Record Reviews

by Tim Van Schmidt

ABC
How to be a Zillionaire!
1985

Very crisp, clean studio sound, creative choice of effects. Lightweight disco-y music on side one as well as the best of the recordings- the snappy “15 Storey Halo.” Side two gets a little more serious and “Millionaire” and “Tower of London” are not as confectionary as much of the rest of the record.

AC/DC
For Those About to Rock
1981

Solid hard rock recordings, especially lead guitar tracks. Then there are those screechy vocals- a trademark, for sure. It’s possible to see how Robert Plant paved the way for this, but the AC/DC vocalist has only one basic attack. This, added to clich√©-ridden lyrics pandering to the “bad” and “evil” leanings of the hard rock audience, pulls the effectiveness of the band down to formula. The instrumental work is this band’s strongest suit. The title track must have been a great arena rocker live and succeeds the best out of these tracks.

Ace
Five-a-Side
1974

The hit here- “How Long,” a smooth, melancholy pop song- is not indicative of the rest of the record, which features a funkier rock with a little bit of boogie in it. “24 Hours” is the best of the funky stuff and there’s some working man’s affiliation here in “Rock & Roll Runaway” as the song describes someone sick of school and the prospects of spending life on “the factory floor.” Band includes vocalist/keyboardist Paul Carrack.

King Sunny Ade and His African Beats
Juju Music
1982

Exotic sounds indeed- starting with language. There is a tune here in English, however, but it’s probably just as well not to know what the words mean. Stand out tracks- “Sunny Ti De Ariya” and “Ma Jaiye Omi”- both feature the various elements of Ade’s music aptly- from understated vocals and joyous group vocalizing to Ade’s wiry guitar work, some spacey synthesizer effects and prominent talking drum punctuations.

King Sunny Ade and His African Beats
Ajoo
1983

Similar elements as “Juju Music,” which is perhaps the more authentic recording. There might be a studio quality upgrade here, and a more spacious mix, allowing those elements- exotic vocals, Ade’s guitar modes including Western style soloing, syrupy, Hawaiian style slide and a quick herky jerky signature that jumps in every once in a while, as well as strong talking drum parts- some space to breathe.

King Sunny Ade and His African Beats
Live Live Juju
1988

First of all, the groove is all important, a little slower here, a little faster there, but driving like an engine. The sounds on top of the groove- Ade’s understated vocals and sinuous guitar work- are hardly as dynamic as the “all-in” instrumental flourishes that finish up each track. Some of this could be attributed to a weak mix. In this live set recorded in Seattle, what seems to get the crowd going, however, are the drumming sequences, specifically track one on side two, “Maajo.”

Air Supply
Greatest Hits
1983

Soft rock. Listening to this music called up Broadway show tunes- dramatic and light at the same time. It also made me think of Yes and Queen, but without the instrumental chops. Best tracks here are “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” and “Sweet Dreams”- both have a little more instrumental punch than the other more bland recordings.

All
Allroy’s Revenge
1989

Underneath the fuzzy, active guitar, busy bass and hyper drumming, All displays a keen sense of melody. Some of the songs here, most notably “My Ex” could have gone an entirely different way by a different band.

Allman Brothers Band
Idlewild South
1970

The instrumental power of the Allman Brothers just about trumps everything else- and that is apparent here. “Midnight Rider” is a good, hit-style vocal song, but the rest of the record leans heavy on the band’s basic, active instrumental arrangements. The opening track, “Revival” is an example of how the lyrics get repeated so often, they tend to mean less than the progress of the band tracks. The opener on side two- Willie Dixon’s ‘Hoochie Coochie Man” also allows the band to overpower the song- and vocalist Berry Oakley. The last track, “Leave My Blues at Home” is also heavy on the throttle, but also includes a dollop of dissonance. The finest track here is “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”- featuring plenty of both melody and instrumental exploration.

Allman Brothers Band
At Fillmore East
1971

Exciting musical breadth and depth- from bluesy rock to jazz explorations. The power here is in tight arrangements- and the parts of the arrangements meant for jamming. The sections of spontaneous music making touch the heart of what makes live music great- when all the right pieces come together, there’s some musical fire that just can’t be scripted. There’s a lot of talent in the band, but when everything is said and done, it is guitarist Duane Allman that makes the jaw drop with an almost wild guitar imagination. The music is jaunty and guttural here, lyrical and even sweet at times there, but always ending up in a roar of electricity. The two record set is great for sure, but sides three and four are definitive of the Allman Brothers’ rich and dynamic sound- “Hot ‘Lanta” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” on one side and “Whipping Post” on the other.

