Posts Tagged ‘numero group’

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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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part Two

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Here’s another entry in my short-review series; these three are instrumental albums.

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown
An entire generation grew up with the music of Vince Guaraldi, becoming familiar with he melodic brand of music even if they (we) might have claimed not to like jazz. As the background music of the enduring and popular Peanuts cartoons, Guaraldi’s piano-based tunes reinforced the onscreen emotional content of the animated characters and action. The most popular entry in the series remains A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Fantasy/Concord reissued the accompanying soundtrack several times, most recently in a cleverly designed die-cut package.

But an earlier program was made, and it too had a soundtrack featuring Guaraldi’s trio (the pianist plus drummer Colin Bailey and bassist Monty Budwig). But for a host of complicated reasons, A Boy Named Charlie Brown never actually aired on television. Yet in an unusual move, Fantasy Records (Guaralidi’s label at the time) did release its soundtrack, originally titled Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown. Subsequent pressings played down the connection to the unaired program and shortened the album’s title.

The music is just how anyone who’s ever heard a note of “Linus and Lucy” remembers it: emotionally expressive without the use of lyrics, varied in tone and style to fit the demands of the program’s scenes. The trio’s music bears close listening, but is effective as (dare I say it) background music as well. The 2014 reissue appends an unreleased alternate take of “Baseball Theme” and Guaraldi’s reading of the standard “Fly Me to the Moon,” though the latter has noting to do with Peanuts. The original edit of the accompanying animated film is lost – presumably forever – but the music remains, and it’s delightful as ever. (A limited edition orange vinyl pressing – with the original Jazz Impressions artwork – is also available.)

Express Rising – Express Rising
Music is filled with the work of outsider artists. Decidedly and determinedly avoiding the mainstream, those following their singular and idiosyncratic paths create and release music wholly free of commercial considerations. Most of these artists are, by definition, underground, neither seeking nor finding mass acceptance. Some of these artists are quite prolific: pop auteur R. Stevie Moore has self-released literally hundred of albums. Others turn out music at a much more measured pace.

One example of the latter is Express Rising. The inscrutable Dante Carfagna is Express Rising, but nobody can tell you much beyond that. What is known is that Carfagna’s earlier release featured breakbeats and sampling, two things you’ll find very little of on Express Rising. Moody, hypnotic, gauzy, impressionistic, melancholy: those are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind while listening to this album of instrumental (with occasional wordless vocalizing) music. Real instruments feature prominently here: Wurlitzer electric piano, acoustic guitar and gentle tapping of a drum kit.

But for something that at first glance seems forbiddingly outré, Express Rising is exceedingly tuneful and accessible. More textured and nuanced than new age, gentler than rock, the album’s eleven tracks are fully-thought-out musical excursion, modest in their approach but memorable. By design, the package provides little information, but the press kit offered this suitably oblique nugget: “Carfagna had this to say about himself and about Express Rising: ‘My last record came out ten years ago. Much has changed and much has not.’” The modest and assuming yet lovely Express Rising is well worth seeking out.

Percy Jones – Cape Catastrophe
Outside jazz/fusion/prog circles, the name Percy Jones isn’t well known. But within that rarefied world, Jones’s reputation looms large. As a key member of pioneering fusion group Brand X, Jones’ rubbery bass lines were an integral component of that group’s sonic attack.

After Brand X ended, the Welsh bassist relocated to New York City, where he would eventually cut a solo album called Cape Catastrophe. The album is a decidedly DIY effort, laid down in 1988-89 in a Harlem studio using drum machines, Casio synthesizers,digital delays and loads of Jones’ signature bass.

