Kinky Friedman: The Loneliest Man I Ever Met

October 2nd, 2015

KinkyFriedman_TheLonliestManKinky Friedman returns to the studio, but not to songwriting

For rock music fans of the 1970s, Kinky Friedman was the oddest of guilty pleasures. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen had drawn many to roots music with “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and then burrowed into the stonersphere with “Seeds and Stems (Again).” This led many listeners to country and folk, and with Friedman’s 1973 debut, Sold American, humor, satire and pathos, often at the same time. Even the names – “Kinky” and “Texas Jewboys” – implied a level of irreverence that didn’t prepare listeners for Friedman’s perceptiveness. His broad, comic approach often obscured the deeper layers on first pass, but his resolutions always turned out to be parable rather than punch line.

Following a trio of 1970s albums, Friedman released a 1983 solo effort, Under the Double Ego, and then turned to novel writing (with sides of politics and distilling) as his main occupation. He still performed, released a few live sets, and dropped in on his own tribute album, but it’s been 32 years since his last full studio collection. Other than the previously unrecorded title track (co-written with Tim Hoover, and dedicated to Tompall Glaser), the song list is all covers, selecting songs with special resonance from the catalogs of Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Lerner & Loewe. The latter, “Wand’rin Star,” was originally written for the stage musical Paint Your Wagon, and turned into a surprise UK hit single by film actor Lee Marvin!

At 70, Friedman’s voice sounds more aged than the decade-older Nelson’s as they duet on the opening “Bloody Mary Morning.” But that same weathering conveys a lifetime of wisdom gathered between Friedman’s 1970s originals of “Lady Yesterday” and “Wild Man From Borneo” and today’s covers. Friedman cannily interprets “A Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” more as a hushed confession than Tom Waits’ Satchmo-inflected original, and he returns Zevon’s “My Shit’s Fucked Up” from its mortal ending to the lyrics’ original lamentation of aging. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica adds a mournful sound to several tracks, including a properly haggard rendition of “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.”

These quieter, low-key performances offer an uninterrupted helping of Friedman’s introspective and empathetic sides, and the song selections – particularly the closing pairing of a show tune and a popular standard – reveal a streak of nostalgic sentimentalism. An album of covers provides insight into a songwriter’s tastes and influences, but it’s not a substitute for fresh reflections on today – and today’s society could really use a helping of Friedman’s audacious wit. Hopefully, this studio project will have been sufficiently enjoyable to spark a new round of songwriting. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Kinky Friedman’s Home Page

Tommy Keene: Laugh in the Dark

September 20th, 2015

TommyKeene_LaughInTheDarkTommy Keene has never sounded better

When last we met Mr. Keene, on 2013’s Excitement at Your Feet, he displayed unerring taste in cover songs, and a knack for applying his own sound without obscuring the sources. Two years later he’s back with a new set of original songs, and while the covers album left Keene to write this album from scratch – no leftover material and no jump-starting a return to the studio with a resurrection of an earlier work – the album builds on both his trademark sound, and his sojourn through other people’s songbooks. Keene’s guitars and vocals have never sounded better, and the overall mood of the album retains the irrepressible excitement of early works like Places That Are Gone.

Keene has never shied away from his primary influences – the Beatles, Byrds, Big Star and Who – but even his earliest records sounded distinctly like Tommy Keene, rather than his forerunners. The title track may make you nostalgic for Big Star’s “Feel,” but the reference creates a new, shared experience rather than a retreat to the origin. The same is true for the echoes of “Dear Prudence” in the six-and-a-half minute closer, “All Gone Away,” with Keene’s guitars and John Richardson’s drums stretching out as if they’re jamming side one of Abbey Road to a close. Thirty years of record making has sustained, but not really changed Keene’s approach, making this a must-have for longtime fans and a great starting point for newbies. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Tommy Keene’s Home Page

Various Artists: Groove & Grind – Rare Soul ‘63-’73

September 18th, 2015

Various_GrooveAndGrindRareSoulAstonishing collection of rare soul singles

Those who miss the tactile pleasure of holding an album cover, or even reading the relatively microscopic copy of CD booklets, are likely to break out in a wide smile when they first heft this collection. The four discs are housed in a hard-bound 127-page book that’s stuffed with striking artist photos, label reproductions and detailed song notes by author and journalist Bill Dahl. And all of that is in service of an expertly-curated collection of rare soul sides that stretch from 1963 through 1973. Collections of this magnitude can be as exhausting as they are exhilarating, but by gathering singles from a variety of labels, and organizing them into four themed discs, the programs flow more like a crowd-pleasing jukebox than the well-curated anthology at the set’s heart. Even better, by mating obscurity with quality, every track becomes both a surprise and a delight.

These discs are stuffed, clocking in at nearly five hours of music. Disc 1 surveys urban soul from the major markets of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Los Angeles. Disc 2 focuses on vocal groups, disc 3 on southern soul, and disc 4 on funkier sounds. The roster mixes well-known and obscure artists, but even in the case of famous names, the sides are not likely the ones you know. Betty LaVette’s “Almost,” Ike & Tina’s “You Can’t Miss Nothing That You Never Had,” Kenny Gamble’s “Hard to Find the Right Girl,” Candi Staton’s “Now You’ve Got the Upper Hand,” Betty Wright’s “Mr. Lucky,” Eddie Floyd’s “Hey Now,” Carla Thomas’ “Every Ounce of Strength,” and Margie Joseph’s “Show Me” all suffered the same lack of circulation and chart renown as their more obscure set-mates. Even the familiar “Love on a Two-Way Street” is rendered here in the obscure Lezli Valentine All Platinum B-side that marked the song’s debut.

Finding these singles is impressive, but documenting them in such detail is a task only the most devoted fans would undertake. The material came from the collections of rare-records dealer Victor Pearlin, musician Billy Vera and the set’s producer James Austin; the audio restoration was performed by Jerry Peterson. The results are good, though the original productions weren’t often as refined as those from Stax, Atlantic or Motown. There’s occasional vinyl patina, but that’s part of the show when you dig this deep, and it never gets in the way of the songs or performances. This anthology is a tremendous gift to the crate diggers of soul music, filling in gaps they didn’t even realize were in their collections. Casual fans will dig these sides as well, even without dirt-laden fingertips from a thousand record swaps, back rooms and thrift store racks. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Margo Smith: The Very Best Of

September 14th, 2015

MargoSmith_TheVeryBestOfCountry singer’s ‘70s and ‘80s Warner Brothers hits

Margo Smith was a country singer whose career began with a self-titled 1975 album on 20th Century Fox, and the top ten single “There I Said It.” Varese picks up her story the following year, when the closing of 20th Century Fox’s Nashville division precipitated a move to Warner Brothers. She debuted on Warner with a cover of the Brotherhood of Man’s chirpy Eurovision Song Contest winner, “Save Your Kisses For Me.” Her singles see-sawed between country and pop, with “Take My Breath Away” employing steel, fiddle and a forlorn vocal that showed off Smith’s talent for blue notes and hair-raising yodels. The follow-on, “Love’s Explosion,” had double-tracked vocals and soaring strings that were closer to bubblegum than country.

The doubled vocals on Smith’s first #1, “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You,” echo Connie Francis’ 1962 original, and her follow-up chart-topper, “It Only Hurts For a Little While,” was also a cover, this time of the Ames Brothers’ 1956 hit. After a third hit cover (Kitty Kallen and Joni James’ “Little Things Mean a Lot”), Smith took a bold turn in 1979 with her original co-write, “Still a Woman,” and its thirty-something’s declaration of sexual desire. She recorded a pair of duets with Rex Allen Jr. and the homesick “The Shuffle Song,” and concluded her tenure on Warner with a cover of Mary Wells’ “My Guy.” The set’s eight-page booklet includes photos and discographical data, wrapping up a nice package for Smith’s many fans. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Margo Smith’s Home Page

Whitney Rose: Hearbreaker of the Year

September 12th, 2015

WhitneyRose_HeartbreakerOfTheYearSinger-songwriter dreams 50s twang and 60s pop with Raul Malo

Canadian singer-songwriter Whitney Rose found a kindred spirit in the Mavericks’ Raul Malo. Malo produced, added vocals, and brought along several of his bandmates to give Rose’s sophomore effort an eclectic pop-country feel. Rose shades more to the female vocalists of the 1960s than Malo’s operatic balladeering, but the slow-motion twang of the guitars works just as well on Rose’s originals as it does with the Mavericks. Her self-titled debut hinted at retro proclivities, but Malo and guitarist Nichol Robertson really lay on the atmosphere, and Rose blossoms amid tempos and backing vocals that amplify the romance of her material.

Even the upbeat numbers provide room for Rose to warble, and she tips a primary influence with a cover of the Ronettes “Be My Baby.” Interpreting one of the greatest pop singles of all time is a tricky proposition, but Rose and Malo make the song their own with a slower tempo that emphasizes the song’s ache over its iconic beat, and a duet arrangement that has Malo moving between lead, harmony, backing and counterpoint. Similarly, Rose’s cover of Hank Williams’ “There’s a Tear in My Beer” is turned from forlorn barroom misery to a wistful memory that won’t go away. Burke Carroll’s steel guitar provides a wonderful, somnolent coda to the latter, echoing Rose’s spellbound vocal.

The opening “Little Piece of You” is both a love song and a statement of musical purpose as Rose sings of crossing lines and open minds, and the arrangement uses rhythm and vocal nuances that echo country’s Nashville Sound. She writes cleverly, leaving the listener to decide if “My First Rodeo” is about a relationship, sex or a breakup. The same is true for “The Last Party,” whose forlorn emotion could be the result of a breakup or a more permanent end. The vocal waver and rising melody of “Only Just a Dream” reveals uncertainty, but Rose finally gives in with “Lasso,” turning her doubts into commitment.

Recorded in only four days, there was clearly a mind meld between Rose, Malo and the players, as the arrangements are deeply tied to the songs’ moods. There’s a bit of funk on “The Devil Borrowed My Boots Last Night” that recalls Jennie C. Riley’s “Back Side of Dallas” and Dolly Parton’s “Getting Happy.” The title track’s bass line and finger-snapping assurance suggest Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” but the song is actually a kiss-off, rather than an amatory celebration, and Drew Jurecka’s lush strings cradle Rose and Malo’s duet “Ain’t It Wise.” Released in Canada last April, this is getting a well-deserved worldwide push and some welcome stateside tour dates. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Whitney Rose’s Home Page

Nicolette Larson: Lotta Love – The Very Best Of

September 12th, 2015

NicoletteLarson_LottaLoveTheVeryBestOfSolid overview of Larson’s pop years

Nicolette Larson’s first and biggest hit, 1978’s “Lotta Love,” is surprisingly unrevealing of her bona fides. Produced by Ted Templeman, it’s smooth, contemporary pop that evidences none of the roots music that had been Larson’s metier as a backing and duet vocalist. Her work with Commander Cody, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver and Neil Young didn’t portend the horns, strings and flute of “Lotta Love.” Most pop radio listeners probably didn’t even realize that the single had been written by Young (and released on Comes a Time), or were aware of Larson’s earthier contributions to other artists’ records.

The album’s second single, Jesse Winchester’s “Rhumba Girl,” added a touch of funk, with crisp drums and horns, electric piano and flavorful percussion, but the third single, “Give a Little,” veered again to the middle of the road. The album held some deeper charms, including a stellar cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Angels Rejoice” and a sweet, if somewhat sedate take on Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” Her second album, In the Nick of Time, leaned almost completely on the crystalline production sounds of the late ‘70s, highlighted by a duet with Michael McDonald on “Let Me Go, Love,” the upbeat “Dancin’ Jones,” and the mid-tempo Karla Bonoff-penned “Isn’t It Always Love.”

And so went her next two albums, with synthesizers added to the title track of 1981’s Radioland, Linda Ronstadt adding harmonies on Annie McLoone’s “Ooo-eee,” and Larson finding a deep groove on Allen Toussaint’s “Tears, Tears and More Tears.” 1982’s All Dressed Up & No Place to Go capped Larson’s pop career (as well as her time with Warner Brothers), after which she shifted to contemporary country music. Backed in large part by Andrew Gold (as was Linda Ronstadt on several of her most iconic works), Larson’s cover of “I Only Want to Be With You” gained some radio play (charting at #53), and Lowell George’s “Two Trains” gave her another funky pocket in which to sing.

Varese’s sixteen track set samples all four of Larson’s Warner Brothers albums, including charting singles and well-selected album tracks. Also featured are duets with Emmylou Harris (an absolutely stellar version of the Carter Family’s “Hello Stranger” from Harris’ Luxury Liner) and Steve Goodman (“The One That Got Away” from his High and Outside), and Larson’s contribution to the Arthur soundtrack. “Fool Me Again.” It’s a fair sample of Larson’s pop career, but necessarily missing some strong album tracks, particularly from her debut, and reputation-minting contributions to other artist’s albums. This is a good introduction, but new fans should follow-up with Nicolette and Neil Young’s Comes a Time. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Buckinghams: The Complete Hit Singles

September 11th, 2015

Buckinghams_TheCompleteHitSInglesThe original recordings, but not the original mono singles

It took Chicago’s Buckinghams five tries to crack the singles chart. Their second single, a 1966 cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy,” bubbled under, but their fifth release, “Kind of a Drag” raced up the Billboard chart to sit in the top spot for two weeks in February 1967. The group continued to chart through 1969, with their last entry, “It’s a Beautiful Day,” creeping up to #126. In between, they clicked with four more pop icons in 1967, “Don’t You Care,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song” and “Susan,” and posted several lower-charting singles – all of which are included here – on the charts.

The Buckinghams built their initial success with six superb singles and an album on the Chicago-based U.S.A. Records label. The album was released in both mono and stereo, but the singles, which were aimed at AM radio, were released only in mono. Varese has included all six of the A-sides, but, as has generally been the case for the Buckinghams in the digital age, the less impactful stereo mixes are used. Apparently Sony (who owns the recordings) wouldn’t or couldn’t produce the mono masters. And that’s a shame, as the wide stereo mixes dissipate much of the energy conjured by the hot mono singles. Also a question mark is the last of the group’s U.S.A. singles, “Summertime,” which is offered at the album’s 3:53 length, rather than the single’s reported 2:17 edit. Perhaps only the DJ single was edited, but if so, it would have made a nice inclusion.

The group moved to Columbia Records, where they produced three albums and nine singles, the latter of which are included here, again in stereo. The one novelty among the Columbia material is an edited version of the hit “Susan.” Originally issued with a thirty-second instrumental freakout inserted by the group’s producer, the single was reissued in edited form, and it’s the latter that’s included here. Beyond the hits scored for Columbia, the group had several fine singles that charted lower or not at all, including “Back in Love Again” (which turned up the following year as a “moldy oldy” on Chicago’s Kiddie-A-Go-Go!), the bubblegum soul “Where Did You Come From,” light-psych “This is How Much I Love You” and two more non-LP sides.

Other than “Susan” (and the inclusion of “Summertime”), these recordings appear to be the same as released on the earlier Mercy, Mercy, Mercy compilation. What distinguishes this set from Mercy are the stereo mixes. When Mercy was produced, a number of tracks were remixed by Vic Anesini; Varese asked Sony for the original period mixes, and assuming that’s what they received, they’re a great addition to the group’s digital canon. The absence of original mono singles, particularly for the U.S.A. sides, merits a more accurate title for this collection, but the 12-page booklet includes rare photos and excellent liner notes by Clark Besch, and Steve Massie’s remaster sounds great. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Buckinghams’ Home Page

Continental Drifters: Drifted – In the Beginning & Beyond

September 9th, 2015

ContinentalDrifters_DriftedNot so odd odds ‘n’ sods from superb Americana collective

The Continental Drifters publicity often hung on the renown of the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson, the Cowsills’ Susan Cowsill and the dB’s Peter Holsapple, but the music and musicianship of this collective was deeper and broader than its three most famous members. Among its riches were multiple lead vocalists, stellar instrumentalists, the contributions of multiple songwriters and the forge of collective musical sensibility. The group’s formation in Los Angeles and relocation to New Orleans magnified that rich bounty of talent in a confluence that drew both from West Coast and Southern roots.

Omnivore’s two-CD set offers a wealth of rare material that will gratify the band’s many fans. Disc 1 features early material, including from their import-only debut, demos and alternate mixes. At times, the group’s early recordings sound like the Band plugging Little Feat’s instruments into Buffalo Springfield’s amps in a Los Angeles club built in Mississippi. But you can also hear the melodic echoes of the Bangles and Cowsills in Susan Cowsill’s mesmerizing “The Rain Song,” deep soul in Carlo Nuccio’s organ-lined “Here I Am,” and heart-wrenching balladry in Ray Ganucheau’s “I Didn’t Want To Lie.” This was a band with no shortage of excellent original material or musical imagination.

Disc 2 focuses entirely on the band’s way with cover tunes, collecting tracks from tribute albums (including their entire Listen Listen EP tribute to Sandy Denny And Richard Thompson), European imports and live recordings. Their taste in covers was both exquisite and broad, including material from obvious sources like Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams and Neil Young, and less obvious sources, like Tommy James (Alive and Kicking’s 1970 hit “Tighter, Tighter”), Brian Wilson (Surfin USA’s brilliant, bittersweet album track, “Farmer’s Daughter”), and William Bell (a country-harmony arrangement of Otis Redding’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”). Their multi-vocalist arrangements of “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “I Can’t Let Go” are dreamy and joyous.

Even in compilation form, with material drawn from across time, geography, lineups and projects, there’s a unity of purpose that holds this all together. It’s a testament to both the band and the collection’s producers, Pat Thomas and Cheryl Pawalski, that the group’s disparate musical interests fit together so easily and remain so timeless. The inclusion of live and cover material shows how the group’s versatility turned their shows from a mere recitation of studio material into a dynamic revue. This two-hour ten-minute collection includes a twenty-page booklet highlighted by fresh notes from the band members and detailed discographical data. This is an essential bookend to the group’s previously released albums. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Continental Drifters’ Home Page

Steppenwolf: The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection

September 3rd, 2015

Steppenwolf_ABCDunhillSinglesA treasure trove for Steppenwolf and John Kay fans

Steppenwolf’s residual radio legacy – “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” – may fairly represent their brand of hard-rocking psychedelia, but it simultaneously over-represents their otherwise modest results as a singles band, and under-represents their enormous success as an album act. These two towering hits overshadow four years of gold-selling albums and a string of mid-charting singles that deserved a bigger stage. Real Gone’s two-disc set assembles Steppenwolf’s ABC/Dunhill A’s and B’s (except for “Monster,” which uses the full “Monster/Suicide/America” album track in place of the shorter single edit), alternate B-sides, and John Kay’s solo singles into a compelling recitation of the group’s lesser known singles and adventurous flipsides.

Beyond the two big hits, a few of the groups singles remain familiar. Their second release, a funky rock cover of Don Covay’s “Sookie Sookie,” failed to chart, but gained airplay on soul stations, their chilling take on Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher” graced the opening scene of Easy Rider, and “Rock Me” closed out their top ten run in 1969. Nine more singles over the next couple of years brought some musical highlights, but only middling chart success, topped by 1969’s “Move Over.” AM radio was a big tent in the early ‘70s, and though there was still space for rock music, apparently the Doors, Who, Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin had sharper commercial elbows than Steppenwolf. But even though the group’s singles stalled midway up the charts, their albums continued to sell and their popularity as a concert draw resulted in a gold-selling live LP.

The group’s B-sides often provided more musical reach than the A’s. Goldy McJohn’s signature organ provides an ominous underpinning, and John Kay’s gruff, bluesy vocal was well spent on producer Gabriel Mekler’s “Happy Birthday,” the original “Power Play” has a Dylan-esque meter and showcases then newly-added lead guitarist Larry Byrom, snappy horns were added to the instrumental B-side “Earschplittenloudenboomer.” and the arrangement turns acoustic for the string quartet backed “Spiritual Fantasy.” There’s was also a lengthy experimental instrumental, “For Madmen Only,” which was replaced as the B-side of Mars Bonfire’s “Ride With Me” by the more conventional “Black Pit.” The top sides had their adventurous moments, including the Kustom Electronics’ “The Bag” talk box used on “Hey Lawdy Mama” and a superb take on Hoyt Axton’s anti-drug “Snowblind Friend.”

In 1972, Steppenwolf disbanded, and Dunhill retained John Kay as a solo artist. His work combined originals and covers drawn from a surprising range of sources, leading off with a heavy cover of Hank Snow’s “Movin’ On.” Kay also covered Hank Williams’ wounded “You Win Again,” Alan O’Day’s “Easy Evil” and Five Man Electrical Band’s “Moonshine (Friend of Mine).” Kay’s voice is easily recognized, but freed from the legacy of Steppenwolf’s “heavy metal thunder,” he finds resonance with Richard Podolar’s spacious and more gentle productions. The combination is particularly effective on Kay’s fine country, folk and soul-tinged originals “Walk Beside Me,” “Somebody” and “Nobody Lives Here Anymore.”

This is a terrific set for the band’s fans, with mono singles mixes used for disc one (except track 15), and nearly half of disc two (3-5, 8-9 and 14-15), and true stereo for the rest. Those seeking the band’s hits are better off with a single disc collection (or even bargain priced copies of their first two albums), but fans will really enjoy this view of the band and John Kay’s early solo work. The latter may be the set’s biggest surprise, particularly for those weaned only on Steppenwolf’s radio hits. The generous running time (77:48 for disc 1, 69:26 for disc 2), is complemented by a 24-page booklet that’s stuffed with photos and intimate liner notes by John Kay. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Steppenwolf’s Home Page

Left Lane Cruiser: Dirty Spliff Blues

September 3rd, 2015

LeftLaneCruiser_DirtySpliffBluesHeavy electric boogie blues

This Indiana boogie blues duo is now a trio with the addition of bassist Joe Bent and the replacement of drummer Bren Beck by Pete Dio. Dio’s style is more contained than Beck’s, and paired with Bent, the entire bottom end is heavier than on the group’s earlier records. Guitarist/vocalist Freddy J IV still rages away out front of the boogie numbers, his slide offering some frenetic buzz and his leads some garage blues, but the grooves mostly stay true to the two and four. ZZ Top is an obvious touchstone, along with recent minimalists like Henry’s Funeral Shoe, the Black Keys and Radio Moscow, but now with the added muscle of a full-time bassist. The guitar playing is ferocious, and the vocals and rhythm section follow suit heavy and hard. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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