Archive for the ‘compilation’ Category

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

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 7

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

It’s an all-jazz-legends day here on Musoscribe: three new compilations and two reissues document some important music from some of jazz’s innovators.

The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine – Remembrance
Post-bop drummer Elvin Jones launched his recording career in the late 1940s as a sideman with Billy Mitchell; he’d go on to play on well over a hundred albums, including titles by John Coltrane, Larry Coryell, and many others. His career as a bandleader on record began in 1961 and continued until the end of the century (he passed away in 2004). This timeless 1978 MPS release (now reissued) was recorded in a mere three days; Jones swings, and the ensemble crackles with excitement. Two horns, bass, guitar and drums: Remembrance is the real (not watered down) stuff. Dig it.

Joe Pass – Intercontinental
Legendary guitarist Pass mixes classics, stands and even his interpretations of pop hits (Bobbie Gentry‘s “Ode to Billy Joe”) on this characteristically understated outing from 1970. His twentieth album under his own name, Intercontinental was his first and only release for German-based MPS. It’s a testament to just how much a trio (electric guitar, Eberhard Weber‘s upright bass, drummer Kenny Clare) can do when the talent’s there. Decidedly mellow, there’s not a note out of place on the record. Pass’ occasional scale runs are a thing of beauty. The Latin flavor of “Meditation” is a highlight, but it’s all great.

Jimmy Smith – The First Decade: 1953-62
Jazz Hammond organist Smith recorded prolifically, and much of his work crossed over to pop success; he’s an exemplar of soul jazz. But material from the first ten years of his recording career is sometimes more difficult to locate than later output. This 4CD set aims to set things right. The sound quality on the very earliest cuts (including “Sonotone Bounce” from The Don Gardner Trio) is a bit dodgy, but the energy more than offsets any sonic shortcomings. Smith’s runs on the Hammond’s two manuals seem effortless, and helped define a genre. An excellent entry point for the novitiate.

The Miles Davis Quintet featuring John Coltrane – All of You: The Last Tour 1960
Miles Davis’ 1960 European tour was the bandleader’s last to feature John Coltrane. While bits and pieces of live recordings have circulated among collectors, All of You is the first legitimate release to attempt exhaustive documentation of those dates. A compilation of radio tapes and private (cough…bootleg…cough) recordings of performances from March 21 (two shows), March 24th and 30, April 3 (two shows) and April 8 (the most complete recording) spanning four CDs, this is essential for fans of Miles, Coltrane, and/or of both. Considering the age and provenance of the source tapes, the overall sound quality is very good.

The John Coltrane Quintet – So Many Things
Shortly after Coltrane parted ways with Miles Davis (see above), he embarked on his own 1961 European tour with a band of his own. Those players are all now jazz household names: Eric Dolphy on sax, bass clarinet an flute; pianist McCoy Tyner; Reggie Workman on bass, and Elvin Jones (see above) joined Coltrane in this short-lived lineup. This four-disc compilation brings together recordings of five concerts (in six days!) in Paris, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm. Multiple versions of “Blue Train,” “Impressions,” and of course “My Favorite Things” make up the bulk of the set. Sound quality is surprisingly good overall.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 6

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Last week I presented 25 capsule reviews; 100 words each, these were quick critical looks at new CD (and vinyl) releases. This week, I dive into the pile of reissue/compilation CDs that have been crowding my office. Don’t mistake my relative brevity for mild praise; all of the discs reviewed deserve attention.

Chuck Berry – The Complete Chess Singles As & Bs
Thanks to the different (read: less restrictive) laws in the UK concerning licensing and royalties, compilations like this are cost-effective efforts on the part of reissue labels. This fifty-track 2CD set collects all of the 45rpm A- and B-sides from Chuck Berry’s tenure on Chess Records. I’m not going to waste space explaining the musical/historical importance of this set. Nicely packaged, expertly annotated, and featuring an informative essay from Paul Watts, it contains exactly what the title indicates, and seems to be truer soundwise to the originals than the controversially “cleaned up” Chess Box released stateside in the late 1980s.

Various – Beale Street Saturday Night
Omnivore Recordings is at the vanguard of interesting, intelligent reissues. And here’s another one. The Memphis Development Foundation was founded in 1977 to support the rescue/renewal of the historic city so important in the history of American music (blues, country, rock’n'roll, jazz…you name it). Originally issued in 1979as an unbanded LP, this album is described as “a hi-fi recording of a lo-fi sound.” It deftly mixes music and spoken word, and features Memphis legends Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Grandma Dixie Davis, and others. Conceptually related to the Alabama State Troupers album, it’s a pop culture lesson with great music.

Various – Apollo Saturday Night / Saturday Night at the Uptown
In 1961, the now-legendary Atlantic Records entered into a fruitful relationship with Memphis-based Stax Records; Ahmet Ertegun and his team knew a good thing when they saw and heard it. These two LPs were released in 1964, and documented live showcases featuring great and less-known acts at their best. Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Barbara Lynn and other leading lights are captured live onstage at the height of their powers. These all-killer-no-filler LPs haven’t been paired before, and they fit together nicely. Kudos to the folks at Real Gone Music for thinking of it. Great liner notes, too.

Various – All About Elvis: A Tribute to the King
Sam Phillips is often remembered by his quote, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Of course he did find such a man in Elvis Presley, but the billion dollars part didn’t quote work out. Still, in the wake of Elvis, countless artists (and their management) sought to grab their own piece of that pie. This 3CD collection brings together nearly 100 artists – some well-known, others exceedingly obscure – all of whom pay tribute to (read: rip off) Elvis’ style. Many do quite well.

Jerry Williams – Gone
Pop music history is littered with stories of near-misses and shoulda-beens. This 1979 LP from Texas-born Williams (not to be confused with the man born with the same name but known as Swamp Dogg) was (until this Real Gone Music reissue) a fairly rare item. Imagine JJ Cale with a horn section and some shuffle/disco influences (or early Boz Scaggs with the dance-oriented feel of, well, mid-period Boz Scaggs), and you’ll have a rough idea of what this sounds like. Williams is better known for the tunes he’s written for others, but he acquits himself well on this, his third LP.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

My march through the CD backlog in my office continues today with quick (100-word) looks at five new albums. Though the artists themselves might not always welcome the classification, these are all what I consider powerpop (or guitar pop, if you prefer). Fans of the genre will recognize some of the names as exemplars of the genre; the artists you don’t know create music of a very high standard as well.

Lazy Lions – When Dreaming Lets You Down…
With a sound that suggests a more pop-flavored Smithereens (or an American Rockpile), this Brooklyn (NYC) quartet adds a few unexpected ingredients to the mix: female vocals (bassist Anne-Marie Stehn) and combo organ. Rather than playing full-on, the group favors a more finely textured approach that gives the songs room to breathe. The disc includes twelve memorable melodies, most of which feel familiar without overtly quoting anyone else. With a different vocalist (not that they need one, but one can imagine Jim Allen singing c&w), any of the songs would have fit nicely on the That Thing You Do! soundtrack.

The Rubinoos – 45
These guys are true believers in the power of pop. And the title of their latest album is a reminder that the Berkeley-based group has been at it for 45 years. In a just world, The Rubinoos would have made the big time; instead, they’re known primarily to powerpop fanatics. That’s a shame, because four and a half decades on, they’re crafting winning tunes as endearing as anything they’ve done before. Fantastic harmonies and a preternatural knack for creating wonderful earworms are hallmarks of the Rubinoos approach. There’s a warm, inviting vibe throughout this album; it’s polished without being slick.

The Grip Weeds – How I Won the War
Another group that has kept the powerpop fire burning, The Grip Weeds favor an approach that recalls The Who (Pete Townshend is often credited with coining the term powerpop) and The Kinks. Finally getting ’round to the most obvious of album titles, The Grip Weeds have another winner on their hands. With a perfect balance of creamy (and often intricate) vocal harmonies and heavy power chording, the New Jersey group’s latest shows that 27 years after their debut, they still have plenty to say musically. If anything, they’re getting better with age; when they want to, they rock quite hard.

Dwight Twilley – Always
Since the mid 1970s, this Tulsa, Oklahoma-born singer-guitarist has been plying his trade. Though his “I’m on Fire” is a stone classic of the genre, Twilley has rarely seen much in the way of commercial success. In 2015 he shows that his skill at crafting pop gems remains sharp. While he’s clearly the star of his own album, the list of musicians involved reads like a powerpop who’s who, with Cowsills and Posies, members of Let’s Active and 20/20 playing alongside Tommy Keene and Leland Sklar. In a clever bit of self-referencing, the title track quotes his famous 1976 single.

Various – Power Pop Planet Volume 4
Powerpop fans know the name Bruce Brodeen. Founder of legendary label NotLame, Brodeen was at the vanguard of the genre’s 1990s renaissance, right alongside Jordan Oakes and a select few others. While NotLame is long gone now, Brodeen remains active. This fourth in an ongoing series picks up the baton that Oakes launched with his own Yellow Pills compilation series. As always, your individual taste might mean you dislike a few of the 34 bands (and 34 songs) on this 2CD set, but most of it is excellent, upbeat pop that will remind you of everything you love about powerpop. [BUY]

More to come.

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Album Review: It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time!

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

For American readers and listeners, this new compilation from Fantastic Voyage requires a bit of background; when I first laid eyes on it, I had no clue as to either its contents or its overall theme. But thanks to the set’s excellent liner notes (courtesy of Phil Etgart), It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! Jamaican Sound System Classics 1941-1962 makes all kinds of sense.

Though it’s situated about six hundred miles south of Miami (off Cuba’s southern coast) The Caribbean island country of Jamaica is a Commonwealth realm of the United Kingdom. As a result, its cultural ties to Great Britain are strong and deep. That explains the relevance of a Jamaican-themed album to a London-based record label. But is the music on this set from Jamaica?

Well, yes and no. And mostly no. That’s the part that needs explaining. And while Etgart does so in a clear and concise manner, I’ll try to do so in even fewer words.

In the 1950s, American rhythm and blues – especially the pre-rock’n'roll style we know know as jump blues or shuffle blues – was a huge sensation. But record imports to Jamaica were nearly nonexistent. To fill the need, a class of disc jockeys rose up on the streets of Kingston and other Jamaican cities. With lorries (in the USA we call ‘em trucks) fully kitted out with massive loudspeaker systems – the likes of which would still impress today – the deejays’ mobile sound systems provided the soundtrack for outdoor dance parties. Dancing in the street, indeed. These enterprising deejays engendered fierce rivalries, with each vying for the biggest, best system and – more importantly – the best new music.

So these businessmen/entertainers established contacts within the USA to provide a steady stream of new product, of new and exciting music. But that’s not all they did: they went to great lengths to make sure nobody else could horn in on their territory. They achieved this through several methods of varying degrees of shadiness. First, they’d scratch off the labels of the discs, so if anyone caught a look at them, they wouldn’t know who the artist was or what the name of tune was. They’d go on to re-title the song when announcing it. And if all that weren’t enough, if a particular song really caught on, they’d go to a local pressing plant in Jamaica and have a stack of pirated versions – with new title and perhaps even new (nonexistent) artist noted on its label (if any) – which they’d go on to sell to hungry music fans.

It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! collects the best-loved songs from that era in Jamaica, and presents them with proper annotation and credits. So eighty-four songs across three discs cover American r&b, but through the sensibility of a Jamaican listener. Got it? Okay. Now, if you like, forget all of that and focus instead on the music without that Jamaica-centered context.

What you have is a superb three-disc set of American jump blues and r&b covering the early 1940s through the era right before the British Invasion began. Early sides from Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Memphis Slim, Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris make up a good bit of the first disc. The second disc covers the first half of the 1950s and features Jimmy McCracklin, The “5” Royales, The Penguins, Johnny Ace, Smiley Lewis and more. And the third disc (covering 1955-1962) focuses on “the big three” American labels, with artists like Fats Domino, Lowell Fulson, Ernie K. Doe, Huey (“Piano” Smith) & Jerry, and Bill Black’s Combo. It’s safe to say that there are no weak tracks among the seven dozen cuts on the set.

The sound quality is generally superb, though there are a few scratchy tracks, likely “needle drops” from rare 78rpm discs. The historical value of those tracks – not to mention their musical appeal – make those flaws worth overlooking. And for those who discover the delights within, there’s further good news: It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! is the fourth in a series from Fantastic Voyage, the other collections again focusing on tunes popular in Jamaica between the mid 1940s and the pre-Beatles era.

Staying with the Jamaican connection for a moment, if you will. The American music on this set, heard as it was by a generation and more of Jamaican listeners, greatly influenced their indigenous music. While American listeners weaned on such greats as Louis Jordan and Joe Liggins would go on to develop what we call rock’n'roll, the Jamaican perspective on the music led to bluebeat, which as Etgart reminds us, led to ska and then inevitably to reggae. So while reggae might still sound alien to American ears – or at least unconnected to our rock tradition – in fact its roots come from some very similar places. For that reason alone, It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! is relevant and important. But however you approach it, it’s an essential collection of music.

(Note: there’s also an abbreviated 2LP set of the same name; it collects 28 of the best tunes from the 3CD version.)

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Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 2)

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Continued from Part One...

The early Moody Blues certainly deserved better success than they found. Their lack of chart action was certainly a factor in Denny Laine‘s departure. But during his time with the group, The Moody Blues recorded enough material for another album in a pair of sessions (one day in July 1964 and then a string of dates between April and September 1966, with Denny Cordell in the producer’s chair). Those previously unreleased sessions form half of the new The Magnificent Moodies set’s second disc.

An almost painfully slow reading of “Go Now” serves to point how right a decision it was to record and release the faster version we all know. The bits of studio chatter are fun for those (like myself) who enjoy studio outtakes and such, and remind listeners that in those days, a band tended to play their live set, live in the studio, for recording sessions with minimal overdub.

A quite bizarre reading of the 23rd Psalm is one of this new box set’s great finds. Arranged by the entire group, the song finds Ray Thomas singing in a vaguely Elvis balladeer style while the band provides vocal accompaniment and some vaguely Merseybeat musical backing. Then the song lurches unexpectedly into an upbeat “negro spiritual” arrangement, replete with handclapping. Talk about stylistic left-turns; it’s easy to understand why this track was left in the can for decades, but it’s an interesting curio to be sure.

The BBC Saturday Club tracks remind listeners yet again that The Moody Blues were a tight, impeccably rehearsed outfit; the BBC versions differ little from their official counterparts. Clearly they were given little time in the studio for either situation (Decca or BBC), but their songs and arrangements didn’t seem to require more time or effort than was given/spent. “From the Bottom of My Heart” showcases Mike Pinder‘s piano and Thomas’ flute. While enjoyable, the group’s reading of Rufus Thomas‘ “Jump Back” is perhaps the least-convincing of their r&b excursions; likely part of their live set, no Decca studio version of the tune exists.

A pair of tries at Tim Hardin‘s waltzing “How Can We Hang on to a Dream” again lead (in context) to the later Moody Blues sound. And while neither “Jago & Jilly” nor “We’re Broken” rank as a lost classic, they do feature the closest thing to guitar riffage as one is likely to find in the early Moody Blues catalog. Those two tracks are also much closer to the rock-leaning side of later Moodies, having almost completely shed any rhythm and blues trappings.

Pinder’s barrelhouse piano is the centerpiece of his “I Really Haven’t Got the Time,” a chirpy number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the crowded UK charts of early 1967. “Red Wine” suggests what The Who might have sounded by had they been led by a pianist instead of a guitarist.

The set’s third version of “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” is the best, both in terms of recording (it’s in stereo) and performance, and it wraps up the 2CD The Magnificent Moodies in style. The entire set is housed in an attractive, study and colorful box; both CDs are packaged in LP facsimile sleeves with color artwork. A 24-page booklet is stuffed with discographical information, informative essays and great photo memorabilia. A handful of reproduced fan club handbills and a large, foldout full-color poster will remind music fans of a certain age of rock’s golden days when every album seemed to come stuffed full of relevant (if extramusical) goodies. Taken as a whole, The Magnificent Moodies is an essential purchase for fans of British sixties pop, as well as for those who love the Days of Future Passed-and-onward lineup of the group but remain interested in from whence the group came.

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Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 1)

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Not long ago I interviewed Moody Blues founding member/flautist/vocalist Ray Thomas; much of our conversation centered around a new box set documenting the group’s pre-Days of Future Passed material. That music originally took the form of a UK album called The Magnificent Moodies (issued around the same time stateside as Go Now: The Moody Blues #1). The group also issued a number of non-album singles during that time, and – as was standard practice, especially for a group with the relatively high profile they enjoyed – they appeared on a number of radio programs in the UK.

There have been several reissues of The Magnificent Moodies, but none has approached the level at which the term “comprehensive” is an accurate description. Until now, that is: the new Esoteric Recordings release of The Magnificent Moodies collects the original July 1965 Decca album, adds fourteen non-album cuts from the era, and also adds an earlier, unreleased take of “Go Now!”

And that’s only the first disc. A second CD features seven additional studio outtakes (including, as Ray Thomas mentioned, material he doesn’t even recall having recorded), a dozen songs from various Saturday Club radio sessions, a mid-60s interview (also from Saturday Club) with Thomas and co-founder/drummer Graeme Edge (here’s my 2010 interview with him), a Coca-Cola radio spot, and an entire additional seven-song session the band cut with producer Denny Cordell. Pretty much the only audio missing from this set is the French radio appearances the Moody Blues did in the 1960s, but as Thomas told me, they couldn’t come to financial terms with the French (he used another word) that would secure rights to the recordings.

Taken as a whole, the new The Magnificent Moodies set paints a picture of a group very different from the one that would go on to worldwide success as a Mellotron-centric band fronted by vocalists Justin Hayward (guitar) and John Lodge (bass). The early lineup included neither of them. Instead, the early Moody Blues featured Denny Laine (later of Wings) on lead vocal and guitar, plus bassist Clint Warwick. Keyboardist Mike Pinder (here’s my interview with him) was the remaining member, another co-founder and one of three (with Thomas and Edge) who would go on to the “new” Moody Blues, much as the rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood would form the basis of the old and “new” versions of another British group of the era(s), Fleetwood Mac.

Those early Moody Blues sides show a band very much in a American r&b vocal vein, the kind of group one would expect to see and hear in a club in a period-piece film like The Who‘s Quadrophenia, or perhaps on an episode of the Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour. Their torrid run-through of James Brown‘s “I’ll Go Crazy” doesn’t attempt to ape the original, but it’s more soulful than The Blues Magoos‘ version from 1967. And though it was their biggest early hit, “Go Now” is a cover, too; the original was cut shortly before by Bessie Banks (wife of the song’s composer) in the USA.

It’s only on Side Two of that original album that one finds any group-penned tunes, making clear the fact that – at least in those early days – The Moody Blues métier was the interpretation of rhythm and blues classics and obscurities. And that they did quite convincingly.

