Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category
When Phil Everly passed away earlier this year, his legacy was celebrated by both those who knew him and those who were influenced by him. Chanteuse Norah Jones commented, “The high harmonies Phil sang were so fluid and beautiful and always sound effortless in a way that just washes over the listener.” Jones’ partner on the tribute album Foreverly, Billie Joe Armstrong, wrote, “Those harmonies will live on forever.” Iggy Pop observed, “The Everlys were the real deal when it comes to American music.” Brother Don eloquently stated, “I loved my brother very much. The world might be mourning an Everly Brother, but I’m mourning my brother Phil Everly.” Don and Phil’s contribution to American popular song can’t be underestimated. With hits like “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up, Little Susie” and “When Will I Be Loved,” they merged classic country and rock-and-roll into an inspirational whole, while their longing, ethereal vocal blend on “All I Have to Do is Dream” established them as timeless balladeers. At the beating heart of The Everly Brothers’ sound was their deep respect for the music of the land, the rough-and-tumble, hardscrabble, homespun ballads they had learned as children in the Midwest. Their 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught us was a concept album at a time when only Frank Sinatra was turning them out with regularity, and was Americana before the phrase was in vogue. It wasn’t their most popular album, but may well be their most personal and most important. It’s just been reissued by Varese Vintage in an expanded compact disc edition with six previously unheard bonus tracks (Varese 302 067 253-8, 2014), and as a limited-edition vinyl replica sans bonus tracks for Record Store Day.
In August 1958, the goofy novelty “Bird Dog” was ascending the pop charts, but far from repeating the formula, Don and Phil had something completely different and far more somber in mind. They entered RCA’s Nashville studios armed with just two guitars and their own vocal instruments plus producer/Cadence Records owner Archie Bleyer and bassist Floyd T. “Lightnin’” Chance. Rock and roll was not on their minds. Instead, they looked to assemble a collection primarily of traditional, often tragic, folk ballads, all rendered in seamlessly tight harmony. The album, to be titled Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, was rounded out with a few non-traditional cuts. These songs fit right into the low-key, acoustic tone of the album, including one co-written by the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry (“That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”), and another by Memphis songwriter Bob Miller (“Rockin’ Alone in My Old Rockin’ Chair”). The duo also revived Tex Ritter’s 1946 hit “Long Time Gone.” Everly patriarch Ike was credited with the arrangements for two of the tracks, “Barbara Allen” and “Put My Little Shoes Away.”
Don and Phil (aged just 21 and 19, respectively) connected with this material on a deep level. No matter that the songs were about gambling, cold-blooded murder, incarceration and mortality. The angelic harmonies of The Everlys were never more chillingly deployed than on the Appalachian murder ballad “Down in the Willow Garden,” which was first written in the nineteenth century, first professionally recorded in 1927, and popularized by Charlie Monroe in 1947. (Monroe gets the writing credit for The Everlys’ version.) In the song, the narrator poisons his lover, stabs her and finally throws her into the river. Reissue co-producer Andrew Sandoval’s fine liner notes reveal a quip from Phil on the session tapes: “Two easy lessons to slay your pregnant girlfriend is what this story is about!” Levity was likely needed behind-the-scenes to create the note-perfect, beautiful yet utterly haunting rendition here. The same goes for “Put My Little Shoes Away” which also confronts the specter of death head-on. Compared to the darkness of “Willow Garden” and even “Shoes,” the traditional country-and-western kiss-off of “Long Time Gone” (“You’re gonna be sad, you’re gonna be weeping/You’re gonna be blue and all alone…”) seems positively benign. Another quintessential C&W song is “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” with a light, almost ironic bounce applied to its woeful tale. It even scored the brothers a minor hit single in its edited version.
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“I’m just a little girl, but I feel a woman’s love for you,” Donna Loren sings on the first track of Now Sounds’ delicious new anthology These Are The Good Times: The Complete Capitol Recordings. Those familiar with the teen starlet’s lone Capitol long-player, Beach Blanket Bingo, might be forgiven for thinking this release would be more of the same sand-and-surf fun. But as Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Just a Little Girl” reveals, there’s much more to the music of Donna Loren. The newly discovered tracks on Good Times lyrically hew, in large part, to the teen-pop territory of melancholy and devotion. But in every respect – not least of all vocally and musically – they’re prime West Coast pop nuggets. Fans of the Los Angeles sound will recognize every name here, all at the top of their game: producers David Axelrod, the outré pop guru, and Steve Douglas, Wrecking Crew saxophonist; arrangers Jack Nitzsche, H.B. Barnum, Gene Page and Billy Strange; musicians Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Lyle Ritz, Ray Pohlman, Tommy Tedesco, Larry Knechtel, Don Randi, Plas Johnson, Julius Wechter, and future headliners Glen Campbell and Leon Russell.
Donna Loren turned eighteen in 1965, when two-thirds of this collection’s 29 songs were cut. She first entered Capitol’s Hollywood studios, one year earlier in 1964, as the winsome “Dr. Pepper girl” and a beach party film ingénue. Fresh off a brief stint at Challenge Records, she recorded a handful of singles with David Axelrod and arranger-conductor H.B. Barnum, and all of these 45s are included on the non-chronologically-sequenced Good Times. “Just a Little Girl” was among the first songs Loren recorded at Capitol, yet it stands out as one of the strongest of her tenure with the label. “Ninety Day Guarantee,” another early single, boasts surf guitar and groovy organ. But a handful of songs that were left in the can from 1964 are more exciting than the released tracks from that year. Bob Montgomery’s sassy “Leave Him to Me” shows Donna cutting loose with a convincing growl in her voice. If she’s positively commanding there, the goofy “Drop the Drip” is light, enjoyable teenage fun (“Just because he doesn’t wear tight pants, combs his hair a kooky way/’Cause he doesn’t like the latest dance, they call him Squaresville, USA!”) from one of America’s sweethearts. “Good Things” has a bit more of an R&B feel.
Loren returned to Capitol’s studios in March 1965 to lay down vocals for her Beach Blanket Bingo album on which she sang all of the songs from the American-International picture – including those performed in the film by Annette Funicello, still recording for Disney and unavailable for the soundtrack. The songs by Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner make for a pleasant if lightweight listen. The pair gave Loren one of her performance staples, “It Only Hurts When I Cry” alongside MOR fare like this volume’s title track “These Are the Good Times.” But Beach Blanket isn’t altogether indicative of Loren’s versatility. One non-LP side emerged from the same March 1965 session, a kooky novelty called “So, Do the Zonk.” Alas, the Zonk dance craze never took off!
When she next entered the Tower, Loren was paired with producer Steve Douglas and arranger Jack Nitzsche for the five songs that form the heart of this compilation. Shockingly, only one of these recordings was originally selected for release by Capitol: Tony Hatch’s oft-recorded “Call Me.” Like so many of the songwriter supreme’s other hits, it was written for Petula Clark. But the U.S. hit of the song went to A&M artist Chris Montez in Herb Alpert’s breezy clap-along arrangement. In 1966, Frank Sinatra and his longtime arranger Nelson Riddle transformed it into a slow yet sizzling swing standard for the Chairman’s Strangers in the Night album. Loren’s version predated both of those renditions, and it’s inexplicable that she didn’t chart with it. Nitzsche inventively ladles on the strings, horns and background vocals over Loren’s coquettish lead, which frequently evokes an expressive cross between Jackie DeShannon and Tammy Grimes. “Call Me” was paired on 45 with a boisterous visit to Ashford, Simpson and Armstead’s “Smokey Joe’s,” proving that Loren was as adept with big beat as with big ballads.
Nitzsche scored another Goffin/King tune for Loren, “They’re Jealous of Me,” which was also recorded by Earl-Jean (“I’m Into Something Good”) and Connie Stevens. It makes its debut here. The full Wall of Sound treatment was naturally applied to Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Spector’s “Woman in Love (With You).” The Ronettes’ recording of the song was released in 1975, while The Crystals’ (led by La La Brooks) didn’t receive a commercial release until 2011. This was one unlucky song; Donna’s sublime rendition sat in the vaults until Ace Records unearthed it in 2006 for Hard Workin’ Man, its second Nitzsche compendium. Nitzsche also brought baroque flourishes and Spectorian pomp to Mann and Weil’s sublime “That’s the Boy.” It was first released on Ace’s Glitter and Gold anthology of the duo’s work. The anthemic “Hold Your Head High” from the team of Randy Newman and Jackie DeShannon is another stunningly mature, previously unreleased track from the Loren/Nitzsche/Douglas/Wrecking Crew cadre. Donna’s direct, emotional vocal cuts through the martial beat and big production, and delivers a surprising degree of intimacy.
The rare and never-before-heard music doesn’t stop there. The Beau Brummels backed Donna on the folk-rock of Brummel Ron Elliott’s “It’s Gotta Be,” with Glen Campbell also on guitar, from October ’65. And then there’s “You Can’t Lose Something You Never Had.” This majestically dramatic song from the pre-fame Al Kooper with his then-regular writing partners Bob Brass and Irwin Levine has been described by Kooper as “admittedly Bacharachian” and “still one of my favorites from the old days.” It’s not hard to see why, as his emotional melody soars in unexpected directions. Kooper once stated that he was only aware of the MGM Records original 45 by Bruce Scott and the demo by Jimmy Radcliffe; one hopes he hears Donna’s recording post haste. The production by Douglas and arrangement by Billy Strange is less overtly Bacharach-esque than on the Scott single, with The Wrecking Crew expertly recalling Pet Sounds in its introduction (which it, of course, predated) and Tony Hatch in its brassy elegance. Loren’s vocal is filled with the requisite urgency; these two-and-a-half minutes alone would be reason enough to take a chance on These Are The Good Times. Strange was also the arranger of “My Way,” which isn’t Frank Sinatra’s defiant anthem but rather a pleasant beat tune. Alas, the identity of its writer(s) has been lost to time.
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Miles Davis was never one to embrace the predictable. When many of his peers were turning to orchestrated pop-jazz and embellishing the era’s AM radio hits, he was embracing rock and roll – not just the sound, but moreover, the spirit – with the vivacity of a younger man. Davis was 44 when he stepped onstage at Manhattan’s Fillmore East for the series of concerts recently issued in full for the very first time as the third volume of his Bootleg Series. The title, Miles at the Fillmore – Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3, might be a bit unwieldy, but within its four discs there’s a striking, angular beauty.
This isn’t easily digestible music. Much of it is ferocious and frenzied, with a rock pulse underpinning the uninhibited, unpredictable improvisations of Davis and his six cohorts. The sets performed by the great trumpeter on June 17-20, 1970 with Steve Grossman (tenor and soprano saxophones), Chick Corea (electric piano), Keith Jarrett (organ, tambourine), Dave Holland (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums) and Airto Moreira (percussion, flute) were exceedingly light on melody and traditional harmony, and heavy on sonic exploration. When preparing the original 2-LP set Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East in 1970, Davis’ longtime producer Teo Macero boiled down each of the four nights’ performances into one sound collage. The four “suites” were then each placed on one side of vinyl. This deluxe 4-CD package presents the four evenings in full, plus bonus tracks culled from the April 11 performances at sister venue The Fillmore West. In total, there’s roughly 100 minutes of never-before-released music from Wednesday through Saturday, with additional 35 or so minutes from the San Francisco show.
The core of Davis’ sets remained the same each evening. Joe Zawinul’s funky “Directions” (first recorded by Davis in the studio in November 1968, and played every night from 1969-1971, but not issued on record until 1980) kicked off the proceedings, followed by “The Mask,” a new composition that Davis recorded two weeks before the Fillmore East shows near the end of the Jack Johnson sessions. “It’s About That Time” from 1969’s In a Silent Way followed, and then the title track of the just-released Bitches Brew. The only other piece performed every night was the brief, inevitable closer, “The Theme.” While those five were the only songs played at the opening Wednesday show, Davis and his remarkable band spiced up each of the following sets. Bitches’ “Spanish Key” appeared as a rare encore on Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, a surprising return to the standard repertoire with “I Fall in Love Too Easily” led into former Davis saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary.” (On Bitches Brew, “Sanctuary” begins with Davis and Corea improvising on the Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne tune before stating Shorter’s theme.) Saturday’s packed set retained “Fall in Love” and “Sanctuary” but also added the oddly-named “Willie Nelson,” first played by Davis during the Jack Johnson sessions.
The artist who once said he took inspiration from Frank Sinatra in learning how to “sing” on his trumpet was, at the Fillmore, taking his cues from the amped-up spirit and fire of Jimi Hendrix – albeit with even less adherence to convention. The electricity onstage, both literally and figuratively, couldn’t have happened without a fully committed band behind the leader, however. The Fillmore East recordings are perhaps most significant because both Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea played in the group together for only a three month-period, and their rare work together is very nearly the engine that propels the music forward. Jarrett and Corea’s electric piano and organ, respectively, play with a sharp, searing intensity. Their sounds are as forceful and as prominent as an electric guitar on a “rock” recording might be. In fact, they take on the characteristics of the electric guitar as they duel and shred, with Jarrett using plenty of wah-wah, and Corea pushing the limits of the Fender Rhodes. The teamwork of Corea and Jarrett could be interpreted as one-upmanship, so in synch are the two players as they swirl around one another, intersecting and engaging and challenging each other.
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Tonight, Linda Ronstadt receives her long-overdue recognition into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But rock and roll, of course, played only a small – if key – role in Ronstadt’s career. The breadth of that career is revealed on Rhino’s new release of Linda Ronstadt – Duets (Rhino R2 542161), containing fourteen tracks originally released between 1974 and 2006 plus one previously unreleased performance. While there are no duets here from Ronstadt’s Tony-nominated turn in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance or her Mexican recordings , her immersions into the realms of country, folk, jazz, R&B, and of course, Southern California rock are all here. She’s joined by a “Who’s who” of artists including Frank Sinatra, James Taylor, Bette Midler, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Aaron Neville, James Ingram, and J.D. Souther. Ronstadt won’t be attending tonight’s ceremony, but her music speaks for itself.
Compiled and remastered by her longtime manager, John Boylan, Duets is a reminder of just how catholic Ronstadt’s tastes were. From her earliest days as a member of country-rock band The Stone Poneys (“Different Drum”), she refused to be pigeonholed in one genre. On Duets, the songs of Irving Berlin and Warren Zevon are performed with the same sympathetic understanding and respect for the art of the song. Boylan has neatly sequenced the compilation as a musical travelogue from folk to country to rock to standards, both modern and vintage. The sound changes along with the style of song, building and growing from acoustic to orchestral.
Three selections from Ronstadt’s final studio recording, 2006’s Adieu False Heart with Cajun singer Ann Savoy, open Duets. Their tight harmonies on the low-key opening cut, “Adieu, False Heart,” are adorned with light acoustic flourishes, and the already-poignant song takes on additional meaning when placed in context as likely the concluding chapter of Ronstadt’s career as a vocalist. Of the three Savoy duets, however, the most revelatory is their reinvention of The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee.” This folk reinterpretation of Michael Brown’s song can’t help but bring to mind Ronstadt’s famous recasting of “oldies” from Motown to Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers into her own style.
Though Bette Midler is the partner on the fun, Barry Manilow-arranged recording of Irving Berlin’s “Sisters,” Ronstadt’s truest sisters in song might be Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. Though there are no recordings here from their Trio recordings, each is represented on one track. On the traditional “I Never Will Marry,” accompanied by just acoustic guitars (Waddy Wachtel and Ronstadt) and dobro (Mike Auldridge), Ronstadt and Parton’s voices blend with a beautiful simplicity. More boisterous is the delightfully bright bounce of Ronstadt and Harris’ take on Hank Williams’ familiar “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You).” Peter Asher’s clean production, featuring the tireless Andrew Gold on guitar, piano and ukelele along with “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow on steel guitar and David Lindley on fiddle, made no concessions to the sound of rock circa 1974. Ronstadt’s affinity for classic country recurs throughout her catalogue, and she blends exquisitely with Carl Jackson on a 2003, fiddle-and-dobro-flecked rendition of The Louvin Brothers’ chestnut “The New Partner Waltz.”
