Archived Reviews

Blossom Toes, What On Earth: Rarities 1967-69 (Sunbeam). When Blossom Toes' sole two LPs were known only by a small cult of late-1960s British psychedelic rock collectors, whoever would have guessed that well over two additional albums of material would eventually gain official release? Yet that's what Sunbeam have done by adding a wealth of bonus cuts to CD reissues of the two Blossom Toes longplayers; putting out a two-CD set of live recordings; and now, with the What on Earth: Rarities 1967-69 compilation, pouring on yet another anthology of mostly hitherto unavailable material (though a half-dozen of the demos did previously appear as bonus cuts on those Sunbeam reissues of the two albums). Taken from home tapes and acetates, mostly these seventeen tracks are demos done in the period between 1967's We Are Ever So Clean and 1969's If Only for a Moment, with a few studio late-'60s outtakes included as well.

The Brian Godding-penned home tape-sounding cuts (the liner notes aren't specific as to the origins of each track), including an acoustic demo of the non-LP single "Postcard," show a much lighter side than either of the two official LPs – even than We Are Ever So Clean, which itself was on the whimsical side of 1967 psychedelia. Sometimes skirting vaudeville or breezy folk-jazzy pop, they're nice wistful pieces – "Looking Up I'm Looking Back" even faintly recalls the early Bee Gees -- but ultimately not as strong as, or even too similar to, the two proper Blossom Toes longplayers. Things get heavier, though hardly bombastic, on the later-sounding and more fully arranged recordings on the second half of the disc, including alternate versions of a couple If Only for a Moment songs ("Peace Loving Man" and "Wait a Minute"), with one of the better tunes ("New Day") getting redone slightly later by Blossom Toes spin-off band B.B. Blunder. Some of these later efforts are obviously undeveloped sketches, but "First Love Song" is intricate psychedelia that could have fit onto If Only for a Moment without a problem, though it wouldn't have been one of the standouts.

Overall this compilation is very much what collector-oriented sets should be. That is, material that's peripheral to the main body of work of an interesting band, but nonetheless of considerable interest to fans of that band, well packaged with good sound quality, and liner notes reprinting a lengthy 1969 article on the group in International Times. And even if it's not a Blossom Toes starting point, you can still hear many of the elements that made them one of the best late-'60s British rock acts never to find commercial success, particularly in the blend of harmony pop with ambitious, thoughtful lyrics and unusual, complex melodies and song structures.

Aretha Franklin, Just a Matter of Time: Classic Columbia Recordings 1961-1965 (Kent). Aretha Franklin's pre-Atlantic recordings for Columbia in the first half of the mid-1960s are usually considered both disappointing in relation to her later, more famous output and unrepresentative of her best talents. Some soul experts stick up for her Columbia work, though, such as David Nathan, who compiled this CD of two dozen of her more obscure Columbia tracks, two of them previously unreleased. To its credit, this anthology takes care not to duplicate material from the most prominent Franklin Columbia compilation (The Queen in Waiting: The Columbia Years 1961-1965), offering diehard Aretha fans quite a bit of music that's not easy to come by on reissues. But though the liner notes argue convincingly that Franklin was not (as the impression's often given) forced to record more pop-oriented songs than she should have at Columbia, the fact remains that her Columbia sides – including the ones on this CD – just don't measure up to what she did at Atlantic in the late 1960s, right after she left the label. Of more importance to the Franklin fan who wants to leave that debate aside and is wondering about this CD in particular, the criticisms often levied against her Columbia work apply to these tracks as well. There are too many too-poppy tunes and arrangements for a singer such as Aretha, and her vocals just aren't in remotely the same league as those on her more famous classics, lacking the edge and fire of her Atlantic era. They're not even as good as the most soulful early sides by her sister Erma Franklin, though Aretha's the significantly superior talent. Only occasionally does she muster something close to a performance that shows her assets in their best light, such as the stirring melodic 1964 ballad "One Step Ahead" and (from the same year) her own composition "Little Miss Raggedy Ann," where she's bluesier and far less restrained than she is on the vast majority of these tracks. What's more, none of these cuts are as good or earthy as the best of the Columbia outings available elsewhere, like "Lee Cross" and "Soulville." Does that mean this collection is superfluous? No, as at the very least it's historically interesting; the better tracks do show hints both faint and strong of greatness; and the annotation is as top-notch as you'd expect from Ace Records. But it's more something for dedicated Aretha Franklin fans than it is for more general admirers of her music.

