), Mark Hart (guitars, keyboards, vocals), and Nick Seymour (bass, vocals) with Matt Sherrod (drums, vocals). Most of the tracks on Time on Earth were originally intended for a Neil Finn solo CD and the album was drenched in Finn and the surviving band members coming to grips with the loss of Hester. It could easily have been the final goodbye.
But it wasn’t. Intriguer is a full blown Crowded House album made by a complete band making their own music and it’s very, very good. Crowded House were always known for Finn’s exceptional song-writing skills. The good news is that he hasn’t lost any of it. The better news is that his personal maturity has produced lyrical maturity rather than desperate grasping for youth. Finn’s songs are matched every step of the way by the band’s musicianship and elegant vocal work. As a quartet, Crowded House play and sing together like the consummate professionals they are. No grand standing, no ego trips, just well-crafted songs beautifully played and sang.
Intriguer comes with a DVD that contains a video for “Saturday Sun”, 8 tracks recorded more or less live (it looks like different takes were expertly combined) at the band’s studio in New Zealand, and two tracks recorded live at the Auckland Townhall which contains an amazing pipe organ. The version of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at the Townhall is not to be missed.
When I saw that Crowded House had a new release scheduled for July I was both excited and worried. Excited because I really like the band; worried because so many bands come back with shitty albums hoping to suck cash out of the accounts of fans who want to pretend they’re still as cool as they think they were back in the day. When I first heard Intriguer it sounded good but first impressions of CDs can, and often do, change. They changed for Intriguer – after many listens I like it more than I did at the start. It’s a grower. If you’re new to Crowded House, Intriguer is as good a place to start as any. Long time fans of the band are going to thoroughly enjoy this album. The band they loved is back and just as good, if not better, than ever. Crowded House isn’t trying to recapture the past, they’re playing music that lives and breathes right here, right now.
Picking a couple of songs from Intriguer is impossible. Here are two, it could have easily been any one of a half-dozed others.
“Twice if You’re Lucky”
After hearing Parametric Monkey’s “Horns of the Moon” a fan thought I might like Porcupine Tree. Turns out this is one of the unexpected benefits of making your own music available for people to hear – discerning fans tune you in to music you hadn’t listened to before. I don’t hear what it is about “Horns of the Moon” that might link it to Porcupine Tree (at least what little I’ve heard from the band) but I do like Porcupine Tree.
Porcupine Tree is usually categorized as prog rock and compared with Emerson Lake and Palmer. Comparisons to ELP have the effect of making run in the opposite direction. Porcupine Tree is also characterized as psychedelic rock and I should have noted that and paid more attention.
Signify is Porcupine Tree’s first proper album originally released in 1996. The Deluxe Edition reviewed here includes a second disc entitled Insignificance which contains demos, alternative versions of some of the tracks on Signify, and songs recorded at the same time but not included on the original album. All of it has been remastered.
Steven Wilson is the pith of Porcupine Tree. He wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks on Signify, sings, plays guitar and other instruments and produced and mixed the album. At least at this stage of their development, Porcupine Tree is his vision and, musically, he sees far and wide. In both breadth of style and virtuosity Wilson’s guitar playing reminds me of Frank Zappa. Also like Zappa, Wilson is a composer as well as a musician. While on Signify he doesn’t display Zappa’s compositional abilities (but then again, who does?), Wilson is very good and almost always interesting with a seemingly inexhaustible cache of ideas.
As lyric writer I find him less interesting. Signify is filled with the kind of overwrought angst that is stereotypical of this type of music. Everything sucks, nobody understands, nobody has suffered like he has. Boo-hoo. Fortunately, the mopey lyrics are embedded in brilliant music and Signify devotes much more space to the music.
I don’t know enough about Porcupine Tree to know if the inclusion of the second disc would make this a worthwhile purchase for fans of the band. Special edition discs of demos and tracks left off albums often illustrate why the tracks were left behind in the first place and are only of interest to rabid fans who are fairly uncritical in their acceptance of anything their idols have done. The Insignificance disc doesn’t sound like this to me. Wilson is very good and even the tracks he didn’t think were good enough for general consumption at the time have a lot to offer.
Fans of prog rock probably already know about Porcupine Tree and either have this album or don’t like the band. If you like psychedelic or prog rock and haven’t listened to Porcupine Tree, by all means check them out. If you like any kind of rock that aspires to be more than a place holder in this week’s top ten, Signify is well worth your time.
“Dark Matter” from Signify
Recently I decided to dig deep into the music of the Doors by purchasing and giving serious listening time to the Perception box set. I then thought I’d enrich the experience by reading a book about the band while I was listening to their six albums. I ended up with The Doors because it is compiled from interviews with the band members and several people who knew them well with framing and text by Ben Fong-Torres. I thought a book about the band that was primarily written by the members of the band would be the best way to supplement Perception and immerse myself in their music. Perception was worth the time, worth the money and is a collection I expect to return to often. The Doors was a waste of time, a waste of money and will gather dust until it gets stuck in a box to make room on the bookshelves.
The Doors is a large-format coffee table book that appears to be modeled along the lines of U2 by U2. It’s loaded with photographs and serious fans of the band may find the pictures alone worth the price of the book. There are Forwards recounting how The Doors meant so much to them by Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction) and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park) which I didn’t read. There is also a Selected Bibliography and a Discography which is incomplete but is not indicated as such.
There are a lot of books about The Doors. Most of them seem to fall into either one of two camps. They are either written by worshipful fanboys who think Jim Morrison was some kind of minor deity or by tabloid sleaze mongers who seek to detail every lurid event in Morrison’s descent into drunken dissolution. This split is reflected within the band by keyboard player Ray Manzarak who appears to view Morrison as a brilliant and talented poet and shaman for his generation, and drummer John Densmore who seems to see Morrison as a brilliant and talented alcoholic degenerate .
Ben Fong-Torres, who is a rock journalist and former editor at Rolling Stone Magazine, tries to take the middle ground by illustrating both aspects of Jim Morrison without committing to one or the other. This was a good idea. Previous books about the Doors have tended to be mostly about Jim Morrison and Fong-Torres attempts to widen his coverage by including more information about Manzarak, Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger. This was another good idea.
So what went wrong? Fong-Torres may have intended to put together a book about the band but the result was still a book that is mostly about Morrison. We get interviews with Morrison’s, father, Morrison’s brother, Morrison’s sister, Morrison’s girlfriend’s mother (the girlfriend died of a heroin overdose). We don’t get any interviews with any members of Krieger’s, Densmore’s or Manzarak’s families. For every picture of anyone else in the band it seems like there are five pointlessly similar pictures of Morrison. Most of the text is about Morrison.
The heavy emphasis on Jim Morrison at the expense of the other members of the band will probably not be seen as a problem by many readers and fans who are more interested in Morrison than they are in either the band or their music. It was a problem for me because I think The Doors were first and last a great band made of of four equally important members who, for a brief period of time, made great music. I’m interested in their music and in examining the band’s music The Doors is almost a complete failure.
I haven’t read Fong-Torres’ rock journalism so I don’t know if his interest is in the celebrity of rock, or the social and cultural world of rock, or something else. On the evidence provided by The Doors, he appears to have little or no interest in or knowledge of the music as music. Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore are very talented musicians and Fong-Torres interviewed all of them for the book. Apparently he never thought to ask them very much if anything about the music in and of itself. It may have been the case that none of the former Doors wanted to talk about the music but I’ve never known a musician who wasn’t interested in talking about music at the nuts and bolts level. Talk about the music is often limited to naming the location where an album was recorded, somebody saying “We jammed till we found something and then looked in Jim’s poetry books for lyrics” (and anyone who has ever written original music knows there is more to it than that), and quoting people about how difficult it was to get Morrison interested or sober enough to make the album. We get interviews with girlfriend’s mothers and nothing from Bruce Botnick who was the recording engineer on all of The Doors albums. It’s like Fong-Torres decided to put together a book about some of the things that happened “When the Music’s Over.”
The end result is a book that reads like an extended press biography. The Doors is a book with heavyweight production values and lightweight content.
There has been no end to the posthumous releases of Jimi Hendrix material since he died in 1970. Some of it has been good; some of it has been nothing more than a blatant attempt to cash on on Hendrix’ s great fame and extraordinary talent with the release of crappy recordings of studio noodling. Valleys of Neptune is something different. The album is built around the last recordings Hendrix made with the original members of The Jimi Hendrix Experience Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums). Much of the album was recorded in 1969 after the release of Electric Ladyland. Hendrix was flying high and it looked like there was no end to what he could achieve.
With the exception of “Mr. Bad Luck” which was recorded in 1967 all of the tracks on Valleys of Neptune were recorded in 1969. Hendrix, Redding and Mitchell play together on nine of the album’s twelve cuts. Redding and Mitchell rerecorded their bass and drum parts in 1987 on 3 of the tracks, “Mr. Bad Luck”, “Lover Man”, and “Crying Blue Rain”. Billy Cox, Hendrix’s old friend who replaced Redding when the tension between Hendrix and Redding reached the breaking point plays on three tracks, a hot rendition of “Stone Free”, “Bleeding Heart” and the title track.
Hendrix on a bad day is better than most other guitarists at their peak so it will come as no surprise that his playing throughout Valleys of Neptune is terrific. The blues based numbers “Hear My Train A Comin'”, “Lover Man” and “Red House” are outstanding. Redding and Mitchel’s overdubs laid down almost 20 years after the original recordings are nicely mixed with Hendrix vocals and guitar so that they don’t appear out of place or intrusive. There’s not a bad cut on the CD and it is very nicely produced.
Ever since I had the great good fortune to see Jimi Hendrix and the original Experience live in what were almost perfect circumstances I’ve been at least quietly disappointed by his released recordings and Valleys of Neptune is no exception. This is a foolish reaction as neither a studio nor a live recording could possibly capture what is was like to be in the room with Hendrix when he was in full flight. If you are a Hendrix fan Valleys of Neptune is a must-buy and you probably already have it. If you have any interest in Hendrix’s music and you don’t have Valleys of Neptune, check it out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.