Archive for the ‘Overdue Reconsiderations’ Category

h1

I just hope you got the time it may take.

September 18, 2009

A few weeks ago I was dining out with a friend when Peggy Lee’s version of “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” came over the sound system. “She had a pretty sexy delivery,” my friend said. I agreed, and we started pointing out various songs in her catalogue that showcased her alluring tones.

“You ever hear Let’s Love?” I asked.

He hadn’t. Not many people have. And I still can’t figure whether that’s a good thing or not.

51OgS46ecGL._SL500_AA280_

Peggy Lee
Let’s Love
Atlantic, 1974

01. Let’s Love
02. He is the One
03. Easy Evil
04. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight
05. Always
06. You Make Me Feel Brand New
07. Sweet Lov’liness
08. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
09. Sweet Talk
10. Sometimes
11. Let’s Love (Reprise)

Let’s not kid ourselves here — there’s something kind of inherently pathetic about an aging crooner trying to a “contemporary” record. The first thing that comes to mind is the jokey end of the spectrum — Pat Boone’s In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, for instance. Then there’s that questionable middle ground, like Frank Sinatra’s 1984 album, L.A. is My Lady. I mean, OK, the Quincy Jones orchestra lent it some credibility, but just try to tell me the synths on the title track or those electric guitars on “Stormy Weather” felt genuine. They didn’t.

Now, if it can’t be done right, it can at least be done interestingly — Paul Anka’s recent Rock Swings comes to mind, but again, there was a bit of tongue-in-cheekness there that I don’t think could be avoided. Paul Anka singing Van Halen is enough of a headscratcher, let alone turning it into a big band tune.

Peggy Lee’s 1974 album Let’s Love is another one that’s tough to get your head around. Although it wasn’t her last album, it kind of marked the beginning of the end — a vain attempt from the mid-1970s into the early 1990s to try to stay relevant when, really, all she had to do was sit back and let the 41 albums she recorded for Capitol and Decca Records from 1948 to 1970 sum up her career. Was everything in there golden? No, but when it includes the likes of “Fever,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “He’s a Tramp,” “A Doodlin’ Song” and “Is That All There Is?” why pad the f*cking resume?

Now, with a title track specially written by Paul McCartney, the Atlantic label behind it and a selection of songs that included writing credits from the likes of James Taylor, Henri Mancini, Irving Berlin and Melissa Manchester, the obvious thought wasn’t that it could be a formidable hit… if it didn’t prove to be a big laugh.

The problem (or maybe saving grace) was that it was neither. Even at the album’s horrendous, synthesized music worst (“Easy Evil,” I’m looking at you), Lee’s voice and delivery somehow manages to keep the whole affair from being totaled. There’s no reason “Easy Evil,” “Sweet Talk” or “Sweet Lov’liness” should work at all, and while they aren’t exactly revelatory, there’s a lot to be said for Peggy that she doesn’t let them become laughable.

But even the weight McCartney should have brought to proceedings is frighteningly absent. A lot of people make jokes about his mid-period Wings material, particularly the piano-led ballads, and I’ve always been one of the biggest Wings apologists out there, but “Let’s Love” frankly goes nowhere. It SOUNDS like Paul McCartney realizes he’s writing a song for Peggy Lee and is forcing jazzy chord changes and haphazard lyrics to live up to God-knows-who’s expectations. I mean people can say what they want about “My Love,” “With a Little Luck” or “London Town,” but hell… at least those songs had hooks.

James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” fares a little better under Lee’s vocal guidance, but the production by Dave Grusin just doesn’t feel right. It’s like he aimed for sexiness, but veered into sleaziness. I mean, “He is the One” has a decidedly Gospel-feel to it (even though I’m quite sure she’s not singing about that He), but picking the faux-porn stylings of “Easy Evil” to follow that just seems perverse. I mean, Lee was 54 when this album was released — part of me wonders if there’s a whole cougar culture out there that uses this record as some kind of rallying music. And if they do, that actually lowers my opinion of cougars. Which is too bad, really.

But again, as bad as it should be, it never veers into awfulness. Earlier this year, I played “Sweet Talk” for a girl I was dating who looked at me — a highly principled music aficionado — as if I’d either lost my goddamned mind or had spent too much time perusing Web sites with Google’s safe search turned off.

“No, no, seriously,” I said to her wordless judgement of me. “Listen to the hook!”

But she just shook her head.

The album did virtually nothing at a commercial level and by the next year she was off Atlantic and onto A&M and would continue label jumping for the rest of her life, which I always kind of felt was sad. Certainly, the musical progression for the last 20 years of her life was not something I’d carry on my own label, but again — with more than 40 albums defining a “classic” period, why push the issue anymore than merited?

I mean, it was never going to get sexier than “Fever” anyway. And it’s my belief that cougars probably use that as a rallying song that makes me think they’re pretty cool after all.

h1

I feel it’s time for us to make up, baby.

August 11, 2009

I have a general rule for my “Overdue Reconsiderations” series — the album in question has to be at least 10 years old, because I feel that’s an appropriate time for glowing reviews to turn positively nasty (see: NME or Q magazines’ evolution of mindset on Kula Shaker’s K). Of course, in today’s age of digital downloads and computer music libraries quickly amassing so much music that you might not well remember a song you downloaded last week, this time frame is exponentially shrinking.

My review today is spurred somewhat by the general aloofness of the public, but moreso because even among Paul Weller fans, his 2004 album Studio 150 is pretty much openly dismissed as a complete waste of his studio time and our collective earnings. And I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

0000010639_350

Paul Weller
Studio 150
V2, 2004

01. If I Could Only Be Sure
02. Wishing on a Star
03. Don’t Make Promises
04. The Bottle
05. Black is the Colour
06. Close To You
07. Early Morning Rain
08. One Way Road
09. Hercules
10. Thinking of You
11. All Along the Watchtower
12. Birds

Ah, the covers album. Historically, is there a better way for any artist to publicly concede they’re fresh out of good ideas? Oh sure, they sugarcoat the promotional junket with easily digestible (and somewhat believable) quotes such as, “I just wanted to pay a bit of respect to songs that I grew up loving” or “I wanted to turn a few more people onto what a songwriter genius (insert said unknown/underrated/overrated artist name here) was.” Sure you did.

That’s why Paul McCartney did Run Devil Run immediately after his beloved wife’s death, right? Nothing to do with the fact that he’s an intensely private man when it comes to his emotions and he didn’t want a lot of people reading too deeply into his lyrics and analyzing his state of mind. That’s why The The followed the genius of Dusk with a Hank Williams covers album, right? Nothing to do with critical or self-inflicted pressure to top a universally well-received (if not well selling album) by reinterpreting songs everyone’s known for 50 years. I mean, nobody rates Hank Williams too highly, do they?

Bullsh*t. If a covers album is not an artist clumsily trying to hide the fact that they’re going through a particularly nasty case of writer’s block, then it’s an artist not-so-clumsily trying to find their way out of a recording contract they no longer find favorable. Unless you’ve already staked your claim as a covers act, there are three acceptable times and places for the odd cover:

  • On a single’s B-side
  • Tucked (very sparingly) into an LP

OR

  • Shrewdly inserted into a live set

You don’t rile your fans up with news of a new album, only to then announce it’s going to be a set of songs we could probably find elsewhere and build a DIY mix. The, “Oooh, I wonder how they’ll do THAT song” novelty only lasts so long.

And if you’re a Paul Weller fan, having THAT song be the f*cking Carpenters’ “Close To You” or an obscure Oasis B-side likely rubbed you the wrong way right from the first press release stating the album’s tracklist.

It’s not that the man is bad at interpreting songs. If anything, he’s actually really good at it. Most fans will have known that since his Jam days, when the 17-year-old Weller was cocky enough to put a punked up cover of the “Batman” theme on the Jam’s debut album. Their subsequent readings of the Chi-Lites “Stoned Out of My Mind,” Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and the Who’s “So Sad About Us” were all well appreciated and are still great to hear on any odds and ends collection. The Style Council’s whacks at the likes of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” turned out great, and Weller’s covers in his solo career have always been pretty damn good (I’ve always loved his version of “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”).

But the unifying theme of all the aforementioned tracks was that they showed up on B-sides or in radio or live sets. There were no proper cover albums to speak of, really, until Disc 3 of the 2003 solo Weller odds and ends box set, Fly on the Wall, compiled all his solo years covers for a playfully titled collection called “Button Downs” (for those of you who don’t get it, I’ll just cough and point you toward David Bowie).

And that’s probably what got Weller thinking, “F*ck me, these were actually fun. I should do a whole album like that. Lot easier than writing new stuff.”

So the Modfather headed to Amsterdam with his trusty crew of Steve White on drums, Steve Cradock on guitar and Damon Minchella on bass and whiled away a few weeks cherry picking his record collection.

And if any of these songs had ended up on B-sides, Weller fans likely would have snatched every copy before they went out of print and driven up after-the-fact eBay auctions to ridiculous asking prices. Weller buries “Wishing on a Star” in smoke-covered soul, completely annihilating the version Rose Royce made famous with smooth lounge tones. “One Way Road,” one of Noel Gallagher’s very best and most overlooked B-sides, gets a New Orleans treatment that somehow works and challenges the original in power, and he easily matches (if not betters) the groove Sister Sledge first found for “Thinking of You.”

To his credit, he tries to find a new direction with the aforementioned “Close To You” and lightly dismissed it in subsequent interviews as a joke for his kids’ sake (and your legions of fans thank you for that, Paul). Still, the fact is the couplet of “Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?” comes at anybody’s credibility with all the destructive force of a medieval battering ram.

“Black is the Colour” is the kind of moody cover better left to early 20-somethings with thick-rimmed glasses in coffeehouses and Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” should have been the first “Yeah, BUT…” that every journalist posed when Weller claimed he chose the songs on the album because he felt they could be done better (thus “gracefully” explaining the absence of any Beatles, Small Faces or Kinks material).

Had this album been released in some box set or tactless posthumous collection years down the road, it probably would be looked at in the light Weller wanted — a guy proving he can put a distinct stamp on a tune and make it his own. Problem was (and still is), he’s alive, kicking and writing strong material such as “Blink and You’ll Miss It” and “Cold Moments.” So releasing this as a standalone album is tantamount to jerking us around — even if the material is pretty good.

Why else would you have to revert to your own songs during the album’s chief promotional live appearance? And why do you think the song got THAT reception? Cos you’re GOOD, man. We’ll wait another year if it takes you that to clear the block.

I saw Weller perform in Chicago a year ago and he did a magnificent reading of “Wishing on a Star.” Everyone in the audience sang along and it slid beautifully into his set. Ahem, time and place, ahem. And yeah, if a track from this album comes up randomly on my iPod shuffle, I’ll likely turn it up and go, “Ah, listen to this one.” But for some reason, pulling out a covers album by Paul Weller to sit down and listen to seems dirty. I mean, Stanley Road is right there next to it. And Wild Wood is right next to that.

P.S. Don’t think the irony was lost on any of us that Weller had the balls to release THREE singles off this album (four digitally) and fill those B-sides with more covers still. The cover of “Coconut Grove” is damn good. DAMN good. I just wish it had backed an original track.

h1

You listen to me, listen this time.

July 7, 2009

Well, if you must know — no, I haven’t been in mourning over the Michael Jackson issue, I’ve just been swamped with work and travel in the past couple of weeks and haven’t had a chance to update the site. 

Caramba.

For some reason (maybe not unsurprisingly, however), the Jackson post became probably the most popular post ever on this or the former blog page — netting more than 2,000 views in one day alone. I feel so unreasonably popular.

But anyway, onwards with music postings.

It’s a new month, and I say it’s about time we take a look at another album that’s gone pretty much forgotten since it’s release.

 

Bernard Butler (Friends And Lovers)

Bernard Butler
Friends and Lovers
Creation/Columbia, 1999

01. Friends & Lovers
02. I’d Do It Again If I Could
03. Cocoon
04. Smile
05. You Must Go On
06. No Easy Way Out
07. Everyone I Know Is Falling Apart
08. What Happened To Me
09. Let’s Go Away
10. Precious
11. Has Your Mind Got Away?
12. You’ll Feel It When You’re Mine

 

It’s really hard to figure what went wrong with Bernard Butler’s second solo album. Coming only one year after his critically lauded solo debut, People Move On, momentum should have still been in the ex-Suede guitarist’s favor, but as it usually goes, timing seemed to kill this album. Not that it’s a thoroughly amazing record — even Bernard admits as much. But as bad as everyone seems to want to remember it? Hardly.

By 1999, Butler had established himself as his generation’s Johnny Marr (who just happened to Butler’s own personal hero). He’d provided the musical muscle for a lyrically astute and sexually provocative frontman in Brett Anderson with Suede, before abruptly leaving the group during the recording of Dog Man Star citing irreconcilable creative differences. In the mid-1990s, he teamed with David McAlmont to produce the glorious single “Yes,” and the somewhat lackluster Sound of McAlmont and Butler album. By the end of the decade, he’d shared the stage with Paul Weller and the Verve and was heavily in consideration for a role in Oasis following Bonehead’s departure. 

A solo album seemed the logical next step by 1998 and while People Move On did boast some glorious moments (“Stay” — one of the most criminally underrated tunes of that or any decade), it seemed like the novelty of the one-off solo album from a famous guitarist was enough to placate fans and critics (see the similar popularity of ‘solo’ projects by John Squire, Johnny Marr, Keith Richards, et. al).

Sure, Butler suffered from the same problem that most guitarists turned frontmen do in not having the vocal chops of the frontmen they’re more closely associated. Following Brett Anderson would be one thing. Following Anderson and then David McAlmont proved an altogether more Herculean task.

But People Move On proved Butler could pen a good tune and while not possessing the most golden of vocal pipes, certainly was no slouch when it came to singing either.

Did it merit a follow up? I think fans would say yes, and I think most critics figured the merits of the album were worth repeating.

On most days, I’d almost consider Friends and Lovers a better album than People Move On. Both are uneven affairs, but Friends and Lovers returns a few more beautiful moments in my humblest of opinions. 

The problem is that by 1999, no one f*cking cared anymore. You could bask in the Britpop afterglow in 1998 — and as Butler had experienced varying popularity in the Britpop era in TWO bands, he was certainly due his own returns. But in 1999, that whole scene was beyond passe.

The Spice Girls and Prodigy had confusingly proved to be the biggest dual British successes in America since the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Oasis were stuck in a creative rut and losing original members by the month. Damon Albarn was writing multiple singles about how distraught he was over his breakup with Justine Frischmann. Kula Shaker split and no one flinched.

See, had Friends and Lovers been issued even two years earlier, it might have been considered a great triumph of the decade in Britain. Creation Records handled distribution, there were at least three solid singles to be found, and the musical tipping of the hat to 1960s and 1970s rock and roll classics were just the kind of reasons why punters were filling soccer stadiums.

Yet, the combined critical response proved to be, “What? Another solo record? Why?” Creation Records was in the midst of closing shop, so promotion lacked and while the album yielded a few inspired cuts, it was a pretty trying piece as a whole.

But masturbatory indulgences aside (I’m looking at you, 8+minute “Has Your Mind Got Away?” and pointlessly meandering “Cocoon”), the good moments were particularly good.

“You Must Go On” was a solid single and the video provided an enjoyable showcase of Butler’s jagged dance moves. The title cut is one of the most arresting things Butler’s ever put his guitar (or voice) to, and “Let’s Go Away” is the kind of song bands whittle away their careers trying to write. 

While people in Britain at least got to hear “You Must Go On” and the title track by way of promotion on television shows, it proved not to be enough to move copies of the album. In America, some kind of “Come on, you owe us for ______” agreement got the album a brief release on Columbia, but it went out of print almost as quickly as it came into print. 

Which is a shame. People should look back on things like “Animal Nitrate” and “Yes” as fine examples of Butler’s fretwork and songwriting abilities. On the same token, his post solo-career work with a reunited McAlmont & Butler and production and songwriting work with Duffy is also pretty damn great.

But to just ignore Friends and Lovers because it was categorically unimportant in 1999 is just stupid. I mean, sh*t, was Robbie Williams’ “Millennium” really that much better? There are a few songs that are worth at least equating to “Stay,” folks.

h1

And if there’s a God, would he give another chancer an hour to sing for his soul?

June 16, 2009

Continuing on with Standing on the Shoulder of Giants week, we’ll pick up where we left off yesterday.

It’s quickly approaching three years since Oasis last released a new album. Noel is off cocaine and onto pills to help him kick the habit. Oasis is down to a three-piece after losing founding members Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs and Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan. The shakeup in personnel and recreational lifestyle has Noel foresaking the simple “Live Forever” themes that informed his previous (maybe best?) songs for soured, acoustic driven laments on the shortcomings of fame and other existential musings.

