The Knack’s third reunion album finds the flame still burning
After the blowback that greeted the meteoric success of “My Sharona” and Get the Knack, this Los Angeles pop quartet never fully recovered their commercial footing. Two more albums in two years, and they were gone; though not for good. They reunited for 1991’s Serious Fun, 1998’s Zoom and this final 2001 studio release. By this point the group was on its fifth drummer, David Henderson (as well as reteaming with their second drummer, Pat Torpey), but the core of lead vocalist Doug Feiger, guitarist Berton Averre and bassist Prescott Niles was still intact, as was Feiger and Averre’s songwriting, and Feiger’s youthful voice.
The material on their reunion albums had largely graduated from the leering of their early albums, and though they retained their pop sensibility to the end, they also expanded upon their power pop roots. In addition to the Byrdsian “It’s Not Me” and superb vocal harmony on a remake of “One Day at a Time,” there’s Oingo Boingo-styled post-punk in “Normal as the Next Guy,” country twang for “Spiritual Pursuit,” Steely Dan-styled jazz-pop on “Dance of Romance,” and a moody, full-on Beach Boys tribute, “The Man on the Beach.” The songs aren’t as uniformly ingratiating as the band’s previous reunion, but when they hit the pop-rock groove, they still take off.
There are few musical sounds as deeply enveloping as the Hammond B3. Whether it’s murmuring warmly, rumbling at its bottom end or stabbing percussively with notes that sound like raw alternating current, the B3 is unmistakable. The Hammond’s variable tones contrast with the imitative voices of other organs, and require both a player’s technique and an artist’s imagination to shape sounds beyond well-defined stops. Moving from piano to organ is a leap, but moving from a standard organ to a B3 requires the player to develop a personal relationship with the instrument.
Chris Foreman is a Chicago-based organist whose style descends (as do most B3 players) from the epochal Jimmy Smith, along with Jimmy McGriff, “Brother” Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Richard “Groove” Holmes and others. He’s most regularly heard at his weekly gigs at the Southside’s Green Mill and St. James African Methodist Episcopal church, and on record with the Deep Blue Organ Trio. The trio’s renown expanded beyond the Windy City a few years ago with an opening slot on Steely Dan’s 2013 U.S. tour, and Foreman ventures forward now with this new album of duets.
The organ is able to stand on its own, provide the centerpoint of trios, or add muscle to larger groups. In duet settings it needs to converse, to ensure that it doesn’t overwhelm its partner. Foreman is skilled at playing both lead and accompaniment, stepping into the initial spotlight with fleet fingers and bold chords for the opening take on Charlie Parker’s “Now is the Time.” He edges slowly into “Shake a Hand,” with a late-night groove that favors Freddy Scott over Little Richard, underlining the piano with his organ and decorating the organ with the piano’s flourishes. You can catch occasional touches of Foreman’s classical training in his fingerings, but he’s never mannered; everything he plays truly swings.
Guitarist Andy Brown and saxophonist Diane Ellis guest on several tracks, providing worthy foils for Foreman’s B3. Brown kicks off a sprightly version of Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue” before giving way to Foreman’s blue chords. Forman returns the favor as he vamps sympathetically behind Brown’s solo, and the two join together for a bridge that leads to Forman’s second variation on the song’s main theme. As someone who plays a weekly club gig, Foreman’s developed a wide-ranging repertoire, drawing upon tunes from Neal Hefti (the atmospheric “Li’L Darlin’”), saxophonist Hank Crawford (“The Peeper,” with Ellis as soloist) and Jimmy McGriff (“Doggone” and “Cotton Boy Blues”).
Session players necessarily take a back seat to the artists whose music they help create. A few, like Jerry Reed and Glen Campbell, gain their own stardom, and others, such as Motown’s Funk Brothers and the Muscle Shoals Swampers, gain renown even as their work remains seen in fragmentary measures. It’s only the rare, credit-reading fan who pieces together the full breadth of a studio musician’s work, and traces the connections of a player’s career through otherwise unconnected sessions and records. And even then, there are surprises to be learned, as album credits and studio logs aren’t always complete or accurate. Documentaries have told the stories of the Funk Brothers, Swampers and Wrecking Crew, but for every studio player who’s gained a moment in the spotlight, there are hundreds whose stories are told only through records labeled with other people’s names.
This collection tells the story of how Nashville’s session players, songwriters and producers came to collaborate on a broader stage in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. At the time, Nashville wasn’t alone in building a studio culture dependent on sidemen, but it had built one of the most effective vertically-integrated music making machines. Nashville combined writers, producers, engineers, record labels, studios and stars with a handful of A-list players whose speed and precision belied their agility and creativity. That system’s artistry was expanded by the injection of outside influences, spearheaded by Dylan’s 1966 sessions for Blonde on Blonde. In the wake of Dylan’s collaboration with Charlie McCoy, Kenny Buttrey and Wayne Moss, Nashville opened itself up to new partnerships and non-Nashville artists came looking to expand their musical horizons.
