mtv unplugged

REVIEW: Aerosmith – Unplugged 1990

AEROSMITH – Unplugged 1990 (2017 Zap City broadcast CD)

When Aerosmith’s MTV Unplugged aired in Canada, we didn’t get the whole show.  We only got about half.  Now thanks to easily acquired broadcast CDs, you can get all 14 tracks in one handy place.  Because MTV were rigid about things being 100% live, you’ll get none of the annoying backing tracks that Aerosmith use today.  That makes Aerosmith Unplugged a strong contender for the best live Aerosmith purchase since Classics Live II.

“Hangman Jury” is a natural for an opener, and actually superior to the Permanent Vacation album cut.  “Monkey On My Back” is more surprising, being a heavier groove from Pump.  Deconstructed as an acoustic jam, it lays it down hard.  The first surprise of the night comes from the Air America soundtrack, to which Aerosmith contributed their Doors cover “Love Me Two Times”.  Frankly the unplugged version is better.  Tyler gets to honk on the harmonica and tear it up on the vocals a bit.

The first step back into Aerosmith’s past is 1974’s “Seasons of Wither”.  When this set was recorded in 1990, only people who owned Get Your Wings would really have known this song.  The purity of the unplugged stage is the ideal setting.  Then it’s onto 1975 and “Big Ten Inch Record”, the old R&B classic they covered on Toys in the Attic.  The album version with full horns is rearranged into an acoustic shuffle with individual guitar solos by Brad Whitford and Joe Perry.  That’s all before Thom Gimbel shows up with his sax!   This version kills.

Going even further back in time, Aerosmith pull “One Way Street” from the first album featuring a cool Perry solo.  For serious fans, “Smokestack Lightning” is a treat because Aerosmith have never recorded it before.  The oft-imitated Howlin’ Wolf cover is a natural jam for them.  They they unload the heavy artillery exactly halfway into the set:  “Dream On”.  Arguably the song everybody was waiting to hear; easily a highlight.  Playing with minimal instrumentation is a wise way to do it, though it picks up steam at the end.

“Milk Cow Blues” is rolled out next, a rarely played number from Draw the Line.  Full steam ahead just like the album version, you don’t wanna be standing on the tracks when this one rolls by.  Then, as if you’re daring them to try one that fast again, it’s “Toys in the Attic”.  Tyler and Perry’s voices blend naturally together in the unforgiving unplugged environment.

Returning once more to the first album, “Walkin’ the Dog” is the fifth of six cover tunes and the first encore.  It’s particularly cool because you get Tyler playing flute.  “Train Kept-a Rollin'” from Get Your Wings is the final cover, though presented twice:  “fast” and “slow” versions.  For a solid thrills-per-second ratio, you gotta go for the fast take.  Finally “Last Child” is announced to the excitement of one really hyped guy in the crowd.  The funky classic works surprisingly well.  A highlight from a show of nothing but highlights.

The CD had a few sonic clicks and quirks that may vary player to player.  That would be its only flaw.  Anyone buying broadcast CDs should be prepared for less than perfect audio.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Alice in Chains – MTV Unplugged (1996)

ALICE IN CHAINS – MTV Unplugged (1996 Sony)

MTV’s Unplugged series is responsible for some of the best live albums you’ll find. Certainly Kiss’ instalment is up there, and so is Alice in Chains’. It’s somewhat strange that Alice’s first live album was an acoustic performance, but they have always been a two sided band. At least in the early days, you could count on an acoustic EP between electric albums.  Their Unplugged focuses on mellow(ish) moments from everything but their debut, Facelift.

“Nutshell” from Jar of Flies is a brilliant opener.  It sets a dark, quiet tone that follows through the whole album.  For this show, Alice added guitarist Scott Olsen to free up Jerry Cantrell’s hands to solo.  The eerie quiet of the audience only adds to the tension.  “Brother” from Sap is next; a showcase for the harmonies of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell.  Their vocal blend was Alice’s most defining feature.  The big single from Jar of Flies, “No Excuses” rounds out this trio.  Once again the harmonies kill it.  MTV Unplugged is an unforgiving format.  They had to do it live.  They could do multiple takes, but one of them has to be perfect.  “No Excuses” is perfect, and just listen to the percussion work of Sean Kinney!

A number of album tracks, better known as heavy electric songs, are next.  Right after a lil’ bit of “Enter Sandman”, Alice in Chains do the newbie “Sludge Factory” for the first time ever.  Due to Layne’s health, Alice were unable to tour in ’95-’96.  They played only five shows; Unplugged was the first.  (The other four were opening for Kiss, who also had an Unplugged album in 1996.)  “Sludge Factory” is a difficult song from a murky album.  Though was well received, “Down in a Hole” from Dirt earns more shouts of familiarity.  Layne clearly poured himself into the song.

