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You Gotta Have Faith (Hope, and Charity): Real Gone Reissues Lost R&B Gems

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Faith Hope and CharityReal Gone Music is moving to the sound of a disco beat! In conjunction with SoulMusic Records, Real Gone has tapped the vaults of RCA Records to present two world-premiere CD reissues, both with rare bonus tracks.

Perhaps no other genre has inspired as many songs imploring listeners to suppress their inhibitions and put their dancing shoes on as disco has. “Let’s Go to the Disco/’Cause I feel like dancing tonight/Let’s go to the disco/Where the music is outta sight!” The call to arms “Let’s Go to the Disco” opened the self-titled 1975 RCA album by Faith, Hope and Charity, which was produced, arranged, conducted and largely written by Van McCoy. Brenda Hilliard (“Faith”), Albert Bailey (“Hope”) and Zulema Cusseaux (“Charity”) first teamed as The Crystals (not those Crystals) and then as The Lovelles before canny producer Bob Crewe (The Four Seasons, “Lady Marmalade”) rechristened them Faith, Hope and Charity. They first worked with McCoy – in his days as a top purveyor of sophisticated, sultry soul, pre-“The Hustle” – in 1970, and their hit “So Much Love” gained them entrée to the Top 20 of the U.S. R&B chart and the Top 100 Pop. McCoy took the trio from Maxwell Records to Sussex Records, and although Zulema split from the group in 1971 after a couple of albums, the remaining two members stayed in contact with the producer. (Bailey and Hilliard had even sung on McCoy’s Disco Baby LP, from which “The Hustle” was drawn!) With the addition of new member Diane Destry filling the role of Charity, Hilliard and Bailey reteamed with McCoy and snagged a deal at RCA just as disco was continuing its ascent in the mainstream.

The gleaming, upbeat Faith, Hope and Charity followed the lush, string-laden orchestral disco approach that developed out of the Philadelphia soul sound emanating from that city’s Sigma Sound Studios. McCoy wrote or co-wrote seven of the album’s nine tracks, with the remaining two slots going to cover versions. Each cut found the arranger-orchestrator at the top of the disco game, surrounded by top NY session pros including Steve Gadd on drums, Eric Gale and David Spinozza on guitars, and Leon Pendarvis and Richard Tee on electric piano and clavinet. George Devens filled the Vince Montana role on the vibes.

Like “Let’s Go to the Disco,” “Disco Dan” reveled in the very sound of the new dance music, unabashedly celebrating it: “Disco Dan/He’s the latest, he’s the greatest…Makes you wanna move your feet and clap your hands…The man is really something!” Faith, Hope and Charity also found room to revive classic songs in disco versions. “Disco-fying” songs, from standards to recent hits, was par for the course; in 1975, Gloria Gaynor famously took The Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” to the Top 10. For FH&C, McCoy remade two vintage R&B hits. Both “Rescue Me,” Fontella Bass’ 1965 hit, and “Just One Look,” Doris Troy’s 1963 classic, featured lead vocals from Brenda Hilliard and respectably updated the beloved songs. Hilliard also lent her urgent vocals to the uptempo “Find a Way” from McCoy and his songwriting partner Charles Kipps, Jr.

After the jump: more on Faith, Hope and Charity, plus The New York Community Choir! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

August 22, 2014 at 10:18

Review: Nils Lofgren, “Face the Music”

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Nils Lofgren - Face the Music Contents

I. See What a Love Can Do

Nils Lofgren was just seventeen years old when Neil Young called upon him to play piano on his third solo album, After the Gold Rush. The guitarist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and onetime child prodigy joined Jack Nitzsche and the men of Crazy Horse – Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina – on an instrument which was largely unfamiliar to him. He added the understated, stark and raw piano parts that Young and producer David Briggs were looking for, and also supplied harmonies and acoustic guitar to the Top 10 album. Young had discovered Lofgren with his band Grin, and Lofgren would parlay his credits with Young into a deal for the band. Though Grin disbanded in 1974 after just four albums, Lofgren’s prolific career hasn’t let up since. Over 20 solo records have followed, as well as guest appearances, soundtrack recordings and various one-offs, not to mention membership in Bruce Springsteen’s legendary E Street Band since 1984. The Detroit native hasn’t yet penned an autobiography, but as a chronicle of the story of his life, chances are one wouldn’t top the massive new box set from Concord Records dedicated to his singular career. Face the Music encompasses 9 CDs and 1 DVD, all in service of an artist whose own music has long taken a supporting role to higher-profile music with the likes of Young and Springsteen. The limited, numbered edition, compiled and annotated by Lofgren, is a quirky yet personal journey with a true musician’s musician.

By the numbers, Face the Music features 169 audio tracks, 40 of which are previously unreleased, and 20 video clips, along with a 132-page softcover book – in other words, a whole lotta Lofgren. It’s far too sprawling to serve as an effective introduction to Lofgren’s art and career, but then, that isn’t the point, is it? For longtime fans who have followed his career, with and without Grin, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, Face the Music is manna. Those fans should carve out the time to explore this set in depth, as it’s not designed for casual listening and is best experienced in chunks, one disc at a time. Following Dave Marsh’s introduction, Lofgren provides comprehensive liner notes – blending autobiography (“I was born in Chicago, on the south side, June 21, 1951,” they begin) with recollections about each and every album represented, plus track-by-track commentary. Testimonials from Lofgren’s famous friends – many of whom are, of course, present on Face the Music – are also included.

Sensibly, the set is organized in chronological fashion beginning with a disc of 21 prime cuts from Grin. (This would be the most comprehensive single-disc Grin compilation available, though there’s one notable omission.) The second CD chronicles the beginning of his solo career and collaborations with producers Briggs, Al Kooper and Andy Newmark from 1975-1977, with the third CD covering 1979-1983 and notable works with co-writers Lou Reed and Dick Wagner, producer Bob Ezrin, and even a guest appearance by Del Shannon. Disc Four commences in 1985, around the time Lofgren began his tenure with E Street, and continues through his two Rykodisc albums from 1991 and 1992; Young, Springsteen, Levon Helm and Ringo Starr all drop by. The next three discs feature the least well-known material, recorded independently of the major labels between 1993 and 2011. Lofgren was completely free to follow his muse, releasing film soundtracks, live albums, and studio efforts including a tribute to Neil Young. Bonnie Bramlett, Willie Nelson, Paul Rodgers, Lou Gramm, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) and the duo of David Crosby and Graham Nash show up along the way. The final two discs are dedicated to completely unreleased music – “songs, demos, obscure tracks left behind from recording sessions, back rooms and basements,” as Lofgren describes it. These odds and ends date as far back as the Grin days and feature oddities like tributes to Yankee Stadium and The Washington Bullets from the longtime sports fan, and a song inspired by Lofgren’s close pal, the author Clive Cussler. As is always the case with anthologies, it’s not inconceivable that a favorite track might be missing, but Face the Music admirably covers all of the bases.

Plug in with us after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

August 21, 2014 at 13:32

Review: Lulu, “The Atco Sessions 1969-1972″

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Lulu AtcoMuscle Shoals, Alabama is a long way from Glasgow, Scotland. But when Lulu took the trek in 1969, the “To Sir with Love” songbird proved that she could play with the big boys. Though neither New Routes nor its Miami-recorded, Dixie Flyers-assisted follow-up Melody Fair scaled the heights commercially, both projects proved the versatility of the vocal dynamo. In 2007, Rhino U.K. issued The Atco Sessions 1969-72 collecting both of Lulu’s lost southern soul forays in one deluxe 2-CD package. Upon its deletion from the catalogue, The Atco Sessions began fetching high coin. Real Gone Music has come to the rescue, however, with a reissue of the complete package (RGM-0268) that once again makes some of the finest music of Lulu’s career available at a reasonable price.

The ballad “To Sir with Love” established Lulu in the United States, remaining at No. 1 for five weeks and becoming the top single of 1967. (Ironically, it didn’t even chart in Lulu’s native United Kingdom.)   In addition to singing the Mark London/Don Black title theme, Lulu also appeared in the film. How to capitalize upon her newfound American success? After splitting with her longtime producer Mickie Most, Lulu signed to Atco in the States and headed to Muscle Shoals with the Atlantic Records trinity of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. This move into R&B might have been perceived as a left turn by her new American fans, but not those who had followed her career since 1965. Though Lulu won the U.K. the Eurovision song contest of 1969 with the lightweight “Boom Bang-a-Bang” – it tied with entries from Spain, France and the Netherlands – her first U.K. single hit was a cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout!” Subsequent tracks like Bert Berns’ bluesy “Here Comes the Night” and Goffin and King’s “I Can’t Hear You No More” were also essentially R&B recordings. Many of Lulu’s more overtly pop recordings – like her U.K. Top 10 hit of Neil Diamond’s “The Boat That I Row” – were so potent because of her soulful sound. Though her vocals were filled with youthful abandon, they also reflected an old soul.  Lulu had a great desire during this period to diversify her talents; though the production didn’t come to fruition, Lulu was even set to make her West End debut in a musical adaptation of Vanity Fair in the challenging role of the cunning Becky Sharp!

New Routes, released in February 1970, blended both pop and soul into a beguiling whole. The album featured Muscle Shoals’ take-no-prisoners rhythm section of Barry Beckett on keyboards, David Hood on bass, Roger Hawkins on drums, and Eddie Hinton, Jimmy Johnson, Cornell Dupree and a certain Duane Allman on guitar; horns and strings would flesh out the sound. Duane Allman’s scorching blues licks enhanced four tracks on New Routes, most notably “Dirty Old Man” from Mac Davis and Delaney Bramlett, and Fran Robbins’ rockin’ n’ rollickin’ instructions to “Sweep Around Your Own Back Door.”

Lulu - New RoutesWith Lulu in the midst of her rocky marriage to Maurice Gibb of Lulu’s Atco labelmates The Bee Gees, two songs on the LP bore the group’s imprimatur, including the whimsical “Marley Purt Drive” and Barry Gibb’s ballad “In the Morning.” Lulu cut loose with her throaty wail throughout the LP, particularly on “People in Love” from guitarist Eddie Hinton and Grady Smith and the lament “Is That You Love” from Jackie Avery and John Farris. Hinton co-wrote “Where’s Eddie” with Donnie Fritts; the same team penned “Breakfast in Bed” as recorded by Dusty Springfield on her now-legendary southern-soul excursion Dusty in Memphis. Lulu hit just the right note of desperation on their rueful, tense ballad.

Other moments ranged from the funky (a loose run through Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright”) to the reflective (“Mr. Bojangles”).   Jerry Jeff Walker first recorded his “Mr. Bojangles” for Atco; Lulu’s version of the song predates the more famous interpretations by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Sammy Davis, Jr., among so many others. Her heartfelt reading of the song is low-key and stripped-down, free of horns, strings or other ornamentation.

A fellow Glasgow native, Jim Doris, provided two tracks: the passionate “After All (I Live My Life)” as well as the album’s biggest success – both artistically and commercially. The marriage of evocative lyrics with the dramatically-building melody of Doris’ “Oh Me, Oh My (I’m a Fool for You, Baby)” gained Lulu entrée into the U.S. Top 30 for the first time since “To Sir with Love.” The sensual, simmering track is the centerpiece of New Routes.

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

Written by Joe Marchese

August 18, 2014 at 12:34

Review: Omnivore Goes New Wave with Lost Songs of “Billy Thermal”

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Billy Thermal“Eternal Flame,” “So Emotional,” “Like a Virgin,” “True Colors” – the songs of Billy Steinberg not only nearly defined the sound of eighties pop, but have endured to the present day. Yet before Steinberg joined with Tom Kelly to pen those songs and so many others, he was fronting a power pop/new wave quartet with the unlikely name of Billy Thermal – Billy for Steinberg, Thermal for the city in which his father’s vineyards were located. The group, consisting of Steinberg, guitarist Craig Hull, drummer Efren Espinosa and bassist (and future “Butterfly Kisses” hitmaker) Bob Carlisle, received a featured spot on a compilation of up-and-coming artists for Richard Perry’s Planet Records and subsequently self-released one EP, but no other music ever surfaced…until now. Omnivore Recordings has just unearthed the lone LP from Billy Thermal (OVCD-95), the shelved 1980 album from which the five-track EP was sourced.  If this cool little record may not change your world, it just might rock it for 45 minutes or so.

Billy Thermal’s tight, energetic, three-minute-or-so power pop nuggets fit squarely into the new wave genre of the day with just enough variety in the tempi and arrangements to make the album a compelling listen. The lean, compact, take-home tunes on this fresh, fun time capsule sound as if they were composed to be played onstage at maximum volume by the crack, take-no-prisoners rhythm section, combining a smidgen of punk attitude with a heaping helping of pop know-how. Though he wrote all of the music and lyrics for Billy Thermal, Steinberg found his truest calling later as a lyricist, penning the words to Tom Kelly’s melodies which were of a much more sweeping nature than the compositions here.

In the liner notes, Steinberg describes the band’s songs as “intensely personal,” and indeed, many of the relationship songs here have intimacy and honesty despite being firmly rooted in pop territory. Some are less distinctive and less keenly-observed such as “I’m Your Baby” (“And I’m your baby/I’m your baby/I’m your baby/I’m your baby/I’m your ooh!”) with its eighties-meets-Peter Gunn feel, but it’s clear that Steinberg the embryonic songwriter was well on his way.

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

Written by Joe Marchese

August 14, 2014 at 12:46

Posted in Billy Thermal, News, Reviews

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Review: Elvis Presley, “That’s The Way It Is: Deluxe Editions”

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Elvis - That's the Way It Is BoxIn 1992, American voters were asked to vote on not one, but two, matters of national importance: who should be the next President of the United States – and which image of Elvis Presley should grace a postage stamp. Bill Clinton won the former with roughly 43% of the popular vote, and as for the latter decision? It was “young Elvis” by a reported 75% landslide. The lithe, “Heartbreak Hotel”-era image of the pelvis-swiveling icon had triumphed over the jumpsuit-clad “old Elvis” – who, in fact, wasn’t that old. In 1969, when Elvis first set foot onstage at the International Hotel’s showroom, the biggest in Las Vegas, he was just 34 years old. He was dead a little over eight years later, at 42. But for those early days when Elvis ruled as the reigning King not just of Rock and Roll but of Sin City, too, there was likely no more electrifying performer. The proof is in the pudding – or more exactly, in the wealth of recordings left behind. If one were to leave a time capsule for future generations to discover the sound of American music – of rock and roll, pop and country melded into one blazing showbiz creation – it might look and sound a lot like RCA and Legacy Recordings’ massive new, 8-CD/2-DVD box set dedicated to Elvis’ That’s the Way It Is.

