Archive for the ‘r&b’ Category

Album Review: The Small Faces — There Are But Four Small Faces

Friday, September 5th, 2014

History has a way of playing tricks on us. How many of us American fans of Beach Boys music remember that Pet Sounds was – upon its original release – considered something of a commercial failure? The album’s subsequent elevation into the Pantheon of great albums has caused us to forget that inconvenient bit of trivia.

So, too, do many of us – and I’m first thinking of myself here – fail to recall that as impressive a body of work as they created, The Small Faces were not hit makers on the US charts. Chalk it up to any of several factors: “they were too British” is a common explanation. They themselves in interviews have opined that their lack of touring stateside had a good deal to do with it.

No matter. The music they created is filled with charms. And with the benefit of hindsight and context, it’s very much of a piece with the best of the era’s rock, and doubtless influenced those other artists who did hear it.

The group’s 1967 album There Are But Four Small Faces may well be the group’s most accessible entry point for the uninitiated. The following year’s legendary Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake is arguably even better, yet at the same time more idiosyncratic, giving rise to those “too British” sentiments. But on There Are But Four Small Faces, the quartet’s brand of rhythm and blues-influencd rock meshes nicely with Summer of Love styles and sentiments. From the memorable “it’s all too beautiful” refrain of “Itchycoo Park” to Kenney Jones‘ phase-shifter-treated drum fills on the same tune, the album is that rarest of creatures: very much of its time, yet somehow timeless. The stomping r&b of “Talk to You” – featuring some lovely piano figures from Ian McLagan – is a near perfect balance of finely-tuned subtlety and uncompromising rock. Throughout the twelve-track album – now reissued on vinyl alongside a 2CD version that features stereo and (DJ promo) mono mixes and bonus tracks – the Small Faces assert their right to the label “best British band you’re least familiar with.”

“I’m Only Dreaming” utilizes gentle piano and vibes, and finds Steve Marriott leaning in a melodramatic crooner direction, but the song’s dynamics include plenty of space for the vocalist to belt it out as well; that shift in tone inside a song was a hallmark of the group, and served to showcase all of their strentghts within the confines of a three-minute (or so) pop tune. And echoes of that style can be heard in subsequent material from The Marmalade and Grapefruit, two of the many acts greatly influenced by The Small Faces. (The fact that you may well not have heard of those groups is yet further testament to The Small Faces limited chimerical reach in the 60s).

“I Feel Much Better” weds a twee “do waddy waddy / shang a lang” vocal chant to some thunderous bottom-end work from bassist Ronnie Lane; the group seemingly had an endless knack for melding the sweet and sour, the light and the heavy.

The albums’ song most well-known (to Americans) is “Tin Soldier.” McLagan’s memorable electric piano introduction, followed by an overdubbed organ, joined then by Marriott’s crunchy lead and the rest of the band: all these together would be enough to render the tune a stone classic. But it develops from there, showcasing the ace riffage and vocal-chord-shredding performance from Marriott and his band mates.

Perhaps it’s mild overstatement to compare a brief tune such as “Get Yourself Together” to the mini-operas Pete Townshend was writing – see: “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” – but the variety put into Small Faces tunes such as this often rivaled the intricacy of late 60s songs from The Who.

“Show Me the Way” (not the later Peter Frampton tune) is built around some very baroque harpsichord work from McLagan; it’s the most of-its-time sounding track on There Are But Four Small Faces, but it’s an understated gem nonetheless.

Owing to its clear drug-taking lyrical references, “Here Come the Nice” was a controversial tune in the UK. But that didn’t keep it from being a great tune. And “Green Circles” is reminiscent of some of the Yardbirds’ late-period pop experiments; again that combination of heavy rock and light-classic influenced pop is a winning recipe.

The album wraps with “(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me,” ensuring that There Are But Four Small Faces is a no-filler album, itself a rarity in the mid 60s. The CD reissue version’s inclusion of the mono mixes – designed for maximum impact on AM radio – are enjoyable in their own way, but as the stereo album is relatively free of wide-panning stereo gimmickry, the two mixes are not a world away form one another. The CD set comes in a very nice hardbound book, plus a well-put-together booklet of photos and essays. But there’s something about the vinyl. Unlike me, you might not need both. But if you appreciate any of the best rock the mid 60s had to offer, you need at least one.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 4

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

This set of five 100-word reviews focuses on new music, some of which is from familiar names; others might be new to you. All are worthwhile and enthusiastically recommended.

