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CAN’T LET GO: MY ENDURING
MIXTAPE OBSESSION
1/4/22

By Bud Scoppa

For some of us, making lists of the movies, TV series, books and records that capture our attention is more than a pastime—it’s an addictive way of expressing ourselves through our taste.

In that sense, my interactive relationship with music has changed very little over the years. As soon as I got my first Sony stereo cassette deck in the early ’70s, I began assembling mixtapes of songs that grabbed me. I was obsessive about this activity, spending hours meticulously transferring tracks from vinyl albums to tape, giving each compilation a title and decorating each J-card with ink and highlighters. The fact that I knew and often worked with the musicians whose music I was compiling made the process that much more intimately involving.

A few months back, my vinyl-collecting grandson’s purchase of a Walkman inspired me to dust off a bunch of the scores of cassettes in my garage, buy a new tape deck and revisit them. Some of them still sound surprisingly good and bring the memories flooding back.

With the advent of iTunes in the early aughts, the process became much less labor-intensive, as I made playlists, burned them onto CDs and gave them to friends. Now, it’s practically effortless to make and share playlists, thanks to Spotify.

Even so, a part of me is still drawn to collecting what’s now referred to, inelegantly, as “physical product,” and admiring those increasingly uncommon bands and artists whose ambition leads them to create coherent albums. In 2021, there were five LPs that conjured worlds I wanted to explore from one end to the other—records that magically compressed the distance the 1970s and the 2020s for me: The War on DrugsI Don’t Live Here Anymore, Big Red Machine’s How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night SweatsThe Future, Robert Plant & Alison KraussRaise the Roof and Kings of Leon’s unexpected return to peak form, When You See Yourself. Haven’t spent enough time with Lindsey Buckingham’s self-titled LP yet, but from the echoes of Tusk and and Out of the Cradle in the delectably twisted tracks I’ve sampled, I suspect it’ll make the cut as well.

Diving deeper, I also found the box set Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal—containing renditions of 41 songs from the discography of the last artist I signed during my years at Zoo Entertainment—to be a consistently moving tribute to this gifted, sensitive artist, who died in 2019. And Tom Petty’s Finding Wildflowers (Alternate Versions) hits me just as hard. Can’t believe those guys are gone.

All of the above and more are represented on—what else?—a playlist of my go-to tracks released in 2021.

 

DYLAN IN THE '80S REDUX
9/18/21

If there is a consistent element in the bulk of Bob Dylan studio recordings released in the first 15 editions of Columbia/Legacy’s Bootleg Series it’s the sense that had Dylan had an astute command of when a song was finished.

Particularly when one listens to alternate takes of the songs from the mid-1960s when he added electric instrumentation to the mix and his ‘90s material when he was on the brink of churning out a series of brilliant albums, there’s evidence that Dylan was just a hook, a new tempo or an altered chorus or arrangement away from a definitive take.

That’s not the case with Springtime in New York, 1980-1985, released Friday as a five-CD set with a fabulous book of photos and as a two-CD “best of.”

In Vol. 16, Springtime in New York, we’re treated to outtakes that may as well be titled Another Side of Bob Dylan were that title not already taken. Through covers of blues, gospel and folk old songs plus rehearsals and alternate versions of songs that appeared on Shot of Love, Infidels, and Empire Burlesque, the five-CD set provides a thorough reappraisal of an oft-dismissed period that came on the heels of his Christian-themed albums and finds the Bard adapting to recording styles that prevailed at the dawn of the MTV era.

The revelation from the Christian era Bootleg Series was how strong a band Dylan employed for those tours and recordings and it continues on Springtime’s offerings with bands that included Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Ringo Starr and the reggae masters Sly & Robbie. Similarly, over the five years covered here, Dylan’s voice is remarkably consistent in timbre; he alters the intensity rather than the range to make point, song after song.

Since each recording is a full take, the five CDs feel like complete artistic statements; it’s one of the most listenable editions of the Bootleg series featuring studio recordings. And from start to finish, it’s a great sounding set.

