Posts Tagged ‘Omnivore’

Johnny Costa: Plays Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Friday, November 15th, 2019

Jazz impressions of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

By the time that Pittsburgh pianist Johnny Costa met Fred Rogers, he was an accomplished jazz musician who’d led albums released by Coral, Savoy and Dot, was featured on Manny Albam’s A Gallery of Gershwin (a theme Costa revisited on 1994’s A Portrait of George Gershwin) and served as music director for television’s Mike Douglas. Costa returned to Pittsburgh in the mid-60s where he met and partnered with Fred Rogers in creating the music for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Costa’s college background in both music and education matched that of Rogers, and his fluid musical style (one that Art Tatum likened to his own) and imaginative arrangements were a perfect match for the emotional insights that Rogers illuminated with his song concepts and lyrics. Costa was a charter resident of the neighborhood, joining in 1968, playing live, adding improvisational continuity, appearing on camera on occasion, and serving as Rogers’ musical director until the pianist’s passing in 1996.

This 1984 release features Costa’s piano in a trio setting with Carl McVicker on bass and Bobby Rawsthorne on drums. As an instrumental jazz outing on the short-lived Mister Rogers Neighborhood label, but not featuring Mister Rogers himself, it likely didn’t sell well to either the television show’s preschool viewership or jazz hounds, and so the original vinyl release has become quite rare. Omnivore’s reissue includes the album’s original thirteen tracks, all written by Fred Rogers. Fans of the television show will immediately recognize the warm welcome of the opening “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” but as you would expect from a talented jazz musician, Costa uses the theme as a launching point for spirited improvisation. The same is true for the closing “Tomorrow,” which is given a heavier dose of optimistic melancholy than in its television incarnations.

Costa’s playing is florid, dramatic, inquisitive, frenetic, humorous and contemplative, mirroring the themes and emotional lessons of Rogers’ lyrical compositions. The yearning for reassurance that Rogers wrote into the lyrics of “Please Don’t Think It’s Funny” is equally well expressed in Costa’s introspective soloing. “Everybody’s Fancy” includes fancy runs, “I Like to Take My Time” proceeds at a jaunty stroll, and “Something to Do While We’re Waiting” is filled with irrepressible childhood energy. Costa is fleet-fingered and lyrical as he expresses through his piano the emotional core of each song. This collection of  instrumental treatments provides a terrific complement to Fred Rogers’ originals, twenty-three of which are collected in Omnivore’s companion volume, It’s Such A Good Feeling: The Best Of Mister Rogers. Taken together, the two releases highlight the musical and emotional resonances between Rogers, Costa and their audience. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Fred Rogers: It’s Such a Good Feeling – The Best of Mister Rogers

Saturday, October 19th, 2019

The timeless understanding and caring of Mister Rogers

Children’s entertainment is often filled with empty merchandising calories, and devoid of the thoughtful content that promotes intellectual and emotional growth. But that is not the case with the music of Fred Rogers, creator and host of the eponymous Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Educated in musical composition, divinity and child development, Rogers turned the meditations of his solitary childhood into a helping hand for preschoolers. While Sesame Street focused on helping young children get ready for the cognitive growth of schooling, Rogers prepared them for the parallel emotional development they would experience in new social situations. Rogers spoke and sang to children with insight and patience that acknowledged feelings and fears that adults had long since forgotten. He offered a helping hand through songs whose fundamental truths connected deeply with his audience.

His television show included many memorable characters and activities, but his music reached deeper. For those who grew up watching the show (or parenting children who did), the songs remain a sense memory that can instantly transport you back to an age of uncertainty and seemingly endless questions. His lyrics encompasses thoughts and lessons in friendship, optimism, attentiveness, confidence, vulnerability, perseverance, empathy, imagination, self-worth, humor, individuality and a myriad of questions, emotions and anxieties that children first encounter in their formative years. Rogers’ songs put a name to these feelings, and let children know that such feelings are both natural and shared.

