Frank Zappa • The Hot Rats Sessions [6CD Box Set]

Out of all the FRANK ZAPPA albums a newbie could start with, Hot Rats might not be the best choice. “It’s jazz,” I hear you cough. [Careful!] “Ick.” That’s what I thought the first time I heard it, anyway, back in the late ’70s after discovering Joe’s Garage and then The Mothers’ Fillmore East–June 1971. Besides one song with then-unknown-to-me Captain Beefheart kinda narrating, it was all instrumental and fairly difficult for my 16 year old music brain to comprehend. No humor – which does belong in music – no lyrics or singing, no obvious hooks for me to catch. Fast forward nearly forty years and 50-something year old me is, like, “This is a damn good album!” And now, at the landmark album’s 50th anniversary, there’s way more to get into than the original six cuts that made up Frank’s first proper solo album. The Hot Rats Sessions is a major box set, comprising six CDs, a nice book with lots of photos and notes about the sessions, a set of guitar picks and even a board game. Hot rats, indeed!

Hot Rats was the first non-Mothers of Invention record from Zappa – though a few Mothers played on it – if you don’t count Lumpy Gravy, which he wrote but didn’t play on, and the first time the guitarist/bandleader put something out generally lacking words. It was also, though, the first time his guitar soloing was given such a front seat, and that is something guitarists all over the world can dig, even if they can’t quite fathom the semi-jazz chord patterns or the soloing by violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris. (I’m not huge on that part, myself, though I am a fan of Harris’ early work as part of Don & Dewey.) Though Zappa is credited with the bulk of the playing on Hot Rats, Mother Ian Underwood played piano, organ, sax, clarinet and flute, and others played here and there on the sessions (Ron Selico, John Guerin, Jimmy Carl Black, Art Tripp III and Paul Humphrey on drums; John Balkin, Max Bennett, Roy Estrada and Shuggie Otis on bass; Bunk Gardner on sax; Harris on violin). Those sessions took place over a couple weeks in July 1969 with the finished LP released in October. With catchy (for jazz!) tunes like the tasty “Peaches En Regalia,” “Willie the Pimp” (which The Mothers did on Fillmore East), the sweet “Little Umbrellas” and others, it was yet another Zappa classic at the time – but who really knew what to make of it?

Well, now it’s available in super long form for all of us to figure out, and since many of us have so much time on our hands right now, there’s never been a better time to give it a try. The Hot Rats Sessions comes in a 12″ x 12″-ish box housing the six CDs in a gatefold LP-style folder, a 28-page book with notes from Underwood and Matt Groening (he did not play on these sessions!), and the aforementioned game, Zappa Land, which has a 12″ x 24″ board and many colorful game pieces. Needless to say you may want to make color copies of those so as not to destroy the value of this super deluxe box set! In all, there’s much to recommend this baby. Sure, some of the lengthy jamming may get tedious after awhile (though the 32-minute “Big Legs” is scintillating throughout*), and let’s face it: no matter how good a box set is, you’re only likely to dive into the deep end on rare occasions anyway. But if you really like your Rats Hot, you must partake. Find it on sale somewhere and dig in while the diggin’s good.
* “Big Legs” in severely edited form is “The Gumbo Variations” on the final released album.

4/5 (Zappa Records ZR20032, 2019)

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Booker T. & The MG’s • The Complete Stax Singles, Vol. 1 (1962-1967) [CD, 2LP]

It’s pretty hard to beat the grooves that BOOKER T. & THE MG’S laid down back in the ’60s, and proof of that can be found in the grooves that make up The Complete Stax Singles, Vol. 1 (1962- 1967), a new compilation from Real Gone Music. This 29-track funk-a-thon is one hell of an intro to the Memphis group’s sound, muscular R&B instrumentals from a mixed race melting pot of organ/piano, guitar, bass and drums that basically defined the Stax sound.

The 1CD/2LP collection compiles the band’s early period sides for Volt and Stax, the former label morphing into the latter and becoming an indie powerhouse that gave us Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and many more. Made up of organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassists Lewie Steinberg and (later) Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr., Booker T. and his MG’s concocted a sound that was high on swinging, hard hitting grooves that to this day are the epitome of what makes Memphis music so irresistible. Pretty much anyone who’s ever turned on the radio has heard “Green Onions,” the band’s signature and first single, and all of the following records had the same basic ingredients. Despite their efforts to mix it up a bit by adding additional instruments here and there, the original recipe was so good that no amount of tweaking could alter its appeal. Yet, followup singles “Mo-Onions,” “Jellybread” (see video below) or the fabulous “Boot-Leg” and “Hip Hug-Her” never bettered that first side, charts-wise.

