As a man grows older, he grows brittle. The magic seeps from his bones, and he makes a dry, creaking sound as he moves about the world, a kind of interminable tsk that secretly guards what little youth he has left by assessing everything around him as unoriginal, automatic, another tooth in the grinding gears of time. Critics discover this internal defect earlier, I suspect, as new works elicit the same old words. I point this out as a forward apology, since I don’t expect to say anything new about Stanley Clarke’s second album and, honestly, it deserves new language. Unlike his first album, which patterned itself after the early voyages of RTF (and even brought Captain Corea along for the ride), the self-titled second album is a true solo journey. Clarke assembled an all-star crew—Mahavishnu’s Jan Hammer, Tony Williams, Bill Connors—arranged the material himself and put his bass front and center in the music. The pieces are decidedly more funky this time and often use a funk riff of bass and drums to move the music along, which suggests that Clarke still needed to grow as an arranger, but the bass playing itself is unimpeachably smart. Highlights include the joyful “Lopsy Lu” (which segues nicely from the album’s only vocal piece, “Yesterday Princess”) and the two extended pieces on side two, “Spanish Phases” (featuring the acoustic bass) and the RTF-like “Life Suite.” Normally, I’d be writing a paragraph just about Tony Williams (my favorite drummer), but he’s merely excellent (versus, say, supernatural) on this session. Jan Hammer, on the other hand, really impresses me here with his Moog work which, although a bit dated (not his fault), is the album’s second main ingredient. Most of the time, Bill Connors isn’t any more audible here than on Hymn, so it must be a stylistic thing, although he does light it up for “Power” and the closing of “Life Suite.” In comparing this with his first record, I would tell you that Stanley Clarke is the better bass showcase, Children the better bet to please RTF fans. The second album also sets a template for future works, which would highlight Clarke’s bass in various settings of funk, fusion and classical jazz.
Kronomyth 3.0: ACADEMIGOD. John Cale had released an album of pop (Vintage Violence) and proto-ambient jazz (Church of Anthrax), so what for an encore but an album of minimalist classical music? In a sense, The Academy In Peril completes the triumvirate of tastes that constitute the complete John Cale experience: genteel, experimental and classical. The classically trained Cale had yet to showcase his formal training on record. In VU, he was the iconoclast alternating between drone and a saw cutting through bone. On Violence, he was an aspiring pop star. On Anthrax, he was a noisemonger. Here, we finally meet the trained classicist, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra no less, starring as both serious composer and silly saboteur, minimalist and sentimentalist. The opening track, “The Philosopher,” sets the tone with the first of many unexpected surprises: minimalist with a side of foot-stompin’ Cajun slide that could best be described as Americana avant garde. “Brahms” is one of several solo piano pieces, here featuring an interesting mix of resonance and dissonance. “Legs Larry at Television Centre” is a brilliant satire of serious classical music, with Legs Larry Smith providing crude director’s commentary for an imagined filming, including several admonishments for the sound crew to mind their boom. “The Academy In Peril” is another piano piece, this time sublime in effect. “Intro/Days of Steam” starts with a wild intro that leads into a lovely childlike mix of unorthodox instruments, an approach that will sound immediately familiar to fans of Penguin Café Orchestra. (Really, you have to wonder if Cale wasn’t the example that E.G. Records patterned itself after, give the affinities to Eno, PCO, Harold Budd, etc.) The “3 Orchestral Pieces,” featuring the RPO, are the album’s classical pedigree, and reveal a keen sense of dark and light imagery. “King Harry” is whispered genius at the edge of reason; Cale would repeat the experience on Paris 1919 with “Antarctica Starts Here.” “John Milton” closes the album with eight minutes of alien beauty that likely had an effect on the later ambient music of Brian Eno. The Academy In Peril rarely tries the same trick twice, and demonstrates a surprisingly rich sonic palette, a point made more manifest when you consider how different it is from the preceding two efforts. More importantly, it reveals that Cale has ever been capable of playing the straight classical card (albeit with plenty of boobytraps), which makes the calculated musical choices that Cale has made up until now even more impressive. If one album can be said to establish once and for all the genius of John Cale, this is it.
