The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s
The story is this. Charles Mingus brought a recording crew into Ronnie Scott’s at the end of his two and half week residency at the club, which signaled the end of his summer 1972 tour. You can hear him encouraging the audience at the end of tracks, letting them know the show was being documented.
By the early 1970s, Mingus was nearly 50 years old and had been recording since the early 1940s. He was now reaching elder statesman status, on a comeback that therapy and proper medication had allowed. His ability to surround himself with amazing players, including then-young upstarts, hadn’t diminished. The band he brought into Ronnie Scott’s, featured a 19-year-old Jon Faddis on trumpet, John Foster on piano, Bobby Jones and longtime cohort Charles McPherson on saxes, and Roy Brooks on drums. And on the two nights recorded and released here, they were on fire. The closest comparison of what and how this band played is the aforementioned 1964 gigs with Dolphy.
Like those sets, the track lengths are monumental (three clock in at a half-hour or longer, while several others hover near the 20-minute mark). And like those 1964 recordings, individual soloists are in constant conversation with the leader as tempos shift under their feet. Other players add commentary; sometimes, the band will drop away at a moment’s notice to leave a single player to explore the outer reaches of their tonal palette. – Bruce Miller
Terror Twilight: Farewell Horizontal
Popular music is rife with “great on paper” scenarios. Think Dave Navarro joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Butch Vig producing a Green Day album, or red-hot producer Nigel Godrich, hot off the heels of producing Radiohead’s OK Computer and Beck’s Mutations heading the boards for a Pavement album. Alas, when Terror Twilight hit the shelves in 1999, it was regarded as an anticlimactic end to one of the most exciting, influential bands of the 1990s.
Released at an ideal time, when the band reunited for a well-received tour, Terror Twilight – Farewell Horizontal restores Godrich’s envisioned track order, and packs in material from their two EPs, Spit on a Stranger and Major Leagues. The demo versions included in Farewell Horizontal offer some interesting insights into the musical directions Stephen Malkmus would take in his solo career as well as the “push and pull” between Malkmus’ vision of the album as opposed to Godrich’s. For those who want a first introduction to Pavement, take a risk and dive into this collection first and discover a beautiful, if somewhat scattershot, mess. – Sean McCarthy
The Human League
The Virgin Years
The tech-heavy synth-scored pop of the 1980s was defined by the work of British bands who emerged from 1970s New Wave, disco, and post-punk, embracing moody, dreamy pop music that embraced studio technology. The Human League entered the 1980s after a pair of avant-garde, experimental new wave-pop and created a larger, more expansive sound, introducing female vocals, as well as, developing into a mainstream dance-pop and New Romantic band that would flourish during the MTV generation. The third studio album, Dare (1981), the band’s greatest, features the indelible classic hit “Don’t You Want Me”. That record exemplified the new brand of pop that the band was pioneering fuzzy, shiny synthesizers, strutting dance beats, Oakley’s soaring vocals, and catchy hooks. The band would have other big hits, but nothing as arresting or immortal as “Don’t You Want Me”, which go on to become a defining hit of the 1980s.
For The Human League: The Virgin Years, the group’s output for the Virgin label have been corralled into one collection. It’s a diverse collection of pop tunes by an act that saw their sound evolve as they were also facing an inevitable commercial decline. One of the pitfalls of being a trendsetter is that once you set a trend, others will jump on it, and you have to think of something else. The Human League’s Dare is a classic album that would set a blueprint for synth-dance records that followed. The follow-up, 1984’s Hysteria, is a thoroughly underrated gem, and it gets a much-deserved second look as it’s included alongside Dare.
On Crash, the Human League rebound commercially and finds a new sound working with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis – as a result, the singles on Crash, especially “Human”, sound like b-sides from Janet Jackson’s Control. Romantic? from 1990 found the group leave the 1980s and Virgin Records, and the music reflects not only the changes in pop music but also in the Human League’s sound as they worked to both evolve and stay current. Though the songs on Romantic? aren’t as canny as their early hits, they still show off the Human League’s estimable talents in crafting tuneful dance music.
As compared to the Cure, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, and Pet Shop Boys, the Human League’s contribution to 1980s synthpop feels underappreciated, especially with “Don’t You Want Me” overwhelming the band’s consistently excellent work. What The Virgin Years does is celebrate the group, highlighting the excellence of the other songs that may not have been as heralded. – Peter Piatkowski
Between their first gig, playing drunken versions of Troggs tunes to their equally drunken friends in 1980, and the release of their first record on a “proper” label in 1982, something wonderful happened to R.E.M. Up until then, their songwriting efforts were perfunctory, sub-garage band fodder. A great soundtrack to chuggin’ beers in some greasy backstreet bar, but not exactly the stuff of legends. Then they wrote “Gardening at Night”, and then they became legendary.
Their first release on the relatively new IRS label, the five-track EP, Chronic Town, turned 40 this year. Released on the same day as the first Kenny G album and “Save a Prayer” by Duran Duran, Chronic Town might be the least 1980s-sounding record to be issued in that peculiar decade. As early as 1982, the sound of the 1980s was pretty much established. Reverb smothered everything; drummers were augmented or replaced by ticking, tocking drum machines, and rough edges were strictly forbidden. Fortunately, R.E.M.’s producer Mitch Easter missed that memo and adopted a “fool around and find out” method to making a record. His playful approach to his craft, teamed with an exponential improvement in the band’s songwriting and a willingness to try anything, makes for a stunning, unique document of a fascinating time in the life of a band that became more popular than they, or anyone else, could ever imagine.
There are five songs on Chronic Town. Each one is razor-sharp, insistent, and almost perfect. Driven by Bill Berry’s propulsive drums and Mike Mills’ melodic, darting basslines, guitarist Peter Buck had a platform to do whatever he wanted. A novice musician, to say the least, Buck found that he could get the most from the handful of chords he knew by adopting a folk guitarist’s technique. By picking each note in the chord individually – arpeggiation – he could add interest to a simple song structure. The only downside to this was that this “folk-rock” approach was first popularised by Roger McGuinn and the Byrds in the mid-1960s, prompting a flurry of spurious and ill-judged comparisons which dogged the band until the nineties.
But what of the singer? Chronic Town is the perfect example of Michael Stipe’s early vocal style – a beautiful baritone fog of non-sequiturs and words chosen purely for the sounds they made, attached to a rich melody. He was a country version of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. When a lyric or two pokes its’ head above the parapet, they’re fascinating – what were the “wolves, lower”? What’s a “reaping wheel”? Why is there no link in the narrative between the verses and the choruses in any of these songs? It doesn’t matter. Stipe was providing textures and just enough of a roadmap for the listener to follow.
When they entered Mitch Easter’s Drive-In studio in late 1981, they had the songs but no idea of how to make a record. Easter was the perfect choice for producer and he coaxed memorable, natural-sounding performances out of all four band members. No idea was too outlandish or stupid to consider and songs were recorded al fresco, under the recording console, and even with a garbage pail on Stipe’s head. This was not the kind of approach that Duran Duran took when they recorded “Save a Prayer”.
The result of this long weekend of frat-boy silliness and drop-dead brilliant songs was that college radio would never sound the same. In 1982, alternative rock meant Devo, the Cars, and the GoGos. You could be cute, kitsch, or quirky, but what you couldn’t be was esoteric. That is, until R.E.M. Soon after this EP, a groundswell of fellow travelers shifted the focus from dayglo bubblegum to a deeper, darker, sepia-toned sound. R.E.M.’s breathtaking debut album Murmur, recorded in 1983, became the Rosetta Stone of the soon-to-be-called paisley underground, and the band themselves almost imperceptibly became one of the biggest bands on the planet.
But none of that would have happened without Chronic Town. An unassuming half-album with a monochrome picture of a leering gargoyle on the front and four nervous, fresh-out-of-college boys on the back was enough to give R.E.M. a foothold and myriad other musicians permission to make interesting, unusual music. In a 30-year career, R.E.M. made some superb music. Not much of it is better than the five songs on Chronic Town. – Ian Rushbury
Maida Vale Sessions
Compiled by Warp Records, the influential label that was home to most of Broadcast‘s mournfully abbreviated catalogue, the Maida Vale Sessions are haunted in so many ways. Captured between 1997 and 2003, these BBC sessions witness the Birmingham psych-pop band at the height of its creative powers, from its genesis shortly after a couple of small releases for Stereolab’s Duophonic Super 45s to shortly before Broadcast pared down to the duo of enigmatic lead singer Trish Keenan and James Cargill for their 2005 album Tender Buttons.
