Monday, May 18, 2009

Here We Come...The Monkees Vinyl Reissues from Sundazed

Sundazed Records has recently reissued the first five albums by the prefab four.

Those albums are:

The Monkees (1966)
More Of The Monkees (1967)
Headquarters (1967)
Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (1967)
The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees (1968)

Each is peppered with bonus tracks on High-Definition Vinyl and boast a nice consumer-friendly list price of $16.98.

Amazingly, in the year and a half span that initially saw these albums released - all but one reached the top of the charts in both the US and UK (The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees at an underachieving #3).
Some of the more well-known songs found on these albums are "Last Train To Clarksville", "The Girl I Knew Somewhere", "Valleri", "Pleasant Valley Sunday", "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You", "For Pete's Sake" (used as the closing theme to the show), "Take A Giant Step", "Words", "Tapioca Tundra", "She", "Daydream Believer", "Randy Scouse Git", "Love Is Only Sleeping", "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" and of course "I'm A Believer".

It's very nice seeing these classic vinyl LPs in print once again.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Big Star Reissue #1 Record And Radio City

Memphis Power Pop legends Big Star are set to reissue their first two albums - 1972's mondo-influential #1 Record and 1974's even-more-amazing Radio City - on June 16th. Ardent/Stax are releasing both LPs on vinyl with fully-restored artwork (including the original labels).

However the CD release will be a twofer of both #1 Record and Radio City with the same combined artwork as on the 1992 Fantasy Records and the 2004 SACD reissues. There will, at very least, be two bonus tracks (one per LP). That being the single recording of "In The Street" which had previously appeared as the B-Side to the "When My Baby's Beside Me" single and on the 20 Greats from the Golden Decade of Power Pop compilation and the single edit of "O My Soul". Although Radio City had several outtakes - including "I Got Kinda Lost", "Gone With The Light", "Motel Blues" and "There Was A Life" - none have been included in the reissue.

How would you know Big Star? They were fronted by the late Chris Bell and lead singer for The Box Tops, Alex Chilton. One of their most well-known songs is "In The Street", a version of which was covered by Cheap Trick for the theme song to That '70's Show. Several Big Star songs appeared in various episodes of that show on several occasions. "I'm In Love With A Girl" was recently used in a Heineken commercial. Chris Bell's "Speed Of Sound" appeared in Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist. R.E.M., The Replacements, The Bangles and Wilco have covered their material. Not to mention The Replacements' paying tribute to the band in their 1987 college-radio hit "Alex Chilton". Who do they sound like? The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Beach Boys and Badfinger in varying degrees.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Cars (1978 Elektra) A Perfect Debut.

Boston, MA's The Cars contained ex-members of The Modern Lovers (which also featured Jonathan Richman and Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison), the folky and very un-New Wave Milkwood and members of comedian Martin Mull's backing band. They were an American Pub-Rock band that adapted a hybrid of Rock And Roll while carefully merging a New Wave sensibility as well. Needless to say, they were quite successful at this. The Cars may be one of the most successful debuts of the initial 1977-1983 New Wave era. The Cars contained sleek songs with sleek arrangements which is in direct contrast to the booming background vocals treated by Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker. They could be seen as the missing link between The Beach Boys and Weezer.

Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Ric Ocasek was basically an awkward New Wave Buddy Holly with songs to match while bassist and vocalist Benjamin Orr had more conventional pop idol looks and sang the more pop material. The hit singles - "My Best Friend's Girl", "Good Times Roll" and "Just What I Needed" still get lots of airplay on AOR and alternative stations. "Don't Cha Stop", "You're All I've Got Tonight" and "Bye Bye Love" were also FM hits and still get a decent amount of airplay as well. I've personally heard all-nine songs from the album on the radio at various times. And the meandering "Moving In Stereo" is pretty well known for it's appearance in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The album was given an upgraded deluxe two-disc treatment by those do-gooders at Rhino in the late 90's and contains studio demos of the tracks and such would-have-been-classics as "They Won't See You" and "Wake Me Up" which is easily the one to get.

The Cars - Candy-O (1979 Elektra) No Sophomore Slump And More Varied Than Debut

How do you top one of the greatest debuts the 1970's? Maybe you do, maybe you don't. The Cars followed their self-titled debut with the Candy-O album. The band's sophomore album is much more diverse than their debut and touches on various elements of Roxy Music, Suicide, T.Rex and David Bowie.

Plus the album contained three sizable hit singles ("It's All I Can Do", "Double Life" and "Let's Go") and a sexy Vargas Girl painting (painted by Playboy illustrator Alberto Vargas, himself).

Whereas the debut had one, albeit very enjoyable, sound for the majority of the album - each track (without too much fuss) is given it's own individual sound. The big Roy Thomas Baker multi-tracked Queen-as-per-The Beach Boys backing vocals are present from time to time but not to the extent as on their debut. "Shoo Be Doo" is something of an homage to NY art rockers Suicide. "Double Life" and "Dangerous Type" sound like New Wave T.Rex. The trippy "Night Spots", the driving "Got A Lot On My Head", and the dark brooding title-track may be The Cars at their most all-out rocking. "Lust For Kicks" and "You Can't Hold On Too Long" are both (successful) exercises in then-modern New Wave musical and lyrical sensibilities.

"It's All I Can Do" (which was a top-40 single and was later in the film The Wedding Singer) and "Since I Held You" are both great would-be ballads - the former being a great Orr vocal showcase. "Let's Go" is this album's "Just What I Needed". A monster hit still heard on the radio today and the hand-clap segment is still invariably heard in baseball stadiums at various times during games. Also of note is "That's It" (the B-Side to "Let's Go") as it's similar to both "It's All I Can Do" and "Since I Held You" - which may be why it was left off the album. It was however collected on the Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology collection.

Candy-O arguably might be from beginning to end, song-for-song their most enjoyable - if not most interesting - album.

The Cars - Panorama (1980 Elektra) Difficult Third Album One Of The Cars' Finest

At the time of Panorama's release it was deemed difficult, awkward and overly-arty. Time has proven that these things were not such bad things for The Cars. Given the somewhat agreeable one-two punch of the two stellar albums that preceded (the frighteningly good debut and just-as-good-and-still-growing Candy-O) it may have confused a segment of The Cars' audience. The band were always huge fans of - and always employed - the technological developments in pop music (i.e. drummer David Robinson's sole use of electronic drums by the time of Heartbeat City and keyboardist Greg Hawkes's wide variety of the then-current sounds). For the most part the songs themselves never suffered too much as a result. There are a few sparingly dated sounds here and there but these have since been embraced by the electronica set. However that's just gravy in this case as the songs, however lyrically obtuse (or vague if you will), do stand up to many repeated listens.

Highlights include but are not limited to "Running To You", the delightfully askew title-track, the goofy "Misfit Kid", "Getting Through", the great singles "Gimme Some Slack", "Touch And Go" and the stubbornly-slow "Don't Tell Me No". Simply put, if you like Candy-O and Shake It Up chances are you'll like Panorama.

There's not much reason why the album's lone B-Side "Don't Go To Pieces" (later included on the Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology collection) couldn't have been included amongst the ten tracks on the album in the first place and it's not a CD bonus-track here either. Aside from that small observation there's not too much griping to be had here besides from the uniformly minimal and poor CD versions of the LP front, back and inner artwork and no liner notes that was de rigeur.

The Cars - Shake It Up (1981 Elektra Records) The Last Great Cars Album

Shake It Up is a fantastic album. Although I didn't realize this upon first listen. A few listens later I understood this album to be exceptional. It incorporates more synthesizer parts than before but the arrangements are good, and every guitar, synth and vocal line is purposeful, sleek and concise. David Robinson regrettably started using a lot of synthesized drums in addition to his standard drum kit which in-time began to date even some of the Cars best songs. But the songs on Shake It Up are, more often than not, thankfully untouched by such horribly dated sounds. The electronic sounds are, in large part, in perfect harmony with the guitars and basses.

