Archive for the ‘compilation’ Category

Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 5

Friday, January 30th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of reissued music, too. So it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. This week-long run of quick reviews wraps up with a look at five reissue/compilation releases.

Game Theory – Dead Center
Omnivore Recordings‘ championing of this under-appreciated 80s group continues with the reissue of the band’s 1984 compilation, Dead Center. Like all Game Theory albums, this one has long been out of print, and tough to find. Dead Center collected the band’s strongest material in hopes of helping them catch onto a wider audience. The Three O’Clock‘s Michael Quercio produced several tracks, and whether it’s his influence or simply a musical like-mindedness, much of this music sounds like him. Another crystal clear influence is (post-Big Star) Alex Chilton; Game Theory’s reading of “The Letter” sounds like how Alex might’ve done it.

Frank Rosolino – I Play Trombone
Part of the ongoing reissue of long-lost Bethlehem Records jazz releases, this six-track album (originally released in 1956) presents the trombonist Rosolino. He had previously appeared on sides by Stan Kenton and alongside Zoot Sims, but this was only his second album as leader. The agreeably swinging tunes balance subtlety with melodic interplay between Rosolino and his piano-bass-drums sidemen. Rosolino would go on to release several more albums, but the bulk of his work would be as sideman to a list of jazz greats that included Horace Silver and Dizzy Gillespie. I Play Trombone is an early and auspicious outing.

Dick Wagner – Dick Wagner
Long held in high esteem by rock aficionados, songwriter/guitarist Dick Wagner gained his greatest fame lending his considerable talents to the work others. But in 1978 he recorded and released an album under his own name. With a wide-screen vibe that recalls Meat Loaf and/or Jim Steinman, that album showed Wagner’s talent to excellent effect. Unfortunately, a generic album cover and a poorly-thought-out title (Richard Wagner) doomed the album to obscurity; it was often mis-filed in record stores in the classical section. Happily, it’s again available (with a revised title); sadly, Wagner passed away just before Real Gone Music‘s reissue.

Blood, Sweat & Tears – Child is Father to the Man
Though they would enjoy commercial success with an altered lineup (fronted by the gruesome vocals of David Clayton-Thomas), Blood, Sweat & Tears started out as a highly ambitious (almost progressive) outfit led by Al Kooper. Kooper left (or was forced out) after their debut, but the album the original lineup left behind is a stone classic. With a sound not miles away from The Butterfield Blues Band, early BS&T was soulful and loaded with chops. This hybrid multichannel SACD presents the debut in stunning audio quality, making it the definitive version. This is what Chicago wishes they could have been.

Barbara Lynn – The Complete Atlantic Recordings
Some of the most interesting and important work that Real Gone Music does is its series of compilation albums, collecting the work of underappreciated artists from the catalogs of Atlantic, Dunhill and others. Texas-born Barbara Lynn cut one album for Atlantic (the left-handed electric guitarist went on to a blues-oriented career that continues to this day); that disc (Here is Barbara Lynn) is included here in its entirety along with an impressive number of singles and rarities. This material focuses on Lynn’s vocals. Many of these tunes sound like hits; only one (“This is the Thanks I Get”) actually was.

As always, more reviews of CDs, DVDs and vinyl, plus interviews and essays to come.

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Album Review: Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Though it might seem otherwise to the casual observer, the term krautrock is neither pejorative nor disparaging. In its classic sense, the label refers to improvisationally-based rock with spare musical foundation. As the word suggests (in an undeniably gauche manner), the form originated in Germany.

When one thinks of krautrock, the first bands that often come to mind are Can, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk (the latter’s hypnotic, album-length “Autobahn” is an exemplar of the genre).

The style reached its apex in the 1970s; today when one sees or hears the term, it’s nearly always I nthe context of music form the past. But – depending on how the term is understood – the krautrock label can be applied to modern-day music. Especially if a strictly literal interpretation is used (in other words, German rock), all manner of musical artists fit under the umbrella.

Certainly garage/psych revival bands like The Roaring 420s don’t fit into this discussion. Nor, of course, do some fantastic American expat artists who have made Berlin their base of operations (Anton Barbeau, The Fuzztones, and Brian Jonestown Massacre‘s Anton Newcombe, to name but three). But a number of interesting artists do fit the bill, and while they’re made barely a ripple on the musical consciousness of American listeners, collectively they’ve created a body of work that bears further investigation.

But how to do so? One could start by reading Krautrocksampler, the 1995 book by the genre’s most prominent champion, Julian Cope. But there are two problems with that idea: first off, the book is now twenty years old, so it can’t address, y’know, current acts. More problematic is the going rate for the long out-of-print title: currently upwards of $230 for a used copy on Amazon.

With that option off the table (PDF scans of Cope’s book do circulate online, and as of summer 2014 there’s “talk” of reissuing it), we turn instead to a compilation CD. The German label Sireena released a fine overview of “classic” krautrock not long ago: Live Kraut: Live Rock Explosions from the Heyday of Krautrock! focused on what one might call the first wave of the genre. Band names like Grobschnitt, Guru Guru and Jane will be wholly unfamiliar to American audiences, but for the most part, their music isn’t so out-there as to be unintelligible to American ears. (The same can’t be said for some of krautrock’s more adventurous acts: Kraan and Birth Control are pretty freaky; I have a few vinyl albums by each, and hope to find more later this year when I visit Germany.)

Happily, Sireena has filled this niche by releasing another compilation, Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock (never let it be said that the Germans don’t spell it right out for you in their titles). Once again, here is a disc (with twelve tracks) filled with artists who are virtually unknown in the USA. RPWL might be familiar to those who regularly visit this blog; I’ve both reviewed their music and interviewed the group’s Yogi Lang. RPWL are featured on this set with “World Through My Eyes,” the title track off their 2005 album. It’s fine enough, but doesn’t show the group at their best, and isn’t truly representative of the band’s oft-displayed appealing characteristics.

The other eleven tracks are a varied lot. Some do explicitly build on the motorik textures of older krautrock: Ear Tranceport‘s “Lock In (Namby Pamby)” has that chugging, mechanical beat applied to a melody that’s largely driven by acoustic guitar. And the one-chord “Stranded” from Space Debris will delight fans of Pink Floyd‘s Ummagumma, as it meanders purposefully though similar sonic territory over the course of its nearly ten minutes.

Sankt Otten‘s vaguely sinister instrumental “Nach Dir Die Sinnseflut” will remind listeners of Tangerine Dream at their soundtrackiest. Electric Moon deliver a deeply textured vibe on “Madrigal Meridian,” sounding like a Teutonic (and at times, more tuneful) Nine Inch Nails. One man band Level Pi engages in some evocative krautrock that features some straightforward rock guitar riffage; it too wouldn’t be out of place in a film soundtrack.

The Perc Meets the Hidden Gentleman is a wholly different affair. Seemingly taking its sonic inspiration from former Berlin resident David Bowie, “The Moon of Both Sides” is perhaps the track on Son of Kraut most likely to connect with the casual listener. The brooding, dreamy “I Can’t Walk My Floor” by Tarwater is cut from similar cloth as the music of Austin’s Black Angels.

“Psysomsyl” from Electric Orange features seven minutes’ workout on a single chord; the track grows in intensity, not unlike some of Glenn Branca‘s work, or classic-period Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Things take a decidedly more tuneful direction with “On Stranger Tides” from Fantasyy Factoryy. The hand drumming and repetitve electric guitar riff suggest a campfire version of Pink Floyd, as does the track’s Roger Waters-like vocal.

The intriguing instrumental “”O.M.E.N.” from Le Mur initially heads back into the psych revival region, but some treated saxophone riffage suggest what Black Sabbath might sound like with some added brass instrumentation.

Son of Kraut wraps up with some prog-metal, a genre heretofore unexplored on the set. Both the band name (Panzerballet) and the song title (“Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut”) provide hints as to where this Teutonic Metallica are headed. Some tenor sax will throw metalhead for a loop, but otherwise, the genre’s hallmarks – blindingly fast guitar licks, thundering rhythm semitone – are all here. Overall, it’s a bit jarring in the context of Son of Kraut‘s mostly moody atmosphere, but it gets better as it goes along.

