Wednesday, March 31, 2010

April 2010 update

Hello. This is just a friendly notice to let you all know that my brain is officially on hiatus. Lately I've been spending too much of my free time obsessing on the human condition to really put forth any kind of an effort into this blog, and for that I apologize. Was a time when music provided all the relief I needed from pressures relating to the outside world, but lately the time involved in putting together these ambitious compilation projects, combined with my perfectionist attitude towards detail, has largely sapped the fun out of it.

To put it another way, if I have to listen to one of my compilations 200 times during the assembling/ editing stage, then by the time you finally hear it I'm already way, way burned out on it and ready to move on to something else. Many of these comps have literally been years in the making. The Tuesday Timewarp feature was a brief attempt at a paradigm shift, intending to speed things up, but the complete lack of response to the Standells post has shown me that this is probably not what you people want out of this site.

Currently I am almost completely lost in three major projects. The updated L.A. Gemstones I have been promising will likely be here by the end of the year, as I have been very fortunate to find a collaborator who is doing a great deal to assist me with this ambitious set. The new version will feature a revised track listing, much improved fidelity and a companion e-book containing liners, essays, photos and more. It will be, simply, the greatest Various Artists box set ever known to man. It'll take time to complete, but I promise you you will see it eventually.

The next thing on my agenda is nothing less than the complete organization, annotation and presentation of every available bit of Brian Wilson's '66-'67 SMiLE sessions; again presented in the best available fidelity (lossless) with companion e-book with detailed notes on every session. What will emerge will be the most complete portrait of SMiLE that has ever been revealed. When finished I will submit this to my contacts within the Beach Boys camp and see if they want to run with it. If they don't, I will try to get the book published and the 15 or so disc box set will go unheard.

Perhaps less exciting, but much more fun, is a collection of 80s Pop, RnB and New Wave hits from my childhood. I know these sorts of sets have been compiled and released thousands of times, but trust me when I say that this box will reign supreme in your car stereo, because it will have the Crystal Sphere "touch". Since this isn't as complex a set as the other two (no e-book, .mp3 quality) I have a feeling you will be seeing it first out of the three.

So what's the point of teasing you all with this? Nothing, I guess, except to let you all know that I haven't abandoned the ship. It's just that right now this minute, I'm much more into hanging out with my girlfriend or sitting in front of the TV and getting caught up on "The Office" than having to do the actual thinking that comes with writing anything of substance. This will change soon enough I'm sure, but in the meantime please bear with me.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tuesday Timewarp: The Standells

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Here's a new feature we've added to the Sphere called The Tuesday Timewarp. Every Tuesday we'll be adding some rare/out-of-print/unreleased junk from the past, with the hopes that if your mood is sufficiently elevated, you just might suddenly find yourself on a little mind excursion courtesy of these tunes.

Prepare the Wayback Machine. Today's introductory feature is a selection of cuts from the Standells' late-1967 album Try It.

Now the Standells were a solid band for their time, but never one you'd term as terribly interesting or ambitious. Their stock-in-trade was polished frat/garage rock stuff, typified by "Dirty Water", "Sometimes the Good Guys Don't Wear White" and of course "Try It". It's fair to say they never really attempted to break out of that particular mold until this, their last album.

Apart from two great singles in the form of the title cut and "Riot on Sunset Strip", the rest of the Try It LP is a major stylistic departure that virtually embodies the term "mixed bag". While some ill-chosen soul and blues covers drag the album down from classic status, the group's attempts at a more psychy pop/rock sound are winners!

Examine these four groovy cuts I've resurrected for you off an album that sank like a stone when it dropped 42 years ago. "All Fall Down" kicks things off; sounding for all the world like Dick Dodd and company had been digging on Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Satanic Majesties, and decided to incorporate strands of those records into a bubblegum pop song. It's not a stone classic by any means, but man does it ever reek of the Nag Champa! Perfect for the Tuesday Timewarp.

"Trip to Paradise", with its Ellingtonesque strings and horns arrangement, clearly was not written by the band, and I'm nearly certain they resented being told by their producer to record it. This baby could have just as easily found a home on World in a Sea Shell or the first Giant Crab album. That might sound like an insult, but its not-- "Trip" is a soaring, ambitious pop recording that should have been a big hit in some parallel universe.

"Barracuda" finds the Standells back in the garage rock bag, but damned if this isn't way more primal than what we're used to hearing from these guys. This is perfect music for a bar fight, high speed police chase or cocaine party, and if it sounds more like the Chocolate Watch Band than Dick Dodd and his gang, well just remember that the song's author Ed Cobb also served as producer for both groups. (NOTE: Cobb also penned the great "Medication" which both the Standells and Watch Band recorded back in the day.)

Perhaps even stronger is "Did You Ever Have That Feeling?", a mind-melter of cosmic proportions. Listen hard as the Standells finally lose what was left of their good-guy image and go for broke on this psychedelic punk hell ride. If only they had somehow used this song as a template for re-inventing themselves, perhaps today they would be known as more than just the guys who sang "Dirty Water". And so it goes.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Carole King - Phases (2-CD)

Compliation (single artist)
Compilation (various artist)

My fascination with Carole King started in pre-adolescence. That is to say, I had always been aware of her on some level; whether it was her early collaborations with Gerry Goffin on things like "The Locomotion" and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" or via the battered copy of Tapestry my parents kept around the house. (My folks listened to a lot of albums back then, but as a tot I liked Tapestry the best because Carole was funkier than Joan Baez and much prettier than Harry Chapin.)

As I grew older and began to expand my musical horizons a bit, Carole was right there with me. Whether it was the Monkees, the Byrds, the Beatles, the Association, the Turtles or the Strawberry Alarm Clock, it seemed like almost everybody covered at least one Goffin/King tune! More to the point, those songs were almost always ear-worms, peeking their little worm heads out from their surroundings as if to say, "yeah, we were written by people who knew exactly what the hell they were doing".

Yet apart from that old copy of Tapestry, I never really made any valiant effort to check out any of Carole's solo material. That all changed on a fateful afternoon when my friend Jack (er, former friend, but that's another story!) and I drove up to Montclair to check out the CD store he used to work at, Village Sounds. Now I had heard stories about Village Sounds being a front for some sort of money laundering scheme, and sure enough as I started to peruse their CD collection those stories began to ring true. Basically, the place was cut-out city. It was as if they specialized in music that no other stores would sell. Rack after rack of garbage: Krokus, Firefall, Armored Saint, Rob Base & DJ Eazy Rock, Winger. If it sucked or was played out, chances are Village Sounds had it in stock. But then a funny thing happened on the way to rock 'n' roll hell. Amongst the dross, a solitary album cover caught my eye-- two dudes and a chick, nondescript really, leaning up against an old broken down car parked out in a field. And neatly typed up in a very plain-Jayne kinda font alongside the car's driver's side window read simply, "The City".

Something about the overall simplicity of its front cover immediately separated this disc from the garishly adored flotsam that surrounded it on all sides. Mildly intrigued, I picked it up and examined the back cover. "Snow Queen", "A Man Without a Dream", "Wasn't Born to Follow", "Hi-De-Ho", "Now That Everything's Been Said"-- Hot damn! This was a Real Carole King Album from the Sixties, with her singing all my favorite songs! I grabbed it and left Village Sounds, and upon returning back to my old Park Boulevard pad, immediately put said disc on the Sony 5-CD changer. The opening piano lines to "Snow Queen" filled the room and I was hooked.

I don't why I felt it important to explain my lifelong attraction to the music of Carole King just now, other than possibly to impart to you how much the songs you're about to hear mean to me. Her work with both Gerry Goffin and Toni Stern has been covered by virtually anyone who's anyone in the music biz; but astoundingly-- considering the level of talent of the people she's always composed for-- Carole's own versions of her songs almost always trump even the greatest of covers. (See "Wasn't Born to Follow" for an example.) There's just something about the way her soulful, throaty vocal delivery compliments her fluid piano lines that just works on such a high level; at her best she's operating on the same plane as Laura, Dusty, Jackie or Aretha-- all of whom covered Carole King songs by the way, and all of whom are present on the set I'm about to discuss.

So what is Phases then? I suppose you could say its the final fruits of a seed that was planted in my head around the same time I first heard the City CD. Here's the plot: I wanted a 2 disc set that contained a collection of some of the very best cover versions of Carole King tunes on one disc, with Carole's own versions of the same exact songs on the second disc. It's such a simple concept really that I cannot fathom how such a thing is not already out on the market! I started off by compiling a list twenty-three classic Carole King performances (roughly 80 minutes) from what I consider the peak of her career as a writer and performer; 1966-71. Then it was just a matter of accumulating some exquisite contemporaneous covers of those songs; something I've been working on for the last fifteen months. (I crossed the final one off my list last night-- Matthews' Southern Comfort's groovy CSN-meets-Beach Boys take on "To Love".)

As I sit here listening back to Phases while I write this, I realize this really was a brilliant idea on my part. (Pardon the self-aggrandizement, but I'm feeling entitled at the moment!) The first disc of Phases alone serves as an awesome "Best Of" sampler of Carole's phenomenal talents as a singer/songwriter (including the four never-before-released demos that start the set off), but hearing the second disc-- with such an amazing All-Star roster of artists taking turns re-interpreting these gems-- it just does my heart good to listen to it. And so, it's my sincere hope that you will enjoy both discs 1 and 2 of Carole's Phases as much as I do. And if you do, please by all means come back and leave us a comment or two letting us know how much Carole's music means to YOU.