I’m not sure why I was so lackadaisical about the whole enterprise. I’d seen Earle perform an acoustic in-store show in support of the work a few months back, and I loved it. Ironically, and despite the crappy current climate, Earle keeps his political opinions off the Outlaw record. This is strictly a fun one. Maybe the most fun I’ve had listening to Steve Earle since El Corazón. Let that one sink in for a second…
And the fun starts before the record even plays. The gatefold cover has a nice matte finish with some cool illustrations and printed lyrics. Even better, the center stickers on the records themselves reproduce the old Warner Bros. green(-ish) labels from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Not sure if they’re bringing those back in general or if Earle used them to represent the retro nature of the album itself. This is Earle’s ode to Outlaw Country (and Waylon, specifically), in case the title didn’t tip you off. To that end, he starts the party with a duet featuring himself and Willie on vocals. And Willie actually shows up. He sings in a lower register than I’m accustomed to hearing from him, and you almost wouldn’t recognize him at first. But you can’t keep Ol’ Willie hid for long. “News From Colorado” is a heartstring player in the tradition of so many badass Steve Earle ballads before. “Fixin’ To Die” is not the old Bukka White song made “popular” by Dylan and Col. Bruce Hampton; it’s a snarling rocker with thunderous drumming and dangerous fiddling. Makes “Taneytown” seem like “Fort Worth Blues.” There are traditional Country cry-in-your-beer numbers like “You Broke My Heart,” and four of the five numbers on the fourth side are Outlaw Country covers by the likes of Billy Joe Shaver, Willie (twice), and a take on Waylon’s classic “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” If you can’t have a good time in this saloon, I reckon you should hitch up your pony to a post on the right, and head off to bed. You can cook a campfire breakfast for the rest of us that didn’t.
Perhaps I was reticent to unwrap these records because I assumed they were pressed in Nashville like many of Earle’s previous titles. But they weren’t. They were pressed at Record Industry in the Netherlands, and they’re pretty great for a pedestrian release. I noticed that Earle’s old label, New West Records, has moved on from Nashville, and begun pressing records at MTO in France. I’ve had good luck with Jack White’s Detroit pressing plant too, so maybe things are looking up for the general quality of vinyl releases. Thank Goodness. These Outlaw records sound great with plenty of detail in the pretty numbers and loads of grit in the rockers. If you’re an Earle/Outlaw fan, your ship has come in. Or your pony. Just get it.
I’m so thrilled that I didn’t plunk down the exorbitant amount of money that people are asking for an original copy of the Beastie Boys’ The In Sound From Way Out! (The exclamation point is part of the title, and was not used by the author for emphasis.) I didn’t realize that the tunes were compiled mostly from Check Your Head and Ill Communication when I was shopping for it. I’d had those records all along and would have been really angry with myself if I’d paid $100 plus for tunes that were simply re-presented in a different format. The Beasties did some cool stuff with their first-run vinyl releases to differentiate them from later pressings. This one had a slightly altered color scheme, for instance. And it may have had an alternate song running order too. Anyway, Capitol Records reissued In Sound late last year and charged a reasonable price for it, so those concerns have gone the way of coal. (Maybe not the best example given who’s running the show in the USA right now, but you get the idea.) This one’s a (natural) gas, gang. Now’s the time.
There are actually some minor differences between a couple of the songs on In Sound and their counterparts on the earlier releases. Shortened intros and alternate mixes, that kind of thing. “Namasté” and “Lighten Up” had the original vocals removed to accommodate the instrumental format. Still not worth paying ludicrous prices for an original unless you have money falling out of your ears or are truly the world’s biggest Beastie Fan. I mean, people are still asking as much as $550 for the first edition yellow vinyl version. Doesn’t mean they’re going to get it, but still. Let’s get to the meat of the matter though, shall we: this compilation is twenty tons of fun. Much of that is due to Money Mark’s keyboard wizardry. “Wizardry” might paint an inaccurate picture. There are no virtuoso performances on this record. The virtuosity is involved with the players’ impeccable taste. All groove, no solos. Lots of textures and interesting sounds. These tunes were almost certainly mastered from digital sources. In fact, I can’t imagine that there was a ton of analog processing outside of the band’s equipment when they were recording the songs in the first place. But the sonics are really good. The overall sound is well balanced with punchy bass and smooth highs. Maybe not the three-dimensional sound you’ll find, but certainly, an overall passing grade for a reissue that was not as well loved as an audiophile might like. I have all eight official Beastie studio releases on vinyl, and most, if not all, are reissues. I’m mostly fine with it, although I’d enjoy having an original License To Ill for sentimental reasons. This compilation is not included in that list because it’s… a compilation. But it plays really nicely with The Mix-Up, which is a record of original instrumentals that the band released in 2007. I caught that tour, and it was the only time I’d ever see the Beasties play live. They were phenomenal because that’s what they were. Creativity and cool for days upon days. If you’ve never given their grooves a chance, these instrumentals might surprise you. For fans of Jackie Mitoo more so than James Brown. Highly recommended.
Beck released a new one late last year, but it doesn’t seem like there was much fanfare, really. And that may be by design. His fans are a ravenous lot, and they likely aren’t swayed by his albums’ ad campaigns. They’ll probably come along for the ride no matter what so why waste money on promotion. I count myself among their ranks, but I’m not completely onboard with this one. I’m not even sure that I’m standing on the right dock. This boat seems to have floated right on by me. Sometimes they do.
Colors is Beck’s 13th studio album. He had been playing a couple of these songs live (“Dreams” and “Wow”) for a good long while before the record was released. He worked on the album over the course of about four years in between tours and whatever else he does to stay alive. And I just can’t help but wonder where all the effort was focused. Colors is a record by Fun Beck. Maudlin Beck presumably enjoyed the massive success of his most recent downer album (Morning Phase), but Fun Beck will always sell out tours, and I am of the personal opinion that most of us would prefer to hang with this version of the man. But he ain’t fun enough on Colors. “I’m So Free” involves Beck’s usual incongruous raps over heavy, fuzzed-out guitar chords, but with a new wrinkle. He’s not quite on the speedy level of Big Boi, but I’ve never heard Beck rap faster. And he does so with zero affectations. He sounds bored, while essentially talking quickly in words that rhyme. “Dear Life” uses a cool Beatles-esque piano, and some Nels Cline inspired guitar work, and is one of the more engaging listens on Colors. There’s some immediacy that’s absent in this recording though, and that’s shown up quite plainly during the a-cappella vocals that close this tune out. Sounds like something that could be mind expanding given the MoFi treatment, for example, but there’s just not much “punch” in these grooves to speak of. “No Distraction” employs some cheap ‘80s tricks and plastic melodies, and it may be the most pedestrian song I’ve ever heard from Beck.
Basically, it just seems like Colors never quite takes off. It’s hard to imagine Fun Beck fans reaching for Colors instead of Odelay, or Guero, or even Modern Times, which is kind of a hybrid between Fun Beck and Maudlin Beck’s best work. I was prepared to rant about the high quality of the pressing, at least, but mine gets a little noisy as side two advances. Nothing crazy. There are more deluxe versions of Colors, but I don’t think the content warrants the extra expenditure. Beck didn’t embarrass himself here, but I’d have envisioned something way more layered and rich after dude spent nearly half a decade in the studio working on Colors. Diehard fans may disagree, but I likely won’t keep this one. Until next time…
Kevn Kinney anticipated the “Ameriacana” movement by years. When I think of Americana, I think of music played on real instruments, by real people, and produced in a less shiny, less sterile way than what Hot New Country fans may prefer, for instance. Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ married Punk and Country aesthetics early in the game before focusing more intently on the Rock side of things for their scant radio tunes. Mystery Road, the band’s third studio release, rocks plenty with some tasty fiddles and pedal steel work to carry the work home. The original was released in 1989. A recent double-album set reissues the album alongside a set of demos recorded by Peter Buck in 1988. It all takes me back…
…to an era when the older kids (or kids with older siblings) were listening to some whiny guy sing that I couldn’t quite understand. It didn’t take me long though. Luckily, I was in the process of discovering Bob Dylan around this time, so nasal was soon to be cool. Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ were making their way in Atlanta without the benefit of much radio play. At the time, I had them lumped in with all the other Athens bands that I was trying to get a handle on while still under the radio’s formulaic influence. “Honeysuckle Blue” cleared things up for me bigly. I’d have no way of knowing how popular that song was outside of the area that I lived in (unless I asked the internet, maybe), but it was a full-on anthem in my neck of the woods. Still is. I get juiced every time I hear it. Every time. The crunchy tones and the iconic guitar lick make sure of it. “Straight to Hell” is on here too, but I never got as much out of that one. You can still walk into a bar in Georgia, and if the band is playing covers, they’re apt to play either or both songs, perhaps more than once in the same evening. The rest of the album is fleshed out by a group of songs that would anticipate the heavier leanings on later records like Fly Me Courageous. By the time I saw Widespread Panic open for Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ in Atlanta, you’d have thought that Led Zeppelin was headlining. The drums were loud, the hair was big. I left early, but caught the band a few more times after their heyday, and I was much better off for having done so. The demos in this set are fun to have. They’re about what you’d expect: slightly less shiny versions of the tunes that would make it onto the final version (except for the album’s title track, which is on the demos set but not the final album), and a couple that would make it into Kinney’s later oeuvre. They’re gloriously rough. The tempos increase when things get hot, which would have to be smoothed out for the Big Release. Things never got as big as they should have for D n’ C, but that just serves to make them feel like even more of a hidden keepsake.
These records are both well pressed. There are some fun essays in the gatefold, and Kevn Kinney’s grandma’s painting was restored to its original sheen for this cover (after having been bastardized by the record label in ’89). This one’s for rockers more so than audiophiles. There is mud. And blood. I love it.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe. My goodness, there’s no way to overstate the awesomeness of this lady’s work. I mean, damn. She was one of the first artists to employ distortion of her electric guitar. She influenced Little Richard, and Little Richard influenced everyone. She was a rocker who would not play secular music, but she’d play Gospel in a barroom or a club. She was recently tagged for admittance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for people who care about that kind of thing. I have an original copy of her Gospel Train album, which is one of the jewels in my collection (although I wish it were in mono). Fantastic. Org Music recently released their take on Rosetta’s Live In 1960. I was stoked. Then, I was not.
First off, these recordings give the listener a very real feel for how emotional and intense Tharpe’s singing could be. She held nothing back. She wasn’t a wailer on par with the more full-throated Gospel singers of yore, but her voice had power and she was totally fearless. Not self-conscious in the least. You can hear her get the Spirit when she extends syllables past the point of breaking (“train” equals “tray-yea-yea-yea-yea-yain”). Sometimes, she cracks herself up. Sometimes, she’s gotta stop and preach. There’s enough personality and life in her vocals for an entire Gospel choir. And her guitar work was percussive and heavy-hitting, an obvious pre-cursor to some of the more refined electric guitar work that the Chicago Blues players would unveil later. Here’s the problem: very little of that guitar work can be discerned on Live In 1960. This is an issue with the original recording, not with anything that the folks at Org Music did. But why in the hell would they choose to release this title in lieu of a “better” one. She takes a quick solo during “Didn’t It Rain” that you can hear most of. Or some of. Because she’s not singing over it. If she’s singing, you can’t hear the guitar. That’s the deal. And it’s just her! There may be a drummer playing quietly on some songs, but the quality of the recording is so bunk that I’m not sure. It could be her foot stomping on the stage.
And that’s about all there is to say about Live In 1960. The pressing is fine, but who cares? There are no download codes or liners. Just a poorly recorded live performance by one of the greatest talents in the history of recorded American music. The cover has a cool photo of Sister Rosetta and her Les Paul. That’s the best part about it. To say that this is not audiophile material would be a grotesque understatement. I don’t know why this record was made unless it was to capitalize on Tharpe’s Hall of Fame induction. I wish they’d chosen a different title. The end.