The poster-styled liner notes (in both German and a chuckle-eliciting English translation) provide enough information to help those wishing to investigate the bands further. For listeners interested in a sampler that is both adventurous and not music not a million musical miles away form their comfort zone, Son of Kraut is recommended. It’s a safe bet that you’ll find something you enjoy in this album field with unfamiliar names.

N.B.: There’s an additional title in this series, a disc called Jazzkruat: Teutonal Jazz Rock Excursions. It features the aforementioned Kraan and Volker Kriegel; I will do my best to score a copy and review it here when I can.

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Album Review: Black & Blue – The Laff Records Collection

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

A new 4CD collection of vintage comedy records, Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection exemplifies the abbreviation NSFW (“Not Safe for Work”). The low-budget stand-up comedy records (usually but not always recorded in front of raucously appreciative audiences) released on the independent Laff Records label in the 1970s were a sensation in African American communities across the USA. But to buy these records, you had to know whom to ask: titles like Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin’ by Wildman Steve simply couldn’t be put on prominent display in a record store.

The story of Laff Records is a sort of underground, sub- or counter-cultural history. The labels’ so-called “party records” were put together using the smallest of budgets – the cover art is often amateurish, and the recording techniques won’t win any audio awards – but then those measures completely miss the point. These extraordinarily “dirty” records featured the likes of Redd Foxx and Lawanda Page, both giants in the black standup comedy world. The public at large knew Foxx as Fred Sanford on the hit TV sitcom Sanford & Son; they knew Page, too, as Aunt Esther, the uptight sister-in-law of the main character. But TV viewers would be shocked (shocked, I say) to hear Page on record, on her Pipe Layin’ Dan LP. There she runs through routines with titles like “Bustin’ Cherries” and “Douche Powder.” Needless to say, as with most Laff Records titles, Page’s LPs were not for the easily offended.

But there’s an undeniable (dare I say) charm to be found in routines like Jimmy Lynch‘s “Tricky Dick & Pussy,” Dap Sugar Willie‘s “Duck You,” and Mantan Moreland‘s immor(t)al classic, “That Ain’t My Finger.” And while this caucasian writer can merely hazard a guess here, one suspects that there was a certain degree of liberation at work, an I’ll-say-anything-I-want mindset that was, in its own way, empowering to both the comics and their (almost wholly black) listening audience.

To this day, original Laff Records are fairly difficult to come by; seemingly they’ve all been melted in conservative church bonfires, or (more likely) they’re hidden away in the collection of now-aging African Americans (note to self: hit some nearby intown garage sales this coming spring). Ten or so representative titles from the Laff catalog are now collected on this new 4CD set. Robert Townsend‘s brief essay helps modern listeners understand the debt that today’s black comics owe to these underground party records. And a richly detailed booklet provides biographical and contextual information about the performers and their recordings. There’s no Richard Pryor material here (though Laff released several Pryor discs, the man’s relationship with the label was contentious), but the lesser-known names make their raunchy mark nearly as well. With Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection, Rock Beat Records are once again to be commended for their edgy (if limited-appeal) approach to compilations and reissues.

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Album Review: Jellyfish — Bellybutton and Spilt Milk

Friday, January 9th, 2015

Nineteen-ninety was a curious year in rock music. The top hitmaking artists of the year included Madonna, Mariah Carey, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson. If you liked rock music and wanted to find it in the mass-consumption media (in other words, on radio), your choices were largely limited to Jon Bon Jovi, Heart, Billy Idol, or (shudder) Poison. (The so-called grunge rock of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam was still a few years away.)

There wasn’t a whole lot going on in high-profile rock that suggested the form was anything besides moribund. For more compelling rock-based music, one had to turn to an emerging format called “new rock” or “alternative rock.” (For the purposes of this discussion, I’m conveniently forgetting about non-commercial college radio – which counted for a lot of what I enjoyed in those days – because it wasn’t as widespread).

Alternative rock stations such as the one in my then-hometown of Atlanta set their sights on what one might call “guitar pop.” Melodic, rock based music was in, and synthesizer-based pop confections were out. Out, too, were the “dinosaurs” of rock who had (supposedly) been left behind in the wake of punk and new wave; one wouldn’t likely hear Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Dire Straits or any number of classic acts on alternative rock playlists.

