Archive for the ‘reissue’ Category

Album Mini-review: Wizzz! French Psychedelic 1966-1969 Volume 1

Monday, August 17th, 2015

File Next to: Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond, Roman Coppola’s CQ Soundtrack

France has long been notorious for its musical insularity. Listen to a bootleg of the Beatles‘ February 1964 show – the height of worldwide Beatlemania – and you can hear the group just fine; the Parisians merely clap. And they simply couldn’t accept the real Elvis Presley; they had to mint one of their own, Johnny Hallyday. France was seemingly resistant to outside musical influences, and that worked both ways: Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg were huge stars at home, but got relatively little traction internationally. But a newly-reissued collection shows that French musical artists did pay attention to what was happening elsewhere. Fuzztone guitars, combo organs and simple, trashy melodies are all the rage on this fourteen-track set. Is it derivative? Sure. But it’s always undeniably French, with a vaguely square café jazz vibe applied to songs worthy of (if not The Seeds, then) Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood.

An edited version of this review previously appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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Album Mini-review: Moby — Hotel:Ambient

Monday, August 17th, 2015


File next to: Brian Eno, The Orb

Brian Eno once described ambient music as the aural equivalent of wallpaper; it’s designed to be experienced passively rather than attentively. It does what it does, and you do what you do. The most effective (or characteristic) ambient music, then, floats by unobtrusively. That’s not at all what Moby’s fourteen instrumental tracks do here. The beats are alluring, and draw the listener into Moby’s sonic washes of sound. But while it doesn’t fit the classical definition of ambient music, this reissue of his 2005 album is nonetheless enjoyable. The music doesn’t actually go anyplace; that would be completely anathema to the genre. But somewhat perversely, it’s too, well, interesting to serve as truly ambient music. “Real” instruments such as piano coexist nicely alongside washes of synthesizer pads and what (in places) sound like actual drums. Too engaging to qualify as ambient, it’s nonetheless a fulfilling way to spend an hour-plus.

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Album Review: Thelonious Monk — The Complete Riverside Recordings

Monday, July 13th, 2015

In my final year of college, I was exceedingly fortunate to have signed up for a course called American Popular Music History: Stephen Foster to the Present. There were only six of us in the class, and our professor was one Murray Silver; he had just co-authored Myra Lewis‘ book, Great Balls of Fire. But I digress, already.

One of the things we learned was that – according to at least some music scholar-historians – the term jazz was a corruption of the slang term “jass,” which was another word for “mistake.” (Of course there are other, less, um, savory theories as to the etymology of the word jazz, but this one suits my present purpose.)

Few jazz artists have more fittingly embodied that theory of the word’s origin than Thelonious Monk. Though an advanced and expressive technician, Monk’s unorthodox, dissonant phrasing and chording (if one can even call it that) led many to think he was just plain sloppy, that his performances were full of mistakes. In truth, that was simply not the case.

Monk recorded and released some forty albums under his own name; more than half of those came from the periods during which he was signed to Riverside (1955-1961) and Columbia (1962-1968). A Grammy-winning 1986 box set, The Complete Riverside Recordings, compiled all of Monk’s recordings for Riverside onto 15 compact discs. Taking note of the present-day music consumer’s preference for physically more compact sets (see also: parent company Concord Music Group’s recent small-size reissues of 2009′s The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings and The Complete Stax Soul Singles Vol. 3), 2015 sees the CD set reissued in a box measuring 5” x 5½” x 1¾.” The fifteen discs are each packaged in a thin cardboard sleeve, and the original set’s booklet – featuring liner notes from the late, famed producer Orrin Keepnews – has been downsized to a 60pp CD size as well. With the new reissue’s decreased focus on packaging, the music returns to front-and-center.

Rather than taking the approach of compiling Monk’s Riverside albums and then appending each with unreleased bonus tracks (alternate takes and such), The Complete Riverside Recordings presents a chronology based upon recording dates. Thus, regardless of when a track was originally issued (or, in some cases, not issued), the set presents an audio document of 153 studio, club and concert recordings – solo and with sidemen – in the order that Thelonious Monk experienced them.

The list of sidemen whose work shows up on the set is, of course, a who’s who of the era’s jazz giants. Drummer Art Blakey, John Coltrane (sax), Johnny Griffin (sax), Coleman Hawkins (sax), Thad Jones (trumpet), Gerry Mulligan (sax), Max Roach (drums), Oscar Pettiford (bass), Sonny Rollins (sax), Charlie Rouse (sax), Clark Terry (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Wilbur Ware (bass) are just some of the musicians who appear.

Monk’s arrangements on the band material are quite democratic – most everyone gets his turn in the spotlight. And the live tracks have a level of excitement that the studio cuts – no matter how inventive and well-executed – simply cannot match. His solo pieces are by definition a bit more idiosyncratic, but once one allows for and accepts Monk’s unconventional approach to the piano keyboard, they’re fascinating.

The alternate takes demonstrate the level of inventiveness and spontaneity inherent in Monk’s (and his sidemen’s) playing. While it’s generally clear why one take was ultimately chosen for (original) release over another, even the initially-unused takes and breakdowns, for that matter) are a treasure. The alternates and breakdowns constitute about 10% of the total music on these discs, but their presentation in context helps provide the listener with a sense of how the original sessions unfolded.

For anyone whose interest in Thelonious Monk extends beyond casual – in other words, for anyone whose appetite has been whetted by, say, Misterioso – the comprehensive The Complete Riverside Recordings merits serious consideration.

Note: A vinyl version of this set seems only to have been released in Japan (circa 1988) and sells on eBay – assuming you can even find one for sale – for more than twice the price of this new, slimmed-down CD set.

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Album Review: The Fad — The Now Sound

Monday, June 29th, 2015

If you lived through the early 1980s in the United States – and were old enough to be at least somewhat plugged in to popular culture – you were aware of the proliferation of “new wave” groups. Many of these acts traded in a style of music that drew inspiration from the pre-“rock star” era, that is to say the time before the rise of the dinosaurs of rock. The wave might have been called new, but the streamlined sounds often recalled sixties garage, 50s rockabilly, and other styles that predated Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and all those kinda guys.

Something else you would have known about was the cassette. Designed as a smaller, more portable alternative to the LP record, the cassette had a few obvious advantages: not only was it small, but it was recordable. But it had one serious disadvantage: inferior sound quality. Say what you will; it was undeniably fun to stroll around with a Walkman (or, as in my case, a much cheaper JCPenney-branded alternative) with headphones blasting a life soundtrack of your choice directly into your skull, but the wow, flutter, and gauss could ruin the greatest music. That whooshing sound – sort of like a speaker being slowly dipped into a bucket of water, lifted out, and dunked again – is one that most any cassette owner has experienced.

Now, thanks to the intrepid archival efforts of the guys at Kool Kat Musik, you can experience not one but both of these early 80s treasures once again!

Philadelphia-based trio The Fad were not unlike hundreds – thousands? – of groups that sprang up in that era that gave birth to MTV. And like the better among that crop, The Fad rose to some prominence: regular small-venue gigs and the occasional opening spot on a bill supporting The Stray Cats, The Ramones, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (hey, two out of three ain’t bad).

During their time, The Fad relocated to Huntington Beach, California; they’d eventually return home to Philly and break up. But while together, they recorded and released a six-song EP and a half-dozen other tunes. All twelve of these are collected on the CD The Now Sound.

The good news is that these tracks are a lot of fun. They’re tight, snappy tunes that straddle the line between new wave and, let’s say, nerd-rock. Unlike some of their self-consciously counterparts with clip-on safety pins and accoutrements of the punk identikit, The Fad were a smiling, go-go kinda trio. Their outfits made them look like relatives of the Robinson family, heroes of the kitschy 1960s TV classic Lost in Space. Their gear featured Rickenbacker basses and twelve-strings through Vox amps, all of which would have been viewed as resolutely retro choices in the 1980s.

And their music matched it. While they could play with the tight force of, say, The Jam, their slightly nasally vocal delivery made them sound closer to Gary Lewis and the Playboys. They had the good nature to write and record their own theme song (“Fad Theme”) and the equally good sense to have it clock in just under minute, as if for the intro of their own (nonexistent) TV show. Their ginchy vocal harmonies were the cherry on top of their compact pop tunes.

