Archive for the ‘CD Review’ Category

Explorers Club: To Sing and Be Born Again

Monday, November 9th, 2020

Well-crafted mid-60s pop covers

Relocated to Nashville, and with a band of friends and studio musicians behind him, sunshine pop mastermind Jason Brewer has released this album of covers songs in parallel to an eponymous album of original material. The titles are drawn from 1966-1968, and mix well-known hit singles with a few lesser known gems. Among the latter are Danny Hutton’s pre-Three Dog Night “Roses and Rainbows,” the Zombies’ album track “Maybe After He’s Gone,” and Orpheus’ 1968 single “Can’t Find the Time.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, by picking material that’s so firmly in his musical wheelhouse, Brewer has left himself little room to stamp these covers as his own. They’re not carbon copies, and Brewer’s vocals (both lead and backing) provide a fresh alternative to the originals, but these songs are so deeply ingrained in his musical ethos that the covers can’t help but trace the original templates. Brewer’s taste in cover material is superb, and his craftsmanship is exquisite, but as interesting as it is to hear him essay some of his favorites, it doesn’t hold the surprise of hearing his musical sensibility applied to original material. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

The Explorers Club’s Home Page

Explorers Club: Explorers Club

Monday, November 9th, 2020

Bright rays of sunshine pop

Jason Brewer’s fourth album as the Explorers Club finds him relocated to Nashville and fronting friends and studio musicians, rather than a set band. The results show the strength of Brewer’s musical vision as he expands well beyond the Pet Sounds / Smiley Smile stylings of earlier albums with 60s-tinged pop that flows with the airy feel of Boettcher, Bacharach, Usher and others. And he does so without landing hard on any one; there are echoes, such as the piano of “Ruby” drawing upon Three Dog Night’s “One” and vocals suggesting the Turtles; but, winningly, the songs never linger on any one influence long enough to be branded imitative. Brewer has so deeply internalized ‘60s and ‘70s pop that his creations are inevitably shaped by the era’s melodic, instrumental, vocal and production style, without overtly copying.

The album deftly combines guitar, bass and drums with rich vocal harmonies, strings and horns, the latter suggesting the Buckinghams on “One Drop of Rain,” cooing coyly on “Don’t Cry,” and turning boozy for “Dreamin’.” The album stretches into burning neo-psych for “Somewhere Else,” adding an extra touch of surreality with its oddly time-signatured breaks. The closing “Look to the Horizon” has a timely, optimistic message of better days ahead, though with this album in hand (along with the companion volume of covers, To Sing and Be Born Again), listeners will find their mood improved today. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

The Explorers Club’s Home Page

Groovie Goolies: Groovie Goolies

Sunday, November 8th, 2020

1970’s TV bubblegum music

After Don Kirshner’s falling out with the Monkees he fell in as music director for the Archies – a cartoon band with no creative aspirations of their own. With Ron Dante singing lead, and Jeff Barry, Andy Kim and others contributing top-quality songs, the Archies climbed onto the charts, peaking with the national anthem of bubblegum, “Sugar Sugar.” In addition to their success on the music charts, the Archies also had a top-rated Saturday morning TV show, all of which prompted their production company, Filmation, to try and replicate their dual success. The result was the 1970-71 Groovy Goolies, a monster-themed cartoon that featured two songs per episode, one performed by the monster trio Drac, Frankie and Wolfie, and the other by a rotating lineup of guest bands such as the Bare Bones and the Rolling Headstones. In reality, as with the Archies, the songs were performed by music industry pros, in this case, Dick Monda (better known as Daddy Dewdrop of “Chick-A-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes’ Love It)” fame), the Challengers’ Richard Delvy and Ed Fournier, and studio aces Larry Carlton and Ron Tutt.

The album was released in 1970, harvesting eight songs from the television show and adding “We Go So Good Together” and “Spend Some Time Together.” The songs were written by the team of Linda Martin and Sherry Gayden, and the album was co-produced by Monda and Ed Fournier, who also appeared on the front cover as Frankie (Fournier) and Drac (Monda). Sadly, the Rolling Headstones’ original version of “Chick-A-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes’ Love It)” wasn’t included on the album. The ten tracks that did make the cut are good quality bubblegum, though without the songwriting genius of Barry and Kim. “First Annual Semi-Formal Combination Celebration Meet-The-Monster Population Party” was issued as a single to no acclaim, and the album quickly became a rarity. Real Gone’s CD reissue marks the album’s first digital appearance, and along with two vinyl versions (one pumpkin orange, the other Franken-green) this is a nice nostalgic get for those who assembled in front of the TV to rock with the monsters on Saturday mornings! [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Van Duren: Idiot Optimism

Saturday, November 7th, 2020

Rare 1970s Memphis pop-rock follow-up

The 1970s Memphis rock scene was fertile but largely ignored in its time. Big Star rose to influence and renown only decades after they failed to make a commercial impression and disbanded. Others on the scene – Icewater, Rock City, the Hot Dogs, Cargoe, Zuider Zee – caught varying degrees of reflected post-mortem Big Star spotlight on compilations and reissues, but Van Duren, who recorded one of the city’s best ‘70s rock albums, remained obscure. This 1978 release, originally on the short-lived Big Sound label, garnered favorable reviews and FM radio play, but has been little known by even those who’ve collected the endless stream of Big Star reissues and vault material, and has been selling for big dollars in secondary markets.

Spurred by the documentary Waiting: The Van Duren Story and its accompanying soundtrack, Omnivore’s gone back to the vault and reissued Duren’s debut, Are You Serious?, alongside this even rarer second album. Idiot Optimism was recorded shortly after the debut, but disagreements with the label led to it being shelved. The album appeared briefly on the Japanese Air Mail label in 1999, and again in 2003 on Terry Manning’s Lucky Seven imprint, but this is the first issue in which Duren’s been involved, and remastered from the original analog tapes, with liner notes by Duren and a previously unpublished cover photo, this is the album’s definitive rendering.

Unlike Duren’s multi-instrumentalist performance on his debut, here he engages a band. Also unlike the debut, the well of material was mostly newer, many songs having been written during the time between the debut album’s recording and its release. Duren also included the only cover he’d recorded to that point – Chris Bell’s “Make a Scene” – as well as a song he co-wrote with Jody Stephens in 1975, “Andy, Please.” He also leaned more heaviy into mid- and up-tempo numbers, having found that ballads didn’t work as well on stage, with the fetching “What’s Keeping You?” being the only piano ballad included on the album.

Jon Tiven returned to co-produce, but after a falling out with the label, Duren was left to produce most of the album with help from engineer Richard Robinson. Oddly, the record label had forsaken vinyl LPs for cassette tapes, which allowed the album to stretch out to fifteen tracks. Musically, Duren’s songs have many of the musical hallmarks of those on his debut, but the players rock a bit more freely than Duren had as a multi-instrumentalist. Tom MacGregor rips on lead guitar for “Convincing Convictions,” and Hilly Michaels opens “Torn in Half” with an inventive drum pattern alongside Jeff Batter’s synthesizer.

Duren finished mixing the album before splitting with Big Sound, but the label did a poor job of mastering, and the previous Air Mail and Lucky Seven releases used the label’s inferior master. Omnivore has returned to the original analog tapes with a new transfer by Adam Hill, and a new master by Michael Graves. Those new to Duren’s catalog will want to pick this up alongside the debut, and fans who previously picked up the earlier issues of this title will want to upgrade! [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Van Duren’s Bandcamp Page

Van Duren: Are You Serious?

Saturday, November 7th, 2020

Long-lost 1970s Memphis pop-rock classic

The 1970s Memphis rock scene was fertile but largely ignored in its time. Big Star rose to influence and renown only decades after they failed to make a commercial impression and disbanded. Others on the scene – Icewater, Rock City, the Hot Dogs, Cargoe, Zuider Zee – caught varying degrees of reflected post-mortem Big Star spotlight on compilations and reissues, but Van Duren, who recorded one of the city’s best ‘70s rock albums, remained obscure. This 1978 release, originally on the short-lived Big Sound label, garnered favorable reviews and FM radio play, but has been little known by even those who’ve collected the endless stream of Big Star reissues and vault material, and has been selling for big dollars in secondary markets.

Spurred by the documentary Waiting: The Van Duren Story and its accompanying soundtrack, Omnivore’s gone back to the vault to reissue Duren’s debut and second album, Idiot Optimism. While the latter was remastered from the original analog tapes, Omnivore’s used Bob Ludwig’s original master from the 1970s for this CD. The vinyl editions of both albums were freshly remastered by Jeff Powell at Phillips Recording in Memphis. Omnivore’s reissue of Are You Serious? includes the original thirteen tracks, performed by Duren and drummer Hilly Michaels, with help from Doug Snyder and co-producer Jon Tiven. The three tracks anthologized on the soundtrack album expand here into a surprisingly assured album-length statement of a twenty-something who was packing eight years experience as a band leader and songwriter.

Duren’s songs yearn to express his romantic feelings, acknowledging the natural connection of “Chemical Fire,” nervously marking time in “Waiting,” and confessing his innermost hope on “This Love Inside.” There are echoes of the Raspberries on “Oh Babe,” and Badfinger and Todd Rundgren on the angry “Grow Yourself Up.” “Stupid Enough” essays the chagrin of staying too long, and the acoustic closer “The Love That I Love” displays the sort of mood Alex Chilton brought to “Thirteen.”

Duren’s debut burns with the passion felt between the naivete of teen years and the growing cynicism of one’s thirties. He’s articulate, both lyrically and musically, which might seem preternatural if he hadn’t been developing his craft and polishing his songs on stage and in demo sessions for several years. Big Sounds garnered surprisingly broad FM radio play, but it didn’t translate into big sales or chart action, and the album quickly disappeared. Omnivore’s reissue includes an eight-page booklet that features new liners from Duren and previously unpublished period photos. This is a great intro to Van Duren, and a perfect complement to the parallel reissue of his second album. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Van Duren’s Bandcamp Page

Jason James: Seems Like Tears Ago

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020

Like a classic country jukebox heavily stocked with George Jones

One might be inclined to penalize Jason James for the likeness of his singing to that of George Jones, if he weren’t so good at it. The choked vocals and multi-note runs merge with the fiddle, steel and light cooing background vocals to give this record a retro vibe; which, again, one might be inclined to discount if it weren’t so effective, and if James wasn’t so incredibly heartfelt. That said, the Jones-perfect title track isn’t the only nostalgic note, as James busts out the fiddle-and-guitar Bakersfield twang of “Move a Little Closer,” the Hank Williams-styled “We’re Gonna Honky Tonk Tonight,” and the Cajun-inflected “Cry on the Bayou.” But Jones is clearly his guiding light, and with the master having passed in 2013, it’s comforting to know that his impact still echoes in the work of new performers. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Jason James’ Home Page

John Fusco and the X-Road Riders: John the Revelator

Monday, November 2nd, 2020

Screenwriter stretches out with 2-CD set of blues and more

Best known for his screenplays (Crossroads, Young Guns, Hidalgo, The Highwaymen), John Fusco shows again on his second album that he’s no dilettante as a blues vocalist, instrumentalist, songwriter or band leader. Last year’s debut with the X-Road Riders grew out of some jam sessions with Cody Dickinson, and this year’s model doubles down with a 2-CD outing that splits the discs between two bands – one drawn from north of the Mason-Dixon line, and the other from south. Each band offers a number of influences, and across the two discs the set provides a variety of blues, soul, pop, gospel and rock. Fusco provides continuity between the two bands, but also takes the opportunity to launch in different directions with each.

The southern band (or “chapter,” as designated in the liner notes) fires on all cylinders for “Bone Deep,” with Fusco’s raspy vocal underlined by Risse Norman’s soulful singing, alongside harmonica, and guitar, and organ that brings to mind Booker T & The MGs. Sarah Morrow’s trombone adds sly annotations and a solo to the cautionary “It Takes a Man,” and Norman and Fusco’s back-and-forth duet highlights “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing.” Fusco’s vocals and piano take a turn towards Dr. John for “Ophelia,” and Patrick Moss’s fiddle accompanies lyrics of enduring love on the Chris Staplelton-like “Applejack Brandy.” Disc one closes with a ten-minute workout on “Bad Dog” and the not-at-all-subtle political right hook “Snake Oil Man.”

The northern band opens with the lost faith of “Song for Peter” and its testimony of a longtime street denizen. It’s the sort of story we often hurry past, but Fusco’s soulful vocal and piano, supported by a warm bass line and shot through by electric guitar, get beneath the ragged surface and call for you to listen. The second disc stretches out stylistically, getting funkier and jazzier for “Jacqueline,” mixing in ballads that suggest Leon Russell’s solo work, dramatic rock that would sound at home in a Bob Seger set, and the ‘70s-styled country-pop “Motel Laws of Arizona.” Fusco voice draws together the eclectic stylings into a coherent double album whose variety essays a fertile chapter in a film writer’s not-so-second career as a music maker. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Rick Shea: Love & Desperation

Monday, November 2nd, 2020

Pandemic Americana

Surprisingly, Rick Shea’s latest album doesn’t sound particularly different from his earlier efforts, even though it was tracked remotely by musicians distributed amongst their own studios. Begun in the Spring of 2019 in Shea’s home studio, by early 2020 the collaboration had spread to multiple studios and was coordinated by e-mail and computer network. Incredibly, the album shows no seams or lack of group ethos, and though Shea tips his hat to the pandemic on a few titles, the songs don’t evidence the Groundhog-like sameness that our collective shelter-in-place has brought to daily life.

The opening cover of Al Ferrier’s rockabilly “Blues Stop Knockin’ at My Door” takes in Lazy Lester‘s harmonica-driven Louisiana stomp, and adds accordion and guitar solos to the yearning, heartsick vocal. Shea’s low, slow “Blues at Midnight” picks up the sorrowful mood as he suffers the late-night misery of being left behind, and “Jaunita (Why Are You So Mean)” imagines the travails of Shea’s in-laws during their dating years. The album’s title track is dramatized from an autobiographical seed, and “Down at the Bar at Gypsy Sally’s” takes a few liberties with the San Bernardino bar scene in which Shea cut his musical teeth.

The world’s current circumstance is essayed in the allegorical “Big Rain is Comin’ Mama,” a surprisingly chipper two-step of accordion and steel with a deadly category five storm on the horizon. In contrast, the dark folk-blues “The World’s Gone Crazy” finds the storm having blown through, leaving behind an apocalyptic aftermath. Luckily, Shea’s world isn’t confined by his physical circumstances, as he still writes imaginative ballads (“A Tenderhearted Love”), ambivalent musings (“Nashville Blues”), and cinematic stories (the closing “Texas Lawyer”) that belie the pandemic-induced isolation in which this music was created. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Rick Shea’s Home Page

Bobby Hatfield: Stay With Me – The Richard Perry Sessions

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

Previously unreleased solo sessions from 1971

As half (and in several cases, all) of the Righteous Brothers, Bobby Hatfield’s tenor was the emotional high-wire that supercharged the blue-eyed soul hits “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Soul Inspiration” and “Unchained Melody.” In 1968 his partner Bill Medley left the act, and by 1971, Hatfield’s pairing with the Knickerbockers’ Jimmy Walker had also broken up. So it was with a solo career on his mind that he engaged with producer Richard Perry, who was hot off successful albums with Barbra Streisand and Nilsson. Initial sessions were held in the legendary Abbey Road studio in December 1971, with musical luminaries Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, Al Kooper and Bobby Keys, and produced the single “Oo Wee Baby, I Love You.” Hatfield was loose and ready to create new sounds as Ringo’s drumming drew winningly on the Beatles’ “Get Back,” and a cover of George Harrison’s White Album-era “Sour Milk Sea” found Al Kooper banging away on piano as Hatfield exercised his falsetto.

A second set of sessions convened later in Los Angeles’ legendary Western Studios (home to Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, and others), where a single was cut covering Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay With Me.” Perry built the production with a full orchestra and chorus, and Hatfield lit it up with an impassioned vocal that echoes Ellison’s iconic original. The L.A. sessions also produced covers of Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” (a song written for the 1937 film, Rosalie, and not, alas, the Five Satins’ 1956 doo-wop classic) and Billy Fury’s “Run to My Lovin’ Arms.” The former aligns with the Tin Pan Alley-era material that Hatfield recorded earlier in his career, while the latter overclocks the emotional tenor of the chorus similarly to Jay and the Americans’ original.

Also included here is the B-side to both singles, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” (a blues-rock Hatfield original that sings of life on the road, rather than the Buffalo Springfield’s hit), and covers of Harrison’s “What is Life” and two exploratory approaches to Holland, Dozier & Holland’s “Baby Don’t Do It.” Perry’s growing renowned apparently pulled him away from this project, leaving the two singles as the only commercial output. And though Hatfield recorded Messin’ in Muscle Shoals at the legendary FAME studios, these unfinished sessions demonstrate he had many more ideas than he ever got to release. This is a nice complement to Ace’s Other Brother: Solo Anthology 1965-1970, providing valuable insight into Hatfield’s state at the start of the 1970s, as well as his creative process. A nice get for fans. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Booker T. & The M.G.’s: The Complete Stax Singles Vol. 1 (1962-1967)

Friday, January 24th, 2020

Killer soul instrumentals from the Stax house band

As the Stax house band, Booker T. & The M.G.’s were often heard backing seminal recordings by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and other label stars, but their career as a standalone group also produced iconic singles, B-sides and albums. Real Gone pulls together the original mono mixes of the group’s first 15 singles, A’s and B’s, to highlight the hits and deep-grooved flips of the band’s first six years. The hits include their chart-topping 1962 debut, “Green Onions,” and a pair of crossover Top 40’s from 1967, “Hip Hug-Her” and a cover of the Rascals’ “Groovin’.” The latter kicked off a string of crossover hits that stretched into 1969 (and will hopefully be anthologized on Volume 2). In between, the group delivered catchy singles that touched the bottom of the Top 100 while generating bigger success on the R&B chart.

The band’s debut album was filled with instrumental covers, but their singles featured original mid-tempo groovers built on soulful organ leads, searing guitar solos, and propulsive backbeats. The group’s first B-side, “Behave Yourself” is a dark, late-night blues, but their second single, “Jelly Bread,” turns the tempo up as Jones vamps behind Cropper’s introductory guitar riffs. The rhythm section of Jackson and Steinberg get everyone moving for 1964’s “Can’t Be Still,” and Isaac Hayes reportedly keys the organ on the follow-up “Boot-Leg.” 1966’s “My Sweet Potato” trades organ for piano, as does the country-inflected “Slim Jenkins Place.” The set’s covers include Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae,” Gershwin’s “Summertime,” a pair of holiday releases, and, under the title “Big Train,” the gospel classic “This Train.”

Real Gone has packed twenty-nine original sides onto a single 74-minute CD, with liner notes and discographical detail by Ed Osborne, and mastering by Dan Hersch. For the vintage minded, they’ve produced a limited-edition 2-LP set on blue vinyl with a gatefold cover. Shorn of album tracks and the temporal condensation of greatest hits albums, this chronological recitation of the group’s mono singles showcases what listeners heard through their radios at the time. Album sales would later become a central focus of both the recording ethos and marketing strategy of music groups, but in the early-to-mid-60s, singles were still the lingua franca of pop music, and Booker T. & The M.G.’s made some great ones! [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Booker T.’s Home Page