Archive for the ‘Five Stars’ Category

The Muffs: Happy Birthday to Me

Monday, March 6th, 2017

“A home run in an empty ballpark” – 2017 reissue w/bonuses

The Muffs 1997 swan-song for Warner/Reprise continued the hook-filled pop-punk of their previous pair of albums, but with an even tighter shock of guitar, bass and drums than the previous Blonder and Blonder, and vocals that wrap emotion in a frock of snotty attitude. Having burned in the trio dynamic on tour, the Muffs were more musically connected than ever before. Shattuck’s production really galvinized the album, and engineers Sally Browder and Steve Holroyd got a ferocious guitar-first mix on tape. Shattuck always wrote openly of her desires, and sings with a passion whose blisters can obscure the candidness of her admissions. She’s keenly aware of herself, whether testing the waters, surrendering to her emotions, standing up, stepping away or squarely laying the blame on her way out the door. And though she doesn’t mince words in eviscerating those who’ve mistreated her, there’s often a shadow of insecurity that makes her songs more than stock kiss-offs.

This 2017 reissue includes seven bonuses: a B-side cover of The Amps’ “Pacer” with “best guess” lyrics, and six previously unreleased songwriter demos. Shattuck’s guitar, bass and drums demos don’t have the sonic force of the album tracks, but they show how the band took her templates to finished product, and highlight her melodies. And her melodies are worth paying attention to, as she wrote great vocal hooks for “That Awful Man” and “Honeymoon,” and crafted a power-pop earworm in “Outer Space.” The commercial failure of Blonder and Blonder lost Warners’ interest, and though given creative freedom to record, the band was dropped before Happy Birthday to Me was released. Drummer Roy McDonald opines, “I couldn’t help but feel like we had hit a home run in an empty ballpark.” Omnivore’s reissue adds a 20-page booklet of photos, liner notes from McDonald and Barnett, and track notes from Shattuck, making for a terrific twentieth birthday present. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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The Legal Matters: Conrad

Monday, December 19th, 2016

legalmatters_conradBeautifully harmonized power pop

The second album from this Detroit pop trio is awash in fetching melodies and beautifully crafted harmonies that will remind you of the Beach Boys, Badfinger, Rubinoos, Raspberries, Posies, XTC, Matthew Sweet and Fountains of Wayne. That’s heady company, but earned by an album whose sunny melodies, sweet lead vocals and complex backings are in perfect balance. The band’s themes of infatuation, pining, coupling, misunderstanding, discord and regret come to an emotional conclusion in “Pulled My String,” as Keith Klingensmith wallows in the emotion-blinding bleakness of heartbreak. His bandmates’ harmonies and strummed guitars strive to lighten the mood, but they can’t illuminate an exit. The prideful outsiderness of “The Cool Kid,” and nostalgic “Short Term Memory” broaden the topics beyond matters of the heart. There’s falsetto vocals that suggest Brian Wilson’s prime and a lovely vocal crescendo on “More Birds Less Bees,” and the album ends on ambivalent notes of optimism and introspection in “Better Days.” This is a terrifically poised sophomore effort from an incredibly talented band. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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Cat-Iron: Sings the Blues and Hymns

Monday, November 28th, 2016

catiron_singsbluesandhymnsObscure 1958 Folkways blues album returned to vinyl

If Christopher Guest were to make a mockumentary about the blues, it might open with a crate digger’s breathless recitation of time-worn details such as, “Louisiana native Cat-Iron was born William Carradine in 1896 and mis-nicknamed by the folklorist Frederic Ramsey, Jr.. Having converted to Christianity, Carradine was initially hesitant to lay down secular songs, but relented with a mix of blues and sacred hymns on a borrowed guitar, recorded in the front room of his house. The resulting 1958 Folkways LP included an eight-page booklet, was pressed on yellow wax, and quickly fell into obscurity.” What would make this absurd is its absolute truth in demonstrating how scholarly producers refashioned themselves into musical anthropologists who used hunches and recorders in place of maps and shovels.

Recorded in 1957 and released the following year, it was to be Cat-Iron’s only album, as he passed away in November 1958. Since then, two tracks appeared on anthologies [1 2], the album was reissued in the UK as a vinyl album in 1969, and domestically as a digital download and custom CD in 2004. Exit Stencil now returns the album to print as a limited distribution vinyl LP, struck on yellow wax, just like the original, with blues on side one and hymns on side two. Also included is a reproduction of the original eight-page booklet, including lyrics and Ramsey’s original liner notes. The latter sketch Cat-Iron’s background, the circumstances of the recording session, and provide Ramsey’s view of the blues as organic, communal literature.