Goldie Hill, Don't Send Me No More Roses (Righteous). Though not nearly as well known as the likes of Kitty Wells, Goldie Hill likewise recorded some of the earliest quality female-sung country sides bridging hillbilly music with somewhat more polished honky-tonk and country-pop styles. This British compilation might be disappointingly sketchily annotated, only noting that the 16 tracks focus on "her early singles" without providing any original release dates. But the music is good yearning stuff that captures country music at a time when it was in transition between its lonesome rural roots and something with wider, more commercial appeal. Whether or not it was a conscious choice on part of the person or people responsible for the track selection, the material definitely leans toward the sorrowful side of 1950s-era country, Hill imploring for wedding cancellation, "Waiting for a Letter," or bemoaning her fate as "yesterday's girl" or "the loneliest gal in town." The musical backing isn't entirely doleful, however, with some pretty sparky and tuneful honky-tonk (if on the lighter side of the genre), including a couple duets with Justin Tubb. If you do like the weepers, fear not, some of those are here too, with "Call Off the Wedding" and the title track counting among the more heartstring-tugging examples. Hill also proves adept at more forceful wailing on "Cry Cry Darling," though projecting stoic hurt was probably her biggest vocal asset. While these recordings are far more obscure than those of famed 1950s women country singers who explored similar areas, anyone interested in the sound those performers pioneered will find much to enjoy here.

Brenda Holloway, The Early Years: Rare Recordings 1962-1963 (Ace). Though Brenda Holloway was only 17 years old when her "Every Little Bit Hurts" became a hit on Motown in 1964, she'd already been recording, as a solo artist and with other singers, for a couple of years. This CD brings together 22 such tracks, and is a real feat in the cross-licensing of rare material, bringing together as it does singles recorded for various labels (some of them quite tiny), along with a few recordings not issued at the time. In a way, the boundaries of what constitutes a Holloway recording have been stretched to make the disc as long as it is, since only about half of these are true solo efforts. There are also duets with male vocal partners and recordings by the Four J's, the Soul-Mates, the Watesians, and her sister Patrice Holloway in which Brenda participated (and was not always the lead vocalist). But even if this isn't 100% pure Brenda Holloway (and the demo for "Every Little Bit Hurts," according to the liner notes, is believed to feature Barbara Wilson on vocals rather than Holloway), it's a pretty interesting and lovingly assembled document of her pre-Motown origins. There's also no doubt that even at this callow teenage stage, Holloway was an outstanding singer, with a rich full tone and stirring delivery. What she needed, like so many other promising singers in the same boat, was more memorable material and better production, which Motown would supply. A good number of these tunes (even the ones penned by Brenda) are rather average, unmemorable songs in styles bridging the doo wop and soul eras, and occasionally (as on the Mary Wells-like "Constant Love" especially) derivative of early Motown itself. But some tracks here and there are more than mere showcases for Holloway's budding talents, especially the sad and lovely ballad "Echo" (co-written by the Holloway sisters). Mick Patrick's lengthy liners give what's likely to be the most expertly detailed overview of Holloway's early career that will ever be published.

Jade, Fly on Strangewings [Deluxe Edition] (Sunbeam). While Jade's only album is decent early-'70s British folk-rock, its similarity to the material that Sandy Denny sang lead on with Fairport Convention is so evident that it's rather unnerving. Marian Segal sounded more like Denny than any other British folk-rock singer of the time did, and the songs mixed rock music, more traditional British Isles folk melodic and lyrical elements, and stirring contemporary rock singer/songwriting in much the same way that Fairport did in their What We Did on Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking era. The differences? Well, Jade had a little more of a pop influence than Fairport, occasionally using orchestration, and less of a traditional folk one, never updating trad folk tunes with rock arrangements as Fairport sometimes did. And of course where Fairport split up the lead vocals among several members, Marian Segal takes almost all of them here, though the good amount of vocal harmonies again can't fail but to recall early Fairport. The title track in particular recalls Denny's composition "Who Knows Where the Time Goes." Ultimately, the songs, singing, and arrangements don't have as much of an edge as Fairport Convention, and Jade can't help but sound derivative, though they're good at what they do. The inevitable comparisons recede a bit on some songs, such as "Mayfly," with its gallivanting, almost country feel; "Bad Magic," which seems Donovan-influenced with its harpsichord and loosey-goosey blues-rock feel; "Away from the Family," a nod in the direction of the Band; and "Mrs. Adams," which more than any other track is like a modernized old British folk song.

