NRBQ – Tiddlywinks (review)

NRBQ – Tiddlywinks (Omnivore Recordngs)

In retrospect, this might be the band’s finest record

Every new album from NRBQ is an adventure.  From the get go, the band’s main focus was to play…everything.  What genre they are varies from song to song.  That ecclecticism made it impossible to market, but was an absolute joy to their devout followers.  

Tiddlywinks, the band’s eighth album, continues the remastering campaign from Omnivore, which began with the excellent box set, High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective in 2016.

This album just sounds fantastic. 

Engineer Tom Mark talks about all the work that went into this record in the liner notes.  Take, for example, the leadoff track, “Feel You Around Me.”  The bouncy beat and catchy melody mask the fact that there’s a lot going on here; layers of instruments (I swear there’s a ukulele in there somewhere), plus a soulful vocal from Al Anderson.  

That’s followed by one of NRBQ’s most famous tunes: “Me and the Boys,” one of the all-time great drivin’ tunes that just sounds better the further down you press the accelerator.  The song has been covered by everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Dave Edmunds, but there’s something more raw and off-kilter about the original – fantastic drumming from Tom Ardolino, and strange noises fading in and out.  Oh, a great vocal from Terry Adams too.

Since there was no way they were going to top that, the band shifts gears for the jumpin’ jazz of the “Music Goes Round and Around,” which dates back to the 1930’s and Tommy Dorsey.  Here, the band is on fire.  The Whole Wheat Horns are on full display while Adams hammers on clavinet.    

After those dizzying heights, it’s time to slow things down with bassist Joey Spampinato’s gorgeous, acoustic “Beverly.”  The harmonies will give you goosebumps and the clever keyboards add some nice flair.  Adams’ “That I Get Back Home” reminds me of Beatles’ around the Second Album era (dig the tasty, Rockabilly-infused guitar solo from Anderson, and the clever use of flange in certain places).  

And, as in all NRBQ albums, just when you thought they were gonna play it straight…nope.  “Roll Call” is, um, hard to describe.  It starts slow with just Adams singing and piano, then bursts into this incredibly catchy section featuring chiming guitars and keys, while he asks “are you here,” but then the songs quickly drops into country during the verses.  

Side two of the original album opens with the boogie woogie of “Want You to Feel Good Too.”  Geez, Anderson had a knack for writing beautiful, midtempo numbers that should’ve been hits on soft rock stations (“Ridin’ In My Car,” anyone?).  “Never Take the Place of You” would fit perfectly on some of these Yacht Rock stations, pounding piano, soulful vocal, and even “ooos” on the background vocals.  I mean, it could be Robbie Dupree or Stephen Bishop.

Things get back to rockin’ with Spampinato’s “You Can’t Hide,” but turn cute with Adams’ “Definition of Love,” featuring a tasty, countrified solo by Anderson.  Things end on the wordless, “Hobbies,” which features some Monk-ish piano plinking and honkin’ sax, the entire things ends with Adams moaning.

They’ve unearthed a few bonus tracks as well.  The harmony-laden “I Don’t Think of…” reminds me of classic Buck Owens, while Adams’ “Big Goodbyes” sounds disjointed until the chorus arrives.   There’s also a pair of commercials (one radio, one TV) featuring wrestler sensation, Captain Lou Albano, that you just have to hear to believe.  

While diversity has always been a hallmark of NRBQ’s albums, Tiddlywinks may, in fact, be the most solid collection in their catalog.  Literally, everything here works – there’s not a miss in the bunch.  Which makes Tiddlywinks an excellent entry point into the glorious world of NRBQ.  —Tony Peters

A Charlie Brown Christmas Soundtrack Gets the Royal Treatment (review)

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas (Deluxe Editions) (Craft Recordings)

A holiday classic gets a makeover and the results are thrilling

Arguably the most famous jazz album in history, A Charlie Brown Christmas, has gotten the deluxe treatment with a series of new releases from Craft Recordings.  Most importantly, this classic album has been freshly remixed, breathing new life into this holiday favorite.  Larger editions include multiple discs, showcasing hours of never-before heard material from these legendary sessions.  In addition, Craft has reissued the classic, original LP in a fancy, “Gold Foil” edition,”  making the outer package now equal to the fantastic music inside.