On the ten-minute-plus title track, clattering drum beats collide with Jones’ kinetic bass figures; “found” spoken word bits float in and out. The overall effect is a but like slightly funkier, equally arty My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Jones’ fretless work on “Slick” is expressive and entrancing, and overall the album sounds far less “dated” than one might expect. “Hex” feels like what The Police might have produced had they all given in to their suppressed prog-rock backgrounds. And the lengthy “Barrio” (which fills more than a third of Cape Catastrophe‘s run time) feels like an inspired, exploratory in-studio live jam, belying its one-guy-with-overdubs origin.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Hundred-word Reviews: Deluxe Packages

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Each of these is a multi-disc set collecting archival (and sometimes previously-unreleased) music, but other than that, there’s little to connect these releases in any stylistic fashion: Celtic soul, proto-funk/pop, hard rock, comedy spoken word, and psychedelic post-punk. All have been sitting on my desk awaiting review for far too long. So, here ya go.

Van Morrison – Moondance (Expanded Edition)
Moondance was released in 1970, and several tracks – “Crazy Love,” “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic” and the title track ( a de rigueur dance-band number) – have since assumed “standard” status. And that kind of over-saturation can result in people forgetting just how good the album really was/is (see also: Led Zeppelin’s fourth LP). A new 2CD set appends eleven outtakes – all previously unissued – to the album. The outtakes add to the listener’s understanding of the album as an organic whole, and there’s even a 4CD version (with more unreleased goodies) available as well.


Various – Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound
The Diminutive Purple One didn’t spring forth fully formed; the Minneapolis scene had long been a breeding ground for all kinds of r&b talent. And while most never broke out in any major way (Morris Day being a notable exception), they left behind a cache of music. Those crate-digging folks at Numero Group have unearthed the best of these and compiled them in three formats (2CD w/book, 4CD w/book, MP3). It’s really more of a book with a soundtrack than the reverse; at 144pp, one can delve deeply into the history of African-American modern r&b out of the Twin Cities.


Deep Purple – Now What!? (Gold Edition)
You can be forgiven for initially looking upon this release with skepticism. After all, Deep Purple’s high water mark came in the very early 1970s. Like so many hard rock bands of their ilk, they floundered creatively (and commercially) in the 1980s and beyond, releasing little of note and becoming somewhat faceless. So it’s some great surprise to learn that the group (comprised mostly of prime-era members) has roared back with their best album in decades. Now What!? sounds and feels like the Deep Purple of old, and a bonus disc of live tapes show that it’s not sessioner trickery.


The First Family – 50th Anniversary Edition
The early 1960s was a golden era for the comedy LP; releases from Bob Newhart, Allan Sherman and others enjoyed success in the marketplace. While those vintage LPs make for quite the dated, quaint listen today, they’re fun nonetheless. The First Family capitalized on craze for all things Camelot, when the public couldn’t get enough of the Kennedy clan. A followup album (cut five months later) got much less notice, and when JFK was killed in November of that year, most people quietly shelved the first LP. Both are gathered together with some bonus material for this 2CD anniversary set.


Red Temple Spirits – s/t
This package has an extremely high “boutique” quotient; how else to describe a set that places CDs in what look like embossed, wax-paper sleeves, encased in a gold-toned envelope? This is one set that won’t fit on your CD shelf, nor will it stand alone like some box set. And the music – post-punk from the late 1980s – isn’t the sort of pretty, filigreed stuff you’d expect to get this kind of treatment. It will appeal to fans of Public Image Limited; though RTS was California-based, vocalist William Faircloth added a veddy British vibe to the goth-rock proceedings.

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Book Review: Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Sidestepping tired allusions to Boston‘s Tom Scholz, Guns’n'Roses and Chinese democracy, Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes was a long time coming. Author Mary Donnelly began work on the book several years ago. Lots and lots (and lots) of interviews would form the basis of this exhaustive and supremely well-researched tome, and then various and unspecified production delays resulted in the publishing date being moved out, and moved out again. Still, I’m happy to report that the results are well worth the wait.

But wait: maybe you weren’t even waiting: who the hell, you might ask, are Shoes anyway? Well, if one uses normal measures of fame and notoriety, Shoes are a little-known group working in a little-known musical subgenre, hailing from a little-known Midwestern town. Not having ever visited Zion IL, I can’t vouch for the is-it-worth-knowing of the last part of that equation, but as far as whether you should know about Shoes, there can be no question.

Among the most revered of all groups in powerpop, Shoes have forged a long (if largely under-the-radar) career filled with gems of the highest order. Their brand of music – often as not, smooth and creamy vocals singing love/angst-oriented lyrics atop chunky guitars and a solid, propulsive beat – deserves a wider hearing than it’s ever got. Shoes’ deep catalog extends backward into the mid 1970s, and forward to right-damn-now. While the trio (they haven’t had a drummer as a full-time band member in decades) aren’t known for being serious road dogs (they have day jobs, families and and lives), their rare live performances show that their music does translate well to the stage. Among those who do know about Shoes, they’re sometimes spoken of in that same rarefied air in which Rapsberries, Badfinger and Big Star live. And you’ve heard of at least two of those, yes?

Donnelly’s book does an excellent job of sketching out the context in which Gary Klebe (vocals and guitars), Jeff Murphy (vocals and more guitars) and John Murphy (vocals and still yet more guitars, and bass) formed the band – with an especially wonderful and vivid first-chapter portrait of Zion, the decidedly odd town in which the three grew up and still reside – but she takes it a welcome step farther and helps the reader understand why it all happened. Only in Zion, you might say.

But it’s not as if their hometown encouraged Shoes in their musical pursuits; Boys Don’t Lie illustrates the paradox that the trio were all but unknown in their hometown; one suspects it’s still pretty much that way. They might be known as Gary, John and Jeff, but…Shoes? As likely as not, no.

The band’s history is a long and deeply textured one, filled with all of the kinds of things any story involving humans is bound to have: success, failure, alienation, hope, estrangement, and so on. Boys Don’t Lie is a very human story, and while it has neither the hugely uplifting denouement of the film Searching for Sugar Man nor the crushing disappointment, tragedies, death and what-ifs that defined the careers of Big Star and Badfinger, it’s a very good story.

One need not be a fan of Shoes – or even of their chosen genre (because, truth be told, Shoes’ music often extends beyond the narrow definition of powerpop) – to dive into the long written work that is Boys Don’t Lie. But odds are, part way through, you’ll want a soundtrack to help provide the context that no amount of excellent writing can provide. And for that, there are plenty of CDs available. The most succinct of these is Real Gone Music’s 2012 compilation 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012.

That compilation (with Stephen “Spaz” Schnee‘s liner notes that could well serve as a teaser to the long-form Boys Don’t Lie) will also lead listeners to Shoes’ latest material, their 2012 album Ignition. Now, for a good chunk of the book, especially from the midpoint onward, thoughtful readers will begin to wonder, will this band even exist by the final pages of Boys Don’t Lie?

My take on the genesis of the project is that Donnelly wasn’t even sure herself of the answer to this question. In fact, the chapters that deal with Ignition have a slightly tacked-on feel, as if the book had neared its putative ending with Shoes more or less fizzling out, and then a spark of life was, er, ignited. In fact, in the end that tacked-on feeling fits the narrative perfectly; everything leads toward a somewhat desultory ending, and then near the last minute, pow: they’re back.

Whether events were quite that simple in real life doesn’t matter; Mary Donnelly’s telling of the story – based on more hours of interviews than one can probably imagine with the principals plus relevant witnesses and bystanders – is richly detailed. It never drags, and most readers will find themselves rooting throughout for the protagonists. Unlike some other famous (or infamous) acts, the men of Shoes were not their own worst enemies; with few exceptions, they didn’t get in the way of their own success. And on those rare occasions when they did, their actions were of a sort of common-sense character that might leave the reader saying, “Yeah, well, in their situation, I might have done the same thing.”

I’ve endeavored to avoid usage of the word cult in describing Shoes and/or their fan base, but it’s true that the group has enjoyed very modest commercial success, and also that their fan base is a small as it is dedicated. But they have some friends and allies in high places: renowned music-journalist-then-label-rep-then-music-publicist Cary Baker was an early and steadfast champion of the band from the earliest days, and Real Gone Music head Gordon Anderson has been (like music journalist John Borack, producer of a tribute CD) a lifelong fan of Shoes.

