Paul Thorn: Too Blessed to Be Stressed

September 17th, 2014

PaulThorn_TooBlessedToBeStressedOptimistic album of soul and funk

Mississippi singer-songwriter Paul Thorn returns with his first album of originals in four years. His previous album, What the Hell is Goin’ On?, was stocked with cover songs that essayed Thorn’s finely selected influences and showed off his talent for interpretation. Returning to his own pen, Thorn’s taken a broader tack in his songwriting. Where his earlier albums tended to autobiography, his latest collection makes a purposeful reach for more universal and upbeat themes. There’s personal inspiration in each of these songs, but rather than telling the story of a specific situation, Thorn’s dug to each story’s roots to express thoughts and feelings that resound easily with each listener’s own life.

These songs show Thorn to be an optimist, rather than a Pollyanna. His protagonists look to the sunny side, but they see storms and expect a cloud break rather than an endless stretch of clear weather. He anticipates the healing cures for loneliness rather than cataloging its pains, and he’s a clear-eyed romantic who sheds no tears with his goodbyes. As the album’s title states, Thorn is “Too Blessed to Be Stressed,” and he advises that you “Don’t Let Nobody Rob You of Your Joy.” That latter message neatly extends into a self-directed resolution as the moral lapse of “I Backslide on Friday” is redeemed by Saturday’s reprieve and Sunday’s repentance.

The optimism fades into the exasperation of “Mediocrity’s King,” as Thorn laments the commonness of superstores and oppositional politics, and in its unstated subtext, an apathetic electorate whose dreams of progress have turned into a voracious appetite for cheap prices and mindless entertainment. Thorn’s gruff, blue-soul vocals are weary but hopeful, and the album’s potpourri of soul, funk, gospel, country and rock recalls the hey-day of Memphis and Muscle Shoals, without ever imitating either one. The road-hewn band finds many deep grooves, and Thorn sings with a smile that shines on you with an optimistic glow. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Paul Thorn’s Home Page

OST: How to Stuff a Wild Bikini

September 12th, 2014

OST_HowToStuffAWildBikiniCharming soundtrack to AIP’s sixth beach party film

Although pop music was a key element of American International’s beach party films, it was surprisingly elusive on record. Perhaps the value of cross-marketing hadn’t yet fully developed by the mid-60s, as the music from these films was only spottily released as singles and album tracks, often in studio versions that differed from those featured in the film. In fact, this cast album for How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is the only original soundtrack recording released in conjunction with any of the seven AIP beach party films, but it’s an excellent example of the musical variety offered by the films.

By the time this sixth entry in the series was cast, singer-actor Frankie Avalon’s busy schedule had moved him into a supporting role, where he was not featured as a vocalist. Annette Funicello was still starring, and got two superb songs from the pens of Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner. Sung in her trademarked double-vocals, “Better Be Ready” has a sweet bubblegum melody and superb guitar hook, and “The Perfect Boy” includes clever rhymes that are memorably fractured by the background singers. The album’s ballad, “If It’s Gonna Happen,” is sung by one-time Arthur Godfrey show regular Lu Ann Simms, but this solo version differs from the four-part vocal heard in the film. The version heard here was also released as a single, backed with a solo recording of this film’s group-sung “After the Party.”

The bulk of the soundtrack is taken up by group and novelty numbers that gave the film a lot of its flavor. Harvey Lembeck lays on a broad Brooklyn accent for his turn as Eric von Zipper singing “Follow Your Leader” and the ironic “The Boy Next Door,” and guest stars Mickey Rooney and Brian Donlevy each get campy Broadway-styled songs. Co-star John Ashley, who’d recorded rockabilly in the ’50s, leads the cast on the title theme, the country-rocker “That’s What I Call a Healthy Girl” and the closing “After the Party.” The latter is particularly effective in communicating the film’s idealized summer beach mood. The Kingsmen close out the album with an original garage-rock tune, “Give Her Lovin’,” and a drums-and-organ take on the title theme.

The album runs a scant 24 minutes, but it’s 24 minutes of musical bliss for fans of the beach party films. The vinyl has long since become a collectors’ item, and the rare stereo release – as reproduced here from the master tapes – was hard to find even at the time of its original release. Real Gone’s reissue includes the original cover art and a 12-page booklet that features detailed liner notes by Tom Pickles and several full-panel photos. It’s a shame that the film version of “If It’s Gonna Happen” wasn’t available as a bonus track, but for those who maintain a soft spot for beach party films and their kitschy soundtracks, this is a truly welcome reissue. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Billy Thermal: Billy Thermal

September 10th, 2014

BillyThermal_BillyThermalA hit songwriter’s long-lost New Wave beginnings

If you read album credits, you might recognize this little-known band’s main man, Billy Steinberg, from the hit singles he’s written for everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Demi Lovato. But before penning “How Do I Make You,” “Eternal Flame,” “True Colors,” “I’ll Stand By You,” “I Touch Myself,” and “Like a Virgin,” Steinberg started a band, and named it after himself and the town in which his father owned a vineyard. Signed by producer Richard Perry to his new Planet Records label, Steinberg and his guitarist, Craig Hull, produced an album of original material that, save for “I’m Gonna Follow You” (which turned up on the Sharp Cuts compilation) failed to gain Perry’s attention. Released from their contract, an EP‘s worth of tracks (1, 2, 6, 8 and 10) gained indie release in 1982, but the rest was left in the vault.

But even stuck in a vault, the material yielded results, as three of the album’s songs and one unreleased demo were picked up by other artists. Ronstadt took “How Do I Make You” to #10 in 1980, Pat Benetar recorded “I’m Gonna Follow You” and “Precious Time,” and Rick Nelson waxed a version of “Don’t Look at Me” for his last album. The seeds of Steinberg’s songwriting success were sewn, but like a lot of songwriters, his dream of making it as a performer was not realized. The album was sharply written, played and produced and today offers itself as a bridge between the power-pop of the Raspberries and Rubinoos and the punchy new wave of the Cars. It’s an album you might have found in a cut-out bin and proselytized relentlessly to your friends – Robin Lane & The Chartbusters, anyone? – and it’s an album you’d have wished was on CD. And now, finally, it is, and spiced with bonus demos.

This is also an album that should have launched “How Do I Make You” and “I’ll Tell You My Dreams” on MTV. Perhaps Planet was too busy with Sue Saad and the Next to push another rock band, or maybe the combination of angular new wave, pop harmonies, punk rock attitude and a few progressive changes wasn’t simple enough to market. It’s hard to imagine this barrel full of hooks, terrific guitar sounds, punchy drumming and adenoidal vocals wouldn’t have found a place alongside the Vapors, Oingo Boingo and XTC. Omnivore’s reissue includes a 16-page booklet that features liner notes by Billy Steinberg, lyrics and a few period photos. After a few spins you’ll swear Billy Thermal was one of the bands that hooked you into saying “let’s just wait for one more video.” [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Billy Steinberg’s Home Page

Bobby Womack Remembered

September 8th, 2014

Bobby Womack, who passed away in June, was not only a superb soul singer, songwriter and guitarist, he was an engaging and incredibly funny personality. Terry Gross’ interview from 1999 shows off the many sides of Bobby Womack. Stream or download it here.

Kelley Mickwee: You Used to Live Here

September 4th, 2014

4PAN1TTrishas vocalist soaks her Texas twang in the Memphis River

It takes literally two seconds to feel the Aretha-in-Muscle-Shoals vibe of this disc’s opener, “River Girl.” The electric piano clues you in and the guitar nails it. And if you somehow still didn’t get it, the organ’s answer to the piano and the deep soul of the vocal leave no doubt that Kelley Mickwee has returned home to her native South. After five years in Austin as a member of the Trishas, Mickwee’s reconnected with the musical sounds of her youth, and the results are every bit as good as you might imagine. In fact, it’s startling how much this doesn’t sound like Texas music. The bass has a relaxed groove, the guitar tone is thick, and the drums linger even when they lope into a shuffle. The music hangs in the air like humidity and clings to the spiritual qualities of Mickwee’s singing.

Mickwee’s return to the River City has stirred both musical and life roots, and her songs explore both the overall feel and specific memories of Memphis living. The opener is a declaration of faith that’s echoed by the homesick longing of the follow-up, “Take Me Home.” Co-writer Kevin Welch adds a tremendous guitar solo to the former, and the latter is given some country flavor by Eric Lewis’ pedal steel. Mickwee’s passion runs deep, brooding in “You Don’t Live Here,” beseeching in John Fullbright’s “Blameless,” and prowling in the sultry “Hotel Jackson.” She sings full-throated, like Linda Ronstadt in her Capitol years, and her Austin/Memphis connection provides a double shot of soul. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Kelley Mickwee’s Home Page

Listen to “River Girl” and “Hotel Jackson

Psycho Sisters: Up on the Chair, Beatrice

September 3rd, 2014

PsychoSisters_UpOnTheChairBeatriceAn unexpected communiqué letter from the mid-90s

Susan Cowsill (of the Cowsills) and Vicki Peterson (of the Bangles) wrote and toured together in the mid-90s as the Psycho Sisters, but when Peterson returned to performing with the Bangles, and Cowsill launched a solo career, they left behind only a rare single of “Timberline” (b/w “This Painting”), concert memories, and performances backing Steve Wynn and Giant Sand. Two decades later the pair found coincidental breaks in their schedules and wound the clock back to 1992 with this debut album composed of seven originals written during the years of their initial collaboration, a trio of cover, and a CD booklet illustrated with period photos.

Not surprisingly, the album plays like a long-delayed communiqué from the ’90s. Peterson’s superb co-write with her future brother-in-law, Bob Cowsill, “Never, Never Boys,” could have been one of the better pages of the Bangles’ songbook. Peterson’s electric guitar and the vocal arrangement reach back to the Bangles’ folkier, pre-stardom sound, and the lost-boys theme snapshots a time before Peterson and Cowsill’s marriages. The opening cover “Heather Says” reaches back even further to the Cowsills’ last album, 1971′s On My Side. Written by Waddy Wachtel, the song’s story of a grade-school bully lends the adult voices a tone of youthful confusion, and the Cowsills’ original harmonies provide baroque inspiration for this duet.

Cowsill and Peterson were in their mid-30s at the start of the Psycho Sisters, and their songwriting highlights a period of transition from carefree youth to more responsible adulthood. Their thirst for boys turned into a yearning for men, and unsettled relationships turned from fun to unfulfilling. The songs are stocked with problematic couplings, but their breakups are less about wounds than growth. A take on Peter Holsapple’s “What Do You Want From Me” kisses off and moves on, and Harry Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy,” whose cheery tone (and oh-so-dreamy singer) probably trumped its snarky lyrics in the ears of a teenage Susan Cowsill, gains new meaning when sung by women.

One’s twenties often reveal the certainty of your teenage years to have been laughable. You realize that you only thought you knew everything in your teens, but now, in your twenties, you really do. Your thirties repeat the cycle, but with a hint of doubt that hasn’t yet blossomed into full introspection; if your twenties reveal the truth of your teens, what do your thirties reveal of your twenties? These songs reflect the growing shades of grey brought about by age, and sung by their authors in their fifties, these songs gain both a nostalgic tint and extra decades of emotional patina. It’s a rarity to hear artists reflect upon their earlier reflections, and a treat to find Cowsill and Peterson still singing in artistic harmony. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

The Psycho Sisters’ Facebook Page

The Revelers: Swamp Pop Classics, Volume 1

September 2nd, 2014

Revelers_SwampPopClassicsVolume1Hot covers of four swamp-pop favorites

Founding members from two of Louisiana’s freshest bands of the past decade – the Red Stick Ramblers and the Pine Leaf Boys – have joined together to produce this four-song salute to swamp pop. Swamp pop is a label given to the late-50s amalgam of southern R&B, soul, doo-wop, country, Cajun and zydeco influences heard in chart hits like Jimmy Clanton’s “Just a Dream,” Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love” Grace and Dale’s “I’m Leaving It Up To You,’ and most famous of all (due to Bill Haley’s rock ‘n’ roll cover), Bobby Charles’ classic “Later Alligator.”

The EP opens with a Cajun-influenced arrangement of “Let the Good Times Roll,” that combines accordion, horns and second-line drumming with electric guitar and bass that lean to Chicago R&B. Bobby Charles’ “Grow Too Old” brings the R&B focus back to New Orleans, and Jerry LaCroix’s “Lonely Room” echoes the ’50s vocal thread that runs through many swamp pop originals. The closing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a horns-and-organ soul instrumental [1 2] juiced with a hot tempo, Blake Miller’s accordion, and a sizzling sax solo from the band’s newest addition, Chris Miller.

