Thursday

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (NEW RELEASES) By Michael McDowell


SINGING THE TRIANGLE: Veteran saxophonist and professor Jane Ira Bloom takes tradition to new heights in a trio setting with her ambitious and most recent Outline label album, Early Americans. Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell has the story below (Click on above image to enlarge).

CDs AND VINYL - NEW RELEASES
(REVIEWS ARE POSTED IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER BY ARTIST)

SOUTHERN DRAWL -
Alabama (BMG/Cracker Barrel)

During their highly productive affiliation with RCA Victor, there was a long running and amusing observation that made its way through music industry circles. It suggested that whenever an awards ceremony was imminent, that Alabama was certain to emerge with the majority of the accolades.

Indeed, such an assumption was not without merit. For throughout the era that immediately preceded music in general’s last collective gasp of consequence (that is, the so-called New Traditionalist movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which country music determinedly and most rewardingly championed a return to basics), the Fort Payne-based Alabama released a superb string of inventive, original, inspiring and diverse singles. The ambitious quartet was omnipresent throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s with such triumphs as Forty Hour Week, Roll On Eighteen Wheeler, I Wanna Come Over, Tennessee River, Mountain Music, and If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You’ve Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band). Their momentum continued unabated well into the New Traditionalist era, as evidenced by Jukebox In My Mind, Tar Top, Song Of The South, Down Home, I’m In A Hurry (And Don’t Know Why) and Pass It On Down.

After trying their hand at some well acclaimed Christian rock, Alabama embarked upon a sabbatical between 2006 and 2011. In 2010, lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist Randy Owen underwent a battle with prostate cancer, although he has thankfully since recovered. However, the group did emerge upon occasion during that sabbatical for occasional guest appearances on other artists’ sessions. The highly anticipated Southern Drawl marks their first straight ahead country release since January 2001’s When It All Goes South.

Curiously, Southern Drawl continues a pattern established by the band of utilizing session musicians on their studio work, rather than handling the instrumental responsibilities themselves. Rhythm guitarist Owen and his cousins Jeff Cook (lead guitar, keyboards, fiddle) and Teddy Gentry (bass) are all accomplished musicians, as their numerous live releases for RCA Victor more than underscore. Yet almost from the onset, the band has elected to focus primarily upon vocal responsibilities in the studio.

Not surprisingly, Alabama has also returned to the studio without long time drummer Mark Herndon, with whom the band had experienced artistic differences prior to their sabbatical. On drums for this collection is Greg Morrow, who more than rises to the occasion on this ambitious project.

“Ambitious” in that whereas previous Alabama releases were often of a topical nature, much of the original material herein is comparatively more assertive, as if such proclamations were no longer guaranteed a universal consensus amongst observers. The title track reiterates as much, with the “no brag, just fact” persona indigenous to much of Trace Adkins’ and Montgomery Gentry’s best work. The group follows suit with a second self-defense proclamation in Hillbilly Wins The Lotto Money, which manages to sidestep the dreaded “perpetual victim” perspective by way of a slightly tongue in cheek delivery.

Much of the remainder of Southern Drawl spotlights Alabama in bravado mode. Doing so works especially well in such true to form cuts as American Farmer, This Ain’t Just A Song, No Bad Days, Footstompin’ Music (a Randy and Heath Owen composition, not to be confused with the 1972 Grand Funk Railroad single of the same name) and I Wanna Be There.

The group has even followed the lead of many of their vaunted colleagues (including Connie Smith, Dolly Parton, the Zac Brown Band and Hank Williams Junior) in partnering with the Cracker Barrel label. The recording affiliate of the much loved restaurant and general store chain of the same name, Cracker Barrel Records almost invariably includes bonus tracks with its releases. Southern Drawl is no exception, with the excellent Backwoods Boogie and I’ve Got Some Lovin’ serving that purpose here.

In fact, it is I’ve Got Some Lovin’ that is indicative of the real key to Alabama’s long term mass appeal. For all of their successes with topical material, the group’s real strength is in their ability to articulate the most vulnerable aspects of romance in a manner that resonates universally. They more than proved their mettle in that respect in 1982 with the sublime Close Enough For Perfect, and their momentum continues unabated here via As Long As There’s Love and the somewhat unnerving Wasn’t Through Lovin’ You Yet.

