Bruce Springsteen – Girls in their Summer Clothes (2008)

Aaaaah, with the arrival of spring and some much-needed sunshine, I was reminded of a song that would make for a perfect addition to this blog’s ever growing list of modern Spector soundalikes.

When talk centers on Spector soundalikes, you’re bound to eventually discuss the Boss and his longtime infatuation with the Wall of Sound.

There are plenty of songs showcasing Springsteen’s love for Spector’s approach throughout his 70s and 80s catalogue, notably the scrapped mid 70s sessions that eventually came out as ‘The Promise’ in 2010. (a must-buy release for any reader of this blog!)

promise

In more recent times, Springsteen’s forays into full-on Wall of Sound territory have been more limited but occasionally he’ll throw together some chords and great lyrics that are just begging for bombast.

A prime example would be the somewhat overlooked single ‘Girls in their Summer Clothes’ from 2008s ‘Magic’ album.

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This perfect pop song with thumping backing by the E. Street Band wasn’t even issued as a physical single but could only be obtained as a digital download. It was only a minor chart success stalling at # 95 at the Billboard Hot 100 which is a shame since it’s one of Springsteen’s most straight-forward pop songs and definitely deserves to be heard by more than those within Springsteen’s loyal following.

Enjoy this gem then; top notch singing by the Boss, great lyrical theme with a bit of wistfulness thrown in for good measure and , above all, the tried-and-true Wall of Sound formula that elevates a good song to pure pop perfection. Eureka! – Another brilliant modern Spector soundalike.

 

Brother Bobby Gets his Due

All Cue Castanets readers should definately make a mental note of April the 28th because this date sees the release of what looks like a really interesting Bobby Hatfield compilation by UK label Ace Records.

bobby

The lovingly compiled and brilliantly annotated compilations from Ace Records have of course for decades been god-sends for all fans of classic 60s music, none the least those who crave the heavy thump of the Wall of Sound. We have Ace and its knowledgeable compilers like Mick Patrick and Tony Rounce to thank for must-buy sets like the Phil’s Spectre series, the three Jack Nitszche volumes and an on going songwriters series covering a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the Brill Building scene.

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The three volumes in the Phil’s Spectre series.

Turns out that Ace has turned its attention to legendary blue eyed soulster Bobby Hatfield whose incredible pipes intertwined with Bill Medley’s on some of Spector’s most majestic productions. In my book, the singles and assorted album tracks Spector cut with the Righteous Brothers are at the pinnacle of the Wall of Sound.

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‘You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling’, ‘Just Once in my Life’, ‘Hung on You’, ‘Ebb Tide’, White Cliffs of Dover’… Pure magic. Wearing your emotions on your vocal sleeve amid an abyss of echo and over-the-top backing has never sounded so good before or since. And yet, even though Bobby Hatfield’s stellar performance catapulted the Righteous Brothers take of ‘Unchained Melody’ to evergreen status, Bobby has arguably been somewhat overshadowed by his deeper-voiced brother. (and according to legend; Spector didn’t even produce the session despite the credit)

Bill Medley sang on the majority of the duo’s hits, at least during their mid-to-late 60s hey day, and he also had the more succesful solo career. At one point, Bobby Hatfield even had to team up with Medley-soundalike Jimmy Walker to continue recording and touring under the Righteous Brothers name.

But Bobby could hold his own – his voice was truly otherworldly when he sang in his upper register or sugarcoated songs with an effortless falsetto – case in point; check out the Righteous Brothers version of ‘I Believe.’

It is very satisfying to see that Ace has decided to put the spotlight firmly on Bobby’s cache of songs, both released and unreleased. The aptly titled ‘The Other Brother – a Solo Anthology 1965-70’ looks like a mouth-watering collection, not only highlighting the best and most interesting releases from Bobby’s struggling solo career,… but also treating listeners to some gems that never saw the light of day.

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It’ll be interesting to hear the newly unearthed tracks, none the least an unreleased version of the Ronettes classic that is ‘Paradise.’ I can’t wait to hear how Bobby tackled this fantastic song and to hear the extent of the production, whether it follows the style and arrangement of the then unreleased Ronettes version or perhaps represents a grittier, more soulful take.

‘The Other Brother – a Solo Anthology 1965-70’ is out on Ace Records on April 28th: https://acerecords.co.uk/the-other-brother-a-solo-anthology-1965-1970

A Few Interviews of Interest

Here’s a little something that just sort of popped up out of the blue the other day when I routinely searched for some Spector-related stuff online.

Music journalist Steve Escobar has a website where he has published a few of his interview with musicians – and lo-and-behold; if you’re a fan of Spector as well as the 60s LA recording scene, there are a few interviews on there that would be of interest.

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Off you go; Brian, Glen, Hal, Jackie, Johhny, and Nancy are all ready to tell you a bit about their musical adventures…

Brian Wilson (proving once again he’s not the most talkative interview subject!)

http://www.steve-escobar.com/?p=20

Glen Campbell

http://www.steve-escobar.com/?p=208

Hal Blaine

http://www.steve-escobar.com/?p=13

Jackie de Shannon

http://www.steve-escobar.com/?p=85

Johnny Rivers

http://www.steve-escobar.com/?p=73

Nancy Sinatra

http://www.steve-escobar.com/?p=76

jackie

Jerri Bo Keno Interview

While Phil Spector’s 60s productions are always praised as groundbreaking and intricate, many wall of sound connaisseurs also tend to focus on his overlooked 70s output.

Limited as this output was, Spector’s projects from the era still underlined his role as the true auteur and sonic mastermind of each record. Yet, the former Tycoon of Teen was clearly at a creative crossroads, seemingly looking for a new direction for the wall of sound.

His approach had already seemed a bit passé by the end of the 60s. As he entered the new decade, Spector faced the fact that the record-buying teenagers of the early-to-mid 60s who had brought stardom to him and Philles had now grown up. Should his new music reflect this change or should he stay true to the old tried and tested formula? In the end, he chose, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, to do both – the productions became more delicate and often at a slower pace which lessened the expected impact from a new Spector production. On the other hand, the tracks were still cut at Gold Star studios with the regular team of brilliant session musicians, the iconic Wrecking Crew. Technology had changed – the mono that had propelled Spector’s bombast through speakers throughout the 60s had been surpassed by stereo, dreaded by Spector because it lessened the full impact of his productions.

A time of change, then. But luckily one that still brought us some great new Spector productions with the likes of John Lennon, George Harrison, Cher, Dion, Darlene Love and Leonard Cohen. And then there’s the puzzling one-off single by Jerri Bo Keno that came and went in 1975 on Spector’s short-lived label Phil Spector International. Who was this unknown singer giving it her all on a catchy song written by Jeff Barry and Phil Spector?

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I decided to find out more and succesfully contacted Jerri who luckily was more than willing to sharing her memories of her short stint as Spector’s latest discovery. It’s a shame the project only lasted one single because the release was very promising and had the collaboration continued with similar singles, there might have been a chance of tapping into the surge in nostalgia that hit in the mid-to-late 70s; a topic I have blogged in depth about here: https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2015/08/02/that-70s-wall-of-sound/

Jerri is still in the music business and currently has a single out that Cue Castanets readers definately should check out. ‘Every Time You’re Near’ has a great melody and is beautifully sung by Jerri, – it is a lovely song that would have fit right in the Bacharach/David songbook.

single

You can sample and buy the single here: http://apple.co/2jixOaP and http://bit.ly/JBKcdbaby

If you wan’t to learn more about Jerri’s current recording career, go here:

https://www.facebook.com/Jerri-Bo-Keno-340934519279717/

https://jerribokeno.com/

Let’s turn to Jerri and learn what she remembers about her time recording for Spector…

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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Jerri Bocchino / Jerri Bo Keno today.
Jerri; please tell us a little about how you got your start in the music industry? Which projects had you worked on before recording with Phil Spector?

I came from a musical family growing up in a house full of music and dance. My Dad, Tony Bocchino, was a Jazz Musician and singer, and my sister, Chrissy Bocchino, was well known for her dancing and choreography on Broadway and TV.

Before I was signed to Phil, I was a singer/songwriter trying to establish myself in the LA scene. I spent a lot of time at the Whiskey A Go Go on Sunset Blvd to get my name out there. I did a lot of session work and toured with a group called The Tootsie Rock Revue.

How did your path eventually cross with Spector’s? Did you sign with him right away or had you been acquainted with one another for some time?

I brought my singer/songwriter tape to Jeff Barry at A&M Records. He said he had a friend that might be interested in me but did not tell me who. One year later Jeff asked me if I would be interested in meeting Phil Spector, and I said of course! We arranged a meeting at Phil’s house. When I arrived, Phil took me over to the piano and asked me to sing “Be My Baby”. He signed me on the spot! I reminded him of Ronnie (Spector).

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Jeff Barry during the 70s.
Once you got in Phil’s house, it was very difficult to leave. I would spend hours and hours there singing and talking! I began hanging out at his house regularly. There was always a good show going on and the cast of characters was fascinating, but I especially cherished my time alone with him because I saw a Phil Spector the rest of the world rarely witnessed. I also loved to sit with Phil and his mother, because they loved to disagree on all kinds of subjects!

Do you remember how you first heard ‘Here It Comes (and Here I Go)’? Was it in the form of a demo recording, and if so, sung by whom, or did Spector basically sit at the piano and play you the song?

Phil, Jeff and I were at Phil’s house, where I always rehearsed, and Phil played it on the piano and taught me the melody. I never had a demo to rehearse with. Phil didn’t do things in a traditional way which I got used to! I had no idea how this was going to sound until I got into the studio with the band. I would sit on the piano bench and sing with him for hours.

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Photo used for the ‘Here It Comes’ single picture sleeve.
What do you remember from the ‘Here It Comes’ session? Were you present while the backing track was recorded or did you only come in afterward to record your lead vocal?

There were basic tracks, but Phil would go back and redo things regularly. You know what a perfectionist he was in the studio!

We recorded everything at A&M Studios, and at first, Phil had me in a booth, but he wasn’t happy with the sound. Then I sat on a stool in the middle of the studio, singing live with the musicians. What an amazing experience! I also sang on the backgrounds of my record and all the other records he was working on at that time.

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Among collectors and Spector connoisseurs, ‘Here It Comes’ is widely regarded as the closest Spector ever came to jumping aboard the impending boom in disco music.

Did the two of you ever discuss the feel of the track? Its rhythmic, danceable beat seems tailor-made for the dance floor.

Phil never discussed how he came up with this beat but was adamant about his Wall of Sound. I think he was creating all the time and would attempt new things as they came to him.

However, I do remember in the 80’s when Phil came to NYC and called me to hang out for the evening. Paul Schaffer and I took him to a popular dance club where he threw a fit. He hated the dance beat and wanted to know where the lyrics were! Obviously wasn’t a fan of Disco!

The sparsely orchestrated ‘I Don’t Know Why’ ended up on the B-side. How do you feel about this song and its recording?

I get so many people that love that song! I actually think it was just a throwaway song for Phil. I enjoyed singing it, though! Would love to record this song again!

As we know, only one single was issued. But did you record other songs while with Spector? If so, I’d be very interested in whatever info you can share. Were they full-blown Wall of Sound productions or rough demos? Do you remember any song titles?

While my record was out, Phil got in the near fatal car accident which prevented him from recording for a very long time. We did not have anything else recorded, unfortunately.

What a shame. Following up on the previous question; did you participate on any other Spector sessions as a backup-singer?

Yes, I had the pleasure of working with LA’s best singers, like Maxine Willard and The Waters for all the Wall of Sound sessions. Most memorable were Dion’s and Cher’s songs.

Dion-Born-to-Be-With-You

How did your association with Phil Spector come to an end?

When Phil had his near-fatal accident, it put him out of commission. I actually got a phone call that he had died, and I panicked but soon after that initial shock, his assistant called asking me to come to the house to see him. He had suffered serious head and scalp injuries and was so concerned about the loss of his curly full head of hair which he was always so proud of.

Sadly because of this accident and his poor health, he didn’t record for a long time and we never worked together again.

What have you been up to since the mid-70s and ‘Here It Comes’?

I have done a lot of session work for all kinds of artists for all kinds music including singing with John Lennon when he and Phil were recording the Rock ‘n’ Roll album, certainly a highlight of my career.

I was in the group El Coco singing the hit “Let’s Get It Together” and was a featured singer on David Benoit’s Heavier Than Yesterday album singing “I Wish Right Now Would Never End”.

I was also a member of a group called The Downtown Girls in the 80’s and we had a European hit. I recently did backgrounds for Anita Ward’s new record “Another Bad Mistake” and The Village People’s Randy Jones’ current record, “Hard Times”.

I worked live with Toni Basil and The Lockers getting a chance to be a part of her astonishing choreography. She is one of the most creative performers I have worked with and best friends with my sister! I recently have done live shows with Joey Molland from Badfinger, Mark Farner from Grand Funk Railroad, Anita Ward and The Searchers. I always love performing live.

I had a single released a couple of years back called “My Love Is Yours” on Young Pals Music working with the very talented Ayhan Sahin and have a new single that just came out called “Everytime You’re Near”, written and produced by Peitor Angel for Buon-Art Music. Peitor and I will be recording a couple of new songs for an EP this year!

Jerri; thank you for shaing your thoughts with us. I’d like to end with a question I ask everyone I interview for Cue Castanets; could you please share with us your personal top 5 Spector-produced tracks?

I would have to start with my record –

“Here It Comes (And Here I Go)”. I love the track!

My all-time favorite – “Be My Baby” – The Ronettes

“Imagine” – John Lennon

“My Sweet Lord” – George Harrison

“Da Doo Ron Ron” – the Crystals

 

 

Re-imagining the Wall of Sound

Maybe I should put the spotlight on UK-based engineer / producer Phil Chapman for my next installment of the ‘Would-be Spectors’ series, because his current remixing project of both Spector releases and likeminded tracks will surely interest Cue Castanets readers.

Through the years Chapman has of course worked professionally on numerous recording projects of interest to Wall of Sound fans, but his latest endavour is merely for the fun of it and due to his recent acquisition of some new recording and mixing equipment. The results are sure to impress you. It’ll hit you and it’ll feel like a kiss, alright!

A while back I wrote about his fantastic mix of ‘I Can Hear Music’ by the Ronettes, – surely, you’ll agree that this new mix with added layers blows the original out of the water?

https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/1618/

This time, Phil Chapman has worked his magic on that most extremely gargantuan production that is ‘I Wonder’ by the Crystals. In its original version a massive monophonic monster that I have previously written about in my ‘Odds & Ends’ feature where I sometimes highlight specific, overlooked Spector productions.

So I was pleased to hear Chapman’s elaborate mix with added layers and all sorts of details that keep the spirit of the original firmly in place but attempts “to give give it the same impact today as it had in ’64” as he writes on youtube. Enjoy this sensational remix.

As if this wasn’t enough, Chapman has also been working on an equally over-the-top mix of Jackie Trent’s Spectoresque ‘If You Love Me’ from the same year.

Produced by her husband Tony Hatch, probably the closest the UK came to having its own Bacharach, in its original version this very catchy song stands as a worthy attempt at recreating the magic sound of Spector and the Wrecking Crew.

Chapman builds on this foundation with some choice samples and added layers to emphasize the production’s dynamics. It works very, very well, even in this rough, unfinished mix.

I’ll leave you then with a nice slab of British wall of sound with all engines go!

 

 

Would-be Spectors # 7 – Andrew Loog Oldham

Here’s another spot-light on a Wall of Sound-obsessed producer in my ongoing ‘Would-be Spectors’ feature. (see them all via this link: https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/category/would-be-spectors/)

Up until now, I have focused on people from within Spector’s inner-circle; Jack Nitzsche, Nino Tempo, Jerry Riopelle, Sonny Bono, Marshall Leib and Brian Wilson – the latter was admittedly never a part of the inner-circle as such but I thought he merited inclusion since he both allegedly played on Spector’s session for ‘Don’t Hurt my Little Sister’ – Brian’s pitched follow-up for ‘Be my Baby’ – and closely followed numerous Spector sessions during the 60s.

The same criteria for inclusion applies for today’s producer in question, the interesting and flamboyant figure that is Andrew Loog Oldham. Not only was he probably the UK’s greatest champion of the Spector sound, he also had a close connection to the Tycoon of Teen, seeking him out when he was in LA as well as showing Spector around during his trips to the UK.

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Oldham’s claim to fame is of course his significant role in unleashing the Rolling Stones on the world as a grittier alternative to a certain more polished foursome from Liverpool. But there is much, much more to Oldham’s story. A musical opportunist in the most positive sense of the word, he jumped on the chances offered to express his love for good music, make a quick buck and play out his reputation as a musical maverick.

On the outset, Oldham shared a lot of traits with Spector and unsurprisingly, during the 60s his love for great US pop would see him drift more towards the out-of-this-world, sophisticated pop of his idol and that of other LA contemporaries like the Beach Boys.

It was a sound that at the time went down well in the UK. The Walker Brothers broke through to mega stardom after relocating to London and wooing screaming Brit girls with their carbon-copy, dramatic Wall of Sound recordings while the Beach Boys seemed even more popular among the UK record-buying public than on their home turf.

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Phil Spector and Gene Pitney with Oldham and the Rolling Stones at a Stones session.
Feeding off on this trend and enjoying the notion of the producer as the real auteur of the record, Oldham made some highly enjoyable attempts at outdoing Spector in the ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ game. His love for the sound was passionate, even paying for ads in the UK music press when ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’ by the Righteous Brothers was in a chart battle with a local cover version by Cilla Black. Oldham’s message? Declaring that Spector’s blue-eyed-soul opus was ‘the greatest record ever made.’ He also publicly praised Pet Sounds upon that album’s release.

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Keith Richards and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Oldham hang out with the Ronettes.
When Oldham took to the studio he and his team would build elaborate, at times even baroque-sounding arrangements that packed a punch flowing from speakers despite a cleaner, less dense sound than Spector’s.

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– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

As with any enthusiastic ‘would-be Spector’ type of producer, there are numerous great tracks to choose from to prove the point of Spector’s widespread influence. Here are three personal favorites from Oldham’s impressive cache of Wall of Sound-inspired productions.

Vashti Bunyan & Twice as Much – ‘Coldest Night of the Year’ (1966)

The team-up of cult singer-songwriter Bunyan and whimsy baroque-pop duo Twice as Much resulted in a killer cover of a song that had previously been recorded in a more subdued version by Spector’s right hand man Nino Tempo and his sister April Stevens.

Unbelievably, this stunning recording seems to have been put to tape in 1966 but only crept out as an album track two years later on the Twice as Much album ‘That’s All’. Not only is the Mann-Weill penned song top-notch, the production also highlights all of Oldham’s strengths as a producer.

Del Shannon – ‘Runaway ‘67’ (1967)

Legendary rocker Del Shannon was in the midst of a dry spell chart-wise when he visited London in that magical, mind-expanding year of 1967. A chance encounter with Oldham led to a collaboration around a proposed album project for Oldham’s Immediate label. No expenses were spared for the sessions that included the best session players in Britain and a batch of impressive songs by Oldham’s stable of songwriters that tried to re-invent Shannon as a psychedelic pop star.

Oldham’s intricate production elevated songs like ‘Mind over Matter’, ‘Cut and Come Again’ and ‘Silenty’ to a flickering sunshine pop stratosphere but despite all the effort, the album never came out. Later on, the songs from the sessions have been dusted off and released to cult status. I highly recommend seeking them out. At the time though, the only release borne out of this great project was a radical, slowed-down reworking of Shannon’s break-through hit, ‘Runaway.’ Again, cleaner in sound and less bombastic than the typical Spector sound, the single is clearly borne out of the same adventurous approach to record production.

Brett Smiley – ‘Solitaire’ (1974)

This production had escaped me until when I was recently made aware of it by Spector expert and engineer & producer Phil Chapman who has worked with Oldham in the past. What a superb version of the Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody song probably best known via the Andy Williams version. Brett Smiley was a US singer/songwriter who issued one single in the UK during the glam era and was managed by Oldham who also cut an album with him. History repeating itself, this too was never issued.

