Archive for the ‘compilation’ Category

Album Review: The Soul of Designer Records

Monday, August 18th, 2014

From a certain point of view, gospel music can be pigeonholed as a bunch of love songs all written to or about one person. But as with any music genre, there’s much more than one dimension to it, especially if one digs a bit deeper into the music. And that’s certainly the case with the (mostly) African-American gospel cut for Designer Records, a tiny “custom” label run by the colorful Style Wooten.

Designer was a precursor of what would later be called a “vanity” label: acts would come in, pay their fees, and cut a song or two. Rarely did anyone scheduling a session harbor the anticipation of scoring a hit single. Especially in the case of the gospel sides cut for Designer (many, many hundreds of other artists in other genres recorded tunes under Wooten’s supervision), it was often a case of traveling gospel groups coming to town for a church gig, passing the hat to collect “love offerings” and then dropping by the studio to cut a one-off, low budget track.

Of course all of this is wonderfully described in Michael Hurtt‘s liner notes that accompany the 4CD set The Soul of Designer Records. Packaged in a lavish and sturdy sleeve that mimics the gatefold LP jackets of old, this compilation showcases 101 recordings done for the label. And even for those not attuned to gospel, it’s a wonderful set of music. The musicianship – provided by local Memphis players including guitarist Roland Janes – is surprisingly first-rate: Designer and its myriad sub-labels might have been cut-rate, and Sonic Studios wasn’t exactly Stax or Ardent – but most everything about these tunes is first-rate.

As Roland Janes (quoted in one of Hurtt’s accompanying essays) said, “Style [Wooten]…didn’t know a thing about music.” But that didn’t stop him from making sure these recordings were as good as they could be. It certainly helped that the vocalists tended to be in super-tight, road-tested outfits who were able to give a high quality performance in a few takes. And while exactly zero of the tunes on this collection would go on to any measure of distribution (much less financial success), The Soul of Designer Records is a treasure trove of excellent music. Though the players on many tracks were drawn from the same relatively small pool of musicians, the instrumentation never once sounds phoned-in: there’s a surprising variety of styles on display, albeit within the confined framework of gospel. And the performances handily and vividly illustrate the musical cross-fertilization of soul, rock, blues, r&b, country, gospel and other forms.

The liner notes include brief biographies of some of the acts preserved on this set, but what is most remarkable is the lack of detail: the information simply doesn’t exist. Hurtt provides what information he can, but in many cases, a sentence or two (or nothing) is all that remains to document these groups’ sessions for Designer.

Except, of course, the music. Thanks to modern-day label Big Legal Mess and the archivists behind this ambitious project, hours of fine music is now saved from total obscurity. With luck, the release will be remunerative enough for the label that they’ll see fit to issue future volumes, chronicling Style Wooten’s recordings of rockabilly and other musical styles. The Soul of Designer Records is enthusiastically recommended; I won’t be a bit surprised to see it nominated next year for a Grammy Award or three.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 2

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Today’s set of five 100-word capsule reviews looks at recently-reissued, previously-unreleased, and/or compilation albums.


How to Stuff a Wild Bikini: Original Stereo Soundtrack
What we have here, in my estimation, is a fascinating and extremely well-written essay that happens to include a CD. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is not anyone’s idea of great cinema, but the 1965 American International Pictures release has its period charms. This record – originally released on The Kingsmen‘s Wand label – is the only soundtrack LP from the string of Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello vehicles. Tom Pickles‘ liner notes put the soundtrack into perspective and context, explaining the musical contributions of The Kingsmen, Lu Ann Sims, Harvey Lembeck(!) and Mickey Rooney(!!). Skip the film, dig the soundtrack.


Spanky and Our Gang – The Complete Mercury Singles
Often thought of in the same category as The Mama’s and The Papa’s, this group, fronted by vocalist Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane, had deeper roots in a sort of Tin Pan Alley style. This collection presents 21 songs in their original punchier-than-stereo monaural mixes. The group’s hit “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” – a tune that rivals any single of the era for its transcendent mix of melodrama and shimmering vocal arrangement – is here, but many of the other tunes are nearly as good. Of special note is the group’s cover of The Beatles‘ “And Your Bird Can Sing.”


Billy Thermal – Billy Thermal
This band, led by Billy Steinberg, cut an LP in 1980 full of uptempo, nominally new-wave tunes. For various reasons, the disc went unreleased at the time, but the tapes served their purposes as songwriter’s demos: Steinberg’s “How Do I Make You” would be a hit for Pat Benatar Linda Ronstadt, and brought the man’s talents to the attention of The Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, Madonna, etc., all of whom would score hits with his songs. This collection includes bonus tracks, but the whole package – now rescued from obscurity by Omnivore Recordings – can be thought of as a bonus.


Stick Against Stone – Live: The Oregon Bootleg Tapes
At first hearing, this Pittsburgh group sounds like they’re from a provincial city (perhaps Leeds?) in working class, Thatcher-era England. Truth is, the era is the only detail that’s correct: this 1985 live set – long thought lost but recently discovered – sounds like a cross between Gang of Four, the two-tone ska movement, and Living Colour. Any written description of their complex sound will fall short, but I hear angular funk with plenty of assured polyrhythmic percussion, rubbery bass, and saxophone backing the Lene Lovich-sounding vocals of Sari Morninghawk. A modified lineup of the band (SASO) still performs today.


Buddy Rich – The Solos
The idea of a compilation of live concert drum solos might strike some as a surefire way to a headache, or at least folly. But when the drummer in question is the legendary Buddy Rich, the idea makes some kind of sense. Endlessly inventive and always swinging, the man with a bad haircut and a worse temper may have been sixty years old when these tapes were made, but what you’ll hear sounds like a man half his age. Power, finesse and humor can all be found in Rich’s solos. Background music for a cocktail party? Perhaps not. Essential? Indeed.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 1

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Some familiar names and some true obscurities are highlighted in this, the first of five sets of five capsule reviews. This week I’ll review 25 albums, arbitrarily limiting myself to exactly one hundred words each.


Gene Rains – Far Away Lands: The Exotic Music of Gene Rains
Exotica – that early 60s genre featuring wide-panned stereo, vibes, “jungle” percussion and all manner of whoops, bird calls and such – was a big seller; the genre’s two primary exponents were Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. The lesser-known Gene Rains cut three albums that are in the same league; all are long out of print and rare. This new compilation from Real Gone Music collects the best from those LPs, and adds an excellent new liner note essay from Randy Poe (and a lovely cheesecake cover featuring MeduSirena). This disc should be considered essential for fans of the genre.


Pete Seeger – Sing Out America! The Best of Pete Seeger
There seem to have been at least sixty compilations that have attempted to provide some sort of overview to the musical legacy of folk master and American treasure Pete Seeger. Some are long out of print; other remain available. Well, here’s another one. Sing Out America! features fifty tracks, variously credited to The Almanac Singers (an aggregation that also included Woody Guthrie), The Weavers, and Seeger solo. One can’t assail the quality of the music herein, but lack of liner notes and/or discographical info (recording date?) means that this set is a great listen, but unsatisfying as a historical document.


Peggy Lipton – The Complete Ode Recordings
Those of a certain age remember Peggy Lipton as a star of TV’s The Mod Squad (“One black, one white…one blonde!”). But they may well be surprised to learn Lipton had a recording career. And unlike some artists-turned-singers (see: Clint Eastwood), the recordings Lipton released on her self-titled 1968 LP and a handful of later singles show her to be a commanding vocalist. The nineteen tasteful Lou Adler-produced sides (including four previously-unreleased songs) owe a lot to the Laura Nyro school. Lipton composed a number of the tunes, and they hold up nicely alongside readings of classics like “Stoney End.”


Eric Clapton – Behind the Sun
Some insist that Eric Clapton should have hung up his guitar after 1970′s Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs. Clapton didn’t often rock very hard after that (the brief Cream reunion notwithstanding). This 1985 album – newly reissued on SACD – has its rocking moments, though it more often veers toward breezy, easy listening. Behind the Sun is easily identified as a product of its era: Simmons drum sounds abound; prominent synthesizer sounds are equally dated. In places it’s reminiscent of Roger Waters‘ 1984 The Pro and Cons of Hitchhiking (on which Clapton played). Not bad, but definitely not great.


Various Artists – Chicago Bound: Chess Blues, R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll
England-based Fantastic Voyage has carved an excellent niche in the world of compilation albums. Their thoughtful collections have provided tidy surveys of long-lost music, more often than not from the USA. The legendary Chess label was home to a staggering list of classic artists, and this 3CD set brings together some of the best sides from artists including Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. It also highlights the work of lesser-known acts including J. B. Lenoir (“Eisenhower Blues”) and Bobby Saxton (“Trying to Make a Living”). Chicago Bound is up to Fantastic Voyage’s typical high level of quality.

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Legends Do Stuff: A Dad-Rock Roundup

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

From a demographics perspective, I suppose I am the target market for releases such as these. How else to explain compilations that have no thematic or time-period cohesiveness? Legends Get it On and Legends Crank it Up have one common thread: they attempt to distill the salad days of the boomer generation into CD-sized chunks.

And, on some level, they succeed. These discs play like someone’s idea of a classic rock station “rock block” without the car dealership commercials or annoying morning jocks prattling on about whatever. So that’s good. But it’s difficult to imagine who would actually buy these: what self-respecting fan of 70s AOR doesn’t already have “Smoke on the Water,” “Slow Ride,” “Free Bird” and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band‘s definitive reading of Bruce Springsteen‘s “Blinded by the Light” in their collection?

There are a few nods toward the softer side of album-rock: Elton John‘s wistful “Daniel,” Ace‘s “How Long” with a then-unknown Paul Carrack on lead vocals, and The Moody Blues‘ classic “Nights in White Satin.” And there are a few 60s gems tossed here and there: The Doors‘ “Light My Fire,” The Troggs‘ “Wild Thing, The Zombies‘ “Time of the Season.” And there a few clunkers, ersatz rockers that illustrated the more vapid, airball side of FM radio: Fleetwood Mac‘s “Go Your Own Way,” and Jackson Browne‘s “Running on Empty.” But mostly these two discs are heaping helpings of Dad Rock. Each features brief liner notes by an esteemed rock journo – Gene Sculatti and Dave Marsh, respectively – but one wonders if the consumers of these products will even read those pieces. (Neither is an exemplar of the writers’ best work.)

In an age of downloads and MP3, a hybrid SACD version of high-charting radio rock seems a dubious commercial prospect. But since these albums were originally released in 2003 on the Time-Life label, we can safely assume the record company people crunched the numbers and decided a reissue was at least a break-even proposition.

Phil Collins‘ “In the Air Tonight” is here, which is funny, because I assume that if anyone actually wants to hear that song, they need only tune to their local classic rock FM station. It’s playing there right now, I assure you. But for those who want the music without the deejays, these CDs just might be the ticket. Over-40 white males who haven’t given over to download culture might just enjoy getting Legends Crank it Up and/or Legends Get it On (the latter’s title a nod to T. Rex‘s “Bang a Gong,” included therein) as a gift. We missed Father’s Day 2014, so maybe birthday or Christmas. But if you give one of these CDs to the middle-aged man in your life, don’t be surprised to find him cranking up his car stereo and fist pumping while he should be driving, all to the thumping strains of Foreigner‘s “Feels Like the First Time” or Eric Burdon and War‘s “Spill the Wine.”

Verdict: slapdash, seemingly pointless collections of music – some great, some good, some lousy, all overplayed – rendered in excellent fidelity. But undeniably, they’re a lot of fun.

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Album Review: The “5″ Royales – Soul & Swagger

Monday, June 16th, 2014

There are a select few acts in musical history that didn’t sell a ton of records, yet exerted influence far beyond what their chart action might suggest. Among the most celebrated examples are The Velvet Underground and Big Star. Both groups have had said about them – apocryphally or otherwise – that they sold few records, but that everyone who bought one went out and formed a band.

That short list should also include The “5” Royales (the quote marks are part of the name). Though their notoriety is largely confirmed to blues and r&b enthusiasts, the group can count among their fans no less than Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MG’s fame, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and Jimmie Vaughan. The “5” Royales’ specialty was a bluesy, often gospel-infused vocal style not miles removed from The Platters, Drifters and Coasters. But in addition to some excellent, soulful close harmony work, the band had within its ranks a secret weapon: guitarist Lowman Pauling. His direct, compact and effective leads were an integral part of the group’s sound.

A new 5CD set (naturally, there are five!) collects all of The Winston-Salem NC-based group’s material, from their earliest 78s in their 1951 gospel phase (when they were known as The Royal Sons Quintet) through their later material. The group’s unique sound was a synthesis of blues, early rock’n'roll, doo-wop, rhythm and blues and what would later be known as soul.

The new set (on Rock Beat Records) titled Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales 1951-1967 is lavishly packaged in a sturdy hardcover book roughly the size of a stack of 45rpm singles; that’s fitting, as The “5” Royales existed in an era when the single was king, when album-length releases weren’t yet the standard. A detailed and deeply researched history and discography includes details including personnel on each track, release date and matrix number.

The set is strewn with gems; The “5” Royales were so versatile and accomplished that each listener will likely have his or her own favorite tracks. The blues-based “Thirty Second Lover” (from 1957) is as good as anything that came out that year; it sounds a bit like The Dixie Hummingbirds backed by Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana and Bill Black. Pauling tears up the fretboard on “Say It,” and their version of “Dedicated to the One I Love” is miles away from the Mamas & the Papas version.

Some of the material features saxophone (in those days, as often as not, sax – not guitar – was the lead instrument of choice for r&b sides), and swings in a manner a few steps advanced from – but not wholly unlike – Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five. A bit of gritty guitar distortion crops in from time to time, but it’s nicely balanced by the soul-stirring close harmony work of the group.

As noted above, The “5” Royales were a singles outfit. They did cut a few albums of material, but not until the CD era did any sort of thoughtful compilation of their best work appear. But now in 2014, no less than two compilations have been released. A 2CD set called The Definitive “5” Royales: Home of the Blues & Beyond is a good and thoughtful survey. But the Rock Beat set includes all of the material the group released 1951-1967, liberally sprinkled with rare, unreleased and alternate takes. And if you’re gonna dive into the work of The “5” Royales, you ought to do it right. Thanks to its comprehensive nature and the care with which is was assembled (a few early sides excepted, the sound quality is stellar), Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales is the one to buy.

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DVD Review: The Doors — R-Evolution

Friday, May 30th, 2014

Many of the best-loved bands of the 1960s don’t own the rights to their own material. What this means in practical terms is that they don’t have the freedom to put together career-spanning DVDs that offer a comprehensive look at their work in their most vital years. (and the opportunity to profit from same.)

When I think about this fact, one of the first bands that comes to mind is Paul Revere and the Raiders. On television in their heyday more often than The Monkees (if you can wrap your mind around that fact), The Raiders have not a single DVD showcasing their material. (Direct your inquiries to Dick Clark Productions, the entity responsible for the non-existence of Raiders video product in the 21st century.)

Other bands have either fared better, or worked to secure rights to their material. The Doors were always careful stewards of their work product, so it’s not surprising (though it is most welcome) that there’s a new DVD – with a run time (including bonus material ) of nearly two and a half hours – documenting their film and television output.

R-Evolution is a thoughtful survey of The Doors’ music in video form, without any annoying voice-overs or other superfluous content. It’s just the videos. And as the liner notes make clear, the pointedly chronological organization of the clips emphasizes how the band started out “playing the game” (see performances on American Bandstand – Clark again! – from 1967), but quickly asserted control of their product and made more abstract, idiosyncratic films that fit with what we today recognize as the Doors aesthetic.

The sourcing of these clips is exceptional, and the quality beats the hell out of anything that circulated among (cough) bootleg collectors. Trust me on this. Clips from Murray the K‘s TV show, Jonathan Winters‘ show, and various European musical programs have an undeniable kitsch factor (“Light My Fire” on Malibu U features a setting inspired by a laughable, wrongheadedly literal interpretation of the lyric, and must be seen to be believed).

But the later material is – as it should be – odd and much more Doors-y. Music films produced by the band themselves lean more on live footage and in-studio clips than any sort of pantomiming by the band. And even the 1980s clips – made to take advantage of the medium’s ascendancy in the age of MTV – are fascinating if a bit dated.

The copious bonus material on R-Evolution rounds out an excellent disc that deserves to be a part of any serious 60s music fan’s collection.

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Album Review: The Grass Roots — The Complete Original Dunhill/ABC Hit Singles

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

It’s common knowledge that many rock and pop groups of the 1960s sat on the sidelines while seasoned studio musicians (see: The Wrecking Crew) played on the songs credited to those bands. As is often explained, it wasn’t necessarily that these bands couldn’t cut it in the studio; it was more about expediency: a drummer such as Hal Blaine, or a keyboardist such as Joe Osborne could get the track done in a take or two. So it was generally a simple matter of time- and cost-savings.

Of course some bands bristled at the practice. The MonkeesMike Nesmith famously came to blows with Don Kirshner, and The Monkees eventually got their way with the excellent Headquarters. And to this day, certain ex-members of Paul Revere and the Raiders get very tetchy when the subject of studio cats on their records is even mentioned.

Other bands took the practice in stride. One of these was The Grass Roots. And for their more compliant attitude – coupled with undeniable talent in the vocal department – they were rewarded with a surprisingly long string of hit singles. Their run lasted from 1965 (when they covered a brand-new Bob Dylan number called “Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man)” through 1973, when their last hit single “Love is What You Make It” scored respectably on the charts.

Along the way, there were some commercial failures and near-misses. But the approach taken on the new Real Gone Music compilation The Complete Original Dunhill/ABC Hit Singles is to focus on that key word – “hit” – and build an album around it. The result is twenty-three charting singles (plus a “censored” alternate-lyric version of their monster hit “Let’s Live for Today”) and an album that is staggering in its consistent quality.

The Grass Roots drew upon the most effective (I’d say “best” but that’s a bit of a subjective term) songwriters working in the era. Many of the group’s tunes were penned by the team of PF Sloan and Steve Barri, but that team also oversaw much of the group’s production, arranging and song selection. And though Grass Roots songs came from the pens of many different writers, there’s a surprising consistency to their work as viewed from the singles perspective.

Unlike some groups, The Grass Roots didn’t solely choose as singles songs that had been written for them: they were unafraid of doing covers, especially if the original was, say, a semi-hit overseas with Italian lyrics (“Bella Linda”) or a domestic hit at the lower rungs on the chart (The Forum‘s “The River is Wide”).

The band’s secret weapon was its vocal strength. With Rob Grill on lead vocals (except on those very early singles) and guitarist Warren Entner adding his second- and/or harmony vocals, the Grass Roots had a distinctive sound, no matter whose song they were singing. And their approach allowed them the ability (so critical to chart success) to subtly alter their style as musical fashions changed. So while “Bella Linda” has a Sgt. Pepper-era flavor to it, “Midnight Confessions” heads in a Motown direction with its punchy signature horn charts. And “Walking Through the Country” mined the Southern country/pop/soul vibe that was fashionable at the dawn of the 70s (see also: Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds‘ “Don’t Pull Your Love,” a song The Grass Roots had earlier passed on recording).

All the big hits are here on this collection – “Where Were You When I Needed You,” “I’d Wait a Million Years,” “Temptation Eyes” – but the lower-charting singles are of similar quality. Listeners who don’t regularly turn to their old Grass Roots LPs will doubtless be surprised by just how good cuts like “Lovin’ Things” and “Baby Hold On” are today. Even the relatively trite and underwritten lyrics of “Two Divided By Love” are saved by a killer hook or three.

Anyone who claims an affinity for AM radio pop of the late 60s and early 70s will delight in this collection. It’s made even better by an extended liner essay from Ed Osborne, in which the author hits the high points, delivers on details, and – most importantly – gives the group the respect they deserve without overselling or engaging in hyperbole. Essential.

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Album Review: Sun Ra — A Space Odyssey

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

As Kris Needs notes in his excellent and detailed liner notes for A Space Odyssey: From Birmingham to the Big Apple – The Quest Begins, Sun Ra was a practitioner of “garage jazz.”

Today (May 22 2014) would have been the 100th birthday of the man born Herman Blount, though once he rechristened himself Sun Ra he also claimed to be a visitor from outer space. And when he began releasing music under his own name (beginning with 1956′s “Saturn,” credited to Le Sun Ra & His Arkistra), many listeners would be inclined to agree. Sun Ra’s closest antecedent wold have been Thelonious Monk; both men shared a love of dissonance and odd meters. But where Monk worked on (acoustic) piano and generally within a small combo, Sun Ra often worked with large ensembles and – in later years – made full use of electronics. A staggeringly prolific artist, he released more than 100 albums, many of which are quite rare today. His influence is wide: Parliament/Funkadelic owe much to him both musically and in their visual approach, and in my interviews, some surprising artists – XTC‘s Andy Partridge and New Jersey powerpoppers The Grip Weeds – have expressed their deep admiration for his work.

The new 3CD set from Fantastic Voyage focuses on the earliest part of Sun Ra’s recorded career. The first disc (subtitled “Pre-flight”) kicks off with the aforementioned “Saturn” and then quickly moves on to a survey of the session work Blount/Sun Ra did for other artists (plus some early solo/Arkistra sides). The earliest track dates from 1933, with the pianist as part of Clarence Williams & His Orchestra on the Sun Ra original “Chocolate Avenue.”

Most r&b fans will be surprised to learn that Sun Ra played on a number of tracks by well-known artists of that era: Wynonie Harris and Red Saunders’ Orchestra are just two of these. The “Pre-flight disc is packed with 28 tracks overall, about a third of which are Arkistra tracks from the tail-end of the 1950s.

Disc Two (“Lift-off”) features seventeen tracks, all Sun Ra originals, and all credited to various aggregations of his. He changes the spelling of Arkistra to Arkestra, sometimes appending the prefix “His” or “The” and other times adding “Solar” before “Arkestra.” But it’s the music that matters. Whacked-out big band music that surely seemed bizarre then (these tracks are assorted randomly from the period 1956-1968), and while they feel a bit more melodic in the context of the 21st century, they’re still pretty out-there. “Sunology” from 1957′s Super Sonic Jazz is a relatively straightforward number, but some electric piano takes it outside the safe zone. The electric piano runs on “Springtime in Chicago” seem processed somehow, perhaps through a ring modulator. But that’s a nonsensical observation: ring modulators weren’t available in 1956. Nonetheless, Sun Ra did some sort of processing – however primitive – to alter the tone of the instrument. “Sun Song” from 1957 features some otherworldly percussion, slightly off-kilter piano glissandi and weird, gurgling Hammond organ, all (perversely) applied to a relatively accessible melody. The brief solo piece “Advice to the Medics” is built around Sun Ra’s electric piano work, again with a strange, likely intentionally overdriven tone.

All of which leads to an important point. Long before the phrase DIY became a watchword in music, Sun Ra was doing it himself. Most of his recordings are relatively low-budget affairs, many released on his own El Saturn label. It’s unlikely that a relatively straight label such as Riverside or Blue Note would have wanted to release the seemingly unending stream of weirdo jazz that Sun Ra & His Arkestra churned out. And long before the era of the “merch table,” El Saturn releases were normally pressed in exceedingly small quantities (often less than a hundred copies) and sold at live Arkestra shows.

Despite its subtitle, disc three (“Future Shock”) isn’t all that weird, at least not in its first half. Fifteen tracks focusing tightly in on the period 1958-1961 (a time during which he released eleven albums!), these actually represent a sampling of the most accessible music Sun Ra produced. In some ways, Sun Ra’s music here has hints of exotica practitioners Esquivel and Martin Denny, albeit filtered through a jazz/r&b sensibility neither of those men possessed to any great degree. Even a straightforward blues arrangement on “Great Balls of Fire” (decidedly not the Jerry Lee Lewis standard from a year earlier) has atonal horn bursts peppered throughout its run time. “Velvet” is a big band number led by Sun Ra’s Monk-like piano runs; it swings hard and gives solo time to members of the Arkestra. Many of the tracks here are built upon a blues foundation, and seem designed for dancing. “Blues at Midnight” does engage in some thrilling bass and saxophone runs that lean toward hard bop, and “Ancient Aiethopia” is cinematic in its scope. “Space Loneliness” (a single from 1960) is evocative of its title, and features some excellent, dissonant piano soloing from Sun Ra. The disc tosses in a doo-wop oddity: “Teenager’s Letter of Promises” from 1959 by Juanita Rogers & Lynn Hollings backed by Sun Ra’s Arkestra masquerading as Mr. V’s Five Joys. It’s otherworldly and banal all at once, and has to be heard to be believed.

“Bassism” is just what its title suggests: a tune built around upright bass. But fluttering flutes and skittering piano take it in an uncharted direction. The Arkestra continues on its trajectory spaceward with 1961′s “Where is Tomorrow” and follows with three more tasty, edgy cuts from that year’s album The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra. The percussion-centric “The Beginning” feels like what Edgard Varèse might have done had he been backed with the Arkestra. The set wraps with 1961′s “Message to Earthman,” on which the Arkestra is led by a speaking (and shouting! And wailing!) Sun Ra, declaiming his intergalactic message.

Since the subtitle of this 3CD’s set includes the phrase “The Quest Begins,” one can only hope that Fantastic Voyage will grace modern music listeners with another Kris Needs-curated collection of Sun Ra music in the near future.

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Album Review: The Mamas & The Papas – A Gathering of Flowers

Monday, May 12th, 2014

By my rough count, there have been more than twenty – yes, twenty – compilations attempting to distill the catalog of The Mamas & The Papas down to a disc or two. For me, the 1969 LP 16 of Their Greatest Hits was my introduction to the group. And while it was good – hell, they’re all good, seeing as they feature the foursome’s AM radio hits, among the best of the sunshine pop genre – it wasn’t the best single-disc summation of their music. That honor goes to the long out-of-print A Gathering of Flowers. Released in 1971, two years after the group petered out, it not only includes their biggest hits (“Monday, Monday,” their Beatles cover “I Call Your Name,” the scintillating “I Saw Her Again Last Night,” and of course “California Dreamin’”) but it also features some lesser-known but equally worthy album tracks.

Yet that’s not what makes A Gathering of Flowers – newly reissued for the first time on CD by Real Gone Music – a treasure. No, that’s thanks to the snippets of interviews with the group’s members that are interspersed between the tracks. Artfully done, the mixing of spoken passages and music makes for a sort of audio verité document of the group, and in doing so, captures their vibe – happy, melancholy and all points between – better than any other collection. Essential.

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Album Review: Speed the Plough – The Plough & the Stars

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Here’s a career retrospective from a band that had up to now escaped my notice, despite having a highly-regarded career that spans more than three decades. A gentle folk-laced sound (of the British Isles variety, though the band is form New Jersey) is the hallmark of many of the tunes. The first disc collects seventeen songs from the group’s first four albums (all long out of print), kicking off with the hyponitc “Veszprém.” Shimmering pop with waiflike lead vocals may remind older listeners of Papas Fritas, and younger ones might think of The Corner Laughers.

Electric guitars mesh nicely with flutes, vibes, mandolin and other plucky, acoustic-type instrumentation. “The Roof Is Off (The Stars Are There and It’s Mighty Cold)” suggest what “Girl From Ipanema” might have sounded like had it been written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Speed the Plough seem influenced as much by Dave Brubeck as any pop artist. The tunes are of the sort that will remain in one’s head long after the disc has finished spinning. This collection also features many live tracks and a detailed set of liner notes. For fans of adult pop a la the previously-mentioned indie-pop acts.

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule last week and this week – you wouldn’t believe me if I told you – my posts will be a bit shorter than typical. Once the dust settles, my normal wordy posting will recommence.

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