Particularly revelatory are the sparse reading of “Lenny Bruce”; “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love)” stripped of its au courant 1985 production sheen; a striking reading of The Temptations’ hit “I Wish It Would Rain”; a haunting piano-guitar version of “Blind Willie McTell”  with Knopfler; “Clean Cut Kid” run through the throwback machine that landed at an early Chuck Berry Chess session; and “I and I” sounding like it was pulled from a choir’s hymnal. The truly never-before-released gem “Julius and Ethel,” from 1983, is a post-“Hurricane” romp and precursor for the more recent “Murder Most Foul,” a sign Dylan never lost his story-telling abilities.

The set closes with two of his best songs of the decade, “New Danville Girl” and “Dark Eyes” in versions that resemble the Dylan his fans loved in the ‘60s and again in the 21st century: Raw, urgent, vibrant records that out the songs and the singer at the fore.

 

KEYS TO THE HILL COUNTRY BLUES
5/11/21

By Bud Scoppa

Spotify’s scintillating new playlist Hill Country Blues is now streamable, with the inaugural list co-curated (in collaboration with either humans or algorithms) by The Black Keys. The Hill Country Blues playlist illuminates the history and heritage of an exotically funky subgenre indigenous to Northern Mississippi that inspired The Black Keys back in their Akron days and comes full circle with their new covers album, Delta Kream, out Friday on Nonesuch.

The playlist includes two tracks from the LP, including a kickass falsetto reimaging of from R.L. Burnside’s “Going Down South” featuring incendiary slide work from local hero Kenny Brown, alongside classic and obscure cuts from the likes of Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Little Jr. Parker, Jessie Mae Hemphill, T-Model Ford and Robert Belfour

If we’d been co-curating with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, we would’ve insisted on a selection or three from modern-day perpetuators the North Mississippi Allstars, but perhaps they’ll get a shot when the list turns over. 

"There would be no Black Keys without this music,” Dan and Pat readily acknowledge. “Hill Country Blues represents the concentric circle where we crossed over musically as teenagers. Artists like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell and T-Model Ford are heroes to us. We made Delta Kream with Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton to remember where we come from and celebrate the music we love. The raw sound of Hill Country Blues and songs represented on this list are some that kept us going in those early days of touring, driving all night in the van. We hope fans can do a deep dive on these artists and realize how important they are to the canon of American Music.”


AN A-MAYS-ING DAY
5/6/21

Willie Mays, the personification of perfection on the ballfield, turns 90 today and scribes across the land are weighing in on the distinct qualities of the spectacular home run-hitting, base-stealing centerfielder for the Giants and Mets from 1951 to 1973. ESPN has this; a NY Times piece is here.

The jump blues combo The Treniers, led by identical twins Cliff and Claude Trenier, were among the first to introduce the word “rock” in their material and in 1955 they released a tribute to Mays, who had a spectacular season the year before. After losing two prime seasons to Army duty, 1954 was the year of The Catch and a World Series victory for the New York Giants.

 

GEARBOX HITS NEW MILESTONES
2/24/21

Black-owned indie label Gearbox has operated with a vinyl-first ethos since being launched by Darrel Sheinman in 2009.

The London-based label, which focuses on jazz, electronic, funk, Americana, ambient and lo-fi soul, has accumulated over 50 releases in its 12+ years and is hitting new milestones this year, including opening its first office in Japan. 

“This is the second-largest music market after the U.S., and our music and products are a good fit there. Having a local presence will help us exploit the nuances of that market,” shared Sheinman.

Additionally, Gearbox inked its first Japanese artist, Chihei Hatakayama, released a series of 15 Japanese Editions with Japanese liner notes and obi strip, which are available in the U.S. with the last few arriving in March, as well as other limited vinyl series available on their direct shop.

The series includes new pressings of vinyl from legends likes Thelonious Monk, Buddy Rich and Abdullah Ibrahim, newcomers like Theon Cross and Butcher Brown, as well as a Don Cherry 1965 session that was previously unreleased until a 2019 limited Record Day Store release, which included three new compositions and will be available via standard edition and Japanese edition LP in the U.S., plus more.

They also dropped a limited edition pressing of London duo Binker & Moses’ live album, Escape the Flames.

Mentored by Blue Note engineer Rudy Van Gelder, Sheinman has amassed the same gear that Van Gelder previously used, including a Studer C37 valve reel-to-reel tape machine. The studio also has direct-to-disc capabilities.

Audiophiles can learn more about Gearbox here.

A SURPRISE FROM RHIANNON GIDDENS
2/11/21

Rhiannon Giddens has a surprise new album They"re Calling Me Home (Nonesuch) featuring Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi that will be released 4/9. Giddens has released a video for the title track.