Oldham pulled out all stops for ‘Solitaire’, literally building a rock’n’roll cathedral around Smiley’s fragile vocal delivery. Just listen to those breathtaking, skybound strings! He clearly still had his ears on Spector’s sound during the early 70s when the Wall of Sound morphed somewhat during Spector’s work with George Harrison and John Lennon. With its sound, you can easily imagine ‘Solitaire’ fitting right in on ‘All Things Must Pass.’

High Definition Ronettes

There’s an interesting page on Facebook, ‘Heppest of the Hep’, that regularly posts high definition footage of live performances ranging from the 40s to the 60s. 

The sources for the material are unclear and probably a bit shady but there’s much of interest for any music fan. 
Recently, the page has posted this beautiful high definition clip of Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra performing at the TNT Show.


You’ve all seen this clip a gazillion times before but this is without a doubt the best quality the clip can be seen. Follow the link for the Ronettes in crystal clear high definition. 

Richard Hawley – Some Candy Talking (2006)

2016 is nearing its end and I hope you have had a merry Christmas and that you will have a happy new year – preferably with lots of Wall of Sound blasting from your speakers!

Before year’s end I can just squeeze in one more modern Spector soundalike in my ongoing series of blog posts about recordings that tip the hat to Spector recording style.

Today I’d like to draw the attention to one of my favorite current musicians, Sheffield-based singer/songwriter Richard Hawley. Since 2001 he has issued a series of stellar albums that despite being recording with modern technology could just as well have been recorded during the 50s and 60s. They’re not shameless cash-in exercises in retro music, mind you – Richard Hawley’s love for the crooners, rockabillies, folk singers and doo wop groups of those two decades is long documented.

rh

On his albums Hawley offers his own unique and highly personal take on the sounds of bygone eras. The backing tracks are exquisite, loaded with details and atmospheric guitar playing – his main instrument of choice – but what really sets his music apart from others is his deeply expressive vocal.

Weathered and plaintive, Hawley’s voice is the perfect foil for the mini-dramas that adorn all of his albums. His tone is deeply soothing and has often comforted me through troubled times. Even though the focus here on the blog is on Spectoresque sounds I can’t help but offer an example of this from his most recent album, 2015s ‘Hollow Meadows’. Take a listen to the hypnotic ‘Nothing like a Friend’ and tell me you aren’t moved by this?

If you like what you hear, you really ought to check out all of his albums. There are gems to be found on each one of them.

But we’re here for bombast,… so let’s get back on track. Where’s the echo, the pounding Be my Baby beat, the swirling strings? Why, it’s all there and more on Hawley’s 2006 45’ single for ‘Hotel Room’ – tucked away on the B-side is a sensational cover of the Jesus and Mary Chain classic ‘Some Candy Talking’.

jamc
Brothers Jim and William Reid of cult band the Jesus and Mary Chain.

Now, the original Jesus and Mary Chain version by the Reid brothers is of course a classic example of droning 80s Spector worship – and delicious on its own terms – but on his cover, Hawley plays up the song’s Wall of Sound potential to the max. There’s a thunderous drum backbeat throughout, beautiful strummed acoustic guitars, jangling percussion and of course those oh so important strings to take your breath away.

Fantastic version! As far as I’m concerned it’s even better than the original Jesus and Mary Chain recording. And to think that this was only a throwaway B-side? The mind boggles…

Review: The New High

Brent Cash – ‘The New High’

***** (5 stars out of 6)

Some weeks ago I received an advance copy of the upcoming third album by US singer/songwriter Brent Cash. Set for release in late January, Cash has once again recorded a batch of elegant songs with a delivery and production value that should appeal to Cue Castanets readers.

br
Front cover for ‘The New High’ by Brent Cash
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brent in 2015 and if you haven’t read that blog post I’ll advise you to do so to get a better understanding of his music and where he’s coming from aesthetically.

https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/brent-cash-interview/

Honestly, listening to Brent’s crystal clear, relaxed vocals and intricate arrangements is akin to, say, discovering some sort of overlooked A&M Records soft pop LP. The tunes are sophisticated, elegant, groovy – defiantly soft. Yep, it’s really that good and since Brent serves as a one-man Wrecking Crew, laying down backing tracks with all sorts of quirky little details, his albums are like time capsules of all that was good within the more sophisticated pop of the 60s and 70s.

