Friday, November 9, 2018

CD Odyssey Discs 1198 and 1199: Kris Kristofferson

My brain is a little worn out from work, so I took a day off today with Sheila to recharge. I’m looking forward to the resulting four day weekend.

Today you get two reviews, because these two albums were re-released on a single disc. You also get a negative review and a positive review about the same artist.

Disc 1198 and 1199 are… Surreal Thing and Easter Island
Artist: Kris Kristofferson

Year of Release: 1976 (Surreal Thing) and 1978 (Easter Island)

What’s up with the Cover? Two LPs on 1 CD! This was a big deal when CDs came out. Convenient as it is for space-saving, I prefer to talk about the actual covers:
Surreal Thing: Kristofferson is back lit in some concert event, getting his “seventies Elvis” act on, country style. Like the record itself, this cover says “Vegas, Baby!” but not in a good way.
Easter Island: Kristofferson doing the classic “head and shoulders” shot, right down to the cheesy studio backdrop of clouds. Speaking of original LPs, my mom owned this on vinyl and I used to stare at the cover and marvel at just how incredibly blue his eyes were. The small blurry version here doesn’t do it justice, but take my word for it.

How I Came To Know It: As I noted above, I grew up with “Easter Island” and was on the lookout to get it on CD for a while. Finding it attached to “Surreal Thing” just ended up being an unhappy accident. That’s called foreshadowing.

How It Stacks Up:  I have eight Kris Kristofferson albums I’ll put “Easter Island” in at #3 (bumping a bunch of other albums down in the process) and “Surreal Thing” in last at #8 (bumping…nothing). Here’s a recap:

  1. The Silver Tongued Devil and I: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1066)
  2. Kristofferson: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 39)
  3. Easter Island: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  4. Who’s To Bless and Who’s To Blame: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 54)
  5. Repossessed:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1150)
  6. Third World Warrior: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1151)
  7. To The Bone: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 54)
  8. Surreal Thing: 2 stars (reviewed right here)

Clever readers will note that #4 and 7 are both reviewed at Disc 54. That’s because they were also a “2 LPs on 1 CD” package, and back then I didn’t have the foresight to assign them their own number.

Ratings:  2 stars for “Surreal Thing” and 4 stars for “Easter Island”

Surreal Thing:

“Surreal Thing” came out right before Kristofferson role as an aging and cynical rock star in the original “A Star Is Born” and the influences show. This record has its moments, but large parts of it are a bloated mess of excess production and sprawling rock-country anthems.

I put a lot of stock in Kristofferson as a man of integrity and a talented singer-songwriter, so cognitive dissonance makes me wonder if this was the Soulless Record Execs getting the better of him. Whatever happened, it wasn’t good.

The songs on “Surreal Thing” are weak compared to Kristofferson’s other work, but they’re made worse with a lot of overly lush production and Broadway show style backing vocals. Fellow gravel-voiced vocalist Leonard Cohen has always been a master of adding beautiful female background singers to augment his limited vocal range. It feels like Kristofferson is trying to do the same thing on “Surreal Thing” but it just made the songs too busy.

Throughout the seventies most Kristofferson records include some form of “let’s get it on” song, and he is the master of the art form. The most famous of these is “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” Kristofferson even turned the notion on its head with “The Silver Tongued Devil and I” where he warns the woman off even as he tries to convince her otherwise.

“Surreal Thing”’s entry is the most ribald of them all, with “You Show Me Yours (and I’ll Show You Mine)” which gets right to business from the opening stanza:

“If you're feeling salty, then I'm your tequila
If you've got the freedom I've got the time
There ain't nothing sweeter than naked emotions
So you show me yours, hon, and I'll show you mine”

This song is so sexy it is a bit ridiculous, but it is ridiculous in a good way. Or maybe it is just that I’ve been hearing it since before I knew that it was about more than a drink-making competition.

My favourite song on the album, “I Got A Life of My Own” has most of these overblown elements but it is so good I forgive it. I’m a sucker for a freedom anthem song (another common theme for Kristofferson), and I suspect Kristofferson shares my dislike at being told what to do. At the same time, “I Got A Life of My Own” subtly slips in the knife that sometimes you really ought to take good advice. Bonus points for making the knife both metaphor and reality in the lyrics.

