Archive for the ‘country’ Category

Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 9

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Today’s roundup of capsule reviews focuses on reissues or previously-unreleased material by acts who came to prominence (or something approaching it) in the 1980s or later.

Old 97′s – Hitchhike to Rhome
In the 1950s, country and rock’n'roll were sometimes hard to discern form one another. Then they split into to two very different styles, only occasionally re-intersecting. By my count, country rock has had three periods of resurgence. The first centered around The Byrds. The second happened during the 1980s (Lone Justice etc.). And the third – which could be said to have influenced Americana – took place in the 1990s and featured Austin’s Old 97′s as its exemplar. Omnivore Recordings continues its intelligent digging into the past with this expanded (2cd) set built around the band’s excellent 1994 debut LP.

Willie Nile – The Bottom Line Archive
One of the observations made about 1960s rock is that owing to a glut of great acts, many very good ones fell through the cracks and languished in obscurity. Good point, but it happened in other decades, too. When I saw The Who on their mini-tour of the USA in 1980, Willie Nile was the opener. He never did quite make the big time, but he gigged pretty hard. Disc One features a great show from that same year. A second disc documents a 2000 show. Nile’s “Vagabond Moon” is a highlight of both. Nile sounds not unlike Roger McGuinn.

Game Theory – Real Nighttime
Among fans of the band, 1985′s Real Nighttime is generally considered their best album. With improved songwriting and excellent signature production from Mitch Easter, Real Nighttime is a great improvement over already-very-good earlier albums. As I’ve noted before, to my ears Game Theory often sound a bit like Let’s Active crossed with The Three O’clock and Sneakers; based on this album I’d add R.E.M.,the Bangles and maybe even a bit of Hoodoo Gurus to that list. Great company to be in, I’d say. The reissue features the original 12-track album plus thirteen bonus tracks, most of which are previously unreleased.

Camper Van Beethoven – New Roman Times
This one’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Camper Van Beethoven enjoyed their heyday in the second half of the 1980s, a time during which they were that decade’s answer to Kaleidoscope (not that many asked the question). After folding in 1989, they reunited with an idiosyncratic “cover album” of Fleetwood Mac‘s Tusk. Only then did they release 2004′s New Roman Times. It’s a strong return to form, and was released on the tiny indie Pitch-A-Tent label. It’s still available, and Amazon has used copies for 1¢. But Omnivore has seen fit to reissue the album, now with four bonus tracks.

Mike + the Mechanics – Living Years
Phil Collins took breaks from his gig with Genesis, venturing out to make popular solo albums. It was only reasonable that his bandmates would make similar moves. Guitarist Mike Rutherford had success of his own with Mike + The Mechanics. Their second album Living Years (1988) was a big seller thanks to the haunting title track, and led to successful touring that continued on and off into 2004. The group’s lineup featured mainstay vocalists Paul Young and Paul Carrack (Young died in 2000). This reissue adds a disc full of live tracks and a studio remake of the title tune.

Still 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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Book Review: Mavericks of Sound

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015


There’s something endlessly fascinating about the creative process. And of course it’s not merely one process; it’s wholly unique for each individual. And because that’s true, conversations with those engage in creative output are often illuminating. David Ensminger clearly agrees: he’s compiled a book’s worth of his own conversations into a volume called Mavericks of Sound: Conversations with the Artists Who Shaped Indie and Roots Music.

A few of these names will be familiar to casual music enthusiasts (Merle Haggard and perhaps Billy Joe Shaver), but mention of the bulk of the artists interviewed will elicit furrowed brows or blank stares from most people. That doesn’t make them any less important; it’s worth recalling how influential artists such as The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and Big Star were in their days, and it’s helpful to recall that none sold very many records or broke into the mass culture consciousness in a meaningful way. So the fact that the names interviewed in Mavericks of Sound are not well known is no detriment.

And so it is that may of Ensminger’s interview subjects are “cult” or “underground” acts. But to a man (and, much less often, a woman), the acts spotlighted in Mavericks of Sound are about expressing their own product of the creative muse. And nearly all are what one might call critics’ darlings.