And while it is unlikely that the aforementioned industry joke with regards to the band’s predilection for plaudits would apply in a musical movement that presently remains in a protracted aesthetic slump (albeit with occasional signs of imminent recovery), suffice to say that Southern Drawl will both placate the faithful and keep Alabama’s artistic integrity intact. Close Enough For Perfect indeed
.

EARLY AMERICANS -
Jane Ira Bloom (Outline)


For an aspiring saxophonist, one word that is emphasized as an integral part of the learning process is embouchure. The positioning of the facial muscles around the mouthpiece (combined with the density of the reed, which varies depending upon individual preference) factors heavily into the resultant intonation, as well as the ability of the performer to exercise command over dynamics.

In the case of saxophonists whose repertoires tend to favor fortissimo over pianissimo (such as Cecil James “Big Jay” McNeely or the late Curtis “King Curtis” Ousley), such concerns are relatively minimal, since the respect arrangements of their material almost invariably call for a full bodied approach in which dynamics vary with less frequency.

Then of course there are the rare virtuosos who gravitate freely between both approaches, including Randolph Denard “Ornette” Coleman and John William Coltrane. In Coltrane’s case, his vast and diverse repertoire was enhanced markedly in that respect by incorporating either the soprano, alto or tenor saxophone into his work, as needed.

Where embouchure is particularly crucial in the role of a saxophonist is in settings where the instrument is either featured prominently or the respective arrangement is sparse enough to make it incumbent upon the various reeds employed to provide fills that are as clean as possible. The late Paul Desmond was particularly adept at this technique in his highly acclaimed work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet for Fantasy and Columbia.

In this, her sixteenth release, Boston, Massachusetts native, Yale University alumnus, New School Of Jazz professor and soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom has once again put her proven capabilities in that respect to the test by placing herself in a trio setting. By definition, such an ensemble requires each participant to rise to the occasion with greater frequency. To be certain, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bobby Previte are both capable enough in their own respective roles to be able to both support and augment, as needed.

But since Early Americans is primarily Bloom’s vehicle, it is incumbent upon her to take the initiative, which she does in a way that both meets and confounds expectations. She does so most admirably in Mind Gray River. Therein, the high drama atmosphere inherent to the arrangement calls for the soprano saxophone to be utilized in its most natural setting, the high register, which she most assuredly does here. But throughout much of this thirteen-track collection, Bloom frequently opts instead for the lower register, at times sitting comfortably in the range that seems better suited to the alto saxophone.

However, the only comfort that is ultimately afforded her in such an approach is in providing a convenient launching pad for the quick adaptation necessitated by the diversity of material. To wit, Cornets Of Paradise at times vacillates between the urgency of keeping the various divergent elements at bay as found in the likes of the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet’s Good Groove, while at various intervals embracing those elements instead, as the classic John Coltrane Quartet frequently did during the latter half of their tenure with Impulse.

Conversely, the opener, Song Patrol allows the trio to shine through sparse execution (with Helias and Previte especially excelling in that respect here), as Bloom fulfills the mandate of the title in a manner not unlike the Detergents’ like-minded The Blue Kangaroo for the Roulette label. In turn, bassist Helias underscores the mission statement of Dangerous Times with judicious use of his bow, which Bloom augments succinctly with trills and fills that vacillate between the aforementioned lower register and the higher range for which the soprano saxophone is better suited.

In the process, Bloom and her colleagues have created one of her most ambitious and engaging releases to date. To be certain, in the words of one of this collection’s standout tracks, it is a Gateway To Progress, an attribute for which Bloom has long been a hallmark of consistency.




LIFE IS A BOWL OF CHERRY DROPS -
The Cherry Drops (MuSick)

Rare is the artist that is the complete package. Given the logistics involved in the production and release of a given album (including concept, songwriting, musicianship, arrangements, production, publicity and distribution), it is almost invariably incumbent upon such an artist to assemble a team that is capable of assisting them in seeing such minutiae through to completion.

However, in the case of the Southern California-based Cherry Drops, front man and principal visionary Vern Shank is the team, for the most part. As before, Shank (in tandem with collaborator Joshua Cobb) not only oversaw the creation and realization of the concept behind this latest release, but composed most of the material, produced it and handled the majority of the instrumental responsibilities. 

