Archive for the ‘r&b’ Category

Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling Him Back (Part 4)

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: A lot of highly-regarded musicians have named you as an inspiration. David Byrne was instrumental in the first [2001] CD reissue of Inspiration Information. Lenny Kravitz has said great things about your music. And I hear your influence in some of Prince‘s music. Those are just two examples. What do you think about the fact that your body of work – the music you’ve made – has been influential on other artists?

Shuggie Otis: I’m flattered. It’s beyond me what has happened with my music. It’s amazing that my music has touched stars and other artists. It’s even been used in TV commercials. “Strawberry Letter #23,” for example. It’s been sampled so many times, too. The idea has been used in a lot of things, too: they change the notes around, but you still get the idea. And I’m just amazed that I had anything to do with something so big. Because that song is way, way, way bigger than I’ll ever be. When you have a hit song, it’s always gonna be bigger than the person who wrote it. No matter how big the star is, if somebody’s going to be humming that tune during the day, they’re not even thinking about the star.

I wrote the song, and I take credit for that, but I don’t take full credit. Because I feel that I’m channeling music. Apparently, I’m a medium; I realize this more as I get older. I feel like music is something that’s coming through me, and sometimes it’s really quite interesting as it’s happening.

When that happens to you as a writer, you’re usually by yourself. And you’re communicating with someone, because – with the respect that you’re writing words, you’re saying them out loud. And so at times you’re talking to what seems to be another individual. One or more. You can’t see them, but there’s usually that one spirit that you’re communicating with.

I don’t know what the name of all that is. But music has got to be the biggest healing force in the universe; one of my musicians was telling me that Jimi Hendrix used to say that. I said, “Yeah, I remember that album that Albert Ayler put out, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe [1970].” I’ve always liked that title. And I realized, yes it is! Not only is it a healing force, it is the biggest healing force. And I think a lot of people agree with me.

I love music so much. And to be a part of it, now, it’s something like a new high to me. First of all, you’ve got to get a little success to feel that way. You have to have been, I say, blessed with a chance to feel that feeling where you’re not jealous. Because jealousy has to go away – all away – in order to be able to write and play music well. You can’t think about anything but the music. So lately I’ve been playing more music than I ever had before. And it seems to be – it doesn’t seem to be, it is – very therapeutic for me.

And I hope that I can bring that onstage, and be therapeutic for someone who needs it. I don’t feel that I’m going to be some big healer, I just want to go there and have a good time like everybody else. I don’t want to be all serious about Shuggie Otis or his music; I just want to be a part of the crowd.

I always wanted to be separate from the crowd, before. That was a problem. I didn’t know how to relax around people. Now it seems to be much easier. I mean, I did; there is still this big misconception of me. When you’re out for so long, there’s this idea, “Oh, Shuggie? He’s shy. He’s doesn’t like people. He’s afraid. He’s paranoid.” Some of those things were true. But now, for some reason – and like I say, I don’t know why – I’ve chosen to stay alive for another day. I hope!

I’m elated these days, and I don’t feel the need to ever stop being that way. As long as I stay in touch with the music, I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all: music is a natural high. It gets people to laughing and dancing and all kinds of stuff. And they get their minds off of everything that’s bothering them. And if there’s nothing bothering them, then they just keep having a good time.

Life can be worrisome sometimes; I understand that. And I’m trying to relate to people in a much different way. I know that I can, now. Whatever conception I had of myself before, it’s different now. The things that used to bother me, it seems like I’ve gotten over those things. The main thing is to stay alive so I can play music. And music keeps me alive. Music is what I do.

I used to think, “Oh I should have done this or that before.” But it’s a mistake to think about the past. You’ve got to just keep going.

BK: Talking to you now, it really seems that now is your time…

SO: I feel the same way. It’s my time, whatever happens. It’s my time to share the music, if nothing else.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling Him Back (Part 3)

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Shuggie Otis: But the songs kept calling me back. A song would be really good, and I’d think about it, and realize that I have to face whatever it is that’s bothering me about this song. It might be something personal. It’s not not necessarily that the song has anything to do with real life, but what the song is saying. I guess when the album comes out, you’ll know more about what I’m talking about. I’m happy with the songs now.

I was playing the guitar for hours last night, coming up with new ideas; all kinds of stuff. At one point I went and listened to some of the stuff I’m working on. All of the ones that I didn’t want to be on the album are going to be on there after all! I came back around and realized, “These songs sound like my fans would like them.”

But it’s not just my fans I’m thinking about. The songs have to please me first. And that’s what the problem was before: “I don’t want to use that song; it bothers me personally.” I had to detach myself and say, “Wait a minute; forget that. Is the song any good? Do you think somebody else might like it? Forget what it’s saying, because not everybody cares that much about what [lyrics] you’re writing!” If the music’s good, you have to ask yourself, “Will this work? Do you want to put this out?” And I thought it was kind of funny how many times I’d keep shelving these songs. But now, okay, they’re coming out.

Bill Kopp: Where does your music come from? Do you sit down and say, “Okay, time to write a song,” or does it happen some other way?

SO: I can’t do that too well. I can, but I don’t ever accept what comes that way. Because I know it won’t come out they way I’d like. I mean, it has to come to me. Believe it: I’ve come up with ideas that I thought were great – just recently – and then a few weeks go by, and then, “No, that’s one’s going away forever. And that one, too. And that one.” But some of them call you back. And once they come to me, then I’ll stay with them for hours. And days. Weeks, however long it takes.

And I’m trying to step on it now, because I don’t want to hold up the record company and just take my time. That’s not the [goal] at all. What I’m trying to do is work with a quick pace. When I’m in the studio, I pretty much go at it without taking a break. And I’m very, very happy to get into a studio again. Because I had been working out of my home studio. And that’s great, but to get back into a real studio is something extra special for me. That’s something I haven’t done in, I don’t know how many years.

It’s a very special time for me. And I’m just praying that everything goes right. We’re all really excited. I have a band of great musicians, really great guys. We’re happy to be playing together, and to be getting such a great reaction. And I’m not going to let anything get in the way of this. If I can help it, we’re going to just keep on playing. Keep on playing, and don’t think too much about the business. Because focusing more on the business surely does hurt the music.

Before, I had that wrong mindset; I was thinking about, “Oh, how the record companies are treating me bad!” And I couldn’t get past that anger. Now, I think to myself, “It was a natural reaction; you’re a human being.” Because for years I felt for the most part that I wasn’t wanted in the business. And perhaps that was the truth. But you can take something like that and stretch it into a big, crazy notion. It shouldn’t have to run your whole life, but it can affect a person.

So my case was kind of different in that I couldn’t get a record deal even though I was so well-known. Still, it didn’t affect my life in a really bad way; I still had a good time. My life was okay; it wasn’t all as dreary as it might sound. I felt like I had been in the business since I was a kid, with my father, his band rehearsals, and that kind of thing. I was right there with show business even as a little child. So I did feel at the time that they didn’t want me, that my time would come back around. And it did come back around. I look back now, and I think, “Wow. I must have a lot of patience!” I’m very fortunate. And blessed. So I’m just going to try to give back now.

And hopefully there’s no ego trips any more. I’m not saying that I’m all the way there, that I’m perfect. Every day can be a challenge. Maybe every day is a challenge. For me, I see something happening that’s so good. So I don’t let those things bother me.

Click here to continue…

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling him Back (Part 2)

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: You sent demo tapes to many labels, but nothing happened for years, until the reissue of Inspiration Information with the added Wings of Love material. That you finally got the notice you deserve seems to be more than luck. Why do you think you’re getting noticed now after being ignored for so many years? What’s special about now?

Shuggie Otis: I don’t know. I can’t really answer what’s special about it, but life continues to be special to me. I don’t know how to describe it, but I’m very inspired to play music right now. Just like I was in my late teens and early twenties. I’m 61 now. There’s something special about having that kind of enthusiasm, I think. For me, it’s a very good time now. And it hasn’t always been that smooth. Things are much brighter now.

BK: If I had to pick one word to describe the album Inspiration Information to someone who had never heard it, I’d pick the word “quiet.” The album seems like the opposite of the idea of shouting to get someone’s attention. The music seems, sometimes, to almost whisper to get people to be quiet and listen.

SO: Yes, it was quiet; I agree. But it wasn’t an approach that I took purposely for that effect. It was just the way I felt. I wanted the music not to be so loud, trying to get [the listener's] attention, trying to how express how good [I am]. I wasn’t thinking about being “out front” at that time. I feel more comfortable with that idea now. It’s kind of odd, but that’s the way it is. I’m more out front now with the guitar, so the [new] music – onstage these days – is almost the opposite of Inspiration Information.

