Posts Tagged ‘omnivore’

November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 2

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

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


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


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


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


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


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

15 more capsule reviews to come.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 1

Monday, November 10th, 2014

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


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


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


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


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


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

20 more capsule reviews to come.

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Big Star Lives! with “Live in Memphis” (Part 2)

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Continued from Part One

As Jon Auer pointed out in metaphor form during our conversation, speaking of Big Star in a slightly different context, “You can write the greatest letter in the world to someone, but if the postman loses it, or doesn’t deliver it, and no one ever gets it, no one’s gonna know how great it was.”

As it turned out, the Memphis date wasn’t the revived Big Star’s final show; not by a long shot. They continued to perform on and off for more than sixteen years, and even cut an album of new material, 2005′s In Space.

Thankfully, and no doubt in part owing to the success of the earlier box set* and movie**, Omnivore Recordings did — as filmmaker Danny Graflund would say — indeed give a flying fuck. Omnivore has quickly developed a reputation as musical curators: their approach to releases might be described as, “You probably haven’t heard this before, but you should hear it. This deserves your attention.” They do important, eclectic musical work. So now we have Live in Memphis as both a single audio CD and a concert DVD.

The twenty-song setlist as presented on Live in Memphis doesn’t differ significantly from the Columbia set performed and recorded a year and a half earlier, but the songs included here provide a more well-rounded portrait of the “new” Big Star. A faithful cover of The Kinks‘ “Till the End of the Day” reminds listeners of the studio version that was among the in/outtakes from the band’s Third/Sister Lovers LP. And Alex Chilton‘s off-kilter choice of covers is made manifest not only with Todd Rundgren‘s “Slut” and the T. Rex number “Baby Strange,” but with a surprising run-through of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” the bossa nova smash “Girl From Ipanema” (long a staple of Chilton’s solo shows), and the rock’n'roll obscurity “Patty Girl” by Dick Campbell and the Scarlets.

Chilton doesn’t hog the spotlight, though. While his idiosyncratic style all but guarantees that he’d alter the phrasing of his vocal and guitar lines, Auer and Ken Stringfellow take a more faithful approach, following the original arrangements to, um, the letter. The result is an odd juxtaposition: at times, The Posies duo sound more like “classic” Big Star than does Chilton. But when they take the lead vocals – most notably on Chris Bell‘s searing “I Am the Cosmos,” they achieve the feat of both remaining true to the original (and thus honoring Bell, who died in 1978) and making the song truly theirs. And when Jody Stephens takes his vocal turns, his fragile, heartfelt readings of “For You” and “Way Out West” rank among the disc’s most scintillating moments.

Still, Live in Memphis is perhaps not the best place for a Big Star neophyte to begin; such a person would be best served by finding a copy of the (now out-of-print) single-CD set that pairs #1 Record and Radio City (the 2014 individual album reissues add no bonus tracks, and even use the same brief Mills-penned liner note essay in both!). Moreover, Live in Memphis does lack a bit in terms of sound quality: while it’s entirely listenable, it’s only a few notches or so above an audience bootleg fidelity-wise. (Fortunately, and thanks to improvements in consumer technology, audience bootlegs from the 90s onward tend to sound pretty fine.) Still, for the faithful, Live in Memphis is a must-have. And though I haven’t yet screened the companion DVD (sold separately), I suspect it’s even more essential for lovers of Big Star.

Besides, in the wake of Chilton’s sudden death in March 2010, Live in Memphis might just be the final word on Big Star…

No, wait: acclaimed music journalist Holly George-Warren (with whom I shared a cab ride once; file under “brush with greatness”) published a Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction, earlier this year. Word also is that a Chilton biopic is in development, and then there’s the absolutely wonderful Big Star 3rd series of concert performances: those feature a rotating cast of luminaries, including Stephens, Auer, Stringfellow, Mike Mills and Chris Stamey. Those shows are a living testament to the enduring appeal of the music created by that little band in Memphis who could never seem to find a break during their original existence. “That we’re still talking about Big Star now,” Jon Auer said to me, “is a testament to how passionate people are about this music.”

* Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski produced the Keep An Eye on the Sky box set during her time at Rhino.
** Omnivore served as music supervisors and executive producers for the Nothing Can Hurt Me motion picture documentary.

 

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Big Star Lives! with “Live in Memphis” (Part 1)

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

The story of Big Star – a band once so obscure, only critics, musicians and a small handful of in-the-know fans even knew of their brief existence – has now passed into popular culture.

I’ve always considered myself a hardcore fan of their general style of music: back in the early- to mid-1970s, I was into Badfinger, and I knew about bands like The Raspberries and Blue Ash. But at the time, I had never heard Big Star; the only time I even saw their name was in publications such as The Rolling Stone Record Guide. I didn’t have their records; I didn’t know anybody who had the records. They didn’t get played on the radio. And you couldn’t find the records, as they had quickly gone out of print. (As I have chronicled elsewhere, I stumbled upon “new old stock” copies of their first two LPs – still in shrinkwrap – in a record shop in the 1980s.)

In recent years, the Memphis group’s music has been championed by prominent musicians (among them Chris Stamey of The dB’s and R.E.M.‘s Mike Mills). Their two Stax/Ardent albums (#1 Record and Radio City) have been reissued multiple times (the most recent, just this summer, with contemporary liner notes from Mills). A 4CD box set of rarities, Keep An Eye on the Sky came out in 2009 to widespread acclaim. And Big Star got a proper, feature-length documentary done on them with 2012′s Nothing Can Hurt Me.

But all of this modern-day, well-earned appreciation was actually preceded by activity from Alex Chilton, vocalist/guitarist with Big Star through its original existence. Though the famously prickly Chilton had previously shown little interest in revisiting his Big Star years (much of his subsequent solo output seemed, at times, to be a repudiation of the musical approaches of both Big Star and his teenage group, The Box Tops), in April 1993 he surprised everyone by agreeing to a one-off reunion of the original band.

That performance – documented on the slightly-misnamed Columbia: Live at Missouri University – featured Chilton on guitar, plus original drummer Jody Stephens. (Bassist Andy Hummel either declined to participate, or wasn’t asked; no one’s sure, and Hummel passed away in 2010.) The pair were joined by two young musicians who had become Big Star acolytes of the highest order: Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, collectively known as The Posies. Though the duo had heard and read the name Big Star, they grew up without having ever heard Big Star’s music; once they discovered it, they were – like so many others of a similarly melodic musical predisposition – hooked for life. As Jon Auer told me recently:

“My first experience hearing Big Star — for real — was when I was working at a record store in Seattle. My manager at the time put on [a cassette of The Posies' debut album] Failure. He was a fan of things like NRBQ and Elvis Costello, and he really dug the tape. And he said to me, ‘Hey: have you ever heard this band called Big Star?’ I said I had heard of them. He said, ‘[deep sigh and pause for emphasis] Come. With. Me.’ He pulled out a vinyl reissue of Radio City – not an original copy like you have – and said, ‘here’s what I’m going to do. I’m gonna let you get off work now. Go home and put this record on. And listen to “September Gurls.’ It might sound like a cliché, but when I dropped the needle on that particular groove, it was like the feeling of meeting somebody and feeling that you’ve known them all your life.”

So it was that this foursome practiced up a set of Big Star tunes (plus some solo material from Big Star’s late and departed founder, guitarist Chris Bell) and did the “one-off” show. But the story didn’t quite end there, however: the reformed Big Star went on to do a number of high-profile TV and concert dates. That run was set to conclude with a date back in the band’s Memphis hometown, scheduled for October 29, 1994.

Those who had followed Big Star sensed that this would be an historic event. So arrangements were made to film the concert. Filmmaker and former Chilton bodyguard Danny Graflund convinced the mercurial Chilton to allow the filming (“I’m ready for my closeup,” Chilton deadpans onscreen before launching into “The Ballad of El Goodo”), and the show was a rousing success. But – as Graflund explains in his liner notes for the new Omnivore Recordings CD Live in Memphis, when he shopped a rough cut of the film to potentially interested parties,

“not a single label gave a flying fuck. No bites, no nibbles, not the slightest interest from any of the shits who could have done something back then. So I put the master tapes in a box, put the box in my closet, and there they stayed.”

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 2

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Today’s set of five 100-word capsule reviews looks at recently-reissued, previously-unreleased, and/or compilation albums.


How to Stuff a Wild Bikini: Original Stereo Soundtrack
What we have here, in my estimation, is a fascinating and extremely well-written essay that happens to include a CD. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is not anyone’s idea of great cinema, but the 1965 American International Pictures release has its period charms. This record – originally released on The Kingsmen‘s Wand label – is the only soundtrack LP from the string of Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello vehicles. Tom Pickles‘ liner notes put the soundtrack into perspective and context, explaining the musical contributions of The Kingsmen, Lu Ann Sims, Harvey Lembeck(!) and Mickey Rooney(!!). Skip the film, dig the soundtrack.


