Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usAnd now, finally, it's time for that long promised JOHNNY B's MONDO VINYL-O! In which I discuss, inform, opine, and otherwise enlighten all of you wonderful people out there who deign to read my little bloggie-poo about at least ten, count 'em, ten vinyl long playing 33 1/3 RPM stereo unless otherwise noted stacks o' wax to which I have listened to since the last time I did one of these here things. This was started when I got a new turntable several months ago and I had literally thousands of records that I hadn't listened to in over three years, and I thought it would make great blogfodder to inflict, I mean pass on my joyful reunions to all of you. I still listen to those newfangled compact disc things a lot, too, but this here's an exclusive vinyl joint, yo, so I don't discuss them. I've thoughtfully provided a scan of the cover when AMG didn't have one. So without further a-do-delee-doo, here goes...

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usWendy Waldman-The Main Refrain (1976)
Wendy was one of a spate of West Coast female singer-songwriters that emerged in the early 70s in the wake of Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Janis Joplin. I've always placed her in a little group with Maria Muldaur, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, The McGarrigle Sisters and later Karla Bonoff, but she was different in that unlike Muldaur, Raitt and Ronstadt she wrote her own songs (several of which were covered by Muldaur, on whose records she often performed). Her records were always well-crafted LA-style country-pop-rock, often tinged with jazz stylings like her most obvious influence, Nyro. Her vocals even resembled Nyro's. But for some unexplainable reason, despite recording for one of the biggest record labels on Earth, her five Warners records from 1973-1978 probably sold as many all together as one of Ronstadt's. Guess she was just too smart for the room, who knows. Anyway, Refrain, her fourth solo album, is probably her strongest cut-for-cut, often featuring expansive, even cinematic arrangements and some nice harmony singing, especially on the title cut. Other highlights are the breezy, recorder-accented "Goodbye Summerwind", the dramatic, rockish "Soft and Low" and "Living is Good", and the reflective, jazzy "Back By Fall" which Muldaur also covered that same year. Wendy went on from here to release one or two records on other labels in the 80s, which were laden with typical 80s rock-guitar bombast and slick production, wrote a song called "Heartbeat" which Don Johnson, of all people, riding high on the success of Miami Vice had a hit with; then she went to Nashville where she's had a decent career of professional songwriting and production. Most recently, she's recorded with her pre-solo career band Bryndle, which features Andrew (Lonely Boy) Gold and Karla Bonoff as well. Sadly, none of her albums are available on CD; only a best-of sampler, released by Warner Archives about five years ago and one which doesn't begin to scratch the surface of her best work, is available.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe Mothers of Invention-Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
This album was (and still is) the line of demarcation for many Zappa fans. Sensation was his first album in which every song was conventionally structured, in a verse-verse-chorus-bridge-verse sense, rather than the mix of Varese, Ornette Coleman, doo-wop and blues to which Zappaphiles had become accustomed. And it was on this record that Zappa's sense of humor, always sarcastic, added an overtly surly and dismissive edge- one of the things I've always disliked about Frank's music was his nasty air of disdain for those that he perceived as beneath his contempt, and it's on this record in abundance. Guess getting pushed off a stage by a crazed "fan" and breaking your leg will do that to you. Anyway, I too am a little undecided, even after all these years, about what I think about this record...most of the satire takes shots at easy targets, unless you choose to go by Ben Watson's book, with all its "conceptual continuity" and multiple meanings and layers, and the arrangements of many of these songs are a bit too repetitious ("Camarillo Brillo") and busily arranged. Still, geez- it's got "Montana", one of his best songs and one of the few times his playful whimsy gets to shine though here, with speeded-up vocals by Tina Turner and the Ikettes; "Zomby Woof", which could have been a leftover from the Flo & Eddie band days; and of course, the elaborate and notorious dirty joke "Dinah-Moe-Humm", which is as catchy as it is crass. "I'm The Slime" is passable blues-rock, although its satirical target is a sitting duck. Really, the only cut which I don't like on this is the too-slick and horribly sung (by one Ricky Lancelloti) "Fifty-Fifty", in which Zappa states his musical ideology circa 1972. Time has been kind to this record- compared to much of his mid-to-late 80s albums, Sensation sounds like a major work.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usUriah Heep-Sweet Freedom (1973)
Ladies and gentlemen...THIS is Spinal Tap. These guys were critical whipping boys for so long, and mostly for good reason. Ostensibly a heavy blues-rock boogie outfit, they began early on to incorporate grandiose harmonies and fantasy themes into their music, and managed to hit it pretty big in the early 70s with albums such as Demons and Wizards, with its hit single "Easy Livin'", and The Magician's Birthday, appealing also to the Prog-rock crowd due to their Roger Dean album covers. And it's true, a lot of Spinal Tap's material was inspired by bands like the Heep...but when I was growing up, I kinda liked the guitar-keyboard-harmonies blend, as well as the hippie-dippie sword-and-sorcery subject matter so as an adult that should theoretically know better, I retain a soft spot for the classic incarnation of Uriah Heep. That being said, unfortunately the Heepsters were saddled with a preening vocalist, David Byron by name, who had one of the most cringe-inducing voices in rock music history. He had the unfortunate tendency to break out, at odd times, into a falsetto vibrato that would peel paint off a wall. Anyway, by the time of this record they had changed US record companies and this was their first release with Warners. It spawned a hit single, the catchy bluesy "Some Kind of Wonderful"-ish "Stealin" but largely abandons the fantasy themes of its immediate predecessors for more down-to-earth topics. The opener, "Dreamer", is a punchy rocker which Byron almost kills with his screeching at the end and I also like "Seven Stars"- another driving rocker with weird backwards-masked voices at the end. "Circus", an acoustic "pity the lot of the poor rock star" tune, is normally the sort of thing that annoys the hell out of me but the whining is at a minimum so it gets a pass. On the negative side, the plodding title cut sports a memory-defying hook and lyrics of the self-pitying type, and the album's closer, "Pilgrim", is the sort of song which gave the Heep its sometime unfair rep. The story of a wandering warrior who has to choose between love and battle, or something like that, it's bloated and overlong and horribly sung (especially at the end) by Byron, you won't know whether to laugh or leave the room. For what it's worth, I always liked Uriah Heep, even after Byron left or was sacked or whatever, and stuck around for a couple of records after he left- one of which, 1977's Firefly, was quite good. But I can certainly see why they were scorned like they were. We all have our guilty pleasures. Caveat emptor.

The J.Geils Band-The J. Geils Band (1970)
Most people that remember the Geils band at all remember their slick, oversynthed (but catchy) 80s hits like "Love Stinks" and "Centerfold". However, when they started out they were a straight up blues band- idolizing, emulating and covering the likes of John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush and Albert Collins. This, their debut on Atlantic, is about as bluesy as five white guys from Boston can get. They cover all three of the aforementioned gentlemen here, along with Smokey Robinson and Big Walter Price, and manage to hold their own with originals like "Wait", which kicks off the LP, and "Hard Drivin' Man". Later records adopted a more R&B-rock tone, and were not successful sales-wise even though they were popular on the road throughout the 70s. Of course, I liked 'em all, but as you're probably beginning to notice, my tastes don't always coincide with that of the record buying public at large. These guys are long overdue for a reunion album, but it probably won't happen despite the fact that neither lead Peter Wolf or anyone else in the group are having any sort of success whatsoever right now. Ego clashes, I suppose. Pride swallowing difficulties, maybe.

Bloodrock-2 (1970)
Gotta give a shout out for this one to Russell Butler, the cool older guy that lived next door to me when I was growing up and exposed me to bands like Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and these guys. Bloodrock was a Texas heavy blues rock group that was managed and produced by Grand Funk Railroad Svengali Terry Knight in the early 70s. According to AMG, and I didn't know this, they had six charting albums between 1970 and 1972 but the only one anyone ever remembers is this one, which features the top 40 hit "D.O.A.". I've always been amazed by the chart success of this song, which was so unlikely given its morbid subject matter. But you know what? That tale of two unfortunate young people who OD on drugs and jump off a building is still kinda gripping, the ominous, spooky music memorable and the lyrics crossed a lot of taboos for radio, causing a sensation among those who tend to become sensationalized by that sort of thing. And it definitely didn't sound like much else that was on the radio at the time, that's for sure! Anyway, there are several other songs here that are tuneful and rocking, if not especially well played, but the leaden production style of Knight doesn't help. Many of these, and I assume other songs on subsequent records, were co-written by one John Nitzinger, who went on to release several solo records as the decade wore on. I dig this one out from time to time for nostalgia's sake...it's one of the oldest records in my collection. Sadly, the first cut "Lucky in the Morning" is so scratched it barely plays.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usStatus Quo-Rockin' All Over the World (1977)
I'm sure you all (or many of you, anyway) remember the mid-1960s psychedelic pop hit "Pictures of Matchstick Men" which put the Quo on the map way back when. After unsuccessfully trying to follow that song up, they decided to make a major shift in their sound and went all heavy and bluesy, like the Cream, Foghat, or Humble Pie and many other groups of that ilk that were popular in the late 60s and early 70s. And they boogied along for several years, releasing several albums which did quite well in the UK but not so well over here until they released a live album in 1977 which finally got them a little attention. Then they released this, the studio follow-up, and it sounded very little like what had come before. Gone were the eight minute extended jams and piledriver riffs, replaced by a more compact and sleeker sound which rocked just as hard but more economically. I don't know why they chose to do this, maybe Punk and New Wave had something to do with it, but I'm glad they did because this little record is a joy. Yeah, it's slickly produced but for once the processed group vocals and guitar licks are in service to tightly arranged, strongly melodic songs which make all but the most lead-assed among us nod your head or dance around. All the songs are written by the band themselves, except the title cut which was taken from John Fogerty's self-titled first solo album. The Beatles and Cream are obvious influences, as well as Creedence to a point, and a couple of cuts- "Dirty Water" and "For You" sound like the Kinks. I'm tellin' ya, if you haven't heard this one I recommend it very highly. It's a good-time record if I ever heard one. Of course, this record failed to build on the Live record's sales, and it was back to the heavy boogie for the Quo. Honestly, I've heard very little of what they've done since this record because its follow up didn't come out in the US right away (or at least not where I could find it) and I just kinda lost interest...but they're still together and boogieing strong to this day. Here's their official website, if you're curious.

David Lindley-El Rayo-X (1981)
I've never had much use for the music of Jackson Browne, so it took me a while before I discovered the four albums that his sidekick and guitarist Lindley did in the 80s. This one was the first, and it was after this that he assembled an actual group named El Rayo-X, which toured in between session commitments. El Rayo-X is the best of the eclectic bunch, and it's consistently entertaining and surprising, combining a multitude of styles (mostly reggae, zydeco and Tex-Mex) and rhythms. Best of show here is the cover of the old song "Mercury Blues" later an enormous hit for some singing hat from Nashville...but that version couldn't hold a candle to this one, with its downright terrifying slide guitar solo. Other standouts are "Quarter of a Man", a funny reggae tale of a vertically challenged fellow who manages to get by just the same, "Ain't No Way", two of three excellent Robert "Frizz" Fuller songs on side one (whoever the hell he was), with a great melody and another excellent slide solo, and a reggae-ized cover of "Twist and Shout". A fun record, and highly recommended along with the two other El Rayo-X albums, Win This Record! and Very Greasy. We used to play the heck out of these at WLOC back in the old days.

Seals and Crofts-Summer Breeze (1972)
OK. I know by now that I have lost a ton of critical cool points for my earlier advocacy of Chicago. And I know I didn't help it any by admitting to liking Uriah Heep. Now I've probably destroyed it beyond all recognition because I'm going to step right up and say that I liked this record. Or to be precise, I liked the album cover design, and two songs: the title cut, and "Hummingbird". Those are both catchy and winning folk-rock songs with nice, polite, but somewhat snarly guitar licks spicing them up. Of course, they went on to record many schlocky albums sporting many schlocky cloying hit singles...but there's just something about the hippie vibe of this album in its entirety that appeals to me. While I'm at it, the later songs "Diamond Girl" (from the album of the same name) and "King of Nothing", from 1974's Unborn Child, were nice, too. And that's all I'm going to say about Seals and Crofts, pro or con. Heck, it's Summer, and that's when these songs sound the best, so I put the record on. Sue me.

Rick Wakeman-The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973)
PBS recently aired a two-part documentary/dramatization which dealt with the lives of Henry's spouses, and I watched most of it, which in turn led me to dig this record out and give it a spin for the first time in several years. Of course, Wakeman was a pianist who started out as a session guy in his teens, then eventually hooked up with the Strawbs first, then Yes, and launched a solo career during his tenure with the Prog supergroup. This was his first, and it purports to be his "musical impressions" of each of the wives. It's tuneful enough, and very well played...there was never any doubt that Wakeman could play. He would never play one note when he could throw a hundred in instead. There are several nice, complicated passages of music, featuring not only piano but a barrage of keyboard instruments that were cutting edge then but sound a bit dated today...time marches on, I suppose. As a longtime Strawbs fan, I was especially gratified to see that some of the band members circa 1973 played on one cut here. The problem I've always had with this record is that in spite of all the craft and musicianship that went into it, I never get much of a feel for the personalities of the individual subjects. It all just sounds like a bunch of trademark Wakeman keyboard flourishes, punctuated by oohing and aahing from group vocalists. Sometimes he plays quieter, sometimes he plays faster and louder. Sometimes he plays a Hammond, sometimes a Moog, sometimes a Mellotron. Guess I just can't hear it, I don't know. Also, the track sequence is not the same as the sequence of Henry's wives, and this annoys my anal nature. Wakeman later went on to release enormously successful records with enormously overblown stage presentations, and when his career momentum died out he reunited with Yes, and has hung in there to this day...he's released an astounding number of records over the last three decades.

Marshall Crenshaw-Marshall Crenshaw (1982)
I gotta confess: when skinny-tie New Wave bands and their music came along, I was just as slow to embrace it as I was Punk. I liked what I liked, by God, and I didn't like all the synths and simplistic guit-bass-drums arrangements and gulping vocals and lyrics that were just boy-girl-whatever love songs. So when I first saw this record in Creem magazine, I was prepared to ignore it...Crenshaw looked like a less-nerdy Elvis Costello and I thought it would be more of the same. This was before I saw the light with Mr. McManus, so cut me some slack. However, something in both the Creem proper review and Christgau's review in the next issue (I think) broke me down a little, and I took a chance. I am very glad I did. For a bright shining moment, it looked like Marshall was going to be the savior of pop music itself- this record was so unpretentious, filled with great hooks and arrangements, and rewarded repeated listenings with a sharp, funny lyric here or a great lick or percussion embellishment there-and I think everyone got their hopes up for more of the same in perpetuity. Uh...didn't happen. Apparently the song well was a shallow one, because the sluggish, overproduced follow-up Field Day was a huge commercial flop with only one or two really memorable songs (and I know this record has its admirers...I just call 'em like I hear 'em) and subsequent records, while still delivering a great tune or three, were disappointments as well. Still, many artists go their entire careers without releasing one album this strong, so I can't feel too bad for Crenshaw, but it's a shame he couldn't sustain whatever he had. That doesn't take away from this album, which I think is one of the best in the history of pop music, no kiddin.

Well, that's gonna do it. I've listened to several others lately, but I'll have to do them some other time. I think the next Vinyl-O will be a special solo Beatles edition, since I'm always digging those out and giving 'em a spin.

Thanks for reading, and by all means feel free to comment!