The songs have a good deal of subtlety for what’s essentially vocal-focused power pop. There’s a wide-eyed innocence that recalls the 60s garage bands who drew their inspiration not from those dirty Rolling Stones boys, but from relatively cheerful, clean cut young men like The Turtles. At times (“Where the Colors Are,” for example), The Fad sound a bit like Jan and Dean with ’65 version of The Who backing them up. Put another way, Keith Moon would have loved these guys. Another quickie, the 1:04 “Lark City” is a twister-riffic tune that Los Straitjackets would be proud to count among their repertoire. “Watch the Sky” is The Fad’s contemplative folk-rock moment; here they recall The Beau Brummels or The Association with fewer vocalists.

The six songs that make up the second half of The Now Sound widen the group’s stylistic lens a bit, but the elements that made the original EP so appealing are all relatively intact. The Phil Spector-ish intro to “Tomorrow She is Leaving” gives way to a wistful tune. “Genie” is a speedy number with some nicely chiming guitar and impressive, near-whispered vocals. “Broken Hearts” features ba-ba-ba harmony vocals, and the three-part harmonies coupled with guitar jangle suggest a cross between early Beach Boys and The Records.

The Fad clearly aimed for, well, fads: the instrumental “Fad Twist” encourages the listener to do just that while guitarist Frank Max plays one long (and very tasty) guitar solo. And the set ends with “The Swing’s the Thing,” a tune that would have worked perfectly in the movie That Thing You Do! if the story had included some serious rivals to The Wonders. It’s a delight, as is every track on The Now Sound. It’s no exaggeration to characterize this CD as a collection of rescued musical treasures.

And that’s the good news. But as I mentioned earlier, you also get a flashback to the dreadful sonic qualities inherent in the cassette. All of the tracks on The Now Sound were sourced from the best media available. But that media seems to have been some unknown-generation cassettes. The sound is very much like what you’d expect if a friend made you a cassette dub of his cassette dub of somebody else’s dub, with all tapes in that lineage being Type 1 cassettes. Probably at least one of ‘em was a three-for-a-buck Realistic cassette from Radio Shack. Put more succinctly, the sound is a notch or two above “suck.” (The story goes that some of the audio issues are the fault of the EP sessions’ producer, who is pointedly not credited anywhere on the CD release.)

The thing is, the music on The Fad’s The Now Sound is so damn good that I can still recommend it in the most glowing terms. Don’t worry about the whooshy sound on some tracks. Just turn it up and enjoy.

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Album Reviews: Four from The Residents

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Though they initially submitted demo recordings to major record labels (the bootleg The Warner Brothers Tapes documents the most notorious of these), the inscrutable collective that once jokingly billed themselves “North Louisiana’s Phenomenal Pop Combo” released most of their albums on their own Ralph Records label. That entity – though not The Residents themselves – ceased operations in 2010. Since that time, The Residents have set about reissuing large swaths of their massive back catalog via the MVD Audio label. MVD is also the licensed distributor for new and current Residents album releases. Here’s a look at two archival reissues and two new titles, all from the world’s most mysterious musical outfit.

The Residents – God in Three Persons

This conceptual work from 1988 often employs a favorite Residents musical device: taking the signature melodic line of a popular song – say, The Swinging Medallions‘ “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)” and reapplying it in a different musical context. Musically rich and deeply textured, God in Three Persons features that tune re-contextualized throughout the record. The opening track is a recitation of the work’s credits, and the album features unusually (for the Residents, that is) melodic vocals from Laurie Amat, and brass and woodwind arrangements from Richard Marriot. It’s on a par with The River of Crime in terms of its musicality. But lovers of the outré need not worry: the horrifying story line (involving siamese twins, rape and other fun subjects) and its execution are just as transgressive as hardcore Residents fans could want. The album art is unabashedly risqué, too. Randy’s sung/spoken delivery suits the project perfectly.