Badfinger got their book (Dan Matovina‘s controversial 2000 Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger), and Big Star got their movie (2013′s Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me) and now, thanks to Mary Donnelly and the patient and long-term cooperation of the band members themselves, Shoes get their history told in a deservedly in-depth manner. A must-read.

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Album Review: Iasos – Celestial Soul Portrait

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Near the tail-end of the 20th century, I played piano in the “house band” for a monthly coffeehouse in the suburbs of Atlanta. Since my bandmates often played acoustic twelve-string guitars, there were occasional gaps of time between songs, given over to tuning. I gamely filled those gaps with musician jokes. A favorite was this: Q: What does new age music sound like when it’s played backwards? A: New age music.

It got some laughs; more than the jokes about singer/songwriters, anyway. And while it’s true that to the uninitiated, music that falls into the new age bag can sound like nothing’s-going-on-here, a more close listen – to the good stuff, anyway– can be a rewarding experience.

In fact, the best of the genre probably is better described as minimalist (think: Philip Glass) or ambient (such as Brian Eno). And within this little-explored genre, some very interesting work has been created. Among these are the works of an enigmatic artist known only as Iasos. Those wily archivists at Numero Group have put together a single-disc career survey of the man’s work with thirteen tracks spanning the last few decades.

Celestial Soul Portrait takes a unique and potentially risky approach: though the booklet that accompanies the disc is substantial, it provides little to nothing in the way of discographical information. Some of the tracks are discussed within their historical context, but there’s no chronology or anything of the sort in the package. Listeners are left to experience the instrumental music unfettered by such details as what-instrument-is-that and so forth.

What we can discern is that Iasos makes intelligent use of effects pedals, MIDI technology, analog synthesizers and other machinery in service of his atmospheric compositions. There’s nary a click of percussion on theses thirteen tracks; everything floats by in a soft, slightly out-of-focus way, and clearly that’s Iasos’ intent.

While not exactly melodies in the traditional sense, Iasos’ compositions are texture pieces that – if you’re antsy – might frustrate. If you’re the sort who needs your music to “go somewhere,” tracks like “Blue Fire Realms” might frustrate you. Sounding a bit like the extended textural pieces on Todd Rundgren‘s 1981 LP Healing (though, again, without percussion), the song introduces a tapestry of sounds, but they float by, creating an impression that is open ended, leaving the listener to fill in the blanks in his or her mind.

The obscure, unknowable artiste is a common theme in esoteric music, and Iasos’ character fits that to a T. While Ryan Boyle‘s liner notes chronicle enough about the musician’s life to provide some useful context, many key details (such as his last name) are intentionally left out. Iasos is certainly not nearly as “weird” as, say, Jandek, but one can assume that he values his relative anonymity as part of what he needs to create his sonic tableaux. Even Allmusic.com’s bio on the man is a mere 59 words, and no doubt Iasos likes it that way.

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A Really Big Shoes Interview, Part 4

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: So Ignition is the first new Shoes album in 17 years. It’s an obvious question, but why so long?

John Murphy (bass/vocals): It sounds terrible: eighteen years. And of course there was never any grand plan. I think, when I look back at what was happening in the late 90s, there were a series of things. We were trying to maintain this building. We had to “feed the baby” every month, and the baby wanted two grand. Jeff had been making a living from [producing] sessions, and that was drying up; bands were sinking money into home gear. So that was the beginning of the end for that.

Also, independent distribution was going belly-up. We lost tens of thousands of dollars in the whole effort of trying to be an independent label. We’d have a distributor who’d owe us $2000, send us $600 and then order more CDs. We’d say, “Okay, they made an attempt in paying.” So in the end, they’d owe us five grand. Then they’d shut down, and we’re out that money. The business end was just eating things alive. We were turning on each other. Being in a band is not unlike a marriage: money problems can ruin a marriage.

