Capsule Reviews: January 2013, Part One

Here’s another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews, this time covering new reissues and compilations. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Nektar – Man in the Moon / Evolution
Nektar is one of those mildly progressive yet accessible 70s bands that never broke through big time in the USA. Part of that might have been down to them being on smallish labels. Their best efforts are A Tab in the Ocean and Remember the Future (1974), though with some hiatuses, some version of the band has persisted to present day. Their 1980 album Man in the Moon doesn’t quite scale the heights of those two, but it’s quite good stuff and should appeal to fans of Alan Parsons Project and Camel. A new 2CD set includes that record plus a 2004 album, Evolution, which shows the band having maintained a remarkably consistent approach to sound and arrangement, though it leans a bit more (and pleasingly so) in an art/prog-rock direction. Guitarist and lead vocalist Roye Albritton is the songwriter, and the sonic glue that gives Nektar its characteristic sound.

Various Artists – Crime & Punishment: Bloody Ballads, Prison Moans & Chain Gang Blues
The folks at UK-based Fantastic Voyage have built themselves a well-earned reputation for thoughtful compilations. Sometimes they’re historical, label- or genre-based, and sometimes they’re thematic. Crime & Punishment is, of course, the last of these. Two CDs and 50 tracks of murder, mayhem and mama-they-done-sent-me-to-prison are what’s served up here. Music historian Kris Needs’ lengthy and solid essay connects all the tracks together, which is good, since few of these will be familiar to the casual listener. Most of the recordings date from the late 1920s through the late 50s. Some legendary names crop up: Paul Robeson, The Louvin Brothers, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly are just a few. Yes, Billie Holiday‘s “Strange Fruit” is here; it’s an obvious if necessary choice. But few other ringers are in this fine compilation. Overall it’s a worthy addition to your library, if not the ideal soundtrack for canapes and light refreshments.

Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks #30: Academy of Music, New York NY 3/25 and 28/72
I don’t have the will to rag on Grateful Dead live recordings any more, not like I used to. While I haven’t been completely won over by the World’s Most Recorded Band (nor do I claim to fully understand why every note they’ve ever played deserves enshrinement; it’s not as if they’re The Beatles), I will admit that their always ragged / sometimes right approach has its charms. As with any Dick’s Pick‘s set, the goal’s once again to provide as close as possible to a complete aural experience of a given night’s (or residency’s) performance. Across four CDs, the energy ebbs and flows, but the band’s in relatively fine vocal form, and on these dates they stick to playing actual songs as opposed to those interminable flights of not-so-fancy they like to call “Space” or “Jam.” That alone makes this one of the best Dick’s Picks yet.

Graham Parker & The Rumour – Live at Rockpalast 1978 + 1980
Once again the Germans have proven themselves to be among the globe’s best curators of important music. SWR recorded all manner of jazz greats in the 50s and preserved those live recordings in pristine quality for release in the 21st century, and those involved with the popular Rockpalast TV and radio shows of the 70s and 80s did the same for rock. One of the latest is a 2CD set from Parker and his band, at or near the top of their game. On these two dates they tear through a stunning list of songs that – in a just universe – would have been massive hits everywhere. The band plays with fire and tenacity, and Parker is the Parker you’d expect. If you know his work, you know what sort of music you’ll find here; it’s vastly superior to his official live album of the era, 1978’s The Parkerilla.

Jackie Gleason – Music for Lovers Only
People my age remember Jackie Gleason firstly as a popular entertainer who hosted a TV variety hour. One of the regular sketches on the broadcast-in-color Jackie Gleason Show was “The Honeymooners,” which – we’d later discover – had been a very popular standalone half-hour TV show “way back” in the black-and-white era. But Gleason was also a music enthusiast of sorts. His preferred style of music is what was (somewhat perversely, you may well think) called “easy listening.” It’s a term so overused as to be virtually meaningless: Booker T & the MGs had hits on the Easy Listening charts! Fans of syrupy music – the kind that played in era movies during the “sex” scene in which viewers were treated to a soft-focus shot of, say, a lamp – may enjoy this curious straight CD release of the staggeringly (and inexplicably?) popular 1955 monaural LP.

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