First two Richard Pryor albums get the reissue treatment

It seems superfluous to say the importance, impact and influence of Richard Pryor cannot be understated, both in black culture and to the world of comedy.  His jokes weren’t always jokes – they were often true stories whose punchlines were born of hard living and bitter personal experience.  His language was raw and profane; his ideas unfiltered and profound; his comedy real and as revelatory to black audiences as Lenny Bruce’s had been to primarily white audiences.  Maybe best of all, one didn’t have to be black or have the same life experiences as Richard to appreciate his sometimes dark, yet always innovative humor.

In the mid-60’s, Richard was like any other struggling young comic trying to find how and where he fit in.  Bill Cosby was arguably the most successful, mainstream black comedian at the time, so Richard reluctantly tried to make himself and his comedy in the mold of Cosby.  The problem was that Pryor wasn’t Cosby, and he quickly realized it wasn’t in his character to be a clone.  He had shit to say – shit that other black comedians weren’t saying, or were afraid to say.  And after an on-stage epiphany in late 1967, Richard began to discover who he really was, and what he really wanted to talk about.  There begins the historic, hilarious recorded journey of the birth, subsequent re-birth, and genius of Richard Pryor.

The change in Richard’s tone didn’t happen overnight, and his self-titled 1968 debut already found him at a crossroads.  He was in the throes of an internal, professional conflict – caught between who he was, and who he desperately longed to be.  And that struggle was being recorded.  The joy of performing to an enthusiastic audience is evident in his delivery and the material is solid, as he had been honing the bulk of it for a year or two prior.  Two of his early signature pieces are front and center – the career tone- setting opener “Super Nigger”, depicting Richard’s envisioning of the first black superhero, and the character-driven tour-de-force “Prison Play”, starring Richard as Black Ben the Blacksmith.  Bold and funny as his jokes are, a tense hint of Richard’s restraint is detectable.  That tension would eventually bubble over, driving him to no longer stifle his creative ambitions.

It would be over two years before the release of his sophomore album “Craps (After Hours)” in 1971.  However, it was far from a lack of creativity, or having nothing to say that would account for this lapse.  During his time away from the record bins, Richard immersed himself in black culture, multi-racial counterculture, and found his true voice.  Gone is the rehearsed, occasionally profane comic previously inhibited by convention.  Gone, too, is his cast of colorful, fictional characters.  In their place – a now frequently profane comic, more comfortable with himself and with blazing his own controversial path, along with a new cast of edgier , seedier characters more uncomfortably close to his reality.

“Craps” is simultaneously the antithesis of Richard’s debut record, as well as a mission statement.  It is the re-birth of Richard Pryor with newfound confidence, swagger, and brutal honesty.  His brilliance is in the way he can publicly exorcise so many personal demons, and be so goddamn funny and fearless doing it.  Fifty years on, “Craps” still sounds like a dangerous, decadent, irresistible party – the after-hours yang to the debut’s closing-time yin.

This pair of reissues from Omnivore offers the opportunity to re-discover these master class comedy records.  The first album is supplemented by a generous collection of gems from Richard’s formative years as a budding comic, recorded prior to his debut.  It showcases a fascinating, evolutionary period of his humor and on-stage persona.  Many of the selections were released in edited form on multiple, slap-dash budget albums (without Richard’s involvement) throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s.  The bonus disc was assembled from Richard’s personal archives prior to his passing, with his assistance and approval.  Likewise, “Craps” offers a handful of period-era bonus cuts, including an early 1971 take of his classic routine “Wino & Junkie.” –Jay Scott

The Songwriting Talents of the Bee Gees on Full Display in New Compilation (review)

Various Artists – Words: A Bee Gees Songbook (Playback Records)  

An interesting look at the songwriting talents of the Gibb Brothers

With the recent release of the excellent documentary, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, the Bee Gees are once again back in the public consciousness.  In timely fashion, the Australian label Playback Records, has assembled a compilation of rare cover versions of Bee Gees’ songs, helping shed light on the songwriting side of the hit-making trio.

One of the real treats of this disc is how obscure some of this material is.  Of the 27 tracks, even the most avid Bee Gees’ fan might only recognize half of these compositions.  That’s because many of these were songs written, but not recorded by one of the Gibbs.  

Many of these tracks date to their early years in Australia, like “Where Are You,” by Mike Furber, where you can clearly hear the Bee Gees singing backup vocals.  Despite having a different vocalist, some still sound like the Gibb Brothers, like “Lady” by Johnny Young.  But, others are taken in a different direction – “Raining Teardrops” by Barrington Davis, sounds more like the Kinks than the Bee Gees, while Jackie Lomax improves “One Minute Woman” by giving it a soulful treatment.

Speaking of soul, two of the best covers here are complete surprises – Nina Simone, usually known for her reinterpretations of songs, plays it completely straight on her “To Love Somebody,” while Swamp Dogg truly embodies the lyrics of “Got to Get a Message to You,” in a gritty, down-home delivery.  The same can’t be said of Lulu’s “I Started a Joke.”  She croons through the song, completely missing the darkness of the lyrics (she has done other excellent Bee Gees’ covers, this just isn’t one). 

Of the songs you do recognize, some miss the mark simply by not being different enough.  “Words” by Cilla Black is just so so because the arrangement is almost identical to the original. Ditto for  The Cole Brothers’ attempt at “I Can’t See Nobody” – anyone trying to sound like Robin Gibb is doomed to fail!  Only the venerable Johnny Mathis comes close with his reading of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” 

Other highlights are a stunning take on “Butterfly” by Marmalade, an excellent “Massachusetts” by the Seekers, which actually dates from 2003, and “Turn of the Century” by the sunshine pop group the Cyrkle.

The liner notes through me off at first – I don’t think I’ve ever seen annotation that didn’t follow the track order.  Instead, they group the songs roughly of when they were written, giving incredibly in-depth insight along the way.

Sadly, there will never be any new Bee Gees’ music.  Yet, this is kind of the next best thing – an entire disc of great Gibb songs performed by other people. An incredibly enjoyable listen throughout. —Tony Peters

Tapestry on Its Golden Anniversary

This ground-shaking album is actually still underrated

At the time of its release, on February 10, 1971, Tapestry made a quiet entrance.  After all, Carole King wasn’t yet a household name.  It took a whole two months to enter the Billboard Album Chart. But, once the double-sided “I Feel the Earth Move” / “It’s Too Late” single was released in May, things quickly heated up.  By mid-June, the LP was #1, where it would stay for a staggering 15 weeks, tying the hallowed Sgt. Pepper from the Beatles for longest stay at the top for a rock album, up until that point.

There was a great deal of testosterone in the upper echelon: Rod Stewart, the Stones, John Lennon and CSN&Y had all hit #1 in ’71.  And yes, Janis Joplin had garnered #1, but only after her untimely passing.  Tapestry was something completely different.  

That iconic album cover, featuring a barefoot King, clad in jeans and a sweater, her hair obviously not professionally done for this photo shoot – this is not a woman that’s been told to look sexy by a man. This is an independent spirit that’s calling the shots. She’s perched in a window sill, with, not a man, but her cat, somewhat blurry, in the foreground (the feline being the ultimate male substitute).  The look on her face isn’t a smile, but more like a “I bet you guys aren’t ready for this.”  She’s holding the “tapestry” that she created herself.  There’s also light shining in the window – at once both illuminating her face, and obscuring the rest of the room in the process, creating both a warm mood, and a curiosity as to what lies in the shadows – perfect for the music that resides inside.

Tapestry was a nuclear blast on the music world, yet there were no screaming guitars or screeching vocals.

It marked the first time a woman hit #1 with an album totally constructed by her own hand.  

The album leads off with “I Feel the Earth Move,” a totally adult woman perspective on love.  She isn’t fawning over her boy, and she isn’t crying either – she’s ecstatic.  This music was something new – it’s both soul and folk, powered by this fantastic, pulsing bass line and King’s pounding piano, accented by slinky guitar fills.  There’s a huge ebb and flow between the quiet verses and the energetic chorus.

“So Far Away” – has there ever been a better song that captures longing?  And, there’s really not much going on here sans King’s vocal and piano, yet it’s sheer perfection.

“It’s Too Late” – originally the b-side of the single (the record company deemed it too “dark”), eventually DJ’s and fans began turning the 45 over and gravitating toward this, the greatest breakup song ever (with lyrics written by Toni Stern, who had just ended a relationship with James Taylor).   It is absolutely one of the greatest songs ever recorded.  The minor chords set the mood, the drums are just so in the pocket – despite its bleak subject matter, the track grooves.  The guitar solo is a thing of spontaneous mellowness, bending the notes, as if Danny Kortchmar were playing it in his sleep.

The new songs were powerful.  But, what made Tapestry so monumental was King’s decision to revisit songs she had written for other people.  Sure, it acted as a calling card, reminding folks that SHE was the one who co-wrote “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel  Like) A Natural Woman” with ex-husband Gerry Goffin.  But, her versions of both songs do something more.  In the case of the former, a hit for girl group, the Shirelles, she embodies the song with a maturity of someone who’s lived and lost – there’s skepticism in her musical question.  In the case of the latter, a smash for Aretha Franklin, she doesn’t so much outdo the original (who could?).  Instead, she brings that lofty composition down to earth – essentially saying “anyone can be a ‘Natural Woman.’”

For all its influential status, Tapestry is still a fantastic listen.  Few albums emit such warmth.  I can only think of Van Morrison’s Moondance or James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James as rivals.

As amazing as Tapestry is, I believe it’s still not given the credit it deserves.  In the latest Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums list, it’s lodged at #25 – Aretha, Lauryn Hill and Joni Mitchell all score higher – but I would argue that King’s album opened more doors, especially by selling more copies.   Also, when discussing “greatest albums,” do we ever mention King’s masterpiece?  We gravitate toward Sgt. Pepper as a landmark, or maybe Dark Side of the Moon.  When we suggest “albums you must get when you buy a turntable,” Tapestry is rarely mentioned, but it should be

Tapestry showed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a woman could make it in the male-dominated music business, and do so on her own terms.  That nuclear blast opened a hole for many other talented ladies in the decades to come.  —Tony Peters

The Quiet Byrd Tells His Story (book review)

Time Between – My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond – Chris Hillman (BMG Books)

He had a hand in the formation of both folk rock and country rock – a quiet bass player gives his story

Chris Hillman isn’t exactly a household name.  Yet, he’s managed to have both commercial success and critical acclaim throughout 60 years in the business. And, he’s done so in varied genres, from bluegrass to rock to country, all the while, keeping company with some of the finest musicians around.  His new autobiography, Time Between, chronicles Hillman’s life in music, and makes a strong case for him to be considered a true pioneer.

Hillman eschewed the typical route of teaming with a co-author and penned the book entirely himself.  Because of this, his story is told in a matter-of-fact way that avoids the salacious exaggerations and instead focuses on the things Hillman actually remembers.  Drug use?  If he did it, he sidesteps most of it by saying things like “we had a good time that night,” leaving things open to interpretation.  Women? One would insist that he must’ve had numerous ladies come in and out of his life over the years.  Yet, the only female he talks about romantically is his current wife, Connie, whom he married in 1979.

The first few chapters deal with his early life.  He lost his father at 16 (I’ll leave that story for the book) and this absence created anger that Hillman spent most of his life dealing with.  If there’s one thing we learn from Time Between it’s that Hillman had a knack for finding talented people to surround himself with, whether it be country star Vern Gosdin or future Eagle Bernie Leadon, or future Firefall leader Rick Roberts.

The next few sections deal with his time in the hugely-influential band, the Byrds.  Honestly, there aren’t a lot of “a ha” moments here.  If you’re familiar with the band’s story, you know that Hillman was asked to join the band even though he had never played bass before.  Also, I think history has a way of softening things over time.  Hillman remembers the recording session for “Mr. Tambourine Man,” basically saying that no one minded that they weren’t allowed to play their own instruments. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that having members of the famed “Wrecking Crew” play on their song was an honor, but I bet back in the day, it pissed the guys off.

You also don’t get much new insight into the guys in the Byrds – David Crosby several times sabotages things and comes off as an ass (no surprise there), while Gene Clark and Michael Clarke both are portrayed as guys that liked to party (both of their lives were cut short due to substance abuse).

He does credit himself for introducing the legendary Gram Parsons to the rest of the band.  That pairing only lasted a few months and yielded the stellar Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, but the effects can still be felt today.  There’s a great story of how the Byrds were badly treated on their one appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.

More interesting is how Hillman chronicles he and Parsons’ departure from the Byrds and subsequent teaming as the Flying Burrito Brothers.  Like a lot of bands, things started out with a great deal of promise, but soon fell to pieces, largely due to Parsons penchant for partying, and the fact that the world wasn’t quite ready for “country rock” in 1969 (The Eagles would sweeten and slick it up and achieve superstardom, just a few years later).

During this time, Hillman was joined by first Leadon and then Rick Roberts in the Burritos.  Leadon would go on to form the original Eagles with Don Henley & Glenn Frey, while Roberts took Byrd drummer Michael Clarke and formed the soft-rock outfit Firefall.

An interesting chapter deals with Hillman’s time in a Stephen Stills’ supergroup project called Manassas.  This short-lived outfit was an attempt to tackle everything from rock to country to bluegrass, soul and even Latin. The two albums the band put out are extremely underrated. 

The real surprise in the book was the unlikely success of the Desert Rose Band, a group Hillman assembled that ended up placing eight singles in the country Top 10 and earning a bevy of awards along the way, during the 1980’s and early 90’s.  For the first time, the once-shy Hillman led the band and wrote a lot of their material.

Several times in the book, Hillman says “it was all about the music” and by the end, you start to believe him.  He never chased trends (quite often, he ran from them, thus creating new ones) and never seemed interested in “cashing in.”  The most compromising thing he seemed to do was reunite with his former Byrd mates in several different incarnations over the years.  Even when he did achieve commercial success in the Desert Rose Band, he did it on his own terms.

Although the Eagles successfully blended country and rock together, Chris Hillman did it first.  His uncanny ability to jump back and forth between both genres set him above his peers.  Time Between is an honest look at an under-appreciated pioneer of modern country music.  –Tony Peters

Third Time is the Charm for Richard Hell (review)

Richard Hell & the Voidoids – Destiny Street Complete (Omnivore Recordings)

THREE different versions of this seminal punk album

Recording an album is quite often a painful process.  So, it’s no surprise that some artists are unhappy with the finished product.  Iggy Pop hated the Bowie mix of the Stooges’ Raw Power, while McCartney despised what Phil Spector did to his songs on Let it Be.  Both artists got a chance to remix their albums, in 1997 and 2003 respectively, but were they actually improvements, or just revisionist history?

You could argue that no artist has worked harder to “correct” an album than Richard Hell.  

The recording in question is his second and last record with the Voidoids, Destiny Street, originally released in 1982.  Hell took not one, but two stabs at improving these recordings over the years.  Destiny Street Complete is perhaps the final word on this punk rock classic, collecting three different versions of the album, plus demos, single mixes and leftover songs, along with liner notes, penned by Hell himself.

Honestly, listening to the original, 1982, mix of the record, it’s pretty good.  Sure, the twin lead guitars are buried in the mix and the entire album is a little brittle-sounding, but it’s no different sonically than say, Never Mind the Bollocks or the first Clash album.  Destiny Street sounds like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown (he was), and has an incredible immediacy to it.  Plus, the songs are as catchy as hell (sorry for the pun).

However, Hell was never happy with it. He described the original mix as a “morass of trebly, multi-guitar blare,” and wanted to take a crack at remixing it years ago. Unfortunately, the multi-track tapes couldn’t be located and were feared lost.

In 2009, Hell did the next best thing.  He unearthed a cassette copy of the album’s rhythm tracks and added new lead guitars and vocals, issuing this version as Destiny Street Repaired.  Was it interesting? You bet.  Was it an improvement?  Not really.  One issue is that longtime collaborator Robert Quine, who provided the unique, sinewy lead guitar on the original, had passed away.  Same goes for second guitarist, Naux.  Instead, Hell enlisted a trio of fine replacements in Marc Ribo, Bill Frisell and Ivan Julian.  These subtractions and additions add different flavors (and it’s fun to compare between the different versions).  

The larger issue was that Hell was a lot older when he recorded these new vocals.  However faithful he tried to be to the originals, there wasn’t the bleak desperation inherent in what he did previously.  

Fast forward ten years and, lo and behold, the multi-track tapes to Destiny Street (most of them anyway) were discovered in some storage space.  Hell finally could do what he wanted to do all along, which was remix the original recordings.

The end result?  This time, he got it right.  

The biggest difference is the guitars are louder and panned either to the left or the right, giving you the opportunity to really hear them, plus Hell’s vocals are up in the mix too.  The real benefactor of this new remix is the late Quine, one of the most inventive, yet underrated, guitarists of all time (it’s his unique fretwork that elevated Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend above standard power pop fare).  His feedback-laden, note bending, is a thing of sheer awe.

You want proof of what Hell was complaining about?  Compare the original, lifeless version of “Ignore the Door” with the new remix.  Holy shit!  This new mix is spine-chillingly good – with both Quine’s and Naux’s guitars spread out, interlocking with each other.  It’s like a sonic punch to the ears.

Another example of the upgrade is Hell’s take on the Kinks’ “I Gotta Move.”  On the new remix, you can hear how Quine dominates with loud notes while Naux adds flourishes underneath.

Destiny Street Complete comes with the original, 1982 mix, plus Destiny Street Repaired, and the new, Destiny Street Remixed.

As if having three versions of the same album weren’t enough…wait!  There’s more!  The A and B side of a single issued in 1978 that tone downs Hell’s ferocity (the production sounds like Nick Lowe). There are also demo versions of most of the songs – I really like this take of “Time,” it smoothes out some of the edges of the original and is downright poppy.  There’s also demos of songs that didn’t make the album – “Funhunt” has an urgency to it and a great solo.

Hell pens the liner notes himself, and he’s brutally honest: “Three plus versions of the same album.  It’s ridiculous, but I’m glad.  I take full responsibility for it.”  

Does the project border on indulgent?  Sure. But, the musicianship is incredible, the songs are memorable, and everything is played with youthful abandon.  Only an album this good is worthy of being dissected and reinterpreted like this.  Highly recommended for fans of punk —Tony Peters

AC/DC Returns to Form on Power Up

AC/DC – Power Up (Columbia)

Ending a crazy year on a good note

2020 has been a crap year for everyone, but especially music fans.  No concerts, no jamming with friends, no parties.  Then, right at the end of the year, AC/DC surprised everyone with something unthinkable – a new album with the classic lineup.

The last few years saw the Australian band splinter to pieces.  First, longtime rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young had to retire due to illness (he would pass away in 2017). Then, came criminal and legal troubles for drummer Phil Rudd, leading to his exit.  Then, vocalist Brian Johnson began having hearing issues that prompted the cancelation of several tour dates.  Then, in 2016, Guns N’ Roses yelper Axl Rose was brought on as Johnson’s replacement for an ensuing world tour.  While a curious choice, this was definitely NOT the AC/DC of old. All those changes spurred bassist Cliff Williams to also quit at the end of that tour.

The best thing about AC/DC over the years is that, despite social and cultural changes around them, they’ve remained completely unchanged.  And, therein lies the true joy of their brand new studio album, Power Up – it sounds like classic AC/DC.  Johnson, Angus Young, Williams and Rudd are joined by Angus’ nephew Steve Young.

“Realize” opens with a couple of familiar power chords and some background vocals that remind of “Thunderstruck.” Rudd’s drums are high in the mix and the entire track is polished to a sheen.  “Rejection” is classic AC/DC,  with the guitars dueling between the speakers.  The lyrics are disturbing and the chords are dark too – more reminiscent of their early days.  “Shot in the Dark,” the album’s first single is a pounder, which features some bluesy riffing from Angus and the classic growling from Johnson.

“Through the Mists of Time” is a curious song – it features an odd drum beat at the start (c’mon, 99% of all AC/DC songs are 4 on the floor), and several more chords than the usual three usually reserved for all of the band’s songs.  It’s surprisingly tuneful and wistful as it recalls “painted ladies.”  

The blues stomper “Kick You When You’re Down” features a great, repeating guitar riff.  AC/DC has always been the masters of the less-is-more approach.  “Witch’s Spell” is propelled by a classic Angus riff, but the verses features just Johnson’s voice and Rudd’s drums at certain points, really adding to the tension.  The album closes with the fist pumper “Code Red,” which would make a great concert staple, if we ever get back to large gatherings.

“Demon Fire” reminds of both “The Jack” and “Caught With Your Pants Down,” and features some cool, low register Johnson singing and a killer, descending guitar line.

The entire record was co-written by Angus and Malcolm Young – apparently Angus dug deep in the archives to find songs he wrote but never recorded with his late brother.

Brendan O’Brien, who produced the band’s last few albums, has returned.  Honestly, this is his best work in years.  Those earlier records just didn’t have the AC/DC feel.  Here, this really does sound like the vintage group.

Easily their best album in twenty years, Power Up succeeds by just being AC/DC – nothing more, nothing less.  Full of everything we’ve come to love about this band – Power Up is a welcome surprise to the rock n’ roll catalog.  —Tony Peters

Rhino Records Wants to Start Your “EAR” Off Right With New Vinyl Reissues

Catchy, colored discs and long out of print titles to spice up your collection

The Cars – Shake it Up (Green vinyl edition)

Buffalo Springfield – Retrospective (180-gram vinyl edition)

The resurgence of vinyl is no longer a fad…it’s definitely here to stay. Which means, we’re starting to see a lot more records coming back on the market.  Some of it has not been in print for a long time, while others are coming back as colored vinyl.  Now, your favorite albums not only sound great, they look cool too!

Rhino Records’ latest campaign, “Start Your Ear Off Right,” focuses on limited-edition reissues of classic albums from a variety of genres, including titles from the Cars, Buffalo Springfield, Dire Straits, Talking Heads, Genesis, and more.  They kindly sent us a pair of them, which we dutifully took for a spin.

The Cars’ fourth album, Shake It Up, is presented in its original version on bright green vinyl (there was a recent reissue on red vinyl which contained an extra LP of rarities).  When the vinyl was compared to a stone-cold, first pressing, promo copy, it was a little noisy, but still faithful to the original sound – I give it a B+ While both the inner and outer sleeves are both made from sturdier materials this time around.   

After the experimental Panorama, Shake It Up was a return to form for the Boston combo, whose strength was always straddling the line between punk and mainstream.  The album yielded the MTV hits “Since You’re Gone” and “Shake It Up,” along with the tender ballad, “I’m Not the One,” which would be remixed and released as a hit single several years later.  

The album cuts are equally solid, with the sturdy, mid-tempo rock of “Victim of Love,” the dark, ominous, “Cruiser,” and the quirky “Think it Over.”  The record is front-loaded with the best songs and does kind of lose steam on side two, with tracks like “A Dream Away” and “This Could Be Love” sounding more like Ric Ocasek solo tracks than fully-realized Cars’ songs.  Still, it’s a great listen from start to finish.  Shake It Up would pave the way for the band’s biggest success, Heartbeat City, a few years later.

Buffalo Springfield’s Retrospective was a 12-song, “best of,” which came out after the band imploded in 1969, and was a staple of rock fans’ collections. It was also noted for its striking cover art by Eve Babitz.  As iconic as it was, it’s been out of print on vinyl for decades.  This new version features heavier-grade packaging, and is pressed on 180-gram vinyl for the first time.  

One interesting tidbit – some of these tracks vary slightly from the way they were originally released.   My 1969 copy of Retrospective featured all the tracks in stereo.  While Neil Young, who has played a major role in the Buffalo Springfield reissue campaign, has favored the mono mix of the band’s debut album. 

So, the four songs from their first record – “For What It’s Worth,” “Sit Down, I Think I Love You,” “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” and “Go and Say Goodbye,” are here in mono, while everything else is in stereo. (Minor quibble: the mono, single mix of “Mr. Soul” is not included here, and that’s a shame, because it features some different guitar work).

Retrospective isn’t definitive – “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” “Sad Memory,” and “Questions,” are three songs worthy of compiling, and arguably all three of the band’s studio albums have enough good material that you should hear them at least once. Still, Retrospective does make for a solid introduction to the band, and a great album to just drop the needle on and enjoy.

One final note – these titles are in short supply (Cars is 3,500 copies, Buffalo Springfield is 4,000), so if you want them, you better grab them while you can.  Previous years’ installments in the Start Your Ear Off Right series have been fetching high dollar on auction sites. –Tony Peters

364 – Matthew Sweet – Goes Solo For New Album, Catspaw

Throughout Matthew Sweet’s long career, one thing has remained constant: his uncanny ability to create memorable melodic rock.  After spending the 80’s in relative obscurity, soaking in the fertile scenes of Athens, Georgia & Hoboken, New Jersey, Sweet finally hit his stride with 1991’s Girlfriend. Two years later, he followed that with Altered Beast, a darker affair. 

He put together a supergroup called the Thorns with Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins.  He also teamed with Bangles frontwoman Sussannah Hoffs for a trio of covers albums, while continuing to issue albums on his own. 

His latest project is the closest he’s ever come to a true “solo album”   – everything except drums was played by Sweet, he also produced and mixed the album himself at his home studio.  Called Catspaw, it shows off a heavier, darker side of Sweet, something we haven’t seen since Altered Beast.

We talk with the Nebraska native about handling all the lead guitar for the first time on an album, and how an obscure band inspired the title of one of his new songs. Plus, he talks about how he became a part of the Athens, Georgia music scene fresh out of high school.

Bee Gees – How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (film review)

Bee Gees – How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (film review)

A definitive look at an under-appreciated band

There are a handful of music documentaries that not only embody the artists that they portray, they become something bigger – essential viewing for any fan of popular music.  Muscle Shoals, The Wrecking Crew, The Sound of My Voice and 20 Feet From Stardom are all on this short list.  So, now should be How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, a brand-new documentary on the Bee Gees, currently only available through the HBO Max subscription service.

The almost two hour film does such a good job of summing up the entire career of the three Brothers Gibb that I would call it the definitive Bee Gees retrospective, hands down.

Barry is the last of the surviving Gibb’s (Maurice died in 2003, while Robin passed in 2012), yet the movie manages to weave in interviews with all three brothers, so that they really do tell their own story.  They manage to track down just about everyone that was a part of their band over the years, along with many of the brothers’ wives.  Brother Andy Gibb, who was swept up in the Bee Gees’ frenzy, is also given ample time in the movie.

The film traces the family’s humble beginnings in Australia, to Britain, where they became hitmakers in the wake of the Beatles, with hits like “NY Mining Disaster 1941,” and “Massachusetts.”  A great deal of time is spent on the brothers’ late-Sixties split, yet they never mention the album Odessa, which was the catalyst for their 18-month separation.  The brothers then reunite and meld their sound to the soft, early Seventies for “Lonely Days” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” but find sustaining that momentum difficult. 

Extremely fascinating is how the group stumbled into reinventing themselves as an R&B outfit, and how, believe it or not, we have Eric Clapton to thank for it.  They touch on the “Disco Sucks” backlash, which now seems really unfair, especially considering that Bee Gees’ music still gets played wherever there’s dancing going on.  Once their own hits dried up, the trio started writing hits for others, adapting once more.  Eventually, the brothers found success on the Pop Charts again in the late 80’s.  Oddly enough, their comeback hit “One” was not included at all in the film.

They flesh out the story of the Bee Gees by tracking down newer artists.  Nick Jonas and Noel Gallagher both offer some really good insight from being in a band with your brothers, while Mark Ronson and Chris Martin offer perspectives on the Bee Gees’ influence on current music.  But, it’s Justin Timberlake who steals the show in his summation of the band (you’ll just have to watch the film to see it).  

There is so much love put into this documentary.  You can see it in the multiple performances that they weave together for a single song. You see it in the home movies that they intersperse throughout.  And, you hear it in the studio chatter and isolated tracks of Bee Gees’ tunes that they unearth, which add to the story’s depth.  There’s a cassette demo of “How Deep Is Your Love” that is just spine-tingling.  

Above all, we’re left with a deeper appreciation for Barry, Robin and Maurice, not just as progenitors of disco as in the movie Saturday Night Fever, but as brilliant artists who were able to change with pop trends (multiple times), writing timeless hits both for themselves and for many other artists as well.  The Bee Gees’ deserve a great documentary and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is it.

A note about how to watch: right now, the film is only available through HBO Max, which is a subscription service.  While $14.95 a month makes it one of the most expensive of the streaming platforms, word out of Hollywood is that several blockbuster movies will be released on HBO Max the same day they go to theaters. If you’re willing to stay home to watch these new releases, it’s worth the plunge.  —Tony Peters

363 – Chris Hillman – New Book – Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond

Chris Hillman was a founding member of the Byrds, one of the most important American bands of the 1960’s, charting hits like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “Turn Turn Turn.”  After recording the groundbreaking Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which mixed country and rock together, he formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons. 

He also spent time in Stephen Stills’ supergroup, Manassas, worked with Richie Furay and JD Souther, and eventually had commercial success with the Desert Rose Band. 

Hillman chronicles his life in music with Time Between – My Life and a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond, just out from BMG Books.

We chat with Hillman about why he chose to write his autobiography without a co-author, and why he eschewed the typical “tell all” book. He also talks about what made Gene Clark such a gifted songwriter and how playing with Stephen Stills really taught him a lot.

Pin It on Pinterest