Archived Reviews

Nick Drake, Under Review [DVD] (Sexy Intellectual). Any documentary about Nick Drake is going to be handicapped by the absence of any footage of the singer-songwriter as an adult, in performance or interview. While this 90-minute DVD does an admirable job of filling in gaps via plenty of photos and interviews with associates and critics, it's also hindered by the lack of interviews with producer/manager Joe Boyd, sister Gabrielle Drake, engineer/producer John Wood, and arranger Robert Kirby – all of whom appear in the 2000 documentary A Skin Too Few. For that reason, A Skin Too Few remains the preferable starting point, but if you're interested in Drake, this is certainly worthwhile additional viewing. Several peers, often ones who contributed in some way to his career and recordings, weigh in with their memories, including Ashley Hutchings of Fairport Convention; Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks; Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band; and British folk singer-songwriters Ralph McTell and John Renbourn. Also chipping in with critical commentary are Jerry Gilbert, who did the only press interview with Drake; biographers Patrick Humphries and Trevor Dann; boyhood friend Jeremy Mason; and a few other critics and musicians who are admirers of Nick's music. Each of Drake's albums is discussed in some depth, as is to a lesser extent his troubled psyche, the lack of popular acceptance he endured in his lifetime, and his posthumous rise to enormous cult popularity. The lack of actual Drake footage still means there need to be plenty of brief clips of fields, skies, and such to tide things over, though at least plenty of excerpts from his original studio recordings are heard on the soundtrack. Small additional extras are a scene of Robin Williamson doing a tarot card reading on Drake, and an interactive Nick Drake quiz.

Dr. Strangely Strange, Halcyon Days (Hux). An unsuccessful attempt to assemble an album of live/BBC material by Dr. Strangely Strange (not enough usable stuff could be found), unusually, led to something better -- an entire LP's worth of well-preserved 1969-70 studio outtakes. Those ten outtakes (with two versions of one song, "Cock-a-Doodle-Doo") form the bulk of this 2007 release, topped off by three 2006 recordings supplied specifically to this project. It's the 1969-70 material, naturally, that's the main attraction, and it's a surprise to find that -- unlike the unissued cuts excavated for most collections of this sort -- they're pretty much on a par with the two albums this fairly obscure Irish acid-folkish band issued during their brief lifetime. That is to say, they sound very much like the Incredible String Band without as much of an edge, a niche that cuts both ways. In some ways, more mainstream listeners (if any are indeed checking out a reissue such as this in the first place) might actually find their whimsical, drifting brand of barely-rock-influenced folk a little more pleasant and accessible than the ISB. That acknowledged, the songs, singing, and arrangements aren't as bold, striking, eclectic, or world music-influenced as those of the band to which they're inevitably compared. But those who like eccentric British Isles folk-rock in this mold, and certainly those who like the two proper Dr. Strangely Strange LPs from the era, will be pleased. The production (mostly by Joe Boyd) and sound are good, if on the low-key side; the songs are good-natured, if sometimes slight and addled; and the instrumentation quite varied, though only occasionally does this fit into what could be called rock music. Best of all, these aren't merely early demos or alternate versions, as the songs weren't used in any form on the two official albums by the band. This fits unexpectedly comfortably, then, into the primary Dr. Strangely Strange discography, though one of the outtakes (the droll disaster tale "HMS Avenger") is atypical even by the unpredictable, goofy standards of this oddball group. The three 2006 songs aren't as impressive (especially in the vocal department), but do fit in fairly well with the others in terms of both vibe and production. A bonus worth noting is the inclusion of very detailed, lengthy liner notes, which have a lot of info not only on these specific tracks, but also on the history of the band in general.

Lowell Fulsom, In a Heavy Bag (Sundazed). You won't read about it in many history books, but a lot of veterans of the 1950s R&B era were making soul and funk records by the late 1960s and early 1970s, long after their commercial peak. One of them was Lowell Fulsom, who acquitted himself much better than the average such singer trying to adapt to the changing times. This 1970 LP was cut in Muscle Shoals with noted session men Roger Hawkins, Eddie Hinton, Barry Beckett, and David Hood, and it's actually a pretty respectable soul-blues outing with considerable overtones of funk and hard rock. Though the thought of hearing some wah-wah guitar and generally heavy sounds as sung by Fulsom might offend some R&B purists, it's mostly quite a tasteful combination, and with a more satisfying raw gutbucket feel than you might expect given both the fame of the players and the urbane approach Fulsom often used in his earlier work. "Cheating Woman" and "Man of Motion" in particular are about as raw as soul-rock got in 1970, the Muscle Shoals cats sounding almost more like feisty garagey blues-rockers than slick session pros. Fans of odd Beatles covers will want to hear the soul-rock take on "Why Don't We Do It in the Road," which might be the only time that relatively obscure White Album track has been covered by a notable artist. Otherwise the material's almost all penned by Fulsom and/or one "Fats" Washington, and is sung by Lowell with a relaxed ease that seemingly finds him wholly unintimidated by the move to a heavier sound.

