Category Archives: Reviews

Left Banke – Strangers on a Train (review)

Left Banke – Strangers on a Train (Omnivore Recordings)

A great “lost” baroque pop album…complete with bonus tracks

The Left Banke brought a new level of sophistication to AM radio in the mid-Sixties with singles like “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina,” mixing melodic hooks with grandiose elements of classical music.  Eventually, this style would be dubbed “baroque pop.”  Unfortunately, the band’s time was brief, managing just two studio albums and a handful of singles before crushing under the weight of expectations.

Omnivore Recordings has just issued Strangers on a Train, featuring tracks from, not one, but two attempts at a Left Banke reunion, and the results stand up to anything the band did previously.  

The first ten tracks come from 1978, when three of the four original Banke members (Steve Martin Caro, George Cameron, and Tom Finn) reconvened without primary songwriter Michael Brown.  “Strangers on a Train” starts out subdued, and piano-led during the verses, before giving way to a rockin’ chorus.  The only thing that dates it is the synthesizers near the middle of the song.  But, there’s fantastic harmonies here that just pull you in.  

Brown wrote most of their original material, but the remaining members show that they can capture the spirit without him.  “Heartbreaker” is another strong track with an excellent chorus and great guitar solo – it comes off sounding like latter-day Badfinger.

Throughout, the real standout is Caro – he’s in fantastic voice, showing he can really shout, like on “Yesterday’s Love.”  I dig the echoed effects and the tight harmonies on the chorus of “Hold on Tight, and “Lorraine” is an excellent ballad that stands next to their best work.  

“And One Day” features a sophisticated chord structure and strings, while both “You Say” and “Queen of Paradise” add a gentle funk element that sounds like late-Seventies’ Boz Scaggs.  

Originally recorded in 1978, these tracks weren’t actually released until 1986, on small labels in both the US and UK. Honestly, I’m not sure why it took eight years – these are really good songs.

The final six tracks come from another reunion, circa 2001-2.  This time, Brown has returned as songwriter.  These recordings bear a stronger, classical feel, but once again, Caro is still in fine voice.  Let’s be clear, most of these seem unfinished – more like demos, and most lack drums.

“Airborne” features pounding piano and string accents, but Caro’s vocals are kind of buried in the mix, while “Buddy Steve (Long Lost Friend)” is the most-realized track here, featuring drums.  But, when Caro goes into the falsetto part, his voice cracks (again, I doubt these were originally planned for release).  The best cut here is “Until the End,” a grandiose, gorgeous ballad, with great strings.

Sadly, all the founding members of the Left Banke have passed away.  Strangers on a Train is a welcome extra chapter to the brief, but colorful career of one of rock’s most under-appreciated bands.  —Tony Peters

Martha & the Muffins – Marthology (review)

Martha & the Muffins – Marthology: In and Outtakes (Popguru)

Very good compilation of odds and ends from an under-appreciated band

This Canadian group had one monster hit, “Echo Beach,” in 1980, hitting Top Ten in both their native country and the UK.  Problem is, they may have been a little too ahead of their time for the States, where they remain cult favorites at best.  

Marthology is a collection of unfinished demos, b-sides and remixes, covering 35 years of material, yet it all holds together surprisingly well. While many members have come and gone over the years, the duo of Martha Johnson and Mark Gane have been the constants.

The set starts with “On a Silent Summer Evening,” which reworks parts of their signature, “Echo Beach,” into a pulsing, dance track.

Some songs definitely sound older – “Don’t Monkey With My Love” was a demo the pair cut in the mid-Eighties, and it has a pop sheen, indicative of that era, while the bouncy “Do You Ever Wonder” sounds like the 80’s, but was recorded in 1999.

One of the real treats is “Big Day,” a hard rocker that previously only showed up as a b-side.  Here, Martha has great harmonies and the catchy, “365, 12, 52” chorus is catchy as hell.  

“Act Like a Woman” is another standout.  The song originally appeared on a Martha Johnson solo record in a sparse arrangement.  Here, retitled, reworked into a stomping punk number, it’s a vast improvement.

The set also features “Echo Beach (30th anniversary version),” a more recent reinterpretation of their hit.  This new take is slower, somber, and full of regret.  It also puts more emphasis on the lyrics, which sort of speed by in the 1980 original.  

