Category Archives: Reviews

The Replacements’ Best Album Gets a Badly-Needed Remix, and More

Replacements – Tim (Let it Bleed Edition) (Sire/Rhino)

New remix is how this album should’ve sounded when it came out

I’m a huge Replacements’ fan and I hated Tim when it came out.

I had purchased their previous album, Let it Be, in 1984, after hearing “I Will Dare” on the Duke college station, WXDU.  I remember the DJ mentioning that R.E.M.’s Peter Buck had played on the track and that was enough for me.  Soon, I became enthralled with that entire album.  Punk nonsense like “Gary’s Got a Boner” rubbed shoulders with the gut-wrenching “Unsatisfied.”  There was the vicious “We’re Coming Out,” and the drunken piano “Androgynous,” and even their roughshod cover of Kiss’ “Black Diamond.”  It was raw, and somehow both flippant and sincere.  

And then, the ‘Mats (as they’re affectionately known) signed with a major label, Sire Records. The ensuing album, Tim, lacked the aggression that I had come to love from the band.  I remember first noticing how the drums sounded like cardboard, and the guitars were tinny.  Everything was awash in this reverb, like an old Elvis record, but muted.  My worst fears had been realized – The Replacements had signed to a major label and had indeed sold out.  Produced by Tommy Erdelyi, aka Tommy Ramone – I question what this guy was thinking back then.

There were good songs – I remember liking “Left of the Dial” – an ode to college radio, the rocker “Bastards of Young,” and the catchy “Kiss Me on the Bus” – but I couldn’t get past the lousy sound.  Only the bleak, “Here Comes a Regular,” seemed to rise above the sonic flaws.

Tim is the only Replacements album I don’t own on LP.  I did finally grab it on CD, but, it actually sounded worse than I remembered (there’s a reason – see below).  

Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one unsatisfied with the sound of Tim.  Rhino Records has just issued Tim (Let it Bleed Edition), a 4-CD, 1-LP box set, the highlight being a fresh remix from Ed Stasium, who had worked on albums from the Ramones and Smithereens.  

It’s about damn time.

These fantastic songs are finally put in the correct light.

The first thing you notice is that the godawful echo is gone.  Also, the original mix is mostly mono (why?).  Here, Stasium chose to spread out the guitars, so everything packs a big punch, and the drums are meatier.  Take the catchy “Kiss Me on the Bus” – the original mix is flat, listless, mostly mono.  This new version is superior in every way.  There’s an audible acoustic guitar in one channel, while an electric guitar chugs in the other.  And, the bass – completely buried before, is fat and driving.  The guitars on the original “Bastards of Young” sound like needles.  Here, Stasium gives them balls.  

I saw the ‘Mats twice, so I always knew what they were capable of – but their studio output just doesn’t show it.  This new mix really does sound more dangerous, unbridled.  

For some of the other songs, it’s like a film has been peeled off, revealing the actual music.  “Waitress in the Sky” is one example – the new mix exposes guitars and really good harmonies that you barely make out in the original.  The anthemic “Let of the Dial” just jumps out of the speakers in the new iteration.

“Swingin Party” is the band’s most-streamed song (in large part due to a 2013 Lorde cover).  The original has a strange percussion sound which has been corrected.  In the new mix, the instruments are spread out, giving the track more life.  “Little Mascara” has an additional minute added to the new version, which features an out-of-his-mind guitar solo from Bob Stinson.

Perhaps the most revealing improvement is “Here Comes a Regular.” Stasium decided to mix out the dated synth, instead finding a forgotten piano part, which adds an additional level of sadness.  The synth finally emerges in the middle, building more tension.  Westerberg’s voice is more upfront – you really feel the melancholy in his delivery.

Every CD version of Tim, and thus, streaming as well, was pulled from an inferior tape which made everything sound even more brittle.  Disc 2 of this box set is an attempt to correct this.  They’ve taken the original album mix and tried to make it sound as good as possible.  Most notably, it seems they’ve tried to boost the bass, but I still prefer the remix!  

Disc 3 features outtakes and alternate versions, including several cut with the legendary Alex Chilton producing.  Strangely, the band attempted “Can’t Hardly Wait” numerous times – fast, slow, even one with cello, and Westerberg wasn’t happy with any of them. It would eventually come out on their next record, Pleased to Meet Me.

