Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Album Review: Oscar Peterson — Exclusively for My Friends [6LP box set]

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Oscar Peterson was one of the most beloved figures in jazz. His recording career began in 1945, got fully underway in the 1950s, and tapered off as his health declined (he passed away in 2007). His catalog of recorded works is vast – well in excess of 200 albums – and contains many records considered essential to serious jazz fans.

One of the most interesting chapters in his discography is the series of albums released under the heading “Exclusively for My Friends.” In 1968, Montreal-born Peterson recorded six albums, all recorded in the small German city of Villingen-Schwenningen, specifically in the private living-room studio of Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer. (A ’65 session at Brunner-Schwer’s forms part of one of the discs.) Working in various configurations – solo piano, as a trio – Peterson effortlessly wound his way through the Great American Songbook, standards, show tunes, and (occasionally) his own compositions. These intimate performances – some of which were recorded in the presence of a small, invited audience – have been combined in a lavish, 6LP set titled Exclusively For My Friends.

The six LPs that make up this set –all of which The Penguin Guide to Jazz considers part of a jazz “core collection” – were originally issued in the late 1960s as individual albums; in 1992 MPS (the original issuing label, owned by Brunner-Schwer) licensed the set to Island Records, who reissued the material in a 4CD box set. But now in 2014, MPS has brought the material back to market in its original format.

Well, more or less. In many ways, the new Exclusively for My Friends box set is the best of all possible worlds, an improved version of the originals. The records have all been pressed on 180 gram virgin vinyl. The utmost care has gone into the remastering of the albums (a liner note essay from MPS Producer Dirk Sommer titled, “Best Sound or Faithful to the Original?” explains the process (Sommer answers his own question: “Yes!”), noting that the entire audio chain of sequence is analog (AAA). The sound reproduction on these vinyl LPs may well be the finest I have ever heard. The care that went into the original recordings has been sustained straight through to the mastering and pressing of these new vinyl reissues.

The packaging is stunning as well. Each of the LPs is housed in its own gatefold sleeve, complete with the glossy, four-color artwork featured on the original LPs. The box that holds all six is quite sturdy, and classily understated in its design. But of course it’s the music that’s the real story here.

Action (Vol. 1)
The first recording in the series, Action (recorded 1968) finds Peterson joined by Ray Brown on bass and drummer Ed Thigpen. Tunes from the songbooks of Cole Porter (“At Long Last Love”) and the Gershwins (“I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “Foggy Day”) make up more than half of the disc. The watchwords here are nuance and subtlety: Peterson’s deft, lyrical piano work is the centerpiece of the session.

Girl Talk (Vol. 2)
This album – also originally released in 1968 – combines two sessions, one dating from the year of its release, and the other circa 1965. Louis Hayes (drums) and bassist Brown join Peterson on two tracks, including a medley of Porter and Johnny Mercer tunes; Bobby Durham and Sam Jones are in the studio with Peterson on the remaining numbers.

The Way I Really Play (Vol. 3)
Jones and Durham again support Peterson on the third album in the series, recorded April 1968 (and likely from the same session that yielded much of Girl Talk). This set is notable for featuring the only original Oscar Peterson compositions in the series, “Sandy’s Blues” and “Noreen’s Nocturne.” Elsewhere, it’s more classics from the pens of Gershwin and Mercer, among others.

My Favorite Instrument (Vol. 4)
For this set (also recorded in April 1968), Peterson goes solo to showcase a set of standards including “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Body and Soul.” Peterson’s readings are short and to the point: though the run time on the album is roughly the same as the others in this series (around 40-42 minutes), this set features more songs.

Mellow Mood (Vol. 5)
The title of this album – again from ’68, again with Jones and Durham on hand – is a bit misleading: it’s no more or less “mellow” than the other entries in the series. Another interpretation of a show tune (Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse‘s hit “Who Can I Turn To,” from the 1964 musical The Roar of the Gresepaint – The Smell of the Crowd) and more from both Duke Ellington and the Gershwins feature alongside Horace Silver‘s “Nica’s Dream.”

Travelin’ On (Vol. 6)
The last in the series – from the same sessions that yielded Mellow Mood – takes its title from the traditional song, here given a blindingly fast and precise reading by Peterson’s Trio. Francy Boland‘s “Sax No End” was a relatively new tune at the time of the Trio cutting their version of it here.

A limited-edition, promo-only 45rpm disc in picture sleeve of “On a Clear Day” (from Girl Talk) and “Alice in Wonderland” (from The Way I Really Play) went out to lucky reviewers. This new 6LP set is also available on open-reel tapes; those of a certain age may recall that in the late 60s and early 70s, open-reel tapes were the format of choice for audiophiles; these limited-edition tapes follow the same all-analog processing chain as their vinyl counterparts. Exclusively for My Friends is, as it happens, not exclusively for those with turntables or open-reel decks; the individual albums are also available in digital format – that would be AAD (analog recording, analog mixing, digital mastering) – for purchase/download from MPS.

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Album Review: Casual Strangers — Casual Strangers

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

A fellow music lover and good friend of mine is quite wary of what one might call deceptive packaging in music. You know, that thing where a band says that the sound like some other band, or that they’re in some particular subgenre (or when their publicist uses the RIYL* and references another well-known band), and then they sound nothing like you expect.

It happens more often than he or I would like. Oftentimes, my resultant disappointment is enough to put me off the band completely. But occasionally, I’ll find that I appreciate what they have on offer even if it doesn’t sync with how they were being marketed. That’s largely the case with Casual Strangers. On their self-titled and self-released debut (vinyl) LP, this Austin quartet purports to have elements of krautrock and psychedelia in their mix. And while there’s a droning vibe to some of their songs (ostensibly, that’d be the krautrock), and they have male-and-female lead vocals a la fellow Austinites The Black Angels (that’s where you’d check the psych box), Casual Strangers have more of an 80s alternarock sound about them.

Certainly there are elements that at least partially justify the genre associations in their press kit: Moog analog synths on the record, and 3D graphics on the cover (complete with 3D glasses in the package). On the opening track, “Tune Your Brain,” crunchy/grunge-y guitars are supported by thudding basslines and sampled drums. But the song quickly unfolds into something more interesting and deeply-textured. “Casual Strangers (We Used to Be Friends)” has a romantic, slinky feel, and the juxtaposition of gentle picking on electric guitar with warbling synthesizer provides a dreamy air of regret. But when Katey Gunn launches into her spoken-word monologue (complete with “no duh” and “dude,”) I couldn’t help be reminded of Moon Unit Zappa on “Valley Girl,” or Julie Brown‘s “Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun.” Comedy songs both; I’m pretty sure that’s not the association that Casual Strangers were hoping for.

Several of the songs employ drum machines that give way to real drums; it’s an odd signature, but it pulls the listener into the songs in unexpected ways. The band goes all-out with a stinging lead guitar solo to open “Looking Good.” Coupling that with the song’s male/female vocal dialogue between Gunn and Paul Waclawsky, and you end up with a rocking take on Berlin‘s “Sex (I’m a…).” That said, the tune could use a few more lyrics; here, they’re approaching Silver Convention territory in their lyrical sparseness.

“Banshee” features more of Gunn’s icy spoken-word approach; here she has a sort of Nico feel (without the Teutonic accent, of course). Waclawsky’s soaring guitar is the best thing about the song (and, I’m beginning to think, the album as a whole). “Space Blues” could well be titled “Hey Joe, Part 23.” But the band’s combination of the blues form and a psychedelic feel might remind some of Muddy WatersElectric Mud album. It’s not very original, but it’s fun, and I expect it goes over great live onstage.

“Caribbean Cask” applies the band’s style to a vaguely exotica-flavored tune (courtesy of Gunn’s lap steel), with bonus points for spaghetti western-styled reverb guitar. An instrumental track (save for some “found” vocal snippets), it’s one of the best and most original tracks on Casual Strangers.

The start-every-song-with-a-drum-machine schtick being to wear thin by “Don’t Worry About a Thing.” The song itself is good, full of Dream Syndicate-style melodrama. Here Waclawsky takes his turn at talking-not-singing, which is fine if you enjoy an album filled with that kind of thing.

Despite its drum machine intro (see also: too friggin’ many other tracks here) and yet more spoken vocals (Waclawsky), the guitar and sonic effect on “Cats Meow” make it worth checking out.

The less said about “Put Your Mussy On My Mussy,” the better. It might be a piss-take on early 80s suburban punk; it might not. Either way, listening to it is an annoying way to spend 1:48.

More found audio provides the opening of the album closer, “Casual Strangers (See You Around).” Once the drum machine does its obligatory thing, the brief number serves up a catchy melody. Though it features a too-spare-by-half lyric, its boppy, Cure-like arrangement is catchy. And when I hear the “See you next time” shout-out as the song fades, I want to respond, “Okay, but bring more songs like on Side One and this last bit, leave the drum machine at home, and…sing!

Verdict: Mostly not psychedelic. Mostly not krautrockish. But not without its charms, in a vaguely 80s retro sort of way.