Bobbie Gentry, Patchwork/Fancy (Raven). While this two-LPs-on-one-CD combo is more for serious Bobbie Gentry fans than those looking for the best or most representative one or two compilations of the artist, it's a worthwhile roundup of two of her more overlooked records. From 1971, Patchwork is by far the more artistically ambitious of the pair, as it consists entirely of original (and self-produced) material, whereas 1970's Fancy is mostly cover versions. Patchwork, oddly, ended up being the still-young singer-songwriter's final longplayer, and found her Southern pop-country-folk-soul fusion going in a somewhat slicker, more orchestrated direction than her early work. That's part of the reason it's not one of the more impressive Gentry albums, another being that the songs don't rate among her very best, sometimes going off in unexpectedly bouncy or middle-of-the-road directions. Still, her singing remains fine, and some of the more serious and intimate songs ("Beverly," "Belinda," "Lookin' In," and "Marigolds and Tangerines") are fairly impressive. Fancy is an odd entry in her discography in that, though it features a self-penned title track, it's otherwise devoted entirely to outside material, recorded (a la several white blue-eyed soulstresses circa 1970) at Muscle Shoals. As such, it was never going to be among Gentry's more distinguished efforts. But that's not to say it's not enjoyable, mostly for her superb earthy singing on a varied assortment of tunes by authors ranging from Bacharach-David and  James Taylor to Leon Russell and Laura Nyro. If it's not nearly as good as a best-of, this 22-track CD's nevertheless good value, also including historical liner notes.

Grapefruit, Around the BBC (Retro). Grapefruit only made a couple of albums in the late 1960s, but they got to do a number of BBC sessions, probably because their connection to the Beatles initially excited a lot of media interest. Around the BBC has a dozen tracks they recorded for the radio network between January 1968 and July 1969, as well as some brief interview banter. Though this might be considered somewhat of a frivolous release by nonspecialists given the group's marginal impact on the British psych-pop scene, it actually turns out to be a pretty valuable supplement to their studio discography. For one thing, the sound is very good, the recordings somehow having been preserved in quite fine condition. Of yet more importance, no less than five of the twelve songs were not included on Grapefruit's official releases. These include not only three originals by George Alexander ("Breaking Up a Dream," "Somebody's Turning on the People," and "Trying to Make It to Monday"), but also covers of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" and Denny Laine's "Say You Don't Mind." All of the Alexander compositions, especially the buoyant "Breaking Up a Dream," are -- like much of Grapefruit's debut LP, Around Grapefruit -- quality period British psych-pop, if more Beatlesque pop-rock than out-and-out psychedelia, and not quite up to the level of the Bee Gees (let alone the Beatles). Too, only two of the tracks are from the disappointing heavy rock phase they entered for their second album, and even the songs available in studio versions on the earlier Grapefruit versions are notably less ornate in these radio performances. Capped by good liner notes from Apple Records scholar Stefan Granados, it's a worthwhile package for this minor but decent group that helps give listeners a more rounded picture of the band's sound and repertoire than is available from their slim body of studio work.

Earl Hooker, The Genius of Earl Hooker (Sundazed). This rare circa-1967 album has what you'd expect from a vintage Earl Hooker LP: blues instrumentals with unfailingly stinging guitar, a relaxed groove, and soul-tinged arrangements bolstered by solid organ. If it's mighty reliable in what it delivers, it also has to be said that there aren't many surprises, the tracks coming close to very high-class blues background music in some senses. As that limited genre goes, however, this is at the top of that class, Hooker throwing in enough energetic flourishes, swoops, and musical equivalents of exclamation points to not just keep things interesting, but also keep a smile on your face. A few familiar blues and soul tunes are covered here, including "Dust My Broom," "Hold On, I'm Coming," and "Something You Got," the last of these unappetizingly retitled "Something You Ate." But for the most part the program is original, including one number, "Bertha," that seems to look toward Santo & Johnny's sleepy slide guitar workouts for inspiration.

The Moody Blues, The Moody Blues [DVD/CD] (Image Entertainment). It's very unlikely there will be a more definitive documentary on the Moody Blues than this three-disc set. Disc one is the main attraction, presenting a two-and-a-half-hour documentary on their career. Everything you'd want in the story of a rock band is here, starting with extensive interviews with everyone in the classic five-man lineup of the late 1960s and 1970s except Ray Thomas (though a few rather lo-fi soundbites with Thomas are included), as well as Tony Clarke, who produced their biggest-selling albums. It doesn't stop there, however, as the pre-Justin Hayward/John Lodge mid-'60s lineup is also given its fair due, including quite a few comments from original lead singer Denny Laine, and some observations from other musicians who played on the Birmingham circuit from which the Moodies emerged (including Bev Bevan of the Move/Electric Light Orchestra). For all the criticism of the band's music as overly earnest and pretentious, all of them come off as quite likable, intelligent chaps with a decent sense of humor. It might frustrate hardcore fans that no complete songs are used in the insertions of vintage footage, but at least there are many such clips, going all the way back to the "Go Now" days.

