Archive for the ‘compilation’ Category

Bill Dahl and I Discuss “Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63-’73″

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

From a critical perspective, there’s not a whole lot to be said or written about Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63 – ’73. One either gets it, or doesn’t. Suffice to say that if you would enjoy hearing the contents of a jukebox in a 1960s African American juke joint, or if you dig the sides collected in the various sprawling Stax box sets, then you’ll luxuriate in the hundred-plus songs on this four-disc set. And you won’t have heard most of them before.

The box set’s liner notes offer something of an apology/justification for the dodgy sound quality on some of Groove & Grind‘s cuts; those words – though sincere – are not needed: the sound quality is just fine, and the quality of the music precludes any need for excuses. The rarity of some of these cuts more than justifies their inclusion here, and would do so even if they didn’t make great listening. Music historian and liner notes author Bill Dahl (author of Motown: the Golden Years) admits that he did his research on these often-unknown acts the old (or perhaps new) fashioned way: “between the internet, books and record” labels/sleeves, “you kinda piece it together as best you can.” Occasionally, he admits, “You can’t find anything about an act at all, and that’s distressing.” But he notes that a good bit of information – even if it’s merely context – can be gleaned from looking at the labels on the 45s. Dahl has a few – not many – of Groove & Grind‘s sides in his own record collection, but for others, he relied on photos of labels and other information he managed to unearth. He is careful to note that although “there’s a lot of information on the internet, sometimes it’s wrong. So you’ve got to be careful.”

And careful he was. Across 120-plus pages of the hardbound-book format of Groove & Grind, Dahl provides just the right amount of background on these soul tunes. Because as Dahl and I agreed during our conversation, the kind of person who’d pick up this 4CD set is the sort of character who will delight in the fruits of his careful research. Dahl’s writing is an essential companion to the music itself. (Those who crave the deep kind of background that this sort of a project requires will enjoy following some of the online links Dahl cites in his source notes; those links will provide hours of rewarding reading for the music anoraks among us.)

Liner notes author Bill Dahl
A handful of the artists spotlighted on Groove & Grind remain active today: Bettye LaVette, Bobby Rush and Eddie Floyd, for example. But even in their cases – and in the case of Ike and Tina Turner (“You Can’t Miss Nothing That You Never Had,” a 1963 side on the small Sonja label) – Groove & Grind focuses on material that only the hardest of hardcore fans would have known about, much less heard. Dahl and box set producer James Austin sought to find a balance. “I was trying to find a few records by people whom [listeners] would have heard of real well,” says Dahl. “If we just had 112 acts you’ve never heard of, people wouldn’t buy it! So we included a few names that would grab people, hoping that they’d hear the other stuff, and love it too.”

One of the things that Dahl’s liner notes convey is the manner in which pop music history is woven together: the way that, say, George Goldner of Red Bird Records had a hand in these tracks. It’s almost as if, had these tunes become hits – and many of them sound as if they well could have – then the artists involved might have gone on to do more noteworthy and commercially successful work. Dahl mentions Sir Mack Rice – “people know him as a songwriter; he did the original ‘Mustang Sally,’” as an artist who didn’t quite reach the commercial potential his music deserved. His “Gotta Have My Baby’s Love” is one of Dahl’s favorite tracks on this set. Ironing Board Sam is another: “He deserved a better shake than he got,” says Dahl. “He had a keyboard on an ironing board, for God’s sake! That alone should’ve got him something.” Sam’s “Original Funky Bell Bottoms” is included on the set’s fourth disc, subtitled Funky Soul.

A few of the tunes on Groove & Grind will be familiar, but not in the versions found here. “I really like Lezli Valentine‘s ‘Love on a Two Way Street,’” says Dahl of the 1969 single. “It’s the original version, incidentally. I like a lot better than The Moments‘ version.”

Dahl remembers another act worth of special praise. “Another Chicago act, The Mandells. A really good group; they had about five or six singles. They were pretty darn popular on the west side here in Chicago, but they never really made it out of here. They deserved a higher profile. Good production quality, too. You listen to all of their stuff back to back, and you think, ‘How did this group not make it?’”

Part of the answer to Dahl’s rhetorical question is the challenge of distribution. “There were so many tiny labels out there doing quality work,” he observes, “but they didn’t have the pull of a Motown or a Stax. And as a result, a lot of stuff just fell through the cracks.”

It was Dahl’s idea to subdivide the tracks on Groove & Grind into subcategories: urban, group, southern and the aforementioned funky soul. Each of the four discs focuses upon a particular sub-style. “We needed some kind of context,” he admits. “If you just throw 112 songs on four CDs without any kind of context, it’s a little harder to grasp.”

Occasionally a title vetted for inclusion on the set would be left off because the compilers couldn’t locate a clean copy of the recording (much less a master tape). But Dahl hastens to add that there is plenty of worthy material out there – from soul music’s heyday – that still hasn’t been compiled onto a CD collection like Groove & Grind. “It’s amazing how much great soul music was recorded in the 1960s,” he says. “As much as r&b as there was in the 1950s, it seems as if there’s three times as much soul” in the following decade.

Start to finish, Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63 – ’73 is a fun listen, and provides superb value-for-money. It’s an illuminating window into little-known music from forty-plus years ago.

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Album Review: Marshall Crenshaw — #392: The EP Collection

Friday, September 25th, 2015

For better or worse (actually, for better and worse) things used to be different: recording artists focused on their music, and the record company – or at least artist management – tended to business matters. Today that paradigm rarely exists: the artist is expected – no, s/he is all but required – to give time and effort to the task of marketing. In practical terms, that means the artist is expected to engage with his or her fan base in a way unimaginable even a decade ago. As a co-panelist of mine at a recent discussion on social media (look for my feature on that panel, coming soon to this space) put it, “Led Zeppelin never had to interact with their fans on Facebook.”

Now, for many artists, this works fine: cutting out the middleman (hilariously and accurately personified in This is Spinal Tap‘s Artie Fufkin of Polymer Records) is often a good thing, allowing participants to engage in a two-way dialogue that benefits all. If you’re an introverted artist, well, the new reality may pose some challenges.

Back in the 1970s heyday of rock, mega-platinum acts such as Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd could go two, three or more years between album releases, and still count on a groundswell of support when they finally got around to releasing something new. But today’s music consumer (and I use that term advisedly) has a shorter attention span: give us something new and give it to us often, they seem to say to the artist, or we’ll forget you and move on.

Happily, a growing number of artists have found a way to bend their creative muse toward this new way of thinking. Which, finally, brings me to #392: The EP Collection, the latest album from Marshall Crenshaw.

As he explains in the disc’s liner notes, “This is a compilation album, containing tracks from a series of 6 vinyl EPs that I did between April 2012 and April 2015.” So from one point of view – that of the CD consumer – #392 is a new album. While from another angle, it’s indeed a compilation, collection, reissue, what-have-you. Either way, it’s another serving of solid, tuneful and memorable guitar-pop from a master of the style.

The approach used to bring #392 to market isn’t exactly new: Todd Rundgren‘s PatroNet project was – as is so often the case with Rundgren – a bit too far ahead of its time, but it did offer hardcore fans a number of hear-it-here-first exclusives, assuming they could get the files down their 28.8kbps phone-line modems. So in 2000, Todd abandoned his pledge not to release any more traditional albums, and compiled most of the PatroNet content as One Long Year.

Now, some fifteen years later, Marshall Crenshaw has been successful with a release program not at all dissimilar to Rundgren’s 1990s concept. He’s achieved the now-important goal of keeping his name (and likeness, and music) in front of his fan base via the release of a series of 10” vinyl extended-play records. Those were welcomed by longtime fans (count me as one), and the new CD provides product that’s a bit more practical for the mainstream music consumer (read: one without a turntable).

Not to get too inside-baseball, but because Crenshaw switched again and again between publicists over the course of releasing the six vinyl EPs – and because some publicists were, shall we say, better than others at getting the word out to reviewers – I didn’t even hear about the fifth and sixth installments, Move Now and Grab the Next Train. So even for someone who’s done his best to keep up with the man’s music, I’m delighting in new-to-me music on #392.

The original EPs had an intriguing format, though one not always followed slavishly: a new song, a reinvention of a classic number from Crenshaw’s catalog, and an interesting cover tune. The new songs are uniformly excellent, and suggest that the meted-out-over-time approach is a good one for Crenshaw the songwriter (though he’s not exactly known for weak tunes). “I Don’t See You Laughing Now” is perhaps the best among these, a slice of classic, chiming Crenshaw. “Move Now” is vaguely reminiscent of Gin Blossoms. “Red Wine” has a lovely Parisian feel, thanks to Rob Morsberger‘s accordion. “Driving and Dreaming” takes its time to unfold and reveal its charms, but it’s worth the wait. “Stranger and Stranger” demonstrates yet again Crenshaw’s knack for turning out a memorable melody and lyrics that connect emotionally.

The covers are all left-field choices that give listeners a window into the eclectic world of music that has influenced Crenshaw. “No Time” must surely be one of the very few covers – by anyone, ever – of very early Electric Light Orchestra. In Crenshaw’s hands, the Jeff Lynne-penned tune is pared back to a simpler arrangement than on the first ELO record, but it’s simply lovely. The welcome presence of Mellotron does imbue Crenshaw’s reading with just the right level of dated-ness.

Also delightful is Crenshaw’s heartfelt reading of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Here it’s not mawkish, and feels very much at home on the varied collection that is #392. Bobby Fuller‘s “Never to Be Forgotten” is a solo Crenshaw arrangement – he does it all on this track – and his thrumming twelve-string is a tasty tribute to Fuller’s talent. And the electric sitar on James McMurtry‘s “Right Here Now” is guaranteed ear candy. Crenshaw’s readings of tunes by The Lovin’ Spoonful (an easy-listening version of “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It”) and The Easybeats (rocking out on “Made My Bed, Gonna Lie In It”) have undeniable appeal as well.

