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
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, SeƱor 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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Sunny & The Sunliners-Mr. Brown Eyed Soul

For over 60 years, Sunny Ozuna has been a major force on the Southwestern music frontier as a singer, bandleader, composer and independent label owner.  The versatile and dynamic singer is as comfortable and conversant with traditional Tejano as he is with horn-driven instrumental R&B and smooth soul.   Throughout the ‘60s, Ozuna and his bands the Sunglows & the Sunliners were the leading lights of San Antonio’s vibrant Westside Chicano Soul scene.   Mentioning Sunny Ozuna & the Sunliners to older workmates will bring instant smiles of fond recognition and an outpouring of compelling recollections from a long gone time and place.

The spotlight on this collection shines on his 1966-1972 soul sides sung in English and originally released on his own Key-Loc Records.  What is most striking is the soaring doo-wop influence which lifts several of these songs into another realm.  On the national soul scene during this time, the essential doo-wop elements were rapidly receding from the mix as rough & ready front men like Curtis & Otis took center stage.  It fell upon the Southwestern regional bands working the bars, cantinas, ballrooms, low rider clubs and military bases (e.g., Randolph in San Antonio) to keep the close harmony sound alive-partially for the sake of the slow dancers.  (In the Phoenix-area, the Servicemen had a similar '50s deep into the '60s vocal group harmony sound out at Luke Air Force base.) 

Their sublime treatment of Billy Stewart’s “Cross My Heart” could be considered a crowning achievement in Chicano Soul by casting out their horns and raising their voices to petition the skies.  A lovely spare elegance is expressed through their version of Marvelettes' "Forever." “Open Up Your Love Door” presents their elaborate vocal arrangements all topped off with a coda of the signature James Bond Theme from the horn section. “Give it Away” has that not a care in the world “Grazing in the Grass” feel of the Friends of Distinction, but is actually a cover of the Chi-lites' first charting record.   Another highlight is their dusky cover of Little Anthony and the Imperials' “Outside Looking In” where the Sunliners’ backing vocals express the determined mantra of "Gotta Find a Way, Gotta Find a Way."  However, not everything works as their schmaltzy reading of “Our Day Will Come” gushes over the edge and will not be replacing the Ruby & the Romantics' #1 hit anytime soon as the definitive version. Throughout their recordings, their sound is bolstered by an undercurrent of that hypnotic organ-a sound which eventually found its way North to Saginaw, Michigan with ? and the Mysterians, who pushed it to the forefront on their timeless "96 Tears." 

Mr. Brown Eyed Soul is not only a starting point in hearing some of the most accomplished sounds to come out of the San Antonio and Southwest during the ‘60s, but also an immersion into the prevailing spirit of Chicano Soul.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Lottie Collins (Chiba, Japan) & the Evaporators (Vancouver) -Tempe, AZ-March 29, 2001

Just got in from the Evaporators and the Lottie Collins show that took place at Cannery Row on the edge of the Arizona State U. campus in Tempe.  At Cannery Row, the bands play on a small second level fenced-in loft stage. (It reminded me of some ski chalet scene from a '60 AIP movie.) The bands had to slice through the sometimes deeply rooted crowds on the ground floor to haul their equipment up and down the stairs.

After a hardcore band finished, the Lottie Collins took the stage above. They were full of that rising sun moving energy similar to what I saw last summer in Las Vegas with Jackie & the Cedrics.  They played a frantic ocean crossing wave of rock & roll which brought in cracked shells of surf-pogo, the Smugglers, beat-pogo, and the Ramones. After the show, I bought their "Electric Surfer Girl" 7" and it sounds like Leonard Phillips (of the Dickies) singing on the Barracudas' "Subway Surfin'" demo!

The Evaporators were up next.  After one song, I got caught up in the convincing fun of their performance.  Being that the beyond hyper-active Naudwaur likes to be in the crowd (more than on stage) made for some interesting transition scenes.  He had to drop the microphone down to the ground level (like a rescue rope) and run down & up a flight of stairs (to change shirts). He also sang from the stair-railing like he was some sort of prima-Madonna-diva!!  The crowd hoisted him up and he sang his songs about "buddies" and after school "block parents" while his (un-watched) band churned away above.  By the end, he was wearing an Exploited t-shirt and he was all over the place like some sort of foil to Henry Rollins. He then sprinted through the open front door to bring in more milling people to join in the fun and turn their frowns into smiles.  The grand finale was "Oh Happy Day" which had the Lottie Collins and everyone else dancing in unhindered sheer joy. At one point, in the night, I thought Rob Halford (of Judas Priest and Phoenix-area resident) would walk through the door complete with leather and spikes.  (Naudwaur has interviewed Halford.) After the show, I spoke with a very amicable Naudwaur in "the punk rock parking lot" and he said that Rob Halford was on the guest list and he was disappointed he didn't show.  I said good-bye to Naudwaur (next stop San Diego) and the Lottie Collins (next stop Texas) and took off down the I 10--driving behind the illuminated fleets of semis doing their regular retail hauls to Tucson on this happy spring rock & roll overnight.