Archived Reviews

Kevin Ayers, The BBC Sessions 1970-1976 (Hux). For a guy who never had a chart record (even in the lowest rungs), Kevin Ayers sure managed to record a lot of BBC sessions in the 1970s. Several other BBC compilations preceded this two-CD set, which repeats some, though not all, of what's been previously issued from such sessions. One of the anthology's flaws is that it doesn't clearly mark what has never appeared elsewhere; maybe designating such tracks with asterisks would cut down on impulse purchases from discerning shoppers, but it would sure help fans in straightening out what's where. Disregarding this, it's a quite good, entertaining, and dare one say intellectually stimulating sampler of work from his prime, even if the earlier material on disc one is clearly superior to the tracks on the second CD.

If you like Ayers, it doesn't get much better than the 1970 material here, the first four songs featuring various members of his former group the Soft Machine in the backing group (including Robert Wyatt on drums and very active backing vocals). It's an invigorating mix of witty whimsy, art-rock indulgence, improvisational jazz, and absolutely unpredictable see-saws between profundity and inspired silliness. To name a few highlights, "You Say You Like My Hat" is a childishly infectious ditty that would do Syd Barrett proud, Wyatt's scatting backing vocals very much to the fore. The graceful, haunting "Lady Rachel" is a solid contender for his best song, here performed with his band the Whole World (including a teenaged Mike Oldfield on guitar), while "Shooting at the Moon," also with the Whole World, is an excellent, ferociously woozy, jazzy update of the early Soft Machine song "Jet Propelled Photograph." The mood lightens for the six tracks from 1972, on which Ayers' voice and guitar is accompanied only by bassist-singer Archie Leggett, including some of his more celebrated and accessible tunes ("Butterfly Dance," "Whatevershebringswesing") and a cover of the pop standard "Falling in Love Again."

With 1973-76 recordings, disc two might be less satisfying as it has a less idiosyncratic, more mainstream rock sound. Still, Ayers' diffident, almost tossed-off humor shines pretty strongly, and the songs include some of his better-known numbers, such as "Oh What a Dream," "Lady Rachel" (a 1974 version), and "Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes." The sound quality's not always top-of-the-line, but it's always listenable, ranging  from fair (not very often) to very good (most of the time). Overall, the compilation might not be a match for the studio recordings, but they're quite worthwhile for any Ayers fan. It contains some uncommon songs; the arrangements sometimes differ substantially from the more familiar versions; and Ayers, unlike some artists at BBC sessions, often seems intent on presenting a unique performance, rather than just more or less re-creating his records.

Chicago Blues Reunion, Buried Alive in the Blues [DVD]. The Chicago Blues Reunion is a large group whose members include several esteemed blues and blues-rock veterans, among them Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, Tracy Nelson, Corky Siegel, Harvey Mandel, and Sam Lay. This DVD mixes performance footage (all taken from a concert in Berwyn, IL in October, 2004) of the band with interviews and a few archive clips (some of them silent). Although there's considerable material of interest here, it's a bit of an odd jumble that's not wholly a document of the Chicago Blues Reunion itself, and not wholly a history of the Chicago blues scene in which these players were involved. It's some of both, and not nearly comprehensive or rigorously organized enough to be an overall history of the Chicago blues scene, or even an overall history of these specific players' involvement in that community. Instead, it presents the musicians telling stories about themselves and each other, usually rooted in their coming-of-age experiences as young blues or blues-influenced artists in the 1960s, with additional context supplied by interviews with non-Chicago Blues Reunion members like critic Joel Selvin and guitarists Buddy Guy and B.B. King.

The stories in the interviews are the highlights, like Barry Goldberg remembering the battle to win Muddy Waters' respect and playing with Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; Harvey Mandel recalling joining Canned Heat as an emergency fill-in, and playing Woodstock just a few days later; and various memories of the excitement and novelty of being among the first whites to venture into Chicago clubs to check out the blues first-hand in the early and mid-'60s. While the bits of archive footage are interesting, including silent sequences of the young Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop in Chicago clubs and sound clips of the Electric Flag, there's not enough to make it worth viewing on that account alone. The scenes of the Chicago Blues Reunion in performance are well done, and in addition to providing whatever thematic center this DVD has, they present a solid if somewhat workmanlike lineup of respected veterans. This underscores their function as a link to the classic Chicago blues sound, as Selvin notes, at a time when the original greats like Waters and Howlin' Wolf can't be seen anymore, and the closest you could come was to see people who did see them or play with them.

Although the focus of this is too scattered to recommend to general blues fans, admirers of these specific musicians may enjoy what they have to offer in both the interviews and performances here. (It should be noted that Sam Lay, most famous as a drummer, only vocalizes in his onstage footage with the Chicago Blues Reunion.) Accompanying the DVD is a full 14-song live CD of the band, mixing original material by Gravenites, Nelson, and Mandel with covers of classics by the likes of Slim Harpo and Willie Dixon. It's unfortunate, however, that there are no credits detailing who sings and plays what on each track.

The Delmore Brothers, Fifty Miles to Travel (Ace). This great country duo was in their prime when the material on this 24-song compilation was recorded for King from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. This isn't the cream of that crop, as much of that was been collected on an earlier, superior Ace anthology, Freight Train Boogie. As a secondary collection, however, it presents some always respectable and often very good hillbilly music. It concentrates on sides that hadn't previously been reissued on CD, or reissued at all, including half a dozen outtakes and alternate takes that hadn't been released anywhere, and repeating little from the Freight Train Boogie compilation. While there's some hot country boogie here, there's a little bit more weight given to folky, more traditional-sounding songs such as "Midnite Special" and "Dis Train Am Bound for Glory" than there is on the best Delmore Brothers anthologies. It's often a little more sedate and less innovative than their best King stuff, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of exceptional harmonizing and bluesy guitar picking (as on the aptly titled "Fast Express"), occasionally embellished by the harmonica of Wayne Raney. Although most of these are from the less traveled corners of the duo's King output, the CD does have one of their most famous classics, "Blues Stay Away from Me," and -- of more interest to collectors -- a previously unissued alternate take of the song. There also unfortunate unflattering slang references to African-Americans in the otherwise stellar "Mississippi Shore," sung with a casual geniality suggesting such terminology was hardly out of the ordinary among the white southern country audience when this single came out in 1947. The tracks are taken directly from the original acetates, resulting in a clear sound that's quite exceptional for reissues of country music from this period.

Jackie DeShannon, Breakin' It Up on the Beatles Tour! (RPM). Contrary to what the exploitative title might have you believe, this was not recorded during a Beatles tour (though DeShannon was an opening act on their 1964 North American tour), or even a live album. Instead, it was something of a grab bag of a dozen tracks that had already been released on Liberty singles between 1962 and 1964. For all its scattered origins, however, it was a pretty good compilation of her early-'60s work, though it was neither definitive nor the very best dozen tracks she did during this period. The best stuff is extremely good, however, starting with her original versions of "Needles and Pins" and "When You Walk in the Room," both of which anticipated some of the elements that would make up folk-rock in the mid-'60s, and both of which were covered for much bigger hits by the Searchers. There's also some fine girl group-influenced pop-rock that she co-wrote with the young Randy Newman ("She Don't Understand Him Like I Do," "Hold Your Head High"), Jack Nitzsche (the very Phil Spectoresque "Should I Cry"), and Sharon Sheeley ("You Won't Forget Me"), as well as a good song Newman wrote alone, "Did He Call Today, Mama." Some of the other tracks, such as the covers of Buddy Holly's "Oh, Boy" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," come off as filler in this company, but overall it's a fairly strong set by this underrated singer-songwriter. The 2005 CD reissue on RPM adds considerable value with lengthy historical liner notes and eight bonus tracks from the same era, including a few standouts, like her folk-rocky "Needles and Pins" B-side "Till You Say You'll Be Mine," the zesty orchestrated pop-rocker "Try to Forget Him," and the girl group goodie "Breakaway." Collectors will also want this for the presence of three previously unreleased cuts among those bonus tracks, those being a pure blues-folk reading of "Mean Old Frisco" and the more routine early-'60s-styled pop numbers "Today Will Have No Night" and "Give Me a Break."

