Sunday, March 1, 2015

CD Review: Vanilla Fudge's Spirit of '67

Vanilla Fudge's Spirit of '67
Vanilla Fudge made their bones by covering pop, rock, and R&B songs long before the hair metal ‘80s made it an artistic requirement. The band’s psychedelic, acid-washed arrangements kept enough of a song’s original flavor to entertain while still adding something new and original to the mix. Formed by singer and keyboardist Mark Stein, guitarist Vinny Martell, bassist Tim Bogert, and drummer Carmine Appice, the Fudge came to the attention of legendary product George “Shadow” Morton, who was smitten by the band’s slowed-down, sludge-drenched live performance of the Supremes’ hit “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The band recorded the song with Morton producing, scoring them a deal with Atco Records (an Atlantic label subsidiary), and their subsequent self-titled 1967 debut.

That album rose to number six on the Billboard albums chart on the strength of the band’s unique readings of popular songs by the Beatles, Sonny Bono, Curtis Mayfield, and Rod Argent. Slowing down a song’s tempo, layering in a rich brew of Stein’s Hammond keyboards and Martell’s stinging guitar, and backed by the sludge-like stew of Bogert and Appice’s mesmerizing rhythms, the album struck a chord with young rock fans. Morton would go on to produce the band’s following two albums, both of which went Top 20, but the further the Fudge strayed from that initial plodding approach to cover tunes, the more their commercial returns diminished, and Vanilla Fudge broke up in 1970, after the release of their fourth album, Rock & Roll.

Vanilla Fudge’s Spirit of ’67

The Fudge reformed in 2000, sans Bogart, who had retired from touring after a lengthy career, and they’ve been performing occasional shows ever since. Spirit of ’67, a collection of cover tunes of songs made popular in, yes, 1967, is the Fudge’s first album in ten years. Unfortunately, there’s little to like about Vanilla Fudge’s Spirit of ’67. The arrangements proffered these classic songs aren’t so much imaginative as they are dated and boring, the band trying to add a contemporary sheen to vintage tunes that, by their very familiarity, are part of the hardcore music fan’s DNA and thus require no feats of imagination. Even sadder, the “contemporary” edge the band attempts to bring to the material is from the 1980s or ‘90s…wielding overused, abused musical tropes that barely outlasted their initial use two or three decades ago. I’m not against a band bringing its own vision to classic material, but it has to improve upon the original, not deconstruct it in favor of something less.

Take, for instance, the Fudge cover of the Doors’ gem “Break On Through (To The Other Side),” which is “spiffed” up with backing harmony vocals and a vague flamenco rhythm that completely overwhelms an otherwise engaging Vince Martell guitar solo. The song is stripped of its original malevolence and turned into a Vegas stage show with a truly outrageous and unnecessary exit. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” is…well, I’m not sure what they were trying to achieve here. There are Gothic tinges to the song’s instrumentation, which is overly lush and claustrophobic rather than cautious and celebratory. The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” is completely shorn of its pop-psych charm in favor of tinkling pianos and a thick, Tran-Siberian Orchestra-styled soundtrack.

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

The band has always had luck with the Motown songbook, but their stab at Marvin Gaye’s classic “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is just downright embarrassing. The vocals are straining to achieve soulfulness, the instrumentation is overblown and over-the-top all around. True, the bar for covering this song was set pretty high by Gaye and, later, John Fogerty’s CCR, but the Fudge’s arrangement robs the song of its heartbreak, making it sound more like a house party than a tearjerker. The rapping in the middle of the song does nothing to redeem it, either…and speaking of embarrassing, the band’s cover of the Boxtops’ “The Letter” is equally blustery and OTT, with crescendos of out-of-place orchestration and an overall vibe that is at odds with the original’s frantic, romantic “in-a-hurry” intentions. Alex Chilton is likely spinning in his grave at the song’s lounge-singer vocals and (too) busy instrumentation.