Rogers recorded with a trio of musical director and pianist Johnny Costa, bassist Carl McVicker, and percussionist Bobby Rawsthorne. Their light, jazzy instrumentals typically stayed in the background, underlying the emotional lessons of the lyrics. Rogers released dozens of singles, EPs and albums, but few remain in print. Omnivore’s 21-track collection cherrypicks from four previous albums (You’re Growing, Coming and Going, Bedtime, and You Are Special), and adds five previously unreleased recordings, including the closing rendition of Rogers’ trademark show closer “Tomorrow.” The eight-page booklet includes an introductory note by film biographer Morgan Neville, and liners by Pittsburgh TV critic Robert Bianco. Rogers’ gentle manner may seem out of place in today’s belligerent times, which makes his lessons in civility all the more relevant. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

NRBQ: Turn On, Tune In

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019

The latest NRBQ lineup tears it up live in the studio

More than fifty years from its founding, NRBQ is as much an ethos as it is a band. Rebuilt by founding member Terry Adams after a seven-year hiatus, the current lineup carries on the earlier group’s unique blend of rock, pop, rockabilly, boogie-woogie, jazz, blues and other American music forms, both in the studio and, as was the original band’s hallmark, on stage. Performing for SiriusXM in 2015 and New Jersey’s WFMU in 2017, the band’s latest lineup (which added drummer John Perrin in 2015) works through a typically diverse and impromptu set that leans heavily on material penned by Adams. The set list sidesteps classic ‘Q material written by former bassist Joey Spampinato and guitarist Al Anderson, but does reach back to the group’s early days, and stretches out with the sort of brilliantly selected covers the band is known for.

Making up the setlist in the moment has long been Adams’ job, and the nightly change in the band’s live performances has kept NRBQ from devolving into a nostalgic set of charts. The opening cover of Goffin & King’s “Don’t Ever Change” is emblematic of NRBQ’s quirky reach, as they tackle (apparently for the first time in this very performance) an obscure UK hit for the post-Buddy Holly Crickets. Perhaps they keyed off of the Beatles 1963 cover or Brinsley Schwarz’s version a decade later, but its lead harmony and polite drum rolls remain as charming today as they were in 1962. The set’s other covers aren’t as obscure, though they’re just as interesting. The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” features bassist Casey McDonough reprising the falsetto vocal he sang on Brian Wilson’s fiftieth anniversary tour of Pet Sounds, Johnny & The Hurricanes’ 1959 instrumental hit “Red River Rock” features drummer John Perrin on lead organ, and Jimmie Driftwood’s “The Wilderness Road” includes a harmonica solo that’s as high and lonesome as the song’s lyrics.

Closer to home, the band resurrects favorites and obscurities from friends, family and former members. Guitarist Scott Ligon’s first recorded his older brother Chris’ twee “Florida” in 2005, and Chris recorded the song again in 2011 with his group the Flat Five. The harmony lead vocal is filled with yearning for America’s vacation land and a wordless hook of vocal jazz syllables. Terry Adams’ brother Donn is represented by the bombastic, incredibly rare Dickens’ B-side “Don’t Talk About My Music,” a song whose NRBQ story has to be read to be believed. Reaching back to the band’s early days, Steve Ferguson’s “Step Aside” recalls the group’s 1970 outing with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins, Terry Adams’ “Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard” provides a prog-rock tribute to the Three Stooges, a trio of tunes from 1977’s All Hopped Up includes the sweet “It Feels Good,” and the WFMU show closes with Adams’ ode to Southern comfort food, “RC Cola and a Moon Pie.”

More recent releases are represented by material from Adams’ solo albums, and the resurrected group’s albums Keep This Love Goin’ and Brass Tacks. Long-time WFMU DJ Bob Brainen provide liner and song notes, and the CD and LP include a professionally shot DVD of the WFMU performance. Those still lamenting the disbanding of the classic lineup of Adams, Anderson, Ardolino and Spampinato, may find it sacreligious for this new quartet to have adopted the NRBQ name, but they hold the torch high, and carry on the marriage of studied musicianship and musical whimsicality that’s long defined the band. Their new music plays well with the deep catalog entries, and the covers are lovingly selected and deftly executed. There are few bands that have been this fun for this long, and the latest lineup definitely keeps the love goin’. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

NRBQ’s Home Page

OST: Alice’s Restaurant

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

Expanded reissue of the “Alice’s Restaurant” soundtrack

Two years after Arlo Guthrie debuted with Alice’s Restaurant, and the surprisingly wide popularity of its eighteen-minute title track, his comedic anti-authoritarian talking blues became a movie and a soundtrack album. In its original incarnation, the soundtrack was anchored by a two-part re-recording of the title track, but its studio setting seemed to sap the satirical audacity of the debut album’s live take. More interesting were the tracks recorded especially for the soundtrack, including Guthrie’s folk-styled instrumentals “Traveling Music” and “Trip to the City,” the meditative “Crash Pad Improvs,” and music supervisor Garry Sherman’s bluesy “Harps & Marriage.” Two vocal tracks include Al Schackman’s performance of Guthrie and Sherman’s “You’re a Fink,” and Tigger Outlaw’s poignant acoustic cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Songs to Aging Children.”

The original release was augmented with eleven bonus tracks for Rykodisc’s out-of-print 1998 reissue, expanding upon the soundtrack elements created by Guthrie and Sherman. Featured among the bonuses is instrumental continuity written and arranged by Guthrie, including the Hawaiiana “Big City Garbage” and the rock ‘n’ roll “Wedding Festivities,” and a pair of Woody Guthrie tunes sung by Pete Seeger (“Pastures of Plenty”), and Seeger with the younger Guthrie (“Car Song”). All eleven of these soundtrack bonuses are included on Omnivore’s 2019 reissue, and are augmented with a previously unreleased 24-minute rendition of “Alice’s Restaurant” that Guthrie performed in on Philadelphia folk radio legend Gene Shay’s program in 1968.

Although it didn’t appear in the film, the newly released performance reveals the folk tradition to which “Alice’s Restaurant” belongs, as Guthrie reinvents the song with lyrics that tell a shaggy, surrealistic tale of multicolor rainbow roaches and international nuclear war. In addition to the underlying guitar score, Guthrie leveraged many of the comedic vocal intonations that made the original “Massacree” so memorable. The new story hasn’t the deep cultural resonance of the original, but it does shed an interesting side light, and the short talk segment that follows provides a time capsule of late-60s FM radio. Omnivore’s reissue includes liner notes by Lee Zimmerman, quotes from Guthrie, front and back LP cover art, and stills, promotional photos and lobby cards from the film. This is an offbeat part of Guthrie’s catalog, but the film music and bonus radio track tell interesting stories about his development as an artist. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Arlo Guthrie’s Home Page

Steve Goodman: Artistic Hair & Affordable Art

Saturday, August 10th, 2019

Bonus-lad­en reissues of Steve Goodman’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, “City of New Orleans,” 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 “Go Cubs Go,” included as a bonus track on this reissue of Affordable Art. The latter album, the last released during Goodman’s lifetime, includes a double-header of baseball-themed tracks in its original lineup, “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” and a sprightly dawg-grass arrangement of the national pastime classic “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

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. 1983’s Artistic Hair was constructed from live material cherry-picked from a decade’s worth of recordings. The selected tracks show off the intimate stage presence that matched the intellectual intimacy of Goodman’s music. The material features a half dozen originals, including the humorous realities of  “Elvis Imitators” and “Chicken Cordon Bleus,” and the icons “City of New Orleans” and “You Never Even Called Me By Name.” Goodman’s covers ranged widely from early twentieth century tunes “Tico Tico,” “Red Red Robin” and “Winter Wonderland” to Shel Silverstein’s acoustic blues, “Three-Legged Man.”

The album’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 Goodman’s chanty about a notorious Chicago-area towing company, “Lincoln Park Pirates,” the ad-libbed stage performer’s nightmare, “The Broken String Song,” and the celebration of love’s polyglot nature, “Men Who Love Women Who Love Men.” Covers include Leroy Van Dyke’s tongue-twisting “The Auctioneer,” the Albert Brumley spiritual “I’ll Fly Away” and the mid-30s dance tune “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” 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 “If Only Jethro Was Here,” featuring Goodman on mandola and Jim Rothermel on recorder, and highlighting mandolinist Jethro Burns’ absence. Burns himself is heard on an old-timey rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” which is stretched into a double with Goodman’s “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” and legged into a triple with the bonus track “Go Cubs Go.” 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 “How Much Tequila (Did I Drink Last Night)?” and an acoustic ensemble highlighted by Marty Stuart’s mandolin and Jerry Douglas’ dobro on the hopeful “When My Rowboat Comes In.”

