Archive for June, 2011

Randy Holland “Cat Mind”

There are many different kinds of records. Some latch onto you almost immediately and either stand the test of time or else slip away as easily as they came. Randy Holland’s 1972 album Cat Mind is the other kind; those unusual and sometimes uneven records that take more than one listen to fully appreciate. Released on the independent Mother Records label, it can probably be said that Cat Mind never had a chance at real commercial success. But hell, we’re not interested in the commercial success here – we’re after good records, wherever they ended up and in whatever condition. And Cat Mind is a good record.

Looking at that stark, black and white cover shot you’re probably expecting a good deal of grit here, and the opening cut doesn’t disappoint in that department. The off-kilter flower child stomp of “Bless the Naked Days” also wastes no time introducing the listener to Holland’s rough and nasally voice; a voice which he tends to push to the limits, and often far beyond. Depending on where you’re coming from, I reckon this could either be an acquired taste or a real attraction.

Following this first number, “Colors of Sad” is bizarrely saccharine, and it’s this vivid contrast between wildness and melancholy which perhaps defines this record more than anything else. Holland tilts mercilessly between incisive, jagged rock and roll numbers and melodramatic country cuts, with very little sense of transition or artistic compromise. His uncredited backup band really shines, especially on the former, where they lay down some of the most righteous country-stained rock this side of
Wray’s Shack Three Track. The hot swamp growl of “Muddy Water” is a real highlight, as is the weird title track, graced with scorching Davie Allan-style guitar work and an insistent rhythm section. Holland’s forays into the tamer side of Americana are more hit-and-miss, giving us both the warm and gentle “Ladybug” and an unfortunately overwrought reading of Mickey Newbury’s “Remember the Good”.

Fortunately, however, even the most underwhelming cuts are outweighed by the grittier numbers, and the overall quality and unique character of Cat Mind really does warrant it the kind of reissue treatment afforded so many other lost jewels of the period, such as Vernon Wray’s Wasted. As it stands, it isn’t all that hard to track down a used copy for a decent price. And what ever happened to Randy Holland? From what it looks like, he retired his attempts at making it in the music scene not long after cutting this record and moved to Las Vegas, where he opened an art gallery and devoted the rest of his days to painting and poetry. He passed away a few years ago, truly making this his one and only album.

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“Muddy Water”

:) Private | 1972 | search ebay ]

Keith Christmas “Pigmy”

Acid Folk is one of those musicological genre headings that had to be invented retrospectively because it didn’t exist when the music it describes was extant in the late sixties. These days it’s taken to cover the acoustic singer-songwriter individuals and combos who sprang from Dylan-inspired folk-pop roots, picked up psychedelic overtones and morphed into the complexity of prog-rock – which satisfyingly describes Keith Christmas’s most creative period, up to and including Pigmy.

Originally an Essex lad, Christmas was an undergrad at Bath University (coincidentally my own alma mater at around the same time, though we never met) where he studied Building Technology in between extensive gigging on the vibrant London and Bristol folk club circuits. Never a true folkie but certainly influenced by the likes of Bert Jansch and John Rembourn, he combined an enviable fingerstyle technique on an unfashionable but strident Fender Palomino with hippie bedsitter lyricism and a reedy but distinctive voice, a combination also evident in the work of his contemporaries Nick Drake and Al Stewart. The schizophrenic nature of Keith’s career at this time – recording with session musicians but invariably gigging solo – is mirrored in the three albums he cut between 1969 and 1971, these setting his formidable acoustic guitar work alternately against orchestral ensembles and jazzy rock band backings.

Christmas has disowned his first album, 1969’s vaguely country-rock Stimulus, recorded with musicians from Mighty Baby and pedal steelist Gordon Huntley, as “overproduced”; I’d say it was rather a venture in an unsuitable musical direction for the man. He hit his stride eighteen months later with the second, Fable Of The Wings, recorded with session musicians with folk-rock credentials, which subsequently established the folk-baroque-prog template for which he’s best remembered today. There’s little to choose quality-wise between this and the ensuing Pigmy, which for me just has the edge, offering immaculate, restrained orchestral arrangements by Robert Kirby (who did the same for Nick Drake) and the LSO on its first side of introspective ballads, notably the earnest but cerebral “Timeless And Strange”, and powerful keyboards from Rod Argent and bass from Fuzzy Samuels on the other side’s trio of extended classy rockers, culminating in the extraordinary “Forest And The Shore” with its swelling, Ligeti-like choral interludes. Keith’s acoustic shimmers like a harpsichord on the top side, and his ferocious acoustic rhythm work on the flip is leavened with some fluid electric soloing. The album artwork shows him appropriately framed by a Narnia-like background, wispily-bearded, Afghan-coated and apparently rolling a joint, the true zeitgeist of the period.

Although critically his best-received works, neither Fable nor Pigmy sold in droves at the time, and after an even less successful move in a rock/soul direction Christmas threw in the professional music business. While his contemporaries Al Stewart and Nick Drake had gone on to contrasting fates – one to superstardom in LA, the other to clinical depression and an untimely death – Keith became a renovator of old houses and eventually a schoolteacher, settling in a pleasant village near Bristol and making music for his own pleasure, issuing privately-recorded small-circulation albums at intervals and occasionally gigging local pubs and small venues, his acoustic guitar mastery undiminished. Stimulus has been bootlegged for CD, but Fable and Pigmy remain unreissued and are now great rarities on vinyl; however, almost their entire contents are available on the excellent Castle compilation CD Timeless And Strange, whose title encapsulates his music of that period and which is available direct from Keith himself at his website.

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“Timeless and Strange”

😀 Compilation | 2004 | Castle | buy here ]
:) Original | 1971 | B&C Records | search ebay ]

The Klan “Join Us”

In America “The Klan” might have some negative connotations, but to a group of kids in Brussels in 1963 it sounded like the perfect band name (good enough to have chosen it over their original name “Los Ombres“). They soon began adding a disclaimer to their name, written as “The Klan (Belgium Band),” to prevent any further confusion.

Regardless of the cheeky title, The Klan were a wonderful baroque pop outfit with one exceptional full length LP to their credit. The songs on 1966’s Join Us are incredibly musical and far more considered than the typical pop fair of the time.

Like most bands of the era, this record touches on all facets of the Beatles but mainly cops the folk rock shamble of Help! and Revolver, with heavy Harrison style vocals. The lush string/brass arrangements and studio effects occasionally take the record into mild psych territory, like on the gorgeous “And I Love It So” and “Already Mine” with it’s vaguely eastern refrain. There’s also a light flair for Spector-esque grandiosity here, with some songs aproaching the Brill Building style.

It’s difficult to pick favorites from such a solid album, but some standouts include opener “Fify the Fly” which outshines its goofy subject matter with a pretty melody and a bouncy harpsichord line, and “One of My Dreams” which could easily have been a mid-period Harrison song.

With all the Beatles references aside, The Klan wrote some fantastic material and although they did not achieve much notoriety outside of their home country, these songs definitely deserve to be heard apart from their mid-60s context to truly appreciate the unique perspective on this record.

“Join Us” has yet to be reissued on CD, but LPs do turn up on eBay frequently (especially the 1967 Brazilian pressing).

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“Fify The Fly”

:) Original | 1966 | Palette | search ]

Richard and Mimi Fariña “Reflections in a Crystal Wind”

Though not forgotten by any means, the unique and groundbreaking music of Mimi and Richard Fariña still remains distressingly under-appreciated. As the sands of time have gathered, the two have, in many ways, found their roles as musicians eclipsed by other aspects of their lives: namely, Mimi as Joan Baez’s little sister, and Dick as an iconic literary figure of the post-Beat generation. The fact that they were not only recording electric folk-rock before almost anybody else on the scene, but raga-influenced folk-rock at that, seems to be on a card relegated to the bottom of their deck. Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home may have predated the Fariñas’ debut album, Celebrations For A Grey Day, by a month, but it was Dick Fariña who had been actively asserting to the revival’s leading lights that American folk music was no good without a beat you could dance to. Hell, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the Fariñas were stomping out rainy day rock and roll several hours before Dylan’s electric set supposedly blew open the doors of the genre.

But enough frustrated backstory, because I think just digging the music will tell you all you really need to know. Eight months after dropping their extraordinary debut, the Fariñas released this record, Reflections In A Crystal Wind. Building on the white-lightning folk-rock-raga sound of Celebrations, this album establishes the two’s developed musical spirit while, at the same time, expanding the range of their repertoire considerably. Both Dick and Mimi are at the top of their games, both vocally and instrumentally, with Mimi especially starting to shine, such as on the swaying guitar and dulcimer duet “Miles,” her tribute to the Prince of Darkness. There are less instrumental showcases here than on the first album, but the two make up for it with a plethora of righteous songs. It’s difficult to choose highlights, but the ominous “Bold Marauder” and biting, anti-establishment “House of Un-American Blues Activity Dream” are nothing but stone-cold classics. You find lots of instances where an author’s talent fails to translate into songwriting talent and vice versa, but that is absolutely not the case here. The sharp wit and crystalline imagery of Dick’s literature is everywhere on Reflections, as he leaps effortlessly from rapid-fire satire to beautiful, lyrical evocations. Even the two’s attempt at a languid, junky blues (“Mainline Prosperity Blues”) comes up supernatural, with John Hammond and Bruce Langhorne digging in on harmonica and guitar, respectively.

Richard Fariña’s tragic death by motorcycle misadventure is well recounted (I’d recommend David Hadju’s Positively Fourth Street), cutting down a beautiful spirit whose artistic endeavors had only just set sail. Mimi would release the odds and ends compilation Memories the following year, which  has proven just as essential as everything else to two ever recorded. Vanguard Records has kept all of the Fariñas albums in print, and even put out a three-disc set of their complete recordings a while ago that is definitely a worthwhile investment, particularly as it includes nine live cuts culled from two of their three Newport appearances. Don’t let Mimi and Richard slip you by; with whole heart do I recommend their records as required listening.

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“House un-American Blues Activity Dream”

😀 Reissue | 1995 | Vanguard | buy ]
:) Original | 1965 | Vanguard | search ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]

O.W.L. “Of Wondrous Legends”

Of Wondrous Legends is one of the holy grails of unknown acid folk/folk-rock.  As the story goes, Stephen Titra had played in various local Chicago groups, the most popular being the Uncalled Four (traditional folk), Rhythm’s Children (garage folk-rock) and of course, the legendary jam band Mountain Bus.  Titra left Mountain Bus just before the group gained serious traction, eventually releasing their great Dead-inspired rural psych LP from 1971.  Of Wondrous Legends was recorded at Universal Recording Inc. in 1971.  Titra tried shopping the final product around to labels such as Elektra, Fantasy, A&M, Capital and RCA but there were no takers.  Many of the record label A&R reps found O.W.L’s music hard to market, claiming the music was not commercial enough and that no one song on the LP stood out as a potential single.  This music is hard to categorize as it doesn’t fit into any comfortable niche.  The only reason this music was reissued is because Dawson Prater found one of the few pressings (maybe the only pressing!) of O.W.L in a Chicago thift store in the mid 2000’s.

The O.W.L. project sounds nothing like Mountain Bus.  Titra had been playing many of these songs live as early as 1967-1968.  By the time he entered the studio many of his creations were fully developed and ready to record.  Of Wondrous Legends holds a midground between the Left Banke (think “Shadows Breaking Over My Head” ) and Pearls Before Swine’s superb The Use Of Ashes LP.  There are no sitars, psychedelic effects, feedback, crazed electric guitar solos or distorted vocals.  Titra, vocals and guitars, is backed by a host of other musical instruments which include vibes, marimba, flute, alto, cello, drums, bass, piano, moog, mandolin and assorted horns.  If anything, the album’s production gives it a psychedelic feel.

The album is very strong and highly recommended to those who are into “progressive folk.”  “Upon The Wings Of Gabriel” and “A Tale Of A Crimson “Knight” are powerful slices of acid folk that have spacey production values – these tracks are not to be missed by psych fans.  “Be Alive” is what the Left Banke might have sounded like had they progressed into the early 70s albeit with more of a folk-rock approach to their music.  O.W.L.’s most progressive piece, the dreamy eight and a half minute “Midnight Carnival,” is another intricate piece of music whose lyrics deal with unity and chaos.  Finally, “Sunsets Of Smiles,” the closing track, is a very pretty folk song that feels much less produced when compared to the numbers that precede it.

Overview:  Many of the chamber orchestrations are complex, giving O.W.L.’s music a lush, arty feel.  This is certainly a unique, one of a kind album. The production is amazing but Titra’s vocals, arrangements and songwriting ability are also top notch.  4 out of 5 stars – excellent music and an important discovery.

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“Be Alive”

😀 Reissue | 2008 | Locust | buy ]

Gallery “Nice to be with You”

In 1972 Sussex Records released the first and only lp by the Detroit based pop group Gallery, fronted by singer/songwriter Jim Gold. Nice to be with You was produced and arranged by none other than legendary Motown axe-slinger extraordinaire and fuzzy funk brother Dennis Coffey (who also served as producer on the cult classic psych/folk/funk lp Cold Fact by Rodriguez) and his partner in crime, sleeper soul and funk producer Mike Theodore. Gallery’s sole lp is an entertaining slice of wax with a mostly soft-rock vibe that runs the gamut from country-rock to pop-psych to doo-wop to funk, and back again to pop–all the while standing side by side with soft-rock contemporaries of the time like Bread as well as soft-psych folk rock luminaries like Jim Sullivan. Thanks in no small part to the killer team of Coffey and Theodore, a handful of nice production touches really add to the tunes and result in album that stands a cut above many of the soft-rock releases of the time.

The boys kick it off with “Island in the Sun”, a sunny pop tune complete with harpsichord, glockenspiel, marimba, and pedal steel riffs with a Southern Pacific vibe. Things really start to get interesting with the next track, “Louisiana Line,” when acoustic guitar and twangy Telecaster give way to a funky country-rock tune with even more tasteful touches on the pedal steel guitar. Sounding like a slightly funkier version of Poco, the song calls to mind several of the more upbeat tunes on Ian and Sylvia’s excellent funky rural lp Great Speckled Bird, as well as “Move Over” from Bread’s self titled 1969 lp. “Louisiana Line” stands out as one the premier cuts on the album with a funky backwoods beat, an extremely catchy chorus with three part harmonies, and tasty Telecaster twangin’. “Ginger Haired Man” mines similar territory as “Louisiana Line,” featuring bluesy harmonica blowing, and yet another irresistibly catchy chorus.

On the other side of the spectrum, “Gee Whiz” is a 50’s throwback flavored with a touch of doo-wop that calls to mind the the pop-country of the Everly Brothers and their classic tune  “All I Have to Do is Dream,” as well as the ubiquitous “Earth Angel.” “I Believe in Music” pairs a tasty tremolo guitar riff and cowbell with a pre-disco/later day Motown sound full of tambourines, slinky Stratocasters doin’ the disco dance, and of course, syrupy strings. Midway through the song a bold synthesizer make a well appreciated yet extremely unexpected appearance. “Big City Miss Ruth Ann,” the third and final single from the album, sounds like a more polished take on the roadhouse rock of fellow Michigan natives Riley.

The million selling (!) title track, “Nice to be WIth You” is disappointingly sappy, suffering from just a touch too much sentimentality and over-production. On the same token, “Lover’s Hideaway” and “He Will Break Your Heart” are throwaway tracks that lack lyrical depth, catchiness, and punch. If there’s one bum note concerning Nice to Be With You’, it would be that Side B lacks overall when compared with Side A. Furthermore, several of the tracks on Side B seem to make fervent use of blatantly recycled tropes from Side A. Still, the album as a whole is such an entertaining listen in the forgotten early 70s soft-rock vein that no slight lack of killer tracks on Side B is gonna keep this gem off your table.

All things considered, Nice to Be With You is an enjoyable listen by a talented young band that incorporates a handful of early 70s sounds. One minute Gallery recalls the classic pop-psych of Buffalo Springfield; another moment they recall a slightly less greasy Grandma’s Roadhouse; then they step back in time and channel the timeless sound of 50s AM pop; when you’re least expecting it they all of the sudden sound like the Bee Gees after they discovered that disco beat! The bottom line is this–if you’re into vintage pop music, Nice to Be With You has certainly got something that will undoubtably float your boat.

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“Louisiana Line”

:) Original | 1972 | Sussex | search ]
😀 Reissue | 2010 | Fuel | buy ]

INDEX “INDEX”

INDEX  were a popular local psych rock group from Grosse Pointe, an affluent suburb outside of the Detroit, Michigan area.  Their debut album, commonly referred to as “The Black Album,” was released in December of 1967.  The group consisted of drummer Jim Valice and guitarists Gary Francis and John Ford.  150 original LPs were pressed on DC Records, making this album very rare and super expensive.

“The Black Album” was recorded in mono using a reel-to-reel tape recorder.  This primitive, underproduced recording technique has only added to the album’s mysterious, acid drenched mystique.  Gary Francis played a Gibson 12 string electric guitar on most of the album’s tracks, which were recorded in the ballroom of the Ford Estate.  Of the 9 tracks, 4 are instrumentals while the remaining 5 tracks were recorded with vocal arrangements.  Most of the album’s tracks are quality originals although INDEX adds some interesting basement-garage-raga-surf sounds to well known standards such as “Eight Miles High,” “You Keep Me Hangin On” and “John Riley.”  “Eight Miles High” is probably INDEX’s best known track, being full of superb raga guitar work and downbeat amateur vocals.  Other than the Byrds’ original, this is probably the best version of this song I’ve heard but kudos to English band East of Eden, who recorded a very fine unreleased take of “Eight Miles High” in 1969.  “Feedback,” another popular track that received limited airplay back in the late 60s, is an explosive, feedback laden monster (instrumental) that sounds like the Velvet Underground circa 1968.  Other fine tracks are the acid surf instro “Israeli Blues,” psychedelic folk-rockers “Fire Eyes” and “Rainy, Starless Night” and the wah-wah crazed “Turquoise Feline.”  INDEX is without doubt one of the classic “must own”  American psych albums.

Comparisons are hard to draw upon because INDEX doesn’t sound like anything I have heard before.  The group name check The Who, The Byrds and Jimi Hendrix as influences but the Velvet Underground and Dick Dale can also be heard in the INDEX’s unique sound.   Vinyl reissues have been around for years but are somewhat expensive.  Lion Productions recently released a fine 2 disc set which includes INDEX’s two official albums along with some unreleased studio material.

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“Feedback”

😀 Reissue | 2fer | 2011 | Lion Productions | buy ]

Gene Vincent “If Only You Could See Me Today”

Gene Vincent’s self-titled lp (also known as If Only You Could See Me Today) is the first of a pair of records released by Kama Sutra Records in 1970. Recorded at the legendary Sound Factory recording studio in Hollywood, CA just a year before his untimely death in 1971, Gene Vincent was undoubtably an attempt to cash in on the roots-rock surge of the late 60s and early 70s. Just as Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Link Wray, and the Everly Brothers were busy updating their images and fashioning new sounds for the changing times, so was Gene Vincent. Fortunately, Gene and his band, which featured L.A session ace and Kaleidoscope co-founder Chris Darrow as well as not one, but three members of the infamous Sir Douglas Quintet (Harvey Kagan, Johnny Perez, and Tex-Mex Farfisa fanatic Augie Meyer), were able to deliver an excellent record that expands upon Gene’s classic sound while simultaneously creating a melting pot of numerous roots-rock styles; with touches of Cajun, Tex-Mex, Swamp Rock, Soul, R&B, Country, and Folk, Gene Vincent is an excellent example of some fine Cosmic American Music to be sure!

The first track, a cover of Mickey Newbury’s “Sunshine”, is quite possibly the finest version of the song that’s been laid to wax. Setting the blueprint for the sound of the record–70s bootcut boogie with a serious Texarkana twist–the tune opens with acoustic guitar and a funky bass line topped off with some tasty Tex-Mex tinged organ riffing courtesy of Augie Meyer. When Gene sings “Sunshine, you may find my window/But you won’t find me…Sunshine, as far as I’m concerned don’t be concerned with me,” his lazy laid-back delivery truly embodies the voice of the character in the song–a man who’s tired of struggling to keep out the darkness and has resigned himself to a life of depression and isolation. Almost entirely gone is the rollicking rockabilly style of his younger years, in its place is a laid back yet emotionally expressive vocal style.

Next up is “I Need Woman’s Love”, which sounds similar to a handful of tracks off Doug Sahm’s excellent 70s solo records. Augie’s presence once again goes a long way in terms of adding legit Tex-Mex flavor and the tune will likely be a favorite of Sahm fanatics craving more funky borderland jams. Slow Times Comin’ is a stoney swamp rock jam in the vein of CCR’s “Keep on Chooglin” and “Graveyard Train” that clocks in at just over nine minutes. “Danse Colida,” a traditional Creole folk tune, brings yet another slightly unexpected twist to the album with its spicy Cajun fiddle licks. “Geese,” which also appeared on the B-side of the “Sunshine” single, is a folky tune about the free wheelin’ lives of, you guessed it, geese. While not exactly a throwaway tune, it lacks momentum and substance compared with some of the other tunes on the release.

Gene’s take on the Bobby Bare tune “500 Miles” that kicks off Side B is absolutely irresistible with its swampy late-night Texarkana soul vibe. Fleshed out with funky wah-wah guitar, Garth inspired organ grinding, underwater leslie background guitar textures, and a bold fuzzed-out guitar line in the bridge, this is definitely one of the standout tracks on the lp–absolutely perfect for those wasted days and wasted nights! “Listen To The Music,” Gene’s plea for world peace through song, is a bouncy pop tune with a forever relevant message delivered in a fashion completely true to the time. “If Only You Could See Me Today” is a swampy country rocker written by Augie Meyer that recalls some of the more rocking tunes on Dale Hawkins’ L.A, Memphis, & Tyler, Texas, and “A Million Shades of Blue,”written by Gene along with the help of his wife Jackie Frisco, is a lovely pop/country tune that would’ve made an excellent single had Kama Sutra decided to release another one after “Sunshine”. The bluesy “Tush Hog” closes the lp with nearly 8 minutes of sultry southern swamp jammin’.

Unjustly dismissed upon its initial release, mostly ignored by long-time fans and deemed a failed attempt at a comeback by much of the rock press of the era, it’s high time that Gene and his gang receive the credit they deserve for what is not only an excellent time capsule of funky early 70s roots-rock sounds, but actually a really great album with an interesting and varied sound that could’ve and should’ve taken Gene’s career in a new direction had years of  hard livin’ not taken him away from us too soon. While not extremely pricey, original vinyl copies of Gene Vincent can be a tad tricky to come by. However, Rev-Ola has issued a cd compilation entitled A Million Shades of Blue that consists of Gene Vincent as well as the Kama Sutra follow up Day the World Turned Blue. Don’t miss out on this forgotten 70s classic!

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“Sunshine”

😀 Compilation | 2008 | Revola | buy ]
:) Original | 1970 | Kama Sutra | search ]