This is available on vinyl from the band’s website, or as a digital download from retail; either way, it’s sure to heat up your dance party. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

The Revelers’ Home Page

Matt Harlan: Raven Hotel

August 19th, 2014

MattHarlan_RavenHotelTexas singer-songwriter is a poet and storyteller

Matt Harlan is a singer-songwriter whose original folk tunes are leavened with country twang and dusted with Texas soul. He’s tramped the blue highways of the U.S. and Europe (and written this album’s “Raven Hotel” about the ravages of touring), played intimate stages, house concerts and festivals, was lauded as last year’s Texas Music Award singer-songwriter of the year, and was featured alongside Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett in the documentary For the Sake of the Song. After a sophomore effort recorded with a Danish backing band, he’s returned to Texas to lay down a dozen new originals with help from Bukka Allen, Mickey Raphael and other area luminaries.

Harlan’s both a storyteller and a poet, illustrating his stories with memorable similes, and realizing his images with narrative detail. His lyrics of hard times take on the weary tone of Chris Knight, but unlike Knight’s often unrelenting bleakness, Harlan’s troubles are redeemed by dreams of forgiveness and the possibility of progress. The wounds of “We Never Met” are addressed with a fatalism that points forward, and the haggard trucker’s regrets in the superbly drawn “Second Gear” are grounded in hard-worn pride. Social commentary and glances towards the exit are juxtaposed in “Rock & Roll,” with an electric backing and matter-of-fact vocal that echoes Dire Straits.

Harlan turns to jazz with “Burgandy and Blue,” and to blues with “Slow Moving Train”; the latter features Mickey Raphael’s unmistakable harmonica and a duet vocal from Harlan’s wife, Rachel Jones. Jones brings a delicate, whisper-edged lead vocal to the free-spirited “Riding with the Wind.” The album closes with its most overt declarations of hope and dreams in “The Optimist” and “Rearview Display,” though as is Harlan’s way, his protagonists are clear-eyed as they contemplate the burdens of both limitations and freedom. This is a deeply written collection, sung with a storyteller’s magnetism and a poet’s magic. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Matt Harlan’s Home Page

Nick Heyward: He Doesn’t Love You Like I Do

August 18th, 2014

Remember when this song was everywhere, and you bought the album From Monday to Sunday and thought that as refreshing as had been Haircut 100′s Pelican West, Nick Heyward’s solo work was taking things to a new level? Then, remember how over the years you’d pull out this album to relive its catchy melodies and spot-on vocals, harmonies, arrangements and production? Remember that? No? Well, in a just world, that’s how it would have played out. Luckily, in this commercially fickle world, the album sounds just as good today as it did in 1994, whether you heard it back then or not.

Carolina Story: Chapter Two

July 27th, 2014

CarolinaStory_ChapterTwoStrong country duets from Nashville husband and wife

The empathy shared by great duet singers can take your breath away. The ways in which a duo’s voices complement, compete and provoke one another, the weaving of a harmony line above, below and around a melody, and the connection of two voices as they race around banked curves make listeners eavesdroppers as much audience. The Nashville-based Carolina Story, Ben and Emily Roberts, is just such a pair, a married couple whose duets bring mind the the Everly Brothers, Richard & Mimi Farina, and the more recent twang of Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs.

The opening pair of tracks from this six-song EP sets the bar high. The first finds the duo rolling along to acoustic guitar, banjo, steel and a light beat as they celebrate the forging of their professional and matrimonial relationships in the crucible of a tour. The follow-on “Crash and Burn” is touched with blues, Dan Dugmore’s hard-twanging steel and a vocal that careens into a yodel. As memorable as are their duets, their solo turns on “When I Was Just a Boy” and “The Stranger,” show off lyrical voices steeped heavily in emotional reflection.

The set rolls to a close with the irrepressible duets “I Won’t Let You Down” and “I’m Gonna Love You Forever.” The former would have fit nicely into the 1990s era that found Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless and Martina McBride breaking through to radio; the latter is an upbeat love song whose thesis is as direct as the song’s title. Paired with last year’s Chapter One, these six new tracks extend a partnership whose personal dimensions continue to pay off in artistic wealth. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Carolina Story’s Home Page