Not all of Spirit of ‘67 is thus, however…the band manage to hit the right tone throughout much of their cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears,” creating just the right balance of pathos and emotion to make it work, even if the instrumentation is a wee bit more grandiose than necessary. Their take on the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” is more imaginative than most of these covers, sounding like a cross between Argent and Iron Butterfly, with flailing keyboard riffs and heavy percussion bringing a share of that old Fudge black magic to the song. The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” is given more of a throwback sound (think 1970s), and while Vince Martell is no Steve Winwood, his vocals here are OK (although I could do without the gratuitous backing vox), his guitar solos crisp and creative. Procol Harum’s “White Shade of Pale” benefits from Mark Stein’s eerie Hammond B3 licks, and although the song’s instrumental arrangement attempts to fly a little too close to the sun, the performance comes back to earth with its wings only singed.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

OK, so it’s brass tacks time…Vanilla Fudge’s Spirit of ’67 is an overall mess. By my count, only four or five of the album’s cover songs (i.e. half) add anything to the original performance, while the rest are mostly just mundane and gimmicky. The album’s one new song – Stein’s “Let’s Pray For Peace” – is of a similar overblown nature as much of Spirit of ’67, but that’s OK. It’s an original song with a solid melody, an earnest message, and heartfelt, if a bit overwrought vocals. It works, even if it’s completely out of context of the rest of the album’s conceptual conceit.

If you’re a diehard, longtime patron of Vanilla Fudge, my words won’t dissuade you from buying Spirit of ’67, nor should they. Enjoy, I say, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll to me! But for the Fudge newcomer, your money would be better spent on the band’s self-titled 1967 debut album or even Psychedelic Sundae, a “best of” collection which offers up some tasty covers of the Beatles, Motown, Donovan, and others. As for Vanilla Fudge, I’d just as soon they applied their long-suffering shtick to current songs by the likes of Taylor Swift or Sam Smith. That, my friends, is something I’d like to hear! Grade: C (Cleopatra Records, released March 3, 2015)

Buy the CD on Vanilla Fudge's Spirit Of 67

CD Preview: John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ Live In 1967

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – Live 1967
The storied career of British blues-rock legend John Mayall spans seven decades now and, as proven by the release of Mayall’s critically-acclaimed 2014 album A Special Life, it shows no signs of slowing down as the man approaches his 82nd birthday this year. Mayall has better than 50 studio and live albums to his credit and, as a bandleader, he’s discovered or enlisted talents like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Walter Trout, Harvey Mandel, Jack Bruce, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and many others. As an artist, Mayall has explored and expanded the boundaries of rock, blues, and jazz-fusion and although not a household name stateside (save among blues fans), he’s certainly influenced a number of musicians that are much better known.

With all this to his credit, Mayall is still largely acclaimed for one single album – 1966’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton – the foundation on which Mayall’s legacy is based and which launched Clapton to superstardom, first with Cream then with Derek and the Dominos. Few remember that Mayall released a second, just as successful album a few months later in 1967’s A Hard Road, which featured the extraordinarily-talented guitarist Peter Green. Charting just a few spots below its predecessor, many Mayall aficionados would argue that A Hard Road is the better of the two albums released nearly back-to-back.

However you want to slice it, the period from mid-1966 to mid-67 was a heady, productive, and commercially-fruitful one for Mayall. Sadly, none of the legendary and talented band line-ups he fronted at the time were caught on tape – until now. Forty Below Records (which released Mayall’s A Special Life) has announced an April 21st, 2015 release date for John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – Live In 1967, a rare live recording by one of the best of the many Bluesbreakers line-ups. Although the band of Mayall, Peter Green, bassist John McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood were together a mere three months, they made some mighty fine music together before the three guys that weren’t Mayall flew the coop to form Fleetwood Mac.

This special live recording is available courtesy of a hardcore Mayall fan from Holland by the name of Tom Huissen, who concealed a one-channel reel-to-reel tape recorder on his person as he attended shows at a handful of London clubs (including the legendary Marquee) in early 1967, recording the band’s performance each night. The tapes Huissen made of these shows remained unheard and unreleased until they were recently acquired by Mayall who, working with Forty Below’s Eric Corne, restored them to releasable condition. “While the source recording was very rough and the final result is certainly not hi-fidelity, it does succeed in allowing us to hear how spectacular these performances are,” says Corne in a press release for the new album.