Lonnie Donegan, Lonesome Traveller (Castle). The idea behind this 27-song compilation seems to have been to cherry-pick Lonnie Donegan's most artistically credible performances, highlighting, in the words of the back cover blurb, "his skills as an interpreter of traditional American roots music." So while there are a few hits here (including the title track), his big skiffle hits are mostly absent, as are his novelties like "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight)" and "My Old Man's a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer)." Instead, this favors relatively obscure tracks from LPs, EPs, and B-sides, from the mid-'50s all the way up to the mid-'60s. Donegan's style is still too derivative, and the arrangements too dated (not to say occasionally corny), for these recordings to exert as much of a hold on modern listeners as those of, say, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, to name two of Donegan's biggest inspirations. Still, there are some surprises here for those who dismiss Donegan as a mere popularizing entertainer, if only in the versatility of the material. There are some 1960 US-recorded pop-rock sides produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who also wrote one of them, "Sorry, But I'm Gonna Have to Pass"). Some arrangements tentatively employ electric guitar and drums (such as a 1959 version of "The House of the Rising Sun"), and while these aren't exactly folk-rock, they do show that Donegan had an idea to combine folk material with electric amplification long before folk-rock became a craze in the mid-'60s. There's rather commercial sounding calypso in the covers of Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" and "I Wanna Go Home," better known to rock fans as a variation of the folk song adapted by the Beach Boys on their 1966 hit "Sloop John B." There's even a 1965 Dylan cover ("Farewell (Fare Thee Well)"), as well as the occasional track that sounds good on its own terms, like his 1963 rock-ish full-band cover of the folk favorite "500 Miles Away from Home." This stuff's been reissued so many times over that it's hard to say exactly who might be snared by this attempt to group it under a vague concept, but it's not a bad sampler of some of Donegan's better work, though it shouldn't be picked up in lieu of a greatest hits or best-of compilation. Note, however, that this version of "Rock Island Line" is not the original mid-'50s hit, but a different 1956 recording that wasn't issued at the time.

Rogerio Duprat, A Banda Tropicalista Do Duprat (El). Duprat is most known as an arranger of Brazilian tropicalia music, but did also release music under his own name. This 1968 album will undoubtedly be of interest to collectors of '60s tropicalia and/or Brazilian psychedelia, if only because three of the 12 tracks are actually vocal numbers performed by Os Mutantes (though two of those are merely covers of the Cowsills' "The Rain, The Park, and Other Things" and the Beatles' "Lady Madonna"). Overall it's a bit of an odd endeavor, falling somewhere between easy listening music and the kind of madcap experimentation more typical of his most celebrated clients. It's of a higher class than most easy listening albums, from Brazil or otherwise, however. For even if the predominantly instrumental material is sometimes cheesy (and sometimes covers not-so-classic American and British hits of the era such as "Summer Rain," "Honey," and "Cinderella Rockafella"), the arrangements are often infused with off-the-wall zany imagination and wit. Nowhere is this more apparent than the interpretation of "Judy in the Disguise," which has to be the most vibrant and playful cover of that classic 1968 hit ever waxed, complete with infectious jazzy Latin rhythms, birdcalls, and honking horns. The fusion of foreign pop-rock, sexy soundtrack music, and relatively indigenous Brazilian popular forms is apparent to some degree on many of the other cuts, though some of the orchestration is fatuous. Songs by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are also given the Duprat treatment here, the soppy strings in Veloso's "Baby" nicely counterpointed by a (deliberately?) out of tune strummed guitar. It's doubtful many listeners will totally like or totally hate this, such is its uneven mix of elements. But most lovers of pop that doesn't take itself too seriously will get some fun out of it.

Champion Jack Dupree with T.S. McPhee, Dupree 'n' McPhee: The 1967 Blue Horizon Session (Ace).
The session at which these 16 tracks were recorded (in 1967, though there's some speculation it might have been done earlier) was a most unusual one for Champion Jack Dupree, and to a lesser degree for T.S. McPhee. Although Dupree was a pianist, not only does he play no piano here -- there is no piano to be heard. Instead, the sole accompaniment is the acoustic guitar of T.S. McPhee, soon to become famous as the figurehead of the British blues-rock band the Groundhogs. It's an unusual combination, and not the best or most characteristic Dupree recording. That doesn't mean, however, that it isn't worthwhile, particularly for some of the more open-minded fans of traditional-styled acoustic blues. Dupree's vocals are characteristically warm and inviting on this set of pretty downhome, rootsy blues, all written by Dupree and McPhee themselves. McPhee's guitar work might be the most noteworthy aspect of this recording date, however, even if he didn't get lead billing. His playing is both proficient and moving, particularly when he unleashes the snakiest of his slide guitar lines, as he does on "Get Your Head Happy," "No Meat Blues," and the brisk "Got My Ticket" in particular. It's a low-key group of recordings, but a pleasantly earthy one. Two of them, "Get Your Head Happy" and "Easy Is the Way," came out on a limited-edition 1967 single, and another on a 1997 CD, but all of the others made their first appearance anywhere on this 2005 compilation.

Mike Furber, Just a Poor Boy (Radioactive). The dozen tracks on this obscure Australian rocker's 1967 LP were, as was often the case for the time, culled from a variety of sources, including two 1966 singles that saw some Australian regional chart action, "Just a Poor Boy" and "You Stole My Love." It's fair British Invasion-styled rock, though it doesn't stop with just imitating overseas trends, as most of the songs are themselves covers of British and American tunes. Some of the British ones covered, in fact, are quite obscure: "You Stole My Love" was first done (and handled much better, to be honest) by Graham Gouldman's mid-'60s band the Mockingbirds, while "Stop" was an early Moody Blues original. Furber was an okay but uneven singer,  and in fact sounds rather horribly off-pitch on "Stop."He also seemed to favor fairly tough R&B material that was actually a little too tough for his ordinary range, rather in the way British singers like Neil Christian and Dave Berry recorded some hard R&B that was a little at odds with their mild, pop-oriented voices. The moody, tuneful Merseybeat-ish beat ballad "You're Back Again" and the similar (but harder rocking) "Love Talk" are the standouts, both because they're not overly familiar songs, and because they're more suited toward Furber's voice than the soul-R&B stuff. Yet while it's good to have a CD reissue of this rare album available, as packaging goes, this makes even the skimpiest bootleg look good. Not only are there no liner notes or original release labels or dates; there are not even any song titles listed. (There are, however, two photos, each of them printed three times in various places on the cover and inner sleeve.)

Dave Hamilton, Detroit City Grooves Featuring "Soul Suite" (BGP). Dave Hamilton is known more as a Detroit soul producer than as a recording artist -- that is, to the relatively small number of serious soul collectors who are even aware of who he is. Hamilton did, however, record some material under his own name, dating all the way back to the mid-1950s. This CD compilation sticks solely to the instrumental soul-jazz-funk material the multi-instrumentalist cut between 1967 and the early 1970s, about half of which would have probably comprised an unreleased 1970 album called Soul Suite. While four of the tracks appeared on obscure 1967-71 singles and a couple of others showed up on CD compilations in the late 1990s, the rest make their first appearance on this disc. It might not be brilliant or exert a magnetic pull beyond aficionados of this particular form of groove. But it's actually quite nice instrumental soul mood music, more unassuming and easygoing than much of the stuff that's championed by devotees of this sub-genre. The frequent use of silky guitar lines, vibes, and Stevie Wonder-like harmonica pushes this a little into lounge-easy listening territory, but in some of the best senses of that description. Those who want something a little tougher won't go away starving, either, as "Brother Ratt" opens with some outer-space wah-wah, sliding into a nicely funky workout with astral vibes flourishes. The guitars (often using wah-wah effects) and basses can get pretty hard-hitting in a smoothly percolating way, particularly on "Yesterdays," where some just-slightly-dissonant harmonica bleats add a nice edge. It's a modest collection, but an attractive one, and a more pleasurable listen than many an acid jazz reissue with more hip credibility.

Hardin & York, Tomorrow Today (RPM). Hardin & York's debut album was quite competent yet derivative early progressive rock, and derivative of Traffic in particular. At least, however, it came by its influences quite honestly, Pete York having drummed behind Stevie Winwood in the Spencer Davis Group, and Eddie Hardin having joined the Spencer Davis Group after Winwood left. And the duo does get quite a lot of sound out of their keyboards and drums, although they had plenty of backup from some session musicians. Eddie Hardin sings and writes uncannily like Winwood circa Traffic's "Forty Thousand Headmen" period, but while that's a good standard to shoot for, therein also lies the problem: it's not quite as good as the Winwood-paced Traffic, and certainly not as original. All that noted, if you're looking for something in the mold of Traffic-lite and keeping your expectations realistically modest, this is pretty decent stuff. It might be a tad more rooted in soul-pop than Traffic, but it doesn't suffer for that. Hardin's vocals are impressively rich and gritty, and his piano and organ quite skillful. The 2005 CD reissue on RPM adds historical liner notes and four bonus cuts from the same sessions. These are of the same respectable level of the rest of the album, if a little more sparsely produced and gospel-rock-oriented, with the exception of an unnecessary cover of Chuck Berry's "Rock'n'Roll Music."

Buddy Holly, The Music of Buddy Holly & the Crickets: The Definitive Story [DVD] (Universal). Since the 1980s video The Real Buddy Holly Story was very good, some fans might have questioned the need for this entirely separate 100-minute documentary done years later. This DVD is very good as well, however, and -- remarkably, among projects of this kind -- really does concentrate on the music, rather than giving the personal life of the subject equal or greater priority. The basic outline and highlights of Holly's career are here, but the real focus is on interviews with several of his closest surviving associates, including fellow Crickets Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin; Sonny Curtis; Sonny West, who wrote Buddy's hits "Oh Boy" and "Rave On"; Peggy Sue Gerson, who married Allison in the late 1950s and was the inspiration for the title of "Peggy Sue"; and Carl Bunch and Tommy Allsup, who were part of the Crickets for Holly's final, ill-fated tour. And these are good interviews, not the sort where they just tell stories that were funny at the time they happened, but don't mean much these days. Even for dedicated Holly fans, there are some little-known stories about both his early days and his brief period of fame, and some very astute musical analysis by his cohorts. Particularly interesting are the segments in which it's revealed that the arrangement for "Maybe Baby" was inspired by Little Richard's "Lucille"; that the quirkiness of Allison's drum part in the instrumental break of "That'll Be the Day" is a goof, owing to his belief that they were only doing a demo; that his classic drum part on "Peggy Sue" was partially inspired by the percussion on a pop record by Jaye P. Morgan, "Dawn"; and that the melody for "True Love Ways" was adapted from a gospel recording by the Angelic Gospel Singers, "I'll Be Alright." About the only mild criticisms to offer are that the occasional voiceover narration is a little too dramatic, and that some of the general details of Holly's rise to fame aren't specifically covered, but those are minor drawbacks. The extra features are good as well, including 20 extra minutes of interview material with various of the participants; the complete clips of all three of the songs Holly performed on The Ed Sullivan Show; a sizable booklet with biographical sketches of his musical collaborators; and a "DVD Juke Box" of 14 of his more interesting, lesser-known songs that's more worthwhile than you'd think, as montages of old photos, record sleeves, and memorabilia appear while the tracks play. Every feature of the DVD, in fact, surpasses the expectations rock'n'roll fans usually have of these documentary projects.

Gordon Jackson, Thinking Back (Sunbeam). Gordon Jackson's only album sounds a little like a Traffic LP with a singer who isn't in the band. The similarity is really no surprise, since Traffic men Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood all played on the record, and Mason produced. Other notables with connections to the Traffic family tree or Marmalade label also appeared, including Luther Grosvenor; Rick Grech, Jim King, and Poli Palmer of Family; and Julie Driscoll. There's a languid, minor-keyed jazz-folk-psychedelic vibe to the songs, which have a meditative, spontaneously pensive air, appealingly sung by Jackson. Touches of Indian and African music are added by occasional tabla and sitar. What keeps this from being as memorable as Traffic or some of the other better late-'60s British psychedelic acts is a certain meandering looseness to the songs that, while quite pleasant, lacks concision and focus. That was a quality also heard in the album from the same era by fellow Marmalade artist Gary Farr, Take Something With You, and while Thinking Back is better and more original than Farr's effort, the songs are more interesting mood pieces with a yearning, mystic tone than they are outstanding compositions. At times this is like hearing psychedelic sea shanties (as on "My Ship, My Star"), such is the lilt of the tunes, though hints of blues and more playful pop-psych whimsy are heard in cuts like "Me and My Dog." The 2005 CD reissue on Sunbeam adds lengthy historical liner notes and five bonus tracks, including the non-LP B-side "A Day at the Cottage"; a haunting, sparse home demo of "My Ship, My Star"; single mixes of "Song for Freedom" and "Sing to Me Woman"; and a long version of "Me and My Dog."

The King's Ransom, The King's Ransom (Positively 19th Street). The King's Ransom were one of a surprising number of groups from Allentown, PA (a little more than an hour's drive from Philadelphia) who made '60s garage rock records. The songs on this collection (including four takes of one of them, "Elevator Operator") might not be too remarkable when judged against  the average cut on the Nuggets box set. But as the style goes, they're pretty decent, though the group didn't have much of a consistent sound or personality. "Without You," with its tense clock-ticking beat and false ending, is a quite good brooding garage rocker; "Ain't That Just Like Me," based on the Searchers' rave-up arrangement of a Coasters song, is almost as good and wild as that first-rate Searchers track. Some of the slower numbers drag on in a lugubrious fashion, and even the uptempo "Shame" is something of a cliched subdued rant against a no-good girl, though again (one guiltily admits) rather good as those things go. In line with most other groups of the period, they quickly changed with the times, getting into lighter harmony psychedelic pop with "Shadows of Dawn" and the beguilingly naive, meditative ode to a "Streetcar." Sometimes, too, they used the kind of florid keyboard arrangements that sounded like hand-me-downs from the likes of the Left Banke and some of the 1967 Beatles' output. Like much of the rest of the CD, these have a ragged charm, though the sound is usually only fair, sometimes with audible surface noise from original discs.

Mushroom, Early in the Morning (Radioactive). This rare album by this obscure early-1970s Irish folk-rock outfit is in some ways quite similar to the brand of British folk-rock pioneered by Fairport Convention in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Traditional Celtic folk-flavored melodies are given both delicate and hard-rocking treatments, the standard rock instruments given a British Isles folk tinge with embellishments of violin, electric mandolin, harpsichord, tin whistle, wind chimes, recorder, and bodhran. The similarity isn't extreme, however, as to start with the production's far funkier and more homespun -- not a bad thing at all, but a trait that needs to be noted in case you're expecting something on the order of Fairport's Full House. Just as crucially, there are definitely more influences from pop, psychedelia, and progressive rock in Mushroom's particular spin on the British Isles folk-rock genre. While at times this is very much in the rapid-fire lickety-split, ferociously rocked-up reels'n'jigs style that Fairport and such often used in the early '70s, there are also some nearly exquisite passages of melancholy Celtic folk balladry with a mild contemporary rock slant, such as "Tenpenny Piece" and the title track. Then there's the psychedelic guitar sustain and wah-wah weaving around the violin in "Crying," which otherwise would be a rather standard British late-'60s pop-rock song. And there's also the almost berserk keyboards of "Johnny the Jumper," where Fairport-style folk-rock meets the distorted roller rink sounds of early-'60s Joe Meek productions. It's far more naive a record than Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span ever made, and less vocally and instrumentally accomplished, not to say more rudimentarily produced. Yet for those very reasons, it's a fairly nifty relic in the genre, if only because it's not just an emulation of obvious influences, but a somewhat odd and original twist on the format.

Alastair Riddell, Space Waltz (RPM). Make no mistake about it -- this record would have not existed had it not been for David Bowie. It's not just that Riddell himself affected an androgynous look rather like Bowie's early-'70s visage. This New Zealander also sounded very much like Bowie in the 1970-72 period, with catchy pop melodies, glam inflections to the rhythm and vocal phrasing, and even the frequent allusions to science fiction in the lyrics. Bowie himself had passed through that phase by the time this was issued in Riddell's native New Zealand in 1975, but given how slowly trends traveled to that part of the world in those days, it might well have seemed pretty cutting edge. There's no getting past its blatant imitativeness, but if you are the kind who likes the early David Bowie sound enough to be satisfied by unoriginal approximations of the real thing, this is pretty good for what it is. Riddell goes through a gamut of glam affectations with convincing confidence, and if he's not the singer Bowie is, he's still okay. Nor is he on Bowie's level as a songwriter, but "Seabird" has the druggy, drawn-out downerisms of Bowie's bleaker side down pretty well, and both the 1974 New Zealand hit single "Out on the Street" and the melodramatically arching "Love the Way He Smiles" have a fairly authentic Ziggy Stardust outtake aura. According to the historical liner notes of the 2005 CD reissue on RPM, "most of the tracks were based on the Tellurians, a genetically engineered race from the planet Telluria whose inhabitants use sex purely as a reproductive process where no emotional love is involved." Well, you can't really tell without having read whatever book(s) sparked this brainstorm, but this doesn't mean this isn't a modestly enjoyable curio, little-known internationally before its 2005 CD reissue in the UK.

Twiggy & Linda Thorson, A Snapshot of Swinging London (El/Cherry Red). Twiggy and Linda Thorson were far more known for stardom in other fields than music in the late 1960s, Twiggy as a supermodel and Linda Thorson as an actress (in the role of Tara King in the television series The Avengers). They did, however, each record some singles at the time that aren't bad, even though they were likely only done as cash-ins on their celebrity. This compilation brings together both sides of the first two singles by Twiggy (from 1967), as well as seven tracks done by Linda Thorson in 1968. The Twiggy sides were produced by Tommy Scott, perhaps best known to British Invasion fans for having both produced and written some songs for Them; he also wrote or co-wrote all of the tunes here, one of them a collaboration with Phil Coulter, who wrote Them's great "I Can Give You Everything" with Scott. Nothing here, be warned, is anything like "I Can Give You Everything." Instead, these are slight if atmospheric songs with a period Swinging London pop-rock flavor, vaguely along the lines of some of the material the likes of Marianne Faithfull and Sandie Shaw were trotting out. Twiggy's voice is thin and shaky, but does have a fetching fragility, and it should be noted that these weren't one-offs; she made other records, off and on, over the next two decades. Thorson is a better singer, and favors more soul-pop-oriented arrangements and songs on her seven numbers, produced by British pop singer Kenny Lynch. The tunes, however, are on the bland side, though they're pleasantly credible reflections of trends in the lighter part of soul music of the era. It was a nice idea to package together material by these two singers on one CD, as they're connected by their status as '60s British-based young trendy woman media personalities who made rare records as a sideline. The packaging could have been more elaborate, however, with brief liner notes and incomplete details regarding on which discs these tracks were originally released.

Scott Walker, Classics & Collectibles (Mercury/Universal). While there's both much fine music here and many rarities that the dedicated Scott Walker collector will want to have, this two-CD anthology unfortunately falls into the "not quite one or the other" category. Disc one collects 22 songs from his commonly available early catalog, all previously issued on CD, mostly from his early solo releases (though some are by the Walker Brothers). Most of disc two, however, had not been released on CD before this compilation, drawing from numerous rare late-'60s and early-'70s discs, including several songs from his rare 1969 LP Scott Sings Songs from His TV Series, one ("The Gentle Rain") from a 1966 EP, and assorted singles and soundtracks. Here's the rub: the commonly available songs on disc one, which focus on his most subdued early ballads, are by far better than the rarities on disc two, which assembles far slushier middle-of-the-road pop and includes no Walker originals. So the general fan who wants to hear his best (or at least better) early stuff is stuck with a companion disc that's not as good as or stylistically compatible with the first CD, while serious collectors willing to put up with the pop covers for the sake of completism are lumbered with a whole disc of material they already have (likely more than once, in many cases). A Classics & Collectibles anthology for Dusty Springfield suffered from the same problem, though at least there the quality was pretty high on almost all the songs, whether rare or not.

If you're still interested in accepting the CD for what it is, disc one is very good, containing highlights of his early work like "If You Go Away," "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" (with the Walker Brothers, presented here in a mono mix that makes John Walker's vocal more prominent), "In My Room" (also with the Walkers), "Jackie," "Next," "Plastic Palace People," and "Just Say Goodbye." The accent's on moody ballads, but there is room for some of his acerbic, uptempo Jacques Brel covers, like "Mathilde." Still, it's not a best-of, not when it's missing such undoubted highlights as "The Seventh Seal" and "The Old Man's Back Again," for starters. As for disc two, once you get past the shock of hearing him croon straight pop songs and standards without much of an edge (by the likes of John Barry, Henry Mancini, Paul Anka, Jimmy Webb, Dory Previn, and Antonio Carlos Jobim, with Randy Newman's "Cowboy" sneaking in somehow), it's really not that bad, though nothing you'd play to convince novices of Walker's hipness. Walker simply had a superb voice, and even if the material and arrangements are often blandly sentimental ("The Impossible Dream" indeed!), he does croon these so well that most of them can be enjoyed on at least a modest level. Some are easier to take than others, of course, and it's a little saccharine in one concentrated dose. The larger point is, however, that it's really the rarities that give this package any value. If this rare material is to be issued at all, it should be issued as a stand-alone rarities disc; as a double-CD of nothing but rarities; or, by going the whole hog and putting out the rare albums, as flawed as they may be, with bonus tracks. This sort of compromise anthology doesn't wholly please anyone.

Various Artists, Alternative Animals (Alternative Animals/Shock). Accurately billed on the front cover as "an interactive documentary on the Australian punk scene 1976-1979," this two-disc set combines a CD of rare and unreleased tracks from the period with a CD-ROM containing graphics, interviews, and video footage. On some levels, it's a thrilling multimedia overview of an obscure (certainly on an international level) but interesting genre for aficionados. Yet at the same time, it's a somewhat frustrating viewing and listening experience due to some limitations and shortcomings in the packaging and presentation. The CD component, for one thing, doesn't identify which tracks are "rare" and which ones were previously unissued. Nor are many details provided about when they were recorded, except for the two Saints cuts, identified as live recordings from April 21, 1977. On its own terms, the CD is decent and quite energetic (if somewhat derivative) early punk music, mixing a few names known to international punk collectors with others that even experts might have never heard. The Saints, Radio Birdman, and Boys Next Door (who evolved into the Birthday Party) are all represented, as are the Australian band named X (not to be confused with the more famous Los Angeles act of that name), as well as less celebrated groups like Manikins (whose "Premonition" is the lone cut to approach pop-punk), the Chosen Few, and the Leftovers.

More interesting, and more frustrating, is the accompanying CD-ROM. Its assets include a wealth of video and audio interviews with members of dozens of bands, as well as vintage video footage of musical performances by the Saints, the Chosen Few, the Boys Next Door, and the Manikins. This must be among the earliest, if not the earliest, footage of Nick Cave, who performs two songs as singer of the Boys Next Door. (There's also an interview clip from the period in which he's asked if he has anything to say, to which he responds, "Yes, but don't ask me what. Which is what you would have asked me.") Also included are interviews with non-musical contributors to the scene (such Bruce Milne, founder of the Au Go Go Records label), band family trees, illustrations of (and some excerpts from) a surprising abundance of vintage fanzines, sleeves and basic information about late-'70s Australian punk records, and recollections of important venues. Yet for all the stuff to browse through, it's bulky and awkward to navigate, and if there's a way to make the tiny videos larger, it has escaped this user. It would also have been a great help if just a little more context was provided -- a basic bio and discography of each band, for instance -- to orient those who might not be familiar with much of this stuff (which would include most rock fans from outside Australia, and quite a number within Australia). Make no mistake -- serious punk fans with a deep reservoir of patience will find enough to keep them interested for hours, so much material is there to investigate on the CD-ROM. With just a little more attentiveness to user-friendliness, however, it would be a more entertaining and informative document of an interesting scene that's not likely to benefit from such in-depth treatment often (or, perhaps, ever again).

Various Artists, My First Day Without You: New Rubble Vol. 1 (Past & Present). As Nick Saloman rightfully points out in his liner notes, compilations of rare 1960s British rock tend to focus on raw R&B bands, psychedelia, and the hybrid of mod, R&B, and psychedelia known as freakbeat. In comparison, the more straightforward variety of British pop-rock has been only lightly represented. This compilation of 20 songs from scarce singles is one step toward correcting that imbalance, introducing the "cleanbeat" genre, to quote a term used on the back cover. As you might expect, the songs are shaded with Merseybeat and light Beatles influences, though not exclusively so. It's not great music; if you want really good non-Beatles mid-'60s British pop-rock, you're much better off with best-ofs for the Searchers, Dave Clark Five, the Hollies, and the like. Still, it's usually pleasant at the least, and sometimes better than that, even if some of the material's rather forgettably generic. Take the best half of this and you've have a pretty good compilation, including the constantly key-changing "Anytime" by the Llan; the peppy, moody Merseybeat of "Lies" by Johnny Sandon, who fronted the Searchers before they split to go on their own; the brooding, organ-toned "Jacqueline" by Bryan & the Brunelles; the Hi-Fis' quality cover of Chuck Jackson's "I Keep Forgetting"; the West Five's cover of Rod Argent's "If It Don't Work Out"; the Blue Rondos' Joe Meek-produced "I Don't Want Your Lovin' No More"; and the Mockingbirds' Beach Boys-influenced soul-pop ballad "I Can Feel We're Parting," co-written by band member and future 10CC guy Graham Gouldman.

Various Artists, Phil's Spectre II: Another Wall of Soundalikes (Ace). Phil's Spectre II: Another Wall of Soundalikes is very much along the same lines as its predecessor, Phil's Spectre: A Wall of Soundalikes. It's not the best group of Phil Spector soundalike productions; few of these two dozen obscure songs are strong enough that they sound as if they should have been hits; and while the Spector influence is strong to overwhelming on all of these tracks, you would certainly not mistake all of them for actual Spector productions in a blindfold test. But they're quite enjoyable for what they are, and certainly will be enjoyed by Phil Spector fanatics, including as they do many of the Wall of Sound trademarks, particularly in the dense orchestral production and some of the skipping, pummeling rhythms. Plus, from a pure collector standpoint, this is awash with big names, and not only via the little-known tracks by stars like the Righteous Brothers, the Beach Boys, Mary Wells, Dobie Gray (whose "No Room to Cry" is a highlight), Ruby & the Romantics, the Four Tops, the Knickerbockers, Joe South, Connie Stevens, and Nino Tempo & April Stevens. There are also numerous interesting names lurking in the credits, like Shadow Morton (who produced the Goodies' "The Dum Dum Ditty," subsequently done by the Shangri-Las); Harry Lookofsky, the orchestra leader for Reparata & the Delrons, and father of the Left Banke's Michael Brown; Jeff Barry, who wrote Reparata & the Delrons' "I'm Nobody's Baby Now";  David Gates, who arranged the cuts by Connie Stevens and Suzy Wallis; Bob Lind, who wrote the Satisfactions' "Bring It All Down," produced by Jack Nitzsche; Al Kooper, who co-wrote and co-produced Eight Feet's "Bobby's Come a Long Long Way"; and Van McCoy, who wrote and produced the Fantastic Vantastics' "Gee What a Boy." Then there's Clydie King, who did "The Thrill Is Gone" long before becoming a backup session singer for numerous stars, and Bobby Coleman's "(Baby) You Don't Have to Tell Me," covered for a hit in the UK by the Walker Brothers. There are also some of the most diligent imitations of the Righteous Brothers ever waxed, from Kane & Abel, the Dreamlovers,  and the Knickerbockers. Detailed notes on these rarities by Mick Patrick add to the appreciation of this odd but entertaining journey through the web of sound Phil Spector spun throughout the industry.


Archived Reviews

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2009
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