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]

The Neats’ Home Page
Ace of Hearts Records

Calypso Heat Wave

July 12th, 2015

DVD_CalypsoHeatwave1Maya Angelou and calypso music take over the world

This film comes from Sam Katzman, one of Hollywood’s most prolific B-movie producers. In addition to serials, westerns and sci-fi, Katzman produced a number of music-filled films in the ‘50s and ‘60s, including Don’t Knock the Rock, Twist Around the Clock, Elvis Presley’s Kissin’ Cousins and Harum Scarum, Herman’s Hermits’ When the Boys Meet the Girls, and the classic teensploitation entry Riot on Sunset Strip.

Like those better known films, this 1957 entry is light on plot and heavy on musical cameos. The story involves a jukebox operator, played as a Harry Brock-styled mug by actor Michael Granger, muscling his way into a record label. Once inside, he pushes the label to cut more deeply into the artists’ action, echoing some surprisingly accurate truths of the racket’s seediest side. Along the way, the label’s star attraction skips town and discovers calypso in the Caribbean, which everyone quickly realizes is destined to be bigger than rock ‘n’ roll.

Performance highlights include lip-synched appearances by the Hi-Los, Treniers and Tarriers. A very young Joel Grey dances in an early scene, and legendary DJ Dick Whittinghill spins records in what might or might not be the actual KMPC radio studio. Perhaps the most surprising number is Maya Angelou’s back-lot Trinidadian song and dance production. Angelou had toured a club act in the mid-50s, recorded the album Miss Calypso, and performed in an off-Broadway revue from which the film borrowed its title.

DVD_CalypsoHeatwave2Also seen in the Trinidad sequence is a 23-year-old Alan Arkin, making his first-ever film appearance, playing guitar and singing lead alongside the Tarriers’ Erik Darling and Bob Carey. Their 1956 rendition of “The Banana Boat Song,” which they recreate here, helped spark the calypso craze, which also spawned the films Calypso Joe and Bop Girl Goes Calypso. You can find Calypso Heat Wave at The Video Beat (along with Bop Girl Goes Calypso), but it’s also playing regularly on getTV. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Greg Trooper: Live at the Rock Room

July 11th, 2015

GregTrooper_LiveAtTheRockRoomA folk singer bares his soul

It takes Greg Trooper less than ten seconds to stop you in your tracks. Accompanied by organ, upright bass and his own guitar, Trooper has only to sing his first note to grab your attention. His voice is so open, magnetic and soulfully heartfelt, that you can’t help but listen closely. It’s one thing to craft material that draws the fandom of other gifted songwriters, but delivering it with the vocal artistry it merits is often beyond even the most talented writer. But Trooper is a superbly talented singer and storyteller, and his live performances, even in recorded form, are as intimate and honest as personal conversations. As excellent as was 2013’s Incident on Willow Street, Trooper exposes even more emotional surfaces when performing his songs in front of a live audience.

The disc’s opener “This I’d Do” endears Trooper to the audience with its extraordinary promises, and he proves himself a a man of his word with a set that’s thoughtful, stalwart and giving. He finds pathos in an alcoholic’s lament, hangs onto slim threads of hope and trudges along in heartbreak’s shadow. But as he essays in “Everything’s a Miracle,” perception is influenced by perspective, and perspective is often a choice. The search of “One Honest Man” looks forward as it creates distance from a troubled past, and “All the Way to Amsterdam” dreams of escape rather than dwelling on current circumstances. The latter rests perfectly on Chip Dolan’s keyboards and the emotional hitches in Trooper’s voice, articulating the song’s protagonist in both words and tone. The album closes with the hopeful “We’ve Still Got Time,” concluding a breathtakingly fine performance. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Greg Trooper’s Home Page

The 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett: The Best Of

July 11th, 2015

50GuitarsOfTommyGarrett_BestOfSpace-age bachelor pad guitar instrumentals from Snuff Garrett

Anyone who’s spent time shopping for vintage vinyl in thrift stores has come across one of Tommy Garrett’s two-dozen albums. What most of these shoppers never realize is that “Tommy Garrett” is better known as Snuff Garrett, famed producer of Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Cher and many others. As a sideline to his more renowned production work, Garrett assembled “an orchestra of guitars” to record dozens of instrumental albums, highlighted on the first two (South of the Border and South of the Border Volume 2) by the fretwork of Brazilian legend Laurindo Almeida, and in many of the remaining sessions by Wrecking Crew regular Tommy Tedesco.

These instrumentals are classic space age bachelor pad music, lushly arranged, wide-stereo productions of material drawn from the pop charts, bossa novas, sambas, exotica, film soundtracks, tin pan alley and Broadway. Although there is often a studio full of guitars strumming away, the promise of “an orchestra of guitars” is somewhat misleading, as the guitar-led arrangements also include percussion and horns. The Best of the 50 Guitars, clocking in at 33 minutes, was originally issued by Liberty in 1968, and focuses on Latin-influenced titles from 1961 (“Guadalajara”) through 1968 (“La Negra” and “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”).

50GuitarsOfTommyGarrett_BestOfVol2The Best of the 50 Guitars Volume 2, originally a double album (and clocking in at a generous 58 minutes), was also released by Liberty in 1968. But where the first volume stuck to Latin titles, volume two broadens its selections to include the ersatz “Mexican Shuffle,” the Three Suns’ (and later, Platters’) “Twilight Time,” Bacharach & David’s “This Guy’s in Love With You,” the 1930’s waltz “Fascination,” the pop hits “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and the film titles “Lara’s Theme” and “Born Free.” All are rendered in the lush 50 Guitars style, with virtuosic lead guitars that favor Latin flavors.

Varese’s reissues include the original track lists (remastered by Steve Massie) and cover art, and new liners by Laurence Zwisohn. These are a good place to get a taste of the 50 Guitars, which will likely be enough guitar-based easy listening music for many. Completists (and you know you’re out there), will need to pick up resissues of original albums (e.g., 1 2 3 4) and head back to the thrift stores until Bear Family picks through all the outtakes, assembles a hundred page book and issues the Complete Sessions of the 50 Guitars. These two volumes will help you pleasantly while away the hours while you wait. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Dream Syndicate: The Days of Wine and Roses

July 9th, 2015

DreamSyndicate_TheDaysOfWineAndRoses2015 reissue adds previously unreleased vault discoveries

The Dream Syndicate’s full-length debut represents a spectacularly quick climb to prominence. The band’s first EP (on Wynn’s own Down There label) certainly hinted at what was to come (not least of which for its inclusion of early versions of “That’s What You Always Say” and “When You Smile”), but the album, recorded only seven months after the band’s first public show, was something else again. In retrospect, the EP was the warmup, and the album was the full-on performance. When released in the Fall of 1982, the album was part of a banner year for L.A. bands, including discs from the Salvation Army, Three O’Clock, Bangles and Rain Parade. Though lumped together under the Paisley Underground banner, each band drew from overlapping but ultimately unique sets of influences.

Dream Syndicate’s roots in Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Crazy Horse and Television provided the obvious surface, but the band aimed for influence and homage, rather than slavish stylistic nostalgia, and grounded their sound in the new decade. The feedback laden guitar solos of this debut, particularly on the extended length title track, had the confrontational theatricality of punk rock, but the record’s expansiveness didn’t adhere to the two-minute ethos. Comparing the album to the contemporaneous live set The Day Before Wine and Roses, it’s clear that the group’s chemistry was that of a band that played together and fed off one another. Dennis Duck and Kendra Smith locked together as a rhythm section, providing a hypnotic backing for the penetrating, strangulated tone of Karl Precoda’s guitar.

Standing in front, pushed by the rhythm section and speared by the guitar, vocalist Steve Wynn sounded desperately engaged. His monotone was seasoned by the spittle of punk rock, and supplemented by slight, but highly effective melodic diversions that occupy their own seat in the house of Lou Reed. Early ‘80s college radio listeners are apt to remember “Tell Me When It’s Over,” “When You Smile” and “The Days of Wine and Roses,” but the rest of the album connects the dots with music that’s filled with dark, savage energy. “Definitely Clean” and “Then She Remembers” charge from the gate and never relent on their driving tempos, and the title track’s extended instrumental middle adds a harrowing new entry to the pantheon of guitar duets.

Omnivore’s reissue reconfigures Rhino’s 2001 reissue, dropping the pre-LP EP, early rehearsal tracks and a pre-Dream Syndicate single by 10 Seconds, in lieu of newly discovered vault entries. Heard here for the first time are the lengthy instrumental “Outside the Dream Syndicate” and forgotten title “Like Mary” from early 1982, the short jam “Is it Rolling, Bob?” and the complete song “A Reason,” from December 1982, and early rehearsals of Medicine Show’s “Still Holding On to You” and “Armed With an Empty Gun,” with Kendra Smith on bass. The latter two, recorded only a few months after the album, suggest what Medicine Show might have sounded like had the band not spent months recording in San Francisco for a major label with producer Sandy Pearlman.

The newly excavated tracks provide bookends to the album, showing off both the band’s primordial roots and a glimpse at an alternate future they might have lived out. Fans who have collected all of the official releases and reissues will appreciate this newly discovered ground, particularly the Medicine Show titles. As rehearsals, the production quality doesn’t match that of the album, but the unguarded nature of these performances provides a fascinating glimpse into the band’s development. Those new to the Dream Syndicate will also want to also track down a copy of Rhino’s earlier release for the EP and pre-Dream Syndicate tracks. Omnivore’s 80-minute CD is accompanied by a 12-page booklet that includes testimonials from Bucketfull of Brains’ Nigel Cross, the Rain Parade’s Matt Piucci, the Long Ryders’ Tom Stevens, Green on Red’s Dan Stuart, Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, Rhino Records’ Gary Stewart and several friends of the band. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Knack: Zoom

June 27th, 2015

Knack_ZoomThird time’s a charm for the Knack’s excellent 1998 reunion album

Few bands have suffered so much from their success. The Knack’s debut album, Get the Knack, and the lead single “My Sharona” each reached #1, but the resulting radio saturation, and their seemingly out-of-nowhere rise to fame created blowback that sabotaged their future commercial prospects. A number of publicity choices – cover art that mimicked the television stage set of A Hard Day’s Night, a 1960’s Capitol rainbow label design and a tight lid on interviews, didn’t help. The critical backlash was swift and strong, fueled in part by artist Hugh Brown’s “Knuke the Knack” campaign.

The band’s years of sweat equity, a fan base grown organically from gigs, and most of all, the craft of their songs were unilaterally overshadowed by the notion that they’d been manufactured and sprung on the world. But it wasn’t a gigantic publicity machine that accelerated their nationwide fame, it was the catchiness of their music, a world-class hook in “My Sharona,” and – not at all unusually for the record industry – some lucky timing. Sadly, the Knack weren’t able to take advantage of the pop renaissance they helped spark, and to this day they’re often remembered more for the backlash than their success.

The band split at the end of 1981 amid disappointing sales of their third album Round Trip, but reunited over the years for club shows and albums; this 1998 title was their second and best reunion. With Terry Bozio filling in on drums, and new material from vocalist Doug Feiger and guitarist Berton Averre, the band was re-energized. Feiger’s voice still had the tone of youth, and the band’s Beatleisms, such as the guitar figures and vocal harmonies on “Terry & Julie Step Out,” didn’t have to withstand the critical barbs of 1979. And that last point is probably the most important. Removed from their rocket-fueled fame and ensuing backlash, listeners can stop worrying and start hearing the Knack as a pop band, rather than a phenomenon.

Feiger himself seemed to be thinking about the band’s place, rather than worrying about it. The opener, “Pop is Dead,” decries the fate of pop music in the TV-saturated late ‘90s, but makes its point with actual pop music. Feiger’s Rickenbacker chimes in homage to the Searchers as the band looks to its inception with “Can I Borrow a Kiss,” and their problems with the media is echoed in Wonders-like “Mister Magazine.” The album hits for the power-pop cycle of heartbreak (“Everything I Do”), breakup (“Harder On You”), recrimination (“Smilin’” “Harder On You” “Tomorrow”) and renewal (“Love is All There Is” “You Gotta Be There”). Feiger is emotionally invested as he strains into his upper register for “In Blue Tonight” and closes the album with the psych-tinged “(All In The) All in All.”

It’s hard to imagine that the Knack had serious thoughts about a big comeback in 1998, which makes this album more a product of love of music than dreams of fame. The added years shear away any remaining pretense – real or imagined – that might stand between your ears and this finely crafted pop music. At the time of its original issue, and again in a 2003 reissue (retitled Re-Zoom), this set failed to catch the ears it deserved. Reissued again, with the addition of three demos, the superbly dramatic “She Says,” a remake of “My Sharona,” liners by Lee Lodyga, Prescott Niles and Berton Averre, and original art direction by the very same Hugh Brown who needled the band in 1979, it’s time to get the Knack. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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