Archive for the ‘soul’ Category

Bill Dahl and I Discuss “Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63-’73″

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

From a critical perspective, there’s not a whole lot to be said or written about Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63 – ’73. One either gets it, or doesn’t. Suffice to say that if you would enjoy hearing the contents of a jukebox in a 1960s African American juke joint, or if you dig the sides collected in the various sprawling Stax box sets, then you’ll luxuriate in the hundred-plus songs on this four-disc set. And you won’t have heard most of them before.

The box set’s liner notes offer something of an apology/justification for the dodgy sound quality on some of Groove & Grind‘s cuts; those words – though sincere – are not needed: the sound quality is just fine, and the quality of the music precludes any need for excuses. The rarity of some of these cuts more than justifies their inclusion here, and would do so even if they didn’t make great listening. Music historian and liner notes author Bill Dahl (author of Motown: the Golden Years) admits that he did his research on these often-unknown acts the old (or perhaps new) fashioned way: “between the internet, books and record” labels/sleeves, “you kinda piece it together as best you can.” Occasionally, he admits, “You can’t find anything about an act at all, and that’s distressing.” But he notes that a good bit of information – even if it’s merely context – can be gleaned from looking at the labels on the 45s. Dahl has a few – not many – of Groove & Grind‘s sides in his own record collection, but for others, he relied on photos of labels and other information he managed to unearth. He is careful to note that although “there’s a lot of information on the internet, sometimes it’s wrong. So you’ve got to be careful.”

And careful he was. Across 120-plus pages of the hardbound-book format of Groove & Grind, Dahl provides just the right amount of background on these soul tunes. Because as Dahl and I agreed during our conversation, the kind of person who’d pick up this 4CD set is the sort of character who will delight in the fruits of his careful research. Dahl’s writing is an essential companion to the music itself. (Those who crave the deep kind of background that this sort of a project requires will enjoy following some of the online links Dahl cites in his source notes; those links will provide hours of rewarding reading for the music anoraks among us.)

Liner notes author Bill Dahl
A handful of the artists spotlighted on Groove & Grind remain active today: Bettye LaVette, Bobby Rush and Eddie Floyd, for example. But even in their cases – and in the case of Ike and Tina Turner (“You Can’t Miss Nothing That You Never Had,” a 1963 side on the small Sonja label) – Groove & Grind focuses on material that only the hardest of hardcore fans would have known about, much less heard. Dahl and box set producer James Austin sought to find a balance. “I was trying to find a few records by people whom [listeners] would have heard of real well,” says Dahl. “If we just had 112 acts you’ve never heard of, people wouldn’t buy it! So we included a few names that would grab people, hoping that they’d hear the other stuff, and love it too.”

One of the things that Dahl’s liner notes convey is the manner in which pop music history is woven together: the way that, say, George Goldner of Red Bird Records had a hand in these tracks. It’s almost as if, had these tunes become hits – and many of them sound as if they well could have – then the artists involved might have gone on to do more noteworthy and commercially successful work. Dahl mentions Sir Mack Rice – “people know him as a songwriter; he did the original ‘Mustang Sally,’” as an artist who didn’t quite reach the commercial potential his music deserved. His “Gotta Have My Baby’s Love” is one of Dahl’s favorite tracks on this set. Ironing Board Sam is another: “He deserved a better shake than he got,” says Dahl. “He had a keyboard on an ironing board, for God’s sake! That alone should’ve got him something.” Sam’s “Original Funky Bell Bottoms” is included on the set’s fourth disc, subtitled Funky Soul.

A few of the tunes on Groove & Grind will be familiar, but not in the versions found here. “I really like Lezli Valentine‘s ‘Love on a Two Way Street,’” says Dahl of the 1969 single. “It’s the original version, incidentally. I like a lot better than The Moments‘ version.”

Dahl remembers another act worth of special praise. “Another Chicago act, The Mandells. A really good group; they had about five or six singles. They were pretty darn popular on the west side here in Chicago, but they never really made it out of here. They deserved a higher profile. Good production quality, too. You listen to all of their stuff back to back, and you think, ‘How did this group not make it?’”

Part of the answer to Dahl’s rhetorical question is the challenge of distribution. “There were so many tiny labels out there doing quality work,” he observes, “but they didn’t have the pull of a Motown or a Stax. And as a result, a lot of stuff just fell through the cracks.”

It was Dahl’s idea to subdivide the tracks on Groove & Grind into subcategories: urban, group, southern and the aforementioned funky soul. Each of the four discs focuses upon a particular sub-style. “We needed some kind of context,” he admits. “If you just throw 112 songs on four CDs without any kind of context, it’s a little harder to grasp.”

Occasionally a title vetted for inclusion on the set would be left off because the compilers couldn’t locate a clean copy of the recording (much less a master tape). But Dahl hastens to add that there is plenty of worthy material out there – from soul music’s heyday – that still hasn’t been compiled onto a CD collection like Groove & Grind. “It’s amazing how much great soul music was recorded in the 1960s,” he says. “As much as r&b as there was in the 1950s, it seems as if there’s three times as much soul” in the following decade.

Start to finish, Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63 – ’73 is a fun listen, and provides superb value-for-money. It’s an illuminating window into little-known music from forty-plus years ago.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 6 of 8

Monday, September 7th, 2015

Today I take quick looks at excellent reissue and compilation releases from three labels that excel at that kind of thing: Omnivore Recordings, Light in the Attic and Real Gone Music.

Low Down Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The 2014 film tells the story of jazz pianist Joe Albany and his (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to break free of his heroin addiction. Though he played for a time with Charlie Parker, Albany’s not especially well known. This carefully-chosen collection of songs for the film presents seven Albany pieces, placing them into the musical context of works by Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach, and Thelonious Monk. Pieces from contemporary jazz artist Ohad Talmor‘s film score are featured as well, and his music fits into the album like a glove. Albany’s “Lush Life” is florid (in a good way) and sonically stunning.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux – Press Color

When considering pop music history, 1979 isn’t often recalled as a year of innovation. But this album from this French (relocated to NYC) no wave and visual artist is some pretty edgy stuff. In retrospect, one can hear hints of approaches and textures that would be adopted by Blondie, The Talking Heads, and Grace Jones, just to name three. A sometime collaborator with Patti Smith, Descloux’s chirpy, come-hither voice should have taken off commercially. Hell, Monkees choreographer Toni Basil would have a hit not long thereafter. Unlike much from that era, Press Color doesn’t sound dated these thirty-odd years later.

Carl Hall – You Don’t Know Nothing About Love: The Loma/Atlantic Recordings 1967-1972

The saga of popular music is strewn with also-rans: worthy artists who, for one or another reason, simply didn’t break through to the big time, deserving as they might be. This collection showcases shoulda-been-hits from this soulful-est of soul singers. With production values in the Muscle Shoals/Memphis “southern soul” style, many of the nineteen tracks on this disc have what it takes to have made the charts. Thing is, only six – count ‘em: six – were ever released. The rest remained in the can until 21st century music archivists unearthed them. It’s a staggeringly significant musical find; hear it.

Ben E. King – The Complete Atco/Atlantic Singles Vol. 1: 1960-1966

Everybody knows “Stand By Me.” Fine a tune as it might be, it’s overplayed nearly to the level of “Free Bird” and “Mustang Sally.” And for most, it’s all they know of the deep catalog of Ben E. King. Okay: some of you can cite “Spanish Harlem,” too. But King was stunningly prolific, as this fifty-track (two discs) illustrates. And the quality standard is high, showcasing wonderfully arranged pop-soul. Much of King’s material was penned (and sometimes arranged) by Brill Building legends such as Carole King (no relation, of course). Keep a watchful ear and eye out for Volume 2.

Dusty Springfield – Faithful

The CD’s back-cover blurb tells you nearly everything you need to know: “Here, for the first time, are all the songs that Dusty Springfield recorded with producer Jeff Barry in 1971 for what was intended to be her third album (and a non-album single) for Atlantic Records. The album never came out and only four of the tracks were originally released as singles.” It’s every bit as good as that description implies. Joe Marchese‘s liner notes explain why the album never came out, and he provides additional background on the songs and sessions. Springfield’s Faithful is a heretofore unheard gem.

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

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Continued from Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Continued from Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Matthew E. White’s Calibrated Subtlety

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

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

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

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

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


Photo credit: Shawn Brackbill

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

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

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

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

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 8

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Today, it’s five more capsule reviews. It’s great stuff all, dating from the 1970s.

Stories – Stories Untold: The Very Best of Stories
The, um, story of Stories in inextricably tied up with that of the Left Banke (“Walk Away Renee”). The music on this set from Real Gone Music draws not only for the band’s (rather slim) catalog, but from relevant solo work by Steve Martin (no, not that one) and Ian Lloyd. The only thing more remarkable than the quality of the music is that little of it charted. Sure, you remember “Brother Louie,” but do you recall “Mammy Blue”? I was nine when it briefly hit charts (#50) and hadn’t heard it more than twice in the next forty-plus years.

Todd Rundgren and Utopia – Live at the Electric Ballroom
This radio broadcast recording of an October 23, 1978 show in Milwaukee documents the entire show. Even if one doesn’t count the nearly countless live bootleg recordings in circulation, there are quite a few Rundgren/Utopia live sets available. But if this one circulated among hardcore collectors before now, it’s news to me. At this point in Utopia’s history, they had settled into their core quartet lineup. That said, the set list draws more from Rundgren’s superb solo catalog, with only a few Utopia tunes (mostly from Oops! Wrong Planet). Performancewise, it’s tight, though bassist Kasim Sulton drops an occasional clam.

