The songwriter stepped outside the Dream Syndicate mothership for his first two solo albums, originally released in the early ‘90s, which now get the expanded reissue treatment courtesy the archival maestros at Omnivore. (Watch a Wynn concert from 1992 following the text.)
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
In the late eighties, Steve Wynn was best known as leader of the mighty Dream Syndicate, and as such was associated with a certain sound. Though the band had begun to cross its own boundaries before its final record Ghost Stories, the Syndicate was still thought of as one thing: a semi-crazed guitar band that crossed the Velvet Underground with Crazy Horse. But Wynn was more ambitious in his vision, so it was only natural that he would put his latest batch of songs in different settings on Kerosene Man and Dazzling Display, his first solo albums.
Originally released on Rhino Records in 1990, Kerosene Man opens up Wynn’s sound with colorful arrangements and thick, even lush instrumentation. Producer Joe Chiccarelli encouraged Wynn to look outside of his circle of friends and consider session cats. It’s a move that might be construed as an attempt to make Wynn’s songs commercial, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Wynn’s writing has always been fairly straightforward – verses, choruses, melodies, hooks – and giving them production that, while hardly slick, wouldn’t sound out of place on the evolving Adult Album Alternative format would hopefully increase his audience. The single “Carolyn,” a tune that went back to the early Syndicate days, goes alt.country before alt.country was cool, while “Something to Remember Me By” enhances its dirty rock with female backup vocals (courtesy an overdubbed Julie Christensen of Divine Horsemen/Leonard Cohen infamy). “Conspiracy of the Heart” (a co-write and duet with Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano) and “Here On Earth As Well” essay gorgeous balladry with easy grace, unleashing a new facet of Wynn’s talent. With its jangling 12-string, crunchy solo and rousing chorus, opener “Tears Won’t Help” posits Wynn as the classic rocker that was always hiding under the Syndicate’s wall of feedback.
None of that’s to say Wynn doesn’t work his more eccentric mojo. “The Blue Drifter” indulges in his Lou Reed side, complete with saxophone coda, “Under the Weather” waits under the streetlight at midnight for a cool slice of noir rock, and the title track rollicks like a great bar band trying to cover Bob Dylan and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” at the same time. The gnarled “Younger” – guest-starring Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and future Continental Drifter Robert Mache duking it out on guitar – sounds more like an unused Dream Syndicate track than Nü-Steve. But the overall feel of Kerosene Man is smoother and more radio-ready than Wynn’s previous work, though it’s a sheen motivated more by a desire to get a set of strong songs in the vicinity of friendly ears than it is shifting units.
The Omnivore edition comes with a half-dozen bonus tracks, all recorded either in clubs or on the radio with his band at the time. A mix of originals and covers, the bonus cuts boast aggressive takes on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Graveyard Train” and Bob Dylan’s “The Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar” and an absolutely molten version of “Younger.”
Wynn quickly followed up Kerosene Man with Dazzling Display, made with the same core team and originally issued in 1992. With a bigger budget, extra musicians and a year’s worth of experience on the road as a solo artist, Wynn was able to make what’s probably the most diverse and colorful record of his career. The first two cuts tell it: alongside the same studio band as on the last record, the bright, groovy pop of “Drag” features Three O’Clock/Mary’s Danish guitarist Louis Gutierrez, a horn section and a small army of backing vocalists, while the frisky folk/pop of “Tuesday” includes Gutierrez, Peter Buck, John Wesley Harding, string players and, on backing vocals, Flo & Eddie (the Turtles’ Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman) and the Psycho Sisters (the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson and the Cowsills’ Susan Cowsill – soon to join Wynn guitarist Robert Mache and bassist Mark Walton in the Continental Drifters). It looks excessive on the page, but by the grace of Wynn’s tasteful and efficient writing, his contagious enthusiasm for taking advantage of the studio environment and the skill of the players themselves, these top-heavy creations don’t fall on their faces.
Though the number of musicians on the rest of the tracks rarely reaches the same levels, they’re still presented in busier arrangements and shinier production than even Kerosene Man. But that works like a charm, suiting this particular set of Wynn songs well. The glittery pop of “Dandy in Disguise” and “When She Comes Around,” propulsive psychedelia of “Grace” and angry rock of “405” and the title track find their melodies buttressed by the arrangements, rather than obscured, and Wynn sounds confident and engaged amidst all the industry. Above all, it sounds like a natural evolution from the debut. Hardcore fans of The Days of Wine and Roses might blanch at first, but anyone following the road from 1982 to 1992 will be satisfied.
As with Kerosene Man, the Omnivore version includes six in-concert bonus cuts, recorded with Wynn’s touring band. The mini-set boasts a lovely “Conspiracy of the Heart,” with Johnette Napolitano reprising her studio role, and a hard-rocking version of Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” as highlights.
Wynn continued exploring this pop-friendly direction in later records, but it’s on these long out-of-print gems that he truly signaled his desire to never be hemmed in by expectations, his own or others. Kerosene Man and Dazzling Display are well worth rediscovery.
The Upshot: Sweet sunshine pop, Latino rock, and psychedelic-tinged soul from the age of Aquarius.
BY FRED MILLS
You gotta love an archival project like this one, and not just because it is a true across-the-board labor of love. There’s a freshness and optimism suffusing the music, and while it is definitely “of a time”—specifically, late ‘60s/early ‘70s—the tunes have also stood the test of time, their seamless blend of sweet sunshine pop, Latino rock, and psychedelic-tinged soul as fine an ambassador to the era as you’ll find.
The group was co-founded by Little Willie G and Lil’ Ray (that would be misters Garcia and Jimenez, respectively), late of East L.A. Chicano rockers Thee Midniters, and had a kind of streamlined Sly & the Family Stone-meets-Fifth Dimension sound thanks in no small part to three female vocalists joining the par at the mic, notably one Lydia Amescua (described as “a teenage girl with a big voice”) and an Aquarian-age vibe. As detailed in the exhaustive liner notes penned by author/journalist (and Blurt alumnus) Denise Sullivan, once the project got off the ground the musicians hooked up with local entrepreneur Eddie Davis, who helped them land a deal with the UNI label and put them in the studio with the legendary Wrecking Crew to up their studio game several notches. As these things often turn out, however, UNI wasn’t sure how to market and promote the band, and with other pressures coming to bear—the musical culture was rapidly changing as well, away from vocal groups and in the direction of rock bands and singer-songwriters—the group fell into disarray. Two singles for UNI, and that was that.
The music they left behind, however, deserves to be heard. From the richly soulful midtempo ballad “Dream” (sung by Little Willie G) and the percolating, organ-powered garage pop of “It Don’t Make No Difference” (somewhat reminiscent of ? and the Mysterians, featuring Lil’ Ray on lead), to the lush, orchestral, almost Lee Hazelwood-esque “Hey, Does Somebody Care” (which was also the theme song to television series Matt Lincoln) and sinewy, wah-wah/congas-powered rocker “Music Is the Answer” (available here in both vocal and instrumental versions), there’s plenty to tuck into. A cover of pop schmaltzer “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” may inadvertently have telegraphed how the group was growing out of step with the times, but a gorgeous, inspiring version of Billy Preston’s “That’s the Way God Planned It” more than redeems matters.
Incidentally, in addition to CD, Music Is the Answer also was released on limited edition brown vinyl for this year’s Record Store Day, and as of this writing you can still find reasonably priced copies at Discogs.com. Grab it while you can.
DOWNLOAD: “That’s the Way God Planned It,” “It Don’t Make No Difference,” “Music Is the Answer”
The Upshot: The monstrous Bill Laswell-approved NYC outfit embarks upon a tantalizing colored-vinyl reissue program, including 1989’s Undertow and 2015’s comeback album Before Ever After. The former now comes in a deluxe gatefold sleeve and is pressed on brilliant tan/copper wax, while the latter goes even further with a trifold sleeve and luminescent green vinyl.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND & FRED MILLS
As Dr. Toland pointed out in his “Throwing Horns” metal roundup recently, ”the New York trio’s second LP found its patented blend of thrashing doom and jazzy dub in almost bifurcated form, with neither side of the band’s coin rubbing up against the other. Undertow has the deep-dub hallmarks of a Bill Laswell production, and it also features a couple of the extended Laswell family intimates, Henry Rollins (vocals on two tracks) and John Zorn (sax on one of them). Yet guitarist Andy Hawkins, bassist Gabe Katz, and drummer Ted Epstein never surrender their stage in terms of their blistering jazz/skronk/hardcore approach to music making. Whether serving up a Bad Brains-worthy thrash epistle (“Atomic Whip”), a luminous meditation in the key of the aforementioned dub (“Watch Yer Step”), an improv-powered wall of noise (“Wailing Wall,” which justifies its title), or even a quick jazz-sax freakout (Zorn’s 2-minute appearance, “Purged Specimen,” may be brief, but it’s brutal), Blind Idiot God makes the most of its four vinyl sides.
And if you’re looking for some good old fashioned late-period Black Flag-meets-Rollins-Band, uh, boogie (term used loosely), there’s a long and a short version of the appropriately titled “Freaked,” from the Alex Winter film. Hank, we love the spoken word, but seriously, your rock audience needs you, and Blind Idiot God would be the guys to help you deliver the goods once again.
Sigh. 1989 was such a different time. At any rate, this 2017 remaster for double vinyl is essential uneasy listening. Grab it on sight. (—Fred Mills)
A baker’s dozen years since its last platter Cyclotron, Blind Idiot God came stomping back in 2015 with Before Ever After, a double LP that displayed the NYC instrumental trio at its BIGgest.
On the album, although joined by a new rhythm section, guitarist Andy Hawkins stays the course of the past three decades of his singular career, keeping one foot in amp-melting doom and the other in airplane-hangar dub.
As Hawkins terrifies his amp and bass/drums bash and crash, “Earthmover,” “Strung” and the appropriately-titled “Under the Weight” rumble like a Brontosaurus across the rubble of a fallen city, crushing debris underfoot as its stomach growls. On the other side of the bent coin, “Ramshackle,” “Shutdown” and “High and Mighty” skank through the dust as it settles, letting a little sunlight echo through the destructive aftermath. Not everything is quite so direct, however. “Voice of the Structure” alternates between spacy swirl and heavy pound, while “Barrage” fractures its rhythm in a manner not dissimilar to postpunk. “Fub” takes the band to the next level of development, its light-on-its-feet feel full of jazzy lightning and improv thunder.
Brandishing its weaponry with power and grace, Before Ever After both reclaims the legacy of Blind Idiot God and paves the way for its next epoch. (—Michael Toland)
The Upshot: Crucial pre-history of the Northwest alt-rock scene, and a fascinating snapshot of an underrated but powerful, noisy, charismatic band. Warning: no grunge here.
BY FRED MILLS
Before Sub Pop Records launched, before Nirvana made “grunge” a household word, before Eddie Vedder made flannel shirts and Doc Martens chic, before the major labels descended upon Seattle in a feeding frenzy, before silly national acts like Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20 turned the term “alternative rock” into a punchline—there were the U-Men, whose tenure spanned the ‘80s and spawned one full-length and a handful of singles, EPs, and compilation appearances. And while one hesitates to label the noisily primal, skronk-powered Seattle quartet along lines of “wildly influential,” it’s likely that the proverbial Velvet Underground Effect, whereby people who happened to see the U-Men perform back in the day or bought their records (issued by labels both well-known, such as Homestead and Amphetamine Reptile, and justifiably obscure, like Bomb Shelter and Black Label) went on to eventually form their own bands, was operative at least to a small degree. (Go HERE to read a lengthy testimonial from Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, who calls them “the undisputed kings of the Seattle underground.)
U-Men is a sprawling 3LP box set (or 2CD should you not be a wax fetishist) that collects everything the band released along with five unreleased tracks, and as an artifact from Before The Dawn Of Grunge, it’s absolutely essential. And I say that as a ground zero U-Men fan, so to speak, as I either purchased or was gifted with, promo copy-wise, the bulk of the group’s original output, duly reviewing them for some of the fanzines I was scribbling for at the time. They were an irresistible draw, from the Gun Club-goes-thrash rev-a-rama of “Clubs” (off the 1985 12” EP Stop Spinning), to the unbridled, possibly improvised, dissonance-rawk of the subsequent “Solid Action” / “Dig It A Hole” 45 (it sports two of unhinged singer John Bigley’s gruffest, most extemporaneous vocals ever), to the dark, swampy blooze of “Whistlin’ Pete” in which the U-Men solidified their rep as America’s answer to the Birthday Party (it appeared on the group’s lone album, 1988’s John Nelson-produced Step on a Bug, a collaboration that yielded a relatively expansive, dynamics-rich sound).
The vinyl set is gorgeous, smartly graphically designed, with a thick outer box housing an inner slip-box that contains the three heavyweight LPs in their individual sleeves. Both the LP and CD versions have a thick booklet with full track annotations and interviews from the members—who would go on to bands like Gas Huffer, the Crows, and Love Battery—arranged oral history style, and it’s a colorful history, to say the least. Fun Fact #1: the group got its name from the bohemian section of Seattle the members came out of, the U-District. Fun Fact #2: for a short stretch, there was a U-Woman too, a female bassist named Robin. Fun Fact #3: the U-Men mounted three national tours, although we should use that term somewhat lightly; at least one of those tours consisted of something like five shows in three months plus a month-long sabbatical in Austin hanging out with fellow sonic discombobulators the Butthole Surfers.
Ultimately, it’s a crucial pre-history of the Northwest alt-rock scene, and a fascinating snapshot of an underrated but powerful, charismatic band.
DOWNLOAD: “Blight,” “Clubs,” “U-Men Stomp” (previously unreleased), “Dig It A Hole,” “Whistlin’ Pete,” “That’s Wild About Jack”
The Upshot: Electronica maven and godfather’s trawl through his early-‘70s archives now gets a vinyl rollout.
Synth pioneer Klaus Schulze, one of the godfathers of modern electronic music and a major influence on the ambient artists who emerged during the ‘90s, first came to the public’s attention as the drummer for early Tangerine Dream. He only lasted for one year and one album before moving on to form Ash Ra Tempel with Manuel Gottsching, but that, too, would be short-lived, as the restless compower/multiinstrumentalist soon embarked upon a long, fruitful solo career that also included scoring a number of thriller and horror films. His 1972 debut Irrlicht remains a Krautrock touchstone, and he’s been consistently intriguing over the years, although his music can admittedly come across at times as a bit too new age-y for some tastes. (Fun fact: Schulze also was part of the early ‘70s ad hoc Krautrock “supergroup” the Cosmic Jokers. Look ‘em up.)
La Vie Electronique compiles extremely rare and unreleased early material, some of which he and coproducer/archivist Klaus Mueller came across in musty old tape boxes that were so haphazardly labeled that they typically had to come up with songtitles after the fact. In 2009 the duo began releasing the material on CD, and since then they’ve delivered no less than 16 volumes (the 16th one, from 2015, was a whopping 5CD set). T
The series is now being rolled out on vinyl, and part one of the original 3CD La Vie Electronique, here titled, 1.0 is both mesmerizing and meditative. The lengthy, three-part “I Was Dreaming I Was Awake And Then I Woke Up And Found Myself Asleep”—which is broken up into “I Was Dreaming I Was Awake,” “And Then I Woke Up,” and “And Found Myself Asleep”—in particular is rewarding, with waves of synths initially ebbing and flowing like ocean currents gently rocking the boat, then gradually growing more forceful and direct, ultimately culminating in a pulsing, throbbing, unsettling crescendo. The 14-minute “Dynamo” is also fascinating to absorb, an electronic approximation of piloting across the galaxy and being sucked slowly into a black hole. The album ends in a brief (24-seconds) Schulze interview which, since it’s in German, serves as a fittingly inscrutable coda. A must-own for Schulze fanatics.
This set, then, is the first in the Schulze vinyl series that One Way Static/Light In The Attic has initiated; the second installment of the first volume, La Vie Electronique 1.1, arrived on March 23, and it will be interesting to see if they get to the 16th volume, particularly if you consider that a 5CD set would probably require between 10 and 15 LPs to cover all of the music. Each title is a pressing of 1000, with 700 on standard black vinyl and 300 on white. And as with most LITA productions, always a trademark of quality, you get a healthy dose of detailed liner notes along with an Obi strip wrapped around the album jacket—the latter a nice touch for folks browsing in a record store who want to know more about the release. Whenever a label goes the extra mile for collectors, it should be applauded.
Originally released in 1991 by esteemed indie label Frontier (and distributed via RCA), the Cali outfit’s fifth studio album may not have sold bucketloads, but it was still filled to the brim with powerful, tuneful rock subversion and resilient emotional fortitude. With a key reissue program now underway for the guitar band, now is an apt time to examine what made Thin White Rope so special—and, for many of us out here in the Amerindie-rock hinterlands, so beloved.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
In 1991 Thin White Rope set about to record their critically acclaimed album The Ruby Sea, which would subsequently be released on Frontier Records. Hailing from Davis, California, the band were able to hone their unique blend, of punk, country and rock into a deeply satisfying record that at times has a ferocious intensity, punctuated by a stark and lonely widescreen sentimentality. The album feels like the equivalent of driving all day, looking for accommodations in a tiny two-horse town and then hitting the local roadhouse for a cold beer. With a Miller in hand, you and the three other patrons witness a band play a show so devastating that you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon America’s best kept secret. I’ve spent the last quarter century evangelizing to friends about how they need to own a copy of The Ruby Sea. I’m gearing up for the next 25.
I’m from the Southwest—the starry sky, the sunsets, and the panoramas ‘round each bend permeate my dreams and have worked their way into my DNA. What Thin White Rope accomplished on this album was to create an aural roadmap of their world.
Guy Kyser’s vocals are part-crazed gold rush preacher, the other part a tortured balladeer. I’ll say this, though: No one conveys the American west quite like he does. Listening to the stormy swirls his voice creates, you can feel the sand stripping the enamel on your teeth, which makes for quite a harrowing journey. Meanwhile, Roger Kunkel’s deft guitar playing is both gritty and full of nuanced layers. The album had critical hosannas thrown at it from certain sectors of the British press as well as the likes of CMJ, not to mention the Amerindie fanzine underground. It proved to be an antidote of sorts to the laughable haircuts and poor song-smithery that plagued “alternative music” at the time.
All one has to do is listen to opener “The Ruby Sea,” where the muscular drums and angular, aggression laced guitar work is cut with Kyser’s haunted vocals, to get a sense that you’re heading to a place riddled with emotional potholes. Cherry-picking my way through the album, “Puppet Dog” has the feeling of making several wrong turns in some rural backwater unable to find your way to civilization; the beginning of the song, with its childlike dreaminess, quickly turns troubled, the key then changes, and Kyser sings “Puppet dog, whoever made you years ago, knew how bad I’d needa friend. Puppet dog, your felt red mouth and bells for eyes, scare the devils off again.” It’s an amazing track that threads the listener through the needle into another person’s world. “The Lady Vanishes” is an evocative number that, in the space of two brief minutes, transports us deeper into Kyser’s haunted world. “Hunter’s Moon” is the album’s centerpiece, a story of longing, pursuit and ultimately redemption, that by its end of it will either have you stomping your foot or waving your fist in the air. “Christmas Skies” is a wistful country ballad that tells the story of a ghost who’s recalling Christmas as a child. I recall being drawn into the song’s orbit late one night in my Fudan University dorm room, where it transported me a million miles away from my Chinese reality to somewhere familiar and friendly, and it’s these distilled yet brief moments, punctuated throughout the record, that make it such an immense pleasure to listen to.
Then there’s “The Fish Song,” which is hands down one of the most kickass songs ever laid down by the band. Its menacing vocals, stretched over a relentless pounding rhythm, is cinematic in scope and a one two punch to the cranium. Once you hear this song you feel like you can take on the world. “The Clown Song”, which closes the record, is another brief, yet very powerful, song. Kyser sings, “Seems I have been a clown more than a friend/ A clockwork response to tokens you spend/ And when you stop and when I run down/ I’m frozen and cannot escape from the clown.”
The album takes the listener on a tense, turmoil-filled journey, its emotional heft being one of the reasons why it has never left my side. I find myself still unable to completely comprehend the power of The Ruby Sea—which is why I’m hooked. While I mourn the fact that the band no longer exists, I believe that their musical catalog will only continue to add new legions of fans as people discover their immense talent.
I managed to hunt down lead singer/guitarist Guy Kyser and guitarist Roger Kunkel to give BLURT readers the skinny on the making of the album. Guy, in an email to me, said they answered my questions “Rashomon Style” (Kurosawa fans please take note).
Roger has also offered BLURT an exclusive link to hear the band’s demo from November 21, 1982 which until now has never been released; the four songs on the demo, originally preserved on cassette and recorded by the late Scott Miller of Game Theory/Loud Family fame, are “Not Your Fault,” “Macy’s Window,” “Soundtrack,” and “Black Rose.”
In my quest for extra archival material, I got in touch with Frontier Records head honcho Lisa Fancher, who offered up her own perspective on the album as well as an exclusive track for Blurt readers from the forthcoming remastered release of The Ruby Sea.
So please check out the interviews that follow, and while you’re at it, chew on this bit of news: Frontier Records has announced that the band’s first five albums will be reissued on heavy-weight 180-gram colored vinyl. (Which should only worsen my editor’s very public vinyl porn addiction.) (Ya got that right, brutha. Just put in my orders, in fact. —Vinyl Ed.) The first two LPs, 1985’s Exploring the Axis and 1987’s Moonhead, are already out, with the rest to follow later this year. Click the link for details; note that ordering the vinyl—including special edition mail-order-only editions—also gets you an immediate digital download. Each title will also be available to order on CD or as a download.
(Below: screen shots from a video of the band performing in 1992 at the Roskilde Fest)
THIN WHITE ROPE—THE 2018 INTERVIEW, WITH GUY KYSER AND ROGER KUNKEL
BLURT: Where and when was The Ruby Sea(TRS), recorded?
Roger Kunkel: Fidelity Studios, Studio City, CA which is near Universal Studios, east end of Ventura Blvd. We’d worked in that area before at a different studio for the Moonhead and Spanish Cave records.
Who produced and mixed the record?
RK: The producer was Bill Noland of Wall of Voodoo and Human Hands. The engineer’s name was Dave Lopez. This was in May of 1991. Interesting side note: Originally, Butch Vig wanted to produce the record. It was before he was hired to produce Nirvana’s Nevermind. He wanted us to come to his studio in Madison, but we weren’t keen on spending a few weeks in Wisconsin, and we decided to do it in LA where we knew people and could have a good time while being there. By the time we were in LA, we’d heard that Butch was doing the Nirvana record in LA at the same time. Since they’d been signed to Geffen and had a big budget, they flew him out. It happened that we were friends with their manager, John Silva, so he introduced us and even suggested we make guest appearances on each other’s albums. That didn’t happen because neither group was excited about the idea. We did go out to a Butthole Surfers show and got quite drunk together. Remember, at this time they were just another indie band. Months later that changed quickly.
What were you guys listening to back then? Any of those bands influence your direction on this record?
Guy Kyser: I must’ve been listening to a lot of Wire. I don’t recall trying to sound like them but looking back I can really hear the influence. Roger introduced me to a lot of country music over time, so there’s that. And of course, we had that Velvet Underground trying to sneak in there.
RK: We always had a wide breadth of influences largely older stuff from the blues, country worlds. Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell, Slim Harpo (One of Guy’s favorites). Also, the classic late 60’s rock stuff: Stooges, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Velvet Underground, Can, Sabbath. Newer bands: Pixies, the Fall, Wire. This record I think was focused on Guy’s poetic visions of landscapes and loss. The Country influence is fully uncloaked, at least on a couple of tracks, but mostly I feel the record was just twr without conscious outside influences.
What do you recall about the recording sessions, was it a smooth process, or were there debates about the direction of some of the songs?
GK: The songs were pretty much complete, but we hadn’t had a chance yet to listen to some of the details from the outside, so to speak… so sometimes during the recording we’d discover things that didn’t work. For example, there was one place in “Up To Midnight” where our guitars seemed to be in conflict, rhythmically, and we had to isolate the tracks and figure out who was throwing things off (it was me, hah!).
RK: Most songs were pretty well worked out beforehand. We had our preferred methods of recording by this time. We knew we wanted a more polished end result this time around. There were some debates about drums. Matt wanted huge sounding drums. I like drums to sound natural and more 60’s where they sit in the mix instead of summon the Valkyries with thunder, so I wasn’t happy with that.
What was the hardest song to nail for the record?
GK: For me it was “Bartender’s Rag” or “Christmas Skies”. Those are simple country-style songs but very difficult to get an authentic feel out of them. I had trouble playing with just the right amount of swing.
RK: Honestly, it’s hard to remember, but I think Hunter’s Moon took some time. It was one that wasn’t fully baked arrangement wise. The build of it started to become apparent and we worked from there to create a steady build that, I think imparts the idea of inevitability.
(Below: producer Bill Nolan and engineer Dave Lopez’ session tracking notes)
Can you guys speak to how you went about recording the record, were things worked out in the studio or did you have skeletons of ideas ready?
GK: We always had limited studio time when recording, so we did most of the arranging beforehand. Depending on what instruments and effects the studio might have available, we would add things just for the hell of it. Like, there’s a piano here – let’s use it on the break in “The Fish Song”. Or the producer knows where to rent a guitarrón – might be a good sound for “Christmas Skies”.
RK: Guy reserved a few tunes to do in a way that would set them apart. Christmas Skies and Dinosaur. I don’t think we’d worked on them much as a band before the recording. And The Clown Song he did solo.
Guy, did you have lyrics worked out in advance or was this something you altered as the song took shape in the studio? Where were you pulling from emotionally when you created some of these songs?
GK: The lyrics were all written beforehand, except “The Clown Song” which was composed during the recording session. I wrote several of the songs & lyrics during a short road trip I took to get away from work, the band, and everything. I got good and lonesome, wandered the hills by night, and somehow got poison oak on my privates. But came home with songs.
How many songs were recorded for the album and if any were left off what became of them?
GK: All the songs we recorded for the album went onto the album. We may have recorded a couple extras for a later EP, but there were also a couple of EP-only recording sessions around that time and I don’t remember which track came out of which session.
RK: We did a couple other tracks in this studio with Bill Noland, but I think it was a separate session. One was “Burn the Flames” for a Roky Erickson tribute album. And two tracks for a Byrds tribute album.
Was there a concept for the album before you all started to record it?
GK: Not really, except that “The Ruby Sea” and “The Fish Song” were both kind of water-related… we did joke around that this might help counteract our desert image.
There’s a wonderful western vibe that permeates the record, can you guys talk about how where you’re from has influenced the music on TRS?
GK: For me, a lot of it comes down to movies. Geography predisposed me to like Westerns, so I got infatuated with Morricone’s scores. [I] also was a big fan of Marty Robbins’ Outlaw Ballads. Onearlier albums, not so much on Ruby Sea, we went through phases of trying to create the ultimate Western Tune. This was fun, but we got a reputation as a ‘desert band’ which came to seem like a millstone sometimes.
RK: That was pretty much always part of the band’s DNA. It didn’t always show up, but Guy, our original bassist, Steve Tesluk, and myself were all classic country and blues fans.
Were all of the songs written specifically for the record or had some been around during other records and you decided to finally include them on this album?
GK: All the songs were written just for this album. Except, kind of, “Tina and Glen”… that song was an idea I’d been kicking around for about 10 years, but I could never make it work until I decided to throw out most of the lyrics and make it an instrumental.
What’s the oldest song in terms of when it was written that was on the record?
GK: See [previous question]. “Tina and Glen” was based on a time when my motorcycle broke down on Highway 99 in central California and I had to spend the night in a farm shed. The host family had two kids whose names were… wait for it…
Who came up with the running order for the album?
GK:I remember that as a collaborative effort. I did want to have “Fish” & “Clown” last, though.
How long did the recording of the album take?
GK: I think it was 4 or 5 days recording, maybe 3 days mixing.
RK: I believe it was two weeks, which was typical for us.
When the album was finally in the can, what was the feeling when you guys finally heard the finished work?
GK: Hard to describe. I had a deep feeling of accomplishment and was very happy with the album, but there was some sadness mixed in because it felt like an ending. I also had a dawning realization that neither this album nor any other we were likely to make was going to see enough success to make us a self-sustaining band. Maybe that is partly hindsight.
RK: A little mixed. It’s also hard to accept that a work is done and is what it’s going to be. When you’re working in a high-end studio and your listening off of two-inch tape through the world’s greatest monitors, things sound so impressive that you can lose a little perspective.
Did you hold a record release party to celebrate?
GK: I think we all went home and slept for a week.
RK: Nothing real formal that I remember. We just started a long tour, as usual.
Who created the cover art?
GK: Our friend Clay Babcock, an artist who lives in LA. He grew up in the same desert town I did, and I’ve known him since second grade or so.
The album was released on LP, cassette and CD on Frontier Records. What about in Europe? Was the album licensed to any labels and did they press up their own editions? Was there a special mix done for the Frontier LP edition?
RK: I don’t think any special mixes or masters were made. Frontier had a distribution deal with BMG at that time, so I think the European product was the same as the US. Earlier records were produced by Demon Records (UK) and distributed by Rough Trade in Europe.
How did the album sell in the US and in Europe?
RK: I don’t know the numbers. I know it wasn’t enough to get us into the black and making money.
Did you record any of the shows you did touring the record?
GK: I don’t remember recording any shows during the official Ruby Sea tour, but we did a final tour the following year and recorded & released the entire final show (The One That Got Away). I was really proud of that recording, a 2-hour-show, it sounded pretty tight.
RK: Of course, there’s the final concert which became The One that Got Away. That was a very good multitrack recording of our last ever show in Ghent, Belgium. It may actually be my favorite twr recording.
Set-list ise, did you play all of the songs at one point or another live or were there some that you never played at all in a live setting?
GK: I don’t think we ever performed “Bartender’s Rag” or “Christmas Skies”. “Dinosaur” was too quiet and too dependent on sound processing. We might have done “The Lady Vanishes” and “Up to Midnight” once or twice, when we could get a guest vocalist.
RK: Some were never played (I think): Dinosaur, Christmas Skies (maybe).
What were the core songs from this album that were played in almost every set at the time?
GK: “The Ruby Sea”, “Tina & Glen”, “Hunter’s Moon”, “The Fish Song”, “The Clown Song”. Sometimes “Puppet Dog”.
I recall reading a glowing review in Melody Maker at the time and wondered given that this was at the height of the Manchester movement, how did audiences react to your music?
GK: I don’t think anyone was comparing us with the Smiths… I think we were considered rustic headbangers from an uncivilized part of the world, not particularly stylish or trendy. But most of our shows in north-central English cities were well-attended and enthusiastic.
RK: We had a steadily growing following in England, I really enjoyed touring there. We played the Reading Festival on our last trip.
On a blog written by Michael Compton he mentions that, “One of the three weekly music newspapers in England, Melody Maker, took a strong liking to us, but because of that, the other two, Sounds and New Musical Express, decided that we weren’t to be bothered with.” What was it like being in that situation for the band, and how did it affect Demon records ability to promote you guys? Any anecdotes you wish to add regarding the petulant British press?
GK: I don’t know how it affected Demon, but it was kind of a roller coaster for us. The British scene had a lot of infighting, a lot of bands currying favor with this or that fanzine. And we’d get an interview with someone from one of the “other” papers, the interview would go great, and then the piece would be printed with a negative slant. One guy in particular, who was kind of a trendsetter, would mention us only so that he could go on to talk about bands he liked better. Usually American Music Club. For which I bear them no ill will.
RK: I guess on the first couple of trips there we were a kind of secret cool band that MM would write about. We had a few packed shows in small venues that were a lot of fun. NME did a spread with a picture at Stonehenge, so they didn’t ignore us. I don’t recall any bad reviews, but maybe I was oblivious to them.
Who did you guys tour with in Europe for TRS shows?
GK: I’m fuzzy on the timelines – may have been for earlier albums – but we did several shows with the Pixies (mostly Netherlands), the Walkabouts (Germany), and Babes in Toyland (Austria). On our last two tours we played festivals (Reading 1991, Roskilde 1992) with lineups including Iggy Pop, Nirvana, and lots of other acts.
RK: We seldom did shows in support of another band, at least not a string of shows. We had a great show with the Pixies in Rotterdam. We play the Reading and the Roskilde festivals, with so many great bands: Nirvana, Blur, Sonic Youth, American Music Club, even Townes Van Zandt.
Tell me how “Hunter’s Moon” came about. I can only imagine that this song must’ve detonated the room when it was played live. Was this song a fixture of your sets back then?
GK: Yes, this was one of our standards. This song is a very literal transcript from my road trip. I like how simple it is, and there’s something sort of backwards about the chord sequence.
The “Fish Song” hits hard with a biblical one-two punch to the gut. What was the genesis (no pun intended) of this song?
GK: TFS is based on a short, near-miss relationship. I turned it into a kind of Moby Dick story, minus the wooden leg.
Since Thin White Rope, what have the two of you been doing musically?
GK: After TWR I was in a band called Mummydogs with my wife and other Davis musicians. We made one album but didn’t tour. One track was used in the Las Vegas campaign for “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. Then I played banjo in bluegrass bands with Roger and others, doing the farmers market circuit.
RK: In the 90s I had an eclectic instrumental band called the Acme Rocket Quartet. We made 3 CDs but didn’t tour. (Own those records as wel! -Archival Ed.) I sometimes still hear it as transition music on NPR. I got into bluegrass and old time playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar. Guy and I had a gigging bluegrass band going for a while called Doc Holler. I studied computer science in college. Currently, I play telecaster in a honkytonk, classic country band called Mike Blanchard and the Californios. I’m also occasionally in a band called Toadmortons. We are currently working on a new album. I have a casual acoustic duo called the Smoke Shovelers. I’m interested in solo guitar lately and I’m hoping to record that and make my first solo album this year.
What do you guys do for day jobs?
GK: During the day I am a specialist with UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, doing research on management of invasive plants in rangeland and natural areas.
GK: I haven’t thought too much about the back catalog, but I’m glad to see Moonhead rereleased because for some reason I didn’t have a copy. The oldest songs sound pretty adolescent to me – I’m glad they’re out there but it’s like they were written by a different person.
RK : My favorite TWR recordings have been Moonhead, Sackful, and the covers we did. However, they all have their endearing qualities. I went a long time not listening to any. I’m hearing that the remasters are really good, so I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with them.
What place does The Ruby Sea hold for you guys when considering your whole discography?
GK: The best songs on Ruby Sea are my favorites from the whole band’s career, but there are some weak spots too.
Any possibility that you guys would ever pull the band back together for some one-off shows or even a new record?
GK: I would feel pretty uncomfortable trying to revisit stuff I was doing in my twenties…
RK: A TWR reunion has been discussed before but seems unlikely.
Below: Roger Kunkel unearthed photos from a very early studio demo session featuring the late Scott Miller (Game Theory, Loud Family) producing. Pictured areScott Miller, Kevin Staydohar on bass, Guy Kyser with lambchops, Roger Kunkel “standing around” and Jozef Becker on drums. The third photo is of Kunkel’s cassette of the Nov. 21, 1982, four-song session.
THIN WHITE ROPE—THE 2018 INTERVIEW, WITH LISA FANCHER OF FRONTIER RECORDS
BLURT: Please describe your role at Frontier Records for our readers?
Lisa Fancher: I founded Frontier Records in 1980 and I still own the label and run it with the indispensable Julie Masi.
How did The Ruby Sea sell?
LF: Not terribly well, none of their records sold particularly well compared to the Frontier punk titles, but TWR is my legacy band and I’m desperately interested in the entire world discovering their greatness.
How many pressings have there been of the vinyl?
LF: The LP was pressed once when I was with BMG, I never made more.
Were there differences between the Frontier edition and European pressings?
LF: There were no differences between US and UK editions, no.
What’s your opinion of the record in relation to their entire catalog?
LF: I can find no fault in anything that TWR ever did, so I can’t really be objective where it stands. It was the further evolution of Guy’s songwriting, trying to branch out more musically, and also signaling the end of his desire to be in band, and to live a life in one place with Johanna. That’s what I get from it… I’m just sad because it’s TWR last studio album!
Did Frontier finance the recording?
LF: Yes. The only record paid not paid for by me was Sack Full of Silver, I did a licensing deal with RCA Records.
What was your reaction the first time you heard the finished recording?
LF: I was there most of the time while they recorded [The] Ruby Sea and much of the time when Noland mixed it. I was giddy with awe, still am.
What’s your favorite and least favorite track on the record?
LF: I have no least favorite track, but “The Fish Song” is probably my favorite.
When the album came out what was the general reaction you were getting?
LF: It’s hard to remember if there was a negative reaction, I don’t think so. TWR had their fervent journalist fans but had a hard time taking it to the next level of “success”, whatever that is. Decades later the critics all jerk off to the Black Angels and Floorian etc., [who] owe so much to TWR sonically. I think the response would have been more shrill in terms of SUPPORT THIS BAND, DAMN YOU if writers knew that it was their last album, TWR’s greatness was very much taken fo granted.
Was there a difference between how the British press reacted to the album versus the US music press?
LF: The US press was not terribly enthusiastic overall though the band did have strong support in the fanzine and Alternative Press-size magazine world. SPIN was an early backer, but then when it got super corporate, they turned their backs. I could have spent a billion advertising dollars but writers either got the band or they didn’t. In the UK, there’s not this pressure for pay to play, so there was always unabashed raves in Melody Maker and Sounds and large, crazed audiences. When Guy appeared on the cover of Melody Maker, I thought I would die from pride! NME didn’t have much time for TWR because the other two papers loved them, but that’s okay. They never did a Peel session either, it’s time I got over these things.
I know that a remastered edition is slated to come out; who’s doing the remastering? Will there be any expanded liner notes and or art used on the remastered release?
LF: Exploring the Axis and Moonhead were re-released on 3/9/18 and the other three studio records will come out in the coming months. If these reissues do okay, then I’ll consider a definitive odd and ends record and remastering the double live LP.
Paul duGré does all my remastering, he’s an absolute shaman with guitar-based rock. When you hear the re-releases, you’ll know what I’m talking about, it’s possible to hear things on these versions that were inaudible on the previous versions. No, they are not expanded versions in terms of art or notes because I tried to keep them at the original price, so people would buy them without hesitation. Changing packaging and added booklets, etc., make the price go up by many dollars. We did put Guy’s lyrics in the LPs, they were previously only available as a booklet to fan club members.
Is the band involved with the remastering?
LF: They were not.
(Below, original 1991 Frontier press release for the album.)
Any anecdotes good or bad related to this record that you care to share?
LF: I will save those memories for when I write my book. All of [them] drank excessively after the sessions but they were total pros in [the] studio, no matter how hungover. I tried to get Kurt Cobain to play guitar on a song or sing on “The Fish Song” as the band was making Nevermind in the valley, but it was vetoed by his people even though he was a big fan. I think perhaps a few more people would have bought [The]Ruby Sea if it was sanctioned by Kurt!
Any future TWR projects slated for release on Frontier?
LF: I’ll have to wait and see how the reissues go as I need funds to do more, but I certainly hope so– now or anywhere in the future. Guy knows that I’d have a stroke if he ever wrote a new TWR song and/or if he formed a new band of any kind. (He briefly had a bluegrass band with Roger and I drove up to SF alone the instant that I heard they were playing!) My most fervent dream in life is that Guy will return to music, but mostly I want him to be happy in life whether it includes writing or playing music. It’s just that I’d like for Guy and Roger to finally get their due, something Guy could care less about, I’m sure!
(Below: Photos of the tape reel box details for The Ruby Sea, courtesy Frontier)
The Upshot: Incalculably rare, this mid 1960s album by a bunch of upper class northeastern schoolboys is better than you might think. Ace covers and surprisingly sturdy original tunes, now available on back-to-vinyl.
BY BILL KOPP
A bunch of prep school boys put together a rock band in 1965. Big deal, right? American teens (mostly but not exclusively males) did that all over the USA in the mid-sixties. The influences of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds was widespread, and American affluence (for some, at least) meant that instruments and amps were within the budget of many teenagers. And sometimes they made good – even great – music.
Crate diggers have made a fetish of discovering some of those rare recordings. Calling themselves Green Fuz, a band from near Fort Worth Texas cut a song of the same name, often described as a no-fi classic. Copies of that 45 go for top dollar these days. Even rarer is the sole LP from those Andover Academy teens. They called themselves the Rising Storm, and their album Calm Before… is one of the most sought-after obscure LPs of the rock era.
Acclaimed music journalist Richie Unterberger wrote about the Rising Storm and their record in his essential tome, Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll. And the record got a legitimate CD reissue in the 1990s. Now in 2018, Sundazed Records has reissued the album again, this time returning it to its native format of vinyl LP.
The most remarkable quality about the album is the band’s impeccable taste in material The songs they chose the record are a fascinating assortment of well-chosen covers and surprisingly strong original material. The record opens with a cover of the Remains’ “Don’t Look Back.” The vocals are a bit smoother than Barry Tashian’s original, but the harmonies are tight, and the instrumentation is pretty top-notch, especially for a bunch of teens. And they play the damn thing fast.
Even the title “To L.N. / Who Doesn’t Know” betrays a kind of coffee-house sophistication, and the moody, folk rock original is musically appealing. “I’m Coming Home” is a simple enough garage rocker, but the arrangement is ambitious by garage-rock standard. And keyboardist Charlie Rockwell is fleet-fingered on his combo organ.
Arthur Lee’s “A Message to Pretty” wasn’t especially well-known on the east coast in 1967, but these students discovered it. The Rising Storm’s reading of the Love classic is a bit subdued and fragile, but perhaps that’s the vibe they were going for. The harmonica solo is pretty solid in a folky way.
We’ll excuse the inclusion of “In the Midnight Hour,” because every band did it back then. To be fair, the Rising Storm does better than average on the Wilson Pickett chestnut.
By far the weirdest tune on Calm Before… is “Frozen Laughter.” Unterberger spends a good bit of time discussing the track in his book. It really has to be heard to be believed. If it sounds like anything else, it’s perhaps a bit reminiscent of early Velvet Underground. The haunting spoken-word clip that opens the track adds a deeply unsettling air, as does the faraway, funereal organ. (Listen to it at the provided link, below.)
Another original, “She Loved Me” shows that the Rising Storm could fuzz-rock as well as any. The vocals on the chorus of “Mr. Wind” are wince-inducing; it’s the weakest track here, but it’s still not a total disaster. “Big Boss Man” opens as a slow blues but shifts gears into what sounds like an upper-class white boy’s rethink of Northern soul…an uncharacteristically good one.
“Bright Lit Blue Skies” is a strong original number with some sunny harmonies applied to a melancholy melody and lyric. And like all of the tunes here, it’s performed with great attention to detail, and admirable musical skill. The last original on the record, “The Rain Falls Down” is a shimmering, moody and contemplative number with reasonably mature lyrics. The record closes with another well-worn tune, “Baby Please Don’t Go.” The band plays it at breakneck speed, as if they were just told that there was two minutes and 48 seconds left on the tape. They make the most of it, and seem to be having a great deal of fun in the process.
The 2018 Sundazed reissue features the recording in glorious mono, housed in a lovely gatefold sleeve (with rare photos inside). And the translucent yellow vinyl is a nice added touch.
For our latest installment, Prof. Kopp takes a look at titles from MPS, Modern Harmonic, Varese Sarabande, and North Texas Jazz. Go HERE for previous installments of the Jazz Desk. (Pictured above: Barney Kessel.)
Jamaican pianist Alexander has a bright, flowing and lyrical approach to his instrument. Originally released in 1971, Here Comes the Sun was Alexander’s sixth album. Working with three other musicians (bass, drums and percussion), the pianist is at the center of the arrangements on all seven of the album’s tracks. His style often sounds like it’s the result of overdubs; his left hand plays rhythm, as expected, but his right hand is so busy that it sounds like two hands in and of itself. But yet the approach never feels busy. There’s a lively and exuberant to Alexander’s playing that can leave the listener nearly breathless. He and his sidemen sound as if they’re having the time of their lives here; the opening cut “Montevideo” is quite uptempo, but Here Comes the Sun explores a variety of textures; you’re not likely to mistake any one of these tunes for another; such is the level of originality on display here. Be warned, however, that the titular Beatles classic is transformed beyond recognition. MPS does its by now expected top-flight job of repackaging and reissuing another timeless classic from nearly a half century ago.
Richie “Dick” Garcia – A Message from Garcia (Modern Harmonic)
Though he doesn’t receive prominent billing on this 1956 album from jazz guitarist Dick Garcia, pianist Bill Evans is all over this album. Garcia is out front, but it’s Evans’ crystalline and meditative piano that holds things together. The band explores a variety of tempos and textures, but at its heart, A Message From Garcia is fairly consistent in its musical approach: the guitarist plays single-note melodic runs while the band provides subtle support. Garcia does engage in the occasional musical dialogue with Evans on cuts like “Ev’ry Night About This Time,” but there’s little doubt whose show this is. When he does take the spotlight, Bill Evans sounds as if he’s enjoying himself. The Modern Harmonic reissue of this relative rarity features top-notch sleeve reproduction and colored vinyl.
Barney Kessel – Live at the Jazz Mill 1954, Vol. 2 (Modern Harmonic)
Acclaimed jazz guitarist Barney Kessel only began his career as a band leader around 1953. By that time he had made quite a name for himself thanks to his work on recordings featuring Billie Holiday, Benny Carter and others. And he’d continue to provide supple six-string support to some of the biggest names in jazz and pop, including Sonny Rollins, Sam Cooke and Chet Baker. Those who don’t know better could easily mistake Live at the Jazz Mill 1954, Vol. 2 for a reissue of a record from years past. In fact it’s not: a young fan taped Kessel (backed by the Jazz Millers), and the tapes were only recently discovered. This second volume (the first was released a couple of years ago) features surprisingly good audio quality. And everything about the package – the cover art, the jacket’s liner notes – is note-perfect.
Volker Kriegel – Spectrum (MPS)
I first – and quite belatedly – discovered the work of Volker Kriegel via a 2014 archival release from the now more-or-less defunct SWR/Jazzhaus label. The German guitarist worked in a number of musical idioms including soul jazz and jazz-rock fusion. This 1971 album – Kriegel’s second – is (in places) much closer to rock than anything else I’ve heard from him. With a nasty fuzztone, percussion that may remind some of Low Spark of High Heeled Boys-era Traffic and a kinetic bottom end (featuring acoustic and electric bass as well as cello), Spectrum is a scorcher. John Taylor plays what’s noted as “electra-piano.” The rest of us would know it as a Hohner Pianet or maybe (but probably not) a Fender Rhodes. The opening track “Zoom” finds Kriegel doubling his fuzztone leads on sitar, and it’s not even a little gimmicky. Two years later Kriegel would form a band named after this LP. A tasty treat for those who dig the most accessibly tuneful end of jazz rock, Spectrum is adventurous, too: “More About D” is almost Zappaesque in its weirdness, albeit still rooted in jazz traditions. The album is newly reissued from MPS and is enthusiastically recommended.
Herbie Mann – It’s a Funky Thing: The Very Best of Herbie Mann (Varese Sarabande)
One could say that Herbie Mann was the Rodney Dangerfield of jazz: he got no respect. Part of that was his own doing; he resolutely refused to be boxed in with regard to what is and is not jazz. His work is wonderfully accessible and irresistibly catchy. It’s also, on occasion, a bit schlocky, and some of his work has a distinct air of bandwagon jumping (or at least musical dilettantism) about it. How else to explain disco outings like “Hijack,” a big hit in the disco era? But for listeners who can put all that baggage aside and simply dig, Herbie Mann’s music is supremely diggable. Truth be known, he was at the forefront of the world music movement, though few will afford him the credit he deserves for it. And anybody hip enough to hire Larry Coryell and Sonny Sharrock is okay by me. This collection – annotated by my pal, the esteemed author and esteemed music journalist Pat Thomas – is a lot of fun. The tracks here are featured in their single edits, most making their first appearance on digital media of any kind.
Jay Saunders – Nice!: Jay Saunders Best of the Two (North Texas Jazz)
The University of North Texas has a storied and vibrant Division of Jazz Studies, one that goes back some 70 years. And its North Texas Jazz label has released a sizable catalog of music, featuring instructors, students and alumni. Trumpeter and band leader Jay Saunders recently retired from his position at UNT, where he taught classes and directed bands. This new 2CD collection is subtitled Best of the Two, as in the Two O’Clock Lab. It draws from six earlier releases by the ever-shifting ensemble. The big-band music is a nice mix of standards, ambitious pieces and jazz readings of pop tunes; it’s classic and modern all at once, deliberately all over the map in a way that shows the timeless nature of jazz when it’s done right. “I 8 Da Whole Half Thing” sounds like Lalo Schifrin-style 1970s movie music, and that’s meant in the best possible way.
Various Artists – Jazz for Hi-Fi Lovers (Modern Harmonic)
This time capsule in the form of a colored vinyl LP is a true delight. Originally released in 1958 on the Dawn label, Jazz for Hi-Fi Lovers is a various artists collection presented in wonderful hi-fi (read: monaural). Zoot Sims is among the biggest names featured here, and he’s performing Thelonious Monk’s “Bye Ya.” Paul Quinichette provides the opening cut, the aptly named “Start Here.” Paulette Girard’s original liner notes are presented intact, and they too are a kind of trip back in time: they include three lengthy paragraphs under the heading “about the sound and the equipment,” full of info to satisfy the keen high fidelity enthusiast in your mid-century modern household. The cover art is a gas, too. Come for the packaging, and stay for the music.
On March 23rd, keeper-of-the-krautrock-flame Groenland will be releasing Cinema, an overview of Holger Czukay’s solo work and collaboration. Included will be Canaxis 5 (1969), Movies (1979), On The Way To The Peak Of Normal (1981), Full Circle (1982), Der Osten Ist Rot (1984), Rome Remains Rome (1987) and Radio Wave Surfer (1991). This five-LP set features a 36-page booklet, DVD of a movie starring Czukay for which he also made the soundtrack as well as a “vinyl video.”
It ain’t cheap – $135. (Peak of Normal was reissued on vinyl not long ago, incidentally.) But to have all of this under one cover isn’t a bad way to get your springtime record collecting off to a nice start….
Time to go fishin’ for the Blues with BLURT, along with our sister retail business, Schoolkids Records of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill. Herewith, find some shopping and collecting tips for aficionados and newbies alike—many of the titles mentioned below (and others as well) are available at the Schoolkids site. And tune in next month for our next installment of our new series, “Build Your Record Collection.”
BY FRED MILLS
True story: One afternoon, not all that long ago, I was behind the counter of my job at the time, Schoolkids Records in Raleigh, North Carolina, when a father and son strode purposefully into the store. The father was probably in his late forties or early fifties, the son in his mid-teens. They asked me where our Blues section was, and I duly steered them over to the new vinyl, additionally telling the kid that we also had a lot of new indie rock on the front rack. Because, you know, teenagers.
“I’m just looking for some Blues,” he replied, adding, “I’ve been listening to a lot of my dad’s old vinyl and really getting into the Blues.”
I had the strangest feeling that, right before my eyes, I was witnessing a torch being passed from one generation to the next. I sneaked a glance over at the father, and he had a knowing, proud smile on his face.
A little later, when they brought their purchases up to the counter, he and I easily slipped into an earnest conversation about mutual favorite Blues albums—classic titles like Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud, Taj Mahal’s The Natch’l Blues, Albert King’s Live Wire/Blues Power, Howlin’ Wolf’s Moanin’ In the Moonlight (he was pretty impressed that I had met Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, one time and shared a flask of whiskey with him), pretty much everything by John Mayall, along with a very special personal hero of mine, Rory Gallagher. The kid soaked it all in, tentatively throwing out a few titles of his own. When I told the father that his son had good taste, he just grinned, then explained that, thanks to the younger man pulling his battered turntable out from the basement along with several boxes of his old record collection, his own passion for vinyl had been rekindled.
Who’s passing who the torch here, I thought to myself, grinning back at him.
The Blues is like that—it brings people together, bridges economic, social, and generational gaps, and in general just makes you feel good because what’s being expressed in the sounds and the words are universal emotions. When someone is singing about having lost their one true love, you can feel it in their voice—hell, you can feel it in the weeping guitar lines as well. It’s like having a friend there in front of you, opening up, feeling vulnerable, and just needing to have someone listen to them and understand them.
Patti Smith once told me that a key role artists play is that they offer us a shoulder to lean on when we need the support, and while she wasn’t specifically referring to the Blues, I can’t think of a better description of what the Blues brings to the table.
As I mentioned, that was a couple of years ago when I was working at Schoolkids, which now has stores in Durham and Chapel Hill in addition to Raleigh. There’s a 40+ years Schoolkids legacy that I’m proud to be a part of—BLURT is also the indie retail chain’s sister business, as we are owned by the same guy, so even though I no longer live in Raleigh I’m in touch with the crew there on a weekly basis—and I have no doubt that a lot of torches similar to the scenario I just outlined have been passed along in the Schoolkids aisles. This month they’re emphasizing the stores’ selections of classic Blues titles, both on LP and CD, so it should prove an excellent opportunity to either discover some of those classics, if you are a relative newbie, or rediscover them, particularly if you’re someone like the father above.
And since I’ve frequently gone on the record as being increasingly militant about people supporting brick-and-mortar stores and not the impersonal likes of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Target, I’m not reluctant here to suggest you pop into a Schoolkids or your own local indie store, and if poor proximity makes that not an option, you can search for the titles on Schoolkidsrecords.com and then link to purchase. My old employer also has a web sales fulfillment deal arranged with national indie distributor AEC, so even if a title you’re looking for isn’t in stock at one of the stores, AEC will ship it to you if they have it—digital downloads as well.
In 2018, building a Blues collection is not a difficult task because there are enough universally acknowledged classics to give you a solid foundation, even if you’re on a limited budget. In addition, the Blues is remarkably stable and consistent; unlike some genres, EDM for example, you’re not going to have someone reinventing how it’s constructed and/or performed every other week. There will always be intriguing new wrinkles from time to time in the Blues, but even younger artists looking to make a name for themselves tend to approach the genre with respect and reverence while still trying to keep their music fresh-sounding. (Think, for example, of a jam band, which one moment is flying off on a Phish-inspired cosmic tangent, and the next plowing into a down ‘n’ dirty Blues groove as taught to them by the Allman Brothers.)
I could go on for hours about my favorite Blues records, but for the sake of sanity, here’s just a select few. Don’t think I’m offering my version of Blues For Dummies, however—there are plenty of well-documented reasons for why all of these are considered timeless classics.
Howlin’ Wolf is probably my favorite old-school Blues artist, having been a constant presence on the scene starting in the late ‘50s until his death in 1976, and his impact upon the artform continues to be felt to the present day. His 1966 album The Real Folk Blues was originally issued by legendary Chicago label Chess Records as part of their album series of the same name, which also featured Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Everything in the series is essential, with Wolf’s contributions (including More Real Folk Blues) musical templates for Chicago-style Blues at its most primal—it’s downright hypnotic when Wolf and his band, which included the brilliant guitarist Hubert Sumlin mentioned above, slip into one of their signature low-slung grooves.
Wolf’s vocals should be singled out as well, a raspy-yet-tuneful growl/moan that is impossible to mistake; put into a larger cultural context, there would be no Captain Beefheart and no Tom Waits had Wolf not come before them.
Hold that thought: Without Robert Johnson, the most important bluesman ever, the Blues would not have unfolded and evolved the way it did. All paths lead back to Johnson. Born in 1911, he’s the guy from whom all those stories about bluesmen going down to the crossroads in Mississippi (to sell their soul to the devil in exchange for success, natch) are derived. Relatively speaking, he only recorded a handful of sides, but those sides, the core songs originally collected in 1961 long after his death as King of the Delta Blues Singers, exerted an outsized influence on pretty much every serious Blues artist who came after him. You can still hear echoes of “Cross Road Blues,” “32-20 Blues,” “Walkin’ Blues,” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” in contemporary Blues songs, both acoustic (which was how Johnson performed) and electric.
God help the archivist who attempts to list every cover version of a Johnson song. And in the feral, keening howl that is Johnson’s vocal style, one hears the existential agony consistently coursing through all classic Blues music. King… has been reissued countless times over the years, both on vinyl and on CD, including in the mid/late ‘80s as an expanded CD box set that not only introduced Johnson to a broader (and younger) audience, it also played a key role in making box sets commercially viable for the record industry.
Everybody has heard of Muddy Waters, arguably the second most important bluesman ever. There’s not a Blues band on the planet that doesn’t have at least one or two of McKinley Morganfield’s—Muddy’s—songs in their repertoire. My first direct exposure to him came with 1968’s Electric Mud, most likely because it was billed as his “psychedelic album” and at that point a teenage me was soaking in a near-100% diet of psychedelia. It was kind of an experiment on the part of Chess Records to try to get Muddy’s music into the hands of kids like me, with his regular backing band temporarily replaced by the younger musicians of Rotary Connection, and for good measure they even did a kind of electric gospel/soul/psych cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”
And with more traditional Muddy fare like “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and “Mannish Boy” semi-reworked for then-contemporary times, the album is wildly accessible without compromising Muddy’s core vision. While the artist himself was reportedly not enamored of the record, and purist American music critics didn’t take much of a shine to it either, it became the first Muddy album to land on both the Billboard and Cashbox album charts. Further proof of Electric Mud’s staying power? It has been sampled by Cypress Hill, Natas, and Gorillaz, and as Wikipedia informs us, Martin Scorcese’s documentary series The Blues contains scenes of the recording band for Electric Mud performing with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and members of The Roots.
Meanwhile, since we’ve been talking about torches being passed, consider John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, white men from England whose deep appreciation of black American legends led them to bring the Blues to the British marketplace. That singer/harp player Mayall recruited high-profile sidemen like John McVie and Peter Green (who would go on to Fleetwood Mac after their Mayall tenure) and Some Guy Named Eric Clapton, fresh from the Yardbirds, was testimony to his artistic prescience. The 1966 album BluesbreakersWith Eric Clapton, which not so coincidentally gave that same Some Guy near-co-billing with Mayall on the cover, has seven of its 12 tracks written by earlier Blues artists—among them, Robert Johnson, Mose Allison, Otis Rush, and Freddie King.
The latter’s “Hideaway” is a textbook example of a Texas-Chicago Blues hybrid, and Clapton’s signature riffing is instantly identifiable to anyone even remotely familiar with his work in Cream and as a solo artist. The album as a whole is a perfect example of how British musicians were able to adapt the Americans’ music and carve out a unique piece of turf in the Blues for themselves.
Which brings us to Rory Gallagher. The fiery Irish guitarist, who passed away, sadly, in 1995, at the age of 47, earned an early rep fronting power trio Taste, which put its own unique spin on electric blues much as Clapton and Cream were doing at the same time in England. Following the group’s breakup in 1970, Gallagher embarked upon a prolific solo career, soon adding a keyboard player to round out the guitar-bass-drums ensemble. Yours truly was fortunate enough to see him several times during his heyday, most notably as an unannounced early-a.m. act at the Peachtree Celebration festival in tiny Rockingham, NC, in 1972. Coming on after headliner Alice Cooper had finished, the flannel-shirted guitarist seemed oblivious to the fact that much of the audience had already begun streaming out, and put forth a hi-nrg set that left those of us who stuck around scraping our jaws from the festival grounds.
Check out 1974’s Irish Tour ’74, whose setlist draws extensively from his superb Blueprint and Tattoo studio albums, additionally serving up classic Blues standards from Muddy Waters (“I Wonder Who”), J.B. Hutto (“Too Much Alcohol”), and, on the 40th anniversary box set, Junior Wells (“Messin’ With the Kid”) and Big Bill Broonzy (“Banker’s Blues”). Part of Gallagher’s genius was the way his original material was clearly derived from the Blues but also injected with strong doses of irresistible pop melodies and outright anthemism. Plus, he could play slide guitar like nobody’s business. At least two of the album’s tracks should be on any self-respecting rock ‘n’ roll playlist, “Tattoo’d Lady” and “A Million Miles Away” —the latter a 10-minute tour de force in concert, rife with dynamic shifts and myriad tonal textures all jostling amid a fairly straightforward 12-bar blues chord progression. Irish Tour ’74 makes for a stellar introduction to Gallagher’s oeuvre while also serving as a tutorial on how a lot of white electric bluesmen in the late ‘60s and ‘70s were able to adapt the Blues and make them commercially viable. (Below: Check out a choice live version of “Million Miles Away” from the Rockpalast German TV show in 1979.)
As I already indicated, I could keep going, but maybe I’ll save that for another column. I will, however, leave you with a list of artists well-worth checking out, whether you’re in student mode or simply revisiting old favorites—names like Albert King, BB King, Freddie King (what, no Queens? no Aces?), Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, Leadbelly, Lightning Hopkins, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, KoKo Taylor, Willie Dixon, Albert Collins…
True Story: Albert King passed away in 1992, but I was fortunate enough to interview him in the early ’90s when I was the music editor of an alternative weekly paper. He was scheduled to be headlining a local all-day Blues festival, and for some reason we were able to pull enough strings to land a quickie (like, 12 minutes) phone interview with him for a preview piece in the paper. After some perfunctory comments about The Blues And Its Significance, King and I somehow shifted/devolved into a conversation about, of all things, fishing. I’d heard he was an avid fisher and figured that was a fair topic to broach, so I mentioned to him that I knew a couple of choice spots in the area where one could drop a line, including a pond owned by my family. I harbor no illusions that King eagerly scribbled down my suggestions, but he was gracious enough to take the ball and run with it, talking briefly about why he loved fishing so much. We subsequently turned back to the upcoming event, and soon, sensing my time was about up, I decided to close out with the stock “So, what’s next for you after this?” question.
King paused, gave a little snort, and gave the perfect answer.