Archived Reviews

Blossom Toes, Love Bomb: Live 1967-69 (Sunbeam). Blossom Toes were one of the best late-'60s British bands not to make a big commercial impact, so the release, if belated, of two entire CDs of previously unissued live material is bound to perk up the interest of UK psychedelia collectors. Yet though it does help fill out the picture of a band whose official catalog was limited to a couple of albums and a few non-LP sides, it must be noted that this really isn't Blossom Toes at their best, for reasons that aren't entirely the group's fault. First, with the exception of a couple songs from an October 1967 UK radio broadcast, the sound quality isn't too good. More subtly, the actual songs are often pretty unlike the tracks on the group's admirable pair of albums – in fact, they're sometimes drastically different to Blossom Toes' studio output, and not always in a good way.

Disc one is entirely devoted to a live Swedish club performance on August 26, 1967, and fans of their fine 1967 LP of wistful pop-psychedelia We Are Ever So Clean might be astonished that just one of the eight songs ("The Remarkable Saga of the Frozen Dog") is taken from that record. Otherwise, the set shows a much looser, less song-oriented, improvisational blues-psychedelic sound than came through on their early studio output, including a cover of Captain Beefheart's "Electricity" and a pretty dire rendition of "Smokestack Lightning." It does also feature a stomping charge through a good tune from their second album, "Listen to the Silence"; a cover of folk-rock singer-songwriter Shawn Philips' "Woman Mind" that's somewhat more in line with the sound of their first LP than most of the set; and an original by guitarist-singer Jim Cregan, "First Love Song," that doesn't appear on their studio recordings, but is a fairly unfocused jam-type thing. As good as We Ever So Clean is, if not for the presence of "The Remarkable Saga of the Frozen Dog," you might never suspect it's the same band, and they're certainly not making music as distinctive as they did that same year on that LP.

The second disc starts with two decent-fidelity cuts from October 1967 radio broadcast, "What on Earth" and "The Remarkable Saga of the Frozen Dog," both of which are pretty faithful to the arrangements heard on We Are Ever So Clean. It's back to fuzzier-sounding concert recordings, however, for the final five songs, which come from Belgian festival performances in August and October of 1969. These include well-done live renditions of two of the highlights of their harder-rocking second LP (If Only for a Moment), "Indian Summer" and "Peace Loving Man"; a surprise in a swinging jazzy cover of Shawn Philips' "Stargazer," which has oddly superior sound quality to the other Belgian recordings; and, anticlimactically, a too-long drawn-out version of Ben E. King's "Grooving" on which Frank Zappa guests. While one appreciates that Blossom Toes considered themselves a harder-rocking, wilder group than was evident on the We Are Ever So Clean album, the fact is that the material that gave them a chance to stretch out onstage just isn't as impressive as what they devised in the studio. Combined with the largely substandard (if basically listenable) sound quality of most of this set, it has to be considered unrepresentative of Blossom Toes at their best, if of interest to serious fans of the group.

Sugar Pie DeSanto, Go Go Power: The Complete Chess Singles 1961-1966 (Kent). Although Sugar Pie DeSanto has had a long career, most would agree that her peak as a recording artist was with Chess Records in the 1960s. All of the tracks issued on her Chess singles are on this CD, including a 1966 UK 45 ("There's Gonna Be Trouble") not issued in the US, as well as a bonus previously unreleased bonus cut, the quite fine and tough "Witch for a Night." Nine of these cuts that appeared on 1960s singles, in fact, never appeared on an album anywhere prior to this CD. While not many of these sides made much chart noise, over these years DeSanto proved herself one of the finer, and certainly one of the grittiest, woman singers straddling the lines between bluesy R&B and contemporary soul. She's most known for the raunchier, sassier, bluesiest side of her repertoire, and there are as expected plenty such examples on this CD, including her moderate hit duet with Etta James ("In the Basement") and her witty answer record to Tommy Tucker's "Hi Heel Sneakers" ("Slip-in Mules (No High Heel Sneakers)"). Those who know DeSanto mostly as a soul-blues artist, though, might be surprised – and usually pleasantly so – to hear her do some quality material here that's more in the mainstream early-to-mid-1960s soul style. Some songs even approach the fringe of the girl group and Motown sound, and occasionally she even adeptly handles ballads, like "Ask Me" (more famous in its hit version by Maxine Brown) or the more memorable 1965 recording "Never Love a Stranger." Not every song here is too distinctive, but the batting average is pretty high. Considering how heavily the Chess catalog has been mined in the CD era, it's odd that it took so long for such a comprehensive DeSantos collection to appear, but Ace has done its typical fine job with the packaging, including detailed historical liner notes.

Fotheringay, 2 (Fledg'ling). In late 1970, Fotheringay began work on a second album. But after they'd laid down basic tracks and guide vocals and were still very much in the middle of the process, Sandy Denny left the band to pursue a solo career, leaving this second record unreleased (though versions of two songs from the sessions, "Two Weeks Last Summer" and "John the Gun," appeared on some Fotheringay/Denny reissues). In the twenty-first century, guitarist Jerry Donahue, with the help of the two other surviving members (bassist Pat Donaldson and drummer Gerry Conway), worked (according to this CD's liner notes) "on underpinning the original tracks, carefully identifying and assembling the best parts of the 1970 recordings from master tapes which had been dispersed to a variety of locations over the years." This doesn't quite spell out whether some modern overdubbing was undertaken, but however it was accomplished, it's an attempt to reconstruct what might have been Fotheringay's second LP. It's a qualified success in that it does represent a conscientious attempt to finish an unfinished record, even though it can never be finished considering that these cuts have guide vocals (albeit ones that sound pretty good). Even given that limitation, however, it has to be said that this was never going to be a great record even had the time been taken to properly complete it. It's solid early-'70s British folk-rock, but the material's uneven, varying from the excellent (Denny's "John the Gun" and "Late November," as well as their Denny-sung interpretation of the traditional tune "Gypsy Davey") to the rather humdrum (a Trevor Lucas-sung cover of Bob Dylan's "I Don't Believe You" being a low point). And though forgiving fans might be reluctant to point out the elephant in the room, it's plain that Denny's singing and songwriting make the tracks on which those feature leagues above the relatively unexceptional ones written and/or sung by Lucas. Get this by all means to enjoy those pieces featuring Denny's stellar singing, guide vocals or not, with sympathetic accompaniment (if not quite support on the level of Fairport Convention). Don't, however, expect a lost masterpiece.

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Live at the BBC (Universal). Two discs of 1972-1977 BBC performances by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band with excellent sound are collected on this set, though it's not quite as lengthy as you might assume, adding up to about an hour and a half in all (with only about half an hour on the second disc). There aren't great surprises in store for those familiar with Harvey's BBC work during this, his commercial peak. As was also true of his records, his reputation as a truly sensational live visual performer isn't quite mirrored by this audio-only document. Too, the only song that doesn't appear on his studio releases of his time is a 1972 cover of "Dance to the Music," which might be energetic but certainly wouldn't give Sly & the Family Stone cause to worry. Disc one is entirely devoted to two performances at BBC's Paris Theatre, one in November 1972 and the other in October 1973, where they run through the bulk of the material from the SAHB's first couple albums. Some of his most celebrated songs, like "Framed" and "The Faith Healer," are naturally included, as well as his oddball cover of the early rock'n'roll hit "Giddy Up a Ding Dong," though Harvey's manic-tinged vocals are more impressive than the period hard rock backing. Side two actually features 1973-1975 performances from the BBC television shows The Old Grey Whistle Test and Top of the Pops rather than radio spots, and the two songs from a December 1973 OGWT appearance—an anguished cover of Jacques Brel's infamous "Next" and a second version of "The Faith Healer" that utterly outclasses the one on the first disc from just two months earlier—are the highlights of the collection, though this "The Faith Healer" is actually a live Harvey vocal fronting a pre-recorded backing track. His 1975 UK Top Ten hit "Delilah" (from a 1975 OGWT broadcast) is another highlight, but take note that the final and least essential two tracks, from a 1977 appearance on the same program, are the SAHB without Harvey.

Brenda Lee, Queen of Rock'n'Roll (Ace). As good and successful as she was, Brenda Lee has often been underrated by rock historians. In part that's because plenty of people don't realize just how much straightahead rock she recorded in her early years, especially as her biggest hits tended to be more pop-country-flavored ballads. The 28-track anthology Queen of Rock'n'Roll is a handy primer to set the record straight, focusing on her most rock-oriented sides from 1956-1964. This isn't, it should be admitted, a Brenda Lee best-of; you really need some of those pop and ballad hits, many of which were quite fine, to get a fully rounded portrait of the singer at her best. But this is still very good, even if it's light on familiar hits ("Dum Dum," "Sweet Nothin's," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "That's All You Gotta Do," and "Is It True" are the only ones here) and there isn't much truly searing rockabilly. Cuts from her early career in the mid-to-late-1950s like "Bigelow 6-200," "Dynamite," and "Rock the Bop" do rock pretty hard, though, and if some of the mid-tempo numbers are more sedate, her vocals could still border on the raunchy, as "That's All You Gotta Do" proved. There's not much here post-dating 1961, but one of those tracks, "Is It True" – produced in Britain by Mickie Most, with Jimmy Page on guitar – is one of her very greatest. Of special interest is its UK-only B-side, a good cover of "What'd I Say" that makes its first appearance on CD with this reissue.

Mighty Baby, Live in the Attic (Sunbeam). Mighty Baby's music wasn't extremely similar to the Grateful Dead's, but there are similarities in how their music is presented and received, albeit on a much, much smaller scale than the Dead's. Much of Mighty Baby's material was based around loose, semi-improvisational grooves combining numerous styles; their cult of fans, though far less numerous than the Dead's, exhibit similar ardor for their heroes; and that passion simply doesn't translate to many outside of the cult, who are a bit puzzled as to what the fuss is all about. All of the above applies to this extensive (63-minute) CD of previously unreleased material, recorded in 1970 between their two official LP releases. The first three tracks, in decent fidelity, are taken from a live gig in support of Love in March 1970, highlighted by the nearly 15-minute instrumental "Now You See It," which fuses their love for John Coltrane's Indian-influenced jazz with more rock-oriented instrumentation and rhythm. In contrast, the two other songs from that concert, "Stone Unhenged" (another instrumental) and "Sweet Mandarin" (which, like all of the songs on this disc, were not included on their pair of official LPs), are run-of-the-mill country-blues-rock – the kind of thing you could imagine an obscure local support band to the Grateful Dead playing in 1970, for instance. The remainder of the CD was cut in the studio soon after the March 1970 concert, and is devoted mostly to the four-part, 40-minute improvised instrumental "Now You Don't." This again draws from both the exotic jazz of Coltrane's final years and the more straightforward power of psychedelic rock, and fairly impressively, rather in the way – as much as some Mighty Baby fans might find the comparison odd or inappropriate – Soft Machine did on their early-1970s jazz-rock recordings. Closing the set is another cut from those studio sessions, the brief and seemingly incomplete "Winter Passes," which heads off in another direction, its mellow early-'70s-styled rock with Crosby, Stills & Nash-ish harmonies gliding into an extended instrumental laidback jazzy passage. The extended instrumental pieces far outdistance this CD's vocal numbers  in quality, and partly for that reason, on the whole the disc is erratic enough that it can't be considered on a par with the albums Mighty Baby officially released at the time. But as none of the songs appear on these albums, and those instrumental numbers in particular show sides of the band not fully displayed on those LPs, this should be considered as a vital missing piece to the Mighty Baby discography by fans of the band, if not quite something that could be considered an actual fully developed unreleased album.

Julian Jay Savarin, Waiters on the Dance (Esoteric). British keyboardist and songwriter Julian Jay Savarin was the guiding force behind Julian's Treatment, who put out one of the better obscure early progressive rock albums, the science fiction concept-driven A Time Before This. Even prog rock fans who are familiar with that album, however, are likely unaware that Savarin put out a fairly similar subsequent record as a solo artist, Waiters on the Dance. This too is motored by Savarin's fine powerful, haunting organ, as well as strident yet appealing female vocals. The woman singer (Cathy Pruden) from A Time Before This being unavailable this time around, those vocals are handled here by Jo Meek (no relation to the famous '60s British rock producer Joe Meek!), who'd formerly been in the band Catapilla. And also like A Time Before This, Waiters on the Dance seems to be a science fiction concept album of sorts, albeit one whose precise storyline isn't obvious, other than conveying a general mood of a dramatic epic. While some of the songs are on the long side (the two-part "Child of the Night" and "Dance of the Golden Flamingoes" both last nearly nine minutes), the whole album wraps up in a little more than half an hour. Waiters on the Dance isn't as good as A Time Before This, in part because it's rather more stern and bombastic. It's still on the less musically (if not lyrically) pretentious side of early-1970s British progressive rock, however, and recommended to those who like A Time Before This, or indeed art rock in general that features fairly melodic, tightly played songs with well-produced combinations of gothic organ, female vocals, tense guitar, and occasional orchestration.

The Yardbirds, The Story of the Yardbirds [DVD] (ABC Entertainment). Originally done in the early 1990s and not issued on DVD until about 15 years later, this is a fine 52-minute documentary on one of the greatest rock groups of the 1960s. Surprisingly given how many such projects fail to touch the essential bases, every single one of the Yardbirds – including the legendary guitar hero triumvirate of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page – was interviewed, with the exception of singer Keith Relf, who died in 1976. So too were managers Giorgio Gomelsky and Peter Grant, as well as producer Mickie Most. The interviewees' warm and witty comments pace the story well, and just as crucially, they're interspersed with plenty of exciting clips of all the lineups, even digging up one from the Clapton era. Those clips include most of their best and most famous songs, among them "For Your Love," "Heart Full of Soul," "I'm a Man," "Shapes of Things," "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," "The Train Kept A-Rollin'," and even bits of "Still I'm Sad" and (in the final days with the Jimmy Page lineup) "Dazed and Confused." Beck is especially hilarious when panning Blow-Up director Michelangelo Antonioni, calling him a "pompous oaf." Yardbirds fans may well wish the documentary was longer – or at least that there might one day be a compilation of vintage Yardbirds performance film clips in their entirety – but within the time allotted, this covers their story well and very enjoyably. As a notable bonus, the DVD adds their 15-minute performance on a 1967 episode of the German television show Beat Beat Beat, showing the four-man Page lineup running through "Over Under Sideways Down," "Shapes of Things," "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," and "I'm a Man." It's odd that much of the annotation in the booklet is devoted to a lengthy description of their 2003 album Birdland (on which Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty were the only remaining members from the '60s lineups), however.

Various Artists, Acid Dreams (Past & Present). It's hard to remember that way back in 1979, long before a zillion 1960s garage rock compilations had saturated the market, there were very few such various-artists albums on which to hear such rarities aside from Nuggets and the Pebbles series (which itself was just getting started). Acid Dreams was one of the first such comps, originally issued, according to the back cover blurb on this 2009 CD reissue, by a Berlin record shop owner who "pressed only 77 copies...aside from shipping to some friends or label owners, it was available only in his store." As you can guess from the title, it's a fairly psychedelic-oriented collection as far as '60s garage rock anthologies go, though it makes room for some more straightforward garage as well. Why someone would want to pick this up on CD thirty years later is a thorny question. Many of the eighteen tracks have since become available (sometimes several times over) on other comps and single-artist reissues, and the kind of garage fanatics likely to be interested in these cuts in the first place are likely to have many of them somewhere or other in their collection. On its own terms, however, it's a considerably above-average garage comp, in part because of its psychedelic orientation, but also since the quality of the selection is pretty good too. A few of these songs (the Mystic Tide's "Frustration," Faine Jade's "It Ain't True," Zakary Thaks' "Can You Hear Your Daddy's Footsteps") are out-and-out classics of the genre; some (especially the Unrelated Segments' "Where You Gonna Go" and the Balloon Farm's "Question of Temperature," the latter of which was an actual Top Forty hit) are classics of the more straightahead garage idiom; and some others (Teddy & His Patches' "Suzy Creamcheese," the Outcasts' "1523 Blair") are near-classics. And unlike the aforementioned tunes, a few of the better and trippier garage-psychedelic tracks, like the Velvet Illusions' anti-drug "Acid Head" and the Beautiful Daze's "City Jungle" (which has some of the gnarliest distorted garage-psych guitar ever), really haven't shown up on reissues that often. It's true the sound quality on some of these tracks doesn't match what you hear when they're placed on some other reissues, and that songs like the Music Machine's "You'll Love Me Again" and Zakary Thaks' "Can You Hear Your Daddy's Footsteps" are easily available on CDs entirely dedicated to those artists. In its favor, though, this reissue does have some basic track-by-track annotation. And now that so many inferior '60s garage compilations have flooded the market, a listen to Acid Dreams does remind us veteran collectors of how unusual and exciting this stuff sounded before the style had been mined to death on other reissues, and when the few compilations available really did tend to zero in on authentically killer tracks instead of lumping a whole bunch of generic items together.

Various Artists, Acid Dreams Testament (Past & Present). For the most part this is a first-rate collection of 28 mid-to-late-'60s garage rock/psychedelic nuggets. Only one (the Balloon Farm's "A Question of Temperature") was an actual hit, but much of the rest of the disc is only just below the level of the classic status that might have nudged the material onto the Nuggets box set. The Painted Ship's unusual moody, spellbinding "Frustration" is an all-time classic of the genre, and a good number of these tracks are almost as good: Zakary Thaks' "Can't You Hear Your Daddy's Footsteps?," Teddy & His Patches' psychedelic novelty "Suzy Creamcheese," Mouse & the Traps' pounding "Maid of Sugar," the Calico Wall's queasy "I'm a Living Sickness," Velvet Illusions' "Acid Head," the Music Machine's "You'll Love Me Again," and the Outcasts' smoking "1523 Blair," for starters. Some of the songs are just okay, but little is dull. So why the "for the most part" qualification at the head of this review? Well, quite a bit of this – including all the aforementioned goodies – circulated for quite a while on commonly available reissues for many years prior to this release. There's little here of note that has been hard to find, the one notable exception being Macabre's "Be Forewarned," an unexpectedly great and demonic slice of terror that's probably eluded other garage/psych comps owing to its 1972 release date, though stylistically it sounds like something that could have been cooked up four years or so earlier. Of weirder and greater note, no less than thirteen of the tracks also appear on the 18eighteen song garage/psych comp titled Acid Dreams – which, weirder yet, was released by the same label, in the same year, as Acid Dreams Testament. So to enjoy the CD without qualms, you really have to be a neophyte collector who's not too worried about overlapping cuts should you want to acquire a good deal of stuff in this style. If none of these curmudgeonly old-school/been there done that pokes bother you, though, it's a good place to pick up some quality extra-Nuggets material, with decent liner notes and discographical information.

Various Artists, An Outbreak of Twangin': Phantom Guitars Vol. 2: 26 Cool Early 60s Guitar Instrumentals (Psychic Circle). Just in case the mighty long title confuses you, this is indeed a sequel to the 2008 compilation Phantom Guitars: A Cool Collection of Twangin' Instrumentals from the UK 1961-1964, compiled by heroic '60s rock collector Nick Saloman. And like its predecessor, it has a heap o' early-'60s guitar rock instrumentals, most of them from UK groups, though a few artists from continental Europe and Australia are also on board. If nothing else, it testifies to the immense popularity and influence of the Shadows on the just-pre-Beatles British rock scene – a syndrome that's still remembered well in the UK, though the full measure of the Shadows' impact is still largely unknown in the US. None of these songs were hits, and few were by artists that even collectors will recognize. But if you like the kind of moody, twangy, somewhat surf-and-country-and-western-flavored instrumentals that were the Shadows' stock in trade, these is a pretty terrific listen. Sure, sometimes you'll be shaking the feeling that you're listening to a compilation of recently surfaced unissued Shadows tracks; it's not quite on the same level as hearing an actual Shadows best-of; and there's nothing that screams classic in the way that "Apache" or "Telstar" do. But the quality is pretty high, perhaps in part because this genre has been so much less often mined for rarities than styles like garage rock and British freakbeat have been. And it's not all Shadows wannabes/soundalikes, with the shadow of the Tornados (of aforementioned "Telstar" fame) coming through loud and clear on a few cuts, like "Polaris" by the Boys, the backing band of early British rock star Marty Wilde (who wrote the tune). Numerous other tracks have direct connections to major figures of British rock figures as well, like Alan Caddy (of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates) and producers Joe Meek and Shel Talmy. And Bert Weedon, if not exactly a rock star (though his "Ghost Train," included here, rocks pretty hard), was extremely influential on early British rock guitarists, through both some hit records and his massively popular guitar instructional book Play in a Day. The liner notes give useful thumbnail sketches of these mostly very obscure records and artists, though it would have been nice to have original release dates and labels included too.

Various Artists, Destroy That Boy! More Girls with Guitars (Ace). A sequel to the 2004 Ace CD Girls with Guitars, this likewise focuses on guitar-oriented, girl-sung 1960s rock from the 1960s, though to be technical one 1970 cut sneaks in. These aren't all self-contained female groups who played their own instruments (although a few of them are); in fact, a number of these artists didn't play their own music, and some of them were solo acts, not bands. The common factor, however, is that all of them did play rougher, more guitar-heavy rock than the norm for woman rockers of the era. There's a fairly narrow pool of discs to choose from when you're making an anthology like this (though not as narrow as many people realize), which makes it hard if not impossible to make an "all killer no filler" compilation. That's how it goes with Destroy That Boy! More Girls with Guitars, which is usually fun, and occasionally very good, but often more interesting for historical oddity and energy than for the quality of the songs or performers. Still, there are some genuinely standout tracks here, none more so than Beverley Jones' "Hear You Talking," which is average Merseybeat musically, but has a vocal that's incredibly vicious by 1964 standards, and a chorus ("I'll cut you dead...if I hear you talking about her") that's downright gangsta in this company. Also very good is Sharon Tandy's "Hold On," justly hailed as a first-rate mod rocker long before its appearance on this compilation, and Ann-Margret's unlikely (and mighty strange) psychedelic Lee Hazlewood-written-and-produced 1968 rarity "You Turned My Head Around."  Nothing else on the CD galvanizes like these three items, but it does at least present a wide range, from Merseybeat (including Liverpool's self-contained Liverbirds) and Beatles novelties to She Trinity's "He Fought the Law" (reportedly the inspiration for the Clash's "I Fought the Law" cover, according to the liner notes); a folk-rocker co-written by Erik Darling of the Rooftop Singers (Project X's "Don't You Think It's Fine"); and a rocking Donovan song that Donovan himself never put on his records (Karen Verros' "You Just Gotta Know My Mind"). Also neat is the Girls' previously unreleased "Here I Am in Love Again," with backing by the Beau Brummels, which was written and produced by Sly Stone, even if the vocals are pretty shaky.

Various Artists, Fading Yellow, Vol. 4: Light, Smack, Dab (Flower Machine). "Timeless UK 60's Popsike & Other Delights" is the apt subtitle of this 25-track collection, which spotlights obscurities from the lighter side of slightly psychedelic-influenced British pop-rock of the late 1960s. There are a few artists here who had commercial success, like Wayne Fontana, Dave Berry, future Foreigner member Mick Jones (as part of J&B), and future 10cc members Graham Gouldman and Kevin Godley (as part of the awkwardly named Frabjoy & Runcible Spoon). But basically this is a pretty deep archival dig through material that hasn't often seen the light of day since its original release, in a genre that's never been the most heavily mined of 1960s styles. It's one of the best such digs, too, even though it as a 1000-copy limited edition, it didn't get the exposure of some of CD reissues with a similar concentration. While some of the elements of pop-sike that drive earthier listeners up the wall – fruity orchestration, florid lyrics, twee preciousness – are here to varying degrees, their quotient is considerably lighter than usual on this anthology. It's true you still might want to be in the mood for something on the light side before hearing all of it at once, but the focus is more on decent pop songs with imaginative arrangements and an occasionally (admittedly mild) touch of freakiness than the airy-fairy stuff. Some of the tracks are outstanding, like J&B's unaccountably seldom-anthologized "There She Goes," which is like a cinematic look at the melancholic underbelly of Swinging London; the Candlelight's quite fine makeover of the Merseybeat-era relic "That's What I Want" into staunch baroque pop with stirring vocal harmonies; Piccadilly Line's "At the Third Stroke," which is as much melodic folk-rock as pop-sike; Toyshop's "Send My Love to Lucy," whose singer sounds uncannily like Stephen Stills; and Fontana's "In My World," perhaps his best solo effort sans the Mindbenders. Even some of the less distinguished and more ornate cuts pass listenably by without getting overly sickly sweet.

Various Artists, Fading Yellow, Vol. 8: Hymns for Today (Flower Machine). This limited-edition (to 1000 copies) compilation brings together twenty-one UK pop-psych-folk rarities from 1968-1975. And you'd better believe some of these are really rare, especially when it gets down to something (John Pantry's "Long White Trail") taken from a 1972 soundtrack to a film about a team of sled dogs. A few of these artists have connections to much bigger names, and a few are recognizable names in their own right, like British folk legend Wizz Jones; Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan; Tony Hazzard, who wrote hits for Manfred Mann and the Hollies; and Andy Roberts of Plainsong/the Liverpool Scene. Overall, however, you wonder whether more than a dozen people worldwide have all of the original releases from which these were taken in their private collections. That's part of the utility of an anthology such as this, of course, for those of us who are pretty deeply interested in the genre, but don't have the time or money to chase down all of these obscurities. Though pretty diverse as a whole, what these tracks share is a general simultaneous folky base and willingness to stretch outside usual folk-rock and singer-songwriter conventions of the era into something a bit stranger and freakier, without actually getting too freaky or electric. Certainly there are heavy echoes of some of the much bigger names exploring somewhat similar territory, like Donovan, Bert Jansch, Al Stewart, Nick Drake, or Sandy Denny; traces of major rock songwriters that sometimes approached the edges of whimsical folkiness, like Ray Davies or Roy Wood, can also be detected. If nothing here is as good as the finer work of those esteemed artists, usually these songs possess a quite engaging haunting and tremulous ambience, often embellishing reasonably melodic songs with interesting eccentric sounds, production touches, orchestration, and odd (if sometimes overly precious) lyrical viewpoints. The level of quality is high enough that there aren't many obvious highpoints, but certainly Nadia Cattouse's melancholy "All Around My Grandmother's Floor" will be heartily embraced by anyone who likes Vashti Bunyan or Bridget St. John"; Trevor Billmuss' "Sunday Afternoon in Belgrave Square" will likewise appeal to those who love the most ornate early Donovan/Stewart arrangements; and Vigrass & Osborne's "Ballerina" is first-rate dreamy pop-folk-psych. While some collectors might object to the following observation, frankly compilation CDs such as this make for much better listening than most of the original releases from which they're collated, as these intelligently culled highlights are far more consistently enjoyable and diverse than most single-artist LPs in this field. If you do want to track down more of the same on those original releases, the detailed liner notes give you a good starting point.

Various Artists, The Golden Age of American Popular Music: Hits with Strings and Things: Hot 100 Instrumentals from 1956-1967 (Ace). The point's been made elsewhere, but hit radio of the 1960s wasn't only devoted to rock and soul music, as dominant as those forces were on both record sales and youth culture. You could also hear non-rock hits slip into the playlist on a more or less constant basis. Instrumental Hits and Strings and Things has 28 such hits – some mild, some huge – from the decade (with a couple from the mid-to-late 1950s slipping in) that fit into the easy listening instrumental category. The "easy listening" label, though it's the one used more than any other, is a little deceptive. Some of these tunes are pretty forceful (though some are admittedly lush and meek), and quite a few of them borrow from aspects of rock, jazz, and even sometimes folk/country/world music in their arrangements, though at heart these are usually pretty smooth productions targeted toward an all-ages audience. Some of the biggest, and some of the best (the two are not necessarily the same), such smashes are here: Kai Winding's "More," Paul Mauriat's massive #1 hit "Love Is Blue," Percy Faith's much-derided "The Theme from a Summer Place," Lawrence Welk's "Calcutta," the Village Stompers' folk-Dixieland hybrid "Washington Square," Bent Fabric's jazzy piano outing "Alley Cat," Henry Mancini's "Moon River," Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore," Bill Pursell's "Our Winter Love" (with its mesmerizing low fuzzy blasts), Al Caiola's rendition of the "Bonanza" theme, Sounds Orchestral's interpretation of jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," and the Bob Crewe Generation's archetypal swinging bachelor anthem "Music to Watch Girls By." Also here are a bunch of instrumentals that didn't quite make it to the Top Twenty (and sometimes charted much lower than that), though some of them are of notable fame as well, especially Walter Wanderley's effervescent bossa nova "Summer Samba (So Nice)."

This CD doesn't quite have all the most notable entries in this genre you might expect: notable absentees, for instance, include David Rose's "The Stripper," Ferrante & Teicher's "Exodus," Martin Denny's exotica-defining "Quiet Village," and Bert Kaempfert's "Wonderland By Night." All of those songs, plus a lot of the ones that did make onto Instrumental Hits and Strings and Things, are on the mid-1990s Collectors' Choice compilations Instrumental Gems of the '60s and More Instrumental Gems of the '60s. Those anthologies might have the edge for sheer quantity and range of material. But {^Instrumental Hits and Strings and Things} is itself a good-value 28-song sampling of the category, boosted by Ace's typically detailed historical liner notes. At least some of it is bound to appeal to any 1960s pop fan, even if some of it might fall in the guilty pleasure division.

Various Artists, Honey & Wine: Another Gerry Goffin & Carole King Song Collection (Ace). Like the previous Ace compilation {^A Gerry Goffin & Carole King Song Collection 1961-1967}, this CD has 26 vintage recordings of Goffin-King compositions, this one spanning the early 1960s to the early 1970s. And like its predecessor, it mixes familiar smash hits with rarities and obscure versions of songs that might be more familiar as interpreted by different artists. That guarantees a certain unevenness, but for anyone interested in Goffin-King or the Brill Building in general, it's a very good group of songs overall, illustrating varying facets of the team's songwriting genius. It's true that the big classic hits here – the Drifters' "Up on the Roof," Maxine Brown's "Oh No, Not My Baby," Gene McDaniels' "Point of No Return," the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday," and Gene Pitney's "Every Breath That I Take" – overshadow most of the rest of the tracks. But some of the rarer cuts are almost as good, foremost among them the Hollies' brooding, grooving "Honey & Wine," one of the group's best mid-'60s non-45 efforts; the Myddle Class' sinister "I Happen to Love You," one of the finest '60s garage-pop singles; the Rising Sons' (with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder) version of "Take a Giant Step," more famous as done by the Monkees; Peter James' "Stage Door" (perhaps more familiar to collectors in the rendition by ex-Searchers member Tony Jackson), which sounds like it might have been a suitable tune for Gene Pitney to do; Chuck Jackson's minor hit soul ballad "I Need You"; and Marianne Faithfull's "Is This What I Get for Loving You," for which Phil Spector (who produced the original version by the Ronettes) also got a songwriting credit. You also get the original version of "Go Away Little Girl," by Bobby Vee (though it took Steve Lawrence to make it a hit), and Jody Miller's little-known cover of one of Goffin-King's strangest compositions, "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" (originally done by the Crystals). If much of the rest of the CD has an also-ran feeling, it's seldom less than interesting, including Goffin-King songs by notable artists such as Barbara Lewis, Ben E. King, Jan & Dean, Freddie Scott, Nancy Wilson, and the Turtles.

Various Artists, Memphis 60 (BGP). The concept behind this twenty-track compilation of Memphis soul, blues, and R&B from the 1960s is a little vague around the edges. Basically the idea seems to be to compile some of the best such material that's both raw and rare, taken from the vaults of a bunch of Memphis labels. That includes not just Stax (which is well represented), but also smaller imprints, including the Goldwax} and XL labels, both of which have cults among collectors. The {^Memphis 60} title is pretty awkward too. But the quality of the music counts more than being able to neatly classify and file it, and on that score, this is a pretty good anthology, though not one that's a starter Memphis '60s best-of due to the absence of big hits or star artists. Spencer Wiggins, Barbara & the Browns, Ruby Johnson, the gospel group the Dixie Nightingales, and Isaac Hayes (on the rare 1965 single "Blue Groove" by Sir Isaac & the Do-Dads) all have some name recognition, and the original version of Willie Cobbs} blues standard "You Don't Love Me" is a highlight, but otherwise it's doubtful even big Memphis '60s soul collectors have much of this. The material tends toward the bluesier end of the Memphis R&B/soul scene, and while the grooves and the performances are more impressive than the material, it's a good cross-section of the style at its swampiest and funkiest. There are some near-gems in Prince Conley's brooding "I'm Going Home"; the Dixie Nightingales' spooky "Assassination," about the killing of president John Kennedy; and the Cobras' instrumental "Restless," which is like a very unrefined Booker T. & the MG's. Too, Junior Kimbrough (who became far more famous about twenty-five years later) is represented by his rare, and very gutbucket, 1967 cover of Lowell Fulsom's "Tramp." There's no sense in getting hot and bothered about the fuzziness of the CD's focus when the music is good, and this is recommended to soul fans looking for something different on a well-annotated compilation where rarity and quality aren't mutually exclusive.

Various Artists, The Real Thing: The Songs of Ashford, Simpson & Armstead (Kent). Ashford, Simpson, & Armstead were songwriters Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson} and Josephine Armstead, who wrote many songs together in the mid-1960s, usually in the soul-pop style. Ashford and Simpson, of course, later became famous as both a songwriting team and hit recording artists in their own right. This various-artists compilation is another entry in the Ace label's excellent long-running series anthologizing recordings of compositions by major 1960s pop-rock songwriters. It features a couple dozen songs that the trio penned at the time, either as a threesome or in combinations of two, occasionally with additional co-authors, all but a couple of them drawn from 1964-67 releases. While this is solid stuff, it's not quite up to the level of brilliance of the best Brill Building songwriters, including most of the others spotlighted in this Ace series of compilations. Nor does it have any big hits, though there are plenty of efforts by stars (including the Shirelles, Betty Everett, the Crystals, Aretha Franklin, B.J. Thomas, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, the Chiffons, Doris Troy, Ronnie Milsap, and the Coasters), mixed in with some lesser known names. Just because it doesn't have classic hits, however, doesn't mean it isn't good and very historically interesting listening for those who like the poppier end of mid-1960s soul. Ashford and Simpson had yet to really perfect their craft, but that's not a big loss as the less polished nature of the tunes might actually appeal more to fans of 1960s rock and pop than their slicker, more popular later material. True, not many of the cuts sound like they should have been big hits, exceptions being the Chiffons' terrific (if heavily Martha & the Vandellas-influenced) "The Real Thing"; the Coasters' 1965 single of "Let's Go Stoned," which soon became a big hit for Ray Charles; and "I Don't Need No Doctor," also a big Charles hit, though here represented by a rather oddball instrumental cover by drummer Sandy Nelson with Dr. John on guitar. But Betty Everett's "Too Hot to Hold," the Shirelles' "Look Away," Mary Love's "Baby I'll Come," Aretha Franklin's "Cry Like a Baby," and Doris Troy's "Please Little Angel" – to name just some of the obvious highlights – are well worth hearing, and little here is subpar, though some of the cuts are rather generic or derivative. The liner notes, as you'd expect from Ace do a great job in filling in the complicated background of both these (largely rare or little-known) recordings and the songwriters' early careers.

Various Artists, That Driving Beat: U.K. Freakbeat Rarities [5 CD set] (Psychic Circle). Devoted to the hybrid of '60s mod, British Invasion, and psychedelia known as "freakbeat," the series {^That Driving Beat} ran to five volumes in the first decade of the twenty-first century. This five-CD box set brings them all together, presenting around 150 rarities from the 1963-1967 era, most of them British (a few items from Continental Europe are also thrown in). Pinpointing to whom this should be recommended is tough, because any passionate collector of freakbeat is already going to have some-to-a-lot (but almost certainly not all) of it. At the same time, it's likely too much for the novice, for whom single-volume comps with a higher percentage of killer cuts make far better initiations. But make no mistake: this certainly is good value if you like the style and don't have the majority of the contents, and not just for the sheer quantity of the material. While (odd tracks like the Poets' "That's the Way It's Got to Be" and Him & the Others' "She's Got Eyes That Tell Lies" aside) there aren't that many absolute undisputed monsters of the genre here, most of it's at least decent, and good percentage of it is quite good. To name just a few songs, the Plebs' "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave you," the Remo 4's "Sing Hallelujah," the Hi-Numbers' "Heart of Stone" (not to be confused with the High Numbers who became the Who), and the Mike Cotton Sound's "I Don't Wanna Know" are all not only really good obscure British Invasion recordings, but not all that easy to find on other reissues.

On the other hand, a good number of selections are okay but nothing more, and there are too many covers of well known songs, though even those do tend to be above average as those things rank. There are also a lot of songs that are frankly more Merseybeat than freakbeat, though really there's nothing wrong with that, unless you take the "freakbeat" label at face value and are expecting nothing but mod-psychedelia. If you approach this as an interesting survey of bands and songs that sort of floated between the major and minor leagues of mid-'60s British rock – rather than a box set of similar size that that's going to be outstanding the whole way through, like Rhino's {^Nuggets} extravaganzas – it's certainly worth the investment. For one thing, though none of these songs were hits, it's astonishing how many records and bands had direct connections to bigger names, whether it's a cover of an altered version of the Who's "The Kids Are Alright" by the Rockin' Vickers (with a young Lemmy); obscurities produced by the Kinks' Dave Davies, Manfred Mann, and the Animals' Alan Price; no-hit groups including future members of Traffic, Manfred Mann, Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple, and Yes, and ex-members of the Hollies, the Walker Brothers, and the Pretty Things; and little-known productions by Shel Talmy and Joe Meek. (The Meek-produced efforts by Heinz ("I'm Not a Bad Guy") and the Outlaws ("Shake with Me") aren't hard to get elsewhere, but are both really tough British Invasion pop numbers.) And while the packaging is similarly not on the {^Nuggets} scale, the track-by-track annotation by leading British collector/expert Richard Morton Jack has a lot of info on these obscurities.
Various Artists, We Can Fly, Vol. 1-5 [5 CD set] (Psychic Circle). The five-volume {^We Can Fly} series presented rare psychedelic rocks spanning the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, mostly centering on UK psych of the late 1960s, though there's a little spillover from both the British Invasion and early prog-rock eras. It's not all from the UK either, with a good number of entries from Continental Europe, as well as stray items from Australia, New Zealand, the US, and even Lebanon. This mini-sized box set compiles all five volumes, and while some of the 128 tracks have done the rounds on well-circulated compilations outside of this series, there can't be many collectors that would have all of them in one place before buying this anthology.

Though all of these cuts are unquestionably rare and as a whole representative of the scope of psychedelia in its British or British-derived form, they're pretty erratic in artistic quality, no matter what your taste. Some of these are unquestioned rare psych monsters that sound like tracks that should have qualified for the {^Nuggets II} box of non-US '60s freakbeat/psychedelia but somehow missed the cut. Among those near-masterpieces are the Lords' "Don't Mince Matter" (from Germany); Episode Six's brilliant "I Can See Through You," which is both tough and dreamy; Keith Relf's florid solo single "Shapes in My Mind," which hasn't been too easy to find on CD; the Afex's bopping mod rocker "She's Got the Time"; the Bunch's overlooked fanciful but melancholic "Looking Glass Alice"; the Peep Show's hazy "Mazy"; the Mickey Finn's crunchy "Garden of My Mind"; and Peter Cook & Dudley Moore's great psychedelic spoof "The L.S. Bumble Bee," often mistakenly bootlegged as a Beatles outtake, and surprisingly rarely reissued. There are also off-the-beaten-path items by well known or fairly well known acts like Shocking Blue, the Mindbenders, Jackie Lomax, Terry Reid, Eire Apparent, Kim Fowley, Murray Head, Mick Softley, the Smoke, and East of Eden that, though not their best work, haven't been too widely heard.

Much of this box, however, has some fairly generic or even mediocre psychedelia that sounds like it might be championed by the odd collector here and there, but certainly wouldn't be recognized as consensus picks among the cream of the genre. In that sense, it often sounds like an alternate {^Nuggets II} box set, {^Nuggets II} being the major league stars and {^We Can Fly} the players stuck at the higher levels of the minor leagues. Sometimes the connections the artists had to major-league players are more interesting than the recordings themselves. The Bystanders, for instance, evolved into Man; the Cedars (from Lebanon, of course) were produced by Tony Hicks of the Hollies; Italian singer Giorgio is Donna Summer producer Giorgio Moroder; the Glass Menagerie were produced by Chas Chandler; Kippington Lodge had a young Nick Lowe in the lineup; the Iveys became Badfinger; Tangerine Peel was led by Mike Chapman;  Trash were on Apple Records without releasing an LP; Danny McCulloch had been in Eric Burdon & the Animals; etc. All those loose ends and more are tied up in the 84-page booklet, which has plenty of information about the bands and their releases.


Archived Reviews

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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