Joni Mitchell: Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm

Intelligent pop was alive and well in summer 1988 with key albums from Prefab Sprout, It Bites, Scritti Politti, Prince, Thomas Dolby…and, would you believe it, Joni.

Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm was a few years in the making after the underperforming (but excellent) Dog Eat Dog, and she was feeling the pressure. ‘I could use a hit’, she confessed to Q magazine in a long interview (they also gave the album a glowing four-star review).

She also granted a long interview to the NME, and was rewarded with her highest charting album (#26) in the UK since Mingus, almost ten years earlier.

Stateside, off the back of a stinking, poorly-written Rolling Stone review, it reached a disappointing #45.

Released on 23 March 1988, Chalk Mark is based around a core band of Joni on keys, guitars and vocals, Larry Klein on bass and keys, Mike Landau on guitars and Manu Katche on drums. Larry and Joni co-produce.

There’s a real consistency to the sound, but, with its hermetically sealed nature, it seems almost critic-proof. There’s nothing to compare it too, apart from Joni’s own work.

Reviewers were generally confused by her choice to use the latest synth/sampling technology to illuminate anti-war, anti-advertising, anti-‘toxic crap’ (Joni’s words), pro-Native American songs. Well, that’s what’s known as ‘irony’…

Gorgeous opener and first single ‘My Secret Place’ was mostly recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Ashcombe House studio (he also offered her free studio time to make the demos for the album).

PG guests on vocals (though Joni plays all keyboards, including the memorable piano motif) while Katche delivers a superb, subtly-building performance with hints of Steve Gadd’s famous ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ groove.

As usual, musicians and singers were queuing up to appear on a Joni record. Steve Stevens, Billy idol and Tom Petty combine to memorable effect on ‘Dancin’ Clown’ (apparently one of Bob Dylan’s favourites), while Wendy & Lisa add their gossamer back-ups to sumptuous ‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Study War No More)’.

‘The Reoccurring Dream’ is a collage of advertising cliches over richly-chorded Joni vocals. The standout is possibly ‘Beat Of Black Wings’, a furious anti-war song with a stately, orchestral theme in an unusual 6/4 time.

Less effective are the plodding ‘Number One’, ‘Snakes And Ladders’ and ‘Cool Water’, despite some welcome guest vocals by Willie Nelson on the latter. All would probably have been more effective as solo, acoustic songs (she often promoted the album with solo versions of the former).

The album ends with Wayne Shorter’s hearty chuckle after his multi-tracked, soprano sax deluge on ‘A Bird That Whistles’ (apparently Joni’s only instruction to him in the studio was: ‘You’re the bird’!).

Joni was in a group of one in 1988, feeling no particular kinship with the female singer-songwriters making their way towards the end of the decade, the likes of Suzanne Vega, Julia Fordham, Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Louise Goffin, Toni Childs and Tracy Chapman (the latter beating Joni to a Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy in 1989).

She was still far ahead of the competition, but also painting herself into a corner. It was the end of an era. The acoustic guitar and ‘folky’ forms would re-emerge in time for the next album Night Ride Home; a logical, commercially-led move, but the end of a fascinating progression of sounds and styles during the ‘80s.

Bruford: One Of A Kind Revisited

In the late 1980s, some ‘long-lost’ cult tracks took on almost mythical status amongst my musician friends and I.

There was Frank Zappa’s ‘The Black Page’, Rush’s ‘YYZ’ and ‘La Villa Strangiato’, UK’s ‘In The Dead Of Night’ and Bill Bruford’s ‘Five G’ and ‘Travels With Myself And Someone Else’.

Guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who died four years ago today, of course featured on the latter three tracks (he originally came to my attention when It Bites’ Francis Dunnery waxed lyrical about him in a 1989 Guitarist magazine interview).

Pre-YouTube and Spotify, the problem was that you just couldn’t get hold of this stuff (even though it was barely ten years old!). So it was a thrill when I finally tracked down a copy of Bruford’s One Of A Kind album – featuring ‘Five G’ and ‘Travels With Myself’ – sometime in the mid-1990s.

