Archive for February, 2012
Today we take a slight detour from our usual fare and delve, albeit briefly, into the work of Víctor Jara; namely, his fifth record, El Derecho de Vivir en Paz, or The Right to Live in Peace. Jara is a legend in both his homeland of Chile and the rest of South America, but his strong anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist sympathies have not been conducive to widespread popularity here in the United States. Indeed, it was the United States-backed military junta in Chile which saw Jara brutally tortured and executed in 1973 alongside thousands of other fellow workers and artists. This may be unusually political territory for the Storm but, if you will, simply think of this as a bridge between Moris Birabent’s Argentine folk-rock classic Treinta Minutos de Vida and the work of the great Phil Ochs, another singer irrevocably tied to the far-left who actually befriended Jara on a trip to Chile with Jerry Rubin, traveling with him across Chile and singing in the copper mines and shanty towns.
El Derecho de Vivir en Paz is something of a landmark album in Jara’s body of work, if for no other reason than it saw him reaching out to the popular rock and roll music of the day for the first time. In 1960s Chile, rock and roll was often viewed as suspect, being a product of American imperialism as translated through U.S. domination of media. Jara appreciated the music of groups like The Beatles, however, and thus approached underground Chilean folk-rock group Los Blops to accompany him on a couple of songs for his new record, the first and foremost being the anthemic title track. If anyone had any worries that Víctor was “selling out” to American pop music, however (as ridiculous a sentiment as that may be), the song’s passionate dedication to Ho Chi Minh was swift in erasing them. In any case, it would not be long before other Nueva Canción singers – including the great Patricio Manns and the brother and sister duo of Isabel and Angel Parra – were inviting Chilean rock and roll musicians onto their own recordings.
“Abre La Ventana” is a call to the dispossessed working people of Chile to open up their windows and let the light of social change shine in. The song features middle eastern touches in the music (guitar and charango playing off each other quite beautifully) and an extremely warm display of Jara’s voice. As with his past albums, Víctor explores all different forms of South American folksong, from the irresistible revolutionary singalong “A Cuba” to the traditional Peruvian folk song “A La Molina No Voy Más.” He even reaches out to the North American folk music underground by including a translation of Malvina Reynolds “Little Boxes,” presented here as “Las Casitas del Barrio Alto” and featuring an addendum of biting, topical lyrics against racism, the Chilean right wing, and United States imperialism. According to Jara’s wife, Joan, Reynolds herself heard this reworking and lauded it for its sharper political slant. The most renowned, and quite possibly the most moving song on this record, however, comes at its end, with “Plegaria A Un Labrador,” a driving prayer to the working man to take up arms against his oppressors.
Though the influence of contemporary European and North American music is relatively small on El Derecho de Vivir en Paz, the music itself is not so far removed from the kind of folk and folk-rock being explored elsewhere in the world. Indeed, its roots come from much the same place: Europe, Africa, and the many indigenous cultures of the Americas. Whether you support Jara’s politics or not, the beauty of the man’s music and the lyricism of his singing cannot be denied. Though most Chilean vinyl copies of Jara’s albums were destroyed by the military in the mid 1970s, Warner Music Chile has reissued his most popular albums with the assistance of the Víctor Jara Foundation, and El Derecho de Vivir en Paz is now available with bonus tracks, including several rare live performances and a handful of non-album tracks. Dedicated searching should also be able to lead you to one of several foreign reissues of the album under a series of different titles and covers, most of which, however, follow the original track order.
Some folks out there will tell you that the two records cut for Columbia Records by The Hour Glass, Gregg and Duane Allman’s early west-coast rock and roll band, are nothing but commercial garbage. Don’t listen to them. From the perspective of the rabid, biker-boogieing Allman Brothers fan, The Hour Glass may very well come across as nothing but lysergic flower-child pop, but to the more informed listener a record like The Power of Love is a rare and valuable slice of psychedelic soul; I know that, for this long-time Allman Brothers fan, these Hour Glass recordings have actually edged out that later band’s albums on my turntable by a considerable degree, though I will confess to occasionally missing Duane’s inimitable bottleneck runs.
Cut between reworked songs by southern soul legends like Don Covay, Eddie Hinton and Dan Penn and memorable originals, The Power of Love really does (for lack of loftier language) kick ass from start to finish. Duane Allman’s heavy fuzz guitar and electric sitar may be a world away from the supple slide style that made him a household name, but it does have a vintage appeal of its own, and at the very least manages to display the guitarist’s legendary ear for melody. Meanwhile, Gregg’s singing is as heavy and soulful as it would ever be – just listen as he tears the roof off of songs like “Home” and “I Still Want Your Love,” sounding much more rough-hewn than his tender age would otherwise imply. So many of these tunes had Billboard potential that it blows my mind that this band never managed to take off, whatever record company hassles they were caught up in at the time.
Some of my personal favorites here include the organ-driven “Changing of the Guard,” the wild, burning take on Eddie Hinton’s “Down In Texas,” and the righteous, reverberating psychedelia of the closing number, “Now Is the Time.” Duane’s solo on that last piece displays a radical controlled feedback tone that really makes it for me, and his sitar spotlight on the group’s jazzy instrumental reading of The Beatles evergreen “Norwegian Wood” is entertaining, if rather inconsequential. After hearing these numbers one almost wishes that more of the artistic eccentricities heard here had carried over into the brothers’ latter-day careers.
The Hour Glass recordings have been repackaged and reissued under a number of different titles, but I’d say the best place to find them is in the comprehensive Hour Glass anthology, originally a double LP released in the early seventies but recently remastered by Beat Goes On Records.
Guy Clark waited a long time to get himself on record, despite a proven pedigree as a songwriter penning sometimes joyous, sometimes bittersweet, frequently autobiographical, always poetic narratives of Western life. Jerry Jeff Walker had cut Clark’s “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train” for his eponymous 1972 album, whilst Townes Van Zandt included “Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool Ya” on his sublime The Late Great Townes Van Zandt the same year. Meanwhile, Monahans, TX, native Clark had held down a day job as a TV station art director in Houston whilst playing the city’s folk clubs with the likes of Townes and K.T. Oslin, and, during a brief unhappy spell in Los Angeles, worked as a staff songwriter for Sunbury Music and as a luthier building Dobros. It wasn’t until several years after he moved to Nashville that he finally signed to RCA and released his own first album in 1975, effectively “covering” some of his own tunes that others had put down years earlier.
Under his RCA contract Clark turned out two country-meets-folk albums of such homely, unassuming beauty that it’s amazing in retrospect to think it took him so long to find his own voice on vinyl. On the first, Old No. 1 , Clark’s own belated versions of “Desperadoes” and “Freeway” proved peerless, and other future classics such as “Texas 1947”, “Let Him Roll” and “A Nickel For The Fiddler” rounded out a faultless ten-track set taking in folk, bluegrass, honky-tonk and the most lonesome of torch ballads in a respectful, authentic fashion that contrasted with both the bland country-pop of Chet Atkins’s Nashville roster and the hyperactive rawk’n’roll of Waylon Jennings’s Outlaw clique. Alongside Clark’s own masterful acoustic guitar picking, the album featured gorgeous, restrained accompaniments from a bevy of Music Row sessioneers including Reggie Young (guitar), Johnny Gimble (fiddle), Micky Raphael (harmonicas), David Briggs (piano) and Hal Rugg (pedal steel and Dobro) plus almost all of Emmylou Harris’s entourage as guest backing vocalists, with Harris’s own crystal soprano harmonies embellishing Clark’s warm, cracked Texas brogue in similar fashion to the way she’d counterpointed the fragile warblings of Gram Parsons.
None of which, sadly, provided Clark with a hit; there were no singles released and the album itself struggled only to a lowly 41 on the Billboard country chart. The next year’s follow-up Texas Cookin’ similarly made no commercial impact despite being of nearly as high a quality and including such wonderful waxings as “Virginia’s Real”, “Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool Ya” and the incomparable “The Last Gunfighter Ballad”, and that did it for Clark’s RCA contract. It would be another two years before he resurfaced on Warner for his third long-player, since when he’s put out infrequent albums on that and no fewer than seven other imprints with no-better-than-modest sales all the way. Yet his songs have been repeatedly covered by country royalty: Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Rodney Crowell, Alan Jackson, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Buffett and the Highwaymen. In 2011 a slew of the aforementioned plus Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Roseanne Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ron Sexsmith, Townes’s son John and others returned the compliment with a double CD of Clark’s best known tunes entitled This One’s For Him: A Tribute To Guy Clark. Rarely has such a tribute been so genuinely justified, but if this sounds just too gratulatory, treat yourself instead to the twofer CD containing Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin’.
