Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review: Steelers Wheel Vinyl Reissues

Stealers Wheel are obviously best known for their wonderful one hit “Stuck in the Middle with You”, a breezy shuffle delivered in a Dylan whine that went top-ten in 1973, but their pedigree is stronger than that of your usual one-hit wonder. Core member Gerry Rafferty went on to a long career of his own, which kicked into gear with the lovely and sad “Baker Street” in 1977. Rock and Roll’s pioneering dynamic duo Leiber and Stoller produced Stealers Wheels’ first two albums. And most important of all, those two albums are very good beyond the hit on the first one.

The band’s eponymous debut finds them toying with soul (“Late Again”), Move-style metal (“I Get By”), calypso (“Another Meaning”), and even power balladry (“You Put Something Better Inside Me”) with consistent success and bubbly personality. Steelers Wheel is a collection of poppy, pleasant, well-crafted music with a sort of underlying “White Album” vibe, though without any of The Beatles’ exciting weirdness.

On Ferguslie Park, the songwriting and production are not quite as sharp. Even the heavier tracks sound airy due to Rafferty and cohort Joe Egan’s ethereal harmonies and Leiber and Stoller’s soft production. The album also lacks a major hit to anchor it, though the McCartney-esque “Star”, which did go top thirty, the glammy “What More Could You Want”, and the light metal “Back on My Feet Again” are all excellent tracks, as are the haunting “Who Cares” and “Everything Will Turn Out Fine”, which feels a bit like “Stuck in the Middle with You Again”. The Kinky social commentary the drives through a lot of these songs can be too blunt at times (see “Good Businessman” and even “Star”), but it contributes to the album’s unified feel.

The vinyl reissues of Stealers Wheel and Ferguslie Park Intervention Records issued last year were created in accordance with that label’s 100% analog philosophy and really shine as a result. The softness of Ferguslie Park could have turned into mush with improper mastering, by Intervention keeps it clear and textured.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

New Collection to Highlight The Beach Boys in '67

Despite failing to complete their ambitious SMiLE project in the year of the Pepper, The Beach Boys still managed to be very productive in 1967. In the year's waning months they released two LPs: the sort of SMiLE-lite Smiley Smile and the spare yet soulful Wild Honey, which found them moving on after putting SMiLE to rest and signaling pop's move to a more organic post-psych sound a couple of weeks before Dylan got all the credit for that when he released John Wesley Harding

On June 30th, Universal Music will mark the 50th Anniversary of these two often-ignored oddities with 1967-Sunshine Tomorrow. For this double-disc set, Mark Linett and Alan Boyd have mixed Wild Honey in stereo for the first time, while session highlights from both Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, and an abundance of live-in-'67 tracks, including the entirety of the much bootlegged Lei'd in Hawaii, fill out the remainder of Sunshine Tomorrow. Most intriguing of all is a '67 version of "Surf's Up" recorded during the Wild Honey sessions.

Here's the full track listing:
The Beach Boys:  1967 – Sunshine Tomorrow [2CD, digital]

Disc 1

Wild Honey Album (Stereo)

Review: Vinyl Reissue of The Flying Burrito Brothers' 'Gilded Palace of Sin'

Gram Parsons’s stint in The Byrds was very brief but it really shook things up. His Country & Western influence was so profound on Sweetheart of the Rodeo that The Byrds’ seemed unsure how to continue without him, unable to fully commit to country rock without his guiding hand but unable to completely go back to their jangly roots either, and the band never released another great album. More positively, country rock was officially born, and once Chris Hillman resolved to bail on The Byrds too, so were The Flying Burrito Brothers.

This was the band The Byrds probably would have been had Parsons not had the moral fortitude to quit when they decided to tour Apartheid-torn South Africa. Pure country is more present on the band’s debut The Gilded Palace of Sin then it had even been on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, partially because Roger McGuinn often sounded like he wasn’t taking the material entirely sincerely, doing a Deputy Dawg drawl on things like “The Christian Life”. As Burrito Brothers, Parsons and Hillman harmonize with heartbreaking sincerity and have the serious material to match, the finest song being the ridiculously named but utterly heartfelt cry of betrayal “Hot Burrito #1”. There is also none of the harder boogying of Sweetheart of the Rodeo on The Gilded Palace of Sin, though Sneaky Pete’s creative use of lap steel guitar that pierces fuzz tones through tracks such as “Wheels” and “Hot Burrito #2” and a pair of soul covers certainly make Gilded Palace something other than a typical country disc. The ideology of songs such as the draft-dodging “My Uncle” and “Hippie Boy”, which tricks listeners into assuming it will be a goofy parody (much like the Stones’ “Far Away Eyes”, which it clearly influenced) but sucker punches us with tragedy and empathy, also helps distinguish this new approach to country from its conservative predecessor.

The Gilded Palace of Sin is essentially raw, rustic music that demands an organic presentation to convey its woody textures. Intervention Records’ new all-analog vinyl reissue does just that. Bass tones are incredibly deep yet clear. The acoustic guitars and upper-register harmonies never get lost in murk. The range of this mastering is beautiful, much like the music itself.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: Vinyl Reissues of Joe Jackson's First Two Albums

Joe Jackson started his career as a blatant Elvis Costello clone, doing everything but copping Declan’s trademark specs when cooking up cynical, punky power poppers like “Happy Loving Couples” and “Fools in Love” and aggro-Anglo reggae like “Sunday Papers”. So what? Elvis is great and Look Sharp! and I’m the Man are too, and along with Armed Forces, they helped make 1979 a year of riches for nerdy, jilted angry young(ish) men.

Look Sharp! is the favorite Jackson LP, and it is indeed a fierce set with such signature bitter pills as “Is She Really Going out with Him?”, “Sunday Papers”, “One More Time”,  and the title track. I’m the Man is not as cluttered with hits, but for my money, it’s the better album because it’s where Jackson starts finding his own voice with an absence of songs that could spark copyright suits and because phenomenal bassist Graham Maby is so front-and-center. The title track is a hilarious and ferocious crap-culture critique, “Geraldine and John” is Jackson’s most underrated reggae splash, “The Band Wore Blue Shirts” and “Amateur Hour” are masterfully executed mood pieces, and “It’s Different for Girls” is his most incisive piece of sexual politicking, taking the atypical-for-1979 position that some women actually just want to get laid without all the romantic goo men demand.

Last year Intervention Records reissued Joe Jackson’s first two records on vinyl (as well as his fifth, Night and Day, which I did not receive for review purposes). Using a completely analog process, Kevin Gray mastered each album from safety copies of the original master tapes. Played against my original copy of I’m the Man, I can guarantee that it sounds totally authentic and particularly forceful in the low end and whenever Dave Houghton gives his snare drum what for. I didn’t already have Look Sharp! on vinyl, so I could not make a similar comparison, but I can confirm that it sounds warm and wonderful on Intervention’s new vinyl nevertheless.

Since Intervention uses heavyweight plastic inner sleeves for all their releases, I’m the Man has been upgraded to a gatefold with the lyrics and photos (can’t live without that shot of Maby in his mesh tanktop) printed inside the gatefold. Look Sharp! comes in a the same kind of slightly textured sleeve as its first UK pressing. These are vinyl reissues made with love… and not a trace of the delicious cynicism found within their grooves.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review: 'Night Comes Down: 60s British Mod, R&B, Freakbeat, & Swinging London Nuggets'

Despite a very specific origin in London’s jazzy coffee houses of the early sixties, Mod has gone through so many changes that it basically just means “British” at this point. That elasticity didn’t have to wait until Paul Weller and Phil Daniels reinvigorated the cult in the late seventies; it was already happening ten years time ago in the mid-sixties.

RPM Record’s new triple-disc box Night Comes Down: 60s British Mod, R&B, Freakbeat, & Swinging London Nuggets draws all incarnations of homegrown Mod music in a manner that implies a sort of sound progression by playing with chronology.  Had these 87 tracks been arranged chronologically, they would have sounded like a senseless jumble of cool jazz and R&B, bulls-eye power pop, underground-scene psychedelia, and sprinklings of other styles, such as the more mainstream pop of Twinkle’s “What Am I Doing Here with You” and the eccentric genre-shuffling of the two instrumentals from the soundtrack of the Marianne Faithful vehicle (tee-hee) Girl on a Motorcycle. Instead, the songs are more-or-less arranged according to style, so the set strolls from the kind of hard R&B (Lita Roza’s “Mama”), Booker T.-style work outs (The Mike Cotton Sound’s throbbing “Like That”), and jazzy slow-drips (Laurel Aitken’s “Baby Don’t Do It”) the original Mods dug to the red-with-purple-flowers detonations championed by The Who and The Birds to the U.F.O Club sounds that really have nothing to do with the movement except for maybe giving ex-Mods a spot to drop acid now that they were done popping purple hearts.

Needless to say, the real theme here is “smashing music,” so who cares what’s “real Mod” and what isn’t. That distinction sure doesn’t matter when tracks such as The Moody Blues’ soulful “And My Baby’s Gone” is rubbing elbows with The Attraction’s amp-slashing “She’s a Girl”, Fat Mattress’ trippy “I Don’t Mind”, and Twiggy’s magnificent “When I Think of You”, which somehow draws those three disparate styles together without sounding like some sort of hack-and-glue job. There are other familiar names too, such as Arthur Brown, Spencer Davis Group (post-Stevie Winwood), Johns Children, Chad & Jeremy, Alexis Korner, Mark Wirtz, and Mike D’Abo (as well as tracks featuring such future stars as Jimmy Page and Lemmy, who gets in on the thievery of a “Kids Are Alright” rip so blatant that the track is credited to Townshend), but none of the artists are represented by their best-known numbers, so there’s a lot to discover on Night Comes Down.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: 'Sgt. Pepper at Fifty: The Mood, The Look, The Sound, The Legacy of The Beatles’ Great Masterpiece'

Like 1955, 1977, and 1991, 1967 was a pivotal year for Rock & Roll. There was now a permanent place for ART in the raw and raucous genre, and critics and older people started taking it seriously. The LP replaced the single as Rock’s main medium. Pop bands were no longer limited to guitars, bass, and drums. All of this is tightly tied to the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and when you’re on the 50th Anniversary of such watershed events, a lot of retrospectives naturally follow.

So far we’ve seen a month-by-month examination of the year’s music and a run down of key psychedelic albums, most of which were released in that most psychedelic of years, and Pepper’s was a major player in both of these books. There’s also that big 50th Anniversary Pepper’s box set, which includes an excellent and thorough book examining the album’s creation and artistry, as well as the scene that helped germinate it.

Mike McInnerney, Bill DeMain, & Gillian G. Gaar’s Sgt. Pepper at Fifty: The Mood, The Look, The Sound, The Legacy of The Beatles’ Great Masterpiece can’t help but feel a bit like another book for the pile amidst all of this retrospecticizing. It contains a lot of the same information as the other books I’ve mentioned, as well as the innumerable other Beatles books published over the past four or five decades. The glut of recent information also reveals some flaws in this latest book, as when it assumes an erroneous reason for why the run-out groove gibberish was left off of Capitols pressing of Sgt. Pepper’s.

Sgt. Pepper’s at Fifty does manage to go off the usual track in fresh and interesting ways that distinguish it. The book is basically organized as four long essays on each of the topics in its lengthy title. These essays are where the expected details live. The two or three-page tangents scattered throughout the book are where the fun is. This is where we get spotlights on such less-discussed subtopics as the creation of the iconic bass drum skin on the album cover, mini-bios of every character who populates it, a run down of all the “Paul is Dead” clues on the cover, a discussion of the significance of mustaches in the Pepper’s legend, and most fascinating of all, a short history of the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave for which The Beatles created the ultra-rare avant garde epic “Carnival of Light”. The piece was written by Dudley Edwards, one of the producers of the event. These inserts are informative, quirky, and written with more humor than the textbook-like main-feature chapters. They made me wish that the whole book adopted that less reverent tone.

Another selling point is that unlike the other recent books, Sgt. Pepper at Fifty sees the story beyond the sixties to get into such lingering fumes as the rising opinion that Revolver is actually the best Beatles LP and the infamously dreadful Frampton/Bee Gees cinematic vehicle named after The Beatles album. And then theres the books rainbow design and plethora of pictures, including such artifacts as a scan of the article about a teen runaway that inspired Paul to write “She’s Leaving Home” (and isn’t the girl a dead ringer for Pattie Boyd?), a terrifying close up of the doll in the Rolling Stones T-shirt included on the album cover, and a cool shot of George Harrison chatting with Mike Nesmith at the “A Day in the Life” session that I’d never seen before. Sgt. Pepper’s at Fifty may not always be wildly fun reading but it most definitely looks fun.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: 'The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen'

What do you have to do to be worthy of the title “superhero”? Must you be capable of flying around in your underwear or blasting cobwebs out of your wrists? Do you need the wealth and training to thwart evildoers with your creepy cowl, pricey toys, and great, big muscles? Or maybe a woman who simply manages to run the everyday patriarchal gauntlet and come out the other end with her humor, wits, self-respect, and strength intact is a sort of superhero too.

I’d guess that Hope Nicholson would answer “yes” to that last one, because her new book The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen is not solely populated with the Amazonian princesses and cousins from Krypton you’d expect it to be. In Nicholson’s estimation, females devoid of super powers such as Maggie Chascarillo of Love & Rockets and Little Lulu deserve a spot in a volume with a title like that. So do women as grisly as E.C.’s Old Witch or as provocatively proportioned as Vampirella, as outrageous as the blaxploitation exaggeration Superbitch or the heightened feminist Bitchy Bitch, or as flesh-and-blood human as Frieda Phelps. If there’s a takeaway from The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, it’s that if a major female character managed to penetrate the penis-centric world of comics, then she’s pretty super, and you can’t really argue with that.

Nevertheless, Nicholson makes her selections in this character compendium carefully. Don’t expect every iconic female comics character to be represented. There’s no She Hulk no Brenda Starr no Catwoman or Red Sonja. Nicholson seems more intent on moving beyond the obvious, with a particular eye for underground comics. She still knows that she couldn’t get away with sidelining such major players as Bat Girl, Super Girl, and Wonder Woman, but I really love the fact that the author not only admits to not being a Wonder Woman expert but also admits to only having “read maybe five of her comics.” You usually don’t see honesty like that in the kind of book that tends to be intent on dazzling readers with obscure knowledge.

If there’s a controlling theme its that Nicholson seems to respect each of the characters she chooses on some level. If she chooses a T&A title character like Pussycat, it’s because Pussycat is not just a curvy figure but also a genuinely effective secret agent. Nicholson doesn’t give the creators behind these characters a pass because they managed to craft a fairly well-developed female character either. She acknowledges when they are exploitative, and in the case of Frank Miller’s Give Me Liberty, which happens to contain a worthy female character in Martha Washington, homophobic.

Yet Nicholson is generally more into celebrating than finger wagging, and there is a true spirit of love at work here. Her affection for these characters is heartfelt and palpable. Her pro-Wendy the Good Little Witch testimonial is particularly touching. Nicholson is very funny too, and reading her cases for and critiques of these characters is like listening to a good buddy tell you what makes her geek out over cocktails. Next drink’s on me, Hope. 
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