“Angry Chair” is one of Alice in Chains’ heaviest songs; to hear it unplugged is strange but oddly appropriate.  Instead of raging, it simmers.  “Rooster” too is more peaceful, though an undercurrent of angst is always present.  It’s a song about Jerry’s dad, a Vietnam vet.  Sean Kinney’s marching band style drums give a slight military feel.  Layne absolutely wails on “Got Me Wrong” from Sap, and if you want intensity then check out “Would?”.  Even though the band hadn’t played live in ages, and despite Layne’s fragility, they were certainly as good as ever on MTV Unplugged.

A cluster of new material lies on the back end.  “Heaven Beside You” was always (largely) acoustic, but live it has a swagger.  For songs that were always challenging, “Frogs” is certainly one, and it is no less so unplugged.  It is more about the atmosphere than the notes.  “Over Now”, however, is a blast.

Alice finished the set with a new song called “Killer is Me”.  Like many of their songs it has atonal qualities that make it a difficult pill to swallow.  It has never been recorded in the studio, which makes the unplugged show that much more special.

Listening to MTV Unplugged, you can’t help but miss Layne.  A fun side of him shone that night.  “I just wanna hug you all!…but I’m not gonna,” he exclaims at the end.  It is true that the band eventually found a way to carry on with William Duvall, and they have done so very well.  But Layne…he was something special that only happens once.

4.5/5 stars

 

 

 

REVIEW: Alice In Chains – Jar of Flies / Sap (Double EP)

Click if you missed my review of the new Alice in Chains album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here!

ALICE IN CHAINS – Jar of Flies / Sap (1994 double Columbia EP edition, originally 1992 and 1994)

For a little while, Alice In Chains were in the habit of releasing an EP before each studio album (We Die Young preceded the Facelift album albeit it was a promo). This ended after Layne’s death, but these two EPs — 1992’s Sap and 1994’s Jar of Flies — represent some of the best work of this pioneering band. Acoustic in nature, these two recordings are crucial to rock fans who need to know more about one of the most interesting bands of the 1990’s.

I snagged a European import of this set many years ago, for less than the price of either of the two EP’s separately.  Great score, and it was in great condition.  It even contains all the artwork from the original releases.  Although Jar of Flies is the first disc in the set, I will review Sap first since that’s how they came out.

JAR OF SAP_0004Sap is very low key. I remember reading an interview in RIP Magazine with drummer Sean Kinney.  He stated that they were writing songs for the next album (Dirt), but all this acoustic music started pouring out instead.  He had a dream about it one night, and told the band, “Guys, we have to release these songs as an EP, and we have to call it Sap.”

The opening track, “Brother” is sung by Jerry Cantrell with Ann Wilson of Heart on the choruses. Very powerful understated song. Both “Brother” and the next song, “Got Me Wrong” (another standout) were released live on the band’s Unplugged CD. These songs are followed by “Right Turn” by Alice Mudgarden: essentially Alice In Chains with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Mark Arm of Mudhoney on guest vocals! It is a great contrast: Cornell screaming at the top of his lungs, and Arm down low. Great song.  I remember Jerry Cantrell once said that Mark Arm’s vocal on it “scares the shit” out of him every time he hears it.

Layne Staley’s “Am I Inside” follows, another understated and mellow slow-burner. Everything goes to hell though with the final track, the unlisted “Love Song”. The band switched instruments for this chaotic joke song, with Sean Kinney on megaphone/vocals. Hilarious track, but it must have taken people by surprise.  “Rae Dawn Chong…Rae Dawn Chong…”

JAR OF SAP_0003Jar of Flies was written and recorded rather spontaneously in just a week. When I first heard it, I felt like some of these songs were under-written, that they could have used more work. As you listen to it more, that feeling disappears.  It feels more complete. Just about every song on Flies is a total winner, but the best thing about it is that it grows on you. As a result, it has a longevity that similar EPs sometimes lack. Here I am, still playing it 19 years later and loving it just as much.

“Rotten Apple”, which is one of the best tunes anyway, kicks off the CD.  It’s hypnotic, even though the lyrics really feel unfinished.  Who knows what Layne was trying to express at the time, perhaps it’s with intent. It just feels like the fragment of a lyric. Perhaps that’s what makes it so hypnotic to me.  None of this changes the fact that this slow one is both warm and forboding at the same time; a cool thing.

The opener is followed by “Nutshell”, which I like even better.  It’s my personal favourite tune on Jar of Flies. It always takes me right back to summer 1994.  The single “I Stay Away” features strings to emphasize the powerful chorus.  It’s a cool tune because it has sections that sound like they don’t go together, yet they make it work.  Alice seem to ignore songwriting convention most on songs like “I Stay Away”.

“No Excuses” was another single (the first one, actually).  It’s an almost-happy sounding song with some sweet rolling basslines from Mike Inez. The instrumental “Whale and Wasp” is up next, so named because Jerry felt it sounded like whales and wasps talking to each other. That should put you in the ballpark.  Jerry wrote it when he was in highschool, finally recording it on Jar of Flies.

“Don’t Follow” is probably the least experimental of the songs. It is a straight acoustic ballad with some nice harmonica.  After five tracks  of music that doesn’t always follow the beaten path, “Don’t Follow” feels like a reprieve.  The final song is the pretty wild “Swing On This”.  It’s the only song that tends to lose me, but some people I knew held it as their favourite. From the most conventional song to the least conventional; such is a journey on planet Alice.

Commenting specifically on the version I own, the dual EP, I bought this at my own store used several years after initially owning both releases.  My logic at the time was that T-Rev and I were usually always trying to own the “coolest” or “most complete” or “rarest” version of things.  When I traded up the two separate EPs, I broke even, plus I made space for one for more disc on my shelves!!  Space is always a rare commodity to a collector.

Together, these two EPs together create a fantastic listening experience. The cool thing is that although both are acoustic, they are really nothing alike. Listen and you will see.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: KISS – MTV Unplugged (and a word about the Konvention Tour)

Part 34 of my series of Kiss reviews, leading up to the release of Monster!

KISS:  MTV Unplugged (1996)

Kiss had been releasing a lot of product (KISStory the book, a live video and album, and a tribute CD) but not a lot of new music since Revenge.  In ’95 they decided to go out and do an “official” Kiss Kovention tour, charging a then-insane $100 a pop, but giving you an acoustic performance for your dollars.

The Konvention tour yielded some great performances, with Kiss taking requests for songs they barely remember and doing their best to play them.  “Lover Her All I Can”, “Shandi”, and “Nothin’ To Lose” with Eric Singer on lead vocals were all rolled out.  See below for a cool bootleg CD and tracklist from an Australian show on the tour.

              

Kiss were invited to do MTV Unplugged.  What the audience that night didn’t know is that after a full set by Paul, Gene, Bruce and Eric, two “members of the family” would come out:  Peter Criss and Ace Frehley.  They were greeted with disbelief and joy.

The evening began with the current Kiss, rolling out rarely played classics like “Comin’ Home”, “Got To Choose” (on the Japanese release, anyway) and “A World Without Hereos”.  They even tackled “See You Tonite” from Gene’s solo album, and “Every Time I Look At You” (with strings) from Revenge:  both firsts.

You can’t complain at all about the tracklist on MTV Unplugged.  I raved about the album then, and I still rave about it now.  I don’t understand why this wasn’t a massive smash hit across the board.  This is a great Kiss album that almost anyone can enjoy.  From Paul’s stirring vocal on “I Still Love You” to the classic “Rock Bottom”, this is awesome all the way through.

But of course, they saved Ace and Peter for the end.  Out they came to do two of their signature songs:  “Beth” for Peter, and the Stones’ “2000 Man” for Ace.  Last but not least, Bruce and Eric returned to the stage to form a formidable 6-man Kiss lineup.  With everyone but Bruce taking a turn at the lead vocals, they rolled out “Nothin’ To Lose” and of course “Rock and Roll All Nite” to end the show.

Expertly recorded and mixed, my only beef is the cutting short of some of Paul’s raps.  I would love a two disc deluxe edition of this one day.  Kiss played for three hours that day, doing multiple takes and playing songs that didn’t make the show:  “Spit”, “Hard Luck Woman” with Paul on lead vocals, and a country version of “God of Thunder”!

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Pearl Jam – Ten (Collector’s Edition, aka The Mother of All Box Sets!)

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Pearl Jam – Ten (2009 Collector’s Edition, 4LP, 2 CD, 1 DVD, 1 Cassette boxed set)

This is how you do a box set!

Obviously, due to the price tag ($250 give or take), this box is not for every fan. This set is for the diehards — the ones who try to collect all the live bootlegs, all the singles, are members of the Ten club, and go see them live every year. Or, this is for people who just want to own something monstrous and cool looking. No matter who you are, if you have the disposable income, you will not be disappointed. There are some things that I was mildly disappointed with (which I shall get to in a moment) but on the whole, if you bought this, you got exactly what you wanted.

This box is packed full of goodies so numerous that I can’t list them all. Needless to say, don’t let the kids get into it or stuff will go missing. From Vedder’s scrap book, to photos, to even a reproduction Mookie Blaylock rookie card! (Pearl Jam’s original name was Mookie Blaylock in case you wondered.) Like I said, this box is loaded. It will take days to absorb all the goodies inside, all packed within a very sturdy and attractive black case. Amazon shipped this set very well packed.

To some, all that stuff is just paper and doesn’t matter next to the music, and in some sense they’re right. So onto the music.

This box includes the original Ten on vinyl and CD. It also includes the 2009 remixed Ten on vinyl and CD. The CD version contains 6 bonus tracks. Brendan O’Brien himself helmed the remixes. I have never been fond of the sound of Ten, until now. If you liked the remixes done for Rearviewmirror, you will like this. I have always found the original mixes too muddy and dull, now they are very bright and crisp. Dare I say it, they are heavier and more rocking. But the essence is the same, and casual fans will probably think this is the way the album always sounded. The six bonus tracks are mostly demos, all very rare.

Also included on DVD is the complete MTV Unplugged performance, previously unreleased and longer than the original broadcast version. This DVD was also included in the more affordable regular retail version so don’t shell out just for this DVD, although it is truly excellent and a great performance.  Legendary performance in fact.  Back in the early 90’s, this is one that spread by word of mouth.  We didn’t get MTV up here in Canada so it was even harder to see stuff like this.  Generally you had to buy a bootleg video at some shady store in Owen Sound or something.  And it looks and sounds a heck of a lot better than bootleg video.  5.1 surround sound plus “Oceans” which did not make the broadcast.

There’s exclusive music in this box, which is another real reason to get it. Drop In The Park, included on vinyl only, is a September 20, 1992 concert at Magnuson Park in Seattle. This is a 9 song album, two records (four sides!) with a 12 minute version of “Porch”. This is a fantastic early concert, a highlight of which was “State of Love and Trust”. As an added bonus, and one not heavily advertized, was that the album comes with a tiny coupon with a download code. You can download the whole album on mp3 and burn it to CD. Nice added touch.

And more!  Also included is a reproduction of Pearl Jam’s original demo cassette, Momma-Son. Right down to the cassette shell and J-card, this replicates the tape that Eddie and the boys made. These early arrangements are really interesting, with “Once” being quite different. This being a cassette, it sounds like…well…a cassette. I would recommend playing it just once, and burning it if you have the technology to do so. After all, tapes wear out fast.  One play could screw it up if it doesn’t like your tape deck.

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I mentioned earlier that some tunes were not included. What I wish they did was give you a download code to get mp3 versions of Momma-Son. Throw in some mp3s for MTV Unplugged, and now we’d be cooking. However these items were not made available for mp3 download. Astute fans may already have them on mp3 anyway…(wink).

Also not included were the four bonus tracks available for sale on the iTunes version. For the record, those tracks were “Why Go”, “Even Flow”, “Alone”, and “Garden” recorded on December 31, 1992 at The Academy Theater in New York. After spending this much money, I felt ripped off that I needed to buy those tracks separately. So being the obsessive compulsive collector that I am, I shelled out.  Again.  I had to buy the whole album again to get the four tracks.  I guess different retailers need different exclusives, it’s what makes the music world go ’round?

There are also MIA bonus tracks from earlier versions of Ten. Europe had “Alive (live)”, “Wash” and “Dirty Frank”, while Japan had “Master/Slave” and the Beatles cover “I’ve Got a Feeling”. For a box set of this stature, I’m afraid to say that these songs really had to be included. Otherwise, this is an incomplete picture of what Ten was and is. In my opinion. Some of that stuff can be easily found on singles and Lost Dogs, others not.

Yet Ten is an historic album.  It is one of very few that you cannot deny was part of a dramatic movement that shook the music world to its core.  Not the rock world, the music world.  Don’t forget, two years later, Pearl Jam were collaborating with Cypress Hill.

I’m going to be totally truthful to admit that Ten is not my favourite PJ album (Vitalogy is), and that I don’t really listen to it much anymore.  I’ve heard “Jeremy” a lotta times…let’s put it that way.  Still, I have never been tired of “Even Flow”.  The guitars of Stone and McCready are strait out of 1970, they are buttery smooth.  Sounds like Fenders and Gibsons to me!  You can’t go wrong with the basic album, even if you don’t like every single song.  It’s an album, it’s a portrait, and it friggin’ rocks at times!

The bottom line is, armed with this information, only you can decide whether this edition of Ten is worth the money. Another drawback to consider: After spending this money, do you really want to play the CDs in the car? It does look awesome on the shelf, but unless you have the money to burn, you may be wiser get the scaled down edition.

5/5 stars. My complaints are mostly nit picks.