Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: 'Spaced Out: The Story of Mushroom Records'



Lasting a mere fifteen months from 1971 to 1972, and issuing only sixteen albums, North London’s Mushroom Records still managed to stir up a minor cult following because of the alluringly pungent music label-founder Vic Keary produced. It was an eclectic mix of raga (Pandit Kanwar Sain Trikha), Indian folk (Nitai Dasgupta), psychedelic folk (Magic Carpet), lush prog and early electronic music (Second Hand), jazz (Lol Coxhill), proto new age (Chillum), Irish folk and folk rock (Callinan-Flynn, Jon Betmead), soft rock (Gordo, Ellis, & Steele), and music for burning Edward Woodward alive to (The Liverpool Fishermen; Heather, Adrian, & John). This music is extremely eclectic yet hangs together because of its mutual archaic and exotic vibe and Keary’s sympathetic, sometimes tremendously vibrant (Second Hand’s “Hangin’ on an Eyelid”), production.

Before forming Mushroom, Keary’s work was less distinguished and his taste in artists often dubious. This spotty period in which he was cutting records at Maximum Sound studio is highlighted on the second disc of a new compilation called Spaced Out: The Story of Mushroom Records. Disc one compiles choice cuts from the aforementioned Mushroom artists, and it is perfect background for your next hookah party. Disc two is often more like one of those Golden Throats anthologies. There are incompetently sung versions of “See See Rider” (by the esteemed Alexis Korners’ Blues Incorporated of all artists) and “Knock on Wood” (Oliver Bone), as well as other questionable contributions from the likes of Denis Couldry, The Mark Leeman Five, The Carolines, and Mel Turner.

It would probably have been easier if the entire second disc were ghastly; then I could just say skip it and stick to the first one, but some really fine psychedelic nuggets by Second Hand, Felius Andromeda, and Tuesday’s Children, as well as some cool Mod rock by The Attraction and Mersey pop by The Cherokees, are mixed amongst the dross. So be ready to work the remote control hard while grooving to disc two of Spaced Out.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

8 Essentials for Living the Original Star Wars Life


When Twentieth Century Fox took a major gamble on a goofy space fantasy imagined by that goofy kid who’d made American Graffiti, neither that company nor George Lucas could have imagined we’d still be so ensconced in Star Wars forty years later. In fact, fans are now able to ensconce themselves more completely in that wacky universe of wookiees, droids, banthas, and wampas than they could back in the late seventies even though it seemed that every conceivable object had some sort of Star Wars equivalent back then. However, compared to a time when anyone can snooze in a tauntaun sleeping bag, make waffles shaped like the Death Star, or dab on Lando-scented cologne, the late seventies was a comparable Tatooine-desert of Star Wars merchandise. You couldn’t even watch the movies on your TV set yet, so those who wished to never leave Lucas Land had to make do with the essential bits of Star Wars-ernalia available. So for you contemporary kids who don’t understand how good you have it, here are eight examples Star Wars essentials every fanatic worth his or her salt owned back when nobody knew what the hell A New Hope was.

1. Kenner Toys

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The most effective way to melt into the Star Wars universe aside from watching the films has always been to get down on the floor surrounded by little bits of Star Wars-shaped plastic. The history of Kenner’s Star Wars figures has been regurgitated many, many, many times. I’m sure you already know about how unprofitable movie-tie-in toys had been, how Lucas made his fortune by retaining merchandising rights, how the toys weren’t ready for X-mas 1977 so Kenner sold cardboard “Early Bird” vouchers for Luke, Leia, Chewie, and R2-D2 figures instead. Blah, blah. Equally important is how nifty these little figures that could fit into scale Millennium Falcons and TIE-fighters were, how kooky the decisions to make figures of barely-on-screen characters like Prune Face and not-on-screen-at-all characters like Cloud Car Pilot was while neglecting more prominent characters like Tarkin and Uncle Owen because they didn’t look as cool, and how holding one of these tiny things in your hand today draws up childhood memories like biting into a Proustian Madeleine. And let’s not neglect all of those other variations of Star Wars playthings, like the too-big-to-fit-into-a-plastic-X-Wing “large size” figures that did such an effective job of capturing character likenesses and that plush Chewbacca toy that inspired so many of us to toss our teddy bears in the bin.

2. Listening Materials

A Selection of 'Star Wars' Sketches

In a Star Warsy mood because of the original film's 40th anniversary, I knocked off a few Star Wars-inspired pen and marker sketches. Here they are:



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review: Steelers Wheel Vinyl Reissues


Stealers Wheel are obviously best known for their wonderful one hit “Stuck in the Middle with You”, a breezy shuffle delivered in a Dylan whine that went top-ten in 1973, but their pedigree is stronger than that of your usual one-hit wonder. Core member Gerry Rafferty went on to a long career of his own, which kicked into gear with the lovely and sad “Baker Street” in 1977. Rock and Roll’s pioneering dynamic duo Leiber and Stoller produced Stealers Wheels’ first two albums. And most important of all, those two albums are very good beyond the hit on the first one.

The band’s eponymous debut finds them toying with soul (“Late Again”), Move-style metal (“I Get By”), calypso (“Another Meaning”), and even power balladry (“You Put Something Better Inside Me”) with consistent success and bubbly personality. Steelers Wheel is a collection of poppy, pleasant, well-crafted music with a sort of underlying “White Album” vibe, though without any of The Beatles’ exciting weirdness.

On Ferguslie Park, the songwriting and production are not quite as sharp. Even the heavier tracks sound airy due to Rafferty and cohort Joe Egan’s ethereal harmonies and Leiber and Stoller’s soft production. The album also lacks a major hit to anchor it, though the McCartney-esque “Star”, which did go top thirty, the glammy “What More Could You Want”, and the light metal “Back on My Feet Again” are all excellent tracks, as are the haunting “Who Cares” and “Everything Will Turn Out Fine”, which feels a bit like “Stuck in the Middle with You Again”. The Kinky social commentary the drives through a lot of these songs can be too blunt at times (see “Good Businessman” and even “Star”), but it contributes to the album’s unified feel.

The vinyl reissues of Stealers Wheel and Ferguslie Park Intervention Records issued last year were created in accordance with that label’s 100% analog philosophy and really shine as a result. The softness of Ferguslie Park could have turned into mush with improper mastering, by Intervention keeps it clear and textured.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

New Collection to Highlight The Beach Boys in '67

Despite failing to complete their ambitious SMiLE project in the year of the Pepper, The Beach Boys still managed to be very productive in 1967. In the year's waning months they released two LPs: the sort of SMiLE-lite Smiley Smile and the spare yet soulful Wild Honey, which found them moving on after putting SMiLE to rest and signaling pop's move to a more organic post-psych sound a couple of weeks before Dylan got all the credit for that when he released John Wesley Harding

On June 30th, Universal Music will mark the 50th Anniversary of these two often-ignored oddities with 1967-Sunshine Tomorrow. For this double-disc set, Mark Linett and Alan Boyd have mixed Wild Honey in stereo for the first time, while session highlights from both Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, and an abundance of live-in-'67 tracks, including the entirety of the much bootlegged Lei'd in Hawaii, fill out the remainder of Sunshine Tomorrow. Most intriguing of all is a '67 version of "Surf's Up" recorded during the Wild Honey sessions.

Here's the full track listing:
The Beach Boys:  1967 – Sunshine Tomorrow [2CD, digital]


Disc 1


Wild Honey Album (Stereo)

Review: Vinyl Reissue of The Flying Burrito Brothers' 'Gilded Palace of Sin'


Gram Parsons’s stint in The Byrds was very brief but it really shook things up. His Country & Western influence was so profound on Sweetheart of the Rodeo that The Byrds’ seemed unsure how to continue without him, unable to fully commit to country rock without his guiding hand but unable to completely go back to their jangly roots either, and the band never released another great album. More positively, country rock was officially born, and once Chris Hillman resolved to bail on The Byrds too, so were The Flying Burrito Brothers.

This was the band The Byrds probably would have been had Parsons not had the moral fortitude to quit when they decided to tour Apartheid-torn South Africa. Pure country is more present on the band’s debut The Gilded Palace of Sin then it had even been on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, partially because Roger McGuinn often sounded like he wasn’t taking the material entirely sincerely, doing a Deputy Dawg drawl on things like “The Christian Life”. As Burrito Brothers, Parsons and Hillman harmonize with heartbreaking sincerity and have the serious material to match, the finest song being the ridiculously named but utterly heartfelt cry of betrayal “Hot Burrito #1”. There is also none of the harder boogying of Sweetheart of the Rodeo on The Gilded Palace of Sin, though Sneaky Pete’s creative use of lap steel guitar that pierces fuzz tones through tracks such as “Wheels” and “Hot Burrito #2” and a pair of soul covers certainly make Gilded Palace something other than a typical country disc. The ideology of songs such as the draft-dodging “My Uncle” and “Hippie Boy”, which tricks listeners into assuming it will be a goofy parody (much like the Stones’ “Far Away Eyes”, which it clearly influenced) but sucker punches us with tragedy and empathy, also helps distinguish this new approach to country from its conservative predecessor.

The Gilded Palace of Sin is essentially raw, rustic music that demands an organic presentation to convey its woody textures. Intervention Records’ new all-analog vinyl reissue does just that. Bass tones are incredibly deep yet clear. The acoustic guitars and upper-register harmonies never get lost in murk. The range of this mastering is beautiful, much like the music itself.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: Vinyl Reissues of Joe Jackson's First Two Albums


Joe Jackson started his career as a blatant Elvis Costello clone, doing everything but copping Declan’s trademark specs when cooking up cynical, punky power poppers like “Happy Loving Couples” and “Fools in Love” and aggro-Anglo reggae like “Sunday Papers”. So what? Elvis is great and Look Sharp! and I’m the Man are too, and along with Armed Forces, they helped make 1979 a year of riches for nerdy, jilted angry young(ish) men.

Look Sharp! is the favorite Jackson LP, and it is indeed a fierce set with such signature bitter pills as “Is She Really Going out with Him?”, “Sunday Papers”, “One More Time”,  and the title track. I’m the Man is not as cluttered with hits, but for my money, it’s the better album because it’s where Jackson starts finding his own voice with an absence of songs that could spark copyright suits and because phenomenal bassist Graham Maby is so front-and-center. The title track is a hilarious and ferocious crap-culture critique, “Geraldine and John” is Jackson’s most underrated reggae splash, “The Band Wore Blue Shirts” and “Amateur Hour” are masterfully executed mood pieces, and “It’s Different for Girls” is his most incisive piece of sexual politicking, taking the atypical-for-1979 position that some women actually just want to get laid without all the romantic goo men demand.

Last year Intervention Records reissued Joe Jackson’s first two records on vinyl (as well as his fifth, Night and Day, which I did not receive for review purposes). Using a completely analog process, Kevin Gray mastered each album from safety copies of the original master tapes. Played against my original copy of I’m the Man, I can guarantee that it sounds totally authentic and particularly forceful in the low end and whenever Dave Houghton gives his snare drum what for. I didn’t already have Look Sharp! on vinyl, so I could not make a similar comparison, but I can confirm that it sounds warm and wonderful on Intervention’s new vinyl nevertheless.

Since Intervention uses heavyweight plastic inner sleeves for all their releases, I’m the Man has been upgraded to a gatefold with the lyrics and photos (can’t live without that shot of Maby in his mesh tanktop) printed inside the gatefold. Look Sharp! comes in a the same kind of slightly textured sleeve as its first UK pressing. These are vinyl reissues made with love… and not a trace of the delicious cynicism found within their grooves.
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