Tag Archives: Ardent

Van Duren: Waiting – The Van Duren Story

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]

Chris Bell: Looking Forward / I Am the Cosmos / Complete

The most detailed look yet at Chris Bell before and after Big Star

Chris Bell’s untimely death in 1978 not only robbed the world of his musical greatness, but also froze his artistic assets. A full appraisal of his art was retarded by the paucity of available recorded material that lingered for many years after his passing. Big Star’s debut, #1 Record, despite the contemporaneous critical praise and retrospective glory lavished upon it, had been poorly distributed at the time of its 1972 release. Reissued in 1978, apparently to Bell’s delight, it’s imported manufacture delegated it to specialty shops. That same year, Bell’s solo single, “I Am the Cosmos,” was released on Chris Stamey’s Car label, but it would be fourteen more years until Ryko’s 1992 full-length I Am the Cosmos really started to flesh out the Chris Bell story. By then, Big Star had become an iconic reference among 1980s indie pop bands, and with Alex Chilton’s new Big Star formation in 1993, interest in Bell continued to grow.

The next cache of Bell material to turn up were pre-Big Star recordings by The Jynx, Rock City, Christmas Future and Icewater on collections dedicated to Big Star and the Ardent label. In 2009, Rhino Handmade provided further insight into Bell’s post-Big Star period with an expanded edition of I Am the Cosmos. Omnivore now pulls this all together, expanding upon what’s been excavated before with three new releases. First is the single CD Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star, which adds six previously unissued tracks to the existing corpus of pre-Big Star material. Second is a deluxe reissue of I Am the Cosmos that adds eight tracks to the 2009 Rhino Handmade reissue. Third is an omnibus vinyl-only box set, The Complete Chris Bell, which collects the material from the first two sets, and adds an excerpt from Rich Tupica’s forthcoming biography, There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Big Star Founder Chris Bell.

What’s immediately striking about the material on Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star is how good it sounds. Ardent studio owner John Fry had the presence of mind to train a handful of musicians on recording technique, and let them practice in the studio’s down time. These sessions were free from the pressure of a studio clock or a label’s budget, and they allowed the musicians to explore their craft as players, engineers and producers. The six previously unreleased tracks include recordings by The Wallabys (“The Reason”) and Icewater (“A Chance to Live”) and four backing tracks. Big Star fans drawn to the backing track “Oh My Soul” will find it unrelated to the Chilton song of the same name, but the chugging groove is infectious and Bell’s guitar work superb. The unfinished “Germany” has fine vocal overdubs, and the gritty guitar on the alternate of “Feeling High” is terrific.

What shines through the early Ardent sessions is everyone’s unbridled enthusiasm, and for Chris Bell in particular, an optimism that had yet to be crushed under the weight of #1 Record’s commercial failure. From the earliest track, “Psychedelic Stuff,” through the British Invasion tones of the Wallabys, breakthrough compositions like “All I See is You,” and material that would be re-recorded by Big Star, everything rings with a sense of musicians chasing their muse, unencumbered by commercial considerations and with a growing sense that they could make music as meaningful and moving as their idols. Alec Palao’s liner notes include insightful interviews with John Fry, Steve Rhea, Terry Manning, Alan Palmore, Jody Stephens, Tom Eubanks, providing detail on the scene, sessions and tracks.

The eight tracks added to I Am the Cosmos include alternate versions, backing tracks and mixes that provide the final clues as to the journey Bell’s songs took throughout his lifetime. As Alec Palao notes, “unless some new studio sessions come to light in the future, [this set] is essentially the last word on the work of this quixotic talent.” Omnivore relocates the Icewater and Rock City tracks Rhino added in 2009 to a more natural spot on Looking Forward, and adds several mixes from the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me. Bob Mehr’s liner notes tell of Bell’s spiritual, musical and geographical odysseys to record, overdub, mix and find a record deal. Alec Palao’s track notes further dissect Bell’s artistic restlessness by piecing together details of his intercontinental quest for perfection.

The avalanche of material that’s been posthumously released on Big Star, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton might feel Elvis- or Jimi-like, had the band not been so thoroughly ignored in their prime. The drive to learn how these artists came to produce #1 Record, Radio City and Third, and what became of them afterwards is delayed discovery rather than morbid curiosity. The books, documentary, reissues, best-ofs, box sets, archival artifacts, resurrections, reunions, and tribute performances might overwhelm lesser artists. But in the case of Chris Bell, the before and after provide a surround that magnifies the all-too-brief artistic flame. Those new to the Big Star canon should start with their albums, those who’ve already imbibed will want to dig the roots and the afterwards, and those who’ve already thoroughly explored the periphery will find something of value in upgrading. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Jump Back Jake: Call Me Your Man

Rock ‘n’ roll from a Brooklyn transplant in Memphis

Jump Back Jake is a group headed up by guitarist Jake Rabinbach of Francis and the Lights. Their 2008 debut Brooklyn Hustle / Memphis Muscle combined the rock ‘n’ roll of Rabinbach’s native Brooklyn with the soul, horns and funk of his adopted Memphis. The band’s latest EP drops the horns and follows in the footsteps of melodic New York rock ‘n’ rollers like Willie Nile and the Del Lords. There’s a lot of variety packed into these five tracks, including the power-pop “Tara” and rampaging blues-rockabilly “If I Ever Go Back.”  The dramatic “Rose Colored Coffin” threatens a ‘70s rock odyssey with its opening riff, but settles into a more tractable heavy electric blues. The title track is performed twice, first as rock ‘n’ soul and at EP’s end as a solo acoustic folk-blues. Rabinbach comes alive on the rock tunes, cutting scorching riffs on his guitar and allowing a touch of rasp into his voice, charting a new direction for his band that doesn’t miss the horns at all. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Call Me Your Man
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Bruce Eaton: Radio City 33-1/3

Superb accounting of Big Star and their second album

While the title suggests this book focuses directly on Big Star’s second album, and though most of its pages do, author Bruce Eaton also provides context with a compelling look at the band and its members. Most importantly, his fresh interview with Alex Chilton provides flavor from one of the band’s visionary singer-songwriters, which is something that eluded Rob Jovanovic in Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop. Eaton recounts familiar elements of the Big Star story, but couched in their studio work, they reveal new angles. His research into the recording sessions for Radio City turns up new detail on the monophonic sound of “Oh My Soul,” and offers a clear explanation of the Dolby Fuckers sessions that resulted in “Mod Lang” and “She’s a Mover.”

By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be surprised with how holistic and organic Radio City sounds, in light of the ad hoc circumstances under which much of it was recorded. Eaton’s song-by-song notes are best read with the album playing, the better to hear the many subtleties he highlights. Ideally you should have the original album, the 2-CD Thank You Friends and the box set Keep an Eye on the Sky to cover all of the versions Eaton discusses. The book’s only real disappointment is the paucity of lyrical analysis – though there are a few enlightening revelations. No doubt Chilton’s dismissal of the words, which in his mind were slapped together without a great deal of craft, left Eaton without a living source of comment.

It’s a shame that Chris Bell didn’t survive to participate in this book, or to be the centerpiece of a companion volume on #1 Record. It’s clear from Eaton’s account that Bell’s vision for the band, which Chilton didn’t fully dismantle until Big Star Third, had significant impact even after his departure. The small form of the 33-1/3 books is cute, but the copy needs better editing and the photos need to be reproduced larger and more clearly. These complaints are minor points though, given the quality of Eaton’s research and writing. His recounting of playing with Chilton is a nice personal touch and caps a terrific read for Big Star fans. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Star & Micey: Star & Micey

StarAndMicey_StarAndMiceyBroken-hearted folk, power pop and soul

Ardent Studios, famed both for their original productions by Big Star and the raft of overflow sessions hosted for Stax, is still a working concern. Recent visitors have included Robyn Hitchcock, Klaus Voorman, Jack White and many more local, national and international luminaries. Less well-known is that the Ardent Music record label provides a modern day parallel to the original Ardent Records upon which Big Star’s albums and singles were released. The label’s latest is the debut by Star & Micey, a trio whose music is built on a uniquely Memphisian blend of rock, folk, blues, country, pop and soul.

Vocalist Joshua Cosby sings in a voice reminiscent of Robert Plant’s gentler blue-folk tone applied to Gordon Gano’s angst. When surrounded by harmonies, such as on the broken hearted “Carly,” a power-pop winsomeness emerges from the quivering edge of his voice. Guitarist (and Ardent staffer) Nick Redmond finger-picks chiming country-folk and slides buzzing southern-blues, layering them into a cross between Chet Atkins, Mungo Jerry and the Allman Brothers. Some productions are given a light soul sheen (“I Am the One She Needs”), others built up with ornate and powerful strings (“On Your Own”), left to shamble (“Late at Night”) or stripped down to a lullaby (“Quicksand”).

Cosby’s lyrics are like pages taken from a lovelorn writer’s diary. There are songs of being held at arm’s length, getting dumped, simmering in anger, rediscovering one’s independence, and letting oneself fall back in love. The lyrics are laced with romantic torment, but the nervous wobble of Cosby’s voice suggests drama that’s poured into tears that are cried alone. It’s the extrovert-introvert pivot of great power pop: emotional needs that struggle to be heard outside the songwriter’s head. The blend of musical flavors of adds a winning Memphis twist that sets this apart from the guitar jangle that typically accompanies such romantic strife. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | So Much Pain
MP3 | Carly
MP3 | On Your Own
Star & Micey’s Home Page
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Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky

BigStar_KeepAnEyeOnTheSkyThe essential second (or third) Big Star purchase

It’s hard to imagine anyone issuing a Big Star release that’s a more perfect introduction to the band than the two-fer of #1 Record and Radio City. You could include their third album, dig in the archives for alternate versions and live tracks, stretch through their reunion music, add pre- and post-Big Star releases, and solo work for context, and you could write lavish liner notes to explain and contextualize their ill-fated story. But as an introduction, every bit of it would simply distract from the perfection that is that first perfect couplet of albums. If you want to turn someone on to Big Star, the stepping stones are #1 Record and Radio City.

But once they’re hooked they’ll want to know more; they’ll want to know everything. Where did the players come from and what did they do before and after Big Star? What else did the band record? What’s Ardent Records and what else was the label doing at the time? How did Memphis influence the band’s sound? Are there alternate versions or unreleased tracks? What were they like as a live unit? And of course: why haven’t I heard of this band before? The latter question is less likely to be asked these days, since obsessive fans have dug up many of the other answers, and many well-known bands have cited Big Star as a seminal influence. But until this box set was released, the full picture of Big Star’s career had to be pieced together from a shelf-full of CDs [1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9], a pair of books [1 2] and assorted fan web sites.

With this 4-CD set, Rhino has reduced all of the purchases that normally follow the two-fer into a rich and convenient box. This is not a substitute for the original albums, nor does it replace the full-length live albums, lead-ins and follow-ups, or the detailed written histories of the band; but for many, this consolidated view of Big Star will be the perfect follow-up to the initial infatuation. For those who’ve already collected everything that’s been legitimately released, the box still provides something extra in previously unreleased live and studio items from the archives. Some of the alternate material is subtle, but some, like “Country Morn” fronts the well-known backing track of “Sunrise” with entirely different lyrics. The B-side mix of “In the Street” has a noticeably different feel to the album track, and the alternate version of “The Ballad of El Goodo” sports a different lead vocal take.

There are early versions of “I Got Kinda Lost,” “There Was a Light” and Loudon Wainwright III’s “Motel Blues” that never made it to final form, and revealing demos for songs that made each of the group’s first three albums. Perhaps the biggest treat of all, however, is the live show featured on disc four. This disc is a distillation of three sets performed by the three-piece (Chris Bell-less) Big Star in Memphis in January 1973. Recorded from microphones set in front of the stage, it’s not the crisp line recording of the band’s previously released shows, but it’s a superb performance whose room sound offers a bit of you-are-there ambiance. It’s a shame the audience mostly ignore the greatness in front of them as they await the headliner, Archie Bell & the Drells.

The physical presentation, a folder containing the four discs and a hundred-page book housed in a slipcase, is superb. An introductory note from Ardent Records founder John Fry shows the emotional connection the insiders still carry with them. Robert Gordon’s historical notes are informative, but Bob Mehr’s essay brilliantly captures the slowly-built cult of Big Star, replaying the clandestine mystery and wonderful discovery the band’s fans felt in the years before the Internet and this  box set put the story at everyone’s fingertips. The book closes with song notes from Alec Palao that gather the scattered details that could be reassembled from tape box labels and participants memories. The 7.5-inch square book includes superb full-panel pictures, most of which have never been seen by even Big Star’s biggest fans.

Could the set include more? Yes. Would that make it better as a box set? Not really. The purpose of these four discs is to tell a story, to provide substance and dimension to a band whose story was revealed ever so slowly over the course of three decades. By intermixing standard and alternate versions of key recordings this set offers new angles on the well-known corpus. By including a full disc of live music the collection fleshes out Big Star from a studio incarnation into a band populated by flesh-and-blood musicians. Start with the band’s first two albums, but once you’ve been bitten, continue here. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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Big Star: #1 Record / Radio City

BigStar_NumberOneRadioCityTwo of the greatest pop albums ever recorded + two bonus tracks

So much has been written by the brilliant pop music of these two albums, that there’s little left to say about the music itself. Lauded by critics and ignored by pop music buyers, Big Star became the most influential rock band never to make it commercially. Their debut album, cheekily titled “#1 Record” (1972) and its follow-up, “Radio City” (1974), were reissued in 1978 as a gatefold two-fer that pricked the ears of pop fans and collectors who’d missed their original release. The group’s name would be bandied about by an ever-growing underground of in-the-know fans-cum-worshippers. The group’s unreleased-at-the-time third album (alternately titled Third and Sister Lovers) appeared briefly on vinyl on the PVC label shortly thereafter. The ‘80s passed before a CD reissue of the seminal first two albums appeared on Big Beat in 1990. This was followed by a domestic release on Fantasy in 1992, which was paralleled by a period live FM broadcast from 1974, Big Star Live, and a CD reissue of Sister Lovers.

The attention finally brought vocalist/songwriter Alex Chilton back to his Big Star catalog, and along with original drummer Jody Stephens and the Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, a reconstituted Big Star recorded a live album at Missouri University, Columbia. Additional reissues of the three studio albums followed, along with more archival live recordings and rehearsal tapes (Nobody Can Dance) and a studio album in 2005, In Space. The selling point of this latest reissue, aside from renewing media and retail interest in two of the greatest rock albums ever recorded, is a pair of bonus tracks. The first is the single version of “In the Street,” which is an entirely different take than the album track. This version was previously reissued on a grey-market vinyl EP in the 1980s, and appeared on Ace’s Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story. The second bonus is a single edit of “O My Soul” that shortens the original 5:35 to a radio-friendly 2:47.

The fold-out eight-panel booklet includes liner note from Brian Hogg penned in 1986 (as previously included in both Big Beat and Fantasy’s earlier CDs), and shorter liner notes by Rick Clark, penned for Fantasy’s previous domestic reissue. In fact, the booklet reproduces Fantasy’s 1992 insert almost exactly, with the original’s solicitation for a Fantasy catalog trimmed away and the two new tracks grafted onto the song listing in a font that doesn’t quite match. Those who’ve purchased one of the many previous reissues might see if download services offer the bonuses as individual tracks; if not, buy this for yourself and give your old copy to someone yet to discover Big Star. That should hold you until Rhino’s Big Star box set arrives in September. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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Alex Chilton: 1970

Missing link between the Box Tops and Big Star

As others have noted, this isn’t one of Alex Chilton’s masterpieces, yet it’s a terrifically listenable album that bridges between his more straight-jacketed work with the Box Tops and the freedom of expression found with Big Star. Chilton can be heard indulging his affection for Memphis blues and soul on several tracks, stripped of his former group’s AM-radio sweetening. Produced and engineered by Terry Manning, and recorded on spec rather than in fulfillment of a signed contract, Chilton was freed to sing more grittily, to record his own material, to extend the guitar jams, and to loosen up with odd touches like the banjo on “I Wish I Could Meet Elvis.” Even when things get a tad sloppy, it’s hard to fault someone shaking off the confines of top-40 for a bit of self-expression. Ironically, the craft drilled into Chilton’s head as a Box Top would soon serve him well in Big Star.

The pedal-steel driven original of “Free Again” is more innocent and exultant than the 1975 redo on Bach’s Bottom, suggesting Chilton’s departure from the Box Tops was a more freeing personal success than his extrication from the commercial failure of Big Star. Foreshadows of Big Star’s expectant melancholy can be heard in the exceptional “Every Day As We Grow Closer,” and the vulnerable “EMI Song,” folk-country “The Happy Song” and heavy soul cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” are all worth hearing. The bombastic cover of the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” sounds more like a studio joke than an artistic statement, but perhaps Chilton was offended by the original’s irrepressible ebullience. After hearing these other sounds from Chilton’s head, his indulgence of the blues turns out to be the most perfunctory and least interesting material here.

Chilton backed out of a contract to release this album through Atlantic, and was distracted with Big Star before a deal could be closed with Brother Records. This left the original mono demo master to be circulated for two decades by collectors as it was forgotten by its creators. When Manning was reminded by a bootleg copy, he found the original 8-track tapes in the Ardent vault and created superb new stereo mixes (except for “Free Again,” which remains in mono). Mannings’ original engineering provided the elements necessary to create a finished product, and his craftsmanship fit the sessions together into a modern artifact that remains remarkably true to Alex Chilton circa 1970. [©2008 hyperbolium dot com]