Posts Tagged ‘omnivore’

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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EP Review: Old 97′s and Waylon Jennings

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

The argument is often put forth – and not wholly without merit – that modern commercial country and western is an extension of rock music. The thinking goes that today’s c&w superstars craft songs that have much in common musically with “classic rock,” and that what they do to change it has more to do with lyrical subject matter and (real or affected) regionally accented vocals.

And while that may be true, those c&w acts aren’t exactly fishing in the deep end of the pond; record sales aside, The Eagles are few critics’ idea of an artistically valid musical aggregation. And while some might not have an affinity for more modern rock sounds (a la Nirvana and even newer groups), at least those artists were/are trying – if only fitfully – to do something new. No old wine in new skins for them. Modern country, in contrast, tends to serve up the same lite pilsner, album after album. The country scene is a narrow one, leaving no room for artists like Junior Brown (with his cross pollination of the styles of Ernest Tubb and Jimi Hendrix; hybrids such as his serve only to confuse modern pop-country tastes).

It need not be so. There have been a few successful hybridizations of country and rock. The Byrds‘ later-period output is the most celebrated example. Even the work of Tom Petty draws from the quality parts of both styles. And said styles share common roots, so it makes sense that finding the commonalty shouldn’t be impossible. Outlaw country, for example, arguably has more in common with Led Zeppelin than it does with, say, Blake Shelton.

One of the most successful exponents of the country/rock hybrid in modern times has (and remains) Old 97′s. Sporting songcraft that falls firmly into the outlaw/honkytonk subgenres, Old 97′s couch their melodies in arrangements that owe more to powerpop than anything one might hear on country radio. And thus they can serve as a gateway drug for the rock fan who’s interested in exploring country music.

A new EP collects a handful of early Old 97′s rarities including some previously-unreleased cuts in which they back a master of outlaw country. Old 97s & Waylon Jennings features a pair of finished tunes – “Iron Road” and “The Other Side” with Waylon Jennings on lead vocal, plus four band demos from 1996.

By ’96, the band had released their first two albums – Hitchhike to Rhome (1994) and 1995′s Wreck Your Life, both of which were highly regarded among the cognoscenti, and neither of which set the charts alight.

That happened after Old 97′s signed with Elektra and released 1997′s superb Too Far to Care. But one suspects that the four demos cut a year earlier helped seal the deal with Elektra. The spare tunes mostly feature Rhett Miller on lead vocals, and often include little beyond vocal and acoustic guitar, but the bare bones delivery serves to highlight the quality of the songs themselves.

And working with Jennings – a dream pairing the band pursued on a whim – yielded the pair of songs cut late that same year. The fire is there, with Old 97′s stinging yet twangy lead guitars duetting with Jennings, who spins out a tale of life on the railroad. Phillip Peeples‘ shuffling drum work in particular conjures the vibe of the rails.

It’s tantalizing to think what might have become had the band gone on to cut an entire album’s worth of material with Jennings. Despite the pleadings of its title, Jennings’ then-current album Right for the Time failed to chart, and is considered a middling, unadventurous effort at best. But his final album Closing in on the Fire (a big “wow” on the alternately and ironic and prophetic nature of his album titles!) cast a wider stylistic net and fared much better with fans and critics alike; one wonders if Jennings’ experience with the young Old 97′s upstarts from Dallas influenced his approach on what turned out to be his final release.

We’ll never know, but this pair of tunes represents a worthwhile and interesting addition to the bodies of work of both Jennings and Old 97s.

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Best of 2013: Reissues/Archival Releases

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

It’s that time, again: the time of year when I coast to the New Year’s finish line and post a string of best-of lists. It’s not simply a place-holding exercise; I really do recommend these albums etc. and sincerely believe they deserve a look (or a second look). So forthwith…

2013 has seen a number of noteworthy reissue/compilation releases, but for me these are the Top Five. Click on the titles for a full review.

Pete Ham – Keyhole Street: Demos 1966-1967
The prodigiously talented Badfinger leader was also, as it turns out, prolific. One pauses to wonder what more great music he might have given the world had he successfully battled his demons. It’s some consolation that Badfinger chronicler Dan Matovina worked tirelessly to bring this two-disc set of early home demos to light. Get it while you can (if you even still can).

Various – The South Side of Soul Street: The Minaret Soul Singles 1967-1976
Just when you thought all the old R&B labels (Stax, Hi, etc.) had been fully mined for their reissue value, along comes this set. Yes, many of the artists are lesser-known than their major-label counterparts, but the quality of the music belies its relative obscurity. The people at Omnivore clearly love music, and their efforts in bringing out sets like these prove it again and again.

Duane Allman – Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective
The guitarist’s recording career was tragically short, but man, was he busy. Allman’s work at the helm of The Allman Brothers Band showed but one side of his talents. This lavish set displays all sides, and does so in a staggeringly impressive physical package. (There’s a cheaper/slimmed-down version available as well).

Various – Los Nuggetz: ’60s Garage & Psych from Latin America
Rock Beat has picked up the baton that Rhino initiated with its multi-disc Nuggets sets, heading south of the border and unearthing all manner of goodies. Even hardcore garage fanatics are likely to find surprises here: the music’s quite impressive, running the gamut from garage to popsike to way-out, mostly done with a guileless, on-the-cheap aesthetic that keeps it real.

Woody Guthrie – American Radical Patriot
The music of one of America’s most important musical and cultural figures deserves a set like this, perhaps the classiest, most comprehensive collection of its kind ever assembled. True, most people who purchase it won’t have a way to play the 78rpm record, but the accessible content is wonderful enough for that not to matter much.

Honorable mentions:
Concord’s jazz reissues, Real Gone Music’s soul-jazz reissues on its Dusty Groove imprint, Jazzhaus‘ ongoing trip through German TV and radio archives, and Purple Pyramid’s reissue of classic space-rock albums from Nektar.

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Album Review: Jellyfish — Radio Jellyfish

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

It’s pointless (not to mention plain wrong) to argue against the assertion that the “unplugged” concept had played itself out by the middle of the 1990s. But the format – originally devised (with others) by Jules Shear – was itself a good one: stripped-down, intimate live performances of rock songs. That concept was oft-abused and just plain overused, and the resulting product often added little to listeners’ understanding and appreciation of the music.

But there were exceptions. And though baroque/powerpop act Jellyfish never in fact appeared on the television program MTV Unplugged, they would make use of the presentation style in a few radio performances during their time together.

In many ways, Jellyfish were perfectly suited for the unplugged format. Most who had heard the finely-wrought arrangements on their pair of studio albums (Bellybutton in 1990 and Spilt Milk in 1993) could be forgiven for thinking that the band were a bunch of studio rats a la Steely Dan or Alan Parsons Project, and that those intricate (but not-quite-fussy) arrangements could never be successfully translated to a live setting (see: Queen Live Killers). But that was not the case: the band’s co-leaders Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning were dynamic and spot-on during the band’s relatively few live shows.

And so it was in 1993 that Jellyfish found themselves doing a number of unplugged-style radio dates. Tracks from two of these, in Holland and Australia, make up the new ten-track Radio Jellyfish. And in addition to proving that they could play the songs live in the unplugged format, Jellyfish illustrated just how strong the tunes themselves were (and remain).

Running through an essentially best-of list of tracks from the two albums, the band also served up a pair of ace covers. The Move‘s “I Can Hear the Grass Grow” is no easy tune to cover; not only does Jellyfish nail it, they reinvent the tail-end of the song, effectively making it their own. And even without thunderous bass lines and electric guitars, the song remains powerful, if a bit less psychedelic than the original version.

Newcomer and former Producers bassist Tim Smith plays acoustic guitar on the set, as does Roger’s brother Chris, who had been brought into the band specifically for the ’93 tour Eric Dover, who had replaced the departed Chris Manning*.  Sturmer – normally the band’s drummer – sticks to vocals here, while Manning plays mostly acoustic percussion (instead of his customary bank of keyboards). But again: even without the electronics, the band shines. Badfinger‘s “No Matter What” was a highlight of the band’s live shows, and it too is delivered in spirited fashion on Radio Jellyfish.

Only the Move cover tune has been released before; as a teaser of what the band could do acoustically, it was a highlight of the 4CD (out of print and hard to obtain) Fan Club set from years ago. The remainder of these tracks are appearing on CD (and vinyl!) for the first time when this set hits the street on December 10.

It would have been nicer if the set had gone on a bit longer: at ten tracks, Radio Jellyfish is a bit on the short side. But with a catalog that initially counted a mere two albums, the latter-day Jellyfish post-breakup releases are to be treasured…no matter what.

* My apologies for initially getting this wrong. — bk

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Album Review: Humble Pie — Rockin’ the Fillmore: The Complete Recordings

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Ruminating on chronicles of excess, I recall that it was just about two years ago that Rhino Handmade released The Grateful Dead‘s Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings. Some 22 complete shows on 73(!) discs, you’d think it’d be more Dead than anyone cold ever want. Of course if you thought that, you’d be – like me – a decidedly non-Deadhead sort of person.

But there was a clear market for it, and to be fair, on that 1972 tour, the Dead hadn’t gone as off-the-rails as they’d later do: the songs are long, but they’re still songs. And the early 1970s were indeed the era where “rock excess” was a redundant phrase. Long solos, lots of solos (even on dreaded bass guitar and drums!) were the order of the day. Tunes that extended well past the 20-minute mark weren’t all that unusual, though the vinyl format generally precluded that sort of thing from being enshrined on albums. (Well, Allman Brothers and Mountain excepted).

Thing is, sometimes the material, the performance, the bands…they actually warranted, justified that sort of excess. Recall that this era is the time period during which Led Zeppelin extended “Moby Dick” to, er, leviathan lengths.

And live albums were the coin of the realm. Even before Frampton Comes Alive (more on that guitarist presently), the live album that heralded the beginning of the end of live album era, concert albums ranked among the best-loved releases of the day. Deep Purple’s Made in Japan, anyone? And howsabout Roadwork from Edgar Winter’s White Trash? Yessongs, Roxy and Elsewhere, The Concert for Bangla Desh…all are commonly found in any good rock album collection.

And in those collections – as in mine, to name one – you’ll quite often find Rockin’ the Fillmore, a live document compiled from a two-day, four-show run Humble Pie did at Bill Graham‘s celebrated NYC club in late May of 1971. Originally a double LP, Rockin’ the Fillmore captured an unvarnished, balls-out rock show by the British foursome, at the peak of their powers. That album featured seven cuts, two of which (“I Walk on Gilded Splinters” and a cover of Muddy Waters‘ “Rollin’ Stone”) each filled an album side.

All four Fillmore shows were recorded (by the Fedco remote recording facility, with Eddie Kramer working the console), and Rockin’ the Fillmore was compiled mostly from tapes of the two evening shows. But that left bits and pieces from those two shows – plus nearly all tape of the two matinees – unreleased. Until now, that is. With the blessing and cooperation of Humble Pie surviving members Frampton and Jerry Shirley, the archivists at Omnivore Recordings have released Rockin’ the Fillmore: The Complete Recordings. Spread across four CDs – one for each concert – Humble Pie’s entire Fillmore run is presented in all its glory.

Now, when the juggernaut LP Frampton Comes Alive stormed its way up the charts in 1976, there was muttering – and said muttering even found its way to the ears of this then-twelve-year-old – that the tracks were, shall we say, sweetened. It was all the rage in the mid 70s to fix mistakes, re-record parts that (so it was said) somehow “weren’t properly recorded” (yeah, right) and so on. Kiss Alive was another record on which post-production was taken to laughable extremes. But Rockin’ the Fillmore was different. Unsweetened, undiluted, it was and is exactly what you would have heard had you been one of the lucky people who saw those shows.

Of course; live sound systems being what they were in those days, what you’ll hear on Rockin’ the Fillmore: The Complete Recordings is actually a helluva lot better. As drummer Jerry Shirley said upon hearing the loudest and quietest parts on the masters, “You could hear a pin drop…you could almost feel the room shaking.”

Sure, it’s excessive. At an average duration of 27:00, four live versions of “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” means nearly two hours of it. But each version has its own organic uniqueness, and each is worth hearing. Marriott and Frampton engage in some lovely dual lead guitar work, while Shirley and bassist Greg Ridley hold down a rock solid (if intentionally plodding) bottom end. While the set list for these four shows was substantially consistent throughout, the band did change it up just a bit: “Stone Cold Fever” (on the original album) was performed only once, and “Rollin’ Stone” was only done at the evening shows.