Disc 4 features a previously-unreleased concert from Chicago from early 1986.  Sloppy as usual, but good fun.  The first track sounds muffled, but eventually they get the sound right.  Bob Stinson really does shine here – you really do get to appreciate his unbridled approach to guitar.  Some of the covers, including “Hitchin a Ride” are kinda goofy, although “Black Diamond” is really good.  Actually, as the set goes on, you can tell that the band is just ad libbing everything and running on pure adrenaline.  Westerberg asks for requests as the band will literally play anything.  Their early anthem, “Kids Don’t Follow” is followed by the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man.”  The covers are there, but they actually play them all the way through for a change.  The guys sound completely out of their minds by the last track, “Go.”  28 tracks – it’s a dizzying testament to how great this band (sometimes) was live.

The box comes with a big booklet with a lengthy essay by “Mats historian Bob Mehr.  You really do get a blow-by-blow account of the band, and their penchant for fucking up, time after time.  Truth is, Tim’s bad mix had nothing to do with them – it just wasn’t representative of what these songs should’ve sounded like.  This new mix is the real deal.

Tim finally sounds like the greatest Replacements record it always should’ve been.  —Tony Peters

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

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

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

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

Bill Evans Trio – Waltz For Debby (vinyl review)

Bill Evans Trio – Waltz For Debby (Riverside/Craft)

More expensive?  Yes.  Worth it?  100 percent.

Craft Recordings continue to add to their resurrected Original Jazz Classics series, featuring 180-gram vinyl, high quality jackets, and faithful reproductions of the front and back cover artwork.  This time, they’ve reissued titles from the Mal Waldron Sextet, Yusef Lateef and Bill Evans.  They sent us Waltz For Debby by the legendary Bill Evans Trio for review.

This may be the finest sounding jazz vinyl record I’ve ever heard.

The instruments leap from the speakers.  Evans’ piano is gorgeous, and those high notes are crisp, while Scott LaFaro’s bass is deep and resonating, you can hear his fingers sliding on the neck for solos, and Paul Motian’s brushwork is crystal clear.  Recorded at the Village Vanguard club in New York, you can clearly hear glasses clinking and light conversation.  I tested this new version against a DOL pressing that we had here at the office, and the results were immediately audible.  This new Craft edition makes you feel as if you’re in the club with the trio – a much wider range of fidelity. 

June 25, 1961, the Bill Evans Trio booked five concerts (each around a half hour) at the Village Vanguard in New York, with the intention of getting enough material for a new album.  Just ten days after these historic performances, bassist Scott LaFaro would perish in an auto accident.  The first album to come from this date was Sunday at the Village Vanguard.  Largely considered one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, it was assembled as a tribute to the pioneering bassist.

Waltz For Debby arrived six months later, featuring more performances from this date.  Honestly, I feel these are actually better representative of the trio as a whole.  Sunday featured a lot of LaFaro soloing, which was impressive, for sure.  But here, the trio seem more cohesive, and also it’s more of a showcase for Evans’ melodic artistry.  

The album opens with the standard, “My Foolish Heart,” and Evans begins with the familiar first few lines, but then starts to stretch the harmonics of the song.  The other two members seem restrained here – LaFaro does begin to give counterpoint to Evans’ piano about midway through, while Motian starts to make it rain with his brushstrokes.

But, “Waltz For Debby” immediately changes things – LaFaro and Evans both play notes that cascade back and forth.  After a minute, Motian gets things moving with brushes, and both bass and piano begin a dialogue – both talking at once, it is a thing of beauty. Then, Evans takes off on a solo, and LaFaro lays down a bass line, or does he?  Just when you think it’s standard jazz fare, he begins to add his own soloing that’s outside simple bass accompaniment.  Then it’s LaFaro’s turn to solo, his fluid phrasing is something completely foreign to bassists at the time.  His inspiration seems to be coming in bursts.  Then, right on cue, the band returns to the melody, just in time for a surprising ending.

“Detour Ahead” is delicate.  Enough so, that you actually hear conversation during the performance.  I love the way Evans and LaFaro work together, throwing ideas back and forth.  There’s an extended bass solo, where he runs all over the neck, up and down.

The source tape is a little mangled at the start of “My Romance,” so you hear Evans’ piano drop out slightly – this is on every release, including streaming, but it seems more apparent on this vinyl edition because everything else sounds so good.  Once this track gets going, it really swings.  It must’ve been a real thrill to be in the audience.

I love what LaFaro is doing with harmonics while Evans comps chords on “Some Other Time”; gentle and pretty.  It’s as if things could fall apart, especially without Motian, fragile, yet it all holds together.