"Since You're Gone" is one of Ric Ocasek's finest songs, the lightly psychedelic "Victim Of Love" and the fun, mindlessly-catchy throw-away title track are some of the best singles of 81/82. "Cruiser" is a fine straight-ahead rocker and "This Could Be Love" is melodically twitchy. Songs such as "Think It Over", "I'm Not The One" and "A Dream Away" are the weakest songs here and none of them are bad, just weak only by comparison. Nothing here sounds like filler even if it is.

As far as the currency of the songs: "Since You're Gone" and "Shake It Up" were both featured in the film and soundtrack to The Last American Virgin and "I'm Not The One" was in Billy Madison. For some reason I still indirectly associate these songs directly with both of these films.

In fact this was the last Cars album where non-single tracks got just as much airplay as some singles might have - in fact some may very well have even charted as a result. It's also the last cohesive Cars album (Heartbeat City was wildly uneven) as all of the tracks are strong and are relatively well-sequenced.

Recommended? Surely and muchly.

The Cars - Heartbeat City ( 1984 Elektra ) By No Means Without It's Share Of Compromises

The Cars' Heartbeat City is indeed the sound of the Summer of 1984. And unfortunately many, many individual sounds on the album stayed there as well - as they were almost entirely dated by the end of that very Summer. The Cars constant employment of that weeks' sound gave much of the material on this album in particular a somewhat limited shelf-life. As so many synth sounds from this era didn't sound too amazing in the first place, it's pretty understandable that they didn't age too well either. Which is a shame as the songs themselves are fully-formed and full of life with pretty good arrangements. I've constantly wondered what exactly what David Robinson's (now a Boston-based entrepreneur) thought process was and how could he possibly think that his drum sound was improving with each successive album by solely using electronic drums (on both studio recordings and for live performances as well).

"Hello Again" sounds like Gary Glitter as performed by a bunch of tone-def session musicians. The song is great, but the choice of shrill keyboard parts leave much to be desired. And the Mutt Lange/Def Leppardesque "Hello"s in the intro are a bit much. "Drive" is a great song that can't be tarnished by bland muzak instrumentation - the chord sequence, the arrangement and Ben Orr's vocals are all perfect. "You Might Think" is a good, fluffy song with, once again, keyboard parts that I've always found to significantly detract from the overall impact of the song. Many of the non-singles (just four of ten tracks) are pretty forgettable and sound as if this is by design if not intention. "Why Can't I Have You" - which haunted FM radio when released - is a by-the-numbers synth-ballad with an ill-conceived synth-violin solo (it's actually an emulator but synth is a more convenient term of reference).

The two knock-out moments, for me personally, are the title-track which is a moody, warm and lightly emotive synth-heavy song with floating chorused-guitar parts. But because it is so understated and the choice of sounds on the synthesizer aren't seemingly attempting to win the award for most obnoxious synth sound ever the song is all the better for it. The vocals and guitar parts are purposeful and effective. The other big highlight is "Magic". Considering the first word uttered in the song is "Summer", it's not so ironic that this is a celebration-of-Summer song. It's probably one of my all-time favorite Summer songs and it was everywhere during the Summer of 1984. From the psychedelic bubbling-keyboard alarm intro to the chorused guitars and sweeter-than-sweet backing vocals. Perfect. Even the some of the dullest drum sounds ever can't taint the overall effect of the song.

As everyone knows, and if you didn't know, this album did the business.
Six singles, most of them huge hits, platinum album several times over.
But what's funny is how the more generic The Cars sound as a band became, whilst individual instrumental parts simultaneously became less concise, less sleek and larger than before, the more successful they became. The bass, and guitars all but disappeared while awful drum-sounds, emulators, synthesizers and Linn drums dominated the proceedings. These are initially not the things that made The Cars interesting.

This a necessary part of The Cars puzzle (without the hit singles there would be nothing of note here) and it's the only Cars album where the non-singles are, for the most part, entirely-forgettable. Shake It Up is most similar to this in The Cars catalog but that album is much more worthwhile than this. Whereas this album is an exercise in dated keyboard sounds trying to undo a few good singles and nearly succeeding in doing so.

The Cars - Greatest Hits ( 1985 Elektra )

Although the band joked about calling their 1978 debut album as "The Cars Greatest Hits", this 1985 stop-gap release is a pretty okay one-stop for admirers of The Cars more popular singles. In actuality, bands like The Police, The Cars and Talking Heads had as many "turntable hits" - songs that AOR or alternative radio played as much as the label-picked singles - as they did chart hits (I personally used to hear "Got a Lot on My Head", "Running to You" and "Bye Bye Love" on local station WLIR-FM as a kid all the time). So a collection like this might leave some out in the cold. That didn't stop it from over selling six-million or so copies.

What does it have? The three formal hit-singles from their sterling debut ("My Best Friend's Girl", "Good Times Roll" and uber-hit "Just What I Needed"), only one of the three singles from their even-more-exciting sophomore album Candy-O ("Let's Go"), again only one of the three singles from the difficult/challenging third album Panorama ("Touch and Go"), a re-recorded version of "I'm Not the One" and two of the three hit singles from their 1981 Shake It Up album ("Since You're Gone" and the title track), four of the six singles from the stupidly-successful Heartbeat City album and a fine, if generic, new single , which also became a huge hit (the double-entendre of "Tonight She Comes").

Recommended? Personally I'm not a fan of best-of's/greatest hits collections but there are exceptions - when the releases have virtual lives and identities all their own (i.e. The Beatles' 1962-1966 (The Red Album) and 1967-1970 (The Blue Album) and The Beach Boys' Endless Summer). There aren't too many from the 80's - however this might might very well be one of them. For a full retrospective get the double-disc mid 90's collection Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology.

The Cars - Door To Door ( 1987 Elektra ) Underrated, Sure, But Not Illogically So

For all intents and purposes, Door To Door is the black sheep of all Cars albums. It's lyrics are somewhat faceless, inoffensive and are nearly generic in stance. Which is a shame because it doesn't have too much in common with anything else in The Cars discography. The Cars were a band that moved with the times. This was bad for a few reasons. Hair bands were all the rage at the time as was full-on bland synth-rock. So, we got Ric Ocasek's somewhat watered-down versions of both. David Robinson's big booming drums have all but disappeared seemingly replaced by the non-intrusive beeps and taps of electronic drums - regarding half of the album's songs I found myself asking the question "who thought it was a good idea to release recordings of the band accompanying a drum machine?". The Cars began as band whose sleek arrangements were to accentuate the songs. Greg Hawkes whose keyboard parts in the past generally accompanying both guitars now spill all over the arrangements - which are in and of themselves, pretty unimaginative. The only things to indicate that it is in fact a Cars album are Ocasek and Benjamin Orr's distinctive vocals.

The lead single "You Are The Girl" is inoffensive, if not anemic. "Double Trouble" is a generic Orr-sung rocker with an annoying keyboard part which is intended to flesh out the chorus. Oddly, the song ends up being a highlight. The follow-up singles "Coming Up You" and "Strap Me In" are both effective and are perhaps the best songs on the album. Re-recordings of two of the bands earliest songs ("Ta Ta Wayo Wayo" and "Leave Or Stay") sound out of place and are, not-surprisingly, inferior to their original versions. Their appearances here also indicate that perhaps Ocasek's creative juices were not flowing as freely as they had before. And the title-track is perhaps the Cars worst song, if not their worst recording of a song (again, what's with the sped up drum machine?).

It wasn't perhaps the best album to bow-out on but it's by no means a total embarrassment and certainly worth hearing (or purchasing at a discounted price). Considering they were something of a respected band - one has to wonder why the band let other musical technological fashions dictate their own as much as they did. Real drums always win in rock bands - as history has well-proven. I'm glad The Cars are not remembered for this album, but for their vastly superior prior output.