When we put the building on the market, it sat unsold for almost three years. And in that time, it had become such a bad taste in our mouths that the idea of starting something that we couldn’t finish just didn’t appeal to us.

And once we sold it – 2004 or so – it’s was sort of a relief for awhile. It was bittersweet, and we missed it, but we were continuing with our lives, getting jobs. Maintaining. Gary moved three times during those years. Jeff moved twice. I moved twice. So those other things just took precedence. We hated thinking of Shoes in the past tense, and in fact we didn’t think that way. We just thought, this will work out eventually.

When Gary moved [the most recent time], he built a studio in his basement. And he had been buying gear all along on eBay: top-notch microphones and outboard gear. So the whole approach shifted; before we had a 24-track analog board. Now things have obviously shifted into digital. So Gary was learning Cubase and those programs on the run.

So we said, “Well, now there’s a place. Can we even do this any more? And will it live up to our expectations?” And after trying a few things, we felt good about pulling this off. So we began in fall 2010, through 2011 and into the beginning of this year. We finished recording in April, and we spent May getting artwork and packaging together, and manufacturing took a few weeks in June.

You can sometimes forget just what’s involved. Even though we saved ourselves from having a 30, 40, fifty thousand dollar deficit from recording, we still had costs. So even once you make the decision to do it, it takes time.

BK: It would seem that with all this new material and reissues, and the book, now would be the time to capitalize on the buzz. What’s next for the band?

JM: We knew we wanted to do the Ignition album. So now we’re thinking, “So, here we are again.” What the future holds, in that you can record a song in a week and then put it on your website for people to download, that really does change things. The point is to get new music out in some way, and now we’re able to rethink that. You could sequester yourself for a year and a half, working on twelve to fourteen songs. But you could pop ‘em off one by one. It’s a different way of thinking.

BK: It also, in a curious way, is a sort of return to the singles era. And it also plays up and builds upon the band’s direct relationship with its fan base: no longer do you have to say, “We have these four or five great songs, but you can’t hear any of ‘em until we come up with seven more.”

JM: Right. And if you have an audience, it works to the artists’ benefit, because it’s a helluva lot more immediate. I remember John Lennon bragging about “Instant Karma.” I think you have to consider what are the goals of a group. And if it is about getting material out quickly, [this direct approach] may not have the fanfare of an album release, but it may be a model for how to put things out in the future. You have to consider it; if you turn you backs on it, it’s kind of foolish.


Shoes’ latest album Ignition, was released on the band’s own Black Vinyl Records on August 14. At the time of publication of this feature, Mary Donnelly‘s book Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes is scheduled for publication the last quarter of 2012. Real Gone Music’s 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012 was released August 14 October 2.

UPDATE: The initial salvo of Numero Group’s vinyl Shoes LP reissue program is as listed below. Note that all of the titles below can be pre-ordered right now. So, do. — bk

  • One in Versailles – November 13, 2012
  • Bazooka – November 13, 2012
  • Black Vinyl Shoes – November 27, 2012
  • Present Tense Demos – November 27, 2012

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A Really Big Shoes Interview, Part 3

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: I think Shoes fans – especially ones outside the Midwest – think of you more as a studio band. Why don’t you play out more, or tour?

John Murphy (bass/vocals): Going back to Elektra again, the labels in those days didn’t have much to do with a band’s live thing; that was our trip. In a lot of cases, they didn’t even want us to play live. But we were excited to do it.

The whole thing about playing live is this: it’s one of those things for which there are no short cuts. Once we get cracking, and do show after show – and we were doing that in the early and mid 80s – it’s like second nature. We roll with the punches, with the problems that happen. But later on, what complicates that is when it’s not the only thing you’re doing – when you’re holding down a forty-plus hour a week job, or you’re married, whatever it is – all these things make it tougher.

A few years ago we had a chance to go to Japan. We thought, “How are bands affording to do that?” But we had something put our on Air Mail Records over there, and Hiroshi Kuse approached us and said, “I’ll spring for the flight, the hotel, and most of your food. I won’t pay you for the gigs.” We knew that he was doing more by paying for this other stuff. So we rehearsed for weeks, and got our drummer who lives in Menominee, Michigan – five hours north of us – and we did it.

