Friday, October 24, 2014

Eric Clapton & Cream Vinyl Box Set Coming!

Cream: 1966-1972
Here’s a fine present that any classic rock fan would salivate over finding underneath their tree come Christmas morning. On November 24, 2014 Universal Music will release Cream: 1966-1972, a seven-disc vinyl box set that includes all six of the legendary British blues-rock band’s four studio and two live albums pressed onto 180-gram heavyweight audiophile vinyl, with exact reproductions of each album’s original artwork, all of it gloriously packaged in a rigid slipcase box.

Formed in 1966 by guitarist Eric Clapton (fresh off stints with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers), bassist Jack Bruce (another Bluesbreakers alumni), and drummer Ginger Baker (via the Graham Bond Organization), Cream was one of the first “supergroups” on the British blues-rock scene. The erstwhile power trio revolutionized rock music by combining elements of blues, hard rock, and psychedelic rock, as well as elements of jazz in the creation of a unique and exciting new sound that, nearly fifty years later, still thrills listeners with its bold instrumentation and imaginative lyrics, frequently penned by poet Pete Brown.

Fresh Cream

Cream had a monster hit single right out of the box with the Jack Bruce/Pete Brown song “I Feel Free,” following it up with their 1967 debut album Fresh Cream a few months later. The album featured a number of original songs, covers of vintage blues gems like Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ & Tumblin’,” and Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” which drove the album to number six on the U.K. charts and into the U.S. Top 40.

By the end of the year, Cream would release the band’s landmark Disraeli Gears album, its striking psychedelic Martin Sharp cover art masking a phenomenal set of songs, the album racing up to number four on the U.S. album chart on the strength of the hit single “Sunshine of Your Love.” The album offered up other classic rock tunes in “Strange Brew” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” that further re-worked the blues idiom into a fresh, remarkable new sound.

Wheels of Fire

If Disraeli Gears was Cream’s creative apex, the band’s 1968 album Wheels of Fire would be their commercial peak. A whopping two-album set (a rarity at the time), Wheels of Fire sat at number one on the U.S. album chart for a month and hit number three on the U.K. chart, spawning hit singles in “White Room” (#6) and a live cover of Delta blues legend Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” (#28), which has since become Clapton’s signature song. One disc of Wheels of Fire was comprised of new studio recordings (including covers of Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” and the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”) while the other disc offered four extended live tracks from the Fillmore West in San Francisco. The LP moved a lot of flapjacks, too, certified Gold almost immediately upon its release.

Cream circa 1967
By the time of the release of Wheels of Fire, tensions in the band (particularly between Bruce and Baker), as well as the exhausting touring done by the band over the previous two years, led to an inevitable break up. The band performed a farewell tour in late 1968, concluding at the Royal Albert Hall in London in November before calling it quits. Not willing to give up a cash cow, however, the label coaxed the band back into the studio to record a few tracks, which resulted in Cream’s final studio album, Goodbye, released in March 1969. A mix of live and studio tracks, Goodbye shot up to number one in the U.K. and number two on the U.S. chart on the back of the hit single “Badge,” the song co-written by Clapton and George Harrison, who played rhythm guitar on the session under the name L’Angelo Misterioso.

Cream’s Legacy

Two posthumous Cream albums were released after the band’s break up, the first in 1970 (Live Cream), which included performances from the Fillmore West and Winterland in San Francisco circa 1968, along with one lone studio recording (“Lawdy Mama”). The second, Live Cream Volume 2, was released in 1972 and included more Winterland ’68 performances along with three 1968 performances from the Oakland Coliseum. Both live albums would chart in the Top 30 on both the U.S. and the U.K. charts. Since then, a steady stream of anthologies and compilation albums would be released to capitalize on the band’s legacy, including a ten-track Best of Cream in 1969 (with its vegetable cover art - I totally had this LP!) and the double-album set Heavy Cream in 1973, as well as a 2003 collection of the band’s BBC radio performances.

Eric Clapton, of course, has gone on to a lengthy and storied solo career, as well as recording landmark albums with supergroups Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos. Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker have found less commercial success during the years, but are both still making fine music (Bruce’s critically-acclaimed 2014 album, Silver Rails, is brilliant). In 2006, Cream received a Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award, and the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. The band’s 2005 reunion shows in London and New York City sold out in less than an hour, attracting fans from across the globe.  

Cream: 1966-1972 brings the band’s immense musical legacy full-circle, once again capturing on vinyl the magic and the band chemistry that mesmerized listeners in the 1960s for a new audience to discover.

Buy the LP box set on Cream: 1966 - 1972 (LP box set)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Supertramp’s Crime of the Century Deluxe 40th Anniversary Reissue

Supertramp's Crime of the Century
Ah, Supertramp…after an absence of probably 30 years, the British art-rock jokers have inched their way back onto my stereo with their lighthearted blend of melodic pop, overblown pomp, and progressive rock instrumentation. I’m not sure why they were AWOL all those years; they probably fell out of favor when the Reverend went through his death metal phase, or maybe it was the siren call of the punk-rock ‘90s, but Supertramp went begging until they were just recently rediscovered.

Unlike 1970s-era proggers like Yes or ELP, Supertramp was designed from the ground up to be a commercial vehicle, and their progressive/art-rock proclivities were more a feature of the talents of band members like singer, songwriter, and pianist Rick Davies; singer and guitarist Roger Hodgson; and multi-instrumentalist and horn player John Helliwell than a deliberate attempt at virtuosity. After a couple of solid early 1970s album releases and a like number of roster changes, Supertramp grabbed the ever elusive brass ring with the 1974 release of their third album, Crime of the Century.

By the time of Crime of the Century, Davies and Hodgson had developed a real chemistry as a songwriting team, and the assembled musicians backing the frontmen were talented contributors to the band’s unique sound. The album was the band’s first to chart Top 40 in the U.S. while peaking at number four in the UK, mostly on the strength of the singles “Bloody Well Right” and “Dreamer,” both of which would become favored FM radio tracks. On December 9th, 2014 Universal Music will release a 40th anniversary version of Crime of the Century as a deluxe two-disc set.

This anniversary edition of Crime of the Century will include the classic original album, re-mastered by Ray Staff at Air Studios, on the first disc and a previously unreleased 1975 concert from the Hammersmith Odeon in London on disc two. The live set was mixed from the original tapes by engineer Ken Scott, who recorded them in 1975, and feature the performance of Crime of the Century in its entirety as well as tracks from the band’s as-yet-unreleased fourth album, Crisis? What Crisis?

The reissue also includes a 24 page booklet with rare photos and a new essay penned by Mojo magazine Editor-In-Chief Phil Alexander which includes new interviews with band members Hodgson, Helliwell, bassist Dougie Thomson, drummer Bob Siebenberg, and the album’s producer, Ken Scott. Crime of the Century will also be reissued in digital format and as a three-album vinyl LP set.

After Crime of the Century, Supertramp would take a few more years to cement its arena-rock superstar status. The band’s 1975 album, Crisis? What Crisis?, while receiving critical acclaim in some quarters (Rolling Stone hated it, tho’), backslid on the charts when compared to its predecessor, although it did help promote the band in far-flung markets like Norway and New Zealand. Supertramp’s fifth album, Even in the Quietest Moments..., made up the lost ground, hitting Top 20 in both the U.S. and U.K.

It was the band’s Breakfast In America album, released in early 1979, that would propel them to the commercial heights. Scoring three Top 20 singles, including “The Logical Song” and “Take The Long Way Home,” Breakfast In America would earn Supertramp a pair of Grammy® Awards on its way to selling better than four million copies. The band would ride this wave until it crashed ashore almost a decade later, but for Supertramp, their claim to fame begun with Crime of the Century.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Third Man’s The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2

The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2
Nobody has ever accused Jack White of subtlety. The former White Stripe and Raconteur has built a successful career – both solo and with his various band side projects – based on his musical creativity and keen business sensibilities. When it comes to the literal “labor of love,” nobody embraces a project like White, which was proven by the ingenuity and experimentation that went into the special features found on the vinyl version of this year’s solo release, Lazaretto.

White’s Third Man Records label has been reissuing recordings by blues legends Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, and the Mississippi Sheiks from the Paramount Records catalog on vinyl for the past couple of years. In 2013, however, the label released a monster box set, The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 1, which featured six vinyl record albums, a pair of profusely-illustrated books, and thumb drives featuring some 800 re-mastered tracks from the enormous catalog of the legendary Wisconsin record label, all packaged in a beautiful, hand-crafted oak “cabinet of wonder” designed to look like an antique Victrola record player (and sporting a price tag nearing $500!).

It was an impressive labor of love and a critically-acclaimed, if commercially dubious collection, but that’s never stopped White in the past. So what does he do for an encore? How about The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2, a second enormous box set which covers the years 1928 to 1932, when Paramount was the undisputed king of “race records” (i.e. blues music). Like the first, this second box set was released in collaboration with Reverent Records, which released its own massive Charley Patton box set some years ago.

The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2This second volume also includes six 180gram vinyl LPs and a high-capacity USB drive that includes all the music (800 songs) and more than 90 vintage Paramount Records ads that originally appeared in the African-American newspaper The Chicago Defender. A pair of big books (250pp and 400pp) features artist biographies and visual representations of the Paramount advertising art.

For the packaging this time, the label went with a shiny aluminum and stainless steel case that reflects the evolution of not only Paramount’s sound at the time, but also the American industrial revolution. Stylistically, the box is meant to mimic not only the hollow-body National Resonator guitar that was popular among bluesmen at the time, but also the radical design and function of the RCA Victor Special Model K portable record player that became popular in the 1930s. 

Of the boxes design, in a press release Revenant’s Dean Blackwood says, “we didn’t want Volume 2 to be a strict bookend to Volume 1. That’s not an honest reflection of the design themes. The ’30s was the beginning of industrial design coming to the fore with its own brand of modernist design; rather than embracing exotica, our version was around this streamlined modern version of Art Deco. The machine was the source of America’s might and standing in the world, our capacity as an industrial power that connected the vast plains of our country and even other nations – that’s really where we found our sweet spot.”

The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2 includes some of the most essential and influential blues recordings in the history of the genre, including tracks from legends like Son House, Charley Patton, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, King Solomon Hill, Willie Brown, and literally hundreds of others. Like its predecessor, the second volume is priced well north of $400, but it’s an incredible feat – historic music packaged in style and with no little love.

White and Third Man Records have taken some heat for these Paramount sets, with an alleged rights holder filing suit against the label for copyright infringement. It’s hard to believe that these 80 to 90 year old tracks aren’t in the public domain given their age, but there’s no doubt of their influence, and I commend White and Third Man for taking the risk to bring this music to the label’s young audience.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Video of the Week: Last Gasp Books Fall Publishing Kickstarter

Last Gasp Books holds a nostalgic fondness for the Reverend. While a comix-obsessed teenager living in the rural suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee back in the early 1970s, I eagerly bought every underground comic that I could find, and when I couldn't find them easily, I became a "sales rep" for Last Gasp and Rip Off Press, placing comix in local head shops on consignment, and selling enough copies to underwrite my own collection.

Last Gasp has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to publish its fall 2014 slate of books and other cool stuff. I know as well as anybody that publishing is a sucker's game these days (please buy my books!) but the good folks at Last Gasp branched out long ago beyond their initial comix fare to include lush art books, trading cards, and other alt-culture flotsam and jetsam. Check out their very cool video below, and then click on the "Save Strange" graphic at the bottom of the page to see what kind of rewards are available for contributing to their Kickstarter. I've already pledged my donation; you can help put Last Gasp over the top.

Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings

On November 11, 2014 the Dust-to-Digital label (what a great name for an archival label) will release an incredible collection titled Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings. Working in collaboration with the Association For Cultural Equity and the Alan Lomax Archives, DtD’s Parchman Farm set includes a 124-page 6.25” x 9.50” hardcover book with two CDs featuring 44 vintage blues performances (12 of which are previously-unreleased), packaged in a foil-stamped slipcase. The book offers essays by Alan Lomax, Anna Lomax Wood, and Bruce Jackson as well as 77 photos, many of which are being published for the first time. The set was produced by Steven Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-to-Digital, and Nathan Salsburg, curator of the Alan Lomax Archive.

So why is this set so damn cool? Musical historian Alan Lomax made three trips behind the wire at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi. Carrying his portable (but large) reel-to-reel tape deck during his 1947 and ’48 visits, and a camera for his 1959 visit to the institution, Lomax recorded hours of tape of prisoners singing for the Library of Congress. Lomax was the first to record Muddy Waters (known in Mississippi as McKinley Morganfield), and his enormous archive of field recordings from the Southern United States, the Caribbean islands, and the European continent is the largest collection of authentic, traditional folk music in the world.      

The Parchman Farm set offers a wealth of antique recordings that are easily the equal of the Paramount Records collections released by Jack White’s Third Man Records. Although Paramount had the hits and marquee name performers, Parchman Farm provides a voice to the obscure and disenfranchised singers frequently locked up behind barb wire only for the crime of being African-America. Parchman Farm includes performances by little-known but not unimportant talents like Floyd Batts, Clarence Alexander, Grover Wells, and Willie Washington, among others. 

In his essay for the Parchman Farm set, Bruce Jackson writes "Black prisoners in all the Southern agricultural prisons in the years of these recordings participated in two distinct musical traditions: free world (the blues, hollers, spirituals and other songs they sang outside and, when the situation permitted, sang inside as well) and the work-songs, which were specific to the prison situation, and the recordings in this album represent that complete range of material, which is one of the reasons this set is so important: it doesn't just show this or that tradition within Parchman, but the range of musical traditions performed by black prisoners. I know of no other album that does that."

An important, essential collection of first generation American music, the Parchman Farm set deserves space on the shelf of any blues fan. Check out the Dust-to-Digital website for more details on the set.