* “Review If You Like…”

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Album Review: Abelardo Barroso with Orquesta Sensación — Cha Cha Cha

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Full disclosure, right up front: I know next to nothing about Cuban jazz. I enjoyed Kirsty MacColl‘s ventures into the genre, and I’ve long had a special place in my heart for The BeatlesLet it Be-era outtake, “Besame Mucho.” But that’s about it: beyond being able to say, “Yeah, that sounds like Cuban jazz,” and an appreciation that it influenced American jazz in the 50s and 60s, I don’t know a great deal about the genre.

But like you, dear reader, I do know what I like. And I very much like Cha Cha Cha, the new compilation of recordings featuring famed Cuban sonero mayor (lead singer) Abelardo Barroso, backed by Orquesta Sensación. Fourteen tunes dating from 1950s Havana, the songs on Cha Cha Cha present a delightful sampling of the work that the beloved Barroso did in that period.

It seems that there are quite a few Barroso compilations in the marketplace. His recorded legacy extends back to 1925, and his association with Orquesta Sensación was at the forefront of the “second charanga (Cuban traditional dance music) movement.” The roots of this music are decidedly Afro-cuban, and the mulato (mixed-race) Barroso was at the forefront of the style.

The album’s title might suggest that its contents feature some watered-down, dance-craze LP made by a bunch of gringos (my parents’ LP collection featured just such a record, with a Jane Russell-looking gal on its cover). And the graphical approach used on Cha Cha Cha is pointedly designed to look and feel like an old record: dated fonts, muted pastel colors, etc. But what’s going on in the grooves of Cha Cha Cha is far more substantial than all that: it’s not only historically important music, but it’s a heckuva lot of fun to listen to. Even if – like me – your Español is good enough only to get a drink or a face-slapping (or both).

The dapper Barroso shines on numbers such as “El Manisero,” a much-loved traditional Cuban song about a peanut vendor. The sexual undercurrent is clear in the song’s lyric in which a woman tells us she won’t get to sleep unless she can dine on a, er, peanut cone. The instrumentation on this and the other album tracks includes a good bit of percussion (congas, timbales and such) alongside prominent flute solo fills and silky violins. And the sonic quality of the recordings is superb: if Cha Cha Cha is in stereo (which it may be), there’s a very subtle bit of separation between left and right channels. But the sessions were clearly recorded with a great deal of care; that’s a bit surprising in light of the fact that these recordings were made 1955-57, the height of the Cuban revolution.

The vinyl album – from World Circuit, “the label that brought you Buena Vista Social Club,” the cover copy helpfully explains – is pressed on high 180-gram vinyl, includes a download card (though mine didn’t work online), and a pair of extensive and excellent liner note essays, one of which is an interview with Rolando Valdés, founder and director of Orquesta Sensación. A four-color booklet provides lyrics with English translations and brief background information, as well as lineup information about the orquesta. If one defines “world music” as anything that comes out of anywhere besides the USA, Canada and Great Britain, then Cha Cha Cha should be short-listed as one of 2014′s best world music reissue/compilations.

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Album Review: Midge Ure — Fragile

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

In my last review, I took a look at a new release from Colin Hay, an artist who came to prominence in the early 1980s with his group Men at Work. His latest album revisits the songs of those days, but not the sound. Today I’m focusing on another artist who first broke out in that same era; his new album features almost the opposite approach.

Like Colin Hay, Midge Ure was born in Scotland. But he remained in the UK for his musical career: his first musical endeavor of note (and historical importance) was as a member of Rich Kids, the 1977 group that also featured ex-Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock (aka The One Who Actually Knew How to Play). After that, of all things, he ended up replacing Gary Moore on guitar in Thin Lizzy.

Ure’s next ventures were the ones with which most people associate him: first, he rose to fame as guitarist and lead singer of Ultravox (most notably on their worldwide hit, “Vienna”). Next, in cooperation with cohort Bob Geldof (formerly of Boomtown Rats, later Sir Bob), he organized three musical mega-ventures: Band Aid‘s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (which Ure wrote), the 1985 Live Aid concert extravaganza, and the 2005 Live 8 shows (during which classic-lineup Pink Floyd appeared in their only post-The Wall reunion). Ure also scored a UK #1 single with his solo cut, “If I Was,” in 1985.

That song appeared on Ure’s solo debut, The Gift. He followed that album up with other solo discs every few years, but the time between new releases seemed to get longer with each release. Not counting some expanded repackaged reissues and an all-covers disc, the most recent music from Midge Ure had been 2001′s Move Me.

