Rhino Records Introduces a Hi Fidelity Vinyl Series – Is It Worth It?

Van Morrison – His Band and the Street Choir – Rhino Hi Fidelity Vinyl Review

Ever since the vinyl “resurgence” began about ten years ago, there’s been a debate about quality. You just don’t know what you’re going to get with a newly-pressed vinyl LP.  Some great, but often not so great, or even awful.  It basically comes down to quality control, as the few remaining vinyl plants work overtime, trying to meet the growing demand.  

Rhino Records has recently attempted to remedy this, by ushering in their Hi Fidelity series: each release features an intense attention to detail.  This means heavy grade album jackets, glossy covers, and extra bonus essays and booklets, unique to these reissues.  But, the biggest selling point is that the vinyl is supposed to be really good quality.  Each title is numbered and limited to 5,000.

The kind folks at Rhino sent us Van Morrison His Band and the Street Choir for review.

In a side by side comparison to an original, Warner Bros pressing that we have in the office, the first thing you notice is how heavy the weight of the album jacket is.  Very thick, kinda old school in that regard.  Much thicker than my original.  Next, the outer cover is a high-quality gloss, not common these days.  There’s also an OBI on the left hand side of the outer packaging. These are more common in Japanese releases, giving info about the album, but is a nice touch. Oddly, my original copy has the album title emblazoned across the top, while this one does not.

So, about the actual vinyl.  Dropping the needle, it’s super, super quiet.  Bass is warm.  The guitar in the left channel of “Domino” jumps out of the speakers.  I really hear the cowbell on this version.  

In a side by side comparison to an original, Warner Bros pressing – this new Rhino Hi Fidelity version wins out – hands down. Although the original has nice bass, everything else is somewhat muddy.  You really don’t notice this until you play this new, Hi Fi edition.  This version has clear highs, and is really more balanced all around.  I have to admit being skeptical, yet this new version is really that good. 

The extra pocket in the gatefold cover contains a light brown foldout of the original lyrics from the album.  Another booklet features an interview with producer Elliot Scheiner, revealing a great deal not only about this album, but the Moondance LP that preceded it.  Also, a nice touch is the photos of the original master tape boxes.  

A few other insights – the acoustic guitar on “Blue Money” really jumps out at you, while “Virgo Clowns” features a fantastic mandolin, and it’s really crisp here.  I got goosebumps listening to the last track, “Street Choir.”  The organ just hits you in this high quality vinyl version.  

I think this is an excellent album for the Hi Fidelity series – full of acoustic instrumentation that just thrives in the analog environment.

They also sent us Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth.  

Honestly, we don’t have an original copy to compare this one to.  However, I’m not sure you could pick a more sonically-challenging album to reissue on vinyl.  And, it just sounds awesome.  

Pastorius’ Word of Mouth project was an attempt to revisit the Big Band idiom, but with a modern (circa 1981) update.  He basically assembled a who’s who of jazz players, including Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott, Jack DeJohnette, Chuck Findley and others.  In addition to the horns playing leads, he also incorporated harmonica player Toots Thielemans, which adds an interesting twist.  There’s also elements of funk and fusion here too.  

Pastorius’ fretless bass is deep and full in this analog format. Yet, the horns, steel drums, percussion, and flutes are all crisp and bright.  Fair warning, the opening cut, “Crisis,” is a difficult listen.  But, once you get past it, there’s plenty to love. ”3 Views of a Secret” is gentle, while “Liberty City” is reminiscent of Weather Report.

Side two opens with a solo piece for Jaco called “Chromatic Fantasy,” which morphs into quite possibly the most inventive cover of a Beatles’ song in history: “Blackbird” features the melody played by Thielemans, Pastorius’ exploratory bass, all the while random percussion bangs on in the background.  Suddenly, with an abrupt edit, Pastorius switches to a heavily-distorted bass, accompanied by frenetic drumming.  It’s an exhilarating ride.

The packaging is top notch: heavy-grade album jacket, glossy cover, and a gatefold sleeve with cool photos of Jaco.  There’s also a bonus booklet, featuring an essay by Ricky Shultz, who was a record executive at Warner during the time of this album’s release.