John released his first solo album in between U.K. and Asia, and Caught In The Crossfire both looks back to the one and looks forward to the other. The leadoff track is actually something of a red herring, as John tries his hand at the music of The Police (and what singing bass player didn’t want to be Sting in 1980?). The rest of the album picks up where U.K. left off and prefigures the more commercial sound of Asia. “When Will You Realize?,” “Paper Talk,” “Get What You Want” and the haunting “Cold Is The Night” would all fit that description. “Baby Come Back” and “Woman” (one of two brilliant ballads on this album) could even be seen as Asia Beta. If you’re looking for traces of Roxy Music or Uriah Heep, you may find them on “Caught In The Crossfire” and “Get Away.” Mano a mano, Wetton clearly outmaneuvers Greg Lake in the solo debut department. After years of playing in other people’s bands and contributing lyrics to other people’s songs, Wetton emerges as a singular force capable of writing (and playing) everything. The support he receives here is minimal: drums (Simon Kirke), sax (Malcolm Duncan) and a rare bit of moonlighting from Tull guitarist Martin Barre, who catches fire on “Paper Talk.” Wetton’s long-awaited debut should have charted better, but it’s unclear how much EG Records promoted it. Also, U.K. didn’t leave particularly long coattails to ride on; subsequent copies of Caught In The Crossfire added a sticker that called attention to the Wetton-Asia connection, and likely caught more eyes as a result. If you’re a fan of U.K. or Asia or simply a Wetton watcher over years, this one is definitely worth a shot.
Kronomyth 0.5: CAREFUL WITH THAT AXE, CLIFFORD. If Jerry Garcia had joined Pink Floyd, I imagine it would have sounded something like this. Hooteroll? owes its existence to the late 60s jam sessions led by Howard Wales and featuring Garcia, Bill Vitt and John Kahn. It’s really a Howard Wales record in disguise; Jerry is the draw, but Wales is the main musical architect. Like Tom Constanten before him, Wales appears to have been a very experimental cat. Many of these songs sound like they could have come from Floyd’s first two albums: “Morning In Marin,” “Da Birg Song,” “One A.M. Approach.” A couple of them favor the mellower side of Jefferson Airplane (“Evening In Marin,” “Up From The Desert”), and a few are relatively conventional R&B numbers that suggest later collaborations with Merl Saunders (“South Side Strut,” “DC-502,” “Uncle Martin’s”). All in all, Hooteroll? is one of the strangest Jerry Garcia side projects you’ll hear. If the Dead’s sonic spelunkering appeals to you, this album might just blow your mind. Wales is an amazing organist, Kahn really gets into it, sax/flute players Martin Fierro spices things up and Garcia is just the cherry on top of this sonic sundae. The idea that much of this music was probably improvised on the spot makes it even more amazing. For some reason, the original elpee lineup was reshuffled and renovated for the Rykodisc reissue, with “A Trip To What Next” replaced by “Morning In Marin” and “Evening In Marin.” Subsequent reissues reconciled all of the tracks on a single disc. In whichever form you find it, Hooteroll? is an absolute hoot, especially if you come with open ears and an open mind.
Despite the title, The Shouting Stage is one of her most restrained albums. The opening “The Devil I Know,” with its sophisticated jazz/blues setting, lets you know that Joan won’t be trying to rock your socks off. Instead, she tickles you with the charming melodies that have always been at the core of her best work (“Living For You,” “Straight Talk”) and moves you with deep observations about the cunning art (“The Shouting Stage,” “All A Woman Needs”). The arrangements are subtle yet supple, the supporting band (featuring Mark Knopfler and a returning Pino Palladino) typically excellent. The Shouting Stage is in many ways where you would expect Joan Armatrading to be at this stage in her career: mining familiar melodies with richer results. It’s not about the hits anymore, although if you’re looking for them, “Living For You” and “Straight Talk” won’t disappoint. It’s about quality, consistency, experience. Maybe it’s the participation of Knopfler and Alan Clark, but The Shouting Stage reminds me of the softer moments on Brothers In Arms. It flows from a natural, organic place that her last few albums didn’t in their attempt to (at least partially) please rock audiences. It isn’t an optimistic album; the lyrics are some of her darkest yet, dealing with broken trust, jealousy, being out of love. In fact, there isn’t one positive perspective on love to be found on The Shouting Stage. It’s her ability to create something beautiful out of sadness and frailty, however, that makes Joan so very special. At the same time, she continues to seek new sounds in her restless quest for idealized love, which has made the journey far more interesting for us, her traveling companions.
