Archive for the ‘CD Review’ Category

Various Artist: The Ru-Jac Records Story, Volumes 1 & 2

Friday, January 19th, 2018

The history of a 1960s should’ve-been soul powerhouse

The Baltimore-based Ru-Jac label, a long-time favorite of in-the-know collectors, is finally getting its historical due. Omnivore began digging the Ru-Jac vault with 2016 titles on Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie, and now traces the length of the label’s entire story with four expertly curated, smartly illustrated and knowledgeably notated volumes [1 2 3 4]. Ru-Jac was born from the unlikely confluence of a numbers-running real estate investor and a dry cleaner with a sideline as a promoter. The latter, Rufus Mitchell, gained a spot managing the operations of the summer resort Carr’s Beach, and developed a nexus of musical acts, managers and disc jockeys that provided a foundation for a booking agency, a song publishing concern, and finally, the Ru-Jac record label.

Mitchell drew his acts primarily from Baltimore and D.C., releasing a string of excellent singles that began with Jesse Crawford’s dramatic plea “Please Don’t Go” and it’s sorrowful B-side “I Love You So.” A distribution deal with a larger label wasn’t enough to garner any commercial action, but Mitchell was undeterred, and doubled-down with a second pair of soul laments by Sonny Daye. The A-side, “A Woman Just Like You,” is a deeply wounded mid-tempo number with a fetching sax hook and a Latin undercurrent; the flipside pairs a raw blues guitar with a soul croon. As with the initial release, the single’s lack of commercial success barely slowed Mitchell down, as he continued to capture magic on tape, whether or not the stars aligned to lift his singles onto the charts.

The first two years of Ru-Jac were filled with terrific records, and even more impressively, a few A-side-worthy tracks that never made it out of the vault. The set opens with the wicked soul jam “Fatback,” a tune that should be the fondly remembered closing theme of an early-60s Baltimore TV dance show; something John Waters could have reintroduced to the world in Hairspray. In that same fictional history, the slower “Cross Track” would have replaced “Fatback” mid-way through the second season (after a single episode in which “Trash Can” was used) when the show’s producer and the record label had a falling out, and fans would argue to this day which was the better show closer. Those same kids likely would have spent their summer time at Carr’s Beach, making the resignation and renewal of Brenda Jones’ “Let’s Go Back to School” someone’s very fond memory.

Baltimore native (and former carnival pitchman) Winfield Parker first appeared on Ru-Jac with the moody, Stax-influenced 1964 ballad “When I’m Alone,” backed with the mid-tempo “One of These Mornings.” The latter is presented here in a previously unissued horn-lined alternate that some will find bests the master found on Omvnivore’s Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker At Ru-Jac. Winfield would turn out to be one of the label’s most prolific artists, and perhaps even more importantly, the caretaker of the label’s legacy. With Mitchell’s passing in 2003, the label’s riches – which included tapes, promotional material and business records – passed to Parker, who has now passed that archive on to Omnivore, while serving as the executive producer for these releases.

Volume one is filled out with numerous little-known, or in the case of the ten previously unreleased tracks, unknown gems. Jeanne Dee roars through a vault recording of the blues standard “Every Day I Have the Blues,” Tiny Tim’s “Saving All My Love” suggests Clyde McPhatter, and Celestine’s B-side “You Won” borrows its hook and New Orleans roll from Barbara Lewis’ “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More).” Mitchell tried out gospel with the Fruitland Harmonizers, torch-singing with Marcie Allen’s “All Over Again,” soul-jazz with its flip “Crying Won’t Help You,” fast-talking jive with Rockin’ Robin’s “Don’t Bit Mo,” and numerous deep-groove instrumentals, including the Jolly Sax’s “The Monkey Cha-Cha.”

Volume Two picks up the story in 1964 with Brenda Jones’ second Ru-Jac release “It Must Be Love,” its flipside, and the previously unreleased 50s-styled ballad “So Alone.” The year finished out with singles by D.C. native Shirley Grant and Harrisburg organist Butch Cornell. The latter pair of sides are particularly fine, as Cornell offers up Hammond B-3 licks in a trio setting with a jazz-chording rhythm guitarist and a hard-swinging drummer. A previously unreleased alternate take of Cornell’s “Goose Pimples” gives the song an entirely different feel from the single, with a full horn section and dance-friendly go-go beat. 1965 brought the legendary Arthur Conley to Ru-Jac as the songwriter and vocalist on Harold Holt’s “Where You Lead Me” and its flipside “I’m a Stranger.” Conley’s songs graced other Ru-Jac artists records, and Conley self-recorded several piano-and-voice demos, two of which are included here.

1965 also brought a sharper focus on DC acts, including The Neltones and Bobby Sax, and in 1966, The Mask Man & The Cap-Tans with The Paul Earle Orchestra. Like many of Mitchell’s signings, all three were one-off Ru-Jac artists, and though there was some regional action, like the rest of the Ru-Jac roster, there was no national breakthrough. The durable Winfield Parker is represented here by two previously unreleased recordings of “I Love You Just the Same,” one a demo with Parker singing slightly off mic, the other a finished studio alternate of the original single. Two garage rock bands borrowed talent agent Lillian Claiborne, The Reekers and The Henchmen, are omitted here, leaving the door open for Bear Family to render the Complete Ru-Jac box set.

Track after track it’s hard to imagine how this music failed to break; but the business of hit singles has never been strictly meritorious, and Mitchell’s Baltimore-based connections apparently didn’t have the juice to gain the national attention his productions deserved. Other labels, such as Lieber & Stoller’s Daisy/Tiger imprints, suffered the same fate, but it still remains stupefying in retrospect. Each of the four volumes in this series is illustrated with vintage photos and ephemera, and the history of the label and its artists is given detail by Kevin Coombe’s studious liner notes. Volumes 3 & 4 are due in March, and a set of Arthur Conley’s demos in May, but these first two collections are ready to take you to Charm City. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Sam Marine: Big Dark City

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

Hard-charging, guitar-driven roots rock

There’s a delirious feeling you get at the end of the night when exhaustion, alcohol and dawn combine into a euphoric feeling of opportunity. You can sense this in Sam Marine’s roots rock stories of late nights that blend into mornings after. His rhythms echo the heartland pulse of John Mellencamp, with drummer Mitch Marine (Brave Combo, Smash Mouth, Dwight Yoakam) and bassist Aaron Stern providing the muscle behind hard-charging electric guitars. Marine’s vocals have a raspy edge that suggests Springsteen and Mellencamp, but on “Freeze ‘em Out” he sings with the sort of urgency Robin Wilson brought to the Gin Blossoms. At only five songs, the EP is packed with memorable songs in which Marine explores the anonymity, rootlessness, connections and friendships one can find in the heart of a big, dark city. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Sam Marine’s Home Page

Chris Bell: Looking Forward / I Am the Cosmos / Complete

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

The most detailed look yet at Chris Bell before and after Big Star

Chris Bell’s untimely death in 1978 not only robbed the world of his musical greatness, but also froze his artistic assets. A full appraisal of his art was retarded by the paucity of available recorded material that lingered for many years after his passing. Big Star’s debut, #1 Record, despite the contemporaneous critical praise and retrospective glory lavished upon it, had been poorly distributed at the time of its 1972 release. Reissued in 1978, apparently to Bell’s delight, it’s imported manufacture delegated it to specialty shops. That same year, Bell’s solo single, “I Am the Cosmos,” was released on Chris Stamey’s Car label, but it would be fourteen more years until Ryko’s 1992 full-length I Am the Cosmos really started to flesh out the Chris Bell story. By then, Big Star had become an iconic reference among 1980s indie pop bands, and with Alex Chilton’s new Big Star formation in 1993, interest in Bell continued to grow.

The next cache of Bell material to turn up were pre-Big Star recordings by The Jynx, Rock City, Christmas Future and Icewater on collections dedicated to Big Star and the Ardent label. In 2009, Rhino Handmade provided further insight into Bell’s post-Big Star period with an expanded edition of I Am the Cosmos. Omnivore now pulls this all together, expanding upon what’s been excavated before with three new releases. First is the single CD Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star, which adds six previously unissued tracks to the existing corpus of pre-Big Star material. Second is a deluxe reissue of I Am the Cosmos that adds eight tracks to the 2009 Rhino Handmade reissue. Third is an omnibus vinyl-only box set, The Complete Chris Bell, which collects the material from the first two sets, and adds an excerpt from Rich Tupica’s forthcoming biography, There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Big Star Founder Chris Bell.

What’s immediately striking about the material on Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star is how good it sounds. Ardent studio owner John Fry had the presence of mind to train a handful of musicians on recording technique, and let them practice in the studio’s down time. These sessions were free from the pressure of a studio clock or a label’s budget, and they allowed the musicians to explore their craft as players, engineers and producers. The six previously unreleased tracks include recordings by The Wallabys (“The Reason”) and Icewater (“A Chance to Live”) and four backing tracks. Big Star fans drawn to the backing track “Oh My Soul” will find it unrelated to the Chilton song of the same name, but the chugging groove is infectious and Bell’s guitar work superb. The unfinished “Germany” has fine vocal overdubs, and the gritty guitar on the alternate of “Feeling High” is terrific.

What shines through the early Ardent sessions is everyone’s unbridled enthusiasm, and for Chris Bell in particular, an optimism that had yet to be crushed under the weight of #1 Record’s commercial failure. From the earliest track, “Psychedelic Stuff,” through the British Invasion tones of the Wallabys, breakthrough compositions like “All I See is You,” and material that would be re-recorded by Big Star, everything rings with a sense of musicians chasing their muse, unencumbered by commercial considerations and with a growing sense that they could make music as meaningful and moving as their idols. Alec Palao’s liner notes include insightful interviews with John Fry, Steve Rhea, Terry Manning, Alan Palmore, Jody Stephens, Tom Eubanks, providing detail on the scene, sessions and tracks.

The eight tracks added to I Am the Cosmos include alternate versions, backing tracks and mixes that provide the final clues as to the journey Bell’s songs took throughout his lifetime. As Alec Palao notes, “unless some new studio sessions come to light in the future, [this set] is essentially the last word on the work of this quixotic talent.” Omnivore relocates the Icewater and Rock City tracks Rhino added in 2009 to a more natural spot on Looking Forward, and adds several mixes from the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me. Bob Mehr’s liner notes tell of Bell’s spiritual, musical and geographical odysseys to record, overdub, mix and find a record deal. Alec Palao’s track notes further dissect Bell’s artistic restlessness by piecing together details of his intercontinental quest for perfection.

The avalanche of material that’s been posthumously released on Big Star, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton might feel Elvis- or Jimi-like, had the band not been so thoroughly ignored in their prime. The drive to learn how these artists came to produce #1 Record, Radio City and Third, and what became of them afterwards is delayed discovery rather than morbid curiosity. The books, documentary, reissues, best-ofs, box sets, archival artifacts, resurrections, reunions, and tribute performances might overwhelm lesser artists. But in the case of Chris Bell, the before and after provide a surround that magnifies the all-too-brief artistic flame. Those new to the Big Star canon should start with their albums, those who’ve already imbibed will want to dig the roots and the afterwards, and those who’ve already thoroughly explored the periphery will find something of value in upgrading. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Alex Chilton: A Man Called Destruction

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Reissue of Chilton’s 1995 album of deep covers and R&B originals

Alex Chilton had an on-again-off-again relationship with accessibility. His earliest hits with the Box Tops, and his initial work with Big Star were tightly produced and memorably tuneful records that were easy on the ears. But his third album with Big Star and several of his solo releases seemed to be deliberately challenging. While some fans are enervated by the search for charm among the controlled chaos, others would favor the label “masterpiece” over “hot mess.” By the time of 1987’s High Priest, Chilton had begun to lean heavily on an eccentric catalog of R&B and pop covers, culminating in 1993’s solo acoustic all-covers album, Cliches. 1995’s A Man Called Destruction picks up the idiosyncratic song selection and adds a band performance to a mix that feels less ironic than the crooning that came before.

There may still be a knowing wink in covering Danny Pearson’s “What’s Your Sign?,” but Chilton’s fascination with astrology is well known, and the affection for the song heard in his voice is clear. Placing he Italian rockabilly number “Il Ribelle” alongside Crescent City staples, and sandwiching a falsetto-laced cover of Jan & Dean’s “New Girl in School” between two hard-R&B originals may cause a bit of listener whiplash, it suggests the jumble of influences that seeded Chilton’s musical genius. Omnivore’s 2017 reissue adds seven bonus tracks to the albums original dozen, including alternates, an off-the-cuff take on Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do” and several otherwise unreleased originals, including the memorable “Give It to Me Baby” and the jam-ready “You’re My Favorite.”

Recording in Memphis for Ardent, Chilton assembled a three-piece horn section of veterans Jim Spake and William “Nokie” Taylor, and newcomer Jim Spake. Spake was given the task of working out horn charts ahead of time. Chilton drew in his regular bassist Ron Easley, and two of his road drummers, alongside the organ playing of 22-year-old Al Gamble and Peabody Hotel pianist Bob Marbach. It was a surprising amount of intention for a Chilton session, and though the bonus tracks show some improvisation and in-studio development, Chilton came prepared with his songs ready to go. The results swing without devolving into loose ends, and Chilton sounds at ease with his material, band, guitar playing and singing, resulting in a session that wasn’t subject to the usual deconstruction. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Banditos: Visionland

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Southern rockers with twists of garage, psych and more

The second album from these Birmingham-to-Nashville transplants opens with a garage-rock sound that wasn’t as evident on their self-titled 2015 debut. Mary Beth Richardson’s bluesy vocals are given the context of San Francisco-sound powerhouses like the Jefferson Airplane, and though a banjo peeks through the haze, the ‘60s rock vibe is strong. The title track suggests a psych-rock Richard and Mimi Farina, the ballad “Healin’ Slow” has a ‘50s vibe, “Lonely Boy” might have been a country song written in the Brill Building, and the whispery “When It Rains” could be a fondly remembered ‘70s radio hit. The band seems to be democratic in exploring their influences, cross-pollinating without overwhelming the base flavor of each song. They’ve added new spices to the boogie, blues and soul of their debut and shown themselves to have both musical vision and reach. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Banditos Home Page

NRBQ: Happy Talk

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Playful new EP from the new NRBQ

Some of NRBQ’s longtime fans have a hard time accepting this revision of the band as legitimate, but with founding member Terry Adams at the helm, the new quartet has captured a chunk of the original band’s ethos as they move forward with new material. 2011’s Keep This Love Goin’ and 2014’s Brass Tacks each displayed the broad musical taste and sense of irreverence that were hallmarks of the earlier lineups. This five-song EP continues in the same direction with two originals, and covers of Roy Orbison, Rodgers & Hammerstein and the blues saxophonist, Abb Locke (“Blues Blues Blues”). The originals are playful novelties, while the covers are given original spins such as a tic-tac rhythm for “Only the Lonely” and the dreamy quality of “Happy Talk.” If it sounds a bit like a lark, that’s because amusement and adventure married to taste and musical chops have always been the band’s raison d’être, and that DNA has passed through to this revitalized quartet. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

NRBQ’s Home Page

Guided By Voices: Live From Austin TX

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Reissue of live double-CD and DVD

This tri-fold, slipcased set combines the previously released 2-CD and DVD editions, remixed and remastered (in 5.1 surround for the DVD), with new liner notes by Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona. For fans, this is a nice souvenir of the original band’s end days. Recorded on November 9, 2004, the set captures GBV on their farewell tour, seven weeks before their final show, which was documented on the DVD release The Electrifying Conclusion. The set list includes five songs from their then-latest LP, Half Smiles of the Decomposed, and twenty-five more going all the way back to 1989’s “Navigating Flood Regions.” This date encapsulates everything that was both exhilarating and frustrating about Guided By Voices. The material remained inspired and the performances provocative, even as the band descended from tight and powerful to drunk and sloppy, but they were very drunk and sloppy by the time they got to the end of the set. This is familiar territory for GBV fans, and perhaps the most fitting epitaph the band could have recorded. It doesn’t reveal the band’s full musical glory, but it does tell their story. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Guided By Voices’ Home Page

Art Pepper: Presents West Coast Sessions! Volume 6 – Shelly Manne

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

1981 pairing of Art Pepper and Shelly Manne reissued with bonuses

After a gap in the first half of the ‘70s, alto saxophonist and West Coast Jazz icon Art Pepper returned to recording. By decade’s end he was under contract with Galaxy, and when a small Japanese label came calling, he had to get creative. Unable to record for Atlas as a group leader, he picked session leaders and took credit only as a sideman. The albums were issued only in Japan, previously anthologized in the box set Hollywood All-Star Sessions, and are now being reissued by Omnivore with bonus tracks. Volume 6 is headlined by drummer Shelly Manne, backed by Bill Watrous (trombone), Bob Cooper (tenor sax), Pete Jolly (piano) and Monty Budwig (bass). The penultimate of Pepper’s session for Atlas, this was originally released as Hollywood Jam; Omnivore’s reissue adds one alternate session take.

Recorded in 1981 at Sage & Sound, Pepper’s next-to-last session for Atlas brings back two previous session leaders – Jolly (Vol. 2) and Watrous (Vol. 4) – as session players. As on the other volumes in the series, the set list sticks primarily to standards, with the one original being the group-developed “Hollywood Jam Blues.” With three horns and a talented pianist, the solos get passed around a bit more than on other sessions in this series. The smooth tone of Watrous’ trombone is particularly compelling, as is the contrast between Pepper and Cooper’s saxophones. Jolly offers some terrifically melodic playing, and Manne, though mostly remaining in the background as part of the rhythm section, is clearly in the driver’s seat. He single handedly sets the fast tempo of “Lover Come Back to Me” with his cymbal.

The album opens with all three horns interlacing on the introduction of “Just Friends” before each player is introduced with a solo. The album’s ballad, “These Foolish Things,” is sleepy, while “Limehouse Blues” is dreamlike. The closing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” is also presented as a bonus track in a longer, more expressive version that apparently wouldn’t fit on the original vinyl album. Omnivore’s reissue includes a 12-page booklet of photos, credits, studio diagrams and liner notes from Pepper’s widow, Laurie. Laurie Pepper has kept the flame of Art Pepper’s music alive through biography, blog and archival releases, and now with this series of reissues, an important chapter in Pepper’s career is revived. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Art Pepper on Bandcamp and CD Baby

Art Pepper: Presents West Coast Sessions! Volume 5 – Jack Sheldon

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

1980 pairing of Art Pepper and Jack Sheldon reissued with bonuses

After a gap in the first half of the ‘70s, alto saxophonist and West Coast Jazz icon Art Pepper returned to recording. By decade’s end he was under contract with Galaxy, and when a small Japanese label came calling, he had to get creative. Unable to record for Atlas as a group leader, he picked session leaders and took credit only as a sideman. The albums were issued only in Japan, previously anthologized in the box set Hollywood All-Star Sessions, and are now being reissued by Omnivore with bonus tracks. Volume 5 is headlined by trumpeter Jack Sheldon, backed by Pepper’s road band of Milcho Leviev (piano), Tony Dumas (bass) and Carl Burnett (drums). The second of Pepper’s sessions for Atlas, this was originally released as Angel Wings; Ominvore’s reissues adds three alternate session takes and a version of “Historia De Un Amor” with Jack Sheldon’s vocal.

Recorded in 1980 at Sage & Sound, this was the only album in the run that paired Pepper with a trumpeter. Pepper and Sheldon had met up as young West Coast pups in the early ‘50s, and recorded together frequently. Though separated by Pepper’s prison and rehab time, and Sheldon’s acting career, they reconnected in the early ‘70s for gigs. As with all six titles in this Atlas-reissue series, the set list leans mostly on jazz standards, augmented by two original pieces from Pepper and one Pepper/Sheldon collaboration. The set opens with Pepper’s “Angel Wings,” revisiting the swinging arrangement the duo had recorded for 1956’s The Return of Art Pepper. The same album also provides the standard “Broadway” and the Pepper original, “Minority.” “Broadway” offers terrific interplay between the sax and trumpet, while “Minority” shows off its West Coast cool in a minor key.

The riff that animates “Jack’s Blues” is more sprightly than blue, with each player getting a chance to stretch out. Leviev is particularly playful on this track, and Dumas and Burnett riff at one another to nice effect. The album’s ballad, “Historia De Un Amor” is offered as both an instrumental and (as a bonus track) a vocal version. As pleasing as are Pepper and Sheldon’s uptempo exuberance, the soulfulness of their balladry is an album highlight. The vocal version was rescued from a cassette, and while it doesn’t match the fidelity of the masters, it’s a terrific addition. Omnivore’s reissue includes a 12-page booklet of photos, credits, studio diagrams and liner notes from Pepper’s widow, Laurie. Laurie Pepper has kept the flame of Art Pepper’s music alive through biography, blog and archival releases, and now with this series of reissues, an important chapter in Pepper’s career is revived. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Art Pepper on Bandcamp and CD Baby

The Foundations: The Best of the Foundations

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

A legacy that’s richer than their four hits

This late-60s, multiethnic, multinational soul ensemble is best known to U.S. audiences for its two Top 40 singles, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” and “Build Me Up Buttercup.” Both hits, and a good deal of their other material, were co-written by producer Tony Macaulay, often with his regular writing partner John MacLeod. The band had two more hits in the UK (“Back on My Feet Again” and “In the Bad Bad Old Days (Before You Loved Me)”), as well as a number of minor chart entries, but after only four years, and numerous personnel changes, they packed it in. Various members toured and recorded under variations of “The Foundations” name throughout the 1970s, but it’s the original material from 1967-1970 that’s featured here. Varese has included all of the group’s A-sides for Pye (UK) and Uni (US), including the UK-only “Baby, I Couldn’t See” and US-only “My Little Chickadee,” a handful of B-sides and a pair of tracks from the band’s final album, Digging the Foundations.

The band’s 1967 introduction attached them to the backside of the British Invasion, and their association with Macauley gave their hits a pop breeziness. But their innate sound was more in line with Motown, Stax and American horn bands. Given the chance to record original material, the group showed off grittier soul, jazz and blues influences on the B-side “New Direction” and the late A-Side “I’m Gonna Be a Rich Man.” That said, they could also write bubblegum, such as the B-side “Solomon Grundy,” and they picked up sunshine pop tunes that include “Baby, I Couldn’t See” and “Take a Girl Like You.” Varese’s sixteen track set (including mono single mixes on 1, 4-6, 11, 13 and 15) provides a good overview of the group’s charms, and the CD’s screening with the rainbow swirl Uni label is a nice touch. For a more complete rendering of the group’s story, look for the out-of-print Build Me Up Buttercup – The Complete Pye Collection, but for most this is a good place to start. [©2017 Hyperbolium]