The two-CD deluxe edition issued on Sunbeam in 2009 adds quite a bit of material (including some bonus tracks that haven't previously been available), adding an entire CD of music not contained on the original release. It should be stated that not all of this is by Jade, though Marian Segal's on all of the cuts, though as all of it's from roughly the same era as (or shortly after) Fly on Strangewings, it will be of interest to anyone who likes the proper Jade LP. Among the bonus songs are a 1969 Segal home recording; several unreleased early –'70s singles, including covers of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" and James Taylor's "Carolina in My Mind"; 1971 Chicago radio spots for Jade; outtakes from an unreleased 1972 Segal solo album; and various 1974-75 tracks. Segal composed most of the bonus items, and while similar in many respects to the music on Jade's album, generally they're slightly more pop-oriented, and not as indebted to turn-of-the-decade Fairport Convention-style British folk-rock. The booklet has detailed liner notes by Segal herself, including specific comments on each of the bonus tracks.

Little Richard, Live at the Toronto Peace Festival 2009 [DVD] (Shout Factory). The Toronto Peace Festival, aka the Toronto Rock "n' Roll Revival, is most famous as the September 13, 1969 concert at which John Lennon made his first concert appearance as part of the Plastic Ono Band. There were a whole lot of other contemporary artists and early rock'n'roll acts on the bill, however, and fortunately filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker captured not just Lennon's set, but also Little Richard's. Though it lasts just a little less than half an hour, the performance on this DVD does show the singer at the flamboyant peak of his powers, even if his days as a major hitmaker had passed more than a decade before this show took place. In fact, Richard could have presented this exact same set had it taken place in 1957, as seven of the nine songs were big hits for him back in 1956 and 1957, the other two being covers of "Hound Dog" and "Blueberry Hill." The band grinds out a somewhat, but not too, updated variation on Richard's original '50s arrangements as the gaudily attired vocalist sings, plays piano, prances about, and exhorts the crowd with boundless energy. A few dancers who leap onstage from the audience add to the rock'n'roll-as-tent-revival atmosphere, but Richard is firmly in command of the proceedings throughout. Inspirational song intro: when kicking off "Tutti Frutti," he urges listeners to sing along, adding, "If you don't know it, sing it anyway!" Maybe it would have been nice to have one or two less familiar tunes in the setlist (or anything from his repertoire postdating his initial retirement), and it's too bad the hits he does run through don't include "The Girl Can't Help It." But we're nonetheless fortunate to have this document of the man doing what he does best, lapped up with great enthusiasm by the crowd.

Love, Love Lost (Sundazed). The post-Forever Changes recordings that Love and Arthur Lee did in the late 1960s and early 1970s will forever be a point of contention among fans. Some contend that he and the group never neared the heights of the LPs by the pre-1968 lineups; others find the post-1967 discs to be high-quality hard rock. The material on Love Lost, a 14-track collection of previously unreleased music the band cut for Columbia in 1971, isn't likely to change many people's minds on these scores. Even judged on its own merits rather than against the earlier Love catalog, however, it's not something fated to be hailed as all that impressive, even if it does fill in an intriguing gap in their recording career.

To begin with, it should be noted that while all of these tracks are previously unissued, some of the songs did emerge in different versions on Lee's 1972 solo album Vindicator and the 1975 Love longplayer Reel to Real, with different versions of yet others appearing on an unreleased (but bootlegged) album done in the early 1970s, Black Beauty. Love's brief association with Columbia thus found them using approaches similar to those found on the aforementioned records, more often than not wedding rather routine hard rock to Lee's sometimes (but not always) idiosyncratic lyrics and song structures. Yet as even Michael Simmons's excellent liner notes acknowledge, the Columbia sessions were on the loose and undisciplined side. These tracks don't find the late Love at their best, and could have used more finely honed songwriting and sharper playing.

All that noted, those who do enjoy Love from this era will find much of this to be not all that dissimilar from slightly previous Love albums like False Start and Out Here, though nothing here would have been considered highlights of those LPs. A Jimi Hendrix influence is certainly detectable on some songs, and not just the version of "Ezy Ryder" that concludes the CD. "Midnight Sun" could almost pass as a Hendrix outtake, in fact, and if "Product of the Times" and "Looking Glass" (with its "Machine Gun"-like riff) aren't quite as blatant, they aren't far behind in that regard. For those who like Lee's lighter side, "Everybody's Gotta Live" is far more tilted toward the brooding folk-rock with which he made his initial name, while "Good & Evil" has a most unusual lyric boasting of the singer's taste for Japanese, Spanish, and Native American women over white ones. The inclusion of four acoustic demos (only one of which, "Good & Evil," is also included in an electric version) also helps balance this collection, perhaps inadvertently illustrating how Lee's songs could often be more satisfying in a relatively folky bare-bones state.

