Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Big Star tribute album

Big Star Small World, a long-lost tribute album featuring various artists' recordings of songs by Big Star, was released last week on the Koch label. This album was originally intended to be released in 1998, but its original distributor folded before its release date, and it is now finally seeing the light of day. It was executive-produced by Jody Stephens, Big Star's drummer. Time has not been kind to this collection; four of the participating bands (Gin Blossoms, Afghan Whigs, Whiskeytown, and Idle Wilds) have since broken up, and a few of the other artists (Juliana Hatfield, Teenage Fanclub) have undeservedly faded into indie-label oblivion.

Tribute albums in general tend to be tired exercises that end up making their subjects seem trivial, usually because the participants are less talented than the original artist, and they simply bring the subject's music down to their level. Big Star Small World is fortunately not one of those cases, but it's also no unearthed treasure. None of the song remakes are bad, but none of them are likely to knock your socks off.

Many of the tracks are merely faithful recreations of the originals. The only two songs that differ much from their original versions are Wilco's dreamy take on "Thirteen" (interesting, but not great) and Kelly Willis' country rendition of "When My Baby's Beside Me" (one of the high points of the collection).

Matthew Sweet's faithful remake of "Ballad Of El Goodo" is well done, which was probably a given. (Mike Mills of REM played bass on that song, and Jody Stephens played drums). The Gin Blossoms made an exact replica of "Back Of A Car", albeit with the predictable but likable Gin Blossoms sound. Idle Wilds do an almost exact soundalike of "You Get What You Deserve", even mimicking the original's vocals.

The Afghan Whigs didn't change "Nightime" much, but they put a personal stamp on it just by being themselves. Whiskeytown's version of "Give Me Another Chance" is distinguished by Ryan Adams' sleazy alt-country vocal. Juliana Hatfield flubs her rendition of "Don't Lie To Me", mainly because her baby voice doesn't suit the ferocious song well. (She does have two male back-up singers joining in, but it doesn't help much). I wish Hatfield had chosen a different song; personally, I've always thought her song "For The Birds" was musically similar to Big Star's "For You".

It's no surprise that Teenage Fanclub and the Posies, two very Big Star-like bands by nature, turn in good respective versions of "Jesus Christ" and "What's Goin' Ahn", with the benefit of better sound than the originals.

The CD's final track is a "new" Big Star song called "Hot Thing", recorded by Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. That song was previously released on the 2003 compilation Big Star Story. It's a loose r&b number that bears little resemblance to the power pop of Big Star's '70's albums, but anyone who has heard this lineup's recent studio album In Space probably suspected as much.

Bottom line: Big Star Small World is worthwhile, though not essential, for those who love Big Star's music. For anyone else, it may not hold much interest.

In related news: a new album is coming on July 18th from Golden Smog, a supergroup featuring Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Big Star's Jody Stephens, Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy, and three members of the Jayhawks. Another Fine Day is the first Golden Smog album since...1998. Is this all just a coincidence?

Emmylou Harris "Gliding Bird" (1969)

Rarebird's Spotlight Album Review #11 is completed. The subject is the forgotten 1969 debut album by Emmylou Harris, titled Gliding Bird. It was recorded a few years before Harris met Gram Parsons, her supposed mentor. Here is the review:

http://rarebird9.net/glidingbird.html

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Flying Burrito Brothers mid-'70's albums coming to CD

The albums Flying Again (1975) and Airborne (1976), the first two albums that were recorded by a "reunited" version of the Flying Burrito Brothers, are being released as a 2-on-1 CD by the Acadia label on June 27th. Flying Again was available on CD in Europe in the past. To the best of my knowledge, this will be the first time on CD anywhere for Airborne.

The lineup that recorded Flying Again featured two original FBB members: pedal steel guitarist "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow and bassist Chris Ethridge. The rest of the quintet was made up of latter-day Byrds drummer Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram), ex-Canned Heat guitarist Joel Scott Hill, and veteran session fiddler Floyd "Gib" Guilbeau (who was involved in most of the FBB lineups that came after this one).

Flying Again was released two years after the death of Gram Parsons, and some considered it a form of sacrilege for this quintet to release an album under the FBB's name, especially without Chris Hillman's participation. The album itself won't offend those who are less easily offended, but it may put them to sleep. It consists of slickly produced middle-of-the-road country, the kind that was becoming much too common at that point. The original FBB were considered pioneers of the country-rock genre, but this version of the band merely sounded like followers. The cover songs (especially George Jones' "Why Baby Why") come off slightly better than the originals.

Ethridge quit the band after only one album, just like he did in the beginning. He was replaced by the late Skip Battin (another latter-day Byrd), and this lineup recorded Airborne. This album is not as slick as its predecessor, but it's similarly dull. Aside from a few standout tracks (including Stevie Wonder's "She's A Sailor", which features Stevie on piano), this album is spread out awfully thin. A few days after listening to Airborne, you may not remember having done so.

