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.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Review: 'The Shadows of Knight Alive in ’65!'


Illinois’ Shadows of Knight are notable as the band that turned Van Morrison’s garage anthem “Gloria” into a hit, but they also worked their grungy magic on such less well-known items as Bo Diddley’s “Oh Yeah” (which earned a coveted spot on Lenny Kaye’s original Nuggets comp), The Wheels’ “Bad Little Woman”, and “I’ll Make You Mine”, a nasty item co-written by Carole Bayer Sager that the Knights apparently got their mitts on before anyone else. While these numbers weren’t the hits that “Gloria” was, they remain the most enduring Shadows of Knight remnants because they don’t invite much comparison with more famous renditions (though they are all viciously executed enough that they might not pale in comparison under any circumstances).

The set that Shadows of Knight played at Chicago’s the Cellar in the summer of ’65 featured no such obscurities. Instead they ravaged their way through The Kinks’ two biggest hits to date, perennials such as “Rawhide”, “Memphis”, and “Louie Louie”, and a load of R&R and blues standards best known by the Stones (as well as Jagger and Richards’s own “Heart of Stone”). The Shadows’ covers were spirited, fierce, and never superior to the more famous versions. Consequently, The Shadows of Knight Alive in ’65! is a fine but fairly inessential document of a bar band at work in the mid-sixties.

Most impressive is the quality of the recording considering that it was caught on a reel-to-reel that rhythm guitarist Norm Gotsch perched on the side of the stage. As mastered by Bob Irwin for Beat Rocket/Sundazed Music, Alive in ’65 sounds especially powerful. The sleeve notes are quality too with extensive recollections from Gotsch.

Review: 'Gathered from Coincidence: The British Folk Pop Sound of 1965-1966'


In 1963, The Beatles revolutionized pop with a distinctly English ear for melody and harmony and an uncompromised big beat yanked from the yanks. That same year Dylan rearranged the face of folk with a ragged edge that brought the sanitized harmonies of The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, & Mary to Earth and a surreal ways with words that kicked it back into the cosmos. As dissimilar as their styles were at the time, there was already some cross-pollination between folk and pop happening. As early as 1962, Dylan rocked up his hootenanny with the obscure “Mixed-Up Confusion”, and The Beatles’ debut single, “Love Me Do” was more folk than pop with its turgid beat, absence of electric six-strings, and wheezy harmonica. Once Dylan and The Beatles became aware of each other, such heavy petting was over and the marriage was officially consummated as Dylan’s influence loomed all over “I’ll Be Back” and much of Beatles for Sale and The Beatles’ beat inspired Dylan to plug in… though his stripped down, thumping sound was always more Stones than Beatles. It took The Byrds to pointedly fuse Dylan’s far-out poetry and The Beatles’ clean jingle-jangle, officially putting a face on the new folk-rock genre.

Between Mersey Beat-dominated ’64 and psychedelic ’67, folk-rock was the dominant pop style for young, white artists. Even such hardened souls as the Stones, Kinks, and Pretty Things got sucked into it. Appropriately, Grapefruit Records’ new triple-disc collection Gathered from Coincidence: The British Folk Pop Sound of 1965-1966 limits its scope to those two years, and while its reasonable to wonder if its location and period limitations result in a limited listening experience, they don’t.

Instead of just spotlighting songs that reflect The Byrds’ 12-string shimmer, Gathered from Coincidence presents a variety of sounds that fall within its narrow premise. There is electric jangle (Peter and Gordon’s “Morning’s Calling”, The Silkie’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, The Hollies’ “Very Last Day”) but also solo acoustic pieces (Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”), full-band acoustic rambles (The Kinks’ “Wait Til the Summer Comes Along”), heavy-beat rock (The Pretty Things’ “London Town”, Manfred Mann’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”), shades of distinctly British baroque pop (Marianne Faithfull’s “Come and Stay with Me”), bubblegum folk (Twinkle’s “Golden Lights”, Heinz’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”), elaborate productions that fly in the face of folk’s dogged simplicity (Murray Head’s “The Bells of Rhymney”, Justin Hayward’s “Day Must Come”), and some of the turgid, old-fashioned stuff that Rock & Roll mostly swept away (Ian Campbell Folk Group’s “The Times They Are-A Changin’”, First Gear’s “Gotta Make the Future Bright”).

As you probably sussed from the artist and song names, Gathered from Coincidence contains some big groups and a lot of Dylan covers. It also has some varying perspectives, as parodies such as Alan Klein’s “Age of Corruption” and Micha’s “Protest Singer” protest the protest singers, though neither are particularly listenable (however, John Cassidie’s “Talkin’ Denmark Street” is the uncanniest Dylan send up I’ve ever heard). Fortunately, such bum tracks are pretty rare and Gathered from Coincidence ends up a mostly consistent and varied collection of songs from the beginning of pop’s most fruitful period.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissue of Little Willie John's 'Fever'


Little Willie John had a voice that betrayed his years. He was only 19 when he cut the first version of the deathless “Fever”, but his delivery already seemed as richly aged as a snifter of 40-year old cognac. It was just as smooth too without a sprinkle of the grit less naturally skilled singers force to put miles on the odometer. It didn’t matter if he was  smoldering his way through “Fever”, aching out the smoky “Suffering with the Blues”, belting blues on the hit “All Around the World”, and bouncing joyful noise off his sister Mable on the goofy B-side “Dinner Date”. I’d be shocked if Sam Cooke didn’t spend the morning before he recorded Night Beat spinning his Little Willie John records over and over.

Originally released in 1956, John’s first LP Fever collected most of his early A sides for King Records into a consistently strong package. Modern Harmonic Records has now reissued Fever on white vinyl. The analog process results in sound that is clear, powerful, and organic complementing the clarity, power, and naturalness of the man’s voice luxuriously.
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