Thursday, March 16, 2017

Kansas - In the Spirit of Things

Concept albums are tricky.  Sometimes they work very well [Pink Floyd’s The Wall], and sometimes they don’t work at all [Kiss’ Music from The Elder].  In both cases, Bob Ezrin produced them.  So it is the case with the Kansas 1988 release In the Spirit of Things.  Kansas had a “big” sound, and Ezrin’s productions have been known for their bombast.  One would think a Kansas-Bob Ezrin match would be a match made in heaven.  And for the sound of In the Spirit of Things, it’s a very good match.  But back to the concept album thing.  Only half of In the Spirit of Things is a concept based on the catastrophic flood that hit a small Kansas town named Neosho Falls in 1951.  According to drummer Phil Ehart, he and Steve Walsh heard of Neosho Falls through an old friend who worked at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka.    Their friend told them about Neosho Falls and took them there.  According to Ehart: 

“For years and years it had been a thriving little town in the middle of Kansas. Then one day, 12 feet of water came in off the Neosho River and just rolled across the town.  This was before they did something about flood control. Every year they would get a flood of 2 or 3 feet, nothing they couldn`t withstand. But this one year, it was just too much.  The people of the town just said, `Later`-and packed up and left. They never returned. You stand there now in that town, and here`s the city hall that still has a piano in it. The bank still has the safe in it. The mercantile store has merchandise on the shelves. There are cars still in garages.”  It is so off the beaten path.  If you didn`t know where it was, you`d never find it in a million years. You get off the main highway, you go across dirt roads, you go through fields. Suddenly you`re in this town, but there isn`t anybody there.  A lot of the town`s structures were built of brick, so they`re still okay. The wood is rotted away, of course. The schoolhouse, built in 1930, is totally brick and mortar, and it`s incredible: There are still pieces of chalk and erasers there. The school bus is still sitting out front. The town fire engine is still there on a street.  Neosho Falls had 2,000 or 3,000 people, and there are a few descendants of the townspeople who still live on the outskirts. But no one lives within the city limits of the old town. You drive into this place, and it`s still gravel streets; they never hard-topped the roads. You look around and you say, `This is strange.` If you stand in the school, you can almost hear the kids laughing, running up and down the stairs. It`s like a set for a movie or something.  I`ll tell you what was eerie: We`re walking through the town, and this old man pulls up on an International Harvester tractor. He`s got an old John Deere cap pulled down on his head, he`s chewing tobacco. He leaves his tractor idling, walks up and asks, `Can I help you guys?` We say, `Yeah, we`re here researching this for a music album.` And he says: `Maybe I can help you out. I lived here back during the flood.`”

The songs that form this story are not told in a narrative.  Rather, they are little vignettes, little snapshots of people and places of that time.  Originally the band planned to make the album a collection of songs about 10 or 11 different people, but Bob Ezrin suggested all the people live in the same town.  This gave the album more focus.  The performances of these songs are among the best Kansas committed to tape in the post-Kerry Livgren era.

The “concept” songs:
 Ghosts – The story begins in a “ghost town”, with weathered tombstones, a crumbling bell tower [Walsh wrote the bell must have softened every soul that came to pray”], broken schools, rusty swing sets and weeds. Something bad happened here that made all the people go away.  It’s a place where dreams of people who used to live there had their dreams blown away.  The singer feels the presence of the ghosts who have returned to dream again.

One Big Sky – The Reverend James Cleveland and his choir join the proceedings here, a song about fate and circumstance.  Quest for power; pay the cost/Liberty in tempest tossed/ If we don't stop them, we'll be lost – fight for your own liberty because no one else will.  Is this alluding to the Korean War, which was being fought in the timeframe of the Neosho Falls story?

The Preacher – “We all gotta come to the light together…follow me!”  There’s more of James Cleveland’s choir here.  Walsh keeps referring to “the Belt of Hercules”.  My best guess is this is from the Greek myth of the ninth labor of Hercules, where Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring him the belt of Hippolyte.  What does Greek mythology have to do with Western religion anyway?  How Kansas convinced James Cleveland and his choir to sing on a song that seems to deride preachers, I’ll never know.  Perhaps ‘the preacher’ in this song is much like the man in the next song, that is, a fake.  Perhaps, just perhaps, James Cleveland and his singers didn’t like phony preachers either.