That’s the Way It Is was the title of both director Denis Saunders’ documentary/concert film chronicling the ascent of the “new Elvis” and RCA’s own hybrid LP consisting of eight recent studio recordings and four live tracks derived from the same 1970 Vegas “Summer Season” as the motion picture. (It was his third engagement at The International.) The matter-of-fact title might have disguised the fact that the contents of both projects were far from standard-issue. Admittedly, a better hint might have been the album’s cover artwork of Elvis in the kind of flamboyant white jumpsuit that defined his late period onstage attire (and was depicted in the rejected postage stamp). This wasn’t your mother’s – or at least, your older sister’s – Elvis. In 1970, Elvis’ past and present collided in exuberant fashion. The performer was capable of channeling the rock-and-roll fire that exuded such danger and sensuality roughly fifteen years earlier, but had moved into a new period in which he found the bigger the emotion, the better. “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” still played a part in this persona, but so did “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The role of big-voiced pop balladeer fit Elvis like a glove, and he filled much of his music in this era with equal parts heart, soul and sweat.

Legacy’s newest iteration of That’s the Way It Is continues the label’s series of Presley reissues that treat the artist’s catalogue with the respect it rarely received in his lifetime. His original album releases were often hastily-assembled collections of recordings drawn from various periods and sources and therefore lacking cohesion. Legacy’s reissues, often drawing on material excavated for the comprehensive, mail-order Follow That Dream program, have “cleaned up” the catalogue with such projects as Elvis at Stax and a number of expanded concert titles: Elvis in Person at the International Hotel and On Stage, Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden, Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite, and Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis. That’s the Way It Is marks the most gargantuan undertaking in the series – even more packed than 2011’s remarkable Young Man with a Big Beat.

The album was last expanded by RCA in 2001 as a 3-CD set and then in 2008 by Follow That Dream. The 2001 set included the original album with additional studio performances, the complete August 12, 1970 midnight concert and rehearsals/unreleased tracks, while the 2008 FTD release concentrated on the Nashville studio sessions for the album, presenting more than a full disc’s worth of alternate takes, rehearsals, rough mixes and more (including a couple of live performances). The new box drops most of the studio extras (all available elsewhere; it would take a detailed diagram to outline all of the releases of material from the Nashville 1970 sessions – especially as they also were tapped for the Elvis Country and Love Letters from Elvis LPs) and presents, instead, a deep and vivid exploration of the live performing artist on eight discs:

  • CD 1 – The Original Album plus a selection of alternate takes (outtakes) and single versions
  • CD 2 – August 10, 1970 Opening Night concert at Las Vegas’ International Hotel (previously released on One Night in Vegas from Follow That Dream)
  • CD 3 – August 11, 1970 Dinner Show (first release of full concert)
  • CD 4 – August 11, 1970 Midnight Show (previously released on Live in Las Vegas from Follow That Dream)
  • CD 5 – August 12, 1970 Dinner Show (first release of full concert)
  • CD 6 – August 12, 1970 Midnight Show (previously released on That’s the Way It Is in 2001)
  • CD 7 – August 13, 1970 Dinner Show (previously released on The Wonder of You from Follow That Dream)
  • CD 8 – Rehearsal Highlights

In addition, this release is the first to include the MGM motion picture along with its music. The DVDs in the box set are identical to those released in 2007:

  • DVD 1: 2001 Special Edition, Restoration Featurette, Elvis Career Highlights, Director/Restorer Filmographies, Theatrical Trailer
  • DVD 2: 1970 Original Theatrical Version, Outtakes

For those unwilling or unable to drop high coin on the box, Legacy has also offered a spiffy alternative in the form of a 2-CD highlights set. This Legacy Edition release includes the box set’s complete, 21-track first disc with the 1970 LP, alternate takes and 45 RPM single versions, as well as a second disc with the complete August 12 Dinner Show (CD 5 of the box set).

We’ve got plenty more after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

August 8, 2014 at 12:43

Posted in Box Sets, Elvis Presley, News, Reissues, Reviews

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Splish Splash! Bobby Darin’s “The Milk Shows” Premieres Two Discs of Never-Before-Heard Recordings

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Bobby Darin - Milk ShowsBobby Darin knew he was in a race with time. If it was a race he would inevitably lose as a result of the heart condition he fought for his 37 years, Darin accomplished more in that short period of time than many artists who lived twice as long. A master of reinvention, Darin successfully transformed himself from teen idol to sophisticated hipster to folk troubadour and back again before his death in 1973. He also left behind a catalogue of impressive size at Atlantic, Capitol, Motown and his own Direction label, most – but not all – of which has been reissued on CD. But, with Darin departed for more than 40 years now, any discovery of new music from the singer is cause for celebration. As such, Edsel’s release of The Milk Shows – with some 96 songs on two CDs, only a couple of which have ever appeared anywhere before – is a major event for fans of The Great American Songbook and one of its most famous proponents.

96 songs on just two discs, you might be asking? Wouldn’t that have been too herculean a feat even for the perennially cocksure Bobby Darin? In the early 1960s (likely 1963), Darin recorded a series of five-minute, five-song radio shows for NBC sponsored by the American Dairy Association, hence the title The Milk Shows. Naturally, his performances range from mere seconds (14 seconds of “Fools Rush In”) to nearly two minutes in length (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed” and “Climb Every Mountain”), but these recordings are not mere throwaways. Not only did Darin invest them with the full range of his interpretive skills, but he performed many songs he didn’t otherwise record. In addition, the format was an unusual one for Darin. Rather than utilizing the full orchestra he often had at his disposal, The Milk Shows were recorded with just an ace jazz quartet of Richard Behrke on piano, Ronnie Zito on drums, Milt Norman on guitar, and Billy Krist on bass. When Darin’s manager Steve Blauner and archivist Jimmy Scalia turned up these recordings in 2002, they set about transferring them into a digital format and organizing them into a cohesive album. The result, these many years later, is The Milk Shows.

As the recordings employed no overdubs or multi-tracking, The Milk Shows grants listeners an intimate audience with Darin, up close and personal. Each disc begins and ends with a show introduction, and there are a couple of commercials plus occasional chatter from Darin, but by and large, these rare recordings have been sequenced not to replicate the original broadcasts but to present wall-to-wall Bobby Darin.

The programs are announced as “from New York,” but were apparently recorded at Hollywood’s Capitol Studios; Darin was recording for the label at the time. The appreciative applause heard throughout was apparently added later, despite Darin’s referring to it often. A great number of the selections were, naturally, plucked from the decades-spanning Broadway songbook, representing true songwriting royalty. George and Ira Gershwin (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So”) Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls,” “Standing on the Corner”); Johnny Mercer solo (a hot Latin-style “Something’s Gotta Give”), with Henry Mancini (“Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses”) and with Harold Arlen (“Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Ac- cent-tchu-ate the Positive”); Richard Rodgers, both with Lorenz Hart (“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “Blue Moon”) and Oscar Hammerstein II (“Hello, Young Lovers,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “Climb Every Mountain”); and Cole Porter (“What is This Thing Called Love?”) are just a sampling of the talents whose songs are heard here.

Pour yourself a glass – of milk, of course! – and join us as we dive into The Milk Shows after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

August 5, 2014 at 11:16

Posted in Bobby Darin, Compilations, News, Reviews

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Love Is: Carol Williams, The Salsoul Orchestra Make Sweet Music on “‘lectric Lady”

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Lectric LadyCarol Williams signed to New York’s Salsoul Records label in 1975 for one single, but stuck around for one memorable album. That lone long-player, titled ‘lectric Lady, paired the New Jersey-born vocalist – Salsoul’s first female contract signing – with the label’s premier musical outfit, The Salsoul Orchestra, for an alluring blend of disco and sleek soul. Cherry Red’s Big Break Records imprint is now feeling electric with an expanded and remastered reissue of ‘lectric Lady.

Williams came to Salsoul as a seasoned performer both onstage and in the recording studio. When Salsoul held open auditions in Manhattan for a female singer, Williams stood out from the pack and secured the slot on the burgeoning label’s roster. The Salsoul Orchestra was already established as the label’s marquee act. Its leader, quadruple threat songwriter-producer-arranger-conductor Vincent Montana Jr., had come into his own at Salsoul. The veteran MFSB vibraphonist (and occasional arranger-conductor at Philadelphia international) became the Salsoul label’s de facto answer to Thom Bell, defining the Salsoul sound by fusing Latin salsa rhythms with the Philly soul style he helped create for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s recording empire.

Recording at the usual destination of Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, Montana crafted an effervescent album debut for the diva. It took a powerhouse vocalist to stand out in front of the majestic orchestra, but Williams was clearly up to the task, and even co-wrote three tracks on the nine-song LP which blended disco with soulful ballads. Its opening track, “Love is You,” rightfully became a Salsoul anthem. It bore some stylistic resemblance to MFSB and The Three Degrees’ “Love is the Message,” with the same grand sweep and infectious groove, but that was no surprise, as The Salsoul Orchestra shared a great number of members with MFSB (Montana, Bobby Eli, Norman Harris, Roland Chambers, Ronnie Baker, Larry Washington, Earl Young, and Don Renaldo among them). It’s still somewhat shocking that these five minutes of sultry, sizzling disco failed to become a crossover pop hit. Ronnie Walker, a Philly pal of Montana’s, co-wrote “Love is You” and another album cut, “Just Feel,” both of which he also later recorded himself. Walker, with a falsetto to rival that of The Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins Jr., first worked with Montana back in 1968 at Sigma Sound, when the latter was playing vibes for a Vent Records session on which Walker was singing.

The cool “Just Feel” may, in fact, be the album’s strongest moment next to “Love is You.” The smoldering track eschews disco, instead showcasing the purity of Williams’ voice in tandem with Montana’s lush arrangement. Williams’ velvety pipes accentuated the sensuality of another smooth slow-burner, “This Time May Be the Last Time.” Its male background vocals (likely provided by Walker and Carl Helms, based on the LP’s credits) add an unusual color to the production. Jack Perricone, the track’s co-writer, also penned the sweet ode to devotion that closes out the LP, “You’re So Much a Part of Me.”

The beguiling “Danger Sign” came from the pen of Philadelphia songwriter-producer T Life, an associate of Bunny Sigler and Instant Funk who placed songs at Philly International with The Intruders and The Ebonys. Arranged in shimmering fashion by Montana, “Danger Sign” retains the Salsoul percussion sound but sonically recalls the sophistication of Thom Bell’s collaborative album with Dionne Warwick, the overlooked masterpiece Track of the Cat.