We did promote Propeller with shows, and we did dates to promote Stolen Wishes (1989). And I understand how when somebody does 200 gigs a year, you get good.

We lost our clubhouse when we sold our studio. We took that for granted; we had our amps set up there, and could rehearse. Now, it’s more complicated; we do a combination of Gary’s house, and Jeff’s place. We did figure it out, and we do play live. But to spend weeks of rehearsal to do one show is difficult. I’d love to go out and do a tour that was put together by some professionals, so that we didn’t have to do the planning. Lately – and by lately, I mean for the last 20 years – if we don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.

So I think people have gotten the wrong impression. We’ve done a fair amount of gigs.

BK: I mean this in the best possible way, but the sound – the songs, the playing, the singing, the arrangement, the production – on Ignition doesn’t differ a whole lot from what Shoes sounded like in 1979. I think it’s a timeless, signature sound. Is that a conscious goal of the band, or is that “just how you sound?”

JM: I think it is conscious. We have the same goals collectively and individually, the same direction. I think we are fairly good self-editors. If one of us brings in an idea that might be a little questionable, there are two other guys there who can say, “Well, maybe if we do it a little more like this…” But it really does help that our [musical] goals are the same: creating a relatively tight, concise and catchy tune.

It might sound simplistic to say that. But working within a traditional palette – though we do often bring in “exotic” instruments like a piano [laughs] – works for us.

This is the first record of ours that John Richardson has played drums on. He’s been our drummer for eighteen years! And so drums are a more important part of this record; we’re not always filling the cracks with more guitar or something. He puts in some cool rolls, things like that.

There are a number of crucial things, I think, that make people when they hear Ignition say, “Yeah, it sounds like Shoes, but it’s different, too.” We learned long ago the value of economy. Like on vocals: we can and often do vocal harmonies, but not on every song. You don’t want every song to have a Queen chorus kind of feel. We’re always aware of hooks, and of only adding things that serve the song. We’re not trying to showcase our guitar playing, or bass playing. Etc. The song is the end result.

BK: “Hot Mess” on the new record reminds me a little bit of T. Rex, of the whole glam sort of thing. It’s a little bit of a departure from your signature style. When you write, do you sort of hear Shoes playing the finished song in your head, or is it a more open-ended process than that?

JM: Well, when I hear a new song of Jeff’s or Gary’s, I hear a demo recording of it; they’re the engineers, so they do that. So there’s a guitar, a rough bass line, maybe a drum machine, and a vocal. So it’s pretty well sketched-out. But when I bring a song, I’ll start – usually with Gary – and tell him how I think I want the song to go. I’m kind of banking on the collaborative effort. Sometimes there’s some minimal drama – confusion over who’s going to do what – but I get my end together, and come in with options for what the other guys can do. In the end, if one of us really wants to take a song a certain place, and it’s his song, that’s where he takes it.

continued

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A Really Big Shoes Interview, Part 2

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I bought the Present Tense LP when it came out; I was 13 (fifteen; Math is hard! — bk). Gary Klebe‘s “I Don’t Miss You” got a decent amount of airplay on the rock FM station in Atlanta. Did you have huge hopes for high-profile mainstream commercial blockbuster success when you were signed with Elektra? And how soon did it begin to dawn on you that that wasn’t in the cards?

John Murphy (bass, vocals): Even before Elektra, we were being courted by Seymour Stein of Sire Records. And remember: he had Talking Heads and Ramones on his label, but neither one of those bands were hugely successful; they were underground.

BK: Critics’ darlings but not shifting units…

JM: Exactly. But Stein was known for sniffing around and finding people first. So sure enough, there he was. He had talked to us several times. So we were being suggested to that world. And then when the Elektra thing came down, they presented it like…one of the questions we were asked by Kenny Batista (VP of Promotion at the time) was, “Are you guys ready for success? I mean, big success?” And we said — well, what are you going to say? – of course.

