Archive for the ‘reissue’ Category

Back to School with Les McCann (Part 1)

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Invitation to Openness is not only the title of one of jazz great Les McCann‘s most celebrated albums (newly reissued; more on that later); it’s also the title of his new book of photography and essays. Throughout his storied career as a touring and recording jazz musician, McCann came face to face – in personal, intimate settings – with legends in music, film and public life. An accomplished amateur (though he’d effectively “go pro,” as well see), McCann shot countless photos in crisp black-and-white, capturing his subjects in a knowing manner that (for example) publicity photos often fail to convey.

And one of the book’s most striking qualities is its variety. McCann’s lens captures onstage photos, backstage photos. He includes posed shots, candids. His subjects are famous musicians and unidentified people. Comics like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx are featured, as are photos taken at pro basketball games. Yet somehow, with all this diverse imagery, there’s a unifying aesthetic within the pages of Invitation to Openness. “Every artist, every creative project has a sequence,” McCann says. That gives the finished work flow and rhythm, he says. A project like his book, then, is “based on something you haven’t seen before. So you’re looking at [the raw material], assessing it: now what do I do with it? And maybe you can’t do it, so you get somebody whose eye you can trust.” And in this case, McCann had a pair of collaborators that he describes as his “corps of angels”: his longtime manager and confidante Alan Abrahams, and Pat Thomas, author of the book Listen Whitey: The Sounds of Black Power. “I took all of the pictures,” McCann says, “but then I put it in their hands.”

There was some healthy back-and-forth involved in the book’s creation. “I gave them all my pictures,” McCann recalls. “And they came up with about 700, I think. And then we narrowed it down to about 300 or so: ‘What do you think of these?’ ‘Yeah, I like that.’ ‘No, I don’t want that.’” McCann notes that initially, the project was to focus only on his photos of jazz musicians. “But my photographs are not just one thing, like my music is not just one thing. So they got the message.”

Some of the photos in Invitation to Openness are left to speak for themselves; others include McCann’s annotation. McCann writes that the book’s early 1970s photos of jazz great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley are some of his favorites. “There’s a little story that goes with that in the book,” he says. “It was the first time somebody picked one of my photographs, saying, ‘We’d like to use this.’ And they paid me for it.” But the Japanese magazine made an amusing error. “They put my name in there as ‘Les McCann Keyboard!’ I liked that, y’know? I’ve been all over the world, and people have called me everything.” Reflecting on fellow soul-jazz giant Adderley, McCann says, “I have nothing but fond memories of his joyful life, his joyful music, and his zest to be great. And [seeing him] was the first time that I went to a club and was totally blown away with everything I heard the band play.”

Asked if there’s a subject he missed the opportunity to photograph, McCann answers quickly: “God.” Pausing a beat, he wryly adds, “The day I met Jesus, he was in a hurry to get someplace.” After the laughter subsides, he continues. “I can’t think of anyone, no. ‘Cause I met everybody. I’m not talking about me being onstage and all that; I was put in a position to just be everywhere. Everything I ever wanted to do, I ended up doing ten times as much…stuff I didn’t even plan on. I came into this life with the beautiful understanding that I was ‘in school.’ I’m here to learn what this Earthly adventure is about. I might mumble and stumble, but the goal is to love myself. And then by loving myself, I’ll know how I want to love and treat everyone else. Because I truly love people, and everything that’s on this Earth.” He adds, “I’m not confused about it; not anymore.”

McCann’s 1971 album Invitation to Openness is a landmark release, as evidenced by the fact that it’s been kept in print and/or reissued so many times since its original release. The latest CD reissue, on Omnivore Recordings, is produced by Pat Thomas, and features a bonus track, a live reading of McCann’s signature tune, “Compared to What.” When I suggest that it’s one of his best releases, McCann is quick to correct me. “You can never say that; I don’t think you say that about any music. Because for me, it’s kind of personal. When I came to do [Invitation to Openness], I went into New York City and within one day I had told the producer what I wanted to do. And then organizing the people who’d be on the record – over fifteen people – and having them all in New York at once, it was a magic moment. The whole project was. So my special feelings and memories about it are about the session and the people.” He also notes that the album “was extremely well recorded. They captured the essence and ambience of what people were doing.”

McCann recalls his reaction at the Invitation to Openness session: “Oh my God: it really worked!” He says, “What you have to do is experiment. I’m creating 24 hours a day, and that’s the message I try to share with people. We came from creation; therefore, we are creation. It drives me crazy when people say [about themselves], ‘Oh, I wish I had a talent; I can’t do nuthin’.’ I say, ‘Shut the hell up. Get quiet, and look deeper into yourself. Not outside; look inside, and you’ll find everything you’re looking for.’”

“A song may live awhile, but as far as style, you can’t keep doing the same thing. That’s another reason I’m so happy about the idea I had for Invitation to Openness. I gave very few – if any – instructions. No rules; just play. Swiss Movement broke the door open for me: don’t lock everything into a set pattern. And that was very enlightening for me.

To be continued…

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Blu-ray Review: Syncopation

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

Spend any time reading online forums discussing what currently-unavailable motion pictures deserve a proper reissue/restoration, and you’ll likely come across the title Syncopation. This 1942 black-and-white film is at its heart a conventional love story – in fact one with little conflict – but it has gone down in history as a legendary title thanks to the setting of that story, and to some noteworthy guest stars.

By then a young adult, former child actor Jackie Cooper is the leading man in this tale of a young woman (to be played as an adult by Bonita Granville) named Kit, born and raised in dawn-of-the-20th-century New Orleans. To the (mild) consternation of her (presumably widowed) father (played by Adolphe Menjou), piano-playing Kit has developed a deep love for jazz. The son of Kit’s nursemaid/nanny is a young African American boy of her age (played as an adult by Todd Duncan), who discovers that though his “unschooled” musical approach won’t get him anywhere in formal musical studies, it gets him a good jazz gig.

After father, daughter and nanny relocate to Chicago (and the calendar flips over a decade or so), Kit wanders out one night, meeting a young man (Cooper) on the sidewalk. The two wander into a rent party, where Kit hears another kind of music that stirs her soul. It’s not quite like New Orleans jazz, but it’s jazz all the same. Mild hilarity ensues when Kit takes over on piano, causing a riot that eventually lands her in juvenile court. (She gets off scot-free after an impromptu performance that sets the jury’s feet a-tapping.)

The breezy, lighthearted story takes a few additional twists and turns, and ends on a predictably happy, hopeful note (this was ’42, after all). But the setting for the decidedly lightweight (if well-acted) story is what makes Syncopation noteworthy. Starting with a wordless montage of scenes that show African villagers being sold by their leader into slavery, Syncopation sets out with no less a lofty goal than to chart the development of the American musical form of jazz. That it manages to do so within the context of a pop culture romance film is nothing short of extraordinary. And – as modern-day audiences will surely take note – the film treats African Americans in a manner not often seen onscreen in that era, especially in a film populated by plenty of white actors.

No, lifelong friends Kit Latimer and Rex Tearbone never embrace upon meeting, but their arms’-length friendship is nonetheless palpable, without even a whiff of white-over-black superiority. Even Rex’s mother’s character (the nanny) is portrayed in what by 1940s standards must have been a very dignified manner. Black and white characters almost (but don’t quite) mix onscreen, yet there’s a sensibility throughout Syncopation that seeks to depict African Americans as different but not in any way inferior to their white counterparts. And the film all but insists that the music favored by the black musicians (and, to his credit, Cooper’s Johnny Schumacher) is better than the stiff white pop music.

One of the film’s most effective moments is the scene in which Johnny finds himself frustrated playing regimented, dull classical music as part of a large ensemble. He stares at the sheet music in front of him, and (in a sort of dream sequence), the staves and notes become three-dimensional, with Johnny helplessly entwined inside them, like an animal gored on a barbed-wire fence.

Syncopation was (and is) billed for a lineup of “stars” that is billed collectively as the poll-winning All-American Dance Band. Their all-music, no dialogue, no-acting sequence is tacked onto the film’s end, and has little if anything to do with what has come before. And though it’s quite brief, it remains worthwhile. The band includes manic, show-stealing drummer Gene Krupa, clarinetist Benny Goodman, trumpeter Harry James, saxophonist Charles Barnet, and even steel guitarist Alvino Rey.

The restored film print for the 2015 Blu-ray reissue of Syncopation is stunning in its clarity; the visual detail is staggering. A very few scenes (totaling well under a minute) seem to be sourced from a lower-quality dub, but most viewers won’t notice, instead focusing on the rich visual detail and the superb sound. The latter is equally important, because while Syncopation isn’t really a musical (although Connee Boswell does burst into song near the film’s close), it’s chock full of music.

A long list of bonus features deserves mention, too. Ten Columbia “soundies,” each starring a giant of jazz (a young Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, etc.) aren’t directly related to the RKO Syncopation, but by subject matter alone they’re wholly relevant.

Director William Dieterle‘s Syncopation sets a high standard for the care in which older films should be brought to modern-day audiences. A delightful little film that has more on its mind that the main plot would suggest, Syncopation is recommended viewing for anyone with at least a passing interest in jazz.

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Album Review: Supertramp — Crime of the Century (Deluxe Edition)

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Among fans of progressive-minded 1970s rock, Supertramp have rarely gotten a fair shake. And the reasons are difficult to discern. Could it be the high-pitched lead vocals of co-lead singer Roger Hodgson? That’s doubtful; many prog fans took a strong liking to Jon Anderson‘s upper-register vocals in Yes (and please don’t get me started on Geddy Lee). Could it be the fact that Supertramp scored some Top 40 hit singles, most notably during the Breakfast in America era? That’s more likely to have been a factor, one potentially damaging their prog street-cred.

But their music remains. And once the group found their musical footing (though good, their earliest albums find them struggling for a defined sound), Supertramp produced some of the finest and most accessible prog-leaning “album rock” of the 1970s. And their high water mark came with their third LP, 1974′s Crime of the Century. By that point in the band’s career, all of the musical pieces of the puzzle had come together effectively. With a pair of singers (guitarist/keyboardist Hodgson and founder/keyboardist Richard Davies), neither of whom greatly enjoyed the spotlight(!), onstage the band’s spokesman and focal point was sax/reedman John Helliwell. The disparate influences upon the two primary songwriters (Hodgson and Davies) might have given the group’s sound a split personality, but somehow the two blended effectively.

Crime of the Century sports one of the era’s most seamlessly effective first sides. One wonders if the atmospherics that open “School” impressed Roger Waters; with a schoolyard scream leading into the song, “School” presages a similar approach used on Pink Floyd‘s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two),” a centerpiece of The Wall, a 1979 concept album with not-dissimilar subject matter. And the song’s dynamics – especially the slow-burn buildup to the delightful electric piano solo – are nothing short of thrilling.

“Bloody Well Right” is the earliest among the band’s well-known songs, and was released as a single (U.S. #35), but even it is a bit “progressive” for the singles charts. While the chorus is pretty well a singalong, the power-chording verses are another thing entirely.

“Hide in Your Shell” is this writer’s all-time favorite Supertramp song. Combining all of the sonic elements that make the band special, the melancholy yet uplifting lyric is a thing of beauty. And a good portion of its run time (nearly seven minutes) consists of hypnotically repeated musical motifs. Saxophone – an instrument with a mixed pedigree as part of a progressive rock lineup — is used to exceedingly good effect here and throughout Crime of the Century. Side One ends with “Asylum,” a lament that’s (again) melancholy, but that also possesses the widescreen grandeur one might expect to find on a Queen album of the era.

