Monday, December 29, 2014

End of the Year Vibration Roundup

So goes another year – I can't believe my last post was back in September. Well, I have to say 2014 held a lot of challenges and blessings for my family, so writing time has been more compromised. Yet, I've managed to keep up the commitment to listening a little every day. And despite my usual diet of “old music” I did manage to hear more “new” music this year. I took some risks with new albums and had a pretty great time. Maybe my adventures were not the most adventurous, but I feel more connected to newer music than I have in ages. I can confidently say there is a lot of great music being composed, recorded and performed today. And for those who are interested in older music, there is a wealth at our disposal to plunder a few lifetimes over. Especially on vinyl. I've said it before and the sentiment still holds true – music lovers have never had it so good. 

Well, maybe the one thing we are missing are those enormous record stores of old like in this (now classic) video of Tower Records in 1970. This is the video of “the good old days” and rightly so. Even in the waning days of Tower Records, it was still a cool place. Had the store survived into the current times, there would no doubt have been a return to stocking vinyl. But it was not to be. 

Though the big stores are no more, there are record shows where pretty sizeable amounts of platters change hands like here:
Pretty exciting stuff! I can attest to the fact that many of the new releases I bought this year were on LP – I got swept away in the vinyl bug, contrary to my initial intentions to purchase more downloads. More on that later......

To balance out the vinyl mania that's been sweeping the globe for the last few years, I submit this highly amusing amateur video taken in the Record World in the old Orange Mall in Middletown, New York circa 1984. This video is fascinating since it pre-dates the wide acceptance of the Compact Disc. And, oddly enough the bins look unusually empty compared to what I remember. And I do remember since this store was a semi-frequent destination for me in those same years. More about that in a second.....take a look at these excited store clerks – ha! (Oh well, you will have to click the link to see this on youtube - can't get it to embed here.........)

Well, there you have it kids – those pre-digital days were not all fun and groovy. However dismal this store looks in the video I remember it being pretty thriving the times I was there. In fact, about a year or so before this video was taken I remember finding a “holy-grail” import LP in this shop: The Yardbirds a/k/a “Roger the Engineer”.
This was in the early-80s when import LPs were plentiful. Stuff I saw at this Record World now routinely sells for three figures on ebay. Crazy.

So how did I connect with some new music this year? The three avenues I explored were Spotify, recommendations from a music discussion forum I contribute to and also the old word of mouth / local connections approach. First up is “Find a Way” by Living Laser - a band brought to my attention courtesy of the latter option:
This album is one of several releases this group has done specifically for vinyl and I have to say it is a winner both in terms of the package – check that cool lime-green vinyl – and the music itself. To be fair, I am not in a position to critique the musical content beyond what my ears tell me. I reckon there is a genre this band belongs to, but I am reluctant to attempt identifying what that genre might be. Which is not a big concern because the music is really good – even to an older person like me. In fact, listening to Living Laser, I was reminded of the time when I was just getting into harder-edged new music in high school and brought this Husker Du album home:
Like the Living Laser album, the Husker Du album was cut at 45RPM and the propulsion of the drumming and power-chording guitars took me by surprise. It all seemed too fast! Yet, music of this tempo and energy is not as confounding to me now. So, I will be looking forward to checking out more Living Laser albums in the new year. See their website for more details and a live show schedule here:

On the music discussion forum I hang around, there is a section devoted to whatever vinyl people are spinning that particular evening. Pictures are uploaded and conversations emerge. Folks literally from all over the world share images, stories and info about their favorite music – which runs the gamut from pop, country, jazz, rock, blues and even old Walt Disney kids records! Two records that received a lot of attention on that forum (which inspired me to purchase them) were the two latest from Beck and Real Estate:

Now, of course I had this whole other entry about Real Estate earlier in the year where I viewed an online concert of them performing the Atlas album from start to finish. Hearing the album live was interesting, but left me wondering how the material sounded on the record. As it happens, the record smooths out some of the rough edges I heard on the live show, but in a tasteful way that supports the music overall. So I have to say I found a new band I like who I would go to hear live as well as purchase whatever other releases they have.
I also approached the new Beck album – Morning Phase – from the same standpoint – blind purchase. At first listen I thought it was too downbeat and atmospheric for me. With some return spins my appreciation grew – there are some great melodies here and although I'm not the biggest Beck fan in the world, I'd say Morning Phase has the potential to reach a new audience without selling out. Now, considering that the first I heard of Beck was 22 years ago let's consider what his status might look like if we apply the same time shift to a different era and different musical personality.....
Here's a Frank Sinatra record that I picked up over the summer which combines the contents of two separate 10” releases from approximately 1954. These, I think, were the first releases for what many consider to be Frank Sinatra's true golden era – the Capitol years (coincidentally Beck's new album rings in a new contract with Capitol Records also!). I have been slowly getting into more Sinatra albums over the past few years and never heard this one before. Really enjoyable and good sound, despite all the tracks crammed onto each side. This record also illustrates the mysterious difference between the Capitol records of the era stamped with the “D” in the deadwax as opposed to “N” in the deadwax. For reasons still a bit unknown, the “D” stamped LPs sound significantly better than the “N” counterparts of the same title. I was psyched to see the “D” on both sides of this Sinatra LP – score!

Now, let's adjust Sinatra like we did for Beck – adding 22 years to 1954 brings us to 1976. Here's what a Sinatra record from approximately 1976 looks like:
He's an old man! Blue eyes is BACK! From what? Retirement? Actually this record is from 1973 – only a 19 year difference from when Swing Easy was released. So , in the grand scheme Beck should be to current audiences what Sinatra was to audiences in 1976. Feelin' old yet?

