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.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Turtles 45RPM Vinyl Singles Collection

The Turtles 45RPM Vinyl Singles Collection
Here’s one you may have overlooked among the glut of recent vinyl releases and reissues. Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan have released (through FloEdCo/Manifesto Records) The Turtles 45RPM Vinyl Singles Collection, a box set of eight super-groovy 7” vinyl singles that revisit some of the band’s biggest hits of the late 1960s. Vinyl collectors and ‘60s pop enthusiasts alike can experience a bunch of great songs in their original format – 7” singles!

Kaylan and Volman (a/k/a “Flo and Eddie”) were the frontmen of the Turtles, a chart-topping outfit that mixed the melodic vocal harmonies of the Beatles with the pop sensibilities of the Monkees and the folkish charm and psychedelic roots of bands like the Lovin’ Spoonful. The band included a number of talented musicians through the years, including bassist/producer Chip Douglas (who also produced several Monkees’ hits) and drummer John Barbata (Jefferson Starship). The band’s first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” would go Top Ten, jumping off a string of hits like “Happy Together” (#1), “She’d Rather Be With Me” (#3), and “Elenore” (#6), all of which are included in the box set.

Unlike some of their peers at the time, the Turtles were real musicians and artists, and sometimes those singles that didn’t or barely charted were as interesting and entertaining as the hits. “Outside Chance,” for instance, was written by the late Warren Zevon, the song an obscure effort worthy of rediscovery, while “Love In The City,” a non-album track produced by Ray Davies of the Kinks, was an experiment in rock and psych-pop from the band’s final album, Turtle Soup. The band was only together for five short years, circa 1965-1970, but they released 20 singles during that half-decade (I’m not counting the post-break up 45s released by White Whale, the band’s label, that had little or nothing to do with the band), the best of which are included in the vinyl box.

After the demise of the Turtles, Kaylan and Volman would join Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention (along with bassist Jim Pons) as “the Phlorescent Leech & Eddie” as they were unable to use their real names due to contractual conflict with their former record label. The pair would add their harmony vocals behind Marc Bolan on the T. Rex albums Electric Warrior and The Slider as well as on Bruce Springsteen’s hit “Hungry Heart,” and enjoyed a brief career as Flo & Eddie, releasing a handful of albums between 1972 and 1981.

The pair legally regained the use of the Turtles name in 1983, as well as the band’s master recordings, and have since released several albums and toured frequently as the Turtles featuring Flo & Eddie. The Turtles’ legacy rests on these singles, however, songs that have influenced several generations of bands to follow. Autographed copies of The Turtles 45RPM Vinyl Singles Collection can be purchased on the Turtles website.

The Turtles 45RPM Vinyl Singles Collection full singles listing:

“It Ain’t Me Babe” (1965) b/w “You Don’t Have To Walk In The Rain” (1969)
“Let Me Be” (1965) b/w “Love in the City” (1969)
“You Baby” (1966)  b/w “You Know What I Mean” (1967)
“Happy Together” (1967) b/w “Grim Reaper of Love” (1965)
“She’d Rather Be With Me” (1967) b/w “Story of Rock and Roll” (1968)
“She’s My Girl” (1967) b/w “Can’t I Get To Know You Better” (1966)
“Elenore” (1968) b/w “Outside Chance” (1966) 
“You Showed Me” (1968) b/w “Sound Asleep” (1968)