Rainmaker – This is told from the point of view of a con man who tells a haunting story.  He used to be a gun runner and a medicine man, whatever it took to earn a buck.  But in a drought-stricken Kansas “one-horse town” [the ‘one horse’ is agriculture], he became a ‘rainmaker’.  The townspeople would pay him up front to make it rain, to “light a fire - pray, and dance around, tell them it'd rain so they'd all go to bed”.  Once asleep, the ‘rainmaker’ would skip town, but the ‘hand of fate got outta hand.’  But he started to dance, and the sky went dark.  In the background, James Cleveland’s choir is singing “Rainmaker, rainmaker, save this one-horse town…” The ‘Rainmaker’ had ‘summoned down the Holy Ghost…the searing wind and the clouds of dust, and hell came raining down.’  That storm spelled the end for the one-horse town.

Bells of St. James - A soldier fighting in Korea gets a Dear John letter, probably from his wife in Neosho Falls.  Imagine getting such a letter saying not only has your wife left you, but also your home isn’t there anymore.  Presumably, they married at a church called St. James, and the GI asks if the bells are still ringing.  Those bells are probably those alluded to in Ghosts [the bells that “must have softened every soul that came to pray”].  Our hero is trying to take comfort somewhere, and perhaps hearing the bells is that comfort zone.

The record company [MCA] wanted hit singles.  Kansas wasn’t a “singles” band, but they did have a modest hit with All I Wanted from 1986’s Power.  Their two big singles [Carry On Wayward Son, Dust in the Wind] were “happy accidents”.  Writer Kerry Livgren would say to this day that he wouldn’t know how to write a hit single.  So too would Steve Walsh.  They just happened.  But in those times Kansas were competing with the likes of teeny-boppers like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany on one hand, and hair metal like Bon Jovi on the other.  So Kansas [probably against their better instincts, but they did what their paymasters at the record company told them] recorded three songs from outside songwriters - One Man, One Heart, Once in a Lifetime, and Stand Beside Me.  The performances of these songs were as good as anybody could make them, but they’re all dripping with cheese.  The songs are as generic as the decade from whence they came.  Of the three, One Man, One Heart is ok – skip the other two.

The band recorded three other songs unrelated to the concept story:
House On Fire – This rocker is a keeper.  I’m not sure this is part of the concept story, but Phil Ehart related that some of the stories told to him about Neosho Falls on the weekends painted the town as a “hell-raising house on fire.” It starts out with some otherworldly experimental guitar work from Steve Morse, which leads to organ introduction from Steve Walsh, not unlike Steve Morse’s next band, Deep Purple.  There’s some very good guitar interplay between Morse and Rich Williams.  There’s some excellent Hammond B-3 work from Walsh at the end.  On the singing end of things the chorus gets a bit repetitive, but the music more than makes up for it.

I Counted on Love – This one is a bland 80s power ballad.  This is a “skip” track.

Inside of Me – This is a decent pop song, but nothing more.

T.O. Witcher – This a short, solo acoustic piece from Steve Morse named after a former teacher.  I wish it was longer [it’s only 1:39].

In the Spirit of Things is somewhat of a peak for Kansas, or at least it was for Steve Walsh.  This album has a suite of songs written by him that were sharply focused and well-executed.  Suffice to say, here he emerged from the long shadow of Kerry Livgren.  Walsh's voice was in outstanding form but would never be the same after this.  An anachronism, In the Spirit of Things was a concept work in an era of short attention spans that demanded the instant high of insipid, vapid hit singles.  This would prove to be Kansas's last album for a major label.  MCA didn’t bother to expend any effort to promote it, and when the album failed to set the world on fire, MCA dropped them.  Kansas would not make another studio album for seven years.  Steve Morse would leave the band to concentrate on his solo, instrumental work and then eventually succeed [but not replace] Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple in 1994. 

It is a shame the album is sequenced such that the non-concept songs are intermingled with the concept songs, thus diluting the impact of the story.

Here’s the album sequence as released:
1.     "Ghosts"
2.     "One Big Sky"
3.     "Inside of Me"
4.     "One Man, One Heart"
5.     "House on Fire"
6.     "Once in a Lifetime"
7.     "Stand Beside Me"
8.     "I Counted on Love"
9.     "The Preacher"
10. "Rainmaker"
11. "T.O. Witcher"
12. "Bells of Saint James"

Here’s what I would do in my iPod playlist and have some continuity to keep the story going [I gave House on Fire the benefit of the doubt]:

1.     "Ghosts"
2.     "One Big Sky"
3.     "House on Fire"
4.     "The Preacher"
5.     "Rainmaker"
6.     "Bells of Saint James"
7.     "T.O. Witcher"

I keep the concept songs and ditch the rest.  I also keep T.O. Witcher as a “Little Martha” coda to the concept songs.  The concept songs are worth every penny.  On a scale of 1 to 5 [5 being “buy this now”, 1 being “don’t even think it”] I give the concept songs a 4.5, the album as whole a 3.

Interview with Phil Ehart - By Tom Popson, January 27, 1989, Chicago Tribune

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Kansas - The Prelude Implicit/Native Window

What does Kansas sound like without founders and songwriters Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh?  After 1998’s Always Never the Same, Steve Walsh told the band he wasn’t writing any more songs for them.  Luckily for the band, two years later Kerry Livgren wrote an album’s worth of material.  The excellent Somewhere to Elsewhere was the result.  But after that album, Livgren decided he wasn’t going to write for Kansas anymore either.  It took the rest of the band nine years to figure out that if they wanted to make more music, they’d have to write the material themselves.  That’s a tall order for people who don’t write songs.  They had recorded songs from outside songwriters before [Power and In the Spirit of Things], but the results were mixed at best.  The original material from Steve Walsh and Steve Morse was easily of higher quality than what came from outside the band, so I’m sure the band didn’t want to repeat that experience.  So the other four guys decided if they want to make new music, they’d better write it themselves.   

The other four members of Kansas [founders Phil Ehart & Rich Williams, bassist Billy Greer and violinist David Ragsdale] decided to do something outside of Kansas without sounding like Kansas.  Thus was born the band Native Window.  Rich Williams said in an interview that Kansas received feedback from their fans that wherever they went, the opening bands were crappy.  And the thought became “why don’t we become our own opening band”?  And they did just that – Native Window opened shows for Kansas.  In 2009, these four guys exercised some songwriting muscles they didn’t know they had and came up with a ten-song CD, their eponymous debut.  It has a little of everything – blues, bluegrass, folk, and some rock.  Bassist Billy Greer [who BTW is a fine vocalist] sings lead on all but one song [David Ragsdale sings the other one].  There are a lot more acoustic sounds on Native Window than one would hear on a Kansas record. Violins & acoustic guitars are ever-present, but mandolins are new musical colors for these guys.  I also heard something else I never heard on a Kansas album – electric slide guitar.  It is a great-sounding album.  As befitting a smaller ensemble than Kansas, the sound is more intimate.  I won’t do a song-by-song review of Native Window because I like it all.   My only complaint about the album is that it is only 41-minutes long.  The added benefit of making this album was it prepared Kansas for the time when their songwriter left the band, which Steve Walsh did in 2014.

Kansas, The Band – With Steve Walsh since the 1990s, Kansas had been a five-piece band [one guitar, bass, drums, violin, keyboards].  Walsh did double duty on vocals and keys.  Now he’s been replaced by two people – singer Ronnie Platt and keyboardist Dave Manion, and the band returned to a two-guitar lineup with the addition of guitarist Zak Rizvi.  Now a seven-piece, the Kansas sound benefits from the bigger lineup.  With a bigger lineup came a return to the Seventies-era vintage Kansas sound.  Rich Williams doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting by himself anymore.  With three new members also came new musical ideas and a willingness to commit them to tape.  When both Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh were in the band, there was a bit of schizophrenia to the band.  Kerry Livgren wrote the more sprawling, epic, progressive tunes [think Song for America] while Walsh wrote the more concise, harder-rocking songs [think Paradox, Lightning’s Hand, or Sparks of the Tempest].  That’s an oversimplification of their Seventies sound as there were exceptions to the rule [Carry On Wayward Son is definitely NOT proggy].  But there were definitely two sides to the band.

After Walsh took the helm of the band in 1985, the band went in a more “hard rock” direction [having a guitarist like Steve Morse didn’t hurt, either].  When the original band regrouped for 2000’s Somewhere to Elsewhere, Livgren wrote all the songs, where the arrangements were more intricate and three of the songs clock in over seven minutes.  Contrast Somewhere to Elsewhere with Walsh’s solo album Glossolalia, which was recorded at the same time as Somewhere to Elsewhere.  Walsh’s album as pretty close to metal, and some of the songs [most especially Smackin’ the Clowns] are downright head-spinning [in a good way].  I digress, but I do so to make a point.  Left to their own devices, the music the band created on The Prelude Implicit sounds like a direction Steve Walsh would have gone in [and did to a certain extent] with Glossolalia.  The sound is harder with more of an edge.  Three of the songs from The Prelude Implicit clock in over six minutes.  Those are the songs I like the most.  The more the band plays and the less Ronnie Platt sings, the more I like it.   Which brings me to…

Ronnie Platt – I’m not sure what to think of this guy.  I’ve read many online reviews where the reviewers just love his voice.  I’m not convinced [yet].  A great performance by the band could be offset with lame vocals.  Sometimes this is the case with Ronnie Platt.  He has the unenviable task of following Steve Walsh.  Walsh’s vocal gifts have been diminished over time, and sometimes it was painful to hear him live.  When he retired from the band in 2014, he himself said it was “time for him to go.”  I can hear where the band would think there’s enough of the old Steve Walsh to please the hardcore fans, but enough of his own voice to make him just a little different.  As for Ronnie Platt’s vocals, when he sings in lower registers he’s pretty good – I have no complaints there.  But when he goes higher, he sounds like a combination of being somewhat robotic to being somewhat whiny.  To these ears, sometimes his vocals are cringe-worthy.  I’m trying very hard to like this guy.  I don’t dislike him, but I’m just not sold on him yet.  Oddly enough, I’ve heard clips on YouTube of him singing the older tunes, and he nails them.  He channels Steve Walsh just fine, but it’s the original material on this new album that gives me pause.  There are songs on The Prelude Implicit where I think bassist Billy Greer would have sung them better [he did have the main mic on Summer].

The Songs
With This Heart – When George Martin produced the Beatles, he said that he always wanted to begin an album with what he called “potboilers” – songs that would get your attention immediately.  Kansas did that with Leftoverture [Carry On Wayward Son] and Point of Know Return [the title song].  With This Heart is not one of those songs.

Visibility Zero – This song has more energy than With This Heart.  It’s starting to grow on me.  I’m learning to live with the vocals on the chorus.

The Unsung Heroes – A ballad, and a boring one at that.  Next!

Rhythm in the Spirit – Twin guitar harmonies begin this one.  Now we’re getting somewhere!  Then the robotic whine begins and kills the song.  This one had such promise…

Refugee – An acoustic guitar and violin intro.  Interesting so far…then Ronnie Platt sings.  But this time, it works.  He sounds good here.  Signs of life - I like this one.

The Voyage of Eight Eighteen – This one clocks in at 8:18.  Kansas is in more familiar territory here.  The band finally gets to stretch out and remind people what set Kansas apart from other American bands.  Things are looking up here.

Camouflage – Another long-ish song at 6:42.  A keeper.

Summer – Bassist Billy Greer sings lead.  A higher-tempo song, this one has a bit of a Celtic feel to it in the intro.  A short, concise rock song at 4:07.

Crowded Isolation – The best song on the album.  Kansas knocks this one out of the park.

Section 60 – The album ends with an instrumental, tribute to our men and women in uniform.  This closer is another outstanding track. 

But as they say on TV, “wait, there’s more!”  The deluxe edition has two bonus tracks.  I like one – the other I can do without.

Bonus tracks:
Home on the Range – Yes, where the deer and the antelope play.  All I can say is “what were these guys thinking”?  Whiny Ronnie is back on this one.

Oh Shenandoah – This one from the Great American Songbook is played as an instrumental, and it’s a fine piece.

On a scale of 1 to 5 [5 being “buy this album now!”], I give The Prelude Implicit a 3.  I give Native Window a 5.  Between the two albums, there is plenty of good music to be heard.