Sunday, January 12, 2014

Lesser-known Journey gems that deserve to be on a setlist

I was listening to Journey's Arrival (2001) last night. Talk about great songwriting. So many of the songs stand up beautifully over time -- Love Nothin' Comes Close, I Got A Reason, Lifetime of Dreams come to mind -- really glorious and timeless work that went unheard by the masses (their loss). Would love to see some of these gems resurrected on setlists on this tour; the same goes some of the work on Red 13 (2002) and Generations (2005). I'll talk about those albums a bit later.

The fact is that there are great songs on the albums that didn't feature the legendary Steve Perry (Steve Augeri was front man 1998-2006); popular music tastes had shifted when these albums came out, but what has not changed is that Journey put out songs during this period that have held up over the years. It's too bad that these albums never found an audience.

One of the reasons I love the band is that it has diverse musical influences that play out in interesting ways on its albums. Journey is best-known for 80s arena rock and power ballads; its RnB influences and performances, for instance (has the DSB crowd ever heard the jaw-dropping great 1978 King Biscuit jam live-in-studio boots?), are sorely missed now. And since the band is touring with Tower of Power this year, it's time to resurrect that collaboration for die-hards...please!

From the King Biscuit show:

Of late, the creative focus turned to a harder-edged, Schon-axe-based sound. I loved the guitar-heavy Eclipse (2011) by the way -- another album that the masses didn't favor -- because it adds yet another interesting stylistic feather to the band's cap. Honestly, who wants to see Escape/Frontiers repeated over and over (oh, yeah, the casual fans, sigh). From Eclipse, "Anything is Possible," a classic-sound that never managed to make it onto a setlist even though it actually charted.

My favorite creative period of the band varies with my mood; I love all but the first era (the instrumental heavy prog-rock phase; it has many devotees). I gravitate toward strong melodic vocals married with music. Journey's Steve Perry-Gregg Rolie phase (Infinity / Evolution / Departure / Captured / Dream After Dream), with shared vocals on several cuts, is a miraculous combination and transformation in the band's sound that is just catnip to my ears, and Rolie on the Hammond B3 and piano are an aural pleasure.

The Jonathan Cain era -- the most popular in terms of sales and concerts -- is chock full of classics that I love dearly as well. It's the one period -- heavily reliant on 80s synthesizers (I call it the "basement Casio keyboard sound") for a lot of songs that haven't aged as well. Exceptions with excellent synth work -- Separate Ways, Chain Reaction, Rubicon. Not so much -- Suzanne, Happy to Give (a vocally chills-inducing, wonderful song I actually love but would give anything for an arrangement with drums, piano and strings instead of synth). When the songs return to the base of the organic sound of the piano, they just soar in my book.

That leads to another wish -- that there was room for some smaller concerts that allowed for exploration of more than the dirty dozen favorites; there are a lot of fans that love the deeper cuts. We may not fill a stadium, but how about a few smaller gigs to showcase these tunes some love they deserve in a live venue.

Jon Cain and Neal Schon, 2011
It's kind of sad that the band itself doesn't seem to want to pursue an alternate path in live performance to give the back catalog of great songwriting a live airing these days -- regardless of whether some of songs ever charted. It's great music that a lot of dedicated fans listen to and appreciate and want to see performed live before the Journey boys decide to retire. I'm sure they have to be a bit weary of the dirty dozen by now; wouldn't it be gratifying to play their own favorites to a welcoming (if smaller) crowd in a few clubs around the country.

Journey during the Arrival-Generations period discussed here:

Steve Augeri: lead vocals
Neal Schon: lead guitar, backing vocals
Jonathan Cain: keyboards, backing vocals
Ross Valory: bass, backing vocals
Deen Castronovo: drums, backing vocals

(My fave songs below marked with a +, with ++ for outstanding)

Arrival (2001 U.S.)

Kevin Shirley: producer, engineering, mixing

This album has stellar writing on it; why did it suffer at release? No Steve Perry. Steve Augeri doesn't have the power or range (or that dynamic je ne sais quoi delivery) of The Voice, but he brings a style and bright, light ear-pleasing mid-tenor to this work with his own talented delivery. It was a terrible handicap to follow a popular and beloved once-in-a-lifetime voice; there's so much on this album to love. The production is less lush than Trial By Fire, but it's fine, indeed.

Upon listening during a rotation of Journey tunes from various times in the Perry era to this I found myself applying "I wonder how SP would vocally interpret this song?" to Arrival. You can't help it. But listening with an open ear to Arrival standing on its own, with repeated listens Augeri really owns this album in remarkable fashion, and Journey covers  a pretty wide berth of styles here, from outright rockers and ballads (the heart-tugging writing on "Lifetime of Dreams" stands equal to "Open Arms" quite honestly) to a return to some enjoyable bluesy pop-soul.

Perhaps the most unusual song on the album is the sensual "Kiss Me Softly" -- it takes on a quasi-Quiet Storm genre sound -- territory that the band has not ventured to before or since. It has gorgeous, sumptuous piano and guitar work and vocals. I imagine this wouldn't go over with the rocker crowd fan base, but I was smitten.

  1. Higher Place 5:09 ++
  2. All the Way 3:35
  3. Signs of Life 4:54
  4. All the Things 4:22 ++
  5. Loved by You 4:02
  6. Livin' to Do 6:24
  7. World Gone Wild 6:00
  8. I Got a Reason 4:18 ++
  9. With Your Love 4:25
  10. Lifetime of Dreams 5:29 ++
  11. Live and Breathe 5:12
  12. Nothin' Comes Close 5:41 ++
  13. To Be Alive Again 4:21
  14. Kiss Me Softly 4:48 ++
  15. We Will Meet Again 5:05 ++

Red 13 (2002, EP)

Producers: Neal Schon, Jonathan Cain

Oh, lord, the production sucks on this EP. I guess you can charitably say it's got a rough, off-the-cuff style, but in my book it's just a crying shame because the songs deserve better. The drums and vocals sound like they are under water at times, barely audible, mushy.

Now the songs themselves reflect a more experimental side, without regard to being commercial, which was a pleasant shift. Neal Schon gets to shred, to use Augeri's vocal textures to create a new Journey sound.

My personal favorite is the closest to the classic sound -- "I Can Breathe" is just peaches -- great melody, bridge, harmonies, guitar solo -- and horns tossed it to great effect. I want to weep because the production is so poor on this one. It's hit-worthy and deserves some love. "The Time" is also a fantastic, driving rocker that one could easily imagine turning up on Eclipse.
  1. Intro: Red 13 / State of Grace 7:26
  2. The Time 7:09 ++
  3. Walkin' Away From the Edge 6:16
  4. I Can Breathe 4:19 ++

Generations (2005)

Producer: Kevin Elson

Another album with some fantastic compositions that deserve a remaster. This is the album where each of the band members contributed lead vocals to the tracks, with Augeri on the balance. The production is sub-par; too muddy, vocals way too far in the background on a lot of the tracks, and drums, well, poor Deen Castronovo's work on the skins is also unusually "disappeared" at times. You can still find several gems that are easily some of Journey's best. The album just couldn't find an audience.

"Faith in the Heartland," was remade with Arnel Pineda on Revelation, and the original version suffers a bit when compared in my book. The remake has better production, a powerful vocal, a tighter arrangement and drum work. But the song itself is a grand Journey rocker regardless of the version. The same goes for "The Place in Your Heart," also remade for the Japan release of Revelation. Better production, but it's up to listener preference on the vox and delivery.

Out of the band members, drummer Deen Castronovo, handles two tracks and his voice is a revelation. He always handles a couple of tunes on the road, but this was the first studio album that gave him the chance to shine. He's got a fabulous melodic voice -- just a touch of dirt in an otherwise bell-clear Perry-like tenor with a wonderful vibrato. Here is "Never Too Late" with Dean on vox :

I also found Jonathan Cain's "Every Generation" a yummy, soulful jaunt of a rocker that's outside of the usual Journey sound that is completely complementary here. Now I'm sure I'll get some flack for my next thumbs-up -- the Steve Augeri-penned "Butterfly." While Arrival and Generations have been criticized for having too many ballads (not unreasonable if you're in the rock-oriented camp), there were some stand-out ballads in the bunch. I think of "Butterfly" as a gentle, meandering, thought-piece that is quite wonderful. It takes time on its journey building to a crescendo that is satisfying. It's not a typical Journey ballad, but so what -- it works for me. (Giving it some thought, this song falls in much the same love-it-or-hate-it category with Journey fans as Eclipse's "Tantra," -- and that one I'm not a fan of, so it goes, lol. The good thing is that the band provides something for everyone in the fan base).
  1. "Faith in the Heartland" 6:56 ++
  2. "The Place in Your Heart" 4:20 ++ (original here; the remake w/Arnel was Japan-release only; can hear that here)
  3. "A Better Life" 5:40 ++ (Deen on vox)
  4. "Every Generation" 5:52 ++ (Jonathan Cain on vox)
  5. "Butterfly (She Flies Alone)" 5:56 ++
  6. "Believe" 5:41 ++
  7. "Knowing That You Love Me" 5:21
  8. "Out of Harms Way" 5:14
  9. "In Self-Defense" 3:10 (Neal Schon on vox)
  10. "Better Together" 5:05 +
  11. "Gone Crazy" 4:04 (Ross Valory on vox)
  12. "Beyond the Clouds" 6:54
  13. "Never Too Late" 4:59 ++ (Deen)
"Pride of the Family" (Japanese-only bonus track) 4:00

That's all for now. I'm going to put the headphones and enjoy some more Journey from this period.

NOTE: Plan to return to this space soon for an essay on my dream set list for a Journey concert -- and, no surprise, DSB won't be on it. It will be the songs I want to hear the band play live again (or, in some cases, for the first time).

* How much do I love Journey?

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