With an early 2000 release date for the lead single and album looming, Noel goes into recruitment mode and makes arguably the soundest Oasis-related decision of his career within weeks of each other when he brings Heavy Stereo frontman Gem Archer in to play lead and rhythm guitar and ex-Ride and Hurricane #1 man Andy Bell in to handle bass duties. Although recording is done by the time they join ranks, they will represent the new look of Oasis and the new album ready to be bestowed upon a sufficiently intrigued (if a tad indifferent) public.

Oasis – Standing on the Shoulder of Giants
Part 2: The album.

sotsog

Oasis
Standing on the Shoulder of Giants
Big Brother/Sony/Epic, 2000

01. F*ckin’ in the Bushes
02. Go Let it Out
03. Who Feels Love?
04. Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is
05. Little James
06. Gas Panic!
07. Where Did it All Go Wrong?
08. Sunday Morning Call
09. I Can See a Liar
10. Roll it Over

Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, apparently, is Oasis’ lowest-selling album to date, which is probably a better indication of the interest in Oasis in 2000 as opposed to the quality of the music within, which is certainly questionable, but never completely horrible, either.

See here’s the thing about every Oasis-related career retrospective interview you read now. There’s this lingering “shoulda coulda woulda” sentiment about packing it in after the record-breaking Knebworth concerts in August 1996. “We should have called it quits,” “We should’ve taken a long break,” etc. etc. Although you can’t discount the amount of work and touring done between September 1996 and December 1999 as nothing — there was one album and several band-testing tours packed within — I’d also argue with anyone who wants to say they were going non-stop. There was little more than a year between the first and second albums. There was almost two years between the second and third. And there was almost three between the third and fourth.

And that’s what hurt interest in Standing on the Shoulder of Giants the most. As mentioned yesterday, the turn of the century was not the time to start dawdling if you wanted to maintain a rapt audience. All the world was slowly signing online and although there was more opportunity than ever to communicate with fellow fans and browse or build your own fansite, discourse material would run short if everyday you signed on to discuss the same years-old albums.

The other thing that absolutely killed Standing on the Shoulder of Giants was Noel’s decision to hide the personal-type tracks he’d been demoing on B-sides or subsequent albums and singles. When you look back and consider what he was writing at the time, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants could have actually proved a significant departure for the band. It could have been the pill-addled, soul-searching comedown record from Oasis’ ride on the Britpop wave. Noel could have silenced a lot of critics by choosing to bare a bit of his emotions and fostered cynicism in songs, but I think the thought proved too daunting.

After all, he must have thought, that’s solo record material. It’s not for an “Oasis” album.

The result? A compromise. A compromise so obvious and scattershot that it’s almost painful. A couple personal numbers, a couple catchy tunes with none-too-subtle Beatles allusions and a couple “I think this is how you write rock and roll, right?” numbers displaying more personal uncertainty than any of those demos he was recording. Oh and what the hell, let’s give Liam a song too.

There’s nothing to sustain Standing on the Shoulder of Giants as a complete album. Just as comfort sets in and a bit of swagger starts to show, a bad song comes along to blow it out of the water. The opening triology of “F*ckin’ in the Bushes,” “Go Let it Out” and “Who Feels Love?” are among the best opening trifectas of any Oasis album. Loops, grooves, somewhat silly lyrics, memorable hooks and choruses — this is the kind of stuff that made you love Oasis in the first place.

Unfortunately, “Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is” is nothing more than a terrible Doors rip-off that goes nowhere. It sounds like it was written on demand for a “rock and roll type” song. Noel’s always been a successful plagiarist, but the spirit and joie de vivre that moved “Cigarettes & Alcohol” from minding too much about the T. Rex pinch. “Put Yer Money…” just had people reaching for Morrison Hotel instead.

“Little James” left cynics without a sword in the fight in that not only was it Liam’s first composition to show on an Oasis record, but it was about his little stepson to boot. Complaining about it’s decidedly un-rock and roll preciousness or that it’s bad obvious John Lennon aping (as opposed to the better obvious John Lennon aping of “I’m Outta Time”) just seemed in sour taste. Then again, I ask Oasis fans — how many times have you put this CD in your player and skipped right over to track 5? I thought so.

“Gas Panic!” relates Noel’s little horrors in coming off a cocaine addiction, but another chance to be upfront and confessional as Noel dispatches Liam to handle the vocals, suspiciously lowers those vocals in the mix and then lets the song descend in to the a 6-minute-plus guitar-on-guitar-on guitar soundscape. The exact kind he professed and still professes to hate so much on Be Here Now.

“Where Did it All Go Wrong?” and “Sunday Morning Call” find Noel taking lead and a bit of front in finally showing some heartache, but just as it seems there might be a chance for late inning redemption, “I Can See a Liar” takes about as lazy a take at the “Pictures of Lily” riff that “Put Yer Money…” did with “Roadhouse Blues.” And even if “Roll it Over” is purported to be an epic, wonderful song of a closer, I can safely say I’ve not listened to the song in its entirety since 2001. And I highly doubt you have either. Or if you have, it hasn’t been with much frequency.

So what, then, was there? Five songs worth repeated listens? Out of ten? How thoroughly disappointing – only a half decent Oasis album.

Of course, if the exact same album had been released just one year earlier, what are the chances we’d be looking back on it with less cynicism? Instead of the afterglow offered by The Masterplan, there’d have been an immediate “This is where we’re going now” statement. Would it have made the songs any better? Not in the slightest. But it would’ve had a lot more attention on it, and one must believe the quality control tick that Noel usually posesses just might have stopped “Put Yer Money…” and “I Can See a Liar” from bleeding through and maybe it would’ve kept “Gas Panic!” under a 4-minute cap.

But you wait another year, and a lot of interest wanes. Sure, you’ll still be able to sell out stadiums in Europe and you’ve got a devoted fan base in almost every country in the world that will blindly buy and try to adore everything you put out. And when this album is good, it is very, very good. But the saddest thing to think about is that note Robbie Williams sent Noel Gallagher after hearing the record with a funeral wreath and “Rest In Peace” card. Cold and callous? Yeah. The exact same move Oasis would’ve pulled on another artist a few years earlier? Yeah. Completely off base? Actually… no.

There was still good stuff to be found on the B-sides, but for the first time in Oasis career, a lot of fans started saying the B-sides really outdid the album. Before, they’d always kind of been on par with each other, right?

Whether through shrewd calculation or randomness that turned out to prove appropriate, Oasis chose to use “Where Did it All Go Wrong?” to promote the record in the states. Even more appropriately, the album was also promoted by a fantastic “Behind the Music” special that provided great insight but also gave the same commercial weight to the album that well… “Behind the Music” gave the new Leif Garrett or Hootie and the Blowfish album. Where did it all go wrong, indeed.

 

Tomorrow: The “Go Let it Out” single.

h1

Down and out to no fixed abode where no one can get you.

April 9, 2009

There are some things in life I accept that I will never understand. Card games. Women. The unpredictable life spans of fish. Why I know I will always hear “Like a Prayer,” “Piano Man” and “Sweet Caroline” at any karaoke bar I venture into or any show in which alcohol is being served and the performer is taking requests. How they keep Lenin preserved. 

Fine. Maybe I’m not meant to know. That’s life. Well, except in Lenin’s case.

But as someone who knows and appreciates a lot about music and great songwriting, critical and commercial ignorance of brilliance always befuddles me a little. Eventually I figure it out — lack of promotion, poor transitions between the live and studio settings, lack of promotion, perfectionism gone mad on the part of the artist, lack of promotion or lack of promotion are usually the main things that lead to such ignorance.

But when it happens to a guy who’s already got the world on a string, I just can’t suss it out. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the release of Jeff Lynne’s first solo album. And that preceding mention might be the only mention it gets. 

WHY?!

jeff_lynne-armchair_theatre

Jeff Lynne
Armchair Theatre
Reprise, 1990

01. Every Little Thing
02. Don’t Let Go
03. Lift Me Up
04. Nobody Home
05. September Song
06. Now You’re Gone
07. Don’t Say Goodbye
08. What Would it Take
09. Stormy Weather
10. Blown Away
11. Save Me Now 

Nowadays, it’s in fashion to consider Electric Light Orchestra something of a “guilty pleasure,” which is another thing that confuses me, although I think I have somewhat of a handle on it (the drums in “Don’t Bring Me Down,” right?). 

But when Jeff Lynne unleashed his first solo album in 1990, it should have been sent out to a rapturously awaiting public. Nevermind the fact that it was the first album featuring him at the forefront since his unceremonious termination of Electric Light Orchestra a few years earlier (I think we can all admit most of the 1980s material was cack anyway — apart from “All Over the World,” the only good thing about “Xanadu” and a viciously overlooked song for highlighting sports teams’ championship runs). But certainly the guy had built up enough good will in the 1970s with a string of ELO hits that you can probably sing at least five of without even ever having owned an album. 

But while he hadn’t delivered anything of “Evil Woman” or “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” quality with his voice at the front throughout the 1980s, he’d at least helped other artists write songs just as good and better. Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” and Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” come immediately to mind, and the fact that he produced Petty’s Full Moon Fever, bits of Orbison’s Mystery Girl, George Harrison’s Cloud Nine, and bits of Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams and Brian Wilson’s self-titled solo debut showed that he could run with the best, and the best eagerly sought his council. Hell, even Del Shannon went to Lynne for an attempted career resurrection before killing himself in 1990.

And of course, we can’t discount Lynne’s involvement with Petty, Harrison, Orbison and Bob Dylan in the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup to end all supergroups, and a rare thing indeed — a supergroup that actually put out an album in 1988 worthy of the complete sum of its parts.

So for Jeff Lynne to do a solo album, it seemed like the time was right. He was either co-writing, producing or playing on several major hits in the 1980s, people still loved the classic ELO stuff and he had some pretty big name buddies. Is it any wonder Warner Bros. took up the solo album deal?

Armchair Theatre is not a classic album. But it’s a very, very good album. It’s the best thing he’d done since ELO’s Discovery (and probably better than that, even), when the songs are on, they’re untouchable, George Harrison shows up all over the place, and Tom Petty gets a co-writing credit on “Blown Away.” It’s really more of a solo Wilbury album as opposed to a Jeff Lynne album. Hell, even former-ELO keyman Richard Tandy is back playing alongside Lynne.

What f*cking more could people want? What on earth went wrong?

For starters, that continuing problem of lacking promotion dogged the album from the start. Why Warners didn’t put a bit more muscle behind it remains a mystery, but then again, it can’t be blamed as the singular pigeonhole considering the guy had a lot of momentum going for him already. If I was an exec at the time, I certainly might have figured the Beatle and Petty connections alone could shift several units, not to mention interest from all the casual music fans who’d kept an eye on his post-ELO career trajectory.

Having said that, I would have also splurged a bit for more posters in music shops and subways, or at least, some decent music videos.

I suppose the idea of letting primitive computer art students take control of the first single’s video wasn’t all bad, but when it became apparent that this was no Peter Gabriel- or (to a lesser musical extent, but no lesser video extent) Gloria Estefan exercise, why in God’s name they decided to reprise the idea for the second single’s video is beyond me. It’s easy to say in 2009 that they’re frustrating to watch, but I can say even as a kid only eight years of age in 1990, I probably would’ve started channel surfing for “Inspector Gadget.” 

Better videos certainly could have snagged him younger fans, but the older ones still have no excuse for not picking up on the record. Both “Every Little Thing” and “Lift Me Up” are glorious songs that stand just as tall as anything Lynne ever wrote for ELO or with anyone else, and “Nobody Home” and “Blown Away” both have simple charms about them that enhance their catchiness and worm their way into the listener’s brain.

Lynne’s covers of “September Song” and “Stormy Weather,” which he dedicated to his late mother are also surprisingly well done considering he delivers them in a very 1990 Jeff Lynne manner as opposed to trying to sound overtly retro. What’s more, both tunes feature some excellent slide work by Harrison.

Only in the uncomfortable stab at eastern-ness of “Now You’re Gone” and the lamentable Earth Day-styled message of “Save Me Now” does the album take horribly detrimental turns, but even so, two stinkers out of 11 tracks isn’t a bad ratio album at all. Hell, if you get that kind of ratio on an album today you automatically go to the top of Spin or Pitchfork’s year end best of list, don’t you?

Maybe Warner was more excited from the imminent Traveling Wilburys follow-up (which also performed less impressively than its predecessor, but still a lot better than Armchair Theatre). Lynne’s solo adventure topped out on the US charts at number 83.

In 2005, rumors circulated of a possible 15th anniversary Legacy Edition-styled rerelease, but even then no record company figured there was enough interest in the long-since buried album to resurrect it. The good news is you can shell out for used copies at Amazon.

Of course the Traveling Wilburys’ rereleases the next year were a huge hit. And Jeff’s production of Tom Petty’s Highway Companion was also revered. 

But I don’t know, I’m still listening to “Every Little Thing” wondering what the hell everyone else missed.

I don’t get it.