Monday, 7 May 2012

Album Review: Robert Lamm - Living Proof

Despite his key role in Chicago’s early success, Robert Lamm was, in some ways, a victim of their ‘faceless’ status and has never received the recognition he deserves as a songwriter and performer in his own right. Indeed, despite his first solo album (Skinny Boy) coming out during Chicago’s mid-70s commercial peak it sank without a trace and he didn’t resume his solo career until the mid-90s. Sadly, a songwriting renaissance coincided with a severe decline in recording activity for the band he helped launch to superstardom with songs such as Beginnings, 25 Or 6 to 4 and Saturday in the Park, hence the marked increase in solo activity in recent decades. This late-career burst of creativity is clearly far from over, judging by this latest effort.

With the exception of 2003’s well-received Subtlety and Passion album, which featured Chicagoesque horn arrangements, and guest spots from most of the then-current line-up of the band, Lamm has generally used his solo work to explore different styles and textures, and on Living Proof, while there are a handful of songs that would fell at home on a classic Chicago album (opener Out of the Blue being the most obvious example) for the most part the territory explored here is closer to the urban sophistication of In My Head – the album that, until now, was my favourite of his solo output.  

As Lamm’s liner notes (available to download from, along with the song lyrics/credits, etc) make clear the gestation period of some of these songs was decades rather than days, and the fact that he’d previously abandoned some of the ideas that have finally come to fruition on this album is a lesson for all artists to never throw anything away. Several tracks had been submitted for inclusion on various Chicago albums over the years, some in drastically different versions, but at least one (I Confess) was submitted (and rejected) for Chicago XXX which is astonishing, as it is quite possibly the best song any member of Chicago has penned in decades. If Chicago ever return to the studio to record music that isn’t Christmas-themed (chance would be a fine thing) this simply has to be a contender, despite its inclusion here.

While it was once unusual to see a Lamm-penned tune with a co-writer credit, the opposite is now true and on this occasion there are multiple co-writes from long-term collaborator Hank Linderman, as well as more recent acquaintances Trent Gardner and Zosia, all of whom bring different things to the table and help to provide a tremendous diversity to the material. Tantalisingly he also mentions Peter Cetera as one of the writers he sent song ideas to for this album, but doesn’t give any indication of what response, if any, was received.

Zosia actually turns out to be something of a secret weapon on this album, appearing as a vocalist on all three of her contributions and expanding her presence throughout the album from backing vocalist (on Arise)  to duet singer (on the tremendously catchy Those Crazy Things) to sole vocalist on first bonus track Liquid Sky. She is very much a worthy successor to Lamm’s previous duet partner, the late Phoebe Snow.

To my mind Lamm was always Chicago’s most consistent – and overlooked – vocalist, and his voice has only changed slightly over the past four decades; the warmth that was always its defining characteristic is present as ever  - even the ‘gruff’ voice he employs for much of On the Equinox doesn’t hide this – though it does demonstrate a rarely-seen versatility (though this has been evident on record since at least Chicago III and I Don’t Want Your Money).

While I’ve casually referenced my absolute favourites on the album above, there isn’t a weak moment to be found - without exception all of the songs here will echo in your head for days after listening.

The album ends with a second bonus track - namely a remix of On the Equinox - but this is not a slightly-altered reprise of the ‘official’ version – it really does feel like a completely different song. As a preview of the upcoming ‘Songs of Robert Lamm’ remixes album on which it will be featured alongside other drastically re-worked classics from the Lamm songbook, old and new, it bodes extremely well.

With a total running time of around 40 minutes (including the two ‘bonus’ tracks) this is an album that definitely leaves you wanting more (and as a result I often replay both Those Crazy Things and I Confess once I’ve finished the album as a whole), which is how it should be. Overall this is definitive (one might say living...but one won’t!) proof (if any were needed) that, whatever is happening with his ‘day job’, Lamm’s creativity is undiminished – while the work included here would obviously reach a much wider audience if released under the Chicago banner, I’ll happily take the undiluted approach doing things on his own allows him for as long as he cares to write and record. Fans of early Chicago in particular or (cliché warning) great music in general, need to check this out. (9/10)

PS - I don’t generally bother with samples myself, but if you’re wanting a preview of the album here you go!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Album + Gig Review: Ian Anderson - Thick as a Brick 1 and 2

It’s not often sequels are attempted in rock music, and it’s even less often that they are worthy successors to their classic originals – but Ian Anderson’s belated follow-up to Jethro Tull’s classic Thick as a Brick (cunningly titled Thick as a Brick 2, or TAAB2 for the perennial texters amongst us) is a delightful exception on both counts. Of course, although it’s a direct sequel, it follows a very different path to the first. As a quick refresher for those who don’t know these things by heart, the original album is a single track (divided into two parts, a hangover from the days when vinyl was king), based on the epic poem of the same name as written by the (fictional)  8-year old Gerald ‘Little Milton’ Bostock. The sequel’s lyrics do not derive from an imagined later work by Bostock, but are instead comprised of musings on various paths Bostock’s life may have taken (‘What-if’’s, maybes and might-have-beens’) in the forty intervening years (we’re told he is now 50, so there has been a bit of fudging of his precise age along the way –– somehow I’m slightly bothered by this, even though he isn’t real – may need to get my head examined if further distress should ensue from this trivial matter…). 

As the original album had not been performed in full since the accompanying 1972 tour, and said tour had become the stuff of moderate legend, the announcement that it would be given the special anniversary treatment was greeted with enthusiasm by many, even if they were confused as to why Anderson would be performing it as a solo artist. Cynics would say that the decision not to tour under the Tull name is a cheap ploy aimed squarely at getting Mr Anderson a larger cut of the proceeds – well, that’s as maybe, but by distancing it from the band it has also allowed him to present it in a different manner to what might have otherwise been expected – particularly the addition of Ryan O’Donnell on ‘theatrics’ as well as handling a fair-sized chunk of the vocals, would have seemed out of keeping within the context of a Jethro Tull performance . It’s no secret that Anderson’s voice is not what it once was (neither’s mine though, and I’m only half his age, so what can you do?) but it was astonishing to hear O’Donnell sing parts of the first TAAB and sound uncannily like Anderson in his younger days. As the new album is all sung in Anderson’s ‘new’ voice, the shared vocals didn’t seem quite as necessary for the second half of the show, but it did provide consistency and it has to be said that the dishing out of lines to O’Donnell was clearly thoroughly thought through (try typing that ten times quickly while drunk…). It’s not as if Anderson was coasting either, he still sang plenty himself, and ably juggled guitar and flute right throughout both sets. Indeed, while O’Donnell and the other supporting musicians (particularly keyboardist John O'Hara) were exemplary, Anderson was still the undisputed star of the show throughout (not least during his on-screen appearances as Bostock’s psychiatrist or St. Cleves resident ‘Tufty’, inviting us to ‘an evening of progressive rock music…mustn’t call it ‘pop’!’ which opened the first and second halves of the show, respectively). 

While I knew Thick as a Brick from radio, live performances and the 3 minutes that appears on The Very Best of Jethro Tull I only acquired the full album a few weeks before the release of the sequel, so unlike many, I’m sure, I was by and large equally familiar with both albums. When the tickets were released many months ago we were promised other ‘Jethro Tull classics’ and there was no mention of the sequel – however there didn’t seem to be anybody in the audience who was too bothered about the change of plans (though there’s bound to be the odd chancer threatening to take the promoter to trading standards); indeed the applause during the second half of the show was positive proof to the contrary, this wasn’t a crowd sat impatiently suffering through new material while awaiting ‘the hits’.

If you happen to be anywhere near the subsequent dates of the tour then you should definitely get yourselves a ticket; either way the album (both of them, in fact) come highly recommended. Sadly the packaging of the sequel is a bit of a disappointment compared to the intricate original (which it apes) - even the CD reissue, which is significantly cut-down from the original LP, boasts far more detail within its sleeve – including the lyrics. Albums being released without printed lyrics in this day and age is a particular bugbear of mine – if you’re generally a digital listener you might as well go straight for the (legal!) download, really. Packaging quibbles aside, this is a superb effort and essential listening for all Anderson, Tull and prog fans and seeing it performed live, in full, is the icing on  apretty massive cake. (9/10 for both albums AND gig)