Friday, July 21, 2017

Record Roundup: Spirits Of The Past

I'm laser-focused on the new and keeping up with artists who are active today, which is nearly a full-time job. But the riches of the past are undeniable, either in the form of deluxe reissues, records returning to print, or previously unissued music, which may be the most tantalizing of all. You'll find examples of each below, sometimes with an eye to "consumer advice," which is part of the picture whenever someone tries to make new money off of old music. 

Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda  - World Spirituality Classics, Vol. 1: The Ecstatic Music Of... The widow of the titanic sax player was on the wrong side of so many margins that it wouldn't surprise me if a common reaction to her name was either ignorance or outright hostility. In a way she could be seen as the Yoko Ono of jazz, a woman who entered the boy's club and pulled her husband's music in all sorts of weird directions. At least that the impression I got from the copies of Downbeat I found in my brother's room back in the 70's. I will forever resent those critics who so badly understood what Turiya was doing that it took until 2004 for me to get her classic album Journey To Satchidananda - and then I listened to it every day for six months straight. 

As unusual as that and the other jazz-harp-Indian-mystic albums (including an underrated collaboration with Carlos Santana) that followed were, what we have here is in an entirely different realm. Even if you didn't know that these pieces were from cassettes recorded during services at Turiya's ashram, I think the ritual power of this music would be immediately obvious. The effect is not unlike some of the source material for David Byrne & Brian Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts - intimate, arresting, even eerie at times. Since Turiya had effectively turned her back on the business of music at the time she made these recordings, it's impossible to know what she would have made of them being released as a deluxe double album. We do know her children Michelle, Ravi, and Oran Coltrane, along with her nephew Steven Ellison (AKA Flying Lotus), were involved and so must assume that all due respect was paid. 

As for the sound world to which we are invited on these selected tracks, it contains a number of fascinating intersections. Only one piece, Er Ra, contains her signature harp, the rest are dominated by massive, swooping synths (I immediately thought Oberheim - and the comprehensive liner notes confirmed it) that seem to rocket in on a jet stream informed in part by 80's R&B and early Eurythmics. There are touches of sitar and live strings here and there, and tambourines, hand claps, and other percussion chattering hypnotically.  The chanting is also fairly constant, and there are sometimes solo singers - including Turiya herself - that  circle back to gospel, soul and disco in their passion and melismatic effects. 

Whether you put it to use in your own spiritual practice or just listen, this is an incredibly important release which closes the circle on the work of a musician who has only grown in importance. Kudos to Luaka Bop for putting it together. I look forward to volume two in this groundbreaking series. 

Radiohead - OKNOTOK 1997-2017 Leave it to Yorke, Greenwood & Co. to turn the unboxing video into a work of art. But then the super-deluxe version of this 20th anniversary reissue is an extraordinary thing. Besides the original remastered album on vinyl and a third record containing three unreleased songs (all good, especially the elegant and moody Man Of War) and many of the b-sides of the era, you get a facsimile of Thom Yorke's notebook, unseen artwork, and a cassette of demos. If you can afford it! Punters (and streamers) will likely get the two-CD version, which just has the album, the three new tracks, and the b-sides. All well and good, except there was already a deluxe reissue of OK Computer almost ten years ago. While it didn't have the fancy packaging or the three lost tracks, it did have two remixes (the Fila Brazillia version of Climbing Up The Walls is especially groovy), and a few BBC recordings and live tracks (Lucky, from Rome, is fantastic), all now lost to the dustbin of your local used music emporium. Maybe there are plans for comprehensive sets of live materials and remixes, but for now it is as it as always been: being a Radiohead completist takes work - and deep pockets. 

Helium - Ends With And Every so often over the last 20 years or so, I have found myself wondering "But what about Helium?" just because they seemed so forgotten. And I would flash back to the night at Knitting Factory when my wife and best friend tried to convince me I was wrong for being a fan - while Helium was playing. I felt so alone. But that's all different now that Matador has reissued most of the music released during their heyday along with a double-album compilation of rarities, all under the supervision of leader Mary Timony. While there are some legitimate complaints about omissions (Only the b-side of the debut single? Well, OK.), this is pure catnip. If you're unfamiliar, start with debut album The Dirt Of Luck. Otherwise, dive into Ends With And and wallow in the toothsome delights of damaged guitars and sweet vocals. Nobody did that kind of thing better. 

Various Artists - Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star When Chris Bell and Alex Chilton formed Big Star it was the coming together of two strands of musical DNA that had not yet generated fully viable life on their own. Chilton had been chewed up and spat out by the teen idol machine as the lead singer of The Box Tops and, as a previous collection of his work between bands revealed, he had yet to find himself musically in the aftermath. Bell was following a more conventional path, working his way through the Memphis rock scene as a singer, songwriter, bandleader, sideman, and engineer. 

This collection is the most comprehensive overview yet of Bell's apprenticeship and, while containing only six previously unreleased tracks, it clarifies all the strengths he (and drummer Jody Stevens, also included here) brought to the table when he and Chilton joined forces. These would include a well-developed sense of Beatle-esque melody, rippling and ripping lead guitar work, leanings toward late psychedelia and even prog, and a taste for hard rock grit. For the Big Star fan this is fascinating listening and a welcome dent in the "great man theory" Chilton's canonization has made endemic. That Bell held Chilton in very high regard, however, is made clear by the excellent liner notes, which include copious amounts of oral history. As Tom Eubanks, lead singer and main songwriter of Rock City, a band whose output takes up nearly half of Looking Forward, says: "One needs to consider that the major purpose of Rock City was for Christopher to develop recording engineering skills for the planned formation of...Big Star," when Chilton returned to Memphis in six months time. One listen to Big Star's first album is all you need to know it was time well spent. 

