MICHIGAN'S BEST, JACK
Hard Workin' Man: The Jack Nitzsche Story Volume 2
How best to sum up Jack Nitzsche's role as cornerstone of American '60s pop music including his film soundtracks of the '70s in a sentence? Impossible, when you consider his polymathic abilities: arranger, producer, musician, madman, talent scout, tastemaker, songwriter, composer, confidant to and pianist for the Rolling Stones, true believer of Neil Young's nascent abilities, and main mason for Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. And that's just in the first seven years of his four-decade career.
Raised in western Michigan's Howard City, Nitzsche headed out to Los Angeles to take a few correspondence courses in musical composition before falling in at Gold Star Recording Studio as Phil Spector's primary arranger during their run up the American singles charts. He also arranged and produced hundreds of 45s through the mid-'60s. Prolific either in the control booth, hunched over lead charts or behind the podium, it makes it all the more daunting to properly encapsulate all the work Nitzsche touched. But until a much-needed box set appears (Spector's Back to Mono doesn't quite count), Ace's continued survey of this vast, abundant terrain of Nitzsche productions is much appreciated.
Volume 2's pleasures are so innumerable that it's best to give the tale of the tape:
Best artist name: Nooney Rickett
Number of musical legends on song "Bank Robbery": 2 (John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis, from the 1991 soundtrack to The Hot Spot)
Number of "Brothers" acts: 3 (Righteous, Everly, Neville)
Number of "Animal" acts: 4 (the Robins, the Turtles, the Monkees, Crazy Horse)
Number of never-issued cuts: 5
Hard Workin' Man opens with a song from the now-forgotten Harvey Keitel-Richard Pryor auto-worker vehicle, 1978's Blue Collar. Evoking Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters in its electrified blues thud, "Hard Workin' Man" couples it to the industrial hammering reminiscent of Detroit, then tops it with Ry Cooder's slide and Captain Beefheart's grisly vocals. In two short moves, Nitzsche then jumps through tribal drum surf opulence (the instrumental "Surf Finger") into giddy bubblegum pop. There's no slab too superfluous for his majestic arrangements: from the pink cloud orchestration swirling about Nitzsche's poignant croon on "I'm the Loneliest Fool" to the Tubes' girl-group throwback "Don't Touch Me There," and on to the orchestral bombast and dolphin chirps of the Monkees' "Porpoise Song." Nitzsche's sound is at once unfathomable, irreducible, iridescent. Andy Beta
The Studio Albums 1967-1968
John Travolta's swivel-hipped mook tarnished the Bee Gees rep forever. Too bad, 'cause, had the Gibbs never reinvented themselves as poofy disco pinups in '75, their early albums would be trumpeted as masterful pop on par with, dare we say, the Zombies' Odessey & Oracle.
Back in 1967, the lamppost-thin Bee Gees were rising UK pop stars barely off the boat from Australia. With bold pinstripe suit coats, floppy manes and fucked-up teeth, the group nicked as much Carnaby Street dandyism as it did UK psych, Beach Boys harmonies and Beatle-y pop. Manager and co-producer Robert Stigwood skillfully guided the band's celebrity, which solidified on 1967's "To Love Somebody" single. Of the three Gibb brothers, twins Robin and Maurice were still teenagers. And Robin and Barry could cross swords with Zombie Colin Blunstone over whose is the sweetest pop voice of all time.
These albums are rife with baroque-pop hallmarks harpsichord, horns, strings, perfect harmonies, Mellotron, etc. and a delicate surplus of pop experimentation. Taken as a whole here, the band's arc shows an overall precociousness that's tooth-rot sweet but balanced with atmosphere and immediacy that subtly hints at a life fraught with more sadness than joy. It's a disarming juxtaposition.
At its weakest, 1967's Bee Gees 1st stumbles on Lennon vocal cops, overwrought sentimentality and a Gregorian chant. But that's the band's youth and nearly every song is a gem: see "Holiday," "Please Read Me," and "Red Chair, Fade Away." Less pop-driven than the same-year debut, Horizontal finds a band nailing its sonic identity with enough confidence to fuck with it. The centerpiece is "Massachusetts" in which longing is geographical and strings simultaneously darken and uplift refrains atop Maurice's droning, McCartney-esque bass runs. The next year's fully developed Idea ties the pop and sorrow together with some decidedly blithe lyrical narrative there's even an Air Force march song and the sugar-soaring "Kitty Can" is driven by chee-chee-chee mouth clatter in the chorus. Mawkish hits "I Started a Joke" and "Let There Be Love" overshadow otherwise great album tracks.
This ornate six-CD box houses the three newly remastered albums in digipaks with original UK art, 20-page color booklets and Andrew Sandoval's eagle-eyed career overviews. The attached mono mixes provide appropriate punch (some run faster than their stereo counterparts, per the original mixdown tapes). But it's the loads of alternate versions, demos, b-sides and song-sketches on each album's second disc that sends this package into completist nirvana. Winks to Rhino for giving the Bee Gees ceremonious respect. Brian Smith
Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees
My Favorite Christmas Carols
Need something for that special maudlin someone on your Christmas list and can't afford the just released early Bee Gees box set on your Bob Cratchit salary? Spring for Robin Gibb's quavering carol fest instead. His tragedy-lovin' vibrato coupled with morose subject matter defined the group's pre-disco goodness and it's nice to hear it again in a calm, hymnal setting without any mining disasters or snowy avalanches to provide additional holiday anxiety (although I was certain "Three Ships" might end with at least one capsizing).
This Christmas pageant is a tastefully restrained one, something to help the whole family quietly reflect upon the meaning of the season or completely ignore while tearing open presents. Sadly, Robin's famous wobble never ventures into that high-pitched "I Started a Joke" territory known to upset youngsters and test some of your more delicate holiday decorations. And as a bonus, there's an accompanying DVD that proves Robin still covers his ear to sing but you'll want to leave both your auditory canals unobstructed. Because, "Oohh, you're a holiday, such a holiday." Serene Dominic
This box is for Björk freaks only, but it's notable since we all have at least one such freak in our lives. Surrounded includes the Icelandic artist's six studio albums, plus the soundtrack to 2005's Drawing Restraint 9; but they're DualDiscs, so the original album mixes are melded to DVD editions featuring Dolby 5.1, DVD-A and DTS Surround sound. (Oh, and the videos from each era too.) Sonic tweaks aside, there's nothing new or exclusive here. But it's a cool showoff piece for the completist's mantel like everything Björk touches, it looks like an artifact from a culture that doesn't exist yet. Johnny Loftus
HOW TO AGE GRACEFULLY
Heritage, 6th Avenue Romp, Believe, Juniflip
Sure, jazz has role models for young geniuses: Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong and (in his own way) Wynton Marsalis. But there are ample lessons in aging in the music too. Consider drummer, composer and sometimes singer Chico Hamilton, who's celebrating his 85th birthday with the release of four luminous CDs. Although they're not issued as a box, they definitely deserve hearing (or merit giving) as a set. Hamilton's been a scene notable since the 1950s, putting in sideman dues with Lena Horne and Gerry Mulligan, and then as a leader employing such up-and-comers as Eric Dolphy, Charles Lloyd and Larry Coryell. A showman and sometimes a showoff, he has a sound to remind you that playing the drums is about sticks and brushes whopping on skins and metal; he reminds you that playing the drums is about lashing your bandmates and making them "go, man, go." For these discs, his current combo, Euphoria (including the guitarist Cary DeNigris), is augmented by a half-dozen or so guests. The former Detroit trombonist (and Hamilton group vet) George Bohanon digs in for at least a cut on each disc; guitarist Shuggie Otis and trumpeter Jon Faddis are among the other session players. Fontella Bass (who's belted with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and hit the '60s charts with "Rescue Me") sings blues and gospel on Believe. On Juniflip, Bill Henderson does a slow smolder on "Don't Be That Way" and skitters across Hamilton's drum patterns on "Ain't She Sweet." The late Arthur Lee pops up for the bluesy "What's Your Story, Morning Glory?" (If only they'd rehearsed, say, Love's "A House Is Not a Motel"!) The wide net cast for material here snags surprises like an ebullient version of the Who's "The Kids Are Alright," a finger-poppin' approach to Junior Walker's "Cleo's Mood" and an uncommonly brisk take on Gerald Wilson's "Viva Tirado." These discs are a swinging triumph. Happy birthday, indeed. (Available from joyousshoutonlinestore.com.) W. Kim Heron
MORE HOOKS THAN A TACKLE BOX!
John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker's signature boogie has been snaking its way into music since at least 1948, when the Detroit transplant first laid a rough cut of "Boogie Chillen'" to acetate in the back room of Elmer Barbee's record store at the corner of Lafayette and St. Antoine. But more than 50 years of recordings will also ensure that an artist's catalog snakes this way and that, through good record deals and bad, and under numerous aliases, until it's nearly impossible to compile a comprehensive career document for one of the world's greatest bluesmen. Only nearly though, because Shout! Factory's four-disc set is the definitive statement Hooker fans have been waiting for.
There's the music, and a listener can get lost in that alone. Vintage sides such as "Hoogie Boogie," "I'm in the Mood" and "Moses Smote the Water" (the latter recorded in 1949 at a kitchen table in Pleasant Ridge) join slinky R&B numbers ("Whiskey and Wimmen," "I'm Goin' Upstairs"), mid-period stuff like three great selections from the 1971 Canned Heat collaboration Hooker 'N Heat, as well as an entire disc that highlights the celebrity blues-person duets from Hooker's late-career resurgence: names like Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton.
Besides Hooker's boogie and cavernous throat, translated and reapplied through a half-century of recordings, the box's accompanying booklet accurately paints him as a central figure in the transmission of blues music from its deepest roots in the African folk tradition, his youth in Mississippi, his migration to the bandstands and smoky clubs of the industrial North, the birth of electric blues, his music's influence on the 1960s English rock scene, and Hooker's ultimate standing as the king of a uniquely American art form.
Four discs might be a little much for casual Hooker fans, and for them there are hundreds of single and double-disc retrospectives available. But for anyone with a curiosity about Hooker's life and legacy as well as his music, Hooker is the gift that will keep on giving. Johnny Loftus
Six the Hard Way
Reggae, ska, rock steady and dub commingled in the corridors of Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd's famous Studio One in Kingston, Jamaica. Spawned from dancehall and the sound systems, and influenced by American R&B, the scene quickly evolved into an organic, indigenous and potent combination of spiritual abandon, political rebellion and deep danceable soul. Not only did the music Dodd shepherded groove; it became the sound of revolution, of an oppressed people shrugging off the shackles of colonialism to make a joyous noise of their own.
Studio One's massive output has been chronicled this year on a series of discs released by Heartbeat/Rounder, but Six the Hard Way, its 12th volume, is easily one of the best. Remastered from the original tapes for a gorgeous sound and roughly ten tons of bass, the set features 18 deep cuts by Slim Smith, the Termites, the Cables, Larry Marshall, the Viceroys and Willie Williams. Williams' "Armageddon Time" is a marquee cut, as it inspired a cover by the Clash. But as great as the latter's version is, the original is far more devastating. Smith's material, meanwhile, is sweet and smooth, while the Termites' "Do the Rock Steady" simmers mightily and delivers the manifesto "We are young and we are strong /We know that we can't be wrong." Larry Marshall's "Nanny Goat" gambols along playfully.
Elsewhere in Heartbeat's series are volumes dedicated to Bob Marley and Wailers' Studio One output, the works of Alton and Hortense Ellis, John Holt, Freddie McGregor and Delroy Wilson. And if that's not impressive enough, the musicians on these releases form an all-star cast: Lee "Scratch" Perry, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals, and the Skatalites, who served as the Kingston equivalent of the Funk Brothers or Booker T and the MGs.
Post-colonial Jamaica like many, many cultures turned to music in the midst of cataclysmic change. And working in his Brentford Road studio (which has become as hallowed an address as McLemore Avenue or West Grand Boulevard), Dodd was able to capture the beauty, limitless potential, self-determination and frightening rage of the era. In a testament to the quality of the music produced there, most of this material is timeless it sounds as fresh today as it did when it was released. (Gift bundle idea: Seek out This is Reggae Music, Lloyd Bradley's definitive, geek-level history of the scene.) Brian J. Bowe
WORD OF THE DAY: EMPATHY
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Deluxe Edition)
Adored for a voice and lyrics that could coax even the most careful AA-thumper into a blind drunk, Lucinda Williams ruled the year-end critics list in 1998 and for good reason. It's where ghosts of lost loves, garnished checks, repossessed cars, and blue-collar futility are all washed down with Miller on draft at the fading pool hall within walking distance. Beautiful stuff. The original album is warmly remastered with a trio of outtakes and the bonus disc is a complete live show from Philadelphia in 1998. Brian Smith
MALL PUNK, TRULY
Singles Box Set
Fueled by Ramen/Decaydance Hot Topic
If you're wandering by the Hot Topic in Oakland Mall, fretting about what to get your Millennial-gen niece or nephew for Christmas, stop in and grab a copy of this limited-edition box of 7's from Fueled by Ramen and Decaydence Records. It includes tracks from The Academy Is..., Gym Class Heroes and Cute is What We Aim For, but MT's pick is Paramore. Though the Tennessee band's "Emergency" and "Pressure" are structurally identical to what their pop-punk/emo brethren offer, Hayley Williams' kid dynamite vocals are the stuff mega homeroom crushes are made of. Johnny Loftus
CUM ON DUDES!
The Slade Box: A 4CD Anthology 1969-1991 (import)