“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.
After a gap in the first half of the ‘70s, alto saxophonist and West Coast Jazz icon Art Pepper returned to recording. By decade’s end he was under contract with Galaxy, and when a small Japanese label came calling, he had to get creative. Unable to record for Atlas as a group leader, he picked session leaders and took credit only as a sideman. The albums were issued only in Japan, previously anthologized in the box set Hollywood All-Star Sessions, and now being reissued individually by Omnivore with bonus tracks. The first volume, a double-CD headlined by Sonny Stitt, is joined by this volume headlined by pianist Pete Jolly. Originally issued as Strike Up the Band, the original seven tracks are augmented by two bonus takes of Pepper’s original “Y.I. Blues,” one previously unreleased.
Recorded in February 1980 at Sage & Sound in Hollywood, Pepper and Jolly were joined by bassist Rob Magnusson and drummer Roy McCurdy as they worked through a selection of standards from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Pepper had played all of these tunes in the 1950s, so the value here is what this quartet could do with them on these dates. Pepper and Jolly are melodic and lively as they fly through an up-tempo take on the Gershwins’ “Strike Up the Band,” and McCurdy is crisp as he pushes with his cymbals and fills with his full kit. Pepper’s stretches out on the ballad “You Go to My Head,” bridging the lyrical sections with quick runs and giving way for a reflective solo by Jolly. Pepper and Jolly get more conversational on the chestnut “I Surrender Dear,” with Magnusson and McCurdy vamping the ending.
After a gap in the first half of the ‘70s, alto saxophonist and West Coast Jazz icon Art Pepper returned to recording. By decade’s end he was under contract with Galaxy, and when a small Japanese label came calling, he had to get creative. Unable to record for Atlas as a group leader, he picked session leaders and took credit only as a sideman. The albums were issued only in Japan, previously anthologized in the box set Hollywood All-Star Sessions, and are now being reissued by Omnivore with bonus tracks. The first volume, a double-CD headlined by Sonny Stitt, combines two albums, Groovin’ High and Atlas Blues: Blow! & Ballade, and adds three previously unissued takes mixed from the original multitracks.
Recorded in July 1980 at Sage & Sound in Hollywood, Pepper and Stitt were joined by pianist Lou Levy, bassist Chuck DeMonico and drummer Carl Burnette for Groovin’ High, and pianist Russ Freeman, bassist John Heard and Burnette for Atlas Blues. The former leans on jazz titles from Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie Bernie Miller and Morgan Lewis, while the latter takes in the standards “Autumn in New York,” “My Funny Valentine” “Lover Man” and “Imagination” alongside Stitt’s “Atlas Blues” and Lester Young’s “Lester Leaps In.” The quintet swings with quotes from “Rhapsody in Blue” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” but the first session’s rhythm section tends to the frenetic, and Pepper and Stitt sometimes seem to be blowing at each other as much as with each other.
Though singer-songwriter Tim Buckley flourished in an era in which singles – and the radio exposure they attracted – often led albums onto the charts, he was never a singles artist. His label dutifully released singles from all nine of his albums, placing none of them on the charts, and, at best, only distracting free-form FM stations from the albums they were more likely to play. So unlike artists feted with collections of the original mono singles that listeners remember from the radio (see, for example, recent sets by The Turtles and Buck Owens), the motivation for a collection of Tim Buckley’s singles is more obscure.
Which isn’t to suggest the music is less than magnificent, or the collection unworthy of your attention, but other than the previously anthologized “Once Upon a Time” and its previously unreleased B-side “Lady, Give Me Your Key,” most of these tracks are likely already in the collections of Tim Buckley fans. What the set does offer is a read on the label’s attempt to sell Buckley commercially, both in the US and UK, and a quick read of his nine year arc as a recording artist. It also provides rare mono single mixes for tracks 1-9, improved sound (courtesy of Michael Graves), and an interview with Buckley’s longtime collaborator, Larry Beckett.
Buck Owens had hits before teaming with Don Rich, but together they led the Buckaroos to unparalleled commercial and artistic success. Owens first met Rich in Tacoma, Washington, where the latter grew up playing fiddle and the former was taking a break from his Capitol Records contract. Rich gigged with Owens around town and on local television, and after a stint in college, joined him in the studio for 1959’s “Above and Beyond” and “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache).” Rich switched to acoustic guitar for 1961’s B-side “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” and electric lead for 1963’s “Act Naturally.” The latter was perhaps not coincidentally Owens’ first #1, and the first in an uninterrupted string of fifteen chart toppers.
Owens and Rich equipped themselves with sparkling Telecasters (tuned down a half step to reduce string breakage and get a fatter tone) and Fender Twin Reverb amps, and with the bass and drums given more prominence, the Bakersfield Sound was born. Music poured out of the Buckaroos at an incredible rate, filling albums and the singles charts, and spilling over from Buck Owens’ albums into a dozen albums led by Rich. It’s from this torrent of creativity that Omnivore has cherry-picked eighteen tracks, three from Buck Owens albums, fourteen from Buckaroos’ albums, and a previously unreleased version of “Guitar Pickin’ Man,” recorded for the Hee Haw television program.
The selections favor vocal tracks, though Rich’s guitar playing is highlighted both here and on a sprinkling of instrumentals. Among the latter is the stuttering lead of “Chicken Pickin’,” the western atmosphere of “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch,” and the genre-bending “Bossa Nova Buckaroo Style.” Rich’s vocals weren’t as sorrowful as Owens’, though he strikes a similar tone for Bonnie and Buck Owens’ “Number One Heel,” and recalls Owens’ own double-tracking on “You Bring Out the Best in Me.” Rich wrote a lot of the Buckaroos’ material, often working with Red Simpson and other co-writers when not covering catalog material from Owens and Merle Haggard.
Having already been feted with exhaustiveboxsets, multidiscanthologies, vaultfinds, tributealbums, a posthumous autobiography, and dozens of original album reissues, one might ask: what’s left to say? As it turns out: plenty. Collecting Owens’ A’s and B’s from his most commercially fertile years, this generous two-disc set replays Owens’ emergence and dominance as both a country hit maker and a maverick artist. Recording in Hollywood, two thousand miles from Nashville, he added a new chapter to the country music playbook with the driving, electric Bakersfield sound, and established himself as an iconoclastic force on the both the singles and album charts. Among the fifty-six tracks collected here are twenty-two Top 40 hits, including an astonishing string of thirteen consecutive chart toppers.
While the hits will be familiar to most, and the B-sides to many, only the most ardent Owens fans will recognize the earliest Capitol singles. This quartet of originals, waxed in 1957, sounds more like Buddy Holly-styled rock ‘n’ roll than the Bakersfield sting Owens would later develop. The low twanging guitar, sweetly phrased lead vocal and backing chorus of “Come Back” is more doo-wop than country, and its waltz-time B-side “I Know What It Means” sounds like Nashville going pop. “Sweet Thing,” co-written with Harlan Howard, has rockabilly licks supplied by guitarists Gene Moles and Roy Nichols, and its ballad B-side, “I Only Know That I Love You” has a lovely guitar solo to accompany its double-crossed lyric.
Owens returned to Capitol’s studio in 1958 with a reconstructed backing unit that included fiddler J.R. “Jelly” Sanders and Ralph Mooney on steel. It was from this session that “Second Fiddle” launched Owens onto the country chart. The same group, which also included pianist George French, Jr., bassist Al Williams and drummer Pee Wee Adams, cut a 1959 session from which “Under Your Spell Again” climbed to #4. By year’s end, Sanders was out and Don Rich was in, Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond” carried Owens one notch higher, to #3, and Howard and Owens’ “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache)” then reached #2. The B-sides include the charting “I’ve Got a Right to Know,” and the ironic “Tired of Livin’.” Ironic, because the song’s sad-sack complaint about a lack of success was fronted by a Top 5 hit!
1961 found Owens paired with Rose Maddox for the double-sided hit “Mental Cruelty” b/w “Loose Lips,” and he just missed the top slot twice more with “Foolin’ Around” and “Under the Influence of Love.” The success of his A-sides dipped slightly in 1962, though he was still charting regularly, minting staples like “You’re For Me,” and the B-side “I Can’t Stop (My Lovin’ You).” Owens turned out an incredible amount of high quality, original material throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, winningly vacillating between sunny elation and sorrowful heartbreak. He also had an ear for other songwriters, recording albums dedicated to Harlan Howard and Tommy Collins, and charting covers of Pomus & Shuman’s “Save the Last Dance for Me” and Wanda Jackson’s “Kickin’ Our Hearts Around.”
Owens finally topped the charts in 1963 with Johnny Russell’s “Act Naturally,” kicking off a string of #1s that stretched into 1967. Incredibly, all of disc two’s singles topped the chart, except for a return duet with Rose Maddox that stalled at #15 and a 1965 Christmas single. The A-sides from this era are among the most iconic of Owens’ career, including “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “My Heart Skips a Beat,” “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail,” “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line,” “Open Up Your Heart” and Don Rich’s “Think of Me” (which became a staple for the Mavericks). The B-sides include the chart-topping “Together Again,” the stalwart “Don’t Let Her Know” and the woeful “Heart of Glass.”
The classic lineup of the Buckaroos had come together in 1964, with Owens and Rich joined by bassist Doyle Holly, drummer Willie Cantu and steel player Tom Brumley. Their chemistry was immortalized on Live at Carnegie Hall, and their instrumental skills carried “Buckaroo” to the top of the country chart. More importantly, it was this lineup that doubled down on Owens’ rejection of the Nashville Sound. The polite drum accents of 1961’s “Foolin’ Around” might have alarmed Music City’s gentry, but it was only a prelude to the more insistent tom-toms of “My Heart Skips a Beat,” Don Rich’s twangy fills and solo on “Act Naturally” and Willie Cantu’s full-kit drumming on “Before You Go.”
While Nashville was busy courting pop fans with syrupy layers of strings and choruses, Owens was stripping his sound down to guitars, bass, fiddle and drums, and riding the beat. He also bucked another Nashville standard by recording with his band, rather than picking up session players. Red Simpson sat in for a few sessions in ‘65 and ‘66, and James Burton provided the sputtering electric lead on “Open Up Your Heart,” but what you hear on all the singles from ‘64 onward are the Buckaroos. The set ends with Owens’ last hit of 1966, “Where Does the Good Times Go,” two singles shy of the end of his continuous string of #1s, and well short of the success that ran up to Don Rich’s 1974 death. Owens moved on from Capitol to Warner Brothers, and returned again in the late ‘80s, but mostly retired from the studio to run his businesses and perform on the weekends at his legendary Bakersfield club.
Expanded reissue of guest-filled 2003 Christmas album
Founded in 1939 and turned into a professional group six years later, it took more than fifty years for these gospel legends to record a Christmas album. Released in 2003, the album was third in a string of four Grammy-winning albums in four years, including Spirit of the Century, Higher Ground and There Will Be a Light. The album includes guests leading every track but the first and last, ranging from soul singer Solomon Burke, singer-songwriters Tom Waits and Shelby Lynne, to jazz vocalist Les McCann and funkmaster George Clinton. The wide range of guests lends the album a lot of variety, though in a few spots, such as Chrissie Hynde and Richard Thompson’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” it mostly obscures title group.
There’s no losing sight of the group as they provide Aaron Neville an intricate a cappella backing for “Joy to the World,” provide harmony backing to Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” and add lively interplay to Mavis Staples’ “Born in Bethlehem.” One might lament how the cavalcade of guest stars cuts into the Blind Boys’ opportunities to sing lead, but the selection of guests and their interaction with the group and house band (John Medeski on keyboards, Duke Robillard on guitar, Danny Thompson on bass and Michael Jerome on drums) yields some nice moments. If you’re expecting a Blind Boys gospel Christmas album, you’ll be disappointed, but if you take this album as part of the group’s Grammy era artistic expansion, there’s much to like.
A soulful rock ‘n’ roller creates a modern folk sound on bonus-laden 2016 reissue
Two years after the breakup of the Plimsouls, Peter Case returned with a solo album that departed from soul-tinged rock ‘n’ roll and moved to folk and blues rendered in modern hues. T-Bone Burnett’s production includes electric guitars and drums, but they’re layered carefully among acoustic and synthetic elements. Case’s new material sported more abstract surfaces and tackled introspective and socially conscious themes, and combined with Burnett’s production, led the singer to more subtle vocals. A few of the songs, including “Walk in the Woods” and the Pogues’ “Pair of Brown Eyes,” are narrative, but others, including “Echo Wars,” “Steel Strings” and “I Shook His Hand” remain more open ended.
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