In 2014, Ure finally got ’round to a new disc, Fragile. The new album – available on vinyl – has already charted respectably (#66) in the UK, but hasn’t done so Stateside. That’s a shame, actually, because Fragile is quite good. All of the songs are new (well, as in, we haven’t heard them prior to now), but Ure’s sonic palette has a decidedly 80s sheen about it.

Ultravox’s sound might be described as a deft mix of cold, bloodless synth work and melodrama; those seemingly opposite qualities somehow worked splendidly when combined, creating a grandeur and elegance rarely matched by other synth-centric groups of its era. (Human League, for example, never did anything with the wide sweep of “Vienna.”)

And it’s that sound – or an updated rethinking of it – which forms the sonic tableau of Fragile. Ure’s voice alternates between a yearning, impassioned, keening approach (“Are We Connected”) and a near-whisper (“Let it Rise”). If you can imagine a more emotionally-based, much less angry version of Gary Numan, that’s close to what Ure sounds like on Fragile. He plays all of the instruments, save a bit of drum sampling and keyboard work (the latter by Moby).

As strong and compelling as Ure’s voice is throughout, it’s the seven-minute-plus “Wire and Wood” that is the highlight of Fragile. Ure’s multilayered instrumental approach folds in all sort of goodies: nylon string guitar, crystalline acoustic piano, tympani, analog-sounding synth pads, even what sounds like a just-slightly (as it should be) out of tune Mellotron.

Fragile rarely rocks, and rocking isn’t its goal. Instead it’s a collection of ten floating, shimmering melodies that highlight Ure’s wide array of talents: singing, composing, playing, and arranging. “Become” is a bit reminiscent of The Dream Academy, moved along with a throbbing synth line that makes good use of the stereo spectrum. And on “Star Crossed,” Ure combines the synthy sound of Ultravox with some roaring, 70s-styled sustained guitar, and even a bit of surprise-it’s-not-annoying vocal effect work.

The lovely vinyl package includes a lyric sheet – remember those? – that also sports a brief note from Ure more or less apologizing for (or at least seeking to explain) the long wait between his last disc and Fragile. A really nice black-and-white 12×12 photo insert is a bonus; my copy didn’t include a download card.

On Fragile, Ure conjures the vibe of his music of thirty years past, but he does so in a way that sounds wholly modern. File Fragile right next to Zero 7‘s 2001 classic Simple Things in the make-out music section of your collection.

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Album Review: Colin Hay — Man @ Work

Monday, November 17th, 2014

If you’re a pop music listener of a certain age, you remember Men at Work. Smiling, photogenic darlings of early MTV, they broke through in that early period of the cable channel, a time when – because the major labels and artists didn’t yet take music video seriously – a raft of new pop acts broke through into the mainstream.

While Men at Work’s videos were fun, visually appealing slices of pop culture/product, it hurt not a bit that the band crafted infectious, upbeat tunes. And so it was that the Band From the Land Down Under scored a string of hits. But as it was with so many of the era’s stars, the group that introduced Vegemite® into the North American lexicon burned brightly on their first two albums (1982′s Business as Usual, and Cargo from the following year) and then faded as quickly; their third album (1985′s Two Hearts) achieved neither critical plaudits nor any sort of significant record sales.

But their songs were enduring slices of highly melodic pop. As recently as last year, I created a Pandora “station” for casual listening around the house. The station was built around the music of one of my most treasured bands, Crowded House. And though they came on the scene a bit after Men at Work, the New Zealand/Australia-based band traveled in sonic territory that (at least according to the complex algorithms that Pandora uses) isn’t miles away from what Men at Work did. So it was that several of Men at Work’s songs popped up on the “station.”

But the versions I was hearing weren’t the originals: instead, they were re-recorded, sometimes slightly rearranged readings from the group’s singer, songwriter and front man, Colin Hay. (Hay was born in Scotland, by the way, but yes, he’s the guy you think of when you picture Men at Work in your mind’s eye.)

These new versions, as it happens, were originally released on Hay’s 2003 album, Man @ Work (a self-explanatory title if there ever was one). Man @ Work was Hay’s eighth album; he began his solo career in earnest with 1987′s Looking for Jack, released not long after Men at Work had broken up. That string of solo releases is held in reasonably high regard by many critics, and the releases chart Hay’s gradual reinvention as a singer/songwriter (primarily on acoustic guitar), shedding his ostensible “new wave” image (though there was precious little about Men at Work that truly qualified as new wave). With Man @ Work, he applied his current, stripped-down style to the songs that had originally brought him to fame. The album does revisit a bit of his solo catalog, but for the most part, it’s about recasting the Men at Work hits and album tracks in a mold that’s less dated – no 80s drum sounds nor PPG Wave synth burbles here – so as to fashion the tunes in a more, shall we say, time-honored fashion.

