A&M

REVIEW: Styx – Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology (2004)

STYX – Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology (2004 A&M)

Styx need to get their albums remastered and reissued pronto.  In the meantime, you can Come Sail Away with The Styx Anthology.

The great thing about the Styx Anthology is that it covers virtually all Styx history, even the first four albums on Wooden Nickel records.  Each one of those early albums is represented by a track (two for Styx II).  Those early albums had some good material on them that usually only diehards get to hear.  “Best Thing” and “You Need Love” are bright and rocking, just like you expect from Styx.  “Winner Take All” and “Rock & Roll Feeling” are consistent toe-tappers.  The jovial harmonies, and lead vocals (by Dennis DeYoung and James “JY” Young) on these tracks could easily be mistaken for later, more famous Styx.  Don’t forget the original version of “Lady” from Styx II, their first big ballad.  Styx’s flair for the dramatic was there right from the first.  (Remember “Lady” as performed by the Dan Band in the movie Old School?)

Shortly thereafter Styx signed with A&M.  1975’s Equinox boasted hits galore.  You should know “Light Up” and “Lorelei”.  But Equinox was their last with founding guitarist John Curulewski.  He was replaced by a guitarist with prodigious talent and a voice to go with it:  Tommy Shaw.  Shaw’s “Crystal Ball” is one of the best songs from the album of the same title.  “Mademoiselle” and “Shooz” are not far behind.

Styx enjoyed an abnormally long period of great, classic albums in a row.  After Crystal Ball came The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theatre.  With a solid lineup they continued to crank out radio staples.  Their music became grander and more conceptual thanks to Dennis DeYoung.  Tommy Shaw and JY tended to provide balance with rockier songs.  Songs like Dennis’ “The Grand Illusion” are balanced out by Young’s “Miss America” and Shaw’s “Renegade”.  Sure, Shaw could write a ballad or two, but his are more rootsy like the acoustic “Boat on a River”.

Through “Come Sail Away”, “Babe”, “The Best of Times” and “Too Much Time on My Hands”, it is impossible to understate how hit-laden this CD set is.  “Blue Collar Man”, “Rockin’ the Paradise”…it’s seemingly endless!

Until it ends, right after “Mr. Roboto”.  Though their lineup was stable, Styx were volatile.  DeYoung was fired at one point for being too controlling.  Shaw threatened to quit if the song “First Time” was ever released as a single (it wasn’t and it’s not on here).  It came to a head for real with “Roboto”, from 1983’s Kilroy Was Here.  Though it went to #3, the tour did poorly and the band were not happy with DeYoung and his rock operatics.  Tommy Shaw stated that he couldn’t get into songs about robots (long before he wrote an album about Mars).  The Styx Anthology cuts you a break by not subjecting you to their last single before splitting, “Music Time”.

When Styx reformed in 1990 it was without Shaw, who was doing very well in the supergroup Damn Yankees.  He was replaced by singer/guitarist Glen Burtnik.  Burtnik’s single “Love is the Ritual” is a jarring change.  The seven years between it and “Roboto” are audible, as Styx forged a clear hard rock sound with the single.  Sporting synth bass and shouted “Hey!’s”, you couldn’t get further from the core Styx sound than “Love is the Ritual”.  With the new member singing, it’s hard to hear any similarity to Styx at all.  Dennis’ “Show Me the Way” has proven to be a more timeless song.  Although it resonated with Americans at the time of the Gulf War, today it is just a great song about keeping the faith.

Styx split again, but reformed with Shaw in 1995.  Unfortunately, founding drummer John Panozzo died from years of alcohol abuse and was replaced by the incredible Todd Sucherman.  “Dear John” is Sucherman’s first appearance on the disc, a tribute to Panozzo.  The somber Tommy Shaw ballad (from 1997’s Return to Paradise) simply had to be included on a Styx anthology.  The only Styx studio album ignored on the set is 1999’s Brave New World, and rightfully so.  Instead we leap ahead in time for the final song, featuring yet another lineup change, and one of the most significant.  Dennis DeYoung was let go and replaced by Canadian solo star Lawrence Gowan.  This has proven to be a fortuitous undertaking for both Styx and Gowan.  Gowan plays keyboards on “One With Everything” (from 2003’s Cyclorama), an epic six minute Tommy Shaw progressive workout.  It’s a brilliant song, and a perfect indication that for Styx, a whole new chapter had opened.*

Do yourself a favour. Go and buy Styx’s new album The Mission, and put The Styx Anthology in the basket too.  Then enjoy, and congratulate yourself for a great start on your Styx collection!

5/5 stars

* Two more lineup changes:  when bassist Chuck Panozzo fell ill, he became a part time bassist for Styx.  Glen Burtnik returned on bass this time and played on Cyclorama.  When he left again, he was replaced by Ricky Phillips from Coverdale-Page.

 

REVIEW: Nuno – Schizophonic (1996)

NUNO – Schizophonic (1996 A&M)

Man, the 1990s were hard on rock bands.  Those that could not survive broke up and fragmented.  Those fragments metamorphosed into new and sometimes interesting configurations.  Image changes, name changes, hair cuts…rock artists did whatever they had to do to make a living.  Even the talented ones.

When Extreme fell apart in 1995, it was obvious that guitarist Nuno Bettencourt wouldn’t just disappear.  Instead he re-emerged on his old label A&M with a 90’s-style stripped down album and a single moniker: “Nuno”.  With Nuno dressed in drag on the front, there was nothing to indicate that this was the same guitar wizard who made jaws drop just six years prior.

Writing, singing and playing virtually everything himself, Nuno’s solo debut Schizophonic was received coldly by some fans.  With 15 short and basic pop rock tracks and ballads but running over an hour in length, Schizophonic is a chore to finish in one listening session.  All the flavours of 90s rock are present:  drony riffs, drum machines, and distorted vocals with a de-emphasis on instrumental finesse.  The first track “Gravity” possesses all of these qualities, but also has Nuno’s knack for melody.  You can all but hear him and Gary Cherone harmonizing on it.  Shame that never happened because this could have been a great Extreme track.  “Gravity” is not bad, but there certainly is a sensation of the potential for more.

“Swollen Princess” is a great track.  Real drums, less distortion, and Nuno’s way with a melody make it a much better recording.  You can see why a guy like Nuno had to try and be more anonymous in the 1990’s.  If this track was on a new band’s album, it could have been a pop punk hit.  Put it on an album by a guy from an 80’s hard rock band, and nobody was going to pay attention.  Some will also enjoy “Crave”, a very very very 1996 rock song with light verses and hard choruses.  Sounds like Nuno was listening to a lot of Weezer.  Great song, but not for everybody.  I also dig the Spacehog-like “Got to Have You”.

“What You Want” will be skipped by many.  It adapts the riff for “New York Groove” by Ace Frehley into something new and noisy but not especially appealing until the mellow chorus.  “Fallen Angels” is all loops and programming; not enough groove.  “2 Weeks In Dizkneelande” is a cool title, exposing a heavy fast grunge-punk-thrash hybrid. Nuno’s drumming on this is quite impressive actually, and his brief guitar solo smokes. The shredding on this album, what little there is of it, is still impressive. It’s just in shorter, more diverse spurts.

Gary Cherone co-wrote a couple tunes. “Pursuit of Happiness” is a nice, folksy song that would have been a good single for Extreme. It has the same campground singalong quality that they had success with before.   “Fine By Me” has a similar singalong quality, in the guise of a pop rock track a-la the 1990s.  Cherone also co-wrote, and sings on “You” which is as close to Extreme as we were going to get at the time.  As a singer, Nuno is fine, but Gary is a real vocalist.  Having them together on “You” is a return to the sound that made them famous.

It’s a bumpy, uneven ride. The worst track is the electronic rock of “Karmalaa”. I know — he should have named it after Kamala, the Ugandan Headhunter.  I can’t help but think of “Karmalaa” as a frantic, poor-grade Adore outtake by the Smashing Pumpkins.  The other contender for worst track is the closer “Severed” which might answer the question, “What would Weezer sound like if they were an electronic band?”  Not good.   “Confrontation” is slow and forgettable, though not without its moments.  “I Wonder” is a tender, thoughtful song, but just not good enough.  There’s some tasty talk box on “Note on the Screen Door” but not enough of a song to go with it.  That’s the problem with Schizophonic overall.  There are instrumental thrills, some great parts and melodies here and there, but not enough cohesive, memorable material.

It’s a hit and miss affair.  I had one customer, Shane, who never trusted my opinion again when I told him it was good.  Buy at your own risk.

3/5 stars

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REVIEW: Swingers – Music from the Miramax Motion Picture (1996)

movie-soundtrack-week


Scan_20160714SWINGERS – Music from the Miramax Motion Picture (1996 A&M)

Now here…now here is a soundtrack!  Every track is a keeper.  With a mixture of oldies and newer songs, Swingers had a peerless balance.   If you’re down to swing, dance, or just get dirty, this soundtrack has what you need.  Bonus points for the uber-thin and young Vince Vaughn on the front cover too. Jon Favreau executive produced the soundtrack, and it’s clear the guy has good taste in music.

I love it when a soundtrack puts scenes from a movie right in your head.  Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” kicks off both the CD and the movie, and all I can think is “Vegas baby, Vegas.”  That slow jazz just sets the mood for the adventures ahead.  The horns pop!  It’s money, baby.  Talk about setting the bar high for an opening track; thankfully there’s lots more to come.

“Paid for Loving” by Love Jones brings me right into the film’s setting again, but it’s Tony Bennett’s “With Plenty of Money and You” that has me seeing the bright lights of Vegas before me.  Remember Mikey and T rolling up in their suits?  You’d feel like a high roller too, with a song like this playing.  Tony is followed by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (who appeared in the film).  Now, I do kinda wish it was the live version of “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)”.  In the film, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy play it live, but this is a studio version.  I think including the live version would have been an extra treat for fans, but I’m not complaining.  If you don’t find yourself tapping your toes to it, call the coroner, because you may be dead.

Mixing new and old, Scotty and the guys from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy are chased by Louis Jordan, from way way back in 1941.  If you love muted trumpet solos, then dig right in.  A song you should recognise is the oft-played “Groove Me” by King Floyd (1970).  It’s a soul classic that found itself used on TV ads over the years.   More jazz (a couple cool instrumentals), and more Big Bad Voodoo Daddy are to be found as the CD progresses.  Daddy have three tracks on the CD, all of which were in the movie.  “Go Daddy-O” has to be a favourite for sure, but “I Wan’na Be Like You” has a tropical salsa beat.

Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” isn’t jazz and doesn’t swing, but it has the same golden oldie feel.  It’s not the only country song:  George Jones himself honours the CD with his presence.  The melancholy ballad “She Thinks I Still Care” is one of the…saddest, I guess…lyrics I’ve ever heard.  It’s a great song from a great scene in the film.

“Pick up the Pieces” by the Average White Band is the kind of song everybody needs.  “Need” isn’t too strong a word either.  You know the song, you love the song.  You have to.  It’s required.  Finally, “I’m Beginning to See the Light” by Bobby Darin completes the journey, and it’s back to the same kind of sound that Dean Martin started the album with.  And what a journey it is!  You just…feel BETTER after listening.  When I bought this CD, I felt like this line of dialogue directly applied to me:

“You’re a big winner.  I’m gonna ask you a simple question and I want you to listen to me: who’s the big winner here tonight at the casino? Huh?  Mikey!  That’s who!  Mikey’s the big winner.  Mikey wins.”

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Styx – Equinox (1975)


 

Scan_20151129STYX – Equinox (1975 A&M)

My first purchase from Mike and Aaron Go to Toronto Again…Again to be reviewed. Bought at BMV on Bloor for $5.99 in excellent shape.

A few years ago I picked up the pretty damn fine Styx 2 CD compilation Come Sail Away. Since that time I pledged to pick up old Styx studio albums on CD, if found used or cheap. Equinox is now the oldest found I’ve acquired. After recording four albums for Wooden Nickel records, Styx finally signed with a major label. A&M released their fifth: Equinox. It was however also their last album with original guitarist John Curulewski, a major songwriting contributor to the early albums. The Styx story continued with them moving from strength to strength and discovering a kid named Tommy Shaw out of Alabama. Shaw picked up the ball and helped Styx finish their touring commitments for Equinox.

When I was younger and not really paying attention to the lyrics, I assumed “Light Up” meant something about stage lights, perhaps lighting up the stage for a show. As an adult, I am convinced that Styx were actually corrupting the youth! Opening the album with a progressive salvo of heavy guitars and spacey keys, it quickly transitions into a celebration. “Light up and be happy, sweet sweet sounds will fill the air,” sings Dennis De Young innocently enough. Dennis seems to imply he’s singing about a sipping a glass of wine, but then: “All I need is just one hit to get me by, ‘Cause baby when you’re near I’m halfway high.” I see what you’re saying, Dennis, you rascal. A great happy-go-lucky tune, “Light Up” is just fun. But then “Lorelei” turns up the rock. This time Dennis is corrupting America by inviting a woman to live with him, pre-marriage I assume! “Lorelei let’s live together!” John Curulewski and James Young bring with them a hint of a southern rock twang in the leads (think the Eagles). Dense, immaculately arranged and lush, “Lorelei” is pure classic rock fun. On the progressive side, Dennis’ synth and organs take center stage on “Mother Dear”, a co-write with Curulewski who punctuates it with heavy chords. Fans of space rock will love this trippy journey into the sonic spectrum. “Lonely Child” starts as an acoustic number, heavying-up as it goes. Twangy space guitars are the highlight. These four songs together are a great side, a good balance between the cerebral and the hard.

I still like to think of classic albums in terms of sides, so this is where I got up to make some fresh coffee. Good thing too, because “Midnight Ride” could not be more different. It’s clearly a James Young song, a pure rock blaze through the night going over the speed limit. Put the caffeine right into my veins, man, this is groovy shit and Styx can rock you harder than you expect. Dennis’ role is limited to backing vocals, albeit stunning ones!

“Born For Adventure” combines the different sides of Styx. You get the rocking guitars and the progressive bent, with the pompous arrangement and smoking musicianship. Then, Curulewski is solely responsible for “Prelude 12”, the acoustic part that introduces the album closing epic, “Suite Madame Blue”. Six and a half minutes of bombastic Styx will drive almost every punk rocker out of the room. In many regards, this is a high water mark. It’s their “Stairway”. Their “Hotel California”. It lacks nothing and continues to impress, 40 years later!

John Curulewski died in 1988, of a brain aneurysm. After Equinox, he decided to step out of the spotlight and ran a recording studio while playing with several local Chicago bands. Shaw took his place and the band has never looked back, but we’ll dedicate this review to John Curulewski who was a crucial part the Styx story.

4.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Extreme – The Best of Extreme: An Accidental Collication of Atoms? (1997)

Welcome to GREATEST HITS WEEK! This is an idea I nicked from Aaron over at the KMA.  (For his original Greatest Hits Week, click here!)  

All week, we will be looking at different (and I hope interesting) hits albums from various groups. Let’s get this one out of the way first though: the proverbial contractual obligation album!

Scan_20150804EXTREME – The Best of Extreme: An Accidental Collication of Atoms? (1997 A&M)

The best of Extreme? Perhaps, by some arguments, but the ball sure was fumbled, with this CD that fails to keep the attention from flagging.

The Best of Extreme (subtitled An Accidental Collication of Atoms?, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) plays it straight, in a paint-by-numbers kind of way. Pretty much every song here is a single, though not many were very big singles. The thing is, like more respected bands such as King’s X (with whom they shared management), Extreme were about albums much more so than singles. First record aside, Extreme never failed to impress with a cohesive collection of jaw-dropping rock. So what happens when you take a record company suit (or a room full of them) and assign them the duty of picking a baker’s dozen of tracks for the requisite greatest hits CD? You get an accidental collication of atoms, apparently.

Opening with “Decadence Dance” was a great idea, but why leave on the rain storm and narration that opens the album version of the song? Why not use the dynamite single version? That intro makes little sense in context of a greatest hits disc. Great song, though — in fact every single song here is bonafied great! With the possible exception of “Kid Ego”, every track here was always of the utmost quality, delivering innovation and hooks. “Rest in Peace” – brilliantly produced, written and performed. “Tragic Comic” – just pure class acoustic rock as only Extreme deliver. Same with the massive hit “Hole Hearted”. “Hip Today” – still aggressive to this day. That was Extreme’s first single with Mike Mangini on drums, incidentally.

So you can’t knock the tunes, at all. It’s the crummy execution that’s the problem. The rain at the beginning of Decadence Dance is one such example. Then on “Rest in Peace”, the guitar outro that normally leads into “Politicalamity” is retained, but it ends abruptly and leads into nothing. That is sequenced into “Kid Ego” from the first album, which as an awkward transition. “Leave Me Alone” works better as a side opener.  There’s no reason behind the track listing that I can imagine. It’s not chronological, and it doesn’t flow well, especially when you hit 11 minutes of ballads right in the middle of the whole thing. The booklet is a joke, with no liner notes of any value. It’s just a slathering of images that has nothing to do with Extreme or any of their past albums.  Just lazy.  Nobody would even cop to compiling it by putting their name in the credits. The anonymous compilers are as faceless as the CD they created. The band had been broken up for a while, when Gary Cherone joined Van Halen. This was just a record company trying to squeeze a few more dollars out of a band that had little value in 1997 dollars.

There are two touches I like on The Best of Extreme. One is the “Horn Mix” of “Cupid’s Dead”. I don’t have this on any singles in my collection, so thank you, suits! (I know you included this remix just for idiots like me that would buy an entire CD just for one song. However the joke is on you. I bought it used from my own Bargain Bin.) It’s a killer remix. It should have been this way on the album. Maybe somebody said, “We can’t have too many horns! One has to go.” It’s also nice to see “Am I Ever Gonna Change” closing the CD. That “song” is actually just the middle section of “Everything Under the Sun”, the side-long epic that closed Extreme III Sides to Every Story. It was one of the more single-like moments from an album that offered few such songs. Fans have long said that it should have been a single, so it is interesting to hear it here, amputated from its parent song.

Unless you need that “Cupid’s Dead” remix, you don’t need this CD.

2/5 stars

EXTREME QUALITY CHART

Thanks to Geoff over at the 1001 Albums in 10 Years for the “Excel”lent inspiration!