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)
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
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.
Van Duren came out of the same Memphis music scene as cult heroes Big Star and has played with various members of that band. After years of making melodic music in relative obscurity, Duren was approached by a pair of Australian filmmakers who wanted to make a documentary about him. The resulting movie, Waiting – the Van Duren Story, has played at a few film festivals, but has yet to secure wide distribution.
More importantly, Omnivore Recordings assembled a soundtrack to the film, which helped introduce Duren’s music to a whole new audience. Now, that same label has issued the artist’s first two solo albums – Are You Serious? and Idiot Optimism – the former being highly collectible among power pop aficionados, the latter getting its first official release.
We chat with the Memphis native about twice auditioning for Big Star, and what he learned from guitarist Chris Bell. Plus, why after recording his second album, he walked away without it being released, and the prospect of new music from his duo Loveland Duren in 2021.
Allman Brothers Band – The Final Note – Painters Mill Music Fair – Owings Mills, MD – 10/17/71 (Allman Brothers Band Records)
Recently discovered cassette of the final performance of the great Duane Allman
Duane Allman was just 24 years old when he was killed in a motorcycle accident in October of 1971. After many years of stellar work as a session guitarist, his own Allman Brothers Band was just starting to achieve their full potential when his life was snuffed out. Over the years, virtually every second of his brief performance career has been issued in some form or another. But, The Final Note is something completely unique – here, for the first time ever, is Allman’s final concert performance before he passed away, just 10 days later.
We have Sam Idas, an Allman fan and former DJ, to thank for unearthing this gem. He was given permission to interview Gregg Allman after this show and brought along his cassette recorder. While sitting in the audience, he decided, what the heck, and pressed record. Little did he know that he was documenting Duane’s final show. He’d forgotten all about this tape until a friend asked if he still had it.
This is NOT a professional recording. In fact, one of the first things you hear as “Statesboro Blues” begins is Idas saying “testing, testing.” The microphone was built in to the recorder, so it isn’t great fidelity. At first, you’ll probably be put off by the low fi quality. But, give your ears a few minutes to adjust and you’ll be amazed at what’s here.
At first, there seems to be a problem with the house sound, as Duane asks “are the mics louder than the music”? Be patient, the sound actually gets better as the night goes on. Duane seems to be in a jovial mood as he clowns between songs (accusing the crowd of being on Qualudes) and verbally sings the count-offs of several tunes.
“Trouble No More” features some fantastic interplay between Allman’s slide work and Dickey Betts equally liquid fretwork. “One Way Out” is just blistering, one of the finest versions I’ve ever heard – both guitars seem to be going for broke, while Gregg wails through an extended ending.
Things go up a notch when they invite saxophonist Juicy Carter up for the final three songs.
This addition really makes “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” sound more like Ornette Coleman than Southern rock. Both drummers add aspects that I’ve never heard on any other rendition. Too bad this fantastic version gets cut off (Idas had to turn over the cassette!)
For the encore, Duane asks “what would you like to hear”? Even in those early days, the crowd roared for “Whippin’ Post,” which must’ve have come at a point where the band was running out of time…because he then says, “a ten minute ‘Whippin’ Post,’ the man says. Some things you just have no control over.” The version they do is ferocious – still clocking in at over 12 minutes, hard rock devolving into freeform near the end.
Sure, this is a bootleg quality recording. But, it’s also a holy grail for fans: a final glimpse of the mastery of Duane Allman, and the swan song of the first incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band. —Tony Peters
His sophomore album gets its first official release
Van Duren’s debut album, Are You Serious? garnered enough critical acclaim and radio airplay in the late Seventies for his then-label to ask for a followup. In many ways, things were different this time around. For one, Duren played just about everything but drums on his debut. For Idiot Optimism, he enlists an actual band, and the results are more cohesive, especially with the rhythm section. Also, there was a concerted effort to rock more – some of the ballads on the first LP hadn’t gone over well in the live setting.
The album opens with the excellent “Bear With Me All the Way,” which features some fine, hi hat-led drumming by Mickey Curry, and great interplay between the two guitarists, Tom MacGregor and Freddie Tane. That’s followed by the Chris Bell song, “Make a Scene.” While Bell was certainly a genius, this rendition is superior – Steve Buslowe’s bass is all over the place, the drums meaty and Duren’s vocals are raw (dig those groovy keyboards near the end too!).
“Tennessee, I’m Trying” is a mid tempo number that deals with homesickness, while “Convincing Convictions” is another example of Duren showing off his rock vocal skills. “That” has a funk feel, somewhat Steely Dan-esque to it, and the band is up to the task. Duren didn’t write too many sing a long choruses, but “Life in Layers” is an exception.
Sonically, this album sounds great, although songs like “Torn in Half” and “Hand Over Hand” do have keyboards that certain date the music. Duren revisits “Andy, Please,” a track he co-wrote and recorded with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens several years earlier. This version is decent, it just doesn’t live up to the original, which is thankfully available on the Waiting soundtrack.
The album drags a little near the end – “Woman Needs Man Needs Woman” and “Reminds Me of Me” try too hard to rock and could use a little more melody, while “Mabel (I’m Amazed),” despite its clever title, kinda plods along. The album redeems at the end for the medley of “Love at the Heart of it/Mad at the Moon.” Honestly, chop of few of these off and this would’ve made a great single LP.
Any momentum that Duren had was derailed when his label demanded that he take out a loan to cover promotion and pressing of the album (hmmm…isn’t that what a label is for???). Instead of agreeing to those terms, Duren walked, leaving these fine recordings sitting on the shelf for years (Idiot Optimism did get a semi-official release in 1999 on a Japanese label, but this version has superior sound).
I think Are You Serious? is the better album (I, for one, enjoy the ballads on that one mixed in the with rockers). That being said, Idiot Optimism still has plenty of great songs to recommend to any fan of melodic rock n’ roll. –Tony Peters
Van Duren – Are You Serious? (Omnivore Recordings)
A power pop masterpiece gets its long-overdue respect
A lot of us were introduced to Van Duren’s music through the excellent documentary soundtrack Waiting: The Van Duren Story, which came out in 2019 (read our review here). Now, Omnivore Recordings has reissued his first two solo records, Are You Serious? and Idiot Optimism – and there’s a lot of great music to discover here.
The debut opens with “Chemical Fire,” which features a crazy effect on the vocals, and a frenetic guitar solo. There’s also excellent interplay between the guitars. “The Love Inside” is fueled by strummed acoustic guitars and contains a catchy, Beatle-esque chorus. On “Oh Babe,” Duren sounds like Emit Rhodes through his gentle vocal delivery and melodic chord changes.
His inner Eric Carmen emerges on the piano-led “Waiting,” which features a clever use of pounding drums, and a somewhat dated keyboard solo. “New Year’s Eve” is a killer rocker, with a gritty Duren vocal.
The standout is “Grow Yourself Up” – kind of a hybrid of Todd Rundgen melodicism and Steely Dan sophistication, it was the song that inspired the Australian filmmakers to contact Duren for a documentary. The ethereal “Guaranteed” echoes Chris Bell of Big Star, whom Duren played with after that band’s breakup, while Rundgren definitely seems the influence on “Stupid Enough.”
One great aspect of this record is that it’s got a great mix of elements, from the gentle “Good To Me (For the Time Being),” with its descending guitar line, to the Caribbean-flavored, slightly-off kilter “For a While.” The album closes with the only song not completely written by Duren, “The Love That I Love,” co-penned by Big Star alumn Jody Stephens.
Even more impressive is the fact that Duren played virtually every instrument sans drums, yet it still sounds like a band effort – nothing stuffy or overproduced.
Are You Serious? is a fantastic debut album – arguably a stronger effort than those by similar artists like the Raspberries or Artful Dodger. The one thing Van Duren didn’t have that those two groups did was a major record deal. Now that this is finally being made available from Omnivore, we can truly appreciate this killer power pop album. –Tony Peters
NRBQ has been around for over 50 years, flying under the radar, all the while blending rock, jazz, blues, rockabilly, country and whatever else they see fit, into their own unique brand of music. The band teamed up with Omnivore Recordings several years ago, and that collaboration has netted a career-spanning, 5-disc collection called High Noon, and a 5-song EP, Happy Talk, among other great releases.
The latest partnership is the band’s first-ever rarities collection, entitled In-Frequencies. This new, 16-track set literally spans the band’s entire career, starting with a sound check (recorded in a bowling alley!) that dates back to 1968 all the way to 2018 and the band’s version of the classic standard “April Showers.”
We chat with band leader and keyboardist Terry Adams about some of the crazy stories behind rarities, like “Sho’ Need Love,” performed by the Dickens (who were actually NRBQ roadies); “Orioles,” a track written for, but never given to, the Baltimore baseball team; and their unlikely cover of “Chapel of Love.” Plus he tells us of a new NRBQ album that should be issued early next year.
Little Richard – King of Rock n’ Roll (Omnivore Recordings)
Little Richard recorded in Muscle Shoals lives up to the hype!
There is only one Little Richard. His 1950’s singles for Specialty Records stand as some of the most electrifying music ever put to tape (we gush about them in this article).
Of course, part of his mystique is that he kept swearing off rock n’ roll as “devil’s music,” only to return with one comeback after another over the years. In 1970, Richard signed with Reprise Records and began one such resurgence. Omnivore Recordings has just reissued a pair of albums from that time period, The Rill Thing and King of Rock n’ Roll, both long out of print.
For The Rill Thing, Little Richard ventured down to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Those hallowed walls had given birth to countless soul classics from artists like Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin and Clarence Carter. But, Richard isn’t really a soul singer. So, in order for this to work, he still needs to be Little Richard. Thankfully, he does.
The opening of “Freedom Blues” is sung acapella, before being joined by the funky rhythm section. This simple plea for peace and harmony was recorded 50 years ago, but the message still needs heeded (it also features a great sax solo). That’s followed by the phenomenal “Greenwood, Mississippi,” penned by guitarist Travis Wommack, a member of these sessions. The churning track has a Creedence feel to it, but grooves harder than anything Fogerty and Co. ever laid down.
Much of the album is written or co-written by Richard himself, showing that he wasn’t short on ideas. “Somebody Saw You” finds a funky groove, while his shouts elicit goosebumps on “Spreadin’ Natta, What’s the Matter” – this is the same guy that did “Tutti Frutti” 15 years earlier – yet, no time sounds like it has passed. The title track, “The Rill Thing,” was the result of a single-take jam, with Richard directing each musician to take a solo; the entire thing lasts over ten minutes, but really shows off the talents of each player.
“Dew Drop Inn” starts with a drum fill from Richard’s classic “Keep a Knockin’” before launching into a stop/start rocker that really wouldn’t sound out of place back in 1955. Richard was a fan of classic country music – still, Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” is a surprise. Here, he slows down the pace, really letting the track simmer. He also covers the Beatles on “I Saw Her Standing There” (Paul McCartney has been a lifelong Richard fan). The horns here are a nice touch.
There’s an interesting variety of bonus material here too. “Shake a Hand (If You Can)” was originally recorded by Specialty Records’ labelmate Faye Adams way back in 1953. Here, Richard teamed with Atlantic Records’ guru Jerry Wexler. The result is a little less funky than Muscle Shoals, but still a winner. There’s also a truncated version of “I Saw Her Standing There” in mono. But, the real treat is a pair of radio ads that Richard records himself, and it’s Little Richard through and through – he says “it’s the best thing I’ve ever done” and he sure sounds convincing!
The bottom line – The Rill Thing shows Little Richard at the top of his game backed by fantastic players from Muscle Shoals. It is a real diamond in the rough in his catalog.
After the surprise success of The Rill Thing, Richard went right back to work, issuing King of Rock n’ Roll the following year. Honestly, this is more what you might expect from him. Produced by H.B. Barnum, everything is over the top, and I do mean over the top – from the front cover, depicting Richard sitting high on a throne, to the tracks, which are full of cheesy horns and backup singers. Yes, he even talks inbetween the songs, telling the “crowd” to “shut up.”
The main issue here is that the backing is just meh – it doesn’t cook, and after the previous year’s success of Muscle Shoals, this sounds like Buddha Records fare, like “Yummy Yummy Yummy” – like the opposite of soul. A perfect example here is Richard’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” – he sings pretty well, but the backup band sounds like a novelty act. Too bad they didn’t try this at FAME studios.
For “Dancing in the Street” – just compare the drum sound here to what was on The Rill Thing. These drums sound like milk jugs – flat. “Midnight Special” has a train-like rhythm, but never really takes off, while “Born on the Bayou” comes of as “Chick a Boom” instead of sincere.
The one exception is his version of “The Way You Do The Things You Do” – it’s ragged, Richard’s voice is flat at times, but the arrangement is sparse, with the bass upfront.
Richard did write a couple of songs here – “In the Name” is a decent, mid-tempo soul number, while “Green Power,” co-written by Barnum, is a so-so funk track – again, nothing spectacular.
Is the King of Rock n’ Roll still a good time, yes. But compared to what proceeded it, it’s a little bit of a letdown.
Both reissues have insightful liner notes written by the great Bill Dahl, giving some historical relevance to these mostly-forgotten tracks.
We tend to lean on Little Richard’s early recordings. Let’s hear it for Omnivore for reissuing these albums, showing us that Little Richard was still making great music in the 1970’s. —Tony Peters
Ronnie Milsap – The Best of Ronnie Milsap (Craft Recordings)
An excellent, easy to digest overview of one of country music’s biggest crossover stars
Ronnie Milsap is one of the biggest-selling country music artists of all time, scoring an unbelievable 35 #1 hits on the country charts, placing him third all time, behind George Strait and Conway Twitty. But Milsap’s true gift was his ability to cross over to other charts (something neither Strait or Twitty were particularly good at). This puts him more in line with similar artists like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.
Craft Recordings has just acquired a big chunk of Milsap’s catalog from the late 70’s to the early 90’s and intend on giving this legendary artist the proper reissue treatment. While there have been a plethora of albums that have tried to compile his long career, The Best of is a mere dozen songs – concentrating on his crossover pop chart successes of the late Seventies and Early Eighties, arguably his most important period.
The set opens with the lush “Smoky Mountain Rain,” which is a brilliant mix of country and pop – just listen to the way the strings enhance the song. “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” with its slinky guitar and mellow delivery, hide the darker lyrics of a scorned lover – it became his biggest Pop hit (#5). His excellent cover of Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now” yielded Milsap a crossover, Top 20 hit as well.
“Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)” is another clever reworking of an old standard, borrowing the chorus of the classic song, but making something nostalgic, yet fresh, in the process. “Don’t You Know How Much I Love You” is pure, bouncy pop, yet it wasn’t as big a hit. Milsap had a knack for tooling things for a larger audience – just listen to the drums that pound on “He Got You” for proof.
“Stranger in My House” is a definite stand out – led by a pounding Rhodes piano and featuring a riff reminiscent of “Layla,” it stretched the boundaries of what was considered “country” at the time (and was actually banned on certain stations for sounding “too much like Led Zeppelin”). It does feature a fantastic guitar solo by Bruce Dees.
While there have been more complete compilations of Ronnie Milsap’s music, Craft Recordings’ lean Best of is guaranteed to keep your attention, and offers a great introduction to more great reissues, hopefully coming soon. Tony Peters