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If you’re looking for a record label to do your deep crate-digging for you, look no further than Omnivore Records. The musical archaeologists there have unearthed three all-but-unknown records from artists on the fringe. But these fresh and vital discoveries from Sid Selvidge, Sandra Rhodes and Todd Cochran a.k.a. Bayeté will likely leave you wondering, “How have I missed this music until now?”
Likely on the strength of his work on Bobby Hutcherson’s 1971 Blue Note LP Head On, composer-pianist Todd Cochran was signed to venerable jazz label Prestige. The very next year, he delivered Worlds Around the Sun, one-half of his shockingly small discography as a leader. Though very much of its time, the album took jazz fusion to another level with nods to John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and even Bill Evans. Producer-writer-performer Cochran’s fresh approach is evident from the very first track, “It Ain’t.” It doesn’t shy away from reinventing the bop idiom for 1972, and you might be snapping your fingers to Cochran’s piano. Hutcherson (playing vibes and marimba throughout the album) adds to the dreamy soundscape, with tightly blended horns and winds creating an alternate-universe cosmic MOR. Solos on bass (James Leary III) and drums (Thabo Vincar, alias Michael Carvin) show off the musicians’ improvisational virtuosity. We know that “It Ain’t” – but what is it? Whatever it is, it’s mesmerizing.
The hypnotic groove of “Bayeté (Between Man and God),” inspired by Herbie Hancock’s African explorations, builds from an almost tribal rhythm of Carvin’s drums. At twelve minutes, it’s by far the longest track on the LP, and one of the funkiest, with Cochran on Rhodes and piano. It also takes in slithering sax and lively trumpet, for a fusion-meets-free jazz free-for-all. Similarly spiritual is “Njeri (Belonging to a Warrior),” featuring Hutcherson’s shimmering vibes and Hadley Callman’s atmospheric flute, with Cochran on piano.
The most famous track on Worlds Around the Sun is doubtless “Free Angela,” thanks to Santana’s 1974 live recording preserved on his Lotus album. Inspired by controversial activist Angela Davis (also the subject of songs from The Rolling Stones and John Lennon and Yoko Ono) the tight and funky track with Cochran on clavinet takes on the shape of a mini-suite. The main theme, with its chanted refrain, melodically and stylistically shifts dramatically at about the three-and-a-half minute mark, and then once more before the song’s close.
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Talk about an introduction! Listening to the “new” 2013 Johnny Cash album Out Among the Stars, it doesn’t take long to realize you’re in good hands. Cash’s robust, reassuring storyteller’s voice is firmly authoritative on the ironically jaunty opening track, yet filled with empathy for the “many weary travelers…bearing both their burdens and their scars.” The song could have been recorded yesterday, but in fact, hails from a “lost decade” for the Nashville legend. That such a strong track dates back to the 1980s, the decade in which he was dropped by his longtime label Columbia, makes its discovery all the more thrilling.
The Johnny Cash of Out Among the Stars isn’t exactly the Cash of American Recordings fame. Whereas producer Rick Rubin reinvigorated the artist’s career by emphasizing the darkness that always lingered just under the surface, these recordings helmed by countrypolitan guru Billy Sherrill (George Jones, Tammy Wynette) take a more rounded approach. Longtime fans of The Man in Black – or anyone lucky enough to pick up Columbia/Legacy’s 2012 Complete Album Collection box set – know that black was just one of his many colors. Cash albums frequently featured dollops of humor and spirituality, too. Though some of Cash’s material from the eighties wasn’t worthy of him – “The Chicken in Black,” anyone? – the songs culled for Out Among the Stars find his instincts in sharp form. Ten of the twelve tracks were recorded between April and June 1984; the remaining two songs date back to 1981.
For these sessions following up their collaboration on The Baron (also from 1981), Sherrill and Cash were joined by June Carter Cash, Waylon Jennings and the first-call group of Marty Stuart (guitar/mandolin), Jerry Kennedy (guitar), Pete Drake (steel guitar), Hargus “Pig” Robbins (piano) and Henry Strzelecki (bass). When the time came to revisit the sessions in 2013, Johnny and June’s son John Carter Cash and co-producer Steve Berkowitz called once again upon Stuart, as well as June’s daughter Carlene Carter, Buddy Miller, Jerry Douglas, Laura Cash, Niko Bolas and others. With the seeming intent of recreating the vintage Cash sound while staying true to the textures of the basic recordings, John Carter has brought back his father’s warmly enveloping, resonant style. These twelve songs are a return to traditionalist country, where anguish and passion go hand in hand in a sea of heartbreak. Out Among the Stars isn’t spare, but supple. This vibrant album should disprove any theories that Cash was incapable of channeling his glory days or was somehow making “irrelevant” music in the electronics-obsessed eighties.
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Shreveport, Louisiana-born Bettye Swann never liked her birth name of Betty Jean Champion, yet when it came to soul music, Swann was certainly a champion. Her debut single for Money Records, 1965’s “Don’t Wait Too Long,” became a Top 30 R&B hit, and two years later, “Make Me Yours” went all the way to the No. 1 spot on that chart. It was inevitable that bigger labels than Money would come calling, and sure enough, Swann recorded two country-flavored LPs in 1969 and 1970 for Capitol. Rick Hall of the FAME label and studios was among Bettye’s fans, and with a distribution deal through Capitol, signed Swann to his production company. But by the time he was ready to release any recordings by Bettye, the deal with Capitol was up. Following one 45 issued directly on FAME, Hall brokered a deal to sign Swann to one of the cornerstones of American soul music: Atlantic Records. Real Gone has teamed up with SoulMusic Records for The Complete Atlantic Recordings. This new compilation rounds up all 23 sides recorded by Swann for the New York giant between 1972 and 1975, five of which are making their very first appearance anywhere.
Unlike some of her earthier counterparts, Swann possessed a smooth, girlish and frankly pretty voice. Hall, in charge of Swann’s first seven Muscle Shoals-recorded Atlantic sides, deployed that voice to great effect on this collection’s opening single, the ironically-upbeat “Victim of a Foolish Heart,” in which Swann implores her man not to fall prey to the charms of an old paramour. Though Swann’s message is clear, it’s delivered in such a sweet way that one can’t see how the weak-willed guy could possibly turn Bettye down! Hall and Swann took a more traditionally torrid southern-soul approach on a revival of “I’d Rather Go Blind” with its tight guitar licks, organ and stabs of brass, but Swann’s coquettish lead allows the gritty lyric to be heard anew. Swann and Hall also recut Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” which she had recorded at Capitol, and took a stab at the oft-recorded Carole King/Gerry Goffin copyright “Yours Until Tomorrow.” Swann’s recordings lacks the fervor of Dee Dee Warwick’s or the drama of Gene Pitney’s, but compensates with the mature, intelligent delivery of Goffin’s pleading lyric.
Despite the strength of the Muscle Shoals recordings including an irresistible makeover of Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer’s Supremes cut “I’m Not That Easy to Lose,” none of Swann’s singles got any higher on the Hot 100 than “Today I Started Loving You Again” with its No. 46 placement. So Atlantic set Swann up at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios in 1973, teaming her with The Young Professionals, a.k.a. LeBaron Taylor, Phil Hurtt and Tony Bell, younger brother of Philadelphia soul architect Thom Bell. Though Philly soul could be as sweet as it comes, Taylor, Hurtt and Bell’s first recording with Swann made the Muscle Shoals tracks sound positively sugary in comparison. “The Boy Next Door” is swaggering Philadelphia-style funk, with burbling guitar licks, slashing strings and an insistent groove. Arranger Tony Bell’s second track for Swann, B-side “Kiss My Love Goodbye,” should have been the A-side. It’s a quintessential, up-tempo Spinners-style track, and for Swann’s next single, Tony Bell turned to his older brother Thom to provide the charts. You can hear Bell’s influence in the soft horns, strings and ethereal male backing vocals of the gorgeously melancholy “Time to Say Goodbye,” providing a cushion as soft as Swann’s velvety voice. Thom also arranged the A-side of “Time,” the darker, funk-infused “When the Game is Played on You” in which Swann once again serves up a tasty dish of vengeance to the one who’s done her wrong: “How does it feel, baby, when the game is played on you?”
Lord a-mighty, do you feel your temperature rising? Okay, “Burning Love” isn’t among the songs on the new 2-CD Legacy Edition of Elvis Presley’s 1974 Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis, but there’s nonetheless plenty to get the pulse pounding and the pelvis swiveling. The original Memphis LP preserved The King’s hometown show of March 20, 1974, and this reissue adds a live concert from two nights earlier in Richmond, Virginia plus five bonus tracks from an in-studio rehearsal session. Memphis was Elvis’ fifth live recording in five years, following Elvis in Person at the International Hotel and On Stage, Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden and Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite. Each one of those has been previously addressed by Legacy as part of this ongoing series.
On March 20, Elvis stepped onstage at Memphis, Tennessee’s Mid-South Coliseum, located roughly eight miles from his Graceland mansion – so memorably, if unexcitingly, pictured on the cover artwork for Live on Stage. Elvis clearly had Memphis on his mind, and had just recently returned to the city’s studios in July and December 1973 for sessions at Stax. On the same day of the concert, his album Good Times was released by RCA, culled from these sessions. (Its tracks were reissued last year by Legacy on Elvis at Stax.)
In a move that would be odd by today’s standards, Elvis didn’t perform any of the tracks from his new album at Mid-South. The set list hewed to the basic format he had been employing, and there’s plenty of overlap with the New York and Hawaii concerts reissued by Legacy – from the opening fanfare of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” to the finale of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” But the local crowd seemingly energized Elvis from the second he launched his big show with the support of The TCB Band (James Burton and John Wilkinson on guitar, Charlie Hodge on guitar/vocals, Duke Bardwell on bass, Ronnie Tutt on drums and Glen D. Hardin on piano), singers The Sweet Inspirations, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, Kathy Westmoreland and the Nashville group called Voice, and Joe Guercio and his orchestra.
That Elvis vocally was in solid shape is somewhat surprising, considering the punishing touring schedule on which he embarked in ’74. He played over 150 U.S. concerts that year, and the Memphis homecoming shows – five, overall, of which March 20 was the final one – were his first performances there since a benefit in 1961. The first disc of the new Legacy Edition reissues the Follow That Dream label’s complete presentation of the concert (heavily edited on the original LP) from 2004 but in newly remixed form by Steve Rosenthal and reissue co-producer Rob Santos.
The first track on Legacy Recordings’ new double-disc anthology The Essential Eric Carmen (Arista/Legacy 88883745522) is titled, appropriately enough, “Get the Message.” And the message relayed by its 30 nuggets comes through loud and clear: whether as power pop prince, classically-inspired MOR balladeer or nostalgic yet contemporary eighties rocker, Eric Carmen had the goods.
Young lust never sounded as thrilling, as exuberant, or as pretty as it did in the hands of The Raspberries. Over the course of just four albums released between 1972 and 1974, each one of which is represented here, the band positioned itself as legitimate heirs to the thrones of The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Byrds. With jangly guitars, alternately swaggering and yearning vocals, full-bodied harmonies, unerring melodic instinct and plenty of youthful abandon, the mod four-man group defined “power pop” on songs like “Go All the Way,” “I Wanna Be with You” and “Let’s Pretend.” As singer, guitarist/bassist and songwriter, Carmen provided the band – also featuring guitarist Wally Bryson, drummer Jim Bonfanti and guitarist/bassist Dave Smalley – with three-minute opuses that crackled with the spirit of FM and the sound of AM. The roots of The Raspberries are vividly apparent on “Get the Message” from Carmen and Bryson’s pre-Raspberries band Cyrus Erie, which makes its CD debut here. Just listen to those cries of “Come on!” in the catchy track’s first twenty seconds!
Carmen made the leap to solo artist with his self-titled 1975 Arista album, the first of two Eric Carmen LPs. Retaining the services of Raspberries producer Jimmy Ienner, the bright, brash “Sunrise” didn’t stray too far from the band’s blueprint, but the album’s two major hit singles certainly did. “All By Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” both drew on melodies of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), giving the late composer two hit records more than three decades after his death. The oft-covered “All by Myself,” which is heard here in its full 7+-minute album version, certainly showcased Carmen at his most bombastic. But its supremely melancholy lyric and majestic melody by both Carmen and Rachmaninoff created a striking orchestral-pop amalgam that stands among the singer-songwriter’s best works. “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” has an equally downbeat lyric, but is married to the purely irresistible Rachmaninoff chorus, rendered in ironically bouncy style. It’s wistful but never mawkish, and it’s easy to see why both “Never Gonna Fall” and “All by Myself” garnered enough attention to be performed in concert by no less an eminent interpreter than Frank Sinatra himself. (Coincidentally, Arista Records had a third hit single in 1975 based on a classical theme: Barry Manilow’s Top 10 “Could It Be Magic.”)