It would be difficult to top the first side of the album, and Side Two doesn’t really do that. But it’s effective enough, and carries forth the aesthetic established in the album’s first half. “Dreamer” kicks things off with its memorable and insistent Wurlitzer electric piano. In fact, “Dreamer” was the first single released off of Crime of the Century, but it failed to dent the charts in the USA (it reached #13 at home in the UK). But the determination that “Dreamer” was a commercially viable track wasn’t exactly wrong; it was simply a bit ahead of its time: a live version of “Dreamer,” released as a single off of 1980′s Paris, reached #15 on the American charts (and #1 in Canada).

“Rudy” is another melancholy number, providing contrast with the side’s opening cut. With Davies’ plaintive lead vocal and soulful, nimble acoustic piano work, the tune might remind some of Billy Joel at his best. The contemplative ambience continues with “If Everyone Was Listening,” another piano-led number that has a feel not completely removed from The Beatles‘ “Fool on the Hill.” As the song progresses and instruments are added, the arrangement unfolds into something quite lovely.

Back in the 70s, artists didn’t feel the need to extend their albums to eighty minutes; the album closes with the title track, a melodramatic number featuring arrangement and production flourishes that recall/foreshadow Bob Ezrin‘s work for Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and…Pink Floyd’s The Wall. (Crime of the Century was in fact ably produced by the estimable Ken Scott with the band.) Some lovely twin lead guitar work – a feature not in great supply on this keyboard-centered album – is a nice touch. The track’s soaring string arrangement is the cherry on top.

The 2015 Deluxe Edition of Crime of the Century includes the original album in a digipak that features an excellent and lengthy liner note essay by Mojo editor-in-chief Phil Alexander. And a bonus disc provides an audio document of a March 1975 Supertramp concert in London. The live disc serves to illustrate a couple of key points about Supertramp of that era. One, they were very, very good live onstage, succeeding at recreating the sonic landscape of their studio album with only their five-piece lineup. And two, Supertramp had some seriously high-caliber live sound reinforcement. The mid 1970s are not remembered as a golden era for live concert sound, and the subtleties of electric and acoustic pianos, saxophones, harmonicas and the like could often be lost onstage. But not on this night, and not with this band.

The concert as presented here includes the entirety of Crime of the Century, played start to finish in order, with five additional songs inserted in the space where home listeners would have flipped over their vinyl LP. All of these (save an impromptu reading of “A – You’re Adorable”) would appear on the group’s next album, Crisis? What Crisis?, released six months later, but at this stage they most likely had not yet been recorded in any form.

Sometimes Deluxe Editions offer up little in the way of an upgrade over the original release. But Supertramp’s Crime of the Century: Deluxe Edition effectively supplants earlier releases of this classic album, and is recommended in the strongest terms.

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A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part Three)

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: As we discussed earlier, you’re credited as co-producer on the new Trip Shakespeare reissues of Applehead Man and Are You Shakespearienced? I assume that the original albums were cut on analog equipment, right?

John Munson: Yup.

BK: So were the masters in good shape? Did you do anything along the lines of remastering or fiddling with the mixes for the reissues?

JM: I really left the actual masters to Omnivore. I approved the masters. Because they sounded just great to me. Immediately. It was like, “Oh, this is just so much better.” On Are You Shakespearienced? in particular.

In some cases, we didn’t have great stuff to work with. A lot of the source material has been lost to the sands of time. [laughs] The sands have washed over and buried a lot of the stuff. So while I think they had the original half-inch masters for Are You Shakespearienced?, we couldn’t find them for Applehead Man. So they might have had to work with a CD version, and then remaster it. But they improved both of them so much, in my opinion.

BK: When Trip Shakespeare ended, you went on to work with Dan Wilson in Semisonic, and then when that ended you teamed up with Matt Wilson for The Twilight Hours. From that I assume you’re all still on pretty good terms. I know you got together to play two songs onstage in December 2013. With the buzz created around these reissues, has there been any talk of a Trip Shakespeare reunion, even just a one-off?

JM: [grasps for the right words] You know, I would love to do it. And certainly a lot of friends are like, “Come on!” [laughs, and then turns more serious] It was…a complicated band. It’s not like you could just uncork it and pour out the magic. If we were going to do a full show, it would take a lot of effort and time to do that. And I think we’re all a bit leery of…crapping on our legacy. [laughs]

BK: I appreciate your candor.

JM: Well, you know, a lot of my mates tell me, “You guys were the tightest fuckin’ band I ever saw.” And we spent the time. So it’s not necessarily so easy to fall back into it. Think about what Elaine [Harris] does, for example. That stand-up drumming thing is not like falling off a log. Even to do the couple of tunes that we did at the [2013] Holiday gig, I chose the songs that I thought would be the least strain on her. And she killed it, of course. But she practiced for months to get herself back up to a level where she felt comfortable.

And so that’s what it would take. And I don’t know if anybody has the time. I would do it in a heartbeat. But I think it would have to be the right offer, or something like that.

BK: You make a good point. A big part of what made Trip Shakespeare loved by the people that loved them was the fact that so much care did go into the music. I love the Replacements, too, like you mentioned. But their aesthetic was, if they screwed up, that was part of the charm. That was never the Trip Shakespeare approach. It was finely honed. And if you got together for a ramshackle performance, it would be kind of crapping on the legacy, quite honestly: “What’s this!?”

JM: I think that’s true. So if we were to do it, we would do it with tender loving care. And if we didn’t do it, the reason would be because we didn’t have the time to pour the attention that we wanted to into it.

