Thursday, July 30, 2015

Unreleased Concert LP by Finnish Rockers Smack

Smack's Helsinki 1986
Chances are that you’ve never heard of them, but take my word for it – Smack were one of the great unknown rock ‘n’ roll bands of the 1980s. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was enamored of the of the band, covering Smack’s “Run Rabbit Run” in concert during his ground-breaking band’s early, pre-fame days. The influence of Smack’s punky, ramshackle sound and on-stage ferocity can be heard in bands like Guns N’ Roses and D Generation, but unlike their fellow countrymen Hanoi Rocks, Smack never achieved even cult status stateside.

We’re going to get another chance to discover Smack, however, on August 7th, 2015 when Cleopatra Records releases Helsinki 1986, a previously-unreleased concert CD from the too-often-overlooked Finnish rockers. The fourteen-track disc includes rare photos of the band as well as liner notes by Jyrki 69 of the Finnish Goth band The 69 Eyes. Smack was at the top of its game in ’86, touring in support of their sophomore album, 1985’s Rattlesnake Bite (their acclaimed debut, Smack On You, was released in 1984).

The band’s electrifying mix of the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls won converts wherever people heard the band, but Smack suffered from being an indie band with poor album distribution stateside. Helsinki 1986 should bring the band a new audience and, with little luck, maybe we’ll get CD reissues of Smack’s hard-to-find studio albums down the road sometime.    

Smack’s Helsinki 1986 tracklist:
1. Some Fun
2. Rattlesnake Bite
3. Black Bird
4. (I Think I’m Gonna) Buy This Town
5. Cemetery Walls
6. Walkin' On the Wire
7. Good Morning Headache
8. Wishing Well
9. Somewhere Out of the Day
10. Run Rabbit Run
11. Pass That Bottle
12. Stepping Stone
13. Pills
14. Paint It Black

Sunday, July 26, 2015

CD Review: Fanny's Fanny Hill (1972)

Fanny's Fanny Hill
There has been a lot of recent hype (and no little notoriety) surrounding the Runaways and their status as the “first female rock ‘n’ roll band.” Although both Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Jett and her bandmate Lita Ford would emerge as successful solo artists in the 1980s, the members of the Runaways had yet to enter kindergarten when distaff rockers like Goldie and the Gingerbreads (featuring Genya Ravan) and the Pleasure Seekers (with the talented Quatro sisters) were rockin’ clubs from east coast to west.

Too often lost in the discussion is the band Fanny, who were the third all-woman rock ‘n’ roll group to be signed to a major record label (after the two above-mentioned bands), and the first to release a full-length album (their 1970 self-titled debut). Originally known as “Wild Honey,” the band changed its name to Fanny when producer Richard Perry got the L.A. based outfit a deal with Reprise Records. The band’s best-known line-up featured singer/guitarist June Millington and her sister, bassist/vocalist Jean Millington, drummer Alice de Buhr, and keyboardist Nickey Barclay. This is the group that would record Fanny’s first four albums, the quartet scoring a Top 40 hit with the title track of their second album, 1971’s Charity Ball

Fanny’s Fanny Hill

Fanny Hill was the band’s third album, and the last to be overseen by superstar producer Perry, an eclectic boardman whose credits included albums by artists as diverse as Captain Beefheart, Tiny Tim, Ringo Starr, and Barbra Streisand, on whose 1971 album Barbra Joan Streisand the four members of Fanny played. Recording at the famed Apple Studio in London with engineer Geoff Emerick, Perry proved to be a sympathetic sounding board for the band, his careful production imbuing Fanny’s songs with a timeless quality while coaxing great performances out of the four musicians. Fanny could rock like a house on fire, but there’s an abundance of post-hippie folk-rock tunes to be found on Fanny Hill, as well as some well-done blues and R&B.

The album kicks off with an upbeat take on Marvin Gaye’s soul classic “Ain’t That Peculiar,” the band mixing a sly New Orleans R&B vibe with a bluesy undercurrent. Although June Millington’s breathless vocals are underserved by the mix, frequently overwhelmed by the instrumentation, her welcome slide-guitar licks are simply devastating, displaying why she was held in such high esteem as a guitarist by her male contemporaries. The song’s bluesy arrangement and full-bodied instrumentation, along with great harmony vocals and blastin’ sax courtesy of Bobby Keys, bring a whole other dimension to the familiar tune. “Knock On My Door,” an original song penned by keyboardist Barclay, switches gears entirely, Jean Millington’s lofty vox supported by complex and intriguing instrumentation on a wildly syncopated arrangement that includes some scorching guitar from June.

You’ve Got A Home

June Millington’s “You’ve Got A Home” is a wonderfully textured folk-rock song that, if it had been released a couple years later, would certainly have sat at the top of the charts alongside similar singer/songwriter fare from James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. The song’s gentle, pastoral sound is precious; its lyrics – a loving ode from a single mother to her son – are well-crafted, poetic, and thoroughly engaging. Supported by a sparse instrumental arrangement and tasteful acoustic and slide guitar, “You’ve Got A Home” is the heart and soul of the album. Sister Jean’s “Wonderful Feeling” is yet another song out of time, a bittersweet romantic ballad with smart, considered lyrics and no little emotion that fully displays the band’s instrumental skills with a melancholy arrangement and overall vibe that sounds like, but pre-dates mid-1970s Fleetwood Mac.  

Barclay’s delightful “Borrowed Time” is an unabashed, up-tempo rocker with undeniable R&B roots. Written in response to the out-of-control egos of their male rock contemporaries, “Borrowed Time” offers up some of Barclay’s most inspired keyboard-pounding and brassy vocals, June’s fretwork soars in its imaginative elegance, and the addition of horns by Bobby Keys and Jim Price bring a Southern rock/Rolling Stones vibe to the performance that drives it over the top. A unique cover of the Beatles’ deep track “Hey Bulldog” brings a different perspective to the grand psychedelic-era gem. Fanny keeps the song’s original piano riff intact, as performed admirably by Barclay, but the band heaps on red-hot guitars and explosive percussion alongside the orchestral backing provided by June’s clavinet.

Rock Bottom Blues

The band’s “Rock Bottom Blues” is a slippery slab o’ roadhouse grease that offers up some po’ boy (girl?) lyrics and a rockin’ arrangement that incorporates Jean’s spry bass line, June’s serpentine guitar licks, Barclay’s honky-tonk piano, and a rare vocal by drummer Alice de Buhr that, although trashed by critics at the time, is appropriately stressed and strained considering the lyrics while being badly lost in the mix. By contrast, “Sound and the Fury” is a country-styled tune that absolutely nails the overall sound and cadence of Byrds/Burritos-styled country-rock. June’s lyrics perfectly capture that cry-in-your-beer vibe, her vocal performance, while not incorporating a lick of twang, is nonetheless expressive and emotional. An un-credited Sneaky Pete provides tasty pedal steel for an additional bit of Bakersfield authenticity.

Barclay’s “The First Time” is a slice of Southern rock not dissimilar to Delaney & Bonnie, the song evincing a great mix of rock, soul, and gospel fervor with dancing keyboards, church-choir harmonies, and Jim Price’s subtle horn play. Barclay proves herself to be the strongest vocalist among the band’s four members, her turns at the microphone generally displaying more confidence and greater range, but with three talented songwriters among their ranks, Fanny’s ability to create a diverse blend of music was unparalleled at the time.

This Real Gone Music reissue of Fanny Hill tacks six bonus tracks onto the album’s original eleven songs, including the single version of “Wonderful Feeling” and an outtake of “Rock Bottom Blues” with de Buhr’s original vocal track, which is definitely stronger and more inspired than the version that Perry chose for the album. Notable among the bonus tracks are a raucous cover of Ike Turner’s “Young and Dumb,” which was released as a non-album single and features some devastating guitarplay by June alongside Barclay’s rough ‘n’ tumble keyboards, and the previously-unreleased “No Deposit, No Return,” a country-tinged Barclay original with twangy vocals, clever lyrics, and an undeniable shit-kickin’ grin.       

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

As mentioned above, Fanny was definitely a band (slightly) ahead of its time, and I can easily see Fanny Hill being a chart-gobbling monster if it had been released in, say, 1975 or ’76 instead of 1972. The album’s overall singer/songwriter direction is bolstered by the band’s instrumental ability to sound big or go soft, to tear the roof off the sucker or to strum and sing in a folkish vein. Featuring an unsung, talented singer in keyboardist Nickey Barclay and two underrated vocalists in the Millington sisters, Fanny also had the benefit of three gifted songwriters among its four skilled musicians, and a world-class guitarist in June Millington. Widely considered to be the band’s best recording, Fanny Hill is well worth your time to check out if you’re a fan of 1970s-era singer/songwriter styled music.

