After a less-than-satisfying engagement with his last record label, Marshall Crenshaw’s taking his music straight to the people. Funded through a Kickstarter campaign, Crenshaw’s developed a subscription project that will turn out a series of six three-song 10” vinyl EPs, each featuring a new song, a cover and a remake from the singer-songwriter’s rich catalog. The EPs also include a code with which the analog-deprived can download digital versions of the recordings. The first EP was delivered earlier this year, and this second entry features a new A-side, “Stranger and Stranger,” filled with lyric uncertainty and underlined by Bryan Carrott’s vibraphone. The B-sides include a superb acoustic remake of Crenshaw’s “Mary Anne,” that was originally recorded for the 2008 film God is Dead, and a fully orchestrated cover of the Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” The latter is played straight, with smooth choral backing vocals and a trumpet solo by Steven Bernstein. The EP with digital download, as well as a one-year three-EP subscription, is available through Crenshaw’s on-line store. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
This Provo, UT quartet has a modern rock sound that usually suggests the The Shins, but the A-side, “I Won’t See You,” of their new EP is sweetly rooted in the 1970s soft-rock hits of Fleetwood Mac, Andrew Gold and others. The song’s melody and harmonies are warm and comforting, and it’s not until the song transitions into a more angsty chorus that you realize you’re not listening to a period piece. Even then, a short guitar solo once again captures the mood of ’70s radio and leads back to another gorgeous verse. The EP’s second track edges more towards Gin Blossoms territory, but the rhythm guitars could still bring you back to 1976. The closing “Birds” returns more to the modern-rock sounds of the Shins or Morning Benders, though the harmony vocals and blues-heavy undertow still tug at you from decades past. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
What if, after cutting his musical teeth in Phoenix, Lee Hazlewood had turned East to Nashville, rather than West to Los Angeles? And what if he’d met Nancy Sinatra in MusicCity rather than the City of Angels? The answer might sound like a twist on the Western-tinged landscapes of “Summer Wine” and “Some Velvet Morning,” and it might have sounded something like the opening track of this Nashville band’s debut. Vocalist Jessica Maros’ sings a bit more ethereally than Nancy, but with the same confident sass that was catnip to Sinatra’s fans. Maros’ cohort Tyler James fills Hazlewood’s role as vocal straight man, but with a grittier rock ‘n’ roll kick and a haunting trumpet sound that evokes the sun-baked deserts of Sergio Leone and forlorn mood of Bobby Hackett.
Despite those tips of the sombrero, Escondido isn’t a hipster rehash of Nancy, Lee or Ennio, as they also gear down to a dreamier sound that brings to mind Mazzy Star. At times, such as on “Willow Tree,” Maros conjures both Nancy Sinatra and Hope Sandoval, and James, along with bassist Adam Keafer, drummer Evan Hutchings and guitarist Scotty Murray paint the backgrounds in spare, atmospheric strums and echoing notes. Recorded in a single day-long session, the album is populated with ruinous femme fatales, lonely sirens and upbeat farewells. The band’s hard twanging “Don’t Love Me Too Much” was recently featured on ABC’s Nashville, which is a larger coup for network television than for a band whose original combination of influences should attract ears from both the mainstream and the outside lands. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
Willie Nelson sang from the Great American Songbook as early as 1976′s The Sound in Your Mind, and with 1978′s Stardust he demonstrated a unique affinity for pop standards. He continued to draw on this material for decades to come, including 1981′s Over the Rainbow, 1983′s Without a Song and 1988′s What a Wonderful World. His latest collection of pop and country standards is a low-key affair without backing vocals or orchestrations, leaving Nelson’s voice isolated out front of his Family band. His idiosyncratic phrasing continues to serve this type of material wonderfully, but unlike the statement of Stardust, this set is more of a Saturday night jam than a staged performance. With his sister Bobbie and longtime compadres Mickey Raphael and Paul English on board, the sessions feel as if Nelson’s calling out favorites for the group to pick up. The players slide easily into familiar songs, and though the solos can be tentative, the warmth these musicians share, Nelson’s deep feeling for the material and his inimitable singing are all worth hearing.
