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]

Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels: All-Time Greatest Hits

July 17th, 2016

MitchRyderDetroitWheels_AllTimeGreatestHitsMitch Ryder’s chart singles, with a splash of mono

As a recent documentary on the Grande Ballroom notes, 1960s Detroit was both a hard rocking city and the home of Motown, America’s most commercially successful purveyor of R&B. Few exemplified these dual influences better than Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Though deeply steeped in soul music, Ryder’s biggest hits – “Jenny Take a Ride!” “Devil With a Blue Dress On” and “Sock It to Me-Baby!” – had a propulsive energy akin to Britain’s take on America’s early rock. Varese’s 16-track collection brings together all seven of the Detroit Wheels’ charting singles and four of Mitch Ryder’s solo outings. All tracks are stereo except for 5, 6, 8 and 15; the mono single of “Sock it to Me Baby” is especially welcome for its unique vocal track.

The stereo sides are crisp, but at times the extra wide soundstage is disconcerting. The opening “Jenny Take Ride” feels spread out with the handclaps panned hard-right, and lacks the punch of the mono single mixed for AM radio. On the other hand, many of these mixes provide the broad instrumental and vocal separation that plays like a revue band spread across a stage. The inclusion of Ryder’s solo singles makes this an interesting alternative to Rhino’s Rev Up set, and the stereo mixes provide an alternative to (but not a replacement for) Sundazed’s All Hits. An 8-page booklet with retro cover art and detailed liner notes by Jerry McCulley rounds out a great package. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Mitch Ryder’s Home Page

10,000 Maniacs: Playing Favorites

July 16th, 2016

10000Maniacs_PlayingFavoritesThe latest lineup performs the band’s history

Lifelong fans of 10,000 Maniacs will be familiar with the complicated personnel changes weathered by the band since its 1981 formation. But those whose fandom only intersected the band during their late-80s commercial peak may be surprised. The band’s iconic original vocalist, Natalie Merchant, left for a solo career in 1993, and the following year Mary Ramsey was promoted from touring musician to lead vocalist. Ramsey sang lead for two albums until the death of guitarist Rob Buck put the group on hiatus, and upon their return, she was replaced by Oskar Saville. But Ramsey returned as a touring musician, and with Saville’s departure, she once again stepped into the lead singer’s spotlight. Whew.

This 2015 show, recorded in the band’s hometown of Jamestown, NY, features Ramsey leading the group through material that focusses primarily on the Natalie Merchant years, spanning 1981’s independently released Secrets of the I Ching through 1993’s MTV Unplugged, but also extends to three tracks from 1997’s Ramsey-led Love Among the Ruins. It’s hard not to miss a singer of Merchant’s indelible qualities, and while Ramsey offers nostalgic hints of the original vocals, she has her own style, and adds dimension to the band’s instrumentals with her viola. This set provides a nice addition to the earlier unplugged album and the Saville-led Live at 25, and shows the band still thriving as a live act. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

10,000 Maniacs Home Page

Lily Locksmith: Player

July 15th, 2016

This hard-driving cover of Nick Curran‘s “Player” evokes the energy of Little Richard as much as Big Mama Thornton. Nice twin guitar solos and a driving rhythm section to boot.

Lily Locksmith’s Facebook Page

Robert Rex Waller, Jr.: Fancy Free

July 15th, 2016

RobertRexWallerJr_FancyFreeStellar covers album from I See Hawks in L.A. frontman

After seven albums with I See Hawks in L.A., singer-songwriter Robert Rex Waller, Jr. decided it was time to step out for a solo album. But unlike singer-songwriters who want to work a cache of songs that weren’t right for the band, Waller endeavored to escape his own writing by waxing an album full of cover songs. The album rambles through well known hits and deep album cuts, drawing a picture of Waller’s personal musical tapestry. Among the best known titles are a lovely piano arrangement of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” a Casio-based take on the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Fancy Free,” a synth backed version of the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe,” and a Waylon-esque vocal on Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me.”

Cover songs are a unique opportunity for an artist to both pay tribute to and fuse with their influences. In the best case, the cover neither replaces nor leads inextricably to the original, but illuminates new dimensions of the song, its writer and its covering artist. And that’s exactly what we get as Waller takes us for a ride through the formation of his musical consciousness and into his present day imagination. He samples from the songbooks of Utah Phillips, Neil Young, Daniel Johnston and Mike Stinson, filling out a mythical jukebox that would keep you at the bar for a few more rounds. This is a deeply personal collection that will resound strongly with Waller’s fans. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Robert Rex Waller Jr.’s Home Page

The Zombies: The BBC Radio Sessions

July 14th, 2016

Zombies_TheBBCRadioSessionsExpanded re-reissue of the Zombies live on the BBC 1965-68

Varese’s 43-track, 2-CD set expands on their earlier double-LP with five previously unreleased tracks. This augments material that’s been reissued in numerous configurations, including Rhino’s landmark Live on the BBC, and Big Beat’s Zombie Heaven and Live at the BBC. This is now a one-stop shop for the biggest helping yet of the recordings the Zombies made for the BBC. Included are live versions of the group’s three early hits, “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No” and “She’s Coming Home,” along with other much beloved originals, “Whenever You’re Ready,” “If It Don’t Work Out” and “Friends of Mine,” and a slew of covers. Notably missing is a full take of “Time of the Season” (though it’s heard as background to the last interview segment), as its success postdates these BBC sessions.

The origin of these recordings (and similar catalogs for other British Invasion bands) lays in limits placed on the BBC’s use of commercially released records. To supplement their programming, musical artists were recorded in the BBC’s own studios, the recordings pressed to transcription discs, and the discs circulated to affiliates for broadcast. With the BBC failing to archive these works, it’s transcriptions of found copies that form the core of this set, supplemented by off-air recordings of material for which transcriptions haven’t yet surfaced. The quality varies, and while none match the productions of the group’s formal releases, they’re all quite listenable. The live energy and deep reach of the cover selections are essential additions to the group’s small catalog of commercially released work.

What’s immediately noticeable is how unique the Zombies sounded, even among the British Invasion’s explosion of creativity. Colin Blunstone’s voice gave the group an easily recognized front, Rod Argent’s keyboards added distinctive flair, and the group’s melodic sense was like nothing else on the radio. The tracks include several cover songs the group never released commercially, and multiple versions of “Tell Her No,” “Just a Little Bit,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You Must Believe Me” and “This Old Heart of Mine.” Variations from the commonly circulated commercial masters – such as an acoustic piano on the February 1965 version of “Tell Her No” – are especially interesting in how they influence the tone of the performances.

Announcer introductions and interview clips give a feel for how the musical tracks played in context, and reveal interesting personal details about the band, their travels and their unrealized plans for the future. Even more revealing are Andrew Sandoval’s liner and track notes, which provide detailed information about the sessions, the radio shows on which the tracks were featured, and the sources of the often obscure cover songs. Matching the session notes to the discs is a bit tricky, as the notes run chronologically, and the tracks do not. The addition of six previously unreleased recordings (disc 1, 23-25 and disc 2, 7-9; five songs and an expanded interview with Colin Blunstone) make this the most complete set of the group’s BBC recordings yet. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Zombies’ Homepage

The Rave-Ups: Town + Country

July 13th, 2016

RaveUps_TownAndCountryOverdue reissue of country-punk-rock ‘n’ roll shoulda-beens

Originally from Pittsburgh, this hyphenate country-punk-rock ‘n’ roll band regrouped and restaffed a few times before making their mark in the clubs of Los Angeles. This 1985 full-length debut was a college radio hit, and led to a high profile appearance in the film Pretty in Pink (but not, alas, on the soundtrack album), and a deal with Epic. Their major label debut, The Book of Your Regrets, failed to capitalize on the band’s momentum, and after an uptick with their third album, Chance, the band was dropped, and broke up a few month later. But not before providing TV’s David Silver the soundtrack for his contest-winning dance moves on the Spring Dance episode of Beverly Hills 90210.

The band’s Epic albums were previously reissued as a two-fer, but their debut EP and album for the Fun Stuff label have remained maddeningly out of print. Until now. The vault door has finally swung wide open, providing not only the album’s original ten tracks, but eleven bonuses that include live radio performances and material produced by Steve Berlin and Mark Linett for a scrapped second album. Over 78 minutes of vintage Rave Ups that sounds as vital today as it did thirty (30!) years ago. Stephen Barncard’s production has none of the big studio sounds that have prematurely aged so many mid-80s records, and the band’s timeless rock ‘n’ roll foundation was cannily woven with potent threads of country, punk and blues.

“Positively Lost Me” opens the album with a memorable rhythm guitar lick and the boastful kiss-off “you lost a lot when you lost me.” The bravado appears to crack as the forfeiture is inventoried in a pedestrian list of ephemera (“six paperback books and a dying tree”), but it’s a setup, as the real price is lost confidence and broken trust. Singer-songwriter Jimmer Podrasky was full of great lyrics and catchy vocal hooks, and the band stretched themselves to find deep pockets for his songs. There’s a punk rock edge to the square-dance call “Remember (Newman’s Lovesong)” and the Beach Boys pastiche “In My Gremlin,” and an improbable demo of “If I Had a Hammer” is cannily wed to a La Bamba beat.

The Dylanish “Class Tramp” (which is about breeding rather than schooling) is complemented by a cover of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” and the album closes on a rockabilly note with “Rave-Up/Shut-Up.” The bonuses include radio performances of “Positively Lost Me” and Merle Travis’ rewrite of Charlie Bowman’s “Nine Pound Hammer,” early versions of songs that turned up as B-sides and later LPs, and several titles that never turned up again. There’s some excellent material here, but the album, recorded in stolen moments in A&M’s studios, is the fully polished gem. The Rave-Ups deserved more success than fickle industry winds blew their way, but at least Omnivore’s reissue blows this terrific debut back into print. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Jimmer Podrasky’s Home Page

The Happenings: The Very Best Of

July 12th, 2016

Happenings_VeryBestOfHarmony vocal pop from 1960s New Jersey

This New Jersey-bred quartet started with the novel concept of remaking hits in their own vocal harmony style. Cover bands may typically be relegated to bars, but the Happenings talent for picking and reshaping well-known material led to four Top 10 hits, two of which – the Tempos’ “See You in September” in 1966 and the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm” in 1967 – each rose to #3. The group’s sound drew on both 1950s pop and doo-wop, and the falsetto topped harmonies fit with contemporaries like the Four Seasons, Vogues and Tokens. The group had many bonds with the latter group, having them as producers, recording for their B.T. Puppy Label, covering their material (“Tonight I Fell in Love”) and even releasing a split album.

Varese’s sixteen track collection includes all ten of the Happenings’ charting singles, including the Jubilee-released “Where Do I Go / Be-In / Hare Krishna.” Missing is their first single (“Girls on the Go”) and their remaining singles for Jubilee, but filling out the lineup are well-selected non-charting singles, B-sides and album tracks. Steve Massie’s remastered sound crisply reproduces the super-wide stereo image of the original recordings, and the eight-page booklet includes liner notes by Dawn Eden. A deeper dive into the group’s catalog can be found on a two-fer of their first two albums, but most will find this sampling of their charming vocal pop to be a right-sized introduction. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Happenings’ Home Page

Doris Day: The Love Album

July 11th, 2016

DorisDay_TheLoveAlbumReissue of terrific 1967 album of standards

Doris Day’s success as an actress in the 1960s has often eclipsed her earlier renown as a vocalist, but it was with the big bands of the 1940s that she first became a star. Though her films fell out of step with the social changes of the late 60s, she found renewed success on television, and it was amid this transition that she returned to the studio to record a set of standards, newly orchestrated by Sid Feller. Having just parted ways with her longtime label, Columbia, the independently produced album was shopped around without success, and shelved until the UK Vision label dug it out of the vault in 1994. A 2006 reissued added three bonus tracks recorded in 1970 for a 1971 television special, and it’s that fourteen-track lineup that’s reproduced here.

Even with rock and pop having been pushed Tin Pan Alley off the radio, it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a market for these superb performances. Day takes the songs at pensive tempos that highlight her superb control and the sweet tone of her voice. Feller’s use of a rhythm section, string quartet and woodwind player may have been motivated by economics, but it also created a perfect pocket for the vocals. The sound is full, but doesn’t require Day to compete with the arrangements. Day’s selections drew heavily from the songs she heard as a child, and the bonus tracks rework two of her catalog icons “It’s Magic” and “Sentimental Journey.” Liner notes by Will Friedwald round out a great package. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Doris Day’s Home Page

Jerry Lee Lewis: Rockin’ My Life Away

July 6th, 2016

JerryLeeLewis_RockinMyLifeAwayJerry Lee’s late-70s/early-80s country hits on Elektra

There’s some sort of twisted justice in Jerry Lee Lewis’ having survived his own hard living to produce both personal and professional longevity. Rejected by Nashville, he built foundational rock ‘n’ roll pillars at Sun, faded at Smash, rebuilt himself as a country star in the late ‘60s, rode a wave of nostalgia in the ‘70s, faded from the country charts, and regained critical acclaim with late-70s and early-80s records for Elektra. It’s these latter recordings that are the subject of this fourteen track collection, highlighted by his eight charting singles (including the double A-side “Rockin’ My Life Away” b/w “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again”), and select album tracks.

His eighteen months on Elektra produced three studio albums and a greatest hits collection, and though the production has the clean sound of the era, nothing Lewis recorded ever really sounded clean. In addition to songs by Sonny Throckmorton, Charlie Rich, Bill Mize, Johnny Cash and Roger Miller, Lewis also picked songs from Arthur Alexander, Bob Dylan, and even tackled “Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye” and “Over the Rainbow.” It’s a mark of Lewis’ stylistic strength that even the most outside of these songs succumbed to his country and rock charms. Reissues of the original Elektra albums [1 2 3] provide a deeper helping, but this sampler is a great place to get an earful of highlights. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Jerry Lee Lewis’ Home Page