Ah, it doesn't matter. Sinatra made great music in his later years and Beck is doing the same thing. But it does put some perspective on the whole “new music” concept for me. The odd juxtaposition is now we have a resurgent interest in vinyl records with all sorts of new bands and artists releasing the music on this format, yet music has not moved entirely beyond what has been happening since the 80s and 90s – with either the rap / hip-hop world or the hard rock / metal world (if we use those two genres as examples – there are others, of course).

What I find lacking in either of those genres (and others) is any connection to American roots music – especially the blues. I did find it interesting the last time I went with the Mrs. to see Rascal Flatts, their guitar player did a tribute of sorts to Stevie Ray Vaughan and played “Pride and Joy”. So, say what you will about contemporary country music, but at least there was some acknowledgment of blues there. This leads me to another word-of-mouth acquisition – The Levee by Petey Hop. 
As far as I know there is no vinyl release of The Levee yet, but this CD sounds great – which it should considering it was produced by the great Duke Robillard. What I like most about The Levee is how the blues is the foundation – and given the due respect it commands as a form – yet, Petey Hop takes the music to the next level – the modern times. Modern audiences, regardless of how familiar they are with the classic blues music of the 20th century, will feel at home with The Levee. Pete Hop is one of the current performers who knows all about the traditions, yet is ready to carry those vibrations down the road to new places. The Levee is accessible for country, rock, blues and everywhere in between fans. And I think the album cover is great too – kind of like a cross between the classic Parliament-Funkadelic album cover illustrations by the great Pedro Bell and the 70s-era Neil Young album covers like Zuma. 
Pete Hop is a world-traveling musician worth seeing for his adventurous blend of blues and American modern roots music. Check out his website for a schedule of personal appearances, access to The Levee and more:

Well, as much as I promised to find a way to make downloads interesting this year I still haven't managed to hit that mark – even when there were some pretty crazy cool download-only releases like the Beach Boys and Beatles copyright-oriented releases like this:

So the vinyl bug kept biting and I even made a few Record Store Day purchases. I was especially happy to bag a limited-edition grey vinyl Hawklords EP with the unique mix of (Only the Dead Dreams of the) Cold War Kid on it! This mix is very different from the one found on the Hawklord's 25 Years On album. Can't say which is the better mix, but I like the one on the EP. Yay!
      This all leads to the fact that, if anything, 2014 ended up as the Year of the Vinyl LP for me. Aside from the above, I also designed a little photo-study project where I took pictures of every single album I played this year which can be downloaded as a big file and used as a screen-saver or a slide-show or however you like. Some folks like keeping a fish tank to chill out in front of. This is a lot cheaper and you don't have to suction up fish poop every month. So, for the 2014 Vinyl Slide-Show, download here, unzip and extract (note - this is a big file, even compressed so keep that in mind) :  
As usual, thanks for reading and I look forward to more vibrations and new sonic vistas in the New Year!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Kinks – Face to Face / 1970s Double album compilations

      As time goes on I find myself enjoying the music of The Kinks more than many of their 60s contemporaries. The Davies brothers gifted the world with quite an amazing body of work for future generations to explore. Among the lesser-known gems in their extensive catalog is the 1966 LP “Face to Face”.
The first time I heard this entire album was when I borrowed an original mono LP from the local library (when they still had LPs in the stacks – I discovered a LOT of great music this way…). Apart from “Sunny Afternoon” the rest of the album was new to me. Really – it’s a terrific batch of songs, some of which have a deeply personal vibe – listen to Ray Davies’ vocal on “There’s Too Much on My Mind”. It’s quite a convincing delivery – he sounds like he really means the sentiments behind those lyrics! (I’ll swear that Paul McCartney nicked that swooping bassline for “Dear Prudence” two years later for the Beatles’ White Album as well!)

 But the liner notes on the reverse side of the sleeve hinted at some kind of hazy narrative the songs supposedly provided a soundtrack for. Thinking about that now I’m inclined to believe there was no intentional plot behind the songs, but those sleeve notes planted the idea in my head and my imagination filled in the gaps. It didn’t help matters that many of the songs featured various sound effects which added to the quasi-cinematic quality. Beyond just the sound-effects, The Kinks conjured up some real exotic textures here, in a decidedly low-fi manner –  the effect is the sonic equivalent to a grainy 8mm home movie. Decidedly impressionistic, in fact!

The impressionism extends to the subject matter of the lyrics. The characters in Ray Davies’ vignettes are by and large melancholy, frustrated, unfulfilled – the pleading mother’s voice in “Rosy Won’t You Please Come Home”, the “Session Man” – the empty frustration of the artist bogged down with hack-work, the disillusioned vacationer in “Holiday in Waikiki”, “Little Miss Queen of Darkness” herself unable to lose her blues in the swinging London nightclubs, even the character of “Sunny Afternoon” can’t enjoy the beautiful weather because he’s pre-occupied with the departure of his girlfriend and his money! Yet we never know the whole story behind these frustrations – the listener is left to fill in the gaps on his own. So in a strange way, Face to Face does hang together on a concept, though not in the obvious way.

Although “Face to Face” was released in the latter part of 1966, the album was not a reaction to the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”. Many other English acts, like the Beatles, took their cue from Brian Wilson to explore more sophisticated music and lyric content in their music. Not Ray Davies. The sessions for “Face to Face” ran CONCURRENTLY with the Beach Boys’ own sessions for “Pet Sounds”. The Kinks album was done by June 1966 and delayed due to business reasons mainly. In an industry where months can make a difference, it is interesting to wonder if The Kinks album had been released closer to completion, would there have been greater accolades?

