David Wiffen “Coast to Coast Fever”

The name David Wiffen may or may not ring a bell, but to anyone with an interest in 1970s folk rock I can promise that at least one of his songs will. His material has seen quite a bit of mileage in other performers’ repertoires, and through them a small handful have even filtered up into popular consciousness. Tom Rush and The Byrds both threw their individual spins on “Driving Wheel,” Eric Andersen recorded “More Often Than Not” on his doomed-romantic classic Blue River, and calypso crooner Harry Belafonte rather unexpectedly included both “One Step” and the self-referential “Mister Wiffen” on his 1973 record Play Me. It was the age of the singer-songwriter and David Wiffen seemed to be the next big thing. So what happened?

Coast To Coast Fever, Wiffen’s follow-up to his critically-lauded debut, tells the tale. An informal concept album illustrating the life of the traveling musician and the rigors involved in trying to gain success as a songwriter, it plays as a sort of autobiographical meditation on where the man was at. “He played his tunes to empty rooms, right on down the line,” Wiffen sings on the melancholy title track, “but before he went the money got spent on good times, whiskey and wine.” As in the rest of the album, the singer’s guitar downright sparkles. The production, courtesy of legendary Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn, is as laid back and stripped down as one would hope on a record like this, built around a wide acoustic piano sound and smokey percussion. Indeed, Wiffen could hardly have found a more sympathetic ear to this collection of beat meditations and road songs, and Cockburn’s understated guitar playing is arguably one of the record’s musical highlights.

It is hard to break this record into specific highlights when every piece of the puzzle is so essential to the album’s overall character, but a few key cuts do stand out. The down-and-out blues of “Smoke Rings” rests uneasily between gruff, masculine charm and absolute desolation, cigarette smoke drifting quietly out into an empty landscape and paralleling the sad admissions already found in “Coast To Coast Fever.” The story wouldn’t be quite so affecting if one did not get the feeling that this is not a man who has lost it all, but rather one who never had it to begin with, only having glimpsed the possibilities of fame and seen them immediately dissolve into a hard and bitter reality. It’s a strange story for being so common, the successful songwriter that’s never able to make it on his own terms. Then again there must be some light to all this darkness considering that we are not only still listening to and talking about David Wiffen’s records, but that he’s still around and singing. The man even managed to record a belated follow-up to Coast To Coast Fever in 1999, featuring a handful of new songs that still stand strong alongside his most enduring material.

Whereas Wiffen’s debut seems to have disappeared into the aether, only having been reissued once by an independent Italian label before quickly falling back out of print (original copies of the album are obnoxiously hard to obtain, and have sold second-hand for several hundred dollars apiece), Coast To Coast Fever has remained somewhat easier to find. A North American release on compact disc remains available through most online retailers, and original vinyl copies seem to have seen far wider distribution than any of Wiffen’s other recordings, frequently appearing in record store cut-out bins and online auction sites.

mp3: Coast To Coast Fever
mp3: White Lines

:) Original | 1973 | United Artists | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2009 | Isotope | buy here ]

 

Oliver “Standing Stone”

There’s nothing new under the sun, the old adage goes. Particularly in music, anything that eventually comes to be seen as groundbreaking can usually be traced back to earlier influences: Beethoven to Haydn, Dylan to Woody Guthrie, the Beatles to Carl Perkins and early Tamla Motown. What makes the new product distinctive is the way the influences are combined, remoulded and extended. Oliver’s über-rare psychedelic folk-blues opus Standing Stone clearly takes in the likes of Robert Johnson, Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart, but his synthesis and development of these already abstruse sources is so imaginative that the end product is truly like nothing else, and that’s no exaggeration.

In early 1974 hippie musician Oliver Chaplin and his brother Chris, a BBC sound engineer, retreated to their parents’ farm somewhere in Wales “within shouting distance of the Standing Stone”, as the reissue booklet note puts it, to produce this totally unique, enigmatic collection. Oliver laid down vocals, acoustic, electric and slide guitars, hand percussion and occasional recorder and harmonica on a four-track Teac. Chris, a veteran of the Beeb’s Hendrix sessions, overlaid the various threads and added numerous sound effects, aided and abetted by occasional unsolicited input from various farm and wild creatures.

Oliver’s compositions give the effect of being totally spontaneous but are clearly carefully built up given the amount of overdubbing required. The material ranges from tiny, delicate fingerpicked acoustic numbers (“Off On A Trek”) via quirky Barrett-esque acid-pop ditties (“Getting Fruity”) to rambling, effects-laden one-chord blues extrapolations (“Freezing Cold Like An Iceberg”) and whacked-out marijuana-inflected nonsense (“Cat And The Rat”). Oliver’s guitar skills are manifold and dextrous and his sound palette seemingly boundless, sometimes sparklingly pure but at others bolstered by a battery of sound effects ranging from simple flanging to backwards taping and what sounds like Les Paul-style vari-speed recording. The lyrics are frequently incomprehensible but it doesn’t matter; Oliver uses his voice as another set of instruments, moaning, warbling and scatting, varying its timbre widely and sometimes distorting it electronically. As testament to Chris’s skills, the sound quality of the final recording is simultaneously utterly low-fi and outstandingly clean.

The end product was to be offered to the then fledgling Virgin label, but the reclusive Oliver’s reluctance to engage with the record industry scotched the deal and only a handful of private-press copies were produced, housed in plain bilious-green jackets. Around fifteen years later one of these surfaced at a car boot sale and the burgeoning psychedelic collector circuit sat up and noticed, applying the retrospective “acid-folk” appellation to it. Such was the demand created by the appearance of this single example that Oliver was tracked down and found to have several more copies still in his possession. These fetched crazy sums until the album was licensed to the tiny UK reissue label Wooden Hill and appeared in that imprint’s own habitual very-limited-edition format, firstly on vinyl in 1992 and then on CD in 1995. Appropriately enough, in truly serendipitous manner I stumbled on a copy gathering dust in a Bath charity shop earlier this year; I took it home and it blew my mind. If you decide that you want one you may have to search hard and long and pay top dollar, but if you’re lucky enough to find one it’ll be worth it. Meanwhile several tracks can be found on YouTube.

mp3: Off On A Trek
mp3: Cat And The Rat

:) Original | 1974 | Private | search ebay ]

Jimmy Buffett “High Cumberland Jubilee”

Today we delve into yet another unexpected gem by an artist that is usually considered anathema to any discerning aficionado of American popular music. Long before Jimmy Buffett started scoring big in the top-twenty with insipid margarita beach music he was cutting weird, electric folk-rock records and hanging out with folks like Steve Goodman (yeah, that’s him on the cover of Somebody Else’s Troubles) and Jerry Jeff Walker. Nowadays Buffett doesn’t even acknowledge these earlier records, though they have been kept in print under a seemingly-endless number of guises on his own Margaritaville Records.

The second and, unfortunately, last of these, 1976’s High Cumberland Jubilee, is a killer, even though it remained unreleased until three years after it was recorded. The sound of the band here lays somewhere between psychedelic country-rock and late-sixties power-pop, with lots of weird phased drums, banjos, and twelve-string guitars. Heavy attitude everywhere, believe it or not. The production is pretty well-polished, but hardly overproduced; there’s just the right amount of definition between the instruments to keep things clean, which actually proves to be a beautiful thing when the band leaps into its little instrumental breaks, such as that which closes the record. The most relaxed pieces here definitely call to mind the man’s aforementioned folk-rock affiliates, but also have a touch of starry-eyed Gordon Lightfoot polish to them that you don’t normally find on records like this one.

As one might expect, Buffett’s songwriting tends to be hit-and-miss here. There are some light and entertaining moments, with slight-but-eventually-memorable lyrics, some good shots at obtuse sixties social commentary, and then some numbers which read like failed assignments from Songwriting 101; cliché, dragged-out, full of tired juvenile romanticism. It’s too bad that any chance to hear the singer mature as a songwriter was cut short by his untimely descent into artistic oblivion.

The unfortunate side to some of the reissues of Down To Earth and High Cumberland Jubilee is that Buffett has taken to cutting out the first song of the former, a relatively-scathing indictment of Christian hypocrisy which he today, as beachfront-yuppie-poster-child, presumably suspects will hurt his image. If you can track down original copies of these records, which looks to be a difficult task, snatch them up because, despite all the faults to be found here, there really is a lot to enjoy. Plus you get to see the look on your friends’ faces when you suggest breaking out some Buffett (and they thought they knew you so well).

mp3: England (As the Sun Went Down)
mp3: Travelin’ Clean

:) Original | 1975 | Barnaby | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Frumious Bandersnatch “The Golden Sons of Libra”

There was so much wild music milling around California in the late sixties that sifting for the treasures can often be a tiring experience. For every Jefferson Airplane or Buffalo Springfield there were a dozen or so messy congregations of drop outs and long-hairs dashing out disharmonious noise on the streets of Berkeley. Fortunately, however, the rewards for exploring this scene in-depth can often be exciting enough to make the whole tangle worthwhile. San Francisco band Frumious Bandersnatch is one of those rewards: a strong, if not-very-well-remembered group that managed to loose one three-song EP on the world before falling apart and (rather inexplicably and unfortunately) providing the personnel for both the Steve Miller Band and Journey. The Bandersnatch recorded more than enough material for a full-length record, however, and thanks to record labels like Big Beat and Get Back, folks today can enjoy the entirety of these unearthed recordings via the posthumous compilations A Young Man’s Song and The Golden Sons of Libra.

The latter among these two collections is often considered the lesser anthology, but not having heard the former I can only say that Golden Sons is more than worth investigating. Running a strong forty-five minutes and adorned with some beautiful period-style artwork, it runs the gamut from Quicksilver flavored instrumentals to tight, fierce rock and roll barnstormers which, darker in atmosphere than your usual west coast fare, sometimes call to mind Mad River’s self-titled record. Lead guitarist David Denny is my chief reason for citing Quicksilver here, as his incisive, vibrato-soaked phrasing makes it clear that he was riding the same (high treble, sharp bite) wavelengths as the great John Cipollina. Denny may be criticized for this remarkable stylistic debt, but I would argue that the Bandersnatch’s music is all the better for it.

The opening track on Golden Sons is a strong declarative statement of intent, featuring all of the trademark elements of the Bandersnatch’s sound. The unusual bridge sections, in which the band drops down into a low bass, drum and feedback buildup, ensure the track’s memorability. The real meat of this album, however, is in it’s final sequence of extended improvisations, beginning with the funky “Cheshire” and concluding with the sizzling “Can of Bliss,” which goes from full-tilt boogie into a spastic drum solo before a low bass segment brings the band back in towards one of the most intense guitar solos on the record. Granted, these kinds of long instrumental segments may lose folks looking for concise psychedelic pop or garage (the last track is an almost entirely instrumental fifteen minutes of space age gun-slinging), but for those who appreciate these kinds of untamed musical adventures Frumious Bandersnatch does not fail to deliver.

mp3: Hearts To Cry
mp3: Chain Reaction

:D Reissue | 2002 | Get Back Records | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Cold Blood “Cold Blood”

San Francisco/East Bay area’s Cold Blood were one of the first bands of its kind, combining a smooth blend of psych, horn rock, jazz, soul, and R&B with front woman Lydia Pense’s Janis Joplin-esque vocal growlings.  People have often compared the group to the more well-known Californian outfit Tower Of Power, and with good reason.  Even so, Cold Blood have held their own ground and place in rock history, because of their energetic live shows, and the quality of material on their albums.  In 1969, Bill Graham signed the band and made them regulars at his legendary Fillmore West auditorium in San Francisco.  Their fan base quickly grew, and soon the band landed in the studio to record their eponymous debut, Cold Blood.

The album starts with the gospel-feel of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, and has become one of my all-time favorite opening tracks of any album.  The song captures a longing for personal freedom and independence, which was a major dream for the people of the 1960’s dealing with civil rights, women’s liberation, and the Vietnam war.  Lydia Pense’s powerful and emotional vocals shine on this one, perhaps owing a bit more to Aretha Franklin than Janis Joplin.  Their rocked-up, funkier version of Sam & Dave’s “You Got Me Hummin'” could have been a huge hit single with the right promotion, and contains some VERY flashy bass work, courtesy of Rod Ellicott.  Their cover of Muddy Waters’  “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, is one of the best cover versions of the song, with the horn section just soaring, and the whole feel of the song positively oozing with passion and sexual desire.  The album ends with the semi-obscure Bobby Parker early soul classic “Watch Your Step”.  The saxophone reaches almost an other-worldly plateau, with a super funkified rhythm backing that leaves the listener with sublime aural satisfaction.

Cold Blood went through various incarnations, with several members passing away or moving on to other projects.  The band finally called it quits in the 1970s, with Lydia Pense recording solo material, and then deciding to retire from music indefinitely in the 1980s to raise her daughter.  The band reformed, have a strong cult following, and still continue to perform and wow audiences.

Cold Blood is so chocked full of great songs that it was very difficult to try and pick the “very best” to review.  Truth be told, this entire album is fantastic.  The original vinyl of the album is surprisingly easy and inexpensive to find on eBay, Discogs.com, etc.  “Oldies” label Collectibles reissued the album in 2001 as a two-album set, paired with their second album Sisyphus, which is also highly recommended.  From a personal standpoint, I’d suggest getting the original vinyl version.  It’s one of the best sounding albums, sonically, that I’ve ever owned, and is almost mandatory to crank to the highest possible volume to get the full experience.  Grab this one if you come across it.

mp3: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free
mp3: Watch Your Step

:) Original | 1969 | San Francisco | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2001 | Collectables | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Soundtrack to Performance

Despite boasting a rather eclectic hodgepodge of performers, the record was all cut by Nitzsche with a steady session band built on the inimitable guitar of Ry Cooder. Despite star turns by Mick Jagger and Randy Newman, however, it may very well be that it’s the soundtrack’s production that ends up stealing the show. Weird electric hums and echoing tape loops bounce in and out of the songs tying everything together and giving even the straightest material a surreal edge. I actually find that this album is very much in the spirit of two related works cut around the same time: Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Illuminations album and Mick Jagger’s warped and surprisingly uncharacteristic soundtrack to Kenneth Anger’s film Invocation For My Demon Brother.

It’s most likely Jagger’s participation which has kept this album available all these years, seeing as his one song here, “Memo From Turner,” has become something of a Stones classic. It’s a great song, but in no way overshadows the rest of the material. A young Randy Newman kicks off the record with one of his heaviest vocals on “Gone Dead Train,” which Nitzsche would later re-record on Crazy Horse’s self-titled album. Performance’s real gem, though? Merry Clayton turning in an absolute barnstormer with “Poor White Hound Dog.” This cut features my favorite example of Nitzsche’s weird electronic aesthetic, with random bursts of white noise and warbling Moog elevating the otherwise-straightforward R&B piece into something entirely unique. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s appearances here are unfortunately limited to two psychedelic mouth-bow instrumentals which, while enjoyable, aren’t much to write home about. Ry Cooder’s guitar pieces have a little more meat to them, with “Get Away” tuning in the spirit of early Captain Beefheart (on whose records Cooder, of course, contributed in a big way) and “Powis Square” highlighting the panoramic, soulful acoustic bottleneck style that would arguably culminate in his haunting score to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.

The oddball here is definitely the inclusion of the Last Poet’s black power anthem “Wake Up, Niggers,” an early political rap by New York’s pioneering street poets. While clearly interrupting the spectral mood of the record, this piece does nevertheless add an interesting new angle to the proceedings and help to break up the music’s intensely Nitzschean framework. The producer’s own compositions, the ethereally orchestrated “Rolls Royce and Acid” and rather beautiful piano piece “Harry Flowers,” shine a little bit of calm and meditation into the claustrophobia and are perhaps the most overtly cinematic recordings here.

Rarely does one find a rock and roll-based soundtrack that so perfectly manages to tie this kind of sweeping, emotional power with uniform listenability, and the fact that so many talented musicians managed to turn in such defining performances on this one thirty-seven minute album is a testament to the producer’s vision as well as the era from which it emerged (as Hunter S. Thompson would so famously put it, the “place where the wave finally broke and rolled back,” i.e. the end of the communal dream that was the sixties). It looks as though Performance is out of print these days in any tangible format, but besides the ever-present vinyl originals floating around out there you can pick up a digital copy without much hassle.

mp3: Gone Dead Train
mp3: Poor White Hound Dog

:) Original | 1970 | Warner Bros | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | Warner Bros | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

 

The Paupers “Ellis Island”

The Paupers don’t really need any introduction in these pages. Their debut record, Magic People, has already been discussed in an earlier review, and whatever biographical information Jason did not cover there can be found in this beautifully comprehensive history of the band over at Garage Hangover. Their 1968 swan song Ellis Island is such a unique piece of late-sixties psychedelia, however, that I think it more than deserves its own moment in the sun here on the Storm.

The opening cut here was my personal introduction to this band and it’d be hard to ask for a better first impression. “South Down Road” is a semi-orchestrated epic that rests somewhere between the West Coast rock of Quicksilver Messenger Service and early progressive rock. The dramatic arrangement, featuring buzz-saw guitar and sweeping strings, keeps this one from dissolving into monotony during any of its eight and a half minutes. The music here sounds like the hippest 1960s film soundtrack that never was. It’s a risky move to open your album with as ambitious a recording as this, but The Paupers not only make it work, but manage to draw the excitement established by this opening cut through the rest of the album without surrendering a shred of energy.

The majority of the songs on Ellis Island are in step with the sounds laid down on “Road,” featuring a good dose of fuzz-tone guitar and swelling organs. As is often the case, however, those songs which stray furthest from this pattern are some of the most interesting. The weird, affected piano ballad “Ask Her Again” is more than a little reminiscent of Van Dyke Parks’ straighter moments on Song Cycle, while “Another Man’s Hair On My Razor” is an early, tongue-in-cheek stab at country-rock. Few 1960s bands ever succeeded at doing atmospheric balladry like the Paupers do on “Oh, That She Might,” which somehow manages to incorporate delicate strings and a jazzy, night club saxophone without collapsing into affectation or period schmaltz. Perhaps the closest thing to a bum note here is the closing piece, which is in a somewhat earlier rock and roll vein and features a rather uninspired boogie-woogie piano arrangement.

Ellis Island was reissued on compact disc by Lion Records,and though it has since gone out of print, a used copy is not hard to find. In fact, original vinyl copies are surprisingly common, making this one of those rare obscurities that is both as solid as its reputation and accessible to those folks who don’t want to shell out a leg and an arm for a listen.

mp3: South Down Road
mp3: Ask Her Again

:) Original | 1968 | Verve | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2007 | Lion | buy here ]

Fire “The Magic Shoemaker”

For me the most depressing thing about today’s rock music is that so much of it exhibits such a lack of creativity or originality. If something sells, clone it, quickly. What a contrast to the late sixties, when for a brief heady spell the artists rather than the bean-counters had the whip hand and the spirit of experimentation soared over everything. Of course this produced as many heroic failures as acknowledged triumphs; Fire’s The Magic Shoemaker bombed on release, and even such retrospective reviews as it has received have frequently been ambivalent. Ah, what have we got here, then? Former psychedelic outfit moves towards progressive rock with a song-cycle that’s too lightweight plot-wise to be a concept album, too naïve and inconsequential to be a rock opera . . . hmmmm. But what is true is that it certainly represents a brave attempt to be different.

London trio Dave Lambert (vcl, gtr, keys), Dick Dufall (bs, vcl) and Bob Voice (drs, vcl) had impressed the Beatles’ Apple label sufficiently to score a deal that resulted in the classic psych A-side “Father’s Name Is Dad”. The marriage was not a happy one, though, and Fire soon found themselves at odds with the music industry at large. Retiring to the suburbs, Lambert spent a year writing and demo-ing the songs for The Magic Shoemaker, based around a whimsical children’s bedtime story in which a shoemaker cobbles together a pair of shoes that unexpectedly allow the wearer to fly. These are loaned to a king whose country is threatened with war by a neighbouring state; when the king confronts his opposite number from the sky the latter’s army are spooked and a peace treaty is forthcoming. Admittedly, it’s a slender peg to hang your creative coat on, but in its own quirky homespun fashion it works.

The premise of the album is that the narrator (Lambert, in a homely Home Counties accent) tells the story to a group of kids on a coach trip (real kids’ voices, overdubbed travel noises). Short pieces of the narrative occur between and within the songs whose lyrics broadly parallel episodes in the tale, some closely, others in more abstract fashion. Musically the songs follow a basic guitar-driven pop-rock template, varying widely in style and tempo – Tommy would undoubtedly have been an influence – with frequent psychedelic studio enhancement, particularly on the opening “Tell You A Story”, “Only A Dream” and the long instrumental coda of “Reason For Everything”. Pick of the bunch for me is “I Can See The Sky” with its raw freakbeat vibe, but they’re all quite engaging. Lambert’s lead vocal, somewhere between Daltrey and Bowie, is sometimes somewhat over-affected, but the musicianship is excellent throughout with the basic guitar trio being complemented by Lambert’s modest keyboards and plenty of top-drawer lead guitar work from himself and Velvet Opera’s Paul Brett. Future Strawbs partner Dave Cousins makes a cameo appearance on banjo on the superfluous jugband ditty “Happy Man Am I”. The production by Pye’s Ray Hammond is unsophisticated but its contemporary favouring of stereo separation and reverb suits the project and the interleaving of songs and narration is seamless.

Predictably, The Magic Shoemaker tanked well and truly on its release on Pye in 1970, being too late for psych and too lightweight for prog, and subsequently became a much-sought-after rarity until its inevitable reissue on CD. The current Sanctuary edition tailgates the original album with the A’s and B’s of both of Fire’s earlier psych singles including the indispensable “Father’s Name Is Dad” and “Treacle Toffee World”. As an interesting epilogue, after a long and successful association with Cousins in the Strawbs Lambert reformed Fire for a one-off concert in 2007, performing Shoemaker in extended form including the earlier psych sides and other unreleased songs. The gig was recorded for sound and video and subsequently released on CD by Angel Air as The Magic Shoemaker Live, receiving wide acclaim . . . which is more than the original release achieved.

mp3: Reason for Everything
mp3: I Can See the Sky

:D Reissue | 2009 | Esoteric | buy here ]
:) Original | 1970 | Pye |  search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Les Fleur De Lys “Reflections”

As Britain’s “other” major Atlantic seaport, Southampton might have been expected to produce a stream of pop and rock successes to rival Liverpool during the Golden Years, but it didn’t happen. Probably the highest-profile outfit to emerge from the south coast seaport during this period was Les Fleur De Lys, certainly the only such with a grammatically-incorrect French name. Like their near-neighbours, Brighton’s Mike Stuart Span, they enjoyed a chequered history involving half–dozen lineups, dabbling in half-a-dozen genres, sporadically releasing a dozen or so singles and finally fragmenting in frustration after half-a-dozen years (1964-1970). Again like the Span, they never contrived to issue an album in their lifetime, but the present CD is a compendium of all their  singles from their earliest Beat Boom days through their freakbeat, blue-eyed soul, harmony-pop, psychedelic and nascent prog-rock phases. Their legacy remains a handful of classic freakbeat and psych A-sides, and their other main claim to fame is as a launch pad for guitarist Bryn Haworth’s subsequent career; he would morph into perhaps Britain’s finest electric slide player and thence become a doyen of Christian rock music in which field he remains very active.

The Fleurs could in fact boast some pretty substantial musicianship throughout their various incarnations. Drummer Keith Guster, the only ever-present member, could hold down a metronomic funky beat whilst bassist Gordon Haskell, who would move on to King Crimson, had formidable rock and soul chops. Haworth’s predecessor Phil Sawyer was also a fine player in a reckless Jeff Beck style, whilst Haworth himself boasted a fluid bluesy technique and a distinctive, piercing Stratocaster/AC30 sound. They were a top live draw around Swinging London, acting as backing band live and on disc for singer Sharon Tandy and supporting such esteemed and varied visiting headliners as the Beach Boys, Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin. In an attempt to break through chartwise they also recorded under various pseudonyms including Shyster, Waygood Ellis, Rupert’s People and Chocolate Frog (!). Several of the early singles were produced by one Jimmy Page, no less.

The twenty-four tracks of the present compilation include the A’s and B’s of all seven singles issued under their own name, the Tandy sides and all the sides released under the fake monikers. The early Beat-era stuff and the soul-based tracks are pretty disposable; the Fleurs were no Young Rascals, nor despite the presence of a couple of competent organists in the early lineups were they anyone’s Procul Harum. However the Page-produced freakbeat cover of Pete Townshend’s “Circles” and its follow-up “Mud In Your Eye” forefront Sawyer’s fine manic lead guitar licks, whilst “Gong With The Luminous Nose” and “Liar” are fine examples of Brit psychedia and guitar-led prog respectively with Haworth’s exemplary Hendrixoid fretwork to the fore. The two Sharon Tandy sides “Hold On” and “Daughter Of The Sun” are rip-roaring rockers, with the powerful backings complementing Tandy’s steely vocal and Haskell’s bass work on “Hold On” a revelation. On the rock and pop tracks the instrumentation and vocals are more than competent but the songwriting is passable at best and sometimes mediocre. The result is a fascinating 24-track collection of historical interest to Sixties rock completists, but which would have made a really good “best of” if reduced to sixteen cuts.

