Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Album: The King Of Country Music
Label: Bear Family Records
Artist: Roy Acuff
Album: Columbia Historic Edition
Label: Sony Music
Two more by Roy Acuff. The former, a 2-disc set released on the superb Bear Family Records, covers two CDs worth of material recorded mostly between 1945-1960. This is the era immediately after the era covered in the previous review, from Proper Records, also called The King Of Country Music. I'm no country music scholar by any stretch, but the first thing that comes to mind to me when hearing this batch of songs is The Grand Old Opry. This isn't "mountain music" from the hills of the Appalachian Mountains anymore. The songs are more lively and upbeat, and certainly more orchestrated than on his earlier recordings.
To me, this is both good and bad, I suppose. I really, really enjoy solo-blues and country music from the pre-1950s era, though as time has gone on, I have begun to appreciate full-band recordings from this genre a bit more. The opening track, "Tied Down" sets the mood for the set. More than anything, the production values also set this set apart from his earlier recordings. By the mid-1940s, certainly recording equipment and studios had greatly improved, and it shows.
On the upside, Acuff's songwriting moves in new and different directions with this set. Songs like "The Great Speckled Bird" and "I Like Mountain Music" are classics and deservedly so. They are absolutely beautiful, fun, anthemic songs. There's also a bit of darkness in several songs. "Oh Those Tombs" and his rendition of "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord" have dark, haunting moments that clearly foreshadow the likes of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and the black, underside of country music. Similarly, some of his gospel tunes a re absolutely superb, and the last ten tracks on the compilation all fall under that category.
If this set has a fault, it's that we also get the start of some really, really, generic songs. Acuff pumped out music well through the 1970s, so I do not begrudge someone for repeating himself and others while making music for 40 years. With that said, songs like "When that Great Ship Went Down" and "Don't Judge Your Neighbor" are dull, boring, and repetitive, both lyrically and musically. There is just nothing special about these songs. Again, I'm not a country music scholar at all, but there is so much music to absorb from the greats. I have to imagine these performers were constantly performing new music. But it's not all brilliant and special.
That's okay though. For the most part, the songs across this compilation are absolutely wonderful, and a testament to Acuff's greatness.
The other compilation I have is the earliest Acuff CD I own. From the sound of it, it's mostly material from his earlier years. I am also convinced that the version of "Wabash Cannonball" that appears on this compilation is different than the one on the Proper box. No matter. While the sound quality can be a little shrill, this is how I initially fell in love with Acuff, so I suppose I'll hang on to this compilation.
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Arist: Roy Acuff
Album: King Of Country Music
A few housekeeping notes. The first is that the image I'll be using an image of my copy of the CDs/records going forward. I just think it'll be more personal. In the same spirit, I'll try to include my history with the artist/album into the reviews, and hopefully the reviews will be more personal that way. So on to the review!
I picked up this release at J&R Music World in NYC, sometime in college. It was at the time, the most highly regarded compilation on Allmusic, and I believe, to this day, remains the most comprehensive of all his compilations. Unfortunately, I never listened to it in full until now. Why? Well, for one thing: I am terrible at making it through entire box sets. Another thing is that I learned during college that Proper Records may not be the fairest label. My understanding is that they have taken remastering work done by other labels, and since much of what they release is in the public domain, they tend to get away with it. So I held a skeptical eye on this box set, until now.
The release is a total revelation. The other Roy Acuff compilations I have, a single disc budget release from Columbia, and his Bear Family compilation of the same name, aren't as effective as this one. I'll address both of those in my next two reviews (both discs I owned before this box set), but in short, the latter covers his mid-40s to late-50s period, which isn't as good as his earliest stuff, and the former disc is a mere 12 or so songs. Acuff is called the "King Of Country Music" and it's not hard to hear why. With a career that truly began, in earnest, almost right after the passing of Jimmie Rodgers, Acuff covers a lot of the same ground, but his longevity and breadth of his work is far greater than Rodgers, who died far too early and young. From song structure, to song topics (many, many songs about trains, which Rodgers, "The Singing Brakeman", was also known for), Acuff picks up where Rodgers left off, and runs with it for the next 40+ years.
