Reviews

REVIEW: Ratt – Invasion of Your Privacy (Part Two of The Atlantic Years series)

Part Two of Five

RATT – Invasion of Your Privacy (Originally 1985, 2020 reissue — The Atlantic Years 1984-1990 box set)

Going triple platinum on their debut album, Ratt had a lot of expectations going into a followup.  They resumed working with producer Beau Hill and didn’t change up much in their formula.  The result was a double platinum second record, another sales success.  But what about the tunes?

Lead track “You’re In Love” was chosen as a speedy, sleek, metallic and melodic single.  A step up in songwriting, “You’re In Love” packs power and horny Stephen Pearcy passion.  Wicked solo by Warren DeMartini.  The simple riff/melody combo was all the rodents needed to score a hit and a career highlight.  As an album opener, it revs the engine but it is also the fastest track you’ll get on Invasion of Your Privacy.

A tasty heavy riff opens up “Never Use Love”, a nice chugging album track.  Nothing here in terms of a memorable chorus, so strictly album filler.  Not road tape worthy without a decent chorus.  Great Robbin Crosby solo though.  Fortunately the slick first single, “Lay It Down” comes in for the save.  Take “You’re In Love” and slow it down to a sexy locked groove, and you get “Lay It Down”.  Pearcy was not one for subtlety.  “I know you really want to lay it down,” he beckons, and no points for guessing what “it” is.

Track four, “Give It All”, is a decent album cut, with the hooks and chugging Ratt N’ Roll style riffs that people expected.  A track with single potential, had they released another.  Another pretty good album track, “Closer To My Heart”, slows it down but not quite into ballad territory.  More like a slow dirge to close side one.

The second side opens on “Between the Eyes”, a disjointed tune that needs some tightening up.  Some cool hooks but nothing to tie them together into a song.  “What You Give Is What You Get” boasts a cool, tough little chorus and some quality guitar.  Great tune other than a misfitting pre-chorus.  It has a dark, foreboding vibe that Ratt rarely nail this well.   “Got Me on the Line” is a pretty solid deep cut, typical uptempo Ratt N’ Roll.  The solo in particular smokes.  “You Should Know by Now” is a bit clunky, but you can hear what they were going for.  They were trying for a big pop rock chorus, but they welded it to the wrong song.

Closing on “Dangerous But Worth the Risk”, the album comes to a strong ending.  It chugs along with that Ratt N’ Roll groove that embodies the sound of Motley Crue assimilating all of Hollywood California in a single night.  Though Ratt’s sound is not something as unique as they used to sell it as, it does have a niche.  It rarely squirms out of that niche.  Invasion of Your Privacy does not stray far from the debut, and doesn’t add any new wrinkles.  It’s the next batch of songs and all but equal in strength to the first batch.

Each CD in this box set comes with bonus material from singles, and this time it’s a single edit for “What You Give Is What You Get”.  The guitar solo is sadly trimmed by 20 seconds for the radio, but no problem hearing this cool song twice.

3.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Sean Kelly – Where the Wood Meets the Wire (2011)

SEAN KELLY – Where the Wood Meets the Wire (2011 Opening Day Entertainment)

By now, we all know Sean Kelly.  Coney Hatch, Lee Aaron, Helix, Crash Kelly, the list goes on and on.  As much as Kelly enjoys rocking out, he’s just as capable of chilling.  His 2011 solo release, Where the Wood Meets the Wire, could be the perfect gateway for those curious about classical music but afraid to dive in.  As stated on the back cover, this album “retools classical guitar works” and that might be just what you needed to get your Schubert on.

By pairing the classical guitar with a little bit of electric, Kelly combines two worlds.  Opener “Adelita” is certainly accessible enough for rock fans, having qualities not unlike a mellow Satriani ballad.  The percussion here is outstanding.

Kelly takes on classical guitar masterworks by composers such as Agustín Barrios and Joseph Kaspar Mertz, displaying some pretty impressive dexterity.  The odd shot of electric guitar is like a punch in the arm.  Some pieces such as “Rujero” (Gaspar Sanz) will appeal to fans of Blackmore’s Night.

Another highlight is an acoustic instrumental rendering of Gowan’s classic “A Criminal Mind”.  Appropriately listed as “Une Mente Criminale”, this brilliant arrangement is a worthy re-imagining of the original.  The unmistakable melody translates into the classical style quite well.  It becomes a bit of a tango halfway through when the tempo is cranked up!

Finally, a familiar voice joins in on the final track “Ave Maria”, and it is Brian Vollmer of Helix.  Vollmer, trained in Bel Canto, is a frequent Kelly collaborator in the rock world, so his crossover here is a real treat.  You get to hear what Vollmer can do that doesn’t apply to Helix.  What Kelly and Vollmer both share is a fearless inclination to explore styles and techniques usually untapped by rockers.

If the classical world still holds a nose to modern music like it seemed to when we were younger, Where the Wood Meets the Wire might be met with indifference by purists.  For those who don’t think boundaries between genres are a big deal, Where the Wood Meets the Wire could end up being a favourite.  Only way to find out is to listen.

4/5 stars

Don’t miss Sean Kelly on the LeBrain Train Friday May 21 at 7:00 PM

REVIEW: Styx – Cornerstone (1979, coloured vinyl reissue)

STYX – Cornerstone (Originally 1979 A&M, 2020 Universal red vinyl reissue – limited to 1000 copies)

With Cornerstone, Styx were on their fourth album in their most successful incarnation:  Dennis DeYoung, James Young, Tommy Shaw, and Chuck & John Panozzo.  Shaw was the newest member and a fierce creative force in songwriting, on guitar, and with his own lead vocals.  Styx had a string of hits with this lineup including Crystal Ball, The Grand Illusion, and Pieces of EightCornerstone would be their biggest yet.  Though imperfect, it’s loaded with memorable songs and dynamite performances from the poppy-pretentious-prog-rock quintet.

What a terrific song “Lights” still is, with that big fat keyboard lick and Tommy Shaw’s delicate lead vocal.  You can hear why the punk rockers sought to eradicate the likes of Styx and their contemporaries.  But Cornerstone went to #2 in the album charts, and “Lights” was one of the singles released in Europe.  It’s a song about performing on stage, something that most of us will never be able to relate to.  But there’s something in its sincerity that is just charming.  “Give me the lights, precious lights, give me lights.  Give me my hope, give me my energy.”

Another single follows called “Why Me” (which wasn’t intended to be a single, but we’ll get into that).  A head-bopping light rock delight.  One of those tracks where you say, “Yeah, decent song.”  You might forget about it later; you might forget which album it’s on.  But it’s cool, especially when a blistering saxophone solo hits the speakers.

The big hit is in the third slot:  legendary power ballad “Babe”, Styx’s only #1.  Its strength is its pure corniness.  Surely, it must have been corny in 1979 too.  Yet a word comes back to me – “sincerity”.  Dennis DeYoung sounds completely sincere singing, “Babe, I love you,” like he means it.  Indeed as I research the album, “Babe” was written for Dennis’ wife.  You can hear it.  And if I was writing a song for my wife, you’d find it corny too.

A natural follow up to this Dennis-fest is a solid Tommy Shaw rocker called “Never Say Never”.  One of those album tracks that couldn’t stand on its own as a single, but has a perfect slot on side one after the big ballad.  That is an important slot for any rock band’s side one.  You have to get the blood pumping and the circulation back into the extremities with something that has some pep.  Because before you know it, the side will be done.

And side one closes on an epic:  Tommy’s mandolin-inflected “Boat on a River”.  Shaw on mandolin, guitar and autoharp.  Dennis on accordion, Chuck Panozzo on double bass with a bow.  Although fully acoustic with no electric, “epic” is the best word to describe it.  Perhaps it is a precursor to the the current popular “sea shanty” trend.  Well, Styx did one in 1979.

Side two kicks off with a blast:  “Borrowed Time”.  It’s amusing to hear Dennis start the song by saying, “Don’t look now, here comes the 80s!”  But this fun romp will be almost completely forgotten when you are suffocated by “First Time”, one of the most syrupy ballads ever foisted upon us.  Too syrupy, though the string section is a nice touch.  And it would have been the second single, had Tommy Shaw not objected.  “Babe” was a smash, and so “First Time” was selected to follow it.  Tommy expressed concern at two ballads in a row for the first two singles, and threatened to quit the band over it.  Things got so nasty that Dennis DeYoung was briefly fired and then re-hired over the issue.  And thus “Why Me” was chosen as second single instead.  Probably for the best…though you never know.

What do we need now?  A James Young rocker!  “Eddie” is his sole writing and singing credit on Cornerstone.  And it rocks hard, James pushing the upper register of his voice.  You wanna talk deep cuts, well “Eddie” is one of the best.  Interestingly it’s also one of those songs where the verses are slightly better than the choruses.

The closing slot on Cornerstone is left to Tommy Shaw’s “Love in the Midnight”, an interesting choice, echoing the side one closer when it opens acoustically.  It is the most progressive of the songs, featuring an absolutely bonkers Dennis keyboard solo and suitably gothic “ahh-ahh-ahh” backing vocals within a section with odd timing.  Things get heavy and punchy.  Definitely going out with a bang and not a whimper on this one.

This transparent vinyl reissue looks and sounds nice. It’s a gatefold sleeve with lyrics, pictures, and moustaches.  Not as cheap as buying a vintage vinyl or CD…just a lot nicer to look at.

4/5 stars

 

 

RE-REVIEW: Ratt – Out of the Cellar (Part One of The Atlantic Years series)

Part One of Five

RATT – Out of the Cellar (Originally 1984, 2020 reissue — The Atlantic Years 1984-1990 box set)

Ratt’s first full-length Out of the Cellar was a multiplatinum smash.  The band didn’t come out of nowhere, with a successful EP already under their fur.  Though an undeniable commercial success, was Out of the Cellar that great?  Let’s listen with fresh ears to the recent reissue in The Atlantic Years 1984-1990 box set, and see if we can hear with objectivity what those rodents were up to.

The disorienting sound of backwards drums heralds in opener “Wanted Man”, an inventive way to make their introduction.  These Ratts were cowboys, although they wore too much makeup for the ranch.  A simple, slow, chomping riff is menacing enough while Stephen Pearcy growls though.  The capable harmonies of the band and especially Juan Crocier help nail the melodies that Pearcy alone can’t.  A great track worthy of a multiplatinum album.

“You’re In Trouble” is…less worthy.  Clunky bass, chaotic guitars.  But “Round and Round”?  Still as great as ever.  As regal as these rodents are ever likely to sound.  A keen sense of melody, rhythm and vibe mixed together with a sweaty Stephen Pearcy.  Brilliant solo work from Warren DeMartini, and perfectly layered harmonies under the production of Beau Hill.

A nice choppy guitar bodes well on “In Your Direction”, a slinky number that serves Stephen’s style well.  Square, head-bangin’ rhythm from Bobby “Da Blotz” Blotzer.  Decent song, but with only one trick.  “She Wants Money” is more fun, a fast upbeat blast on a familiar theme.  Robbin “King” Crosby on lead guitar here.

The second side opens “Lack of Communication”, a biting track just missing one key ingredient:  a decent chorus.  The saw-like riff smokes, the verses are great, but it never resolves into a definitive hook.

“Back For More” is a little disjointed but salvages it with a killer chorus.  Screamin’ Pearcy and the rodent choir give it the final polish.  Brilliant solo work here by Warren.  Then, one of the best non-singles “The Morning After” will leave you drenched.  It has a bit of a Quiet Riot vibe (Carlos Cavazo ended up in Ratt much later).  “I’m Insane” is mindless fun; just bad boy rock with the popular “I’m crazy” theme that their pal Ozzy was milking for millions.  Finally the album closes on “Scene of the Crime” which has a neat guitar hook that unfortunately is all but unrelated to the rest of the song.  Some cool melodies with the patented Ratt harmonies here.

The box set comes with minor bonus tracks on each disc.  This one has a single edit (3:46) of “Round and Round”.  No problem hearing “Round and Round” twice, but missing most of the solo?  Ugh.  Really bad edit.

Good start to the Ratt The Atlantic Years 1984-1990 box set, and better than memory served.  Rest in peace to Tawny Kitaen: the cover model on this album, the first EP, and the box set itself.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: July Talk – Pray For It (2020)

JULY TALK – Pray For It (2020 Sleepless Records)

You can’t put July Talk in a box.  As soon as you do, they’ve climbed out the top and are exploring the ground around them.  “I wanna be transformed,” sings Pete Dreimanis and Leah Fay on the first track.  And their wish is made true by their efforts.  The melodic pleasures of 80s pop rock hits shines through on Pray For It.  Less screaming, more whispering.  No fear to just let the melody breathe.

The pulse of synth on “Identical Love” creates a dusky atmosphere, punctuated by quiet sax.  Only the vocals of Peter and Leah easily identify it as July Talk.  A quiet and melodic hit, “Identical Love” pulls at the heart while setting a mood.  Following the 80s template, “Good Enough” has an upbeat summery vibe, sounding like a sibling to hits you remember from youth.

The first emphasis on guitar comes with a cool, spare riff on “Life of the Party”, but the direction remains the same:  a synth backbone, with a quiet understated arrangement. Leah Fay’s vocal is the melodic anchor of this excellent slow burning track with bonus riff.  Peter takes center stage on “Pretender”, showcasing his rougher lower voice.  This time the arrangement is traditional rock band stuff with guitars, bass and drums jamming as they do.  Then it’s back to a more electronic atmospheric style on “Pay For It”, augmented by piano and breezy, humming sounds.

Unexpectedly “Pay For It” perfectly sets up the soul singin’ of “Champagne”.  Guest vocalists James Baley and Kyla Charter deliver on this one, with an undeniable hook and legitimate soul.  The massive melodic majesty of “Champagne” makes it a clear album centerpiece (and it just so happens to occupy the center slot in the track listing).

A light, quirky “Friend of Mine” sounds like something that originated in the 1960s if not for the reference to “my mother in the next room, gambling on computer screens”.  But this gentle duet lies in the shadow of the smashing “The News”:  pure pop rock perfection sung solely by Leah Fay, with timely lyrics.  “Gimme context, without context everything is true,” sings Leah.  It’s truly a remarkable song.  The crashing guitars and chiming chords that July Talk have kept in reserve until now are well served by a perfect song.  Vocals, lyrics, melody, and arrangement come together in a flawless 3:39.  Listen carefully to the voices in the noise, meticulously mixed in as part of the pleasure.

Headlining the closing three songs, “Governess Shadow” is one of the singles, and has an upbeat Bosstones-like vibe only without the horns.  “See You Thru” has a haunting quality, like closing time at the bar, while somebody’s mopping the floor and putting the chairs up on the tables.  Then the album closes on the digital heartbeat of “Still Sacred”, almost a coda to the whole thing.

There’s a sense of painstaking assembly to the songs on Pray For It.  The impression is that a lot of time and inner soul went into the arrangements.  Each song sounds like it was meticulous assembled.  Maybe that’s a bi-product of a band with two vocalists singing lead simultaneously; maybe the music has to be arranged meticulously.  July Talk are hands-on when it comes to details like their artwork, music videos and performances.  It makes sense the same attention to detail would be in the bones of their songs as well.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Loudness – Metal Mad (2008)

“Forever, carry on!  Turning up the sound and let it roll.  Raise your fist up in the sky!  The spirit of metal will never die!”

LOUDNESS – Metal Mad (2008 Tokuma Japan)

Loudness reunited their original lineup in 2000, but little did they know it would not last a full decade.  Drummer Munetaka Higuchi was diagnosed with liver cancer only two months after the release of the 2008 album Metal Mad.  He passed away in November of that year.  Although they had enough drum tracks recorded to make one more record with Higuchi (2009’s The Everlasting), Metal Mad was the last in his lifetime.

Metal Mad is the 21st Loudness studio album, recorded in the midst of a flurry of studio activity, as Loudness never slowed down, and guitarist Akira Takasaki was pounding out solo work on top of it.

One certain thing about Loudness:  just because they reunited the original lineup doesn’t mean they wanted to backtrack musically.  Metal Mad is heavy.  It continues the sonic experimentation that Loudness began in the mid 90s.  Though it does contain one undeniable anthem, this album is a heavy grind of metal styles, all very loud.

The opening instrumental “Fire of Spirit” sets the tone with a heavy riff that could have come from one of Loudness’ thrash contemporaries like Megadeth or Metallica…but with far more weight, and with an absolute master on the drums.  There’s a hint of the St. Anger snare, but it does not persist through the album.  Instead the track fades into the anthem of the album:  “Metal Mad”!

“Metal Mad” is a fast, simple track, but damn does it get the job done!  “Forever! Carry on! Turning up the sound and let it roll. Raise your fist up in the sky! The spirit of metal will never die!”  Custom built for the festival crowds.  Akira takes a couple bananas solos as the perfect icing on this sweet piece of metal cake.

But that’s it for that style of metal on this album.  They thrash through “High Flyer” with singer Minoru Niihara’s voice filtered through distortion.  Then it’s a hint of rap metal on the very aggressive “Spellbound #9”.  Funny thing is, Minoru can pull it off.  This is heavy stuff, certainly strong enough to compete with the big name heavy bands that Loudness inspired in the first place.  “Crimson Paradox” takes on groove metal, with a touch of exotic guitar added for spice.

The metal is heavy on “Black and White”, but with lyrics like “bullshit bullshit”, it’s a little too much of the “nu” variety.  Same with the droning guitar and vocal of “Whatsoever”, though the melodic chorus isn’t bad.  “Call of the Reaper” takes things back to centre with a riff similar to “Be Quick Or Be Dead” by Iron Maiden, but within a song that goes in a different direction.  Mental solos!  “Can’t Find My Way” starts promisingly, with quiet experimental guitars, and focuses strongly on vocal melody despite the heavy riffing going on.  In fact the only thing wrong with it is one particular riff that too strongly resembles (ugh) “Loch Ness” by Judas Priest.

The end of the album is heralded by two interesting final tracks, “Gravity” and “Transformation”, both experimental with grooves and great guitar work.  Akira uses so many different tones on this album, often within the same song.  “Gravity” is guitar player nirvana, while “Transformation” even goes a little funky.

Metal Mad ain’t bad.  Its strength is the musicianship.  Metal Mad has the title track going for it, but not a lot of actual memorable songs besides that.  By focusing so much on being heavy, it loses distinction between the songs.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Coney Hatch – Live at the El Mocambo (2021 limited edition)

CONEY HATCH – Live at the El Mocambo (2021 limited numbered & autographed edition)

It only took four decades, but like a fine Chardonnay, time made it just parfait.  Coney Hatch’s first live album, recorded back in October 2020 at the legendary El Mocambo is, in a word:  perfect.

First, let’s define “perfect”.  “Perfect” doesn’t mean “exactly like the studio versions”.  Not when we’re talking about live albums.  It means there’s an exciting vibe, great songs, top-notch performances, and a band that sounds like they’re out for blood.  Coney sound as if there was no pressure — but they delivered their best anyway.

Four albums, 15 tracks, over an hour of tunes.  Live at the El Mocambo represents the entire career of Coney Hatch, including all your favourites like “Stand Up”, “Devil’s Deck”, “Monkey Bars”, and “Hey Operator”.  A couple great tunes from Coney Hatch Four (like “Marseilles”) prove that the Hatch lost nothing when they reunited a few years back.  While everyone will have their own highlights, “Wrong Side of Town” absolutely smokes.  The album is paced perfectly with more contemplative tunes like “She’s Gone” balanced out by bangers like “Boys Club”.  Lots of songs about “girls gone bad”, according to Carl.

Andy Curran discusses Live at the El Mocambo

The on-stage banter by Andy Curran and Carl Dixon is warm and humorous.  It’s clear that they appreciate where they are in their careers now, fortunate to have this amazing second run.  In the back, drummer Dave “Thumper” Ketchum gives us an idea of how he earned that nickname.  But let’s not forget the newest member, guitarist Sean Kelly, who proves why he is one of the most in-demand players you’re likely to hear these days.  His ripping licks on this record are hair raising.

Another strength is that these guys have lost nothing in terms of vocal abilities.  It’s all there.  How Carl hits the notes he does, is actually unknown to modern science.  Andy Curran has just as much expression as ever, the ying the Carl’s yang.  When the band sing together on a big chorus, it’s arena-ready.

The first 100 copies came signed by all four members, and with a Coney Hatch can cooler!  If that’s not an invitation to get your buzz on with this great album, I don’t know what is.  It’s done in true bootleg style:  plain white cover, with logo stamped on the front, and plain white labels on the records.  The track listing is on a separate insert.   The non-limited version is available for you to purchase so get on that right now!

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Loudness – Once And For All (1994)

LOUDNESS – Once And For All (1994 WEA Japan)

When Loudness released their first live album with new singer Masaki Yamada Once And For All, they took the oft-misguided step that many bands with replacement singers make.  Much like Van Halen, they dropped the majority of their earlier material from the set and focused on the new album.  Unlike Van Halen, this wasn’t done due to ego, but because of changing styles of the 90s.

You hate when bands do that, don’t you?  Well allow Loudness to open your mind on the concept.

In 1992, Loudness released their self-titled new album with Masaki on vocals.  It is excellent.  Like many late-period self-titles, it sounds like a new start.  Masaki was a very different kind of singer from either Minoru Niihara or Mike Vescera.  Truthfully his voice was not well suited to the old material (shades of Blaze Bayley).  Focusing on the fine, new songs for their first live album together was a wise move.

Loudness opened this live set with some smokin’ guitar licks and the first two tracks from the new album:  “Pray For the Dead” and “Slaughterhouse”.  Masaki was in great vocal shape, able to hold it steady and belt.  The slow, exotic groove of “Pray For the Dead” screams “early 90s” but in a good way.  “Slaughterhouse” has a faster tempo and more “metal” vibe.  Drummer Munetaka Higuchi (R.I.P.) has this song by the balls.  He gets a wicked solo at the end, too.

The sole Mike Vescera song that lingered in the setlist is “Down N’ Dirty” from 1991’s On The Prowl.  A little dated-sounding, its persistence in sets over the years is surprising.  New bassist Taiji Sawada (R.I.P.) has the opportunity to shine on the slinky opening.  The Masaki-era version is heavied-up, but that chorus can’t be saved.  Never cared for it.  But personal favourite “Everyone Lies” comes next in the set, a punchy fast groove with an angry vocal.

Masaki’s old group E-Z-O were not unknowns; they put two albums out on Geffen and are something of a cult band.  Their “House of 1,000 Pleasures” is deservedly visited for track five.  Akira Takasaki takes a wicked solo here, in a song that definitely owns its place on the album.  It’s also nice to get tracks that are not on regular Loudness studio albums when you pick up a live disc.

Track six would fall where “side two” should begin — the single “Black Widow”.  This menacing groove is performed to perfection.  All the tracks are.  Album accuracy is not an issue, but the live versions do have more energy.  “Black Widow” kills, as it should.

Two more of the newer songs follow before they finally dip into classics: “Twisted” and “Waking the Dead”.  Akira blazes for a bit before “Twisted”, just a prelude to the extended jam in the middle of this funky rocker.  The three instrumentalists Akira, Taiji and Higuchi really get a chance to show off their chops as the song goes on for 10 minutes.  After that workout, the straight-ahead riffing of “Waking the Dead” is almost a relief.

The two classics from the Minoru Niihara days are the two most obvious songs:  “Crazy Night” and “S.D.I.”.  Masaki’s style transforms “Crazy Night” into something more 90s.  He simply isn’t the kind of singer to belt out a melody.  Masaki tortures the melody and bends it to his range and growl.  It is not a bad version of “Crazy Night”, but it is a different take than Minoru’s.  “S.D.I.” is the encore, a blitzkrieg of metal that fares well with Masaki leading the charge.  It was always a bit of a screamer.

Once And For All isn’t easy to find, and is often prohibitively expensive.  This isn’t the kind of album you’re likely to just find sitting on the shelf at your favourite used CD store.  It’s the kind of thing that must be sought.  If it were a 5/5 star live album, I’d say “seek it”.  But very few live albums are an 5/5.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Aerosmith – Pandora’s Box (1991)

AEROSMITH – Pandora’s Box (1991 Columbia box set)

Aerosmith were out of the gates fairly early into their career when their first anthology style box set was released in 1991.  They were still going strong, at the peak of their popularity.  Their career had two distinct eras marked by the record labels they were signed to:  first Columbia, and then a resurgence with Geffen.

There was also a long gap between Aerosmith studio albums.  Pump was released in ’89 but it took them four years to come up with Get A Grip.  While Geffen waited for Aerosmith to complete Get A Grip, their old label Columbia was allowed to release compilations.  In late 1991 they put out a brand new video for a remixed “Sweet Emotion”, although ironically the remixed version wasn’t included in the forthcoming Pandora’s Box set.  Regardless, there was a stop-gap.  November saw the release of Pandora’s Box just in time for Christmas, with three CDs of music, including a whopping 25 rare, unreleased, or remixed tracks.

Disc 1

They hit you right from the start with a rarity:  Steven Tyler’s “When I Needed You” from 1966 and his band Chain Reaction.  You can barely tell it’s the same singer, but this quaint number is a great opener for a box set with this kind of scope.  Basic 60s rock with a hint of psychedelia.  Onto the first album, it’s “Make It” with an unlisted false start — another cool touch.  “Movin’ Out” is a completely different take than the one from the debut.  It’s superior because it’s harder and more raw.  (Did Pearl Jam rip off part of the guitar lick for “Alive”?)  “One Way Street” is the album version, but an unreleased “On the Road Again” is a fun laid back jam.  Clearly B-side material, but it’s Aerosmith and light and loose.

A sax-laden “Mama Kin” from the first album is the first bonafide hit presented, and like most of the hits in the set, it’s the original version.  It is immediately obvious from the upbeat groove just why it was a hit.  Up next, it’s the slick “Same Old Song and Dance”, the heavy “Train Kept A Rollin'” and haunting “Seasons of Wither”, all from Get Your Wings.  Major props for including the underappreciated “Seasons of Wither” in this box as the song has never had the exposure it deserves.  According to the liner notes, it was written by Steven Tyler on a guitar found by Joey Kramer in a dumpster.  The fretting on the guitar was “fucked” but it had a special tone.  The tuning of that guitar “forced” the song right out of Tyler.

An unreleased live version of “Write Me a Letter” from 1976 is overshadowed by the song that follows it.  It’s the “big one”, the ballad “Dream On”, and usually the centerpiece of any side that it’s on.  The random placement on the second half of CD 1 is a little puzzling.  The title track “Pandora’s Box” follows, a dirty slow funk.

The first disc closes on a trio of rarities.  A 1971 radio jam on Fleetwood Mac’s “Rattlesnake Shake”  goes on for 10 awesome minutes and dominates the disc.  They swiftly follow that with “Walkin’ the Dog” from the same radio broadcast.  Finally, a slinky “Lord of the Thighs” from the Texxas Jam closes CD 1.  Two more Texxas Jam tracks can be found midway through CD 2, which is mildly annoying.

Disc 2

The second disc represents the musical growth of Aerosmith.  A massive “Toys in the Attic” builds on the past:  more energy, better production, more speed.  “Round and Round” is Sabbath-heavy, a sound the band rarely explored.  Only “Nobody’s Fault” (which comes later on this disc) stands as a heavier Aerosmith monolith.

Behind the scenes Aerosmith were suffering from drug-induced absences in the studio.  One day when Joe Perry and Steven Tyler were late, the core trio of Joey Kramer, Brad Whitford, and Tom Hamilton just  jammed.  The result is “Krawhitham”, a menacing unheard jam.  It’s a testament to the “other three” guys in the band and features some stunning playing even if the riff is a bit lacking.  This rough and ready track is followed by four slick Toys in the Attic hits in a row:  “You See Me Crying”, “Sweet Emotion” (the original mix), “No More No More” and “Walk This Way”.  Each song different, each song perfect.  “You See Me Crying” may be the most underrated Aerosmith ballad ever released.

Two more Texxas Jam tracks occupy the middle of disc two:  “I Wanna Know Why” and “Big Ten Inch Record”.  These jams are a blast, but why not bunch all the Texxas tracks together?  Next, “Rats in the Cellar” from Rocks has the same energy as “Toys in the Attic” but with a nastier bite.  “Last Child” is a remix, a slight one at that.  The bass sounds deeper.  An unreleased Otis Rush cover follows called “All Your Love”.  This electric blues is fully formed with a satisfying mix and could easily have made an album.  Why didn’t it make Draw the Line?  That album already had a cover, “Milk Cow Blues” (included here on disc 3) so it is unlikely they wanted two.  Did they choose the right song?

The aforementioned “Nobody’s Fault” is preceded with a snippet of the demo, called “Soul Saver”.  It truly is a monster of a track and one of the band’s few true heavy metal songs.  Nuclear holocaust is a perfect theme for metal, but Tyler’s lyrics are more thoughtful than many of his competitors.  His tormented vocal is one of his career best.  “Sorry, you’re so sorry, don’t be sorry.  Man has known, and now he’s blown it upside down, and hell’s the only sound.  We did an awful job, and now they say it’s nobody’s fault.”

“Lick and a Promise” is a necessary speedy shot in the arm.  Though “Adam’s Apple” is replaced by a live version from 1977, it is the sonic blueprint for a million bands that tried to copy Tyler’s sleazy antics.  Two Draw the Line tracks close the CD:  the title track itself (remixed), and “Critical Mass” .  Again the remix is slight.

Disc 3

The final CD is the decline, but not without plenty of high points.  (“High” points, get it?)  The first high point is a 1978 live version of “Kings and Queens”.  “Good evenin’ boss.  Been a long time coming,” greets Tyler to the hometown Boston crowd.  Live versions don’t usually surpass their studio counterparts, but this one might for its seasoned, raw vibe.”  Joe Perry’s backing vocals make it.

The previously mentioned “Milk Cow Blues” from Draw the Line is an upbeat shuffle, getting the blood pumping once more.  A snippet of a demo called “I Live in Connecticut” leads directly into “Three Mile Smile” from Night in the Ruts.  It allows you to hear how a tune evolves from an idea into a complete song.   You get to hear that again on “Let it Slide” and “Cheese Cake”.  If you love when Joe Perry pulls out his slide guitar, then you will love this pairing.  We’re well into the Aerosmith stuff that doesn’t get enough credit when it’s good.  “Bone To Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy)” is another unsung gem…and the liner notes will tell you exactly what a “Coney Island white fish” is.  The autobiographical “No Surprize” is pretty fine too.

The Beatles cover “Come Together” was one of the very few worthwhile tracks on the awful movie soundtrack Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Fortunately for Aerosmith fans, it has long been available on their 1980 Greatest Hits.  And it’s not the last Beatles cover on this box set.  But it’s the last real hit before the disc takes a serious detour.

“Downtown Charlie” is really ragged; punk rock energy with nobody at home in quality control.  It sounds like one of their “drunken jams” according to Joe Perry in the liner notes.  Wicked playing but no cohesion.  And then they split — Brad Whitford with Whitford/St. Holmes, and Joe Perry with the Joe Perry Project.  Even this is documented.  “Sharpshooter” by Whitford/St. Holmes is a box set highlight, even though it sticks out like a sore thumb by sounding nothing like Aerosmith at all.  This is straight hard rock, with Derek St. Holmes on lead vocals.  Though an astounding vocalist, he is the Antityler and the song does not fit in any way on the tracklist.  Too bad since it’s such a great track.  More at home is Joe Perry’s “South Station Blues” from I’ve Got the Rock N’ Rolls Again.  It’s preceded by an Aerosmith demo called “Shit House Shuffle”.  Aerosmith didn’t use the riff, so Joe did on his solo album.  It totally works with his lead vocal, though it’s a shame Aerosmith never used the idea themselves.  Another wasted jam, “Riff and Roll”, had potential as the kernal of a song, but Tyler’s voice is completely shot.  You can hear what they were going for.  It could have worked on Done With Mirrors had they finished it.

Aerosmith carried on in 1982 with Jimmy Crespo and Rick Dufay replacing Perry and Whitford.  The resulting album Rock In a Hard Place was inconsistent but not without some gems.  “Jailbait” doesn’t indicate anything was out of place, a worthy followup to frantic manic blasts like “Rats in the Cellar”.  But they only lasted one album before cooler heads prevailed and the classic lineup reunited.

With Perry and Whitford back again, Aerosmith began recording new albums for Geffen.  Columbia still released Aerosmith albums regularly, like Classics Live and Classics Live II.  A previously unreleased oldie from the Get Your Wings days called “Major Barbra” was included as a bonus on Classics LivePandora’s Box includes a second version of “Major Barbra”, a rougher alternate take.  It’s a full minute longer than the version of Classics Live, including harmonica solo.  Another track Columbia released was the classic “Chip Away the Stone” (written by Richie Supa), on 1988’s Gems.  This obscure single never had a proper album release until then, despite its awesome nature.  The Pandora’s Box version is an alternate version, with noticeably less piano in the mix.

The penultimate track is the unreleased Beatles cover “Helter Skelter”, dating back to 1975.  This one got a bit of airplay in 1991 when the box set was released.  It is undoubtedly rough but with suitably aggressive and heavy hitting groove.  The box set is then closed by “Back in the Saddle”, an apt way to describe Aerosmith’s career since.

But wait, what’s this?  “There now, ain’t you glad you stayed?” asks Steven Tyler after a few seconds of silence.  Why, it’s the hidden bonus track!  The unlisted instrumental was written by Brad Whitford and actually titled “Circle Jerk”.  It is very similar to the previous “Krawhitham” instrumental on disc two, but heavier.

Now, what about that remixed “Sweet Emotion” that was released to promote the box set, but wasn’t actually on the box set?  The remix was done by David Thoener and featured some structural changes.  The music video was a smash hit.  You could buy it as a standalone single, with “Circle Jerk” and another unreleased instrumental bonus track called “Subway”.  All three were re-released again as bonus tracks in 1994 on the massive Box of Fire.  The Thoener remix has been issued many times over the years on compilations and movie soundtracks.

There’s little doubt that Pandora’s Box was good value for the money.  For the fans who didn’t have the albums, most of the hits are included in studio versions.  The remixes are minor enough for them not to notice.  For the rest, the wealth of unreleased bonus material justified buying three CDs.  Unlike other box sets like Led Zeppelin’s four disc airship, Pandora’s Box is not designed to be an ecstatic listening experience from start to finish.  It is a study in early Aerosmith from the roots to just before the reunion.  It is the rise and fall, and still fighting to get back up.  It is uneven with mountainous peaks of spontaneous rock and roll chemistry, and also the tired struggle to keep producing music.  Much like its subject, Aerosmith, Pandora’s Box is a flawed portrait.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Paul Stanley’s Soul Station – Now and Then (2021)

PAUL STANLEY’S SOUL STATION – Now and Then (2021 Universal)

Reviewing Paul Stanley’s new album, Now and Then featuring his new band Soul Station, is probably the most challenging task I have ahead of me this morning.  It’s difficult for several reasons, primarily three.  Full disclosure.

 

 

 

  1. Paul Stanley might be my favourite artist of all time.
  2. His voice is in decline and this is always evident.
  3. How can I review Paul’s soul covers without comparing to the originals?

The truth is I like soul just fine, but the bulk of my collection is made of different grades of rock.  I have an Etta James CD.  I’m far from qualified to review this.  But I have to, so I’ll try.

Paul’s band is 10 members (excluding himself) augmented by a horn and a string section.  18 musicians are credited total, with Paul as “lead singer”:  the first time on any of his albums where Paul plays no instruments.  Unexpectedly, Paul’s Kiss bandmate Eric Singer is Soul Station’s drummer.

There are 14 tracks:  nine covers, and five originals.  You can’t accuse Paul Stanley of taking the easy route.

Remember when Kiss were accused of going Disco in 1979?  “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” really sounds Disco, and certainly there’s nothing wrong with the flawless arrangement, from the lush strings to the punchy horns.  In fact, Paul’s diminished voice is the only noticeable weakness.  He covers for it pretty well.  He used to belt it out all time; now he usually holds back in a soft whispery falsetto.  A performer has to adapt to their limits at every age.  Good tune.  But this is a new Paul Stanley and he’s not the best singer in his band.  He’s just the lead singer.

The first original, “I Do”, sounds like the real thing.  It’s a light ballad, arranged with the strings and full band treatment to sound pretty much just like the covers.  But the really surprising original is “I, Oh, I”, a terrific upbeat dance-y number.  Not only does it sound authentic but it’s also catchy as hell.  You could imagine it in a rock arrangement, and Paul points out in the liner notes that he wrote, arranged and orchestrated all his originals.

“Ooo Baby Baby” is a Smokey Robinson cover, and like the original it’s in falsetto.  It’s one of the harder songs to listen to.  “O-O-H Child” is better, though no substitute for the original.  Paul does well on the upbeat tracks with plenty of melodic hooks.  One of his backing singers take the lead on a few lines.  And although Eric Singer does a mighty job on the drums, he is a rock drummer playing soul, and that’s evident in the fills.  The groove of the 70s just isn’t something that can be recreated easily.

You can tell by the title that “Save Me (From You)” is a Paul original.  Sounds like a leftover from the Live To Win album, jazzed up for the Soul Station.  That said, it’s a pretty good track.  It’s a nocturnal rumble that does really well standing up to the classics.  It cannot be denied that Paul Stanley has a knack for writing a melodic song.  All of his writing credits on Now and Then are solo credits.

“Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” is not bad.  It’s the falsetto again, but massaged in the studio, and backed by the Soul Station, this one makes the grade.  Nobody doubts Paul’s genuine love of this music.  In the liner notes he takes ample time explaining his roots with Detroit soul.  And it was him that was hanging out in New York Disco clubs, when he decided he could write one of those songs for Kiss.

“Whenever You’re Ready (I’ll Be Here)” is a duet with one of his backing singers; upbeat, well done.  “The Tracks of My Tears” exposes the weaknesses in Paul’s voice but there are plenty of backing singers to cover for him.  That aside, it’s another great Soul Station cover.  “Let’s Stay Together” (Al Green) underwhelms; I mean how can it not?  The best thing I can say is that it’s better than Michael Bolton’s version.  “La-La — Means I Love You” also kind of just sits there, threatening to send the listener off to sleepytime land.  Fortunately, Paul’s original “Lorelei” revives the album, with upbeat melodic charm.  Cool guitar solo on this one too.

Two more covers to get through — “You Are Everything” (no thanks) and “Baby I Need Your Loving”.  Fortunately the latter song closes the album, on an earnest upbeat note with Paul giving the lungs a little exercise.  Solid ending.

Observation:  I enjoyed Paul Stanley’s Soul Station more the first three or four times I played it — as background music.   When it comes to listening intently, it didn’t capture me.

Observation 2:  Peter Criss got shit all over for trying to make an album somewhat like this back in 1978.

If Paul had released a mini-album (or extra large EP) with only seven or eight tracks, I think we’d be praising his originals and taste in covers.  Unfortunately chinks in the armour appear too frequently on the bulk of the album.  Good background music, but not an outstanding set.

Paul’s originals – 4/5 stars
Covers – 1.5/5 stars
Kiss Fan Fanatic Score – 100/5 stars
Realistic Score – 2/5 stars