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: