Today I’m going to indulge in a brief change of pace. I’d like to tell you about a pair of reissues with which I am involved. I won’t be reviewing either title – what would be the point? – but suffice to say that if I didn’t think they are superb albums, I wouldn’t have written the liner notes.
The first, reissued earlier this week, is Rick Wakeman‘s final album for A&M Records, Rhapsodies. This 2LP set capped his association with Herb Alpert‘s label; the Yes keyboard player’s first album – The Six Wives of King Henry VIII – remains his best-selling (and arguably best) album, but Rhapsodies is a successfully varied lot as well. Though he had employed vocalists on some of his earlier A&M albums (even Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record, another album reissued with liner notes by yours truly), for Rhapsodies, Wakeman stuck to his strengths: piano, organ and synthesizer. A crack band is on hand, and as often as not they play in what might be termed a disco fashion, but the results are not nearly as gruesome as that description might suggest. Flashes of humor are shot through the album, and save for an interesting misstep (a bizarre reading of Gershwin‘s “Rhapsody in Blue”), Rhapsodies is a highly recommended album. My liner notes contextualize the album and even sort of review the tracks therein.
Out next week is an album that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve written often about how the music of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley changed my life, serving as my adult gateway into jazz. (Audrey and I even had “Mercy Mercy Mercy” played at our wedding last year.) Adderley’s final project was also his most ambitious: a sprawling double LP that combined Broadway, blues, folk tale, avant/free jazz, funk and more. Big Man: The Legend of John Henry was met with mixed reviews upon its release shortly after Adderley’s untimely death. But it’s a fascinating album, with a modern-day allegory that (to my mind, anyway) spoke to the Black Power concerns of the early 1970s through the retelling of a Reconstruction-era folk tale about the “steel drivin’ man.” Famed actor Robert Guillaume (known to a generation as Benson, a core character on Soap and later a self-titled sitcom) got one of his first big gigs providing vocals for this album. And Mr. Guillaume consented to an interview with me, which formed the basis of my extensive liner notes. I also did the package design for the reissue (which includes the entire work’s libretto) and got my first (co-) producer’s credit on an album.
At present I’m writing liner notes for another upcoming reissue, Iron Butterfly‘s classic Ball LP, which will be out later in 2015. With luck, there will be other projects to tell you about in future days.
For the final entry in this run of hundred-word reviews, I take quick looks at some rare and/or reissued music. I think it’s all worth your time.
TV Eyes – TV Eyes TV Eyes was a 90s alternapop supergroup. Jason Falkner has a stunningly high quality catalog of his own. Roger Manning was a prime mover in Jellyfish, one of the 1990s’ best, least-appreciated bands. And Brian Reitzell is renowned for his work with Air and Moog Cookbook. The bad news is that the group’s sole (2006) album was Japan-only. Until now, that is. Its dance-friendly sound weds guitar pop to an electroclash underpinning; it will appeal to Gary Numan fans. TV Eyes also helps explain what Beck saw in Falkner and Manning (both toured as part of his band in 2014).
Ron Nagle – Bad Rice
I find it endlessly fascinating just how many truly creative artists are lurking right around the fringes of rock’s universe. Nagle was a member of The Mystery Trend, a band who were historically important (if largely unknown) in the 60s San Francisco scene. And as co-leader of Dūrocs, he created some skewed (and again underheard) pop music. And there’s his solo album, done in the interregnum between those projects. It’s even less known, originally released on the cult-friendly Warner Brothers label (see also: Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, etc.). It’s more mainstream than its pedigree suggests, and it’s funny, too.
Linda Jones – The Complete Atco, Loma, & Warner Brothers Recordings
Jones’ 1967 single (R&B #4) “Hypnotized” may well be where the malpropism “hyp-mo-tized” originated. Regardless, that and many of her other singles of the era are fine examples of gospel-flavored soulful R&B. When she passed away prematurely in 1972 (as the result of a diabetic coma) at age 27, she left behind an impressive if under-appreciated body of work. Her expressive voice and breathtaking range are showcased in her music. Real Gone Music once again does yeoman’s work in rescuing these 21 sides from obscurity, and working through the knotty licensing to bring them all together on a single disc.
The 5 Stairsteps – Our Family Portrait / Stairsteps
A family band in the Jackson 5ive style (though the Burke family recorded before the Jacksons), The Five Stairsteps are sometimes characterized as bubblegum (or “bubblesoul”). True, there’s an undeniable family-friendly vibe to their music, but that shouldn’t diminish their work in the ears of music lovers. From the doo-wop-meets-TV-variety-show music of “A Million to One” to their smash “O-o-h Child,” there are pleasures to be found throughout their catalog. But their first two albums (now compiled on CD with bonus tracks) are their best. Their covers (“The Look of Love” and studio-era Beatles album cuts) are often quite impressive.
The Unforgiven – The Unforgiven (Expanded Edition)
Imagine if The Alarm were from Los Angeles instead of Wales, and you’ll have an idea of what this six-piece sounded like. Very dated 80s production flourishes (gunshot drum sounds, roaring arena-styled guitar) wedded to the odd c&w flourish (an occasional dab of pedal steel) and a perhaps ill-advised preoccupation with their look (cowboy dusters before every lame country band started wearing ‘em) are the three legs of The Unforgiven‘s musical stool. Every song swings for the fences, wanting to be an anthem, and it’s all a bit too earnest. Worth a listen but in no way a lost classic.
Prog, jazz, blues: there’s something for most musical tastes in today’s roundup of hundred-word reviews.
Mark Wingfield – Proof of Light
If there’s a common raison d’être among the varied acts signed to Leonardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune label, it’s to explore the sweet spot at which jazz and rock convene. Wingfield’s disc features a trio format – electric guitar, upright bass and drums – but what you’ll hear suggests the presence of other instruments. Imagine a low-key Joe Satriani with less flash and more of a jazz sensibility — albeit with plenty of skronky electric guitar texture – and you’ll be on the path to what this all-instrumental sounds like. The arrangements are subtle, but listen closely and there’s a lot going on.
Winter in Eden – Court of Conscience
Just when I finish a piece in which I assert that there are pretty much no women in prog, along comes this disc, by a UK symphonic progressive act. Soaring Mellotron-sounding keyboards (on the “choir” setting) are met by thundering bass lines, and the requisite tricky time signature work from the drummer. Lots of sonic light and shade means that graceful piano lines are met by crushing, edge-of-metal arrangements. The one-sheet tells us that the band is popular at “various Femme Metal Festivals.” That such a thing exists is news to me. A worthy purchase for fans of the genre.
Mississippi Heat – Warning Shot
I’m always a little guarded when I stumble across an album that sports of a picture of a really large band. It makes me think of those terrible horror-metal bands like Slipknot: does it take nine people to make that sound? To be fair, while the Warning Shot credits list thirteen players, the photo only shows seven. What we have here is traditional, Chicago-styled electric blues with harmonica and vocals out front. Nothing new, really, but then “new” isn’t what most people want from a blues outfit. It swings, and for fans of the harp-through-the-Green-Bullet vibe, it’s just the ticket.
Tony Joe White – The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings
The early 70s music scene seems to have been filled with white singers who could traffic in a credible southern soul style. Louisiana-born Tony Joe White was one of the best, often outshining guys like Elvis Presley (no slouch himself). With a style that sometimes sounds very much like Creedence Clearwater Revival fronted by Mark Lindsay, White turned out three fine albums for Warner Brothers. His guitar playing is pretty impressive, too, in an understated rhythm-guitarist kinda way. Nearly every track here is a White original. No “Polk Salad Annie” (that was earlier in his career), but many other gems.
The Soft Machine – Tanglewood Tails
Canterbury legends The Soft Machine are one of the genre’s best-loved groups. With their jazz meets rock aesthetic, they were an early bridge between the then-disparate styles. Their first several albums are legendary, and deserve to be part of every serious music lover’s core collection. The 2CD set Tanglewood Tails, however, is really a for-the-faithful set of rarities, outtakes and other lo-fi oddities from the group’s earliest days. Studio tracks (such as the delightful “Clarence in Wonderland”) are cracked pop that will appeal to fans of Syd Barrett, as long as one can overlook the consistently distracting dodgy sound quality.
This series of hundred-word reviews wraps up tomorrow.
Listening now, “More Than Enough Rain” isn’t even the best track on First Peace. Lance’s soulful vocal work, supported by The Sweet Inspirations, is a highlight of the album. There’s not a trace of Lance’s Brooklyn roots in his singing; he sounds like an authentic son of the South, and he insists that it came naturally when he sang. Because most of the songs were Lance/Robins compositions originally intended for various other acts on Atlantic, the record is a showcase of varying styles. The gospel strains of Lance’s Southern-flavored blue-eyed soul come to the fore on “Brother’s Keeper,” and it’s easy to imagine Aretha Franklin covering “One Turn You’re In One Turn You’re Out.”
Overall, the First Peace sessions cost a good bit of money. But because Motown was poised to share in any profits First Peace made, the decision was made at the highest levels within Atlantic not to promote the record. So despite the strong songs and performances, First Peace didn’t make a ripple on the album charts; the LP would quickly go out of print. The label gave the record only a perfunctory push, releasing a pair of singles to radio stations: “Brother’s Keeper” and “Shake Down Blues” were both promo-only 45rpm discs, featuring monaural mixes (for AM radio play) on the A-side, and stereo (for FM stations) on the B side.
In late summer 1971, Lance got a pair of rare, if brief, mentions in Billboard Magazine’s “Signings” column, noting that he had recently signed a new management contract with SAS, Inc., the artist management firm run by Sidney Seidenberg, B.B. King‘s longtime manager. While his musical career was bearing creative fruit, behind the scenes, his career was a mess, with SAS, Motown and Atlantic all involved to varying (and confusing) degrees.
Still, by 1972, Lance was once again in the studio, there to cut his follow-up LP. And in line with his goals as an artist, he sought to make an album that reflected his individual creative persona. Now billing himself only as B. Lance, he was recording for release on the higher-profile Atlantic label. Rollin’ Man would bear the credit, “Arranged and Produced by Bob Lance,” though engineer Geoff Haslam – in demand thanks to his production work on a successful string of albums by Atlantic label mates Cactus – played a significant role. Recording in the company’s New York City studios, Lance had chosen not to use the Muscle Shoals session players for the album. Instead he auditioned and assembled a proper band, and the members – coming from Alabama, Chicago and New York City – had convened in New York for several weeks of pre-recording rehearsals.
Gone, too, were King Curtis and his horns, The Sweet Inspirations, and Edwards’ string arrangements. Nor was Lance’s sister Fran Robins involved: all nine tunes of Rollin’ Man are Lance solo compositions.
Alabama-born guitarist Kenny Mims handled all lead guitar duties on the album; it was his first professional gig ever, but his lean and assured lines – like the double-tracked leads on “Bar Room Sally” – sound like the work of a seasoned pro. And though his background was in jazz, keyboardist Mitch Kerper played in a rollicking, R&B style; the instrumental dialogue between Kerper and Mims throughout the album – most notably on the eight-minute-plus “Hot Wood and Coal” – is one Rollin’ Man‘s most enduring features. “She Made Me a Man” is a soulful ballad in a style similar to Lance’s fellow New Yorker, Laura Nyro. The call-and-response vocals of “John the Rollin’ Man” – all overdubbed by Lance – capture the rhythm and blues vibe. The rhythm section of Dick Bunn (bass) and drummer Jimmy Evans cooks on “You’ve Got to Rock Your Own.” And with its mix of Mississippi delta acoustic blues guitar and gospel-inflected piano, “He Played the Reals” features a lyric that explores Lance’s deep feeling for the music he loves. And the brief “Tribute to a Woman” closes the album with a message to the woman Lance loved.
The Rollin’ Man LP came housed in a gatefold sleeve that featured Lance’s lyrics alongside a photo collage. Like its predecessor, and again without marketing support from Atlantic, Rollin’ Man did not chart; most copies of the semi-rare LP found today are cut-outs (remaindered, non-returnable stock). No one seems to know how many copies Atlantic pressed. The label did release a legitimate (as in, not simply a promotional disc) single, “Rock Your Own” b/w an edit of “Hot Wood and Coal” from Rollin’ Man, but it, too, failed to chart.
In the meantime, as part of his contract, Lance continued with other duties for the label. He handled vocal arrangement duties for King Curtis’ “Ridin’ Thumb” on Curtis’ 1971 Atco LP Everybody’s Talkin’, and penned “If a Dream Goes By,” a non-charting 1972 Garland Green soul side on Cotillion.
Lance’s sister Fran continued her songwriting career on her own, penning a number of songs for a wide variety of acts including Tony Orlando. She also began doing public readings of her poetry, mostly in the town of New Bern NC, were she and husband Norm lived. In her later years she was reportedly working on a musical. Fran Robins passed away in May 2014.
By the end of 1972, with the terms of his Atlantic contract fulfilled, Lance found himself without a record deal. Since neither First Peace nor Rollin’ Man had scored any chart activity, there was little demand for a follow-up record. The Rollin’ Man lineup landed a few live dates in and around New York City, but nothing high profile came of their efforts.
Lance soon left the business and settled in Tarrytown, New York, just up the Hudson River from New York City. He eventually enrolled in college, earning a pair of Bachelor’s Degrees: one in Biology and one in Music. He also earned a Master’s Degree in Education. Lance developed an interest in literacy through music, eventually combining his musical background with teaching. For nearly twenty years now he has been teaching students in a school environment. He still writes songs and plays music.
Thanks to Norm Robins, Kenny Mims, and Bob Lance for their help in researching this story.
The Lance/Robins songwriting team had come to the attention of George Goldner, head of the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller-founded Red Bird Records. In particular, Goldner recognized Bobby’s talent, and believed he could go far in the business. He asked the teen where he’d like to get a job, and Lance quickly named the label that was home to many of his rhythm and blues heroes: Atlantic Records.
Goldner lined up a meeting for Bobby Lance with Jerry Wexler, the head of Atlantic. Auditioning his songs in Wexler’s office in front of the record mogul and Atlantic stars Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke, Lance impressed everyone enough to be invited back the next day. On his return, Lance was signed as an in-house songwriter and arranger; his contract included a provision allowing him to release two albums.
Now established at Atlantic (an organization that included “house” labels Atco and Cotillion), Lance and sister Fran had composed another R&B tune, written expressly for Aretha Franklin. But when the 1968 composition “The House That Jack Built” wasn’t cut for Aretha’s then-current album, a miffed Lance brought the song to Barry Records and Thelma Jones. In fact, both that tune and its flip, “Give it To Me Straight” were written by the Lance/Robins team. On its release, Jones’ recording, using Bobby’s arrangement, started making appearances on local and regional record charts.
However, the next time Lance was at Atlantic, he was called into the studio. They had a surprise for him. They played a new record that Aretha had just recorded: “The House That Jack Built.” Her version used much the same arrangement as the Jones single, and once released, it quickly pushed Thelma Jones’ version right off the charts and into musical footnote status.
In his 1999 book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, renowned critic Dave Marsh ranks Aretha’s “The House That Jack Built” as #704. The tune reached #6 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and #2 on the R&B charts. It dated from the period during which Atlantic Records made extensive use of the excellence of Muscle Shoals, Alabama session musicians, including Jimmy Johnson (guitar), David Hood (bass guitar), Barry Beckett (keyboards), and drummer Roger Hawkins.
Lance and Robins soon placed another of their tunes, the strutting soul number “One Night is All I Need,” on Arthur Conley‘s final Atco LP, 1969′s More Sweet Soul. That album featured backing by the Muscle Shoals studio cats, plus a young session guitarist named Duane Allman. Meanwhile and on her own, Fran Robins penned “Sweep Around Your Own Back Door,” a Lulu B-side on Atco, also recorded in Muscle Shoals. She also placed a tune on Lulu’s Melody Fair LP, yet another album featuring Duane Allman’s guitar work.
Meanwhile, Lance was beginning to chafe within the songwriting partnership he had with his older sister. Their lives were deeply entwined: Fran had acted as a surrogate mother to Bobby for many years; and the two had been writing songs together for a decade. As Lance began to grow toward manhood, he felt a growing need to express himself more independently. To that end, he began thinking about writing songs on his own and/or with other partners. His naïve pursuit of that goal took the form of signing another contract, this time with Motown. The plan was that he would be an in-house songwriter for the Detroit label, and he might also do some session arranging work. That there might be a serious conflict of interest didn’t occur to the young songwriter.
Once the executives at Atlantic realized what had happened, they began efforts to extricate Lance from his ill-advised deal with Motown. The legal wrangling would drag on for some time, and the agreement that was finally hammered out ceded to Motown a stake in any financial success that Lance’s Atlantic albums might enjoy.
In 1971, Lance’s debut album First Peace was released on Atlantic’s Cotillion imprint. Cut in late July 1970 in sessions at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and at Atlantic’s NYC studios, the eleven-track LP featured all original tunes written by the Lance/Robins team.
Beckett, Hood and Hawkins provided most of the musical backing on First Peace, while Lance sang and played guitar. A King Curtis-led six-man horn section provided beefy charts for several of First Peace‘s numbers. A string section conducted by Leo Edwards graced several tracks. Famed session man Eddie Hinton handled the lead and slide guitar on all but one cut. And though he’s not credited anywhere on the original LP, for First Peace‘s “More Than Enough Rain,” Duane Allman provided some stinging electric slide guitar.
Though it has been the subject of speculation for decades, Lance vigorously confirms Allman’s presence on “More Than Enough Rain.” The chronology of Allman’s involvement goes like this: Bobby had self-produced the sessions for First Peace, but remained dissatisfied with the completed mixes for a few of the album’s tracks. Ace producer Tom Dowd offered to remix those tracks, so Lance traveled to Dowd’s Miami, FL Criteria Recording Studio (also known as Atlantic Records South), bringing along the multi-track master tapes. Under Dowd’s supervision, Lance overdubbed some vocal tracks, and left the tapes with Dowd. Soon thereafter – October ’70 – Allman was at Criteria for the sessions that would produce Ronnie Hawkins‘ self-titled 1970 LP. In a spare moment during those sessions, Dowd asked the guitarist to lay down some licks to improve Lance’s track; the resulting mix of “More Than Enough Rain” features musical sparring between King Curtis’ horn lines and Duane Allman’s impromptu yet fluid slide guitar work (the track also appears on Rounder’s 2013 box set, Skydog: the Duane Allman Retrospective).
Late in 2014, I was contacted by the music reissue label Real Gone Music. Label head Gordon Anderson asked me if I’d be interested in writing the liner notes for an upcoming release. I had already done a number of projects for RGM, including a Brotherhood CD reissue, a Cannonball Adderley title, and a Rick Wakeman project. But with regard to this potential assignment, I wasn’t at all familiar with the name Bobby Lance, the artist whose pair of early 1970s albums were released on Atlantic and Cotillion (an associated subsidiary label). Both LPs went out of print forty-plus years ago. But a quick visit to YouTube convinced me that his music – very much in the Muscle Shoals/Stax blue-eyed soul mold – was right up my alley.
The thing was, there was very little in the way of hard information on Lance or his albums. Gordon gave me a bit of decade-old info on Lance’s last-known-location, and pointed me to another blogger’s brief essay (from a few years ago) in which the writer asserts a possible Duane Allman connection.
Even though I had little to go on – and a deadline – I was hooked.
Fast-forward to a few weeks later; by that time I had found and spoken to a number of people connected to Lance, a highly-regarded musician who had played on the album, and Bob Lance himself. You really need to hear the music, but the back story is nearly as important. Here it is, in three parts. – bk
The musical story of Bobby Lance starts years before The Beatles scored their first hit in America, and reaches its peak in the early 1970s with the release of two solo albums for a major record label. Lance’s career arc includes close associations with some of music’s most legendary names, though Lance never achieved the high profile that they enjoyed.
Orphaned at a young age, Brooklyn-born Lance was for many years effectively raised by his sister Fran, seventeen years his elder. Fran married Norm Robins (née Rabinowitz) in the late 1950s, and Norm took a great interest in the musical pursuits of his wife and brother-in-law. In fact it was Norm Robins who picked up the tab for a very young Bobby Lance to cut a single for Square Records, a local label. The pre-teen Lance cut a song of his own composition, “Baby I’m Gone.” Very much in the Bobby Vee teen idol mode, the song reflected the popular style of that time, but very few copies were pressed. Robins, lacking connections in the music business, wasn’t able to get the song onto radio or into widespread distribution. But the experience did whet the appetites of everyone involved to keep trying.