As it happens, The Kinks were banned from performing in the United States for five years between 1965 and 1970. So there would be little opportunity to promote the record in the States. It even had the distinction of being out of print in the US for many years (though import copies were readily available if you knew where to look). “Sunny Afternoon” was the only major hit song featured (if you don’t count the Kinks own version of “Dandy” – Hermans Hermits had the hit with that one). It stands as one of the most ignored releases of The Kinks cannon, yet it remains one of their strongest LP efforts! It’s one of my “desert island discs”. Well worth tracking down a copy!

I think what I like so much about this album is how even the lesser songs have something special going on – maybe they’re not “top shelf” material, but clearly beyond filler status. And they help to move the imaginary plot-line along. Listening to this record is kind of like putting together a connect-the-dots coloring, story-book. Characters are elusive, situations are half-explained………it reminds me of a whole imaginary town where Eleanor Rigby lived and was just another typical resident. But, again – all of this music and composing was done long before Eleanor Rigby came out. How does Ray Davies do stuff like this?
 Like other albums I am obsessed with I have several copies – analog and digital. Let me count the ways…….two US mono LPs, one US stereo LP, one Spanish PRT stereo LP, one German PRT mono LP, the 1986 PRT compact disc and the 2011 2-disc deluxe CD set from Sanctuary (featuring the mono and stereo album mixes with bonus tracks as well). WHEW! The real oddball of the bunch is the 1986 compact disc. This was the only digital version of the album for many years – for some odd reason this record fell between the cracks of the early albums released by Rhino and the Reprise albums released by Warners (which started with the 1967 release “Something Else by The Kinks”). What makes the ’86 PRT CD problematic is how the two sides are reversed. The disc leads off with "Holiday in Waikiki” and the whole of side two precedes side one in the tracklisting. Ooops.
Otherwise the ’86 disc is pretty good sounding for an early digital transfer. What I don’t have is an original UK Pye LP since I reckon those are now quite scarce and costly (like most original UK pressings from most English bands). And, as I’m quite sure, the sonic benefit over the PRT LPs would be negligible at best. In fact, after I had to return the library copy, the Spanish PRT was what I found at a local shop when I went looking for a personal copy and it served me well for many years! Still sounds great, matter o’fact.

Truth is, in the early to mid 1980s, there was an upsurge in import vinyl in even the most provincial shops. It was not uncommon to have access to UK, German and even Latin American copies of classic albums in this era. This was the way I wound up with a stereo UK album of With the Beatles at a fairly young age. I remember finding that pressing at a department store though I don’t remember the rationale of why I bought it as opposed to a regular US copy of Meet the Beatles. Maybe the idea of more songs appealed to me. Another time I took home a copy of Sgt. Pepper pressed in Uruguay (featuring the UK stampers) on the blue Odeon label. The cover was essentially a plastic bag that had a color picture of the front cover sealed inside of it. I remember there being a glut of these in the stores being sold at a steep discount – probably why I bought one in the first place. Funny to think I don’t see these things popping up on ebay too frequently. Odd considering how many there were at one time.
Long before the import craze of the early 80s, there was a double LP compilation album obsession. I’m sure the roots of this must have been in the bootleg album market. Bootleg albums began appearing in the late 60s and early 70s – not only containing previously unreleased material, but also sometimes of records copied directly from legitimate sources and re-arranged in some kind of thematic order or another. One of the earliest examples of this trend was the bootleg Beatles set known as the Alpha and Omega.
Bootleggers gambled on the notion that although longtime Beatles fans might have gotten burned out from the constant playing of Beatles music from the original albums, creating a new combination of older tracks along some kind of thematic line could present the same songs in a new way to listeners. This hunch was proven by the bootleggers and co-opted by the legitimate companies. So, while the bootleggers released “Alpha and Omega” illegally, Apple / Capitol put out the two double album sets known to fans as the Red and Blue albums with tracks presented in chronological order. Even though the 1962 – 1966 and 1967 – 1970 sets contained no new material, they sold like hotcakes! The double album compilation became a viable vehicle for the recycling of old material.
Some of these double albums became surprising classics in their own right. While the Beatles doubles maintained a respectable presence in the marketplace (and in the hearts of 70s Beatles fans), other groups released truly iconic double LP compilations. Witness the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks series. Even though there is nothing new on the Hot Rocks collection – it is pretty much required listening for any music fan – period! Ditto for the Beach Boys with the “Endless Summer” double album. That collection helped to revitalize and re-define their career as a live act from the mid-70s to the present!