Martha & the Muffins may not be a household name, but Marthology proves they deserve a closer look.  —Tony Peters

Urge Overkill – Oui – (review)

Urge Overkill – Oui – (Omnivore Recordings)  

Chicago duo returns with a badly-needed set of rockers

Urge Overkill created one of the finest rock albums of the Nineties with Saturation.  That 1993 record was full of loud guitars and melodic hooks, coming out at the height of grunge.  The band opened for both Nirvana and Pearl Jam, before notching a surprise hit the next year in their cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” from the Pulp Fiction movie and soundtrack. 

There was just no way to follow up that one-two punch, so 1995’s Exit the Dragon was kind of a letdown, and the band broke up.  Reforming in 2011, they delivered Rock n’ Roll Submarine (which we reviewed here).  Now, the pair of Nash Kato and King Roeser is back eleven years later, with Oui.  

Oui is unabashedly ROCK.  From the album title, that recalls a now-defunct men’s magazine, to the guitar-heavy music within, everything here is gleefully out of step.

In the pole position on the record is their surprise cover of Wham’s “Freedom.” Kind of shocked they placed it first, but also – it’s so different, slashing guitars, muscled drums, I honestly didn’t recognize the song at first.  Kato spits out the abbreviated lyrics and there’s a fantastic guitar solo in the middle.

After that bit of initial euphoria, things get decidedly darker with “Necessary Evil.”  Roeser admits “you want someone to fill your glass all night” and “it’s killing me to pass on by.” Yet the twin guitar interlude makes even this bitter pill easier to consume. 

The pounding “Follow My Shadow,” which features both Kato and Roeser on vocals, could’ve fit perfectly on Saturation.  “How Sweet the Light” opens with a Who-inspired thunder before things get more contemplative and Kato confesses “I’m walking away from my suicide” and “I almost crossed over.”  

No song here better captures the current mood quite like “Forgiven.” Over a driving blues riff, Roeser sings:

“I wanna be among the living”

“I don’t wanna hear your opinion”

“I wanna be…forgiven”

The thing that really stands out here is how solid of an album Oui really is.  Past Urge records always had at least one song where the band got silly or experimental.  Here, it’s surprisingly focused.  Whether it’s the midtempo “Totem Poll” or the brooding “Litany,” it all fits.  

“I Can’t Stay Glad @ U” features another Who reference – Kato uses the “shake you” / “wake you” rhyme, which recalls “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” But the acoustic guitar-led jangling makes it another of the memorable tracks on the album.

All killer, no filler.  Is rock still alive?  Urge Overkill says an emphatic “Oui.” —Tony Peters

NRBQ Dragnet (review)

NRBQ – Dragnet (Omnivore Recordings)

A new album from the Q?  Proof that the world isn’t ending…just yet!

Face it.  It’s been a tough couple of years.  The pandemic is still hanging around, yes.  But, we’ve also lost a lot of great, irreplaceable musicians.  Thankfully, the guys in NRBQ are still kickin,’ and they’ve just put together their first new album in seven years called Dragnet.

The band has spent the last few years looking backwards: first, issuing the fantastic, career-spanning box set, High Noon, in 2016, then a reissue campaign of some of their classic albums in 2018, and finally a rarities collection called In Frequencies in 2020.  The band did manage the five-song EP, Happy Talk in 2017, but Dragnet marks their first full-length in quite a long time.

And?  It’s everything we’ve come to love about NRBQ.

The album kicks off with the rockabilly-infused bit of weirdness, “Where’s My Pebble?” a song that could’ve easily been included on their debut, over 5 decades ago.  All four members contribute tracks to the project, and guitarist Scott Ligon turns in the catchy, country-flavored “I Like Her So Much.”  Drummer John Perrin penned the quaint “Memo Song.”

The band has always taken an “anything goes” approach to what gets included on their albums, and founder/keyboardist Terry Adams provides a lot of diversity, with the quirky “Miss Goody Two Shoes,” featuring a whacked out keyboard solo, being one example.

One of the highlights is Adams’ “You Can’t Change People”; it’s bouncing melody and sleigh bells make it sound like a Pet Sounds’ outtake, and the 12-string guitar solo is a nice touch.  The lyrics are certainly timely, with all the divisive air of today.  The song is a mere two minutes long with the resolution that “there ain’t nothing you can do / but let them exist.”  

