The Searchers: Another Night – The Sire Recordings 1979-1981

December 8th, 2017

An unexpectedly rich and joyous revival

Sixteen years after they climbed to the top of the British chart with a 1963 remake of the Drifters “Sweets for My Sweet,” and more than a decade after they’d last cracked the Top 40 with a remake of the Rolling Stones’ “Take It or Leave It,” the second (or third, depending on how you feel about Gerry and the Pacemakers) most popular band out of Liverpool was back. Having continued to tour as an oldies act and cover band throughout the 1970s, it was a remarkably well-timed return to recording. The band’s two albums on Sire, 1979’s The Searchers and 1980’s Love’s Melodies, cannily conjured fresh music from the band’s classic harmonies and guitars, and the then-courant power-pop that had grown from ‘60s pop roots.

Pat Moran’s production of the first album, recorded at the same Rockfield Studios that served Dave Edmunds and the Flamin’ Groovies, has the clean sound of the era’s pop hits. The band’s two originals (“This Kind of Love Affair” and “Don’t Hang On”) are complemented by songs written by upcoming and established songwriters. The memorable “Hearts in Her Eyes” was written for the band by the Records’ Will Birch and John Wicks, and Mickey Jupp’s “Switchboard Susan” is given a low-key arrangement that suggests skiffle roots. Covers of Tom Petty’s Mudcrutch-era “Lost in Your Eyes” and Bob Dylan’s obscure “Coming From the Heart” highlight the band’s ears for good songs that had been abandoned by major writers.

In addition to the album’s original ten tracks, this collection includes an alternate mix of “It’s Too Late,” and early mixes of two tracks from the second album. The second album, like the first, combines a couple of band originals (“Little Bit of Heaven” and “Another Night”) with material drawn from up-and coming and veteran songwriters. Among the former are Moon Martin (“She Made a Fool Of You”) and a pair co-written by Will Burch; among the latter are John Fogerty’s “Almost Saturday Night,” Andy McMaster’s “Love’s Melody” and Alex Chilton’s “September Gurls.” The latter was an especially prescient selection, given that it would be six more years until the Bangles brought the song into the mainstream with A Different Light.

The second album is even richer in vocal harmonies and 12-string jangle, with well-selected songs from British writers that include Dave Paul’s “Silver,” Randy Bishop’s “Infatuation,” John David’s inspirational “You Are the New Day” and the Kursaal Flyers’ now-nostalgic “Radio Romance.” The album’s original dozen tracks are supplemented by four bonuses, including the original B-side “Changing,” two John Hiatt tunes and a hard-rocking cover of Chris Kenner’s New Orleans’ R&B chestnut “Sick and Tired.” Most of this material was previously released on Raven’s Sire Sessions: Rockfield Recordings 1979-80, but with that set out of print, and the additional tracks and new interviews added in this edition’s liner notes, this is the set to get. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

The Searchers’ Home Page

Chuck Berry: Rockit

December 7th, 2017

Berry’s 1979 rocker for Atco was the final release of his lifetime

The last album released during Chuck Berry’s lifetime, Rockit also marked a rare deviation from his tenure at Chess. Released in 1979, it would be Berry’s last release until the posthumous Chuck earlier this year. Berry’s voice, guitar and lyrical ability were intact, as was Johnnie Johnson’s inimitable piano playing, and the rhythm section – Berry’s longtime bassist, Jim Marsala, Nashville studio drummer Kenny Buttrey, and Muscle Shoals bassist Bob Wray – is tight. The production hasn’t the grit of Berry’s Chess years, but his roots shine through the too-tidy studio sound. “Move It” and “If I Were” show off Berry’s guitar licks and his lyrical dexterity. He borrows from his own “Back in the USA” for the joyous “Oh What a Thrill,” but unsuccessfully rearranges “Havana Moon” with an odd meter and distracting backing vocal. Much better is the biting rewrite of “It Wasn’t Me” as “Wuden’t Me,” the love letter “California” and the atmospheric blues “Pass Away.” The latter is particularly interesting for its spoken storytelling and a looser vibe that evades the rest of the album. This may not measure up to Berry’s landmark Chess records, but it’s vital, clever and satisfying. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Chuck Berry’s Home Page

BANG! The Bert Berns Story

December 6th, 2017

The fascinating story of white soul brother #1

You probably heard a Bert Berns song today. If you heard “Tell Him,” “Twist and Shout,” “Cry to Me,” “Here Comes the Night,” “Hang on Sloopy” or “Piece of My Heart,” you heard a song he wrote. If you heard “Baby, I’m Yours,” “Under the Boardwalk” or “Brown Eyed Girl,” you heard a record he produced. Berns’ enormous catalog of deeply-felt songs and deftly-produced records puts him in a league with the best of the Brill Building’s songwriters and New York’s golden age pop producers. When Phil Spector lost the Latin soul of Berns’ “Twist and Shout” with a frantic rendition by the Top Notes, Berns picked it back up the next year and minted a classic with the Isley Brothers. And when Berns felt he’d accomplished everything he could as a writer and producer, he founded Bang records, stormed the charts in 1965 with the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy,” and signed Neil Diamond and Van Morrison.

Born in 1929, Berns was thirty-one when he finally found his way into the music industry as a $50-a-week songwriter for Robert Merlin’s publishing company. His first hit came the following year with the Jarmel’s “A Little Bit of Soap,” and over the next seven years he minted more than fifty pop chart singles. Berns’ early love of Afro-Cuban music permeated his songs, as did the deep, personal feelings he poured into his lyrics. Labeled by his African American artists as “the white soul brother,” he pushed them “to sing it like he meant it.” Session dialog of Berns coaching Betty Harris, as well as Van Morrison during the recording of Blowin’ Your Mind!, give the viewer a feel for his artist rapport. Testimony from family, artists, production and business colleagues testify to the exalted status in which he was held. The interviews are highlighted by his savvy and tough widow, Ilene Berns, and the tough but artistically sensitive Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia.

Berns broke into production with Atlantic, helping the label through the fallow period that followed the departure of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He wrote for and produced Solomon Burke, the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett and others. By 1964 his songs were doing double-duty as fuel for the British Invasion, with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Animals all covering Bert Berns tunes, and Berns himself producing Them’s version of his own “Here Comes the Night.” He would eventually sign Van Morrison to Bang, produce a hit and fall out, as he also did with Neil Diamond. His relationships with his publisher and his Atlantic partners also soured as the piles of money became tall enough to fight over, but the interviews conducted for this film demonstrate how deeply respected and loved he remains by his former colleagues. His songs and his records provide the lasting epitaph, but this 90 minute documentary connects the dots and names the legacy. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Bert Berns’ Home Page
BANG! The Bert Berns Story’s Home Page

Flat Duo Jets: Wild Wild Love

December 5th, 2017

Reissue of untamed debut EP and LP

Many years before guitar-and-drums duos became a template, Chapel Hill’s Flat Duo Jets cut a fresh figure on the college radio scene. Formed in the mid-80s by guitarist/vocalist Dexter Romweber and drummer Chris “Crow” Smith, they added bassist Tony Mayer for their full-length, self-titled debut. Paired here with the earlier cassette-only release (In Stereo) and a second disc of session outtakes, the package revels in the basics of live-to-tape, rockabilly-inflected rock ‘n’ roll. But even that is shorthand; Flat Duo Jets was hardly a rockabilly band, as their influences included classic rock instrumental combos like the Shadows and Ventures, surf bands, contemporaries like the Cramps, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet and Los Straightjackets, and in their cover of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” big bands. And all of this was channeled through the rebelliousness and spontaneity of first-generation rock ‘n’ rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent.

The band got national exposure with a 1980 television performance of Benny Joy’s “Wild Wild Lover,” with Romweber’s fervor rendering David Letterman’s band mostly superfluous. Their cover of the theme from “Man with the Golden Arm” turns the original’s tense ‘50s jazz into a powerful rock ‘n’ roll grind. The group slows down for the ballad “Baby” and a cover of Elvis’ “Love Me,” but even here Romweber’s rhythm guitar is fiery and Smith’s sticks are heavy. They show off their range with piano and a New Orleans bounce on “Strut My Stuff,” and close the EP with a pair of Buddy Holly covers. The session tracks mix rehearsals and alternate takes, and include guitar-and-drum rave-ups, mid-tempo piano blues and covers of “Penetration,” “Rock Me Baby,” “Harlem Nocturne” and even the Andrews Sisters’ “Apple Blossom Time.” The original album is a terrific invocation of rock ‘n’ roll’s untamed youth, and the bonus material makes the reissue even more dangerous. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Dexter Romweber’s Facebook Page

Roy Orbison: A Love So Beautiful

November 27th, 2017

Roy Orbison’s vocals backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Roy Orbison’s sons – Roy Jr., Wesley and Alex – have done much to preserve and expand their father’s legacy. They’ve overseen reissues of Roy Orbison’s MGM catalog and an expanded thirtieth anniversary version of the Black and White Night concert film, released the first-ever issue of 1969 album One of the Lonely Ones, and wrote a new biography. Their latest offering grafts classic Orbison vocals onto new, classical arrangements, multiplying the vocalist’s operatic flights with the power of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This is producer Nick Patrick’s third such creation, having pioneered this concept with Elvis Presley’s If I Can Dream and The Wonder of You.

Although there is certainly a marketing angle to this release, there is also a great deal of thought in the conception and artistry, and the execution rises well above pure commercialism. The strings of Orbison’s original hits pointed the way, and these full orchestral arrangements fill out the emotional images drawn by Orbison’s soaring vocals. Patrick’s arrangers have studied the original records and leveraged many of their percussion and melodic motifs. The results remain familiar while also feeling freshened up; they don’t always have the raw impact of Fred Foster’s original productions, but neither do they stray so far away as to lose the connection.

Some tracks fare better than others. The intro to “It’s Over” offers hold-your-breath drama, “Running Scared” reaffirms the song’s basis in Ravel’s “Bolero,” and expanded strings on “Blue Angel” and “Love Hurts” add lushness and power to the originals. On the other hand, “Oh, Pretty Woman” seems to diminish the original’s wonder and yearning, and the vocal on “Dream Baby” doesn’t quite sit in the pocket. Later material is given ELO-styled rock treatment that’s less effective than Jeff Lynne’s original productions. As with most covers projects, this one won’t have you tossing out your singles and albums, but for fans who’ve listened to these songs a thousand times, it’s nice to hear something new in the familiar. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Roy Orbison’s Home Page

John Sebastian: Stories We Could Tell – The Very Best Of John Sebastian

November 23rd, 2017

Nicely curated introduction to John Sebastian’s solo catalog

Though John Sebastian returned to the top of the charts with the 1976 theme song to “Welcome Back Kotter,” his solo career never gained the commercial traction of his earlier work with the Lovin’ Spoonful. Which isn’t to suggest there wasn’t artistic growth or musical riches in his solo years – there was plenty of both – but other than the single “Welcome Back” and his self-titled solo debut album, his releases failed to crack the Top 40. Varese’s sixteen track collection cherrypicks material from Sebastian’s five albums for Reprise, including the rare live album Cheapo Cheapo Productions Presents Real Live John Sebastian. The selections include his first solo single, “She’s a Lady,” the ambitious sixteen-minute “The Four of Us,” the soulful “Give Us a Break,” a thoughtful cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo,” the country-tinged “Stories We Could Tell” (famously recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1972), a modernized remake of “Didn’t Wanna Have to Do It,” and a quartet of live Lovin’ Spoonful covers. All four studio albums (John B. Sebastian, Four of Us, Tarzana Kid, Welcome Back) are available for digital download and in a grey-market 2-CD set, but Varese’s 16-track set offers those new to Sebastian’s solo years a well-curated single-disc introduction. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

John Sebastian’s Home Page

Various Artists: Woody Guthrie – The Tribute Concerts

November 22nd, 2017

Lavish expansion of 1968 and 1970 Woody Guthrie tribute concerts

Bear Family’s lavish three CD, two book set collects material from two live tribute shows, featuring performances by Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan (his first appearance after his motorcycle accident), Odetta, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Jack Elliott, Country Joe McDonald, Tom Paxton and Earl Robinson, along with narration from actors Robert Ryan, Will Geer and Peter Fonda. The first tribute included an afternoon/evening pair of concerts staged at Carnegie Hall in 1968, the second tribute was staged at the Hollywood Bowl in 1970. Material from both tributes was released in edited, collated and resequenced form on a pair of 1972 LPs, Part 1 on Columbia and Part 2 on Warner Brothers, and eventually reissued on CD and MP3.

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Guthrie’s passing, Bear Family has gathered all of the extant concert materials – including the entire Hollywood Bowl concert – to recreate the original, scripted concerts by adding back narration and musical performances that were elided from the LPs, and adding in interview clips that shed light on Guthrie and the productions. The three CDs are fitted into the back cover of a 160-page hardbound book that overflows with photos, essays, press clippings, remembrances, artist and production staff biographies, ephemera, notes on production, recording and filming, a discography, a bibliography and a filmography. The book is housed in a heavy-duty slipcase alongside a reproduction of the 1972 volume, The TRO Woody Guthrie Concert Book, which itself includes photos, sheet music, and song notes from Guthrie and Millard Lampell. All together, the package weighs in at over five pounds!

Lampell’s script for the shows threads together Guthrie’s songs and autobiographical writing, Lampell’s script tells Guthrie’s story through the people he met, the stories he sang and the musicians he influenced. Highlights of the New York shows include Will Geer’s knowing tone in describing his longtime comrade, the then-recently minted starlight of Arlo Guthrie shining on his father’s “Oklahoma Hills,” the sound of Pete Seeger’s banjo and his physical embodiment of the folk movement’s hard-fought roots, and Tom Paxton’s mournful “Pastures of Plenty.” Dylan’s band-based triptych stands apart from the more traditional folk arrangements of his castmates, and shows the directions he’d been developing during his eighteen month hiatus.

For all the camaraderie and good feelings of the Carnegie shows, they weren’t without controversy, as Phil Ochs’ snub led to the deeply bitter feelings recounted in his interview. Ochs’ was particularly critical of Judy Collins and Richie Havens, the latter of whom had only then recently released his debut and performed at Woodstock. But Ochs’ recriminations were misplaced, as both artists commune with Guthrie’s legacy; Collins’ embrace of “Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee)” is tear inducing, and Havens’ slow, rhythmic performance of “Vigilante Man” is hypnotic. The show closed with the cast singing Guthrie’s alternate national anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” sending the audience out to share Guthrie’s music with the world.

The Los Angeles show largely repeated the script from New York, with Peter Fonda replacing Robert Ryan in the co-narrator chair, and Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Jack Elliott and Richie Havens newly joined by Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Earl Robinson and a house band that included Ry Cooder. Dylan’s semi-electric set felt like an outlier among the acoustic arrangements of 1968, but by 1970, the house band is heard throughout much of the Hollywood Bowl program. Stretching the songs further from their acoustic origins emphasizes their their continued relevance as artistic and social capital. The band-backed songs also provide contrast to acoustic numbers such as Baez and Seeger’s audience sing-a-long “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh.”

Baez sings both “Hobo’s Lullaby” with empathy and tenderness, and the band’s support on Odetta’s “Ramblin’ Round” inspires a looser performance than she gave in New York. Country Joe McDonald, who began his solo career the year before with Thinking of Woody Guthrie, sings a rousing version of “Pretty Boy Floyd” and provides original music for the previously unrecorded Guthrie lyric “Woman at Home.” Woody Guthrie’s performance style echoed most strongly in Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s “1913 Massacre,” and placed back-to-back with Arlo Guthrie’s blues-rock take on “Do Re Mi,” highlights how amendable the songs are to reinvention.

The Los Angeles recording is more detailed than the tapes made from the house system in New York, and though it’s musically rich, with Guthrie’s passing two years further in the past, it doesn’t feel as urgent as the earlier shows. Disc three is filled out with interview clips that shed light on Guthrie and the tribute concerts. As Arlo Guthrie recounts in interview, and Lampell echoes in his opening essay, Guthrie had developed a legacy in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but it was the folk revival that really cemented his popular artistic immortality. The tribute concerts consolidated the discovery of the revival, acknowledging the original context in which Guthrie wrote, and renewing his songs’ significance by highlighting their ongoing relevance to then-current issues. The shows employed the folk tradition as stagecraft.

The interview segments are interesting for their mix of accurate and misremembered moments. Arlo Guthrie remembers the New York shows as benefits for the Guthrie children, when they were actually fundraisers for the newly formed Huntington Chorea organization. Rick Robbins remembers Dylan having been an unannounced surprise guest, when his role was actually advertised beforehand. This set is deluxe, even by Bear Family’s uniquely high standards, but it rests comfortably on two memorable concerts. Those seeking only a taste of the concerts might check out the CD reissue of the original concert albums. But for a fully immersive experience, this two-book, three-CD set is a welcome gift for the holidays. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Woody Guthrie Website

Action Skulls: Angels Hear

November 20th, 2017

A Cowsill, Barnes and Bangle band together

Action Skull’s principals – John Cowsill, Billy Mumy, Vicki Peterson and Rick Rosas – each have extensive show business resumes. Cowsill began his music career in his family’s eponymous band, played with Dwight Twilley and Tommy Tutone, and plays drums as part of the Beach Boys touring band. Mumy started out in television and film before breaking into the music industry with Barnes & Barnes, worked with America and Rick Springfield, and records solo albums. Peterson rose to fame with the Bangles, and subsequently played with the Continental Drifters and Psycho Sisters alongside her sister-in-law Susan Cowsill. Rosas, who passed away in 2014, was a sought-after Los Angeles studio musician who played with Neil Young (including reunions of Crazy Horse, CSN&Y and Buffalo Springfield), Joe Walsh, Johnny Rivers and others.

The band’s genesis dates to 2013, when Cowsill, Peterson and Mumy met and sang together at a party. Mumy introduced Rosas into the mix a few days later, and quickly began writing new material for the quartet. Collaboration and demos were soon followed by live sessions at ReadyMix Music, a studio that has hosted Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and other L.A. luminaries. The group describes their music as “canyon rock,” and that ‘70s vibe rings through the psych-tinged guitars and three part harmonies, but their sound isn’t nostalgic. Rosas death in November 2014 put the eight finished tracks on the back burner as the three remaining Skulls returned to their individual careers. But they knew they had something, and they knew that Rosas performances should be heard. So they recorded three more tracks with Mumy and John Cowsill’s son Will on bass.

The finished collection includes both solo and group vocals, often swapping within a song, and songwriting collaborations that give the album variety, but with a real group sound. The album opens with the Revolver-ish “Mainstream,” with each vocalist taking a turn up front and banding together on harmonies. Several of the songs wander into imagined worlds. “In the Future” wonders what our bad habits will look like in hindsight, and “If I See You in Another World” ponders the strength of a relationship freed of its current context. Relationships figure into many songs, as the album considers physical and hypothetical separation with warm looks homeward and lonely gazes outward. Whether this is a one-off or turns into an on-going project, it’s a terrific artifact of four accomplished artists coming together to make music. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Action Skulls’ Home Page