Joan took matters into her own hands this time, producing the record and handling all the guitar parts. Sleight of Hand does contain a pair of brilliant tracks that are worth the album’s price, “Russian Roulette” and “Jesse.” But Secret Secrets had better songs and, frankly, better production. Originally, I had it the other way around, calling this record sleightly better than her last. Maybe I just warmed up to the funky “Kind Words” faster than “Persona Grata.” It is great to hear Joan’s guitar front and center, but not so great to hear them compete with the bass and drums on nearly every song. As a producer, Joan’s touch is surprisingly indelicate. “Reach Out” manages to win out over the over-the-top production, yet most of Sleight of Hand suffers for it. Joan has since called it a “rock” album, which I guess it is if your idea of rock is heavy beats in 4/4 time and modern studio effects. I’ve always thought of Me Myself I as a rock album, but that’s just me. It’s a funkier record than I expected, reminiscent of Prince at times, with fewer of the musical twists and turns found on Secret Secrets. The thing is that I like Joan most when she’s being less like everyone else, and Sleight of Hand isn’t an outlier album. “Russian Roulette” and “Jesse” are charming and eccentric, “Don Juan” is romantic, “Reach Out” is powerful. The rest of the record is compressed, conventional and cold—words that you won’t usually see in a Joan Armatrading review. Then again, Joan herself has admitted a fondness for Sleight of Hand, so maybe you should take her word for it and not mine.
Joan’s second album is a stronger effort than her first, in more ways a harbinger of the good things to come on her breakthrough third album. While nothing on Back To The Night is as powerful as “Down To Zero” or “Love And Affection,” there are a few near misses including “Back To The Night” and “Dry Land,” both of which were released as singles. Where her first album felt precious, producer Pete Gage favors flesh-and-blood arrangements that allow Joan’s raw energy and emotion to shine through. The Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens comparisons still hold, as the music shifts from piano/guitar confessionals (“Come When You Need Me,” “No Love For Free”) to pleasantly oblique pop melodies (“So Good,” “Travel So Far”). The backing band is completely new, a technique that has kept Joan’s music fresh over the years. On this record, you’ll hear tabla, Moog, double bass and other exotic sounds that you wouldn’t encounter on later albums. Now, a significant amount of time had passed since the release of Whatever’s For Us, and in some ways Back To The Night is a re-introduction. The Joan Armatrading here is a complete songwriter and a distinctive artist with a confident voice. She’s willing to talk about being hurt (“Cool Blue Stole My Heart”), letting go (“Steppin’ Out”) and even finding God (“Get In Touch With Jesus”), although it’s unclear whether Joan is being autobiographical or simply personal with her subject matter. What is clear is that Joan wouldn’t need to suffer comparisons for long. This album is her stepping out party, just as her eponymous third album would be her step up to the big leagues. Oh, and if you care about these kinds of things, that really is a pre-Police Andy Summers—credited here as Sommers, which is a hybrid of his real name (Somers) and stage name (Summers)—playing lead guitar on the serendipitous “Steppin’ Out.”
Kronomyth 1.0: SON OF THE RETURN TO FOREVER. The first solo album from Stanley Clarke is an RTF record in all but name; a Light As A Feather in his cap, if you will. It’s a transitional record, featuring vocals and flute (holdovers from the last RTF album) while looking forward to the future quartet of Clarke, Chick Corea, Lenny White and electric guitar (here provided by Pat Martino). Andy Bey and Dee Dee Bridgewater create an interesting male/female dynamic in the vocals that gives Children of Forever a unique flavor among RTF-related albums that almost feels like Frank Zappa at times (“Children of Forever,” for example, always reminds me of Frank’s “Village of the Sun.”) Children of Forever is both a collaboration between Clarke and Corea and an inversion of their previous roles, with Clarke writing all but one track, lyricist Neville Potter providing the spacey/spiritual subject matter and Corea handling the arrangements to keep everything contained within the RTF universe. The one track arranged by Clarke, “Children of the Future,” begins to fall apart in the middle and suggests that Corea was the stronger arranger of the two (the rest of the album bears that out). “Unexpected Days” shows the difference in their styles, and has a much more sophisticated and languid feel with no trace of funk. Speaking of sophistication, “Butterfly Dreams,” the only track to feature Bey without Bridgewater, could have come from the smooth-as-butter Johnny Hartman himself. On those tracks and the longer “Sea Journey,” it feels as though Corea has hijacked the session, and that may be the only complaint that Clarke fans can level against the album: it’s not a true Stanley Clarke solo album in the same sense as a School Days. As a warm run for the next iteration of RTF, however, Children of Forever is a welcome find for fusion fans and one of the better examples of Corea’s music in a song-oriented form. It’s not the bass showcase I expected, except for the brilliant “Bass Folk Song” and a wild bass fiddle solo on “Sea Journey,” nor is the guitar fully integrated into their sound yet (Pat Martino’s lone solo on “Sea Journey” is more notey than notable). All in all, it’s not quite as amazing as LAAF, Hymn or the Di Meola-era discs (in my opinion), but it’s definitely in the same family.
