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.

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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.

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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 ;)

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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.

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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.

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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.)