The Muffs: Happy Birthday to Me

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]

The Muffs’ Facebook Page

OST: Wheeler

March 5th, 2017

The real music of a fictional Nashville up-and-comer

The soundtrack to the film Wheeler makes real the fictional Wheeler Bryson. Written and sung by screenwriter, producer and actor Stephen Dorff, the songs are neither workmanlike imitations nor certified hits – laying somewhere in between studied craft and the bottled lightning of stardom. In that sense, they’re perfectly tuned to a story of Nashville aspiration that sits on the precipice of success. Dorff has a bit of rock ‘n’ roll husk in his voice, and it serves both the up-tempo numbers and the ballads. The album’s single, “Pour Me Out of This Town,” was co-written by Dorff’s late Nashville songwriter brother Andrew, and Kris Kristofferson (who appears in the film) adds “New Mister Me” to the soundtrack. If the film struck a chord with you, this thirteen song soundtrack will be a nice souvenir; but even if you’re haven’t seen the film, there’s still something here to catch your ear. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Scott Nolan: Silverhill

February 27th, 2017

A singer-songwriter balances hope against defeat

There are several shades of weariness in Scott Nolan’s latest album. He’s exhausted by a lifetime of emotional weight on his shoulders, both his own, and that which he’s assumed, and his soul seems worn by having to tell these stories. It’s a tone that effectively brings the listener into both the confidence of the story and of the singer. Nolan sings of emotional dead ends and the positive expectations that make them all the more depressing, drawing fragmented details that reveal a shared picture in the chorus. He opens the album with a canny observation of the dichotomy between temporality and immortality, surrendering to the inevitability of change while still seeking to guide its course. He may feint to fatalism, but there’s a current of hope animating his songs.

Recorded in Alabama with the band Willie Sugarcapps, the tempos are contemplative, almost tentative in spots, as the group discovered the songs live, without rehearsal. The result taps into the slower pace of the South, and turns the session into an intimate performance. Nolan draws on childhood nostalgia for “Fire Up,” but it’s tinted blue by innocence lost. Grayson Capps opens “Curl & Curves” inhaling and exhaling long notes on his harmonica, building up the nerve of Nolan’s quest for love – something that turns hoarse with sleepless expectation on “When Can I See You Again.” The album is beautifully crafted without being overworked, and closes with a pair of melancholy portraits that touch on the moods of John Prine and Neil Young. Nolan may be haggard, but he’s not defeated, and his music harbors a spark of hope. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Scott Nolan’s Home Page

Recent Vinyl Reissues from Varese Sarabande

February 25th, 2017

Although vinyl LP sales hit a 28-year high in 2016, tallying $416 million in sales. CD sales, while still much larger, decayed as digital downloads, and then streaming, displaced physical media. Vinyl has spread from independent record stores to major retailers, from independent labels to the majors, and from reissues to new releases. Even novelty picture discs are making a comeback. And whether this is a transitory hipster fad, or a long-lasting inroad into the psyches of digital natives, it provides an interesting intersection between format and material, providing a medium for reanimating not just the music, but the experience of catalog material.

Varese Sarabande, an independent label whose work is split between film scores and pop music reissues, has spanned the LP, CD, MP3 and streaming eras. Tracing its lineage back to the early ‘70s classical label Varese International and a late-70s merger with the Sarabande label, the combined Varese Sarabande, in addition to releasing modern film soundtracks, sources reissue material from a number of catalogs, and is distributed by the Universal Music Group. Each of these recent album reissues is pressed on 180 gram vinyl, with the original, full-size front- and back-cover art, and in a couple of cases, bonus tracks.

Wynn Stewart – The Very Best of Wynn Stewart 1958-1962

Varese’s vinyl reissue of their 2001 CD compilation is unusual, in that it was originally released on CD, making this vinyl reissue really a first pressing. That said, the eighteen tracks provide an excellent introduction to one of the Bakersfield Sound’s primary architects. Alongside Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, Stewart shares credit for creating the west coast country sound. Harder hitting than then-contemporary Nashville, and with some sting from electric guitars, Bakersfield planted the seeds for later country-rock marriages and any number of alt.country roots revivals.

Stewart’s sound, especially his singing, had a drama that neither Owens or Haggard matched. From his earliest rockabilly work (represented here by 1958’s “Come On”) to fiddle-and-harmony driven weepers (“How the Other Half Lives” and “Wishful Thinking”), and country pop (“Above and Beyond (The Call of Love)” – a hit for Buck Owens), Stewart ranged over a variety of styles and emotions with incredible ease. His chart success was sporadic, but the brilliance of his recordings was anything but. These tracks were cherry-picked from his years with Jackpot and Challenge, and provide a terrific sampling of his early work.

