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Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: The Classic Albums Box

FrankieValliAndTheFourSeasons_TheClassicAlbumsBoxMajor helping of the Four Seasons catalog

The short version: A terrific collection that includes nearly all of the Four Seasons’ original albums and most of their biggest chart hits. Missing is an early Christmas album, a later album recorded for Motown, and a live reunion album. Also missing are a few hits and B-sides. All stereo, except for a handful of tracks. Rhino’s original release incorrectly substituted incorrect songs on two of the albums (see end of review for details). A worthwhile collection for those who want to get beyond the hits.

More than fifty years after the Four Seasons first topped the charts with “Sherry,” it’s hard to remember just how incredibly successful they were. In addition to their manufactured battle with Vee-Jay labelmates, the Beatles, the group was an unstoppable hit-making machine through the end of the decade, and took a curtain call for a pair of 1975 hits. If that weren’t enough, their lead vocalist had a parallel career that saw him charting regularly as a solo artist, with his own encore for 1978’s “Grease.” Though they occasionally used material from outside writers, the bulk of the group’s hits came from keyboardist Bob Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe, and their arrangements were handled steadily by Charles Calello, who’d sung with Valli in the predecessor Four Lovers.

Between 1962 and 1970, the group released fifteen albums, including three each in 1963, 1964 and 1965, and despite the songwriting talent evident in the group’s hits, it was inevitable that the albums would be padded with lesser material. Which doesn’t mean that the album tracks were nothing more than an afterthought, but just that there are few – particularly on the early albums – that match the effervescent genius of the hits. The group’s harmonies and Valli’s leads are always superbly musical, and there are charming album tracks on every release. But listeners familiar with the hit-making Four Seasons of 1960s AM radio will only find that group scattered throughout this 18-disc collection. On the other hand, the albums reveal a compelling picture of the group’s growth from doo-wop roots to sophisticated conceptual material and adult contemporary pop.

Their debut album is bookended by the hits “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Sherry,” which takes a bit of the color out of doo-wop styled covers of the 1920’s standards “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” as well as a cover of the then-contemporary theme from Never on Sunday. Still, there’s real charm in a cover of J. Lawrence Cook’s “Peanuts,” and the 50s-styled vocal drama of Neil Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol” is a hoot. The group’s early albums continued to follow the same template, with a couple of blazingly brilliant hits fleshed out with originals, Tin Pan Alley standards and covers of pop hits like “Silhouettes” (which, not coincidentally, was co-written by Bob Crewe in 1957), a peppy take on Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” and a rich vocal rendering of the Mello-Kings “Tonite, Tonite.”

Many of the group’s covers are fairly obscure today, including Billy and Lillie’s “Lucky Ladybug,” the Shepherd Sisters’ “Alone” and the Snow White soundtrack’s “One Song.” Even when covering well-known material, the productions often added original touches, such as the whining organ and Latin rhythm on the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You,” the percussive backing vocals on Maurice Williams’ “Stay,” and a radically reimagined version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” Gaudio and Crewe wrote many interesting B-sides and album tracks, including “Soon (I’ll Be Home Again),” “That’s the Only Way,” “Melancholy” and “Don’t Cry Elena,” but occasionally dropped in filler, such as “Dumb Drum.”

The Four Seasons label, Vee Jay, continued to release their records well into 1966, even though the quartet bid them farewell with 1964’s “New Mexican Rose” and the album Folk Nanny. The latter had nothing to do with the folk revival in sound or material, and was composed almost entirely of previously released recordings. The group had been banking material in advance of their departure from Vee Jay, and arrived at Phillips ready for a blistering chart run. “Dawn (Go Away)” was released as a single in January, and quickly followed by the folk-flavored album Born to Wander and the showcase LP Dawn (Go Away) and 11 Other Great Songs. The former included covers of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and Phil Ochs’ little known (but quite stirring) “New Town,” as well as several Bob Gaudio originals that deftly melded touches of twelve string and banjo with Brothers Four-styled harmonies. Also included was the group’s original version of Gaudio and Crewe’s “Silence is Golden,” which would become a 1967 hit for the Tremeloes, and the Beach Boys pastiche “No Surfin’ Today.”

