John Denver: Leaving on a Jet Plane

May 18th, 2019

John Denver’s pre-superstar years as a pop folkie

Six years before John Denver catapulted to fame with 1971’s “Take Me Home Country Roads,” he was a hard working folkie on the Los Angeles club scene. In 1965, when Chad Mitchell left his eponymous folk trio for a solo career, Denver survived the audition process to assume the group’s leadership. The new lineup issued a pair of studio albums and a live set on Mercury, and when the last original member, Mike Kobluk, left the group, Denver carried on with recent addition David Boise and the newly added Michael Johnson, as Denver, Boise & Johnson. The latter trio released only one single, Denver’s “Take Me to Tomorrow,” but recorded additional material, of which three previously unreleased selections are included here.

The Mitchell Trio’s legacy of humor is heard in the 1967 single “Like to Deal with Ladies as Sung in the Shower Accompanied by a Twenty-Seven Piece Band,” as well as a live performance of “He Was a Friend of Mine.” The latter, stretching to nearly eight minutes, finds Denver intertwining smart-aleck stage patter with an audience sing-along and the trio’s superb harmonizing. Denver’s early years found him writing several of his most beloved songs, including “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” originally self-released in solo form as “Babe, I Hate To Go (Leaving On A Jet Plane).” The retitled song is offered here in both a poorly conceived, band-backed studio single, as well as a beautifully sung acoustic live performance from 1967.

Denver, Boise & Johnson’s single “Take Me to Tomorrow” is a terrific up-tempo original, while it’s B-side, “‘68 Nixon (This Year’s Model),” sung in barbershop harmony, carries on the satirical social criticism of the Mitchell Trio. The set includes three previously unreleased tracks from Denver, Boise and Johnson, including superb vocal arrangements of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Tom Paxton’s “Victoria Dines Alone,” and a 1968 take on Denver’s “Yellow Cat” that’s more sedate than the version recorded for Rhymes & Reasons. The disc closes with the unison singing and banjo of “If You Had Me in Shackles,” capping a set that highlights the folk roots that preceded Denver’s transformation into a “far out!” ‘70s superstar. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

John Denver’s Home Page

Roy Oribson: Unchained Melodies

May 18th, 2019

Second set of Orbison vocals set to new orchestral arrangements

After two volumes that set Elvis Presley’s voice to newly constructed instrumental backgrounds, producer Nick Patrick did the same for Roy Orbison with 2017’s A Love So Beautiful. In Orbison’s case, Patrick’s arrangers often found themselves reimagining existing string arrangements on the grand scale of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and here they do the same. With the original records as templates, the arrangements echo some of the existing percussion and melodic motifs, but with Orbison’s vocals as the guide (rather than, as in the case of Orbison’s original recordings, the vocals either being sung with or over the instrumental backings), the arrangements are more studied and constructed in their support.

As on the first volume, some tracks fare better than others, though here the song selection and Orbison’s original vocals are bigger variables. The arrangement for “Unchained Melody” seems to grow organically from Orbison’s vocal, while the strings of “Blue Bayou” fill in the space that gave the original its lonesome air. More recent material, such as the posthumously released “Heartbreak Radio” and “Careless Heart,” haven’t the hook of engrained familiarity to boost them up, and album tracks such as Orbison’s 1961 cover of “The Great Pretender,” weren’t among his greatest performances. That said, the mid-charting “Crawling Back,” low-charting “Walk On,” and the UK hit cover of the Orioles’ “It’s Too Soon to Know” are welcome rediscoveries.

While not as surprising as the first volume, nor as strong in song selection (particularly in its generous helping of material from the last stage of Orbison’s career), it’s still interesting to hear these songs reimagined (though it’s not clear anyone needed to reimagine “Heartbreak Radio” twice, including the album closing rendition with contemporary country artist Cam added as a duet vocalist). None of these reworked versions replace the originals, but if you’ve listened to those classics thousands of times, this gives you an opportunity to hear something new in the familiar. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Roy Orbison’s Home Page

Johnny Shines: The Blues Came Falling Down – Live 1973

May 11th, 2019

A bluesman who’d retained the vitality of his youth

The music industry’s history is littered with talent that never managed to intersect popular acclaim, and such might have been the story of bluesman Johnny Shines, if not for a sideline as a photographer and a chance encounter with Howlin’ Wolf. Shines started gigging in the early ‘30s, and toured with Robert Johnson for several years, but recordings made for Columbia and Chess were consigned to the vault, and the few sides released on J.O.B. didn’t make a dent in the market. By the mid-50s Shines had withdrawn from performing and turned to the construction industry, but a sideline photographing Chicago club patrons put him in touch with Howlin’ Wolf, and in turn secured him a half-dozen tracks on Vanguard’s influential 1966 anthology, Chicago/The Blues/Today, Vol. 3.

Upon its release, the Vanguard album sparked the renown that circumstance had denied Shines for two decades. He recorded albums for several independent labels and toured the international blues circuit to wide acclaim before a stroke in 1980 sidelined him for several years. This 1973 performance, professionally recorded in the acoustically friendly Graham Chapel at Washington University in St. Louis, finds Shines in peak form. His guitar playing is crisp, nimble and deeply informed by decades steeped in the blues. At 58, his voice was still strong and supple, showing no signs of age, and his touring experience shows in a powerful command of the stage.

The set combines original material with a few songs by Robert Johnson, with the latter’s “Sweet Home Chicago” igniting the audience’s hand clapping. Shines largely performs solo, though he’s joined by Leroy Jodie Pierson on second guitar for three selections. He casually tunes and strums while providing song introductions and philosophical thoughts, often easing himself seamlessly into a song. His guitar playing offers a master class in the blues, but his singing is equally impressive in its nuance and emotion. The torchy “You’re the One I Love” and troubled “Tell Me Mama” are particularly mesmerizing, with the latter highlighted by Shines’ slide playing. This is a vital performance by a performer thoroughly enjoying the recognition of his history and rediscovery. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

The Everly Brothers: Studio Outtakes

May 11th, 2019

Alternate takes from the Everly Brothers hit-making years on Cadence

Among early rock ‘n’ roll acts, the Everly Brothers’ catalog is one of the most thoroughly documented. In addition to album reissues and greatest hits collections on numerous labels, Bear Family has issued three omnibus box sets (Classic, covering the ‘50s, and The Price Of Fame and Chained To A Memory, covering their years on Warner Bros.), along with two themed compilations (Rock and The Ballads of the Everly Brothers), a two-disc reissue of the classic Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, and a one-disc “mini box” titled Studio Outtakes. That latter disc, featuring 36 illuminating alternate studio takes from the brothers’ Cadence-era sessions, including 26 that were not included on the Classic box set. Studio Outtakes fell out of print and is reissued here in a jewel case with a 34-page booklet that’s slimmed down from the original issue’s 64-pages.

Unlike the multi-disc Outtakes volumes on Johnny Cash, Billy Riley, Gene Vincent, Johnny Tillotson and Carl Perkins, or the grey market two-volume Cadence Sessions, the conciseness of this single disc doesn’t require slogging through the repetition of false starts, incomplete takes and a half-dozen alternates of the same title. The multi-disc outtakes sets make a nice addition to a collector’s archive, but this 79-minute single disc is the more musical experience, playing as a well-curated compilation of hits, B-sides and album tracks with the twist of alternate takes. The evolution heard in these alternate takes offer listeners a peek inside the Everly Brothers creative process, and for the most familiar songs, an opportunity to relive a bit of the experience of hearing them for the first time.

