Here begins what might become a sporadic tradition, where one of us breaks off from mutual discussion to examine random favorites. These are from Todd's vast sonic library.
Andy Taylor - Thunder (1987)
As Duran Duran was my favorite band in 1984/85, I was quite upset when Notorious came out in 1986 with only Simon, Nick, and John on the cover. Then I wondered why Warren Cuccurullo and Nile Rodgers were credited with guitar work in addition to Andy. I was also put off by the overall lack of guitar on the record. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised given the direction taken by Arcadia’s So Red The Rose (1985), but I was, and I wasn’t happy about it. I had just assumed the gang would get back together and get back to business following their time spent on side projects.
It wasn’t until later that I discovered Andy had been recording on his own (well, with Steve Jones et al) in preparation for a solo album (I don’t think I found the cassette version until 1988 or ‛89 – thanks a lot, small town). Once I heard Thunder, I figured out where all the guitar for Notorious had gone.
Thunder opens with the hard-hitting “I Might Lie”. Andy amps up the aggression (the slickly produced aggression, that is) on this opening volley where he promises to love his lady “’til forever”, but, of course, he might lie – as indicated by the hammer taps and whammy stops. “Don’t Let Me Die Young” is interesting as it sounds like a Duran outtake that’s been Andy-fied. You can hear the Duran in the drum pulse and Andy’s restrained solo. “Life Goes On” slows the action down for a ballad about life...going...on, which embodies the one true weakness of this entire outing – it’s too repetitive. The tracks range from 4:03 to 5:20, and shaving a few choruses off a majority of the tracks would have resulted in a tighter effort.
Still, highlights exist and include the keyboard-laden “Night Train” and the pain-of-unwanted-love tale “Bringin’ Me Down”, where the music is the perfect soundtrack for the lyrics. “Tremblin’” is a programmed chord progression disguised as a song, but it somehow works. “Broken Window” is another slower tempo number with the forlorn verse “Through a broken window / Lies a broken heart / I tried to say I love you / But there’s no place to start”. You know what? The lyrics for Thunder could have been better, too. However, the saving grace of this album is the music (plus the combined production know-how of the Taylor-Jones team). Fittingly, the album fades out with the instrumental “French Guitar”, an effectively melancholy mood piece.
Thunder is an appropriate title for this collection of songs. Some tracks are loud and pounding while others are low and rumbling. The lyrics offer a portent of gloom much like the tall, dark clouds which bring...thunder.
As a bit of carry-over from the previous review, here’s what the members of Duran Duran did from 1984-1986 while supposedly on hiatus from being Duran Duran: recorded “Wild Boys” for inclusion on the Arena live album (1984), Simon Le Bon sang on the Band Aid charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (1984), Andy and John Taylor recorded (1984) and released (1985) Power Station, John recorded material for the soundtrack to 9 1/2 Weeks (1985), the group wrote and recorded the #1 song “A View To A Kill” for the James Bond film of the same name (1985), Simon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor wrote, recorded and released So Red The Rose (1985), the Durans performed at Live Aid on July 13, 1985 (their last performance as this group until 2003!), Simon, Nick and John (with a disgruntled Andy and without an exhausted Roger) recorded and released the Duran Duran album Notorious (1986), and Andy recorded (1986) Thunder (released in 1987) – phew!
Why mention all this? Because So Red The Rose is an amazing album. While Thunder above is a personal favorite and a fine example of guitar(and keyboard)based 80s Rawk, Rose is its polar opposite. “Election Day” takes up where “A View To A Kill” left off, using some of the same elements while exploring a more bass-heavy sound (thanks to Jazz veteran Mark Egan) with a sultry saxophone (Andy MacKay of Roxy Music, ironically one of John Taylor’s favorite bands) outro. It was a very forward-looking song that still sounds fresh. “Keep Me In The Dark” and “Goodbye Is Forever”, alternatively, hearken back to Rio-era Duran in feel and construction. “The Flame” is a personal favorite with its swinging yet searching bass line anchoring the drums and Nick’s synth excursions.
Rose is very good up to that point, but the remaining tracks elevate it to classic status. “Missing” kicks off the art rock revue with a deeply contemplative ballad which foreshadows the mysterious “Rose Arcana” instrumental interlude. “The Promise” “El Diablo” and “Lady Ice” use various art and jazz rock elements to construct a New Romantic Pop cathedral with gleaming spires and shimmering cascades that sounds like several things at once but none more so than itself.
Yeah, I could have added Power Station to this list, but nah. Instead, we’ll take a left turn, Clyde, with a Texas troubadour getting better with age. I heard the title track on our local and fantastic Americana station, WDVX, and I fell in love. “Snake Farm” is the semi-sordid tale of Ramona, the tattooed queen of the snake farm, who apparently doesn’t mind a little union of the snake when she closes the doors for the night. The song is likely loosely based upon the actual Snake Farm in New Braunfels, Texas – the same city, not coincidentally, where Ray once hosted his Roots and Branches of Americana radio show.
If Snake Farm was a baseball player, it would be Tim Keefe – a base-ball player whose very mustache was more virile and athletic than half of the players today. Mr. Keefe’s combined grit and determination allowed him to win 19 games in a row. Snake Farm has more grit than Paula Deen’s pantry and Misty May-Treanor’s bikini bottoms. It’s greasy, dirty blues with Ray’s ragged, wizened voice roughing up the edges like 80-grit sandpaper.
And Ray was an English major, so his lyrics are often inventive and flush with deep pop culture references: “Well, the woman I love is named Ramona / She kind of looks like Tempest Storm / She can dance like Little Egypt / She works down at the...snake farm”. And even though it sounds like it from this review, “Snake Farm” isn’t the only quality song.
“Kilowatts” is a chugging beauty whose chorus talks about what it takes to make it through life: “All it takes is some grains of faith / And a few kilowatts of sweat and grace.” “Heartaches and Grease”, appropriately, is a laid-back grinder concerning the two main temptations in Ray’s life – women and food! “Mother Hubbard’s Blues” uses a stop-start groove to convey stream-of-consciousness lyrics about the wisdom of ’Mother Hubbard’, but she’s more mutha than mother: “She comes to bed in a negligee / Just to discuss cinema verite / She’s the only woman I know that liked Reservoir Dogs”. Ray’s voice is so rocky, sometimes you need a pickaxe to discover the gold nuggets in these lyrics.
Ray also spreads around the dap, name-checking people like Cross Canadian Ragweed and their album Soul Gravy, Otis Redding, Howlin’ Wolf, Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61”, The Clash, The Ramones, MC5 and others. “Rabbit” has a call-and-response lyric setting up dichotomies including these two verses which state the following truth, “There’s two kind of people in the world / The day people and the night people / And it’s the night people’s job / To get the day people’s money”.
“Wild Gods of Mexico” has a spare, open feel and discusses using sacrifice as a fertility rite while name-checking Joseph Campbell. Of course, two tracks later, Ray invokes a more traditional deity in “Resurrection”. It must be mentioned before closing that Ray collaborated with Gurf Morlix on this recording. Gurf provides deft touch on a variety of stringed instruments – giving this album a depth in tone and feel beyond that of Ray’s lone guitar and providing apt soundscapes for the lively lyrics.
This is the best Prince album not written, composed, performed, recorded, produced, mixed, manufactured, packaged, distributed, advertised and sold by Prince himself. From the gonzo-bonzo banjo-laden “Sexx Laws” to the sexy closer “Debra”, Beck is in full freak mode – constructing dancefloor jams and bedroom slams. He even names one track “Peaches & Cream” in case you don’t know who inspired this hot mess of hotness. Notably, “Broken Train” is the one song here that sounds more like Beck than Prince. Maybe he needed a break to get back on track.
Sometimes flattery is nothing more than assault and battery. But Midnite Vultures is a full-length homage from one artist to another. It’s one of my random favorites because Beck nails the imitation while remaining true to his own artistry – no easy feat.
Full disclosure, I was not a denizen of NYC when this music originally hit the streets as a vinyl-only release in 1996 as The Visualz EP. And when it resurfaced in 2008 on CD in an expanded edition, I was still clueless about its existence. I finally stumbled across it as a download and grabbed it just because of the interesting names and title. So, when the minimalist Sun-Ra inspired jams oozed out of my speakers, and the intelligent, abstract verbiage tickled my lobes (both ear and brain), I was summarily blown away. This anthology deserves a track-by-track breakdown.
