The Temptations “Cloud Nine” Gordy/Speakers Corner
July and August of 2012 were not banner months for vinyl releases. I had to struggle to come up with five compelling titles to cover, and I even ventured outside of my circle of dependability to check in on Sony/Legacy and Sundazed. I was pretty happy with what I uncovered, but still feel like I dodged a bullet. So I decided to check out a different version of a classic record that we’d already covered here at Secrets. I’d had my eye on Speakers Corner’s version of the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” for a while as everything I’ve heard from that label has been of the utmost quality. It’s hard to gather up the steam needed to go back and buy something you’ve already paid for once, but that’s what boredom and a lack of credible options will do for you, I guess. This was not the blowout game that I’d anticipated, but the Speakers version still trumps the reissue we looked at in May of ’09. It’s super strong…
My feelings about the actual recording have not changed in the last few years. This one’s a strange classic. The group was trying to keep up with changing tastes in soul music with Sly Stone and others making a play for the Tempts’ heavyweight title. They introduced a newer, more powerful lead vocalist (Dennis Edwards) along with their own take on funk. That’s side one. Side two displays an immediate return to the group’s classic sound and instrumentation with the vocals more evenly dispersed amongst the remaining original members. Some might say that this makes for an inconsistent listen, and they wouldn’t exactly be wrong, but they’d be a downer at an otherwise rocking party. The album scratches every conceivable Temptations itch unless you just have a hankering for David Ruffin’s vocals which are, of course, entirely absent on “Cloud.” The Speakers Corner version is slightly fuller than the Universal copy from a few years back. And Speakers Corner presses legendarily quiet vinyl with their version of “Cloud” as a primary example. It’s pretty remarkable, actually. Their stuff is every bit as black as some of their more famous competitors. And, unlike MoFi, Speakers Corner seems to remain true to the originals rather than trying to improve or update any sounds. To my way of thinking, Speakers Corner leaves the original works intact and simply gives us newer, better pressings than anything that was available in the ’60’s or ’70’s. Original Motown records, especially, have never bowled me over from a vinyl quality perspective. Their acts are generally thought of as singles acts until you get to Stevie and Marvin, but Speakers Corners’ Miracles record that I have challenges that notion as does “Cloud Nine.” It makes me think that I should jump for their versions of other Motown titles. The Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell record seems like an especially safe bet. And, although I have most of Al Green’s originals on Hi, it is extremely tempting to pick up Speakers’ version of his “Call Me” for the sake of comparison. You can’t have enough quality copies of that one around.
There’s not much more to say about “Cloud Nine.” We’ve hammered it pretty hard by now, and the work speaks for itself. Speakers Corner is analog all the way provided that the original recordings didn’t involve digital technology. And they currently have no such titles in their catalog. Isn’t that just lovely?
The Ronettes “Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica” Philles Records/Sundazed
I’ve been tracking an original mono version of “Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica” for a while now on eBay and I’ve never seen a mint copy. The copies I have seen have been around $500. I love the Ronettes. I need that record, but am completely unwilling at this point to part with that kind of money for it. Of course, I’d prefer to have the original singles anyway, but how long will that take and at what cost? Sundazed just reissued “Featuring Veronica” on 12” vinyl which is good news. It would be great news if Speakers Corner had been in charge of the thing, but I’m playing the hand I’ve been dealt. It’s a winning hand at most tables. Beats hell out of paying $500 for a scratchy original. The hunt is still on, but I’ll let my hand stand for now…
There’s not much you can say about the meteor that was the Ronettes to someone that hasn’t been initiated already. How would you describe their music? Seriously, give it a try. You’re not allowed to reference Phil Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” as a means of illustration. You’ve gotta describe the music on its own merit. It’s nearly impossible for me, but maybe Michael Chabon could pull it off. Until we can get him on the case, I’d advise folks to just listen to the songs. “Walking In The Rain” draws a lot of water historically, but I’ll put “Be My Baby” up against any pop song in history ever, and I’m including the Beatles in this discussion. The first three songs on side two of “Veronica” include the word “baby” in the title which is a telling characteristic of the music, but it’s not going to get the point across. You need these tunes in your collection if you want a well-rounded slice of the American popular sonic pie. Period. You can hear their influence in Springsteen’s “Born To Run” era, you can imagine that the Supremes were cut from the Ronettes template, you can see their fashion sensibilities as interpreted by Amy Winehouse, and none of that will come close to getting you in the game until you’ve actually explored their catalog. They’re still all over the world map if you know where to look. The bells, the hand claps, the harmonies, the hair. You’ve gotta have it all if you’re going to get the complete picture. Clearly, Spector’s songs carry a lot of the weight, but how would they be regarded if they’d been performed by another group? He wrote songs for other girl groups with much success, obviously, but who do you think of first when you hear the Philles Records name? The Crytals? Darlene Love? I like them both, but I haven’t been scouring the internet for their original records and contemplating the possibility of cashing out some savings to acquire them. Not yet, anyway.
I’ve found exactly nothing online about the source tapes used for this reissue, and I feel like Sundazed would put that info out there if the info was compelling. Still, their version sounds great to me and I’m over the moon with excitement at finally having an analog copy. No fancy packaging, but a super nice pressing from the folks at Quality Record Pressings. I can only implore you to give this music a listen if you haven’t already. I wouldn’t want to imagine a world without it.
Uncle Tupelo “No Depression” Philles Sony Legacy Recordings
I hadn’t contemplated Uncle Tupelo on the band’s own merit in quite a few years until I jumped back into Sony’s recent reissue of their debut, “No Depression.” I’d fallen into the trap of thinking of Tupelo as a warm-up for what would later become two bad-ass bands. That story has been well documented hither and yon, but, for the uninitiated, the basic plot revolves around two Tupelo members, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, that had a colossal falling out before the former went on to found Wilco and the latter formed Son Volt. One listen to the opening track on “No Depression” exposed the fallacy of my mindset. The record is a fire breathing monster, and it flies on its own scaly wings. This 1990 offering sounds as fresh and vital today as it did then, and that is in spite of the watered down movement that the record inspired. It’s like a reunion with a blood brother that I didn’t know I was missing.
That aforementioned first track is called “Graveyard Shift” and I remember the first time I ever heard it which is saying something because I was probably knee walking drunk at the time. I was more into improvisational rock at the time and Uncle Tupelo was like having cold water thrown on your face after a lovely day at the beach. I was instantly reminded of the merit of songwriting after dwelling in the whirling circumference of musical virtuosity for so long. Not that these guys couldn’t play. They could and they can, but the real value in “Depression” is in the songs and the emotion behind the playing more so than the musicians’ technical ability. It’s hard to imagine Tweedy or Farrar writing tunes about drinking and waking up by the side of the road at this point in the game, but I’m glad their younger life experiences led to songs like “Before I Break” or “Whiskey Bottle.” The songs don’t glorify drinking so much as they seem to lament its necessity as a means of coping with Middle American doldrums and factory life. There’s more punk angst in Farrar’s vocals than he has displayed at any time since, and Tweedy’s tunes show no signs of the left field experimentalism that would mark his later work. And it all adds up to a simple, big-hearted rock and roll album at the dawn of an era that wouldn’t recognize real rock and roll if Real Rock And Roll fell from the sky and landed in a pot of gold and started throwing pearls at everyone. If radio had been influenced by “No Depression” in the way that smaller Indy bands were influenced by it, we’d be living in a different world, folks. One that made you a little more thankful for your ears, maybe. If you’re at all intrigued by the idea of a Country/Punk Rock marriage, you should get yourself a copy of “No Depression” right… now.
I searched high and low for some info on Sony’s reissue of this classic, but I can’t find anything about the sources used for the project or anything along those lines. Typically, I wouldn’t even consider supporting this corporate machine, but the work is simply too strong to argue with. The record is thick and sports a nice glossy pressing. That’s where the gloss ends. Check it out and see for yourself. Wear a helmet. Good luck.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse “Americana” Philles Reprise Records
Man, it’s great to hear Neil Young working with Crazy Horse again. His work with the Horse is easily my favorite section of his considerable catalog. He hadn’t done anything with them since “Greendale” which was a concept with some rocking moments from 2003. I’m always hoping for a return to “Ragged Glory” form which is all well and good except that Neil Young couldn’t care one iota less about what I or anyone else would like to hear him do. He’s gone on record as saying that he makes music to satisfy only one person, and I doubt that he meant me. My excitement at the news of his Crazy Horse reunion was tempered somewhat when I learned that the album was going to consist almost entirely of old campfire folk songs. Or something like that. My fears were unfounded. “Americana” rocks pretty well. It is, after all, Neil with the Horse. Throw another log on the fire, boys. Neil’s gonna tell us a story…
Folk music is similar to fairy tales in that the core of both art forms is a little darker than what it appears as on the surface. Both can be a little disturbing if you dig a little deeper, pull back the veil, and really get into the subtext. Sometimes you don’t have to try too hard. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” has been edited and dumbed down for mass consumption, but you can bet the farm that Neil is going to put the goods back in the cart for us and push it right up under our noses so that we can smell the roses and the dirt that they grew from in equal portions. And, as far as kids’ songs go, “Clementine” is about as cheerful as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Of course, the Horse rocks things out with such sloppy dexterity that you could almost miss the message. Sonically, “Americana” sounds like it could be from any of the five decades that have contained the band’s output although Neil’s vocals are a little too out front in the mix for my personal tastes. I prefer vocals to be slightly buried so that you feel like you could decipher the lyrics if you tried hard enough. The printed “libretto” included with the vinyl set is useful mostly for Young’s essays that put each song in some historical context. It’s wholly unnecessary as a means of decoding lyrics. Young also uses a choir on a few songs starting with “Gallows Pole.” I prefer my Crazy Horse straight with no mixer, but I wasn’t consulted about the choir or Young’s vocal placement. Any quibbles I might have with “Americana” are summarily dispelled with one listen to “Jesus’ Chariot,” Neil’s take on “Coming’ Around The Mountain.” It’s Crazy Horse at it’s crazy best. Straight out of the garage and into the ozone. No chaser.
All of Neil’s vinyl releases are top shelf at this point. “Americana” is three sides of heavy vinyl goodness with an etching on side four. The gatefold package is sturdy and the inner sleeves won’t need replacing either. The lyric book also includes info on the recording techniques used, player (and choir) credits, and even the particulars about the artwork. All in all, it’s a pretty glorious return to form for the old Horse. Hopefully, it won’t be such a long wait until the next one. “Ragged Glory,” indeed.
Tony Joe White “Homemade Ice Cream” Warner Brothers/Analogue Productions
There’s something about the way that Tony Joe White sings that makes you feel like you’ve been listening to him since you were a little kid. If you really have been, chances are you’re pretty hip. Or your parents are. Or you’re from Oak Grove, Louisiana. If you haven’t, then you’ve got a pretty cool discovery in front of you. Maybe his phantom familiarity is due to the Southern accents in his singing that make him sound like a delinquent Elvis. Regardless of the reasoning, the man creates a striking audible image. To be sure, there’s a humorous component to his baritone drawl that I suspect he’d own if asked about it. But mostly he rocks like a swampier, drunker version of J.J. Cale. Analogue Productions reissued White’s “Homemade Ice Cream” recently. It contains no hits that I’m aware of, and it still sounds as familiar as your childhood bedroom. Your childhood bedroom with a fully stocked liquor bar.
“Ice Cream” might be the perfect forum for Analogue Productions to show what they can do. Lots of acoustic instrumentation in a quiet setting and TJ’s vocals right out front. I saw him play live in a little room a few years back. He was sitting down in the dark wearing sunglasses and playing a dirty, thick electric guitar. His voice cut through the distortion pretty effortlessly, but “Ice Cream” really lets you get inside, lets you feel every breath and nuance. White’s tone is funky and conversational. The immortal Tom Dowd co-produced “Ice Cream” with White so you know the feeling is there and that the instruments will be impeccably positioned for maximum clarity. “California On My Mind” feels like the ‘70‘s theme song to a funkier “Welcome Back, Kotter.” “Backwoods Preacher Man” is the type of song that most of us would consider novel, but White performs it with all of the seriousness of a high stakes poker game. You can almost see the lead character in “Saturday Nite, In Oak Grove, Louisiana” putting on his denim suit and gassing up his muscle car for a trip to the juke joint. Or maybe my perception of the song is colored by the album’s cover photo of TJ with his denim shirt tied in a knot above his navel. (He’s not smiling in the photo.) “No News Is Good News” has a wah-wah electric guitar riff that foreshadows disco (and a specific Bee-Gees song that I can’t quite pin down) by at least a couple of years. “Ice Cream” was released in 1973 which means that Elvis had already covered White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and TJ was, presumably, reaping some financial remuneration from the deal. Maybe that flirtation with success is what enabled Tony Joe to hire big guns like Tom Dowd to work with him. Whatever the formula, it was working on “Homemade Ice Cream.”
The folks at Analogue Productions nailed it on this one. The disc’s deep sonic blacks and instrumental separation are superb with the acoustic guitars and David Briggs’ keys working particularly well together. The set is housed in a gatefold sleeve which is nice as some of AP’s covers have been a little shoddy in the past. This music may sound humorous to some, but there are undoubtedly whole tribes of folks that take it as Gospel. I’m floating right there in the middle. I like to think ol’ TJ would be just fine with that.