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album reviews

Neil Young

Rust Never Sleeps

For anyone still passionately in love with rock & roll, Neil Young has made a record that defines the territory. Defines it, expands it, explodes it. Burns it to the ground. Rust Never Sleeps tells me more about my life, my country and rock & roll than any music I've heard in years. Like a newfound friend or lover pledging honesty and eager to share whatever might be important, it's both a sampler and a synopsis — of everything: the rocks and the trees, and the shadow... | More »

October 4, 1979

Randy Newman

Born Again

Randy Newman and Stephen Sondheim, two of this decade's finest songwriter-craftsmen, are both misanthropes intent on subverting the optimism generally associated with American popular music. But until their most recent works, each man took care not to overexpose his nihilism. Newman balanced his despair with humor: if his lyrics mocked religion and homeland, his eloquently sentimentalized Americana often ached for those very ties. He's probably the only pop artist in this country wh... | More »

Carly Simon

Spy

It may have seemed surprising, a few years back, for Carly Simon to record a sensual ode to James Bond ("Nobody Does It Better"), but Spy finally makes the connection clear. If Simon's an "international spy in the house of love" (as per the LP's Anaïs Nin epigraph), it's not in the shadowy, self-effacing mode of John Le Carré's George Smiley. Instead, she embraces well-bred, high-toned visibility and an 007-like panache. Each new album sends her out into the wa... | More »

September 20, 1979

Devo

Duty Now for the Future

Devo is sort of the rock equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut, taking off from premises it only half understands. These guys synthesize trenchant experimental trends into a hodgepodge that's compelling only to those without the intellectual vigor to penetrate the band's surface pose to find the real pose underneath. Like the rest of the No Wave to which they're appended as a kind of accessible doppelgänger, Devo's funkless chubs have very few new ideas—most of the concep... | More »

The Kinks

Low Budget JVC Compact Discs

As Kinks records go, Low Budget wins the award for cheesiest packaging hands down, greatest-hits sets included. The cover photo of the group's logo and the album's title stenciled on a grimy sidewalk between a pair of high-heeled feet would do only a bargain bin proud. No pictures of the band, no credits, no song titles — and that shrink-wrap sticker proclaiming three "new Kinks classics" is at best an exercise in the power of positive thinking. For all its obvious faults, th... | More »

Bob Dylan

Slow Train Coming Columbia

Because Bob Dylan had the power of insight and poetry early in his career, he became an article of faith himself. He gave so much identity and energy to so many people that eventually it could only blow up. And it did. Which was bitter, disappointing and confusing to a lot of people, including myself and, I think, also Dylan. Within a very short period of time, forces came together that reversed Dylan's musical strength and social weight. They were events of all sorts — personal, ... | More »

September 6, 1979

Queen

Live Killers

Live, they said. pity the poor consumer who has to spend eight or nine dollars before he or she can read the self-congratulatory liner notes inside Queen's Live Killers and discover that the better part of "Bohemian Rhapsody" isn't live at all. Because Queen is, according to the liner notes, "fiercely opposed to playing with any kind of backing tape" in concert, most of the band's hit operetta — particularly lead singer Freddie Mercury's one-man choral climax — is repr... | More »

Joni Mitchell

Mingus Asylum

Mingus music doesn't sound like anybody else's. Though Charles Mingus may have gone out of his way to acknowledge how much the music of Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington inspired him, even the various tributes he penned ("Reincarnation of a Lovebird" for Parker, "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love," "Jelly Roll" for Jelly Roll Morton, "Goodbye, Porkpie Hat" for Lester Young) boast pure Mingus melodies with no room for obvious imitation. Similarly, few musicians have played "Mingus ... | More »

Merle Haggard

Serving 190 Proof

Remember "Okie from Muskogee" and "Fightin' Side of Me," the two Merle Haggard anthems that served as right-wing rallying cries during the volatile turn of this decade? Sure, you do. Remember Someday We'll Look Back, the follow-up LP? Probably not, because it didn't include anything as easy to get a handle on, born as it was out of the inner turmoil resulting from Haggard's new notoriety. With its troubled love songs and starkly autobiographical numbers about growing up po... | More »

August 23, 1979

Roy Orbison

Laminar Flow

What riles me about Laminar Flow isn't so much that the LP is an embarrassing travesty ill-suited to one of rock's minor masters, but that such a debacle was totally unnecessary. Laminar Flow is a labyrinth of wooden rhythms, lukewarm clichés and hackneyed arrangements. Still, despite a mountain of other people's mistakes, Roy Orbison's miraculously singular voice muddles its way through and hasn't lost much of the edge that gave life to hits like "Only the Lon... | More »

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

More Song Stories entries »
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