Monday, December 29, 2014

October Country "October Country" 1968

Prepare yourself to be mildly impressed with another Soft-Psych masterpiece! Who is October Country? What’s with the name and how can a country be described by a month? Look at that cover. Is it possible to have five stranger looking guys in one photo? Is that a Band-Aid on the girl’s finger? Who’s in charge here?  It’s hard to tell with song names like “Little Boy Smiling” and “My Girlfriend is a Witch,” if this album is going to be light and sugary, or heavy and mind blowing.  I’m not sure about you, but all these strange things make me like this album even more. I know I’m being slightly/very irreverent here, but I really think there is some exciting worthwhile music on this record. It’s just so easy to joke about Soft Psych that I really can’t help myself.   
The first thing that hits you on the opener, “October Country,” is a nervous piano figure. It reminds me of someone tapping their fingers on a table as they wait for bad news. As quickly as the strings come in to play the bass line your attention is diverted by a snare drum hit that sounds like someone dropping a phone book in an empty gymnasium. The sound rises up with a poof like a rock being thrown into a pit of ashes. The vocals are interesting as well. It sounds like boys and girls (teenagers?) singing together in unison. In contrast to the rest of the song, the bridge swings quite a bit. The song is only 2:37 minutes long, so you’re in, out, and ready to listen to the rest of the songs, none of which crack the three minute mark.   

               “Painted Sky” starts out with some great sounding electric harpsichord and a delightfully low toned female voice. I just love how simple the idea of painting the sky is. It’s just nice in that bright eyed, late 60’s, everything is going to be okay kind of way. In that same vein you also get “Little Boy Smiling” which expresses some complex thoughts about seeing a small boy smiling. At first glance the writer wonders if the boy is happy. In the second verse he wonders if the boy is really covering up some sadness. The subject matter makes me feel like I’m about 15 years old. There is another jumpy, come out of nowhere bridge in this song as well. Hearing so many parts certainly makes me feel like the writer had a surplus of ideas to explore and that usually keeps things exciting for me. The little guitar flourish as the end of the bridge (at about 1:21) makes me smile every time. 
“Cowboys and Indians” is sometimes compared to the Beach Boys track “Heroes and Villains,” although it is lyrically far less oblique. It is however one of the few songs mixed in mono, which is a Beach Boys trademark. I think it was a single so that probably explains why. It really is the barn-burner of the album and features a great organ solo. 
“I Just Don’t Know” has some of the fastest sung vocal I have ever heard. It’s one of those songs that has not aged so well. I know I wouldn't be able to play it for anyone without feeling a little cheesy. I don’t say that lightly either. I have an extremely high tolerance for Soft-Psych, and even this one makes me blush. There is also a great horn section on this track that is panned hard right in the mix. Can you imagine calling in all those guys to play and record only to mix them all the way to the right? It’s so weird and so cool. 
“My Girlfriend is a Witch” is another stand out track. I guess the first thing I would say is that I am glad the writer and his girlfriend haven’t gotten married yet. If you are taking the time to write a song concerning this, then I suggest you cut your losses and move on. Any of your friends will tell you that this is red flag. Do not by any means as this song says, “become a warlock just for spite.”  This will not serve you well long term. I would suggest putting a little distance (perhaps a long weekend with the boys) between you and your girlfriend/witch. Then, when you return with a renewed sense of purpose, calmly break off the relationship and move on. 

Tones:  The bass on “I Wish I was a Fire” is pretty great, especially because it is doubled in several places by a baritone saxophone. There is also an interesting phased effect on “She’s Been Away” that makes the snare drum sounds like it is being blown around by a gust of wind. 

Cover Note: I have already poked fun about this cover in the introduction and if you can believe it, I've still got more jokes! Seriously, did bands in the 60’s just sit around in the grass all the time?  Also, it’s not fair to make fun of the dated clothes, especially on the dudes, but nice "cinched at the waist" green shirt, guy. I've got a bath robe that ties up the same way and I just love it.

Price paid: I paid about $14.00 for this and I’m not really sure why I paid so much. It was for a brand new reissue that is very nice, but I just can’t remember why I was drawn to this record. It has been well over ten years since I bought this, and if you divide up the $14.00 by the amount of times I’ve listen to the record (and take into consideration how much I’ve enjoyed it) then it has been a good investment. 

Bottom Line: I've joked a lot about this album, but only because it is such a soft target. The truth is that this is a wonderful record that I’m very happy to know about. I never hear it talked about when I read about Soft-Psych, and that is unfortunate because it really is a pleasure. If you have exhausted your late 60’s catalogs and want something fresh yet familiar, then October Country is for you. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Nino & April "All Strung Out" 1966

This has been one of my "go to" albums for a handful of years.  I put it on when I have overplayed the Beach Boys, but I want something similar. Sonically, it fits somewhere in between Phil Spector’s grandeur and the Beach Boys’ loveliness. I guess it makes sense because Nino Tempo worked as an arranger/session-man for Mr. Spector. Overall, this is very complex music with a lot of musical layers. I always got the feeling that this was a mature effort by musicians who were very serious about their craft and had something to prove. The production (mixed in mono) is quite tasty and the song selection is interesting, even ground breaking. 
Let’s talk about drug references, shall we?  The two songs advertised on the cover (All Strung Out and The Habit of Lovin’ You) are written in large type. Artists were trying to be more “hip” during the late 60’s, so maybe that was not an accident. The record shop owner who sold me this LP said that Nino wrote “All Strung Out” when a musician did not show up to a session one day. When asked where he was, the other musicians replied that he was “all strung out.” Nino took this phrase, and in typical 60’s fashion, wrote a song about a girl with it. In a lot of ways this song sounds like druggy version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” It starts similarly with a bassy lead vocal, and explodes into a massive chorus. The chorus actually feels a bit like a head rush. Maybe that’s what he was going for. The album closer, “Habit of Lovin’ You,” sounds like a love letter to heroin. Whether this song was actually about heroin or not, it’s pretty unbelievable. If Nino felt this way about heroin, then it’s powerful. If he felt this way about a girl, then it’s a disturbingly beautiful metaphor.  Check out these lyrics. They're quite stirring. 

Baby, I don’t want to lose the taste of lovin’ you.
Baby, I’ve tried so hard to make it without you, but I always lose. 
I didn’t see the danger when I met you.
I thought I’d try your love and then forget you.

But I can’t kick the habit of lovin’ you, Baby.
I can’t kick the habit of needing you.
No, I can’t kick the habit of lovin’ you, Baby
I need your lovin’ to see me through. 

While I can’t say enough about how nice the production on this album is, the vocals are equally as wonderful. April really provides some interesting background vocals on “Help You to See”. After an amazing piano intro, April sings some lightly repeated lyrics that almost sound like she is coming into her part a little late. It’s a neat effect that almost sounds a little like echo (if the echo of a man’s voice sounded like a woman’s). The melody (when they sing “I’ve been running around, putting you down”) of this song has some really great bent notes as well. I just love how they slide into the word “running”.     
There is just so much good stuff to enjoy all over this record. The opener, “You’ll Be Needing Me Baby,” has that frantic right hand piano tapping that Brian Wilson so much favored, and a delightfully wandering melody. There is also an interesting folk-rock number written by Warren Zevon called “Follow Me”. It sounds like something that would have been on an early Turtles record. Nino & April were in fact label mates with the Turtles on White Whale, so that make sense. “Wings of Love” has a falsetto line that is a blatant rip-off of “When the Lion Sleeps” by the Tokens. You also get songs like “I Can’t Go on Living (Without You)” that is wonderfully restrained in its repetition. There is also some really nice tambourine playing in there too. I also love the little touch of vibraphone in the bridge as well. I guess the vibe player was just standing around smoking cigarettes up until that bridge, ‘cause I only hear him in that one part. Not the hardest day’s work, but I’m glad they called him in for the session. 

Tones:  Deep, dark, murky, thick reverb covers this record like a heavy blanket. I’m not a fan of the song “Sunny,” but I just love how well the reverb rings out on April’s voice. Herb Alpert did a version of this song on “The Brass are Comin’” that I really like as well. It’s occurring to me that perhaps I just don’t like the original version of this song. Liking two out of three versions ain’t that bad.    

Cover Note: Jeepers, don’t let your kids play on that staircase. I’m not even sure Nino and April should be up there. Can we get a railing on there or something? I certainly wouldn’t let my son play on that rotted out staircase with the world’s oldest collection of broken tiles and gross mortar underneath. Seriously, guys. We know you’re hip…just be safe!

Price Paid: This record was actually suggested to me by a local record salesman, based on my love of the Beach Boys. It was only $5.00, so I took a chance.  It is an original White Whale pressing (I just love that little whale drawing on the record) so that is always cool as well.  Never underestimate the power of a good suggestion from a record shop employee. I would have never heard of this otherwise and would have easily passed this by on my own. 

Bottom Line: I am always satisfied after listening to this record. The melodies stick in your head and the production is great.  There are songs on here that deserve to be heard more than they are. I could see some of them fitting nicely into an obscure 60’s compilation mix. As I said earlier, I keep coming back to this record over and over again. I guess I can’t quit the habit of loving this record. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Lani Hall "Sun Down Lady" 1972

                I have been looking for this album for quite a while. About 10 years ago when I was on my first huge Sergio Mendes kick, I heard that Lani had an interesting solo album that she completed after leaving his group. It had always been on my list to pick up, but I never found a copy that was worth purchasing. I particularly remember one occasion when I found a seemingly decent copy with a very nice cover, only to be disappointed by the scratched record inside. The search continued, and like a good little record collector, I kept my eyes peeled. A few weeks ago I finally found a copy that looked nice and I snatched it up. I have been very happy about what I’ve heard and in some ways, am happy that it took so long to find it. 
                I wasn’t expecting it, but there is a lot of Elton John inspired material on this record. There are two actual covers (Tiny Dancer and Come Down In Time), and one song that Elton covered on Tumbleweed Connection (Love Song). Tiny Dancer is pretty wonderful to me. I used to love the original until it became way too overplayed. Lani’s cover changes the beat some by giving it a more jogging pace. Right before the chorus, there is a little piano break down that is not in the original. It takes the momentum out of the song only to throw you back into that great chorus. Here, Lani’s vocals are doubled just like they used to be on the old Mendes records. Her version really helped revive my interest in this song.
                Other highlights include a heartbreaking cover of Cat Steven’s “How Can I Tell You.”  I was folding laundry when I first heard this song, and no foolin’, I teared up and had to stop for a bit.  I have really become a softy in the early days of my middle agedness.  For some reason the lyrics and the tone of her voice just cut me. The Cat Steven’s version never had the same effect on me. I guess that says a lot about how wonderful Lani Hall is. These were the lyrics that really got into me. 

Whoever I’m with, I’m always, talking to you
I’m always talking to you, and I’m sad that you can’t hear.

                A few other songs of interest are the Lani Hall penned “You.”  This has a cloudy/dreamy feel and is really the kind of song you could only find on a LP recorded in the early 70’s.  My guess is that “Sun Down” is supposed to be a centerpiece of the record, but doesn’t totally knock my socks off.  It has some mild dueting with Herb Alpert (her husband and producer of the album), but I was surprised how much the vocals were out of sync. It’s hard for me to see what they were going for, especially when I think of how detail oriented the work of both of them are. Lastly, I really like the vocal only version of “Wherever I May Find Him” which closes the album. This was an old Simon and Garfunkel tune that Lani does quite well. I especially like hearing her sing the lyric “And when you ran to me, your cheeks flushed with the night.” It reminds me of how wonderful it was to meet someone you loved late on a cold night. 

Tones: Check out the amazing synthesizer on “Ocean Song.” It sounds like a comet was flying by, so Herb Alpert recorded it and put in on the record. I need to start going to some synthesizer classes because I sure don’t know which ones make what sounds. I just know I like ‘em when they do, especially when they are used this tastefully. 

Cover Note: Okay, I’m going to be weird on this one.  For some reason I really noticed Lani’s eyebrow as I looked at the cover. It seems like the kind of thing that would have gotten photo shopped out or softened in a modern picture. I like that it just is what it is. It’s her eyebrow and it’s dark and a little wispy. It’s exactly what it needs to be.

Price paid: Finally, I found a copy... and it was only $2.00!  Like I said earlier, I have had trouble finding copies of this, so I was really excited to find it, and in the cheap bin no less. It would be reasonable to pay $5.00 or $6.00 as well. 

Bottom Line: I have been really into this record for the past week or so, but my wife was a little ambivalent towards it. She did like the “Tiny Dancer” cover though. At this point in my life, I am well aware that I have an above average interest in Lani Hall’s work in general. I kind of like it that way though. It’s always fun to have some records where you see their charm because you really worked for it. If I had found this record earlier I might not have been able to appreciate some of the Elton John (especially the Tumbleweed Connection) influences. This album is extremely decent and was worth my wait in finding it. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Blue Cheer "Oh! Pleasant Hope" 1971

The word “pleasant” is one of my favorite words.  To me, I’ve always associated “pleasant” with a sense of joy and contentment, mixed with very low levels of excitement.  It’s not to say that there is no excitement; it’s just that it is not what is important about the feeling.  I seldom find myself looking for things that are exciting.  I do however find myself looking for things that are pleasant, and “Oh! Pleasant Hope” by Blue Cheer is just that.  
As a person who has played in his fair share of bands, I have come into contact with a lot of musicians.  Some have been absolutely amazing, and others average.  But what always amazed me was when an average musician or band struck gold and came up with something brilliant.  Sometimes it was only one song or one gig, but everything came together perfectly and created something phenomenally pleasant.  A song like “Money Troubles” fits this description.  There is nothing complex or showy, nothing highbrow.  It’s just a song about how good it feels to blow all your money. 

Oh, don’t you know
It feels so good to go broke.

It would strike me as a perfectly bone-headed lyric if it wasn’t so Zen like.  It’s heartfelt, sincere, insightful and true.  The singing and guitar playing are average by most standards, but are believable and convey the message in a wonderfully plain way. 
The opening number “Hiway Man” (note the spelling) starts with a rare fade-in to the track.  Who knows how long they were playing that groove before they brought the faders up.  I like to think it took them a few minutes to warm up before they launched into the song in earnest.  More than likely it was an engineer who forgot to push record or some kind of false start, but a planned fade-in to a song is certainly different.  I also really like the perspective of the man singing the song.  The line “Money, give me all you have” feels like a line that was meant to be read and not so much sung, however it comes off really well when it is.   
The song with the greatest emotional impact is undoubtedly “I’m the Light.”  This one truly soars.   Sonically it has one foot in the late 60’s (sitar, harp, and a mellotron type synthesizer) and one foot in the early 70’s (spiritual-hippie-cowboy lyrics, and dry rustic sounding guitars).  The lyrics come off as cosmic Christian to me.  It does not talk about Jesus or God, but someone more mystical.  The combination of both the sitar and the repetition of “I’m the Light. I’m the Light. I’m the only one you’ll see.” moves the song into almost Indian/Raga/Mantra territory.  Everything comes together very nicely on this one.  If this album was a table, this would be the centerpiece. 
On a lighter note, the song “Oh! Pleasant Hope” is a relaxing number about not being able to find any dope.  This is not a song with drug references.  It’s a song that just comes right out and says it. 

They said they're burning farmers now
Long live Mexico!
For some uncertain reason now
Just won't let grass grow
All we have to do is wait some more
And bide our time
And pretty soon the times will change
And grass will flow like wine.

In my opinion, drug songs usually come off heavy handed or silly because of their veiled references (especially in the late 60’s).  Not the case here.  I hear a lot of sincerity and can easily picture the hot “yellow summer day” the singer refers to.
If you are a fan of the first two Blue Cheer records than the last two songs may peak your interest.  They are the only songs that sound even close to the bands original sound, but they are still pretty far removed.  Dickie Peterson was the bands original bass player and singer.  At this point in Blue Cheer’s career, I believe that Dickie was the only original member left.  His voice is still full of the crackle, quiver and angst it had from the bands more thunderous period.  “Heart Full of Soul” also has the bass mixed higher than any other track.  “Lester the Molester” sounds like it would be nasty, and it is, but not for the reason you would think.  The lyrics actually refer to “Lester the Arrester” for some reason, which is probably for the best.  The sonic quality of the song is what is so raunchy.  It’s haggard, sloppy, and has a swagger that can really only come from not giving too much of a damn if it sounds right.  Also, dig the slide whistle in there. 

Tones:  "Ecological Blues" has a fascinating combination of non-percussion instruments.  It’s only bass, saxophone, guitar (acoustic and dobro) and vocals.  The vocals are gruff in a sort of Louis Armstrong-Tom Waits-Howlin’ Wolf kind of way.  This sounds like a back porch jam.  The lyrics are amazing too.  Check out the first verse:

Oh baby, bring my gas mask here
Oh baby, honey bring my gas mask here
I got a real bad feeling
You know my mind’s not clear.

It’s all a bit tongue-in-cheek, and not nearly as serious as something like “Don’t Go Near the Water” by the Beach Boys.  But really, how serious do you expect Blue Cheer to take conservation?  The satirical tone somehow makes it much more fun, even poignant.  Again, I really love the tone of the guy singing. 

Cover Note:  I love love love the patch work quilt and find myself staring at it as I listen to the record.  Is it hard to make this kind of thing?  I’m not sure.  The soft blue is also a nice compliment to the music itself. 

Price paid:  I have a little sticker on my copy that says $12.99.  I seem to remember buying this at a record shop brand new.  It has been reissued and my pressing sounds great.  As I have said before, I am not the least bit afraid of a vinyl reissue.  Having a clean copy for an affordable price is great.  It seems like vinyl prices are going up these days.  The last time I looked at “new” vinyl most of the records were above $20.00, many were approaching $40.00, so $12.99 is a very fair price for this lost gem.

Bottom Line:  My Dad told me that “Vincebus Eruptum” (Blue Cheer’s first record) was one of the first LP’s he ever bought.  When I asked him if he had ever heard of this record, he had not.  I expect that to be true for most people.  This is practically a different band all together.  While I do enjoy the bone crushing sound of Blue Cheer’s early work, it is hardly pleasant.  “Oh! Pleasant Hope” delivers the pleasantries in spades.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Richard Hayman And His Orchestra "Voodoo!" 1959

I was talking to my wife about Exotica records the other day, and we both agreed that there are a lot that sound quite similar to each other.  Because we both really like that sound, this is a good thing.  It’s really nice to know that when you pop on a Martin Denny or Arthur Lyman record, you are going to be taken to a place that is exotic, but after a while, familiar.  One thing I have noticed about Exotica records though is that most artists are not afraid to play a little with the formula and try to have at least one or two songs that are off the beaten path (to use an exotic sounding phrase.) 
                “Voodoo!” by Richard Hayman  is no exception.  At this point in my Exotica listening career, I should know what a “voodoo” song sounds like, but when I put on the first side of the record and hear “Danse Calinda,” I don’t get that vibe at all.  This sounds like a jaunty Mambo number if I ever heard one.  It is great for lots of reasons.  It makes me want to move my hips and find out what the lead instrument is.  It sounds like a giant kazoo to me.  When I think of voodoo, wiggling my hips and giant kazoos are not what should come to mind.  With that being said, it’s a fine opener to the album. 
“Mamba” and “Voodoo” are a little closer to what I would expect from an album title “Voodoo!”  Both feature the gut thundering drums that are all over this record.  “Mamba” also makes wonderful use of some ear splitting flutes/piccolos and squawking trombones.  You really get a Les Baxter movie soundtrack vibe from “Voodoo.”  It makes me feel like the characters are struggling with, or mystified by something.  Most people would need context for this type of music.  Without the “movie,” your average listener might just find himself struggling with, or mystified by this song itself. 
There are some songs on here that have more of a traditional Exotica sound to them.  “Spell of Deatra” comes to mind first.  This one is more Middle Eastern and creates some beautiful textures with octave piano notes mixed with strings.  “Gris-Gris” is one of the slower (but not relaxing) paced songs on the record, and “Afro” has a similar feel to Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5.”  It’s not in 5/4 time, but it does sound like a jungle version of that song.   
As I mentioned earlier, there is usually a song on Exotica records that seems to take a chance.  Arthur Lyman used to end his records with something that was totally off the wall compared to the songs that preceded it.  “Incantation” is that song here.  Staring down at the grooves of the records, I can see that it is about twice the length of any of the other songs.  It starts with a percussive groove that slowly ads tambourine, maracas, and toms.  After just under a minute, a “savage” starts to yell in some faux language.  Really, it sounds like a bunch of gibberish.  He does sing a few bent notes that are fairly interesting though.  After a huge gong explodes, a call and response ensues between the “savage” and the large group.  This conversation goes nowhere.  By that I mean the people he shouts at become less and less excited, and actually seem a little disappointed by the end.  It’s kind of weird.  The drums come back and the song and gibberish finish up.  This song sticks out like a recalcitrant hair on a finely combed pompadour (maybe Richard Hayman's?).  As a lover of Exotica, these songs are interesting to me for both sonic and cultural reasons.  However, this song is very much of its time, and I could see someone getting offended hearing this in the wrong context. 
Tones:  This is an orchestra record, and to me the horns play a very important role.  They have a thick pasty quality to them in places, especially on “Midnight Ritual.”  There is only a little guitar on this record, but it is very noticeable on “Conjuration.”  It is light, plucky, and sounds like someone getting hit continually with a pea shooter. 

Cover Note:  This looks more like a picture of a moon walk than anything having to do with Voodoo.  It’s more like a Voodoo cheerleader doll  that is filled with glee that it has found its way to lunar paradise.  The back however has one of the best pictures of an orchestra leader I have ever seen.  Richard Hayman, complete with horn rimmed glasses, shiny slicked back hair, and two inch dimples, has the biggest,  warmest smile I have ever seen.  This is the guy I want to meet at a party.  This is the cool kid I want to sit with at lunch. 
Price paid:  I had read good things about this record, so I forked over $7.00 for a very clean copy.  If you are heavily into Exotica then I think a few bucks more would be perfectly reasonable. 

Bottom line:  I wouldn't say this is a must have record, but it is a very good record.  This kind of record will plant you firmly into “Exotic nerd” territory, or “Weirdo music” land.  It is tough for me to think of a good context to play this for someone.  For me it is one that is best enjoyed with headphones.     

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Turtles "Battle of the Bands" 1968

There are very few truths in rock and roll.  Which band was the best? Who was the most innovative?  Which singer had the best voice? Which group rocked the hardest?  These are all questions that are hotly debated, and for good reason.  It is hard to answer these questions definitively, and really, who wants to?  Having arguments about music is almost as fun as actually listening to the songs.  For example, if I said to you, “Who is the better songwriter: Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney?”  or, “Who is the better guitar player: Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix?”  What would your answers be?  We could talk about it all night, and have a great time doing so.  It's a Zen problem.  There is no answer.  That is why it is so fun to search for it.  However, I bring this talk of absolutes up for a reason. It's so I can instantly contradict myself.  I am going to put this out there, and I encourage you to defy my assertion if you feel you need to.  There is really no point though because…

By far, The Turtles are the funniest group of the 1960’s. 

                No other group could be as overtly humorous, as slyly witty, or as satirically jocular a The Turtles.  This humor is on great display on “Battle of the Bands.” The overall concept of the record is that The Turtles would pretend to be a different band for each song on the record, taking the “Sgt. Pepper” concept to a more disparate conclusion. 
                The most obvious masterpiece on the record is “Elenore.”  The lyrics are about as hokey and “teenaged” as possible, but in a highly satirical way.  “You’re my pride and joy etcetera.”  I mean come on, are you kidding me?  This lyric must have slipped past so many people.  The line’s not a gut buster; it’s more of a “Did he really mean to say that?”  The lyric actually sounds kind of unfinished.  Of course it’s not; it’s perfectly crafted in every way.  To talk about the humor in the song is to say nothing of the songs beauty.  The Turtles had clearly mastered the quiet verse/loud chorus formula with “Happy Together,” and were able to explore its magic in a new and wonderful way.  I love this song.  My wife loves this song.  My sister loves this song.  This is probably in my all time top 10 pop songs of the 60’s list. 
                “Surfer Dan” allows the band to flex their collective surf muscles.  There were tons of Beach Boys rip-offs in the 60’s (check out “I Live for the Sun” by The Sunrays) that tried to cash in on a very popular sound.  “Surfer Dan” is one of the best because it makes fun of the genre, while also writing a kick ass song.  I really like the cheerleader vocals (“Be True to Your School") sung by the guys.  They are so perfectly stupid, that they make me smile every time. The hyperbolic lyrics (“27 girls follow wherever he goes”) and double meaning drug references (“He’s so ripped he can’t see you go by”) give the song a lot of depth the more you listen to it. 
Clocking in at well under two minutes, "I'm Chief Kamanawanalea (We're the Royal Macadamia Nuts)" sounds like something the Beastie Boys would come up with.  With that bell clanging around in the background, it doesn’t really sound like a Hawaiian song, but it sure is fun.  There is also a tape edit after the drum solo (just before the one minute mark) that is just so slightly off beat.  I like stuff like that. 
                I have made a big deal out of the humor that The Turtles have, but their musicianship is also outstanding.  Lots of bands had studio musicians help them out to expand “their” sound, but Turtles did things the old fashioned way and played their own instruments.  One of the nastier moments of music on the record is “Buzzsaw.”  This sucker is heavy.  The combination of the fuzz bass and overdriven organ is enough to peel the paint off a car.  In many cases, heavy music is something that is more fun to play than to listen to.  I can imagine Howard and Mark at a concert watching some terrible opening band drudge through some plodding, heavy, rock crunch fest and telling each other, “We gotta make fun of this.”  Nothing they ever make fun of ever seems mean spirited though.  It’s tongue-in-cheek, and full of winks and small grins. 
             I have a personal connection to the song “You Showed Me.”  I have a 45rpm of this one that my wife and I used to play very early in our relationship.  We used to sit around and play this one on repeat, resetting the needle each time, just like they used to do in the 60’s.  This is fabulous make-out music, and Mark and Howard’s voices set the mood perfectly.  I am also pretty sure this is one of the first times that a synthesizer (moog) was used on a popular recording.      

Tones:  I find myself amazed at the sound of Howard Kaylen’s voice.  It can be so pretty, but so edgy as well.  Compare the lead vocal on “Battle of the Bands” to “You Showed Me,” and you will see what I mean.  Mark Voleman also sings like a school choir boy (that’s a good thing) on the bridge of “You Showed Me.”  Listen to how he says “fall”.  The note actually drops as he sings it, making it sound like “fall…all…all". Lastly, Jim Pons contributes some impossibly low country singing (mocking the Johnny Cash/Dave Dudley baritone) to “Too Much Heartsick Feeling.” 

Cover Note:  This album is an entire concept package.  While the cover is fairly tame (just the boys in tuxedos) the inside cover is where it’s at.  For each song The Turtles not only created a song as a different band, but dressed up as the band too.  There is even a name for each “band.”  Here they are:

1.       The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul
2.       The Atomic Enchilada
3.       Howie, Mark, Johnny, Jim & Al
4.       Quad City Ramblers
5.       The L.A. Bust '66
6.       The Fabulous Dawgs
7.       The Cross Fires (The Turtles’ original name back when they were a surf band)
8.       Chief Kamanawanalea and his Royal Macadamia Nuts
9.       Nature's Children
10.   The Bigg Brothers
11.   Fats Mallard and the Bluegrass Fireball
12.   All

Price paid:  I remember paying around $10.00 for this one.  My copy is an original White Whale label pressing.  I have never been a stickler for having an original pressing.  That just happened to be what I stumbled upon.  The cool thing about the Turtles’ records is that they were reissued on vinyl in the 80’s by Rhino records.  That means you can find them for cheaper than what I paid. 

Bottom Line:  The Turtles are an extremely satisfying band, definately an A-list band of the 60’s.  In my opinion “Battle of the Bands” is their best effort because it seems like they are really able to be themselves.  That may sound ironic considering the concept of the record, but that is exactly what makes the Turtles so intriguing.  How can a band be its best self when it’s pretending to be a band it’s not?  I think you better go ask your Zen master that one.  He’s up at the monastery playing “Battle of the Bands” right now.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Sergio Mendes & Brazil '66 "Equinox 1967

Sergio Mendez was truly a master interpreter.  Being a fine interpreter of the music of others seems to be an under appreciated art these days.  Really, since the members of the Beatles blew the doors wide open with writing their own material, the focus has been on writing songs yourself.  The problem is that most artists/bands find it hard to consistently write a full album of top rate material.  This is not to say the Sergio lacks the ability to write a good tune; that is beside the point.  His albums are special for a different reason.  He has a sound, and you buy his records to hear that sound.  To me, he could really take any song and make it his own.  What makes this album such a delight, is that he has some really great songs to apply his sound to. 
Let’s begin with the last song for a change.  “So Danco Samba” is of course, one of Antonio Carlos Jobims’ most well known songs.  What sets this version apart from the myriad of other versions is the mixture of both the male and female vocals.  The double tracked vocals float over the Bossa Nova beat like parallel lines disappearing over the horizon.  Listen to the way the female singer pinches out the word “vai.”  It’s almost like a reverse gasp.  After Lani Hall’s main lead vocal jumps to the forefront for a few bars, the song opens up with a reserved swinging push.  
And speaking of Lani Hall, what a voice!  It has a dynamic subtly that draws me in every time.  It is beautifully plush and is accentuated by its double tracked recording.  Lani Hall’s doubled vocals are as much a part of the Brazil ’66 sound as Sergio’s piano.  When I hear a song like “Constant Rain (Chove Chuva)” I really feel a touch of warm sadness.  Listen to how she sings “…to be alone and lonely in the rain.”  The notes go from being sung hard to being sung softly in quick bursts.  I have to admit that I had a bit of a crush on that voice in my late teens.  (Herb Alpert must have had a small crush too because he married her, and the two have been married for about 40 years.) 
A few more Jobim songs are covered on this album as well.  I find myself concentrating on the maracas in the left channel on “Triste.”  How often do maracas catch your attention?  They are featured heavily in “Sympathy for the Devil,” but that is the only song that comes to mind quickly.  I love how they are mixed right on top of the drums as well.  The other Jobim tune is “Wave.”  I have a special place in my heart for the melody of this song.  I made a “sleep mix” for my son right after he was born.  Every night, the original Jobim version started off a 2 ½ hour mix of 60’s Bossa Nova and cool jazz that we would listen to as he fell asleep (or stayed up all night).  The melody really is something amazing, and in the competent hands of Sergio Mendez, the song becomes more effervescent and accessible.  Before I heard this version, I had never heard the lyrics (sung in unison by both men and women here) before.  I love how simple they are:

 So close your eyes
For that’s a lovely way to be
Aware of things your heart alone
Was meant to see
The fundamental loneliness goes
Whenever two can dream a dream together

There are a few other tracks that really grab me as I continue to listen to this album.  “Cinnamon and Clove” has a wonderful hook that I find myself singing along to.  “For Me” plays with rhythm in a way no other song on the album does.  Quietly fading in, it starts with a show tune feel that is filled out with some Walter Wanderley inspired organ stabs.  It then moves into a driving Bossa Nova beat that gradually weakens.  “Bim-Bom” (sung in English as opposed to the original Portuguese version) and “Night and Day” are also given the Brazil ’66 treatment with excellent results. 

Tones:  This album has so many wonderful sounds that I just love: Latin beats, softly sung vocals, light psych touches, and precise, detail oriented production.  Sergio's piano is like a neon light in a bar.  You don’t notice it all the time, but the impression it leaves is undeniable.  Other touches such as the sitar on “Constant Rain (Chove Chuva)” and the dampened chorus like guitar at the beginning of “Wave” create a sonic pallet that sets this album apart from other Bossa Nova influenced records.  Herb Alpert had a hand in the production of this, and he always comes through when it comes to creating beautiful tones. 

Cover Note:  Not bad, but not great.  What could the context for this photo be?  Where are they and why is everyone looking up?  It screams “album cover photo shoot” to me.  Compared to the other Brazil ’66 covers like “Look Around” (which is far more natural looking), and “Fool on the Hill” (which is far more weird/artistic), “Equinox" leaves me wanting more, especially because the music is so great.   

Price paid:  I do not have a vinyl copy of this one.  I have a great CD reissue (an LP facsimile to be exact) that I bought in the early 2000’s when I was first getting into Bossa Nova music.  This was before I was into vinyl.  I think I paid about $15.00 for it, maybe less.  The good news is that I have seen vinyl copies of it at places like flea markets quite often.  Don’t pay more than $5.00 or $6.00 for it though. 

Bottom Line:  This would be a great album if you are already into 60’s music, but would like to dip your toe into the water of never ending pleasure that is Bossa Nova.  It is definately where I started.  After that I moved on to Jobim, Walter Wanderley, Joao Gilberto, Luis Bonfa, and Caetano Veloso.  There is nothing difficult about this album.  You could play this for your grandmother or your coolest friend and both would find things to enjoy.  Heck, invite them over to the same party.  You might get a laugh out of watching them Samba dance to “So Danco Samba” together.