In the same manner as early MTV did almost exactly a decade earlier, this new format paved the way for some very good artists to get their music heard by the masses. Those rock fans who dug “classic rock” and perhaps new wave were often left cold by the glam-metal antics of Poison, and perhaps a bit bored by Genesis drummer/lead singer Phil Collins‘ turn toward adult MOR balladeering. But the music found on these alternative rock stations often hit the sweet spot for those listeners, programming as it did new music from younger artists whose musical sensibilities were rooted in a similar mindset to the rock acts of the past.

What this meant in practical terms is that artists like Michael Penn (1992′s “Seen the Doctor”), Matthew Sweet (1991′s “I’ve Been Waiting”), Greenberry Woods (1994′s “Trampoline”) and even Bob Mould‘s harder-edged Sugar (1992′s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”) all broke into the mainstream. Arguably, none of these acts would have enjoyed mainstream success on the level they did without the rise of alternative rock radio.

Into this mix came Jellyfish. And for rock fans like myself, it was a huge breath of fresh air. Jellyfish’s original music drew upon the highly complex arrangements aesthetic of 1970s bands such as Supertramp, Queen, 10CC, Paul McCartney and Wings, and the like. Their visual appeal drew upon glam rock, but rather than the androgynous, faux-sexy approach favored by (shudder) Poison, Jellyfish’s visual aesthetic was filtered through a playful, Sid & Marty Kroft kind of sensibility. In short, Jellyfish were fun.

And the music was fun, too. Hardcore Jellyfish fans (see: this writer) have long been divided on which of the group’s two albums is the superior effort, but for those who dig the style, both Bellybutton (1990) and 1993′s Spilt Milk are crammed to the brim with ear-candy gems.

The band split amidst internal dissent not long after the release of Spilt Milk, and that was it. After a long silent period, additional Jellyfish material turned up on Fan Club, a 4CD set that was expensive to begin with. Issued on the now-defunct NotLame label, it was pressed in rather limited quantities, and soon went out of print. Today, used copies fetch hundreds of dollars. Fan Club served up a buffet of demos, outtakes and live tracks that – besides tripling the amount of officially-available Jellyfish music – showed that the collective musical artistic vision of Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning and their band mates burst forth fully formed.

While there are differences between the demo- and official versions of Jellyfish songs, the demos show that the subtle ideas and flourishes were there from the start; it took only a bigger recording budget and the expertise of producers Albhy Galuten and Jack Joseph Puig to present the ideas in a shinier, commercially-digestible format.

Now in the 21st century, the long-gone Jellyfish are fondly remembered. To my knowledge, there’s never once been any serious talk of the band reuniting, but a steady flow of additional Jellyfish material has found its way to the marketplace, thanks to the efforts of Omnivore Recordings. A live-for-radio set (Radio Jellyfish ) and instrumental mixes of both albums (Stack-a-Tracks ) have been released in the last few years. But (likely owing to the expense involved and the limited commercial appeal) there hasn’t been a reissue of that Fan Club box set.

What Omnivore has done instead is to comb through the eighty(!) tracks on Fan Club, collect the ones relevant to Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, and then create new reissues of each of those two albums, appending the original discs (now remastered) with bonus material that fills the first disc of each to capacity, and a second disc as well.

The contextual placement of live and demo versions of tunes such as “The King is Half Undressed” makes sonic sense for listeners, and it makes for a better listen overall than the solely odds-and-sods Fan Club. The well-known versions of the songs remain the definitive versions, though: it’s hard to top the chiming, upbeat arrangement and production of “Baby’s Coming Back.”

Live and onstage, Jellyfish were – as the live tracks illustrate – a much better band than one might expect. With (at least on the first album) the guitar skills of Jason Falkner, they managed the nigh-on-impossible feat of presenting Just Like the Record versions of complicated arrangements. And that’s no small feat if your lead singer’s the drummer (just ask Phil Collins. Or Chester Thompson).

Bellybutton is the more musically straightforward of the two original albums; it is, I’m told, the favorite of most listeners expressing a preference. I give the nod to Spilt Milk, an even richer tapestry of ideas woven into a seamless whole. Though perhaps my favorite individual tracks are on the first (specifically ‘Baby’s Coming Back” and “That is Why”), Spilt Milk stands up better as a start-to-finish album. Appended with bonus tracks that – among other things – tip the band’s hands as to their influences, both albums benefit from the added context.

As essential for the Jellyfish fan as Fan Club is (or was), these new expanded versions of Bellybutton and Spilt Milk earn the right to be termed definitive.

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“Go Now” and Then: The Ray Thomas Interview, Part 2

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Back in 1965, the original lineup of The Moody Blues did seem poised for bigger things: that year they played the prestigious and televised NME Poll Winners Concert, along with The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, and Kinks. Those – and sessions for Thank Your Lucky Stars and Ready Steady Go aren’t on this set, either, but the second disc does include more than a dozen tracks cut for Saturday Club and other BBC radio programs.

In the original lineup, Ray Thomas shared lead vocal duties with Denny Laine; he would continue that role – though sharing with more vocalists – in the later lineup. While his flute is a feature of some early Moodies tracks (notably “I’ve Got a Dream”), it became a centerpiece of the later lineup’s style. In the original lineup, Thomas’ role could have been described as “singer who also plays flute,” and in the later lineup, “musician who plays many instruments – flute, piccolo, oboe, French horn, harmonica, etc. – and also sings.” Surprisingly, Thomas is a wholly self-taught musician. “I’ve never had a music lesson in me life,” he says. “And I don’t read music; it’s all done by ear.”

Those flute parts were difficult to hear onstage in those days. “All the sound was literally coming from the stage,” Thomas recalls. “That’s what finished The Beatles playing live. Paul [McCartney] said to me, ‘It’s useless. All we hear is “Yester-” and then the rest is all screams.’” Thomas relates an anecdote from the tour when the Moody Blues opened for The Beatles, the latter’s final UK tour. “’Watch this,’ John [Lennon] told me. The band was introduced, went onstage and started playing. And John played a completely different song! And nobody could hear anything!”

Thomas continues, “I was actually one of the first people to use foldback [also known as monitor speakers] onstage. I couldn’t hear myself play, and with flute you’ve got to be pretty precise with your embouchure. So I asked [live sound engineer] Gene Clair if he could put a speaker in front of me. And he did, and it worked. And then everybody started doing it!”

The era of composing in the studio largely began with The Beatles. But even for The Moody Blues, a rare spare moment in the studio might be used to compose songs. “I used to write songs in the broom cupboard,” chuckles Thomas. “There was a glockenspiel in there. I used to take a scotch and Coke in there – and maybe a little substance, y’know – and play on this glockenspiel and write my songs.”

Some time 1967, after the string of hit singles faded, the group seemed at a dead end. “Clint [Warwick]‘s wife didn’t want him going on the road,” Thomas recalls, “so he went back to the family business in Birmingham. And Denny fancied his chances at going solo.” But since they were already moving (albeit subtly) in the musical direction that would flower on Days of Future Passed, they recruited new members, and kept the band name.

“I’ve known John [Lodge] since I was fourteen,” Thomas says. “I was fifteen. We worked in a band together in Birmingham.” Both had day jobs as apprentice toolmakers. “I wanted to go professional [playing music], and my dad said to me exactly what John’s dad said to him: ‘Finish your apprenticeship, because you might not score in this musical venture. And if you don’t, you’ve always got a trade to fall back on.’ Sound advice.” But since Lodge was younger than Thomas, he still had a year to go. So we got Clint in The Moody Blues instead. But from starting that band, things took off quickly. And a year later, we couldn’t very well say to Clint, ‘See ya, mate.’ Because he had put in a lot of hard work.” But when Warwick left of his own accord, Lodge was in the following day. Thomas’ friend Eric Burdon provided a list of guitarists who had answered a blind ad searching for a guitarist/vocalist for Burdon’s new Animals, and that led to them finding Justin Hayward.

Thomas retired from The Moody Blues and live performance in 2002. As far as the original band, Thomas says that a reunion is out of the question: “Clint [Warwick] died [in 2004] and Denny is over in the States. And Mike Pinder had decided much earlier on [the late 70s] that he didn’t want to go back on the road.” The Moodies’ other founding member Graeme Edge remains in the current touring Moody Blues lineup with Hayward and Lodge.