The final track, the Miles Davis composition, “Milestones,” is not surprisingly, the most challenging piece the band attempted all day.  I love how Motian begins throwing in snare cracks to start propelling things.  A slight drop, and then Evans is off on a solo, but wait, so is LaFaro, high on the neck, frenetic.  This is the bassist’s best track here.  He’s just all over the place. 

Honestly, the fact that the crowd wasn’t reacting to this furious playing?  All I can say is that the food must’ve been really good? Or maybe they were told to be quiet?  Something must’ve been distracting them from the utter greatness on stage.   The track ends with just LaFaro soloing – like he’s not ready for the song to be over, then an audience member laughs – it’s a spontaneous moment.  

This Original Jazz Classics’ edition of Waltz For Debby is more expensive (about double what most vinyl editions run).  But, it is completely worth it – the sonic clarity: crisp highs and deep lows, make for an immersive, utterly satisfying listen.  This is the way to do vinyl right in the modern age.  —Tony Peters

Fantastic New Album from St. Louis songwriter Beth Bombara (review)

Beth Bombara – It All Goes Up (Black Mesa Records)

One of the best albums we’ve heard all year

St. Louis musician Beth Bombara has been putting out solo records for about 16 years.  Her latest album, It All Goes Up, is her finest to date.  What sets it apart is that she seems to be making music with a wider palette of styles and instrumentation. 

Her last effort, Evergreen (2019), was largely driven by her electric guitar.  While her guitar is still there on It All Goes Up, sometimes it’s acoustic, or electric.  Other songs are propelled by a jangly, 12-string-guitar or pedal steel. Still other tracks have Mellotron or Rhodes piano.

With a title like It All Goes Up, you might think it’s a real downer.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  

The album opens with “Moment,” a song about pausing in this fast-paced, post-pandemic world: “can we slow down / long enough to take a Polaroid picture / and wave it around / until the moment is material”  It’s both cinematic and a tad twangy; yearning, with the echoed percussion and pedal steel.  

“Lonely Walls” is something all of us can relate to, being cooped up during the lockdown.  Bombara sings “I’m still waiting for the sun to shine / for the world to return to / something I recognize.”  Amen. The track is fueled by a gentle, funky groove, topped with a descending guitar line.   The heavily-echoed guitar solo, courtesy of Sam Golden, is a welcome surprise.  It seems to be coming in from a far off planet.

“Everything I Wanted” is pure power pop with its jangly electric guitars and catchy chorus.  And, dig that freaked out, impassioned guitar solo in the middle (again it’s Golden showing off his chops).  It sure sounds like a hit single to me. The song deals with railing against the idea that money buys happiness – that we have to be thankful for what we have right now, instead of always looking to the future.  

“Get On” features a gentle melody over a 12-string electric, and I dig that soaring middle eight instrumental section that builds before dropping out (middle eights are certainly a lost songwriting art, for sure).  The lyrics deal with moving on instead of wallowing in the past.  

“Carry The Weight” is soulful, sparse, and warm.  I love how the strings answer her vocals on the second verse. Very tasty guitar on this one. A song of reassurance of friendship.  

“Curious and Free” starts with acoustic guitar and pounding toms, then in comes a fiddle, crying out.  Eventually, the song becomes a pounding, percussive train, rolling down the tracks.  The song ends without resolving – leaving you hanging, wanting more.

“Give Me a Reason” is totally different – a very heavy, plodding number, with distorted electric guitars, and Bombara’s double-tracked vocals.  It has more in common with Black Sabbath than Americana.  It could be about the volatile times we live in – “be not afraid of the darkness or the light.” Once again, the song ends without resolution.

“Electricity” starts with just acoustic guitar and vocals, but then builds into a fantastic, expansive chorus.  This is where the album title comes from: “flash of red / I lose my head / and it all goes up.”  It could be an explosion.  But, perhaps it also means that there’s only way we can go, which is up. There’s kind of a dreamy middle section with guitar that’s really cool.

“What You Wanna Hear” has a mid-Seventies gentle feel – dig that high hat groove, and, once again, the song sort of leaves you hanging at the end.

“Fade” has a great Rhodes piano by John Calvin Abney, and heartbeat percussion.  In fact it’s the heartbeat that’s the last thing we hear on the album – a reminder of humanity still carrying on despite our troubles.

I would say this is her most assured album.  Nothing sounds forced.  Her singing has improved over the years.  And, for this to be a self-produced affair is even more impressive (it sounds especially good in headphones).  Everything works.  Dare I say it’s a perfect album.  A blending of styles that ultimately comes out as pure Beth Bombara.  —Tony Peters

Memphis Soul Stew – New Box Set Unearths a Staggering 146 Tracks of Classic-era R&B

Various Artists – Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos (Stax/Craft Recordings)

Almost 20 years in the making, an absolute goldmine for classic soul fans

Written in Their Soul is a 7-CD box set that pulls together songwriting demos from Stax Records’ roster of writers in Memphis, all in a variety of settings.  Some are just vocals and guitar, or vocals and piano.  Others are more fleshed out arrangements, with drums, bass and sometimes horns.  These tapes were originally submitted to the publisher as a means of documenting each composition, and were not meant for public consumption.  However, we are super glad to hear them after all these years.  

Stax Records was one of the most unique labels in the industry because the musicians, songwriters, administration, recording studio, even a record store, were all under the same roof. So, a lot of these “demos” were actually recorded in the famed Stax studios, and many were backed by the house band (meaning Booker T & the MG’s, etc).  

Another way to put it?  These aren’t what you’d typically consider “demos.”  Yes, some are rough sounding, but most of it is of phenomenal quality.

Cheryl Pawelski (who runs her own record label, Omnivore Recordings) waded through literally thousands of hours of recordings, mostly unrelated to this project, to track down these lost gems.  She started down this road in 2006.  Let’s hear it for seeing a project to reality!

The box is broken into three sections.  Discs 1-3 are titled Stax Writers, Stax Releases, meaning these are the early versions of songs that got released on the Stax label 

Carla Thomas leads off the set with “Comfort Me.” While the finished version is polished with horns, and backup singers – this demo features only a single electric guitar and her voice.  It’s chilling in its immediacy.  That becomes a recurring theme here – these tracks seem more real.

There’s a humanness to these recordings.  These are songwriters pouring out their souls.  Because of that, clear characters emerge.  Mack Rice, who wrote “Mustang Sally,” wraps his songs in a funky groove and an infectious enthusiasm.  While Homer Banks is often vulnerable and pleading.  Bettye Crutcher exudes confidence and strength, something most women weren’t allowed to show back then, while Eddie Floyd is pure soul, and is often joined by guitarist Steve Cropper on his offerings.  

Comparing the released versions to these demos can bring some revelations.  Floyd’s version of “I Got Everything I Need” is faster and grittier than the one that came out by Sam & Dave. “Slow Train” from William Bell is another spine-chilling performance – it’s stark in its beauty compared with that of the Staple Singers.

Speaking of the Staples – right in the middle of disc one are four tracks from the family band that aren’t actually demos, they’re rehearsal takes for their album, Soul Folk in Action, but they were included because they would’ve been orphaned – and one listen to this rendition of “Top of the Mountain” and you see why they chose to put these here – there’s more church in these versions.

Some of these demos are for songs that we all know.  Dig Rice’s first take of “Respect Yourself” – it’s got a rough funkiness with just acoustic guitar and percussion.  Homer Banks sings his original “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” from a woman’s perspective before Luther Ingram switched the gender on the hit version.

Some of the tracks are actually finished – “You Make a Strong Girl Weak” by Jeanne & the Darlings features a full complement of instruments.  Maybe the drums are a tad loud, but this could’ve been released.  And, Veda Brown’s “True Love Don’t Grow on Trees” doesn’t sound like a demo either.  It’s fully produced and it’s awesome.   Except for the tape hiss, “It’s So Wonderful” by Fredrick Knight sure doesn’t sound like a demo either – you can’t call yourself a soul fan and not be moved by this.

Floyd’s “You Can’t Win With a Losing Hand” and Rice’s “Nobody But You” are just two more examples of the many, many treasures here. Oh, and wait til you hear Henderson Thigpen sing “Woman to Woman.”  If it sounds like I could write on and on about these tracks, you’re right.

Disc four, entitled Moonlighting: Stax Writers, Non-Stax releases, features songwriting demos that ended up coming out on other labels besides Stax.  A perfect example of this is “634-5789,” a big hit for Wilson Pickett (who recorded for Atlantic, not Stax).  Here, the demo features Eddie Floyd on vocals, and Steve Cropper on guitar, both songwriters on the track. This does sound like a demo, but it’s still super cool to hear this in an infant stage of development.  Or, how about Delaney Bramlett singing “Told You For the Last Time,” a song that ended up on Eric Clapton’s first solo LP.  