“The Visualz”: Sets the tone for this experience with its slow, funky, space-keyboard, jazzy backing inflected with saxophone spice. It serves as an intro piece for the emcees and their agenda. And what is their agenda? Taking rap to a higher level. This track also serves as a kind of intro to...
“Gravity”: ...which further explores the space-funk via groove armada. “In the annals of Rap / I want the dog-eared page”. In hindsight, that statement was ironic, as the music probably never reached enough ears to become dog-eared, but the couplet is memorable for its direct honesty. Rap is the go-to medium for telling people how great you are, but the boasts are only empty words when they don’t come true or aren’t true. The couplet remains memorable to me because it’s not necessarily a boast, it’s more of an entreaty.
“Glass Bottom Boat”: Short ride with a distorted view. Intro by JFK.
“No Soles Dopest Opus”: Intro by Pee Wee Marquette nabbed for hire and appropriate sax licks follow as lyrical slopes flow below soles and denote focus. Opus? Dopest.
“The Mystery”: Is that Herbie on the keys? Kind of sounds like it. Maybe that’s the mystery.
“A Day Like Any Other”: The penultimate track of the original EP is a scattered lyrical and musical journey where preconceptions are shattered and wordplay (rather than swordplay) is engaged by our heroes as they trek the planet felling mighty foes and ferocious creatures alike. Callbacks to earlier tracks abound and deft versus float around. Altogether, the fantastic, far-fetched events of the rhyme are juxtaposed against the ho-hum(ble) title as if the craziness within is merely part of the day-to-day.
“Pyrite”: Be careful in your search for gold; don’t end up a fool.
“Directions”: As this excursion sounds like a tribute to A Tribe Called Quest, it’s as good a time as any to mention that Yeshua (at times) sounds a bit like Q-Tip. As I admire Q-Tip and Quest, this facet is not a problem for me, and it probably helped open my mind’s ear to the sounds of this disc. So, if you like ATCQ, then Siah and Yeshua live just down the solar system, so hang a left past the Sun (Ra).
“The Head Bop”: This time it’s a simple lyric mated with a complex underbelly. Might have been an attempt at a single to reach a broader audience. It didn’t succeed at the time, but you can still bop your head to it.
“Victim of My Own Imagination”: Cool-ass guitar-based sound matched with equally cool lyrics.
“Stretch Armstrong And Bobbito 89.9 Siah Freestyle”: This is just what it says; Siah runs a few freestyle verses over the radio airwaves. The quality of this track likely relies on your attitude toward freestyle in general.
“Hairy Bird” (Intro and Reprise): A trippy track mostly based on a joke about Siah flying through the sky like a, well.... This should pretty much be a throwaway tune, but it still works.
“Stagnation”: Appropriately, this is the most stagnant track on the compilation. Maybe they were trying to create some kind of commentary on the fact.
“Untitled”: And now we come to the slow part of The Visualz Anthology. The bad thing about it is that over the course of so many tracks, things start sounding the same even if they aren’t, and who knows if the duo ever intended these things to see the light of day. The good thing is that such an anthology of their work even exists at all.
“Stretch Armstrong And Bobbito 89.9 Yeshua Freestyle”: See previous, but this is Yesh.
“Transatlantic”: Not frantic or Romantic; has a beat that’s gigantic with lyrics non-pedantic. If Gravity slipped its bonds, then this track remains more Earthbound while still delivering impact.
“Halftime Show With DJ Eclipse 89.1 Siah And Yeshua Freestyle”: Probably the strongest of the three freestyle romps for obvious reasons.
“Good For Your Health” (Intro and Song): Not their most inventive or original track, but this study in biology and biography ends the collection on a high note while also standing as a goodbye note. Their music is good for your health, basically.
And so endeth the recorded journeys of Siah and Yeshua. Already interested in Middle Eastern history, Siah delved deeper into his studies of the region. Seriously. He eventually recorded a track where he rapped in English, Hebrew and Persian – hell, he probably threw in some sign language for good measure. Meanwhile, Yeshua guest-rapped on a few records here and there and released a solo record. After all this time, it’s unlikely that the fly-namic duo will ever get together again, but you never know...
And for dessert, a bonus track previously available only in Japan: