Archive for the ‘vinyl’ Category

Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 5

Friday, May 8th, 2015

This week of capsule reviews spotlighting new music wraps up today with five releases that all came to me on vinyl. I love vinyl. Did I mention that I really enjoy listening to music on vinyl? Well, I do.

Anthony W. Rogers – Wrong…
When this record arrived in my mailbox, I thought to myself, “I know that name…”. Then it came to me. Through the 1990s and beyond, a network of hardcore fans collected and traded live recordings of Todd Rundgren and related artists. And Anthony Rogers was one of the scene’s leading lights. But on this new solo album, Rogers stakes out musical territory that supposedly draws on SMiLE-era Brian Wilson. The tunes on Wrong… have a distinct DIY/lo-fi ambience, occasionally recalling Wilson, sometimes Rundgren. But Rogers’ music nearly always reminds me of that most idiosyncratic of pop artists, R. Stevie Moore.

Harpoon Forever – American Flag EP
This four-song EP sounds as if it were recorded in somebody’s garage, on cheap equipment. But that lo-fi approached worked for Guided by Voices; it works here, too. Shifting time signatures applied to sturdy, vaguely folk-rocking songs might confuse some listeners, but the catchiness of the melodies and the fetching everyman vocals of guitarist/songwriter Alex Goldstein shine right through. A gauzy approach vaguely recalls Third/Sister Lovers era Big Star, filtered through the sensibility of someone whom (I’m guessing) digs prog as much as he likes Pavement. On this disc, Harpoon Forever is a duo; these days they’re a full band.

Lannie Flowers – “Best I Can” b/w “Back of a Car”
Lannie Flowers really has it going. He writes, play and sing fantastic, infectious pop tunes. And he’s quite consistent at it. Better still, he’s quite prolific these days. Just last year he released an excellent live set, Live in NYC. That collection presented Flowers and band in front of an audience that was as enthusiastic as it was small. This single’s b-side, a lovely Big Star cover, is taken from that set. But the a-side is another in Flower’s growing catalog of winning rocking pop tunes. To his tried-and-true mix he adds some simple but dramatic keyboard work. Another winner.

Alvin Youngblood Hart – “Helluva Way (For a Man to Make a Livin’)” b/w “Watchin’ Brian Jones”
An object lesson in the “never judge a book by its cover” category, this single features the customarily acoustic guitar playing Hart (of the South Memphis String Band) rocking out in a big way. If his greying beard and Gibson Flying V don’t provide enough cognitive dissonance, a listen to this blistering 45rpm single should do the trick. Taking his “Helluva Way” at breakneck speed, it’s garage punk at its finest. The flip is a low-and-slow bluesy romp full of sly, clever lyrics. Less than seven minutes with Hart will convince you he could succeed in damn near any genre.

TimLee3 – 33 1/3
Tim Lee was a key member of 80s alternarock underground darlings The Windbreakers. These days he shares the spotlight with his missus (Susan Bauer Lee) and drummer Chris Bratta. Lee’s old group’s twangy take on powerpop is built upon in his trio: Susan takes many lead vocals, giving the band an original sound reminiscent of Jason & the Scorchers crossed with X, but decidedly upping the hooks-and-melody quotient to Plimsouls level. The chiming “Photo Booth” is guaranteed ear candy; the sweeping, dusty grandeur of “Our Lady of the Highway” is breathtaking. “Daddy’s Girl” is a delightful c&w romp. Highly recommended.

More to come.

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Album Review: The Silos – Cuba

Friday, February 6th, 2015

When music historians write or speak about the college-rock music of the 1980s, and when they focus on the country-leaning exponents of that sound, many worthy acts get mentioned. The Long Ryders, The Blasters, Lone Justice, even R.E.M. all get recognized. But too often overlooked are The Silos. Formed in the middle of that decade, The Silos were the musical vehicle for Walter Salas-Humara (formerly of The Vulgar Boatmen) and Bob Rupe. On their second album, 1987′s Cuba, the folky, acoustic-leaning Silos wedded a tuneful sensibility to singer/songwriterly lyrics, and wrapped it all in a genre-spanning sound that took in elements of c&w (notably David Pearlman‘s pedal steel that graces “Margaret”) and alt-folk a la Camper Van Beethoven (for example, Mary Rowell‘s fiddle all over the album).

