Archive for the ‘compilation’ Category

Album Review: Halloween Nuggets

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Halloween’s coming: October 31 is a mere two weeks away. Personally, it’s my favorite holiday: for several years I lived on one of my city’s busiest residential streets, the go-to location on Halloween. This upscale neighborhood (we were firmly at the bottom of of the street’s socioeconomic scale there, by the way) was very popular with trick-or-treaters. So much so, in fact, that people chartered vans and buses – I kid you not – just to drive their kids to our street where they could collect candy. One year, we had over 500 kids ring our doorbell.

Leaving other family members to dispense the loot, I stood out front in a creepy mask, hood and gloves, playing (well, playing after-a-fashion) my Theremin. The spooky tones fit perfectly for the play-fun that is modern Halloween. Music – especially music laden with eerie, gimmicky sounds – has long been a staple of this fall holiday.

Like Christmas, Halloween has engendered a fair amount of its own theme music. But not a lot of it has hit the charts in a big way, despite its quality. And so when an artist records a Halloween-themed tune, it usually slides quickly into obscurity. I mean, who wants to hear spooky music once November rolls around?

Well, if you’re thinking to yourself, “Me,” then I have a treat for you. Rock Beat Music has put together a box set – three discs packed to the limit – of 1960s music loosely built around the theme of ghosts, goblins, witches and monsters. Drawing mostly from among the era’s hopelessly obscure sides, Halloween Nuggets: Monster Sixties A Go-go is a fun if modest collection of ninety-plus tracks.

Because from a cultural point of view “the sixties” really began circa February 1964, there are a number of 50s-sounding tunes here. Most lay on the gimmicky theme a bit thick – loads of spooky sonds, scream and whatnot – but the underlying theme is an undeniably kitschy sort of fun. While there are a few duds – Ralph Nieson and the Chancellors‘ manic psychobilly raver “Scream” is repetitive enough to give even the most die-hard listeners a headache – there are plenty of gems here. The song titles (“Tombstone No. 9,” “Cha Cha with the Zombies”) and one-off band names alone (Frankie Stein and His Ghouls, The Graveyard Five) are entertaining enough, and a lot of songs are goofily wonderful.

Some of these tunes will be familiar to connoisseurs of garage rock obscurities: Positively 13 O’clock‘s reading of The Count Five‘s “Psychotic Reaction” has been comped many times, as has Kiriae Crucible‘s “Salem With Trial.” But for every one of those, there’s a too-rarely-heard track like Baron Daemon & the Vampires‘ “Ghost Guitars.”

The track sequence is peppered with laughably awful audio tracks from B-movie trailers. You don’t really need visuals to know what The Astro Zombies or Night of the Blood Beast are about; their inclusion here doesn’t impede the flow of the music. Instead they just add to the fun.

James Austin – the label’s leading light when it comes to compilations: see also Los Nuggetz – has done his usual fine job of collecting and choosing the songs. What he hasn’t done – and where Halloween Nuggets leaves me a bit wanting – is to provide anything along the line of discographical information, or any sort of liner notes, for that matter. So listeners are left to wonder exactly what was behind an admittedly ace number such as Ervinna & the Stylers‘ “Witch Queen of New Orleans” or the good-timing garage jangle of The Circus‘ “Burn Witch Burn.” (The exceedingly tiny type used for track listing on the box’s back is frustrating to readers of a certain age, too).

But those are minor issues; we’re here primarily for the music. And Halloween Nuggets digs deeply into the graveyard of rock’n'roll (and pop) obscurities for this set. And this 3CD set might be just the ticket to enjoying a little bit of lightweight fun before the Christmas decorations come out. (How’s that for scary?)

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Album Review: Orgone Box — Centaur

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Looking backward for one’s musical inspiration (and/or sound) is not a new approach. Countless bands and solo artists have built careers out of recreating a style that has come and gone, and quite a few of them have won critical and even commercial success for their efforts. But more often than not, when this approach is employed, the results manifest themselves as overly studied: they may impress aficionados of the style, but they fail to offer much in the way of anything new or exciting.

What that means is that when an act that creates a pastiche of an old style comes along and does manage to be new and exciting, it’s a rare thing. And that is what has happened with Orgone Box. Another in a proud and long line of bands-that-are-mostly-one-guy (see also Karl Wallinger‘s World Party, Trent Reznor‘s Nine Inch Nails, etc.) Orgone Box is the brainchild of Rick Corcoran. Corcoran’s approach is to make music that sounds as if it were written and recorded either in 1967 England (think of The Pretty ThingsSF Sorrow and much of the music on Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond) and/or the late 1980s (think of the so-called “Paisley Underground” groups out of Los Angeles), and/or the 1990s Britpop explosion (See: Oasis, Cast, Blur). In my estimation, one could do a lot worse than reference those musical touchstones.

Orgone Box’s new album Centaur isn’t really a new album, though: the group’s 2001 self-titled debut contained a dozen songs, and 2014′s Centaur (released on the Kool Kat Musik label) reprises seven of them, albeit with slightly altered titles (and possibly different takes/mixes/versions). (A 2005 album called My Reply may be the source for some Centaur tracks; I haven’t done an A/B comparison.) But the fact that Orgone Box failed to make any impression stateside a dozen-plus years ago more than justifies Kool Kat bringing this fine music to the attention of contemporary audiences.