Originally issued on CD by Blueprint in 1996, the present Gonzo budget reissue has the same track listing but a different cover photo. The typo-strewn track listing and historical perspective in the booklet notes are not exactly academic masterpieces, but better ones can be found.

mp3: Circles (Instant Party)
mp3: Gong with the Luminous Nose

:D Compilation | 2010 | Gonzo | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Ellen McIlwaine “Honky Tonk Angel”

There’s a select coterie of artists whose voices are recognised as musical instruments in their own right, their unique vocal deliveries transcending lyrics and, without being pure, trained or operatic, tantalising the ear wordlessly like a breathy tenor sax or a sobbing Dobro. Ella Fitzgerald, Richie Havens, Tim Buckley, the late John Martyn all had this talent. Add to this rare gift an astonishing propensity for producing the deepest funk and the most soulful blues on an acoustic guitar, and you’ve got Ellen McIlwaine.

Born in 1945, Ellen grew up in Japan, the daughter of American missionaries, where she listened to AFN and learned to play New Orleans piano after Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. On the family’s return to Atlanta she switched to guitar, rapidly assimilating all the fiery Southern styles. For several years from 1966 she worked around NYC’s East Village, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Muddy, Wolf, Hardin and Hendrix. After a brief unproductive spell leading her own rock band, Fear Itself, she signed to Polydor in ’72 as a solo artist and produced her freshman album, Honky Tonk Angel.

The comparison with Richie Havens is more than appropriate here. As with the bulk of his early work, her primary mission on this album is to take familiar and unfamiliar songs by other artists and cover them in an idiosyncratic and totally individual vocal fashion, accompanied by a fluid and relentlessly rhymthic acoustic guitar. She’d develop her own songwriting on the follow-up and later albums, but here there are only two originals alongside the eight borrowed songs – but her choice is impeccable, taking in some of the finest writers of the late 60s and early 70s in a plethora of genres. She covers Isaac Hayes (“Toe Hold”), Jack Bruce (“Weird Of Hermiston”), Jimi Hendrix (“Up From The Skies”), Steve Winwood (“Can’t Find My Way Home”), Bobbie Gentry (“Ode To Billy Joe”) and Ghanaian jazz maestro Guy Warren’s “Pinebo (My Story)”, culminating with a momentous retread of the traditional “Wade In The Water”. Most of the tracks are marked by her jazzy, strident Guild guitar, chock-full of scratchy percussive flatpicking, earsplitting eleventh chords and occasional soaring slide, complementing her astonishingly confident, melismatic, androgynous vocal as she plays shamelessly with the lyrics, frequently wandering into pure scat or an ululating African dialect. By contrast the gentle “Pinebo” is a multi-tracked, stereo-separated acapella tour-de-force in Swahili, whilst her reading of the Winwood ditty is masterful and sensitive with immaculate fingerstyling. Half the album was recorded live at NYC’s Bitter End with McIlwaine’s voice and acoustic set off only by adventurous bass guitar and rattling Latin percussion, the remainder at The Record Plant with scarcely denser backing, but McIlwaine’s fretboard pyrotechnics and vocal gymnastics make the whole collection sizzle with excitement. The only sore thumb to stick out from this otherwise homogenous collection is the inexplicable inclusion of the old Kitty Wells country chestnut “(It Wasn’t God Who Made) Honky Tonk Angels”, done in a po-faced, almost caricatured Bakersfield style with full backing band including wailing pedal steel.

Ellen McIlwaine would go on to an uneven but uncompromising career, her commercial appeal blunted by her determination to make music her own way, but she continues to tour and to release albums at intervals. Honky Tonk Angel is out of print in any form as a unit but all of it can be found along with the follow-up We The People and one previously unreleased track on the excellent Chronicles compilation Up From The Skies – The Polydor Years.

mp3: Toe Hold [Live]
mp3: Can’t Find My Way Home

:) Original | 1972 | Polydor | search ebay ]
;) MP3 album | download ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]