And now this landmark collection has received the posh reissue treatment, as part of a box set or as a double CD set featuring a new stereo remix, carried out by Bruford and Level 42/King Crimson guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, and a DVD containing the remastered original mix and a new surround-sound mix.

You could argue that the album is the most complete work by all of the participants. Recorded at Soho’s Trident Studios, One Of A Kind was released on the cusp of the 1980s and pointed to where all the four members’ music would take them in the new decade.

There’s no quantizing here – it’s music that breathes (check out the ‘bendy’ time on ‘Hells Bells’, ‘Travels’ and the title track) played by empathetic, truly virtuosic musicians.

But is it rock, jazz, prog or fusion? Who knows, but it’s some of the greatest British instrumental music of all time.

Bruford stuns with one of the tightest drum sounds on record – whipcrack snare, cutting Rototoms – with great phrasing and ideas, some fantastic tuned percussion (marimba, xylophone) and excellent compositions. Bassist Jeff Berlin is an astonishing talent – logical, inventive, technically perfect but never boring.

Dave Stewart (not to be confused with David A Stewart of Eurythmics) is a revelation, layering superbly with his new Prophet 5 synth and adding some effective solos. The liner notes report Holdsworth returning to the studio after a break, hearing Stewart overdubbing on ‘Travels With Myself’ and finding himself in tears.

For his part, Allan was by all accounts rather unhappy during the recording, but delivers brilliant, moving solos, particularly on ‘Travels’ and ‘Sahara Of Snow Part 2’. He also contributes the excellent composition ‘The Abingdon Chasp’, apparently named for a beloved brand of real ale.

Then there’s the resplendent ‘Fainting In Coils’, complete with the ‘Alice In Wonderland’ excerpts and tricky time signature which sounds completely natural in Bruford’s hands.

But how does the new remix sound? First, the good news: the title track, ‘Fainting In Coils’ and ‘Hells Bells’ sound fresh and thrilling; it’s like hearing them for the first time.

But now the bad news: ‘Travels’ inserts some new Stewart solo licks, inaccurately mutes some of his synth pads and then inexplicably mixes his acoustic piano way down and drenches it in muddy reverb (though Holdsworth’s comping is brought forward in the mix).

Then there’s ‘Five G’ – it’s mixed totally dry, with all reverb removed, again with Stewart’s keys too low and Berlin’s bass too high and too ‘middly’.

And the packaging? Sid Smith’s liner notes are excellent, with some lovely, previously-unpublished photos from rehearsal rooms and pub gardens (both in Kingston, Surrey!).

But there’s no sign of the tracklisting or song/composer credits on the digipack – you have to search around for the inner pamphlet to find the details printed in the middle, so quick reference while listening is not easy.

Still – even if the remix is patchy (I can’t comment on the surround mix), the whole package is well worth getting. Any excuse to celebrate a classic album and brilliant band, and a rich voyage of discovery if you don’t know this music.

One Of A Kind Expanded & Remixed is available at Burning Shed.

Linda Ronstadt: Canciones De Mi Padre

Great singing voices: you need ‘em, I need ‘em, the world needs ‘em.

Put me down for Mike Patton, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Chaka Khan, Lewis Taylor, Donny and Lalah Hathaway, Leon Thomas, Al Green, Phyllis Hyman, Johnny Gill, etc. etc.

And Linda Ronstadt too. I was a big teenage fan of her live cameo in cult movie ‘FM’ (though possibly for reasons other than musical), loved her guest spot with Randy Newman at this October 1984 TV special and her work with Neil Young on Freedom, but it was only when I heard her 1987 album Canciones de mi Padre that it all came together.

It’s a collection of traditional Spanish-language songs that she heard as a kid growing up in Tucson, Arizona, only 45 minutes from the Mexican border (her father was of German, English and Mexican ancestry).

Produced by long-time manager/producer Peter Asher and with arrangements by Ruben Fuentes, it’s a gorgeous selection, with Ronstadt’s majestic voice rising above trumpets, violins, acoustic guitar, string bass and mariarchi vocals.

The album was a deeply personal project, as she told MOJO magazine in December 2018:

‘I knew those songs all my life and I wanted to sing them. I didn’t know the lyrics to most of them but my dad did – he was a big part of my research – and although I knew roughly what they were about, I had to learn what the Spanish meant. I had to really, really work to get it up to speed.’

Canciones de mi Padre was a huge success, winning a Grammy for Best Mexican/American Performance, and sold approximately two million copies in the USA (and ten million copies worldwide), making it the biggest-selling non-English-language album in Billboard history.

That’s pretty good for a beautiful album that Linda considers herself lucky to have been allowed to make at all, claiming she was only given a green light by Warners after her Nelson Riddle-composed/arranged For Sentimental Reasons was unexpectedly a big hit. She subsequently toured Canciones across the States in theatres, revue-style, and also recorded two further Spanish-language albums.

Ronstadt sadly retired from public performance in 2009 after a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. The recent, moving documentary ‘Sound Of My Voice’ explores her ’70 and ‘80s music, including the great collaborations with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and focuses on the Spanish-language albums too.

Jaco Pastorius: Truth, Liberty & Soul (Live In NYC, 27 June 1982)

Even as the streaming revolution sweeps all before it, there are a few aspects of physical music that seem to be thriving: vinyl and the ‘historical discovery’.

Bass superstar Jaco is now a worthy recipient of both, courtesy of Truth, Liberty & Soul, a complete gig recorded at the Avery Fisher Hall in New York City on 27 June 1982, part of that summer’s Kool Jazz Festival.

The concert was originally broadcast live on NPR but has lain in the vaults for decades, and it took Resonance Records (via vaultmeister Zev Feldman) six years to prepare these tapes for release.

It features Jaco alongside his regular band (Bob Mintzer – saxes, Randy Brecker – trumpet, Don Alias – percussion, Othello Molineaux – steel drums, Peter Erskine – drums), plus special guest Toots Thielemans on harmonica and a big band full of NYC’s finest horn players.

The album catches Jaco at somewhat of a crossroads; by most accounts, June 1982 was the last time he was truly ‘together’ in terms of his mental wellbeing, the wheels really coming off during the Japanese tour later that autumn. (Fans of a certain age may fondly remember the televised live gig from the Montreal Jazz Festival which took place on 3 July 1982 – see below).

The question is, if you already own Jaco’s 1983 live album Invitation (released in slightly expanded form as Twins in Japan), also featuring the big band, is it worth getting this one? The answer is a resounding yes. It’s thrilling to hear a whole gig in real time by one of the last true jazz titans.

The sound is superb – crisp, deep and rich. The packaging is excellent, with a weighty booklet full of incisive essays and previously unseen photos. Anyone sick of bandleaders’ endless yakking to the audience to run down the clock these days will be pleased to hear that Jaco doesn’t utter a single word until a garbled band announcement during the closer ‘Fannie Mae’ – he’s there to play music.

There are many highlights – a killer ‘Donna Lee’, touching Afro-Cuban take on Toots’s ‘Bluesette’, an epic ‘Liberty City’ and particularly Mintzer’s superb composition ‘Mr Fonebone’, electrifying in big-band format.

There are one or two longeurs – we could probably do without the extended percussion and drum ‘improvisations’. And it has to be said that Jaco doesn’t sound on completely top form during his solos, though that’s possibly due to the size/acoustics of the venue, alluded to by a few contributors in the liner notes. But his accompaniment is typically brilliant throughout.

Frankly, it makes one desperate to attend such a gig in these crazy times. Truth, Liberty & Soul is a valuable release and an absolute must for anyone who owns any Jaco or Jaco-era Joni Mitchell/Weather Report albums.

 

Roxy Music: Flesh + Blood 40 Years On

Couldn’t let 2020 squeak by without celebrating 40 years of Flesh + Blood. As a young whippersnapper, along with Sgt. Pepper’s, it was probably the first LP I enjoyed all the way through.

But these days it’s often mentioned as an afterthought to Avalon and the early albums (maybe Peter Saville’s cover rankles?).

It featured not one but three classic singles (‘Oh Yeah’, ‘Same Old Scene’, ‘Over You’), two distinctive cover versions, and was arguably one of the most influential collections of the 1980s.

It also perfectly compliments such contemporary new-wave/disco work from Blondie, Duran Duran and Japan (also sharing with those acts a reliance on the Roland CR-78 rhythm box, heard prominently in the intro of the below).

Flesh + Blood is the last Roxy studio album where Andy Mackay (sax) and Phil Manzanera (guitar) were major players if not songwriters (all tracks were written by Ferry apart from the covers, though Manzanera had a hand in ‘Over You’, ‘No Strange Delight’ and ‘Running Wild’). Both add memorable solos and nice ensemble work throughout.

It’s also a classic early-’80s bass album: reliably excellent Alan Spenner and Neil Jason joined new boy Gary Tibbs, fresh from his acting role in Hazel O’Connor’s ‘Breaking Glass’ movie and about to become one of Adam’s Ants.

The great Andy Newmark piled in on drums, having just completed work on Lennon/Ono’s Double Fantasy, alongside fellow NYC sessionman Allan Schwartzberg (who plays a blinder on ‘Same Old Scene’).

Londoner Rhett Davies was on board as co-producer, fresh from groundbreaking work with Brian Eno (both are apparent influences on the psychedelic/ambient outros to ‘My Only Love’ and ‘Eight Miles High’, and atmospheric overdubbing throughout), working with the band at his favourite Basing Street Studios (later Sarm) in London’s Notting Hill. There were also occasional sessions at Manzanera’s Gallery Studios in Chertsey, Surrey.

Burgeoning star NYC mixing engineer Bob Clearmountain took time off his work with Chic to add some hefty bottom-end and fat drums at the fabled Power Station studios. Bob Ludwig’s ‘definitive’ 1999 CD remaster is one of the loudest, bassiest re-releases of the last few decades (but not a patch on the original cassette!).

But basically Flesh + Blood is very much Ferry’s show, layering Yamaha CP-80 piano (in his trademark ‘no thirds’ style) and synths to great effect, and even adding some amusingly sleazy guitar on the title track. He also sings superbly, delivering a particularly impassioned performance on ‘Running Wild’.

Even when he veers slightly out of tune, as on ‘Rain Rain Rain’, it’s an artful, conscious move (unlike these days!), a la Dylan or Bowie. His lyrics are generally fascinating – dreamlike, elliptical, odes to unrequited love and possibly one or two illicit substances.

Flesh + Blood was a big hit in the UK, reaching #1 on two separate occasions between May and September 1980. But surprisingly it didn’t quite work in the States, just scraping into the top 40, possibly not helped by a stinking review in Rolling Stone (‘…such a shockingly bad Roxy record that it provokes a certain fascination…’!).

But Ferry could see a path ahead, and would repeat the winning formula (drum machine + painstaking overdubs + much-pondered-over lyrics/melody lines) for the rest of the decade. Rhett Davies had his work cut out – he moved on to work with Robert Fripp on the classic King Crimson reunion album Discipline.

 

Robert Palmer: Clues 40 Years On

If in 1979 you’d been asked to draft a list of key 1970s artists most likely to go ‘new-wave’, Robert Palmer would surely have been near the bottom.

After all, he spent most of the decade as a kind of sophistifunk Bryan Ferry, with his ‘problematic’ album covers and Little Feat-inspired grooves.

1979’s Secrets had shown glimpses of ‘rock’, but Clues, released 40 years ago this week, went the whole hog. And, along with 1978’s Double Fun, it’s probably his most consistent album and definitely worth a reappraisal.