BK: Changing subjects a bit now, if you don’t mind. As I mentioned at the beginning, I absolutely loved Stereo Night by The Twilight Hours. I have the red vinyl. In fact on my blog I named it one of 2009′s best albums along with Pugwash (who are now also on Omnivore), along with albums by Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, a Big Star box set, and the like. What’s the current status of The Twilight Hours?

JM: It’s funny that you should ask, because I was just comping a vocal for a record that we’re all but done with…

BK: I am so happy to hear that.

JM: We have about three vocals left to do. And then it’s going to be mixed, and – by God – it’s gonna be out this year! It’s definitely going to happen.

It’s been such a journey. The thing about it is, it’s hard to have it be anything less than exactly what you want it to be. Because there’s no urgency to sort of just kick it out the door. Because what’s going to happen? No one knows. Very little, probably. There’s no momentum that we have to pursue, so we just have to satisfy ourselves, essentially, and get it out.

I should mention – no big secret – that Dan actually sang on a couple of tracks. I almost feel like we should get Elaine to play on it a little bit, and then it would almost be like a little bit of a Trip Shakespeare reunion in some sense.

BK: As much as I loved Semisonic, when I first heard Twilight Hours, I thought, “This is more of a straight line from what Trip Shakespeare did.” It’s different, certainly, but it had more in common with Trip Shakespeare than Semisonic did. To my ears, anyway.

JM: For sure. That’s Matt. Dan and Matt, they’re brothers, and their voices sound very similar sometimes, but their artistic sensibilities are quite different. Dramatically different, really.

For me, when we started up Semisonic, that was really refreshing. Because as great a time as we all had doing Trip Shakespeare, by the time that we kind of augered in [laughs] and were like a burning heap on the runway, I was done with it. All the baroque moves and the attention to detail, I – and all of us in the band, even Matt – had become tired of it. It was just too much.

Have you ever heard Matt’s [1998 solo] record Burnt, White and Blue?

BK: No, I haven’t…

JM: Oh, you must get that. If you’re a fan of Matt’s music – and it sounds like you most definitely are – you should find it. It’s a truly great record. He made that right around the time that Dan and I were making Feeling Strangely Fine, which has “Closing Time” on it.

It kind of shows: both projects were kind of incompatible with the Trip Shakespeare sensibility. It was more like a straight rock approach. But I think that by the time we came around to Stereo Night, the Trip Shakespeare viewpoint was a little more…it was back, a little bit.


And in a sense, Trip Shakespeare are back. The new Omnivore Recordings reissues of their first two albums, Applehead Man and Are You Shakesperienced? are out now, packed with previously unreleased bonus tracks and featuring excellent liner notes by Jon Niccum, including numerous quotes from John Munson, Elaine Harris, Matt Wilson and Dan Wilson.

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A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part Two)

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: When Trip Shakespeare cut Applehead Man, you were originally a trio. By the time of the second album, Matt Wilson‘s brother Dan had joined. Two brothers. How did that change the dynamics of the band?

John Munson: Well, it did change it. I was sheepishly telling somebody the other day that when Dan joined the band, I cried. Literally. It broke my heart. I was quite content to have it be a trio, and I suspected that with Dan coming in, it would change the dynamic in way that would lock me out.

And that did not turn out to be the case. What it really did was put the whole vocal concept way more forward. I was recently listening to the Applehead Man remaster, and there’s a lot of cool vocal stuff going on there. But it’s almost all Matt. After Applehead Man came out, and we started to do more gigs, Matt’s voice revealed itself to be a pretty fragile instrument. And as we were talking with agents about doing more shows, one guy said, “Well…Dan can sing really well. And John can sing. Why don’t you figure out a way that Matt can sing a little bit less? Maybe that will make it easier on you.” Matt really took that to heart, and that’s when the larger vocal concept moved forward. That’s when the vocal arrangements got really dense and [laughs] baroque.

Matt would write songs and then say, “I think this is one for you to sing.” So it wasn’t necessarily even songs that I was writing that I’d sing; Matt would just say, “This one’s for you, John. You sing it.” Also, another thing that would sometimes happen is that Matt would write a song, and then everyone would try it, to see whose voice it worked best with.

BK: A band is dealing from a position of strength when they have multiple lead singers.

JM: It’s true. But on the other hand, while from a musical point of view it makes good sense, it makes it more confusing for the audience: “Who’s really in charge?” It’s kind of important to audiences to kind of know who’s the sort of heroic, artistic auteur. I think audiences want that on some level. So sometimes when I think about what went wrong, I sometimes wonder if that was a factor. For a certain kind of fan, it was something they really attached to, gravitated toward. But I think for most, for more general audiences, it made it harder to understand the band.

BK: Good point, I guess. But…it worked for the Beatles.

JM: [laughs] I guess that’s true! Lest we forget.

BK: We’ve already begun to touch on this point. I’m not the first to comment on the seemingly magical qualities of sibling vocalists in a band. The Everly Brothers, The Kinks, hell, even Oasis. So that was something you picked up on once Dan joined…

JM: Most definitely. There’s something that happens there; maybe it’s the shape of the voice box. It’s magical, or just genetic. And beyond understanding. You can’t coach it; it just happens.

BK: Both of the new reissues – Applehead Man and Are You Shakespearienced? – include lots of bonus material in the form of previously unreleased tracks. When you heard these bonus cuts again recently, did you remember them? Or had they all faded away in the mists of memory?

JM: As a matter of fact, I basically oversaw the gleanings and cullings and all that. So I was quite familiar with those tracks by the time these reissues came out. To me, in every single case with any and all of that stuff, there was a good reason why it didn’t see the light of day originally. But also, I believe that in every case there’s a reason why it might be interesting to the more serous fan. There are some gems in there.

I had kind of gone through…hmm…I want to say maybe as long as fifteen years ago…and gathered up a bunch of outtake stuff and said, “Look. We’ve got all this stuff. There’s an interest. People would enjoy it. Let’s put it out.” I presented it to the band, and there was [pauses] a real reluctance to go down that road at that time. And so I put it away, sat on it. And then when Cheryl [Pawelski] called, she asked, “Do you have any outtake-type material?” And I said, “Oh, yes I do.” And enough time had gone by so that – even reluctantly – people were willing to let it come out.

There are still a few things hanging around, that we’re saving for the next record if that actually happens. And if it doesn’t…maybe I’ll put that stuff up online or something…

BK: …Which leads very nicely into my next question. I know you did one EP after Lulu. I’ve never heard Volt but I’m sure I’d like hearing Trip Shakespeare do covers. Are there plans for Omnivore Recordings to eventually reissue Across the Universe and Lulu, and if so, do you think the songs from Volt will end up as bonus tracks?

JM: Most definitely Across the Universe and Lulu. Or…at least we’re discussing it. I think the big issue for Cheryl and for Brad [Rosenberger, both of Omnivore] is, does it make financial sense? I don’t have any idea if this [Trip Shakespeare reissue program] is working out the way that they had hoped, or better than they had hoped, or not as well. I really don’t know. I do know that the initial reissues were really nicely received here in the Twin Cities. But beyond that I don’t really have any concept of how it’s done.

That was the thing about the band: it was well-loved in the Midwest, and as you got farther and farther from there, it [dwindled]. We had an audience in New York and Boston; it became a thing that was only in bigger towns. It kind of petered out as we got toward the coast, a little bit.

BK: Well, yeah. I grew up in Atlanta, and I bought both of the A&M albums when they came out, on vinyl. But I didn’t know anyone else who did. [laughs]

JM: Not very many people did. We had very good friends down at Wax n’ Facts [record store]. I think we played in Little Five Points here and there. We had a good friend named Jim Barber, who was a big mover and shaker down that way. Atlanta was actually one of our little strongholds. But the records did best in the upper Midwest, for sure.

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A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part One)

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

My interview with John Munson, bassist with late 1980s critical darlings Trip Shakespeare, began with him noting that my name sounded familiar to him: “How might I have heard your name before?” he asked me. I told him that it may well have been in connection with my enthusiastic 2009 review of an album that he and Matt Wilson (as The Twilight Hours) released, a record called Stereo Night. (I’d go on to name Stereo Night one of 2009′s best albums, and I stand by that assertion more than five years later.)

We would discuss that subject more later in the interview, but Munson agreed that that was probably where he had heard/seen my name: “Whatever reviews that record ever got, I read them with great interest,” he laughed. “Because there weren’t that many of them!” He then made a keen observation. “Every musician becomes accustomed to the fact that at least a goodly portion of their total output will be ignored.” He laughed when he said that, too, but his comment serves as good an introduction as any into the main subject of our interview.

In 1986, Minneapolis-based Trip Shakespeare released Applehead Man, their first album, on tiny local label Gark records. At the time the group was a trio: founder and guitarist Matt Wilson, bassist John Munson, and stand-up drummer Elaine Harris. The album was a bit out of step with the prevailing “Minneapolis sound” (whatever that was) but it was an excellent debut. The group followed that disc up two years later with Are You Shakespearienced? again on Gark. By that point they had added a second guitarist, Dan Wilson, who also happened to be Matt’s brother.

On the strength of those two albums and their live performances, Trip Shakespeare finally got noticed, and by 1989 the group had signed with A&M Records. They’d go on to release two major-label albums and an EP before breaking up around 1992. After the group ended, two members (Munson and Dan Wilson) went on to form Semisonic, a more musically straightforward band that scored major hits, most notably the single “Closing Time.” After that band ended, Munson teamed again with Matt Wilson for Twilight Hours. Dan Wilson then embarked on a successful solo career.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: those first two Trip Shakespeare albums have now been reissued by Omnivore Recordings, each appended with bonus tracks that nearly double the length of each disc. The former members of the band remain on good terms (as you’ll discover reading our conversation), and they cooperated on this new reissue. In fact, John Munson is credited (along with Omnivore’s Grammy-winning Cheryl Pawelski) as co-producer of the reissues.

As a longtime fan of Trip Shakespeare and the members’ subsequent musical activities, I jumped at the opportunity to chat with John Munson. Picking up again just after his observation about toiling in obscurity, here’s our conversation. – bk


Bill Kopp: For me, one of the most appealing hallmarks of Trip Shakespeare’s sound has been your bass. Not only what you play, but how. It sounds like a lot of what you did was played on a fretless.

John Munson: That kind of started to happen a little after the first two records. I did play some fretless on Are You Shakesperienced? But none on Applehead Man. I had started to learn it when the band started, but I wasn’t confident enough with it to subject people to my learning curve. Later, I got bolder about making mistakes.

BK: The only other rock player of note I can think of who played a good bit of fretless was Colin Moulding of XTC. Are there any bass players you’d name as influential on your style?

JM: I grew up [listening to Paul] McCartney. My brother had all those records; he would get them as soon as they came out. And I really love Colin Moulding, too, as a matter of fact. And John Paul Jones was another guy who used some fretless bass here and there. I’m really an admirer of his; he’s a really funky, groovy bass player. People don’t always think of him that way, but he’s got a lot going on.

It’s the melodious players that I love the most. And certainly if you’re playing fretless, you know that Jaco Pastorius is a guy that always comes to mind. I could never be him, never play “Donna Lee.” But I love his sound; it was so very expressive.

BK: And now you can say that you have music out on the same label as he does…

JM: Is that right?

BK: Yes. Some really early Pastorius stuff came out on Omnivore in 2014. An album called Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions. Really good.

JM: Oh, I’m gonna have to pester Cheryl for that! [laughs]

BK: To me, a strong sense of melody has always been at the heart of Trip Shakespeare’s music. The band was never “twee” so to speak, but neither was it as funky as Prince or as hard-edged as Hüsker Dü. At the time – in the mid 1980s – how did you see yourselves fitting into the music scene in Minneapolis?

JM: You know, I think that we never did fit in, to be perfectly honest. At that time, I remember that people would talk about the “Minneapolis sound.” And if you were actually in Minneapolis, it never really made all that much sense. Because there was so much going on, and it was all really different. I mean, how do you square Hüsker Dü with Prince? It doesn’t add up. And both artists would be characterized as the Minneapolis sound. Not to mention The Replacements and the nascent version of Soul Asylum, Loud Fast Rules. There was a lot of different music going on, and to some extent Trip Shakespeare stood a little bit outside of that mainstream of rockin’ Minneapolis. It was a little bit…it’s hard to characterize yourself, but it was a little bit more…melodious and worked-over.

There was a real attitude, certainly among The Replacements, that they were tossing it off. Like, “Aw, it’s something we rolled out of bed and made into a record.” There were never any illusions for us, other than that we wanted to work really hard to make the music the best that we possibly could. And so some people, I think, thought that we worked it too hard, that to a certain strain of Minneapolis rockers we were kind of embarrassing: “Don’t show that you want it.”

BK: While composition of some of the songs on the albums are credited to the whole band, most are by Matt Wilson and/or his brother Dan Wilson. But on every Trip Shakespeare album, and later, on every Semisonic album, you have at least one composition credit or co-credit. To what extent were you involved in things like vocal arrangement, musical arrangement and so forth?

JM: I think everyone in the band was pretty darn involved in developing the songs. A band needs a kind of engine, an urgent aesthetic point of view. And for Trip Shakespeare, that was definitely Matt. It was Matt’s vision from the get-go. He had a concept for what it was that he wanted to accomplish. But he was also the foremost advocate for a democratic band view; he wanted the whole band to be involved in the band. And so everybody really was involved, and we worked really hard to make vocal arrangements and things like that that really worked for all of us.

And he’s also very encouraging in terms of writing. Both Dan and Matt were always encouraging me to put my ideas forward, which is great.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 5

Friday, March 6th, 2015

For the final entry in this run of hundred-word reviews, I take quick looks at some rare and/or reissued music. I think it’s all worth your time.

TV Eyes – TV Eyes
TV Eyes was a 90s alternapop supergroup. Jason Falkner has a stunningly high quality catalog of his own. Roger Manning was a prime mover in Jellyfish, one of the 1990s’ best, least-appreciated bands. And Brian Reitzell is renowned for his work with Air and Moog Cookbook. The bad news is that the group’s sole (2006) album was Japan-only. Until now, that is. Its dance-friendly sound weds guitar pop to an electroclash underpinning; it will appeal to Gary Numan fans. TV Eyes also helps explain what Beck saw in Falkner and Manning (both toured as part of his band in 2014).

Ron Nagle – Bad Rice
I find it endlessly fascinating just how many truly creative artists are lurking right around the fringes of rock’s universe. Nagle was a member of The Mystery Trend, a band who were historically important (if largely unknown) in the 60s San Francisco scene. And as co-leader of Dūrocs, he created some skewed (and again underheard) pop music. And there’s his solo album, done in the interregnum between those projects. It’s even less known, originally released on the cult-friendly Warner Brothers label (see also: Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, etc.). It’s more mainstream than its pedigree suggests, and it’s funny, too.

Linda Jones – The Complete Atco, Loma, & Warner Brothers Recordings
Jones’ 1967 single (R&B #4) “Hypnotized” may well be where the malpropism “hyp-mo-tized” originated. Regardless, that and many of her other singles of the era are fine examples of gospel-flavored soulful R&B. When she passed away prematurely in 1972 (as the result of a diabetic coma) at age 27, she left behind an impressive if under-appreciated body of work. Her expressive voice and breathtaking range are showcased in her music. Real Gone Music once again does yeoman’s work in rescuing these 21 sides from obscurity, and working through the knotty licensing to bring them all together on a single disc.

The 5 Stairsteps – Our Family Portrait / Stairsteps
A family band in the Jackson 5ive style (though the Burke family recorded before the Jacksons), The Five Stairsteps are sometimes characterized as bubblegum (or “bubblesoul”). True, there’s an undeniable family-friendly vibe to their music, but that shouldn’t diminish their work in the ears of music lovers. From the doo-wop-meets-TV-variety-show music of “A Million to One” to their smash “O-o-h Child,” there are pleasures to be found throughout their catalog. But their first two albums (now compiled on CD with bonus tracks) are their best. Their covers (“The Look of Love” and studio-era Beatles album cuts) are often quite impressive.

The Unforgiven – The Unforgiven (Expanded Edition)
Imagine if The Alarm were from Los Angeles instead of Wales, and you’ll have an idea of what this six-piece sounded like. Very dated 80s production flourishes (gunshot drum sounds, roaring arena-styled guitar) wedded to the odd c&w flourish (an occasional dab of pedal steel) and a perhaps ill-advised preoccupation with their look (cowboy dusters before every lame country band started wearing ‘em) are the three legs of The Unforgiven‘s musical stool. Every song swings for the fences, wanting to be an anthem, and it’s all a bit too earnest. Worth a listen but in no way a lost classic.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 4

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Prog, jazz, blues: there’s something for most musical tastes in today’s roundup of hundred-word reviews.

Mark Wingfield – Proof of Light
If there’s a common raison d’être among the varied acts signed to Leonardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune label, it’s to explore the sweet spot at which jazz and rock convene. Wingfield’s disc features a trio format – electric guitar, upright bass and drums – but what you’ll hear suggests the presence of other instruments. Imagine a low-key Joe Satriani with less flash and more of a jazz sensibility — albeit with plenty of skronky electric guitar texture – and you’ll be on the path to what this all-instrumental sounds like. The arrangements are subtle, but listen closely and there’s a lot going on.

Winter in Eden – Court of Conscience
Just when I finish a piece in which I assert that there are pretty much no women in prog, along comes this disc, by a UK symphonic progressive act. Soaring Mellotron-sounding keyboards (on the “choir” setting) are met by thundering bass lines, and the requisite tricky time signature work from the drummer. Lots of sonic light and shade means that graceful piano lines are met by crushing, edge-of-metal arrangements. The one-sheet tells us that the band is popular at “various Femme Metal Festivals.” That such a thing exists is news to me. A worthy purchase for fans of the genre.

Mississippi Heat – Warning Shot
I’m always a little guarded when I stumble across an album that sports of a picture of a really large band. It makes me think of those terrible horror-metal bands like Slipknot: does it take nine people to make that sound? To be fair, while the Warning Shot credits list thirteen players, the photo only shows seven. What we have here is traditional, Chicago-styled electric blues with harmonica and vocals out front. Nothing new, really, but then “new” isn’t what most people want from a blues outfit. It swings, and for fans of the harp-through-the-Green-Bullet vibe, it’s just the ticket.

Tony Joe White – The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings
The early 70s music scene seems to have been filled with white singers who could traffic in a credible southern soul style. Louisiana-born Tony Joe White was one of the best, often outshining guys like Elvis Presley (no slouch himself). With a style that sometimes sounds very much like Creedence Clearwater Revival fronted by Mark Lindsay, White turned out three fine albums for Warner Brothers. His guitar playing is pretty impressive, too, in an understated rhythm-guitarist kinda way. Nearly every track here is a White original. No “Polk Salad Annie” (that was earlier in his career), but many other gems.

The Soft Machine – Tanglewood Tails
Canterbury legends The Soft Machine are one of the genre’s best-loved groups. With their jazz meets rock aesthetic, they were an early bridge between the then-disparate styles. Their first several albums are legendary, and deserve to be part of every serious music lover’s core collection. The 2CD set Tanglewood Tails, however, is really a for-the-faithful set of rarities, outtakes and other lo-fi oddities from the group’s earliest days. Studio tracks (such as the delightful “Clarence in Wonderland”) are cracked pop that will appeal to fans of Syd Barrett, as long as one can overlook the consistently distracting dodgy sound quality.

This series of hundred-word reviews wraps up tomorrow.

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Album Review: The Residents’ Commercial Album

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Ex-Turtles and Mothers vocalists Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) used to have a nationally-syndicated radio show. One recurring component of the merry duo’s program involved spinning records by some of their musical peers. The thing is, they wouldn’t play anywhere near the whole song: after they felt like they had given listeners the gist of a song, off it went.

The thinking behind that practice was simple: once you’ve heard a minute or so of a pop song, you’ve pretty well heard everything it has to offer. The rest is repetition. This is true (perhaps to an alarming extent) for most pop, rock, blues, country, soul, funk, and r&b. In fact I apply that thinking whenever I’m doing one of my periodic “smash or trash” exercises to determine which submissions get reviewed. (Because of the complexity and shifting tone that are hallmarks of jazz and progressive rock, music of those genres gets a more thorough once-over).

But I didn’t invent the idea, and as much as I love Flo and Eddie, they didn’t come up with it, either. Neither, perhaps, did The Residents, but they may well have been the first musical artists to explore the idea in depth and then craft an entire album by applying its principles.

That’s the underlying premise/concept of the group’s 1980 album The Residents’ Commercial Album. Certainly not commercial in the most popular definition (as in, accessible and lending itself to mass marketing), the Commercial Album takes its name from the fact that each of its forty tracks are exactly sixty seconds long…like a television commercial.

Across forty tracks, The inscrutable collective that is The Residents explore the pop landscape from their skewed perspective. But in its own twisted way, Commercial Album is – by Residential standards – fairly accessible stuff. Stripping their compositions down to the most basic elements, The Residents still endeavor to give listeners what (in other contexts) would be considered a verse and chorus. Often the vocals are delivered in the peculiar sung-spoken style that is the group’s trademark, but other times there’s actual singing (sometimes by guest artists including Lene Lovich and Snakefinger, both of whom have more, um, accessible vocal tones).

The instrumentation on Commercial Album‘s tracks varies from exceedingly minimalist (say, one synthesizer and a drum machine) to fully-developed “band” type arrangements that feature multiple musicians (or at least multiple overdubbed instrument parts). Occasionally, the tunes fall into a samey-ness of meter, but then – knowing The Residents – that characteristic may be a way for the group to wordlessly comment on the generic nature of much of what passes for pop music.

There are some catchy tunes here, as well. The first two cuts (“Easter Woman” and “Perfect Love”) are nothing if not pop-leaning in their construction and delivery (note that when it comes to matters of accessibility, The Residents are graded on a curve). It’s worth noting just how far The Residents traveled musically between their debut album Meet the Residents (recorded 1974, but not widely released until 1977) and Commercial Album just a few years later. For pop-attuned ears, Commercial Album is far easier to take than the group’s first disc. But the changes/refinements The Residents made to their music in the interim didn’t dilute their vision a bit: Commercial Album is as weird and wonderful as ever.

It’s also worth pointing out just how difficult it is to create forty distinct songs that are all exactly the same length. Some groups have almost achieved that kind of thing by accident (see The Ramones‘ early catalog for evidence) but doing it on purpose is some sort of accomplishment in and of itself.

That The Residents’ Commercial Album is listenable and entertaining start to finish is a testament to the group’s quality of vision. The 2014 CD reissue of the album by MVD doesn’t offer anything new in the way of bonus tracks (a 1988 reissue had ten) or liner notes(!), but then The Residents’ Commercial Album has always been just fine the way it is.

By the way, four more of my Residents reviews (and an interview!) are HERE.

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The Bobby Lance Story, Part Three

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Listening now, “More Than Enough Rain” isn’t even the best track on First Peace. Lance’s soulful vocal work, supported by The Sweet Inspirations, is a highlight of the album. There’s not a trace of Lance’s Brooklyn roots in his singing; he sounds like an authentic son of the South, and he insists that it came naturally when he sang. Because most of the songs were Lance/Robins compositions originally intended for various other acts on Atlantic, the record is a showcase of varying styles. The gospel strains of Lance’s Southern-flavored blue-eyed soul come to the fore on “Brother’s Keeper,” and it’s easy to imagine Aretha Franklin covering “One Turn You’re In One Turn You’re Out.”

Overall, the First Peace sessions cost a good bit of money. But because Motown was poised to share in any profits First Peace made, the decision was made at the highest levels within Atlantic not to promote the record. So despite the strong songs and performances, First Peace didn’t make a ripple on the album charts; the LP would quickly go out of print. The label gave the record only a perfunctory push, releasing a pair of singles to radio stations: “Brother’s Keeper” and “Shake Down Blues” were both promo-only 45rpm discs, featuring monaural mixes (for AM radio play) on the A-side, and stereo (for FM stations) on the B side.

In late summer 1971, Lance got a pair of rare, if brief, mentions in Billboard Magazine’s “Signings” column, noting that he had recently signed a new management contract with SAS, Inc., the artist management firm run by Sidney Seidenberg, B.B. King‘s longtime manager. While his musical career was bearing creative fruit, behind the scenes, his career was a mess, with SAS, Motown and Atlantic all involved to varying (and confusing) degrees.

Still, by 1972, Lance was once again in the studio, there to cut his follow-up LP. And in line with his goals as an artist, he sought to make an album that reflected his individual creative persona. Now billing himself only as B. Lance, he was recording for release on the higher-profile Atlantic label. Rollin’ Man would bear the credit, “Arranged and Produced by Bob Lance,” though engineer Geoff Haslam – in demand thanks to his production work on a successful string of albums by Atlantic label mates Cactus – played a significant role. Recording in the company’s New York City studios, Lance had chosen not to use the Muscle Shoals session players for the album. Instead he auditioned and assembled a proper band, and the members – coming from Alabama, Chicago and New York City – had convened in New York for several weeks of pre-recording rehearsals.

Gone, too, were King Curtis and his horns, The Sweet Inspirations, and Edwards’ string arrangements. Nor was Lance’s sister Fran Robins involved: all nine tunes of Rollin’ Man are Lance solo compositions.

Alabama-born guitarist Kenny Mims handled all lead guitar duties on the album; it was his first professional gig ever, but his lean and assured lines – like the double-tracked leads on “Bar Room Sally” – sound like the work of a seasoned pro. And though his background was in jazz, keyboardist Mitch Kerper played in a rollicking, R&B style; the instrumental dialogue between Kerper and Mims throughout the album – most notably on the eight-minute-plus “Hot Wood and Coal” – is one Rollin’ Man‘s most enduring features. “She Made Me a Man” is a soulful ballad in a style similar to Lance’s fellow New Yorker, Laura Nyro. The call-and-response vocals of “John the Rollin’ Man” – all overdubbed by Lance – capture the rhythm and blues vibe. The rhythm section of Dick Bunn (bass) and drummer Jimmy Evans cooks on “You’ve Got to Rock Your Own.” And with its mix of Mississippi delta acoustic blues guitar and gospel-inflected piano, “He Played the Reals” features a lyric that explores Lance’s deep feeling for the music he loves. And the brief “Tribute to a Woman” closes the album with a message to the woman Lance loved.

The Rollin’ Man LP came housed in a gatefold sleeve that featured Lance’s lyrics alongside a photo collage. Like its predecessor, and again without marketing support from Atlantic, Rollin’ Man did not chart; most copies of the semi-rare LP found today are cut-outs (remaindered, non-returnable stock). No one seems to know how many copies Atlantic pressed. The label did release a legitimate (as in, not simply a promotional disc) single, “Rock Your Own” b/w an edit of “Hot Wood and Coal” from Rollin’ Man, but it, too, failed to chart.

In the meantime, as part of his contract, Lance continued with other duties for the label. He handled vocal arrangement duties for King Curtis’ “Ridin’ Thumb” on Curtis’ 1971 Atco LP Everybody’s Talkin’, and penned “If a Dream Goes By,” a non-charting 1972 Garland Green soul side on Cotillion.

Lance’s sister Fran continued her songwriting career on her own, penning a number of songs for a wide variety of acts including Tony Orlando. She also began doing public readings of her poetry, mostly in the town of New Bern NC, were she and husband Norm lived. In her later years she was reportedly working on a musical. Fran Robins passed away in May 2014.

By the end of 1972, with the terms of his Atlantic contract fulfilled, Lance found himself without a record deal. Since neither First Peace nor Rollin’ Man had scored any chart activity, there was little demand for a follow-up record. The Rollin’ Man lineup landed a few live dates in and around New York City, but nothing high profile came of their efforts.

Lance soon left the business and settled in Tarrytown, New York, just up the Hudson River from New York City. He eventually enrolled in college, earning a pair of Bachelor’s Degrees: one in Biology and one in Music. He also earned a Master’s Degree in Education. Lance developed an interest in literacy through music, eventually combining his musical background with teaching. For nearly twenty years now he has been teaching students in a school environment. He still writes songs and plays music.

Thanks to Norm Robins, Kenny Mims, and Bob Lance for their help in researching this story.

You can purchase Bobby Lance’s First Peace/Rollin’ Man here.

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