The whole package is expertly assembled, as one would expect from Omnivore, but it should be pointed out that with so much that was previously available, this is almost just a well-informed playlist. Four of the unreleased tracks are backing tracks or alternate backing tracks and neither of the new completed songs feature Bell's sweet, high tenor. But if you're like me and never bothered to get the Rock City album, which was first put out over a decade ago, or compilations like the Ardent Records Story, you'll want to grab this. 

All I Need Is You is the best non-Beatles Beatles song since Lies by The Knickerbockers and is worth the price of admission. Looking Forward is also a great look at Memphis' early 70s rock underground, so unexpected in a town known mainly for its soul music. I Am The Cosmos, a beautiful album Chris Bell left unfinished at the time his tragic death in 1979, is still the true revelation of his talents. If you don't have it, keep an eye out for a new version coming from Omnivore later this year. Based on this collection, Bell's masterpiece will sound better than ever. 

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band In which the most underrated overrated album of all time is subject to a very high-tech remix by Giles Martin, son of original producer George. His goal was to inform a stereo mix with some of the virtues of the original mono. Now, I must shamefacedly admit that I've never heard the mono version - I know, bizarre, right? But I have been working my through the mono vinyl reissues slowly and they are revelatory, so I get where Giles is coming from. I'm also intimately acquainted with every second of the original stereo LP, which my parents bought upon release and proceeded to wear out over the next few years. 

On every device I've used, the Giles effect is completely noticeable - and amazing. The bass has more heft, the guitars more sting, the drums more presence, and the vocals are warmer and better-integrated into the tracks. Then there are all the strings, horns, special effects, and sonic experiments, which are all more pronounced. Everything gels more than the 2008 digital stereo remaster, but you still might find yourself focusing on tiny details the first time around, like the little shuffle Ringo uses to transition into the chorus of With A Little Help From My Friends, or the subtle inflections of John's voice on Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. At this point I find myself just flat-out enjoying the album more, even laughing out loud at the audacity of the "Bi-Lee-Shears" they sing to introduce Ringo's star turn. While it's still not my favorite Fabs album, I highly recommend you give this a listen, whichever side of the overrated/underrated spectrum you occupy. (P.S. Memo to Keith Richards: Sgt. Pepper's is not rubbish.)

There's also a generous helping of studio outtakes and demos, which will delight and amaze with a fly-on-the-wall look at some of their process. I'm saving up for the super-deluxe, which comes with a second disc of extras. Plus, you get new versions of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, the colorful, emotionally-charged seeds of the whole Pepper project. The White Album turns 50 next year, and Abbey Road the year after that, so let's hope Giles & Co. are hard at work. 

Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus 40 In which Ziggy Marley reveals he's no Giles Martin. Certainly this landmark album deserves as much commemoration as Sgt. Pepper's, but "restatement" disc at the center of this edition is, frankly, a mess. Bad enough that Ziggy blended his dad's vocals from outtakes with parts from other alternate takes of the songs, but he also presents them out of order. The whole experience is very unsatisfying; I would rather have had genuine outtakes and demos, even if raw - something that would let us in on the process Marley and the band went through while creating the album. Fortunately, the first disc is an untouched version of the original, the same excellent remaster as the Deluxe Edition released in 2001. Disc three is a complete concert from the Rainbow in 1977, the same show which was teased in a few tracks on that earlier reissue. It's wonderful, with beautiful sound and locked-in performances, a public service on its own terms. Just keep Ziggy away from Survival. 

Linval Thompson - Rocking Vibration & Love Is The Question No bells and whistles here - just a twofer of prime Linval Thompson (both from 1978) which means roots reggae at its best, and in stunning sound. The first of the two is especially good: Thompson produced himself, hired Sly & Robbie to play the riddims, and wisely brought in King Tubby to mix. It's a special record and the second is nearly as good. 

Piri - VocĂȘs Querem Mate? This is another brilliant early-70's Brazilian reissue from Far Out Recordings, a fine follow-up to last year's Obnoxius by Jose Mauro. Samba-Bossa-Topicalia bliss may be the most blissful bliss of all!

Tenorio Jr. - Embalo More Brazilian beauty, from 1964 this time, and on the jazz tip. Tenorio's lighter than air sparkle on piano is the real draw, but there's a large helping of trombone, which always seems to have one eyebrow raised as it oozes out a solo. This is Tenorio's only album as a leader but it made his reputation. He had a nice career going as a sideman until 1976, when he went out for a pack of cigarettes while on tour in Argentina and was never seen again. Whether he became a desaparecido or met with some other mishap, his legacy is secure thanks to Embalo. 

David Bowie - Cracked Actor: Live Los Angeles '74 Even though I have reveled for years in a bootleg of this show from late in the Diamond Dogs tour, this official release is a must. It was mixed by none other than Tony Visconti himself, which means the widescreen grandeur of Bowie's ensemble is finally revealed. With irrepressible sax-man David Sanborn duking it out with guitar murderer Earl Slick, piano wizard Mike Garson creating his own universe, and no less than seven background vocalists (including Luther Vandross) this was the epic approach Bowie's music required at the time. I'm such a fan that I even love David Live, in all it's spiritually emaciated, overdubbed ignominy, but there's no doubt this was the better concert - and now it's in the canon. Hey, Bowie people, how about putting out Alan Yentob's documentary of the same name, filmed around the same time? 

There's more new old stuff to explore in this playlist. What have I missed?

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