In Part One of our Omnivore round-up, we looked at recent releases from Big Star and Roger Taylor. Today, we’re turning the spotlight on Ian Matthews and the trio of Roger Manning, Jason Falkner and Brian Reitzell, a.k.a. TV Eyes!
“This album was very much a conscious attempt at something a little more AOR, without deserting my roots.” So writes Ian (or, as he’s sometimes known on record, Iain) Matthews in his introduction to Omnivore Recordings’ splendid 2014 reissue of his 1978 album Stealin’ Home (OVCD-98). As a prevailing sound of AOR in 1978 was the distinctive West Coast blend of country, rock and melodic pop, that was the sound Matthews chose to emulate from his home base of the United Kingdom. And so, Stealin’ Home could snugly reside on a playlist also including, say, Eagles and Ned Doheny. That Matthews was so invested in this stylistic shift kept it, however, from becoming a mere experiment in pastiche. . And thanks to the success of its single “Shake It,” the meticulously crafted, impeccably executed Stealin’ Home earned the British roots-rocker more than a few new fans.
For Stealin’ Home, Matthews was on a new label (Mushroom), with a new band, trying a new approach with producer Sandy Roberton (Hard Meat, Steeleye Span, Shirley Collins) guiding the effort. According to Matthews, his old friend and producer offered to sign him “if I would lose the quasi-jazzy thing I’d had going on with [1976 Columbia release] Hit and Run.” Matthews was well-versed in country-rock and had flirted with R&B and the aforementioned jazz, so it’s unsurprising that he and Roberton absorbed all of those styles were into the sound of Stealin’ Home. To that blend, they added a pop gloss without losing sight of musicianship.
Though it was recorded in England, Stealin’ Home is a dead ringer for the sunny, gleaming sound of California, with horns and ample, just-heavy-enough electric guitar solos typical of the era. Gulp, the pulsating opener “Gimme an Inch” – written by Robert Palmer, who recorded it in 1976 – would even fit comfortably on so-called yacht rock compilations. (In these parts, that’s most certainly a compliment!) Matthews and Roberton drew on a variety of songwriters for the LP, including Palmer; Matthews always had an ear for a song, whether on his own albums or in his subsequent career in A&R. He naturally contributed some of his own music, as well, and all songs were rendered with a sweetness and cool to Matthews’ vocals.
At the album’s heart are a couple of songs by Terence Boylan: “Don’t Hang Up Your Dancing Shoes” and a little song called “Shake It” which became a No. 13 U.S. hit single. To Matthews’ Americana-influenced style, he added a pop sheen (and a saxophone!) to create a perfect roll-down-the-windows-and-drive slice of lightweight fun. Jeffrey Comanor, who had recorded on his own for labels including A&M and Epic, had his biggest hit in 1978 with England Dan and John Ford Coley’s recording of his song “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again.” He’s represented on Stealin’ Home with the piano-driven “King of the Night.” Disco-style slashing strings, a danceable rhythm and a mean harmonica courtesy Duffy Power all feature on “Man in the Station” from Matthews’ old friend John Martyn.
One of the most striking tracks on Stealin’ Home is also the album’s briefest: the short a cappella interlude of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s powerful “(You’ve Got to Be) Carefully Taught.” With its message of racial tolerance as relevant today as it was in 1949 (when it was composed) or in 1978 (when Matthews recorded it), the South Pacific song remains a powerful choice for inclusion. Matthews also paid tribute to another song of days gone by with “Yank and Mary (Smile)” which incorporates the melody to Charlie Chaplin’s standard “Smile” into a wistful new composition by Geoffrey Parsons, John Turner and Richard Stekol.
The artist supplied just a couple of his own compositions, including the warm, vulnerable “Let There Be Blues” which introduces Mel Collins’ saxophone and rich, subtle harmonies, and the heart-on-his-sleeve title track. He also co-wrote two tracks with Bill Lamb: the breezy “Slip Away” and the beautifully yearning “Sail My Soul.”
Omnivore has added nine tracks from a 1978 concert at Texas A&M first issued in 2013 on a Japanese reissue; this show features five songs from the concert plus a rollicking “Tigers Will Survive” (the title track of Matthews’ 1972 LP, “Call the Tune” from the 1972 album by his band Plainsong, the funky boogie-woogie “Just One Look” (not the Doris Troy song, as indicated in the credits and previously recorded by Matthews for 1976’s Go for Broke) and Jesse Winchester’s “Payday.”
