RIP Jack Bruce

October 25th, 2014

Jack Bruce, legendary bassist, singer and songwriter, passed away Saturday, October 25 at the age of 71.

Paul Collins: Feel the Noise

October 18th, 2014

PaulCollins_FeelTheNoiseThe Dorian Gray of power pop

From the vintage front cover photo to the electric guitars, winsome melodies and lyrical longing, neither Paul Collins nor his music seems to be aging. Having broken in with the Nerves in the mid-70s, and more prominently with the Beat by decade’s end, Collins moved on to explore country rock on a pair of solo albums in the ’90s. His pop-rock roots reemerged on 2004′s Flying High and 2008′s Ribbon of Gold, and he explicitly reclaimed his crown with 2010′s Jim Diamond-produced King of Power Pop. This second collaboration with Diamond expands on the sonics of the first – vocals ragged with rock ‘n’ roll passion, guitars that slam and chime, and a rhythm section that makes sure you feel the backbeat.

Collins’ writes of rock ‘n’ roll itself on “Feel the Noise” and euphemistically with “I Need My Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but his primary muse remains, as it started out nearly 40 years ago, women. The eighth-note pop of “Only Girl” and “Little Suzy” bring to mind the irrepressible desire of the Beat’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Girl,” and Collins turns positively carnal on “Baby I Want You.” The great mid-tempo numbers of Bobby Fuller, Gary Lewis and the Beatles are echoed in “With a Girl Like You,” and “Don’t Know How to Treat a Lady” riffs on the Beatles’ “You’re Going to Lose That Girl.”

The set’s lone cover is a Clash-inspired take on the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There” that fits with the originals, and the disc closes with the ’50s-inspired “Walk Away.” Throughout the album, Collins captures everything from the chiming craft of Buddy Holly to the raw energy of the Ramones, and both at once with “Baby I’m in Love With You.” Those who’ve been soaking in music delivered by advertising, television and film, may be surprised at the total lack of apology with which Collins and his producer deliver the guitar, bass and drums. Red-blooded rock ‘n’ roll may have mostly lost its place in the mainstream, but it still resounds with youthful energy no matter your age. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Paul Collins’ Home Page

Gene Rains: Far Away Lands – The Exotic Music of Gene Rains

October 18th, 2014

GeneRains_FarAwayLandsAn exotica original finally gets his digital due

Like his exotica compatriot Arthur Lyman, Gene Rains was a vibraphonist with a jazz background. And like Lyman, and Lyman’s former band leader Martin Denny, Rains held a tenure at the Hawaiian Village Hotel’s famed Shell Bar. Unlike Lyman and Denny, however, Rains recording career was rather short – three original albums in all – and began a few years after Denny’s 1957 breakthrough with Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village” and Lyman’s return to exotica with 1958′s Taboo. Rains’ three albums for Decca didn’t gain the public renown that greeted Denny and Lyman’s releases, and until this eighteen-track sampler, his music remained available only on pricey, highly sought-after original releases.

Rains’ albums followed the same template as Denny’s and Lyman’s, combining Hawaiian folk melodies with standards, Broadway and film tunes and newly written island songs. Rains’ jazz quartet of vibes, piano, bass and world percussion were deft mixologists, and Decca’s engineers captured their sound in crisp, audiophile-quality recordings. The arrangements are alternately lush, romantic and dramatic, though even with vibraphone at their core, they don’t often swing as freely as Lyman’s work. Pianists Paul Conrad and Bryon Peterson add dramatic arpeggios and deep low notes, and bassist Archie Grant (who’d join Arthur Lyman’s group in the mid-60s) also adds flute, and several tunes are garnished with exotica’s requisite bird and animal calls.

Many of this compilation’s titles will be familiar to those who’ve collected Denny’s and Lyman’s albums, but Rains and his quartet put their own spin on the arrangements. Ernesto Lecuona’s “Jungle Drums,” which had been a hit for Artie Shaw in the late ’30s, opens with a dramatic introduction before leaning more heavily on the song’s Latin rhythm than Martin Denny’s vocal chorus arrangement. And “Caravan” (one of the three pillars of Exotica) is really more jazz than exotica, with the vibes, piano and bass each getting a solo spotlight. This is a superb collection, filled with lively playing and original nuances, and the song list includes exotica classics, jazz and popular standards, and a few inventive adaptations.

The collection’s 16-page booklet includes full-panel reproductions of all three original albums’ front and back covers, liner notes by Randy Poe, and a front-cover photo of noted mermaid, Marina; the disc is screened with a reproduction of Decca’s rainbow label. Due to a loss of the original masters, this set was sourced from vinyl, but the transfers, though not flawless, speak to the long-lived high fidelity of early ’60s pressings. It’s too bad that Real Gone didn’t go the full monty and reissue the three original albums in full; still, some Gene Rains is a whole lot better than no Gene Rains, and this disc belongs in the collection of every exotica lover. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

The Kinks: The Essential Kinks

October 14th, 2014

Kinks_Essential30 years of pivotal music on two fully-packed CDs

The Kinks touched so many musical bases that two full CDs (79 minutes each!) can still only outline their story. They blazed the British Invasion’s trail with “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night,” and supplied a steady stream of ever-more finely-written hits into the early ’70s. In parallel with their singles success, the band’s vocalist and primary songwriter, Ray Davies, wrote compelling B-sides and sketched out thematic collections that turned into a string of inventive concept albums. Davies ruminated on British culture, society, working class life and schooling, show business and the record industry in ever-more ambitious and increasingly theatrical productions that couched his lyrical alienation in satire, nostalgia and music hall tradition.

Banned from performing in the U.S. from 1965 until 1969, the band’s success on the American charts quickly faded. But elsewhere, particularly in their native Britain, they continued to land hit singles (including “Dead End Street,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “Death of a Clown” and “Autumn Almanac”), and their albums continued to attract critical praise. Although the band returned to the U.S. in 1969 to promote Arthur, “Autumn Almanac” signaled the start of a fallow commercial period, with a brief respite from 1968′s “Days.” At the same time, Davies was crafting what was to be among the Kinks’ most revered albums, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.

Though not a commercial success at the time of its release, Village Green has grown to be the group’s best selling album, and the album track “Picture Book” gained belated exposure in a 2004 HP commercial. By 1969 the group reestablished themselves commercially with the singles “Victoria,” “Lola” and “Apeman,” and the well-regarded albums Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One and Muswell Hillbillies. The latter represented their shift from Pye/Reprise to RCA, and unfortunately for the latter’s immediate commercial returns, Davies’ preoccupation with theatrical concept albums led to a string of early ’70s releases that failed to garner any singles action. On the other hand, the albums slowly rebuilt the group’s album sales in the U.S., and led to renewed chart action later in the decade.

Davies finally moved on from writing rock operas (and the Kinks from RCA to Arista) with 1977′s Sleepwalker, and the group returned to the American charts with the album’s title track. Their next few albums found an audience with U.S. record buyers, and the band became a regular concert draw. The latter success was memorialized on 1980′s Top 20 One for the Road, and represented here by live versions of “Lola” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone.” Two years later the group had their last major commercial success with State of Confusion and the single “Come Dancing.” The latter even broke through to MTV with a heavily spun video. The group’s remaining albums, through 1993′s Phobia, garnered less and less commercial attention, as did their singles, though they did continue to find a home on rock radio into the early ’90s.

Legacy’s 2-CD, 48-track, 2-hour and 39-minute collection does an admirable job of surveying the group’s lengthy catalog, covering early mono productions (disc one, tracks 1-13), UK and US hits, deeply-loved album tracks, concert favorites and live performances (including a terrific 1972 rendition of “Till the End of the Day” drawn from the CD reissue of Everybody’s in Show-Biz). The timeline spans releases from Pye/Reprise, RCA, Arista and Columbia, and stretches from the band’s primal first hit, 1964′s “You Really Got Me,” to their final release for Columbia, 1993′s “Scattered.” Absent are stellar early B-sides like “I Gotta Move” and “Come On Now,” tracks from Schoolboys in DisgracePercy and the band’s two 1980′s album for MCA, but what’s here paints a compelling overview of a band whose three decades of music outstripped even the sizeable recognition it’s received over the past fifty years. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

The Kinks’ Home Page

The Pretenders: Mystery Achievement (1979)

September 30th, 2014

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