Friday, August 28, 2015

Zephyr "Heartbeat" (1982)

The Colorado band Zephyr, founded by the wife-and-husband team of Candy Givens (vocals, harmonica) and David Givens (bass, guitar, synthesizer), are best remembered as the band that launched the career of the late Tommy Bolin, the highly regarded guitarist who later became a member of the James Gang, Deep Purple, and a solo artist before his death in 1976. Zephyr's self-titled debut album from 1969 mixed hard rock and blues in ways similar to the first Led Zeppelin album (released that same year). It's a fine album, to be sure, although Bolin's guitar work made a better initial impression than the contributions of frontwoman Givens, whose Janis Joplin-like wailing and blaring blues harmonica often sounded shrill on this album. The second album, Going Back To Colorado (1971), found the band moving toward less powerful hippie-era folk-rock, diminishing Bolin's guitar presence and putting more emphasis on Givens' vocals, which were considerably scaled down to better suit the material. Their third album Sunset Ride (1972) was recorded without Bolin, and the sound leaned toward less intense jazz and country styles. Givens finally seemed to find the right levels for her vocals, fitting them smoothly into this album's more laid-back grooves.

Most people think that Sunset Ride was the final Zephyr album, because there was a ten-year recording hiatus between that album and their fourth. Zephyr broke up in the mid-'70's, but reformed in 1980. Their largely overlooked fourth album, titled Heartbeat, was released in 1982 on an indie label called Red Sneakers Records. Heartbeat has been out of print for decades, and seemed likely for many years to remain in limbo. However, David Givens has said that he recently remastered the album, which makes a future reissue possible, though perhaps not definite.

For lovers of Zephyr's available oeuvre, the very existence of Heartbeat might seem like something from a strange dream: a little-heard Zephyr studio album recorded and released a whole ten years after Sunset Ride, and six years after the death of Tommy Bolin. But does it sound like a Zephyr album? Well…part of the time.

On Heartbeat, Zephyr are billed as a trio, consisting of Candy and David Givens and guitarist Eddie Turner (spelled Eddy in the credits). The three of them co-wrote all of the songs except the Gene Pitney cover “Half Heaven - Half Heartache”.

That Pitney cover, which has a sound reminiscent of the Phil Spector girl groups, is one example of the unexpected directions Zephyr took on Heartbeat. The album opens with a notably Zephyr-like blues number called “Don’t Come Back”, which Candy sings with an indignant neo-Joplin voice. But the next few tracks sound quite unlike the Zephyr of old. “That’s Right (Baby)”, “Love Comes Runnin’”, and “We Got The Love” lie in a relatively mellow r&b groove, with agreeably soulful vocals by Candy (and some male vocal accompaniment). “Dreamin’” is a smooth jazz-pop song that could almost pass for a Top 40 ballad from the period. The most surprising track of all is “Mad Dog”, with its Caribbean rhythms.

The last three tracks more closely resemble the early-‘70’s Zephyr sound. “I Know A Place”, “Secrets”, and the mildly psychedelic title track recall the more jazz-oriented songs on Going Back To Colorado and Sunset Ride.

The guitar work on this album invites little comparison to that of Tommy Bolin; it’s sophisticated without being showy, and Candy’s vocals are similarly controlled most of the time. The album’s main flaw is that much of it sounds under-produced; hopefully, modern remastering might fix this problem.

Heartbeat was a respectable return to recording for Zephyr, but it’s not an essential must-own. Fans of their other work will want to check it out if it is reissued; fanatics will want to search it out if it is not.

Sadly, Heartbeat did turn out to be the last Zephyr album. The band's final, tragic demise came in January of 1984, when Candy Givens drowned in a hot tub at the age of 37 while under the influence of alcohol and Quaaludes.

Zephyr - Heartbeat

Zephyr “Heartbeat” (Red Sneakers RSR 1001) 1982

Track Listing:

1. Don’t Come Back
2. That’s Right (Baby)
3. Mad Dog
4. Dreamin’
5. Love Comes Runnin’
6. Half Heaven - Half Heartache
7. We Got The Love
8. I Know A Place
9. Heartbeat
10. Secrets

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 24: Loretta Lynn “Van Lear Rose”

The 24th set of exclusive vinyl items offered to platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service was mailed out to the members in June and July of 2015. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist as well. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (one full-length album and one 7” single) to its platinum members every three months.

The twenty-fourth Vault package mainly focused on Loretta Lynn’s 2004 album Van Lear Rose, which was produced by Jack White. The package contained a new vinyl edition of the album, and a related DVD. The 7-inch single included two previously unreleased White Stripes covers of Lynn’s songs.

Van Lear Rose is the highly respected 2004 album by the seasoned country legend. It earned wide critical acclaim, crossover success, and two Grammy awards (including Lynn’s first ever in the category of Best Country Album). White produced the album and played various instruments, and this was one time when Jack was content to mostly blend into the background. Although he makes his electric-guitar-playing presence known on some tracks (especially “Portland Oregon”, on which he plays the Conway Twitty role as Lynn’s duet partner), White produced the album reverently, allowing Ms. Lynn to stay true to her old-fashioned Grand Ole Opry roots. The electric instrumentation hardly interferes with the album’s authentic country sound; at the most, it adds a rockabilly flavor to “Have Mercy”. In her early seventies, the coal miner’s daughter still wrote ‘em and sang ‘em much like she did in her younger years, and still didn’t shy away from dark subject matter (as evidenced by “Women’s Prison” and the mournful “Miss Being Mrs.”).

So, what is the difference in the vinyl Vault version of Van Lear Rose? Well, it’s pressed in transparent gold vinyl. The cover art is spruced up with gold foil embossing, soft touch aqueous coating, and high-gloss UV spot varnish. And the LP is mastered directly from the original analog source tape. Also, the Vault LP contains the previously unreleased bonus track “Just To Have You Back”, a slightly moody ballad in which Lynn recalls her late husband Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn. It makes a fine closing track, although it covers the same basic lyrical ground as the two previous tracks, “Miss Being Mrs.” and “Story Of My Life”, which may have been the reason for its original omission from the album.

I have not personally spun this vinyl pressing from the Vault, but the word on the web is that the sound quality is very good, although the sound volume is lower than average.

(Fun facts for fans of the Raconteurs: two of White’s bandmates-to-be – bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler – also played on this album, and the fourth Raconteur-to-be – Brendan Benson – is credited with additional engineering on “Little Red Shoes”, where White added music to Lynn’s spoken-word storytelling).

The 43-minute DVD Remembering Van Lear Rose, directed and edited by Whirlwind Heat drummer Brad Holland, begins with a 22-minute film of White and Lynn sitting and reminiscing about the making of the album a decade after the fact. The insights into the album’s creation are interesting, but the best moments come when Lynn sings impromptu renditions of songs from the album (as well as “Whispering Sea”, the B-side from her very first single) while White strums an acoustic guitar. Afterward, the DVD shows live duets between White and Lynn from two different decades. First, we see them perform “Portland Oregon” and “Whispering Sea” on January 28, 2015 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, backed by the reunited Raconteurs. Then, we see them perform “Rated X” and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” during a 2003 White Stripes concert in New York. The DVD concludes with the official music videos for “Portland Oregon” (in which Jack shows fawning adoration towards Loretta) and “Miss Being Mrs.” (which depicts Jack playing guitar in the background while Lynn yearns for the company of her late husband). These sparkling moments add up to a concise visual summary of the musical partnership between this intergenerational duo.

The 7-inch single, pressed in white vinyl, features two recordings of the White Stripes covering Lynn’s songs. The A-side contains a 2000 studio recording of “Rated X”, Lynn’s controversial song about the social stigma of being a divorced woman. (Is it just a coincidence that Jack and Meg White were divorced the same year they recorded this?). When the Stripes performed this song live, Meg White often took the lead vocal, but Jack sings the lead on this studio recording. The Stripes give the song a dirty rockabilly sound -- albeit with steel guitar added -- that fits the subject matter like a glove. The lyrics may seem dated to some, since divorce has become so much more common since Lynn originally recorded the song in 1972. Still, the song remains a scathing commentary on sexual mores even today. This is one obscure White Stripes track that does not deserve its obscurity. The B-side is a live rendition of “Whispering Sea”, Lynn’s first B-side from 1960. It was recorded at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, WA in August 2005. There’s no steel guitar to be heard on this rendition. Jack White turned it into a piano ballad for which his voice was not ideally suited, but he did find the emotion in the lyrics.

Additional bonus items in this package include a gold foil stamped and embossed postcard, exclusive photos from the album art sessions, and an enamel pin in the shape and color of a rose that is actually named Loretta Lynn Van Lear.

A note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the forgotten practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or the runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is present on these items. The 7-inch single has “Ghetto-Fabulous” carved in its A-side, and “Gorge-ous” carved in its B-side. The LP has “Nashvillain” carved on Side One, and “I fell up…and I fell down” carved in Side Two.

Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose

Loretta Lynn “Van Lear Rose” (Third Man TMR311) 2015

Track Listing:

1. Van Lear Rose
2. Portland Oregon (duet with Jack White)
3. Trouble On The Line
4. Family Tree
5. Have Mercy
6. High On A Mountain Top
7. Little Red Shoes
8. God Makes No Mistakes
9. Women’s Prison
10. This Old House
11. Mrs. Leroy Brown
12. Miss Being Mrs.
13. Story Of My Life
14. Just To Have You Back *

* Vault-only bonus track

Jack White & Loretta Lynn “Remembering Van Lear Rose” DVD (Third Man TMR-311) 2015

Chapter Listing:

1. Jack White & Loretta Lynn – Remembering Van Lear Rose
2. Jack White & Loretta Lynn Live at Bridgestone Arena – “Portland Oregon”
3. Jack White & Loretta Lynn Live at Bridgestone Arena – “Whispering Sea”
4. Jack White & Loretta Lynn Live in NYC April 19, 2003 – “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man”
5. The White Stripes with Loretta Lynn Live in NYC April 19, 2003 – “Rated X”
6. Portland Oregon (music video)
7. Miss Being Mrs. (music video)

The White Stripes “Rated X” b/w “Whispering Sea” (Third Man single TMR-312) 2015

a. Rated X
b. Whispering Sea