Real Gone Music’s 29-track compilation is 75 minutes long, generous as hell for one CD (or two LPs) and would be a lot to digest if it wasn’t for the fact that Booker T. & The MG’s music is so fun and uplifting that the vibe never really gets old. (It helps that the tunes are rarely more than a couple of minutes long.) I can imagine what it might’ve been like to hear these guys play them live, stretching out on a solo or groove and really getting down with it – I’m sure I would’ve totally dug it. As in “dig it,” you know, that phrase they said back in the Sixties and which some of us younger old farts still say on occasion. Worth the low price, for sure, The Complete Stax Singles, Vol. 1 is all you need to get your own “MG Party” started.

4/5 (Real Gone Music RGM-0889, 2019)

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Jimi Hendrix • “Valleys of Neptune” [7″]

[Written by Marsh Gooch and originally posted on Skratchdisc on 3/16/2010.]

In advance of the same-named album of JIMI HENDRIX’s, the family at Experience Hendrix put out a single of “Valleys of Neptune”. The A-side was recorded with Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell in ’69, starting out with a “Wind Cries Mary” vibe but then moving to a poppy (for Hendrix) chorus. I like how Jimi’s guitar playing mirrors what he’s singing – or does his singing mirror what he’s playing? – I think I just figured out that that’s probably what I’ve always dug about the guy, just couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

The B-side is just as cool! “Cat Talking to Me” is sung by Mitch and was recorded by him, Jimi and Noel Redding. Actually, recording began in 1967 and in 1987 producer Chas Chandler allowed the guys to come in and recut their parts for some project that apparently never got off the ground. Doesn’t hamper it at all, thanks to Mitchell’s cool guy vocal delivery, His-Awesomeness Producer Eddie Kramer’s mix, and the fact that this is the fucking Jimi Hendrix Experience, man!

A picture sleeve with a watercolor Hendrix himself did houses the record, which has the customary US-style big hole (!), perfect for fanboys like me who truly believe that US-issued 7″ singles SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE A BIG HOLE. Oh yeah, the B-side isn’t on the CD or vinyl album so go get one before they’re gone.
5/5 (Experience Hendrix/Legacy)

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The Undertones • West Bank Songs 1978-1983: A Best Of [2LP]

America may have closed its borders to people traveling from Ireland, but that won’t keep legends like Derry’s THE UNDERTONES from invading our ears. West Bank Songs 1978-1983: A Best Of is a new compilation of the fab fivesome’s greatest hits, a 2 LP set that you can order up right now and have delivered to your door while that is still a possibility. If you already know about The Undertones then chances are great that you’ve got at least one record by them, and it’s highly likely that you’ve got some sort of best-of that includes much of what’s on this compilation. Still, old fans like me can always make room for a new compilation – perhaps affording a new way to look at their career, and newbies get a chance to discover a great band that still deserves their time on the turntable.

Most of the young punks’ great songs are here, from their debut “Teenage Kicks” – a perennial favorite – to “My Perfect Cousin” and later, more mature fare like “It’s Going to Happen!” and “The Love Parade.” Culled from the band’s first four albums and non-LP singles (effectively their career from ’78 until they disbanded in ’83; they reformed later with a different lead singer), West Bank Songs is chock full of the spirited, humorous yet edgy punk and new wave tunes they’re known for, along with the slightly distorted guitars and singer Feargal Sharkey’s nasal teenage vocals. What’s missing, though, is some of the B-sides that were as important as the A-sides they backed, such as their invigorating cover of the psychedelic nugget, “Let’s Talk About Girls” or their own tune, “Mars Bars.” Not that you can’t find those on other compilations, such as 1983’s All Wrapped Up double LP or Rykodisc’s The Very Best of The Undertones (from 1994), but they are important songs which for some reason were left off this latest compilation. Still, you can’t deny that The Undertones are one of Ireland’s greatest exports, no matter which random selection of their songs you happen upon. West Bank Songs is a 30 song affair, on purple and white vinyl, with fairly interesting (though not that in depth) liner notes and some pretty great photos, and a cover design that’s an homage to The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath album (UK version). It’s totally worth the dosh!

4/5 (BMG/Salvo/Ardeck SALVO426DLP, 2020)

 

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Hank Williams • Pictures from Life’s Other Side [Book/6CD Set]

Hey friend, did you say there’s a HANK WILLIAMS revival going on? Did I miss the memo? Well, there’s no need to print one out because Pictures from Life’s Other Side has just hit the stores and it’s the second big release in half a year celebrating ol’ Hank’s legacy. That’s close enough to a memo to me.