That second side introduces the Laine/Pinder writing team, and tracks like “Let Me Go” display a softer, more refined sound that presages the later lineup’s sound in some subtly yet important ways. The layered vocals of Pinder and Thomas are shown to more nuanced effect, and Ray Thomas’ flute playing is showcased. The songwriting is solid, but nothing of the sort that would give Lennon/McCartney a run for their money; “Thank You Baby” is not unlike the kind of thing Graham Gouldman was writing for The Mockingbirds at the time.

The singles (A’s and B’s) that fill out the first disc of the new expanded The Magnificent Moodies are quality as well, and none would have been out of place on the album proper. They’re mostly covers as well, but the highlight among these is an original, “Lose Your Money (But Don’t Lose Your Mind)”. Soulful tracks like “Steal Your Heart Away” stay safely in that modified r&b style in which the band traded. The band cut a credible reading of a song first recorded a year earlier by Kai Winding and His Orchestra. That b-side, “Time is on My Side,” was of course a hit for another better-known British band (albeit eight months later).

By 1965, however, The Moody Blues singles released would consist only of original compositions, all from the Laine/Pinder writing team. These songs reflect a more mature songwriting style, one that seems to attempt to continue the r&b flavor of the group’s earlier material while moving past it in some ways. Production values increase, and while tunes like “Boulevard de la Madeleine” may have seemed a stylistic left-turn in January 1967, viewed in the context of the group’s later material, they make perfect sense. In fact, those songs suggest that had somehow the original lineup (or at least Denny Laine) continued as the Moody Blues, they might have made music not altogether unlike what the Hayward/Lodge-led group did. (A listen to the post-Moodies Denny Laine String Band provides further evidence supporting this idea.)

Meanwhile, the melancholy yet somehow goodtiming “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” sounds very much like the kind of thing that would have scored on the charts in ’67 London. (It’s a bit reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Another Girl” from their Help! soundtrack.) Alas, neither it nor the group’s three subsequent singles did much (“House” did scrape the bottom of US charts, briefly reaching #119 in 1967).

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Sometimes People Remember: A Conversation with Translator’s Steve Barton (Part 2)

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Continued from Part One

“When you’re working with a producer like David Kahne or Ed Stasium, they care about the process, too,” Steve Barton notes. “Everyone has an interest in how the final record is going to sound. So it’s all of a piece: the punkier stuff on the demos, and how the records ended up sounding.” There are any number of approaches a band can take in the studio. One is to attempt to capture a performance that more or less captures and documents the group’s live song. Another is to employ a studio-as-instrument philosophy, crafting a work as you go along. Barton believes Translator did both. “On the first album, Heartbeats and Triggers, we were trying to capture ourselves live, but then we would do a few little [studio] touches here and there. On the second album [1983's No Time Like Now], we purposely wanted it to be more ‘produced.’” Barton says that the group liked some of the “production qualities” found on classic albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Kinks. They modeled their approach on those records. “If we could have afforded it,” he laughs, “we probably would have put flutes and strings on some of the songs.”

Barton continues a chronology of Translator’s albums and the aesthetic mindset for each. “With the third album [1985's self-titled release], we wanted to do something a bit more stripped-down. And then with the fourth album, we again wanted to capture ourselves live.” In fact, the original idea for Evening of the Harvest was to record the songs live in the studio. “I like all of the albums, “Barton says, “and we never wanted to make them all sound the same, anyway.”

Shortly after the release of their second album, Translator issued a three-song 12” EP called Break Down Barriers. That disc featured a cover of a very early Beatles song – in fact, the only composition credited to George Harrison and John Lennon – called “Cry for a Shadow.” In 1983 the Beatles Anthology project remained off in the distant future, so the song was little known outside the cadre of Beatles fanatics. Barton was just such a fanatic. “We were a trio in L.A.,” he recalls. “and a friend of ours was getting married. We were going to play at her wedding. And another band was going to play there as well. The guitar player in that band was Bob Darlington, who later would be my Translator brother.” At one point, the groups decided that they should play something together. “I don’t know how we ever came up with ‘Cry for a Shadow,’ but obviously it was on all of our radars.”

