Twelve Strings, Four Hours, 86 Billion Little Notes
New Live Albums From Joe Satriani and Steve Vai

Short and sweet this week, because I’m in the middle of packing all my earthly belongings for my move to Hobart, Indiana. My furniture leaves tomorrow. I don’t leave until the 14th. I’m not sure how we settled on this arrangement, but as the date looms ever nearer, I find my schedule growing ever tighter.

So, short and sweet.

I found out a lot about the new Tori Amos album, Strange Little Girls, out on September 18. It turns out Jay Tucker wasn’t fucking with me – I was sure he was when he mentioned that Tori was doing a cover album. Strange Little Girls is a reworking of 12 songs by male authors, meant to bring out the female perspective and accentuate the hidden misogyny that exists within popular music. Obvious choices (conceptually, not musically) include Eminem’s “97 Bonnie and Clyde” (for real) and Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” but there are some other very interesting choices here. Songs by Joe Jackson, Neil Young, 10cc, etc. that on the surface probably wouldn’t lend themselves to the piano-and-vocal covers Tori’s done in the past.

This strikes me as something I might like more in concept than in actuality. Tori has fashioned 12 alter egos for herself from the lyrics of the songs she’s covering, and she sings each one in character. (“97 Bonnie and Clyde” ought to be terrifying.) What I don’t like about it right off the bat is that she didn’t write the material. That disappointment is tempered by her willingness to enter into the debate Eminem has started. Tori’s so far the only person who has even tried to craft a meaningful rebuttal to Em’s assertion that songs never hurt anyone. The more I think about this concept, the more it feels like it could work brilliantly.

Or, it could be a total cock-up. That’s what’s neat about taking huge creative risks.

Anyway, short and sweet.

I promised a guitar-fest this time, so here we go. I’m not sure which label rep is responsible for this, but two of the most amazing six-stringers playing today not only both signed with Epic Records at the same time, but have just released double-disc live albums simultaneously. Prior to their Epic tenure, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai couldn’t have been further apart, despite the fact that both play instrumental guitar music. Satriani perfected his melodic rock vibe with his second record, the classic Surfing With the Alien, and has in large part been riding that wave ever since. Vai, on the other hand, has never been creatively stagnant. As with his mentor Frank Zappa, you never know what you’re going to get when you pick up a Steve Vai record.

For a lot of people, guitar instrumentals are useless. They sound like extended versions of those 20-second bits in the middles of other songs where the guitar player gets to show his stuff. Joe Satriani has been railing against that particular notion for years by crafting hummable, memorable songs without words, songs that rarely slip into fretboard wankery. In large part, he’s been quite successful, especially on his earlier records. Surfing and The Extremist, especially, are the kind of guitar albums that you get stuck in your head.

It’s too bad, then, that Live in San Francisco makes so few strides away from what you’d imagine a typical guitar instrumental show would sound like. The songs are nearly exact replicas of what you hear on the studio albums, with an unfortunate injection of the aforementioned fretboard wankery. The tone and style hardly varies at all from song to song, which is mostly the fault of the selection. There are plenty of Satriani songs that make use of a more diverse tonal palette, but they’re not here.

Instead, we get rock song after rock song, and while they’re all played well, especially by Satch’s crack band of bassist Stu Hamm, drummer Jeff Campitelli and keyboardist Eric Caudieux, they get tiresome stretched one after another. Live in San Francisco drags on for two and a half hours, and while there are highlights (“Raspberry Jam Delta-v,” “Summer Song,” the closing “Rubina”), the overall effect is just wearying.

Adding to my disappointment is the fact that his last album, Engines of Creation, broke some interesting new ground for Satriani by injecting electronics and drum loops into his mix. Even though that album’s tour provided the tapes for this live album, Satch only does one song from Engines (“Borg Sex”). I’d have liked to have heard some organic band versions of the more technologically dependent tunes on that album, but alas, it’s all old stuff all the time.

Not so Steve Vai. In fact, his new Alive in an Ultra World would have been cool even if the songs weren’t magnificent, which they are. The concept (and with Vai, there’s always a concept) here was to create a live album of new tunes, each written for and incorporating the traditional music of the country in which it was recorded. This is a great idea, and Vai and his superbly talented band have carried it off, even though just getting through this project apparently took quite a toll on the musicians.

You can hear why, though, and all the blood and sweat was worth it. These songs are not quick knock-offs or excuses to solo endlessly. They’re sublimely crafted and orchestrated pieces that sound like products of months of rehearsal time. In actuality, Vai would often finish writing the pieces a day or so before the live recording session, giving his band members very little time to learn and practice. The band (bassist Philip Bynoe, drummer Mike Mangini, guitarist Dave Weiner and keyboardist Mike Keneally) is incredible throughout, no matter what style Vai is throwing at them.

And he does hop styles quite frequently here, from the crunching thud of “The Power of Bombos” to the powerful Irish lilt of “Blood and Glory” to the gorgeous acoustic orchestration of “Whispering a Prayer.” Most importantly for a guitar player’s live record, every song has its own distinct identity, and listening to Alive in an Ultra World is never a chore. Despite its overarching concept, there’s a disarming lightness to the whole proceedings, especially when Vai breaks a string two minutes into “Devil’s Food” and the band is forced to entertain the audience while he re-strings. Vai’s not so full of himself that he felt the need to edit that sort of thing out.

The concluding trilogy of tunes here cements Vai’s reputation as one of the most emotional guitar virtuosos around, especially “Brandos Costumes (Gentle Ways),” the lovely finale. This is what a guitar player’s live album ought to be, and like Frank Zappa’s live albums of new stuff, the sound reproduction is so crystal clear that this may as well be a 90-minute studio album. This is that proverbial extra mile that Satriani just didn’t walk, and it puts into sharp relief the differences between these two masters of the guitar.

Short and sweet, huh? Geez…

Next week, we launch into spiritual pop overload with the Choir’s eight-CD box set, Never Say Never.

See you in line Tuesday morning.