The Residents – Our Finest Flowers

When it comes to The Residents, one should expect the unexpected. When they released a greatest hits (sic) collection (1997′s Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses), the group put all the songs in reverse-chronological order. The liner notes of this collection from 1992 celebrate the group’s “twenty long years of painful regurgitation.” The sixteen tracks recombine elements from The Residents’ vast catalog, proving that their mutated approach to song construction can provide endless — and endlessly fascinating — variation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Our Finest Flowers‘ new pieces draw greatly upon material from Commercial Album, a disc full of intentionally underdeveloped musical ideas. All of these tunes feature the southern drawl vocal delivery of the Resident Known Only As Randy, with synthesizers (samplers, analog synths, drum machines) providing the musical accompaniment, textures and sound effects. By Residential standards, this is fairly accessible material overall, though much of the music is nightmarish in tone.

The Residents – Marching to the See!

Another commemorative project of sorts, March to the See! documents The Residents’ “The Wonder of Weird” 40th Anniversary Tour. Starring Residents Randy (“singer for The Residents”), Chuck (“he writes all of the music”) and Bob (guitar), the album is a recording of their May 20, 2013 performance in Amsterdam. Howling electric guitar – a musical element not often found on Residents albums – is a prominent part of the sonic landscape on this set. Chuck’s hypnotic synthesizer lines provide more musical texture, and our pal Randy works the crowd like some bizarro-world cross between rock star and carnival barker. The music –  Marching to the See! is mostly about music, not story lines and narratives – is sweeping and cinematic, and a bit less creepy than most Residents albums. Note: there’s a 2CD version, The Wonder of Weird, that documents the complete concert, rather than just the highlights found here.)

The Residents – Shadowland

Subtitled “Part 3 of the Residents’ Randy, Chuck and Bob Trilogy,” Shadowland is musically very much of a piece with Marching to the See! A document of the tour of the same name, the live Shadowland features the loops, synths, textures and avant-metal guitar sounds that characterize the current (mid-2010′s) Residents. The group’s recurring Timmy character makes an appearance in the Shadowland storyline, but listeners more attuned to the aural weirdness of The Residents can safely ignore what Randy’s singing/talking about and just revel in the spooky sound ambience. “Herman the Human Mole” could well be an outtake from 2006′s The River of Crime; with the Residents, you never know if something is new, old, recycled, or somehow all of the above. All you know is that it never sounds like anyone except The Residents. (At press time, a Shadowland performance was scheduled for midnight, August 7 in Katowice, Poland.)

Note: if you enjoy reading about The Residents, you may want to check out some or all of the following:

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Album Review: Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

There’s always a place for solid, midtempo, soft-rock. Or at least there was one before what passes for country music co-opted the style, watered it down and called it modern country (or, heaven forfend, bro country).

For a time in the mid to late 1970s, artists like Pure Prairie League, post-prog Ambrosia, Ace, Michael Martin Murphey, and even (dare I say this) The Eagles bridged the sonic gap between rock and singer-songwriter-oriented material, and for their trouble were often rewarded with chart success.

But not always: sometimes fine, solid albums sank without a trace. “Such,” writes Ed Osborne in his liner notes for the Real Gone Music expanded reissue of Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz, “are the vagaries of the music business.”

Their 1978 LP slipped right by the notice of this then-fourteen year old, but then I was into other things. Had I heard the record, I might have thought to myself, “this sounds a lot like Pure Prairie League.” And I would have been a very clever pubescent teen, because Craig Fuller was the lead singer on many of that group’s hits, 1972′s “Falling In and Out of Love” (though you may know it as “Amie”).

By the late 70s, Fuller had teamed up with fellow singer/songwriter Kaz for what would be a one-off collaboration. On Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz, the two take turns at the lead vocal spot, turning in borderline easy listening melodies, many of which fall into the sonic space where The Eagles’ “Desperado” lives.

All of Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz‘s ten tracks were written by one or the other singer, with the most commercially appealing cut (“Let the Fire Burn All Night”) the album’s sole co-write. Because of both musicians’ close connection to Columbia Records, they drew on a number of related artists to back them up on their eponymous disc. While the names Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Michael McDonald, J.D. Souther and Leo Sayer don’t suggest anything remotely approaching straight-ahead rock’n'roll, all were near the top of their soft-rock game in the late 70s, and their presence gives Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz a familiar air. Listening to the “expanded edition” (one extra track, a single edit of the original LP closer “Annabella”), one might think, “Hey, I’ve heard these songs before, years ago. Were they hits?”

One would likely be wrong on both counts, but the feeling of familiarity remains. David Campbell‘s string arrangements – most notably on “’Til You Come Back” – sound like the kind of thing Paul Buckmaster did for Elton John a few years earlier.

Ultimately, Ed Osborne’s liner notes essay – drawing upon in-depth interviews with both musicians – is the most interesting thing about the reissue. In one of those bits of trivia that supports the theory that everything is connected, Osborne explores Kaz’s earlier involvement with the proto-Latin rock version of The Blues Magoos.

There’s not a thing wrong with Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz. Polished to a shine, the album presents these yearning, often melancholy songs in the best light possible. But in the late 1970s, there was simply so much of this kind of thing that it was easy to miss a few efforts, however fine they might’ve been. Musically, the album drifts by pleasantly enough, but it leaves little lingering impression. “That was nice,” you might say after “Annabella” fades out. “But now let’s listen to something with a little oomph in it.”

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Album Reviews: Four MPS Jazz Reissues

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

MPS is the highly revered label headed by Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer and several associates. Founded in the mid 1960s, MPS became home for many highly-regarded jazz musicians. Between 1966 and 1983, MPS released more than 400 albums. Many of these are out of print today, and ownership of the MPS catalog has changed hands several times since the label ceased operation. In 2014, German independent entertainment conglomerate Edel obtained the rights to MPS titles, and under the Kultur Spiegel banner, began a program of reissues. I’ve provided brief reviews of two of these already; today I take a look at four more newly-reissued jazz titles from MPS.


Monty Alexander – Rass!
Rass! was the fourth album from this Jamaican pianist who’s often described as a follower of Oscar Peterson‘s style. But on this 1974 disc, Alexander favors the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Joined by two electric guitarists, an electric bassist, and three percussionists, he leads the band on a tuneful outing that’s both low-key and intriguing. Rass! could be considered a forerunner of the dreaded smooth jazz era (think of “Theme from Taxi,” for example), but taken on its own terms, it’s quite good. Ernest Ranglin‘s busy, inventive guitar work is a highlight of the disc. Alexander remains musically active today.


Joe Henderson – Mirror, Mirror
On this 1980 album, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson shares billing with keyboard ace Chick Corea, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Higgins. Though he released nearly three dozen albums as a leader, Mirror, Mirror is his only MPS release. Like all MPS titles, it’s flawlessly recorded, but there’s an especially warm and intimate vibe to this session. It’s an all-acoustic session, which might be an example of backing away from the more aggressive electric fusion sounds of the previous decade. In particular, Corea’s piano positively sparkles, adopting a Bill Evans-like approach to melody. Carter’s “Keystone” is the most uptempo number.


Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Research Orchestra – It’s After the End of the World
There’s no such thing as a truly accessible Sun Ra album; his outsider approach to jazz meant that his releases never fit comfortably into the genre. This 1970 live album does nothing to change that impression; in that year Sun Ra released two other live albums, and three studio records. His musical trademarks – atonal melodies, “snorking” saxophones, bizarrely chanted vocals, electronic distortion – are all present in varying degrees. This set is most assuredly not for the faint-hearted, but it’s recommended to those with an ear for Sun Ra’s otherworldly brand of musical exploration. Don’t say you weren’t warned.


Patrick Williams Orchestra – Come On and Shine
In retrospect, this 1977 disc is something of an all-star affair. Everybody’s favorite bass player Tony Levin joins guitarist Steve Khan, harmonica star Toots Thielemans, and keyboardist Dave Grusin. A crack horn section is on hand as well. But the resulting album isn’t exactly jazz; funky disco might be a more accurate description. And in those moments when it’s not discofied, the tunes on Come on and Shine sounds like TV or movie theme music (there’s even some Shaft-esque guitar work amid the Love Boat-style horn charts and syrupy strings). Jazz purists will be horrified by the unabashedly commercial arrangements.