The Maddox Brothers and Sister Rose, From Dancefloor to Devotion (Righteous).  The concept behind this 24-track CD is a little quirky, as the first twelve songs gather a dozen examples of the Maddox Brothers and Sister Rose's rhythmic honky-tonk-cum-pre-rockabilly sound, followed by a dozen of their sacred songs. It's not a bad way to get an overview of the group's considerable contribution to the evolution of country music, but not as good as it could or should be. For there's not a single recording or original date in sight in the packaging, though it's apparent from the varying sound quality alone that the tracks were drawn from a period spanning several years at a minimum. Make no mistake, this is excellent music, with top-flight harmonies, tight arrangements, and vivacious playing that epitomizes the best of country swing and early honky-tonk, as well as anticipating some of the flavors of rockabilly and rock'n'roll. Indeed one of the two Rose Maddox solo tracks, "My Little Baby," is a pretty decent bona fide rocker, and "Death of Rock and Roll," an apparent takeoff on "I Got a Woman," rocks pretty hard in spite of its title. And while the sacred songs don't sparkle as much as the more uptempo and raucous tunes, they're not at all devoid of the traits that made their more secular material so lively. If you had to make do with just one Maddox Brothers and Sister Rose disc, this wouldn't be a bad one at all. But as there are of number of compilations of the group with better packaging, it's not recommended for those trying to collect their work with more thoroughness or discrimination.

Joe & Rose Lee Maphis, Cold Heart of Steel (Righteous). Joe Maphis is probably best known as an astonishingly skilled guitarist who recorded hot country and rockabilly music in the 1950s, both as a sideman and featured artist. There's some of that here, but this 16-track compilation is devoted mostly to more sedate, vocal-oriented material he recorded with his wife, Rose Maphis. The slim annotation unfortunately fails to provide recording/release dates or even a range of same, but it can be assumed that most or all of this was cut sometime in the 1950s, when hillbilly music was making its transition to something a little more pop-oriented. That's not to say the duo's ten vocal tracks here are commercial or slick; they're quality heartfelt, plaintive 1950s hillbilly, spotlighting harmonies and tradeoffs that are moving and devoid of corniness, though Rose is certainly the more distinctive singer of the pair. There's not much more than a hint of Maphis' virtuoso guitar skills (and a good heaping of steel), placing the emphasis on the singing and pretty strong melodies that have some pop appeal while remaining country-soaked. Despite the disappointingly perfunctory packaging, this is quality mid-twentieth century country music that many fans have overlooked, even among those listeners who are aware of Maphis' more flamboyant and guitar-oriented recordings. Speaking of which, this CD's enhanced by five instrumental tracks grouped under the subheading "The Guitar Artistry of Joe Maphis" that do bring his abilities in that arena far more to the fore, including some gutsy rock'n'roll and an odd but attractive piece ("Del Rio") marrying Tex-Mex-flavored country to easy listening orchestration. Finishing the CD is a Rose Lee Maphis solo cut, "Country Girl Courtship," that's far more uptempo than her duets with Joe, though it's more country swing than rockabilly.

Zoot Money, Transition (Righteous). Zoot Money's aptly-titled third album found him indeed making a transition, if a little awkwardly, from the jazzy R&B with which he'd started to something a bit more sophisticated and ambitious. While hardly a psychedelic LP, it did reflect the changing times of the mid-to-late 1960s in British pop, especially in what was by far the most unusual track, the Andy Summers-penned instrumental "Soma," with its druggy drift and sitar. For the most part, however, the set was more in the jazz-soul-pop bag, Summers also making his presence known as co-writer of a couple of other tunes ("Let the Music Make You Happy" and "Stop the Wedding") with Money. No doubt Money got tired of the comparison through the years, but nonetheless it's an easy one: the material and arrangements do recall those of a more well known singer mining similar territory in the 1960s, Georgie Fame. To be uncharitable, Money's efforts compare unfavorably to Fame, especially in the vocal department, Zoot's gravelly tone being no match for Georgie's (or indeed numerous other blue-eyed British soulsters). Not to get down on this rare LP too much, it's a fairly enjoyable record if you keep your expectations modest. As songwriters, Tony Colton and Raymond Smith contribute a few numbers that are rather good, if on the poppier side of what Money offers here, especially "Recapture the Thrill of Yesterday" – which is about as poppy as Money got, with the addition of backup harmonies betraying a slight Beatles/Beach Boys influence – and the moody "Coffee Song." Other tracks are in a straighter R&B-jazz-soul mold that Money does capably, but not brilliantly, with the uncharacteristically bossa nova-like "Just a Passing Phase" added for good measure.

One in a Million, Double Sight (Wooden Hill). Featuring young teenage prodigy Jimmy McCulloch (later of Thunderclap Newman, Stone the Crows, and Wings) on guitar, One in a Million's 1967 single "Double Sight"/"Fredereek Hernando" was one of the very greatest obscure British psychedelic singles. Both sides are included on this CD, along with both tracks from their previous, far less impressive single and seven previously unreleased cuts. "Double Sight" was simply one of the greatest Who circa-1966-67 soundalikes ever, and while "Fredereek Hernando" went in a somewhat different direction with its monkish harmonies and crunching freakbeat, it was almost as good. While it's something of a cliché for pet collector bands like these to be unable to match their one capture of lightning in a bottle in the rest of their repertoire, that is, alas, true of One in a Million. Though taken altogether this material could have comprised an actual LP back in the late 1960s, it just doesn't sound like the band were ready for that honor. The remainder of their output was pretty average mod rock with occasional psychedelic spice, and sometimes quite derivative of the Who (though "Something on Your Mind" sounds like a Troggs outtake). The sound is disappointingly thin at times, and the previously unissued "No Smokes," apparently intended as a 1967 single, is an annoyingly tuneless, agonizingly sung ode to nicotine withdrawal. No band that came up with something as killer as "Double Sight" can be written off, but other than that song and its flipside, this is for freakbeat/UK psychedelic completists.

Quintessence, Cosmic Energy: Live at St Pancras 1970 (Hux). When Quintessence were recorded at the St Pancras Town Hall in London on March 3, 1970, the idea had been for the material to supply one side of their second album. As it turned out, that second album, Quintessence, used just a couple instrumental sections of the recording. Cosmic Energy: Live at St Pancras 1970, which has about 37 minutes of music Quintessence laid down in concert that night in good fidelity, is thus a real find for fans of the band. Those who find the group to be rather meandering psychedelic-early progressive rock improvisers won't have their minds changed by this performance, which if anything gives them a looser and longer leash than the albums they issued at the time. In particular, "Giants" – which lasted a relatively mere four-and-a-half-minutes on their debut album – here becomes a twenty-minute multi-part epic suite. Otherwise, the set presents live versions of three songs from Quintessence: "Twilight Zones," "Sea of Immortality," and "Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Gauranga," the last of which appeared on the Island double-LP sampler Bumpers. As the liner notes point out, it may be that the original plan to use more of the St Pancras concert recordings on their second album was scrapped as there's some distortion on the flute and vocals, though in fact this is slight and not a serious impediment to listening pleasure. That ain't all, however: the CD also adds, as bonus material and in yet better sound, 38 minutes of an enormous "Giants Suite" from a show at Queen Elizabeth Hall on May 30, 1971. (Additional material from the two concerts they recorded at that venue on that date appears on Hux's companion set to this disc, the two-CD Infinite Love: Live at Queen Elizabeth Hall 1971.) Plus there are simply mammoth liner notes from Colin Harper that comprise the lengthiest history of the band likely to be written, though you'll have to get both Cosmic Energy and Infinite Love to read them in full.

Quintessence, Infinite Love: Live at Queen Elizabeth Hall 1971 (Hux).  No question about it: this two-CD release, with almost two-and-a-half hours of previously unreleased live Quintessence recordings in fine 16-track sound from two concerts on May 30, 1971, is an incredible boon to the collections of fans of this enigmatic British early progressive rock band. It doesn't even contain everything that was recorded at these shows: an additional 38 minutes, comprising a "Giants Suite," appears as bonus material on the Hux label's companion disc Cosmic Energy: Live at St Pancras 1970. The material includes songs from each of their first four albums, only a couple of which are repeated in different versions, as well as one, "Meditations," that didn't find a place on any Quintessence LP. Viewed strictly in terms of the presentation, packaging, and value to Quintessence aficionados, this couldn't be bettered; not only is it a very pro-sounding document of the group at their live peak, but it also boasts marvelously detailed liner notes by Colin Harper (though you'll have to get both Cosmic Energy: Live at St Pancras 1970 and Infinite Love: Live at Queen Elizabeth Hall 1971 to read them in full). Judged purely on musical content, however, it's not without its flaws. While musically tighter and a little more accessible material-wise than Cosmic Energy: Live at St Pancras 1970, this is still the kind of loosely structured, oft-semi-improvised-sounding psychedelic-progressive rock that will frustrate those in search of substantial songs. If you think that sort of critique might apply to more famed acts such as the Grateful Dead (with whom Quintessence occasionally share some casual similarities), that's correct, but Quintessence make the early-'70s Dead seem positively song-oriented in comparison. They do switch between tribal-like chants, jazzy passages highlighting flute, wistful West Coast-influenced folk-rock, and funky rock (even approximating "Gloria"-like riffing at times) with deftness, and execute pieces with unpredictably differing sections with confidence. In these respects especially, they anticipate some of the jam bands from decades later who would also rely more on grooves and mood than conventional popular songwriting. But some of the earnest naiveté of the lyrics is embarrassingly dated even by the standards of the genre, and the sheer length of these workouts will be off-putting for those who need at something to hold onto in the way of melodic strength.

