Archive for the ‘compilation’ Category

Album Review: Todd Rundgren — At the BBC 1972-1982

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Several years back, Todd Rundgren took a proactive approach to the myriad live recordings that exist documenting his long and varied career. A true renaissance man who engenders fierce loyalty in his fan base, Rundgren may still be a “cult artist,” but he’s one of the most well-documented ones. For many years (during the tape- and CD-trading era) a surprisingly large network of Rundgren fans recorded, collected, cleaned-up and traded recordings of nearly every shwo the man ever did. So there’s a massive list of live shows dating back to the very early 1970s, and including Rundgren’s various guises: solo artist, member of the early progressive-phase Utopia, member of the more pop-leaning Utopia lineup, collaborator with Bourgeois Tagg, Hello People, Ian Hunter, Joe Jackson and many others…on and on.

But there aren’t just audience bootlegs out there. From his earliest post-Nazz days, Rundgren has appreciated and embraced television and radio performances as a means for reaching potential fans. As such, there are “board tapes” and/or professionally recorded documents of pretty much every tour he’s ever done. And as he sought to have the best among these released officially, the traing market has somewhat died down (by and large, Rundgren’s fans are an ethical lot; they want him to profit from his work).

The latest entry in the “Todd Rundgren Archive Series” is a near-comprehensive collection of his work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the BBC 1972-1982 is a 3CD + 1 DVD set documenting four concerts (three in audio, one audiovisually) and various other related bits and bobs.

The first disc showcases an early solo gig Rundgren did for BBC’s Radio One. An excellent quality mono recording from 1972 finds Rundgren at the piano, using backing tapes to accompany himself. An experienced studio rat even then, he created “karaoke” versions of his hits, allowing him to present them in a live onstage manner that combined the precision and arrangement of a recording with the spontaneity of a live show. Of course such an approach is old-hat now, and has been since the dawn of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), a digital means of syncing multiple sounds sequences. Buti n 1972 it was innovative stuff.

Even with the confining nature of the backing tapes, Rundgren delivers an off-the-cuff, intimate performance, most notably on the Something/Anything? tune “Piss Aaron.” Few would count the tune among Rundgren’s best, but his onstage delivery of it is undeniably entertaining. And the inclusion of “Be Nice to Me” from his early album The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is a rare and welcome delight. Rundgren even rocks out at the end, turning in a performance of “Black Maria.”

The first disc also includes two songs from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program(me). These feature the seven-piece Utopia in 1975, performing “Real Man” from his solo album Initiation) and “The Seven Rays,” a highlight of the Utopia Another Live LP (The package’s DVD also features a/v versions of these same two performances).

Speaking of Another Live, the second disc of At the BBC 1972-1982 is similar but expands upon the content of that set. Utopia’s set of the time (1975) included material from Rundgren’s solo albums in addition to their own songs. The BBC disc features a full concert (or at least something approaching one) in excellent stereo, and as such includes songs that weren’t on the single LP Another Live set (recorded elsewhere). Rundgren introduces “Freedom Fighters” as “the first Utopia single” that was never released. The studio version of the tune was on the group’s debut LP; at nearly six minutes, the live reading here is nearly half again as long as its studio version. Live versions of “The Last Ride” and “Sons of 1984” showed up on other Rundgren albums (Back to the Bars and Todd, respectively), but here they’re presented in the context of a full Utopia concert. And “Sunset Boulevard / Le Feel Internacionale” from A Wizard / A True Star hasn’t been released in a live version before (possibly excepting other archival releases), and it’s a highlight of this set.

By 1977 and time of the Utopia Radio One “In Concert” set documented on disc three, Utopia had pared down to a foursome: Rundgren on guitar, Roger Powell on synthesizer, John “Willie” Wilcox on drums, and Kasim Sulton replacing John Siegler on bass (“all four boys sing,” as they say). Touring to promote both the transitional album Ra and the more mainstream-rock oriented Oops! Wrong Planet, the group performed newer material from those albums, with a quick dip into Rundgren’s solo catalog (“Love of the Common Man” from Faithful) and the set closer “Utopia Theme.” The tighter, compact lineup meant an emphasis upon shorter, more concise songs, but the band still stretches out instrumentally on some longer pieces.