Even fairly serious Moody Blues fans will likely learn quite a bit they weren't previously aware of, such as the convoluted origin of their name (sparked by an attempt to capitalize on sponsorship by a brewery); the roundabout recruitment of Justin Hayward via Eric Burdon (who's interviewed for a bit as well); the gestation of Days of Future Passed, done almost behind the backs of a record company expecting a rock interpretation of Dvorak; the hassles of running their own label, Threshold; Mike Pinder's discovery of the Mellotron and his integration of the instrument into the band's music; and the tensions leading to Pinder's departure in the late 1970s. It's true that more time seems to be spent on discussing Days of Future Passed (which remains, after all, their most popular recording) than most of their other albums combined, and some fans might be disappointed that some of their popular post-In Search of the Lost Chord LPs from the late 1960s and early 1970s are barely discussed. It's also true that, in common with documentaries about many long-lasting bands, the final sections kind of drag as they cover years in which not much new music of consequence was generated, even as the Moodies continued to be a hugely popular touring act. But overall, this is excellent, informative, entertaining, and very professionally shot and assembled.

If you want even more depth, disc two has almost an hour of extended interviews with most of the participants. This leaves room for much  material that didn't fit onto disc one, including some pretty funny tour stories and mishaps; recollections of touring and socializing with the Beatles (Pinder saying he helped introduce the group to the Mellotron); and Pinder's full explanation of tensions between him and Edge during the Octave sessions, though some of the extended interviews with non-Moodies verge on the extraneous. Also on disc two are six promo films, including a ghostly one for "Go Now" with the original lineup, though unfortunately all of the others postdate the group's late 1960s/early 1970s prime. Filling out that disc are galleries of photos and memorabilia spanning the band's entire career.

The third disc, a bonus audio CD, will be particularly welcomed by major Moody Blues fanatics -- and, indeed, major British Invasion fanatics -- as it includes nine rare tracks from the group's early days in 1959-65, all but two of them previously unreleased. Only a couple of them, it should be cautioned, are actually by the Moody Blues, all of the others being from groups and solo projects that the members were in before joining the band that would make them famous. All of the pre-Moodies tracks show the musicians to have surprisingly conventional (given the progressive rock for which they'd become known) beat group origins, the clear standout being Denny Laine and the Diplomats' 1963 track "Forever and a Day," a Laine original in the Merseybeat style (but nonetheless with a bit of the haunting quality he'd bring to the early Moodies). There's also Justin Hayward's bustling folk-rockish 1965 single "London Is Behind Me," and two reasonably interesting actual 1964 Moody Blues outtakes, a demo of "Lose Your Money" (later to be re-recorded for their first single) and a cover of Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On." (Note that although both of these are described as having been recorded at London's famed Marquee Club, they're not live tracks; they were done in the club's actual studio.) To harp a bit, it's disappointing more such rarities weren't included, as there are known to be a few other such tracks floating around on bootlegs and rare 45s; it's also disappointing that the liner notes on this disc aren't more thorough in detailing who's playing on what. Still, it's a highly worthwhile addition to what was already a first-rate package based on the DVDs alone.

Phil Ochs, Rare & Unreleased Demos (bootleg) (Handsome Devil). Not exactly easy to find is this two-CD bootleg of Phil Ochs demos, but it does exist, complete with label name, catalog number, and bar code. If it really was an official release, however, it would certainly have more information about the sources for these 45 songs; there's none here at all, in fact, except song titles, and even those are incomplete. Since all of these are acoustic, and some of the tunes are more basic versions of songs that made it onto his first three official albums, an educated guess would surmise that these were done around 1963-65. The fidelity is hissy but listenable, with occasional squiggles and ticks indicating that much if not all of the material is taken from tapes and acetates -- perhaps recorded in a studio, perhaps a mixture of studio and home tapes -- that aren't in pristine condition (and were never intended to be recorded with an eye for release in the first place). The performances are good, but often a little rough and hasty; you can just see a producer urging him to slow down when it came time to lay these down for proper vinyl.

All of those limitations noted, if  you're a serious Phil Ochs fan, this is pretty interesting to hear, both for early versions of some well known songs and a clutch of tunes that didn't make it onto his LPs. Among the more celebrated compositions represented by alternate (presumably earlier) versions than the officially released ones are "There But for Fortune," "Bound for Glory," "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," "Power and the Glory," "One More Parade," and "The Bells." As for the many topical songs here that aren't so familiar, it's not a surprise that place wasn't found for all of them on his regular releases. He was simply writing at too fast a pace for a conventional release schedule to accommodate, and while his ability to write a tune about seemingly any sort of contemporary social/political issue was admirable, he couldn't maintain a high standard for all of them. Even if this was Ochs very much in his singing journalist phase, there are nonetheless solid glimpses of his growing capacity for more personal lyrics in "There But for Fortune," "City Boy," and a lilting countryish number (unlisted on the back cover) titled "This Was," which Ochs describes as "the only conservative song that I've written, conservative not in the sense of the clowns like Barry Goldwater, but the true conservative concern for the individual."

Pink Floyd, The Complete Video Anthology [DVD bootleg] (Cellar Dweller). Though this DVD bootleg by no means has all the footage of Pink Floyd worth watching from their early years, it certainly has more of it than any other disc, running more than two-and-a-half hours. Almost every snippet of the Syd Barrett lineup is included, including promo films for "Arnold Layne," "The Scarecrow," and "Jugband Blues"; their appearance on American Bandstand playing "Apples and Oranges"; and, most excitingly, their genuinely live performance of "Astronomy Domine" on the BBC in May 1967, followed by a hilarious interview in which a hostile musicologist asks sneering condescending questions to the studiously polite Barrett and Roger Waters. The Barrett years take up well under half of the disc, which also includes quite a few clips from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Included are some rarities only known, and sometimes still unknown, to major Pink Floyd fans, like the seven promos they filmed in Belgium in February 1968 just after Barrett's departure; live French TV performances from the same month, in excellent color, of "Flaming," "Astronomy Domine," and "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun"; live '68 performances of "Let There Be Light," "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," and "Interstellar Overdrive" from various European TV sources; an apparent promo film for the obscure single "Point Me at the Sky" (not listed on the cover); and "Atom Heart Mother" as done at a windswept Japanese rock festival in 1971. Some of the other clips are a little frustrating for what they don't show; a curious montage of excerpts from European TV clips and promo films, for instance, has a portion of a performance of the non-LP single "It Would Be So Nice," not exactly common fare even among Pink Floyd collectors. There's just one song from their excellent 1970 concert for KQED television in San Francisco, and the two concluding items – an animation film with "One of These Days" as its soundtrack, and a surfing film with "Echoes" serving a similar purpose – are for diehards, even if that surfing film (Crystal Voyager) was used as a backdrop at actual Pink Floyd performances. Still, this is very good value on the whole, and even for the clips that have done the rounds for years before this DVD showed up, the condition is often in considerably greater quality than fans are used to. For a band that made much of having a cloudy mystique, Pink Floyd were certainly filmed a lot in these years, and the existence of bootlegs like these only serves to highlight the obvious need and market for officially sanctioned compilations of such footage.

The Rolling Stones, Under Review 1967-1969 [DVD] (Sexy Intellectual). The late 1960s were one of the most interesting eras of the Rolling Stones} career, one that took them from flirtations with psychedelia through hard blues-rock, and also saw the death of Brian Jones and his replacement by Mick Taylor. Under Review 1967-1969 has the usual format of Sexy Intellectual's Under Review series, emphasizing commentary by respected critics, interspersed with some footage, music, photos, and a few memories by people who actually interacted with the Rolling Stones. Those wishing for a more conventional documentary might be disappointed by some aspects, particularly the use of relatively brief excerpts from numerous Stones performances/promotional films (rather than entire songs), and the lack of first-hand interviews with the Stones themselves or particularly close associates. Still, the critiques and insights offered by rock journalists Robert Christgau, Anthony DeCurtis, Barney Hoskyns, Kris Needs, and Nigel Williamson are solid. You also do get some soundbites from people who did know and work with the Stones, albeit peripherally, including Merry Clayton (backup vocalist on "Gimme Shelter"), Byron Berline (who played fiddle on "Country Honk"), and rock journalist Keith Altham. The marginal extra features include Altham's memories of the press reception for the release of Beggars Banquet (with silent black-and-white footage of the reception itself) and an interactive quiz that will be fairly challenging even for Rolling Stones experts.

The Slits, Wanna Be a Typical Girl Video Anthology [DVD bootleg] (Adventure Disc). The Slits are one of those cult bands who are fringe enough to make a commercial DVD anthology/documentary a risky commercial proposition, but popular enough that a lot of people do want to see vintage footage of the group. Well, at least enough to instigate a bootleg release of such footage, which is contained on this erratic 68-minute disc. It's a slapdash mix of genuine live footage, promo clips, excerpts from retrospective UK punk TV documentaries, and interviews, as well as the bits from the film Jubilee in which they can be seen. As is sadly too true of many video remnants from punk's golden years, the live clips—which include examples of their ramshackle initial punk phase and, to an unfortunately lesser degree, the more dub-influenced sound toward which they evolved—are of fairly mediocre quality, both in sound and camerawork. More disappointingly, the promo clips really aren't in appreciably better shape, and are often filled with trivial scenes of the group horsing around, shopping, eating, etc. that really aren't much more interesting than the kind of trivial scenes that filled much slicker, more commercial promos in the early days of music videos. The scene of them doing "Typical Girls" in a park at least shows them playing (or, rather, miming) with energy, though it still falls short of being a pleasure to watch. Less pleasant are the bits from the documentaries and interviews, which are not only taken from ragged multi-generation sources, but are also jarringly edited together so that only the very short bits in which the Slits are shown or speak appear. There's obviously sufficient interest in the Slits for some enterprising video company to do a good break-even documentary that could draw upon some of this source material, but this raw collection of clips doesn't do this very interesting band justice.

Dusty Springfield, Brian Henderson's Bandstand 1965 [DVD bootleg] (Footstomp). This unauthorized DVD of an Australian TV program featuring Dusty Springfield holds some appeal for serious fans of the singer, mainly by virtue of its sheer rarity. At the same time, there are some serious drawbacks of which even serious fans should be aware. The image and sound quality of this black-and-white episode is acceptable, but certainly not impressive. Of perhaps more importance, most of the songs are simply mimes to recordings on stark sets. It's only half an hour long, and a couple of the songs (strange instrumental versions of "What's New Pussy Cat" and "Michelle" by percussionist John Sangster) don't feature Springfield whatsoever. On the other hand, it does include a good performance, sung indeed by Dusty herself, of a song (the Brazilian standard "Manha de Carnaval") not included on any of her records. Less impressively, there's also a duet between Springfield and the obscure American singer Freddie Paris on the corny pop tune "Anything You Can Do," another number not to find a place on any of Dusty's official releases. With an abundance of other, far superior 1960s Dusty Springfield footage available (especially on the Live at the BBC DVD), this is only for the hardcore.

Piero Umiliani, The Touch of Piero Umiliani (Bella Casa). Piero Umiliani isn't nearly as well known as Ennio Morricone or Nino Rota, in part because the films he scored haven't been widely seen outside Italy. But he was also an Italian soundtrack composer who was prolific during the 1960s and 1970s, with 30 excerpts from 1965-1975 films (all but two of the tracks hailing from 1965-70) jammed onto this nearly 80-minute CD. While it's not too similar to Morricone (though the grand finale to "Roy Colt & Winchester Jack" comes uncannily close, particularly vis a vis its spaghetti western guitar lope), Umiliani's work will appeal to fans of Morricone and Italian soundtracks of the era in general for its unpredictable, imaginative eclecticism. If what's on this disc is representative, he certainly favors the playful, whimsical side more than Morricone and some other high-profile Italian film composers do. There's a collision of elements that most listeners would think rare to find used in combination with each other, like go-go jazz, cheesy organ, dreamy European easy listening music, and bits of pieces from mariachi, twangy rock guitar, spy themes, chirpy (sometimes downright goofy) incidental vocals, and what would later come to be known as space age bachelor pad grooves. Taken as it is from ten different soundtracks, this covers enough different grounds and moods that's it's hard to generalize about the music or pick out highlights. The important thing is that it's consistently entertaining and grin-provoking, and highly recommended to those with even a fairly moderate interest in the style, even if it's a little to the lightweight side of the genre's true heavyweights.

Jennifer Warnes, Jennifer (Rev-Ola). Not to be confused with other Jennifer Warnes releases titled "Jennifer," this is a CD compilation that combines her first two albums onto one disc. As another point of confusion for both fans and retailers, Warnes was known simply as "Jennifer" when these LPs -- I Can Remember Everything and See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me -- were released in 1968 and 1969 respectively. Warnes was known primarily as a member of the cast of the TV program The Smothers Brothers and as part of the Los Angeles production of the stage musical Hair at the time, and these records were largely overlooked, the singer not really attracting attention for her studio releases until the 1970s. Although these efforts are dated in a lightly psychedelic pop-folk way, actually they're not without their attractions. Warnes' vocals are appealingly soft (in fact sometimes almost whispery) yet supple, and the production, especially on I Can Remember Everything, is commendably spare and understated. The same applies to some of See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me, yet that record was more erratic, in part because the tone was far less consistent, Warnes also throwing in some pedestrian country-rock, a selection from the comic opera Don Pasquale, and a couple songs from Hair. There are also arguably too many cover versions of rock numbers by the likes of the Beatles, Who, Rolling Stones, and Bee Gees, and the songs especially supplied to Warnes weren't outstanding, though they were largely likable and suitable for her style. If she'd only managed to latch onto one or two standout songs written especially for her, she almost certainly would have had a good chance at making a stronger commercial impact and getting her recording career off the ground sooner. It's understandable if many Warnes fans, and Warnes herself, view these LPs as unrepresentative of her work, as her approach would change considerably as she matured as a recording artist. Yet at the same time, such is its period appeal that it might well be enjoyed by fans of late-1960s pop-folk who might not hold affection for her later, more renowned records and wouldn't necessarily expect to like this stuff. The CD's value is enhanced by thorough and thoughtful historical liner notes, though it's noted that Warnes "respectfully declined to be involved with this reissue."

Various Artists, Change Is Gonna Come: The Voice of Black America 1963-1973 (Kent). The Civil Rights Movement had enormous repercussions felt at every level of society, including popular music. Change Is Gonna Come: The Voice of Black America 1963-1973 collects 23 statements of African-American pride from the era, largely by soul artists, though even the tracks by the more jazz-oriented performers represented here bear a heavy soul influence. None of these cuts were massive pop hits, though the Impressions' "We're a Winner," James Brown's "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open the Door I'll Get It Myself)," Nina Simone's "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," and Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" are certainly well remembered. Even stars like the Staple Singers, Otis Redding, the Drifters, the Spinners, Parliament, the Chi-Lites, and the Temptations are represented by pretty uncelebrated efforts, and a good number of tracks are by artists known mostly to soul buffs. But unlike some compilations that largely eschew well known cuts in favor of more obscure items, the quality is uniformly high, and the cross-section of takes on black pride and protest intriguingly wide and eclectic. There's moving lamentation about barriers to interracial relationships on Patrice Holloway's "Stay with Your Own Kind"; a witty jazz take on the legacy of slavery on Oscar Brown, Jr.'s "Forty Acres and a Mule"; haunting uptown soul-jazz fusion on Lou Gossett, Paul Sindab, Joe Lee Wilson & Little Butter's "Blues for Mr. Charlie"; dramatic recitation on Yaphet Kotto's "Have You Ever Seen the Blues";  and characteristically eccentric Southern soul-pop by Swamp Dogg on "I Was Born Blue." Ray Scott's "The Prayer" is a blatant anti-George Wallace attack that retains the capacity to shock even forty years later, beginning with the plea "oh lord, let the governor have a 17-car accident," and getting yet more vicious with every subsequent line. The Drifters' "Only in America" is the infamous, but still seldom heard, version of a sardonically patriotic song made into a less ironic hit by white group Jay Black & the Americans. There's even a soul cover of Bob Dylan's early-'70s protest number "George Jackson" (by J.P. Robinson). With material so concerned with social commentary, there's always the danger of the music being not nearly so well conceived as the words, but almost without exception, these cuts have dynamic grooves as well as fiery, socially relevant lyrical sentiments. You'll rarely hear any of this on oldies radio, but it's as trenchant and musically stimulating a document of the Civil Rights in soul music as any that's been assembled, with Kent/Ace's typically fine liner notes.

Various Artists, Feline Groovy: 24 Purrfect Tracks for Kool Kats (Ace). Here's a concept bound to endear Ace Records to cat lovers around the world: two dozen songs that have something to do with the cats, even if it's just the use of the word "cat" in an instrumental, all from between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. There might be more R&B here than anything else, but it's a canny mixture of blues, soul, rock'n'roll, folk, folk-rock, jazz, and even a bit of pop, country, and British Invasion. Just a couple of these were pretty big hits (Tom Jones' "What's New Pussycat?" and Norma Tanega's "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog"), and though the Coasters' ultra-hip B-side "Three Cool Cats" and Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone" are pretty well known, you'd have to have an incredibly deep and eclectic collection to have heard all of these tunes. Of course if you like cats at all, you'll be predisposed to like much of this. But by any standard, these are pretty fun and good-humored songs, grin-raising even when the songs and performers themselves aren't all that hot. Some pretty estimable artists weigh in with their takes on the cat world via New Orleans soul legend Lee Dorsey's "The Kitty Kat Song," organ jazz maestro Jimmy Smith's "The Cat," country star Sonny James' "The Cat Came Back," Latin jazz great Mongo Santamaria's "El Pussy Cat," and bluesman Charles Brown's "If You Play with Cats." Yet some of the most fun songs are the more obscure and frivolous ones, like Rene Hall's strange exotica-cum-rock'n'roll on "Cleo"; Lu Ann Simms' silly novelty "The Siamese Cat Song," a guilty pleasure co-written by none other than Peggy Lee; a vocal version of Bent Fabric's hit "The Alley Cat Song" (by David Thorne); and Noreen Corcoran's "Love Kitten," one of the best flop Phil Spector-styled girl group singles ever. The brief theme song from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Top Cat tops off a comp you'd have to be a real diehard dog person not to like.

Various Artists, On Vine Street: The Early Songs of Randy Newman (Ace). Many Randy Newman fans are aware that before he began to focus on a solo recording career in the late 1960s, he'd worked as a jobbing songwriter for years, his compositions or co-compositions getting recorded by numerous other artists. Even fairly serious Newman fans, however, might be unaware of just how much such material he penned in his early years. Twenty-six Newman interpretations spanning 1962-1970 are on this superbly annotated compilation, and as much as it digs up -- much of it rare, one cut even previously unreleased -- it's just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the songs, and quite a few of the performers, are fairly well known: Alan Price had a British hit with "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" in 1967; Cilla Black had a UK Top Twenty single with "I've Been Wrong Before" in 1965; Gene Pitney went all the way to #2 in Britain with "Nobody Needs Your Love" in 1966; Nilsson's "So Long Dad" is from his well-regarded 1970 Nilsson Sings Newman album; and Eric Burdon & the Animals' "Mama Told Me Not to Come" is the original 1967 version of a classic later recorded by Newman himself and made into a hit by Three Dog Night. There's also "Old Kentucky Home," from the Beau Brummels' 1967 album Triangle, and Dusty Springfield's reliably fine version of "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." It might astound even collectors, however, to see just how many notable artists recorded Newman tunes in the 1960s, including the O'Jays, Irma Thomas, Erma Franklin, Gene McDaniels, Frankie Laine, the Fleetwoods, Jackie DeShannon, Scott Walker, Van Dyke Parks, Rick Nelson, Fats Domino...the list goes on. Also thrown in are some generally worthy obscurities, like "Happy New Year" by Beverley, who later became known as John Martyn's wife and musical partner, and Vic Dana's "Looking for Me," which sounds like a West Side Story outtake.

Newman scholars will find this interesting for strong hints of his later fusions of Tin Pan Alley, R&B, and various strains of Americana in his more mature solo work. General fans of 1960s rock, however, will find this surprisingly interesting and pleasing evidence that Randy Newman was adept at far more conventional music than what he'd become famous for under his own name, crafting quite catchy if somewhat erratic material with a much stronger pop-rock and soul bent than his later work. It's true that those familiar with this phase of Newman's career will find some favorites of theirs omitted. The decision to not feature more than one track by any one performer also limits the scope of the set, as some of the artists, such as Price and Nilsson, recorded quite a few notable Newman covers. Also, the existence of more than one decent version of specific songs, and the compilers' decision to choose no more than one version of any one tune, leads to some tough calls; Gene Pitney's version of "Just One Smile" is certainly more notable than the one included here (by the Tokens), for instance, though the Tokens were the first to put the song on 45. On the whole, however, Ace does an excellent job of representing the wide scope of both Newman's early songwriting and the performers who interpreted those compositions, without compromising the general level of musical quality. The obvious solution to the dilemmas in narrowing this body of work down to one disc would be to present several more volumes of such material -- a series that both Newman and fans of this important songwriter would richly deserve.

Various Artists, Phantom Guitars (Psychic Circle). The subtitle of this collection sums up its thrust in a nutshell: "A Cool Collection of Twangin' Guitar Instrumentals from the UK 1961-1964." The 25 tracks are very much a product of a time when the Shadows were not just the biggest instrumental group in Britain, but the biggest rock group of all in the least until early 1963, when the Beatles displaced them, though both the Shadows and their influence continued to be substantial for at least another year or two. Some British rock experts might be just about familiar with a few names here, those being the Fentones (though they usually backed singer Shane Fenton aka Alvin Stardust), the Gladiators (who were usually fronted by Nero), and the Executives (including future famed British rock journalist Roy Carr). But for the most part, most of these groups are unknown to all but the most devoted collector, one of whom, Nick Saloman, was responsible for compiling this CD. And really, if you've got a hankering for plenty of obscure Shadows-styled rock from the early-'60s period during which that style was its peak, it's hard to imagine doing better than this anthology. Most or all of the key elements are in force on every track: spookily reverbed/echoing guitar, moody melodies with liberal nods to surf/country/spy movie/Latin/Hawaiian licks, and oddball sprinkles of gimmicky sound effects. No, it's not quite as gripping as the Shadows' best material, but it's not in much lower of a league either, though you might not often be in the mindset for 25 illustrations at once if you're not a specialist, since that dark minor-keyed moods and those twanging guitars don't vary a whole lot. But as a genre anthology goes, it's considerably above the average, especially as this particular genre hasn't been anthologized too often. Saloman's liner notes also a reveal a surprising wealth of connections to famous figures in much of this material, ranging from John Barry, Cliff Richard, and Joe Meek to future members of the Kinks, the Roulettes, Unit 4 Plus 2, Ashton, Gardner & Dyke, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and even Foreigner.

Various Artists, Rock You Sinners! The Dawn of British Rock & Roll (Rev-Ola). For most listeners around the world, the "dawn" of British rock & roll didn't take place until the Beatles started to make their first records. Even for those who grew up in the UK at the time, the true dawn of British rock often isn't considered to have taken place until the late 1950s, when the first credible homegrown singers in the idiom emerged, like Cliff Richard and Billy Fury. In fact, however, British rock'n'roll – or, perhaps more accurately, the influence of rock'n'roll in British pop music – was starting to be heard as early as 1953, when bandleader Ted Heath covered Bill Haley's "Crazy Man Crazy" (included on this CD). This intriguing 31-track compilation offers a wealth of pre-Cliff Richard & the Shadows recordings that, if not exactly rock'n'roll, showed British pop musicians trying to do something with the form. As it happened, they more often than not ended up sounding like rather staid swing jazz bands trying to broaden their appeal by putting a rock'n'roll or R&B song in their set without gaining any true grasp or appreciation of this new-fangled music that had originated on the other side of the Atlantic. It wasn't really until Tommy Steele's late-1956 hit "Rock with the Caveman" (also included here) that any British performer made a reasonable approximation of authentic rock'n'roll sounds, and even that hit was something of a clumsy novelty. But while this is by no means something you would put on the order of the later British pioneers like Richard, Fury, and Johnny Kidd, let alone jump blues and early rock'n'roll bands rocking the urban centers of the United States, that doesn't mean that this isn't a fairly enjoyable compilation on its own musical terms, if something of a crass guilty pleasure. Though many of these efforts to spice up what's essentially fairly square jazz-pop music with a bit of rock'n'roll (or at least do a rock'n'roll song with a jazz arrangement) sound a little unintentionally funny, much of them do have a somewhat appealing naïve energy, like that of performers suppressing a grin while they exploit a passing fad. Of course, that passing fad, both in the US and UK, turned out to be the most popular musical style of the twentieth century, relegating these early somewhat exploitative attempts to mimic it to the dustbins of history. This compilation is a small revelation, however, in exposing how the roots of the music's foothold in Britain run much deeper and earlier than is commonly assumed, almost amounting to documentation of a missing chapter in rock'n'roll history. Yes, there are some awfully stiff covers of early rock'n'roll hits on board, like Gale Warning's Mae West-ish take on "Heartbreak Hotel." But really, some of these tracks aren't bad by any standards, like Steele's credibly swinging "Doomsday Rock" and Tony Crombie & His Rockets' credibly pounding "Rock Shuffle Boogie," while the Goons' parody "Bloodnok's Rock'n'Roll Call" (an actual #3 UK hit in 1956) remains pretty funny.

Various Artists, Up Jumped the Devil: American Devil Songs 1920s-1950s (Viper). The devil is an archetypal character who has shown up as a key player in popular music ever since the dawn of the recording era, long before the dawn of heavy metal. In fact, it could be argued that he, or it or she depending on how you view the form of the demon, was referred to more often back in the early half of the twentieth century than in the new millennium. Twenty quality cuts in this vein from the 1920s through the 1950s are assembled on this superb compilation, which in keeping with the Viper label's aesthetic are incredibly eclectic in their stylistic breadth. Any compilation that starts off with Gene Vincent's breathtaking rockabilly classic "Race with the Devil" is on the good foot out of the gates, going on to encompass swing jazz, country blues, electric blues, doo wop, gospel, folk, and more. More often than not, the performers are well known, including Vincent, Fats Waller, Bo Carter, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Skip James, Bessie Smith, the Clovers, the Almanac Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Washboard Sam, Otis Spann, Jack Teagarden, Jelly Roll Morton, and Robert Johnson. But with a few exceptions like the Clovers' doo wop classic "Devil or Angel," and perhaps "Race with the Devil," James' "Devil Got My Woman," and Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues," the songs are not all that familiar, and likely to surprise and delight even roots music connoisseurs with very deep collections. What's striking is that, for all the fire-and-brimstone characterizations of the devil in religion and much popular culture, these songs are by and large quite joyous and irreverent – devil-may-care, you might say, though the dark side is represented by the haunting Delta blues of Johnson and James. You can't get too spooked out, though, by any compilation that includes Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "Little Demon," one of the most demented early rock'n'roll discs of all time – it even gives its more celebrated A-side, "I Put a Spell on You," a run for the money in that department. The annotation is thorough and lively, and also keep an ear out for an unlisted ragtime instrumental bonus cut at the end of the CD.


Archived Reviews

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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