Tages, Don't Turn Your Back (EMI). Tages were not only the best Swedish band of the 1960s, they were also a prolific one. Don't Turn Your Back: The Complete Recordings Vol. 1, 1964-1966 is but the first of three volumes surveying their output, and it's certainly a comprehensive series, this CD containing 27 songs they cut in the mid-1960s. As it often goes with bands who are quite invigorating when distilled to one or two best-of compilations, however, the impact is somewhat diluted when hearing all of their work in the order in which it was recorded. In the case of Tages in particular, the disparity between their best and worst work is a little maddening. At their best, they played British Invasion-styled mod rock almost as well as the very best British bands of the time. Much of the time, however, they were an ordinary or even mediocre group, offering rather wimpy folk-Merseyish originals or inconsequential covers of American rock'n'roll and R&B classics. Such covers occupy much of the space on this disc, as do some mild originals a la their first single, "Sleep Little Girl," heard here in both its single and LP versions. Yet some of the cuts here are terrific, especially the vicious "I'm the One for You" and "The Man You'll Be Looking For," the latter of which was their best track, even if it was virtually thrown away via its use on a flexidisc. And while the covers are unimpressive on the whole, even some of those are very good, like their punky take on John Lee Hooker's "Dimples" and the confident rocked-up Motown of "I'll Be Doggone." Collectors of '60s European rock will appreciate the well-packaged completism of this collection, but others are advised to find more selective anthologies.

Tages, In My Dreams (EMI). The second of EMI's three-volume series covering the whole of Tages' 1960s recording output jams in 76 minutes of music, the 29 tracks almost all hailing from 1966 recording sessions, though a few rarities from 1965 and 1969 are tacked on at the end. This very active year saw Tages trying on a variety of hats, some of them with spectacular success, and some of them to little positive effect. Unfortunately, it's not too often that Tages hit the bull's-eye here, but when they do, they play British mod-style rock with as much pizzazz as all but the very best UK bands of the era. In particular, "Guess Who" isn't far off, um, the mid-'60s Who in its mixture of riff-driven guitar pop and freaky feedback instrumental break. "Miss McBaren" is a lovely harmony pop number; "Crazy 'Bout My Baby" is an astonishing off-the-wall double-time flamenco-meets Bo Diddley cover of an obscure American song (perhaps learned via the Swinging Blue Jeans' version) with a berserk organ break; and "Leaving Here" is a tough Motown interpretation that sounds rather like the way the Who would do US R&B tunes in their early days. Elsewhere, the territory is so cryptically varied and the quality so inconsistent that one gets the sense Tages were floundering for direction, even as their talent ensured some whopping cuts when they were firing on all cylinders. There are some pretty mediocre soul covers; a pointless take on the Easybeats' classic "Friday on My Mind," considering how indelible the original hit rendition was; and some quite erratic and mediocre attempts to write soul-flavored rock of their own. And while their cover of Johnny Kidd's 1963 Merseybeatish hit "Jealous Girl" is quite good (and arguably better than the original), that's a pretty strange thing to be digging out of the bag in mid-1966. A few other originals show them edging toward psychedelic territory in a baroque British way, and while not great these aren't bad; the odd moody rocker "Those Rumours" and the morose folkish ballad "Go" are worth a listen, if not among their best efforts. As with Tages' recordings as a whole, isolate the very best of these cuts and they could just about pass as a great lost British Invasion band; hear the whole thing in one swoop, and it's more for specialists, though not without its share of fine triumphs. Note that while for the most part this is a chronologically sequenced overview of the middle part of their discography, it also includes a couple stray 1965 recordings (the somewhat anemic original R&B-rocker "Hey Mama" and a cover of "Tutti Frutti") and live versions of James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (from 1966) and Moby Grape's "Hey Grandma" (from 1969).

Tages, Fantasy Island (EMI). The final of the three volumes on EMI (the others being Don't Turn Your Back and In My Dreams) covering Tages' entire 1960s discography is wholly devoted to 1967-68 recordings, jamming 32 tracks onto one CD. As Tages were always one of the most Anglophile of '60s Continental bands (and one of the best such outfits), it's no surprise that this finds them evolving from their more Merseybeat/mod-oriented origins toward more ornately produced, at times baroque pop-psychedelia that was quite similar in many respects to records made in that style in the UK during the same period. As with their earlier efforts, these aren't quite satisfying on the whole, but are dotted with quite a few good-to-respectable songs, even if the highlights aren't as high as the best tracks they managed on their previous discs. If there's an overriding criticism, it's that while Tages were as adept as any European band from outside the UK in emulating British rock trends, they did so in such a concerted and eclectic manner that they didn't project nearly as strong a unique personality as those groups that served as their inspirations. Their spring 1967 album Contrast (contained here in its entirety), for instance, is all too apt a title, containing bouncy soulful pop ("Every Raindrop Means a Lot," one of their most popular songs, and "I'm Going Out"); bad American soul interpretation ("Sister's Got a Boyfriend"); appealing if wimpy melodic pop balladry ("Wanting"); "One Day," which almost sounds like a Zombies outtake if not for the strange accordion solo during the instrumental break; and spooky Zombies-ish near-psychedelia ("Hear My Lamentation"), among other things. Elsewhere there's a weird apparent song about a transvestite, "She's a Man," and from their dedicated attempt to crack the British market, a cover of a song co-written by the young Peter Frampton, "Halcyon Days." Yet if you do have the stamina to make it through all three of these compilations surveying the entire Tages discography – admittedly something few listeners outside Scandinavia are likely to do – the group's very willingness to try so many approaches with so much professionalism does grow on you, even if they lacked the finishing touches to put themselves into the international big leagues.

Various Artists, Bad Music for Bad People: Songs the Cramps Taught Us (Righteous). They might never have risen above cult status, but the Cramps helped popularize a lot of obscure early rock'n'roll that very few collectors other than themselves were aware of. This CD has the original versions of 26 such songs, which in the words of the liner notes "are records they've spun over the years on their various radio shows, some of which they're covered or re-imagined as the Cramps." In other words, it's not exactly a compilation of the original versions of songs the Cramps covered on their own albums. But the concept is still pretty solid, and is a good cross-section of material that inspired them and/or shaped their particular brand of twisted revivalism. And you'd have a hard time finding any collectors other than the Cramps themselves who have the original discs of all of these items in their household, none of them ever having approached hit status. Yeah, there are a few famous performers here – Carl Perkins, Slim Harpo, Lightnin' Slim, Charlie Feathers, Dale Hawkins, Dr. John (under his original name Mac Rebennack), and P.J. Proby (under his original billing, Jett Powers) – but the solid majority is occupied by artists about whom precious little is known, though a few (like Sonny Burgess) have something of a cult reputation. The music, as you'd expect, is raw to the verge (and sometimes over the verge) of crudeness, even by the name players. It's often trashy, and almost always fun in spite/because of its relative lack of sophistication. It's actually a shade less raucous and outrageous than you might expect given the Cramps' notoriety for sleaze, but if you want some of that, it's here too, especially on the Bangers' are-they-really-singing-those-lyrics-back-then "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box." And while rockabilly's the usual style of choice, there's some other stuff on tap here as well, like the blues of Slim Harpo and Lightnin' Slim, and the mournful jazzy doo-wop of Donald Woods & the Belairs' "Death of an Angel." A rap on the knuckles, however, for the lack of better annotation, which doesn't even supply original years of release for the tracks, especially considering a label like Ace would have really gone to town on the no doubt colorful stories behind these oddities and absurdities.

Various Artists, 50 Years of Revolucion! (Righteous). Issued more or less fifty years after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, this compilation might open and close with excerpts from his inauguration speech. Yet it seems in at least some ways less a testament to his lengthy regime than a monument to the music that was popular in the country just before he and his followers overthrew the government. While it's vexing that the brief liner notes say more about Castro and mid-twentieth-century Cuban politics than they do about the actual music the CD contains, it's apparent that the music dates from around the late 1950s, though at least some ballpark details should have been supplied, even considering the 18 tracks were taken from rare Cuban pressings. Getting beyond the irksome skimpy documentation, the sounds themselves are quite invigorating, reflecting a time when the influence of American pop and jazz held much stronger sway over the island's sounds. But the material's far from imitative; those pop and jazz influences are absorbed into Latin sensibilities that are distinctly Cuban, producing music with an explosive and spirited blend all its own. From this remove, some of the combinations seem almost tongue-in-cheek, though it was likely business as usual: Djalma Ferreira uses ghostly organ to back chipper ensemble vocals on "Carnaval – Mulata Assanhada – Voce Nao Quer Nem Eu," and El Gran Fellove has some lounge lizard-cum-Louis Prima in him. In a more straightforward vein, you have the effervescent big band swing of Turma de Gafieira; the vivacious Andrews Sisters-ish harmonizing of Cuarteto D'Aida, set to cha-cha beats; and Justi Barreto, who delivers intoxicating, slightly sly'n'devious Cuban jazz that'll find favor with those who like Dizzy Gillespie's dips into that idiom. The common denominator is that there's joie de vivre, élan, or whatever you want to call spirited, exhilarating music in the language of your choice. And though it might satisfy the collector in us all to know more about these acts and the records from which the cuts were selected, you're not too likely to come across them, or their like, on other CDs in such concentrated quality.

Various Artists, Frankie and Johnny: 15 Different Accounts of the Infamous Murder Ballad (Righteous).  "Frankie and Johnny" is one of the more familiar and frequently interpreted songs of traditional folk origins, with (say the liner notes to this comp) more than 300 versions. This CD, as the subtitle makes clear, has fifteen of them. True, it may not include some of the more famous ones, like the covers by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, and Stevie Wonder (not to mention the twisted one sung in the A Prairie Home Companion film by Lindsey Lohan). But it does have its share of big names, among them Louis Armstrong, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmie Rodgers, King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, and Ethel Waters. As those names alone signify, it's rather more jazzy and bluesy in orientation than you might expect, as the song's most often thought of as a folk tune, not a jazz number. It also goes without saying that it, like all albums devoted to multiple versions of the same song, might not be something you'll pull out all that often, as so many successive renditions of the same tune might be too much even for sincere "Frankie and Johnny" lovers. Within these limitations, this anthology is quality entertainment, offering acceptably varied and diverse interpretations of this oft-covered piece of material. Lena Horne's five-minute version stands out for its eerie, almost ghoulish torch song ambience; Champion Jack Dupree's take almost sounds like something Lloyd Price might have done in the days when R&B was evolving into rock and roll; Ellington's arrangement is actual hot swing jazz; and Jimmie Rodgers summons his customary yodel. There are also a handful of performers who aren't so familiar to the general public, like Jewell Long, Fate Marable's Society Syncopators, Isham Jones, and the trio of Tommy Jarrell, Oscar Jenkins, and Fred Cockerham, who do it up with an Appalachian folk feel. But such an anthology deserves lengthier liner notes than this package has, not to mention at least dates of the original recordings.

Various Artists, Get Smarter: 60's Instrumental Grooves from Around the Globe (Past & Present). It might not be the greatest '60s instrumental music collection, but Get Smarter is undeniably wide-ranging and eclectic in its track selection. There's rock; there's soul; there's soul-jazz; and there's bachelor pad go-go music. And it is from around the globe (even if much of it's from the UK), and pretty obscure, including discs from England, Scotland, Quebec, Sweden, and Vienna.  It's a little on the frivolous side, but fun within reason, as long as no one enters under the delusion that they'll find something as smoking as Booker T. & the MG's or Jimmy Smith. Instead, this is more likely to bring to mind something suitable for above-average soundtracks to '60s exploitation or spy movies. There might be a bias toward tunes with fat soulful organ grooves, but you get some twanging guitars and swinging blaring horns too, as well as some occasional psychedelic fuzztone. It's more atmospheric than something you turn on the "repeat" button for to hear specific tracks, though the John Schroder Orchestra's "Nightrider" comes close to making a more durable impact with its mish-mash of dancing flute, jazzy brass, and dramatic TV theme-like melody.  And of course everyone will recognize "Watermelon Man," though the Artie Scott Orchestra gives it a goofier treatment than the jazz greats who recorded that tune did. British Invasion fans are also likely to recall Them's "I Can Only Give Them Everything" when they hear the Beatstalkers' "Baseline," which has much the same tune. (Not coincidentally, the composer credited with "Baseline" was the Scottish group's producer Tommy Scott, who also produced Them's version, for which he was credited as co-writer.)


Archived Reviews

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              unless otherwise specified.