Rupe and Salas-Humara both sing in a decidedly Southern rock-inflected style, but the tunes on Cuba aren’t beer drinkin’ barn burners; as often as not, the songs concern themselves with marriage, wives, memories and other universal, workaday concerns.

The album blows by in a hurry; the second side rocks harder than the first, kicking off with “Memories,” among the album’s most commercially-oriented tracks. That quality may be related to the full-band (read: electric) arrangement that features the only use of keyboards (guest Rick Wagner on organ) on the entire record.

Cuba is an unassuming record; the songs don’t jump out at the listener. Even the careening and distorted electric guitar squalls on “Just This Morning” are couched in a ramshackle, near-campfire sort of arrangement that keeps the focus on the vocals and lyrics. And a roomful of guests add to what would otherwise be a one-vocal-and-acoustic guitar affair on “Going Round.” With the augmented lineup featuring voices and classical string instrumentation, it’s a thing of beauty.

“It’s Alright” is a wistful number that’s very much in the style of Sid Griffin‘s Long Ryders work; again its lyrics concerns itself with life’s little pleasures. The tune also features Rowell’s most effective violin work on the disc. “All Falls Away” applies the Silos sound to a three-chord rocker; the result feels like a rougher-hewn rethink of Violent Femmes (with much less affected vocals). Taken as a whole the songs on Cuba have much more depth to them than might be initially evident; as such, Cuba is an album that rewards the listener who spends more time with it.

The 2015 reissue of Cuba applies a star black label to a creamy white vinyl LP. A contrasty band poster promoting Cuba is also included; its size and style are evocative of the gig posters of the era. A download card is also included, but I’m quite happy to stick to the vinyl version.

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Album Review: The Ben Webster Quintet — Soulville

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

The folks at Vinyl Me Please have struck gold once again. The mail-order subscription label has carved a unique niche in the music marketplace with its carefully-chosen and -curated monthly LP releases, and its latest offering – The Ben Webster Quintet‘s 1957 Soulville – continues the label’s trend of exquisite reissues.

Tenor saxophonist Webster had played with Duke Ellington for many years, but by the time of this album – the fourth under his own name – Webster had made a name for himself as a soloist and bandleader in his own right. With a who’s-who band that featured Oscar Peterson on piano, bassist Ray Brown, Stan Levey on drums, and guitarist Herb Ellis, Soulville is peak Webster. The songs vary from understated, bluesy workouts to more uptempo cuts, and throughout, everyone takes his turn at soloing.

The aptly-named title track is cool and understated, built around a blues framework. “Late Night” is a blues as well, but a much more sexy, uptempo one that swings. The romantic “Time on My Hands” features some exquisitely expressive sax work from Webster. “Where Are You” is skillful, subdued, late-night minimalistic jazz. The familiar “Makin’ Whoopee” is given a suitably playful reading by Webster, with solid support from is band mates.

A 2003 reissue of Soulville (on another label) appended the set with three bonus tracks that featured Webster on (sprightly if loose-limbed) piano; one of those cuts (“Boogie Woogie”) is included on the Vinyl Me Please reissue; other than that, it’s a straight reissue of the original Verve LP. It’s noteworthy (and odd) that the new LP doesn’t have a paper label; instead, the Verve logo and other info that would have been printed is instead tooled directly into the black vinyl.

The heavy-gauge LP comes in a deluxe paper sleeve, and – as with all Vinyl Me Please reissues – includes a poster featuring new artwork, and an overleaf sleeve that features brief notes from VMP’s Tyler Barstow. And as ever, the overleaf includes a recipe for a cocktail that Barstow believes well-matched to the music; in this case it’s a very old-school Gin and Tonic. I can vouch for its successful pairing with Ben Webster’s Soulville.

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Album Review: JJ Cale — Rewind: Unreleased Recordings

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

To the music-buying public at large, J.J. Cale is little more than a footnote. Some recognize his name and acknowledge he’s the guy who wrote two of Eric Clapton‘s biggest hits, “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.” Some know a bit more, and note that he also composed “Call Me the Breeze” (a popular Lynyrd Skynyrd tune). Some confuse him with ex-Velvet Underground viola player John Cale.