The resultant Life Is A Bowl Of Cherry Drops is far and away one of the most accomplished and original such projects to stem from the glut of present day aspirants who draw their inspiration from the first generation garage rock masters. For while the band’s inspirations are in evidence throughout the proceedings, the results are anything but derivative or patronizing.

To wit, the album opens with the aptly named acapella exercise, Bliss. Obviously inspired by the like minded Our Prayer from the Beach Boys’ 1969 20/20 album, the sentiment sets the stage for answered prayer in the form of such harmony rich garage rock romps as We’re So High and Far Out.

Those inspirations are all over the musical map throughout the remainder of the proceedings, from the curious hybrid of Clint Eastwood’s masterful 1963 interpretation of George Olsen and his Orchestra’s 1933 Last Roundup and Lorne Greene’s 1964 Ringo single that is Bullet Time (complete with a clever lyrical allusion to Matthew 20:16) to the ambitious variation on Pink Floyd’s Astronomy Domine that comprises the unlikely I Need You, I Love You.

But as the Beach Boys astutely observed in May 1972, You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone. And while Shank and Cobb could most assuredly rest on their laurels with the results as depicted above, they nonetheless astutely called upon friends in the most high places to provide additional input, guidance and musical support.

First among them is former Standells bassist Tony Valentino, who appears in that capacity on I Believe, I Believe. Shank and Cobb have also provided an ideal setting for the great Steve Boone, bassist for the still very much active Lovin’ Spoonful. Boone is very much in his element on the sublime Sweet Lovin’, which would have been right at home near the mid-point of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1966 Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful album for Kama Sutra.

The Woggles’ Mighty Manfred also contributes backing vocals and tambourine to an impeccable and spirited run through of the Count Five’s 1966 signature Double Shot Records single, Psychotic Reaction. The Cherry Drops themselves round out the overt inspirations with a superb take on Everything’s Alright, which was originally done in 1969 by the Ron Dante-led vocal supergroup, the Archies on their essential third album, Jingle Jangle.

To their considerable credit, the Cherry Drops saw the project through to fruition by re-enlisting the services of Valentino and Boone, along with Buckinghams co-founder Dennis Tufano for the album’s first video project. Therein, the three pioneers of first generation garage rock set the stage as announcer and co-hosts of the fictional In The Groove television series, with the Cherry Drops performing Far Out as their musical guests.

Indeed, such attention to detail at this juncture is nearly unprecedented and most inspiring. And while Vern Shank defers respectfully to both the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Standells in the video clip, an ever more telling component of their mission statement is subtly revealed in the album’s relatively low key closer, Dream California. Therein, he tells the tale of a weary folk musician who bears the burden of sustaining the Southern California spirit despite languishing in the desolate, outer reaches of the North American continent. Shank beckons the protagonist, “Don’t waste the days...you’ve gotta take a chance”. To be certain, the Cherry Drops took that chance, and the genre as a whole is immeasurably better for it.


DANCING WITH THE MOMENT -
Danny Faragher (Blue Print Souind)

In the sleeve notes of this highly anticipated collection, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Danny Owen Faragher name checks a variety of individuals that have fueled his creative muse. Among them are poets Geoffrey Chaucer, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and John Keats, as well as composers Hank Williams, Willie Dixon, Brian Wilson and Miles Davis.

With the exception of Davis, all concerned are primarily known as extraordinarily gifted wordsmiths. It is within that circle of inspiration in which Faragher has traveled since his days as co-founder of first generation garage rock greats, the Peppermint Trolley Company.

After performing for a season as the Mark V, the ambitious, Redlands, California-based Peppermint Trolley Company made their mark in the autumn of 1966 with a unique arrangement of the late P.F. Sloan’s high drama masterpiece, Lollipop Train as a one-off single for Barry DeVorzon and Billy Sherman’s Valiant label (a song which was also recorded with sublime results by the great Barry McGuire for Dunhill). By 1968, the band had signed with Dot’s subsidiary Acta label, which was also the recording home of the Other Half, the American Breed and Blondell Breed and the Imports. While at Acta, they released a superb self-titled album, and at mid-year enjoyed their biggest success with the acclaimed Baby You Come Rollin’ Across My Mind single. The band successfully sustained their momentum at Acta for three additional singles, The Last Thing On My Mind, New York City and Trust.

After enjoying acclaimed guest appearances on such television programs as Mannix, The Beverly Hillbillies, Upbeat and Paul Revere and the Raiders’ Happening ’68 show, the Peppermint Trolley Company left Acta in 1969, with the label folding soon after their departure. The band continued for a season under the name Bones, and finally entered into a protracted sabbatical.

A 2009 reissue of the Peppermint Trolley Company’s Acta album (with a generous helping of bonus tracks) on Steve Stanley’s prolific Now Sounds label generated considerable renewed interest in the band. The group even reunited on 11 October 2008 to perform at guitarist Greg Tornquist’s wedding. But sadly, the 2014 passing of band co-founder Patrick McClure (who was replaced by Tornquist when he left the group in 1967) again derailed their momentum.

Nonetheless, Faragher opted to persevere, with this resultant offering of thirteen originals more than living up to the diversity of his various inspirations. Appropriately titled Dancing With The Moment,  the various selections herein are all over the musical map, from the introspective folk rock of  Song In The Night (which is not unlike some of the most recent offerings by Orange County singer/songwriter John Zipperer) to the glorious testimony to the hard bop espoused by the aforementioned Miles Davis (as well as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and others) in Due South On The Blue Line.

Vocal group harmony that takes its cue from such landmark classics as the Nutmegs’ A Story Untold gets its due in Fountain Of Love, while the reflective balladry of Barry Manilow is feted in the like minded Open The Door. In turn, Slo Mo Struttin’ offers a lighthearted take on the ramblings of such genre standard bearers as the Fabulous Counts, the Nite Liters and the Ohio Players, before the gorgeous Pacific Blue celebrates a return to form with the same benefit of hindsight that graced like minded recent offerings by the Bamboo Trading Company, complete with a passing (albeit curious) reference to the Coasters.

In Dancing With The Moment, Faragher has proven himself to be a detail oriented disciple of his inspirations, and in turn has celebrated genre diversity in a manner that relatively few others have done credibly. Apparently (in the words of one of this album’s standout tracks), A Dry Spell Ends and the return to form of a remarkably gifted pioneer has begun.

 

EMOTIONAL FEEDBACK-
Simon Felton (Pink Hedgehog)

If nothing else, Simon Felton is a realist.

The bassist, Garfield’s Birthday co-founder, Pink Hedgehog Records CEO and Dorchester, Dorset native recently emerged from a protracted sabbatical, in which he reassessed priorities in the wake of his decision to restructure operations of the Portland, Dorset-based label.

Coming to terms at last with the changes in the industry that directly impacted his mission statement, Felton has not only brought Pink Hedgehog (which is also the recording home of the acclaimed singer/songwriter Peter Lacey) back to active status, but he has also returned to form as a musician with a pair of releases that succinctly represent both facets of his artistic muse.

In late 2014, Felton released the latest installment in the ongoing saga of Garfield’s Birthday, the band that he co-founded in 1995. You Are Here basically serves as Felton’s ongoing vision of the band’s original mission statement, with a celebratory atmosphere that finds solidarity with the works of Harpers Bizarre, the Love Generation and Twinn Connexion.

Conversely, Emotional Feedback is far more introspective. Therein, Felton takes the same road traveled by Portland, Oregon singer/songwriter Justin Jude in 2012 in his landmark and diversionary 5 Kinds Of Rain album. Felton does so with the likes of Two Fine Lovers/A Warning, Clouds and Coffee And Lies (not to mention the curious If I Were A Single Girl again, which was composed by Felton’s former Garfield’s Birthday colleague, James Laming) taking the basic dreamscape template to new levels of high drama. A remarkable gift, and one rarely seen since the late, great Michael Holliday honed it to perfection more than a half century ago.

Felton summarized his approach thusly:

“Recorded at home on Portland, using Garage Band and Pro Tools. Performed and sung by Simon using real and unreal instruments.

In other words, when basic survival is at stake, protocol and convention often go out the window and are even occasionally seen for the albatrosses that they can be. With commendable discernment, Felton has taken that ambitious step. As a result, not only does a most respectable independent label continue to flourish, but so does the multi-faceted career of a true visionary, who is not at all hesitant to pursue risk. A Safe Bet indeed.

EVERYBODY HAS A PURPOSE - 
Joe Kidd And Sheila Burke
(JKSB Media)

There is much to be said for the notion of a lavishly arranged and passionately executed production.

Nonetheless, upon occasion, it takes a return to the basics to command due attention. This approach has long been a key factor in the ongoing impact made by folk music. With a largely acoustic template providing the setting for rich and thought provoking lyrical imagery, folk music has flourished as a voice for a variety of concerns.

Joe Kidd and Sheila Burke were keenly aware of this attribute when they joined forces in 2013. For Kidd in particular, such a venture provided an interesting change of pace from the straight ahead rock that characterized much of his earlier work (which included a season with the much acclaimed White Lines).

Professing the inspiration of bluegrass, country and other like minded musical genres, Kidd and Burke have crafted herein a series of twelve exemplary originals that bring to light a variety of causes and concerns, from military conflict (Veterans Song) and working class struggles (Grandpa Was A Coal Miner) to internal strife (Sad Too Long) and idealism (Just Want To Be Myself).

Most importantly, Kidd and Burke weave each piece together under the common thread of faith. As believers whose gifts are often utilized in church settings, the ambitious and highly charismatic duo summarize their mission statement in part as “thanksgiving, struggle, redemption and love for all people”.

For both long term believers and/or devotees of Kidd and Burke’s individual and collective work, the words of their When The Secret Is Revealed resonate quite well in that respect. In the meantime, the quasi-prophetic Waiting For That Flower To Bloom poignantly articulates from a first person point of view the perspective of those who have not yet come full circle in that respect. 
To be certain, if redemption is a key component of the overall mission statement, then Joe Kidd and Sheila Burke have, with this release, found themselves serving as gifted messengers pointing to that greater glory via the common bond of struggle tempered with optimism borne of faith. An essential release.

MADE OF BOXES -
Made Of Boxes (Made Of Boxes)


The Seattle, Washington-based quartet Made Of Boxes (David Testa, John Hage, Dave Chapaitis and Luke Brown) find their inspiration in introspective material that encourages solidarity with (if not a solution to) the challenges that confront many in their day to day journey.

Emphasizing that the sum total is greater than the individual parts, Made Of Boxes approaches their material as a team effort, with all contributing to the songwriting process. Their strategy has paid remarkable dividends with this eponymous release, as evidenced by their (however unintentional) common ground with the work of such like minded bands as the Glowfriends and the Overly Polite Tornadoes.

Made Of Boxes stands apart in that respect in that there is invariably some degree of resignation to circumstances (“I don’t see things changing, not on their own”, they lament in Raconteur). Yet there are nonetheless at least occasional moments of diversion from that perspective which offer a modicum of hope to the like minded observer (“I’ll change the world in my dreams tonight”, as noted in Butterflies).

That the band does so relatively free of any sort of aesthetic baggage in terms of inspiration might cause the purists to take umbrage. But in reality, the notion of being unencumbered as such may well serve to open the door instead for a growing and healthy wave of originality that has heretofore largely flown under the proverbial radar for many.

To be certain, Made Of Boxes might sing rather guardedly of A Fish Too Big (in which such perspective is offset decidedly by the strongest demonstration of instrumental prowess in this fourteen song collection). But when the Floodlight is at last on them, it is safe to say that they will be able to take their own cue and stand on their own terms, rather than (as they so aptly put it) handing out “paper crowns”.


FADE TO BLUE - Mike Pachelli
(Fullblast Recordings)

Technique, heart and a not so subtle penchant for humor.

Those seemingly incongruous attributes are found in abundance in Fade To Blue, the sixteenth and most recent release from the Nashville, Tennessee-based guitar virtuoso, Mike Pachelli. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Pachelli has drawn from the most productive and pertinent attributes of his rich and diverse curriculum vitae (including extensive work as a session guitarist, television presenter, producer, composer, and author of guitar instruction manuals) for this ambitious, upbeat, memorable and engaging collection.

Overseen in all phases of the production process by Pachelli at his Nashville-based Fullblast Recordings Studio, Fade To Blue is a profession of solidarity with such inspirations (both overt and inadvertent) as Mose Allison, Wes Montgomery, the Fabulous Pack, Neil Merryweather and Tim Davis-era Steve Miller Band, as well as a determined effort to sustain a high level of personality and warmth in a setting that often overlooks such essential attributes.

Pachelli’s efforts in that respect are especially evident in the juxtaposition of a call to arms and showcase of technical bravado (sans the expendable byproduct of self-indulgence; which by definition is no mean feat) that is I Need My Baby By My Side, as well as the Neil Merryweather-flavored Magenta Haze. Conversely, he demonstrates a most engaging flair for the sometimes difficult to master blues/jazz hybrid in the sublime That Thing They Call The Blues and the set closing instrumental, These Arms, which owes more than mere similarity in titles to Otis Redding’s These Arms Of Mine.

To his considerable credit, Pachelli actually gains momentum throughout the proceedings via the inclusion of genially executed diversions into the world of humor. And while the latter day Swing-inspired Let’s Cut A Rug increases the solidarity factor exponentially as a result, it is the brilliant profession of candor found in the ingenious Mediocre Lovin’ which has anthemic potential.

While many in a given artist’s circle of observers and devotees continue to maintain low expectations based largely on their own limited experiences, thankfully the artists themselves (such as Pachelli) have continued to confound those expectations; most assuredly rallying the devout musicologists of all factions to their cause in the process. Whether or not a trickle down theory of sorts will apply in this case remains to be seen. But suffice to say that for the moment, Pachelli has (in the words of a classic cut from his earlier Good Burn album), taken a decisive step forward that hopefully Might Blow Your Mind.

 

I MEAN BUSINESS -
Lara Price (Greaseland)
 
Amongst musicians, musicologists and record collectors, Northern Soul remains one of the most respected and impacting genres in all of music.

When all of the prerequisite elements are in place, Northern Soul is about as good as it gets. Some of the best releases of that ilk include Tony and Tyrone’s Turn It On, the Knight Brothers’ Temptation ’Bout To Get Me, Tim’s My Side Of The Track, Linda Carr’s Baby Are You Puttin’ Me On, J.J. Jackson’s But It’s Alright, the Precisions’ If This Is Love, and the Detroit Emeralds’ Take Me The Way I Am.

Irrespective of such impeccable examples as those, there is a relatively unspoken perspective that persists amongst even Northern Soul’s most ardent devotees. While such releases speak well for the genre, they are nonetheless in the minority. For much of  Northern Soul’s output suffered from subpar songwriting, which even the best of vocalists, producers and musicians were not able to redeem with their generally above average skills. In other words, even the best improvisationalists cannot bring out the best in material that lacks in one or more components of the tried and true verse, chorus and bridge template.

The Bay Area-based vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Lara Price has been very much aware of that dichotomy since the release of her acclaimed Faces Of The Blues album in 2002. A devout student of Northern Soul who first studied piano at the age of six in 1981 under Elektra recording artist Howard Jones, Price responded accordingly by drawing from both personal experience and the works of such like minded veterans of the idiom as Candi Staton and Ann Peebles, whose material (Staton’s Get It When I Want It and Peebles’ Slipped Tripped And Fell In Love) is more than done justice here.

In terms of originals, Price has literally turned up the volume and lived up to the title on this, her sixth album. With familiar yet strong story lines and commanding delivery, Price runs the gamut of emotions, from the flippant Crazy Lucy (whose protagonist is a counterpart of sorts to the late Jim Croce’s Willie “Slim” McCoy of You Don’t Mess Around With Jim fame) to the curious re-write of Roy Orbison’s Blue Bayou that is Cryin’ Over You.

The more reflective originals also get their due in this magnificent collection, including Moon In The Mirror, Happy Blue Year, Time and the unnervingly familiar Love Lost. All of which of course provide a healthy balance amongst the shouters, highlighted by Pack It Up, the seemingly Lloyd Price-inspired One Year At A Time and the title track.

With production by Kid Andersen (who also contributes on guitar, in tandem with Mike Schermer), I Mean Business is an album that more than lives up to its title. Had Price been recording and composing material during the early days of Northern Soul, there is little doubt that the percentage of the aforementioned sub par material within the genre would have dropped significantly.



IF NOTHING EVER CHANGES -
Wee Willie Walker (Little Village Foundation)

Throughout the latter half of the 1960s and well into the 1970s, that venerable Woolworth’s department store chain featured in its record departments a curiosity known as the Record Pak. The Record Pak consisted of roughly twenty or so 45 RPM singles that had recently run their course in the store’s full priced racks. These 45s were placed in a white box, with only the top single visible (which usually included a picture sleeve), encased in shrink wrap and sold for eighty-eight cents per Pak.

While the top single in the Record Pak was usually a readily familiar release, the others in the box were more often than not something that was not as instantly recognizable. To the hardcore musicologist, such periphery was not of major consequence, and the average customer often found themselves with twenty welcome additions to their recorded archives.

For a variety of reasons, the majority of the singles in the Record Paks were usually confined to releases on a small selection of labels. While the occasional gem on Decca (the Cats Meow’s La La Lu or Creation’s If I Stay Too Long), Rainbow (the great Julie Monday’s utterly stupendous Come Share The Good Times With Me) or Capitol (the Sidewalk Skipper Band’s Strawberry Tuesday) would surface every now and then, most of the Record Pak stock came from either the Mercury/Philips/Smash/Fontana, Cameo/Parkway/Fairmont/Sentar/Lucky Eleven or Bell/Amy/Mala families of labels. To be certain, each of those labels is rich in history, providing in the process many a satisfying moment for the Record Pak enthusiast.

But one label whose releases continued to surface regularly within those Record Paks was the Memphis, Tennessee-based Goldwax Records. Founded in 1964 by former Sun Records session musician and Hi Records co-founder Quinton Claunch with pharmacist Rudolph Russell, Goldwax boasted one of the most coveted artist rosters in all of music. Foremost among them was the legendary James Carr, whose Dark End Of The Street remains one of R&B’s defining moments. Goldwax’s archives also included essential releases by the Ovations, Ollie Nightingale, the Lyrics, O.V. Wright, Spencer Wiggins, Ivory Joe Hunter, and Timmy Thomas.

Not surprisingly, the exceedingly high quality of releases in general at that time inevitably meant that a number of worthwhile singles and albums would for the moment get lost in the shuffle, only to be rediscovered, re-evaluated and appreciated as the musicologist and record collector contingents began to assert their influence and change the landscape of the industry as a whole for the better. Thankfully, those Woolworth’s Record Paks made their work much easier with respect to Goldwax singles. Indeed, it is through such exposure that Goldwax gained much of its initial following.

One Goldwax artist whose signature single came to light in that manner was the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based vocalist and composer, Wee Willie Walker. Born in Hernando, Mississippi, Walker initially made his mark as a member of the Gospel group, the Redemption Harmonizers. During his tenure with Goldwax, Walker forever guaranteed his legacy with the release of his Ticket To Ride / There Goes My Used To Be single, which continues to be held in high esteem as one of the highlights of the label’s vaunted roster.

Although Goldwax ceased operations in 1969, Walker had already moved on to the Chicago, Illinois-based Checker label the previous year, where he released the memorable A Lucky Loser single. Yet in spite of continued recording and live performances well into the 1970s, Walker’s momentum began to subside, although his creative capabilities continued unabated.

Thankfully, the recent release of the majority of the Goldwax catalog in the CD configuration by the Ace/Big Beat label generated renewed interest in all concerned. Rick Estrin and Jim Pugh of the Little Village Foundation took note, and the resultant (and most aptly titled) If Nothing Ever Changes album marks a triumphant return to prominence for an artist whose mission statement and pure innate ability have been honed to perfection.

Backed by an impeccably arranged full orchestra, Walker herein applies his God-given, undiminished vocal prowess to a wide variety of material, including an astute profession of solidarity with the great Calvin Arnold’s 1967 Venture Records signature track, Funky Way and a pair of classics by the late, great composer/session guitarist Eddie Hinton, as well as a better than the original take on Southside Movement’s I’ve Been Watching You, a moving rendition of Ronnie Milsap’s Not That I Care, and an ingenious interpretation of Help! that takes its cue from the Brothers Four’s rendition on Columbia, as filtered through Sam and Dave’s like minded 1977 reinvention of  We Can Work It Out on the Contempo label.

To be certain, if Woolworth’s Record Paks helped to bring Wee Willie Walker his initial acclaim, then If Nothing Ever Changes reaffirms his status as one of the genre’s absolute masters. To invoke one of the album’s signature tracks, the Hands Of Time have blessed both artist and audience immeasurably. 

 

FULL CIRCLE - John Zipperer
(John Zipperer)


Once in a while, a musician comes along for whom every facet of their artistic vision appears to fall into place with seeming effortlessness, including production, repertoire, arrangement, and execution.

Such an artist is the Los Angeles-based John Zipperer, whose mission statement is most assuredly not merely a byproduct of happenstance. Once an actor (The Agency; Maximum Bob) and  stuntman, Zipperer’s choice of career underwent a paradigm shift after having been hit by a passing oil truck on the 285 Freeway in Atlanta, Georgia while changing a tire.

Upon his recuperation, Zipperer relocated to Southern California and gradually reinvented himself as a world class singer, songwriter and charismatic exponent of original material. His highly engaging repertoire obviously draws its creative muse from such like minded greats as late Decca period Rick Nelson, Van Dyke Parks, Eddy Raven, post-RCA Victor Michael Nesmith and Jimmy Buffett. That he defers to such inspiration by depicting himself on the cover in trademark country rock apparel with head bowed and obscured in deference is indicative of the high level of discernment at which he operates.

The resultant Nick Kirgo-produced  Full Circle is the sum total of the aforementioned elements, and then some. Interestingly enough, Zipperer’s voice resonates with a slight hint of timidity and/or understatement borne of circumstance, which nonetheless works to his considerable advantage. To wit, the Jimmy Buffett-flavored opening track, Sailing Away paints a rich and vivid musical portrait for which a bombastic vocal delivery would only serve to obscure the message. It is an invitation to the so-called good life for which Buffett has long been the default champion with respect to America’s east coast. Suffice to say that Sailing Away qualifies its creator for similar accolades regarding the west coast.

The title track follows suit; eliciting a groove not unlike that found in Eddy Raven’s Bayou Boys (Universal UVL-66016). It is as much a testament to resolutions found along Zipperer’s journey as Raven’s track was with regards to his own circumstances. Yet seemingly in the name of diversity, Zipperer abruptly shifts gears to a perspective of endless optimism in Like Being With You; finding the inevitable duality of purpose between Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues (Columbia 4-43242) and Mel McDaniel’s Stand Up (Capitol B-5513) in the process.

From there, Zipperer is pretty much all over the musical map, and the album is all the better for it. Buoyed by some of the most engaging acoustic guitar work in recent memory, Going Downtown takes the basic blues template of such masters of the idiom as Charly Patton and Ishmon Bracey, with Zipperer’s understated vocal again providing an ideal vehicle for the setting. Zipperer brings the approach home with the 6/8 synthesis of the Renaissance minstrel and the American Civil War balladeer in The Ballad Of Micah McDowde, which sets the stage for a rousing finish via the likes of the relentlessly upbeat (combining the flippant persona of Peter Alsop and the like minded optimism of folk rock-era Chubby Checker, by way of the Kingston Trio's Banua) Sing With Me, as well as the acoustic folk/jazz romp Here By Me, the subtle bravado of Cool Breeze, the redemption of the hippie folk ethic in Know Who You Love and the anthemic, Pete Seeger-like, Gospel tinged album closer, To The River.

To his considerable credit, Zipperer includes only one example of cover material in this collection. And while Van Morrison’s mid-1967 Brown Eyed Girl (Bang B-545) might qualify as the one distraction in the massive and otherwise impeccable catalog of the late, great Bert Berns (who produced the Morrison cut and released it on his own Bang label) by virtue of its massive overexposure in the ensuing years since its release, Zipperer herein more than proves his mettle as an artist of considerable discernment by reinventing the track as an acoustic ballad. In the process, he gives it a new life of its own, as did the Wanted in March 1967 with their definitive rendition of Wilson Pickett’s duly overexposed In The Midnight Hour (Detroit Sound 223).

And while the notion of Full Circle may seem a bit premature for an artist at this stage of their career, Zipperer has nonetheless underscored the validity of the point by drawing from his rich repertoire of personal experience and musical inspiration to produce one of the most engaging and essential releases of recent months. A solid contender for best album of the year.