Hay delivered these recast versions not only on Man @ Work, but – more crucially and with a much higher profile – also onscreen, with an occasional appearance on the American sitcom Scrubs (that show’s Zach Braff is a major fan of Hay’s work). Hay also toured with Ringo Starr‘s All-Starr Band in 2003 and 2008. Meanwhile, however, Man @ Work reportedly sold 100,000 copies yet clearly escaped the notice of many people who would have enjoyed it (read: me).

It seems that Man @ Work is a pretty fair distillation of Hay’s current musical guise as a solo pop-centric troubadour, and as such, the decision was made to reissue the album in 2014. Moreover – and again recalling the early 1980s – Man @ Work is now available as a vinyl release.

The 2003 CD release of Man @ Work featured thirteen tracks; the 2014 vinyl reissue (with the appended front-cover subtitle of [acoustic vinyl]) drops five tunes: “Looking for Jack,” “Storm in My Heart,” “Don’t Be Afraid,” and “To Have and To Hold,” all tunes from his solo career, and “Be Good Johnny,” one of the Men at Work hits. And then he adds a few new (or should I say, “new”) tracks, including a radio edit of “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.” Another new track of note is a reading of Business as Usual‘s “Down by the Sea,” here featuring Hay’s longtime bandmate Greg Ham (the guy who played the flute in the tree, and lost a 2009 plagiarism suit for its riff). That track would be the last time Ham and Hay collaborated in the studio; Greg Ham passed away in 2012.

The resulting retooled album represents an improvement over the 2003 release: the hyperkinetic “Be Good Johnny” in particular was ill-served by being recast as an acoustic number. But overall, the 2014 collection of new-old and old-old versions of old-old-old tunes will remind listeners that those Men at Work songs had a whole lot more going for them than just their amusing, heavy-rotation video clips.

Hay’s voice has changed little in the decades since Men at Work, and though the acoustic-led versions (many of these songs feature full-band, electric backing, albeit with Hay’s six-string and voice out front) are more subdued and subtle than the Men at Work originals, that serves mainly to highlight how strong the melodic lines really are. If Hay’s versions sound like anybody else, their combination (most notably on “Down Under”) of gentle acoustic guitar and drum machines is very reminiscent of yet another antipodean act, Flight of the Conchords.

So while the point can be made (and certainly was upon Man @ Work‘s original release) that this album of greatest hits self-covers seems a dubious enterprise, the reworked versions present the songs in a manner that – not to overstate things – is timeless. Hay’s readings remind us of the quality of the songs, without forcefully conjuring mental images of a guy in a palm tree playing a wooden flute. For that alone, Man @ Work has value. That it’s a pleasant listen makes it even better. Though it falls somewhere short of being an essential purchase, it’s recommended to those who might think or say, “Sure, I liked those hits that Men at Work had back then, but I never listen to that stuff now.”

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 5

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five – count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The final set of five reviews looks at some contemporary artists – new releases – that fall loosely into the powerpop category.


Rick Hromadka – Trippin’ Dinosaurs
As leader of Maple Mars and then 75% of Ruby Free, Hromadka has created music characterized by his strong voice and knack for arrangements that straddle Cheap Trick power with an unerring melodic sense. On this album he goes the solo route, in the tradition of Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren et al. In some ways, Trippin’ Dinosaurs is a musical travelogue through Hromadka’s influences, but filtered through his sensibility. In the same way that keen listeners can spot a “Todd chord” in Rundgren’s work, Hromadka’s compositional style is distinctive in its own way, and that quality ties together the disparate songs.


Ransom and the Subset – No Time to Lose
Opening with a red-herring melody and arrangement that sounds straight out of Pet Sounds, this album quickly detours into shimmering powerpop territory. With the clear, out-front vocals of songwriter/guitarist RanDair Porter, the twelve songs on this disc will appeal to fans of Tommy Keene. Most of the tunes rock forcefully, but never at the expense of nuance and melody. The crystalline production values allow the individual instruments to shine, and the propulsive melodies equally emphasize the beat and Porter’s lyrics. There’s a whiff of Fountains of Wayne in Porter’s compositional approach; it’s most evident on “Leaving With You.” Great stuff.


