Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Barclay James Harvest - Everyone Is Everybody Else 1974

The group's first album for Polydor is several steps above their EMI work. Most of the psychedelic-era influences are softened here and broadened, and transmuted into something heavier and more serious, even as the Beatlesque harmonies remain intact. The guitars sound real heavy, almost larger than life here, while the swelling Mellotron and synthesizer sounds give the music the feel of an orchestra. By this time, the group had also mastered the Pink Floyd technique of playing pretty tunes really slowly, which made them sound incredibly profound (it's actually a technique that goes back, in different forms, to Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner). John Lees gives superb, virtuoso performances on lead guitar on "Paper Wings" and "For No One." Les Holroyd's gorgeous "Poor Boy Blues" sounded more like Crosby, Stills & Nash than CSN did in those days, and is almost worth the price of the CD. AMG.

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Gil Scott-Heron - Secrets 1978

One of the most important progenitors of rap music, Gil Scott-Heron's aggressive, no-nonsense street poetry inspired a legion of intelligent rappers while his engaging songwriting skills placed him square in the R&B charts later in his career, backed by increasingly contemporary production courtesy of Malcolm Cecil and Nile Rodgers (of Chic). Born in Chicago but transplanted to Tennessee for his early years, Scott-Heron spent most of his high-school years in the Bronx, where he learned firsthand many of the experiences that later made up his songwriting material. He had begun writing before reaching his teenage years, however, and completed his first volume of poetry at the age of 13. Though he attended college in Pennsylvania, he dropped out after one year to concentrate on his writing career and earned plaudits for his novel, The Vulture. Encouraged at the end of the '60s to begin recording by legendary jazz producer Bob Thiele -- who had worked with every major jazz great from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane -- Scott-Heron released his 1970 debut, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, inspired by a volume of poetry of the same name. With Thiele's Flying Dutchman Records until the mid-'70s, he signed to Arista soon after and found success on the R&B charts. Though his jazz-based work of the early '70s was tempered by a slicker disco-inspired production, Scott-Heron's message was as clear as ever on the Top 30 single "Johannesburg" and the number 15 hit "Angel Dust." Silent for almost a decade, after the release of his 1984 single "Re-Ron," the proto-rapper returned to recording in the mid-'90s with a message for the gangsta rappers who had come in his wake; Scott-Heron's 1994 album Spirits began with "Message to the Messengers," pointed squarely at the rappers whose influence -- positive or negative -- meant much to the children of the 1990s.

In a touching bit of irony that he himself was quick to joke about, Gil Scott-Heron was born on April Fool's Day 1949 in Chicago, the son of a Jamaican professional soccer player (who spent time playing for Glasgow Celtic) and a college-graduate mother who worked as a librarian. His parents divorced early in his life, and Scott-Heron was sent to live with his grandmother in Lincoln, TN. Learning musical and literary instruction from her, Scott-Heron also learned about prejudice firsthand, as he was one of three children picked to integrate an elementary school in nearby Jackson. The abuse proved too much to bear, however, and the eighth-grader was sent to New York to live with his mother, first in the Bronx and later in the Hispanic neighborhood of Chelsea.

Though Scott-Heron's experiences in Tennessee must have been difficult, they proved to be the seed of his writing career, as his first volume of poetry was written around that time. His education in the New York City school system also proved beneficial, introducing the youth to the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes as well as LeRoi Jones. After publishing a novel called The Vulture in 1968, Scott-Heron applied to Pennsylvania's Lincoln University. Though he spent less than one year there, it was enough time to meet Brian Jackson, a similarly minded musician who would later become a crucial collaborator and integral part of Scott-Heron's band. Given a bit of exposure -- mostly in magazines like Essence, which called The Vulture "a strong start for a writer with important things to say" -- Scott-Heron met up with Bob Thiele and was encouraged to begin a music career, reading selections from his book of poetry Small Talk at 125th & Lennox while Thiele recorded a collective of jazz and funk musicians, including bassist Ron Carter, drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Hubert Laws on flute and alto saxophone, and percussionists Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders; Scott-Heron also recruited Jackson to play on the record as pianist. Most important on the album was "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," an aggressive polemic against the major media and white America's ignorance of increasingly deteriorating conditions in the inner cities. Scott-Heron's second LP, 1971's Pieces of a Man, expanded his range, featuring songs such as the title track and "Lady Day and John Coltrane," which offered a more straight-ahead approach to song structure (if not content).

The following year's Free Will was his last for Flying Dutchman, however; after a dispute with the label, Scott-Heron recorded Winter in America for Strata East, then moved to Arista Records in 1975. As the first artist signed to Clive Davis' new label, much was riding on Scott-Heron to deliver first-rate material with a chance at the charts. Thanks to Arista's more focused push on the charts, Scott-Heron's "Johannesburg" reached number 29 on the R&B charts in 1975. Important to Scott-Heron's success on his first two albums for Arista (First Minute of a New Day and From South Africa to South Carolina) was the influence of keyboardist and collaborator Jackson, co-billed on both LPs and the de facto leader of Scott-Heron's Midnight Band.

Jackson left by 1978, though, leaving the musical direction of Scott-Heron's career in the capable hands of producer Malcolm Cecil, a veteran producer who had midwifed the funkier direction of the Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder earlier in the decade. The first single recorded with Cecil, "The Bottle," became Scott-Heron's biggest hit yet, peaking at number 15 on the R&B charts, though he still made no waves on the pop charts. Producer Nile Rodgers of Chic also helped on production during the 1980s, when Scott-Heron's political attack grew even more fervent with a new target, President Ronald Reagan. (Several singles, including the R&B hits "B Movie" and "Re-Ron," were specifically directed at the President's conservative policies.) By 1985, however, Scott-Heron was dropped by Arista, just after the release of The Best of Gil Scott-Heron. Though he continued to tour around the world, Scott-Heron chose to discontinue recording. He did return, however, in 1993 with a contract for TVT Records and the album Spirits. For well over a decade, Scott-Heron was mostly inactive, held back by a series of drug possession charges. He began performing semi-regularly in 2007 and recorded an album, I'm New Here, released on XL in 2010. In February of 2011, Scott-Heron and Jamie xx (Jamie Smith of xx) issued a remixed version of the album entitled We're New Here, also issued on XL. AMG. R.I.P.

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10cc - 10cc 1973

Displaying a command of pop styles and satire, 10cc showed that they are a force to be reckoned with on their first album. Hooks abound, harmonies shine, and instrumentation is dazzling without being overdone. Though charges of "self-consciously clever" could be leveled at the group, their command of witty, Anglo-styled pop is so impressive that even those criticisms must be weighed against the mastery of styles. All four members sing lead and are talented songwriters, and this leads to a wide variety of styles that add to their vision. Featuring their number one U.K. hit "Rubber Bullets," 10cc wade through ten selections of satire and parody. One of the best is "Johnny Don't Do It," a parody of all the "death discs" of the late '50s and early '60s (the misunderstood "bad but really good" guy who is killed in a wreck). More contemporary and bitingly sarcastic is "Headline Hustler," a commentary on the ravenous, scandal-hungry media. Medical facilities and the treatment afforded there is given ripe 10cc commentary in "The Hospital Song." ("And when I go, I'll die of plaster casting love.") Whether doing loving parodies of the music they grew up with or satirizing contemporary issues, 10cc show themselves to be top-level purveyors of pop on their debut recording. Some might criticize the group for being too self-satisfied with their own intelligence, but there is no denying the true craftsmanship and humor on their 1973 debut. AMG.

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Gil Scott-Heron - Bridges 1977

Gil Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson, and the Midnight Band take a slightly different approach with their 1977 effort, Bridges. With less of the gaping and world-infused sound prevalent on previous albums, the songs are more concise and Scott-Heron comes into his own as a singer depending less on his spoken word vocal style. This album may not be one of his better-known releases (the long out of print LP is slated to make it's CD debut in the fall of 2001), but the excellent songwriting exposes Scott-Heron at the height of his powers as a literary artist. The social, political, cultural, and historical themes are presented in a tight funk meets jazz meets blues meets rock sound that is buoyed by Jackson's characteristic keyboard playing and the Midnight Band's colorful arrangements. Scott-Heron's ability to make the personal universal is evident from the opening track, "Hello Sunday! Hello Road!," all the way through to the gorgeous "95 South (All of the Places We've Been)." The most popular cut on the album, "We Almost Lost Detroit," which shares its title with the John G. Fuller book published in 1975, recounts the story of the nuclear meltdown at the Fermi Atomic Power Plant near Monroe, MI, in 1966. This song was also contributed to the No Nukes concert and album in 1980. Along with the two records that would follow in the late 70s, Bridges stands as one of Scott-Heron's most enjoyable and durable albums. AMG.

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The J. Geils Band - Morning After 1971

The Morning After is a near perfect follow-up to the J. Geils Band's self-titled debut album. It's more of the same winning blend of rocked-out blues, jumped-up soul, and pure rock & roll wildness with enough attitude and energy to get a club full of people from zero to sweaty in less than 60 seconds. Featuring the original versions of songs that became radio staples in their live incarnations ("Looking for a Love," the Magic Dick showcase "Whammer Jammer"), a batch of covers of rare soul gems ("So Sharp," Don Covay's "The Usual Place," the aforementioned "Looking for a Love"), and some fine originals (the rip-roaring opener "I Don't Need You No More," the very funky "Gotta Have Your Love," and the heart-rending ballad "Cry One More Time," which was covered memorably by Gram Parsons on G.P.), The Morning After is definite proof that the J. Geils Band were well on their way to becoming one of the best rock & roll bands of any era. AMG.

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Charlie Parker - Jam Session 1952

One of a handful of musicians who can be said to have permanently changed jazz, Charlie Parker was arguably the greatest saxophonist of all time. He could play remarkably fast lines that, if slowed down to half speed, would reveal that every note made sense. "Bird," along with his contemporaries Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, is considered a founder of bebop; in reality he was an intuitive player who simply was expressing himself. Rather than basing his improvisations closely on the melody as was done in swing, he was a master of chordal improvising, creating new melodies that were based on the structure of a song. In fact, Bird wrote several future standards (such as "Anthropology," "Ornithology," "Scrapple from the Apple," and "Ko Ko," along with such blues numbers as "Now's the Time" and "Parker's Mood") that "borrowed" and modernized the chord structures of older tunes. Parker's remarkable technique, fairly original sound, and ability to come up with harmonically advanced phrases that could be both logical and whimsical were highly influential. By 1950, it was impossible to play "modern jazz" with credibility without closely studying Charlie Parker.

Born in Kansas City, KS, Charlie Parker grew up in Kansas City, MO. He first played baritone horn before switching to alto. Parker was so enamored of the rich Kansas City music scene that he dropped out of school when he was 14, even though his musicianship at that point was questionable (with his ideas coming out faster than his fingers could play them). After a few humiliations at jam sessions, Bird worked hard woodshedding over one summer, building up his technique and mastery of the fundamentals. By 1937, when he first joined Jay McShann's Orchestra, he was already a long way toward becoming a major player.

Charlie Parker, who was early on influenced by Lester Young and the sound of Buster Smith, visited New York for the first time in 1939, working as a dishwasher at one point so he could hear Art Tatum play on a nightly basis. He made his recording debut with Jay McShann in 1940, creating remarkable solos with a small group from McShann's orchestra on "Oh, Lady Be Good" and "Honeysuckle Rose." When the McShann big band arrived in New York in 1941, Parker had short solos on a few of their studio blues records, and his broadcasts with the orchestra greatly impressed (and sometimes scared) other musicians who had never heard his ideas before. Parker, who had met and jammed with Dizzy Gillespie for the first time in 1940, had a short stint with Noble Sissle's band in 1942, played tenor with Earl Hines' sadly unrecorded bop band of 1943, and spent a few months in 1944 with Billy Eckstine's orchestra, leaving before that group made their first records. Gillespie was also in the Hines and Eckstine big bands, and the duo became a team starting in late 1944.

Although Charlie Parker recorded with Tiny Grimes' combo in 1944, it was his collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie in 1945 that startled the jazz world. To hear the two virtuosos play rapid unisons on such new songs as "Groovin' High," "Dizzy Atmosphere," "Shaw 'Nuff," "Salt Peanuts," and "Hot House," and then launch into fiery and unpredictable solos could be an upsetting experience for listeners much more familiar with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. Although the new music was evolutionary rather than revolutionary, the recording strike of 1943-1944 resulted in bebop arriving fully formed on records, seemingly out of nowhere.

Unfortunately, Charlie Parker was a heroin addict ever since he was a teenager, and some other musicians who idolized Bird foolishly took up drugs in the hope that it would elevate their playing to his level. When Gillespie and Parker (known as "Diz and Bird") traveled to Los Angeles and were met with a mixture of hostility and indifference (except by younger musicians who listened closely), they decided to return to New York. Impulsively, Parker cashed in his ticket, ended up staying in L.A., and, after some recordings and performances (including a classic version of "Oh, Lady Be Good" with Jazz at the Philharmonic), the lack of drugs (which he combated by drinking an excess of liquor) resulted in a mental breakdown and six months of confinement at the Camarillo State Hospital. Released in January 1947, Parker soon headed back to New York and engaged in some of the most rewarding playing of his career, leading a quintet that included Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach. Parker, who recorded simultaneously for the Savoy and Dial labels, was in peak form during the 1947-1951 period, visiting Europe in 1949 and 1950, and realizing a lifelong dream to record with strings starting in 1949 when he switched to Norman Granz's Verve label.

But Charlie Parker, due to his drug addiction and chance-taking personality, enjoyed playing with fire too much. In 1951, his cabaret license was revoked in New York (making it difficult for him to play in clubs) and he became increasingly unreliable. Although he could still play at his best when he was inspired (such as at the 1953 Massey Hall concert with Gillespie), Bird was heading downhill. In 1954, he twice attempted suicide before spending time in Bellevue. His health, shaken by a very full if brief life of excesses, gradually declined, and when he died in March 1955 at the age of 34, he could have passed for 64.

Charlie Parker, who was a legendary figure during his lifetime, has if anything grown in stature since his death. Virtually all of his studio recordings are available on CD along with a countless number of radio broadcasts and club appearances. Clint Eastwood put together a well-intentioned if simplified movie about aspects of his life (Bird). Parker's influence, after the rise of John Coltrane, has become more indirect than direct, but jazz would sound a great deal different if Charlie Parker had not existed. The phrase "Bird Lives" (which was scrawled as graffiti after his death) is still very true. AMG,

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Friday, May 27, 2011

J. Geils Band - Sanctuary 1978

After the release of 1977's Monkey Island, the J. Geils Band severed ties with Atlantic and signed a fresh deal with EMI Records. The band's tenure with Atlantic only yielded a few successes, and on paper, teaming up with producer Joe Wissert, the man responsible for many of Earth, Wind & Fire's and Boz Scaggs' biggest hits, seemed like an odd choice. However, Sanctuary was a rebirth of sorts for the sextet: Wissert crystallized the band's attack, working off their leaner songwriting and simplifying their arrangements. Keeping their boogie-woogie bar band attack intact, Peter Wolf and Seth Justman delivered first-rate material, including the down and dirty opener "I Could Hurt You," the sublime title track and the lovely "One Last Kiss," which cracked the Top 40 in early 1978. The Stevie Wonder-ish "Take It Back," also a mild hit, predicted the commercial direction the band took on Freeze Frame three years later. The beautiful "Teresa," a heartbreaking ballad executed with help of a simple vocal/piano arrangement courtesy of the Wolf/Justman team, and "Wild Man,," which sounds like a leftover from the Atlantic years, are also highlights. Sanctuary's final song, the rollicking, Magic Dick-driven "Just Can't Stop Me," encapsulates everything magical (pun intended) and soulful about this band. With its effortless playing and a breakdown that'll have you on the edge of your seat, it served as the band's call into battle for the Freeze Frame tour. The Razor & Tie reissue features covers of "I Do" and "Land of a Thousand Dances" from the band's live record Showtime, recorded at the height of their Freeze Frame period. "Land of a Thousand Dances" in particular reminds you just how incredible these guys were live. AMG.

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The J. Geils Band - The J. Geils Band 1970

The J. Geils Band's self-titled debut serves notice that rock & roll wasn't dead in 1970 despite the best efforts of the singer/songwriter brigade. Though it sounds a bit reserved in the light of the albums that followed, compared to the majority of bands on the scene, it was a nonstop blast of energy, fun, and sweat. Featuring the hipster jive of singer Peter Wolf, the amazing afro and harp chops of Magic Dick, the fret-burning work of J. Geils, and the jack of many trades Seth Justman (keys, compositions, backing vocals), the Geils Band rips through some classic blues by the likes of Otis Rush ("Homework"), Walter Price ("Pack Fair and Square"), and John Lee Hooker (a slow-burning "Serves You Right to Suffer"), old Motown gems ("First I Look at the Purse"), and originals that stand up well next to the covers ("Wait," "What's Your Hurry," and future live favorite "Hard Drivin' Man"). A nice mix of nostalgia, intensity, and bar band excitement, the album serves as fair warning that the Geils Band was on the scene and was ready to bring back the good-time spirit of the juke joint, the abandon of the early rock & roll scene, and the high energy of the late-'60s concert halls. AMG.

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Andrew John - The Machine Stops 1972

It wouldn't be strictly accurate to refer to Andrew John (Huddleston) as a 'singer/songwriter', as all but one of the songs on his sole album, 1972's The Machine Stops, are his interpretations of other people's material. No shame there; plenty of more familiar names have done the same. Once upon a time, hardly anyone wrote their own material; that's how Tin Pan Alley started, with professional songwriters servicing musicians (so to speak). Enough history that you already know; John delivers some very listenable versions of songs by Nick Drake (Time Has Told Me; at this point, Drake was far from a household name), Leonard Cohen (Famous Blue Raincoat, rather lacking the gravitas of the original), Al Stewart (the excellent Old Compton Street Blues) and Roy Harper (Another Day), amongst others. His one original, Why Not Admit, is a perfectly good song with a slight country feel, certainly no worse than many similar.

John plays Mellotron himself, with cello lines on Tony Bolton's When I Wake Up (that could almost be real) and Gerry Rafferty's Her Father Didn't Like Me, although I do wonder whether he couldn't find/afford a cellist, so just substituted the studio Mellotron. This isn't on CD and may never be, but a download has appeared on someone's site and no, it isn't immoral when something's commercially unavailable. Worth hearing for fans of early '70s Brit-folk, but not for Mellotron nuts. Incidentally, John is married to Danish artist/musician Lissa Sørensen, with whom he still plays and releases the occasional album. AMG.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Dando Shaft - Lantaloon 1972

Dando Shaft's third album wasn't all that different from its predecessor, Dando Shaft: rollicking folk-rock tunes that were more folk than rock, heavy on rhythmic interplay among mandolin, guitar, and violin. Nor was it at times all that different from Pentangle, particularly on one of the best tracks, "Road Song," which sounded quite a bit like some of the more up-tempo Pentangle tunes on which Bert Jansch took lead vocals; "The Black Prince of Paradise" trod pretty far into Pentangle territory too. And as with Pentangle, the woman singer, Polly Bolton, was the best of the vocalists, though the male singers weren't bad and served as good counterpoints. Perhaps their songwriting and instrumental approach broadened just a bit to take in more pop and rock influences, with occasional flute (and, on "The Magnetic Beggar," harpsichord). In all, though it's not as original as the best British folk-rock of the period, it's very well played and fairly well written, guaranteed to appeal to fans of bands like Pentangle, to restate the inevitable comparison. AMG. Thanks ChrisGoesRock.

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Creedence Clearwater Revival - Mardi Gras 1972

Pared down to a trio, Creedence Clearwater Revival had to find a new way of doing business, since already their sound had changed, so they split creative duties evenly. It wasn't just that each member wrote songs -- they produced them, too. Doug Clifford and Stu Cook claim John Fogerty needed time to creatively recharge, while Fogerty says he simply bowed to the duo's relentless pressure for equal time. Both arguments make sense, but either way, the end result was the same: Mardi Gras was a mess. Not a disaster, which it was dismissed as upon its release, since there are a couple of bright moments. Typically, Fogerty is reliable, with the solid rocker "Sweet Hitch-Hiker," the country ramble "Lookin' for a Reason," a good cover of Ricky Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou," and the pretty good ballad "Someday Never Comes." These don't match the brilliance of previous CCR records, but they sparkle next to Clifford and Cook's efforts. That implies that their contributions are terrible, which they're usually not -- they're just pedestrian. Only "Sail Away" is difficult to listen to, due to Cook's flat, overemphasized vocals, but he makes up for it with the solid rocker "Door to Door" and the Fogerty soundalike "Take It Like a Friend." Clifford fares a little better since his voice is warmer and he wisely channels it into amiable country-rock, yet these are pretty average songs by two guys beginning to find their own songwriting voice. If Clifford and Cook had started their own band (which they did after this album) it would be easier to be charitable, but when held up against Creedence's other work, Mardi Gras withers. It's an unpretty end to a great band. AMG.

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Betty Wright - I Love The Way You Love 1972

Singer Betty Wright proved to be a consistently strong presence on the Miami music scene, primarily throughout the '70s and '80s, although she continues to record. Born on December 21, 1953, in Miami, FL, Wright began her singing career early on as a member of her family's own gospel group the Echoes of Joy. By the age of 13, Wright had begun appearing on other artists' recordings as a backup singer and two years later was issuing her own solo singles (scoring a Top 40 hit the same year with "Girls Can't Do What the Guys Do") and albums (My First Time Around). It would be several years, however, before Wright would enjoy her next substantial hit, but it would prove to be worth the wait when 1972's "Clean Up Woman" (notable for its prominent guitar riff and Wright's swaggering lead vocal) peaked at number two on the R&B and number six on the pop charts. In 1974, Wright received a Grammy Award for the song "Where Is the Love?" (not to be confused with the renowned Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway tune of the same name); Wright steadily continued to issue albums throughout the decade, including such standout titles as 1975's Danger High Voltage (which spawned three R&B hits, "Shoorah! Shoorah!," "Where Is the Love?," and "Tonight Is the Night") and 1978's Betty Wright Live. 1981's hit collaboration with Stevie Wonder, "What Are You Gonna Do With It?," proved to be Wright's last substantial hit. Wright continued issuing albums throughout the '80s and '90s, in addition to trying her hand as a television talk show hostess and contributing backing vocals to a wide variety of other artists such as Erykah Badu, Regina Belle, David Byrne, Jimmy Cliff, Gloria Estefan, Inner Circle, Millie Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Johnny Mathis, etc. The early 21st century saw the release of Wright's first all-new studio album in several years, 2001's Fit for a King, as well as the fine 16-track career overview The Very Best of Betty Wright. AMG.

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Hawk - Africa She Too Can Cry 1972

This classic album has now been released 4 times with 3 different track listings. It was first released in 1972 in South Africa by Hawk. It was then released in 1973 in Europe with a slightly different track list and credited to JoBurg Hawk. In 1998 (or thereabouts) an unofficial CD was released by the Never Never Land label in Japan with a different cover and track list. And in January 2004 Retrofresh released a CD of the European version with bonus tracks.

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The Dramatics - Watcha see is watcha get 1972

The Dramatics had been around in one form or another for nine years before the members got to release their first LP, and the result was a pair of breakthrough hits over the spring and summer of 1971, beginning with the title track, a Top Ten single that boasted not only extraordinary singing from bass to falsetto, but a soaring, punchy horn arrangement and some of the best fuzztone guitar heard on a hit record since the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." The Afro-Cuban-flavored "Get up and Get Down" followed it into the R&B Top 20, and the Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get album followed them both. It was the third hit off of the album, "In the Rain," a delicate ballad that was issued separately as a single in early 1972, topping the R&B charts and reaching number five on the pop charts, that solidified the group's reputation and elevated them to the front rank of '70s soul acts. The album showcased the group equally well doing up-tempo dance numbers ("Mary Don't Cha Wanna") and ballads ("Thank You for Your Love," "Fall in Love, Lady Love"), melding very attractive vocals to arrangements that instantly grabbed the listener, all of it pulled together by songwriter/producer Tony Hester. Even the lesser material, such as "Gimme Some (Good Soul Music)" -- on which Hester knew that one minute and 34 seconds was all that was needed to make its point -- were so attractive and rousing that they easily carried their portion of the album, whose short running time was its only flaw. All of the members, from Willie Ford's powerful bass to Ron Banks' airy falsetto, were presented to best advantage, but none more so than William "Wee Gee" Howard's lead vocals; ironically, this would be Howard's only completed album with the group, and their only album for two years to come because of the accompanying personnel problems. Still, it's a match for any soul album of its era. In 2002, ZYX Records of Germany issued a new CD edition of Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get with its original cover art re-created and remastered in 24-bit digital audio, which is so crisp that it has to be heard to be believed. AMG.

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Neil Young - Harvest 1972

Neil Young's most popular album, Harvest benefited from the delay in its release (it took 18 months to complete due to Young's back injury), which whetted his audience's appetite, the disintegration of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Young's three erstwhile partners sang on the album, along with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor), and most of all, a hit single. "Heart of Gold," released a month before Harvest, was already in the Top 40 when the LP hit the stores, and it soon topped the charts. It's fair to say, too, that Young simply was all-pervasive by this time: "Heart of Gold" was succeeded at number one by "A Horse with No Name" by America, which was a Young soundalike record. But successful as Harvest was (and it was the best-selling album of 1972), it has suffered critically from reviewers who see it as an uneven album on which Young repeats himself. Certainly, Harvest employs a number of jarringly different styles. Much of it is country-tinged, with Young backed by a new group dubbed the Stray Gators who prominently feature steel guitarist Ben Keith, though there is also an acoustic track, a couple of electric guitar-drenched rock performances, and two songs on which Young is accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra. But the album does have an overall mood and an overall lyric content, and they conflict with each other: The mood is melancholic, but the songs mostly describe the longing for and fulfillment of new love. Young is perhaps most explicit about this on the controversial "A Man Needs a Maid," which is often condemned as sexist by people judging it on the basis of its title. In fact, the song contrasts the fears of committing to a relationship with simply living alone and hiring help, and it contains some of Young's most autobiographical writing. Unfortunately, like "There's a World," the song is engulfed in a portentous orchestration. Over and over, Young sings of the need for love in such songs as "Out on the Weekend," "Heart of Gold," and "Old Man" (a Top 40 hit), and the songs are unusually melodic and accessible. The rock numbers, "Are You Ready for the Country" and "Alabama," are in Young's familiar style and unremarkable, and "There's a World" and "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" are the most ponderous and overdone Young songs since "The Last Trip to Tulsa." But the love songs and the harrowing portrait of a friend's descent into heroin addiction, "The Needle and the Damage Done," remain among Young's most affecting and memorable songs. AMG.

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Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul - How high Rare takes 1974

These 13 tracks, ten of which are previously unreleased, presumably date from 1974 when Joe Quarterman and his six-piece band were under contract to Mercury (with the exception of "I Want My Love," which clearly dates from the early '60s at a time when Quarterman was appearing with a doo wop-ish female backing group as Sir Joe & the Maidens). The influence of James Brown is evident in the tight hooks and grooves, but there's a touch of fragility, femininity even, to Quarterman's voice (Shuggie Otis often comes to mind) that imbues the lyrics with a touching sense of humanity, a magic that disappears when pushed too hard ("You're Driving Me"). Though none of the cuts rivals the political urgency of the preceding year's eponymous album on GSF, one wonders why, despite its luscious string arrangements, rattling jawbones, and tight rhythm guitar interplay (none of which would be out of place in a classic blaxploitation movie), Quarterman's contract was terminated shortly after these recordings were made. Only "Get Down Baby" and "I'm a Young Man" were released as singles by Mercury, which makes the discovery of masterpieces like "I Can't Understand You" and "Seems to Me" all the more welcome. AMG.

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The Fraternity of Man - Get It On! 1969

The short-lived Fraternity of Man is undoubtedly best known for the pro-pot anthem "Don't Bogart Me," which showed up during an unforgettable scene in the genre-defining biker film Easy Rider (1969). The original quintet included an overhaul of the Lowell George-led Factory, featuring Martin Kibbee (bass), Warren Klein (guitar/sitar/tamboura) and Ritchie Heyward (drums/vocals). George split and became a very temporary Mothers of Invention member, while the other three joined up with Freak Out (1966) era Mother Elliot Ingber (guitar). The personnel was completed with the addition of Lawrence "Stash" Wagner (vocals/guitar) and the band recorded its 1968 self-titled release Fraternity of Man. Another Frank Zappa connection could be found in the guise of Tom Wilson, who produced the Mother's earliest studio efforts. As one might anticipate, there are several prominent musical dynamics carried over into the Fraternity of Man from its former incarnation. The stoner wake-n-bake anthem "In the Morning," as well as "Blue Guitar" and "Plastic Rat" retain the psychedelic garage rock that pervaded much of the Factory's sound. The band's variation of Zappa's "Oh No" -- titled "Oh No I Don't Believe It" -- is a gassed-up rocker replete with Ingber's nimble lead fuzz fret work. Those decidedly more belligerent outings are contrasted by the intricate and Baroque qualities of "Wispy Paisley Skies" and the aforementioned steel guitar-driven "Don't Bogart Me." However, the comfortable misfit rockers "Candy Striped Lion's Tail," "Field Day," or the slightly perverse R&B-flavored "Bikini Baby" are among the best sides on the album. The latter was revived on the utterly dismissible dash for cash EP titled X (1995). The Fraternity of Man issued one follow-up, Get It On (1969) for Dot Records, prior to its dissolution in the waning months of the decade. AMG.

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Howard Roberts - Equinox Express Elevator 1972

Howard Roberts was a talented guitarist on the level of a Barney Kessel or Herb Ellis, who spent most of his career playing commercial music in the studios. Shortly after he moved to Los Angeles in 1950, Roberts was firmly established in the studios, although on occasion he recorded jazz (most notably twice for Verve during 1956-1959, a Concord session from 1977, and one for Discovery in 1979); however, most of his other output (particularly for Capitol in the 1960s) is of lesser interest. The co-founder of the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, Roberts was an enthusiastic and talented educator, and wrote a regular instructional column for Guitar Player. AMG.

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Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil - Ao Vivo Na Bahia No Teatro Castro Alves 1969

The famous pre-exile concert of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Recorded at the Castro Alves Theater in Salvador, this is the sound of the founders of Tropicalia cutting loose. Sinuous bossa nova meets rock & roll and beat poetry. Adding to the excitement of this gig is the knowledge that this was music that, in the eyes of the Brazilian government, was being made by outlaws. At this time, both Veloso and Gil were proudly waving their freak flags high. AMG.

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Ellen McIlwaine - Honky Tonk Angel 1972

Although she has remained arguably unknown, Ellen McIlwaine (guitar/vocals) is one of the more profound figures to have risen through the ranks of the 1970s singer/songwriter movement. Having grown up the daughter of missionaries stationed in Japan, she gleaned eclectic (to say the least) tastes from listening to Armed Forces Radio broadcasts of Ray Charles and Professor Longhair, among others. Initially she developed significant prowess emulating her piano-pounding heroes, although she traded off for the guitar after relocating back to the States in the early 1960s. After settling in Atlanta, Georgia McIlwaine emerged as a key figure in the R&B and soul-based gospel scene. Her fretwork garnered the attention of Native American folkie Patrick Sky, who was having nominal but noticeable success in Greenwich Village. McIlwaine quickly became a fixture supporting legends such as Muddy Waters, Elvin Bishop and Tim Buckley. She returned to Atlanta forming the combo Fear Itself. Sadly, their belligerent and ballsy sound was a bit too much for the locals, yielding one mostly dismissed self-titled long-player. This rejection prompted a return to New York, where the band settled into the burgeoning upstate community in and around Woodstock. While Fear Itself were local fave raves, McIlwaine eventually split to develop her solo act, culminating in Honky Tonk Angel (1973). The album captures her remarkable live presence and equally incendiary studio sides. The entire affair was recorded in New York City, with the concert tracks documented at the Bitter End, while the remainder were cut at the Record Plant. The platter consists primarily of McIlwaine's reinventions and interpretations of everything from soul ("Toe Hold" ) and rock ("Up From the Skies") to traditional country ("It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels") and African jazz ("Pinebo (My Story)"). McIlwaine contributed a few exemplary originals, including the swaggering Delta blues of "Losing You"and the pulsating funky "Wings of a Horse." The single-disc compilation Up From the Skies: The Polydor Years (1998) features this album, and her follow-up We the People (1973), with a previously unreleased reading of Smokey Robinson's "It's Growing." AMG.

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Gerry Lockran - Wun 1972

WUN has been known as one of the most significant acid folk albums of the 70s. Although his continuous effort during his entire career throughout the 80s, Gerry was an underrated musician and sales results were poor as usual. WUN is a superb example displaying Gerry's talent as a folk and blues singer. The album originally released in 1972 on Polydor.

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Ike & Tina Turner - Workin Together 1972

Released early in 1971, a few months after Come Together, their first album for Liberty Records, Workin' Together was the first genuine hit album Ike & Tina had in years; actually, it was their biggest ever, working its way into Billboard's Top 25 and spending 38 weeks on the charts. They never had a bigger hit (the closest was their Blue Thumb release, Outta Season, which peaked at 91), and, in many ways, they didn't make a better album. After all, their classic '60s sides were just that -- sides of a single, not an album. Even though it doesn't boast the sustained vision of such contemporaries as, say, Marvin Gaye and Al Green, Workin' Together feels like a proper album, where many of the buried album tracks are as strong as the singles. Like its predecessor, it relies a bit too much on contemporary covers, which isn't bad when it's the perennial "Proud Mary," since it deftly reinterprets the original, but readings of the Beatles' "Get Back" and "Let It Be," while not bad, are a little bit too pedestrian. Fortunately, they're entirely listenable and they're the only slow moments, outweighed by songs that crackle with style and passion. Nowhere is this truer than on the opening title track, a mid-tempo groover (written by Eki Renrut, Ike's brilliant inverted alias) powered by a soulful chorus and a guitar line that plays like a mutated version of Dylan's "I Want You" riff. Then, there's the terrific Stax/Volt stomper "(Long As I Can) Get You When I Want You," possibly the highlight on the record. Though they cut a couple of classics over the next few years, most notably "Nutbush City Limits," the duo never topped this, possibly the best proper album they ever cut. AMG.

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Third Ear Band - The Magus 1972

Falling giddily between the cracks of psychedelia, prog and free-form jazz, Third Ear Band baffled the best in the late '60s/early '70s, then cemented their reputation by providing the soundtrack to Roman Polanski's film Macbeth, which was also to be the band's third and final album. A fourth one, however, was recorded in December, 1972, under the aegis of Ear's soundman Ron Kort, who also supplied percussion and piano to the set. But with their deal with Harvest Records at an end, and no new takers for the album in sight, the band faded away, to surface a handful of times in later years. The tapes, meanwhile, were carefully preserved by Kort, until finally Angel Air offered them a home. Magus would have defied description at the time, and the musical progression over the intervening years has only highlighted the problem. Today a song like "New Horizon" with its gloomy electronics and militant beats would probably be tagged goth, a genre that didn't even exist back in '72. The title track, too, could fall into that same category with its insistent rhythm and moody melody, at least, until the organ swoops down in all its pompous, early-'70s glory. And what of "The Phoenix," a spoken word piece accompanied by recorder, twittering bird effects, and a low rumble-like aural wave? Beat poetry or improv jazz? The tribal drums that accompany "The Key" also sound thoroughly modern, while the violin that sweeps overhead in muted gypsy fashion pushes the number towards world music, although club crowds might prefer to claim it for their own. Elsewhere, the more electronic "Cosmic Wheel," with its rousing rhythm and Indian flavor, calls to mind the more intriguing electro-sounds of the early '80s. The song reappears as "Kosmik Wheel" at the end of the set, Mike Marchant's harsh vocals industrial in tone, the music itself now giving way to total abandon, and only the time-warp sound of the organ betrays its actual belated date.
A shocking, but masterful, album for its day, and no less so three decades later. One wishes store staff good luck in the thankless task of choosing a genre bin for this set. AMG.

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James Taylor - One Man Dog 1972

A lot was riding on One Man Dog, James Taylor's follow-up to his two big hits, Sweet Baby James and Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon; this was released 21 months after the latter, a long time between records in those days. And what a letdown. One Man Dog contained 18 tracks, some of them instrumentals, many of them running less than two minutes. A lot of it was sketchy and seemingly unfinished, and none of it had the impact of the best songs on the last two albums. One Man Dog spawned a Top 20 hit in "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," and it made the Top Ten and went gold itself largely on the momentum of Taylor's career. But it disappointed fans, and in the 19 months it took him to record another album, Taylor was bypassed by the singer/songwriter movement. AMG.

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The Pharaohs - Awakening 1972

The Pharaohs were one of the forgotten treasures of '70s R&B, a freewheeling jazz-funk congregation heavily influenced by Chicago's jazz avant-garde as well as on-the-one funk and African motifs. Unfortunately, they recorded only one album before Earth, Wind & Fire frontman Maurice White (who played in an early version of the Pharaohs) hired several of its members to form the Phenix Horns, the justly celebrated horn section for Earth, Wind & Fire during the '70s.

The group was formed from several jazz bands active around Chicago's Affro Arts Theater, a community educational collective. One of the bands, the Jazzmen, was formed in the early '60s around trumpeter Charles Handy, trombone player Louis Satterfield, and alto Don Myrick (along with three who didn't survive later conglomerations: pianist Fred Humphrey, bassist Ernest McCarthy, and drummer Maurice White). The other main component of the Pharaohs was the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, who had already recorded one late-'60s LP with cornetist Philip Cohran, a veteran of Sun Ra's Arkestra and AACM. By the time of the Pharaohs' 1971 recording debut, Awakening, the group included Handy, Myrick, and Satterfield plus Big Willie Woods on trombone, Oye Bisi and Shango Njoko Adefumi on African drums, Yehudah Ben Israel on guitar and vocals, Alious Watkins on trap drums, Derf Reklaw-Raheem on percussion and flute, and Aaron Dodd on tuba. Though the album's astonishing fusion of funk, jazz, and Afro-beat earned them an assortment of die-hard fans and critics, the group's abstract inclinations hardly geared them for commercial success.

Back in the '60s, before the Pharaohs were formed, Handy, Satterfield, and Maurice White had often contributed to sessions at Chicago's Chess studios, so when White recorded a demo for a new band he wanted to form, both Handy and Satterfield appeared on it. After he signed to Warner Bros., they also began recording Earth, Wind & Fire material and eventually were officially hired by White as the Phenix Horns, with the addition of Pharaohs Yehudah Ben Israel and Rahm Lee, plus Michael Harris. The Pharaohs soldiered on until 1973, but called it quits without recording another studio album. Derf Reklaw became a respected world-jazz leader, while Woods and Dodd both appeared on many soul sessions around Chicago during the '70s. In 1996, the acid jazz label Luv 'N' Haight reissued Awakening and also released the 1972 live outing In the Basement. AMG.

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Freedom - Freedom Is More Than A Word 1972

Freedom's final outing in 1972, Is More Than a Word, is a study in contrasts. It still rocks hard as all get out, á la Humble Pie, but it also points in an interesting direction in places: toward more textured and acoustic-flavored material that echoes country music, thanks to an electric violin -- uncredited -- on the opening track "Together." Elsewhere, there is scathing blues-rock in the funky, raucous, rave-up vein on cuts like "Sweaty Feet," the elongated "Brainbox Jam," that goes off the funk nut, and a smoking cover of Don Nix's "Going Down." The shimmering, jazzy pastoralism of "&Direction" provides a glorious, smoky, spiritual vibe with killer guitar solos. The final track, "Ladybird," is full of outlandish arrangements, horns, with a complex melodic frame that makes the band sound Marc Almondish. While it is not an altogether successful outing, it nonetheless offers some great tracks, and a view of the band that would have been interesting, to say the least, had they continued. The Akarma package is typically handsome and durable with fine remastered sound. AMG.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Joni Mitchell - Ladies of the Canyon 1970

This wonderfully varied release shows a number of new tendencies in Joni Mitchell's work, some of which would come to fuller fruition on subsequent albums. "The Arrangement," "Rainy Night House," and "Woodstock" contain lengthy instrumental sections, presaging the extensive non-vocal stretches in later selections such as "Down to You" from Court and Spark. Jazz elements are noticeable in the wind solos of "For Free" and "Conversation," exhibiting an important influence that would extend as late as Mingus. The unusually poignant desolation of "The Arrangement" would surface more strongly in Blue. A number of the selections here ("Willy" and "Blue Boy") use piano rather than guitar accompaniment; arrangements here are often more colorful and complex than before, utilizing cello, clarinet, flute, saxophone, and percussion. Mitchell sings more clearly and expressively than on prior albums, most strikingly so on "Woodstock," her celebration of the pivotal 1960s New York rock festival. This number, given a haunting electric piano accompaniment, is sung in a gutsy, raw, soulful manner; the selection proves amply that pop music anthems don't all have to be loud production numbers. Songs here take many moods, ranging from the sunny, easygoing "Morning Morgantown" (a charming small-town portrait) to the nervously energetic "Conversation" (about a love triangle in the making) to the cryptically spooky "The Priest" (presenting the speaker's love for a Spartan man) to the sweetly sentimental classic "The Circle Game" (denoting the passage of time in touching terms) to the bouncy and vibrant single "Big Yellow Taxi" (with humorous lyrics on ecological matters) to the plummy, sumptuous title track (a celebration of creativity in all its manifestations). This album is yet another essential listen in Mitchell's recorded canon. AMG.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Steppenwolf - Hour of the Wolf 1975

The second of four albums the reconstituted Steppenwolf cut for Epic, Hour of the Wolf has a very cool fog-enshrouded wolf howling on the cover, the band's name in blood red, and an interesting amalgam of contemporary sounds. Tom Scott's horns are featured on the Mars Bonfire tune "Caroline (Are You Ready for the Outlaw World)" and "Hard Rock Road," a composition byBonfire's brother, drummer Jerry Edmonton. Alan O'Day's "Annie, Annie Over" fits the Steppenwolf sound, though it comes from the unlikeliest of places -- O'Day was known more for Helen Reddy's "Angie Baby" than the sublime "Heavy Church" that Three Dog Night covered. "Heavy Church," with its heavy organ sound, would have been the track this group could have taken up the charts. A major oversight! The rhythm section of George Biondo and Jerry Edmonton come up with a dyed-in-the-wool authentic Steppenwolf number in "Two for the Love of One." The problem is that it's all been heard before, and the band is not progressing to where it should be on this 1975 release. With close to 20 minutes per side, it is a generous helping of John Kay music (recorded mostly at Kay's own facility), with guitarist Bobby Cochran teaming up with Edmonton on the semi-ballad "Just for Tonight." The material is all adequate, but where Kay was crafting an interesting direction on his Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes solo disc, abandoning those elements for the somewhat tried and true is this album's dilemma. When Kay does touch upon that venture slightly, as on the slide guitar and slick chorus vocals of "Another's Lifetime," it is most satisfying. Scott played saxophone on multiple Carole King albums around the time Hour of the Wolf was released, adding to her hit output; it's interesting that, two years after his recording on "Hard Rock Road" with Steppenwolf, King would go Top 30 with "Hard Rock Cafe" from her Simple Things album, which included Scott's saxophone. Had Steppenwolf paid attention to the charts and crafted 45s as the band had in the '60s, the four-album ride with Epic might have been more beneficial to the fans who loved those immortal 45s. "Mr. Penny Pincher," the last song on the album, seems to prove that just showing up is not enough in such a tough industry. AMG.

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Santana - Caravanserai 1972

Drawing on rock, salsa, and jazz, Santana recorded one imaginative, unpredictable gem after another during the 1970s. But Caravanserai is daring even by Santana's high standards. Carlos Santana was obviously very hip to jazz fusion -- something the innovative guitarist provides a generous dose of on the largely instrumental Caravanserai. Whether its approach is jazz-rock or simply rock, this album is consistently inspired and quite adventurous. Full of heartfelt, introspective guitar solos, it lacks the immediacy of Santana or Abraxas. Like the type of jazz that influenced it, this pearl (which marked the beginning of keyboardist/composer Tom Coster's highly beneficial membership in the band) requires a number of listenings in order to be absorbed and fully appreciated. But make no mistake: this is one of Santana's finest accomplishments. AMG.

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Savoy Brown - Getting to the Point 1968

Part of the late-'60s blues-rock movement, Britain's Savoy Brown never achieved as much success in their homeland as they did in America, where they promoted their albums with nonstop touring. The band was formed and led by guitarist Kim Simmonds, whose dominating personality has led to myriad personnel changes; the original lineup included singer Bryce Portius, keyboardist Bob Hall, guitarist Martin Stone, bassist Ray Chappell, and drummer Leo Manning. This lineup appeared on the band's 1967 debut, Shake Down, a collection of blues covers. Seeking a different approach, Simmonds dissolved the group and brought in guitarist Dave Peverett, bassist Rivers Jobe, drummer Roger Earl, and singer Chris Youlden, who gave them a distinctive frontman with his vocal abilities, bowler hat, and monocle. With perhaps its strongest lineup, Savoy Brown quickly made a name for itself, now recording originals like "Train to Nowhere" as well. However, Youlden left the band in 1970 following Raw Sienna, and shortly thereafter, Peverett, Earl, and new bassist Tony Stevens departed to form Foghat, continuing the pattern of consistent membership turnover. Simmonds collected yet another lineup and began a hectic tour of America, showcasing the group's now-refined bluesy boogie rock style, which dominated the rest of their albums. The group briefly broke up in 1973, but re-formed the following year. Throughout the '80s and '90s Simmonds remained undeterred by a revolving-door membership and continued to tour and record. Their first album for the Blind Pig label, Strange Dreams, was released in 2003. Steel followed in 2007 from Panache Records.
Getting to the Point marks the debut of a vastly different lineup, still led by Simmonds but now fronted by new vocalist Chris Youlden. The pair got off to a good start by writing or co-writing most of the album. The playing is solid blues revival, and though Youlden's vocals are often overly imitative of B.B. King and Muddy Waters, he has a confident voice and frontman persona. Originals like "Flood in Houston" and "Mr. Downchild" provide the highlights. AMG.

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