Music

Various Artists: Verve Unmixed 3

Dan Nishimoto

Verve unveils the latest edition of its remix series, outsourcing mostly softies this time around. But God bows to Billie, Nina, and Sarah.


Various Artists

Verve Unmixed 3

Label: Verve
US Release Date: 2005-04-05
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Verve returns with the third installment of its remix series, accompanied again by an "unmixed" companion piece of source material in original form. Once again, the nuggets mined are hardly the rarest of the bunch, suiting Verve Unmixed 3 at most for new jack beatminers and generally uninitiated jazz heads. Inversely, Unmixed 3 can also provide a lead-in for Remixed 3, or a cue for the old school to check in on the kids (although it is questionable how many older music fans would be picking up Unmixed 3, seeing how the majority of the tracks are widely available even on CD). However, Unmixed 3 perhaps works best in tandem with its other half. It completes the conversation of the remix: from here to there.

The presence of standards certainly establishes a high bar of expectation for Verve Remixed 3 [Note: reviewer has not reviewed Remixed 3]. However, the hits carry enough strength to hopefully transcend any doctoring. Nina Simone's seminal "Little Girl Blue" shimmers and shivers; that this was her debut to many music fans 40 years ago, and perhaps again today only makes the recording that much more breathtaking. Another Nina nugget "Lilac Wine" displays her rapid maturation (recorded only one year after "Blue"), and contrasts excellently with the predecessor. Similarly, Holiday's reading of "Speak Low" comes late in her career, but finds her sounding coy and cootastic, certainly the preferred mode of Billie for the mild-hearted. In spite of the relative lightness with which she approaches the Weill-Nash standard, she is still full of blue and vigor, creeping in and around the melody. "Yesterdays" finds Holiday draped in familiar burgundy velvet, and the Blues squeezing out of her clenched throat. Sarah Vaughn comes through on the Soul Sauce flavored serving of "Fever", where she sings with sultry restraint, peaking at key points with a delicious delivery. She spreads her signature command and presence more on the rumbling "Peter Gunn", where her steady crescendo culminates in a controlled and effective closer. While all three have found a renewed life through contemporary dance music, both in this series and elsewhere, the material presents a challenge of balancing a producer's vision and capturing the essence of each artist's performance.

Several selections present equally commanding artists, though are more sensible remix choices in terms of arrangement. Jimmy Smith's (R.I.P.) uptempo boogaloo soul explodes with a big fat in sound. Smith rocks vocal verses then grunts his way through dizzying B-3 solos. Consistent crowd pleaser Astrud Gilberto chills the session out with a Sebesky-string swept rendition of the Bonfa classic, "Gentle Rain", proving again why she continues to resonate with the downtempo set. Dinah Washington may seem an odd choice, but her "Baby Did You Hear Me" finds her swinging over a curiously looping bass, a track that bares the most apparent structural parallel with modern beat production. Oddly enough, the odd man out is the most traditionally sample-ready cut, or specifically the pumping break in Hugh Masekela's "The Boy's Doin' It." The period production values -- echoed horns, keys, and Afro-Jazz fusion -- push the song into an era apart from the post-bop school that dominates the comp. Though each of these cuts make 'sense', they nevertheless represent far corners of the jazz idiom, and a likewise exciting prospect for reinterpretation.

Fortunately, Unmixed 3 does share the spotlight with less-recognized but no less commendable singers. Anita O'Day proves why she deserves her daps by dancing lithely through "Sing, Sing, Sing", taking an extraordinary thpin, er, spin through Goodman's trademark solo bridge. The absolutely superb and underrated Blossom Dearie appropriately follows O'Day on a rendition of "Just One of Those Things." Her airy voice whispers along with Ray Brown's nimble accompaniment before opening to a more robust tone buttressed by Herb Ellis' controlled strumming and Jo Jones' beautiful shuffling. While both have received the reissue treatment in the last few years (and, encroaching their 80s, continue to perform), any new exposure will only help secure their well-deserved positions in music history.

The largest curiosity about the existence of this appendix is that it flies in the face of the code of conduct of Verve's apparent target market: A DJ Don't Give Away Their Secrets. By literally handing out a cheat sheet, part of the joy of beat digging is eliminated. Verve's blatant promotion of its archives thus becomes doubly apparent. Which ultimately is not so bad because the comp can stand on its own merits. The litany of powerful performances found here are quite remarkable; Nina and Sarah not only make repeat appearances in this edition, they receive double takes even. Additionally, the label displays an improving sense of organization, presenting a cohesive mix to be enjoyed by any music enthusiast.

Ultimately, the subdued nature of the bulk of the selections demonstrates the project's increasing interest in finding news ways to conceive beat music. Everything from Billie ballads to Anita swingers forms the foundation. In spite of occasional obvious choices, like the gentle latin lilt of Holiday's "Speak Low" and Masekela's b-"Boy's", the compilation sounds more at home pumping through the P.A. of uptown Lincoln Center than downtown Tonic. Which is exciting considering the eclectic cast of remixers this time around: from RJD2 to RSL; indie darlings Postal Service to undie upstart Lyrics Born; Junior Boys and Brazilian Girls; and even stalwarts like Carl Craig and Adam Freeland get their time to shine. While the remixes in the past have often been hit or miss in terms of final product, the source material alone hints at the fascinating explorations of remix possibilities and approaches. Although the strength of the originals could eclipse all followers, the goal is not to one-up a song; it is to see how one puts a new spin on it. Is Remixed/Unmixed thus a triumph of process over product? No, but it's a triumph of the possibilities of process.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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