In addition to the Cyrus Erie track, The Essential serves up rarities in the form of two previously unreleased selections from New York’s fabled Bottom Line. Carmen revived The Raspberries’ “Starting Over,” and his intimate performance brought his sophisticated songcraft to the fore. The live version of Eric Carmen track “That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” is looser and more boisterous, and both tracks make a case that the entire concert should be issued imminently.
It looked like Elton John would never come down. When Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John’s seventh album and first double-LP set, arrived in October 1973, it followed six straight Top 10 albums. The last two of those had gone all the way to No. 1. Five of John’s singles had also reached the Top 10 of the Hot 100, including one chart-topper. The former Reg Dwight was at the top of the world. Where does one go from there? The answer, of course, was even higher.
Forty years and two dozen studio albums later, GYBR remains the quintessential Elton John album. And it’s just returned from UMe in a multitude of formats including single-CD remaster and double-CD remasters, a 2-LP vinyl reissue, a 4-CD/1-DVD Super Deluxe Edition, and a Blu-ray disc. But whether you’re playing it on a turntable, a CD player or the latest in BD technology, it remains the purest expression of Elton John’s artistry. Not that Captain Fantastic did it alone. GYBW is very much a band album, featuring Dee Murray on bass and two players that still share the stage with John today: Davey Johnstone on guitars and Nigel Olsson on drums. Del Newman’s lush orchestrations made sure that the album sonically reflected the grandiose cinematic quality so often referred to in the lyrics of The Brown Dirt Cowboy, Bernie Taupin. Producer Gus Dudgeon made the entire program of songs hold together cohesively.
GYBR isn’t a concept album, but is a showcase for the various strains of American music that Elton John made his own. Thematically, Hollywood and music itself recur as central lyrical inspirations, with John and Taupin’s stirring array of songs addressing loss – of innocence, of love, even of life. Even today, John opens his concerts with the eleven-minute “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” an epic, ominous, majestic Overture for what’s to come. The instrumental “Funeral,” with David Hentschel’s spooky ARP synthesizer, sets the grand tone for the sprawling album. It segues into “Love,” with some of the Rocket Man’s best rock piano yet accompanying a Taupin lyric about the collateral damage caused by life as a musician.
Naturally, GYBR’s four singles – “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” (No. 12 on the Hot 100), “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (No. 2), “Bennie and the Jets” (No. 1) and “Candle in the Wind” (No. 11 in the U.K.) – threaten to overshadow the other thirteen songs on GYBR. Both the title track and “Candle in the Wind” make use of the Hollywood imagery that plays such a prominent role on the entire LP. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is ostensibly a declaration of getting back to one’s roots, filtered through powerful, potent cinema imagery and uncommon sensitivity. The narrator is turning his back on fantasy in favor of hard reality (“You can’t plant me in your penthouse/I’m going back to my plough”). If he’s bitter (“I’m not a present for your friends to open/This boy’s too young to be singing the blues” – and the melody soars in perfect tandem with the lyric), he’s also emboldened. “Candle,” with its now-famous central metaphor, is less a eulogy for Marilyn Monroe than for youth and innocence itself. In the elegiac, empathetic song, Taupin and John observe the glamorization of death and the immortalization of a star gone too soon. It struck a chord in 1973, and is still sadly relevant today.
In “Bennie,” music itself is central. Taupin’s lyric is typically oblique as it describes this “weird and wonderful” band, but the song satirizes the music industry while noting the power of rock and roll to “fight our parents out in the streets/to find who’s right and who’s wrong…” Its singular glam-R&B fusion earned Elton his first appearance on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart. “Saturday Night” rocked even harder; if it’s not the artist’s flashiest, best balls-out rocker, I’d be hard-pressed to name what is.
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