Archived Reviews

Chet Atkins, The Essential Chet Atkins (RCA Nashville/Legacy). Chet Atkins is more esteemed as a session musician and producer than a solo artist, and critics have rightly noted that much of his immense catalog as a solo artist is unimpressive. It might thus be assumed that it would be difficult to pick a two-CD, 40-track career-spanning retrospective that would both represent much of his finest solo output and appeal to the general listener, not just the country music scholar. Happily, this set manages the difficult feat of doing exactly that, owing to intelligent selection of a wide cross-section of tracks, going all the way back to a 1946 single by Chester Atkins and the All-Star Hillbillies and all the way up to a 1995 recording (though most of the set predates 1970). Atkins' virtuosity as a guitarist has never been in question, but here it's allied with good material and taste, showing him as a fine blender of hillbilly, boogie, and jazz styles in a variety of contexts. It's mostly instrumental, of course, but wisely his talents as a sideman are showcased here and there too on vocal sides by the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle, Eddy Arnold, the Everly Brothers, and Don Gibson. Even the pop standards are good when chosen this judiciously, and there are some surprisingly bold moves into more electric and rock-influenced territory on cuts like "Slinkey" (with its innovative tremolo), "Boo Boo Stick Beat," the Shadows cover "Man of Mystery," and "Teen Scene" (which he co-wrote with Jerry Reed). It might not be the ultimate Atkins compilation, given the sheer quantity of material the guitarist recorded, but it's a good—and, more crucially, very listenable—starting point for surveying his work as a solo artist.

The Blossom Toes, We Are Ever So Clean (Sunbeam). Imagine the late-'60s Kinks crossed with a touch of the absurdist British wit of the Bonzo Dog Band, and you have an idea of the droll charm of Blossom Toes' debut album. Songwriters Brian Godding and Jim Cregan were the chief architects of the Toes' whimsical and melodic vision, which conjured images of a sun-drenched Summer of Love, London style. With its references to royal parks, tea time, watchmakers, intrepid balloon makers, "Mrs. Murphy's Budgerigar," and the like, it's a distinctly British brand of whimsy. It has since been revealed that session men performed a lot of these orchestral arrangements, which embellished the band's sparkling harmonies and (semi-buried) guitars. But the cello, brass, flute, and tinkling piano have a delicate beauty that serves as an effective counterpoint. The group sings and plays as though they have wide grins on their faces, and the result is one of the happiest, most underappreciated relics of British psychedelia. The 2007 CD reissue on Sunbeam adds ten bonus tracks that are of great value in rounding out a more accurate picture of the band around the time the album was recorded. They include a worthwhile outtake from the LP, "Everybody's Talking"; alternative versions, minus the orchestral overdubs, of "Look At Me I'm You" (instrumental only) and "I'll Be Late for Tea" that give a better idea of how the band actually sounded live at the time, isolated from the album's elaborate production; live, and quite different, versions of "Mister Watchmaker" and "Love Is" that are far sparer than the original LP arrangements, including vibraphone, flute, and Mellotron; the scarce (and not very good) non-LP single version of Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"; and three decent demos of Brian Godding compositions, of unspecified origin. Also included are thorough historical liner notes drawing on extensive interviews with the band members.

Vashti Bunyan, Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind (Singles and Demos 1964 to 1967) (Dicristina). Vashti Bunyan will always be most known for her 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day, a big cult favorite among some folk-rock fans, and her 2005 comeback Lookaftering. She did, however, release a couple obscure singles in the mid-1960s, as well as doing quite a few unreleased studio and demo recordings around the same time. This 25-track collection couldn't be bettered as a thorough sweep of her material from this era, including both sides of her two mid-'60s 45s; three tracks from singles that went unreleased; demos and tapes from 1966-67; and a good dozen tracks from a 1964 tape that Bunyan found in her brother's attic decades later. As interesting as these are to Bunyan fans, it does show a talent that's still in fairly embryonic shape. The mid-'60s singles (released and otherwise) are quite reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull's orchestrated pop-folk recordings from the same era, yet even wispier and more precious. The similarity can't help but be accentuated by the choice of an unreleased Mick Jagger-Keith Richards composition ("Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind") as her 1965 debut 45, just as Faithfull had debuted with another Rolling Stones offering, "As Tears Go By." Some Phil Spector influence gets poured into the production on "Coldest Night of the Year," done with fellow Andrew Loog Oldham clients Twice As Much. A folkier approach is taken on the unreleased 1966-67 demos and tapes that feature just her voice and acoustic guitar, though the songs likely would have also ended up in a baroque pop-folk bag had they been produced for official release. "I'd Like to Walk Around in Your Mind" and "17 Pink Sugar Elephants" show her drifting toward more unusual and fanciful lyrics, though the oddest tune, "Don't Believe," sounds almost like it could have been a demo targeted toward Herman's Hermits in its skipalong jauntiness. The dozen voice-and-acoustic-guitar songs from the 1964 tape (lasting only 23 minutes in all) are even barer than the 1966-67 demos, and yet more subdued and fragile-sounding, bringing to mind a young melancholic girl singing to herself in a tiny bedsit on a cloudy London day. The roots of the pastoral delicacy of Just Another Diamond Day are obvious throughout this disc, but Bunyan's personality has yet to come through as strongly, and much of the material here is a little rudimentary in comparison.

Billy Butler, The Right Tracks: The Complete OKeh Recordings 1963-1966 (Kent). Not to be confused with the prior, similarly titled Edsel compilation titled The Right Track, this compiles virtually all of the material Billy Butler recorded for OKeh from 1963-66. The officially released singles he cut for the label during this period comprise about half of this 29-track collection, and are essential for lovers of '60s Chicago soul for several reasons. First and foremost, Butler, though far less celebrated than his older brother Jerry Butler, was a fine singer and songwriter in his own right, producing consistently good pop-soul discs that were rather reminiscent of the Impressions (and, at times, Major Lance, another Chicago soul artist with strong connections to Curtis Mayfield). In addition, if you are a fan of Mayfield's mid-'60s work with the Impressions and as a songwriter/producer, this has some of his best overlooked work in the latter capacity. "Found True Love," "I Can't Work No Longer," "Can't Live Without Her," "Nevertheless," and "(You Make Me Think) You Ain't Ready" are some of the standouts here, but everything's worth hearing, whether they're pleading ballads or uptempo dance tunes. All that noted, the rare and previously unissued cuts that make up about half the CD are a mixed blessing and mostly far below the level of the officially released 45s, though those singles are outstanding enough to make the disc worth purchasing even if you rarely listen to the other half. Some of these extras are alternate versions that aren't better, or too different, from the ones that found release; others are backing tracks and instrumentals. "Fighting a Losing Battle," in fact, is the only one that's comparable in quality to the 1963-66 singles. Also note that despite the title The Complete OKeh Recordings 1963-1966, this  doesn't seem 100% complete; there's a vocal version of "You Won't Let Me Forget It" on the Edsel comp The Right Track that doesn't appear on this CD, though this disc does have an instrumental backing track of the song. As for further nitpicking, though the liner notes claim that the cool doo wop-influenced "Does It Matter" (included here in two versions) has never been released before, a version does in fact appear on the same aforementioned The Right Track anthology. These are small blemishes on what's otherwise a good, well-annotated compilation of one of the best overlooked '60s soul singers.

Nick Drake, Family Tree (Tsunami Label Group). For many years after his death, unreleased home tapes that Nick Drake made shortly before beginning his official recording career have been bootlegged among collectors. The 28 songs on Family Tree add up to an extensive (though not quite complete, missing some minor covers like "Get Together," "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," and "Summertime") compilation of the performances he recorded on such equipment before he cut his debut album, 1969's Five Leaves Left. The bulk of it, and the part that's been oft-bootlegged, was recorded on a reel-reel at his family home (and include a vocal duet between him and sister Gabrielle Drake on "All My Trials," though otherwise they're all solo performances). Less familiar, and hence probably new even to many hardcore Drake collectors, are eight songs taped on cassette somewhat earlier during his spring 1967 stay in Aix-En-Provence in France, as well as a couple of earlier versions of songs that later appeared on Five Leaves Left that were taped by Robert Kirby in 1968, and a couple recordings of songs sung and played (on piano) by Nick's mother, Molly Drake. Many Drake fans will already be familiar with the performances he taped at his family home, but the cleaned-up sound here makes this disc much easier to listen to than those earlier unauthorized releases, though everything's still (inevitably given the sources) a little lo-fi.

As for the music, it's a very pleasant and listenable portrait of Drake's folk roots, though not on par (and not meant to be) with his studio releases. For one thing, at this point, he wasn't playing much of his own material; most of the songs are traditional folk tunes, or covers of compositions by '60s folk songwriters that were obviously big influences on Drake, such as Bert Jansch, Jackson C. Frank, and Dylan (and, on "Been Smokin' Too Long," a friend he met in France, Robin Frederick). Also, both his guitar work and singing are more derivative of the likes of Jansch, Donovan, and country bluesmen such as Blind Boy Fuller (whose "My Baby's So Sweet" he covers here) than they would be by the time he settled into his own style on Five Leaves Left. Still, much of what makes Drake special does come through, even with the relatively low percentage of original material and primitive recording conditions. His folk guitar work is already nimble, but more striking are his vocals, which already boast his characteristic mixture of assured slight smokiness and English reserve. And the few Drake compositions put his reclusive yet poetic worldview in greater, more original focus, though it's really only on the songs later used on Five Leaves Left (and, perhaps, the haunting if Donovan-esque "Strange Meeting II") that it becomes fully mature. The two Molly Drake songs, incidentally, aren't mere completist add-ons; they make it clear that she was likely a substantial influence upon her son's melancholy melodies and songwriting, if perhaps a subliminal one. Less essential, though still illuminating for the dedicated Drake fan, is a classical instrumental (by "the Family Trio") with Nick on clarinet.

Aretha Franklin, Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live at Montreux: The Another Side of Don't Fight the Feeling [DVD bootleg]. Shot live at the Montreux Jazz Festival on June 12, 1971, this 70-minute color footage offers five songs from King Curtis & the Kingpins, followed by a twice-as-long set from the featured attraction, Aretha Franklin (with Curtis' band the Kingpins backing her up). How can you go wrong with that kind of talent? You can't, though this unauthorized DVD gives it a try. So let's get the negatives out of the way first: the image transfer is a little washed-out and jumpy, though still viewable with reasonable comfort. A big fat rectangular "Footstomp" logo appears on the lower right-hand part of the screen throughout, in case you have any doubt who's made it possible for you to view this material. This doesn't seem to be the whole set, either, or possibly not include everything that was filmed; in the cruelest blow, one of Franklin's best numbers here, "Dr. Feelgood," is cut off before the end. But these are outweighed, though not hugely, by the positives, mainly Aretha's performance. This is the Queen of Soul in her prime, literally sweating with effort, and sticking to her finest material, including "A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Don't Play That Song," "Spirit in the Dark, and "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)." She also plays piano for a good portion of the performance, allowing appreciation of what's always been an overlooked part of her skill set. In comparison, King Curtis' set (with Cornell Dupree on guitar) is a little unremarkable, though it's still solid soul, including versions of "Soul Serenade" and "A Whiter Shade of Pale." But as good as it is to have this rather than not having it all, like many such products, it begs the question: if the footage exists in better condition, when is someone going to get a hold of it and give this historically important material the presentation and packaging it deserves?

Aretha Franklin, Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul (Rhino). Aretha Franklin's recordings for Atlantic in the late 1960s and early 1970s are universally acknowledged as her best, and this two-CD set draws exclusively from that era, spanning late 1966 to 1973. Aside from the B-sides "Pledging My Love/The Clock" and "Lean on Me," everything here is a demo, outtake, or alternate version -- a real hoard of largely previously unheard material from the prime of one of the greatest soul singers. Franklin and Atlantic did exercise sound judgement as to what to select for release, however. So these recordings, as valuable as they'll be for soul fans to hear, are neither on par with her best official work nor revelatory insofar as uncovering hidden gems or unsuspected stylistic detours. Still, what's here is characteristic Franklin soul, which is satisfying enough. Historically speaking, the most fascinating of these vault finds may be the three late-1966 demos that lead off the set, including early versions of "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" and "Dr. Feelgood," although the rudimentary arrangements (just voice, piano, bass, and drums) illustrate how vital Jerry Wexler's production was to getting the most out of the material. Otherwise the tracks reflect the diversity of the songs Aretha was putting on her official Atlantic releases, encompassing covers of tunes penned by James Brown, her sister Carolyn  Franklin, Motown, Van McCoy, Leonard Cohen, and Gene McDaniels, and even including a pass at "My Way" (as well as several items whose composers remain unknown). Stylistically the palette is broad, too, from wailing near-bluesy soul to near-pop, usually played with tight soul combos, but wrapping up with a solo piano demo of "Are You Leaving Me." The early-'70s recordings on the second disc don't have quite the energy and quality of the first, though they're still performances most artists would envy, taking in mild funk, earthy gospel, and a slight creeping slick pop influence. As for the track that seems most inexplicably passed over for release back in the day, that would be the bold, pounding McCoy-authored 1968 outtake "So Soon."

The Goons, Unchained Melodies (Decca). Though the Goons are known primarily as a spoken-word comedy team, they also recorded their share of musical parodies. This highly enjoyable 14-track compilation is dominated by singles they released on Decca in the UK in 1956 and 1957, fleshed out by a couple 1955 recordings that didn't get released until 1990, as well as a 1978 reunion single. Few popular music styles escaped their arrows, the songs taking shots at rock'n'roll, opera, popular standards, Christmas odes, music hall, and even yodeling country and western. They even yielded two double-sided British hits in 1956, "Bluebottle Blues"/"I'm Walking Backwards for Christmas" and "The Ying Tong Song"/"Bloodnok's Rock and Roll Call." Listening to these recordings several decades down the line, it's obvious how substantial an influence the trio of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe were on subsequent British comedians. The use of funny voices can be very similar to Monty Python's, especially the nasal high-pitched ones, while the intro to "Eeh! Ah! Oh! Ooh!" makes the Goons' connection to the Bonzo Dog Band clear. But even taken aside from its historical context, this is funny (and non-dated) stuff, the trio deflating all manner of musical pomposity with charm, superb timing, and deft insertion of silly sound effects (with, on four of the tracks, help from producer George Martin). The 16-page booklet of liner notes is a helpful survey of the Goons' career in general, and their comedy recordings in particular.

Elmore James, The Classic Early Recordings 1951-1956 (Ace). Although a few hardcore Chicago electric blues fans might take offense at the remark, Elmore James' work does not comprise the most varied discography among major bluesmen. So a single-disc survey of his material, whether it covers the first five years or so of his career (as this three-CD anthology does) or a longer period, works better as both a general introduction and a more listenable compilation than a box set does. If you're a completist who does want everything known to exist that he laid down in the studio between August 1951 and January 1956, however, this 71-track compilation is the most thorough retrospective of that era likely to be produced. In addition to including songs that were not issued in any form until after his death (and sometimes long after his passing), there are multiple takes of specific tunes, alternates, false starts, studio chatter, instrumental version, songs on which he guested by Bep Brown and Little Johnny Jones, and so forth. Indeed, there are so many multiple versions on this release that even the liner notes take care to suggest custom-programming the CD sequence if you'd rather not hear them all in a row. For all the if-we-can-find-it-release-it mentality driving this collection, however, it really is pretty listenable, at least if you like James and early-to-mid-1950s Chicago blues a lot. For one thing, it does include a couple of big hits, those being Elmore's original 1952 version of "Dust My Broom" and the 1953 Top Ten R&B hit "I Believe." More relevantly, James played and sang consistently well even on the material that languished in the vault. Plus all those multiple versions aren't wholly repetitive; James occasionally makes changes to the lyrics and music, though the similarity of style from song to song is prevalent enough that you have to be paying close attention to catch all of these. Some fans primarily familiar with James through his Delta-soaked electric slide guitar playing (and there's plenty of that here) will also be surprised at the commercial R&B edge to many of the sides, though it's commercial in the better sense of that term, often with horns and piano urbanizing Elmore's approach. The forty-page booklet has a wealth of information, vintage photos, and a detailed sessionography, increasing its appeal to those who want all things Elmore. (Initially released in 1993 in long-box packaging, The  Classic Early Recordings 1951-1956 was reissued by Ace in 2007 as a standard-sized three-CD set with a different cover.)

Koerner, Ray & Glover, Blues, Rags & Hollers: The Koerner, Ray & Glover Story [DVD] (MVD Visual). As much of a cult following as they have among blues and folk fans, Koerner, Ray & Glover aren't exactly the kind of act who will attract interest from noted documentary filmmakers or PBS's American Masters series. So Tony Glover himself co-directed this 1986 documentary, which began as a half-hour film, and was eventually expanded to the two-hour form in which it's presented on this DVD. Its low-budget, humble origins are sometimes evident, though only the occasional fluctuation in sound levels is a significant drawback. Too, the relative scarcity of vintage footage -- it wasn't until April 1982, nearly 20 years after their first recordings, that they appeared on television -- means it has to rely heavily on talking heads and still photos. As much as a DVD can be said to grow on you over the course of its two-hour running time, however, this low-key but affectionate portrait does. John Koerner, Dave Ray, and Tony Glover all speak extensively about their individual and group histories, their idiosyncratic combination of folk and blues, and their sporadic recordings. Indeed, about as much time's given to their various side projects as their work together as a trio, and while the early-to-mid-'60s recordings that established their reputation aren't neglected, there's a lot of coverage of what they did in the subsequent two decades as well. What comes across most memorably is the humble, droll diffidence of all them toward fame and fortune; in the case of Koerner and Ray in particular, they just didn't seem too bothered with getting ahead in the music business, simply playing for kicks and rolling willy-nilly with whatever whimsical paths their music or lives took. The documentary also reveals some interesting non-musical activities of Glover's that even fans of the trio might not be aware of, including his stint as a popular radio DJ, his rock journalism, and his friendship with Patti Smith long before she start to perform music. This won't win any major awards for striking or slick documentary filmmaking, but if there was an award for the least pretentious documentary of a significant recording act, it could well win that prize. The DVD includes a couple updates as to their surprisingly extensive activities in the two decades following 1986 (including, sadly, Dave Ray's death in 2002), as well as 25 minutes of performance footage from the 1990s.

Lene Lovich, Live from New York at Studio 54 [DVD] (MVD Visual). While it's better to have some Lene Lovich footage from her prime than nothing, it must be admitted that even Lovich fans will find this nearly-hour-long disc of a 1981 live performance disappointing in some important respects. Originally filmed for a television program (and not a high-budget one, from the looks of things), the footage is a little grainy and the camera work sporadically shaky. Most unfortunately, the sound balance isn't so good, and the element that suffers most is the crucial one, Lovich's singing. Whether it's the fault of the equipment being used on stage, the sound equipment used by the film crew, or both, her vocals aren't as out-front as they should be, and specific lyrics are often slightly muffled and hard to understand. Add the fairly crude insertion of some special visual effects and audience interviews, and it's something of a cross between a real production and what you might expect from a bootleg. The performances themselves, however, are fine, with Lovich animatedly performing eleven songs that include some of her most popular tunes, among them "Home," "One in a Million," "Too Tender (To Touch)," "Say When," "New Toy," and "Lucky Number." Visually she's distinctive as well, her costume and hairstyle suggesting a cross between a punk, a cabaret singer, and the Swiss Heidi character. The band plays well with an affable stage presence that gladly concedes the spotlight to Lovich, although the backup group includes one member, Thomas Dolby, who would soon become a star in his own right. The only DVD extra is a brief rehearsal clip, with a Lovich voiceover taken from comments in an interview she gave.

Les Paul, Chasing Sound! [DVD] (Koch Vision). Originally presented as a 90-minute documentary on PBS' American Masters series, this DVD adds 90 minutes of extras to this overview of one of the most influential (and genre-crossing) guitarists of the recording era. The main feature takes a little too long to get going, laying on perhaps a few too many testimonials than is necessary before getting to the core story. The core story, fortunately, does occupy the heart of the film, based around interviews with Paul, conducted at a time when he'd been in the music business for more than seven decades. The interviews are mixed with memories from associates, praise from admirers ranging from B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt to Richard Carpenter and Jeff Beck, and vintage footage going all the way back to movie appearances predating Paul's hooking up with Mary Ford. The footage with Ford, even including a TV commercial, supplies the most entertaining segments, illustrating as it does Paul's peak as a player and recording artist. What makes his story particularly interesting, however, is not just his run of hit records in the 1950s, as influential and impressive as they were. There were also the innovations he made on several fronts, particularly as a pioneer of multi-track recording and one of the very first musicians to explore and expand the possibilities of the electric guitar. Of the extra features, the most interesting are the more complete series of vintage TV clips of Paul and Ford (including several commercials), as well as some older clips of Paul playing in groups before he and Ford formed a duo (as well as one of Ford singing as part of a three-woman backup group). Also included in the extras are full-length performances, filmed not long before this DVD was released in 2007, with Les Paul and His Trio (some of which are excerpted in the main documentary); duets with Keith Richards, Kay Starr, Merle Haggard, and Chet Atkins (filmed between 1996-2005); more extended interview segments with Paul about his jazz background, recording methods, and guitars; and a gallery of vintage photo stills.

The Rolling Stones, Beat! Beat! Beat! At the Beeb (bootleg) (Invasion Unlimited). The Rolling Stones' 1963-65 BBC sessions have usually been scattered piecemeal over innumerable bootlegs. This two-CD, 50-track set does what should have been done a long time ago by a legitimate label, gathering every known recording they did for the radio network onto one package. There are things to be said against this anthology, namely the uneven sound quality, which ranges from excellent to marginal (though overall it's pretty good). But even at its worst it's listenable, and the compilers did seem to be working from the best available tapes that have escaped into circulation. Of more importance, this is the most complete picture yet of the most vital body of early Rolling Stones recordings that has yet to gain official release. As is usual for BBC compilations (authorized or otherwise) of British Invasion bands, much of it's given over to live (or at least live-in-the-studio) performances of songs also found on their official studio releases, though with a rougher and stripped-down edge. There are, however, a number of songs that never found their way onto those releases, including great covers of Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee" and "Roll Over Beethoven"; not as great, but still good, covers of Berry's "Beautiful Delilah"; and versions of Tommy Tucker's "Hi Heel Sneakers," Bo Diddley's "Cops and Robbers" and "Crackin' Up," Buster Brown's "Fannie Mae," and Howlin' Wolf's "Meet Me in the Bottom." These alone would make this of significant importance, but there are also BBC versions of a lot of material from their early albums, EPs, and singles going back to their debut 45 "Come On," including such standouts as "I Wanna Be Your Man," "You Better Move On," "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "Around and Around," "Carol," "It's All Over Now," "Route 66," "2120 South Michigan Avenue," "Walking the Dog," "The Last Time," and "(I Can't Get No Satisfaction)." Alas, there are very few Stones originals on the set; the only others besides "The Last Time" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" are "Little By Little" and "The Spider and the Fly." And as with some other bands who recorded prolifically for the BBC, there are multiple versions of many of the songs, though never more than two of any of the same tune, spaced far enough apart from each other that listener enjoyment isn't diminished. On the whole these are sparkling, if occasionally, raw performances that testify to the group's brilliance as an R&B-rock band in their early days. There's no reason they shouldn't be officially released with the appropriately possible sonic cleanup, especially as there are several other far less worthy Stones rarities/live releases cluttering their official discography.

Mick Taylor, The Mick Taylor Collection [DVD bootleg] (Original Artists). Because Mick Taylor never established himself as a significant solo artist or bandleader, this nearly two-hour unauthorized DVD isn't so much a collection of Taylor clips as an anthology of performances he gave as part of other bands. When those other artists include the Rolling Stones, Mike Oldfield, Jack Bruce, and John Mayall, however, some good music is guaranteed, whether or not you're a particular Taylor fan. The clip with Mayall, unfortunately, amounts to nothing more than a brief bit from a Mayall documentary, with no significant performance footage. The three tracks from his first concert (at Hyde Park in July 1969) with the Rolling Stones are better, but be warned that these have been issued as bonus material on the official DVD release of that concert, so the kind of fanatics likely to pick up this bootleg in the first place might already have it in their collection. After an extensive trailer for the Ladies & Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones Film, we then come to the unexpected highlight of the disc: a 25-minute live 1973 performance (source unidentified, though it looks like a TV broadcast) of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" in excellent quality, though here Taylor's just part of a mini-orchestra of sorts with about ten players.

Then follows another big find: an hour-long 1975 BBC television concert by the short-lived incarnation of the Jack Bruce Band in which Taylor played, preceded by an interview with Bruce and Taylor. Also including major jazz artist Carla Bley on keyboards, future Knack (!) drummer Bruce Gary, and keyboardist Ronnie Leahy, this group never put out a record while Taylor was in the band, making this program a lost album of sorts. Unfortunately, while the image quality and transfer are okay, the music's kind of disappointing, dominated by Bruce's ponderous songs. These are a little like his more ambitious Cream tunes without the pop-friendliness, adding a lot of gloomy, arty jazzy pretensions. Too, Taylor's role in the music isn't as large as one might have guessed, and doesn't bear much relationship to the blues-rock for which he's renowned; based on this evidence, it seems unsurprising that his partnership with Bruce didn't stick. If only for the gap it fills in for our knowledge of what this band sounded like, however, it's a significant if underwhelming document. Sadly, the final clip, of Taylor playing in Chris Jagger's band in 2003, is awful from almost every angle: there's bad camerawork, sound, and singing, and the song goes on way too long, though you can tell Taylor's still got his chops when he solos.

The Tempests, Would You Believe! (Poker). The Tempests' sole album is prototypical late-'60s beach music: swinging if somewhat bellicose blue-eyed soul, albeit in a ten-piece band with nine whites fronted by a black singer. There's a staunch brassiness to the arrangements, with two saxes and two trumpets, and Hazel Martin delivers his vocals with assured though slightly vibrato-laden earnestness. More beach soul ingredients are added by the keening, buzzing organ of Michael Branch. The resultant sound is often in the same ballpark as fellow beach music biggies like Bill Deal and the Rhondels,  though the Tempests are less frat-oriented and a little more oriented toward earthy soul, in large part because they have an actual African-American singer. It helps that, unlike some other such LPs from the time, most of the material is original, and fairly good and versatile. The upbeat, uptempo stuff is favored, but they're also capable of pulling out a dramatic ballad like "You (Are the Star I Wish On)." The 2007 CD reissue on Poker adds historical liner notes and four worthwhile, similar bonus cuts from their pair of 1968 non-LP singles, compiling everything released by the band in one place.

The Zombies, Into the Afterlife (Big Beat). Although the Zombies broke up at the end of 1967, there wasn't a wholly clean break between that era and the time by which Rod Argent and Chris White established themselves with Argent, and Colin Blunstone established himself as a solo artist. For a year or two, they variously wrote, recorded, and produced demos and low-profile official releases as they hatched their next moves, Blunstone even leaving the music business entirely for a while. While some of this material came out under the Zombies name, much of it either remained unreleased or (in the case of Blunstone's recordings) was issued under the pseudonym of Neil MacArthur. The 20-track Into the Afterlife compilation rescues much of this rare material, combining numerous previously unissued demos recorded by the group's primary songwriters (Argent and White) with both sides of all three of the singles Blunstone released as Neil MacArthur. It also offers a couple MacArthur/Blunstone outtakes, alternate "orchestral" mixes of a few late Zombies tracks, an Italian-language recording of MacArthur's "She's Not There," and even a genuinely live-on-TV 1967 Zombies cover of the Miracles' "Going to a Go-Go." Far from being a barrel-scraping exercise, it shows the musicians to be making interesting music in its own right that often sounded like a natural continuation of what the Zombies had recorded in the late 1960s. Argent handles lead vocals on the Argent/White demos, and while he's not quite as good a singer as Blunstone, he's both good and has a similar style, making those cuts sound pretty close to genuine Zombies tracks. Their songs share many traits with the Zombies' material circa Odessey and Oracle in their baroque melodicism, breathy vocals, and haunting flavor, though with just a tinge of the progressive rock that was starting to emerge at the end of the 1960s. "Telescope (Mr. Galileo)" and "Unhappy Girl" are both standouts in this regard, and "To Julia (For When She Smiles)," the best track on the  entire CD, is more than a standout; its delicate combination of quasi-classical balladry and choral backup vocals is every bit the equal of the best tracks on Odessey and Oracle. The Neil MacArthur tracks (including the minor UK hit remake of "She's Not There") are more floridly produced orchestrated pop-rock, but also have their silky charms, particularly the cover of Nilsson's "Without Her" and the more understated, acoustic-oriented sad ballad "World of Glass." Thorough annotation by Zombies expert Alec Palao ices the package, and as none of the tracks appear on the otherwise thorough Palao-compiled Zombies box set Zombie Heaven, this CD is a necessary supplement to that box for fans of the group.

Various Artists, All My Loving [DVD] (Voiceprint). Lasting nearly an hour, Tony Palmer's 1968 made-for-television film All My Loving was the first documentary about rock music ever broadcast on the BBC. For that matter, it was the first time some of the major rock stars in the film had been seen playing live or frankly speaking their minds on the BBC. For those reasons, it's a landmark of sorts, but it's not without its flaws as a television program. Without a narrative thread or context, it jumps rather willy-nilly between brief performance clips, interview snippets, and footage of late-'60s youth gatherings and violent political disturbances. As a consequence, no one's really allowed to go on at enough length to make cogent points, though the most articulate interviewees -- Frank Zappa telling a disturbing story about Marines ripping up baby dolls in a Mothers of Invention concert, Paul McCartney discussing how seriously some people analyze the Beatles' songs -- come close. Some of the juxtapositions -- for instance, of loud rock music with some authority figure claiming how much it damages ears or tacky commercial campaigns -- are vaguely pretentious, arty contrasts that demonstrate nothing. The use of footage of bodies being dumped into graves while the Beatles' "Money (That's What I Want)" plays on the soundtrack crosses the line into the pointlessly (and tastelessly) absurd. Some of the soundbites with non-rock-musicians (including publicist Derek Taylor, Who co-manager Kit Lambert, and author Anthony Burgess) are so brief and devoid of explication that it's hard to say what they're doing here, other than to provide some sort of contrast to the featured rock musicians. So why watch it, decades later? Well, it does have some exciting performance footage of the Who (a particularly destructive American gig), Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Pink Floyd, and Eric Burdon, some of whom add the odd insight in interview segments as well. Donovan's proclamations add some gentle optimism to the mix, though on the whole it favors the most aggressive brand of 1968 British rock. Whether the alternations of footage of those acts with various atrocities being committed around the world is meant to intimate that the music is a reflection of or an antidote to its times is hard to say. It does not so much attempt to explain rock music, though that was Palmer's original brief, as reflect some of its impact and images, ending up as a reflection of the turbulence of the year in which it was made, 1968. The Voiceprint DVD adds a surprisingly lengthy (40-minute) 2007 interview with Tony Palmer in which he details the genesis of the film (which largely came from a suggestion by John Lennon) and the BBC's reluctance to air it. As a far more marginal bonus, there are also a handful of cartoons by Ralph Steadman, some of which relate to the times and topics of All My Loving and some that don't.

Various Artists, The Leiber & Stoller Story Vol. 3: 1962-1969 (Ace). Like the previous volume of this admirable Ace Records series devoted to songs by the great composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, this isn't so much a best-of survey as a representative sampling of what the pair were up to during this part of their career. There are a few sizable-to-modest-sized hits here, like Jay & the Americans' "Only in America," Johnny Cash & June Carter's "Jackson," the Drifters' "Rat Race," Dion's "Drip Drop," and Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" The emphasis, however, is more on less renowned recordings of their songs—not always written, incidentally, by Leiber-Stoller as a team, but sometimes in collaboration with other writers, and sometimes with the involvement of just Leiber, or just Stoller. Sometimes, too, the versions selected are not the most famous ones, but less celebrated interpretations, as in the cases of Jimmy Scott's "On Broadway" (rather than the Drifters' big hit with the same song) or Dee Dee Warwick's "I (Who Have Nothing)" (though it was Ben E. King who had the big hit with it). There's also the original recording of a tune far more famous as a song covered by the Rolling Stones on one of their early LPs, Alvin Robinson's "Down Home Girl." Though still capable of great work, Leiber and Stoller were a bit past their peak by the mid-to-late 1960s, so this isn't the first or second place to get acquainted with their prime material. Also, some of the tracks, though welcome to collectors for their rarity, simply aren't up to the level of their better efforts. Nonetheless, this is still a good and well-programmed compilation that has its share of both memorable hits and some overlooked goodies and oddities, like Richie Barrett's "Tricky Dicky" (covered by the Searchers during the British Invasion), Betty Harris's soul ballad "His Kiss," the Honeyman's odd hickoid novelty "Brother Bill (The Last Clean Shirt)," Tommy Roe's gunfighter narrative "The Gunfighter," Willie Bobo's Latin-funk boogaloo "Juicy," and the Walker Brothers' typically lush melodrama "Take It Like a Man." Mick Patrick's excellent liner notes give track-by-track details plush with insider info about the songs and recordings.

Various Artists, Real Life Permanent Dreams: A Cornucopia of British Psychedelia 1965-1970 (Castle). There have been previous attempts to marshal a lot of British psychedelia into one compilation, but Real Life Permanent Dreams is a little different from those. This four-CD, 99-song box set isn't a best-of, but more like an attempt to assemble a very wide (though still representative) cross-section of material, most of it pretty obscure to the average listener. For the most part, it succeeds in delivering a high-quality anthology that manages to offer a lot to both the collector and the less intense psychedelic fan, though it's by no means the cream of British psychedelia. There are only two famous hit records, for one thing, and even those, Arthur Brown's "Fire" and the Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men," are represented by a previously unreleased alternate version and a BBC recording respectively. Many of the leading acts of the genre are missing, from the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Procol Harum through the more psychedelic-oriented tracks by Cream, Traffic, the Yardbirds, and numerous other UK acts. Also, the cross-licensing isn't as extensive as it could be, though it's not as heavily reliant on tracks controlled by the Sanctuary Records Group as many other comps on the Castle label are.

There's a lot of interesting stuff here, though, ranging from precious twee fantasy-laden pop-psych and freakbeat to psychedelia on the verge of making a transition to hard rock and progressive rock, even though some of the songs are fairly average and even generic British psychedelia. Some of the cuts—Winston's Fumbs' "Snow White," the Buzz's "You're Holding Me Down," the Peep Show's "Mazy," the Kult's "No Home Today," Paper Blitz Tissue's "Boy Meets Girl," and Lord Sutch's strange "The Cheat"—rate as some of the best obscure recordings in the entire genre. Also, a lot of major artists—including Donovan, the Kinks, the Nice, Julie Driscoll & Brian Auger & the Trinity, the Small Faces, Marc Bolan, the Incredible String Band, Jethro Toe, Soft Machine, and Humble Pie—are heard on the box set, though in every instance, they're represented by some of their more obscure recordings, often taken from B-sides, BBC sessions, or demos (and, in Jethro Tull's instance, the debut 1968 single on which they were billed as Jethro Toe, "Sunshine Day"). There are also a bunch of selections that feature big names in unfamiliar guises, like the tracks by Noel Redding's band Fat Mattress, the quasi-supergroup Santa Barbara Machine Head (with Ron Wood and Jon Lord), Episode Six (with future members of Deep Purple), the Bystanders (who evolved into Man), or the Beatstalkers (whose "Silver Tree Top School for Boys" was written by David Bowie, who never recorded the tune himself).

Yes, there's a touch of collector elitism at play in some of the choices. A few superior songs—like the Smoke's "My Friend Jack" (a hit only in Germany) and the End's "Loving Sacred Loving" (co-written by Bill Wyman)—by acts that aren't exactly international household names are represented by yet more obscure, and arguably inferior (though undeniably rarer), alternate versions. As compensation, though, even collectors who think they have everything are bound to come across items they don't have or were only barely aware of, like Lomax Alliance's effervescent and previously unreleased "The Golden Lion" (including Jackie Lomax), one of the highlights of the whole collection. There's also a superb 48-page booklet featuring wise and witty liner notes by David Wells, perhaps the top expert on all things British psychedelic. It all adds up to a worthwhile addition to the psychedelic aficionado's collection, though it's neither as comprehensive nor as killer as the best such four-CD anthology of obscure British psychedelia could be.

Various Artists, This Is Tom Jones [DVD] (Time Life). Material from eight episodes from the ABC variety series Tom Jones hosted between 1969 and 1971 are compiled onto this three-DVD set. Understandably, rock-oriented listeners might be wary of checking this out, both because Tom Jones wasn't exactly a hardcore rock singer, and because variety shows such as his had a lot of middle-of-the-road content. But big '60s rock fans should check this out, since Time Life, as the liner notes state, "has chosen the best, most rocking segments from the series." Though images of prim women throwing themselves at Jones from the audience are the ones that first come to mind when viewers remember the series (and there are plenty of such moments here), you'll also be surprised at how many hip, dynamic acts passed through as guests. This anthology has quite a few of them, including clips of the Who (performing their then-new single "Pinball Wizard"), Stevie Wonder, the Moody Blues, Mary Hopkin, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Little Richard, and Aretha Franklin. The clips aren't unduly stiff or contrived, either (at least by the standards of network variety series), with the Who's performance, Cocker's air-guitar miming, Joplin's rendition of "Little Girl Blue," and the frankly weird psychedelic poetry intro to the Moody Blues' "Ride My  See-Saw" standing out as the most memorable.

Also memorable, though a little more for novelty than sheer musical quality, are the host of unlikely duets between Jones and many of these guest stars, including Joplin, Franklin, Burt Bacharach, Little Richard, Cocker, and Wonder. (No, he doesn't sing with the Who; that might have been pushing the boundaries of outrageousness, though it's too bad this doesn't have his gotta-be-seen-to-believe it singing with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's on "Long Time Gone.") There are also some reasonably amusing, though not quite cutting-edge, comedy sketches with the Committee, the Ace Trucking Company, Richard Pryor, Pat Paulsen, and star actress Anne Bancroft. And, of course, Tom Jones sings several songs per episode, including not just expected hits like "It's Not Unusual" and "Green, Green Grass of Home," but also plenty of R&B covers a la "In the Midnight Hour" and Little Richard's "Lucille," as well as more unexpected choices like "Danny Boy" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Lodi." Jones himself adds episode introductions and interviews filmed in 2007 especially for this DVD. And if you really want to dig deep, one of the segments (of material from the episode with Stevie Wonder) can be viewed in the version taped for British TV and the one taped for US TV, though these basically only amount to minor differences in the sets and clothes. Note, too, that the material from the April 18, 1969 episode (the one with the Who) is presented in black-and-white, that being the only version available, though the rest is in color. In all it's four-and-a-half hours of surprisingly entertaining and historically interesting footage, packaged with an informative booklet of liner notes.


Archived Reviews

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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