Tasty tidbits abound in Christian John Wikane’s new liner notes, which take the form of a lengthy interview with Carol Williams – who, by the way, is most certainly blessed with a keen memory of her short time at Salsoul! One such recollection is that Williams sang “Tangerine” at a performance of her club act attended by Salsoul’s Vice President Ken Cayre before her signing. Williams knew she could tip the scales in her favor by singing a song already recorded by The Salsoul Orchestra on its debut LP. “Tangerine” was just one of the standards reinvented for disco by Montana over the course of his time at Salsoul. Another was the Mondo Cane standard “More” on ‘lectric Lady. Its elegant melody was a good fit for Williams, whose live repertoire included jazz standards and showtunes. Indeed, some jazz elements were incorporated into the recording of “More” both by Williams and the Orchestra, including some delicious saxophone licks.

Whereas “More” is relaxed – for disco, at least! – Montana’s chart for the poignant “My Time of Need” pulsates with urgency from its strings to the nonstop beat. Williams delivers a confident vocal on this song which she co-wrote with Montana. Background vocalists The Sweethearts of Sigma (a.k.a. Evette Benton, Barbara Ingram and Carla Benson) are prominent throughout ‘Lectric Lady, but get an enjoyably campy moment on this track, with the full story told in the liner notes. And though it’s not high in the mix, there’s a rockin’ guitar that vies with Williams’ lead for pure electricity! The other Williams/Montana composition, “Come Back,” gives winds and horns – not to mention the driving percussion – a workout.

The black sheep of ‘lectric Lady is “Rattlesnake,” Williams’ first recording for Salsoul produced in 1975 by The Exciters’ Herb Rooney. She recalls the track having been completed by the time she laid her vocals down, and it feels somewhat less personal than the balance of the album. The song is energetic disco but lacks the flair of the Montana-led music, though Williams’ throaty vocal is one of her most big-voiced on the LP.  There’s much more after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

August 1, 2014 at 10:24

Razor and Tie Revisits Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery” For 40th Anniversary

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Brain Salad SurgeryFor Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the fourth time was the charm.

Keyboardist Keith Emerson, vocalist/bassist/guitarist Greg Lake and drummer/percussionist Carl Palmer were innovators in the progressive rock genre, fusing classical, jazz and heavy rock on a regular basis since their 1970 self-titled debut album. ELP was an answer both to the compact, three-minute pop songs that dominated the airwaves and to the blues-rock genre epitomized by the likes of Led Zeppelin, and the group pursued a refinement of their sound via their second and third albums, Tarkus and Trilogy. Yet the best expression of what made Emerson, Lake and Palmer so distinctive and so excitingly experimental can be heard on their fourth studio long-player (and fifth album overall), 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery. The mission statement for the album was simple – to follow up the dense production of Trilogy with an album that the “power trio” could play live – but the results were anything but. Razor and Tie has recently issued a new edition of Brain Salad as a 2-CD/1-DVD-A set to belatedly celebrate the landmark release’s fortieth anniversary.

This new reissue follows the label’s 2012 sets for ELP and Tarkus and follows a similar format: the original album in remastered form on Disc One, a different album presentation with an array of outtakes, alternates and early mixes on Disc Two, and new, high-resolution mixes on Disc Three, a DVD-Audio disc. Much has changed since 2012, however, not least of all the parting of the ways between the band and producer Steven Wilson. Prog hero Wilson has recently remixed albums from King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull, and it was anticipated that he would continue his association with ELP for Brain Salad. He’s been replaced by producer Jakko M. Jakszyk, currently of King Crimson, who is responsible for the new stereo mix available here in lossless 24/96 Advanced Resolution and 24/96 LPCM Stereo on the DVD-Audio disc. A key component of those earlier deluxe editions is missing, however: the new 5.1 surround mix which is only available on an import Super Deluxe box set.

Brain Salad Surgery –its title derived from a Dr. John lyric referencing fellatio – remains the most ambitious entry in the ELP catalogue. Produced by Lake, it proved an amalgam of the styles that propelled the group to success – and also was their loudest and most aggressive release. In addition, it marked ELP’s heaviest and most skillfully integrated use of electronic sounds and voices to that point. Nobody could accuse the supergroup of resting on its laurels. In attempting to get back to basics, ELP continued to push the envelope with impeccable musicianship and brainy bombast.

Certainly it was a brave move to open a hotly-anticipated album with an adaptation of a Hubert Parry (1848-1918) hymn with lyrics adapted from a William Blake poem (1757-1827) but that’s precisely what ELP did with “Jerusalem.” It was banned upon its release by the BBC on the grounds of its desecration of the classic hymn. It’s all rather stately, though, and a bold affirmation of the group’s English heritage – not to mention a grandiose and unexpected way to open a so-called rock album. “Toccata” also found ELP serving as adapters. Keith Emerson arranged the Fourth Movement of Alberto Ginastera’s First Piano Concerto for the group, with the piece a showcase for not only his dexterous, cosmic synth explorations but for Palmer’s furious drumming. Ginastera, an acclaimed figure in 20th century classical music and in the music of his home country of Argentina, approved of Emerson’s radical transformation complete with its groundbreaking electronic drum solo.

The eclectic variety of sounds continued with the haunting baroque ballad “Still…You Turn Me On,” a pretty Lake ballad in the vein of “Lucky Man.” Its psychedelic flourishes and touches of funk retained the element of the unexpected, but the track was an oasis of accessibility on the album’s first side. In the liner notes for this reissue, Lake still laments his bandmates’ reluctance to issue the song as a single when it could have followed in the footsteps of “Lucky Man” to expose the group to a broader audience. “Benny the Bouncer,” an electronic-infused music hall pastiche with a cheerfully violent storyline, was written by Emerson, Lake and King Crimson’s Peter Sinfield, and features Emerson’s best barroom boogie-woogie piano licks. Lake’s exaggerated vocals are aptly described by Emerson as in the style of Stanley Holloway, the great British actor who originated the role of Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

The first four tracks on Brain Salad Surgery, however, served as prelude to the lengthy suite “Karn Evil 9” (a play on the word “carnival”). The nearly 30-minute track, beginning on Side One of the original vinyl and occupying the complete second side, as well was split into three movements (or Impressions) with two parts to the first movement. Like the epic title track that opened Tarkus, “Karn Evil” excitingly shifted moods, tempi and style, with standout moments for all three members. (Emerson and Lake shared writing credit along with lyricist Sinfield.)

Lake comfortably adopted the role of the carnival barker in the sci-fi fantasia which told of a futuristic world where “all manner of evil and decadence had been banished.” The “Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends…” – the second part of the 1st Impression – likely remains ELP’s single most famous piece of music, but it’s surrounded by one of their most creative and sprawling sonic explorations. The 2nd Impression is the most jazz-oriented, a piano/bass/drums workout (with offbeat synthesized steel drums) that’s refreshingly straightforward in its instrumentation but varied in its execution. The 3rd Impression ratchets up the rock quotient, setting to alternately defiant and triumphant music a dialogue between man and computer, pitted against one another for supremacy.

After the jump: what sets this edition apart from the rest? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

July 31, 2014 at 09:33

Calling “Gloria”: Laura Branigan’s Debut Album Gets Expanded Reissue

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Laura Branigan - Branigan“What kind of an artist are you?”

The question has been asked again and again in this age of music reality shows in which a fickle public can make a recording star – at least for fifteen minutes – by dialing an 800 number or sending a text message. Truth to tell, Laura Branigan could have been any kind of artist she desired. Armed with a powerful, resonant and highly individual voice, Branigan worked her way up the ranks of stardom.  She ultimately chose to embrace the sounds of contemporary pop, forever to be associated with the big, sleek sound of the 1980s. But if the late artist will inevitably be remembered for “Gloria” or “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” her body of work reveals a multi-faceted vocalist whose alto was excitingly adaptable. The first phase of Branigan’s all-too-short career gets its most comprehensive exploration yet thanks to Other Half Entertainment and Gold Legion’s expanded CD reissue of her debut album for Atlantic Records, 1982’s Branigan. This loving reminder of Branigan’s dynamic talent adds seven delicious bonuses – six of which predate the album itself.

German producer Jack White and his co-producer/arranger Greg Mathieson were enlisted by Atlantic to shape Branigan’s debut platter after a number of singles failed to establish the singular vocalist in the pop mainstream. (More on those later!) With an A-list band including Toto’s Steve Lukather on guitar, Leland Sklar and Bob Glaub on bass, Carlos Vega on drums and Michael Boddicker on synthesizers, plus Maxine and Julia Waters on background vocals, Atlantic wasn’t taking any chances. White was determined to showcase many facets of Branigan’s burnished voice, alternating ballads with rockers and perhaps most key, dance-oriented floor-fillers.

Branigan begins modestly enough. Opening cut (and the album’s leadoff single) “All Night with Me,” written by future Walt Disney Music President Chris Montan, is an adult contemporary mid-tempo ballad placing Branigan’s warm voice out front. She embellishes the soft verses with vulnerability and the hook-laden chorus with sweetly seductive confidence, but the smooth composition serves as mere prelude.  Though it came second on the album, Umberto Tozzi, Giancarlo Bigazzi and Trevor Veitch’s “Gloria” is second to none in the Branigan songbook. The track exploded onto the turntable with a torrent of urgency; its fiery, anthemic arrangement by Greg Mathieson (who arranged the original Italian version of the song) with its commanding power chords was matched by Branigan’s furious vocal. If the singer kept her cards close to the vest on “All Night with Me,” she unleashed her inner tigress four minutes into Branigan on “Gloria.” Branigan’s plea to the titular lady to “slow down before you start to blow it” was delivered as if the lives of both the singer and the subject of her admonishment were on the line. The Americanized “Gloria,” with Veitch’s new lyrics, couldn’t miss. It proved to be a supremely fierce performance wrapped in an irresistibly catchy package for the post-disco generation of dancefloor dwellers. It took Branigan to the top of the Cash Box chart and No. 2 on Billboard.