Spanky and Our Gang – The Complete Mercury Singles
Often thought of in the same category as The Mama’s and The Papa’s, this group, fronted by vocalist Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane, had deeper roots in a sort of Tin Pan Alley style. This collection presents 21 songs in their original punchier-than-stereo monaural mixes. The group’s hit “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” – a tune that rivals any single of the era for its transcendent mix of melodrama and shimmering vocal arrangement – is here, but many of the other tunes are nearly as good. Of special note is the group’s cover of The Beatles‘ “And Your Bird Can Sing.”


Billy Thermal – Billy Thermal
This band, led by Billy Steinberg, cut an LP in 1980 full of uptempo, nominally new-wave tunes. For various reasons, the disc went unreleased at the time, but the tapes served their purposes as songwriter’s demos: Steinberg’s “How Do I Make You” would be a hit for Pat Benatar Linda Ronstadt, and brought the man’s talents to the attention of The Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, Madonna, etc., all of whom would score hits with his songs. This collection includes bonus tracks, but the whole package – now rescued from obscurity by Omnivore Recordings – can be thought of as a bonus.


Stick Against Stone – Live: The Oregon Bootleg Tapes
At first hearing, this Pittsburgh group sounds like they’re from a provincial city (perhaps Leeds?) in working class, Thatcher-era England. Truth is, the era is the only detail that’s correct: this 1985 live set – long thought lost but recently discovered – sounds like a cross between Gang of Four, the two-tone ska movement, and Living Colour. Any written description of their complex sound will fall short, but I hear angular funk with plenty of assured polyrhythmic percussion, rubbery bass, and saxophone backing the Lene Lovich-sounding vocals of Sari Morninghawk. A modified lineup of the band (SASO) still performs today.


Buddy Rich – The Solos
The idea of a compilation of live concert drum solos might strike some as a surefire way to a headache, or at least folly. But when the drummer in question is the legendary Buddy Rich, the idea makes some kind of sense. Endlessly inventive and always swinging, the man with a bad haircut and a worse temper may have been sixty years old when these tapes were made, but what you’ll hear sounds like a man half his age. Power, finesse and humor can all be found in Rich’s solos. Background music for a cocktail party? Perhaps not. Essential? Indeed.

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Album Review: Bobby Patterson – I Got More Soul!

Monday, July 28th, 2014

If you happened upon a spin of I Got More Soul!, the new album from Bobby Patterson, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s the latest in young new recording artists playing an authentic 21st century brand of classic southern soul. Patterson name-checks Johnnie Taylor, BB King and other soul/blues/r&b giants in the title track, a funky groove that nails the Stax, Ardent, Muscle Shoals and Hi studio vibes of yore, and the band is in the pocket, providing for each of the ten tracks the sort of backing that fits the songs’ moods perfectly.

The thing is, Bobby Patterson is 70, and I Got More Soul! was cut a nine-hour drive southwest of Memphis, in Austin TX’s Arlyn Studios. And Patterson (who co-produced the album with Zach Ernst of The Relatives, who back Patterson) is a journeyman soulster who released a tasty string of singles in the period 1969-1976 on smallish Jetstar and Paula Records, and cut the now-impossibly-rare It’s Just a Matter of Time LP in 1972.

On I Got More Soul!, Patterson serves up songs that put his voice – an amazingly youthful instrument – right out front. On the deep funk of “Can You Feel Me?” Patterson assumes the persona of a tough-talkin’ dude, not unlike early hip hop vocalists whose tunes were often about how hip they were. And in Patterson’s capable hands and voice, the song leaves no doubt that Patterson truly is the man. Shades of Sly Stone (whose “Poet” gets a knowing reading from Patterson) and Little Willie John are shot through this collection of eight originals and two covers.

Patterson belts it out when he needs to, but he brings it way down low for semi-spoken bits, proving that a skilled and effective vocalist can command attention without having to shout. The funky “It’s Hard to Get Back In” sounds like the best blaxploitation film theme you’ve never heard, a streetwise swagger of a tune with charts that nail the Memphis Horns vibe to the wall.

The album’s no-frills production never calls attention to itself; the sound is clean but never slick, and the band’s rhythm section and the horn players do most of the musical heavy lifting; the keyboards and guitar are subtle and used more sparingly. The net effect of the arrangements is to provide sympathetic backing for the star of the show. On the smoky and alluring “The Entertainer Pt.1,” Patterson tells us he’s in the house while what sounds like the percussion setting on a 70s organ lays down the beat. The tasty electric piano backing behind Patterson’s sung/spoken vocal feels like vintage Donny Hathaway. “I don’t care if you’re on the hood or in the trunk,” Patterson tells us, “Ain’t no way you can get away from my funk.” He truly is The Entertainer. And when Patterson lights a torcher as on the Otis Redding-styled “I Know How It Feels,” you’ll believe that he really does know. And the gospel-flavored “Everybody’s Got a Little Devil in Their Soul” proves that this soul veteran knows how to testify. Open your ears to the deliciously varied I Got More Soul! and Bobby Peterson will make you a believer.

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Album Review: The Dream Syndicate – The Day Before Wine and Roses

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Though singer/guitarist Steve Wynn introduces this set to the audience as a set of covers, this KPFK broadcast is balanced between covers (Bob Dylan, Donovan, Buffalo Springfield) and Dream Syndicate tunes. A wiry, distorted, edge-of-mayhem set, it captures the intensity of a Dream Syndicate show of the era, just before their major label debut (1982′s Days of Wine and Roses, hence the title of this release). A few of these tracks appeared previously on the 1992 Tell Me When It’s Over best-of compilation, but the remainder had previously only been issued on vinyl in Germany.

Though the group’s studio debut was an organic document itself (recorded in a single evening), this live show is perhaps an even more faithful documenting of the band’s power. They’re clearly having fun: some sly in-jokes can be found on this live broadcast, including a quick quote of a well-worn U2 riff.

Wynn’s new liner notes make clear the historical importance of the show, and lays bare some of the band’s influences. The Day Before Wine and Roses is another in Omnivore Recordings’ series of fascinating reissue/rescue efforts, and is essential listening for Dream Syndicate fans (especially those who dig their more unhinged live material).

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule last week and this week – you wouldn’t believe me if I told you – my posts will be a bit shorter than typical. Once the dust settles, my normal wordy posting will recommence.

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Album Review: Lone Justice – This is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

One of the most enduring characteristics of 80s “alternative” music was the cross-fertilization between country and rock. This 80s variant rocked harder than earlier efforts by The Byrds and/or The Flying Burrito Brothers, and was exemplified by a number of excellent bands. The Long Ryders, The Blasters, Jason and the Scorchers, BoDeans and Lone Justice crafted some of the era’s best country-rock. Part of the success of these band was down to their imbuing their songs with a punk sensibility. By the time of Lone Justice’s 1985 self-titled debut, they had fallen prey (to some degree) to the slickness that a major label deal often wrought.

But two years earlier, the band cut a self-produced, live-in-the-studio demo tape that would showcase what they really sounded like. Omnivore Recordings has unearthed these tapes and pointedly titled them This is Lone Justice. There’s much more county and less rock here. Maria McKee‘s unaffected vocals ring true, and the playing is ace. Unreformed rock fans might not dig the clip-clop drumming of Don Heffington, but the originals (joined by covers of “Jackson” and Merle Haggard‘s “Working Man’s Blues”) are strong material that show why the band earned a record deal.

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule last week and this week – you wouldn’t believe me if I told you – my posts will be a bit shorter than typical. Once the dust settles, my normal wordy posting will recommence.

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Album Review: Jaco Pastorius – Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

This week, I’m quite busy attending Moogfest 2014 here in Asheville NC, the adopted of hometown of both myself and the late Dr. R.A. Moog, for whom the five day event is named. I hope and plan to bring extensive coverage to this blog very soon. In the meantime, here are some shorter-than-usual reviews. Please note that the relative brevity is in and of itself no comment on the quality of the (uniformly excellent) music.

Last Saturday was Earth Day. It was also Record Store Day. As RSD has grown in popularity – I read multiple reports of long waiting lines outside independent record shops across the country – there has been an associated increase in RSD special releases. Most notably (though not always) on vinyl and in exceedingly limited quantities, these releases are also often noted for the quality of the music they contain. Today and tomorrow I’ll review my favorite.

Jaco Pastorius – Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions
The young wonder that was Jaco seemed to burst onto the scene fully formed. A revolutionary bassist, Pastorius went on to gain great fame as a member of Weather Report, and then – not too many years later – suffer a fatal flame-out, a story that included mental illness, homelessness and deteriorating health. But while he lived, his muse shone brightly, and even before he became so well known, he had created enduring works. This collection of material brings together a great deal of previously-unreleased material, most of it dating from 1975 when he cut demos at Criteria Studios in Miami. A mix of original and cover material (including some by Charlie Parker, an oft-cited influence on the bassist), the set previews material that would surface on Pastorius’ proper debut, his self-titled 1975 LP. By definition less “produced” than the trackso n that set, these demo recordings nonetheless feel full put together. Other than percussion support and Alex Darqui‘s piano and Fender Rhodes, it’s all Jaco all the time here, on electric and upright basses and some more Rhodes. The sound feels a bit muffled throughout – this is a demo, and it is bass, after all – but it’s an eminently listenable set. Pastorius’ lightning runs up and down the fretboard are the highlights here. If you don’t like “busy” bass playing and think bass players should stick to the root note, stay far away from Modern American Music…Period! But if you’re unfamiliar with Jaco yet dig Frank Zappa‘s 70s fusion forays, you’ll find a lot to discover here.