Doors documentaries and other items coming soon

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Doors, two documentary films are in production, and at least one of them is intended for theatrical release. Here are details:

http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117941135?categoryid=13&cs=1

The article points out that the documentaries are being co-produced by the Doors Music Co. as part of a concerted effort by the surviving band members and their manager to maintain the enduring popularity of their work. Other upcoming items are mentioned in the article:

A new box set encompassing every studio album and the concert album "Absolutely Live," to be released by Rhino in October. Box will contain two-disc sets of each studio album -- a CD with new stereo mixes by original producer Bruce Botnick as well as freshly remastered classic mixes, and a DVD with 5.1 and 96k stereo mixes along with outtakes, alternate takes and video clips. Apple's iTunes is expected to offer digital albums, virtual box sets and downloads of live and rare tracks.

"The Doors Live at the Matrix '67," to be released by Bright Midnight Archives, the Doors' joint venture label with Rhino/Warner Bros. Album will be similar to last year's two-CD "The Doors Live in Philadelphia '70"; Bright Midnight Archives will release other live recordings from 1967-70.

A coffee-table anthology, "The Doors by the Doors," co-penned by Ben Fong-Torres and published by Hyperion; "Jim Morrison Treasures," a coffee-table photo/scrapbook; and two volumes of poetry, "Things Known," a compilation of Morrison's previously released poetry books, and "Things Unknown," his unpublished poems and song lyrics.

A four- to eight-hour radio special.

Of course, we must assume that the box set will only contain two-disc sets of each studio album that the band recorded with Morrison. "Every studio album" presumably excludes the two rare post-Morrison studio albums Other Voices (1971) and Full Circle (1972). Could anyone imagine two-disc editions of those two albums?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Def Leppard "Yeah!"

Yeah!, the new album by Def Leppard, was released this week. It's an album of covers, on which the pop-metal quintet pays tribute to bands and songs they grew up listening to in England. To American listeners, several songs may seem like obscure choices, but the original versions of all 14 tracks were Top 20 hits in the UK. Not surprisingly, many of the selections are from the early-'70's glam period, which the band once sang a song about (remember "Rocket"?). Songs by David Bowie, T. Rex, Sweet, Mott The Hoople, and Roxy Music represent that genre. Some other UK-based bands covered include Badfinger, Free, Thin Lizzy, and the Faces. Speaking of which, that last band's song "Stay With Me" is sung by guitarist Phil Collen, and the Leps cleverly recreate its raucous vibe while remaining in firm control.

One of the more surprising choices is the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset", which gets a faithful yet Leppard-like treatment. It's just what a cover song should be; the band puts their personal stamp on it, but doesn't diminish its quality one bit. In fact, you could say the same for just about every track in the bunch. Yeah! is Def Leppard's strongest effort since their 1987 blockbuster Hysteria. Every album the band has recorded between then and now has lacked some essential ingredient that made their '80's albums great. Some will argue that the 1991 death of original lead guitarist Steve Clark made them lose their driving force, or that no producer could produce them as well as Mutt Lange did in their heyday. But the self-produced Yeah! demonstrates that the band still have strength, provided that they have good material and the proper focus. Hopefully they can pull off an equally enjoyable set of originals in the future. We'll see.

Frustratingly, different retailers are carrying slightly different versions of the CD. The regular version being sold in most outlets contains 14 tracks. But the versions sold at Target and Best Buys each contain two exclusive bonus tracks. Hopefully, online music services will offer those tracks as downloads -- or would that defeat the purpose?

To confuse matters further, Wal-Mart is separately selling a 24-minute disc of extras. It's titled Yeah! Bonus CD With Backstage Interviews (Bludgeon Riffola/Island B0006924-02). It contains five more cover songs that were not recorded by the full quintet. The first is Tom Petty's "American Girl", the original version of which just barely made the UK Top 40. It's performed by Joe Elliott, Vivian Campbell, and two other musicians. The second is Iggy Pop's "Search & Destroy", on which Phil Collen plays all instruments and sings. Elliot does the same on Bowie's "Space Oddity" (the only selection on this EP whose original version was a UK Top 20 hit), as does Rick Savage on Queen's "Dear Friends". For a rendition of Jobriath's "Heartbeat", Elliott sings and plays organ, while two other musicians provide cello and piano. The disc also contains three interview tracks, each one running three minutes or less. Interview #1 is about the band's 2005 tour; the other two are about the Yeah! album and its song selection. If you find yourself in Wal-Mart, the bonus disc is a worthwhile $6 purchase.

Also, the band appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Tuesday night, performing T.Rex's "20th Century Boy". They are still a solid live band.