It's a great day in the world of new album releases when this week's highlights include new entries from such bold newcomers as Barbra Streisand, the Velvet Underground's John Cale, Kiss, The Beach Boys, ELO's Jeff Lynne, Motown legend David Ruffin and baby band Gary Lewis & The Playboys!
No need to worry, though: old favorites like the Wallflowers have returned with warm and reassuring sounds more than likely to calm troubled souls who find today's music scene jarring in its adventurousness and would like a dash of something familiar!
Further new releases by punk rocker Rick Springfield and artful instrumentalist James Bond—who has cleverly titled his debut album Best Of James Bond 50th Anniversary—might merit inclusion here if this much-loved 10-albums-only format permitted!
But like most of us, I find all these baby bands…well…confusing! And who among us doesn't need some stability in his or her life?
Barbra Streisand: Release Me (Columbia) They say that sometimes albums take on a life of their own—and it's difficult to argue here, when a compilation of previously-unreleased Streisand songs was spliced together by some guy in the Columbia Records archives department, dubbed onto a cassette and then suddenly—to the amazement of all watching in the sound studio--jumped off the mixing desk, danced around a few times, and then, however boldly, telepathically commanded the label personnel: release me! The tunes, drawn from the singer's massive archives and including treatments of such well-known classics as "Willow Weep For Me," "Didn't We," "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" and "I Think It's Going To Rain Today," are all just exactly as great as you'd expect from Ms. Streisand—and can only whet our appetites for the label's inevitable, emboldened follow-up, Buy Me! No truth to rumors that the album pic is from the singer's audition for Suspiria!
Kiss: Monster (Universal) In many ways, Kiss and Barbra Streisand are a lot alike! They've been around for years, they keep putting out albums, they have a rabid fan base, and they're not averse to wearing make-up! That said, Kiss are the better singers, of course, since there's four of them and they could theoretically sing four notes at once—top that, Cali babe! This new album boldly displays the Kiss logo on its cover and features the gang "goofing around" at a photo shoot—sort of like Streisand's Butterfly album, come to think of it—but it's what's inside that counts! And that's 12 great new tracks, including near-anthemic album opener "Hell Or Hallelujah," the pensive "Freak," and the unforgettable album closer "Last Chance"! Interestingly, the band's overt embracing of all things commercial leaves its mark on the final track, though cynics might wonder if there's a grain of truth in closing line "This is your last chance to purchase this album as a single CD or download before we ultimately go indie, bundle all our recordings into an ultra-deluxe package retailing at $899, suckers!" But I suspect Gene & the guys are pulling our legs! They've never been in it for the money!
The Wallflowers: Glad All Over (Columbia) The long-awaited return of Jakob Dylan's band the Wallflowers is surely reason to rejoice! Especially at Jakob Dylan's house! Featuring a guest appearance by the Clash's Mick Jones, the new set is an abrupt departure from the Wallflowers' past distinguished legacy: Perhaps as a reaction to the non-stop comparisons to his legendary father the singer has faced, he's instead decided to emulate '60s icons from another shore entirely! And so it is that the band covers "Glad All Over," "Bits And Pieces," "Do You Love Me," "Any Way You Want It " and—most enthrallingly—an adrenaline-filled "Can't You See That She's Mine"! "They wanted to cover Lee Morgan's Live At The Lighthouse," confided one insider, "but then they found out it was instrumental!" Like most of us, I plan to buy two of these!
Jeff Lynne: Long Wave (Frontiers) I have no idea who it was we were watching, but in the late '80s I was at the Palace, a distinguished LA club long gone, standing at the bar and ordering a drink, and who came up right next to me to order his own drink but none other than Jeff Lynne, who had made his name in America via his wonderful Electric Light Orchestra, but had an equally impressive pedigree even before that band. I could not help but make small talk, and mentioned I was a huge fan of his "10538 Overture," the opening track of ELO's very first album. He grinned and said, "And it was all downhill after that, right?" I smiled back and nodded vigorously! Drinks are great! That said, Mr. Lynne remains one of pop music's more interesting figures, and this new set—which comes at the same time as a brand new collection of "re-recorded" ELO hits also just produced by Lynne—features the singer's take on such "pre-rock" standards as "If I Loved You," "Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered" and "Smile," and is eye-opening, very well-arranged and sung, and perhaps not what most ELO fans might expect in the 21st century. Between you and me, if he went back and re-recorded a dozen of his best tracks with the Idle Race---the band which preceded both the Move and ELO—he might really be doing himself a service. He is the man!
The Beach Boys: Greatest Hits: Fifty Big Ones (Capitol) Reviewing a 2-CD set of the Beach Boys' greatest hits is something of an exercise in futility—what, do think anything could actually be bad here?—but pointing out its release is no small public service. If there is any group that could use a concise, well-chose anthology at the moment—especially after finishing a 50th anniversary tour before an audience that was filled with grandparents, parents, teenagers and pre-teens alike—it would be these folks, and if I had to buy just one Beach Boys set for a potential new fan, this would be it. Simultaneously released, and perhaps even more exciting, are 12 of the band's best early albums, many in dual mono/stereo format and about as highly recommended as these things ever get. Every single one is worth picking up!
Ellie Goulding: Halcyon (Cherrytree/Interscope) In years gone by, record labels would stick with an artist for one, two, maybe three albums before giving up on them if they didn't click. But no more. So kudos to Interscope Records here, who stuck with Brit singer Goulding—who, to be fair, was quite successful in Britain and even sang at the Royal Wedding—until she finally made her mark over here. Pity about the label's mandatory head-shaving rule, but commerce is commerce! Still, the talented, visually appealing, personable singer now seems perfectly situated to break into the big-time US-style, is ready to cross all genres with the stylistic mish-mash here, and may be the biggest singer ever to title her album after a well-known sleeping pill! As always, UK residents have spelling issues!
John Cale: Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood (Double Six/Domino) One never knows what to expect from John Cale, but this new effort from the former Velvet Underground mainstay displays the same adventurousness—melodically, lyrically, and arrangement-wise—that has colored his very best work and is an engaging, highly-textured listen. Appearances by Danger Mouse and an actual vocoder (or whatever) unexpectedly pop up--but never to the point of overuse, or to convey the dreaded sense of a major artist floundering. It's good stuff, a nice addendum to his repertoire, and aside from a 5.1 remix of Nico's The Marble Index, to which he was integral—which would be absolute godhead--about as good as any longtime fan could ever hope for in 2012. Recommended!
Gary Lewis & The Playboys: The Complete Liberty Singles (Real Gone Music) Issued briefly and the swiftly deleted, this 2-CD collection of '60s hitmakers Gary Lewis & company is tuneful, memorable, and surprisingly substantial. Looked upon now as the breeding ground for other talents—first hit "This Diamond Ring" was co-penned by Al Kooper, Leon Russell & crew played much of the great music, etc.—the band was enormously successful in the States, though never particularly a critical fave, and their actual albums—of which there were many—had a heavy supply of merely OK covers. But as for the hits themselves, all of which are included here, the group had an enormously successful run and deserve a critical reappraisal. Hits include "Count Me In," "Save Your Heart For Me," Everybody Loves A Clown," "She's Just My Style," "Sure Gonna Miss Her" and many, many more. To several people out there, it will serve as a reminder of what '60s pop radio—at least in the States—was all about. Get it while you can!
Django Django: Django Django (Ribbon Records) Like Duran Duran, Medium Medium, Guru Guru and Talk Talk before them, Django Django are an intriguing musical combo with—aww, let's just say it—a stuttering problem! Still, who can deny the musical merit of this superb debut set, one of the UK's better imports that has been critically lauded in its homeland and is being similarly critically lauded in this very review! Melodic, subtly textured and, in a stunning twist, including a song with a redundant title—that would be you, "Zumm Zumm"—Django Django is not just a great new band, but precisely the sort of group writers who get paid by the word should cozy up to!
The Supremes: I Hear A Symphony (Motown/Hip-O Select) Have to hand it to the people at Hip-O Select, who continue to do remarkable work with the Universal Music catalog, and here—via another top-notch classic Motown reissue—provide two discs showcasing this classic pop album in mono and stereo versions and, as is their comparatively new tradition, give them the contextual treatment they deserve as true pieces of vital pop culture. Aside from the title track, this includes "My World Is Empty Without You" and a previously unreleased show recorded at Detroit's Roostertail club, and is good stuff through and through.