Capsule Reviews for February 2024: Reissues

Today I’ll tell you about five albums from the distant past, newly reissued and deserving of your attention.

Steve Cropper – With a Little Help from My Friends
Guitarist Steve Cropper is known for a lot of great things, and at the top of that list is his knack for tuneful and tasteful guitar playing. In and beyond Booker T & the MG’s, he’s responsible for some of the most recognizable licks in popular music. But he’s comparatively lesser-known for albums made under his own name. The first of those was 1969’s With a Little Help from My Friends. An all-instrumental collection of song he wrote, co-wrote or just dug, this album is as catchy as you’d expect. Cropper never wastes a note, never overplays, and always delivers in a distinctive, inimitable fashion. His reading of the title track owes a lot to the Joe Cocker version, but let’s not hold that against him. A new Omnivore reissue appends the original with eight bonus tracks, a highlight of which is a cover of the delightful “Grazing in the Grass.” The CD also features a superb essay by – who else? – Robert Gordon. His essay and a little note in the booklet even reveal (with admittedly a bit of speculation) who-all played on the sessions, an important detail not included on the ‘69 LP. By the way, I’ve interviewed Steve Cropper twice: here in 2010 and here again, this time in 2021.

Unicorn – Too Many Crooks
Unicorn was (so it is said) a country-rock band out of England; while they’re comparatively unknown in the U.S., they made some fine records. Their sound and style are similar in places to Brinsley Schwarz, a group that featured a young Nick Lowe. But Unicorn are perhaps best-known (and somewhat unfairly, really) only for having written and recorded “No Way Out of Here,” when recorded by band friend and producer David Gilmour. The Pink Floyd guitarist’s version doesn’t really reinvent the tune (though his guitar work is predictably distinctive), and the original has all the appeal of the better-known cover. It’s merely one highlight on Too Many Crooks, the band’s third LP. And as these songs show, the country-rock label often applied to Unicorn really sold them short; their music is tuneful in the extreme, flawlessly arranged and performed. The term “overlooked gem” might be bandied around too wantonly, but in this case it applies. A new Think Like a Key reissue adds a bonus track; the booklet features photos, lyrics and a solid (if too brief) essay by David DiSanzo, an acknowledged expert on Unicorn. As for me, I interviewed DiSanzo about the band, and also wrote a feature based on an interview with Unicorn’s Pat Martin.

Second Hand – Reality
Even among progressive rock fanatics, Second Hand is a relative obscurity. Some – among those who have any familiarity at all with the London band – might classify them as progressive, proto-prog or art rock. Their 1968 debut, Reality came a bit too early to be considered prog (at least at the time). Listening now to a new reissue, the elements of prog are there, but they’re alongside some bits that sound a bit like what we now call freakbeat, popsike and other sub-styles. Touchstones might include the equally obscure East of Eden, or even Gracious! (albeit with less prominent use of Mellotron). Rocking hard on tracks like “Rhubarb!” Second Hand may remind some of Andromeda, Blossom Toes or Pink Floyd a la “Corporal Clegg.” They get music-hall weird on “Denis James the Clown” and downright spooky on “Mainliner.” Eclectic to the nth degree, Reality is a must-hear for aficionados of late ‘60s deep dives. The CD reissue of this formerly impossibly rare set adds three bonus tracks.

Second Hand – Death May Be Your Santa Claus
But here’s the thing: in 1971 Second Hand returned with another record, the idiosyncratically-titled Death May Be Your Santa Claus. Far weirder and more forebodingly inaccessible than the band’s debut, at times Death sounds more like a parody of an outré prog album than, y’know, an actual one. Fans of Captain Beefheart, Soft Machine at their strangest, Kevin Ayers and the like may warm to the bizarre vocals, shift-on-a-dime musical dynamics and kitchen-sink instrumentation. Others may be drawn in by the chirpy intro to songs like “Hangin’ on an Eyelid,” only to be scared off by the Zappa-esque musical detours that inevitably follow. Speaking of FZ, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” sounds like his “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny” reimagined by The Residents. (There are moments of true inspiration here as well.) For adventurous listeners, it’s recommended; for others, maybe sample it on Spotify or YouTube before plunking down cash for physical product. Know, though, that when/if you do the latter, you’ll get bonus tracks and a thoughtful essay by TLAK label head Roger Houdaille.

British Lions – s/t
Few listeners (in the U.S., anyway) noticed when Mott the Hoople ceased operations in the mid 1970s. After losing both lead singer Ian Hunter and two of the three words in their name (they’d be billed as Mott for their last two LPs) the group members found themselves without a hit and with a dwindling prospects. Four of the band members – keyboardist Morgan Fisher, drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin, bassist Pete Overend Watts and Mott-era guitarist Ray Majors – subsequently joined forces with John Fiddler, formerly of another presumably past-peak band, Medicine Head. In their new band, Fiddler would write more than half of the material, and the sound was updated for the times. British Lions sound like a missing link between ‘70s hard rock, pub rock of the late decade and ‘80s arena rock. Trust me, though: it sounds better than that suggestion might suggest. While at 5min 30sec the “Willie and the Hand Jive” retread “Break This Fool” goes on five minutes too long, the album as a whole is solid. Tight vocal harmonies wedded to no-nonsense rock arrangements result in a workmanlike album that’s good enough so that if someone told you it had been a minor hit (it wasn’t), you’d believe them. A 2000 reissue added bonus tracks in the form of four demos and some BBC cuts; the TLAK reissue jettisons the BBC material but adds a second CD featuring a 1978 live set from San Francisco’s Old Waldorf.