They’re also pretty much all excellent interview subjects. It helps immeasurably that in Ensminger they have an intelligent interviewer; in fact he’s often more of a peer (on some or another level) with those he interviews. Occasionally that can result in a somewhat insular conversation, one in which the reader may feel that he or she has wandered into a deep conversation already long in progress. When both of the parties in a conversation are discussing theoretical concepts, dialectics, philosophy and such, Mavericks of Sound threatens to get a bit too egg-headed for the casual reader (present company included). But my advice is to force your way through those heady chats, as even when the subject matter gets a big dense and/or academic, there’s value to be found.

Interviews with Michael Gira and Jarboe (Swans) and Deke Dickerson are among the most revelatory of the twenty-two major interviews, and even the shorter pieces (Richard Thompson, Rob Younger, Wayne Kramer) are well worth reading.

I do have two criticisms of the book. First off, and relevant to the points already made, the lack of contextualization hampers wider enjoyment of the interviews. I understand that nearly all of the material as presented in Mavericks of Sound has been published elsewhere (in ‘zines or other periodicals), and that by definition, readers of the pieces in their original publications would have understood who these artists are and what they’re about. But in a book such as this, containing interviews that have taken place over the last decade and a half or so, it would be helpful if Ensminger had penned a brief introduction for each, with at least a thumbnail biographical sketch.

Secondly, since the pieces are (again, for the most part) being re-published, it’s reasonable to hold the author to a high standard of fact-checking. With that in mind, I ask, who exactly is Brian Seltzer* (sic)? And who is this guitarist Link Ray** (sic)? There are other less egregious errors, but those two – the first of which is made multiple times – are the most wince-inducing.

Ensmigner clearly knows his subject, and much much more (a fact that he makes sure to put on full display), and he’s a keen interviewer who (it seems) allows his interviews to follow interesting paths, rather than hewing to a predetermined set of questions. And if one can look beyond the dismissive tone occasionally taken with regard to a handful of other artists who are not interviewed in its pages*, Mavericks of Sound is indeed a bright and wide-open window into the creative process, and is thus recommended.

* Brian Setzer
** Link Wray

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Album Review: JJ Cale — Rewind: Unreleased Recordings

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

To the music-buying public at large, J.J. Cale is little more than a footnote. Some recognize his name and acknowledge he’s the guy who wrote two of Eric Clapton‘s biggest hits, “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.” Some know a bit more, and note that he also composed “Call Me the Breeze” (a popular Lynyrd Skynyrd tune). Some confuse him with ex-Velvet Underground viola player John Cale.

Fewer still are familiar with his own word as a recording artist. Cale released fifteen albums between the early 1970s and the end of the new century’s first decade (he passed away in 2013). A good half-dozen compilations have sought to distill his work down to single-album proportions, and for the listener new to the man’s work, any of those is a fine place to start.

For those interested in diving further into Cale’s music, a 2007 album titled Rewind: Unreleased Recordings provides a surprisingly complete overview of Cale’s talents. Newly reissued on vinyl, Rewind doesn’t sound at all like a collection of leftovers, discards and half-baked efforts. It’s a fully realized album, and it’s all the more remarkable this it is so, seeing as the fourteen cuts are drawn from all phases of his career.

To those less familiar with his material, Cale’s style as showcased on Rewind will sound remarkably similar to Clapton’s laid-back, post-Derek and the Dominos musical persona. The mot charitable view is that when British guitarist Clapton got back to his roots, he just happened to end up sounding like Oklahoma City-born guitarist. No matter: Cale’s sound is heavily influenced with a Southern gospel/roots sensibility, a sly, quiet shuffle style that imbues all of his work with a smoky, smoldering aura.

As showcased on Rewind, Cale is a most understated character. Even when he rips out a wah-wah laden solo (as on “Since You Said Goodbye”), his musical fire quietly glows more than it licks at the sky. His countrified musical sensibility never asserts itself; his approach seems to be more along the lines of, “Her’s what I’m doing. Stay and listen if you like.” That approach may help for account for the man’s relatively low profile. He seemed more content to stay and play in the shadows, away from the limelight.