In 1969, Dylan and Cash’s mutual admiration resulted in sessions that yielded the commercial release of “Girl From the North Country” on Nashville Skyline, but they also seem to have stoked Cash’s desire to collaborate outside the Nashville sphere. Through his ABC television show, taped at the Ryman from 1969 to 1971, Cash brought numerous artists to Nashville, forging on-stage musical collaborations (such as Derek and the Dominos performance of “Matchbox” with Cash and Carl Perkins), and brokering introductions that survived the show. Most notable was Neil Young’s work with steel player Ben Keith, bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Kenny Buttrey, who can all be heard prominently on Harvest, including the hit single “Heart of Gold.”
Several pop and folk artists, including the Beau Brummels and Ian & Sylvia, found artistic renewal in Nashville, and others, highlighted by Michael Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues” (featuring the superb steel guitar of Lloyd Green), the Byrds’ “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Hickory Wind,” and Ringo Starr’s “Beaucoups of Blues” were freed to follow musical interests that had previously been held in check by various concerns. Simon & Garfunkel got sounds out of Nashville that were neither country nor what they had been producing back home. As with Neil Young’s long-term collaborative relationship with Ben Keith, Simon & Garfunkel developed a relationship with legendary guitarist Fred Carter, Jr. that continued long after they returned to recording in New York City.
The Neats were something of an anomaly within the early-80s Boston music scene – failed to hew exclusively to any of the punk, pop, roots or garage ideals of the time. Their trance-inducing rhythm guitars shared a greater resonance with the Feelies, Dream Syndicate and early REM than their Beantown brethren. They would later evolve away from this sound for 1987’s Crash at Crush, but their original musical vision was captured in a single, EP and album for the legendary Ace of Hearts label. All of that, plus a pre-Ace of Hearts track for Propeller, and four previously released post-album tracks (#19-22) are collected here for the first time in digital form.
The disc begins with the 1982 EP Monkey’s Head in the Middle of the Room, whose opening track “Red and Gray” is a microcosm of the group’s charms: electric guitars that intertwine rhythms, counterpoints and melodic overlays, a driving rhythm section that perches on the edge of anxious, and vocals that break from their post-punk passion for transcendent moments of melody. The instrumental passages aren’t as jittery as those of the Feelies, but have a similar quality, and Eric Martin’s vocal alternately punctuates the rhythm and wanders introspectively across the beat. The EP closes with the superb instrumental “Pop Cliche,” suggesting a backing track from a post-punk version of the Byrds.
The EP was voted fourth best in a strong year for pop EPs (not even mentioned in the poll are the Three O’Clock’s Baroque Hoedown, the Bangles self-titled EP and the Lyres AHS 1005), securing the group another release on Ace of Hearts. Their 1983 self-titled album (tracks 8-16 here) didn’t differ startlingly from the EP, but as the nine new tracks demonstrate, the EP’s groove was far from played out. There’s overt psychedelia in the tail end of “Sad,” and the organ of “Sometimes” and harmonica of “Do the Things” add some garage flavor, but the recipe remains largely the same as the earlier release. The album (like the EP), garnered a lot of college radio play, and the band’s tours showed how well the new material worked on stage.
Like those better known films, this 1957 entry is light on plot and heavy on musical cameos. The story involves a jukebox operator, played as a Harry Brock-styled mug by actor Michael Granger, muscling his way into a record label. Once inside, he pushes the label to cut more deeply into the artists’ action, echoing some surprisingly accurate truths of the racket’s seediest side. Along the way, the label’s star attraction skips town and discovers calypso in the Caribbean, which everyone quickly realizes is destined to be bigger than rock ‘n’ roll.
Performance highlights include lip-synched appearances by the Hi-Los, Treniers and Tarriers. A very young Joel Grey dances in an early scene, and legendary DJ Dick Whittinghill spins records in what might or might not be the actual KMPC radio studio. Perhaps the most surprising number is Maya Angelou’s back-lot Trinidadian song and dance production. Angelou had toured a club act in the mid-50s, recorded the album Miss Calypso, and performed in an off-Broadway revue from which the film borrowed its title.
It takes Greg Trooper less than ten seconds to stop you in your tracks. Accompanied by organ, upright bass and his own guitar, Trooper has only to sing his first note to grab your attention. His voice is so open, magnetic and soulfully heartfelt, that you can’t help but listen closely. It’s one thing to craft material that draws the fandom of other gifted songwriters, but delivering it with the vocal artistry it merits is often beyond even the most talented writer. But Trooper is a superbly talented singer and storyteller, and his live performances, even in recorded form, are as intimate and honest as personal conversations. As excellent as was 2013’s Incident on Willow Street, Trooper exposes even more emotional surfaces when performing his songs in front of a live audience.
Space-age bachelor pad guitar instrumentals from Snuff Garrett
Anyone who’s spent time shopping for vintage vinyl in thrift stores has come across one of Tommy Garrett’s two-dozen albums. What most of these shoppers never realize is that “Tommy Garrett” is better known as Snuff Garrett, famed producer of Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Cher and many others. As a sideline to his more renowned production work, Garrett assembled “an orchestra of guitars” to record dozens of instrumental albums, highlighted on the first two (South of the Border and South of the Border Volume 2) by the fretwork of Brazilian legend Laurindo Almeida, and in many of the remaining sessions by Wrecking Crew regular Tommy Tedesco.
These instrumentals are classic space age bachelor pad music, lushly arranged, wide-stereo productions of material drawn from the pop charts, bossa novas, sambas, exotica, film soundtracks, tin pan alley and Broadway. Although there is often a studio full of guitars strumming away, the promise of “an orchestra of guitars” is somewhat misleading, as the guitar-led arrangements also include percussion and horns. The Best of the 50 Guitars, clocking in at 33 minutes, was originally issued by Liberty in 1968, and focuses on Latin-influenced titles from 1961 (“Guadalajara”) through 1968 (“La Negra” and “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”).
The Best of the 50 Guitars Volume 2, originally a double album (and clocking in at a generous 58 minutes), was also released by Liberty in 1968. But where the first volume stuck to Latin titles, volume two broadens its selections to include the ersatz “Mexican Shuffle,” the Three Suns’ (and later, Platters’) “Twilight Time,” Bacharach & David’s “This Guy’s in Love With You,” the 1930’s waltz “Fascination,” the pop hits “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and the film titles “Lara’s Theme” and “Born Free.” All are rendered in the lush 50 Guitars style, with virtuosic lead guitars that favor Latin flavors.
The Dream Syndicate’s full-length debut represents a spectacularly quick climb to prominence. The band’s first EP (on Wynn’s own Down There label) certainly hinted at what was to come (not least of which for its inclusion of early versions of “That’s What You Always Say” and “When You Smile”), but the album, recorded only seven months after the band’s first public show, was something else again. In retrospect, the EP was the warmup, and the album was the full-on performance. When released in the Fall of 1982, the album was part of a banner year for L.A. bands, including discs from the Salvation Army, Three O’Clock, Bangles and Rain Parade. Though lumped together under the Paisley Underground banner, each band drew from overlapping but ultimately unique sets of influences.
Dream Syndicate’s roots in Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Crazy Horse and Television provided the obvious surface, but the band aimed for influence and homage, rather than slavish stylistic nostalgia, and grounded their sound in the new decade. The feedback laden guitar solos of this debut, particularly on the extended length title track, had the confrontational theatricality of punk rock, but the record’s expansiveness didn’t adhere to the two-minute ethos. Comparing the album to the contemporaneous live set The Day Before Wine and Roses, it’s clear that the group’s chemistry was that of a band that played together and fed off one another. Dennis Duck and Kendra Smith locked together as a rhythm section, providing a hypnotic backing for the penetrating, strangulated tone of Karl Precoda’s guitar.
Standing in front, pushed by the rhythm section and speared by the guitar, vocalist Steve Wynn sounded desperately engaged. His monotone was seasoned by the spittle of punk rock, and supplemented by slight, but highly effective melodic diversions that occupy their own seat in the house of Lou Reed. Early ‘80s college radio listeners are apt to remember “Tell Me When It’s Over,” “When You Smile” and “The Days of Wine and Roses,” but the rest of the album connects the dots with music that’s filled with dark, savage energy. “Definitely Clean” and “Then She Remembers” charge from the gate and never relent on their driving tempos, and the title track’s extended instrumental middle adds a harrowing new entry to the pantheon of guitar duets.
Omnivore’s reissue reconfigures Rhino’s 2001 reissue, dropping the pre-LP EP, early rehearsal tracks and a pre-Dream Syndicate single by 10 Seconds, in lieu of newly discovered vault entries. Heard here for the first time are the lengthy instrumental “Outside the Dream Syndicate” and forgotten title “Like Mary” from early 1982, the short jam “Is it Rolling, Bob?” and the complete song “A Reason,” from December 1982, and early rehearsals of Medicine Show’s “Still Holding On to You” and “Armed With an Empty Gun,” with Kendra Smith on bass. The latter two, recorded only a few months after the album, suggest what Medicine Show might have sounded like had the band not spent months recording in San Francisco for a major label with producer Sandy Pearlman.
Third time’s a charm for the Knack’s excellent 1998 reunion album
Few bands have suffered so much from their success. The Knack’s debut album, Get the Knack, and the lead single “My Sharona” each reached #1, but the resulting radio saturation, and their seemingly out-of-nowhere rise to fame created blowback that sabotaged their future commercial prospects. A number of publicity choices – cover art that mimicked the television stage set of A Hard Day’s Night, a 1960’s Capitol rainbow label design and a tight lid on interviews, didn’t help. The critical backlash was swift and strong, fueled in part by artist Hugh Brown’s “Knuke the Knack” campaign.
The band’s years of sweat equity, a fan base grown organically from gigs, and most of all, the craft of their songs were unilaterally overshadowed by the notion that they’d been manufactured and sprung on the world. But it wasn’t a gigantic publicity machine that accelerated their nationwide fame, it was the catchiness of their music, a world-class hook in “My Sharona,” and – not at all unusually for the record industry – some lucky timing. Sadly, the Knack weren’t able to take advantage of the pop renaissance they helped spark, and to this day they’re often remembered more for the backlash than their success.
The band split at the end of 1981 amid disappointing sales of their third album Round Trip, but reunited over the years for club shows and albums; this 1998 title was their second and best reunion. With Terry Bozio filling in on drums, and new material from vocalist Doug Feiger and guitarist Berton Averre, the band was re-energized. Feiger’s voice still had the tone of youth, and the band’s Beatleisms, such as the guitar figures and vocal harmonies on “Terry & Julie Step Out,” didn’t have to withstand the critical barbs of 1979. And that last point is probably the most important. Removed from their rocket-fueled fame and ensuing backlash, listeners can stop worrying and start hearing the Knack as a pop band, rather than a phenomenon.
Feiger himself seemed to be thinking about the band’s place, rather than worrying about it. The opener, “Pop is Dead,” decries the fate of pop music in the TV-saturated late ‘90s, but makes its point with actual pop music. Feiger’s Rickenbacker chimes in homage to the Searchers as the band looks to its inception with “Can I Borrow a Kiss,” and their problems with the media is echoed in Wonders-like “Mister Magazine.” The album hits for the power-pop cycle of heartbreak (“Everything I Do”), breakup (“Harder On You”), recrimination (“Smilin’” “Harder On You” “Tomorrow”) and renewal (“Love is All There Is” “You Gotta Be There”). Feiger is emotionally invested as he strains into his upper register for “In Blue Tonight” and closes the album with the psych-tinged “(All In The) All in All.”
Extraordinary live and studio material from Montgomery’s early years
Wes Montgomery’s Riverside, Verve and A&M catalogs have been reissued over the years, but previously unreleased material has been remarkably rare. Aside from Verve’s controversial Willow Weep for Me and Resonance’s Echoes of Indiana Avenue, there hasn’t been much to fill out the well-known recorded legacy. This 2-CD (3-LP) set dramatically changes the situation with a rich cache of previously unreleased live and studio recordings from Montgomery’s formative years. Among the treasures are late ‘40s sessions with Montgomery as a sideman that had been available as extremely rare 78s on the Fresno-based Spire label, home and nightclub recordings from the mid-50s, and an entire 1955 album produced by Quincy Jones.
Disc 1 is filled primarily with Montgomery Brothers recordings made at the Turf Club in their hometown of Indianapolis. Recorded in mono by hobbyist Philip Kahl, the tapes capture Wes (guitar), Buddy (piano) and Monk (bass) with saxophonist Alonzo Johnson and drummer Sonny Johnson in August 1956, and in November with John Dale on bass and vocalist Debbie Andrews sitting in for two numbers. The restored audio is clean and of good fidelity, and though the solos aren’t always given the prominence one might like, neither are they buried. By this point, Montgomery’s Gibson had already developed its distinctive tone, though the tempos have him playing with more heat than his more famous sides of the 1960s. The disc closes with a relaxed, home recorded seven-minute jam on “Ralph’s New Blues,” featuring Buddy Montgomery on vibes.
Disc 2 finds Montgomery in the company of Melvin Rhyne (piano), Flip Stewart (bass) and Paul Parker (drums) at the Missile Lounge in 1958. The quartet strikes a bluesier nighttime groove than the 1956 Montgomery-Johnson quintet, and improvises at greater length. They pick up the tempo for Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” providing Montgomery a showcase for his incredible technique. The set winds back to 1955 for five tracks from the shelved Quincy Jones session with the same hard-charging quintet that opened disc one. The disc’s final three pieces rewind to 1949, for a peek at Montgomery’s early years as a sideman. Across the two discs the set lists include jazz, swing and tin pan alley standards, alongside the Montgomery originals “Wes’ Tune,” “Far Wes” and “Blues.”
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