Jeff Crosby: Waking Days

November 25th, 2015

JeffCrosby_WakingDaysLaurel Canyon gets some twang

The Laurel Canyon-styled music heard earlier this year on Matthew Szlachetka’s Waits for a Storm to Find, gets a running mate with “City Girls,” the opening track of Jeff Crosby’s third full-length album. Though his voice is more rustic, the production – particularly the bass playing of his brother Andy – is highly reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, and particularly the song “Dreams.” It’s not the only sound swimming around Crosby’s head, as the album’s split between Los Angeles and Nashville studios adds twang to the West Coast vibe, and the solo acoustic passages, such as the intro to “Red, White and Blue,” play as singer-songwriter country.

Crosby’s voice is strong, but his songs plaintive, describing his struggle to reconnect with the evocative lyric “first day of Spring back home, and I’m just standing here like a payphone nobody uses anymore.” He wonders whether different life choices might have led to better outcomes on “I Should Be Happy,” ponders his place in the world on the album’s title track, but looks outward with the observational “The Homeless and the Dreamers.” Crosby’s material is mostly bittersweet, though he turns optimistic as he takes stock with “The Only One I Need.” The album’s canyon echoes reverberate in a pleasantly familiar way, but the songs are fresh and personal. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Jeff Crosby’s Home Page

c.o.o.p.: Everything is Stolen

November 22nd, 2015

What if Gary Lewis had grown up listening to the Descendents? It might have sounded something like this new EP from the Los Angeles-based c.o.o.p. Stream their EP below, and download for free from their website.

Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas: All-Time Greatest Hits

November 22nd, 2015

BillyJKramerWithTheDakotas_AllTimeGreatestHitsRiding the Beatles’ wake

Few British Invasion acts rode the Beatles coattails better than Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas. Not only were they managed by Brian Epstein and signed to the Parlophone label under the direction of George Martin, but more than half of their chart hits and several of their album tracks were penned by Lennon & McCartney themselves. And among the many L&M compositions, which included “I’ll Be on My Way,” “Bad to Me,” “I’ll Keep You Satisfied,” “From a Window,” “I Call Your Name” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” only the latter two were released by the Beatles. But even with this British dynamo in their corner, the group reached out to America for several hits, including the Brill Building’s Mort Schuman (and his eccentric co-writer J. Leslie “Pumpkin Juice” McFarland) for “Little Children.”

Varese’s concise, 32-minute collection (featuring an 8-page booklet with excellent liners by Jerry McCulley) includes all seven of the group’s U.S. and U.K. hits plus a handful of album tracks, non-charting singles and the shelved L&M tune “I’m in Love.” It’s a fair sampling of the group’s wares, stretching from their 1963 cover of “Do You Want to Know a Secret” through their last hit, a fine take on Bacharach and David’s “Trains and Boats and Planes.” Among the riches delivered by the British Invasion, the group’s recordings weren’t the most revelatory, but with such strong material to draw upon, a sweet lead voice and talented instrumental backings, they remain quite charming. There are deeper helpings and album reissues of the group’s catalog to be had, but for many, this taste will be just right. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Billy J. Kramer’s Home Page

Dr. John: The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974

November 21st, 2015

DrJohn_TheAtcoAtlanticSinglesThe singles that led to Dr. John’s brief mainstream fame

As an artist primarily known for albums and live performance, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most ardent Dr. John record collectors being able to name more than two or three of his singles. “Right Place Wrong Time” comes easily to the mind of anyone who was around for its original run up the chart to #9. But other than that, what? Well, it turns out that several of Dr. John’s iconic album tracks – “Iko Iko” from 1972’s Gumbo and “Such a Night” from 1973’s In the Right Place – were also released as singles, though neither had the chart success of “Right Place Wrong Time.” So that’s three. And yet, during Dr. John’s stay on Atco and Atlantic, he actually released a half-dozen more singles, all of which are collected here – A’s, B’s and alternate flips, along with several UK- and promo-only sides.

One has to wonder who Atlantic thought was going to play these singles; particularly since they didn’t often differ greatly from the album cuts prefered by FM. “Iko Iko” was trimmed by a minute, “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” was trimmed and split into two parts, and “Wang Dang Doodle” was excised from the Mar Y Sol concert album, but the rest seem closely aligned with the albums. Of interest to collectors will be a few rarities offered here, highlighted by “The Patriotic Flag Waver.” On this 1968 single, presented in the long mono promo cut, Dr. John manages to combine a children’s chorus, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” social commentary and New Orleans funk. Even more rare is Dr. John’s guest appearance, alongside Eric Clapton, on the original 1972 single version of labelmate Buddy Guy’s “A Man of Many Words.

The collection pulls together Dr. John’s singles, EP and promo-only sides, and both B sides of “Oh, What a Night,” which featured “Cold Cold Cold in the U.S. and “Life” in the U.K. Presented in roughly (though not strictly) chronological order, the singles tell the story of Dr. John’s early years as the Night Tripper, his ex-pat Los Angeles edition of New Orleans soul, and his brief intersection with mainstream fame. It’s an unusual lens to place on the career of an artist better known for albums and live performances, but as a quick look at his seven years on Atco, it’s surprisingly good. The albums are out there to be had, but hearing the years compressed into a generous 71 minutes is a worthwhile trip. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Dr. John’s Home Page

Denny Lile: Hear the Bang – The Life and Music of Denny Lile

November 18th, 2015

DennyLile_HearTheBangA sad, brilliant gem of early ‘70s singer-songwriter country

Talent and hard work aren’t always enough. They can pave the path, but fame is at the end of a road pockmarked with “timing” and “connections” and “luck.” And though hard luck provides grist for the artistic mill, it can also keep a career from catching fire. Such was the case for Louisville singer-songwriter Denny Lile, whose talent, ambition and artistic brilliance weren’t fully rewarded by the popular recognition they deserved. Other than a song turned into a 1987 Top 10 Waylon Jennings hit (“Fallin’ Out”), Lile’s music, including this long-lost 1973 solo album, were consigned to virtual obscurity. His hometown renown brought feelers from New York and Nashville labels, but the sensitivity that made his songwriting so touching also fueled the alcoholism and self-doubt that sabotaged his career.

Lile wended his way through a number of Louisville bands, including Soul Inc. and Elysian Field, before striking a deal for this solo album. At only twenty-two years of age, his voice was decades older, with the weary, wary confidence of someone who’d logged more miles on his soul than his feet. His singing offered elements of Jim Croce’s melancholy, Gram Parsons’ grief, and, unusually in this company, Neil Diamond’s power; but even among those monumental touchstones, it was the candid voice of his lyrics that really stood out. Backed by guitar, fiddle, steel, dobro and a tight rhythm section of bass, drums and piano, Turley Richards’ productions of “Hear the Bang” and “If You Stay on Solid Ground” garnered a well-deserved offer from Hilltop Records; but while Turley was selling the single in New York, Lile signed with the local Bridges label, in a deal that would haunt him to his 1995 death.

Bridges’ distribution agreement with Nashville’s Starday-King did little to help the single or subsequent album gain traction, and both disappeared without much more than local notice. It’s hard to imagine in this hyperconnected, digital age that an album this good could vanish so completely, but Lile’s deal had surrendered both the recordings and his song publishing, and as the accompanying DVD documentary explains, it took more than four decades to untangle the rights and find the tapes. Once revived, the tapes revealed productions that are crisp and spacious – the sort of record that made your mid-70s stereo system shine – and performances that hold listeners in thrall with their confused and wounded heart. And that heart, Lile’s heart, was worn quite visibly on his sleeve as he sings of loving, leaving and being left.

Lile found that fading love doesn’t always fade evenly, and that its slow decay may not even be noticed until realizations are past due and apologies are rejected. Resignation to sad truths permeated Lile’s life, and in turn, his best songs. It led him to recoil from opportunity and sabotage possibilities for success. By the time his solo album was ready he said “Every time I’ve tried to get out of town – with Field, with Soul – something’s gone wrong. Every time I turn around an older musician is telling me his plan for making it. But nothing so far has worked. I think it’s better not to plan.” That feeling of futility suffused his songwriting, even as he spent years honing his lyrics and melodies to perfection.

The productions include many terrific touches, including congas on “If You Stay on Solid Ground” and phased fiddles on “Rag Muffin,” and there are several optimistic songs of love on the horizon (“She’s More to Me Than a Friend” and “After All”) and in full bloom (“Oh Darling” and “Rag Muffin”). But it’s the sad songs that will haunt you, especially after you’ve viewed the accompanying biographical documentary. “Will You Hate Me When I’m Gone” offers a prophetic echo as Lile’s daughter speaks of his passing, and “After All” could be a memo from Lile to himself as he sings “so tell me how you’re feeling today, tell me if I got in your way.” As the documentary shows, Lile’s alcoholism often got in his way as the industry tried to help him capitalize on his talent.

Lile had a knack for sabotaging himself, starting with his momentum-killing solo contract, and extending through numerous fumbled opportunities. Worries about his marriage and his duty as a father – a hangover from his parents divorce – kept him from touring, and a chance to play FanFest in 1973 fell prey to one-too-many nerve-calming drinks. Follow-up meetings with Waylon Jennings’ staff also suffered from the rough shape in which his alcoholism often left him. Even an accident that landed him in the hospital with broken bones and a lacerated liver didn’t deter his drinking. His world narrowed to a home studio purchased with the royalties from Jennings’ single, and then to a custom van in which he lived the last few years of his life. He died alone in the van, estranged from his family, at the age of 44.

Lile’s one stroke of luck came twenty years after his death, when former bandmate Marvin Maxwell bought the production company that owned Lile’s album. That led Lile’s nephew Jer to send a copy of the album to Fat Possum’s Bruce Watson, who immediately put this reissue in motion. The album stands as a lost classic, but fleshed out by Jer’s documentary interviews with family, friends, bandmates and industry associates, the package draws a picture of an artist more interested in art than fame, and a writer whose fragility and sadness were simultaneously his muse and his downfall. Big Legal Mess’s reissue includes five bonus tracks recorded during the album session, the DVD documentary and an eight-page booklet, all of which adds up to one of the year’s best vault discoveries. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Jeanne Jolly: A Place to Run

November 14th, 2015

JeanneJolly_APlaceToRunBlue country soul from talented Raleigh, NC singer-songwriter

Raleigh, NC singer-songwriter Jeanne Jolly has a voice that you could only be born with. A naturally rich instrument whose nuances were brought out – rather than boxed – through classical voice training. There’s nothing mannered in her expression as she soars through the eight new recordings – and seven original songs – of her latest solo release. Produced by her longtime collaborator Chris Boerner and self-released on Jolly’s Ramblewood imprint, the album shows the sort of care and sophistication one can layer into projects that don’t have a major label’s commercial ambitions loitering in the control room.

The eight-piece studio band includes pedal steel player Allyn Jones, keyboardist James Wallace, Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan, and Megafun’s Phil and Brad Cook. Together they explore country, soul, and even a bit of Memphis with the horn chart and solace of “Gypsy Skin.” Jolly’s vocals reach past the notes (which for someone of her abilities, are table stakes) to hit every emotion dead center. She soars from intimacy to strength in a single note as she wrestles with the fatalism of “California” and declares her need on “Boundless Love.” The latter’s soulful background vocals – all supplied by Jolly – are particularly mesmerizing.

Whether or not her writing is autobiographical, Jolly’s songs of rekindled memories (“Matches and Gasoline” “Circles in the Sky”), rediscovery (“Without You”) and admiration (“Good Man”) ring true. It’s rare to hear someone with such technical control turn notes blue without feeling as if they’re calibrating just how blue to let them turn. But Jolly sings from an emotional place and her voice responds to what she’s seeking to express; it’s the sort of connection between soul and voice you hear in the singing of Patty Loveless, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, and well worth hearing for yourself. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Jeanne Jolly’s Home Page

Buck Owens: Buck ‘Em! Volume 2 – The Music of Buck Owens (1967-1975)

November 13th, 2015

BuckOwens_BuckEmVol2A stellar second chapter of the Buck Owens catalog

With the wealth of terrific material included on the first volume of Buck ‘Em!, a second volume had a high mark to reach. But by splitting the sets by era – 1955-67 for the first set, 1967-75 for this set – this second collection is no second helping. Volume one established Owens’ Bakersfield legacy, while this second chapter shows how he extended his reach, responded artistically to changing times, and used his commercial success to free himself of commercial restrictions. As on the first set, these two discs include hit singles, well-selected album cuts, and a sprinkling of tracks previously unreleased in the US. And also as with the first set, the liner notes are cannily drawn and craftily assembled from Owens’ like-titled autobiography, giving the artist an opportunity to expound on his own work.

By 1967 Buck Owens was one of country music’s biggest stars, having landed eight albums and twelve singles at the top of the charts in only four years. He kicked off 1967 by expanding his fame internationally with a concert in Japan and its subsequent chart-topping album. This set picks up later in the year with sessions that produced “Sweet Rosie Jones,” the like-named album, and the title track of what would become 1970’s You Mother’s Prayer. For the first time since Owens began his streak of hitmaking, the drummer’s throne was occupied by Jerry Wiggins, in place of the departed Willie Cantu. “Rosie,” “Let the World Keep On a Turnin’” (sung with Owens son, Buddy) and “I”ve Got You on My Mind Again” all charted Top 10, but it took “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass” to get Owens back to the top spot.

Throughout 1968, Owens expanded his reach, recording the Latin and polka-styled instrumental album The Guitar Player (represented here by “Things I Saw Happening at the Fountain on the Plaza When I Was Visiting Rome or Amore”), adding Don Rich’s fuzztone guitar to “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass,” and teaming up with Susan Raye for “We’re Gonna Get Together.” The latter, recorded in 1968 wasn’t released for two years, which hints at Owens’ incredible productivity. 1968 found Owens playing a command performance for President Johnson at the White House, represented here by “Tiger By the Tail,” and also marked the departure of steel player Tom Brumley, who was replaced early the next year by JayDee Maness. Maness would leave by year end, leaving Owens without a steel player in the band.

1969 started similarly to 1967, with an international tour that yielded the live album Buck Owens in London and the chart-topping single “Johnny B. Goode.” Live recording continued to be a regular feature of Owens’ catalog, with “Big in Vegas” (a rewrite of Terry Stafford’s “Big in Dallas”) and “Las Vegas Lament” recorded live in Las Vegas, and “Tall Dark Stranger” recorded in Scandinavia. 1969-70 saw many more changes for Owens, including a move from Capitol’s famed Los Angeles studio to his own place in Bakersfield, the arrival of keyboard player Jim Shaw (who’s terrific live piano playing can be heard on “I’ll Still Be Waiting for You”), and perhaps most importantly, Hee Haw. The latter, initially a CBS network show, provided the sort of financial compensation that records rarely did, and it freed Owens to chase his musical muse without lashing it to commercial considerations.

1970-71 saw Owens in the Top 10 with “I Wouldn’t Live in New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Dang Town),” a cover of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the title track from the bluegrass album Ruby, but it wasn’t until 1972 that he returned to the top of the charts with “Made in Japan.” Musically, Owens had moved well beyond his Bakersfield Sound, but his writing and voice, particularly the latter, provide a surprisingly straight line through his entire catalog. The twang of steel guitar rejoined the band in 1972 with the arrival of Jerry Brightman, but before he came on board, Ralph Mooney added his stellar playing to “Arms Full of Empty” and “Ain’t It Amazing, Gracie.”

Owens’ records through the mid-70s never regained the chart performance of his earlier releases, but there were still plenty of excellent albums and singles, including Gene Price’s “Something’s Wrong” and Owens’ “In the Palm of Your Hand,” the latter highlighted by Don Rich’s fiddle. Even more important was an album track that would be remade into a huge hit fifteen-years later, Homer Joy’s “Streets of Bakersfield.” The original is more sedate than the chart-topping remake Owens recorded with Dwight Yoakam, but it provided the template for the hit. Owens returned to the Top 10 in 1973-74 with a string of upbeat novelty songs, “Big Game Hunter,” “On the Cover of the Music City News” and “Monster’s Holiday,” but his mirthful side was about to go into hibernation.

In July, 1974, Don Rich, was killed in a motorcycle accident, and Owens fell into a deep depression. He’d continue to record and release records, but the latter-half of the ‘70s found his singles failing to make much of an impact on the charts. His last Top 10 single for Capitol, “Great Expectations,” was also the last to feature Don Rich. By 1981, Owens had turned his attention to his many successful business ventures, and he began a hiatus from the charts that lasted until “Streets of Bakersfield” and Dwight Yoakam reinvigorated his interest in recording and performing. In the mid-90s he built the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, where he’d regularly perform to enthusiastic crowds and broadcast live over his own KUZZ radio.

Omnivore’s 2-CD set was remastered by Michael Graves, making this both a well-curated collection and the best reproduction of these tracks yet on CD. The 28-page booklet includes full-panel photos (including a great shot of Owens laying down the vocal for “I Wouldn’t Live in New York City” on a New York City sidewalk), and album cover reproductions. The track list includes eight recordings previously unreleased in the US: an alternate take of “Darlin’, You Can Depend on Me,” a stupendous outtake of Owens singing “Today I Started Loving You Again” with soul singer Bettye Swann and members of the Wrecking Crew, an early version of “Down in New Orleans,” and outtakes of “He Ain’t Been Out Bowling With the Boys” and “A Different Kind of Sad.” This is an essential companion to the volume one, and a must-have for any Buck Owens fan. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Buck Owens’ Home Page

The Soulful Strings: The Magic of Christmas

November 11th, 2015

SoulfulStrings_TheMagicOfChristmas1968 Chicago soul with strings, finally on CD

The Soulful Strings are surprisingly little known, given the relative success of their first few albums. Their origin lay somewhere between Chess label owner Leonard Chess, producer Esmond Edwards, and arranger Richard Evans, but the project’s voice and artistic success lay squarely with the latter. Working with Cadet studio players, including Charles Stepney, Lenard Druss, Bunky Green, Phil Upchurch, and Ronald Steele, Evans fashioned superb, soulful music that wove together a string section and jazz players without artifice or novelty. The strings lent an orchestral weight to the solid funk of the band, broadening the tonal palette without losing the music’s essential swing.

Although the group released six studio albums and a live set, only their second album, Groovin’ with the Soulful Strings (#59 Top LPs, #6 R&B, #2 Jazz) has seen previously licensed for digital reissue, and then only in Japan. The Evans-composed single “Burning Spear” (#64 Hot 100, #36 R&B) has turned up on compilation albums and been widely sampled, but the bulk of the group’s catalog remained locked in the vault, tied up in vagaries of commercial potential, much to Evans’ frustration. Evans would continue on to arrange and produce for many other artists, and he spent twenty-five years as a much-loved professor at Berklee, but the red tape tying up Soulful Strings’ reissues vexed him to his passing in 2014; no doubt this reissue of the group’s fourth album would have made the best possible Christmas present.

The album’s song selection mixes traditional Christmas songs, classical pieces and a few jazz and R&B titles. Along with the studio regulars, Evans added vibraphonist Bobby Christian (a talented percussionist who’d been a mainstay of Dick Shory’s ensembles) and harpist Dorothy Ashby, the latter of whom Evans had signed and produced for three albums with Cadet. Ashby solos alongside flutist Lenny Druss on an arrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy” whose beat is equally stoke by the bass, drums and cellos. Ashby and Druss provide the swirling flakes for Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall,” and Ashby’s harp takes the lead on a bluesy rendition of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby.” The vibraphone provides mood throughout the album, but it’s turned loose for a pair of high-energy solos on Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.”

In addition to strings, woodwinds, percussion, horns, bass and drums, Evans employed congas and even Ron Steele’s electric sitar. His arrangements span the minor key string fantasy of “Deck the Halls” to a funky take on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” highlighted by the outstanding cello work of Cleveland Eaton. The funk continues to reign on “Jingle Bells,” with drummer Morris Jennings and guitarist Phil Upchurch joined by what’s credited as a French horn, but what sounds like an oboe (either way, most likely played by Lenny Druss, who could apparently play anything with a mouthpiece or reed). Christian’s vibes provide a suitably warm lead for Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song,” and the album closes with flute and vibes leading the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.”

Richard Evans was a scholarly, studious and dedicated artist, but he also had a terrific sense of swing and a fun sense of humor (check out the melodic quote of “La Marseillaise” in “Jingle Bells”). Together with his studio crew, string section and a few talented guests, he put together a Christmas album that celebrates the season in a truly original fashion. This album plays well with holiday titles from Charles Brown, Jimmy Smith, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and label sets by Atco, Motown and Verve, but these arrangements and performances have a magic all their own. For next Christmas, let’s hope Real Gone puts on the red suit again and brings the rest of the Soulful Strings’ catalog in their bag. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

RIP: Allen Toussaint

November 10th, 2015

Allen Toussaint, 1938-2015

Have you ever noticed southern skies?
Its precious beauty lies just beyond the eye
It goes running through your soul
Like the stories told of old

Raging Fire: Everything is Roses – 1985-1989

November 8th, 2015

RagingFire_EverythingIsRosesMid-80s post-punk from the heart of country music

From a vantage point on the West Coast, Jason and the Nashville Scorchers seemed to be an anomaly – a rock band from Nashville – and when they dropped “Nashville” from their name, the connection between Music City and native-born rock music grew even more tenuous. But the Scorchers turn out to be both the nationally known emblem of and an inspiration for a lively Nashville rock scene that was broader than the mating of country and punk. A less widely known darling of that scene was Raging Fire, whose mid-to-late ‘80s catalog is sampled for this 22-track anthology.

Fronted by vocalist Melora Zaner, Raging Fire could pull back and give hints of their Nashville origins, but the band’s dynamic rock ‘n’ roll rage was more in line with the barking poetry of Patti Smith, post-punk of X and new wave studio sounds of the 80s, than southern rock or country twang. Even the band’s acoustic numbers, such as “After Loving One Man From East Texas,” have some bite. Had they been in San Francisco or Los Angeles, or five years later in Olympia, things might have been different; but as it played out, they attracted attention from record labels, but never closed a deal.

The group toured the midwest and south, and gained college radio play for their EP A Family Thing and album Faith Love Was Made Of. The former is included here in its entirety, the latter sampled alongside demos and tracks drawn from compilation albums. Without a label deal, the band’s momentum stalled, the members’ lives moved in different directions, and the group drifted and broke apart. With this first-ever reissue, it’s still hard to imagine this music coming out of Nashville, but even harder to imagine there wasn’t one label who could get this band signed. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Raging Fire’s Home Page