Archive for the ‘CD Review’ Category

Pearl Harbor and the Explosions: Pearl Harbor and the Explosions

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Early ’80s San Francisco new wave

Pearl Harbor and the Explosions was a short-lived new wave band that developed a club following in their native San Francisco music scene. Led by Pearl E. Gates (formerly of Leila and the Snakes), their debut single on the local 415 Records label was helmed by then-neophyte producer David Kahne, and begat an album deal with Columbia. This full-length debut, produced by Kahne at the Automatt, has a crisp sound that almost borders on brittle, but highlights the pop and progressive angles of the band’s music. New versions of the 415 single’s songs (“Drivin’” and “Release It”) were produced alongside a promotional video, and released as a Warner Brothers single that garnered regional radio play.

Though poppier than 415 labelmates like Translator and Romeo Void, there’s a funky new wave Dance Rock undercurrent that suggests contemporaries like Missing Persons. The songs are filled with easily loved hooks, and Harbor’s singing foreshadows the rockabilly sass that would enamor Clash bassist Paul Simonon, and fuel her solo follow-up, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too. Blixa’s reissue augments the album’s original nine tracks with seven bonuses, including the non-LP flip “Busy Little B-Side,” the original 415 Records single, and a trio of live tracks from 1979.

The live material, featuring covers of Nick Lowe’s “Let’s Eat,” the Sparkletones’ “Black Slacks” and Ron Woods’ “I Can Feel the Fire,” shows off the dynamism that established the band as a popular local act. The album scraped the bottom of the Billboard chart, and though the label seemed interested in a follow-up, artistic tensions within the band blew things up. Harbor moved to England and waxed her solo album, the rhythm section hooked up with Chrome, and later with guitarist Henry Kaiser, and guitarist Peter Bilt worked with producer and Automatt owner David Rubinson. In under two years the group had formed, signed a deal, released a record and disbanded, leaving behind few traces besides this catchy album. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Uncle Walt’s Band: Uncle Walt’s Band

Saturday, April 13th, 2019

Legendary acoustic harmony band’s 1974 debut, with 11 bonus tracks

The fusion of country, jazz, folk, blues, bluegrass and swing this trio developed in the late ‘70s isn’t without near-term antecedents (e.g., Dan Licks and His Hot Licks) or parallels (e.g., David Grisman), but the joy with which these three talented musicians – Walter Hyatt, Champ Hood and David Ball – meshed their influences and voices is in many ways without equal. Although there was fine solo work to follow – and commercial success for Ball in Nashville – there was something greater than the parts in their collaboration. With three star-quality singers blending their voices in harmony, their talents as instrumentalists might have receded into the background, had their gifts not been so substantial. Their acoustic playing is gentle, but substantial, and provides perfect backing and decoration to their singing.

Omnivore began the digital restoration of the group’s catalog with the 2018 anthology Those Boys From Carolina, They Sure Enough Could Sing, and now digs deeper with this reissue of the group’s debut. Recorded in North Carolina (in a single day, in mono, and with no overdubs!) and originally released in 1974 as Blame it on the Bossa Nova, the album was reordered and reissued eponymously in 1978, as the group was settling into Austin. Their run would last five more years and turn out another studio album (An American in Texas), a live set (Recorded Live) and a cassette collection of studio material (6-26-79). Reissues have come and gone, including the numerous versions of this debut that are documented in the liner notes, but the band’s impression on its fans has never faded.

The trio’s harmonies take in the sounds of country music’s early family acts, close harmony pop of the ‘40s, and the jazz vocal groups of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Their repertoire includes superb original material that mingles easily with lovingly arranged covers of the Delta Rhythm Boys’ jivey “Give Me Some Skin,” Robert Johnson’s “From Four Until Late,” Professor Longhair’s “In the Night,” the late ‘30s blues “Undecided,” the folk staple “Little Sadie,” and a wonderfully crooned take on the film theme “Ruby.” The trio’s harmonizing on “High Hill” is unbelievably lush, Ball’s falsetto is striking throughout the album (as are Hood’s acoustic guitar leads), and Hyatt’s “Aloha,” which opened the original LP, now closes out the album’s eleven track lineup.

