Sunday, April 08, 2018

Debbie Lori Kaye-Columbia Singles

Debbie Lori Kaye had the unique distinction of being of Portuguese heritage, growing up Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and being signed to Columbia Records as a teen.  It appears that she was possibly being groomed by CBS to be a consummate crossover artist.  She certainly straddled mid-sixties styles ranging from big production Nashville country through multiple branches of CanCon pop.   In other words, you could place her records somewhere between early Dolly Parton, Skeeter Davis and Lesley Gore.  This album starts with “Picking Up My Hat,” which was a #1 record in Canada for 9 weeks in 1965, and is undeniably catchy skip-a-long pop.  Her most recognized single “The Iron Cross” was arranged by Bergan White and later covered by the Untamed Youth. On this record released in July 1966, the lyrics defend her own donning of her boyfriend’s iron cross against the protests of her mother. Besides Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels some surfers, sidewalk surfers, gremmies, kooks and hodads wore these mass produced medals, most featuring a surfer on a board in the middle of the cross, as fashion accessories before the masses later clasped puka shell necklaces. The protagonist arguably claims the pendant is a symbol of her boyfriend’s love and the larger cross pattée shape no longer represents the horrific things it once did. She even slips in the fact that "some of our boys are dying over there," while many remained ineffectually fixated on a vending machine item. Then again, the younger generation was playing inconsiderately with a form of fire. What would Roland Barthes think? The B-side is the delightful “Baby What I Mean” which the Drifters would later convert into a R&B hit in late 1966 and then again covered by Spiral Starecase in 1969. However, her most compelling moment might be “The Playground” as it is laced with some monster fuzz guitar over subterranean lyrics, lavish strings and acoustic latticework.  Her one and only album from 1966, Hey Little One!, smartly included this track. This Columbia singles collection serves as a rectifying reintroduction to a singer previously resigned to one topical song, The expanded view presents a somewhat underrated musician who overlapped both national and musical borders.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Habibi- Cardamom Garden EP

This all-female quintet certainly exudes a certain thrift shop charm, while weaving an appealing tapestry. Their focal point and catalyst is lead singer Rahill Jamalifard who is of Iranian-American descent and actually grew up in the flatlands of Michigan before following her global dreams to NYC. Under her direction, the combo adeptly intertwines Middle Eastern undercurrents with the enduring influence of the Shangri-Las, Luv’d Ones and Vashti Bunyan-which differentiates their sound & image to stand apart from their contemporaries. While many kids nowadays (inaccurately) call this surf rock with its abundant echo, reverb, and rolling drums, it all conspires to have a magnetic pull on listeners. Cardamom Garden sometimes slopes into that languid realm of wooziness where the weekend slips away before it even gets started.  Despite moments of slack, they have thickened their overall sound and expanded their sphere of influences to include Persian poetry (“Nedayeh Bahar”) and a Pebbles cover (“Green Fuz”) with the verses sung in Farsi that works to everyone’s advantage.
They should also be commended for their attention to harmonies, backing vocals and arrangements. This focus allows them to transcend the one-dimensionality that plagues many an emerging band.  If you have ever been enamored by the Century 21 female-fronted sounds of La Luz, Slumber Party, Louie Louie, the Girls at Dawn, Bobcat ’65, Summer Twins, the Splinters or even Best Coast, there is certainly something similar to connect to with Habibi.  It should be interesting to hear what they will do next, which is usually the point of an EP. Here’s hoping they incorporate even more pronounced Persian influences into their future pop efforts. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Photos-S/T

When I first came across this album from 1980, I was excited to discover a power-pop band that I have never previously before encountered.  What was further intriguing was that the band was led by a woman who went by the stage name of Wendy Wu (not the Homecoming Warrior).  Groups that were female-fronted and supported by male backing musicians were surprisingly rare in the new wave-era despite the runaway commercial and critical success of Blondie and the Pretenders.  Moreover, a band featuring a female lead singer with an assumed Chinese surname of Wu was certainly striking during this angular time.  My initial impression was that the band was originally from somewhere like St. Louis before moving their impossible dreams to N.Y. or L.A.

The British Blondie?
The Photos actually hailed from Evesham-a civil parish between London and Birmingham and instantly expressed their chagrin when pegged as the British Blondie.  This is one band that accurately sounds like their graphic design while being fortunately directly inspired by Blondie despite their frequent denials. Songs like the dashing "Irene" would have sounded perfect on Rhino's Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the '80s or their DIY series from 1993. “Friends,” a standout slower number building on Spector's wall of sound, could have been the closing number on the Valley Girl Soundtrack. Their stellar rendition of Bacharach-David’s "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" fittingly concludes the proper album.  It also sounds like a highlight from an old episode of Rock Over London before being taped over and existing only in memory.

Developing their Sound
Overall, the songs are straight to the slanted point aesthetic of power-pop with some cuts wearing a splash of reggae-which humidified the UK air at the time.  The layered and large production is able to achieve the tricky balance of offering taunt and tough guitars within songs that sweep and even soar at times. Perhaps the only shortcoming holding the Photos back was Wu’s voice.  While her voice was certainly proficient with pronounced Debbie Harry inflections, it is not in the same distinctive league of her model or Chrissie Hynde. In brief moments her voice slips into that dreadful office worker-Diet Coke metallic shrillness that would later be heard coating the hoopla of Grace Slick's Starship.  Along with Sheena and the Rokkets (Fukuoka, Japan), the Shivvers (Milwaukee) and the MnM's (Los Angeles), the Photos seem somewhat overlooked in the stack between the trailblazers that came before (Blondie and the Pretenders) and those who came successfully after (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Katrina and the Waves) in the video era. By happenstance, the Photos bring another perspective on the new wave movement to light.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Wildlife - Columbia Singles (1967-1969)

What an unexpected surprise to see this collection of singles surface here in 2018. Previous to this release, the Wildlife were one of those ‘60s bands that recorded a handful of standout singles on high profile Columbia Records, but their music could only be partially found as Youtube recordings of the original records. Legacy is most likely releasing this digitally in order to extend their copyright and prevent having these 50-year old recordings slip through their grasp and into the public domain. The front cover photo presents the band in their full pop art glory-almost looking like a ‘90s Madchester band sitting in on a Stone Roses photo shoot. The first half of the album opens a trove of folk-rock pop songs that I have heard before by other acts, but needed to refresh my memory  in order to recall their exact origins. “This is What I Was Made For” came from the prolific pen of PF Sloan. “Where Do You Go” was actually Cher’s first single and written by none other than Sonny Bono. “Hard Hard Year” is a deep cut by the Hollies in waltz time, while “New Games to Play” was written by Ritchie Cordell who composed some of Tommy James’ biggest hits. “Come See About Me” is the Supreme number, which could be considered a brave & bold move by the band or simply foisted on by Columbia atop the heavy slab of Vanilla Fudge.  After uncovering these covers, we get the downbeat & folked up “Time Will Tell” which could be considered the chiming centerpiece of the collection.  The verses presents the conflicted jilted lover pleaing for that one last chance, while the choruses have him convincing himself of the eternal truth and foregone conclusion that "Time Will Tell." Directly following is the previously unissued "Visions" which is mid-tempo psychedelic-propelled pop at its mid-sixties finest. The tale of a combo from the Ohio hinterlands getting lost in proverbial New York major label hustle-bustle-shuffle is among the oldest tropes in show business. However, their captivating and enduring songs have reemerged 50 years later, thanks to copyright extension, to convey there are sometimes second acts for unsung American garage bands.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Soulful Strings - Paint It Black

Here we have some truth in advertising with the abstract image of a red background painted black aligning to the album title. Appropriately, this 1966 album of all covers leads off with a striking rendition of “Paint It Black” featuring abundant echo, prominent flute and Latin polyrhythms. The main man and driving force behind the red door was Richard Evans, a bass player who later went on to produce and arrange for megastars like Peabo Bryson and the legendary Ramsey Lewis before becoming a distinguished professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. At Chicago’s Cadet Records, Evans led the large house band which included guitarist Phil Upchurch, flautist Lenny Druss and harpist Dorothy Ashby who became known collectively as the Soulful Strings. While none of their recordings express the deep depths of a David Axelrod project or the compounding congas heard on Music from Lil Brown by Africa, the music is certainly textured while the employment of strings allow for the unfurling of sweeping melodies. They interpret these hit songs in way that retains their essential core, but customize them to the point to also make them adventurous, dynamic, and enduring. In short, the strings are smoothly blended and skillfully balanced with the soulful elements. The album does sag in the middle as the source material (“Sunny” & “When a Man Loves a Woman”) now sounds tired and turgid due to radio overplay. The album takes flight once again and peaks with “Eight Miles High.”  Subsequently, the Soulful Strings would go on to release the original single “Burning Spear” which reached #64 in February 1968 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a half-dozen long players-all arranged & produced by the aforementioned Richard Evans. While the Soulful Strings have gained belated recognition and royalties from being frequently sampled, they have not yet received a domestic reissue treatment beyond their 1968 Christmas album which was re-wrapped in 2015. In any case, this debut is the place to begin exploring their transitional sounds created by Evans layering musical elements of Africa and Europe over mid-sixties pop and soul in the heartland of North America.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Hi-Fi Baby: The Floyd and Jerry Story


The first time I heard of Floyd and Jerry, I was thinking the duo were along the lines of a Peter and Gordon or Chad & Jeremy act for Phoenix.  However, that preconception was shattered when I heard the hopped up and potent rock 'n' roll of their first band the Door Nobs and their signature song “Hi-Fi Baby” (that would be subsequently covered by the Barbary Coasters in 2005). Like so many other combos of the era, the lingua franca of the Beatles can be clearly detected, but the Westfall brothers were also deeply steeped in the twangy and indigenous country, folk and rockabilly influences & inflections which reverberated across the Southwest at the time. (Someone on Youtube aptly described them as kind of a garage version of the Everly Brothers.)  In 1966, KRIZ radio published an in-house newspaper Boss-Line that aligned the duo to the Phoenix-area parade of stars who reached prominence on the national level: Duane Eddy, Marty Robbins, Buck Owen, Wayne Newton and Waylon Jennings. They did indeed bring elements of the pre-British Invasion sound so deep into the ‘60s, it will have one double checking the mostly 1966 release dates of these records. While their work with the Door Knobs led off 2001’s essential Legend City compilation, I had not previously heard the bulk of their recorded output until this ambitious career-spanning retrospective.  This disc, action packed with 27 cuts of local color, presents the Viv & Presta singles of Floyd & Jerry along with unreleased demos, masters and a handful of gems they wrote for other performers.

A Double Shot from Phoenix to the
Philippines
The songs which immediately leaped off the disc were actually the ones which dashed up to the top of the local charts. "Believe in Things," which reached #1 in Phoenix in spring of 1966 features hooks galore and lyrics that could have floated directly out of the Dunhill Records cubicle of P.F. Sloan & Steve Barri.  The follow-up "Summertime Kisses," appropriately released in summer 1966, sounds like a missing link for the Monkees. The previously unissued Door Knobs master, "Summertime Breeze" is especially strong with its washes of steel guitar-ish drop-offs-evoking the spare beauty of the surrounding Sonoran Desert.  An obscure country group the Maveriks recorded  the duo's "Wonder Why," but it is brushed off by Floyd in a recent interview as pretty much a stupid novelty.  However, it works in a brilliantly absurd way that may make one reconsider their flat earth surface conceptions.  They even wore their hearts on their mod sleeves with the soulful sounds of "If You Want Me."  In 1967, Double Shot Records (home to Brenton Wood, Señor Soul and the Count Five) signed the duo. Two singles were released by the Hollywood independent, but unfortunately could not be be included on this collection due to the fact that the song rights are currently in the hands of a major music conglomerate.  Their first Double Shot single, "Love Me Girl" charted in Orlando and was soon covered by the Pinoy pop group Orly Ilacad and the Ramrods.
Nothing is Ever Easy
As with other musicians ranging from Gary Lewis to countless members of local garage bands, their musical dreams were essentially shattered when Selective Services came calling for Jerry.  Fortunately the Vietnam War did not mean the end of the Floyd & Jerry Story, as the duo resurfaced in that brief 1979-1981 moment when countrypolitan acts (e.g., Juice Newton, Eddie Rabbit) crossed over to the pop charts. While commercial success continued to elude them, the material from this phase is a strong last crack at the big leagues and thankfully included. It actually sounds like wind down music for The Fall Guy! The verses of "It's So Easy" (not the Buddy Holly song/Ronstadt cover of the same title) remind me of Robert Knight's "Everlasting Love." "Finger Touchin'" is a delightful country instrumental and testament to their guitar finesse which runs throughout their work.  I'm still trying to discern if "Northridge South" is a reference to Northridge and the California country scene just down south at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood.

While never truly breaking through to the national level, they were huge on the local scene which included the steep competition of acts like the Vibratos, Phil & the Frantics, P-Nut Butter and eventually Alice Cooper’s Spiders. They were also said to receive major airplay and acclaim in the medium markets of Bakersfield, Lubbock and Oklahoma City.  All and all, how many Arizona bands can proclaim opening for the Beau Brummels, the Yardbirds, the Dave Clark Five and also for James Brown in Tucson?
Japanese picture sleeve courtesy of John P. Dixon
Their overall sound may have sounded slightly dated in the context of the seismic shifts in sounds transpiring in 1966/67, but with time this disc now places Floyd & Jerry in the regional rock 'n' roll pantheon alongside the likes of the Gestures, the Gants, the Rockin' Ramrods and the Bobby Fuller Four. Furthermore, listeners can now hear their enduring pop sensibilities along with those clear and bold Western intonations still attuned and stretching out into the vastness of the desert.

Credit must be given to Mascot Records for making this music accessible to the world outside of collector circles and shoddy smartphone Youtube videos.  The stellar sound, exciting design and insightful liner notes by Dan Nowicki all converge to make this one of the top archival releases of 2017
Presta Record ad courtesy of Mascot Records