odds and ends...
Artists reviewed on this page:
A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector -
Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass -
Bee Gees' 1st - Captain Beefheart - Blood, Sweat & Tears -
Blue Cheer - Lori Burton - Johnny Cash - Chicago -
Otis Clay - Sam Cooke - The Delfonics - Donovan -
Nick Drake -
The Electric Flag - Jonna Gault And Her Symphonopop Scene -
Genesis - David Gilmour -
Buddy Guy - Tim Hardin -
Iron Butterfly -
Robert Johnson - Albert King -
B.B. King - Freddy King -
Leadbelly - The Loading Zone -
The Lovin' Spoonful - The MC5 - Mrs. Miller -
The Monkees - The Moody Blues -
Mountain - New Riders Of The Purple Sage - NRBQ -
Van Dyke Parks - Ajda Pekkan - The Pentangle - Elvis Presley - Billy Preston -
Rotary Connection - The Shaggs - Shake Me, Wake Me: A Tribute To Holland-Dozier-Holland -
Soft Machine -
Soul Christmas - Spirit -
The Stooges - Koko Taylor - Tammi
Terrell - Carla Thomas - Big Mama Thornton -
T. Rex -
Doris Troy -
The Turtles - Earl Van Dyke - Vanilla Fudge - Jr. Walker &
The All-Stars -
It's frightening how many records are out there, 60s or not. We've tried to cover the most important ones, but there's a limit to what two guys with other things to do (believe it or not!) can
accomplish. Here we inventory a few 60s artists whose work we know mostly from one or two records, usually good ones. Most of them deserve more extensive coverage - and we're working on it.
Short takes on 70s, 80s, 90s and later acts are on separate pages, and if you can't find
someone you saw on this page earlier, like the Allman Brothers, Booker T. & The MGs,
David Bowie, Tim Buckley, Ray Charles,
Leonard Cohen, Joe Cocker, Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead, Screamin' Jay Hawkins,
Isaac Hayes, the Hollies, Janis Ian, the Isley Brothers, The Jackson 5,
the James Gang,
Jethro Tull, Elton John, Carole King, King Crimson,
Kossoff/Kirke/Tetsu/Rabbit, Little Richard, Mar-Kees,
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Curtis Mayfield, Van Morrison, Laura
Quicksilver Messenger Service, Rotary Connection,
Santana, Ike & Tina Turner, War, or Yes, they've probably graduated to their own full-length review page. (JA)
Various Artists, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963)
I expected to come out against the canonization of this girl group sock hop disc as the ultimate Christmas album; I figured I'd say, "Almost no original material, and Spector uses the same tricks on every track."
But you know what? It's extraordinarily well done from start to finish: each song has the fresh delivery and easy pride of a new composition, and though Spector does rely heavily on echo, stacks
of pianos, guitars, horns and strings (his famous Wall Of Sound) and an occasionally overprecise feel, there's a great deal of variety in the arrangements.
Drummer Hal Blaine adds distinctive rhythmic figures to each tune, so even the kitchiest have some oomph ("Frosty The Snowman"), and the combination of fast rock tempos and classy orchestral
arrangements keeps boredom at bay. "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" is a percussion showcase, between
Blaine's fills, a descending triangle line, and all the melody instruments dropping out at the bridge. And most of the tunes have cute arranged endings - a trifle corny, but better than unimaginative
The songs are divided equally among the Ronettes, Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and Darlene Love:
I'm not crazy about Ronnie Spector's nasal voice, and the Crystals' Lala Brooks isn't the most distinctive singer, but Love (who also sings most of the songs credited to Bob B. Soxx)
is terrific: belting with passion and authority, and adeptly handling aranger Jack Nitzsche's subtly changing harmonies.
She serves up the one original, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," which has the same dramatic thunder and anthemic backing vocals as Spector's "Be My Baby."
Session musicians include Sonny Bono on percussion, and Don Randi and Leon Russell on keyboards,
Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, Whipped Cream & Other Delights (1965)
Trumpeter/bandleader/entrepreneur Herb Alpert had formed A&M Records with Jerry Moss in 1962, and this second Tijuana Brass release became the label's biggest hit, topping the charts for eight weeks though the only single, "A Taste Of Honey," peaked at #7. The secret of Alpert's success was a talent for making different styles of music all sound like Muzak mush: he tackles a few different Latin rhythms ("El Garbanzo," "Bittersweet Samba") without any authenticity that might have offended the Lawrence Welk crowd; he makes Naomi Neville's rowdy "Whipped Cream" sound like a game show theme.
Aside from the horns (mostly in unison, occasionally backing Alpert solo), the backing is L.A. mellow: 2/4 electric bass, precise but unexciting percussion, hardly any strings, keyboards or guitars.
If you wanted to, you could call this a concept album, since each song is about something edible ("Green Peppers," Lieber & Stoller's "Love Potion #9") - it would have been appropriate to include a couple of songs about cheese. Produced by Alpert and Moss.
Alpert continued to run up hits through 1968, at which point he shifted focus to his label, only occasionally releasing new material like "Rise" (#1 in 1979) or "Diamonds" (#2 in 1986, featuring Janet Jackson).
The Bee Gees, Bee Gees' 1st (1967)
You may think I'm crazy, but... Although the Bee Gees were just teenagers fresh off the boat from Australia when they cut this, back home they'd already been TV and radio stars for years, and they already had a clear-cut musical agenda. Surprisingly, that formula isn't just British bubblegum a la Herman's Hermits or the Monkees, despite the nasal Peter Noone-like vocals and frequent lapses of taste - what they're really trying to do is rip off the Beatles' early 1967 psychedelic formula, right down to the booming Ringo-ey drums, zooming Macca-ey bass lines, light orchestration, harpsichords, mellotron, you name it.
Even more surprisingly, it works: tracks like the druggy, Gregorian chant-infused "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man" sound almost like the real thing.
Admittedly, a million other bands were running the same race, and only a few like the Kinks, Small Faces, and Zombies knew how to make a good record without being so damn derivative. But I'm impressed with the brothers' solid pop instincts - they wrote all the tunes and manage to make all of them sound different, at least from each other.
A couple attempts are downright catchy, like the singles "Holiday" and "New York Mining Disaster 1941" - not to mention "To Love Somebody," a Top 40 hit like the other two and probably better remembered despite its corny arrangement, gratingly bombastic chorus, and mock-soul vocal. The album's an amusing 60s artifact for those who care about such things, if a waste of time for anyone hunting for hints of the Bee Gees' 70s disco sound. (JA)
Captain Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica (1969)
Here's the real reason we call this the "odds" page - if avant garde is what you're after, look no further. Backed by bass, drums, two distorted guitars, and an occasional horn section, vocalist/sax player Captain Beefheart rambles his way through an exhausting double album (now on one CD) of shouted, chanted, screeched, and occasionally sung beat poetry. Snippets of conversation and incoherent instrumentals are scattered between the "songs," which themselves seem to be minimally directed first takes - hence, the band often thuds off in a million directions at once.
Here's the good news: the individual tracks are all short; Beefheart has a gripping, far-ranging voice; his poetry is some of the best put on record during the 60s ("Steal Softly Thru Snow"), full of clever rhymes ("Dust Blow..."), sly political allusions ("Ant Man Bee"; "Veteran's Day Poppy"), and wild, arresting imagery ("Pena"); and the band is riffy and adventurous ("Ella Guru"), if frequently atonal and maximally slipshod. If all of this sounds like Frank Zappa in an unusually experimental mood, well, it's no coincidence - Zappa and Beefheart already had been friends for years, and Zappa produced the record. Beefheart recorded slightly less experimental albums both before and after this, and even eventually collaborated with Zappa on a duo LP, but this is his most influential and widely-cited effort. (JA)
Blood, Sweat & Tears, Blood, Sweat & Tears 3 (1970)
BST was the pioneer jazz-rock fusion band, back when that meant pop music played in a 50's sax- and piano-dominated jazz style. Formed in 1968 by keyboard player Al Kooper (Child Is Father To The Man), they went on to huge commercial success with their eponymous 1969 LP, which was recorded after Kooper quit and vocalist David Clayton-Thomas joined. Although Clayton-Thomas wrote that record's most memorable hit ("Spinning Wheel"), by 1970 the group already was artistically exhausted. Instead of original numbers, rote covers of contemporary rock songs are everywhere: Goffin and King's "Hi-De-Ho," the Band's "Lonesome Suzie," James Taylor's "Fire And Rain," Joe Cocker's "Somethin' Comin' On," even Traffic's "40,000 Headmen."
But the record's misguided centerpiece is an endless, ornate, thoroughly unlistenable "experimental" version of the Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil." The non-stop, tightly executed, listless horn parts rob the arrangments of any energy; and Clayton-Thomas' made-for-Vegas vocals are so gratingly insincere as to make most of the record downright unlistenable. The closest thing to unbridled fun is the near-rocker A-side "Lucretia Mac Evil." BST's artistic and commercial nosedive continued for several years after this; try to track down their two earlier records if you're interested in them at all. (JA)
Blue Cheer, Vincebus Eruptum (1968)
Once upon a time, bands like Blue Cheer littered the airwaves with sloppy, amateurish, grovelingly unoriginal attempts to ape Jimi Hendrix.
But after about 1968, everybody just rolled over and gave up trying to rip off Hendrix's RUX-era feedback, distortion, atonal soloing, blues influences, and even drum sound.
Too bad, it's fun.
Bassist/singer Dick Peterson is a strutting, screaming blues shouter who writes feeble-minded rhyming couplets ("Doctor Please") and sounds about as authentic as Nancy Sinatra.
Drummer Paul Whaley gets to embarass himself with a couple of competent but boring drum solos.
And guitarist Leigh Stephens is a total gearhead, obsessed with duplicating Hendrix's tone and volume - make no mistake, Stephens uses Marshall amps.
But alas, he's completely unconcerned with playing anything remotely musical.
Meanwhile, Peterson's such a weak songwriter that half of the six tunes are the world's most predictable covers: "Rock Me Baby"; "Parchment Farm"; and Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," which became Blue Cheer's only Top 40 hit.
His originals are weak, but at least on "Out Of Focus" they deliver a stomping, tambourine-fortified acid rock riff that would have fit in well on an Airplane record.
It's loud, stupid, indulgent, and monotonous, but they're drawing from the best possible hard rock influences, and they're really not that much worse than better-remembered West Coast competitors like the Dead or Big Brother.
Take another bong hit and give it a spin.
Produced by Abe "Voco" Kesh.
After this Peterson kept the band going for several more albums, despite some lineup changes. I've got Outsideinside, from later the same year, and it's a step down. (JA)
Lori Burton, Breakout (1967)
Lori Burton and Pam Sawyer were another 60s songwriting team, writing hits for Lulu and Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles, but when their schoolyard soap opera "Nightmare" was passed over by the Shangri-Las, they decided to record and release it themselves as the "Whyte Boots." Though the single wasn't a huge success an album followed, credited to Burton. The tunes are all over the pop map, including some remarkably brazen ripoffs - "Bye Bye Charlie" sounds just like "Cherry Cherry," "Only Your Love" recalls "I Got You Babe," while "Since I Lost Your Lovin'" slavishly copies a much better song with "Lost" and "Lovin'" in the title - and the arrangements are as flexible as Burton's alternately smooth and down-n-dirty vocals.
But every style is rendered so tongue in cheek that the tunes never compel: the Shangri-Las are over the top and ridiculous, yes, but it's not a joke because they sound like they really mean it. Here, whether Burton's belting like crazy (the sappy "Love Was") or attempting Supremesian iciness ("Let No One Come Between Us") there's never an emotional connection.
One could easily argue that Burton and Sawyer were ahead of their time, anticipating the irony-steeped swagger of the New York Dolls by several years, but since I don't like the Dolls I'm not going to be the one to make that argument.
Burton and Sawyer soon stopped working together; Burton sang backup on "Number 9 Dream" among other ventures, while Sawyer hit it big co-writing smashes like "Love Child" for the Motown machine.
Johnny Cash, At San Quentin (1969)
Near as I can tell, Cash is the Method Man of country music: underwhelming vocal technique and
not much of a writer, but so successful at projecting a down-home but dangerous Everyman image
that he's widely respected by genre insiders and novices alike. The followup to Live At Folsom Prison, and similarly
recorded before a wildly appreciative audience of inmates, Cash reels off his biggest hits - "I Walk The Line,"
"A Boy Named Sue," "Folsom Prison Blues" - and two run-thoughs of "San Quentin," a biting condemnation apparently written
for the occasion.
My cassette also includes a pile of bonus tracks ("Ring Of Fire"), some featuring Cash singing with wife June Carter and the
Statler Brothers ("Daddy Sang Bass"). Lyrically a mix of love songs ("I Still Miss Someone"), outlaw tales (Dylan's "Wanted Man") and Christian homilies ("He Turned The Water Into Wine"), all plain-spoken.
The recording quality isn't great, but with such simple music - three chord songs with
easily anticipated melodies - it hardly matters. Cash's gruff charm and offhand humor are satisfying, but there's not much
else going on here.
Chicago, III (1971)
Formed in the Windy City in 1967, this group was halfway between pop and prog, cutting lengthy fusion jams but also reining themselves in to craft catchy singles. In fact,
much of the time they sound like CSN with horns ("Happy 'Cause I'm Going Home," carried by wordless harmony vocals, until it devolves into a pointlessly extended flute solo).
These dudes were perhaps second only to the Beatles in genre versatility, but the results aren't that listenable: "Free Country" is a painfully long improvised
flute-piano-vibes tossoff; "What Else Can I Say" uses CSNY's trick of adding Beatlesque high harmonies to country instrumentation, though not as effectively.
They attempt a big band wah-wah guitar funk jam in 6/8 time, and just don't pull it off ("Sing A Mean Tune Kid") - the BST-style jazz fusion
"Loneliness Is A Just A Word" is also in triple meter. "Mother" is a rousing, TOP-imitating brass workout with a busy funk bass line;
"A Hard Risin' Morning Before Breakfast" is country rock that's very close to Marshall Tucker's subsequent "Can't You See," down to the raspy vocal (guitarist Terry Kath's, I believe).
The double album contains two side-long suites, "Elegy" and "Travel Suite," which incorporates the high energy, vaguely Santana-like hit single "Free." But without
any consistent themes or motifs to hold them together, they don't achieve any impact beyond the sum of their parts: the instrumental jam "The Approaching Storm" is so lively it's hard to take it
as part of a piece about the coming extinction of humanity.
Still, the set nearly topped the charts, stalling at #2. Most of the songwriting is by organist Robert Lamm or trombonist James Pankow; produced by James William Guercio.
Though I don't hear anything here beyond chameleonlike technique, I'm willing
to grant that their other early records may be a lot better.
The band famously ruined its reputation with a string of schlocky AM ballads, but continued to sell strongly through the end of the 80s.
Otis Clay, I Can't Take It (1977)
Chicago soul singer Otis Clay, who notched his first hit in 1968, moved to Hi Records in Memphis in the early 70s, and served up a well preserved mid-60s Stax/Volt sound.
He does occasionally venture into labelmate Al Green's territory ("Keep On Loving Me," with the mellow pace and plaintive vocal of hits like
"Tired Of Being Alone"), but more often he's channeling Otis Redding or Sam & Dave, singing with rough emotion
(title track) with the Memphis Horns blaring and the rhythm section chugging. It's perfectly authentic, and there's some variety in the
arrangements: funky guitar in "Pussy Footing Around," cycling keyboards on "I've Got To Find A Way (To Get You Back)." But the songwriting is distressingly
routine ("Home Is Where The Heart Is" and "House Ain't A Home (Without A Woman)") and Clay doesn't do anything better than the masters
he's imitating. The writers are unfamiliar to me: D. Bryant, D. Carter, E. Randle... unlike the other Otis, Clay doesn't appear to have
written anything himself.
Produced by Willie Mitchell; backing by the Hodges brothers (Leroy on bass, Charles on organ, Teenie on guitar) plus Michael Toles
on guitar, Archie Turner on piano and Howard Grimes on drums.
Sam Cooke, Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 (rec. 1963, rel. 1985)
Sam Cooke is generally considered the father of soul music, with a long string of hits starting in the late 50s, and his
reputation has only grown since his 1964 shooting death.
This belated release has become known as the definitive twistin', testifyin', toe-tappin' Cooke in concert album, delivering
all the mesmerizing intensity with none of the whitey-pacifying show tunes of At The Copa.
Well, I don't hear it that way. It's not nearly as frenzied as, say, James Brown's first
Apollo LP, it's not well recorded, and it's too short.
Cooke wrote all the material - including hits like "Cupid," "Chain Gang," "Having A Party" - but that's not as big a plus
as you might think, because it's a relentless stream of I-vi-IV-V and I-IV-V chord progressions, mostly in the same key at
the same tempo. Most importantly, Cooke belts every song in the same gritty gear,
not showing any of the tonal variety that made his voice so special.
Not that the record isn't good: the performance of "Bring It On Home To Me" is terrific, King Curtis delivers a couple of
fine sax solos, and it's great to have live performances of Cooke's best known tunes.
But I don't think it was a mistake on RCA's part to release the Copa show instead.
Sam Cooke, At The Copa (1964)
A powerful statement of Cooke's talents as a singer and songwriter;
in putting together a show for the nightclub crowd, Cooke avoid the tackiness trap the Supremes (among others) fell into, by picking the best (not the most familiar) show tunes,
and singing them with passion and conviction.
In so doing, he forged a path for later soul singers: his performances of "Try A Little
Tenderness" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" are exact blueprints
for Otis Redding's versions of the same tunes, and the same goes for "Blowin' In The Wind"
and Stevie Wonder. His voice is marvelous, gliding easily from smooth crooning ("When
I Fall In Love") to grainy urgency ("Frankie And Johnny"). Perhaps most impressive,
he even holds your interest when he's teaching the audience to sing "If I Had A Hammer."
Though only two songs are Cooke originals (not counting the spiritual "This Little Light Of
Mine," mysteriously credited to him), they're both paradigmatic: the love song "You Send Me" and the dance hit "Twistin'
The Night Away."
Conducted by Rene Hall, and recorded by Bernard Keville: the balance between full orchestra and rhythm section is admirable for such an early live
recording. Produced by Al Schmitt.
The Delfonics, La La Means I Love You (1968)
Philly Soul mastermind Thom Bell knew what he wanted right from the start: pop-soul for grown-ups, with elegant orchestration and group harmonizing.
He even had the future MFSB/Salsoul rhythm section - Norman Harris and Roland Chambers (guitar), Ronald Baker (bass) and Earl Young (drums) - in place.
But as Bell set out to reshape the Delfonics according to his vision, there were a few stumbling blocks. Lead singer William Hart could sing tenor and write lyrics, but wasn't particularly good at either (often seriously out of tune, for one thing). Bell couldn't afford the studio time to nail down the Bacharachian sound he was going for. And he didn't have a lot of quality songs, so after the hit title track (covered by Prince among others) and the gorgeous "You're Gone," the album is filler galore, with two Bacharach-David covers ("The Look Of Love"; "Alfie"), the Bach-via-Motown pilfer "A Lover's Concerto" and the Little Anthony number "Hurt So Bad" (co-written by Teddy Randazzo and later covered by Linda Ronstadt).
The Delfonics, Sound Of Sexy Soul (1969)
Similar to the predecessor, except that the single ("Ready Or Not Here I Come (Can't Hide From Love)") wasn't a big hit. There's another Randazzo resurrection ("Goin' Out Of My Head"), another Motown mention ("Ain't That Peculiar"), and some standards ("Let It Be Me"; "Scarborough Fair"). The originals range from passable ("Loving Him") to limp ("Hot Dog (I Love You So)"), and again the arrangements are bare-bones, the lyrics are dull ("Somebody Loves You"), and Hart's intonation is suspect ("Everytime I See My Baby").
Bell soon corrected these faults as he launched a long string of classic albums for the Stylistics and Spinners.
The first two albums are available on one CD with the solid, orchestrated followup single "You Got Yours And I'll Get Mine."
Donovan, Sunshine Superman (1966)
No record better epitomizes the early, starry-eyed days of the hippy era than this seductive, low-key blend of Eastern exotica and druggy folk music.
So much in tune with the times that it easily could be mistaken for a much later recording, Donovan Leitch's second and best-known LP alternates between ethereal, loosely structured mood pieces that highlight sitar and tabla ("Ferris Wheel"), and methodically produced orchestrated rock with clever string, mellotron and harpischord arrangements ("Celeste").
Donovan's gentle, slowly-paced baritone vocals and fanciful verbal imagery work perfectly with the material, and his songwriting is consistently solid.
So there are tons of high points: the funky, harpsichord-driven title track, a #1 hit featuring Jimmy Page on guitar; "Season Of The Witch," a superb acid rocker with an unforgettable, loping beat; the surprisingly professional, Simon & Garfunkel-like jazz diversion "Bert's Blues"; the super-mellow Eastern/Elizabethean blend "Guinevere"; and the wry hippy anthem "Fat Angel," which mentions the Jefferson Airplane and later was covered by them.
There are some lapses in taste - the seven-minute "Legend Of A Girl Child Linda" goes over the top with an experimental string/woodwind arrangement, "The Trip" is a predictable electric Dylan imitation, and the mock-Indian tunes are occasionally unfocused and pretentious ("Three King Fishers").
But you wouldn't expect anything else from such a quintessential 60s record.
Donovan's next four albums through 1969 all sold strongly, as did a series of singles including "Mellow Yellow" (with Paul McCartney on bass), "Hurdy Gurdy Man," "Atlantis," and "Goo Goo Barabajagal" (where he was backed by the Jeff Beck Group).
By 1970 the public had lost its taste for psychedelic folk, but Donovan released several more albums during the 70s and attempted a comeback in the late 90s. (JA)
Nick Drake, Time Of No Reply (rec. 1968 - 1974, rel. 1979)
A reclusive, extraordinarily talented English folk singer who cut just three studio albums before overdosing in 1974, when he was barely into his 20s.
His original, Joe Boyd-produced studio work is uneven, with slightly awkward Elizabethean orchestral arrangements on his first two records (Five Leaves Left, 1969; Bryter Layter, 1970) that don't always mesh with his hushed, intensely personal baritone and delicate acoustic guitar picking (1972's Pink Moon is more starkly produced).
This essential, posthumous collection of leftovers features one good example of his full-blown production style (the stately, gently swinging "I Was Made To Love Magic"), but is dominated instead by entirely solo recordings that let Drake's genius shine as brightly as possible.
Four other Five Leaves Left outtakes are astoundingly well-crafted: a couple of shimmering, creepy, subtly remorseful love songs ("Clothes Of Sand"; "Joey"); the uncharacteristically upbeat "Mayfair"; and especially the haunting title track, one of his most tuneful and poetic compositions.
The rest is mostly just as strong.
There are two early versions of Five Leaves Left tracks (the jazzy, bittersweet character sketch "Man In A Shed"; the cute, poppy "The Thoughts Of Mary Jane," with Richard Thompson adding a tentative lead line);
two scratchy, very early home demos (the grim Delta blues "Been Smoking Too Long"; "Strange Meeting II");
a 1969 demo with a barely audible vocal but a ringing, majestic guitar part ("Fly");
and four 1974 demos from an unfinished fourth record (the Cat Stevens-like "Rider On The Wheel"; "Hanging On A Star"; "Voice From A Mountain," recalling early Joni Mitchell; best of all the creepy, off-kilter "Black Eyed Dog," with its magical harmonics-based riff).
Luminous, irresistable treasure, like all of his work. (JA)
The Electric Flag, A Long Time Comin' (1968)
This self-described "American Music Band" was led by white bluesman (and
former Dylan sideman) Michael Bloomfield and
drummer (and future Hendrix sideman)
Buddy Miles, and it features Harvey Brooks on bass, Barry Goldberg on
keyboards and a full horn section, plus an assortment of guests like
Richie Havens (on sitar). The material's all new except for a cover of
Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" and a truly annoying take on the old
drinking song "Wine," but nothing sounds original: it's faceless
blues-rock, with recycled lyric ideas ("Groovin' Is Easy") and no
particularly good solos, plus the exact same "far-out experimentation" a
zillion other bands were doing at this point, like sitar and Moog.
The record's one certified excellent riff tune, "Another Country," is
spoiled by the obligatory 8-minute effect-laden freakout. It's a shame,
because Bloomfield at least had some talent (better heard on the Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills Super
Session record). Produced by John Church. I think the band made one
more record before splitting up; Bloomfield's career fell apart
after a couple of records with Kooper, though he managed a few
small-label blues records before ODing in the early 80s. (DBW)
Jonna Gault And Her Symphonopop Scene, Watch Me (1968)
Jonna Gault could have
been a huge smash success, a cross between Laura Nyro and Barbra Streisand, but instead she was swept into the
dustbin of history. A twentyish singer/songwriter/arranger/producer in an time when even Joni Mitchell had to hide behind a
male producer, Gault had classical training and recording experience, and got a contract with RCA granting her complete artistic control.
But her "symphonopop" style - guitarless pop with unusual combinations of orchestral instruments, without the overreliance on strings
that characterized the era - was a complete flop: she bridged the generation gap in the direction no one wanted to go, bringing a flower child
sensibility to square pop music. The story would be more interesting if this were a brilliant overlooked record, but the truth is it's just
mediocre: she falls in love with uninteresting melodic figures and repeats them endlessly ("The Pink Life"), her wry social comments are
so understated they don't say much of anything ("Jack And Jill," a chronicle of mod love), and her thin voice doesn't match her boisterous
delivery (title track). And who needed another version of "Eleanor Rigby"? Kitschiest of all is the
colossally ill-conceived cover of "Good Vibrations" with orchestral instruments recreating the Beach Boys' vocal parts.
But there are fine tunes here - the love songs "Here We Are" and "The Answer Has To Come From You," the folk-ish "Love Will Tell You
Why" - and her arrangements show true flair. Gault released a few more singles - "Man In The Moon";
"What If They Gave A War And No One Came?" (orchestrated by Lincoln Mayorga) b/w "Wonder Why, I Guess";
"Young" b/w "From My Window"; the depressingly ordinary, guitar-based "I'm Never Gonna Cry Again" b/w "What's The Use" - but I'm not aware of any other LP.
Genesis, From Genesis To Revelation (1969)
I've never liked the band, but I picked up this historical oddity (available on CD as And The Word Was...), thinking they might have once had talent. Their first record, it was cut in a hurry before they'd even performed in public, and well before either Phil Collins or Steve Hackett signed up. As high school students they'd landed a record contract on the strength of some home demos, and the finished product just doesn't show a lot of personality, although it's often similar to their later, much more popular 70s records. Like the Moody Blues and unlike most of the era's other high-concept British pop bands, Genesis chooses to tread water here with pompous, white-bread, orchestrated arrangements that smothers their arty lyrical ambitions.
Peter Gabriel doesn't demonstrate a lot of range, either vocally or emotionally - he's so low-key you'd think he was just humming to himself while strolling through the park. The rest of the band is nothing special, and the dribs and drabs of dynamic excitement are provided by swooping string sections, amateurish percussion, and Tony Banks' simplistic piano riffs, all of which now sound utterly dated. The predictable Sgt. Pepper's emulation also includes cross-fades, mellotrons, phasing, and repeated musical themes. For obsessive fans and 60s historians only. (JA)
Genesis, Nursery Cryme (1971)
I'm such a sweetie that I gave these guys another chance. Whoops, my mistake. By now Genesis had decided that instead of being a pretentious 60s psychedelic pop-rock band, they should be a pretentious 70s prog rock band like Yes or King Crimson ("Seven Stones"; "The Fountain Of Salmacis," which is pretty good as mellotron-drenched Yes imitations go).
So they adopted all of the trappings, from wall-of-sound synth parts to ten-minute, multi-part suites ("The Musical Box"), and watered it down into polite, smiley-faced pop.
But they blew it on two counts. First, there isn't a quality soloist anywhere in the band, although guitarist Steve Hackett is competent and Phil Collins impressively apes the prog rock drumming style pioneered by Mitch Mitchell, Michael Giles and Bill Bruford. So there's little to keep your attention as they plod through their unpredictable song structures on epics like the mock-ominous "Return Of The Giant Hogweed." And second, none of them knew how to assemble a batch of catchy hooks into a bona fide song. So the trio of non-stop wank-a-thons isn't balanced at all by the four shorter, but equally disorganized numbers.
Despite this, much of the material is inoffensive or even pretty, such as the melodious, 12-string laden acoustic folk songs "Harlequin" and "For Absent Friends," and the fast-paced, light-hearted, McCartney-like "Harold The Barrel." So if you can't get enough of early 70s prog rock, there are worse ways to burn your money.
Produced by John Anthony and engineered by David Hentschel. (JA)
Genesis, Selling England By The Pound (1973)
You know, if I keep buying these damn Genesis records I'll be forced to make up a page for them. This time around there's not much to report: all of the excesses they demonstrated on Cryme come up again, but there are even fewer vocal passages, and the lengthy instrumentals are deadly boring.
Inexplicably, they put the band's weak link - synth player Tony Banks - at the instrumental center of every tune.
And this time Peter Gabriel just won't shut up, rambling on endlessly with his limp melodies and spacey narrative lyrics ("The Battle Of Epping Forest"). Neither Steve Hackett's leads nor bassist Mike Rutherford's quiet, classically influenced acoustic guitar help very much; Hackett gets a sprawling solo on "Firth Of Fifth" that sounds like someone experimenting absentmindedly with a cool distortion pedal as the band once again rips off early King Crimson.
The good news is a couple of short pop songs that seem to have been their best to date, especially the gimmicky AOR hit "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" and Phil Collins' slightly folky vocal spotlight "More Fool Me." But the few high points aren't worth wading through the dreck.
The band's next effort - and the last before Gabriel left to start his solo career - was the legendary double album Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, which I just might force myself to review someday. (JA)
David Gilmour (1978)
Pink Floyd was riding a wave of monster AOR hit albums at this point, and Gilmour wasn't about to mess with the formula, even as he took a rare opportunity to escape from Roger Waters' control of the band. Working mostly with just a two-man rhythm section, he handled vocals, guitars, keyboards, production, and most of the songwriting himself, and he studiously copied Floyd's high-tech sound. The key difference is the lack of anal overproduction, inscrutable lyrics, and sprawling spacey jamming - most of the tracks run merely five or six minutes.
And for those who love the guy, there's a heck of a lot more lead guitar work than usual. The album even features a moderate radio hit, although it's the one track Gilmour didn't write (the stately anthem "There's No Way Out Of Here," with classic 70s Floyd female backups vocals and paranoid lyrics). Elsewhere there are a few solid Dark Side-inspired pop tunes like "Short And Sweet." But the downside is predictable: monotonous instrumentation, a total lack of spontaneity, and too many mid-tempo pentatonic instrumentals like the pretty but insubstantial "Mihalis" and "Raise My Rent." (JA)
David Gilmour, About Face (1984)
With Waters having virtually taken over Pink Floyd and then dragged it through a Final Cut that amounted to a solo album, the stage was set for Gilmour to prove himself yet again.
He rose to the challenge, delivering more commercial savvy and stylistic variety than you'll hear on almost anything the Floyds ever did.
Half the tunes sound like actual or would-be AOR hits: the trance-like, sequenced-synth drenched "Until We Sleep"; the Floyd-esque metal ballad "Murder"; the super-funky "Blue Light," with its hyperactive horns and crashing, digitally-delayed guitars; and the swaggering, stomping corporate rocker "All Lovers Are Deranged."
There's just one pompous orchestrated instrumental ("Let's Get Metaphysical" [har]), one daft stab at Caribbean rhythms ("Cruise"), and two boring orchestrated ballads ("Out Of The Blue"; "You Know I'm Right"), and Gilmour seems entirely at ease plastering everything with his immaculate guitar solos - instant, by-the-book catharthis without any distracting creativity. So the record could hardly be a better deal for fans of soulless four-minute 80s rock tunes.
Co-produced by Gilmour and Bob Ezrin; the band is Ian Kewley (keyboards), Pino Palladino (bass), and Jeff Porcaro (drums).
Guests include a horn section, Ray Cooper, and Steve Winwood (sounds like his organ playing on "Murder" and "Blue Light"); Pete Townshend contributed the lyrics to two songs (including "Deranged") but doesn't appear. (JA)
Buddy Guy, I Was Walking Through The Woods (rec. 1960-1964, rel. 1970)
Another transplanted Southerner, bluesman Buddy Guy grew up in Louisiana, but found success only after moving to Chicago in 1958.
For some reason, these early 60s electric blues recordings weren't released on LP until well after Guy had left Chess Records, but they
include perhaps his most famous composition, the seven-minute slow lament "Stone Crazy." Compared to contemporaries like Albert
Collins, I find Guy's guitar style rather sterile, with a trebly tone and overprecise, nimble runs that lack emotional punch.
But he's got a great voice - wobbly and frequently breaking on high notes, it conveys remarkable vulnerability and honesty.
The backing is a standard Chicago blues piano-led rhythm section augmented by predictable horn charts.
Though most of the tunes were cut in 1960 or 1961, "My Time After A While" dates from 1964, and features future Motown writer Leonard Caston on piano, and future Earth, Wind & Fire leader Maurice White on drums
- it's more cleanly recorded, with the guitar mixed back behind the bass and piano, but otherwise the same slow blues as the rest of the disc.
Buddy Guy, A Man And The Blues (1968)
His first record on folk label Vanguard, and he sounds much the same as he did at Chess - Otis Spann tickling the ivories, several sax
players providing the backdrop for his solos - but it seems Guy's low on song material. There are a few tossoff instrumentals ("I Can't
Quit The Blues") and four covers: the Motown hit "Money (That's What I Want),"
B.B. King's "Sweet Little Angel," Plumber Davis and Jules Taub's "Worry, Worry," and the record's best song,
the quiet, desperate "One Room Country Shack," by Mercy Dee Walton.
Moreover, "Just Playing My Axe" poses as an original, but really it's just "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."
The uptempo numbers are interchangeable ("Mary Had A Little Lamb," "Jam On A Monday Morning") and
some of the songs are far too long (title track). This record isn't going to sell anyone on electric blues.
Like his peers, Guy fell into a tailspin in the 70s and 80s, but he outlived it, and has had tremendous commercial and critical success
in the 90s, working with the likes of Clapton and Jeff Beck.
Tim Hardin, Tim Hardin 4 (1969)
An American folk-blues singer who died of a heroin overdose in 1980, Hardin has a solid reputation among rock critics thanks to several successful covers of his songs ("If I Were A Carpenter"; "Reason To Believe").
But this time around he comes up totally flat, with not one of the six originals creating any interest.
The problem is not just his dead-pan performance, which raises the term "monotonous" to new heights, but the band's stultifyingly genteel Chicago blues affectations, with an idly wailing harmonica and a lightly tapping rhythm section.
Strapped for ideas, he not only covers blues greats like Willie Dixon ("Seventh Son") and Bo Diddley ("Bo Diddley"), but Chuck Berry ("You Can't Catch Me," shamelessly retitled as "Airmobile" and credited to Hardin) and the Animals ("House Of The Rising Sun").
Hardin's voice is pleasant enough, but he's so laid back he practically begs you to tune him out.
Inauthentic and soulless, the record shows that Hardin had failed to grasp the emotional core of the blues - unlike contemporary English musicians of the John Mayall school.
Produced by Erik Jacobsen. (JA)
Iron Butterfly, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968)
Another bunch of stoned California kids, led by Doug Ingle on grandiose vocals and skating-rink organ, sometimes falsely credited with inventing heavy metal. The 17:35 title track is not the first album-side-length tune on a rock album,
but it was one of the earliest, one of the longest, and one of the most commercially successful. And for the first couple of minutes it's actually a solid, enjoyable riff tune.
Guitarist Erik Braunn gets a good lead guitar tone, but doesn't really know how to play the damn thing at all. What the hell, neither could I when I was 17.
Ron Bushy takes a plodding drum solo, but the weakest part of the track is Ingle's second solo spot, where he holds open chords endlessly. The other side of the album is formula psychedelic pop,
as you can tell from the titles ("Flowers And Beads"). The lyrics aren't even laughably bad, they're just boring, and besides the title track the only catchy riffs are on "Termination."
"Are You Happy" is another freakout that manages to be more boring than "In-A-Gadda" in less than half the time. Bassist Lee Dorman is probably the best musician of the bunch: he's a nimble Jamerson disciple,
and though he usually overplays, he occasionally slips in a nice run. (DBW)
Robert Johnson, King Of The Delta Blues Singers Volume 2 (rec. 1936)
Almost every song here has been covered by latter-day blues greats - "Stop Breakin' Down,"
"From Four Till Late," "Sweet Home Chicago," "Love In Vain,"
"Dust My Broom," "Rambling On My Mind" - which should be all the recommendation you need to check this out.
Influence aside, it's a heartfelt, surprisingly well recorded album with a lot of emotional range and effective, if basic, acoustic guitar backing.
Unlike Leadbelly, Johnson mostly either sticks to strict 12-bar 3-line format ("Kindhearted Woman Blues") or a 24-bar variant with two couplets and a two-line chorus - the one exception here is the good-time standard
"They're Red Hot" - but as a practiced showman he varies approach and tempo enough to avoid falling into a rut.
One blues tradition that doesn't descend from Johnson is blues-singer-as-ultramasculine-archetype: Johnson has a high-pitched, slightly quavery voice, regularly breaks into falsetto, and drowns his sorrows in...
malted milk ("Malted Milk").
Johnson's entire recorded output fits on two LPs, so I really have no excuse for not owning both of them.
Albert King, Born Under A Bad Sign (1967)
Born in Mississippi, Albert King moved to Memphis and became Stax/Volt's own bluesman; here he's backed by Booker T. & The MGs, and their flexible backing gives him a big leg up on the competition,
ranging from crisp R&B (Big Joe Williams's "Oh Pretty Woman") to slow blues ("I Almost Lost My Mind").
King's trebly, Buddy Guy-style lead guitar provides a sharpness the MGs are sometimes lacking on their own ("Crosscut Saw").
Booker even co-wrote the title track, a huge hit, and the whole band wrote "The Hunter," also a signature tune;
the Memphis Horns also turn up on some tracks. King himself has a pleasantly rough voice and precise technique ("Down Don't Bother Me"),
and he has the breadth to pull off a few ballads ("The Very Thought Of You"), but he's not in the first rank of blues artists for two reasons: his compositions are nothing special ("Personal Manager"), and there's nothing distinctive
about his performances - he took his last name from B.B. King, and his vocals show B.B.'s influence pretty clearly. But if you're going to be influenced by somebody, that's not a bad place to start. Not a cornerstone of
the genre, but it's harmless.
B.B. King, To Know You Is To Love You (1973)
B.B. King is an anomaly, the sweet bluesman. If Robert Johnson or Howlin' Wolf came over to your house, you'd expect
them to steal your whiskey and your woman; King would probably bring you a box of cigars and a bottle of wine. His music is cheerful and
good-natured - if the blues is about pulling yourself out of your troubles by singing about them,
King always sounds like he's at least three-quarters recovered. Combined with his riveting, vibrato-heavy guitar technique - lots of arching,
sustained high notes, more often punctuating vocal lines than building solos - King gives you about as good a time as you can have listening
to music. This record is even sweeter than usual, with covers of Stevie Wonder (title track) and the Staples Singers ("Respect Yourself")
and soft backing from Philly soul musicians including Norman Harris and Vince Montana.
It's a bit weird to hear congas and wah-wah behind King on a pure blues number like "Oh To Me," but all that's forgotten when King dishes
out a no-nonsense tune like "I Can't Leave"
or stops the band so he can rain bent notes and trills on the closing audience tribute "Thank You For Loving The Blues."
He even puts over the shapeless pop tune "I Like To Live The Love" -
you know a blues musician is good when his sellout crossover attempt is still a blast. Produced by Dave Crawford; Stevie adds electric piano on his tune, but if you didn't know it was him, you'd
B.B. King, Live At San Quentin (1990)
I have to suspect some of his 50's and 60s discs are even better, but man, is this a lot of fun. King's band - Walter King, musical director and sax;
Edgar Synigal, sax; James Bolden, trumpet; Leon Warren, rhythm guitar; Eugene Carrier, keys; Michael Doster, bass; Calep Emphrey, drums -
propells him at top speed though a catalog of his best known material. His guitar tone is a bit rougher than usual, but his playing is
still wonderfully controlled ("Every Day I Have The Blues").
His expansive personality makes the songs he didn't write ("Let
The Good Times Roll," "The Thrill Is Gone" "Every Day I Have The Blues") as thoroughly his as his own compositions ("Rock Me Baby," "Sweet Little Angel"), and his spoken asides are as entertaining as his
playing ("Never Make A Move Too Soon").
The only clunker is the Ira Newborn composition "Into The Night," which was recorded for a 1985 movie soundtrack and sounds exactly like
Lionel Richie's dance hit "Running With The Night."
There's one studio track, "Peace To The World," that's sort of a blues version of Three Dog Night's "Joy To The World," but not really as
bad as that implies.
Produced by SASCO Productions, whoever that is.
Freddy King, Let's Hide Away And Dance Away With Freddy King (1961)
Texas-born Freddy (later Freddie) King recorded both vocal and instrumental blues from his first sessions for King Records in 1960, but the instrumental sides sold like wildfire out of the gate,
and the vocal sides didn't. Hence this LP, eleven instrumentals showcasing King's remarkably crisp, nimble blues guitar technique - avoiding bends or distortion - in front of a faceless rhythm section. It's good-time music,
with some terrific hooks and structural quirks ("Hideaway," a Clapton favorite; "In The Open") and even the three-chord tossoffs are pleasantly rambling ("Butterscotch").
Too dated to be truly essential, but worth buying just for the cover photo of a cherubic King and his tiny guitar - it's impossible to look at that and stay in a bad mood.
Ten years later, King hooked up with rockers including Leon Russell and Eric Clapton, and released some big-selling vocal records I plan to check out; he died of heart failure in 1976 at the age of 42.
Leadbelly, Includes Legendary Performances Never Before Released (rec. 1935)
There's a lot to be said for seminal bluesman Leadbelly: he's got a freewheeling demeanor, a larger-than-life persona, a good sense of humor, varied techniques on 6- and 12-string guitar, and a knack for half-improvised,
pointed story songs (an obvious influence on Dylan, for one).
Maybe these songs haven't been covered as much as Robert Johnson's precisely because Leadbelly makes them so personal.
Or maybe it's because he spends so much time lecturing us on the differences between yellow-skinned, brown-skinned and black-skinned women... it's hard to imagine Clapton singing that stuff. (It's easier
to picture Mick Jagger singing it, but that's a different story.)
Anyway, the overwhelming problem I have with Leadbelly is, his Louisiana diction is so incomprehensible - almost Cobainesque - that I don't get much out of listening.
I hope his later records are easier to follow, and I'll be checking some out.
I really should go farther back and listen to Leadbelly's mentor, Blind Lemon Jefferson (author of "Black Snake Moan," included here), but I haven't gotten there yet.
The Loading Zone (1968)
This Berkeley outfit does for Motown what the Electric Flag did for blues: makes it suck.
More specifically, makes it suck by adding blaring horn charts and psychedelic guitar (Peter Shapiro, who sounds like he flunked out of
Big Brother) and alternating between a hammy black singer (Linda Tillery) and a hammy white singer (Paul Fauerso,
also on organ). Not to mention overusing cheesy special effects (the absurd echoey screaming that closes "The Bells").
You couldn't build a more similar act to the Electric Flag in a laboratory, except that instead of blues covers, this group plays Motown
covers: the Smokey Robinson hit "Shop Around," the Holland-Dozier-Holland obscurity
"Love Feels Like Fire," the "Nowhere To Run" clone "Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead."
They even use Motown conventions - pounding bass and snare - to write an original song extolling the virtues of hippie meditation
To be fair, drummer George Newcom and bassist Rob Kridle lay down a solid foundation, and Fauerso's organ playing is fine - it's just everything
on top of the foundation that's disastrous. And the closing "Can I Dedicate" isn't terrible, but when a record's best song is a nine-minute
instrumental based on "Born Under A Bad Sign," you're in trouble.
The next time someone tells you today's music is all crap, not like the great stuff everyone played in the 60s, force them to listen to
The Lovin' Spoonful, Daydream (1966)
These guys were really big, but for only about two years. Daydream shows the original lineup in all its glory; by now they'd already scored a major hit ("Do You Believe In Magic"), and this early 1966 album includes two more: "You Didn't Have To Be So Nice," a brilliantly arranged but whitebread love song with great harmonies and a catchy, if plodding descending guitar riff that's doubled on chimes; and the equally clever title track, which went to #2. The album is short and terribly dated-sounding, but actually quite good, with the band effectively delivering its unique blend of old-timey blues and Byrds-influenced 60s folk-rock - you'll hear plenty of tambourines, smooth harmonies, and jangly guitars.
Zal Yanovsky plays most of the guitar parts, and he's quite competent if entirely derivative of the big Chicago blues sound. But most of the musical focus is on John Sebastian, the lead singer and songwriter, who also adds some rhythm guitar and harmonica. He's got a warm voice and a good ear for light-hearted lyrical Americana when he's not falling prey to 60s pop song cliches.
The sound really was behind the times, though; there's none of the heavy rock experimentation of the Beatles, Byrds, and Yardbirds, clever orchestration of the Beach Boys, or introspective, but political lyrics of Dylan. Later the same year the band scored two more monster hits ("Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?" and "Summer In The City," their only #1), then five further ever-more-lackluster Top 40 singles until sinking into obscurity in the wake of John Sebastian's 1968 departure. (JA)
John Mayall, Memories (1971)
Mayall is best remembered as the godfather of British electric blues: Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Mick Taylor, and the original Fleetwood Mac lineup all rotated through his band before hitting the bigtime. By 1969 that was all over, and I'd always thought he then slowed down recording. But in fact he kept spitting out albums for years, and even scored critical points with 1970s The Turning Point.
This time around he has a big target in his sights: delivering an autobiographical song cycle in chronological order. So the lyrics run from childhood (title track) to his war experiences ("The Fighting Line"; the relatively biting and uptempo "Back From Korea") to the death of his grandfather ("Grandad"). He also has a radical approach to the stripped-down, nearly no-overdubs arrangements. Jerry McGee contributes classy Chicago electric guitar, countrified dobro, acoustic guitar, and even sitar. More importantly, there's no drumming whatsoever - it's completely startling, at least the first time around. But Mayall's predictable blues progressions, monotonous tenor vocals, unwavering tempo, and routine harmonica and piano parts leave it sounding like so much auditory Wonder bread. Blues fanatics may find the effort fascinating, but there's little here to hint at Mayall's rock connections other than the sheer bravery of it all. (JA)
The MC5, Back In The USA (1970)
Detroit's MC5 was not only the best rock band to come out of the Midwest in the 60s, but arguably the ultimate inspiration for the whole punk rock movement nearly a decade later: if you're looking for pissed off, revolutionary lyrics and an uncompromising garage rock sound, you can't do much better than this.
After a raucous live debut record (Kick Out The Jams, 1969), the group and producer Jon Landau cooked up this bizarre concept album - with every other high-profile rock band then indulging in sound collages, wacked-out instrumentation and lengthy jams, they correctly figured that nothing could be stranger than a set of two-minute, bread-and-butter rock tunes capped by bitter left wing protest lyrics ("The American Ruse").
Landau compresses and brightens the mix and the group delivers taught, punchy arrangements, creating a purist rock sound circa 1965: several tracks sound exactly like early singles by the Who ("Teenage Lust"; "Shakin' Street") or the Beatles ("The American Ruse"), and elsewhere they play with already out-of-date sounds like a wimpy electric organ ("Tonight"), handclaps and crude dynamics ("Call Me Animal"), Motown rhythms ("High School"), or smooth Otis Redding-style 12-bar balladry ("Let Me Try").
Just to get the point across, they bookend the record with tongue-in-cheek tough-guy recreations of hits by Little Richard ("Tutti-Frutti") and Chuck Berry (title track).
Only a couple tracks sound like late 60s products, but even those are so concise and energetic they utterly stand apart ("Looking At You"; "The Human Being Lawnmover").
Guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith pound out blazing chords and screeching riffs while talented singer Rob Tyner exhorts the masses with the earnestness of a Baptist preacher, and it all works brilliantly.
Only the short running time and intentionally thin, retro sound keep this from being a total classic.
I also have the band's third and last LP (High Time, 1971), which has a much more contemporary feel but is every bit as memorable. (JA)
Mrs. Miller, Will Success Spoil Mrs. Miller? (1966)
Corporate capitalism moves fast, man: within two years of Susan Sontag's "Notes
On 'Camp'," Hollywood reacted with Batman, the first intentionally bad TV show, and Capitol Records released
Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits - her debut. A middle-aged California housewife with an errant sense of pitch, operatic
delivery and an extreme reliance on vibrato - she sounds a bit like Tiny Tim's grandmother - Elva Miller was put in front
of a studio orchestra to cover contemporary hits like "Downtown," and the most humorously "off" takes were used.
It's an open question whether or not she was in on the joke: Miller insisted that the record company made her sound worse than
she was, and her unique musical approach seems too consistent to be an act,
but on the other hand she certainly seems to be enjoying the sessions, even cracking herself up a couple of times.
This second album is more of the same; the material is a mix of current pop ("Yellow
Submarine") and standards ("Second Hand Rose"), plus the only known Miller original, "Melody."
What really makes it work is the tension between the utter predictability of the Welkian orchestra and the utter
unpredictability of the singer, and in that way the album works best when the tunes are the tackiest
("The Girl From Ipanema").
"Strangers In The Night," with an improvised a cappella opening and bizarre whistling solo, and the shockingly
out-of-time "Monday, Monday" are wonderful. But many of the songs never really take off, not building any interest or
drama ("Every Little Movement," "A Groovy Kind Of Love") - from what I've heard, Miller's debut was more consistently
entertaining in this respect.
Produced and arranged by Lex de Azevedo. Mrs. Miller released one more Capitol LP, The Country Soul Of Mrs. Miller,
before going indie; her later self-produced output is extremely hard to find, which is a shame because it might settle the
question of intent. For more info, visit Mrs. Miller's World; for a
contemporary artist in the same genre, check out Wing.
The Monkees, The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees (1968)
Wow, we're really scraping the bottom of the barrel this time (ahem). The story in brief: the Monkees, an artificial Beatles-style group composed to an English singer, a American folk guitarist, and two actors that was concocted to star in a TV show, already had recorded four #1 albums in a row, not to mention an amazing five gold singles in just two years. Their amazing success depended, however, on weekly TV appearances and musical preening by outside producers, songwriters, and instrumentalists.
By the time this album came out, the show had been cancelled, the group had won some control in the studio (briefly experimenting with playing their own instruments on the last record), and teenage musical tastes had been irrevocably altered by albums like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Are You Experienced?. But the record shot to #3 anyway, on the strength of a leftover monster hit single (John Stewart's marvelous, but nauseatingly over-produced "Daydream Believer," with Davy Jones and producer Chip Douglas on bass).
It also includes two later single sides: Boyce and Hart's primitive surf rocker/Jones vehicle "Valleri," the Monkees' last major hit, and Michael Nesmith's B-side "Tapioca Tundra," which climbed into the Top 40 for one week. Elsewhere there's a pile of sappy Jones tunes; several Micky Dolenz spotlights; and a string of highly experimental original Nesmith creations. Peter Tork barely appears, and on almost every track save "Daydream Believer" the only Monkee in attendance is the lead vocalist. It's mostly awful, but there's some entertainment value anyway, including Nesmith's joyful 20's sendup "Magnolia Simms."
The encyclopedic list of studio players includes Max Bennett, Hal Blaine, Milt Holland, Jim Horn, Harry Nilsson, and Don Randi; the Rhino release includes Peter Tork's famous, first-rate, early Springfield-like out-take "Lady's Baby," featuring Steve Stills, Buddy Miles, and a real baby. (JA)
The Moody Blues, Days Of Future Passed (1968)
The Moodys had been cutting rock records for a few years when they jumped on the Sgt. Pepper's bandwagon with this one. But instead of following the Beatles' experiments in instrumentation and recording techniques, they went wild with George Martin's orchestral approach - the London Festival Orchestra not only appears here, it's fully credited on the front cover, and its conductor Peter Knight wrote the five-minute overture in addition to the omnipresent arrangements. The purely classical passages amount to an MGM musical soundtrack, but most of the rest is tuneful, mellotron-drenched British pop-rock, with just enough charm to balance the
band's numbing instrumental over-restraint and pompous quasi-poetic lyrics (the dawn intro/sunset outro voiceover is the worst bit). This is the record with both the classic "Forever Afternoon (Tuesday Afternoon)" and the unbearably epic "Nights In White Satin" (both by Justin Hayward), but there are also plenty of fun, Beatle-esque pop numbers (the anthemic "Peak Hour" and slithery, Indian-influenced "Sun Set"). Competitors like the Nice and the Zombies were doing the same thing with a lot more verve, but this is after all the first full-blown classical-rock fusion record, and that distinction led to the band enjoying considerable commercial success for years to come.
The record was released in the US in March, 1968; sources conflict, but I believe it was released in the UK in 1967. (JA)
Mountain, Climbing! (1970?)
"THIS RECORD WAS MADE TO BE PLAYED LOUD" indeed!
The creation of guitarist Leslie West and former Cream co-conspirator Felix Pappalardi, Mountain had quickly reached a mass audience with a hard rock formula that recalls both Cream and early Led Zeppelin ("For Yasgur's Farm").
Powerhouse drummer Corky Laing adds an inordinate fondness for cowbells to Ginger Baker's thunderous style, West is a top-notch twiddler and blues howler, and Pappalardi creates a psychedelic sensibility with bass, occasional keyboards, and a passable, Eric Clapton-like tenor (the only non-factor is variably present organ player Steve Knight).
This time around they scored a huge hit with the lumbering blues-rock classic "Mississippi Queen," a two-minute wonder of explosive dynamics and unforgettable hooks.
Most of the rest is in the same vein, and it usually works ("Never In My Life"; "Sittin' On A Rainbow").
And on side 2 they show some flexibility: West shows off with an Eastern-flavored acoustic guitar solo ("To My Friend," a la "White Summer"), and Pappalardi dishes out a sleepy, Donovan-like hippy folk song ("The Laird") and an acid rock mini-epic ("Boys In The Band").
They even perform a post-Cream Bruce/Brown composition ("Theme For An Imaginary Western").
It's all good clean fun - recommended for anyone who enjoys late 60s hard rock.
Pappalardi's wife Gail Collins did the cover artwork and wrote many of the lyrics; years later she shot him to death in a domestic dispute. (JA)
Mountain, Flowers Of Evil (1971)
Apparently cobbled together from a half-finished album and a concert tape (both dating from 1971), this is a remarkably entertaining listen.
Side 1 includes more of the psychedelic hard rock that made Climbing! so much fun (title track).
Pappalardi again dominated the songwriting, again often working with Gail Collins, who again did the artwork.
It's good, but unremarkable: "One Last Cold Kiss" is a medieval folk melody arranged as another swaggering rocker; "Crossroader" is a Clapton-style blues with a smoking slide guitar part; "Pride And Passion" drowns a memorable, high-speed Steve Knight organ riff with an indulgent multi-part arrangement.
Side 2 starts with a 25-minute segment that's dominated by elephantine jamming, but also includes a Chuck Berry cover ("Roll Over Beethoven") and a "Voodoo Chile"-like blues-rock anthem ("Dreams Of Milk And Honey"), and ends with a solid version of "Mississippi Queen."
I wouldn't expect too much out of this, but if you like the band you can't go wrong. (JA)
New Riders Of The Purple Sage (1971)
These guys sound exactly like the Grateful Dead - and it's no coincidence: not only did they tour with the Dead, but on this record Phil Lesh is credited as executive producer; Mickey Hart plays on two cuts; and Jerry Garcia plays pedal steel and occasional banjo throughout. Not to mention Spencer Dryden, credited as a guest at this point, but really a full band member. They're good, and it helps that the band's singers had more vocal range than the Dead ("All I Ever Wanted") and an even stronger country influence, despite the occasional wah-wah pedal (the eight-minute "Dirty Business"). It adds up to enough upbeat melodicism to nearly rival the early Poco, and country-rock fans will enjoy it all the way through.
Plus Deadheads and 60s relicts like myself will get a blast out of the hippy-cowboy lyrics ("Henry," an ode to pot smuggling; the John Ford Western movie-inspired "Glendale Train"; the eco anthem "Garden Of Eden"). I've heard the band's biggest hit, 1973's The Adventures Of Panama Red, and unfortunately it's an unlistenably snide self-parody, with all the genial country elements of their first effort debased into grating mannerisms. p.s., beware of the widely available greatest hits album, half of which is lifted from this one - there's no reason to waste your money on it when the original is this much fun. p.p.s., as far as I can tell there's nothing substantial on the Web about these guys, other than incidental references in connection with the Dead. (JA)
NRBQ, Grooves In Orbit (1983)
A veteran roots rock act that's still recording decades after their first LP release in 1969, NRBQ stands somewhere between the Lovin' Spoonful and the Band: guitarist Al Anderson has a Robbie Robertson-like gift for bluesy, thoughtful understatement; singer/bassist Joey Spampinato's smooth, aw-shucks vocal sound is much like John Sebastian's or Rick Danko's; and songwriter/keyboardist Terry Adams goes in for really basic rock 'n' roll (the reverby "Rain At The Drive-in," the slickest and most commercial number here; "A Girl Like That"), polite rockabilly ("12-Bar Blues"), genial country-western (the kindergarten anthem "Hit The Hay"), and mellow, tasteful pop ("My Girlfriend's Pretty," which almost veers into Stevie Wonder territory).
Sebastian himself shows up as an instrumental guest on two tracks.
It's all so easy on the ears it might put you to sleep, lacking the bar-band mania and hillbilly quirkiness of the early Band albums - although "When Things Was Cheap" is eerily Band-like, down-tempo New Orleans party music, and the solidly thumping Johnny Cash rockabilly tune "Get Rhythm" sounds exactly like a Levon Helm spotlight.
Their steadfast refusal to update their sound doesn't help: only the vaguely punk-like beat on their dull rocker "Smackaroo" and Adams' occasionally jarring clavinet parts hint at the record's post-post-60s vintage, and there's flat-out nostalgia like a goofy Dixieland jazz dance number (Spampinato's "I Like That Girl") and a grating polka ("Daddy-'O'," complete with childish call-and-response).
And despite Adams' efforts, the most memorable tune is arguably Spampinato's (the super-sweet country ballad "How Can I Make You Love Me").
Good-natured entertainment whose calculated silliness might really get on your nerves.
Self-produced; the Rhino CD includes a swinging, slightly creaky Chicago blues ("Some Kind Of Blues") and a shockingly Spoonful-esque singalong love song ("Tonight You Belong To Me"). (JA)
Van Dyke Parks, Song Cycle (1968)
This is the kind of record that only a rock critic could love: painfully self-indulgent, devoid of any real emotion or relevance, cutesy and clever as hell. For example, he retitles the hymn "Nearer My God To Thee" just so that he can have a song called "Van Dyke Parks" credited to Public Domain, followed by a tune called "Public Domain" credited to Van Dyke Parks. All the lyrics are elliptical, unfinished character sketches, pun-filled and ultimately meaningless. The arrangements are a pop take on country-western, with a full orchestra, and the tunes are consistently unmemorable, the only exception being the overlong "By The People." Parks can't really sing either; in fact, his self-conscious reedy tenor is vaguely irritating. For some reason, this was a complete commercial failure despite massive label promotion and high critical regard. (DBW)
Ajda Pekkan, Fecri Ebcioğlu Sunar (1969)
A movie star and top recording artist since the 1960s who doesn't write her own material and flirts with schmaltz, so I'm tempted to describe Pekkan as Turkey's version of Barbra Streisand - if only because I already referenced Cher when discussing Sezen Aksu. Anyway, I've generally avoided reviewing any of the fey 60s Euro-pop acts (Serge Gainsbourg, Lulu, etc.) because I dislike the style and don't have much to say about it: probably the closest I've come is reviewing Orquesta Reve's "Changüi '68" period.
The production - mostly overseen by local legend Fecri Ebcioğlu; two tracks are by Selçuk Başar and Zeki Uluruh - is within era norms, and Pekkan is game, belting or whispering as the material demands, so you'll enjoy the record if you can deal with the cookie-cutter chord progressions, lilting refrains (the bossa nova duet "İki Yuklu Aşk," a cover of Franco-Semel's "Never Grow Old") and subdued yearning (now that I think about it, Melanie was sort of the US ambassador of this style). Oh, and that "96 Teardrops" organ ("Onu Bana Birak," a version of Patricia Carli's "On Ne S'Aime Plus").
For the rest of us, the only unalloyed pleasure is "Erklekleri Tanıyın," which applies the same tackitudinous pop approach to what sounds like a traditional Turkish folk melody but is actually "A En Nai" by Israel-based Greek singer Aris San.
Ajda Pekkan, Pour Lui (1978)
Every time I think I've gotten a handle on all the production work Alec R. Costandinos did in the late 70s, I find out there's more. Working with a young singer who had an old-school sound gave Costandinos an opportunity to bridge the romantic pop of his early 70s work with the capacious disco of his classic period, and he took advantage of it; Pekkan for her part dives into each tune without taking herself too seriously.
There are remakes of Love & Kisses' sumptuous "You're The Most Precious Thing In My Life" (as "Combien Je T'Aime") and "Maybe" (title track), but otherwise the material is new: the love song "Un Amour Qui S'En Va" are love songs, "Je Danse" (written by Jeff Barnel, like most of the non-Costandinos cuts), while perhaps the most intriguing track is "Le Jardin D'Orient," with kitschy motifs reminiscent of the best Ritchie Family records. The march-like "Et Je Voyage" is the only conspicuous return to late 60s bombast.
Ajda Pekkan, Farkın Bu (2011)
It's not easy to stay current after fifteen years in the business, let alone fifty, but give Pekkan credit for trying: The aggressive electronic backgrounds and clanging dance rhythms are club-ready, and she does her best to hit each tune's emotional center, though she doesn't seem to have the delicacy of shading I hear in Aksu or Deniz Seki. The results are basically Türkpop melodic material and vocal approach with rave instrumentation ("Heves"), contributed by an all-star lineup including Tarkan ("Yakar Geçerim"), Nazan Öncel (Turkish lyrics to "Asla (Fote)," originally by Vasilis Giannopoulos and Antonis Vardis), Serdar Ortaç ("Hadi Gel") and Sinan Akçil ("Arada Sİrada," represented by three mixes).
Unfortunately, while many of the tracks are decent ("Özetle"), not one is a sure-fire winner, so the disc is more a survey of current pop trends than a valuable exemplar of same.
The Pentangle, Sweet Child (1968)
A British eclectic folk group which tackled a variety of American and British Isles idioms and featured a pristine-voiced soprano,
virtuoso guitar work, and someone named Thompson, but they're not Fairport Convention: the music is
all acoustic, they had two celebrated guitarists (Bert Jansch and John Renbourn), and from the start they focused heavily on traditional songs
without covering contemporaries like Dylan. This double LP, their second release, contains one live disc and one studio,
and that gives them enough room to explore an incredible array of traditions: Jaqui McShee sings everything from a Furry Lewis blues ("Turn Your Money Green") to a Scottish ballad ("So Early In The Spring");
bassist Danny Thompson contributes a solo rendition of Charles Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song";
drummer Terry Cox writes a tribute to "All Is Loneliness" composer Moon Dog ("Moon Dog"); Jansch plays an
unaccompanied breakdown in D tuning that apparently influenced Jimmy Page ("A Woman Like You").
I have various nits to pick - McShee's voice is too clean to communicate the blues, the band compositions are often mediocre ("Three Part Thing")
and I don't hear what's so impressive about Jansch and Renbourn as guitarists - but the disc is still a tour de force: a collection of terrific melodies that never sounds incoherent despite its
range, because of the uncanny focus and teamwork of the group. For my money, Cox is the underrated musician here: his restrained but sympathetic drumming - largely using brushes - underpins many
of the more spirited numbers, while his glockenspiel drives many of the dances ("Brentzel Gay").
Produced by Shel Talmy without any studio trickery - it's a purist record all the way.
Elvis Presley (1956)
I don't know who this guy is, but he has a smooth, powerful baritone - even though he frequently overdoes the vibrato. However, his vocal prowess is undone by tepid arangements and some dubious
choices of material. Most of the songs are covers, mostly of rock and roll hits ("Tutti Frutti," Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes").
He even indulges in a quavery Buddy Holly impression on the dreadful 12/8 love song "I'm Counting On You."
A few R&B numbers are given country-western arrangements, with 2/4 drumming and acoustic guitar, and they're far and away the highlights: Ray Charles's "I
Got A Woman," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You)."
Presley gives the indescribably drippy "I Love You Because" a more straightforward treatment, and sings the pop standard "Blue Moon" almost unaccompanied, with only faint guitar chiming.
The musicians mostly keep out of the spotlight, though drummer D.J. Fontana is fairly loud, and there are occasional piano and steel guitar solos; players include Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore and Presley (guitar);
Bill Black (bass) and Shorty Long (piano). I believe Steve Sholes produced (though the disc doesn't exactly say so), and he didn't do Presley justice. This is still a good listen if you pick it
Billy Preston, That's The Way God Planned it (1969)
After years of behind-the-scenes work, and a couple of unsuccessful albums, ace keyboard player Billy Preston caught the attention of the Beatles, who signed him to their new Apple vanity label. This album followed, mostly produced by George Harrison. Preston's energetic delivery, both vocally and on keys, are the best part of the record. Unfortunately, most of the material is very weak, by-the-book 60s soul with dull lyrics ("Everything's All Right") and occasionally annoying pseudo-gospel backing vocals ("Do What You Want"). He covers Bob Dylan's "She Belongs To Me," and W.C. Handy's "Morning Star," but doesn't generate much excitement. The title track was the single, and it's enjoyable, turning into a short jam. Famous guests include Eric
Clapton, Keith Richards, Ginger Baker and Richie Havens, besides of course Harrison. The CD adds a historical oddity: the B side "As I Get Older" was cowritten by Preston and Sly Stone, and produced by Ray Charles! After the relative failure of this disc and the followup Encouraging Words, Preston struck out on his own and found success with the soul-pop classics "Nothing From Nothing," "Will It Go Round In Circles" and the instrumental "Outa-Space." After another dry spell he hit #1 in a duet with Syreeta Wright, "With You I'm Born Again." (DBW)
The Shaggs, Philosophy Of The World (1969)
In the days of X-rated theaters, "raincoaters" were those who had attended so often that ordinary pornography had lost its
allure, and thus were forced to seek out increasingly bizarre and perverse acts to rouse their jaded sensibilities. The
musical equivalent of a raincoater is a Shaggs fan, and I'm not quite there yet. The Shaggs were three sisters from
rural New Hampshire, pushed by their father into forming a band, performing local gigs, and soon recording an album.
Amateurish doesn't begin to describe it: Frontwoman Dot Wiggin wrote everything, and the vocal melodies are all
variations of each other, roughly doubled by her guitar, with no regard for tempo.
Rhythm guitarist Betty is inaudible except for a couple of brief backing vocals.
The lyrics are heartfelt and painfully simple - a couple of love songs ("I'm So Happy When You're Near"), some
anti-generation gap numbers ("Who Are Parents," "We Have A Savior," the cautionary tale "That Little Sports
Car"), a search for Dot's cat ("My Pal Foot Foot") - and most of them rhyme "home" and "roam" at least once.
Drummer Helen Wiggin has a good sense of time and even plays some solid fills, but
the only time she and her sisters are in sync is during the coda of "Why Do I Feel?," so the disc
has a distinct bi-rhythmic feel...
it's easy to see why the record appealed to Frank Zappa, who listed it as his third favorite
album of all time. And some day, when you're bored with normal music - when all hard rock sounds stupid, all love songs
banal, all classical and jazz pretentious, all studio proficiency mere trickery - you too may be ready for The Shaggs.
Shake Me, Wake Me: A Tribute To Holland-Dozier-Holland (1994)
British producer Ian Levine spent the early 90s rounding up Motown acts fallen on hard times, re-recording versions of their hits on his Motorcity Records, then releasing them with confusing packaging so unwary buyers would think they were getting the real McCoy.
This release is a better value than most, though: thanks to the H-D-H theme there are none of Levine's execrable originals, and most of the artists are so obscure - The Velvelettes, Three Ounces Of Love, The Satintones - there's a high curiosity factor.
That's not to say there aren't a lot of problems: Levine's arrangements are bland and irritatingly modern, with insistent programmed drums on all the uptempo numbers, and most of the female artists insist on tackling Supremes tunes although their voices are too rough to stand comparisons to Diana's effortless smoothness (Rose Banks seriously oversings "You Keep Me Hanging On"; Sherri Taylor's gruff rendition of "Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart" is frankly terrifying). There are some fine performances, though: Syreeta gives a typically lovely, understated reading of "Reflections"; Joe Stubbs finds the emotional core of "Baby I Need Your Loving"; The Contours acquit themselves admirably on "This Old Heart of Mine."
And two songs are reinterpreted by the original artists: Levi Stubbs does a fine job on "I Can't Help Myself," while Martha Reeves ruins "Heatwave" with the freaky vibrato routine she's enamored of nowadays.
Soft Machine, Volume Two (1969)
British jazz-fusion pioneers Soft Machine were so relentlessly experimental that the band's superb musicianship, wacky humor, and creative, well-practiced arrangements won them only a cult audience.
A collection of mostly one- and two-minute fragments without a break, their second album does have some aimless jamming ("10:30 Returns To The Bedroom") and random "psychedelic" noisemaking ("Out Of Tunes" indeed).
But ace drummer Robert Wyatt delivers wonderfully arch nonsense vocals on snippets like "Pataphysical Introduction," "Hullo Der," and "Concise British Alphabet"; there are a ton of musically challenging instrumentals ("A Door Opens And Closes"); and when they veer almost into conventional acid rock ("As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still"), it's first-rate - "Dedicated To You" blows away Genesis with a gorgeous vocal and fine acoustic guitar melody.
With no guitarist, the sound relies on Mike Ratledge's stately piano parts and obtuse Hammond organ ah
Produced by the band, with deal-cutting by Mike Jeffrey.
Despite many personnel changes, Soft Machine continued putting out masterful fusion records through the mid-70s, with Wyatt leaving in about 1972 to start a solo career.
There's an excellent web site on the entire Canterbury fusion scene, including a very detailed Soft Machine page. (JA)
Soft Machine, Seven (1974)
By now the band had mutated from a psychedelic acid rock/jazz combo into a disciplined British jazz fusion combo, with only keyboard player Mike Ratledge being an original member.
But they're damn good: sax/piano player Karl Jenkins is bursting with melodic ideas, writing more than half the record and tossing off elaborate riffs ("Block"); drummer John Marshall (an associate of Jack Bruce) is extraordinarily dextrous, inviting comparisons with Bill Bruford; and bassist Roy Babbington holds down some really demanding lines and gets in a startling bowed standup bass solo ("Down The Road").
Meanwhile, Ratledge delivers refined, tasteful synthesizer voicings, and he orchestrates a thunderous suite that let's everyone show off impressively ("Day's Eye/Bone Fire/Tarabos") - although Jenkins' sophisticated tunes almost steal the show (the stately, uplifting "Penny Hitch").
The group had long since abandoned vocals. But complex overdubs and frequent stylistic shifts keep it interesting, from Marshall's spacey Eastern percussion piece "D.I.S." to Jenkins' romantic keyboard solo "Carol Ann."
With key compositions like "Nettle Bed" and "Block" scattered everywhere, the only expendable tracks are the watery interludes "Snodland" and "The German Lesson/The French Lesson."
Virtuosic and staggeringly intelligent, this is a classic example of the genre.
Guitar phenom Alan Holdsworth would join the band for Bundles (1975); I have the less ornate, Jenkins-dominated Rubber Riff (rec. 1976, rel. 1995) and think it's pretty decent. (JA)
Soul Christmas (1968)
Stax/Volt's Christmas album, and most of the label's artists are represented: Carla Thomas
rewarms her hit "Gee Whiz" ("Gee Whiz It's Christmas");
Otis Redding belts out the trivial words of "White Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby" with an
intensity that borders on self-parody;
saxman King Curtis gets in touch with his mellow side on "The Christmas Song" and "What Are You Doing
New Year's Eve."
As usual, Booker T. & The MG's get stuck with the corniest material ("Silver Bells" and
"Jingle Bells," which gets the bass line from "You Can't Hurry Love"), but this time
they can't rise above it.
More interesting are the minor artists: Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa" (sampled on Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas In Hollis") is a stomping blues, and Solomon Burke's huge voice drowns out
church bells and a full horn section on his own "Presents For Christmas" (one of the few originals on the disc).
Producers include Jim Stewart, Tom Dowd, and Booker T. Jones among others.
Spirit, Clear Spirit (1969)
After two modestly successful albums, Spirit had finally developed a distinctive sound and was much more focused in the studio.
Side 1 has a string of solidly entertaining rock songs: the riffy and energetic "Dark Eyed Woman," propelled by Randy California's blistering wah-wah guitar; the druggy, bluesy "Apple Orchard"; the gorgeously harmonized, uplifting "So Little Time To Fly," one of their best tunes; and "Ground Hog," a bizarre blend of heavy funk and archaic hillbilly influences.
But the rest is uneven, with several second-rate pop tunes (the pretty, but plodding "Cold Wind"; the formulaic acid rocker "I'm Truckin'"); several instrumentals ("Ice" and title track, with Marty Paich's Sketches Of Spain-style strings; the aimless jazz number "Caught"); and an initially exciting, experimental mini-suite that breaks down in the middle ("New Dope In Town").
It's not nearly as memorable as the next album, but it is a respectable artistic effort that shows the group maturing beyond its California hippy origins.
Produced by Lou Adler, who gets a co-write on the limp, mid-60s Beach Boys-style pop song "Give A Life, Take A Life."
The new CD release includes their doomed single "1984," a dramatic and cleverly crafted 60s rock anthem that was banned from US radio; it shares nothing with David Bowie's later hit other than a vague connection to Orwell's novel (the B-side, "Sweet Stella Lady," is also good). (JA)
Spirit, Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus (1970)
Sixties addicts like myself have a bad habit of ranting and raving about obscure psychedelic concept albums that turn out to suck.
Well, this one deserves every last rant and rave - it's honestly in the same league as Forever Changes and Odessey And Oracle.
Admittedly, the band's influences are only original when compared to the rest of the West Coast scene: Beatles-based rock, contemporary jazz, and just a hint of R & B. But in spite of the usual psychedelic gimmicks - panning, backwards tracks, layered overdubs, quasi-mystical lyrics ("Love Has Found A Way") - there's nothing self-indulgent or amateurish about it.
Guitarist Randy California smokes on the few hard-rock numbers ("Street Worm"); it's no coincidence that he had a six-month internship with Jimi Hendrix back in 1967.
Drummer Ed Cassidy (California's jazz-trained step-father) and pianist John Locke add substantial musical depth.
And even though lead singer Jay Ferguson is pedestrian, they do manage some respectable group harmonies.
All of it comes together on no less than five memorable tracks: the hard-hitting, intricately harmonized "Nothin' To Hide"; the earnest acoustic anthem "Nature's Way" - probably their most enduring song; the good-natured, entertainingly gimmicky "Animal Zoo"; the extra-funky "Mr. Skin," like a grittier, more authentic Chicago; and the irresistably uplifting "Morning Will Come," with another ballsy horn arrangement.
Produced by Neil Young associate David Briggs.
Spirit's three earlier albums don't appear to be as impressive, but I am planning to review them. The group split immediately afterwards, with Cassidy and California leading "Spirit" through a series of commercially inconsequential records over the next three decades. (JA)
Man, I'm totally losing it... yeah, this is the debut album by Canada's other gift to the 60s (see also Joni Mitchell and Neil Young) - the album "Including the hit: Born To Be Wild," as the cover kindly explains. It's thudding, grungey, slightly psychedelic 4/4-time R-O-C-K, distorted to death, slapped on some whitebread, and hold the mustard please. Kind of like Creedence in a really, really bad mood. Steppenwolf was essentially the John Kay show, and some of his tunes are screamingly bad, like his ludicrous tribute "[Chuck] Berry Rides Again."
And he comes up so short on material that he has to cover garbage like Don Covay's "Sookie Sookie" and Hoyt Axton's "The Pusher," done definitively here with a screeching lead guitar, swaying tempo, and two cruel false endings that leave you begging for mercy.
On the other hand, loud and dumb isn't always a bad thing: the band's take on "Hoochie Coochie Man" does nothing to Willie Dixon's arrangement except for speeding it up and cranking the amps to eleven, and it's fun. And Kay's not incompetent; his philosophical 6/8 ballad "Desperation" is still plastered with those famous burned-out guitars, but it's clever, and it surpasses Humble Pie's later cover version. As for The Hit, it was written by "Mars Bonfire" (whoever that is) and its druggy, hedonist thrashing is still entertaining after all these years - okay, I admit it. So sue me. (JA)
The Stooges, The Stooges (1969)
By 1968 two great proto-punk bands had taken Detroit by storm: the hyper-political MC5 and the younger, more nihilistic Stooges, led by wildman singer Iggy Pop. Both of them were signed by Elektra records, and the Stooges hooked up with ex-Velvet Underground bassist and neophyte producer John Cale.
The result is a bizarre 60s artifact, groundbreaking but seriously flawed.
Nobody in the band seemed to be clear on the concept of song structure, so most of the head-pounding tunes are rudimentary rock 'n' roll riffs that sometimes shift to a chorus and sometimes don't.
On the other hand, guitarist Ron Asheton has a total mastery of late 60s hard rock guitar gimmicks - wah-wah, blazing distortion, the works; the rhythm section (Dave Alexander, bass; Ron's brother Scott on drums) gets across a fat, tribalistic beat that you can't ignore (the Chuck Berry/Stones-influenced "1969"); and Pop is a total maniac, screaming his head off and playing games with his huge range ("I Wanna Be Your Dog").
But the record is totally compromised by a ten-minute, "The End"-style experiment that consists of the band chanting a mantra while Cale saws his viola, Ron solos randomly, and Pop improvises knuckleheaded, mock-Morrison lyrics ("We Will Fall").
There is one further Doors-style "psychedelic" ballad ("Ann"), but for the most part the record pushes rock's limits in a new and exciting direction, with several real keepers ("1969"; "I Wanna Be Your Dog"; "No Fun"; "Not Right"). (JA)
The Stooges, Fun House (1970)
Very similar in tone to their first record, this is a disorganized, blazingly loud, occasionally monotonous dollop of acid-metal-proto punk.
The band's chops have improved somewhat, so the riffs are pretty strong, there are no foolish attempts at hippy-dippy studio experimentation, and the volume never drops below 11.
But the song material is actually weaker; only the head-pounding "T.V. Eye" is a classic on par with "I Wanna Be Your Dog," and the boys hurt their own cause with some overlong running times ("Dirt"; title track) and a feedback-drenched, five-minute noise-making session ("L.A. Blues").
The shorter tracks are fun, but they all work with the same formula of primal drums, simplistic (if catchy) hooks, out-of-control guitar solos, and howling, incomprehensible vocals ("Down On The Street"; "Loose"; "1970," a rewrite of "1969").
That leaves the seven-minute "Dirt" as the record's only other high point, with a funky, down-tempo beat, surprisingly melodic bass lines from Dave Alexander, and Ron Asheton's shimmering rhythm guitar parts.
And then there's the title track, with Steven Mackay adding a wild beatnik saxophone solo to an extended jam based on an ear-splitting riff.
Nothing too profound, but it's a textbook demonstration of how this band set the stage for the punk revolution.
Produced by Don Gallucci. After this, the group disbanded for a year and
then reformed for the David Bowie-produced
Raw Power, which is a brilliant hard rock masterpiece. I'll
review that record some time soon. (JA)
Koko Taylor, Queen Of The Blues (1985)
The undisputed queen of Chicago blues since her first hit, a 1966 rendition of Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle," but I have to say, her loud, ragged bluster doesn't impress me.
Great blues singers always have a core of vulnerability - in fact, Howlin' Wolf and Big Mama Thornton are menacing precisely because you can tell they're hurting inside, and it's payback
time. By contrast, Taylor belts and bellows but doesn't give you the sense that there's deep emotion behind it. Anyway, in the mid-80s there was a veritable orgy of Chess-era blues legends cutting records together, and this disc
features Albert Collins (Albert King's "The Hunter"), James Cotton (Dixon's "Queen Bee" and "Evil"), Lonnie Brooks ("Queen Bee") and saxophonist Abe Locke ("Beer Bottle
Boogie" and "Flamin' Mamie") - unfortunately, none of them get much room to shine except for Cotton, who doesn't do much with it.
The main band is Criss Johnson (guitar), sometime Icebreaker Johnny B. Gayden (bass), Professor Eddie Lusk (keys) and Ray "Killer" Allison (drums), and they stick with a single
midtempo groove for the entire disc, almost never varying the dynamics or arrangement - the one exception is the standout track, a rollicking version of "I Don't Care No More" with a guitar duel between Johnson and Son Seals.
So there's a lot of talent here, but virtually everyone can be better heard somewhere else. Produced by Taylor, Bruce Iglauer and Johnson.
Koko Taylor, Force Of Nature (1993)
I'm still not crazy about Taylor, but the good news here is that without all the guest stars (Buddy Guy does add an unimaginative lead to "Born Under A Bad Sign"),
Criss Johnson steps up and dominates, with sharp, slashing lead lines that are also fluid and controlled ("Hound Dog"). He's never cut a solo album, and if you get a chance to hear someone this good, you should take it.
Also, the band is tighter - the new faces are Calvin Louden (rhythm guitar), Jeremiah Africa (keys) and Jerry Murphy (bass) - with even the hoariest tunes given unpredictable syncopated arrangements ("Bad Case Of Loving You").
And when the material's fresh ("Don't Put Your Hands On Me"), the effect is magical.
Let's see: great guitarist, heavy rhythm section, old blues songs, overdone vocals... yep, it's on a par with early Led Zeppelin.
Produced by Johnson, Taylor and Iglauer.
Tammi Terrell, Irresistable (1969)
There's no nice way to put this: after Terrell was diagnosed
with inoperable brain cancer, Motown rushed out this collection of
failed single sides and outtakes to cash in on publicity surrounding
her imminent demise. Terrell had a string of hits written by Ashford & Simpson and performed with Marvin Gaye, but as a solo artist she
couldn't find success, either in James Brown's
camp or with Motown. Partly that's due to weak material (nothing here is
by Ashford & Simpson, or anywhere near their level) and partly because
she has a rather thin voice that sounded far better as a foil for Gaye
than it does on its own. Harvey Fuqua and Jerry Bristol were responsible
for a plurality of the tracks here, and their arrangements cross the
driving Motown rhythm section with sweeping orchestral sweetening. It's
a technique Smokey Robinson used to magical
effect, but without strong melodies it sounds kitchy and lifeless. Many
of the tunes are remakes ("This Old Heart Of
Mine," Smokey's "He's The One I Love," even
"I Can't Believe You Love Me," which Terrell also recorded with Gaye)
and all the new tracks sound like filler (Fuqua and Bristol's "I Can't
Go On Without You" and "Come On And See Me," "That's What Boys Are Made
For"). The best cut is "Tears At The End Of A Love Affair," as Terrell
makes you believe in the sappy lyrics. As Terrell's only full-length
album, this is obviously a must for her fans, but don't expect the usual
Motown magic. Terrell has a fan site with detailed
Carla Thomas, The Queen Alone (1967)
Thomas had a hit single as a teenager at the beginning of the 60s (the aching bubblegum "Gee Whiz"), then toiled without much success for Stax-Volt. In 1967 she scored with an Otis Redding duet album including the hit "Tramp," and also cut this less successful solo disc. The obvious comparison would be to Aretha Franklin, who leaped into the mainstream just as this album was being prepared - especially since Stax passed on Aretha
because they felt Thomas was all they needed. But here Thomas is far
from Franklin's R&B sound, and much closer to smooth-voiced
contemporaries like Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick. She even covers a tune by
Warwick's main composer, Burt Bacharach ("Any Day Now," originally a
minor hit for Chuck Jackson and later remade by Ronnie Milsap). Half of
the tracks are by Sam & Dave writers Isaac
Hayes and David Porter, and while a couple of tracks sound like
standard Stax soul ("Stop Thief"), mostly it's MOR ballads (the single
"Unchanging Love," "When Tomorrow Comes"). The other tracks come from a
variety of writers (most prominently Eddie Floyd)
and several are unbearably corny ("Lie To Keep Me From Crying"). Notable
as a Stax experiment with mainstreaming, but a big disappointment if
you're looking for the gutsy, sassy side Thomas showed on "Tramp."
Big Mama Thornton, Sassy Mama! (1975)
Like so many blues singers, Thornton is better known for inspiring white rockers than for her own recordings: Elvis
Presley had a hit cover of her single "Hound Dog" (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), and Janis
Joplin had a hit cover of her self-penned "Ball And Chain." She's more of a performer than a singer, without much resonance or sense of
pitch, but lots of enthusiasm and a take-no-shit attitude.
Everything's written by Thornton aside from Muddy Waters's "Rolling Stone" and Jean Cheatam and Mattie Fields'
"Everybody's Happy (But Me)," and she's a fine writer, with a broad emotional reach from the bright, boisterous "Big Mama's New Love"
to the plaintive "Private Number" to the rueful "Mr. Cool."
The band - Cornell Dupree, guitar; Wilbur Bascomb, bass; Paul Griffin, keys;
Buddy Lucas, tenor sax; and Jimmy Johnson, drums - is professional but ordinary, more or less just logging studio hours - at least they do manage a bare-bones retro sound rather than LA fusion blandness.
But even without much support, Thornton - who died destitute in 1984 - makes a better post-feminist folk hero than Joan Jett. Reclaim her, somebody, would you?
T. Rex, Electric Warrior (1971)
Glam rock icon Marc Bolan got his start as a monotonous, whining hippy folk singer, billing himself and percussionist Micky Finn as "Tyrannosaurus Rex" and recording a string of long-forgotten late 60s albums and a few marginal British hit singles.
Taking a hint from friend and rival David Bowie, Bolan revamped his act in late 1970 and promptly scored two massive British hits ("Ride A White Swan"; "Hot Love").
His following album release is an absolute classic of the genre, rivalled only by Bowie's work and Mott the Hoople's All The Young Dudes.
Produced by Bowie associate Tony Visconti, it features clever string arrangements, super-echoey mixes, super-campy backing vocals by Flo & Eddie, and loose, hedonistic sax parts by versatile ex-King Crimson member Ian McDonald.
Two big-deal singles are the high points: the honking, super-cool groove tune "Bang A Gong (Get It On)," Bolan's only US hit, and the rambling follow-up "Jeepster," with a booming Bo Diddley beat and a marvelously sinister vocal.
Both of them push the fun quotient through the roof.
"Mambo Sun" and "The Motivator" mine the same brilliant formula as the singles, and almost everything else works: a tripped-out ballad ("Cosmic Dancer"); a wiggy, crawling blues parody ("Lean Woman Blues"); an outrageous, orchestrated Stones-like funk groove ("Rip Off"); and a pair of late-period Beatles-style flower-power sing-alongs ("Planet Queen"; "Life's A Gas").
Some of it is over the top - the doo-woppy "Monolith" drags, and the elaborate acoustic ballad "Girl" is a slavish, over-mannered pre-glam Bowie imitation.
So the album is slightly flawed but essential.
The rhythm section is Steve Currie (bass) and Will Legend (drums).
T. Rex scored a long string of British hit singles through late 1973 before starting to fade out. (JA)
T. Rex, The Slider (1972)
Bolan's follow-up showcases all of his limitations: cutesy nonsense lyrics, elementary guitar riffs, and shockingly unoriginal songwriting.
Bolan's recycling is relentless (the Elvis Presley-based "Baby Boomerang"; the repetitive "Space Oddity" rip-off "Spaceball Ricochet"), half the record is as slow-paced as molasses ("Ballrooms Of Mars"), and a lot of the material is disposable: formulaic up-tempo rock (the British chart-topping hit single "Metal Guru"), lethargic blues-rock ("Rabbit Fighter"), a dull, slow-paced number with prominent strings ("Mystic Lady").
But you can't argue with Bolan's groovy good-time sound.
The title track is the best thing here: it slows down "Come Together," adds a winking Visconti string arrangement, and shows off Bolan's impressive vocal low end.
The British #1 hit "Telegram Sam," a rewrite of "Bang A Gong," is plenty of fun ("Baby Strange" does the same thing with less inspiration).
And a lot of the rest at least sounds good before it's over and you forget it: "Rock On" has a swaying, drugged-out sound; the characteristically cryptic ballad "Main Man" has a pleasant sing-along quality; and there's a head-banging Zeppelin imitation, complete with clumsy soloing ("Buick Mackane").
Low on ideas, the record at least carries along Electric Warrior's smirking, sensuous vibe.
Same credits as before - Flo & Eddie are prominent ("Chariot Choogle") - but Will Legend is now Bill Legend, and the saxophonist (presumably McDonald) isn't credited.
The CD includes three bonus tracks (the relatively tough-sounding "Cadillac"; "Thunderwing," another plodding 50s reenactment; the folky "Lady").
I'm still looking for Tanx (1973). (JA)
T. Rex, Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow (1974)
By now glam rock was already on its death bed - and Bolan absolutely refused to waver from his formula.
The single "Teenage Dream" was his second U.K. chart disappointment in a row (following "Truck On (Tyke)"), and indeed it's a plodding, pretentious, five-minute bore.
And most of the rest is just as bloated: shrill R & B-style female backing vocals ("Carsmile Smith & The Old One"), elaborate string and brass parts, booming beats, Bolan's increasingly generic guitar solos, his silly internal rhymes, and endlessly recycled nonsense fantasy/sci-fi imagery ("Galaxy") - Bolan sometimes doesn't even bother to write a real lyric ("You've Got To Jive To Stay Alive/Spanish Midnight"; the ballad "Change," which is surprisingly understated).
Despite this, some of the arrangements are unpredictable and clever (the edgy "Sound Pit"; "Liquid Gang"; "The Avengers (Superbad)," a loping, goofy groove).
And a couple of tunes do capture the rumbling, sing-along hedonism of Electric Warrior (the druggy "Explosive Mouth"; "Nameless Wildness," with more Bo Diddley beats; the hand-clapping "Interstellar Soul"; "The Leopards (Featuring Gardinia And The Mighty Slug)," with a hypnotic, gospel-tinged refrain and a spoken Dylan imitation).
Plus there's one up-tempo rock number that reworks "Bang A Gong" beautifully ("Venus Loon").
Co-produced by Visconti and Bolan; the musicians aren't credited, but Gloria Jones leads the singers, and Steve Currie was Bolan's bassist from 1970 to the end.
Bolan got out one more album per year before dying in a car crash in 1977; I've got Zip Gun (1975) and it's more of the same. (JA)
Doris Troy (1970)
Another well-intentioned Beatles project: Troy had been singing backup on rock and R&B records for years, and she was signed by Apple to do her own stuff. Like Billy Preston's similar effort, this flopped, though unlike Preston, Troy really never got a second chance. She has a fine voice, but nothing exceptional or distinctive, and her songwriting is very ordinary light R&B, both lyrics ("Don't Call Me No More") and music (the single "Ain't That Cute," produced by Harrison). As with Preston, Harrison rounds up a zillion big name guests: Steve Stills appears and contributes a couple of tunes (including "Special Care");
Ringo drums; Preston and Harrison are prominent; and Clapton is apparently on here somewhere. But it has the feel of a disorganized all-star jam: as if they were doing Troy such a favor just appearing on her album that they didn't really need to exert themselves. Troy is credited as producer. The CD reissue has excellent liner notes and includes no less than five bonus tracks: three are previously unreleased, while "Get Back" and Leon Russell's "Vaya Con Dios" were B-sides. (DBW)
The Turtles, It Ain't Me Babe (1965)
A bunch of things led to the Turtles being seen as a novelty act: their goofy 1966 #1 hit "Happy Together"; their pudgy, turtle-like tenor lead singers Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman; their Monkees-like mid-60s L.A. bubblegum schtick; and Kaylan and Volman's later self-demeaning exploits as "Flo and Eddie," for example, fronting Frank Zappa's band at its early 70s silliest. This debut album, however, proves that the band had some substance.
"Unoriginal" is a vast understatement: there are three weak Bob Dylan covers, including the hit title track and a stiff version of "Like A Rolling Stone," that religiously copy the Byrds folk-rock formula; "Wanderin' Kind" is a blatant rewrite of the Byrds' Dylan-penned hit "Mr. Tambourine Man," and it's joined by some other derivative 12 string guitar-augmented tracks like their closely harmonized version of Dylan's "Love Minus Zero"; a couple tunes are Herman's Hermits-like bubblegum rock ("It Was A Very Good Year"); and there's more than a touch of the Beach Boys' surf rock sound throughout ("Glitter And Gold" would have made a fine hit for that band).
There's also some then-trendy, but now mildly embarassing "protest" folk-rock, like Kaylan's "Let The Cold Winds Blow" and a decent but unexciting version of "Eve Of Destruction" (it promptly became a #1 hit for New Christy Minstrel's singer Barry McGuire). Guitarist Al Nichol is competent but unable to solo, and at this point the harmonies are sweet but uninventive. Still, the band is entirely competent, the vocals are first-rate and often ferociously emotive, and a few tricks like harpsichord hint at originality; Byrds fans might want to check them out.
The CD includes a couple bonus tracks recorded later that are well-done and amusingly "psychedelic" (Goffin-King's "So Goes Love"). (JA)
Earl Van Dyke, The Earl Of Funk (1970)
Motown's house band, informally known as The Funk Brothers, longed to release
instrumental LPs like their Stax/Volt cousins Booker T. & The MG's, but after a 1965
album (That Motown Sound) stiffed, the label's famous/infamous Quality Control department nixed any follow-up.
By 1970, though, either wisdom or desperation resulted in this live release, under the name of primary keyboardist Van Dyke. Exactly like the MG's
records, most of the tunes are mostly charttoppers ("Someday We'll Be Together"),
often on the cheesy side ("Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"), and most of the melodies are carried by organ, backed
by guitar/bass/drums (almost no horns, no strings). So both the compositions and arrangements are unoriginal, but
more importantly, the players conceal their usual boldness and verve: the guitar solos are particularly predictable.
The vibe is so mellow that the disc rarely holds your attention - the rare Jamerson bass solo on "The Flick" included - though the drummer (who I'm guessing is Uriel Jones) contributes an
enviable combination of constructive support and individual improvisation.
The Meters' routine R&B vamp "Cissy Strut" and a mediocre jaunt through George Benson's "Fuschia Moods"
are probably the highlights, sad to say.
Vanilla Fudge (1967)
Impressario Shadow Morton (of Shangri-Las and Janis Ian fame) rounded up four nice young New York City boys and formed a psychedelic rock outfit, complete with slow tempos, over-the-top white soul vocals, and oh-so-groovy guitar effects. Morton's smartest move was covering pop hits of the day rather than trying to come up with original material: a seven-minute cover of the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hanging On" became a smash hit, and the album hung on the charts for a year. So conceptually it was very shrewd, even if musically it's a disaster: the boys can't find anything interesting on their instruments,
the long running times are painful, and it's hard to hear fine tunes like "Eleanor Rigby" or "She's Not There" massacred. The best moments come when they take on material that's kitsch to begin with, like Sonnny & Cher's "Bang Bang" (concurrently covered by Stevie Wonder!). The Fudge managed to chart four more LPs during the decade, and bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice have continued to work with such luminaries as Jeff Beck and
Rod Stewart - I don't know what happened to organist/singer Mark Stein or guitarist Vinnie Martell. (DBW)
Jr. Walker & The All-Stars, Shotgun (1965)
Though Motown never pushed its house band to make instrumental records of their own, the label did have success with Jr. Walker, a saxophone player of the old-fashioned honk-and-squeal school of R&B. He's got lots of energy and an enjoyably raunchy tone, and he knew how to write a stomping riff tune: the title track (a hit single) is his, and several other songs are just as good - "Cleo's Mood," "Tune Up" - though it rarely varies from midtempo party mode. The band sounds just like the MGs meet Jimmy Smith, which is a compliment - it makes you wish Motown had recorded more in this vein, because the musicians certainly had the skills for it.
I'm sure Walker cut more records for the label, but I haven't seen any of them; in the meantime, you can't go wrong with this one. (DBW)
Larry Williams, Here's Larry Williams (1959)
Larry Williams is remembered today mostly because the Beatles covered three of his songs,
one of which, "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," is included here. It shows Williams' strengths and weaknesses: he writes catchy tunes
with clean, no-nonsense arrangements and occasional clever turns of phrase, but he shows no emotional depth or musical
variety, and all his hits are rhymes on girls' names. So although "Short Fat Fannie," "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Bony Moronie"
and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" are each enjoyable in isolation, after a whole album of them you'll be screaming for mercy.
Still, if you're in a nostalgic mood, his crisp professionalism will get the job done. (DBW)
Golly, you must be totally burned out. But there's more.