Even the Kinks got collected in the early 70s with the release of the Kinks Kronikles double album. This is such a brilliant collection of the mid-to-late 60s Reprise-era Kinks it really belongs in any music fan’s collection. The songs flow together so beautifully – whoever programmed this record was a genius. You don’t even need to read the effusive liner notes from John Mendelsohn on the inside cover to understand how this double LP makes one of the most compelling arguments for Ray Davies’ songwriting brilliance. The music speaks for itself.
So many bands had their material recycled into double album compilations at this point. Perhaps one of the best examples of how this seemingly pointless trend could yield surprisingly artistic results was the double album culled from the classic “7” albums from the Moody Blues titled simply: “This Is The Moody Blues”. There is not a single bit of unreleased music on this 2 LP set. However, the tracks are arranged and crossfaded into each other across the disc sides in such a way to give the illusion that the 7 albums the songs came from could easily be reconfigured since they’re all cut from the same cloth – artistically, sonically and aesthetically. It sounds insane to say it, but even if you already own the classic, core 7 Moody Blues albums, you still need This Is The Moody Blues – trust me.
Some artists would issue new material on double compilation albums. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 is a prime example – plenty of classic tracks alongside some exclusive songs making the purchase a must-have for true fans.
Why am I going on about all this? Well, this past Record Store Day, there was a re-release of a classic double compilation album on vinyl – The Doors “Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine”. The initial copies were pressed on limited edition gold-colored vinyl and looked pretty attractive! Apparently it was a brisk seller since they tended to blow out of the shops quickly and wound up on ebay at inflated prices. So, a few months later I’m down at the Princeton Record Exchange and I get real excited to see new copies of this in the bins. Whooo! So without thinking too much I scooped one up and went about my business snapping up more LPs. When I got home was when I realized I’d made a mistake. I guess Rhino Records decided to press more of these on regular black vinyl and that’s what I bought – not the limited edition. Ooops. Well, I never did own this compilation before. Yet, I still have it sealed and I’ve been debating – should I open it and listen to it anyway? Maybe it could be on the level of This Is The Moody Blues. It does have a couple of unique tracks on it (from b-sides apparently). Ahh…..maybe another night. I’m in no hurry.
Instead I think I’m going to spin the Jefferson Airplane double LP “Flight Log”. This is interesting since it includes tracks from some of the later solo albums and runs the gamut from the first Airplane album to the Jefferson Starship era. It’s a weird collection of obvious unit-moving hits and bizarre deep cuts. Ah, back in a time before the ‘net where it is possible to hear every song ever written for free (seemingly). The whole notion of an extended “greatest hits” album would get a new lease on life in the 1990s with the proliferation of the compact disc box set craze. And just like the double compilation albums of the 70s, there would be some really excellent box sets and some clunkers. But that is a story for another time, dear reader. Until next time……keep those vibrations flowing!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Quadraphonic Dreams and Reality

    My obsession with music and records started pretty early on when I was a wee lad. As a kid I had the opportunity to frequent a pretty thriving flea market held on Sundays a few towns over from mine. It remained for many years a great place to score vinyl. There were even some near misses with greatness at this flea market – at various points I passed up a paste-over Butcher Cover, the torso-cover original pressing of The Velvet Underground and Nico and an opportunity to have about five more still sealed original copies of the first NRBQ album (dude had a bunch and I only bought one – for a dollar!). Mostly I went to this flea market because I was not exactly rolling in bucks. I was looking for the best way to stretch my vinyl habit on a limited budget.

    Every so often I would find old Quadraphonic records that I bought because they were the only copies of those titles I might find that Sunday (and within my budget of 1 or 2 dollars an LP). Here are three that I found at this particular flea market in those days:

 All were in good shape and ended up being my only copies for many years. Before I had these records I was only aware of mono or stereo records. Nobody I knew had a quad system. So it was with general amazement that I read the famous Columbia / Epic inner sleeve advert that came with the Jeff Beck “Rough and Ready” album:
   On one side there was a semi-scientific explanation of how 4 channel sound could be embedded into a typical vinyl album. The other side illustrated the possible hardware choices consumers could use to decode the quad info from those special records. All of this read like science fiction to me. For many years I would play those records and dream about what instruments could be heard in the rear speakers if only I could get the right audio components to extract that information………my young mind boggled at the notion.

    The very idea of hearing great records with instruments popping up around you was, to say the least, quite an exciting proposition. Not knowing anybody who had this equipment coupled with the reality that I’d never seen any of it for sale – new – in the stores pretty much fueled my frustration. As I got older I just kind of shrugged it off and got interested in other things. Yet, the notion haunted me as I periodically bumped into other quadraphonic records in my travels.

    With the advent of the internet and the launch of ebay I was able to finally see examples of quadraphonic hardware for sale, yet it was all pretty mysterious and expensive if the idea was to experiment. Not to worry – the enthusiasts were alive and well and founded a fantastic website dedicated to everything quad – see QuadraphonicQuad here:

     Anything a person could ever want to know about multi-channel music can be found there (or linked to from there). Multi-channel music made a comeback with the emergence of DVD technology in the early 2000s. New encoding formats were devised to play multi-channel music – SACD, DVD-A, DTS, Dual-Disc and more recently Blu-Ray. Plenty of great albums were released on these formats and the list continues to grow. That’s where I finally heard what surround-sound music could be like. The equipment was reasonably priced and plenty of new titles came out (and even some old quadraphonic mixes were resurrected).

    Through the QuadraphonicQuad site, I learned about quad 8-tracks and got a nice little bunch of those as well. There were other places in cyberspace for enthusiasts to sample rare quad titles that were converted from the old formats to the new. This kind of hobbyist activity led me to the next step toward hearing the old quad vinyl LPs as they were intended...........

    Without getting into a big history of quad here, suffice to say there were three main types of quad records – each with their own decoding method (probably why consumers balked at these things in the first place). Different record companies used these formats to compete with each other.
      For example, Warner Brothers / Elektra artists had titles released on QuadraDiscs – otherwise known as CD-4 format. The decoding process for this format necessitated having just the right stylus for the turntable and the right decoding box. As luck would have it, I already had an appropriate needle on my turntable – the venerable Audio-Technica Mla 440 ML.
Why was this necessary? The rear channel information embedded in the grooves of a CD-4 disc are transmitted through a “carrier signal” to the box. If your needle is run-of-the-mill, the signal won’t carry. If you get this process all right – the sound can be amazing! However, your LP needs to be as clean as possible for best results – dirt and dust get amplified pretty wildly with this system. The nice thing about these LPs is that if you don’t have the equipment for decoding them, they still sound good as stereo discs. For years, Elektra kept this Doors collection in print – long after most folks would have given a hoot about quad. As a result, there are tons of these records in the marketplace (and I believe it was my first QuadraDisc).
    More popular than CD-4, however, were two formats known as “matrix-quad”. This is a little trickier to decode. Columbia / Epic releases were treated with the SQ matrix system. ABC / Impulse artists albums were treated with (I’m not making this up, folks) the QS matrix system. What they had in common (besides the letters, however arranged) was a way that the rear channel information was embedded into the grooves not with a carrier signal, but with phase-shift information. If you play these records on a regular stereo, they sound ok if a little odd. That’s because certain portions of the music were shifted out of phase so they could be placed properly in the soundfield through decoder systems. Yes, each format had separate decoders. Of the two, QS actually had better decoding possibilities if you found the right box to do the job (I never did). SQ was a whole other matter.
     Most of the quad vinyl out there is SQ-encoded. Columbia / Epic / CBS really went all-out to press up scads of these LPs. In every genre imaginable – classical, rock, country, jazz. The problem is – none of the decoders really worked very well. The best unit – The Tate Fosgate II – wasn’t even on the market until the late 70s. Before that the best decoder (for reasonable money) could be found in Lafayette (remember them?) receivers. I found one of those and still use it for my main amp – hey, 4 channels is 4 channels y’know. However, even with the SQ chip engaged – the rear channels managed to get separated from the fronts, yet the rears mostly summed to mono. Poop.
    Through the QuadraphonicQuad site I learned that some folks figured out how to use modern home-recording software to create “scripts” to process old SQ-encoded music which could be further processed into home-made DTS surround discs playable in DVD players and the like. Remember those enthusiasts? I became one. Processing a whole album in such a program tied up my computer for an overnight session of number crunching – literally. The results were the best I’d heard up to that point, but some sounds still seemed a little out of phase here and there. But it was still pretty exciting. So much so that I stocked up on old quad albums and generally figured that would be the last word on getting what you could out of the 70s SQ vinyl.

    Over the last winter, I’d checked back at QQ headquarters to catch up on new info and everybody (well, almost) was speaking in tongues about a NEW DECODER BOX – that handles both SQ and QS matrix encoded LPs. I eluded to it in one of my posts back in the winter and, after saving some extra dough – I jumped in. Behold – the Surround Master SQ edition:

    This is it! Finally – SQ and QS albums decoded in real time – really discrete and my quad dreams are now a reality! I can finally – after over 20 years – hear what’s in those grooves separated properly into 4 channels. At the moment I’m listening to this Mike Oldfield album for the first time – in quad! Amazing.
     So, if there are any other quad-obsessed record freaks out there I have news for you…….YOUR SEARCH IS OVER! Get one of these amazing boxes and you are set for SQ and QS. So now I can also offer quad LP reviews here along with everything else. I look forward to lots more listening and discovery courtesy of the good folks at  Involve Audio. Thanks for bringing my quad dreams to reality! You folks ROCK!!!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Beverley Martyn – The Phoenix and The Turtle / Led Zeppelin / Bob Mould

      In music history there are certain archetype personalities which seem to get recycled even across genres. There are the wild characters like Franz Liszt and Keith Moon. The logic-defying virtuoso types like Paganini, Robert Johnson and Jaco Pastorius. The mad, tortured geniuses like Bud Powell and Skip Spence. The theme of the “tortured artist” is a big one though. Even Todd Rundgren titled one of his albums in mock-honor of this archetype – “The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect”.
       Perhaps he did this tongue-in-cheek or maybe he was just having a bad year that year, who knows? Numerous artists have identified some of their best work with some of the worst times in their lives. As if the frequency of life struggles somehow legitimizes the depth of the art. This, of course, can be a dangerous proposition – the notion that artists must “suffer” before they create valid art. Some artists don’t have a choice. Maybe mental or physical illness is part of the artists’ natural makeup, creating tangible challenges they cannot avoid easily. Perhaps these struggles are part of the unique point of view that can give the artists’ expressions a quality of resonance to their audiences.

        This perception of the “tortured artist” does tend to fuel the music press from time to time – especially if there is some connection to an album or two. Witness the fixation of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out The Lights” album – and I don’t even consider it their best, but the press loves the sordid tale of their breakup still! Last year I read a bit of information about the late folk-jazz-rock acoustic guitar pioneer John Martyn. I read that he had a great “breakup album” like Richard Thompson had in his catalog. I tracked down a nice copy of Martyn’s “Grace and Danger” on vinyl.
     While I listened to the record, I did notice that the songs somehow related to the breakup of his marriage, yet there was a strange detachment evident in the performances. If he was distraught I really couldn’t tell. Not a bad album, mind you. Just not what I would have expected. There are, of course, at least two sides to every story. This common wisdom led me to seek out information about his ex-wife Beverley Martyn. At this point there was a website devoted to her which contained large chunks of her life story – segments that were collected in a short but powerful little book she authored called “Sweet Honesty”.

     As I read the excerpts on the website I marveled at what promise her early career as a singer held. She had connections to both English folk-rock icons and American folk-rock icons all before she met John Martyn. In fact, not long after the pair were married, Beverley was booked to record an album in the US in Woodstock, New York in 1969 with folks like Levon Helm and other heavy hitters on the scene. Her husband tagged along (naturally), contributed more than some backing guitar and the record was eventually released as a joint effort. Here’s the result:
     John Martyn would gradually begin an ascent to fame in the English folk-rock circles while Beverley increasingly tended to their growing family. If only it were that simple. John Martyn’s alcoholism overtook his personality in the ensuing years and cycles of abuse took their toll on the marriage. Beverley writes with astonishing candor and clarity about those years and it’s a harrowing story. John Martyn may have emerged as a brilliant musical talent, yet his conduct was truly foul. For me, that eerie detachment on “Grace and Danger” makes a lot more sense in the context of all his personal demons. Astoundingly, John Martyn remained prolific as a composer and performer right up to the end of his life in 2009.

     Beverley spent many years rebuilding the connections to her own art and, as I read last summer, she was readying a new album due to be released in early 2014. Before I even heard a note of her music I immediately pre-ordered the album. I cannot explain why her story moved me so profoundly, but I just knew this was a new record I needed to hear. But I had to wait. In the meantime I tracked down the “Stormbringer” album pictured above. I found a nice white-label promo copy – a really sweet disc!

     Let me mention that Beverley’s vocal style on this early record is wholly unique to any other female singer I’ve heard. Her songwriting style is direct and insightful as well. There’s a wonderful balance between technique and intimacy in her approach that is quite fascinating. I’m still looking for the second LP release from this era – “Road to Ruin”. In fact, there are a few other bits and bobs of her recordings – a few early singles and at least one CD from the 90s – yet her out put has been criminally small compared to the stature of her talent. This makes her new album all the more necessary to hear!
     A few weeks ago my patience paid off and I received – direct from England no less! – a nice autographed copy of the new album on vinyl. Ahhhhh! What a great looking package! Yet, the best of what is here is in the grooves. Now, it is worth noting that Beverley’s voice has changed somewhat, which is only natural with the passage of time. However, what a joy it is to hear how she still moves her voice in unexpected and beautiful ways through the songs. The backing music is tasteful – beautifully recorded and complimenting Beverley’s voice perfectly throughout. Beverley leads the record off with a song she composed with Nick Drake before his untimely death in the 70s – a song called “Reckless Jane”. It sets the mood for the album perfectly – intimate and reflective. I have to say the blues on side one – “Going to Germany” – is a highlight for me. I love the way Beverley sings that blues – in a style rarely heard these days and she owns it! And speaking of the blues, Beverley’s take on the classic “Levee Breaks” is worth the price of admission alone. Not to be missed!

     I can also recommend the book I mentioned above – “Sweet Honesty”. I don’t want to retell any of the fascinating details of her quite amazing life. Her prose is far more effective and there are some wonderful stories along with the heartbreaks. In my opinion, Beverley Martyn’s new LP is right in the same class with Guy Clark’s new album (the one that earned him a Grammy last year). I think it would be fantastic if Clark and Beverley were able to do some shows around the US together. That would be a dream gig for me to see indeed! Do yourself a favor and check out Beverley’s new album – she’s a treasure!

       Fascinating to note the spiffy typeface used on Beverley’s album cover – what I call “Led Zeppelin font” since it was used prominently on their “Houses of the Holy” album. This together with the “Levee Breaks” connection got me thinking about how I’d also ordered the latest Led Zeppelin deluxe LP sets from the UK as well. I had read a lot about major quality discrepancies between domestic (US) copies of reissued albums versus their UK counterparts and for the new Zeppelin platters I didn’t want to take any chances. Oddly enough, each of the three LP sets arrived separately – thankfully all intact with no major problems just like Beverely’s album. Man, ordering vinyl from that far away is a hair-raising proposition just due to the distance alone. So far my luck’s been good in that department.
     And for the new Zep platters I have to say I am quite pleased with the quality of the mastering and the pressing in all cases. Each album is a significant upgrade to the old vinyl I’d had forever and the bonus material is engaging and fun to hear. And, as it happens in this case, all of the records were pressed in Germany anyway so the quality should be excellent no matter what country you order the records from! Really, all new LPs should exhibit the same excellent quality of the Zeppelin reissues and Beverley Martyn’s new album. So I will recommend these as well.
     And finally I have to give the big  thumbs up to the new Bob Mould LP “Beauty and RUIN”. Oh yeah! This is the Bob Mould album we’ve been waiting for kids. Of course Bob is the other major talent from the legendary architects of good alternative rock Husker Du. A few entries ago I gave the nod to the most recent Grant Hart epic “The Argument”. Now it’s Bob Mould’s turn to get the props. I have to be honest, I don’t have all of his solo stuff so I can’t comment on his entire output. But I will say his first LP “Workbook” holds a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons. The new album is going to work its way right up next to it from what I can tell. Plus I got a limited edition colored vinyl copy which I ordered directly from the company Merge Records. I’ve never seen a company move an order out so quickly and efficiently before. I think it took only two days from the time I hit the “buy” button to when it hit my turntable! Good job, Merge people! Plus they threw in a cool poster and a Bob Mould button for my lapel too. Now that is too cool. The music is straight up classic Bob Mould greatness so don’t delay – just get it straight from the source. They will treat you right, friends!

     Ah, so much great inspirational music these days. I’m sure looking forward to the summer months when I can get a little extra listening and reflecting in. As always, keep those vibrations percolating through the atmosphere and spread those good vibes, people! Bright Moments!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Humble Pie – 1970

     Humble Pie was, in the early 70s, as big an act as Led Zeppelin at the time. Which is a kind of ironic statement since the Pie’s main frontman, Steve Marriott, was  an important influence on Jimmy Page and Robert Plant COMBINED in the mid-1960s. Yet Marriott abandoned his original group, The Small Faces, to form something new in the late 60s. Two albums were released in 1969, but the record label – Immediate Records  - was on the skids and ready to implode. The Pie changed management at this point and signed to A&M Records. The 1970 A&M debut, titled simply “Humble Pie”, has all the ingredients of an anonymous, low-key release. Can’t say it was the FIRST album. Can’t complain it was the “sophmore slump”. It was the first release for a new record company, but there were no hits on it. Nor even any attempts at creating a hit. Just a funky little record. Nothing fancy, yet. This is such a classic Steve Marriott move  -  just sign a big record deal with a new company and hand them a totally under-produced and hit-barren, in-joke laden, artistically non-commercial, cult-status-boosting plastic waffle from hell that could ever be conceived. God, it’s GREAT!

     Really , the first two albums had a lot more going for them. Unfortunately, they were released by Immediate Records – the domain of Rolling Stones ex-producer Andrew Loog Oldham who decided just as Humble Pie were putting out those records in the late-60s to DUMP his label therefore leaving the Pie, essentially, homeless. This was the reality which brought the band to the attention of A & M. Now, you would think that Marriott would want to impress his new bosses with a blockbuster debut album to ring in the new contract, but he does the opposite! He low-balls the first release in a near-taunting fashion!

     Marriott’s luck with the business end of the music industry, to that point, had been a real mixed bag of artistic and critical success coupled with bad managers, deals and exploitation. Humble Pie’s A & M debut was a total reflection of his serious misgivings and hard-won sense of awareness. If only the end result of all the hard work would actually pay off (it didn’t in the end, sadly - at least not for Marriott).

     Humble Pie started out as a group Steve Marriott was putting together for young Peter Frampton who was eager to get away from his teeny-bopper image (such as it was in England in the mid-60s) and into something more artistically valid. Marriott hand-picked a rhythm section for Frampton (Greg Ridley on bass and Jerry Shirley on drums), then promptly invited himself into the group (and leaving the Small Faces in the lurch)! Thus Humble Pie was born. Before this, of course, Marriott had already made his mark with the Small Faces. During his years with the Small Faces, Marriott proved he was a major talent – witness “Lazy Sunday” – in my opinion one of the most perfect single record releases ever!

     Yet the exploitation that group suffered under manager Don Arden was the kind of experience that left permanent scars for Marriott – experiences that would haunt him through every other manager he’d employ for the rest of his life.

     All of this leads up to the Humble Pie debut for A&M in 1970. The masterful thing about this record is how the flashes of brilliance sneak up on you, hit without warning and then recede as fast as they’d arrived. Mundane jams punctuated by glimmers of goosebump-inducing ensemble magic. It’s in those moments when the stars align and something special happens amidst the murky sonic jungle that reminds you – this is the work of a guy who was responsible for “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake”. It’s like Marriott was purposely downplaying his talent – hiding it away behind something that sounded like a Grand Funk copycat band. The production is sparse, the material well-trodden, the playing competent. Then – just when you were thinking “pleasant little jam-band” a crash of pure Marriott dynamite blows the doors down and you’re thinking “where the hell did THAT come from?”. It’s such a SNEAKY album!
Let’s start with Side One, shall we?

     1. Live with me. Alright, this could be anybody. Organ intro. Another one of those bluesy, slow album-openers. A pretty long instrumental intro – quite a few choruses before the Marriott vocal commences.  As the song builds….the volume rises….the drama intensifies and simmers back down, but not after a little peek into the potential of the group harmonies……a little meandering organ and guitar interplay……then – Greg Ridley offers a lead vocal on the next verse, a little ducked in the mix, but a really strong vocal delivery! Nice contrast to Marriott’s over-the-top delivery. Another group vocal chorus then simmering back down to a proper organ solo……again, nothin’ fancy – just some loose jamming…….THEN….Frampton takes a lead vocal on the next verse. Not as confident as the other two, but a nice contrast in the mix …….another build with Marriott’s vocal leading the charge into a beautiful group vocal and a QUICKLY punctuated end! DONE! Well, that’s after almost 8 minutes – who puts an 8 minute song on the front of a debut album for a new label???

     2. Only a Roach. Excuse me? A jokey faux-country waltz number sung in a whispery voice by drummer Jerry Shirley with the rest of the group sounding five sheets to the wind in the chorus? – and only on the second song of the record?? Dear LORD what were they thinking?

     3. One-Eyed Trouser Snake Rhumba. Yep – that’s the title on the record label! But this ain’t no rhumba. It’s chunky, mid-tempo blues and rockin’ boogie that sounds like a pretty pedestrian jam punctuated by more of the triple-lead-vocal threat which is the only other thing to distinguish an otherwise generic-sounding, and oddly kinda BRIEF track! The song doesn’t live up to the awesome promise of the title, unfortunately. What this track does accomplish, however, is to provide for the exact group sound / identity that Humble Pie would be known for in the band’s “classic phase”. It’s like Marriott finally took the reins and said, “Alright, punters! THIS is what Humble Pie is all about!” A cohesive sound, though debuted on a semi-throwaway track.

     4. Earth and Water Song. This could be considered the start of where Peter Frampton’s solo career would take him. An acoustic ballad. Slow-tempo number with an emotional vocal delivery from Frampton – some kind of deal comparing a relationship to the elements – “I am the Earth and She is my Water……” – typical hippie bullshit lyrics trotted out over a totally forgettable attempt at melody. Well, okay – a little diversity in the instrumentation, but Frampton’s offerings in this style were WAY BETTER on the previous two albums. This sounds so tentative in comparison. Almost demo-like. What gives? Not exactly Frampton’s shining moment, but good for what it brings to the album generally.

     So that’s it for side one…..not bad, but this isn’t some local bar band……….lets see where side two leads………
    Side Two:

     5. I’m Ready. The Muddy Waters classic re-arranged Pie-style. A real grungy, staggering-down-the-street-half-drunk-and-lookin’-to-cause-trouble kind of a groove. The three lead vocalists switch off again with Frampton delivering what must be his gutsiest and gruff-est vocal ever. It’s almost impossible to recognize it’s HIM! And, this track also – in my opinion – provides the TEMPLATE for what early KISS sounds like. Right down to Greg Ridley’s vocal delivery which sounds exactly like what Gene Simmons would later sound like on every Kiss record known to humanity. Even the wind-up of the song with the way the whole band hits those accents – good LORD this is where KISS got their whole sound! Fascinating! Simmons and company would never admit this, but I’ll betcha they copied this sucker down to the letter! Have a listen and tell me I’m wrong……..

     6. Theme from Skint – See You Later Liquidator. Alright – what’s with THIS song title, you ask? Well, folks we have come to the MEAT of the program tonight, in my opinion. This is yet another chapter in the fascinating series of Steve Marriott rock-n-roll Economics sermons. Delivered with a sneering, sarcastic, weary tone. Acoustic guitar, pedal steel…..3 AM, frustrated and pissed-off vibe! Yet – this is where the classic Steve Marriott brilliance finally streaks naked across the sonic football field and you can’t help but cheer!! It comes right at the end after railing at some un-named manager over financial woes…….I won’t spoil the punch-line, but it arrives complete with appropriate sound effects and I’m LAUGHING my butt off!!! Sick, twisted Marriott humor at its finest!

     7. Red Light Mama Red Hot.  Marriott would revisit these same lyrics on the next album, with a new and more whimsical musical backing. In this form, it’s another muscle-bound, mid-tempo rockin’ number. Some rude and lascivious lyrics, a little blues harmonica, some tasty guitar solos and, yes…COWBELL! But it’s just a jam on an unfinished song, as fun as it is.

     8. Sucking on the Sweet Vine. Now it’s Greg Ridley’s turn at an acoustic, ballad-y number. For my money this trumps Frampton’s offering at the end of side one. I personally think Greg Ridley’s voice, not to mention bass-playing, is one of the more over-looked talents in rock and roll history. Damn fine song!! Beautifully constructed and executed. I would have loved it if Ridley had done a solo album. Him and Bob Mosley (bass player from Moby Grape) – my two favorite rock bass players bar NONE. Great players – great singers – damn fine songwriters. Totally under-appreciated. For my tastes, this is a perfect album-closer. In fact, it rates about the most COMMERCIAL sounding thing on the whole darned record.

     Now, all that’s left to do is add two obscure-looking illustrations to the front and back covers, don’t bother listing the song titles on the outer sleeve and……what you have is a purposely down-played major label debut from a bunch of guys who just decided to pretend they weren’t as talented as they really ARE, but showed a few glimpses in the process anyway just to mess with the audience’s collective minds. Oh, and they invented the KISS sound while they were at it. Look, I’m not kidding. Ace Frehley has gone down on record stating that they hung out with Humble Pie backstage at the Fillmore East when the recording of “Rockin the Fillmore” was in progress. It was a conscious artistic decision on the part of Gene Simmons and company to cop the early Humble Pie sound and exploit it for all it was worth behind some kooky makeup getups.

     After the 1970 release, Humble Pie would set themselves to touring America as if their lives depended on it. For my money, their next studio release – “Rock On” – is one of two standout classic LPs the group would release (the other being the Frampton-free “Smokin”). Of course the live LP “Rockin the Fillmore” is a classic in its own right. In some ways, the Fillmore album somehow transcends Humble Pie as a group – it is a quintessential snapshot of what a hard rockin’ band of the early 70s should sound like in concert. It wasn’t the first double live album in rock history, yet it did create a ripple effect, a unique life of its own: an evergreen catalog item that kept selling long after any legitimate group calling itself “Humble Pie” ceased to exist. “Rockin’ the Fillmore” also recently was given the expanded 4-CD box set deluxe release (though I haven’t ponied up the cash for that yet).

     None of this was evident from those who purchased the self-titled LP in 1970. The future of the group had yet to be written. The sad reality is that Humble Pie became the victim of its ambitions. The live shows were universally lauded by concert-goers who still speak in tongues about witnessing the Live Pie. However, the hits dried up – perhaps a result of badly recorded albums and over-worked musicians. Marriott never quite regained hold of the high ground he toiled so hard to reach in the early 70s. In some ways, he became the first genuine legend and catalyst of the 60s / 70s rock era to turn his back on courting the rock and roll dragon to see who would emerge victorious from the fray. By the mid-80s, Marriott had seen his bandmate Frampton achieve insane fame in the late 70s, only to sputter out by the early 80s himself! What the frig was it all worth if you’re gonna be swept under the rug after a few years of crazy fame? Better to keep the business small and comfortable and under your own control. Even a reunion attempt between Marriott and Frampton in the early 90s left Marriott a little ambivalent about trying to make a go for the “big time” again. He’d been around the block too many times by that point. While he was still considering his possible future with Frampton again, Marriott fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand and that was pretty much it. A terrible way to go for such a brilliant talent. Those in the know realize how crazy talented Steve Marriott was. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether he would have gained more widespread recognition had he lived. A part of me is convinced he wouldn’t have given much of a damn so long as he was knocking out the next audience in the next town down the line in his own inimitable fashion.

     After Marriott’s death, there was a brief reunion of Humble Pie alumni sans Frampton. Ridley, Shirley, Clempson and wonderful later-era member Bob Tench recorded an album in the late 90s as Humble Pie that was worthy of the name and legacy of the group. It wasn’t their fault that Marriott wasn’t there. He would have been either proud or envious of their efforts. The album – “Back on Track” – is worth seeking out since it was the last time the great Greg Ridley graced a record. Not long after the album’s release, Ridely would pass on and pretty much scupper any legitimate efforts to revive the Humble Pie name in any major way again.

     I maintain to this day, if current audiences were confronted with a band like Humble Pie at their peak in the early 70s, they would faint dead away from the shock of being exposed to such passionate, high quality and SOULFUL rock and roll – they wouldn’t know what was hitting them. The Pie carved out their own slice of history. Their music holds up.
When was the last time you heard a band give a performance like that? And in 1970, nobody would have been the wiser.