Nelson’s recorded many of these songs before, a few several times over. He waxed “You’ll Never Know” in 1983 and again in 1994, but this third time he shares the stage more fully with the piano accompaniment. His original “Is the Better Part Over” is stripped of the strings heard on 1989′s A Horse Called Music, and though nominally about a relationship that’s run it’s course, at age 79, one can hear Nelson singing about his life. “Vous Et Moi” digs more deeply into the percussiveness of Nelson’s guitar strings than the 1999 version heard on Night and Day, and “Twilight Time” is sung in a lower, less-nasal register than his earlier version. Floyd Tillman’s oft-recorded “I’ll Keep on Loving You” provides a gentle western swing, and Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” which might seem an odd companion here, fits nicely as semi-acoustic, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll. Nelson greets these songs like old friends, but with renewed enthusiasm each time they meet. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
The slow catching flame of Big Star’s belated renown has recently been stoked by a feature-length documentary, and now by this Record Store Day double-LP of period demos and alternate mixes, and a few remixes made for the film. Depending on your viewpoint, the new mixes may be revelatory and revisionist, or both. The period material, however, will be welcomed by all of the band’s fans. For those who’ve been wearing out copies of #1 Record, Radio City and Third since their original appearances on vinyl, even the slightest variations in these tracks will prick your ear with something new. The quality of the original recordings and the condition of the tapes remains impressive, and the opportunity to hear these variations on much loved themes (decorated in a few spots with studio chatter) is a rare opportunity. What appeared to the public as highly polished diamonds turned out to be – perhaps unsurprisingly if you ever stopped to think about it – the results of a lot of intention and hard work. The seeds of the final tracks are here, even in the demo of “O My Soul,” but not in the balance that’s been etched into fans’ ears.
Robert Gordon’s liner notes from Big Star Live capture the feeling perfectly: “You find an old picture of your lover. It dates from before you’d met, and though you’d heard about this period in his or her life, seeing it adds a whole new dimension to the person who sits across from you at the breakfast table. You study the photograph and its wrinkles, looking for clues that might tell you more about this friend you know so well–can you see anything in the pockets of that jacket, can you read any book titles on the shelf in the background. You think about an archaeologist’s work. When you next see your lover, you’re struck by things you’d never noticed. The skin tone, the facial radiance–though the lamps in your house are all the same and the sun does not appear to be undergoing a supernova, he or she carries a different light. As strikingly similar as the way your lover has always appeared, he or she is also that different. You shrug and smile. Whatever has happened, you like it. That’s what this recording is about.” CD, CD/DVD and double-LP black vinyl editions are forthcoming. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
Three Hits was a short-lived mid-80s band with some very special credentials. The band was co-founded at Appalachian State University by Sheila Valentine and Michael Kurtz, the latter of whom later co-founded Record Store Day. The group’s jangly new wave fit easily into a North Carolina scene that included Glass Moon, Arrogance, X-Teens and others. The group’s second single, “Pressure Dome” b/w “Numbers” was produced by Don Dixon at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio and released on Hib-Tone, a label better known for R.E.M.’s debut. The group played shows at CBGB and Maxwell’s, and recorded an eight-song LP, Fire in the House, with the Records’ Huw Gower producing several of the tracks. In celebration of Record Day, the Hib-Tone single is being reissued on a 12″ purple vinyl EP with the previously unreleased Dixon-produced “Picture Window,” and two Gower-produced tracks, “Cage of Gold” and “Lori (Last Girl on the Beach).” A digital download card provides two additional previously unreleased tracks: “Just One of the Guys” and “Wild Volcano.” A really welcome, and really obscure, blast from the past. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
Dave Armo is a Northern California ex-pat practicing law by day in Southern California, and chasing his musical dreams by night. He sings with a fetching uncertainty, and the guitars, mandolins and guitars that back him are played more for notes than chords or strums. There’s a dreamy quality to his tempos and a vulnerability to his alto singing that pull you in slowly and hold you tight. The effect is one of drifting with Armo through his thoughts as he serenades on “Lovers on the Beach” and buoys himself against uncertainty in “Destination Estimation.” He writes of declarations made too late to fulfill their promise, groveling lovers whose affection goes unreturned, emotional attractions weakened by distance, and on the stoner’s diary, “Blacked Out on Broadway,” he suggests a West-coast Paul Simon. Recorded over a two-year period, Amro lavished tremendous attention on his words, tone and expression, and the results are a hypnotic album of original material. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
For those who haven’t explored the nuances that differentiate The Voice from American Idol, this Voice graduate’s new EP provides good evidence. The Alabama-born, Austin-based vocalist sings soul music that’s subtle, earthy and unlikely to attract votes on American Idol (and, in fact, also left him shy of the top four spots on The Voice). But that which doesn’t catch the attention of a prime-time television audiences may have a good chance of pleasing the ears of music aficionados. Like several other Voice contestants, Nakia had already begun developing a professional music career before appearing on television. His pre-TV resume includes work with Fastball’s Miles Zuniba, backing vocals for Alejandro Escovedo’s Street Songs of Love and two solo albums. His six new originals fit easily into the neo-soul scene, adding modern touches to classic Stax and Muscle Shoals soul, gospel, blues and rhythm ‘n’ blues, and featuring superb support from the Texicali horns. Nakia may still be chasing the artistic hopes of “Dream Big” and seeking the confirmation of “Tight,” but he’s proven himself a rousing soul singer and talented songwriter. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
Steve Forbert fell from recording star escape velocity with surprising quickness. His 1978 debut, Alive on Arrival, was a precociously well-formed introduction, recorded only two years after leaving his native Mississippi, and the 1979 follow-up, Jackrabbit Slim, was refined with a sufficiently light hand by producer John Simon to garner both critical plaudits and commercial success for the single “Romeo’s Tune.” But his next two albums failed to satisfy his label’s ambitions and a subsequent disagreement led to his being dropped and embargoed from recording for several years. Forbert continued to perform, and picked up his recording career in 1988, but the mainstream possibilities charted by these first two albums was never really re-established. The loss of commercial trajectory probably induced few tears from his fans, though, as he built a terrific catalog across thirty-five years of recording.
What still must have puzzled the faithful is the time delay in seeing these titles reissued on CD, with Jackrabbit Slim not having entered the digital market until 1996. Both albums have seen spotty availability over the years, with downloadable MP3s [1 2] finally turning up in 2011. Blue Corn’s 35th-anniversary reissue not only returns full-fidelity, hard CDs back to the market, but augments the original track lists with a dozen studio outtakes and live cuts. A few of the bonuses were cherry-picked from a reissue Forbert has available through his website, but this two-fer is a perfect introduction. From the start Forbert was witty and smart, but understandable and easily empathized with. There’s are flecks of Loudon Wainwright’s humor and Paul Simon’s poetic connection, but without the East Coast archness of either. Forbert was neither wide-eyed nor jaded, but instead showed off a measure of introspection and awareness unusually deep for a twenty-something.
Listening to the earnest folksiness of his debut, it’s hard to imagine Forbert tramping about the mean streets of New York City and dropping in to play at CBGB. Steve Burgh’s production adds welcome punch to the recordings, but Forbert’s guitar, harmonica and vocals retain a folk-singer’s intimacy in front of the guitar, bass, drums, piano and organ. Incredibly, both albums were recorded live-in-the-studio with no overdubs, an impressive feat for a road-seasoned band, but even more so for a young artist’s initial studio work. The recording method pays additional dividends in the completeness of the bonus tracks; as complete as the original albums have always felt, the bonus tracks assimilate easily and must have been tough to cut at the time.
In addition to the five session tracks that didn’t make Alive on Arrival, the bonuses for Jackrabbit Slim include the still-topical promo-only single “The Oil Song,” an alternate version of the album track “Make it All So Real” that drops the original’s opening saxophone and highlights the arrangement’s country flavor, and an electrifying 1979 live recording of “Romeo’s Tune.” Reissuing these albums together completely dispels the sophomore complaint that an artist has twenty years to create their debut but only a year to record the follow-up; Forbert’s second-album is neither light on material nor artistic growth, and sounds urgent rather than hurried. Blue Corn’s dual digipack hides the eight-page booklet in a tight pocket behind one of the trays, so you’ll want to use some tweezers to extract the it – a minor inconvenience for the terrific payoff of these bonus-laden jewels. [©2013 Hyperbolium]