Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Lenny Kravitz: Black And White America

I've been listening to some of the CDs that have been piled on my desktop for a while, and Lenny Kravitz's "Black And White America" rose to the top of the pile recently. I'm glad it did.

First off, I'm a fan. I love Lenny; have ever since "Mama Said". I admire his ability to synthesize hard rock and soul groove into an amalgam that very few others have ever succeeded in creating. Not everything he's done has been a slam-dunk (2004's "Baptism" is particularly off the mark), but he's never let a misfire keep him down.

Far as I'm concerned, "Black And White America" is a masterpiece. First up is the title track, which essentially says "Stop dreaming about the day when the races are friends - it's already here, if you'll open your eyes." I find this refreshing when compared to the message of much of today's R&B, which seems intent on widening the racial divide rather than healing it."Life Ain't Ever Been Better Than It Is Now" reinforces the positive vibes with a message of thankfulness overlaid by one of L.K.'s patented guitar-driven grooves. "Rock Star City Life" is another relentless track that stands with any of Lenny's best. A couple of things are formulaic; there's a dance track with Jay Z. rapping about bumping and grinding (yawn). "Sunflower" is a retro-Disco throwback, complete with cowbell and penny-whistle -- not quite as retro as Jamiroquai, but you get the idea.Overall though, the disc is a stone winner.

If I have one complaint about this album, it's that it's too long. Yes, I know - I'm complaining about getting too much for my money; slap me now. But at 66+ minutes, too much of a good thing can be too much -- especially when the slow songs ("Dream", "Push") are loaded at the end.

But no complaints: put it on, turn it up, and let the groove take you. That's what Lenny's always been about, and this is a fine addition to an amazing lifetime of albums. Shame it didn't get played on the radio (but that says more about the state of today's radio than about Lenny). Listen, lather, repeat.

For Further Research:

Monday, May 13, 2013

Booker T. Jones: The Road From Memphis

Even if you don't know anything about Memphis soul, you've heard of Booker T. and the M.G.s -- if only via their monster hit "Green Onions", still a staple on oldies radio. Although that's the only cut that gets on the radio these days, the M.G.s had multiple big instrumental hits in the 60's and 70's: "Time is Tight", "Hang 'Em High", "Hip Hug-Her", "Soul Dressing" and more. Besides which, they were the house band for Memphis' legendary Stax Records label, the home of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes and many more black artists who left an indelible mark on soul music - and most all of whose records felt the stamp of Booker T. Jones and his Hammond B3.

Although the star of Memphis soul waned, Booker T. never went away. He cut a number of records for A&M in the 70's, launched an M.G.s comeback with Columbia in the 90's, and continues recording; his latest, "The Road From Memphis", contains a return to roots and some auto-biographical songs that are quite welcome and pleasingly organic in this day of highly-computerized music.

Booker's B3 is front-and-center, of course. There's a classic Memphis groove that insinuates itself everywhere. I love the title cut, "Walking Papers," and "Rent Party", a minor-key affair that seems to underscore the fact that this is one party that's not truly a celebration, and "Representing Memphis", a Southern-fried groove featuring a duet between one of my favorite soul shouters, Sharon Jones (of the Dap-Tones), and Matt Berninger, frontman for Cincinnati's The National. And there's also "Down in Memphis", on which Booker T. himself sings about coming up in the poor South and the way it was back then.

This is a good disc, not a great one. But for fans of Memphis Soul Stew there's a lot to like here. Booker rides the classic Stax vibe while bringing the mood into the present -- it's not a nostalgia trip, but it's got enough of that savory, meaty funk to take you back. Good stuff - I'm looking forward to what he does next.

For Further Research
  • Booker T.'s page on the Stax Museum Website
  • The legendary Hammond B3 organ was an integral part of the Sound of the Sixties. It showed up everywhere, from Abbey Road to Electric Lady Studios to the Capitol Tower. Would you believe there's a documentary about it? Check it out here. (I grew up playing a B1 myself.)
  • Live from the Sixties: Booker T. & the M.G.s perform "Green Onions" live in Europe on the 1967 Stax-Volt Tour. Dan Penn on killer lead guitar!
  • Booker T. plays "Down In Memphis" on Daryl Hall's "Live From Daryl's House" with Daryl duetting.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Foghat: Fool For The City

Sometimes, hard rock albums from the '70s don't hold up well. I'm sure you've had the experience of throwing on an album you haven't heard in years; something you had fond memories of in high school or college, but 25 years later (or so), doesn't have the charm it once did -- think Uriah Heep, or maybe Iron Maiden.

It's been about that long since I've listened to Foghat's "Fool For The City", which came out in 1975. When I was in high school, about every other guy wore a "Fool For The City" t-shirt; the album was that popular. And why not? It was a flat-out blues rocker, with plenty of AM and FM radio hits.

Foghat, for those that don't know, was built on the ashes of Savoy Brown, the legendary UK blues group of the '60s. Although the Savoys were universally beloved, they never achieved Top 40 success in the States - a situation Foghat would definitely remedy.

I half expected the disc to bore me when I slipped it on, but once the needle hit the groove it was immediately apparent that "Fool" was not one of those albums that was an artifact of a diminished memory. Cut in '75, pretty much at the peak of Foghat's popularity, it's got the AOR rocker title cut, the AM Top 40 hit "Slow Ride" (in an extended, eight-plus-minute version you never heard on the radio), and a fantastic cover of Robert Johnson's classic "Terraplane Blues" that scorches Side 2. And there's also a preview of things to come: a (lead singer) Dave Peverett co-penned number, "Take It Or Leave It", which closes out the album with a taste of the sound that would win Foghat many more fans a couple of years later.

So when all's said and done I'm pleased and mildly excited to find that this Lp is just as fun and vital now as it was back in the day. Worth grabbing if you find a stray copy, for sure.

For Further Research:

Monday, April 29, 2013

Cal Tjader Trio: The Cal Tjader Trio

Well, I guess it's no secret that I'm a bit obsessed with vinyl. This year on Record Store Day, I visited my local vinyl seller, Spin Records in Carlsbad, CA., to see all the cool goodies that the companies release on that day. There was a lot of neat stuff, but the one thing I had to have was this neat reissue of one of jazz' classic 10" Fifties offerings, the debut album from the Cal Tjader Trio, reproduced exactingly, down to the vintage Fantasy Records label and the colored vinyl (although the originals were released on red, not orange, wax).

The neat thing about this record, aside from the fact that it makes a very rare collectible available again, is that Tjader was one of the leaders of the Latin Jazz movement that culminated with Carlos Santana's work that began in the late '60s. Interestingly enough, Tjader himself was not of Spanish descent, but grew up in the Bay Area, where he soaked in all the local rhythms transplanted from down south (the same way the salsa scene in NYC appropriated rhythms and chords from the Puerto Rican and Cuban emigrees of the '40s and '50s).

Tjader was a multi-instrumentalist who played primarily xylophone and vibraphone, but also piano and bongos (dig that hip coffee-house cover!). He cut his chops with George Shearing and Brubeck, but soon graduated to leading his own band; after leaving Shearing's group he returned home to San Francisco, formed a trio and began cutting records for Berkeley's Fantasy Records, a hotbed of West Coast Jazz throughout the '50s (and later, the launching point for West Coast rockers from CCR to Tommy James, and the final resting place of the Stax catalogue).

This album was cut in '51 but issued in '53 as Tjader's first album under his own name. It's an absolute classic recording, squeezing 8 cuts onto 10 inches, and every one a winner. Where some '50s jazz feels dated, or derivative, Tjader's work still sounds fresh, cool and happening.

Tjader later went on to record for Verve, the Jazz label of the '60s, and was also a founder of the legendary Skye Recordings label, which, though short-lived, contributed enormously to the advance of jazz and jazz-fusion in the late '60s with artists such as Grady Tate. He died in 1982.

For further research:

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Richie Havens: Stonehenge

Richie Havens is one of my favorite folk singers ever, thanks to his gruff, straining voice - a voice that sounds like it's been used, by God, and used hard. He also write magnificent lyrics, when he's not covering others' excellent compositions.

Richie came to fame with his performance at Woodstock, but made a splash on the Greenwich Village coffee shop circuit 5 years earlier, where his one-man performances got the hipsters on their feet. He labored in obscurity for a while, and then came Woodstock, and the album "Mixed Bag", which featured "Handsome Johnny," the standout performance from that show. ("Mixed Bag" had actually been released two years prior, in 1967, and his record company hastily re-did the artwork to reflect the presence of "Handsome Johnny" - versions without that banner on the cover can be hard to find.)

After that, Havens was on the move. He became popular - popular enough, in fact, to get MGM, the parent company of his record label, Verve, to give him his own imprint - the Stormy Forest label. His album "Alarm Clock", issued in 1971, featured his acoustic cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes The Sun," which went on to be a Top 40 hit. That record also contains the signature track "Younger Men Grow Older," which is a concert staple to this day.

"Stonehenge", issued in 1970, continues to be one of my favorite Havens Lps, due in large part to the standout "Minstrel From Gault", a not-so-thinly disguised Viet Nam protest song, but one that - unlike others of the genre - wears its age well. In it, Havens talks about the constancy of war through the ages, wrapping his raspy voice inside a gorgeous cocoon of instrumentation that swirls and shifts around the listener, building to a climax that sends shivers down your spine. (At least, it does mine.)

That's not to say the rest of the record is chicken feed. There's a standout cover of the Bee Gees' "I Started A Joke" that nearly eclipses their original, a fantastic cover of Dylan's "Baby Blue", and "Open Our Eyes", the closest thing to a prayer on any Havens Lp. Only the disc-closer, the 8-minute "Shouldn't All The World Be Dancing", a pastiche of song and found sound, laced with bits of moralizing conversation, belies its hippie-era roots. Overall, it's a stellar set - well worth the listen for even a casual fan.

Oh, and the sound quality is fantastic for a recording of this age - it was recorded not to audio tape, but to 35mm magnetic film in the RKO General movie sound stage in New York city. True high fidelity, and clearly audible.

If you're wondering where to start with Richie Havens, pick up the excellent Ryko "Best Of" compilation from 1999. But if you're ready to dig deeper, start here. You'll be rewarded richly.

For further research:

Friday, February 8, 2013

Isaac Hayes: Branded

When you're going to release an album from an iconic singer, you use an iconic image on the cover, right? So for Isaac Hayes' first album in seven years, and his first (and last, as it turns out) studio album, Virgin's Pointblank label featured a cropped-in closeup of Ike's shaven head and sunglasses -- an image instantly identifiable to soul lovers everywhere.

Also instantly identifiable was Hayes' voice, that signature deep baritone that could shout, whisper and coo without dropping a beat. By the time this album was released in 1995, he'd become a genuine Godfather of soul and hip-hop, taking his place up next to George Clinton in the halls of the Funky Fathers.

Some comebacks can be disappointing. Not this one - Ike was in full form, with his signature brass and wah-wah chuck-a-lucking in the background, strings swelling, and the musical canvas awash with love, sex and booty-bumpin'. Just like the Hayes of yore.

The disc starts off with one of Hayes' signature extended atmosphere pieces, 12 minutes' worth of mood setting to get you into the proper frame of mine, y'see. Although listed on the jacket as four individual tracks, the pieces flow smoothly into each other, getting the groove lubed up for what's to come.

After the opener comes another Hayes signature: a slowed-down, extended vamp on the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer In The City." And when Isaac intones "Back of my neck gettin' dirt and gritty," you'd best believe it - you can feel the sweat and heat in every syllable. As the album moves along, Hayes plays tribute to himself, with an almost note-for-note reprise of "Soulsville", one of the standout cuts from the "Shaft" movie soundtrack he scored nearly 30 years before. But just so you know he ain't no has-been, he launches into the album's closer, "Hybperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic", a 12-minute chunk of sharp hip-hop funk that features a sharp female chorus chanting the title 'word' at regular intervals while Ike raps on. It's since become a club classic.

It's a tour-de-force, and it turned out to be his last. After this disc, Hayes put recording on the back burner while he romanced his second love, acting. He was recording tracks for a new album in 2008 when high blood pressure claimed him; the album was never finished. He was just 65. "Branded" stands as one of his best, and a testimonial to a multi-talented, multi-faceted career.

For More Research:

Heart: Bebe Le Strange

Heart had a pretty amazing ride in the '70s. Coming from nowhere in 1976, they ripped up the charts with their debut Lp, "Dreamboat Annie", and the radio killers "Magic Man" and "Crazy On You". Fans were in love with Ann & Nancy Wilson, not only because they were smokin' hot, but because they were women who could rock. Ann's delivery was regularly likened to that of Robert Plant (it didn't hurt that a bootlegged concert cover version of "Battle of Evermore" leaked out from Heart fanboys). They were on fire.

Then came "Heartless", and "Little Queen" and "Barracuda", and "Dog And Butterfly". It seemed the band was unstoppable, but personnel changes behind the scenes were making things rough. By the time 1980 came around, Heart had already released 4 Lps; "Bebe Le Strange" would be their 5th, and it was the hardest rocking album to date.

The title track was an FM radio hit, played on every album-rocker from KMET to WMMS. And "Even It Up" was a Top 40 hit, but it only got to #33, a victim of the punk/New Wave tide that was sweeping over pop radio. The ladies tried to update their sound to match the trend, but it was a bust - songs like "Break" and "Down On Me" rocked hard and edgy, but the melodies were nowhere to be found. As a result, the record sounds unfocused and uneven, even with the presence of the two aformementioned radio hits and the gorgeous "Silver Wheels", which ends Side 1.

I think this album has aged poorly due to this lack of focus, but it's certainly not Heart's worst - that (dis)honor would come a couple of years down the road, when the Wilsons traded their guitars for synthesizers to regain radio play.

For further research:
  • "Magic Man" performed live on The Midnight Special, 1977, with original guitarist Roger Fisher rippin' it up. Ann is at her most Plant-ish here.
  • "Dreamboat Annie" recorded live on stage, but with no audience about the same time, 1976-'77 or so. This clip showcases Nancy fingerpicking her acoustic while the band harmonizes behind her.
  • The controversy surrounding Heart's 2nd Lp, "Magazine", is not only the stuff of legend but an inside look at how the music industry works. Read about it on Wikipedia.

Flatt & Scruggs: Hard Travelin'

After listening to the big 2LP set of Flatt & Scruggs (reviewed here), I dug out a studio album that I picked up on a trip to Lancaster, PA last year. "Hard Travelin'" was released in 1963, just about the time of the Beverly Hillbillies debut on TV - notice that the jacket calls out "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" prominently!

While F&S are renowned for their bluegrass roots, "Hard Travelin'" features precious little bluegrass - it's more of a straight country album in the mold of the early-60s. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of bright spots, like "Ballad", and "99 Years Is Almost For Life", the story of a young man wrongly put away for a long time by a judge who wanted his fiancee. There's also "The Wreck Of The Old 97", a train song in the best Southern tradition of train songs, complete with "you'll be sorry" danger warning. And "Pastures of Plenty" is a farm-worker's lament, very much like that of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee", but from the other side of the coin.

All in all, not a bad record, but an average one. Listeners looking for a hard fix of bluegrass pickin' will not sate their lust here, but if you're in a Country barn-dance sort of mood, this might just fit the bill. (Later reissued as "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" by Columbia, who knew a good thing when they saw one.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Flatt & Scruggs: All Time Great Recordings

OK, I know it's not fair to judge an entire career on the strength of a greatest hits Lp, but you've gotta start somewhere, right? True confession time: I've come to country music late in my musical life. In my youth, I was a rocker, period - there was only rock and roll. Classical? Obsolete. Country? Hick music. Especially hillbilly stuff like Flatt & Scruggs -- that was music for a generation of Dust Bowl refugees, as far as I was concerned. Wisdom doesn't always come with age, but often, you do have to wait a while until all the parts of your brain fill out, yeah?

So, again, I've come to country and roots music late. I think it started in the 90s with the Alt-Country movement - I was playing Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Golden Smog on the radio, and these guys had a sound I liked a lot. Which led to digging further into their influences, and hearing Lyle Lovett, Roseanne Cash and Rodney Crowell. Which in turn led to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. And from there... well, here we are.

Now I'm first to admit that bluegrass, as a style, is an acquired taste. Pickin' and grinnin' don't go down so easy with everyone. But if you don't appreciate Flatt and Scruggs, you can't really appreciate the Greateful Dead or the Doobie Brothers -- no, really; you can draw a straight line between them.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were two of country's biggest stars, starting in the 1940s and going straight into the '70s. Flatt, who possessed the archetypal country voice and the ability to play guitar, teamed with Scruggs, a truly inventive banjo player - an innovator on the same level as Les Paul. He actually invented a three-fingered way of picking the banjo that gave his runs a sound no one else could duplicate.

Flatt & Scruggs were big in the '40s with the hillbilly cats, but when the '50s folk music revival came on, they got really big, scoring a string of Country Top 40 hits that ran for most of the '60s. They finally broke through to the general audience with the theme songs to "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction", as well as the film score to "Bonnie & Clyde".

This two-record set was issued about 1970, and contains 20 songs that were pretty big winners chartwise during the 1960s. It's a good showcase for Flatt & Scruggs' talent ("Foggy Mountain Breakdown"), humor ("99 Years Is Almost For Life"), influence ("Salty Dog Blues"), and country sentiment ("When Papa Played the Dobro"). Some of the music is just stunning - "Foggy", of course, is a seminal country song that's been covered by nearly everyone of note who could lay claim to proficiency with banjo or fiddle over the past 60 years. Other songs show that they were in touch with changing times - first a cover of Johnny Cash's 1958 smash "I Still Miss Someone", then a downhome version of Mel Tillis' "Detroit City".

There's nothing here from their '40s or '50s catalog, of course, but this set is what it is - a decade's retrospective from a duo who'd made their mark, and then some. If you see it, pick it up! Mine cost me a whole dollar in a ratty thrift store, and I consider it the find of the month, no doubt. The entire country-rock movement of the early '70s would not have happened but for these two.

For further research:

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Budos Band: The Budos Band

If you've known me any length of time, you know that I'm a freak for funk and soul music. To me, the best period in modern Black music was from 1967 to about 1982 - after Sly Stone and James Brown broke up the joint, but before hip-hop and rap became all-pervasive.

If you dig hardcore funk like I do, you will absolutely LOVE the Budos Band. This is a big unit, consisting of no less than 11 highly-skilled musicians from the bad streets of Brooklyn, funkin' it up with a full horn section just like the J.B.'s and Manu Dibango used to. I mention him specifically because the Budos' identify themselves as Afro-Funk, a musical subset made popular in the early 70s by artists such as Dibango, Osibisa, Hugh Masekela and Mandingo. Even War dabbled in this arena a bit (but with more of a West Coast feel underlying the funk).

Afro-Funk fuses a hardcore funk rhythm with harmonics and melody structures that borrow heavily from traditional African music. It is relentless, sometimes tribal, and always danceable.

The Budos Band are instrumentalists first and foremost. Which is to say, they ain't no words on this record. What there is is a rock-solid backbeat that never, ever lets up, coupled with a driving horn section that pummels you with straight-up funk, the kind that would make Bobby Byrd come up out of his seat and start to boogie uncontrollably. Budos works in a minor key on most of their songs as well, which gives you an almost uneasy feeling of foreboding, even as you're shaking your rump to the funk.

Formed in 2005, The Budos Band is one of a solid lineup of retro-soul acts that record for Brooklyn's Daptone Records, which grew out of the (in)famous Desco Records neo-soul combine of the Nineties. Suffice to say that when you hear The Budos Band, or any of their labelmates  – such as the Sugarman Trio or Sharon Jones – you will swear that it's 1974 again and you're listening to some new, undiscovered gem about to break wide open. But this isn't derivative aping of a bygone style — it's heartfelt performances made by people who are truly devoted to perpetuating a classic genre. This is the first of their three (so far) albums.

If I graded albums, I'd give this an A+, but I don't so just go order it, willya?

For Further Research:

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells A Story

Boy, talk about a moment in time... this was it. Rod Stewart was at the absolute top of his game in 1971, and if you need proof, simply reference this masterpiece, "Every Picture Tells A Story." Still working with his mates in Faces (who rocked hard behind him on this album), but so filled with creativity he had time to record 4 solo albums of his own for Chicago's Mercury Records between 1969 and 1972. This is the 3rd in the series, which began with "The Rod Stewart Album" and "Gasoline Alley" and ended with "Never A Dull Moment".

Just look at all of the amazing music piled into this one Lp: "Reason To Believe," " Mandolin Wind", "Maggie May", the wonderful title track, and his awesome cover of the Temps' "I Know I'm Losing You" (of which "Maggie May" was actually the B-side of the 45 at first). If there is only one Rod album you own from this period, this one should be it. Timeless music well worth searching out on vinyl, although easily available on CD these days.

These days, no longer the sex symbol in the leopard pants, Rod is comfortable in his suit and tie, crooning Andy Bennett covers with what's left of his gin-soaked voice. But I'll take my Rod straight up, thank you; no chaser needed or desired.

For Further Exploration:

Monday, December 3, 2012

Robert Palmer: Double Fun

You can tell from the cheese-eatin' grin on this dude's face that there's more going on off-screen than just some marshmallow toasting au naturel. In fact, there's some serious slap-and-tickle occurring just out of the frame. It's a metaphor for what was going on with Robert Palmer's music: someone's having an awful lot of fun, and he's not you. But if you mind your manners, he might be persuaded to let you peek behind the curtain.

Robert Palmer was one of those guys who dressed a little too nice, smiled a little too wide, and had women just a little too pretty hanging on his arm. Between him and Daryl Hall, they cornered the market on "hipster" before that word was in the buzz-of-the-month club. But despite his impeccable taste - or maybe because of it - Robert Palmer made some great records.

I hold that his early work, for Island, was his best. From 1974 to about 1980 (well before Power Station and "Simply Irresistable" came in and mucked up his career), Robert Palmer albums could be counted on to deliver precision-crafted white soul that kept you moving and grooving nearly automatically. "Double Fun", Palmer's 4th Lp, was notable for the awesome "Every Kinda People", a song that got radio play but should have been bigger; if not for the easy groove and Marvin Gaye vibe, then for the perceptive lyrics about rollin' with the flow. There's also the awesome "You're Going To Get What's Coming", the obvious shoulda-been-a-hit closer. Jamaican rhythms abound throughout, giving "Double Fun" an easy loping party feel from beginning to end.

If you were a fan of the "Addicted To Love"-era Palmer, this album might not suit your taste. On the other hand, it might open your eyes and ears to the work of an artist who knew how to woo an audience well before the video era.

Further Investigation:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Rascals: Anthology, 1965 - 1972

Some of the best music of the 60s was released by the Rascals (also known as the Young Rascals in their earliest years). When their self-titled debut hit in 1965, they came out of the gate hot - "Good Lovin'" set the world on fire and ran up the charts as fast as you could say "New York Soul". That first Lp was an instant party-rock classic, with covers of Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally" and "In The Midnight Hour" that got almost as much radio play as the originals, and "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore", one of the best take-a-hike-baby songs ever.

They cranked out 7 albums in the next seven years, dabbling in anti-war protest songs and psychedelia along the way. Some of their stuff was way out - the 4th side of "Freedom Suite", wherein Eddie Brigati was given free reign for a side-filling drum solo, was a bit hard to take no matter what you might've been smoking. But they made great music right up to the end, when Eddie and bassist Gene Cornish left the group to leave Felix and Eddie to soldier on by themselves.

This 2-disc Rhino collection is one in their classic tradition, which means it not only collects more than 40 songs, but includes a well-researched and thoroughly annotated 30-odd-page booklet. Totally worth having if you can find one, as it documents some of the best blue-eyed soul the Sixties had to offer, including all the hits and then some. I'll bet that some of the later tracks, like "See" and "Glory Glory" will bring back memories you'd forgotten; if not, they'll turn you on to some great music you missed.

Further Research:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Beach Boys: That's Why God Made The Radio

I'm not an impartial observer here. I'm a California boy and I grew up listening to the Beach Boys (even though, as a child of the 70s, I discovered them late, during my sophomore year in high school). So yeah, I've had all those classic melodies ingrained in my brain for 35 years, now.

They've had their ups and downs, for sure. For every "20/20", there was an "M.I.U. Album". And for every "Caroline, No" there was a "Kokomo." Not that "Kokomo" was a bad song... but it was a Mike Love song, and Love's writing, no matter its merits, has always paled in comparison to the master, Brian Wilson.

Wilson's return is the big story here. Brian hadn't really recorded with the group since about 1979, during the "L.A. Light Album" sessions. His breakdown and retreat from life has been well-documented elsewhere, so I won't go into hit here; suffice to say it took Brian quite a long time to come back to the world, but when he did, it was with a vengeance. He's release half a dozen solo albums in the last 10 years, each progressively better than the last, but his return to the Beach Boys (who, themselves, haven't recorded since 1992's disastrous "Summer In Paradise") marks the completion of a long, long journey.

Having Brian back means a return to the lush, intricate, layered harmonies that marked the group's classic days. But while the sound is rooted in the 60s, the material definitely isn't - you can't go 40 years and be unaffected on the far end. So while the guys sound like the surfers of old, the subjects of their songs are decidedly different. Instead of pursuing love, they're saving it. Instead of exploring, they're remembering. Older and wiser, indeed. Brian Marks also returns, an original band member who missed the big time but got to be part of the band after waiting 50 years.

Brian's songs are the killers here. The nostalgic title track is, naturally, the one Capitol led with; "Spring Vacation" is much in the same vein, an autobiographical look at the group's reunion that's singalong ear candy. But the killer is the gorgeous, soaring "Shelter", worth the price of admission all by itself. "Strange World' is Brian's take on what he found when he emerged from his 30-year cocoon, and "Daybreak Over The Ocean" is Mike Love's shining moment in the sun - just the right touch of longing and peaceful contentment to complement his distinctive vocals.

Is "That's Why God Made The Radio" a perfect album? No. But, in 2012, it's about as perfect a slice of Sixties sunshine pop as we're going to get. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Further Research:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Howlin' with Wolfman Jack

Back in the 70s, a lot of famous radio personalities (that's "deejay" to those of you what ain't got no respect) were recruited (no pun intended) by the US Armed Forces to do radio programs, playing current popular music, which were provided, free, to radio stations around the nation. These were used to help fulfill a station's "public service" programming commitment. Back in the day, you see, radio stations had to state that they would air a certain number of hours of news, community service and community access programming as a condition of their operators' continued licensing by the FCC to operate the station.

The programs were anywhere from a half-hour to an hour long, and contained no commercials except those for the branch of the Service they were produced for. For years, KHJ's Robert W. Morgan hosted "Robert W. Morgan For Today's Army"; the Navy had a show called "Navy Hoedown" hosted by a rotating cast of Country artists like Bobby Bare and Mickey Gilley; and the Air Force had Wolfman Jack. (I don't recall the Marines having a show, but it could just be faulty memory.)

The Wolf hosted these half-hour shows throughout the 70s, lending a touch of his howling madness to the Top 40 hits that were current at the time. Each box had 2 Lps, containing a total of 4 shows. This particular set hails from 1976, and features Wolf introducing songs like "Afternoon Delight" and "Heavy Makes You Happy", interspersed with hip Air Force spots selling the advantages of learning computer technology by joining the flyboys.

These are great time capsules. Thousands of them were pressed over the years and sent to radio stations around the country (your tax dollars at work!); if you find one at a swap meet, buy it and drift back in time for a couple of hours, courtesy of Uncle Sam. And if you don't want to keep it, send it to me - I'll gladly cover the postage ;)

More research:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Eric Clapton: Crossroads

"Clapton is God" went the London graffiti of the Sixties, and he was a guitar god indeed, one of the most influential and prolific of his time.

This 6-Lp set (or CDs, if you prefer) was released in 1988 as a 25-year retrospective on Clapton's prolific career. It's a pretty great effort, and covers his stints with several different record companies, working with many different groups. The first side is dedicated to Yardbirds material; the second side is John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Lp #2 covers Cream and Blind Faith; disc #3 and half of #4 is dedicated to Derek & The Dominos. After that, the material seques to Eric's 1970 solo Lp, throwing in amazing live versions of familiar tracks, alternate cuts, 45-only A- and B-sides, and ending with a live acoustic version of "After Midnight" that smoulders along until you, not it, finally catch fire.

It took me about 5 days to listen to this set straight through. It's a great collection. I've owned it on CD and vinyl, and I prefer the vinyl - it's one of the most sonically beautiful pressings that PolyGram ever did. There is not a tick, pop, bubble or imperfection anywhere on it.

It's not easy to cram 25 years worth of music into one cohesive retrospective, but this is an excellent collection that will pay you back, whether you're a Clapton fanatic or just starting to dig in. I wonder if there will ever be a companion piece -- after all, it's now been another nearly 25 years since this set was issued. But I urge you to seek it out, especially if you've got a good turntable.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Southern Surroundings

I know, I know - there's about 15 bazillion Skynyrd comps out there. So why care about this one? Well... it's special.

A few years back, this thing called DVD-Audio made the scene, along with SACD and DTS CDs. Never heard of any of them? Well, you're probably not alone. But here's the deal: you know how the DVDs and Blu-Ray movies you buy have multiple audio channels? 5.1 or 7.1 Surround Sound. They let you hear all that cool movie surround audio from your home theater system.

Well, some bright guys at the record companies thought "what if we could listen to music in 5.1, too?" And so Sony, Warner Brothers, Universal and other set about putting 5.1 music onto CDs and DVDs. And it really does sound amazing! Until you've heard Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" in 5.1 surround, you haven't lived.

Unfortunately, they did a bad job of marketing these discs. No one cared. And they stopped making them (for the most part). But every now and then, a new one sneaks out.

That's what makes this Skynyrd comp special: It's in 5.1 surround. In fact, it's a 3-disc set: a stereo greatest hits, the 5.1 DVD-Audio disc, and a video DVD of Skynyrd performances on BBC's "Old Grey Whistle Test" programme (UK spelling for my Brit friends).

Here's the thing: It's only available at Wal-Mart, and in limited quantities. So if you want to get it, do it now. The price is right: Only $11.99.

There's a lot that's great about this disc. First, it's Skynyrd, in Surround! Hearing "Curtis Loew" and "Gimme Three Steps" in 5.1 Advanced Resolution audio is pretty danged amazing. And the remix was done by the legendary Elliot Scheiner, the guy who did Surround Sound mastering for Roy Orbison and Porcupine Tree, among others. It's quality stuff.

The downside is that only 10 tracks are on the 5.1 disc, and "Sweet Home Alabama" is not among them. (Word in the multichannel audio underground is that this surround set was part of a more comprehensive remix project begun in 2008 when 5.1 Surround was in full flower at Universal Music, so we're just lucky that this music made it out into the wild.)

Anyway, be on the lookout. If you've got a home stereo, and you're a Skynyrd fan, find a copy and play it loud. It's great stuff.

More research:

Friday, November 2, 2012

Burger Run with the Guess Who: Road Food

The album o' the day is one from relatively late in the Guess Who's career as a band. Their hitmaking days were largely over by the time Road Food was released (1974), but there was one last, great hit from this Lp, "Clap For The Wolfman", an homage to the howlin', prowlin' Wolfman Jack which wrapped a narrative of thwarted love around interjections from the Fanged One via the dashboard radio speaker.

At the time, the band had already gone through some major changes, with the departure of Randy Bachman and his brother to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and the band was down to 5 guys at this point. Although widely panned by critics at the time, it was still a much better album than, say #10, from the year before, or Power In The Music from a year later. In fact, it sounds more like a Burton Cummings solo album than any of the Guess Who records that came before, with Cummings front-and-center on the vocals, and his piano moved into the spotlight as well. (Burton himself might just have regarded this as a warm-up, as his amazing solo debut came in 1976, just two years later.)

In addition to "Wolfman", "Star Baby" was a highlight, one of those "should've been a hit" moments that inexplicably didn't get airplay... probably because no one was taking the Guess Who seriously by this time. It's not the Guess Who album I'd direct folks to who'd never heard them before, but it's a great period piece and if you love "American Woman", you'll love this too.

For further investigation:

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Olivia Newton-John: Let Me Be There

In 1973, Olivia Newton-John won the "Best Country Vocal Performance, Female" Grammy award for the title track of this Lp, "Let Me Be There." To say that the CMA was pissed would be an understatement. For this 25-year-old Australian to go up against Tammy Wynette and Dottie West, both of whom were nominated in the same category, and win... well, that was too much.

To be fair, "Let Me Be There" was a much better song than Tammy's ("Kids Say The Darndest Things") or Dottie's ("Country Sunshine"), but there was a feeling that the crossover nature of the song, which hit huge with Top 40 audiences and signalled Olivia's breakthrough hit, tainted the jury pool, so to speak. It might be possible.

I put this album on thinking that, as with so many "light rock" artists I disdained during the 70s (Gordon Lightfoot, Dan Fogelberg, Karla Bonoff), I would feel a rush of appreciation -- Good Lord! How could I have been so blind to the obvious musical talent, the mastery of the material? But sometimes, a stone is just a stone, no matter how many years of wind and wave polish it. "Let Me Be There" compiles almost a side's worth of tracks from Olivia's Uni debut Lp ("If Not For You," 1972), including the hit Dylan cover, and throws in another side's worth of MOR covers from the early 70s.

I made the mistake of listening to Side 2 first, and let me tell you, hearing Olivia warble her way through John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was like eating uncooked Jell-O. This is followed by a cover of the old Merrilee Rush hit, "Angel Of The Morning," but there's nothing new to add, and it's crunchy-sweet too. Then there's a Lightfoot cover. Urrrgh.

Flipping over to Side 1 was a bit better, with the title track at the top and "If Not For You" at the end, but then there's Olivia trying her best to interpret "Me And Bobby McGee" -- just imagine that, if you will. Janis she ain't and try as she might, she sounds like she was smiling the whole way through. And to add insult to injury, MCA chose another clinker from her first Lp, a horrid syrupy rendition of "Banks Of The Ohio" that is enough to put a zombie off his brain souffle.

The only surprise here is a truly stunning cover of Lesley Duncan's "Love Song", off of Elton John's "Tumbleweed Connection" album. It's so good, in fact, that I'm convinced it would have been a radio hit if the bonehead A&R doofuses at MCA had had the smarts to release it. (There's a reason MCA is referred to in the industry as "Music Cemetary of America".)

So, yeah, some things don't get better with age. Lightfoot has. Wendy Waldman has. Even, God help me, Johnny Mathis has (or at least I've finally learned to appreciate him). But not this album -- sorry. (Although the photo on the cover is stunning.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Linda Ronstadt's Silk Purse

"Not all pigs are your enemies," read the Capitol Records advertisement for Linda Ronstadt's "Silk Purse", which came out in 1970, with the Country-Rock explosion in full swing. Although Linda hadn't hooked up with Peter Asher yet to formulate the method of her biggest 70s successes, she was already in the groove of picking amazing songs to cover, by writers with heart and soul. This record was produced by the legendary Elliot Mazer and includes one Top 40 hit, "Long, Long Time", but there are even better songs here, like "Lovesick Blues" which opens the Lp, Gary White's "Louise" (about the lonely death of a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold), and the medley that occupies most of the second side and closes with the hillbilly folk song "Love Is Like A Mountain Railway". There's also a stunning country-rock adaptation of Carole King's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" that shoulda been a hit. Linda at her finest.

Video links:

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Early twittering from Bobby Day.

Early rockers are a mixed bag when it comes to getting respect. Some are loaded with kudos (like Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino), and rightly so; but others just as worthy get overlooked. Bobby Day is one of the latter, unfortunately.

If you're an oldies radio listener, you're probably familiar with Day's one huge hit, "Rockin' Robin," which was covered by Michael Jackson in the early 70s, and maybe "Buzz Buzz Buzz" by the Hollywood Flames, for which Day was the lead singer. These songs dated from 1958 and 1957, respectively. But there's more to the story than those two songs, and this excellent Rhino Lp from 1984 collects 14 fairly rare sides from the late 1950s, most of which were on small R&B labels and long out of print.

What the album showcases is a real, true pioneer in the fusion of rock 'n roll and R&B, a crossover artist who just couldn't catch a break, as his songs were covered by others for huge hits (Phil Spector-produced Thurston Harris covered his "Little Bitty Pretty One," for instance, and the Dave Clark Five hit with his "Over And Over" in 1965), but his own recordings went unnoticed.

Day had one last hit, as half of Bob and Earl, who recorded "Harlem Shuffle" in the mid-Sixties for Bell; the other half of Bob and Earl was none other than Barry White. 

These are incredibly catchy songs; if you can find this Lp, it's worth picking up. There's an excellent CD put out by Varese Sarabande as well, which collects singles from a bit broader time period; it's also out of priint.

You gotta salute the pioneers when you find 'em, especially the ones that don't get the respect they deserve.

  • See Bobby lip-sync to "Rockin' Robin" in 1958 in this clip from AFRTS (Armed Services Radio Television Service

Friday, October 26, 2012

Just a little more Poco...

Poco is one of those bands I've always loved. That country-rock thing that started with Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Buffalo Springfield and, to an extent, the Lovin' Spoonful, found its perfection with Paul, Richie, George, Rusty and Tim (IMHO). Rose of Cimmaron was released in '76, just after their switch from Epic to ABC, and it was the launching ground for two of their best records ever, Indian Summer and Legend. (Trivia: "Legend" was the last Lp released on ABC Records prior to their absorption by MCA, and "Heart Of The Night" has the distinction of being the first single released on MCA from any ABC Lp.)

This is a fantastic record with some really great Timothy B. Schmitt songs. It holds up well after all this time... Worth seeking out.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Vegas Vinyl, 2012

Every year I'm in Las Vegas in April for the NAB convention. I always manage to grab some time to go hunting for vintage Lps when I'm there. The vid above chronicles this year's haul. Enjoy!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pure Prairie League Busts Out.

These days, when anyone thinks about the Pure Prairie League, they usually hear the Vince Gill-era "Let Me Love You Tonight" hit from '77 playing in their head. But the group's history goes back much further than that, and is much richer than that.

The original version of Pure Prairie League, from 1972, was a country-rock band much more in the mold of the Buffalo Springfield / Poco mold. The group's driving force was Craig Fuller, a singer, songwriter and guitarist who was the heart and soul of the original League (named, by the way, for a Temperance group in the old Errol Flynn movie "Dodge City"). Fuller was a really talented songwriter, penning almost all of the songs on the band's first two Lps for RCA.

The first Lp, self-titled, didn't make many waves, but "Bustin' Out" had the huge hit "Amie." That song is just the tip of the iceberg, though - every song on this album is a wonder. The opening cut, "Jazzman", tells the tale of an itinerant musician trying to find a little love in his off-time, with beautiful harmonies and wrenching pedal steel courtesy of Al Brisco, a legendary Canadian steel player who shows up on many of the '70s country-rock classics. "Early Morning Riser", another of my favorites, is a sweet second-chance offer to a lady who's been dumped, with the awesome lyric:

There's not much more I can do to try and make things right
If you need another sunshine brother
I can be right there beside you by the early morning light

There's also the incredibly tender "Boulder Skies", and a soaring big-production closer, "Call Me, Tell Me." I've been spending a lot of time with this record lately, and I can tell you that each and every song is now embedded in my brain like an electrode from a science experiment.

Bonus: David Bowie's protege, Mick Ronson, is all over this record as a session guitar player and string arranger. Go figure!

Fuller would leave the Pure Prairie League in '74, teaming up with Eric Justin Kaz for a short while before becoming a member of Little Feat and founding the country-rock band American Flyer, another underrated group whose two Lps on United Artists are overlooked classics in their own right, and well worth finding.

For further research:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Doing the Aussie Crawl with Kasey Chambers

Some of us remember how pissed off the Country Music Association was back in the '70s when Olivia Newton-John kept winning Grammys in the Country music category. "What do Aussies know about country?" they whinged. Quite a bit, as it turned out. Americans like to think that our music belongs only to us, and we get all possessive when someone from another country does it as well (or better).

30 years after Livvy pulled off her Grammy coups, Kasey Chambers came round with much the same story. Raised in the outback in aboriginal settings, she nevertheless developed a taste for traditional Country - and not only that, she was good at making it herself.

Kasey has a very winsome voice, with more than a trace of whiskey husk, and her writing is better than most. Many of these songs are very sparsely instrumentalized, making great use of just Kasey's voice and her guitar. She sings about things she learned in the desolate Australian plains, like trains, loneliness and pining for companionship. And she can rip your heart out one moment, then slam you into the chair the next. I love music like this.

"Barricades And Brickwalls" is her 2nd US album, released in 2001. Start with songs like "If I Were You", "Crossfire" and "Not Pretty Enough", and go from there. You'll be wanting to hear more, I guarantee it.

More research

Friday, October 7, 2011

Bang! Neil Diamond shoots a bull's-eye

I've been a fan of the early Neil Diamond for a long time. Note that I say "early." After he went to Columbia in the early '70s and began cranking out soft-rockin' smoothies for the Jonathan Livingston Seagull self-help crowd - not a fan so much! But his early work for Bang Records was pretty awesome.

A little history: Bang was a New York label whose name was actually an anagram of the first names of its owners, who were Bert Berns, a talented producer for Atlantic Records, Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, his brother Nesuhi Ertegun, and Atlantic's top gun producer Jerry (Gerald) Wexler. They'd had a lot of early hits with The Strangeloves, The McCoys (with a young Rick Derringer) and had re-invented Johnny Cymbal (remember "Mr. Bass Man"?) as Derek and had a hit with a song called "Cinnamon". Van Morrison's first U.S. solo release after disbanding Them was on Bang, and it was a killer - "Brown-Eyed Girl".

Diamond was just a songwriter at the time, and not a particularly good one, but he was friends with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, two of the hottest songwriters of the '60s, and they convinced the Bang boys to record Neil. It seems that when Neil wrote songs for other people, they were just mediocre, but when he wrote songs for himself - they were spectacular. "Cherry, Cherry" was a huge radio hit, and his career took off from there.

Diamond cut a total of 23 tracks for Bang from 1966 - 1968, when he departed for MCA's new Uni. label. Of those 23 cuts, about half were original songs, and they were amazing: "Solitary Man", "Cherry, Cherry", "Kentucky Woman", "Shilo", "Thank The Lord For The Night Time"... great stuff.

"Neil Diamond: The Bang Years" is the first-ever collection on CD of Neil's Bang masters in their original mono versions, cut for 45-RPM release and unsullied by overdubs and other strings-n-things that got added to some of the stereo album versions. It's a really great collection with a lengthy booklet written by Neil telling his own story of what it was like to be a hitless songwriter living on a shoestring in 1960s New York, and I was pleased as punch to find it at my local Fry's. A truly great collection of music, and one I will be playing in the Studebaker quite a lot while I drive around :)

For further research:
The Bang Records Story
Neil performing "Cherry, Cherry" on "Where The Action Is", 1966
   (the lip-synching is awful, but it's cool to see Neil doing his stand-up on location)
Promo video for "The Bang Years" collection

Monday, October 3, 2011

Con Funk Shun: or, I'm somewhat ConFunked

So you know I'm a huge fan of Soul music, Funk, Jazz-Funk fusion, etc. And back in the day, Con Funk Shun was one of those groups that got the nod from a lot of folks, but never really got any radio play aside from "Ffun", their one and only hit to cross over Top 40. And "Ffun" was a great song - all backbeat and horns, and with an undeniable hook that drove deep into the ol' cortex.

Con Funk Shun was signed to Mercury in the '70s, at the height of that label's pre-Polydor R&B greatness. A lot of great R&B acts were signed to Mercury's black music division in the '70s, with artists like the Bar-Kays, Bohannon and the Ohio Players pumping out the groove on a non-stop basis. So why was I so unfamiliar with Con Funk Shun? I snagged a copy of "The Best Of Con Funk Shun", part of UMG's "Funk Essentials" series, to do a little more research.

What I figured out after listening is that Con Funk Shun never really crossed over like groups like the Gap Band, P-Funk or Lakeside did was because - how to put this nicely? - their music was generally B-list. Let's be clear: for a group with the word Funk in their name, this best-of is surprisingly heavy on soul ballads. They're very nice soul ballads, something I would expect from, say, late-period Commordores (after Walter Orange had given up trying to get Lionel to be funky) or James Taylor-era Kool & The Gang, but let me repeat... not funky.

Or maybe the problem is that the anthologizers at UMG didn't do their homework. A little research turned up some monstrously funky tracks that the compilers inexplicably left off, like 1979's "Chase Me" and "Touch," from their 1980 Lp of the same name. Seems the guys at Universal forsook the Funk in favor of the silk, and that's too bad.

However, "Ffun" is undeniable, and  "Got To Be Enough" is the followup dancefloor Top 40 hit that should have been. And "(Let Me Put) Love On Your Mind" could have been a really awesome New Soul track, the kind radio embraced from LeVert or Atlantic Starr. But no one was paying attention.

Conclusion: if you want some great laid-back California soul, you'll like this disc. But if you got to get your groove on, there's just not enough fried stuff here.

Links for more research:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Disco-Trek: where dance grooves meet Star Trek?

With an album title like Disco-Trek, you might figure it's William Shatner singing "I Will Survive", or something. Truth is, this album from 1976 is more about Philly soul than disco.I first learned about this album from Richard Christgau, who wrote music reviews for the Village Voice throughout the '70s and '80s. He was not effusive, but then Christgau was never known as much of a soul fan, so it figures.

Here's the story: flash back to 1975, and disco is just taking off in the East Coast clubs. Record companies are scrambling to ride the wave, and the big guys at Atlantic asked themselves "what have we got in the vaults already that could be considered 'disco'?" The answer was: not much. But they forged ahead anyhow, and liberated a set of undeservedly underexposed tracks from the vaults, gave the multis to Tom Moulton, a recording engineer who'd made a name for himself by taking tracks others had made and mixing them over again. Yes, Tom Moulton was the guy who invented the Remix. Although unlike today's remix DJs, Moulton's trick was to remove elements from the mix and insert the stripped-down instrumental results into the original mix of the record. He was 35 when this record was made, and he was already the king of the New York club mix scene - and a white guy, too.

The tracks that Atlantic gave Moulton to work his magic on were not ones that were well-known. And for us, that's fortunate, since the soul gems contained here are pretty special in their own right; hearing them remixed and extended is a true joy. Being a Philly boy himself, he did the work at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios, run by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the owners of Philadelphia International Records.

Clyde Brown. Killer song...
There are some standout songs here. The first one that kicks your butt is "You Call Me Back" by Clyde Brown, a soul man who'd cut a few tracks with Thom Bell, he of Delfonics, Spinners and Stylistics fame. Along with Gamble and Huff, Bell was the foremost proponent of the Philly sound, and he was at the top of his game when Brown cut this track: it sounds like a lost Spinners side. Moulton's extended mix plays up the Philly groove to the max, with emphasis on the big orchestral setting and tight horn charts so prevalent in Bell's work. (Brown waxed a few more sides for Atlantic, but never hit solo, although he became part of the reconstituted Drifters during their '70s European revival. He's still gigging around Cincy and Cleveland.)

Next there's a remix of one of Blue Magic's lesser-known tracks, "Look Me Up." I'm convinced that this song was not a hit simply because Blue Magic had become typecast as a ballad band, but this is an uptempo cut that cooks from the get go, produced by Norman Harris of WMOT fame.

There's an early Sister Sledge single that never made it to an album. "Mama Never Told Me" is pure soul bubblegum, but it's an early Anthony Bell song; Bell went on to write hits for artists as diverse as Jill Scott, Vivian Green, Teddy Pendergrass and the O'Jays.

Then there's Jackie Moore's "Time" and The Sweet Inspirations' "This World", both stomping Gospel-rooted shouters, and "Got To Get You Back", a strident workout from Philadelphia cult-soul artists Sons of Robin Stone (who are rumored to be reuniting soon).

Finally, the payoff comes in the form of two insanely rare Atlantic cuts: the first from the Valentinos, nom du disc of the Womack Brothers, and the song, "I Can Understand It" is written by Bobby Womack, so you know it's first class. There's no figuring why this didn't climb the charts. The second gold strike is the United 8's "Getting Uptown (To Get Down), an instrumental actually recorded in 1972 but so close to the disco concept that it's included here; copies of the 45 go for insane prices today (when you can find them).

All in all, this is a great disc for students of Philly soul. The axis of Thom Bell, Tom Moulton and Sigma Sound made for an unbeatable combination, and repeated listenings always pay you back. In fact, I've owned this album for nearly 20 years, and just pulled it out to burn a CD from... it's that good.

Links for further investigation:
Tom Moulton Tribute Page
Thom Bell page at the Songwriters Hall of Fame
United 8 on YouTube
Clyde Brown on YouTube

Monday, September 12, 2011

James Brown's in a Cold Sweat.

There's no doubt that James Brown can rightfully be called "The Man From FUNKle." Along with Maceo Parker, Bobby Byrd and Pee Wee Ellis, he pretty much invented in the '60s the music that everyone from Sly Stone to George Clinton would amplify and popularize throughout the '70s. It was essentially uptempo soul with jazz and Latin rhythms swirled in.

If you look back, you can hear the roots of funk in JBs work as far back as 1965 with "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag."  "Cold Sweat" dates from a couple of years later, in 1967, and like "Papa" and "I Got You" and "Ain't That A Groove" it was a monster hit. Brown was on a real roll during this time, churning out record after record, most of them instant winners. And with every new 45 he pushed the boundaries just a little further, getting a little more boisterous, a little more... well, funky. And "Cold Sweat" itself was a giant piece of fatback. It was easily the funkiest thing Brown had yet cut - it sounded like nothing else on the radio.

I picked this disc up on my last trip to Vegas, during this year's NAB. Record hunting is one of the things I most look forward to when I'm in Vegas; so many people cross through there that you can find virtually everything, musically speaking. This copy is in perfect mint condition, plus it's stereo, and a first-press, so it set me back a little, but it was worth it. Old JB albums don't just turn up, you understand, at least not on this side of the country. And when they do they usually have more scratches than a club full of DJs.

But this album's a fascinating dichotomy, because for all the funky groove and stop/start staccato of the title cut, the rest of the disc is amazingly laid back. "Nature Boy"? "Mona Lisa"? "I Loves You Porgy"? WTH? Yes, James loaded up the whole rest of the disc with covers of ballads and standards. The only thing I can figure is that Brown, still feeling his way with what he called "the New Breed thing", felt that "Cold Sweat" was sooooo badass that he'd better mellow out for the rest of the disc.. But don't think that just because those songs are downtempo or standards, they're not worth hearing. JB cries, squeals and smooves his way across these songs, adding a new dimension and texture to each one.

The other possibility is that James just wanted to use up some previously cut material. You see, he'd tried to jump his contract with King records by pre-emptively recording with Smash in 1965, and when the dust settled in '67, he was back with King (at least for a few more years) - but there were a ton of songs he'd cut before he tried to exit stage left. And some of these were them.

This album has been reissued a couple of times; first in the '80s by Polydor UK and available as an import; then as a Japanese CD with the mastering errors of this vinyl release (re-channeled stereo, reversed phase tracks) corrected. It's still amazing music, even 45 years later - it simply a shame that the record companies in Brown's own birthplace don't see fit to make it available.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ear to Ear. It's about music 'n stuff.

Well, this blog has been a long time coming. I have been a music lover since I was a little kid, and got through high school by listening to AM Top 40 Radio and buying second- and fifth-hand 45s from the thrift store near the bus stop. They sounded awful, but the music was amazing.

I played those records on an old Montgomery Wards Airline turntable record changer scavenged out of someone's old console stereo they'd left out for the garbage man. Since it had no base, I placed its four mounting springs on Testors Paint spray cans on my dad's garage workbench, and then hid some cast-off speakers in the rafters, strung up with Zip cord, and amplified by an old Dynaco amp. Along the way I acquired an old Voice of Music quarter-inch tape deck, and I was off to the races... music and audio were in my veins.

After high school, I decided I wanted to be a radio DJ, and I did just that. I spent the next 20 years on the radio in San Diego, most of it as a station Music Director, and it was great. Along the way, I kept collecting. I wrote music reviews for local papers for a few years, too.

Somehow, I guess, I got a little carried away. I had to build a new office to hold my music. There's a wall full of vinyl Lps, a few racks of CDs, miscellaneous other junk scattered around -- oh, and the 45s, which currently live in the garage... ironically enough, on the workbench, where it all started.

Yeah, not the best picture in the world, but you get the idea. (Is it just me, or do I seem to be leaning to one side in all my photos?) Today, there's not a day goes by that I don't listen to at least one album or CD. And since I've still got the urge to write... well, here's this blog. I love soul music, funk, early rock 'n roll, '60s and '70s rock, blues, early R&B, and lately I've been developing a liking for Henry Mancini. Go figure. And like a good MD, I try to keep up with today's new stuff too as much as time permits.

So, as I listen to music new and old, I'll be blogging about it. Vinyl finds, new CDs, old stereo gear, occasional rants about Quadraphonic discs; it'll all be here. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to comment.

I saw a piece last Sunday on CBS Sunday about Glen Campbell's recent Alzheimer's diagnosis. It struck a nerve, as my mom died of Alzheimer's. It's an ugly, nasty disease that strips away the patient's humanness bit by bit, and crueller because they're ofttimes aware of it happening.

The interview prompted me to pull out my copy of The Best of Glen Campbell, issued by Capitol in 1976. Campbell was a big name in the '60s and '70s, having first been a session player known for his guitar abilities; his first album was a showpiece for his pickin'. He played on sessions for everyone from Elvis to the Beach Boys. Then he hooked up with songwriter Jimmy Webb for "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" in '67 and it was off to the races from there. He had subsequent hits with more Webb material - "Galveston" and the frighteningly good "Wichita Lineman". There was also "Gentle On My Mind," "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife" and more. He got his own TV show for a while, married Tanya Tucker... and kind of faded away.

This album reminds me just how great Campbell really was at his peak. It's got all the stuff you know on it - "Lineman", "Gentle", "Phoenix" - plus some great songs you've probably forgotten about, like Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter's "Country Boy (You Got Your Feet In L.A.)", a great version of Gordon Lightfoot's "The Last Time I Saw Her" and a forgotten hit from '73, the rockin' country-soul "I Knew Jesus (Before He Was A Superstar)". The only song it doesn't have is "Southern Nights", his last big pop hit in '77. If you see this one in a bin, snag it.

More recent info on Glen: