Sunday, June 24, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissue of The Action's 'Rolled Gold'



Do your best to wrap your brain around The Action’s lack of widespread success. Reg King was possibly the UK’s finest smooth soul singer, several members of the band were capable of writing great songs, and they had George Martin in their corner. Perhaps The Action’s early singles were too reliant on previously recorded material and they adapted too late to the age of composing bands. There were certainly management issues. Whatever the case was, The Action made some of the best Mod-infused soul records of the mid-sixties, and when they started producing their own material, there were on the path to creating one of the best albums of 1967: the year that gets my vote for pop’s best one. 

Alas, the band’s shaky foundations crumbled before The Action could finish the LP they intended to call Rolled Gold. George Martin’s interest was never particularly keen and he decided to end his relationship with the band… though he first managed a characteristically grand production for “In My Dream”, the one song that progressed beyond the demo stage. Reg King left, and the remnants reformed as Mighty Baby. The Rolled Gold recordings were shelved for nearly 30 years until Dig the Fuzz Records put them out as Brain (The Lost Recordings 1967/68) in 1995. This selection of tough, intelligent psych pop—too serious to compare to The Who Sell Out (as has often been done), too controlled to be compared to Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (ditto)—reverted to its intended title in 1997 and Reaction gave it wider release in 2002. Rolled Gold is now getting another go via Spain’s Guerssen with its first vinyl release since ’97. 

Once again, there’s a new cover with a mood-appropriate photo of the band in deep thought and neat gilt lettering, and once again, the music is fresh, powerful, beautiful, and forever provoking frustration that it wasn’t this released in 1967. Though one wonders what other feats of magic George Martin might have performed with the other tracks, and the demo-nature of the recordings has always left the sound a touch on the harsh side, there are actually quite a few production strokes beyond the usual austerity of demo-making, such as the flute on “Climbing up the Wall” and the magnificent “Love Is All” and the horse hooves effects at the beginning of “Little Boy”. Bass is very fat on Guerssen’s vinyl, providing a decent counterpoint to the harsher high-end elements. An extensive article originally published in Shindig! last year is included in a large, illustrated insert as a nice supplement with this new LP, and Rolled Gold is still second only to The Beach Boys’ legendary SMiLE in my book. 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

My Story "Denise Bryson" is on Welcome to Twin Peaks.com

To promote Mark Frost's book Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, the Welcome to Twin Peaks web site called for fans to submit their own dossier entries on Twin Peaks characters whom Frost did not chronicle in his book. Frost himself was the fan-fiction contest's judge. So I whipped up a story about FBI Agent Denise Bryson. Frost didn't pick my story (you can read Matt Latterell's winning entry here), but it is currently posted on Welcome to Twin Peaks as part of the site's ongoing Fan Dossier series, which features one of the non-winning entries every Friday. Last Friday's entry was my own "Denise Bryson", which you can read here. Thanks to Pieter Dom for posting it, hosting this series, and creating the damn fine banner above!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Super Deluxe 'White Album' Is Coming According to McCartney

When an anniversary edition of Yellow Submarine was announced for this year, I expressed my hope that it wouldn't come instead of a commemoration of The Beatles (aka "The White Album") in the vein of last year's Sgt. Pepper's box set. According to Paul McCartney in an interview with DIY Magazine, my concerned were unfounded because there will be a Super Deluxe Edition of The Beatles' gloriously messy double album to mark its 50th anniversary this year. Of the set, Macca said, "It’s all in place, I’ve just got a couple of essays [to approve]. It’s all lined up and it’s really good." He mentions demos and a remaster and how "fucking good" John was. Read his comments in that DIY interview here.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: 'Bang: The Bert Berns Story'


Bert Berns is not unusual in the pop world because he was a great songwriter who wrote tons of hits; there were quite a few of them. He’s also not unusual because he was a businessman who fancied himself a tough guy; there were lots of those too. Berns is unique because of how completely he played both roles, writing and/or producing some of pop and soul’s A-list classics—“Twist and Shout”, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Tell Him”, “Piece of My Heart”, “I Want Candy”, “Cry to Me”, and too many more—and doing gangster-type stuff with gangster-type guys all in the name of “business.” I wouldn’t blame you for scoffing at the unsavory stuff he was involved in (why is dangling someone out of a window always the go-to business method for music business bullies?), but you cannot minimize the body of work, and that is what makes Bang: The Bert Berns Story an important documentary. Because as well known as Berns’s songs are, he is not a household name, and a Rock & Roll education is incomplete without being able to identify the guy who was largely responsible for so much incredible music. 

With the passage of years, many of the artists in his circle seem to have let bygones be bygones and have no compunction about paying their respects. Watching the film, I was floored by how complimentary the eternally surly Van Morrison was when the notoriously protective artist discussed the guy who’d released Morrison’s first album and packaged it in legendarily tasteless fashion all without the artist’s knowledge (Neil Diamond, who had a friend attacked and a gig ruined with a stink bomb both at Berns’s behest, is probably justifiably still sore, hence his lack of participation).

The good and the bad get full airing in Bang, but there is no judgmental point of view in the filmmaking, which is probably all for the best considering that Berns’s son Brett is the filmmaker and the movie could have just as easily become some sort of straight-up hagiography. Yet, that neutrality also makes a fairly exciting story feel a bit rote. Steven Van Zant’s narration brings some much-needed personality to the picture, and I defy you not to feel as though you’re hanging out in the back room of the Badda Bing while Silvio Dante regales you with tales of his old crew. And though the film is overly reliant on the standard Rock-doc talking heads, the talking heads in question—Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Solomon Burke, Ellie Greenwich, Ben E. King, Mike Stoller, Andrew Loog Oldham, Van Morrison—are pretty damn impressive.

The 64 minutes of bonus interviews on the DVD edition of Bang: The Bert Berns Story don’t necessarily provide revelations that the feature skips (though it might have if Van Morrison had a slot among the extras), but they flesh out the story a bit with more memories of the man, the music, and the sketchy company he kept.



Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: ''Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story Soundtrack'



Like Steven Van Zandt, Steve Stevens, Lenny Kaye, Robin, and Kato, Mick Ronson was the rare sideman who managed a degree of fame in his own right. Yet most people do not realize the extent of the guitarist’s influence on David Bowie or Ronson’s own talent. He was the ordinary bloke from Hull to Bowie’s Starman from Mars and Bowie’s main man behind the curtain. Mick Ronson wasn’t just the definitive glam guitarist; he was a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and an arranger who actually knew how to write an orchestral score (listen to “Life on Mars?” and succumb to the awe). Without Ronson, the first major phase of David Bowie’s career would have been utterly different, and most likely, not nearly as spectacular.

These are the things we learn in Jon Brewer’s 2017 documentary Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, and they are somewhat reinforced in the film’s soundtrack now receiving a vinyl and CD release via Universal Music (I received the vinyl edition for review purposes). Ronson’s work was so varied that a 14-track record couldn’t capture it in any complete way. His instrumental, arranging, and production work with Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, The Rich Kids, and Morrissey are not represented, but fortunately, rights were cleared for a dose of classic Bowie (“Moonage Daydream”, “Cracked Actor”, “Time”), Ian Hunter (“Once Bitten, Twice Shy”), Elton John (an early, epic version of “Madman Across the Water” that isn’t used in the film even though it’s a veritable Ronson demo reel), and Michael Chapman (“Soulful Lady”, another cinematic no-show).

Most importantly, there are four representatives of Ronson’s solo career, though they are limited to the material intended to be included on a third album that didn’t materialize until 1999 and the final album he recorded, 1994’s Heaven and Hull. Thus, the representation of his work continues to be lopsided on this soundtrack, and Joe Elliott’s version of “This Is For You”, a rambling bit of improvised piano from Mike Garson, and even Ronson’s own cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” are not especially essential… though that last one may miss the mark simply because a song so associated with its creator doesn’t cover well (no offense, Jimi). “Midnight Love” from Heaven and Hull may be significant because Ronson handles all of its instruments himself, but the song is muzak. Nevertheless, there is an inarguably healthy clutch of essential music on Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, and you can’t go wrong with the Elton/Bowie/Hunter-dominated first disc.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: 3 Liz Phair Albums on Vinyl


Liz Phair’s career arc is among the oddest and most notorious in pop, and UMe’s new vinyl reissues puts the spotlight back on that arc even though her defining album in not among the trio (Exile in Guyville is a Matador property and was recently the centerpiece of a massive 25th Anniversary box set by that label).

While Whip Smart does not have the reputation of Exile in Guyville, it is very nearly as wonderful, catching Phair still riding the peak on which she started her career. Brad Wood’s production is a bit cleaner than it had been on Exile, but Phair’s songs are still fabulously eccentric, personal, amusing, emotionally gripping, and frank… though all that “potty mouth” business that was such a publicity hook 25 years ago feels neither shocking nor nearly as interesting as the other aspects of Phair’s artistry anymore.

The title track of Whip Smart gets my vote for the best pop song about being a parent ever written, and that theme joins Phair’s usual musings about sex and relationships in full force on Whitechocolatespaceegg. However, few critics had been paying attention to how much Phair was also musically yearning for fame beyond the pages of CMJ (as far back as Exile’s “Help Me Mary” she’d been threatening to weave her disgust into fame), and that obsession flowers on Whitechocolatespaceegg both lyrically (see the admittedly ironic “Shitloads of Money”) and practically (see “Polyester Bride”, Phair’s first number to get airplay off the indie stations). Perhaps not coincidentally, that was also the least interesting track on Whitechocolatespaceegg, which still delivered much unique Phair oddness with slanted tracks such as “Ride”, “Headache”, and “Baby Got Going”. However, my pick for the album’s best track, the beautiful “What Makes You Happy”, shows that Phair could adapt her style for the Top 40 pop stations. Why it wasn’t pulled for a single is beyond me.

Perhaps Liz Phair had other ideas about what makes a hit, because her eponymous fourth album is both dogged about getting one (the hit factory known as the Matrix produced four tracks) and totally unlike any of her previous albums. And that’s the main issue with Liz Phair: it is neither terrible nor embarrassing; it simply sounds like any pop singer could have made it. But we aren’t fans of just any pop singer; we are Liz Phair fans, and her presence is barely a phantom on the album she named after herself. Songs about underwear or scientifically dubious properties of semen are more like the work of a lesser artist aping Phair than that of the real deal. Granted, “Why Can’t I” did the commercial trick better than anything else, nabbing Phair her one and only entry in the Top Forty of Billboard’s Hot 100, but even she seems to realize that her true legacy lies in her first album.

Still, we shouldn’t forget how fab Whip Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg continue to be, and UMe’s vinyl reissues provide fine reminders of that (ever the odd-woman-out, Liz Phair is not a reissue but a vinyl debut). There is no suggestion either in UMe’s press release or on the album sleeves that any remastering has taken place, and played against the original CDs, they sound identical to me. Considering the infuriating 21st Century trend to brickwall everything, that is great news.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Review: Vinyl Edition of 'Johnny “Guitar” Watson'


The artists of the fifties weren’t necessarily known for their eclecticism, but Johnny “Guitar” Watson was a true exception. Toying with pure blues, soul, pop standards, jazz, and Rock & Roll, Watson bucked limitations at the very start of his career. As a singer, he could grit it up like Stax’s nastiest renegades or spread on the sweet butter like Tamla’s smoothest stars. Even the specificity of his nickname couldn’t keep him from having his way with keyboards, percussion, and the saxophone.  As the decades progressed, he always moved with the times, scoring hits in the funk era with stuff like “Superman Lover” and “A Real Mother for Ya” and convincingly laying claim to the invention of rap. Hell, you could even argue that his “Posin’” pioneered voguing when Madonna was barely toilet trained.

A dozen of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s early sides are represented on an eponymous 1963 compilation for King Records. While blues dominates, the tracks play with the form enough so that you never feel like you’re hearing the same thing twice. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a pretty string arrangement sweeten hard blues as successfully as one does on “Cuttin’ In”. When Watson strays from the blues form, as when he dives into the Great American Songbook and swims up with “Embraceable You”, he kicks up enough vocal debris that it doesn’t sound out of place among its bluesier company. Modern Harmonic Records’ new vinyl edition of Johnny “Guitar” Watson is warmly and richly mastered from the original tapes through an all analog process onto orange vinyl.
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