For the most part the album isn’t this clever again, with strained metaphors in “The Prisoner” and a vitriolic attack on a critic in “Eddie the Eunuch.” I usually love a good attack on a critic (Public Enemy’s “Caught (Can I Get a Witness)” and Guns ‘n’ Roses “Get in the Ring” come to mind) but this one fell flat for me. Although bonus points for using the song’s title to allude to the song’s target having no balls.

Longtime readers will know I am a stalwart defender of Kris Kristofferson. I think he is one of the great country songwriters of his generation. I even like the way he sings. I prefer his version of “Me and Bobby McGee” to Janis Joplin’s, and I’d rather hear him sing “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” than Johnny Cash.

That said, “Surreal Thing” is a weak record overall, despite a few gems along the way.

Best tracks – Surreal Thing: You Show Me Yours (And I’ll Show You Mine), I Got a Life of My Own, If You Don’t Like Hank Williams

Easter Island

Two years after “Surreal Thing” (and one “Star is Love” appearance with Barbara Streisand) Kristofferson finally gets the whole overblown star thing out of his system. The result is the far superior “Easter Island.”

“Easter Island” incorporates a lot of the excess production begun on “Surreal Thing” but harnesses its powers for good, rather than evil. The arrangements are lush in places, and there is plenty of backup singers but everything is working together to give the songs momentum and purpose.

Kristofferson has not one but two ‘let’s get it on’ songs, “How Do You Feel (About Foolin’ Around)” and “Lay Me Down (And Love the World Away)”. Kris loved songs with long parentheses-infested titles. I cannot explain this. “How Do You Feel…” happens early on the record and has an early seventies feel, with some guitar picking and an idle grass-in-the-side-of your-mouth mosey to it before…gets down to business.

Kristofferson acknowledges his Silver Tongued Devil in this song as well, but it is clear from the beginning that this time they’ve joined forces:

So many people got so many lines
They've all been tried and it's true
They've all got so many reasons for changin' your mind
And there ain't none of 'em new
But there's just so little distance between me and you
I think we're two of a kind
We won't do nothing you don't want to do
And I won't tell you no lies
So tell me how do you feel about foolin' around
Down from your head to your toes?
Ain't nothin' realer than right here and now
If that's as far as it goes”

As for “Lay Me Down…” has a slightly disco feel to it that shouldn’t work, but kind of does. It is no “How Do You Feel…” but it still manages to be a toe-tapper.

Kristofferson isn’t always thinking about sexual conquest, and “Easter Island” has a good range of both style and subject matter. Some of the songs are very traditional country crooners (“Forever in Your Love”) others seventies rock anthems celebrating powerful and beautiful women (“Spooky Lady’s Revenge”). I love the slow build of “Spooky Lady’s Revenge,” which rises in intensity until by the end you feel like Kristofferson is standing on the edge of some mountain top arm raised to the sky in rock triumph. Or you might think it is just overblown late-seventies schmaltz. If you think the latter, then I feel sorry for you. Let a little joy and celebration into your life!

The Sabre and the Rose” is a five minute song packed with action and intrigue fit for a two hour film. Outlaws flee to an isolated whorehouse in the backcountry, but one of them falls in love, and he and his newfound love flee naked to the river, leaving the Sabre and the Rose burning in the distance. Kristofferson drenches his story in great imagery – here the outlaws set out on their quest for the legendary house of ill repute:

We swang into the saddle sick as breathing
And slapped 'em once for pleasure with the reins
The horses snorted frosty in the moonlight
Somethin' dark was singing in my veins
Older than the voices in my brain”

 This song is as exhilarating as a wild west gun fight, exhilarating as a romantic encounter and spooky as a ghost story, all rolled into one.

The title track is an interesting bit of subterfuge from Kristofferson. As a kid, I just assumed Kristofferson was singing about the mysterious carvings on Easter Island. When you listen carefully, he’s comparing that dead civilization to America, citing it as a warning against the hubris of empire.

My CD (which I got used) has a bit of skip in the final track, which is disappointing, but otherwise “Easter Island” was a pleasant surprise. I reserved sixth spot for this record early on, but at every turn it surprised and delighted me to the point that it moved up the #3.

Best tracks – Easter Island: How Do You Feel (About Foolin’ Around), The Sabre and the Rose, Spooky Lady’s Revenge, Easter Island, The Fighter

No comments: