Archive for the ‘country’ Category

Album Review: Various — The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter Vol. 1

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

The history of rock’n’roll is littered with artists who — for one reason or another – never quite got their due. Del Shannon is on that list. Best known as the man who gave the world the 1961 hit “Runaway,” he also achieved permanent trivia question-fodder status as the first American to cover a Beatles song on record, “From Me to You.” Shannon’s version actually hit the charts before the original did so.

Shannon enjoyed several hits (albeit mostly in the lower reaches of the charts) in the period 1961-67, and then faded from view for many years, due in large part to his alcoholism. Newly sober by the 80s, he enjoyed a brief return to prominence when the now-cult-status TV show Crime Story used “Runaway” as its theme song. Though he was mooted to replace Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, that never came to pass. A lifelong sufferer of depression, Shannon took his own life in 1990.

His influence has persisted, though, and a new tribute album (with the hopeful subtitle “Volume 1”) is titled The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter. As the title suggests, this sixteen-track CD focuses on Shannon’s original works. A who’s who of powerpop and established-indie acts participated in this nonprofit, with proceeds going to the Del Shannon Memorial Scholarship Fund in Coopersville MI, the town in which Shannon grew up.

Kelley Ryan’s reading of “Drop Down and Get Me” has a pop-country (in the best way) feel that’s reminiscent of Jackie DeShannon or Marti Jones (the latter of whom also has a cut on this set). Her arrangement completely removes anything that would peg the obscure song as having been written decades ago.

Randy Bachman’s version of “Runaway” wisely steers clear of the original arrangement; instead, it’s a breezy, acoustic flavored tune that sounds like a modern number as well. Son Tal Bachman (who did “She’s So High” in 1999 and then all but disappeared) assists. The tune has a toes-in-the sand, cocktail-in-hand vibe.

Pixies singer/guitarist Frank Black turns in a dark, moody interpretation of “Sister Isabelle.” Like most of the artists on this collection, he makes the song his own. It’s a testament to Shannon’s songwriting skills that these songs nearly all up sounding like originals; his song construction allows each artist to sculpt the songs to their own aesthetic.

While Marshall Crenshaw is an esteemed songwriter himself, he often records thoughtfully-chosen covers. “The House Where Nobody Lives” is catchy, with subtle flavorings of Vox organ. The result sounds not wholly unlike a laid-back version of “Runaway” (it shares a similar structure and chord pattern).

Dave Smalley will be familiar to powerpop fans thanks to his work with The Choir (“It’s Cold Outside”) and The Raspberries. But the country flavor with which he imbues “Restless” might come as a surprise. It sounds more like something The Eagles (or Against the Wind era Bob Seger) might do.

The aforementioned Marti Jones turn in a two-step countrified “You Still Live Here.” Her clear-as-a-bell voice shines through on this old-fashioned weeper.

Back in the 90s, Nash Kato was one-third of Chicago scenesters Urge Overkill (that band is back together, sources say). A feedback-drenched high lonesome reading of “Silver Birch” continues in the countrified style that pervades this record.

Carla Olson and Peter Case pick things up with the ebullient “Keep Searchin’,” with all of the energy – albeit in acoustic fashion – one finds on Plimsouls records. Yes, it’ll probably remind you of “Runaway,” but it’s great anyway.

The Brittanicas are an American/Australian act (yup, technology allow such things) that have been covered in this blog before. Guitarist Joe Algeri (working as The JAC)’s latest EP Love Dumb is well worth seeking out. Here they tackle I Got You,” a melancholy number that’s well suited to their jangling approach.

I first met my pal Patrick Potts at 2012’s Americana Music Fest, while together we enjoyed the tribute to a band we both love, Big Star. So it’s no surprise that Patrick’s band The Drysdales takes on a chiming, catchy number like “I Go To Pieces,” one of the strongest tracks on this entire disc. Listen for a brief yet tasty guitar solo, and lots of George Harrison-esque rhythm guitar work.

I’m totally unfamiliar with husband-and-wife duo StayStillPills, but this Irish band’s take on the riffy rocker “Move it on Over” (a cowrite with Dennis Coffey) is another contender for the album’s best cut. Note to self: find out more about this act.

Joe Glickman & the Zippity Doo Wop Band are equally unknown to me. Their yakety-sax version of “So Long Baby” is gimmicky and retro; they sound like a cross between They Might Be Giants and Sha Na Na. Tracks like this are why the “skip” button was invented. The track is redeemed – if only slightly – by the participation of Max Crook, Musitron player on the original “Runaway.”