What’s truly impressive is how quickly, and seemingly easily, the Everlys struck up their brotherly chemistry in the studio. First takes of “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Bird Dog,” “Bye, Bye Love,” “Claudette” and “Wake Up Little Susie” hadn’t always settled on the vocal lines or instrumental accompaniment that would turn the song into a hit, but you could hear the magic building, particularly in the brothers’ magnetic harmonies. The differences are often subtle changes in rhythm, harmony, tempo, accompaniment, instrumental balance or production effects, offering an aural lesson in the tweaks a producer and artist make as they search for a hit. For example, the softening of the vocal attitude between takes 1 and 5 of “All I Have to Do Is Dream” finds the song evolving into its dreamy final form, while tempo, lyric and key changes differentiate takes 3, 5 and 7 of “Poor Jenny.”

Rather than arranging the disc with multiple takes of the same song side-by-side, the producers have curated the track list for spinning from beginning to end. The mix of hits and lesser known sides plays like an album, with one song segueing thoughtfully into the next. The selection of material is complemented by the high quality of the original recordings, Jürgen Crasser’s mastering, Andrew Sandoval’s liner and song notes (along with quotes from Phil and Don Everly) from the set’s original 2005 issue, and numerous candid and promotional photos. As a behind-the-scenes look at the Everlys’ recording process, this set is hard to top; fans who want to dig deeper into the Everlys’ methods should also check out the songwriting demos featured on Varese Sarabande’s 36 Unreleased Recordings from the Late ‘50s and Early ‘60s. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Jimbo Mathus: Incinerator

May 9th, 2019

The healer lays hands on himself

The laying on of spiritual hands offered up on 2016’s Blue Healer is now turned inward, with a dramatic album that finds Mathus moving from guitar to piano, and enriching his musical brew with space. Space for the vocals and lyrics, and space for instrumental backings that aren’t exactly spare, but often stray from the thick gumbo of his earlier albums. He ranges easily and authoritatively through Americana, folk, country, R&B, rock and electric swamp, turning his lyrics inward to explore the underpinnings of his own artistic life. The songs often drift into being, as though Mathus is gathering his thoughts as he addresses the microphone; he’s relaxed, confident and intensely present as he reveals himself. There’s an immediacy in this approach that casts a new light on his earlier records, suggesting they may have been more of an outward manifestation of the internal truths he mines here.

Some of these personal revelations are delivered directly in the lyrics, but elsewhere, such as the title track, poetic images are rendered with expressive singing and backed by instrumentals that essay mood rather than narrative. The basic revelation of “Really Hurt Someone” is heightened by intense violin runs and vocal dynamics that suggest Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” The drifting piano and backing chorale of “Been Unravelling” add a meditative counterpoint to a palpably lonely vocal – as if Joe Cocker was fronting the Friends-era Beach Boys. Mathus turns to an R&B groove for “Sunk a Little Loa,” swampy electric blues for “Alligator Fish,” trad-jazz for the story song “Jack Told the Devil,” boozy C&W on “South of Laredo,” and tips his melodic hat to Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” on “Sunken Road.”

The album’s lyric sheet reveals how Mathus reduced his words to increase focus. The songs are typically three or four minutes in length, but with lyrics that may be only ten or twelve short lines. Instead of traditional verse/chorus, he lets emptiness have its say, highlighting what’s said by not saying too much. “Never Know Till It’s Gone” lays out its lament in eight lines, surrenders its sorrow and longing to an instrumental interlude, and repeats itself for good measure, and the closing cover of A.P. Carter’s “Give Me the Roses,” offers an insight illuminated so clearly as to belie its intellectual depth. The latter is emblematic of the album’s offer of deep, almost subconscious thoughts brought to the surface to be mulled over in the explicit light of day. This is a powerful new approach for Mathus, one that his fans will find both emotionally and intellectually captivating. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Gordon Lightfoot: The Complete Singles 1970-1980

May 8th, 2019

Thirty-four A’s and B’s from Lightfoot’s hit years on Reprise and Warner Brothers

Gordon Lightfoot wore many hats as a musician. Initially signed to United Artists in the 1960s, he subsequently arrived at Reprise as a songwriting album artist, where he spun off a series of hit singles that included “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and many others. His international commercial success cooled a bit after moving to Warner Brothers and releasing 1978’s Endless Wire, but he remained popular in his native Canada and on the concert circuit. Real Gone’s thirty-four track anthology collects Lightfoot’s singles from 1970’s “Me and Bobby McGee” through 1980’s “If You Need Me,” including several hard-to-find single edits and mono mixes, but leaving out the latter part of his run at Warner Brothers. Lightfoot’s music was typically grounded in singer-songwriter folk, but the productions variously add a backing band and singers, strings and even pedal steel, all without distracting from the emotional directness of his lyrics and vocals. With remastering by Mike Milchner at SonicVision, new liners by Richie Unterberger, and the pairings of A- and B-sides, this is an interesting alternative to a standard greatest hits package, and a treat for Lightfoot’s longtime fans. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Mitch Woods: A Tip of the Hat to Fats

May 8th, 2019

Paying tribute to Fats Domino at the Jazz & Heritage Festival

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting stage for pianist Mitch Woods and his hand-picked New Orleans Rocket 88’s band than the Jazz & Heritage Festival’s blues tent. Though he was born in Brooklyn, and came of musical age on the West Coast, his New Orleans influences flow through him as he consecrates the stage with jump blues, boogie-woogie and swing. Woods and his musical colleagues are deep in their element, and their element is deep in them, swinging tightly through both original material and covers of Wynonie Harris, Clarence Garlow, Hank Williams, Jackie Brenston & Ike Turner, and as the album’s title signifies, Fats Domino.

Woods opens the set with his own “Solid Gold Cadillac,” with drummer Terence Higgins quickly setting everyone’s toes tapping and the three-piece horn section flexing its muscle. Woods exhorts the audience to acknowledge the band as he rolls out the boogie-woogie piano and sings with infectious joy. The saxes offer both punctuation and hot solos, including a stellar outing by the legendary Roger Lewis on a rousing cover of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” Guitarist John Fohl adds sizzling licks and the rhythm section alternately lays back in second-line grooves and spurs the band forward.

Woods is both studied and artful as he pays tribute to Professor Longhair with the original “Mojo Mambo,” and tips his hat to Fats Domino with the Imperial classics, “Blue Monday” and “Walking to New Orleans.” The audience responds with enthusiastic appreciation throughout the set, and Woods’ song intros add context to the deep dish helping of entertainment. There’s clearly nowhere else that Woods, his band and the audience would rather be than sharing this music with each other; and after listening, you may find yourself booking a ticket to the next gig. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Mitch Woods’ Home Page

Leo Bud Welch: The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name

April 20th, 2019

Posthumous album from an 80-something blues unicorn

Born in 1932, the Mississippi native Welch turned seventy-two years of music making into three years of worldwide fame. Welch was essentially both an elder statesman and an 81-year-old rookie when he released 2014’s Sabougla Voices. He soon found himself feted on festival stages around the world, released a second album in 2015, I Don’t Prefer No Blues, and was the subject of the 2018 documentary, Late Blossom Blues. Welch’s fame may have come late, but the authenticity of his gospel and blues was deeply appreciated by all those who heard him play and sing. Welch passed away in 2017, but not before recording more than two dozen songs with Dan Auerbach in his Nashville studio.

Auerbach produced and played guitar, bass and even drums on the opening track, alongside a revolving cast of additional musicians. The songs are drawn from the traditional gospel catalog, though unless you’re deeply steeped in the genre, most of these titles will be new to you. The raw vitality of Welch’s guitar and voice remained unaffected by his fame or age, and were deeply ingrained by the six decades of music making that preceded his public acclaim. The band is flexible, as electric guitar, bass, drums, organ and backing vocals support and frame Welch in arrangements that aren’t always as juke joint raw as his previous albums. This is a terrific last testament from a one-of-a-kind gospel blues talent. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Timothy Leary: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out (The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

April 17th, 2019

Rare 1967 acid-trip guide with an east-west musical soundtrack

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting album for an acid guru than a soundtrack to a film that no one’s seen, and that some speculate was never shown. A like-named film reportedly documented the first LSD trip of psychologist, and Leary’s fellow Harvard psychedelic researcher Ralph Metzner; but on record, Leary’s acid-journey guidance is accompanied by a blend of eastern and western instrumentation that includes guitar, tablas, the sitar-like veena, voices, chanting, sound effects and studio manipulations. Originally released in 1967 by the Mercury label, the album’s essence was further fuzzed by a 1966 release with the same title, but different content.

The earlier album’s spoken word ruminations on drugs, philosophy and religion are put into practice here, as Leary guides Metzner to let go of his consciousness limiting baggage – “the chess game of [his] life” – so as to fully embrace the mind expansion that lay ahead. Leary leads Metzner to focus on the metaphysical as the backing sounds flow in nameless and timeless patterns, and he bids Metzner to “float beyond fear.” Leary’s acid guru recitations are buoyed by the backing music and sounds, and Leary’s fourth wife, Rosemary Woodruff, echoes Leary and provides additional guidance.

The profundity of Leary and Woodruff’s acid insights likely depend on the level of your intoxication, but whether you now find them serious or silly, they prove to an interesting artifacts. The backing tracks are mostly placed behind narration, but the music is interesting, with “Freak Out,” “Re-Entry”and “Epilogue” suggesting the trip the instrumentalists might have taken on their own. Primarily a period piece, there is something truly entrancing about this album. It’s not something you’ll put on your iPod for the gym, but you might pull it down form the shelf to freak out your friends or enjoy a simulated trip. Real Gone’s 2019 limited edition reissue was dropped on “kaleidoscopic” multicolor vinyl for extra psychedelic effect. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

 

Pearl Harbor and the Explosions: Pearl Harbor and the Explosions

April 16th, 2019

Early ’80s San Francisco new wave

Pearl Harbor and the Explosions was a short-lived new wave band that developed a club following in their native San Francisco music scene. Led by Pearl E. Gates (formerly of Leila and the Snakes), their debut single on the local 415 Records label was helmed by then-neophyte producer David Kahne, and begat an album deal with Columbia. This full-length debut, produced by Kahne at the Automatt, has a crisp sound that almost borders on brittle, but highlights the pop and progressive angles of the band’s music. New versions of the 415 single’s songs (“Drivin’” and “Release It”) were produced alongside a promotional video, and released as a Warner Brothers single that garnered regional radio play.

Though poppier than 415 labelmates like Translator and Romeo Void, there’s a funky new wave Dance Rock undercurrent that suggests contemporaries like Missing Persons. The songs are filled with easily loved hooks, and Harbor’s singing foreshadows the rockabilly sass that would enamor Clash bassist Paul Simonon, and fuel her solo follow-up, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too. Blixa’s reissue augments the album’s original nine tracks with seven bonuses, including the non-LP flip “Busy Little B-Side,” the original 415 Records single, and a trio of live tracks from 1979.

The live material, featuring covers of Nick Lowe’s “Let’s Eat,” the Sparkletones’ “Black Slacks” and Ron Woods’ “I Can Feel the Fire,” shows off the dynamism that established the band as a popular local act. The album scraped the bottom of the Billboard chart, and though the label seemed interested in a follow-up, artistic tensions within the band blew things up. Harbor moved to England and waxed her solo album, the rhythm section hooked up with Chrome, and later with guitarist Henry Kaiser, and guitarist Peter Bilt worked with producer and Automatt owner David Rubinson. In under two years the group had formed, signed a deal, released a record and disbanded, leaving behind few traces besides this catchy album. [©2019 Hyperbolium]