The Sneetches: Form of Play – A Retrospective

May 26th, 2017

Retrospective of undeservedly obscure Bay Area pop band

Amid the post-punk, indie-rock and the phoenix-like rise of grunge, there was a thread of late-80s pop that focused on melody and craft. The dB’s, Game Theory and Bongos were more cerebral than their power-pop counterparts but no less fetching to listen to. And standing tall artistically, if not in record sales, was San Francisco’s Sneetches. Initially formed as a duo of Mike Levy and Matt Carges, the group became a bassless trio with the addition of drummer Daniel Swan (ex-Cortinas), and a quartet with the addition of bassist Alec Palao (ex-Sting-Rays). Their releases nearly snuck out in singles, EPs and albums across multiple labels (including Kaleidoscope, Creation, Alias, spinART and Bus Stop), and though there was no commercial success, they were well-loved by a coterie of fans and well-played by in-the-know college radio stations.

This first-ever career retrospective collects material ranging from Levy and Carges’ terrific first single, 1985’s “Only For a Moment,” through a solidly-played 1994 live date at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. In between are stops at singles, albums and a pair of previously unreleased studio tracks that include the euphorically melodic “Juliana Why” and an acoustic demo of “How Does It Feel.” It’s a fair cross-section of the group’s guitar-driven pop, with nods to the Beatles, Zombies, Big Star, Velvet Underground, Buzzcocks and others, and its retrospection provides a double layer of nostalgia as listeners listen back to the ‘80s listening back to the ‘60s and ‘70s. The arrangements center on guitars, bass and drums, but horns and keyboards add dimension to a few tracks, and Levy’s vocals stretch into falsetto for “They Keep Me Running” and hypnotic repetition for the psych-tinged “Take My Hand.”

Sneetches bassist (and noted archivist and reissue producer) Alec Palao scoured the vaults for the live tracks and unreleased material, but more importantly, hard-to-find singles mixes that recount the story as it unfolded to the band’s original fans. Missing is material from their 1993 collaboration with the Flamin’ Groovies’ Chris Wilson, but given that it’s really a Chris Wilson record, the minutes are better spent here on original Sneetches material. The 16-page booklet is filled with photos and liner notes by Palao that provide an inside look at the band and life as a Sneetch. At twenty-two tracks, clocking in at seventy-seven minutes, this is a good buy for those just meeting the band, but also those who collected everything along the way. Fans may find a few favorite tracks (*cough* “54 Hours”) missing, but what’s here is a great introduction, with bonuses that sweeten the pot. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

The Easybeats: Vigil

May 26th, 2017

The Easybeats’ fifth studio album was released in several different forms. The 14-track UK release was slimmed to 12 tracks, resequenced and retitled Falling Off The Edge Of The World for the U.S. market. In the group’s native Australia, the album retained its title and cover art, but lost three cover songs, gained the original “Bring a Little Lovin’,” and was issued only in mono. It’s this latter Australian release, with its track list, sequencing and mono master, that’s featured on this limited edition Record Store Day 2017 reissue. In addition to the multiple configurations of the album’s release, its construction was likewise multiheaded, as two songs recorded in mid-1967 with Glyn Johns (for the shelved Good Friday album) were combined with material recorded later the same year with Mike Vaughan.

The Australian edition sticks entirely to Vanda-Young originals, but there’s a great deal of musical range on offer. Soul influences course through the hard-grooving opener “Good Times,” rhythmic “See Saw,” mid-tempo “What in the World, and psych-gospel “Come in You’ll Get Pneumonia.” The group dips its toes into bubblegum-ska on “Sha La, La, La, Leah,” but more interesting is the social social commentary of “We All Live Happily Together” and the baroque polish of “Land of Make Believe.” And speaking of polish, the soft-pop closer, “Hello How Are You” may be the album’s most audacious in its distance from the group’s roots. There are numerous musical highlights here, if not an artistic vision that pulls it all together. Get Varese’s vinyl for the mono punch, and the CD for the bonus tracks. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Los Straitjackets: What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets

May 24th, 2017

It takes a quirky band to cover a quirky man

As his career matured, Nick Lowe developed a measure of respectability that might have surprised his younger self; particularly the irreverent Nick Lowe who recorded as The Tartan Horde and titled his solo debut The Jesus of Cool. Lowe’s lyrics have always drawn listener attention, but his melodies, as emphasized in these instrumental treatments, deserve their share of the limelight. By reimagining each song, sometimes quite radically, Los Straitjackets have freed the melodies to strike entirely new moods. Pathos is turned on its head with a snappy arrangement of “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide,” and the dark emotional territory of “I Live on a Battlefield” is brightened with a vintage dance beat. “Heart of the City” is still upbeat, but now with Duane Eddy-styled twang, and the relentlessly ebullient “Rollers Show” is crossed between a Shadows-styled bandstand piece and something Chet Atkins might have recorded for teenagers. Lowe’s lone worldwide hit, “Cruel to Be Kind,” is taken downtempo to a very contemplative place, and the folk-rock treatment of the title track is more reminiscent of Lowe’s later solo work than the song’s origin. This is a delightfully original twist on Nick Lowe tributes that have included Lowe Profile, Labor of Love and Lowe Country; all that’s missing is Lowe’s own instrumental, “Shake That Rat,” which the band covered on 2001’s Sing Along With Los Straitjackets. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Los Straitjackets’ Home Page
Nick Lowe’s Home Page

Procol Harum: Shine on Brightly

May 22nd, 2017

Vinyl reissue of second LP, with original U.S. artwork and gatefold

As indelible as Procol Harum’s first single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” has become, the band managed to flourish artistically amid only middling commercial success. Other than a live release, their many albums never cracked the Top 20, and only a small sprinkle of singles did any better. But the band persevered and continued to release new material through the mid-70s, regrouped in the 90’s, ‘00s and most recently for the newly issued Novum. This 1968 release was their second, following the success of their debut single and its follow-up “Homburg.” The album failed to chart in the group’s native England, and topped out at #28 in the U.S.

The album’s first side follows the direction of their self-titled debut, mixing rock and soul with progressive changes into three- and four-minute songs. All of the sounds that defined the first album were retained for the second – Gary Brooker’s smoky vocals, Matthew Fisher’s soulful organ, Robin Trower’s buzzing guitar and Keith Reid’s poetic lyrics. The album’s second side cuts loose, for better or worse, with the seventeen-minute, five part prog-rock suite “In Held ‘Twas In I.” Better, because it was an interesting artistic leap; worse, because it opened the floodgates to a wave of self-indulgent wankery.

The suite opens with drone-backed spoken word, and gets heavier as it mixes progressive rock, psychedelia, classical, vocal choruses and studio craft. You can hear the storms of pomposity on the horizon, but at this point it still felt organic. Varese’s Record Store Day 2017 reissue reproduces the U.S. release’s cover art and gatefold. Completists will want to pick up a CD reissue for the bonus B-sides, but the 12” gatefold cover (which provides a handy surface on which to separate seeds and stems from leaves), and the physicality of flipping the disc will help you relive this album’s place in time. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Procol Harum Fan Site

Blackfoot Gypsies: To the Top

May 22nd, 2017

East Nashville blues-soaked rock ‘n’ roll

Oh rock ‘n’ roll, where have you been? Where have your pounding bass lines, screaming saxophones, scorching guitars and wild-eyed vocals been hiding? The Blackfoot Gypsies make the case for East Nashville, as their third album marries together the roots-rock swagger of the Black Crowes, the grit of the early-70s Stones, the West Coast country of the Byrds and Burritos, and the wildness of 1960s garage rock. In addition to reminding you of the Crowes’ Chris Robinson, Matthew Paige might remind you of Steve Marriott, Ian Hunter or Willie Nile, and the band draws on each of these singers’ groups without landing squarely on any one.

The guitars that open the album echo the Kinks “I Need You,” accompanied in the front seat by the rhythm section, Paige’s howling vocal and Ollie Dogg’s wailing harmonica. There’s barely a breath before Dylan Whitlow’s driving bass and Paul Thacker’s urgent sax push “Everybody’s Watching” into the red. Paige and drummer Zack Murphy lock into their shared roots as the founding two piece Murphy describes as “everything in the extreme.” Even when dialed down, the folk-country “Potatoes and Whiskey” and country-blues “Velvet Low Down Blues” are still edgy.

There’s a twist of soul on “Everybody’s Watching,” second-line roll on “Back to New Orleans,” Jan & Dean-styled backing vocals on “Promise to Keep” and a Bo Diddley beat on “Gypsy Queen.” The rootsy “Woman Woman” suggests the Band, and the hard blues of “I’ve Got the Blues” echoes Led Zeppelin in acoustic mode. There’s longing, loneliness, drinking and mean, mistreating women, but more in a blues vein than country, and “I Wanna Be Famous” thrashes out a swipe at those famous for being famous. At 62 minutes, the album’s intensity can get a bit exhausting, but there’s no doubting the band’s talent and groove. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Blackfoot Gypsies’ Home Page

The Zombies: Odessey & Oracle

May 19th, 2017

50th anniversary of 1968 standout, with bonus tracks

Standing out among the class of ‘68 is tough. And yet, against The Beatles, Astral Weeks, Electric Ladyland, Beggars Banquet, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, White Light/White Heat, Bookends and dozens of others, the Zombies’ swan song made its mark. Perhaps it stands in relief by virtue of its 1967 recording dates – sessions held amid, and no doubt inspired by, 1967’s torrent of musical landmarks and social movements. Or maybe it was the group’s impending sense of professional doom, invention born of a constrained budget, the choice to self-produce and the artistic freedom to record all original material. Whatever the inspiration, the result was one of 1968’s lasting musical achievements.

Achievement and epitaph, actually, as the group disbanded at the end of 1967, four months before the album was released in April 1968 to critical acclaim and little commercial response. A quartet of UK and US singles failed before a re-release of “Time of the Season” finally reached #3 US in early 1969. Worse, with the Zombies disbanded and Rod Argent having formed his eponymous follow-on group, the chance to capitalize on the single’s belated success fell largely to fake touring units. Argent and Chris White recorded material for a 1969 Zombies release, but other than the singles “Imagine the Swan” and “If It Don’t Work Out,” the tapes languished in the vault until their eventual release as R.I.P.

Recorded primarily on the same Abbey Road 4-track as was Sgt. Pepper’s, Odessey & Oracle was carefully rehearsed and laid down quickly. Initially mixed to mono, a stereo mix was created afterwards, and it’s the latter that’s reproduced here. Varese augments the original dozen tracks with seven bonuses, including the mono B-side “I’ll Call You Mine,” a horn-free, stereo mix of “This Will Be Our Year,” and backing tracks and alternate mixes that include a scrapped cello overdub on “A Rose for Emily.” The 12-page booklet includes photos, ephemera and liner notes by Andrew Sandoval that quote interviews conducted by Alec Palao and Claes Johansen. The stereo mix is welcome, but the mono is missed. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

The Zombies’ Home Page

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen: Live From Ebbets Field

April 27th, 2017

Live from the Denver ozone in 1973

For many rock listeners, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s 1971 debut, Lost in the Ozone, was a taste-expanding experience. The group’s catalog of country, western swing, boogie-woogie, jump blues and rockabilly was broader than the country excursions of 1960s rock bands like the Byrds, and though others – notably NRBQ – blended multiple genres, the Airmen’s cover of “Hot Rod Lincoln” turned commercial attention into a following. The band hit the road in 1973 in support of their third album, Country Casanova, with a new-used tour bus and ace steel player Bobby Black in tow. The tour schedule was apparently quite grueling, but produced superb shows, including this stop in Denver, Colorado.

The group’s core lineup – George “Commander Cody” Frayne, Billy C. Farlow, Bill Kirchen, John Tichy, Lance Dickerson, Andy Stein and Bruce Barlow – had been steady since their debut, and the chemistry they’d developed in San Francisco Bay Area clubs is evident in this set. They weave together a handful of originals with a wealth of brilliantly selected covers, including sad truckin’ songs, rockin’ rave-ups, Cajun and swing dance numbers, novelty tunes and a cowboy closer. The stereo recording is well preserved, though there are major dropouts on “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” and “Diggy Liggy Lo,” and the live mix lets some of the instruments and vocals peak in the red.

The set features three tracks from Country Casanova, including the original “Rock That Boogie,” but skips the earlier hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” The Commander gets a spotlight on Merle Travis’ “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” and the crowd seems quite pleased with the set and six song encore. The 1973 tour has now produced several albums, including the classic Live From Deep In The Heart Of Texas and the more recent Tour From Hell. There are a few overlaps in the set lists, but the group’s huge repertoire provides eleven songs here that don’t appear on the other two. There’s a bit of stage banter to give you a feel for the 68-minute show; all that’s missing is the evening’s second set! [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Commander Cody’s Home Page

Flamin’ Groovies: Live 1971 San Francisco

April 24th, 2017

Historic Flamin’ Groovies live date – closing the Fillmore West 1971

Not only was this live date part of a series of shows closing Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, it was also co-founder Roy Loney’s last show with the Groovies. Having just released Teenage Head, the table seemed set for the Groovies; but a disinterested label, a malicious manager and the loss of guitarist Tim Lynch deflated Loney’s interest, and led to his departure. The Groovies wandered off into the wilderness for several years before returning with two mid-70s albums (Shake Some Action and Now) produced by Dave Edmunds. This 1971 date represents the last exhalation of the band’s initial incarnation.

The band’s early act has been surprisingly well represented on disc, including shows from 1968 and 1970. This 1971 performance turned up in edited form on Norton’s 1997 release In Person!!!!, but on this edition RockBeat restores Bill Graham’s spoken introduction, the band’s uncut cover of the Who’s “Can’t Explain,” and all eleven minutes of “Road House,” including a drum solo! The lack of edits is a plus, but there appear to be more spots of fading and channel dropouts than the earlier release. The artifacts don’t kill the buzz of hearing the Groovies in their prime, but listeners should adjust their expectations.

The night’s set featured several of the Groovies’ early classics, including “Slow Death” and “Teenage Head,” and covers of Chuck Berry, Randy Newman, Johnny Kidd, Rufus Thomas, Bo Diddley, and the national anthem of rock ‘n’ roll, “Louie, Louie.” As Cyril Jordan recounts in the liner notes, the band fell in and out of Bill Graham’s favor, so their surprise at being asked to play one of the Fillmore’s closing shows seems to have translated into musical intensity. Graham may not have always cared about the Groovies, but the Groovies cared about playing the Fillmore, and gave it everything they had, one last time. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

The Flamin’ Groovies’ Facebook Page

Curtis Knight [featuring Jimi Hendrix]: Live at George’s Club 20

April 21st, 2017

Jimi “Jimmy James” Hendrix, transitioning from R&B sideman to star

Last year’s You Can’t Use My Name rescued Hendrix’s early career as a featured sideman for R&B singer Curtis Knight. During his lifetime, Hendrix resented his work with Knight being represented as his own artistic statement, but in retrospect, those studio recordings, and now these mid-60s live dates, help flesh out Hendrix’s climb up the professional ladder to stardom. These do not represent Hendrix’s explosive creativity of just a year later, but they show off the solid blues grounding that provided him a launching pad, his growing confidence as a performer, and his emergence as a musical leader. He hadn’t yet been afforded the stage space for his wildest innovations, but neither was he still marking time as a sideman. Hendrix crams a lot of playing into short solos, with vocal asides to himself and the crowd, and even his rhythm playing had a snap one wouldn’t expect from a backing player.

The songs includes titles from Howlin’ Wolf, Hank Ballard, Bo Diddley, Smokey Robinson, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Albert King and Earl King, with the blues titles providing the most excitement. Albert Collins’ “Driving South” – a song Hendrix took with him to the Experience – provides an especially fiery showcase. The tapes are amateur recordings that had no obvious historical value at the time, and though rough, they’re quite listenable. The vocals (which trade off leads between Knight and Hendrix) and guitar are up-front, the guitar reflecting both the volume at which Hendrix played and his musical leadership. Eddie Kramer’s restoration and Bernie Grundman’s mastering peel away years of edits, overdubs and studio effects that sought to bury the ephemeral, primitive beauty of the original recordings. Fans only perhaps, but Hendrix has a lot of fans. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Jimi Hendrix’s Home Page

Derrick Anderson: A World of My Own

April 19th, 2017

Veteran L.A. power-pop bassist steps back into the spotlight

Bassist Derrick Anderson may not be a household name, but those he’s played with – Dave Davies and the Bangles, among others – certainly are. His eponymous L.A.band featured power pop luminary Robbie Rist, and released a pair of albums to considerable fan enthusiasm. The band’s conceit – that the three core members were half-brothers by a shared father – put Anderson’s name on the cover, but shared musical credit. On this solo debut he’s backed by a who’s who of famous fans, including the Smithereens, Bangles, Cowsills, Andersons!, Matthew Sweet, Kim Shattuck, Tommy Keene and Steve Barton.

Anderson plays bass with a McCartney-like buoyancy and sings in a voice that remains, as it did with the Andersons!, decades younger than his chronological age. Interestingly, the essential questions of youth still resound in his songs, but with the adolescent angst of typical power-pop replaced by midlife perspective. Anderson’s empathy and solace are more superego than id, his quests more philosophy than impulse, and the life in “my whole life” is richer in his fifties than it could have ever been in his twenties. It’s an interesting twist on classic themes, one that others have explored as they aged, but few realized on their first solo outing.

The songs range from the Revolver-esque “Happiness” to the soul-infused rocker “Stop Messin’ About,” and there’s even a heavy, Lenny Kravitz-style cover of “Norwegian Wood.” The distinctive harmonies of the Bangles are heard on “Something New” and “Spring,” and the Cowsills on “A Mother’s Love,” but it’s Anderson’s layered vocals on the rave-up “Phyllis & Sharon” and the optimistic “My Prediction” that make his personal mark. The results are, as Vicki Peterson labeled them, “timeless,” with Anderson’s talent, craft and experience making for an unusually mature “debut.” [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Derrick Anderson’s Home Page