The entirety of Centaur hangs together nicely, but there are true standouts among the ten tunes. The mid-tempo “Anaesthesia” is vaguely reminiscent of The Church, and features a straightforward and brief but exceedingly memorable lead guitar solo. “Mirrorball” leans on the phase shifter a bit heavily, but it delivers a hypnotic vibe.

The shimmering, folk rock of “Ticket With No Return” sounds like The La‘s fronted by Robyn Hitchcock. And that points out a quality of all Orgone Box music: Corcoran’s voice sounds a heckuva lot like the former Soft Boy. As Corcoran’s themes center more around love and other workaday concerns, he does answer the question “what would Robyn Hitchcock sound like if he didn’t sing about spiders, frogs and lightbulb heads?”

“Hello Central” adds a Help! era jangle to an 80s-style arrangement. But one of Centaur‘s two finest tunes is the earworm of “Judy Over the Rainbow.” Yes, the title alone evokes thoughts of 1967, but the hard-driving guitar riff (effectively doubled in places by the bass guitar) has more in common with Revolver. If you don’t nod along with this tune, you’re probably wasting your time with this review. The song is a delight.

But “Judy” isn’t even the best tune on “Centaur.” That honor goes to “Find the One,” a gentle, breezy We Five-styled folk rocker with impeccable production values. The volume peal work on the signature riff is reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Yes It Is,” but the tune itself is timeless. Corcoran’s densely overdubbed vocal harmonies (full of la-da-da vocalisms) float effortlessly atop lovely acoustic guitars and softly jangling electric guitars. Some very subtle string synthesizer work adds the finishing touch. Notably, it’s the only track on Centaur that exceeds the four-minute mark.

Much was made at the time of Orgone Box’s debut about the album’s so-called lo-fi production aesthetic. That DIY spirit remains on Centaur, but there’s enough polish here to make one thin the songs were cut at Abbey Road. It’s a fully realized sonic effort.

If you like the sonic approach used on this album, you’ll love the songs. If retro-minded music isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll likely want to look elsewhere for your new-music fix . As for me, I’ll be hoping that Centaur sells well enough to spur the recording and release of more new Orgone Box tunes.

Centaur is available on CD from Kool Kat Musik.

UPDATE: I’ve just learned that Centaur was also released earlier (2013) on vinyl; it’s available from UK-based Sugarbush Records.

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Album Review: John and Yoko w/ Harry Smith: I’m Not the Beatles

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

Way back in 1990, author John Robertson published a provocative book called The Art & Music of John Lennon. The title might lead one to think it’s a coffee table book or somesuch; in fact it’s something much more weighty (metaphorically speaking, that is). Robertson’s central thesis – consistent with a largely unspoken viewpoint espoused by John Lennon and wife/partner/collaborator Yoko Ono – is that everything John and Yoko did was essentially part of one big work of art. Yes: not only music, but written pieces (such as Yoko’s Grapefruit), public appearances (like the 1969 Amsterdam and Toronto bed-ins), films (Apotheosis, Erection, and so on) and interviews.

If one buys that argument (and I do), it points out John and Yoko’s commonality with Frank Zappa: Zappa’s entire body of work somehow fits together, puzzle-like, into something aficionados call the Project-Object.

Robertson doesn’t make explicit mention of the series of interviews the couple held with Village Voice journalist Howard Smith, but passing mention is made to those interviews in the larger context of the bed-ins and other milestones in their timeline. As it happens, John and Yoko sat (occasionally over the phone, more often in person) with Smith for no less than a half dozen interviews between May 1969 an January 1972. Totaling more than four hours of audio, these previously unreleased conversations have now been released as an eight-CD set called I’m Not the Beatles.

Of course the Lennons gave many interviews in that period; before John’s self-imposed retirement (1975-79), he was one of the most accessible artists in the pop world. And as the couple lent their high profiles to a dazzlingly varied assortment of causes, there was nearly always a timely and relevant reason to sit down with them for a chat.

A few things are especially remarkable about these interviews. One, John and Yoko are nearly always patient and respectful of their interviewer. One must realize that they had answered these very same questions – or slight variations on them — dozens of other times; especially in the case of the bed-ins: how many ways are there to respectfully respond to a question that basically asks, “What the hell is it you’re doing?” the flip-side remarkable quality of the interviews is that Smith seems unafraid to ask tough questions. He pushes Lennon hard (and repeatedly) on the efficacy of sitting in bed, planting acorns, posting billboards and the like, all “for peace.” And when he doesn’t get an answer that satisfies him, he asks again, from a slightly different angle.

All of the big events that John and Yoko were involved with in the period get discussed in these interviews. The Toronto Peace Festival and the couple’s involvement with Greenwich Village leftists are explored in some detail.

The booklet enclosed with the CDs sketches the arc of Smith’s getting to know the couple, and places the series of interviews into historical context. Liner notes writer (and Beatles expert) Chip Madinger credits Smith with introducing John and Yoko to the nearly talentless John Peel, but listeners shouldn’t hold that sin against Smith; just appreciate his skills as an interviewer and delight in this fascinating box set of conversations wit John and Yoko.

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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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