Following “Gloria” would be no easy feat on any album, so White and Mathieson provided Branigan with a move away from dance and towards rock. Adrian John Loveridge and John Wonderling’s melodramatic “Lovin’ You Baby” burns with requisite passion and desperation (“How could I live? Where would I go and what would I give? What can I say? How do I stand…if there’s no more lovin’ you, baby?”). It wasn’t the only rock-oriented track on the nine-song album.  Dive in – after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

July 30, 2014 at 13:37

Posted in Laura Branigan, News, Reissues, Reviews

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Look Up To The Sun: Ruthann Friedman Goes Beyond “Windy” On Now Sounds’ “Complete Constant Companion”

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Ruthann Friedman - Constant CompanionRoughly one year ago, Now Sounds released Windy: A Ruthann Friedman Songbook. Its colorful cover was adorned with a striking photograph of the artist, intense and beautiful, in a verdant setting. The label has now continued the Ruthann Friedman story with The Complete Constant Companion Sessions, and its cover is as to Windy’s as night is to day. Its stark black-and-white line art by Peter Kaukonen appears to depict an angel on a landscape of rolling hills, conjuring cryptic text and an arrangement of branches. The drawing is both spare and intricate, mysterious and inviting. It’s an apropos introduction to the intimate world of Constant Companion. The lush Wrecking Crew-aided pop arrangements as heard on Windy have ceded to delicate voice-and-guitar, folk-style performances, though the individuality of Friedman’s exquisite original compositions is – put simply – the one constant.

Ruthann Friedman is best known, of course, for penning The Association’s 1967 chart-topper “Windy” which was ranked among BMI’s Top 100 songs of the twentieth century. Now Sounds’ 2013 anthology premiered tracks salvaged from an aborted LP intended for A&M Records produced by Tommy LiPuma (George Benson, Diana Krall), as well as sessions with Curt Boettcher (The Association, Sagittarius) and others. It featured guests including Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks and The Beau Brummels’ Ron Elliot on tracks recorded between 1966 and 1973. The centerpiece of this new collection is the 1969 Reprise LP Constant Companion; with the A&M project shelved, it was Friedman’s debut and her only studio release until 2013. To the album’s original twelve tracks, Now Sounds has added twelve more, most from its sessions and all previously unissued.

“Come all you likely people and hear these sounds I wail,” implores the singer as “Piper’s Call” begins. The de facto first track of Constant Companion, following the short, jazzy a cappella “Topsy Turvy Moon,” the beguiling, acoustic psych-folk ballad (co-written with Steve Mann) sets the fragile tone of the album. Friedman’s lyrics are more than occasionally impressionistic, employing timeless, often pastoral images in their storytelling. With Friedman accompanying herself on guitar, there’s nothing to detract from her piercing, expressive vocals on these moody, low-key reflections as produced in understated fashion by Joe Wissert (The Turtles, Boz Scaggs).

Many tracks here feel deeply personal or drawn directly from the artist’s experience, such as the contemplative “Looking Back Over Your Shoulder.” Friedman shares in her candid track-by-track liner notes that “Ringing Bells” (“…and blinking lights/In and after dawns of hard-lived nights”) was inspired by an acid trip, and indeed, it’s an eloquent evocation of the experience: “Here, I’ve found a never place/With shining souls on every face/Around the corner of a sigh/Between the twinkle of an eye.” A vivid snapshot of a particular era, she concludes, “High in constant never time, I dig the workings of my mind.” Similarly, the lovely and hopeful “Peaceable Kingdom” is very much of its time, dreaming of a better place within flight’s reach. “Danny,” written for Friedman’s nephew, is tender and one of the loveliest moments on Constant Companion. Other songs are far darker and more somber, like the hauntingly offbeat “Fairy Prince Rainbow Man,” and the sparse, poetic chronicle of the end of relationship, “Too Late to Be Mourning.”

Friedman, perhaps her own harshest critic, dismisses “People” as “moaning, whining, wimpy bullshit.” But there’s something touching and indeed, universal, hearing her reach a painful moment of self-discovery: “I have spent so many years trying to find myself/Now that I know where I am, I find that I am by myself.” The surrounding lyrics are a bit florid, but her awareness and ability to relate emotional truths can’t be denied. The up-tempo “No Time” is pointedly criticized by its songwriter as “another bullshit song,” and it is of a piece with “People.” Though Friedman is being hard on herself, both songs are directed at those who didn’t understand her. In “People,” she chastises, “People, you know you are just the same as me/The only difference is the lie we see…” and in the latter, it’s “Damn the chaos and down with the fools/And don’t bug me with all your rules.” The artist has certainly matured, but her sentiments still likely ring true for those of a certain age today, in the process of their own soul-searching.

A bluesy melody enhances “Morning Becomes You,” which would have made a great candidate for a harmony-pop rendition by the likes of The Association. (So many of the songs here are so intimate and so personal that it’s hard to imagine other artists tackling them.) The original album’s closing track, “Look Up to the Sun,” is also one of its most sensual. As on “Windy,” Friedman skillfully blends both the celestial and the earthbound into the fabric of her music.

Constant Companion has been expanded with numerous bonus tracks!  Read about them and more after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

July 24, 2014 at 09:29

Posted in News, Reissues, Reviews, Ruthann Friedman

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