Dobie Gray – Sings for “In” Crowders That Go “Go Go”

The son of sharecroppers, Dobie Gray launched two iconic singles in a career that spanned more than forty years, and included numerous lesser-charting highlights. This 1965 album for the Charger label was his breakthrough, capitalizing on the minor success he’d generated with 1963’s punchy “Look at Me” by launching Billy Page’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” onto both the pop and R&B charts. The album includes the lower-charting follow-up “See You at the ‘Go-Go’,” but is stocked with superb album sides written by Gray and selected from period songwriters. Jackie DeShannon’s “Blue Ribbons” stands out with its Brill Building feel, as does the autobiographical “In Hollywood,” the country-gospel waltz “That’s How You Treat a Cheater” and the euphoric “Feelin’ in My Heart.” Gray is equally at home with crooned pop, string-lined ballads and up-tempo R&B, lending the album a see-what-will-stick variety. Varese’s reissue augments the album’s original dozen tracks with the soulful non-LP single “Out on the Floor.” This is a sweet treat for lovers of mid-60s pop, soul and R&B.

Aaron Neville – Tell It Like It Is

Aaron Neville’s 1966 album debut is both his most famous and his most obscure. Famous, because the title track remains his most emblematic hit, and obscure because other than a low-profile 1990 reissue and abbreviated collections, Neville’s recordings for Par-Lo have never received the archival treatment they deserve. Varese’s vinyl reissue isn’t the complete Par-Lo recitation one might dream of, but it does return the original eleven tracks (including two swinging George Davis instrumentals) to vinyl with a pair of bonuses: a stereo version of “Tell It Like It Is” and the B-side “Those Three Words.” Neville’s tiny label couldn’t capitalize on the single’s meteoric success, and quickly fell into bankruptcy. Neville recorded a few singles for other labels, but it wasn’t until he united with his brothers in the 1970s, and guested with Linda Ronstadt at the end of the ‘80s that his profile really took off. Those who know Neville for his softer hits of the ‘90s may be surprised by his early New Orleans soul sides. Now who will put together the complete Imperial, Minit, Par-Lo, Bell and Safari collection?

John Phillips – John, The Wolf King of L.A.

Following the 1969 break-up of the Mamas & Papas, Phillips quickly began working on this 1970 solo release with many of the same ace Los Angeles studio musicians who’d backed his group. Though it didn’t gain much traction at the time – in part due to a reported lack of promotion – it’s country-rock sound remained fresh, and the album’s reputation has grown over the years. Though it had been reissued in the UK in 1994, its critical re-evaluation was spurred by Varese’s bonus-laden 2006 edition. Varese’s LP reissue puts the album back on vinyl for the first time in more than forty-five years, with the original ten-track lineup.

For those accustomed to Phillip’s background singing in the Mama & Papas, his voice may be higher than you would have guessed and without the star quality of Cass Elliot or Denny Doherty. Still, he was an evocative singer, and his songs offer up a melancholy in keeping with the post-Altamont transition from the 1960s into the 1970s, and his personal transitions from group leader to solo artist and from husband to singleton. The album’s lone U.S. single, “Mississippi,” charted in the Top 40, but left album dwelling at the bottom of the Top 200. It’s a wonder this didn’t become a freeform radio staple alongside other FM favorites. But it’s not too late, and the full-sized cover gives you a place to clean your pot.

Linda Ronstadt – Silk Purse

Originally released in 1970, Ronstadt’s second solo album was reissued on CD in the mid-90s, and then seemed to have fallen out of print. Varese remedied this with a straight-up CD reissue last year, and now reaches out to vinyl collectors with this LP edition. The album bubbled under the Billboard Top 100, but managed to launch the single “Long, Long Time” into the Top 40. Recorded in Nashville, Ronstadt mixed pop and country material, including Hank Williams’ take on the Tin Pan Alley standard “Lovesick Blues,” Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge,” Goffin & King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (which bubbled under the Top 100) and Dillard & Clark’s “She Darked the Sun.” Ronstadt returned to California for her self-titled third album, but this Southern sojourn was an important way-point in her development from a singer in the Stone Poneys to a full-blown solo star. Varese’s 180 gram vinyl reissue includes the album’s original ten tracks, and reproduces the original front and back covers. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Otis Taylor: Fantasizing About Being Black

February 25th, 2017

Timely observations of the African-American experience

Otis Taylor continues to create a very individual sound. The heart of his music is in the blues, but he sings in short phrases and plays in circular grooves that invoke a trance-like mood; and with Ron Miles’ cornet and guest string players Jerry Douglas and Brandon Niederauer, he adds jazz, Americana and Latin flavors. It’s a powerful musical base for his latest album of original material, essaying the African American experience from slavery to heroism, and documenting racism, hatred, violence and fear as constant, unwanted companions. The opening “Twelve String Mile” echoes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but the album quickly turns to the ways in which unsolicited notice unilaterally distorts African-American lives.

Though its timing with the divisional ascent of Donald Trump is apparently coincidental, Taylor’s songs foretell the renewal of dynamics that have haunted African Americans since their forced arrival on U.S. shores. In the world Taylor describes, freedom is often found only in the mind, and every day trials – break-ups, affairs, adoption, protests – gain an extra dimension of complexity with race factored in. Taylor is backed by bass and drums as he moves between electric and acoustic guitars, and adds touches of banjo. He sings the first-hand experiences you expect from the blues, but with an historical reach that makes the album even more potent. The timing may be coincidental, but the current political context heightens the work’s power. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Otis Taylor’s Home Page

The Masonics: Obermann Rides Again

February 25th, 2017

Ferocious Medway rock ‘n’ roll

Fans of Thee Headcoats, Mighty Casears and Prisoners will rejoice at the ninth album from this all-star Medway band. Fronted by ex-Milkshake Mickey Hampshire on guitar, and backed by drummer Bruce Brand (Pop Rivets, Milkshakes) and bassist John Gibbs (Kaisers), the Masonics offer the perfect combination of unpolished garage rock and blues-based melodies – something you might call rough ‘n’ roll. Even the ballad “I Don’t Understand Her Any More” isn’t exactly tender, with Hampshire pleading his case as more of a complaint than a concern, and the Animals-like “What Do You Do” providing a sobering, after-the-fact look in the mirror. The trio channels Bo Diddley’s rhythmic stomp in “You Don’t Have to Travel” and “The Unsignposted Road,” crank up the tempo to amphetamine punk for “You’re a Stranger,” and nail the combustible tension of the early Who with “You Won’t See Me Again.” The band’s energy is relentless as Hampshire picks guitar solos and Brand rides his cymbals, creating music that’s perfect for a sweaty, overcrowded beer-stained venue near you. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

The Masonics’ Facebook Page

Shinyribs: I Got Your Medicine

February 24th, 2017

Stupendous gulf coast soul sounds

When we first heard Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell as a solo artist on 2010’s Well After Awhile, he was taking a short break from his Austin band, The Gourds. Since that time the group regrouped for Old Mad Joy, starred in the documentary All the Labor, and then declared themselves on hiatus. Russell’s used the free time to expand his solo catalog with albums in 2013 and 2015, and now offers a deep soak in Southern soul, co-produced by Jimbo Mathus. The band simmers New Orleans rhythm ‘n’ roll, Memphis soul and Louisiana swamp pop into a unique gulf coast stew whose flavor is enhanced by the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns (Tiger Anaya and Mark Wilson) and the backing vocals of the Shiny Soul Sisters (Alice Spencer and Sally Allen).

This, it turns out, is the band Russell has been waiting for, and he makes the most of them across nine originals and three covers, the latter including superb versions of Allen Toussaint’s oft recordedA Certain Girl,” Ted Hawkins’ “I Gave Up All I Had” and Toussaint McCall’s heartbreaking “Nothing Takes the Place of You.” With the horns goosing the up-tempo numbers, going sly at mid-tempo and lining the ballads, Russell reaches into deep wells of ecstasy and sorrow, fueling an incredible display of soul singing. Spencer steps forward for the thorny duet “I Don’t Give a Sh*t,” and the album closes with the gospel original “The Cross is Boss.” If you’re sick of today’s vacant, auto-tuned pop, Shinyribs definitely has your medicine. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

RIYL: Allen Toussaint, Ernie K-Doe, the Neville Brothers, Tony Joe White

Shinyribs’ Home Page

Roy Orbison: Black & White Night 30

February 24th, 2017

Bonus-laden reissue of stellar 1987 all-star tribute to Roy Orbison

Rarely have stars aligned so figuratively and literally as for this Roy Orbison concert. More than a gathering of famous fans, the performance was a testimonial to the Big O’s lasting impact and enduring artistry. Backing Orbison was Elvis Presley’s TCB Band of Ron Tutt (drums), Jerry Scheff (bass), Glen D. Hardin (piano) and James Burton (electric guitar), augmented by Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Alex Acuna, Tom Waits and T Bone Burnett, a backing chorus of k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Steven Soles and Jackson Browne, and a quartet of violins and violas. Recorded at the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood’s Ambassador Hotel, the program was cablecast on Cinemax and released as a live album. It’s subsequently been reissued on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, CD, SACD and was turned into a PBS fundraising perennial.

The song list mixes Orbison’s biggest hits with a few lesser-known selections, including the B-sides “Leah” and “Go! Go! Go! (Move on Down the Line).” The latter finds Burton, Orbison and Springsteen trading guitar solos, and the look on Springsteen’s face as he plays for Orbison is priceless. Throughout the program there’s an overarching sense of admiration as the band and guests are spellbound by Orbison’s operatic flights and emotion-drenched songs. Springsteen is giddy as he sidles up behind Orbison to sing harmony on “Sweet Dream Baby,” and when Orbison nails the climax of “Crying,” the band stops to applaud along with the audience. Although the group rehearsed twice before the show, you get the feeling that these artists had been singing and playing these songs their entire musical lives, and that they weren’t just paying fealty to Orbison, they were paying back a debt.