Sweet – Level Headed Tour Rehearsals 1977
By this point in their career, Sweet had fought to extricate themselves from the strong grip of the ChinniChap musical empire; they had also sought to shed the bubblegum image that accompanied it. Their Level Headed album introduced a progressive-leaning sound that was equal parts Alan Parsons Project and hard rock; the result – exemplified in the hit “Love is Like Oxygen” – might be termed bubbleprog. This home tape of a rehearsal finds them with an ace keyboardist, and a sound that clearly presages the L.A.-based hair metal sound of the 80s and onward. Don’t hold that against them.

Gentle Giant – Live at the Bicentennial 1776-1976
Few progressive-era bands engender the sort of divided opinion that Gentle Giant can claim. One is either impressed by their technical and vocal skills, or completely put off by the decidedly European musical sensibilities of the UK group. This double CD set documents a July 3 show in Hempstead, NY. Sound quality is excellent, and the band is in fine form as they run through material from throughout their career. The set boasts no post-production fixing or fiddling. Sadly, the encore mentioned in the liner notes (a rare cover of Wilson Pickett‘s “In the Midnight Hour”) didn’t make it to tape.

Various – Local Customs: Cavern Sound
When the small Numero Group releases something, you can count on excellence. This set focuses on recordings made for the label in the period 1970-73. More varied stylistically than many Numero comps, this one features little-known bands who coughed up the relatively modest session fees. There’s soulful hard rock a la Rare Earth, but the real oddity is American Sound Limited‘s “Aunt Marie.” It shamelessly rips off the signature melody of Status Quo‘s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” plus some of the lyrics and phrasing. And when they do it, they sound like a cross between Billy Joe Royal and BS&T.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 6

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Last week I presented 25 capsule reviews; 100 words each, these were quick critical looks at new CD (and vinyl) releases. This week, I dive into the pile of reissue/compilation CDs that have been crowding my office. Don’t mistake my relative brevity for mild praise; all of the discs reviewed deserve attention.

Chuck Berry – The Complete Chess Singles As & Bs
Thanks to the different (read: less restrictive) laws in the UK concerning licensing and royalties, compilations like this are cost-effective efforts on the part of reissue labels. This fifty-track 2CD set collects all of the 45rpm A- and B-sides from Chuck Berry’s tenure on Chess Records. I’m not going to waste space explaining the musical/historical importance of this set. Nicely packaged, expertly annotated, and featuring an informative essay from Paul Watts, it contains exactly what the title indicates, and seems to be truer soundwise to the originals than the controversially “cleaned up” Chess Box released stateside in the late 1980s.

Various – Beale Street Saturday Night
Omnivore Recordings is at the vanguard of interesting, intelligent reissues. And here’s another one. The Memphis Development Foundation was founded in 1977 to support the rescue/renewal of the historic city so important in the history of American music (blues, country, rock’n'roll, jazz…you name it). Originally issued in 1979as an unbanded LP, this album is described as “a hi-fi recording of a lo-fi sound.” It deftly mixes music and spoken word, and features Memphis legends Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Grandma Dixie Davis, and others. Conceptually related to the Alabama State Troupers album, it’s a pop culture lesson with great music.

Various – Apollo Saturday Night / Saturday Night at the Uptown
In 1961, the now-legendary Atlantic Records entered into a fruitful relationship with Memphis-based Stax Records; Ahmet Ertegun and his team knew a good thing when they saw and heard it. These two LPs were released in 1964, and documented live showcases featuring great and less-known acts at their best. Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Barbara Lynn and other leading lights are captured live onstage at the height of their powers. These all-killer-no-filler LPs haven’t been paired before, and they fit together nicely. Kudos to the folks at Real Gone Music for thinking of it. Great liner notes, too.

Various – All About Elvis: A Tribute to the King
Sam Phillips is often remembered by his quote, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Of course he did find such a man in Elvis Presley, but the billion dollars part didn’t quote work out. Still, in the wake of Elvis, countless artists (and their management) sought to grab their own piece of that pie. This 3CD collection brings together nearly 100 artists – some well-known, others exceedingly obscure – all of whom pay tribute to (read: rip off) Elvis’ style. Many do quite well.

Jerry Williams – Gone
Pop music history is littered with stories of near-misses and shoulda-beens. This 1979 LP from Texas-born Williams (not to be confused with the man born with the same name but known as Swamp Dogg) was (until this Real Gone Music reissue) a fairly rare item. Imagine JJ Cale with a horn section and some shuffle/disco influences (or early Boz Scaggs with the dance-oriented feel of, well, mid-period Boz Scaggs), and you’ll have a rough idea of what this sounds like. Williams is better known for the tunes he’s written for others, but he acquits himself well on this, his third LP.

More to come.

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