Now I’m working on a bunch of things, including an album for Cleopatra Records. It’s coming along. I don’t know how to describe the music, but I’m very excited about it. It should be coming out later this year, for sure.

BK: One of the great things about your music is that one can’t really pin it down and call it psychedelic soul, or funk, or rock, or blues.

SO: Yeah. I like so many different kinds of music; I don’t feel like I need to stop at one style and stay there. I’m pretty free with that idea. I’ve never had to adjust or conform; I’ve had that freedom since I was a kid with the record labels. Whatever happens musically, happens. Music gets to be a problem when you try to express it in words. But I hope that you like mine. It’ll be a different concept; I can say that much.

BK: Since you are proficient on so many instruments, when you write songs, do you have specific things in mind with regard to what, say, what the drums should do, what the keyboards should sound like and play, and so on?

SO: I usually have an idea of what the [parts] will do that will go along with the song. On Inspiration Information I played all the instruments, and I continue to record that way. But I am going to incorporate my band into the new recordings, too. Because the band has a special sound to it, and I want to get back into playing with live musicians.

I had been doing sessions alone for so many years; it feels so good now to play with a band these days. And I’ve got a band where I can feature myself on guitar in a different way; there’s more guitar featured now than before. And I’m very happy about that.

BK: You’re playing live onstage more now than you have at any other time in your career. What do you like most about performing, and is there anything about it you don’t enjoy?

SO: I like performing. There isn’t anything I don’t like about performing! I know that probably seems funny to people that know I’ve been away from the limelight for so long. And that wasn’t always my choosing.

I had a different mindset. My frame of mine wasn’t centered so much about…I had a sort of ego trip. Because I couldn’t get a record deal, I was thinking more about record deals, vast money, and being treated like a star. And that’s negative, when you think about it. When it comes to music, you shouldn’t have those kinds of problems going on in your head. But I did.

And now I don’t. I don’t think about music as far as making money anymore. When I write a song, it’s just stuff from the heart. Way more than it ever was before, it’s important for the song to mean something to me.

For instance, I’ve written some songs recently that I thought were good songs after I recorded them. But then I would say, “Okay, I’m not using it no more. I don’t even want to hear it.” In fact I would put almost a whole album down. I’ve done that maybe three times with the album I’m working on now.

I’m sharing something funny with you here. I wanted to know if putting the songs out would affect me in a bad way after people started listening to them. It’s a paranoia, and it’s really unnecessary. I would think, “Well, with this song here, it might sound…they might think…”

Click here to continue…

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling Him Back (Part 1)

Monday, August 10th, 2015

“I look back now,” says Shuggie Otis, “and I think, ‘Wow. I must have a lot of patience!’” The multi-instrumentalist is reflecting on the curious arc of his career so far: his fame began in earnest when he was a young teen, continued into his early twenties, and ended abruptly after the relative commercial failure of his 1974 LP Inspiration Information (now regarded as a classic) when he was dropped by his record label. Otis largely disappeared from public sight after that, and didn’t resurface for almost forty years. These days, he’s working on a new studio album – Live in Williamsburg was released last year – and engaging in an ambitious touring schedule.

Otis was born in Los Angeles, the son of famed bandleader and r&b legend Johnny Otis. The senior Otis (born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes) is commonly referred to as the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.” Of Greek heritage, Johnny lived among – and lived as – an African American. He co-wrote “Hound Dog” and was an influential part of the American music scene, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.

Son Johnny Alexander Veliotes, Jr. (his mother nicknamed him Shuggie, and the sobriquet stuck) and his brother Nicholas both picked up their father’s musical interest and prowess. A natural talent, Shuggie had taught himself guitar, and was gigging with his father’s band by the age of 12. By 1969 he was featured on an album of his father’s called Cold Shot, and another disc, the X-rated Snatch and the Poontangs. A live album, 1970′s Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey! also featured Shuggie’s impressive guitar work. “Working with Dad was mostly a good time; it was fun,” says Shuggie. “He was a strict kind of a bandleader, but he was also a fun guy. Everybody liked him. Even if some kind of argument popped up, [the other person] would always come back to him.”