Discs 5-8, titled Uncut Songs, is the real motherlode. 66 songs with that signature Stax sound and feel – and not one of them were ever released, EVER.  Prepare to be amazed.  You’ll keep asking yourself, “why didn’t this ever come out”?  

“Got to Make You Mine” by Eddie Floyd is somewhat distorted, but it’s such an impassioned performance, you can see why the producers included it.  For all the dance hits that Rufus Thomas had, it’s surprising that “C’mon Dance with Me” did not get cut.  I really dig “Spin It” by Deanie Parker – she wants you to put that record on so she can learn to dance.  Parker and Mack Rice team up for “Nobody Wants to Get Old” – everybody wants to live a long time, but…nobody wants to get old!  Great line.

We get to hear Booker T Jones sing on “Oo-We Baby What You Do to Me,” yet another Carla Thomas composition. Some tracks are as relevant today as the day they were recorded, like the plea for peace, “Coming Together,” by Homer Banks, or Mack Rice’s “Three Meals a Day,” where he chronicles the plight of a soldier coming home, post war.  Banks’ “Grandpa’s Will” is a good lesson on the greed of a family.  There’s still room for plenty of fun too, as in Bettye Crutcher’s “The Yard Man.”    

The entire set is housed in a hardbound book, featuring an essay from Pawelski, chronicling her detective work, plus background on many of the songwriters featured on the set.

I can’t remember a collection that featured this much unheard music, but was of such high quality.  Written in Their Soul unleashes 146 songs, bound to be instant soul classics.  If you love soul music, you have got to hear this set.  —Tony Peters

R.E.M.’s final album, back in print, and well worth another listen

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now (Craft Recordings)

The last word from the beloved Athens’ band, available on vinyl, and CD after many years

On the cover of Collapse Into Now, R.E.M.’s 15th album, the band seems to be waving goodbye.  We didn’t know it at the time, but this was their final record.  It’s definitely worth hearing again.  Craft Recordings has just reissued it, along with several other latter-day R.E.M. albums, in digital and vinyl formats.  

Icon Fetch reviewed the album back in 2011 and we said “your favorite band has finally made another great record.”  A dozen years later, we stand by that statement.  

“Discoverer” starts things off, and it’s everything we’d come to love from their halcyon days where the band could do no wrong – pounding drums, slightly-distorted yet, still jangly guitars, and Michael Stipe’s undeniable vocals.  Mike Mills was always the group’s secret weapon, and his bass work really shines on “All The Best.”  Things shift for “Uberlin,” which is led by Peter Buck’s acoustic guitar – I forgot just how good a song this was, with great vocals from both Stipe and Mills.  

“Oh My Heart” was a love letter to Katrina-torn New Orleans, and it’s wrapped in mandolin and accordion. Here, Stipe’s fragile vocal is perfect. 

The beauty of this record is that it touches on a lot of different textures.  The acoustic “It Happened Today” echoes the band’s earliest work and features Eddie Vedder on the coda, while “Every Day is Yours to Win” has a childlike quality.  “Mine Smell Like Honey” has a fantastic bridge that makes you forget how the rest of the song is kinda goofy.  

“Alligator, Aviator, Autopilot, Antimatter” featured Canadian musician Peaches and is one of the band’s better, latter-day rockers.  “That Someone is You” is very catchy.  

There are times when Stipe’s vocals are pretty shaky, as on “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I,” but it certainly works in the context.  

“Blue” is the final track on their final album, and it’s messy, as any end often is.  Stipe recites repetitive poetry while Patti Smith coos in the background and the band gently plays.  Eventually, Smith is given the spotlight and it’s really moving.  After four minutes, the band returns to the first song, “Discoverer,” a cyclical effect where the end is actually just the beginning of something new.  

In retrospect, I think we’ve all forgotten just how good R.E.M. was, not just at their peaks, with Murmur or Out of Time or Automatic For the People, but throughout their career.  While their albums from the late 90’s and early 2000’s seemed to be about struggling to find out who they were, Collapse Into Now finds R.E.M. finally comfortable in their own skin.  It is a fitting final album from one of America’s greatest bands.  

A note about the new vinyl edition: the packaging is identical to the 2011 version, including the lyric sheet insert.  The real difference is in the sonic quality of the actual vinyl – the highs and lows are richer than my original pressing from 2011, which sounds brittle.  Let’s face it, some companies, like Craft, have learned how to improve the vinyl format.  This edition is 180-gram and is very quiet.  

Collapse Into Now, along with their other, latter-day albums, deserve another look.  Thanks to Craft for giving us the chance.  —Tony Peters

Colored vinyl Otis box is Shout Bamalama Good

Otis Redding – Otis Forever: The Albums & Singles (1968-1970) (Rhino)

6-LP set chronicling Otis’ posthumous albums, on colored vinyl!

There’s something about the music of Otis Redding – put on one of his records, and it immediately sets a mood.  Otis Forever: The Albums & Singles (1968-1970), a new, 6-LP collection, covers the era immediately after his passing. 

A special edition, featuring colored vinyl, is available only at rhino.com.  

When Redding’s plane went down in a frigid Wisconsin lake in December of 1967, the world lost one of the greatest singers of all time.  At the time, he was Stax Records’ biggest star, and had just wowed the hippie crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival. This set shows what could have been, if he had lived.

These albums came after the death of Otis Redding.  But, don’t let that dissuade you – these recordings are fantastic – and some of the artist’s best.

The Dock of the Bay topped the Album charts in both the US and UK, just a month after his death.  It leads with the title track, which marked a completely new direction for Redding.  Instead of screaming, he almost croons the words.  The usual electric guitar is replaced by an acoustic, and then whistling at the end.  It stands as one of the greatest soul records of all time.

The remaining album is a hodge podge of singles, b-sides, album tracks and unreleased cuts, yet it still stands up.  “Love You More Than Words Can Say” is a great, pleading ballad, while “Open the Door” features Redding talking at the beginning, and the “tap tap tap” percussion, as he sings “let me in / let me in.”  Steve Cropper’s tasty guitar lines take center stage for “Don’t Mess with Cupid,” while Redding plays the likable oof in the downright hilarious interplay with Carla Thomas on “Tramp,” which had originally been issued on their King & Queen album.

While Dock of the Bay pulled from a variety of sources, for the most part, The Immortal Otis Redding, featured tracks recorded in the final weeks before his death.  “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” is spine-chilling good.  Redding made a career out of heartfelt ballads, but this one carries so much emotion.  Listen how he stretches the word “remember” – it’s almost as if the singer knew his time was short. Several songs are really funky – the one-two punch of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and the now-classic, “Hard to Handle,” shows that Redding was ready to branch out into new territory.   

So much of this is expanding what Redding had done before.  “Champagne and Wine” is about as sultry as the singer ever got.  “Think About It” has piano and a loping bass line, while he takes Ray Charles’ “A Fool For You” and adds a big dose of Memphis soul to make it his own.  The LP ends with “Amen,” which opens with just the singer, then builds to a horn-driven climax.

Love Man was the third posthumous album.  It leads with “I’m a Changed Man,” which features an impassioned Redding vocal: he seems unable to control himself as he devolves into “Ya ya ya ya” in the middle.  “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher” is a surprising cover of the Jackie Wilson classic – dig those Al Jackson drums.  “I’ll Let Nothing Separate Us” is a decent ballad.  Better is the groovin’ “Direct Me.”  “Love Man” is one of Redding’s finest tunes – pounding and autobiographical, and “Free Me” is another moving, slow burner, this time with organ present.  

The final album of unreleased material was Tell the Truth.  You’d have thought that they’d raided everything good from the vaults by now, but…you’d be wrong.  “Tell the Truth” is gritty soul with a stop/start beat.  I really like “I Got the Will,” how the melody seems to build and build.  All the albums use the stereo mixes – although Tell the Truth features at least three songs in fake stereo.

The Singles: 1968-1970 compiles the 45’s released during this same period. While the albums use the stereo versions, these singles are all in mono.  “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” is the punchier, mono mix, backed by “Sweet Lorene,” which came out originally on the Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, while “Hard to Handle” should’ve been a bigger hit and signaled a new direction for Redding, instead it became a footnote. 

Also included is a Christmas single: “White Christmas” backed with the superior “Merry Christmas Baby.”  “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is live and is taken from In Person at the Whisky a Go Go (not included here).  The b-side of “Love Man,” “Can’t Turn You Loose” is also from the live album.

One oddity that I noticed: none of these albums carry a barcode on the jacket – meaning, they were manufactured exclusively for this box and are not available elsewhere.

Otis Forever is perfect for that next get together.  Let Otis’ music set the mood, and your guests will marvel as the cool colored vinyl. Otis Forever is a bittersweet look at the final notes of Redding’s career.  —Tony Peters