So why another reissue? Aside from leveraging the thirtieth anniversary to introduce this one-of-kind performance to a new generation, the new DVD and Blu-ray include previously unseen performances, newly integrated camera angles and a mini-documentary, and the running order has also been restored to reflect the set as it was played. The new performances include “Blue Angel” and a shorter alternate take of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and five songs (“(All I Can Do Is) Dream You,” “The Comedians,” “Candy Man,” “Claudette” and “Uptown”) performed after the audience left for the evening. The 37-minute documentary includes rehearsal footage, along with pre- and post-show interviews with Springsteen, Costello, lang, Raitt and Browne. All together, the new cut of the concert and the generous extras provide a terrific complement to (though not a replacement for) the original release.

At the time of its original release, the special helped launch Orbison’s commercial renewal, which included the Mystery Girl album, and his collaboration with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys. But years of neglecting his health caught up to Orbison fourteenth months after taping the concert, and he died of a heart attack in December 1988 at the age of 52. His recorded legacy is now being tended to by his sons Alex and Roy Jr., the former of whom co-edited the video, and the latter of whom wrote the liners. Roy’s Boys also supervised the recent restoration of Orbison’s MGM catalog and the release of the missing album One of the Lonely Ones. As with those earlier projects, the restoration and expansion of this performance honors their father’s legacy and shows in stark black and white, the broad, long-lasting impact of his music. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Roy Orbison’s Home Page

OST: The Greatest

February 22nd, 2017

1977 Muhammad Ali biopic soundtrack reissue with bonuses

Muhammad Ali’s 1977 biopic was drawn from his like-titled biography, and though Ali was arguably the greatest boxer of all time, he wasn’t the greatest actor, even when playing himself. Which is strange, because in real life he played the character of Muhammad Ali with incredible creativity, charisma and panache. Perhaps it was a disconnect with the script (courtesy of noted journalist and screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr.) or director, but the physical and intellectual poetry of his real life didn’t come through on the screen. The film’s soundtrack is remembered largely for the song “The Greatest Love of All,” a #2 R&B hit for George Benson, and even more famously taken to the top of the charts by Whitney Houston in 1985. Others may remember the song from Eddie Murphy’s performance in Coming to America.

The original soundtrack album also includes an instrumental version of the hit and two versions of Benson performing “I Always Knew I Had It in Me,” once with a driving rhythm and jazzy guitar, and once as a ballad. The remainder of the soundtrack is filled out with atmospheric instrumentals by Michael Masser that revolve around the riff from “I Always Knew I Had It in Me.” Labeling the last of them “Variation on Theme” is about as on-the-nose as you can get. Varese’s 2017 reissue adds four bonus tracks, highlighted by Cassius Clay’s charming, melody-challenged cover of “Stand By Me” and the original recitation “I Am the Greatest.” The remaining bonuses are the DJ 7” of Benson’s “The Greatest Love of All” and a disco 12” of “Ali Bombaye.” This is a nice upgrade to a period piece. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Muhammad Ali’s Home Page

Mark McKinney: World in Between

February 18th, 2017

Texas troubadour’s fifth album

Austin-based Mark McKinney inhabits that special nation of singer-songwriter that is the Texas music circuit. Though he’s gained recognition outside the Lonestar State, notably through song placements with NASCAR and ESPN, it’s his home state that supports the bulk of his extensive annual touring. His fifth solo album (he’d previously led the roots-rock band Cosmic Cowboy) will remind you of circuit stalwarts like Jack Ingram, Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Charlie Robison and Kevin Fowler, the latter of whom McKinney’s written for. Produced with his brother Eric, the record is both rootsy – acoustic, electric and slide guitars, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica and drums – and modern at the same time. It’s a clever sound that could hook Nashville fans without alienating the Austin base.

McKinney opens with a bluesy version of the Cosmic Cowboys’ “90 Miles,” the lament of a lifer musician who’s always got another gig just down the road. It’s not a revelatory sentiment, but one that rings with an authentically weary smile, and he celebrates the road in “Stories,” highlighting its personal impact and lingering memories. The music slips into strutting modern country anthems in a few places, but establishes real intimacy through the emotional strength of “Sunshine.” There are love songs and broke-up songs, and the romantic models of “Bacon & Eggs” include the unlikely duo of Bonnie and Clyde (though, to be fair, they did stay together until the very end). No doubt these songs will play well as McKinney entertains 90 miles at a time. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Mark McKinney’s Home Page