Around that time the now-fifteen year old was “discovered” by Al Kooper and showcased on Kooper Session: Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis; B.B. King called Shuggie his “favorite new guitarist” and Shuggie played bass guitar on Frank Zappa‘s Hot Rats cut “Peaches en Regalia.” Shuggie’s first true solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, was released in 1970. While the superb “psychedelic soul” album featured many of the elder Otis’ bandmates (Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper, Al McKibbon), it was also notable for Shuggie’s multi-instrumental prowess on guitar, piano, harpsichord and celesta.

Freedom Flight followed in 1971, with Shuggie taking a greater role in the album’s development. Playing even more instruments and composing most of the songs, Shuggie penned the classic “Strawberry Letter #23,” which would reach #1 on the 1977 soul charts in a cover version by The Brothers Johnson.

But it would be three more years before Shuggie delivered Freedom Flight‘s followup to his record label. The simmering Inspiration Information was very different from Shuggie’s earlier work. Now just 21, Otis had recorded the album almost completely on his own (save for session players on strings and horns). The muted, intimate-sounding Inspiration Information featured extensive use of the Rhythm King, an early electronic drum machine, in place of “real” percussion. Well ahead of its time – and not, thought the execs at Epic Records, delivered on time – the album was poorly promoted, and was a commercial disappointment. The label summarily dropped Otis, and the 21 year old was now without a record deal. To the public at large, it was as if Shuggie Otis had vanished.

Rumors swirled around the seeming disappearance of such a bright talent. Was he hard to work with? Was he dealing with any manner of personal issues? Nobody seemed to know for sure, and while some began to forget about him, those who appreciated his work kept hoping that he’d return one day. Shuggie recalls that period. “People [had] said, ‘Everybody loves him. He’s gonna be a big star!’ And the next thing I knew, nobody wanted to have anything to do with me. That was kind of strange…not strange; it was disillusioning. It was a disappointment.”

Meanwhile, his songs were sampled by OutKast, Beyoncé, J Dilla, Digable Planets, Kanye West and others. But none of those people, it seemed, were in a position to offer Shuggie that elusive record deal.

Shuggie Otis continued to record and perform, all as he searched without success for a new recording contract. A 2013 Sony Music collection of the best of his material from the post-Inspiration Information era was compiled and released as Wings of Love, packaged with a reissue of the ’74 album.

That reissue sparked renewed interest in Otis’ music, and to promote the 2013 reissue/compilation, Shuggie Otis put together a band and toured, playing for audiences he hadn’t faced in years. A contract with Cleopatra Records followed, and the 2014 Live in Willamsburg disc documented the high-energy stage show, a set list that contained old favorites and newer material.

At the start of the current leg of what’s billed as The Never Ending World Tour, I spoke with Shuggie Otis about the past, the present, and the future. Over the next three days, I’ll present that conversation.

Click here to continue…

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 3

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Blues, r&b, post-jazz and country-flavored singer/songwriter music: never let it be said that I only write about rock. Here are five fine releases in a wide array of musical styles.

Rusty Wright Band – Wonder Man

Take the attitude of big-band swing and electric guitar blues, and apply it to uptempo rock’n'roll, and you might end up with something like The Rusty Wright Band. Too many modern-day blues exponents have nothing interesting to offer musically. Wright deftly avoids falling into the strict confines of 21st century blues by widening his musical scope to incorporate other styles. And he does it in a way that won’t offend blues purists (neat trick, that). “Black Hat Boogie” feels like a cross between ZZ Top and Deep Purple; that’s just a hint of what’s on offer here. Wonder Man indeed.

The 24th Street Wailers – Where Evil Grows

I get letters; I do. Actually, they’re usually emails. But owing to the large number of ‘em, few get a “yes, please send a CD” reply from me. Here’s a worthy exception. Imagine a group that plays like JD McPherson and boasts songwriting and a production aesthetic reminiscent of the late and great Nick Curran. Add in some gritty 40s and 50s rhythm and blues, and top it all off with a strong female lead singer who just happens to site behind a trap kit. Whaddya got? This group. On Where Evil Grows, they tear shit up. Get this now.

Victor Krummenacher – Hard to See Trouble Coming

If asked to name a musical act of the last few decades that draws from the widest possible range of musical styles and genres, I’d answer without hesitation: Camper Van Beethoven. That group’s bassist, Victor Krummenacher is endlessly busy with all manner of projects in and outside that group. His latest is this, his tenth solo album. An acoustic-leaning affair, the disc features strong melodies in a slow-to-midtempo vein; the tracks find Krummenacher in an agreeable troubadour/singer-songwriter album, and should appeal to fans of Crosby, Stills and Nash (but not so much Young) and the solidly dependable Bakersfield c&w sound.

Tas Cru – You Keep the Money

Another example of an artist who deftly expands his musical scope beyond the solid lines some draw around the blues idiom (see Rusty Wright, above), Tas Cru starts with the tried-and-true electric blues elements – electric guitar, bass, drums, B-3-sounding organ, overdriven blues harp – but he applies those tools to a rock songwriting style. His assured and expressive vocal style is strong and unaffected, and the production style avoids cliché. Oh, and as “A Month of Somedays” and the subtle, smoldering “La Bell Poutine” both illustrate, Cru can play some mean guitar in the traditional blues style as well.

Throttle Elevator Music – Jagged Rocks

Maybe you’ve heard the term post-rock; it attempts to describe a sort of music that’s both cerebral and visceral, but that moves beyond the idiom from which it was borne. Well, with that in mind, here’s some post-jazz for ya. This trio is shepherded by Gregory Howe, head of Wide Hive Records, and features a sax/drums/guitar lineup. The instrumentation pieces tend toward the short-and-snappy, and they’re alternatively mysterious/gauzy and noisy/aggressive. Howe’s intimate production aesthetics make it feel like you’re in a small room with the band. That’s good, but be warned: like the old saying goes, it might get loud.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: Little Richard — Directly From My Heart

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

For music lovers of a certain age range, the work of Richard Penniman is the sort of music that one might only rarely make an effort to hear. The name and image of Little Richard is a virtual shorthand for some of the best qualities music has to offer: excitement, bravado, melody, energy, skill, humor…on and on. And because of his larger-than-life persona – wildly in-your-face effeminate posturing and his (nearly but not quite outsized) estimation of his own importance) – he seems somehow to always be there, and the same is true for his music.

Thanks, too, to the fact that Little Richard exerted so much influence on those who would follow (no less a figure than Paul McCartney has long held as part of his own stock-in-trade a convincing Little Richard vocal imitation), generations who grew to age after Little Richard’s heyday still know his songs. Covered by an impossibly long list of artists, and used in everything from film soundtracks to television commercials, Little Richard’s classic music is deeply embedded into popular culture and our collective consciousness.

The downside of that ubiquity, however, is that listeners might forget to stop for a moment and appreciate just how superb – not to mention wildly innovative for its time – his music really is. To help us in our modern-day reconsideration of Little Richard’s early, best-loved material, Concord Music Group has compiled a 3CD set, Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty and Vee-Jay Years.

Penniman’s musical recording career began more than three years before he’d enter a studio to cut a demo for Specialty Records in early 1955. By the time he began recording for Specialty, Richard had released two albums (one each on RCA and Peacock) and six singles, none of which charted. Once at Specialty, Little Richard recorded in various sessions over a period of just more than two years; that body of work is the primary foundation upon which his musical legacy rests.

Surprisingly – or at least surprisingly to those who know the man’s work on cuts like “Long Tall Sally (The Thing)” – Little Richard cut a number of tracks that don’t have that wild, manic vibe at all. The first few cuts on Directly From My Heart are r&b/blues numbers, with none of the reckless abandon that would characterize his hit singles. They’re good, albeit a tad ordinary. Their inclusion on this set does serve to place those crazy, uptempo singles in a context more representative of Little Richard’s musical output of that era.

But it’s through the first (and a good portion of the second) disc that Little Richard’s Specialty work is chronicled. All of the greats are here: “Tutti Frutti,” “Kansas City,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’),” “Long Tall Sally (The Thing),” “Miss Ann,” “Ready Teddy,” “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” “Rip it Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Ooh! My Soul,” and quite a few others.

Renouncing the sinful ways of rock’n'roll, Richard left Specialty in late 1957, going on to cut religious-themed sides for several labels. But when The Beatles exploded on the scene – and in light of their championing of him as an influence – Little Richard returned to Specialty, where he cut five songs, a few of which are featured on this set. The most notable of these is “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” but they’re all rocking numbers.

From there he went to Vee-Jay (coincidentally, the U.S. label that had released early Beatles tracks), remaining with them for a year. The third disc of Directly From My Heart focuses on this lesser-known era of Little Richard’s music, and is notable in part for the appearance of pre-fame Jimi Hendrix as guitarist for several cuts.

The entire 2015 compilation is housed in a duotone (black and pink!) box, and the accompanying liner note booklet features lots of photos and an essay from Little Richard superfan Billy Vera. The booklet handily provides matrix numbers for all sixty-three tracks, but the compilers deigned not to specify (recording and/or release) dates for the tracks. The booklet makes no mention of the mastering involved in bringing this compilation to market, but the sound throughout is superb.

Beware of imitations: notoriously, Little Richard re-recorded many of his hits in greatly inferior versions, and an unknown number among the vast array of available compilations draw tracks from those. The surest way to get a tidy collection of the man’s best work is to pick up Directly From My Heart.

A few related items, if I may…

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Matthew E. White’s Calibrated Subtlety

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Matthew E. White has been musically active for many years, including collaborations with Megafaun and the Mountain Goats and three albums with avant-jazz group Fight the Big Bull. But as an artist recording and touring under his own name, he’s a relative newcomer.

The story making the rounds is that White’s debut – 2012′s Big Inner – wasn’t really intended as an album at all. White recorded the collection of songs to demonstrate the capabilities of the Spacebomb House Band and his record label of the same name. That record caught on with critics and listeners alike, and effectively launched White’s career as a name artist. “I think that story has gotten lost in translation a little bit,” says White. “By no means is Big Inner a ‘demo’ in the sense that we didn’t work as hard on it as we might a normal album.” White makes it clear that the album is intended as “a purposeful and intentional personal artistic statement.”

The success of Big Inner did attract some high-caliber artists to the Spacebomb label, most notably singer/songwriter Natalie Prass. “I try to be successful both personally and with the Spacebomb team,” White says. “And I work pretty hard on both of those things.”

Born and raised in Virginia Beach, White grew up listening to pop music. “I listened to Chuck Berry and Beach Boys as a little kid, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden in middle school, and all kinds of stuff in high school: good and bad,” he recalls. He discovered jazz while in college, and subsequently “really went back, started at the beginning, and connected it all.” The result of his talent filtered through those influences is music that’s tough to describe. “If I have to say one thing, I say ‘soul’ or maybe ‘r&b.’ But I know that’s not quite right. Sometimes,” he laughs, “I say ‘gentleman’s psychedelia from the New World.’” I suggest that to my ears, he’s sort of a cross between Isaac Hayes and Berlin-era Lou Reed. He smiles and says, “I’m just going to start saying that. Perfect.”

 

Photo credit: Shawn Brackbill

On the just-released Fresh Blood, White builds upon the sonic foundation established by his debut. He concedes that he didn’t want to repeat himself musically. “But at the same time, I don’t believe in just changing variables and setting a completely different course. There’s a vocabulary that I’m working on, and I want it to develop.” On Fresh Blood, White sought to create an album that “contain[s] bits and pieces of old vocabulary as well as pushing the language farther into something new.”

On both records, there’s a lush, dense and richly layered texture, in part the result of the sonic effect of the large Spacebomb House Band. But White’s touring band is four musicians, including himself. “Obviously we have to adapt [arrangements] a little bit,” he concedes. “But to me, the songs are the centerpiece of the record. And in the live show it’s the same.” He prefers not to think of studio work and live performance as connected. “They are such different mediums that interact with people, budgets, administrative details and cultural context so differently. To make decisions on one based on the other limits both,” White believes.

Matthew E. White’s records feature strong hooks and melody, yet one word that comes to mind when hearing them is subtlety. “Well,” White chuckles, “the live show with the band isn’t so subtle, that’s for sure. It’s much more direct than the album is.” He goes on to say that the records’ subtlety is “less purposeful than it seems, actually. There are a lot of times when I think I’m being pretty direct and it’s taken as being much more subtle than I think it is. I think I’m just calibrated a little differently in that way.”

An edited version of this feature appeared in Mountain Xpress Magazine.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time!

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Continued from Part One...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.