Allman Brothers Band
Eat a Peach
1972

A band in transition due to the tragic death of Duane Allman. The studio recordings with Duane demonstrate the Allman Brothers had a bright future ahead- “Stand Back” is an especially aggressive, funky track. The showpiece here is “One Way Out”- a live recording that stands next to the “At Fillmore East” album as a definitive live recording of the band. You can go ahead and throw in the next track, “Trouble No More,” too. The recordings without Duane show the band was able to carry on the band’s sound, even show some muscle, without him including studio tune “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” and a live instrumental workout. The duet between Duane and Dicky Betts, “Little Martha,” is a gem.

Duane Allman
Duane Allman an Anthology
1972

A patchwork quilt of music, all stitched together by Duane Allman’s guitar work. Four previously unreleased tracks include a spirited BB King medley by the Allmans’ first band, Hour Glass. Duane, according to this anthology, was a favored session musician, adding some fuzzy rock spice to blues recordings and soul sessions. The soul stuff- including Wilson Pickett’s take on “Hey Jude” and Aretha Franklin’s go at “The Weight” indicates there is plenty in rock songs that can be translated into soul arrangements, but some of it doesn’t- like flippant, nonsense lyrics. Great discoveries here include John Hammond’s “Shake for Me” and Boz Scagg’s “Loan Me a Dime”- both recordings open up eventually to full throttle expression. Standing alone among these various studio excursions is the monolithic track “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes. There’s an acoustic duet- blues tune “Mean Old World”- between Duane and Eric Clapton elsewhere on the album, but “Layla is a definitive rock classic for both of them. However, the place Duane’s guitar playing seems the most comfortable is with his own band and the final side here is dedicated to a few choice Allman Brothers tracks.

Allman Brothers Band
Brothers and Sisters
1973

The Allman Brothers survived the loss of guitarist Duane Allman- and then lost bassist Berry Oakley, who appears on two tracks here. This is an aggressive studio effort and shows the band’s deftness at writing songs with both a memorable melody and a strong groove. Both Gregg Allman, on keyboards, and guitarist Dicky Betts come on strong, filling the void left by Duane’s loss. New members Lamar Williams on bass and Chuck Leavell on piano help keep the Allman Brothers’ sound full. “Southbound” belongs among the best of the Allman Brothers recordings. Les Dudek adds guitar to two tracks. This is the album that turned me on to the Allman Brothers.

Gregg Allman
Laid Back
1973

It makes sense that Gregg Allman’s star would rise as the actual surviving Allman Brother. The Allman Brothers’ music was hot property, with and even without Duane Allman, and as lead vocalist, Gregg was the voice most associated with the group. Here, there was probably a big budget as this is a pretty big production- including horns, strings and a choir- and the sound quality is an upgrade to the Allman Brothers records. However, there is also an artificial quality to the tracks when compared to the more organic sounding stuff by the Allman Brothers. The remake of “Midnight Rider” is a good example of how a careful recording doesn’t necessarily add anything to the song. “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” is a good song but the tune that works the best under these circumstances is Jackson Browne’s “These Days.” The pleasant surprise here is saxophonist David Newman’s contributions.

Gregg Allman
The Gregg Allman Tour
1974

The musical vision warmed up by Gregg Allman’s “Laid Back” studio album is fulfilled by this two-record live set. Mind you, this is the “Gregg Allman Show,” as Martin Mull calls it in his introduction. That means there is a significant portion of Side Two dedicated to musical guests Cowboy- like having the opening act in the middle of the show. No matter, the Gregg Allman sides are much improved over his studio effort, everybody in the big band- and orchestra- synched in tightly on stage. That makes the live version of “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” superior to the studio version. “Queen of Hearts” blossoms as a powerfully moving piece, applying the full power of the ensemble. “Dreams” becomes a rousing and emotional highlight of the record. The female backing vocals add some bright counterpoint to Allman’s mush-mouthed, souful delivery and the horns and even the strings weigh in to carry the grooves, rather than relying on constant electric guitar support. Recorded in Carnegie Hall in New York, and New Jersey.

Allman Brothers Band
Reach for the Sky
1980

It’s telling that the most successful track here is the instrumental work-out, “From the Madness of the West,” the old Allman Brothers live energy briefly stoked up in the studio. The rest of the album features songs that more or less hit the Allman Brothers target in general, but mostly progress without much distinction. There’s some energy here, for sure- “Angeline” and “Keep On Keepin’ On” are the best of the upbeat numbers- but the tune that stands next to “Madness of the West” as the most listenable on the record is the relatively wistful “So Long.” The odd touches of synthesizer here and there on this record don’t really do much toward modernizing the Allmans’ sound, but distract. Some of these tunes would make good country music fodder in the 21st Century- they would be a little ahead of their time in 1980- especially “I Got a Right to be Wrong.”

Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass
Whipped Cream and Other Delights
1965

Despite its general lightness, the music here is of top notch quality. The recordings are superbly mixed and the performances are exactly spot-on. The arrangements are creative and effective at grabbing the ear. Though the dual trumpet/brass sound, and the band’s name suggests in a general way Mariachi music- and there are plenty of Latin influences here- the music has a wider diversity in sound, including touches of Dixieland and lounge music. Something about this music suggests television theme songs from the 1960s. That music had to be upbeat, direct, ear-catching, melodic, rhythmic and provocative all at once and that deftness is reflected here. I like Herb Alpert’s way of playing the trumpet- it’s smooth and polished, never blasting or overblown. It’s understated, yet Alpert finds ways of adding little touches of personal expression- a grace note here, a little bend there. All of the musicians on the record- and it should be clear this is a studio effort- have the same qualities- they can swing emotionally with a melody or stop on a dime at any moment. That helps make this nearly perfect instrumental pop music. This album includes plenty of “definitive” tracks including “A Taste of Honey,” “Green Peppers,” “Bittersweet Samba,” “Whipped Cream” and “Butterball.”

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
Going Places
1965

The best of this album continues the standard of excellent reflected on the “Whipped Cream” album- concise, melodic, upbeat ditties that stick in the head, flavorful thanks to the rich arrangements, snappy tempos and coolly professional performances. Two tracks in particular stand out as definitive of the Tijuana Brass sound- “Tijuana Taxi” and “Spanish Flea”- both songs clock in at just over two minutes. The longest track here- “Zorba the Greek” at 4:25- deserves the extra time, so it can build up, break down and build back up again in a whooping frenzy. A couple of the tracks here, however, veer away from the Tijuana Brass concept as a band- they’re big productions, including woodwinds and strings, that go beyond the capabilities of a performing group. Some of the production efforts here also do not wear well over time- specifically the jittery harpsichord sound effect on the keyboards at times and the wiry sound on the electric guitar that both somehow degrade the general sound. “Tijuana Taxi” was a big hit for me at the time. I remember seeing the Tijuana Brass performing it on television and I was especially impressed with the marimba player, who had a featured solo during the tune. I liked the marimba so much that I signed up to play marimba in the school band. The school only had one marimba and they gave that to a girl who had also signed up for it. I didn’t get my second choice either- drums- because every other boy in school wanted to play drums too. Years later, I learned that the very girl who was given the marimba to play instead of me became a state music champion.

Dave Alvin
Romeo’s Escape
1987

The outstanding tracks here are “Jubilee Train” and “New Tattoo” and demonstrate Alvin’s strengths- a standard rock approach that’s rough around the edges. Alvin pretty much shouts rather than sings on the upbeat numbers and it’s probably better that way because the slower stuff- taking on a decidedly country flavor- is much more pedestrian vocally. The songs here are a lot about hard luck, with some hard drinking and thinking thrown into the mix.¬† The title song is the roughest and most lively of them all, but not as well-crafted as “Jubliee” and “Tattoo.” David Hidalgo, Al Kooper guest.

Phil Alvin
Un “Sung Stories”
1986

This unusual collection features Blasters front man Phil Alvin going further back than the roots rock and roll his band became noted for- to music by Cab Calloway and others featuring a big band blues sound. To accomplish this, Alvin records with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band as well as Sun Ra and the Arkestra. The most defined of this stuff would be “The Ballad of Smokey Joe” medley including “Minnie the Moocher” and “Kicking the Gong Around.” On side two, however, Alvin veers away from the initial theme to include a more spare version of Otis Blackwell’s “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” which is more akin to Alvin’s Blasters work and perhaps the most successful recording here. The tune “Collins Cave” veers even further away from the band blues, but the other way, featuring an old timey sound with just voice and Richard Greene on violin. The effect is an unevenness to the production as a whole. There’s story-telling going on throughout the album, as well as a lot of talk about death. These come together with compelling results in “Titanic Blues.”

America
A Horse With No Name
1971

America’s sound is right in line with the acoustic-based, harmonized multiple vocal sound of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. While America’s vocals do provide a savory fullness to the tunes, the lyric writing here sometimes goes for the easy rhyme, or even the rhyme without reason, while often using repetition when something seems to work. Examples include the two major hits here- “A Horse With No Name” and “I Need You.” “Horse” is pretty much inscrutable lyrically, but its sound tightly dials into the CSNY sound- so much so, that when the group debuted with this single, it was widely mistaken as a Neil Young recording. The lyrical looseness, however, makes this tune sound trite some 40 years later. “I Need You” is perhaps the most polished recording on the record with a memorable melody but also sporting lyrics that don’t stray far away from formula and repetition. “Sandman” on this record demonstrates America’s savory vocal quality best, but also lyrics that come from left field. Guests include percussionist Ray Cooper and guitarist David Lindley.

America
Harbor
1977

The guys in America certainly look like they’re having a good time in their photos for this album- all three decked out with colorful Hawaiian shirts. The album was recorded in Hawaii and at least one song is dedicated to the benefits of beach living. However, even the production skills of a respected industry figure like George Martin can’t hide the weak songwriting. Only one song on the album- “Political Poachers”- recalls the strength of the band’s 1971 debut album- savory harmonies and left field lyrics. The rest, except for perhaps the most energetic track on the record, “Hurricane,” is indistinguishable from that previous sound, featuring a bland soft rock with the lyrical quality taking the biggest hit. Larry Carlton guests.

American Flyer
American Flyer
1976

The meat of this production is in indistinct middle-of-the road country confessionals. But then again, there are some stand-out tunes that move beyond the tried and true. “Lady Blue Eyes” has a more subdued ambiance. “Queen of All My Days” sounds relatively exotic with a spicy percussion introduction and remains spirited. Two tracks, “Let Me Down Easy” and “Call Me, Tell Me,” are the most tuneful and adventurous recordings here thanks to producer George Martin, whose use of thick instrumental support- including strings- makes the songs almost turn baroque. There’s also a curious, brief instrumental at the end of the record attributed to Martin and Eric Katz. Guests include Larry Carlton, Rusty Young, Joe Sample.

Ed Ames
When the Snow is on the Roses
1967

Ed Ames’ super sincere performance underscores the weak material in this collection of ballads. The pace here is slow and that draws out the vacuous nature of, particularly, the lyrics- romance speak like this sounds silly when so much power is applied to expressing it. The record cover trumpets RCA’s new “Dynagroove” technology- “Highly ingenious computers- “electronic brains”- have been introduced to audio for the first time…”

Ed Ames
My Cup Runneth Over
1967

The title song would be the only “hit” I was aware of by Ed Ames. I was more aware of him as a cast member of “Daniel Boone” with Fess Parker. Still, this song sounds familiar, if not a little creepy- a voyeuristic declaration of devotion. As with his other 1967 LP, “When the Snow,” the ballads here are weak. Ames is at his best when there’s a little bit of swing in the tune, such as “In the Arms of Love” and “There’s a Time for Everything,” which turns Ames loose from being so serious.

Ed Ames
The Best of Ed Ames
1969

The standout track on this is the stirring “Changing, Changing,” which goes beyond the vacuous nature of most of Ames’ material and attempts to make a statement with relative success. OK, so the simple, old-fashioned melody of “My Cup Runneth Over” also started to sound plenty comfortable after repeated listenings, as well as the simpler “Bon Soir Dame”- another song with a simpler melody and foreign lyrics, which is probably a good thing. But compared to the overblown hooey of Ames’ take on “The Impossible Dream,” “Changing, Changing” becomes definitive of his best.