As previously mentioned, the fourth disc in the At the BBC 1972-1982 box set is a DVD. All three sets included are sourced from the TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test. The first (mentioned above) features two songs from a 1975 broadcast. The second (from May 1978” documents “The Bearsville Picnic” (the Albert Grossman-headed Bearsville Records was Todd’s and Utopia’s label at the time) and features the extended “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)” from the proggy Ra album.

And the final set of performances on this set brings things full circle in a way, featuring Todd solo in 1982, this time without the gimmicky backing as he winds his way through a solo material set. The performance – featuring Todd variously on acoustic piano and 12-strong acoustic guitar, and even electric “Fool” Gibson SG on “Tiny Demons” – highlights songs from his Hermit of Mink Hollow LP, and includes the innovative “Time Heals” promo video, one of the earliest clips ever broadcast on MTV (the cable channel had premiered the previous fall). Two songs are included that were recorded but cut from the original broadcast: “The Song of the Viking” (originally on Something/Anything?) and “Lysistrata” (a full group performance of which could be found on Utopia’s Swing to the Right album). His reading of “Compassion” (one of his best but least-known songs) is a highlight. Because of the vintage of the video material, it is presented in old format (4:3 ratio) as it was originally broadcast.

Each of the four discs is encased in a mini-LP style sleeve, and the whole affair is in a box slightly larger than a double-CD. An sixteen-page booklet includes photos and an informative essay by Mark Powell.

Taken as a whole, At the BBC 1972-1982 is essential for the Rundgren fan who must have it all, and recommended equally to the relative novitiate looking for an entry point into Rundgren and Utopia’s large catalog.

You may also enjoy: my career-spanning critical look at all of Todd Rundgren’s output (now quite outdated, but worthwhile nonetheless).

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Album Review: Various Artists — Beyond Belief

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Not long ago, a Facebook friend of mine initiated what turned into a lively discussion. Paraphrasing, the open question that he posed was this: What is the artistic/aesthetic value – if any – of so-called “tribute albums?” And because his list of Facebook friends includes a wide variety of music-focused people, the answers could be said to represent a cross-section (if an unscientifically self-selected one) of opinions.

Many of his friends are recording artists. Many are musicians, serious music fans, record collectors, and so on. And some are perhaps merely casual observers. But a surprising (to me) surprising number of people – men and women, young and not-so-young – weighed in on the topic.

I’d be delighted to report that there was consensus. But there was not. Opinions varied widely, and my own (again unscientific) takeaway settled upon a few possible truths. The first of these is that those who have been involved with tribute album projects – either as artists or as the people in charge of the projects – tend to think that tribute albums are just swell. That said, a number of artists who have provided recordings for some of these projects think that from an artistic standpoint, they’re relatively worthless exercises. Plenty point out that many tribute albums are fundraising projects, with profits directed toward one or another wonderfully deserving cause.

Music writers, on the other hand, tend to approach the subject with much less mercy. While many of them concede the worthiness of the “doing good” album, several made the point (and/or agreed with others making the point) that many tribute albums are good for one curious listen, but – if they’re even kept – they’re rarely taken off the shelf for another listen. A number of those in the discussion mentioned some outliers – those rare tribute albums that somehow transcended the genre – but there was a general agreement that such animals were pretty rare.

Which, finally, brings me to the latest of these. Beyond Belief: A Tribute to Elvis Costello finds no less than fifty artists digging into the catalog of Elvis Costello, (sometimes) pulling out a gem, and then covering it. And the good cause in the case of this project is the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation.

The artists cut a swath across the music landscape, but many of them lean toward powerpop and (just occasionally) alt-country. (Aside: Why this is so often the case, I do not know. But powerpop acts seem first in line for this kind of project. Maybe it’s a case of selective perception on my part, since I dearly love the genre.)

Some of Costello’s biggest hits (and best-known album tracks) are covered here, but there are quite a few tunes that will be familiar only to hardcore Costello fans (I’m not one of those).

As is so often the case, the manner in which the songs are interpreted varies widely. Some of the artists seem to be trying to reproduce the originals to the highest degree possible; Chris Richards + the Subtractions‘ reading of “No Action” could pass for an Elvis Costello outtake. (Is that a good or bad thing? It’s up to each listener to decide). And Rob Smith‘s cover of “Girls Talk” sounds very close to Dave Edmunds‘ 1979 version. (And those are merely the first two cuts on Disc One). Butch Walker picks a lesser-known song in “The Other End of the Telescope,” but his reading is pretty faithful to the original. David Myhr‘s “Veronica” has slightly more country flavor that the original, but the arrangement follows the Spike version right down to the vocal harmonies and instrumentation.

One has to venture nearly halfway into the first disc of Beyond Belief to find anything approaching originality (but perhaps that’s missing the point). To their credit, Cloud Eleven makes “Little Triggers” their own. But will listeners ever pick the cover over the original on This Year’s Model? My guess is no. There are some left-field reinventions, here, however. Jamie & Steve turn in a vocals-only reading of “Blame it On Cain.” The track almost surely comes from the same sessions that provided part of Jamie Hoover‘s most recent album. And though (as we discussed in a recent conversation) Hoover used an approach quite different than the one used by Todd Rundgren on his A Cappella album, “Blame it On Cain” sounds more like a Todd recording than a Jamie & Steve one.

Kurt Baker‘s version of “High Fidelity” is one of the best cuts on the set; Baker reinvents the tune (one of Costello’s best) in a style that – in places – may remind listeners of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (a group that, it should be noted, enjoyed some of their own biggest successes covering the material of others, namely Costello peers Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen).

A lovely reading of “I Hope You’re Happy Now” represents a rare solo outing from Severo Jornacion, longtime bassist for The Smithereens (who knew he played guitar, much less sang?). And the first disc ends with The Rubinoos finding the pop at the core of Costello’s “Pump It Up.” Lots of beefy horn charts take the tune in a different direction, leaving the listener to ponder how much of Costello’s catalog might benefit by such treatment.

Fifty songs is a lot of music to wade through. And a fifty-song “rock block” of one artist might be too much for the casual listener. But because of the various-artist nature of Beyond Belief, it plays more like a mixtape. Tim Cullen‘s “Radio Radio” is a straight copy of Costello’s original, but Sundial Symphony does some interesting things with “God’s Comic,” arguably improving on the Spike original.

Part-way into Disc Two we find Matthew Sweet, only the second name likely to be familiar to the casual listeners (Rubinoos being the first). His piano-and-voice reading of “Alison” is elegiac, and ups the pathos ante of the original. (at this point some reader might be wondering why each tune is compared here to its original version; honestly, there’s no other useful measure that comes to mind.)

But being well-known and/or changing the song ’round aren’t necessary prerequisites to a successful tune, as The Tickets‘ winning “From a Whisper to a Scream” ably demonstrates.

Beyond Belief features contributions from many names that will be familiar to those who enjoy guitar pop: Ron Flynt (20/20), Hans Rotenbery (The Shazam), Paul Myers (The Paul & John; Myers’ “So Like Candy” is a major highlight of this set), young powerpoppers A Fragile Tomorrow, Mike Viola (the guy who sang “That Thing You Do!”), Lannie Flowers, Bill Lloyd, An American Underdog, Frank Royster. And every one the tunes they turn in has something to recommend it (as do all of the others).

Which pretty well sums it up. There aren’t any weak tracks on Beyond Belief. The production quality is of a uniformly high standard (something that’s not as given on projects such as this). The mastering (simply put, matching the volume of fifty disparate recordings) is superb. And the selection of artists is excellent (heck, I like the original music from some of these acts more than I dig Costello’s music). And of course there’s the fact that proceeds benefit a good cause. But what remains is that nagging question: is there any musical point to the whole project? Some will insist yes; others cast a resolute “no” vote. The final choice is up to the individual, and your enjoyment of Beyond Belief will be based on your attitude toward tribute collections more than any other factor. Me, I like it just fine. But I really liked 1990′s Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson and 1993′s Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, and I can’t tell you when the last time was that I played either one of those CDs.

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Album Review: Harvey Mandel — Snake Box

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Meaning absolutely no disrespect to the artists to whom I refer, the music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s was filled with what one might call second-string guitarists. These guys (and at this point in history, nearly the entire roster was male) weren’t on the notoriety level of Jimmy Page, John McLaughlin, or Eric Clapton. But at their best, they were as good, even if their music was known (much less heard) by fewer listeners. Some of the names that come to mind include fusion great Larry Coryell; three of pre-pedestrian Fleetwood Mac‘s guitarists (Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer); and Canned Heat‘s Harvery Mandel (I am certain readers can think of many others).

Alongside his work with Canned Heat (he was a member of the group’s “second classic” lineup circa 1969-1970, and rejoined briefly on several later – and less noteworthy – occasions), Mandel maintained a solo career. Between 1968 and 1972, Mandel released six solo albums. Five from this period – all but the ’72 release Get Off in Chicago – have now been released in a set titled Snake Box (Mandel’s nickname is “The Snake”). While all of the original vinyl albums (Cristo Redentor from 1968, Righteous from 1969, 1970′s Games Guitars Play, 1971′s Baby Batter, and The Snake from 1972) can still be acquired for small sums (i.e. often under $5), none of the albums has had a recent CD/digital release. So the new box set presents them all together, each housed in an LP reproduction style sleeve, in one tidy package.

Snake Box also includes a rare onstage recording called Live at the Matrix, a set from Christmas Eve 1968 in San Francisco that features an all-star lineup of Frisco locals: Mandel with Jerry Garcia, Elvin Bishop, Steve Miller, Mickey Hart, and John Chambers.

Mandel was and remains a guitarist of great versatility, and one with a wide stylistic vision. Nominally a blues player, he sounds comfortable in any number of musical idioms. Widely recognized as an originator of the two-hand tapping technique (see also: Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan), Mandel sounded as comfortable playing jazz-inflected licks as he did within the context of blues (or blues rock).

Mandel’s ability to trade in multiple styles resulted in albums that could seem all over the place. His interests and influences on these disc are so vast that it’s quite difficult to pin down a Mandel style. As often as not working with an ensemble, Mandel created albums that were cohesive wholes, not merely showcases for his guitar playing. For example, the first track on his first album, the title track of Christo Redentor, features a wordless female soprano vocal that sounds eerily like a Theremin. And the track’s lush string arrangement (complete with harps) is pretty well outside the rock idiom. From there Mandel left-turns into “Before Six,” a tune that anticipates early Blood, Sweat and Tears, and sounding not unlike The Paul Butterfield Blues Band crossed with, say, Cold Blood.

For those who haven’t heard Mandel’s solo work, the nearest artist to whom he might be compared is Shuggie Otis, another musician of singularly wide musical vision. Mandel’s playing is often exciting, featuring thickly sustained notes that are both economical and expressive at once. For his albums, he enlisted some legendary talent, including Graham Bond, Larry Taylor, Eddie Hoh, Pete Drake, and Emil Richards (to name but a few). Vocals show up occasionally, but Mandel seems to understand his strengths (and they are many), sticking to those.

Dave Thompson‘s liner note essay is informative, but the reader may be left wishing the box’s producers had given him more space. But that’s really a minor complaint, as the music on Snake Box largely speaks for itself. Snake Box is a treasure trove of heretofore underappreciated gems. Harvey Mandel is an artist who starts with blues and then pushes far beyond the supposed boundaries of the genre. Those receptive to such an approach are well advised to dive into this box set.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 5

Friday, January 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 16th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Black & Blue – The Laff Records Collection

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Jellyfish — Bellybutton and Spilt Milk

Friday, January 9th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Continued from Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Best of 2014: Compilations and Reissues

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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