Friday, December 26, 2008

Digital cameras are hard...and Columbia soul is underrated

I'm a complete and utter clod when it comes to taking digital photographs, so please forgive this 'reverse image' shot of Ronnie Dyson's 1970 single, I Don't Wanna Cry. It's intended to illustrate a point that needs making: far from being the Mitch Miller wasteland of myth, Columbia actually released some good stuff, and I'm not talking about His Bobster and The Byrds.

It's long been gospel amongst fans of soul music that the sides Aretha cut for Columbia were sub-standard show tunes, and that the Queen didn't ascend to her throne until she was rescued by Tom Dowd and his friends at Atlantic Records. That myth has come undone over the last few years as folks have started to actually listen to these sides and discovered some of them (e.g., Soulville) are just as powerful and gritty as Chain of Fools or The House That Jack Built.

But I still thought of Columbia as being a boring, fuddy-duddy label when it came to African-American music--until I gave this Dyson 45 a spin. From my perspective, Columbia's conservatism was beneficial for the black artists they signed, because this 1970 release wouldn't have sounded out of place if it had been released five years earlier. The chicken scratch guitar, the strings, the femme backing could all have been the product of Detroit 1966 or Chicago 1967.

The flip, She's Gone, is a tasteful big ballad which isn't quite as good as the 'A' side, but it's not bad at all. It sounds a bit more contemporaneous than its partner, too.

Dyson was a stage actor who was the lead in the original production of Hair, and as I write this it occurs to me that perhaps Columbia had some of his old recordings in the can that they decided to fob off to the Aquarians of the early '70s. Possibly...but I Don't Wanna Cry became a Top 10 R&B hit, suggesting that African-Americans still had a taste for good, old-fashioned, upbeat soul music . Only 20 years of age in 1970, Dyson sadly shuffled off this mortal coil in 1990 thanks to a heart attack.

All this also got me thinking about one of my favourite obscure soul LPs, an eponymous offering by The Swordsmen, which was released on the similarly stodgy RCA Victor label in 1969. The Swordsmen were Clevelanders Eddie Anderson and Raymond Thompson, who did a pretty good James and Bobby Purify impersonation and must have enjoyed the photo shoot for their one and only album. Apparently they were spotted by Nina Simone, who helped them get a record deal. If you ever see this album, snap it up. You won't be disappointed.

The bottom line is: don't shy away from soul records on painfully unhip record labels.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We wish to welcome you to the 20th Century!

Welcome to our new-fangled, state-of-the-20th century-art blog! We hope you enjoy our ramblings, musings, and embarrassing opinions!


1. Milk. Gus van Sant makes a mainstream pic but doesn’t compromise his standards. A great film featuring Sean Penn’s greatest performance, and another excellent turn bu James Brolin.
2. Slumdog Millionaire. Danny Boyle recovers from the mis-step that was Sunshine with this utterly enchanting fairy tale set in the slums of Mumbai.
3. Man on Wire. A beautiful documentary that will also keep you on the edge of your seat.
4. Be Kind Rewind. I’m the only person I know who really liked this film. Then again, I still own a lot of old VHS tapes, so it was probably made with me in mind. A delightful shaggy dog tale that also has some very funny moments.
5. Tropic Thunder. Without a doubt, the funniest film of the year. As profane as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but, y’know…funny instead of nausea-inducing.
6. Happy Go Lucky. Really, Mike Leigh can do no wrong. This might not be his best picture (Naked, anyone?), but it’s still excellent. Pencil Eddie Marsan in for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. En ra ha!
7. Quantum of Solace. Casino Royale was a good start for Daniel Craig, but Quantum of Solace adds a new element of political consciousness to the proceedings. A lot fewer gadgets; a lot more brain cells.
8. Diary of the Dead. George Romero continues to explore the world of the living dead. This one ends on the most disturbing note of the year.
9. WALL.E. The first 20 minutes are close to cinema perfection. The balance of the film is merely delightful.
10. Religulous. Goes a little too easy on Judaism, a little too hard on Islam, but nails Christianity. And remember, Jesus is the reason for the season!
11. Hancock. I dislike super hero movies and am not a fan of Will Smith. Here’s the exception to both rules.

Honorable mentions: The Bank Job, Cloverfield
Worst film of the year: Forgetting Sarah Marshall. So awful, it doesn't even deserve boldface.

