Scruffy the Cat: The Good Goodbye

November 20th, 2014

ScruffyTheCat_TheGoodGoodbyeNot-so-scruffy odds & sods from 1980s indie-roots-rock legends

This late-80s Boston band barely managed to break beyond college radio adoration, but with their catalog back in print alongside this disc of previously unreleased demos, live-in-the-studio performances and unused session tracks, it’s a great opportunity for reappraisal. The group’s 1987 debut, Tiny Days, brought critical praise for its country-tinged Boston rock, while the less scruffy 1989 follow-up, Moons of Jupiter, garnered mixed reactions to its tighter productions and pop sounds. Whether or not the band was actively striving for broader success, this disc of material spanning the years before and after their formal releases demonstrates the many influences and broad aspirations that make them something of a Boston-based analog of NRBQ.

The band’s earliest tracks don’t evidence the overt country twang that would come shortly. “The Burning Cross” has a droning undertow that suggests Boston contemporaries like the Neats, as well as West Coast compatriots in the Paisley Underground. As the band developed, Stona Fitch’s banjo became a dominant flavor as songwriter and vocalist Charlie Chesterman even took to folk-country crooning for “Lover’s Day.” The group’s growing in interest in country sounds was inventively mated to surf harmonies for Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway,” and covers of Larry Williams’ “Slow Down” and Buddy Holly’s “Well… All Right” are given acoustic-roots twists.

The distance traveled from the garage-psych of 1984’s “The Ghost Psych” and the Beau Brummels’ inspired harmonies of “Tonight” to the horn- and organ-lined Memphis soul of 1989’s “Sweet News” isn’t as long as it might seem, and the path feels entirely organic. Though the latter sessions don’t exhibit the youthful abandon of the band’s earlier work, the barn-burning “I Knew That You Would,” powered by Burns Stanfield’s boogie-woogie piano, offers a return to the Boston club rock in which Scruffy steeped, and the closing “The Good Goodbye” shows off how seamlessly the band could combing its influences.

For a group with a small official catalog, their cache of odds & sods is impressive. Even better, Pete Weiss’ mastering of the disparate tape sources has sewn things together into a surprisingly consistent experience. The jump from 1985 (tracks 5-14) to 1989 and beyond (track 15 onward) leaves Scruffy’s commercial era unmined; perhaps nothing of value existed on tape, or the anthologizers felt the previously released recordings spoke best. Either way, what’s here neatly bookends Sony’s recent anthology, and offers a great spin for both Scruffy die-hards and those just seeking very fine 1980s indie-roots-pop. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Town Without Pity

November 18th, 2014

Few remember – or even knew – that Gene Pitney’s breakthrough hit, “Town Without Pity,” was both the title and title song of a 1961 film. Even more surprisingly, the melody was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, who scored dozens of westerns, five films for Frank Capra (including It’s a Wonderful Life), and composed the score and theme song for Fred Zinneman’s High Noon. He not only wrote the melody for High Noon‘s “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” he believed in it enough to buy the rights back and release it as a Frankie Laine single. It was recorded by Tex Ritter for the film and won Tiomkin an academy award for best song.

Tiomkin’s other enduring Western classic is the theme song to the late-50s television show Rawhide, which Frankie Laine also took up the charts. Two years later, Tiomkin wrote the score and title track for “Town Without Pity,” gaining another Oscar nomination, winning a Golden Globe, and giving Gene Pitney his first Top 20 single. Pitney’s recording is included in the film, but the song is also rendered as a jazz instrumental and as a transitional theme. Tiomkin garnered several more Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and awards, but never again cracked the pop or country charts!

Handsome Jack: Do What Comes Naturally

November 18th, 2014

HandsomeJack_DoWhatComesNaturallyBlues-soaked rock and soul, heavy on the grooves

Alive Records has long-since reached a critical mass that just seems to attract heavy, blues-soaked guitar rock bands. The label’s gravity has pulled this Buffalo quartet into orbit for a follow-up to their independently released Super Moon. Their new album is heavier on the grooves, with guitar strings thick with twang, deep bass lines, resonant snare drumming and just enough organ (both keyboard and mouth) to step this up from power trio form. The songs burn slowly, with tempos that emphasize power over speed. There are a few guitar solos, but they’re rangy rather than flashy, and what really draws you is the unwavering authority of the rhythms. The album hits a soul stride with “Leave it All Behind” and “Right On, the former sounding as if Arthur Alexander stepped out of the studio just long enough for the band to work up an original, the latter could be Little Feat’s heavier alter ego. Handsome Jack’s music resonates with the atmospheres of rock’s great ballrooms – the Avalon, Fillmore, Winterland, Agora, Grande – and the bands who rocked them. They call their music “boogie soul,” but the boogie gave birth to rock and their souls are plugged into an extension cord that stretches from Buffalo to the Delta. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Handsome Jack’s Home Page

Laura Benitez and the Heartache: Heartless Woman

November 14th, 2014

LauraBenitez_HeartlessWomanTwangy, throwback country meets modern-day relationships

California singer-songwriter Laura Benitez may profess a disinterest in “recreating the past in a recording or at a show,” but her steel-infused second album has a lot more in common with country music of the decades before her birth than the note-perfect arena-ready crossover productions of modern Nashville. Much like Dee Lannon, another country singer bred of the San Francisco Bay Area, Benitez sings rock ‘n’ roll-tinged honky-tonk with a lyrical outspokenness that carries on the works Kitty, Tammy, Dolly and Loretta. Together with her road band, the Heartache, Benitez has laid down a set that sports the give-and-take of live performance, rather than the metronomic perfection of endless studio retakes.

The album’s opening kiss-off, “Good Love,” forges self-appreciation out of romantic ashes, echoing the personal discovery and emotional strength found in the great run of hits by Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina and other female country singers of the 1990s. Benitez isn’t afraid to ask for what she wants in “Take Me Off the Shelf,” nor does she shy away from the other woman’s truth of “I Know You’re Bad” or the poison of “This Empty Bottle.” When it’s time to hit the road, Benitez doesn’t hesitate, though the rebuke of “Imitation of You” is tangled with recrimination, and the wishes of “Heartless Woman” are perhaps only half-hearted.

The band’s rhythm section is solid but restrained, and the harmony vocals – many provided by Benitez herself – add flavor without compromising the leads. Ian Taylor Sutton’s steel guitar favors Don Helms’ classic work on “Where You Gonna Be Tonight,” and Benitez’s forlorn vocal suggests Linda and Emmylou. The album closes with a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Tear My Stillhouse Down” whose 2/4 beat and electric guitar shift the lyrics from remorse to self-anger. Benitez isn’t one to sit around and mope, so even her most troubled songs have an upbeat feel, ala the Derailers or Buck Owens. And like the Derailers, classic country twang provides a jumping off point for Benitez and the Heartache, rendering their music fresh, but anchored in an era before ProTools, auto-tune and crossover striving. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Laura Benitez and the Heartache’s Home Page

Peter Himmelman: The Boat That Carries Us

November 14th, 2014

PeterHimmelman_TheBoatThatCarriesUsSoulful singer-songwriter sees light ahead

Singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman’s been banging away for nearly forty years now, creating an impressive catalog of personal and observational songs touched by rock, blues and soul. He’s recorded for a major label, achieved success on college and alternative rock radio, toured, podcasted, entertained children, gained placements in (and composed soundtracks for) television programs, and has been nominated for both an Emmy and a Grammy. He’s also developed an innovation and leadership consultancy. But as documented on the 2007 DVD Rock God, even with regular doses of critical recognition, Himmelman grew disillusioned with the gap between his artistic accomplishments and his commercial rewards.

Luckily for his fans, soul searching is rich grist for the artistic mill, and self-reflection has led Himmelman past the darkness explored on his last few releases. The album’s opening track poses hope against struggle as a boat willfully charts its own path against strong currents, and Himmelman’s protagonists do similarly as they navigate rocky roads and recalibrate their courses to circumvent troubles ahead. Himmelman’s realized that fearing to lose is its own loss and that successfully confronting life’s tribulations often results in a happier standing; he even circles back on his own pessimism on “For Wednesday at 7pm (I Apologize).”

Written mostly in transit, the songs often build travel into metaphors of personal transformation. The inventory of “33K Feet” is nominally that of a plane’s cabin, but its enumeration inspires introspection, and on the ground, the lines drawn between physical and metaphysical roads are often found to be narrow. Himmelman’s pick-up band features an all-star rhythm section of Lee Sklar (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums), and together with guitarist David Steele, the quartet tracked a dozen songs in just a few days of on-the-spot arranging and live recording. Keyboardist Will Gramling dubbed touches of organ afterwards, but they mesh so well with the core productions that you’d never know they weren’t added live.

Himmelman’s singing favors the rye tone of Randy Newman, the soulfulness of Willy DeVille, and, particularly on “Afraid to Lose,” the hope and ambition of Neil Diamond. Still, his lyrical voice remains singular, particularly as he emerges from years of critical analysis into a world where adversity is an invitation rather than an insurmountable challenge. His band adds to the warmth with Southern-tinged rock and soul whose conversational tone belies the group’s quick introduction and short schedule. Those who helped fund this project through Kickstarter have certainly gotten their money’s worth, and those who are just finding out now are in for a treat. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Peter Himmelman’s Home Page

Dee Dee Warwick: The Complete ATCO Recordings

November 13th, 2014

DeeDeeWarwick_TheCompleteAtcoRecordingsThe early ’70s recordings of a talented soul sister

Dionne Warwick’s younger sister, Dee Dee, may have had less commercial success, but in many ways, she was the stronger singer. Coming from an extended family that also included gospel singing aunt Cissy Houston and superstar cousin Whitney Houston, Warwick’s lack of hits is especially confounding when weighed against the wealth of music industry heavyweights that tried to help her break out. Her older sister succeeded in large part through the creation of a unique place in pop music; Dee Dee, on the other hand, sang more straightforward soul that put her in direct competition with the stars of Atlantic, and the attention of her label.

Warwick recorded for Jubilee (where she waxed the original version of “You’re No Good“), Leiber and Stoller’s Tiger, Hurd, Mercury and its subsidiary Blue Rock throughout the 1960s. She landed in the R&B Top 20 several times, and crossed over to the pop charts with 1966′s “I Want to Be With You.” But in 1970 she was lured to the Atlantic subsidiary ATCO by the label group’s president, Jerry Wexler. By that point, ATCO had been quite successful in the rock marketplace, but hadn’t penetrated the soul and R&B markets its parent label had helped define. Wexler paired Warwick with producer Ed Townend (with whom she’d worked at Mercury), but shelved the four excellent tracks that lead off this collection, including Townsend’s dynamic “You Tore My Wall Down.”

Next up were sessions at Miami’s famed Criteria Studios with the Dixie Flyers as the backing band and the Sweet Inspirations as backing vocalists. This resulted in the 1970 album Turning Around, which spawned two singles, including the R&B hit “She Didn’t Know (She Kept on Talking).” The album drew material from soul writers Charles Whitehead, Gary U.S. Bonds, Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams and Van McCoy, but also from country writers Charlie Rich (“Who Will the Next Fool Be”) and Jerry Crutchfield (“A Girl Who’ll Satisfy Her Man”), and pop songwriters Jimmy Webb (“If This Was the Last Song”) and Pat Upton (“More Today Than Yesterday”). Arif Mardin’s string arrangements accompany several tracks, but it’s the gospel-blue Southern soul of the Dixie Flyers and Warwick’s passionate performances that provide the dominant flavors. To reproduce the album’s running order, program disc one, tracks 12, 6, 9, 14, 5, 13, 8, 10, 7, 11.

For her third sessions of 1970, ATCO sent Warwick even deeper into the South, to the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Three singles were released from the ten tracks laid down, and only one, a cover of “Suspicious Minds,” charted. The unreleased tracks (disc one, tracks 15 and 17, and disc two, tracks 5 and 7) are solid productions, with full bass lines, crisp horns and good material from Ashford & Simpson, Little Jimmy Scott and Brill Building graduate, David Gates. The latter cover of Bread’s “Make it With You” is more soulful than one had a right to hope, but it’s ill-fitting and suggests that ATCO (and producers Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro) simply didn’t know how to help Warwick achieve commercial success.

To their credit, ATCO still didn’t give up, sending Warwick to record at Detroit’s Pac-Three Studio in 1971. The sessions’ lone single, “Everybody’s Got to Believe in Something” b/w “Signed Dede,” failed to chart, and more than half of the tracks (including two alternate versions included here) were left in the vault. Among the previously unreleased material, the most unusual are Warwick’s takes on Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams.” Warwick takes off in a soulful vein from Patsy Cline’s countrypolitan interpretation for the master recording, but really lays on the funk for the alternate take. Bacharach & David’s “In the Land of Make Believe,” which had been recorded by Dusty Springfield, as well as big sister Dionne, fits Dee Dee’s emotional vocal between the low bass line and high strings.

Warwick recorded three additional tracks for ATCO at Atlantic’s New York studio in 1972, but with more successful soul sirens to promote, Atlantic let her slip back to Mercury. Her two-year recording career for ATCO is fully collected in the thirty-five tracks on these two discs, including non-LP singles, B-sides, her sole LP for the label, session material that was available on compilations, and a dozen previously unreleased tracks. Mike Milchner’s remastered all the material at SonicVision, and the 16-page booklet includes detailed liner notes by David Nathan. It adds up to a picture of a terrifically talented vocalist whose career never reached synergy between material, performance and promotion. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Ronnie Fauss: Built to Break

November 13th, 2014

RonnieFauss_BuiltToBreakLate-blooming Americana singer-songwriter brings punk-rock brio

Singer-songwriter Ronnie Fauss seemed to materialize from the ether with his 2012 label debut, I Am the Man You Know I’m Not. And though his public career as a musician started late, he’d been self-releasing EPs alongside a life that included both profession and parenthood. Like many late blooming artists, Fauss came to his craft with something more to express than the intense, but often callow emotions of youth. As a Texan and label mate of John Hiatt and Steve Earle, Fauss’ characters and stories are informed by the state’s songwriting heritage, but his music mixes a healthy dose of rock ‘n’ roll with its twang. He takes it down to acoustic guitars and fiddle for several tracks, but electric guitar, bass and drums form much of the album’s core, suggesting the Long Ryders, David Lindley and others who straddled the divide.

Fauss’ singing may remind you of Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, with a similar punk-rock brio fronting the wear of every day living. Fauss’ protagonists are long on enumerating their shortcomings, though often short-changed on remediation. The down-tempo “The Big Catch” offers a bleak picture of dysfunctional parenting echoing from one generation to the next, and “Never Gonna Last,” sung as a duet with Jenna Paulette, turns on the hook, “I ain’t never been more lonely / than the time I spent hanging around you.” His characters race one another to be the first out the door, leaving them oddly disappointed when they lose. The Old 97′s Rhett Miller guests on the trucking-themed “Eighteen Wheels,” supplemented by Chris Tuttle’s rousing piano, and a cover of Phosphorescent’s “Song for Zula” repatriates its opening nod to “Ring of Fire.”

Those with holiday depression may want to steer clear of “I’m Sorry Baby (That’s Just the Way it Goes),” in which Fauss relates an aging mother’s lonely Christmas. Whether the song is arch or callous is unclear, but it’s effective. There’s a note of remorse in “I Can’t Make You Happy,” but the tone is more fatigued surrender than prolonged sorrow. The closing “Come on Down” is a poignant lament whose siren’s call and working-class strength are underlined by Devin Malone’s sorrowful steel guitar. The song provides a thoughtful ending to an album that reflects on the realities of adulthood and their roots in (and on-going repercussions to) childhood trajectories. Those who enjoyed Jonny Two Bags recent Salvation Town will find a kindred musical spirit in Ronnie Fauss, and those who haven’t heard either should start right here. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Ronnie Fauss’ Home Page

For Singles Only

November 12th, 2014

DVD_ForSinglesOnlyFor Singles Only is an unremarkable 1968 comedy (imagine the AIP beach party kids grown up and living in a singles-only apartment building) that’s worth seeking out for its unusual list of musical guests:

  • The Walter Wanderley Trio with Talya Ferro (poolside!)
  • The Cal Tjader Band (poolside at the body painting contest!)
  • Lewis & Clark Expedition (in fringed leathers and playing Vox guitars!)
  • The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (at the Sans Souci club dance!)
  • The Sunshine Company (in the credits but not in the film?)

The cast includes John Saxon, Mary Ann Mobley (two-time Elvis Presley co-star and Miss America 1959!) and the always delightful Chris Noel (playing the incredibly bitchy Lily), and the film was directed by Arthur Dreifuss, who’d helmed Riot on Sunset Strip and The Love-Ins the year before. The score was written and conducted by Fred Karger, who was apparently an object of affection to no less than Marilyn Monroe! This film turned up on GetTV last week, so keep an eye on their schedule for a repeat. You can also buy it on DVD.

RIP Jack Bruce

October 25th, 2014

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

Paul Collins: Feel the Noise

October 18th, 2014

PaulCollins_FeelTheNoiseThe Dorian Gray of power pop

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

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

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

Paul Collins’ Home Page