These days, Thomas lives in England with his wife. In October 2014, he announced via his website raythomas.me that he is being treated for prostate cancer, adding, “the cancer is being held in remission, but I”ll be receiving this treatment for the rest of my life…I urge all males to get tested NOW.”

But Thomas isn’t finished with music. “I have recently worked with John,” he reveals. Lodge has been working on a solo album, his first since 1977. “He’d written a song for his grandson, John Henry. He came over to my pad and asked me, would I go in the studio and put flute on it. And I said, “Sure!”

“This story goes on,” Thomas tells me. “Mike [Pinder] hadn’t spoken to John in years. But the night John got home from the session with me, his phone rang. It was Mike! ‘I hear you’ve been in the studio,’ Mike said. John said, ‘Right…?’ ‘Can I put the strings on the track?’” Lodge gladly accepted the offer. Pinder went into his home studio with his son (and fellow recording musician) Michael Lee Pinder, and cut his Mellotron parts in a single day. So for the first time since 1978, Lodge, Pinder and Ray Thomas will be together on a newly recorded track.

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“Go Now” and Then: The Ray Thomas Interview, Part 1

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

The Moody Blues made their most indelible mark on pop music with the landmark LP Days of Future Passed. That concept album was one of the earliest successful combinations of light-classical music and rock. Though it was released in 1967 – the fertile period that also gave the world Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the album-proper didn’t make its mark on American charts until 1972. (They did hit the US singles chart a number of times, however.) And by that time, the band’s pre-Days music had largely been forgotten (if was ever known at all). The earliest music made by The Moody Blues features a significantly different lineup of musicians, and – at least initially – a sound almost completely removed from the approach used on Days of Future Passed and subsequent albums.

The original Moody Blues featured Denny Laine – later of Wings with Paul McCartney – on lead vocals and guitar, as well as bassist Clint Warwick. The other three members – drummer Graeme Edge, keyboardist Mike Pinder (with Laine, the band’s chief songwriter at this stage), and vocalist/flautist Ray Thomas – would stay on to become the foundation of the more well-known lineup featuring Justin Hayward and John Lodge. The early Moodies sound was built around readings of American rhythm and blues and Merseybeat-flavored tracks; they were for the most part a cover band. As the group progressed, they began writing original material that established a more focused identity, but it was songs such as a cover of Bessie Banks‘ “Go Now” that established the group. They were rewarded for such tunes with spots on the British music charts: “Go Now” reached number one in Britain.

The original group’s sole album The Magnificent Moodies has been reissued and repackaged countless times in the the ensuing nearly-fifty years. In the US the album was reordered and released as Go Now: The Moodies #1, though – like The Magnificent Moodies – it did not chart. Subsequent reissues added various non-album tracks from the era – the group was essentially a singles band – but none of the releases could truly be called comprehensive.

That has changed now, with the new release of The Magnificent Moodies that includes everything the group cut in those pre-Days of Future Passed years, plus a collection of radio broadcast material. Fifty-odd tracks document the period in full. Showing a band in transition from beat group to tunes that tip the group’s hand, the music gives subtle hints of the direction they’d follow soon after Laine’s departure.

Of course 1965 was a long time ago, so perhaps it should come as little surprise that when I ask Ray Thomas the story behind there being two versions of “Go Now” on the new box set – the well-known version plus a slower take with softer piano part – he responds, “I haven’t got a clue.”

“I can imagine,” he continues, “we were just trying things out in the studio. Some of these tracks that have been dug up, I can’t remember ever recording! Denny might remember.”

Taken together, the bonus tracks on the first disc alone of  The Magnificent Moodies box set add up to enough material for a whole additional album. The material is strong, and is weighted more toward originals than the album-proper. “We were really busy – either playing or recording – in those days,” says Thomas. “We were doing a lot of cover versions: James Brown, Tim Hardin stuff.” Thomas doesn’t remember cutting some of the material that ended up on the box set, most notably the songs cut in 1966 with producer Denny Cordell. “I was just doing an interview with another guy in the States, and he was going on about [our cover of] ‘Hang Onto a Dream’ by Tim Hardin. I was absolutely knocked out! The vocal backing on that particular track, I thought, were great. I’m blowing me own trumpet here, but I thought, ‘That’s mighty good.’” Thomas also doesn’t remember cutting “The 23rd Psalm” another bonus track (from 1964) included on the box set.