Matthews is confident and engaged on these tracks, and his five compatriots in the band (at that time known as The Polaroids) bring their own style to the Stealin’ Home songs while staying true to the limpid grooves on the record. The harmonica on “Shake It” lends it more of that country-rock flavor familiar to Matthews’ fans, and “King of the Night” holds up without its strings and production adornment. The live version of Martyn’s “Man in the Station” positively cooks thanks to the tight band interplay, as does “Call the Tune” which leaves extra room for tasty jamming.
Stealin’ Home is repackaged in typically strong Omnivore fashion. Greg Allen’s attractively designed booklet contains full lyrics as well as a new interview with the artist conducted by Pat Thomas, who co-produced the reissue with Cheryl Pawelski. Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen have splendidly remastered this lost pop treasure.
On the other end of the pop spectrum is Omnivore’s reissue of the 2006 eponymous album by TV Eyes, a.k.a. Brian Reitzell, Jason Falkner and Roger Manning (OVCD-97). The band’s history actually dates back to 2000, when Reitzell and Manning recorded the album Logan’s Sanctuary, composed as the score to an imaginary Logan’s Run sequel of the same name. Manning hit on the idea of inviting his old Jellyfish bandmate Falkner to participate in the sessions, and he contributed vocals and guitar to a couple of the Logan’s tracks. It was clear that Manning and Falkner still had magic together, and their sensibilities meshed well with those of Redd Kross veteran Reitzell. TV Eyes was recorded between 2000 and 2003 and first issued in 2006 in Japan only. Without Andy Sturmer’s involvement, there were no worries that TV Eyes would sound like Jellyfish; about the only similarities between Jellyfish and TV Eyes is that both bands were in thrall to the realm of pop music. In the latter’s case, however, the style being celebrated was the kind of synth-pop that proliferated in the early 1980s and in many ways led to today’s EDM.
Jason Falkner, who handles lead vocals, writes in his introduction to Omnivore’s first domestic release of TV Eyes that he, Manning and Reitzell “all loved Gang of Four, Tubeway Army, Japan, Kraftwerk, etc.” Those were a very different set of influences than Manning and Falkner explored on Jellyfish’s two albums which were influenced by the progeny of The Beatles with a retro twist of Mancini and Bacharach. And so TV Eyes is an energetic and creative recreation of the post-punk, electro-pop scene, filled with heavy beats, metallic riffs and a synthesized sheen. Today it holds up well, not only because electro-pop spawned many of today’s popular music makers, but because of the strength of its songs, all of which were written, produced and performed by the Manning/Falkner/Reitzell triumvirate. As the album was only released in Japan, it’s hard to say how it would have been received had been released stateside in 2006, but today, it sounds just right.
By design, TV Eyes had a more limited musical palette than Jellyfish, so inevitably a certain sameness creeps into the nine tracks on the original album, but they’re expertly executed all the same. Underneath the beats, there’s a classic pop sensibility to “She’s a Study,” about an alluring, if dangerous, object of the singer’s affection. “The Party’s Over” boasts a soaring sound, while the pulsating “Love to Need” recalls glam-meets-Duran-Duran. Danceable rhythms and funky bass enhance the half-spoken “What She Said,” and the urgent “Fade Away” takes on nearly-anthemic proportions. The burbling video-game sound of the instrumental “Time’s Up” provides a fun retro flashback.
Omnivore’s first-time U.S. edition produced by Cheryl Pawelski and Brad Rosenberger adds four bonus tracks, including three remixes (one from each member of the band) and a demo, “She Gets Around.” And indeed, this reissue is deluxe all around. It’s attractively packaged in a digipak and contains a booklet with full lyrics plus an introduction from Falkner. Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen have remastered all tracks with customary aplomb. If the sonically-edgier TV Eyes doesn’t radiate the same infectious ingenuity as Jellyfish’s two albums (both of which have recently been reissued by Omnivore as 2-CD packages), it’s not a mere curio, either, but an essential piece of the Falkner/Manning/Reitzell musical puzzle.
Both Ian Matthews’ Stealin’ Home and TV Eyes can be ordered at the links below!