Joe Jackson Band
If you survived the skinny tie and the ska-punk-pop explosion of the early '80s, you need to own this disc. Joe Jackson, who has spent the past several years getting increasingly esoteric (his last release was on a classical label), has returned to his early rock roots — and his original backing band — with Volume 4.
A powerful jazz-influenced keyboardist with an unerring sense of pop hook and scowling lyrical sarcasm, Jackson arrived fully formed on the radio scene with his band and "Is She Really Going Out With Him," the ultimate in spurned lover songs in 1979. The quartet released its debut, Look Sharp! as well as I'm The Man (featuring the title track and "It's Different For Girls") and Beat Crazy between 1979 and 1980, before Jackson started a solo career with the jump-swing experiment of Jumpin' Jive in 1981.
Volume 4 opens with the pounding "Take it Like A Man," an acidic comment on the reversal of gender dominance before slipping into the more contemplative "Still Alive" and bitter "should have known" complaints of "Awkward Age." ("It's a scary mountain to climb up without a guide/besides we live in an awkward age.")
With "Love at First Light," Jackson offers a sad but deceptively pretty ballad of the morning after a one-night stand. He lets the drums out in the echoing foot pounder "Little Bit Stupid," and celebrates the power of the night — and gin — in New Orleans in "Dirty Martini." It closes with a frantic recounting of a lovers quarrel and separation in the disillusioned rocker "Bright Grey."
Early pressings of this disc also include a six-song live album recorded in London last fall that includes "Is She Really Going Out with Him," "On Your Radio" and "It's Different for Girls."
While some older rockers have tried to return to their roots with lackluster results (see Elvis Costello), Jackson proves on Volume 4 that he's lost none of the angst that propelled him to the top almost 25 years ago. This is an extremely welcome return.
A host of guest vocalists in Laurie Anderson, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, David Bowie and more, not to mention the rich thematic trove of Edgar Alan Poe, can't salvage Lou Reed from his own inadequacies.
DaFoe's impassioned reading of "The Raven" is worth the price of entry for this disc on its own, but Reed's own songs celebrating Poe and derivations of the author's stories are weak. Reed's vocal range — never his strong suit — gets increasingly limited with age and his rhyme schemes are too often forced ("These are the stories of Edgar Allen Poe/not exactly the boy next door" he sings at the outset). The disc opens with "Edgar Allen Poe" and sets the stage for what is, in essence, musical theater. Each song is a set piece for one of Poe's stories, or an exploration of a Poe-derived theme, with a switching cast of vocalists and musical styles.
Reed complains over and over again, "Why didn't you call on me," in the gentle string-imbued "Call on Me," which features additional vocals by Laurie Anderson. Elizabeth Ashley offers one of the album's most rivetting performances, reciting a poem atop incidental synthesizer strains in "The Valley of Unrest."
Next comes a five-minute instrumental shambling punk-and Cajun-influenced riff with low honking saxophone in the "A Thosand Departed Friends" before Reed spits out a rough rock rave about the deterioration of age in "Change."
Steve Buscemi turns Rat-Pack-style crooner in the light swing "Broadway Song," a slick number that sounds out of place on this disc. And David Bowie sings lead on "Hopfrog," a wasted use of his talent that basically takes the title of a Poe story and repeats it over and over for two minutes. The Raven closes with a melancholy guitar strummer called "Guardian Angel," which returns Reed to the mike to sing "I have a guardian angel who keeps bad things from me/the only way to ruin it would be for me not to trust me."
The Raven has some interesting moments, but overall, it's both a weak distillation of Poe and an unmemorable collection of melodies from Reed.
Read the original instead.