The verdict on the Hi Fidelity series?  Thumbs up.  Although more expensive than a standard vinyl edition, the attention to detail and quality of the vinyl makes purchasing these editions truly worth every penny.  I may go an seek out a few more for myself.  —Tony Peters

418 – Jock Bartley of Firefall – New Album, Friends and Family Features Fresh Renditions of songs by The Doobie Bros, Poco, etc.

Formed in 1974 in Boulder, Colorado, Firefall had several big hits on AM radio in the 1970’s with “You Are the Woman,” “Just Remember I Love You,” and “Strange Way,” but also were known for their excellent musicianship, which got them played on FM radio, with tracks like “Cinderella,” and “Mexico.” 

The band’s latest project, Friends and Family, puts a unique twist on the tribute album.  Firefall’s former and current members have played with many other bands over the years – so you get songs by the Byrds, Spirit, Heart and the Flying Burrito Brothers.  They also tackle songs by bands that they toured with, like the Doobie Brothers and Poco. 

Ultimately, these versions were recorded with the idea of adding something different to the arrangements, turning these familiar tunes into Firefall classics.   

We talk again to founding member, Jock Bartley, about the care that went into choosing each song and why they were chosen.  He also reveals that a Friends and Family 2 is already in the works.

417 – Deena Shoshkes of the Cucumbers – New Album, Old Shoes, and a Guitar Gifted From Nile Rodgers

From New Jersey comes the Cucumbers, who had a college radio hit with “My Boyfriend” in the mid-Eighties. The band was part of the Hoboken music scene, which included bands like the Bongos and the dB’s. 

The two constants in the band are the husband and wife team of Jon Fried and Deena Shoshkes, and they have a brand new album out called Old Shoes, and what I love about it is that what made them so great 40 years ago, that quirkiness, is still thankfully intact.

We chat how they were able to pull in the services of their son, Jamie, to play drums, but they had to do it quickly. Shoshkes also talks about how her husband decided to play banjo on the album. She also tells us a great story about how she was gifted a guitar from producer Nile Rodgers.

Carly Simon – These Are the Good Old Days (review)

Carly Simon – These Are the Good Old Days: The Carly Simon & Jac Holzman Story

An audio testament of a long-standing friendship, lovingly curated

In the age of Taylor Swift, it seems unthinkable that there was a time, not long ago, when a woman who both sang and wrote her own songs, was a novelty. In the early Seventies, Carly Simon was a trailblazer.  Although eligible for 25 years, she only recently got inducted into the mostly-male Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Hot on the heels of this honor comes a two-disc anthology, focusing on her first three albums, called These Are the Good Old Days (Rhino/Elektra).  

The set is subtitled The Carly Simon and Jac Holzman Story, and in the liner notes we learn just how intertwined the artist (Carly) and the former head of Elektra Records (Jac) were.

Simon was a struggling musician in the late Sixties when Holzman caught her performing live with her sister – he immediately became a fan of hers. A few years later, Simon sent a demo tape to several major labels, including Elektra, but got rejected by all of them.  Holzman decided to have lunch with her personally, to see what she was all about.  And, the rest, as they say, is history.

Holzman worked very closely with Simon to help shape her into a successful artist.  Even before he got involved, Simon’s talent was obvious, as the demo for “Alone,” included here, shows. It’s a little more countryfied than the version that showed up on her debut, but still shows promise.

The standout from her debut is “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” – sparse piano and her breathy voice, and intimate lyrics about observing her two parents go through the daily routine their lives.  Then comes pounding drums, a blast of reality – marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or is it? No guy could’ve penned such emotion.  It’s spellbinding.

Also from her first record, “Reunions,” shows off her soaring voice, wrapped in 12-string guitars and violins. “The Best Thing” is ethereal with two pianos, while the pedal steel is indicative of the times.  Although, the strange flange vocals in the middle seem silly now.  

