Welcome to The Weekend Stream, a relaxing weekly review of notable digital-only catalogue titles. There may be no CD or vinyl, but there's plenty of great new/old music to usher you into the weekend. Today, there's some newer KISS, some obscure Duke Ellington, and a few rare cast albums - plus a way you can help out some writers in need.
After a mid-'90s reunion of the classic KISS line-up, the band dynamics began to shift again In the early 21st century; by 2004, guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss were both out, respectively replaced (down to the make-up designs) by Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer (who'd drummed with the group in the early '90s, before the reunion). It wasn't until 2008, however, that this line-up put out a record. ("The purpose of this album isn't to let people know that we're still around," singer Paul Stanley offered at the time. "It's to let people know we can still knock out anybody who's out there!") These 11 songs were originally only available on a multi-disc set sold at Walmart which also featured a disc of re-recorded versions; now the original Sonic Boom can blast out of your speakers wherever music can be streamed or downloaded.
Duke Ellington's Spacemen, The Cosmic Scene (Expanded Edition) / Duke Ellington, Ellington Indigos (Expanded Edition) (Columbia/Legacy)
A pair of Duke Ellington albums from 1958 make digital appearances with bonus tracks. The Cosmic Scene offers a stripped-back (for Duke, anyway) nonet approach to "Body and Soul," "Perdido" and "Take the 'A' Train" (plus two rare alternates), while the larger-group Ellington Indigos shines with a 15-track running order different from any previous CD reissue.
Best known for the Top 5 hit "Let's Live for Today," The Grass Roots were mostly unknowable for a reason: they were an ever-changing group meant to showcase the songwriting talents of P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. Initially assembled under the aegis of legendary record impresario Lou Adler, one of their most famous line-ups boasted singer/guitarist Creed Bratton, who'd later play a demented version of himself on the long-running American version of sitcom The Office. This set also features popular cuts like "Where Were You When I Needed You" and "Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man)," a slightly-renamed cover of Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited track.
Tucked away on country songwriter Jim Weatherly's first long player for RCA Victor were two impassioned songs that would later find massive success with a much different group: "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Good-bye)" and "Midnight Plane to Houston" - the latter sporting a much different destination and mode of travel - were smashes for Gladys Knight & The Pips. Weatherly's third album is now digitally available; while he was still a year from his own pop crossover in "The Need to Be," you'd do well to check out his songwriting gifts here.
You'd be forgiven for not knowing much came after Ram Jam's signature song, a cover of the Lead Belly standard "Black Betty." (A surprising amount came beforehand: singer/guitarist Jim Bartlett played in bubblegum act The Lemon Pipers, while bassist Howie Blauvelt was a member of The Echoes, The Lost Souls and The Hassles, all of which featured a young Billy Joel.) Despite some scintillating hard rock on display here, the cheekily titled (and covered!) Portrait found no chart success, and the band split soon after.
File this one under "most unexpected cast album to hit streaming in 2023." It's Whoop-Up, the flop 1958 musical by Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, composer Moose Charlap (Peter Pan), and lyricist Norman Gimbel ("Killing Me Softly with His Song," "Ready to Take a Chance Again"). The ill-fated show based on Dan Cushman's novel Stay Away, Joe (later the basis of an Elvis Presley film) ran a mere 56 performances on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre. Hopes were high for the musical: in addition to the original cast album, recordings of the boisterous score were made by Rosemary Clooney, David Rose, Dick Hyman, and others. While the show ultimately didn't work on stage, the cast recording preserves the top-tier performances by big-voiced Susan Johnson, the Tony-nominated Julienne Marie, and chanteuse Sylvia Syms. Though the material in Whoop-Up is silly at best and embarrassing at worst, it's kitschy, camp fun from the days when even middling or mediocre Broadway shows were gifted with lavish orchestrations and imbued with brash spirit. The digital program reprises the long out-of-print 1988 CD sequence with numerous pop covers of the score added as bonus tracks.
Early in March, the first-ever revival of Bob Fosse's Dancin' hits Broadway. In 1986, the legendary director-choreographer was the one doing the reviving when he brought back his 1966 classic Sweet Charity in a fresh production. Now, his 20th anniversary Charity comes to digital platforms. Tony nominee Debbie Allen starred as Charity Hope Valentine, supported by the ace likes of Michael Rupert as Oscar, and Bebe Neuwirth and Allison Williams as Charity's best friends Nickie and Helene. The musical picked up a Best Revival Tony, and Rupert and Neuwirth (on the cusp of her television breakthrough turn as Dr. Lilith Sternin in Cheers) also took home Tonys for their performances. Costume designer Patricia Zipprodt won one - and so did Bob Fosse, but for his short-lived musical Big Deal. The bright and lively cast recording features Ralph Burns' refreshed orchestrations (adding synths to reflect the '80s sound) as well as composer Cy Coleman's new melody for "I'm the Bravest Individual" and his 1969 movie melody for the title song. In all, this album is an essential companion to the 1966 original.
Broadway fans rejoice: Concord Theatricals has purchased the catalogue of Fynsworth Alley, and has begun placing the long-dormant label's discography on digital/streaming services! Among the titles that hit streamers yesterday include solo albums from Megan Mullally, Emily Skinner, Twiggy, The Brad Ellis Little Big Band, and Emily Skinner (alone and with her Side Show co-star Alice Ripley); the acclaimed series of Lost in Boston and Unsung Musicals albums produced by Bruce Kimmel; the cast albums to Hey Love: The Songs of Mary Rodgers, If Love Were All, Little by Little, Radio Gals, Pete 'n' Keely, and The Grass Harp. The latter is the 1999 expanded edition of the 1971 Original Cast Recording of the Broadway musical based on Truman Capote's novel. Like Whoop-Up, it only ran briefly on Broadway: just seven performances at the Martin Beck Theatre. Unlike Whoop-Up, The Grass Harp was wholly enchanting and perhaps too delicate for commercial success. The cast album of Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie's score preserves Barbara Cook's luminous performance as well as stellar turns from Karen Morrow, Carol Brice, Max Showalter, Russ Thacker, and Ruth Ford. With classic Broadway melodies, dashes of '70s pop and gospel, and one wild, truly epic production number ("The Babylove Miracle Show"), The Grass Harp remains a one-of-a-kind treasure.
Finally: help ex-Vox writers out! Last Friday, Vox Media laid off 7% of its workforce - about 130 employees. (This comes after a 39-person layoff last July, just weeks after their union ratified an improved three-year contract.) It goes without saying that finding stability in the writing profession is not easy, but Vox is home to a lot of great culture writers - the type of writing that always seems to go first whenever the so-called "current economic conditions" or "the challenging economic environment" looks a certain, not entirely knowable way. Fortunately, there's a way to help, courtesy of this GoFundMe which is directing donations to laid-off employees.