DIGIPAK.QXD
How Will I Know If I’m Awake (2008) – Brent’s debut album
The right way to listen to Brent’s music would be to cruise down highway 101 in an open sports van, the sun reflecting in your shades and a beautiful blonde by your side. Instead, it’s December and a cold and rainy one at that where I live. Despite the grey surroundings I’ve tried my best to envision the breezy, sun-kissed landscapes that Brent’s music compliments while reviewing his latest effort.

Where the first two albums, ‘How Will I Know If I’m Awake’ (2008) and ‘How Strange It Seems’ (2011), were text book examples of well-produced harmony pop and soft pop that would make Bacharach toast with his dry martini, ‘The New High’ sees Brent expanding his sound.

burt-angie_blog
“Check this out Angie. Here’s a groovy new platter by a fine gentleman named Brent!”
I really love the dreamy soft pop aesthetic on the covers of Brent’s first two albums and you could say that the change of direction is already visible on the cover of ‘The New High’. A skyscraper with glass and chrome that made me think “oh no, I hope Brent hasn’t gone all New Wave on us!

He hasn’t, luckily – the love of sophisticated piano-based pop is still at the heart of Brent’s music but he has expanded his palette somewhat with subtle nods towards the jangle sounds of folk-rock and Beatles-like songwriting.

Two things really stand out to me above all after repeated listening.

For one thing, Brent has probably never sung better on record. His voice may not be very unique but especially when he sings in his upper register his soft, pleasant tone really carries a lot of the magic on these songs. My favorite part of the album is the last one and a half minutes of ‘Dim Light’ where Brent goes into falsetto mode and sings skyhigh in an incredibly catchy and goose bumps-inducing section. Lesser songwriters would probably just take such a section and turn it into the basic hook in the chorus but Brent only introduces it at the last part of the song – to me, that’s always a sign of a superb songwriter at the top of his game, holding back a killer hook in order to unleash it late in a tag for maximum effect – the Beach Boys always excelled at that. There are a few other great examples of both tags and Brent’s smooth falsetto throughout ‘The New High.’

Secondly, the string arrangements on this album are incredibly effective and just ooze elegance – a testament to the care and length Brent and his string-playing friends have gone to to make each song gain as much from their playing as possible. Strings were also present on his other albums but I feel they’ve come more to the forefront here and all for the better of it. Listen to the strings in the latter part of title track ‘The New High’ – pure bliss!

brent1
Brent Cash
Songs like ‘Dim Light’ and ‘All in the Summer’ show Brent’s evolvement as a songwriter and producer. The first one, with it’s strummed guitars, reminds me a little bit of Joni Mitchell’s more bouncy recordings while the latter has a bit of a John Lennon ‘Imagine’-vibe going on. Maybe it’s just me coming up with these reference points but if anything, such songs show that Brent tries to expand his sound. On other songs, such as ‘Every Inflection’ and ‘I’m Looking Up’, the latter one of my favorites, you hear a closer kinship to his first two albums.

Brent’s albums have always been growers for me, meaning that upon initial listening I’ve had a hard time distinguishing the tracks from each other only coming to single out songs after a few spins. The same can be said for this album.

I’m also of the opinion that the album loses a little bit of steam towards the end where a couple of slow and less orchestrated songs break the flow of the record. Songs like ‘The Dusk Song’ and ‘Fade / Return’ aren’t weak but they sort of make the album peter out rather than showcasing the variety of Brent’s songwriting on display during the first half of the tracklisting.

how strange it seems
‘How Strange It Seems’ (2011) – Brent’s second album so far
All in all, ‘The New High’ is a fine album that perfectly compliments Brent’s past releases– you’d be a fool to pass on these if you love melodic pop of the highest order that harken back to 60s and 70s LA or New York-based pop.

Musings on Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and similar music…