There are good omens in the liner notes – a Talking Heads guest appearance here, a Gary Numan song there, Compass Point mixmaster general Alex Sadkin (Nightclubbing etc.) on knob-twiddling duties, Free’s Andy Fraser on bass. And Clues delivers big-time, exploding out of the speakers and clocking in at just over half-an-hour (it must sound great on vinyl).

It’s buoyed by two superb singles, ‘Looking For Clues’ and ‘Johnny And Mary’, the former scraping into the UK top 40 (shockingly, Robert only had SIX top 40 singles during the 1980s…). But there are other treats throughout: ‘Sulky Girl’ sounds curiously like Low-era Bowie, with its histrionic vocals, unhinged guitars, processed drums and barrelhouse piano.

The Beatles cover ‘Not A Second Time’ is excellent (with a new second verse), as is the Numan contribution ‘I Dream Of Wires’. When Gary’s synths squelch into action, it’s a great moment, as is the funky fanfare in the middle. And no-one but Palmer could have pulled off the minimalist Township swing of ‘Woke Up Laughing’, featuring a brilliant, polyrhythmic vocal performance.

If Good Drum Sounds are your thing, Sadkin delivers a masterclass here. I’ll be amazed if anyone can point to a better-recorded 1980s kit than on album-closer ‘Found You Now’, played by the excellent Dony Wynn (who he?).

Clues was, perhaps surprisingly, not a big success in the UK, making just #31. Nor did it go down too well in the US, peaking at #59. But it was a big hit in France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Robert generally gets a bad rap these days, maybe due to those album covers (despite glowing character references in Phill Brown’s ‘Are We Still Rolling’ and Guy Pratt’s ‘My Bass And Other Animals’), and he seldom gets the ‘career overview’ treatment in the rock monthlies.

But he was actually married to the same woman for 28 years (from 1971 to 1999) and had two kids. A private man and music fan through and through, he died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of just 54.

Bill Evans: Living In The Crest Of A Wave/The Alternative Man

When people say ‘I hate jazz’, I sometimes wonder if they’re really saying they know a crap composition when they hear one.

Legions of talented jazz sidepeople have been given solo record contracts only to deliver music that proves they can’t write decent tunes.

A case in point is saxophonist and William Hurt-lookalike Bill Evans. He’s had a very solid career but his solo work is distinctly underwhelming.  (And then there’s the name. If you play jazz, you probably need a stage name if you have exactly the same moniker as a bona fide legend from decades gone by – the pianist Bill Evans died in 1980.)

But give Sax Bill some credit – he was an absolutely vital figure in Miles Davis’s 1980s comeback, a good friend and carer of the trumpeter and player of several gritty solos on record (Star People is a good place to start). But by 1983 Bill found himself inexplicably frozen out, barely getting any solo space from Miles.

He got the message and jumped ship to join John McLaughlin in the new Mahavishnu Orchestra and also embark on a solo career which kicked off with 1984’s Living In The Crest Of A Wave, a pretty anodyne collection of new-agey fusion. Let’s call it The Metheny Effect. Many tried and failed to ape that guitarist’s mixture of Ornette Coleman-inspired melodicism, Latin flavours and down-home, Midwestern, open-sky simplicity.

With its folky themes, puny production, emphasis on soprano sax, fretless bass, ride cymbals and an ‘environmental’ bent, LITCOAW could almost have come out on Windham Hill. Only the closing title track works up any kind of energy or interest, when Evans finally busts out the tenor and blows up a storm over Adam Nussbaum’s frenetic jazz/rock groove.

Evans’ followup, 1985’s The Alternative Man, was his first record for the illustrious Blue Note Records and as such should have been a celebration. Unfortunately it was an object lesson in how not to use technology, and just the kind of ‘80s ‘jazz’ album that illustrates what a brilliant job Marcus Miller did on Miles’s Tutu.

Evans in the main stumbles around with ugly Linn Drum patterns, electric drums, blaring synth pads and raucous hair-metal guitar solos, all topped off with some fairly insipid soprano playing. A few tracks and you’ll be wanting to break out the Albert Ayler or David Murray albums, and fast.