Fewer still are familiar with his own word as a recording artist. Cale released fifteen albums between the early 1970s and the end of the new century’s first decade (he passed away in 2013). A good half-dozen compilations have sought to distill his work down to single-album proportions, and for the listener new to the man’s work, any of those is a fine place to start.

For those interested in diving further into Cale’s music, a 2007 album titled Rewind: Unreleased Recordings provides a surprisingly complete overview of Cale’s talents. Newly reissued on vinyl, Rewind doesn’t sound at all like a collection of leftovers, discards and half-baked efforts. It’s a fully realized album, and it’s all the more remarkable this it is so, seeing as the fourteen cuts are drawn from all phases of his career.

To those less familiar with his material, Cale’s style as showcased on Rewind will sound remarkably similar to Clapton’s laid-back, post-Derek and the Dominos musical persona. The mot charitable view is that when British guitarist Clapton got back to his roots, he just happened to end up sounding like Oklahoma City-born guitarist. No matter: Cale’s sound is heavily influenced with a Southern gospel/roots sensibility, a sly, quiet shuffle style that imbues all of his work with a smoky, smoldering aura.

As showcased on Rewind, Cale is a most understated character. Even when he rips out a wah-wah laden solo (as on “Since You Said Goodbye”), his musical fire quietly glows more than it licks at the sky. His countrified musical sensibility never asserts itself; his approach seems to be more along the lines of, “Her’s what I’m doing. Stay and listen if you like.” That approach may help for account for the man’s relatively low profile. He seemed more content to stay and play in the shadows, away from the limelight.

While many of the first several cuts on the disc are Cale’s reinterpretations of the work of others (Randy Newman, Clapton, and Leon Russell: like-minded artists all), the second half (and in this case, second side) of Rewind is all Cale originals.

The closest that Cale comes to high energy on Rewind is “Bluebird,” but its uptempo vibe is more bluegrass-leaning than anything else. Pedal steel guitar is the highlight of My Baby and Me,” the closest Cale gets to old-style country on this collection. “Lawdy Mama” feels a bit like a rewrite that combines “After Midnight” and “Call Me the Breeze.” Though it’s a fine tune, its tail-chasing nature makes it less fulfilling listen (and perhaps explains why it went unrevealed for years).

Unfortunately, the 2015 vinyl reissue of Rewind doesn’t include any discographical information, so we don’t know the recording dates or years for these cuts, and the studio personnel can only be guessed at. But none of that detracts from enjoying the listening experience that is Rewind: Unreleased Recordings. Those new to Cale will get a fine introduction to his work, and further investigation will yield richer rewards. And Cale fans will want it for completeness’ sake. Either way, it’s a fine record, made all the more special as a warm and wonderful sounding180-gram vinyl edition.

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Album Review: Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble — Officium

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

This double-album – originally released in 1994 – is a transcendent, compelling work that combines jazz with choral/classical music. Featuring vocals sung in Latin by The Hilliard Ensemble (countertenor David James, tenor Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor John Potter, and baritone Gordon Jones), Officium is nearly an all-vocal album. But the haunting saxophone work of Jan Garbarek (on soprano and tenor saxes) adds a dimension to these performances that takes them well beyond the realm of devotional choral performances.

The performance was recorded in an Austrian monastery, and the result certainly sounds like it. It’s unlikely that the ambience captured by producer (and ECM head) Manfred Eichler could have been captured in any conventional recording studio, no matter how high quality. The echo-against-stone aural texture gives Garbarek’s tenor a yawning quality that sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish from a cello. In fact, the Norwegian saxophonist’s instrument effectively becomes a fifth voice, blending as he does into the vocal milieu of the Ensemble.

This initial collaboration between Garbarek and the vocal quartet was so successful that they mounted a series of tours, and followed up the release of Officium with further recorded cooperative efforts. Officium may well have been the inspiration for the release of Chant, the album of Gregorian chants featuring the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, also released in 1994. There’s little doubt that Officium – the more modern and sophisticated work of the two – helped renew interest in the musical form of the Middle Ages.

