The Blind Boys of Alabama: Higher Ground

September 20th, 2016

blindboysofalabama_highergroundExpanded reissue of 2002 follow-up to gospel-soul breakthrough

On the follow-up to their groundbreaking Spirit of the Century, the Blind Boys of Alabama reached even wider for material, and picked up Robert Randolph & the Family Band and Ben Harper as backing musicians. Working again with producers John Chelew and Chris Goldsmith, this isn’t as surprising as the preceding volume, but affirms the direction to be a solid artistic statement, rather than just a commercial diversion. The group explores both traditional gospel material and the soul music that it inspired, the latter stretching from titles by Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin to Prince, Jimmy Cliff and Funkadelic. The electric band creates busier backings than were heard on Spirit of the Century, and they’re not nearly as sympathetic to the vocals. Omnivore’s 2016 reissue augments the original twelve tracks with seven contemporaneous live performances recorded at KCRW’s Los Angeles studio; there’s also an eight-page booklet with new liner notes by Davin Seay. This is a nice upgrade to an adventurous follow-on, but you’ll want to start with Spirit of the Century. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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The Blind Boys of Alabama: Spirit of the Century

September 20th, 2016

blindboysofalabama_spiritofthecenturyA gospel-soul classic gets a terrific upgrade

When initially released in 2001, this Grammy-winning album showed the long-running Blind Boys of Alabama had plenty of artistry left in the tank. In addition to their superb vocals and keen choice of traditional and contemporary songs (including material from the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits and Ben Harper, plus “Amazing Grace” sung to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun”), their resonance with David Lindley, John Hammond, Charlie Musselwhite and other assembled players is stunning. Producers John Chelew and Chris Goldsmith struck a balance between singers, instrumentalists and material that evokes the group’s vocal heritage and brings their sound into the twenty-first century. Omnivore’s 2016 reissue augments the original twelve tracks with seven contemporaneous live performances recorded at New York City’s Bottom Line with the record’s band; there’s also an eight-page booklet with new liner notes by Davin Seay. This is a terrific upgrade to a gospel-soul classic. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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Marley’s Ghost: The Woodstock Sessions

September 13th, 2016

marleysghost_thewoodstocksessionsVeteran roots group records in Woodstock with Larry Campbell

Thirty years into their career, Marley’s Ghost is like a well-worn leather jacket. You can admire their tenure intellectually, but up-close, with your ears, you can’t help but be moved by the effortless music their tenure has produced. The band’s breadth, interpersonal chemistry and instrumental skills create performance from the seemingly simpler act of music making. “Seemingly,” because it’s anything but simple for skills to be so completely second nature. With Larry Campbell as producer and recording in Levon Helm’s Woodstock studio, the group leaned heavily on a connoisseur’s selection of traditional material that includes titles written by the Delmores (“Field Hand Man”) and made famous by the Stanleys (“Stone Walls and Steel Bars”), Bill Monroe (“In the Pines”) and Carter Family (“The Storms Are on the Ocean”). The harmonies flow easily from blues to bluegrass to country to Cajun, and in “Run on for a Long Time,” to gospel. The album closes with the fiddle tune “Uncle Joe,” leaving listeners dancing to this journey through American roots music. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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Linda Ronstadt: Silk Purse

September 11th, 2016

lindaronstadt_silkpurseRonstadt’s second solo album returned to print

Originally reissued on CD in 1995, Capitol apparently allowed Linda Ronstadt’s second solo album to go out of print. Varese remedies the situation with this straight-up reissue of the album’s ten tracks, together with an eight-panel booklet that includes new liner note by Jerry McCulley. Upon the album’s original release in 1970, it bubbled under the Billboard Top 100 and launched the single “Long, Long Time” into the Top 40. Recorded in Nashville, Ronstadt mixed pop and country material, including Hank Williams’ take on the Tin Pan Alley standard “Lovesick Blues,” Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge,” Goffin & King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (which bubbled under the Top 100) and Dillard & Clark’s “She Darked the Sun.” Ronstadt returned to California for her self-titled third album, but this Southern sojourn was an important way-point in her development from a singer in the Stone Poneys to a full-blown solo star. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Chuck Blore: Okay, Okay, I Wrote the Book

September 10th, 2016

chuckblore_okayokayiwrotethebookThe birth of major-market Top 40 radio

Chuck Blore is the program director who brought Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll to the major market masses. His rise to fame began as a DJ on Tucson’s KTKT and San Antonio’s KTSA, and as program director for Gordon McLendon’s KELP in El Paso. It was at KELP that Blore developed the fast-paced, jingle-filled, personality driven Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll format that was dubbed “Color Radio.” In 1958 he moved to Los Angeles, where he put KFWB on the map and became the first to establish Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll in a major market.

Blore chronicles his years at KFWB (and sister station KEWB in the San Francisco Bay Area) in a breezy collection of anecdotes, rather than a detailed history, but readers will gain valuable insight into the endless details involved in creating and maintaining a complex and unique radio format. KFWB’s influence and reach were unparalleled in the Los Angeles market, and the impact of Blore’s innovations (along with the DJs, business team and operating staff he trained) reverberated throughout the industry for decades.

After leaving the programming side of radio, Blore founded a pioneering advertising firm, and produced many memorable ads. Most notable was the “remarkable mouth” ad originally produced for KIIS, and reproduced for stations throughout the country [1 2 3 4 etc.]. Along with Ron Jacobs’ KHJ-Inside Boss Radio, this is one of only a few insider documents on the workings of classic Top 40 radio. It’s an essential read for anyone who enjoyed (or is retrospectively interested in) rock and pop radio of the 50s-70s, as well as anyone curious about the art of radio advertising. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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The Beach Boys: Becoming the Beach Boys – The Complete Hite & Dorinda Morgan Sessions

September 10th, 2016

beachboys_becomingthebeachboysThe complete pre-Capitol session tapes

Before there was “The Beach Boys,” there was a garage band called the Pendletones, formed by three brothers, a cousin, a friend and a domineering father whose own show business dreams had never come to fruition. The harmony vocals of the 1950s and the surf sounds of the early ‘60s provided the ambitious Brian Wilson stepping stones to musical immortality, and these two discs of pre-Capitol sides paint the most complete picture yet of Wilson’s first steps towards the beach. From the Fall of 1961 until their signing to Capitol in the Spring of 1962, the Beach Boys recorded nine songs for Hite and Dorinda Morgan, with “Surfin’” b/w “Luau” released as a single on the Candix and X labels. The A-side charted at #75 nationally, but was a huge local hit on Los Angeles’ powerhouses KFWB and KRLA.

The group recorded additional material for the Morgans, including Beach Boys icons, “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfer Girl,” but only one other single, “Barbie” b/w “What is a Young Girl Made Of” was released in the U.S., and then with Brian, Carl and Audree Wilson singing under the name Kenny and the Cadets to pre-produced backing tracks. The rest of the recordings were consigned to the vault, coming to light only after the group had established themselves on Capitol. Omnivore’s two-disc set gathers together the pre-Capitol master takes and all of the extant session material, including demos, rehearsals, studio chatter, false starts, overdubs and alternates. At sixty-two tracks covering only nine songs, this set isn’t for the casual listener, but for fans who have imbibed every detail of the masters, it’s a welcome peek into the group’s embryonic creative process.

Among the most surprising elements of this set is the fidelity of the tapes. It may not match what Brian himself achieved at Goldstar and elsewhere, but even the demos are clean and the studio productions are quite crisp. That said, take after take of the same song, often with only minute differences to break up the repetition, is both a revealing and an exhausting experience. The sessions document the arduous job of capturing a perfect live take from a nascent group with no studio experience, the group and their producer gaining confidence on each track as they try it again and again. Though there was limited overdubbing of guitar leads and lead vocals (and for “Surfin’ Safari,” a ragged stereo mix), the core of these takes are a quintet posed around microphones, hoping that no one screws up.

“Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfer Girl” were reborn at Capitol (the former with reworked lyrics, the latter shaking off the morose tone of this early version), but the rest of the material failed to make the jump. Dorinda Hite’s “Lavender” is sung in acapella harmony for the demos and augmented by bass and acoustic guitar on studio takes. Hite’s “Barbie” is a novelty tune redeemed largely by Brian’s tender lead vocal and the production’s stereo mix; its flip “What is a Young Girl Made Of” is a frantic 50s-styled R&B song that even Brian’s lead vocal can’t redeem. Brian Wilson’s “Judy” is a bouncy pop tune written for his then-girlfriend Judy Bowles; the master take shows how the group filled out bare demos with Carl’s guitar and Brian’s sincere, enthusiastic lead vocal. Carl’s “Beach Boy Stomp” is a basic instrumental that picks up steam as the group plays it a few times, paving the way to “Stoked,” “Surf Jam” and “Shut Down, Part II.”