“The Man and His Music in Rare Photos and Recordings” is the tagline of this behemoth, which consists of a 272 page hardcover book (inside a nice slipcase) loaded with great photos and housing six CDs of the music Hank made for yet another syndicated radio program, this one sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour. There is a bountiful dozen dozen (144) songs here, many that Hank & His Drifting Cowboys or alter ego Luke The Drifter never recorded for MGM Records in the late 1940s-early 1950s. Before we get to the music, let’s talk about the book. It’s beautiful, with an exhaustive and exhilarating selection of photos – many never published – in both black and white and (a handful in) color. Some are staged, studio shots, some are fans’ photos of the star and those very fans. Even the familiar pictures are reproduced clearer than ever before. The book itself is so fancy that it’s even got a red ribbon attached so you can mark your place; I mean, there’s no way you’re gonna get through this tabletop book in one go! It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the book is worth the price alone.

As for the music on Pictures from Life’s Other Side, the songs were cut throughout 1951 in a recording studio, “live” with Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys current lineup. One of the things that makes this collection so cool is that, unlike on last year’s Health & Happiness Shows release (reviewed here), Hank and his band mates sound natural and off-the-cuff between songs. It’s a bit jarring when the banter is snipped off or quickly faded, but it does cut down on the hokey dialog that sometimes makes that other radio show release kinda corny. Many of Williams’s greatest hits are here, of course, but there are loads of not so obvious cuts, such as one version of “Dear Brother,” which Hank sings with his then-wife Audrey (I’ve noted how bad a singer she is before, most recently in that aforementioned review). On this particular take it’s like you’re listening to Hank & Audrey channeling thirty years into the future to John Doe & Exene Cervenka of punk band, X. I gotta say, though, that I’d much rather hear John & Exene sing “Los Angeles” than Hank & Audrey singing anything at all. (Maybe one day John & Exene will cut an album of Hank & Audrey hits! It’d be sorta like a second volume of X alter ego band The Knitters’ Poor Little Critter on the Road.)

Considering the hugeness of this Hank volume, you could likely find yourself on a lost highway going through Pictures from Life’s Other Side – I’ve only made it through the first three CDs and two quick runs through the book – and that means that the true fan will find lots to like about this massive book and music set. Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings fame can again be thanked for producing yet another Hank Williams treat, and it’s Michael Graves who did the big job of restoring and remastering the music. (A host of others also should be thanked, including Hank historian Colin Escott, who assembled the book [and who wrote the definitive biography on our subject a few decades ago].) Three cheers for Hank Williams, his Drifting Cowboys, and the fans-in-high-places who keep the man’s fire stoked year after year.

5/5 (BMG, 2020)

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Blue Cheer • Vincebus Eruptum [LP, CD]

[Written by Marsh Gooch and originally published 2/2/2010 on Skratchdisc]

“BLUE CHEER were an American psychedelic blues-rock band that initially performed and recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and were sporadically active from that point on until 2009. Based in San Francisco, Blue Cheer played in a psychedelic blues-rock style, and are also credited as being pioneers of heavy metal (their cover of “Summertime Blues” is sometimes cited as the first in the genre[3]), punk rock[4], stoner rock[5][6], doom metal[6][7], experimental rock[8], and grunge[9]. According to Tim Hills in his book, The Many Lives of the Crystal Ballroom,[10] ‘Blue Cheer was the epitome of San Francisco psychedelia. The band is named after a street brand of LSD and promoted by renowned LSD chemist and former Grateful Dead patron, Owsley Stanley.’ [11] Jim Morrison of The Doors called the group, ‘The single most powerful band I’ve ever seen’[12].”

Well, that’s what Wikipedia says. Indeed, the progenitor of heavy metal but so much more, Blue Cheer is being served well by Sundazed. Who better to release the band’s first two albums again on vinyl? In fact, Vincebus Eruptum is out in MONO and the grandiose power of the trio’s debut is right there in your face… not meant to spread around either side of your head, but to smack you right in the noggin like you deserve! How a major label record company decided to put this out in early 1968 is beyond me – hell, I was only 5 at the time – except that they must have all been on some form of blue cheer themselves. It’s like the Beatles did Sgt. Pepper and then all of the sudden EVERY LABEL HAD TO HAVE PSYCHEDELIC BANDS ON IT. And so Verve signed the Velvet Underground and The Mothers, and Philips (now linked with Verve but not at the time) got them some Blue Cheer. These guys couldn’t have been that accepted in San Francisco, at least not if you trust the revisionist rock history we’re used to reading… I mean, if CCR was pop and Jefferson Airplane was psychedelic, what was this band? OUT OF THIS WORLD. And they are still. Today. In 2010. [Also released by Sundazed is the band’s second album, Outsideinside. And RIP Dickie Peterson, Blue Cheer bassist, who passed away very recently.]
4/5 (Sundazed LP 5297, 2010)

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Marshall Crenshaw • Miracle of Science [CD]

What do many MARSHALL CRENSHAW fans dream of? Reissues! Apparently MC got the memo, and here’s the first in a series, Miracle of Science. Originally released in 1996 on Razor & Tie Records (on CD only, though), it was the first studio album of Crenshaw’s brand of power pop after his contracts with Warner Bros. and Paradox/MCA ended. At the time it probably made sense for Marshall to move to the environs of the indie world, and he ended up making all of the rest of his albums that way. Major fame and fortune eluded him despite his ability to craft tunes that you’d be humming for days and weeks.

I instantly fell in love with Crenshaw’s music when I first heard his self-titled debut, Marshall Crenshaw, in 1982. Sure, I dug the fact that he has the same name as me (not too many of us Marshalls in the world, then or now), but it was more about the mix of pop, rockabilly and girl group rock that he played. That mix of genres continued through all of his albums, and here on Miracle of Science you get a good dose of his kind of rock ’n’ roll. From his practically patented power pop style, epitomized on “What Do You Dream Of” and “Only an Hour Ago,” full of melody and Stratocaster guitar tone, to the rockabilly of “Who Stole That Train?” and his instinct for interesting covers (“The ‘In’ Crowd”), this album is packed with a punch that is seldomly witnessed. Marshall’s added some interesting bonus tracks to this reissue on Shiny-Tone, (I believe) his own label and a guarantee he’ll get to keep doing it his way. An interesting track, “Seven Miles an Hour,” is featured in both forward and backward versions, and MC decided to include the backward version first (as a standard track) and the forward version (which was the one originally released in ’96) as a bonus track. Curious.

Anyway, let’s keep the Crenshaw reissues coming! The severe lack of tune in today’s “tunes” means we need Marshall’s tunes more than ever.

3/5 (Shiny-Tone 020286-23000, 2020)

 

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Young Fresh Fellows • A Tribute to Music [CD]

[Originally published 1/26/2010 on Skratchdisc]

This 1997 release on Rock ’N’ Roll, Inc. out of Spain completely slipped by me. Now, let me just say that YOUNG FRESH FELLOWS are probably the best band ever out of Seattle (sorry, Sonics were from Tacoma), and I’ve followed them since their inception. Why, I can remember many drunken gigs at the Rainbow (in Seattle), the Hollywood Underground (where I got asked onstage to sing “Give It to the Soft Boys” with them), and just about every good dive (oxymoron!) in town. A Tribute to Music is one of those foreign releases the Fellows have always been fond of: put out an entirely great CD on some tiny-ass label and let the hardcore fans have fun trying to find a copy. Well, I got mine used for $5.99 at Easy Street Records in West Seattle today, and I’m here to say I’m quite enjoying this 12 song, 29:39 disc.

Right off the bat there’s a real kooky intro—sorry, an “Invocation”—and then a super annoying “Louie Louie”-style tune with Scott McCaughey sounding quite demonic. Very next thing, they launch into a cover of Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know,” which was a hit for Tracey Ullman. Soon you get “Ivar’s Theme” about our local fishmonger/marketing genius Ivar Haglund, and it just keeps rockin’ all the way to the end. I gotta hand it to Scott, Jim, Kurt and Tad for their ability to keep it real for so dang long. How I missed this one when it came out, I have no idea. But I’m glad I got it now. If only Jim Sangster would come by and get that Ampeg amp grill I snagged for him…
4/5 (Rock ’N’ Roll, Inc. R&RINC 013, Spain)

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Murry Wilson & Snow • The Break Away EP [DD]

Just in time for Christmas comes one of the world’s most loathsome rock impresarios with something new! Well, if not exactly new, previously unreleased and mostly unknown. Yes, it’s MURRY WILSON & SNOW! The Break Away EP is a 4-track digital-only collection of songs recorded sometime in 1969 by The Beach Boys’ patriarch and a Midwestern vocal group that nobody knows anything about! Okay, we do know a bit: Once Murry Wilson was forcibly removed from his sons’ (Brian, Carl & Dennis) orbit the old guy decided to try and replicate the boys’ success with a new group he could manage (The Sunrays, three Top 100 singles and then nothin’), which soon petered out, leaving him to ponder his next move. And that was, try again. Sunray leader Rick Henn brought Murry a new singing group, Snow, consisting of apparently a number of Midwestern guys and possibly at least one gal and soon the group and presumably some studio musicians (if it’s anyone from The Wrecking Crew none of ’em are owning up to it) got together to make an actually pleasant little sunshine pop concoction. “Break Away” and “We’re Together Again” were associated with The Beach Boys and the other two, “Wilderness” and “Bless Me,” are otherwise unaccounted for in the greater world of pop k-nowledge. Regardless of whether we knew about Snow before now, it’s kinda fun to listen to – dare I say, delightful? – and to see how Murry Wilson remained determined to get what he felt were his just desserts for giving his boys, The Beach Boys, to us years after they gave him the boot.

2/5 (Omnivore OVDG-367, 2019)

Here’s a taste of the “legend” of Murry Wilson’s managerial (and fatherly!) finesse, followed by a fictionalized look created by cartoonist extraordinaire, Peter Bagge:

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Big Star • In Space [CD, LP]

If you started with BIG STAR’s In Space and worked your way backwards through Third/Sister Lovers, Radio City and then #1 Record, you’d feel like you’d quickly worked your way to an easy jackpot. Sorta like playing the slots and winning with the first lever pull (okay, these days, button push), then winning some more, then winning A LOT more, and then BOOM! Lights flash, slot machine makes all kinds of exciting noise and then the attendant comes over to give you buckets and buckets of coin. That may be exaggerating the point, but the final album in Big Star’s four album trajectory (not counting live stuff) is a winner, it’s just nowhere near as great as the others.

The rock critic in me feels bad making such a statement about In Space, as I know both Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow in real life and they’re a couple of great guys – AND they’re talented as hell! When they hooked up with remaining Big Stars Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens in the early ’90s all of us in the Seattle music scene were excited for these founders of The Posies, perfect youngbloods, to bolster the once brilliant band. They did some live concerts, eventually releasing a few (Columbia, Live in Memphis) and doing some short tours. When it was announced that Big Star Mk IV were in the studio recording an album of new material, it came as a pleasant surprise, tempered by the likelihood that whatever they recorded wouldn’t match the excellence of the original band’s (as in Mks I, II & III) near-immaculate output. Okay, maybe what turned out to be In Space might equal Third/Sister Lovers in awesomeness, but even that was likely not gonna happen. What I’m saying is, In Space turned out to be a pretty nice little album. Not necessarily essential listening, but in a way, exactly where you’d have expected Big Star to land if they’d stayed together. AND… it could’ve been a disaster. That, my friends, is why the Posies/Big Star merger made total sense: Because it didn’t end in disaster.

The album starts with the four best tracks, “Dony,” “Lady Sweet,” “Best Chance” and “Turn My Back on the Sun,” all songs that sport that patented Big Star power pop mixture: catchy tunes, tough but melodic guitars, hard pounding drums and killer harmonies. There’s even a Brian Wilson tribute (“Turn My Back”) with vocals that deserve to be heard on their own (which is just what you get as a bonus track). In Space also includes a pair of funky workouts like those Alex Chilton favored in his mid ’80s solo phase (“Do You Wanna Make It” and the Archie Bell & The Drells-inspired “Love Revolution,” which works as a nice mid album change of pace). Did you know that Ken Stringfellow is a real good bass player? Dig his playing here!

I can’t say all of the album is that good. I could live without “Aria, Largo,” which is an instrumental cover of baroque composer Georg Muffat’s original that sounds like the guys are still learning it, and the remaining songs are alright but not essential. But what the album lacks in all-out Big Star goodness it makes up for in a lighthearted, fun vibe that permeates the entire disc.

Omnivore’s 2019 reissue includes a rocking epic called “Hot Thing” that they ought to have included when the album was originally released in 2005, some demos and a rough mix, and the aforementioned a cappella take. The CD version sounds muscular and dynamic, and I’d assume the vinyl (initially available on clear blue wax) is going to sound similarly swell. It’s a worthwhile purchase, especially if you don’t have the original Rykodisc issue. Basically, in my dad’s words, In Space is “not too shabby.” Not superb, but NTS.

2.75/5 (Ominvore OVCD-338, 2019)

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