Van Duren – Are You Serious? (review)

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

361 – Terry Adams of NRBQ – In-Frequencies – New Rarities Collection

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 – The Rill Thing and King of Rock n’ Roll (review)

Little Richard – The Rill Thing

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 (review)

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

CoEd Records – Great Doo Wop Reissues From Omnivore Recordings

The Crests  – The Best of the Crests Featuring Johnny Mastro (Omnivore)

The Duprees – The Coed Singles (Omnivore)

The Duprees – The Coed Albums (Omnivore)

The Rivieras – The Coed Singles (Omnivore)

Adam Wade – The Coed Albums (Omnivore)

This fantastic music is back in print – sounding better than ever

Doo Wop is hallowed music.  Mostly issued on small, independent record labels, original copies of this genre continue to trade hands for top dollar.  And, enthusiasts are very picky when it comes to reissues.  Never fear, Omnivore Recordings has just signed a deal with one such label, Coed Records out of New York – home to artists like the Crests, Duprees and Rivieras.

Omnivore has built a reputation for doing things right, and this is no exception.  For the Duprees and Adam Wade, there are sets that compile a pair of albums by each, while the Crests set is a straight reissue of a classic, “best of” from back in the day.  And, the sound quality and liner notes are phenomenal.  No matter which one you choose, if you’re a fan of Doo Wop, you’ll be impressed.

Our favorite here is 16 Fabulous Hits from the Crests, who weren’t the first racially integrated group, but they were one of the first to have big success.  Led by Johnny Mastro, of Italian-American descent, he was joined by African American first tenor Talmadge “Tommy” Gough and bass singer J.T. Carterand second tenor Harold “Chico” Torres, who was of Puerto Rican heritage.

Of the 16 tracks, only their cover of the Penguins’ classic “Earth Angel” was not included on one of the groups many Coed singles.  The running order keeps things interesting, interspersing sweet ballads with more upbeat material.  “16 Candles” was certainly their most enduring hit, peaking nationally at #2 on the Billboard charts.  However, “Step By Step” cracked the Top 20 and should be familiar to any oldies fan, while “Six Nights a Week” and “The Angels Listened In” are both considered Doo Wop classics.

But there’s still more to this one.  “Flower of Love” is a great number about a fickle young girl, while “Always You” really shows off Mastro’s vocal prowess (listen how he sings “forever more”).  

Of the other sets, there’s plenty to love too.  One of the original owners of CoEd was George Paxton, who was more of a fan of the big band/standards era that came before rock n’ roll.  So, you get a fair amount of that material mixed in too.  The Duprees’ do a clever reworking of “As Time Goes By,” while the Rivieras (not to be confused with the later group that did “California Sun”), do an interesting cover of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” while Adam Wade’s set is full of standards like “Tenderly” and “Witchcraft,” but man, he had a great voice!

Never one to rest on their laurels, Omnivore enlisted Michael Graves to do the mastering on all the sets and he’s ensured that these treasured tracks sound the best they’ve ever sounded.  Take, for instance, “16 Candles” by the Crests – it’s always had a certain muffled quality to every version out there.  Here, the track is crystal clear.  There’s tape hiss on even Ace’s Golden Age of Rock n’ Roll series versions of “You Belong to Me” and “My Own True Love” from the Duprees.  Here, they’ve managed to isolate that hiss and remove it for even more fidelity.

Word is, there’s more to come from the CoEd vaults, so Doo Wop fans, stay tuned!  —Tony Peters

360 – Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown says he “Ain’t Done Yet”

Savoy Brown, photo by Juan Junco

Savoy Brown, one of the last of the original British blues bands. led by guitarist Kim Simmonds. Formed in 1965, the band has been through numerous lineup changes, with former members going on to be in Fleetwood Mac, UFO, King Crimson, Foghat and others.  The one constant has been Simmonds, who is showing no signs of slowing down. Hot on the heels of the critically-acclaimed album City Night from last year, the band returns with their 41st long player, appropriately titled Ain’t Done Yet.  Full of multi-layered guitars and the blues rock that Simmonds perfected decades ago.

He tells us why he decided to layer up the guitars on this album and the stories behind the songs.  Plus, interesting tidbits on how he chooses which guitar to play on each song and how he puts together demos.  Surprisingly, he also tells us good things that will come of the recent pandemic.

359 – The Kings – Rare Footage of the Heatwave Festival 1980, Bob Ezrin & “Switchin’ to Glide.”

The Kings blasted out of Ontario in 1980 with the one-two punch of “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide,” which became a weekend anthem for a large part of both Canada & the US.  The parent album, The Kings Are Here, came out on Elektra and was produced by the great Bob Ezrin, who helmed classic records by Alice Cooper, Kiss and Pink Floyd. 

Right as all of that was happening in the States, the Kings played to one of their largest crowds back in their native Canada at the Heatwave Festival.  Known as the Punk and New Wave Woodstock, the outdoor concert boasted a crowd at around 100,000 people, and featured a bulletproof lineup of Talking Heads, B-52’s, the Pretenders, Rockpile, Elvis Costello and – the Kings, who closed the night at around midnight. 

40 years later, this historic performance is finally being made available through the band’s Youtube channel, thekingsarehere. We talk with singer/bassist David Diamond and guitarist Mr. Zero from the Mercedes!

They talk about the painstaking process that went in to the restoration of this historic video. Plus, they tell the stories of how they got hooked up with producer Ezrin and how “This Beat Goes On” / “Switchin’ to Glide” became a surprise hit.

358 – Talking Doo Wop and Little Richard with Cheryl of Omnivore Recordings

Cheryl Pawelski is one of the founders of Omnivore Recordings – since 2010 they’ve issued over 400 releases, including archival albums from the Beach Boys, Big Star, Gene Clark, Lone Justice, Jellyfish, the Raspberries, Buck Owens, the Knack, the Staple Singers and NRBQ, just to name a few.  From their website description, the label says that their releases contribute to “the ongoing conversation between artists and their audiences.” 

Cheryl won a Grammy for Best Historical Album in 2014 for Hank Williams – The Garden Spot Programs, 1950, and has been nominated for several others.  Omnivore has just signed a deal for the rights to reissue music from CoEd Records, one of the legendary labels of the doo wop era, featuring The Duprees, The Crests, The Rivieras, Adam Wade and others.

Cheryl provided much of the original artwork of these classic releases from her personal collection. We chat how her label acquired the rights to this hallowed material. Besides doo wop, we also chat upcoming releases from Little Richard and NRBQ.

Paul Kelly & Paul Grabowsky – Please Leave Your Light On (review)

Paul Kelly & Paul Grabowsky – Please Leave Your Light On (Gawdaggie/Cooking Vinyl)

Forever restless, the underrated Aussie songwriter teams with a piano great for an inviting walk through his extensive catalog

The first word that comes to mind when I hear Paul Kelly is warmth.  There’s something real, honest, and inviting to his music.  With chaos surrounding us, we could all use a little of those traits to soothe our souls.  

The Australian songwriter has been on a hot streak for several years now, releasing a string of fine albums – everything from an electric soul album, to a record where he put music to the poetry of Shakespeare – all of that conveys an artist that is always searching for his next muse.

Throughout his long career, Kelly has mainly used the guitar as the instrument to embody his songs.  With his latest release, Please Leave Your Light On, he joins pianist Paul Grabowsky for a journey through his catalog, with just Kelly’s voice and Grabowsky’s piano.  The pianist has often been compared to the great Bill Evans, who was known for his innate melodicism.  He truly is the perfect companion to breathe new life into Kelly’s songs.

The album opens with “True to You,” the only Kelly composition not to appear on a previous record;  its chord progression and gentle pace harken back to the Great American Songbook.  That’s followed by a reworking of “Petrichor” from 2017’s Life is Fine – while the original has a yearning quality with its steel guitar accompaniment, this new rendition seems less tethered to the ground, giving it an ethereal essence not present in the original.

Ditto for “When a Woman Loves a Man,” a fantastic track off of 2012’s Spring and Fall.  In Grabowski’s hands, he composes this gorgeous intro that just sets up the lyrics perfectly – comparing the two, the new one just gives me chills.

“Sonnet 138,” originally from his 2016 project pairing his melodies with the words of Shakespeare, the song goes from an acoustic blues number to one resembling a Tin Pan Alley tune. 

“Young Lovers” becomes gentle, playful fun, while “You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed” is another track that just gets elevated by the gorgeous playing of Grabowski.  “Winter Coat” is one of the few songs that originally had a piano on it, but in this stripped-down setting, the lyrics are pushed to the forefront. 

In addition to all of these original Kelly compositions, he does tackle “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” the old Cole Porter song, which has been done from everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Carly Simon.  

For those wanting even more Paul Kelly – he’s also just issued Forty Days, a collection of stripped numbers done with just voice and guitar while in quarantine.

Paul Kelly has been making music for over four decades – yet he never seems happy to rest on his laurels or past successes.  Please Leave Your Light On is another example of the artist stretching out and delivering a fantastic album.  In a time of great turmoil, this collection of songs offer not only comfort, but hope that we’ll all get out of this in one piece.  —Tony Peters

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Cosmo’s Factory (50th anniversary) (review)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Cosmo’s Factory (Craft Recordings)

CCR’s best album celebrates 50

1969 had been a whirlwind year for Creedence Clearwater Revival.  The band issued an amazing three studio albums in just twelve months, yielding four Top Five singles, all the while touring the country (including a historic performance at the Woodstock Festival in August of that year).  No one would’ve faulted them for taking some time off.  Yet, the best was yet to come.

Cosmo’s Factory, the band’s fifth album, is also their best-selling, being certified quadruple platinum by the RIAA.  Craft Recordings has just issued a half speed mastered version of the original LP on vinyl, as well as providing a remastered digital version to streaming services.

By the time this album came out in July of 1970, four of the eleven tracks had already been issued as double-sided singles: the furious but brief “Travelin’ Band” backed with the ode to soggy Woodstock “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” and one of their best rockers “Up Around the Bend” backed with the spooky, Vietnam anthem “Run Through the Jungle.”  The album would go onto yield another big hit in the good timey “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” backed with the soulfully twangy ballad “Long as I Can See the Light.”

On the surface, Cosmo’s Factory looks like an album filled with…er, filler.  Four of the eleven tracks were covers – one being the longest studio track the band ever put to tape, an acid rock swamp romp through Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which clocked in at just over eleven minutes!  Add in the album’s psychedelic but sprawling opener, “Ramble Tamble,” and you might think they were just stalling.

Yet, all the cover songs work – Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby,” Elvis’ “My Baby Left Me,” and Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” are all faithful, yet spirited covers, while “Grapevine,” although certainly too long, is still an interesting reworking of the song.  While the band attempted long jams on many of their albums, “Ramble Tamble” builds in a way to keep things interesting throughout.

You could say Cosmo’s Factory showed off the versatility of the group.  Two minute hits rubbing shoulders with 11-minute freakouts, hard rockers, country sing a longs, acid-induced eerie tracks, all present in this fantastic album which featured arguably the finest collection of John Fogerty originals on one album.  CCR would never again soar to these heights.  —Tony Peters

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