Crenshaw’s rethinking of his old tunes might, however, be problematic for some longtime fans. And perhaps that’s why none of those EP cuts – often drastically changed remakes of “Someday, Someway,” Mary Anne” and other timeless classics – found their way onto #392. The live version of “ There She Goes Again” with The Bottle Rockets (found on the I Don’t See You Laughing Now EP) would have made a nice addition, however.

#392 is formatted so that the first six tracks are the EP title cuts, and the next six are selected from among the dozen or so remaining vinyl tracks. Wisely – and with a commendable eye toward the commercial value-for-money side of things – Crenshaw has seen fit to append a pair of bonus tracks to #392: The EP Collection, a pair of tunes not found on the vinyl EP releases. The Everly Brothers‘ “Man With Money” gives CD purchasers a chance to hear Crenshaw live and ably supported by The Bottle Rockets; their version recalls the arrangement that The Who used when they featured the tune in their late ’60s live sets.

Crenshaw wraps up the disc with what he describes as a demo recording of a new song co-written with Leroy Preston, “Front Page News.” Even in demo form, it displays all of the hallmarks of Crenshaw’s singing, playing, and writing: talents that have made him a national treasure. At press time, there’s no word whether Crenshaw will continue the schedule of frequent EP releases, or whether he’ll follow his muse down some other path. Either way, it’s a story worth following.

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Yep, one might say that I’m a fan.

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Album Mini-review: The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience — I Like Rain

Friday, September 18th, 2015

File Next to: The Chills, The Clean, Straitjacket Fits

Sporting a playful name (eventually shortened in response to lawsuits) that had less than nothing to do with their sound, this New Zealand band was a prime exponent of the Flying Nun Records sound and aesthetic. With a DIY production approach and relatively unadorned arrangements, the JPS Experience crafted music that brought to mind Teenage Fanclub sitting on comfy couches, or Loaded-era Velvet Underground leaning even more in a timeless pop direction. The band never once dented the charts outside their island homeland, and mustered relatively little chart action there. But their lack of commercial success belies the charms found within their music. In the same way that America’s garage rock explosion of the mid 60s created hundreds of worthy tracks that never got a wide hearing, the Kiwi pop explosion of 1980s New Zealand went mostly unheard outside that small country. Albeit belatedly, this best-of helps correct that injustice.

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Album Review: Thelonious Monk — The Complete Riverside Recordings

Monday, July 13th, 2015

In my final year of college, I was exceedingly fortunate to have signed up for a course called American Popular Music History: Stephen Foster to the Present. There were only six of us in the class, and our professor was one Murray Silver; he had just co-authored Myra Lewis‘ book, Great Balls of Fire. But I digress, already.

One of the things we learned was that – according to at least some music scholar-historians – the term jazz was a corruption of the slang term “jass,” which was another word for “mistake.” (Of course there are other, less, um, savory theories as to the etymology of the word jazz, but this one suits my present purpose.)

Few jazz artists have more fittingly embodied that theory of the word’s origin than Thelonious Monk. Though an advanced and expressive technician, Monk’s unorthodox, dissonant phrasing and chording (if one can even call it that) led many to think he was just plain sloppy, that his performances were full of mistakes. In truth, that was simply not the case.

Monk recorded and released some forty albums under his own name; more than half of those came from the periods during which he was signed to Riverside (1955-1961) and Columbia (1962-1968). A Grammy-winning 1986 box set, The Complete Riverside Recordings, compiled all of Monk’s recordings for Riverside onto 15 compact discs. Taking note of the present-day music consumer’s preference for physically more compact sets (see also: parent company Concord Music Group’s recent small-size reissues of 2009′s The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings and The Complete Stax Soul Singles Vol. 3), 2015 sees the CD set reissued in a box measuring 5” x 5½” x 1¾.” The fifteen discs are each packaged in a thin cardboard sleeve, and the original set’s booklet – featuring liner notes from the late, famed producer Orrin Keepnews – has been downsized to a 60pp CD size as well. With the new reissue’s decreased focus on packaging, the music returns to front-and-center.

Rather than taking the approach of compiling Monk’s Riverside albums and then appending each with unreleased bonus tracks (alternate takes and such), The Complete Riverside Recordings presents a chronology based upon recording dates. Thus, regardless of when a track was originally issued (or, in some cases, not issued), the set presents an audio document of 153 studio, club and concert recordings – solo and with sidemen – in the order that Thelonious Monk experienced them.

The list of sidemen whose work shows up on the set is, of course, a who’s who of the era’s jazz giants. Drummer Art Blakey, John Coltrane (sax), Johnny Griffin (sax), Coleman Hawkins (sax), Thad Jones (trumpet), Gerry Mulligan (sax), Max Roach (drums), Oscar Pettiford (bass), Sonny Rollins (sax), Charlie Rouse (sax), Clark Terry (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Wilbur Ware (bass) are just some of the musicians who appear.