His voice is very toned-down early on. Even the end of the box set (which moves chronologically), eventually shows a performer more comfortable with belting out tunes. But early on, his voice is very restrained and calm. And early on, there's an incredible diversity to his songs and song structure, especially considering the age of the recordings. "You're The Only Star In My Blue Heaven" moves at a slow pace, and it's intro seems unusually long. In "Mule Skinner Blues", he evokes Rodgers' signature yodeling sound, more evidence of tribute he's playing to the genre's originator. In "Stuck Up Blues", he evokes a white, southern populism, rallying against the rich and those in power who seek to control the little guy.
On songs like "I'll Forgive But I Can't Forget" and "Be Honest With Me", his "new voice" starts to appear. Based on the other compilation I have from Acuff, his voice sounded noticeably different starting in the mid-1940s. While I think it'll grow on me, I prefer the toned-down sound of his earlier recordings.
Towards the end of the compilation, on the final disc, a lot of the spirit and uniqueness of the early recordings starts to disappear. There are a few instrumental tracks which are of no real significance. After that, however, there are three songs which are among the most explicitly religious of all in the set, and it honestly sounds like addressing that subject matter more directly may have given him a bit more excitement, and reinvigorated him. The songs are superb and a great way to end the set.
At over 100 songs, combined with the other two sets I have, this is likely all the Acuff I need. Can't believe it took me so long to really check it out.
Sunday, August 9, 2015
Before breaking up, The Action recorded demos for an album that was to be called Brain. The album never saw the light of day, and members of the band (three of them, though not singer Reg King) would go on to form the band Mighty Baby. As far as the great, unfinished masterpieces of rock and roll go, Rolled Gold should rank very high on any list. While it's an imperfect album (certainly thanks to most of these songs residing in "demo" status), even what we're given ranks along the best of any group's work in the 1960s. Rolled Gold's fourteen songs are likely not sequenced the way an official album would have been released (though "Come Around" makes a splendid opener), and the sound is raw and sourced from acetate. But the performances, as ever, are incredibly lively. Reg King's vocals, for example, on "Look At The View" are incredibly powerful and raw. His repeating of the song's title gives credence to the idea that these guys were working their butts off, and took the demo sessions very seriously (not to imply anybody denies this). Throughout the release, King's vocals are truly better than ever, and his blue-eyed soul singing style perfectly merges with a raw R&B influence that was surprisingly absent on their early tracks. If anything, though this album feels poppier than their early songs, the vocals and performances are rougher. There is no doubt The Action were a better pop group than mod-R&B combo. Along with "Come Around", the title track of the would-be album "Brain" is a deserved classic, with perfect wah-wah guitar that is incredibly understated. The wah-wah is used as a rhythm guitar, and never dominates the song with overdone effects. The drums drive the track, which continuously repeats the same chord progression, but with intensity every time. Other songs, like "Icarus", "Something to Say" and "Strange Roads" showcase The Action's lead guitar work effectively. The guitar work never shows off and fits the songs perfectly. One of my favorite songs on the collection, "Things You Cannot See," is approached totally differently, with a lead acoustic guitar and bongo drums. It's an understated, almost folky track, that shows how deep their songwriting talent was. And on "Really Doesn't Matter", the group shows that they can still belt out a beautiful blue-eyed soul style These songs originally saw an official release in 1995, and the 2002 CD Rolled Gold presumably sounds pretty similar to other variations of this release. It's also, again, worth repeating that these songs were demos, and as such, don't even sound mastered. Whereas something like Smiley Smile was finished by a producer, the songs have an incredibly raw sound, with every song having a different aesthetic mix-wise (some songs have drums louder than guitars, other the opposite way, bass levels vary within songs) which is something a mastering job would smooth over. This is not a complaint however, as the raw-ness of the demos is one of the best parts, and there are many examples I could think of where demos sound more raw and energetic than finished albums (something like the band Tomorrow comes to mind!).
In my sophomore and junior years of college, I was on a tear listening to UK, mid-60s era Nuggets groups. I always have had an affinity for garage rock. The aggression, speed, and raw sound of white teenagers probably hits close enough to home for it to be the one genre I really "get" on a personal level. I have been these guys. Before you grow up. Before you care about sound quality. Before anything matters more than playing with as much grit and speed as possible, this is how you sound. The Small Faces, The Creation, The Smoke and others were constantly in rotation for me that year. While I also fell for The Action, it was their unreleased album Brain that hooked me (later released, and soon to be reviewed, in the Rolled Gold release). I didn't pick up Action Packed until several years later, and I can remember being disappointed. Not every group of this era could be The Who or The Pretty Things and graduate from superb garage-rock to lush, 60s psychedelic masterpieces. But Action Packed did not hit me. It showed none of the glory present on the famous, unreleased album. Sure, on the surface it had all the things I loved about Maximum R&B, but the performances just weren't there for me. Like Satta Massagana this is definitely an album I only have listened to once. But unlike that album, a fresh set of ears made me enjoy it much more the second time around. I can see why I was probably turned off by it upon first listen. Opening track, a cover of Chris Kenner's "Land of 1000 Dances" is just not that good. It reminds me a lot of the Shadows Of Knight's version of "Gloria." Slower and tamer than the original, and especially a song like Dances, with several superb versions, why would I ever reach for this one? Even through what is supposedly supposed to be their best early song, "I'll Keep Holding On", nothing on this compilation really stuck out to me. But once I reached "Hey Sah-Lo-Ney", what makes this band great clearly started being audible. The refrain of "Come On Children" made me think of The Small Faces song of the same name, but really, this group stands out from the pack from their peers. What makes The Action unique is probably two things: a two-guitar lineup that allows for more interesting leads than most of their peers, and a better sense of soul. I especially want to focus on this latter point. In all garage rock, the lead singer is more or less trying to emulate black soul musicians. Whether you are Robert Plant or Steve Marriott, that's just what is being done. Some do it well, some not. Some songs, like "For All That I Am" and "Bony Marony" by The Creation come off great, some, like so many Motown covers (I'm looking at you Mick Jaggar), including the one included here ("Since I Lost My Baby") don't come off well. However, most of the time, these singers seem to be going for the raw emotion of an Otis Redding-type when singing covers, or even their own songs! However, The Action's Reg King is just better than most at singing soulfully. He has a beautiful voice, and it's not masked by any forced roughness. The Action are influences and what they are going for aren't that different than so many of their peers, but they often do it better, and like Dusty Springfield or The Young Rascals, do a great job of mimicking the soul they are emulating. "Wasn't It You" has a great acoustic guitar clearly point the way to their next group of recording sessions, that would lead to the aborted Brain album. "Never Ever" is another great example of superb blue-eyed soul. What strikes me the most from this compilation is also how great of a drummer they have. In listening to Rolled Gold for all of these years, I always thought the drumming was weak and fell off in certain points. Now, hearing it again, on a good CD player, the drumming is on point and unique, and definitely gives the group character. The final song, "Shadows and Reflections" though with a cute harpsichord, is really not good. It sounds generic for the time, and Beatles-lite (unsurprising, considering the group's affiliation with George Martin). The band is at their best with a rough, garage rock-take on soul music. Many of the tracks here point the way to what should have been a masterpiece.
It's only appropriate that I begin this project with an album I've only listened to once. As I get older, the idea of buying music I may not really like becomes rarer and rarer. Gone are the days of trying out various genres of music that, while interesting, aren't things I'm going to regularly listen to. Gone are the days of listening to noise, Japanese psychedelic music, or far Eastern traditional music. It may sound great. There's lots of music in those genres I love. But I don't need to own it, and I'll rarely listen to it. I wouldn't categorize reggae quite the same way. And there are lots of groups and albums in the genre I love. But to say I have anything close to true knowledge of the genre would be a farce. There are albums I love, and that is it. Very little context to those albums, and very little knowledge of those artists, which isn't the case with much of my favorite music. This classic of the genre, released locally and bootlegged for years, according to the liner notes, is a cornerstone of reggae, and its importance puts it on par with the works of Toots and The Maytals and perhaps even Bob Marley, but I don't hear it. I don't know if Satta Massagana made me give up on exploring the genre with greater depth, but it certainly didn't help. This is not an album I'm drawn to in any way, and I can't imagine when the next time I'm going to take it out is. I remember very clearly my reactions to listening to this album for the first time: it was slow, and all the songs sort of sounded the same to me. I generally try not to level that criticism at music, because that is often the case when something is unfamiliar. Many of my favorite albums, in early listens, never hit me and all came across like one single sound (Zen Arcade comes to mind), until subsequent listens allowed me to hear what I was missing. But Satta Massagana never pulls me in, and I really feel no reason to explore it further. The first track, "Declaration Of Rights" should make me feel solidarity with at least the lyrics, but I never really care. I suppose one, especially a novice of the genre, could easily make the case that a lot of reggae music sounds the same (as does, at the end of the day, most music in a given genre). What elevates the likes of The Maytals or The Mighty Diamonds is beautiful vocal harmonies that carry the song. Vocal harmonies that carry the song isn't only a reggae thing, and it would certainly have to be the case for an album like Satta Massagana to stand out, you'd hear it in the vocals. But I don't. The songs all sound the same to me, and pretty lifeless. Not ethat every track falls betweeen 2:43 and 3:45 minutes in length. A song or two does stand out. "Forward Unto Zion" has a fantastic use of horns early on, and at the tail end of the album "I and I" and "African Race" also stick out to me. But the others simply do not. Do I hold onto this album almost solely for the reason that my wife bought it for me, as per my own request, as a birthday present? It seems likely. I often only hold onto DVDs and records I don't care for, thinking that one day it will click. I will be shocked if this one ever does.
I've decided to revive this blog and write about music again. Specifically, I'm going to try to listen to every album I own in alphabetical order and review it and write some thoughts about it. Though I've listened to music and loved music for my whole life (thanks in large part to a father that always played music in the house), I truly got into it around the year 2000, in the seventh grade. I got my own boombox that year, for my Bar Mitzvah, and was able to tape copies of Beatles and Rolling Stones albums for myself. While familiar with a lot of these songs, this marked the start of a period in my life where I'd listen to full albums and discographies. Certainly, this coincided with VH1's release of 100 Greatest Artists/Albums/Songs of all time around this era. Looking back on it, by making lists of albums I wanted to own and ranking my favorites, I was already exhibiting the signs of a record collector. It's been a long journey. I can remember a time when, in the eighth grade, I told my mom my "to-buy" list was 30 things long, and once I had that, I'd be set. I don't remember what comprised that list, but I do remember that Elvis Costello was the most obscure thing on it. Since then I've listened to and re-listened to thousands of albums. I've done this through tapes, downloads, CDs, records. Through my computer, Discman, Walkman, two hand-me-down stereos, cars, and now a stereo that I've bought myself. It feels like for years I've been buying media, listening to it once, and shelving it. I think I'd make myself nauseous if I really looked into how many albums I've impulsively bought in the last few years, feeling like I immediately needed it, and then only listened to it once. So much of my collection was acquired during adolescence, and the majority of my music is something I've only listened to on an old, blown-out stereo, in a car, or in a Discman. So this project has two goals. Go back and listen to all my music in what is the best stereo I've ever owned. And perhaps slow down on the pace of acquiring new music, and sit back and enjoy what I already have. If applicable, I'll make comments on the various formats and releases of albums I've owned. Some I have on CD and vinyl. Some multiple CDs and multiple records. Thanks for reading.