Omnivore’s reissue doubles the track count with eleven previously unreleased bonuses that mix period demos and live recordings, including covers of Turner Layton’s early twentieth century “After You’ve Gone,” an a cappella version of “Rock Island Line,” and a wealth of original material. The group’s vocal arrangements and instrumental prowess shine brightly on the demos, a few of which were covered by others, including Lyle Lovett’s 1998 rendering of “Lonely in Love.” The live recordings show that the fraternity the trio achieved in the studio was just as potent on stage, and that their lighthearted stage banter and effortless musicality instantly drew the audience into their groove. The twenty-page booklet includes photos, remembrances by the band’s musical associates and famous fans, and new liner notes by Mark Michael and Heidi Wyatt. This is an all-time classic, reissued in great style. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Yum Yum: Dan Loves Patti

Saturday, April 13th, 2019

Fetching orchestral-pop eviscerated in a critical crossfire

It’s hard to say which is stranger: the creative genesis of this album or its fiery critical aftermath. In retrospect, the inferno that consumed the album two years after its 1996 release feels more fictional than the actual fiction of the album’s lyrical themes. Originally conceived as a backstory for names carved into a pair of collectible guitars (a Gibson Hummingbird shown on the front cover, and a Martin D25 shown on the back, for the gearheads out there), the album imagines the histories and emotions of the carver’s failed relationships. But written and arranged by Chris Holmes, the album’s intricate layers of orchestral pop became a post-mortem cause célèbre in an escalating war of indie scene criticism. Was Holmes serious or ironic? Was his album art or merely industrial product? Was it authentic or fake? Thomas Frank’s essay “Pop Music in the Shadow of Irony” brought these questions to bear on the career of his former roommate, and much discussion ensued.

Now, decades removed from the original release and the onslaught of analysis that followed, it’s difficult to imagine how the former begat the latter. For Holmes’ part, he suggests that Frank misconstrued his story of an artist navigating the record industry, selecting elements that fit a handy narrative. Frank described Holmes as having run an ironic play that reversed his label’s mass-market aspirations by doubling down with music that ironically harkened back to the sunshine pop sounds of the 1960s. But decades removed from the Indie vs. Alternative imbroglio of the mid-90s, it’s difficult to hear anything ironic in the album’s beautifully crafted sounds. Perhaps that’s because the made-for-AM-radio pop music from which Holmes took inspiration has turned out to have artistic value and emotional resonance that’s outlasted the taint of its arguably crass production source.

Frank labels Holmes’ claims of “heartfelt and genuine and un-ironic” as fake, and perhaps they were. He describes Holmes’ musical touchstones as “lowbrow” and “schlock,” and derides the idea that this music engenders deep, long-lasting meaning to listeners. But even if Frank is right about the layers of Holmes’ intentions, he’s wrong about the source music’s lasting relevance, and he’s wrong about the outcome of Holmes’ process. Whether or not Holmes was ironic (as were, say, Spinal Tap) or loving (as were, say, the Pooh Sticks), the end result is music to love. And if Holmes was simply faking it, he did a good enough job to render the fraud immaterial. It’s hard to imagine that either Holmes’ label, or Holmes himself, thought this music could successfully fill the market space being vacated by “Alternative,” which leaves Frank’s critique as more fantastic than the story he purports.

If you’re already lost in the multiple levels of revisionism and meta criticism, you may want to skip Brian Doherty’s critique of Frank’s essay, and the additional layers of explanation it reports from Frank and his then-editor at Harper’s. It all sums to an incredible amount of critical ink spilled over a market stiff that somehow managed to become emblematic, to a certain strain of intellectual cognoscenti, of all that is wrong with the fruits of commercial production. It’s hard to recall a pop confection that caused this much critical heartburn since the Monkees complained publicly about their own artistic disenfranchisement. And much like the Monkees, Yum Yum is better taken on its musical merits than the contortions of its creation myth.

Holmes originally developed his industry cred as part of the Chicago space rock band Sabalon Glitz, but when a solo deal materialized with a subsidiary of Atlantic, he decided to pursue the orchestral pop he had bubbling on the sideline. The lessons of Sabalon Glitz aren’t lost here, as the album is layered with vintage mellotron and chamberlin, strings, brass, organ, acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums. Holmes’ lyrics imagine Dan lamenting his failed relationships, reminiscing about both the joys and stings of love, closing himself off to simmer in bitter thoughts, dream of better outcomes, and imagine cautiously dipping back into the romance pool. It hasn’t the stinging bitterness that informed Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, nor the variety of musical motifs, but Holmes’ hushed vocals and lyrics of romantic dissolution are effective, and his melodies are catchy, if not always sufficiently distinct to be instantly memorable.

Omnivore has resuscitated this album from the deep sea of critical burial with ten bonus tracks that include a fuzz mix of “Uneasy” that lends the song a Jesus & Mary Chain sound, along with U.K. B-side covers of Prince’s “When You Were Mine,” the Ronettes’ “Baby, I Love You,” and the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection,” and six previously unreleased demos that had been developed on for a follow-up album that never came to fruition. The gentle reimagining of the iconic hits would have kicked the critical lambasting (which was still engendering bitterness in 2011) into another gear, but add a sweet coda to the original album. The demos offer similar sounds to the album, but with an upturn in the lyrical outlook. “Summertime” has an outro hook worthy of the Archies (that’s a compliment), “I Took Advantage of the Spring” skips along hopefully, and though Holmes eventually re-recorded “Holding Out for Love” with Ashtar Command, the planned follow-up album surrendered to disappointing commercial results and “changes at the record label.”

The original album may be the rediscovered gem, but the demos show even more clearly that if Holmes was putting on a charade, it was an Andy Kaufman-like bid to maintain character. Which would have been a lot of work for no obviously attainable gain. The simpler explanation, the one that most closely fits Occam’s razor, is that Holmes was sincere about this project; that he loved the pop music from which he drew nostalgic inspiration, and that these sources continue to ring with emotional resonance that inspires authentic, long-lasting emotional responses in its fans. That Thomas Frank couldn’t connect with this is more a reflection of Thomas Frank’s musical preferences (or rhetorical needs) than of the music, its fans, or the musicians that it influenced. Omnivore’s reissue includes a booklet featuring previously unpublished photos, and informative liner notes by Erik Flannigan, adding up to the package this album deserved from the start. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

The Delines: The Imperial (El Cortez)

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

Country soul that was three years in the making, and well worth the wait

The old saw about having a lifetime to make your debut and twelve months to make the follow-up is a luxury that the Delines didn’t get to enjoy. Not because they were rushed back into the studio by a demanding record label, or suffered a lack of creative energy and desire to write and record a sophomore album. Instead, after touring their 2014 debut, Colfax, recording a summer single that organically blossomed into the extended EP, Scenic Sessions, and completing substantial work on their planned sophomore album, the band’s singer, Amy Boone (Damnations, TX) was struck by a car and sidelined by two broken legs. Now, multiple surgeries and three years after the interruption, they’ve completed an album whose deep, emotional atmosphere appears to have been infused by the collective doubt, hope, expectation and recovery that marked the waiting.

The album’s downbeat country soul bridges the 200 miles between Memphis and Nashville, with organ, horns and pedal steel each offering notes of solemnity and sadness. The spotlight, however, belongs to Boone’s intimate readings of Willy Vlautin’s extraordinary songs. Vlautin captures human moments whose revelations are often to be found deep inside a subtle emotion, thought or interaction. Boone renders these words with a quiet strength that is both introspective and outwardly aware of their profundity. Vlautin’s protagonists spin in downward spirals that might be infinite, if not for an encouraging whisper. The magnitude of emotional despair is shown in nearly imperceptible contrast with earlier times that were, if not exactly happy, less of a disaster.