Monk’s arrangements on the band material are quite democratic – most everyone gets his turn in the spotlight. And the live tracks have a level of excitement that the studio cuts – no matter how inventive and well-executed – simply cannot match. His solo pieces are by definition a bit more idiosyncratic, but once one allows for and accepts Monk’s unconventional approach to the piano keyboard, they’re fascinating.

The alternate takes demonstrate the level of inventiveness and spontaneity inherent in Monk’s (and his sidemen’s) playing. While it’s generally clear why one take was ultimately chosen for (original) release over another, even the initially-unused takes and breakdowns, for that matter) are a treasure. The alternates and breakdowns constitute about 10% of the total music on these discs, but their presentation in context helps provide the listener with a sense of how the original sessions unfolded.

For anyone whose interest in Thelonious Monk extends beyond casual – in other words, for anyone whose appetite has been whetted by, say, Misterioso – the comprehensive The Complete Riverside Recordings merits serious consideration.

Note: A vinyl version of this set seems only to have been released in Japan (circa 1988) and sells on eBay – assuming you can even find one for sale – for more than twice the price of this new, slimmed-down CD set.

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Album Review: Yes — Progeny: Seven From Seventy-Two

Monday, July 6th, 2015

It was just a bit more than three years ago today that I got the opportunity to speak with Chris Squire of Yes. Though he was never put forth as the “leader” of the group – more than most any other group of the era, Yes never really seemed to have one out-front, in-charge member – he was easily the foundation of the group from its beginning to what may well be its end. On June 27, the bassist passed away after a short battle with a rather aggressive form of leukemia.

The group’s membership was a constantly-shifting lineup, but for most fans, the “classic” lineup featured Jon Anderson on vocals; Squire on bass, Steve Howe on guitar, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, and either Alan White or Bill Bruford on drums. It was during the transition between Bruford and White on the drum throne that the group recorded the music that would be put together as the sprawling 3LP live set, Yessongs.

Through 1972 and into ’73, Yes toured the UK and the USA, and selections from those shows were used to compile Yessongs; the film was not a straight duplicate of the album, as Yessongs-the-movie was the document of a single December ’72 performance in London. Though the playing on Yessongs was predictably impressive, the sound quality was not. Other live albums would follow, but Yessongs was pretty much all Yes fans had in the way of official live recordings of the classic lineup in their prime.

But just like the situation surrounding The Who‘s Live at Leeds, it turns out that other shows from the Yessongs era were recorded. As producer Brian Kehew explains in the liner notes for Progeny: Highlights from Seventy-Two, there were serious technical problems with those recordings. But thanks to modern technology, by 2015 there existed a way to correct those issues without changing the nature of the music as played and recorded.

The result of those efforts is the new, exhaustive 14CD set Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two. With a title that explains exactly what is contained, Progeny presents the complete documents of seven Yes shows. And while Yes didn’t offer much in the way of spontaneity when it came ot their set lists – every night features the same songs in the same order – their performances varied enough from night to night to make a massive set like this worth hearing.

Worth hearing for fans of Yes, that is. But if you’ve read this far, chances are good that describes you. With sound quality that is far superior to anything heard on Yessongs, Progeny captures the band once they had settled into having White as their drummer.

In the early 1970s, opening one’s concert with a taped playback of some classical piece was the thing to do. Elvis had “Also Sprach Zarathustra” played over the PA. Yes opted for a clip of Stravinsky‘s ‘Firebird Suite.” But unlike on Yessongs, the Progeny versions let us hear the band use the playback as a reference for tuning up their instruments. Squire’s bass and Wakeman’s by-its-very-nature-finicky Mellotron can clearly be heard.

The Progeny recordings present the concerts the way they were played, whereas Yessongs rejigged the song order. But what really matters is the music, and the high quality recordings thereof. Throughout these hours and hours of tapes, what one hears is a tightly focused yet “breathable” ensemble who could bend and sway with the song arrangement without breaking.

Anderson’s voice is crystal-clear on these recordings. And while everyone’s impressive, Wakeman’s keyboard and Squire’s bass guitar parts benefit the most from the imported sonic clarity. The throaty, trebly-but-not-trebly Rickenbacker bass work of Chris Squire positively thunders while acting as an additional “lead” instrument alongside Wakeman’s synth lines and Howe’s guitar runs.

The differences between the various shows – mostly recorded in the deep south of the USA – are sometimes subtle, but on the solo spots, the performances vary to a much greater degree. Besides the improved sonics, Howe’s “Clap”is remarkable for the ways in which the guitarist alters the song for each show. The same is true of Wakeman’s spotlight number, “Excerpts from The Six Wives of King Henry VIII.”

Unlike The Grateful Dead – another band who released a 1972 triple-live album (Europe ’72) and followed it decades later with a box set of more shows from the tour – Yes didn’t noodle onstage. The nature of their music was tightly structured pieces. Those pieces went places for sure, but the five band members went there together, not apart. And following along on their journey – especially now that there’s zero chance for that lineup to make music together again – is an experience that’s rich both in nostalgia and in just plain great listening.

For those disinclined toward the large investments in time and money required by Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two, the 2CD Highlights set presents a sampling from the set, and in doing so, provides an audio document that one could consider a sort of Yessongs 2.0. So hold onto your copy of Yessongs for the groovy triple-gatefold album art, and spin Progeny: Highlights from Seventy-Two to make yourself feel as if you are there.

Tomorrow, a look at yet another new live recording from Yes.

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Album Review: Little Richard — Directly From My Heart

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

For music lovers of a certain age range, the work of Richard Penniman is the sort of music that one might only rarely make an effort to hear. The name and image of Little Richard is a virtual shorthand for some of the best qualities music has to offer: excitement, bravado, melody, energy, skill, humor…on and on. And because of his larger-than-life persona – wildly in-your-face effeminate posturing and his (nearly but not quite outsized) estimation of his own importance) – he seems somehow to always be there, and the same is true for his music.

Thanks, too, to the fact that Little Richard exerted so much influence on those who would follow (no less a figure than Paul McCartney has long held as part of his own stock-in-trade a convincing Little Richard vocal imitation), generations who grew to age after Little Richard’s heyday still know his songs. Covered by an impossibly long list of artists, and used in everything from film soundtracks to television commercials, Little Richard’s classic music is deeply embedded into popular culture and our collective consciousness.

The downside of that ubiquity, however, is that listeners might forget to stop for a moment and appreciate just how superb – not to mention wildly innovative for its time – his music really is. To help us in our modern-day reconsideration of Little Richard’s early, best-loved material, Concord Music Group has compiled a 3CD set, Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty and Vee-Jay Years.

Penniman’s musical recording career began more than three years before he’d enter a studio to cut a demo for Specialty Records in early 1955. By the time he began recording for Specialty, Richard had released two albums (one each on RCA and Peacock) and six singles, none of which charted. Once at Specialty, Little Richard recorded in various sessions over a period of just more than two years; that body of work is the primary foundation upon which his musical legacy rests.

Surprisingly – or at least surprisingly to those who know the man’s work on cuts like “Long Tall Sally (The Thing)” – Little Richard cut a number of tracks that don’t have that wild, manic vibe at all. The first few cuts on Directly From My Heart are r&b/blues numbers, with none of the reckless abandon that would characterize his hit singles. They’re good, albeit a tad ordinary. Their inclusion on this set does serve to place those crazy, uptempo singles in a context more representative of Little Richard’s musical output of that era.

But it’s through the first (and a good portion of the second) disc that Little Richard’s Specialty work is chronicled. All of the greats are here: “Tutti Frutti,” “Kansas City,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’),” “Long Tall Sally (The Thing),” “Miss Ann,” “Ready Teddy,” “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” “Rip it Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Ooh! My Soul,” and quite a few others.

Renouncing the sinful ways of rock’n'roll, Richard left Specialty in late 1957, going on to cut religious-themed sides for several labels. But when The Beatles exploded on the scene – and in light of their championing of him as an influence – Little Richard returned to Specialty, where he cut five songs, a few of which are featured on this set. The most notable of these is “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” but they’re all rocking numbers.

From there he went to Vee-Jay (coincidentally, the U.S. label that had released early Beatles tracks), remaining with them for a year. The third disc of Directly From My Heart focuses on this lesser-known era of Little Richard’s music, and is notable in part for the appearance of pre-fame Jimi Hendrix as guitarist for several cuts.

The entire 2015 compilation is housed in a duotone (black and pink!) box, and the accompanying liner note booklet features lots of photos and an essay from Little Richard superfan Billy Vera. The booklet handily provides matrix numbers for all sixty-three tracks, but the compilers deigned not to specify (recording and/or release) dates for the tracks. The booklet makes no mention of the mastering involved in bringing this compilation to market, but the sound throughout is superb.

Beware of imitations: notoriously, Little Richard re-recorded many of his hits in greatly inferior versions, and an unknown number among the vast array of available compilations draw tracks from those. The surest way to get a tidy collection of the man’s best work is to pick up Directly From My Heart.

A few related items, if I may…

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Album Review: Wes Montgomery — The Classic Recordings 1958-1960

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

The world’s a much smaller place today than it was a quarter century ago. When I frequented record stores – even once the CD era began – import albums were pricey. They simply weren’t in the budget of the average music consumer in the United States. Things are very different now, thanks in no small part to international retailers like Amazon. American consumers can purchase albums that were heretofore available only in Europe, for example, and have them delivered for retail price plus little more than what they would pay for domestic shipping.

In practical terms, this means that American music buyers can take advantage of the more relaxed licensing/royalty terms that record labels in Europe and the UK enjoy. Licensing a set of eight albums for sale domestically would be an expensive proposition for an American label, and when it comes to jazz – sadly now something of a specialist genre – the costs often outweigh the potential revenue. (How this arrangement affects the original artist and/or their estates is an entirely separate discussion.)

In any event, it’s those modest licensing costs that allow labels to compile and market a set such as Wes Montgomery: The Classic Recordings 1958-1960. (It retails for less than $15!) Jazz guitar pioneer Wes Montgomery burst on the scene at the tail-end of the 1950s, releasing no less than twelve discs for Riverside. (He then left for Verve, and then A&M, before passing away prematurely in 1968 at the age of 45.) Prior to his solo career, he had begun recording as part of The Montgomery Brothers with siblings Buddy and Monk; they would appear on nine LPs between 1955 and 1961. And during that period, Montgomery was also the featured guitarist on albums by The Mastersounds, Jon Hendricks, Cannonball Adderley and other jazz artists.

The Classic Recordings 1958-1960 picks through that vast and varied catalog and compiles eight of those albums onto a 4CD collection. Leaning toward the lesser-known (and harder-to-locate) titles from that era, the set offers a solid survey of the earliest officially-released material in the guitarist’s career. (There are also now some modern-day collections of previously unreleased Montgomery material: Echoes of Indiana Avenue and In the Beginning are essential purchases for the Montgomery fan.)

Here’s a rundown of which albums (originally released on an assortment of labels including Fantasy, World Pacific, Pacific Jazz, and Riverside) are included in the set (all credited to Wes Montgomery unless otherwise noted):

  • The Montgomery Brothers Plus Five Others (1957)
  • The Montgomery Brothers’ Montgomeryland (1958)
  • The Mastersounds’ Kismet (1958)
  • The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959)
  • Jon Hendricks’ A Good Git-Together (1959)
  • The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960)
  • Movin’ Along (1960)
  • The Montgomery Brothers (1961)

Even on his early sessions, Montgomery was a serious player, surrounded by other serious players. The Montgomery Brothers material showcases the talents of Buddy and Monk (on piano and electric bass respectively) while giving plenty of space for Wes to burn up the fretboard with his assured, smooth-as-butter guitar work. On the Mastersounds record, Wes’ presence is so subtle that he’s barely noticeable (which is not to suggest that the music is not good). The Five Others material expands the instrumental focus to include sax, vibes and more, and is solid, upbeat bop.

Montgomery gets to solo often on the vocal-centric Hendricks album – the singer is reminiscent of Louis Prima crossed with Louis Jordan – but he’s far from the central musical focus of those tunes. Once Wes starts fronting his own trio, the guitar becomes the centerpiece of the music. The production style is also a good bit more up-front and live feeling; Montgomery’s crystalline playing benefits from the change. Montgomery originals fit nicely among the guitarist’s reading of standards. Drummer Paul Parker‘s subtle brush work and tasty Hammond organ from Melvin Rhyne make the trio sides even more appealing. The Trio and solo sides alone are more than worth the modest price of this 4CD set.

Listeners should note that the records’ chronological release sequence is not followed on the 4CD set, though the CDs do feature two albums per disc.

A reasonably detailed (but uncredited) liner note essay helps put the recordings into their historical context. There’s no detail or information regarding remastering (if any), and the provenance of the recordings on this set – needle drops? CD? Master tapes? – is also unknown. The last is unlikely, but the sound quality seems to eliminate the first possibility as well (surface noise can be heard on the Kismet material). Simply put, the fidelity will be just fine to most ears.

Note: Those who would enjoy this set should also take note that the same reissue label has released a second set covering the period 1960-62. It’s a 4CD set as well, and features eight albums that – again – were originally released as Montgomery solo records, Montgomery Brothers albums, and discs by other artists but featuring the guitarist.

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Album Review: The Complete Stax Soul Singles Vol 3: 1972-1975

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Nearly a quarter century ago (April 30, 1991 to be exact), a lavish, 9CD set called The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968 was released. Housed in a large box and featuring liner notes in book form, the set provided a handy (and nearly exhaustive) chronicle of the Memphis label’s output from its beginnings up through the end of its association with Atlantic Records. Nearly 250 tracks showcased some of the best-loved (and important) sides from a long list of names familiar to any self-respecting pop music fan: Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MGs, and so on. Many lesser names were featured as well, of course, and the overall quality standard of music was impressive.

Nearly two and a half years later (September 1993), a follow-up set appeared. The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles: 1968-1971 focused on the beginning of Stax’s post-Atlantic era, a period during which Stax was still in its ascendancy. Originally housed in a large box and featuring an LP-sleeve sized booklet (again with liner notes from Stax chronicler Rob Bowman), the set was reissued in 2014 in a smaller format. The 2014 edition housed the CDs in slim cardboard sleeves instead of jewel boxes, and reduced the booklet (and its set type) to CD dimensions as well.

In 1994 the project was completed, with the release of The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975. Covering the final years of the original Stax label, this third volume showcases music from the period when Stax declined, faltered, and finally succumbed. Bowman’s liner notes provide the concurrent narratives of the music and the label’s demise.

Like the second volume, Vol. 3 has now been reissued in a smaller format. And while it’s undeniable that the material on this third entry (spanning ten discs) is not the equal of the earlier sets, that’s an unreasonable standard. By 1972, Stax was already beginning to suffer business problems, most specifically with regard to distribution. Bowman’s liner notes detail the label’s arrangement with CBS, one that – at least on the Memphis end – gave reasons for optimism. But it was not to be. And in the wake of Stax’s blossoming difficulties, many of its star acts would leave.

As a result, the music on Vol. 3 features quite a few names that will be unfamiliar to all but the most ardent southern soul aficionados. But that doesn’t mean the music’s not good; on the contrary, in one sense listeners might find that The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975 features some of the best soul music they’ve never heard before.

Edited down to single-length, Isaac HayesShaft Soundtrack cut “Do Your Thing” is a scorcher. The Dramatics‘ sweeping classic “In the Rain” is a thing of beauty. And there are a number of such well-known sides found on Vol. 3. In addition to late-period classic sides from Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and the Bar-Kays, Vol. 3 serves up a number of lesser-known treasures from The Soul Children, The Mad Lads, David Porter, Mel & Tim, and countless others. It’s not unreasonable to assume that if Stax hadn’t suffered its distribution woes, several of the relatively obscure singles collected on Vol. 3 might have stormed the charts.

But that didn’t happen. While there are quite a few charting hits among the hundreds of tunes in this box (213 songs, to be exact), most died a quiet death in the marketplace. And as Bowman’s liner notes explain, several album projects initiated while Stax was in its death throes never got completed; there’s some question as to whether some of the late-late period material (from discs 9 and 10) ever saw official release. It’s likely that even if those songs were officially released, boxes of records languished in a CBS warehouse somewhere.

One exceedingly small quibble I’ve encountered with regard to all three Stax/Volt box sets is that they’re not – strictly speaking – “complete.” The b-sides are almost never included. And by limiting the set to soul, music from other genres (rock, gospel, and so on) from Stax and its associated labels (Volt, Enterprise, Respect, We Produce, and Truth) is not included. I’ll concede those arguments and argue that even without the other material, Vol. 3 remains a stone cold classic. Forget that the lion’s share of this music didn’t chart; forget that a lot of it was made by supposedly second-tier artists. Forget all that, take the music for what it is, and you’re all but guaranteed countless hours of listening pleasure.

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Album Review: Jethro Tull – Minstrel in the Gallery, 40th Anniversary La Grande Edition

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

The latest example of Ian Anderson‘s ongoing twofold mission (to encourage a modern-day reconsideration of Jethro Tull‘s back catalog, and to provide be-all-and-end-all versions of those albums) continues with Minstrel in the Gallery: 40th Anniversary La Grande Edition.

The 1975 album spawned only one single a-side release (the title track, briefly appearing at #79 on the charts) but did include one of the group’s best-ever – if lesser-known – cuts, “Summerday Sands,” included on the 1979 pirate/bootleg various artists compilation T’anks for the Mammaries.

Following the established and successful format of the earlier Jethro Tull box/book releases, the new Minstrel in the Gallery provides a Steven Wilson stereo remix. The first disc also includes a handful of alternate/early takes of songs from the album, and a three-song appearance on BBC radio. (As he makes plain in the liner notes, Anderson is not fond of the band’s performance on that BBC session.)

While Wilson’s remix is reliably superb — bringing to the fore previously-buried sonic subtleties – the real jewel of this new set is the second disc. Live at the Palais des Sports, Paris, 5th July 1975 is reason enough to purchase the set. The extremely well-recorded concert has been mixed for release by Jakko Jakszyk (now of King Crimson). While the audience is all but inaudible, this set provides a terrific document of the band’s live onstage prowess in the middle of the 1970s.

Curiously – at least with the benefit of forty years’ perspective – the concert features hardly any music from Minstrel in the Gallery (only the title track). Perhaps the more acoustic-flavored music of Minstrel was thought not to be of sufficient power to carry live onstage. Whatever the reason, the show is best thought of as a greatest-hits-up-to-now concert by prime-era Jethro Tull. (During its heyday, the band wouldn’t release a live disc until 1978′s Live – Bursting Out in 1978.)

The first DVD in the set follows what is by now a predictable pattern: it provides high-bitrate versions of the album (Surround 5.1), the original stereo mix, and a flat transfer of the 1975 quadrophonic mix.

The fourth disc is something of a red herring. The packaging suggests it contains an audiovisual version of the Palais des Sports concert; in reality it has the Jakko audio mix plus a slide show featuring hundreds of stills from the concert and related visuals. But no moving images.

But wait! That DVD does include nearly nine minutes of video footage from the concert, professionally filmed. It’s superb, and will leave viewers wishing the rest of the footage could be found.

Much is made in the liner notes of the supposed limited musical abilities of bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. But to my eyes and ears, there’s little evidence to support such carping. Jethro Tull’s music has always been demanding, and both in the studio and live onstage, Hammond always seems up to the task.

