Sunday, September 28, 2008

The only place to find cool old music

As the major label distribution companies (Universal, Warner Group, EMD and Sony) continue to fall apart before our eyes (largely due to problems of their own making) they also seem less and less willing to raid their own vaults. Much of the great music of the past resides in their control yet releasing it doesn’t fit their economy of scale. Thus a niche has been created for smaller boutique labels to license these forgotten gems and raid their own record collections of super-rare small label pressings and the savvy consumer is the winner. It reminds me of the period in the late 60’s and early 70’s when I could easily spend an entire Saturday going from one used record store to another and find an almost unlimited supply of hip obscurities that were beneath the radar of radio, press and most of the public. There were tons of soul, folk, and outsider rock albums that, while unknown by most, were as good, or in some cases better, than the 50-100 same songs to be found on commercial radio. In those days artists like Boogaloo Joe Jones, Professor Longhair, Nick Drake, Fred Neil or Red Krayola were findable and often cheap because not even the clerks in the record stores knew or cared who they were. Now, original LPs by these artists are costly but almost everything is being reissued by small specialty labels and available at local music stores. Here are a few great ones that have been reissued in just the last couple of months.

Pick up Paul's recommendations online here!

Rodriguez - Cold Fact

The legend of Sixto Rodriguez is so weird that it could only be true. In the 60’s the Detroit resident made a couple of albums of socially conscious psych-folk and then seemingly slipped into obscurity like so many others. But something weird happened. History would not let the man go. He became a cult figure in Australia for a few years and then seemed to disappear again amid rumors of an untimely death. He then became a cult sensation in South Africa (?) where his albums achieved gold status. In reality, he had removed himself from showbiz and sought a career in politics (unsuccessfully it would appear). While surfing the internet, his daughter discovered her father’s cult status and thus Rodriguez began his return to the public eye. In the years that had passed the song “Sugar Man” had become something of a crate-digger’s Holy Grail item, It is an unforgettable “just-say-yes” drug anthem filled with spooky strings, some early studio trickery, a killer horn part and a hook that will not leave your head once it gets in there. Various modern DJs and musicians have embraced the song, and now the wonderful Light In The Attic label has released this classic album for everyone to enjoy.
Musically it is definitely of the times with trippy, folky, softish-rock not too dissimilar from Tim Buckley, and lyrically he covers much of the same ground as his contemporaries - poverty, drugs, sex, racial inequity, etc. He is tremendously sincere if a bit heavy-handed yet the overall effect is both dated and strangely timeless. Throughout listening to it I kept looking at the picture of him on the cover and marveling at the coolness of this obscure one-of-a-kind weirdo that time refused to let slip away. The entire album is very enjoyable, but the real marvel is “Sugar Man.”

Boscoe - Boscoe

The lone album by this insanely obscure Chicago Soul, Jazz, Funk powerhouse has been released on CD by the Numero label which has excelled at finding rare soul music much to the joy of the DJ community. Boscoe made their one album on a rinky-dink label that made as few as 500 copies of it originally. Nobody had this record. Made in 1973, it brings together many of the urban sounds of the years preceding it and presages much of the music to come. One hears echoes of everything from Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders and Santana to Gil Scott-Heron, Earth Wind and Fire, and War. Highly conscious, soulful lyrics float above a tough, muscular horn and rhythm section, creating a really groovy stew that should have DJs sampling like mad. This album should have been recognized as a unique part of the Black Music legacy of America but its absolute scarcity kept it from the public’s attention. Now is your chance to get it in a really nice, high-quality album-style cover that befits the cool music within.

Marie “Queenie” Lyons - Soul Fever

Another mysterious singer who produced only one superb album and then disappeared forever, Marie “Queenie” Lyons could have truly been a contender. Almost nothing is known about her other than some early 60’s experience with King Curtis (whose influence is obvious on tracks like “You Used Me”), and years working the chitlin’ circuit as an opening act for many bigger names. There is some suspicion that she might have been a James Brown protégé, and his vocal style is also quite obvious on this album. But almost nothing is known about her past and absolutely nothing seems to be known about her since the release of this album on the DeLuxe label in 1970. Stylistically she sounds like a throatier version of Etta James with obvious inspiration from Motown as well (check out the Tamla-esque arrangement on “Snake in the Grass”). Unlike many of her contemporaries “Queenie” never utters a phrase without soul. For instance, a song like “Fever” has tricked many a well-intentioned singer to try and sound sultry or sophisticated when they are neither. In the hands of Miss Lyons it is a stone groove sung with real guts. In fact every song on the album is strong and soulful. This is a real find by the Vampisoul label which has made a great reputation for discovering rare albums by lost Soul, Jazz and Tropical artists.

Embryo - Rocksession

I remember first discovering the Brain label in the mid 70’s at Underground Records, the store I was to buy some 15 years later and turn into Twist and Shout. Brain was a fabulous German label that released great, weird progressive and psychedelic albums by unknown (to Americans) European bands. Those, shiny, slick Euro album covers featuring avant-garde artwork with a slightly erotic subtext always drew me in, and the far-out music often kept me there. Rocksession is an album of inspired Jazz-Rock-World fusion that is sure to please fans of Can, Pink Floyd, Traffic or even Mahavishnu Orchestra. There are no vocals to get in the way, just four extended tracks of solid and spacey ensemble playing. The major solo instruments (organ, guitar and sax) are played with serious chops and the ethnic, multi-layered percussion is reminiscent of the best moments of early Santana. This CD has been reissued by the SPV label which has become one of the best sources for obscure 70’s prog, taking care to even reproduce those luxurious covers in all their sensual glory.
I can almost guarantee that if you play this album at your next party, all your cool friends will want to know what it is and your work friends will think you are somewhat more enigmatic than the guy who helps them change the toner in the Xerox machine all week.

Yahowa Presents - Songs From The Source-Children Of The Sixth Root Race

The absurdly long and nonsensical title should clue you in to what a singularly interesting album this is. For those who don’t know about The Source, it was a religious cult in the late 60’s and 70’s that began as the health food restaurant of a charismatic kook named James Baker who became “Father Yod” then “Yahowa” to his followers whom he indoctrinated into a hippie broth of Christianity, Eastern Sprituality, Health Food, Weed, Sex and Rock and Roll. Sounds pretty cool right? Well, from the sounds of things (read The Source by Isis Aquarian to get the whole story) it was pretty fun in a totally hedonistic and irresponsible way for quite awhile, until Father Yod decided he could hang glide without any instruction and killed himself by jumping off a cliff in Hawaii. Before this cult-ending event though, they indulged in all of the above-mentioned sacraments resulting in a number of albums that are now considered kind of religio-psych classics. They are definitely religious, with lots of talk about love, Father, Father’s teachings, love of Father and that sort of stuff, but musically they are quite interesting. There seems to have been some liberating element to not caring about being popular. They made this music to profess their faith and have a good time, and thus it is free of any commercial convention. It sounds kind of like a cross between the 5th Dimension and the Polyphonic Spree with lots of wailing electric guitars and righteous church organ. The overall effect is actually quite psychedelic. You know those Andy Hardy movies where Andy said “hey kids, let’s put on a show!” This sounds like that - if they were all on acid. While not for everyone, this album will offer some insights into a specific facet of 60’s consciousness for those so inclined. Released by the legendary punk and garage label Drag City this weird, un-commercial album actually does have some things in common with the punk ethos.

Nigeria 70 Lagos Jump: Original Heaveyweight Afrobeat, Highlife & Afro Funk

This compilation brings together 16 tracks of energetic African music from a period when it was just starting to really make waves on the international scene. Most music fans are aware of Fela Kuti and his genre-defining style of repetitive big-band grooves, and a couple of the artists on this comp. sound familiar that way. However, most of the cuts here sparkle with fresh authenticity and varying African styles. There is wealth of great, danceable material to discover on this disc, and the company distributing it - K7 - is a well-known dance label, so there are obviously opportunities aplenty to uncover great exotic breaks. This CD is a great resource to be mined by DJs with an ear for the interesting and unexpected.

Lorez Alexandria - For Swingers Only

I don’t know how I missed out on this superb singer all this time but this album is a revelation to me. Recorded in 1963 on Chess subsidiary label Argo, Ms. Alexandria was already well into a small yet noticed career. She possesses a voice with some of the natural, soulful qualities of Billie Holiday and the sophisticated control of Sarah Vaughan. She uses her gift to great effect throughout a program of standards ranging from beautifully executed ballads like “All or Nothing At All” and “Little Girl Blue” to up-tempo numbers like “Baltimore Oriole,” “That Old Devil Called Love” and a slinky take on Memphis Slim’s signature tune “Mother Earth.” Sharing equal responsibility for the success of the album is the crack band that includes Coltrane band member Jimmy Garrison on bass and some sympathetic woodwind work from Ronald Wilson. One can’t help but marvel at a voice so great being so underappreciated over the passage of time. Nobody mentions Lorez Alexandria when talking about the greats but if you give this album a good listen you may well start to put her in that exalted category. This album is perfect for a sophisticated party or late night contemplation. The label, Dusty Groove, is an outgrowth of an uber-hip record store that has started to release some of the vinyl gems that they see come through their doors that would probably otherwise never see the light of day on CD. Nice work guys!

1 comment:

Aguas de Unidad said...

Paul, I thought you might like to hear this report about Sixto Rodriguez that was on NPR yesterday: