Dusty Springfield: Come for a Dream – The U.K. Sessions 1970-1971

August 17th, 2015

DustySpringfield_ComeForADreamDusty Springfield’s little-known 1970-71 UK sessions

It takes a star of nearly unparalleled stature to hold separate recording contracts for the U.S. and the rest of the world, each on its own label, and each producing its own sessions and releases. But that’s just how Dusty Springfield was situated when her stateside contract with Philips expired in 1968, and a new U.S.-only contract was struck with Atlantic. Philips retained the right to record and release Springfield’s records outside the U.S., as well as gaining access to material recorded by Atlantic. Atlantic gained a reciprocal right to Philips-recorded material, but opted to stick with their own sessions, leaving a period of Springfield’s UK late-60s and early-70s work unfamiliar to American ears. The intervening decades have seen most of this material released on U.S. compilations, but not always in collections that reflect the original sessions or artistic intent.

Earlier this year, Real Gone expanded Springfield’s early-70s catalog with the lost Atlantic album Faithful, and they now hop the pond to collect  material from UK sessions that formed the core of the 1972 Philips-released See All Her Faces. Philips combined nine tracks from UK sessions with a handful of Atlantic singles and B-sides to create an album with numerous high points, but neither a great deal of consistency, nor a full-telling of Springfield’s London session work. Rhino collected much of the UK material on 1999’s Dusty in London, but by zeroing in on 1970-71, and adding three tracks left off the Rhino collection (“Goodbye,” “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” “Go My Love”) and a rehearsal construction of “O-o-h Child,” Real Gone has fashioned a disc that tells a more coherent story than either Philips’ 1972 album or Rhino’s later compilation.

Springfield was always soulful, even as her material stretched across sambas, film themes and pop, and her style was so unique as to possess even well-known material like Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” Goffin and King’s “Wasn’t Born to Follow” and the Young Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.” The smokiness of her voice was an obvious fit for soul songs “Crumbs Off the Table” and “Girls it Ain’t Easy,” but also perfectly suited to sambas by Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Come For a Dream”) and Spike Milligan (“Goodbye”), film themes (“I Start Counting”) and sophisticated pop (Jimmy Webb’s “Mixed Up Girl” and Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young”). The album’s orchestrations (variously by Jimmy Horowitz, Peter Knight, Keith Mansfield, Derek Wadsworth and Wally Stott) include strings and horns that provide a perfect pocket for Springfield’s voice.

Springfield temporarily abandoned the 1970 album project after initial July sessions, shifting to the U.S. to record with Jeff Barry, and not returning until late 1971 to finish “Sweet Inspiration” and record “A Song For You” and a rehearsal of “O-o-h Child.” The material from the 1970-71 UK sessions was smartly selected from a wide spectrum of styles and sources, and if not entirely consistent as an album, the individual performances show off the stylistic flexibility of Springfield’s voice and her broad artistic reach. Joe Marchese’s liner notes provide career context, session-by-session and song-by-song notes, and the keen observation that pulling these orphaned sessions together finally gives them a proper home. This is a great set for Springfield fans that haven’t already assembled the tracks from multiple other releases. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Knack: Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun House

August 16th, 2015

Knack_RockNRollFunHouseThe Knack capitalize on their catalog and live chops

After the Knack’s blazing success with 1979’s Get the Knack and its omnipresent single “My Sharona,” the band’s commercial fortunes quickly faded amid critical blowback. Two more albums and the band went its separate ways after 1981’s Round Trip. But there was too much chemistry – particularly on-stage – for them to remain apart, and the next decade saw reunions for tours and studio albums, two of which (Zoom and Normal as the Next Guy) are now joined in reissue by the group’s last recording project, 2001’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun House. They’d continue to tour until lead vocalist Doug Feiger’s passing in 2010, but this live-in-the-studio project was their last full project together, resulting in both a CD and DVD.

Recorded in a television studio, in front of a small audience of friends, family and fans, the group showed off the live show that had built the fan base that had launched their career. The song list is a well-crafted mix of hits, album tracks and a closing medley of “Tequila” and “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” that shows off the group’s sense of whimsy, musical reach and Berton Averre’s stellar lead guitar. The original fifteen tracks are augmented on this reissue by a pair of performances (“It’s Not Me” and “Seven Days of Heaven,” drawn from Normal as the Next Guy) that were left off the original CD. This may be an even better introduction to the Knack than a greatest hits album, since it highlights both their hits and stage show. Great for fans and newbies alike. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Knack’s Home Page

The Muffs: The Muffs

August 15th, 2015

Muffs_MuffsThe Muffs debut reissued with ten bonus tracks!

When the Pandoras turned to metal and subsequently dissolved in the wake of Paula Pierce’s death, Kim Shattuck and Melanie Vammen joined with Ronnie Barrett and Criss Crass to form the pop-punk Muffs. Vammen moved from keyboards to guitar, and Shattuck from bass to guitar, principal songwriter and lead vocalist. Barrett (bass) and Crass (drums) provided a solid rhythm section behind Shattuck and Vammen’s wall of electric guitars, and Shattuck sang with the assertiveness of someone who, after years as a band member, was raring to step out front. Shattuck wrote about her relationship with then-boyfriend Barrett, those around her, including the stalker of “Everywhere I Go” and her former bandleader Paula Pierce on “Eye to Eye,” and the occasional fiction, including the girl-group tinged “Baby Go Round.”

Omnivore’s reissue expands the original album with ten excellent bonus tracks, including a radio remix of “Lucky Guy,” the demo version of “Everywhere I Go” (which was on the original cassette release of the album), and eight previously unreleased 4-track songwriter demos. The latter include early versions of the album’s “All For Nothing” (with an electric guitar that was changed to acoustic for the finished track), “Not Like Me” (without the final version’s bouncy bass and drums), “Saying Goodbye” (originally titled “Saying Goodbye to Phil” and taken at a slower tempo), and a demo version of Blonder and Blonder’s garage rocker “Ethyl My Love.” Also included are four otherwise unrecorded titles, including the Joan Jett-styled “I Don’t Expect It” and the retro “Something on My Mind.”

The reissue includes remastered sound (by Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen of Lurssen Mastering), a 16-page booklet with liner notes from Kim Shattuck and Ronnie Barnett, informative, track-by-track song notes from Shattuck, detailed credits and a wealth of period photos. This is a nice upgrade for fans who already have the original release, and a good introduction for soon-to-be fans. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Muffs’ Facebook Page

Vince Guaraldi Trio: Peanuts Greatest Hits

August 15th, 2015

VinceGuaraldiTrio_PeanutsGreatestHitsA taste of the music that made Peanuts swing

San Franciscan Vince Guaraldi had already established himself as a pianist and composer, first with Cal Tjader and then as a leader of his own group, when producer Lee Mendelson came knocking. Mendelson had been enchanted by Guaraldi’s 1963 surprise hit single, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” and asked him to write some original music for a documentary to be entitled A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Though the program didn’t air at the time, Guaraldi’s music so perfectly captured the mood and character of Peanuts, that he was invited to write the soundtrack for the first Peanuts special that did air, 1965’s landmark A Charlie Brown Christmas.

There were so many unlikely elements to the Christmas special (including the overt religious theme and the use of child actors to voice the characters), that Guaraldi’s literate, mirthful and sophisticated jazz score didn’t feel at all unorthodox. Bringing along key pieces from the unaired documentary, most notably “Linus & Lucy” and “Charlie Brown Theme,” Guaraldi’s music was as important in lifting the characters off the comics page as was the animation. Guaraldi continued to provide music until his passing in 1976, scoring a total of seventeen Peanuts specials and the feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

Fantasy’s twelve-track collection pulls together selections from four television specials, leaning heavily on the original A Boy Named Charlie Brown (tracks 1-5) and A Charlie Brown Christmas (tracks 1 and 9-12). Also included is the gentle, piano-and-woodwinds “Great Pumpkin Waltz” from 1966’s It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, and a pair from 1973’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, “Thanksgiving Theme” and “Little Birdie,” the latter including a rare vocal from Guaraldi himself. At twelve tracks, this only scratches the surface of Guaraldi’s Peanuts’ canon, and though the heavy tilt towards earlier material supports the “Greatest Hits” theme, the lack of completeness might make reissued soundtracks [1 2] a better place to start. What’s here is great, but it’s not enough! [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Ronny and the Daytonas: The Complete Recordings

August 14th, 2015

RonnyAndTheDaytonas_TheCompleteRecordingsThe surprisingly extensive catalog of Nashville’s first surf band

On the surface, Ronny and the Daytonas’ “Little G.T.O.” is a classic mid-60s California surf & drag hit. The song is super-stocked with a driving beat, period hot rod lingo and a falsetto hook worthy of Jan & Dean. But the song wasn’t produced in California, nor was it even the product of an actual group. The eponymous “Ronny” was actually John Wilkin, son of country songwriter Marijohn Wilkin (“Waterloo” “Long Black Veil”), the Daytonas were an ad hoc aggregation of Nashville studio hands, and the session’s producer was Sun Records alumni Bill Justis. Even more surprising, “Little G.T.O.” was Wilkin’s first foray as an artist, and it launched a recording career that lasted into the early 1970s and spanned multiple record labels.

The Pontiac G.T.O.’s 1964 debut proved to be a pivotal moment in automobile history, igniting a muscle car craze that engaged all four American car makers and spread quickly to popular culture. Wilkin was a high school student when his dual interests in music and cars were catalyzed by an article in Car and Driver. The result was the #4 hit, “Little G.T.O.,” with Wilkin’s nylon-stringed classical guitar providing the unusual solo. With a hit single on his hands, more originals were recorded, an album was put together, and a touring band was assembled to hit the road. The follow-on singles, “California Bound” and a cover of Jan & Dean’s “Bucket T,” charted, though without the nationwide impact of the debut, and “Little Scrambler” and “Beach Boy,” despite their teen effervescence, failed to gain any commercial traction.

The lack of follow-on hits didn’t deter Wilkin, and working with Buzz Cason, he released the bouncy single “Tiger-A-Go-Go” (b/w the instrumental “Bay City”) under the names of Buck & Buzzy. The duo had more success with the Daytonas’ second (and final) major chart hit, 1965’s “Sandy,” developing a softer sound with folk tones, lush backing vocals and strings. The corresponding album offered more introspective lyrics than the earlier surf songs, and reflected the sort of growing sophistication heard in the Beach Boys’ contemporaneous releases. Strangely, 1966 started up in reverse with the non-charting single “Antique ’32 Studebaker Dictator Coup,” a track lifted from the 1964 Little G.T.O. album.

The Daytonas’ finished their run on the Mala label with 1966’s “I’ll Think of Summer,” and debuted on RCA with “Dianne, Dianne.” The latter was co-written with Merle Kilgore, and carried on the soft sounds of Sandy. The flip, “All American Girl,” was a catchy Jan & Dean surf-rock pastiche that must have already sounded nostalgic upon its release in mid-1966. The background vocals and falsetto flourishes of “Young” quickly recall the Beach Boys, though the driving piano and drums give the song an original kick. The flip, “Winter Weather,” sounds as if it were drawn from an AIP teen film set in snow country. Wilkin also tried covers, turning Rex Griffin’s 1937 suicide themed, “The Last Letter” into a teenage tearjerker, venturing winningly into light psych with Mark Charron’s “The Girls and the Boys,” and crooning “Alfie” and Boyce & Hart’s “I Wanna Be Free.”

RCA issued singles by both the Daytonas and Bucky Wilkin, the latter including the war themed “Delta Day (No Time to Cry),” co-written by Wilkin, his mother and one of her Buckhorn Music staff writers, Kris Kristofferson. Wilkin’s last “Ronny” originals included the Brothers Four-styled folk harmony of “Walk with the Sun,” the harmony rocker “Brave New World” and the pop “Hold Onto Your Heart.” A few tracks that were left in the vault finish off disc two with the surf-styled “Daytona Beach” the organ rocker “Hey Little Girl,” a reverential cover of Barry & Greenwich’s “Chapel of Love,” and the tender “Angelina.” For a “group” that’s known primarily for their first single, Wilkin built a surprisingly extensive catalog, riding various musical trends between 1964 and 1968, and creating a solid body of original work. Missing are his later solo releases on Liberty and United Artists, but what’s here, remastered almost entirely from tape in original mono, with revealing liner notes by Mr. Wilkin himself, is a surprise and a delight. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

John Buck Wilkin’s Home Page

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: The Classic Albums Box

August 1st, 2015

FrankieValliAndTheFourSeasons_TheClassicAlbumsBoxMajor helping of the Four Seasons catalog

The short version: A terrific collection that includes nearly all of the Four Seasons’ original albums and most of their biggest chart hits. Missing is an early Christmas album, a later album recorded for Motown, and a live reunion album. Also missing are a few hits and B-sides. All stereo, except for a handful of tracks. Rhino’s original release incorrectly substituted incorrect songs on two of the albums (see end of review for details). A worthwhile collection for those who want to get beyond the hits.

More than fifty years after the Four Seasons first topped the charts with “Sherry,” it’s hard to remember just how incredibly successful they were. In addition to their manufactured battle with Vee-Jay labelmates, the Beatles, the group was an unstoppable hit-making machine through the end of the decade, and took a curtain call for a pair of 1975 hits. If that weren’t enough, their lead vocalist had a parallel career that saw him charting regularly as a solo artist, with his own encore for 1978’s “Grease.” Though they occasionally used material from outside writers, the bulk of the group’s hits came from keyboardist Bob Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe, and their arrangements were handled steadily by Charles Calello, who’d sung with Valli in the predecessor Four Lovers.

Between 1962 and 1970, the group released fifteen albums, including three each in 1963, 1964 and 1965, and despite the songwriting talent evident in the group’s hits, it was inevitable that the albums would be padded with lesser material. Which doesn’t mean that the album tracks were nothing more than an afterthought, but just that there are few – particularly on the early albums – that match the effervescent genius of the hits. The group’s harmonies and Valli’s leads are always superbly musical, and there are charming album tracks on every release. But listeners familiar with the hit-making Four Seasons of 1960s AM radio will only find that group scattered throughout this 18-disc collection. On the other hand, the albums reveal a compelling picture of the group’s growth from doo-wop roots to sophisticated conceptual material and adult contemporary pop.

Their debut album is bookended by the hits “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Sherry,” which takes a bit of the color out of doo-wop styled covers of the 1920’s standards “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” as well as a cover of the then-contemporary theme from Never on Sunday. Still, there’s real charm in a cover of J. Lawrence Cook’s “Peanuts,” and the 50s-styled vocal drama of Neil Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol” is a hoot. The group’s early albums continued to follow the same template, with a couple of blazingly brilliant hits fleshed out with originals, Tin Pan Alley standards and covers of pop hits like “Silhouettes” (which, not coincidentally, was co-written by Bob Crewe in 1957), a peppy take on Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” and a rich vocal rendering of the Mello-Kings “Tonite, Tonite.”

Many of the group’s covers are fairly obscure today, including Billy and Lillie’s “Lucky Ladybug,” the Shepherd Sisters’ “Alone” and the Snow White soundtrack’s “One Song.” Even when covering well-known material, the productions often added original touches, such as the whining organ and Latin rhythm on the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You,” the percussive backing vocals on Maurice Williams’ “Stay,” and a radically reimagined version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” Gaudio and Crewe wrote many interesting B-sides and album tracks, including “Soon (I’ll Be Home Again),” “That’s the Only Way,” “Melancholy” and “Don’t Cry Elena,” but occasionally dropped in filler, such as “Dumb Drum.”

The Four Seasons label, Vee Jay, continued to release their records well into 1966, even though the quartet bid them farewell with 1964’s “New Mexican Rose” and the album Folk Nanny. The latter had nothing to do with the folk revival in sound or material, and was composed almost entirely of previously released recordings. The group had been banking material in advance of their departure from Vee Jay, and arrived at Phillips ready for a blistering chart run. “Dawn (Go Away)” was released as a single in January, and quickly followed by the folk-flavored album Born to Wander and the showcase LP Dawn (Go Away) and 11 Other Great Songs. The former included covers of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and Phil Ochs’ little known (but quite stirring) “New Town,” as well as several Bob Gaudio originals that deftly melded touches of twelve string and banjo with Brothers Four-styled harmonies. Also included was the group’s original version of Gaudio and Crewe’s “Silence is Golden,” which would become a 1967 hit for the Tremeloes, and the Beach Boys pastiche “No Surfin’ Today.”

The Four Seasons’ dalliance with folk music lasted for just one album, after which they returned to their earlier pattern with Dawn (Go Away) and 11 Other Great Songs: a hit single, covers of earlier doo-wop and vocal group hits, and a sprinkling of originals. As before, there were original touches in the cover songs, such as the revised melody line and twangy guitar of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” the odd rhythm backing and instrumental flourishes given to “16 Candles,” and the doo-wop falsetto meets marching beat arrangement of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” The group finally broke free of the 1950s with 1965’s Rag Doll, an album written entirely by Bob Gaudio and various partners. In addition to three hits  (“Rag Doll,” “Save It For Me” and “Ronnie”), there are many fine album tracks, including “The Touch of You,” originally waxed by Lenny O. Henry, the sweetly longing “Funny Face,” and forlorn “The Setting Sun.” In the face of the British Invasion, the Four Seasons showed they had the writing, performing, arranging and producing talent to compete.

1965 found the quartet stretching out with strings and show tunes (“Where is Love?” from Oliver and “Somewhere” from West Side Story) and returning to the ‘50s (“My Prayer” “Little Darlin’”) on The Four Seasons Entertain You. The hits continued with “Big Man in Town,” “Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” and “Toy Soldier,” though none reached the top ten; the album tracks include Gaudio and Sandy Linzer’s emotional “One Clown Cried,” and a rare songwriting contribution from bass vocalist Nick Massi, “Living Just For You.”. The group’s second album of 1965, The 4 Seasons Sing Big Hits by Burt Bacharach/Hal David/Bob Dylan, split its sides between material from Bacharach & David and Dylan. The interpretations do little to improve upon the better-known original recordings (though the Latin beat given to “Blowin’ in the Wind” is interesting, if not quite fitting), and suggest the group’s creative braintrust had run out of fresh ideas.

The Dylan cover “Don’t Think Twice,” with a bizarre falsetto vocal, was released under the name of The Wonder Who, and (somewhat incredibly) just missed the Top 10. But it was the non-LP single “Let’s Hang On” (not included here) that showed the group still had some ace material up its collective sleeves. Before the group could return to making more hits, they detoured for Live on Stage, a contractual-obligation faux-live album of standards for Vee Jay. Though “Little Boy (In Grown Up Clothes)” was released as a single (and was one of the few tracks that had the hallmarks of the Four Seasons sound), it didn’t chart, and the album remains a stylistic oddity in the group’s catalog. 1966 found the quartet returning to form with the hit “Working My Way Back to You,” and the associated album is a sleeper that’s filled with excellent new material and crisp arrangements.

Working My Way Back to You sounds re-energized on the up-tempo numbers, and the group’s dabble with folk music seemed to have a lasting impact on the songwriting of Gaudio and Crewe as they offer up the socially conscious “Beggars on Parade” and Dylan-esque “Everybody Knows My Name.” The latter works much better with Valli’s falsetto than the actual Dylan songs they’d recorded earlier. The album also includes an early version of “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” released a year before ? and the Mysterians, and there’s a hint of psych in the intro of “Too Many Memories,” showing, along with some of the album’s instrumental touches, that the group was taking in contemporary influences. Despite having only one hit single, and three tracks repeated from The Four Seasons Entertain You, this is one of the best albums in the group’s catalog.

The surge of artistic energy seemed to pause for 1967’s New Gold Hits. The album’s major hit, “C’mon Marianne,” was accompanied by two minor singles, “Beggin’” and “Lonesome Road” (the latter credited to The Wonder Who), and though there are a few compelling album tracks, including the light soul “I’m Gonna Change” and tough B-side “Dody,” the album didn’t feel particularly fresh or coherent. Worse yet, Rhino’s mastering errors (or perhaps Curb’s on the mid-90s reissue) mistakenly left the latter two tracks off the initial release of this box set! The group would spend the next 18 months working on an answer to popular music’s shift to albums, and the result was the most adventurous long player of their career.

1969’s The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette is a concept album co-written by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes. Holmes’ 1967 solo debut, The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes, was a cult favorite, but contained two historically important tracks. Most infamous is his original version of “Dazed and Confused,” but it was the song “Genuine Imitation Life” that brought him into the Four Seasons’ fold. The resulting album’s adventurousness – both musically and lyrically – and integrity as a collection is unlike anything else in the group’s catalog. Gaudio and Holmes built a complete album, and the group performed with a continuity of expression and consistency of purpose that had never graced their singles-based long players.

The complexity and finesse of Gaudio’s production, particularly his integration of vocal harmonies, orchestral instrumentation and studio effects is truly impressive. The tip of the hat to “Hey Jude” on the title song’s fade is only one of the album’s many charms. The Who’s Tommy proved that concept albums could break through commercially in 1969, but Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was largely ignored, scraping into the Top 100 at #85, and failing to get into the singles chart with the pre-release “Saturday’s Father.” Most likely, the group’s AM radio fans weren’t looking for such adventurous music, and those open to these sorts of sounds and socially incisive lyrics weren’t looking to the Four Seasons to produce them. It’s very clearly the group’s high-water artristic mark, and remains an impressive record to this day.

The group’s last album for Phillips, Half & Half, benefited from their previous artistic growth, but alternating group harmony tracks with Valli solo cuts (hence the album’s title) yielded few memorable moments and little chart action. With the group’s inventiveness reigned in and Gaudio mostly giving way to outside writers, the results were polished and professional, but largely pedestrian. Highlights include Valli’s cover of Prairie Madness’ obscure B-side “Circles in the Sand,” the tight harmony vocal washes of “She Gives Me Light” and the group’s closing medley of “Any Day Now” and “Oh Happy Day.” With that, the group ended their association with Phillips, and two years later released Chameleon for the Motown subsidiary, MoWest. Though not a commercial success, and somewhat generically produced, it’s filled with Bob Gaudio originals, and worth tracking down, since it’s not included here.

While the Four Seasons’ hit-making had wound down in the first half of the 1970s, Frankie Valli’s solo career had been revived by 1974’s chart-topping “My Eyes Adored You” and the follow-on “Swearin’ to God.” But in 1975 the Four Seasons returned to the charts with “Who Loves You” and the chart-topping “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” As per their earlier releases, the album Who Loves You was constructed around the hit singles (which also included an edit of the album’s rolicking opener, “Silver Star”), with new material from Gaudio and his wife Judy Parker. As the group’s last helping of commercial chart success, the hits are memorable, and Gaudio’s production is complemented by strong lead vocals split between Valli and drummer/vocalist Gerry Polci.

The comeback was not sustained, and the follow-on Helicon closed out the Four Seasons’ two album run on Warner Brothers without a great deal of inspiration. The modern production touches that had added a winning touch to “Who Loves You” now sounded a bit stiff and perfunctory. The growling bass, synthesized keyboards and piercing guitars sound sterile in comparison to the group’s earlier records, and at odds with their warm harmonies. The single “Down the Hall” made its way to #65, and though the lead vocal is fetching, the production is distracting. Even “New York Street Song,” with its opening streetcorner harmonies gives way to disco rhythms.

Eight years later, Valli and Gaudio updated the Four Seasons sound once again for 1985’s Streetfighter. The mid-70s disco was replaced with competently synthesized mid-80s pop-rock, and though it would have fit easily into the pop mainstream, no one was biting. Sandy Linzer (who’d penned the mid-60s hits “Dawn (Go Away),” “Let’s Hang On” and “Working My Way Back to You”) wrote many of the album’s originals, and though his melodies were filled with hooks and his lyrics winningly positioned Valli as a scrappy, love-lorn underdog, his production choices haven’t aged well. A remake of the Monotones’ “Book of Love” is particularly egregious as it reaches back to the group’s doo-wop roots and buries them in keyboards, synthesized drums and primitive samples. The album closes with a pair of ballads that survive their 80s-isms.

The group’s last album (to date!), 1992’s Hope + Glory, continued to chase modern pop styles with highly synthesized arrangements (and rap from guest Chuck Wilson), but as with Streetfighter, the album didn’t click commercially. Valli’s voice still offered its unique range and qualities, and Gaudio could still write fetching melodies, but neither the songs nor the electronic productions matched the era’s best. If you could strip these tracks of their 1990s productions, you’d no doubt find some emotional resonance in the songs (“You and Your Blue Heart” seems like a good bet), but awash in driving drumbeats and cold, angular synthesizers, there’s little to love here. Worse, circling back around to the start of the box set, you realize how far the Four Seasons had traveled from their down-to-earth streetcorner roots.

This box set is a terrific journey, filled with high points and reinvention. Those looking to relive the Four Seasons they know from the radio are better off with a hits collection; but those wanting to dig deeper will find many gems among the album tracks. That said, this isn’t nearly a complete rendition of the Four Seasons catalog, as it’s missing two key studio albums (1962’s The Four Seasons Greetings and 1972’s Chameleon), live albums (including 1981’s Reunited Live) and numerous non-LP singles and B-sides. Also missing (and anthologized in a separate box set) are Frankie Valli’s solo albums. Given the distinctive qualities of Valli’s voice, the use of the Four Seasons to back many of his solo tracks, and the intermingling of Four Seasons and Valli hits on the charts, listeners didn’t always separate Valli’s records from his groups.

The albums are mastered in stereo (though “Goodnight My Love” “Big Man’s World” “Dawn” “Only Yesterday” and “Huggin’ My Pillow” are in mono), which may sound strange to those weaned on AM radio. Omnivore Records is reissuing the group’s first two albums in mono in September 2015, for those who want to experience the dominant sound of the mid-60s. Most disturbing of all are mastering errors that substitute incorrect tracks on several albums, rendering them incomplete. Rhino may have corrected these by now, but the original issue of this box incorrectly replace Rag Doll’s “On Broadway Tonight” (which is showboxed on the front cover!), and New Gold Hits’ “I’m Gonna Change,” “Dody” and “Lonesome Road.” Rhino is reported to have corrected this in a new production run, but if you got problem discs, write the label at drrhino@rhino.com. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ Home Page

The Knack: Normal as the Next Guy

July 26th, 2015

Knack_NormalAsTheNextGuyThe Knack’s third reunion album finds the flame still burning

After the blowback that greeted the meteoric success of “My Sharona” and Get the Knack, this Los Angeles pop quartet never fully recovered their commercial footing. Two more albums in two years, and they were gone; though not for good. They reunited for 1991’s Serious Fun, 1998’s Zoom and this final 2001 studio release. By this point the group was on its fifth drummer, David Henderson (as well as reteaming with their second drummer, Pat Torpey), but the core of lead vocalist Doug Feiger, guitarist Berton Averre and bassist Prescott Niles was still intact, as was Feiger and Averre’s songwriting, and Feiger’s youthful voice.

The material on their reunion albums had largely graduated from the leering of their early albums, and though they retained their pop sensibility to the end, they also expanded upon their power pop roots. In addition to the Byrdsian “It’s Not Me” and superb vocal harmony on a remake of “One Day at a Time,” there’s Oingo Boingo-styled post-punk in “Normal as the Next Guy,” country twang for “Spiritual Pursuit,” Steely Dan-styled jazz-pop on “Dance of Romance,” and a moody, full-on Beach Boys tribute, “The Man on the Beach.” The songs aren’t as uniformly ingratiating as the band’s previous reunion, but when they hit the pop-rock groove, they still take off.

Omnivore’s 2015 reissue adds three bonus tracks that feature Doug Feiger laying down songwriter demos with his acoustic guitar. All three make nice additions, but “Reason to Live,” is particularly revealing of Feiger’s emotional investment in his songwriting. The disc’s 12-page booklet includes liner notes by Lee Lodyga and Prescott Niles, and song notes by Niles and Averre. Though not the band’s best album, it’s a bit of a patchwork of songs written for the Knack and for non-Knack projects, there are enough Knack-tastic moments to make this an essential part of a fan’s collection. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Knack’s Home Page

Chris Foreman: Now is the Time

July 25th, 2015

ChrisForeman_NowIsTheTimeSoul time on the Hammond B3

There are few musical sounds as deeply enveloping as the Hammond B3. Whether it’s murmuring warmly, rumbling at its bottom end or stabbing percussively with notes that sound like raw alternating current, the B3 is unmistakable. The Hammond’s variable tones contrast with the imitative voices of other organs, and require both a player’s technique and an artist’s imagination to shape sounds beyond well-defined stops. Moving from piano to organ is a leap, but moving from a standard organ to a B3 requires the player to develop a personal relationship with the instrument.

Chris Foreman is a Chicago-based organist whose style descends (as do most B3 players) from the epochal Jimmy Smith, along with Jimmy McGriff, “Brother” Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Richard “Groove” Holmes and others. He’s most regularly heard at his weekly gigs at the Southside’s Green Mill and St. James African Methodist Episcopal church, and on record with the Deep Blue Organ Trio. The trio’s renown expanded beyond the Windy City a few years ago with an opening slot on Steely Dan’s 2013 U.S. tour, and Foreman ventures forward now with this new album of duets.

The organ is able to stand on its own, provide the centerpoint of trios, or add muscle to larger groups. In duet settings it needs to converse, to ensure that it doesn’t overwhelm its partner. Foreman is skilled at playing both lead and accompaniment, stepping into the initial spotlight with fleet fingers and bold chords for the opening take on Charlie Parker’s “Now is the Time.” He edges slowly into “Shake a Hand,” with a late-night groove that favors Freddy Scott over Little Richard, underlining the piano with his organ and decorating the organ with the piano’s flourishes. You can catch occasional touches of Foreman’s classical training in his fingerings, but he’s never mannered; everything he plays truly swings.

Guitarist Andy Brown and saxophonist Diane Ellis guest on several tracks, providing worthy foils for Foreman’s B3. Brown kicks off a sprightly version of Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue” before giving way to Foreman’s blue chords. Forman returns the favor as he vamps sympathetically behind Brown’s solo, and the two join together for a bridge that leads to Forman’s second variation on the song’s main theme. As someone who plays a weekly club gig, Foreman’s developed a wide-ranging repertoire, drawing upon tunes from Neal Hefti (the atmospheric “Li’L Darlin’”), saxophonist Hank Crawford (“The Peeper,” with Ellis as soloist) and Jimmy McGriff (“Doggone” and “Cotton Boy Blues”).

The organ can evoke memories of churches, movie theaters, county fairs, baseball parks, old-timey pizza restaurants, skating rinks, mall stores, or, perhaps most damning, you father’s den. But it can also evoke the soul of the blues like no other instrument, and in the hands of a master like Chris Foreman, the B3’s notes, chords, drones, bass and volume pedals provide otherworldly transportation to a smoky late-night club. Producers Steven Dolins and Jim Dejong, and engineer Steve Yates have done a superb job of capturing the B3’s wide range of volume and timbre, and have nicely balanced the guitar, saxophone and piano in the duets. Anyone who loves the B3 should check this out! [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Various Artists: Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats – A New Music city

July 25th, 2015

Various_DylanCashAndTheNashvilleCatsHow Dylan & Cash broadened Nashville’s reach

Session players necessarily take a back seat to the artists whose music they help create. A few, like Jerry Reed and Glen Campbell, gain their own stardom, and others, such as Motown’s Funk Brothers and the Muscle Shoals Swampers, gain renown even as their work remains seen in fragmentary measures. It’s only the rare, credit-reading fan who pieces together the full breadth of a studio musician’s work, and traces the connections of a player’s career through otherwise unconnected sessions and records. And even then, there are surprises to be learned, as album credits and studio logs aren’t always complete or accurate. Documentaries have told the stories of the Funk Brothers, Swampers and Wrecking Crew, but for every studio player who’s gained a moment in the spotlight, there are hundreds whose stories are told only through records labeled with other people’s names.

This collection tells the story of how Nashville’s session players, songwriters and producers came to collaborate on a broader stage in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. At the time, Nashville wasn’t alone in building a studio culture dependent on sidemen, but it had built one of the most effective vertically-integrated music making machines. Nashville combined writers, producers, engineers, record labels, studios and stars with a handful of A-list players whose speed and precision belied their agility and creativity. That system’s artistry was expanded by the injection of outside influences, spearheaded by Dylan’s 1966 sessions for Blonde on Blonde. In the wake of Dylan’s collaboration with Charlie McCoy, Kenny Buttrey and Wayne Moss, Nashville opened itself up to new partnerships and non-Nashville artists came looking to expand their musical horizons.

In 1969, Dylan and Cash’s mutual admiration resulted in sessions that yielded the commercial release of “Girl From the North Country” on Nashville Skyline, but they also seem to have stoked Cash’s desire to collaborate outside the Nashville sphere. Through his ABC television show, taped at the Ryman from 1969 to 1971, Cash brought numerous artists to Nashville, forging on-stage musical collaborations (such as Derek and the Dominos performance of “Matchbox” with Cash and Carl Perkins), and brokering introductions that survived the show. Most notable was Neil Young’s work with steel player Ben Keith, bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Kenny Buttrey, who can all be heard prominently on Harvest, including the hit single “Heart of Gold.”

Several pop and folk artists, including the Beau Brummels and Ian & Sylvia, found artistic renewal in Nashville, and others, highlighted by Michael Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues” (featuring the superb steel guitar of Lloyd Green), the Byrds’ “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Hickory Wind,” and Ringo Starr’s “Beaucoups of Blues” were freed to follow musical interests that had previously been held in check by various concerns. Simon & Garfunkel got sounds out of Nashville that were neither country nor what they had been producing back home. As with Neil Young’s long-term collaborative relationship with Ben Keith, Simon & Garfunkel developed a relationship with legendary guitarist Fred Carter, Jr. that continued long after they returned to recording in New York City.

Kris Kristofferson’s 1968 demo “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams” suggests that while Nashville may have developed insular ways and outsiders may have thought the city’s music industry to be parochial, there were many inside and outside the city eager to collaborate. No compilation on this theme could ever be complete, but the producers have done a good job of selecting (and, thankfully, cross licensing) music that mixes well-known hits with artistically and historically important tracks. Among the lesser-known gems are Charlie McCoy & The Escorts’ “Harpoon Man,” Flatt & Scruggs’ cover of Dylan’s “Down in the Flood,” George Harrison’s album track “Behind That Locked Door,” and a radio commercial that seeks to explain Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Pete Finney and Michael Gray’s song notes provide valuable context, but it’s the Nashville studio cats who tell the story. And it’s a great one. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Neats: 1981-84 The Ace of Hearts Years

July 12th, 2015

Neats_1981-84AceOfHeartsYearsReissue of seminal Boston post-punk guitar band

The Neats were something of an anomaly within the early-80s Boston music scene – failed to hew exclusively to any of the punk, pop, roots or garage ideals of the time. Their trance-inducing rhythm guitars shared a greater resonance with the Feelies, Dream Syndicate and early REM than their Beantown brethren. They would later evolve away from this sound for 1987’s Crash at Crush, but their original musical vision was captured in a single, EP and album for the legendary Ace of Hearts label. All of that, plus a pre-Ace of Hearts track for Propeller, and four previously released post-album tracks (#19-22) are collected here for the first time in digital form.

The disc begins with the 1982 EP Monkey’s Head in the Middle of the Room, whose opening track “Red and Gray” is a microcosm of the group’s charms: electric guitars that intertwine rhythms, counterpoints and melodic overlays, a driving rhythm section that perches on the edge of anxious, and vocals that break from their post-punk passion for transcendent moments of melody. The instrumental passages aren’t as jittery as those of the Feelies, but have a similar quality, and Eric Martin’s vocal alternately punctuates the rhythm and wanders introspectively across the beat. The EP closes with the superb instrumental “Pop Cliche,” suggesting a backing track from a post-punk version of the Byrds.

The EP was voted fourth best in a strong year for pop EPs (not even mentioned in the poll are the Three O’Clock’s Baroque Hoedown, the Bangles self-titled EP and the Lyres AHS 1005), securing the group another release on Ace of Hearts. Their 1983 self-titled album (tracks 8-16 here) didn’t differ startlingly from the EP, but as the nine new tracks demonstrate, the EP’s groove was far from played out. There’s overt psychedelia in the tail end of “Sad,” and the organ of “Sometimes” and harmonica of “Do the Things” add some garage flavor, but the recipe remains largely the same as the earlier release. The album (like the EP), garnered a lot of college radio play, and the band’s tours showed how well the new material worked on stage.

The album’s single “Caraboo” was backed by a dinner-dance styled cover of the standard “Harbour Lights,” with Martin’s vocal treated to a megaphone effect. The organ-laced “Six” is included from the 1981 four-artist EP, Propeller Product, and features a staccato vocal that was touched by punk. The CD’s final four tracks were recorded in 1984, though apparently never before released. They’re hard driving, as good as anything the band recorded before, and would have made a nice EP to cap the group’s stay on Ace of Hearts. Nearly all of this material (save “Cariboo” and its flip) sat unreissued for years, and is now thankfully available on one handy disc. If you can’t find it for sale here, try direct from Ace of Hearts Records. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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