Brace yourselves...it's back. Part one of that long-awaited new edition of Johnny B's Mondo Vinyl-O, in which I write a paragraph or two about ten long playing, 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record albums to which I have listened in the interval since the last MV-O. This was all brought on when I got a new turntable a little over a year ago, after not having one for about five. Needless to say, I was having fun getting reacquainted with a lot of music in my collection that I hadn't been able to listen to for a long time, and I thought I'd share. The new has kinda worn off the turntable since then, but I'm still dragging those old platters off the shelf, many of which aren't available on CD even if I could afford them, and giving 'em a spin, not to mention that I still get the occasional new-to-me album off eBay and other places. Frankly, kids, I prefer the sound of a good condition album to a CD any old day...and I know that's a terribly old-fashioned attitude to have, but there ya go. Of course, CDs have many advantages that vinyl does not, but I still love me some vinyl. So enough with the preamble, lets get down to it.
BERT JANSCH-MOONSHINE (1973) Gotta set this one up a little bit. Back in...oh, sometime in the early 80s I think, I was beginning to become infatuated with those newfangled cassette things and began to look upon them as a preferable alternative to the 8 track tape- which just never really seemed to work right despite its larger tape size, which should have meant better sound...but the packaging was faulty. More often as not, 8-tracks were prone to getting chewed up in the player, and often the shell itself would become defective, causing mis-tracking, grinding, and many other annoyances. Anyway, it was sometime in the early 80s that I made my last significant purchase of 8-track tapes, taking advantage of the huge cutout bins at Woolco in Bowling Green. They used to have bin after bin of cutout vinyl and tapes, and I always enjoyed rummaging thru them to see what I could find. Oh, if I could only go back in time and go through those bins now. That particular day, though, I bought ten 8-tracks for ten bucks, one of them being a copy of Bert Jansch's 1972 solo effort Moonshine. I was geeked beyond belief, because I was such a devotee of Jansch's group The Pentangle, in particular their Solomon's Seal album, which came out the year before. Since Seal had become one of my favorite albums, you can understand my excitement and anticipation. First thing I did when I got home was eagerly stick it in the old 8-track player, and after about 30 seconds of quiet acoustic picking, I began to hear a grinding noise and the dreaded garbled sound...my tape was eaten by my hungry player. So after a few minutes spent throwing things and cursing loudly and enthusiastically, I resolved to find a vinyl copy of that album. It took me over twenty years. About a month ago I finally found an affordable one...so has it lived up to such a lengthy introduction? Well, yes and no. Moonshine is a quiet affair, mostly Bert's doleful droning voice and his nimble acoustic guitar, and to be honest the songs don't exactly jump out and ask you to love them upon the first few listens. I think the best cuts are the ones which have the most novel accompaniment, like the album opener "Yarrow", with its haunting flute, the very atmospheric title track with more flutes and bells as well, or "Night Time Blues", a mid-tempo track with lively fiddle accompaniment by one Aly Bain. "Ramble Away" gets a rollicking arrangement, and "Oh My Father" gets a full band treatment, rocking agreeably with some stinging electric guitar riffs noodling away in the background. I really like the lyrics to the midtempo acoustic number "The January Man", which essentially personifies each month of the year, giving each a verse. I have a weakness for that sort of rhyme, it appears. The only real clunker on the album is an odd cover of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", which is a duet with Mary Hopkin, standing in for Jacqui McShee, I assume. Problem is, she comes in singing on the odd beat, and the two voices clash rather than compliment...which makes the track a trial to sit through. Duets with Hopkin, yay. Duets like this one with Hopkin, not so good an idea, and probably should have been left in the can. Moonshine is definitely a grower, you'll need to listen several times before many of these cuts will make a strong impression. But these are strong songs, the accompaniment (including Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson) is first rate, and it's well worth picking up should you run across it somewhere. Rotsa ruck.
BLACK OAK ARKANSAS-HIGH ON THE HOG (1973) Black Oak was the working man's southern boogie band for about a four year period there, after releasing four albums on Atlantic subsidiary Atco that built them a loyal following. The main thing which set BOA apart from their contemporaries like the Allmans, Lynyrd Skynyrd or ZZ Top was the Robert Plant-meets-Jim Varney antics and raspy bullhorn voice of one Jim "Dandy" Mangrum, who would strut around onstage, washboard in hand, with his long blonde hair hanging down to his ass just like a weird mix of Foghorn Leghorn and Sebastian Bach. Anyway, BOA's sound was no-frills southern boogie blooz, competently if not especially well played, and given a boost by Mangrum's crazed vocals. This particular album was the one which gave them the smash hit they'd worked so hard for- the cover of the old LaVern Baker blues song "Jim Dandy" (featuring vocal contributions by the late Ruby Starr), which was all over the airwaves in the Summer of '73. The rest of the record has its moments: "Swimming In Quicksand" has a nice nasty wah-wah riff at its center; "Back To The Land" and especially the beautiful "High And Dry" (probably my favorite track on this record, with its gorgeous melody (that even Mangrum doesn't mess up) and graceful banjo/steel guitar solo) are nicely done country-fied ballads, and "Movin" ("Movin' down the highway is my life/I'd rather have asphalt than a wife"), "Happy Hooker" (about guess what), the instumental jam "Moonshine Sonata" and "Mad Man" all rock convincingly. After this, they toured and recorded for what seemed like years and years, striving to follow up "Jim Dandy" amid multiple personnel changes and the onset of Punk and New Wave, which pretty much knocked Southern Rock for a loop on the charts. I think some version of Black Oak is still out there, fronted by Mangrum, coming soon to a small club or state fair near you...
SANDY DENNY-SANDY (1972)
I scored a really good condition copy of the second proper solo album by the First Lady of British Folk on eBay a few months ago. While I was already familiar with most of the best songs here via the two compilations I own, I still wanted to hear the other cuts on this record. Problem is that the best cuts here are those which have been gleaned for the many best-ofs that have come out since her untimely death, such as the solemn and stately "It'll Take A Long Time"; "Listen, Listen", with its bracing multitracked vocals and sympatico string section, and "The Lady", again with symphonic accompaniment. Of the unfamilar cuts, only her cover of Dylan's "Tomorrow is a Long Time", which is a little more uptempo but fails to outdo Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story cover version that same year and the very Fairportish "Sweet Rosemary" make much of an impression, which is not to say they're bad, they just haven't really grabbed me yet. Such was the low-key, restrained genius of Sandy Denny, which created songs which snuck up on you, then didn't let go. Really, the only track which I dont like at all is her acapella version of "Quiet Joys of Brotherhood", which many fans love for her admittedly lovely vocal, but (like many accapella tunes do) bores me to tears. Still, the instrumental accompaniment is by all the usual Fairport suspects, such as Richard Thompson, and is very well played, so while I don't like this one as much as I do its successor Like An Old Fashioned Waltz, I still like very much.
EMMYLOU HARRIS-EVANGELINE (1980)
Americana Queen Emmylou has a large and fanatical following, but even the most fervent of them generally shun this record, claiming that it's "too short" and has synths (!). Indeed, it's not available on CD, never has been. So, of course, it's my favorite of all her albums. This album, admittedly almost unforgivably short at just shy of 40 minutes, starts out with a Rodney Crowell tune "I Don't Have To Crawl", all low-key, mid-tempo, menacing and garnished with understated synth. Next, we get a bluegrass/Western swing hybrid with harmonies by the Whites and guitar by Ricky Skaggs, her musical cohort for much of this period, titled "How High The Moon". The next cut continues the stylistic variety with a folkish duet with Waylon Jennings called "Spanish Johnny", a western tale which features chiming mandolin, growling harmonica and Jennings' bloated, boozy harmony vocal which flirts with being on-key almost as much as it is off-key, but somehow in tandem with Harris, it sounds marvelously haunting. A fine, faithful cover of John Fogerty's "Bad Moon Rising" is next, then a cover of the Band's "Evangeline", which almost seems written for EH, especially when the harmonies kick in on the chorus. This first side is one amazing sequence of songs- each just flows into the other and is amazingly diverse. Side two, unfortunately, suffers a bit by comparison...can't really say why, but perhaps it just doesn't hit as high a note as the other does. The flip side starts with a surprisingly reserved cover of a song by her mentor Gram Parsons, the Flying Burritos Bros' "Hot Burrito #2". Next, a James Taylor cover, "Millworker", is faithful to the original (one of my favorite Taylor songs, from 1979's Flag) but just isn't as affecting as Taylor is on the original. Little Feat's "Oh Atlanta" is next, and while it's not bad I could think of a dozen other Feat songs that I'd rather hear her sing. We then get us a preview of the Trio album she did a few years later with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt on a fun cover of the old 40s standard "Mr. Sandman", complete with ba-ba-ba's. Finally, she closes with another Crowell cover, "Ashes By Now", which I think Crowell's then-bride Roseanne Cash toopk to the bank a year or so later. Coming off the heels of her brilliant bluegrass and gospel-tinged Roses in the Snow, Evangeline was regarded, I think, as a bit of a step backwards and an overproduced compromise. Me, I don't think she wanted to pigeonhole herself as a hillbilly singer and decided to push the envelope a bit. Regardless, this forgotten and overlooked record is well worth checking out if you get the chance.
Woo! Metal, dude! Or at least pop-metal. Starz were one of the zillions of poor man's BoStyxes, Boreigners, Kisses and Aerosmiths out there in the mid-to-late 70s, and really didn't make a big dent in the public consciousness even at their peak, which was probably the period between their 1976 debut and this, the follow-up. I probably would have sold it in a yard sale or a used record store somewhere if not for four cuts, which are as solid and tuneful as anyone could ever hope for their hair metal to be- "Violation", "Sing It, Shout It", "Cherry Baby", and the oddly syncopated, string-accented ballad "Is That a Street Light or the Moon?", all of which boast dynamite melodies 'n' riffs along with infectuous choruses. In fact, "Sing It" and "Cherry", I believe, should have been monster hits- and did, truth be told, trouble the lower reaches of the charts back then. A look at the credits helps explain a bit- it's produced by none other than Aerosmith's producer at the time Jack Douglas. But wait! There's more! Not being content with an atypically listenable pop-metal album, Violation was also a concept album as well, something about teenagers being prohibited by law to listen to rock music in an Orwellian future society of some sort. Yeah, that was mighty stale even back then, but there you go. Of course, the Starz boys fight the power and liberate the youth of the future with the power of the Marshall amp just in time for the final cut. Special mention must go to the drummer, who was named "Dubé" and sported a Rollie Fingers moustache, the cheeky fellow. Even when I was a teen, I didn't have much use for the Angels, Head Easts and REO Speedwagons of the music world...but none of them put together ever made an album that was as solid as this one.
That's gonna do it for the first half...I've got five more coming sooner rather than later.