Murali Coryell – Restless Mind
This son of legendary fusion guitarist Larry Coryell is charting a musical path quite different from his dad: he plays tasty blues with a clear melodic rock sensibility and a well-developed playful sense of humor (see the Sammy Hagar-ish “Sex Maniac”). Fans of Robert Cray and Eric Johnson will dig this well-produced (but not slick) album. Not as fiery as Steve Ray Vaughan, this guitarist prefers the slow burn. The disc features a nice cover of Marvin Gaye‘s “Let’s Get it On.” Bonus points to Coryell for titling his album with a sly reference to one of his pop’s records.

Worldline – Compass Sky
Compass Sky is the kind of music they rarely make any more. Worldline creates alluring melodies with that hint of melancholy you might find in a Pink Floyd record (or a Porcupine Tree CD). Brian Turner‘s synth lines don’t aim to dazzle as much as they help carry the song along, and Andrew Schatzberg‘s strong vocals bear the influence of most any great band of the 70s you can think of, but they’re more classic (in a good way) than retro. The record’s strong start to finish. They’re from my hometown (Asheville) but sadly I’ve yet to see them live.

The Verve Pipe – Overboard
I can almost hear you thinking, “weren’t these guys a 90s band?” Yes: they scored a few chart singles in the second half of that decade, but haven’t charted since 2001. As is too often the case, the music is better than the chart performance suggests. While the album artwork is derivative (Storm Thorgerson? Bill EvansUndercurrent?), the music is fresh. Only leader/producer/songwriter Brian Vander Ark remains from the 1990s lineup. Their breezy, heartland-styled rock is vaguely reminiscent of fellow midwesterners Semisonic; the melancholy “Crash Landing” is nearly anthemic in its arrangement, but there’s lots of varied texture throughout. Recommended.

Global Noize – Sly Reimagined: The Music of Sly and The Family Stone
Sylvester Stewart didn’t fare too well on his most recent comeback/self-tribute, but there’s no denying the strength of his 1967-73 material. This aggregation, put together by producer/keyboardist Jason Miles, shows the enduring power of Stone’s songs, interpreted here for modern audiences by a long list of players. The marquee names here are Family Stone drummer Greg Errico (on four cuts), Nona Hendryx (lead vocal on three cuts), Roberta Flack (sultry vocals on “It’s a Family Affair”) and – for the young folks – turntablist DJ Logic. Sly Reimagined is the next best thing to the originals, and that’s saying something.

Ian McLagan & the Bump Band – United States
Former Small Faces and Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian McLagan told me about this forthcoming album last year when I interviewed him about the Small Faces box set. Long having relocated to Austin TX, London-born McLagan shows influence of American musical forms more than British ones. A New Orleans flavor is shot through his bluesy tunes; using the widest interpretation of the term, the music on United States can reasonably be termed Americana. Mac’s always-engaging keyboard work (acoustic and electric pianos, organ) are the highlight but never steal the show: this really is a band, not some guy with faceless sidemen.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 1

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Some familiar names and some true obscurities are highlighted in this, the first of five sets of five capsule reviews. This week I’ll review 25 albums, arbitrarily limiting myself to exactly one hundred words each.

Gene Rains – Far Away Lands: The Exotic Music of Gene Rains
Exotica – that early 60s genre featuring wide-panned stereo, vibes, “jungle” percussion and all manner of whoops, bird calls and such – was a big seller; the genre’s two primary exponents were Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. The lesser-known Gene Rains cut three albums that are in the same league; all are long out of print and rare. This new compilation from Real Gone Music collects the best from those LPs, and adds an excellent new liner note essay from Randy Poe (and a lovely cheesecake cover featuring MeduSirena). This disc should be considered essential for fans of the genre.