Her second LP, Anticipation, is more represented here.  Gen Xers will remember the title song as a ketchup commercial, but hearing this again, it’s a huge leap creatively from her debut.  I love the pounding drums and loping bass, and how the music “anticipates” the lyrics.

“I’ve Got to Have You Now” is great – a slow burn, sensual track, fueled by acoustic guitar and echoed drums.  Angelic vocals on the chorus and a acid rock guitar solo elevate things too.  While “Summer’s Coming Around Again” has a bossa nova feel and Simon’s vocal is mic’d super close.  

Another highlight is the dark, character sketch, “Legend in Your Own Time.”  It sounds like a precursor to “You’re So Vain” – surprising that this wasn’t a hit single.

No Secrets, her third album, was where everything came together.  Holzman teamed Simon up with hot producer Richard Perry and the results were stunning.  

Her signature song, “You’re So Vain,” still packs a punch.  Has there ever been a hit single that starts this way?  A rumbling bass lick catches your attention, then Simon whispers “son of a gun.”  Then, the track builds with acoustic guitar and piano, and Simon weaves her tale of a narcist.  The chorus just blasts off.  The slide guitar solo is pure magic, and of course, there’s Mick Jagger’s uncredited background vocals.

But, the highlights don’t stop there – “The Carter Family” deals with taking people for granted until they’re gone, and you realize what they actually meant to you, while “The Right Thing To Do” is probably the closest Simon got to Carole King, especially with the Sixties-inspired background vocals. 

There’s also a rare version of her doing the John Prine song, “Angel From Montgomery,” where her vocals are uncharacteristically hoarse.

The accompanying booklet features interviews with both Simon and Holzman, shedding more light on these fantastic recordings.  There’s also transcripts of emails between the two over the years, showing their continued friendship.  I really like the inclusion of some of Simon’s original songwriting notes – imagine “You’re So Vain” with the lyrics “I saw you at the roller derby”!

These Are the Good Old Days is an excellent opportunity to delve into the greatness of Carly Simon. –Tony Peters

416 – Mitch Woods – Reissue of Friends Along the Way, featuring Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, and many more

Mitch Woods, photo credit, Jeff Fassano

Mitch Woods and his Rocket 88’s have been playing their unique brand of “rock a boogie” for some 40 years now. Back in 2017, Woods issued a career-defining album, Friends Along the Way, featuring a stellar lineup of guests, including Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Ruthie Foster, Maria Muldaur, Elvin Bishop and many others.  Problem was, his record label at the time had just decided to focus only on videos, leaving this great album without an audience. 

Now, he’s regained the master recordings and has reissued the album and added five bonus tracks.  He and his Rocket 88’s are out on the road promoting the reissue.

We chat with Woods about how the project got rolling with a “yes” from Van Morrison, plus how he took up residency at the piano bar during the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise

Maia Sharp – Natalie’s Grandview (concert review)

Maia Sharp – Natalie’s Grandview – August 23, 2023

New album has just hit the streets, so she hits the road

What is it about youth and music?  We tend to glorify those artists just starting out.  Even with legendary performers, we tend to say we “like their older stuff better.”  

Well, here comes Maia Sharp to throw a wrench in all that nonsense.  

At 52, she’s been releasing albums for over half of her life.  Yet, her music just seems to get better and better.  Close to 2/3rds of her 90-minute set at Natalie’s Grandview in Columbus consisted of recent material – music from her last two, excellent records: Mercy Rising (2021) and Reckless Thoughts (2023).  You can’t name too many artists over 50 that are brave enough to let their recent material stand on its own.  

The first quartet of songs came from Mercy Rising.  The album was a departure of sorts for her, full of sonic soundscapes.  Stripped of the studio sweetness, these versions followed a more direct path.  With just her husky, soulful voice, and supple guitar work, both “Junkyard Dog” and “Not Your Friend” were darker and deeper, with their meanings less obscured, while “Nice Girl,” (with its very funny line of “you’re gonna make some nice girl miserable some day”) was a highlight.  “Backburner,” Mercy’s single, sounded fantastic stripped down. 

If there was any justice in the world, Sharp’s new song “Kind,” would be a smash radio hit.  It’s got a catchy-as-hell, sing-a-long chorus, and it’s about, um, actually being kind to people.  Other new songs that stood out were “Fallen Angel” and “On a Good Day.”  

She dug back into her catalog for a few tracks:  “Nothing But the Radio On” was a sizable hit on AAA stations back in 2015.  Yet, this solo version was slower, more sexy and less adorned.  She pulled out “Long Way Home,” which dates back to 2002.  Here’s where you can really see her growth.  Honestly, she’s a much better singer now – and, she’s more assured of who she is.

The highlight of her encore was a nod to Bonnie Raitt, who recorded a trio of Sharp’s songs on one of her albums.  She returned the favor by tackling Raitt’s “Nick of Time.”  

Between songs, she engaged the crowd in funny anecdotes (the story behind “Little Bottles” and her fear of flying was quite good).

After seeing Maia Sharp live, I think she’d be well served with a solo, acoustic live album.  While she’s had success with full-band efforts, and recent, country-psychedelia albums, her great songwriting shines the best with just her voice and acoustic guitar.  

Just a quick note about Natalie’s: great staff, great pizza, and oddly, there was another concert going on simultaneously (blues artist, Curtis Salgado) in a much larger room, just down the hall.  Yet, the sound proofing ensured you didn’t hear any bleed over from either room.  And, they have music almost every night of the week.  —Tony Peters

415 – Maia Sharp – new album, Reckless Thoughts, and Songwriting With Soldiers

Nashville transplant Maia Sharp has written songs for folks like Cher and Tricia Yearwood, and produced the likes of Art Garfunkel.  Her last album, Mercy Rising, was one of our favorite albums.  In our review, we called it the “best thing she’s ever done.”  So, here we are with the followup, her 9th solo album, entitled Reckless Thoughts.

She talks about how much fun it was to co-write her catchy, new single, “Kind,” with Dean Fields and Melinda Leigh Smith. How she adds some of the tasty “extras” to her songs in her home studio.

She also tells us about how she got involved with Songwriting With Soldiers, where she meets with a veteran or family member, and writes a song about their story.

Get Ready For the Return of Quadrophonic Sound Courtesy of Rhino Records (review)

Rhino reissues long out of print Quad mixes of four classic albums

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies

Jefferson Starship – Red Octopus

J. Geils Band – Nightmares

Black Sabbath in Quadio will absolutely blow your mind

File this under “things I thought I’d never see again” – QUADROPHONIC records!  

For a refresher, Quadrophonic was an ill-fated bit of 1970’s technology with good intentions: take the standard, two speaker (stereo) audio setup and expand it to four (quadrophonic).  The idea was to have sound coming at the listener from all directions – as if he/she were actually onstage WITH the musicians.  The trouble is, the audio equipment was prone to malfunctioning and quadrophonic records could only be played on quadrophonic equipment, which means you had to buy an entirely new setup.  Guess what?  Few people did and the technology faded away.

Five decades later, Rhino Records has dug back into the archives to make these unique, four-channel mixes once again available (now called Quadio).  The good news?  The technology is now reliable and the albums can be played on any Blu Ray player with 5.1 surround sound speakers.  Rhino first issued Quad sets from the Doobie Brothers and Chicago last year.  Now, they’ve chosen a quartet of classic albums in their next batch of releases.

Each album chosen is no accident.  Paranoid is arguably the greatest heavy metal album ever (much more on this below), while the J. Geils Band were one of the greatest live bands around (and who wouldn’t want to be in the middle of that?).  Billion Dollar Babies found Alice Cooper at the peak of their “shock rock” theater, and Jefferson Starship’s Red Octopus boasted not only guitar, keyboards and other typical rock instrumentation, but also one Papa John Creach on fiddle, making for an abundance of players to fill out the four speakers.

Listening to Paranoid from Black Sabbath in its Quadrophonic mix is like being in the middle of a battlefield. 

Those rifle sounds going left to right?  That’s Tony Iommi’s guitar.  That tank that just ran you over?  That’s Bill Ward’s drumming.  The wailing isn’t soldiers, it’s crazy man Ozzy Osbourne.  And, the real highlight is hearing Geezer Butler’s bass, fat and full, absolutely monsterous.  I was completely blown away by the sonic onslaught.  I’d always thought that Paranoid sounded kinda flat on CD.  Here?  Oh no, it’s like a caged tiger has been unleashed and is ready to wreck havoc on your ears.  

The hi hat drums on “Warpigs” jump from speaker to speaker, as does Ward’s tom fills.  However, the song doesn’t speed up at the end – something they apparently could not replicate in the quad environment.  “Paranoid” chugs along, Iommi’s guitars are like chainsaws out of each speaker, while “Planet Caravan”’ is more spacey, with bongos jumping from channel to channel.  Butler’s bass really thumps on “Iron Man.”  Then, wait til you hear Ward’s drum solo on “Rat Salad.”  Whoa.

Paranoid isn’t just the best album in this bunch.  It’s the greatest example of quadrophonic sound done right.  You are completely immersed in audio from all directions. And, this is the rare example of the quad mix blowing away the standard, stereo version.

As far as the other three releases?  They’ve all got their merits.  Red Octopus from Jefferson Starship really benefits from the quad technology by allowing each member to be spread out in the massive, four-channel mix.  The real treat on this album is the gorgeous Quadio mix of “Miracles.”  Marty Balin’s finest ballad is elevated here to the ethereal plane that it always aimed for.  The electric guitar flourishes seem to be shooting stars, darting from speaker to speaker, while the strings, background vocals and vibes are all more prominent.  I’d never noticed an acoustic guitar either.  

J. Geils Band’s Nightmares has the ubiquitous hit, “Musta Got Lost,” which sounds great here.  But, the real treat is “I’ll Be Coming Home” – the random people effects are everywhere, then the the soulful, stomping song just shines in this surrounding.  “Gettin’ Out” is also great – you really do feel like you’re in the middle of the action.  There are times though the overall sound is somewhat brittle here.

Billion Dollar Babies from Alice Cooper finds the band at their absolute peak.  The Quad mix really shows off producer Bob Ezrin’s genius – you get to hear each individual instrument more fully and really appreciate the theatrical element that they were going for.  The guitars from “Elected” jump all around speakers.  I do have to say that Alice’s voice seems too loud at times, overpowering everything else.  Also, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” seems to have lost some of its punch being so wide.

Each booklet contains photos of the quad mix reels (except Jefferson Starship) – that’s a nice touch.

Taken as a whole, the quad mixes of these four albums are a mixed bag.  But, it is cool to hear these albums in a completely different setting. Paranoid from Black Sabbath is the clear winner here.  —Tony Peters

414 – Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull – The Seven Decades Tour, and What He Really Thinks of A.I. Technology

One of the most recognizable figures in all of rock music, Ian Anderson has led Jethro Tull since it’s inception in 1967.  With over 30 albums to their credit, selling upwards of 60 million, the band is in rare company. 

The band just issued a brand-new album, called Røck Flüte, and now Anderson is readying the 7 Decades tour, coming to a city near you.

Ian talks about how he gets ready for a tour, how he assembles a setlist in each town, and how, surprisingly, he actually books the travel himself.  He touches on the roots of his latest album, as well as his opinion of A.I. technology.  He also reveals the three Jethro Tull songs he feels he needs to play at every show.  

413 – Beth Bombara – New Album, It All Goes Up

From St. Louis comes Beth Bombara, who’s been releasing her own music for about 15 years now. Her latest album, It All Goes Up, is her strongest to date, full of sonic textures and infectious melodies.  In her own words, the new project is an attempt to bring in “more light, more hope.” 

The songs range from the infectious “Everything I Wanted,” to the heavy rocker “Give Me a Reason.” The album was assembled with her longtime collaborator, Kit Hamon, and features frenetic guitar playing from Sam Golden, as well as a guest appearance by John Calvin Abney.

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