In our minds, the goal was a major-label contract. So everything after that – even to sell a few thousand units – was just a thrill. But they were grooming us for the big time. Millions. We had a sort of Midwestern believe-it-when-we-see-it mentality. But we knew that enthusiasm of the label was a big part of it. We figured, we give them the best we can give them, and they’re behind it. We’re the teacher’s pet.

As far as [reality] dawning on us, it would have been by the end of ’79. They rush-released Present Tense. We had just finished it in September, and the damn thing was out by the beginning of October. We didn’t know if they were trying to sneak it in for consideration for the ’79 Grammy Awards or something; we didn’t know.

But by December, they’re throwing their hands up and saying, “Well, okay. We’ll get ‘em on the next one.”

BK: They didn’t work it with deejays and record stores?

JM: Well, here’s the thing: they did spend money somewhere. Stroking record promoters…

BK: Buying cocaine for program directors…

JM: [laughs] Totally. Or “dates,” or whatever you want to call them.

Meanwhile, we scurried back to our hole here in the beginning of 1980 to come up with some more material. We recorded that summer, and by fall, we were ready to have Tongue Twister out. But they said, “Let’s hold onto it,” because they had a bunch of records they were working: Queen, Linda Ronstadt.

So it got held until January. And we think they cooled on it by then. And then a lack of decisions is what did it, and before we knew it, they were saying it was another bomb. A stiff. And by this time, we’re thinking, “Oh, boy. This is not working well.” We were giving them what we wanted to; we were brought up on a commercial-minded approach. But they could never decide which song to choose to promote in a given market, that kind of thing. And that frittered away some time that was pretty valuable in building the momentum of a new record. Today, an independent can push a record for two years. Back then, they literally thought in terms of weeks.

Our contract was to record two albums. They did pick up the option for our third album (1982′s Boomerang), but they broke the deal in the middle of that and bought us out. We were glad to be making that record, but by that time we did not think that Elektra was going to put much muscle behind it anyway. We rode it out, because that’s all we could do. They had their way of doing things, and we were caught up in that.

We had a deal before we had management. It was an ass-backward situation. We loved our manager then and now, but he was befuddled too. He saw the mistakes happening; he could see the train wreck coming. We begged them to do some videos for MTV, which had started in fall 1981. We said, “Give us some money; we can breathe some life into this.” But by then it was long-dead in their minds.

BK: Long, as in a couple of months.

With the exception of Silhouette – which I’ll admit I haven’t actually even heard – Shoes have always built their sound around the guitars/bass/drums/vocal lineup. Was that born out of any sort of necessity, or is it down to the fact that when you and Jeff Murphy and Gary write songs, the arrangements you have in your head are just that kind of style?

JM: In the early days, the songs we were drawn to were those traditional guitar/bass/drums arrangements. It’s not that we were ever against keyboards; I suppose it’s partly that to this day none of us is really a keyboard player.

One of the things that had always bugged us, I think, was that if you had a permanent keyboard player in your band, he’s always got to be there. I think of the early Tom Petty records – and I don’t mean to crap on him – but there’s always, on every song, a keyboard just laying the chord down, even when it’s unnecessary. So we looked at keys in our band as an accent. Textures, as opposed to building the songs around it.

One of our loves in pop music is the way that distorted guitar combined with strumming acoustic guitar sounds. David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust, T. Rex had that kind of thing. So that approach both appealed to us and was within our grasp to do as musicians.

 continued

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A Really Big Shoes Interview, Part 1

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Shoes are that curious breed: a powerpop band that’s consistently lauded critically, but that makes only occasional modest commercial inroads. They’ve been plying their trade – catchy, muscular, hook-filled rock with stellar vocal harmonies – since the mid-1970s. The band seemed poised for breakout fame – possibly as the Next Big Thing after The Cars – when they signed with industry heavy-hitters Elektra at the tail end of the 1970s. And while that hoped-for commercial breakthrough didn’t happen the band continued to create (rarely with outside help of any sort, it shroud be noted) an impressive body of work. With a catalog that (depending on how you count) includes more than a dozen albums of original material, Shoes kept the faith well into the mid 90s.