Lovely electric 12-string adorns Richard Snow’s cover of “Over You.” Snow played and engineered every sound heard on the track.

The Rubinoos take a retro approach to “Hats Off To Larry,” but in their capable hands, the backward-looking approach works. The tune is a joyous, fun-filled couple of minutes, featuring the par excellence vocals of Jon Rubin, and a tasty horn section. And though it might seem a bit odd, the drum throne is ably filled on this track by Nick D’Virgilio, former drummer/lead singer for America’s best prog band, Spock’s Beard.

Overlord is the third totally-unknown-to-me act on this set. They turn in a gentle, Merseybeat flavored cover of Del Shannon’s “Kelly.” While everything about the tune is well done, it’s the vocal harmonies that truly excel.

Pop auteur Don Dixon wraps up the disc with “Distant Ghost.” The subtle, midtempo number ends the album on a suitably melancholy note.

The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter (Volume 1) is a belated sampler of the underappreciated songwriting talents of this American artist, as interpreted by an excellent collection of sympathetic acts influenced by him. Recommended.

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July Capsule Reviews, #3 of 3

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Today I present yet four more capsule reviews. Today’s crop includes reissues on the Real Gone Music label. RGM is committed to unearthing long- (and unjustly-) forgotten music, and these four titles — all from the too-often-maligned decade of the 1970s – certainly meet that standard. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Allspice – Allspice
The cover photo of this one-off release – they put out no further material – suggests a leisure-suited disco act, and in 1977 that wouldn’t be at all surprising. And while there are concessions to the disco scene – especially in the string charts – Allspice betrays influences of funk, soul and r&b. Imagine Earth, Wind & Fire with both male and female vocalists. The emphasis is on four-on-the-floor danceability, but if you listen past the thumping beats, you’ll be rewarded with some tasty lead guitar licks and some inventive drumming. More influenced by, say, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and just a bit of Isaac Hayes, Allspice showed a good deal of promise here. “She’s a Lady” is a strong soul ballad. But possibly owing to producer Wayne Henderson turning his attention back to his Jazz Crusaders, after this LP the group was not to be heard from again.

Amazing Rhythm Aces – Stacked Deck / Too Stuffed to Jump
Of the four acts discussed here, only this one enjoyed any chart success. “Third Rate Romance” reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and scored #1 on the Canadian charts) in 1975. The story-song style was immensely popular in the era, successfully bridging singer/songwriter and country styles. The other tunes on Stacked Deck (paired with 1976′s Too Stuffed to Jump on this RGM reissue) mined a similar vein, and the group’s sound was on the country side of Creedence Clearwater Revival: lots of reverbed Telecaster and understated arrangements. Some appealing slide guitar work is tastefully applied on a number of the tunes. Presumably this package was successful on its first reissue (in 2000 on RGM’s forerunner label, Collector’s Choice), leading to this 2013 re-reissue. Not a lot of rock here, the Amazing Rhythm Aces were primarily a low-key, good-timin’ country band. But a decent one; give this a spin.

Wilderness Road – Sold for Prevention of Disease Only
It doesn’t get much more obscure than this. Released in 1973, this album you’ve never heard by an act you’ve never heard of sank without a trace. The cover photo suggests a glam rock band; the music dispels any such notion. Imagine a Grateful Dead that rocked harder and had a sense of humor, and you’ll be in the ballpark of the music you’ll find on this LP. Presaging the satirical approach of The Tubes, Wilderness Road attempted to fuse clever lyrics with midtempo, rocking music. In this they were reasonably successful, but the humor doesn’t jump out at the listener. Still, there are some nice guitar solos, beefy horn charts, and some decent singing in a standard 70s FM radio style. If you crossed Wild Cherry with Hello People and took away any hit potential, you might just end up with Wilderness Road. A curio, but worth a spin.

Larry Williams – That Larry Williams: The Resurrection of Funk
Yeah, that Larry Williams, as in, the guy who wrote such classics as “Slow Down,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” and “Bad Boy,” all covered by The Beatles. But this album dates from a bit later in his career: 1978, to be exact. Recorded at the height (or depth, depending on your perspective) of the disco era, this album certainly betrays Williams’ interest in pandering to prevailing pop trends. “Bony Moronie (Disco Queen)” bears no similarity to its namesake (also written by Williams); instead it’s a bid for hit status that hamfistedly name-checks other hits of the era. But with that misfire out of the way, the rest of the album is pretty damn good, in a funky style that suggests a less-demented Parliament. Guests Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker (among others) enliven the tunes, and some tight vocal ensemble work atop the funky beats keeps things interesting.

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Album Review: Merle Haggard – The Complete ’60s Capitol Singles

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

First it was Collectors’ Choice Music, and then when they shuttered their label, it was Real Gone Music. Now Omnivore – another boutique label run (in the best way) by crate-digging types – is following suit and putting together complete collections of a- and b-sides of 45rpm singles form an array of important artists. And while I rarely cover c&w, The Complete ’60s Capitol Singles by Merle Haggard is worthy of attention.

The #42 hit (on the country charts) “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can” is classic country in every sense of the word, but it’s informed by an unmistakeable pop sensibility. It’s not cry-in-your-beer corny stuff; instead it’s got a sly humor that resulted in a sort of pop-country that appealed to the likes of The Beatles. Modern fans of artists like Junior Brown will find plenty to like in these sides, even if their tastes don’t normally extend to country and western sounds.

The production values are state-of-the-art, owing in part to the fact that – though these are all c&w tunes — they were recorded at Capitol’s Hollywood studios. As a result, the personnel (the CD provides excellent discographical and session data; Omnivore knows its audience) includes such esteemed and in-demand players as Glen Campbell, Jim Gordon, and James Burton. The tracks are polished without being slick, heartfelt without being cornpone.

Amusingly, the Haggard original “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” sounds an awful lot like Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind,” a massive hit song released a year earlier; perhaps unsurprisingly, Campbell’s not on this track. One thinks if he had been, he might’ve said, “Uh, Merle?”

The b-sides are surprisingly strong, considering that the flip side of singles was long home for perfunctory, throwaway tracks. Haggard’s b-sides tend more toward conventional c&w weepers, but even these are treated with care and finesse. For example, “This Loneliness is Eating Me Alive” (the b-side of the #2 hit “I Threw Away the Rose”) features some tasty guitar licks throughout,courtesy of either Burton or Campbell; the song sounds like a hit.

The twenty-eight tracks on Haggard’s The Complete ’60s Capitol Singles were all cut within the mere time frame of five years, predating his later “outlaw” phase (though some of the song lyrics foreshadow that phase; see “Branded Man” and “Sing Me Back Home, both from the Summer of Love). The big hits are here: “Mama Tried (#1), “Okie From Muskogee (#1, and #41 pop), but the lesser-known tracks hold up nearly as well. A timeless collection that won’t curl the toes of non-c&w fans, this is an excellent entry point into Haggard’s 1960s output.

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Album Review: Phil Lee – The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

I nearly passed this one by. The cover turned me off, and as I’ve mentioned before, with so many CDs for potential review, an off-putting cover image can sometimes be enough to cause me to just move on. Guy with a hat? Check. Acoustic guitar in hand? Check. Female cover model who I find, well, shall we say, non-arousing? Double-check. But for whatever reason, I decided to give this unwieldy-titled album (The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love) a spin.

And it’s pretty damn fine. Phil Lee is a weathered, wizened troubadour, and he sounds like the sort of guy you’d cross at your own peril. But his lyrics are strong and paint evocative pictures. And the musicianship and arrangement is a tasty balance of laid-back and tight-as-a-duck’s ass. The songs all sound as if they were cut with all the effects knobs turned to zero: no bullshit studio trickery for this guy. And that approach suits him well, on songs like the NSFW “Blues in Reverse,” which is sexy, sassy and swaggering all at once.

“All You Need” sounds like a much more countrified Neil Young. “I Like Everything” feels like (but doesn’t sound like) zydeco; it’s not a stretch to imagine the likes of Willie Nelson having a lot of fun with this one. “She Don’t Let Love Get in the Way” shows that Lee is adept at mastering whatever style he sets his sights upon; one can imagine him cutting a very effective rock album were he so inclined. “What Your Baby Wants” is country blues, and “Let your Mind Roll On” is a jugband romp. A credits-roll of “She Don’t Let Love Get in the Way” caps things off nicely, and a bootleg-sounding live “It Can’t Hurt” will leave those who’ve already been won over by Lee’s studio stuff anxious for the opportunity to see and hear his engaging presence live onstage.

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Album Review: Wanda Jackson – The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

If you want a potted history – albeit one from a provocative perspective, and with its own axe to grind – of Wanda Jackson‘s career, I recommend you put your hands on Nick ToschesUnsung Heroes of Rock’n’Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis. But for the music itself, your go-to item simply must be the new Omnivore Recordings collection, The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles. Wild beyond description, some of the songs on this 29-track set display the high points of a really out-there recording artist.

Jackson’s opening single for the label, “I Gotta Know” veers wildly between rockabilly (or just plain rock) and two-step country. It rocks (so to speak) back and forth, keeping the listener delightfully off balance. Music didn’t often get this adventurous – especially in the Nashville idiom (these tracks were recorded in either Nashville or Hollywood). While the b-sides included here (half of the material, natch) lean in a safer, c&w direction, the a-sides are all over the stylistic map, and in the best way possible.

It’s difficult to imagine just how incendiary this music must have seemed upon initial hearing back in the 50s and 60s. There simply wasn’t a precedent – among white folks, at least – for the sort of unbridled, in-your-face approach that Jackson brought to music. One could almost argue that her sassy approach in songs like “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad” is something approaching proto-feminist. A neat trick, that: putting forth the image of a strong, assertive woman, and doing it in a way that was sexy to men of that era.

But again, there’s the whiplash of flipping those 45s over and hearing straight-ahead country of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Those tunes are expertly arranged and performed, but they’re not groundbreaking. So listening to The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles straight through remains a jarring experience. Perhaps that’s as it should be: Jackson was never – not then, not now – interested in being boxed into one style, one label.

I saw Wanda Jackson perform a showcase set at last fall’s Americana Music Association Festival & Conference; though she’s now 75 years old, she put on one hell of a show. Backed by a rough-and-tumble rockabilly band, she tore through her songs old and new, and threw lascivious leers and come-hither looks at the men in the audience (including me, in the front row). It was funny stuff, what with her looking like somebody’s grandmother and all, but Jackson balanced a winking I-know-what-I’m-doing-up-here sensibility with a true love and affinity for the music. She’s one of a rare few who seems to have no use for the stylistic boxes musical artists allow themselves to be placed in. Yes, she’s often known as the Queen of Rockabilly, but she’s much more than that, and this new set of a- and b-sides from her classic era show Wanda Jackson at her very best. Essential.

Here’s Wanda Jackson performing her “Fujiyama Mama,” (a hit in Japan in 1957!) at the AMA Festival last year.

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EP Review: Wanda Jackson – Capitol Rarities

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Though her recording career began in the mid 1950s, I only discovered Wanda Jackson sometime around 1993. Sometime that year I was in a Wal-Mart (I rarely if ever set foot in one of those these days, but back then I sometimes did) and found myself poring over a bin or “remaindered” books reduced for quick sale. One title caught my attention: Nick ToschesUnsung Heroes of Rock’n'Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis. Since it was all of a buck or two, I picked it up.

Turns out it was worth far more than that. Tosches is a provocative and wickedly funny writer. And his vignettes of these early rockers – mostly only three or four pages each – are equal parts irreverence and rich history. Toward the back of the book is an essay on Wanda Jackson titled “Laced by Satan, Unlaced by the Lord.” Tosches discusses Wanda’s early rock-roll sides, most notably “Fujiyama Mama,” a (now) wildly politically-incorrect rocker that equates the singer’s lovin’ skills to the bombs dropped on two Japanese cities near the end of the Second World War.

As Tosches tells the story, Wanda’s rock’n'roll era was short, as her records were too wild for the masses (or at least Capitol Records thought so), so by 1961, as he memorably puts it, “Wanda began recording in Nashville, recrossing her legs and veering again toward tamer country stuff.”

A half-dozen unheard sides (most from that just-post-rock’n'roll era of Wanda’s) have now been collected on a lovely ten-inch vinyl record called Capitol Rarities. While it’s true these are pretty tame when measured by the standards of “Let’s Have a Party” (covered to great effect by Paul McCartney on his standout fin de siècle release Run Devil Run), listened to on their own, they’re pretty good stuff.

