The Sound and the Fury

December 4, 2018

Tasty Year-end Leftovers

Craig Smith bundle

There’s never enough space to write about everything worthwhile, but here’s a roundup some items that should not be missed

As a music journalist, I’m always being sent “product”: CDs, vinyl, books, and, increasingly, music downloads and PDFs. So there’s never any shortage of stuff to pitch — and never enough space to write about everything I’d like to. So, for this year end column, I’m going to trawl through the pile and see what comes up …

Let’s start with latest of the David Bowie reissues, Loving the Alien [1983-1988] (Parlophone), one of the series of box sets covering his career. There are newly remastered versions of Let’s Dance, Tonight, and Never Let Me Down, three of his most commercially successful releases. But even Bowie felt the latter album could use some more work, so this set includes a new revamping, transforming it into a startling new creation (though the original version, and Tonight are still well worth reinvestigating, with fresh ears). There’s also previously unreleased live show from the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour, two albums with rarities like non-album tracks and dance remixes, plus the usual lovely hardback book of liner notes (though the type’s rather small in the CD edition). Probably better for those who don’t already own a lot of Bowie, but there are some new items to tempt collectors.

Mike Stax’s 2016 book, Swim Through the Darkness (Process Media), tells the tragic tale of musician Craig Smith. Smith had a promising career, as a songwriter (Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, and the Monkees all recorded his songs), as well as a performer (in the cult act the Penny Arkade, among others). But in 1968, he was violently assaulted while travelling in Afghanistan, and left mentally broken; he died, homeless, in 2012. But he’d never stopped creating music, releasing two albums in 1972 under the name Maitreya Kali. Now there’s more; Love is Our Existence (Maitreya Apache Music), released this year, features 19 previously unreleased demos. Most songs are from 1966-1971, just Smith and his guitar, and show that whatever his inner demons, he was still capable of crafting moving, heartfelt work. Also good is “Waves,” a song from 1994, that Smith offered to the Beach Boys.

From the good folks at Light in the Attic Records comes Cruisin’ for Surf Bunnies by Lee Hazlewood’s Woodchucks. Who were the Woodchucks? No one knows for sure. The tape, with its 12 songs recorded on October 26, 1964 at United Recorders in Los Angeles, came with no other documentation aside from the name “Woodchucks” written on the box, likely a placeholder name for one of Hazlewood’s many “studio only” groups. Some tracks were later recorded by other acts, but the original Woodchucks’ versions have never previously been released. Fans of echoey, reverb-laden surf rock will love it; turn up the volume for an instant beach party in your living room.

carvello-bookIf Dorothy Carvello’s Anything For a Hit (Chicago Review Press) is anything to go by, you don’t just need a thick skin to be in the music industry — you also need a strong stomach. “Everything was about sex at Atlantic [Records],” she writes, and starting out as an assistant at Atlantic, Carvello’s daily routine might involve having her clothes pulled off in an elevator by Atlantic execs, or bringing in contracts for Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun to sign while he was getting a blow job. Equally disheartening are her descriptions of how record labels dedicated themselves to ripping off their artists: “As one top Atlantic executive admitted, ‘All we did was fuck and steal,’” she writes in a chapter appropriate called “Lucky Criminals.” Carvello went on to become an A&R rep, but eventually quit the business. A jaw-dropping, compelling read.

I grew up listening to my parents’ Weavers records, but didn’t know much about them beyond the 1982 documentary Wasn’t That a Time. Jesse Jarnow’s biography has the same title, with the subhead The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America (DaCapo Press). And it was a literal battle too; Jarnow describes, in horrifying detail about attendees at a pre-Weavers benefit concert in Peekskill, New York, being pelted with rocks, the police even joining in (one saying, “We beat the hell out of them. I got two myself”). It feels all too contemporary, as do the struggles the group faces about “selling out” when they achieve success. An inspiring story of performers dedicated to fighting the good fight, whatever the costs.

ace-of-cupsAce of Cups were a strong draw in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1967 to 1972. But the all-female group never had resources to tour beyond the region, and thus remained a local attraction, never releasing a single recording. Decades later, George Baer Wallace of High Moon Records caught the reformed group performing at Wavy Gravy’s 75th birthday party and promptly offered them a deal to record their first-ever studio album. Four of the five original members (Denise Kaufman, Mary Ellen Simpson, Mary Gannon, Diane Vitalich) signed up, and they’re joined on their self-titled debut album by such friends as Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane), and Buffy Sainte-Marie, among others. The music is a terrific blend of pop, rock, and a bit of country, folk, and blues. Look for another album in 2019.

The year also saw the release of the first album by the English Beat since 1982, Here We Go Love! (Here We Go Records). Note that this is the Dave Wakeling, U.S. version of the band; Ranking Roger heads up the U.K. lineup. The politically-minded Wakeling pours it on in the opening track, “How Can You Stand There?,” an attack on apathy, which, for all its contemporary vibe, was actually written in 2010. It’s music to get both your mind and your feet moving (case in point: the self-explanatory “If Killing Worked It Would’ve Worked By Now”). There’s also a note of sadness amidst the merriment; “Never Die” is a ballad reflecting on lost loved ones. But most of the album is upbeat, a reminder of the importance of dancing on in the face of adversity

Quick cuts: Planet Jarre (Sony) offers a great overview of Jean-Michel Jarre’s 50 years an electronic music wizard. Among the 41 tracks are two new numbers, “Coachella Opening” and “Herbalizer” and the previously unreleased demo “Music for Supermarkets” from the early ’80s.

Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin, and Beyond — The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager (DaCapo Press) is Mark Blake’s book on Zeppelin’s fearsome minder. Blake’s aided in his task by the participation of Grant’s family and colleagues. It’s an insightful look at a time when the music industry was far more freewheeling than it is today.

46059_02_Slipcase_Outside.inddR.E.M. fans will definitely want to put R.E.M at the BBC (Craft Recordings) on their holiday wish lists — and only the full box set will do. The 8 CDs are crammed with goodies, spanning some 20 years, including such favorites as “Losing My Religion” (four different versions), and deep catalog songs like “Hyena.” There’s also a DVD of rare TV appearances. Relish in the bounty.

Let me squeeze in one more, Bunk Johnson & Leadbelly at New York Town Hall 1947 (ORG Music), two legends accompanied by other stellar players, on vinyl for the first time. Don’t miss it.


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