Archive for the ‘reissue’ Category

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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Album Review: Jethro Tull – WarChild, 40th Anniversary Theatre Edition

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Jethro Tull‘s 1974 album WarChild occupies a curious place in the band’s history. Their previous album, 1973′s A Passion Play, had been roundly shellacked by critics. That album certainly had its fans; it made #1 on the charts, though that might have been a coattail effect of their earlier albums. But by the time of WarChild, the critical honeymoon was over, and the knives were out.

History (revisionist and otherwise) has been kinder to WarChild, however. A contemporary look at it shows that all of the traditional Jethro Tull elements are in place: Ian Anderson‘s provocative lyrics; a degree of thematic unity; lots of flutes; and a generally sardonic musical attitude. And a deeper exploration into classical instrumentation was a hallmark of the WarChild sessions. Moreover, shorter songs were the order of the day.

What those sessions didn’t have, however, was any music that seemed suitable for a single release. For that purpose two songs from the album (but recorded much earlier) were put out as singles, and they remain among Jethro Tull’s most popular and well-known numbers: “Bungle in the Jungle” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day.”

Plans for WarChild originally involved a film, the ambitious premise of which was a battle between Good and Evil. Though a lot of effort went into the initial planning, nothing ever came of the film. Financial difficulties played a part in scuppering the WarChild multimedia production. In the expansive liner notes of the new Anniversary Theatre Edition, Anderson tells readers about the 83% tax rate levied by the UK government, and the band’s failed attempts to avoid having to pay.

But in the end, it’s all about the music. WarChild has plenty of that; not unlike their previous efforts, the album was designed to be taken as a whole. Though as with all of their albums, the linear narrative matter can (if one wishes) be ignored, and the listener can just dig the theatricality of the music itself.

Over the years, as various related bits of music have been unearthed from the vaults, scattered tracks for the WarChild era have found their way onto reissues and compilations. But the entire approach of this 40th Anniversary series of Jethro Tull albums is to set things right, and (where possible) render all previous releases of the materiel as moot.

Anderson largely succeeds in those efforts with this new WarChild release. The first CD provides a new stereo mix from Steven Wilson, now generally accepted as the master of such things (he’s done similar duties for King Crimson, Yes, Caravan and other 1970s progressive legends). The second disc is filled with related recordings: alternate versions, outtakes, and songs that simply didn’t make the cut of what was originally planned as a 2LP set. It’s worth noting that these tunes are in most ways every bit the equal of the already-released material. And the production values (no doubt aided by Wilson’s remix skills) are first-rate. The hard-rocking “Saturation” is a standout among these. And though he pretty well disowns it these days, Anderson’s saxophone work is impressive. And Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond‘s rocking and idiosyncratic “Sea Lion II” shows that Anderson wasn’t the only one who could write lyrics that fit the Tull mold.

The vibraphones and classical trappings of the ambitious “Quartet” aren’t exactly commercial (from a rock-fan point of view), but they’re fascinating nonetheless. But perhaps the most fascinating part of this new set’s audio portion is the ten tracks of orchestral pieces, only one of which (“Waltz of the Angels”) has been released previously. In fact with the exception of the orchestral “The Third Hoorah” and bits of “The Orchestral WarChild Theme,” none of the orchestral tracks are directly related to the WarChild album as originally released. But taken together, they make a fairly substantial classical (or pseudo-classical) work. At times these tracks feel a bit like film music, which makes sense when one knows that the original project envisioned a film.

A pair of DVDs rounds out the audiovisual component of the new WarChild box (book) set. As is now customary, these include a Surround 5.1 mix (the modern-day equivalent to quadrophonic) as well as a transfer of the original quad LP from 1974. The first DVD also includes silent color footage from the band’s press conference in Montreux, Switzerland, with new (and predictably droll and witty) audio commentary from Anderson. A multi-camera live shoot of “The Third Hoorah” is included, but the blurry footage features studio audio applied to it; no attempt is made to sync the audio and video, but it’s clear that the band is actually playing that song. The fourth DVD includes high-bitrate audio versions of the material from the second CD.

An 80pp booklet provides all of the detail one could ever hope to place WarChild in its historical context, along with lots of photos and additional relevant material. Detailed discussion of (and by) the bewigged female string quartet that joined Tull on the WarChild tour dates will give readers a flavor of what 70s touring was like.

The net effect of this new set is to effectively rehabilitate WarChild, to lead modern-day listeners to reconsider it and its worth. Listening, watching and reading, you may well decide that WarChild is a far, far better thing than you had thought before.

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Album Review: Shanti — Shanti

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

At this stage in the game, nobody’s sure who developed the genre (or, much less, coined the phrase) “world music.” And a definitive explanation for what is and isn’t world music remains elusive. But to paraphrase the Supreme Court justice, I know it when I hear it.

Some strong candidates for early pioneers in what would come to be known as world music include George Harrison and Herbie Mann. The former, as early as the mid 1960s, was working in sounds and influences of Indian music into songs he wrote (“Within You Without You” from Sgt. Pepper and “Love You To” from Revolver) and tunes from Lennon and McCartney (“Norwegian Wood”). And even earlier, jazz flautist Herbie Mann was synthesizing tropicalia into the jazz idiom (and later, he’d cast an even wider stylistic net). The Paul Butterfield Blues Band‘s epic title track from the East-West album fused Eastern styles with the blues. And there are countless other examples.

But one of the most aesthetically successful forays into cross-genre synthesis is the self-titled 1971 debut by a group called Shanti. Led by master of the tabla Zakir Hussain, this Bay area collective combined the rock aesthetic (thanks to a four-man lead/rhythm/bass/drums section) with a decidedly Eastern approach (Hussain on tabla, dholak and naal; Ashish Khan on sarod; and guest musician Pranesh Khan on tabla and naal). The result of the collaboration is an album full of exotic flights of fancy that remain firmly rooted in a Western pop sensibility. And that’s no simple trick.

“We Want to Be Free” features a lovely lead vocal with exquisite harmonies, all backed by Indian instruments playing some decidedly riff-oriented Western pop. And that piece sets the tone for the entire album. Neil Seidel‘s lead guitar trades licks with the sarod masters, and Frank Lupica‘s rock/jazz drumming engages in a running dialogue with Eastern percussion.

Khan’s extended piece “Innocence” initially leans more in a traditional Indian direction, but quickly moves into a hook-filled piece of transcendent pop. Shanti stands in great contrast to the more “serious” (and ultimately less musically accessible) excursions into musical cross-fertilization. Seidel’s ‘Out of Nowhere” comes from the opposite direction (rock) and ends up in nearly the same place, again featuring rhythm guitarist Steve Haehl‘s soothing yet powerfully assured vocals. At times Shanti sounds a bit like Santana, albeit with Indian flavor in place of the Afro-Cuban/Latin styles.

Shanti just plain rocks out on the good-timing riff rocker “Lord I’m Comin’ Round,” which isn’t totally unlike something The Allman Brothers – stylistic gap-bridgers themselves (jazz and rock) – might have done. Here, it’s the Indian percussion that gives the tune its worldly flavor. And the group sounds even more like Gregg Allman and his pals on “Good Inside,” which sounds to all the world in 2015 like the kind of thing that would have stormed the rock charts in ’71.

But that’s not what happened. As Richie Unterberger‘s liner notes in this Real Gone Music reissue explain, Harrison wanted to sign Shanti to The Beatles‘ Apple label, but Indian music legend Ravi Shankar counseled him against doing so, purportedly because Shanti was “too pop” and as such its Indian members weren’t making proper use of their god-given talents.

Your mileage (like mine) may vary on that score. Those aforementioned talents are in full flower on the lengthy “Shanti,” which starts out sounding a bit like The Rolling Stones‘ “Paint It, Black,” and then moves into sonic territory close to Butterfield’s “East-West.” Those Eastern textures are always right there, but the grounding in Western pop aesthetics makes Shanti perhaps the most musically accessible of all stylistic hybrids. Heck, even that most clichéd of 1970s western rock tropes – the drum solo – feels fresh and new in Shanti’s capable hands.

The album ends with the contemplative and exceedingly brief “I Do Believe,” reminding listeners that power and subtlety can peacefully coexist on a single album. And that album would, sadly, be the only release from this group. Forgotten at worst, overlooked at best, Shanti is an exemplar of cross-cultural styles that serves as a showcase for the boundary-pushing mindset that took hold at the tail-end of the 60s and the early 1970s. Highly recommended.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 10

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Over the last nine business days, I’ve surveyed 45 albums of new, reissued, and/or archival music from a wide array of artists in jazz, prog, soul, rock and other genres. Each review has been exactly 100 words. Today I wrap up that series of capsule reviews with a quick look at five video releases.

Jack Bruce – The 50th Birthday Concerts
Though it’s long been in the archives of German television program Rockpalast, this set was presumably rush-released in the wake of Bruce‘s October 2014 death. A wildly varied set in terms of musical styles, this 2DVD document of 1993 concerts shows off the amazing versatility of the vocalist/bassist. Opening with a solo (acoustic) bass reading of J.S. Bach’s “Minuet No. 1,” switches to piano (with vocal) and then brings on supporting musicians (including multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband and Bruce’s sparring partner, drummer Ginger Baker.) All involved are in fine form as they tear through Bruce solo material and several Cream favorites.

Queen – Live at the Rainbow ’74
On the strength – or rather the lack thereof – of their 1979 double LP Live Killers, I decided that Queen were pretty dreadful live. Not Rolling Stones dreadful, but simply unable to draw upon the balance of refinement and energy that made their studio albums so rewarding. This set from a few years earlier (in other words, at the height of their powers) has set me right. Live sound reinforcement in the mid 1970s was primitive by today’s standards, but you’d never know it from this performance and recording. If anything, these versions are better than their studio counterparts.

Yes – 35th Anniversary Concert: Songs From Tsongas
Even a semi-hardcore Yes fan has to admit that they milk their repertoire pretty thoroughly. As Jon Anderson admits toward the end of this set, “We seem to get together so many times over the years.” This 2004 performance in Massachusetts was part of the Magnification tour, and featured the more-or-less classic lineup (Anderson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Alan White and Chris Squire) halfway through the final period they’d all make music together. A bit mannered – as are all Yes shows – it shows the five in full possession of their sharp musical faculties. An excellent show on Blu-Ray.

The Rutles – Anthology
Long before The Beatles got around to making their Anthology, some of the guys from Monty Python made a Beatles history (a “mockumentary” that predated This is Spinal Tap), All You Need is Cash. (They had help from one Hari Georgeson, as well.) It’s now legendary as one of NBC-TV’s lowest-rated specials ever broadcast (I saw it). This new Blu-Ray reissue greatly improves the audiovisual quality over earlier versions, and adds relevant bonus material (some earlier, some much later) to create an Anthology of their own. The packaging art alone is wickedly clever, as are the bits on the disc.

Various – A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney
In 2012, the nonprofit organization MusiCares honored Paul McCartney as their Person of the Year. The gala event included a superstar lineup of artists paying tribute to Sir Macca. And while rock fans might be disappointed in the soft lineup (only Duane Eddy, Dave Grohl, Neil Young and Joe Walsh can be called rockers), the performances are nuanced and often quite good. Alison Krauss & Union Station win the night as they capture the beauty of “No More Loney Nights,” a highlight of the hour-long Blu-Ray. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, however, are in wobbly, old guy garage band mode.

See you next week as we return to one-a-day full-length reviews, features and interviews.

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