Barton had grown up with the song. “As a little kid, I remember calling a radio station in Los Angeles.” Affecting a child’s voice, Barton continues. “’Hi! Can you play The Beatles’ “Cry for a Shadow”?’ I don’t know how they did it, but [the deejay] hung up the phone, and the song started. So the song came naturally to us, especially with the two guitar parts.” And once the group became a four-piece, the song was part of their set.

But Translator has always been mostly about original songs. Though guitarists Barton and Darlington both compose prolifically for their band, they only rarely write together. Yet Barton insists that there was never a sense of competition between the two songwriters. “If there is any competition,” Barton says, “it’s healthy. Especially for the third and fourth albums, we had this spurt of songwriting. I had a little room in my flat in San Francisco where we’d write. Bob would come over, and he’s say, ‘Look, I have these four songs.’ And they’d be really good. So I’d say, ‘Oh, I’d better write some more, too.’ We kind of sparked off of each other.” He says that “the handful of songs that we wrote together came out of jams.”

Barton is initially lost for words when asked to characterize the differences between his songwriting and that of Robert Darlington. After considering the question, he says, “I know that when Bob first came to the band, one of the songs he brought to our set was ‘Pablo Picasso’ [by The Modern Lovers]. And he knew all of the John Cale stuff; Paris 1919…he turned us on to all of that. I had mostly known Cale as part of the Velvet Underground.” That music informed Darlington’s songwriting, Barton says. “Bob has always been willing to really embrace the idea” of just using a couple of chords in a song. “I tend to write like, here’s a verse, chorus, and bridge. So I think we have unique styles that really complement each other.”

That contrast between Barton’s music and that of his fellow guitarist was placed in stark terms via a production choice the band made for Evening of the Harvest. Barton’s guitar parts on the record are all hard-panned in one stereo channel, while Darlington’s guitar is panned to the other. For his part, today Barton doesn’t remember why the band and producer Ed Stasium did that, but he thinks he might have been influenced by Neil Young and Crazy Horse employing that approach on one of their records.

All four of the group’s 1980s albums have in fact been reissued in the 21st century. “About eight years ago, maybe,” Barton says. But those Wounded Bird reissues were widely criticized for their subpar sonic quality. Diplomatically allowing some level of dissatisfaction with the quality of those CD reissues, Barton says, “That’s something I’d like to revisit, eventually.”

Meanwhile, Sometimes People Forget is a worthy addition to Translator’s recorded legacy. A number of bands that rose to fame in the 1980s have seen retrospective releases of their material on Omnivore Recordings: Jellyfish, Game Theory, The Posies, and Trip Shakespeare are only four of many. “I’d love for Sometimes People Forget to be the beginning of a relationship with Omnivore,” Barton says. “We’ll see how it goes.” Translator are doing a number of shows in May to promote the release – dates in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and, of course, San Francisco – and post updates on their site, translatormusic.com.

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Sometimes People Remember: A Conversation with Translator’s Steve Barton (Part 1)

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Though they’re perhaps best known for their 1982 single “Everywhere That I’m Not” – a quirky yet extremely catchy rock tune that subsequently found its way onto more than a half dozen compilations of the 80s/new wave era – San Francisco’s Translator released four excellent albums during their major-label run (roughly 1982 to 1986). The band’s sound combined then-current new wave textures with a psychedelic influence, but somehow Translator’s music steered clear of the (Los Angeles-based) “Paisley Underground” scene.

Part of that uniqueness may have been due to the fact that San Francisco and L.A. have always had separate and distinct musical undercurrents – nobody confuses The Grateful Dead with The Doors, or The Byrds with Moby Grape – but a bigger factor is likely Translator’s emphasis on inventive, powerful guitar. While other bands in the 80s folded synthesizer textures into their music – often to great effect – Translator was always primarily a guitar band, led by the two-guitar front line of Robert Darlington and Steve Barton, with able, muscular support from bassist Larry Dekker and drummer Dave Scheff.

Though the band’s string of first-run releases concluded with 1986′s Evening of the Harvest (this writer’s clear choice for their best, most fully-realized album), in some ways Translator never really went away. The band more or less went inactive after 1986, but all four members remain active musically. A highlight of their 21st century activity is Steve Barton’s 2011 album Projector, named by this blog as one of that year’s best releases. Translator reunites on occasion for live performances, and even released an album of new material — 2012′s Big Green Lawn — that’s easily on a par with their 80s work (and thus highly recommended).

For a band that only released four LPs during their initial run, Translator is well-represented with posthumous compilations: 1986′s (inevitably-titled) Everywhere That I’m Not: A Retrospective was the first, followed by 1985′s Translation, then by the less-imaginatively titled Everywhere That We Were: The Best of Translator, and most recently a UK-only collection titled, well, Collection. And there’s also Different Time, the hard-to-find 2008 two-disc CDR compilation of thirty demos, outtakes and live material.

So why, in 2015, another compilation of music from Translator? There are at least two very good reasons. The first is summed up in the title of the new collection released by Omnivore Recordings. Sometimes People Forget, so let’s remind them. The second, better reason is that the new compilation doesn’t travel well-trodden musical ground: Sometimes People Forget is 22 tracks of rare and previously unreleased material from the band, demos and outtakes spanning material that reaches back to the group’s earliest, pre-record deal days. (It’s worth pointing out there there is less than five minutes’ worth of overlapping music between Different Time and the new Sometimes People Forget.) And for those drawn in by Translator’s official canon, there are many riches to be found in these previously unissued tracks.

The band has always acknowledged a clear debt to The Beatles, but in Translator’s music there are strong echoes of the kind of guitar heroics found on albums by groups like Television. “Even in the really early days of Translator, we didn’t really think of ourselves as a cross between anything,” recalls Steve Barton. “But if we were forced to, [we'd admit to a] kind of a Beatles-meets-Cream [approach]. I love all of the Cream albums, but especially Wheels of Fire. And there’s some Translator stuff that evoked that for me. And the Television comparison: I get that, especially with two [lead] guitars.”

There’s arguably a more “punky” sensibility to some of the songs collected on Sometimes People Forget. As effective and fruitful as the official album sessions were for the band, sometimes those served to sand down some of the music’s rough edges as found on the demo versions. Barton describes the demos on the new collection as “warts-and-all.” He allows that the demos sometimes feature “Some flat singing, some things I would have fixed.” But he professes to love those recordings, aptly comparing them in some ways to “Let it Be before Phil Spector.”

The first couple of tracks on Sometimes People Forget – “Translator” and “Lost” – are from the band’s first demo tape, recorded “in someone’s garage,” Barton laughs. They recorded five songs in a single August 1979 afternoon, using a basic tape recorder. “So by definition, those are going to be kind of rough around the edges.” But Barton rightly believes that even the studio versions of the band’s songs avoid slickness. “I remember listening to [The Clash's] London Calling. It was a huge album for me in the early days of Translator. I thought, ‘Wow! This so polished for The Clash.’ But you listen to it now, and it’s this huge, sprawling mess of a record, in the best possible way. So while in the studio there is a tendency to go, ‘Oh, that might be a little flat; let’s fix that,’ or to do little things here and there, we tried to keep it as bare-bones as possible.” That approach is a big part of the reason why Translator’s music doesn’t sound “dated” as does the music of many other bands of the era.

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