The Four Seasons’ dalliance with folk music lasted for just one album, after which they returned to their earlier pattern with Dawn (Go Away) and 11 Other Great Songs: a hit single, covers of earlier doo-wop and vocal group hits, and a sprinkling of originals. As before, there were original touches in the cover songs, such as the revised melody line and twangy guitar of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” the odd rhythm backing and instrumental flourishes given to “16 Candles,” and the doo-wop falsetto meets marching beat arrangement of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” The group finally broke free of the 1950s with 1965’s Rag Doll, an album written entirely by Bob Gaudio and various partners. In addition to three hits  (“Rag Doll,” “Save It For Me” and “Ronnie”), there are many fine album tracks, including “The Touch of You,” originally waxed by Lenny O. Henry, the sweetly longing “Funny Face,” and forlorn “The Setting Sun.” In the face of the British Invasion, the Four Seasons showed they had the writing, performing, arranging and producing talent to compete.

1965 found the quartet stretching out with strings and show tunes (“Where is Love?” from Oliver and “Somewhere” from West Side Story) and returning to the ‘50s (“My Prayer” “Little Darlin’”) on The Four Seasons Entertain You. The hits continued with “Big Man in Town,” “Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” and “Toy Soldier,” though none reached the top ten; the album tracks include Gaudio and Sandy Linzer’s emotional “One Clown Cried,” and a rare songwriting contribution from bass vocalist Nick Massi, “Living Just For You.”. The group’s second album of 1965, The 4 Seasons Sing Big Hits by Burt Bacharach/Hal David/Bob Dylan, split its sides between material from Bacharach & David and Dylan. The interpretations do little to improve upon the better-known original recordings (though the Latin beat given to “Blowin’ in the Wind” is interesting, if not quite fitting), and suggest the group’s creative braintrust had run out of fresh ideas.

The Dylan cover “Don’t Think Twice,” with a bizarre falsetto vocal, was released under the name of The Wonder Who, and (somewhat incredibly) just missed the Top 10. But it was the non-LP single “Let’s Hang On” (not included here) that showed the group still had some ace material up its collective sleeves. Before the group could return to making more hits, they detoured for Live on Stage, a contractual-obligation faux-live album of standards for Vee Jay. Though “Little Boy (In Grown Up Clothes)” was released as a single (and was one of the few tracks that had the hallmarks of the Four Seasons sound), it didn’t chart, and the album remains a stylistic oddity in the group’s catalog. 1966 found the quartet returning to form with the hit “Working My Way Back to You,” and the associated album is a sleeper that’s filled with excellent new material and crisp arrangements.

Working My Way Back to You sounds re-energized on the up-tempo numbers, and the group’s dabble with folk music seemed to have a lasting impact on the songwriting of Gaudio and Crewe as they offer up the socially conscious “Beggars on Parade” and Dylan-esque “Everybody Knows My Name.” The latter works much better with Valli’s falsetto than the actual Dylan songs they’d recorded earlier. The album also includes an early version of “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” released a year before ? and the Mysterians, and there’s a hint of psych in the intro of “Too Many Memories,” showing, along with some of the album’s instrumental touches, that the group was taking in contemporary influences. Despite having only one hit single, and three tracks repeated from The Four Seasons Entertain You, this is one of the best albums in the group’s catalog.

The surge of artistic energy seemed to pause for 1967’s New Gold Hits. The album’s major hit, “C’mon Marianne,” was accompanied by two minor singles, “Beggin’” and “Lonesome Road” (the latter credited to The Wonder Who), and though there are a few compelling album tracks, including the light soul “I’m Gonna Change” and tough B-side “Dody,” the album didn’t feel particularly fresh or coherent. Worse yet, Rhino’s mastering errors (or perhaps Curb’s on the mid-90s reissue) mistakenly left the latter two tracks off the initial release of this box set! The group would spend the next 18 months working on an answer to popular music’s shift to albums, and the result was the most adventurous long player of their career.

1969’s The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette is a concept album co-written by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes. Holmes’ 1967 solo debut, The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes, was a cult favorite, but contained two historically important tracks. Most infamous is his original version of “Dazed and Confused,” but it was the song “Genuine Imitation Life” that brought him into the Four Seasons’ fold. The resulting album’s adventurousness – both musically and lyrically – and integrity as a collection is unlike anything else in the group’s catalog. Gaudio and Holmes built a complete album, and the group performed with a continuity of expression and consistency of purpose that had never graced their singles-based long players.

The complexity and finesse of Gaudio’s production, particularly his integration of vocal harmonies, orchestral instrumentation and studio effects is truly impressive. The tip of the hat to “Hey Jude” on the title song’s fade is only one of the album’s many charms. The Who’s Tommy proved that concept albums could break through commercially in 1969, but Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was largely ignored, scraping into the Top 100 at #85, and failing to get into the singles chart with the pre-release “Saturday’s Father.” Most likely, the group’s AM radio fans weren’t looking for such adventurous music, and those open to these sorts of sounds and socially incisive lyrics weren’t looking to the Four Seasons to produce them. It’s very clearly the group’s high-water artristic mark, and remains an impressive record to this day.

The group’s last album for Phillips, Half & Half, benefited from their previous artistic growth, but alternating group harmony tracks with Valli solo cuts (hence the album’s title) yielded few memorable moments and little chart action. With the group’s inventiveness reigned in and Gaudio mostly giving way to outside writers, the results were polished and professional, but largely pedestrian. Highlights include Valli’s cover of Prairie Madness’ obscure B-side “Circles in the Sand,” the tight harmony vocal washes of “She Gives Me Light” and the group’s closing medley of “Any Day Now” and “Oh Happy Day.” With that, the group ended their association with Phillips, and two years later released Chameleon for the Motown subsidiary, MoWest. Though not a commercial success, and somewhat generically produced, it’s filled with Bob Gaudio originals, and worth tracking down, since it’s not included here.

While the Four Seasons’ hit-making had wound down in the first half of the 1970s, Frankie Valli’s solo career had been revived by 1974’s chart-topping “My Eyes Adored You” and the follow-on “Swearin’ to God.” But in 1975 the Four Seasons returned to the charts with “Who Loves You” and the chart-topping “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” As per their earlier releases, the album Who Loves You was constructed around the hit singles (which also included an edit of the album’s rolicking opener, “Silver Star”), with new material from Gaudio and his wife Judy Parker. As the group’s last helping of commercial chart success, the hits are memorable, and Gaudio’s production is complemented by strong lead vocals split between Valli and drummer/vocalist Gerry Polci.

The comeback was not sustained, and the follow-on Helicon closed out the Four Seasons’ two album run on Warner Brothers without a great deal of inspiration. The modern production touches that had added a winning touch to “Who Loves You” now sounded a bit stiff and perfunctory. The growling bass, synthesized keyboards and piercing guitars sound sterile in comparison to the group’s earlier records, and at odds with their warm harmonies. The single “Down the Hall” made its way to #65, and though the lead vocal is fetching, the production is distracting. Even “New York Street Song,” with its opening streetcorner harmonies gives way to disco rhythms.

Eight years later, Valli and Gaudio updated the Four Seasons sound once again for 1985’s Streetfighter. The mid-70s disco was replaced with competently synthesized mid-80s pop-rock, and though it would have fit easily into the pop mainstream, no one was biting. Sandy Linzer (who’d penned the mid-60s hits “Dawn (Go Away),” “Let’s Hang On” and “Working My Way Back to You”) wrote many of the album’s originals, and though his melodies were filled with hooks and his lyrics winningly positioned Valli as a scrappy, love-lorn underdog, his production choices haven’t aged well. A remake of the Monotones’ “Book of Love” is particularly egregious as it reaches back to the group’s doo-wop roots and buries them in keyboards, synthesized drums and primitive samples. The album closes with a pair of ballads that survive their 80s-isms.

The group’s last album (to date!), 1992’s Hope + Glory, continued to chase modern pop styles with highly synthesized arrangements (and rap from guest Chuck Wilson), but as with Streetfighter, the album didn’t click commercially. Valli’s voice still offered its unique range and qualities, and Gaudio could still write fetching melodies, but neither the songs nor the electronic productions matched the era’s best. If you could strip these tracks of their 1990s productions, you’d no doubt find some emotional resonance in the songs (“You and Your Blue Heart” seems like a good bet), but awash in driving drumbeats and cold, angular synthesizers, there’s little to love here. Worse, circling back around to the start of the box set, you realize how far the Four Seasons had traveled from their down-to-earth streetcorner roots.

This box set is a terrific journey, filled with high points and reinvention. Those looking to relive the Four Seasons they know from the radio are better off with a hits collection; but those wanting to dig deeper will find many gems among the album tracks. That said, this isn’t nearly a complete rendition of the Four Seasons catalog, as it’s missing two key studio albums (1962’s The Four Seasons Greetings and 1972’s Chameleon), live albums (including 1981’s Reunited Live) and numerous non-LP singles and B-sides. Also missing (and anthologized in a separate box set) are Frankie Valli’s solo albums. Given the distinctive qualities of Valli’s voice, the use of the Four Seasons to back many of his solo tracks, and the intermingling of Four Seasons and Valli hits on the charts, listeners didn’t always separate Valli’s records from his groups.

The albums are mastered in stereo (though “Goodnight My Love” “Big Man’s World” “Dawn” “Only Yesterday” and “Huggin’ My Pillow” are in mono), which may sound strange to those weaned on AM radio. Omnivore Records is reissuing the group’s first two albums in mono in September 2015, for those who want to experience the dominant sound of the mid-60s. Most disturbing of all are mastering errors that substitute incorrect tracks on several albums, rendering them incomplete. Rhino may have corrected these by now, but the original issue of this box incorrectly replace Rag Doll’s “On Broadway Tonight” (which is showboxed on the front cover!), and New Gold Hits’ “I’m Gonna Change,” “Dody” and “Lonesome Road.” Rhino is reported to have corrected this in a new production run, but if you got problem discs, write the label at drrhino@rhino.com. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ Home Page

Various Artists: Audio with a G – Sounds of a Jersey Boy

Various_AudioWithAGThe man who wrote the Four Seasons to the top of the charts

Although Frankie Valli stood out front of the Four Seasons, and his name was prefixed to the group’s starting in 1970, the act’s commercial success was equally dependent on their long-time songwriter and keyboardist, Bob Gaudio. Gaudio not only played and sang with the group, but he penned the bulk of their biggest hits, including chart-toppers, “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Rag Doll,” the group’s mid-70s comebacks, “Who Loves You” and “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” and Frankie Valli’s solo hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Incredibly, that’s just a few of his accomplishments, as he wrote many more singles, B-sides and album tracks for the Four Seasons, and scored hits with several other acts.

Rhino’s two-disc set collects thirty-six tracks that sample Gaudio’s songwriting, including material from the Four Seasons, Jerry Butler, Chuck Jackson, Cher, Nancy Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, Lene Lovich, Ruthie Henshall, the Royal Teens, Bay City Rollers, Tremeloes, Walker Brothers and Temptations. The Four Seasons material features hits and album tracks, including a pair from the group’s Gaudio-Jake Holmes penned 1969 concept album, The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. Perhaps more interesting to Four Seasons fans will be songs Gaudio wrote for or turned into hits for other acts.

The Royal Teens’ “Short Shorts” opens the set, as it did Gaudio’s hit-making career. The single rose to #3 in 1958 and Gaudio dropped out of high school to tour, meeting Frankie Valli along the way. Gaudio and Valli joined forces in 1960 to form the Four Seasons with Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, but it took another two years for them to hit with “Sherry.” Gaudio wrote many of his hits with producer Bob Crewe, and several of the Four Seasons’ songs became hits for other acts. Included in this set are the Tremeloes’ “Silence is Golden,” which had been the B-side of the Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll,” and the Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” which had been released in a slower arrangement as a Frankie Valli solo single.

The many covers of Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” are represented here by a smokey, soul-jazz version by Nancy Wilson that cracked the charts in 1969 and a 1982 disco remake by Boys Town Gang. The Four Seasons 1975 UK hit, “The Night,” is included in both its original version and a non-charting single by Lene Lovich. Reaching farther out are songs that Gaudio wrote for Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone and Diana Ross. Sinatra’s tracks are drawn from Watertown, a concept album written by Gaudio and Jake Holmes that married the singer’s ability to sound forlorn with the songwriters’ pop craft. Ross’ tracks date from 1973’s underappreciated Last Time I Saw Him, recorded during a period in which the Four Seasons were signed to Motown.