“I'd known for a decade or two of the existence of these tapes and, in fact, Tom Huissen had sent me a CD with 50 second teasers for some of the tracks that he'd secretly recorded at our London shows,” recalls Mayall in the press release. “Last year, Tom decided he wanted the world to hear these performances and work soon began on restoring the already fine quality on the old reel-to-reel tapes.” The band’s set list for their 1967 performances included songs from both Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton and A Hard Road as well as Mayall’s forthcoming album Crusade (which featured future Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor). Along with Mayall’s original songs were inspired covers of classic blues numbers by artists like Freddie King and Otis Rush (see full track list below).

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – Live 1967 is a momentous find, a veritable time capsule of classic British blues-rock that provides an invaluable glimpse into the past and shines a well-deserved spotlight on the immense talents of, and too-brief collaboration between Messrs. Mayall, Green, McVie, and Fleetwood. 
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – Live in 1967 tracklist:

1. All Your Love
2. Brand New Start
3. Double Trouble
4. Streamline
5. Have You Ever Loved A Woman
6. Looking Back
7. So Many Roads
8. Hi Heel Sneakers
9. I Can’t Quit You Baby
10. The Stumble
11. Someday After Awhile
12. San-Ho-Zay
13. Stormy Monday

Buy the CD from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers - Live In '67

Sunday, February 22, 2015

CD Review: Steve Earle & the Dukes' Terraplane

Steve Earle's Terraplane
For much of the first decade of his career, Americana legend Steve Earle was running around in circles. Too much the square-peg rock ‘n’ roll gypsy to fit easily into the round holes of Nashville’s Music Row machine, Earle was also deemed too rawboned country for the bi-coastal big-city intelligentsia who didn’t buy into the notion of the Music City as the “third coast.”

Earle made a lot of damn fine music through the 1980s, though, albums like Guitar Town and Copperhead Road providing inspiration and a veritable roadmap for like-minded twang ‘n’ bang fellow travelers like the Bottle Rockets, Slobberbone, and the Drive-By Truckers, among many others, to embroider with their own personal sound, hopes, and dreams. For Earle, however, his influence on a younger generation of roots-rock rebels was moot; between women, drugs, jail, record label woes, and the rigors of the road, the talented singer/songwriter easily lost a half-decade of his career.    

Steve Earle’s Terraplane

Suffice it to say, Earle has paid his dues and earned the right to sing the blues, which he does quite nicely on Terraplane, his 16th album and a rock-solid set by one of the great songwriting talents of our generation. Taking his album title from the 1930s-era car made by the Hudson Motor Car Company that inspired Delta blues legend Robert Johnson to write his song “Terraplane Blues,” Earle’s Terraplane is no mere collection of classic blues covers, but rather an ambitious, entirely original slate of songs inspired by giants like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King, Johnny Winter, and the Vaughan Brothers, who all influenced Earle’s sound as well as his storytelling in one manner or another.

Opening with a blast of Earle’s jaunty harmonica riffing, “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” is an old-school styled romp, a shuffling trifle of a song that is notable mostly for Earle’s drawling Texas patois, and the sly rhythm put down by his backing band the Dukes. The song sounds like a late-hour jam at Antone’s, erudite lyrics are less in demand than a strong groove and a midnight vibe. “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had” is more like vintage Earle, poetic lyrics and no little emotion paired with dusky, droning fretwork and a low-slung rhythm reminiscent of both Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi’s R.L. Burnside.

The Tennessee Kid

Menace hangs from the words of “The Tennessee Kid” like kudzu from a cypress tree, Earle delivering an intelligent, entertaining updating of the Robert Johnson “Crossroads” myth. Earle’s rapid-fire vocals spit out the lyrics above a dark-hued, malevolent soundtrack, shards of electric guitar punctuating the swampy fever-fog on occasion, the entire performance displaying a certain devilish inspiration that leads to the inevitable conclusion that “the balance comes due someday.” By contrast, while “The Tennessee Kid” is firmly mired in the mud of the Mississippi Delta, “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” is a Piedmont blues-inspired ditty more akin to Blind Blake than Blind Lemon Jefferson, Earle’s vocals even taking on more of a Georgia accent than that of his native Texas, delivered alongside some sublime six-string pickin’.

Bluesman Steve EarleEarle’s “Go Go Boots Are Back” could have easily fit on one of his early albums, the song a breathless amalgam of alt-country twang and bluesy rock with subdued vocals and fierce guitar licks delivered above a steady percussive rhythm. With a wink and a nod, the song’s well-constructed lyrics slyly deliver the message of history repeating itself with. Earle’s arrangement – echoing a sound he’d long since abandoned (or refined, perhaps) – is an unconscious choice that nevertheless drives his lyrical point home with no misinterpretation.

Whereas “Gamblin’ Blues” provides an insightful glimpse into the hard-luck life of the ramblin’, gamblin’ man, delivered perfectly with spry Piedmont-style guitar strum, the album-closing “King of the Blues” is a near pitch-perfect representation of the genre’s themes and mythology. From the protagonist’s divine birth and the evocation of “John the Conqueroo” to Earle’s raw, gritty vocals, his down ‘n’ dirty git licks, and the smothering, claustrophobic ambiance of the instrumentation, it’s a howling, growling result of a nearly a century of blues music. 

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

For any misguided soul who believes that the blues and country music are worlds apart from one another, I suggest that you give a listen to some of Jimmie Rodgers’ recordings from the 1920s or Hank Williams’ sides from the ‘40s. Blues is the father to the entirety of American music, and in few places is this tradition stronger than in the state of Texas. Steve Earle's Terraplane just represents the latest fraternization between blues and country, a long and respected tradition that began, perhaps, with Blind Lemon Jefferson and runs in a line through Sam Hopkins to Bill Neely to Townes Van Zandt and beyond to Earle and even his son Justin.

Earle’s Terraplane offers up all that the singer’s fans have come to expect – whipsmart lyrics and storytelling; the singer’s immense charisma; and well-constructed, skillfully-performed, often adventuresome music. Earle has always drawn from the whole spice rack of Americana in creating his own unique musical gumbo; this time around he just throws a bit more blues flavor into the pot. If you’re a longtime fan, don’t be scared off by the “this is Steve Earle’s blues album” hype or, if you’re a blues fan, don’t ignore this one because of any preconceived notions you may have of Earle. No matter what you want to call it, Terraplane is one damn fine collection of roots ‘n’ blues music. Grade: A (New West Records, released February 17, 2015)

Buy the CD from Steve Earle's Terraplane


Friday, February 20, 2015

The Pretty Things’ Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky Box

The Pretty Things’ Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky
This is one that hasn’t gotten a lot of press from the mainstream music rags, so we thought we’d shed a little light on a mighty fine box set comin’ your way – The Pretty ThingsBouquets From A Cloudy Sky. The legendary rockers are getting the full deluxe treatment in commemoration of the band’s 50th anniversary, and it’s only gonna set you back around $200 (if you buy the box from the good folks at Ugly Things zine).

“So,” you ask hesitantly, “what do I get for my pair of hunnies?” Bouquets was produced with the Pretty Things’ approval and input, and features all eleven of the band’s studio albums, including 2007’s often-overlooked Balboa Island, all packaged in gatefold digi-sleeves and including a whopping 42 bonus tracks. Two additional “rarities” discs offer up 45 previously-unreleased demos, alternate takes, live recordings, and outtakes while two DVDs feature a new documentary, Midnight To Six 1965-1970, plus S.F. Sorrow Live at Abbey Road, additional videos, and band interviews.

The Bouquets box also includes a 10” replica acetate that features the full-length demo for “Defecting Grey,” the studio version of “Turn My Head,” plus a pair of previously unreleased Pretty Things songs. Throw in an illustrated 100-page hardback book with a comprehensive Pretty Things history written by musician/music historian Mike Stax of Ugly Things (who named his zine after the band and knows from whence he speaks on all things ‘Pretty’), plus lots of rare photos and a complete band “family tree.”

You’ll even a “court case history” with excerpts from the legal files compiled by the band in their fight to regain the rights to their master recordings and songs. The box finishes up with an art print by singer Phil May; one lucky Pretty Things’ fan will find the original copy of the print, which has been randomly placed in one of the boxes. Overall, Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky has everything a collector or new fan might desire, and the box will be limited to 2,000 copies only.

The Pretty Things' Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky

The Pretty Things were formed in London in 1963 by guitarist Dick Taylor (who was the original Rolling Stones bassist) and singer Phil May, along with rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton, bassist John Stax, and drummer Pete Kitley. The band would run through various members through the years, including notorious drummer Viv Prince, Twink (from the Pink Fairies), and Jack Green (from T.Rex), and Taylor would leave the band in 1969. But they scored hits with their first three singles – “Rosalyn,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and “Honey I Need,” and the band’s self-titled 1965 debut rose to number six on the U.K. charts before subsequent efforts experienced diminishing commercial returns.

The Pretty Things never scored a hit stateside, but they’ve had a loyal following that has only grown through the years, partially because of Mike Stax’s proselytizing on their behalf. The band has a musical legacy as strong as any of their peers, however, and stronger than most bands from the era. Their 1965 debut is an undisputed classic of British blues-rock; their conceptual 1968 album S.F. Sorrow is widely considered one of a handful of essential psychedelic-rock albums; and several of their 1970s-era recordings – Parachute (1970), Silk Torpedo (1974), and Savage Eye (1976) – earned significant critical acclaim even while selling only moderately.

If you’re a classic rock aficionado unfamiliar with the charms of the Pretty Things, Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky is a great way to get up to snuff!  

CD Preview: Van Der Graaf Generator’s Merlin Atmos

Van der Graaf Generator's Merlin Atmos
British progressive-rock legends Van der Graaf Generator recently released a new live album titled Merlin Atmos, the limited-edition two-disc set recorded in 2013 and released by the U.K. label Esoteric Antenna. For long-suffering fans of the band, their prayers have been answered, as the album features the first live performances of the popular Generator songs “Flight” and “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers.”

A bit of band back story: since reuniting in 2005, Van Der Graaf Generator has released a number (four, actually) of critically-acclaimed albums featuring long-time members Peter Hammill (vocals & guitar), Hugh Banton (bass & keyboards), and Guy Evans (drums & percussion), including their reunion album Present, cited by Classic Rock magazine as one of the ten essential prog-rock albums of the decade. In June 2013, the trio performed a series of live concerts that featured a set list of rarely-performed album tracks like the sprawling 23-minute “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” from the band’s 1971 album Pawn Hearts, which had never been played in its entirety on stage.

Hammill’s solo track “Flight” is another such song, a 19-minute epic from the guitarist’s 1980 solo album A Black Box. Together, these two rare album tracks became the heart of the band’s live performances, which also drew upon classic songs from past albums as well as from newer recordings like 2011’s A Grounding In Numbers. Several of these shows were recorded and compiled to create Merlin Atmos, a solid work from a still-innovative and exciting band. The limited-edition two-disc digipack edition also includes an additional 70-minute CD of extras recorded during the 2013 European tour.

“The most important thing to note and/or get across about Merlin Atmos is the fact that we played both the long-form pieces 'Flight' and 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers', says Hammill in a press release for the new album. “The former, of course, had been in the repertoire since the last North American Tour. The latter had only ever been played live once before, as far as we remember, back in the seventies. It was a pretty major commitment to say we'd be doing it even before we'd actually rehearsed together. We were also, of course, doing it as a trio whereas the original recorded version was as a quartet with David Jackson. It took quite a bit of work to make it stage-worthy! I suppose the mere fact that the record is being released proves that we were pretty satisfied with our efforts in the end!”

Van der Graaf Generator was formed in 1967 by Hammill and Chris Judge Smith, who would leave the band a year later. The band was the first act signed by the legendary Charisma Records label, releasing their debut album, The Aerosol Grey Machine, in 1969. The band would shuffle through various line-ups and even break up on occasion before settling into a roster that included Hammill, Banton, Evans, and saxophonist David Jackson.

Van der Graaf Generator would release eight albums until they broke-up one last time in 1977, including such critically-acclaimed recordings as Pawn Hearts and 1976’s Still Life. While the band found very little commercial success outside of Italy (where they were curiously popular), their immense musical legacy has endured, influencing artists like Rush, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, Julian Cope, John Lydon of Public Image Ltd, and Marillion, among many others.

Merlin Atmos track listing:

Disc One
1. Flight
2. Lifetime
3. All That Before
4. Bunsho
5. A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers
6. Gog

Disc Two
1. Interference Patterns
2. Over The Hill
3. Your Time Starts Now
4. Scorched Earth
5. Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild
6. Man-Erg
7. Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End

Buy the CD from Van der Graaf Generator's Merlin Atmos