Every now and then something unexpected hits you in a way that leaves a deep and lasting impression. For me, one of those occasions came with Chicago garage band The Cryan’ Shames’ recording of the old Drifters hit “Up On the Roof,” off their incomprehensibly under-appreciated psychedelic classic A Scratch In the Sky. Granted, “Up On the Roof” itself has been overplayed to the point of nausea since it first made the scene back in 1963, but the Shames take the old Tin Pan Alley standard and turn it into a soaring, tightly woven piece of teenage magic that does not waste a second out of its three minutes and twenty four seconds. It’s the sound of youthful rebellion and romantic angst woven into a thing of panoramic beauty.
As a matter of fact, I reckon that the record that this song is buried in is itself well-defined by the above platitudes. A Scratch In the Sky is one of those rare records laid down at the height of the sixties which manage to pull in the best qualities of the band’s many influences and turn back out something wholly unto its own. The cosmic harmonies of the Beach Boys, the jangling spirit of The Byrds, the rollicking pop of The Beatles; these are all commonly borrowed sounds, but rarely ones so expertly disassembled and recast as we hear on this record. Though this collection of songs remains well-polished through studio-craft and the musicians’ own abilities, it retains a freshness and noncommercial edge that makes it both an accessible and adventurous listen.
The second track, “Sailing Ship,” is a good example of what I mean by all this. There are all sorts of influences detectable here, but nothing absolute. I never fail to be impressed by the thundering drums, jagged guitar chords and droning bagpipes here, all of which make the song sound strangely ahead of its time, or at least out of its own time. In true Sgt. Pepper fashion, the band clearly strove to make each song stand out as a distinct work of art, rather than sounding like something they had simply worked up on the road. The arrangements are ornate and layered with lysergic sounds and tape tricks, and besides the previously mentioned bagpipes the band manages to bring in accordion, harpsichord, tamboura, french horn, and…french lyrics (on “In the Cafe,” of course). If there’s any song reminiscent of the band’s work on their previous record, Sugar and Spice it’s the hard grooving “Mr. Unreliable,” which retains a lot of the garage band attitude and sweet harmonic edge that painted earlier jewels like “Ben Franklin’s Almanac”.
I’m rather blown away to find that the 2002 Sundazed reissue of this record has already dipped back out of print, leaving it perhaps the hardest of the Shames discs to track down. Should the following tracks catch you like they caught me, however, you shouldn’t have to fork over too much for a vinyl copy. It seems strange that so many new reissues end up becoming more obscure and desirable than vintage releases of the same recordings, but I suppose that’s the way it goes.
Innocuously described by the compiler of the Sundazed reissue CD liner notes as “the hardest working psychedelic surf band in Arizona”, Kennélmus laid down in the grooves of this collection some of the weirdest shit to be tracked to wax as psych gave way to its early seventies successors. The compositions are clumsy, the vocals almost totally unmusical, the instrumentation mostly wild and undisciplined and the studio production way over the top. Yet there’s something compulsive about this whacked-out mess of an album by a forgotten band that’s right up there with the Elevators, the Prunes and Syd Barrett. Or think Cold Sun, with the same peyote-driven woozy urgency and the trademark autoharp substituted with a melodica, and you won’t be a million miles out.
Morphing from Phoenix-based top forty/British Invasion covers outfit the Shi-Reeves, this four-piece, centred on the compositional and multi-instrumental talents of guitarist/keyboardist Ken Walker, took its name from his own unanglicised birth moniker: Kennélmus Walkiewicz. The album’s title was derived inexplicably (but probably under chemical influence) from Folkestone Prison, a minor penitentiary in the environs of the sedate Kentish seaside resort and Channel port, and was originally to have been Folkestoned Prism, but to avoid prejudicing potential radio exposure the “d” was left off. As it turned out they needn’t have worried; a vanity run of a thousand copies on small independent Phoenix International Records was all that surfaced and, as Walker relates, “It took a long time to sell out the original pressing . . . some of them were given away for sexual favours”.
It’s a schizophrenic son of a bitch, this record. Most of what would have been the first side is instrumental and – the psychedelic surf tag notwithstanding – these tracks exhibit to my ears a combination of the guileless chord sequences and melodies that Joe Meek was using with his instrumental combos a decade earlier and the sonic palette of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti Western soundtracks, in the arrangements but also notably in the clean, springy lead guitar work, with a whiff of Lost In Space electronic frippery thrown in for good measure. “Dancing Doris” has an intermittent Middle Eastern zither riff that makes you want to scratch, and “Goodbye Pamela Ann” brazenly steals the jerky drum pattern from the Fabs’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”. When the vocals start to infiltrate on what was originally the flipside it’s clear that the band are off on a shamelessly lysergic expedition. The nearest thing to a conventional sung song is “Mother Of My Children” with its classic chat-up line refrain “woman, would you be the mother of my children?” “Think For Yourself” is a four-chord garage bash with melodica, wah-wah guitar and schizophonic stereo-split vocals, whilst “Shapes Of Sleep” is Beefheart’s Magic Band reflected in a distorting mirror and the hysterical plane-crash narrative of “Sylvan Shores” boasts wilfully out-of-tune bass guitar and an appropriately disintegrating outro. The lengthy closing “The Raven”, based on Poe’s verses of the same name, combines proto-punk vocals and chainsaw rhythm guitar with further primitive electronic squeals. The five “songs” are seamlessly segued with short intermissions incorporating backwards instrumentals, found sounds, vocal gibberish and a fake radio newsreel. It really shouldn’t work, but it all does, though it might take you several plays to rub down to the shine beneath the verdigris.
The band lasted around six years, but despite frequent gigging and a parallel career for Walker and fellow guitarist Bob Narloch as a folk club duo the album never raised major label interest and would remain their sole recorded product and a great rarity until reissued by Sundazed in 1999. Interestingly three of the band actually worked at Phoenix International’s pressing contractor and literally pressed their own album, probably a first in rock annals.
Tom Paxton was already a well-established voice from the American folk-revival by the time he cut 1972’s Peace Will Come. His songs “Last Thing On My Mind,” “Bottle of Wine,” and “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” had more or less filtered down into the canon of American folksong, having been recorded by everyone from Doc Watson to Dion DiMucci to the obscure New Mexican rock and roll band The Fireballs. By the seventies, however, Paxton’s popularity had slid as the great folk scare winded down to its inevitable demise and those who did not follow in the footsteps of Dylan’s electric full-tilt boogie years were thrown aside like yesterday’s papers.
This is not to say that Paxton was unwilling to embrace the emergence of folk-rock, however; there are a number of notable electric touches here, such as on the rollicking Jesus Christ Superstar satire “Jesus Christ, S.R.O,” which even tries for some vintage Sun Records slapback in its chorus. But the bulk of the material is low-key and acoustic, with arrangements hinging on Danny Thompson’s double bass. Paxton has to be admired for his lifelong commitment to his songwriting, as he has never let his words be buried by the need to score rock and roll hits on the Billboard charts, or whatever his contemporaries were doing at this point. Despite being considered a “latter-day” effort, Peace Will Come reveals this remarkable singer near the height of his powers, and contains many memorable additions to both sides of his repertoire: the sharp-tongued and often hilarious topical singer and the soft-spoken romantic poet. From that latter camp both “Out Behind the Gypsy’s” and the inspirational title track are vivid highlights, forgoing Paxton’s tendency towards humor and instead tapping into the spiritual passion that tends to mark his most enduring compositions. Thompson’s playing is as heartwarming as always, and Tony Visconti’s clear-eyed production is crisp and mellow in all the right places.
Unfortunately Peace Will Come is one of the few Tom Paxton records never to have been represented on compact disc. It’s quite easy to find original vinyl copies, but I don’t think that’s any excuse for allowing such a moving record (and by so respected a songwriter) to drift out-of-print. If you haven’t explored any of Paxton’s 1970s recordings this might also be a good place to begin before heading back to 1971’s slightly more esoteric Here Comes the Sun, also on Reprise.
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Link Wray, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest and most important rock & roll guitarists of all-time, is a pretty familiar name with rock fans all over the world. The man practically invented distorted, fuzzy, and wild rock guitar sounds. He was one of the first, if not the first, guitarists to use the almighty power-chord. Pete Townshend has famously cited Link’s importance, claiming that “he is the king; if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble’, I would have never picked up a guitar.” By the way, “Rumble” has since been added by the Library Of Congress to the National Recording Registry. Important stuff. Link recorded tons of material throughout his long career, with most of it being great. There’s just something about “Bullshot,” this dusty little fiery gem from 1979, that really stands out.
Recorded in NYC with Richard Gottehrer on production (need we say more?), this album is an atomic-bomb of a record, combining Link’s nasty rockabilly/psycho/mean/whatever-you-want-to-call-it guitar licks backed with some of the very best rhythm players I have ever heard. Anton Fig, drummer extraordinaire, plays with such intensity and power. The same can be said for Rob Stoner, who has played with countless people. The bass playing on this album is a real ear-opener and jaw-dropper. When deciding which categories I was going to put this album under, I had no hesitation to add “punk” to the list. Sure, this may not be a straight-up punk rock album by definition, but the playing is so dirty and intense that it really does sound like a punk album!
Right from the beginning, you know you’re going to be in for a treat. “Good Good Lovin'” starts off the album, and kicks everything into gear preparing you for the rockin’ ride the album sends you on. “Fever” is one of the best versions of the song out there, giving it almost a strut or swagger about it, and a whole new vibe. “Switchblade” is one hell of an instrumental, combining Link’s wild ehco-laden and distorted-to-the-max guitar and a rhythm backing not too far removed from the tune of “Peter Gunn”. Side two is where the real magic is; Link’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” kicks off, and is something that needs to be heard to be believed. Link executed this cover perfectly: adding his own twist to it, yet retaining the credibility and beauty of the original. It was almost as if Link may have had the power-pop urgency of “Baby Blue” by Badfinger in mind. The guitar work in this song is positively amazing; he is just making every string scream and strain with so much power it leaves you speechless. Link even gave us an extra treat of doing a new punked-up cover of his classic “Rawhide,” which again, is phenomenal and improves upon the original…somehow. The other bright and shining moment on the record is the very last tune, a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t.” At your first listen, you may not “get it” right away. Give it a chance, and you will see the absolute brilliance Link gave this old ’50’ hit. Pay particular attention to the guitar work at the very end of the song. It sounds as if the song just decides to break down, explode, and go off to another planet. Unbelievable.
Buying the album may be a bit tricky, especially if you need to go the digital route. Your best bet, if at all possible, is to try and hunt down an original vinyl copy on eBay or scour the thrifts. The album was reissued on CD as an import in the ’90s, but it has become quite pricey. Trying to track down a copy of this album is worth the effort, though. This record has become a definite main-stay in my collection, and I often find myself going back to it time and time again. It is rewarding and a joy to listen to each and every time I put it on my turntable. I will say, that since owning this album, Link Wray has become one of my favorite guitarists of all-time, and it may just do the same thing for you.
Most people are familiar with Tommy James and the Shondells through their impressive string of radio hits, but what few people realize is that, alongside said bubblegum classics, the band was busy laying down some of the weirdest rock and roll of the era. 1969’s Cellophane Symphony is a beautiful case in point, and in fact doubles as an excellent gateway into the Shondells’ discography.
Few rock and roll groups have ever been adventurous enough to open an album of catchy, psychedelic rock and roll with a droning, ten minute space rock instrumental, especially when you keep in mind the percentage of kids buying this record after hearing lightweight hits like “Hanky Panky” over the waves and hoping for more of the same. “Cellophane Symphony,” however, is about as far from radio land as you’re going to get. I’d say it is far closer in spirit to early-seventies Pink Floyd than to anything else I’ve heard in this band’s body of work; a heavy, languorous bass riff supports a weird array of electronic noodling and slide guitar. Even if it weren’t so overwhelmingly slow and repetitive, it would still be a disarming way to open a record.
And yet the most bizarre part about it is that nothing else on this album sounds remotely like the first song. From “Making Good Time” onwards, the band is back to their trademark brand of peculiarly accessible rock and roll. Like their last album, the smash psychedelic opus Crimson and Clover, however, the band manages to take relatively trite rock and roll formulas and stretch them in unique directions that hint at the subversively experimental frame-of-mind behind all the sing-along choruses and sunshine harmonies. The spidery analog electronics even make a return on “Changes,” one of the album’s most memorable pieces. The only low points here for me are the short novelty numbers that close each side of the album, though I’m sure that they may hold appeal for some listeners – especially the sly music hall wink of “Papa Rolled His Own.” As far as hit material goes, “Sweet Cherry Wine” actually did make it all the way to number seven on the Billboard charts, and features an insistent beat and the band’s famous tremolo background vocals.
Not only has Cellophane Symphony been reissued (and remained in print, no less), but it comes right alongside the band’s aforementioned Crimson and Clover. All in all it’s quite a steal, and I reckon we should applaud Rhino Records for letting this rather esoteric record find a new audience.