In the expansive booklet that accompanies this 2LP reissue, Eichler comments on the genesis of the session, noting that the idea came to him initially as potential accompaniment to a movie he had planned to make in Iceland. The music of 16th century composer Christóbal de Morales (which figures largely in Officium) so moved Eichler, though, that in the end, as he writes in the booklet, “No longer able to reconcile the intensity of the sounds with the figure of Geiser [the film's central character], I later decided on other music [for the film]. The vision remained. And now this recording.” Potter adds, “What is this music? We don’t have a name for it.”

The libretto includes all of the Latin lyrics to Officium‘s fifteen tracks, but no English translation is provided. That notwithstanding, the power and the majesty of the performances transcends words and, perhaps, meaning.

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Album Review: Lead Belly — Lost Radio Broadcasts: WNYC, 1948

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

In 1948, on a Sunday evening in August, a new radio series premiered. Featuring beloved and renowned folk singer Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly), The Story of Folklore presented the then-fiftyish Lead Belly doing what he did best: singing songs accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, and introducing the songs with brief spoken interludes. As was the standard practice, the shows would be recorded, pressed onto 16” “aircheck” discs and then broadcast shortly thereafter. The source for this vinyl release is a set of 78rpm 12” discs cut from a playback of those aircheck discs. The resulting quality is quite clear for a recording of this vintage, and the modern-day producers (noted jazz author Cary Ginell and Michael Kieffer) are to be commended for their largely hands-off approach that seeks only to present the performance its best form.

Modern listeners who know “House of the Rising Sun” from its popular interpretation by The Animals may be surprised to hear Lead Belly’s upbeat, almost happy reading of the tune. On “Leavin’ Blues,” the guitarist shows his skill with the twelve-string; he often sounds as if he’s playing more than one instrument (he’s not; nothing like overdubbing existed in the 40s).

Side One presents the August 1 program, and August 15 episode is documented on Side Two. The song list is similar for both episodes: both include brief run-throughs of “Irene” as the opener and closer, plus distinctly different versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and the astounding guitar workout “Hollywood and Vine” (almost prototypical rock’n'roll, Lead Belly characterizes it as “a little boogie”). The man billed as “American’s greatest living folksinger” performs “Backwater Blues” and “Leavin’ Blues” on the first session, with a focus on love songs of a sort (“If It Wasn’t for Dicky” and “Careless Love”) on the second-documented show. The bits of banter between Ledbetter and the (unidentified) announcer are a bit stiff, but they may have served to guide listeners into the somewhat unfamiliar musical world of Lead Belly.

The disc captures the first and third episodes of The Story of Folklore, and the announcer makes mention of the program format for the fourth episode (spirituals), but only these two episodes have surfaced. Presumably the series didn’t continue for much more than four installments total.

The vinyl release of Lost Radio Broadcasts: WNYC, 1948 is pressed on beautiful translucent blue vinyl, housed in a sturdy full-color ten-inch sleeve, and includes a well-put-together liner note booklet that provides background on the recording, the songs, the performer, and the modern transfer of the recording. Happily, the entire project was done with the blessing and cooperation of the Lead Belly Estate.

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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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Album Review: R.L. Burnside — Too Bad Jim

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Here’s something that can be described as the sweet spot in a Venn diagram charting a curiosity, a history lesson, and an authentic modern-day reading of country blues. R.L. Burnside‘s Too Bad Jim – newly reissued on vinyl; more about that presently – sounds for all the world like a classic country blues session, the kind of thing Alan Lomax might have captured for the Smithsonian decades ago. Burnside’s delivery – vocal and guitar – is deeply redolent of Mississippi delta bluesmen of old (most notably Fred McDowell), but the production values are positively 21st century.

Which isn’t to say that Too Bad Jim has been gimmicked-up, akin to some sort of White Stripes dilettantism. No, Burnside is indeed the real deal. His blues tunes are true to the spirit of those old field recordings in that his blues is not confined to modern/commercial notions of how long each verse should be. In that he shares a sensibility with artists such as John Lee Hooker: Burnside uses the blues form more as a jumping off point than as a framework. He’s a bluesman, to be sure, but he bends the form to suit his needs. His electrified approach is supported on Too Bad Jim by the sparest of backing: this 1993 recording finds him joined only by bass and drums. Not only is their contribution simple and basic – keeping the spotlight where it belongs – but it’s relatively low in the mix.

And by “mix” I don’t wish to imply that Too Bad Jim has the sound of a multi-track studio recording. The sound is crystal clear and uncluttered, but it very much has the feel of one mic hanging from the ceiling (alongside perhaps a lone, naked incandescent lightbulb). There’s a late-night feel to the ten tracks on Too Bad Jim; that vibe pervades Burnside’s mix of originals, traditional numbers, and a cover of Hooker’s “When My First Life Left Me.” His original numbers – take “Short Haired Woman” for as good an example as any – could have been written ninety years ago, but in Burnside’s capable hands, the songs are timeless. His singing and playing is in turns heartfelt, impassioned, assured, and it’s always authentic.

Too Bad Jim was originally issued on the venerable Fat Possum label. A new subscription service called Vinyl Me Please featured Burnside’s second and highly regarded album as its October 2014 selection. Thick, sturdy heavyweight vinyl is packaged in a higher-gauge cardboard sleeve, along with a download card giving purchasers access to 320kbps (read: high quality) MP3 files. A nice foldout poster will evoke warm memories among those who came of age in vinyl’s 1970s heyday. As part of Vinyl Me Please’s good-natured approach, the package for Too Bad Jim also includes a recipe card for a relevant cocktail, in this case a variation on the Bloody Mary, one that was reputedly a favorite of Burnside’s.

With its monthly offerings, the Vinyl Me Please catalog explores a wide array of genres; the only unifying characteristic seems to be high quality.

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Book Review: Vinyl Lives On

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Florida-based author/journalist James Goss digs his vinyl. Though he never writes about his own interests or collection, his abiding fascination with the medium of vinyl records shines through loud and clear in his writing. His first two books on the subject – Vinyl Lives and Vinyl Lives II – offered profiles of many of the more notable independent record shops that have endured through the years and/or popped up in the wake of vinyl’s mini-resurgence. Goss’ knowing questions elicited illuminating responses from the shop owners, and that raw material – deftly combined with his own research and existing knowledge – resulted in some very interesting pieces.

That format is used in Goss’ newest book, Vinyl Lives On: Profiles of Musician Collectors and Record Store Owners. As its title makes plain, this book enjoys a widening of Goss’ scope to include collectors of note. And while a good chunk of Vinyl Lives On still focuses upon indie shops (happily, their number has been growing since publication of Goss’ earlier books), the chapters devoted to profiles of collectors provide a balance and an added level of insight.

Goss’ interview/profile of Henry Rollins is in itself worth the price of admission. Rollins is an unfailingly rewarding interview subject, and Goss’ experience was clearly no exception. The subject of record collecting clearly stuck a chord with Rollins; his numerous quotes are unceasingly interesting, shedding light on his voracious appetite for music (and other recorded material) across a wide array of genres.

Some of the author’s profiles of other collectors are marginally less interesting, but that has as much to do with what they have to say (or don’t have to say) as anything else. Goss’ chapters on Bill Frisell and Billy Vera both focus more on overall biographies of the musicians, so their interest in vinyl represents a smaller part of the content.

Not to focus too greatly on form versus content, but two points deserve mention here. First, Goss’ series of books – though published under the imprint of Aventine Press – are for all intents and purposes self-published works. This does show through in the relatively simple cover art and (to my mind, anyway) questionable choices of font and type size. But those issues are largely matters of taste, and don’t appreciably affect the quality of the books one way or another.

The second point is more substantial. Though Vinyl Lives On and its predecessors aren’t published by a major or well-known house, Goss’ books have obviously received a much more thorough editing than is the norm these days. I’ve read innumerable books these last few years, and am relentlessly barraged with syntax errors, factual mistakes, poor and inconsistent spelling. Goss’ comparatively humble books have virtually none of these issues: they’re well-written and expertly edited. For a writer/editor, reading works filled with mistakes can be an especially distracting experience. With Vinyl Lives On and its earlier two volumes, readers are free to focus on the content, well-presented as it should be.

James Goss’ Vinyl Lives On makes it three-in-a-row for my recommendation.

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Album Review: Caleb Hawley

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

While it might come off a bit melodramatic to say so, sometimes I experience some emotional rollercoasterism when receiving new music in my mailbox. Case in point: not long ago I went outside to collect the mail, only to find a box leaned up against my front door (it wouldn’t fit in the mailbox). The familiar cardboard dimensions – a bit over 12” x 12” – made all but certain that it was vinyl.