Goodman’s humor drives the consumerist fever dream “Vegematic” the sardonic “Watching Joey Glow,” and the jazzy shuffle “Talk Backwards.”  He duets with John Prine for their co-written “Souvenirs” and dips into sentimental nostalgia on “Old Smoothies,” evidencing the humanity that anchored the wide reach of his songwriting. The album’s bonus tracks include the sing-a-long Bo Diddley beat of “Go Cubs Go” and seven previously unreleased acoustic tracks that include British folk singer Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London,” studio alternates of “Old Smoothies” and “Vegematic,” and four more originals. Affordable Art provides a solid capstone to Goodman’s career, and together with Artistic Hair shows off his songwriting, guitar wizardry, studio craft, stage presence, and power as both a solo performer and band leader. These are worthwhile upgrades for fans who have earlier editions. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Tom Brumley: Steelin’ the Show

Saturday, June 29th, 2019

Instrumental highlights of the Buckaroos’ steel guitar ace

Alongside fellow Buckaroos, Don Rich, Doyle Holly and Willie Cantu, steel guitar ace Tom Brumley was a core part of Buck Owens’ “Bakersfield Sound.” Brumley first connected with Owens as a studio musician at Capitol in the early ‘60s, and joined the Buckaroos in 1963. He stayed with Owens’ throughout the group’s phenomenal commercial run in the 1960s, departing in 1969 to join Ricky Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band (that’s him on “Garden Party”). So successful were the Buckaroos in backing Owens that they developed a parallel recording career of their own, and the sides collected here – all instrumentals except the closer – are drawn from both Buck Owens albums, and those recorded separately by the Buckaroos. Brumley’s steel guitar shines on these instrumentals, but as the closing Buck Owens track “Together Again” shows, his instrumental support and solos with a megawatt star fronting the band resonated on a whole other level. This collection offers fans a generous helping of Brumley’s talent and style, including languorous ballads and hot-picked barn burners, and provides a nice complement to his work on Owens’ iconic hits. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Buck Owens and the Buckaroos: The Complete Capitol Singles 1971-1975

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

Buck Owens closes out his phenomenal first run on Capitol

After a pair of double-disc sets covering Owens’ trailblazing, chart topping singles of 1957-1966 and 1967-1970, Omnivore closes out the Bakersfield legend’s run on Capitol with this superb third volume. Owens’ early ‘70s singles didn’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 Morris’ “Made in Japan”), and demonstrated continued creativity. The early ‘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 “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” featuring a solemn vocal, acoustic guitar and atmospheric backing harmonies that take the song to a different emotional place than Simon & Garfunkel’s original. He showed off his omnivorous musical appetite and sense of humor with a southern-funk take on Jimmy Driftwood’s “Battle of New Orleans” a transformation of Shel Silverstein’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” into the country-styled “On the Cover of the Music City News,” a loping bluegrass arrangement of Cousin Emmy’s “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man” and an energetic version of the traditional “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” The latter two expanded the Buckaroos’ musical palette with the addition of Ronnie Jackson’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 “Great Expectations,” and the novelties “Big Game Hunter” and  “(It’s A) Monster’s Holiday,” and further down the chart he scored with the defeated “In the Palm of Your Hand,” the discontented “Arms Full of Empty,” the defiant “You Ain’t Gonna Have Ol’ Buck to Kick Around No More” and the happy-go-lucky “Ain’t It Amazing, Gracie.” Owens clearly had fuel left in his songwriting tank, even if country radio and the listening public weren’t paying as close attention as they had the previous decade.

Owens’ songwriting prowess can also be heard in B-sides that include the Mexicali-tinged waltz “Black Texas Dirt” and the steel and fiddle heartbreak of “I Love You So Much It Hurts.” He picked up excellent material from Terry Clements, John English, Dennis Knutson, Robert John Jones and Buckaroos Jim Shaw, including “(I’m Goin’) Home,” “41st Street Lonely Hearts Club,” and his last Capitol single, “Country Singer’s Prayer.” 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.

Omnivore’s double disc set includes the A’s and B’s of all 21 singles that Owens released on Capitol from 1971 to 1975, both with the Buckaroos, and in duets with his son Buddy and his protege Susan Raye. The latter includes charting covers of the Browns’ “Looking Back to See” (with a twangy steel solo from Ralph Mooney) and Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” and a re-recording of “The Good Old Days (Are Here Again),” a song that Owens had released as a Buckaroos-backed B-side just two months earlier. The 16-page booklet includes liner notes by Scott Bomar, photos, picture sleeve reproductions, and detailed release, chart and personnel data. This is a worthy capstone to Owens’ monumental career at Capitol, and an essential volume for fans of his music. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Johnny Shines: The Blues Came Falling Down – Live 1973

Saturday, May 11th, 2019

A bluesman who’d retained the vitality of his youth

The music industry’s history is littered with talent that never managed to intersect popular acclaim, and such might have been the story of bluesman Johnny Shines, if not for a sideline as a photographer and a chance encounter with Howlin’ Wolf. Shines started gigging in the early ‘30s, and toured with Robert Johnson for several years, but recordings made for Columbia and Chess were consigned to the vault, and the few sides released on J.O.B. didn’t make a dent in the market. By the mid-50s Shines had withdrawn from performing and turned to the construction industry, but a sideline photographing Chicago club patrons put him in touch with Howlin’ Wolf, and in turn secured him a half-dozen tracks on Vanguard’s influential 1966 anthology, Chicago/The Blues/Today, Vol. 3.

Upon its release, the Vanguard album sparked the renown that circumstance had denied Shines for two decades. He recorded albums for several independent labels and toured the international blues circuit to wide acclaim before a stroke in 1980 sidelined him for several years. This 1973 performance, professionally recorded in the acoustically friendly Graham Chapel at Washington University in St. Louis, finds Shines in peak form. His guitar playing is crisp, nimble and deeply informed by decades steeped in the blues. At 58, his voice was still strong and supple, showing no signs of age, and his touring experience shows in a powerful command of the stage.

The set combines original material with a few songs by Robert Johnson, with the latter’s “Sweet Home Chicago” igniting the audience’s hand clapping. Shines largely performs solo, though he’s joined by Leroy Jodie Pierson on second guitar for three selections. He casually tunes and strums while providing song introductions and philosophical thoughts, often easing himself seamlessly into a song. His guitar playing offers a master class in the blues, but his singing is equally impressive in its nuance and emotion. The torchy “You’re the One I Love” and troubled “Tell Me Mama” are particularly mesmerizing, with the latter highlighted by Shines’ slide playing. This is a vital performance by a performer thoroughly enjoying the recognition of his history and rediscovery. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Uncle Walt’s Band: Uncle Walt’s Band

Saturday, April 13th, 2019

Legendary acoustic harmony band’s 1974 debut, with 11 bonus tracks

The fusion of country, jazz, folk, blues, bluegrass and swing this trio developed in the late ‘70s isn’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 group’s catalog with the 2018 anthology Those Boys From Carolina, They Sure Enough Could Sing, and now digs deeper with this reissue of the group’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 band’s impression on its fans has never faded.

The trio’s harmonies take in the sounds of country music’s early family acts, close harmony pop of the ‘40s, and the jazz vocal groups of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Their repertoire includes superb original material that mingles easily with lovingly arranged covers of the Delta Rhythm Boys’ jivey “Give Me Some Skin,” Robert Johnson’s “From Four Until Late,” Professor Longhair’s “In the Night,” the late ‘30s blues “Undecided,” the folk staple “Little Sadie,” and a wonderfully crooned take on the film theme “Ruby.” The trio’s harmonizing on “High Hill” is unbelievably lush, Ball’s falsetto is striking throughout the album (as are Hood’s acoustic guitar leads), and Hyatt’s “Aloha,” which opened the original LP, now closes out the album’s eleven track lineup.

Omnivore’s reissue doubles the track count with eleven previously unreleased bonuses that mix period demos and live recordings, including covers of Turner Layton’s early twentieth century “After You’ve Gone,” an a cappella version of “Rock Island Line,” and a wealth of original material. The group’s vocal arrangements and instrumental prowess shine brightly on the demos, a few of which were covered by others, including Lyle Lovett’s 1998 rendering of “Lonely in Love.” The live recordings show that the fraternity the trio achieved in the studio was just as potent on stage, and that their lighthearted stage banter and effortless musicality instantly drew the audience into their groove. The twenty-page booklet includes photos, remembrances by the band’s musical associates and famous fans, and new liner notes by Mark Michael and Heidi Wyatt. This is an all-time classic, reissued in great style. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Yum Yum: Dan Loves Patti

Saturday, April 13th, 2019

Fetching orchestral-pop eviscerated in a critical crossfire

It’s hard to say which is stranger: the creative genesis of this album or its fiery critical aftermath. In retrospect, the inferno that consumed the album two years after its 1996 release feels more fictional than the actual fiction of the album’s lyrical themes. Originally conceived as a backstory for names carved into a pair of collectible guitars (a Gibson Hummingbird shown on the front cover, and a Martin D25 shown on the back, for the gearheads out there), the album imagines the histories and emotions of the carver’s failed relationships. But written and arranged by Chris Holmes, the album’s intricate layers of orchestral pop became a post-mortem cause célèbre in an escalating war of indie scene criticism. Was Holmes serious or ironic? Was his album art or merely industrial product? Was it authentic or fake? Thomas Frank’s essay “Pop Music in the Shadow of Irony” brought these questions to bear on the career of his former roommate, and much discussion ensued.

Now, decades removed from the original release and the onslaught of analysis that followed, it’s difficult to imagine how the former begat the latter. For Holmes’ 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 label’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, it’s difficult to hear anything ironic in the album’s beautifully crafted sounds. Perhaps that’s because the made-for-AM-radio pop music from which Holmes took inspiration has turned out to have artistic value and emotional resonance that’s outlasted the taint of its arguably crass production source.

Frank labels Holmes’ claims of “heartfelt and genuine and un-ironic” as fake, and perhaps they were. He describes Holmes’ musical touchstones as “lowbrow” and “schlock,” and derides the idea that this music engenders deep, long-lasting meaning to listeners. But even if Frank is right about the layers of Holmes’ intentions, he’s wrong about the source music’s lasting relevance, and he’s wrong about the outcome of Holmes’ 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. It’s hard to imagine that either Holmes’ label, or Holmes himself, thought this music could successfully fill the market space being vacated by “Alternative,” which leaves Frank’s critique as more fantastic than the story he purports.

If you’re already lost in the multiple levels of revisionism and meta criticism, you may want to skip Brian Doherty’s critique of Frank’s essay, and the additional layers of explanation it reports from Frank and his then-editor at Harper’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. It’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 aren’t lost here, as the album is layered with vintage mellotron and chamberlin, strings, brass, organ, acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums. Holmes’ 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 hasn’t the stinging bitterness that informed Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, nor the variety of musical motifs, but Holmes’ 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 “Uneasy” that lends the song a Jesus & Mary Chain sound, along with U.K. B-side covers of Prince’s “When You Were Mine,” the Ronettes’ “Baby, I Love You,” and the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection,” 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. “Summertime” has an outro hook worthy of the Archies (that’s a compliment), “I Took Advantage of the Spring” skips along hopefully, and though Holmes eventually re-recorded “Holding Out for Love” with Ashtar Command, the planned follow-up album surrendered to disappointing commercial results and “changes at the record label.”

The original album may be the rediscovered gem, but the demos show even more clearly that if Holmes was putting on a charade, it was an Andy Kaufman-like bid to maintain character. Which would have been a lot of work for no obviously attainable gain. The simpler explanation, the one that most closely fits Occam’s razor, is that Holmes was sincere about this project; that he loved the pop music from which he drew nostalgic inspiration, and that these sources continue to ring with emotional resonance that inspires authentic, long-lasting emotional responses in its fans. That Thomas Frank couldn’t connect with this is more a reflection of Thomas Frank’s musical preferences (or rhetorical needs) than of the music, its fans, or the musicians that it influenced. Omnivore’s reissue includes a booklet featuring previously unpublished photos, and informative liner notes by Erik Flannigan, adding up to the package this album deserved from the start. [©2019 Hyperbolium]