Sunrise Highway — Windows
Sunrise Highway is singer and multi-instrumentalist Marc Silvert plus, it seems, whomever else is around at that given moment. But Windows still sports a unified sound. Powerpop is unlikely to ever set the music world on fire, but within the modest confines of the genre, discs like this deserve a hearing. The bass lines – regardless of who’s playing ‘em on any given track – owe a lot to Paul McCartney circa 1966. Silvert’s slightly nasal vocals evoke the Buddah stable of 1970s bubblegum acts, but the strong rock-centric songs provide enough heft to keep that vibe from overwhelming things.


Lannie Flowers – Live in NYC
It sounds as if there were no more than about fifty people in the audience at The Trash Bar for this show. But one listen to Live in NYC and you’ll sense just how fortunate those few truly were. Flowers’ three previous albums — studio efforts all, must-haves all – presented his preternaturally strong melodic sense, and his unerring skill with a hook. The chiming melodies are intact onstage, as is Flowers’ inimitable Texas vocal twang. These live versions aren’t all that different from their studio counterparts, but a powerpop fan can never hear “Around the World” and “Circles” enough.


The Jeremy Band – All Over the World
Generally, I’m completely put off by crypto-religious music; it’s simply not my thing, as it generally gloms its not-especially-welcome praise message onto other styles in a shamelessly derivative manner. But when a writer/singer such as Jeremy Morris crafts lovely and irresistible, jangly melodies of this quality, I’m willing to overlook his lyrical subject matter. (See also: George Harrison.) Its seems The Jeremy Band is a mainstay of David Bash‘s International Pop Overthrow, and that right there is one serious trademark of quality. This is an anthology of the group’s live odds and sods, but holds up as a cohesive collection.

That’s it for this week-long round of 25 capsule reviews. Expect more, though; that inbox of mine never seems to empty.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 4

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five –count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The fourth set of five reviews looks at jazz from the 1950s and ’60s; some of it quite rare and largely unheard until now.


Marty Paich – The Jazz City Workshop
Naxos recently embarked on a reissue campaign, releasing the titles from the small yet acclaimed Bethlehem label. The jazz titles are getting the straight-reissue treatment; they’re noteworthy in that they’re coming out not only on CD, but on vinyl (in their original 10” and 12” formats). This set is led by pianist Paich, but perhaps the real stars here are vibraphonist Larry Bunker and trombonist Herbie Harper. The eight-song album is heavy on covers and standards (“Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” a reading of “Autumn Leaves” that anticipates the exotica craze), but the arrangements are uptempo and inventive.


Various – Four Horns and a Lush Life
Here’s another Naxos reissue of a Bethlehem title, again featuring Marty Paich. But here the ensemble is larger (eight players, featuring the “four horns” of the title plus a conductor). The various reviews and online listings of this album don’t seem to know whom to credit: conductor Russ Garcia? Paich? Trombonist Frank Rosolino? It matters little. This 1955 date (I had to look that up; it’s listed nowhere on the original-reproduction packaging) is fun and varied nonetheless. If you like lots of trombones in your jazz – and perhaps even if you do not – you’ll enjoy this swinging set.


Tony Scott – Lost Tapes: Germany 1957 / Asia 1962
Benny Goodman
is the most well-known clarinetist in jazz, but Tony Scott gained some level of fame and acclaim as well. He may be as well known for employing a young pianist named Bill Evans as for his own work. This set from Jazzhaus compiles four sessions: two 1957 German dates (one live, one studio) plus a rare clutch of live sessions from Hong Kong and Singapore dating from 1962 and featuring Italian musicians backing Scott. The tracks show Scott (and band) possessing a firm command of a variety of jazz styles, from soft and melancholy balladeering to frenetic bop.


Francy Boland – Playing with the Trio
Jazz pianist Francy Boland first came to fame through his musical association with Chet Baker. He’s primarily known as a big band leader; the core of that group (together 1962-1970 or thereabouts) consisted of him on piano plus upright bassist Jimmy Woode Jr. and drummer Kenny Clarke. This recording studio from 1967, however, presents only that trio. The power and excitement of the big band is distilled into the intimate confines of a trio; here, often big band arrangements are implied (and felt but not heard) in the trio arrangements. Half of the tunes are Boland originals; all are delightful.


Sun Ra – Supersonic Jazz plus Fate in a Pleasant Mood
Most listeners – even ardent fans of the man – would agree that the work of Sun Ra is not the ideal entry point through which to discover jazz. And Sun Ra’s forbiddingly deep catalog makes it tough to know where to begin. So what the heck: start here, with these two seemingly-randomly-chosen titles combined on a single disc. Supersonic Jazz dates from 1956; Fate was recorded and released circa 1961 (pinning these details down with Sun Ra’s work is often difficult). Exotic percussion and innovative, lyrical electric piano are the centerpieces of these titles. Supersonic‘s “Sunology” is a highlight.

5 more capsule reviews to come.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 3

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five –count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The third set of five reviews covers various-artist compilations in various genres: rockabilly, blues and soul.


Delmark: 60 Years of Blues
This venerable record label – the nation’s oldest dealing in blues and jazz, in fact – has been responsible for some of the most important blues releases of the 1960s and beyond. This collection draws from old and new material: some of it has been released before to great acclaim; some of the cuts (Big Joe Williams‘ private tape of “44 Blues,” for example) are previously unreleased. As an introduction to the deep Delmark catalog, it’s an excellent sampler. I haven’t heard its companion volume (60 Years of Jazz) but there’s every reason to expect the same level of quality.


Eccentric Soul: The Way Out Label
The folks at Numero Group pride themselves on their eclectic taste, on their ability to sniff out and dig up hopelessly obscure music that deserves a hearing. Their Eccentric Soul series continues with this collection of tunes from the tiny Way Out Recording Company, based in Cleveland, Ohio. Aficionados of deep-cut Northern Soul will find a lot to like in the digital groove of this 2CD set. For an obscure label featuring unknown artists, there’s a bracingly high level of production and arrangement polish to be found on these tracks. Countless shoulda-been-hit numbers lurk among the forty cuts found here.


Eccentric Soul: Capitol City Soul
The story of how Numero ended up with tapes from Columbus, Ohio’s Capsoul label is as interesting (and unlikely) as any of their crate-digging, historical endeavors. But thank goodness it happened. This single disc set of obscurities collects twenty numbers – again, songs you haven’t heard, by groups you’re unlikely to recognize – from the period 1969-1973. It’s sobering to think that were it not for Numero, music such as this might have been lost forever. It deserves better, and the loving care with which Numero compiles it (including peerless liner notes) is a gift to all of us listeners.


Soul City New Orleans: Big Easy Gems from the Dawn of Soul Music
What with music licensing rules being different than in the US – and thus more conducive to the creation of retrospective compilations – British label Fantastic Voyage has the ability to pull together long-forgotten sides from America’s musical past. One of the latest in this ongoing project is this. This 2CD set presents sixty tunes featuring some of the leading lights of New Orleans music, including Huey Smith and the Clowns, Smith’s on-again/off-again associate Bobby Marchan, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe and Eddie Bo. Clive Richardson‘s excellent liner notes (and loads of color photos) make it even better. Essential.


Hoosier Daddy: Mar-Vel’ and the Birth of Indiana Rockabilly
Let’s forgive Fantastic Voyage for employing a horrible pun in the title of this set; instead let’s appreciate their efforts in shining a light on a narrow (yet important) slice of American music. The tiny Mar-Vel’ (that’s how it’s spelled) label specialized in what would come to be known as rockabilly. Across three CDs and more than one hundred tracks, this set chronicles the music out of the Indiana label, circa 1953-1962. Fantastic Voyage must have somehow gotten hold of the masters; these crystal clear recordings surely don’t sound like “needle drops.” A treasure trove for pedal steel enthusiasts indeed.

10 more capsule reviews to come.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 2

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five –count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The second set of five reviews looks at music from the 1980s: three reissues and two compilations.


Scruffy the Cat – The Good Goodbye
The music scene of the 1980s featured a handful of inventive, talented acts that bridged the gap between powerpop and what would come to be known as Americana (or “alt.”). The Long Ryders were at the rocking end of that continuum; Scruffy the Cat worked at the gentler, more melodic end. This collection of previously-unreleased material covers sessions that bookended the band’s career: a set of demos and live-in-the-studio material from 1984-5, and an Ardent (Memphis) session from 1989. You’ll either dig the group’s raggedy vocals or you won’t, but there’s no denying that they fit the music. Good stuff.


Game Theory – Blaze of Glory
Apparently, I’m not alone in having completely missed Game Theory when they were around. Though the group’s off-kilter brand of 80s powerpop certainly appeals to me now, there’s a modest, aw-shucks feel to most of the songs on the ironically-titled 1982 Blaze of Glory, crossing skinny-tie new wave aesthetics with quirky songs. Their debut album (like most of their subsequent output) has long been out of print; this Omnivore reissue adds a wealth of bonus material and the liner notes feature contributions from former members (leader Scott Miller passed away in 2013). Oh, and they remind me of Let’s Active.


