Archive for the ‘compilation’ Category

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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Album Review: Various – A Psych Tribute to The Doors

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Tribute albums can go any number of ways: they can showcase new takes on old music, they can provide a way for young or relatively unknown bands to use classic tunes to jump-start their own careers, or they can be pretty much a waste of everyone’s time. Cleopatra Records specializes in tribute albums, and while some of their releases headed straight into the ditch of that third category (see Who Are You and a pointless Supertramp tribute collection), this one is pretty strong.

There are two reasons for this: one, the Doors’ music is often an ideal canvas upon which to project one’s own musical identity. Two, several of the bands involved in this collection rank among the most interesting psych-revival acts at work today. Elephant Stone‘s “L.A. Woman” happily takes the tune in the same direction you might expect Brian Jonestown Massacre to go. The Black Angels make “Soul Kitchen” their own, with some wonderfully fuzzed-out guitar and trademark detached Nico-esque vocals. Psychic Ills gamely tackle “Love Me Two Times,” and while they don’t offer much of a new angle on the song (what, honestly, could one do?), they serve up a tasty head-nodding version. Worthwhile.

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule this week and next – 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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Album Review: David Ruffin – My Whole World Ended / Feelin’ Good

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Sure, everybody knows The Temptations, and their many hits, including “My Girl,” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” both featuring lead vocals of David Ruffin. But fewer – especially those who followed the pop charts rather than the R&B one – are familiar with Ruffin’s solo work. This set pairs Ruffin’s first two albums (both 1969) in his (first) post-Temptations period. The vocals are peerless. The arrangement and playing on these sides is first-rate: all of the elements that made Temptations singles tunes for the ages are present one these records as well.

While My Whole World Ended is a near-concept album in its depictions of hurt and loss, Ruffin’s expressive vocal work brightens the often downbeat lyrics. His reading of “Everlasting Love” is arguably the best-ever version. Feelin’ Good is, as its title suggests, a bit more hopeful, and is very nearly as good. If you love the Temptations, you’ll love these (inexplicably) long unavailable albums. Kudos to Real Gone Music for rescuing these classics. (Another new RGM twofer pairs 1973′s David Ruffin and Me ‘N Rock ‘N Roll Are Here to Stay from 1974. It’s also good, but if you must chose one, pick this.)

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule this week and next – 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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Album Review: Blood Sweat & Tears – The Complete Columbia Singles

Monday, April 28th, 2014

For some years there, BS&T was a true hitmaking juggernaut. And a lot of their music was – for whatever reason – the kind of thing that your parents might have admitted to liking, too. Maybe that’s down to the tight horn work, done to arguably less appealing effect by Chicago. Or maybe it’s the vocals of David Clayton-Thomas, though I’d give him the award for Pop’s Most Annoying Vocalist.

This 2CD set collects all the a- and b-sides, including many most will find unfamiliar. The 1968 debut single, “I Can’t Quit Her” b/w/ “House in the Country” is excellent, and puts the lie to the idea that the soon-departing Al Kooper was an unsuitable vocalist for the band. Said band had a veritable revolving door; the sixteen songs on Disc 2 cover the band’s post Clayton-Thomas period. The twelve pages of liner notes devote just over a page to the second half of the band’s catalog. Still, there’s good material throughout. Those looking for a best-of should keep moving; too much to see here. But for an overview of the band’s more commercially-minded material (read: singles), it’s an ideal survey.

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule this week and next – 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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