Pete Seeger – Sing Out America! The Best of Pete Seeger
There seem to have been at least sixty compilations that have attempted to provide some sort of overview to the musical legacy of folk master and American treasure Pete Seeger. Some are long out of print; other remain available. Well, here’s another one. Sing Out America! features fifty tracks, variously credited to The Almanac Singers (an aggregation that also included Woody Guthrie), The Weavers, and Seeger solo. One can’t assail the quality of the music herein, but lack of liner notes and/or discographical info (recording date?) means that this set is a great listen, but unsatisfying as a historical document.

Peggy Lipton – The Complete Ode Recordings
Those of a certain age remember Peggy Lipton as a star of TV’s The Mod Squad (“One black, one white…one blonde!”). But they may well be surprised to learn Lipton had a recording career. And unlike some artists-turned-singers (see: Clint Eastwood), the recordings Lipton released on her self-titled 1968 LP and a handful of later singles show her to be a commanding vocalist. The nineteen tasteful Lou Adler-produced sides (including four previously-unreleased songs) owe a lot to the Laura Nyro school. Lipton composed a number of the tunes, and they hold up nicely alongside readings of classics like “Stoney End.”

Eric Clapton – Behind the Sun
Some insist that Eric Clapton should have hung up his guitar after 1970′s Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs. Clapton didn’t often rock very hard after that (the brief Cream reunion notwithstanding). This 1985 album – newly reissued on SACD – has its rocking moments, though it more often veers toward breezy, easy listening. Behind the Sun is easily identified as a product of its era: Simmons drum sounds abound; prominent synthesizer sounds are equally dated. In places it’s reminiscent of Roger Waters‘ 1984 The Pro and Cons of Hitchhiking (on which Clapton played). Not bad, but definitely not great.

Various Artists – Chicago Bound: Chess Blues, R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll
England-based Fantastic Voyage has carved an excellent niche in the world of compilation albums. Their thoughtful collections have provided tidy surveys of long-lost music, more often than not from the USA. The legendary Chess label was home to a staggering list of classic artists, and this 3CD set brings together some of the best sides from artists including Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. It also highlights the work of lesser-known acts including J. B. Lenoir (“Eisenhower Blues”) and Bobby Saxton (“Trying to Make a Living”). Chicago Bound is up to Fantastic Voyage’s typical high level of quality.

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Album Review: Bobby Patterson – I Got More Soul!

Monday, July 28th, 2014

If you happened upon a spin of I Got More Soul!, the new album from Bobby Patterson, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s the latest in young new recording artists playing an authentic 21st century brand of classic southern soul. Patterson name-checks Johnnie Taylor, BB King and other soul/blues/r&b giants in the title track, a funky groove that nails the Stax, Ardent, Muscle Shoals and Hi studio vibes of yore, and the band is in the pocket, providing for each of the ten tracks the sort of backing that fits the songs’ moods perfectly.

The thing is, Bobby Patterson is 70, and I Got More Soul! was cut a nine-hour drive southwest of Memphis, in Austin TX’s Arlyn Studios. And Patterson (who co-produced the album with Zach Ernst of The Relatives, who back Patterson) is a journeyman soulster who released a tasty string of singles in the period 1969-1976 on smallish Jetstar and Paula Records, and cut the now-impossibly-rare It’s Just a Matter of Time LP in 1972.

On I Got More Soul!, Patterson serves up songs that put his voice – an amazingly youthful instrument – right out front. On the deep funk of “Can You Feel Me?” Patterson assumes the persona of a tough-talkin’ dude, not unlike early hip hop vocalists whose tunes were often about how hip they were. And in Patterson’s capable hands and voice, the song leaves no doubt that Patterson truly is the man. Shades of Sly Stone (whose “Poet” gets a knowing reading from Patterson) and Little Willie John are shot through this collection of eight originals and two covers.

Patterson belts it out when he needs to, but he brings it way down low for semi-spoken bits, proving that a skilled and effective vocalist can command attention without having to shout. The funky “It’s Hard to Get Back In” sounds like the best blaxploitation film theme you’ve never heard, a streetwise swagger of a tune with charts that nail the Memphis Horns vibe to the wall.

The album’s no-frills production never calls attention to itself; the sound is clean but never slick, and the band’s rhythm section and the horn players do most of the musical heavy lifting; the keyboards and guitar are subtle and used more sparingly. The net effect of the arrangements is to provide sympathetic backing for the star of the show. On the smoky and alluring “The Entertainer Pt.1,” Patterson tells us he’s in the house while what sounds like the percussion setting on a 70s organ lays down the beat. The tasty electric piano backing behind Patterson’s sung/spoken vocal feels like vintage Donny Hathaway. “I don’t care if you’re on the hood or in the trunk,” Patterson tells us, “Ain’t no way you can get away from my funk.” He truly is The Entertainer. And when Patterson lights a torcher as on the Otis Redding-styled “I Know How It Feels,” you’ll believe that he really does know. And the gospel-flavored “Everybody’s Got a Little Devil in Their Soul” proves that this soul veteran knows how to testify. Open your ears to the deliciously varied I Got More Soul! and Bobby Peterson will make you a believer.

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Album Review: The “5″ Royales – Soul & Swagger

Monday, June 16th, 2014

There are a select few acts in musical history that didn’t sell a ton of records, yet exerted influence far beyond what their chart action might suggest. Among the most celebrated examples are The Velvet Underground and Big Star. Both groups have had said about them – apocryphally or otherwise – that they sold few records, but that everyone who bought one went out and formed a band.

That short list should also include The “5” Royales (the quote marks are part of the name). Though their notoriety is largely confirmed to blues and r&b enthusiasts, the group can count among their fans no less than Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MG’s fame, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and Jimmie Vaughan. The “5” Royales’ specialty was a bluesy, often gospel-infused vocal style not miles removed from The Platters, Drifters and Coasters. But in addition to some excellent, soulful close harmony work, the band had within its ranks a secret weapon: guitarist Lowman Pauling. His direct, compact and effective leads were an integral part of the group’s sound.

A new 5CD set (naturally, there are five!) collects all of The Winston-Salem NC-based group’s material, from their earliest 78s in their 1951 gospel phase (when they were known as The Royal Sons Quintet) through their later material. The group’s unique sound was a synthesis of blues, early rock’n'roll, doo-wop, rhythm and blues and what would later be known as soul.

The new set (on Rock Beat Records) titled Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales 1951-1967 is lavishly packaged in a sturdy hardcover book roughly the size of a stack of 45rpm singles; that’s fitting, as The “5” Royales existed in an era when the single was king, when album-length releases weren’t yet the standard. A detailed and deeply researched history and discography includes details including personnel on each track, release date and matrix number.

The set is strewn with gems; The “5” Royales were so versatile and accomplished that each listener will likely have his or her own favorite tracks. The blues-based “Thirty Second Lover” (from 1957) is as good as anything that came out that year; it sounds a bit like The Dixie Hummingbirds backed by Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana and Bill Black. Pauling tears up the fretboard on “Say It,” and their version of “Dedicated to the One I Love” is miles away from the Mamas & the Papas version.

Some of the material features saxophone (in those days, as often as not, sax – not guitar – was the lead instrument of choice for r&b sides), and swings in a manner a few steps advanced from – but not wholly unlike – Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five. A bit of gritty guitar distortion crops in from time to time, but it’s nicely balanced by the soul-stirring close harmony work of the group.

As noted above, The “5” Royales were a singles outfit. They did cut a few albums of material, but not until the CD era did any sort of thoughtful compilation of their best work appear. But now in 2014, no less than two compilations have been released. A 2CD set called The Definitive “5” Royales: Home of the Blues & Beyond is a good and thoughtful survey. But the Rock Beat set includes all of the material the group released 1951-1967, liberally sprinkled with rare, unreleased and alternate takes. And if you’re gonna dive into the work of The “5” Royales, you ought to do it right. Thanks to its comprehensive nature and the care with which is was assembled (a few early sides excepted, the sound quality is stellar), Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales is the one to buy.

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Capsule Reviews: Still More from Real Gone Music

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Wrapping up the series (for now, at least), here’s the last of four entries presenting short looks at recently-released reissues and/or compilations from Real Gone Music.

Vanilla Fudge – The Complete ATCO Singles
Most rock fans with any sort of memory are familiar with Vanilla Fudge, and they know the band’s deceptively simple approach to interpreting the songs of others: up the melodrama quotient, and in equal measure, slow down the tempo. Sometimes it worked very well on both commercial and creative levels: the band’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is a stone classic (and there ain’t nuthin’ I can do about it). The approach generally lent itself best to longer workouts, like “Shotgun,” where ideas (such as they existed) had a chance to unfold. Within the context of the much briefer single, sometimes the power was lost (as far as subtlety, there was precious little of that to lose). As a result, the single edit of the Supremes cover is very good, but not great like the longer edit.

Other times, the approach feels overwrought, even within the confines of a (two-sided, two-part) single, such as the “Fudge-ized” (their term; I prefer “Fudge-ified”) reading of Donovan‘s “Season of the Witch.” Some gems do exist on this collection of all the band’s 45s: while it doesn’t best the original Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra duet/weirdathon, “Some Velvet Morning” is suitably over the top. A couple tracks from the band’s 80s reformation try to update the Fudge sound for the MTV era. Hint: it didn’t work. Verdict: good, but listeners are better served by picking up the first album.

Eddie Kendricks – Love Keys
It must be said that reissuing this album is a curious move. Though Eddie Kendricks achieved great fame as a lead vocalist in The Temptations, and enjoyed some hits during his string of nine solo LPs on Motown, once he left Berry Gordy‘s label, he stopped having hits. More troubling was the fact that his voice was largely shot, thanks to a lifelong chain smoking habit that would eventually result in the lung cancer that would end his life. Love Keys was the sole album Kendricks cut for Atlantic, and it neither charted nor yielded a hit single. Moreover, it’s a significant departure from the style of his earlier efforts.

But it does remain the final full-length from the man who gave us so many hits, so for that reason alone it deserves a hearing. This Muscle Shoals-flavored album heads in a southern soul direction, but the arrangement and production scream “1981,” and from where I’m sitting, that’s rarely a good thing. Still, any Kendricks is worthwhile, so if you can listen past the cheesy synth lines and discofied beats that crisscross perfectly good Muscle Shoals horn charts, Love Keys is…okay.

The Ohio Express – Beg, Borrow & Steal: The Complete Cameo Recordings
When most people hear this band’s name, they immediately think of the whole Kasenetz/Katz bubblegum scene. But this here is an actual album, not a collection of singles. And it’s from the period when The Ohio Express aimed for what we’d nowadays term a garage rock sound, not a bubblegum one. Once the railway sound effects subside, the title track – a tune that shamelessly rips off at least three other songs I can think of offhand – sets the tone for most of the rest of the disc. To call the album faceless is unfair, but the fact that two completely different bands (with only slight personnel overlap) contributed to it isn’t all that sonically obvious.

Nearly every song on Beg, Borrow and Steal sounds like another song: “Had to Be Me” is a ringer for The Choir‘s “It’s Cold Outside,” and “Let Go” is a thin rewrite of “Hi Ho Silver.” This all leads one to wonder snarkily if the record’s title doesn’t identify it as some sort of concept album. Still, originality wasn’t the goal; fun and commercial success was. Overall, though, the long-out-of-print Beg, Borrow & Steal documents the band’s early guise(s), and is a worthwhile purchase for fans of the genre.

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Capsule Reviews: And Yet Three More from Real Gone Music

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Here’s the third of four collections of brief reviews of recently-released reissues and/or compilations from Real Gone Music.

Dr. John, The Night Tripper – GRIS-gris
Dr. John (aka Mac Rebbenack) was a well-known fixture on the New Orleans music scene long before he cut this, his debut album in 1968. And while he’d later enjoy commercial success with his 1973 single, “Right Place Wrong Time,” this album makes no concessions to the marketplace. As Richie Unterberger‘s liner notes mention, Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun is reputed to have asked, “How can we market this boogaloo crap?” It’s a weird, spooky gumbo of cajun, voodoo, jazz and funk styles, all filtered through a thick, (hard-) druggy haze. The audio quality on some tracks – notably “Danse Kalinda Ba Doom” makes it sound as if the mics were all in the next room over from the musicians (who sound as if they’re dancing over a cauldron while playing).

Definitely weird stuff and not for the faint of heart, GRIS-gris is nonetheless a historically important musical document. For a bit of fun, compare Dr. John’s reading of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” (sic) with the one cut live by Humble Pie. If you’re open to the sonic equivalent of a bad trip sprinkled liberally with Louisiana hot sauce, this is the ticket.

Irma Thomas – Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion Album
Speaking of New Orleans, here’s a previously unreleased cache of recordings from the vocalist known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.” Irma Thomas had cut a pair of albums for Imperial in the mid 1960s, and even earlier (1960) enjoyed a brief chart presence with “(You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man.” And in the early part of the 70s, she was signed to Atlantic associated label Cotillion, for whom she cut fifteen songs. Only two were released: “Full Time Woman” and its b-side, “She’s Taken My Part.” For reasons that seemed to have to do with changing popular tastes, none of the other material was ever released.

But once again, Real Gone Music comes to rescue, and the results are quality stuff, very much in line with what Aretha Franklin was doing in those days. David Nathan‘s liner notes tell the story in rich detail.

Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles – The Complete Atlantic Sides Plus
If you like your r&b female vocal a little gritter and soulful than The Supremes, then if you don’t already know about Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles, you owe it to yourself to check out this comprehensive set. Acts like The Bluebelles were always focused more on singles than album-length releases, so with this collection – forty tracks including all the single releases the group had on Atlantic, plus some other scattered gems including several previously-unreleased cuts – listeners get a good overview of what they were all about.

Despite their efforts, not a single one of these tunes (other than “All Or Nothing” b/w “Over the Rainbow”) dented the pop charts. Of course once they’d altered their approach and shortened their name to Labelle, they’d hit it big with 1974′s “Lady Marmalade.” But these earlier sides – dating 1965 to 1969 – are quite good and have sadly been long overlooked.

Still more on the way.

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Capsule Reviews: Three More from Real Gone Music

Friday, June 6th, 2014

Continuing from yesterday’s collection, here are more quick looks at recently-released reissues and/or compilations from Real Gone Music.

Toomorrow: Original Soundtrack Album
Seeing the names Harry Saltzman (of James Bond film fame) and Don Kirshner (of, well, Don Kirshner fame/infamy) emblazoned across the cover of this 1970 curio suggests we’re in for something that might just be a little on the bandwagon-jumping, pandering side. What Toomorrow is, is the soundtrack from an obscure musical move that purports to tell the tale of a fictional group of the same name. But Head this is not.

Musically, Toomorrow-the-group aims for a Cowsills-style sunshine pop sound – with one Olivia Newton-John at the front – and they more or less deliver. Gurgling analog synth leads and some tryin’-a-bit-too-hard ersatz rock (“Taking Our Own Sweet Time”) sounds like The Hardy Boys (yeah, there was such a musical group) or a freshly-pressed, less-zany Banana Splits. It’s interesting to hear ONJ backed by a nominally rock-oriented band, but lyrics like “running around like a chicken without a head” make it tough to take it all too seriously. Still, it’s not bad overall, and beats the hell out of the Grease soundtrack or Newton-John’s duets with ELO and The Tubes in Xanadu.

Troyka – Troyka
Cotillion Records was initially a soul/r&b imprint, part of the Atlantic Records stable, though as it developed, heavier, more rock-oriented acts (including Emerson, Lake & Palmer) were signed to the label. But perhaps nothing was farther-out on Cotillion than this record from 1970. Allow me to try describing Troyka: think first of Blue Cheer. Now dial back the distortion a notch or two, but keep the gravelly vocals. Now sit down, because we’re going to add some Eastern European ethnic flavor to the music. Greek? Russian? It’s hard to be sure where exactly this trio was trying to go musically – other than “out there” – but the album is all over the place.

The gentle instrumental “Early Morning” sounds like a less adventurous Spirit, while “Life’s O.K.” sounds – and quite possibly is – a four-minute jam/tune-up during which the tape just happened to be rolling (Hey, let’s use that!”). From the wonderfully bent era in which any two (or three, or six) genres could be slapped together in hopes of making something new, Troyka represented a blind alley, but nonetheless an interesting one. Worth a listen, but know that this until-now-impossibly-rare album is most certainly not the Great Lost Album of 1970.

Professor Longhair – The Last Mardi Gras
Occasionally, when an album is being recorded, those involved have a sense that it’s an event of historic proportions. Not in a hubristic, aren’t-we-great kind of way, but in more of a “this is really important” sort of realization. As Albert Grossman‘s original liner notes (reproduced graphically and in larger, easier-to-read text) attest, the recording of The Last Mardi Gras was just such an event. New Orleans’ premier and legendary pianist is captured on this set (originally a 2LP package, now reissued as a 2CD set) in his element: before an enthusiastic, hometown New Orleans crowd at Tiptina’s. Eighteen cuts survey the man’s repertoire, backed by six local musicians who “get” it.

The Professor makes Hank Williams‘ “Jambalaya” his own, and his covers of blues (“Got My Mojo Workin”) and pop (“Rum and Coca Cola”) standards deftly bend songs into his style. Though Grossman’s liners suggest some dissatisfaction with certain elements of the sessions, most listeners will find little if anything to complain about. Pricey when you can even find it on original vinyl, RGM’s straight reissue adds nothing and takes nothing away, instead presenting the original album in excellent fidelity (no mention is made of a 2014 remaster, but then perhaps Cosimo Matassa‘s mixing and Goldman’s production didn’t need improving upon).

More yet to come.

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Capsule Reviews: Three from Real Gone Music

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Because there’s so much of a backlog here at Musoscribe’s palatial new World HQ ( I moved recently), here’s the first of at least three collections of short reviews. These are all reissues or compilations on the Real Gone Music label, renowned (along with Rock Beat, Omnivore, Numero and a select few others) for their thoughtful archiving/crate-digging approach to music releases.

Samuel Jonathan Johnson – My Music
The second you see the cover art and typography, you know that this is a late-seventies major-label r&b release. And when the needle drops (or the disc spins) and you hear those smooth string machines and funk-poppin’ bass lines – not to mention the female chorus’ intro of “Music…music” – there’s no doubt you’re in smoove r&b land. But as the style goes, this lone release (the reissue’s liner notes, penned by Johnson’s daughter Yolanda Johnson explain why there was never a follow-up) is pretty fine.

Lots of interesting keyboard textures throughout, too. Nine of the ten tracks are originals, and the sole cover (a highly orchestrated reading of Bacharach/David‘s “What the World Needs Now is Love”) is super-slow in an Isaac Hayes mode. “Sweet Love” – more or less an extended coda to that cover – ups the funk factor.

Bettye Swann – The Complete Atlantic Recordings
Another in the line of where’d-they-go recording artists, Swann began the process of dropping off the pop culture radar screen after signing with Atlantic Records. She had previously scored some hits on Money and then Capitol – releasing three albums – but for whatever reason, once she went with the mighty Atlantic, the hits stopped coming. The quality of her music certainly flies in the face of her lack of chart success: the Atlantic tracks are strong, and typical of the tastefully arranged, Supremes-influenced soul of the era. Five singles reached the lower rungs of the r&b charts, but beyond those, most of the music as collected here went largely unheard on its initial release.

Swann subsequently left the music business and became a Jehovah’s Witness (when the latter occurs, the former often accompanies, as Witnesses are encouraged not to call attention to themselves…except when…y’know). Five tracks cut in Nashville in the mid 70s that never got released are included, and they’re as good as anything else on this fine collection of previously overlooked music. Especially recommended is Swann’s funked-up reading of Elvis‘ hit “Suspicious Minds.” Charles Waring‘s excellent liners tell Swann’s story in engaging detail.

Smith – A Group Called Smith / Minus-Plus
This band’s reading of the classic “Baby It’s You” was a monster hit in 1969, and big things were predicted for the future of the group fronted by powerful, expressive vocalist Gayle McCormick. The group’s first album included that single (arranged by Del Shannon) and featured nine other cuts that showcased the instrumental prowess of the band as well as McCormick’s Janis Joplin-styled pipes. She wasn’t the only lead vocalist in the group, though: when Rich Cliburn or Jerry Carter took the lead, Smith sounded in places a bit like The Band fronted by Three Dog Night, and in other places like Jefferson Airplane.

Inspired covers (“Tell Him No” [sic], “Who Do You Love?” I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” “The Last Time,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together”) completely reinvent familiar songs as the band makes them their own. For the group’s second album (both are included on RGM’s single-disc reissue) the band relied more upon original compositions, and both of the first album’s male singers had left. Greater reliance on horn charts makes Minus-Plus a little less special than the debut, and the record has more of a session-musician feel to it, but it’s still quite enjoyable. Richie Unterberger‘s brief liner notes provide some history and context.

More capsule reviews in the next installment.

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Book Review: Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

One need not dig very deep into the collected history of popular music to discover tales of artists who’ve been ripped off, gotten the short end of the stick, been robbed or gotten screwed. And for a long list of reasons – many of which have to do with our country’s history of racism – African-Americans share a disproportionate amount of the shelf space of those artists. Not to say that white artists didn’t get cheated regularly too, especially in the 1950s and 60s.

Huey “Piano” Smith is, in some ways, just another name on that long and shameful list. His authorship of some of pop music’s treasured titles – “Sea Cruise,” “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” “Don’t you Just Know It” and a handful of others – is shared (in a legal sense) with others, and the saga of the ownership of his songs makes for a sad and demoralizing tale.

That tale forms the basis of John Wirt‘s new book, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues. Charting Smith’s life and career form his beginning in New Orleans, Wirt paints a picture of a man seeming all too ready to place in his trust in the latest of a long line of so-called advocates — lawyers, business people, managers, promoters – each of which (the author makes plain) takes his cut and then pretty much splits. Repeatedly, Smith sours on said advocate, and then the legal machinations being anew.

And each time, nearly without fail, things work out in favor of the other guy. Wirt’s book is not an upbeat one: the book reads like a relentless parade of bad decisions, misplaced faith, and unscrupulous characters. And for his part, Smith doesn’t seem to be the sharpest guy around: he gets suspicious of those who might (might, I say) have his best interests at heart, while remaining unflinchingly trusting of those who (the story suggests) stand ready to exploit him at every turn.

Often Smith seems to get in the way of his own success. He comes off in the book as someone who can’t quite decide if he wants success in music or not (though it’s clear at every turn that he wants and deserves respect, something else entirely). Burned far too many times, the man largely gave up on his music career in favor of a life centered around his marriage and devotion to his particular brand of religion (he’s a devout Jehovah’s Witness). Over and over in the story, Wirt chronicles what at first looks like a good opportunity for Smith to work his way back to a secure place in the music business. And every time, he’s foiled, either by his own erratic and idiosyncratic (that’s my take, based on a reading of Wirt’s book) approach, or by people out to stick it to him for their own material gain.

The book tends in places to get a bit bogged down with the details (depressing as they are) of Smith’s many dealings with the judicial system, but in fairness to the author, therein lies the meat of the story. The book isn’t as much about music as one might like, but then Smith’s life story is not as much about music as anyone might like.

The story as laid out in Wirt’s book more or less peters out around 2005, and a quick Google search yields little more information about Smith’s current activities beyond the assumption that Smith remains among the living. (Unsurprisingly, there’s no official Huey Smith web site; if there were, no doubt it would be another case of someone else making money off the musician’s name.)

Writ does take pains to sketch out Smith’s importance as a musician and composer, and to quote the many artists who claim him as an influence. Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack) is mentioned and quoted frequently, as he drifts in and out of the periphery of Smith’s story.

In sum, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues is recommended – it’s deeply researched and well-written – but potential readers are warned that Smith’s story is a frustrating, largely unhappy one. At the end of the book, Wirt suggests that Huey “Piano” Smith has come somewhat to terms with his lot in life, having found peace in his religion. The typical reader is unlikely to come away from the book feeling nearly as settled.

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