Monthly Archives: March 2020

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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