Kronomyth 3.0: SOMETHING FOR THE HUNGRY DEAD(HEADS). In the 70s, Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings recorded two albums featuring the sounds of Tibetan bells: Tibetan Bells (1971) and Tibetan Bells II (1979). Sonorous and otherworldly—literally, in the sense that the bells were traditionally used to communicate with the dead (hungry ghosts in particular)—these records have been cited as some of the earliest examples of new age music. Clearly, the music spoke to at least one member of the Dead, Mickey Hart, who collaborated with the pair on their next album, Yamantaka. For those of you without the Gods & Demigods supplement to the Dungeon Master’s Guide (only kidding, since I don’t think he’s in there), Yamantaka is a Buddhist god of the underworld who often manifests with multiple arms and heads, most of them angry looking. It’s not clear to me whether the music of Yamantaka is intended as a meditation on death, a musical offering to the god himself or something in between. There are moments on both “The Revolving Mask of Yamantaka” and “Yamantaka” that feel like landscape paintings of the afterlife; bells ring through an endless wasteland, sounds hum with the tedium of eternity, lost souls loom with no physical frame of reference. I couldn’t tell you how this compares to the first two Tibetan Bells, although it seems that Mickey Hart’s contributions expanded the landscape to include a mix of exotic and innovative instruments. I can tell you that Yamantaka is an interesting trip for navel-gazers, although at 35 minutes it might have been a longer trip. The later CD reissue switches the order of the original two tracks and adds three new compositions from Hennings and Wolff to the mix. The new songs fit more easily into the “new age music made with Tibetan bells” category, noting that if any such category does exist, it owes its existence to the original Tibetan Bells albums and, perhaps moreso (given the visibility that Hart brought to the project), to Yamantaka. Unless you’re inclined to sit still for forty minutes of ambient music, a good ten minutes of which is simple resonance, you can pass on this record. But if you believe that music can consist of nothing more than finger cymbals and feedback, a new world awaits on Yamantaka.
Kronomyth 11.0: SECRET ADMIRER. Poor me, pity for me, I didn’t appreciate this album for years. It sounded overproduced a la The Key, and the endless game of musical chairs was beginning to grow tiresome. Then there was the fact that little on Secret Secrets got under my skin, so much as on my nerves with its edgy, off-kilter production. The singles “Temptation” and “Thinking Man” are the obvious winners, and a pair of collaborations with labelmate Joe Jackson, “Talking To The Wall” and “Love By You,” are gems. The rest of it struck me as standoffishly noisy. That is until I recognized that, under all of the production lipstick, “Persona Grata,” “Secret Secrets” and “One Night” were really lovely songs. You won’t hear Joan’s piano or guitar on these songs. What you will hear is some of her strongest songwriting over a storied career. Secret Secrets is a very sophisticated album. Mike Howlett’s heavy production hand won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; in fact, it’s not soothing at all. Scratch the glossy surface, however, and it’s the same raw emotion and revitalizing energy that fuel her best work. As I said, it took me years to get to this place. Initially, the modern production touches, saxophone solos and Pino Palladino’s fretless bass were distractions. If you have the same reaction, go back to “Persona Grata” and “Temptation” and listen to the way those songs shift gears so effortlessly. There’s an ominous tone to both songs in their beginnings, but they prove to be walls that quickly crumble, revealing the artist of the beautiful underneath. Now, to go back and give The Key another turn…