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Album Reviews: Camper Van Beethoven — Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

You know that marketing term “early adopter?” Those are the people who bought CD players in 1984. They bought Blu-Ray players before there were any Blu-Ray discs available. And they maybe, just maybe, bought a CD-i player and a DCC player back in the 80s.

Me, I’m what they call a “late adopter.” I didn’t buy a flat-panel TV until 2012, when my old, late 80s model CRT television bit the dust. And – even though I worked in a record store back at the dawn of the CD era, I didn’t buy a CD player of my own until 1993.

Of course, by ’93, vinyl records (then and now my preferred musical media format) were scarce, especially when it came to new releases. So when I wanted new music, my choices were limited to cassettes. And I’ve always disliked storebought cassettes; those things seemed so cheaply made. Clearly the guts of a storebought cassette were not on a quality level equal to a Maxell chrome tape of the day. So occasionally I’d ask friends to make me mixtapes from their CDs. And thanks to a coworker – this was back in my corporate cube farm days – I got turned onto some new music beyond what I had heard on (reasonably good) commercial radio.

The band whose catalog lay at the center of my cassette discoveries was Camper Van Beethoven. I knew of them through their connection to Cracker (David Lowery‘s later/other band), but I hadn’t heard any of their music elsewhere. Certainly I hadn’t heard CVB on the radio.

By the time I was getting into their music, Camper Van Beethoven were no more (at least for awhile). And while I was fascinated by their early albums – I found them, especially on 1986′s II & III to be a sort of modern rethink on (American band) Kaleidoscope, David Lindley‘s late 60s band – their final pair of albums were, for me, the most accessible.

Those records – 1988′s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, and Key Lime Pie from the following year – finally distilled their dizzying mix of influences into a distinctive sound, one that was more than the sum of those influences. While “One of these Days” is straightforward and commercial-sounding (it would be right at home on a Cracker album), even there the band introduce some off-kilter sonics into the mix. Often as not, where a more conventional band would drop in an electric guitar solo, Camper would instead feature a gypsy-flavored violin solo from Jonathan Segel (no Neil Diamond jokes, please; it’s been done). The band could stomp it out on an instrumental number like “Waka,” with plenty of distorted guitar, but there was still an odd sensibility, a sort of sideways take on world music, that made Camper songs sound like nobody else’s.

(In 2011, Camper Van Beethoven brought Key Lime Pie to the concert stage as a compete work; here’s a feature/interview with David Lowery concerning that.)

So now, some quarter-century after their original release, these album are getting the expanded-reissue treatment from Omnivore, one of the premier archival/reissue labels in operation today. Nicely housed in digipak sleeves with lovely booklets chock full of quality essays and photos, these reissues are exemplars of how a project such as this ought to be done. And not unlike Ryko’s reissue of Elvis Costello‘s albums many years ago (there have been countless other Costello reissue campaigns), the Omnivore sets effectively double the amount of music found on the originals. And aside from the occasional sonic differences you’ll find between, say, a bonus demo version or live take compared to the original studio cuts, the expanded albums are every bit as consistent as before.

One of the bonus cuts on Key Lime Pie even includes a sly nod to John Lennon in the form of a quote from “Oh Yoko” on “(I Don’t Wanna Go) to the Lincoln Shrine,” and there’s an even slyer nod to Ringo Starr on a Sweetheart bonus track: the band welds George Harrison‘s signature riff from Ringo’s “Photograph” onto Paul Simon‘s “Kodachrome.” (Get it?)

In fact, unless you’re a resolute vinyl fetishist, there’s little reason to own the original versions; the Omnivore sets are well worth trading up to. But wait: both of these albums are in fact available on vinyl as well as CD. Sweetheart features the original album’s contents on 180-gram vinyl, while Pie is a 2LP set containing the original album plus a single bonus track that – shades of Moby Grape – plays at the wrong speed and – like Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman‘s Checkpoint Charlie album – plays from the inner groove outward. Plus, while an original vinyl of Sweetheart is relatively easy to find, vinyl Key Lime Pie is somewhat rare and pricey. So really, there’s no excuse. If you dig the hooky, adventurous, difficult-to-classify sound of Camper Van Beethoven, the Omnivore reissues of Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie are essential purchases.

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