JOHN’S MUSICAL HIGHLIGHTS OF 2008 (in alpha order by artist)

Bar-Kays—Holy Ghost (Stax 12”, 1978): The last single released on the Stax label, and what a way to go bankrupt. I think the 7” edit is on the last of the Stax boxed sets, but you still need the twelve-inch to really appreciate Holy Ghost in its full majesty. Overpoweringly funky.
Barood—Original Soundtrack (Polydor of India LP, 1975): Impressive blend of Indian and Western musical motifs from composer S. D. Burman.
Cats—Love In Your Eyes (Fantasy 7”, 1974): Flop US release of this Dutch band’s groovy pop single.
Elbow—Grounds for Divorce (featured on CD The Seldom Seen Kid, 2008): I heard this for the first time on our annual flight to the UK this summer and couldn’t get it out of my head. They’re not hot, they’re not hip, they’re dad rock. Hey, I’m a dad!
Eric Faulkner—Check Out the Babe (Myspace demo at Speaking of dads, here’s a fifty-something former Bay City Roller delivering a power pop classic, available online only. Will 2009 be the year the Rollers come back into vogue?
Thomas and Richard Frost—Visualize (Rev-Ola CD): This one’s for you, Mr. Palao! Sorry it took me so long to get to it, but this is another amazing chapter in the musical story of the Frost Brothers, who recorded some of the best Anglocentric pop of the 1960s. Great liner notes, too!
Glasvegas—everything: They’re hot, they’re hip, they’re happening, and they deserve all the success in the world. The social-realist Jesus and Mary Chain.
Gnarls Barkley—The Odd Couple (CD, 2008): A real grower, and the finest psychedelic soul LP of the last 30 years.
Green Beans—Don’t Give Me No Friction (featured on compilation CD Quagmire v5): I’m only being partially snide here, but listen to this song and tell me Tom Verlaine didn’t own this record when he was a kid.
Grim Klone Band—Son of Sam (featured on Blank Space LP): Killer proto-punk track that sounds like a blend of Hawkwind and Simply Saucer.
Hello-Goodbye—Original Soundtrack (20th Century Fox LP, 1970): This lush Francis Lai score deserves a better film.
Linda Jones—Greatest Hits (Re CD, 2002): The greatest version ever of For Your Precious Love resides on this CD. Listen to it at your own risk—it may destroy you.
Kentucky Express—Run For Your Life (featured on Cream LP That’s Not What Lovin’ Is, late 1960s): A really, really good Beatles cover on an otherwise so-so countrypolitan LP.
King Tubby’s Balmagie Jam Rock (Dove CD): Best dubplate I heard this year.
Kitchen Cynq—Everything But… (LHI LP, 1967): Excellent album of Texas garage-pop that still hasn’t been re-released on CD.
Lill Landfors—Don’t Stop the Slop (featured on Girl-O-Rama compilation LP Girls Make the World Go Round v1): Sublime genius in a 2-minute pop song. Everybody start slopping immediately!!
Little Archie—I Am a Carpet (1967 recording featured on Trikont CD ‘Cheatin’ Soul): Really, do you need to know any more about this? Any deep soul song entitled I Am a Carpet is a must have.
Pete Molinari—Sweet Louise (Damaged Goods 7”, 2008): All hail the new Dylan. This guy is a genius, and this single was my favourite song of 2008.
Phil Flowers and the Flower Shop—Like a Rolling Stone (featured on compilation LP The Git-Down!)--Heavy funk version of Dylan classic.
Barry Ryan—Love, I Almost Found You (MGM 7”, 1968): Tucked away on the b-side of the bombastic hit Eloise. Great song, beautifully arranged by Keith Mansfield.
Teddy and Darrel—These Are the Hits, You Silly Savage! (Mira LP, mid 1960s): This album is either hilarious or incredibly offensive. Before there was Pansy Division, there was Teddy and Darrel, and their version of Hold On I’m Comin’ will bring you to your knees.
Various Artists—Midnight Crying Time (Proper CD set): Terrific, inexpensive set includes great tracks by Shadow Morton, Ral Donner, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, The Trains, and many more.
Various Artists—Unearthed Merseybeat v1 (Viper CD, 2003): This series eventually stretched to three volumes, but the cream of the crop are on this disc, including astonishing rarities from The Kirkbys, The Merseys, The Merseybeats, The Swinging Blue Jeans, and Wimple Winch.
Patrick Wolf—Wind in the Wires (Tomlab LP, 2005): I don’t know who Patrick Wolf is or where he came from, but this album is perfect pop for now people.

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I am a semi-aquatic marine mammal who enjoys eating fish and krill, as well as taking long underwater swims