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Review: Pugwash, “A Rose in a Garden of Weeds” (Or: The Best Band You Never Heard?)

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Pugwash

Pugwash is currently wrapping up its first-ever U.S. tour with two more performances scheduled in Los Angeles: this Sunday, October 19, on a bill alongside Wings’ great guitarist Laurence Juber and Now Sounds’ musical guru and all-around renaissance man Steve Stanley; and next Friday, October 24, with Love Revisited!  If you’re in the area, you just might want to check the lads out!

The first track on the first-ever North American release by Irish band Pugwash implores “Take Me Away,” but where to? A Rose in a Garden of Weeds: A Preamble Through the History of Pugwash, Omnivore Recordings’ new 17-track anthology drawn from five studio releases and one single originally issued between 1999 and 2011, will take you away to a world of jangly guitars, rich harmonies, unabashedly catchy melodies, bright productions, and vibrant colors, all delivered in a voice eerily reminiscent of Electric Light Orchestra hero Jeff Lynne. That voice belongs to Thomas Walsh, who much as Lynne did for ELO, wrote, sang, produced and played multiple instruments for Pugwash. A Rose in a Garden of Weeds, however, transcends pastiche – which, let’s face it, takes a great deal of skill to do well, anyway. It’s best experienced as a continuation of the story begun by The Beatles and continued by bands from ELO to XTC – as well as a number of other groups with more than three letters in their names.  Pugwash fits squarely in this tradition of smart, polished and exuberant guitar-pop practitioners unafraid to utilize the studio and all of the instruments it can house, among them organ, mellotron, sleigh bells, woodblock, harpsichord, strings, horns, vibes, glockenspiel, kazoo, and enough guitars and keyboards to sate even the most gargantuan musical appetite.

If “Take Me Away” is pitch-perfect ELO by way of The Byrds with a SMiLE-era Beach Boys interlude (and adding to the verisimilitude, Nelson Bragg of The Brian Wilson Band and The Now People plays on the track), the sounds in this Garden are, in truth, a rather diverse lot. This is in no small part due to the varied personnel. Sonic auteur Walsh is joined by a rotating cast on these tracks; Keith Farrell is the second most constant presence on a variety of instruments including Moog, Hammond organ and bass. The current band-line up with Tosh Flood (guitar/keyboards), Shaun McGee (bass) and Joe Fitzgerald (drums) is also represented. Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory of XTC drop by for good measure, and Jason Falkner of Jellyfish and TV Eyes adds various instruments to a number of tracks.

Falkner’s VOX Continental organ rides a cascade of acoustic and electric guitars, including Stephen Farrell’s George Harrison-esque inspired slide, on “Keep Movin’ On,” a wonderfully anthemic power-pop ode to perseverance. Another Beatle, John Lennon, is called to mind on the sincere, aching “Finer Things in Life,” on which Geoff Woods’ cello and strings add subtle elegance. Walsh has a knack for rhythmic yet attractive ballads, such as the yearning, vulnerable “Here” and the title track. The Section Quartet adds the baroque string ornamentation worthy of George Martin to both of those songs. (The liner notes tell us that the strings for “Rose” were recorded in Abbey Road 38 years to the day after “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Something was definitely in the air.) “Fall Down,” tinged with pretty melancholy, and the dynamic “Answers on a Postcard” – perhaps the most wonderfully realized production on this collection – pick up right where the Fab Four and ELO left off, and that’s intended as a high compliment, indeed. “Answers” incorporates some fleeting Brian Wilson-esque touches, too, and the master’s sonic approach is echoed, but not strictly recreated, on the effervescent, blissfully childlike “It’s Nice to Be Nice.”

Don’t miss a thing – hit the jump to keep reading! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 17, 2014 at 12:30

Posted in Compilations, News, Pugwash, Reviews

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Now Sounds Celebrates 50th Release With Paul Parrish’s Trippy “Forest”

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Paul Parrish - ForestOn a map of the psychedelic landscape, down a ways from the windmills of your mind and not too far from Strawberry Fields, somewhere between Itchycoo and MacArthur Parks, you might find the forest of Paul Parrish’s mind. The Michigan native could be best remembered for a couple of singer-songwriter albums on the Reprise and ABC labels in the 1970s, or as one-half of Parrish and Toppano in the 1980s…or perhaps as the lead vocalist of The Brady Bunch theme during the sitcom’s first season! But before all that, Parrish signed with MGM’s short-lived Music Factory label for a 1968 one-off: The Forest of My Mind. Over its twelve tracks, the troubadour delivered psychedelia ripe for the flower-power generation, with images of nature, seasons, animals and the elements recurring on almost every track and in many of the song titles, too. This soft throwback to a time when everything was beautiful – and a little mysterious, too – has just arrived in a beautifully crafted reissue from Now Sounds, rescued from the dustbins of vinyl obscurity and given a new, sparkling lease on life.

The Forest of My Mind, recorded at Tera Shirma Studios, may be one of the least Detroit-esque albums to come out of the Motor City as it by and large steered clear of R&B. So it might come as a surprise to some to find that veterans of Motown house band The Funk Brothers, including drummer Uriel Jones and bassist Bob Babbitt, played the exquisite arrangements here. Those charts came courtesy of the team of guitarist Dennis Coffey (a Funk Brother himself) and Mike Theodore, the same duo responsible for arranging and producing Sixto Rodriguez’s 1970 Cold Fact. Rodriguez melded folk with psychedelia and funk, and so did Paul Parrish, though with a quite different lyrical sensibility. The luscious production on Forest was handled by Clay McMurray, producer of Spyder Turner’s offbeat rendition of “Stand by Me.” Hired by Motown to be part of its quality control department, McMurray worked his way up to producer, and in 1971, he co-wrote and helmed Gladys Knight and the Pips’ R&B No. 1 “If I Were Your Woman.” Soon, further work came from The Temptations, The Spinners, and The Supremes, all heavy hitters in the Motown stable. Yet with Parrish, McMurray tapped into a Donovan-esque delicacy, dappled with sunshine.

On the twelve melodic nuggets on The Forest of My Mind, the timbre of Parrish’s voice most closely recalls Micky Dolenz’s, though there are slight echoes of Paul Simon and others throughout. The recurring pastoral imagery gives the whole project the feel of a song cycle. Taut guitar lines intertwine with atmospheric, plucked strings and spacey flute (think Charles Lloyd on “Feel Flows” and you get the idea) on “English Sparrows,” the album’s evocative opening track. The catchy title track is even funkier. Years before Billy Joel had a “heart attack-ack-ack-ack,” Parrish was inviting listeners to the “forest of his mi-i-i-i-ind” with far-out blasts of electric guitar. The song’s baroque outro illustrates just how many influences Parrish was incorporating into his music; that classical-inspired style comes to the fore on the storybook fantasy of “The Painter (Who Lives in the Cellar).” Singing of one who “lives within a shifting world of colors,” Parrish could well be describing himself. The lysergic, Donovan-esque “Dialogue of Wind and Lover” and “The White Birds (Return to Warm Seas)” both betray an Eastern influence in the arrangements; the latter has a particularly spellbinding harpsichord part.

You’re not out of the forest yet!  Hit the jump for more! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 9, 2014 at 14:03

Posted in News, Paul Parrish, Reissues, Reviews

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Baby Let’s Swing: Edsel Continues Todd Rundgren Deluxe Series

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Rundgren - Runt DeluxeOnce he wraps up the current leg of Ringo Starr’s sold-out All-Starr Band tour, Todd Rundgren will embark on a series of solo dates billed as “An Unpredictable Evening.” But in fairness, isn’t every solo concert with Rundgren an unpredictable evening? A typical (?) night with Todd could draw upon impeccable AM pop, heavy metal, prog rock, electronica, Gilbert and Sullivan and even bossa nova – and still not present every side of the musical iconoclast. As Rundgren has amassed a back catalogue now totaling 24 studio albums and numerous live releases and anthologies, it’s no surprise that there’s considerable interest in the varied music he’s crafted over the years.

In 2011, Demon Music Group’s Edsel label began reissuing Rundgren’s Bearsville catalogue, both solo and with Utopia, and continued onto his Warner Bros. years. Those titles were largely delivered in multi-album sets combining two or three LPs in one package. This year, Edsel has been revisiting the early Rundgren catalogue as standalone CDs in its deluxe casebound book format (previously utilized for reissues by Everything But the Girl, Bananarama, Belinda Carlisle and others), with discs enclosed within a lavish hardbound book. The second batch in this series includes 1975’s Initiation, 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow, and a special 2-CD version of Rundgren’s 1970 solo debut Runt as paired with the first-ever standalone CD presentation of the complete sequence of The Alternate Runt. Taken together, they dramatically illustrate the arc of a career as songwriter, producer and artist.

Following his defection from the Philadelphia rock group Nazz, Rundgren spread his wings as a solo artist in May 1970 at the age of 23. While in a pop/blue-eyed soul vein, Runt introduced Rundgren the eclectically-inclined artist on its 10 tracks. He was joined by musicians including Tony and Hunt Sales, and on one track, future Utopia member Moogy Klingman. Buoyed by the impossibly catchy – and often-misunderstood – hit single “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” Runt featured Rundgren as piano-playing singer-songwriter (the yearning ballad “Believe in Me,” garage rocker (the driving “Who’s That Man”) and studio auteur (the haunting, wordless exercise in stacked harmony vocals, appropriately titled “There are No Words”). Runt found room for the brassy, nine-minute rock opus “Birthday Carol,” and welcomed Levon Helm and Rick Danko of The Band for “Once Burned,” another pretty ballad distinguished by Rundgren’s mannered vocal, on which he sounds a bit like Alan Wilson of Canned Heat!

After the jump: more on Runt, plus Initiation and Hermit of Mink Hollow! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 8, 2014 at 10:27

Posted in News, Reissues, Reviews, Todd Rundgren

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Review: Spanky and Our Gang, “The Complete Mercury Singles”

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Spanky and Our Gang - SinglesBetween 1966 and 1970, Spanky and Our Gang released three studio albums, one greatest-hits collection, one live set and 21 single sides. Though the gang was, in Spanky McFarlane’ s words, “eclectic as hell”– they covered John Denver and The Music Man on their first LP alone – they’re best remembered for three AM radio staples released in 1967 and 1968: “Sunday Will Never Be the Same,” “Lazy Day” and “Like to Get to Know You.” These three tunes are inextricably tied to the period in which they were recorded, yet are timeless evocations today of that era in which anything was musically possible. Despite the quality of the band’s album material, however, it can be fairly said that Spanky’s outfit (named, of course, after Hal Roach’s gang of Little Rascals!) was a “singles band,” making Real Gone Music’s release of The Complete Mercury Singles (RGM-0270) a particularly felicitous one.

This superlative 21-track anthology spans the period between 1966’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” b/w “Sealed with a Kiss” and 1969’s “Echoes (Everybody’s Talkin’)” and traces the evolution of the group. Spanky McFarlane, Paul “Oz” Bach and Nigel Pickering first joined together in Florida and then reunited in Chicago before being discovered by prolific Philadelphia producer Jerry Ross (“The 81,” “1-2-3,” “98.6” – seems he had a thing for numbers!). The trio was joined by Malcolm Hale (of The New Wine Singers) for their first recording session at Mercury Records, the label with which Ross was then affiliated.

The Complete Mercury Singles begins not with the sound of shimmering sunshine pop but with a rather brisk but largely straightforward cover of The Beatles’ “If Your Bird Can Sing” and an update of Gary Geld and Peter Udell’s Brian Hyland oldie “Sealed with a Kiss.” Arranged like “Bird” by prolific Philly-based arranger Joe Renzetti (who would later pen the string chart for Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” and pick up an Oscar for The Buddy Holly Story), “Sealed” was beefed up with a strong drum rhythm while strings kept the track appropriately ethereal. Still, neither side captured the zany, theatrical and eclectic quality that had made the group a standout on Chicago’s stages or effectively utilized the band’s foremost weapon: Spanky’s distinctive, powerful voice, a kind of combination of Grace Slick’s husk and Cass Elliot’s big belt. She was out front on the A-side of the group’s second single, “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” – and Spanky and Our Gang’s career would never be the same, either.

Gene Pistilli and Terry Cashman’s melancholy reflection of a love lost was originally conceived as a ballad and included on the duo’s Bound to Happen LP, but another Philly native, arranger Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner, turned it into a dynamic, ironically upbeat, pure-pop reverie. Ross and Wisner employed the cream of New York’s session players on the record and brought not only Spanky’s voice to the fore, but the Gang’s intricate vocal harmonies (somewhat recalling The Mamas and the Papas, one of the groups originally pitched the song by Cashman and Pistilli.) Released just a few months prior to the Summer of Love, it was an ideal, sunny soundtrack to that blissed-out period.

John Morier’s uptempo, positive “Making Every Minute Count” was the immediate follow-up to “Sunday,” but the real stylistic sequel was on the very next 45: Wisner’s arrangement of “Lazy Day” from writers George Fischoff (the Broadway musical Georgy) and Tony Powers (an early collaborator of Ellie Greenwich’s). Fischoff and Powers had written the Top 10 hit “98.6” for Keith, produced by Ross and arranged by Renzetti, in late 1966. The ebullient “Lazy Day,” with its happy, pastoral imagery, captured the zeitgeist of the era, and did almost as well as “98.6.”

The flip of “Lazy Day,” “(It Ain’t Necessarily) Byrd Avenue” introduced the names of Bob Dorough and Stu Scharf to a Spanky and Our Gang single; soon they would take over for producer Ross upon his departure from Mercury. Dorough brought with him a jazz background, and Scharf one in jazz. Both qualities would inform their work with Spanky and Our Gang. The infectious “Byrd Avenue,” also recorded by the Harmony Grass and the Serendipity Singers, married a breezy melody and bossa nova-inspired arrangement to some rather absurdist wordplay; it’s actually a stronger side than some of the tracks chosen as A-sides!

Hit the jump for more! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 6, 2014 at 12:17

In Memoriam: Paul Revere (1938-2014)

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The official website of Paul Revere and the Raiders has just confirmed the passing of group leader Paul Revere at the age of 76.  Today, we remember Revere for the timeless music he created with Mark Lindsay,  Phil “Fang” Volk, Mike “Smitty” Smith, Drake “The Kid” Levin, Freddy Weller, Joe Correro, Jr. and Keith Allison – songs like “Kicks,” “Hungry,” “Just Like Me,” “Good Thing” and so many others, all of which reminded listeners besotted with the British Invasion that Americans still knew a thing or two about rock and roll!  Long after the group had called it a day in the recording studio, Revere kept the band’s name, music and spirit alive through continuous touring right up to the present day including annual visits to Walt Disney World’s Epcot.  Though the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inexplicably overlooked the rich and varied legacy of The Raiders, the band’s music endures as some of the most exciting of its era – or any other.

We’re republishing our March 18, 2011 review of The Essential Paul Revere and the Raiders and Country Wine…Plus in memory of a great musician and beloved artist, Paul Revere.  Rest in peace.

If kicks just keep getting harder to find, fear not! The deep catalogue of Paul Revere and the Raiders has just gotten much easier to find, thanks to two new releases. Legacy’s The Essential Paul Revere and the Raiders has just hit stores, while Raven Australia has brought to CD the band’s final released album for Columbia Records, Country WineThe Essential spans 1963 and 1972 and covers “where the action is” (though ironically not the song “Action!”).  Country Wine reflects the sound of a band adapting with the disappearing AM radio format that afforded them so many hit records.

The Essential Paul Revere and the Raiders (Columbia/Legacy 88697 81565-2) represents the best domestic release on the group currently available. While single-disc compilations are available as imports, this does Raven’s Kicks: The Anthology and Rev-Ola’s Hungry for Kicks: Singles and Choice Cuts 1965-1969 one better. Over its thirty-six tracks compiled by producer and mastering engineer Bob Irwin of Sundazed, The Essential takes listeners from the Raiders’ garage roots in 1963 to the polished pop sheen of their latter-day singles including the 1971 chart-topper “Indian Reservation,” surprisingly the group’s first No. 1 single.

Dominic Priore’s fine new liner notes recount the story of the Raiders, anchored by Paul Revere (organ/piano) and Mark Lindsay (vocals/saxophone). And yes, that really was Paul Revere’s real name; he was born Paul Revere Dick and simply dropped his surname. One of the most successful bands to come out of the fertile Pacific Northwest music scene, the Raiders first came to national recognition in 1963 on the strength of their rendition of Richard Berry’s “Louie, Louie,” the first track on the new compilation. Unfortunately, The Kingsmen got to it around the same time (it’s lost to time as to which version was released first), and reached No. 2 on the charts.  The Raiders’ version stalled at No. 103. Revere’s recording is somewhat less primal than the Kingsmen’s, but established the group’s garage punk sound, rooted in hard-driving rhythm and blues. The band’s tastes were eclectic, though; Allen Toussaint’s “Over You” and “Ride Your Pony” deftly display a funky side. 1965’s “Steppin’ Out,” co-written by Revere and Lindsay and produced by Terry Melcher, really set the wheels in motion for the group’s biggest successes, and coincided with the band being selected by Dick Clark to appear on his ABC after-school program, Where the Action Is!

Revere and the Raiders defied the British invasion, going so far as to make Revolutionary War costumes (inspired by Revere’s name, natch) their de facto attire. And while their music had similarities to British acts like The Kinks and The Animals, those bands were influenced by the same tough American R&B as Revere’s group. After “Steppin’ Out” and its No. 65 chart placement, the hits just kept on coming, and so Disc 1 of The Essential is all-killer, no-filler. “Just Like Me” topped its predecessor at No. 11, with a prominent organ part keeping the band true to its garage sound. Much as he helped foment the folk-rock sound with The Byrds, Terry Melcher surely deserves much of the credit for shaping the sonic signature of Paul Revere and the Raiders, although he never boxed them into one style. Continue reading after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 5, 2014 at 01:11

Reviews: The Posies, “Failure” and Game Theory, “Blaze of Glory”

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Game Theory - Blaze of GloryThere’s something about power pop.

In this era of EDM and songwriting-by-committee (not that there’s anything wrong with that – is there?), there’s still something about a couple of guys armed with little but guitars, harmonies, and their own imaginations, driven to create a joyful noise. In this era when radio is dominated by music that can’t be duplicated onstage without benefit of technology, there’s something about the thought of musicians just plugging in and getting back-to-basics.

Omnivore Recordings is at the vanguard of keeping the flame of power pop alive – the genre whose name was coined by Pete Townshend in the late 1960s to describe “what the Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop The Beach Boys played in the days of ‘Fun, Fun, Fun.’” Power pop, then and now, is all about bold, bright, melodic, guitar-driven nuggets that you just can’t get out of your head. The Omnivore team has lavishly expanded two home-recorded debut albums that stand among the best, most creative, and most exuberant of the genre: Game Theory’s 1982 Blaze of Glory and The Posies’ 1988 Failure.

Power pop, however, doesn’t strictly define Blaze of Glory (Omnivore OVCD-96). The album, recorded in singer-songwriter-frontman Scott Miller’s bedroom at his parents’ house, could wear any number of tags as well: D.I.Y. rock, college rock, alternative rock. Miller formed Game Theory out of the ashes of Alternate Learning, his college band based in Sacramento and Davis, California. Alternate Learning had released an EP in 1979 and an LP in 1981 before disbanding early in 1982 and paving the way for Game Theory. Miller created his new band with Alternate Learning alumna Nancy Becker (keyboards/vocals), Fred Juhos (bass/guitar/vocals) and Michael Irwin (drums). It’s telling that Miller once roomed at school with Steve Wynn, who formed The Dream Syndicate in 1981 and became a leading light of the Paisley Underground sound; Wynn contributes to the liner notes of Omnivore’s reissue, recalling how he introduced Miller to power pop legends Big Star. It turns out that Miller wasn’t influenced by Alex Chilton and company (though “he took to the band on one listen,” per Wynn), but rather by The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Elvis Costello. All of those influences seeped into Game Theory, albeit with a heavy sheen of new wave, rendered in lo-fi style with prominent keyboards and guitars.

There’s certainly a dose of early Costello-esque acidity; on the raggedly primitive “Tin Scarecrow” (a lyrical Wizard of Oz amalgam), Miller wryly sneers, “Now you’re the way of the vacuum/Another human being’s freedom in the suck bag,” followed by appropriate sound effects! There’s a marked Beatles feel in the vocals and the arrangement of “The Young Drug,” despite its proclamation that “The future’s black and blue…it’s not 1962!” But if “The Young Drug” sounds a bit like what Andy Partridge was concocting with XTC at roughly the same time, Game Theory more closely resembles Devo on the full-throttle new wave attack of “White Blues.”

“Date with an Angel” shows Miller’s rapidly-evolving songcraft, via both the dynamics of its melody and its lyrical rebuffing of love-song conventions. “All I Want is Everything,” a frenetic post-punk rocker that lasts just slightly more than a minute, has Miller in biting mode: “She destroys me because she loves me/It’s like a wire around my neck/It’s making me a nervous wreck/I push away but still I cling/All I want from her is everything.” Yet he’s still attracted to the object of his affection and ire. Ditto on “Stupid Heart,” with Miller vocally recalling John Lennon in his vocals over a thumping blues-rock beat and insisting, “You could make suicide so easy…” Sonically, it’s one of the trippiest compositions here and the closest to explaining Pink Floyd as a part of the DNA of Game Theory! The more relaxed “You Give Me Chills” also finds the singer confronting a girl who makes him “so afraid” with typical ambivalence: “I don’t want to/still I stay.” The style and sound may be different, but Miller’s barbed lyrical musings on love follow a line that can be drawn all the way back to the Tin Pan Alley of yore.

One of the pleasures of Blaze of Glory is its stylistic variety within the D.I.Y. context. A martial beat drives “Mary Magdalene” (“’Cause sometimes I feel just like Mary Magdalene…Lord, this must be the blues”). Its Kafka reference befits the college-rock tag, but not nearly so much as “Bad Day at UCLA,” naturally. The song is presented on Omnivore’s reissue in three distinctive recordings: the persuasive original, a charmingly rough live version, and a brief reprise. Miller’s youth isn’t specifically addressed often in his songs on Blaze, but he supplies an evocative set of soul-searching lyrics for “Sleeping Through Heaven” which drip with post-collegiate angst but also with cleverness and sharp observation.

There’s much more after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 2, 2014 at 10:32

Posted in Game Theory, News, Reissues, Reviews, The Posies

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All The Way To Paradise: BBR Revisits Stephanie Mills, Burt Bacharach, Hal David’s Motown Gem “For The First Time”

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Stephanie Mills For the First TimeFollowing the commercial failure of the big-budget 1973 movie musical Lost Horizon, Burt Bacharach retreated. Tension over the film had led to a split with his longtime songwriting partner Hal David, and their split had in turn led to a breakup of their “triangle marriage” with singer Dionne Warwick. Lawsuits ensued. Only one new Bacharach song emerged in 1974, Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Seconds,” co-written with playwright Neil Simon for a proposed movie version of the 1968 Bacharach/David/Simon Broadway musical Promises, Promises. A ’74 reunion session with Warwick – in which she sang another new Promises song co-written with Simon and two lyrics by Bobby Russell – was abruptly shelved despite the quality of the material.  (The Warwick session finally saw release in 2013 from Real Gone Music.)  So was another session, also with Russell lyrics, for Glen Campbell. The once-prolific composer was similarly quiet on the recording front in the first months of 1975, only issuing a couple of random songs from the Russell collaboration, one with Tom Jones and one with Bobby Vinton.

That all changed, however, in autumn of 1975 with the release of Stephanie Mills’ For the First Time, a Motown LP written and produced by the team of Bacharach and David. What brought the team together after two years of acrimony? How did they end up at Motown? Was Bacharach actually involved in the day-to-day recording and production of the album? Before those questions were ever answered, For the First Time disappeared without a trace. The reunion was sadly short-lived; another new Bacharach/David song wouldn’t be heard by the public until 1993. But the music stays, as always – and it speaks volumes. Big Break Records has just reissued For the First Time paired with Mills’ 1982 Love Has Lifted Me, an album of Motown outtakes. This splendid release, part of BBR’s month of Motown reissues,  is the first remastered edition of For the First Time since the early days of CD.

For the First Time was Stephanie Mills’ Motown debut, following the teenaged Wiz star’s LP debut on ABC Records in 1974 with Movin’ in the Right Direction. Following its disappointing sales, she didn’t record another album until 1979, when What Cha’ Gonna Do with My Lovin’ solidified her place in the pop and R&B realms. Happily, this new edition allows the song cycle – featuring ten Bacharach/David songs, eight of which were newly-written and six of which would never be recorded by any other artist, to date – to take its rightful place in the pantheon of Stephanie Mills and of its renowned writer-producers.

Though Stephanie Mills at eighteen was roughly five years younger than Dionne Warwick was when Bacharach and David helmed her 1963 debut Presenting Dionne Warwick, the team didn’t make many concessions to her youthful age in crafting a set of immaculate, adult pop-soul narratives. The first sound you hear on the LP is an atypically searing guitar introducing “I Took My Strength from You (I Had None).” This deeply soulful ballad is graced with subtle orchestration and the slightest hint of blues, and gilded with one of Bacharach’s signature instruments – the tack piano – to create a sound unlike on any other record in 1975. Mills brings a sense of control to the deliberate verses, contrasting them with sheer exultancy in the chorus. The singer’s sense of joy in discovering the source of her strength and support is palpable.  (Disco star Sylvester made his own mark on the song in 1978.)

Lyricist David called on Mills’ theatrical gifts – which had been on display in Broadway musicals including Maggie Flynn, starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, and The Wiz – to bring to life some of his most multi-layered lyrics. “No One Remembers My Name” epitomizes the mature themes contained on the album. The singer is a success who “really made my dreams come true,” and then returns home only to sadly find that “there’s no one to tell it to” in her hometown: “The people I once knew don’t seem to live here anymore/I feel like a stranger outside the house where I was born…” It’s one of David’s many ruminations on the fleeting nature of fame (most famously, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”) and a sequel of sorts to the Bacharach/David “Send My Picture to Scranton, PA,” in which BJ Thomas’ narrator imagines writing to the people who taunted him in his youth, not to throw his fame at them but because with his success, “maybe now they’ll give kids a helping hand! That’s how it really ought to be, not like the way it was with me…” But the song is also, perhaps moreover, a universal reflection on the theme that you can’t go home again. Mills acquits herself beautifully as a precocious singer with a wisdom and interpretive skill beyond her young years. Much of her style on this song recalls the vocal influence of Diana Ross; now just imagine how heartbreaking it would have been to hear Miss Ross admit, “The past is just a memory/I belong where people smile back at me/They know me and show me they care/That’s why I’m so happy there/They all remember my name…” The singer of the song is most comfortable living in the past, despite the supposed trappings of fame and fortune. It was heady stuff for a pop song sung by an eighteen year-old in 1975.

“There goes the greyhound/I guess I missed the bus again,” sighs Mills in another excitingly complex tune, “Living on Plastic.” The singer explains her philosophy – “living on plastic: living now, and paying later!” David’s lyric is sufficiently empathetic to her situation, but the dramatically twisting-and-turning, thumping melody gives the lie to her sunny outlook as it contrasts pensive verses to a desperate, driving chorus. Despite her repeatedly-stated faith that she’ll “get by,” we’re not so sure. Bacharach adroitly incorporates a dash of funk into his arrangement, sung deliciously by Mills.

Don’t miss a thing; hit the jump for more! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 1, 2014 at 10:28

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