John Fusco and the X-Road Riders: John the Revelator

November 2nd, 2020

Screenwriter stretches out with 2-CD set of blues and more

Best known for his screenplays (Crossroads, Young Guns, Hidalgo, The Highwaymen), John Fusco shows again on his second album that he’s no dilettante as a blues vocalist, instrumentalist, songwriter or band leader. Last year’s debut with the X-Road Riders grew out of some jam sessions with Cody Dickinson, and this year’s model doubles down with a 2-CD outing that splits the discs between two bands – one drawn from north of the Mason-Dixon line, and the other from south. Each band offers a number of influences, and across the two discs the set provides a variety of blues, soul, pop, gospel and rock. Fusco provides continuity between the two bands, but also takes the opportunity to launch in different directions with each.

The southern band (or “chapter,” as designated in the liner notes) fires on all cylinders for “Bone Deep,” with Fusco’s raspy vocal underlined by Risse Norman’s soulful singing, alongside harmonica, and guitar, and organ that brings to mind Booker T & The MGs. Sarah Morrow’s trombone adds sly annotations and a solo to the cautionary “It Takes a Man,” and Norman and Fusco’s back-and-forth duet highlights “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing.” Fusco’s vocals and piano take a turn towards Dr. John for “Ophelia,” and Patrick Moss’s fiddle accompanies lyrics of enduring love on the Chris Staplelton-like “Applejack Brandy.” Disc one closes with a ten-minute workout on “Bad Dog” and the not-at-all-subtle political right hook “Snake Oil Man.”

The northern band opens with the lost faith of “Song for Peter” and its testimony of a longtime street denizen. It’s the sort of story we often hurry past, but Fusco’s soulful vocal and piano, supported by a warm bass line and shot through by electric guitar, get beneath the ragged surface and call for you to listen. The second disc stretches out stylistically, getting funkier and jazzier for “Jacqueline,” mixing in ballads that suggest Leon Russell’s solo work, dramatic rock that would sound at home in a Bob Seger set, and the ‘70s-styled country-pop “Motel Laws of Arizona.” Fusco voice draws together the eclectic stylings into a coherent double album whose variety essays a fertile chapter in a film writer’s not-so-second career as a music maker. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Rick Shea: Love & Desperation

November 2nd, 2020

Pandemic Americana

Surprisingly, Rick Shea’s latest album doesn’t sound particularly different from his earlier efforts, even though it was tracked remotely by musicians distributed amongst their own studios. Begun in the Spring of 2019 in Shea’s home studio, by early 2020 the collaboration had spread to multiple studios and was coordinated by e-mail and computer network. Incredibly, the album shows no seams or lack of group ethos, and though Shea tips his hat to the pandemic on a few titles, the songs don’t evidence the Groundhog-like sameness that our collective shelter-in-place has brought to daily life.

The opening cover of Al Ferrier’s rockabilly “Blues Stop Knockin’ at My Door” takes in Lazy Lester‘s harmonica-driven Louisiana stomp, and adds accordion and guitar solos to the yearning, heartsick vocal. Shea’s low, slow “Blues at Midnight” picks up the sorrowful mood as he suffers the late-night misery of being left behind, and “Jaunita (Why Are You So Mean)” imagines the travails of Shea’s in-laws during their dating years. The album’s title track is dramatized from an autobiographical seed, and “Down at the Bar at Gypsy Sally’s” takes a few liberties with the San Bernardino bar scene in which Shea cut his musical teeth.

The world’s current circumstance is essayed in the allegorical “Big Rain is Comin’ Mama,” a surprisingly chipper two-step of accordion and steel with a deadly category five storm on the horizon. In contrast, the dark folk-blues “The World’s Gone Crazy” finds the storm having blown through, leaving behind an apocalyptic aftermath. Luckily, Shea’s world isn’t confined by his physical circumstances, as he still writes imaginative ballads (“A Tenderhearted Love”), ambivalent musings (“Nashville Blues”), and cinematic stories (the closing “Texas Lawyer”) that belie the pandemic-induced isolation in which this music was created. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Rick Shea’s Home Page

Bobby Hatfield: Stay With Me – The Richard Perry Sessions

February 15th, 2020

Previously unreleased solo sessions from 1971

As half (and in several cases, all) of the Righteous Brothers, Bobby Hatfield’s tenor was the emotional high-wire that supercharged the blue-eyed soul hits “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Soul Inspiration” and “Unchained Melody.” In 1968 his partner Bill Medley left the act, and by 1971, Hatfield’s pairing with the Knickerbockers’ Jimmy Walker had also broken up. So it was with a solo career on his mind that he engaged with producer Richard Perry, who was hot off successful albums with Barbra Streisand and Nilsson. Initial sessions were held in the legendary Abbey Road studio in December 1971, with musical luminaries Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, Al Kooper and Bobby Keys, and produced the single “Oo Wee Baby, I Love You.” Hatfield was loose and ready to create new sounds as Ringo’s drumming drew winningly on the Beatles’ “Get Back,” and a cover of George Harrison’s White Album-era “Sour Milk Sea” found Al Kooper banging away on piano as Hatfield exercised his falsetto.

A second set of sessions convened later in Los Angeles’ legendary Western Studios (home to Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, and others), where a single was cut covering Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay With Me.” Perry built the production with a full orchestra and chorus, and Hatfield lit it up with an impassioned vocal that echoes Ellison’s iconic original. The L.A. sessions also produced covers of Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” (a song written for the 1937 film, Rosalie, and not, alas, the Five Satins’ 1956 doo-wop classic) and Billy Fury’s “Run to My Lovin’ Arms.” The former aligns with the Tin Pan Alley-era material that Hatfield recorded earlier in his career, while the latter overclocks the emotional tenor of the chorus similarly to Jay and the Americans’ original.

Also included here is the B-side to both singles, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” (a blues-rock Hatfield original that sings of life on the road, rather than the Buffalo Springfield’s hit), and covers of Harrison’s “What is Life” and two exploratory approaches to Holland, Dozier & Holland’s “Baby Don’t Do It.” Perry’s growing renowned apparently pulled him away from this project, leaving the two singles as the only commercial output. And though Hatfield recorded Messin’ in Muscle Shoals at the legendary FAME studios, these unfinished sessions demonstrate he had many more ideas than he ever got to release. This is a nice complement to Ace’s Other Brother: Solo Anthology 1965-1970, providing valuable insight into Hatfield’s state at the start of the 1970s, as well as his creative process. A nice get for fans. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Milton Delugg & His Orchestra: Music for Monsters, Munsters, Mummies & Other TV Fiends

February 9th, 2020

Excellent orchestral-pop renditions of early-60s TV themes

The early ‘60s was a golden age of opportunistic cross-marketing, as television executives collaborated with the music industry to expand the brands of their shows. Record albums from the casts (or in many cases, only the producers and talent commissioned by the program’s licensors) hit the market for Bonanza, Get Smart, Gomer Pyle, the Man From U.N.C.L.E., the Addams Family and numerous other classic television programs. Many of these, including the  recently reissued Munsters album, were lightweight novelties meant to quickly cash in on a show’s popularity. But a few were professionally arranged and conducted albums of orchestral pop, and such is this effort from composer, arranger and bandleader Milton Delugg. Which isn’t to suggest there was no intention to quickly cash in, but Delugg’s talent elevates the album well beyond that initial motivation.

Gathered here are snappy new arrangements of the theme songs from television’s The Munsters, The Addams Family, Bewitched, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Outer Limits. Each is cleverly orchestrated and performed, adding new sizzle to the easily recognized themes.  There’s Duane Eddy-styled twang, harpsichord, horns and full-kit drumming for the Munsters, a march that turns into jazzy flute and muted horns for the Addams Family, and dramatic horns and discordant xylophone for the Outer Limits. These are great tunes, professionally rendered in inventive new arrangements that will please fans of the TV originals, as well as fans of 1960s orchestral pop.

The album is filled out by seven original monster-themed instrumentals that are as lively as the TV tunes. “Creature from Under the Sea” is an uptempo waltz filled with mystery, pathos and danger, “Frankenstein” has has a kinetic flavor that would have worked nicely in a spy film, “Ghoul Meets Ghoul” makes a slinky nod to the Pink Panther theme, and a heavy Latin beat and horn accents for “The Mummy.” With the original 1964 vinyl selling for big dollars, it’s great to have this enjoyable collectable back in print, if only briefly for this ghoulish green vinyl limited edition. Hopefully someone can get the digital rights and reissue as a CD or download for analog-deficient listeners! [©2020 Hyperbolium]

The Munsters: The Munsters

February 9th, 2020

Surf-styled 1964 novelty returned to mono vinyl

With The Munsters finding fans among a teenage television audience, the concept was ripe for spin-off marketing. Producers Joe Hooven and Hal Winn assembled the Wrecking Crew and a vocal group named the Go Go’s to record a dozen light-surf novelty tunes written by uncredited scribes, and a future collectible was born. None of these songs have the adolescent archness of Mad Magazine’s records, or the scene detail of Gary Usher’s surf ‘n’ drag albums, but there’s entertainment to be found in the bump and grind sax of “Vampire Vamp,” the ersatz Jan & Dean falsetto of “(Here Comes the) Munster’s Coach,” the Shadows-styled guitar of “Eerie Beach,” and the various Munster references. This was reissued on CD and limited edition purple vinyl in 2018, with the latter now getting a second life on ghastly grey mono wax. Not an essential, but interesting for fans of mid-60s pop novelties. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Booker T. & The M.G.’s: The Complete Stax Singles Vol. 1 (1962-1967)

January 24th, 2020

Killer soul instrumentals from the Stax house band

As the Stax house band, Booker T. & The M.G.’s were often heard backing seminal recordings by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and other label stars, but their career as a standalone group also produced iconic singles, B-sides and albums. Real Gone pulls together the original mono mixes of the group’s first 15 singles, A’s and B’s, to highlight the hits and deep-grooved flips of the band’s first six years. The hits include their chart-topping 1962 debut, “Green Onions,” and a pair of crossover Top 40’s from 1967, “Hip Hug-Her” and a cover of the Rascals’ “Groovin’.” The latter kicked off a string of crossover hits that stretched into 1969 (and will hopefully be anthologized on Volume 2). In between, the group delivered catchy singles that touched the bottom of the Top 100 while generating bigger success on the R&B chart.

The band’s debut album was filled with instrumental covers, but their singles featured original mid-tempo groovers built on soulful organ leads, searing guitar solos, and propulsive backbeats. The group’s first B-side, “Behave Yourself” is a dark, late-night blues, but their second single, “Jelly Bread,” turns the tempo up as Jones vamps behind Cropper’s introductory guitar riffs. The rhythm section of Jackson and Steinberg get everyone moving for 1964’s “Can’t Be Still,” and Isaac Hayes reportedly keys the organ on the follow-up “Boot-Leg.” 1966’s “My Sweet Potato” trades organ for piano, as does the country-inflected “Slim Jenkins Place.” The set’s covers include Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae,” Gershwin’s “Summertime,” a pair of holiday releases, and, under the title “Big Train,” the gospel classic “This Train.”

Real Gone has packed twenty-nine original sides onto a single 74-minute CD, with liner notes and discographical detail by Ed Osborne, and mastering by Dan Hersch. For the vintage minded, they’ve produced a limited-edition 2-LP set on blue vinyl with a gatefold cover. Shorn of album tracks and the temporal condensation of greatest hits albums, this chronological recitation of the group’s mono singles showcases what listeners heard through their radios at the time. Album sales would later become a central focus of both the recording ethos and marketing strategy of music groups, but in the early-to-mid-60s, singles were still the lingua franca of pop music, and Booker T. & The M.G.’s made some great ones! [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Booker T.’s Home Page

Dandy: Dandy Returns

January 23rd, 2020

First-ever reissue of 1968 rocksteady rarity

Many listeners are most likely to know Dandy (a.k.a.Robert Livingstone Thompson) for his songs that gained currency in the 1980s ska revival. The Specials made an icon out of “Rudy, A Message to You,” and UB40 brought “Version Girl” back to prominence. But decades earlier, the fledgling reggae giant Trojan Records issued this sophomore effort as one of the label’s very first long-players. Incredibly, the album has remained unreissued since its 1967 drop, and is offered here on a limited edition orange vinyl LP for the first time in more than 50 years. Dandy’s depiction on the album cover, stepping off a plane, was emblematic of his position as a producer for Trojan and a key link between the London-based label and its Jamaica-based music. He’d released numerous singles under his own name, as well as the nom-de-records Sugar & Dandy and the Brother Dan All-Stars, but also produced key sides that included Tony Tribe’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine,” a treatment that UB40 would also return to in the 1980s. Dandy sings in a sweet, easy-going manner that leaves the underlying rocksteady rhythm to preside. Beyond his original material he covers Chad & Jeremy’s “Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart” and the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” accompanied by organ, horns (including some fine trumpet solos), and on “Your Daddy’s Home,” a short harmonica solo. This is an unassuming, yet fetching album from Trojan’s early days, and a treat to have back in print, if only fleetingly. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Marshall Crenshaw: Miracle of Science

January 22nd, 2020

Expanded reissue of Crenshaw’s impressive, self-produced 1996 return to the studio

After five albums for Warner Brothers and one for MCA, this 1996 release marked five years since Crenshaw’s previous studio album, and broadened his new relationship with the indie label Razor & Tie. More importantly, the production stripped away the overwrought Steve Lilywhite-helmed sonics of Field Day and the extensive guest lists of Downtown and Good Evening, and centered on the considerable, innate charms of Crenshaw’s songs, voice and guitar. That transformation began to show with the trio playing of 1991’s Life’s Too Short, but with the guitar-rich live album My Truck is My Home, and again with this first self-produced studio effort, Crenshaw washed away the aural sheen of the 1980s, and brought the spotlight back to the richness of his pop craft.

From the hopeful longing of the opening “What Do You Dream Of,” the album offers hummable melodies, warm harmonies, catchy lyrical hooks, and perhaps most thankfully, studio production that supports rather than preens. Crenshaw is able to sing without straining to be heard, returning his voice to its m\wheelhouse. He sounds enthused to be in the studio with a new batch of original, co-written and coover material, and he alternates between mixing it up with guests and pitching in one-man-band-style on guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, percussion and vibraphone. By producing himself, he no longer served as a canvas upon which others cast their own shades, and his aim is as true as Richard Gottehrer’s work on Crenshaw’s 1982 eponymous debut.

Crenshaw had grown artistically in the fourteen years since Marshall Crenshaw, and this album isn’t a repeat of, or even really a throwback to his earlier work; but there is a connection to the nostalgic sounds of his earlier work than hadn’t been captured on the albums in between. The Shadows-styled guitar instrumental “Theme From Flaregun” offers a faux 1960s TV-theme, and Hy Heath’s up-tempo country-rock “Who Stole That Train” includes scorching electric guitar, energetic drumming and dobro from Greg Leisz that add muscle and buzz to the honky-tonk soul of Ray Price’s 1953 rendering. Several of Crenshaw’s originals are laced with bittersweetness as he contemplates the uncertain possibilities of “Only an Hour Ago” and lonely memories of “Laughter,” and the dissolution of Grant Hart’s “Twenty Five Forty One” is buoyed by terrific electric guitar figures.

“There and Back Again” may be the album’s most emotionally powerful moment, as Crenshaw wistfully remembers the joy of romantic discovery through the lens of its eventual end. More fully satisfied is a cover of  “A Wondrous Place,” with vibraphone and a Latin beat expanding upon Jimmy Jones’ and Billy Fury’s 1960 takes. Having gained ownership of his Razor & Tie catalog, Crenshaw is planning to reissue all five of its albums in expanded editions. This first effort includes a reordered track list alongside three bonus tracks that quizically include a backward rendering of “Seven Miles an Hour,” and new recordings of Daniel Wylie’s haunting “Misty Dreamer” and Michael Pagliaro’s 1975 single “What the Hell I Got.” The latter, a memorable song that was a minor hit in Canada, must have beamed across the border to Crenshaw’s native Detroit to make its long-lasting impression.

One might assume that the lack of major label marketing muscle doomed his album to its relative obscurity; but given that neither Warner Brothers nor MCA had much more success in promoting Crenshaw to a wide audience, it was likely the same disconnect between his artistry and the times that had plagued the commercial prospects of his earlier work. Which is a shame, because this album evidences Crenshaw’s talent, charm and vision more plainly than his earlier work. Those who lost track of Crenshaw during his major label run are highly recommended to this album as a place to reengage, and fans who’d already discovered this title will be interested in both the bonus tracks, and the tinkering Crenshaw has performed on “Twenty-Five Forty-One,” “Only an Hour Ago” and “There and Back Again.” A great start to Crenshaw’s reissue project! [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Marshall Crenshaw’s Home Page

Big Star: In Space

January 16th, 2020

Expanded edition of reformulated Big Star’s 2004 return to the studio

After reformulating Big Star with the Posies John Auer and Ken Stringfellow in 1993, Alex Chilton eventually mustered up the interest to record a new album in 2004, and release it the following year. But in ways similar to Big Star’s third album (and to be fair, even the Chilton-led, mostly Bell-free Radio City), one might ask what it means to be a Big Star album. There is material here – largely from Auer, Stringfellow, and original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens – that harkens back to the band’s early-70s British pop inspired beginnings. But there are also strong currents of Alex Chilton’s rag-tag solo work, and his propensity to record cover songs. It’s difficult to hear this as continuous with the band’s earlier work, though there are moments; it’s not an erszatz doo wop band touring under someone else’s name, but it may be more accurate to think of this Big Star moniker as more ancestry than identity.

Despite having acceded to performing as Big Star, Chilton retained an uneasy relationship with the group’s earlier material. The new album was apparently born out of both his boredom with the narrow setlist he was willing to play on stage, and the opportunity to collaborate with bandmates with whom he enjoyed making music. After ten years of sporadic gigs, the group was really solid, rooted in the legacy material they performed, but not beholden to its ghosts. Chilton evidenced little interest is writing material for the new album that echoed his past, leaving it to his bandmates to mine the band’s legacy. Jon Auer and Jody Stephens’ co-writes touch most closely on the band’s earlier work, with both “Best Chance” and “February’s Quiet” offering guitar riffs and melodies that fit comfortably with the band’s first two albums. Stephens’ drumming on the former highlights just how fundamental he was to Big Star’s sound, and the closing chord of the latter song will provoke aural deja vu.

Chilton’s funky “Love Revolution” and “Do You Want to Make It” are more in line with his solo career than earlier Big Star, and the Olympics’ “Mine Exclusively” is just the sort of obscure cover that had long since become a Chilton trademark. Chilton’s post-Big Star penchant for spontaneous, raw performances threads through several tracks, including the rock ‘n’ roll rave-up “A Whole New Thing,” a ploddingly-delivered arrangement of Georg Muffat’s baroque “Aria, Largo,” and the cacophonous closer, “Makeover.” There’s craft to be heard, as on Ken Stringfellow’s Beach Boys’ pastiche “Turn My Back on the Sun,” but it’s not the sort of crystalline sounds the original band recorded in the early 1970s.

The original album is expanded on this 2019 reissue with a half-dozen bonus tracks that include songwriter demos, an a cappella take of Auer’s Beach Boys tribute, a rough mix of “Dony,” and “Hot Thing,” a track originally recorded by Big Star for their own tribute album Big Star, Small World. The demos are particularly interesting as working documents that sketch the initial inspiration and evolving views of the singer-songwriters. Liner notes from Auer, Stringfellow, co-producer/engineer Jeff Powell, assistant engineer Adam Hill, and Rkyo Records exec Jeff Rougvie offer first-person memories and warm anecdotes of what turned out to be a one-off studio effort. In retrospect, this is a nice coda to the Big Star legend, if not exactly a straightforward element of the canon. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Laura Nyro: More Than a New Discovery

January 14th, 2020

Laura Nyro’s 1967 debut back on vinyl in its original mono mix

Laura Nyro was more than a new discovery on this 1967 debut, she was a wholly new musical entity, bringing together the songcraft of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, blues, jazz and pop. Her lyrical and singing voices melded these strands into something wholly new, and years ahead of other singer-songwriters who’d venture into similar polymusical directions. Even more impressive is that her songs were strong enough to create space for both her authoritative original versions and the iconic hit covers of others. Nyro’s passionate reading of “And When I Die” is wholly satisfying, and uneclipsed by Blood, Sweat & Tears’ iconic cover. The same can be said for “Stoney End” (Barbara Streisand) and “Wedding Bell Blues” (The Fifth Dimension), both of which are equally remarkable as originals and covers. Originally released by Verve/Folkways, the album was reissued by Columbia (under the title The First Songs, with revised running order and cover art) with Nyro’s move to the major. The original formulation has had a few import CD reissues, and is now returned to vinyl in a limited-edition, violet-colored mono LP, with remastering by Vic Anesini from the original master tapes, and a new lacquer cut by Clint Holley. In addition to Nyro’s preferred mono mix, this reissue is also free of the reverb that Columbia added to The First Songs. This is a super souvenir for Nyro’s many fans! [©2020 Hyperbolium]