Unfairly lost in the shuffle (the early 1970s produced a wealth of great rock ‘n’ roll), Fanny Hill peaked at only #135 on the charts. Fanny worked with Todd Rundgren as producer for their 1973 album Mother’s Pride, which was the last to feature the band’s original line-up. June Millington and Alice de Buhr left the band after this fourth album, Fanny adding guitarist Patti Quatro from the Pleasure Seekers and drummer Brie Brandt as Jean kept the band going for one more shot at the brass ring, 1974’s Rock and Roll Survivors. The Millington sisters continue to play music as Fanny from time to time, but the gorgeous Fanny Hill is the foundation of the band’s enduring musical legacy. Grade: A- (Real Gone Music, released June 29, 2015)

Buy the album from Fanny's Fanny Hill (expanded edition)

CD Preview: Dr. John’s The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974

Dr. John's The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974
Mac Rebennack a/k/a Dr. John the Night Tripper, is one of the most colorful and talented figures in rock ‘n’ roll history. A true New Orleans music legend, he began his career playing sessions for famed producer Cosimo Matassa, working with local legends like Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, and Art Neville, among others. Rebennack would become an essential part of the Crescent City’s music scene, scoring a regional hit as an artist with the 1959 instrumental “Storm Warning” and working as a staff songwriter for Ace Records and as a producer and A&R man for labels like Ron and Specialty Records.

In the mid-1960s, though, Rebennack was facing some legal problems at home even while job opportunities were shrinking. A talented songwriter and pianist, he relocated to Los Angeles and picked up his career as a session player, contributing to hits by artists like Sonny & Cher and Van Morrison as well as working with producer Phil Spector. He launched his solo career in 1968, creating the “Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper” voodoo witch doctor persona to sell his unlikely and unique hybrid of psychedelic-rock, blues, and New Orleans-flavored R&B. Rebennack would later shorten his chosen moniker to “Dr. John” and, signed to Atlantic Records’ Atco subsidiary, would release his solo debut, Gris-Gris, in 1968.

Throughout the remainder of the ‘60s and well into the 1970s, Dr. John would build a cult following with his flamboyant stage show, where he would often wear Mardis Gras costumes and headdresses. This would be a prolific period for the veteran musician, Dr. John recording seven albums for Atco in six years, including often-overlooked gems like his 1972 album Dr. John’s Gumbo, an inspired collection of covers of classic New Orleans R&B and jazz, or the previous year’s The Sun, Moon & Herbs, which included guest performances by Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, and horn players Bobby Keys and Wayne Jackson.

Dr. John would mine gold with 1973’s In The Right Place. Backed by fellow New Orleans legends the Meters, Rebennack scored a Top Ten single with the classic “Right Place, Wrong Time,” which pushed the album into the Top 30, and the song “Such A Night,” which peaked at #42 on the charts but has since become equally as popular through its frequent use in movie soundtracks and TV shows.

Dr. John’s legacy as a pop-rock songwriter and performer is often overlooked, but will receive a new evaluation on September 18th, 2015 when archival label Omnivore Recordings releases The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974, a 22-track compilation that includes all the A and B-sides from Dr. John’s singles for the label. There’s a lot of fine music to be found in these grooves – New Orleans R&B, traditional zydeco, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll, including songs like his biggest hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” as well as “Iko Iko,” “Cold Cold Night,” “Loop Garoo,” “I Walk On Gilded Splinters,” “Such A Night,” and “A Man of Many Words,” which features Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton.

The list of producers involved making in these original recordings represents a “murderer’s row” of classic soul and R&B talents, including Allen Toussaint, Harold Battiste, Jerry Wexler, and Tom Dowd, and the track listing for The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974 includes some of the best songwriters of the 21st century, including Willie Dixon, Huey Smith, Buddy Guy, Allen Toussaint, and Dr. John himself.

The set includes extensive liner notes by critic and historian Gene Sculatti. Dr. John is a six-time Grammy® Award winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and while he’s made plenty of great music over the decades, he’s seldom matched the quality and quantity of these late ‘60s/early ‘70s singles. Check out the video below for a taste of Dr. John’s heady musical gumbo and then get over to and order a copy of The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974.

Dr. John's The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974 tracklist:
1. The Patriotic Flag Waver (mono version)
2. Mama Roux
3. Jump Sturdy
4. I Walk On Gilded Splinters (Part I)
5. I Walk On Gilded Splinters (Part II)
6. Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya
7. Loop Garoo
8. Wash Mama Wash
9. Iko Iko
10. Huey Smith Medley: “High Blood Pressure” “Don’t You Just Know It” “Well I’ll Be John Brown”
11. Wang Dang Doodle
12. Big Chief
13. A Man Of Many Words (w/Buddy Guy & Eric Clapton)
14. Right Place, Wrong Time
15. I Been Hoodood
16. Such A Night
17. Cold Cold Cold
18. Life
19. Let’s Make A Better World
20. Me-You=Loneliness
21. (Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away
22. Mos’ Scocious

Fossils: The Doors' Morrison Hotel (1970)

The Doors' Morrison Hotel
[click to embiggen]
The Doors – Morrison Hotel

You’d think that with the Doors’ fifth studio album in four years (plus 1970’s live Absolutely Free, the less said about the better…), that Messrs. Morrison and company would begin to run out of musical ideas, but it wasn’t so. Whereas 1969’s The Soft Parade witnessed a band treading water and wondering how to get out of the pool, just a year later Morrison Hotel found a re-energized, raw, and ready-to-rumble outfit revisiting their blues roots (the Texas-flavored “Roadhouse Blues” and “The Spy”); delving into psychedelic mysticism (“Indian Summer,” “Waiting For The Sun”); and diving back into the existential deep end with the dark-hued, malevolent “Peace Frog.”

Although Morrison Hotel yielded no hit singles (tho’ “Peace Frog” grabbed a lot of FM airplay and “Roadhouse Blues” would rise as high as #50 on the singles chart), it was a commercially-successful mix of blues and hard rock (hitting #4 on the album chart) that paved the way for L.A. Woman the following year. Advertising for Morrison Hotel was just more or less a variation on the album cover, but the band photo – taken in some little alcove off some street – displays a certain gritty authenticity that plays well with the music. At this point in their career arc, the Doors really only needed to let fans know that a new album had been released and the rock ‘n’ roll gods would take care of the rest… 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Wilson Pickett Gets Real Gone with RCA Studio Set

Wilson Pickett's Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings
One of the true giants of American soul music, singer Wilson Pickett scored 17 Top Ten hits on the R&B chart during the ten years 1962 to ’72. He had a total of 50 charting songs during his career, including such classic hits as “In The Midnight Hour,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally,” and “Funky Broadway.” Pickett’s influence on a generation of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll artists is undeniable, and the singer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

Pickett spent almost the entire 1960s with Atlantic Records, who lent him out for a while to the Memphis-based Stax label. During this prolific period, Pickett recorded a dozen albums for Atlantic/Stax and scored his biggest hits. After leaving Atlantic in the early 1970s, the singer landed at RCA Records, where he recorded four studio albums and a live set, beginning with 1973’s Mr. Magic Man. Although his chart-topping days were behind him, during his tenure with the label that Nipper built, Pickett delivered a handful of Top 20 R&B chart singles and remained a popular live draw.

While Pickett’s early career triumphs with Atlantic/Stax are well-documented and most of his classic albums are readily available on CD, the soul singer’s half-decade with RCA Records is too-often overlooked. This oversight will be rectified on September 4th, 2015 when Real Gone Music and Second Disc Records releases the two-disc Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings. The set features all four of Pickett’s studio albums for the label – 1973’s Mr. Magic Man and Miz Lena’s Boy, 1974’s Pickett In The Pocket, and 1975’s Join Me and Let’s Be Free. The set also includes four rare bonus tracks that have never appeared on CD, 42 songs running some 148 minutes in total.

During his RCA years, Pickett worked with producers like Brad Shapiro, Dave Crawford, and Yusuf Rahman, recording at legendary facilities like Muscle Shoals Sound and Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings was re-mastered by Vic Anesini at Sony’s Battery Studios and the set features liner notes by the Second Disc’s Joe Marchese. While not necessarily the most essential of Pickett’s recordings – I’d check out The Exciting Wilson Pickett or Hey Jude albums first – but for longtime fans of one of the greatest soul men of all time, Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings fills a giant-sized hole in many a record collection.

Buy the CD from Wilson Pickett's Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings