Various Artists: On Top of Old Smoky – New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music

August 23rd, 2016

Various_OnTopOfOldSmokyReviving the music of 1930s Appalachia

In the late 1930s, as those living on the land that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were leaving (some voluntarily, some forcibly) their homesteads, farms, mines and logging camps, folklorist Joseph Hall collected field recordings of their dialectical speech and music. Selections from those aluminum platters and acetate discs were first released by the Great Smoky Mountains Association on 2010’s Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music [1 2]. Six years later, the GSMA has commissioned contemporary performances of twenty-three traditional Appalachian songs and popular material that had made its way into the mountains via commercial recordings.

The new recordings use of fiddle, guitar and banjo lends the performances the sort of informal backporch feel that Hall captured with his original field work. Ted Olson’s liner notes provide a brief history of the national park’s foundation, detail on Hall’s research, brief song notes and lyric transcriptions. The material includes fiddle tunes, ballads, blues, children’s songs, rags, harmony duets, yodels, westerns and sacred songs. The range of music that was created in the isolated hollars of the Smokies is truly impressive, and these new performances add links to the folk music chain. Dolly Parton and Norman Blake are the name artists, but the entire cast does this music proud. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Great Smoky Mountain Association’s Home Page

The Turtles: All the Singles

August 19th, 2016

Turtles_AllTheSinglesComplete collection of singles – the hits and well beyond!

Although the Turtles had a parallel life as album artists, it was their singles that first reverberated in listeners’ ears. Starting with a 1965 cover of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” the group navigated folk-rock and harmony-laden pop to the top of the charts with 1967’s “Happy Together.” They scored nine Top 40 hits and five Top 10’s, all of which are included in this more-than-complete recitation of their singles. “More than,” because the full slate of commercial 45s is augmented by unissued singles, and sides released under nom de plumes. Tieing it all together is a 20-page booklet decorated with record label and picture sleeve reproductions, and stuffed with encylopedic (and microscopic) notes by Los Angeles music historian Andrew Sandoval.

The hits include titles written by Dylan, P.F. Sloan (“Let Me Be” and “You Baby”), Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon (“Happy Together,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “You Know What I Mean” and “She’s My Girl”) and Jim McGuinn and Gene Clark (a radically reimagined version of the Byrds’ “You Showed Me”). But they also wrote their own hits (notably 1968’s “Elenore”), as well as a host of fantastic low-charting singles and B-sides that ranged from folk to sunshine pop to garage rock to psychedelic and progressive rock. The band’s reach wasn’t always evident on their hits, but their lower-charting singles and flipsides tip the even greater breadth of their albums.

That same inventiveness led the group to reimagine Kenny Dino’s “Your Maw Said You Cried” as a Dave Clark 5-styled rave-up, and Vera Lynn’s WWII-era “We’ll Meet Again” (a song that had been renewed in the mid-60s consciousness by Dr. Strangelove) as Lovin’ Spoonful-styled good-time music. They stretched themselves even further with original material “Rugs of Woods and Flowers,” “Sound Asleep,” and “Chicken Little Was Right.” The latter’s sitar arrangement differs greatly from the album track, making this single version unique. B-sides were often given to artistically rewarding material, such as Warren Zevon’s “Like the Seasons,” rather than throwaways (though there are the Red Krayola-styled freakout “Umbassa the Dragon” and Brian Wilsonish “Can’t You Hear the Cows.”).

While some of their A-sides may have been ill conceived commercially as singles, others simply failed to gain the response they deserved. Sloan & Barri’s deliciously sweet “Can I Get to Know You Better” has all the hallmarks of a Turtles’ hit, yet struggled to only #89, Nilsson’s “The Story of Rock & Roll” was scooped by a same-week release from the Collage, and three Ray Davies-produced singles from Turtle Soup failed to cracked the Top 40. Ditto for the beautiful “Lady-O.” There are several B-side gems, including Warren Zevon’s “Outside Chance” and the original “Buzz Saw,” that managed to find their own form of popularity – the former as a favorite of the Beatniks, Sounds Like Us, Bangles and Chesterfield Kings, the latter as a much loved break-beat sample.

The set’s bonuses include two singles that never saw release. First is the original 1966 mono single of Goffin & King’s “So Goes Love,” and its Al Nichol-penned B-side “On a Summer Day.” Though the former was included on 1967’s Golden Hits, and the latter on 1970’s Wooden Head, the mono single mixes are previously unreleased. The second is an early version of the Ray Davies-produced “How You Love Me,” featuring Howard Kaylan on lead vocal. Additional rarities include a horn-free single mix of “Making Up My Mind,” the holiday single (as The Christmas Spirit) “Christmas is My Time of Year,” a cover of Lee Andrews and the Hearts’ “Teardrops” (released as the Dedications), its unreleased B-side cover of Jan & Arnie’s “Gas Money,” and the promo-only “Is It Any Wonder.” Also included are unlisted tracks at the end of each disc featuring period Turtles-sung commercials for Pepsi and Camaro.

Having bought their White Whale masters at auction, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman have issued this set (along with a parallel set of the Turtles’ albums) on their own FloEdCo label. The love they have for this material shows in the attention to detail, and in the extensive song notes Sandoval elicited from Kaylan, Volman, Al Nichol and Jim Pons. The two discs and 20-page booklet are packed in a tri-fold slipcase. All tracks are mono except for #16-21 on disc two, and as Sandoval notes, the mono sides are especially revealing for 1968-69 when the albums were stereo only. Taken together with the previously unreleased and promo-only material, this is an absolutely essential companion to the album collection. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Turtles Home Page

Sonny & Cher: Good Times

August 16th, 2016

SonnyAndCher_GoodTimesSonny & Cher’s soundtrack outshines their film

The most notable element of Sonny & Cher’s 1967 film Good Times wasn’t the duo’s move into acting, the skit-based humor or even the meta-conceptual plot of a movie about making a movie. The film’s most lasting contribution to the arts was the introduction of William Friedkin as a mainstream director. Friedkin had been directing documentaries, but it was this collaboration with Sonny Bono that launched his feature filmmaking career. The film is an interesting lark, capturing mid-60s mood, design and a bit of artistic ennui, but without the acidic bite of Head. The original eight-song soundtrack gave Bono a chance to stretch out, and added several excellent titles to the Sonny & Cher catalog.

Leading off is a waltz-time instrumental version of the duo’s signature “I Got You Babe,” a title that appears again at the soundtrack’s end in a fetching acoustic arrangement. In between is Sonny’s perfectly self-deprecating “It’s the Little Things” in all its proto-Spectorian grandeur, its B-side Cher showcase “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” the sultry B-side “I’m Gonna Love You” (originally released as a Cher solo on Imperial in 1965), and several songs lifted from the soundtrack with lead-in dialogue. The latter include the stage-hall styled title tune and another of Sonny’s self-deprecating, average-guy love songs, “Just a Name.”

The bonus tracks include the single “Plastic Man” and its B-side edit of “It’s the Little Things.” The latter shortens the album track by dropping the middle stanza of the refrain. Earlier reissues have included only the edited version, so the full album take turns out to be the real bonus. Varese has used the true mono master, unlike One Way’s 1999 reissue, and though quite listenable, the fidelity still isn’t the best that the era offered. Friedkin’s original liners are included alongside new notes by Larry R. Watts, rounding out an obscure entry in Sonny and Cher’s catalog, but one that harbors several top-notch tunes. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Cher’s Home Page

The Well Wishers: Comes and Goes

August 7th, 2016

WellWishers_ComesAndGoesThe glories of a one-man power-pop band

Although the Well Wishers present themselves in plural, they are, or it is, or he is Jeff Shelton. After a decade with Spinning Jennies, Shelton ventured out on his own, all alone in the studio with the magic of multi-track recording. The results have the singular vision of a singer-songwriter, but the dynamism of a band. Think Paul McCartney’s and Emitt Rhodes’ eponymous albums, Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything and Richard X. Heyman’s Hey Man. The hard-charging rhythm guitar and stacked vocals of “Impossible to Blame” bring to mind the Posies and the melody of “Come Around” suggests XTC. You can hear influences of Shoes, 20/20 and others, but Shelton’s romantic anguish is as original as his melodic hooks – rooted in something familiar, yet fresh. On “Ill-Equipped” he repeats the perfectly discouraged tagline “I don’t have what it takes to be alone,” which may be true in matters of the heart, but clearly not so in the studio, where he flourishes by himself. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Well Wishers’ Facebook Page

The Explorers Club: Together

August 6th, 2016

ExplorersClub_TogetherAs if there was a missing late-60s Beach Boys album

This Charleston-bred, Nashville-resident band continues to be the foremost exponent of the Beach Boys sound. But not the surf-and-drag singles-sound of the Beach Boys c. ‘63-’64, but rather the album sounds of Brian Wilson’s growing compositional depth of ‘65-onward. Add dashes of Burt Bacharach, Curt Boettcher and Paul Williams, and you have a sense of the group’s sophistication. Few have so thoroughly imbibed the sunshine that flowed through Brian Wilson in the mid-to-late-60s as Explorers Club vocalist, songwriter and arranger Jason Brewer. When he sings “’California’s Callin’ Ya’,” you can hear Wilson’s imagery calling the South Carolinian like a sea siren. The harmonies are lush and warm, the arrangements multifaceted, the album cover an homage to Friends, and the indie record label – Goldstar – a direct allusion to the craft Brian Wilson laid into everything he produced. The spot-on evocation of late-60s Beach Boys might appeal as a parlor trick if it weren’t so beautifully crafted and so incredibly heartfelt. You can’t help but smile as this music washes over you like a warm summer wave. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Explorers Club’s Home Page

Shane Alexander: Bliss

August 5th, 2016

ShaneAlexander_BlissCalifornia singer-songwriter spans acoustic folk and canyon pop

After five solo albums, and earlier records recorded with Young Art, Damone and the Greater Good, singer-songwriter Shane Alexander has self-produced his most sonically fetching work yet. The sparseness of 2013’s Ladera can still be heard in the opener, with Paul Simon-styled finger-picking and a double-tracked vocal that suggests Elliot Smith. But the album quickly expands beyond acoustic folk with the second cut’s driving drums and atmospheric piano and steel, echoing 1970s canyon rock with a melancholy lyric of haunted memories and a memorable chorus hook. And melancholy turns into panic as a relationship dies in the power ballad “Hold Me Helpless.”

Alexander can be abstract as he introspects his history and surroundings. “I Will Die Alone” is lined by moments in time, but they’re connected weigh-points rather than a linear narrative, and the allusional “Nobody Home” has the rhythm of pursuit for its fractional imagery. Alexander’s bliss may be in the act of observation rather than the observations themselves, but he shines a lovelight on “Heart of California,” pledging his undying gratitude for the state’s inspirational bounty. His greatest bliss, however, was likely the chance to record in his own studio, allowing his songs to unfold without a meter running. For those who haven’t met Shane Alexander, this is a great introduction. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Shane Alexander’s Home Page

Matthew Szlachetka: Heart of My Hometown

August 5th, 2016

The first single from Matthew Szlachetka’s upcoming album adds a hint of John Mellancamp’s heartland sentiment to Szlachetka’s California canyon rock. Produced by David Bianco, who’s worked with Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams, and featuring Doug Pettibone, Kevin Savigar, Shiben Bhattacharya, Derek Brown and Dave “Mustang” Lang. A nice taste of what’s coming early next year!

Mark Erelli: For a Song

August 2nd, 2016

MarkErelli_ForASongNortheast singer-songwriter returns with a strong set of originals

It’s been six years since Mark Erelli released a new set of original material. In that time he’s played with Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter and Paula Cole (the latter of whom appears on two tracks here), recorded two albums with Barnstar, and released Milltowns in tribute to Bill Morrissey. Rather than taking on a coat of solo songwriter rust, Erelli’s pen has been refilled by the hiatus. His singing voice is still reminiscent of Paul Simon, but these gentle electric productions show the time off was spent sharpening his already sharp songcraft.

The album opens solemnly with a northerner’s loneliness amid the midwest’s wide-open spaces, contemplates the day’s emotional harvest and the next day’s challenges, and mulls over the existential questions that lay in the twilight. He venerates the extraordinary of the everyday in the know-how of a fixit man (“Analog Hero”), a contemplative janitor (“Look Up”) and a Dutch busker (“Netherlands”). The details of his descriptions are extraordinary, and the galloping lyric of “Wayside” demonstrates his talent for shaping words into music.

His facility is equally well spent in poetic observations of a river’s destiny (“French King”) as it is in a meditation on aging (“Magic”) or love song (“Hourglass”). And his voice fits as easily into acoustic guitar laments as full-band arrangements. He’s accumulated numerous songwriting awards over the years, but as the title of his latest album attests, his greatest reward is in writing and performing songs. This collection he takes his already estimable talents to an extraordinary new level. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Mark Erelli’s Home Page

Tommy Womack: Namaste

July 27th, 2016

TommyWomack_NamasteA songwriter finds his center

Brushing up against death will make you philosophical. Or at least that’s the impact it’s had on songwriter Tommy Womack, whose 2012 recovery from near-fatal addiction and 2015 recovery from a life-threatening car accident has deepened his introspection, magnified his gratitude and optimism, and sharpened his sense of humor. All are on full display in this new collection of songs, essaying everything from wry takes on aging to blunt confrontations of faith and death.

The album opens with hope and wit in “Angel” and “Comb-Over Blues,” before turning to a Lou Reed-styled monotone for “End of the Line.” The latter reflects on the heightened awareness of mortality brought by recovery’s second chance, and segues seamlessly into the Dylan-ish “It’s Been All Over Before.” That second chance is met head on in “I Almost Died,” a harrowing first-person account of a drug-fueled near-death in which Womack recreates an addict’s obstinate dependence on “almost.”

Now in his fifties, Womack’s more sanguine about bad times, drawing from them an ability to see his own beliefs in context. He stacks his religious views against Christian history in the twangy country shuffle “God III” and his beat poem “Nashville” is a love letter to a city of contrasts, one in which songs are written by appointment and swapped in informal songwriter nights. He closes with the optimism of “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” a sentiment that’s knowing rather than naive, and a fitting cap to stories of hard-earned lessons. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Tommy Womack’s Home Page

Velvet Crush: Pre-Teen Symphonies

July 22nd, 2016

VelvetCrush_PreTeenSymphoniesThe genesis of a rock classic

Although Paul Chastain and drummer Ric Menck recorded a number of singles as Choo Choo Train, Bag-O-Shells and The Springfields, they first came to wider notice as Velvet Crush with 1991’s In the Presence of Greatness. Critics and fans latched on, but it wasn’t until they released 1994’s Teenage Symphonies to God, with U.S. distribution by Sony, that they made their biggest splash. Three years and a change of producers (Mitch Easter replacing Matthew Sweet) between the two albums left a gap bridged by a few singles and an EP. The post-album afterward yawned even wider as the band mostly parked themselves, recording with Stephen Duffy, and didn’t re-emerge as Velvet Crush until the release of 1998’s Heavy Changes.

Omnivore’s sixteen-track collection helps fill the gaps, offering up Teenage-era demos and live performances. The first eight tracks cherry-pick demos previously released on the out-of-print Melody Freaks. Included are early versions of six album tracks, plus the otherwise lost “Not Standing Down,” and a cover of Three Hour Tour’s “Turn Down.” For listeners whose neurons have been organized by repeated spins of Teenage Symphonies to God, the demos provide an opportunity for renewal. You know these songs, but then again, you don’t. The pieces are there – lyrics, melodies and guitars – but not the final polish; but what the demos give up in nuanced construction they redeem in initial discovery. It’s the difference between a candid snapshot and a posed portrait – they each say something about the subject, but they also say something about each other.

Mitch Easter helped the band wring more out of their songs, and while the demos provided templates for the master takes, the album cuts provided the same for the live performances. The eight live tracks, recorded in a November 1994 opening slot at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro (and previously released on Rock Concert), show the band to be a ferocious live act. With Tommy Keene added as lead guitarist, the band goes all out to win over the crowd with their thirty minute set, and as Ric Menck said, “we got ’em by the end.” No small feat, considering they were opening for the Jesus and Mary Chain and Mazzy Star. The live set includes numbers from both Teenage Symphonies and Presence (“Window to the World” and “Ash and Earth”) and a closing cover of 20/20’s “Remember the Lightning.” This is a terrific companion to Teenage Symphonies, and an essential for the album’s fans. [©2016 Hyperbolium]