The Dream Academy – The Morning Lasted All Day
Two CDs packed with 24 tracks might seem excessive for a retrospective on a group that scored a total of two hit singles (the lovely “Life in a Northern Town” from 1985, and a 1986 tune you probably don’t recall). They only released three albums. But their shimmering chamber-pop – championed by no less a light than Pink Floyd‘s David Gilmour – has worn quite well. The band’s original raison d’être was to create songs using unconventional (for rock) instrumentation. “The Edge of Forever” may not have charted, but it’s the best thing the band did, arguably superior to “Life.”


X – Under the Big Black Sun
By 1983, X hadn’t yet achieved a level of success that would translate into record sales. So they signed with Elektra and enlisted the production skills of The Doors‘ keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Manzarek may have seemed an odd choice: he wasn’t known as a producer, and his old band’s sound had little in common with the aesthetic of X. But it worked. Under the Big Black Sun presented the Johnny-and-June-styled vocal harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka, along with the insistent punk drumming of DJ Bonebrake and Billy Zoom‘s wild-eyed rockabilly guitar. This reissue features five bonus tracks.


X – More Fun in the New World
By the time (1983) of this, their fourth LP, X had achieved some fame. Again working with Manzarek behind the boards, the band crafted a set of songs that sought to capture the excitement of their live show (the package’s reliance on live concert shots makes that goal more explicit). Overall, More Fun boasts a slightly more polished approach; the drums sound a bit “bigger,” and the whole affair feels a bit more radio-ready. Four demo tracks from the period (in remixed form) are appended to the original album’s thirteen songs. Still essential, as is Under the Big Black Sun.

15 more capsule reviews to come.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 1

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five –count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The first five are reissues of albums originally released in the 1970s (with one late ’69 title slipped into the mix).


The Ides of March – Vehicle
You know the title song: it’s the one you were sure was by another, more well-known artist. “Vehicle” is the 70s answer to The Knickerbockers‘ “Lies.” And like Head East‘s Flat As a Pancake, hardly anyone has heard anything beyond the single. But the other tunes on this ten-track LP (newly reissued with four bonus tracks) show that this, er, Chicago-based band had a pretty wide breadth of style in their bag of tricks. Not all the tracks are horn-laden, either. Some interesting covers (CSN, Jethro Tull, Beatles) and some tasty lead guitar work make this album well worth re-discovering.


The 5th Dimension – Earthbound
After their string of hits, The 5th Dimension began to tire of their soul-meets-MOR formula. This album – long out of print – was an attempt to try something new. Commercially, it was largely a failure, yielding no hit singles and barely scraping the album charts. But this Jimmy Webb-produced album (with Larry Coryell on guitar!) is a surprisingly varied affair, with some gems waiting to be discovered. Though the opening title number is syrupy and mawkish, “Don’t Stop For Nothing” is some deep funk. And the group’s inventive reading of The Beatles‘ “I’ve Got a Feeling” is excellent. Groovy.


Ian Matthews – Stealin’ Home
Though he was a one-time member of Fairport Convention, on this solo LP – the most well-known of oh-so-many – Matthews is in soft-rock mode. The songs here sound like a softer version of Alan Parsons Project: flawlessly performed, arranged and recorded, full of catchy melodies. Nothing here rocks – not by a long shot – but nearly every track sounds as if could have been a radio hit in the late 70s (“Shake It” was indeed). Fans of that laid-back Southern California sound (see also: Fleetwood Mac, Stephen Bishop) will dig. A live ’78 concert adds nine bonus tracks.


Zephyr – Zephyr
The career of guitarist Tommy Bolin is looked upon as one of promise largely unfulfilled. His solo albums have some great moments, but remain spotty; his posthumous outtake collections show he had plenty of talent and ideas. This album – originally released in 1969 – is his earliest recorded effort. Though the group is sonically dominated by husband-and-wife duo David Givens (bass) and Candy Givens (histrionic, Janis Joplinesque vocals), Bolin does get the chance to strut his stuff on some lengthy numbers. If one can get past the vocals, Zephyr is a very good album in the Big Brother mold.


Renaissance – Scheherazade and Other Stories
Arguably, British “progressive” music has long drawn from a different set of influences than its North American counterpart. Renaissance built their music upon a foundation that was equal parts classical and European folk. With the five-octave voice of Annie Haslam as its central focus, the group made gentle yet ambitious music. Scheherazade remains the high water mark of the group’s 1970s output. This new reissue doesn’t add bonus tracks or liner notes; what it does instead is present the album in SACD format, an ideal move for a record that featured crystalline production (by the band themselves) to begin with.

20 more capsule reviews to come.

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