The band has tackled TV themes before (their out-of-tune rendition of “Bonanza” from All Hopped Up comes to mind).  For “Dragnet,” they forgo the famous opening “bah, bah bah bum”and dive right into the next part of the song.  The track is powered by Casey McDonough’s bass, which sets the groove, before Adams’ adds a fuzzed-out, Clavinet solo, which Ligon answers with some tasty guitar work. 

One of the surprise tracks comes from McDonough:  “The Moon and Other Things” is a great ballad with some interesting chord changes, great harmonies on the chorus, and a nice acoustic solo in the middle.  “That Makes Me a Fool” sounds like a classic, supper-club jazz standard, but is in fact an original from Ligon, augmented by a beautiful Adams’ solo.  

The frenetic “Five More Miles” proves that the band can still exercise their free jazz side, while “L-O-N-E Lone-Ly” feels like a stream-of-consciousness piece with just Adams talking backed by a ticking clock and sparse piano. Not many songs capture the paranoia and despair brought on by the COVID pandemic better than this.  The album ends with “Sunflower,” at first just an Adams’ solo piece, but then the band joins, with Ligon mimicking his lyrics beautifully on guitar.  Yet, even that bit of beauty is brief.

The record is pretty short, clocking in at only 33 minutes.  I found myself going, “wait, that’s it”?  Which means, I just start the record over again, right?

Rockin, quirky, tender, with moments that still make you go “huh”? NRBQ still has it, and Dragnet is proof —Tony Peters

The Beatles: Get Back (review)

Long and winding documentary might bore casuals, but will tantalize devoted fans

Despite what the commercials might suggest, The Beatles: Get Back isn’t for everybody.  An eight-hour movie (now available at Disney+) about the Beatles writing and recording an album will likely come off as utterly boring to most people, especially those who are not devoted fans of the band.  However, those who are, and those who are intrigued by the song creation process in general, will find this film highly rewarding, especially after repeated watching.  

Director Peter Jackson was tasked with wading through 60 hours of video footage and 150 hours of audio that was originally used to make the Let It Be album and film, which the Beatles were never satisfied with.  Jacksons goal?  To paint a more honest picture of what happened during the filming and recording of January 1969.  

Did he succeed?  Absolutely.

The video and audio restoration is staggering – you feel like you’re in the studio with them.  You also get a real feel for the individual Beatles as people – their humor, their warmth, their quirks.  You also get to know the people surrounding them – especially Beatles’ roadie Mal Evans, who is at the band’s beck and call.  Yes, Yoko is ever present.  But, you see that she and John are truly in love.  Photographer Linda Eastman (soon to be McCartney) drops by to take pictures and is filmed snuggling with Paul. 

There’s a fantastic scene with Linda’s daughter Heather, who’s just a child, dancing and carrying on in the studio.  Yoko starts singing and Heather’s look in response is just priceless. The little girl floats from band member to band member, and it’s really cute.

The movie is broken down into three parts.  But, be forewarned: the first segment is unfortunately the hardest to get into.  This is the footage filmed on the Twickenham soundstage and it’s largely full of endless noodling, with some arguing and flashes of brilliance thrown in for good measure.  But, realizing that “All Things Must Pass,” from George Harrison, “Another Day” from Paul McCartney, and “Gimme Some Truth” and “Jealous Guy” from John Lennon, all originated during these Get Back sessions is really cool.  Part one closes with Harrison quitting the band.

Part two is where things really start cooking.  Harrison returns, and soon enlists Billy Preston to help out on keyboards.  This immediately lightens the mood, as does the change of venue, from the cold, cavernous Twickenham soundstage to the newly-built Apple Studios.  The Beatles rise to the occasion, and the results are really good music.

The real highlight of part two is a never-before-heard exchange between McCartney and Lennon while eating lunch (the filmmakers had somehow placed a hidden microphone on the table where they were dining).  In it, Lennon humbles McCartney, telling him that he’s being too bossy toward Harrison, and really everyone.  

Part three’s high point is the historic rooftop concert.  Here’s where the filmmakers really shine, utilizing numerous camera angles, footage from down on the street and in the Apple offices.  It’s a spine-tingling bit of cinematography.  Truly capturing that magical, final time the Beatles’ played live as a band.  

There’s so many little bits of things that go by so quickly in the movie, you might miss them the first time.  For instance, Lennon coming in one morning raving about seeing Fleetwood Mac on television the previous night and how the singer sang “soft.”  Or Harrison helping Starr finish his “Octopus’ Garden.” 

Lennon is definitely high at least some of the time, and there are parts where he’s too enraptured with Yoko to contribute, while Harrison is often bristly.  Ringo Starr is seen sleeping several times, while McCartney is undeniably in charge of the proceedings, coming off as bossy, but certainly backing it up by introducing a string of fantastic new songs.  Despite their differences, it’s incredible when they all come together and the music is clicking.  There’s also plenty of laughs between all four members dispelling the notion that there was nothing but animosity during these recordings.

I watched my copy of the original Let It Be movie (on Beta!) to compare.  Jackson purposely used different footage wherever possible, so as not to “step on Let It Be’s toes.”  Still, the original, 80-minute film, while somewhat bleak, stands up.  It’s obviously more to the point, but also more music-centric.  If there’s one fault with Get Back, it’s that whenever the guys are really cooking with a song, it always seems to get cut short.  While in Let It Be, they let the full versions of songs play.  There’s also renditions of “Besame Mucho” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” that didn’t make the 8-hour cut, along with a far-superior version of George’s “I Me Mine.”  

Word is that Let It Be will finally get reissued, in remastered form, when Get Back hits DVD status.

The real triumph of Get Back isn’t so much the music, we’ve all heard it over and over, it’s in the rare opportunity to really get to know the personalities of the Beatles, not as gods, but as human beings (human beings that smoke A LOT).  Get Back isn’t the kind of film to just veg to, you’ve really got to pay attention.  But, if you’re present, there’s a lot to love here.  —Tony Peters

Seminal Albums From Buck Owens are finally back in print

Nine classic records are making their digital and CD debut

Omnivore continues their association with the Buck Owens’ Estate by reissuing a whopping nine Owens’ albums, spanning 1968-1974.  Each set comes with an essay from Owens’ biographer Randy Poe, with excerpts from the autobiography Buck ‘Em.  Also included in each booklet are photos, trade magazine ads, vintage fan club applications and other rare goodies.  This era spans the time right before and while he was a host of the popular variety show, Hee Haw.

Driven.

After immersing in these reissues, that’s the first word that comes to mind.  Buck Owens was driven like no other artist.  In 1968, he issued no less than FOUR albums, with the majority of the songs written or co-written by Owens.  He was also touring and owned his own management company and was developing other artists.  Oh, he was also a hit star on television.  Whew!

With all this activity, you might think that the quality of these recordings is sub par.  No way.  Each one of these albums has some merit, and many of them stand alongside his finest work.  Above all, you see that Buck was obsessed with how his songs did on the Country charts – if it didn’t go Number One, it was a failure.  Here’s our notes from each individual album:

Sweet Rosie Jones (1968)

Leads with “Hello Happiness, Goodbye Loneliness,” the kind of catchy song that Owens could write in his sleep.  “Sweet Rosie Jones” is a classic tale of love gone wrong, complete with a spoken last verse.  One of the few songs that Owens didn’t write here is “Swinging Doors.”  Of course done by former Buckaroo Merle Haggard.  But, Buck’s version is more subdued, and less rockin’  Another great one is “You’ll Never Miss the Water (Til the Well Runs Dry)” featuring great harmonies and steel guitar.  “Sally, Mary and Jerry” is a great take on gossip.  I like the clever use of handclaps that help bridge the different parts of “How Long Will My Baby Be Gone,”  while “Leave Me Something to Remember You By” is a great tearjerker.  Another highlight is “The Girl on Sugar Pie Lane.” The album closes with “Happy Times Are Here Again.”  

I’ve Got You on My Mind Again (1968)

Part of Owens’ signature sound was how he boosted the high frequencies, check out the way the piano sounds on the leadoff title track.  “Let the World Keep on a Turnin” features guest vocals from Buck’s son, Buddy Alan,  Another great sad one is “Don’t Let True Love Slip Away.”  Another duet is “I’ll Love You Forever and Ever,” with its signature, high energy tempo.  There are a few cringe-worthy moments – Owens is a little creepy on “Love is Me” – he just overdoes the vocals.  But, I love “Alabama, Louisiana or Maybe Tennessee.”  This also marked the first time in a long while where Owens approved background vocals, done by the legendary Jordanaires and Anita Kerr Singers.

Tall Dark Stranger (1969)

The album has a Spanish overtone with the guitar.  It’s interesting because this sounds more like a Marty Robbins record from the early Sixties than a typical Owens’ album.  The Tall Dark Stranger was first introduced on the song, “Sweet Rosie Jones.”  Owens decided to revisit this mysterious gentleman.  I like how the background vocals echo “danger” – a very classic, Western-style element.  “There’s Gotta Be Some Changes Made” has some great harmonies and pedal steel.  The finest track here is “White Satin Bed,” where Owens’ vocals really shine.  It’s a tale of a poor man who’s looking forward to lying in a casket, because it’s the first time he’s ever slept somewhere comfortable.  “Darlin,’ You Can Depend on Me” revisits the fast/slow/fast tempo changes first introduced on his hit, “Before You Go.”  Owens would try just about anything in a country song, take the waltz tempo of “Hurtin’ Like I’ve Never Hurt Before,” or the strings, brass and a large vocal ensemble of the final song, “But You Know I Love You.”  

Your Mother’s Prayer (1970)

Owen’s second foray into Gospel music, this album was also the first to not hit the Country charts, ending a seven year run.  Perhaps the overexposure of his weekly appearance on Hee Haw was taking its toll?  Despite its relative commercial disappointment, there’s still a lot of great material here.  I really like the harmonies of Owen’s original, “The Great Judgement Day.”  Earl Poole Ball contributes some great piano work, heard prominently on “That Old Time Religion,” but is sprinkled throughout the entire album.  He does an interesting take on “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” I like the way the steel guitar echoes the chorus, “bah, bah-bah.”  There’s some tasty fiddle that drives “That Lonesome Valley,” while “That Sunday Feeling” might as well be a secular song, it’s sung with the same fervor as his hits.  “My Savior Leads the Way” is fueled by a bouncing bassline.  Overall, a pretty solid listen. And, the booklet reprints Owen’s mom’s original prayer to him.

The Kansas City Song (1970)

The title song is a little too sugary, with a glutton of background vocals, and a goofy organ.  One by one, the original Buckaroos were exiting, and the accompaniment sounds a little less cohesive on this one. There’s more songs about places, like “(It’s a Long Way To) Londontown,” “Amsterdam,” and “The Wind Blows Every Day in Oklahoma,” but nothing really stands out.  Better is the waltz tempo of “Black Texas Dirt,” and the instrumental “Scandinavian Polka” is good fun.  Things finally catch fire on “You Can’t Make Nothin’ Out of That But Love” – Owens finally sounds energized here, and I really like the bridge where everything drops out but the drums and bass.  And the goofy minstrel number, “Full Time Daddy,” wasn’t going to help him regain any credibility.

I Wouldn’t Live in New York City (1970)

Owens continued his fascination with doing songs about places, but the title song was better than anything on his previous album.  There’s a great story about what inspired the song in the liner notes.  And, talk about authentic – he recorded his lead vocal, right there on the streets of Manhattan! (you can hear a police siren right near the end).  He chose to add sound effects to every song, adding casino sounds to “Reno Lament,” but sometimes they’re just too distracting, like the train effects on “Down n New Orleans,” or the cattle sounds on the revamped “The Kansas City Song.” He also retooled songs from previous albums – “The Wind Blows Every Day in Chicago” was actually “Oklahoma,” while “Amsterdam” became “Houston Town.” The best song is saved for last – the heartfelt “Big in Vegas” – it became Owens’ biggest song in quite some time.

In the Palm of Your Hand (1973)

His best album in several years, this record is full of great songs.  It also featured his final number one hit, the fantastic “Made in Japan,” a clever recording full of Farfisa organ and guitars that give it an Asian feel.  But, that’s just the beginning.  “Arms Full of Empty” is classic, upbeat Bakersfield goodness, while “Sweethearts in Heaven” is midtempo, driven by pedal steel.  Another good example is “You Ain’t Gonna Have Ol’ Buck to Kick Around No More” – with a title like this, things could’ve easily fallen into parody, but Owens instead plays it straight and sincere, like his classic recordings.  Everything here works, whether it’s the sad “Something’s Wrong” or the rockin’ “A Whole Lot of Somethin,’” everything is firing on all cylinders. “There Goes My Love” is another standout.

Ain’t It Amazing, Gracie (1973)

The title song is classic, upbeat Buck, complete with steel guitar and Don Rich harmonies. Some of the record plods along – “Long Hot Summer” just kinda lays there, while “She’s Had all the Dreamin’ She Can Stand” is slightly better, but “The Good Old Days (Are Here Again)” just doesn’t sound sincere.  “You’re Monkey Won’t Be Home Tonight” is decent, but there’s something missing here.  Things are a little too polished, and Owens’ voice sometimes is mixed too loud, like on “I Know That You Know That I Care.”  “When You Come Back From Nashville” does have some fine harmonies.  Actually, the best was saved for last.  “When You Get to Heaven (I’ll Be There)” is spirited and good fun.  The album is also significant for the inclusion of the original version of “The Streets of Bakersfield,” an LP cut that he’d later revisit in a duet with Dwight Yoakam.  

It’s a Monster’s Holiday (1974)

The last album featuring longtime Buckaroo, Don Rich, who would pass away from a motorcycle accident before it got released, this record is still one of the better of his latter-day Capitol releases.  Of note is the title song, which is good fun.  I’m kinda surprised this doesn’t get played around Halloween.  If it does, I’ve never heard it on the radio.  Also notable is “On the Cover of the Music City News,” a rewrite of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone.” There’s some good cover tunes too – he does Tom T. Hall’s “I Love” and Charley Pride’s “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” – neither outdo the original, but they help keep the album interesting.  “Great Expectations” is one of Owen’s best ballads from this period.  Rich’s death would rob Owens of the man who provided all those unique harmonies on every single one of his hit songs, not to mention his impeccable guitar playing.  Owens really never recovered after that. –Tony Peters

Jefferson Starship rocks sidney

Jefferson Starship – Sidney High School – 10/24/21

Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Mickey Thomas – Jefferson Starship has had some extraordinary vocalists pass through their band.

Add Cathy Richardson to the list.

The 52-year old singer played the lead role in the off-Broadway musical, Love Janis, several years ago, then joined J. Starship back in 2008. Her voice is a force of nature.

On a rainy, Sunday night about an hour north of Dayton, I was not sure what to expect here.

The band opened with “Find Your Way Back,” and I swear it sounded like Thomas was up there singing. I’m not talking about direct copying, but Richardson just nailed it. She seems to know just what to give each song. She was tender on “Miracles,” yet boisterous on “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”

David Freiberg, the remaining founding member, is 31 years Richardson’s senior (!), but was absolutely amazing as well. His role in the band has changed over the years, sometimes playing bass or keyboards in the past, but here he sang.

And boy did he sing.

The band paid tribute to those great Balin ballads, like “Count on Me,” “With Your Love,” and “Runaway,” and the 83-year old sang every one of them. And those songs aren’t easy to pull off.

Jefferson Starship is touring in support of an album they released last year called Mother of the Sun, and the pair of tunes, “It’s About Time” (sung by Richardson, and co-written by Grace Slick), and “Setting Sun” (written and sung by Freiberg), fit in excellently with the band’s older material.

Guitarist Jude Gold gave a nod to the Airplane days, taking a solo performance of “Embroynic Journey” (which originally appeared on the album Surrealistic Pillow).

Freiberg sang the rocker “Jane,” which he co-wrote, before they unleashed their show-stopper – Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” – and Richardson just let her voice loose on their one. Just wow.

Even though the band has gone through multiple lineup changes, they are obviously in the capable hands of the stellar Richardson and the ageless Freiberg (who’s FIVE years older than Mick Jagger).

I was thoroughly impressed. This incarnation of Jefferson Starship is the real deal. —Tony Peters

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Target exclusive)

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Craft Recordings)

The album that started it all – reissued on “grass green” vinyl!

The most famous jazz instrumental of all time isn’t by Miles Davis or John Coltrane, it’s from an unassuming pianist and his trio. Vince Guaraldi composed “Linus and Lucy” in 1964 for A Boy Named Charlie Brown, a television special that amazingly never got released. Yet, the album introduced us to this rollicking piece of music, which has become synonymous with the Peanuts’ franchise. It also paved the way for A Charlie Brown Christmas, one of the most famous holiday albums ever recorded, which came out the following year.