The set’s most revealing moment occurs at the end of six takes of “Surfer Girl.” Unable to play bass and nail down his vocal, Brian Wilson realizes that overdubbing would allow him to focus on singing. His request is curtly shut down by Hite Williams, who either didn’t understand its value, or didn’t want to pay for extra studio time. To add insult to injury, there’s an extra overdub with an unknown and uncompelling lead vocalist. No doubt this helped plant the seeds of self-production in Wilson’s head. Moments like this are a music archaeologist’s dream, and in a sense this entire set is like a dig through a museum’s archive. This isn’t something you’ll track through on a regular basis, but there are subtle, important discoveries to be made here, and you’ll enjoy having them pop up on shuffle. Some of this material was released on 1991’s Lost & Found, but this full rendering, packaged in a tri-fold digipak with a 20-page booklet and liner notes from James Murphy, is the one to get. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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The Connells: Stone Cold Yesterday – The Best of the Connells

September 10th, 2016

Connells_StoneColdYesterdayBest-of an 80s/90s college radio favorite

There was a time that melodic guitar rock music was a mainstay of college and alternative radio. During that time, the North Carolina-based Connells were a hardworking band whose career hit a commercial peak in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with a string of singles that included “Something to Say,” “Stone Cold Yesterday” and “Slackjawed.” But their most lasting mark on listeners ears came with the belated European success of the nostalgic “‘74-’75,” and its memorable video (since updated, Up style). In all, the group has released eight albums and two EPs, and worked with numerous noted producers, including fellow North Carolinians Don Dixon and Mitch Easter.

Although they continue to perform sporadically, their recording career effectively ended with 2001’s Old School Dropouts. This first-ever best-of collection cherry-picks sixteen tracks from across all of the group’s albums except the first, Darker Days, and last. The group’s music is impressively timeless, as Doug MacMillan’s vocals still cast a spell on the introspective lyrics, and the guitars, bass and drums retain their punch. The song list is programmed for listenability rather than chronology, but the effect, even with the switch from Rickenbackers to Fenders and the introduction of a keyboard player, was fairly consistent. If you can’t help but sing the chorus of “‘74-’75” you’ll find a lot more to like here. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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The Embrooks: Nightmare 7″

September 9th, 2016

It’s been more than a decade since the Embrooks dropped their second album, Yellow Glass Perspections, and parted ways. But they’re back with a terrific pair of freakbeat tunes that include the garage, mod and psych influences that made their earlier work so exciting. They’re as good as ever, if not better! Shades of early Who, Small Faces, the Creation and more.

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Dwight Yoakam: Guitars, Cadillacs

September 9th, 2016

The first single from Dwight Yoakam’s upcoming bluegrass LP Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… is a fine acoustic take on his second hit single.

Michael Fracasso: Here Come the Savages

September 9th, 2016

MichaelFracasso_HereComeTheSavagesPowerful album of 60s-tinged singer-songwriter melancholy

Austin singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso has certainly earned his Americana stripes, but his latest release connects to a time when singer-songwriters were emerging from multiple musical vantage points. His albums have threaded together, folk, pop, rock, blues and country, and his songwriting craft has shown the years spent sharing New York City stages with Steve Forbert and others. His new album mixes original material with cover songs, and though the latter include interesting choices and performances (highlighted by a droning psychedelic ending to the Young Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure” and a crawling take of Willie Cobbs’ “You Don’t Love Me” that surely holds live audiences in thrall), it’s the original material that shines most brightly.

Fracasso conjures the sing-song melancholy of Harry Nilsson on “Say,” “Open” and “Daisy,” and transforms an unexpected reaction into the title track’s moody meditation. Wounds are pondered, forgiven, healed, and in the case of the “Boy in a Bubble,” broken hearts are glimpsed as an escape from emotional numbness. The latter’s orchestration evokes Curt Boettcher, Burt Bacharach and the Left Banke, and on “Little Scar,” you can hear the influence of Emitt Rhodes. Fracasso’s tenor is arresting, with slight hitches here and there, in case the purity of his tone doesn’t get you first. The album closes with the Kinks’ bittersweet “Better Things,” bookending Fracasso’s album-opening look forward at divorce, and edging the album painfully towards redemption. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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