Impeccably produced, the six numbers all hew pretty close to standard Nashville arrangement tradition, and remain inside the standard I-IV-V pattern (no doubt allowing the seasoned session cats to get ‘em right in a take or two). There’s a timeless quality to these sides, and the up-front mixing of Wanda’s strong vocals puts across the impression that the singer wasn’t getting pushed around in the studio. “To Tell the Truth” lays on the syrupy strings and vocal choir pretty thickly, but it still has an undeniable charm that makes Capitol Rarities a must-hear.

Tosches’ essay (written in the 80s, at which point Wanda had been reduced to cutting devotionally-themed records for Christian labels) ends with a passage that read in part, “the voice that had been too hot to handle twenty years before was heard no more.” In fact Wanda relaunched her career a few years later, leaning more toward the rockabilly material. I had the pleasure of seeing her in an intimate setting a few months ago at the Americana Music Association Conference and Festival in Nashville; she did a short set in the hotel lobby(!) backed by a fiercely tight rockabilly band (think: Smithereens with a doghouse bass), previewing songs from her excellent album Unfinished Business. That Justin Townes Earle-produced record – like the live set I witnessed — presents Jackson in the manner in which she is best heard. An upcoming CD release (also from Omnivore, the label responsible for Capitol Rarities) will collect 29 songs; I’ll be reviewing that album – The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles – soon, and might even post along with it some live (amateur) video I shot of Wanda’s fantastic AMA set.

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Album Review: Clover — Clover and Fourty Niner

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Clover doesn’t rank in the top tiers of musical acts in terms of notoriety. Mention their name to most music fans and you’ll earn a blank stare. If they’re known at all, it’s generally for one of two things: the guy who fronted the band in their later days was a singer called Huey Louis (he’d later change the spelling to Lewis); and the fact that the band provided anonymous (in terms of credit not quality) for a young Elvis Costello on his debut LP.

So endeth the trivia round; Clover should also be known for a pair of quality (if largely unknown) albums released in 1970 and 1971. And the folks at Real Gone Music have done their part to correct this oversight, with the release of Clover and Fourty Niner (sic).

Clover played a fine, solid, good-timin’ sort of country rock when the musical combination of those two genres was fairly new. And their version of it deserved better than obscurity it found. “Shotgun” sounds a lot like Delaney and Bonnie‘s “Only You and I Know,” and “Southbound Train” is from the Grateful Dead school of pop music. “Going to the Country” combines a jangly picking arrangement with something a bit more ambitious.

On the 21 tracks that make up these two albums, the band favors a sort of cross between Fantasy labelmates Creedence Clearwater Revival and Little Feat in places, though they can move in a much more jugband direction when they care to. Most of the time it works well, and when it doesn’t – as on the blues-by-way-of-the-Grateful Dead “Stealin’” – it’s still not awful. And those rare weak spots are more than redeemed by the crackling lead guitar work on numbers like the Moby Grape-flavored gospel number“Wade in the Water.”

“No Vacancy” is straight-no-chaser hardcore country, heavy on the pedal steel, and it’s a delight, right down to the close vocal harmony work. “Lizard Rock and Roll Band” isn’t (despite its title) very rocking, but it does feature some nice multiple lead guitar interplay. “Could You Call it Love” has some lovely vocal work reminiscent of Poco.

Despite the total lack of chart action for 1970′s Clover, the band kept to their musical approach for the following year’s Fourty Niner. “Harvest” does expand the instrumentation a bit; the piano/organ combination creates a Band-like ambience in the process. “Keep on Tryin’” does rock a little harder than most of the first record’s material. Some tasty swamp-rock guitar (that CCR vibe again) makes “Sound of Thunder” one of the disc’s most enjoyable tracks.

With a title like “Chicken Butt” it’s no surprise to find a bluegrass-styled number; this one is a lot of fun, with some lively fiddle and banjo work. “Sunny Mexico” is a trifle, a fun enough musical excursion, but it’s docked several points for anticipating Jimmy Buffett. The whole affair wraps up with perhaps the strongest track of all, “If I Had My Way.” The song combines all of the Band’s best elements – the country-rock, the gospel flavoring, the harmonies, the guitar fillips, the solid drum work, even the damn goofy vibes – into a catchy tune.

No new music from Clover would come until 1977. The band members went their separate ways in 1978; the most well-known member from the days of these records is John McPhee, recognizable as a member of The Doobie Brothers during their most commercially successful years. Guitarist/lead singer Alex Call provides a liner note essay for this 2012 compilation; some archival single sleeves and band pics round out the set nicely.

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