“When we got an eight-track machine in the studio, we were gobsmacked: ‘Look at all this!’” Thomas laughs. “But these were all four tracks. If you had to do any four-to-two to make room for overdubs, it was all razorblades and sellotape. Derek Varnals [producer] was amazing. We’d all sit around and watch while he took one note out. Now, you just press a button.”

“In those days,” Thomas recalls, “We’d do three tracks in two hours. Decca had so many A&R [artists and repertoire] people in those days, for classical, Mantovani-type stuff right through. They had three studios in West Hampstead, London, and they were always booked full. To get studio time was bloody impossible.” So the groups had best be prepared when they got their time in the studio. When the Moody Blues got their turn at the mic, “We used to play live, near enough,” says Thomas. “You had to have ‘em all rehearsed up.”

Thomas hopes that this latest – and greatly expanded – version of The Magnificent Moodies will be considered the definitive release of that period of Moody Blues music. “The only thing that I’m a bit pissed off about,” Thomas says, “is that we did a hell of a lot of work on television in France. We were very popular earlier on in France. We did shows with Johnny Hallyday, Josephine Baker. When Cherry Red were putting together this box set, we got in touch with the French version of the BBC; they have reams and reams of these old rock shows. We said, ‘Can we have some of this to put on our box set?’ And they said, “Yes, you can, but this is how much we want.’ It just wasn’t worth it; they wanted so much money.”

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Best of 2014: Compilations and Reissues

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

So here we are. It’s the last day of 2014. And it’s also the final day of posts looking back at my personal Best of 2014 lists. Today I’ll run down my favorite reissue/compilation/archival releases.

As it happens, this is – as much as such a thing exists – my area of expertise: a significant proportion of the music I review each year is actually of the “it came out before but you probably missed it, so here it is again” type. So choosing four was exceedingly difficult. I should make special mention of the work done by four labels: The Numero Group, Real Gone Music, Rock Beat, and Omnivore Recordings. All have a near-fanatical dedication to unearthing fascinating music that previously hasn’t gotten the hearing (and/or presentation, and/or marketing push) it richly deserves. It’s no overstatement to say that their logos are effectively a trademark of quality: one can hardly go wrong picking up any of their releases.

That said, on this particular list, only one of their titles appears. And that’s a personal/sentimental favorite, for reasons that will become clear presently.

Oscar Peterson — Exclusively for my Friends
For me, this one’s all but inevitable to show up on the list. It’s Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist. It’s him and (usually) crack sidemen in the most intimate of setting, with an audience. It features renowned German attention to detail in its production values. It’s beautifully packaged. And…it’s vinyl. It’s also essential for any jazz fan.

Jethro Tull — A Passion Play: An Extended Performance
In addition to his work on solo albums and such, Steven Wilson has made a name for himself as the go-to guy when a 70s progressive rock group wants to revisit their catalog. His remix/remaster projects are the stuff of legend: check out his work for King Crimson and Caravan, for example. The four-disc set covering A Passion Play is magnificent, and might just cause you to reevaluate the album.

The Soul of Designer Records
The funny thing is, I don’t even particularity like gospel music. And make no mistake: The Soul of Designer Records is mostly just that. But from the liner notes to the brilliantly creative packaging to the music itself, this set is both an important historical document and a fine collection of music, whatever one’s spiritual bent. My prediction that the set would be nominated for a Grammy turned out to be wrong, but then I’m an unreliable predictor of such things: I would have thought Paul Revere and the Raiders would’ve gotten into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by now. Speaking of which…

Brotherhood — The Complete Recordings
In 1967, the famed “power trio” of Drake Levin (guitar), Phil Volk (bass) and Michael Smith (drums) jumped ship from the massively popular Raiders. What happened next? They formed a group, added a keyboard player, and promptly sank into oblivion. They did cut three albums, but few knew about those, and fewer still ever heard them. I learned about Brotherhood in my early research writing about the Raiders. And working behind the scenes with Real Gone Music, I helped bring their three albums back to the world. My extensive history of the group is included in the 2CD set’s liner notes. The music isn’t exactly rock’s version of The Missing Link, but it’s solid stuff, and the group’s story is a compelling, often heartbreaking one.

Have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve. Failing that, just have a safe one.

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Album Reviews: Hugh Hopper — Memories and Frangloband

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Bassist Hugh Hopper gained fame – or what passes for fame within the narrow confines of jazz-rock and progressive circles – as a member of Soft Machine. He passed away in 2009, and it happens, Hopper was apparently quite the busy guy. His estate is now involved in a good bit of closet-cleaning, and the results are being released on a ten-disc series. The first of these, Memories, is a survey of the material found on the second through tenth. It’s varied and interesting, though little of this music was intended for release. Frangloband documents some of Hopper’s last recordings.

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Album Review: Landmarq — Origins

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher when a collection like this crosses my desk: a retrospective of a band I’d never heard of. Origins is a career-spanning look at two distinct eras. The second (covered on the first disc) features a Clare Torry-sounding Tracy Hitchings fronting a band that sounds a bit like Spock’s Beard. The early material on the second disc features vocalist Damian Wilson. Only two members stuck around the whole time. Lots of Peter Bansk-ish keyboard work, which is always welcome in these parts. The D&D motif of the album is goofy, but the music is solid.

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Album Review: Various Artists — Right Now

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

I’ve observed before that Fantastic Voyage makes full advantage of the unique copyright/licensing laws as they exist in the UK; in the United States, putting together a package such as Right Now would be prohibitively expensive, and also certainly a money-losing proposition.

As it is, once again we have Fantastic Voyage to than for compiling a peerless set of music, classic recordings that have long gone unheard by all but the most fanatical crate diggers. The mighty Atlantic label – along with its Atco subsidiary label – was home to some of the best rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, and blues artists. And while the most well-known cuts are easily found in myriad places, there are countless “deep cuts” that are rarely heard. Many are excellent songs, and quite a few are of great historical import. And on this new 3CD set, 86 of them are collected in best-available sound quality.

Most of the Atlantic r&b greats are represented here: Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, and The Isley Brothers are just some of the artists found on this set. But it’s the lesser-known cuts that surprise and delight the most. So while Joe Turner‘s seminal rock’n'roller “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” is here in all its influential glory, so is the amazing “Right Now” by – of all people – Mel Tormé. Electric piano and combo organ are out front in a Cuban-flavored tune that – like so many of the tunes here – sounds like the missing link between rock’n'roll and pretty much any other earlier style you’d care to name.

Jimmy Ricks & The Raves‘ “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” features an out-front baritone vocal and a swaggering, vaguely sinister air. Also here is Richie Barrett‘s “Some Other Guy,” a relatively obscure tune that influenced a Hamburg, Germany bar band called the Beatles (a decade later, John Lennon nicked the song’s intro for his own “Instant Karma”).

The lyrical themes here are pretty much the usual stuff: love, betrayal, sex. The Coasters‘ “I’m a Hog For You” is a random and delightful example. Making things more interesting than they might otherwise be, Right Now compiles well-known artists doing lesser-known versions of of well-known tunes: so we have The Top Notes (instead of The Isley Brothers) doing “Twist and Shout,” and Stick McGhee & His Buddies‘ 1950 recording of “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” (instead of any of the successful cover versions). Joe Turner makes Lead Belly‘s tune absolutely swing with “Midnight Special Train.”

Lois Wilson‘s detailed liner notes provide the context so often missing in lesser compilations: every tune is noted with its Atlantic or Atco matrix number, release date and composer. Wilson also presents brief, concise background (when available) on the artists and songs included.

Right Now focuses primarily on the 1949-1962 period, in part because of (once again) the UK’s approach to copyright of older material; in practical terms, this might mean that a decade from now – if we’re very lucky – Fantastic Voyage might put together some amazing compilations of Atlantic material from the Muscle Shoals/Stax era.

Fantastic Voyage has released a raft of worthy historical compilations, but Right Now may well be the very best from among them.

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