Speaking of excess, the band members start soloing nearly right out of the gate. On all versions of “I’m Ready,” Steve Marriott engages in a good bit of vocal cord-shredding dialogue with Frampton’s guitar, in that 1970s way. But it’s exciting stuff, visceral and real. And while Frampton’s vocals on Ray Charles‘  “Hallelujah (I Love Her So)” come off a bit weedy in comparison to Marriott (they share lead vocal duties on the number, featured in all four shows), the relatively brief tune may well be the band’s finest moment: here Humble Pie manages somehow to be swinging and pile-driving at the same time.

The Omnivore box set features the four discs in mini LP-style sleeves, with cover art similar (yet not identical) to the original LP set. But the original gatefold sleeve included some 75 or so color photos of the band onstage, and two of the four vinyl disc labels sported groovy fisheye photos. Instead, the box set includes an informative essay and a handful of photos, some not included in the 1972 LP set. Including those photos would have made an excellent set just a notch better, but in the end, it’s all about the music.

So yes, four discs of live Humble Pie is a heaping helping of Humble Pie. But if any live album from the era deserves this treatment, Rockin’ the Fillmore clearly does. As Marriott said, it’s a gas.

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Album Review: Various Artists — CBGB: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

When endeavoring to judge the merits of a soundtrack album, there’s always the quandary of what measure to use. Should one judge it on the merits, strictly as a thematic collection of songs? Or measure it as an audio companion to the film?

With regard to CBGB: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, I’m going with the former. There are two reasons for this. The first is practical: I haven’t seen the film yet (it premieres in New York City tonight). The second is more subjective: I like the disc a lot, but suspect it works far better viewed as a collection than as an adjunct to the film.

Twenty songs on a single disc means that CBGB gives good value for the money. And the selections are – almost without fail – uniformly excellent, both thematically and just-plain musically. Now, some of the artists on this set never got anywhere near the famed Bowery club, and if they did, it wouldn’t have been called CBGB then, anyway. Since the club opened in 1973, The Count Five (responsible ofr the classic nugget “Psychotic Reaction”), the (original) Stooges (1969′s sonic barbed wire of “I Wanna Be Your Dog”), and The Velvet Underground (“I Can’t Stand It”) all folded too soon to experience the glories of the club’s notoriously filthy restroom. But the aesthetic of all thee bands – in turns, garagepunkpsych, dark proto-alternarock and anarchic punk – is wholly in line with the outsider sensibilities the club engendered.

CBGB plays much like the various entries in Rhino’s 1990s DIY series, most notably Blank Generation: The New York Scene (1975-78). Surveying as it does a host of NYC bands (and/or bands associated with the city’s nascent punk/new wave scene), CBGB serves as a tidy sampler of the various styles of music showcased at the club. And drawing from the original versions means that listeners aren’t subject to something odd and potentially displeasing, like, say Stana Katic (who’s otherwise quite lovely) singing in Genya Ravan‘s stead. (Apologies to Val Kilmer).

There are, natually some serious omissions. No New York Dolls? How did that happen? (It’s probably own to licensing.) No Suicide? That one’s a little tougher to figure. And what exactly The Police (“Roxanne”) are doing here besides adding some non-punk hit value is also a tough question to answer (Joan Jett might have made a bit more sense).

But such arguments are mere quibbling. Taken as a bunch of songs, CBGB is a fun, nostalgic listen. No, MC5 don’t really fit in here – they rocked way too hard; only Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” comes close to that level of intensity here – but there’s rarely a time when “Kick Out the Jams” isn’t welcome. Also welcome is Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers‘ reading of “California Sun,” one of the lesser-heard tracks on this set. At just a shade over an hour, you’ll likely be surprised how quickly it blows by.

A pair of modern-day tracks are admittedly relevant yet odd. The production values on a 2013 re-recording of Blondie‘s “Sunday Girl” feel a little too modern to fit seamlessly, though Debbie Harry‘s voice seems more intact that you might’ve guessed. And CBGB club owner Hilly Kristal gets the last word with a ditty called “Birds and the Bees,” recorded way back in…2005. As far as his singing and songwriting abilities, let’s just say that Kristal was an important club owner. On the upside, weighing Kristal’s presence reminds us that Joey Ramone (“I Get Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Back Up)”) was a better singer than he often got credit for.

With those DIY discs long out of print, CBGB: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is a concise sampler of the late 70s NYC musical scene., and for that alone it’s worth picking up.

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Album Review: The Three O’Clock – The Hidden World Revealed

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

The whole so-called “paisley underground” scene happened during my college years. Like many of my generation, I had expanded my listening experiences beyond classic rock into what would eventually be known as “college rock.” And through my experience working in a record store, I was exposed to even more then-current music, much of it – unlike my heroes The Beatles, Pink Floyd and so on – made by people a mere five or six years (at most) older than me.

The sounds out of southern California were of particular interest. Having little in common with that region’s early 60 stock-and-surf scene, the paisley underground umbrella encompassed artists who took the work of later L.A. scenesters (The Byrds, Love, etc.) as their musical touchstones. In addition to a healthy dose of jangle, they also drew upon the late 60s psychedelic stylings of San Francisco (Moby Grape) and England (Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd).

Chief among this crop of like-minded (but each decidedly distinctive in their own way) groups were The Bangs (later the Bangles), Rain Parade, and The Three O’Clock. The last of these was fronted by the high- and fragile-voiced Michael Quercio. Originally calling themselves The Salvation Army (you can guess how that played out), the group eventually hit it relatively big and released an EP and four albums (on three labels) in the period 1982-88.

Jason Falkner was a member of the band during the tail-end of this period (during which they released Vermillion on Prince‘s Paisley Park label), but the band folded shortly thereafter. All the members went on to other projects, and in 2013 the group (Quercio plus prime-era members Danny Benair and Louis Gutierrez) reunited to perform in support of the new compilation The Hidden World Revealed.

The Hidden World Revealed is not a best-of collection; instead it’s twenty tracks (half of them previously unreleased) of demos, alternate versions, fan club releases, and relative rarities. Nearly all of the material dates from the band’s earlier days (up to around 1983) prior to signing with I.R.S. The result is a cohesive listening experience, though perhaps not the best starting point for those new to the band’s catalog.

The Three O’Clock’s musical style was a poppy mix of slightly baroque pop, the kind of thing that felt and sounded like an 80s update of Summer of Love radio pop. Quercio’s approach to the bass guitar owed a lot to Paul McCartney‘s Sgt. Pepper era manner of playing. But there was an insistent hard-charging dimension applied to the baroque’n'roll, as evidenced on “With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend” (yes, Quercio’s song titles would fit comfortably on a mixtape with those of Syd Barrett and, say, Robyn Hitchcock). In the new set’s track-by-track liner notes, drummer Danny Benair characterizes “Jet Fighter” as the band’s most well-known tune, and that Macca -style bass is here as well, contrasted with some (then-)modern sounding synthesizer lines.

The Barrett influence is worn on the band’s sleeve as they take a stab at “Lucifer Sam,” originally a fan club-only b-side. Uniquely, the band’s generally sunny disposition is nowhere to be found on this vaguely menacing tune (there’s really no other way to play the song). “When Lightening Strikes” [sic] sounds a bit like an American answer to The Teardrop Explodes crossed with, say, Haircut 100; that pop-trifle vibe set against a rock feel is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the Three O’Clock sound.

“Around the World” pointed the way toward a decidedly more rock-oriented approach the band would explore in their I.R.S. era. An early, unadorned mix of The Bee Gees‘ “In My Own Time” reminds modern-day listeners that early Bee Gees music was influenced more by Revolver-era Beatles than anything else; The Three O-Clock’s version has a similar feel. Some listeners may find the woefully out-of-tune vocals on the previously unreleased “Why Cream Curdles in Orange Tea” rough going, but the tune is not without its charms.

And so it goes with the other tracks, of which a closing cover of The Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better” remains a highlight. Longtime fans of the band will find this collection a welcome addition to The Three O’Clock’s relatively slim catalog; new listeners are advised to start elsewhere.

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Album Review: Various Artists — The South Side of Soul Street

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Not meant to diminish in any way the staggering contribution Stax made to popular music, but that Memphis label was not the be-all and end-all for quality Southern soul music of the 60s and 70s. And while every time a compilation of previously-overlooked music comes out – Los Nuggetz, for example, or the deep-archival comps curated by Keb Darge or Kris Needs – I find myself thinking that the well will have run dry, here we are yet again.

Founded in 2010 – yes, mere months ago – Omnivore Recordings has already staked out its reputation as one of the few go-to label for thoughtful compilations and reissues. Forty sides from tiny Valparaiso, FL-based Minaret Records are collected on the peerless 2cd set, The South Side of Soul Street: The Minaret Soul Singles 1967-1976.

The indie label based in Florida’s panhandle had access to a stable of singers, players and writers who – at their best – rivaled Memphis’ Stax in terms of quality. What Minaret didn’t have, critically, was access to a national distribution network. So soul-shaking sides by the likes of Doris Allen (“A Shell of a Woman”) and Big John Hamilton (“The Train”) went unheard and unappreciated by the record-buying public of the era.

The uninitiated might assume that Minaret singles were made-on-the-cheap affairs featuring third-string musicians and arrangers. But that’s simply not the case. Often availing themselves of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL, Minaret produced some very high quality recordings. Apparently the 700-mile round trip wasn’t too daunting a prospect for Minaret recording artists. Label head Finley Duncan and renowned producer Shelby Singleton (best known for his 1960s productions at Smash Records) guided their artists through sessions with ace players from across the South.

And even the Minaret b-sides are strong: Gable Reed‘s flip “Who’s Been Warming My Oven” is a lyrical cousin to Detroit’s 100 Proof (Aged in Soul) and their 1970 stomper “Somebody’s Been Sleeping.” Big John Hamilton – a soul shouter with nuance in the Otis Redding tradition – paired with Doris Allen for several singles (all excellent) including a reading of Buddy Miles‘ “Them Changes.” Few of the other songs on this set will be familiar to most listeners, though Hamilton’s 1969 b-side “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” would be a hit when recorded some five years later by Freddy Fender. Likewise, most hearing these tracks for the first time won’t know much (if anything) about such artists as The Double Soul, Willie Cobbs or Johnny Dynamite, but Bill Dahl‘s excellent liner notes hit the high points in his signature clear and concise style. The South Side of Soul Street is that rare set that works both as historical document and highly enjoyable listening experience.

Note: in 2006, Sundazed released their own Minaret compilation, with the similar title A Fine Time: The South Side of Soul Street (named after Genie Brooks‘ 1969 b-side). That single-disc set contains eighteen tracks, fourteen of which appear on the Ominvore set alongside 26 others.

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Album Review: Merle Haggard – The Complete ’60s Capitol Singles

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

First it was Collectors’ Choice Music, and then when they shuttered their label, it was Real Gone Music. Now Omnivore – another boutique label run (in the best way) by crate-digging types – is following suit and putting together complete collections of a- and b-sides of 45rpm singles form an array of important artists. And while I rarely cover c&w, The Complete ’60s Capitol Singles by Merle Haggard is worthy of attention.

The #42 hit (on the country charts) “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can” is classic country in every sense of the word, but it’s informed by an unmistakeable pop sensibility. It’s not cry-in-your-beer corny stuff; instead it’s got a sly humor that resulted in a sort of pop-country that appealed to the likes of The Beatles. Modern fans of artists like Junior Brown will find plenty to like in these sides, even if their tastes don’t normally extend to country and western sounds.

The production values are state-of-the-art, owing in part to the fact that – though these are all c&w tunes — they were recorded at Capitol’s Hollywood studios. As a result, the personnel (the CD provides excellent discographical and session data; Omnivore knows its audience) includes such esteemed and in-demand players as Glen Campbell, Jim Gordon, and James Burton. The tracks are polished without being slick, heartfelt without being cornpone.

Amusingly, the Haggard original “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” sounds an awful lot like Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind,” a massive hit song released a year earlier; perhaps unsurprisingly, Campbell’s not on this track. One thinks if he had been, he might’ve said, “Uh, Merle?”

The b-sides are surprisingly strong, considering that the flip side of singles was long home for perfunctory, throwaway tracks. Haggard’s b-sides tend more toward conventional c&w weepers, but even these are treated with care and finesse. For example, “This Loneliness is Eating Me Alive” (the b-side of the #2 hit “I Threw Away the Rose”) features some tasty guitar licks throughout,courtesy of either Burton or Campbell; the song sounds like a hit.

The twenty-eight tracks on Haggard’s The Complete ’60s Capitol Singles were all cut within the mere time frame of five years, predating his later “outlaw” phase (though some of the song lyrics foreshadow that phase; see “Branded Man” and “Sing Me Back Home, both from the Summer of Love). The big hits are here: “Mama Tried (#1), “Okie From Muskogee (#1, and #41 pop), but the lesser-known tracks hold up nearly as well. A timeless collection that won’t curl the toes of non-c&w fans, this is an excellent entry point into Haggard’s 1960s output.

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