Peter Case: On the Way Downtown – Recorded Live on FolkScene

November 15th, 2017

Peter Case’s on-stage magic from 1998 and 2000

Peter Case has had a music career that few of his contemporaries can match. Breaking in with Jack Lee and Paul Collins as the Nerves, no one would have guessed it was the beginning of a musical road that’s now stretched more than forty years. Case’s second band, the Plimsouls, garnered a major label contract, tours and an appearance in Valley Girl, but this too ended up as prelude to a solo career launched by his eponymous 1986 album. Unlike the rock ‘n’ roll of his earlier bands, his solo work – both on record and in performance – put a greater focus on his songwriting, and it’s that songwriting that’s highlighted in these tracks taken from live radio performances in 1998 and 2000.

Both performances are drawn from Case’s appearances on KPFK’s FolkScene. The earlier set highlights material from Case’s Full Service, No Waiting, while the latter set combines material from Flying Saucer Blues and earlier releases, and adds covers of Mississippi John Hurt and Charlie Poole. Both sets were engineered by FolkScene’s resident engineer, Peter Cutler, and sparkle with the show’s warmth and Case’s creativity. Case is joined by the Full Service album band for the 1998 set, and by violinist David Perales for the later tracks.

At 40, Case was thinking deeply about the path from his childhood to his present. The title track is filled with the memories an ex-pat relishes in revisiting his hometown, while “See Through Eyes” laments the incursion of doubt that middle age brings. Case remembers his San Francisco years in “Green Blanket (Part 1)” and “Still Playin’,” and explores the roots of his rambling in the acoustic “Crooked Mile.” The first set closes with the adolescently hopeful “Until the Next Time,” while the second set opens in a more present frame of mind with “Something Happens.” Two years on, Case was still remembering notable moments from his past, but also looking forward.

The songs easily fit the band setting, but the starker guitar-and-violin arrangements of the second set provide Case’s singing and lyrics a more intense spotlight. He slips easily into the acoustic picking of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Day” and wears the lyric with a familiarity that belies its mid-60s origins. Case moves easily between blues and folk, and Parales violin provides moody underlines, rapidly bowed sparks and intricate, emotional accompaniment, highlighted by his ornamental line on “Beyond the Blues.” Peter Cutler’s recording is clean and unaffected, and presents Case as you might expect to hear him in a club or on a street corner, with his musical magic at full power. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Peter Case’s Home Page

K Phillips: Dirty Wonder

November 1st, 2017

An Americana biography of romantic dissolution

A West Texan singer-songwriter named after Kris Kristofferson has a lot to live up to. But there’s a soulfulness in Phillips’ voice, the sort you hear on deep Van Morrison tracks, and a redemptive faith in his songs that suggests Bruce Springsteen. His album ponders the end of a relationship, and though written in the first person, the stories are biographical rather than autobiographical. The split viewpoint lends a philosophical angle that musters a friend’s pain and outrage from an observational angle. The songs battle the lethargy of aftermath, ponder second chances to end things cruelly, and find their way to forgive and move on to what could be renewal. “Had Enough” opens the album with a moment of realization that signals the oncoming emotional thaw. A growing understanding of just how unraveled he’d become leads to confession and confrontation as he begs for reaction, castigates himself and looks for an exit.

Phillips finds out that letting go sometimes turns out to be harder than remaining unhappy, as neither the conventions of “Rom Com” nor the rebound of “18 Year Old Girls” prove to be a sustainable escape from real world endings. The latter features a terrific neo-psychedelic guitar coda that suggests Television playing Americana, and elsewhere the album explores country, gospel, and in the closing “Hock the Horses,” a Latin rhythm. Gordy Quist’s production balances guitar sustain with deep bass notes and gently shuffling drums, pushing Phillips ever-so-slightly forward in the mix to emphasize his emotional isolation and personalize his plight. The crucible of a failed relationship leaves scars on the tested, but even one step removed, the sparks of recrimination and salve of forgiveness make for intensely revealing stories. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

K Phillips Home Page