The only interest predictably comes with two more open, organic offerings, the excellent ‘Miles Away’ which reunites Evans with his Miles colleagues Al Foster on drums and Miller on bass. And ’Let The Juice Loose’ is fun, a cool bebop head featuring some enjoyably un-PC Strat-mangling from the late great Hiram Bullock.

But hey – some of this music brings back good memories, when I was digging around the Record And Tape Exchange and Our Price for bargains and closely monitoring the personnel on the back of my favourite Miles and McLaughlin albums.

These albums also definitely represent a weird time for ’80s jazz, when established labels were signing all and sundry, fishing around for the next Young Lion or Metheny. And thankfully a few dodgy early solo records didn’t hurt Evans’ career much, as he’s gone on to be one of the most respected players on the scene.

The Brecker Brothers: Live And Unreleased

Horn sections – they sure divide opinion, especially in the ‘pop’ realm. Some people just cannot stand all of that pomp and circumstance, while others get turned on by a hot, punchy chart.

But like ’em or hate ’em, some great records just wouldn’t be the same without the horns: The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’ for example.

But who are the most-recorded sections of all time? You’d get very short odds on The Brecker Brothers, comprising Michael on tenor and Randy on trumpet, occasionally augmented by David Sanborn on alto too.

They graced hundreds of recordings before Michael’s death in 2007, including Parliament’s ‘Chocolate City’, Todd Rundgren’s ‘Hello It’s Me’ and Dire Straits’ ‘Your Latest Trick’.

Under their own name, seven studio albums showcased a really cool sound with funky grooves and intricate harmony, somewhere between Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan. And now they’ve been given the full-on archive treatment, a new Live And Unreleased album featuring a complete two-hours-plus gig with no edits or overdubs, recorded in Hamburg on 2nd July 1980.

This is a really impressive package, a beautifully-recorded double with extended liner notes by Bill Milkowski and additional, amusing memories from Randy Brecker. The sh*t-hot band includes Neil Jason on bass (familiar to fans of Roxy Music’s Flesh & Blood and Avalon), Barry Finnerty on guitar (most famous for a short stint with Miles Davis), Mark Gray on keys and Richie Morales on drums.

The material is a mix of BB favourites like ‘Squids’, ‘Sponge’, ‘Some Skunk Funk’, ‘Straphanging’, ‘I Don’t Know Either’ and ‘East River’. Pleasingly, these are pretty faithful to the original studio versions tempo-and-arrangement-wise, but there’s also a big emphasis on extended solos and one-chord vamps.

It’s also clear that, by 1980, Michael was giving Randy a serious run for his money on the composing front – his tunes and sometimes extraordinary solos dominate proceedings, particularly on the sprightly ‘I Don’t Know Either’ and ‘Tee’d Off’.

Finnerty gets a hell of a lot of solo time but is generally pretty characterless compared to other Brecker-approved studio guitarists (Hiram Bullock, Steve Khan), while Gray is excellent but too low in the mix.

Morales is rock-solid but, again, fairly anonymous compared to other Brecker favourites Steve Jordan, Terry Bozzio, Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason (hardly surprising, since they are three of the all-time greats…). Jason, with his big, buoyant, funky sound, is the star of the rhythm section.

As usual, ‘Some Skunk Funk’ makes for fascinating listening – the funk/fusion standard has become a kind of test piece for drummers (Harvey Mason, Billy Cobham and Terry Bozzio all had memorable cracks at it, offering subtly different readings). Morales has a good go here but again lacks the invention and drive of the aforementioned.

So: three-and-a-half stars for the music, five for the package. It’s definitely worth immersing oneself in it on vinyl or CD, helped by Randy’s witty between-song comments.

It’s a really strong live album with some great performances, and exemplifies an interesting period for jazz/rock when good grooves and extended solos took precedence over technical chops. Even if you can’t stand horn sections…