As Ramsey noted, Cat-Iron sang everything with the combined fervor of the gospel and the blues, lending the former the grit of the latter, and the latter the eternal gravity of the former. The session began with the hymns placed on side two, with Cat-Iron accompanying himself on fingerpicked guitar that’s fretted with a glass medicine bottle and supplemented by the faintest, rhythmic thump of what was likely to be his foot. He’s carried away by the messages of “When I Lay My Burden Down” and “Fix Me Right,” and surprisingly melancholy on the first song he played that day, “When the Saints Go Marching Home.”

Of the blues numbers on side one, the most well-known (and regularly covered) is “Jimmy Bell.” It’s here that Cat-Iron’s regionalism is heard in the cultural themes he wrote and sang. As with most folk artists, Cat-Iron’s catalog is derived from lyrics he’d heard, borrowed, rearranged and augmented. The opening “Poor Boy a Long, Long Way From Home” is rooted in the oft-recorded “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home,” with Cat-Iron changing the lyric from “Natchez,” where he resided and recorded, to “New Orleans.” He deftly weaves together lines from “Rambler Blues” and “Corinna, Corinna” for “Don’t Your House Look Lonely,” and sings “I’m Gonna Walk Your Log” with its similarity to “Baby Please Don’t Go” intact.

It’s something of a miracle that primitive field recordings, transcribed from analog to digital and back again, can transport the experience of a 1950s Mississippi living room into the twenty-first century. Cat-Iron’s voice is clear and strong, and balanced well against his guitar playing. There are hints of “studio” (that is, room) chatter around the edges of a few tracks, giving listeners a feel for the informality of the session; but once Cat-Iron gets going, his performances are authentic expressions of a hard life lived in a segregated nation that largely relegated its rural African-American population to clapboard shacks. For vinyl lovers who never crossed paths with the original artifact, this reissue will be a real boon. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Exit Stencil Recordings

The Explorers Club: Together

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

ExplorersClub_TogetherAs if there was a missing late-60s Beach Boys album

This Charleston-bred, Nashville-resident band continues to be the foremost exponent of the Beach Boys sound. But not the surf-and-drag singles-sound of the Beach Boys c. ‘63-’64, but rather the album sounds of Brian Wilson’s growing compositional depth of ‘65-onward. Add dashes of Burt Bacharach, Curt Boettcher and Paul Williams, and you have a sense of the group’s sophistication. Few have so thoroughly imbibed the sunshine that flowed through Brian Wilson in the mid-to-late-60s as Explorers Club vocalist, songwriter and arranger Jason Brewer. When he sings “’California’s Callin’ Ya’,” you can hear Wilson’s imagery calling the South Carolinian like a sea siren. The harmonies are lush and warm, the arrangements multifaceted, the album cover an homage to Friends, and the indie record label – Goldstar – a direct allusion to the craft Brian Wilson laid into everything he produced. The spot-on evocation of late-60s Beach Boys might appeal as a parlor trick if it weren’t so beautifully crafted and so incredibly heartfelt. You can’t help but smile as this music washes over you like a warm summer wave. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Explorers Club’s Home Page

The Zombies: The BBC Radio Sessions

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Zombies_TheBBCRadioSessionsExpanded re-reissue of the Zombies live on the BBC 1965-68

Varese’s 43-track, 2-CD set expands on their earlier double-LP with five previously unreleased tracks. This augments material that’s been reissued in numerous configurations, including Rhino’s landmark Live on the BBC, and Big Beat’s Zombie Heaven and Live at the BBC. This is now a one-stop shop for the biggest helping yet of the recordings the Zombies made for the BBC. Included are live versions of the group’s three early hits, “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No” and “She’s Coming Home,” along with other much beloved originals, “Whenever You’re Ready,” “If It Don’t Work Out” and “Friends of Mine,” and a slew of covers. Notably missing is a full take of “Time of the Season” (though it’s heard as background to the last interview segment), as its success postdates these BBC sessions.

The origin of these recordings (and similar catalogs for other British Invasion bands) lays in limits placed on the BBC’s use of commercially released records. To supplement their programming, musical artists were recorded in the BBC’s own studios, the recordings pressed to transcription discs, and the discs circulated to affiliates for broadcast. With the BBC failing to archive these works, it’s transcriptions of found copies that form the core of this set, supplemented by off-air recordings of material for which transcriptions haven’t yet surfaced. The quality varies, and while none match the productions of the group’s formal releases, they’re all quite listenable. The live energy and deep reach of the cover selections are essential additions to the group’s small catalog of commercially released work.

What’s immediately noticeable is how unique the Zombies sounded, even among the British Invasion’s explosion of creativity. Colin Blunstone’s voice gave the group an easily recognized front, Rod Argent’s keyboards added distinctive flair, and the group’s melodic sense was like nothing else on the radio. The tracks include several cover songs the group never released commercially, and multiple versions of “Tell Her No,” “Just a Little Bit,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You Must Believe Me” and “This Old Heart of Mine.” Variations from the commonly circulated commercial masters – such as an acoustic piano on the February 1965 version of “Tell Her No” – are especially interesting in how they influence the tone of the performances.

Announcer introductions and interview clips give a feel for how the musical tracks played in context, and reveal interesting personal details about the band, their travels and their unrealized plans for the future. Even more revealing are Andrew Sandoval’s liner and track notes, which provide detailed information about the sessions, the radio shows on which the tracks were featured, and the sources of the often obscure cover songs. Matching the session notes to the discs is a bit tricky, as the notes run chronologically, and the tracks do not. The addition of six previously unreleased recordings (disc 1, 23-25 and disc 2, 7-9; five songs and an expanded interview with Colin Blunstone) make this the most complete set of the group’s BBC recordings yet. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Zombies’ Homepage

Various Artists: First Class Rock Steady

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

Various_FirstClassRockSteadtyExtraordinary collection of Jamaican rocksteady 1966-68

The difference between ska, rocksteady and reggae may be lost on casual listeners, but even without an academic understanding of Jamaican music’s evolution, rocksteady’s slower tempos, heavy backbeat and harmony vocals will get listeners on their feet. In celebration of rocksteady’s fiftieth anniversary, this forty track set pulls together some of the short-lived, foundational genre’s most important tracks, including Roy Shirley’s prototype “Hold Them,” Hopeton Lewis’ genre-defining opener, “Take it Easy,” material from internationally renowned exponents Desmond Dekker and Johnny Nash, and deep, collectible tracks from Jamaica’s greatest musicians.

Rocksteady slowed the tempo and simplified the instrumentation of ska, dropping the horns in most cases, shifting emphasis to the rhythm section, leaning more heavily on the backbeat, and freeing the bass to play melody. Technology also had an impact, as the introduction of two-track recorders allowed backing tracks to be reused, as did the Melodians with “Last Train to Expo ‘67” and “Last Train to Ecstacy,” and Stranger Cole for “Seeing is Knowing” and “Darling Jeboza Macoo.” Rocksteady also freely borrowed melodies, such as Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” for “Pata Pata Rocksteady” and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” for both “The Russians Are Coming” and “The Great Musical Battle.”

Though only active from 1966-68, rocksteady produced a large number of excellent singles, and set down roots that grew as reggae took over. This set was originally issued on vinyl as a super deluxe singles box for Record Store Day, and has now been expanded and reissued in digital form for International Reggae Day. The CDs come in an artfully decorated digipak with an 18-page booklet featuring liner notes by reggae historian Harry Wise, and deftly integrated quotes from rocksteady giants Bunny “Striker” Lee, Lynn Taitt and Hopeton Lewis. All tracks are mono except “Take It Easy,” “Sounds and Pressure,” and “Hold Me Tight,” which are surprisingly good quality stereo. A great set for newbies and crate diggers alike! [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Sammy Walker: Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

SammyWalker_BrownEyedGeorgiaDarlinA perfectly preserved echo of the folk revival

Although these demos were recorded in the mid-70s, their guitar, harmonica and socially adept lyrics reach straight back to Dylan and Walker’s early proponent, Phil Ochs. His nasal voice recalls both Dylan and Arlo Guthrie (and for those who enjoyed mid-70s buskers, Jim Page), but his lyrical voice is his own. His lyrics are less strident than Ochs’, more linear than Dylan’s, and less caustic than Paul Simon’s early work. But Walker has the same knack for turning moments into philosophy, and telling stories whose points are larger than the lyric. He selects his words for both meaning and sound, making his guitar accompaniment all that’s needed.

The title track opens the album with poetic images of a hard ride through sun and wind, to the cool reprieve at trail’s end. Walker returns to nature for “If I Had the Time,” dreaming of elsewhere while remaining rooted in the land, and he essays dreams again in the cleverly titled “I Ain’t Got Time to Kill,” marking his realization that one’s time is finite and should be spent with care. The contrasting scenes of “A Cold Pittsburgh Morning” are chillier than the headline, and the hardship of “The East Colorado Dam” is a box canyon. Walker re-recorded many of these songs with a band for his Warner Brothers albums but the fuller arrangements haven’t remained as fresh as these demos. This is a great find for fans. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Sammy Walker’s Facebook Page

The Muffs: Blonder and Blonder

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

Muffs_BlonderAndBlonder1995 sophomore summit, reissued with bonus tracks!

Two years after their self-titled 1993 debut, the Muffs stripped down to a trio with the departure of Melanie Vammen (less than a week before recording) and the arrival of new drummer Roy McDonald. The result is tighter, punchier and even more ferocious than the first outing, with Kim Shattuck’s songwriting sharpened and her vocals often escalating into howls. The album is a perfect example of pop-punk, marrying the catchy melodies of the former with the unrestrained energy of the latter. Shattuck’s rhythm guitar playing is tough, but her leads have the melodic winsomeness of Gary Lewis & The Playboys records. Even the suicide song, “End It All,” is hummable.

Shattuck notes in the liners that “On and On” was influenced by Freddie & The Dreamers, and indeed the opening riff is lifted from “I’m Telling You Now.” She also notes that “Laying on a Bed of Roses” borrows from the Creation’s “Biff Bang Pow,” and with the transvestite of “Oh, Nina” echoing the Kinks’ “Lola,” the British Invasion connection is strong. Her lyrics can be self-pitying (“Sad Tomorrow”) and bratty (“Won’t Come Out to Play”), but she’s nobody’s fool, easily kicking a cheater to the curb in “What You’ve Done.” The album closes with an unusual segue between the freakout “I’m Confused” and the spiffed-up acoustic demo “Just a Game,” ending in a couplet that encapsulates the yin and yang of punk-pop.

Omnivore’s 2016 reissue adds the UK B-sides “Become Undone” and “Goodnight Now,” and demos of “Red Eyed Troll,” “Won’t Come Out to Play” (with its Buddy Holly roots intact) and “Pennywhore” (which turned up on Happy Birthday to Me). Also featured are demos of “Born Today” and “Look at Me,” neither of which seem to have made it to final form. Unlike the guitar-and-voice demos on the debut album’s reissue, these tracks have basic bass and drums that indicate what they’d sound like as band songs. There’s a taste of Shattuck’s demo of “Become Undone” at the end of track twenty-one, and a hidden backwards CD bonus track at #22, but the demo of “I’m Confused” that Shattuck lauds in the liners is MIA.

The reissue’s 20-page booklet includes numerous photos, liner notes by Ronnie Barrett and Roy McDonald, the latter detailing his second chance at joining the band, and song notes by Shattuck. This is a good upgrade for fans who already have the original album, and the place to start for those who haven’t yet dived into the Muffs. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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Stan Getz: Moments in Time

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

StanGetz_MomentsInTimeStan Getz live in San Francisco in 1976

Recorded at San Francisco’s late Keystone Korner during the same week that Getz and his quartet backed Joao Gilberto, this selection of eight tracks offers a deeper sampling of Getz’s saxophone and a more balanced hearing of his group. Where the Gilberto sets, documented on the companion release Getz/Gilberto ‘76, focused primarily on the Brazilian artist’s vocals and guitar, these tracks give time to Getz’s accompanists, pianist Joanne Brackeen, bassist Clint Houston and drummer Billy Hart. The mood is a great deal more lively here, and you can almost hear Getz working to distinguish his solo work from the bossa nova collaborations that had fueled his popular success. His backing trio is sophisticated and outgoing, with Brackeen, in particular, offering up melodically complex solos. The song selections range from the 1930’s standard “Summer Night,” to then-contemporary jazz pieces by Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver, and the Antonio Carlos Jobim samba “O Grande Amor.” Resonance offers the CD with typically thoughtful packaging, including a 28-page booklet stuffed with full-panel photos, extensive liner notes, and interviews with Billy Hart and Joanne Brackeen. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Stan Getz’s Home Page

Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto: Getz/Gilberto ‘76

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

StanGetzJoaoGilberto_GetzGilberto76A rare and previously unreleased teaming of Getz and Gilberto

Recorded at San Francisco’s long-gone Keystone Korner in May, 1976, this collection of live performances adds to the slim, but highly influential catalog of Getz-Gilberto pairings. The duo had initially teamed for an album in 1964 and a live outing in 1966, and came back together is 1976 for The Best of Two Worlds. The latter album prompted a tour with Getz’s quartet of Joanne Brackeen (p), Clint Houston (b) and Billy Hart (d), whose San Francisco stand is captured here. The recordings focus primarily on Gilberto’s vocals, which are superb, his guitar and Getz’s sax. The band is mostly relegated to supporting Getz’s solos, and even then they’re mixed (or they played) very low, with only Hart’s cymbals making much of an impact. None of which distracts from the pleasures of the music, but one might wish there’d been more conversation with the band, as heard on the parallel Getz release Moments in Time. Resonance has augmented this CD with a 32-page booklet filled with superb full-panel photos and detailed notes and interviews, including Q&As with Hart and Brackeen. They’ve also included a new cover painting by Olga Albizu, whose work was featured on the covers of the first two Getz/Gilberto albums. A great find for fans of Gilberto and Getz & Gilberto. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Stan Getz’s Home Page
Joao Gilberto Tribute Page