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Album Review: Wes Montgomery — The Classic Recordings 1958-1960

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

The world’s a much smaller place today than it was a quarter century ago. When I frequented record stores – even once the CD era began – import albums were pricey. They simply weren’t in the budget of the average music consumer in the United States. Things are very different now, thanks in no small part to international retailers like Amazon. American consumers can purchase albums that were heretofore available only in Europe, for example, and have them delivered for retail price plus little more than what they would pay for domestic shipping.

In practical terms, this means that American music buyers can take advantage of the more relaxed licensing/royalty terms that record labels in Europe and the UK enjoy. Licensing a set of eight albums for sale domestically would be an expensive proposition for an American label, and when it comes to jazz – sadly now something of a specialist genre – the costs often outweigh the potential revenue. (How this arrangement affects the original artist and/or their estates is an entirely separate discussion.)

In any event, it’s those modest licensing costs that allow labels to compile and market a set such as Wes Montgomery: The Classic Recordings 1958-1960. (It retails for less than $15!) Jazz guitar pioneer Wes Montgomery burst on the scene at the tail-end of the 1950s, releasing no less than twelve discs for Riverside. (He then left for Verve, and then A&M, before passing away prematurely in 1968 at the age of 45.) Prior to his solo career, he had begun recording as part of The Montgomery Brothers with siblings Buddy and Monk; they would appear on nine LPs between 1955 and 1961. And during that period, Montgomery was also the featured guitarist on albums by The Mastersounds, Jon Hendricks, Cannonball Adderley and other jazz artists.

The Classic Recordings 1958-1960 picks through that vast and varied catalog and compiles eight of those albums onto a 4CD collection. Leaning toward the lesser-known (and harder-to-locate) titles from that era, the set offers a solid survey of the earliest officially-released material in the guitarist’s career. (There are also now some modern-day collections of previously unreleased Montgomery material: Echoes of Indiana Avenue and In the Beginning are essential purchases for the Montgomery fan.)

Here’s a rundown of which albums (originally released on an assortment of labels including Fantasy, World Pacific, Pacific Jazz, and Riverside) are included in the set (all credited to Wes Montgomery unless otherwise noted):

  • The Montgomery Brothers Plus Five Others (1957)
  • The Montgomery Brothers’ Montgomeryland (1958)
  • The Mastersounds’ Kismet (1958)
  • The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959)
  • Jon Hendricks’ A Good Git-Together (1959)
  • The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960)
  • Movin’ Along (1960)
  • The Montgomery Brothers (1961)

Even on his early sessions, Montgomery was a serious player, surrounded by other serious players. The Montgomery Brothers material showcases the talents of Buddy and Monk (on piano and electric bass respectively) while giving plenty of space for Wes to burn up the fretboard with his assured, smooth-as-butter guitar work. On the Mastersounds record, Wes’ presence is so subtle that he’s barely noticeable (which is not to suggest that the music is not good). The Five Others material expands the instrumental focus to include sax, vibes and more, and is solid, upbeat bop.

Montgomery gets to solo often on the vocal-centric Hendricks album – the singer is reminiscent of Louis Prima crossed with Louis Jordan – but he’s far from the central musical focus of those tunes. Once Wes starts fronting his own trio, the guitar becomes the centerpiece of the music. The production style is also a good bit more up-front and live feeling; Montgomery’s crystalline playing benefits from the change. Montgomery originals fit nicely among the guitarist’s reading of standards. Drummer Paul Parker‘s subtle brush work and tasty Hammond organ from Melvin Rhyne make the trio sides even more appealing. The Trio and solo sides alone are more than worth the modest price of this 4CD set.

Listeners should note that the records’ chronological release sequence is not followed on the 4CD set, though the CDs do feature two albums per disc.

A reasonably detailed (but uncredited) liner note essay helps put the recordings into their historical context. There’s no detail or information regarding remastering (if any), and the provenance of the recordings on this set – needle drops? CD? Master tapes? – is also unknown. The last is unlikely, but the sound quality seems to eliminate the first possibility as well (surface noise can be heard on the Kismet material). Simply put, the fidelity will be just fine to most ears.