Bobby and Fran had already begun writing songs together: though a classically trained pianist, Fran stuck to writing lyrics, while brother Bobby composed the music. Though both were white Jews from Brooklyn, their songs’ lyrics reflected common, universal themes, and their music displayed their deep interest in African-American rhythm and blues.
Back around 1957, teenager and fellow Brooklynite Richard Perry had formed a vocal group with two of his friends; they called themselves The Escorts. By 1962 and the time of their third single, they had replaced their lead vocalist with female singer Goldie Zelkowitz; that lineup released “I Can’t Be Free” on Coral. The song was written by the now very active team of Francine “Fran” Robins (often misspelled on credits as Robbins) and Bobby. When Zelkowitz (later known as Genya Ravan) left The Escorts in early 1963, Bobby came in as lead vocalist; he sang on their last two sides.
Elsewhere in 1963, a Brooklyn doo-wop group called The Monorays released the red vinyl 45rpm single, “Face in the Crowd” b/w “Step Right Up” on Pittsburgh’s tiny Astra label. Both sides came from the pen of the Lance/Robins team. The siblings remained busy, writing tunes for Maxine Brown, The Sidekicks, The Ravenettes, and Zelkowitz’s new group, Goldie and the Gingerbreads.
A 1965 Lance/Robins composition (with Richard Perry, now in the dual role of co-composer and session producer) performed by The Young Generation yielded a genre minor-classic in “The Hideaway.” The Young Generation was notable for its lineup: three twelve-year-old girls, one of whom, Janis Siegel, would go onto fame as a member of Manhattan Transfer. (“The Hideaway” is included on Real Gone Music’s 2011 compilation, The Red Bird Girls). Around that time – with both doo-wop and girl-group styles well past their sell-by date – Bobby Lance and Fran Robins began writing songs that displayed a more R&B-inflected style.
By 1967, Lance and Robins connected with gospel-turned-R&B singer Thelma Jones; she would cut a number of singles for Barry Records, the small label run by colorful and notorious music industry figure Hy Weiss (and named after Weiss’ son). The b-side of her 1967 single, “Oh, Oh, Here Comes the Heartbreak” b/w “Gotta Find a Way” was arranged by Lance. Though the single didn’t do much chartwise, it established a working relationship between Jones and the young arranger/composer.
There’s a never-ending stream of reissued music, too. So it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. This week-long run of quick reviews wraps up with a look at five reissue/compilation releases.
Game Theory – Dead Center Omnivore Recordings‘ championing of this under-appreciated 80s group continues with the reissue of the band’s 1984 compilation, Dead Center. Like all Game Theory albums, this one has long been out of print, and tough to find. Dead Center collected the band’s strongest material in hopes of helping them catch onto a wider audience. The Three O’Clock‘s Michael Quercio produced several tracks, and whether it’s his influence or simply a musical like-mindedness, much of this music sounds like him. Another crystal clear influence is (post-Big Star)Alex Chilton; Game Theory’s reading of “The Letter” sounds like how Alex might’ve done it.
Frank Rosolino – I Play Trombone
Part of the ongoing reissue of long-lost Bethlehem Records jazz releases, this six-track album (originally released in 1956) presents the trombonist Rosolino. He had previously appeared on sides by Stan Kenton and alongside Zoot Sims, but this was only his second album as leader. The agreeably swinging tunes balance subtlety with melodic interplay between Rosolino and his piano-bass-drums sidemen. Rosolino would go on to release several more albums, but the bulk of his work would be as sideman to a list of jazz greats that included Horace Silver and Dizzy Gillespie. I Play Trombone is an early and auspicious outing.
Dick Wagner – Dick Wagner
Long held in high esteem by rock aficionados, songwriter/guitarist Dick Wagner gained his greatest fame lending his considerable talents to the work others. But in 1978 he recorded and released an album under his own name. With a wide-screen vibe that recalls Meat Loaf and/or Jim Steinman, that album showed Wagner’s talent to excellent effect. Unfortunately, a generic album cover and a poorly-thought-out title (Richard Wagner) doomed the album to obscurity; it was often mis-filed in record stores in the classical section. Happily, it’s again available (with a revised title); sadly, Wagner passed away just before Real Gone Music‘s reissue.
Blood, Sweat & Tears – Child is Father to the Man
Though they would enjoy commercial success with an altered lineup (fronted by the gruesome vocals of David Clayton-Thomas), Blood, Sweat & Tears started out as a highly ambitious (almost progressive) outfit led by Al Kooper. Kooper left (or was forced out) after their debut, but the album the original lineup left behind is a stone classic. With a sound not miles away from The Butterfield Blues Band, early BS&T was soulful and loaded with chops. This hybrid multichannel SACD presents the debut in stunning audio quality, making it the definitive version. This is what Chicago wishes they could have been.
Barbara Lynn – The Complete Atlantic Recordings
Some of the most interesting and important work that Real Gone Music does is its series of compilation albums, collecting the work of underappreciated artists from the catalogs of Atlantic, Dunhill and others. Texas-born Barbara Lynn cut one album for Atlantic (the left-handed electric guitarist went on to a blues-oriented career that continues to this day); that disc (Here is Barbara Lynn) is included here in its entirety along with an impressive number of singles and rarities. This material focuses on Lynn’s vocals. Many of these tunes sound like hits; only one (“This is the Thanks I Get”) actually was.
As always, more reviews of CDs, DVDs and vinyl, plus interviews and essays to come.
So here we are. It’s the last day of 2014. And it’s also the final day of posts looking back at my personal Best of 2014 lists. Today I’ll run down my favorite reissue/compilation/archival releases.
As it happens, this is – as much as such a thing exists – my area of expertise: a significant proportion of the music I review each year is actually of the “it came out before but you probably missed it, so here it is again” type. So choosing four was exceedingly difficult. I should make special mention of the work done by four labels: The Numero Group, Real Gone Music, Rock Beat, and Omnivore Recordings. All have a near-fanatical dedication to unearthing fascinating music that previously hasn’t gotten the hearing (and/or presentation, and/or marketing push) it richly deserves. It’s no overstatement to say that their logos are effectively a trademark of quality: one can hardly go wrong picking up any of their releases.
That said, on this particular list, only one of their titles appears. And that’s a personal/sentimental favorite, for reasons that will become clear presently.
Oscar Peterson — Exclusively for my Friends
For me, this one’s all but inevitable to show up on the list. It’s Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist. It’s him and (usually) crack sidemen in the most intimate of setting, with an audience. It features renowned German attention to detail in its production values. It’s beautifully packaged. And…it’s vinyl. It’s also essential for any jazz fan.
Jethro Tull — A Passion Play: An Extended Performance
In addition to his work on solo albums and such, Steven Wilson has made a name for himself as the go-to guy when a 70s progressive rock group wants to revisit their catalog. His remix/remaster projects are the stuff of legend: check out his work for King Crimson and Caravan, for example. The four-disc set covering A Passion Play is magnificent, and might just cause you to reevaluate the album.
The Soul of Designer Records
The funny thing is, I don’t even particularity like gospel music. And make no mistake: The Soul of Designer Records is mostly just that. But from the liner notes to the brilliantly creative packaging to the music itself, this set is both an important historical document and a fine collection of music, whatever one’s spiritual bent. My prediction that the set would be nominated for a Grammy turned out to be wrong, but then I’m an unreliable predictor of such things: I would have thought Paul Revere and the Raiders would’ve gotten into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by now. Speaking of which…
Brotherhood — The Complete Recordings
In 1967, the famed “power trio” of Drake Levin (guitar), Phil Volk (bass) and Michael Smith (drums) jumped ship from the massively popular Raiders. What happened next? They formed a group, added a keyboard player, and promptly sank into oblivion. They did cut three albums, but few knew about those, and fewer still ever heard them. I learned about Brotherhood in my early research writing about the Raiders. And working behind the scenes with Real Gone Music, I helped bring their three albums back to the world. My extensive history of the group is included in the 2CD set’s liner notes. The music isn’t exactly rock’s version of The Missing Link, but it’s solid stuff, and the group’s story is a compelling, often heartbreaking one.
Have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve. Failing that, just have a safe one.
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.
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.
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