Saturday, November 10, 2012

Certain Songs Part XV: Brown Shoes Don’t Make It

The countdown continues...

Jethro Tull
The Broadsword and the Beast

No, not the best Tull album, but it was the one that introduced me to them, as “Fallen On Hard Times” got some radio play at the time, and I really liked it (still seems woefully apt these days). Around this time, a Tull concert appeared on The King Biscuit Flour Hour, which introduced me to much of their back discography. (Naturally I had heard “Aqualung” and a few of the other classic rock hits on the radio.) Also at this time, an album-by-album documentary on the group was featured on the radio, which gave me a list of records to buy...

I thought—and in retrospect, still think—Broadsword was the best mix of 80s-era synthesizers and other fiddly bits of technology, and their classic, acoustic folk sound, especially coming after the very disappointing A. Martin Barre remained on guitar, as ever, and Dave Pegg remained on bass from A, but those were the only two members retained for Broadsword. Peter Vettese was a keyboard whiz who joined and would have a profound influence on the next couple of records and on Ian Anderson (who would record his first solo record, the all-synth Walk Into Light, with Vettese), and Vettese was one of the rare few to get a co-composition credit on a Jethro Tull record.

Side one, to me, is flawless, with strong opener “Beastie,” followed by “The Clasp,” “Fallen On Hard Times,” “Flying Colours,” and “Slow Marching Band.” Side two flags in places (“Seal Driver,” “Watching You, Watching Me”) but side two opener “Broadsword” is as strong as anything they had done in recent years. One complaint about Broadsword is the drumming; coming after longtime skinsman Barrie(more) Barlow, former Cat Stevens drummer Gerry Conway was a bit too restrained. Unfortunately, he was replaced by a Linn drum machine on the next record, 1984’s Under Wraps, which makes what would be an otherwise not-bad record sound incredibly dated. In the liner notes to the ~2000 reissue, Anderson points out that the Broadsword tour—done in the tradition of over-the-top production spectacle shows of the 1970s—was the last of its kind, with no more costumes, elaborate stage sets, or “full production theatrical tour of Spinal Tap absurdity....Errol Flynn with tights and a flute couldn’t have looked sillier.” The end of an era...perhaps, although it has not stopped Roger Waters.

Vocal cord issues led Anderson to withdraw for a few years and tend to his aquaculture business (he ran salmon farms in the UK), before coming back—and sounding like Mark Knopfler—in 1987 with a return to a classic heavy rock sound of Crest of a Knave. Tull toured relentlessly and in various incarnations throughout the 90s and the records released were not terrible (1995’s Roots to Branches was actually pretty good), and in 2012 Anderson released, under his own name, a sequel to 1972’s prog rock opus Thick as a Brick (see later in this list). Much more from Tull later in this list.

The Mothers of Invention
Absolutely Free 1967

Just the second Zappa album, Absolutely Free was an early perfect combination of social commentary (“Plastic People,” “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”), absurdity (“Call Any Vegetable”), and virtuosic guitar soloing (“Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin”). Side One comprises a couple of suites (“The Duke of Prunes” and “Call Any Vegetable”) while side two careens wildly from high school conformity to adulthood conformity. One line from “Brown Shoes Don't Make It” always stuck with me: “be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn’t care.” Indeed. The “really exciting part” where they try to be The Supremes at the end of “The Duke Regains His Chops” is pretty funny. “Uncle Bernie’s Farm” pokes fun at violent Christmas toys.

Musically, Absolutely Free is all over the map (in a good way), from the opening channeling of “Louie, Louie” (a frequent element of Zappa’s “conceptual continuity”), to Stravinsky references, to doo-wop, to proto-progressive rock, to the music hall of “Brown Shoes...” This album still holds up remarkably well 45 years (oy) later.

Spock’s Beard
The Kindness of Strangers

I first heard neo-progressive band Spock’s Beard in 2003 thanks to the Internet radio station Aural Moon, which also introduced me to The Flower Kings (see earlier in this list) and IQ (see later in this list). Of the six albums they had at the time, I picked this one to give them a chance and fell in love with it. (Upon acquiring the rest of their discography, I’d perhaps cite V as their best but, as I have said often in this list, context is everything.)

“The Good Don’t Last” hooked me in, but, lyrically, isn’t as good as it could have been in terms of criticizing mainstream pop culture. That’s the thing with original songwriter Neal Morse; you were always with him, even if the words were a bit clumsy. The same with his vocals; he’s not a great singer, but had a great “personality” that came through. You didn’t know what had been lost until he left the band. Still, the sentiments of the songs are what get through, and the music is awesome. “We could have made anything we wanted to make/So we made Wheel of Fortune and all the popular songs/We made a land where crap is king and the good don’t last too long.” Indeed.

“Into the Mouth of Madness” is based on a crazy bit of a riff, while “Cakewalk on Easy Street” is a “horror of old age” song (“Wednesday/It’s suppository time again...Friday, I get my leg back on again...”) . The centerpiece, perhaps, is the soaring “June.” “Strange World” could have been better (“Advertising pays more than a lot/While the teacher’s selling pies in the parking lot.”) “Flow” was one of the Beard’s album-ending epics that is perhaps not as successful as other end-of-album epics like “The Great Nothing” or “Time Has Come” but still satisfies.

Unlike a lot of neo-prog, it’s hard to point to any specific antecedent. They had (and have) a pretty original sound. Their following record, 1999’s Day for Night, featured shorter songs, and the original lineup’s last record Snow was a double album rock opera, after which Neal Morse quit to become a born again Christian. The band soldiered on for a few more albums with drummer Nick D’Virgilio as singer (sound familiar?) and struggled to find a direction, suffering a bit in the songwriting department. Their 10th album, X, was perhaps the most successful post-Morse outing, but D’Virgilio left in 2012 and was replaced on vocals by Ted Leonard of pop-prog band The Enchant, who are/were pretty good. A new album is slated for later in 2012. Morse, meanwhile, has been steadily releasing solo records, which are fantastic musically, but some of them are a bit too “all Jesus, all the time,” which is really monotonous. His best solo album is 2006’s ?.

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