Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Queen - A Night at the Opera/A Day at the Races

Freddie Mercury would have been 65 years old on September 5th.  With that in mind I thought it appropriate to look at what many critics dub as Queen’s best album, A Night at the Opera.  There are a lot of different kinds of music to choose from on this album.  There’s hard rock, Vaudeville jazz, acoustic folk, and English pop.  A Night at the Opera is a good album, but not a great album.  I’d put it between “good” and “great” [“near great” perhaps?].  I’m not sure why they chose to use titles from Marx Brothers movies for this and their next album A Day at the Races.  My theory is they wanted to convey to their listening public that they were entertainers who weren’t to be taken too seriously.  Freddie Mercury’s life, from all appearances, was all about fun, and so were the Marx Brothers.  So, what about the songs?

Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…) – Queen rocks!  An angry Freddie Mercury at his most venomous.  The object of his displeasure was a former manager.  This is reminiscent of John Lennon’s How Do You Sleep in that the object of Freddie’s displeasure is never named, and that the listener is drawn in to share Freddie’s anger.  I like it!

Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon – this is a mercifully brief excursion into Vaudeville territory, but after the bile from Death on Two Legs its nice comic relief.  I like how Freddie’s vocals sound like they’re being sung through a megaphone.

I’m in Love With My Car – Roger Taylor sings!  Every car cliché imaginable is here, but I like it anyway because it rocks.

You’re My Best Friend – Bassist John Deacon’s only song on A Night at the Opera.   He wrote it for his wife while he was learning to play the piano.  The Wurlitzer piano carries the tune, and there’s very little guitar.  I’ve always liked it anyway.

’39 – Brian May sings!  This one’s an acoustic gem about space travel that sounds like Led Zeppelin’s Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp from LZ III, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  For all I know Page could have lifted his tune from someone else [like he’s never done THAT before…].

Sweet Lady – Hard-rock Queen the likes of which I will never tire.

Seaside Rendezvous – more Vaudeville, but Roger and Freddie use their voices to mimic woodwind/brass instruments, so that in itself makes this song interesting.

The Prophet’s Song – This is a sprawling 8:21 epic which would probably work better if it was 2 ½ minutes shorter.  Coincidentally there’s a 2 ½ minute a capella section that gets a bit tedious after the first ten seconds.  The rest of the song is ok.  It was inspired by a dream Brian May had about the Great Flood.

Love of My Life – one of Freddie Mercury’s most beloved songs.  This version is a piano ballad with bits of harp, but I prefer the live, acoustic guitar version.  Brian May sings it live now, with much audience participation.

Good Company – A Brian May-sung ditty played on ukulele.  This wouldn’t show up on any “mix CD” I would make, but it isn’t crap either.  It’s just “there.”

Bohemian Rhapsody – THE Freddie Mercury masterpiece.  You’ve all heard it – nothing more needs to be said.

God Save the Queen – the Brian May guitar orchestra.  I always picture Freddie with his regal robe and his crown at the end of a Queen show whenever I hear this.  I remember seeing Brian May play this on the roof of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.  How cool is that?

Queen - God Save the Queen [Live at Wembley '86]

Brian May - God Save the Queen Buckingham Palace 2002

By borrowing another album title from a Marx Brothers movie, and with similar artwork on the cover, one can’t help but think that A Day at the Races is a flip-side to A Night at the Opera.  Perhaps that is intentional, but I can’t confirm that.  A Day at the Races, the merely “good” follow-up to A Night at the Opera, is a bit of a letdown.  A Night at the Opera was a hard act to follow.  There are two standout songs surrounded many ordinary ones. 

Tie Your Mother Down – Hard rock greatness written by Brian May.  Everything you want in a hard rock song, and more.  This one opened many Queen shows and for good reason.

You Take My Breath Away – After the hard rock bombast of Tie Your Mother Down comes this snoozy piano ballad from Freddie Mercury.

Long Away – Brian May sings.  Instead of using his own Red Special he plays a Burns Double Six 12-string electric guitar.  The song is ordinary, but I like the sound.

The Millionaire Waltz – this starts out as a piano/bass between Freddie and John Deacon.  Halfway through it gets heavy very quickly, but after only about twenty seconds it’s back to the waltz, but with some guitar over the top.  This song is a bit strange, but that makes it interesting.

You and I – a John Deacon song that does absolutely nothing for me.  It’s not bad, but it doesn’t dazzle me with brilliance either.

Somebody to Love – one word: brilliant!  It has the same trademark multi-tracked voices of Freddie, Brian and Roger as with Bohemian Rhapsody.  IMHO, George Michael stole the Freddie Mercury tribute in 1992 with his rendition of this song.  Anyone who watched that performance and wasn’t touched isn’t human.  One of Freddie Mercury’s finest moments.

White Man – a rarity for a Queen song – it’s a political song from Brian May about American Indian mistreatment at the hands of white European immigrants.  It starts out quietly, then gets loud and heavy at the one-minute mark and stays that way until the last 40 seconds, where the song ends the same way it begins.

Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy – I’m sorry, I never liked this one, never will.

Drowse – Roger Taylor sings here.  While not a hard rocker like I’m in Love With My Car, Brian May plays slide throughout.  It’s a good-sounding track, even if it’s a bit sleepy [hence the title].

Teo Torriate (Let Us Cling Together) – This one is another piano ballad from Freddie with Japanese lyrics thrown in.  Zzzzzz…

Between A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, I can make a pretty decent mix CD.  Now that I think about it…

Monday, September 5, 2011

Glen Campbell - Meet Glen Campbell/Ghost On The Canvas

I have a confession to make.  When I was a little kid in the 1960s, Glen Campbell and Herb Alpert were my babysitters.  Not in the literal sense though.  They never got a dime for their services and they didn’t even know they were babysitting me.  Whenever my mom wanted to sit and watch her soap operas uninterrupted [there were lots of them, and this was an everyday thing], she’d plop me in front of the stereo, get out the Glen Campbell records, get out the Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass records, and left me to my own devices.  The back of my head got somewhat flattened from me banging it on the wall to the beat of the music [I grew out of it – physically anyway, maybe not so much mentally].  I even got to see Glen Campbell in person when I was five years old.  I don’t remember a damn thing about it, except that it was in San Antonio during Hemisfair ’68 and it was Glen Campbell.  Later in life I found out that Bob Newhart was also on the bill that evening.  I don’t remember what Glen Campbell played that night [I was 5, ok?], but in going back and looking at which of his records was popular at the time, I can make a pretty good guess.  Gentle on My Mind, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, and Wichita Lineman were all monster hits at the time.  I’m pretty sure I heard those songs that night.  When I was a teenager and I got first eight-track tape player [now I’m dating myself], my mom bought me the Greatest Hits tape.  It had those songs and it had Rhinestone Cowboy, Houston [I’m Coming to See You] and County Boy [You ‘Got Your Feet in LA].  I wore the tape out but never got a new one.  My point [and I do have one] is that Glen Campbell’s music is part of my DNA [at least his early famous stuff, anyway].  

I lost track of Glen Campbell after Southern Nights, and I REALLY didn’t care after he had the fling with Tanya Tucker.  Then his cocaine debauchery set in.  It was the early 1980s and it wasn’t cool to like Glen Campbell.  I saw him sing in Clint Eastwood’s movie Any Which Way You Can, but after that, who cared?  Country music was what my dad liked, and I didn’t want anything to do with it especially if my dad liked it, just like any teenager.  This was during the time of Urban Cowboy, and I was discovering other things at the time, namely the Allman Brothers Band, Pink Floyd, and Bob Marley.  During this time Glen found Jesus, and then I REALLY didn’t care.  And so Glen Campbell was out of my musical consciousness until a couple of years ago when I heard he was going to make his first record with Capitol Records in fifteen years.   It was said that it would sound like Glen in his late 60s/early 70s prime.  I heard some samples of this new record on Amazon, liked what I heard and bought the album.  That album was Meet Glen Campbell.  I thought that was an odd title because I’d already known him for forty years.  The point was that Glen Campbell was going to introduce himself to a new, younger audience, and to do that he would sing the songs of contemporary artists.  That didn’t bother me because Glen was never a prolific songwriter to begin with.  He had Jimmy Webb writing songs for him, so why bother writing your own stuff?