Craft Recordings has just issued a “Baseball Card Edition” on “grass green vinyl” (referring to the front cover of Charlie Brown, sitting on top of the pitcher’s mound). This version is exclusively available at Target stores, and comes with a sheet of eight baseball cards, depicting the various Peanuts characters. The card backs are especially fun, revealing that Charlie Brown has never won a game, Lucy’s fielding average is .000, and Snoopy’s favorite sandwich is a Hero.

The music, outside the aforementioned “Linus and Lucy,” is less familiar, but just as enjoyable. Guaraldi had a way of creating melodies that are friendly and fun – something often elusive in the jazz genre.

“Oh Good Grief” sets the mood, with its walking bass of Monty Budwig, followed by the bossa nova of “Pebble Beach” (which reminds me of the old standard, “That Old Feeling”). Guaraldi is all over the piano here, but still manages to not sound “busy.” The Charlie Brown character seems to do a great deal of contemplating and “Happiness Is” is perfect for his self reflection. “Schroeder” is clever in referencing his idol, Beethoven, while the gentle “Charlie Brown Theme” gently swings.

Side two opens with “Linus and Lucy” – it’s funny, it’s called A Boy Named Charlie Brown, but in typical “Charlie Brown fashion,” others steal the show. Colin Bailey’s ride cymbal really jumps out on this vinyl release.

“Blue Charlie Brown” is the longest piece on the album, clocking in at over seven minutes. Guaraldi hits some “blue” notes, and both Budwig and Bailey stretch out here, really catching a groove. “Baseball Theme” is once again playful, perfect accompaniment for the kids’ game, and their shenanigans. The album closes with “Frieda (With the Naturally Curly Hair).” Here, Guaraldi lets his playing swirl behind the swinging rhythm section.

Craft Recordings always go above and beyond on their vinyl reissues, and this is no exception. Mastered specifically for vinyl from the analog tapes by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio. The biggest difference is the double bass really jumps out on this version, giving a fat, warm bottom end.

Just as he did with A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi creates instrumentals that are warm and inviting. You don’t have to be a fan of jazz to enjoy this. In fact, that’s kind of the point here. It’s jazz for people that don’t like jazz. Yet, this also isn’t a dumbed down version of the genre either. And that’s Guaraldi’s gift, it’s music for everyone. If you’re a fan of the Peanuts’ specials (and who isn’t???), A Boy Named Charlie Brown should be in your collection. The special green vinyl and baseball cards make it even more fun. —Tony Peters

Laura Nyro – Go Find the Moon (review)

Laura Nyro – Go Find the Moon – The Audition Tape (Omnivore Recordings)

The first steps of a singular artist

The year is 1966, five years before Tapestry; a time when women weren’t really taken seriously as artists. In this climate, Laura Nyro, an 18-year old from the Bronx, who sang, played piano and wrote her own songs, auditioned for two record executives. This brief, but revelatory recording has just been issued as Go Find the Moon – The Audition Tape from Omnivore Recordings.

The first song she showcases is also one of her most enduring. “And When I Die” was first sold to Peter, Paul & Mary later in the year, then featured on Nyro’s debut, More Than a New Discovery in 1967, before being taken to #2 on the Billboard charts in a rendition by Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1968. Here, the demo version is rollicking, and the tempo speeds up and slows as she sings. She sounds young, but exudes confidence beyond her years.

That assurance wanes for an instant as she struggles to play “Lazy Susan.” She recovers nicely with the soulful “Enough of You,” one of a trio of songs on here that she never officially recorded. She’s pouring herself into this, you can just feel it. Another of the unreleased tunes is “In and Out,” which is only a brief snippet, but you get to hear her falsetto.

The set is named after the last of the unreleased songs, “Go Find the Moon,” and for good reason – it’s spellbinding. Nyro alternates between gutsy blues and soaring show tune-inspired vocals. This song alone justifies picking up this collection.

“Luckie” is another song that would appear later – opening her sophomore album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. This nascent version isn’t really more straightforward as just missing the intricate tempo changes that would accompany the released version.

Toward the end of the audition, you can hear the exec ask her

“Do you do any songs other than those that you’ve written”?

To which she abruptly replies

“no”

They ask again

“you don’t know any pop songs? “Stardust”? “Moon River”?

Then Laura responds,

“Of course I know there are other songs, and I know a few lines from each one…maybe.”

At this point she attempts to play snippets (and I do mean snippets) of three songs, “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “Kansas City,” and “I Only Want to Be With You.” But, all these fragments show is just how laser-focused Nyro was as an artist. She wasn’t interested in doing songs by other people and even if she did, those songs still sound like Laura Nyro and no one else.

She ends off by playing one last of her compositions, the gorgeous “Lazy Susan,” this time making it through the entire song.

Here is Laura Nyro, her soulful, sweeping voice and her piano, not tethered to any rhythm or pattern, except her own. And, her songs – chronicling the misfits of the New York underground. Can you imagine what must’ve been going through these two executives’ minds?

Go Find the Moon is brief, clocking in at under twenty minutes. Yet, there’s so much magic here, especially in the three unreleased songs. We get to hear the first steps, some confident, a few tentative, of one of the most unique artists in history. —Tony Peters

Loveland Duren – Any Such Thing (review)

Loveland Duren – Any Such Thing (Edgewood Recordings)

Pair return with their third…and best album to date

As we read in the liner notes to Any Such Thing, the third release from the Memphis duo of Vicki Loveland and Van Duren, this wasn’t an easy process.  First, the pair traveled from Memphis to LA, onto London and then spent a month in Australia, promoting Waiting: The Van Duren Story documentary, which has only seen limited exposure (but is fantastic, btw).  Then, the pandemic happened, sending everyone scurrying home.  Despite the album being put together in fragments, it’s their most cohesive and finest effort yet.

Their previous two releases, 2013’s Bloody Cupid and 2016’s Next are both excellent listens, it’s just that Any Such Thing sounds more focused.  Loveland is a force of nature. Her voice has a soulful, “yeah, lived it” quality that seems to deepen over time.  And Duren sounds rejuvenated – this is the finest singing he’s done in years.  

The album opens with “Tumbledown Hearts,” the catchiest song the duo have ever created.  Loveland and Duren each take a few lines of the verses, before blending their voices for the stellar chorus.  I love the bridge and the fantastic guitar solo from Adam Hill, who’s worked on their previous records.  I found myself singing this one hours later. 

Up next is “A Place of No Place,” a timely snapshot, with references to “children in cages” and “hateful speech.”  It questions why the hell we seem to be taking large leaps backward as a country, yet the rocking accompaniment, featuring the Back to Memphis horns and Loveland’s impassioned vocals, make this bit of truth easier to swallow. 

The ballad, “Within Crying Distance,” is another stand out, and an excellent showcase for Loveland – I’m getting a Memphis, Otis Redding feel from this one.

The layered production of “Ain’t It Pretty to Think So” gives off a mid-period John Lennon vibe (think: “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”) and has fine sax from Art “Paper Bag Brown” Edmaiston.  Their world travels get documented in “Skywriting (Tasmania),” which features a very nice bridge section that goes in a completely different direction, and gives Liam Grundy a chance to play some fine piano.

Things shift gears for “Funny Way of Showing It,” driven by pulsing strings reminiscent of “Eleanor Rigby,” with a little Brian Wilson french horn thrown in for good measure.  There’s a quirky element to “Where Are We Going,” which admits that “love is all there is.”

This is the first of their albums to feature piano prominently.  That, and Duren’s excellent vocals, echo some of his fine, early solo work.  Maybe a year looking back on his career rubbed off a little? One example of this is “Everyone is Out of Tune,” which contains pounding piano, some tasty chord changes and another fine sax break.

I think what really stands out here is that the songs are really strong.  “Bridges I Had to Burn” is a great country rocker – I like the way Eric Lewis’ guitar echoes Loveland’s lyrics.  He also adds some excellent mandolin to the track.

The vinyl edition features a gatefold sleeve, which contains all the lyrics inside at a typeface that you don’t have to squint to read (ok, that last part is only half true – I’m old, I still had to squint, but not as much).  Plus, the nice 12 x 12 size shows off the spectacular front and back cover featuring a stunning piece of collage art.  And, there’s a personal note from the duo inside talking about the music-making process – some of my favorite artists did this in the past.  

The city where both of them are from has always been a melting pot for diverse musical styles.  In Any Such Thing, Loveland Duren have taken the best of what Memphis has to offer and created an entire album of strong, memorable songs that will linger long after you’ve hit the stop button.  —Tony Peters