While many of the first several cuts on the disc are Cale’s reinterpretations of the work of others (Randy Newman, Clapton, and Leon Russell: like-minded artists all), the second half (and in this case, second side) of Rewind is all Cale originals.

The closest that Cale comes to high energy on Rewind is “Bluebird,” but its uptempo vibe is more bluegrass-leaning than anything else. Pedal steel guitar is the highlight of My Baby and Me,” the closest Cale gets to old-style country on this collection. “Lawdy Mama” feels a bit like a rewrite that combines “After Midnight” and “Call Me the Breeze.” Though it’s a fine tune, its tail-chasing nature makes it less fulfilling listen (and perhaps explains why it went unrevealed for years).

Unfortunately, the 2015 vinyl reissue of Rewind doesn’t include any discographical information, so we don’t know the recording dates or years for these cuts, and the studio personnel can only be guessed at. But none of that detracts from enjoying the listening experience that is Rewind: Unreleased Recordings. Those new to Cale will get a fine introduction to his work, and further investigation will yield richer rewards. And Cale fans will want it for completeness’ sake. Either way, it’s a fine record, made all the more special as a warm and wonderful sounding180-gram vinyl edition.

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Album Review: Sid Griffin — The Trick is to Breathe

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

In the immediate wake of the excesses brought forth by psychedelia, popular (rock) music took a decided turn toward the simpler, more pastoral. Mere months after Cream were hitting the charts with “Sunshine of Your Love” and Jimi Hendrix was endeavoring to stand next to our fire, groups like The Band were finding success with a much more toned-down, sepia-tinted sort of music. That style owed more to acoustic instruments, even when they were employed in rock fashion.

While the charts splintered into genres as the 70s wore on, this simpler (dare I say softer) approach was taken to another level – a higher or lower one, depending on one’s need for rock in their musical diet – with the rise of the sensitive singer/songwriter. For all his merits, James Taylor exemplifies this turn away from the visceral in popular music, at least for a significant portion of the listening public.

But before the singer/songwriters took hold, and in connection with the pastoral approach, some very interesting (and creatively fertile) things were happening in popular music. The Byrds, Poco, Moby Grape and a few others had been investigating the sweet spot where rock and more acoustic-based forms met, and the results were sometimes exemplary. But the hybrid style didn’t gain a strong foothold in the pop marketplace.

Not right away, anyhow. But more than a decade later, concurrent with the rise of what is sometimes called the paisley underground movement, a number of musical artists took another look at combining rock and folk (and/or country) styles. There wasn’t really a succinct name for the hybrid then – today we might call it proto-Americana – but the music from artists such as The Blasters and Lone Justice had as its foundation that commingling of musical genres.

And without a doubt the giant among these was The Long Ryders. Led by guitarist (and player of other stringed instruments) Sid Griffin, The Long Ryders could be pointed to by decided fans of hard-rocking music of the 80s as the one “twangy” band that they really, really dug. The group folded near the end of the decade (happily they reunite on occasion), and the members went their various ways. Griffin continued to cultivate his career as a writer, a curator of music, and a musician with solo albums. He also started a group called The Coal Porters; almost wholly rooted in Americana-type instrumentation, they also rocked.

Griffin’s latest album, The Trick is to Breathe, combines the best elements of the hybrid rock-Americana style, and it’s also a lyrics-focused album that fans of the singer/songwriter genre will find very rewarding. It’s most certainly not a rock record – there’s not a note of electric instrumentation to be found – but it has an undeniable (if hard to pin down) rock sensibility about it. Griffin’s vocals are mixed right out front, allowing listeners to follow along in his story-songs without straining their ears. On the gentle “Ode to Bobbie Gentry,” Griffin makes the observation that “no one ever comes to no good in the show-biz world,” but the fact that he’s making albums like this strongly suggests otherwise. “Blue Yodel No. 12 & 35” is a bluegrass romp, but one that’s fun and free of artifice; even an avowed non-grasser such as this writer can’t be helped but drawn in by the lighthearted lyric set against a familiar melodic structure. Maybe it’s purely coincidental (and maybe not), but “Circle Bar” is vaguely reminiscent of Tom Rush‘s reading of Joni Mitchell‘s similarly-titled “The Circle Game.”

Griffin’s gentle mandolin plucking is at the center of “Between the General and the Grave,” and some melancholy fiddle work helps create a fragile ambience for this tale of war. Perhaps the most interesting track on The Trick is to Breathe, “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show” is also the track that sounds the most like The Long Ryders. This fanciful rethink of an imagined conversation between the King and Gladys Presley is warm and sentimental, painting a portrait of Elvis when he was young and relatively innocent (“I’ll still be your son when all is done”). Griffin’s Elvis conveys some hard-earned wisdom to his mother: “Mama, never party after the show.” Musically, it’s a cousin to “Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home,” from The Long Ryders’ 1987 LP Two Fisted Tales. Whatever its provenance, it’s a delight.

“Everywhere” is the album’s longest track, and it waits until more than halfway through to change up the arrangement. But it’s worth the wait, with some wonderful close harmony vocal work. A reinvention of the sixties folk-rock classic “Get Together” is nearly unrecognizable, but in Griffin’s capable bluegrass-centric hands, the old adage “a good song is a good song” is proved yet again. With its fade-in and fade-out, the brief, clanging instrumental “Front Porch Fandango” sounds for all the world like a spontaneous jam that happened to get caught on tape; more of it would be even better.

“Punk Rock Club” is a bizarre – yet enthusiastically welcomed – left turn on The Trick is to Breathe. On this spoken-word track, Griffin recites a collection of comments, perhaps from selected audience members. In their most deadpan voices, Griffin and his friends give us lines such as, “Why is the singer so angry?” and “Why does the drummer hit so hard?” This piss-take of rock’s poseur tendencies is very knowing, and very, very funny. The crosstalk near the track’s end is reminiscent of some of the experiments Robert Fripp did with The Roches on his The League of Gentlemen album.

The gentle guitar picking on “Who’s Got a Broken Heart” finds Griffin with both feet in singer/songwriter territory. He reaches deep and pulls out a more nuanced vocal than is typical, and subtle cello sawing adds the perfect accompaniment. The three-quarter time story-song “We’ve Run Out of Road” feels like the kind of song Willie Nelson comes up with at his best. Griffin’s careful arrangement touches help the song strike the perfect balance between slick and down-home.

Griffin wraps up the stellar album with “I’ll Forget You Very Well,” a high-speed bluegrass tune that riffs on tried-and-true phrases and lyrical snippets that overtly reference Bob Dylan and The Beatles (“No Direction Home,” “I Saw Her Standing There,”) all put to clever, smile-eliciting use.

The Trick is to Breathe is a start-to-finish triumph.

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part One

Monday, July 14th, 2014

The in-box here at Musoscribe World Headquarters is overflowing once again, thanks in no small part to my focusing on other matters (including my recent move and impending nuptials) in addition to keeping up my reviewing schedule. So here’s the first in another series of shorter-than-usual reviews. All of these albums were worth my time; they may well be worth yours as well. Dig.

Cowboy – Reach for the Sky
I’ve been meaning to cover this one for awhile. A reissue of a 1971 album originally released on Capricorn Records, Reach for the Sky rates notice as one of the label’s first signings; Cowboy got their deal with Phil Walden‘s label on the strength of a strong recommendation from one Duane Allman. The album is mellow, tuneful country rock, but (thankfully) you’re not likely to mistake this north Florida group for The Eagles. Allman associate Johnny Sandlin produced the album in a clean, unadorned, intimate style, and that approach perfectly suits the warm and friendly tunes.

Scott Schinder‘s liner notes tell the story of this modest group, and (unusually for a Real Gone Music release) the lyrics are printed in the booklet. Most of the gentle, harmony-laden tunes are written by (guitarists) Scott Boyer or Tommy Talton, but a couple are composed or co-written by piano/multi-instrumentalist Bill Pillmore, who today happens to live here in Asheville. He’s also my piano tuner; the world certainly is a small place. I saw a vinyl copy of this in a local record store just a couple of weeks ago; I might go snag it and ask for an autograph next time the apartment grand gets a tuning.

Tommy Bolin – Whirlwind
Though he lived until just past his twenty-fifth birthday, Tommy Bolin left behind an impressive body of work. Most notable as the guitarist who (a) took Joe Walsh‘s place in The James Gang and (b) replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, Bolin left behind a recorded legacy shows that his style and ability transcended the hard rock of those bands. He released two solo albums in the 70s, and a long list of posthumous live and compilation discs have been released, mostly since the turn of the 21st century.

His catalog, then, bears some similarities to that of Jimi Hendrix: seemingly there’s a push to release every note the man every committed to tape. That said, the quality of the new 2CD set Whirlwind is impressive and consistent. The eighteen tracks on this collection run the gamut from unfinished demo recordings to polished, why-wasn’t-this-released quality. The sequencing is seemingly haphazard, jumping around the various phases of Bolin’s career., but that won’t diminish the enjoyment of the set. Some of the music is meat’n'potatoes rock; some of it is much more ambitious. What most all tracks share is lead guitar work that manages to be both tasteful and flashy. The styles run from fusion to hard rock to gentle acoustic work, with some exploratory jamming tossed in for good measure. Every track here is either a Bolin composition or a Bolin co-write; the man clearly had ideas and energy to burn. An embryonic version of what would become “Marching Powder” on Bolin’s 1975 Teaser LP takes up a big chunk of the second disc; the 26-minute version on Whirlwind (titled “Marching Bag”) is a highlight, and will likely please fans of Hendrix’s later work, which it (in places) recalls. Keen listeners might hear shades of Jeff Beck in there, too, but in the end Bolin was a true original.

The Dramatics – Greatest Slow Jams
Best remembered for their hits “In the Rain,” Hey you, Get Off My Mountain” and “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get” (the first two of which are included on this new compilation), The Stax-Volt soul group’s main stock in trade was what we now (and for awhile now, really) call slow jams. This thematic collection was put together by late-night radio host Kevin “Slow Jammin” James – but of course it was – and may well serve as the soundtrack to your next 70s-themed evening of makin’ love.

The production and arranging on these twelve tracks are smooth and stellar; the Detroit band’s tight harmony is expertly backed by top-notch instrumentation. The band’s arrangers had a keen sense of the value of quiet; on numbers like the supremely melodramatic “In the Rain,” the audio shade and light take a relatively straightforward tune and make it into one for the ages.

Those looking for detailed information about the group and their music are advised to look elsewhere; the compiler of Greatest Slow Jams figures that (unlike me) you probably won’t be sitting around scanning the booklet while these tunes are spinning. Get busy, and enjoy. Greatest Slow Jams may only showcase one side of the Dramatics’ abilities, but it’s a damn fine side.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Album Review: Lone Justice – This is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

One of the most enduring characteristics of 80s “alternative” music was the cross-fertilization between country and rock. This 80s variant rocked harder than earlier efforts by The Byrds and/or The Flying Burrito Brothers, and was exemplified by a number of excellent bands. The Long Ryders, The Blasters, Jason and the Scorchers, BoDeans and Lone Justice crafted some of the era’s best country-rock. Part of the success of these band was down to their imbuing their songs with a punk sensibility. By the time of Lone Justice’s 1985 self-titled debut, they had fallen prey (to some degree) to the slickness that a major label deal often wrought.

But two years earlier, the band cut a self-produced, live-in-the-studio demo tape that would showcase what they really sounded like. Omnivore Recordings has unearthed these tapes and pointedly titled them This is Lone Justice. There’s much more county and less rock here. Maria McKee‘s unaffected vocals ring true, and the playing is ace. Unreformed rock fans might not dig the clip-clop drumming of Don Heffington, but the originals (joined by covers of “Jackson” and Merle Haggard‘s “Working Man’s Blues”) are strong material that show why the band earned a record deal.

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule last week and this week – you wouldn’t believe me if I told you – my posts will be a bit shorter than typical. Once the dust settles, my normal wordy posting will recommence.

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Album Review: Various — 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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