Vlautin’s talent as a novelist is on display as his songs account for meter, verse, chorus and rhyme without being constrained by them. His stories unfold in both blink-of-the-eye details and jump-cut narratives. Vlautin’s world is a bleak place in which the naive abandon of “Eddie and Polly” metastasizes into addiction, destitution and disintegration, and the unrelenting bad breaks of “Holly the Hustle” beg for redemption that never comes. The plea of “Roll Back My Life” offers a flicker of perception, as does the admission of “He Don’t Burn for Me,” but in both cases, it’s unclear if recognition will lead to understanding, or if awareness will lead to action. Boone infuses the characters with quiet grit and soul, and the the band’s moody, often sparse backings drape her in atmosphere. Three years in the making, and well worth the wait. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

The Delines’ Home Page

Robin Lane & The Chartbusters: Many Years Ago

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Boston band gets its due, with electrifying bonus live tracks

The Los Angeles-born, Laurel Canyon-bred Robin Lane developed her musicality as a Golden State folky, but broke through as an east coast rock ‘n’ roller. Lane migrated from California to New York and then north to Boston, where she formed a band that quickly established itself in the late ‘70s as a regular at The Rat. Club and college dates led to a record deal with the soon-to-be-bankrupt Private Stock label, and then a more fruitful signing with Warner Brothers. The group’s self-titled 1980 debut spun off the singles “When Things Go Wrong” and “Why Do You Tell Lies?,” with the former turning up as the eleventh video played on MTV’s first day on the air. Lane’s original material was emotionally moving and melodically catchy, and her voice had the heft to lead a talented band made up of former Modern Lovers Asa Brebner and Leroy Radcliffe, Reddy Teddy bassist Scott Baerenwald and Sidewinders drummer Tim Jackson.

Formed in the middle of punk rock’s golden age, the Chartbusters managed to deploy their seasoned talent with enough passion to fit in among the less instrumentally gifted. Live and on record, the band was incredibly tight, but never seemed out of place among their punk rock colleagues. The album gained regional and college radio airplay, despite the band’s sense that it didn’t capture the essence of their guitar-centered sound, but failed to break nationally. A live EP, 5 Live and a sophomore LP, Imitation Life, failed to break the band beyond Boston, and they were dropped by their label. Lane’s pregnancy and the birth of her daughter combined with the band’s disappointing commercial results to seal the group’s fate. One more independently released 1984 EP, Heart Connection, was produced before Lane went into hiatus that eventually produced new career directions.

The Chartbusters original recording history is catalogued here in full, with all three Warner releases complemented by a pre-Warner indie single, the post-Warner EP, and a wealth of previously unreleased demos, session tracks, and live material; all that’s missing is the 2003 reunion, Piece of Mind. The debut album, despite the band’s reservations, still resounds with a great deal of rock ‘n’ roll charm. Those who first heard the band live may have been disappointed by Joe Wissert’s bright production, but the guitars aren’t exactly buried, and the drums add a lot of punch to the mix. Lane is commanding as she opens the album with a triple-shot of emotional counsel, and sings of longing that’s personal (“Be Mine Tonight”) and spiritual (“Without You”). She captured her in-the-moment reaction to Nancy Spungen’s death on the rocker “I Don’t Want to Know,” and the guitars offer Byrdsian-chime and McCartney-seque bass on “Kathy Lee.”

But even with Lane’s intense vocals, the band’s impassioned playing, and an album full of memorable lyrics and melodic hooks, the label couldn’t find a way to break the band beyond New England. Whether it was the production, the New Wave album cover, or just the random breaks of the music business, neither the singles nor the album charted nationally. The subsequent live EP, recorded at Boston’s Orpheum Theater, includes three songs not otherwise recorded by the band (“Lost My Mind,” “When You Compromise” and “8.3”), along with a scorching cover of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over.” The recording captures the band’s strength as a stage act, as well as the crowd’s enduring love for their hometown band. But again, the spark of regional enthusiasm couldn’t be grown into a national fire.

The band’s sophomore album was released the following year, and though it’s a solid effort, it didn’t have the obvious singles of the debut. The band’s continuing intensity is heard on “No Control” and the title track, and the poppier “Pretty Mala” and closing ballad “For You” are easily liked, but nothing here reaches out and really grabs the listener’s by the ears like the debut. The band’s tenure on Warner Brothers closed with a good album that wasn’t good enough to hurdle past the failed launch of the superior debut. The 1984 EP Heart Connection opens strongly with “Hard Cover,” and includes three tracks whose keyboards and handclaps date the recordings in a way that don’t affect the previous releases. The EP sessions produced seven additional tracks that are included here as bonuses. The quality of this material could certainly have merited the release of a full album, but was consigned to the vault until now.

Additional demo material includes a pair of pre-Chartbusters recordings, “Rose for Sharon” and “Never Enough” that show off Lane’s California country-folk roots. They also explain the surprise with which Lane’s earliest fans greeted the rock ‘n’ roll sound of the Chartbusters. “Never Enough” was recorded by the Pousette-Dart Band as the title song of their fourth album before Lane rewrote it as “When Things Go Wrong.” The band’s pre-Warner Brother single includes the original versions of “When Things Go Wrong” and “Why Do You Tell Lies,” along with a moving folk-pop original titled “The Letter.” This early material’s connections to Lane’s musical influences is both a treat and a revelation. Disc two is filled out with a 1980 demo of the singer-songwriter styled “The Longest Thinnest Thread,” and the fragile, violin-lined “Little Bird,” taken from the band’s 2002 reunion album.

Disc 3 is dedicated to live material, including the 5 Live EP and seventeen previously unreleased tracks recorded in clubs (Paradise Rock Club and Jonathan Swift’s) and studios (RCA and Normandy Sound) between 1979 and 1981. The Normandy tracks, apparently recorded before an intimate audience, are particularly electrifying. The band is tight and powerful, and Lane’s punk-inspired energy is mesmerizing at the mic; it’s here that the band’s reservations about the sound of their debut album become clear. These tracks also show off the wealth of original material the band had early on, with many of these songs never having made it past live performance. Additional in-concert highlights include a terrifically urgent cover of Del Shannon’s “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” and a stomping rock ‘n’ roll treatment of Willie Dixon’s “Violent Love”

As pleasing as it is to finally have the second album and both EPs in the digital domain, it’s the generous helping of the band in prime live form that will get you on your feet. The three discs are delivered in a four-panel slipcase, with photos, cover art, and new liner notes by Brett Milano; as noted earlier, all that’s missing is the readily available reunion album. Listening to this set, it’s clear that the vagaries of fame often have more to do with circumstance and luck than raw talent, the latter of which the band had in abundance. As Lane opined in Tim Jackson’s 2014 documentary, “Maybe it’s easy to get stuck in Boston, be a big thing in Boston, and then the rest of the world doesn’t even know about you.” Perhaps with some of the luck that didn’t find the band in 1980, this set will help renew and expand the band’s much deserved acclaim. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Robin Lane’s Songbird Sings Organization

Luther Russell: Medium Cool

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

New rock ‘n’ roll sounds of the late ‘70s

For someone born in 1970, Luther Russell sure managed to soak up the feel of late ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll. If you were there, this album will transport you back to a time when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and your copy of Twilley Don’t Mind (not to mention the cutout copy of Radio City you managed to score) hadn’t been worn flat. It turns out that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t die with Tom Petty, even if there are few guitars to be heard on Spotify’s Top 100. Medium Cool not only conjures the sound – the instruments, melodies, rhythms and production – of late ‘70s rock, but the mood. It’s almost as if Joe Walsh continued on from the James Gang instead of eventually joining the Eagles.

Russell’s fealty to the late-70s is on-the-nose with the Roger Christian/Alex Chilton mashup, “Corvette Summer,” a tune that, in an alternate 1978, would have been the title theme to the like-named Mark Hamill film. “Have You Heard” turns a mythical comeback of rock ‘n’ roll into a clarion call, and all of the album’s elements are pulled together as “The Sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll” frees broken hearts to find one another in a misery-eliding drug haze. The acoustic “At Your Feet” suggests an emotionally prostrate version of Big Star’s “Thirteen” (which Russell has previously performed with Jody Stephens), but here the protagonist literally throws himself at the feet of his objet d’affection.

There’s a hint of Joe Jackson in the chorus of “Can’t Be Sad,” but the verses, powered by rock ‘n’ roll guitar, bass and drums that reach back past any hint of a new wave. The ringing guitars of “Talkin to Myself” bring to mind the Seattle pop moment just before grunge, and the introspective closer, “Can’t Turn Away,” doubles down on Russell’s unshakeable loyalty. Over the years Russell’s shifted from Replacements-styled rock with the Bootheels, to Joe Cocker-inspired sounds with the Freewheelers, to folk-pop with Big Star’s Jody Stephens in Those Pretty Wrongs. Elements of each can be heard here, but the trio’s playing is an especially pleasing tonic for ears that came of age in the late ‘70s. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Luther Russell’s Home Page

Dennis Coffey: Live at Baker’s

Monday, March 4th, 2019

Legendary Motown guitarist gigging in 2006

Detroit guitarist Dennis Coffey had a brief run of solo fame with his 1971 instrumental hit “Scorpio,” and its 1972 Top-20 follow-up “Taurus.” But his guitar has been much more widely heard on a string of iconic Motown hits that includes the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine, “Ball of Confusion” and “Psychedelic Shack,” Edwin Star’s “War” and Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Those who’ve spent time in the Motor City may have been lucky enough to hear Coffey playing live, including a residency with organist Lyman Woodard’s heavy swinging trio at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge. Those who didn’t have the pleasure can check out some of the trio’s live dates on the previously released Hot Coffey in the D – Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge and One Night at Morey’s: 1968.

Coffey has continued to gig steadily, and Omnivore now offers up a more recent live date, recorded in 2006 with a quartet that features keyboardist Demetrius Nabors, bassist Damon Warmack and drummer Gaelynn McKinney. The quartet has a different sound than Lyman’s organ-based trio, but Coffey’s guitar is still as fiery and free as ever. The track list is comprised mainly of finely selected jazz covers, including titles by Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Smith, Miles Davis and Jack McDuff, but also includes a hot, extended jam on “Scorpio,” and a lengthy take on the Temptations “Just My Imagination.” The latter is highlighted by Coffey’s soulful, phase shifted guitar (taking the vocal’s spotlight) and an electric piano solo from Nabors.

The signature saxophone and piano vamp of Miles Davis’ “All Blues” is given here to Warmack’s warm bass playing, with Coffey’s chorused guitar, string bends and rapid-fire bursts suggesting Coltrane’s sax more than Davis’ trumpet. The Crusaders’ “Way Back Home” is given a bounce by McKinney’s drumming and Nabors’ swinging solo, as Coffey’s improvisations really blast off. The album closes with an uptempo cover of Jack McDuff’s “Dink’s Blues,” featuring solos from Coffey, Nabors and Warmack. The set’s generous 74-minute running time, new liners from Bill Kopp and an interview with Coffey make this a welcome complement to the two earlier live discs. And if you’re in Detroit, catch Coffey on Tuesday Nights at the Northern Lights Lounge. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Dennis Coffey’s Home Page

Shawn Mullins: Soul’s Core Revival

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

A flash of inspiration turned into an essay of experience

Shawn Mullins was six years and four albums into his recording career when he waxed the 1998 breakthrough album Soul’s Core. He was at the point in a musician’s career when they start to wonder if they’ll ever break out of the artistically-rich but commercially-lean orbit in which they’ve been traveling. The pace of recording often turns studio sessions into snapshots of inspiration, with a long tail of discovery ahead as the album is toured. The initial writing and recording are coated in layers of experience as songs are contextualized in the flow of a live set, developed by a road band’s chemistry, reflected by audience reaction, and interpreted through the changing circumstances of the performer. Material with artistic depth is in a sense never finished.

Given the pivotal role that Soul’s Core played in Mullins’ career, it’s no surprise that many of the album’s songs have remained central to his live set, and that over time, his relationship to the material, and his perspective on its meaning has deepened. For this self-released double-CD, Mullins has re-recorded the album twice: once with his road band, and once in an acoustic solo setting. The former’s live-in-the-studio setting captures the band’s decades-long development of the songs as stage material, while the latter more deeply introspects the songwriter’s changes in personal relationship to his younger self. The band disc perfectly blends the tight playing of oft-played material with the stretching and exploration of songs whose core theses have become second nature; the solo disc gives Mullins an opportunity to look back twenty years on his own.

Mullins has doubled down on the soulfulness of these songs with both his singing and touches of organ and horns. His feel for the entirety of each song allows him to hang back at key points so as to emphasize others, exchanging the glow of the adolescent incarnations for versions steeped in the added details of nightly retellings. The spoken word intros to the acoustic renditions nominaly return the material to its songwriter roots, but as with the band versions, Mullins long-term relationship with his material yields a deeper connection than could have been captured at its genesis. This is a terrific gift to longtime fans of the original album, and an interesting entry point for new fans to capture both Mullins’ early years and his current state. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Shawn Mullins’ Home Page

Van Duren: Waiting – The Van Duren Story

Friday, February 15th, 2019

A 1970s Memphis pop act even more obscure than Big Star

Obscured by the success of soul music emanating from Stax, Hi and American, the 1970s Memphis rock scene was as potent as it was little heard. Decades after their commercial failure, Big Star actually became big stars, and others Memphians making pop and rock music at the time – Icewater, Rock City, the Hot Dogs, Cargoe, Zuider Zee – eventually caught varying amounts of reflected spotlight. But even among all the retrospective appreciation, singer, guitarist and songwriter (and Memphis native) Van Duren remained obscure; his 1977 debut Are You Serious? was reissued in limited quantities by the Airmail and Water labels, his 1979 follow-up Idiot Optimism got stuck in the vault for twenty years, and his later albums went undiscovered by many of those who would appreciate them.

That lack of renown is now set to be corrected by this soundtrack and a like-named documentary. Pulling together material from his two late-70s studio albums, a 1978 live show, previously unreleased sessions at Ardent, and the 1986 album Thin Disguise, the collection easily makes the case for Duren having been the artistic peer of his better-known Memphis colleagues. Duren’s public renaissance was stirred by two Australian fans, Wade Jackson and Greg Carey, whose latter-day discovery of Are You Serious? turned into a two-year documentary project that sought to understand why the albums didn’t hit, and why Duren didn’t achieve the fame that his music deserved.

No one is guaranteed fame, not even the talented, and as noted, Memphis wasn’t exactly a springboard for rock band success, yet Duren’s connections with Ardent, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, Andrew Loog Oldham and Jon Tiven might have tilted the odds in his favor. From his debut, recorded with Tiven on electric guitar and Hilly Michaels on drums, the set’s opening “Grow Yourself Up” has the chugging beat of Badfinger and a vocal melody that favorably suggests the early-70s work of Todd Rundgren. “Chemical Fire” offers a touch of southern funk in its bassline, and the ballad “Waiting” is filled with the yearning its title implies. A pair of live-on-the-radio tracks show how well Duren’s material translated to performance, and how easily he could summon the same level of vocal emotion on stage as in the studio.

The earliest track on this collection, the 1975 demo “Andy, Please,” was cut at Ardent with Jody Stephens on drums and vocal harmonies. It’s as assured as the album cut two years later and features a hint of Eric Carmen in the vocal and a terrific guitar outro from Jack Holder. The second album’s cover of Chris Bell’s “Make a Scene” offers a slice of power pop, and two tracks from Duren’s latter-day band Good Question (including the local hit “Jane”) remain consistent with the quality of his earlier work. Listening to Duren’s music, your head will know that his lack of recognition wasn’t unusual in the breaks-based world of commercial success; but your ears and heart will continue to wonder how he could have fallen so thoroughly through the cracks. Here’s hoping the new interest in his career leads to full reissues of his original albums, and more widespread recognition of his more recent material! [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Various Artist: 3×4

Saturday, February 9th, 2019

The Paisley Underground revisits itself

For those who weren’t around to enjoy the 1980s revival of 1960s sounds, “The Paisley Underground” was the name given to a collection of like-minded Los Angeles bands that shared a fondness for retro sounds. Initially finding one another as fans, they quickly became friends and colleagues, and released a varied catalog of records that touched on a number of different pop, psych and punk echoes of the ‘60s. Three decades years later, four of the scene’s pillars reconvened for a pair of reunion shows in 2013, and six years after that they’ve joined together to celebrate their musical and personal affections via this album of covers. Cleverly, each band – The Bangles, Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade and Three O’Clock – tackles one each of the other three band’s songs, drawing out their web of stylistic connections.

The Three O’Clock kicks off the set with the A-side of the Bangles first single, “Getting Out of Hand.” The cover has a bass-heavy go-go beat that sits well with the organ and guitar, and the band takes the tune at a more relaxed tempo than Michael Quercio’s impromptu 1983 rendition with the Bangles. The Dream Syndicate’s signature “Tell Me When It’s Over” (from The Days of Wine and Roses) finds Quercio dipping into an unusually low (for him) vocal register that’s dreamier than Steve Wynn’s Lou Reed-inflected original, and the Rain Parade’s debut single, “What She’s Done to Your Mind,” retains its original melancholy even as it’s turned poppier. The original lineup of bassist/vocalist Quercio, drummer Danny Benair, and guitarist Louis Guiterrez is joined by keyboard player Adam Merrin, and with Earle Mankey in the producer’s chair, the tracks conjure the flowery buzz of the band’s early days.

The Bangles cover the Dream Syndicate’s “That’s What You Always Say,” with the harmony vocals paired with a guitar solo that pays tribute to Karl Precoda’s screeching feedback without seeking to imitate it. The Rain Parade’s “Talking in My Sleep” (from their debut LP Emergency Third Rail Power Trip) is lead by Susanna Hoffs’ distinctive voice, and backed by Beatle-esque harmonies and instrumental hooks drawn from original. Completing their triptych, the band draws from the Three O’Clock’s Sixteen Tambourines for the joyous “Jet Fighter Man.” Susanna Hoffs, Debbi Peterson and Vicki Peterson are rejoined on these sessions by original bassist Annette Zillinskas, who exited the quartet between the release of their self-titled 1982 EP and their debut on Columbia.

Steve Wynn’s moving vocal and strong guitar work lead the Dream Syndicate’s cover of the Rain Parade’s “You Are My Friend” (from 1984’s Explosions in the Glass Palace), and give the song an Americana flavor that suggests the Long Ryders. Their cover of the Bangles “Hero Takes a Fall,” the lead single from All Over the Place, offers an interesting backstory, as the song is revealed in the liner notes to have been written about none other than… Steve Wynn. The Dream Syndicate’s third contribution reaches back to the Three O’Clock antecedent Salvation Army for “She Turns to Flowers,” a record that proved to be an early inspiration to then record store employee Steve Wynn. Wynn is joined by drummer Dennis Duck, and supplemented by longtime bassist Mark Walton and more recently added guitarist guitarist James Victor.

That Rain Parade’s covers of the Three O’Clock’s “As Real as Real” (from their debut EP Baroque Hoedown) and the Dream Syndicate’s “When You Smile” show off both the psychedelic threads that connected these bands, but also the differences that distinguished their sounds. “As Real as Real” is shorn of the vocal effects of the original, but retains the slow-motion “Tomorrow Never Knows” rhythm that gave the record its languorous grace. “When You Smile” expands upon the original with acoustic choruses and backing harmonies that contrast with the song’s underlying menace, and The Bangles “The Real World” is given an understated treatment that deepens the song’s innocence. Matt Piucci and Steven Roback lead a revised Rain Parade that includes guitarists John Thoman and Derek See, keyboard player Mark Hanley, and drummer Stephan Junea.

The album makes explicit the musical intersections and personal camaraderie that bound these bands together. The liner notes, penned by Steve Wynn, Matt Piucci, Danny Benair, Michael Quercio, Vicki Peterson and Susanna Hoffs, show how the bands became fans of one another, how their fanship turned into friendship, and eventually into professional relationships that found them gigging on shared bills. Within a couple of years the bands split off in different directions, including major labels, chart success, new projects, reunions and reformations; yet through the decades, the base interests that created the original artistic gravity seem to have survived. This return to the roots of a short-lived scene built on artistic sensibilities is a fine tribute to the scene’s collective musical consciousness. [©2018 Hyperbolium]