Gaudio’s songwriting moved with the times, gaining social consciousness in the mid-60s, striking a deeper personal resonance with Jake Holmes at decade’s end, resuscitating the Four Seasons chart fortunes in 1975 with “Who Loves You” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” and surviving then-modern productions for The Temptations and Roberta Flack. He became a successful record producer and writer for soundtracks and musical theater. His stage work is represented here by two songs from the original London cast recording of Peggy Sue Got Married, and three (including “Sherry”) from the original cast recording of Jersey Boys. The latter is a project that began with Gaudio’s idea of a showcase for the Four Seasons’ material, and blossomed into national and international productions and, in parallel with this set (and two others) a feature film.

Compilation producer Charles Alexander has drawn from both mono (tracks 1, 7, 8, 11) and stereo masters, giving listeners a chance to hear two of the Four Seasons biggest hits in the punchy single mixes that dominated AM radio. These two discs (clocking in at just under two hours) cover the commercial highlights of Gaudio’s career as a hit-making songwriter. There’s more of his craft to be found in the Four Seasons’ albums, Frankie Valli’s solo releases, and his productions for Eric Carmen, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand and others. The inclusion of the Four Seasons’ hits is essential to telling his story, but also likely to duplicate the holdings of this set’s primary buyers; then again, with songs this good, who’s going to complain? [©2014 Hyperbolium]


The Coasters: Coast Along with the Coasters

Coasters_CoastAlongWithThe Coasters return to what they do best in 1962

Much like their self-titled 1958 debut, this 1962 long-player collects a number of A- and B-sides and adds a few album-only tracks. After their diversion into standards with 1960’s One by One, the group returned to Leiber & Stoller’s songbook and a driving R&B production style for the sides collected here. The hits are “What About Us” and “Little Egypt,” but there’s a lot more to recommend this album. The nursery rhyme “(Ain’t That) Just Like Me” opens the album with a luscious stereo production that spreads out the quartet’s vocals, and their early version of “Girls Girls Girls” is more laid-back than Elvis’ take, with a limbo bass line and vocal punctuations that mimic a train whistle. The album-only tracks include the mismatched lovers of Pomus & Shuman’s “The Snake and the Bookworm” and a swinging cover of Willie Dixon’s “My Babe.” Most imaginative of all is the retribution of Leiber & Stoller’s beer-drinking, poker-playing monkey in “Run Red Run.” Everything here is in true stereo except for “Wait a Minute,” which is mono. The jokiness of the earlier Coasters records is lessened, but the interplay of their vocals will always make you smile. To get a broader look at their hits, try The Very Best of the Coasters; to go deep check out Rhino Handmade’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On: The Coasters on Atco. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

The Coasters: The Coasters

Coasters_CoastersThe Coasters’ 1958 debut LP

The Coasters first full-length LP is more an anthology than a purpose-built album, collecting half its fourteen songs from the pre-Coasters lineup of the Robins, and adding seven more by the first lineup to record under the Coasters name. Though the group changed more than half its members between the Robins and Coasters, the songs and production of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller provide a through line that gives the album an impressive consistency. The song list includes the group’s first four hit singles, “Down in Mexico,” “One Kiss Led to Another,” “Young Blood,” and “Searchin’,” alongside favorites “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Framed,” and terrific, lesser-known sides “Wrap it Up” and the energetic “I Must Be Dreamin’.” The Coasters deftly combined deep R&B roots with a comedic approach that made their songs fun without turning them into novelties. You’ll smile every time you hear the Coasters, but you’ll never think of them as anything less than a consummate vocal group. To get a broader look at their hits, try The Very Best of the Coasters; to go deep check out Rhino Handmade’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On: The Coasters on Atco. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Sonny Bono: Inner Views

SonnyBono_InnerViewsSonny freaks without Cher

Sonny Bono’s one and only solo album was released in 1967, just as Sonny & Cher’s hits and Cher’s solo success were entering a three-year drought. The obvious touchstone for this 5-track, 33-minute experimental outing is the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Sonny quotes in the album’s title track. But the acid-tinged lyrics (including quotes from both “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “A Day in the Life”) and pseudo-psych musical freakouts have neither the expanded consciousness nor musical inventiveness of the Beatles. The anti-drug Bono might have heard Sgt. Pepper’s, but he didn’t really seem to understand it. The drums, likely played by Wrecking Crew ace Hal Blaine, sound as if they were lifted from a Phil Spector session, and the sitar noodling and tuneless harmonica blasts are indulgent and irritating, especially at the jam-session length (12’45) of the opening track.

The social commentary of “I Told My Girl to Go Away” might have drawn more attention had Bono been a more commercially compelling vocalist, or perhaps if Janis Ian’s scathing “Society’s Child” hadn’t exploded earlier in the year. The 32-year-old Bono sang with an air of defeat that couldn’t compare to Ian’s searing defiance. “I Would Marry You Today” might have made a nice light-pop folk-rock production for Sonny & Cher, and would have greatly benefitted from the latter’s ability to carry a tune. A few years earlier, and with a gender switch and some editing, “My Best Friend’s Girl is Out of Sight,” might have made a good tune for one of the New York girl groups, but sung as light-pop and stretched to over four minutes, it hasn’t the focus of Bono’s hits. The closing “Pammie’s on a Bummer” is more successful with its instrumental experimentation, though its message (prostitution leads to pot leads to LSD) isn’t particularly knowing.

The initial reissue of this album was produced by Rhino Handmade in 1999. That limited edition CD added eleven bonus tracks, including all of Bono’s singles for Atco: his 1965 releases “Laugh at Me” (in three versions) and “The Revolution Kind” along with their instrumental B-sides, and single edits of Inner Views album tracks that still couldn’t make these productions consumable by radio. A subsequent CD edition by Collectors’ Choice dropped the bonuses, and Rhino’s digital reissue restored everything but the shortened album tracks and session backing for “Laugh at Me.” This is by no means a masterpiece; Bono wrote much better songs for Sonny & Cher, and produced more compelling records when he stuck to the classic techniques he’d learned at the feet of Phil Spector. His vocals were never his strong card, and without a catchy angle, his record falls flat. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

The Jackie Davis Quartet: Easy Does It

A lightly swinging Hammond organ album from 1963

Jackie Davis was among the first players to spearhead the organ-jazz genre in the mid-50s. As a pianist who’s accompanied Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan, his touch at the keyboard was especially noticeable on the highly responsive electro-mechanical Hammond organ. His repertoire favored jazz, blues and pop standards, ranging from Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” to Arlen and Mercer’s “Blues in the Night” and the twelve-bar “Night Train.” After five years on Capitol, Davis moved to Warner Brothers, where his first release was this 1963 production. As the album title implies, Davis’ small combo takes it easy on the tempos, though the Hammond provides plenty of fire and Earl Palmer’s drumming adds compelling accents. Barney Kessel on guitar and Joe Comfort on bass provide rhythm as Davis’ keys dance across the light swing of the title tune, and his keys deftly wind their way around the Latin beat of “Midnight Sun.” It’s not until the album’s closing take on “Saint Louis Blues” that the band turns up the tempo, with Comfort running up and down the strings and Palmer’s snare drum and ride cymbal getting a workout. This is a fine, low-key organ jazz album from an early master of the form. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Barney Kessel: Bossa Nova

Swinging easy with a twangy guitar and a Latin beat

Those seeking Barney Kessel’s legendary jazz stylings should look elsewhere. As a guitarist in the ‘50s, Kessel was renowned for his cool, bop-inspired playing in small quartets on sessions with the Contemporary label. But in the early ‘60s he signed with Reprise and embarked on a series of pop records. This was hardly new territory for Kessel, as he’d been backing pop musicians for years, and was a first-call guitarist for pop titans like Phil Spector; but as a front-man, this was a break from the jazz sessions he’d previously led. This bossa nova inspired entry from 1962 finds Kessel mostly taking a back seat to sharp, lounge-inspired band orchestrations. His guitar playing here is twangy pop, with no jazz inflections or blue notes, and the repertoire of standards is given Brazilian beats. The horn charts are tight, and when Kessel does pick, he sounds great – but this isn’t a jazz album, or even a guitar album; it’s a pop instrumental album in league with contemporaneous works by Neal Hefti, Billy Strange, Lalo Schifrin, John Barry and others. This is a sizzling, swinging treat if you approach it on its merits, rather than as a lesser entry in Barney Kessel’s catalog of guitar recordings. This is also available on CD as a 3-fer with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Contemporary Latin Rhythms. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Lonnie Mack: For Collector’s Only

A ferocious rock ‘n’ soul ‘n’ blues guitar classic from 1963

This reissue of The Wham of That Memphis Man is the way that many listeners first met the savagely powerful guitar playing of Lonnie Mack. Originally released in 1963 on the Fraternity label, the album was re-sequenced and reissued with two extra tracks by Elektra in 1970. It’s since been reissue on CD, both in this stereo lineup, and in the original mono. The latter is more brutally powerful for its center-channel punch, but either configuration will astound you with Mack’s breathtaking, reverb-powered, tremelo-bar bent guitar playing. The album opens with Mack’s original “Wham!,” quickly gaining momentum until the song becomes an unstoppable locomotive. Mack picks wildly as the bass and drums stoke the beat and the rest of the band hangs on for dear life. Mack’s take on Dale Hawkins’ “Susie-Q” is just as deft, as he alternates between rhythm and lead, masterfully picking long twangy phrases that circle back to the root riff.

Mack’s first solo recording for Fraternity, an improvised cover of “Memphis,” is perhaps his most impressive, as he double-picks and ranges up and down the length of the fret board. No doubt Chuck Berry must have been impressed; Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others certainly were, as they taught themselves from these performances. Beyond Mack’s virtuosity as a guitarist, he was also a soulful vocalist who drew on the blues for Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What’s Wrong,” on gospel for the testimony of “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” and on both for the pained “Why.” For Collector’s Only adds two mono bonuses to the original Wham’s eleven tracks, the blues classic “Farther On Up the Road” and the flaming, original instrumental “Chicken Pickin’.”  Mono or stereo, original line-up or expanded, this is a true classic from 1963. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

The Lively Ones and The Surf Mariachis: Surfin’ South of the Border

Fourth LP from SoCal surf combo split with studio hands

The Lively Ones’ fourth album is split with a group of West Coast studio players (including no less than Tom Scott and Billy Strange) recording as The Surf Mariachis. As on all of the Lively Ones’ albums, their sides collect previously released singles and additional covers, drawing in songs from outside the surf genre, such as the Oscar-winning theme “Exodus.” The Surf Mariachis add both Latin and surf flavors to their covers, which also pull from disparate sources, such as Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock,” Mongo Herbie Hancock’s (by way of Mongo Santamaria’s) “Watermelon Man” and the theme to Mondo Cane, “More.” It’s all quite fun, though kitschier than the Las Vegas grind/surf of the band’s debut album, recorded just the year before. Unlike the reissues of the band’s three previous albums, this one is all mono; available as an album of MP3’s or a two-fer (with the band’s third album, Surf City) as a CD. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

The Lively Ones: Surf City

Third helping of instrumental surf from 1963

By the time this Southern California surf quintet cranked out their third album within a year, the formula – a few singles, a few new tracks, a track list populated almost entirely of covers – was proving durable, though decreasingly exciting. On this outing the band tackles Jan & Dean (“Surf City”), the Tornados (“Telstar”), Santa & Johnny (“Sleepwalk”), Johnny Fortune (“Soul Surfer”) and revisits “Misirlou” and “Surf Rider” from their previous outings. What makes each Lively Ones album interesting are the songs they repurpose from other genres, such as Freddie King’s “Head’s Up” and “Butterscotch.” They even manage to quote the Munsters theme song on the latter tune. As on their previous albums, the band mixes the twang of guitars with the fat saxophone of Joel Willlenbring, creating a hybrid that blends ‘50s instrumentals with ‘60s surf rock. The band is sharp as ever, but the lack of original material starts to make this feel more like a Saturday night covers act than an original surf rock band. There’s stereo sound throughout and the tracks are available as an album of MP3’s or a two-fer (with the band’s fourth album, Surfin’ South of the Border) as a CD. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]