The massive liner notes booklet is of the high standard to which all of the Tull reissues subscribe, and it features plenty of discussion of Ian Anderson’s codpieces, for those who are interested in such matters. An essay/interview about the band’s mobile recording unit is of great interest, too, even for those who aren’t fascinated by technical details.

Though it boasts fewer outtakes than most other entries in the Jethro Tull 40th Anniversary Series, the new Minstrel in the Gallery earns its status as the definitive version of the album. The live concert, the images, the remixes, and the booklet make it the comprehensive document of 1975 Jethro Tull.

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Album Review: Jethro Tull – WarChild, 40th Anniversary Theatre Edition

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Jethro Tull‘s 1974 album WarChild occupies a curious place in the band’s history. Their previous album, 1973′s A Passion Play, had been roundly shellacked by critics. That album certainly had its fans; it made #1 on the charts, though that might have been a coattail effect of their earlier albums. But by the time of WarChild, the critical honeymoon was over, and the knives were out.

History (revisionist and otherwise) has been kinder to WarChild, however. A contemporary look at it shows that all of the traditional Jethro Tull elements are in place: Ian Anderson‘s provocative lyrics; a degree of thematic unity; lots of flutes; and a generally sardonic musical attitude. And a deeper exploration into classical instrumentation was a hallmark of the WarChild sessions. Moreover, shorter songs were the order of the day.

What those sessions didn’t have, however, was any music that seemed suitable for a single release. For that purpose two songs from the album (but recorded much earlier) were put out as singles, and they remain among Jethro Tull’s most popular and well-known numbers: “Bungle in the Jungle” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day.”

Plans for WarChild originally involved a film, the ambitious premise of which was a battle between Good and Evil. Though a lot of effort went into the initial planning, nothing ever came of the film. Financial difficulties played a part in scuppering the WarChild multimedia production. In the expansive liner notes of the new Anniversary Theatre Edition, Anderson tells readers about the 83% tax rate levied by the UK government, and the band’s failed attempts to avoid having to pay.

But in the end, it’s all about the music. WarChild has plenty of that; not unlike their previous efforts, the album was designed to be taken as a whole. Though as with all of their albums, the linear narrative matter can (if one wishes) be ignored, and the listener can just dig the theatricality of the music itself.

Over the years, as various related bits of music have been unearthed from the vaults, scattered tracks for the WarChild era have found their way onto reissues and compilations. But the entire approach of this 40th Anniversary series of Jethro Tull albums is to set things right, and (where possible) render all previous releases of the materiel as moot.

Anderson largely succeeds in those efforts with this new WarChild release. The first CD provides a new stereo mix from Steven Wilson, now generally accepted as the master of such things (he’s done similar duties for King Crimson, Yes, Caravan and other 1970s progressive legends). The second disc is filled with related recordings: alternate versions, outtakes, and songs that simply didn’t make the cut of what was originally planned as a 2LP set. It’s worth noting that these tunes are in most ways every bit the equal of the already-released material. And the production values (no doubt aided by Wilson’s remix skills) are first-rate. The hard-rocking “Saturation” is a standout among these. And though he pretty well disowns it these days, Anderson’s saxophone work is impressive. And Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond‘s rocking and idiosyncratic “Sea Lion II” shows that Anderson wasn’t the only one who could write lyrics that fit the Tull mold.

The vibraphones and classical trappings of the ambitious “Quartet” aren’t exactly commercial (from a rock-fan point of view), but they’re fascinating nonetheless. But perhaps the most fascinating part of this new set’s audio portion is the ten tracks of orchestral pieces, only one of which (“Waltz of the Angels”) has been released previously. In fact with the exception of the orchestral “The Third Hoorah” and bits of “The Orchestral WarChild Theme,” none of the orchestral tracks are directly related to the WarChild album as originally released. But taken together, they make a fairly substantial classical (or pseudo-classical) work. At times these tracks feel a bit like film music, which makes sense when one knows that the original project envisioned a film.

A pair of DVDs rounds out the audiovisual component of the new WarChild box (book) set. As is now customary, these include a Surround 5.1 mix (the modern-day equivalent to quadrophonic) as well as a transfer of the original quad LP from 1974. The first DVD also includes silent color footage from the band’s press conference in Montreux, Switzerland, with new (and predictably droll and witty) audio commentary from Anderson. A multi-camera live shoot of “The Third Hoorah” is included, but the blurry footage features studio audio applied to it; no attempt is made to sync the audio and video, but it’s clear that the band is actually playing that song. The fourth DVD includes high-bitrate audio versions of the material from the second CD.

An 80pp booklet provides all of the detail one could ever hope to place WarChild in its historical context, along with lots of photos and additional relevant material. Detailed discussion of (and by) the bewigged female string quartet that joined Tull on the WarChild tour dates will give readers a flavor of what 70s touring was like.

The net effect of this new set is to effectively rehabilitate WarChild, to lead modern-day listeners to reconsider it and its worth. Listening, watching and reading, you may well decide that WarChild is a far, far better thing than you had thought before.

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