Note: Those who would enjoy this set should also take note that the same reissue label has released a second set covering the period 1960-62. It’s a 4CD set as well, and features eight albums that – again – were originally released as Montgomery solo records, Montgomery Brothers albums, and discs by other artists but featuring the guitarist.

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Album Review: The Complete Stax Soul Singles Vol 3: 1972-1975

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Nearly a quarter century ago (April 30, 1991 to be exact), a lavish, 9CD set called The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968 was released. Housed in a large box and featuring liner notes in book form, the set provided a handy (and nearly exhaustive) chronicle of the Memphis label’s output from its beginnings up through the end of its association with Atlantic Records. Nearly 250 tracks showcased some of the best-loved (and important) sides from a long list of names familiar to any self-respecting pop music fan: Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MGs, and so on. Many lesser names were featured as well, of course, and the overall quality standard of music was impressive.

Nearly two and a half years later (September 1993), a follow-up set appeared. The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles: 1968-1971 focused on the beginning of Stax’s post-Atlantic era, a period during which Stax was still in its ascendancy. Originally housed in a large box and featuring an LP-sleeve sized booklet (again with liner notes from Stax chronicler Rob Bowman), the set was reissued in 2014 in a smaller format. The 2014 edition housed the CDs in slim cardboard sleeves instead of jewel boxes, and reduced the booklet (and its set type) to CD dimensions as well.

In 1994 the project was completed, with the release of The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975. Covering the final years of the original Stax label, this third volume showcases music from the period when Stax declined, faltered, and finally succumbed. Bowman’s liner notes provide the concurrent narratives of the music and the label’s demise.

Like the second volume, Vol. 3 has now been reissued in a smaller format. And while it’s undeniable that the material on this third entry (spanning ten discs) is not the equal of the earlier sets, that’s an unreasonable standard. By 1972, Stax was already beginning to suffer business problems, most specifically with regard to distribution. Bowman’s liner notes detail the label’s arrangement with CBS, one that – at least on the Memphis end – gave reasons for optimism. But it was not to be. And in the wake of Stax’s blossoming difficulties, many of its star acts would leave.

As a result, the music on Vol. 3 features quite a few names that will be unfamiliar to all but the most ardent southern soul aficionados. But that doesn’t mean the music’s not good; on the contrary, in one sense listeners might find that The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975 features some of the best soul music they’ve never heard before.

Edited down to single-length, Isaac HayesShaft Soundtrack cut “Do Your Thing” is a scorcher. The Dramatics‘ sweeping classic “In the Rain” is a thing of beauty. And there are a number of such well-known sides found on Vol. 3. In addition to late-period classic sides from Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and the Bar-Kays, Vol. 3 serves up a number of lesser-known treasures from The Soul Children, The Mad Lads, David Porter, Mel & Tim, and countless others. It’s not unreasonable to assume that if Stax hadn’t suffered its distribution woes, several of the relatively obscure singles collected on Vol. 3 might have stormed the charts.

But that didn’t happen. While there are quite a few charting hits among the hundreds of tunes in this box (213 songs, to be exact), most died a quiet death in the marketplace. And as Bowman’s liner notes explain, several album projects initiated while Stax was in its death throes never got completed; there’s some question as to whether some of the late-late period material (from discs 9 and 10) ever saw official release. It’s likely that even if those songs were officially released, boxes of records languished in a CBS warehouse somewhere.

One exceedingly small quibble I’ve encountered with regard to all three Stax/Volt box sets is that they’re not – strictly speaking – “complete.” The b-sides are almost never included. And by limiting the set to soul, music from other genres (rock, gospel, and so on) from Stax and its associated labels (Volt, Enterprise, Respect, We Produce, and Truth) is not included. I’ll concede those arguments and argue that even without the other material, Vol. 3 remains a stone cold classic. Forget that the lion’s share of this music didn’t chart; forget that a lot of it was made by supposedly second-tier artists. Forget all that, take the music for what it is, and you’re all but guaranteed countless hours of listening pleasure.

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

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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