Three of these sessions were recorded for infamous English disk jockey John Peel, adding in another previously unreleased Evening Session Broadcast recorded at the BBC’s legendary Maida Vale Studios in 1997. Originally built as a roller rink in 1909, Maida Vale was turned into a series of studios in the 1930s where eventually, everyone from David Bowie and the Beatles to Nirvana and Led Zeppelin performed. Maida Vale was the home of the pioneering BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had a profound impact on the development of electronic music in general and Broadcast specifically, from 1958 until the sound effects unit was dissolved in 1998. It also hosted almost every Peel Session from 1967 up until John’s death in 2004.
In recent years, the BBC has been committed to destroying Maida Vale Studios, yet England’s artistic community managed to rally around the building to get it listed as a historical site. The BBC’s appeal of that ruling was denied as of February 2022, but despite their losses, the crown entity remains confoundingly determined to sell the building and abandon irretrievable history by 2025. Eventually, recordings like this may be the only thing left to remember the space by.
As any fan of the band itself knows, tragedy befell Trish Keenan in 2011. Shortly after contracting H1N1 (swine flu) on an Australian tour, she died from pneumonia at the way-too-young age of 42. It felt like she had so much more to give, but what she left us sounds as fresh today as when it was laid down. These sessions provide undeniable proof of their promise, with Keenan playing the role of Beth Gibbons with more of a Lætitia Sadier lounge-pop breeziness. Bassist James Cargill, keyboardist Roj Stevens, and guitarist Tim Felton all create the atmosphere, fleshed out by drumming from the likes of Keith York, Neil Bullock, and Steve Perkins.
They started off cool, and the complexity of their arrangements developed quickly across these four sessions. There is a certain sparseness to their first session, recorded in September of 1996. By the time Broadcast recorded their 1997, that space was already being filled in by the kind of avant-garde rock chemistry generated between Joseph Byrd and Dorothy Moskowitz in the influential 1968 eponymous album by The United States of America.
Capped off by an appearance in July of 2003, which featured three selections from their captivating Haha Sound album alongside a cover of Nico, it’s evident that Broadcast was aging well. Their music still sounds fresh and challenging today, but we were robbed of seeing what other dimensions they may have explored. The ghosts in this collection are screaming. – Alan Ranta
The Asylum Albums (1972-1975)
Joni Mitchell’s The Asylum Albums (1972–1975) is a four-disc box set of newly remastered albums that document her transition from a folk rocker to a more jazz-based artist. The Asylum collection includes For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974), Miles of Aisles (1974), and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975). These are among the most creative and experimental discs of the period. These records were largely hailed (and reviled) because they signaled a change in Mitchell’s style. For example, Rolling Stone magazine originally praised Court and Spark for being “a truly great pop record” and later lambasted The Hissing of Summer Lawns as a “flagrant example of pseudo-avant-guardism”. Today all four albums are universally acclaimed for their musical excellence.
The box set features an original painting by Mitchell on the cover and a newly commissioned essay by her fellow Canadian, Neil Young. (Fans that ordered the original CD or LP version of The Asylum Albums also received an exclusive, limited edition 7” x 10” of the painting on the cover of the box.) However, it’s the quality of the music inside that makes this collection so essential. Mitchell’s many sides, from folk (a live version of “Both Sides Now”) to pop (“Free Man in Paris”) to country (“You Turn Me on I’m a Radio”) to jazz (“Harry’s House / Centerpiece” ) to world music (“The Jungle Line”) are on display. There was no more stereotyping her as one kind of musician. Her multifarious genius was clear for all to hear. This assemblage reveals her growth and development over these crucial years. – Steve Horowitz
The Staples Singers
Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (50th Anniversary Edition)
Craft Recordings released a 50th-anniversary edition of the Staple Singers’ Be Altitude: Respect Yourself on 180-gram vinyl with all-analog mastering from the original stereo tapes. The music has never sounded better. Stax’s Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and the Memphis Horns jump out of the speakers. Mavis’ voice, and that of the rest of the family, rings as clear as a bell. They fervently express concern, awareness, and, yes, even a bit of silliness in strong terms. Aretha may have famously sung Otis Redding’s declaration “Respect”, but the Staples took this one step further and proclaimed, “Respect Yourself” (which in several “respects” provide a more important lesson). Lines like “If you don’t respect yourself / Ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoot, na na na na” may seem puerile to Christgau because of their colloquial nature. Still, they are far from juvenile in the context of life for African Americans in 1972, when gains in racial progress seemed to be fading away. – Steve Horowitz
Joe Strummer 002: The Mescaleros Years
Joe Strummer had quite an outstanding second act. For those who needed convincing, BMG/Ignition Records released Joe Strummer 001 in 2018, a double compilation that caught listeners up on the legendary punk singer’s post-Clash career. For those who need no convincing but remain completists at heart, there’s now Joe Strummer 002: The Mescaleros Years, a box set spanning a short but productive phase in Strummer’s career. Joe Strummer 002 combines all three albums released by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros between 1999 and 2003 and adds a fourth collection of mostly studio demos and outtakes named Vibes Compass.
Coming in both CD and vinyl packages, the liner notes come with many glossy photographs and a lengthy essay that collects quotes from Strummer and those who knew him late in life. It all depicts a hopeful but ultimately sad tale of a punk rock record legend who truly came into his own yet again, only to be stopped by an untimely death. The listener is, at once, thankful that it’s all here and wistful at the thought of what could have come next. – John Garratt
Against the Odds: 1974-1982
Few bands would find that strange, paradoxical sweet spot that intersects pop and punk in the way that Blondie did. From 1974, they were an arch, intellectual force to behold, crafting pop gems that helped defined pop music in the 1970s. Though some may have underestimated the band because of their superstardom, pop ambitions, and genre hopscotching, Blondie are brilliant post-modern pop art – simultaneously a commentary on 1970s popular music as well as a participant.
Unlike a lot of rock acts who came up from the punk underground, Blondie saw the brilliance of disco, not merely jumping on the disco bandwagon but instead making some of the genre’s most enduring music. Blondie weren’t satisfied with disco: they also folded the sounds of 1960s girl group, New Wave, and in the early 1980s, Blondie were an early proponent of hip-hop, with the pop-rap of “Rapture” (1981). Fronting the band is arguably rock’s most beautiful figure: Debbie Harry, a punk Marilyn who combined Hollywood glamor with the New York art scene of the 1970s. Though, she proved that she was more than just a gorgeous face. Harry was an insightful and witty songwriter and performed the songs with an appealing deadpan sneer.
The excellent anthology Blondie: Against the Odds: 1974-1982 looks at the group’s early years. It takes listeners along on a journey from their debut album, Blondie (1976), in which we can hear their affection for 1960s girl group rock to the white-hot commercial pop success of 1978’s Parallel Lines, to 1982’s The Hunter, which closed a chapter in the band’s history (before it was reopened in 1999 with Blondie’s reunion). It’s great to have all of the studio LPs – six in total – in one place. It not only reaffirms the brilliance of Blondie’s hit singles (they all age fantastically, even the Giorgio Moroder collaborations), but it highlights the strength of the album cuts.
But what makes Against the Odds essential is the excavation of archives that show early, skeletal demos of the songs (it’s great to hear the soul-funk origins of “Heart of Glass” that would eventually evolve into the sleek disco of the classic hit record). There have been lots of Blondie compilations (some that include Harry’s solo work) but this is a definitive collection because it tells the whole story of Blondie, from the days emerging from the New York punk scene in the mid-1970s to the hit-filled, radio-heady times that led to their eventual split. The collection is lovingly curated with fantastic essays and commentary. A truly great project. – Peter Piatkowski
Revolver (Super Deluxe)
The Super Deluxe edition of Revolver demonstrates over five CDs that there’s not only much to newly appreciate about the Beatles‘ psychedelic masterpiece of 1966, but also much to discover. There’s Giles Martin and Sam Okell’s innovative ‘de-mix’ of the original album that gives a fresh boost of clarity to the extraordinary details of the songs, from the tambura on “Love You To”, to the (non-vibrato) strings on “Eleanor Rigby”, the French horn on “For No One”, and the seagull-sounding tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Then there are the reams of often revelatory studio outtakes that explain how the tracks evolved, not least of which is an early version of “Yellow Submarine” that finds John Lennon singing less about a yellow submarine than, I don’t know, childhood abandonment.
The glossy hardcover book adds to the sense of discovery, with its Paul McCartney introduction, track-by-track liner notes, unpublished photos, and graphic insights into Klaus Voormann’s iconic artwork for the album. Plus, for the true Beatles audiophile, there’s a completed mono and Dolby Atmos mix to behold. It all adds up to the full story of how a bunch of musical geniuses, at their collaborative peak in the studio, changed the face of popular music in the 1960s, in their disdain for the idea of hitting on a formula. – Adam Mason