In 1981, while many of us were still discovering the Nuggets compilation and Pebbles series, Jeff Conolly had already worked backwards and ingested garage rockâ€™s roots. Breaking out of Bostonâ€™s rock scene with this debut four-song EP, Lyres had both the muscle and melodicism of â€˜60s hitmakers like the Standells, Sonics, Chocolate Watchband and Bostonâ€™s Remains. As good as was the EP (and the concluding cover of the Hangmenâ€™s â€œWhat a Girl Canâ€™t Doâ€ is really, really good), the 1983 follow-up single, â€œHelp You Ann,â€ was even better. With an unforgettable guitar riff and a hypnotic lyric hook on the flip â€œI Really Want You Right Now,â€ this could easily have been a regional hit that broke through to the national charts, had it only been released in 1965.
Although Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens revived Big Star in 1993 with the help of the Posiesâ€™ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, they never sought to recreate the full majesty of their seminal studio recordings. The 2.0 lineup lasted nearly 18 years of intermittent live performances and the studio album In Space, but with Chiltonâ€™s passing in 2010, Big Star morphed from a going concern into a well spring of reissues, archival releases, biographies, documentaries and tribute performances. The first of the tributes took place within days of Chiltonâ€™s passing, as Big Starâ€™s remaining three members were joined by the bandâ€™s friends and colleagues to deliver a musical wake at SXSW.
By the end of that year, a more formal tribute was organized with a live performance of Big Starâ€™s Third, complete with the albumâ€™s full, original orchestration. And from that show, a core musical collective formed to tour the tribute internationally, engaging guest musicians and orchestras at each stop. A full rendering of Third remains the centerpiece of the show, but with the addition of material from Big Starâ€™s first two albums and Chris Bellâ€™s post-Big Star work to fill out the story. This 2017 performance features Big Starâ€™s Jody Stephens and musical director Chris Stamey alongside Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer (The Posies, Big Star), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone (Wilco), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tango), Robyn Hitchcock, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), Dan Wilson (Semisonic), and a full chamber orchestra.
Paying tribute to a band as beloved as Big Star is a tricky proposition. Covering too closely offers nothing new or of yourself, while straying too far risks losing touch with the object of your tribute. Add to that a small catalog that allows for talmudic-like study by fans and the stretch from single song cover to a full concert and album reading, and the balance point seems to grow more elusive. As musical director, Stamey has plotted out musical waypoints that anchor these covers to the familiar originals, while at the same time employing vocalists and harmony singers whose tone and style are reverent, yet fresh. The combination of familiar and new renews the chestnuts that had fossilized into icons, and animates the songs that were never performed live by the original band.
The performersâ€™ deep affection for the material is evident throughout, and the split between earlier material on disc one and Third on disc two mirrors the changes in the bandâ€™s personnel, circumstances and resulting direction. The song sequence for Third has long been debated, and the order selected here doesnâ€™t seem to match any of the well-known sequences; i.e., the 1975 test pressing on Stax, the 1978 vinyl issue on PVC, the 1992 CD issue on Ryko, the 2016 Complete Third on Omnivore, or any of the many reissues in between; notably missing are the test pressingâ€™s covers of â€œFemme Fataleâ€ and â€œWhole Lotta Shakinâ€™ Goinâ€™ On,â€ and reissue inclusions â€œTill the End of the Dayâ€ and â€œNature Boy.â€ Still, no matter the track selection or order, the musical schizophrenia of the original sessions comes across in both the individual songs, and the idiosyncratic range of material.
Bonus-ladÂen reissues of Steve Goodmanâ€™s final two albums
Goodman lived his entire professional career on borrowed time. Diagnosed with leukemia in 1969, he made the most of his 15 years on the public stage. His best known song, â€œCity of New Orleans,â€ was a hit for Arlo Guthrie, and again for Willie Nelson, and is recounted from his debut album in live form on Artistic Hair. But his most sung song is the Chicago Cubs victory anthem â€œGo Cubs Go,â€ included as a bonus track on this reissue of Affordable Art. The latter album, the last released during Goodmanâ€™s lifetime, includes a double-header of baseball-themed tracks in its original lineup, â€œA Dying Cub Fanâ€™s Last Request,â€ and a sprightly dawg-grass arrangement of the national pastime classic â€œTake Me Out to the Ballgame.â€
Goodman recorded for Buddah and Asylum before inaugurating his own Red Pajama label with this pair of albums, reissued here with eighteen bonus tracks between them. 1983â€™s Artistic Hair was constructed from live material cherry-picked from a decadeâ€™s worth of recordings. The selected tracks show off the intimate stage presence that matched the intellectual intimacy of Goodmanâ€™s music. The material features a half dozen originals, including the humorous realities ofÂ â€œElvis Imitatorsâ€ and â€œChicken Cordon Bleus,â€ and the icons â€œCity of New Orleansâ€ and â€œYou Never Even Called Me By Name.â€ Goodmanâ€™s covers ranged widely from early twentieth century tunes â€œTico Tico,â€ â€œRed Red Robinâ€ and â€œWinter Wonderlandâ€ to Shel Silversteinâ€™s acoustic blues, â€œThree-Legged Man.â€
The albumâ€™s ten bonus tracks, originally released on the posthumous No Big Surprise: The Steve Goodman Anthology, feature a similar mix of originals and covers, including Goodmanâ€™s chanty about a notorious Chicago-area towing company, â€œLincoln Park Pirates,â€ the ad-libbed stage performerâ€™s nightmare, â€œThe Broken String Song,â€ and the celebration of loveâ€™s polyglot nature, â€œMen Who Love Women Who Love Men.â€ Covers include Leroy Van Dykeâ€™s tongue-twisting â€œThe Auctioneer,â€ the Albert Brumley spiritual â€œIâ€™ll Fly Awayâ€ and the mid-30s dance tune â€œItâ€™s a Sin to Tell a Lie,â€ popularly recorded by Fats Waller, the Ink Spots and Patti Page. Goodman is relaxed and confident as he variously performs solo and with a band, and while the settings and recording quality vary, the constructed set is a treat.
Affordable Art mixes live and studio tracks, with a song list composed almost entirely of originals. The album opens with the instrumental â€œIf Only Jethro Was Here,â€ featuring Goodman on mandola and Jim Rothermel on recorder, and highlighting mandolinist Jethro Burnsâ€™ absence. Burns himself is heard on an old-timey rendition of â€œTake Me Out to the Ballgame,â€ which is stretched into a double with Goodmanâ€™s â€œA Dying Cubs Fanâ€™s Last Request,â€ and legged into a triple with the bonus track â€œGo Cubs Go.â€ As on his previous album of live material, Goodman is heard both solo and with a band, including the driving drums and electric slide of â€œHow Much Tequila (Did I Drink Last Night)?â€ and an acoustic ensemble highlighted by Marty Stuartâ€™s mandolin and Jerry Douglasâ€™ dobro on the hopeful â€œWhen My Rowboat Comes In.â€
Buck Owens closes out his phenomenal first run on Capitol
After a pair of double-disc sets covering Owensâ€™ trailblazing, chart topping singles of 1957-1966 and 1967-1970, Omnivore closes out the Bakersfield legendâ€™s run on Capitol with this superb third volume. Owensâ€™ early â€˜70s singles didnâ€™t repeat the commercial dominance of his 1960s output, but several still landed in the upper reaches of the charts (and at #1 with Bob and Faye Morrisâ€™ â€œMade in Japanâ€), and demonstrated continued creativity. The early â€˜70s were a time of artistic exploration for Owens as he recorded in his then-newly built Bakersfield studio, produced himself, covered material from outside the country realm, and stretched out from his classic Telecaster-and-steel sound to incorporate pop, bluegrass and gospel. As this set attests, his declining chart fortunes were more a product of changing public tastes and industry trends than a slip in artistry.
Owens opened 1971 with a moving cover of â€œBridge Over Troubled Water,â€ featuring a solemn vocal, acoustic guitar and atmospheric backing harmonies that take the song to a different emotional place than Simon & Garfunkelâ€™s original. He showed off his omnivorous musical appetite and sense of humor with a southern-funk take on Jimmy Driftwoodâ€™s â€œBattle of New Orleansâ€ a transformation of Shel Silversteinâ€™s â€œThe Cover of the Rolling Stoneâ€ into the country-styled â€œOn the Cover of the Music City News,â€ a loping bluegrass arrangement of Cousin Emmyâ€™s â€œRuby, Are You Mad at Your Manâ€ and an energetic version of the traditional â€œRollinâ€™ in My Sweet Babyâ€™s Arms.â€ The latter two expanded the Buckaroosâ€™ musical palette with the addition of Ronnie Jacksonâ€™s banjo.
The biggest hits in this five year span came from the pens of others, but Owens continued to write fresh material for himself. He cracked the Top 10 with â€œGreat Expectations,â€ and the novelties â€œBig Game Hunterâ€ andÂ â€œ(Itâ€™s A) Monsterâ€™s Holiday,â€ and further down the chart he scored with the defeated â€œIn the Palm of Your Hand,â€ the discontented â€œArms Full of Empty,â€ the defiant â€œYou Ainâ€™t Gonna Have Olâ€™ Buck to Kick Around No Moreâ€ and the happy-go-lucky â€œAinâ€™t It Amazing, Gracie.â€ Owens clearly had fuel left in his songwriting tank, even if country radio and the listening public werenâ€™t paying as close attention as they had the previous decade.
Owensâ€™ songwriting prowess can also be heard in B-sides that include the Mexicali-tinged waltz â€œBlack Texas Dirtâ€ and the steel and fiddle heartbreak of â€œI Love You So Much It Hurts.â€ He picked up excellent material from Terry Clements, John English, Dennis Knutson, Robert John Jones and Buckaroos Jim Shaw, including â€œ(Iâ€™m Goinâ€™) Home,â€ â€œ41st Street Lonely Hearts Club,â€ and his last Capitol single, â€œCountry Singerâ€™s Prayer.â€ With the 1974 death of Don Rich having deeply dented his enthusiasm for music making, his waning commercial success led him to a mutual parting of the ways with Capitol (who shelved his last album in the process). He signed with Warner Brothers for a pair of albums that garnered middling chart success before he slipped into a hiatus that lasted much of the 1980s.
John Denverâ€™s pre-superstar years as a pop folkie
Six years before John Denver catapulted to fame with 1971â€™s â€œTake Me Home Country Roads,â€ he was a hard working folkie on the Los Angeles club scene. In 1965, when Chad Mitchell left his eponymous folk trio for a solo career, Denver survived the audition process to assume the groupâ€™s leadership. The new lineup issued a pair of studio albums and a live set on Mercury, and when the last original member, Mike Kobluk, left the group, Denver carried on with recent addition David Boise and the newly added Michael Johnson, as Denver, Boise & Johnson. The latter trio released only one single, Denverâ€™s â€œTake Me to Tomorrow,â€ but recorded additional material, of which three previously unreleased selections are included here.
The Mitchell Trioâ€™s legacy of humor is heard in the 1967 single â€œLike to Deal with Ladies as Sung in the Shower Accompanied by a Twenty-Seven Piece Band,â€ as well as a live performance of â€œHe Was a Friend of Mine.â€ The latter, stretching to nearly eight minutes, finds Denver intertwining smart-aleck stage patter with an audience sing-along and the trioâ€™s superb harmonizing. Denverâ€™s early years found him writing several of his most beloved songs, including â€œLeaving on a Jet Plane,â€ originally self-released in solo form as â€œBabe, I Hate To Go (Leaving On A Jet Plane).â€ The retitled song is offered here in both a poorly conceived, band-backed studio single, as well as a beautifully sung acoustic live performance from 1967.
Posthumous album from an 80-something blues unicorn
Born in 1932, the Mississippi native Welch turned seventy-two years of music making into three years of worldwide fame. Welch was essentially both an elder statesman and an 81-year-old rookie when he released 2014â€™s Sabougla Voices. He soon found himself feted on festival stages around the world, released a second album in 2015, I Donâ€™t Prefer No Blues, and was the subject of the 2018 documentary, Late Blossom Blues. Welchâ€™s fame may have come late, but the authenticity of his gospel and blues was deeply appreciated by all those who heard him play and sing. Welch passed away in 2017, but not before recording more than two dozen songs with Dan Auerbach in his Nashville studio.
Pearl Harbor and the Explosions was a short-lived new wave band that developed a club following in their native San Francisco music scene. Led by Pearl E. Gates (formerly of Leila and the Snakes), their debut single on the local 415 Records label was helmed by then-neophyte producer David Kahne, and begat an album deal with Columbia. This full-length debut, produced by Kahne at the Automatt, has a crisp sound that almost borders on brittle, but highlights the pop and progressive angles of the bandâ€™s music. New versions of the 415 singleâ€™s songs (â€œDrivinâ€™â€ and â€œRelease Itâ€) were produced alongside a promotional video, and released as a Warner Brothers single that garnered regional radio play.
Though poppier than 415 labelmates like Translator and Romeo Void, thereâ€™s a funky new wave Dance Rock undercurrent that suggests contemporaries like Missing Persons. The songs are filled with easily loved hooks, and Harborâ€™s singing foreshadows the rockabilly sass that would enamor Clash bassist Paul Simonon, and fuel her solo follow-up, Donâ€™t Follow Me, Iâ€™m Lost Too. Blixaâ€™s reissue augments the albumâ€™s original nine tracks with seven bonuses, including the non-LP flip â€œBusy Little B-Side,â€ the original 415 Records single, and a trio of live tracks from 1979.
Legendary acoustic harmony bandâ€™s 1974 debut, with 11 bonus tracks
The fusion of country, jazz, folk, blues, bluegrass and swing this trio developed in the late â€˜70s isnâ€™t without near-term antecedents (e.g., Dan Licks and His Hot Licks) or parallels (e.g., David Grisman), but the joy with which these three talented musicians – Walter Hyatt, Champ Hood and David Ball – meshed their influences and voices is in many ways without equal. Although there was fine solo work to follow – and commercial success for Ball in Nashville – there was something greater than the parts in their collaboration. With three star-quality singers blending their voices in harmony, their talents as instrumentalists might have receded into the background, had their gifts not been so substantial. Their acoustic playing is gentle, but substantial, and provides perfect backing and decoration to their singing.
Omnivore began the digital restoration of the groupâ€™s catalog with the 2018 anthology Those Boys From Carolina, They Sure Enough Could Sing, and now digs deeper with this reissue of the groupâ€™s debut. Recorded in North Carolina (in a single day, in mono, and with no overdubs!) and originally released in 1974 as Blame it on the Bossa Nova, the album was reordered and reissued eponymously in 1978, as the group was settling into Austin. Their run would last five more years and turn out another studio album (An American in Texas), a live set (Recorded Live) and a cassette collection of studio material (6-26-79). Reissues have come and gone, including the numerous versions of this debut that are documented in the liner notes, but the bandâ€™s impression on its fans has never faded.
The trioâ€™s harmonies take in the sounds of country musicâ€™s early family acts, close harmony pop of the â€˜40s, and the jazz vocal groups of the â€˜50s and â€˜60s. Their repertoire includes superb original material that mingles easily with lovingly arranged covers of the Delta Rhythm Boysâ€™ jivey â€œGive Me Some Skin,â€ Robert Johnsonâ€™s â€œFrom Four Until Late,â€ Professor Longhairâ€™s â€œIn the Night,â€ the late â€˜30s blues â€œUndecided,â€ the folk staple â€œLittle Sadie,â€ and a wonderfully crooned take on the film theme â€œRuby.â€ The trioâ€™s harmonizing on â€œHigh Hillâ€ is unbelievably lush, Ballâ€™s falsetto is striking throughout the album (as are Hoodâ€™s acoustic guitar leads), and Hyattâ€™s â€œAloha,â€ which opened the original LP, now closes out the albumâ€™s eleven track lineup.
Now, decades removed from the original release and the onslaught of analysis that followed, itâ€™s difficult to imagine how the former begat the latter. For Holmesâ€™ part, he suggests that Frank misconstrued his story of an artist navigating the record industry, selecting elements that fit a handy narrative. Frank described Holmes as having run an ironic play that reversed his labelâ€™s mass-market aspirations by doubling down with music that ironically harkened back to the sunshine pop sounds of the 1960s. But decades removed from the Indie vs. Alternative imbroglio of the mid-90s, itâ€™s difficult to hear anything ironic in the albumâ€™s beautifully crafted sounds. Perhaps thatâ€™s because the made-for-AM-radio pop music from which Holmes took inspiration has turned out to have artistic value and emotional resonance thatâ€™s outlasted the taint of its arguably crass production source.
Frank labels Holmesâ€™ claims of â€œheartfelt and genuine and un-ironicâ€ as fake, and perhaps they were. He describes Holmesâ€™ musical touchstones as â€œlowbrowâ€ and â€œschlock,â€ and derides the idea that this music engenders deep, long-lasting meaning to listeners. But even if Frank is right about the layers of Holmesâ€™ intentions, heâ€™s wrong about the source musicâ€™s lasting relevance, and heâ€™s wrong about the outcome of Holmesâ€™ process. Whether or not Holmes was ironic (as were, say, Spinal Tap) or loving (as were, say, the Pooh Sticks), the end result is music to love. And if Holmes was simply faking it, he did a good enough job to render the fraud immaterial. Itâ€™s hard to imagine that either Holmesâ€™ label, or Holmes himself, thought this music could successfully fill the market space being vacated by â€œAlternative,â€ which leaves Frankâ€™s critique as more fantastic than the story he purports.
If youâ€™re already lost in the multiple levels of revisionism and meta criticism, you may want to skip Brian Dohertyâ€™s critique of Frankâ€™s essay, and the additional layers of explanation it reports from Frank and his then-editor at Harperâ€™s. It all sums to an incredible amount of critical ink spilled over a market stiff that somehow managed to become emblematic, to a certain strain of intellectual cognoscenti, of all that is wrong with the fruits of commercial production. Itâ€™s hard to recall a pop confection that caused this much critical heartburn since the Monkees complained publicly about their own artistic disenfranchisement. And much like the Monkees, Yum Yum is better taken on its musical merits than the contortions of its creation myth.
Holmes originally developed his industry cred as part of the Chicago space rock band Sabalon Glitz, but when a solo deal materialized with a subsidiary of Atlantic, he decided to pursue the orchestral pop he had bubbling on the sideline. The lessons of Sabalon Glitz arenâ€™t lost here, as the album is layered with vintage mellotron and chamberlin, strings, brass, organ, acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums. Holmesâ€™ lyrics imagine Dan lamenting his failed relationships, reminiscing about both the joys and stings of love, closing himself off to simmer in bitter thoughts, dream of better outcomes, and imagine cautiously dipping back into the romance pool. It hasnâ€™t the stinging bitterness that informed Matthew Sweetâ€™s Girlfriend, nor the variety of musical motifs, but Holmesâ€™ hushed vocals and lyrics of romantic dissolution are effective, and his melodies are catchy, if not always sufficiently distinct to be instantly memorable.
Omnivore has resuscitated this album from the deep sea of critical burial with ten bonus tracks that include a fuzz mix of â€œUneasyâ€ that lends the song a Jesus & Mary Chain sound, along with U.K. B-side covers of Princeâ€™s â€œWhen You Were Mine,â€ the Ronettesâ€™ â€œBaby, I Love You,â€ and the Muppetsâ€™ â€œRainbow Connection,â€ and six previously unreleased demos that had been developed on for a follow-up album that never came to fruition. The gentle reimagining of the iconic hits would have kicked the critical lambasting (which was still engendering bitterness in 2011) into another gear, but add a sweet coda to the original album. The demos offer similar sounds to the album, but with an upturn in the lyrical outlook. â€œSummertimeâ€ has an outro hook worthy of the Archies (thatâ€™s a compliment), â€œI Took Advantage of the Springâ€ skips along hopefully, and though Holmes eventually re-recorded â€œHolding Out for Loveâ€ with Ashtar Command, the planned follow-up album surrendered to disappointing commercial results and â€œchanges at the record label.â€