Things went quiet for the trio from Zion, Illinois after that, but the group didn’t disband. Beginning in 2007, Shoes reignited the flame (so to speak), first with a 2CD set of demos from their earliest days (Double Exposure), then with a solo album from guitarist Jeff Murphy (Cantilever). But none of that prepared Shoes fans for the good news that greeted them in 2012: a new album (Ignition) and much more.

I spoke at great, great length with Shoes bassist/vocalist John Murphy some twelve weeks ago about all of this. Owing to the wide-ranging nature of our conversation, it has taken me much longer than I would have liked to edit the transcript down to a manageable length. Here, over the next few days, are the highlights of our talk. – bk


Bill Kopp: So I understand there’s a book by Mary Donnelly coming out (Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes). Some people would say, “Really? a huge 600-page book on a band that’s not really among the most prominent?” But I’d point them to Joe Bonomo‘s excellent book about The Fleshtones or any number of others. That said, what can you tell me about the book?

John Murphy: When Mary first contacted us – and she was a fan of Shoes since she was a kid – we had our doubts, too. But the book – which isn’t fiction, of course – is really an analogy. It’s the story of a group of guys who had this little pipe dream back in the day. Through hard work and persistence and luck (or whatever you want to call it), we managed to accomplish a certain amount of our dreams and goals.

And I really think it’s an analogy for any band. Because it’s not made-up, and Mary puts the Shoes story in the context of what was happening, reflecting the time and the music industry back then. For example, we got signed at the beginning of the ’79 crash in the record industry. By the end of that year, things were going crazy. Records were shipping platinum, but getting platinum returns! In a way, we sort of scuffled our way through things, in some of the positions we found ourselves in.

So Mary’s story is a lot broader, I think, that people might expect. One could ask, “Why isn’t it a book about Coldplay or U2?” But that’s part of its appeal, I think, that’s its about a band that didn’t achieve the success – at that time – that we would have liked to. Or, the success that we were almost promised by Elektra back in the day.

But it’s a book about pursuing your dreams. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. And now we joke that we’ve inadvertently given her an ending, because we have a new album (Ignition, released August 14). And it’s a happy ending.

BK: It seems that this gives her the opportunity to tell some of the history, of what was happening in the music industry, but to do it from the standpoint of a band that still exists, rather than writing it from a point of view that’s far-removed, dispassionate, scholarly.

JM: The interesting thing is, we know our side of it. But in reading it, there were pages and pages where we went, “Oh, really? Is that what happened?” We know how things happened, or how they seemed on our end. But it’s still a little miracle that the Elektra signing ever happened. And there are a whole series of events that she recounts, things leading up to that. She talked to people – the ones she could find, anyway – to get the Elektra point of view, too.

It wasn’t like we bought a raffle ticket: there was a record that we had made (1977′s self-released Black Vinyl Shoes), and it was garnering some kind of attention in independent record shops. Maxanne Sartori, an influential deejay in Boston, had a lot to do with getting The Cars signed. And that right there gave Elektra the courage to say, “Hey, we need to do this again.” They wanted to find the next Cars; that’s what was on their minds.

BK: All of a sudden, there’s a flurry of Shoes related activity. The new Ignition album, the upcoming book, a series of vinyl reissues from Numero, and Real Gone Music has a compilation, 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012. Is there some sort of over-arching answer to the “Why now?” question?

JM: The Real Gone Music collection is a sort of Part Two to Shoes Best (1987). Some songs are on both. [Actually the 21-song 35 Years repeats only four songs from the 22-track Shoes Best tracks. – ed.]

As far as why now, it’s just a series of events that happened to coincide. Mary’s book started the ball rolling in terms of talk on the internet, and word of mouth. So some Shoes fans – or closet Shoes fans – who were in a position to do something, did. For example, Ken Shipley at Numero is a fan.

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