I love vinyl.

The return address indicated that said package was shipped to me from a publicist in whom I trust, one with whom I share similar musical tastes; further, she”gets” my specific likes and dislikes, and tends to steer toward me music that is likely to get a fair listen. She turned me on to The Explorers Club, in fact. In short, a professional.

I took the package inside and opened it. What I found was a record with cover art as you see above. A guy who looks a bit like Noah Wyle, the actor who rose to fame on ER. My first thought was, “Oh. A singer songwriter.”

My heart sank.

But knowing the publicist as I do, I was more than willing to give the record a spin. How bad could it be? So I removed the shrink wrap and put the vinyl platter on the turntable. The first track, “Would You Even Try,” blasted out of the speakers.

I was thrilled.

And so it goes. One can’t always judge an LP by its cover. The self-titled debut from Minneapolis-born Caleb Hawley has much more in common with, say, Mayer Hawthorne – another white guy who creates authentic, heartfelt soul music – than any navel-gazing, overly precious singer-songwriter.

“Would You Even Try” has slinky, soulful guitar riffs and thundering bass as its foundation, but Hawley’s strong voice – supported by hot Latin-flavored percussion, bright horn charts and subtle Motown-styled strings – is the focus here. It’s undeniably retro, and it’s also exciting as hell.

“Sometimes a Good Feeling (Just Can’t Last)” is another pop delight. It’s as strong as any soul/r&b 45 from the early 70s. The sax work and female vocal chorus are standout elements, but it’s a deftly executed tune all around.

Hawley slows things waaay down for “I Just Want You,” heading for a gospel-flavored Wilson Pickett style. The thrill quotient is lower, but that’s clearly by design. Hawley’s neo-soul approach here is reminiscent of James Morrison‘s debut (let’s hope Hawley can maintain the quality of his music, a feat Morrison hasn’t quite been able to master).

While “When My Baby’s Gone” is a fine tune, here Hawley oversteps the boundaries just a bit: the tune is a too-direct lift of The Supremes‘ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The not-exactly-original lyric “just my imagination running wild” doesn’t help things, either. Still, let’s give Hawley a one-time pass on this one: Mayer Hawthrone gave us a similar product with A Strange Arrangement‘s “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” and he’s done okay for himself since.

Some tasty Memphis-styled guitar funk forms the basis of “Crying Wolf.” On “Let a Little Love In,” Hawley and his players build the song around some lovely piano work; the resullt feels like Tapestry-era Carole King, and that’s never, ever a bad thing.

The vocal chorus fades slowly in on “My Hell,” a tune much more upbeat than its title might suggest. Hawley’s impassioned delivery is heightened by massed handclaps moving the tune along. The drum corps intro of “Little Miss Sunshine” is fascinating, and it leads into a slinky dim-the-lights-baby jam.

“Bada Boom, Bada Bling” puts the focus more on the instrumentation. Wahwah guitars and a super-funky beat make the tune; the melody isn’t as strong as most of what’s on Caleb Hawley, but perhaps as a dance floor number it works.

A few odd production choices mar “Long Life,” and the seemingly autobiographical lyrics detract from the fun a bit. Too gimmicky by half, it’s the album’s weakest track, and sticks out like a sore thumb ion an otherwise fine disc.

Hawley gets back on solid footing with the Earth, Wind & Fire-styled “Give it Away.” His command of falsetto is impressive; it’s a testament to his (or someone’s) restraint that the vocal technique isn’t splashed all over the album. Leaving ‘em wanting more is always a good strategy for a performer new to the scene. Musically, it feels not unlike something Michael Jackson might’ve done in the mid 1980s.

Caleb Hawley wraps up with “Find It,” a number that starts out understated, only to unfold halfway through as a pull-out-all-the-stops big finish. Vocals and instruments go all-in here, and “Find It” sounds to these ears like the perfect live set closer. It fulfills that role equally well on this album.

Perhaps a bit oddly, Hawley initially released an EP called Side 1; his latest short-form release is – wait for it – Side 2. The first focused on 60s styles, while the second has a more (but not too) contemporary feel. His self-titled vinyl LP includes both sides, and it’s the way to go.

In the future, when and if I receive a package indicting Caleb Hawley’s involvement, I’ll be expecting good things.

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