Some of the people whose songs Glen covered kind of threw me for a loop.  Green Day, U2, Lou Reed, Foo Fighters.  At first I wondered if Glen was back to snorting coke, but my fears were allayed when I heard the album.  Some of the song choices didn’t work out as well as the others.  One of those that didn’t was Lou Reed’s Jesus.  It wasn’t done badly, but there were others done so much better.  For instance Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) and Foo Fighters’ Times Like These were done so differently from the originals that I think of the originals as inferior to what Glen put down.  It helps that Glen Campbell can sings circles around Dave Grohl and Billy Joe Armstrong.  It’s like what Johnny Cash did with Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt.  You just can’t listen to the originals and can’t help but think of how these old masters have taken new songs and staked their claim to them.  Glen’s treatment of Tom Petty’s Walls and Angel Dream are two more cases of Glen taking ownership of songs written by others.  There a couple of songs that sound pretty close to the originals.  Those would be John Lennon’s Grow Old With Me and U2’s All I Want Is You.  They stuck to the original arrangements.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Again, they aren’t done badly.  They’re done very well in fact, but they didn’t sound radically different like the Green Day, Foo Fighters and Tom Petty songs did.  Glen recorded Jackson Browne's These Days.  It's an excellent version.  The one thing I can ask Glen Campell is this - what took you so long to record this fine song?  On balance, Meet Glen Campbell is a solid piece of work.  I don’t know how many new fans he won with it, but at least it re-ignited my interest in his music.  That’s good enough for me, and hopefully it will be good enough for Glen.  Meet Glen Campbell sounds like his records from the 1960s and early 1970s.  Producer Julian Raymond did that on purpose – he wanted to play to the strengths that made Glen Campbell a star in the first place – a fine interpretive singer and a superior instrumentalist.  Given an exceptional set of songs to work with a sympathetic producer, Meet Glen Campbell works.  Forty-one years after his take on Gentle On My Mind, Glen Campbell still has a fine voice that hasn’t been ravaged by the sands of time.

Last week saw the release of what Glen Campbell calls the final album he intends to make – Ghost On The Canvas.  He executed the same formula he followed on Meet Glen Campbell – same producer, same musicians, good songs from contemporary songwriters.  Paul Westerberg provides two outstanding songs [Ghost On The Canvas, Any Trouble].  He is Glen Campbell’s latter-day Jimmy Webb.  There is one twist – Glen Campbell and producer Julian Raymond wrote about half the songs themselves.  Glen Campbell isn't known for his songwriting, but it's all top-notch here.  Again Glen, what took you so long?  I’ve read in many on-line publications that Ghost On The Canvas was meant to be a companion piece to Meet Glen Campbell.  But instead of it being just a collection of songs like Meet Glen Campbell, Ghost On The Canvas has a narrative that tells the story of Glen Campbell’s life.  The fact that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's lends more poignancy to this song cycle.  From the very first song [A Better Place] Glen sings "Some days I'm so confused, Lord," you know not all is right in Denmark but Glen doesn’t ask for your pity.  He just lays it out matter-of-fact style that his mind isn’t what it was.  In the title track he knows he’s on the “doorstep of eternity.”  In other songs he tells us a little about his past and his upbringing, about his triumphs and his failures, and that on balance he’s been fortunate in life ["The one thing I know/The world's been good to me"].  Jakob Dylan, Paul Westerberg, Robert Pollard, and Teddy Thompson have captured Glen Campbell’s essence perfectly.  The most stark, and perhaps chilling line of the entire album was one he wrote himself for his wife - "This is not the road I want for us/But now that it's here/All I want to be for you is strong."  One thing is perfectly clear – the look back on a life lived, good and bad, is unflinching in its honesty.

There are some instrumental surprises on the album.  Listen closely to In My Arms and you hear Glen tearing it up with surf guitar god Dick Dale.  On the closing There Is No Me...Without You Glen lets his guitar do the talking with other players like Rick Nielsen, Billy Corgan, and Brian Setzer.  Some of the songs have the sweeping orchestral arrangements one expects from Glen Campbell albums, but in other songs the strings add just a little bit of color and lets the musicians carry the tune.  There are some modern production touches to the album, but they still fit in the Glen Campbell framework.  There’s a good balance between the grandiose and the intimate.  Some songs remind on of Wichita Lineman, but Any Trouble reminds me of Everybody’s Talkin’ from Midnight Cowboy [I know, that’s a Harry Nilsson song, but that’s what my ears tell me].  There are some brief instrumental interludes written by Robert Joseph Manning that would not be out of place on Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds.  I think that’s an intentional nod to Glen Campbell’s time spent with the Beach Boys before he became a star in his own right.  The album is sentimental without being syrupy.  For those who purchase the MP3s on Amazon or iTunes, you’re treated to the bonus of a song from Jimmy Webb called Wish You Were Here.  Would a Glen Campbell album be complete without something from Jimmy Webb?  I don’t think so.

Ghost On The Canvas is that rarest of albums in my collection – I like every single song.  I can’t even say that about Abbey RoadGhost On The Canvas is an appropriate way for the Rhinestone Cowboy to ride off into the sunset.  Ghost On The Canvas bears no resemblance to the albums Johnny Cash recorded with Rick Rubin.  As those albums progressed, you could hear a man who was dying.  Glen Campbell isn’t dying yet – he’s just slowly fading away.  His voice and his instrumental prowess were captured here as strong as ever.  This album is part of Glen Campbell’s long goodbye to his fans and to the music business.  And he got to do it his way.  Does it get any better than being able to pick and chose when to get off the horse?

Goodbye Glen, and thank you.