Archive for the ‘ Baroque ’ Category

Michaelangelo “One Voice Many”

The use of the humble autoharp in rock may come as a surprise. Isn’t that the triangular doodad your elementary school teacher used to pull out of the cupboard to strum along to class sing-a-longs of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”? And why take an instrument specifically designed for simplicity and bust a gut to play complicated stuff on it? Nevertheless, several intriguing instances of its use have come to light on rare albums from the late sixties and early seventies.

A zither is a small harp with its strings stretched across its soundbox; it has a beautiful, ethereal ringing sound, but is fiendishly difficult to play. To simplify matters, someone came up with the idea of spring-loaded bars that could be pressed down on to the strings so that felt pads under each bar deadened all the strings except those needed to sound a certain chord. Thus the “auto-harp” was born, and bingo – a simple rhythm instrument with from 3 to 21 chords, each available at the press of a button. Almost immediately other folks started working out how to put all the complexity back into the autoharp by using it for playing melodies, and some of those Appalachian guys got pretty good at this despite the instrument’s patent unsuitability for this purpose. Then a genial sixties folksinger called John Sebastian customised his harp with an electric pickup, and rock autoharp was born. Sebastian’s playing was fairly limited, but a certain Billy Miller developed an astonishing electric autoharp technique with his late sixties Texas psych outfit, Cold Sun.

Classically-trained pianist and autoharp enthusiast Angel Petersen probably never heard of Billy Miller, but she certainly caught John Sebastian toting his harp around the Village and forthwith obtained a similar electric 15-bar model, making it the centrepiece of the mildly psychedelic folk-rock combo she christened Michaelangelo, after the name she’d already given her harp. In 1971 Michaelangelo (the group) came to the notice of Columbia Records through a fortuitous meeting with electronic music producer Rachel Elkind and her partner, the synthesiser genius Wendy Carlos of Switched-On Bach fame. An album, One Voice Many, was cut in New York with Elkind and Carlos producing, and the band’s major label future should have been assured. However, the story goes that Columbia president Clive Davis was perpetually at loggerheads with Elkind and conspired to have the album suppressed. It was released but received absolutely no record label backup and quickly disappeared. Dispirited, the band dissolved soon afterwards and the album became a collector’s rarity until reissued on CD almost forty years later.

Although likely to be described in current-day reviews as Acid Folk, One Voice Many’s signature sound is predominantly folk-Baroque, with the autoharp frequently sounding more like a harpsichord than the Fender Rhodes-like tone of Billy Miller, particularly on the Bach-influenced instrumentals “Take It Bach” and “300 Watt Music Box”. Elsewhere, it sounds not unlike a Farfisa organ. Either way, there’s nothing remotely schoolmarmish about Petersen’s virtuoso playing. The picture of the band on the cover shows an earnest, studious-looking quartet, and the carefully-arranged music within generally bears this out, though it’s by no means sombre and there are some rocking and even exhilarating touches. The autoharp’s main foil is Steve Bohn’s clean, countrified electric guitar, and the two frontline players interweave their lines exquisitely within the four instrumental numbers. On the six songs, Petersen’s and Bohn’s respective lead vocals are workmanlike rather than attention-grabbing, but when harmonised and multi-tracked they produce a breezy, floating Harpers Bizarre-style texture. The highlights for me are the opening funky country-rocker “West”, the tinkling, twinkling “300 Watt Music Box”, the pulsating generation-gap rocker “Son (We’ve Kept The Room Just The Way You Left It)” and the shameless sunshine pop of “Okay” with its whistled accompaniment. Avoid the 2007 Fallout bootleg and go for the 2009 Rev-Ola licensed pressing.

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“Son (We’ve Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It)”

:D CD Reissue | 2009 | Revola | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1971 | Columbia | search ebay ]

Freedom “Nero Su Bianco (Black On White)”

The history of this MIA sixties popsike gem seems to be better known than the music itself, possibly
because it’s such a quirky tale. Almost immediately after the runaway success of Procol Harum’s
first 45 rpm outing, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”, in the summer of 1967 drummer Bobby Harrison
and guitarist Ray Royer left the band for reasons undisclosed but amid very public rancour, in the
wake of co-manager Jonathan Weston who had been fired just previously. Enlisting the youthful but
experienced Mike Lease on Hammond and piano plus unknown teenager Steve Shirley on bass and
lead vocal, Harrison christened the new outfit Freedom, possibly as a snipe at Procol. While they
rehearsed at Weston’s house, the manager somehow obtained for them a commission to produce
the soundtrack for an upcoming erotic movie by Italian avant-garde director Dino Di Laurentiis. This
would be virtually dialogue-free, with the soundtrack’s lyrics providing the principal characterisation.
The recordings for this challenging project took place at London’s Olympic Studios over two months,
produced by Lease and engineered by Glyn Johns, no less, and Eddie Kramer, future producer to
Jimi Hendrix. The film was entitled Nero Su Bianco (or Attraction/Black On White for release outside
Italy). The band actually appeared in the film, miming the songs as a commentary to the action. It’s
not explained how Italian audiences were expected to cope with the English lyrics.

The movie predictably stiffed everywhere outside its native country, and found only an art-house
audience at home. The music would have disappeared along with it, no release on record ever
having been intended. However, Atlantic Records had issued an album of the soundtrack in 1969
in Italy only, totally without the band’s cognizance, and this was picked up thirty years later by
the new generation of UK psych rarity anoraks, finally finding a general release as Black On White
on the Angel Air reissue label. As for Freedom, Weston had finally secured them a recording deal
with Mercury in 1968 under which a single “Where Will You Be Tonight” appeared, but its chart
failure and that of a subsequent single “Kandy Kay” on EMI’s German Plexium imprint, plus rising
antagonism between founder members Harrison and Royer, led to the band’s demise early the
following year. Harrison went on to lead a new and very different Freedom which produced several
albums in a typical early-70s hard-rock style.

The music on Black On White will not sound unfamiliar to Procol Harum devotees, being heavily
keyboards-based with Shirley’s soulful lead vocals reminiscent of Gary Brooker, although perhaps
nearer to Greg Lake. The general feel is however more funky and less bombastic than Procul of the
same period, maybe closer to early Traffic. It owes its psych credentials to the mildly lysergic lyrics
and to the use of string-quartet backings, harpsichords and other pop-Baroque touches, rather
than to studio trickery, this being limited to modest if ubiquitous flanging. There are no obvious
highlights, all tracks being of a uniformly excellent quality both in the songwriting and in the playing.
The 2009 CD re-release includes all thirteen cuts from the original soundtrack, plus both sides of the
Mercury single and some alternative mixes.

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“The Better Side”

:D CD Reissue | 2009 | Angel Air | buy at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1969 | Atlantic | search ebay ]

Del Shannon “Home & Away”

Del Shannon’s Home & Away never saw a proper release in the 1960s.   These tracks would eventually see light of day on the 1978 vinyl LP/compilation titled And The Music Plays On.  Record executives of the day were looking for heavy, underground sounds, not dense, wall-of-sound type productions that featured complex vocal arrangements, strings, harpsichords, and plenty of horns.  The music on this disc was recorded in 1967 with Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham sitting in the producer’s chair.   Home & Away was considered passe stuff for 1967 and shelved shortly after, as Del began work on his psychedelic masterpiece, The Further Adventures of Charles Westover.  The 2006 EMI reissue has excellent stereo sound and presents the LP in it’s proper context – a must own for fans of  the mid 60s Beach Boys, the Zombies and the Left Banke.

It’s useless to point out highlights on this great, lost pop album.  “Runaway ’67” is exactly what it claims to be; a 1967 update of Del’s classic smash.  This cut has a strong Left Banke feel with it’s swirling strings and baroque arrangement.  Del’s vocals sound haunted and seamlessly mesh with Oldham’s productions.  They hit the mark on nearly every track.  This means that each song on the album flows effortlessly, whether it’s the trippy harpsichord intro to “Easy To Say, Easy To Do” or the romantic pop of “My Love Is Gone.”   My hit picks are the shimmering psychedelic pop of “Silently” and the beautiful Pet Sounds influenced gem “It’s My Feeling.”  Del only penned 3 of the LP’s tracks but he and Oldham did a good job choosing fine material from outside writers – the 3 Billy Nichols selections are pop gems.

Home & Away is just a shade or two less important than The Further Adventures of Charles Westover. It’s proof that this type of early rocker could forge on into the late 60s and make great, experimental music without losing their identity.  Del Shannon is one of those hard luck artists who made excellent music all throughout the decade but never received his due.

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“Ginny In The Mirror”

:D CD Reissue | 2006 | EMI | get at amazon ]

Van Dyke Parks “Discover America”

Discover America

Van Dyke Parks’ second album, released four years after his celebrated Song Cycle,  is an exploration of Trinidadian calypso music infused with Parks’ ingeniously offbeat treatment. Like its predecessor, the record is clever, intriguing, and musically brilliant. Discover America adds an unexpected ingredient: fun.

The album opener echoes that of Song Cycle‘s, an intentionally degraded song clip, “Jack Palance” performed by the Mighty Sparrow himself (those interested in exploring more calypso through this angle might investigate Mighty Sparrow’s Hot and Sweet, an album produced by Van Dyke Parks in 1974). Wooden marimbas, steel drums, island rhythms, and other calypso staples (supplied by the Esso Trinidad Steel Band) grace many of the tracks, but Parks maintains style thru vast string arrangements, orchestration, gratuitous experimental bits, and the vintage Americana themes examined in the lyrics.

Parks reimagines and rearranges traditional material on Discover America, as well as borrowing two killer tunes from Allen Touissaint (“Occapella” and “Riverboat”) and Lowell George’s “Sailin’ Shoes” (Little Feat actually play on Park’s “FDR In Trinidad”). The adapted material is brilliantly produced and addictingly melodic. Couple of standouts include the lilting “John Jones” and mind boggling “G-Man Hoover” (a tune as weird as it is captivating), though the entire album is consistently 5-star. A masterpiece from a master.

Song Cycle is great but not for everyone. If you’re looking to play Van Dyke Parks in a public forum, this is the album. I would submit that it’s catchy, fun, odd, and funky enough to be played just about anywhere. Have it with you this summer.

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“John Jones”

:) Vinyl Reissue | Sundazed | buy sundazed ]
:D CD Reissue | 1990 | Warner | buy amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1972 |  Warner | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Classic Gear: Harpsichord

HarpsichordIt’s by no means an essential piece to the quintessential rock band, nonetheless the harpsichord, dating from the 1500s and the predecessor to the piano, served a distinct sound on plenty of essential late sixties records, earning it “classic” status, and the first acoustic spot in our ongoing series on classic gear.

The first difference you’ll notice from the piano is the inverted keys. The black and white keys are reversed (a sleek effect, almost as sexy as grey and white). The sonic difference from the piano results from the way the keyboard vibrates each string. Piano keys “hammer” the string, while harpsichords “pluck.” This plucking action gives the harpsichord the extra bright tinny sound so often associated with classical music and what would become known as “baroque pop.”

Besides the standards (Yardbirds “For Your Love;” Stones “Lady Jane,” “Yesterday’s Papers,” “In Another Land;” Kinks “Two Sisters,” “Session Man;” Beatles  “Lucy In The Sky,” “Because” (actually a Baldwin Electric Harpsichord) and “In My Life” emulates the harpsichord with a sped up piano solo — find more here) below are a few examples that put this ‘ancient’ instrument to good use in the 60s:

Lords of ‘baroque pop,’ the Left Banke frequently rocked the harpsichord, decorating many of their gems with that other-timely sound. The Left Banke Anthology comes highly recommended.

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The Left Banke – I Haven’t Got The Nerve

The End might have borrowed the Stones’ harpsichord for the Introspection sessions, which were produced by Bill Wyman. This performance is from legendary session man, Nicky Hopkins (the subject, and harpsichordist, of Ray Davies’ “Session Man” indeed).

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The End – Loving, Sacred Loving

Curt Boettcher set out to make the greatest album of all time when he finally got a chance to record Begin in 1968. Harpsichord gets used and abused on this powerhouse leadoff, an unbelievable track for all first timers:

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The Millennium – Prelude

And of course Rod Argent and the Zombos, they used harpsichord as well as piano, organ, harmonium, and Mellotron all over Odessey and Oracle. Come to think of it, it’s hard to find a psychedelic masterpiece without harpsichord on there somewhere!

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The Zombies – I Want Her She Wants Me

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Euphoria “A Gift From Euphoria”

A Gift From Euphoria

A Gift From Euphoria is a well-funded album loaded with symphonic arrangements, excellent studio musicianship, psychedelic audio collage, and sound effects. It’s probably near to the apex of experimental rock from this era, and of the melding and juxtaposition of different styles of music.

The first two tracks on the record demonstrate the pace. Lisa an expansive and string laden orchestral number gives way to a legit bluegrass-country tune with banjo and pedal steel. Wait a little longer and you’ll get some fuzz guitar brain melters. Euphoria is all over the place on this album, which was recorded in Hollywood, London, and Bradley’s Barn. Some of the best session men in town put this one together, and it shows. Nary an unprofessional sound is on this record and some of the arrangements are stunning. They could use this album to replace the orchestra at the Boston Pops.

This is the only album released by the short lived Euphoria. The liner notes imply that the members disappeared, but parts of the liners are as out there as the sounds. Get this one for a supreme example of country and rock gone suicidally psychedelic, sounding remarkably fresh today.

For more from the Euphoria guys, be sure to check out the Bernie Schwartz record, The Wheel.

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“Did You Get The Letter”

:D CD Reissue | 2003 | Revola | buy from amazon |
:) Original Vinyl | 1969 | Capitol | search ebay ]
reposted from June 6, 2007

Pete Dello “Into Your Ears”

Into Your Ears

Pete Dello was the original leader of the Honeybus, a short-lived but wonderful English baroque-pop group who only managed to release one album in 1970 (finally reissued in 2008-). For all the gems available on compilations like Honeybus At Their Best and She Flies Like A Bird: The Anthology, fans of their brand of summery, rootsy pop couldn’t be truly satisfied without an ear on Dello’s fine solo efforts.

Comparisons to the Beatles are somewhat unavoidable, from the next-level songwriting to the double-tracked voice, chamber orchestra production, but assertions of cheap imitation are unacceptable. Dello’s album is a pretty mix, most songs led with a clean acoustic guitar or piano, flavoring the sound with modest string and brass sections. This is where the record gets its baroque tag, but at times the music, like Honeybus, approaches a country-folk-rock sound. Tracks like I’m A Gambler illustrate that perfect mix of rural rock and sunshine pop, blessed with some especially tasteful percussion. The trick to the record’s charm may be the Nilsson inspired vocal treatments, either Dello’s unassuming lead or the lilting vocal turns and harmony parts.

I wouldn’t call it a perfect record, but it gets pretty close and grows to be very solid. Pete scored with his first Honeybus single, I Can’t Let Maggie Go, and gets a chance at a full showcase with Into Your Ears. Only a couple tracks push the British camp too much for my ears, so take note if you’re fond of skipping sillier tracks. If you’re looking for gems, you’ll be right on target.

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“It’s The Way”

Also, don’t miss a generous lot of Honeybus-related mp3s at Colin Hare’s official Honeybus homepage.

Colin Blunstone “One Year”

One Year

The Zombies disbanded before their classic Time Of The Season smashed onto radio airwaves, and lead singer Colin Blunstone took to a desk job.

One year later, he grew tired of insurance or whatever it was and got back in the studio. Armed with fellow Zombs Chris White and Rod Argent as co-writers and producers, Colin managed to record what I consider the most precious record in my collection. One Year is a very, very special record to me, so much that it’s actually hard to even mention here.

Three tracks feature backing by the band Argent, and have a lite rock feel, but the rest feature Colin’s silken voice over a tightly arranged and dynamic chamber orchestra. She Loves The Way They Love Her kicks it off with the album’s full band sound. It takes some getting used to as it’s not quite Zombies and perhaps a little too produced, but believe me, this one will get you in the long run with its amazing melody and Colin’s excellent vocal work. The other rock band songs include Caroline Goodbye and Mary Won’t You Warm My Bed, both excellent, upbeat tunes. It’s the orchestra numbers that will get you on this record though. Songs like I Can’t Live Without You, Her Song, and Let Me Come Closer To You will simply murder you.

If you are in the market for records that grow on you more and more each time you listen, this was made for you. I wasn’t sure what to think about One Year when I finally tracked it down (luckily, it’s easily available these days) but after a few years with it, it is definitely one of my favorites, certainly in the top 20: a Sunday morning staple to last my life.

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“Say You Don’t Mind”

:D CD Reissue | 2007 | Water | buy from amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1971 | Epic | search ebay ]

Van Dyke Parks “Song Cycle”

Song Cycle

“I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time.” Beyond his work with the Beach Boys, Parks had an impressive and varied career, often working with a number of other groups, as varied as Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Byrds, Tim Buckley — all the way to Joanna Newsom. His marvelous solo debut, Song Cycle, is a classic and poetic tour de force.

Musically, I imagine it as a “song spiral.” Motifs aren’t recycled or revisited as much as they are abandoned for new ideas. The orchestration is borne of the poetry, the words directing each instrumental movement. Song Cycle is an album to let yourself soak in, to stay with for a week or even a year. I also recommend listening with the lyric sheet in hand because the layered sound of ever-changing chamber orchestra can be heavy for the mind to absorb concurrently with the poetry.

Being a fan of SMiLE most likely won’t offer a free pass to Song Cycle. The album is dense and difficult to infiltrate. There are traces of inspiration here and there, possibly a glimpse to what Brian could have done with SMiLE if he’d had the encouragement Van Dyke had in Lenny Waronker.

Truthfully speaking, I can’t really understand the concept behind the album. As far as I have read, the record was meant to span a breadth of American musical styles. I know the touch of bluegrass (Steve Young singing Black Jack Davy in a clip that introduces the record) and the homage to Gershwin/Showtune styles, a taste of jazz, but I just don’t really get it. While I’m happy to enjoy what is still unknown to me, for I do love this album, I would be grateful to hear from those who can lighten the mystery of Song Cycle.

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“Palm Desert”

:) Vinyl Reissue | 2007 | Sundazed | buy ]
:D CD | 1990 | Warner | amazon ]

Appletree Theatre “Playback”


Playback was released in 1968 off the Verve label. Both John and Terrence Boylan were the brains behind this project that is divided into three acts. It’s an inventive pop album with great songs, strange sound effects, comedy bits and trippy dialogue in between some of the tracks. Fans of Friends era Beach Boys, Family Tree, the Smoke (Michael Lloyd’s band) and the Millennium will really love this record though it has more of a downbeat mood than the before mentioned sunshine pop classics.

Playback was released in two different album covers (both covers are great) and was supposedly one of John Lennon’s favorites from 1968. Some of the tracks, such as I Wonder If Louise Is Home suggest the boys may have indulged in too many psychedelic drugs, with its distorted megaphone vocals and soaring horns. The album opener, Hightower Square, and Nevertheless It Was Italy are strong hallucinary floaters that play it straight, with light psychedelic arrangements. There’s even a beautiful 52 second acoustic track with gorgeous strings and downer vocals called Saturday Morning.

The real meat of this jaded pop album lies within it’s best 3 tracks: Brother Speed, You’re The Biggest Thing In My Life, and the wonderful What A Way To Go. Brother Speed is a great blue-eyed soul drug number with stax-like horn arrangements, pounding drums, stoned vocals, and a loud guitar psych solo. It’s a good one for sure but You’re The Biggest Thing In My Life is superb as well with tons of guitar feedback within the confines of a creepy but pretty conventional pop song. The album comes to a close with the outstanding What A Way To Go. This is one of the great introspective acid folk-rock songs that hits a downer psych nerve that few can equal. It’s a good one to play for square friends as the track has beautifully spaced out vocals and crazed, nonsensical lyrics.

In 1969 Terrence Boylan returned with a solo psych pop album credited to Alias Boona which I have never seen or heard. Just recently the Appletree Theatre’s Playback was reissued but can only be bought off Terrence Boylan’s homepage (The Official Terence Boylan Website). Highly recommended!

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“What A Way To Go”

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