First, let’s talk about this brand new, 2022 remix.  

Absolutely stunning

In a side-by-side comparison, the new remix is superior in every way.  In all prior versions, tape hiss is audible throughout the album (not surprising – these recordings are from 1965).  The new remix virtually eliminates all of this – it’s like peeling a layer of film off the sound.  As a result, the music leaps out of the speakers.  

Bassist Fred Marshall benefits the most from this new version: his bass is warmer, and you can hear his fingers on the strings.  Yet, drummer Jerry Granelli also shines – you can really hear his brush work on the classic, “Skating.”  Vince Guaraldi certainly benefits as well – you really feel the low notes of his piano on “Christmas is Coming.”

You don’t have to have a great ear to hear the improvements.  Take the lead-off track, “O Tannebaum.”  On the original version, Guaraldi’s piano opens and you immediately hear tape hiss.  At :37 seconds, the band joins in and Marshall’s bass is distorted.  It stays that way for the entire song.  On this new version, the bass is big, full and free of distortion – a VAST improvement.

The new remix is available in a “Deluxe Edition” on LP, CD and streaming.  The first disc is the new remix, while a second features bonus material; never-before heard, early versions of this hallowed material.  For those wanting even more, there’s a “Super Deluxe Edition,” featuring 5 discs, including a Blu Ray of high-resolution tracks, a 59-page, hardback book, and several discs of previously unreleased outtakes.  Especially interesting is a much-faster take of “Skating” (it’s speed is dizzying).

As if that weren’t enough, the original vinyl (featuring the standard mix) is also getting the royal treatment.  For a limited time, they’ve issued a “Gold Foil” edition, featuring raised images.  Many of these versions have special colored vinyl, only available at certain retailers.

The music of A Charlie Brown Christmas has surpassed the original cartoon that birthed it.  Many people consider it the greatest holiday album of all time.  And, some of the tracks, like “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating,” rank as some of the most recognizable songs in the history of recorded music.  With this ambitious reissue campaign, Craft Recordings has finally put these recordings in the light they deserve.  —Tony Peters

405 – Dar Williams – New Book, How to Write a Song That Matters

Dar Williams first garnered attention with her song, “When I Was a Boy,” from her album, The Honesty Room, almost 30 years ago. Since then, she’s issued nine more studio albums, collaborated with many artists, and written several books. Her latest is How to Write a Song That Matters from Hachette Books, to which fellow songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter says “The wisdom and the lessons she shares will illuminate not only the world of songwriters but anyone who seeks the sustenance of a creative life and practice.”

Williams tells us how she went from writing her own songs to teaching others how to write their songs. She reveals that, even if you don’t play an instrument, you can still compose a song. She also discusses ways to positively critique other songs, and how to start an open mic.

Various Artists – Halloween Nuggets: Haunted Underground Classics (review)

Various Artists – Halloween Nuggets: Haunted Underground Classics (Liberation Hall/Rock Beat)

Spice up that party with these spooky obscurities!

Halloween season is upon us.  Unfortunately, that means we get “Monster Mash,” “Ghostbusters,” “Thriller,” and a few other tired classics, over and over again.  But, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Liberation Hall has just issued Halloween Nuggets: Haunted Underground Classics, to mix things up.  

Out of the 21 songs on this collection, the only ones you’re probably going to recognize are the three movie trailers (for The Blob, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and the Creature From the Black Lagoon).  That leaves 18 Halloween-themed songs that will sound fresh to your ears, and will liven up that drab party.

Bobby Bare is probably the biggest name on this collection – he’s featured with “Vampira.” Then, there’s Ervinna & the Stylers, who one-up Redbone for their take on “Witch Queen of New Orleans.”  

“It” from Jonny Fraser and the Regalaires is a swampy instrumental fueled by a honky sax and tinkling piano.  Some of the primitive sounds, like the wind blowing and monster noises in “Rockin’ in the Graveyard” from Jackie Morningstar, add to the charm.

There’s a good deal of instrumentals here – “Graveyard” by the Phantom Five is one of the best tracks here, it’s kind of the haunted version of the surf classic, “Pipeline,” complete with a similar sax solo, while “Devil Driver’s Theme” from The Vettes, mixes car sound effects with werewolf sounds to great result, and Richard Rome’s “Ghost a Go Go” eschews the typical guitar/sax approach and replaces it with organ and harp.

Things go from the strange to the absurd with The Elites doing “Jack the Ripper” who is “decreasing the population / disturbing the situation.”  “Zombie Stomp” by Billy Ghoulston has a Motown feel to it.

This groovy collection is available to stream, and, in physical form on CD and vinyl.

About my only complaint with this great collection is the lack of liner notes.  It would’ve been nice to have a line or two about each song – at least telling us what year every one of the tracks was from.  

Wake the dead with this great new collection from Liberation Hall.  —Tony Peters

404 – Doug “Cosmo” Clifford of CCR – New Album, California Gold, Features Bobby Whitlock of Derek and the Dominoes

Doug “Cosmo” Clifford was the drummer for legendary rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival. He and bassist Stu Cook formed Creedence Clearwater Revisited, and helped keep that great music alive. He’s continuing to go through his “Cosmos Vault,” releasing tapes that he made over the years with his musical buddies.

His latest release is California Gold, a collaboration with Derek and the Dominoes’ vocalist Bobby Whitlock. The tracks also feature the great Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass.

Clifford talks about how he and Whitlock came together, and how, unfortunately, the project never took off. He also talks about the newly released Live at the Royal Albert Hall concert movie, which is available now to stream on Netflix.

403 – Bob Cowsill of the Cowsills – New Album, Rhythm of the World

The Cowsills are the original family band. Formed in Rhode Island, the group started out with a trio of brothers: Bill, Bob & Barry, but eventually grew to include brothers John and Paul, sister Susan and mother Barbara. They had big hits with “The Rain, the Park and Other Things,” “Indian Lake,” and “Hair.”

The Cowsills were the inspiration for the hit TV series The Partridge Family. Then, years later, the group got their own documentary, “Family Band,” which is available on streaming services.

At a time when division is at an all-time high, we need some of that familial harmony once again to bring us together. The Cowsills have regrouped for their first new studio album in almost 30 years, called Rhythm of the World, from Omnivore Recordings.

We talk with founding member Bob Cowsill on how he, brother Paul and sister Susan, put this new album project together, with the trio of them writing the bulk of the songs. He reveals how one song was inspired by a saying from Howard Kaylan of the Turtles, another was written about how Hurricane Katrina affected their family.

402 – Jim Babjak of the Smithereens – The Lost Album

The Smithereens, formed in 1980, with their unique brand of back-to-basics rock n’ roll, seemed the polar opposite of what was being embraced by radio and MTV at the time. Yet, the band became quite popular on both college radio and the fledgling video network, scoring hits with “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” “Only a Memory,” “A Girl Like You” and others.

At the dawn of the Nineties, several bands, including Nirvana, began to cite the Smithereens as a major influence on the burgeoning grunge scene. Ironically, Capitol Records dropped the band because they wanted to focus more on grunge bands.

In 1993, the band entered the studio without a label, self producing for the first time in many years, laying down a bunch of tracks that were shelved when they signed a new record contract with RCA, eventually issuing A Date With the Smithereens. Now, almost 30 years later, these recordings get a proper release as The Lost Album, from Sunset Blvd Records.

We talk with guitarist Jim Babjak about sifting through these 30-year old recordings, and also what’s next for the Smithereens.

401 – Cheryl Pawelski & Brad Rosenberger of Omnivore Recordings – New Buck Owens, Dean Torrence, and Cowsills

Omnivore Recordings has become a music fan’s dream reissue label.  They’ve done archival releases from the likes of the Beach Boys, Big Star, Raspberries, Jellyfish, Laura Nyro, and NRBQ, just to name a few. 

Their latest batch of fall releases is diverse: Bakersfield Gold – a two-disc set featuring every Buck Owens’ song to hit the Top Ten; Dean Torrence & Friends – The Teammates, tracing the history of the other half of Jan & Dean; and Rhythm of the World – the first new studio album in 30 years from the Cowsills.

We chat with label co-heads Cheryl Pawelski and Brad Rosenberger and get insight into how these releases originated, plus what formats they’ll be available on.  In addition, they give some details on what the label is cooking up next.

400 – Dwight Twilley – Wild Dogs reissue and possible new material

If Elvis Presley and the Beatles had a baby it would be Dwight Twilley – that’s how one writer described the Tulsa, Oklahoma native, who had top 20 hits with 1975’s “I’m on Fire,” and 1984’s “Girls.” Twilley has made a career out of making great melodic rock which some call “power pop.” His music continues to be used in popular culture, like his song, “Looking For the Magic,” which was featured prominently in the 2011 horror film You’re Next.

Sandwiched among those successes is the album Wild Dogs from 1986. Produced by Val Garay, who helmed big albums from the Motels and Linda Ronstadt, the record contains some of Twilley’s strongest material of his whole career. But, things got derailed when the head of his record label got indicted on payola charges.

Now, Iconoclassic Records has finally put this underappreciated album back in print, including bonus tracks. Twilley talks about working with Kim Carnes on the song, “Hold On, and teaming with partner Phil Seymour one last time for “Shooting Stars.” He also tells us how soon we should expect new material from him.

John Coltrane – My Favorite Things (60th Anniversary) (Atlantic)

John Coltrane – My Favorite Things (Atlantic)

New reissue of this jazz classic features improved sound and both mono & stereo mixes together for the first time 

John Coltrane’s brief career featured many high points:  Giant Steps, from 1960, was like the shot heard ‘round the world, signaling that the saxophonist was blazing a trail all his own.  A Love Supreme, from 1965,  saw ‘Trane reaching for the heavens, and actually getting there.  Sandwiched somewhere in the middle, My Favorite Things did something else impossible, it actually gave the shy musician a bona fide hit, both in the best-selling album, and in a highly-edited version of the title track as a single.

There are several things that set this 60th anniversary edition apart from everything else that came before it.  First, this marks the first time that both the common stereo, and the hard-to-find mono mixes, have both been on the same collection together.  While stereo quickly became the preferred way of listening to music, this mono mix is superior in just about every way.

Take the title track, “My Favorite Things,” for comparison.  There’s a distinct tape dropout at :29 into the song that’s not there on the mono mix. The stereo version of “Everytime We Say Goodbye” seems distorted at times, while the mono is clear.  Same with “Summertime” – the bass seems to drop in and out of the stereo version, while the mono stays constant.  

While the stereo mix may not be superior to the mono, this version is the best these tracks have ever sounded.  Listening to previously released editions, they all have some sort of noise reduction that muffled things.  Here, you can definitely hear some tape hiss, but the tracks have much more life to them – they really breathe.

Another selling point for this release is the excellent liner notes, written by Ben Ratliff.  Especially telling are the quotes from Coltrane himself on this project, which he admits was his favorite.  There’s also some really great photos of ‘Trane too.

Imagine an alternate universe where they actually played Coltrane on hit radio stations.  Well, this actually happened because of the success of this album.  Atlantic Records released an edited version of “My Favorite Things “(chopped down from 14 minutes to 2:47!) that actually got considerable airplay.

My Favorite Things is the closest John Coltrane ever came to a “hit” record.  This latest edition, especially for the inclusion of the superior mono mix, is the one to seek out.  —Tony Peters

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