Giddens and Turrisi have been holed up in Ireland since March due to the pandemic. Drawn to the music of their native and adoptive countries of America, Italy and Ireland, Giddens and Turrisi decamped to Hellfire, a small studio on a working farm outside of Dublin, to record 12 songs over six days.

TOWER OF POWER: FUNKY AT 50
2/11/21

Tower of Power’s celebration of its 50th anniversary—a two-night performance in Oakland in June 2018—will be released on video and various audio formats via Artistry Music/Mack Avenue Music Group.

The Hi-Res digital edition of 50 Years of Funk & Soul: Live at the Fox Theater–Oakland, CA–June 2018  will be available for streaming and download on Qobuz on 2/26; a three-LP set, a two-CD/DVD combo, a standalone DVD and digital offerings are set for 3/26.

For the shows, band leader/saxophonist Emilio Castillo invited several ToP alumni, among them saxophonist Lenny Pickett, keyboardist Chester Thompson, guitarist Bruce Conte and singer Ray Greene, who showed off his trombone prowess. The current lineup includes co-founder Stephen “Doc” Kupka on baritone sax and longtime drummer David Garibaldi.

The setlist includes the classics “You’re Still a Young Man,” “So Very Hard to Go,” “What is Hip?” and “Don’t Change Horses” to songs from recent albums on Artistry Music/Mack Avenue Music Group, Soul Side of Town (2018) and Step Up (2020).

“You can take the boy out of Oakland, but you can"t take the Oakland out of the boy,” Castillo says. “We always called the East Bay, where we were from, the dark side of the Bay. It was more ethnic, with a lot of blacks, Hispanics and Asians, and soul was the thing there. So, we called our first album East Bay Grease and put a map of Oakland on the cover, which proved to be a really smart move. People all over the world started saying that we represent the Oakland soul sound.”

ELVIS COSTELLO'S FORCES
TO BE RECKONED WITH
10/2/20

Elvis Costello has long been personally involved in reissues of his catalog, but he takes it to a new level by enhancing his revered and essential 1979 album, The Complete Armed Forces.

UMe is releasing on 11/6 a super deluxe edition box set with nine pieces of vinyl—three 12-inch LPs, three 10-inch LPs and three 7-inch singles—that includes a new remaster of the album, B-sides, alternate versions and outtakes, demos, and live recordings. Costello’s shows in ’78 and ’79 with The Attractions were explosive and the set includes –23 unreleased live tracks from three concerts.

Available today are three live performances—“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?,” “Goon Squad” and “Pump It Up.”

The lavish box set embraces Barney Bubbles’ epic pop-art packaging, including the paint-splattered cover artwork by Bubbles and Bazooka (used for the American release and included in the fold-out U.K. version) and features a unique origami cover that folds out to display the bold art and graphics and the six vinyl LPs.

This set contains seven custom notebooks with newly updated liner notes from Costello, facsimiles of first-draft, handwritten lyrics and rare photos, memorabilia and concert ephemera.

“Most of this record was written in hotel rooms or on a tour bus, scribbled in a notebook which rarely left my side or failing this, from fragments and phrases scrawled on paper cocktail napkins or hotel notepaper,” Costello writes in the liner notes.

The comprehensive set also includes a print of the vintage grenade and gun poster and the four original postcards of each band member. Additionally, Costello commissioned acclaimed artist Todd Alcott to create pulp novel book covers of songs from Armed Forces starring himself as the protagonist in a variety of precarious situations.

 

JOHN WAITE DOC BEING SHOT
9/22/20

Former HITS loser and radio semi-legend Scott Wright (Shadow Steele) is directing the feature documentary John Waite—The Hard Way, a no-holds-barred look at the life and career of the British rocker. Waite rose to fame as the front man of The Babys in the late ‘70s, found bigger success as a solo artist in the ‘80s, and again with supergroup Bad English. Wright invites artists and execs who have John Waite stories to tell, or who simply admire his talent, to reach out to [email protected] for possible inclusion in the film. The photo is of Waite and Wright filming a poolside chat.

GOATS HEAD SOUP
9/10/20

By Bud Scoppa
From the 8/31/73 issue of Rolling Stone

History has proven it unwise to jump to conclusions about Rolling Stones albums. At first Sticky Fingers seemed merely a statement of doper hipness on which the Stones (in Greil Marcus’ elegant phrase) “rattled drugs as if they were maracas.” But drugs wound up serving a figurative as well as a literal purpose and the album became broader and more ambiguous with each repeated listening.

At first, Exile on Main St. seemed a terrible disappointment, with its murky, mindless mixes and concentration on the trivial. Over time, it emerged as a masterful study in poetic vulgarity. And if neither of the albums had eventually grown on me thematically, the music would have finally won me over anyway.

Now Goats Head Soup stands as the antithesis of Exile—the Stones never worry about contradicting themselves—and it is a wise move, for it would have been suicidal to Exile‘s conceits any further. Compared to the piling on of one raunchy number on top of another, Soup is a romantic work, with an unmistakable thread of life-affirming pragmatisms running through it. It is set apart not only from Exile, but every past Stones’ LP, by its emphasis on the ballad. Its three key songs—“Angie,” “Comin’ Down Again,” and “Winter”—are suffused with melancholy. But of the five rockers, only “Star Star” (“Starfucker”) rings out with classic Stones sass. The others exist either more as changes of pace or as commentary on the album’s larger mood, rather than as autonomous works.

And yet for all its differences, Soup sustains some significant continuities with its immediate predecessors. With all its rocker energy, it was the personal, subjective songs on Sticky Fingers, like “Wild Horses” and “Moonlight Mile,” that finally lingered in my mind. And for all its thunder, Exile contained in whatever lyrics were audible, a very personal sense of weariness and confusion. “Tumbling Dice,” “Let It Loose” and “Torn and Frayed” were sung with such pent-up emotion that their powerful band tracks flew outward from the vocal, as if the direct result of inspiration drawn from it.

As usual, on Soup the Stones continue to work within existing frameworks, redefining and personalizing everything they touch. In this case, they make brilliant use of the styles of some proteges—Van Morrison on “Winter” and Gram Parsons on “Comin’ Down Again”—while picking up a few things from groups as disparate as The Allman Brothers Band and War. The string arrangements are again close in texture to Elton John’s. But they use all of their influences in a fashion superior to the current recordings of their originators. Other artists have built careers on modes the Stones have kicked away without a backward look.

The Stones succeed because they rarely forget their purpose—the creation of rock & roll drama. It is for that reason that they can move from the snow-white Americana of “Comin’ Down Again” into the urban R&B of “Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” without the batting of an eyelash—theirs or ours. When they are uncertain of their purpose—as on “Dancin’ With Mr. D.”—they can be hopelessly silly. That track is the weakest opener ever so positioned on one of their albums, and they’ve never performed with less conviction.

But it is strictly one of a kind, for after it Soup emerges as a consistent piece of work, even if its classic moments are confined to four songs. “100 Years Ago” is the album’s real introduction and contains in equal portions the two basic strains of the album: the churning, repetitive R&B of the fast songs and the solemn melancholy of the ballads. In the song’s linear structure, each element is consecutively isolated and focused on. The strains, like the album’s songs, coexist without blending. The R&B eventually suggests violence and irrationality while the slow music suggests reason and vulnerability. In the process of juxtaposing opposites, the Stones make a partly practical and partly moral choice—one of survival over dissipation.

The first ballad, “Comin’ Down Again,” is closely related to “Wild Horses,” from Keith’s frayed but loving vocal to the Burritos-related broad metaphor at its center:

Comin’ down again (sky fallin’ down again) Comin’ down again (sky fallin’ down again) Where are all my friends? Comin’ down again, On the ground again.

If there’s a moment on the album in which sadness outweighs hope, it’s in Keith’s voice. This feeling, combined with the fact that his distinctive rhythm guitar—one of the seven wonders of rock & roll—is subdued, disguised or inaudible through much of the album, makes me uneasy.

Between “Comin’ Down Again” and “Angie” sits “Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” a broadly drawn third-person narrative in dramatic juxtaposition to the songs surrounding it. It relates an incident of big-city violence hardly uncommon in the real world, but jarring in this context. It works as both thematic and stylistic counterpoint. The agony resulting from a failed love relationship is still ultimately affirmative, and it’s relatively easy to bear compared to the agony incurred by some random violent act emanating from a stranger.

There is a crucial substitution of vocal chorus for horn parts (although the latter are used in a different context) that is both an explicit rejection of Exile‘s mode and an attempt on the album’s fiercest song to rehumanize the band through the substitution of voice for the mechanical force of instruments. As on several of the other fast songs, the lead is a Leslie-amplified wah-wah guitar (no track credits are offered—is it Mick Taylor?) that sounds both unearthly and more contemporary than classic Stones style and puts new stress on Mick T. He’s not yet the master Richards is, but he can play in the traditional Stones manner (“Sway”) and add a powerful new dimension to it (his solos on “Love in Vain” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” during the band’s ’72 concerts). On Soup, he relies more on discipline than imagination, except for his exquisite solo on “Winter.” He is obviously coming into his own but I can’t help missing Keith, even when I sense he must be around somewhere.

“Angie” will inevitably be the most durable and well-loved song on the album. There are several reasons for its significance: a vocal of practically unprecedented conviction by Jagger, the lovely interplay of strings and single electric guitar that dramatizes the romantic core of the song, and a consummate piano performance by Nicky Hopkins. But the key is in the tune itself, as emotionally complex as it is lyrically straightforward.

It contrasts the traditional view of romance (and its mystical principal of adoration), with the more recently conceived notion of pragmatism in relationships. The singer has a simultaneous and irreconcilable investment in both values, and they’re at war within him. Haunted by Angie’s image, he tells the mystic in him that the conditions for romance are still present. But reason patiently answers that despite their efforts, it won’t work. It wins the struggle, but every so often the voice burns through the velvet lining.

The singer’s lingering belief in mystery is manifested in brief moments of passion and in a sense of guilt that can’t be rationalized. Thus, all his statements seem to come out questions and he asks them as much of himself as of Angie. The one stand he takes is shaky, indeed: “They can’t say we never tried,” is inevitably followed by the understood “Can they?”

The song’s depth of feeling is enhanced by a barely audible second vocal that may have been a reference track they couldn’t get rid of or purely intentional. It seems to come from a great void completely cut off from the rest of the song. The sense of separation it so subtly suggests is a perfectly apt comment on the theme. And every facet of the song is like that, making it one of the most completely satisfying of all Rolling Stones performances.

Side two begins modestly with “Silver Train,” a rock & roll song with a pre-rock flavor. The Stones’ approach is like their treatment of “Stop Breaking Down,” one of Exile‘s sleepers: lots of whiny slide guitar and harp. They also emphasize, with their ragged ensemble shouts, the song’s appealing chorus. “Train” is the best of the album’s secondary songs.

“Hide Your Love,” dominated by Jagger’s crude piano and blackest vocal, continues the rustic blues flavor of “Train.” It is the descendant of “Prodigal Son” and “You’ve Gotta Move,” while “Winter” is the offspring of the incandescent “Moonlight Mile,” although it seems also influenced by Van Morrison’s “Listen to the Lion” and “Almost Independence Day.” Morrison’s ideas are in evidence in Jagger’s vocal, which moves from a reading of patterned verses into improvisations. As he sings, the Oriental-styled guitar of “Moonlight” and an elegant string section swirl around him. And as Mick finds the crucial line to climax the piece with—“I’m gonna wrap my coat around you”—the surrounding track is blowing fierce, icy winds right across him.

After “Can You Hear the Music?,” a philosophical song that expresses a belief in the mystical power of music from the Pipes of Pan right up to rock & roll, comes the fabulous “Star Star” as if to prove the point of its predecessor. “Starfucker”’s surface nastiness is belied by the sheer exultation with which it’s played. The hallowed Chuck Berry riffs have never sounded fresher or more energetic. And those unswerving drums, ringing guitars and straining voices are all daring us to try and keep from moving to the music.

There are too many secondary songs on Goats Head Soup to rate it an ultimate Rolling Stones album. The content-defying title expresses the group’s uncertainty about its performance. But those three great ballads place the album among their most intimate and emotionally absorbing work. At the same time, “Starfucker” maintains the stature of the Stones as grand masters of the rock & roll song. If they’ve played it safe this time, their caution has nevertheless reaped some rewards. Soup stands right next to Mott, the thematically similar LP of the Stones’ brightest students, as the best album of 1973. For me, its deepening and unfolding over the coming months will no doubt rate as one of the year’s richest musical experiences.